Monday, June 30, 2008

The Female Brain

I sat in Joseph-Beth's on Sunday morning power reading The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, M.D.

Basically you can boil down the book to one thing: Hormones made me do it.

And while I pretty much agree that estrogen, testosterone, oxytocin and progesterone run our lives, it's always disappointing to read. For instance, as far as midlife goes, Brizendine lays it down. Women, who were wired to nurture, love, put their families ahead of themselves, who avoid conflict for the sake of familial harmony as young women (20's-early 40's), "flip" to a "me first" mentality around perimenopause partly due to the change in hormone levels!

... it is all down to Mother Nature unplugging the "mummy part" of the female brain which she does by reducing the supply of hormones which promote maternal, caring, peace-promoting instincts. ... this change comes about with the menopause - the last big hormonal change - after which the brain is no longer subjected to the surges and fluctuating hormones which came with the menstrual cycle and resulting in moodiness, depression and even the ability to see insults when they were not intended.

... throughout the child-bearing years, the female brain is marinated in oestrogen - a hormone which effects the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, the emotional processor and emotional assessment and judgement area of her brain. The effect of this heightens a woman's communication and emotional circuits, giving rise to those maternal instincts which tend, care and do the best they can to avoid conflict to give the family unit the best possible chance of survival.

The menopause ... puts an end to the fluctuating hormone levels and with it comes a much more stable brain and a less maternal woman. A woman who, says Brizendine, is "less worried about pleasing others and now wants to please herself" and that may mean taking on new challenges or a new job and leaving the old life, including her husband, behind.
She added that 65% of the divorces occurring in midlife (aged 40 or older) are initiated by the wives!

This sudden need to find ourselves, to get out of the kitchen and into the world, our impatience with dependency of children, the intolerance for our husband's narcissistic habits might be tied as much to hormones (maybe more) than just co-dependency and dysfunctional childhoods, forgetting to go to the gym and not running businesses or cultivating hobbies.

It also hit me that if hormones have that much power, is it important to not make big decisions while in the throes of hormonal flux and assault? Or does it matter? What do you think?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Chris Botti... sexy as hell

Girlfriend music. That's what it is. Last night in Kettering ("The middle of nowhere in Ohio," as Botti put it), Chris Botti's trumpet soared. He lubricated the crowd with compliments, telling us that while he had played Carnegie Hall two nights ago and Montreal the night before, The Fraze outside of Dayton is his favorite touring venue.

Despite threatening clouds, the weather held, including some refreshing breezes perfectly timed for those moments when women wanted to lean into their dates a little closer. Botti isn't just a great jazz trumpet player either. Turns out he's quite the story teller. He treated us to the history of Miles Davis's "Kind of Blue" album before playing one of the songs, he talked about Leonard Cohen before playing "Hallelujah," the theme song from Shrek 1. He thanked the pope for the royalties he's drawing off his current hit from new CD "Italia": Ave Maria (the opener).

Botti joked with the audience freely, seemed perfectly at ease and humble about his recent success. He stood aside for lengthy solos by his ridiculously competent band members. Botti told us that Google brought he and his drummer together. His sole goal at the time was to find a drummer "good enough to piss Sting off" since they were touring together. Apparently, he succeeded. This drummer isn't just skilled, he has a drummer's wit, leading the audience along with quiet, patient beats and then suddenly speeding up, throwing a stick, twirling them. A real showman.

Botti sported a shiny brown blazer and dark jeans. Lights were kind to him. He calls himself "the palest guy to ever play jazz trumpet." His blue eyes glow.

The whole evening felt like a short trip to Italy, in fact, from cabernet to his rendition of the theme to "Cinema Paradiso." His trumpet-playing has this purity in sound, both soft and powerful, clear and resonant, emotional. So beautiful! Who knew trumpets could be so sensual? Ahhhh.

Friday, June 27, 2008


Yesterday I demonstrated that I do not have "the gift of helps." I volunteered weeks ago to bring a meal to the Obama HQ once the volunteers got into the swing of phone-calling and list-making. One of those phone calls consulted a made list and my name was upon it, hence I was called upon to supply the meal I had promised.

Now being female and a church-goer most of my adult life (female a bit longer than that, actually), I know all about the "make a meal" gig. It's just what we females do.

