But Now I See

A while ago, my wife and I were going through a closet, cleaning out some stuff we never use. Among the items were some stuffed animals that had sat on the shelf for years which I planned to give to the nursing home where I volunteer. They love them. One of the items was a little beanie baby in green corduroy with a funny face glued on it. It conjured up some memories that I hadn’t thought about in a long time.

I was in my twenties when I volunteered to be an adviser for Junior Achievement. For those of you not familiar with the program, it is a chance for high school students to get together with people from the business community to work as a team to plan, develop, and implement their own mock business. I was pretty excited about the opportunity to work with the kids.

A couple of weeks before the first meeting, we were each given a list of names and telephone numbers. We were instructed to call each person and welcome them to our team as well as answer any questions they may have. I noticed that my list had several numbers with the same prefix, but more interestingly, the numbers themselves were pretty close. As I proceeded to call them, I asked one of them if perhaps they knew each other. The young lady said “Oh yes, we all go to school together”. That’s when it hit me they all attended a private school.

On the first night, the advisers were instructed to get there early so as to be available to greet everyone and help them find their assigned rooms. I was standing just outside the door to my room when I noticed a string of six or seven students progressing down the hall in single file, each with their hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them. They were all blind or legally blind and they were looking for me. They were students at the Indiana School For The Blind.

I don’t remember what my exact thoughts were when I realized that I would be instructing blind students to develop and run a business, but I do know that I questioned whether I was up to the task. However, after a “get to know you” session with all the other students, we settled into the indoctrination process of picking a business and a product. I could not believe the enthusiasm with which they accepted the challenge.
They named their company TCB for Taking Care of Business, and ultimately decided that they were going to make beanie babies called “adorable uglies”. This would require buying materials, manufacturing, marketing, distribution, accounting, and finance. The next step would be to assign tasks. Who would head up each of these functions. I was surprised when two of the blind students volunteered to make them, while others jumped at marketing and distribution.

As the weeks progressed, the students found outlets (mostly free) for scrap fabric and beans for stuffing the beanies. One of the other teams had set themselves up as a bank, and our elected finance officer obtained a loan from them to buy whatever else we needed. The program provided some old sewing machines for teams that needed them. Soon, we were under way. Patterns were cut and felt faces were glued on. The girl that was to do the stitching had operated a sewing machine before, and operated it by touch. Another blind student filled the beanies before the final stitches were applied. Others took samples to their respective schools and began generating orders. One even had the idea of making them in school colors which ultimately increased sales. Soon, we were selling everything we could make, and everyone was involved.

In the end, our team business had been a tremendous success and had in fact generated a profit. More importantly, a lot of new skills had been learned and new friendships had been made. I for one came away with a new appreciation for people with disabilities. While I had immediately made assumptions about what they wouldn’t be able to do, they had shown me what they could do. While my initial reaction had been to figure out what I could do to help them, they had focused on helping themselves. They did not want my pity. They wanted my support. It was a humbling experience.

Several times during my career, I ran across difficult situations which I didn’t want to address and would ask myself “why me”. But I only had to think of those students to ask myself “why not me”. Funny how we can set out to teach and end up learning instead.

From the Archives Feb 2013

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Dear Mommy

I grew up in a little town north of Boston.  It was probably no different then any small town that you could select.  We had three grammar schools, a junior high, and a high school.  After grammar school, every kid in town knew every other kid in town as a result.  Looking back, I think about the types of issues we confronted, and I have to admit, they pale in comparison to those of today.

The terminology ‘gay’ wasn’t used back then.  Probably because no one had put a name to it yet, other then the propensity for calling anyone that seemed out of step with their gender ‘queer’.  It also, I suspect, had something to do with the fact that it was a period when discretion was paramount.  You didn’t talk about it, at least not openly.  Everyone preferred to hide that which they found uncomfortable.  If an unwed girl became pregnant, efforts were taken to keep it secret.  If a son got in trouble with the police, to the extent possible, it was kept under wraps.  I even remember the women of the neighborhood, while hanging out the wash, placing the families underwear on a clothesline between the sheets so as not to be exposed to the neighbors.  That’s how tightly wrapped we were.

