Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuit: Voting for your heroes, even when they’re not on the ballot…

It’s Election Day! In hopefully less than 24 hours, this whole reality-show-gone-wrong election season will come to an end. It’s easy to be fed up with the whole thing – the campaigns (including the primary season) have been going on for more than a year. Most of the campaigns failed to really cover themselves in glory, eschewing discussion of policy and concrete plans for our country’s future and instead focused on differing levels of personal attacks, sound bites, and — with certain candidates — statements that would have immediately forced them to drop out in previous years. Really, it’s been a hell of a thing.And amidst all that, a couple of things went seemingly unnoticed. For all the sharp elbows and sharper rhetoric, the Democratic Party primary actually had some substance and did what major party primaries are supposed to do — decide on a qualified candidate, and position the party at a sweet spot (more or less) politically and it did it by consensus. Yes, it was a mess, and the candidate I supported in the primaries did not win the nomination. But again, it did what the whole process is supposed to do. It’s never perfect and there is still much work to do to improve it and the Party itself over the next four years. However, even as messy and contested as it was, it still was 100-percent more successful than the GOP process, where they ended up with neither a qualified candidate or a party platform that has much broad appeal.

Now, as I said, my candidate didn’t win the Democratic nomination, but I will be voting for Hillary later today. Initially I thought I would be doing it somewhat grudgingly – I have never been a particular fan of either Bill or Hillary, their politics has always been more moderate-to-right of my own. That said, both are impressive public servants who have accomplished much – and while they are also flawed human beings to be sure (who isn’t?), you can’t really argue that Hillary isn’t qualified to hold the office of President.

Part of my increased willingness to vote for Hillary is of course due to her opponent: a man-child who is more notable for his tantrums than his policies and who really seems to be an amalgamation of every dystopian dictator ever conceived of in science fiction. He’s not just a bad candidate, he’s genuinely a bad human being – I honestly feel sorry for anyone who has to ever interact with him.

But there’s more to it than that. As many of you know, my mother was the first woman elected to the US Congress from Virginia. And while that is certainly her most high profile accomplishment, it hardly even begins to give an outline of what she’s accomplished. From her early days of being called “honey” by other legislators in the Virginia General Assembly, she always had to fight twice as hard and do twice as much — and still she was constantly belittled and underestimated. But she always did it with a smile on her face (though sometimes it was more of a clenched teeth thing) because she knew that was how you beat them. I was still a teenager when she first got in to politics, and I remember all too well complete strangers calling her a “bitch” to my face (as well as “baby killing lesbian” and many other colorful phrases). While male legislators were lauded for being leaders when they played hardball, my mom was chided for being too hard, too partisan, too …bitchy.

She summed it up well in a quote from a news article about one of her congressional campaigns:

“What comes across in men as ‘fighter, outspoken, champion of the people’ comes across in women differently,” Byrne said. “There was the constant tension between getting the facts out and going toe–to–toe with him, and not wanting to be perceived as pushy [or] brassy.”

Baker, “Byrne Was Subtle in Trailblazer Role.”

So the gender-based double-standard that Clinton has always faced is something I am more familiar with than most men. And as the son of a politician, I also know how intense campaigning really is. Think about the hardest job you’ve ever done – the worst hours, the worst people, whatever it is, and now imagine doing that 18 to 20 hours a day for a year, and you’ve got some idea of what it’s like to run for public office. It’s awful in a way that no one who hasn’t done it can truly appreciate. Sure it looks like a sweet gig from the outside, but from the inside, you realize that no one does this lightly.

I saw my mother in the final weeks of a campaign subtly wincing when people hugged her because of a cracked rib she got from a bad bout of walking pneumonia. I saw her sacrifice and overcome continuously throughout her career in public office – and through it all, no matter what she accomplished and what good she did, there was a certain portion of voters who disliked her just because of her gender and because she “didn’t know her place.”

As I said at the beginning, I had planned on grudgingly voting for Clinton today – my lack of enthusiasm was not because of the emails or anything that’s actually been covered by the “press” (sarcastic quotes are sarcastic!) this election season, but because of my slight disagreements on matters of policy. However, since the conventions and as the two major party candidates have campaigned, I couldn’t help but notice that same double-standard I saw with my mom come up again and again, but amplified by it being a national race. And in the past month or so, I’ve come to realize something: I’m actually glad to vote for Hillary.

Let’s do a little though experiment – imagine if Hillary was a man. Would the email server thing still be an issue? Probably, but only a minor one. After all, men have been elected to the Oval Office after having done much worse. But as a woman, Hillary is somehow being held to a higher standard. The whole controversy comes across as mansplaining on an incredible level: “Well actually, what you should have done is…”. The State Department has almost the same number of employees as Cisco or Whole Foods and I’d say a higher than average amount of red tape for a federal agency, and in the same position, I doubt many of those crying foul would have done much differently in her shoes. It was still a mistake, but let’s not act like this was some huge catastrophe. The email “scandal” is serving the same role that the stupid “secret Muslim”/birther crap did in 2008 and 2012 with Obama – it gives cover for prejudice.

And to play out this experiment, imagine if Donald Trump was a woman. I know, I know – wrong for a whole bunch of reasons, but when you boil it all down, listen to any of his speeches and try and tell me it’s any different than Sarah Palin’s usual word salad. His whole “appeal” is that he’s perceived to be some sort of uber alpha male (which is really laughable if you have half a brain). Can anyone claim that if the race today was between Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, that Palin would be polling anywhere close to where Trump is? Of course not. And yet the only real difference is that Trump is a man.

When I walk into the voting booth today, I will be voting for Hillary, not just against Trump. Partly because she is unquestionably the only truly qualified person in the race (third party candidates most definitely included), and partly because of  all I’ve seen and experienced being my mother’s son.

