Empty Nest Syndrome at Last

We heard about the syndrome from the time our first son was born. According to the reports, we would cry each time one of our kids began Kindergarten. It didn’t happen because we rejoiced at the opportunities opened to learn and socialize.

Leaving elementary didn’t upset us either. Or graduating from high school. As each of them went away to college leaving behind empty beds, we did feel a bit of loneliness. At the same time, however, they were learning to make important life decisions as they grew into the adults they are now.

What helped was that a variety of four-legged animals lived with us, beginning in 1975 shortly after we bought our house. Lucky Lady, a Dalmatian, was our first of many. She was so smart that she blew us away with all she understood and could do. When Tim was born in 1976 she became his protector, staying by his side no matter where he was. After learning to jump the fence, she hips went bad. She was in tremendous pain, so the decision was hard, but not impossible.

When Lady was still alive we brought home Scamp, an Australian shepherd puppy mix who was so timid that she hid under furniture. Lady died making Scamp the only dog until a large dog appeared in our garage as I was folding laundry. My friend Penny told me she was part wolf. We believed her because she had an independent streak and often took off down the street. We called her Babe for Paul Bunyan’s big blue ox. Unfortunately Babe and Scamp had a bit of a mix-up, Scamp’s paw got injured and never healed. Scamp had bone cancer. Babe was now the only dog.

Babe developed mange, a nasty, sticking patch on her backside. No medications helped. It grew and grew and made her miserable. Then her hips went out. I had to pick up this huge dog and get her in the house. When Mike came home from work we knew what decision had to be made.

For a bit of time we had not dog, but helping my friend Penny search for a new dog, we found a cute puppy at the pound. He was part Border collie. We put in our names as potential adoptees and won. MacTavish was very sick, dying actually. Penny taught us how to force feed him. Because of her he grew into an incredibly awesome dog.

His quirky personality kept us jumping. He outsmarted us every day. When Mike retired Mac was his constant companion.

When Mac was recovering he became quite lonely. He needed something to keep him busy so I also adopted a Spaniel from a different pound. Majesty was not the easiest dog to live with. She was stubborn and didn’t take to training. Fortunately Mac let her boss him around.

Both lived to be in their teens. Majesty lost her sight and hearing and her ability to control her bowels. Mac’s hips went out. It was sad losing them both.

When Tim was about three he found a stray cat at church that he wanted to take home. We told him that if she was there the next day, he could have her. Tim made us go to church early. The cat was there, clearly hungry. Tim held her during mass while I sat on the steps with him. He called her Cupcake Eater Connelly. Cuppie was kind and gentle. She tolerated kids.

After Cuppie was getting up in years, a new neighbor moved in next door and got a chow. Cuppie was used to going over the fence. Had never been threatened. The neighbor let the chow out just as Cuppie went over the fence. He didn’t know it was our cat so failed to tell us. A week later when Cuppie still had not appeared, I asked the neighbor. He was embarrassed and offered to buy us a new cat.

Cuppie was not our only cat at the time because when Christine was in fourth grade, she chose a tortoiseshell calico cat, named Cali. Cali rode across Christine’s shoulders. She wasn’t the smartest cat we’ve owned, but she was sweet. She was still alive after Christine graduated from college, got married and had Emily. One time when they were visiting I looked out back and saw little Emily carrying Cali by the tail. Cali did not scratch or fight. Amazing.

Josie appeared shortly after Cali died. Mike was changing into hiking boots to go camping when a tiny kitten walked out of his closet. How did she get there?  We never knew, but we accepted her into our home. Josie was sweet and loving.

When Josie was getting old, I was at a pet food store on adoption day. There were tuxedo sisters up for adoption. Two for the price of one. They were named Violet and Lavendar, but we called them Missy and something else. The problem was that Mike left the door open on their second day in our house. Missy stayed but the other ran away. We never got her back.

Missy filled Josie’s paw prints when Josie died. Missy was the kind of cat you could pick up and carry around. She’d sit on your lap forever. She loved being brushed. Great purr. But she fell ill a few years late just before we were heading to Tim and Kate’s house back east. We left her at the vet’s. He called us. Kidney failure.

That meant no cats left. But…the vet knew someone who rescued cats and she just happened to have siblings ready for adoption. When we got home that woman brought over the cats. Both were short-hair, heads and bodies shaped somewhat like a Siamese. Both ran and hid under our bed.

