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Insomnia, not in isolation

 

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When I was a kid I started suffering from insomnia in about fifth grade, and it continued for years. I would lie in my bed, staring at my little white plastic alarm clock that played “Here Comes the Sun” and desperately try to will myself to sleep, while the minutes and hours ticked by. The more I tried to relax and go to sleep, the more anxious and awake I became. The rumination were on an endless loop of self-flagellation. “I’m not going to get enough sleep and I’m going to be tired and I’m going to do badly in school and I’m going to disappoint my teachers and my parents and I’m going to get bad grades and never get into college and nobody will like me and I’ll be a failure with big bags under my eyes.”

Often, I would pad down the hallway in my pajamas to the living room, because I knew I wasn’t the only one up.

I would sit on the couch, curled up next to my dad in his hunter green easy chair and his terry cloth robe and black tube socks. We would watch whatever black and white movie was playing at 2am on Turner Classic Movies or American Movie Classics. He loved the spaghetti westerns. My favorites were the film noir crime dramas and anything with Katherine Hepburn or Lauren Bacall. I liked their sass. Our mutual favorite was “Some Like it Hot” with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe. We never spoke, and he didn’t try to make me go back to bed. There was a silent acknowledgement that there would be no peaceful slumber for either of us. I’m sure my anxieties and demons were far more innocent and mundane than the images that kept him from closing his eyes at night. My insomnia was intermittent. His was chronic. But knowing we were both suffering made it less isolating and even a bit fun, like a secret adventure we got to share.

On and off, throughout the years, I’ve had recurring attacks of nighttime anxiety. I’ve tried melatonin, meditation, and Malbec. But my body and brain reject them all. After tossing and turning for a while, I find myself slipping to my living room to watch an old black and white. The sleep doesn’t come, but my memories are filled with warm, terry cloth nostalgia and visions of a green wingback. Even in those isolating hours when the hands of the clock are ticking toward dawn,  I watch the black, white, and grey figures on the screen and know I’m not alone.

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It’s time for Animaniacs!

 

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A glorious miracle has occurred in my house thanks to Hulu. I have rediscovered my absolute favorite TV show of all time, and my daughters now share my obsession.

 

When I was a kid, I was a voracious fan of Animaniacs. And by voracious, I mean I did the following:

  • I watched every episode I could. And taped them all. On VHS. Probably taping over my sister’s old ballet performances and my parents’ family dinner party home movies.
  • I purchased every shred of Animaniacs paraphernalia offered at the Warner Brothers store (which absolutely was a thing that existed in the 90s) – we’re talking t-shirts, key chains, stuffed animals, and yes…boxer shorts. Folks, it was the 90s. Teenage girls wore oversized sweatshirts and boxers with hiking boots. We need to bring that look back.
  • I dressed up as Wakko Warner for Halloween (wearing aforementioned boxer shorts and a matching Wakko baseball cap). Wakko was my absolute favorite, that Don-Knotts loving kook who talked like Ringo Starr and Animal from the Muppets had a baby.
  • I greeted everyone I met for a solid year with, “Hellloooooo, Nurse!” and ended every exchange with, “Ok, lady…I love you, bye-bye!”
  • I memorized and sang all the Animaniacs songs. I had their album on a cassette tape. I’m pretty sure my parents’ ears began to bleed at some point.

What was it about this show? It’s inane. But I couldn’t (ok, can’t…) get enough of it. The references to old and sometimes arcane cinema are amazing. From the Goodfeathers and their West Side Pigeon dance-fight scenes (“you cluckin’ me?”) to “Citizen Kane-y” with a Rosebud sled to Slappy Squirrel and her dismissal of those bureaucrats in the “Federal Television Agency” (hubby loved that one).

And of course, there’s…Pinky and the Brain. pinkybrain

And now….they’re back. It’s like a trip down insanity lane every time I watch the show with my kiddos. They don’t get all the humor, but they laugh like crazy and sing the Animaniacs song from morning to night. They introduce themselves by saying, “I’m Yakko, I’m Wakko…and I’m cuuuuuute!”

