La Casa de Cooper

pexels-photo-922934.jpegLast week I was privileged to have my granddad Cooper stay over as a house guest. He’s an old fellow who doesn’t move around much these days. He’s perfectly satisfied with a few belly scratches now and again and generous bowls of food. He adheres to a strict routine these days and only barks when he knows its time for a meal. Never mind that Daylight Savings time is in effect, Cooper insists on enjoying his breakfast and dinner at exactly the same hours each day. He follows me around as I putter in the house and it’s quite nice to hear the pitter patter of his little feet.

I suppose that I forgot to mention that Cooper is a pug who seems to imagine himself as being a regal member of Chinese royalty. He bears his ancestry quite well and spends most of his time sunning in front of my bedroom window with only mild curiosity about the happenings outside. He came with me when I did a bit of gardening and got the attention of the neighborhood dogs who barked ferociously at him. He generally ignored their in hospitable greetings and looked at me as though he thought them to be rather silly.

While Cooper’s family was away having a mini-vacation and enjoying ice cream every single day I spoiled him a bit with treats and extra helpings of food. He’s supposed to be on a diet but what good is it coming to Gammy’s house if he can’t bend the rules just a tiny bit? His favorite activity is lying on the couch next to my husband while we watch television in the evenings. He sleeps peacefully without even noticing that we are viewing a John Wick film. How he snoozes through the action is beyond me, but he does.

Cooper is always welcome at my home because he is no trouble at all. Some dogs are quite demanding and have a tendency to make messes. He just leaves little tiny hairs that I will be vacuuming up for weeks to come. I’m probably the only one who notices them. so it hardly matters that he left them behind.

I sometimes think of getting my own full time pet once again but then I consider all of the responsibilities associated with having a little creature and I change my mind. My life has become far too gypsy-like to include a dog. Perhaps when I begin to slow my pace and spend most of my days at home I will find myself a nice little guy like Cooper and provide him a space in my home. Until then I’ll just keep inviting Cooper over for a stay.

Cooper was a rescue dog. When his family got him his name was Ben. The trouble with that is that they already had a son named Ben and didn’t think that it would work out to have two with the same name. Since it was a lot less complicated to change the moniker for the dog, gentle Ben was suddenly Cooper. He got his new designation because the other adopted pet that they owned was named Shane. Since he was found wandering along a highway the people who found him imagined whoever lost him wishing that he would come back. So Shane and Cooper became dog brothers and had a great time together until Shane died last summer.

The family thought that Cooper would hardly notice that Shane was gone, but instead Cooper was quite sad. They thought that bringing in a new dog might cheer him up. They purchased a yellow Lab puppy named Luna who is a ball of energy. She loves Cooper but wants to play with him all of the time. He gets a bit grumpy when she chases him and he can’t get away, but we can all tell that he actually gets a kick out of the little tyke. Nonetheless I think that he enjoyed having some time to himself at my house. We provide him with way more attention than he gets at home.

Domesticating dogs is one of the grandest ideas that mankind has ever had. They are loyal and and sweet and lots of fun. Some are even protective, but Cooper is a bit too old and tired to worry about such things. He sleeps more hours than he is awake. He’s a bonafide old geezer, set in his ways and happy as long as his needs are satisfied.

Cooper may not be the brightest bulb in doggy land, but that doesn’t mean that he is not smart. He understands that his breakfast consists of dry food and dinner includes a nice moist and meaty topping. If I move too slowly in creating the appropriate recipe he barks until I get my act together. There is no fooling him!

I hope that Cooper gets to come visit many more times. He’s in his eighties in people years so there is no telling how much longer it will be before he crosses over the Rainbow Bridge. I know that I will be quite sad when that happens. I hate to admit it, but he is the favorite of my grand dogs, and besides his snoring is just adorable. Mi casa es la casa de Cooper.


The Next Chapter

You can’t get to the next chapter if you keep rereading that last onepexels-photo-776646.jpeg.

When I write I am often tempted to seek so much perfection that I am unable to get past the first paragraph. I have had to train myself to just keep writing until my thoughts are completed and then I go back to edit. Life can be much like that. We sometimes find ourselves stuck in an uncomfortable rut because we keep repeating the same mistakes, or even more awful, we are so afraid of making things worse that we stay in a situation that makes us miserable. Making changes of any kind is difficult, particularly when our confidence has been battered. It’s why people often remain in abusive situations even though they want more than anything to escape from them. It takes courage to move forward and to leave our familiar routines behind.