As a result, I don’t remember knowing anyone that was gay.  I probably did, and just didn’t know it.  And if I had, it probably wouldn’t have made any difference.  We all had our own set of friends and they were who they were.  No more, no less.  Friendship was predicated on common interests and to some degree, geography since the only things you had to listen to back then were your mother, your father and the radio.  I do know, however, that none of my friends had two mothers or two fathers.  

So today, some seventy plus years later, I am well removed from the environment I once knew.  I have been exposed to a more naked world.  One in which we are confronted every day with new demographics begging for recognition and acceptance.  Although I must admit that I am confused by some of it and challenged by more of it, for the most part,  I can understand it. There is nothing wrong with equality.

I read an article this morning about a 17 year old honor student that was in the process of pursuing his/her transgender identity, encouraged and supported by an understanding mother.  Unfortunately, the pressures of the transition escalated much more quickly then the benchmarks of change.  He wrote a letter to his mother that began “Dear Mommy, I am so sorry to do this, but I have killed myself”.  He went on to write as follows:
“I would like to be remembered as a transgender pansexual teenage girl named Hope. Being transgender is my gender identity. My sexual orientation, or sexual identity, is being pansexual, meaning that I do not care about what the person is; I care about who they are. Sexual orientation is who you go to bed with and gender identity is who you go to bed as.”

Those last two sentences touched me.  I had not thought of ones sexual orientation in the terms he described, but it made sense.  I read them several times thinking how wise this  person was for their age.  For any age.  He had a clarity of sight that escapes so many.  It is just a shame that he felt he must leave in order to make us see it is who, not what that defines us.

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24 Hours

Well, it’s not as if we weren’t warned, as if it would make any difference had we not been.  It’s going to happen regardless.  You can’t change it.  You can only prepare to sit it out.  It was still clear when I got up this morning, but they were already getting a light coating south of us.  Another Nor’easter. The third in as many weeks.  By mid morning, we began to see a light dusting.  By noon, we were in a blizzard warning and visibility was zero.  The weatherman says that we can expect snowfalls of two to three inches per hour for periods throughout the day. But, that’s the way it is up here.  If you don’t like it, you probably live in the wrong place.

Eighteen to twenty inches he said.  It’s a slow moving storm and probably will be around for about twenty four hours, moving out sometime tomorrow afternoon.  At least it is going to be a light dry snow, unlike the wet heavy snow we got last week.  I guess perspective is everything when you are in a blizzard and the prospect of a light dry snow is probably the only good news you will get.

This afternoon, the winds are supposed to pick up.  They are only about thirteen MPH at the moment, but could build to forty or fifty MPH gusts later today.  That is the real threat believe it or not.  The risk of a power outage looms large.  If there is anything we have an abundance of, it is trees, and they can be very fickle in the winter.  Branches are brittle and subject to breaking under heavy snow loads and high winds.  As power outages surge, so does the longevity.  Power crews from other areas and states have already been moved up through New England in preparation.  

The dogs are getting restless.  They usually go out about this time, and it is probably a good idea. This is the part of the day when you start marking time in inches instead of hours.  So, I throw on my parka, boots, and gloves and grab the leash.  The snow in the back yard has remained too high to put them out on their leads, so I have to walk them.  Exiting the garage door, we are met by a curtain of soft pregnant flakes and, as we walk down the driveway, it appears there is already about four inches on the ground.  Both dogs love the snow, so my problem is not getting them out but getting them back in.  To them, this is just a game and I have to admit watching them lightens my heart as well.

I will spend some time this afternoon preparing for later.  I will add fuel to the snow blower and the generator.  I test both monthly, so I know they will start.  I brought in some wood for the fireplace last weekend.  We have an insert that minimizes the heat loss from a fire and incorporates a blower to distribute that heat throughout the downstairs.  We will also plan meals that can be prepared if the power goes out.  We did our shopping earlier this week.  Under generator power, we can do many of the things we normally do.  It assures that the water well pump, the furnace and the refrigerator and the freezer will still operate.  It also supplies power to some overhead lights and at least a few wall outlets in most rooms.  Although the microwave and the range don’t work, we can still cook on electric griddles and in the toaster oven.  