I’ve already started working on the costumes for Halloween 2018…

Justice, Democracy, Love, and Hope

I spent this week with a group of people committed to fostering diversity and inclusion in their organizations. We chose to use the March on Washington in 1963 as a case study for building diverse networks to effect culture change. We got out of the classroom and explored the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial.

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Afterwards, we talked about the emotional experience of the museum. There was a mixture of sorrow, anger, and cynicism after walking for hours amongst the horrific images of enslavement, lynchings, and torture of innocent children.

Why on earth would anyone see the need to make slave shackles for an infant? How could two men brutally murder a fourteen-year-old boy named Emmett Till, in cold blood, because he whistled at a white woman? How could somebody plant a bomb in a church, murdering four little girls, just days after Martin Luther King delivered a speech sharing his dream that children would be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character? How can we possibly justify the alarming rate at which unarmed African Americans are killed by the police?

It’s crushing to be exposed to the seemingly unending cruelty of humans against other humans.

Yet our discussion was not all shrouded in dark thoughts. The participants in my class also shared intense pride, hope, and resolve. We talked about how powerful it was to bear witness to the strength and resilience of people who, in spite of the most monstrous treatment, created strong and thriving communities. They kept (and keep) moving forward, fighting against the immoral treatment that they and their kin had been victim to for generations.

And we all felt a sense of community in that space, realizing that we are the next generation to continue the fight and to honor those who came before us.

I realized how strongly our emotions can impact not only our outlook but our approach to community building. Those who choose to build their communities from a place of fear or anger not only distance themselves from learning about others, but can dehumanize those they deem as the “other” to such an extreme that they feel justified in committing horrific acts against innocent individuals.

Those who choose to build their communities from a place of joy and hope open themselves up to the abundance of what humanity offers. They gain knowledge, they create bonds across differences, they honor the stories that every person brings. They build bridges, and ultimately everyone ends up better off.

Written on the stone that holds the statue of Martin Luther King Jr at the MLK Memorial are the words, “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” These words were part of Dr. King’s speech on August 28, 1963, when hundreds of thousands of human beings of all races, genders, colors, and creeds, marched together with the common vision that all humans deserve to be treated with the same amount of dignity. The Memorial and the museum are not only symbols of our country’s history. They are symbols of the ideals that Dr. King embraced: justice, democracy, love, and hope.

Of late, I’ve found it far easier to slip into a perspective of anger and despair. I admit that I have spent a fair bit of time reinforcing my anger and despair within my existing community, talking with those who share my perspective, and we feed off each other. It takes a great deal more effort to come from a perspective of love and hope. It means I have to open myself up to a broader community of people who don’t always share my views, to acknowledge and validate the humanity of those who are often 180 degrees from me in terms of ideologies and values.

It’s quite possible that they will not extend the same courtesy to me. Coming from a place of love and hope means I accept that reality, and keep the door of my heart open for them.

Martin Luther King said, “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” What would the world be like if we all could embrace the ideals of Dr. King and the millions of people throughout our nation’s history who have marched for freedom and equality? If we could all choose to set aside our anger, fear, and distrust and stretch our arms out to one another as brothers and sisters? Will we as a human community ever evolve, or are we doomed to continue repeating the same atrocities against one another in the generations to come?

I don’t know.

But my path, and the path to which I will guide my children, will always be one of justice, democracy, love, and hope.

 

Now is not the time for silence

Last Friday and Saturday in Charlottesville was unequivocally an act of terrorism and hate on the part of white supremacists and neo-Nazis. They were not there to demonstrate peacefully. They came not only to spew their hate but to engage in extreme violence.  In an interview this week, Virginia’s governor Terry McAuliffe reported that authorities actually found stockpiles of weapons stashed around the city by the white supremacist groups for this rally.  They showed up on a university campus wielding torches and clubs. So called “militias” showed up with semi-automatic weapons to what was supposed to be a peaceful assembly. They hurled soda cans filled with cement and bottles filled with urine at counter protesters. And a man drove his car full speed into a throng of pedestrians, murdering a young woman and seriously injuring a score of others, including my colleague’s brother.

