How We Are Defined

            In early childhood we begin accumulating those factors that define us. For example, a cranky baby’s stories will be told and retold for years, often as a reminder to the growing child that he was challenging, to say the least.

            A child who climbs up on the roof will be known as a daredevil, while that one who huddles in a corner of the living room and reads will be called a bookworm.

            The teens who listen obsessively to loud music might later grow up to be musicians, all because of being defined by their passion. At the same time an overly dramatic child will be called a drama queen and encouraged to participate in the high school’s theater program.

            We are who others see us as.

            The new employee, after being introduced to the crew, might pick up a nickname based on a superficial trait. For example, if the person is tall and willowy, she might be called a giant, while the short, squat individual will be shorty. No matter how hard that person tries to rid herself of the nickname, it won’t change. She’s been defined by a physical characteristic, something that’s impossible to change.

            In later years, as our interests expand, we might change our preferred music styles or learn to cook a new cuisine, but we’ll be forever known as the cupcake queen or the rock-and-roller.

            Other things define us as well. Our hair color influences how people see us. Blondes are often perceived as dumb while red heads are thought to be fiery. Clothing styles might earn us a label of being punk rockers or snobby. Depending upon how new our clothes are, people might define us as being raggedy or fashionable.

            Even the color of our skin and our gender influences how people see us. We’ve become aware of how restrictive dark skin is in terms of negative labels. Almost every day there’s a story in the news in which a dark-skinned person is killed or injured, harassed by store owners or the police, or caught doing nothing more than barbequing while black.

            Some people try to lighten their skin in order to appear “white”, hoping to change how they are defined. They might also use hair straighteners and heavy lacquers to dampen tight curls.

            Some of our features cannot be changed. As Asian person, as well as someone with Down’s Syndrome, cannot change the shape of their eyes. This defining characteristic is currently causing acts of hate and discrimination. Walking down the street can lead to death.

            Another way we are defined is by our weight. If as a child a person was overweight, that child will be taunted and tormented throughout the rest of her school days. Perhaps that’s better then being invisible, but not by much.

            When an obese person walks through a store, people will often stop and gawk, but only after the person has moved away. In crowded situations, such as on an airplane, people cringe and look down, hoping to discourage the overweight individual from sitting next to them.

            Employers reject the obese without giving them the opportunity to perform on the job. Why? Because of a perceived bias, thinking that the obese are slovenly and lazy.

            At the same time an extremely thin person is seen as energic and lively. Picture an athlete, perhaps one who jumps over hurdles. You see someone with long, thin legs. Basketball players fall into the same category, but not necessarily football players. Linesmen are huge, often with bellies that are barely contained by the uniform. Because of being athletes, however, weight does not define them.

            Only the average person walking down the street.

            What all these characteristics have in common is that they are visual representatives of who the individual is. Nothing indicates personality, perseverance, skill or social skills.

            We are defined by how others perceive us and there’s very little we can do to change that. We might lose weight, but those earlier images of us carrying excess pounds are glued to us and cannot be shed. We might style our hair and wear better clothes, but we’re still thought of as poor slobs. We might work on being more amiable, but cannot shake off the perception to being difficult.

            Our earliest definitions stick with us.

            What a shame.

Taking Responsibility

            When I was teaching, I often listened as parents blamed teachers, aide staff and other children for their own kids’ failures. It annoyed the heck out of me. By making excuses, it removed all responsibility from themselves and from their kids for any wrongdoing. Those kids would grow up never assuming that anything that happened to them bore any weight on their actions.

            I often wondered what it would take to open their eyes, for them to see that it was the child who failed to do the assignment or to turn it in when it was due. Would it happen when the child grew up and got her first job? Or would the parent storm in and blame the boss and coworkers?

            There are situations in which it is clearly someone else’s fault. Picture the scene on the playground when the bully shoves a child from behind, who then crashes into the student in front of him. If the bully hadn’t pushed, then the domino effect wouldn’t have happened.

            There are workers who don’t carry equal weight. They only do half the job then blame someone else for not finishing it. No, it was her fault for not meeting the deadline.

            What if there was a time machine in which you could send those people back to whatever the inciting incident was. Picture them watching themselves, as if through a looking glass, as they spend too much time wandering the halls searching for someone to talk with. Would they realize that they didn’t complete the job because they were wasting time?

            Most of us learn early on that we are responsible for our own successes and failures. It might be when we are handed our first award for a job well done or when we are sent to the corner to think about our behaviors. One award might quickly lead to another. One punishment might quell future negative behaviors.

            When we figure in socioeconomic status, we might have to recalculate who is responsible for any successes we have.

            The child who grows up having everything, living in the best neighborhood in the biggest house and attending a posh boarding school might never have to fight her way to the top. Because she’s always had everything, she doesn’t understand the personal sacrifice it takes most people to simply get by.

            Will the privileged child continue to be privileged as an adult? We hear of situations in which the parents buy the child a fancy house and car and place them at a position in the family business. What happens when that child takes responsibility for their own finances? Will he blow his money on lavish parties or set some aside for the future? Will she fly about the country with little regard as to who’s going to pay? Or will these two assume responsibility for their own actions and become contributing members of society?

            Picture now the child who grows up in abject poverty having parents who never graduated from high school. The family is often homeless because the parents don’t earn enough to maintain a steady residence. Clothes are hand-me-downs and food comes from pantries. Sometimes the electricity and water are on: sometimes not. They often go to school dirty and smelling, so are teased and tormented.

            As a small child, there is not much he can do about the situation except excel at school. Through academic excellence the child learns what opportunities await. While she can’t do anything about where the family lives, she can do her homework every night.

            When it’s time for her to get a job, she’ll have to begin at the lowest level and work her way up. When the boss sees how hard she’s working, she might get a raise. One raise might lead to another. Completing tasks might lead to harder tasks being assigned, building skills.

            The difference in situations is not just due to socioeconomic levels: it’s also dependent upon internal motivation.

            A child who’s been given everything might not feel it necessary to put effort into anything. Why bother if it’s all being given to you? She knows her place in the family and what the future holds.

            On the other hand, a child growing up with nothing might strive to be a person who has something. He won’t just complete school assignments, but go the extra mile. He’ll complete all the extra credit problems, turn in additional essays, answer the bonus questions. He sees the goal post and wants to not just walk under it, but leap over it.

            This child understands that his success depends upon his efforts. A poor grade is often the result of poor work, assuming there are no learning difficulties that make a particular subject challenging.

            Waling about the neighborhood you can almost predict from which houses responsible people emerge.

            A well-tended yard requires work. A swept driveway requires work. A clean car takes effort. A maintained house also takes effort. If you walked up to the large front window and looked inside, you’d probably see things put away, vacuumed carpets and swept floors. Imagine the kitchen in such a house: no dirty dishes piled up in the sink, a sparkling stove top and clean shelves in the refrigerator.

            The residents care: not just about themselves but about how they present themselves to the world. They take responsibility for whatever successes they achieve and don’t throw blame at others when something they do is not up to their standards.

            Imagine a world in which blame does not exist. A world in which all people assume responsibility for their successes and achievements.

            Wouldn’t that be a wonderful place?

