Staying Cool

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I was never one of the cool kids in high school. I was a bit too serious for the really fun crowd, but people liked me and I liked them. It was not until I hit my mid twenties that I achieved a semblance of swag. By then I was way more confident and willing to let myself relax enough to enjoy life and all of the wondrous things it had to offer. When I became a teacher I did my best to be one of the cool teachers insofar as teaching mathematics allowed me to do. I learned that the secret to being with it in education involved a mix of subject knowledge along with a great deal of understanding of my students and their particular needs. Over the years my contact with young people kept me abreast of new trends and I was able to pass as someone who was more cool than not, even though I slowly began to see signs that I was losing my hipness when my children began moving toward middle age. Not only did they make fun of my quirky ways and mom jeans, but my teenage grandchildren were beginning to poke fun at them. I got the message that my time of being cool had somehow passed without my realizing it.

We are warned not to go gently into the good night, and J. Alfred Prufrock reminds us of hour hair thinning hair and waning relevance. Even though the calendar tells me that I am no longer a spring chicken, something in my soul feels so very young, When I gaze into the mirror I often have a double take because I just don’t know who the person staring back at me might be. The wrinkles and gray hairs surely must belong to someone else. I wonder when my knees began to ache and why I can’t work all day in my yard like I used to do. I try to remember exactly when it was that I was no longer able to escape the pains that rack body when I over exert myself. My brain has yet to accept my reality, and it is only when some stranger politely treats me as though I am old and frail that I realize that the outside world doesn’t see me the way I see myself. This truth is compounded whenever I discern that my teenage granddaughter is a bit embarrassed when I get really silly, something that used to amuse her but now causes her to turn red in the face. It is as though the world is asking me to act my age, and I am not yet willing to comply.

There seems to be a period of time during which society expects us to begin the process of accepting that we are no longer the rockstars that we once were. We are expected to slowly and gracefully transition into the life of a senior citizen, understanding that it is anathema to dress or speak or act as though we have not aged. We have a role to play, and we must do so willingly. It is only after we have proven that we know how to be members of the elderly population that we have permission to be as daring as we were in our youth. People in their nineties are thought to be adorable if they revert into a kind of second childhood. We love Betty White because she has taken the cute and quirky factor of being old to a level of high coolness, but she is only afforded respect because she paid her dues along the way and admits proudly to her age. She doesn’t try to hide the years. She rejoices in them.

I’m admittedly still raging against the idea that my youthfulness is done. My brain is thankfully still working quite well aside from the moments when I forget what I was about to do or say. I can outwork people half my age, and I know as much about current music as anyone. Still I find myself feeling less and less in the mainstream and more and more of an antique. I have seven decades of memories which seem fresh and new until I find old photographs of myself that look like something from a museum of history. Even worse is seeing my contemporaries with graying and thinning hair wearing the same kind of comfort shoes that I need to keep from hurting myself.

Don’t get me wrong. I totally enjoy having grandchildren and being retired. I feel for the younger folk who have to go to work each day while I am as free as a bird to do whatever I wish. There are so many perks that go with being my age and I am enjoying every single one of them to the max. I just have to keep reminding myself that to every time there is a season, and mine is far different than it once was. Being cool at my age means handing over the baton to the younger generation and encouraging them to be their best selves. It is a process of enjoying every moment and loving all of the lines and scars that are the trophies of having really lived. Being hip is understanding that the good old days are still coming and while looking backward may be fun, progress is even better. I know that I will never again look like I did when I was twenty five, but I can be happy that I’m alive and active and able to still give of myself to the people around me. That in itself is very cool.

The coolest person that I have ever known was my Grandfather William. He lived to be one hundred eight years old and never once complained that the world was not as great as it used to be. He was excited about each and every sign of change, and celebrated the good that it brought to humanity. He knew when it was time to quit driving his car for safety sake. He adjusted to the challenges that came his way. He always seemed to know and appreciate how popular culture was benefiting us, and he thought that young people were brighter and more wonderful than ever. He understood that being cool meant being optimistic and resilient and that everything old becomes new again. I guess that given his example I realize that while I may not be trending like Beyonce, I’ve still managed to stay cool. Maybe I’m not getting old. Maybe I’m getting better.

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Tasteless Bread

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“Radio and television speech becomes standardized, perhaps better English than we have ever used. Just as our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident of human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech.” 

