Honestly

My daughter once told me I was brutally honest. I think she’d stand by her assessment. I don’t believe she means I’m not kind or I go out of my way to make cutting remarks. It’s just that I mean what I say and say what I mean. I don’t sugar coat. If you ask me how your performance was, I’ll tell you and you won’t need to worry I’m just being nice.

This is not to say I never lie. I’m human. But when you lie as little as I do, people assume you are always truthful. More often, my infrequent untruths are lies of omission.

In my real life, I sometimes tell meandering stories, and may even add side stories, playing devil’s advocate with myself. Without hearing the whole story, how could you possibly understand the truth of my words?

But in writing, I tend toward concise. If you follow my blog, you know I share real events in my life in very short stories. The tales are essentially true, but those lies of omission protect the anonymity of others I mention.

So, overall, I consider myself an honest person. That is, I did until I read this.

Yuval Noah Harari explains that much of what we consider the truth is lies promoted to keep society functioning. We trade green paper or numbers on a screen and credit them with the value of the items we buy. Our leaders gather followers with simplistic homilies, rather than the complicated facts that might solve problems but won’t inspire loyalty. Our love of books and movies results from our ability to suspend our disbelief. We seem programmed to seek out fiction, whether it’s our loyalty to a sports team or a product, or a disregard for the beliefs of others, all the while smugly thinking we are the ones being honest about the state of the world.

Now I wonder, as I teach my students, is what I’m sharing accurate? Not that our number system can’t be proven or that the Pilgrims didn’t arrive in Plymouth Harbor in 1620. Rather, the year 1620 is an arbitrary number, loosely based on the Christian tradition. Some of the skills I tell them they will use as adults may be less important than future skills I can’t even imagine.

When I listen and read pundits, favoring one, disregarding another, is it because “my” side is better, or did their political handlers spin the yarn that is my siren call, that will get me to follow?

My doctor prescribes a medicine for me at the recommended dosage for my sex (if I’m lucky) and weight based on studies of hundreds of my peers. But as we head into this age of personalized medicine, is it really the right protocol for me?

The engineers and physicists in my life would chide me for suggesting science is subjective. Certainly greater harm has been done by denying the veracity of science than by following its precepts. True science, while not completely objective due the presence of humans, has its system of checks and balances. Other scientists will review the literature, then repeat or further the experiments. Given time, mistakes will be sussed out and corrected.

As Harari says, where it falls apart is when we try to use science for policy, when politicians lead us toward what they can make popular instead of what might be best for our world. Should money go toward renewable energy or cleaner coal? Is it economically feasible to clear our food supply of harmful chemicals and drugs? At what level can we claim it’s safe? Politically, we can’t even agree human activity is creating global warming when the evidence is everywhere.

Despite Harari’s assertion that social “truths” can last hundreds or thousands of years, I can’t help wondering if our society is resting on a house of cards. If you pull one out, does it come crashing down? But he reminds us we are wired to want this, that following leaders has fostered cooperation and helped us survive through the ages. Faith in the system is the only thing that keeps it going.

I am left with the knowledge that, on some level, we are all figments of our own imagination. When I share my thoughts with friends and family, they are honestly mine. But whether they are true appear to be a matter of opinion.

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Sweet Notes

My mother liked to tell the story about five-year-old me at my first recital. I wore a shiny gold dress that someone had passed down to me after serving as a flower girl. Between my sissy socks, shiny black patent leather shoes and dimples, I was an adorable little lady, sauntering down for my turn at the piano. Until I reached the bench. Instead of gracefully sliding in from the side, I straddled it before swinging my other leg high and over.

This story sums up my instrumental career. On the surface, I seemed to have a certain amount of musical ability, but I couldn’t quite get up and over to doing well. To be fair, I seemed to have an allergy to practicing. Perched on our piano bench at home, I would wiggle and squirm, yank a hand from the keyboard to scratch an itch or wipe my nose, and whine. My mother was determined. She quizzed me with note flash cards and punctuated my playing with the tick of a metronome when her constant cry of “Count!” didn’t do the trick.

We took lessons at school during our lunch hour. At the end of every year our teacher, Mrs. K, held an awards assembly. My older sister won a piano pin for being best. I thought the only category I had a prayer of winning was “most improved.” In second grade, if I had made any progress, it was certainly more than in the past. I listened while all the awards were given and held my breath.

