The Lopsided Tree

I have been watching (for, give me strength, months—literally months!) commercials lauding a particular brand of “perfect”, extraordinarily realistic Christmas tree. Each time I’ve been subjected to the commercial, I’ve thought to myself, “If you want a tree that perfectly realistic, for heaven’s sake, buy a live tree!”

But that isn’t true, either, is it? I recall the live trees of my early childhood, before artificial trees became common. They were never perfect. One always turned the “not so good” side to the wall. They sat crookedly in the tree stand, requiring endless work to straighten them and keep them straight. They shed needles no matter how much water was added to the stand. The top branch keeled over under the weight of the angel. But they smelled heavenly, and once the heavy glass colored bulbs were lit, they looked like a little piece of heaven, too.

They were a lot of trouble, those live trees, and I don’t precisely miss them, having used the artificial variety for most of my lifetime now. But I had reason to think about them as I set up my tree this year.

Two holiday seasons past, I had to purchase a new tree, doing so during the after-Christmas sales. I choose a prelit “umbrella” tree, one with folding branches that didn’t have to be frustratingly inserted following a complicated pattern. As I checked out with my tree at the counter, the sales clerk warned me that returns could only be processed within 30 days; be sure, she advised me, once I arrived home, that the lights on the tree were working. I swiped my credit card and laughed. “My dear,” I chuckled, “this baby is staying in the box until next Christmas. And if the lights don’t work, well, that’s why God invented strings of lights!’

But the lights did work, as I found out the following year. Although sparse (I prefer my trees simply laden with twinkling white lights), the tree blossomed into brilliance once plugged in. It was taller than I’d anticipated, but fit nicely into the narrow area available after the aggravation of moving the furniture. And, once decorated, it was just breathtaking.

Fast forward to January 2nd. There was simply NO WAY that tree was going back into the box. Finally I covered it with big trash bags and propped it into the corner of my tiny, single-car garage…where, a few months later, it crashed to the ground one evening as I pulled my car into the space, snapping the weld that held the bushy top branch in place so that it broke completely from the tree.

Ever the optimist, I decided to put it aside until the holiday season, sure it would be easy to repair. If the upper lights didn’t work now, I thought, I’d just get a string. No big deal.

Sigh. A week prior to Thanksgiving, I decided it might be best to repair that treetop. But after a frustrating two hours of attempting multiple mends, it became clear to me that the broken treetop was not going to be repaired. Oh, the lights still worked. But no way was that treetop ever going to slide into place in the trunk once again.

Finally, on the night before Thanksgiving, I brought the damaged tree into the house. Deciding that if duct tape had been good enough for Apollo 13, it was good enough for my Christmas tree, I taped the broken tree top to the trunk portion of the tree. It was lopsided as all get-out, and it wobbled ever so slightly, but it worked. I wound some ribbon about the trunk to disguise the mend, and settled the tree into its spot by the living room window.

The Lopsideded Tree Crop

And now, I realize, I like the tree better.

It was a little too tall before; now, perhaps four inches shorter, it is just the right size. It’s lopsided, just like the beloved trees of my childhood. The side where the mend shows most has been turned to the wall. It lost a few needles in the repair process, especially where I discovered that one umbrella-fold branch had also been a victim of that topple to the garage floor.

It is a perfectly imperfect tree.

Perhaps that is a metaphor for Christmas itself—for all the holidays celebrated by all the families of many cultures throughout the lands of this earth. We strive to make everything perfect—the food, the gathering, the gifts, the lights. But no matter how hard we try, perfection never happens. Married children cannot split their time between two families; grandchildren can’t make it home from distant colleges. The turkey burns; the mashed potatoes turn out runny. Someone starts a political discussion that ends up in shouting and quarrels. The smokers are angry at banishment to the porch. All the men escape to the TV for football, while the women, resentfully, clear tables and wash dishes. The kids scorn the gifts that their parents worked so hard to provide.

Perfection never happens. But, nonetheless, the lights burn brilliantly on the lopsided tree, reminding us that perfection isn’t a necessary component to joy. Satisfaction, acceptance, and “good enough” are all we truly need for happiness.

Manners of the Heart

I once enjoyed reading various columns in the daily newspapers. They were, after all, essentially the same thing as these blog posts; only the presenting medium differs.  And I have vivid memories the many weekly and daily features that I read.