I’ve known people who appear to have no fear, and others who can’t seem to extricate themselves from terrible situations. I’ve found myself in a rut now and again, a place that was painfully uncomfortable from which I can’t seem to move forward. On those occasions I desperately wanted to end the pain that I was feeling, but the fear that overcame me was paralyzing. It was only when I took a deep breath and turned the page that I managed to find the sense of accomplishment that I sought.

I vividly recall how frightened I was when I agreed to be an instructor in a class for middle school mathematics teachers. As soon as I had accepted the position I literally wanted to run away or feign an illness. I worried that I would be viewed as a fraud, someone who only pretended to know how to teach. I was so nervous in the first couple of classes that I probably did appear to be less than qualified. My voice wavered and I found myself drawing a blank when fielding questions. It was not until I confided in my supervisor that things began to improve. She suggested that I work with her before each session to share ideas, create plans, and even ask questions. She also recommended that I share my own nervousness with the teachers who attended the class. She assured me that they would learn from my honesty, Surely enough before long I was relaxed and truly enjoying my foray into teaching adult learners. It prompted me to take a graduate class in training and development where I learned even more techniques that I used when I was the Dean of Faculty at my school.

Over the years I have been challenged again and again to take control of the direction of my life. When my mother first showed signs of her mental illness I mostly cried and felt sorry for myself for having to help her. I was young and inexperienced with such things and would have preferred having a helpful adult step forward to counsel me, but none were forthcoming. I ignored my mother’s symptoms as long as possible, hoping that some grand miracle would occur. When even our parish pastor turned his back on my predicament I understood that either I would screw up my courage or my mother might never be well again. I did what I had to do, learning even from the mistakes that I made. By the time of my mom’s death I had spent more than forty years coming to her aid each time that her mind once again became ill. It never became easy, but I grew to feel more and more comfortable that I was doing what was best for her. I learned how to navigate the world of psychiatry and I became unafraid to challenge doctors on my mother’s behalf.

I suppose that given a more comfortable alternative there have been many times when I would have preferred not to push myself to do disagreeable things. Like Bartleby the Scrivener I might have been content to simply refuse to participate in the challenges that beset me. My nature is such that I imagine what it might have been like if I had found peace and quiet and routine rather than placing myself in supercharged circumstances. As I think about life I suspect that none of us are ever so lucky that we are never faced with having to deal with experiences that are painful and maybe even tinged with guilt. Each of us come upon turning points that demand that we move forward or devolve into a state of misery.

I greatly admire people who are courageous, resilient, willing to take risks. What would we do without them? Throughout history there have been individuals who were willing to attempt the seemingly impossible. They become our leaders and our inspirations, the speed readers who turn the pages so quickly that they take our breaths away. Eleanor Roosevelt once suggested that we do one thing that scares us each day. She followed her own advice by overcoming the shyness that had almost paralyzed her in her youth and she ultimately used her voice for those who were all too often ignored.

Sometimes just taking the first step is the most difficult aspect of changing for the better. There are certain situations that are wrought with dangers. We may make many mistakes before we finally set things right. There is nothing easy about eschewing an unhealthy routine or attempting to fulfill a dream, and each of us should be supportive of anyone who is trying to do so. We might begin by teaching our young that they never have to be stuck in a place that makes them unhappy. We each have more grit than we may think. We really do have the power to control what the next chapter will be.

The Heartbreak of Misbehavior


In my early years of teaching I worked with many students who had very troubled lives. My kids were known for moving from one school to another in three month increments. That’s because it took about that long for them to either exhaust the free rent promotion at apartment projects, or for their families to be evicted for nonpayment of rent. I used paper grade and attendance books back then and they were riddled with marks denoting subtractions and additions of students. My classroom was like a revolving door with many tearful goodbyes on Friday afternoons and greetings of new faces on Monday mornings. It was hard enough on me as a teacher to maintain a sense of continuity, but even worse for the students whose lives were constantly in a state of flux. In some ways the ones who went from one low rent apartment to another were the luckiest ones, because I also knew of kids who were living in someone’s garage or in the family car.