Addicted to Dieting

            My obsession with losing weight began in my middle-school years when I realized, thanks to the cruel taunting of my classmates, that I was the fattest kid. Not just among the girls, but the fattest student in the entire school.

            The Internet did not back then and since we lived out in the country, far from a library, my ability to access information about nutrition was limited. Occasionally, when I had saved enough money and was allowed to accompany my mom to the store, I’d buy a teen magazine geared that, if my hopes were met, offered tips to losing and maintaining.

            I learned that fresh fruits and vegetables were the basics of weight loss combined with exercise. I was an active kid, so all I had to do was stay outside longer riding my bike or roller skating in the garage or hiking in the woods behind our house. In the summers it was often too hot and humid to spend much time outdoors, so that’s when I’d ride or skate in circles in the garage. In wintertime I was back to circling the garage as well as sledding from one neighbor’s yard to the next. None of that activity helped.

During the summer months our garden produced tomatoes, green beans and carrots. Strawberries, blackberries and rhubarb were the only fruits. In off seasons we only ate canned and processed fruits and vegetables, which much later on I discovered were soaked in a thick, sweet syrup.

I knew enough to eat the fresh over the processed, but there were rules about cleaning your plate. We were also not permitted to refuse a particular item, so maintaining a diet was next to impossible.

Add to my problems the issue of my mom’s cooking: it was laden with sauces, gravies and carbs. Lots of bread and pasta. What meat we did have was tough unless she cooked it for hours. Chicken was only oven-roasted in a thick layer of oil. We never ate fish except for the few times when my dad went fishing and returned with catfish which my mom baked. One healthy meal out of hundreds! Oh…but she ruined any enjoyment of the fish: she was worried that we’d swallow bones, so she made sure that we chewed the fish until it was a tasteless much.

I did what I could, when I could. It must have helped as my weight remained more or less the same.

At the end of ninth grade we drove from Ohio to California, eating out every single meal. Like most kids I preferred burgers and fries topped off with the occasional milkshake, when permitted. By the time we reached what would be our home in the Sacramento area, my clothes were tight.

It was too hot to do anything except eat ice cream. And popsicles. My dad was often away, so my mom turned to quick meals, slopping together anything and everything, none of which was healthy.

Before school began we moved to the SF Bay Area. By now I was hard-pressed to squeeze my body into the clothes I’d brought on the journey. My mom had no choice but to take me shopping, an embarrassment to be sure. There was no mall at that time: only one main street with stores that catered to slim people. The only one that had clothes my size was a Montgomery Wards clearance shop.

My choices were limited to tent-style dresses. Girls weren’t permitted to wear pants to school, so I was stuck with what now would be called mu-mus. Bright patterns of flowing fabric that hid my flab, but marked me as the fat kid.

I returned to obsessing over food, but once again, had little choice or say in what I ate. Back in Ohio I ate school lunches that were awful. No matter as at least one nun made sure our trays were empty before we could go outside and play. I wasn’t interested in playing as I had no friends, it was cool in the cafeteria, and so I’d outlast the nuns.

In California there were no school lunches. Instead I was handed a lunch bag with a bologna sandwich inside, slathered in mayonnaise. Every single day. No fresh fruit, but sometimes a cookie.

No one at school watched what I ate, so I often threw half my lunch away, praying each time that my brother wouldn’t see.

We lived on top of a hill, so taking the dog for a walk became my primary source of exercise. We’d go around and around the block until the poor thing was so exhausted I’d have to carry her.

Health class was mandatory. I learned more about nutrition than I’d ever known before. The problem was that the more I learned, the more I understood that almost nothing we ate was healthy. I tried sharing my findings with my mother, but it only made her angry. I could either eat what she prepared or starve. But I couldn’t choose to starve because I was physically punished each time I refused to eat a meal.

I was able to stay active, however, thanks to PE and being on the school’s bowling team. I maintained my weight, not what I wanted, but at least I didn’t get fatter.

When I went away to college, for the first time, I had complete control over what I stuffed in my face. As I strolled past the buffet line, my eyes feasted on the range of possibilities. I understood that most of the options wouldn’t help me lose weight, but the sheer joy of being able to take what I wanted removed all thoughts of dieting from my brain.

The one thing that saved me from putting on the pounds was the anxiety I experienced every day. I was still a lonely kid, much to my great sadness. That alone should have been enough to keep my weight down. Add to that the pressure to get the highest marks in all my classes in order to keep my state-funded scholarship, and there were times I truly couldn’t eat.

For the first time in my life I lost weight! I never got skinny, but I certainly was no longer obese. I marveled at how good I looked, which inspired me to monitor what went into my mouth. I became more selective, choosing those things that I knew were longer in calories. I even switched to nonfat milk, which nauseated me.

Thus began a years-long journey of yo-yo dieting. At school I’d lose weight: at home I’d gain. I’d lose ten pounds, then put on fifteen. Lose ten more, but add twelve. Until the summer when I got a job on campus and so didn’t have to return home.

That truly changed my life. I was no longer under my mother’s supervision for almost the entire school year, so could eat what I wanted, when I wanted. I was able to lose weight and keep it off. By the time I graduated from college, I looked great. Not skinny, but also not fat.

With no job and no place to live, I returned home. Nothing about my mother’s cooking had changed. Everything was fried, covered in bread crumbs, drowning in a sauce or gravy and paired with pasta. My weight began to rise.

Thankfully I found a job that allowed me to pack my own lunch. I still had bologna sandwiches, which was not a good option, but often had an apple. I balanced the not-so-good with the good. I lost a little.

I saved enough to buy my first car then get my first apartment.  This was a liberating change in my life. I chose what to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I had freedom to come and go as I pleased. And I took up skiing, an activity that I’d never done before. I wasn’t great at it, but it was hard work. I lost a little bit more.

I got married and now had to cook for two. I was a lousy cook. The one cookbook that saved me used some form of soup in every recipe. I also had one that mixed fruits, cheeses and marshmallows in Jell-O. These were not the healthiest meals, so I gained weight.

We bought a house and soon I was pregnant. The next fifty years were a continuous struggle with weight. I’d diet, lose, then gain. I’d try a different diet, lose, then gain more. I ballooned. There’s no nicer word for it. It was as if someone had attached an air hose and filled me with air.

I drank prepared mixes that were guaranteed to lead to weight loss. I’d lose some, then put on more.

I joined the local gym and worked out at least five days a week. I bought frozen foods that I could microwave at work, thinking that would help me lose weight. They did, but then I regained whatever I’d lost.

Dieting was, by now, an addiction. Every moment that I was awake was consumed with thoughts of food. We now had three kids and I was the primary cook. They were picky eaters and my range of options was narrow. I turned into my mother, plating meals covered in sauces and paired with pastas.

I’d go to the gym only to come home and eat a handful of cookies that were supposed to go in the kids’ lunches. I didn’t know how to cook fresh vegetables, so they came from cans. I’d add slabs of butter or cover them with cheese sauces.

I got fatter and fatter even though dieting was always on my mind. I needed larger sizes of clothes, tops and bottoms. At one point I was wearing size 3X tops and size 22 pants. I was embarrassed, but not enough to cease control.

It was when the photo taken at my school came out that it began to dawn on me that I was obese. For years I had been avoiding family photos, so the idea was in my brain; it had yet to move to the forefront.

