When life gives you lemons

Many years ago, my daughter wanted to open a lemonade stand. Without a lot of thought, I assented. We made a quick pitcher of lemonade, I handed her some cups to go with it, and she scurried outside to set up shop.

About an hour later, my aunt and uncle arrived for dinner. They came in the house four dollars poorer, carrying cups of suspiciously light swill. It didn’t look like the drink we had made, so when my daughter came inside, I gave her the third degree on her business operations.

That little stinker had taken matters into her own hands. Rather than charging $0.25 per cup as agreed, she had increased the price to $2.00. She pressed her brother and the neighbor girl into service, with one flagging down cars and the other selling the drink door to door. When they ran out of lemonade, Miss Industrious simply inserted the hose into the empty pitcher and filled it with water–and continued to make sales. $2.00 for a cup of lemony-scented spigot water, and she was raking it in. While I secretly admired her industriousness, I questioned her business ethics.

The next time my daughter told me she wanted to open a lemonade stand, I was determined to make it a learning experience.

I agreed to let Miss Industrious restart her business, but on my terms. Rather than simply raiding my pantry, we went to the grocery store to buy cups and lemonade mix, as well as posterboard for her signs. Eight-ish dollars later, we trotted home with her supplies and an understanding that she had to repay me for the $8 business loan from her revenue. (She also knew that if she ran out of drink, she had to use the mix we bought to make more–no bait-and-switch tactics this time!)

The next morning with her signs lettered and her lemonade mixed, she was ready to sell. I gave her babysitter the rundown of my expectations, with instructions to keep Miss Industrious adherent to the rules. I went to work and left them to it.

When I returned, I asked how the day had gone. Miss Industrious proudly told me she had made twenty-something dollars. (I don’t remember the exact number.) Rather than congratulating her immediately, I reminded her that she owed me eight–she hadn’t “made” 20something, but rather 20something minus eight. The most important lesson, I thought, was the economic principle.

As usual, I was wrong.

Instead of handing me eight dollars, Miss Industrious handed me all her money. You see, I was preparing to participate in a charity bike ride to benefit cancer research.* The event requires several thousand dollars per rider in fundraising, and her plan all along had been to help me raise money. Here, Mom, she said. It’s all for you. It’s for the PMC.

If she learned a lesson that day, I learned a bigger one.

I may have taught her economics, but she taught me heart.

*If you haven’t heard of the Pan-Mass Challenge, check it out at pmc.org. I don’t ride anymore–192 miles in two days are too much for my knees–but the event remains no less worthy. In fact, it’s pretty amazing.

Do the right thing

I’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19. Statistically, my risk of becoming seriously ill with the disease is very low, even with the Delta variant that has become so pervasive. I also live in a state that has not been very forceful about pandemic restrictions. If you look around, you probably wouldn’t realize we are *still* navigating a pandemic. All this translates to minimal (personal) risk and no real restrictions.

Nonetheless, I wear a mask in most indoor situations.

I’ve been thinking about how I would answer the question of why. The short answer is simply that I think it’s important. If that’s all you want to know, feel free to move along now. If you want the long answer, buckle up and read on.

When my grandmother was 27 years old with three children under age four, she contracted polio. In an instant, her duties as a wife and mother gave way to survival. Friends, family, and neighbors fed her family, cared for her children, and did her chores. She fought like h*ll against being put into an iron lung because she firmly believed she wouldn’t survive the disease if that happened. Nonetheless, she spent several weeks in the hospital while her kids (my mom and two siblings) were shuttled from place to place. My uncle remembers a time when he stood outside the hospital while he watched his mom be rolled out to a fire escape platform in a wheelchair. All she could muster was a weak wave.

Eventually Grandma won her fight, but she wrestled with the lingering effects of the disease for years.

After polio, Grandma gave birth to three more children, served as a US postmaster, ran a farm with my grandpa, and traveled the world. She lived a full life, but she never forgot the fear that polio brought. After she recovered, she still carried that fear for her children.

Until the vaccine.

