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.

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Dismissed

Twenty-some years before the turn of this century, I was a teenager working a summer job. When I opened my first bank account, my mother typed a note on the back of the account card which said I had her permission to withdraw funds. Like my sister before me, I deposited my check each week, taking a little cash for fun. At the end of the summer, we’d withdraw $1000 to open a CD at the credit union, all for college savings.

The first year, at sixteen, the bank issued me the check no problem.

At the end of the next summer, my dad waited in the car while my sister and I went into the bank. At separate windows, my sister withdrew her $1000 and waited next to me. The teller looked at my withdrawal slip and bank book, looked at me, and took them to a man in a suit.

When she and the man came back, he glared down at me. “You can’t take money out. This is a custodial account.”

“You have a note from my mother saying that I can take money out. I get cash from my check every week.”

His voice rose, and he looked at me with disdain.  “You are underage. Where is your father?”

“He’s in the car. But I shouldn’t need him to come in,” I said, my voice shrill.

“I’ll get Dad,” my sister said in a low voice.

We were still at a stalemate when Dad came in. Immediately the man’s manner changed. He was happy to issue the check. No problem at all.

I left humiliated and indignant. It was my earnings. Why shouldn’t I be able to take it anywhere I wanted?

“As soon as I’m eighteen, I’m moving my money to a new bank,” I told my mother.

And the next summer, I did. It wasn’t nearly as satisfying as I’d hoped. The man wasn’t there and the teller cheerfully closed my account.

Looking back now from about that man’s age, I can rationalize. Maybe he was having a bad day. Maybe he was right about the rules and truly felt he couldn’t give me a check made out to me. But there’s no reason he couldn’t have showed me the same consideration he showed my father. The frustration I felt wouldn’t have changed but saying no with respect would have mitigated my humiliation.

Nowadays debit cards and ATMs give us instant access to our cash. Many of the young people I know would handle themselves better than I did at seventeen.

We’re all made up of our experiences. This was only one of the times I was treated poorly, balanced by far more times I was given respect. But all it takes to trigger my irritation and anger is for someone to dismiss my opinion, act as though my thoughts and rights don’t matter. I’ve lived long enough to control my outward behavior, but inside I’m still seventeen, railing against the unfairness in the world.

I imagine what it must be like to receive that kind of treatment more often, to be doubted and dismissed regularly by those with more power than you. If I react at my age and experience, imagine the way someone steeped in humiliation might act.

We talk often these days about being kind. We certainly need more kindness in the world. But I would add to that, be respectful. You can make your point, stand your ground and stand by your opinion, but do it with respect. And the world might be a calmer place.

Momentum or the Lack Thereof

There is something to be said for momentum. Like riding a bike, you can coast without pedaling for long stretches. If I start exercising, there’s a 50-50 chance that I’ll keep it up. But if I continue, and habit becomes routine, it’s easier to go on doing it.

For over a year, I blogged weekly, sometimes biweekly. Then regular life interfered. To be fair, I was still writing for my job. Eight chapter reflections for a book study, a number of lengthy emails, twenty-five end-of-the-year letters to students, and several thank you notes later, I waited for the urge to write to return. It’s reminded me of why I gave up writing for years. All my mental energy was devoted to work and family. Now that summer is here I have the time, but the words seem to have left.

Just like my on-again-off-again exercise programs, maybe if I sit and type regularly, words resembling wit and coherent thought will come back. In the meantime, I’ll keep pedaling.

Specs

“Hey, Bud.”

The young student grinned up at me.

“Are those new?”

He put his hand to the frames, brow furrowed. “I got them Monday… no Tuesday.”

“They look good on you.”

His smile went back up to the high beams. Then he turned down the silent hall. He raised his hands, swayed his hips, stutter stepped to an unheard beat.

I don’t know if it was the joy of finally seeing clearly, the arrival of brighter days, or the scent of summer coming, but I wished I could hear the music too.

The Road Taken

There’s a park on our country road that looks like a small picnic area. We recently found out about its short trail in the woods. My daughter and I walked it about a month ago. The barren winter stillness was only broken by the persistent call of a cardinal.

We picked our way through fallen twigs, crunching leaves, and mole rippled ground, looking up occasionally to see around a bend. When we came to a fork in the road, I tried to remember where each path went.

I shrugged. “Let’s go right.”

Forty feet around a bend, the trail dead-ended at a stream. A crumbling log was the bridge.

“Come on, Mom.” My daughter walked out on the branch, effortlessly turning back to wave me on.

