The Many Faces of Hate

I’d originally planned a different post for today. But in honor of the innocent victims of the Uvalde mass shooting, I chose to rerun this post from June 24, 2020. It may not seem apropos at first, but please just keep reading

While a young woman, I had a coworker—let’s call her Angela–who endured troubling memories of her paternal grandmother. At the time I knew Angela, I’d just begun re-establishing a close relationship with my own paternal grandmother; years of family squabbles had kept us apart. So I was shocked to hear of the treatment this likeable woman had received from her grandmother.

Angela explained that Grandmother absolutely despised Angela’s mother—had hated her from the very day Mom and Dad began dating. It’s been 40-odd years since our conversation, but I still recall the troubled expression on Angela’s face as she told me that her mother and father tried countless times to heal the sorry situation. Sadly, nothing had ever worked.

But Grandmother’s hatred extended to, when they arrived, the children of the marriage. She never put aside her contempt for her daughter-in-law for the sake of her grandchildren, who were, after all, her son’s children. No, in ways both overt and subtle, Grandmother made certain that those youngsters knew that they did not measure up to her other grandchildren. Her favored grandchildren were not “contaminated” by a birth relationship to the despised daughter-in-law.

Angela recounted Mean Grandmother’s worst insult, which centered on the kids’ school photos. One wall of Grandmother’s house displayed her grandchildren’s school pictures. But the photos of Angela and her siblings were not flaunted among the rest. Instead, they were hung in the bathroom, facing the toilet.

Hearing the ache and indignation in Angela’s voice as she described this stinging memory, I felt heartsick on her behalf. To be the victim of such spite and cruelty from a person who should have loved her unconditionally—well, it stunned me.

The memory of that conversation has never left me. Many times after our discussion I daydreamed, inventing scenarios to bring resolution and revenge to my coworker’s bitter experience: Of all the Grandmother’s children, only the marriage of her son and despised daughter-in-law thrived. The marriages of all her other children failed, and bitter divorces meant that she was separated from her favorite grandchildren. Or: Mean Grandmother lived out her final days quite alone and helpless in a substandard nursing home, visited by no one except the despised daughter-in-law. Or, best of all: Those other, favored grandkids all grew up to be ungrateful little wastrels who scammed Grandmother for money, became drug addicts and alcoholics, and were jailed for multiple crimes. Meanwhile, Angela and her siblings lived quietly successful, happy lives, but obviously never bothered with the Mean Grandmother who had treated them so badly.

That’s not the way life works, of course. Mean Grandmother probably wound down her life warmly surrounded by the love and attention of the children, in-laws and grandkids she preferred, smugly self-satisfied with her contemptible treatment of her reviled daughter-in-law and unloved grandchildren.

Hatred can wear so many faces! It can be disguised as the face of a grandparent or an in-law; someone who should be both loving and beloved, but is instead malevolent. It can wear the face of an abusive spouse or parent, or even a job supervisor. It can focus on skin color, or ethnic origin. It can manifest as religious or even generational intolerance. It can be masked in passive aggression, calling itself teasing when it is in fact intentional torment and insults.

Or it can wear the face of a total stranger.

This last really struck me, and is the reason I recalled my former coworker’s sad little tale, as I sat one recent morning watching a video examining the causes and motives behind the many mass shootings of recent times. Unlike the malicious Grandmother, these cases so often involve total strangers who go on a rampage, wounding and murdering innocents with whom they have absolutely no connection. Is it easier, I wondered, to do so? To harm those with whom a person has absolutely no relationship? To wear the mask of a stranger, and see, not other human beings with lives and loves of their own, but merely unimportant specks on the rim of the mask’s limited vision? Is exterminating unknown strangers guilt-free?

Or does it all—murdering strangers or murdering the spirit of those who should be loved ones—come with consequence?

I have no answers. I only know that I clicked off that video, and sat, remembering Angela’s long-lasting emotional wounds. Then I sighed and selected some financial work I needed to do on my computer. But as I tapped the mouse, I noticed in surprise that my face was wet, and that tears had splashed onto my keyboard.

I had not even realized that I was crying.

Hard as it is to believe sometimes, there are also faces of kindness in this world. If you want to believe in that, please read the true story of “The Miracle on Route 16”. You may locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below. It was published on November 4, 2017.

Rude Words!

Our words have power.  Guard well what we say.

When I was a child, we were constantly instructed in the adage, “If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.”

Now, to be quite honest, absolutely no one followed this sage advice (or, if they did, they were considered to be an unbearable prig!)  We all said, and thought, plenty of not-nice things, and not a few really malicious, cruel and vicious things.  But we were careful about whom we said them to, usually saving our nastiest remarks for a limited circle of like-thinking friends.  It was rare that any of these companions would admonish someone for cruel statements, and even then, the criticism was pallid:  “That’s not nice!”, usually followed by a giggle or occasionally the comment, “But true!”