Both my parents are long-time Clinton supporters – they campaigned hard for Bill in 1992. My dad served as the Assistant Administrator at US AID, and in addition to working with the White House while she was in Congress, after leaving Congress, my mom became the White House Consumer Advocate under Bill Clinton. For my mom though, her connection with Hillary goes deeper than that – sort of a Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuit 🙂 They’ve both had to deal with the fact that some people hate them – not because of what they believe or what they’ve done, but merely because of their gender and their unwillingness to stay silent, stay meek, and stay out of public office.

I’m cautiously optimistic that Hillary will win this thing today – and once inaugurated, I am sure that I will have differences of opinion with her administration’s policies, but I am certain that for whatever successes and failures there are, we as a society will have moved a tiny bit forward and that the world my son and daughter inherit will be a tiny bit more just.

And personally most important to me: the sacrifices and hard work of one of my heroes will have helped make it possible. Thanks mom – this vote is for you! ❤

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Nostalgia, Toys, and Making Connections in a Small World

Much has been said of how the Internet has made the world smaller and more connected. So often in fact, it has now become cliche to comment on it at all. But occasionally one gets reminded of it in such a strong way, you can’t help but shake your head in disbelief …and just a touch of wonder.

Let’s go back to 1980. There’s a small boy, nine years old, sitting on the floor of his family’s living room staring with quiet intensity at what’s before him. We notice he’s small for his age, both in height and in weight (not quite at the point where he disappears if he turns sideways, but it’s a near thing). He has large blue eyes, a mop of dark blonde hair, and a head that is quite a bit larger than the rest of him. He’s been sitting where he is for about two hours, quietly doing what makes him happiest — building.

He has a Millennium Falcon and a X-Wing nearby, along with the requisite action figures. But he’s not playing with those right now. Instead he’s building an Imperial prison. Then he’s building a Rebel base. Now it’s another spacecraft, but one never dreamed of by the masters of model building and practical effects employed by George Lucas. This isn’t LEGO, ruled by right angles or poor stepped approximations of diagonals. This is something infinitely more flexible. It’s a construction set called “Ramagon” and it inspired that young boy like no other toy before or since.

Vintage-1979-Toy-RAMAGON-2000-Construction-System

It also doesn’t exist anymore. Out of production for years now, I had even forgotten the name of it for awhile.

As you might guess, that boy was me, and that Ramagon construction set was, without a doubt, my favorite toy ever. It had a unique hub and strut building system that allowed you to make beautiful and strange creations that not only were large, but looked like the very definition of “the future,” circa 1979. While you could still make right angles, you could actually make connections in twenty-six separate directions off a single piece. While the structures you built looked and felt lightweight, they were substantial and sturdy.

It was not only a fascinating toy to build with just for the sake of building, it was the perfect way to build things that you could use with other toys and action figures. With triangular and square panels, you could create platforms and give your creations heft and solidity. Without the panels you could create airy, skeletal constructions that looked very similar to the plans for a space station that NASA had been planning at the time. I built elaborate worlds for my Star Wars toys. I built towers taller than I was. But the most fun I had was just building really complex geometrical shapes and seeing what I could do with them.

Ramagon  Micro base

I got older of course, and my Ramagon set eventually disappeared – probably in some charity donation. But I played with that set for a good six or seven years. Looking back later I realized that it hadn’t been just a toy used for entertainment, but something that helped me learn problem-solving and spatial visualization. I learned how to break big problems down into smaller pieces. I learned to balance having a plan with spontaneity and imagination. And while I love LEGO too, just connecting one brick to another isn’t very exciting – the building process with LEGO felt like a grind, the focus being on what you were building more than how you built it. Ramagon on the other hand opened up a whole world of possibility — not only allowing you to think about making connections in all directions, but encouraging it.

Flashing forward a number of years, and I now had two children of my own and I wanted to give my kids the same toy I’d had and more importantly the same experience I’d had. The first hurdle was one I’m ashamed to admit: while the toy had stayed fresh in my memories, the name of it was something I’d forgotten decades and decades ago. I did a lot of web searches for “1980s construction toy” and looked at a lot of pictures. I even searched for “1970s construction toy” as, with a child’s self-centeredness, I had no idea how long it had existed before I got mine.

Finally I had my eureka moment and found references and pictures on some sites that listed older toys. It was… Ramagon. Honestly, how I forgot a name like that I’ll never know. And to be fair, the Ramagon pieces were never emblazoned with a brand name the same way way LEGO pieces are.

Well, now I had a name but my jubilation was short lived. Turns out that by the time my kids were old enough to play with them and I went looking for them, they had been discontinued. I was crushed. As a parent, we all tend to want our children to be introduced to the things we loved best from our own childhoods and it looked like I wasn’t going to be able to do that. This was especially discouraging as I thought that Ramagon was the ultimate building toy that could be enjoyed by both my son and my daughter. Especially as both of them have tons of LEGO, and the later Ramagon sets had added panels that allowed kids to integrate their creations with LEGO bricks. I knew they’d love the possibilities it represented. It was frustrating knowing the perfect toy existed at one point but now was effectively gone.

I’d occasionally look for people selling Ramagon sets and would find some outrageously priced sets on eBay, sigh dramatically, and go about my business. My kids continued to get more and more LEGO sets and other construction toys and I continued to comment “Those are cool, but back in my day, I had the perfect building set…” They would roll their eyes and go back to what they were doing.

In the second half of last year I started wondering about where Ramagon came from. Who had invented it? It’s funny – so many commercial toys are completely divorced in the public mind from the person who invented them. Big toy companies don’t have much interest in promoting creative talent the same way tech companies do (obvious break-out hits like Rubik’s Cube being the exception). But I had a feeling that it would be possible to identify a single individual as the inventor – the set, its history, and everything I’d found out so far made me feel like this was someone’s passion, not the result of corporate focus groups and demographic targeting.

I’d already learned that it was never a toy in the same league as LEGO or Erector (or the later K’NEX) in terms of popularity and I would get met with blank stares and shrugs whenever I told people about it. After a consulting job that had me researching various patents, I decided to try looking through registered patents to see if I could find the person who had created, in essence, some of the happiest moments of my childhood.

