A Change in Pace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            There were positives about our new home.

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

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

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

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

I had become a California girl.

Valentine’s Day Lessons

            I still remember my first Valentine’s Day party. I was five years old attending a private Kindergarten, not because my parents were wealthy, but because free Kinder programs didn’t yet exist. My parents enrolled me because I was painfully shy and well behind academically.

            My clothes were hand-me-downs or homemade while my classmates were well-dressed. Even at that age I knew there was a difference. I stood out because of appearance, sociability and academic struggles (I didn’t know my shapes, letter sounds and the basics of math).

            However, when my teachers spoke of there being a party on Valentine’s Day, I was quite excited. With wide-open eyes, I chose the cards that I thought my classmates might like and then dutifully addressed each one. I believed that I would receive an equal number of cards. After all, the teachers said one for each student in the class.

            The big day comes. We’ve had sweets made or purchased by parents. We’re given a lunch bag to put on the front of our desks. One by one we get up and walk about the room, dropping cards in each bag. As time passes, my eyes pool with tears: over and over I was being skipped. Not one student put a card in my bag.

            When my turn came to distribute cards, I hid them in my lap and pretended as if I had none. I understood that I was beneath consideration; my standing was such that I didn’t warrant a cheap paper card.

            Perhaps it was an anomaly, perhaps it was intentional. What was important was that my teachers did nothing to address the discrepancy.

            When Valentine’s neared the next school year, my mom insisted that I prepare cards. Once again I chose the ones that I thought were the best, addressed each, then brought them to school. I was now in a Catholic elementary, so I figured things would be different.

            My teacher told us to put the bag we’d brought on the front of our desks. I’d decorated mine in bright colors and happy symbols. I was proud of the effort I’d put in and hopeful that it would be filled with cards.

            As the rows of students were told to distribute cards, I leaned forward, excited to watch cards drop in my bag. But something went horribly wrong. Just like in Kindergarten, my bag remained empty.

            The same thing happened in second grade, third grade, fourth grade and fifth. Every year my mom insisted in buying cards, having me address them, and forcing me to bring them to school. Every year my bag remained empty. Every year my eyes filled with tears.

            By this time I hated the day and wished it had never been created. Obviously Valentine’s Day was for special people, not everyone. It was a happy day for kids who had friends, but for loners like myself it was just one more reminder of how isolated we were.

            Thankfully when I moved into middle school, the day took on less importance and was essentially ignored for the rest of my school years.

            When I became an elementary school teacher I distributed written instructions before the day. All students must give cards to all students. Period. Cards could be homemade or store-bought, but there must be one for each student in the class.

            To decrease the chance of embarrassment, students did not roam the class giving out their cards. Instead my instructional assistant collected the cards, sorted them, counted them, and filled in any gaps when the numbers were not equal. She was the one who carried the cards to the desks and placed them in the bags. All students got the same number of cards. No one was made to feel less-than.

            Lessons learned when we are small are quite powerful. I learned that it hurt to feel excluded and that when my teachers did nothing, I understood that I was truly alone. Not wanting my students to experience what I had drove me to be a better teacher.

            With Valentine’s approaching in this year of COVID-19, each of us needs to ensure that everyone feels cherished even if cards are distributed online or through drop-offs at school. Children who are different-than average must not experience a harsher exclusion or differentiation then they already know.

            Find ways to show love that encompass all those in your social circle. Be kind to even the most difficult person in the group. That’s a hard challenge: forcing yourself to put aside angry or hurt feelings in order to be inclusive.

            This is my Valentine’s Day lesson: how we treat others at a young age affects how they see themselves later in life. Children who are ignored or isolated grow up feeling ignored and isolated. Addressing cards to children who are not your children’s friends might make the lonely kid’s day. The smile on that child’s face might change her way of looking at herself, leading to a life of successes.

            Be thoughtful. Be mindful. Be inclusive.  

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.

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!

Life’s Journey

            My friend and I have been sharing the various paths our lives have taken.  Neither of us had an easy time along the way. Both of us have disappointments. No matter where our journeys took us, we agree that the steps we traveled made us who we are today.

            When I was in Kindergarten I decided to become a teacher. It wasn’t that my teacher was kind to me; in fact, she barely spoke to me or recognized me in any way. She’d drop a bunch of worksheets on my desk and then move on to the next student. She did know what skills I was deficient in, however, because I worked on the name of colors, shapes, the alphabet and recognizing basic numbers.

