Little Lies Lead To Big Lies

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It was long ago when I was a freshman in high school, that I received a standardized multiple choice test that appeared to have the answers on the last page of the booklet. I did not notice this quirk at first but once I got to the the last few questions, I saw the numbers that corresponded to the test, and next to each numeral was a letter. When I compared the first ten or so to my own answers, I saw that they were the same. That’s when I became a bit nervous, thinking that perhaps the real test was to determine if we were willing to cheat. I quickly put hid the last page from view, and finished my answers without changing any of them from what I had determined to be correct based on my own knowledge. 

I suppose that the simplest thing to do would have been to ask the teacher if the answer page was supposed to be included with the test, but I was still adjusting to high school life and since nobody else seemed to be rushing forward to inform our instructor, just ignored the answers and turned in my own work. Still, I worried a bit that it would be impossible for the teacher to know whether or not I had been honest. 

Eventually the teacher somehow figured out what had happened. He never revealed whether or not someone had alerted him, but he announced that there were a few too many perfect scores to be valid. He had investigated and found the answer page which he should have removed before giving the test. He laughed it off, and then gave us another test. He later told me that he gave me my original grade because I had missed enough questions that it became obvious that I had not cheated. He added a bonus of ten points to thank me for my noble gesture. 

I’ve never really understood people who cheat. I suppose my mom instilled a spirit of honesty into me from an early age. Only once did I take something that did not belong to me, and I felt so much guilt that I returned it with interest, and confessed that sin many times over just to be sure that I was actually forgiven. I see our role on this earth as being one of sharing and caring. There is little need for such fierce competition that cheating becomes an option. I suppose that some would view me as a chump, but I prefer knowing that anything I have accomplished has been done so without guile. 

I suppose that nothing disappoints me more than learning that someone or some group that I have admired has cheated. I would rather lose than become a champion by illicit means. What is really the point of gaining glory if it has only been done with a lie? Still, I hear people boasting about hiding income to reduce taxes, or using someone’s work as their own. I am a firm proponent of honor, and of late we are too often in short supply of that commodity. 

As an educator I want to know what prompts an individual to cheat. I suspect that sometimes it comes from fear of failure or intense pressure to succeed. I’ve had students whose parents demanded such high grades from them that they ultimately found ways to game the system by cheating. I’ve known individuals who were willing to lie to find a pathway to economic success. Somehow I can’t understand how there can be a feeling of satisfaction from such actions. I wonder if people somehow begin to convince themselves that winning rather than hard won accomplishment is the actual goal of life. 

I’ve always told my children and my students that we have rules because, unfortunately, some people will otherwise take advantage of various situations. We are seeing so much of that right now. If someone does not wish to receive a vaccination for Covid, that should be their choice. I cringe, however, when they take advantage of relaxed rulings that allow vaccinated citizens to go places without masks by pretending to be among those who have taken the shots. They do not seem to realize that they are endangering themselves and others when they flaunt the requests of businesses that they stay masked up. They view their actions as asserting freedom. I see it as a form of cheating. 

Little lies too often lead to bigger lies. Cheating becomes a bad habit, particularly when it appears easy to do so without being caught. We too often forget that somebody invariably gets hurt by dishonesty. Nobody who uses devious means to achieve something is ever really a winner, even if they never get caught. 

Trust is the foundation of society. When that is gone or in question it destroys relationships, businesses and lives. Honesty is the mark of the true winner. There is no greater reward than being someone on whom people implicitly rely for truth. Perhaps this is something that we do not spend enough time teaching our children through our own examples. They are watching. Hopefully they will not see us lie. 


Better Than A Thousand Words

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. A great photo captures a moment in time in such a way that it becomes an icon, a representation of an era. The best photographs are classics that never become outdated. Capturing such a moment with a camera requires artistry, or at least a great deal of luck. Some people have an eye for snapping the camera at just the right moment to provide a timeless portrait of a person, a scene or an event. A great photo causes us to pause and think and ask questions. It needs no explanations to portray a split second in time. 

I have many favorite pictures. Some are quite personal. Others are works of art. All tell a story. I’ve always been in awe of antique photographs that managed to record either the horror or the glory of a particular occasion or period. I love the joy of the Times Square picture of the sailor kissing the nurse at the end of World War II. I am touched by the desperation in the weathered face of a mother in the iconic photo of people moving during the days of the dust bowl and the Great Depression. I am moved to tears by the horrific image of the little Vietnamese girl running naked through a street of Vietnam with her napalm burned skin slipping from her body. I have bleak memories when I see the stark black and white image of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald.  I smile when I think of Marilyn Monroe standing over a sidewalk duct with her white dress lifting in a circle around her beautiful essence. 

