Becoming the Music Again

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I’m both a cockeyed optimist and a brooding cynic who oscillates back and forth between celebrating the goodness in humankind and deploring our baser instincts. I’ve watched the ebb and flow of life and seen near perfect days followed by violent storms. I am continually rewarded with unexpected acts of kinds and disappointed by outright betrayal. In other words, as people we have yet to achieve perfection, but in the big picture of history it seems that it is in our natures to want to be good. We are drawn to what is right and just even as we sometimes falter and lean toward the dark side. Like moths we are sometimes attracted to fire, but most of us prefer not to get burned.

The daily posts on my Facebook wall reflect our desires to be the best versions of ourselves even as we struggle to get there. I see videos from Ellen DeGeneres urging all of us to remember that on the whole people are quite good. “Be the reason someone believes in the goodness of people,” we are admonished, a gentle reminder that world views begin one person at a time. A friend features daily “messages from God” designed to guide our thoughts and actions away from the fears and jealousies that often lead to destructive behaviors that hurt us and those around us. The best among us understand what is most important in life and have the confidence to follow their loving instincts.

Our world is filled with so much noise, chaos that confuses us and causes us to question the motives of the people around us. It is easy to become withdrawn and to imagine that our self preservation is at risk. The blathering voices shine spotlights mostly on the horrors that exist in our midst, so much so that we begin to forget that while the potential for evil always exists, it is mostly an anomaly. Over and over again throughout history there have been heroes who rise up from their everyday lives to condemn and stop those who would wreak violence. We do not know their names or their faces, but we understand the power and the beauty of their sacrifices for the good of all of us.

Most of us are quiet people. We prefer to live our lives outside of the limelight. We spend our days working to create tiny slices of personal paradise. We follow the rules, work hard, and try not to make waves. We are in fact a silent majority that exists all over the world. We generally only desire to feel safe and secure and to find a bit of joy in our small personal circles. We take note of the problems around us and either attempt to solve them on a local level by offering our help or we use the power of our political voices to choose leaders whom we believe will create more sweeping governmental solutions. For the most part we desire to have peace of mind rather than to be constantly challenged, so we go quietly about our daily routines until situations demand our attention.

The story of mankind seems to repeat certain themes over and over again. Time and again the bullies and tyrants among us take advantage of our tendencies to want to ignore injustices that don’t directly affect us. We look away even as our sense of justice begs us to set things right. We ultimately reach a tipping point beyond which we no longer allow ourselves the luxury of avoidance. We find that heroic part of ourselves that we need to overcome the poisonous evil in our midst and we overthrow it. The dark forces go into hiding for a time and the princes of peace ascend. Still, we need to be aware that as of this moment in time there are still threats that we must take care to watch even as we celebrate the greater good in our midst. It is a balancing act that we and our ancestors have all had to learn to how to perform.

I watch the daily news and read about happenings both local and in the world at large, but try to remember that what I see and hear is not the entire representation of humanity. The bickering is a political creation designed to divide us and create problems between us. The sound and fury is part of a power play by groups intent on making us believe that we must choose sides, label ourselves as this or that. It would be easy to believe that we must ally ourselves like the tribes of old, devoid of any reasoning other than artificial designations of our differences.

I have seen four days of rain inundate my city, making roads impassable and filling homes with muck and mud. Those horrific hours brought out the true character of the millions of people who live in my city as well as those from far away. The boats came to rescue, the workers came to rebuild, the kindness of people was evident in every corner of the metropolis, from the poorest to the wealthiest areas. Nobody stopped to notice race or to inquire about religious beliefs or political affiliations. We were one people and our goodness and resilience momentarily inspired the entire world.

Sadly our news cycle is so rapid that we soon forget the wondrous examples of good that we see. Heroic efforts are replaced by stories of despots and the blathering of political opponents. We fall for the divisiveness and divide ourselves into camps. We see only the horrors around us and we begin to distrust and maybe even dislike anyone who does not think exactly the way we do. We fall for the propaganda that is used to distract us from the truth, which is that we are mostly good people who have a few villains among us. Our differences are not something to fear, but rather our greatest strength, but if we refuse to acknowledge that the truest successes of history have been the stuff of compromise we will quibble to the point of disaster.