Even when doctors asked if I knew I was fat, that didn’t shock me long enough to make positive change. I rationalized it away. I had big bones. I was healthy. I could swim and exercise at the gym. I played soccer and coached a team and even refereed, which meant running up and down the field.

About four years ago I decided to stop the yo-yoing. I had been attending Weight Watchers meetings for a few years by then, but the calculating points confused me so badly that I didn’t track what I ate. I pretended to keep the info in my head. Pretended that I knew what I was consuming and making better choices.

I did lose thirty pounds. My knee went bad. After surgery I put the weight back on. I lost twenty. Then had surgery on the other knee and my weight went back up. I lost ten, then broke something and because I couldn’t exercise, put it all back on.

If I had charted my weight over that period of time, it would have looked like a roller coaster. Up, then down. Climb back up, then drop down. Over and over.

I am proud to say that I no longer fall into the obese category. I lost almost 80 pounds and have kept it off for over three years.

However, I am still addicted to dieting. I think about food constantly. I want to stuff something in my mouth even when I’m not hungry. I yearn for cookies and cakes and pies. I want the pasta drowning in sauce. I’m love a big, juicy hamburger with a side of fries. I love hot dogs and pizza.

I make mistakes. Instead of passing through the kitchen, I stop and scavenge. I try to choose low-calorie options, but that sugar cookie looks awfully good. I have plenty of fresh fruits in the house, but I’d rather have a brownie.

If someone offered me a thick milkshake I’d refuse, but dream of its taste. If plums were on the table, I’d take one, but still drool over the red velvet cake that everyone else was eating.

I’ve never understood why some can eat whatever they want and stay thin while the smell of a piece of See’s candy can add five pounds.

I now understand that dieting, or as Weight Watchers calls it, making lifestyle choices will be with me the rest of my life. For the first time I like how I look. It’s more than that: I’m proud of how I look.

In order to stay the way I am right now, my addiction to dieting is something I’ll be carting with me as surely as I put on a backpack when away from home.

I feel sorry for all those young kids who don’t have healthy choices at home. Their lives will be like mine, a never-ending battle with weight and desire.

Through the Window

            When I was quite small there was a solar eclipse. My mother was so terrified that my brother and I would be blinded, that she closed all curtains and forbade us from peeking through a window. It was if we were blind because the world outside had been removed.

            Since then, I have seized the opportunity to look through every single window that comes into my realm of existence.

            About forty-five years ago we treated ourselves to a trip to Hawaii, thinking that if we didn’t go right then, we’d never make it. Our room was on the twenty-sixth floor. My husband loved sitting on the balcony, enjoying the ocean breeze and listening to the sounds below. I tried to join him, but I couldn’t even get near. My fingers could graze the window frame, but neither of my feet could step out there.

            I missed whatever sights he enjoyed, but with the door open, I could hear the sounds and if I looked out far enough, I could catch a glimpse of the ocean.

            The window was open, but I couldn’t see any more than when my mother closed all the curtains.

            On our first trip to New York City our daughter-in-law recommended an eclectic hotel not too far off Broadway. It was an artist’s paradise from the moment you stepped through the creaky screen door.

            Every hallway featured a work by a different artist. So did the rooms. Ours was a replica speakeasy, complete with a scantily clothed mannequin embedded in the bathroom door. There was a bar that was not connected to water and a tiny twin-sized cradled bed. And one window.

            It was so hot and humid that we had to open the window. Our view was of a brick wall, but if we stuck our heads out as far as we could, we could see the traffic rushing past.

            While we were lucky enough to have a window, it offered little joy. Instead it gave us steam rising up from the Chinese restaurant below and the never-ending cacophony of horns blaring, even well into the night.

            Compare that to our window in Queenstown, New Zealand. We were treated with an unobstructed view of a large lake, snow-topped mountains and rolling green hills.  

            If you approach a window at night, you see yourself. It’s a spooky version, however, due to the poor lighting.  Eyes are hollow pits, cheeks have an eerie glow and the entire body seems to be floating in dark space. You appear as a ghost, one that would scare the bejeezus out of unsuspecting visitors.

            That doesn’t stop me from looking however. I might, if I’m lucky, see the glowing lights of a city in the distance, catch the slow-moving Ferris wheel, or see the reflected boat lights at sea.

            There is a saying about looking into the windows of a soul. It means that if you stare into the eyes of a person long enough, you can see the hidden emotions, attitudes and thoughts. I am not sure if I believe that to be so, but I am uncomfortable when anyone stares that intently at me and I don’t like staring at others as well.

            If the expression is true, that we can indeed see inside, then shouldn’t we? What if a good look reveals a sinister motive, and so rather than investing in the person’s business, we walk away? It would save us money and heartache. Possibly legal fees. Does that justify getting that close to someone?

            Let’s assume you’ve met the person of your dreams. You’re obviously attracted, but what if the person is troubled inside? Imagine staring into those eyes and what you see makes you realize that a relationship with this person would damage yourself. You would walk away before investing time, energy and emotions that would only be wasted.

            Windows are also for looking in. Every year at Christmas time Macy’s in San Francisco allows the local SPCA to place needy cats and dogs in the windows. Crowds hover outside, jostling for the best place to get a good view. Granted many come just to look, but adoptions soar or the event wouldn’t take place year after year.

            Picture yourself in front of a window with cute, fluffy puppies. Their eyes are huge and forlorn, calling out to you to come inside and hold them. Or the playful kittens batting toys about, climbing and jumping and occasionally looking out at the lookers-in.

            In a different scenario you’re invited to someone’s place for dinner, but when you arrive and knock on the door, no one answers. What do you do? Look in the nearest window. If the curtains are drawn, you see nothing, but if the light is just right, you can see the entire front room and into the kitchen. It’s like a sneaky glimpse into a friend’s life, almost like opening drawers in bedrooms and bathrooms while pretending to use the facilities.

            Looking inside a store window reveals the products they sell. If the display is intriguing, you’ll go inside. If not, you move on to the next store, going from window to window until something catches your interest.

            Whether you are peering out or in, windows offer something that solid walls cannot: pieces of a whole. And those pieces can scare you away or draw you closer, depending upon what you see.

            We need to stop and look, however, for if we don’t, then our world is confined to our narrow existence. We never see anything new, never experience anything different, never move beyond what is known.

            Windows open us to learning through our sense and our emotions. They are the gateways through which we become enlightened, through which our universe is expanded.

            Pull back the curtains and look. What you see might change your world.

Facing Obstacles

            When I look back, I realize that many obstacles were placed in my way that I either had to overcome or ignore. Beginning with my early years, I knew that I was not my mother’s favorite and had little respect from my father. I could discount those feelings as being caused by “middle-child syndrome”, but that would be falsifying what actually happened.

            My older brother was not the jock or the mechanic that my father wanted. My mother, however, held my brother in high esteem. It often felt that in her eyes, he could do no wrong. He also had little responsibilities around the house, for she wanted his focus to be on academics.

            On the surface, that was very noble of her. She only had an eighth-grade education, so insisting that my brother graduate from high school and go on to college was admirable.

            However, she held no such regard for me. My primary function in the family was to clean. Not just my half of the room, but my brother’s room, the kitchen, front room and even wiping dust off of indoor plants. Only after those jobs were finished could I study.