Nevertheless, it wasn’t really a bad bit of life advice, that learning to keep spiteful or mean observations either in the privacy of one’s own mind or at least among a narrow group of people.  Mannerly behavior, however hypocritical, ruled; courtesy was valued, and those who failed to keep even a modicum of a civil tongue in their heads were reviled as malicious and disgusting, and widely avoided. One did not want the taint of their bad behavior to rub off on one’s own reputation, any more than one wanted to become a target of their vicious contempt.

Not so now, when every bit of mind garbage is spewed out to the entire populace, into every corner of the world, via a keyboard or voice-to-text, accumulating Likes from equally vile-minded strangers.  The nastier one can be, it seems, the more judgmental, rude, cruel, or despicable, the better.  Abhorrent speech is no longer scorned as evidence of a small-minded person, or of someone with a size 12 ego and a size 2 soul.  Maliciousness is encouraged as funny or entertaining. Compassion, civility, empathy, kindness, courtesy, caring…those have become the calling cards of the truly old-fashioned—traits that are despised, rather than emulated.

As a society, it appears, we have sunk to the lowest common denominator, urged on by the sick cohesion of social media and even by vulgar and vicious national leaders. And that saddens me.  It breaks my heart.

Yet it was not that long ago (and in a possibly mythic era) that the concept of chivalry was touted.  Ballads were sung about such exemplary behavior; legends were written and repeated.  And for all the flaws inherent within the chivalric code (and there were many), there was still something to be said for many of those ideals: To live with loyalty and honor.  To protect the weak and defenseless.  To fight for the welfare of all.  To speak the truth at all times.  To avoid meanness and deceit.  To respect and honor women.  Chivalry, though, was merely a European concept.  Other cultures worldwide taught similar values to their young: Courage. Respect for and appreciation of the wisdom of one’s elders.  Courtesy. Honor. Compassion. Charity. Deportment.   And while it is true that not one culture, anywhere, at any time in the history of human civilization, can claim that all its members lived their lives in coherence with those teachings, the important factor is that such concepts were imparted.  The very teaching of these ideals inculcated conscience in the students.  It gave them a map, a pathway to life establishing consideration for others as a foundation.

Perhaps, then, that is the main factor missing in today’s society.  The trappings of courtesy, of manners; the slightly hypocritical keeping of impertinent thoughts to oneself, that were once a stable groundwork for behavior that demonstrated consideration for the feelings and needs of others—those concepts are no longer taught.  Rarely do individuals learn a foundation for kindness, or establish personal integrity.

Words, some say, are in and of themselves a form of energy.  To speak a word aloud; to type it into a forum; to write it, as I write these essays–to disseminate any word, in any way, is to give an energetic life to that word.  When we speak, write, type, or promulgate vile and cruel and vicious, or untrue, unkind or uncivil words, we contribute to the jangling dissonance of negativity, the misunderstanding and malice that seem to hover constantly over current social interaction.

But when we make a concerted effort to remove hateful speech from our personal lexicons; when we intentionally infuse our words with benevolence and consideration, with gentleness, courtesy and understanding, we go more than halfway toward meeting others with a handclasp acknowledging our shared humanity.

And if we genuinely cannot say, speak, write or type anything good or kind or caring, we can always choose to, yes, say nothing at all.

If you found something to like in this essay, you might also appreciate the post, “The Speech of Angels”, which you locate by scrolling below to the Archives.  It was published October 4, 2017.  And, as always, please feel free to republish this blog, with attribution.

It’s All Just Stuff (Mary’s Teacups)

I thought about Mary’s teacups continually as I cleared out my father’s home following his death.

My late mother-in-law, Mary Chifos, had the most marvelous set of teacups. Each of the six cups displayed a single flower on both saucer and cup exterior, as well as within the teacup itself. But the loveliest thing about each of these teacups was that cup and saucer were each fashioned to resemble the flower displayed. The daffodil cup was formed into the trumpet of the flower, with the saucer its crown; the rose cup and saucer were gently sculpted into the shape of petals.

Mary, who loved to give dinner parties, always served after-dinner coffee in those cups. I usually chose the rose teacup for my beverage, appreciating my coffee even more when served in her beautiful china.

But Mary became ill with the utter devastation that is Alzheimer’s disease, and I, by then divorced from her son, had no say in her care. Her lovely little apartment was abandoned, along with most of her things. I never knew what became of her exquisite tea set—the cups that should have been left, if not to me, then to my daughter, Mary’s only grandchild.

I thought about those teacups continually when, throughout the first months of 2022, I endured the difficult process of clearing out my father’s home after his death. Dad was not precisely a hoarder, but disposing of 58 years worth of accumulated household goods and personal possessions is, nevertheless, a substantial effort. It’s a recipe stirred together of packing to move an entire household, blended with nostalgia, and spiced with pinches of grief, disbelief, and sometimes even wrath. Every possible bit of disorder and disorganization is on high display, infuriating to the nth degree (“Dad! For the love of God and little green apples, why did you save EVERY checkbook register from 1964 onward? Why were none of your personal papers filed, so that we could locate the information we need?!”)

