Incomplete Information

            How many opinions have we formed based upon something we’ve heard? Unfortunately in this technological age when, with typing a few words, we can find resources that are trusted, based on researched facts, too many cement their beliefs in place, closing off polite discourse.

            The past four years serve as a good example of how anyone can throw out ideas that quickly become firm beliefs even though the person held no credentials, had done no research and was not a member of a reliable organization or college, yet spoke as if he was all those things and more. Divisiveness resulted, creating deeper caverns as time passed.

            I have to admit that I am sometimes quick to form opinions. Without evidence I would decide that a certain individual wouldn’t like me and so walked away. What if she could have been my new best friend? What if he could have helped me solve a problem? I will never know because I made my decision based on incomplete information.

            I’ve also chosen potential friends based on that same lack of  information. During my senior year of college two of my roommates seemed to be friendly. They greeted me politely and would stop and talk before heading off. I can’t recall ever doing anything with them outside of our shared suite which should have sent a message, but it didn’t.

            After graduation, since the three of us lived in the Bay Area, we thought we’d get together. One lived in Marin County. She had money and a car. I had neither. She invited me to her family home, which was nice, but it would have required me getting permission to borrow the family car and driving somewhere I knew nothing about. This was before GPS systems so paper maps were all we had. I was a fairly inexperienced driver, so the thought of driving over the Golden Gate Bridge was terrifying. I backed out, giving her a feeble excuse.

            She got married a few months later and sent an invitation. I had little money to buy a gift, but I chose the nicest thing I could afford, some soft, pretty towels. I intended to go to her wedding, but as it got closer to the date to respond and confirm, I backed out. When I called her to tell her, I suggested meeting somewhere in San Francisco so I could give her the gift. She refused.

            That’s when I realized that I had used incomplete information when deciding that she was my friend. I was not in her social class and so could never mingle in her circles. It made me terribly sad.

            After a disastrous event during my college years, I was terrified of men for quite some time. I assumed that all men were like the one who abused me. He had seemed like a friend, had acted like a friend, and was, in fact, my brother’s friend. I trusted him. When he invited me to the apartment he shared with his wife, I felt no fear. However, when he bolted the door behind me I questioned his intent, but didn’t ask.       

Allowing myself to be in that situation was a reliance on incomplete information. I had heard of women being attacked, but knew no one personally who had been a victim. I assumed that my university was a safe place. That no one there would take advantage of me. When it happened I was shaken. My trust was shattered.

I did not know how precarious of a position I had walked into until it happened. My ignorance caused me to form an opinion that all men would treat me in the same way. It was years before I could trust a man again.

            As a child of a dysfunctional family I assumed that all families were like mine. Because I had not been permitted to enter others’ homes, I had incomplete information. I thought that all families were like min, where insults and ridicule, threats and punishment were every day events.

My eyes were opened when my parents allowed me to spend a night at a classmate’s house. Until the visit, I did not know that a family could gather around the table for a meal and share jokes and stories without criticism. I didn’t know that families could sit in front of the television and laugh at the antics of characters without being ridiculed if I found something funny that they did not. I also discovered that children could be sent to bed with hugs and kisses as opposed to spankings and other threats of punishment.

My information base shifted. I now knew that something was wrong with the way I lived. There was nothing I could do to escape as I was too young and had no one I could turn to. The one thing that I did do was begin gathering information using my eyes and ears.

Several years later I fell ill when away at college. A friend’s family took me home and nursed me back to health. They were kind, gentle and patient. They were quiet people who never spoke loudly. There was no hate, no mean comments, no divisiveness. They didn’t monitor my activities but gave me space to heal.

I had never experienced such kindness before. This rattled my opinions about what constituted family and how families behaved toward one another. I was surprised at how they spoke to each other and listened to what each of them said. One evening when I was feeling better, they took me to a play. Their son had a lead role. He was a good actor for someone so young. What struck me was that after the play, no one teased him or made fun of him. Instead they congratulated him and praised his performance. I was pleasantly shocked.

My experience of family changed based on gathering information. There was nothing I could do to change my own family, but I could hold the lessons dear for future reference.

I could go on and on, but it isn’t necessary. Thanks to the Internet it’s now possible to conduct research by checking out a variety of sources. Some are to be trusted while others are not. A discerning individual can ferret out which are reliable and which are not. Through this process a person can gather sufficient information to make an opinion based on fact.

Relying on incomplete information is no longer acceptable. Look about, read, investigate, ask questions of yourself and others. Peruse a variety of articles. Figure out who the sources are and what their credentials are, whether or not they are qualified to be dispensing information.

Once you are convinced that a piece of information is accurate, then formulate an opinion, but be open to challenges from outside sources. As time passes often foundations are rattled. New evidence appears or the source goes off on an unsubstantiated rant, making you question whether or not that person is a reliable source anymore.

The important thing to remember is that incomplete information is misinformation, plain and simple.

