Learning From the Past

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I was not born when it happened, but it was close enough to the time when I entered the world that I often heard about it. It was during the reign of terror brought on by Adolf Hitler that book burnings became common place in Germany. Any writing that Hitler and his men thought to be counter to their beliefs was deemed inappropriate, confiscated and burned in the public square. The idea was to eliminate works that might cause citizens to ask questions, to actually think. Books and philosophies have been banned in other eras and societies as well. It has been the topic of dystopian novels and movies depicting dark governments where freedom is obliterated in favor of a set of ruling beliefs. It is something that we particularly find abhorrent here in America, but nonetheless such extreme control sometimes creeps in, often with good intentions. We have learned that there is a very fine line between judging the appropriateness of the written word, and becoming authoritarian in controlling it. If we are to protect our freedoms we must be very careful in our approach to ideas that we find uncomfortable.

It is one thing to avoid certain books or authors on a personal level, and quite another to suggest that particular writings be removed from the public domain. I may find the Shades of Grey books to be offensive, but I would never suggest that others who enjoy them be denied the pleasure of reading them. The rantings of Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf are impossible to accept, but I plowed through them just so I might know how the mind of a true fanatic actually works. Often our best option with volumes that disturb us is to become more familiar with them. As the godfather said we should keep our friends close and our enemies closer. There is much to be learned from the words of those with whom we disagree. We may never embrace their philosophies, but we know what they are thinking which is always a good defense.

Lately we have a kind of policing of writings that is far from being akin to the Nazi methodologies, but nonetheless should be troubling to all of us. The latests dust up is over the Little House on the Prairie books from Laura Ingalls Wilder. In a series of stories written for children Ms. Wilder described her life with a pioneer family moving west. She spoke honestly of the people and events that she encountered and for many decades now the volumes have been a favorite among readers, even spawning a long running and successful television program. For her efforts a literary award was even named in her honor, but recently the society of librarians who distribute the distinction decided to erase her name from the prize because of a perception that her works demonstrate racist and mysoginistic tendencies. The parsing of her words and ideas has even led to suggestions that schools named for Ms. Wilder be changed, and some question the appropriateness of reading them to children.

I find myself feeling a tiny bit squeamish about all of this, especially since the judgement of the books doesn’t appear to take into account the realities of a bygone era. Instead of using the tales to demonstrate how far we have gone or to hold discussions of how offensive some common ways of past thinking were, we want to just wipe the author away as though none of what she described actually happened. Children really can handle the truth, and usually do it better than some adults. It might be shocking to hear Ma Ingalls making disparaging comments about Native Americans, but think of what a teachable moment reading about it might be for youngsters. When Pa takes off his belt to whip one of the kids yet another dialogue about changing ways of discipline might ensue. It is important that our young understand that in judging historical events we are almost certainly going to encounter ways of doing things that seem foreign in today’s world. It’s a fairly certain bet that our own times will have elements that confuse and confound the people of the future. We are slowly but surely changing and evolving and approaching situations differently than our ancestors did. It should not hurt us to learn about their ways, but instead should enlighten us.

Whenever I read books written in a time passed I always consider the influence of the people and events that were taking place then, not now. Our manners and even our language adapt over the decades. I often wonder how shocked my great grandparents would be if they were suddenly plopped down into the twenty first century. They died without ever having electricity or running water. They lived in the wilderness in an atmosphere of quiet. They had little education and never traveled far from home. Their experiences were limited to a tiny geographical area. They did not enjoy the educational opportunities that we today take for granted. With such a limited worldview it is likely that they may have had philosophies that would make me cringe, but I would not be comfortable judging them because they were not exposed to as much diversity of thought as I have been.

Read the books from Laura Ingalls Wilder or not. It is an individual prerogative. Don’t however indict her for an honest telling of a time when minstrel shows were common and thought to be fine entertainment. Don’t call her racist simply because some of her characters were afraid of the Native Americans that they encountered. Don’t parse her every word to find omissions or slips of the tongue that appear to demonstrate a hidden agenda. I suspect that she was simply a talented writer who wanted to tell her story of a time and people that even she understood were not without flaws. In fact she made her characters very human and did not mince words in pointing out their problematic features. She should be applauded for that, not condemned.

So far nobody has suggested banning or burning Ms. Wilder’s books but a bit of a dust up of indignation has indeed occurred. If we let the ruckus go too far we might find ourselves obliterating the magnificent works of Mark Twain or even William Shakespeare. We need to be certain that our goal is only to critique, not to banish. Every voice must be allowed in the spirit of freedom, otherwise we run the risk of overstepping the bounds of liberty.