            The one positive thing that the teacher offered was calm and safety. She never yelled at me or anyone else. She never slapped or threatened me in any way.

            Because I felt safer in Kindergarten than I did at home, I liked it there and soon chose teaching as a career.

            My first job was keeping score at a local bowling alley. I was only fourteen, but I had spent much of my early years in bowling alleys. My dad was a semi-professional bowler who traveled to competitions. He taught me to bowl when I was twelve. Keeping score was a logical choice.

            In college I began working for aa fast food restaurant. At first I only took orders and then handed them over when filled. As my confidence grew I learned to make coleslaw. I had to stick my hands into deep vats and stir the ingredients around. My hands and arms would get so cold that I couldn’t feel them.

When strawberry season arrived, I took over the pie-making enterprise.  I was the best at trimming the berries. I could cut off the stem so quickly and neatly that no one could match my efforts.

That was a major turning point on my life’s journey. Knowing that there was something I could do better than anyone else boosted my ego. Ironically, although I had been a good student out of fear of physical punishment, now my grades stayed high because my confidence had improved.

When I transferred to USC I found a job at the university book store. I was so happy! I begged for more hours but was refused because students were restricted to how many hours they could work in a week.

Books called my name. Sometimes while shelving new books, I had to stop and read the cover. If it appealed to me, I put one aside. Often I bought them even though my earnings were supposed to supplement the grants that paid my housing.

I returned to writing when I realized the university published a literary newspaper. I submitted poems, but never had any accepted. Despite those rejections, my confidence as a writer grew.

I got a job working the front desk in a residence hall. It was my responsibility to screen anyone entering. It forced me to talk to people, something I was wont in doing. I discovered that people often wanted to know what I was thinking. They would stand and listen, then share a bit of their story. I met some awesome people who remained friends until graduation.

Another step on my journey checked off.

I applied to be a resident advisor during the summer. The residents were not students, but an ever-changing group of conference attendees. Oh, my, they were a lot of fun! There were social events almost every evening. I was invited to attend, but understood that I was not to abandon my post. Often food was delivered to me. The person making the delivery would stand and talk.

I learned that I could talk to strangers, fulfilling another step on my journey.

My first full-time job was as a customer service representative in a furniture store. That was horrendous. All day long I was bombarded by unhappy, sometimes angry people. All found fault with the furniture or the delivery. I wanted money refunded. I didn’t know what to do and no one bothered to train me.

This was a step backward. My confidence took a hit.

The office had a switchboard for the telephone service. I applied when a position opened and got it. I loved connecting calls. It was fun and something I learned quickly. All I had to do was match the plug to the right hole.

Check one off for confidence!

When I took that job I knew it would never become a career: it was the first job offered.

The government needed employees, so I took the test and scored high enough to be hired by the infamous IRS. This was a huge step on my life’s journey, benefitted by the government’s need to hire women.

I hated seizing property to pay tax debts. I was terrible at calculating interest and penalties despite mat being a strength for me. I hated walking into dark bars and going into strangers’ homes.

Most people were respectful even though I represented a hated agency. One time I was threatened by the owner of an automobile tire shop. The next day I returned with gun-toting agents. Even though nothing happened, I tremble for days.

One positive that moved me along my journey was that I learned to speak to strangers. Another momentous event was meeting my future husband in the office. If I hadn’t met him, who knows were my journey would have gone?

In the past 46 years I’ve had three amazing children who are all successes in their own way. Add in seven talented grandchildren who fill me with joy.

I got to become that teacher 38 years ago, and taught for 34. In my college classes to earn my credentials and certificates, I garnered information that allowed me to mentor peers, lead workshops and participate in district-wide trainings.

My favorite part of the job was being a mentor. It filled my heart with joy when someone came to me for suggestions and advice.

Another step along the way.

Now that I am retired, you might think that my journey was nearly over. Wrong.

I listen to the news, read newspapers and magazines and talk with friends. I gather information from all those sources that develop my opinions and beliefs. I read books that take me into worlds and situations I met never see. I travel to countries I’d never thought about visiting.

Everything I’ve done, whether there were positive or negative outcomes, have made me who I am today. Because I am always learning, I know that I will continue to progress.

My life’s journey isn’t yet over and that’s a wonderful thing.