Working Out the Kinks

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There was a time when neighborhoods were filled with moms whose life work centered around home and children. When I was growing up working women were the exception rather than the rule. I knew a lady who was a commercial artist until she had her first child and then she dedicated herself to being a mother. That was the way most situations played out. My own mother had been a secretary in the early years of her marriage, but retired from work outside the home when I was born. She eventually had to straddle two different worlds after my father died, choosing initially to be a teacher to support our single parent family mostly because the job allowed her to have the same hours and holidays as we did. When we were home so was she, and so things worked out rather well. Once we were grown and she became ill more and more often due to her bipolar disorder she switched to a job with the University of Texas Health Science Center that was less fulfilling than teaching, but ultimately more forgiving of her frequent absences.

Hers was a balancing act in the early days of the women’s movement for equality in the workforce that she would rather not have had to attempt if only my father had not died. Even after years of bowing to the grind of working day after day her salary barely met her needs, and she longed for the life at home that had once been her greatest joy and accomplishment. Without my father’s earning power she had to learn how to juggle so many responsibilities that it wore her down. She often commented that she felt as though she only had the energy to do each of her necessary tasks at the bare minimum rather than excelling at any one thing as she had done when her entire focus was on running a household and raising children. She lamented the fact that as more and more women entered the workforce they were in essence making it less and less possible for their “sisters” to choose the traditional role that women had held for most of history. She longed for the days when she had run our household like a CEO, with precision, efficiency and much thought.

By the time I was an adult just as my mother had predicted it had become almost necessary for the economic health of our family that both my husband and I have jobs. I desperately wanted to spend time with my children during their early years of development so I chose to sacrifice luxuries and stay at home. I supplemented our budget by working as a teacher at a pre-school that my children also attended. It was a part time gig that was fun for all of us but added a bit to our family coffers. When that proved to be insufficient I took care of some of the neighborhood children during the day while their mothers worked. Since they provided playmates for my daughters and were little trouble to watch I still managed to keep the lifestyle that I wanted. Once both of my girls were in school each day I followed the example that I had seen from my mother by working as a teacher. For the most part I followed the same schedule as the children, and with the help of my mother-in-law I did not have to worry about after school childcare. It did not occur to me until years later that if my mother-in-law had been working full time I would have had to spend a lion’s share of my teaching salary for after school child care. The fact that she was a more old school woman was a saving grace for me.

To be successful at my work I had to spend more and more time away from my family. During the typical school year I rarely arrived home before five or six each evening and then I hurried through the tasks of preparing dinner, helping my children with their homework and studies, and getting them tucked into bed for the night so that I might grade papers and plan lessons until the late hours. I arose early and often had to leave while the kids were still at home. I consoled myself by noting that my girls were very responsible and the bus stop for getting to school was at the corner of our street where they met up with other children who were their friends. Still I felt a tinge of guilt for being somewhat neglectful.

As I became more and more involved with my career my daughters moved into their high school and college years and my attention to my work consumed most of my time. I had to adhere to a strict regimen to keep things running well, and I sometimes felt as though I was spending more and more time on the job and less and less with my family. As my mother’s illnesses forced her to accept more care from me and my brothers I tended to focus on hours at work, helping her and barely giving thought to home life. There were times when it felt as though my husband and I were two souls briefly passing each other on any given day. The lure of retirement loomed large as I grew weary of rushing to my job before the sun had risen and coming home after dark. I hated that in instances where I had to choose between my career and my family, I often had to opt for my job.

I know young women with careers that allow them to employ nannies and housekeepers inside their homes, luxuries that I was never able to afford. Their work is such that when they leave their offices they are finished for the day. They have time to devote to their families on a regular basis, and in spite of this seemingly rewarding situation they too feel as torn as I did by concerns that somehow they are doing everything with mediocrity. The very idea of leaning into their careers is frightening because the process of devoting their energy to proving their equality to male counterparts often means having to surrender the responsibilities for their homes and their children to others. There is such a fine line that allows them to balance their home and work lives that one small misstep can lead to disaster on all fronts.

My mother was right in noting that we women were painting ourselves into a corner that we may or may not ultimately enjoy. The economic realities of today’s world make it almost impossible for families to operate with only one source of income. Women may want to stay home with their children but doing so will make life very difficult financially. As a result most neighborhoods today are almost deserted during work hours as women troop to their jobs alongside the men. If they are to have equal opportunities they must meet ever expanding expectations from their bosses that reduce the time that they have for home. They feel as though they are operating in a constant cycle of chaos as they rush from one duty to the next. We have a huge population of women who are stressed and exhausted and worried that they will not be able to keep up with the emotional and physical demands of “having it all.”