We couldn’t get the female out, so the woman returned and took her back home. The boy named Taffy stayed because he was curious and wanted to explore. We changed his name to Tuffy.

A few years after Tuffy moved in I heard that someone had a Maine Coon cat up for adoption. I went to see her at a per store. She was incredibly placid. Long fir that would need brushing. Long, pointed ears. And huge!  I picked her up and almost dropped her.

In a cage near her was a thin pure black cat. I’d never wanted a black cat, but this little guy was spunky. He pushed a toy through the bars. I picked it up and stuffed it inside. He immediately pushed it through then looked at me with huge eyes. I fell in love. His name was Coal. He was a lap-sitter. He loved petting and curling up. He was smart and gentle.

Tuffy, at this point, was still somewhat aloof. He allowed Coal to sit in laps and absorb all loving. Tuffy preferred being outside. He was born feral, and we both assumed that even though he’d been rescued young, that wildness was still there.

Coal fell ill. He cried when touched. The vet discovered that his chest was filled with fluid. For some bizarre reason we paid for expensive treatments which failed. The day we brought Coal home he died before we walked through the door.

Tuffy was now the only cat, the only four-legged critter. He slowly took over the job of sitting in laps, rubbing legs, begging for food. His personality changed. He was no longer aloof, but a big lover.

We knew he would be the last. We love to travel, our kids don’t live nearby, and we’re getting older. It wouldn’t be fair to bring an animal into our home knowing that our kids would someday have to decide what to do with it. Therefor no more dogs or cats.

For the first time since 1975 we have no critters roaming about. No fur on the floor or sticking to the furniture. No fur on my black pants or clumping on my sleeves. No clicking of toenails on the wood floors. No one greeting me when I come home. No one staring forlornly through the sliding glass door out back. No meows or barks. No treats. No food to put in bowls and no water to be refreshed.

It’s weird and a bit lonely.

Our house, however, is till filled with noise.

Somewhere along the way after our kids had all gone off to college I decided to return to being a bird keeper. Before I met Mike I had had two cages of parakeets that I spoiled rotten, but by the time we got married they had all died.

One day, for some strange reason, I read the want ads and saw lovebirds and cockatiels for sale. Before I called, I visited a pet store and looked at both types. The lovebirds were small and had a very loud screech. The cockatiels were bigger, but quiet. I checked out books from the library and read about the care of both.

Convinced that cockatiels would be the best, I called and made an appointment to see them one day after school. Yes, there were differences in size and in appearance. The cockatiels were huge, had feathers that stuck up over their heads giving them a regal look, and were fairly calm. They didn’t startle when the young man put his hand in the cage.

The lovebirds were beautiful. They had orange patches on their cheeks and deep green plumage. They were far from regal because they screeched and fought back. They exhibited a personality that intrigued me. I brought them home.

After that first pair I saw an ad for another, only $40 for both birds and cage. They were young and turned out to be a mating couple. Before long we had a clutch of eggs. Fortunately they didn’t hatch, but the next two clutches did. We kept two of the baby birds and found homes for the rest.

Another ad inspired me to buy two cockatiels. They were not tame and never would be. They were quiet, which was fine as the lovebird screeches filled our house with sound. They were so big that I had to buy a special cage. A huge cage!

This was my third cage, but I didn’t mind because I loved them. It took a lot of work to keep the cages clean. As the birds died off, I went down to two cages, then more recently one.

I decided that the lovebirds were lonely and I’d always wanted black-faced lovebirds, so I bought two. One died in the first week. Eventually one of the cockatiels died, so then I moved an older lovebird in with the remaining cockatiel and the one black faced lovebird, Rolo.

Rolo was a character. He understood my commands. He didn’t speak, but when I told him to go home, he returned to the cage. I never tamed him but he knew when I was around.

He died a few weeks ago.

All we have left now is a sixteen year old lovebird. She could die any day, but right now she’s quite happy being alone. She sings all day long. She’s mean, though, When I stick my hand in to change food or water she attacks.

Once she dies, there will be no more birds. No cages to clean, no seed to buy, no toys to rotate.

At that point our house will be empty of animals with no intent of bringing new in to take their places.

Perhaps then we will experience empty nest syndrome in all its manifestations. Or maybe we’ll be content with the memories of all the dogs, cats, birds, and oh yes, lest I forget, the tropical fish that moved into the house with us 46 years ago.