I struggled to manage my emotions in those days and often felt as though I was making little educational progress with my pupils. Sometimes I focused my anger on the parents and in other moments I simply felt a sense of extreme frustration. So many of my kids were listless and seemingly unwilling to take advantage of the opportunities that education afforded them. They didn’t appear to care about learning no matter how exciting I attempted to make it. They came without supplies and rarely did homework. Many possessed skills far below grade level. It was a daily battle to keep them engaged and all too often just as I had finally reached them they left for a new school.

I remember voicing my complaints to my mother who had been a teacher herself. I literally ranted about the situation and the fact that I felt as though I was the only one who cared. My mom listened calmly and then turned the discussion on end when she calmly but forcefully suggested that I needed to take the difficulties of my students into account. She noted that a hungry child can’t think of anything but the pains in his/her belly. A frightened child is only focused on the dread of going back home to a bad situation. An abused child doesn’t have time to worry about homework. In other words I had to consider the most basic needs of my students first and then worry about learning.

I knew from my mother’s stories about her own childhood that she was in many ways much like my students. She grew up in a tiny house with seven siblings who shared two bedrooms. Hers was an immigrant family that was often scorned and even abused by the people in her neighborhood. When she first began school her mom was in a hospital recovering from a mental breakdown. I suspect that there were many moments when she was too worried to learn, but she always spoke of how her teachers made school a haven for her, a place where it felt comfortable. For that reason education became a source of positive reinforcement in her topsy turvy world.

I changed the way I did things with my students after that conversation with my mother. I got to know my students and mastered the art of showing sincere concern for them. The stories that I heard were often heartbreaking, but I began to also see the courage and resilience that they possessed and I praised them for that. Once I adapted my methods to their needs my students began to demonstrate talents that had been hidden. They bloomed like lovely flowers and my classroom became a happy place where all of us wanted to be.

What I learned about my kids was at times so tragic that I had to steel myself to keep from crying in front of them. There was the girl with thick wavy black hair whose mother shaved those locks in a fit of anger. There was the boy who was an emotional wreck because his mother had attempted to set him on fire when he was only three. Then there was Robert whose mom was a prostitute who left him in charge of his younger sister while she worked each night. He was little more than a child himself but he bore the responsibilities of an adult. When his sister was raped one evening it was Robert who called the police and waited up until dawn to tell his mom what had happened. She flew into a rage, not at the man who had committed the crime, but at Robert who in her mind had shirked his duty to protect his sister.

Students with such severe problems acted out and sometimes appeared to be lazy or even defiant. The reality is that they were simply attempting to deal with the horrific realities of their lives. Somehow learning how to perform operations with fractions was not at the top of their priorities list and I had to learn how to help them to concentrate on the moment rather than fretting over what might happen when they returned home. It was a balancing act that took great compassion on my part.

Whenever I would witness bad behavior from kids who had such terrible lives it would break my heart. I knew their stories all too well and only had control over what happened to them when they were with me. I wanted to make that time as positive as possible, even in the face of horrific challenges. I’d like to believe that in some small way I gave them a tiny break from the ugliness and maybe even taught them something along the way. All too many times they left my care just when I felt that we were on the verge of breaking through the issues that were holding them back. I would never see them again but I would always remember them and worry about them and wonder how things turned out for them.

Every educator and psychology student learns about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It appears to be such a simple and common sense theory. We should all understand that until the most basic requirement are satisfied little else will happen, and yet we still ignore the signs of trouble far too many times. Hunger, hurt, fear, pain overtake a mind and shut it down. Once we understand that basic truth and begin to address those things, then and only then will we be able to extract the full potential of our young. It’s a big goal, but one that we must pursue just as my mother taught me to do.


In Defense of Boys


My time as a child was filled with boys. I had two brothers and a gaggle of male cousins. The only other girl, Ingrid, and I were the only girls at extended family gatherings, at least until the guys began to marry. When I became a mom my world changed completely when I had two girls. I sometimes wondered if my husband felt overwhelmed by all of the estrogen. As a grandmother I was back to what I had known as a young girl when six of my seven grandchildren turned out to be boys. I adjusted to the rough housing and gross jokes quickly because the habits of young males were all quite familiar to me. 