― John SteinbeckTravels with Charley: In Search of America

Back when I was in college I took a linguistics class that was fascinating. One of the requirements was to write a paper and I decided to do some undergraduate research. I recorded the voices of several women who had all grown up in Houston, Texas. They varied in age from the late sixties to early teens. I had them all read the same passage and then answer some questions about it so that their more natural way of speaking would become apparent. I then created a questionnaire whose purpose was to find out if the listeners detected any kind of regional dialect in the speakers. I played the recordings without comment and then had the respondents complete their answers to the questions.

The results were much as I had expected them to be, but fascinating nonetheless. A hundred percent of those who took the survey could hear a definite Texas twang in the speech of the older women, but wondered if the younger speakers were from some other part of the country like the Midwest. In fact, the survey answers indicated that as the speakers became younger, less and less of a regional dialect was apparent.

I drew some conclusions based on various theories that we had studied in class, the main one being that the younger individuals who spoke had grown up watching television which generally favors a rather bland Midwestern way of speaking. In addition our city of Houston had become much more diverse and cosmopolitan over time leading the younger women to more exposure to different ways of speaking. Finally, the educational system had impacted the young by allowing them to interact with teachers from places all over the country, unlike the older women who had mostly learned from people native to the area.

My professor was quite pleased with my study and gave me a high mark. I knew that to draw any meaningful conclusions regarding dialects I would need to have more speakers, more respondents and better controls, but it was a somewhat daring project for an undergraduate and my teacher appreciated my efforts. He also agreed with many of the conclusions that I formed as to way there was such a dramatic difference in the ways of speaking.

There was a time when it was quite easy to detect linguistic differences in people. New Orleans had its “Where ya at?’ natives, and Chicago had its south side workers who cheered for “da Bears.” There were the people from Jersey and those from Georgia, all of whom gave away their place of origin the minute they opened their mouths to speak. Of course there was also the classic Texas drawl that stereotyped our state for posterity, but according to the most recent research many of the linguistic differences are dying out as people have more and more access to the world at large. The kind of isolation that bred distinct ways of speaking is becoming less and less frequent, so for the most part there are few people today who actually never hear anyone but the people in the immediate neighborhood.

My high school English teacher used to encourage us to become citizens of the world. This was long before anyone was even dreaming of the Internet or hundreds of channels on television. At the time I rarely ventured more than a few miles from my neighborhood and even then it was to visit with relatives who spoke in ways similar to mine. To this day I have a discernible accent that has been described by strangers as cute, southern or even Texan. They seem able to determine where I was born, but mostly are unable to hear the same dialect in the speech of my daughters. Only once was one of them referred to as a “Cracker” when she was working in Chicago and someone heard a hint of the south in her speech.

We are more and more becoming just Americans with regard to the way we talk, The old differences are fading and mostly found in older citizens rather than the young as noted in the most recent studies. The old ways of speaking are becoming the venue of folklore and should probably be recorded for posterity so that we might one day remember a way of life that is vanishing.

My grandfather grew up in the hills of Virginia. He was not even listed in a census until 1930, mostly because nobody wanted to travel into the backwoods areas to find him and his family. His way of speaking was quite representative of the area where he lived. When I played a recording of him telling a story to someone whose childhood was spent in the same part of the country, he smiled with recognition and said that it sounded just like his own older relatives. He noted that there are still places so remote that the local accents thrive, but in his own case all traces are gone. His education as well as his travels to New York City and Chicago have all but eliminated any hints of his origins.

Language is a fascinating way of expressing ourselves that tells us so much about who we are and where we have been. Today our influences are so many that it is becoming more and more difficult for anyone who is not an expert or who does not possess a good ear to discern our stories simply from the way we speak. In some ways that is a sign of progress, and in others it is just a bit sad. There was something quite delightful in the variety that was once so evident in our voices. Perhaps it will one day be little more than a memory as our speech becomes one speech, better but devoid of our frailties.

Feeling Invisible

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These days women are leaning in, speaking up, attempting to achieve a certain level of equality with their male counterparts. I listened to a group of them commenting on how often they feel invisible, and their discussion caught my attention because there have been so many times when I have felt as though I am not seen. I found myself wondering what the actual reason for this might be. It would be easy and tempting to assume that I am sometimes ignored because I am a woman, but the reality is no doubt more complex than that.

