Snakes and Dentists

emblem_bwpho·bi·a

/ˈfōbēə/

noun

  1. an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something.

I’m not superstitious nor to I believe in things like good luck charms. In general I am a very rational person who eschews conspiracy theories and urban myths. Still, I have to admit to having a number of phobias, among them being forced off of a bridge while driving my car and being caught in a burning building. Without a doubt, however, my two most heart pounding fears are of snakes and dentists.

We humans once lived in trees and so the fear of snakes is primordial and I suppose even a bit Biblical. In my own case it tracks back to two events from my childhood. The first occurred when an elderly neighbor was bitten by a water moccasin that wandered into her backyard from a nearby bayou. She stepped on it in the dark and at first thought she had accidentally stumbled over her dachshund. When she felt the sharp sting of the reptile’s venom she looked down and saw what had really happened. She spent many days in the hospital lingering near death and those of us who knew her kept vigil and prayed. I suppose that her advanced age had more to do with the seriousness of her condition than the actual bite but the thought of danger lurking in the dark of my yard haunted me so much that over time I developed a total aversion to any form of snake whether poisonous or not.

Like Indiana Jones I become mush at the mere thought of a snake and my anxieties with regard to them only increased after an incident with my grandmother when I was about six. She and my grandfather were living on a farm in Arkansas back then and they prided themselves in being able to live mostly off of the bounty of the land. They planted crops that kept them generously supplied with fruit and vegetables and raised chickens and a cow for meat and milk. Grandma was a kind of pioneer woman who was handy with a rifle and she proved her mettle by bagging deer and squirrels as well. More than anything she was an expert fisherwoman. I suppose my father learned to love fishing from her.

One afternoon when we were visiting the farm my grandmother and grandfather decided to go angling for fish and asked if I wanted to come along. I so enjoyed being with them that i joyfully agreed to go. When we got to the place where they hoped to get some fresh trout for dinner my grandmother first went to inspect the area. Without any sort of explanation she returned to the car with a concerned look and sternly warned me to stay in the car assuring me that they would not take long. To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement. It was a warm summer day and even though the car was parked under the shade of an enormous tree I soon became hot and bored. I defied my grandmother’s command and decided to join her on the rickety wooden pier where she was so intent on fishing that she did not see me coming up behind her.

As I approached my grandparents I suddenly saw what seemed to be an army of snakes lifting their heads out of the water as though waiting for a handout from the humans invading their habitat. When one of them attempted to slither up a pillar of the structure where she was standing Grandma took her fishing pole and beat it away. I was so stunned and horrified that I began screaming in terror. Grandma spun around to see me and without a word hurried me back to the safety of the car, chastising me for ignoring her instructions. As she and Grandpa gathered up their catch and their fishing gear I sat in the automobile more disturbed than ashamed. I could not get the horrific vision of all of those snakes out of my mind. In all honesty it still haunts me if truth be told. From that moment forward I have been totally terrorized by the mere thought of snakes.

My dental anxieties are also a product of my youth. I had the unfortunate bad luck to have a pediatric dentist who never should have been allowed to interact with children. From a very young age I needed a great deal of work on my teeth and he did little to make the process bearable. In fact he berated me for what he was sure were bad eating habits each time I visited his office. In truth my mother never purchased sugary treats or drinks with the exception of very special occasions and she was fastidious about having me brush my teeth both morning and night, so the doctor’s harangues were always confusing to me because I was only about five years old when he seemed to take delight in punishing me by inflicting pain.

I never mentioned any of this to my mother because I just assumed that his methods were the way it always was. As I grew older I simply armed myself with prayer which on one occasion included bringing a set of rosary beads to pray while he tortured me. When he saw me clinging tightly to the beads and moving my fingers along them one by one he became enraged and called my mother back into his office. His tone was accusing when he demanded to know why I was insulting him by insinuating that I needed the help of the Blessed Mother herself to endure my session with him. At that point all of my concerns spilled out at once in a kind of core dump of fear. My mother gathered me up immediately and we never again returned to his office.