I realize that it will be just another stage in my life, and for that reason, I am not saddened as I look into the future.

Our nest will not truly be empty as we will have each other and all the spirits of the many critters that we were blessed to have. We have wonderful adult kids and their significant others. We have talented grandchildren that we don’t get to see enough of, but we know they are a long drive away.

We have been blessed in many ways. Our home has been filled with love both given and received. God has found ways to be with us. He will continue to do so.

My Favorite Season

Spring has always been my favorite season, both when we lived in Ohio and as a resident of California. Spring sits comfortably between the long, dreary days of winter and the sultry, lazy months of summer. It offers a pleasant mix of warming days and chilly nights, blue sunny skies and drenching downpours that wash away a variety of detritus.

When I was young the coming of spring heralded my longed-for escape from the tedious imprisonment of winter. In Beavercreek, Ohio where I lived until I was fourteen, snowplows seldom ventured into our rural neighborhood, making the gully-lined streets dangerous for pedestrians and cars. Winters were harsh and long-lasting. Hail, sleet, snow and infrequent, but deadly, ice storms blanketed our days. Waiting for the school bus to come in the early mornings required fortitude despite layers upon layers of protective gear.

When the temperatures finally changed from frosty to mild, the snows slowly disappeared. The browns of winter morphed into the lush colors of spring. Grasses and weeds put on their verdant coats, turning lawns into golf-course quality greens. Flowers pushed through the soil and then burst into song, filling the air with luscious scents. New life, the symbol of the season, declared its presence with trumpet blasts.

Spring signaled the ending of the school year. While I dreaded the humid days of summer, I hated school more. The tortures of squeezing my body into a snug-fitting desk were replaced with the freedom of running, climbing and exploring the woods behind our house.

All things that I loved came out of storage. Bicycles were hosed won, tires inflated, and chains oiled. Roller skate wheels were treated to a massage, gently rotating each to ensure proper movement. Kites popped out of newspapers and skinny boards, and when the wind was perfect, soared high into the sky.

Baseball equipment found its way into the backyard. Kiddie swimming pools were unfolded and inflated. Makeshift tents draped themselves over trailers, swing sets and clotheslines, begging to be occupied.

Energy oozed from every living thing and spoke about fun-filled days of constant movement. Spring was a time to reunite with friends who had been sequestered throughout the winter, playing long into the evenings.

That was in Ohio.

Since 1964 I have lived in California. Because of the mild temperatures of the San Francisco Bay Area, we live in a near-constant state of spring. Most evenings the fog rolls in, gifting us with pleasant nights for sleeping. Flowers bloom almost all year long, and when it rains, the rolling hills turn the most beautiful green imaginable.

Considering my love of the season, it’s not surprising that I got married in the spring. Considering the symbol of rebirth that spring stands for, I saw choosing that time of year as my opportunity to be reborn.    I walked into the church as a single, then emerged as an equal part of a couple.

On our honeymoon we lounged in an old hotel in Marin, stayed in a tiny cabin at Clear Lake and camped in Yosemite National Park. The weather was perfect, blessing us with blue skies, mild temperatures and plenty of opportunities to bask in the newness of us.

Time did not stand still, so when those glorious days ended and we returned to what would become our normal lives, we did so with the magic of spring in our hearts. As husband and wife we donned our new hats, hoping that the joys of spring would bless us for many years to come.

While it is not yet officially spring, because of the lack of rain and unusually warm days, it feels as if it has arrived. As I look out my window I see bright blue skies with a trace of feathery clouds, powdery white blossoms on trees, and the green shoots of the bulb-flowers exploding out of the earth.

These are the days to relish being alive, when Nature blesses us with Her many gifts, reminders of all that She does to enrich our lives.

 

The Lonely Kid

When I was a little kid I was shy and deeply miserable. At home there was one girl who would only play with me outside, no matter how cold the wind blew or how deep the snow. I never understood why I never entered her house until I was much older and able to reflect on possible reasons. To put it mildly, I was weird.

My clothes were faded hand-me-downs from older aunts. The styles were old-fashioned and inappropriate for a kid. My shoes weren’t name brands, clearly from thrift stores and cheap five and dimes. Even my hair made me stand out, for my mom curled it into tight ringlets every night, that when combed out sprang from my head much like Little Orphan Annie’s.

Even my school uniform marked me as unlikable. It was of the old style, with a rounded collar and a droopy A-frame skirt that fell well below my knees. At one time it was blue, but mine were gray. Everyone else wore square-necked pleated jumpers that hit mid-knee. I was the only one in faded uniforms.