One, years ago, was an advice column for etiquette. (I see you are now shaking your head.  You are thinking: When even the words “please” and “thank you” are forgotten bastions of good manners, when hate speech and road rage are common — well, in this era, almost no one, no one at all, would ever write, much less read, a feature piece about etiquette.)  But, there you have it.  For many years, newspapers across the country carried a daily article totally devoted to proper behavior.  Some still do!

I found the etiquette column fascinating. My own upbringing might be referred to as “Midwestern casual”.  I knew enough of good manners to keep my elbows off the dinner table and my mouth closed while chewing a bite.  I did not sling my napkin about my neck, but placed it on my lap. I knew that I should hold the door open for a person whose arms were laden with packages, or who was elderly, and that I was to answer respectfully, “Yes, Ma’am” or “Yes, Sir” when addressed by an adult. Parents of my friends were addressed as Mrs. or Mr., not by their first names.  I was never to point at someone, and I needed to say “Pardon me” or “Excuse me, please” when it was necessary to walk around someone.  But that about summed up my acquaintance with mannerliness.

So I devoured these articles on etiquette, learning unexpected and captivating facts. Presented with more cutlery than a knife, fork and spoon?  Start at the outside and work inward.  Lay my unused hand across the napkin in my lap. If arriving first at the door, hold it for everyone else, but if a someone offers to take the door for me as a large group enters, say thank you and continue in.  Spoon my soup away from me. When first becoming acquainted in a formal situation, ask if I might call someone by their first name. Sit with my ankles crossed and on a slight slant to one side.  Stir tea or coffee slowly in a vertical line.

Some of the advice was pithy and intelligent; occasionally (like that “spoon your soup” rule) it seemed to be total nonsense…until one considered the consequences of behaving otherwise (A dribble from the soup spoon will fall into the bowl, not the lap! Tea stirred in a circle will create a vortex and could overflow the cup.)

But scattered amongst all this concise and sensible information, there lurked pitfalls, and many of these became apparent in the questions sent in by people seeking to know the appropriate way to handle unusual situations. My favorite of all these was the woman who had a debate going with a friend on the correct way to put the flat sheet on the bed.

Having grown up in an era in which white bedsheets were the norm—colored sheets, and solid colors at that, had finally edged into the market; prints were just becoming popular—it had never occurred to me that there was any special way to lay the flat sheet atop the fitted sheet. You placed it down, straightened it across, tucked in the bottom and put hospital corners on the lower sides.  Period.  End of story.

But just as Dear Abby learned in the Great Toilet Paper Debate, everyone has an opinion.  The writer opined that, if the sheet was laid down “properly”, with the uppermost seam turned down, the flat sheet had to be laid with the printed side downward or “only the maid sees the pretty sheets”.

The maid?!

I had already gotten stuck at that part about the sheets being laid down “properly”. It had certainly never occurred to me to turn that uppermost seam down any which way.  One laid the sheet, as I’ve said, to the correct height on the mattress and tucked in the bottom and corners.

But the maid?

What maid?!  Did the writer of the letter—much less the author of the column—not realize that 99-and-some percent of the readers of this column had no maid?

It suddenly occurred to me that the etiquette lessons I was learning from these articles might not, after all, be applicable to the reality of the life I was living.

I’ll never remember what the author’s answer was to this ultimately silly question, having boggled at those other points in the letter. Despite that, I continued reading the manners advice column daily, extracting from it some pertinent guidance that I continue to use to this day.

But the memory of that letter came back to me when I was recovering from surgery, and a thoughtful friend came weekly to change the bedsheets for me. Laying down the flat sheet, she asked if I preferred to have the embroidered top seam turned down, for that would determine how she lay the sheet over the mattress.  “Hey, you’re doing me the favor,” I told her.  “I’m just grateful for your help. You put the sheet on there any way you like.”

And that, I think, is the essence of good manners: gratitude, consideration, and genuine courtesy.  Truly good manners are manners of the heart.

Mathematics Makes a…WHAT?!

More years ago than I care to remember, during the era in which the Sunday newspaper was a regular establishment and chock-full of information, I always enjoyed reading the small magazine that accompanied the paper. For several years one of my favorite features in that magazine was a column written by a woman acclaimed for her high I.Q. Much as I do with this blog, she simply discussed ideas and events that interested her, and, whether I agreed with her observations or not, I thoroughly enjoyed reading them.

The topic of one such article was the necessity of teaching and learning mathematics. Since math has been my stumbling block since I got to the point of learning (uh, being unable to learn) my “seven plus” tables—I’ve since discovered that I may suffer from dyscalculia, the mathematical equivalent to dyslexia–I read her column with real curiosity.