US4129975-1Thanks to the Internet and specifically Google, searching patents is much easier than it used to be. That said, trying to find a patent without knowing the inventor or even the company that originally manufactured it (I knew the license for the toys changed hands over the years), is very difficult. Especially as the Ramagon name itself likely wasn’t even going to be mentioned in the patent (though later patents for similar toys did mention the toy by name). After much searching and looking at crazy toy designs (most of which were probably never sold anywhere) I found one: U.S. Patent 4129975 A. Inventor: Richard J. Gabriel.

So Mr. Gabriel invented the toy I still thought about all these years later. My question was answered, but I didn’t know what to do with that information. However, as I sometimes do, I drafted a letter in my head, thanking Mr. Gabriel for having created something that meant so much to a quiet, shy kid who found a way to express himself by building what he saw in his imagination. I was sure it was a letter that would never be sent. How could I even find him to send it? Would he even care? Was he even still alive?

And once again we come back to the point I made at the beginning – the world is smaller than it used to be. I grew up at the end of the era of three TV networks and rotary phones, and while I’m frequently an early adopter of new technologies, I can’t say that my thinking isn’t a little colored by a worldview now several decades out of date.

I went ahead and searched using Mr. Gabriel’s name and the word “Ramagon.” I found quite a few hits, mostly the meta cruft that is often associated with business listings. Lots of information, but none of it especially useful. I paged through more results, and finally… unbelievably… I found not just a website, but his website. Fittingly, he’s been an architect for more than 25 years, and there on his website was his email address.

I typed out basically what I’d already drafted in my head and sent him an email, not really expecting anything, but just wanting more than anything to say “Thank you.” That same day I received a reply from his wife Ann letting me know he’d get back to me in a couple of days. I was astounded.

Richard (and his wife Ann) wrote back and thus began a correspondence we’ve sporadically maintained in the midst of busy schedules. Richard and Ann have led fascinating lives, and I’ve loved hearing about what they’ve done and what they have planned. I even managed to provide a little help to them involving web design and online marketing. It was literally the least I could do in return for what I’d already received from Richard. I consider myself lucky to now count Richard and Ann as friends.

This had all started with the itch of unsatisfied nostalgia. I had gone looking for an old toy, and by extension, my childhood. I wanted to find a way to express appreciation for something that gave me so much joy as a child. I found so much more than that.

I found a link to my past that gave me a new perspective. I found new friends it felt like I had known for years. And thanks to the unbelievable generosity of Richard and Ann, I found something else too. In the mail this week, I received the following:

image2(1) image1(3)

Richard had, at my request, even signed the boxes for me. And with that, I was finally able to pass along to my children that idolized toy from my childhood. And along with it, a connection to a world that is both smaller and more amazing than the world I lived in some thirty-five years ago.

From the moment I pulled the sets out of the box they were shipped in, my kids’ eyes lit up. There were appreciative oohs and ahhs from both of them. My oldest, who just turned 13 and who has begun to have a pretty good idea of the value of such things, commented “It almost seems a shame to open them up.” I answered back “It would be a bigger shame not to.” And with that, we set about building.

I may have bogarted the toys a bit at the beginning. The pieces felt comfortably familiar in my hands. The click as pieces came together providing the same satisfying completeness that it had so many years ago. We built a spaceship. We built a Martian base. We built.

FullSizeRender IMG_4357

This isn’t a story about nostalgia, or toys, or being an uber geek about something (though it obviously includes all those things). For me, this experience has been about the sort of connections possible in the small, connected world we live in, and the connections that exist within ourselves. How those connections can go off at any angle but that together, they can make something beautiful, strange, and the very definition of “the future.” It’s been about how when things click together just right, it provides a sense of completion.

And I hope for Richard that this is a story about how if you build with passion and creativity, as he did, what you built will last far longer than you could have dreamed.

I want to once again express my heartfelt thanks and deepest appreciation to Richard and Ann. Nine times out of ten, or maybe even ninety-nine times out of a hundred, if someone in a similar situation had received my email, assuming they even read it, they’d likely just smile and move on. I think it says something that they didn’t. Maybe with all their experiences across the globe, they realize that while it may be a small world, it’s full of large stories and the greatest fun comes either from making your own or from being a part of as many of them as you can.

*That* Was A Pretty Good Day… (Twenty years & counting)

On this day exactly 20 years ago, this happened:

invite And 21 years ago, almost on this exact day, the events that set this all in motion happened. Unfortunately there aren’t any pictures of that moment – which seems sort of unfair as because of a chance meeting at a friend’s house, I got a wonderful wife, two amazing kids, and an incredibly rich life. That was a pretty good day.

I could go on and on about how the orbit of my life was moved by Katherine into something both more balanced and more exciting. I could go into detail how, in the words of a favorite aunt, marrying Katherine ensured that I “wasn’t such a little shit anymore.” (and she was completely right – notice she didn’t say I wasn’t a little shit anymore, just that I wasn’t quite as much of one. *grin*)

Or I could go on about our incredible kids. Or about how we still stay up far past the time we should have gone to sleep because we still just love talking to each other. Or even about how the troubles we have run into have been made less by the fact that we faced them together.

All of that would be true, but it wouldn’t begin to convey even the smallest portion of why I continue, every single day of my life, to be happy I married this woman…or happy that she still finds joy in being with me. When we started out, we were by all accounts too young, too poor, and too unready to have started down this path. Ninety-nine percent of the time, that would have probably been right, and there is no doubt that some amount of luck played into this, but the last two decades have been an incredible journey and I can’t imagine having made it with anyone else.

Now since we don’t have pictures of our first meeting 21 years ago, I’m now going to have to make do with pictures from that other event that happened a year later. 🙂

To all of the friends and family that were there, thank you for seeing us off on this adventure so ably. To all the friends and family that weren’t there or that we’ve met since then, thank you for continuing to help ease us on our way.

wedding_4_web
*This* was also a pretty good day 😉

wedding_1_webwedding_2_web

So young!
So young!