Even at home I was alone. I was the middle child, wedged between an older brother who my mother worshipped and a younger sister who could do no wrong. Even though I never articulated my desires, what I wanted more than anything was to be held, caressed, and even though I didn’t yet know the meaning of the term, to be held in the same regard as my siblings.

At school and at home I played alone, preferring my own company to the maneuverings at school and the tension-filled interactions with family. Even though I knew that I was often the cause of much yelling, I didn’t understand what I had done to trigger the lectures and revilement.

Several yeas ago I saw home movies that were taken when I was a child. In all the scenes in which I appeared there were brief moments when a tiny smile creased my lips. In one I was running toward my grandpa, in the other I was in his arms.

It was a great consolation to see that there were, indeed, periods of happiness.

When I was sent to school I understood that I was going not because I was smart, but because I was dumb. This was reinforced when my mother, who learned how to drive so she could get me to a school, reminded me daily of what she was giving up, the sacrifices she was making to enroll me in the private Kindergarten. I was, in fact, the dumbest kid in the class. I had no knowledge of letters or sounds, number values, shapes, and most of the colors. I couldn’t cut paper or tie my shoes or hold a pencil correctly.

I worked hard to learn, to blend in, but even so I often felt my teachers’ frustration with my lack of knowledge and skills.

In elementary school it didn’t take me long to figure out my place in the hierarchy. I was the dumb one, the girl who never knew the answers when the teacher called on her. I was the one who never got Valentine’s Day cards and who was never invited to play dates and parties.

Granted, it was probably my fault. I was a sullen, sulky kid who wandered the playground aimlessly, interacting with no one. My brother loved cartoons and I read whatever he was given. One time, buried in the back, was a magazine ad about how to create tornadoes in a jar. Every recess I carried my jar, twirling it, setting the miniature tornado in motion, finding limited solace in watching my creation. Imagine what the other kids thought when they saw this strange girl roaming the playground with a glass jar in her hands. No wonder I was alone.

There was one girl who befriended me in fifth grade. She had recently enrolled so didn’t know my status. Imagine my surprise when she invited me to spend a weekend. I had never slept away from home before except when visiting relatives, so I had no idea what to expect. I figure life would be the same: with yelling, accusations, physical torment. But it wasn’t.

During dinner her parents conversed quietly. They asked questions of me and included me in discussions. There was no name calling or bickering. Everyone had smiles on their faces.

I fell in love with that family and wanted to live with them. I prayed for them to adopt me. I didn’t want to go home and cried when my mother took me home.

In eighth grade an odd-looking quiet boy invited me to go roller skating. I went because it was a date, my first one, and he was a nice kid. I could skate as long as it required going around the oval. I knew how to stop and start and to keep a steady speed. That was it, but it turned out, as we skated side-by-side, I knew more than Geoffrey. Modern tunes were played, which pleased me tremendously as I knew all the words, but poor Geoff was lost. After a few laps, his hand brushed mine and then morphed into hand-holding. It was my first time being with a boy, so I was nervous. He must have been as well because his was damp. I didn’t care.

In ninth grade Geoffrey invited me to my first school dance. My mom made me a powder A-line blue dress for the occasion. He arrived in a suit, bearing a corsage which he couldn’t pin on me because neither of us were comfortable with the idea. My mom did the job, but only after stabbing me with the pin.

Neither of us knew how to dance, so we spent most of the time standing on the outskirts leaning against walls or, if available, sitting on folding metal chairs. I didn’t have a great time, but a pleasant one because he was kind.

My family moved to California that summer. I was excited to go, for a new place brought hope for new adventures. No one would know me there; no one would remember my faded uniforms and weird ways. No one would have known the stupid me, for now I was one of the best students in my grade.

My mom insisted that I bring addresses of neighbors that she thought were friends. They weren’t, but I carried the information on our cross-country drive. Once we had a place to stay, I sent them letters and postcards every week. Even though none of them wrote back, I cried.

I was still shy so I made no friends my first year in my new high school. I drifted around campus as I had done in Ohio, constantly moving so that kids would think I had a purpose and a destination.

My Algebra teacher was the closest thing to a friend that I had only because he smiled when I got the right answers. A PE teacher also befriended me when I tried out for the softball team. She drove me to her house one day after school and gave me one of her mitts, then took me home. My mom threw a fit. I had no comprehension as to why my mom was upset. Now, as an adult, I do.