            Her expectations for me were to marry as a teenager. Going to college was not encouraged or expected. When I expressed a desire to get a degree, she didn’t actively discourage me, but she also didn’t encourage me.

            Neither did my high school counselor. By the time I was looking to graduate from high school, I already had several obstacles in my way: low self-esteem, low expectations, low placement within the family, and low belief from adults as to what my future held. I fought and clawed my way through all those years of self-doubt and familial stress.

            I graduated from high school and then college with honors. Hah!

            Getting a good-paying job was equally difficult. Back in the late 1960’s women’s opportunities were just beginning to open up. Most women became teachers, nurses or secretaries. Or they got married and had children. Or they worked in elder care or as low-paid office clerks.

            I had no office skills. My typing speed was incredibly slow and I made frequent mistakes. I could file but not operate an adding machine with any accuracy. I did not know stenography and had no interest in learning. I was not pretty enough to catch a boss’s attention.

            I applied for any job that required few, if any, skills. No one would hire me because they all believed that I would leave as soon as a job opened in which college degrees were valued. They were right, but first I had to find that job.

            I tested with a temporary agency, but my skills were so low they refused to accept me into the pool.

            When the phone company announced openings, I made an appointment to take the test. My mother insisted on applying as well. I knew that I stood no chance of getting hired: who would hire someone who could only apply if their mother tagged along?

            I needed a job so that I could buy a car and rent an apartment. Living at home was stifling and restrictive. At college I had freedom to become my own person: at home I was back to being the middle child.

            Eventually I got a good-paying job with the federal government. I hated the job, but it gave me needed experience and allowed me to save money, but a car and move out! Yeah! Plus it was where I met my husband.

            After years of being told how ugly I was (by my brother and father), finding a husband seemed impossible. But when I looked at the man who would later propose, I knew he was the person I had hoped to find.

            Another obstacle overcome.

            I had never wanted a government job. I knew from the time I was quite small that becoming a teacher was my goal. Teachers were kind to me. They never called me names or made fun of me. Not all teachers saw potential in me, but at least they never ridiculed me in public. Because of this, I imagined myself in front of a classroom.

            Another obstacle: there was a glut of teachers and not enough jobs. Add in the cost of continuing education and it seemed impossible that I would ever get to teach.

            When my first child was preschool age, I searched for early childhood education that we could afford. We didn’t qualify for Head start or the county’s programs because, theoretically, we made too much money. I eventually found a preschool program through Parks and Rec that was aimed at parents. While my son was in class, I attended classes in parenting. I needed the class as much as my son needed being with others his age.

            From there I enrolled in classes at the community college, thinking that being a preschool teacher was where I should be. After completing a ton of credits, I got hired by the Rec Department to teach preschool. Yeah! Another obstacle mastered.

            It was not for me. I discovered that dancing and singing in front of tiny kids made me uncomfortable. I hated the art projects and monitoring behavior on the enclosed playground. I hated snotty noses, wet pants, and holding hands with kids who’d just smeared mucus about their faces with their fingers.

            Even though I was teaching, I quickly realized this was not my ideal job.

            I needed to return to college to get an elementary credential. We had no money for tuition. My sister-in-law offered to pay! Another obstacle met.

            After completing my program, I applied for various positions. A local Catholic school was the first, a position that I loved right away. I taught third grade, a good age for me. They had some academic skills and were already socialized and fairly well behaved.

            However, after three years there I knew I couldn’t stay. The principal stated that she loved having young teachers and had already run off two older ones. A third retired. I wanted that job, teaching seventh grade, but the principal hired a young man from outside.

            I left before I got another job.

            Obstacles arose that I had not foreseen. One public school district claimed that my Catholic school job did not prepare me for their students. If only they had listened! I had students with learning differences, students with poor behavior and disabled students.

            I began substituting in my local district. It was awful. Students mistreat subs. They won’t obey, refuse to sit and talk constantly. They laughed and jeered at my attempts to follow the lesson plans. High schoolers were the worst, but so were eighth graders at the middle school in the wealthier part of town.

            A coaching position opened up and I applied, thinking it would give me greater opportunity to be hired as a teacher. I was thrilled when I became coach, that is until the head coach began delegating her responsibilities to me. She mistreated her players, made them run until they threw up, called them names and when one young lady broke her foot, accused the girl of faking it to avoid practice. When I took my concerns to the Athletic Director, he scoffed. I left.

            In October I was told about a job in a different district, applied and was hired. I loved my sixth graders. They were not the brightest kids at the school, but most of them were excited to learn. I developed lessons to fit their needs, including a “dig” for artifacts, a hike through the neighborhood, reading to first graders and even putting together our own yearbook at the end of the year.

            The district did not rehire me because the original teacher was returning from her one-year job.

            By now I figured out that there was a need for PE teachers so I enrolled in classes at the university. I enjoyed learning about physical fitness, warmup activities and taking PE classes to fulfill requirements. I hated the training and conditioning class because I had to learn the names and functions of every bone, muscle and tendon. I’m not good at science, so I had to work extra hard. It was a huge obstacle, but I succeeded anyway.

            I still didn’t get hired, but I kept getting sent to Special Education classes. This was not how I saw myself as a teacher, but the need was great. Back to school I went.

            This time I got hired after my first interview. The one problem: I was warned that there was a difficult parent that wanted to meet me prior to the first day of school. That parent created one obstacle after another. Nothing I did pleased her even though her daughter was happy and learning. Eventually I ended up in an arbitration and then a hearing. It was awful.

            The end agreement was that I would never teach the girl again. One obstacle removed.

            Two years later an awful child was put in my class. He was so violent that an aide was hired to shadow him at all times and step in between when the kid came after me. The school psychologist also shadowed him, but none of that helped.

            The rest of the class and I spent a lot of time outdoors, regardless of weather. The boy was so violent that everyone feared that either myself or my students would get hurt. Later I learned that he got kicked out of his previous placement when he threw a desk at his teacher and broke her foot.

            The parent put up one obstacle after another. She’d want to know how his day went, but if I was honest, she got mad. If I wrote mediocre comments, she got mad. If I wrote the truth, she’d get even angrier. Again I ended up in a hearing. Again I would never have to teach the boy again.

            The district was good to me. When an opening arose at the high school, I was encouraged to apply. I was hired without an interview. I taught there for eighteen years.

            Along the way, however, the state kept changing the rules. I had to keep earning certificates in various specialties or I would lose my job. At one point I returned to college, this time completing a BA in English. To finish, I had to pass three grueling tests. I conquered that obstacle as well.

            There were familial issues along the way. A few years into our marriage my mom tried to get me to leave my husband, claiming that he wasn’t a good father to our son. My mom was controlling and at times abusive toward me. Nothing had changed from my childhood except my age.

            Add to that recurring weight issues, knee problems, and health complications, all obstacles that jumped up, getting in my way.

            The difference was that now I had confidence in myself. I knew I was smart, I knew I was capable, I knew I was loved.

            The obstacles were stubborn, however, refusing to go away. It took determination and years for me to accomplish what I had wanted to accomplish.

            I had learned that, yes, obstacles would keep popping up, but that I had the tools to get past them. So when the pandemic happened in 2020, I considered it just another thing that I could handle.

