Friday, May 22, 2015

Perspective – Things Could Be Worse

   In addition to reporting on the dismal state of young adults like my daughter on the autistic spectrum, trying to find jobs and lead independent lives, I’m painfully aware of how much worse things are for a variety of other empty-nest parents. Just look at the most recent news. My heart goes out to the parents of Etan Patz, who must suffer through another trial of their son’s confessed murderer because one juror out of twelve could not vote for a conviction. Etan Patz was every parent’s nightmare—killed at age 6 on his first day of walking independently to his school bus. At least my Sarah is alive and well, even if her road to independence is long and frustrating.

     Even more horrible (if that’s possible) is the front page headline in The New York Times this week: “Former Captives in Nigeria Tell of Mass Rapes.”  Remember when the Boko Haram kidnapped almost 300 hundred school girls last year?  (See "Missing on Mother's Day," 5/16/14).  Now dozens of these young women have been released pregnant and battered, to a camp for the displaced near Borno State Capital, Maiduguri. If you recall, the Boko Haram militants had openly bragged they would  treat the kidnapped school girls as chattel and to “sell them in the market.”  Girls as young 11 were subjected to systematic, organized sexual violence with the stated goal of impregnating as many as possible so as to create the next generation of Boko Haram militants.

     Can you imagine how the parents of those girls must feel?  If American girls had been kidnapped, I’m quite certain that our government would have frozen Nigerian assets, sent in drones or done whatever possible to save OUR daughters. The campaign to “Bring Back OUR Girls” would have gotten them home a lot sooner and discouraged any surviving militants from future kidnappings. Unfortunately, each country only cares about its own citizens—less so about females. Incredibly some governments do not yet realize that we are all members of the human race entitled to basic rights regardless of gender, skin color, sexual orientation, or religion. 

     These depressing observations about humanity and compassion—or the lack of them—are what floated through my head as I sat in a meeting room crowded with angry parents of kids with disabilities. Despite my misgivings about government agencies and their insufferable acronyms, I decided to attend “NYC FAIR” (Family Advocacy Information Resource) for parents of special needs kids.  Addressing the audience was the OPWDD Transformation Panel (Office for People with Developmental Disabilities) which included two parent representatives as well as Peter Pierri, the Executive Director of the Interagency Council (IAC) of Developmental Disabilities and Neil Mitchell, Special Assistant to the OPWDD Commissioner. The parents’ rage over the appearance of the OPWDD Assistant Commissioner instead of his boss was remarkable and radiant. 
     So why was I there?  Out of love for Sarah and the desire to break through the gridlock that has defined my daughter’s life since she graduated from Pace University. Although OPWDD has approved life skill services for my daughter, and she has  finally been assigned a Medicaid Services Coordinator, (over two months ago) she was STILL not getting the help she needs. I was told it might be at least six months...backlogs…wait lists, yada, yada, yada

     Maybe just maybe, I thought, if I met a couple of the paper pushers with their random power or appealed somehow to their overseers, I could move Sarah forward on the line. I wanted to tell her story in person, show them her smiling face on my cell phone, and transform my daughter from an idea on a pile of paper to a vibrant individual, deserving of help sooner rather than later.
     For two hours I sat quietly immersed in my own state of suppressed fury.  The topics up for discussion included: community integrated housing, managed care, employment and how to anticipate “service needs for the future to ensure sufficient funding and flexibility.” Lofty goals considering how completely broken the system appears to be RIGHT NOW. 

     Despite the clamoring of too-many parents for too-few services, OPWDD had UNSPENT money last year, causing this year’s budget to be smaller….  And the crying need continues! My heart goes out to all of the many parents whose kids require 24 hour care and who will never get jobs or be independent. The people in the audience beside me were older parents of older adult kids, who had either been waiting for services for years, or whose parents were terrified they would LOSE services as a result of proposed changes. How agonizing it must be for a parent who's unable to care for a severely disabled child in the family nest and to have no appropriate alternatives! I knew that if I stood up and tried to raise my voice among the angry many, I might have to deal with a lynch mob.  Who among them would have sympathy for the mother of a high-functioning college grad on the autistic spectrum in need of life-skills and job coaching?  Squirming but silent, I remained in my seat watching the clock.

     At the end of the two hour meeting (that felt like two months), I dashed up to the panel members and spoke to the ones that (seemingly) had the power to help my daughter. As quickly as possible, I told them Sarah’s story, showed them her picture, and handed them my Never-Empty Nest business card.  Maybe they’d remember I was a writer? Not just another in-your-face mom, they invited me to repeat Sarah’s story in an email.  Of course I’ve taken it a step further by adding them to my Never-Empty Nest mailing list. Can the power of the pen help my Sarah?  Or will her needs be dismissed because she’s higher functioning than so many other adults with disabilities? Is there a sweet spot where you have just the right amount of disability to qualify for government aid? It’s a mystery. Stay tuned.