There were many things that had been undoubtedly precious to my Dad, but meant nothing to us, his survivors, as well as numerous items that were just the opposite. Not being Roman Catholic, I cared nothing for the silver-and-crystal rosary I discovered in his bedside table, and gifted it to a devout family friend. But I was delighted to have a set of inexpensive turquoise water glasses that he didn’t even use, but which matched my tableware.

I suppose, in the end, that’s what it all comes down to: not the financial value of a possession, but whether it is valued, and by whom. Mary cherished her teacups, and I, had they been given to me, would have done so, also. But the people who inherited them cared nothing for the set. I suppose they were dispersed to a charity or resale shop.

Mary Ellen Set

I, meanwhile, have spent years searching for and collecting similar cups, never finding the precise teacups that were Mary’s, yet reassembling a comparable set in her memory and honor; treasuring them, as she did hers.

But the experience of losing items I would have prized, coupled with that of sifting through nearly 60 years’ worth of my father’s accumulated detritus, has caused me to look at my own home and possessions with a very different eye, and to remember my grandmother’s remarks after having to clean out the home of her three sisters when the last of them passed away. Determined that no one would ever have to endure what she had done in emptying that house, Grandma began to organize her personal property. She collected music boxes; now she went through the entire collection and wrote on the underside of each the name of the person who had given it to her, so that upon her death each could be returned to the giver. Grandma cleaned out paperwork and told trusted people (and, sadly, in one case, someone who could not be trusted) where her few valuable possessions were hidden.

Now I, taking a leaf from my Grandmother’s book, and remembering the all-too-recent experience of cleaning out my father’s home and property, have begun the arduous process of organizing and clearing my own personal possessions. Tons of paperwork has already been shredded, and books sent to a charity shop. A huge box of photos awaits examination, to be pared down to the most precious few that might mean something to my survivors. Notes have been appended to a few books, explaining why they meant something to me, or whether they might have actual monetary value. Information that my survivors might need has been organized and filed.

This will be, I realize, a long, slow process, and one that requires constant upkeep: to make my home orderly for those who will, once I am gone, have to sift through everything I owned. And, with the exception of (I hope) my written works, and no matter what I annotate or explain, I know that they will decide to keep only what is truly meaningful to them, personally.

For now I truly understand that, in the end, no “thing” has importance unless it is appreciated and cherished. In the final estimation, it’s all just stuff.

If you found something you liked in this post, then please consider scrolling to the Archives at the bottom of this page, and reading “A Memory Walk” from September 11, 2019. And, as always, feel free to re-post this blog, with attribution, elsewhere.

My Shabby Old Green Armchair, Redux

We imbue the physical objects in our orbit with worth, adding to them a value far beyond their price.

My old green armchair was on its last legs, almost literally. It was growing ever more shabby…and ever more comfortable and comforting. It was just an overstuffed chair, not even a recliner, but that scruffy old chair was my salvation for at least 15 years. It’s been the chair where I sat to read every morning since my retirement, sunlight pouring in from the living room window behind me. It’s the chair where my cat Lilith has come almost daily to lounge across my chest as I sprawl in the laziest position, my feet propped on the ottoman in front of me. It’s the chair where I collapsed, feverish, coughing and wheezing with what was quite likely Covid one December night in 2019, feeling sick enough to die, after what had already been a long, long day spent at the hospital with my even-sicker Dad. It’s the chair where I cuddled my cranky little grandbaby, trying to soothe her to sleep as I watched her through the night. And it is the chair beside which I knelt to stroke and kiss my darling little black cat, Belladonna, who lay there so peacefully and quietly as she began her journey across the Rainbow Bridge.

The green armchair wasn’t new even when I bought it. In the early 2000s, I’d discovered a store which sold second-hand hotel furnishings—sturdy pieces which were still in good shape, usually disposed of because a business was remodeling. In the days before bed bugs had become a resurgent menace, these pieces were an excellent bargain. The furnishings had heavy-duty springs and were covered in substantial, thick fabrics; upholstery meant to last through the worst that careless guests could offer. Best of all, the pieces were within my limited price range. So I bought a set consisting of a sofa striped in bottle-green, rose pink and fawn, with two matching bottle-green chairs.

The sofa had already seen the most wear, but still lasted a good eight years; I finally disposed of it when moving from an apartment to my little condo. The two bottle-green armchairs, though, moved with me. Despite being a pair, one was a bit more worn than the other, and finally, its springs sagging, gave up the ghost. Prior to putting it out on the curb for heavy trash pickup, though, I removed the fabric from the seat. A bit of cutting and stitching turned the rescued cloth into slipcovers to disguise the worn arms and back of the remaining chair.

It was those covers which were themselves now beginning to show wear. Picked at by cat claws and rubbed a thousand times by my forearms (and, regrettably, my knees, as I’ve sat sideways on the cushion with my legs slung over the arms), the covers were growing shiny with use and knobbly with picked threads. When they went at last, there was no reprieve for my shabby old green armchair. But saying farewell to it was genuinely sad.