Since that time every single dentist that I have visited has been kind and virtually pain free but my phobia continues. It is as though I worry that one day I will once again encounter a thoughtless dentist who will subject me to pain. I can’t seem to get over the trauma of my earliest experiences of keeping my teeth strong and healthy. Such is the nature of a phobia.

I suspect that most phobias are born in our earlier memories of painful situations. We sometimes assume that frightening experiences need little explanation but sometimes they linger in the subconscious growing into monsters that never leave us. When my eldest daughter was only three we took her to a lovely park in San Juan, Puerto Rico. As we sat on a bench enjoying the view a huge swarm of pigeons flew in to greet us and perhaps get a snack or two. We laughed with delight but it was apparent that our daughter was quite disturbed. A cousin who was with us happened to also be a psychologist. He insisted that we talk with our little girl about what had happened and allow her to express her fears Over the next few days he gently brought up the incident several times until he was certain that she truly understood that it was okay for her to feel frightened and that the birds had actually meant no harm.

Perhaps if someone like the cousin had been around to counsel me way back in the past I might be comfortable with both snakes and dentists. Sadly that is not to be.

Choosing a Different Way of Learning

homeschoolingNow that I am retired there are days when I think it would be nice to sleep in each morning or sit all day watching romantic comedies. In other words I feel as though I am entitled to just being a slug, but so far I have been unable to surrender to the gypsy life. Perhaps it is my type A personality that keeps me striving to stay active and purposeful or maybe I do the things that keep me busy to have meaning in my life.

I almost religiously write a blog each weekday morning while sipping on my tea and munching on a small breakfast. I have six students that I am homeschooling and I carefully plan to meet with them once each week to teach them mathematics. I’m relearning Pre-Calculus so that I will be able to help two of my grandsons prepare for tests.

All of these things take chunks of my time that I might otherwise devote to the art of relaxation, a luxury that I have certainly earned but am still loathe to experience to its fullest. Instead I enjoy knowing that I have a purpose beyond simply spoiling myself. I realize all too well that one day I may no longer be capable of doing such things as I age each year and move toward my inevitable end here on earth.

I’ve been particularly enthralled by my foray into home schooling, In my full time working days I experienced both public and private schools. I am a strong advocate for both because I feel that we need variety in our society. People choose one over the other for good reasons and in both instances I have found a range of quality education.

When it came to home schooling I was always a bit dubious and even a bit indignant that it was a form of escape from the realities of society. When I first received an offer to work with two young men in their home I did so mostly as a kind of opportunity to see what the world of children who forgo the lockstep approach to learning with a large group of peers is really like. To my utter delight I found that, at least in the case of my pupils, schooling at home is indeed a very serious endeavor that takes a great deal of support and planning from parents who have decided that they prefer an education for their children over which they have more control.

I soon discovered that children who are homeschooled generally receive a more classical education. They begin taking Latin and foreign languages as very young children. They usually belong to a Co-op where they meet regularly with other students to read literature, learn history, perform science labs and such. They get their physical workouts on team sports and every one of the six that I now teach plays an instrument of some sort and engages in artistic endeavors that fill their homes with paintings and sculptures. They are an incredibly imaginative and happy group with plans to ultimately attend college. Once they reach high school age they enroll at the local community or junior college and take dual credit classes in various subjects that allow them to graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate degree.

I am in awe of how much material we can cover in a once a week class when the focus on the material is entirely on mastering the concepts. I have zero interruptions, no discipline problems, no worries. I have ample opportunities to reinforce concepts and have a complete picture of what the pupils strengths and weaknesses are. I know exactly whether or not my students understand the information that I have conveyed to them. I provide them with enough homework to practice and if they have questions they call or text me for more information.

