In Praise of a Boring Life

My life isn’t what I’d call tumultuous.

I have old friends and new, and a day job I’m passionate about with retirement in sight. I pass few cars on my daily ten-minute commute through Midwest farmland. I’ve been happily married for a long time, a definite blessing during rough years. While I remember the elation of a new romance, breakups were hard. The comfort of a strong bond is more appealing than any added excitement. My kids are young adults now, but I remember the drama of their teenaged years. They survived and thrived, and I wish them the same calm I have.

Though I know many tales of grief, adventure and heartbreak, they are the stories of others. They are not mine to tell.

I’ve experienced less trauma than some but have suffered my share of tragedy. It rarely appears in my writing. I could dredge up a young heartbreak or magnify the anger I felt toward the doctor who told me that my father died, but I’ve made peace with the past. I don’t bleed much on the page.

During some difficult years, interspersed with wonderful ones, I developed a theory. When you are suffering, at some point it will get better. The reverse is also true. Life is a timeline of peaks and valleys. If things are tough, this too shall pass. If days are good, why not enjoy it? There is every indication that it will only last so long.

In All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum has an essay on problems and inconveniences. When Fulghum complains about the irritations of his job, an older man, an Auschwitz survivor, explains the difference. Issues like food scarcity and war outrank annoying coworkers and getting cut off in traffic.

Life-changing problems make for gripping fiction, but my personal essays are peppered with mere inconveniences. I live in the present, occasionally dwelling in small moments from the past, sending out ripples rather than crashing waves.

So, I write the ordinary, the odd encounter, and those moments that catch you by surprise. I have the leisure of a quiet existence to see connections between strands of time and weave them into story.  As I describe this blog, I write about the things I think about as I walk my dog and walk through life.

When I reach the top of the next hill and begin the inevitable slide back down, I’m sure that words on the page will follow. In the meantime, I’ll rejoice in the everyday moments that make up my days.

The view outside my window may be flat, but the sky is often spectacular.

 

 

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Cast Your Vote

When I turned eighteen, my friend David asked me what I’d do to celebrate. I can’t remember any of my plans. I’m sure they included celebrating with my family, maybe going out to dinner with my high school boyfriend. But I do remember telling David that the very next day I planned to register to vote. He just shook his head.

It wasn’t as if I were exceptionally political. If I’m honest, it was an expression of how stubborn and rebellious I was. I was tired of being ordered around and wanted a voice, both at home and in the world.

Eighteen meant I could control my own money, but socially acceptable adulthood wouldn’t happen until twenty-one. A few years earlier men would have had the dubious honor of registering for the draft. But having a voice in government was the one landmark available to a young woman in 1978 America.

The first time I would have cast my ballot would have been the midterm election in November. Jimmy Carter was the President, Congress stayed Democratic, and Jim Thompson remained the Republican governor of Illinois. Historically eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds have the lowest voter turnout of all demographic groups and that election was part of a downward slope with participation for that age group going from 50% to 39% between 1972 and 2016.

We Americans have a terrible voting record. We like to complain about the people in charge and claim helplessness to affect change. This apathy may have led us to a dangerous place. It would be fitting if, at this moment in history, our youngest voters would surprise everyone and rise up to show my generation how it’s done.

I have no idea which candidates I picked or what my reasoning was that year, only that it seemed important at the time.  I have cared about every vote I’ve cast, but I don’t believe any election has seemed as crucial as the current one. We are a divided society, but if you pay attention to history, you know we’ve been divided before. Think of the unrest in the ‘60s. We have immigration issues, but if you look at our record we have repeatedly failed in this area too. The forced deportation of Mexican-American U.S. citizens wasn’t invented by this administration. The economy is on the upswing, but it can flip at any time. I know all this, and still, the present makes me fear for the future.

Four decades ago, I was a new adult, surely holding little responsibility for the ills of the world. With the weight of years, I fear my own blindness and lack of action have added to the disfunction we call American society. My own social justice has gone by fits and starts. Ignorance of the world is no excuse. But there is one act that any of us can do to make a difference.

Yesterday, I cast my ballot early, recording my vote for governor, state and national representatives, and a local tax issue. I gave my opinion on whether judges should keep their benches. Forty years after my first vote, I do care deeply about politics. I believe my values matter and my single vote counts.

On November 6, take your convictions to your polling place. Punch your holes, click your buttons or fill in your dots. Make your voice heard for a better tomorrow.

Vote!