A Thanksgiving Lesson

            I am not a particularly good cook. In fact, I am a pathetic cook because I have no interest in cooking except for the simple act of putting food on the table. I can usually follow a recipe, but there’s no guarantee that the finished product will look or taste as advertised.

            The problem goes back to my teen years when my mom insisted I learn to cook. She’d make me stand next to her and watch every move she made. It was incredibly boring. I needed to study. If I didn’t earn straight As I’d be punished. My allegiance went to books, so I’d stand next to her with book in hand.

            That meant I wasn’t paying attention. So when I was told to replicate her concoction, I couldn’t. My mom cooked from memory, not from books. Unless she wrote it down, there was no way I could produce the item. When she did record her recipes, she often left out an ingredient or a crucial step.

            One year my family decided that my husband and I should host Thanksgiving dinner. Mike is a good cook, so he took charge of the turkey and gravy, leaving me to handle the rest. I pulled out every cookbook I owned to find recipes for dressing, green beans and pumpkin and mince meat pies. I chose the easiest options.

            Things were in the oven or on the stove when my family arrived. Altogether there were fourteen hungry people crowded into our house. Fortunately we had planned snacks of cheese and crackers for that kept the kids happy and held the adults at bay while they downed mixed drinks.

            There was only about thirty minutes to go before the turkey would be done, the gravy could be made, the potatoes mashed and the green bean casserole put in the oven.

            The adults were getting restless. They had arrived with a preconceived notion of when the meal would be ready and we were not meeting their mental deadline. I was anxious. While everything looked okay, what if my concoctions didn’t meet their approval? My family could be obnoxious when disappointed, so as time ticked by and tempers began to flare, I knew things were going horribly wrong.

            Then the power went out. One moment the stove was working, the next it wasn’t. Was the turkey done? The beans? Potatoes? Everything appeared to be mostly done, but what if it wasn’t? You can eat the side dishes even if they aren’t quite finished, but you can’t serve an undercooked turkey.

            We waited for the power to return, but after thirty minutes it was obvious that it wasn’t happening. My dad and brother offered advice laced with sarcasm, almost as if it was something we had done to switch off the power.

            My husband is a calm, easy-going man. He moved the barbeque into the backyard and lit the coals. When it was ready, he placed the turkey outside. Everything else went into the still-warm oven.

            The troops, however, were impatient, frustrated and hungry. They had allotted only a certain amount of time to be at our home and that time was ending. Either food would be served or they would leave. The options were not politely phrased.

            I hung out in the kitchen pretending that I knew what I was doing and that things were in hand. Mike monitored the turkey, which meant he was outside leaving me inside getting the brunt of the criticism.

            When the turkey was finally done, I was able to breathe a tiny sigh of relief. As he cut and placed meat on a platter, I pulled everything out and got it on the table. He made the gravy and poured it into the bowl.

            Dinner was served. People sat. Grace was said. The food was edible even though most things weren’t hot. Tempers settled. A bit of peace entered the house.

            Just as the last of the dishes were being rinsed off, the power returned.

            People left, some bearing leftovers.

            The meal worked out, but never again would I host a family meal. The stakes were too high and I refused to bear the brunt of their anger when the fault lay not in something I had done, but in the failure of the power to stay on.

            Later on Mike helped me understand that things had worked out despite my nervousness and fears. After all, food had been served. No one left hungry unless by choice.

            That Thanksgiving was over thirty years ago, but it left an indelible mark. Never again, I told myself, would I host a family gathering.

            Little did I know that when my mother-in-law died that my husband’s family would decide that we would host a brunch for sixty people. I announced that I would cook nothing. I would take care of paper goods, but that was it. The family would have to prepare every dish and clean up afterwards.

            Guess what? I held to my pronouncement. When cooking was happening, I stayed out of the kitchen. I picked up no dirty dishes, washed not a single thing, refilled no snack bowls and did not monitor the ice chests of drinks. I found myself a quiet place away from the crowds and stayed there for the five hours that people were in my home.

            One failure was sufficient to keep me from ever cooking for a crowd. Even though I had had not control over the power going out, blame was still laid at my feet. If my husband’s family wanted a party, they would have to shoulder the effort. Never again would I shoulder the mantle of responsibility.

            It’s amazing how liberating it is to refuse, to loudly proclaim that I would not be in charge. If only I had applied that motto to other areas in my life, things might have been different. But that’s another story for another time.

Memorable Doctor’s Visits

            When I was quite young I needed some type of surgery. My mom took me to the hospital and stayed with me while I waited to go in. I remember being in a large crib that had a plastic top. I was too old for a crib and that upset me.

            At some point someone put a mask over my mouth and told me to start counting. A beautiful kaleidoscope swirl of rainbow colors filled my brain. The swirl continued for some time, but I didn’t mind because I found it intriguing.