I suppose the key to successful homeschooling lies in how well the parents enforce a regular schedule. The mothers of the children with whom I work are dedicated to devoting each weekday to creating an academic atmosphere in the home and to chauffeuring their children to the Co-ops and enrichment programs. They are very serious about the education of their kids and so I have to be that way as well. 

It takes a bit of work on my part to be fully prepared for the classes each week but it is a joyful experience. I know what lies ahead for the students because of my own years in a classroom. I feel comfortable leading them along a spiral path of learning that will bring them to a point of readiness for a more advanced bit of mathematics later.

Home schooling is not for everyone. I doubt that it would be an effective alternative for working moms who would have to rely on relatives, neighbors or nannies to enforce the structure that the program requires. Without genuine dedication to the task of education families will not succeed. There must be structure and discipline from hour to hour on a daily basis and many folks simply are not attuned to being that self motivated. They do better in the more formalized setting of a public or private school, but for those who have the willingness to work at the process of homeschooling it is a rewarding experience.

In the past I myself have used many of the arguments against home schooling. I had long believed that it’s main flaws are in the socialization of the child. I have learned that the best home school experiences include regular contact with peers and diversity. The children with whom I work know full well how to navigate in the real world and sometimes they even ask me to bring them questions from standardized tests so that they will understand what the public school kids on their street are learning. They continually challenge themselves with an interest and drive that is sometimes missing in the mass production of learning.

I continue working as a teacher in a new environment. I will not grow wealthy from doing so unless I extend my hours from four or five a week but I feel a joyfulness with my tiny band of students. I now educate in a stressless environment free from standardized tests and silly rules and curriculum guides. It feels like the way that learning was meant to be and generally was in a time of long ago. It makes me understand why so many parents are choosing to keep their children at home. The work they are doing is not easy but so far the results, as I see them, are remarkable.

When Just Enough Is Just Enough

close up of human hand
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I suppose that I have always been a perfectionist. At times my compulsion has served me well. On the whole, however, it has often lead to more stress than I actually needed to have. I not sure where or when or how I picked up such tendencies, but they seem to have been part of my nature for as long as I can recall. My mother never really pushed me, but she was certainly proud when I did my best. Nonetheless I can’t say that she was responsible for my obsessive need to strive for the ideal. I sometimes wonder if my tendency to continually refine the quality of all that I do is simply a quirk of nature rather than the result of nurture.

When I was still in my early twenties I worked as a teacher in a pre-school program where I had a student who reminded me quite a bit of myself. She was never satisfied with a simple fulfillment of my requests to the students. Instead she endeavored to continuously do just a bit better. She was quite pleasant about her self motivation, but always unwilling to accept anything less than perfection. I eventually asked her mother how she had raised the child to be such a model of hard work and devotion to being her best. The lady, who had five other children, just laughed and shrugged that her little girl was an anomaly who seemed to have been born that way. She noted that her house was home to chaos and a “live and let live” attitude that hardly lent itself to teaching someone to always strive for more. She was not sure at all where her child’s drive originated, but felt that it had certainly not come from any guidance at home.

In my years as an educator I heard many such stories again and again. The family whose son was accepted to Rice University and later became a doctor had no idea from whence his intellect and his perfectionist proclivities had come.  They seemed to believe that he was an outlier whose genes somehow came together in a manner unique to the rest of the clan. They saw his proclivities as not less than a freakish combination of all of the best possible traits in the family’s genetic code.

Being a perfectionist certainly has brought a great deal of positive attention to me both as a student and in my career, but it has also been a kind of demon that makes me all too often dissatisfied with myself even when I know I have done my very best. Like most type A personalities I am my own judge and jury, and sadly I often fall short of the demands I make on myself. It can be exhausting being me, even on a seemingly uneventful day. I have had to retrain my brain over time to make allowance for just being ordinary or even subpar, two very normal human conditions. Of late I have been striving to accept that just enough is just enough. It is a state that is both terrifying and freeing at the same time.