Across the street from the first house that we rented in South San Francisco lived a young man several years older than me. My dad liked him and spent hours standing in the street swapping stories with him. When Dennis asked permission to date me, my dad approved. I was only sixteen at the time, while Dennis was in his early twenties.

He looked like every glasses-wearing boy of the sixties. Black haired combed to the side, black-rimmed glasses, and button up the front plaid shirts. He treated me respectfully and spent money taking me on dates. We went bowling, to movies and hung out at his duplex, where he lived alone, listening to music. He wanted more than a casual relationship, however.

Sometimes after dark he’d park in an isolated spot behind a closed store and we’d make out until my lips hurt. I was never comfortable with these arrangements as I feared being robbed or killed. I was also terrified that the police would find us and arrest us for being someplace where we didn’t belong. If that happened then my parents would know about these trysts and I’d be in trouble; with both my parents and the law.

The closest call came after the bowling league ended. It was a chilly night. Dennis started his car, a blue VW Beetle, then while the engine warmed, pulled me close and kissed me. It went on and on. Bowlers walked past. Some pounded on the door or window, saying “Get a room.” Eventually we left, only to end up at his place.

At first we listened to music. We shared an interest in the Beach Boys, Beatles and other groups of the times. We’d sit side-by-side on his couch while the music played. After finishing a soda, Dennis pulled me to his side and resumed the passionate kissing. He told me how much he loved me and I believed him. I allowed him to push me down onto the pillows of the couch and didn’t protest when his hands went under my bra.

I was uncomfortable. I felt that a line was being crossed, but I didn’t know which line. I knew nothing about sexual relationships or what steps led to situations that could never be reversed. Fortunately Dennis never pushed me beyond what I did allow, even though he did ask for more.

He repeatedly said he loved me, but I never said the same to him. Because we dated for several years, my parents were thrilled. The daughter that they had felt was unlovable had someone declaring true love.

When I transferred to USC after graduation I lived on campus and ate in the dining hall. At first I ate alone, but one time when searching for a spot, a girl invited me to her table, a table at which sat lonely looking people like me. We were all odd-balls, and that was the bond that drew us together meal after meal.

One thing we had in common was that we are all quite intelligent and quite knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects. Some of us were world-travelers, some were from overseas, some, like me, were poor. For the first time I felt an equal. I don’t know how they saw me, but I was always treated with respect. Over time I dated two of the guys. They were really nice. In fact, one of them wrote me a three-page letter explaining how great of a husband he would be, and that back in his country I would be treated like royalty. As intriguing offer until he explained that I could never go anywhere alone and would have to cover my face.

All was going well until one weekend Dennis drove down to see me. He took me to Disneyland where we had a good time, but all the while I was there, I knew that I was going to break up with him. He still loved me, but during our separation I grew to understand that I liked him, but didn’t love him. He cried when I told him. I did too.

It was after Dennis left and I returned to campus that I realized how much I had changed. I was no longer the lonely kindergarten kid but a part of a social group that did things together. That treated each other as equals. That valued intellect over money and appearance.

We did crazy things together, like drive across town just to buy Tommy’s famous chili burgers. We went to the beach when it was raining and ran through the damp sand, our wind-swept hair flying behind us. We studied together in the lobby of our residence hall, reinforcing each other’s strengths and helping overcome our weaknesses. We were inseparable.

After college I returned home to find that nothing had changed. I was still the middle child, not a woman. I was still unloved and disrespected. I was still considered a bumbling fool. When I got a job and saved enough money I moved out. My mom was despondent, I think, because she no longer controlled everything I did.

As an older adult I still have my lonely days but I don’t let them drag me down. I know that they are only a blip in what are normally busy times with friends and family. I have a husband who enjoys being with me, who respects me and encourages me to do all the different things that I love to do.

Being lonely as a kid was a terrible thing. I saw kids running around in groups that were ever changing, but never with me a part of the fun. There was no one to help me navigate the social circles, to teach me how to fit in.

Along the way there were glimmer of hope: the girl who invited me over to her house, the boy who took me roller skating, the young man who said he loved me and all the college friends who respected me. Because of them I entered the world of work prepared to interact with those who showed signs of openness.

For the sake of all the lonely people in the world, be open. That will help them overcome loneliness. Be kind.