            When I woke up, the nurse asked me what I wanted to drink and then proceeded to name a number of choices. As soon as chocolate milk came out of her mouth, I smiled. Milk was rarely served in our house and chocolate milk, almost never. Oh, I was happy when she brought me a container with a straw.

            Unfortunately in the process of sitting down, the milk spilled. Tears immediately streamed down my face because I knew, rightly so, that I was in trouble. My mother took away my milk and chastised me for being so clumsy. She told me that the nurse would be angry.

            When the nurse returned, she smiled, got a towel, and cleaned the spill. She then brought me a new carton of milk, followed by a bowl of ice cream. This was all new to me: not being punished, but being rewarded! I even got a second bowl of ice cream.

            When it was time to leave, I was very sad.

            My mom loved taking me to the doctor’s. She brought me if I had a rash, bumps or cuts. Sore throats were a cause to celebrate. I complied by contracting measles several times, primarily because each was a very light case. I had mumps which I then gave to my siblings.

            When I was fourteen I discovered lumps in my tiny breasts. My mother wasted no time dragging me to the doctor. Undressing and then having him touch me was embarrassing. Then, to make matters worse, I had to have a mammogram. I undressed once again before a different man. He had me sit in front of a large table, then he touched my breasts, trying to get them to lie flat on the table. Over and over he manipulated my breasts until I think he simply gave up or decided that was the best he was going to get.

My mother sat at my side the whole time. That might have reassured some girls, but not me. She peered over my shoulder looking at my breasts, watching every move the man made, insisting that he take images over and over. She manipulated the situation, making it last longer than it should. That was a horrible experience, made even worse when there was nothing wrong.

At some point my dad put a stop to running to the doctor’s for every little thing. I recall a huge argument about bills and how expensive it was. I was relieved as it meant no more humiliating experiences.

My mom turned to homeopathic treatments. Cod liver oil dispersed nightly. A special tool that removed blackheads from my face. (It was actually a torture device.) A variety of cough medicines, cold medicine’s, rubs and steams. Vitamins and tablets of all kinds.

She bought a guide to conditions that became her bible. She read it faithfully and self-diagnosed illnesses of all depress of severity. In fact, that guide remained on her shelf even after she lost the ability to read.

When I was in college I played flag football. Our teams were coached by the football players. I loved it. I always felt I would be a good football player, and it turned out that I was right. I was built like a rock, and even though I am short, I could hold back linesmen or push them aside to allow my players to get through. Unfortunately I broke two fingers and seriously sprained my wrist toward the end of the season.  

The fingers healed, but my wrist did not. My mom found a new doctor to torture me. He x-rayed my wrist over and over. He put it in a splint. He wrapped it with bandages. It didn’t heal.

Pain became a constant. My mom insisted he do something. His solution was to amputate the ulna where it contacted the hand. He was surprisingly excited to operate which should have sent warning signals to my mom. He told her he would use my surgery as a model for other physicians. She loved the idea so much that she gave him the okay.

The surgery did take away the pain but it changed my life in many ways. I was quite the bowler. My scores often fell in the 200s, which is excellent. I also played badminton for my college. I could no longer do either. Instead I taught myself how to play sports left-handed.

For a long time I had to write with my left hand. Considering that we did not have computers back then, all assignments were handwritten, except for major papers which were typed on manual typewriters. It took me longer than my peers to complete in-class assignments. No allowance was given me. When I had time, I practiced writing until my speed and readability rose.

I reached an age where my mother no longer controlled when and if I went to the doctor. This was a blessing even though it was also terrifying. Each time I had a bump or rash or ailment I had to decide if it merited a visit to the doctor’s office. At first I chose to abstain, but in time I learned how to distinguish between minor injuries and serious conditions.

One would think that my earlier experiences would make me fearful of seeking medical advice. Thankfully, it did not. I have found that when needed, doctors can be reliable dispensers of advice. They have diagnosed and treated my asthma, helped save my youngest son’s hearing, and set broken bones for myself and my children.

I liked some doctors more than others, primarily due to their ability to look at me as a person, not as an obese blob of worthless flesh. When I felt disabused, I switched doctors. When I found one that treated me as an intelligent being, I stayed with him or her.

I can look back now on those times with a modicum of interest. I am not the hypochondriac my mother was. I do not live in fear that something might befall me. I am not afraid of contacting a doctor when it is necessary.

Going to the doctor’s might have been something I would have avoided considering my earlier experiences, but I forced myself to brush the past aside. There is a time and a reason to call on the doctor and to trust their diagnosis. I am old enough to now the difference.

Favorite Holidays

            As a child with a vivid imagination, I loved all holidays. The Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny and Santa were all real to me. Even when I should have been well past the age of belief, there was something about beings that would drop into my house and leave me gifts that kept me transfixed.

            The Tooth Fairy was a cheapskate as she only left a dime or nickel. Even back in the early 1950s that wouldn’t have bought much of anything. On top of that my father exacted a toll, a donation to the church on Sunday: a dime every week. So if the fairy left a dime, the entire amount became a tithe. I hated it.