Friday, May 15, 2015

Mother’s Day Surprise


 When families get together for Hallmark holidays, it’s NOT always hearts and flowers, right? I’m sure there’s a mom or two out there who reached for some Advil or Tums on their special day in response to an unpredictable relative creating drama during Mother’s Day festivities. Or maybe you’re one of those moms who wears an invisible suit of armor during family celebrations—just in case  a jousting match ensues—you’ll be insulated from unpleasant surprises. (I leave it to the reader’s imagination to figure out whether I’m one of those moms. . .)
    But sometimes a wonderful, heartwarming surprise occurs on Mother’s Day.  Receiving gifts, flowers, and cards from family members are (mostly?) the norm.  But what if you received a Mother’s Day card from someone truly unexpected?

     I’m happy to report that this year I was the recipient of a Mother’s Day card from Sarah’s boyfriend (an “Aspie” on the spectrum).  Not only did Sarah’s boyfriend send me a card, he also presented one to my mother. For anyone who thinks people on the autistic spectrum uniformly lack warmth, empathy and social skills, it’s obviously time to think again! Yes, Sarah’s boyfriend has been brought up well and taught good manners. (There are still people on and off the spectrum who think manners matter, Thank God.)  Sarah and her boyfriend have had a serious relationship for almost two years now.  Still, there are plenty of neurotypical young adults from good families who don’t display basic courtesy—forget about buying cards for their girlfriend’s mother and grandmother. Maybe some people would argue that buying a card for your girlfriend’s mom and grandma is unnecessary or over-the-top.  But not me.  As the receiver of just such a card, I was touched and delighted (and so was my mom).
     The front of my card said: “Mom, last week everyone jumped off a cliff but I didn’t go.” On the inside, it asked: “Aren’t you proud of me?  Happy Mother’s Day.” 

     Yes, Jake, I’m proud of you. And I’m hoping that—in the not too distant future—the rest of the neurotypical world wakes up enough to recognize the intelligence, tenderness and talents that you and others on the spectrum have to offer planet earth.



Friday, May 8, 2015

Family Matters – Blog 101

     Okay, so now that I’m taking that first baby step toward 200 blogs, I keep hearing a silly song from my childhood: “100 bottles of beer on the wall, 100 bottles of beer, if one of those beers should happen to fall, 99 bottles of beer on the wall…”  Remember singing that one on long bus trips to sleepaway camp or in the family car traveling for too many hours to what seemed like an endlessly faraway destination? I definitely don’t want The Never-Empty Nest to become a series of virtual beer bottles tumbling off the cyberwall each week. But instead of singing my way to zero, I’m writing my way upward to… who knows? So this week’s post is an invitation to my readers.  What are your deepest concerns about your kids growing up and departing the family nest?  I’ll tell you mine, if you tell me yours.

     At last week’s autism conference at Adelphi, I attended an afternoon seminar, “Family Matters: Enhancing Parent and Sibling Relationships from Adolescence through Adulthood” with the sole intention of raising my most gnawing question. “Do you have any suggestions for how I can help my twins, age 24, improve their relationship? My daughter on the spectrum—usually very sweet—is so envious of her neurotypical brother’s popularity and success that she’s nasty or avoids him.  We’re not going to be here forever and I’d feel a lot better if they could grow closer.” (Usually I try not to think about this because it makes my eyes burn).  Maybe because I’m from such a small family—an only child of a mother who was an only child and missed out on having a sibling, I had a stronger-than-average yearning for my kids—especially twins—to grow up sharing a special bond.  Yes, I KNOW from friends and family that plenty of neurotypical brothers and sisters grow up having very little to do with each other.  But I also see families where siblings are close, and it makes me wonder what—if anything—I could have done (or could still do) differently.

     My question was submitted (along with others) on an index card to the group of experts on the panel.  The panelists included John Elder Robison, the brilliant Aspergian writer and speaker I described in last week’s post.  Also on the panel and diagnosed with “atypical development and strong autistic tendencies,” was Stephen Shore, an assistant professor at Adelphi University who teaches courses in special education and autism. In addition, there were several neurotypical female panelists: a speech pathologist with an older adult brother on the autistic spectrum, a psychologist with a Ph.D. who specializes in diagnostic evaluation, and a college senior with a twin brother (in the audience) who has inspired her to pursue a degree in Special Education.