The author explained her point of view carefully, and her observations made great sense, until I reached a remark near the conclusion of her essay, in which (to the best of my memory; this was decades ago) she stated that “…mathematics makes a better poet”.

Say what?!

I put the article down and pondered. This being the pre-Internet era, I could not easily check my supposition, but I did not recall that anyone had ever mentioned or published Einstein’s shining examples of verse.  (I’ve looked them up since, and the few poems of his I was able to locate on-line were, at best, ordinary; certainly in no way comparable to notable poets such as Byron or Millay.)  I thought further on the subject and realized that, whether one believed that William Shakespeare was, in fact, Shakespeare, or any one of another half-dozen candidates for having written his works, I simply didn’t recall his equally-brilliant ventures into the field of mathematics.  Hmmm. That is, other than his ability to write in iambic pentameter—a feat which basically relies on tossing all the grammar books and rules out the window and brilliantly twisting language to fit emotion.  (In fact, most truly excellent poetry does just that.)  Da Vinci—certainly the ultimate Renaissance man and brilliant at mathematics, as proved by his engineering marvels—Da Vinci wrote quite an essay explaining why poetry simply did not measure up to painting.  He may have loved numbers, but he certainly had little enthusiasm for verse.

Pondering the article further, I mused that, having written several hundred poems myself–yes, most of them quite ordinary; I am admittedly not a Keats or  Dickinson or Millay–and even published a (pathetically) few, I did not ever recall needing any more mathematical a skill than that of counting out the syllables and establishing the rhythm of verses by tapping my fingers on the desk.  And this drumming occurred only when I was writing verse with rhyme and meter…a skill that wasn’t even necessary on the occasions when I wrote free verse.

Mathematics makes a better poet?

Nonsense. Despite the fact that my own I.Q. was obviously lower than that of the author, her contention was definitely pushing the point due to her personal bias.

The truth, I thought, lay more in the fact that mathematicians absolutely love math, finding it everywhere and searching for it in everything, while those who adore language do the same with words, from “Let there be light” right on down the freeway.

My personal bias is, of course, language. That may very well be why I toss the “mathematics makes a better poet” argument right out the window of the highrise to watch it shatter on the pavement below.  Introduced to poetry at an early age by a mother who loved it and who read it aloud with great skill, I was able to write competent verse by the third grade despite my compromised mathematical skills (and let me tell you right here and now that surviving elementary school while suffering dyscalculia, in an era in which the disorder wasn’t even recognized, was no picnic!)  But all I needed to compose poetry was the kindergarten skill of comprehending rhythm, the ability to count to no more than 14 or 15,  and fingers that could tap out a tempo—a feat that barely involved mathematics.

So while I respect those who regard numbers with the same worship and understanding that I extend to language, I do not share their perspective. I comprehend their view that the entire universe is mathematical…but I do not, cannot, see emotion as based on that theorem. And poetry is inherently emotional.

In any case, I know that there are just as many of us who, respecting mathematics, nevertheless want nothing more to do with numbers than we absolutely must deal with to get by on a daily basis in modern society. To that point, I’ve always recalled the comment of a brilliant young social worker I knew years ago.  He sat with a group of us, laughingly discussing all the courses he’d been forced to take in college that in no way contributed to either his work or the adult life that he actually led.  Having mentioned a laundry list of worthless instruction, he shook his head violently, flung his hands upward and rolled his eyes in an expression of utmost disdain, exclaiming with a bitter sarcasm that I completely understood, “Oh, and calculus!  I’m so glad I put myself through that!”

An Excellent Memory Is a…Defect?

According to an article I read recently, my excellent memory is not, as one might surmise, the result of careful training and good genes but is, in fact, due to a physical defect. Apparently I am lacking in a specific biochemical which is responsible for sorting and storing memories, relegating recent events to the dusty file cabinets at the back of the brain.  My file drawers hang half-open, it seems, the labeled manila folders within sticking up, where I can “see” many more of them than I should be able to do.

I’ve decided that the information from that article is probably true, for I’ve always had a strange and quirky memory. I can, for instance, recall most of the lines of a ridiculous song which we first graders were taught for a goodbye party, when the Roman Catholic school I attended was saying farewell to one of the parish priests.  “Me and my teddy bear/had no worries had no care/until we discovered Father Sciarria was going away…”  (These aren’t the only lines that I recall, either, but I will not inflict the other trite words on you, the hapless reader.)  I even recall that my mother put a fresh ribbon around the neck of my brother’s carefully refurbished teddy bear for me to carry on this momentous occasion.  Yet a friend who participated with me on that day has no memory of the occurrence, and certainly none of the song.