            I figured out fairly early that there was no Easter Bunny, but I kept up the act, hoping that if I pretended to believe my parents would still hide baskets of candy about the house. Because I have a younger sister, the “Bunny” continued to come well into my teens.

            Christmas was always a special time. Tension in the house eased. There were fewer fights and punishments exacted. Perhaps it was the effect of the colorful decorations, the anticipation of opening gifts or knowing that the reason we celebrated was because of Christ’s birth. No matter the reason, the house was a bit happier and therefore easier to live in.

            We lived in Beavercreek, Ohio when I was in fourth grade. I still believed that Santa flew all over the world leaving gifts for good little girls and boys. I wasn’t the best child as I often fought with my siblings, usually over stupid stuff like who should pick up all the army men or who was responsible for cleaning my sister’s half of the room. I sulked a lot and found solace in the outdoors, away from family and all the troubles that came with them.

            On the last day of school before Christmas break, my class had a party. I don’t remember the details, but because I was not well liked, I doubt that I received any cards or gifts. However, sometime during the course of the party the subject of Santa came up. When my classmates insisted he was imaginary, for some reason, me, the normally mute child, spoke up defending him. I still recall the guffaws, the humiliation.

            I cried all the way home. My mother attempted to console me, but she only confirmed what my classmates had said. She was an impatient woman, so by the time we got home, she was angry at my inability to accept reality. I was sent to my room.

            When my dad got home from work, he tried talking to me. He explained that the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny and Santa were all imaginary beings created to entertain little kids. And that I was no longer a little kid. Nothing he said could change my mind.

            After dinner reports of Santa’s journey came on the television. Ah, ha! I was right. There was his sleigh, over Russia. Europe. The Atlantic Ocean. He flew over the eastern United States and was heading toward Ohio. By this time was siblings had gone to bed. My mom as well.

            My dad stayed up with me, watching the night sky for Santa. Somewhere around midnight, when the television went off the air, my dad told me to go to bed. I refused, insisting I needed to stay up so I could catch Santa coming in our house. We had no chimney, but that didn’t dissuade me.

            Eventually I was told to go to bed, and when my dad commanded, you had to obey or face the consequences. I don’t remember much else of that night, but when I got in in the morning and saw gifts under the tree, I tried to believe, but when I was shown store receipts, I was shattered.

            Christmas never held the same joy for me until I had kids of my own. We hid gifts, I’d sneak out the back window and creep around the side of the house so I could go shopping without the kids knowing. I’d pretend to be ill and lock myself in my bedroom, turn on a radio and wrap as many gifts as I could.

            After the kids were asleep, Mike and I would haul everything out. I loved the multicolor packages, the glittering lights, the homemade and store-bought ornaments, the tinsel on the tree. I loved the music, the decorations that Mike spread around, the nativity scene that took center stage in our front room.

            I loved the suspense, waiting until morning when the kids would creep out into the front room and shout, “Santa’s been here.” Mike would get up first to get a fire going in our wood-burning stove. Once it was a bit more comfortable, I’d join the family. We took turns opening gifts, a tradition from Mike’s family. It was wonderful. The looks of joy when it was something they wanted, the disappointment when it was socks or underwear. All the while Christmas music played in the background., reminding us over and over that we were celebrating the Lord’s birth.

            After opening a few gifts each we’d get dressed and go to church. Oh! The church would be so beautiful! Bright colors and poinsettia plants everywhere. Music of joy and comfort and redemption throughout the Mass. A homily seeking peace. Prayers lifted in community. It was, and still is, marvelous.

            Mike’s family has a traditional breakfast, so after church we’d go to his parent’s house for sausage, eggs, and something they called sticky rolls. There’d be gifts to open there as well. Eventually we’d return home, open the rest of the gifts, then watch a new movie.

            In the late afternoon we’d go to my parent’s house for more gifts and dinner. Most of the time my siblings came, filling the house with conversation.

            It made for a long day, but because everyone was on good behavior, (most of the time), things were quite nice.

            The one tradition that we kept up until our kids went off to college was the hiding of the Easter baskets. Mike always found the best spots, but the kids were clever and so didn’t take long to find their baskets under a blanket or stuffed behind a cabinet. The kids hid their candy, making sure that their stash was kept private. Even now as empty-nesters Mike and I love our Easter baskets.

            I think what I like most about those holidays was the good cheer. My family was not peaceful. It was all too easy to do something that angered one parent or the other. I lived in fear of the spankings that followed any incursion, no matter how inconsequential. The discord, the anger, was often put aside when we were expecting the arrival of an imaginary being.

            Perhaps this is why I clung to belief long after my peers. I wanted peace, comfort and joy, just like in many a Christmas song.

Summer of 1964

Exactly one month after the end of my freshman year in high school, we moved.  Not just across town, but halfway across the country, from the damp climate of the Ohio Valley to the foggy San Francisco Bay Area of California.