Unfortunately, I'm not one of those females who can also figure out how to get that meal for 25 made without also obliterating the kitchen. I planned a simple pasta salad (which could also be easily adapted into a three person vegetarian version for the left wing vegetarian volunteers), brownies, watermelon, salad and baguettes. Seriously, no coc au vin, or anything equally sexy. Just straight forward food.

Yet you'd think I had offered to bring a six course Parisian feast. I spent half the afternoon slamming cupboards in search of one large-ish Tupperware that suddenly "went missing" and I was convinced my family had conspired against me in one last attempt to coerce me to remodel the kitchen so that lids and bottoms would finally have a logical resting place. (If we hide the Tupperware she needs, maybe she will finally agree that this system of "close the doors fast so nothing falls out" is Not. Working.)

In any event, the missing Tupperware turned out to be housing Wii controllers (a use I put it to months ago, I had to sheepishly admit).

I went through about ten various sized Tupperware containers, cursing under my breath loud enough to get Jon to offer to drive to the store to buy me new ones (!). That shamed me out of my ridiculousness. I wound up putting it all in a big roasting pan with aluminum foil to cover.

Drove the stuff 20 miles to the office and found a rare parking spot right in front of Obama's red, white and blue face. Walked through the glass doors to be greeted by Obama himself, in life-sized cardboard. I announced to no one in particular that I had food! For dinner! A red-headed, white kid leaped from his station in one bound to help me unload the van. Hungry much?

Tony, the older gentleman who handles all janitorial work for the office, assured me that he personally would see to it that my utensils were returned to me and no one else. "Don't trust them young'uns ma'am. I gotchu covered." We giggled as we surveyed the room of barely-out-of-pimples workers hunched over laptops and telephones.

Spencer, my primary canvassing leader, has become the head cheese at the HQ (though he can't be more than 23). He yelled to me cuz we're BFFs now. I chatted up a few of the team members, we talked about the rising poll numbers for Barack and the good efforts everyone's putting in. At the exit, I nearly kissed that cut-out (swear he's hawt, that Obama man) and the equally middle-aged woman at the front desk agreed that it was tempting. She'd thought about it herself! (Are we all hopelessly flirty in our forties?)

I got it done. Dinner. For 25. Despite the absence of adequate Tupperware. Team Obama (the aggressively seeking volunteers staff) wanted me to make a weekly commitment to dinner. Uh... no. I think I'll do it when the mood and Tupperware strike me. In the meantime, I'm seriously thinking of getting myself an Obama life-sized paper doll. You know. For the campaign!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

So what do you believe now?

That question is one I don't get asked as often as you might think.

One of my best friends, for instance, has staunchly defended me when I've been targeted as theologically dangerous. Yet she's never actually probed to find out what I believe today.

I told her once, "Please feel free to ask me anything. I don't mind sharing."

She replied, "I like you. I trust you. I don't ask because I don't really want to know. If you share something that I find contradictory to my beliefs, I don't want that to change how I feel about you. I don't know if it would. So I figure it doesn't really matter if I know."

I appreciated that point of view, actually. Mature and kind. And the truth is, my changed beliefs do impact my friendships adversely sometimes.

Still on the occasions where I've been asked, I do a profoundly poor (stunningly bad, inadequate, impoverished) job of answering that question. I fumble, mumble, stumble over big words and ideas, and offer something really lame like, "Well, I'm Christian, but not a Christian any more." Whatever that means.

On Monday, my therapist tackled the big question. What do you believe now? Do you have a Higher Power, anything from which to draw strength or help you define your purpose? Timing made sense. I was crying over things I can't change, won't change and what those patterns have cost me... maybe for good.

She flipped through her notes.

"You were an ardent Christian at one point in time. But you say now that you aren't. How is that for you? What is your spiritual life like now?"

"Religion, feh!"

She laughed. "I didn't ask you about religion."

Oh for the love of Schleiermacher! Hello. I tap-danced, sandwich-boarded, and Four-lawed that script: Knowing God is about personal relationship, not religion. Faith is about spirituality not religious practice.

But I knew she was broadening the search. What about Buddhism?