The oldest trick in the book is to find ways to make us turn on one another, to view those who are different as our enemies. Right now we are in the midst of a worldwide effort to divide and conquer. We are being used as pawns by power brokers who want us to believe that we should be embattled with anyone who does not appear to be a kindred spirit. We have temporarily lost our ability to work together for common causes. The loudest and most obnoxious voices are calling the shots. Those of moderation are giving up the fight. We seem to have few choices, but we ultimately have the power and we will arise in all of our goodness when push comes to shove. It is what we humans do. We will one day quiet the noise and become the music again.

I’m Still Not Dead

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There’s a line in one of Willie Nelson’s songs that goes something like this, “I woke up still not dead today.” Willie has a way with words as well as music. I suppose that for someone in his eighties like he is it feels good to see one more day while still wondering when the clock will stop on his run. I’m about fourteen years younger than Willie, but I have to admit that there are times when I feel as though I’m taking a leap of faith when I go to sleep at night. At my age there are no guarantees that I will wake up the next morning. In fact, so many of my contemporaries have already died that I more and more appreciate the fragility of life. I understand that each passing day pushes me just a bit closer to my the ultimate human fate, death. For that reason I find myself trying hard to focus on the aspects of living that are actually the most important, and I am irritated when mundane tasks vie for my attention. Like everyone else I simply have no idea when I will draw my last breath, but at the age of sixty nine I am fairly certain that my days are numbered more so than when I was thirty. That means that it’s really time to pack as much meaning into them as possible.

Family and friends have always been first for me, but I have lately found myself also wanting to pack in as many experiences as possible before my health deteriorates or my income becomes too meager to allow for extravagances. When I think back on my life the moments that I remember always revolve around quiet nights spent with the people that I love and exhilarating moments when I witnessed something extraordinary. Things fall apart and become meaningless, but relationships and adventures are timeless and priceless.

I was watching the movie All The Money In The World last week and it reinforced my thinking that having a great deal of wealth is only as good as what we do with it. If we horde it or become obsessed with it our lives lose meaning. Sadly for some acquiring money becomes an end in itself. Young people are sometimes urged to choose career paths based more on future salaries than passions and talents. All too often adults counsel the young to go for the gold rather than happiness. It worries me that so many young people are being lead down a path that they may one day regret, for in the end there is something about the human spirit that longs for purpose and human contact more than riches.

Don’t get me wrong. Having sufficient economic power is crucial to fulfilling our most basic needs. Having money for nonessentials provides the means for a sense of well being. I don’t advocate living like a pauper, but I have found that it is very possible to lead an exceptional life without bowing to the demands of a lifetime spent chasing the dollar bill rather than fulfilling dreams. As a teacher I enjoyed a rather minimal salary, but it was just enough. The joy that I felt each day that I was at work was far more important to me than a burgeoning bank account. My riches are found in my sense of accomplishing something important and I still managed to enjoy creature comforts without sacrificing my altruistic tendencies.

Each of us is unique. For some there is great excitement in the world of business. For others it is in building things that the most contentment is to be found. If we are lucky we find the niche that helps us to experience the joy factor of life. Even better is when the people around us support our choices.

I used to tease my mother by suggesting that she write a book on parenting, but I was only halfway in jest. The fact is that she somehow managed to raise three children who are so unlike one another. She not only allowed, but encouraged us to follow our individual dreams. When one brother announced at the age of five that he wanted to be a mathematician, she provided him with the tools to develop his interests. He ultimately attended Rice University and worked for a NASA contractor creating the navigation system for the International Space Station. When my other brother revealed that he wanted to be a fire fighter she was just as proud of his accomplishments. He rose through the ranks earning two graduate degrees, running the training academy, and becoming an area chief. While she sometimes imagined that I would become a doctor or a lawyer, she was quite proud of the work that I did as an educator and even helped me to work my way through my earliest days in the profession by providing guidance and understanding. Not once did she ever indicate that one of our professions was better than the other. Nor did she point to the differences in prestige or salary associated by the public with our chosen careers. Instead she boasted that we had each been successful and that more importantly we had actually enjoyed our work.

As time goes by I become more and more convinced that we are making to many attempts to socially engineer our young so that they will become versions of what we want rather than acknowledging the importance of every single job. As I write this carpenters are replacing damaged sheetrock in my home. Given that my husband and I do not possess their skill, I am in total awe of what they are able to do, and appreciate that they chose to offer this service to me. Right now they are as important to me as a scientist or a financial wizard. In other words, we need a variety of people in our world and that even includes a Willie Nelson whose musical genius entertains and comforts us. Where would we be if everyone chose to only focus on the lifestyles that are most likely to bring wealth rather than finding that one thing that makes them feel so alive?

