Getting A Grip

gripFrom time to time my only female cousin comes to town and we literally talk until the cows come home. Both of us have grown children and grandchildren now and are retired from our jobs. We used to enjoy discussing politics and immersing ourselves in information and news that we shared with one another with great interest.  Of late we have decided to generally avoid all forms of political reporting and discourse. Mostly ignoring all of the rancor in Washington D.C. has been a welcome respite and one that we both agree will be our new habit. I suspect that we have many fellow travelers in that regard.

In her most recent visit my cousin revealed a whole new philosophy that has some merit. She noted that the two of us are growing older. Neither of us have any idea how many more years lie ahead for us. My mother died at age eighty four, but her mother, who is my mother’s sister, is still going strong at age ninety eight. Depending on which of the two our genetics favor we might still enjoy a good thirty more years or half of that. I suppose that neither of us can ever really know what is in store, but we can release ourselves from the constant stresses of worrying over the happenings in Washington D.C. 

My cousin pointed out that we have both had exceptionally good and productive lives. We worked at satisfying careers and had the privilege of parenting great kids who have in turn become incredible adults. Our time in the limelight is passing and leadership is changing hands. Our children and grandchildren are its future, not us. As such, she asks, shouldn’t we be asking them what kind of world they wish to have? She suggests that it isn’t up to us to foist our own wishes on them but to respect the ideas that they have developed. It is an interesting concept that might make a large difference in how we react to political trends.

My mother used to tell me that much as the Bible says, there is a time and a season for everything. I was once a mother but that is no longer my role. I have had to give my daughters wings and support them as they raise their own children. The way things are today is different from when I was guiding them. They must adapt to the changing times and I need to also be aware that parenting today may of necessity look very different from what it was like when I was a mom. So too it is with politics. The younger generations have different outlooks from ours which is pretty much the way things have been throughout history.

My very wise cousin has been through quite a few challenges. She has raised two sons as a single parent and battled a very rare form of breast cancer only to survive like a warrior. She believes that those of us in the AARP state of life will in all probability be just fine if we put our fates into the hands of the younger set. She argues that we raised them to have certain values and we should show confidence in their reasoning. I have to admit that I think that she is right.

I love the so called greatest generation of my parents but they have always had a tendency to be a bit bossy. Much like Queen Elizabeth they are loathe to relinquish power and control. I’ve often thought that many of the really older generation have never trusted those of us in the Baby Boomer group. It is up to us to break that cycle of domination and admit that we don’t always know everything and that sometimes a younger person is capable of better ideas.

I’ve been to a number of end of school year events of late and I am reminded again and again of how earnest and hard working most young folk today really are. They have hopes and dreams and desires that tend to be quite unselfish. They are prone to looking at the big picture and gazing into the future with positivity and hope. They genuinely want to save the planet and spread good will to all people. They have known less of racist thinking and phobias toward certain groups that my generation all too sadly witnessed firsthand. They possess boundless optimism and trust. At the same time they are far from being naive. I know them to be warm hearted and wise. I think that we must begin to listen to them and give their ideas more credence and less criticism.

My grandfather used to argue ferociously with my father over politics. The two of them would grow red in the face and their voices would rise to angry levels. By the time that I was old enough to talk about such things my grandfather would simply smile approvingly no matter what I uttered. He had learned to be far more accepting of differing points of view. He had his ideas and encouraged everyone else to have theirs. I suspect that his change came from years of experience and a growing knowledge that most people will cling tenaciously to their beliefs regardless of rebuttals.

It’s quite freeing to come to the conclusions that my cousin and I now embrace. I don’t feel a need to argue with anyone or to attempt to change minds. I find it interesting to hear whatever people have to say and rejoice that they care enough to have an opinion.  We may make mistakes and muddle through but in the end with each successive generation we always seem to find our balance and ultimately attempt to do what is right and just. I’m betting that the sons and daughters of me and my contemporaries will be more than up to the task, and that they in turn will be followed by their children who seem to have their heads on quite straight indeed. It’s good to feel so positive. Thank you, cousin, for the sage advice.