            Some people give up when an obstacle arises. Some people fight back. While I never gave up, there were times when I doubted myself due to the voices in my head.

            The one thing I learned was that life is filled with obstacles, and that if we face them, if we meet them head-on, we can succeed.

Shopping for a Phone

            At first I was proud of not having a cell phone. It was like a badge of honor. Both my husband and I felt that if someone wanted to call us, they’d use our landline. It worked just fine and there was an answering machine attached to it.

            Then I went away to a writer’s conference. It was a long, five-hour drive south. Portions of the road were desolate: nothing out there for miles. Potions took me past cities and growing housing developments. I was only slightly worried about what I would do if something happened to my car.

            The next conference took me north into the redwoods along California’s coast. For the most part I was on a freeway that passed through cities where help could be found if needed. The last stretch was a winding, twisting narrow road toward the coast. It anything had happened there, I would have been dependent upon whoever took pity on me. It was a sobering thought.

            During the 2010 Census my husband got hired and had to spend hours in the field. He needed to be able to make and receive calls. We went to a provider and he bought a cheap phone (less than $20). It did the job so well that we went back and got one for me.

            While I seldom used that phone, it was, after all, for emergency use only, I soon discovered the joys of being able to call my husband whenever I was away.

            About two years ago we switched providers. A commercial appeared on television that said I could add a cell phone for $10 a month! I was overjoyed.

            I researched the various phones that the provider sold and settled on an iPhone SE. It was all I’d need.

            We went to the store, I held the phone and knew it would do. But…it was sold out. I panicked. I knew that if I didn’t get a phone then, I might never get one. So I chose the phone closest in price. It was not an iPhone.

            From the time I got it home I hated it. It was slow and awkward to use. It took forever to come on, it was hard to take pictures with it and it was slow when making phone calls. Texting was sheer torture. So I seldom turned it on.

            A few months ago I researched how to trade it in for an iPhone with our provider. It wouldn’t be all that hard and I’d get something in trade. But when I suggested to my husband that I wanted to do this, he said there was nothing wrong with my phone. (He had never tried to use it!)

            So I kept the thing in my purse but didn’t use it.

            Recently my daughter had an opportunity to check out my phone. She confirmed all of my complaints. It was slow and awkward. It jiggled when you took photos. It was hard to punch the right circle to make it do what you wanted it to do.

            She also told me that I could get an older iPhone for a little over $100.

            I was in agreement and after hearing my daughter’s complaints, my husband finally understood.

            While on vacation my daughter arranged for me to try out a phone that her Bishop was selling. I loved it! I am used to an iPad, so there was no learning curve as there had been with my current cell phone.

            There was one problem, however: you could only hear the person on the other end if the phone was on speaker. I hate speaker phone, so this was a huge problem.

            Thus began an online search.

            I discovered a trusted vendor sold phones that carried a 90-day warranty. My daughter and I perused the offerings. I’d find one, then it would be sold. She’d find one, then it too would be gone.

            This morning we finally found what I wanted! An iPhone 6s Plus is now on the way! I can hardly wait to for it to arrive.

            Way back when I panicked and bought my current phone, I should have taken the time to look at what iPhones they did have in stock. If I had, perhaps I would have been using my phone like other people do, as an extension of my arm instead of something stuck in my purse.

            It goes to show that panic buying is not the best choice.

            This is an apt metaphor for life.

            Anytime a person makes decisions on the fly, there’s a good possibility that she might later regret not taking the time to analyze, to be rational and careful.

Regret is a powerful emotion. Often times such decisions cannot be undone. They can cause irreparable harm, destroy relationships, cause a lost job or friendship.

It’s better to take time and make the right decision from the beginning.

I wish I had.

Looking Back

            Do you know what’s like to be trapped in a body that you dislike?  I do.  I have been “fat” my entire life.  My outer body is covered with pudgy layers of rolling fat, while my inner body strives to be thin, luscious, and downright sexy.

            When I was in fourth grade I attended a Catholic elementary school in Dayton, Ohio.  We were poor, and so I wore hand-me-down uniforms and carried the dog-eared books belonging to a previous student.  Before the school year began, my mother drove me into town for the annual used uniform giveaway.  I hated this ritual.  Because of my weight, she dug through the small pile of plus-size jumpers, most of which had seen better days.  No longer navy blue except where food stains darkened the fabric, these uniforms marked me as both “poor” and fat. 

            Fourth grade was a year of becoming aware.  This was the year when my older brother explained that there was no Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus.  This was also when I discovered how others saw me.

            Sitting in church one morning during the mandatory Mass, the girl next to me poked me in the thigh.  She then made her hand bounce high in the air, over and over, mimicking playing on a trampoline.  That was bad enough, but she wasn’t finished mocking me.

After making sure that the other girls nearby could see, the girl She tucked her skirt down tight over her six-inch wide thigh, measured with both hands, and then held those same hands over my much larger thigh.  The difference was startling enough to cause a riot of giggles up and down the pew.

Several days later I went into the girls’ bathroom during recess, something I tried to avoid for I knew that some of the more popular girls chose to hang out there.  But, when you have to go, you go, hoping that it won’t be too bad.

As expected, there were several sixth graders inside, lounging against a wall or checking themselves out in the mirror.  When I entered, almost in unison, their eyes focused entirely on me, seeming to scan my plump body. A look of pure disgust erupted on what I saw as rather sophisticated faces.  I froze in place as I hesitated: should I leave when I really needed to use the bathroom or stay?

I chose to bustle into the nearest stall, lock the door behind me and cry. I didn’t use the facilities right away because I didn’t want them to hear me pee. But I could hear every word they said.

            One girl whose voice I recognized said, “Fat people stink.  Don’t you agree?”

            “It’s because they pee their pants,” Mary Beth Saunders said.

            “It runs down their legs when they walk,” Sue Anne Watson added.  “It leaves streaks that won’t wash off.”

            “I hate fat people.  They’re disgusting,” Wanda Belter said.

            “If I was fat, I wouldn’t eat anything until I got skinny,” Mary Beth said.

            “I’d kill myself,” said Sue Anne.

            “Not me,” added Wanda.  “I’d ask my mother to tape my mouth shut so I couldn’t eat and then I’d stay home until I lost weight.”

            When the bell rang to end recess, they left. Taking advantage of the quiet, I took care of business. My eyes were watery the rest of the day.

That night, I took a long look at myself in the bathroom mirror.  I realized that I truly was fat.  When I wiggled my arms, my rolls of fat quivered. I assumed that my thighs did the same even though I couldn’t see them in the mirror.

When I bent over, I couldn’t see my toes, let alone touch them.  I did examine my legs for streaks, which I thought I did see. My image repulsed me so much that I went into my bedroom and cried for hours.

            I had little control over what I ate for whatever my mother fixed, I was expected to consume. I could give myself smaller portions, which I did do, therefore beginning my first diet at the age of ten.

Dieting, for me, became a life-long pursuit. I didn’t understand nutrition and there was no one to advise me, so I grew older as the fat me.

As a teen, I wanted to be the voluptuous woman I saw in magazines, but had no idea how to get there. I was an active teen, playing kickball with the neighbors, whiffle ball with my brother, riding bikes for miles around our neighborhood and bowling in a league.

All that activity made no difference. I continued to be overweight.