I’m happy each morning that I wake up still not dead. It’s one more day to spend doing things that I enjoy with people that I love. Lucky for me I have few regrets because in the long ago I was able to follow my personal dreams. I recommend that route for anyone who is just starting out.

Dear Mr. Z

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Dear Mr. Zuckerberg,

I heard you testifying before Congress last week, and I for one totally understand and appreciate you purpose in founding Facebook. I have enjoyed the benefits of being reunited with long lost friends, as well as being kept up to date with family events since I joined several years ago. Each morning I go to my Facebook wall while I eat breakfast and find out who’s having a birthday or anniversary and what has happened overnight. This early morning routine has become a very pleasant part of my day. I really don’t know what I would do without Facebook because I am now retired and don’t often get to see or hear from my friends in any other way.

I write a daily blog and have a page to introduce my topics and to invite people to read my work. You don’t charge me a thing for doing that or for getting together with friends, so I just want you to know how much I appreciate your amazing creation. I live in Houston and during Hurricane Harvey when fifty one inches of rain fell on our city Facebook became my main means of knowing how family and friends were doing. I learned who was in trouble and who was lucky enough to make it out of harm’s way. My Facebook friends and I looked after one another during those intensely stressful three days and then were able to help one another in the weeks after the water subsided. I was able to quickly find out who was looking for assistance and what they needed. I felt that Facebook was a godsend in so many ways. I can’t imagine enduring that tragic time without the information that came to my wall. I never really thanked you for that, but I feel that I especially should now that you are under fire.

We Houstonians had so much fun sharing our enthusiasm for our Astros as they raced toward a pennant. It was good to be able to smile and celebrate after the undeniable stress of the floods. My wall was filled with excited comments and wonderful memes. You have no idea how great that made all of us feel. Along the way so much money was raised via Facebook for people in our city who had been so affected by the rising water. I’m not sure that would have happened otherwise. Facebook made our devastation real.

I’ve joined prayer chains that began on Facebook, and been the recipient of prayers in my own times of need. I’ve found interesting tips for home care and beauty regimens, as well as suggestions of books that I might enjoy. Mostly though I have smiled over and over again at the photos that fill my wall. I’ve seen newlyweds, babies, graduates, puppies, birds, gardens, and so many lovely images that brighten my days. I know that this is what you envisioned for all of us who enjoy your creation.

Of course you run a business that must generate income somehow and so there are advertisements. I don’t mind those at all. I have to admit that I mostly just ignore them, just as I do the political posts. In fact, I really do doubt that any memes or articles or even fake news influenced many folks in the last election. I generally find that people believe what they believe and aren’t affected by ads or emails or any of that. I also don’t think that you should have to police what is happening on people’s walls. You should not have to become a censor or arbitrator. In fact, that would actually be creepier to me than knowing that once in a great while someone may create an advertisement to entice me to think in a particular way.

Long ago I understood that we can’t believe everything the we see on the Internet. Only a very foolish person would take something as gospel without doing a bit of research to determine its veracity. I always do my homework, and I’ve found that most of the people that I know do as well. Admittedly I wasn’t a fan of President Trump and so I paid no attention to positive commentaries that appeared on my wall. On the other hand most of the people that I know who do like him voted for him mostly because they simply did not want Hillary Clinton or they worked at jobs that they felt he supports.

Anyway, I hate to see big changes on Facebook just because a political group used information to target potential voters. If I’m not mistaken the Obama campaign did something similar and everyone thought that it was genius, which it was. Our world is changing and we need to move along with it. You are an innovator and what you have given us is wonderful. I really do hope that things work out well for you in the end, and that Facebook doesn’t change too much.

In the meantime I don’t mind getting political emails from both the far left and far right. I actually find them interesting and sometimes even humorous. I use Google and Amazon and Apple, so the odds are quite good that someone somewhere knows a bit about me. I write this blog and pretty much tell whomever is willing to read my words about my life and my feelings because I have nothing to hide. I’m not so easily influenced by any form of propaganda, so keep up the good work and know that I’m someone who will stand behind you. Thank you again for bringing so many of us together from all around the world. You’ve done a very good thing.