Life has changed in so many ways. My mother-in-law often told of the time that her father was beaten by a teacher when he misbehaved at school. She proudly noted that her grandmother demonstrated her disapproval of the punishment by summarily whipping the offending educator with a buggy whip. We know that such behavior would have ended badly for both women in today’s world, but the memory is expressive of just how much we have changed. My mother-in-law was one of the most nonviolent people I have ever known. To attribute bad behavior to her because she repeated the story would be absurd. Perhaps we need to think about things that trouble us with less judgement and more joy in realizing that we have moved beyond such beliefs. Use the past as an educational tool, not a whipping post.

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Take Them Off

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Don’t you just love all of those studies that claim to have discovered something new and exciting? One that I saw recently somehow found that children who run around in their bare feet tend to have higher IQs. Of course the article that described the announcement gave very few details about why that is so and there was no mention of how the experiments or interviews or whatever they used were actually done. Still it is an intriguing idea to think that just tossing shoes aside has the power to transform the brain. Yet another study claims that children who are encouraged to freely explore the environment without shoes will ultimately become more independent. The idea is that they have to be inventive and observant if they are left to rely on their own instincts rather than being hemmed in by adult supervision.

I have to laugh when I hear of such research. Based on these ideas the people with whom I grew up and I should be geniuses. I mean we only wore our shoes to school and church. The rest of the time we let our toes hang out and get dirty from contact with all sorts of things. We were like children raised by wolves as we ran through the woods near our neighborhood finding all sorts of fun that was only limited by our imaginations. There was never a parent around, just us kids, and it was glorious.

We were always doing something wonderful on our street. Sometimes we played for hours on someone’s lawn in very competitive games of Red Rover. I don’t believe that anyone ever broke a bone or had an injury and yet we were so committed to winning that we were rather rough. There were also games of football which did once result in a terrible injury to my brother when he stepped on a broken bottle that had been thrown in the the high grass of a neighbor’s yard. His Achille’s tendon was severed and he might have bled out had our mom not been very well read on how to apply pressure to a wound. After a few stitches he was fine.

One time we got a bit of help from one of the fathers when we created a dugout clubhouse. It was cool place to be on hot summer days and only certain kids were allowed inside. Sadly my mom become worried that it might cave in and bury us alive so we were restricted from entering it ever again. My brothers and I felt a great sense of sadness every time we saw other kids entering the cavelike domain. Eventually more and more moms sided with our parent and the father who had helped to created the place filled the big hole with dirt. Still we had great memories from the short time that we had enjoyed living like pioneers.

My very science oriented brother discovered that if we aimed a magnifying glass toward the hot sun it would burn wood. After that we became world class wood burners, creating intricate designs and using up tons of time as we sat on the hot concrete of the driveway holding the glass just right so that it would make a mark that decorated the wood. We were the hit of the neighborhood with our invention and we burned away until the repetitions suddenly became boring.

There was never a tree that we didn’t attempt to climb. It was glorious sitting high above the landscape sheltered by the branches. A really good tree would have growth that allowed us to lean back and read a book away from the the hubbub down below. My very favorite oak seemed to have been made just for my climbing pleasure and I often went there to meditate and feel the cool breeze blowing over me the leaves that rustled around me. 

All the while that we did such things we were shoeless. Our soles became hard and tough, able to withstand the pokes of gravel and the heat of asphalt. The tops of our feet turned brown from the sun and carried all of the colors from the places we had been. The grocer who had a tiny store down the street never seemed to mind when we entered his premises with our grungy feet flapping down the aisles. As long as we were polite and didn’t bother anything he was even okay if we just browsed or perused the new issues of comic books. I suspect that he knew that sometimes we just used his store to cool down a bit after a race or when the temperature was threatening to reach the one hundred mark.

At the end of each day Mama sometimes hosed down our feet before we entered the house even though we would quickly be shooed to the bathroom to take a cooling bath before going to bed. I must admit that I miss those days when there were seemingly no restrictions on what we might do as long as it was legal and didn’t harm anyone. Since retiring I wear shoes less and less. Now my feet rebel a bit when I stuff them inside the leather of my pumps. They much prefer the freedom of sandals or flip flops.