I have learned that being perfect all of the time is totally impossible and actually unnecessary. Each of us must pick and choose our battles so to speak. It’s important to differentiate between times when a bit of perfection is in order and those when slacking is a healthier choice. I suppose that I have been greatly inspired by one of my grandsons who appears to have that concept down pat.

He has both the intellect and the will to be the best of the best at whatever he does, but he doesn’t use his talents and skills at every single turn. In high school he considered exactly how much he needed to achieve to reach his goals for acceptance into college. He did that much and then thoroughly enjoyed his teenage years, building memories that will always sustain him while also doing just enough to graduate with honors and gain acceptance to a prestigious program at a good university. Now he is focusing with laser sharp precision on earning the respect of his professors and keeping a GPA that will help him to gain access to the kind of job that he hopes to one have. While he’s working quite hard, he still manages to find ways of balancing perfection with just enough. He’s a really healthy and happy individual because he has already mastered incredible self awareness and an ability to chill when needed.

An engineer designing the navigational system of a space craft must insist on precision, just as a surgeon cannot allow anything less than perfection in the operating room. Doing just enough in less important areas is not only acceptable, but no doubt necessary. None of us is one hundred percent perfect, and attempting to always be so can become destructive.

I’ve known individuals who are so intent on appearing perfect that they rarely invite people into their homes. They continually insist that “when things get settled at the house” they will send out invitations. Others laugh, kick the clothes and toys strewn on the floor out of the way, and brew a cup of coffee for anyone who drops by. They are welcoming and willing to be seen as questionable house keepers because enjoying time with a friend is more important to them than keeping up perfectionist appearances. They have learned, like my grandson, how to walk the fine line between demonstrating pride in important work and knowing when just enough is the right approach.

Perhaps if we are to be truly insightful parents and teachers we will show our children how to achieve such remarkable balance in their lives. Demonstrating how to differentiate our efforts depending on the situation is an invaluable lesson. Letting them know that mistakes are an inevitable part of existence is an attitude that is more important than always being the best. Life is a series of up and downs, praise and criticism, winning and losing. The best adjusted among us know when just enough is just enough, and when giving it all that they’ve got is the ticket. They achieve the joy factor of life, and in truth nothing is quite as wonderful. 

A Loving Tradition

Andy and ThuyMy brother married a beautiful and brilliant young woman who was originally from Taiwan. She was one of five siblings, a brave girl who sought her dreams in the United States. She earned a degree, landed a job with a NASA contractor, and caught my brother’s eye at meeting. Back then it was quite a challenge to learn someone’s contact information, but my brother was determined to find her and get to know her better. After searching the telephone book like a detective, and following many false leads, he eventually found her and not long after that they had fallen in love.

Their wedding was a fitting beginning for a truly beautiful couple. It was during all of the festivities that I first met my sister-in-law’s family among whom was her lovely and thoughtful older sister, Diana, who was married to a sweet man who went out of his way to entertain us and to be certain that we felt included in the celebrations. He and his young wife had a small son, Andy, who was close in age to my two little girls, so we had parenthood in common. I remember feeling so comfortable with them and wishing that they lived in the USA rather than Taiwan so that I might be able to spend more time with them.

My brother and his bride settled into a wonderful life in the Clear Lake area of Houston so that they would be close to the work at NASA that would become an integral part of who they are. We soon learned that in the Chinese tradition we were honored as family members just as much as those related by blood, and in the same tradition my mother held an exalted place. I truly appreciated the all loving culture of my sister-in-law and her family.

While we were still in our twenties we learned the tragic news that Diana’s husband had died. It seemed to be far too early for someone as young and kind as he was to leave this earth. It was a sad time when we worried about the widow and her young son, but our fears were soon somewhat abated when Diana came to America to earn a degree of her own at Lamar University. While she studied there Andy lived with my brother and sister-in-law. He became a beloved member of our extended family who played with my daughters and practiced his English with them. We spent holidays together, celebrated birthdays, and traveled to Colorado in an overcrowded van filled with laughter and noise.