     Mr. Robison decided that my question was “so compelling it needed to be answered first.” Unfortunately, the panelist who volunteered to answer was the one whose beloved twin brother was sitting in the row in front of me. Instead of offering suggestions for how to help my twins improve their relationship, she took the opportunity to describe the special and loving relationship she enjoys with her own brother—whom she invited to stand and receive applause. I’m happy for her and her twin brother; really I am, but I couldn’t help feeling deeply frustrated and resentful that she used up the precious time allotted to my question to wax on about her terrific relationship, without attempting to offer me any useful advice.  I also couldn’t help thinking that although the sibling panelist was neurotypical, she droned on and drifted off topic, the way people on the autistic spectrum often do.

     Thankfully, (and not surprisingly) it was Mr. Robison who had both the empathy and the intelligence to realize that my question had gone unanswered.  He began his response by suggesting that sibling relationships are frequently over-rated. Further, trying to improve my twins’ relationship might not be the best idea because a sibling or family member isn’t always the ideal person to depend on in a crisis. Robison recommended that I try to help my daughter foster relationships with close friends who could look out for her after I’m gone. 
     Before he could finish, another mother in the audience jumped out of her seat. “I disagree completely,” she interjected. “Nothing is more important than family! As a mom, I drilled it into my children from an early age that they would one day be responsible for my son with autism.  There was never any debate. I don’t have to worry about it now, because I know they’ll take care of him.”
     Good for you.  No useful suggestion there—only the painful-but-obvious observation that I’d missed the boat on insisting that my son be responsible for his sister.  Was I wrong to hope that my son might one day look out for his twin sister out of love rather than obligation?  I mouthed a silent thank you to Robison when he looked my way.  Although my question had sparked a short-but-lively debate, I was disappointed and ready to leave. Only Robison had attempted to answer my question and provide some comfort—even if his answer wasn't the one I'd been seeking.
     Maybe I don’t need an expert panelist with a Ph.D. or another adult with an autistic sibling to answer my question.  Instead I’m inviting all the parents in cyberspace to offer suggestions.  What—if anything—can I do to help my twins build a better relationship going forward? 

     I’d also like to invite  readers to challenge me with YOUR most pressing empty nest issues.  I promise I’ll  try to address your questions about family matters in blogs 102, 103 and beyond. 

Friday, May 1, 2015

Issues in Independent Living – 100 Blogs

     If a fortune teller had predicted I'd write a blog called The Never-Empty Nest, with 100 posts over a two year period, I’d have called that person crazy.  How could I possibly write about issues related to young adults struggling to leave the family nest almost every week?  Surely, I’d lose interest, run out of ideas, or just become too busy living a complicated life to post in cyberspace for an infinite number of Fridays. Yet, here I go (again!) blogging onward. My twins, Sarah and Max, have (mostly) flown the coop, but that doesn’t mean their issues of living independently—along with those of many other millennials—are fully resolved (nor are the worries of their baby boomer parents).

      As I begin my 100th post, I can now see that my subject is as endless and inexhaustible as the conference I attended this weekend for the Asperger's Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism Association (AHA) at Adelphi University.  “Coming of age” is difficult and complicated enough for a neurotypical young adult. But for young people on the spectrum, “the growing up process” remains a steep, uphill journey that will be evolving for a long time, according to John Robison, the keynote speaker at Adelphi, who grew up at a time when Asperger’s Syndrome did not exist as a diagnosis. Can you imagine the stress of growing up, trying to fit in (and failing) without any idea of what was the matter? Finally, at age 40, Robison was diagnosed on the spectrum, followed by his son 10 years later. Now an acclaimed author, public speaker and educator, Robison has written the best-selling memoirs Look Me in the Eye: My life with Asperger’s, Be Different: My Adventures with Asperger’s and My Advice for Fellow Aspergians, Misfits, Families and Teachers, and Raising Cubby. A brilliant (and anything-but-shy) speaker, Robison not only describes the evolution of his own success with humor and inspiration, but also serves as a role-model for how individuals can lead successful lives based upon their gifts, instead of being marginalized  because of  their disabilities.
     Both Henry and I found him mesmerizing and thought-provoking. (Henry’s no smoke-blower, as he likes to say). Not only did Robison tell his own life-story, but he also spoke of neurodiversity in terms of “the recognition of differences as the next civil rights frontier.”  Today, he said, it’s common practice to discriminate against people with autism.  How many times, he asked, do we read about a murderer who is described as autistic? Look at the way the press debated whether the Sandy Hook shooter, Adam Lanza, had Asperger’s syndrome, and whether that contributed to his violent behavior. Such a description is perfectly legal—and not even viewed as politically incorrect—despite the fact that there’s no connection between an autistic spectrum disorder and violent aggression. I understand that some enterprising attorneys have tried to get their clients acquitted on felony charges on the grounds they had Asperger’s, but I put that in the same category as the Twinkie defense. Creative defense strategies in criminal trials don’t give the media the right to irresponsibly portray people on the spectrum as creepy or killers. No newspaper would dare to suggest that someone committed murder because that person is black, gay or Jewish, right? In fact, people with autism are much more likely to be VICTIMS of violence than PERPETRATORS.  (Duh!)
     People who look different suffer discrimination, but so do people with  less visible differences, like those on the spectrum. Robison believes that discrimination against autism now is comparable to the way gays were viewed in 1965: “Do I tell people I’m gay? Do I tell people I’m autistic?”  In the 1970s Harvey Milk, known as the ‘mayor of Castro Street,” begged gay men to come out of the closet and publicly support one another.  Martin Luther King spoke and led non-violent marches on behalf of Afro-American rights; Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus. And today most enlightened 21st century parents don’t relegate their children on the spectrum to life in an institution, or allow them to tolerate insults and mockery from people who don’t understand them or appreciate their talents.
     Due to Robison’s efforts to function in the neurotypical world, college students have accused him of metaphorically sitting at the back of the bus. Now he realizes that “faculty, students and people of all ages have to be able to say "I’m autistic.’ Only then will we get acceptance.” Isn’t he starting to sound like Harvey Milk?  Robison acknowledges that people on the spectrum—unlike other
minorities which are defined by their ethnicity—will need help and training to fit into our culture.  To fit in, people on the spectrum must feel good enough about themselves enough to speak up.