Summer Reading

LordOfTheFliesBookCoverMany students will be receiving summer reading assignments in the coming weeks. The ingenuity of their teachers will play a large role in determining whether this is a pleasant experience for them or not. Sadly it too often becomes a dreaded task that young people avoid until the last possible moment instead of being a source of pleasure. In our quest for accountability those of us who are teachers all too often concentrate more on how to ascertain if our pupils have actually learned certain things from the experience and less on how much they enjoyed it.

Kylene Beers is a well known reading specialist who strongly believes that children should have much more say regarding what they will read in their leisure time than most teachers are willing to grant them. She insists that our students should have many book choices and that they be the ones to ultimately decide which ones to tackle. She also cautions teachers from creating assignments and tests that erase the satisfaction that should come from digesting a truly interesting novel or nonfiction text. She notes that much of the joy of reading is extinguished each summer by well meaning teachers who lack the trust that their students will actually choose worthy volumes and then critically read them.

Dr. Beers suggests that teachers provide students with a long list of acceptable titles and then allow them to pick the ones that are most appealing. She feels that proof of reading should be checked in creative ways of the students’ own design. Otherwise, she points out, it becomes an odious task and the act of reading is associated with very negative feelings.

I find myself agreeing somewhat with Dr. Beers. I had to read several books each summer. Some of them were quite delightful and I am happy to this very day that I discovered them. I read others grudgingly and shutter even now at the thought of how uninterested in them I was. While Kon Tiki was a bestseller and a great adventure for some, for me it was a nightmare. I had a difficult time remembering what had happened from one paragraph to another. I simply had no desire to read such books back then. I eventually became enthralled with Into Thin Air and other similar titles but being exposed to such nonfiction in my youth did little to change my attitude. Thankfully there were enough titles on my teacher’s list that I mostly enjoyed my summer reading.

Today the favored tactic is to assign a single book to the entire class. Usually it is a classic with appeal to most students. I often wonder, however, how terrible it must be for someone who just can’t get into the story. We’ve all had that problem with one book or another. We aren’t the same and sometimes a story simply doesn’t speak to us. Maybe we need to be sure that students have a number of titles from which to choose rather than assuming that we have found one that will be acceptable to all.

One summer my grandson had a reading requirement for an American History class. There were four or five titles from which to choose. He enjoyed the first one that he read so much that he later tackled some of the others. When he had the freedom to decide his interest was piqued more than ever. Because I wanted to be able to discuss the books with him I bought copies of all of them. Like him when I discovered how great his first choice was I realized that his teacher had excellent taste and that I would probably like the others as well, which I did.

How to assess the students on reading assignments is another issue. Dr. Beers believes that many teachers find books that their student like, but then kill the appreciation with tests that ask questions about minute details that few of us would recall. Instead she recommends that the teacher should attempt to determine the student’s reactions to themes and characters. She suggests that asking students to discuss their feelings about the book is far more beneficial than having them tell what color a certain character was wearing at a particular juncture. She wants students to create questions that they may have and to list aspects that they had difficulty understanding. Just as members of a book club get together to critique a selection, so too should students be able to comment rather than being tied to an assessment that destroys their exuberance. The summer reading experience should never be a “gottcha” moment.

I am not naive enough to think that none of the students will take advantage of a teacher’s largesse if such changes are made, but there are ways to determine how much a student derived from reading without making it a laborious task. First, everyone should have a choice of titles. Assignments should be variable as well. Students can use their creativity to demonstrate what they learned. For some an essay will suffice. For others the creation of some type of object representing what they lessons they drew may be preferable. I suspect that allowing students to demonstrate their appreciation in various modes and then present their ideas to the rest of the class will result in far more interest. 

Think of how you usually decide to read a particular book. Quite often you see someone you know engaged in it. You ask him/her about it. Something about the response intrigues you. You find a copy and become enthralled. The next time you see your acquaintance you mention the text. The two of you begin a lively discussion. You share ideas. It is a pleasurable experience. Nobody is forcing you to do this. Reading becomes something that makes you happy and so you read even more.