One of my aunts recalls when my grandma—her mom—took her to get vaccinated against polio. She remembers the vaccination site with tables full of cups that held sugar cubes carrying the oral vaccine. Mostly she remembers that my grandma cried as she experienced the emotional release of knowing her children would not have to suffer the way she had.

I got that vaccine, and so did my kids. They don’t even know what polio is, though. Why? Because there hasn’t been a case of polio that originated in the US since 1979. There has not been a case of polio in this country in their lifetimes. Heck, there hasn’t been one for most of mine.

So what does this have to do with me wearing a mask? As long as we let COVID-19 continue to spread by eschewing the vaccine AND basic precautions like masks, it will continue to mutate and elude our efforts to eradicate it. Mounting evidence shows that even if my vaccinated self doesn’t get sick, I can still carry enough viral load to spread it to others. The more it spreads, the more mutates. The more it mutates, the less effective the existing vaccine becomes. The less effective the vaccine, the more the virus spreads. And the cycle continues.

We will never get rid of COVID-19 the way we did polio and smallpox (yes! I have that telltale vaccination scar) unless we stop spreading it. I want this scourge out of my life, and I’m going to do everything I can NOT to be the person who passes it on.

I’m not living in fear. I’m not even worried that much anymore about getting sick. I want to see this thing disappear and I’m going to do my part. It’s not impossible. My grandma saw it with polio in her lifetime. Nobody is telling me to; it’s just the right thing to do.

Now you know why I wear a mask.

You’re not listening

Dear US Healthcare System:

I feel abandoned.

>Before I start, let’s be clear: this isn’t about my personal issue. That simply served as a trigger for the broader questions.<

I have a (mild) chronic issue that hasn’t responded well to treatment, but I don’t have any way to ask questions or get simple answers. If I want to talk to my doctor, I have to make an appointment several weeks out. I can ask questions through my health portal, but that involves sending a message, having someone relay it to the doctor, waiting for his answer, and relaying his answer back to me. This process usually takes an entire business day. If I have a question about the response I receive, I have to start the whole process all over again. An exchange that should take five minutes of direct conversation can end up literally taking days.

Why have you made healthcare providers so inaccessible to the people they are supposed to be helping?

What would happen if my condition were more serious than the one I have now?

Whom do I ask for help?

You tell me to avoid Dr. Google, but when I’m struggling with pain and my mind is racing and my doctor isn’t readily available, where else should I go?

You tell me to advocate for myself, but where? How do I do that when I can’t get past the wall of administration? When I can’t talk directly to a provider? I can tell my story and ask my questions and fight to be heard, but I have to do this over and over and over again to get to someone who can actually help me. And this takes So. Much. Time. Don’t you think I have a job to do or a household to run?

This is absurd. All this effort to ask a few questions. Why have you removed access to our healthcare providers? To put it into an SAT analogy, our healthcare system : healing :: automated phone systems : customer service. I can’t get to the right person to actually get help when I need it. Every issue has to escalate to something bigger than it actually is just to receive attention. And you wonder why I’m one step from snapping when I finally do get to talk to someone.

How do we get back to basics? Seriously, all I want is a simple conversation.

Sincerely,

Me (and everyone else in this country)

Side effects

The other day I was talking to a friend who has devoted a good deal of her life to the ideals of the civil rights movement. She spent most of her teaching career working with inner city kids, leading classrooms of students who didn’t look a thing like her when others were too scared or too comfortable to step in. She has always acted with kindness and empathy toward everyone, regardless of race or creed. Imagine my surprise when she didn’t engage in a conversation about the current climate of racial tension exactly the way I thought she would.

When I questioned her about it, she seemed tired, defeated. All those things we fought for seem to just be coming full circle again, she said. My sense was that she felt that it ultimately hadn’t made much difference. Here we are again, fifty years later, fighting the same battles.

She kept talking about unintended consequences, and I wish I had spent more time probing what she meant. I sensed a bit of regret, not for the cause, but for the place we have landed.

But I keep going back to those unintended consequences.