I have to note that neither my brothers nor my cousins ever treated me as though I was somehow less than they were just because I was a girl. The only abuse that I sometimes endured from them came in the form of crass jokes that I soon enough learned to laugh about. All of those guys celebrated my successes and encouraged me to reach for all of my dreams. When I met my husband the supportiveness continued on steroids. I grew up believing that I was one hundred percent equal to any man which is why I find myself wanting to defend young boys these days from a kind of implied assault from rabid feminism. As sometimes happens the effort to create a level playing field for women has at times resulted in some people believing that the only way for girls to rise up is to pull down the guys. Because of my own positive relationship with boys I find this kind of thinking not only to be troublesome, but more pervasive than it needs to be.

Of late, and in particular during Women’s History month, I have read a number of opinion pieces that are tearing into parenting practices for young boys and even the record of male accomplishments in the past. It is as though our society is in attack mode when it comes to maleness and that worries me for the sake of the boys as well as the girls. It’s important that we keep our perspective when it comes to raising our children and preparing them for the adult world. We have to remember that there are physical and psychological differences between all children and most especially between males and females. Teaching each person how to become healthy and happy requires individualization and an appreciation of diversity.

We sometimes hear of the battle of the sexes, and in truth we should not think of the realization of goals as being a kind of war. Certainly there are instances when girls are abused or harassed by men, but we all know of cases when women have taken advantage of good men as well. We should be aware of such outlying behavior, but also admit that for the most part the relationships between boys and girls, men and women is more akin to my own positive experiences. Our goal in raising our children should be to continually emphasize a spirit of mutual respect between all people regardless of sex. We only create more tension by insisting that boys are somehow a privileged lot who must be humbled so that girls will finally get their turn.

I go to the gym five or six times a week and I am steadily becoming stronger but I can’t help but notice that even the weaker men who use the weight machines before me are capable of lifting poundage that is far beyond my capacity. I don’t believe that this is because we have somehow given men more opportunities and encouragement for physical development, but because they have a different genetic and physical structure. When it comes to intellect the playing field is much more equal. Through hard work I was able to rise to the number one rank in my high school class. I did that not because someone held back the young men so that I would make better grades, but because I put in a bit more effort. Nonetheless, I always understood and appreciated that the males in my classes were as capable as I was. I just ended up with a slightly higher GPA than they did. In the end we were generally equal in abilities.

I had every opportunity accorded to the men both in college and in my career. I made my own choices and when I encountered the occasional male chauvinist pig I ignored him and worked even harder. Mostly the males with whom I worked pushed me to advance and be successful just as my brothers and boy cousins had. Ironically I was more likely to find problems with women than men when it came to road blocks on the job, so I’ve always wondered why our society is more and more often setting up barriers for boys while opening the gates for women.

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud the efforts of women to tackle male dominated jobs, and I am a realist when it comes to accepting the fact that there will be those who still harbor very old fashioned ideas about the roles of men versus women. I just want to be certain that in our enthusiasm to remember the women we do not steamroll the men. Progress is of little value if it comes at the cost of damaging half of the population.

So as we celebrate the advances of women and do our best to continue the progress that has been made, let’s all agree not to trample on the boys in our enthusiasm. We need for all people to be able to make the best of the talents and intellectual abilities that they have. Our goal should be to raise each child in an environment that motivates and inspires. Our focus should be more on the future and less on the mistakes and injustices of the past. If we are constantly indicting the boys for sins that we worry that they might one day commit we will stifle them in nonproductive ways just as was sometimes done in the past with girls.

Girl power is wonderful, but so is boy power. Together we can make a better more equitable world, but if we continually devolve into quibbling and put downs we haven’t got a chance. It’s time to work for everyone in a spirit of fairness. That’s how we create the adults who will one day be able to carry on the work of humankind.


The Strength Of Joining Forces


Last Thursday was International Women’s Day. Coincidental with that event were a number of articles and programs dedicated to women’s issues. Among them was a piece discussing a women’s conference that was held in Houston, Texas back in the nineteen seventies. It was attended by the feminist stars of the day including Bella Abzug, Barbara Jordan, and Gloria Steinem. My good friend Marita was among the thousands of attendees and she gushed for weeks about what she had seen and heard. With her ever present Irish humor she also purchased a couple of towels at the event bearing an image of a pig and the words “male chauvinist pig.” She impishly presented them to her husband and mine causing all of us to laugh because neither of the two men had a chauvinist bone in their bodies. They were instead very supportive of both of us and proud of whatever path we chose to travel.

