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Inflection Points

The pool is a level playing field.


We have to be able to enlarge the perspective with which we view the world if we hope to become truly empathic.


-Sharon Salzberg



"My name is Carol Ann," she said. How is that possible? I thought. My name is Carol Ann.  How dare she have the very same name as me? I thought, then took a deep breath. She had a gentle voice and demeanor, unlike my bold in-your-face journalist's persona. I was bristling, like fatty spare ribs on a grill. She was crowding me in the locker room, in the same row, a couple of lockers down.  I decided to get my act together and engage what is called in the bias and inclusion world the "extended contact effect."


I had judged this woman from afar for many months, and my judgment had not been kind.  There she is again with her rolling bag and attitude, I thought, whenever I saw her. If we get out of the pool at the same time she'll make a mad dash to the best shower stall. Only three of six have been open since Covid lockdown, an employee shortage like everywhere else; the stalls have to be disinfected daily. And that close-cropped haircut of hairs, how conventional, how provincial. Unlike my pool acquaintances, she wasn't friendly, never greeted anyone, and made a fuss when someone was late exiting their reserved lane. Or had I imagined that, or exaggerated it?


Okay, so here we go, and there she—that horrible selfish woman—goes yet again, I thought, as she rushed to the best shower stall on the day I finally introduced myself, intending to blast her for her selfishness. Why had I hesitated for so many months to make contact? I'm  educated, traveled, and I'd shed my city centric cosmopolitan bias since I'd moved to upstate New York, or thought I had. I could tell her a thing or two without losing my cool, right, or just be friendly?


Nice try.


My doppelganger smiled at me and began to chat. How wrong I had been to blow her off. Not only did we have the same name, we'd been born in nearly the same year. "Of course,"" I said, "that makes sense. Names are generational. Whatever was on TV or in the movies at the time we were born influenced our parents." I didn't go into the long story about my  refugee parents' choice of the most American name they could think of, a name that I have never felt suited me. I wondered how this "other" Carol Ann felt about her name. But that conversation was a long way off. I was still bristling under my politeness. Beyond our name, we don't have much in common, I thought. Wrong again. It turns out that Carol Ann is also a writer, albeit she writes for her church newsletter. Church newsletter. Oh no, I thought. Okay, so concentrate on writing, swimming, this beautiful landscape we both live in.  And don't make any assumptions. Here's a woman who lights up when she talks about writing. Just like me.


Humbled and embarrassed by my biased thinking, I tried to relax. Perceived enemies can be the best teachers of radical empathy.


The rest of the locker-room conversation didn't last long. We packed up our rolling bags—yes I have one, too—and exchanged email addresses before saying good-bye.

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