Now that I am retired and have my “going to work” years behind me I am able to reflect on the past the present and the future. I would like to think that we as a society would continue to honor both those woman who choose to work hard to create a warm and nurturing life for the members of their family by staying at home and those who want or need to spend their days in a workplace. Both “professions” can be noble but each requires our support. We need to think of how best to grease the wheels that make our home force and our workforce less anxious and more rewarding. The choices that we make as women (and also men) should not relegate us to states of guilt and stress. “Having it all” should mean being able to live well whatever we ultimately choose to do.

We seem to still be working out the kinks of the changing roles of women and their effect on all of society. As we strive to solve the problems we cannot focus on only one type of situation. We cannot favor one lifestyle over another. True choice for women is not as much about reproduction as it is about how to live from one day to the next. No one way should be deemed better than another. 

The Goodness of Strangers

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There are times when we unexpectedly meet someone who finds a place in our hearts. So it was when we were in the process of repairing the damage done to our home by a faulty hot water heater last spring. The flow of heated liquid that literally rained down through the ceilings of two floors wiped out sheetrock, door frames and carpet. We had to employ dry wall specialists, carpenters and painters to repair the damage. Then it was time to think about replacing the carpet that had become sodden. For that we chose a local flooring store that came highly recommended.

From the moment that we met him we knew that the salesman who helped us was a knowledgeable and honest man who was going to take care of us without breaking our bank account. His name was Curtis and he looked as though he had seen a bit more of life than most of us ever do. His craggy face was lined with the wrinkles of experience and his eyes spoke of a man who always uttered what he thought to be the truth. With little fanfare he listened to our dilemma and showed us samples of carpet, wood flooring and ceramic tile giving us the specifications and costs of each. It soon enough became apparent that changing out the entire house with ceramic tiles that I had hoped to get would be enormously expensive and beyond the budget that we had after factoring in the other repairs. Furthermore replacing most of the carpet with wood would require literally rebuilding parts of the infrastructure. Curtis let us know that carpet was probably our best alternative and would come at an affordable price because there were still many sales in effect in the aftermath of hurricane Harvey.

Curtis helped us select a carpet that had a twenty year warranty and he made suggestions for cleaning our tile and brightening the wood flooring that we already have. He made an appointment to come measure our rooms with the promise of being at our home at exactly the time that we chose. True to his word he arrived exactly at the appointed hour and carefully inspected and measured each room. While he guided us through the process of redoing over half of the rooms in our home he told us about his life and the many directions it had taken. He was interesting to say the least.

Curtis was a jovial fellow who had endured both good and bad times and somehow kept up his optimism in the process. He literally seemed like someone we might like to invite for dinner and maybe a few drinks. His gravelly voice and lanky frame attested to his smoking habit in which he did not indulge in our presence but which had left its mark on his health.

Both my husband Mike and I really liked Curtis and the great job that he did for us at a time when we were feeling a bit overwhelmed. He had such a personal touch that we swore that if we ever decided to change out our current tile and wood flooring for something new we would undoubtedly go back to see Curtis. I vowed to send people to him if they were in the market for flooring renovations.

Time flies and it has been almost a year now that we have been enjoying the carpet that Curtis helped us to find. We knew that we were nearing the moment when it needed to be cleaned so we stopped by the store where Curtis worked this week to get a recommendation from him on which company to employ. It was a grey rainy day and we looked forward to sharing a few stories and laughs with Curtis for we knew that he was a man who brought a bit of sunshine into even the dreariest situation. We were quite disappointed when we saw that he was not working that day, so we had to make our inquiry to the young woman who was there.

She was quite friendly and open and took the time to provide us with brochures and coupons for the carpet cleaning company that she views as the best. While she was creating a nice packet of information for us Mike happened to glance at a framed photo of Curtis that sat on the counter. Shockingly it was a memorial for him, announcing and lamenting his death last summer. We were both immediately saddened and expressed our dismay out loud. The young woman informed us that Curtis’ death had been sudden and unexpected. In fact he had died in his sleep.

We left feeling let down and thinking about how this man that we had only encountered a few times had made such a lasting impression on us. A profound sense of grief washed over us as well as regret that we had not told him just how great he had made us feel. We never applauded his warm nature the way that we should have. We simply kept our thoughts to ourselves, and now we knew that he would never know how much we had appreciated him. All we could do is relay those feelings to the young woman who was working in his place.