It’s strange how these little bits of household detritus worm their way into our hearts and memories and lives, becoming more than just the sum of their being. Yet it happens. A wall is not just a wall, but a record of a child’s growth; a stuffed animal not merely a toy, but the friend that comforted us throughout our childhood, and one whom we cannot bear to abandon. And, for me, a chair that is not simply an old, battered, and comfortable armchair, but the foundation of a hundred precious and important memories. The more spiritual among us may scoff at this habit of making a material object something more than it seems, deriding our connection as a foolish physical attachment, and perhaps they are right. But there it is, nonetheless. The broken down beater that was one’s first car, or the too-small first apartment; the maple tree climbed by a succession of children, itself grown tall from nothing but a spindly little volunteer; the old rocking chair that comforted many a sick child—they mean something to us, these little incidentals in our lives. We imbue them with worth, and they take on a shining patina thereby.

Yesterday, with my son-in-law’s help, I dragged that battered, sad, and wonderfully comfortable easy chair to the curb to await the trash truck. Chairs don’t have souls, of course. But I nevertheless patted the back as we set it in place, saying (yes, aloud; my neighbors already know I’m crazy), “You’ve fought the good fight, old thing. Well done, thou good and faithful servant: Well done.”

I don’t suppose the new, giant puffy rose lounger will last nearly as long or ever mean as much, but as I put it into place in the living room, I slapped the back lightly and told it, “You’ve got some very big shoes to fill, youngster.”

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like the essay, “My Blue Willow Tea Set”, which was posted June 26, 2018. Scroll down to the Archives link to locate it.

Emails to Dad

On a morning soon after his death, I began to email my late father, sending him messages almost daily.

My father passed away in December, 2021. His email account remained active for four months after his death, and during that time I sent him almost daily emails. When his account finally closed in April, I was shocked to realize how much I was going to miss sending those regular emails to him.

Dad Young Man_20220416_0001

You see, Dad never became very technologically competent, so his voicemail was actually set up under my voice. It was I who told callers that they had reached his number. I was also usually the person who went through his messages for him, remembering the password that he could never recall and dialing into the account; listening to each memo and noting it down; telling him who had called and what they wanted, and deleting or saving his messages.

Yet despite the fact that, after answering machines became passé, Dad could never quite get the hang of voicemail, he managed to adapt to email and even enjoyed it. He often needed help with the minutiae of his email program—adding or deleting contacts, downloading photos or videos–but Dad loved email. He received and forwarded an endless stream of jokes and cartoons and highly-opinionated articles. Never more than a “two-finger” typist, Dad was still able to initiate simple emails and transmit them (aIthough I never managed to convince him that TYPING IN ALL CAPS was considered shouting!)

Following Dad’s death, I spoke with many people who continued to call a deceased relative’s voicemail for weeks after the individual had died, until the disconnected number was transferred to a stranger. They yearned to hear their loved one’s voice again; they just wanted to say, “I love you; I miss you.” Sadly, I couldn’t do that with Dad’s voicemail. There was nothing on his recording but my own voice.

Dad’s email account, though, was another matter. It remained active, and I was in charge of it. During the six months of his final illness, I’d spent hours sitting with him in his room at the care facility, logging in to read his messages aloud to him or turning the screen so that he could see the photos and videos. I laughed with him at the jokes, and typed to his dictation the answers that he wanted to send to a few select contacts.

Now, following his passing, I was still scanning his email account daily, checking for bills and clearing out spam. Often I sat with tears trickling down my cheeks as I notified contacts who had not heard of his passing, and reminded others to remove him from their mailing lists.

And so, having access to remove my own messages, I decided one morning soon after his death to begin emailing my late father, sending him daily notes. Sometimes I merely described the events of my day, just as I might have during phone calls and emails during his life. In other communiqués, I related stories of his little great-granddaughter, occasionally even attaching a photo. I discussed painful and distressing recollections of his last months, explaining to him how much some of those memories still hurt. Remembering how much he’d enjoyed eCards, I went to my favorite site and selected a birthday card to send him. Throughout the endless weeks I spent cleaning out the home where he’d lived for 58 years, I berated him, time and time again, for leaving such a gawdawful mess for my brother and me to sort out: the decades of accumulated paperwork that had to be shredded; the dirt and disorder and disarray of all his personal property. I reminded him when my birthday rolled around, and told him about my gifts. I railed at him for his years of smoking, the vile habit that destroyed his lungs and contributed to his death. I described the two men who arrived from a museum in Evansville to collect his hundreds of hand-crafted wartime aircraft models and his library of aviation history books, delighting in their excitement at obtaining his collection.

There was something healing about those emails; something much more cathartic than merely writing a letter and then discarding or even burning it. There was a sureness, a certainty, that I was, somehow, actually conveying my words to my father there on the Other Side.

The dismay when I could no longer do that was palpable. A few days after Dad’s email account closed, I found myself utterly at a loss, bereft of this unusual but therapeutic communication.