I love the idea of having students spend time reading during their summer vacation. I like that they are often introduced to new authors and topics that they might not have otherwise discovered, but I also believe like Kylene Beers that they should have some freedom in deciding what sounds interesting enough to pursue. When the assessment is creative enough to keep that spark of enjoyment growing the experience is pleasurable and remembered forever.

I still tell people to try Things Fall Apart, The Kite Runner, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, A Separate Peace, The Lord of the Flies and so many other titles because they touched my heart. I will talk about them with anyone willing to listen, not because I had to read them, but because I wanted to. Reading should be a joyful experience. Let’s keep that in mind when we ask our children to spend some of their summer inside the pages of a book.   

Memories of Summer Past

46211978-Children-racing-in-the-park-on-a-sunny-day-Stock-Photo-playing-child-park.jpgWhen the weather gets warm and the school year comes to a close I have a tendency to hark back to my childhood, and oh how wonderful it was. We didn’t have air conditioning back then even though Houston was as hot as it is now. We used a big attic fan and open windows to keep cool. Mostly though we stayed outside where there was always great adventure to be found. The hose was our water fountain and source of play all in one.

My usual wardrobe consisted of a pair of shorts and a sleeveless crop top. I don’t think I donned a pair of shoes from the end of May until the end of August unless we went to church or a store. My mother usually cut my hair into what she called pixie style, but it had mostly function and very little style. It kept my neck cool and was easy to care for. My feet would turn almost black by the end of each day and I often sported a ring around my neck from dirt and sweat that my mother called “Grandma’s beads.” God only knows I survived cuts from glass and punctures from nails.

I remember waking up early each summer morning. Somehow getting up with a rising sun was much easier when a day of fun lay ahead than during the school year. We were mostly on our own for entertainment. If we dared to hang around complaining that we were bored Mama would admonish us to go outside and play. Truthfully we rarely had trouble finding something to do. There were kids all up and down the block as excited about creating adventurous times as we were. We rode our bicycles up and down the neighborhood and across the bridge over Sims Bayou to Garden Villas. There we played games at the park and visited the mobile library.

All of us were quite inventive back then. At Karen’s house we built tents on her mother’s clotheslines out of sheets and blankets. At the Cervenka’s we dug an underground room. We teamed up for street baseball and had serious Red Rover tournaments. Sometimes I broke off from the boys and played with my dolls with Candy and Jeannie. Groups of us also created shows to which we would invite the entire neighborhood. I even tried my hand at amateur journalism by creating a newspaper with stories about all of the happenings.

Once in a great while my mother would treat us with a big thermos of ice water with enough cups for our friends. It was a welcome change from the hot rubbery tasting water from the hose. She was also known for inviting our friends in for lunch and she made the best sandwiches ever. When the temperature crept above one hundred degrees she allowed us to host game tournaments at the kitchen table. Monopoly and Canasta were two of the favorites and we played like Las Vegas professionals vying for world titles.

We enjoyed riding to Hartman Junior High to swim and to Ripley House to take art lessons and such. I most of all loved lying on my bed in front of the windows reading books while a hot breeze wafted over me. Reading was the surest way to be allowed in the house. As long as we were quiet and didn’t make a mess our mother was happy.

Mostly though we stayed outside until it grew dark each evening and grudgingly suspended our play when Mama called us in to take baths and get ready for bed. We spent a great deal of time lying on our backs gazing at the stars. We identified constellations and talked of things that are important to children. I remember feeling gleeful upon seeing the fireflies lighting up the nighttime and playing shadowy games of Swing the Statue.