I also remember squatting with my older brother on the subfloor of the partially-built home my parents were viewing one weekend. My brother and I pushed a knothole out of the wood planks and then dropped nails through the hole to listen for the crash  as they dropped to the concrete of the basement floor below. As to why, in the name of heaven, I recall this, I have no explanation.  I could not have been much above two years old at the time, and it was hardly a stunning or memorable event.  But, there you have it: I remember it, and my brother, three years older than I,  once confirmed the silly recollection.

My fine memory has served me well on many occasions. The ability to recall minute details of specific events and conversations has saved me from many a misunderstanding, made my job easier, or made it possible for me to solve difficult problems.  And I have learned that to recall a joyful incident can be, for just an instant, to live once more in that moment of elation. But, in the converse, being able to recall, in tortuous detail, painful past events is in no way a blessing.  If recalling joy is to rediscover it, then a thorough memory of agonizing occurrences is to fully relive the anguish.

I’ve read, too, that each time we remember an event, we are actually remembering that we remember it.  The memory is, in essence, a watery, beaten carbon copy, growing more mangled and less precise with each repetition.  This causes me to wonder if the details that I recall—such as that fresh ribbon on the neck of the teddy bear—did, in fact, happen. It’s the sort of conundrum which makes eye witness accounts (as so many police departments and courts have learned to their dismay) totally unreliable.  What a witness remembers, may, in fact, not be borne out by the simple expedient of today’s everywhere-present videos.  People remember things oddly, or incorrectly, or that never even happened.

But the simple truth remains: if I remember the occurrence or event—if I recall it, and experience all the emotions surrounding it—then it is real to me. Whether or not I have added or lost specific details—whether or not I recall things precisely as they happened—they exist for me in the reality of my mind.

So I would not, not for any reason, and certainly not to be spared pain, give up one iota of my crazy, quirky, detailed memory. Not one sunset, not one touch of my daughter’s hand, not one friend’s face, nor one moment of awe or surprise or elation or even just simple, everyday life from my earliest childhood to this present moment.

It would seem that I’m not defective in that I have too little of whatever brain biochemical should relegate my sharp memories to the dusty file bins at the back of my brain. Indeed, it seems to me that those who have the “normal” amount of that compound must have far too much of it—and lose so much thereby.

 

 

One of the 7 Percent

I am not on Facebook.

I do not now have, nor ever have had, a Facebook page.

To many people, this is absolutely unfathomable. I have, when stating this fact,  received skeptical looks and even the snarky response, “Everybody is on Facebook!”  To which I respond with a shrug, and the reply, “I guess I’m nobody, then.”  Once, in response to the snotty-voiced remark, “You HAVE to be on Facebook”, my own retort was just a tad snarky: “Ex-cuuuuuse me! I fail to remember that line in the Constitution of the United States which states, ‘Every citizen will be required to have a Facebook page!”

If questioned more politely regarding my decision to eschew Facebook, I simply explain that I had a very bad experience with its predecessor, MySpace, and nothing that I have ever read or learned since regarding Facebook nor its originator, Mr. Zuckerberg, has made me lean toward establishing a Facebook account—especially all the most recent revelations regarding the misuse of user data and egregious violations of privacy.

Leaving entirely aside Facebook’s so-called privacy policy (longer than the aforesaid Constitution of the United States, but obviously not working even half so well), there is the memory of a young Mr. Zuckerberg referring to his customers as, “Dumb F***s”. And though he now claims to have matured beyond such belittling remarks, the recollection of the event does not endear him nor his platform to me.  Then there was the $68 million lawsuit payoff to the Winkelvoss brothers and Divya Narendra for what they claimed was intellectual property theft. Again, this fact does not encourage me to use Facebook.

But, if anything were to convince me to remain one of the anonymous 7 Percent—the Non-Facebook People of the world—it would be the laundry list of promised “I’ll get back to you on that” statements that Mark Zuckerberg made to Congress in the hearings held during the spring of 2018.  I understand that the New York Times noted 24 times–24!–in which Facebook’s originator replied to members of Congress with a remark along the lines of, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”  Some of those questions were extremely serious matters, such as how Facebook handles law enforcement requests, data tracking of minors even when they have logged off, investigation of unauthorized data access, and (most upsetting to me) data points on non-Facebook users.