Eventually Diana earned her degree and she too found work with companies associated with NASA. She was always the person at every event who checked to be certain that everyone was having a good time. She raised Andy to appreciate the opportunities that he had and to make full use of them. He grew to be tall and lanky like his father, and just as sweet as both of his parents. Soon he was heading to the University of Texas in Austin to forge his future. While there he met Thuy, a lovely and determined young woman whose family had immigrated from Vietnam. The two of them dated and studied and soon realized that together they were a powerful team. Both of them wanted to become doctors and they supported each other in that quest. With much hard work they were soon on their way to medical school in Dallas, but first they married in a beautiful ceremony that celebrated their love.

Much time has passed. Both Andy and Thuy have highly successful careers as physicians. He is a gastroenterologist and she is an oncologist. They are well regarded as among the best in their respective fields. They work hard and have the trappings of success, but they have never forgotten the people who were part of their journey. They now have two children, a boy Ethan and a girl Allie, who share their intellect and generous personalities. The children are incredibly bright and unspoiled. Like their grandparents and their parents they are thoughtful and respectful. They take the time to honor the guests in their home following a tradition that seems to be part of their DNA.

Andy and Thuy love to have fun. They travel the world with Ethan and Allie and attend sporting events and concerts. They enjoy trying different kinds of food and being adventurous. They appear to have boundless energy that allows them to be constantly on the go. They are happy people who work hard and play hard. Still, there are quiet times for reading and learning, always learning. They love their children and focus on bringing them up with wonderful values of kindness, honesty and determination. They make weekly visits to the library and in between they voraciously devour the stories and information contained in the pages. Their lives are busy, but well balanced.

Andy and Thuy celebrate life with incredible parties that center around themes. Each child receives such an honor every other year. They are amazing affairs with decorations worthy of a Hollywood production and a well planned schedule that includes food and fun in abundance. Mike and I have been lucky to be included in many of them, and we look forward to those occasions with almost childish glee.

This year it was Ethan’s turn to bask in the limelight for his eleventh birthday. The theme was “Mission Mars” and we had our choice of coming as astronauts or aliens. My brother and his wife wore their work clothes and NASA badges and looked more official than anyone. Mike and I concocted alien costumes to join in the fun. Thuy made certain that everyone would be able to dress for a part in the festivities by using her imagination to design both astronaut and alien gear. I never cease to be amazed by her ingenuity.

The house was decorated with huge rockets and astronauts floating from the ceiling among the stars. There was a magician, a debate, a trivia contest, and a confetti egg battle between aliens and astronauts. Every child walked away with an incredible gift and many adults won prizes for their participation. Best of all was the camaraderie and the love that filled the rooms, all encouraged by Andy, Thuy and their children.

I suppose that I most enjoyed just talking with Ethan and Allie. They are utterly delightful in every regard. They are first and foremost very sweet, and they have been taught to honor adults, especially those who are seniors. They are infinitely polite, but also filled with unique personality traits that make them funny and delightful.

I’ve told Thuy that she if she ever finds the time she should speak to young people at high schools. Hers is an inspirational story that proves that goodness, hard work, grit, and compassion do indeed lead to a glorious life. She has dutifully sacrificed and followed an orderly progression toward a way of life that is fulfilling and purposeful. Now she and Andy are passing those traits on to their children, continuing a way of life that has roots all the way to Taiwan and Vietnam.

Andy and Thuy are family, and they make me proud. They are literally saving lives each day, but on a more personal level they teach all of us how to truly love.