And most of all, I want to thank you Katherine. Thank you for being my partner in the truest sense of the word. Thank you for bringing so much magic into my life. Thank you for being my best friend. Thank you for bringing out the best in me and sticking by me when I am at my worst.Thank you for our children, and for working with me to raise them to embody the best of both of us and when that’s not an option, teaching them to find their own way. And with all my heart, thank you for believing in me so strongly that I had no choice but to believe in myself.

kathy_web

The past two decades have seemed to pass in an instant, and my thoughts now are the same as they were the first day we met and on the day we got married: I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

 

Fear, Truth, and Consequences

I’m tired of senseless death. It will always exist, but after this past year I don’t think I’m alone in feeling a bit overwhelmed by it. After the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, I had felt the grip of cold fear as I thought about my own children. Every parent knows fear — it’s part of having children. Afraid for their safety, afraid you could somehow fail them…the list goes on. And as parents, we all know that no matter what happens, we have to get beyond the fear and just do the best we can and hope for the best.

Because in the end, the truth about parenthood is that you are not in control. When it comes to your child, you can guide, inform, punish, and influence — but you can’t be in control of another person. No matter how much your child is a chip off the ol’ block – they are their own person and as a parent you need to come to terms with that sooner or later. And most of all, we can’t completely control what the world does to our kids. So we try our best to prepare them for whatever the world throws at them and hope with all our heart that it’s enough.

Fear is not a terribly useful emotion in the modern world. It can be great to help you anticipate and react if you’re in a life-threatening situation, but in a (hopefully) rational, civilized society it’s often counterproductive. It short-circuits our reason and makes us respond on an emotional, sub-rational level, so in essence, it makes us give up all the advantages of evolution and civilization and turns us into small, quivering creatures hiding from a Great Big Bad Thing and wanting more than anything for it to all go away.

It’s even worse when that fear is felt by a group or society, as fear is possibly the worst possible basis for public policy. Look at any bad law, policy, or government action, and at its core you will find fear. Fear of people who look and act differently, fear of change, fear of a lack of control, fear of what we don’t understand.

The events in Newtown brought this into sharp relief for me. What I felt, what I saw, and what I read all boiled down to fear: fear for the safety of loved ones; fear that the government will take away guns…and fear that they won’t; fear of the unknowable and unexplainable.

Hell, TV news folks interviewing elementary age school kids who were present in the school when the shooting happened was driven by fear of ‘losing the story’ to someone else and fear of losing ratings. And why do we need news interviews from those personally involved in a tragedy? I think it’s driven by the public’s fear that those in power won’t tell us the whole story, so we want the news channels to do those interviews so we have the “real” story.

And what does all that fear give us? Besides the rush of adrenaline and the worry, not a whole lot. After September 11th, 2001, what did it get us? Two wars, the deaths of countless more innocents, the Patriot Act, a huge increase in debt and a national malaise because I think at some level we all understand nothing we’d done made any real, meaningful change.

So is fear bad? Not in and of itself, nor could we in any healthy way stop feeling the emotion. What’s bad is letting a 200-million year old part of our brain trump the human neocortex (which is only about 195,000 years old).

What we can do is reclaim the birthright of our forebrains and the fruits of thousands of years of civilization and try to actually make the world a better place…not with our emotions, but with our brains. (Yes, at heart, I’m a hippie — deal with it)

Do guns need to be banned? I don’t know – generally speaking I would prefer most people didn’t have them. I certainly think we need to put a bit more emphasis on the “well-regulated” part of the Second Amendment. Certain types of guns clearly have no place in a sane, civilized world. For those that do have guns, the requirements for their ownership and use should be at least as stringent as other dangerous items. Currently there seems to be more sophisticated and onerous controls over decongestants than guns (at least in my state) and that does strike me as out of balance. But again, I don’t know what the solution is, as too often both sides argue out of (and to incite) fear. Guns are not “special” — they are merely another method for producing destruction. If we can regulate bombs, tasers, knives, and yes, even cars, we can and should regulate guns.

I also know that this country needs a much, much better mental health system. No one can tell me that a 24-year old shooting up an elementary school is the act of a sane, well-balanced individual. The issue of him having a rifle and two handguns should be secondary to why he was unbalanced in the first place. No, of course, we can’t stop everyone from snapping and going on a rampage – but shouldn’t the general mental welfare of everyone be one of the most important things we should aim for? Isn’t that a worthwhile goal by itself?

But more than anything, we need an answer as a species, as a country, and as individuals to learn to deal with the reptilian part of our brain and the fear it injects in our thinking. We need to be mindful of when we are letting it drive our decisions and work to overcome it with the only thing we have going — our intelligence and reason. In essence, we all need to apply the same type of thinking a good parent does — we need to remember that no matter what happens, we have to get beyond the fear and just do the best we can and hope for the best. And realize that any control we think we have is likely a not-terribly-helpful illusion.

Not much of an answer, I know. But what we’re doing is obviously not working, and repeating the same mistakes over and over again is not very likely to change anything for the better.

Which of course brings us to the truest and best thing Frank Herbert (or perhaps anyone really) ever wrote:

The Litany Against Fear

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

What I’ve learned as a husband and father

Yesterday, my wife (@KatMByrne for those of you on Twitter) and I celebrated our 17th anniversary of being married and a total of 18 years being together — and today is Father’s Day. I’d given some thought about writing a mushy tribute to her, but realized that didn’t feel right. And then I realized why — who I am today as a person is the best tribute to her there is because in large part, she deserves a lot of the credit. I also realized that my kids deserve credit as well for teaching me so many things. My family has made me a better person over the years, and so I figured I’d share what being a husband and a father has taught me. This is, by no means, saying you have to have a spouse or kids to be complete as a person – it’s just the only thing that worked for me.