I have a photograph in my kitchen that I purchased at an art show presented by students from a school where I once worked. It is one of my all time favorite photos because it encapsulate so much wonder. It features a group of young children raising their arms and looking upward with glee. The creator of the magnificent image was Martin Hernandez who told me that he saw the children reacting to a runaway balloon that had slipped from their hands, and floated into the heavens. With the eye of a true artist, he quickly snapped a picture, and then wisely cropped it to show only the children with their outstretched arms. 

Martin went on to attend the Bauer School of Business at the University of Houston but his days of artistry were not over. He became a professional photographer, combining his skill with a camera with his expertise in business. He creates one amazing picture after another with an eye for detail and finding the soul of his subjects. 

Most amateur photographs look the same. People stand in a row and smile for the camera. There is always someone looking a bit off because it is so difficult to snap an image at exactly the right moment. There is an unnatural discomfort about the vast majority of photos, but now again magic happens. I have a few of those in my collection of family, friends and travels. Perhaps my all time favorite shows my grandmother Minnie Bell feeding and tending her chickens. She almost comes to life in that still photo taken on her farm. 

Another image that I have always loved is of my mother and father at a college ring ceremony in a time when they were so young and in love. They stand in their formal glory under a gigantic replica of a Texas A&M University Aggie ring. It encapsulates so much about them and the hopefulness that they must have experienced in that moment when their lives together were only beginning. 

I have a picture of my grandmother Mary that I also treasure. She is sitting on her front porch with me on her lap and I can almost feel the calmness that was her trademark. Two photos that feature my grandfathers also seem to have captured the spirit of the men that they were. Grandpa Ulrich stands straight and tall in a decidedly early twentieth century suit staring emotionlessly but proudly into the camera like the founder of his domain. Grandpa Little is seated on a bench on the occasion of his one hundredth birthday, looking dapper with his brand new suit and his hat tilted jauntily on his head. 

I prefer photos of people, but my husband invariably focuses on scenery. I can never tell when his photographs of our travels were taken because they do not have the stamp of time that people provide. He has captured some incredible views, but I wonder if anyone else will want them when we are gone. The real treasures are the pictures that help us to understand the people who are important to us or the images that capture history. 

I’m not particularly photogenic, so I tend to avoid having my photograph taken. I don’t have many photos of myself past the time when my mother recorded my history as a child. I’ve yet to find an image of myself that I really like. Cameras do not love me. Perhaps one day I will get my sister-in-law, Katie, to attempt to find the magic in me that she so deftly finds in others. Maybe I’ll ask Martin to try his hand at making me look natural rather than self-conscious. I’d like to think that one day my children and grandchildren will have a remembrance of me that is a wonderful as the photos that I have of my own parents and grandparents. Those treasures are priceless. 

I Dream of Jeannie

I’m not sure exactly when I first got my Tiny Tears doll, but it was before I started school when I was five. That little doll and I became inseparable. I literally dragged her everywhere I went as though she was a real baby. I called my doll, Jeannie. She had a tuft of brown curly hair just like a real infant might have. Best of all there was a tiny hole in her mouth through which I was able to feed her bottles of water. Of course, she would eventually need a diaper change from drinking the liquid, so it felt as though she was a real baby. 

I’m not certain what eventually happened to Jeannie, but after all the loving I had given her, she began to grow weak. First, her hair  came unglued from her head, and my brother joked that she looked as though she had removed the coon skin cap that had once graced her head. I did not take too kindly to his irreverent commentary even though in retrospect it was somewhat funny. Her limbs were made of rubber and at some point a couple of her fingers fell from her hand. My mother suggested that Jeannie’s time with us was over, and one day when I came home from school, she was gone. 

My mother tried her best to substitute other dolls for Jeannie, but none of them were as wonderful as that Tiny Tears doll had been, so I grieved for her. She had been my “lovey,” a comforting presence much like stuffed animals are for some children. I can still remember dreaming the night away with her slumbering peacefully beside me. 

Many years passed, and my mother found another Tiny Tears doll at an antique store. She gave it to me as a surprise on my birthday. I was an adult by then so I was not going to play with the doll, but it touched my heart that my mom remembered how much Jeannie had meant to me. I kept the new doll perched on my dresser more as a kind of reminder of Jeannie and my mother’s thoughtfulness rather than a prized object. 