It’s Time To Do What Is Right

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He’s a sweet child, innocent and earnest with a bit of Tom Sawyer mixed in. He works hard and is able to manipulate numbers with the best of them, but when in comes to the questions on the STAAR test he sometimes gets befuddled. He wants to be like his dad whom he adores, a smart engineer. Somehow he loses confidence whenever he compares himself because, after all, the STAAR test often challenges his abilities and makes him feel less than. He worries a great deal about how he will do on the mathematics test because he has to work slowly to be certain that he is correct in his analysis of the questions. He gets most of the answers correct, but often has to hurry to finish in time and that’s when he just has to make a best guess. He wants to be thought of as smart and competent, which he is, but that test threatens to make him look bad, so he becomes anxious. His teacher confided that she doesn’t think he will pass. He goes to his mother in a state of panic and cries. He wonders what he will do if he fails. Suddenly his head is so filled with fear that he can’t think. All of the concepts that he understands so well become jumbled and he has difficulty remembering things that he has mastered. The high stakes of the test have him discombobulated and he is only ten years old, already a worried old man having to deal with the trajectory of his future when he should be outside enjoying the lovely spring weather with his friends.

He took the STAAR test on Tuesday. It will be a while before any of us know how he did. I prayed all day Monday that he would remain calm and be able to reach into his memory bank to work the problems. He is able to tackle operations with fractions better than many high school students that I have taught. He understands how to perform operations with expressions as well and how to turn a linear graph or a table into an equation. He is able to discuss financial terms like gross and net income, property and payroll taxes. He is very bright in every way, but that test seems evil to him. The questions purposely have hidden meanings that he sometimes doesn’t catch. The problems may take as many as four steps to complete. When he’s nervous he might miss the catch, and he was very nervous on Tuesday.

I tried to show him how to tackle each question. I reminded him not to tarry too long on a single problem. I urged him to draw pictures of the given ideas. Together we underlined important information and crossed out whatever didn’t matter. He caught on quickly and his daily grades in school improved. He was named the student of the month because his teachers saw how hard he was working, and because he is so wonderfully kind. Still he was so concerned that he might not do well on the test, so I attempted to calm him. His parents also did their best to raise his confidence level. We all quietly worried that he was working himself into a state of mind that would interfere with his ability to do as well as he is capable.

Each school year I find myself railing at the STAAR test and other instruments supposedly used to measure the abilities and achievement levels of students. They are cold and supposedly objective ways of determining how well students and schools are doing, and yet we all know that they favor certain types of children over others. As a teacher I often witnessed kids who did little or nothing in class hit home runs on standardized tests while others who were almost religious in the way they applied themselves crashed and burned. According to the exam they had not learned all that they should have, but I knew better because I was so familiar with who they were. Some of those same youngsters who flopped on the state exams went on to graduate with honors from college and to be highly successful in their chosen careers. It angered me that so many decisions were being made about them along the way based solely on a one day test created by a company that makes millions of dollars spewing out questions that many adults would be unable to answer correctly.

I recall a time when one of my principals complained that the teachers in the mathematics department were not raising student scores enough. He demanded that they work harder. Since I was the department head I took his criticisms personally and felt a bit defensive. I wanted him to know what the teachers and the students were dealing with so I gave him a seventh grade mathematics test and told him to complete it in the allotted time frame. Just as I would have with the kids I monitored him while he worked the problems. From time to time he looked at me in frustration and I read his body language to mean that he was beginning to see how difficult the tests can be. When he was finished I graded his work immediately. He made a sixty seven. He was crushed and asked me to never reveal his score to anyone. He then met with the mathematics teachers and praised them for their dedication. He told them that he understood just how difficult it was to prepare the students for the tests. His encouragement brought results. Every single teacher had better overall scores than in the past. Perhaps the tests had been easier, but I prefer to think that when the teachers felt more support they transferred their own feelings to the students.

I seriously question why we put students and teachers and even principals through the misery of yearly standardized testing. I worry about the well being of our children and question putting them through such stressful situations when the overall results of such measures don’t actually correlate to ultimate success in life. We are deluding ourselves in thinking that the exams are fair because every study has shown that they are not. Mostly they turn off the natural curiosity of children and their willingness to take risks. So many psyches are being crushed making the “I hate math” crowd grow larger and larger when we might instead encourage our children to explore the world of numbers without worrying that they will be harmed. Math can actually be fun, but not so much when it is used to label an individual.