     "Isn’t it time for us to take narrative control of our culture and how we feel about ourselves?” Robison asked his audience at the conference. Thunderous applause was his answer.

     Poor self-image plagued Robison for much of his life, despite his success in multiple careers. Although his luxury car service company became one of the country’s top service centers—with Robison becoming more prosperous than many of the customers whose Mercedes and Range BMWs he serviced—he never saw himself has successful until recently. A few years ago, while working as Neurodiversity Scholar at William & Mary College, Robison asked an Afro-American professor how she’d managed to grow up with a positive self-image, despite being raised in the South.  Her answer was revealing.  In spite of bullying and racism, her parents were able to advocate and support her by providing positive role-models like Martin Luther King and explaining that racists were small-minded bullies. Robison, on the other hand, (who grew up white, male and “privileged”) did not have parents who provided support and advocacy. He was recognized for failure and bad behavior because there was no diagnosis or understanding of autism available at that time.
     So what’s the solution for kids growing up on the spectrum today?  Robison believes that people with autism must look to other minorities such as Afro-Americans and Jews as examples, and follow their lead in getting a good education. In the same way that colleges have programs with Afro-American Studies, and Jewish people have a long history of promoting scholarship and education, people with autism must also create a positive culture with strong leaders and heroes. According to Robison, there are more autistic people than Jews in the US.
     “Imagine if we could command the same respect as other minorities. . . .” Robison challenged the audience, filled with people on the spectrum and their parents. “Who are the heroes and leaders in the autistic world?  Our kids need to know autistic leaders and role models.  As parents, the greatest gift we can give them is a powerful sense of culture. If we have that, kids will know name-calling and bullying is mean and small.  We must build it! No one else builds a culture for a group except the group itself.”

     As I applauded, I couldn’t help thinking that Robison was one of those heroes.  I was sorry I hadn’t read his books or listened to him speak sooner. And for a long, lingering moment, I wished Sarah could have attended this conference and heard his speech.  Soon after I realized that she probably wouldn’t have understood his concepts, his eloquence or the inspiration that he offers to so many young adults on the spectrum.  Maybe if she’d learned about Robison (along with Temple Grandin and others) growing up in school, it would have helped her see her own disabilities in a different light, but Sarah was born too soon for that kind of education.  On the other hand, Henry and I have always believed in and advocated for Sarah.  Our whole family, including her twin brother, did our best to defend her from bullies and negative people.
     Until she graduated from Pace last May, Sarah seemed to have a Teflon ego.  Unable to find work or recapture the protective and “neurotypical” structure she enjoyed in school, Sarah has become less bubbly and enthusiastic. No matter how many times Henry and I tell her we are proud of her, she doesn’t believe us anymore.  Worst of all, she no longer seems proud of herself.
     But at least there’s a glimmer of hope for Sarah.  The short film, “Keep the Change” (Columbia University’s 2013 “Best Film” in which she co-starred) will probably be made into a full-length feature this summer.  (See "Sarah's Next Fifteen Minutes, 5/30/14 and  Oh yes, and “Keep the Change” was shown during lunch at the Adelphi conference.  Although Sarah had plans with friends, she was very excited to learn we went to see “her” movie at the conference.
     “Was my performance fabulous and wonderful?” She asks for the umpteenth time, smiling with glee. “I can’t wait to be in the full-length feature!” Her eyes light up for a moment.
     “Me too.”  My voice matches her enthusiasm. I yearn for the day my daughter regains her pride and positive-self-image. Sarah will probably never be a hero or super articulate spokesperson for people on the spectrum. Yet her appearance in “Keep the Change” can educate neurotypical people and help them see that young adults with autism are capable of love and empathy. Some people on the spectrum—like my daughter—have beautiful singing voices and can be actors too. I’m hoping that one of these days the uber-competitive and cut-throat entertainment industry will begin to embrace more performers with autism.  In the meantime, Sarah can continue to be a trailblazer, leading the way for others on the spectrum in her own Sarah-way. I’m proud of her for all of her hard-won accomplishments and always will be.  Sarah, I hope you’re reading this.


