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.

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Building Bridges

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Our ability to think and to communicate is the great gift of our humanity, but it can also be the source of our most horrific misunderstandings. We are each products of a unique set of circumstances blended together into a complex a stew of heredity and environment. The way we view the world and its people is the product of hundreds of interactions in our personal lifetimes. A single word or statement is interpreted through a lens of DNA and experiences that twists and turns what we believe we are hearing. Two people in the same place at the same time may walk away with entirely different interpretations of the same utterance or idea. Unless we take the time to hear the rationale or emotion behind another’s thinking we may misunderstand them in ways that lead to schisms between us.

We live in a world of almost unending words and talk. At every turn of modern life we see, or hear or read of events and commentaries. We are inundated with facts and opinions. How we interpret them depends on the totality of our life’s journey. How we use and decipher certain words is determined by our individual circumstances. A single utterance may be subject to a multitude of translations in the minds of those who witness it.

Words have power and there are those who have a gift for using them to bring momentous change. Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used such talent for the benefit of humankind. Tyrants like Adolf Hitler used speech to create a nightmarish world. We are continually being tempted with words that reach into our hearts and cause us to hope, but what inspires some is abhorrent to others.

“Make America Great Again” means hundreds of different things depending on who is hearing that phrase. For some it is a reminder of a time when our country fought for the very life of a world overtaken by evil. To others it is a call for a return to injustices wrought upon members of the Black community. There are those who think it means having jobs and security and serenity. Still others insist that it is meant to deny freedoms to those escaping harsh conditions and hoping for better lives. Some even hear it as little more than a slogan designed to entice us, but having little or no actual effect on our realities. In other words like a gigantic game of “telephone” we hear many different versions from the exact same words and then we imprint our own translations onto our judgements of the people around us who are making their own determinations. In fact we are most likely running the risk of grossly misinterpreting what each person’s thinking actually is.

What most people want is quiet. They have little or no desire for debates and discussions and too much information. They prefer to fill their lives with pleasant images and thoughts. They want to hear about happy things. They wish to keep their lives as uncomplicated as possible. They have enough problems on the personal level that they don’t really have the time or the energy to deal with the complexities of the world. They simply want things to run as smoothly as possible.

While there may have been a day and time when people lived and died without feeling the impact of anyone much farther away than a few miles, today’s world is indeed a kind of global village. When a butterfly flaps its wings in the Middle East we hear it and feel it. The oceans that once seemed to insulate the United States from the problems of the rest of the world are no longer effective in keeping us out of the fray. Walls neither real or virtual will ever be able to turn back the clock and provide us with a sense of security because the global genie is out of the bottle. Technology has linked us with words and images and the means of destroying each other. We are being forced more than ever to find ways of communicating our needs and working together for the sake of all of humankind. We may not like that this is so, but it is part of our new inescapable reality. Because of this increasingly our communication with one another will become ever more complex and subject to misinterpretation.

So what can we do if we don’t want to descend into a tower of babble that continually tears us apart? How do we learn to live with our new normal without shattering our relationships? Perhaps the answer is to be found in quieting our minds so that we will be able to finally discern what others are attempting to tell us. Maybe we need to investigate the idea of compromise and understand the power of making deals. Perhaps some of the old platitudes from the past that so abound exist because they actually made sense. If we take away all of the gilt of our progress and listen only to the wind and the beating of our hearts we may find that our desires are not as different from one another as they may at first glance seem. It may remind us of our need to work together and to get along.

There are a few saintly individuals who are so good that they almost seem to be devoid of the imperfections that plague the rest of us. There are evil individuals whose black hearts make us cringe but they are definitely in the minority. For the most part everyone else is about the same regardless of our superficial differences. We may have a variety of ideas about how to make the world a better place, but our intentions are generally aimed for the good. It is only our solutions for problems that may differ. Perhaps its time for us to quit arguing and begin building bridges of understanding starting in our own families and communities and moving ever outward from there. 

