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.

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.

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.

Telephone

The other day my husband said, “I think the phone isn’t working.”

Now, that might sound like something that should be obvious. Not so many of us still have landlines, but we do. We don’t make calls, but we have an answering machine hooked up that gets mostly scam artists worried about our credit or computers, pleas from charities, real and fake, and occasional messages from the library saying that a book I’ve requested is in. The phone connected to the machine is a cordless with a failing battery that could die any day. So really, it could just as easily have been the receiver as a wire.

We went to the desk I hardly use, which holds a computer I never use and an actual corded line that I use when the power is out and the cell towers have issues, which is rare. But that one was dead too.

We only noticed that the spam calls had stopped because a doctor’s office emailed when they didn’t get an answer.

Really, I’m not sure why I want to keep a landline. Few do anymore.

I’m old enough to remember big, solid telephones with dials. As a child, they were an endless fascination. When you dialed, the low digits spun and released with a satisfying whir, but the nines and zeros seemed to drag on forever. If you released it too soon you had to hang up and start again, or else risk a wrong number. Long distance calls were saved for emergencies because they were expensive.

Numbers back then started with words rather than digits. I still feel a certain affection for our old Keystone nine prefix and the home phone that belonged to all of us.

When push buttons replaced rotary dials, they were a wonder, but they didn’t have the loyalty-inspiring sensory impact of those earlier ones.

I really liked my last flip phone. It felt small in my pocket, but felt right against my ear. I could dial without looking and knew my speed dial numbers by touch. The screen was readable without my glasses. I had the hang of the click-click-click text messaging. It was almost perfect.

Finally, I caved and got a smart phone. For simply making calls, it leaves a lot to be desired. I swear the sound quality isn’t as good, though I don’t think any cell sounds as good as a landline. I have to be looking at the touch screen to have a prayer of dialing right. But…

It isn’t just a phone. It’s the computer I carry around in my pocket, and with that I finally let social media into my life. It’s my flashlight, my calculator, and my alarm clock. It streams videos and plays podcasts. It notifies me when I have email and when bad weather is coming. It lets me play games. It’s my camera, step counter, my GPS. (And with my sense of direction, or lack thereof, that’s important.) With my smartphone, I can text, call or video chat, and do it all with just my voice if I want to.

With all these services, of course I pay. It’s more each month than my landline, and certainly more in lost privacy. When I look up a product, ads for it show up in all my other apps, as though my searches have become part of my proverbial permanent record. Things come in the mail that are somehow tied to my online presence. Big brother is watching. The cost of convenience is allowing your life to be pigeon holed by vendors.

Maybe I keep the old phone line so I have an out if the cost becomes too high.

I called the company, who sent a repairman within a few days. A line had been cut, chewed through by an animal. The repairman said he was surprised that no one else had reported it, because it would have affected multiple homes.

Maybe we’re the only ones still on the line.

2017’s Most Popular Posts

It’s always a surprise to me which posts become the most popular. When I reached my first anniversary of blogging I re-posted my own favorites, but here are the top five with the greatest number of views.

Tied for fifth were “Questions,” an October post about the surreal state of our country, and “Marketing,” my reflections on a July visit to Portland’s Saturday Market.

In fourth was another July post, “Unhappy Camper,” a story about my mom’s one and only camping trip.

The Change” from August, about the way I’m getting through this phase of life, came in third .

In second was the June day I cleaned out my closet, “Downsizing.”

And in first place from back in May, my non-morbid look at end-of-life arrangements, “The Best Laid Plans.”

Come back in 2018 for more eclectic posts on the things I think about as I walk my dog and walk through life. Thanks for reading!

The Other Side

Her shoulders were tense and her mouth was set in a line, as she recounted the conversation she’d had with her teenager that morning.

I smiled. “Thirteen is the worst, isn’t it?”

“Yesss!” she said on a sigh.

“There’s hope,” I told her. “Seventeen was a turnaround age for my kids. I was sitting on my bed folding laundry, when my daughter came in, sat down and started telling me about her day. I thought, Who are you? And where have you been for the last few years?”

Her mouth turned up, but she still sighed.

This is what people dread when they say they never want their little ones to grow up. But every age has something we’re happy to leave behind.

Well on the opposite side of those teenage years now, I’m dwelling less on the rough conversations, late nights, and drama. I’m glad the full calendar, endless events and rides, my-needs-come-last time is over.  I do believe that kids must pull away from us to become adults, and that’s hard for everyone involved. But there were amazing moments from that time too.

Last week a coworker showed me a video of her son’s solo in the school musical. And I remembered many other recitals, plays, impromptu performances.

I recalled one daughter’s grace and speed, as she leaped through the air, legs perfectly parallel to the floor.

I thought of my other daughter’s purposeful drive down a soccer field, her powerful kick, coordinated team passes, aggressive play.

I remembered stories told from first jobs, caring for others. I reminisced about proms, lovely dresses and makeup, and where-did-my-little-girl-go?

When else in our lives are we both skillful enough and free to try on roles like hats: scholar, dancer, artist, athlete, singer, star? How many of us continue any of these identities past those tumultuous teenage years?

While you couldn’t pay me enough to go back to my own adolescence, now I can look back at my daughters’ teen years with a sense of wonder.

But for the mother of a thirteen-year-old, there’s nothing to do but wait.

 

Small Blessings (a listicle)

 

Two weeks past Thanksgiving, I’m still feeling thankful. Yes, I’m thankful that the larger parts of my life are going well, and no, I’m not happy about the events in my newsfeed. But the little things in life have been catching may attention lately, small blessings that can make my day, in the same way that frustrations can ruin it.

I’m thankful when the sun comes out after days of gray.

I’m thankful that living in the country means I don’t have to rake leaves.

I’m thankful that my little Prius still runs well, for the simple reason that it’s the only car that I’ve ever loved and I want to continue driving it.

I’m thankful that my commute is ten minutes long. (Jealous?)

I’m thankful for a keyboard that had power to run for two years and especially for the friend that lent me her charger as soon as I questioned, “How do I charge this thing?” Because after two years, I had forgotten what that black cable was for and who knows where I put it.

I’m thankful for canceled meetings, like gifts of time opening in my day.

I’m thankful to be vigorous and active, though getting up off the floor isn’t as quick as it used to be. (Do you sit on the floor? I find myself there often, not just working with students, but playing with the dog, getting things off low shelves, and looking under the bed to find my missing sock.)

I’m thankful that I work with children, because with kids there is always hope for the future.

I’m thankful for peanut butter, especially the crunchy kind. (If you’re allergic, that’s unfortunate. I’ll eat it somewhere else.)

I’m thankful for openings at the doctor’s office when I need to get in and a good stick when I give blood.

I’m thankful for a cup of hot tea on a cold day and for chocolate, because who wouldn’t be?

I’m thankful not only for my wonderful daughters, but that their chosen fields make them great sources of information for me. My life is richer and better informed for knowing them.

I’m thankful that my friends still want to see me after we’ve had busy months away from each other. (That seems to be a condition of my friendship. You have to wait to see me and then pick up exactly where we left off.)

I’m thankful for new adventures, even if they are only online ones, and for the new people I am meeting through writing. (You can never have too many friends.)

I’m thankful for those who read my blog and come back to read more. I’m especially thankful to the ones who stop to chat, offer words of encouragement, yes, but also just share their thoughts and experiences. It continually amazes me that my words reach people around the world.

I am thankful that I come home to a wagging dog and to eat a warm dinner that I didn’t cook. I’m thankful that I have a comfy spot on the couch and can spend time with my husband as I end my evening. Then to bed, where I’ll be grateful to sleep.