I tend to believe that the studies that I encountered have some merit. I know in my own case that running a bit wild was adventurous and taught me how to create and get along with my peers. I literally communed with nature by way of my feet so that I know how to avoid getting stung by ants and what it feels like to step in warm tar. With my brothers and my friends I filled the hours with games and ideas of our own childlike making. I suppose that somehow we were all the better for the independence that our parents allowed us to have.

The world is so different these days. I suspect that moms might be reported to CPS for allowing their kids to roam as freely as we did back then. I’m not quite sure how possible it now is for children to be left to their own resources, but one thing I know for sure is that they don’t really need those shoes. Take them off, and see if those brains get smarter. What can it hurt?

Civility

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I do my best to be “woke” as the modern vernacular calls someone who is up to date with regards to modern progressive thinking. I’ve done my share of using the big “F” word, and will admit to being quite imperfect more often than I like. I am fairly permissive in a number of ways and often accused of being too liberal by my conservative friends and family members. That being said, I find myself grappling with the growing incivility of current communication. I wince at the public commentaries that are so raw and mean. They bother me in a visceral way that I am unable to overlook.

I learned long ago that we have multiple ways of communicating that are generally governed by somewhat unspoken but understood rules. The language registers that we used operated one way in public and quite another in private. We generally agreed that in the workplace, schools, churches and such we should talk to one another in a more formal manner. We addressed people with a level of respect that was occasioned by the need to be able to work effectively with one another. The kind of honest speaking that leads to cursing and insults was thought to be inappropriate in the public sector.

We all realize that in the more relaxed domains of home and close friendships we are more often than not inclined to use phrases and expletives to express ourselves. The idea is that in good relationships we sense that it is okay to be more open and honest. Those who truly care about us are generally more forgiving of outbursts. It is less likely that we will be punished for a slip of the tongue.

These kinds of mores have mostly been in effect for most of my lifetime. Some may believe that they are somewhat hypocritical, and I suppose that there are arguments for that thinking. Mostly though we have tended to agree that we have to insist upon a certain level of decorum in public lest we devolve into a kind of linguistic anarchy. So it has been for the most part until recently, and sadly the tendency to express frustrations and anger in the vilest terms is gaining traction.

It would be easy to blame the current tendencies on media or even our president who has a very bad habit of tweeting and uttering whatever is on his mind regardless of how distasteful it is. There are many who applaud the so called honesty of such outbursts. Other become so incensed that they resort to fighting fire with fire. Thus we find ourselves watching an awards ceremony only to hear an actor shouting, “F—-“ the president and then he is given a standing ovation. As a society we have become less and less embarrassed by a form of verbal assault that would have been unacceptable in the past.

There are many arguments from both conservatives and liberals that we have been forced into a battle of words by political events. The cheerleaders for such incidents insist that the fight for justice requires that we speak as openly and honestly as possible. They note that those who have been polite have been unable to actually get things done, and that now is the time to be as forceful as needed. They claim that the uncivil war of words is a battle for the very heart of democracy, and so it must be.

Sadly I find the outbursts to be without merit. They are simply gross and violent expressions of anger that do little more than to incite even more rage, when what we need are solutions. Those will only come from a more rational approach to the many problems that we face. Right now all we are managing to do is create divisions that will remain unhealed until we return to a way of speaking to and about one another that demonstrates respect. An argument built only on emotions generally goes nowhere. Relationships are rent in two when the parties are only yelling at one another. Marriages end. Friendships die. Countries wage war.

Children often cry and scream and throw tantrums when they do not get their way. We have to teach them how to control such emotions, and how to properly express their hopes and desires. It is a huge part of becoming an adult, and our youngsters are constantly watching and learning from us. What are they to think when they hear political leaders and icons of art and industry ranting like spoiled brats? Why would they agree to change their own behaviors when they see so many examples of insults being hurled like school yard taunts by prominent adults?

It is time that we insist on a return to civility, and that will only be accomplished if we remain in our seats and refrain from applause whenever someone chooses to speak from the gutter. We need to make it clear that this is not who we wish to be, nor the kind of behavior that we wish our children to witness.

I once had a student who was attempting to defend the efficacy of violence and cursing. He insisted that the best way to get something done was to be the person with the loudest voice and the biggest gun. I debated him until I had reached a point of frustration and I wrote the word A N A R C H Y across the blackboard. I explained that such battles always lead to a state of lawlessness, chaos, disorder that rarely ends well. It is only when we are willing to honor one another and work together that we have accomplished great things. Sometimes that means defeating those who would resort to ugliness as a way of accomplishing goals. Hopefully we will be able to do that within the confines of civility, because history has shown that when we cannot horrible things happen. 