Saturday Mornings

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I can still recall those glorious Saturday mornings when I was still a child. My mom often slept late after a hard week of working, but my brothers and I anxiously awoke to watch the cartoons and shows made expressly for children. We’d sneak quietly down the hallway in our pajamas hoping not to disturb Mama’s slumbers and then tune in our television to our favorite programs in glorious black and white. We had to be careful to keep the volume low because the house wasn’t that big and too much noise would alert our mother that it was time to do the weekly chores. As long as she was snoozing we were free to spin the dial in search of wondrous shows that kept us glued to our seats for hours.

I’m too old to remember the exact order of the shows that we watched but some of our favorites were My Friend Flicka, Kit Carson, Superman, Sky King and Rocky and Friends. Television was still in its infancy but the programmers had already realized the power of devoting hours for children. We’d watch the advertisements for cereals and toys and then urge our mom to purchase them for us. Our mother was never one to be swayed by popularity, so it mostly never worked in our case, but we were nonetheless as enthralled with the silly rabbit longing for Trix cereal as we were with the latest adventures of our favorite heroes. Saturday mornings brought us unadulterated joy, and if Mama was especially tired we reveled in the freedom to just glue ourselves to the screen.

I enjoyed by own childhood memories of Saturday mornings so much that I taught my daughters the wonders of lounging in front of the center of entertainment for a few hours on weekend mornings. By the time they were enjoying the fare designed for their generation everything was in living color and most of the shows were cartoons featuring characters like Scooby Doo. They too found the magic of those early morning dalliances with fantasy while me and my husband enjoyed the luxury of a few extra winks while the electronic babysitter kept our children safely occupied.

Life isn’t quite as simple these days. For one thing there are hundreds of channels from which to choose and most of the big three of my childhood offer very little aimed toward children even on Saturdays. Kids now have to tune in the the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon which feature twenty four hour programming that doesn’t seem to be nearly as fun as what we got to see. Most of the shows are variations on the same themes with “hip” youngsters making fun of their elders and seemingly raising themselves. I grow weary of them after only a few episodes. The writers don’t appear to  be making any great effort to create stories that inspire. There is an inanity about them and a kind of condescending attitude toward young people that assumes that they are incapable of understanding stories with deeper meanings.

As a parent today I would have to install controls and be present to monitor the dialogue and the themes to be certain that they are in keeping with our family’s values. It’s a far more challenging world than the more innocent one that I experienced as a child. Back then care was taken to be certain that children were not exposed to material that was unsuitable. Of course I laugh when I think of Soupy Sales from my generation or PeeWee Herman from that of my children. We kids secretly knew that there was something not quite right about some of their jokes but we kept our thoughts to ourselves because it was exciting to live dangerously without our parents knowing what we saw and heard on those programs.

I still have a difficult time going into action on Saturday mornings. I don’t watch television anymore. I enjoy the quiet and I lounge in my pajamas for hours. Sometimes it might be noon before I choose to get going with the routines of life. Saturday has always been the one day of the week over which I have been able to rule without demands from school or work or my mom or even my children. These days I sit with a cup of tea and read or just listen to the sounds of the neighborhood in my favorite room. Saturdays make me nostalgic. I remember how easy it was to be a child when my innocence made me fall in love with the whole world. Soon enough I would grow and learn of the ugliness that lurks around us, but back then I didn’t have to worry about such things.

I truly believe that those Saturday mornings taught me more than most people might think. My brothers and I learned to be more self reliant as we made our own breakfast and chose our own programming. I found out how to care for animals and what justice is really about from my shows. I enjoyed laughter as a way to relax and feel good inside. My independence was rooted in those long ago mornings and the characters whose stories I watched are still my heroes. They widened my horizons and taught me about honor. I feel quite lucky to have had such experiences that brought happiness and routine to me at a time when I was still feeling uncertain about life without my father.

I suppose that today’s children have their own way of doing things, but I truly wonder if all of those scheduled activities that they do are as wonderful as the leisurely times that I enjoyed. In truth I suspect that when we are young we adapt to whatever is our reality, but I would sure love for youngsters to enjoy a taste of what we had. It was glorious.