Games People Play

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Before huge televisions with countless programs in living color, kids created ways to have fun with their friends. Most of the time the activities took place outside away from the watch of parents. We were on our own and more often than not created adventures that would have made Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn proud. Since our summers were a full three months and the heat often soared near one hundred degrees in August, we often found refuge from the sun inside someone’s home where we had to play quietly or invoke the wrath of our mothers. That’s when we took out the board games or cards and designed championship tournaments whose only prize was status among our peers. 

The favorites back then were Monopoly, Scrabble, and Clue along with a variety of card games like canasta and poker. My favorite was Scrabble because I have always had a way with words. Clue reminded me of the mysteries that were my reading fodder from an early age. Monopoly depended a bit too much on luck for my taste and I rarely won, but now and again the gods of dice gave me the numbers I needed and I managed to become a real estate baron. Somehow I have always felt that those gaming days indirectly guided me in choosing the direction of my life. 

I’m not a gambler or a risk taker, so poker was probably my least favorite diversion. My face always gave away what I was thinking because I never really learned how to successfully tell even a little white lie as a bluff, and really did not want to do so. I wasn’t interested in counting cards either, so I don’t think I ever won such a competition. I left everything to luck and the skill of others always overcame my efforts. 

It was Scrabble that won me over because I have collected words for all of my life. While some of my fellow students hated the vocabulary lessons from our teachers, I devoured them. I saw words as one of the greatest gifts that we humans enjoy. Communicating was my thing and I practiced diligently until I learned how to do it well. Words were essential in my quest, so a game that featured them was glorious to me. Playing Scrabble gave me an opportunity to demonstrate one of my very best skills, but sadly few of my friends shared my enthusiasm for the game. More often than not the group chose something else to play. 

Everyone seemed to enjoy Monopoly and we always agreed to play the long version of the game. I mostly wanted to be either the old shoe or the thimble, which in some ways was indicative of my personality and how I would actually do in the real world of finance. Some of my friends were already demonstrating incredible talent for earning money as they traveled around that board with their top hats, race cars, or battleships. They were as serious about real estate and banking as I was about words. While I often grew bored before the game was done, they were intensely focused until they had gathered mountains of cash and run the rest of us out of business.

Clue tended to be the great equalizer. We all had a bit of the sleuth in us, but as my mother often noted, I noticed little things that made me a natural detective. Besides, I have always been addicted to mysteries. If someone demanded that I choose only one genre of book to read for the rest of my life it would have to be mystery. In fact, when I first entered high school I stunned my English teacher when I admitted on a survey that I had mostly read Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie novels while disregarding the other wonderful fiction and nonfiction authors. 

To this very day I am an avid fan of Dateline, 20/20 and 48 hours. I listen to podcasts about crimes while I exercise. I am fascinated by the human mind and people who engage in violent and deviant behaviors. i might have worked for the FBI or the CIA. That would have been a great job for me with my observational and language skills. Instead I chose teaching which also used my talents with great success. 

These days most young people compete in computer games. I suppose that adults think of the time they spend on such things as being a waste of effort much as the adults of my time may have considered the gaming competitions of my youth. I suspect that we too often fail to see how games can actually translate later into real life skills. 

I remember reading that the military has found that today’s youth learns how to manipulate weapons and perform other related tasks with greater dexterity than recruits of the past. The kids who once played games that required great hand eye coordination learn to fly a plane or drive a tank quickly. The time spent in front of a screen making animated creatures react to changing conditions makes them perfect for a host of jobs that once took much more training to master. 

Medical schools have also noticed that students training to become surgeons or to handle diagnostic tools have steadier hands and much quicker reaction times than those of the past. Those hours of sitting in front of a screen seeming to be wasting time literally translate into highly usable skills in the real world.

Games people play are not just frivolous entertainment. We learn as we compete and take those skills forward into our lives. While I knew people who flunked out of college because they spent too much time at a card table or in front of a video game, most unconsciously use the skills that they learned in the world of games outside of formal learning and turn those skills into a way of earning a living. So take out those board games or sit down and play a video game. There is more to those pastimes than we think. They may lead us to success in the real world.