On Friday evenings we always went to visit my grandmother, even in the summer, and that meant seeing all of my cousins. Our favorite past time was a game we called Hide and Find which was little more than a variation on Hide and Seek. We tended to stay outside because our parents filled Grandma’s tiny living room with smoke from their cigarettes. When we did go inside it was usually to watch wrestling or The Twilight Zone. On rainy evenings we spied on the brothers and sisters who were now our parents as they argued over poker games and who was our grandmother’s favorite child. We ate slices of rye bread and washed them down with a weak and sugary version of coffee. There was nothing quite like those weekly reunions that we thought would never end. Like Peter Pan we were in no hurry to grow up.

I rarely witness the kind of lifestyle that we had back in the fifties and sixties. Children today mostly stay inside of their air conditioned homes. When they come out to play their parents are with them, watching to be certain that they are safe. Most of the time they are not home, instead away participating in a host of organized activities. They are warned not to drink from water hoses because they might ingest dangerous chemicals that will make them sick. They wear shoes to protect their feet, kneepads to keep their shins from being skinned and helmets to insure that they will not endure head injuries. They make us look like free range renegades, children who should have been referred to CPS. The fact is that we were loved and cherished by parents who taught us how to fend for ourselves. We tackled bullies on our own and learned early on how to engage our creativity to occupy the hours. We truly believed that our childhoods were wondrous and we mostly invented the fun of each day with other kids rather than adults.

I suppose that the world is not quite as safe now as it was back then. The windows were always open and even though we did not see our mothers, they saw and heard us every minute. They had a neighborhood spy system that kept them continually informed. We were a different kind of gang than the ones that are now so dangerous. We took care of each other and learned how to share and be part of a team. Like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn we were summer explorers who found great adventures in our own backyards with adults from one house to another silently and stealthily tracking our movements. There was an innocence back then that parents today can’t afford to assume is present and oh how wonderful it was.

I sometimes sit and watch my neighborhood from my living room window. It is mostly quiet even when the children are not in school. I hope that they are somehow having as much fun as we did and that they will have memories that are as happy as mine. There was something rather lovely about the utter simplicity of my youth that seems to be missing today. I understand why, but it saddens me to think that children have to face ugly truths and realities about which we were oblivious. Some progress is wonderful, but having to grow up without the freedoms that I so enjoyed seems to be a loss for the new generation of children. Perhaps they are okay and don’t even know what they are missing, but I for one often wish that I might go back for just one more summer day from the time when I was young, and I would like to take a youngster along to witness just how marvelous it was. 

A Nation of Hermits

Hermit-crab-GettyImages-597303469-58b66f6f5f9b586046c36d9e.jpgI have been told that my grandfather went shopping every Friday after work. He visited a bookstore and purchased a new volume to read during the coming week and then bought a few groceries which he carried home in a reusable mesh bag. (He was obviously way ahead of his time.) It was an outing that he enjoyed. As a child I accompanied my mother on Saturday shopping excursions. Sometimes we rode the bus into the downtown retail district, but mostly we went to the malls that were just then becoming a new phenomenon all across America. I looked forward to those times with great anticipation because they meant that I would receive a quarter to spend in any way that I chose. When I became an adult I kept the Saturday tradition going with my own daughters and I have warm memories of fun times together.

Eventually my girls left home and I enlisted my mother as a shopping partner once again. As she grew older I religiously visited her every Friday afternoon after work and our adventures always included dining out followed by an excursion to one of her favorite stores. She literally spent hours studying the items displayed in every aisle and buying only those offered for the best possible prices. She always appeared to be so happy just window shopping and I loved being with her talking about this and that as we went about our weekly routine. I suspect that I somehow developed a psychological connection between retail therapy and joyful memories of my mother, because to this very day I find wandering around my favorite stores to be calming.

I sometimes worry that the act of browsing inside boutiques and such will go the way of the dinosaur. I recently heard a news story in which an economist predicted that three fourths of all of the retail merchants that we now know will be gone within a couple of decades, replaced mostly by online giants and mega stores like Walmart. People are more and more often using existing brick and mortar establishments to see what products are like so that they might order the same things from Amazon for lower prices. More and more often we hear of stores closing their doors forever for lack of customers, and even those that appear to be doing well are struggling to keep up with the momentum of online shopping. It seems that people would rather spend their time on weekends enjoying family activities and traveling than perusing racks of clothing inside buildings. Furthermore the cost of renting space and paying for upkeep makes it difficult for traditional establishments to compete with the deals that online businesses are able to provide. The American shopping experience is rapidly changing.