For four months, I grieved my father with each keystroke and each press of the Send button, and I sent that grief into the ether, trusting that he was waiting somewhere, eagerly receiving each of my messages; understanding my need to communicate; and, finally, simply glad that I cared enough to remember, and to still talk to him.

If you appreciated this essay, you might also enjoy the post “My Dad Called the Japanese ‘Japs'”, which was published April 6. You can find it by scrolling below, to the Archives.

Tales of the Office: Jackass Bosses I Survived!

Administrative Professionals don’t need flowers. They need respect and a raise!

Every time I find myself sliding into “Retirement Guilt Phenomenon”, I remind myself not just of the forty-four years I worked full-time, but, even more importantly, the incredible number of truly awful supervisors I endured.

Their names are legend. Actually, some of their names were Schuster, Tom, Lois, Gloria, and Evil Troll. (There were others, but these were the most memorable.)

And I, the lowliest of the low (and trust me on this one: in an office environment, there is hardly any lower life form than the formerly-known-as-secretary-now-called-Administrative-Assistant-same-shit-different-title) anyway, lowly little me survived them all to emerge, victorious, un-fired, and finally, safely and happily retired. (Here picture middle finger extended high into the air. Perhaps on both hands.)

For, let’s face it: some of these people—no, a lot of them—were genuine jackasses.

Schuster was the first one, and, no, I don’t recall his given name, because we lowly file clerks were not permitted to speaketh it aloud. He was addressed, always, as Mr. Schuster.

To be fair, the toxic environment in which Schuster operated contributed to his view of himself as sitting enthroned high upon Mt. Olympus while we mere worker bees scurried far below, just waiting for his thunderbolts to fall. This being in the early 1970s, conditions existed at

IMG_20220521_143240532_1
An iconic “Railroaders” coin bank.

“Railroaders” (the nickname with which we parodied the bank) that would now be unthinkable. Sexual harassment and promotion-by-office-affair were the norm, yet male and female employees were segregated into separate lunch lounges. Female employees were required to wear hideously ugly, uncomfortable polyester uniforms, because women could not be trusted to dress appropriately for business. (!) Resembling the office of Nine to Five infamy, it was a sadly real hell where Schuster reigned supreme, with we, his “girls” ensconced in a tiny back room, invisible to the public and even most of the other employees. Funnily enough, fifty years on, I can’t really recall the precise events that made me completely despise Schuster, but any person who supported and empowered such a revolting office environment deserved a whole lot worse than mere contempt.

Next came Tom. Promoted to first-time supervisor of a group of, yes, female secretaries and clerks, he solved every problem by creating worse problems. One coworker had the habit of taking overly-long breaks and lunch hours, while the other half-dozen of us adhered to the correct schedule. When confronted by our complaints regarding the unfairness of this situation, his solution was to institute a system of rolling breaks and lunch hours, so that we never knew from one day to the next what our schedule would be–thereby punishing all for the misbehavior of one. A wiser supervisor finally intervened, but the damage was done. After that, we all pretty much came and went as we pleased, Tom and schedules be damned.

Then there was Lois. Ah, the joys of working for a self-important, dictatorial, tyrannical, officious narcissist! This was one time in which difficult lessons (learned by careful management of a relative who suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder) came in handy. Extremely handy. Despite an occasional road-bump in which I upset Lois’s self-delusional little applecart, I survived several years under her autocratic rule, even emerging with a favorable employee rating. But it was a near thing, always. I did a bit of a happy dance when Lois moved on to greener pastures, there to devastate a fresh raft of hapless victims.

And how could I forget Gloria, the supervisor who always assumed that everything was my fault. I came within inches of being fired one day, saved only by the honesty of another employee, when the message regarding an important meeting requested information on the wrong topic.

Following the meeting, Gloria stormed back into the office like the proverbial fire-breathing dragon, furiously telling me to start packing my bags. Thankfully, the secretary who’d sent the message intervened, corroborating that I’d been given an incorrect request. Gloria, neither shamefaced nor apologetic, simply told me I was off the hook. But, neither then nor any of the other hundred times it happened during her tenure, did she express any regret for her immediate assumption that I was at fault.

Finally there came Evil Troll, the sexual harasser. The female sexual harasser who backed me (and other women) into corners to invade our body space and sometimes press her extremely large breasts up against us; who made constant sexual innuendos in work conversations…and got away with it. Because in the 1990s we knew the cards were stacked against us. We had children to support, jobs we had to keep. Decades later, I turned cartwheels and handsprings when the Me, Too movement evolved, recalling Evil Troll and everything she put me through until I escaped to another job.

Every office worker has tales like this, some (many) I’m sure, far, far worse. To them I say: I salute you. I know what you’re enduring. Stay strong, keep on, and emerge, eventually, the victor on the other side. Or, as the mock-Latin saying goes, Illegitimi non carborundum.