The “inside” me was quite demanding.  She made me feel guilty if I ate the cookies and candy that I loved, but even “her” guilt didn’t change what I did.  At one point I believed that the “inside” me got tired and simply gave up.

            When I graduated from college and finally had my own money, I became a confirmed shopaholic.  There was nothing that charged my battery like a mall.  It was as if there was a competition to find the best bargain, and I rose to the occasion.  As I strolled in and out of stores, I admired the svelte garments on display on the ultra-slim mannequins, imagining myself as one of them.  Sometimes I touched the fabric, pretending that I was considering buying whatever they were wearing.  But then reality would slam my forehead, crimson colored my neck and cheeks, and I would dash away, off to the fat ladies’ department where I belonged.

            One time. Against my better judgement, I went shopping with a bunch of relatives.  My husband’s sister was getting married, and everyone was in search of a dress to wear to the wedding.  We went in and out of a mass of stores, pawed through racks and racks of clothes, and spoke about how well the colors of different fabrics blended together. 

They all found things to try on.  They all bought perfect outfits.  But not me. I never once pulled a dress over my head.  Why?  We never got close to the fat ladies’ clothes.

            I preferred to shop alone.  That way I could go into Catherine’s or Lane Bryant or the Women’s section of Penneys and not die of embarrassment.  There was no way I was going to drag the relatives into one of those stores, so I found a nice, empty bench and sat there, watching the crowds as I waited for them to finish.

Years later a truly great friend invited me to go shopping with her. She understood what it was like, because she was also overweight.  When we were together we forgot about size because we saw the real person underneath.  When we went shopping, we tried on clothes, helped each other make decisions and shared our good finds. Unfortunately she lives hundreds of miles away.

            There were days when I convinced myself that I looked pretty darn good.  If I was wearing an attractive outfit that hid the lumps and bumps, I felt sure that no one could see the lumps and bumps underneath.  I would head off to work feeling happy and proud.  I knew that it was a myth, but when not one person sent even a tiny compliment my way, even I understood that I was fooling no one.

Fat people are invisible except in stores that cater to fat people. Otherwise slim people seem to have the ability to not see obese persons.  In fact, even if there is an accidental contact, one shoulder brushing against another, the slim people pretend as if nothing has happened.

I have heard thin people say that the obese choose to be that way because they gorge on cupcakes and chocolate.  That may or may not be true.  Genetics and simple physiology play a part in how easily a person gains and sheds pounds.  Another consideration is that an overweight child is extremely likely to remain overweight into adulthood. 

If you are born into a family of obese individuals, the odds are that you will also be obese. This is what I felt caused my problems. My paternal grandmother stood a little over five feet tall, but hit the scales at well over two hundred pounds.  I am built just like her. 

My mother believed that a fat baby was a healthy baby. Every picture taken of me at those early ages showed me with rolls of fat down my arms and legs. My mother fed the cellulite, which plumped me up like a marshmallow.  I’ve spent years trying to reverse the damage.

I have tried a number of weight-loss programs.  I would lose some, then put it back on. One time I lost a grand total of twenty-nine pounds, then after an operation that kept me inactive, put them all back on.

This was disappointing as I had gone down four sizes in pants and three sizes in tops.  Even then, however, I was still obese.  That was the frustrating part.  I worked so hard to lose those pounds, and yet I continued to be trapped in a body that I disliked.

If I could go back in time and change just one thing, one thing that would forever alter the events in my life, I would appear as a thin person.  That child would be popular.  Kids would choose me first when dividing up for teams.  I would be invited to birthday parties and get tons of Valentine’s cards.  When my birthday came around, everyone would beg to come to my party.

As a teenager I would go to school dances always with a handsome beau on my arm.  Cheerleading would be my passion, and as a dancer I would reign supreme.  When I went shopping, it would be with a gaggle of friends, giggling as we strolled through the mall.  Fun would be my middle name.  I would never be lonely.

No longer trapped in an obese body, I would have an opportunity to be a flight attendant, the career of my dreams.  Think how different my life would have been:  Zipping here, there, everywhere, always surrounded by friends!

Even if I had been thinner at that time, there are some things that I would not change.  I have a husband who loves me, no matter how puffy my thighs or how many rolls fell across my stomach.  My children are my pride and joy, and I had a job I loved. I have had a good life, and despite my weight, I was relatively healthy.

I wish that society did not disdain the obese.  Unless you have worn that body, you do not know what “trapped” truly means.

Thankfully I am no longer that person on the outside, but the “inside” me still thinks I am obese. Whenever I take a look at myself in a full-length mirror, I don’t believer that the person looking back at me is truly me.

One thing I will never do is look at an overweight person with disdain. I felt it most of my life and didn’t like how it affected me. I wish that everyone would feel the same.

Blood Red Days

            Children aren’t supposed to get sick.  Romanticized images picture little darlings running, jumping, climbing, laughing, living life as freely as a butterfly flitting from flower to flower.  Even in prayer, when most solemn, those cherubic faces glow with rosebud color.  So it should be, forever and ever.

            Unfortunately strange diseases invade, causing any possible varieties of illness.  Most we understand.  Tonsillitis, ear infections, colds, cuts, bruises, and even the occasional broken bone fall into that realm.  Kids are susceptible to germs, primarily because they play with “germy” things, and so we expect them to fall ill. But we pray that those times are few and far between.

            When your four-year-old child’s urine turns the color of burgundy wine, however, the only normal reaction is fear.  So it was for my husband and I when it happened for the first time to our six year old daughter. 

            When it occurred, we tried not to panic so as to not alarm our daughter. What we did do was make phone calls followed by tons of doctors’ visits.   We began with our regular pediatrician who thought the bleeding was caused by a bladder infection. The prescribed dose of antibiotics seemed to work.

But then it happened again. More antibiotics were given. And then the same thing, over and over.

 We were referred to a urologist who was used to treating senior citizens who would willingly allow tubes and prodding. He had no experience with a five-year-old.

Our daughter fought him with the strength of an army, clenching shut her legs and refusing to budge. I didn’t blame her. I thought the doctor a little too interested in seeing what was between my child’s legs.

At my insistence, our pediatrician referred us to a pediatric urologist/oncologist.  Imagine the fears those words triggered. Oncology. Cancer. Curable or not? We didn’t know or understand what was happening or what the doctor would do. How he was going to make the determination as to the diagnosis? The person setting up the appointment offered no reassurance, but because the bleeding continued, we went to his office.

By the time we finally got to see him, months had passed. The color of her urine had deepened to a deep, dark red. It was frightening, not only to us, but to our daughter. Even a small child understands that urine is not supposed to be that color.

            For my daughter’s sake, we put on happy faces, attempting to disguise our deep-seated fears.  When she was out of visual range, we allowed ourselves to cry.  Of course, we prayed.

            There were days when her urine was a healthy golden color and so we tried to convince ourselves that she was cured. That the newest round of antibiotics had worked. We wept with joy and gave thanks to the Lord.  But the space between those times slowly shrunk until it was pretty much guaranteed that we would see red, and only red.

            Even the strongest antibiotics had proved to be ineffective, and so the pediatric urologist ordered x-rays to search for the still unknown cause.