“And the award for most improved goes to – “

And she said my kindergarten brother’s name.

My eight-year-old heart sank. Even a five-year-old was better than me.

My nonmusical father was determined he would give all four of his kids a musical education. The four years of piano were nonnegotiable. After that we would choose a second instrument. My sister stuck with woodwinds, my brother with brass. My youngest brother wanted the drums. I think his plan was to be so annoying they’d let him quit. In the end, he got his way. I chose the violin. Finally, I had a chance to do something no one else in my family could do.

Mr. A, my longtime teacher, was a professional violinist who gave lessons on the side. Endlessly kind, he’d prompt and remind and demonstrate, and I did improve. When I hit a sour note, I wrinkled my nose. In a rare moment of impatience, he said, “I know you can hear it. Why don’t you play it?”

I quit violin for a six-week group guitar class my junior year. It was a lot of fun and I didn’t mind practicing. But with college looming, I was struck with an inexplicable urge to try out for my university’s general orchestra. Senior year I went back to Mr. A. The next August, I restarted the audition piece three times. They didn’t cut me, but I was the last chair. In retrospect, I realized they let anyone in this group, unlike the symphony which was by audition only. A month in, I quit. No one discouraged me.

Fast forward fifteen years. On a visit home with my kids, I told my mom about taking out my violin for the first time in ages. My baby daughter looked at me with adoration. Her three-year-old sister cried when I wouldn’t let her try it and the dog howled along. Mom and I laughed together.

“I looked through my old music,” I said. “I can’t believe I used to play that. I don’t remember being any good.”

My mother raised her eyebrows. “Of course you were good. Don’t you remember?”

I didn’t. I still don’t. She might have been biased. But the evidence of some quality is there in the music I played.

But here is what I’m left with. I have a friend who likes music and theatre as much as I do. We are each other’s culture buddy. Sometimes we go to student and faculty concerts at a nearby university. I marvel at the brass and woodwinds and picture my brother’s trombone and my sister’s flute. We go to see Time for Three and I admire the bow and fingering, hear the technique, recognize the harmonics. We attend an occasional symphony concert and I am immersed in the rich layers of sound.

Almost forty years later, all I’m left with is the love.

Racing the Rain

I look out the window when I wake and smile to see blue sky and fluffy clouds after last night’s storm. I check the radar on my phone. Red and yellow skitter across the map toward my location. If I leave soon, I should escape it going south.

All packed, I point my car toward home. Driving through lush tree-covered hills for the first hundred miles, the clouds multiply to a blanket of white.  I appreciate the loss of glare. The cruise control keeps a steady pace slightly over the speed limit.

The next hundred miles slip by uneventfully through ever flatter farm land. I pass semis, SUVs shoot past me, in a high-speed dance.

I am sixty miles from home when the first drops fall, spitting against the glass. I turn on my lights and use the wipers once and it’s over.

At forty miles out, I wipe away drizzle. Then the rain starts in earnest. The wipers set an even rhythm.

The skies open as I reach the city. Sheets of water obliterate my view. I slow to 55 and wonder how the vehicles speeding past me can see. With every swipe of the wiper blades I can barely make out passing lights and the white lines of my lane. I white-knuckle steer against gusts of wind, wondering if I should pull over. Narrowly missing a stalled vehicle to my right, I drive on, moments stretching like a taut thread.

Then suddenly it stops. I hear thunder booms behind me, but the world looks a little lighter. My foot on the gas goes a little heavier.

As I begin the twists and turns of the downtown highway, there is a bone-rattling boom and it starts again. I slow and lean forward, trying to glimpse my lane. A passing semi adds its spray and I coast for a moment in engulfed in gray. I plow through flooded low spots before I realize they are there.

I think, just let me get to the bridge. If I can cross the river the path will straighten and I will make it home. I tense as I approach the on ramp hoping no unseen car is coming my way, then hear the familiar whir of tires on steel. Up and over to the other side.