Happy Administrative Professionals Day! If you enjoyed this essay, you might also appreciate Administrative Professional (or, A Tale of Popularity). You can locate it by scrolling to the Archive files, below, from April 25, 2018.

What Just Happened?!

The wool isn’t pulled over our eyes only on April Fool’s day!

More years ago than I care to remember, I was working at an office in which one of my coworkers was a practical joker. Now, I have very little liking for or sympathy with practical jokes; I don’t find them amusing, but rather passive-aggressive. (“Oh, for heaven’s sake, it was just a joke! You need to stop overreacting!” these pranksters remark, putting the onus on their victims for feeling resentment at being humiliated or harmed.) In any case, this adult-but-childish woman pulled such a trick on me one afternoon.

I’d hauled a heavy box of files that required sorting over to a conference table. Yanking a chair out of my way, I settled the box on the table before sitting down. Unbeknownst to me, though, my coworker had walked up behind me and, just as I sat down, pulled the chair out from beneath me. I fell heavily to the floor, stunned and hurting from the fall, staring up at the ceiling and at her gleeful face. So dazed was I from the tumble that it took me several seconds to understand what had just happened.

I find that I remember that feeling—being dazed and shaken, wondering what the hell just happened—every time I’m taken advantage of by someone of my acquaintance. I admit it freely: I am easily bamboozled. Naïve. Fooled. Hoodwinked. I have a tendency to accept people at face value, rarely wondering if they are truly what they present themselves to be. Striving myself to be a caring, decent person, I make the erroneous assumption that most people are making a brave attempt to be that way also.

Stupid, I know. But I’ve spent a good portion of my life bumbling along in this state of naïve trust and so being the dupe of stronger, controlling personalities and covert narcissists. Coupled with my caretaker behavior, this is not a healthy character trait. Not in any way.

Oddly, though, it’s taken me years to sift through memories of events in my past and recognize that no, it wasn’t that I was being helpful or caring or supportive. I was being preyed upon, maneuvered, handled.

Some of my strongest memories in this regard circle about a person whom I thought of as a dear friend; let’s call her the Queen Bee. I met the QB through my association with a group she’d helped found, and we seemed to have much in common. Our friendship evolved rapidly. She seemed very interested in knowing more about me as a person, not just a group member. Her interest was balm to my neglected soul. Years after the friendship had come to a withering close, I would realize that her seeming interest was actually just an intelligence-gathering recon, so that she would have information about my behaviors and talents that could be used to manipulate me.

She did her job well, quickly determining that I had spent much of my life so starved for praise that I would do almost anything for the person who provided that honor. And so it was that I would find myself maneuvered, despite having too little time, into doing extensive prep work for upcoming meetings because, “You do it so much better than I do!” Having been admired for my abilities in learning new computer programs, I devoted hours at her behest learning to use an audio creation program in order to produce the CD she wanted for the group. (My efforts, though, went unacknowledged to the other group members.)

Each time I was manipulated by the QB, I would rise from the experience once more feeling that chair pulled from beneath me: dazed, a touch shaken, wondering what the hell just happened.

Now, years later, having stumbled upon an illuminating article about subtle manipulation techniques employed by covert narcissists, and seeing my name as victim practically written into every paragraph, I can finally categorize this and several other past unhealthy relationships. Becoming aware of my tendencies in this regard was a major step forward to overcoming these self-defeating behaviors. Nevertheless, ages after discovering my astounding “talent” for being manipulated, I still struggle against a tendency to trust and to acquiesce too easily.

Knowledge is power though, as the saying goes; recognizing that I am being controlled, although it happens all too often after the fact, at least does happen for me these days. I wish that I had gained this wisdom far earlier in my life. But, even garnered this late in the game, each step toward genuine understanding makes me a stronger, and prouder, woman.

It is never too late to become the person we were meant to be. It is never too late to grow.

If you liked this essay, you might also enjoy, “The Day the Vacuum Cleaner Rose Up to Smite Me”, published October 27, 2017, which you can locate by scrolling down to the Archives, below.

Feet of Clay

All of us are flawed.

The term ‘feet of clay’ is derived from a troubling dream experienced by the King Nebuchadnezzar, in which he saw an awe-inspiring statue. As recounted in the biblical book of Daniel, the statue’s head was made of gold, while its arms and chest were composed of silver. Its lower torso and thighs were composed of bronze and its calves of Iron. Finally, the feet of the statue were made of a mix of iron and clay. It was this clay that was the undoing of the statue, making it so unstable that, when struck by a stone, the entire sculpture collapsed, all its components fragmenting, until they were blown away like chaff on the wind.

The term feet of clay has come to mean a character flaw or personal weakness in those we consider to be giants among humankind; the great and the mighty; guides and mentors. But the simple truth is that all of us are flawed. We all have feet of clay.

The American author Ambrose Bierce, once defined a saint as “A dead sinner revised and edited”. And so are our heroines, our heroes, our leaders; all those supposedly superior beings. They are all “revised and edited”.