Ack! Sorry. Can't get into it. Something about saffron yellow robes and vegetarianism. When I read Buddhist writings, it's that hard-working place of foreign language learning all over again. Nothing familiar, strange accent, translation required. No peace.

Yoga works for me because it's the body not the mind, not even the spirit (though my yoga instructor might say otherwise). I just yield to it and stop processing. The readings are grounded in the real, not the virtual. I can do that.

Weirdly, I do attend church. Started up a couple of months ago. Downtown, inner city black church. I don't blog about it because it's not a project, it's a place for me to be in community. I do love it.

But the bottom line is, I don't have beliefs, I don't have relationship (with God), I don't have spiritual practices. And I don't want them.

For years Jesus stood in the gap when pain mounted, when I couldn't get the love I craved the way I craved it. I worshiped, sang, prayed my heart out, wrote thousands of pages of prayers and love notes, studied the Bible like my life depended on it (and in some very real ways it did). But the bottom dropped out.

I'm not in a search for meaning, for guidance, for principles, for tangible support outside myself (and I mean that humbly... I'm not relying on myself either; I'm bobbing along like a cork on the vast sea of life, letting life itself, and all of my interconnections developed over a lifetime, support me).

My mother prays for me.

My church prays and I hold the hands of the ladies in hats who sit by me and pray with them.

I find myself praying at the oddest moments... in the shower, sometimes in the dark at night, often in the supermarket when I'm alone. I usually laugh while I pray because I don't believe in what I'm praying or saying. It's reflexive. And comforting. And habit.

And helps.

And is a waste of time.

God from below is like that. It's not a head thing. Not even really a heart thing for me. It's more like dirt. Soil, out of which I grow.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


One of the interesting things about moving to the mid-west is the reaction people have to the word "therapy." Suspicion (what's wrong with you?), accounts of how unhelpful therapy was for X situation, skepticism (does it really make any difference anyway?), concerns about the money it costs, fears of quackery, and so on. Meanwhile in California, even the therapists have therapists! So yeah, I grew up assuming therapy was for the regular person wanting help, not just those at the edge of despair.

However, I have been to that edge. And therapy definitely helped.

I paged through some old journals of mine last week. An interesting passage jumped out at me. At a particularly dark period in our early marriage (when the ghosts of poor parenting past were rearing their heads in my marriage with Jon), both Jon and I went to therapy every week, individually, to the same therapist. At that time, we were missionaries, returned from the field for intervention. We came crawling home to California with bruises and skinned knees sure that something had to change for me to go back.

I wrote after about nine months into this program of therapeutic support and nurture that I couldn't figure out how Christianity helped hurting people like me, like Jon. It seemed to me that prayer, accountability, reading the Bible, going to church, taking classes about marriage, trying hard to follow the Bible's principles (however I understood them at the time), didn't add up to much in the way of real change in our habits of behavior, nor did any of these address the core dysfunctions that painfully played themselves out between us. In fact, I concluded, therapy seemed far more effective than anything I had encountered in my faith to that point. I admitted on those pages: I don't see how an ideology or spiritual practices actually create change in people. I couldn't see that the Holy Spirit did much of anything and yet we were attending a charismatic church, fully believing in that transforming power.

Perhaps due to my shock at having written such faithless words, I followed up those honest thoughts with, "But I'm sure that it is God behind the therapy that must be healing me."

Still, it felt eerie to read those words last week, over 20 years later.

I'm in therapy again. I call it a "mid-life tune up." It's not exactly that there are such huge obstacles to overcome. Nothing nearly as dire as my twenties when I felt like my world was caving in and taking me with it. Rather, I'm just stunned by the ship-wrecking marriages around me. I'm not stunned as in, "I don't understand." On the contrary, I totally get it! Marriages of 20+ years develop habits and patterns that become wearying burdens, deeply debilitating in ways unanticipated in the 20's and 30's. A feeling of futility sets in, a wondering at the future (how much longer can I do this? why would I keep doing this? I only get one life... is this how I want it to be? can I really forgive him or her for unfaithfulness? and so on).

The prospect of children moving out, leaving husband and wife home alone... well that leads many to the brink too. There's also the sudden awareness of self - like who am I? What did I want? Did I get it? What do I want now?