Happy Birthday!

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My mother loved birthdays with the enthusiasm of a child. She was the youngest in a family of eight, growing up during the Great Depression. There wasn’t enough extra income for gifts or even special meals or desserts, so she and her siblings always received a nickel from their father on the occasion of becoming one year older. Mama always said that she like to take her new found wealth to a bakery nearby where she was able to purchase a big bag of broken cookie pieces that she swore were just as good as the ones that remained intact. As the years passed by she and her brothers and sisters would faithfully send a birthday card to one another that always contained a nickel taped inside. I sometimes sensed that she enjoyed that tradition even more than the more expensive gifts that she received.

Today would have been Mama’s ninety second birthday. She often bragged that she and Queen Elizabeth were born in the same year, and somehow that fact made her feel a kind of kinship with the monarch of England. She noted that they shared a kind of resemblance as well, along with the fact of having their first born children in the same year as well. My mother always alerted us to the Queen’s birthday as a kind of hint that hers was on the way.

She was a stickler for celebrating her natal day at the time of its actual place on the calendar. She didn’t like the idea of waiting until the weekend, so even if we planned a party for her when everyone would be able to attend, my brothers and I still had to make a big deal on the correct date. I suppose that’s why I still think about her on June 27, even though it has now been seven years since she died. I think it would please her to know that we have not forgotten how special this day always was for her. In fact, we decided after she was gone that we would gather at her favorite restaurant each year to raise a toast in her honor. As it happens the place we chose is the Cracker Barrel in League City where she spent many a happy time enjoying the homey atmosphere and the kind of cooking that she might have prepared herself.

In an effort to look after our mother while she was still alive my brothers and I agreed to visit her at least once a week on different days. She usually wanted to go out to eat when we arrived, and sometimes she was even waiting eagerly on a bench that stood on her front porch whenever we drove up. That’s how excited she was about getting out of the house, but that was not the case on her birthday. On that day she wanted all of us to come to see her at one time so that it was like a party. She put me in charge of providing the cake, ice cream and candles. She preferred German chocolate or devils food cake, but she was always okay with a change of flavor. God forbid, however, that I would forget to bring the ice cream or the candles. Those things had to be done just right.

She was exceptional at providing us with festive birthdays even when her income was sorely stretched. She made a habit of shopping all year long and setting aside things that she had found on sale. Her gifts were always quite practical and long lasting, but most of all thoughtful. She was sure to come knocking at the door bearing all of the trappings of a big to do, even as we grew older. I never knew how she managed to be so generous, but I always understood that for her a birthday was supposed to be special no matter the circumstances.

When Mama turned eighty we decide to give her a surprise party. We had little idea at the time that she would die less than five years later. We only knew that we wanted to make her day bigger and better than ever. We sent out invitations to everyone in her stable of friends and family, and they all came. My home was crowded with people who loved her and were excited by the idea of letting her know how they felt about her. They had written letters to her that we placed in an album. We huddled anxiously as she walked up to the door and shouted with delight upon her entrance. She cried tears of unmitigated joy and bore the expression of a delighted child as she opened each gift and read each card.

We all miss my mom. She was the heart of the family and a continual source of fun and laughter. She suffered more than most with the loss of her husband at the age of thirty. Her loneliness, lack of income, and mental illness pushed hard to defeat her spirit, but she battled long and courageously to avoid defeat. Somehow no matter what else was happening in her life, she always rallied on her birthday. It was as though that occasion gave her new energy, new joy, a new beginning again and again.

We’ll be going to Cracker Barrel tonight. Not everyone comes each year, but I do my best to keep my calendar clear so that I will be able to make it. I know that the eldest of her grandchildren will be there along with some of their own kids. The people at Cracker Barrel seem to get a bit flustered when we arrive with such a large group. They don’t seem to understand the importance of the occasion, but we believe that Mama is smiling down on us from heaven. The party is for her after all and we intend to celebrate just the way she would want us to do.

Stick With The Plan

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I imagined retirement as a hippie like existence with each day offering unplanned opportunities to just live and enjoy whatever would come my way. After a lifetime of schedules that seemed to digest every minute of the day, I was excited about the prospect of just hanging out and wandering aimlessly. It was fun to be that way for a time but it didn’t take long for lots of things to begin to fall apart in my world including my own health and that of my husband. I soon enough realized that running away from certain routines was actually somewhat lethal, and I’ve more or less spent the past year resurrecting my natural tendencies to look ahead and provide structure to my days.