What did she mean? What are/were they? Do they matter? The truth is, I don’t know any of these answers. I hope to find out someday soon.

What I do know is this.

We can’t let fear of the unknown hold us back from taking action to move toward something that’s right. We make choices based on the information we have at the time and do the best we can. We learn to mitigate the side effects when they come, but we keep marching toward the goal–however imperfectly.

I respect her fatigue. If she’s tired, that’s okay; it’s my turn to step up.

Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.

Maya Angelou

Why ask why

Since I started writing again, I’ve purposely avoided tackling the topics of the moment: COVID, racism, civil unrest. There’s already so much being written on all sides that I feared my voice would just add to the confusion. And to be honest, it’s safer.

It doesn’t feel right, though.

It’s hard to keep it light when so many things weigh heavily on my mind. I am heartbroken about what’s happening across the country: Minneapolis, Kenosha, Portland, Los Angeles. Pick just about any city right now and you can find protests and violence ravaging the streets.

While I don’t condone violence–against humans, animals, property, or anything else–if we ONLY look at that, we’re missing the point. It’s too easy to focus on an end result and make sweeping judgments. When we do, we’re just treating the symptoms.

Why aren’t we asking WHY?

Why are people so frustrated and angry? Why does an entire population feel disenfranchised? Why do people feel they have to break things or cause unrest to be heard? Why aren’t the rest of us listening?

We have built a society that systemically discriminates against people who are not white. We didn’t admit Black people into college for a really long time, and when we did, we didn’t let them live there or use the libraries or do any of the things they needed to succeed. We didn’t let Black people get union cards back in the day, so they couldn’t find work in the trades. We didn’t let Black people get loans so they couldn’t make investments in businesses or houses or their own prosperity. I could go on, but hopefully you see the point.

Fast forward to today. Even when laws have changed, the cultural effects continue to be carried forward. Attitudes, neighborhoods, expectations, beliefs, stigmas. Some of us won’t even acknowledge a problem ever existed at all.

There’s a tweet going around the internet about an idea for a new reality show:

ok hear me out….a reality show where billionaire CEOs have to live off of their lowest-paid employee’s salary for a month

— eva ☻ (@evamarieluter) August 30, 2020

If you follow the thread (which is now ginormous), someone commented that it wouldn’t be a problem for the billionaire since s/he would just invest, build wealth, and get the heck out of there. Yeah, right. Understandably, many people responded to remind that person that when all your money goes to rent and food, there isn’t anything left to invest. The debate got pretty toxic, but isn’t this the same point we need to examine for Black people in our country?

How could we ever expect anyone to work their way out of dire situations when all of their resources went to survival? And we refused to provide the tools–education, jobs, certifications, access to credit–that would help them change things? Even if those things are (arguably) available now, they’re already way behind. And again, the cultural effects remain much more deeply entrenched.

Before you start giving me anecdotal illustrations of people for whom this was NOT the situation, I’ll agree with you. Yep, right now. I agree. Not every Black person suffered in the same way. Many became prosperous and “lived the dream.” (Whose dream is debatable, but that’s for a different day.) But many, many, many more–the overwhelming majority–fell victim to a system designed to keep them separate at best and unable to function at worst.

I’ll also say this: I don’t have the solution.

What I do know is that we will never, ever make any progress toward peace and justice if we only address the symptoms. If we only address the violence and looting, it will keep happening. We need to treat the whole disease to find a cure, not just the symptoms.

Start by asking what brought us here. And don’t forget to listen to the answers.

The time I got it wrong

I hate to be wrong. As much as I love to be right (who doesn’t?), I hate to be wrong even more. I have lots of reasons for this, but since they revolve around my self-psychoanalysis, I’ll spare you the details. Just know that I viscerally hate to be wrong.

Imagine, then, the internal turmoil that enveloped me the day I realized that sometimes it’s actually BETTER to be wrong. Or the days I have to remind myself of that lesson.

Wait, what?

Yeah, I have a hard time with that, too. But seriously, there are many times when being wrong is better than being right.