Friday, April 24, 2015

Beyond Autism and a Dead Dog on Broadway

   If you haven’t seen the Broadway play “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” hurry over to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and get tickets.  This not-to-be missed show is based on the 2003 award-winning mystery novel by British writer, Mark Haddon. What starts out as an autistic boy’s determined and torturous effort to “investigate” the death of his neighbor’s dog ends up revealing deeper truths about the boy’s family and how we all must adapt to life’s chaos and disappointments.   
     As the curtain rises, the audience is immediately confronted with the startling image of a large white dog, lying center-stage with a pitchfork plunged into its side.  Kneeling next to the dead dog is Christopher age 15, wailing and rocking, holding his head in his hands. The police arrive and take Christopher away as a suspect.  All hell breaks loose as Christopher assaults a police officer—not because he’s guilty or resisting arrest—but simply because he HATES being touched.  In addition to this aversion to touch, Christopher is a math genius, who knows every prime number up to 7057, along with the capitals of every country in the world.  Yet everyday conversations are an infuriating conundrum for him.  Confused by clichés and small talk, Christopher throws terrible tantrums whenever his rigid and orderly world is violated in any way.  Played to perfection by Alex Sharp, the character of Christopher comes alive in ways that feel both mesmerizing and exhausting. Throughout Mr. Sharp’s virtuoso performance, I was not only reminded of my daughter Sarah’s meltdowns, but also—and more importantly— of all the similarities AND differences between individuals on the autistic spectrum.
     “I see everything.  Most other people are lazy,” he tells the audience.  Unlike other passengers on a train who observe houses, trees or grass out the window, Christopher can tell you exactly how many houses there are within a five mile radius. He knows how many red cars are in the street and whether or not they are Chevrolets.  However, these detailed observations come with the heavy price of extreme sensory overload.  Think you’re so different from Christopher?  This production may well convince you otherwise.  Piercing lights and sound engulf the audience as well as the characters, forcing us to understand firsthand the curse and blessing of seeing everything all at once.
     Staged within a black box grid, the play is brilliant in it use of choreography and sound effects to take you inside Christopher’s head. The audience literally watches Christopher climbing the walls; we also experience the flood of prime numbers in his head as he tries to sleep; and his extreme panic as he navigates a crowded train station, trying to find his way to London while carrying his pet rat. Choreographers Scott Graham and Steven Hogget show the cast of characters on and off the train as the writhing whirlpool of humanity they appear to be from Christopher’s perspective. I felt every bit as tortured as the over-stimulated 15 year old boy himself, watching him struggle to buy a ticket, find the correct train and contend with a smelly, disgusting toilet.
     Special education teacher Siobhan (Francesca Faridany) plays a helpful and soothing intermediary between Christopher and the audience.  By the second act, she has convinced Christopher to turn his written notebook into the play we are watching. Faridany does an excellent job of portraying a respectful mentor with a calming influence on Christopher. He trusts her, and so do we.  As a parent of a special needs daughter, I remember feeling that same reciprocity of respect and sense of calm with Sarah’s best teachers.  It’s so very important to be understood AND respected for being who we are, no matter what our strengths and challenges happen to be, isn’t it?
     “It’s going to be all right,” different people keep assuring Christopher in less-than-convincing voices.  We hear these empty reassurances from Christopher’s father, his mother, his teachers, well-meaning neighbors and strangers.  But as the play unfolds, we end up sharing Christopher’s view. Nothing will ever be “all right,” but if you’re brave and determined enough to push beyond your worst fears and overcome life’s day-to-day challenges, you—like Christopher—can find comfort and relief.