After my trip to California, it became clear to me that mid-life needs more than energy drinks, trips to the gym and hobbies. I want to be conscientious about the next 20 years... to imagine what it is to thrive, to watch the kids grow up and leave, to pay attention to my choices now so that I'm not unhappy about them later, to keep the relationship between Jon and me healthy and on track.

I've been going for a couple of months now. And I just have to say: I love it. Well, I love it the way you love teeth filling or weeding the yard or throwing up when you're sick. I love the effect more than the process... but I find that the process helps too.

I've begun journaling again (which is why you see less blogging). I've been paying more attention to what I think about and why. I'm 46. Mid-life is real. Mid-life crisis - I want to avert it if at all possible.

Obama Gathering: West Chester

FYI: Jon and I are hosting an Obama Gathering in West Chester this Saturday night at 7:00 p.m. If you'd like to come, email me: juliecinci AT gmail DOT com. I'll send you details, location etc.

Our goal for the event is to create some momentum in Cincinnati (especially our outlying burbs) for the senator. Hope you can make it!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Firefox 3.0: Hate the lack of colors and white space


Yes, the Awesome Bar is "awesome," I guess. I'm non-committal. If awesome is ever just "okay" and "somewhat awesome" then that name works... I suppose, maybe.

But I hate that the tabs are grey with black type: can't see the titles without lasik eye surgery! I hate that the cute little refresh, history and stop buttons are black/grey without the cool colorful look of the previous Firefox. The whole thing reminds me of Netscape Navigator from eons ago... or the current Safari, which is one Apple program I'd like to take out back for a visit with the belt in my hand.

I do think the "Clipmarks" thingy is made of awesome. :) So glad someone thought of that. My one praise for the new version.

Sigh. I want color! I want white space!

I want, I want! When I get something free off the Internet that is supposed to improve my life, I expect it to be all that, all about me and perfect. Is that too much to ask?

Friday, June 20, 2008

What a week!

I'm going to run down through the events that kept me off the blog this week, in the order they occur to me.

1. Tiger wins the US Open with two fractures and a torn ACL eliciting the highest TV ratings for daytime TV on a Monday both for cable and network TV. All those conspiracy theorists were silenced; Tiger really doesn't fake pain for sympathy or strategy. Why am I not surprised? Jason Sobel ranks Tiger's wins putting this Open number 2 behind the 1997 Master's. But when Tiger was asked if the Open was his greatest win, he said, "Yes."

I will sorely miss him for the rest of the season. I have Carson Palmer palpitations too - that nervousness for his knee's future.

2. Lakers get blown away in Game Six. But Kevin Garnett's teary-eyed delirious interview with Michelle Tafoya erased any loyalty I had to the Lakers. To see Kevin's pride in the Celtics' achievement was worth the west coast's humiliation. (And may I just add that I have a girl crush on Michelle? Is she not the best court-side, side-line, clubhouse interviewer in sports? And such a great voice!)

3. Jon's best friend in L.A. called to say his wife left him three weeks ago. Ugh.

4. Noah turned 21! He and his gf Amanda spent the evening celebrating with us. We bought the nearly sold-out Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition Box Set for him. Check out this hilarious article from Wired to get a feel for how the reactions to this newest version are hitting fans. (All message board addicts will recognize the archetypes!)

5. Johannah taught us how to eat vegan (or at least, how to eat her vegan brownies... which tasted really good!).

6. Jacob went on his first date (took his girl to a park for a picnic that he prepared all by himself... romantic that he is).

7. Caitrin spent the week at SOS (Summer of Service) at the local Vineyard. They assemble 800 sweaty kids from around the states to attack Cincinnati with love by handing out water bottles, washing cars for free, building house frames for Habitat for Humanity, and buying lunches spontaneously at places like Arby's for customers because God told them to. Yeah it's a nice way for kids to spend a week. I could do without all the hyper spirituality that seems to go along with it. Apparently this set of kids is convinced they are THE generation, the "generation of revelation," the one that the Lord will really use this time with signs and wonders, Hallelujah! Strange thing is: I thought MY generation was that one... Guess apostasy thwarted the big plan.