Ironically we are in a sense returning to the old days of the catalog. In the early days of the twentieth century people who lived in more rural areas often shopped from a Sears or JC Penny catalog. Virtually anything that they might have wanted was available including kits for building homes. My father-in-law lives in a house in the Houston Heights that was made from designs sold in the early nineteen hundreds. It is a style that might be seen all across the country because it was a favorite of the catalog buying public during that era. Now we have online inventories from which we can choose most of the things that we use and have them delivered directly to our homes, often without having to pay shipping costs. With a few keystrokes we are able to order our medications, appliances, clothing, gifts and even groceries. There is little reason to get dressed up and venture out. It’s just so much easier to visit the electronic stores.

I have often believed that given enough reasons not to have to leave my home I would easily evolve into being a hermit of sorts. I wonder if today’s world is so fast paced and stressful that most of us are tempted by the idea of finding solace inside the walls of our homes as often as possible. We now have the capacity to enjoy movies, music and culinary experiences without ever venturing into crowded establishments. With Netflix and the like we are able to spend an evening watching great entertainment with all of the snacks we might desire for less than a third of the cost of going to a theater. Best of all we can do it in our pajamas and pause the action at will.

The world is always changing and those of us who cling to past memories may have to learn how to keep up. It appears that the big malls of yesteryear may become empty caverns of curiosity that our grandchildren and great grandchildren will view with wonder. They will marvel at the quaint idea of wandering from one shop to another as a form of entertainment. They will laugh at the impracticality of such ideas as they order their goods and receive them within hours from drones that drop them on their doorsteps.

In some ways the ever changing way of doing business is actually quite wonderful for seniors like me. As we become less and less able to get around we will still be able to procure the items that we need for comfortable and happy living. We will have little need to have a car or worry about transportation. With Uber as our chauffeur and Amazon as our marketplace we will be able to be independent far longer than previous generations. The only thing that worries me is that as we as a society spend more and more of our time inside our homes we run the risk of becoming isolated. Unless we couple the convenience of home shopping with concerted efforts to stay connected with other people we will fall prey to some very unhealthy habits.

It will be quite interesting to see what actually happens in the coming years. The stores that I frequent are still quite busy and I find it difficult to believe that everyone will be accepting of the idea of reinventing the ways of commerce and abandoning the brick and mortar experiences. Nonetheless I have been proven wrong many times before. I laughed at the idea of recording television programs for future viewing. I never dreamed that Blockbuster Video would become a memory of the past. I believed that Amazon was only a phase along with home computers and smart phones. There is no telling what actually lies ahead.

I now have devices in my home that turn on lights and monitor the area while I am gone, ready to alert the police in the event of trouble. I can view the rooms from hundreds of miles away. I receive my medication at my doorstep and purchase all of my Christmas gifts each year without ever having to search for parking spaces at a mall. I watch programs at my own leisure and truly believe that one day I will not have to drive my car because it will be programmed to get me from place to place on its own. I have a robot that cleans my floors just like Rosie in the Jetsons. I eat meals that only require a few minutes of heating time in the microwave. I am as automated as a science fiction story of old and there is definitely going to be more to come. I only hope that in our quest to make our homes all providing castles we do not fall into the trap of becoming a nation of hermits. The temptation is there. We will have to make certain that we find other ways of interacting with our fellow humans. I’m sure that someone already has ideas about how to accomplish that.

Real Life U

finaltiedyedblowdryerI attended a big graduation party for my grandson this weekend. We talked about all sorts of things and even had a few good laughs about my hair. I told all of the usual jokes about how difficult it is to arrange and the stories of actual insults that I have received from clueless people who simply don’t understand what it’s like to struggle with locks the texture of corn silk. Some people even took turns feeling how baby fine it is. I received all sorts of suggestions about what to do with it, but the fact is that it looks great only when my hair dressers fixes it. Trouble is that I can’t reproduce her coiffures at home. I simply don’t have the skills to puff it up and get it to lie right.