I’ll start off with an anecdote that sums it up in a nutshell. Four years after my own wedding, my sister was getting married and my far-flung relatives came to attend. One of them was my dad’s oldest sister Yvonne (usually just “Aunt Y” to all of us). She was 13 years older than my dad, and as with most of us in the Byrne family, she tended to speak her mind but loved us all very much. So while she was in town, my wife Katherine and I volunteered to take her around town and ended up going to Great Falls Park outside DC. There we walked and talked for a bit, and at one point talking about weddings, family, and my own marriage, my aunt turned to me and said “Jason, I’m glad you found Kathy. Marriage has been good for you — you’re not such a little shit anymore.” I would have been insulted I guess, except for the fact that I immediately knew it to be true. I wasn’t such a little shit anymore. What Aunt Y really meant was “Jason, being married to Kathy has given you confidence and made you happy,” because frankly being unhappy and not confident generally translates as “being a little shit.”

On the road to not being such a little shit . . .

Which brings me to the first thing I learned:

If you’re going to get married, make sure it’s to someone who helps you become the person you want to be.

Notice I did not say “makes you the person you want to be” or “helps you become a better person.” Those are quite different and/or open to interpretation. I also purposely didn’t say “going to be in a relationship” — marriage is different, often times because it isn’t until we’ve dated other people that we have any idea who the hell we even are or what we want. But “marriage” in this case is just shorthand for “long-term committed relationship between two adults,” which is all it really ever is, despite what meaning people keep trying to ascribe to it. Before I met my wife, I tended to date women of a certain personality type – you might call it “impassioned”, many of my friends called it “crunchy-granola eco-fem-nazis from hell,” but what it came down to was I kept picking women who were passionate about many of the same issues I was. We had great discussions and even greater arguments and I was miserable most of the time. And then I met Kathy and in addition to a number of other things, she was a passionate advocate for me, and suddenly I was happy.

The key here is that I believe the best marriages are based on not only the sum being greater than the individual parts, but that each partner in the relationship allows opportunities and offers support to the other in terms of becoming the kind of person they want to be. Luckily I had good role models with my own parents. Neither of them would have accomplished all that they have without the support of the other. Which brings me to the next item…

It’s a cliché because it’s true: there’s no more important aspect of being in a relationship with someone than communication

This one I think is not only true for marriages and relationships with significant others, it’s true for every relationship we have as adults, including with our children. When you’re growing up, you learn to take different types of communication for granted. You interact with your parents and authority figures one way, peers another, etc. And then you go out into the great wide world and discover that those types of communication don’t work anymore — either because you or the other person learned bad habits growing up or neither one of you has adapted to the fact that part of getting to know anyone is discovering how to communicate with them. [Note – “communicate” does NOT mean “talk” — communication implies listening as much as talking, and being in tune with each other’s verbal AND nonverbal cues]

Growing up as an introvert with social anxiety, I was not a natural communicator. Growing up as the youngest in a family of over-achieving Type A personalities, I also did not communicate well with my close friends and family about what I was thinking or feeling. That’s a lot of bottling up to deal with. As I came to adulthood, I tended to communicate too much, too fast in my romantic relationships and without having bothered to learn they liked to communicate. The result? Clingy, needy Jason who then got hurt when things tended to go off the rails and didn’t understand why. The first three years my wife and I were together were wonderful, but it also tested each of us as we came to accommodate how each other communicated (especially during arguments!). At the end of that, not only did we have a stronger relationship, we had each undergone significant personal growth (which as distastefully new age-y as that sounds, really is the best term for it.)

Don’t forget the kids

This was the moment I realized I *was* a dad . . . (the day Thing1 was born - that's my finger)

We ended up not having kids until almost 8 years into our marriage for a number of reasons, and that had both pros and cons, but the biggest bonus was the foundation it provided once we did have children. If you think communicating with a significant other is tough, try throwing in keeping that going while dealing with parental roles, finances, logistics of a busy calendar out of your control, and learning to communicate with your own kids. And if you don’t think you have to learn how to communicate with your own kids, you’re crazy.

Looking back on it now, it becomes pretty evident that at least part of human’s extended childhood (in relation to other mammals) is at least partly due to not only them needing to learn, but the parents needing to as well. It starts off pretty simply – sleeping, eating, and diapers are the basis for all initial communication. Then once the “Terrible Twos” hit (usually it seems actually at about the 18 month mark) you get a communication crisis — and the cause of the so-called Terrible Twos. They’ve been soaking up an incredible amount of information on EVERYTHING and suddenly lightning strikes and they want to start communicating and by extension taking some measure of control of their environment. The cosmic joke is on all of us though, as they usually can’t even speak worth a damn at that point. So you have this widely exploding intelligence trapped behind poor muscle control and a lack of syntax — and thus the tantrums…and really, who can blame then? If no one listened to you and you couldn’t express yourself, you’d be throwing tantrums as well (you know, like Sarah Palin).

So what I learned early on is even when your kids are newborns, talk to them like they’re more than just a cute blob – talk to them like they are human beings — not only is that just a good habit to get into, but you’ll actually be teaching them how to communicate. As some of you who have met my kids can attest to – they can talk in a manner well beyond their calendar years.

Now my oldest is nine and my youngest is almost three, so I don’t have any pearls of wisdom to offer on teenagers – and at that point, you’ve either taught them well or you haven’t, so there may be no special trick to offer. The only salient advice I have — and this applies to any child — is don’t talk down to them. Simplify only as absolutely needed to make yourself understood. If you talk to your kids like their idiots, all you get are idiot kids.

With great power, there must also come great responsibility…

Early pic of Things 1 & 2

While this one sounds like strictly a parenting tip, but it applies to relationships with spouses/significant others as well. For kids, it’s pretty straight forward. You are the parent first. That doesn’t preclude the idea of being their friend to, but that can never come before being their parent. Many of the baby boomer generation were all about having a different kind of relationship with their children than their parents had with them, which is fine in theory, but too often resulted in parents giving up the mantle of authority in favor of warm fuzzies. Now as a rampant liberal, why am I in favor of being an “authoritative parent?” (and not “authoritarian” as I had originally written – Thanks @markzero!) I sure wasn’t when I was a kid. My parents were notorious for being much stricter with my sister and I then my friend’s parents, and I hated it. Some of my friends could be out to all hours, had outrageous amounts of things bought for them, and were basically answerable to no one.