I stood rooted in place.

“You can do it.”

This moment is but one of many that started when she was a kid and I learned to ice skate at the age of thirty-seven because said daughter wanted us to take lessons together. Aside from a few bruises and a wrenched knee, it was a lot of fun.

Then there are the vacation adventures. My other daughter talked me into parasailing. When the guide told us the ocean was rocky and offered us an out, I didn’t want to disappoint my daughter so I, who have major motion sickness, went anyway. Turns out being high in the air isn’t as soothing as it looks. I won’t paint that picture for you, but when they tell you to put your hand on your head and they will pull you in, don’t believe them.

Then there was snorkeling. It was a bright clear day. While my daughters happily swam out in the bay, diving down to admire the colorful fish and coral, I found myself panting through the mask and turned back before I’d have to take the life preserver away from the one child in the group.

And then there was zip-lining. I zinged from tree-to-tree, only once stopping short and having to be rescued ten feet from the platform. I’d go again in a heartbeat.

Just last summer, my hiking daughter talked me into going on a six-mile hike in 85-degrees with 90% humidity. I made it, barely. A month later we did seven miles on Oregon hills. At least the weather was cooler and there were multiple waterfalls to pause and admire. I could barely walk up stairs for days after that.

In Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon, I trailed behind as my daughters scrabbled down a steep slope. When I leaned over a little farther to see where they were going, they turned in unison and yelled, “No, Mom! Don’t try it!” I had more sense than that.

Now it was forty degrees and the log looked wobbly. Balance is one of the first things to go as you age and getting wet wasn’t appealing.

“Nope.”

I turned back and she followed.

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We backtracked and took the other fork, passed through a clearing and ended by the biggest tree in the park, before we walked out the way we came. Dusk was approaching. I wondered aloud if the hooting we heard was from the owl who visited our yard.

She shared a story about someone being attacked by an owl for being in its territory. Hmm, maybe crossing the stream was less dangerous than the walk.

“I almost got you to do it.”

I just smiled. She almost did.

Momentary Sloth

The last student leaves and I have a moment to myself. Fifteen minutes actually. I have a to-do list nine lengthy tasks long. I stick my long-cold tea in the microwave to reheat. Stare off in the distance until it dings. I take it to my desk and sit down.

I reach for the first stack of papers, then rest my hands in my lap. I turn my chair toward my computer to answer a string of emails, but don’t start. I pull out my phone to check it, then put it away without turning it on. I consider the books and notes strewed across my desktop but leave them be.

Instead, I sip and close my eyes. I slip my shoes off and pull my legs up to sit cross legged. I breathe. I think of how much I’ll still have to do later. Then I let it go. I continue my moment of calm and caffeine to the bottom of the cup.

And the students come back.

I’d Like to Pack My Boots Away, and Other Frustrations

I’d like to pack my winter boots away, seeing as it’s April. Spring has always been my favorite season. But not this year.

Granted, this winter-lasting-into-April has not been typical. It followed a fall that seemed much like summer, with mild temperatures that lasted into December. When winter hit, it did with a vengeance, dropping below zero almost immediately. It has lasted almost four months now and counting. My dog hates the snow. My husband actually shovels a patch of grass so she’ll go out.

I usually get the winter blues. This year I did a great job of ignoring it. I just didn’t look out at the bleak gray horizon. I spent more time with Windows than windows and it seemed to help.

Then March came. I didn’t get my hopes up. There are reasons for the lion/lamb tradition.

But as we neared the end of the month, heading into April, I started searching for signs of green. The birds came back and while temperatures stayed low, I had high hopes. This is supposed to be the time of year when the daffodils bloom. We’re supposed to be a week away from apple blossoms.

4DBC077A-5FEC-4A99-B655-752C7DB34440The blizzard on March 24 brought high winds and flurries that turned to a white out. Halfway through the eight inches that fell, my tiny dog was chest deep in snow. A week later, the Easter snowstorm was white icing on the cake, a bad April Fool’s joke.

Even while the world is frozen, the birds sing as though they know the date on the calendar. They are busily pairing up and building their nests. Maybe they know something I don’t.  Luckily temps have been above freezing, so it all melts quickly. First thing in the morning, I’d walk out to a sparkling wonderland. By afternoon, all that was left were a few gray lumps.

When it snowed for the third week in a row last weekend, the birds sang anyway, but I groaned. You can see my dog’s opinion of all this here. Today is day 109.