Winston Churchill brilliantly led Britain through World War II. But he openly despised Muslims. Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, was a slave owner, as was George Washington. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony partnered with white supremacists in their struggle to obtain the vote for women. Abraham Lincoln’s administration implemented appalling policies toward Native Americans. Both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., had extramarital affairs. Mother Teresa’s Kalighat Home for the Dying provided little to no pain management or proper hygiene, so that people suffered needlessly—suffering which she praised.

Peel back the layers on the face of every acclaimed human being, and you will find the shocking reality lurking just beneath the fiction. Often, it is not very pretty; frequently, it is downright ugly.

They were, they are, just like you and me.

There are no saints. Yet saints we demand. We beg for an image, a template, which we can emulate, but then cast the pattern angrily aside when we discover that it is made of shreddable paper rather than polished silver. We forget that a pattern is just that—a design, an outline, an example—rather than a requisite. We fail to understand that we can emulate the best of what we see in others, while forgiving their flaws.

And we also do not live within their minds. Did Lincoln or Jefferson or Washington, in the privacy of their own thoughts, deplore the disparity of their publicly-stated views with their personal actions? Did each question his own motivation or bias and belief? How did JFK and MLK reconcile their high-flown aspirations with the infidelity that caused their spouses so much pain? If our guides and gurus had feet of clay, did they also have psyches cringing from their own contradictions? Did they suffer doubt, or confusion, or shame?

In most cases, we will never know. Rarely are we allowed a glimpse into the workings of another’s mind, and when we do achieve such observation, it is incomplete. Mother Teresa, for instance, never retracted any of her statements about the nobility suffering, or the behavior that led her treat the pain of cancer patients with nothing more than aspirin. Yet in her private diaries she expressed spiritual desolation and a complete disconnect from God. Did she ever link her own spiritual emptiness to her belief in the nobility of pain or her personal responsibility for unnecessary suffering?

Jesus, it is recorded, cleansed the Temple of the money changers: driving them out with a scourge, knocking over tables and kicking over chairs, shouting condemnation. His rage, I was always taught, was justified, because he was acting on behalf of virtue; driving out evil. Even in childhood, I laughed at that claim. I’d seen a lot of rage in my family, and I recognized it. However praise-worthy his motivations, he just got mad. Just plain angry and disgusted; simply raging mad.

He lost his temper.

He walked on feet of clay.

When he was done—when the sheep and oxen had stampeded out, the pigeons flown away—when the money-changers had fled, and their cash boxes been poured out—did he, his chest heaving, look around and say to himself, “I should have done this differently. This was inexcusable behavior. How can people trust me if I lose my temper this way? Will they ever forgive me?”

Those who recorded his history, if not forgiving him, did at least excuse Christ for his out of control behavior. Perhaps in that we can find our answer: If we cannot forgive our guides and mentors who have walked, just as we do, on feet of clay, we can at least acknowledge their humanity, and our common failings, and grant them our pardon and excuse.

Enjoyed this essay? Then you might also like “Tough Love for the Prodigal Son”, which you can locate in the Archives dated March 30, 2018.

My Dad Called the Japanese “Japs”

Just the way in which a name is said can be an insult.

Photo for ObituaryCropMy Dad, who died in 2021 at the age of 92, called the Japanese “Japs” to the end of his days, despite the fact that he never fought in WW II.  He was an adolescent and then a teenager throughout the war years, patriotically watching the newsreels and reading newspaper reports of the war.  But he never encountered battle with the Japanese.

Instead, Dad spent most of his adult lifetime working in the industrial fastener industry. Japanese manufacturers were often his industry’s strongest competitors.  I suspect that this fact had more bearing on his biased nomenclature than the actual events of WW II.

Later, following the events of 9/11, Dad despised all Muslims with the same loathing he had always bequeathed the Japanese.  I’d taken him to the zoo one Father’s Day when he was in his 80s, and, as we were leaving, we saw an American serviceman, in uniform, with his Muslim wife and children.  Dad simply glared.  “I don’t like seeing that,” he remarked to me, his words clipped and angry.  “I just don’t like seeing that.”

Knowing my Dad as I did, I was not surprised, although dismayed.  “For the love of heaven, Dad,” I protested, “not all Muslims are terrorists!”  But he shook off my words as a dog shakes off water.  To him, just as the Japanese would always be “Japs”, so all Muslims were terrorists and fanatics.

Yet despite the fact that his own brother fought during the Korean War, while Dad himself lived through the horror of Vietnam, watching the carnage on the nightly news (always fearful that my older brother would be drafted and seeing the sons of his friends and neighbors go off to fight and die in an undeclared war)–well, despite all of this, Dad never referred to Asian people using the horrendously insulting “gooks”.  I’m uncertain why this was.  Perhaps he just never encountered that derogatory  term.