Family Time Situation

I love family.  Who doesn’t?  When, however, do you draw the line and say that enough is enough?  Is five hours of “together time” enough?  Ten hours?  How about two days?  What happens when two long days drag into three or four?

It depends upon how you define “family”.  I love spending time with my grown children, but I intentionally keep the time short so as to not wear out my welcome.  Four or five days, max, and I’m gone.  Don’t get me wrong. I love our time together, but I recognize that lengthy visits become an imposition.  After all, tall my “children” lead hectic lives filled with work, school, children (in my daughter’s case), and a social life all their own.  They are not dependent upon me for their entertainment.

With my husband’s family it is different.  They seem to suck up time like a tornado, sweeping along anyone caught in their path.  Hours slowly turn into days, which then morph, painfully, into weeks.  Invitations crop up more regularly than armpit hair, and turning one down causes an earthquake that sets new highs on the Richter scale.

Is my perception an “in-law” thing?  That would be a partially correct interpretation.  The family shares a long history of names and places that mean little to me.  My husband’s family is huge, with roots beginning in Nebraska and with branches stretching from coast to coast, north to south.  I can’t keep all the cousins straight, let alone all the children produced within those relationships.

There are only so many times you can hear what someone’s house looks like, in a painfully drawn out explanation.  How is dear Uncle Jay doing?  The story is good for another five minutes, at most.  Then there are the wedding plans for the niece, which have to be retold every time an arrival steps into the room.  Comments about decorations, food, remodeling projects and health only carry a conversation so far.

Walking out of the room to enjoy some solitude is only permitted when a bathroom break is needed.  It’s amazing how many times that toilet seat calls!  One has to be careful even then, however, as too many visits prompt discussions about intestinal mishaps, surgeries, cancers, and deaths.

I do care for my husband’s family.  They are big-hearted people who accept everyone into their lives and hearts.  Once met, never forgotten and you are family for the rest of your life.

What is overwhelming are the never-ending parties that start late, run even later, and go on for days.  Dinner at five?  Arrive at four for cocktails and snacks?  Don’t worry if you get out of the house late or if you are held up in traffic, for you won’t have missed a thing.  You’ll be lucky to eat by seven.  Over by eight? Forget it.  Family parties frequently run into the early morning hours, dying only when the last standing person caves and crawls out the door.

Refusing an invitation is tantamount to causing a revolution.  Shock and dismay registers, for who could turn down such a lovely family?

After a few hours, I get restless.  My legs twitch and my eyes glaze over.  My patience takes a hike after hearing about Aunt Mabel’s hip surgery for the sixth time.  I yearn for a good book and a quiet corner like some folks salivate over rare tri-tip roast beef.  Give me my computer!  Put on a good movie, even one that I’ve seen!  Turn on the stereo so that music fills the gaps in conversation.

As a hostess, I am conscious of my guests’ time.  Things begin and end when stated.  Dinner is served promptly.  Dessert and tea to follow.  An evening together is just that, and no more.  Never do I stretch a gathering into double digits, even when the guest is staying at my house.  I retreat into my solitude, allowing my company time to relax and recoup energy.

One time declined an invitation.  Mind you, this was after being together for twenty-four hours.  I thought that the earth would shatter and swallow me up!  My husband gasped and turned pale, so I quickly amended my decline by adding that he could come if he wanted.  My mother-in-law gave me a look that questioned my competence, and my sister-in-law giggled nervously, followed by a muffled cough.

Oh, well.  Here we go again.  How much time is too much time to be together as family?  When I quantify it with charts, graphs, and concrete statistics, I’ll let you all know.  Meanwhile, I’ll stick to my gut instincts.  When the stories recycle, then the party should be over.

Lessons I Have Learned

Academically I am a relatively fast learner, in most subjects. I excelled in anything math-related, struggled with science and English, but picked up languages as easily as ridding sidewalks of garbage.

I loved most PE exercises unless it involved swimsuits or leotards (primarily due to weight issues and fat-shaming). When computers came on the scene, wow, did I ever master that quickly!

Unfortunately due to poor awareness in social situations, it takes me a lot longer than most to process what’s happening and develop an appropriate response. This is the area where I have had to work very hard over the seventy years of my life. It’s something that I continue to struggle with today.

So what have I learned?