We each have opportunities to make someone’s life just a bit more pleasant. Curtis had a way of doing that. He did not need to give the extra time and consideration that was his trademark, but he chose to be just a bit more helpful, a bit more prescient in understanding our particular needs. He was a good man, a cheerful man, a man who perhaps had not always been so lucky in life himself. He was someone who took the cards he was dealt and crafted a good hand out of them. We liked him very much as I’m certain his other customers did as well. We are sorry that he is no longer with us for he could not have been more than about fifty six or seven years old. Our consolation is that he did not suffer. He simply went to bed one night and never again awoke.

Curtis will be missed. He was a unique character, someone with a big heart and a smile to match. I’m glad we got to meet him. He reinforced our belief in the goodness of even strangers. May he rest in peace.

Fifty Shades of Grey

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It was one of those days when the skies were grey, the streets were slick and the air was heavy with fog. It might have been a great day to stay home with a good book, but we had appointments to keep and errands to run. The traffic was stacked up and moving slower than normal so I had ample opportunity to see things that might otherwise have passed by without notice. Some of what I viewed made me sad, others made me laugh.

There was a billboard advertising a Brazilian butt lift with prices starting as low as $35,000. I chuckled at the very idea, but mostly I wondered why anyone would be willing to pay that much money for something so silly. Surely everyone has better ways of investing or spending such a large amount. Even a very wealthy person would be better served by giving it to charity or providing a valued worker with a bonus. Somehow making one’s fanny more appealing seems as wasteful as one gets, so I began thinking of literally hundreds of alternative ways to use the cash more wisely, not the least of which was to save it or provide some worthy college student with a scholarship. Even tossing it into the bucket of one of the many homeless people begging on street corners has more merit, but who am I to judge?

Next we went to an office filled with the nauseating bouquet of room fresheners. It seems that a rodent had died somewhere on the premises and the foul odor was sickening the employees. An exterminating company had come out to set traps but refused to go hunting for the creature’s carcass. I suppose it will be some time before the blended aroma of rotting flesh and artificial scents will be gone from the premises. I truly feel for the workers because my own reaction was to get away as quickly as possible.

Speaking of rats I suppose that they are only behaving normally in light of all of the rain that we have had this winter. It’s predicted that wildflowers will be better than ever, but our lawns are as soggy as sponges and mud seems to be coating everything and everyone. Little wonder that the rats are attempting to find refuge. I’ve heard more than one story of those pests invading homes and businesses. You really know that there has been too much rain when the animals run for cover. I suspect that mosquitoes will be as abundant as the bluebonnets because of the wet season that has marked most of our January and February days this year. Now that’s something to think about that gives me the shudders!

Eventually I found myself sitting in a waiting room at an imaging center feeling increasingly uncomfortable as others around me reacted to the appearance of President Trumps former attorney Michael Cohen speaking before Congress. The level of anger being expressed by the people around me without even a small attempt to filter  what they were saying made me worry about the state of our country. I found myself sinking quietly into my little corner of the room burying my thoughts in a crossword game on my phone lest I too become involved in an outburst of emotions. I silently worried about the future in ways that I never before have.

As we were leaving the medical facility a Code Blue was announced on the PA system. I was both amazed and quite impressed by the rapid response of the nurses and doctors. They quickly found the woman who had fainted and brought her back to an alert state. I realized how professional and dedicated they are and felt that if anything like that ever happens to me I will be in very good hands. It ended up that the woman had come for a blood transfusion and had become dizzy while in transit to her doctor. All ended well but it was like a scene out of one of the many hospital series that I watch on television. It made for a bit of unexpected excitement to go along with the crazy tone of the day.

As if the my journey needed to become a bit stranger we were getting close to home when a woman turned in front of our truck going the wrong way on a one way street. The look on her face when she realized what she had done said it all. Her features were marked with sheer terror. Luckily we were the only other auto on the street at the time so she was able to make a quick u-turn and drive away. A few minutes later and a fleet of fast moving vehicles would have made her escape almost impossible and who knows what kind of accident might have ensued.

I’m normally a person who enjoys rain and prefers colder weather, but I have to say that the weeks and weeks of damp dreary days have grown old. I think we all need a few sunny days to dry things out and lighten our moods. We’ve been stuck indoors for too long and the ugliness that hangs over us like a shroud is causing us to act a bit strangely. Old man sun needs to come back to bring smiles to our faces again.

I really don’t know how folks survive in places known for more rainy days than not. I suppose that they somehow adapt, but it’s not something that I would like to have to do. I say bring on the warmth and let us play outside. I’m done with the fifty shades of grey that have been the norm for way too long, and I suspect that everyone else is as well.