But now with years of parenting under my belt, I’ve come to (grudgingly) admit how right my parents were. Because while they were strict, they were also fair, consistent, and reliably communicated expectations to me. Most of all, that structure gave me the freedom to get my own feet under me and later gave me the tools to stand on my own. Without the self-discipline they instilled in me, I don’t believe much of what I love about my life would have been possible. So my model with my own children has been a sort of benevolent co-dictator (with my wife of course). We don’t control every aspect of what our kids do, but what we do ask (and we still do ask politely — another lesson for the kids), we expect to basically be taken as an order. Orders can be questioned within reason and clarification and alternatives can always be suggested, but we expect our kids to do what we’ve required of them. This perhaps sounds tough to some, but the importance of the heading comes into play here — when you yield great power over someone, you have an equally great responsibility to exercise it well.

In a romantic relationship, it’s a slightly different perspective, but the same general concept. Any relationship like that should ideally be one of equals. The phrase “wearing the pants in the family” is one of my pet peeves and to me underlines much of what can go wrong in a relationship. Despite what you may have heard, in a healthy relationship there is not a “top” or “bottom” to use rather direct phrasing. Two much better phrases come to my mind when it comes to relationships:

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. – Karl Marx

Be liberal in what you accept, and conservative in what you send. – Jon Postel (Postel’s Law)

The first is straight up Marxism, and a healthy relationship between two people is about the only place it can actually work 😉 The second is from Jon Postel, one of the founders of the Internet, talking about best common practice in network communication – but it applies remarkably well to many types of communication. To tie it in to what I was discussing earlier – ideally in a relationship, each of you finds that right balance between self-identity and serving the common purpose of the relationship — there’s no room for power plays or one seeking to push authority over the other. And that also applies to how you communicate – be liberal in what you accept (meaning you shouldn’t place limits on how you’re communicated with) and conservative in what you send (meaning think before you speak).

And that brings me to the end of what is likely an unnecessarily long piece — but these are just some of the things I’ve learned from being both a husband and father. As I said at the beginning, I don’t believe you have to be in a committed relationship or have kids to be a complete person, but I do know that for me, I didn’t become the person I wanted to be until I had. Many people probably learn this stuff in other ways or don’t learn it even after having been a spouse or parent, but I thank my wife and kids for teaching me.

Walking on Water

Apple Computer. Barack Obama.

Wondering where I’m going with this? What do these two have in common? High expectations . . . I would even venture to say, extraordinarily high expectations. Perhaps even unreasonably high expectations?

I am 40-years old and I was around for the original Mac vs. PC war, if you can even call it that. Apple was Betamax to Microsoft’s VHS (see, I told you – even my metaphors are old) — a technically superior alternative that seemed to never get the traction it deserved (and yes, I know that Betamax went on to a long life in professional video circles, but it disappeared out of people’s homes). Steve Jobs was thrown-over for a guy famous for selling sugar water. Apple languished, even having to rely on it’s old enemy Microsoft for a deal to help it limp along. Then Jobs came back, the iPod came out, OS X came out, it switched to Intel processors, and then came the iPhone. Suddenly Apple was not only a going concern, it was profitable, it was leading not just one industry, but several. Apple users could hold their heads high once again. Now of course, they also have the iPad, which if you count it as a computer (which I certainly do), has lead Apple to not only be successful, but the single largest manufacturer of computers in the US.

So when Apple devoted their homepage to advertising a big announcement yesterday, the rumor mill started grinding away with fresh fervor. A music streaming cloud service? An iOS update? Something that they’d managed to slip by everyone until now? Beatles on iTunes? Wait, what?! The Beatles haven’t been a band for decades, half the members of the band are no longer with us – how the hell could adding their music to iTunes be relevant or considered important by anyone? Then the Wall Street Journal broke the actual story last night – the announcement was going to be about the Beatles coming to iTunes.

This morning, as the official word came down from Cupertino, I saw my Twitter stream fill with reaction — most of which seemed to be landing on a spectrum of emotional response somewhere between “meh” to “Oh, come on, who cares?”

Well, as it happens, I do. I will likely buy some of the Beatles songs – I have my vinyl collection, and somehow never seemed to get around to buying the CDs, and because I believe in supporting artists (even those as rich as Sir Paul), I don’t pirate music. But that’s not the reason I really care. The reason I care are my kids —  my 8 year-old son and my 2 year-old daughter. I seriously doubt either of them will ever buy a CD. To them, it’s already a technology dinosaur. My son’s iPod Nano is filled with music that I’ve put on there for him – hundreds and hundreds of songs across multiple genres and from multiple eras. My son likes Johnny Cash and Tom Petty just as much as Bowling For Soup and They Might Be Giants. And I want him, and his sister, to experience the Beatles as well.

The Beatles were progenitors of so much that has happened in music, from their start 50 years ago. They were only together as a band for 10 years! And yet everyone knows who they are, and they are an influence, in one way or another, of pretty much anyone who has ever picked up an instrument and wanted to play a song for somebody else.

Will the Beatles being on iTunes change the face of computing, technology, music, or anything else? No. But will it mean that the generation of my kids and all the generations after them will have a better chance to discover something wonderful? I think so. As Jon Stewart has spent a bit of time alluding to recently, the current environment for public debate and news is an overheated, blazing ball of hot air that somehow manages to shed no light on anything. Have we become so jaded that everything has to rise to a messiah-returning-level to even get 15 seconds of our attention? We’re like baseball fans suddenly wanting our team to hit every pitch out of the ballpark with the bases somehow magically loaded for each at bat.