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The heater on my car went out. If it were really spring, I’d let it go for a while, but now, that’s not an option. When I dropped it at the dealer, they handed me a key for a loaner and said it was a Tacoma parked right out front. I put my foot on the thigh high step, grabbed the steering wheel and head rest and hoisted myself in to drive it home.

Hopefully by the time you read this, spring will have come for good. But if you happened to see me this morning, sticking ass-backward out of a big white truck, hanging on for dear life with my feet flailing in the air, now you understand why.

How to Fold a Blanket

To fold a blanket, it helps to have two people. Age and skill are not required as along as you are at least tall enough not to drag it on the floor. Seven or eight is old enough. If you have an older sister, chances are good she will be assigned to blanket folding with you.

With plenty of grumbling that you’ve been tasked with anything at all and some lingering animosity for something the two of you fought about earlier, begin.

First, with you at one side and your sister at the other, grab your two corners of the blanket, pulling them together to meet. Now grab both corners with your left hand while she grabs hers with her right. In sync, reach down for the fold you just created. Bring your hands to meet a second time, creating a long thin rectangle. Gently shake it to smooth it out, unless you’re still angry. Then whip it like mad till she loses her side and yells, while you primly say, “I was just trying to get out the wrinkles.”

Once she retrieves her end, walk together, arms held high, to meet in the middle. Since you made her drop her edge, she may make you walk all the way to her. Give her your corners and bend to pick up the bottom edge. Hand that to her as well. She will set the bundle down and smooth it with her hand.

Then begin again with the sheets. Fold so many so often over the years, that you both move easily in line. The task goes quickly and you smile across at each other.

Now that you have the process down, you can partner with your spouse, daughters, even friends on occasion, but you never quite achieve that synchronicity, that almost psychic sense of where she is going to move next.

Now miles and lives apart, you never lose the trust that she will hold up her end for as long as you need it.

On the Way to School

To get from home to school, you’d go out the side door, because the front door was only ever used when company came over. Your Beatles lunch box would be useful both to carry your sandwich and thermos and to swing it at the kid who’d always tease you at recess. Books in your other arm and your jacks in your pocket, you’d pass the front porch where in summer you’d sit on the bottom concrete step to strap adjustable roller skates onto your shoes. But no skating now. Not on a school day.

Depending on the year, you’d walk with your sister and one or both brothers and the friends who cut across the alley through your yard to meet you. You’d turn left right after you pick up the girl from the corner house (who was hit by a car in the alley one summer and you saw your father run, which you didn’t think he could do.)

Down just a half a block, you’d come to the house (who knows why there) where in second grade you always started to panic. After the first time just the idea of passing there set your heart racing.

But today you’d walk past fine, the older girls in front, you and your friend chattering behind, with the brothers trailing. You might pause to hike up your itchy tights, because they never stayed up and girls wouldn’t be allowed to wear pants suits to school for another couple of years.

Next, you’d turn right. The single-family homes would make way for two-flats and at the third one from the corner you’d pick up your neighbor’s cousin, who had almost the same name.

Coming up you’d pass the house of the tall blond boy, your first crush. Did he like you too? You’d never be sure.

At the end of that block you’d reach the spot where once a strange kid, a half a head taller than your little brother, tried to start a fight and you knew you couldn’t let your brother be hurt. So you wrestled the boy to the ground and pinned him. When a woman came out of her house yelling, you started to cry, and the woman wagged her finger at the boy, saying “I know you. You’re the one who causes all the trouble,” and let you go on your way.

In the fall you would scuff through crackling leaves. In spring you’d throw handfuls of maples seeds and chortle as they helicoptered down.

The street would T at the college campus, so you’d turn left and walk the final stretch to the traffic light. You’d rattle the coins in your pocket and think ahead to after school when you’d go another half block to the penny candy store to buy a paper strip of dots, Bazooka bubble gum and wax lips for a dime.

But now you’d pick up the pace as the bell rings. You’d hurry across the gravel playground, past teeter totters, high flyers, and a tall steep slide, along where the girls formed long lines to jump rope to chanting rhymes, toward the wall the boys used to play pinners where the trim met the brick.

You’d race up the steps and merge with the crowd of kids heading through the double doors to childhood’s past.

Last Fall

When the rain finally let up, I bundled up and hustled my wimpy dog outside. I took one step out the back garage door, then two. In slow motion I felt my right foot slide, with nothing to grab, nothing to brace against. Dangerously close to doing the splits, I wheeled my arms in circles and finally landed on my butt with a thump. The only audience, my unimpressed dog, finished and trotted back inside.