I Am Not A Saint!

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When one of my aunts was in her nineties her sons were in their seventies and already struggling with illnesses of their own. Luckily she was well cared for in a nursing home and they did their best to visit her and make certain that her finances would remain sufficient to keep her safe and happy regardless of how long she lived. Even that situation ultimately became more and more difficult for my cousins who were aging in tandem with their mother. At the time of her death they are both in their eighties and had to pass the torch of being caretakers to younger members of the family. 

My husband and I suddenly find ourselves responsible for his father who recently spent six weeks in the hospital and literally stopped breathing at one point until he was put on a ventilator. When he came to our home he had lost over forty pounds and was only able to walk with either a walker or a cane. 

We moved out of our downstairs master bedroom and retro-fitted it for him. We ordered a lower box spring so that the bed would not be too high for him. We installed a new toilet that was higher and purchase a sturdy toilet seat with grab bars. We put three grab bars in the shower and found a shower chair on which he might sit while bathing. We bought a handheld shower nozzle so that he can direct the spray. We created space in the closet and in the dresser and brought his computer to the room. We organized his medications and supervise distribution. We gathered low salt no sugar recipes and take him to his physical therapy sessions. You would think that all is well and we are happy campers all of the time and you would be wrong. 

Recently someone told me that I was a saint for doing this. I shook my head and assured her that I was far from that godlike state. Caring for an elderly person like my father-in-law who is ninety three years old can be akin to raising a child. The difference is that the older person has grown accustomed to being in charge and may not take kindly to rules about safety or new routines. Just as with little ones, it takes great stamina and patience to suddenly be responsible for the well being of a senior. 

I went into this situation feeling starry-eyed and excited to be able to do something grand for my father-in-law. I envisioned being a kind of Mother Teresa for him. It never occurred to me that he would sometimes fight our efforts to protect him. He often pushes us away when we walk behind him to make sure that he does not fall, since he is in a fragile condition. He purchased cookies and candy at the store and insists on eating them even though he is diabetic. He purposely leaves his cane behind to prove that he can walk without an aid, even though his physical therapist advises him not to try such things. He whispers on the phone to friends that while he is staying with us now, he may soon be back home. He is itching to drive his car even though he tells us that he often feels lightheaded. His social worker tells us that ultimately we will not be able to force him to do anything that he does not want to do. It is frustrating beyond words because we worry about him.

So back to the idea of my being a saint. The truth is that the closest I come to being heavenly is when I pray for patience all day long. I literally ask God to help me remember that this sweet old man is only trying to maintain his dignity. It is difficult for him to be at the mercy of others. He wants badly to turn back the clock and be the strong and independent person he once was. I know and understand these things, yet I still find myself feeling out of sorts from time to time when he balks or does things that I believe are not good for him.

When my own grandfather was ninety years old a doctor told him that he had diabetes and advised him to eliminate all sugar and maintain a diabetic diet. Grandpa just laughed and told the doc that at his age something was bound to get him in the coming years and if it wasn’t diabetes it would be something else. He already ate healthy foods, but he never gave up occasional bowls of ice cream or slices of cake. My grandfather lived to be one hundred eight and was as happy as can be in the process.

My father-in-law is not nearly as energetic or healthy as my grandfather was at his age, but then few people are. Perhaps there comes a time when the elderly decide to just live dangerously rather than constantly counting calories, looking at labels for salt and sugar content, and submitting to the concerns of watchful children. Maybe one day I will be just as adamant that I want to be left alone. Nonetheless, I suppose that it is our duty to at least attempt to dissuade my father-in-law from engaging in activities that may hurt him. Otherwise it would be like allowing a baby to put his hand in a flame just to teach him a lesson. 

