Friday, November 30, 2012

A Country Girl

We were living in Atlanta when my husband was transferred to New York. “Oh, you poor dear,” the little old ladies at church whispered. “Taking those darling little children up to that cold northern place.” They were horrified. We were thrilled.

I’d only been to New York once, when Dick was interviewed for his job with RCA. We’d been treated royally, lovely hotel, dinner at Sardis’s, and excellent seats to see Paint Your Wagon.

But with four young children, my husband’s suburban upbringing, and my country background, we knew we couldn’t live in a Manhattan apartment. My father had always warned me, “You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl.” And so we bought a big Tudor house in Tenafly, New Jersey. The lot was large and had a brook. Perfect for our little brood.

Tenafly was like a lovely English village with a small shopping area within walking distance. Wonderful bakery, deli, library, gift shops, coffee shops, beauty salon. I loved it. And I loved going into the city. Dick liked having me come in and join him in the evenings. I never complained.

My first trip in was an afternoon. Dick gave me precise instructions. I was to park the car at the end of the George Washington Bridge and walk the short distance to the subway. As he was telling me which staircase to take, I interrupted him. “I’m a grown woman who can read. I’m sure I’ll manage.”

I parked the car. Found the subway and took the first stairway and hopped on the subway car. Piece of cake! The only problem was that after a short while, the car stopped. “End of the line,” the conductor said.

“Oh no! I’m to meet my husband. How do I get back?”

The conductor laughed. “No problem. We’re headed back.” He pointed to the lone drunk across the aisle. “Don’t worry about him. He’s asleep.”

When I finally arrived, my husband was pale, his hands clutching the bars at the entrance. He was terrified. I was cool, as if this was something I did every day, but inside, I was just as scared. This was a whole new game for me.

I wasn’t much better when it came to driving in the city. I did, for I didn’t want to miss out on all the fun—opening nights, cocktail parties, fancy dinners. Dick carpooled with his boss. It was nearly impossible to get a taxi to drive you to New Jersey, and so I drove so we’d have a car to get home. Going out in the evening was a great change from my daily chores of being wife and mother. I had a wonderful baby sitter, an elderly woman who arrived with her little hat with a veil, an apron, and her arm full of books. I thought I’d be okay, for I’d been driving since I was thirteen. It couldn’t be that bad. But it was. On my first trip in, I was to pick Dick up at 6:30pm as we had reservations somewhere. His office was in Rockefeller Center. So I drove up 5th Avenue, approached the Center and turned left. It was a one-way going the other way. So at Rockefeller Plaza, I turned right. Another one-way—the wrong way. A group of chauffeurs were gathered at the curb, smoking and chatting. They all waved and bowed formally to me. I waved back. At the corner, I turned right and there was Dick talking with his boss. I read his lips. “Oh…my…God…That’s my wife.”

I parked the car and quickly slid into the passenger seat. Dick took over. The evening was lovely and nothing was said about my driving. As we drove home that evening across the George Washington Bridge, I looked out the back window. The skyline was magnificent. I never got over the awe of seeing it. Big city. Country girl. I never got very good at the driving in Manhattan business, but I never got a ticket, never had an accident. John Denver liked being a country boy. I like being a country girl, wouldn’t change a thing.

Friday, November 23, 2012


One of the requirements for my masters degree was an internship. My advisor knew I was on my way to becoming an educational therapist. There was no such designation, no program at the time (that came several years later) but I let her know I was very clear that I was one. Although I had enjoyed teaching, I kept seeing smart kids slide through the cracks. The word “dyslexia” was still fairly new, and I was reading everything I could get my hands on, learning more and more about this mysterious process called learning. And so she assigned me to a new pilot program at Pasadena City College where I could work one-on-one with individuals.

I showed up for work, and the head of the department greeted me and then wished me good luck. There was no curricula, no syllabus. I was on my own. But I wasn’t concerned. This being out on the skinny branches treading water in new territory was familiar to me. I was good at doing that (even though I’m lousy at creating metaphors).

My first client was a man in his fifties. He told me he had a successful business, was a freelance big rig trucker. And he was illiterate, had never learned how to read. But now he had children and he didn’t want them to know, so he had signed himself up to the program.

“How have you managed?” I asked.

His wife ran the office. When he was given a contract, he always took it home and his wife read it to him. When he drove into a new city, he picked up a hitchhiker and told him he’d buy lunch or dinner if the hiker would navigate for him. “Just read all the signs.” No one, other than his wife, knew he couldn’t read. I was impressed. This was one smart fellow.

I warned him we’d be doing things that were very child-like and I didn’t want him to feel insulted. He laughed and said I should “bring it on.”

It didn’t take long. He never got truly proficient, but was good enough to get by. “Besides,” he said. “I’m not going to be reading my wife’s novels. The sports page will be good enough for me.” And all the while he was learning, I was too. I had to give up some judgments and beliefs I had about smart people and being literate.