This wasn’t an isolated incident by a handful of people. Terrorist groups do not just disappear into the ether. This isn’t going to go away if we close our eyes and ignore it.

Acknowledge White Privilege

The term “woke” has become a somewhat comical meme in the last couple of years, referring to whether people are “woke” to their privilege and biases or not. Truly, we are at a crisis point in our country’s history where an awakening must happen, and let’s face it, we white people have been hitting the snooze button for far too long. Time to get to work.

The systems and cultural norms in this country past and present have set up a nation where whites get automatic advantages. For more on this, read Dr. Peggy McIntosh’s article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”

The point of her paper was to wake fellow white people up to their privilege, to help them become aware of the daily advantages they possessed that were not provided to people of color. Dr. McIntosh mentioned twenty-six daily advantages she recognized in her life that people of color are not afforded. Although the article was written over 27 years ago, the social discrepancies she outlined are still in existence.

For example, because of the color of my skin, I know that I:

  • can go shopping alone without being followed or harassed by sales staff or security
  • have always been shown mostly images of people of my color as national heroes, founders, leaders, and important historical figures
  • am able to protect my children from people who may not like them or wish them ill
  • can speak, act, and dress any way I wish without people attributing my actions to my race and judging me negatively
  • can be confident that if a police cruiser pulls me or my family members over, none of us will be treated brutally because of our race

Acknowledging privilege does not require us to live in shame or guilt.

Dr. McIntosh emphasized that her intention was not to throw shame on white people for their privilege, rather to call attention and awareness to this very real element of our society. Accepting my social status does not mean an admonition of “guilt” for having privilege. It is what it is. It’s utterly stupid that the color of my skin dictates how I’m treated in society. But it’s the truth. Rather than feel shame or defensiveness, it’s important for me to just call it what it is and not shy away from owning my privilege.

Ignoring our privilege as white people ignores the lifetimes of disparate treatment that our friends and family members of color have experienced, that their friends and family members have experienced, and so on. When those of us with privilege stay silent because we allow ourselves to believe that these issues don’t affect us, we are not being patriotic Americans. When we reach for false equivalents to try to lessen the cognitive dissonance that we feel in the face of the stark reality of institutionalized prejudice in our country, the message we send to people of color is that they don’t matter to us. When we say it’s not our problem, we immediately become a part of the problem.  Our silence and detachment contribute to the ugliness that is racism and ethnocentrism.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can, and MUST, be part of the solution. And that takes risk, self-reflection, and humility.

Take Action: Leverage Your Power.

If you, like me, are searching for ways to take action in the wake of this last weekend’s atrocities, here are just a few tips and resources:

  • The Southern Poverty Law Center recently published an excellent guide called “Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide” with lots of tips and strategies for getting involved, supporting victims of hate crimes, and pressuring elected officials and community leaders.
  • The Indivisible Guide has a local resources directory that will match you with advocacy groups in your area.
  • The Bystander’s Guide to Helping a Person Who is Being Targeted, a poster distributed by the city of Boston, offers simple steps to follow to be an ally and fight ethnocentric intolerance. Although it focuses specifically on harassment of Muslims, the steps are relevant for anyone who observes a member of a disenfranchised group being targeted.
  • Mary-Frances Winters’ Inclusion Solution blog has great insights into white privilege and what white people can do as advocates for equality and inclusion.
  • Become a diversity advocate in your local schools. If the school doesn’t have a faculty, staff, administration, school board, that reflect the diversity of our country, speak up at school board and PTA meetings. Ask questions to ensure that the curriculum used to teach your kids accurately and courageously represents the inequalities that minorities and women have encountered in our nation’s history.
  • Think about who you spend time with at work. Become aware of who is getting invited to meetings, who is asked to join committees or high profile projects, even who you choose to eat lunch or have coffee with. If a coworker makes an inappropriate joke, even if nobody else hears it but you, tell them that’s not cool with you and explain why.
  • Talk to your kids about privilege in a way that doesn’t create divides but builds a sense that we are all created equal. Teach them the tools to stand up to bullies and people who make malicious comments. I created a character named Petunia who regularly has to deal with issues of exclusion, both as the observer, the perpetrator, and the victim. I use humor and childhood scenarios to help my kids learn lessons in compassion and empathy as well as standing up to bullies.
  • Put your money where your mouth is. Yes, totally keep donating to organizations that are aligned with your values. But also support minority-owned businesses and boycott businesses that do not stand for diversity (be it who they hire, how they treat diverse customers, and what sort of ideological or social agendas they support). We in America love to say that money talks. Well, here’s your chance.
  • Just show up. Talk to other people about these issues. Get involved at the local level. Don’t be afraid of saying the wrong thing. Come with curiosity and a genuine desire to help fight hate and create a truly equal community.