There is some back history to the move.  During World War II my dad was stationed in San Diego, and then in San Francisco, before being shipped out to sea.  He fell in love with the mild temperatures and friendly people. He promised himself that when the war was over, he’d move to San Francisco. He never forgot his dream of someday living in such a pleasant place even though work, marriage and family delayed the move.

My family was not quite destitute, but certainly was considered low income.  We were never truly homeless, but often in between housing.  My mother did not work when we were young and this placed a major financial burden on my dad.  He sometimes worked a forty-hour week at one job and then picked up extra hours driving a cab or helping on construction projects.

 In 1963 my mother developed chronic asthma brought on by the mildew that grew in the crawlspace beneath our house.  While she was never hospitalized, there were several close calls.  After one severe attack the doctor declared that we had to move if we wanted her to live.

That was when we began planning for the trip to California.  This was well before the Internet so we made many trips to the library to gather information.  My brother and I took on the role of California experts.  We analyzed climate options, for there is a wide range, and decided that the Bay Area would be the best match for our mother’s needs.

One discovery that tingled our toes was the Community College system.  At that time the tuition was miniscule and therefore affordable even to us.  For the first time I had hope that I could become something other than someone’s wife.

As the time to move neared we sold things too bulky to take with us, gave away even more, and packed the bare essentials into our boat-like station wagon.

One morning we loaded everything into the car and literally drove away with the sun at our backs.  The car was jammed full with a family of five, the pet dog, clothing, bedding, and travel games sufficient to keep my brother and I occupied.

The early parts of our journey were boring.  We drove past one cornfield after another as we crossed Indiana and Illinois.  Colorado was much more promising with its spectacular vistas and unfamiliar trees.

All had gone reasonably well until that point. The car had performed marvelously, we’d been able to find affordable lodging and there was food to eat. Things changed when we were high in the Rocky Mountains.

Rain clouds darkened the sky.  Huge, boiling, black masses of clouds that drastically dropped temperatures and brought ripping winds that nearly blew us off the road.   Amazement at the high craggy peaks quickly turned to fear.  While we knew tornados, we were ignorant in the ways of mountain storms.

My dad persisted, however, for we had limited money for luxuries such as an extra night in a hotel or additional meals on the road.  Unfortunately, it was his persistence or stubbornness that nearly doomed our journey.

An awareness arose that mud was washing across the road.  Not just an oozing of dirt, but bubbling masses of dark brown, saturated mud that quickly covered the road, obliterating edges and lines.  My dad, the determined explorer, kept us pointing westward.  No mud was going to delay us.

We slogged on, albeit slowly, mile after mile until an avalanche blocked our path.  Rain was pounding so hard on the windshield that the wipers could not move the water fast enough for clear vision.  My Dad leaned forward, bent over the steering wheel straining to see ahead, following taillights of a vehicle in front of us. No matter how much mud was on the road, my dad kept us moving westward until traffic came to a complete halt.

My dad has never been a patient man.  He always had a hard time sitting still.  He was happiest working with his hands, building, scraping loosening, greasing, keeping busy, keeping moving. Imagine him in his thirties, which was how old he was at the time of our move.  He was brass, bold, daring, critical, mouthy, and arrogant.  While his business was an admirable quality, my dad was not a pleasant man unless things were going his way.

Dad being who he was, was flustered by the avalanche.  We could not move forward and there was no way he would turn around. Retreating would add precious travel time and expenses.  After sitting motionless for what felt like at eternity, he got out of the car, to do what, I was not sure.

He stalked over to a group of men standing under a nearby tree.  I assumed that these guys were drivers of other trapped cars, talking about what to do.  Through the rain-created haze, we watched our dad approach the men. His posture and stride were aggressive, typical of the man I knew. When he stood face-to-face with the men, we could see, but not hear, his lips move. His gestures were angry and accusatory, very familiar to me as I was often a victim of his ire.

Eventually my dad returned, not with a solution, but with extreme anger. Using a bevy of foul swear words he explained that the wall of mud completely covered the road.  No one could get through from either direction.  We were stuck just like all the other drivers. My dad despised helplessness in others, so imagine his anger at being the one who could do nothing to change our circumstances. He tortured the steering wheel, my mother and myself and my siblings since there was no one else that he could attack.

I have no idea how much time passed while we huddled inside our car, but my older self believes that it was possibly no more than an hour.  My brother and I knew to keep silent but our sister played with her dolls, singing and talking and laughing. I feared that she would bring Dad’s anger down on me, for it was my responsibility to watch over her. Obviously, I wasn’t doing my job.

 My mother, ever the nag, didn’t help when she began calling my dad a series of disgusting names.  The tension was horrendous as I knew that Dad would explode and that someone would get hurt.

Just as his arm swung out to smack my mom a loud roar erupted not too far from us.  Through our foggy windows, we watched mesmerized as a large truck moved out of line.  It crossed over into the opposite lane which was empty, thanks to the slide.  When the truck was parallel to our car it suddenly stopped.

