Look for the Helpers

Fred Rogers of the Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood show from yesteryear, once said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” It’s an understatement to say that the news has been a wee bit scary this year, and particularly recently. I am certain that on other elections people have been where I was on November 9, staring stunned and horrified into my coffee. I don’t like that feeling.

I’m left with the question: What did America just do? This election has been like when a party breaks up too late and friends are left passed out on the sofa when the parents come home. We were only playing, we didn’t mean to do anything wrong, we’d apologize. Sorry we messed up the house.

But we’re the parents now, and our house has been messed up for a while. When we don’t take steps to understand each other, isolation and fear ensue. This is not a leap of logic, this is basic kindergarten manners. Go make friends with the new kid, my grandmother would tell me, they look like they could use someone to talk to.

I love my country and I know we can behave better than this. One of the aspects of my nation that I took for granted until recently was its can-do spirit, its celebration of the underdog who rises to the top. Ask anyone who saw the Cubs win their first World Series since 1908. In this election, though, there was no underdog, just candidates slinging mud that got splattered all on America’s face and there’s no one to wipe up the mess for us. That can-do spirit has taken a beating.

“This isn’t my mess, I didn’t do this,” I hear people saying. No, this isn’t any one person’s doing, but this is definitely a mess. We all live here, so we’ve got some work to do. If we are going to move forward we’re going to have to remember that it might not feel like it right now, but that America is a beautiful nation full of potential. We’re going to need to bridge the gap between what we have been doing and what we could be doing. However anyone voted in this election, and remember we have the right to disagree, we don’t have the right to hurt each other. To remix Mr. Rogers’ quote, there have indeed been scary things in the news, so we need to look for the helpers.

In fact, rather than looking for helpers, we need to be the helpers.

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Reading: Not Just for Homework

One of my students came to see me early this morning to say hello, as she does, with her folder full to bursting and protein shake in a Tervis tumbler. She’s been a little quieter than usual lately and I was glad to see her linger by the door.

She told me I was busy and she’d see me later (thoughtful little passive aggressive person); my response was to pull out a chair and invite her to sit. Once she organized her thoughts, her description of her troubles was fairly typical for a person her age. By saying ‘typical’ I don’t diminish what she was telling me. As a gross understatement of the obvious, middle school is not for the weak of heart, and she was experiencing the conflict between trying to accept herself while still fitting in with the expectations of her family and friends. Added to this was her deep-seated (still secret) knowledge that the thing she most loves to do is read.

I forget that the stereotypes of those who love books runs counter to the propaganda in the media. Here is a wonderful person bursting with energy and joy over reading and she feels she must contain herself because she is too bookish for her family, not girly enough. I haven’t personally experienced that type of pressure to fit in, but I saw in her brown eyes her passion and the fear that she was somehow behaving “incorrectly” (her words).

This ball of person-ness is at a crossroads between who she is and who she wants to be, and I couldn’t tell her the truth: that she’ll deal with this for the rest of her existence, that sometimes it will be wonderful, and sometimes it will be awful, but that she is a fabulous person now who will be an amazing adult. I just want to see her make it with her authenticity intact. I know, high standards.

She shared her ideas about how to be a better daughter, a better friend, and was absolutely confused when I reminded her to be better to herself. “You like to read, so read,” I told her. “Find books that bring you joy, that make you feel all the feels, that lift you up.” She shook her head. “Books cost too much money and I will get in trouble.”

I asked her, “Will you get grounded? Punished?” She wiped a stray tear. “No, but they don’t want me to buy books.”

The solution to this is obvious, but she is a proud person and books that are gifted feel an awful lot like charity to her. Library? Too far away. School media center? Due dates loom too quickly. My bookshelves? No, that would be imposing. Then inspiration: homework. We agreed that she is now going to be reading books of her choice for my class, with homework assignments and tests, the whole works. This is only a temporary solution. At some point, I hope she develops the self-confidence to read with joy, not just because it’s homework.