When entering a given social situation it’s best to find a spot off to the side of the room, close enough to what’s happening to hear words and register facial responses, but not in the midst of the crowd. Once I have analyzed the situation and calculated an appropriate strategy, I move in, with a pat comment prepared. This works almost all the time.

I seldom initiate an invitation to lunch as I afraid of rejection. This means that I rely on the kindness of others to include me, a strategy that often fails. Because of this I seek out loners. Say there’s a woman sitting by herself, I will approach and ask if I can join her. Since she’s also a loner, conversation can be awkward, but at least there are two of us!

When someone asks a question about an interest of mine, I assume that person is simply being polite. I have learned to give a short response then turn the conversation toward the asker. Since most people love talking about themselves, this strategy has paid off.

For example, if I’m walking with friends and one asks what I’d like to eat, I might say, “Oh, a lot of different things. What would you like?” Notice how easy that is? Of course now I have to hope that she chooses something I really do like to eat!

Because I belong to several groups, this strategy is incredibly effective. The few times when I have clearly stated a preference, if it’s not supported, I will acquiesce.

My husband’s family is quite large and they love to gather together. These are challenging for me. He grew up with a ton of cousins that all have a shared memory, even if they haven’t spent a lot of time together as adults. Within minutes of the greeting, they are deep in convivial conversations that I know nothing about. My strategy is to get something cold to drink and find a corner in which I can find solace in my own thoughts.

Hiding in plain sight is something I excel at due to years of invisibility, so I find it exceptionally easy to implement. Unfortunately it also means that I am isolated for the duration of the gathering.

The most challenging situation for me is when my writing is being critiqued. I want to hear the advice of colleagues, but I also want my turn to end as soon as possible in order to move the spotlight away. The thirty minutes or so that my submission is being discussed are the longest minutes of my life! I have learned to minimalize eye contact, take copious notes, and never ask clarifying questions. The problem with this strategy is that now that I am older, it is hard for me to write and listen. I am much better with eye contact than depending upon what I hear, so my pen can’t keep up with spoken ideas.

What I need to learn is to ask for written comments. Notes. Critique. But I don’t because that requires the strength to initiate the request, which I don’t have.

Not everyone who is socially awkward has the same issues that I have, but many do. I hope that by sharing strategies that work for me, others will find something that they can implement.

Or perhaps someone reading this will look about and find that loner and realize that she is sitting on that bench or at that table or leaning against that pillar not because she wants to be alone, but because she doesn’t know how to reach out. Then when realization hits, the outgoing individual will remember what I have shared and approach, smile ready, and invite the loner into the circle. And invite her over and over and over again.

Life’s lessons are sometimes challenging because often life dishes up issues that are never resolved. You just learn to deal with them. To make do.

That’s what I have learned.

 

Good News

When parents are asked about the general state of public schools, they tend to respond negatively.  They express concerns about gangs, violence, bullying, “dummied down” curriculum, and inexperienced teachers.  Yet when asked to comment about their local schools, parents are much more enthusiastic.

 

Why?  Personal contact with a child’s teacher is one of the best tools to measure potential effectiveness of the learning environment.  The vast majority of teachers love being in the classroom and working with students.  They spend hours preparing lessons that will engage students while sticking to mandated standards and benchmarks.  Many extend their work day by tutoring struggling students after school or by meeting with concerned parents, all without receiving extra pay or recognition.

As older teachers retire, they take with them years of experience which often younger teachers aren’t interested in learning.  Perhaps the lessons are now antiquated or don’t incorporate the latest trends, but there is still something that should be there.

The vast majority of new hires are younger, energetic teachers straight out of college. They come with unbounded enthusiasm, yearning to impart knowledge that there students will soak up.

One plus of being new is that often they are not burdened with the status quo.  Innovations in methodology, technology, and curriculum hopefully invite all learners to the table if delivered correctly.  Credential programs expose new teachers to the tried and true, but also to cutting edge research.

Often older teachers rely on lectures and silent reading, while newer teachers experiment with multi-modal formats that allow all types of learners access to subject matter.  Using video, slides, computer-based presentations, modern overhead tools students who struggle with printed text can now compete academically with their peers.

When hiring, districts search for the most highly qualified candidates that will also fit in the school’s atmosphere in order to create small learning groups to meet academic demands in a consistent basis regardless of teacher.

Hiring is a competitive market in which wealthier districts lure the best and the brightest with signing bonuses, housing opportunities, and credit for advanced degrees.  Candidates shop around, searching for the sweetest the hiring package.