8. Liam is baby-sitting the cutest ferret to ever cross our threshold (well, and yes, the only one). Up, down, in, out, poking his long nose and slinky body into all the crevices of Liam's room. This furry girl is like a living Redwall character. Given Liam's obsession with that novel series, it's not surprising he's head-over-heels in love with this little doll. I have a hunch I know what he'll want for his 14th birthday in just over a month.

9. Jackie O meet Michelle O. Apparently Michelle's off-the-rack dress made quite a splash on The View. It sold out in stores and online within 24 hours.

And some people still think McCain has a chance to win....

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Tiger Woods for President!

Oh wait... well, it's just I'm so caught up in emotionalism and the hype, the sense that Tiger is the greatest man today, based on his two eagles and that ridiculous birdie, and the crowds cheering... I just imagined that all that drama and emotion must mean that Tiger Woods should be president! At least, that's what I've been told. Excitement is emotionalism is validation of qualification which leads inexorably to voting.

In any event (in any golfing, football, primary campaign), just wow!!! Those last six holes of the third round, with Tiger grimacing in pain because of his slowly recovering knee, wincing away from the camera, walking up the fairways like an old man, while holing an 80 foot putt, a chip in birdie (as it obeyed the flag pole, dropping into the cup where all Tiger highlight shots are meant to go) and a final 18th hole eagle from 30 feet to take sole possession of the lead... well, if you love golf, and you love drama: today you got both! What a day!

So off to bed for me.

I won't be surprised at all to find out that by morning, Tiger is running for president, and Obama is playing his final round... They are both just stand out guys who do what they do extraordinarily well and never cease to surprise and inspire me.

Obama Campaign Calls on Volunteers

to assist in the flooded areas of the midwest. Using his donor list as well as the community blogs and his website, Team Obama is marshaling its people power to help out in the most vulnerable communities.

Read the letter emailed to the local donors here.
...the folks in Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri, Illinois, Nebraska and Kansas are not only dealing with the floods but have been devastated by the worst tornado season we've had in 10 years.
If you live locally, please respond. The rest of us can go to the Obama website and donate to the Red Cross.

What a decent thing to do in the middle of fund-raising for your own campaign. I read at DKos that Obama will be sandbagging in Quincy IL along with the rest of the volunteer team. When I signed onto the Obama campaign, I hoped by putting Obama in office, we the people would matter in government, in helping each other across communities. I'm a bit shell-shocked that that possibility is already being realized and it's only June!

Friday, June 13, 2008

True Love Waits: Read my butt

So this article at Huffington Post just cracked me up. Apparently K-Mart is cashing in on the chastity, abstinence craze by promoting sweat pants with the words "True Love Waits" sluttily-embroidered across the tush.

Uh huh. I suppose that's putting the message where it's most likely to get attention... or perhaps it's a tease... postmodern irony? "True love waits until you yank down my pants?"

There is a way to recover from the absurdity of the "true love waits" campaign.

1) Toss your "Preparing for Adolescence" tapes. Outdated, and Dr. D gets just the teensiest angry when he reminds youngsters how hell-ward bound they are if they cross that most important moral line of all: abandoning the poor. I'm not sure what he thinks about sex.

2) Buy your kids multiple promise rings so that they can reclaim their virginity a couple of times, if needed.

Or you could follow the advice of a sensible friend of mine, an RN for the last 25 years.

I have not yet used this plan because I found out about it a little late. Our kids tell me they already know what to do and when and why and what not to do and why not, "And Mom I'm not stupid!" If my kids were younger and our family wasn't right smack in the middle of teens years and "Will and Grace" reruns, I might have done it.

Still I throw it out for those of you who still have time.

Buy some condoms and put them in a basket under your bathroom sink. Tell your kids where they are (no need to explain how to use them - the Internet and TV sit coms have taken care of that). Let them know that they have no excuse not to use them because they are here, free, and Mom and Dad will never ask you about them or whether or not you used them.

Then, of course, you can have the big talk about intimacy, STDs, pregnancy, too many partners, and so on, with the aim of dissuading early sexual activity but not promoting irresponsible sex. (Ask me how many homeschooled girls I know who've gotten pregnant on "true love waits.")

You might also want to throw in some comments about orgasm, sexual arousal, passion, and the fun of sex too. After all, it is and they figure that out.