My husband often jokes that I sometimes just disappear when we are out and about. That happens mostly because he doesn’t hear me when I explain that I’m just going to run over to Aisle 9 to pick up something that we need. Some might think that he is just not paying attention to what I have to say, but I understand that he has a hearing problem and I have a very soft voice. To make him aware I have to almost yell, something that I really don’t like doing, and so my communications sometimes don’t get through. He ends up wandering around trying to find me and I get frustrated because he has left the spot where he was supposed to stay until I returned. I suppose that by now I would be better at making sure that he has internalized my comments before taking off, but I’m usually in a rush and make assumptions that lead to a game of hide and seek inside a store.

It might be argued by feminists and purveyors of women’s studies that the basic problem is that my husband just doesn’t hold my statements in enough regard to grasp the gist of them. Another commentary might be that I was schooled by society to be a proper woman by speaking in moderated tones. While these ideas have some merit, I happen to know that they are far from being totally accurate. It has only been in recent years when his hearing began to fail that my husband began to have difficulty comprehending my directives. Furthermore my cousins will tell you that I come from one of the loudest families on planet earth. My training should have lead me to voice myself in sounds that boom across a room. Instead I rebelled and chose to communicate less like a barker and a bit more like a reasoned and controlled arbiter.

Still, I wonder about myself because there have been numerous times when I literally wondered if I had indeed become invisible and just didn’t realize it. Quite often I am standing at a counter waiting for assistance and the clerks will wait on everyone around me but never get to me. Only when I assert myself and demand that I be noticed do I finally get the service that I need. Perhaps because my upbringing taught me to be polite and fair, I demure to those who are more pushy. I tend not to speak up for myself until I have finally had enough. Maybe this is a form of invisibility that limits the perception that people have of me. After all the squeaky wheel does tend to get the grease. Interestingly, however, I have a brother who behaves in the same manner that I do, so it’s difficult for me to assign my characteristics to some attempt by my mother to raise me to be more feminine.

In my work life I was never afraid to speak up whenever I believed that an injustice was happening. Most of the time my bosses appreciated by assertiveness and tapped me as a leader. Only twice was I pushed aside and ignored. Ironically my worst critic and tormentor was another woman who took my suggestions as personal criticism. She made my job so miserable that I eventually chose to leave. The other individual who felt threatened by my critiques was a very insecure man who was later fired. Sadly the comments that I had made to him might well have saved his job if only he had listened. Instead he made me feel utterly invisible, as though I was as worthless as a tiny mouse. Perhaps he simply did not understand that my purpose had been to make our organization stronger, not to tear him down.

I suspect that there are men who have felt invisible as well. In fact, it seems to me that arguments that generalize about anyone have little merit. For every male chauvinist pig that I have encountered I have known hundreds more men who treated me with respect. Attempting to use an anecdote to explain an entire society is particularly unscientific and even so called data can be misleading because it may not be taking all considerations into account.

I’ve certainly seen discrimination in it’s many forms and I do believe that it is real in particular circumstances, but I also think that we should not forget to celebrate the advances that women have made just in my lifetime. I have watched the evolution of opportunity for women grow ever wider, so that there is very little that they may not achieve. I’d hate to see us girls inhibit the boys in our quest for self actualization. We should be able to compete without tearing them down, remembering that we are bound to encounter troubles along the way with persons of any sex who have insecurities.

I intend to continue to be the same quiet person that I am. I like myself just that way. If my low key manner causes me to be invisible now and again I’ll just have to learn when I need to take charge of the situation. I don’t need to change my ways nor insist that the male half of the world change theirs. Instead the sensible thing seems to be to find ways to understand and respect one another. It’s not that difficult to be flexible and to adapt. That may be the quickest way to the top for anyone.

I joked around when Hillary Clinton was running for president, but I was earnest in my assessment of her campaign. She might have been a far more convincing candidate if she had taken some of my suggestions and those from her husband. Instead of bemoaning the inequities of being a woman, she should have celebrated that fact that she was running for the highest office in the land. Rather than pointing out the differences that seem to inhibit women she would have been better served to demonstrate her many strengths. She should have reached out to her detractors and those who felt that their lives had somehow been diminished by an ever changing world. She could have listened to their cries for help rather than calling them deplorable. I suspect that she lost not so much because she was a woman, but mostly because she made a large group of people feel invisible. She should have understood how awful that feels.