There are “feel good” moments both large and small In “Curious Incident of the Dog in Night Time.”  When Christopher allows his palm to make contact with his parent’s palm, the audience feels their love and connection.  Likewise, we are proud of Christopher for taking advanced Math tests and achieving “A Stars,” the highest possible grade—despite his anxiety and lack of food or sleep. Is this really so different from how we feel when our neurotypical sons and daughters suffer through SATs and get high scores?  Like Temple Grandin, Christopher seems to have a stronger emotional connection with animals than humans. At the start of the play, we see this connection in his extreme grief over his neighbor’s dog, and later we see the tenderness and devotion he displays toward his pet rat.  And, for the ultimate “feel good moment,” (dare I say slightly over the top?) an adorable puppy dog makes a cameo appearance toward the finale of the play. There’s even an extra “special” ending to the play for those willing to wait for it (and just about everyone did).  That encore was both unexpected and, ironically, EXACTLY what the audience had come to expect: brilliance.  But I won’t tell you more.  I want you to go see for yourself.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Anti-Semitic Fever and Holocaust Remembrance Day

   Back in the 1970s, when I left my parents’nest for Vassar College, I never worried about anti-Semitism. Only a train ride from New York City, I felt safe and accepted at my home away from home. Vassar, in particular, had been welcoming to a diverse population—especially gay and transgender students—long before such efforts to diversify were considered educationally desirable and politically correct. Apparently those days are over, with respect to being Jewish—not just at Vassar but at other elite colleges here and abroad. 
     The freedom to enjoy elite colleges for Jewish Americans lasted for only a brief window in U.S. history. In my mother’s generation, many colleges had “quotas” (limited number of spaces available) for Jews. My best friend’s mom was accepted to Mt. Holyoke as part of the Jewish contingent in the late 1940s. Later, the quota system was abolished. So Jewish Americans enjoyed a temporary sweet spot in academia between the abolishment of the quota system and now.
     An article entitled “Vile at Vassar” (in last year’s New York Daily News) described how current college President Catharine Hill allowed an “anti-Israel infection” to linger for months before finally criticizing the rhetoric of anti-Israel Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). The criticism came only after much provocation, including the Anti-Israel group display of a cartoon labelled “Liberators” that shows a monster stomping on a European city while wearing a Star of David and carrying a U.S. flag. Before that incident, SJP had hosted an “Israel Apartheid Week” in an attempt to disrupt a Vassar-sponsored trip to Israel. Even more disturbing is the fact that some faculty members participated in the anti-Semitic fever. Thirty nine professors protested after President Hill finally decided that Vassar would not join the American Studies Association’s call to boycott  Israeli universities. As an alumna, I remember receiving letters and emails from Hill trying to explain and justify the school’s position in this toxic affair. I was just happy my son had avoided most of the cross-fire by graduating in 2013.
    Vassar is not alone with anti-Semitism problems. The debate over what constitutes anti-Semitism has spilled into Stanford University student government elections, according to an article in The New York Times this week. While seeking an endorsement from the Students of Color Coalition, a Jewish student was asked how her religion affected her view of divestment from Israel. This question shifted the focus from the campus election to a fiery argument about ethnic identity and loyalty. When the Jewish candidate revealed that she opposed divestment, there was an awkward silence after which her interview ended—without gaining the group’s endorsement. I’d vote for this young woman based on her honesty alone, and I’m rooting for her in the Stanford University election.
     I am the first one to defend freedom of speech. But protesting Israeli government policy is NOT the same as anti-Semitism. The problem occurs when anti-Israel sentiment is exploited and propagandized to feed and fuel anti-Semitism. Currently, anti-Semitism on college campuses is growing at a terrifying rate, with more than half of Jewish students reporting they have suffered some form of anti-Jewish harassment, according to a recent study conducted by Trinity College and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law. The survey (which included 1,157 Jewish students at 55 American colleges) found that 54% experienced or witnessed “anti-Semitism on campus during the first six months of the 2013-2014 academic year.” 
     “The patterns and high rates of anti-Semitism were surprising,” reports Ariela Keysar, an associate research professor at Trinity College who co-authored the report. “Rather than being localized to a few campuses or restricted to politically active or religious students, this problem is widespread. Jewish students are subjected to both traditional prejudices and the new political anti-Semitism.” Keep in mind that the Trinity survey was conducted BEFORE last year’s conflict in the Gaza Strip, before anti-Jewish sentiment spiked globally. I don’t know about you, but these frightening findings make me want to stay home.