In truth I would love to be able to do a better job with my hair so I decided to search the Internet for ideas and came upon some YouTube videos done by a famous stylist. He demonstrated what type of blowdryer to use for my kind of hair and how to properly apply cremes that produce more volume in the hair shaft. I learned a great deal from him that I will certainly try, but I suspect that I would do even better if I had a personal coach who might watch me to correct any mistakes that I make in the process. After all we have such people on call at gyms. That got me to thinking about an entrepreneurial idea that someone should pursue. I call it Real Life U.

The truth is that we receive a particular type of education in schools that doesn’t  include some of the most basic skills that we need. There used to be shop and woodworking classes but those have mostly gone the way of the buggy whip. My mother learned how to sew and cook in high school but few institutions of learning offer such courses anymore. I once knew a PE coach who brought old cars to the school and worked with some of the students after hours to repair them. They walked away with some very valuable hands on skills that they truly appreciated having. His little workshops were quite popular indeed. I wondered then and now why we don’t have more of that type of training available for everyone.

It’s possible to learn almost anything on the Internet, but because I am a very kinesthetic kind of person I need real lab experience before feeling comfortable that I have mastered a particular skill. I know that watching a picture helps but there are nuances with regard to the way one stands or positions the hands and so forth that often make a huge difference in success or failure. By having an actual building where one can go to learn how to do just about anything under the guidance of experts there can be opportunities for practice and trouble shooting.

I envision students of all ages learning everything from how to style hair (my personal favorite) to how to install lighting or repair plumbing. I can see franchises popping up all over the country just like the cooking classes and painting sessions that have become so popular. I know that I would be quite interested in enrolling to learn all sorts of things that never come up in our academically focused public schools. I am able to solve quadratic equations in four or five different ways but I have no idea how to properly repair a rotting board on a house.

Surely someone reading my blog is going to think, “Aha! This is my ticket to wealth.” I really believe that there is a market. Right now we have a number of specialized learning situations in far flung locations but this would be one stop shopping for everyone. Over time it would be easy to determine what subjects are most in demand. I suspect that people will love it. Groups might come for an evening to learn how to apply makeup for different occasions or for many weeks to master the skill of putting pot lights in a kitchen.

Who knew that escape rooms would become as popular as they have? They are now popping up everywhere with storefronts catering to the locals. I heard recently about a man in Minnesota who started a recreational business called Extreme Sandbox. He leases several acres of land and a fleet of heavy equipment and provides adults with the bucket list activity of a lifetime. For one hundred dollars they can operate a steamroller or a bulldozer. He averages at least four hundred customers a month and is doing so well that he recently opened a new location in north Texas near Dallas. He says that he gets almost as many women as men, and groups from various companies come for team building activities. They leave so excited that they often return multiple times on their own.

There are no doubt many many ideas for starting new and different kinds of businesses than anyone has even considered. It usually begins when someone like me has a problem that needs solving and they realize that there is really nobody out there addressing the issue adequately. Most inventions begin this way.

I don’t want to spend my twilight years investing my time in creating such things, but I am more than happy to pass along my idea of Real Life U to someone else who might be interested. With a bit of hard work and some marketing genius Real Life U might become the McDonald’s of leisure learning. Just remember me when I come to use your services and give me a little discount. All I really want is to have a safe place where I might learn how to tame my hair and get it to behave the way my hairdresser does without disparaging comments. Who knows, I may see other classes while I’m there and sign up for them as well. I’m crossing my fingers that someone out there takes the initiative. We are all waiting to learn how to do the things that will allow us to live happier and more complete lives. Get those old cars out there for someone to repair. Turn on the blow dryers for the styling challenged. Real Life U here we come! All hail our alma mater!