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I’m back from hiding, metaphorically peeking out from under my blanket just in time to vote for the next President of the United States. I enjoyed an odd summer away from writing and spent it doing nebulous, whimsical, forgotten yet cherished activities which I didn’t even bother to post on my social media. I think that might mean they never happened. However, I am now looking to see whether it’s safe for me to come outside of my little self-protective cocoon.

I have been doing my day-to-day adulting of course: do the job, love the job, worry about the job, obsess about the job, switch topics and fret about my children, go back to obsessing about the job. Lather, rinse, and repeat. Oh yes, now I can obsess about my sparkly and prematurely grey hair, which while I like it, I’m on the worry train and it hasn’t switched tracks yet, so I’m just riding this to its ambiguous destination. Kind of like my writing.

I have become dizzied by the political whirligigs and maelstroms slinging around 2016. I consider myself to be a fairly reasonable person who believes that information is generally good and that research goes a long way toward understanding, but I am stuck. I can’t process the information as it concerns the American presidential candidates. Do we really lack anyone better? I’m reminded of a novel by Isaac Asimov in which the current global president is someone who doesn’t want the job, but who would accept it as his/her duty for six years before giving it to the next person. I like that idea a whole lot. I liked it enough to check on my Googles for the title of this novel, but the Googles linked me to a listing of books that offer alternative (obviously dystopian) versions of political life in the future. The Handmaid’s Tale and Wall-ee (yes, really) jumped into my short term memory. Yep, there you go: Wall-ee for president. I’ve oversimplified the reason for that list, but my Googles at least made me feel slightly better. No more informed, but better.

That’s the whole point, though. I think. I may have forgotten what my point actually is because I’ve been assaulted with ignorance and character assassination masquerading as information for way too long. I am not going to feel good about exercising my democratic right in November. I didn’t feel good about it during the primaries either. Although I am vaguely aware that there are two other party ticket runners, I am only aware about them in the sense that I am aware that eating right and exercising are good for me. In other words, I am not aware of them. Does this make me horrifyingly under-informed? Yep. Guilty as charged and now please pass me the green beans while you measure my pulse. I think I still have one.

I’m overexposed and also blighted for information at a time when I most need it. As a good American would, then, I will look for sparkly diversions. I hear there’s line dancing at the Ignorance is Bliss Bar and Grille. They have free chips and salsa on Tuesdays. This rant has been brought to you from our sponsors. Who are they? I don’t even know that. Looks like it’s back to the blanket for me until I can sort this out.

But first, let me (not) take a selfie

Confession might be good for the soul, but it’s definitely not good for the ego. To wit: I am not particularly photogenic. If I grin with reckless abandon, the photo looks like I’m in pain. If I try to look like I have a secret, it tends to look like I have to go to the bathroom. The only time I look like myself is when I’m not paying any attention to someone else’s camera/phone/camcorder. In other words, there is no selfie that will ever turn out well. This also doesn’t bode well for driver’s license photos, staff pictures, yearbook pictures, etc. In an era where everyone’s everything is exposed everywhere (sorry, got stuck in alliteration land), I am blissfully undocumented. Most of the time, I prefer it this way.

When I peruse my social media, I delight in pictures of my friends’ vacations, their children and grandchildren. I am a huge fan of pictures of particularly well-presented food as well. Recently, however, a picture of myself and a friend appeared on social media, which caused a familial frenzy. We don’t live in the same geographic area, so pictures are a great way to keep in touch. So are letters, though, and I usually draw stick figures to accompany the lines for visual effect. I am a) older and b) still not photogenic, so any current photos aren’t really all that useful.

I know there’s a lot I could do to “become” more photogenic: stand a certain way, angle my head a certain way, and wear certain colors. Ultimately, I have to wonder why I should bother. If I look best when I’m not looking, that must mean my best angle is face averted away from the camera. Either way, I don’t really care whether I’m in a picture or not. It bothers me slightly that I don’t look more like me, but not enough that I’ll practice making smiley faces in my mirror or on my phone or whatever it is people do to figure out their best face.