I suppose that I will continue my yearly rant with no effect, but I feel compelled to defend all of the boys and girls who live in fear of the humiliation that sometimes comes from them. I refuse to be quiet until somebody finally listens and considers the true worth of such measures. Instead of making testing companies rich, perhaps it is time that we enrich the lives of our young by pulling the plug on such high stakes testing. It’s well past time to use our heads and finally do what is right.

  

Filling the Cracks With Gold

gold-ingots-golden-treasure-47047.jpegIn Japan a broken object is often repaired with gold. The flaw is viewed as a unique piece of the object’s history which makes it more beautiful. Unknown Author

I am admittedly a control freak, so when things break or go awry I tend to freak out. I prefer routine, everything in its place. I suppose that my obsessive compulsive tendencies are derived from my father’s death when I was a very young child, a time when I felt my world spinning out of control so much so that I worried that my future would forever be horrific. Of course that did not happen, but I have had my share of unwelcome and difficult events, so much so that I prefer stability over excitement.

That being said, there is always seems to be something beautiful and unexpected that comes from even the most devastating tragedies. After my father died my brothers and I became more intensely close, and our mother made certain that we would feel safe by moving to a wonderfully wholesome neighborhood. I lived in this almost idyllic place until I was an adult. The friendships that I enjoyed there as a child are still rock solid strong. The beautiful memories that I made at a time when I had worried that my life was surely over have been the gold that repaired my broken heart.

I find that this occurs again and again just when I begin to waver and worry too much. It happened when our hot water heater overflowed and flooded part of the house. Even though I was happy that we were home and able to limit the damage, I began to fret over all of the dire possibilities of the things that might take place. Since all aspects of the repairs have taken far more time than I had thought that they would. I literally began having anxiety attacks at night because I was certain that mold was growing in the walls of my home and that it would become a toxic waste dump. I imagined all sorts of scenarios while we waited for insurance adjusters and repairmen.

Of course, as it turned out things began to fall back into place bit by bit. We have a nice new hot water heater and we have chosen new carpet that will be installed once the walls and the door frames and other things that were damaged are once again as good as new. While the experts take care of all of that, I have been moving things out of closets and packing them away in the garage so that the rooms will be ready for the carpet. In the process I encountered a box of photos and papers that I had stashed away long ago. The items had sat unnoticed for quite some time, so I decided to cull through them to decide what I wanted to keep. In the process I found the names of my grandfather’s parents. It was like discovering gold on my property because I had grown up knowing very little about him. He had died before I was born and my mother had no information about her own grandparents because her father was an immigrant from Austria Hungary in the area now known as Czechoslovakia and so was her mom.

I was so excited by my discovery that I posted something about it on Facebook and a few minutes later a cousin called to verify that my information was correct and that she had even more. I am now able to trace my ancestry back to my great great grandparents, all because I was forced to moved things so that workers might set things aright in my home. Had it not been for the accidental leaking of the hot water heater there is no telling how long that box that contained the key to my ancestry might have languished. Once again the broken object ended up being a golden moment, a beautiful light on my past.

I have friends who are far more faith filled than I am. They don’t worry as much because they just know that there is a vast eternal plan that is working as it was meant to be. I suppose that they have fewer middle of the night panic attacks than I do, or conversations with God that sound more like that between a parent and a recalcitrant child. My experience has proven that I am never alone, and yet I out doubt Thomas over and over again. I suppose that it is just my nature, but I must surely drive those who have to put up with me a bit crazy at times.

Luckily I always seem to find my way back, and realize that I have never really had it so bad. My life is probably about average compared to most. I lost people that I love, but so has everyone else, and in some cases their tragedies have been so much worse. I happened to get a hint about my all time favorite uncle when I was putting in the new names of my great grandparents on my ancestry.com family tree. The document that Ancestry found was his death certificate and its details made my heart weep for my aunt and for my uncle’s parents. He was only thirty one years old, and an only child. The sarcoma that began in his leg had metastasized to his lungs and other major organs. He left behind an infant daughter. I thought of how bereft everyone must have been. I was only five at the time and I felt as though my heart had been shattered. My father was never quite the same after his best friend had died. Somehow all of my trials and tribulations put together did not seem as harsh as this, and I chided my self for temporarily rolling in self pity.

The broken parts of my life have always healed and made me strong and resilient. I see the cracks and the scars, but they make me more beautiful, for surely they make me more compassionate. I truly understand what it is to hurt and to be afraid, but I also know that the human spirit is far more courageous than we think. The gold that always seems to come after the worst times is real and it is lovely.