Take COVID, for example. I wear a mask, not because I “live in fear” (some anti-masker accused me of that the other day) or because an oppressive government forced me to do it, but because I believe it offers some protection to me and those around me. I believe we need to take reasonable precautions to slow the spread of the disease. I believe that NOT wearing one puts people at unnecessary risk. Sometimes when I see people gathering in large groups, defiant of scientific advice, I think, they’ll see. The virus is going to catch up to them. Except, I really don’t want anyone to get sick.

When a close friend of mine told me her daughter was getting married–straight out of high school–I found it difficult to feel celebratory. Marriage is hard enough! Young marriages are doomed to fail! Why doesn’t she wait at least till she’s legal to drink the champagne at her wedding?! I had a lot of thoughts like this, until one day I realized, what are you hoping for, T? That you’ll be proven right? That means the marriage will fail. No way did I want my friend’s daughter to suffer the pain of divorce.

My dog has been limping around since March. I’ve taken him to the vet so many times, it’s not worth counting. He’s a gentle giant with a heavy dose of stoicism, so the animal care staff mostly thought I was being overprotective. He’s getting older; this is to be expected, especially in these large breeds. He probably just has arthritis. Many months and some expensive xrays later, we learned my best boy has two torn cruciate ligaments, the canine equivalent of the human ACL. Yup, one in each back leg. My poor boy is now looking at two tough surgeries and recovery. As much as I want my boy to be zooming around the house, a tiny bit of my perversely vindicated self wants to scream I TOLD YOU SO to the vet.

Anyway, this has been a hard lesson for me to learn–and re-learn. I feel like a failure when I’m wrong. I like being the person who got it right, not the one who suffers defeat.

But sometimes I need to remember that the real victory is in the outcome itself, not the position I took. It’s when people stay healthy, when marriage works, when your dog is okay after all, when the result is something GOOD. Especially in those times–and probably in many others, as well–I need to remember that rightness and righteousness are not the same.

Flying blind

A couple of nights ago, something started thump-whumping on my back door. I didn’t think anything of it at first; my house often makes creepy noises that flare up and then disappear. This one kept happening, though.

It’s August, a little late for the giant Junebugs that don’t realize a giant pane of glass stands between them and the light. Anyway, the sound was lower-pitched than that, like something bigger and maybe furry.

I started having visions of a raccoon trying to nudge the door open, but when I turned on the light and looked outside, I saw nothing. No ringed eyes looking up at me, no tiny black paws scrabbling to grab hold, nothing. I turned off the light and went back to the sofa.

Thump-whump! Thump-whump!

The sound came again, and again I turned on the light and looked through the glass door. Again nothing. This time I convinced myself the sound had come from a bat launching its small, furry body toward my kitchen, stopped only by the glass door. That had to be why I couldn’t see anything, right? It had flown away. Definitely creepy.

Back to my seat I went, mentally preparing for how I would remove the creepy flying mammal when it finally sneaked into my kitchen. I don’t have a net, but I might be able to locate a tennis racquet somewhere in the house. Oh please, oh please, don’t let it come to that.

Thump-whump! Thump-whump!

When the noise started again, I grabbed a flashlight. Instead of going directly to the door and scaring off the critter by turning on the outside light, I went to a window where I could see the door from a different angle. I shined the flashlight across the door to try to catch a glimpse of the offender. Still nothing. What the heck?

My boyfriend came up behind me and peered over my shoulder. He scanned the area with his eyes and somehow landed on a tiny flicker of movement on the ground. “Shine your light there,” he said.

I did. I could see something moving, but I couldn’t get a good visual. I adjusted the flashlight’s beam to be less diffuse, and I finally saw it. A giant locust. Seriously? That was the thing that had been creeping me out all evening?

Subsequent thumps that evening no longer bothered me. In fact, I even gave a little chuckle when I heard the sound again, amused and a little sheepish at how I had fallen victim to my assumptions.

There was no bat trying to get into my house to terrorize me. All it took was a little investigation to disprove my theory. Once I got more information, even the continued thumping no longer set my mind racing.