Cars and trucks whiz past me as I climb the hill. Another downpour, but this time with even rhythm and I can see. The steady rain lasts till I take my exit to the final two-mile stretch of highway. If I crane my neck I can still make out black clouds above me. But up ahead is clear cerulean sky. I smile to think I have outraced the rain, relax my fingers on the wheel.

Just when I think I have won, a long, jagged bolt of lightning comes literally out of the blue directly ahead.

Sobered, I cross the remaining mile to my country home, gratefully pull into my garage. Defeated but safe, I wait for the coming storm.

 

 

The Kindness of Strangers

The summer I got married, I decided to take a trip alone about a month before the wedding. It was one last spurt of independence for what I thought would be years of partnered travel.

These were the days before cell phones and GPS. I planned my journey with maps and wrote to the people I’d be visiting to get directions to their homes. My goal was a day at the beach. I planned my visits and route so that I could get to Atlantic City. I promised my mom I’d check in with my fiancé daily, although what he’d do if I disappeared I have no idea. I was a city girl and would be careful.

I set out on a sunny hot Midwest summer afternoon in my used Chevy Monza, with the windows down (no air) and the AM radio blasting. I drove until I was tired and stopped at a motel somewhere off the highway past Columbus, Ohio. The desk clerk checked me in and gave me the key to a room right off the lobby. In retrospect, I’m sure it was a gesture of chivalry, keeping the young single woman travelling alone out of harm’s way.

The following morning, I drove a few hours into Pennsylvania, taking side roads to visit the town where my grandmother lived when she first came to America, where her father had died in a coal mine accident. The modern shops and vehicles didn’t match my mental picture.

On the Pennsylvania Turnpike, my father’s voice echoed in my head when the signs by the tunnels nagged me to turn on my headlights and take off my sunglasses. I did as a I was told, driving deep into the mountain, lights flashing on the tiled walls, finally exiting on the other side into the bright sunlight.

My first visit was in Philadelphia to a friend from college, with his wife and baby daughter. We spent the following day, a Sunday, walking the historic sites of downtown Philadelphia, and I watched the baby while they sailed a small boat in a park lagoon. When I told them my plans for Atlantic City the next day, they encouraged me to come back and stay another night.

I left bright and early as my friends went off to work. In Atlantic City, I carefully locked my Monza and pinned the key to the shoulder strap on the swimsuit I wore under my clothes. I carried a beach bag with a towel. My flip flops slapped the boardwalk as I strolled to the beach. I spread my towel in the hot sand a few feet away from kids building sand castles, men in speedos and women in bikinis baking in the sun.  Whenever the sun became too warm, I headed for the ocean, swimming out till I was neck-deep and floating at the whim of the waves.

After a final night in Philadelphia, I started the long drive to my next destination. The day was even hotter. As fast as I drank water, I sweated it out. Somewhere in Indiana, steam rose from the hood of my car and the temperature gauge needle surged past high. I parked on the shoulder and opened the hood. The radiator hissed. I knew enough not to open it to check the fluid level until it cooled. I grabbed a book and sat in the grass at the side of the road to wait.

Only a few minutes later, a semi pulled up. Two men got out and walked back to me. The driver puffed out his chest, hitched up his pants and said, “What do we have here? Need some help?”

“Oh,” I said, “I think it’s my radiator. I’m just waiting for it to cool so I can check the fluid level.”

The man put his hand on the cap and let go fast. He pulled a rag from his pocket and quickly twisted the cap off.

“Looks like you have a crack. Do you have any water?”

I handed him the cup from my car and he poured it in.

“You should be okay. Just make sure you keep filling it up.”

I thanked them and drove off as they strode back to their truck.

My next stop was an Illinois farm where another friend raised champion Cheviot sheep that had paid her way through college. I added water to the radiator that evening and more in the morning. After a night visiting, I went on to see my brother at the house he rented near his university campus. Again, I filled the radiator and packed more water for the trip home.

My car limped the final miles home, a new radiator in its future.

As I tell this story, I reflect on how much life has changed. My daughters taking a similar vacation would ask Siri for directions and listen to music on their smartphones on the ride. If their car broke down, I’m sure we would get a call and keep them company while they waited for AAA to come and help. I know they have close friends and family that would come to their aid the same way I did. I only hope they, and all of us, could still depend on the kindness of strangers.

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.

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.