     Have any of you also noticed the alarming increase in anti-Semitism here and around the world? If you’re Jewish and grew up in New York City in the ‘60s, the subject didn’t come up nearly as often as it does now. If we talked about anti-Semitism, it was WWII, a cautionary tale for us kids about a time when racial prejudice and aggression ran wild. Tales of anti-Semitism were always followed by reassurances that American Jews had been safe during the war and would continue to be safe. At school and camp, I pledged allegiance to the American flag with special gratitude and passion.

     Of course, I know anti-Semitism has always existed, long before World War II. Scapegoating is an ancient and primitive human pastime, driven by emotions like envy, spite, and fear. Bigotry–against Afro-Americans, against Jews, against Asians, against whoever we cast as “other”— will continue to haunt humanity into the future. But when I headed off to college, travelled to Israel, Egypt, and many other parts of the world, I was exposed to very little anti-Semitism. Even in Arab countries where anti-Semitism became a palpable presence—when my friend’s passport with an obviously Jewish last name was stamped—I never felt personally attacked or unsafe while travelling, the way I would now.
     Henry and I used to love vacationing in France, but not anymore. Paris is still romantic; the resorts in the south are sublime in their beauty and elegance. Too bad all I can think about in Paris now is the slaughter of Charlie Hebdo journalists and the kosher butcher shop where customers were gunned down. After a long Arctic winter nestling deep into my nest, (see “Hunkering Down,”3/6/15) it would be nice to fly to one of my favorite foreign countries.  But this year it won’t be France. Did you know that last week a French soccer player, Nicolas Anelka, created a furor by publicly giving a reverse Nazi salute, the quenelle, after scoring a goal during a match?

     Where did this oblique version of Sieg Heil originate? Dieudonne M’bala M’bala—a popular French comedian who has been repeatedly condemned and fined by French courts for his anti-Semitic comments—performs the backward quenelle, and it has quickly become an internet sensation. Since its resurgence in popularity, the quenelle has been used by athletes in France, the United Kingdom, and even here in the US. Earlier this week, San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker gave a public apology after a photo surfaced of him giving the reverse Nazi salute  with Dieudonne.

     French authorities are considering shutting down Dieudonne’s one-man show, which has been playing to packed houses in Paris.  After a recent performance Dieudonne quipped that hearing Patrick Cohen, a Jewish journalist, makes him yearn for the return of gas chambers. (!!!)  Who is laughing at that joke? Not the 6 million Jews who died in WWII, nor the 15,000 homosexuals, 250,000 mentally and physically disabled people. Not the 25 million Russians killed fighting the war, or the 15,000,000 Chinese. In fact, the 8 million Germans who died are not laughing either.

     I’m hoping the next global generation will regard all past genocide missions –Bosnia, Armenia, Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals, Pygmies, Rwanda, and Kurds, IN ADDITION TO the approximately 72,468,900 people who died in WWII— and feel  HORRIFIED instead of amused. How would Dieudonne, of Afro-American descent, feel if a popular white comedian in New York said he longed for friendship with the Ku Klux Klan and wished he could invite them to bring a lynch mob onto his show? But that would never happen, right? Because that would be racism . . .
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
—Martin Niemöller


Friday, April 10, 2015

Powers of Persuasion

     Wouldn't it be great to have such a compelling personality that you could persuade people to buy your product, adopt your point of view, or follow you to the ends of the earth?  I promise I wouldn’t be a psychopath, and I’d really enjoy that kind of power.  If you’re an empty nester/baby boomer like me, there may be a growing sense of urgency about writing the next chapter of your life.  In the blink of an eye—or so it seems—children grow up, fly away from the nest, and start their adult lives. 

     Now, you see them. Now you don’t.  Poof!  Gone! 