Of course, I’m pretty certain I know how this works. Much like the biennial reports on vaccine safety that the pharmaceutical industry was supposed to have been producing and submitting to Congress since 1986 (a Freedom of Information lawsuit proved that not one—not even one!–such report had ever been produced, and no one has ever been held accountable for that failure), it’s highly doubtful that any of Facebook’s promised responses to Congressional questions will ever be submitted.  The smoke from this particular fire has dispersed and dimmed, and the public and their representatives have moved on to other, more enticing, matters.

A young acquaintance’s husband explained to me that he established a Facebook page solely for the purpose of looking at photos that friends post. He posts nothing himself, he explained; he makes no status updates; he accepts no friend requests other than his genuine personal friends;  he does nothing but look at family photos.  And considering my actual real-life status as a new grandmother, I’ve considered his viewpoint—especially after learning of  the collection of data on non-Facebook users, and thoroughly considering the general lack of privacy in any form in today’s society.  After all, I tell myself, I broadcast opinions and ideas and thoughts on this blog every week.  So perhaps I should, after all, create a Facebook page….

Nah.

Controlling the Rainbow

(This post was originally published on December 4, 2017, and is now rededicated to Amanda and John. Happy First Wedding Anniversary, my dearest children!  What an eventful year!  And, yes, little Morrigan Lynn, our magnificent miracle–yes, someday you will be a young girl counting on your fingers…but I assure you, your birth was a full ten and one-half months after your parents’ wedding day!)

There was a rainbow on my daughter’s wedding day.

As omens go, that’s hard to beat.

Neither she nor I actually witnessed this phenomenon, but were told about it afterwards by the relatives, smokers all, who had stepped outside to indulge their nicotine habit.

I’d been praying for days—weeks!—for lovely weather to grace the outdoor wedding ceremony of my only daughter. The venue she’d chosen had an excellent hall, and we knew that, if the weather didn’t cooperate, the ceremony could be moved indoors.  But she wanted an outdoor ceremony—wanted it desperately.

And things weren’t looking good.

I began scouring the weather reports two full weeks in advance of the ceremony, constantly checking on my phone, Kindle and computer, comparing predictions that somehow never quite seemed to mesh except for one thing: rain, rain, and more rain. I continually reminded myself that “weather forecaster” is the only job where one can be wrong 95% of the time and still remain employed, but that wasn’t convincing me. So I decided the best thing to do was gather all of my friends and family and issue a request (command!) for prayer.  Prayer and petitions to whatever deity, saint, deva or nature spirit they believed in.  If they didn’t have a favorite divinity, I supplied them with options, using my favorite search engine (NOT Google, but that’s  subject for another blog post).  I tracked down the names and antecedents of every saint, goddess, god or nature spirit said to have authority over the weather.  And there were a bundle of ‘em.

And so the prayers and petitions and appeals and entreaties went up from a dozen hearts and lips. But the weather forecast remained unswerving.  Rain.

However, the forecast began to alter slightly, from rain all day to “rain in the afternoon”. Raindrops, just wait until after 4:00 p.m., I prayed.  That would get us safely through the ceremony and all decamped to the reception hall.

Smaller Walking Up Aisle
Her Dad and I walking our daughter up the aisle at her outdoor wedding, October 7, 2017.

And, in the end, that is exactly what the deities, gods, goddesses, saints, devas, divinities and nature spirits (most likely, heartily sick of hearing so many desperate petitions) provided: The perfect early fall day. A temperature that rose to no more than 80, a light breeze lifting the brilliant leaves of the trees, and fluffy white cumulous clouds cruising through a blue sky…all of it lasting until just that last shutter click as the final formal portraits were taken.  Just at 4:00 p.m., a dark thundercloud rolled over to obscure the sun, and we all made tracks for the reception hall and food, music, drinks, dancing, cake and joy.

And, at some point during the proceedings, a rainbow.

And that was the one thing I’d forgotten about in my desperate need to control every last detail and thereby provide my daughter the perfect wedding day: the possibility of a beauty even greater than clear, warm weather. A rainbow.  The ultimate promise.

Let go and let God. I’m a great proponent of that saying…in theory.  Practice is an entirely different matter.  However, my daughter’s wedding day was a firm reminder to me of that concept.  Another was taught to me by a Hindu friend, who explained that rain on one’s wedding day is considered “a blessing of water”.  Sunshine, warm breezes, trees clothed brilliantly in green and gold and ruby, rain and a rainbow. Every possible good luck omen.  My daughter and new son-in-law got it all—more likely in spite of, rather than because of, all my desperate pleas to the heavens.