My next client was a young man of nineteen. Tall and handsome, he’d been offered a number of football scholarships at the Big Ten Universities, but his mother had told him he couldn’t accept any until he learned to read. Here was one of the kids I was so concerned about—one who had slipped through the cracks. I told him we were in this together and asked if he was willing to work with me. He desperately wanted to play football and told me he was willing to try anything. I asked him to read and he broke out in a sweat. I let him suffer for only a few minutes. Something was terribly wrong and I had to get to the bottom of it. I gathered a stack of flash cards of 3-letter words and sat across from him. I explained what I was going to do and he nodded to go ahead. I held the cards at my eye level so I could watch his eyes. I raised the first card (pop). His eyes rolled up to the right, he looked at the “o”, then the first “p”, then the second “p.” Finally he said,” …p…ah…p…pop.” I tried several more cards and each time, he rolled his eyes.

I told him what I’d observed. “No I don’t,” he said.

“Oh, but you do. You’re just not conscious of it. Now, I’m going to show you more cards and I want you to notice what you do with your eyes. It might take a while, don’t worry, we’ve plenty of time.”

After the sixth card he stopped. “I do! Roll my eyes. Why do I do that?”

I told him that I suspected he’d done it when he first started learning to read and it had looked like it worked. And so he repeated doing it and soon it was a well-traveled neural pathway. I said we were going to try to make some new neural pathways—ones that were more efficient. Was he willing to try? He was. I warned him that it would not be a quick fix. I explained that I’d show him cards and he was to try not to roll his eyes. Again, I warned that it might take a while before he was conscious of what he was doing or could control it, but we had time. When I held up the seventh card, he read it without rolling his eyes and his whole body shuddered. He leaped up from his chair. “What was that!”

I didn’t have a clue. I had him read more cards and he read them quickly. I was stunned. From that day on, he began to read and weekly his grade levels rose. It was like watching a kid on Christmas morning. He was thrilled. “I always thought I was smart,” he told me. “I just couldn’t figure out the reading business and that made me feel stupid.”

But now he could read. The last time I saw him, he was reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m sure he went on to make his name at the game he so loved.

There were other clients, just as mysterious and interesting. And each one was handled in a new way. My time working in that program was fruitful and I continued learning more about this business of learning. Can’t say I’ve mastered it, but I had a glorious time helping people learn. Eventually I bought my learning center (Educational Resources). Helping people learn is a most satisfying experience.

I think of all the teachers I had in my school years. I know I owe them a big THANK YOU. Thanks for putting up with me, along with the bureaucracy, endless reports, kids acting out, demanding parents, long hours, and lack of supplies. I am truly grateful. And my hat is off to those who are still engaged in the process of teaching. Keep hanging in there!

Friday, November 16, 2012

And More Scraps


Life had not been going well for me and I decided I needed to get God’s attention. “Look, Buster,” I said. “Life is not going well for me and…”

I suddenly had this vision of God roaring with laughter. “Look at her. Get her! Isn’t she cute!” I then saw what God was seeing, this little gnat on the tail of a dragon shouting into the void.

I quickly changed my tone.


Just a boy
            in the back of the police car.
Pale sideburns on a
            boy’s cheeks
               behind the wires
                        that are bars.

What have you done?

Your mask is a face
     my heart aches to reach out to.
but the light changes,
and the cars move on.

Split Second

The young man had been waiting to cross the street for some time. I could tell by the expression on his face. But the stream of cars hurried on, each one filled with people busy going somewhere.

I stopped and waved him on, and the car beside me slowed guiltily and then stopped. The young man glanced at me, frowned, and then smiled. He waved. I returned the wave and smiled back. For just an instant our eyes met. Then he ran on and I continued my drive.

Such a brief encounter, but it changed my day and I know it affected him as well. A split second of time, but a whole world hangs in the balance. In a moment new human beings are conceived or die, lives are changed irrevocably, nations rise or fall, wars are begun or ended.

Our lives, like the patchwork quilt, are made up of such split seconds, woven uniquely together to create that drama called living.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Monkey Business

I’ve been looking for my muse today. I think I lost her. Or she might have just packed her bags and left. I wouldn’t blame her. I too would get tired of sharing my space with all the idle chatter that goes on in my mind. Wouldn’t be too bad if it was friendly palaver. The trouble is, it’s not. There are at least a dozen voices up there waiting for their chance, and each one is an expert. I call it the “tape,” for it’s like a looped recording. It’s on all of the time and has no off button.