We’re Only Human

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Remember those stories we heard as young folk about the hardships that our parents and grandparents endured in their youth? You know what I’m talking about. They went something like this, “I walked five miles up hill in the snow to school, both ways.” Of course that’s an old joke about our elders attempting to shame us into believing that we had it easy compared to the lives that they had, but the exaggeration isn’t really all that out of line. The fact is that the act of preparing to be an adult is a tough one in almost any day and age. Behind the glamor of youth there is invariably a great deal of angst even for the seemingly most brilliant and well adjusted, and all too often we forget our own journeys and the mistakes that we made as we attempted to develop ourselves into persons able to contribute to society. We give the impression that all anyone ever has to to is set a goal, work really hard, and then watch the fruit of those labors grow. Somewhere deep in our hearts is the understanding that life is rarely that easy and that the push and pull between the world of childhood and becoming an adult is filled with challenges that often confuse and break spirits.

I continually applaud teachers and the work that they do to help build strong bodies and minds in our young. The best among them are the ones who go that extra mile “uphill” to touch the souls of their students. They understand that their duty as educators is not to play “gottcha” with kids but rather to demonstrate compassion and teach them how to navigate through the land mines that will most certainly litter their paths along the way. Teaching is so much more than conveying knowledge and then testing for learning. It is a process, a continuum that has to be individualized to the extent of realizing that we are all individuals who learn in varying ways. We bring both physical and emotional baggage to the classroom and a good teacher knows how to unpack it and tidy it up. No human is the sum of test scores, and yet we so often send the message that only those who make the grade will survive. As adults we know better but insist on spreading the myth that all hard work is duly rewarded.

I often repeat a story related to me by my husband from the days when he was a student at the University of Houston. He had a brilliant professor who had gone out of his way to know his students. This man took the time to discuss his subject in informal settings devoid of the pressures created by research papers and exams. In a conversational way he explored the gist of his knowledge with them, learning how much more they actually knew than what the snapshots of formalized appraisals might convey. My husband saw this man as a caring mentor, and took full advantage of the opportunities to become almost a disciple of him just as the students of Socrates had done in the long ago.

On one occasion my husband’s nerves got the better of him during an exam. He had one of those classic meltdowns that left his mind blank. The more he panicked the less he remembered. As he turned in his test paper he was certain that he had failed and he was disappointed and angry with himself. He immediately went to the professor to apologize for what might have appeared to be a lack of effort and concern. The kindly man began to talk about each question, prodding my husband to explain what he knew about the topics. Before long they were like two friends having one of those glorious discussions in which it is actually believable that they might change the world with their brilliance. By the end of my husband’s confessional the professor announced that it was apparent to him that his student had a deep command of the information and he promptly assigned a grade of “A.”

We rarely see teaching genius like this. In fact we are often an unforgiving society in which mistakes are held against people with dire consequences. We are proverbial Scrooges rather that Fezziwigs, sending individuals into spasms of self doubt and sometimes even severe depression. The truth is that we are continually spilling milk, messing up, making bad decisions and if we are fortunate we find people who will forgive us and help to redirect us. Sadly we are seeing less and less tolerance for the very normal and natural aspects of being human and our society is paying a very high price for so much indignation.

I had a delightful meeting with a high school counselor last week. He works hard on a daily basis to help young people find their way in our very complex society. Some of the students that he meets appear to have no problem heading straight for success, but most stumble and fall along the way. He makes a point of gently picking them back up and helping them the recover and begin again. He is one of the many heroes who takes the time to redirect and reassure even those who seem to have lost their way. This is indeed how we all should be approaching the people around us instead of abhorring words like forgiveness and amnesty.

We are losing far too many people to a competitive and combative world that chews them up and spits them onto a trash heap of hopelessness. We blithely seem to believe that we must only reward strength and perfection or we will create generations of weaklings. We set mistakes in stone and forever remind people of their faults rather than developing their best qualities. We insinuate that only those with specific talents will own the jobs of the future. We praise the young who excel, but send the message to those who struggle that their value is worth less. We even attack minors who don’t quite know how to act when they find themselves in touchy situations. We forget our duty to guide, forgive and encourage.

Luckily we still have many who quietly understand our human frailties and compassionately teach and reteach. They are educators, parents, friends, bosses, lawmakers who remember what it is really like to be human, those who understand that learning and becoming is a lifelong process that can’t be measured with numbers. Success is not made of discrete moments but rather a never ending progression of starts and stops, victories and defeats, exhilarations and frustrations, wisdom and mistakes. In reality it is never too late for each of us to become what we wish to be so perhaps it’s time that we set aside judgements set in stone whether they be test scores, grades or attempts to determine the content of character that is always evolving. We are all walking miles, sometimes even uphill in the snow, but the journey can and should be an adventure, not a dreaded task.    