I know I am not going to be able to wait out the storm before clearing snow.  At a minimum, I have to clear an area for the dogs to go.  However, by this evening, I suspect the town snow plow will have deposited a rather sizeable berm at the mouth of the driveway, so late today or tonight I will go out and clear the driveway and front walk before the snow gets deeper then the snow blower is capable of handling easily.  I would much rather do it twice then fight with it tomorrow.  Plus, I have to make sure the mailman can get to the mailbox. Yes, even though all the town offices are closed, our U.S. Post Office has trucks on the street, however, if it gets too bad, they may be recalled.

Well, they were right about the snowfall.  It has been about an hour since I took the dogs out and we have been the beneficiary of about another two inches although the weatherman is quick to offer that even with another twenty inches or so, it will not set any records for the worst snowfall in March.  However, what they aren’t saying is that for the year, Portland, about twenty miles south has had over seventy five inches year to date.  

So, nothing much more to do except stand here and watch my deck disappear.  Soon it will be spring, or what we refer to as ‘mud season’ and instead of cursing all the snow we got this winter, we will be bragging about how we survived it.  And years from now someone with say “do you remember the three Nor’easters we got within three weeks back in ’18’?.  And of course, we all will.  Fondly.

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I Am You Are

Here is one from the archives, first published in Aug 2012.

I recently read a poem by Shel Silverstein from his book “Every Thing On It”. It is called “Masks”. It so typified, to me, how we go through life so conscious of our shortcomings, or just our differences, that we often never see beyond that. We fail to see that sometimes it is our differences that make us the same. I have reproduced the poem here followed by my take on the theme.
“She had blue skin,
And so did he.
He kept it hid
And so did she.
They searched for blue
Their whole life through,
Then passed right by-
And never knew.”
― Shel Silverstein, Every Thing on It

Ted ambled aimlessly down the mall, only half glancing in the windows of the stores that tried to seduce him to enter. He wasn’t looking for anything in particular. In fact, he wasn’t looking for anything at all. Although he came here often, it was seldom to shop. No, he came here to belong.
Now in his early twenties, Ted was kind of a loner. Not by design mind you, and certainly not by choice. It had been this way ever since he could remember. Ever since he had first discovered that he was different. To look at him was to see a young man with an athletic build. But beneath the shock of brown curly hair was a face that was a study in contradictions. While the mouth spoke of a ready smile, the eyes remained guarded and suspicious.
Ted was not possessed of a physical defect that was out there for everyone to see. He often thought that perhaps that would have been preferable. Everyone would be able to see the infirmity immediately and digest it, accepting him for what they saw. But Ted’s was hidden. Everyone saw a normal young man and accepted him as such, until he attempted to speak. Sadly, Ted was, and always had been a chronic stutterer.
As a boy, Ted had suffered the ridicule of his classmates. They didn’t mean to hurt him, but they did. He was an easy target and they took advantage of it. To them, it was all in good fun. After all, they were his friends. But Ted took it personally. At first he would try to laugh it off, but that only gave the antagonists a sense of approval. As he got a little older, he began to consciously harbor feelings of resentment and even a little anger. By the time he hit his early teens, he had pretty much withdrawn from most social activities, preferring instead to occupy his time and attention in solitary endeavors.
So it was that Ted frequented the mall. Here, he had discovered, existed the possibility to be with people without having to interface with them. The mall filled a need. The loneliness that captured most of his days was at least temporarily subdued when he could walk among the crowds of shoppers without an obligation to speak. He could use that ready smile without any further expectations. It was the closest he could come to fitting in.
Taking a seat on one of the benches near the food court, he studied the faces of those around him. He had become quite a student of the human condition, and could spend hours accessing the culture that moved around him. Some he found more interesting then others, like the elderly man that he often saw sitting on a bench nearby. He didn’t know if he came here every day, but he suspected he did as he was always there on the days Ted visited. He had often wondered, as he did about many of the people, what his story was. Who was he and what had drawn him to this place. Like Ted, he was sure he too had a story, a reason, a purpose for being here.
The truth be known, while watching the flow of passing shoppers, Ted secretly gave more attention to the young ladies, and would sometimes fantasize about what it would be like to have a girlfriend. He had never dated and doubted he ever would. This is as good as it gets, I’m afraid he mused. Although, his smile could be infectious, he knew that even if returned, he was helpless to advance the opportunity. He couldn’t face the looks of surprise and the rejection that came with it.
But today was different. A girl, a very pretty girl, sat at a table not too far away. Ted, while trying to be discreet, had difficulty taking his eyes off of her. She appeared to be about his age and quite frankly, he thought she was hot. He studied her as much as possible without being obvious, as if trying to commit every feature, every movement to memory. He saw her looking back at him from time to time, and felt that perhaps she was at least a little interested in him. How he would love to walk over there and introduce himself. Oh but if only he could. Watching her from afar he knew was as good as it would get. There was no way it would work, at least not for him. So it was that Ted, chanced one last look and saw her looking at him. For a moment they starred at each other until Ted gave her a smile and walked off down the mall.