Or you could just buy the sweats. Same diff, right?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Lakers choke: Blow a 24 pt lead

Seriously. Why watch? Basketball is so volatile. I only watch when the Lakers are in it as we grew up on the Lakers. But this is just shameful. How do you blow a 24 pt. lead at home in the play-offs?

...Unless perhaps, Boston just is a better team! Sure as hell looks like it. Their defense made the Lakers look like they'd poured cement in their sneakers for the whole second half.

And then there's Tiger at the US Open: double bogeying, twice. But he is cool as a cucumber saying,
"To make two double bogeys and a three-putt and only be four back, that's a great position to be in, because I know I can clean that up tomorrow," Woods said after his first competitive round since the Masters.
Yeah, well, let's see.

I'm just glad I don't have a baseball team to root for. I need until August to lower my blood pressure.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

25 years ago

Zaire, 1983
I spent a summer in what was then called Zaire back in 1983. I joined a group of college kids led by Campus Crusade for Christ to show the Jesus Film in remote villages. The experience of that summer remains one of the most powerful in my memory. There was something about Africa: jungly, wild, unwilling to be American yet the Zairois (as they were called) were fascinated by our money, our privilege, our ability to leave at will.

We Campus Crusaders slept in huts with bats in them, we made beef stew with grizzled meat, a few carrots and potatoes and tomato paste over an open flame in a big black pot. We recruited villagers to watch the film by parading past little huts, marching through the dirt, holding signs. We'd draw children like magnets.

Many nights, I'd look up at the most starry sky I'd ever seen, watching the moon, amazed that it was the same moon I knew in smoggy Los Angeles. I've never felt so far away from the world I knew as I did in Africa.

I still remember how to say "God is good" in Lingala: Nzambe Malamu.

The people were good, and sneaky, and friendly, and under privileged, and desperate, and content, and so interesting to me. I never got enough of them.

Africa got under my skin.

Our team of college kids helped to paint and upgrade the Crusade HQ during days and weeks between outings to the bush. I got to know the staff pretty well because I spoke French, unlike the rest of the kids (got to a level of fluency I haven't duplicated since). Staff kids played with dirt clods, sticks and tire rims and bits of broken plastic. The two boys in this photograph were staff kids. They begged me to scoop them up, so I did, and one of my friends grabbed my camera and "clicked" the shot. One take. Perfect timing.

The photo hangs in my bathroom. Every day I see it in reverse reflection in the mirror as I put on my make-up. Makes me miss Zaire, that world. I also miss the "me" in that photo. The summer of 1983 represents a time in my life when I handled myself independently, when I stretched myself to do and be without reference to other people. I was as fully myself as I could be at that point in time.

In August 1983, when I boarded the plane to exit Kinshasa (capital) and head back to Europe, I remember thinking: before I know it, it will be 25 years and I will not have been back and I'll miss Zaire, wondering why I never returned. Shore 'nuff.

Where were you 25 years ago? Do you miss it?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Last night at yoga, my instructor read the following reading. It spoke to me - that safety lies in letting it all in. I share it with you today.


There is no controlling life.
Try corralling a lightning bolt,
containing a tornado. Dam a
stream, and it will create a new
channel. Resist, and the tide
will sweep you off your feet.
Allow, and grace will carry
you to higher ground. The only
safety lies in letting it all in—
the wild with the weak; fear,
fantasies, failures and success.
When loss rips the doors of
the heart, or sadness veils your
vision with despair, practice
becomes simply bearing the truth.
In the choice to let go of your
known way of being, the whole
world is revealed to your new eyes.
(by Dana Falls)

Saturday, June 07, 2008

J. K. Rowling's Commencement Address at Harvard

My aunt sent this to me via email. Rowling is witty, insightful and ultimately, so grounded in the moment. This speech is of particular interest to me as she expands on her time when she worked with Amnesty International before her international fame or the completion of her Harry Potter series. That bit of revelation into who she was then, and what she wrote in her world famous series, and the passions that animate her now weave a powerful cloth. Her message might be summed up: empathy is our last best hope!

So get a cup of coffee, sit back and enjoy.