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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When I was growing up I was surrounded by boy relatives. I had two brothers who instantly bonded with each other and dozens of cousins who were male. I remember being relegated to stereotypical female roles in our play time or being left out entirely when it came to sports or opportunities like scouting. I never wanted to be more like the boys, but I often dreamed of having a few more girls in my midst. I even wished for a sister to make things more even in my family. Since that never happened I had to learn to cope with things as they were, and I looked outside of my little world to find friendships with girls who might become like the sisters that I longed to have.

I had two female cousins but one of them lived in another city and I rarely had occasion to see her. She was also six years younger than I was and in the world of children that seemed like a gap too large to bridge. It was left to my other girl cousin to bring me the kind of companionship for which I longed.

Since she was a tiny bit older I idolized her and thought that every single thing about her was exceptional. She was beautiful with her blue eyes and perfectly proportioned features. Her golden girls brushed her shoulders and accentuated her loveliness. She was also smart, seeming to know about the world in ways that I had never encountered. I was so in awe of her that I was reluctant to share my insecurities with her. Instead I spent many years attempting to turn myself into a carbon copy of her, a futile effort given that there was little about me that was like her. It would be years before I was able to embrace myself just as I was and love her more for the beauty of her heart than her outward appearance. She indeed became my soul sister or “sister cousin” as she likes to say. We share an unbreakable bond, not to mention a long history of shared experiences.

I also found girl friends with whom I became so close that they might have been called “sisters from other mothers.” These have been the women with whom I was able to share my deepest feelings in an almost spiritual way. Some have been more reserved than others in what they are willing to discuss, but all of them have provided me with moments of understanding that only another woman can provide.

I love my brothers dearly, and my husband is undoubtedly my best friend, but sometimes I need to say and do things that are somewhat confusing to men. I have to vent some strange feelings, maybe even be a bit catty. My imperfections need a safe haven in which to exorcise themselves and the most special female friends are those who know and understand that when I make my revelations I am only clearing my head, thinking out loud, trying to free myself of poisonous thoughts. They let me carry own without judgement. They realize that once I have said the unthinkable I feel better and am ready to move on to being a very good person. Men don’t always understand such things. They want women to be angelic. They may become uncomfortable, offended or hurt if we let out our inner demons.

It’s funny how there are certain women  with whom we feel the safe kinship that allows us to be so honest. My cousin has ended up being one of those people. My mother-in-law was amazingly another one in whom I was able to confide without fear of recrimination. My friend Pat and I were sounding boards for each other and now I find that I can be the same way with her daughter.

In a kind of unique twist of fate I have rekindled the same kind of relationship with an old high school friend who had been one of the bridesmaids in my wedding and with whom I had essentially lost contact for almost fifty years. She moved to Atlanta and became a highly successful business woman. I became engrossed with raising my daughters, caring for my mother, and devoting myself to teaching thousands of students. We never meant to ignore each other, but life stepped in and kept us so busy that the years went by and it one day seemed as though perhaps a longterm friendship between us was simply not meant to be.

Then came Facebook, our fiftieth class reunion and retirement from our occupations. Suddenly there was a way for us to come back into contact. At first it was just a comment here and there on social media. Then came a phone call now and again. Eventually we were talking as though our last meeting had been only a few days before. The connection that we had felt in the long ago was as strong as ever. Even with our differing lives we had somehow remained the same, two people who could be totally ourselves without worrying about what the other might think. It was a glorious feeling to reignite our kindred spirits.

I had a meltdown last week. I needed to make some tacky comments just to get them off of my chest. I wanted to complain about some silly things just because. When I attempted to launch into a tirade with my husband as a sounding board confusion ensued. I needed a special woman to hear me. My friend in Atlanta became that person. We complained and laughed and ended a long conversation feeling a thousand times better and way more optimistic. More than anything it felt so good to know that I had found another person who would let me be the good the bad and the ugly versions of myself and still love and understand me. It was grand.