And that brings me to poor President Obama. Much has been made of the shift of power on the Hill to the GOP and the rise of the Tea Party. Will Obama pull a Clinton and seek to “triangulate” his way forward? Or will he pull an FDR, who said the following in 1936 as he ran for re-election:

“We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace — business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. … Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today.  They are unanimous in their hate for me. And I welcome their hatred!

Hmm, that certainly seems rather fitting, doesn’t? As a Democrat, and as a progressive, I hope against hope that he chooses the path of FDR. But I also know that is not the type of man Obama is. And that’s okay. I supported him early on in the primaries against Hillary Clinton because I believed he was a liberal pragmatist, a.k.a a progressive, and I voted for him in the general election, not because I believed he was some sort of liberal messiah who would guide us to the socialist promised land, but because after 8 years of Dullard-in-Chief, I wanted a President who was thoughtful and considered in his responses. I wanted a President that would not only lead, but would lead by example.

Am I 100-percent happy with Obama’s term so far? No, I’m not. But do I think there is anyone out there who could have done better? No — and I still believe he’s the best person to have in the Oval Office right now and for the next six years. To all my fellow travelers within the liberal wing of the Democratic Party who have been bitching and moaning about Obama and will he or won’t he cave on X or Y, I ask the following: Did you think that the work towards the country you want ended on Election Day 2008? Did we elect Obama to carry us forward or to give us the opportunity to move ourselves forward? Where were you when the Democrats on the Hill were adding flotsam and jetsam to health care reform? Where was your approbation when the Democratically-controlled Senate sat on its hands as the House passed bill after bill that would have created jobs, true financial reform or a national green energy policy? Where were your howls of frustration that both the House and the Senate could not overturn DADT or that they refused to allow Obama to close Guantanamo Bay?

In short, while he is President, Obama is still just one man, and leads just a third of the federal government. Will he AND the Democrats on the Hill need to compromise to move anything through Congress? Undoubtedly. But is that a sign of failure? Compromise has become a dirty word in Washington and indeed across the country, but the only way to move forward as a country is to compromise. No defeat or victory is ever the last in politics, no matter how much the 24/7 noise I mean “news” machine builds it up. To go back to my baseball analogy, be happy when we get on base and don’t boo whenever it isn’t a home run.

So that’s how I see Apple and Obama linked — by a shared perception that anything less than “insanely great” equals failure. It’s a fine narrative for the media to use to fill in the spaces between ads, but it’s not reality.

I mean, come on, it’s not like anyone is claiming to be bigger than Jesus, right? 😉

In the pink

Pink. Some months prior to August 2008 I knew it was going to be an issue. That was when my wife and I found out that the second child we were expecting was going to be a girl. I was not at all upset about my child’s gender – I was looking forward eagerly to having a daughter. What I was not looking forward to was that invasive, washed out, insipid, omnipresent tint known as “Pink.”

Bridget - age 2 months

Now, to be absolutely clear, I have nothing against pink as a color choice by responsible (or irresponsible) adults. It’s pretty on flowers, striking on certain people, and with Valentine’s Day, it practically has a whole holiday all to itself. What I object to is its use in imprinting certain assumptions, indeed an entire cultural bias, on girls (and secondarily on boys as well).

Those who know me well, or even probably just in passing, are aware that I object to a great many things with a certain display of passion and dare I say it . . . verve (no one uses that word anymore, I’m singlehandedly bringing it back). But that’s generally just  a sort of background kvetching that I do as automatically as breathing. Pink on the other hand brings on a cold-silent anger I generally reserve for great societal inequities or deeply personal slights, and that can occasionally precursor a beserker-type rage that my Celtic and Norse ancestors would totally relate to.

The question many of you have right about now is “Why get so worked up?” and in my experience of discussing this, that’s usually followed by something like “It’s harmless.” or “Girls look pretty in pink” or my personal favorite “Well, if the baby doesn’t wear pink, how can people tell that she’s a girl?”

And that answers my question. Pink is harmless. Pink is pretty. Pink = female. I do not want my daughter growing up thinking the feminine ideal is to be harmless and pretty. However, when I make my opinions known, I get the hey-get-a-load-of-the-crazy-guy stares (or at least more than usual) and then awkwardly ignored for a while. But as it turns out, there is some interesting information that backs-up my point.

First, we’ll start off with a little infographic that was the inspiration to finally write this piece – titled Colours in Cultures, it shows how certain cultures associate colors with emotions/concepts/ideas. It’s a beautiful piece in and of itself (so much so, it was picked as the cover illustration for the book Information is Beautiful (UK) ) and what comes across is the differences and similarities and how it all flows across cultural lines. With a few exceptions, Anger seems to always be red and Truce seems to always be white. Likewise, without exception Hot is red and Cold is blue. Some things like Death are associated with 4 different colors.

So who associates pink and female? Well according to the graph (based on a number of sources), item 27 “Femininity” is pink in Western/American culture . . . and nowhere else. In fact, no other culture listed has a color for “Femininity”. And no culture, including Western/American has a color listed for “Masculinity” – now that may be an oversight by the authors, as certainly the pink/blue dichotomy in current western culture is pretty strong, especially for babies. But you know what, the link between blue and boys is a weak, nebulous one at best compared to pink/girls.

As I said, our daughter is our second child. Our first is my now eight-year old son. And from starting with him as a newborn to him being the ginormous kid he is now, he’s had many outfits that contained the color blue, he also had many that didn’t. No one questioned it, or even remarked on it. But nearly 90-percent (and may actually be closer to 95-percent) of the outfits we’ve been given for my daughter contain pink. You go to the store and you can often not even find clothes that don’t contain some pink. I’m sorry, but this simply cannot be healthy.

I had to wonder when this started, and after some really lackadaisical, cursory research, I discovered who was to blame. NAZIS! That’s right, just like Indy, I hate those guys. As it turns out, the whole pink=girl and blue=boy didn’t really come about until the 1950’s (Gainsborough’s Blue Boy notwithstanding, as there was a companion painting of a boy in pink).