Until We Meet Again

pexels-photo-424517.jpegDear Lynda,

I remember the first time I met you as clearly as if it was just yesterday. I should have been excited about moving to a new house, but I wasn’t. I liked my neighborhood, my friends and my school, and I could not imagine being as happy in a new place. I rather grudgingly traveled with my parents to our home, and was quite pleasantly surprised when your family came across the street to welcome us as soon as we arrived. When your mom found out that I was in the same grade as you she immediately introduced us and the rest was so glorious! It almost seemed as though we had been destined to meet and become friends. To this very day I still tell people that you were my first best friend, and probably the most wonderful of the lot.

I was six going on seven and could not imagine anything more wonderful than those happy days that we shared riding our bicycles all over the neighborhood while singing “Jesus Loves Me” at the top of our lungs. We’d hang out in the woods across from the school and squeal with delight on the big tree swing that went over the bayou. Each afternoon we paused to watch The Mickey Mouse Club together and discussed the Mouseketeers and the stories of Spin and Marty as though they were our real friends. I so loved being with your big family and eating at the picnic table in your kitchen. I felt as though I was your sister and sometimes even wished that I actually was.

We told each other our secrets and shared both our fears and our dreams. I don’t believe that I have ever again felt so completely close to anyone as I did with you back then. I loved your grandmother as much as my own and I still laugh with amazement as I remember her bending over to place her palms flat on the floor. That was a wonderful trick in my mind that made her even more lovable than she already was.

We joined the Brownie scouts together and I recall a sad time when Mrs. Guidry, one of our leaders, died. Our mothers took us to the funeral home to pay our respects and there she was lying in the casket in a blue negligee. You and I thought that it was hilarious to see her that way, and we began giggling so much that we were unable to stop. I think that our mom’s were horrified by our behavior, but we were just two silly girls who had never seen someone reposed in death before. I suspect that our laughing was more of a nervous reaction than a sign of disrespect, and  were such pals that our brains seemed to be melded together. We thought alike on so many things.

When my family moved once again, this time to California, I was bereft. I could not even imagine being without you. My time so far away was truly terrible and I suppose that I pouted and carried on a bit too much, but it was so painful to leave the one person with whom I felt so happy and free. Those months away were some of the worst of my lifetime and I often prayed that we would somehow be united. Of course we did come back, but our situation became so very different. My father died and I was so confused. My mother thought it best that my brothers and I not have to endure his funeral and it was you who understood how much I needed to know how the ceremony had been. You went with your family and then so honestly gave me all of the details. I always felt that our bond was even more special after that because I knew how much you understood me.

Life has a way of bringing people together and then pulling them apart, and so it was with the two of us. Even though we moved back to the old neighborhood after Daddy’s death we were many blocks away from you and so our meetings became a bit rarer, but we still stayed in touch and I so enjoyed every single time that we were able to talk and just be together. We were always able to pick up as though it had only been five minutes since we parted.

We went to different high schools and became involved in our teenage worlds and saw less and less of each other, but our special bond never grew weak. We married and started families and spent wonderful times visiting and watching our children play together. You had become so incredibly beautiful and I often laughed inside when I remembered how you had once wondered if you would ever be as lovely as your mom. Our worlds seem to be so perfect, but then life took over and jerked us into reality. I became a caretaker for my mother as she struggled with mental illness and you assumed the role of single mother, caring for your three boys and working full time. The years raced by and it seemed as though perhaps our friendship would be just a very lovely memory, but somehow we managed to speak again and found that we still had that magical feeling of comfort when we are together.

We’ve seen and done so much since those carefree days when we were little girls. Both of us will be seventy by the end of this year. I can’t even imagine where the years have gone, but my childish belief that we would somehow stay close through the years wasn’t so silly after all. The months may stretch out between our meetings, and we may be in different cities, but we somehow find our way back to each other time and again. With each meeting we realize that there is something rather special about our relationship that will never change.

I will love you and cherish our remarkable friendship for all of the rest of my days. You are a part of my heart, of my life, and I am so thankful that I met you. So much of who I am today was born on those bicycle rides and in our oh so serious conversations. You are an angel who is always on my mind. In fact, yours is one of the few birthdays that I always remember. Each April 19, for more than sixty decades I have thought of you and hoped that you are doing well. Thank you for being the remarkably loving and inspiring person that you are. May we both look forward to many more opportunities to see each other and to enjoying so much more laughter. God bless and keep you until we meet again. Happy Birthday!