It seems we all have one, a tape. When did it start? When my granddaughter Sloane was four, she was tested for a pre-kindergarten class. I asked her how it went. “Well,” she said. “I don’t know all my colors. Big deal!” No negative demons there. Her big sister Chelsea was six and already in kindergarten. She loved it and had no trouble telling me, “I like school. I’m good at everything.” Still no negative tape. However, the following year she entered first grade. After several months had gone by, I asked her how it was going. She hesitated, then spoke, her voice low. “I’m not very good at math.” Oh no! I thought. The tape was beginning to record.

The problem is that we remember those events that have strong emotions, especially negative emotions, connected to them. It takes only one negative thought to wipe out ten positive thoughts. So guess what the tape is loaded with—negative thoughts. And to make matters worse, I read in Fast Company (October 2012, page 18) that the human brain processes 40 thoughts every second. And most of them negative. Good grief! No respite!

So what to do about all that negative commentary without having to be unconscious, inebriated, or stoned? I had a dream some time ago. In it, I’m watching a mechanized assembly line loaded with laundry bags. Each bag was a single thought. I watched several go by, and then grabbed one and heard someone laugh. “Now you’re stuck with it,” a voice said. I woke and got out of bed. The tape was already running, thoughts going by one after the other. A particularly juicy one came by and I began to argue with it. “Now you’re stuck with it,” echoed in my mind. I was, for to argue with the thought reinforces its neural pathway. It’s like being caught on the end of a rotor blade. Round and round with no conclusion in sight. There’s no win in that activity. Better to ignore the thought. My friend Cheryl, who is a therapist, says your mind is lying to you when it gives you those negative thoughts. My friend Dennis says we can’t trust our assessment of ourselves. He recommends using another’s assessment, especially if it’s a good one. A writer I know just yells, “SHUT UP!” Great advice.

So, when my negative critic starts up questioning my ability to write, I remind myself that I can write. Have written. Sold books. Get royalty checks. And I’m willing to do the BIC thing (butt in chair). I want my muse back! The amazing thing is she’s there—always has been, waiting for me to recognize the chatter for what it really is—monkey mind. I merely have to begin, cast aside all fears, ignore the chatter, and write.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Arguing With the Road

I just finished reading Stephen Tobolowsky's book The Dangerous Animals Club. Steve is an actor, a good one for he works all the time. And he’s a wonderful storyteller. (You can hear his stories on NPR.) But as I read his book, I realized he’s also a philosopher.

In his book, Tobolowsky referred to the story in the Bible of how Joseph, the youngest and favorite son was taken by his brothers and sold into slavery. (If you haven’t read it in the book of Genesis, think of the musical “Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors.”) Many years later, after Joseph had become the right-hand man to Pharaoh, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt, desperate to find food for their people. They were taken before Joseph. They didn’t recognize him, but he knew them. Of course, he gave them food, forgave them all, and sent them back home. The story tells that as they were leaving, Joseph tossed out a bit of advice, “Go, and don’t fight on the road.” There are several interpretations of what that meant. Rashi, a great French rabbi and commentator from the eleventh century, said that the word “fight” really meant “be agitated” or “be fearful.” Good advice to stay cool on their way home. Perhaps if they were to act nervous, robbers, figuring they had riches, might attack them. Another rabbi suggested that Joseph wanted them to not continue blaming one another for their treatment of him. And then a Chasidic rabbi in the late eighteenth century argued that the line was mistranslated.

I’m not surprised as translating Hebrew is difficult because the reader gets to add the vowels in the words. Not only that, letters added to the beginning and end of a word changes the meaning of the word. In Hebrew, the word for road is derech. If you add bet (Hebrew for B) in front of it, you have something that can be translated as “on the road.” But sometimes a bet at the beginning of a word can also mean “with.” Then the sentence reads, “don’t fight with the road.” That doesn’t make much sense. One further change is that derech can also mean “path” or “way.” Now instead of reading, “don’t fight on the road,” we have “don’t argue with the path.”

That really resonated with me. What a waste of time to argue with “what’s so.” I thought about my life, all the strange twists and turns it has taken. Often, I’ve stopped and looked in the mirror and asked myself, “How have you managed to get here safely?” I’m not really sure. I know all about setting goals and the importance of taking the action required to accomplish them. But most of my life has consisted of just showing up each morning and dealing with whatever is there. (Think raising four children.) Too often, I’ve been at the mercy of Kismet (the fates), like my husband’s job. If the company said, “Move,” we asked, “How far?”

Friends tell me the angels take care of me. Perhaps they do, for I feel fortunate. I’m surrounded by a wonderful family and loads of friends. The energy field they create must look to the world as if the angels are at work. I think of all the energy Joseph’s brothers could have wasted as they argued with the past and with the “what’s so” of their lives. “Why…?” “If only…?” Useless conversations. Better to take the lessons as best we can and write the past off as just that—past. I notice I showed up today. Did you? Welcome to the Universe. Might as well enjoy the ride!