All of a sudden there was another roar and then the truck shot forward.  It went up and over the mound of mud with the grace of a gazelle leaping a small hill.

That did it.  My dad’s male ego was seriously threatened.  If that truck could climb the hill of muck, then our station wagon could do the same. 

  If I had known what I do now about weight and trajectory and propulsion, I would have calculated that we could never make it over the mud hill.  Even if I had known all those things, it would not have deterred my dad’s intention to match the truck driver’s bravado.

Following the truck’s example, my dad pulled us out of the line of cars.  He positioned us into the still empty lane.  He wiggled us back and forth until we were aligned with the hill of mud.  He put the car into forward gear, jammed the gas pedal, and when he was sufficiently satisfied with the sound of the engine, took his foot off the brake.

We shot forward.  The force of the movement plastered us to the back of our seats, much like being on an accelerating roller coaster.

The car approached the wall of mud which was now clearly visible despite the continuing downpour.  My eyes must have grown huge when I saw that it was taller than our car.  In fact, it was so tall that I could not see over it and so wide that Icould not see around it.

Determined to succeed, my dad kept the gas pedal glued to the floor.  Our front tires touched the mud noticeably raising the front of the car.  My view changed from mud to blackened sky in a matter of seconds.

All of us, including my dad, whooped and hollered.  We raised our hands in the air and envisioned us cresting the hill and the victorious descent to the other side.

That didn’t happen, however, because instead of climbing the hill, we came to an abrupt halt, heads still pointing skyward, our bodies still melded into the seats.  Nothing worked to move us forward, not my dad’s cussing nor his attempts at accelerating us up and over.

Exhilaration rapidly turned to fear when there was a slight shift in our position.  We weren’t moving upward. We were sinking into the muck.

My view of sky became a view of mud. I realized that we were now even with the crest of the hill. That was not the end. Instead, our car continued to sink, more and more, until we stopped with nothing but mud in front, behind and on both sides.

My dad pounded the steering well as he swore like the sailor he had been. Eventually he turned off the engine and pushed opened the door.  Mud oozed in, covering the floor of the front of the car.  To prevent that from happening, my dad stepped out into the mud and pushed the door closed. 

He moved away by lifting his feet uncomfortably high. As he did so, mud coated his legs to slightly above his knees.

My dad slogged his way back to the men under the tree.  It must have been humiliating for him to admit defeat, but he had no choice.  His family was trapped in a car surrounded by mud.

We sat for what felt like an eternity, but was probably no more than twenty minutes.  During this time, the rain slackened.  No longer a deluge, it fell softly on the windshield, making only tiny dots. I anxiously awaited my dad’s return, not knowing what his mood would be and who he would blame for our predicament. It could be me even though I had kept quiet the whole time, but that was the way in our family: someone had to pay.

When our dad finally returned, he wasn’t smiling, but the angry look was gone. He reported that the wall of mud had stopped growing and sliding.  Because he could now see over the top, my dad had seen a tow truck that was already working on the other side.  It appeared that it was going to plow a passage through the mud and all we had to do was sit and wait.

I still remember the excitement when the flashing lights atop the tow truck became visible. Their whoosh-whoosh lit up the sky as gloriously as fireworks on the Fourth of July.  My heart pounded with barely contained excitement.

Imagine my reaction when the mud began moving.  It was hard to tell the difference first because the change was so slow, but as the revolving lights seemed to move closer, the texture of the mud hill changed well.  It bulged.  It bubbled.  It slid.  It separated like Moses dividing the Red Sea.

The plow appeared first, popping up out of the muck like a chick from an egg.  Then came the grill and in quick succession, the hood, the windshield, and eventually the rest of the truck.

The tow truck had managed to clear a good portion of the road. It didn’t stop there, but instead turned around, prepared to plow through from our side. Before it took off, my dad got out of our car and began yelling at the driver of the truck.  When the driver got out, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. If my dad started a fight, we’d be stuck. If somehow, he could present himself as a clam, reasonable man, then maybe the driver would help.

When the two of them walked around our car as best as they could while slugging through the mud, I breathed a sigh of relief. My dad must have been calm or the driver would not be walking with my dad.

When the inspection seemed to be finished, my dad got back in the car. He told us to put a halter on the dog and get out.  All of us. In the mud! 

A normal person might have been horrified, but not me. I was excited!  To have permission to get filthy dirty was a glorious thing, even though I was a teenager. 

Stepping out into the mud was better than a birthday gift or the discovery of a dime from the Tooth Fairy or even the baskets of candy from the Easter Bunny.  If I had known about the Richter scale, I would have placed this at monstrous earthquake strength.

I didn’t step gingerly or make disgusting girlish faces.  My sister did both, but not me.  I smiled. No, I beamed brighter than the sun, which was now peeking through the clouds.