The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination

J.K. Rowling

Copyright June 2008

/As prepared for delivery/

President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of
Overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and, above all,

The first thing I would like to say is 'thank you.' Not only has Harvard
given me an extraordinary honour, but the weeks of fear and nausea I've
experienced at the thought of giving this commencement address have made
me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep
breaths, squint at the red banners and fool myself into believing I am
at the world's best-educated Harry Potter convention.

Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I
thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement
speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary
Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing
this one, because it turns out that I can't remember a single word she
said. This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear
that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in
business, law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.

You see? If all you remember in years to come is the 'gay wizard' joke,
I've still come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals:
the first step towards personal improvement.

Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to
you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own
graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years
that has expired between that day and this.

I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are
gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to
talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the
threshold of what is sometimes called 'real life', I want to extol the
crucial importance of imagination.

These might seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but please bear with me.

Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a slightly
uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she has become. Half
my lifetime ago, I was striking an uneasy balance between the ambition I
had for myself, and what those closest to me expected of me.

I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to write
novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished
backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that
my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that could never
pay a mortgage, or secure a pension.

They had hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study
English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect
satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had my
parents' car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched
German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.

I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they
might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all
subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name
one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys
to an executive bathroom.

I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame my
parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your
parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old
enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. What is more, I
cannot criticise my parents for hoping that I would never experience
poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and
I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty
entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand
petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own
efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but
poverty itself is romanticised only by fools.

What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.

At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university,
where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar writing stories, and
far too little time at lectures, I had a knack for passing examinations,
and that, for years, had been the measure of success in my life and that
of my peers.

I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and
well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and
intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the
Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed
an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.

However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you
are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear
of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your
conception of failure might not be too far from the average person's
idea of success, so high have you already flown academically.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes
failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if
you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure,
a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic
scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was
jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern
Britain, without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me,
and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual
standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That
period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going
to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale
resolution. I had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a long
time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure
meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to
myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct
all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I
really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the
determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I
was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I
was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an
old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid
foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is
inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something,
unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at
all รข€“ in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing
examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have
learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more
discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends
whose value was truly above rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks
means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You
will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships,
until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift,
for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than
any qualification I ever earned.

Given a time machine or a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self
that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of
acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your
life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse
the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone's total
control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its

You might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of
imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but
that is not wholly so. Though I will defend the value of bedtime stories
to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader
sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision
that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and
innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity,
it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose
experiences we have never shared.

One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry
Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those
books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs.
Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid
the rent in my early 20s by working in the research department at
Amnesty International's headquarters in London.

There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out
of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment
to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw
photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty
by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture
victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten,
eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings
and rapes.

Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been
displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the
temerity to think independently of their government. Visitors to our
office included those who had come to give information, or to try and
find out what had happened to those they had been forced to leave behind.

I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older
than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had
endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a
video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot
taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job
of escorting him to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man
whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite
courtesy, and wished me future happiness.

And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor
and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and
horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the
researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink
for the young man sitting with her. She had just given him the news that
in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country's regime,
his mother had been seized and executed.

Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how
incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically
elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were
the rights of everyone.

Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on
their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have
nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard
and read.

And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty
International than I had ever known before.

Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or
imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The
power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and
frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security
are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not
know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was
one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and
understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into
other people's minds, imagine themselves into other people's places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is
morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or
control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose
to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never
troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they
are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can
close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them
personally; they can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I
do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live
in narrow spaces can lead to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that
brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more
monsters. They are often more afraid.

What is more, those who choose not to empathise may enable real
monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves,
we collude with it, through our own apathy.

One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor
down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could
not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we
achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every
day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with
the outside world, the fact that we touch other people's lives simply by

But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch
other people's lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work,
the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and
unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great
majority of you belong to the world's only remaining superpower. The way
you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring
to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That
is your privilege, and your burden.

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on
behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only
with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to
imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your
advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate
your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you
have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic to change the
world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have
the power to imagine better.