Over time even the new Tiny Tears doll began to deteriorate. Her rubber skin became sticky, and much like Jeannie pieces of her fingers broke off. I had to move her to my closet lest she damage my furniture. When I would see her on the shelf she looked so forlorn, as though time had taken its toll on her. I kept her until after my mother died, and then I guiltily tossed her into the trash. By then just touching her caused cracks in her limbs, and she stuck to everything. 

The only stuffed animal that I ever enjoyed was a great big teddy bear from my Uncle Andrew. He was hardly a cuddly creature. Instead, I used him to have bear fights with my brothers. We had many a jolly row with our three bears. We’d take those critters by the legs and pound each other over the head. it was great fun that brought lots of laughs from all of us. 

According to my mother I was never attached to a favorite blanket either, only Jeannie. although I have come to see all objects as expendable, I do still think of Jeannie and wish she had held up so that I might show her to my daughters and granddaughter. I can’t explain why she brought me so much joy, but she did. 

I would have many dolls that were much more beautiful than Jeannie, and while I liked them, they never held a candle to her. it’s funny how we attach ourselves to certain things, often for no real reason. Perhaps I was just at the age when I was transitioning from toddler to young child, and Jeannie was my companion in that phase of life. I was reaching the time when I would begin venturing away from my parents for many hours at a time rather than being tied to them all day long. Jeannie made it easier to do those sometimes frightening things. 

I hear many different tales of special stuffed animals or toys that people loved as children. For one of my daughters it was a yellow blanket that became frayed and filled with holes before she was finally willing to leave it in a corner and never look back again. She gave it up for a little stuffed dog called Le Mutt that she has to this very day. The story of Le Mutt is the story of her childhood, including friendships, vacation trips, and illnesses. My eldest daughter had a teddy bear, but like me with Jeannie, she gave him away when his seams began to come apart and his fur became bare. 

Our “loveys” are wonderful, at least I know mine was. All I have are memories now, and that is more than enough. Sometimes I can go into my mind and see Jeannie in all her glory keeping me company and entertaining me for hours. She was not real but, for a time, she was my friend. 

A Little Bit of Living

This is a story of a family. It began with two people who fell in love having little idea of the tragedies that would befall them, and the courage and faith they would need to triumph over every challenge. It is a quiet adventure, a battle against the  unseen monsters of mental illness. It is also story of the goodness in people who always seem to appear to help just in time. It is about a little bit of living and a whole lot of love. 

My book is complete. I have doted over it for far too long. Like a child leaving the nest, I must let it got for better or worse. I have edited and re-edited, questioned how my words will sound to others. I can only hope that interpretations of my story will be fair and understanding, but I know from experience that in sharing such a profoundly personal part of my life I will have critics. The written word has been misinterpreted since the beginning of time. Two people reading the exact same tract often see its message quite differently. The more controversial the topic, the more likely for misunderstandings will occur. There are few subjects more volatile than mental illness. 

My book, A Little Bit of Living, is a three part tragedy in the style of those written by the Greeks. It differs in that my family was not defeated by the events that tested us. Even as we made mistakes, we found ways to deal with whatever hand came our way. We were guided by the wisdom and compassion of family and friends. Always at the center of our journey was our mother, a beautiful and gifted soul, who dedicated her life to our safety and security. In turn, we would become her caretakers whenever bipolar disorder stole away her joy and her loving personality. 

We had to learn how to navigate a system that sometimes appears to care little for the needs of those afflicted with mental disorders. We became all too aware of the myths surrounding mental illness and the shame too associated with it. We watched our gregarious mother fighting to maintain her independence while also attempting to hide her illness. Somehow in spite of the missteps and angst we not only survived, but grew stronger.

I have found someone who will help me design a cover for the book and I plan to spend the coming weeks learning how to format and upload my work onto several ebook platforms. My hope is that I won’t suddenly become worried about how people will respond to my writing and will instead soldier forward and get this project finally completed. I no longer imagine that I will become a best selling author, or that I will make vast sums of money selling my work. My only goal now is to help those who struggle with mental illness, whether for themselves or a family member. I hope that after reading my book they will understand that they are not alone. 

It is well past time for us to have open and honest discussions about the effects of mental illness on all societies. It is time to take the treatment of this debilitating illness seriously. Mental illness lies at the foundation of so many of our problems, and yet we all but ignore it as though it should still be hidden in attics and basements. It is caused by physical abnormalities in the brain that we still do not fully understand, but unlocking those causes should become a priority for us all. 

In the not so long ago humans were superstitious about mental disorders. Individuals unlucky enough to have such afflictions were often deemed to be witches or demons. Our history is filled with stories of unneeded and unwanted suffering for those whose minds all too suddenly ceased to work properly. We have much to learn. We would do well to finally focus our attention and our efforts on unlocking the secrets of sound mental health. My upcoming book is a small step in bringing a human face to the process.