Invest In Experiences, Not Things

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Love and romance are the stuff of literature and film. From Odysseus and Penelope to Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy we humans have lived vicariously in the stories of two people whose love seems almost destined to be. We gleefully celebrate as romantic tales unfold. There is something in our natures that is drawn to the happiness that comes from the joining of two compatible souls in marriage, and so we revel in the joy of young couples who agree to love, honor and cherish one another. Our human experience is enriched by love, but that first flush of emotion is often challenged by the routines and surprises of daily life. Sustaining the fires that brought two people together in the beginning can be fraught with problems, which is why so many dreams are dashed by unfaithfulness and divorce. It is quite an accomplishment and an inspiration when couples are able to continue their devotion to each other through decades of both happiness and disappointment, health and illness, riches and financial difficulties. We are inspired by those who are still in love even as their hair grays and wrinkles line their faces.

We were reminded of the power and beauty of true love in the touching example of George and Barbara Bush, a seventy three year marriage in which their feelings never appeared to wane. Barbara thought George was the most beautiful person she had ever seen when she was only sixteen years old and a lifetime later she still boasted to her nurses that he was the most handsome man on earth. The two had most surely become a team, one working for the good of the other in every aspect of their days together. They were as complimentary as cream and sugar, adding spice and flavor to their individual strengths and talents. We admire and desire the companionship that they achieved and search for ways to incorporate their kind of devotion in our own lives.

Back in the nineteen sixties another love story was quietly unfolding on the University of Texas campus. She was a tall beautiful and fun loving young woman from San Antonio named Barbara who had come to Austin filled with hopes and dreams. He was a bright engineering student named Gary with a big inviting smile. They enjoyed crazy dates at Zilker Park and fall days at football games where they cheered for their Texas Longhorns. It didn’t take them long to realize that they wanted to become man and wife, and so on an April day in nineteen sixty eight they were married in the company of family and friends. They had little idea how much adventure lay ahead, but they somehow knew that whatever happened they wanted to be together.

Gary’s Chemical Engineering degree would take them to many different places, and all along the way they would explore the history and landscapes and befriend the people that they met. They decided early on to invest in experiences rather than things, and they lived by that ideal by taking trips to the places that they had both longed to see. Barbara was as masterful at planning their excursions as Rick Steves and each year they set forth on expeditions to learn more about their world. Those vacations became a cornerstone of who they were and created memories that would cement their time together.

Of course family was always paramount and that included rituals like a Thanksgiving reunion with Barbara’s clan that they rarely missed. Each year they joined their ever growing group of aunts uncles and cousins in a celebration of life. Even as they had their own children, a boy and then a girl, they welcomed new members of the extended family with great happiness. The foundation of who they are and what they believe was found in those gatherings filled with laughter, song, stories and food to nourish both body and soul.

Somehow the years flew by and in spite of the usual kinds of troubles that come into everyone’s lives Barbara and Gary were able to navigate their way hand in hand, dealing with problems together and maintaining hopeful optimism. They worked hard and played hard and centered their lives on each other and their children. They built traditions and character and did their best, always with an eye to keeping their own passion for each other alive.

Before long the circle of life had repeated itself as their children made their way to the University of Texas where they met their own soulmates and repeated the lessons that they had learned from their parents. Barbara and Gary welcomed the new members of their family with the same openness and love that had always been so much a part of their natures. They celebrated as one grandchild after another enriched their lives, and all the while they continued to have fun with each other, never forgetting the importance of a hug, a kiss, a compliment, or a good laugh.

There were hardships along the way of course. Gary’s dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Barbara’s sweet mom developed cancer. Gary’s brother died far too young also from cancer. They watched as people that they loved developed life threatening illnesses. Gary had a frightening heart attack. Their children and grandchildren endured difficulties. Through it all both Barbara and Gary remained rocks of strength, compassion and wisdom. They held hands and together weathered each storm that came their way, and then they found a way to celebrate with an exciting trip with family or friends, never losing sight of their promise to invest in experiences rather than things.

It’s not an easy thing to reach a fiftieth wedding anniversary in today’s world. Statistics are rife with stories of broken dreams and promises. It takes hard work and determination and more than a great deal of love to keep a relationship happy and strong. Barbara and Gary Greene have mastered the process and their secret appears to be in working together with neither person more or less than the other. They value each other in all that they do and then purposefully find ways to celebrate the life that they have. Carpe Diem is not just a platitude for them, but a way of living. The generosity of spirit that they have always shown to one another extends to everyone that they meet leaving them surrounded by people who support their journey together.

Happy fiftieth anniversary, Barbara and Gary. All of us who are part of your beautiful love story have been blessed and inspired by both of you. Thank you for showing us how it’s done.