Marita ultimately became an attorney and I went all in for education. We were independent women who wanted different things which to me was the real point of women’s rights. Sadly not everyone, including Marita agreed with my thinking. In fact, one of the surprises of the Houston Women’s Conference was that it ended up with a schism among the ladies that has never really healed. As Gloria Steinem explained there was a rival conference across town designed to discuss issues important to women with more fundamentalist religious views. It was chaired by Phyllis Schafly and is sometimes credited with being the moment of when the religious right movement was born.

Ms. Steinem recently opined that the conference that should have launched a huge shift in women’s rights ultimately fizzled when the report that they sent then President Jimmy Carter was never addressed, but the fever of conservatism actually caught fire and began to burn brightly. “We lost,” she recently proclaimed. The conference that had been so hopeful for her became the important meeting that was seemingly forgotten.

I recall thinking at the time that the competing meetings represented a tendency of women that has been troublesome for centuries. Namely, for some reason too many of us of the female persuasion seem to believe that we must achieve all or walk away with nothing. We continually compete rather than compromise and our divisions make progress more difficult than it needs to be. We might find true power if only we were willing to honor all women regardless of differences. Instead we quibble and lose our advantage of numbers. We are not only fighting the status quo, but also battling with each other.

As someone who taught in middle school for a number of years I vividly recall the verbal spats between the girls that often became ferocious. In their adolescent frenzy they formed cliques that were akin to battle lines and attacked one another with hurtful wars of words. On any given day I was drying tears and attempting to arbitrate between conflicting groups and vicious comments. In some ways the continued divisions in the world of women remind me of those junior high days.

I suppose that if we had the power of going back in time to redo critical moments I would suggest to the female leaders of both the left and the right that women need to genuinely join hands to honor one another. It should not matter what choices each female makes, but that every girl is supported in her quest to live life to its fullest. I was intensely proud of Marita not because she was a lawyer, but because she achieved her own personal dream. I marvel just as much over my friend Linda who stood by her belief that the most important work that she might ever do was to be found in caring for her family and home. I have found few people as dedicated as she is and I am continually humbled by her example.

The truth is that many progressive women will fiercely defend a Muslim woman wearing a burka, but then poke fun at a fundamentalist Christian female who is pro life, somehow never noticing the hypocrisy of such thinking. At the same time, some very religious women are unwilling to accept or understand those who support Planned Parenthood or a lesbian lifestyle, They seemingly forget the parts of the Bible that tell them not to judge and to follow the commandment of love. There is a great wall between the two sides with most of us stuck in the middle feeling like I did when I attempted to quell the furor between my middle school girls. Until women everywhere stand up for each other without judgement or rancor we will all feel as if we have failed just as Ms. Steinem does.

The truth is that we really have come a long long way, but we still have problems that we must address. Culture is very difficult to change, but it is happening. There are now more women attending universities than men. Women are more and more often choosing majors and careers that were once male dominated. The barriers keeping women from breaking the glass ceiling are falling away. It’s a far better world for women than it was back in the nineteen seventies. That conference really didn’t fail after all. We have much to celebrate, and we need to do so together.

I long for the day when we women are capable of honoring Condoleeza Rice along with Hillary Clinton, Sara Palin with Elizabeth Warren. Our heroines should not be just those who think like we do. They should be all women who become successful at whatever they have chosen to do. The true women of distinction do not fit into a particular mold, but instead represent every possible point of view. Their strength is not found in their philosophies but in the capacity to love and survive.

Neither of my grandmothers were able to read or right, and yet they are two of the most powerful women that I have ever known. They taught me that I have the capacity to be as strong as any man. The showed me how powerful love can be. They helped me to understand the importance of honoring every single person.

I suppose that I will never forget a time when my grandmother Minnie Bell took me to see one of her Arkansas neighbors, a woman with ten children who lived in abject poverty. Before we arrived Grandma cautioned me to treat the lady with the utmost respect. She insisted that I was about to meet one of the greatest people ever, and in fact I was so taken by my grandmother’s admonitions that I was able to see past the dreary environment in which the woman lived. Instead I noticed her understated elegance and heard the intelligence in her conversation. I suppose that my grandmother in spite of her lack of education was a bit wiser than many of the leaders of various political movements aimed at women. She had the right idea and I have never forgotten the lessons that she taught me. We women are capable and beautiful just as we are. If we stop long enough to actually listen to one another I think that we will begin to make the progress that we seek. There is power in our diversity, strength in joining forces.