Sandy had spent the whole morning shopping. She had always loved to wander through stores and, even before she was able to make purchases, would select items to try on or take advantage of the freebies at the department store cosmetic counters. It always made her feel better. And now that she had a job and a little money of her own, she found herself drawn to the mall even more frequently. She usually came alone as her circle of friends was limited and they all had their own schedules. Actually, she preferred to shop alone. She never felt rushed and could spend her time and her money as she wished.
As noontime approached, as was her habit, she progressed to the food court and, after reviewing her choices, ordered a slice of pizza and a drink at Sbarro’s. Upon receiving her order she turned and surveyed the available seating. At this time of day, it was usually a little more difficult finding a seat. Spying an empty table on the outskirts of the court, she quickly skirted the occupied tables and slid into the empty seat. As she sat there eating she would frequently look around. On one such occasion, she saw a boy sit down on a bench not too far away. It didn’t look like he had been shopping as he had no bags. But, by the same token, he wasn’t eating anything either. This peeked her curiosity. Why was he just sitting there. He appeared to be alone. The more she wondered, the more she watched . The more she watched the more interested she became. In his own way, he was kind of cute. She liked his unruly hair and his mouth that seemed to be hiding a smile. It was the eyes that she couldn’t read.
She saw him looking at her from time to time and became a little flustered when their eyes would accidentally meet. After finishing her pizza, she slowly nursed her soft drink, prolonging her reason to stay.
As time passed, Sandy’s thoughts started to dwell on the young man. What if he was interested in her. What if he suddenly got up and came over to talk to her. Oh My God she thought. What would she do then. Suddenly she started to feel very anxious and her hands became sweaty. She felt the space around her closing in. She must leave. She couldn’t risk his coming over.
She saw him stand, and her breath constricted in her throat. She knew she was but moments away from having a panic attack. That had happened before and she worried that it would happen again. What would people think. Although she didn’t want to, she felt compelled to turn and see what he was doing. When she did, she saw him looking straight at her. Their eyes locked for what seemed to be an eternity. Then he smiled, and moved on down the mall.
Sandy remained in her seat for a few more minutes as her breathing began to return to normal and the fear she had felt began to recede. She was relieved that it was over but also angry. Angry that it had to end this way. Angry that it always ended this way. As she stood and gathered her bags and prepared to leave, she could feel the hot tears begin to well up. Why me she asked herself for the thousandth time. Why can’t I be like everyone else. The question, unanswered, hung heavy in the air as she slowly walked away, favoring the shriveled leg with the heavy steel brace.

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What Is Your Gift

This morning, while reading a post on the blog “Soul Gathering”, I read a quote by Pablo Picasso that said “The meaning of life is to find your gift.  The purpose of life is to give it away”.  It struck a cord with me as I had never thought of myself as a purveyor of a gift, or for that matter, what that gift might be.

I have always considered myself competent, but not really gifted.  So, if I were to share my gift with the world, what would it be.  What intangible within me could I give away to the world that could be considered unique.  Or at least be considered one of those voices that stimulated others to say “I wish I could do that” or “I wish I was like that”.   My initial thoughts, I’m afraid, garnered no results.  I can’t paint.  I can’t sing.  I can’t play an instrument, and I suck at sports.  So, having narrowed the field of potential gifts, I decided I had to try a little harder or dig a little deeper.  I apparently was only sorting through the high profile skills that are visible to those around us.  