I’m trying not to be grumpy or to feel beset upon. My world has been turned upside down too and I don’t always take kindly to disruptions in the way I do things. I’d love to be saintly like my friends, Chrystal and Linda, who gave of their time and love to their mothers with angelic joyfulness. I suppose that I have to work on being a little bit better each day. My father-in-law deserves great respect and compassion and we never know how long he may be with us. I want to enjoy our days together even if they sometimes get a bit rough. I love our dinnertime and our evenings watching television together. I’ll concentrate on really enjoying those moments and not stressing over whether or not I am being the perfect caretaker. For now that will be enough. I suppose it’s okay that I am not a saint. Few people in this life are.

The Elephant In the Room That Won’t Go Away

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I was born and raised in Texas, albeit in a large and diverse city. I have the Texas drawl to prove my roots, but my southern bonafides are mostly the accident of my birth rather than my family history. While I spent a large swath of my life believing that the tune most indicative of my past was “Dixieland” rather than the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” I ultimately learned that I was the descendant of a Civil War hero who wore blue, not gray. That dramatically changed my thinking about the war that is too often idealized.

Upon learning that my great grandfather, John William Seth Smith, fought with the Union Army I studied the issue of secession a bit more closely and listened to the words of songs and speeches and poems emanating from the north and south during that contentious war. After spending time researching the eras before, during, and after the fighting my feelings about politics and history dramatically changed. I realized just how much propaganda and sloganeering there was in those songs and speeches. I began to wonder how horrific it must have been for my great grandfather and all of the others who fought. I saw the horror, not the glory of that war and secretly felt relieved that my great grandfather had chosen what I believe to be the right side of the disagreement. Still, I felt compassion for the majority of southerners who were no doubt mostly embroiled in the skirmish by directives from the wealthier slave holding citizens of their states. No doubt their thinking had been tainted by prejudices and fears that were used to convince them to play along with the ridiculousness of the cause.

I’ve visited Civil War battlefields with my husband. Neither of us relish the stories of bloodshed and death that forever stained those hallowed grounds. There is a profound sadness that hovers over such places. I always find myself wondering how things had become so bad that such a schism occurred and why it seems to continue to pollute our ability to unite for a common good. While we are not physically fighting in the streets for the most part, we continue to bicker with one another in a decidedly uncompromising manner. It feels as though our original sin of allowing slavery to exist and flourish still haunts us even after we have attempted to lay it to rest. 

I was taught to admit to my mistakes, confess my sins and ask for forgiveness. The process is called reconciliation. When the confession and contrition is real the slate is wiped clean. We are supposed to be free to begin again and to do our best to be better. Somehow after the American Civil War it seems as though we simply announced that we were a united country again, that slaves were free, and that it was time to move on. We made little effort to reconcile with those who had lived in chains or even with our neighbors from other states who had chosen a different side. There was a kind of silence that stifled our ability to broach the topics that had resulted in the war in the first place. There was no real admission of mistakes, no true reconciliation. The war was over but the problems festered in the dark. 

We attempted again and again to codify the rights of all Americans and to make life more fair for everyone, but as a teacher I am fully aware that just because people obey laws, does not mean that they like them or feel that they are adequate in addressing problems. We are a country that has experienced trauma. We have a large swath of citizens whose history is traumatic, but we have mostly been fearful of honestly discussing such things. Of late we have even ridiculously made laws to prevent such problems from even being discussed in schools, a terrible idea if ever there was one. We are living in a state of guilt and denial that continues to tear our citizenry apart. 

As a nation we have trouble voicing our concerns and even more difficulty listening to the needs of others. We have a very bad habit of answering pleas with, “Yes, but…” We choose sides just like our ancestors did and often end up fighting only because we refuse to accept differing points of view. To this very day some among us either defend or give a pass to slave holders while others insist on getting apologies or even reparations as a sign that we are serious about obliterating the wrongs that were done. We can and should remember history, but in some instances honoring it with statues and flags for those who violently broke with the Union and insisted on defending the ownership of slaves would be as absurd as erecting a memorial to Adolf Hitler in Germany or as abhorrent as raising a Nazi flag. We might forgive those who treasonously declared war on the United States, but it makes little sense to lionize those individuals in any form. 