I’m reminded of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

The voices of the white supremacists are loud and ugly, and must not be discounted. But just as dangerous to the future of our republic is the silence of the majority. It is urgent that we all step forth at this time in our nation’s history to raise our voices together and drown out the hate.

Confessions of a Bourgie White Lady

A couple of weeks ago, as I was heading from my ballet barre class to Le Pain Quotidian for my daily skim cappuccino, making plans with my friend to get gel manicures and then to bring our kids together so we could consume rosé and goat gouda, I was hit with a lightning bolt.

Am I…Bourgie??

The word “bourgie” (pronounced boo-zhee) comes from the French term, “bourgeoisie,” naming a social class comprised of merchants and artisans who lived in cities and catered to the nobles. They were often derided as being social climbers and trying to fit in with the aristocracy. Karl Marx used the term bourgeoisie to name the economic ruling class of the Industrial era, that tried to keep the working class down.  In modern times, the term has morphed into a description of anyone who is perceived as “high maintenance” or putting on airs, those members of the materialistic middle class, showing off for each other with name brands, expensive cars, and big houses. I’ve always sort of identified bourgie people as those who come from socioeconomic privilege, never having to worry about much in their lives, but are completely oblivious to their privilege.

Having grown up to two parents who were born into economic hardship and instituted frugality and hard work in us from a young age, I have looked down my nose at those who I perceived as bourgie. When I’ve seen women in their Lululemon active wear hopping into their Mercedes and BMWs, I’ve silently judged them. I’m not like them, I have told myself, because my active wear typically comes from Target and I drive a Toyota.

However, I have recently looked at my lifestyle and been forced to reckon with the possibility that I may be a bit closer to this bourgie culture than I previously acknowledged…

Here are some of the telltale signs I have identified that I may just be a little bit bourgie:

  • I live in a neighborhood where my kids can attend schools that boast arts-integration programs, provide French or Chinese immersion programs, and have peace educators who teach students meditation and emotional intelligence (“can you say, hippocampus, kids?”)
  • I own and rent out a condo in a gentrified neighborhood that has slowly pushed out working class people of color to make room for other upper middle class white people like myself
  • I give a significant amount of time and money to SoulCycle and barre classes (not that you could tell, thanks to my penchant for wine and cheese consumption)
  • The only double-wide I am acquainted with is my BOB jogging stroller, which I use to cart my children to soccer, ballet, swim, and banjo practice while obsessively tracking my steps on my Fitbit. (They don’t really take banjo lessons. Although I’m trying to get them to follow in Mommy’s footsteps and play a woodwind instrument…)
  • Amazon Prime delivers everything I need to my front door because I just don’t have time in my action-packed life to pick up my own toilet paper or groceries.
  • My neighbors and I decorate our front yards with ideological and political signage, some more important than others in the context of all the issues our society faces (my latest favorite are the signs protesting a potential ban against backyard chickens…)

Regardless of how much I may try to separate myself from what I perceive as a culture to which I don’t belong, I AM part of an identity group that holds a great deal of privilege.

Maybe part of this refusal to place myself in a category of upper middle class is based on my upbringing as well as the childhood experiences of my parents. My mom was born in a small farming community and spent the first several years of her life residing in a converted garage. My dad grew up in one room of a multifamily home in Havana, which he shared with his single-parenting mom and two sisters. My parents did not come from socioeconomic privilege by any stretch. They were both the first in their families to complete high school let alone go on to college and grad school.