A Life of Games

Five was the last time the older neighborhood girls would let me stand in the middle before they turned the rope. By six, I had to learn to jump in or be out of the game. Jump rope and jacks were the favorites through eighth grade, both on the playground and on the sidewalk in front of our friends’ houses.

The benefit of having four kids in the family was that there was usually someone who’d be willing to play a game. There was Monopoly and Sorry, and my mother’s favorite, Scrabble. At extended family get-togethers we played a hangman-like game called Probe. I once used my grandmother’s unabridged dictionary to find a word that stumped them all: quaquaversal. My uncle’s legendary game was won with flugelhorn.

At home we had a set of games that looked like books on a shelf. My favorite bookshelf game was called O-wahr-ee and involved spreading rocks around in a ring of cup holes, and collecting them based on the number left in the cup. It was something like mancala. My older sister’s favorite was Facts in Five, a trivia game that she could always win. When she headed toward her teen years, I’d play it anyway, just to get her to play with me. For years my youngest brother and I battled with Quinto, setting numbered tiles in crossword puzzle rows with multiples of five.

I learned Euchre from my husband early in our marriage. For a few years, we’d have dates with other couples to play.

When my girls were little, I’d stack the deck in Candyland to give them a chance to win, or at least let the game finally end. As they got older, we played rapid fire Uno, and never-ending Monopoly.

Now days, my games are more likely to be played alone on my phone. But on lazy Christmas days between gifts and dinner when my daughters are home, they may challenge me to Scrabble, or feeling childhood nostalgia, The Game of Life.

My Privilege

I’m going to brag about my success for a minute. I’m not saying I’m financially well-off, but thanks to saving, scrimping and hard work through the years, we’re not in debt and my husband and I should be able to fund a modest retirement. Thanks to consistent parenting, we have two wonderful adult daughters. Our marriage is solid because we work hard to keep it that way.

Except, none of that is completely true. The good parts are real, and we did save, work hard, and try to parent consistently. We don’t struggle over our marriage. We just try to be nice to each other.

I think the truth is that we’re lucky. Not that we should play the lottery. Instead, I think we have the privileges that come with who we are in the world.

Our modest financial success did depend on our effort and living on less than we made. But sometimes people do both those things and still fall into poverty. Divorce, loss of a job, or a prolonged illness can all destroy someone’s finances, and by extension, their family’s as well. But there are things that can cushion that fall. If you have a financially stable extended family and other close-knit ties like we do, you can have support while you get back on your feet. If you are the first in your family to rise out of poverty, there is no safety net. It is way too easy to fall back in when disaster strikes.

We’re lucky because we’re American. The United States is one of the richest countries in the world. Now, most of that wealth is concentrated among a few individuals, but my husband and I are fortunate to be among those who make a living wage. Worldwide, our modest income is in the top one percent.

I’m lucky to have a post-graduate degree, which I attained when college was still an affordable option. On average, college graduates earn consistently more than those with high school diplomas alone. They have lower rates of unemployment. Certainly, I earned the right with effort and good grades. But I also had undergraduate scholarships and graduate financial help from my employer. Enrolling at all was helped by having two parents with degrees. Students who are the first in their families to attend are far less likely to finish. If you are a parent of a prospective university student, you know about the visits, the financial forms, the application forms and fees. It helps to have a college education to help someone apply for one. Even when students finance their education themselves, it helps to have financially stable parents who won’t require their help.

Our daughters really are wonderful. We did try to parent consistently and I’m sure that helped. But no parent can be all things. Their friends, teachers, first jobs, coaches, what they read, what they watched, the trips we took, volunteering, their own choices all made them who they are today.

My husband and I both came from a middle-class background. We started jobs in high school and learned something early about managing money. If our parents had loan payments or a parking ticket, they were able to pay it and move on. In too many places around the country, too many people in poverty have been arrested for not being able to pay their debts. Extended time in prison and garnished wages don’t enable financial stability. Fortunately, that policy may finally be changing on a large scale.

We are privileged to be white. I don’t say this to say that being white is somehow better than other colors, just luckier.  As a white American, I am more likely to be financially stable, because my family’s wealth has had more generations to accrue. I am part of the majority, so most institutions cater to my culture and skin color. If someone believes a stereotype about me, it won’t be one that gets me shot or keeps me from getting a job. If we were really a country of equal opportunity, and effort was all it took to get ahead, there wouldn’t be the extreme disparities we have between people of different races today.

Like the majority of Americans, we’ve had our challenges, but like the lucky ones, we’ve had blessed supports as well. Our fate is as much the result of fortune as anything we’ve done to deserve it.