But for the decision to forgive these persons and invite them back into the fold, the leaders of the secession might have found themselves spending years in prison or even being condemned to death. It was right not to enact grievous punishments if we were to become one nation again, but the long drawn out adoration of the Confederacy by so many has only kept alive the deep seated anger that prompted the war in the first place. We simply have never faced the reality of what actually happened in a manner that would finally set our differences to rest. 

There is a sadness that is alive in our precious country today. There is an elephant in the room that we have never properly addressed, and maybe never will. Our citizenry needs therapy that has not been forthcoming. Trying to pretend that we are alright is not healthy, but perhaps we will one day realize that we have had enough and finally sit around a table and tell our stories with total honestly and join hands in peace. For the sake of our country it needs to happen soon.

Shoes, Clothes, Backpacks and Pizza

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I have been retired from teaching in the public school system for eleven years now, but I have never quit teaching mathematics in one way or another. For a time I worked as a tutor and then I began educating Home School students. Somehow I have not been able to fully give up teaching, so my brain still works according to the school calendar and daily schedule. 

I sometimes allow myself to sleep in until about eight in the morning from June through July, but once the schools reopen for teacher inservice sessions, I find myself automatically waking up just before sunrise. It is as though somehow the routine is ingrained in my brain and I can’t and don’t want to make it go away. I begin gathering pencils and pens and folders and spiral notebooks at the store. I think of ways to make my lessons more interesting and understandable. I get planning books, even though I should probably prepare my lessons online. I purchase batches of copy paper and bundles of sticky notes. I am a creature of habit and these are my tools.

The start of a school year makes me think of new shoes and clothes that are brand new. I look at book bags and even purchased a new one for myself. It’s lavender and will hold my laptop nicel. when I travel from house to house to meet with my students. I also think of school pizza, the favorite lunch for virtually every student. 

Everyone wants to eat the cafeteria lunch on pizza day, even though the only topping on the educational variety is cheese. The kids don’t seem to mind at all that there is no pepperoni, or sausage, or hamburger on top. The kind they get at lunch has no olives or green pepper and certainly no anchovies or pineapple, which is probably a good thing for them. Nonetheless, they line up for the square slice of pizza that comes from a huge sheet pan and none of it ends up in the garbage like so much of the food. I think some of them would enjoy having pizza at least once every week and burgers as well. Everything else other than maybe burritos and the annual November turkey dinner tends to fill the trash cans at the end of each lunch session, which is a topic for another time.

I find myself craving pizza as we near the opening day, which for me will be August 17, this year. I still can’t believe that we all made it through the pandemic. I’ve been Zooming since the spring of 2020 and only returned to my students’ homes in the last few weeks of May, 2022. Someone among them was constantly getting sick and I knew that they needed for me to stay well, so I became a remote teacher for two years. I’ll be glad to be back in person but there was something nice about being able to teach in pajama pants and bare feet. Perhaps I will miss that. 

Some of my homeschool students have graduated to Junior or Community Colleges. It’s heartwarming to know that they are succeeding and that I did my job well for them, but for me teaching is actually so much more than just work. I often wonder when I will become too old or too tired to keep doing this. For now, I have found it to be a kind of lifesaver that keeps me feeling as though I still have a purpose in this world beyond my own family and household. I don’t know why, but that matters to me. It is a driving force that stimulates and motivates me. 

My curriculum runs the gamut from using pizzas as fractions for fourth graders to explaining the fundamentals of Algebra II that prepare students for Calculus. It’s fun to put together the building blocks and watch the construction of mathematical knowledge grow as I move the same students from one stage to another. It’s a delight that I never had when I was tied to one grade level or one specific type of mathematics. Now I see how the pieces fit together and it is instructive for me. I wish all teachers had such an opportunity because the progression is important to understand. I think knowing these things has made me a better and better teacher over time.

Soon the buses will be coming at six thirty in the morning. The children will be giggling on the corner as they line up to pile inside. I’m hoping that this will be a better year for teachers than the past few have been. I’m hearing that virtually every school has openings because many have chosen to leave the profession. It has become increasingly difficult to be a teacher in today’s environment. The pay is still low. The environment grows more and more demanding and toxic with way too many players making demands. It is truly a sad state of affairs and I feel lucky to be where I am right now.