I planted a foot in the muck and then another, and another, and another, walking proudly, even as it clung to my shoes and ankles and legs.  My heart soared with joy.  A balloon never flew as high as I did that day!

Once we were safely away from the car, the tow truck maneuvered into position in front of us by pushing the mud this way and that.  Once it was lined up with the front of our car, it lowered its contraption until it fit under the front end of our car.  The driver employed a series of straps and chains, and then engaged a motor. Slowly, the car arose, like King Neptune rising out of the sea. What a glorious site that was!

Once the car was in the air the truck did what is was supposed to do: it pulled us through the muck to the other side.

There was no fanfare from the watching crowds.  Instead, for the first time, I realized that the other drivers were jeering and pointing and slapping backs.  When I looked at my dad’s face, I saw humiliation.  Arrogance no longer sat on his shoulders, replaced by a profound embarrassment.

I learned a few things from watching my dad.  Bravado has its place and time.  Self-assurance is a good thing, only when tempered by a voice of reason.  Safety of family must always be first.  Competition is healthy, when appropriate.  Keeping an eye to the prize only works when flexibility is allowed to overrule potentially stupid actions.

More than anything, I knew that I would never forget that day in the summer of 1964.  And I haven’t.

Thoughts about Whining

Recently I chose two different surgeries to remove excess skin left after weight loss.

The first, back in August, was on my upper arms. For years I’d had chicken wings, or flags, that waved whenever I moved my arms. When I swam, I heard a whap, whap every time my arms entered the water. Often, when wearing a short sleeve shirt, I’d hear the same sound as my arms contacted my torso. It was embarrassing to wear short sleeve shirts and to put on a bathing suit.

Good-meaning friends told me to exercise more. I thanked them for their advice, knowing that I’d been focusing on my arms while working out at the gym. I’d even hired a private trainer to help, but even all his great exercises made no difference.

The wings weren’t going to magically disappear. I met with a surgeon who explained what she could and couldn’t do. She could remove excess fat, but my arms would never be skinny. I didn’t want skinny: I wanted normal.

The surgery went well, but the recovery impacted my life in ways that I hadn’t foreseen. I couldn’t swim, bathe or walk uphill. When I walked, I had to keep my arms loose at my side. I had to wear a compression garment for six weeks. It was so tight that it hurt.

I whined, but not too much. After all, I had done this to myself.

There was another surgery that I desperately wanted: to remove the roll of excess skin around my belly. The surgeon explained, once again, what she could and could not do. I would still have droopy legs and poofs of skin that would stick out whenever wearing a bra. She would remove and tighten front, back and sides. It sounded good to me.

Whereas the first operation was three hours in length, the second was seven. As an after affect, my asthma has been triggered. Considering that it had been largely dormant for a number of years, this was a disappointment. But, I did it to myself, right? So I don’t complain.

With the first surgery I could do many things as long as it didn’t involve lifting. I could sit at the computer and type for hours. With this surgery I have had to remain on my back for much of the day. Now that I am 20 days past the surgery date, I am able to sit for longer, walk about on flat surfaces and resume doing some of my favorite things as long as they do not involve exercise.

And, once again, I have to wear compression garments that are terribly uncomfortable.

There have been times when I was tempted to whine, but then I’d remind myself that this surgery was an option that I chose. I do acknowledge that the roll of skin is gone and that makes me smile. However, I am still limited as to what I can do. Sitting here while I type this is taxing my body. I will soon be reclining, but I won’t complain since I did write something new! Yippee.

I realize that people make huge sacrifices every day: eat food or pay the rent. Put gas in the car or buy new shoes for the kids. Live in a homeless shelter or sponge off of friends and relatives. Stand in line for free food or be too proud to ask for help and therefor go hungry. In some countries, running for your life even though that very act endangers your same life, is a tough decision to make.

Whenever I am inclined to whine, I think of those less fortunate, those who are unhoused, hungry and poorly clothed. How can I complain when my discomfort is self-imposed, while for those poor individuals, they are in those circumstances because of unaddressed mental issues or due to the high cost of housing that they cannot pay even when working full time.

I am blessed to be able to afford the operations. There is no doubt that if I had wanted this done years ago when we had young children at home, there would have been no money for such extravagances. These are the things that sustain me, that keep me focused on the outcome, not the current discomfort.

 I swear that no whining will pass through my lips. I am grateful for all the blessings in my life.

Faith: a Personal Definition

One aspect of faith is the belief in the inherent goodness of humanity.  It may be a naïve way of thinking, especially considering these troubled times.  It may be a bit misplaced in terms of focus considering the quantity of murders, robberies, beatings, and home invasions that take place every day.  However, if we cannot believe that the bulk of those traveling through life with us do so with goodness as a driving force, then we cannot live as faith-filled people. 