I am nearly finished. I have one last hope for you, which is something
that I already had at 21. The friends with whom I sat on graduation day
have been my friends for life. They are my children's godparents, the
people to whom I've been able to turn in times of trouble, friends who
have been kind enough not to sue me when I've used their names for Death
Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our
shared experience of a time that could never come again, and, of course,
by the knowledge that we held certain photographic evidence that would
be exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.

So today, I can wish you nothing better than similar friendships. And
tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine,
you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I
fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in
search of ancient wisdom:

As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is
what matters.

I wish you all very good lives.

Thank you very much.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Obama: First Black Democratic Nominee

Best hangover ever, say the democratic blogs this morning. Without a doubt. Two fuzzy navels and hours later, I'm still shaking my head in mild disbelief. Did that just happen? Did we actually put Obama over the top? Did the honk and waves, the phone calls, the traipsing around Republican neighborhoods and inner city churches, the hundreds of dollars each person contributed, the email lists and digging of articles, the blogging.... did the voting and caucusing and cheering and arguing and crying and laughing and waiting in long lines just to see Obama or his wife speak really result in this history-making moment?

Yes it did!

Obama shattered all expectations. A virtual unknown a year ago on the national stage, today he is the first black candidate of a major political party running for the highest office in America, the most powerful leadership role in the world, the baddest power in cyber-space and outer space... He's da man!

Add Obama to the Fantastic Four and make it the Fantabulous Five.

Our Cincinnati primary party room erupted into utter pandemonium as the digital check box popped onto the MSNBC screen with Barack's smiling face and full name listed as the "Democratic Nominee." It was true last night, is still true this morning: Barack Obama makes a run for the presidency (catch him if you can, McCain, Mr. Cottage Cheese in Lime Jello Mold)!

Obama didn't limp across the finish line either. His stadium appearance last night in St. Paul (the future site of the RNC) drew crowds of 17,000 inside and turned away 15,000 outside (numbers may be off - I took these from memory of last night's pundits commenting away over the rousing laughter, cheers, clinking drinks and general dizzy enthusiasm that filled our primary party downtown).

Just had to comment on Michelle for a moment too. That little kiss on the cheek, followed by the thumb's up and knuckles to her husband will symbolize for me, for a long time, that we are in a new era. They are a team, they are NOW.

In any event, what set Obama's speech apart from McCain's curmudgeon-y, stale, deflated balloon approach to our future in America and from Hillary's bizarrely out of time, tempo and context march through each corner of America where she was hugged and whispered to by downtrodden blue collar, non-elites (gosh, her litany of unhappy Americans gets depressing) as they poured out their health care and jobless woes to her, the "Messiah in a pants suit," was the fact that Obama made his speech about us - Americans who want to take the control over the future back from the paternalism and condescension of politicians who have their political legacies more in mind than anything resembling democratic participatory government.

When Obama said that we voted this time in record numbers because we believed we could make a difference through our actions, through participating, through demonstrating that we are meant to be a part of America's future (not just asking someone else to fix it for us), he was right. He is the only candidate who gets it. His speech was not about how great he is, how well he meets people's needs (like Hillary's). It was about recognizing the hunger Americans have to get back into the ring, to rise above apathy and matter again. Yes Obama embodies that vision, but it was that vision that set him apart from the other candidates. I don't want someone to "fight for me," I want the opportunity to act, to participate, to be a part of the solution.

In any event, if Obama's campaign is anything to go by, that is exactly how he wants to govern. Whether he'll get his chance, well that's up to us.

Yes we can!

Fired up!

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Obama will clinch tonight!

I'll be at the primary party with Jon downtown (Sully's on 7th and Race for those who are local and want to join the celebration). It's almost hard to take in - Obama has defeated a Clinton in a primary race when he began as a virtual unknown. He's overcome his youth, his "supposed" inexperience, his ties to a controversial pastor and church, and the unrelenting parsing of his speeches and comments. Through it all, the momentum he built early on combined with the astounding organization of his local teams which created one of the most mobilized ground forces of volunteers and donors in the history of American politics has led to this moment: our first black presidential nominee for a major political party.

Celebrate tonight. Get to work tomorrow. (I'm now one of several "Faith Community Outreach Captains" which basically means I'll sit in the narthex of my church each week registering unregistered voters. Glam job! Be jealous.)