Dad once forwarded me a video of a meeting in which a Muslim woman in the audience stood to ask the panelists a question about fighting the sick ideology of Muslim terrorists without harming the hundreds of peaceful, law-abiding Muslims worldwide.  The panelist who responded did so by making a number of very valid points about the innocent, peaceable people of Germany, Italy, Japan, and a half-dozen other countries, all of whom were led into wars they did not want and would never have begun, by a fanatic minority leadership.  The panelist’s points were compelling, but the manner in which she made her remarks was a discourteous rant.  Her voice grew more and more strident and agitated until she was nearly shouting.  Her fury was quite out of proportion to the reasonable question posed so courteously by the young Muslim woman. When I replied with this perspective on the video, my Dad chose not to respond.

But I find that it’s all too easy to dehumanize an entire group, a full spectrum of humanity, in order to justify evil behavior of our own.  All we need to do is label both the good and bad apples with an insulting sobriquet – to call them honkeys or the reviled N-word,  or redskins or spics,  kikes or Micks, Japs or gooks or Krauts.  We don’t really even need to come up with a nasty name; just the very way in which the word is said, spitting it out (“Jews!”) can be enough of an epithet.

So, no matter how much I loved my Dad, I continued gently suggesting the correct nomenclature — yes, even in public — when he spoke of  “the Japs”.  I mildly reminded him of the hundreds of peaceful and law-abiding Muslims who are not terrorists, and that an entire group of people cannot be defined by an ideologically sick few.

It’s unlikely that my remarks made any difference at all to my father’s worldview.  But I always felt better for having spoken.

Despite the way it might sound, I posted this essay to honor my Dad–my contrary, opinionated, self-proclaimed “mean old Wop” Dad–who would, had he lived, have turned 93 just a few weeks ago.  And if you appreciated this essay, you might also enjoy, “Same Argument, Different Decade”, from January 19. 

A Candle in the Darkness

On Monday, a much loved relative will be having the same surgery as I had, five years ago, when I wrote this blog post.  I am reprinting it for her.

A few days before I was to have surgery, a close friend asked me to confirm the time that my operation would be starting. She would, she explained, be lighting a candle for me at that moment, and sending me her prayers and love.

I’ve always found that the most terrible moment of any surgery is that short, frightening journey as one is wheeled down corridors into the operating room.   The unutterable sense of loneliness cannot be described to anyone who has not had this experience.  I liken it to the final journey of death.  Friends and family in the pre-op room have hugged and kissed one goodbye, and then one is completely alone, facing an unknown.  No matter how simple the surgery, everyone experiences that nagging dread that they might not awaken from the anesthetic.  Everyone wonders if hands, feet, arms, legs, fingers, toes, will all function afterwards, or be forever paralyzed.  Everyone is aware that sometimes, in surgery, things go wrong.

Only once, as I was being taken to surgery, did the orderly pushing the gurney seek to lighten my sense of trepidation. Had I ever had surgery before, she asked, and when I answered in the affirmative, she patted my shoulder and said, “But it’s always a little scary, isn’t it?”  There are no words to describe how comforting I found her empathetic remark.

Being wheeled to this most recent surgery, I received no such comforting question or concern. I was taken a short distance to the operating room and helped onto the table.  In a surgery just two months prior, a nurse had introduced me quickly to everyone in the operating room, giving me their first names and their function in the surgery, leaving me to wonder fearfully if there would be a quiz afterwards!  This time, however, there was only the quick press of the oxygen mask over my face and the staccato instructions of the anesthesiologist to, “Breathe!  Breathe deeply!”  (Of course, since I am horribly claustrophobic, just having the darned mask pressed onto my face made me do nothing but instinctively hold my breath in complete terror, followed by the rapid-fire, quick, short breaths of a full-blown panic attack.  Perhaps this is a reaction for which anesthesiologists should be schooled in their method of approach.)

But, despite my claustrophobia, my lonely distress and anxiety, the image of my friend’s candle, burning brightly for me, shone in my consciousness. I found myself focusing on it during that brief journey to the operating room.  The image calmed me, reassuring me that I was not truly alone; that the prayers and concern of others were surrounding me.  A memory swam up into my consciousness, a poem I had written years earlier, Just a Light Left Burning, and I found myself reciting the lines like a mantra as I was carried into the coma-like sleep of anesthesia:

Just a light left burning for me
in my window of darkest pain;
just safe harbor, refuge, retreat
sheltered sanctuary from rain.

Just a kind hand, steadying me
when I stumble a rocky path;
just a heart’s strong, balancing beat
when I settle my face at last

to the shoulder, stable and sure
of a long-cherished friend who shares
light embrace, encircling me
in the knowledge that one soul cares.

Weeks afterwards, my friend told me that the candle she lit had burned throughout my three-hour operation (which had, of course, begun later than actually scheduled). Despite guttering a few times, the candle had continued burning until a call from the phone tree assured her that I was out of surgery and doing well.

But, in my mind, that candle is still burning, guiding me through the darkness, lighting my path with the beacon of caring and friendship.

If you enjoyed this essay, you might also appreciate “Twenty Hours After Surgery”, which you can find by scrolling down this page to the Archives.  It was published May 15, 2018.  And, as always, if you liked this post, feel free to share it!