Today, I was reading a fantastic article about swimsuits and how to look great in them, and I realized I’ve been a bit hypocritical about the whole celebrating oneself business I’ve been espousing. I am healthy and vibrant, but I don’t like pictures. I love swimming, but I hate swimsuits. Well, that’s kinda silly, now, isn’t it? If I look like a person and dress like a person, and I’m person-shaped, I’m probably a person who doesn’t need to stinking worry about whether or not I have thigh gap or thick ankles or whatevertheheck it is people worry about.

I will continue to be relatively unfeatured in pictures on my social media. It’s not something I’m comfortable with, obviously. I will still delight in the photos other people post, even as I have to wonder how many pictures they took or how long it took them to realize they had to stand just so to look that fantastic. I will remain elusive and relatively undocumented, a modern-day Audrey Hepburn without the acting chops.

 

It’s Spring and There’s Adventure in the Air

Spring Break. Beaches, parties that would make Bacchus jealous, youngsters celebrating the equinox of the transition between adolescence and adulthood. I’m not sure why spring break is advertised as a singularity of the young, nubile, college-aged person. When I look at my passersby on the highway, I see as many retirees tooling around in their motor coaches as I do cars full of beach-and-hotel gear. And why not? Road trips are adventures with nothing but miles of open roads and pitstops at highway drive-throughs to sustain and fortify the spirit.

If one reads the “Bucket Lists” of the YouTube genre, taking a roadtrip with friends is one of the “Must Do” items before shackling oneself down to a life of sensible shoes and Dockers. I see that, but I raise it with the family road trip. There’s nothing quite like 500 miles to the next pitstop to bring out the reality of family dynamics. We have the impatient souls, the dreamers, the drivers (both actual and backseat), the occupiers – and some combination of those qualities, all cramped up within the confines of four wheels and no bathroom.

I have two favorite road trips, both of which have happened while I’ve been a mom. The first one was when we rented a car and drove around the Arizona-Utah-Nevada triangle. We discovered that the signs posted on the side of the road recommending “only vehicles with four-wheel drive” actually meant only vehicles with four-wheel drive. After about 500 yards on the rocky, potentially breaking-the-undercarriage pathway of a road that had never been completed, we arrived back on the main stretch of highway, which was really only slightly more effectively paved. Gotta love the threat of imminent rockslide to bring out the adrenaline. Lesson learned from that experience: the kids are both comfortable with their father’s driving and don’t mind mountains. I am perpetually impressed with my husband’s driving, but I really, really mind mountainous road. I mind mountainous driving very, very much.

The second road trip of great familial significance was a multi-state trek to look at colleges and train routes. This is an unusual combination, perhaps, but it worked for us. The interesting thing that occurred was that, for people who aren’t used to resting for any stretch of time, much less for miles on end, we were happy to read, relax, sleep, and argue about whether it was worth it to drive 45 minutes out of the way for a Taco Bell (it was). We learned that veering off the predesignated path is sometimes more fun, even if it takes mom another 45 minutes to make it back to the highway.

Road trips have provided me with a zen-like appreciation of the Moment. It is difficult to recreate that presence and celebration of the now in our daily lives. Too much gets in the way. The gift of a road trip is that, yes, someone will throw up in the car, a gasket will blow off of something, you’ll have to spend the night in a place that’s … kinda weird, and you’ll have to rely on maps when the GPS goes offline. In other words, you’ll learn to rely on yourself.

For those of you who are young and glowing with youthful exuberance, get that road trip on. For those of us who have actually traveled a road or two, get that road trip on. It doesn’t matter whether it’s spring, or a vacation, or a long weekend. Go where the water bottles and the roadside attractions will take you. I suggest they’ll probably take you back to yourself. That’s a pretty great destination.