            We went to Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, California, one of the finest hospitals in the Bay Area.  For the exam, our daughter was placed on a cold, metal table.  She was given huge quantities of liquid to drink.  The x-ray machine was lowered until it hovered above her lower abdomen.  She was told to urinate, right there on the table, in front of five total strangers.  She couldn’t do it and I didn’t blame her.

            They inserted a tube to allow the urine to flow.  Pictures were taken.  We went home and waited, impatiently, to hear the results.  When they came, we were terrified and confused. Because of the way her bladder was constructed, it was unable to fully close.  Surgery was recommended to insert a tube to narrow the urethra.

            Shortly after the recommendation we drove to Children’s Hospital in Oakland, arriving just as the sun was beginning to peak over the hills.  It was a peaceful scene which helped to somewhat ease our nervousness. It was short-lived, however, for immediately after completing the required paperwork, our daughter was whisked away by an efficient, yet friendly nurse. 

            My husband paced the floor of the waiting room, talking to himself.  I prayed, placing my daughter’s life in God’s capable hands. 

            This operation was a success. Her bladder would now allow her to control the flow of urine. However, during the surgery, the doctor discovered that her ureters did not enter the bladder at the correct angle.  Not only that, but the flaps that prevented urine from moving into the kidneys were missing.  Another operation was planned.

            Despite the negative news, my husband and I eagerly took our little girl home, hoping that at least there might be some reprieve from the tinged urine.  It was not to be.

            Within hours after getting her settled, her urine had turned from a healthy golden hue to a blood red, bone-chilling liquid.  Several phone calls later, another trip to the doctor’s was scheduled.  She was again put on a regimen of antibiotics, hoping to stem off any invasion of germs that might interfere with the next operation.

            Good Friday found us, once again, in the waiting room of Children’s Hospital.   My husband paced while I pretended to read.  Both of us turned our hearts over to the Lord, begging Him to watch over our daughter. 

            In the midst of one of many recitations of the Our Father, I felt a gentle touch on my right cheek.  A calm washed over me, settling in my heart.  I nodded, and whispered, “Thanks.”  My eyes filled with tears of joy, and a smile burst through.  I knew, then and there, that everything would be fine.

            When the doctor came to us still dressed in his surgical greens, he was smiling. While he was looking inside our daughter’s bladder, he discovered a blood vessel that was weeping, something it was not supposed to do. He cauterized it, forever stopping the flow of blood into her bladder.

            Because of the severity of the operation, however, she had to spend a week in the hospital.  It was scary for us. Imagine how frightening it was for her, spending nights without her parents nearby. Our sons stayed with a relative so that my husband could go to work and I could go to the hospital.

Every day she got stronger and her urine became clearer.  I gave thanks to the Lord for giving my daughter another day of life.

            Those were trying times, for sure.  I had no choice but to rely on my faith, as even the most highly trained, respected pediatric urologist had had no idea what was wrong.

Even years later, I still believe that the Lord stood by, watching, whispering advice in the doctor’s ear.  How else did he find the exposed vessel, the incorrectly seated ureters, the missing flaps, and the enlarged end of the bladder?

            While the likelihood of her bleeding to death had been slim, she could easily have died of kidney failure.  If we had known about this earlier, we could have acted sooner.  For some reason, the Lord kept her alive long enough for medical science to rise to the occasion.

Faith kept me sane.  Faith allowed me to put aside my fears.  Faith was my constant companion. That operation solved the problem which allowed our daughter to grow up into a college graduate, wife and mother.

A Change in Pace

Life takes on unexpected turns when you move from one state to another. Imagine growing up in the rural Midwest, then one summer finding yourself in fast-paced California! Not only is the weather drastically different, but the style in which people speak and think is faster than you are used to. You are lost and a bit confused by all the changes.

I made the move from slow-paced life in Beavercreek, Ohio to fast-paced life in the San Francisco Bay Area at the end of my freshman year in high school. It was not an easy adjustment.

            Beavercreek was a primarily rural community. While our home was in a planned ranch-style neighborhood, we were surrounded by family-run farms. Country roads meandered from one farm to another, often not revealing the new farm until going around a turn or climbing up what passed for hills.

Two-lane highways connected country roads to the bigger cities. The closest to us was Dayton, a confusing metropolis of tall buildings and tons of cars. Many of the streets were much wider than in our tiny community, so wide that cars could park on each side and still leave four lanes for travelers.

The one thing that we didn’t have there was freeways except for when you got far enough away from town.

            Because of the rural lifestyle, things moved slowly. There was an understood etiquette to conversations.  All conversations had to be nurtured, just like a farmer watching her tomatoes grow.

You began with a discussion about the weather, then moved on to price of goods. After that you could bring up current events and the health of both families. Along with the pace of conversation, there were rules about food and drink.

When someone entered a home, drinks were offered and chairs provided. Food was often given, but not always. If a tray of cookies came out, for example, you could take just one. No more even when the tray was put in front of you a second time.

Once company was comfortable, legs were crossed and everyone relaxed. Nods and smiles occurred at appropriate times.

Those were the rules. Only after all that could you get to the actual point, the real reason for the visit.

            I grew up believing that this was the way everywhere. That it was rude to simply state the primary concern without the initial song and dance. Relationships had to be nurtured to be valued, and friendships were maintained by following the prescribed course of affairs.

Talking slow was imperative. This was how I grew up and so this was how I spoke. I politely listened to what was said, internally pondered my response, and only after taking time to construct well-chosen phrases did I respond. No need to rush.

            I was comfortable in that life. There was never a reason to hurry. Things would get done in their own time and place. So what if the lawn didn’t get watered today. There was always tomorrow. You didn’t see the neighbor in the morning? Go visit in the afternoon.

When you did visit, plan on staying for an hour or two. Play games. Build forts. Climb on the swing sets. Play a game of kickball or softball or toss a football around. Hang outside in the shade in the summer or gather together under a blanket in the winter.

            Race from one place to another? Unheard of, even as kids. Sure we rode bikes up and down the country roads, but always with caution, looking out for tractors, trucks and random pieces of rock. Besides, we really had nowhere to go except to the corner market and it was a long way away, so why hurry? The candy would still be there.

Life moved at a scheduled pace that almost nothing could disrupt.

            In the summer of 1964, my parents sold our house and most of our belongings, packed up the station wagon with what little we were allowed to keep and hit the road. Even though money was short, we took a leisurely drive, stopping to admire roadside memorials, hanging bridges, canyons and mountains. We hurried through the desert until some flaw in the engine slowed us down.

            Imagine the shock upon arrival in California. Smog enveloped the freeway and filled the care with a nasty smell. Traffic was miserable. Most of the time going north we looked at brake lights that came on then went off, on then off as we crept along.

When we finally got to our uncle’s home in Orange County then an earthquake rocked the world. Literally. Trees swayed. Roads buckled. We knew about tornadoes, but had never felt anything quite so terrifying. Almost as one, my family fell to our knees and cried while my cousins laughed.

In a way it was appropriate to begin life in California with an earthquake as it symbolized a dramatic beginning to a huge change in life.

            We left southern California and rented a home near Sacramento. It was miserably hot, the house was not air-conditioned and we knew no one.

There was a strip mall a short walk away along an extremely busy road. If we had the money, my mom would walk there with us and buy us each a cone. It was so hot, however, that the ice cream would melt before we could finish it off.