What a good reminder to look for more information before drawing conclusions and to be open to what we learn, whether it proves or dispels.

Shine your light. Look from a different angle. Be ready to find something you don’t expect.

Identity crisis

I love food.

For most of my life, creating it has been part of my identity. As an adolescent, I baked. When, as a newly minted adult, I called myself a good cook, my dad countered and said I was a good baker–he didn’t really know whether I could cook. So I rose to the challenge and dove into new recipes, embracing new techniques. Now I bake AND cook.

I love to read recipes and experiment with complicated cooking methods. I buy unusual ingredients when I find them at the grocery store just to see what I can do with them. Just yesterday I picked up a box of Cape gooseberries to see where they might lead me. I can’t stand to clean my house, but I’ll happily cook all day.

Of course, eating comes with the territory. Discovering a new restaurant, an unusual flavor combination, or just pure deliciousness is an enduring quest for me. Although I have a few favorites, I rarely order the same thing twice at a restaurant for fear I’ll miss out on some other epicurean delight. And I try really hard to avoid ordering the same thing as someone else at my table. After all, I might be able to snag a bite of something different.

So what’s the problem?

In my (seemingly constant) effort to maintain my weight and improve my overall health, food represents a key component of that formula. I’ve made lots of lifestyle improvements over the years, but the hardest thing has been–and still is–separating myself from food. It’s like tearing away a piece of my soul.

Look, I make mostly healthy-ish choices. I’ve shifted my cooking style. I’ve learned to embrace and love vegetables (except the orange ones). I work out hard. But walk me past a new coffee shop or bakery, suggest we try a new restaurant, or tempt me with a fancy technique and I’m all in.

I’m trying to set boundaries and find alternative pleasures. I’m striving for moderation, to embrace all the sensory pleasures of food–the visual stimulation of a carefully composed dish, the smell that envelops me, the sound of the sizzle, the feel of working the dough–so that taste becomes less important and I find satisfaction in a single bite.

But this is my SOUL we’re talking about.

I’m not asking for advice here. Finding the right balance with food in all its aspects in my life is hard, but I’m trying. It isn’t the food I need to figure out so much as myself.

I see this as a journey in self-awareness. Twenty years ago, maybe even ten or five, I wouldn’t have recognized these things. Somewhere along the way I realized that food has become integral to my identity (admiring, creating, eating, sharing), so of course making lifestyle changes that revolve around it will be hard. In this case, I think the key is to finally recognize that I can’t just quit the thing that matters so much to me. I can’t even work around it, really. Instead, I need to work with it in a way that allows me to embrace my identity and still achieve my goals.

All this time, I’ve been trying to figure out food, when I should have been trying to figure out myself.

Dragon slaying

I’m struggling again with blog writing, as you may have surmised from my absent posts this week. I’ve started second guessing my ideas: Who would want to read that? I’m worried about my tone: Sheesh! You sound like Pollyanna, always turning things into glib sunshine and rainbows. I lose my grasp on fleeting ideas: I just can’t think of anything interesting to write about. This old insecurities (explained in I am not a-mused) have flared up again.

I can’t let that happen.

So here I am, writing about the insecurities themselves. By giving them voice and then countering with the truth, I intend to put them to rest. I know I’ll likely have to do this many times and they may never be permanently defeated. Hopefully, though, each time will get easier and the process of cutting them down will become second nature.

It just takes practice, and to show I’m serious about slaying my dragons, I’m going to do it publicly.