During the interview process, there is an opportunity for interviewees to ask questions.  In the past questions revolved around calendar, courses to be taught, and salary.  Today’s candidates want to know about the population’s socioeconomic status, ethnic breakdown, opportunities for advancement, access to technology, and availability of consultants/collaborators.  What a pleasant change!

Students come to school, for the most part, knowing how to do things with a computer that far exceed older teachers’ abilities.  They see technology as an extension of their innate abilities.  Schools that have up-to-date computer labs provide opportunities for students to demonstrate learning beyond traditional pencil and paper tasks.  Therefor the Internet is used for research as well as for submitting assignments on school-based boards, searching for homework help, sending email to teachers and to other students.  While not all students have a computer at home, savvy students find access at libraries, recreation centers and after-school computer labs on campus.

Almost all textbooks now come with audio components.  Students can check out a CD and listen to the required reading.  What a marvelous innovation!  Having such access is a boon to all struggling readers.  Imagine “listening” at your pace, being able to move backward and forward, and hearing text presented clearly, in an articulate voice, at a fluent pace!

Curriculum is developed using fairly rigid standards and benchmarks. Teachers are forced to comply when presenting instruction.  Gone are the freewheeling days of endless video-watching as well as project-based thematic units that do not offer the rigor required.  Knowing that material will be tested and that the success of students on such tests will be the measuring stick for a given teacher, those who value continued employment must teach to the standards.  That’s the bottom line.

Add to the mix the availability of cell phones that can be used as learning tools but also to take sneak pictures, students often use them to capture and publish errant behaviors by both teachers and students.  Teachers are very much aware that everything they say or do can become public within a relatively short period of time.  Students not only record fights but also catch teachers swearing, bullying, and making ethnic, racial, or sexist comments.  Because of technology, what happens in the classroom has to be appropriate.

What is the State of Education today?  Teachers are stressed and underpaid, programs are underfunded, and some students are disengaged. On the other hand, requirements force teachers to stick to the curriculum for a particular grade or course, leveling the educational opportunities for all students, regardless of income-level. Technology, where available, opens the doors for learning as well as presentation variability.  Older teachers are leaving, but they are being replaced with teachers who are not afraid to experiment with innovative ideas.

All in all, things are looking up.  The sun is shining through the clouds.

 

 

Faith

How do I write about my faith?  What words can I put down that express what it means to me?  A difficult challenge, to be sure.

I am not a born-again Christian, but I do believe that through God, I can accomplish almost anything.  Within limits.  I’ll never be a Steinbeck or a Kingsolver, but I can, and do, write.  I’ll never climb Mount Everest or jump from a plane intentionally, but I can scale personal mountains and leap over obstacles blocking my path.  I can’t build a house, but I can mold minds and hearts through teaching.

My faith gives me balance and perspective and keeps me grounded in reality.  Because I believe in a higher authority, I accept that there is a method to all that lives and breathes and grows on our planet.  I am sad to see global warming destroying the habitats of animals, yet I have to believe that there is a reason for us to witness this.

Faith supports me when I am ill.  I had two chronic asthma attacks, that because of medical interventions and many, many prayers, I overcame.  God held my hand during those long days and nights when every breath was a struggle.  He told me that my time had not yet come, and gave me the strength to fight.

On 9/11 when the towers fell my faith kept me grounded.  I was far from New York, but that did not spare us from possible threats.  I live in the San Francisco area, and so we were on the “watch” list.  Because I believe in God, I knew that if our beautiful city should be attacked and I should die, I had nothing to fear.

I believe in my husband and his love for me.  He has stood by me when I had no job, when I had doubts about my intelligence, when I loathed my overweight body.  His faith in my abilities has given me the strength to accomplish much.  Without my husband standing by my side, I would still be awash in doubts.  He is my rock, my foundation.  He sits with the Lord on his shoulders.

I have felt the hand of God intervening when my kids were ill.  It was like a light breeze brushing my cheeks, calming my soul.  He spoke to me, not in words, but in actions.  He brought down the fevers, healed the kidneys, stood over the surgeons, and held the hands of my children as He whispered in their ears.

Faith is difficult to define, as it means so many different things, to many different people.  For me, however, the essence of faith is God.  Because of Him, I believe in myself.  Because of Him, my husband is my best supporter.  Because of Him, my children are alive and well.  Faith stands at the center of my universe.  It is my propulsion, my driving force.