I applaud people like Glenn Close, Oprah Winfree and Prince Harry for striving to make us all aware of the tragic costs of mental illness. I want to join in their campaign in my small way. Be ready to read A Little Bit of Living by the end of this year. I’m going to really make it happen this time. 

By the way, I decided on the title for my book when I was cleaning and organizing one of my bookcases. I found an old notebook that had belonged to my mother. She had written some poems and a few thoughts in it. Then she mentioned that she wanted to write her autobiography, and she called it A Little Bit of Living. Somehow, it felt as though she was giving me permission to reveal our journey, and her title seemed exactly right.    

The Dignity and Comfort That We All Deserve

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I’ve become more and more content with what I have as I grow older. I’m less inclined to want much of anything other than comfort and security. I enjoy my garden and probably spend too much on plants but they bring me joy and seem to delight my neighbors as well. I like to travel, and there is much of the world that I have not seen, but the time during the pandemic has taught me that I can find great joy in just staying home. The best things in life and not things, they are people. 

I often hear arguments that those who work hard, earn degrees, make money, save and invest wisely are somehow more deserving than those who appear to be lazy. While such thinking seems logical, it does not take into account particular challenges that all too often create the problems that appear to be only a lack of motivation or a willingness to be productive like the rest of us. Experience has taught me to be leery of categorizing people without knowing their stories. Life is incredibly complex, and all too often we insist on interpreting issues that we witness with the narrow mindset of our own experiences. When we do that we run the risk of misinterpreting what has happened in an individual’s life. 

I saw a short article recently that featured a photo of Pope Francis dressed in ordinary clothing, making him unrecognizable as the leader of the Catholic Church. It is a guise that he sometimes uses so that he may leave the Vatican, and serve the sick and poor on a personal basis. In the same spirit, former president, Jimmy Carter, offers not just platitudes and donations to the needy, but his own sweat labor to help them. Instead of judging those who struggle in our society, such men and women offer their compassion and understanding without strings attached. They exemplify the message that I believe we should all be following. 

I deserve no more than the desperate woman living inside a tent underneath a freeway in some major city. I do not know how she got there, and it is not for me to judge. What I do know is that I should not be content to simply look away, and complain about her situation. Instead of grumbling about the cost of actually helping her, or arguing that taxing me to make her life more equitable is only going to make more people more lazy, I should be asking what it is that she really needs. Perhaps she is in need of medical care, or maybe it is education or some kind of work. Mostly, a bit of kindness would be a good first step in giving people in dire need a jumpstart on their lives. In some cases, they may be so ill that we simply must care for them, and make sure that they live in a clean and safe environment. 

I was blessed with a quick mind, an ability to learn even very difficult concepts. I inherited intelligence from my parents, but not any money. My father died when I was only a child, and my mother struggled financially from that point until the day she died. Nonetheless, she managed even with a mental illness to hold down a job, pay for a small home and mostly care for herself. When she became unable to work a host of good people supported her with understanding. Her boss did not fire her for sporadic attendance on her job. Her neighbors protected her when her psychoses made her seem frightening. She did not end up homeless or destitute, because people around her cared. Perhaps that lady under the freeway was not as lucky.

My brothers and I did in fact work our way into the middle class. We have multiple degrees and nice homes. We travel and enjoy the good things in life. We indeed worked hard to move from the poverty of our youth, but we were also lucky in so many regards. We mostly had all the tools we needed to work our way up the economic ladder, and there were few roadblocks to our progress. Not everyone is so fortunate.

As an educator I have seen students who truly struggle to learn. Some of them are balancing responsibilities and abuses at home that nobody should have to endure. Life seems to be far more complicated for them than seems fair. It takes more herculean effort for them to move even an inch than it does for others. They seem destined for hardships that tear down the spirit and crush the soul. Even when they attempt to overcome the realities of their situations, they all too often find themselves falling backward due to circumstances beyond their control. 

All of us deserve a comfortable life and opportunities to find happiness. Sadly, far too many live in places where achieving something as simple as basic security is almost impossible. Often, when they take risks to journey to better lives, they find roadblocks,  borders, and walls. We literally make it illegal for them to seek a place that allows them to improve, live free, uplift themselves no matter how hard they are willing to work. 

When someone asks me what I think I deserve that I do not have, I realize that I have everything that anyone should ever need. I should instead be asking myself how I might help others to find the dignity and comfort that we all deserve.