I no longer need new shoes or clothes, but I think I’ll schedule a haircut since I will be going in person this year. Somehow the idea of having some pizza and a movie day before the vacation ends sound wonderful as well. I’m going for a whole lot of toppings, but I would not mind having one of those plain cheese squares.

Dealing With Loss

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One of my former bosses lost his son in a heinous drive by shooting a year ago. Since that time he has been unabashedly honest about his feelings and the intense pain that he has endured in the aftermath of his son’s death. There have been days when he has been angry, others when his sorrow spilled over. While it has been tempting to attempt to help him with age old platitudes he has told us not to make weak attempts to cheer him up, but rather to allow him to express what is unfolding in his mind without filters. He has let us know how important it is not to try to smooth things over by suggesting that  bad things happen for a reason. He suggests that instead we simply be present for him regardless of the mood that overtakes him on any given day. Love means hearing and understanding those who are hurting, not attempting to fix them.  

I suppose that it is in most of our natures to withdraw from uncomfortable situations. We all too often try to stop the tears of someone who is suffering rather than simply embracing them without comment other than to remind them that we love them. Our inclination is to help in some way that will stop their pain, but often all we are doing is forcing them to deny the very emotions that are so naturally spilling forth. They regain control of themselves for us, but deep down inside they are screaming for someone to just understand how difficult their state of mind actually is. We are not really helping if we do nothing more than stop the free flow of truthfulness that they need to convey. 

After my father died my mother would sometimes begin crying and talking about him without warning. Most people had no idea how to react. They sometimes suggested that she get hold of herself, or ask God to help her move forward. Other times they nervously left the scene and then rarely returned again to talk with her. My mama often wondered why everyone was so afraid of speaking about my father with her. She saw her tears as something quite natural and healthy and did not think that she should have to deny them. Like my former boss, she needed to converse with someone who had known my father and loved and understood him as well as she did. Sadly such an open way of speaking of him seemed to be almost taboo. 

My friend, Sharon, who recently died had a natural talent for being with souls who were in a state of stress. What everyone loved about her is that she allowed them to be themselves, to express their deepest feelings without needing to hide even their ugliest thoughts. Her eyes sent the message that she was a safe harbor. She listened intently and only spoke after great consideration of what she had heard. There was never judgement or an attempt to force the person to recant or change their mental perceptions. She simply acknowledged the reality of the suffering and pain. She was fully present to hear and love the person before her and to provide them with a safe space. 

My mother died the day before a planned retirement celebration for me at my daughter’s home. We scurried to tell everyone that the party was cancelled. At the pre-appointed time I went to my daughter’s home just in case any of those who had been invited had not received the message. My friend, Sharon, arrived at the time when the party would have otherwise taken place. When I told her how sorry I was that she had not heard that the party was cancelled she lovingly admitted that she had indeed received word that there would be no party. She said that she came anyone because she thought that I might need her. She sat on the couch just holding my hand and allowing me to drive the conversation. It was a beautiful and loving thing that she did that I have never forgotten. 

I have witnessed other people properly extending their good wishes to people in a state of sadness. Sometimes they send a card or letter with acknowledgement of the person’s difficult situation. Other times they call and simply say that they were thinking of the individual and then let them say whatever they need to say. They ask what they might do to help. People send plants or food or books to demonstrate that they care. Such gestures are lovely and really do send the message that someone cares. What does not work is suggesting trite fixes to quell the tears or deny the feelings. As well meaning as such things are, they sometimes do more damage to the psyche of those who are struggling with the reality of tragedy than not saying anything at all.

We each deal with losses differently. Some take heart in believing that a loved one is in a better place. Others are still too angry and hurt to find solace in such ideas. Some feel that they are learning from tragedy while others find such hard lessons to be unbearable. We need to meet people where they are and we can only do that by listening and observing them. If we follow their lead we will help more than by forcing our own ways on them. In most cases they like to talk about their departed loved ones, so engage with them when they do. Just sitting next to someone and holding his/her hand conveys the most important message that you are present for them and always will be.