Let me throw some quotes at you:

“There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” [Ladies Home Journal, June, 1918]

Notice the date on that — 1918. But what about the NAZIS you ask? I’m getting to it. A web-page entitled helpfully enough “Historical Boy’s Clothing” has the following:

“Catholic traditions in Germany and neighboring countries reverse the current color coding, because of the strong association of blue with the Virgin Mary…the NAZIs in their concentration camps use a pink triangle to identify homosexuals. The NAZI’s choice of pink suggests that it by the 1930s was a color that in Germany had become associate with girls.”

And going even further back, say pre-Regency England, babies just wore white and there does not seem to be any specific color associated with either gender. In fact, gender identification of anyone before they were older than 5 used to be somewhat unusual. Some references mention that babies and young children were not referred to by “he” or “she,” merely by “it.” (and no, that doesn’t strike me as ideal either) So do your own research if you don’t believe me, but it doesn’t appear that there is any long history or *shudder* natural law that these color associations exist.

I also found the following quote, poorly attributed, so I can’t pass along a good source, but it does reasonably address the timing of this:

“Battleship gray, navy and military khaki ruled during World War II. But once the war ended, so did the somber tones that reflected those serious years of deprivation, and color made a comeback. Having replaced men in wartime industries, Rosie the Riveter of the ’40s returned to being Susie Homemaker in the ’50s. Reflecting the “pink-is-for-girls-mom-in-the-kitchen-father-knows-best” mentality,she was admonished to “think pink” – to wear pink lipstick, drive a pink car, or buy pink household appliances – all of which was reinforced by an all-pink sequence in the classic Audrey Hepburn Technicolor film, Funny Face. The quintessential icon of femininity, Barbie, was born and much of the time, she wore pink.”

So who is finally to blame? I can’t really blame the Nazis as much as I’d like to. And no, I won’t blame Audrey Hepburn or even Barbie (she’s an effect, not a cause — much like Sarah Palin). No, if it started in the 50s as a pop-culture trend, there is generally only one place to put the blame – advertising execs. Women had money and made many of the purchasing decisions, so some ad execs got the bright idea that if they color-coded advertising and products to appeal to women, they’d create a visual brand that let women know “this is for you, buy it” and it probably just snowballed from there.

What’s the harm in pink? Well, there’s always the fact that it’s just a marketing scheme that continues to be pushed down our throats by people interested in selling us crap for our kids. But honestly my biggest issue is that it reinforces for girls (and when I say that, I really mean my daughter, because she’s the only one that matters on a gut level) the idea that the most important identity she can claim is her gender. The ever-present pink tells girls, no matter what you do, you can never just be the best doctor, lawyer, President — you’ll always just be the best female doctor, the best female lawyer, the best female President.

This offends me on a deep emotional level. I saw my mother elected to the Virginia state legislature in 1985 – a woman who had been a stay-at-home mom and who had not completed college, went on to start her own business and got involved in politics because she wanted to change things. Of course none of that stopped the “boys” in Richmond from calling her “honey” – despite the fact it was quickly apparent she was one of the smartest, most able legislators to come along in quite a while. She went on to be elected to the U.S. Congress as the first women elected from Virginia in 1992. And because she was opinionated and smart, she got a reputation for being “difficult” or “abrasive” — or at least that’s what was said publicly. In private, she was “bitchy.” Universally though, I’ve never heard anyone refer to her as a lightweight or disparage her skills as a politician or legislator.  My mother has never let anything other than her intellect, her skills, and her actions and personality define her. She’s not a great female politician, she’s just a great politician, period. No other modifiers needed or wanted.

I feel that how pink is currently used is the antithesis of that. It says, just by the sheer weight of its presence in their lives, you are a girl first, and everything else second. You must conform to the pink ideal, or you are somehow damaged or outre. It makes my skin crawl — especially as it literally starts from the day they are born.

Bridget - age 20 months. Notice how well I

Again, I have no problem with pink as a color. What I object to is the nonstop marketing barrage that is what pink means in terms of identifying what items in a store are for girls. I want my girl to be able to play with trucks if she wants to and not get strange looks. Just like I want my son to be able to enjoy cooking and not have people thinking it’s effeminate.

One of my favorite quotes of all time is this one by Robert Heinlein:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

This is just as applicable for women as it is for men. Notice Heinlein, hardly a feminist, didn’t differentiate between men and women in the quote – he specifically and quite intentionally used “human being.” Now I’ve done quite a few of these items listed and I hope, if needed, I could follow through on the others. But it’s not about the specifics of the list, it’s about the ideal behind it – accept no limits on what you can do; there is no boundary between you and anything anyone else can do and it is up to you to push yourself. That is the lesson I want to teach both my son and my daughter.

Pink feels like it gets in the way of that most the time. It says – “Here’s the girl world” and by its absence, there’s everything else. I totally get teenage girls and women using pink as a badge of empowerment though – but that’s a conscious choice arrived at by a maturing or mature mind. And I don’t think women or girls should not wear pink or cut it out of their lives — as with everything else in life, it’s a choice and for the 3 billion – 1 females on the planet, it’s not a choice I have any input on.

But for that 1, for my daughter, I want her options to be as unbounded as they are for her brother. I want her future to be uncolored (as it were) by biases in the thinking of others, or those created in her own mind by a culture that sometimes seems obsessed with pigeonholing everything and everyone. I never want her to think “I’m a girl, I can’t do that.” So I’ll put up with people thinking I’m crazy, and I’ll put up with the eye-rolls every time I complain about an outfit she’s been given having pink in it, and I’ll even put up with her being embarrassed about it when she’s older and I’m still holding forth on the subject.

I’m her Dad – that’s my job.

One credit I forgot to give when I first posted this was @UberDorkGirlie whom I follow on Twitter. She also has a blog and reading her post about pink some weeks ago was definitely one of the wedges that finally pried this piece out of me!