I adore my husband, my brothers, and the men who are my friends, but I also know that now again only the ear of just the right woman will do. Luckily I have some darn good “sisters” to whom I can turn.

No Quick Fixes

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It’s in our human natures to want simple answers, and yet it is rare that we are able to alleviate complex problems with quick fixes. At best we might patch things together until the time at which we consider all facets of an issue and attempt to arrive at a solution that more closely resembles what we require. Even then there will ultimately be imperfections, instances in which our ideas don’t work as well as we might have intended.

Years inside a classroom taught me that I had to be flexible and ready to change course at a moments notice. Something that worked magnificently with one group of students might backfire with another. It is virtually impossible to have a one size fits all solution for the problems that daunt human beings. Nonetheless we often attempt to quickly cobble together ideas to deal with the challenges that we face. It is in our natures to want to be done with things that irritate us and then move on.

We long for an easy diet to help us lose weight. We desire healthcare that costs little or nothing and also provides world class medicine. We dream of finding the magic bullet of education that will turn all of our youngsters into little Einsteins. We hope to eradicate our debts without pain. We think that it would be great to simply dig into the pockets of the wealthy to fund programs that seemingly would allow everyone to live well. We want peace on earth with no real effort. We long to stop the chaos of the world without pain or sacrifice. We hope to find the magic person or pill that will make our lives almost perfect without all of the hard work that our day to day experiences now require.

Thus we have politicians on the right and on the left who are hawking plans that may seem so wonderful until we actually take the time to analyze them and to consider the many downsides of them. Knowing that we may balk when we use our critical thinking skills they play to our fears, our jealousies, and our prejudices. They cause us to worry and then unveil their solutions with the flourish of banging drums, little different from the traveling salesmen who entice us with promises of stress free lives if only we buy into their “flim-flamming.”

There is no free lunch. Everything that we attempt has a price in effort or emotion or money. We must decide which sacrifices we are willing to make for the common good even as we understand that we may not be perfectly happy with the results. We may have to revise and edit our decisions once we see the flaws. It is a rare thing to get exactly what we need on the first try. We must proceed with caution while understanding that there will be bumps in the road.

We are not that unlike our ancestors in attempting to settle our differences and lessen our fears. Most of us have little or no desire for power, but we do require a sense of freedom, safety, security for ourselves and those that we love. We invest time, money and energy into to providing those things for ourselves. We send our children to school each day. We travel to jobs to earn the funds to use for food, housing and our most basic needs. We agree to follow certain rules to alleviate anarchy in our midst. Mostly though we just want to be left alone to be ourselves, so we elect leaders who appear to reflect our views and then hope for the best as they represent us.

Of late there has been a style of governing that makes many of us uneasy. It is built not so much on certain common desires, but more on radical thinking that makes us uncomfortable and tears us apart. Many of our politicians appeal to our basest fears and divisions. They are more rabble rousers than diplomats. They are steadfast in creating chaos rather than compromises. They suggest simplistic ideas without research or data or logic. Thus we become agitated and then turn on one another only reinforcing their vacuous power. Each side wants us to believe that they are good and their opponents are bad. When we fall for their tactics we too become engaged in never ending battles with our own friends or we simply turn our backs on the whole tragedy and hope that by ignoring the rancor we will ultimately be okay.

If we are honest we will admit to the problems that concern us and also agree that neither side of the discussions has it completely right. We have work to do, but we will never move forward in the direction that we need if we settle for simplistic ideas. A wall will not solve our immigration problems any more than the Affordable Care Act has made healthcare more available to everyone. Our schools will not become better by throwing more money at them nor will the cost of higher education be mitigated if we make it free. Our planet needs our help and denying that fact will not halt the destruction that we have wrought on it nor will grandiose plans to eliminate fossil fuels without searching for other ways to power our industries and our homes. Respecting the freedoms and the diversity of mankind requires talents that far too many of our lawmakers lack. As long as we keep sending individuals to our nation’s capitol who are unwilling to budge and work together we will be wasting our time and our national treasure. If we can’t even get along within our own communities, we can hardly expect good outcomes in Washington D.C.

There are answers to each of the concerns that we may have but they will require a level of calm and rationality that is in short supply these days. We the people have to admit that we will often have to compromise, give a little to get a little. This is the message that our leaders need to hear. This is the reality that we must all understand.