Now, though, laughingly thinking of omens, I’m forced to remember my own wedding day to her father, right here in my home state.  Omens indeed!

Indiana had an earthquake.

Handshake, Schmandshake!

I’ve never quite gotten the point of the whole “a firm handshake” deal. Judging a person in this manner has always seemed to me like two little boys playing at arm wrestling.  Who cares whether one’s touch is quote-firm-unquote?  I personally suspect that the whole firm handshake concept (which for decades was an exclusively male prerogative) was just something devised in a homophobic era by men who felt a light touch also indicated someone who was “light in the loafers”.

As a young girl in parochial school, occasionally being taught lessons in etiquette (something which, by the way, I would highly recommend be added to the curriculum of every school today), I was instructed that a man did not reach to shake a woman’s hand unless she first extended her own hand.  This etiquette lesson has gone the way of the dodo, but I preferred it.  I dislike touching or being touched by complete strangers.  No, that’s wrong – I despise touching or being touched by complete strangers.  It feels invasive of my personal space, and it takes away my sense of control about a situation – my right to decide whether or not to be handled.  I wasn’t raised in the “good touch, bad touch” era, but not having the right to decide if I want to grasp the hand of a totally unfamiliar person has always felt “bad touch” to me.  After all, how do I know where that hand’s just been?  Is this a person who doesn’t wash after using the bathroom?  What if they have a cold or the flu? Blech.

For that reason, I’ve devised many a trick to avoid shaking hands. My favorite, when I can do it, is to sneeze.  Since allergies are my constant companions, this often isn’t difficult.  And turning aside to sneeze, carefully covering one’s face with one’s hand, is a wonderfully self-deprecating, “Ohmigosh, I can’t believe that happened, let me get a tissue,” moment.

If I’m unable to rustle up a realistic sneeze, I cough. Coughing is much easier, and it still requires turning away and covering one’s face with one’s hand, thereby making it unlikely anyone is going to immediately grasp that hand.  Both coughing and sneezing can include simple explanation and apology: “Sorry, I’m afraid I have a bit of cold; I certainly don’t want to pass it on to you!”, or, “So sorry; the ragweed is in full bloom, and I’m afraid I’m very allergic!”  All said, of course, with an apologetic smile, sometimes while dashing hand sanitizer over one’s palms – no one wants to shake hands with a glob of alcohol gel.

Actually, I rather enjoyed the terrible flu season of 2009, when experts were recommending that the handshake be foregone in favor of the fist bump. No one can judge the fleeting gesture of the fist bump, and the touch is so brief that it doesn’t feel invasive.  I only wish the fist bump recommendation was in place every flu season.

I might be happier, though, in a culture in which the bow was the gesture of choice for meeting. Besides being a refined and classic gesture, in those cultures in which people bow rather than shake hands, it’s possible, by the depth of one’s bow, to indicate anything from real pleasure in meeting to total rejection and insult.  Now there’s a custom I can appreciate!

But I am most taken with the classically graceful “Namaste” gesture, in which the head is bowed slightly over one’s steepled hands as the word is spoken. “I bow to the Divine within you,” the word and movement say, acknowledging the totality of the person standing before one, recognizing that they are both body and spirit, whole and perfect and complete.

Handshake, schmandshake. One should be judged by one’s stance (confident and self-assured?  Slouching, unable to meet the other’s eyes?) one’s smile (genuine or nervous?) and general neatness.  All the rest – clothing, accent, makeup, hair, and touch – are just window dressing.  In the long run, the immediate judgment we make of another is just that: a snap judgment.  Stop worrying about their handshake and take the time to know the individual.

Studying Geography

In the long-ago era during which I attended elementary school, the study of geography began in the fourth grade. To this day I recall some of what I learned that year, for the wide, fat textbook that we were given was filled not just with photographs but with stories—stories of the people, mostly family units, each in a different country of the world.  The tales described their holidays and customs, the foods they ate and the clothing they wore, how they attended school and worshipped, the strange animals that inhabited their countries and were kept as farm animals or pets, and even a touch of the history of their home territories.  I especially recall my awe in learning of those countries where the sun disappeared for months at a time, swathing the land in darkness, and the joy felt by the inhabitants when the light finally returned.