     Since my children are adults (or trying to be), I’m forced to recognize that I've become (gulp!) an older adult.  More time is behind me than ahead of me.  Better write the blog, publish the book and travel to unseen parts of the world with my husband, before I’m TOO old.  In other words, hurry up and live your dream, become a new—and hopefully MORE compelling—person before it’s too late.
     What are the qualities of compelling people that catapult them to success?  Answering that question is the subject of Compelling People –The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential, by John Neffinger & Matthew Kohut.  Using cutting edge research along with their own work with businessmen, politicians and Nobel Prize winners, the authors reveal how people judge and persuade each other. If you want to learn the ins and outs of succeeding at everything in your life—whether personal or professional—this book is an informative and interesting (dare I say compelling?) read.
     Before I share my reactions to Compelling People, let’s start by looking at some of the definitions Compelling People for tips on how to become more charismatic.
of “compelling.” According to Google, “compelling” means “evoking interest, attention or admiration in a powerful or irresistible way.”  Other synonyms offered are: “enthralling, absorbing gripping, riveting and spell-binding.”  Sounds great, right? Who wouldn’t want to be riveting and spell-binding? Google’s definition is probably nearest and dearest to Neffinger and Kohut because it covers all the successful people in their book, from Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy and Oprah Winfrey to successful salespeople, journalists and spies.  However, not EVERY definition of compelling describes positive or desirable human traits.  Let’s take “tending to compel, as to force or push toward a course of action.”  (This is sounding more like the psychopath version.) Or how about Merriam-Webster’s definition: “strong and forceful: causing you to feel that you must do something.”  Not bad, but it sounds awfully close to bullying, depending on the ethics of the compelling person. Hitler, Osama bin Laden and Jihad Johnny are compelling AND evil.  Hopefully, future terrorists and criminals will NOT be reading
     According to Neffinger and Kohut’s analysis, compelling people possess an abundance of two simple (but often conflicting) qualities: strength and warmth.   Strength, they say, is the province of people who “get things done” and the measure of how much an individual can “impose their will on the world.” Warmth, on the other hand, refers to empathy, familiarity and love.  Achieving the perfect balance of strength and warmth is a much more complicated endeavor than you might imagine.  It’s much more difficult—surprise, surprise—to be viewed in a positive light if you’re a strong woman. (Witness the ups and downs of Hillary Clinton).  And, of course, it’s trickier to show warmth as a man without being perceived as weak.
     What’s best about Compelling People is that it leads to self-examination.  What moments in your life have you been most successful and compelling?  How did you display strength or warmth in the past, and how might you do so more effectively in the future?  I found myself remembering my campaign  for kindergarten rep at my son’s elementary school. After giving an impromptu speech to an auditorium filled with hundreds of parents I’d never met before, I got elected!  Why did they vote for me?  Maybe because I was lucky enough to speak last. I’d had the opportunity to hear the other candidates and learn from their mistakes. By the time it was my turn, I figured out the best way to deal with my nervousness: a little self-deprecating humor and a convincing riff about how my years in public relations would make me a diplomatic and effective advocate for their children. 

     An even better example comes to mind when I recall the way Henry managed to get our daughter, Sarah, accepted at a special education school where she’d been wait listed.   Henry employed the perfect mix of strength and warmth.  Unable to reach the school directors on the phone to plead for our daughter, Henry showed up at the school without an appointment.  

     “Both directors are in meetings,” he was told. “They won’t see you without an appointment.”

     “I’ll wait,” he assured the receptionist, settling into the waiting room and beginning to read legal briefs.

     An hour later, my husband was reluctantly ushered in, if only to clear the waiting room. Armed with adorable pictures of Sarah (warmth) and a promise from a prominent child psychiatrist to offer their teachers a workshop if they accepted our daughter (strength), Henry pitched a compelling plea. The result? Our daughter got the first available opening.

     Perhaps the best and most enjoyable examples of compelling people offered in the book are Ayn Rand and the Beatles.  These two are considered polar opposites.  For Ayn Rand and her followers, strength is everything.  Her view of the world is bleak: “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” The downside of this philosophy is that power alone can get things done through force and coercion.  That’s not the world we want to build, is it? People who are all strength and no warmth may inspire fear and obedience, but they’re unlikely to earn much affection and love.  At the other extreme, are the Beatles, who rose to fame with songs like “All You Need is Love,” in opposition to the Vietnam War.  While the Beatles are perhaps, the most successful musical group of all time, plenty of people still believe nice guys finish last.  Alas, I can’t carry a tune, and I’ll NEVER win the prize for Miss Congeniality. But maybe I can add a tablespoon of assertiveness and smile more often.

     Small gestures count. Many ingredients contribute to people’s perceptions of strength and warmth, including: verbal strength, voice, smiles, head tilts, handshakes, eye contact, and gestures.  Even hormones contribute to the impression we make.  More testosterone makes us seem stronger; oxytocin pumps up warmth.  I particularly liked the observations about Clint Eastwood’s “flinty smile” as a successful balance of strength and warmth. 

     As a baby boomer, still learning (and struggling) to manage technology and social media, I found the authors’ suggestions on how to courteously conduct these “conversations” with people in cyberspace especially helpful.  I will certainly keep their ideas in mind as I continue to blog and tweet.  I also particularly appreciated Neffinger and Kohut’s brief discussion of disability. As a mother of a young woman on the autistic spectrum, this quote was music to my ears:  “Adversity builds character. Someone who manages to project even a moderate level of warmth and strength in the face of it is someone we can all admire.” Bravo, to Sarah and all her friends, who bravely go out into the world with their heads held high. The powers of persuasion sometimes transcend words.