To be sure, that was not my life. I never went without. My parents were warm and caring and probably spoiled us quite a bit looking back. We grew up in a middle class environment, in a nice house where I had my own room, went to well-funded public schools, and made friends with nice, smart kids. Yes, my parents were very frugal because of their childhood experiences. We didn’t buy designer fashions and Kohl’s was my mom’s favorite retailer for our clothes (even though I begged for Guess jeans and Esprit tank tops – it was the 80s and 90s, people). Our basement looked like a nuclear fallout shelter with about 100 cans of food that my parents would stockpile whenever there was a good sale at Kroger.

That said, because of the immense opportunities afforded to me, here I stand, in my active wear, realizing that I am a member of the smaller percentage of people in this country who never have to worry about how I’ll make ends meet. I can make frivolous purchases without calculating what I’ll have to go without until the next paycheck. I can feel confident in my knowledge and education that I’ll usually be taken seriously by others in a professional environment, and nobody will question my ideas or decisions because I have a strong academic and professional pedigree that gives me power. When I mention the neighborhood in which I reside, people raise their eyebrows and say things like, “oh wow, that’s a really nice neighborhood. You must be doing pretty well for yourselves.”

So does living this bourgie existence make me a diversity and inclusion hack? Can I own my privilege yet still argue that it doesn’t fully represent who I am or what I value?

Most likely, I will continue to walk this tightrope of privilege, strutting to barre class in my active wear and drinking my cappuccinos. I will also challenge myself to push against stereotypes and seek the full stories of others without rushing to judgment. Unless they try to take away the backyard chickens. Then game on.

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A Tale of Culture and Health Care (i.e. My Big Fat Scary ER Experience)

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About a month ago, I went for a run and had chest pains. I assumed I’d pulled a muscle in my chest, something I had done once before. I took some ibuprofen, slathered Ben Gay on myself, and figured it would heal. The chest pains continued for several weeks to the point that I couldn’t sleep and couldn’t lie on my left side. As the weeks went on, my abdomen started hurting as well. I convinced myself it was totally normal and I probably just had indigestion and took some Tums. Then my stomach became severely distended, I couldn’t breathe without coughing, and I started vomiting. I finally argued myself into admitting this was not normal and went to urgent care.

Urgent care sent me to the emergency room. I still figured they would just find I had some weird indigestion and a pulled chest muscle and send me home.

In the ER, they did an EKG and within minutes the medical assistant grabbed me and rushed me back to see the doctor, saying, “Don’t worry. You got to us just in time.”  I immediately started crying, wondering if I was dying.

The ER doctor came in and said, “I’ve never seen an EKG like this on a person your age. We’re not sure what’s going on but you may be having a heart attack. Oh, also, your abdominal pains are most likely coming from your gall bladder, so we’ll probably have to take that out, too.” I stared at him in silence and disbelief, unable to even ask any questions as my mind went blank.

Then someone yelled, “hey, this dude’s toe is falling off,” (yes, this is a literal quote from ER medical assistant!) and the doctor pulled the curtain aside and rushed off without another word.

Granted, a toe separated from a foot is definitely a big deal and requires immediate attention, but I was left with no insight of what was coming next, other than possible heart and/or gall bladder surgery. I sat shaking, thinking about how I’d just gone on a five mile run the week before, and how could I suddenly have the health of an 80-year old smoker diabetic who eats Arby’s five days a week? I started tallying up all the people in my family with heart conditions and wondering if my life was forever going to be altered or shortened.

Enter Dr. Kumkumian, cardiologist and fellow Armenian.

I’ve done a lot of diversity and cultural sensitivity training for hospitals and health care centers. I have talked with medical professionals about the importance of establishing culturally competent relationships and communication with patients, who often are at a heightened level of anxiety when they encounter medical staff and may need different approaches. I’ve spoken with these health professionals about how important it can be for culturally diverse patients to talk to someone who shares their culture.

It never dawned on me that I would be that patient. I’m American-born, and a pretty typical member of the more privileged element of our society: Caucasian, native English-speaker, upper middle-class, well-educated, etc.