I absolutely loved it. Geography—how marvelous! I had never heard the song “Far Away Places”, but now I thrilled to them: far away places with strange-sounding names.  There was even a tactile element to studying geography, I found, for one of the globes that we were shown was three-dimensional, with mountain ranges one could touch, and oceans that were delineated with swells and currents.  I was enthralled and fascinated.

When fifth grade began, I couldn’t wait to see what we would learn in Geography class. I remember the anticipation as I opened the book and turned the first few pages of my new geography text.

And then the world, quite literally, crashed down about my ears. I found it hard to believe what I was seeing.  Instead of stories, tales of other lands that drew me in and caught my fascinated attention, there was a dry tome filled with information on imports and exports, language spoken, past rulers and present political tensions, oil and mineral reserves and rights….

I had never been so disappointed in my life. From that point on, I had no interest whatever in geography.  Oh, I studied it well enough; I was a decent student, and I memorized enough information to pass tests, putting forth the minimum of effort to keep a passing grade.  But I never again cared.  For me, the heart, the soul, of my geography lessons had been stolen.  Everything that made learning about the world fascinating—the people, the animals, the customs and foods and clothing and history—all of that had been taken from me, and with it, my curiosity and interest.

With all that we are now learning about the human brain, about its growth and function and development, I look back on my geography lessons and ponder why it should be that we haven’t yet figured out that all brains aren’t meant to learn the same things in the same way. Children are still taught in the manner of the 15 and 1600’s: sitting in rows, obedient (or not) to an authority figure, memorizing for just long enough to pass a quiz, or a test, or a state-sponsored exam.  Wonder, curiosity, creativity are rarely encouraged—are the exception, rather than the norm.

I recall virtually nothing of my geography lessons from the fifth grade onward; become confused, as an adult, as to the placement of countries on a map or a globe.  Yet I can still recall the cultural lore of a half-dozen lands that I absorbed in delight at the age of nine. Are there others of my long-ago classmates who learned nothing of the world during that first year of Geography class, but for whom the following lessons remain clearly embedded in their memories?  And why can we, progressive and innovative, not learn to teach each child in the manner best suited to her or his abilities?

Now, decades later, even the names of many of the countries I once studied are non-existent. Czechoslovakia, Burma, Siam—gone.  Transmuted. Erased from all but history.  The Earth turned on its axis, and those countries, those cultures, disappeared.

But not my memories of everything I learned in that first, delightful year of studying Geography.

Conspiracy Theories

I’m a sucker for conspiracy theories. I find them absolutely fascinating. Not that I am usually persuaded to believe them, but I am completely captivated by the sheer insane dedication to an idea and the endless amount of effort put into creating these wacko scenarios: NASA faked the moon landings.  The Grassy Knoll. (I’ve seen that one worked all the way back to the Prophecies of Nostradamus.)  The Philadelphia Experiment. Paul is dead. (How many people totally screwed up their treasured Beetle’s albums trying to prove THAT one?!)

What I find most intriguing about conspiracy theories is that there is almost certainly a germ of truth hidden somewhere in the midst of the often confusing, usually contradictory web of explanations. The strands of accurate, verifiable fact,  of possibility and probability, and of total misinformation are woven into a whole that veers about 90 degrees north of reality.

And yet… Governments, including the government of the United States, have and do consistently lie, cheat, steal and intentionally harm their own citizenry, often labelling as Top Secret what should have been fully disseminated.  Frequently this is done under the guise of “scientific research”.  Doubt it?  Read about the release of Top Secret documents (following a 1993 story broken by journalist Eilene Welsome, who later won the Pulitzer Prize) detailing the radiation experiments which America performed, without consent, on its own citizenry during the Cold War years from 1944 to 1974.  It’s really not so great a leap from those verified atrocities to “SARS and H1N1 were created as bioterrorism weapons”.

Perhaps the conspiracy theories which most intrigue me are woven about the dreadful morning of 9/11. I’ve read the contradictory accounts of survivors and the statements of witnesses who claimed their lives were threatened if they revealed what they had really seen.  I’ve watched video of experts tracing the path of the jets and proclaiming that events simply could not have happened as they were supposed to have done.  I’ve seen the videos of British announcers broadcasting the bizarre collapse of the untouched Building 7 before it happened.  I’ve listened to architects and engineers question why no forensic evidence was gathered–standard practice at the site of any disaster, yet one which was totally disregarded in this, the face of ultimate disaster–and heard these experts  state unequivocally that the Trade Center buildings imploded in a planned detonation.

And I might have just savored the conjecture and speculation and then dismissed all of it, as I usually dismiss conspiracy theories, but for one thing.