When I was a student I lived and died by the syllabi from my classes, using a calendar and laser sharp focus to stay abreast with my studies. I do not possess enough intellect to cram or do all nighters and still come out smelling like a rose. Any time I neglected my studying duties and waited until the eleventh hour to get things done it was a disaster. Like the tortoise my style was to be slow and steady which required a great deal of initial planning as well as daily dedication to achieving particular goals along the way. I put in continuous effort and avoided temptations to slack off, but did all of my learning in small chunks so that by the end of a semester I was well versed in all of the topics and relaxed about tests and projects.

My methodology proved to be successful and so I continued using it when I became a teacher. I always looked at the number of school days and divided up the sequencing of my lessons before the school year had even begun with plenty of extra time factored in for those emergencies that always seemed to emerge. Then I did specific planning each week. I always knew where I was going and how long it was going to take. I never had to ask my students to cram because I was very much in control of helping them to master skills and knowledge with my own outline of what I wanted them to achieve. I broke lessons, homework, study time down into doable segments for them, hoping that I was also teaching them how to develop the kind of habits that would serve them well along whatever pathways they decided to follow.

A carefully planned lifestyle works even in emergencies because deadlines are rarely left for the last minute. Efficiently using the hours in a day is actually less stressful than finding oneself backed into a corner of demands, but building the needed structure also takes time. After being laser focused and in a sense ruled by calendars and clocks for sixty five years I found myself wanting to suspend all forms of organization and just go wherever my inclinations led me. It was fun for a time but I soon enough found that I had neglected so much that everything became chaotic. I gained weight, lost bone density, saw my energy draining and became surrounded by broken appliances and damage to my home. When my husband suffered a stroke for lack of a healthy lifestyle I came to my senses realizing that life really can’t just be a hippie style free for all of doing whatever makes us feel good. I needed to get control over events and that would take focus and planning.

My calendar is now electronic and goes with me wherever I happen to be. It helps me to keep track of the big picture, but within each day are the specifics designed to keep things running smoothly and still allow for long walks along the beach or leisurely camping trips. My watch is my own personal coach prompting me to stand, breathe, exercise, move. It celebrates the days when I accomplish my personal health goals and admonishes me when I grow lax. it’s a good thing for me because I often find that I would prefer not to spend time at the gym, but when the watch asks me why I am not being good I am reminded of the benefits of doing the right thing and I stay focused.

I have to plan healthy meals as well. I use a number of cookbooks and keep track of recipes that are especially tasty. I have to make sure that I have the proper ingredients on hand, so I keep lists of things that I need and coordinate my trips to the store with my gym time since there is a grocer right across the street from the YMCA where I go. By being prepared I have been less likely to fall back on fast food at the last minute than I was when we were so fancy free.

Our lack of due diligence also led to a major disaster with our hot water heater that otherwise might have been caught ahead of time had we made a habit of checking it regularly. Since it’s easy to forget such things we now have set up reminders for all sorts of maintenance of our home and car. By looking ahead and accomplishing a few things each week we are keeping up with little things that will go a long way toward preventing major accidents. In the long run its a small price to pay and its far more relaxing that facing repairs costing thousands of dollars that might have been unnecessary with regular care.

I’m back to my old habits and loving it. I plan my days to include fun, but no longer neglect the small things that keep me and the world around me operating efficiently. It’s true that regularity makes for better physical and mental health and longer life.

I find myself thinking of a story I once heard of a man who lived near the river at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. According to the tale he was a man of great discipline who ordered his days with a routine regimen that included a brisk hike up a trail that led to the top. That same trail is now a popular site for adventurous souls who go down to the river and then return after their explorations. Seeing them trudging up the rocky pathway is an amazing sight because in spite of their obvious strength and good health it is apparent that the trail challenges them. It is stunning to realize that there was once a man who took the stony roadway in stride even as he grew old. His secret was that he walked along it every single day without fail, and so it became easy for him. Constant repetition has the power of tackling even the most daunting tasks. Doing just a bit here and a bit there makes our lives more manageable and ultimately more productive and happier.

I guess those old platitudes are not so silly after all. An apple a day may indeed keep the doctor away. A stitch in time may save nine. Early to bed and early to rise may not make us wealthy but studies show that we will be a great deal healthier. Having a plan is a good thing. We just need to be sure to remember why we made it in the first place so that we don’t falter and give up.