What is everyone else up to?

Comparing and contrasting is both a survival skill and a killer. As a survival skill, nothing beats out our ancestors’ ability to discern what was yummy from what was going to kill them. This is some pretty high-stakes trial and error going on. Still, as we’ve evolved from hunters and gatherers of food and shelter to hunters and gatherers of “stuff”, we seem to have taken a life skill and turned it on its philosophical noggin to become a competitive sport.

First, there’s that whole parental compare/contrast gig: “Oh, yeah, Bob has been performing differential equations in his head since he was four. You mean Mark doesn’t?” Or, “Oh, that’s … sweet how Paul color-coordinated his Leggos. Do you think he needs an evaluation?” Moving on, Mark might be the ‘smart’ one, Paul the ‘good looking’ one, and David the ‘kind’ one, but in the act of assigning those roles, have we not inadvertently stuck the people into categories that don’t belong? What happens when David is kind and intelligent, but Mark is already the smart one, so Fred can only be kind? What if, oh my goodness, in a family of labels, Fred goes label free? I can assure you that Fred will be aware of this lack of moniker, even as he might secretly like floating invisibly through that labeling dynamic.

We are a social species and a competitive one, which is all fine and spiffy, up until we evaluate ourselves based on those comparisons. It would be great if, as Garrison Keiller wrote in Lake Wobegon, everyone was above average, but it’s not going to happen — well, unless we change the definition of average. In a land of happy statisticians when it behooves us to be so, data – regardless of subject matter – has a mean, an average. Some are above the mean, and some below. Some are too busy living their lives to care what the mean means (I had to), and I celebrate them.

Extending this compare/contrast gig to our sociability, we spend an inordinate amount of time comparing our own activities and preferences to those of others, paying no attention, it would seem, to whether our definitions of ‘fun’ or ‘happy’ match up. There is now such a thing as a “Facebook effect,” which is a phenomenon scientists have studied suggesting that the more time people spend trolling through their social media, the less happy they are. I do not pick on Facebook; I just Googled studies on the subject and Facebook was the social site mentioned most often. Still, this is pretty interesting. We already compare ourselves to ideals of beauty/handsomeness, intelligence, money, possessions – and now we have to compare ourselves to how social OTHER people are? Stop the ride, I want off.

I admit to a certain tendency to think the rest of the world is having way more fun than I do, but that’s because my kind of fun doesn’t involve a whole lot of noise (unless it’s a concert. Then I’m way in). When I see Facebook posts of the people I genuinely like out and about engaging in activities that are ‘fun’ to them, I admit to a certain pang of what I guess is jealousy, but is probably more an acknowledgement that, while they’re out there doing these activities of happiness, I am secretly very happy to relax at home. I am the poster person of an ambivert, an introvert who really likes people and loves to spend time with them in small groups, for a limited amount of time. I have, however, noticed my ability to self-evaluate based on what everyone else is up to. This is silly because I just typed that I most enjoy being home.

In the interest of social science and self-development, I am going to pay attention to this “other people” tendency. I am going to spend the next week keeping a journal of how often I compare myself to others, either positively or negatively. I like to think I live in an Alwaysliz bubble of tolerance for others, but I’m not the most tolerant person of myself. I’m bugged by the feeling that I ought to be doing “something” better, but what that thing is eludes me. I, like many others, feel like an average daisy in a field of brilliantly-colored poppies and calla lilies. I happen to like daisies, so I don’t usually mind, except for the times that I do. To be human is to be fraught with contradictions, and this, I hope, will be a good exercise in acknowledging the glass-half-fullness of my days. Pick up your notebook and join me if you like, not as a compare/contrast, but as an intersection of who you are and what you like most about yourself.

 

* I used generic male names throughout this musing, not out of gender specificity, but out of gender neutrality, much in the same way that all the officers on the Starship Enterprise are addressed as ‘sir’.