Back when I was still teaching something occurred at my high school that challenged my faith in humanity.  An article appeared in the school newspaper referring to a group of students as “Tard Kart.”  In itself, the label does not seem offensive.  However, the members of this group described themselves as crazy misfits who were not accepted by the school population at large.  Hence, to them, “Tard” was a derivative of the word retard.  Kart referred to the food carts which were staffed by Special Education students, the connection, to me, was quite obvious.

Believing that it was a simple mistake, I contacted the teacher who oversaw the Journalism students.  The teacher found nothing offensive about the inclusion of the name in the article.  When I asked her what she would do if a group called themselves “Spics” or “Wops.” Would she print that?  Of course not, she said, as those are ethnic slurs.

The teacher herself had been subjected to ethnic slurs over her entire teaching career.  She had been found crying, many times, over the cruelty of students who mimicked her accent and who left insults on the white board in her classroom.  One would think that if anyone would be sensitive to negative stereotypes, it would be she.

Earlier in the same week a student was attacked outside my classroom.  He was a relatively small freshman compared to others in his class. When I heard loud thumps outside my room, I went outside to see what was happening. My student was on the floor curled up in a fetal position, holding his groin area.  Large tears coursed down his cheeks.  He was unable to speak or move for more than thirty minutes. When I found out what has happened, I was horrified that two very large seniors had slammed the smaller boy against the wall and kicked him when he was down.

I believe that it was a prank that got out of control.  Yes, the students involved tended to be aggressive, defiant, and general malcontents.  Yes, they were not on track to graduate in June.  Even so, my faith tells me that this “beating” was not a planned act of violence, but rather an opportunistic reaction.

In my seventy-one years of life, I have not only witnessed, but also been a victim of comparable events.  As an abused child, I grew up in an environment that was not conducive to the development of faith.  It’s hard to believe in a God that allows physical beatings, verbal harassment, and emotional debasement.  I prayed, every day, for salvation.  My prayers went unanswered, or so I thought.

It was not until I went on a trip to the mountains of southern California with a Catholic youth group from my university that I understood faith.  Looking at the towering mountains and walking amid the amazingly tall trees, I realized that there is a God who loves the world so much that He gave us places of solitude and introspection. 

God does not always our wishes for He knows that we need to be forged by our experiences.  We may not want to walk our given path, but we have to believe that the journey somehow leads us to a clearer understanding of who we are meant to be.

When I stood in that forest I knew that I was not the horrible child that my parents saw.  Faith allowed me to witness the goodness inside myself, the goodness inside my parents, and the goodness in those sharing the moment with me.  It sounds like a cliché, but I truly felt a golden glow spreading through my body.  That glow was faith.

Since that day, my faith has been my rock.  It gives me the strength to transcend the travails of daily life.  It opens my eyes to the good intentions of others and allows me to feel generosity of spirit.  When disheartening or disturbing events rise forth, it is through faith that I am able to process what is happening.

I do believe that all humans are capable of living lives ruled by basic tenets of kindness and generosity of spirit.  Even when the news is filled with stories of turbulence, I do not let my belief waver.  That is my belief in the goodness of humanity. That is my faith.

Anything Goes

            The first time I heard this expression I didn’t think it applied to me. I was a follower of rules. Because of my home environment, I understood that straying resulted in physical punishment, ranging from being beaten with a belt, shaken, slapped and humiliated.

            The concept of anything goes was as foreign to me a Greek. There was nothing in my lexicon that allowed me to process the meaning.

            When I left home to attend college, for the first time in my life, no one hovered over me telling me what to do or ridiculing the decisions I made. It was terrifying and rejuvenating at the same time. If I wanted to skip a meal, I could. If I felt like sleeping in and not making my bed, my mother was not there to chastise.

            In essences, I could do whatever I wanted. The caveat was that I had to attend classes and earn grades good enough to graduate with a degree.

            When the Vietnam War protests began, I could march and carry signs expressing my opinion, knowing that my parents would be horrified. There was nothing they could do to stop me. It was only when smartly dressed me in tight fitting expensive suits with ear pieces arrived on campus, did I retreat from the movement. At that moment I couldn’t do whatever I wanted because I knew they were keeping track and most likely taking pictures.

            Once I was an adult, anything goes ceased to have meaning. I had to be present for my kids. I had to forsake my own wishes to teach in order to make sure the kids had food, opportunities to learn and explore, clean clothes and a responsible adult overseeing them. I did haul them to pottery classes, preschool, parks, parties, sports practices and games. I made sure they got to school on time with clean clothes.

            In other words, I was back to being a follower of rules.

            One advantage of getting old is that once again, rules disappear. Anything Goes is truly my motto. I can do whatever I want, whenever I want. I can choose to not do something as well. My life is my own to monitor. I can go hiking with a friend or walk with my husband. I can write or read a book. I can send cards to family and friends or laze in front of the television. Laundry can stack up in the hamper until I feel like washing it.

            The only monitor I have is me.

            I hope that sometime during a person’s life they can fall under the umbrella of Anything Goes. It’s a powerfully liberating concept. Enjoy!