On the afternoon of 9/11, arriving home to find my daughter and her friend sitting in front of the TV, weeping, I heard the commentator discussing the President’s whereabouts. As I listened, he explained that President Bush had been at an elementary school, reading to a group of 7-year-olds, when the attacks happened. And I thought to myself, “Wow, that’s surreal.  That’s like something right out of a Hollywood script!”

Years later, reading the 9/11 conspiracy theories, I suddenly recalled my reaction as I learned of the President’s whereabouts at that fateful hour.

And I wondered.

Nigerian Princes and Dingbats

I was once acquainted with a woman who, although not unintelligent, was somehow still not the brightest bulb in the shed. It was not just that she was lacking in common sense, although that comprised a great deal of the problem; tact was also absent in her makeup, as were diplomacy, tolerance, and objectivity.  Most of the time, though, she simply failed to use the completely adequate brain God had put in her head.  “Dingbat” was probably the most courteous description of the lady, whom we shall, for the purposes of this essay, call “Lorene”.  I added a number of other, less-complimentary labels to my assessment of her character before I finally stopped associating with her, but the Dingbat label still stands out.

Lorene had an on-going feud with her step-daughter, of which she complained bitterly and at great length whenever we were together. I personally witnessed the interaction between the two of them just one time, when invited to a backyard barbecue.  Her step-daughter leaned down, smiling, to Lorene, who was sitting on the back porch steps, to offer her an appetizer from the tray she had carried out.  The look Lorene gave her would have melted steel. The step-daughter quickly lifted the tray out of range and stepped back.  A few days later, I mentioned my perspective on this interaction to Lorene, suggesting gently that she might possibly be contributing to their on-going misunderstanding.  Lorene was genuinely confused.  She hadn’t said anything nasty to her step-daughter, she protested.

After having gotten to know Lorene better, though, I came to realize that the real fault she found with her step-daughter was the fact that the young woman was in an interracial marriage. Lorene was a closet racist, but her mask of “good manners about black people” slipped askew on more than one occasion.  Perhaps the worst of these was when Lorene became the victim of a purse snatching in a mall parking lot.  Her attacker had been black; the detective sent to the site to interview her was African American, also.  As the detective probed for any information Lorene could provide him about the appearance of the mugger, she exclaimed vehemently, “I don’t know what he looked like!  You people all look alike to me!”

When she recounted this conversation to me, I nearly had a stroke. “Lorene, you didn’t!” I exclaimed, and she looked at me in total bewilderment.  After all, she explained, she was merely stating the truth.  Why on earth would the detective get upset at that?

Associating with Lorene, I learned, required frequent infusions of headache tablets.

But never was the Dingbat label more justifiably hung upon Lorene’s brow than when she was taken in by an e-mail scam. This was during the “Nigerian Prince” era of email scams, and one would think that nobody, nobody at all, could have been stupid enough to fall for those badly-written, misspelled missives that circulated so endlessly. One would think…unless one knew Lorene.

One afternoon Lorene proudly told me that she was assisting a woman in a third-world nation to escape a brutal husband. She’d received an e-mail from an overseas support network for just such women, and of course, she’d immediately responded.  They’d asked her to set up an account under her own name, with money they would wire to her.  When the brutalized spouse arrived in the U.S., she would be directed to Lorene, who would then turn over the account to her so that she could have a fresh start .

The whole “massive stroke/fatal heart attack” scenario flitted once more through my body as I choked out the information that, “For God’s sake, Lorene! This is either a terrorist organization or  money laundering scheme!  And soon they’ll have ALL your personal information! They can steal your identity! They can take everything you have!”  As I spun all the other likely consequences of her actions, Lorene’s face went from disbelief to bewilderment to, finally, dismay.

I quickly located a number for a federal agency to which Lorene could report the scam. But now Dingbat was too frightened to take action, so I suggested she tell her husband what she’d done and let him contact the feds.

Accustomed to his wife’s vagaries, her husband thought the whole affair was hugely hilarious. He did, however, contact the reporting agency, who managed to get the account shut down and somehow protect Lorene from identity theft.

These days I think of Lorene each time I read of the newest, more sophisticated way that scammers have developed to separate people from their money. I wonder if she’s ever wired money to a grandchild stranded in another country, or if she’s answered, “Yes, I can hear you” to the unknown caller, or allowed a “Microsoft Representative” to remote into her computer to “remove a worldwide virus”.

If it happened to anyone, I’m sure it happened to Lorene.