  1. Who would want to read that? C’mon, T. You’ve said since Day One that you’re not writing for anyone else. Remember how you said that writing every day jumpstarted your creativity and helped you organize your thoughts? Yeah, you really said that. Why don’t you own it now? Write like you mean it.
  2. Sheesh! You sound like Pollyanna, always turning things into glib sunshine and rainbows. Life isn’t sunshine and rainbows, but there’s nothing wrong with trying to find the nuggets of wisdom in everyday situations. It doesn’t mean your life is perfect, T. Actually, you need to find those nuggets for yourself. (See item 1 in case you forgot your audience.) There are days when you feel like buckling under the weight of all that’s going on; it’s perfectly normal to look for ways to make sense of it. In fact, this exercise is vastly healthier than wallowing (at which you’re also quite accomplished).
  3. I just can’t think of anything interesting to write about. Jeez, T, you’ve always prided yourself on being able to make something out of nothing. How many times have you told people that’s what your blog posts reflect? After all, you just wrote a whole post on how you couldn’t write. Talk about turning nothing into something!

I doubt that I’ve slain the dragon of self-doubt, but hopefully I’ve beaten him back for a while so my body of work–my armaments–can grow.

So friends, here’s my formula for dealing with fear/self-doubt/whatever is holding you back: bring it into the light. Call it out; share it with someone else. Then present your counterarguments. If it helps, do it in third person. Pretend you’re counseling a friend or your daughter or someone important to you. Write them down, point by point, so you can SEE them. Then go do the thing that scares you. Your legs may be wobbly, but they’ll get stronger as you go. I promise.

Cut to the chase

Stilfehler / CC BY-SA

When I visited my hairdresser the other day, I went armed with an idea. Mind you, for nearly twenty years I’ve told her, Do whatever you want. Once in a while I tell her to leave the length, thin it a bit, get it out of my face, but the execution–if not the entire style–is usually up to her. I’m just not very good at this stuff, so why not leave it to someone who is?

Well, after thirteen-ish years of the same hairstyle with only small variations in its length, I thought I needed a change. I’ve been psyching myself up for it for months, but I’ve never quite been able to make it happen. After all, the only place to go was short, and I wouldn’t be able to change my mind once I heard the snip of the scissors. I’m not afraid of short hair; I’ve worn it that way for close to half my adult life. I just…wasn’t sure.

I used the week before my appointment to find some photos of styles I liked and thought would work with my thick, coarse, wavy hair. I sent a few to my fashion consultant (my daughter), who gave me the thumbs up. All systems go, right?

I texted a heads-up to my hairdresser a couple of days before my appointment: This is your fair warning. I’m thinking about going short. I knew she’d have to digest it, and saying it out loud (via text) forced me to make a decision. It was no longer just an idea.

When I arrived at the salon, I nervously showed my hairdresser the photos I liked. I still wasn’t 100% sure and I wanted her opinion. Her initial refusal to make the cut galvanized me.

What?! It’s my hair! What’s wrong with these styles? Short in the back, longer in the front; isn’t that what we’ve been doing, just on a wayyyyyyy different scale? I want my hair short!

She ended up cutting my hair, and I love it–so does she.

What I find particularly interesting about this encounter is that my doubt vanished when my hairdresser pushed back. I realized I was ready and dadgummit, we needed to make it happen. As I laid out all the reasons whey I wanted this and why it was time, my position solidified. Although I can be pretty stubborn and often contrary, I’m fairly certain I would have backed off if I hadn’t been ready to make the change.

When we bounce our ideas, thoughts, beliefs, questions, whatever off others, it helps us hone and understand them for ourselves. We often need to get out of our own heads and test our positions in the real world. Sometimes we’ll end up doubling down, and sometimes we’ll end up rethinking them. Either way, we’re better for it.

Certainly this example is pretty simplified, but there’s truth in it. Aren’t we all better when we’re willing to learn how our ideas stand up to opposition? I challenge you to sit down with someone who doesn’t agree with you on an issue and have a (civil!) conversation about it.

I look like a total dork in pics, but here’s the new cut!

Side note: I DID listen to my hairdresser’s concerns on this, by they way. It turns out that she wasn’t opposed the short style I wanted. She has just been burned by being held to a particular photo when the person’s hair doesn’t behave exactly like the model’s. Once I removed the photo from the equation and told her what I wanted to accomplish, she agreed, as long as she could do it according to her vision. She’s been cutting my hair for nineteen years, so I trusted her to do that. We make a good team, especially when I let her be the expert.