Yet in a moment of great fear and distress, I felt a flood of relief simply by seeing the last three letters of this man’s surname sewn onto his medical coat.

Our shared ethnicity immediately established trust and camaraderie, even before he opened his mouth. I could find no logical explanation in that moment for my immediate trust in this man. He had yet to show any significant difference in behavior from any other medical professionals I had encountered to that point. Yet, there it was. I felt better and more hopeful just because I assumed we shared a cultural history.

My trust was further reinforced by Dr. Kumkumian’s warm demeanor and compassion. He asked questions, and reassured me I was going to be ok. He smiled. He talked with me, asked questions, and ordered some tests.

Every time the first ER doctor entered to talk with me, he also asked questions and listened to my responses. He may have been a bit more rushed (again, ER doctor, racing to sew appendages back on), but generally he was friendly and focused on me. However,  I felt a twinge of fear and mistrust, and found myself not fully believing his prognoses. When Dr. Kumkumian would enter and essentially share the same information, my mind immediately afforded him more credibility.

Again, I teach this stuff for a living. I know how implicit bias works. I know the research that shows that doctors who demonstrate higher levels of empathy with patients are less likely to be sued for malpractice, even if they commit the same number of mistakes as their less emotionally intelligent peers.

Yet, here I was, in the midst of a personal medical situation, and my own emotional reaction was so stark. Two doctors, equally qualified and talented, sharing essentially the same information with me…but I assigned credibility and trust to one mainly because his name automatically implied to me a shared history, culture, and set of values.

Several learning points for me out of this experience:

  1. Implicit preferences and biases related to cultural identity are truly powerful and must be acknowledged when it comes to medical care.
  2. First impressions with medical practitioners and their bedside manner can create or destroy trust and credibility, directly impacting both patient and provider.
  3. In today’s hospitals, when so much is driven by patient feedback, medical providers must demonstrate superb communication skills and cultural sensitivity.
  4. When your chest hurts, go to the damn doctor. Immediately.

P.S. For all of you out there concerned about my physical well-being, after a battery of tests and two days in the hospital on a clear liquid diet, I was told I had contracted a virus, probably from my germ-farm children, and sent home with anti-inflammatories and a warning to take it easy for a month. No surgeries required.

We Who Serve

I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.keeptheoathbuttonthumb

These are the words that millions of Americans take when they devote themselves to public service. I’ve had the opportunity to recite this oath twice. I do not take these words lightly, nor do the majority of the people who make a choice to serve this country.

In my career over the last 15 years, I have worked with thousands of federal leaders at all levels and across agencies. I have never met a single solitary federal employee in my work who doesn’t care about the mission of her/his office and agency, who doesn’t take very seriously their role in serving all American citizens. These folks are dedicated individuals who feel a deep sense of connection and responsibility to serve U.S. citizens.

There is the manager in the budgeting office of the National Institute of Health who teared up sharing how NIH saved her friend’s daughter who was diagnosed with leukemia.

There is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) official who felt a deep sense of pride because she ensured that the public had transparency into how the USDA inspects food to ensure the safety and health of Americans.

There is the Foreign Service Institute Transition Center Director and his staff who fought for years to implement resilience training and and support for civil and foreign service officers suffering from post-traumatic stress.

There is the project manager at the Environmental Protection Agency who has made it her life’s work to ensure that the U.S. region to which she is assigned has clean air and drinking water.

There is the Department of Defense officer who teaches others about Islam and breaks down stereotypes and untruths among soldiers to ensure they have a deeper cultural understanding of the regions to which they are deployed.

And so many more.

Often when I engage with friends and family outside Washington, they tell me about the bubble we live in here. They tell me we here in Washington are way too interested in our jobs and what we do, that we are too intense in how we talk about our work, our society, our government. And they are right. We are intense. We do care to an almost obsessive degree about our work. Because we took an oath. We have answered a calling to serve the American people.

Tomorrow, the world watches the next U.S. president recite his oath to become the highest ranking public servant in our land. I hope he takes it as seriously as the millions of us who have recited our oath to serve.