California was a bustling place in which it seemed as if everyone was in a hurry. There were places to go and things to do and no time to think about it. Make up your mind and act. It didn’t matter what decision you made, just make one. No leisurely discussions. No warming up to the topic. No weighing your options. Choose now without sitting back and reflecting on it.

            I was not prepared for this life and so adjusted poorly. I made no friends up in Sacramento, so it made no difference to me when we moved to the flats of South San Francisco. This rental was a miniature house. The bedroom I shared with my sister was so narrow that we had to have bunk beds and share one small dresser. Turned sideways, if you extended your arms, one touched the bed, the other the dresser.

I enrolled in high school expecting to take the same types of classes that I had taken in Beavercreek.  Back there it was easy to choose classes: there were two tracks, occupational and academic. There was limited list of options. I’d write down what I wanted without bothering to peruse course descriptions. I simply complete the bloody form and was done with it.

In California I had many options to choose from. Several kinds of English and math. A variety of science and history classes. Lots of languages to choose from, but not the Latin which I had taken in Ohio.

            In Ohio we had no lockers except in the gym. In California we had to walk up and down the rows until we found an unclaimed locker. With the counselor tagging along. There was no time to walk up and down and weigh the benefits of this one over that one. Pick one and move on to the next task.

In Ohio the teachers handed out the textbooks. In California we had to stand in line at the bookroom with our class schedules in hand. The needed books were handed to you in one huge pile. You weren’t allowed to flip through the pages to make sure you got books that weren’t ragged or marked up.

Next we had to buy gym clothes. Back “home” as we said for many years, gym clothes were purchased at a store. Not here. We stood at another window and gave the sizes needed. Handed over the money. No thinking about room for growth or checking to make sure there were no holes or loose threads. Just do it and get out of the way.

            I thought enrolling in school was hurried, but nothing compared to how conversations moved. People talked so fast that I seldom understood what they were saying. They didn’t wait for a response, either. If you said, nothing, they’d move on.

More than once I was left standing with my mouth hanging open and words still wanting to come out…with no one there to hear.

It didn’t take me long to internalize that conversational niceties were unnecessary in California. You said what was most important and then moved on. It was difficult for me to do because my social mind doesn’t work that way, so I made very few friends. Not just that first year, but over my many years of living here.

            The fast pace affected all areas of life. When looking for a rental home, we found that if we dallied in order to find the absolutely best home, the first one would be gone when we went back. Once my parents figured this out, they chose the next decent home at first sight.

While it made do, it was an old, smelly cramped house on a narrow dead-end street. One benefit was that it was within walking distance to school. Another was that it had a big backyard, big enough for us to toss a ball around. Thankfully we only lived there about a year.

            I missed the meandering country roads. In California people drove fast all the time, even in neighborhoods where children were playing in the street. They’d slow at stop signs, but just barely. When making a turn, they’d creep to the intersection, appear to take a quick look, then be off.

Lane changes required tremendous skill, timing and guts. Thankfully most streets were laid out in straight paths and led logically from one place to another. If they hadn’t been, I’m not sure my parents would ever have let me learn how to drive.

            There were positives about our new home.

In Ohio we had to drive miles to get to a movie theater. In California we had several theaters close to home. In Ohio we worried about snow and ice, tornadoes in the summer and torrential downpours in the spring and fall. Here we had sunny days practically all year long.

In Ohio the nearest store was four miles away, and it was just a little country market. To get to a supermarket, we had to drive into Dayton, which meant making it a day trip. Here we could go north or south, east or west and within a few blocks find a shopping area.

In Ohio, our little Beavercreek did not have a downtown. South San Francisco did. In Beavercreek there were few sidewalks and lots of dirt lots for parking. In California you parked along the side of the street or in huge lots. In Ohio you drove from store to store, but here you walked.

            I missed Ohio. The open fields, the rambling roads, my few friends. But life in California had so much to offer that I quickly let go of all that tied me to my country roots. I fell in love with California’s natural beauty, quick access to beaches, and the nearly endless stretch of hills and cities. In less than a year I was so in love with the Golden State that I realized that I would never go back to that slow pace of life.

I had become a California girl.

On Death

            There is no quicker way to end a pleasant conversation than by bringing up the topic of death. Beyond the saying of requisite condolences, we don’t really know how else to respond. Death touches us all eventually, but interestingly enough, we have never mastered the art of talking about it, despite the fact that we all will eventually die.      

There are many terms to describe the process of dying; passed away, late, no longer with us, moved on. For some reason we find all of these terms more palatable than the simple word, dead. We try to sweeten it up, either for the benefit of the sorrowing ones, or to mask our own discomfort.

            Some of us are lucky enough to go peacefully and quickly. We are alive one moment and gone the next. No lingering, no suffering, just blessed peace. Is it part of our genetic makeup? Are some of us destined to die with our dignity still intact? Science might not have the answers, but maybe it will someday.

            It is interesting how far we will go to avoid the topic, yet our media is inundated with gory images of death. Every day the news is filled with stories about children caught in the crossfire, families killed in horrendous car accidents, fatal home invasions and violence deliberately enacted on the targets of unsuppressed rage. We watch and listen, but seldom discuss.

            Movies and television programs thrive on the study of death, almost to the glorification of the act of killing. Almost every night, on every channel, there are police scenarios, crime scene investigations, mentalists who look into eyes and can determine guilt, and gang-style organizations that wreak havoc in our cities. Video games allow players to reenact, over and over, the countless deaths of perceived enemies, not just in the act of war, but of those who simply have the audacity to cross our paths.

            Has all this made us immune to the reality of death? The permanence of death? There is that possibility. How often do we cry over the news? Probably not all the often. We might shake our heads and bemoan the loss of life, but do we truly mourn, deep inside, for those unknowns who have left us. Until death becomes personal.

            An elderly woman, full of life, yet living in a residential care facility, dresses every morning as if she is going out for the evening. Neatly pressed dress, hat, white gloves. She goes to the art room to participate in a class. Sits down. Keels over. Just like that. Quiet, peaceful, with dignity intact.

            A man in a skilled nursing facility who can still walk and talk, gets up one morning and slips. As he falls, his head strikes the metal bed. He dies immediately, with his family wondering what happened even as they are spared watching his mind vanish and his body crumble.

            There are those who linger, caught in a never-never-land of oblivion. Their hearts continue to beat, lungs to breathe, organs to process, yet there is no one home. They are force-fed in order to keep them alive. But is it living? Does quality of life count for anything?

            As we age, death becomes more of a reality. We develop conditions. We are hospitalized. We have surgery. We learn again to walk, talk, eat, be human. But we know and understand that we are dying incrementally every day. No matter how much we exercise, eat the right foods, abstain from the vices of drugs and alcohol, our bodies fail us by degrees. We hope that our end is not near, that by taking care of ourselves that we are postponing what is to come.

            But what happens when we are touched by death? Do we cry? Wail? Pound our heads against the wall? Climb into bed and bury ourselves in our covers? Or do we realize that others need us to be strong, to support them as they accompany us through the grieving process?

            We walk through this life with others standing by our sides. Holding our hands. As good citizens we must be there to listen, to hold, to comfort, even when we are hurting inside. After all, isn’t that what we hope for when our time comes?