So, I first asked myself a question.  “Do I like who I am”?  I decided I must or I wouldn’t continue to be me.  So the next question had to be ‘why’?  Why do I do the things I do, think the things I think and act the way I act?   That’s when I started to realize that it had nothing to do with my environment and everything to do with how I related to it.  My lifetime of lessons learned and stored had shaped me into who I am today.  Very early in life I had learned that I wanted to be ‘a good boy’, because if I was, there were rewards.  But being a good boy came with rules.  Lots of them.  Learn and apply the rules, and things went a lot better.

Based on the results of my childhood, I guess it followed that, as an adult, I wanted to be a good person.  I wanted to be liked.  To get along.  To have friends.  To be seen as someone that had something to offer.

The first time someone laughed at something I said, I instinctively knew that humor would open doors.  Not cruel humor, but innocent and perhaps sometimes deprecating humor had it’s benefits.  People gravitate toward pleasant people.  I know I do.  There is so much wisdom in the old axiom of “it is not what you say, but how you say it”.  I also realized somewhere along the way the value of compassion.  If you can reach out to someone in pain and offer comfort, you will form invisible bonds.  And, if you are willing to forgive when others transgress, you will gain a sense of peace.

So, what is my gift? Well, there is nothing here that I would consider special.  That is, until I look around and see how many there are that don’t seem to possess one of more of these qualities. Those that choose hate, or dishonesty.  Those that look the other way when a helping hand is needed.  And those that treat others with distain.  

My gift therefore must be, well, me.  It must be that which I give away every day just by trying to be the best I can. If I can like me, then perhaps that is the key to others liking me too.  It’s definitely worth a try.

Gee, I didn’t think it could be that easy.

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Commercially Speaking

Sometimes, I wish I had my wife’s ability to tune things out, like me for instance.  I say this because I am a guy that, as long as the TV is on, I feel somewhat of an obligation to watch it, commercials and all.  She has never seen one.  When whatever we are watching goes to a program break, so does she.  I, on the other hand watch, for probably the six hundredth time, another commercial.  As such, over time, I have come to mentally catalog them.  I have those that I find offensive, like one that tells me that “six is greater than one”.  Somehow, I instinctively knew that.  Probably my years spent in the halls of higher education has something to do with it.  Then there are others that I find mildly amusing, like the Idaho potato one where the guy is sitting on the couch with his dog and a piping hot potato, when he sees the potato truck he has been chasing on the TV.  So he jumps up and runs out calling “are you coming boy” to the dog who, after looking in the direction of his voice, turns and stares at the potato.  I always chuckle. 

I must admit however, that most of them are not worth the time it takes to watch them.  It could be that it is because they are no longer directed at me.  Nope, I am in the wrong demographic, unless of course, they are advertising pain relief products.  I’ll have to admit that on the highway of life, I am in the pull over lane.  At first, I just found the ads annoying because they were so invasive, you could hear them in the garage.  But the truth be known, I sometimes didn’t grasp what they were selling until they displayed it on the screen, and even then, I have mentally asked myself, on occasion, “what the hell do you do with that?

I also tend to get a little cranky when I see kids in commercials acting like they can do anything they want, and apparently they can.  I particularly hate the one where the kid goes into a woman visitors purse and pulls out her breast pump.  If I had so much as touched someone else’s stuff, I would have needed a pump, to resuscitate me. 

So, you ask, if I don’t like them so much, why do I watch them.  A good question that I have frequently asked myself.  It certainly isn’t for the entertainment value.  My dogs do a better job.   And it obviously isn’t because inquiring minds want to know because a lot of the time I remember the commercial but not what they were selling.  No, after much careful consideration, I think it is a lot more basic then that.  I think I just can’t find something else to do for 20 minutes out of every hour while waiting for the program to return.  Hey, don’t judge me.  It’s better then going and getting another snack.

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Walking Alone

Maybe it’s because I am well into my years that I pay more attention to those that are aging around me. Like trying on a suit and deciding how it fits and if you are comfortable in it.
I see others struggling with the same things I am. Physically, I’m not the guy I used to be. While I once became frustrated if one of my parts didn’t work perfectly, today I am happy if enough of them work for me to be able to drive off the lot. Begrudgingly and slowly I am making mental concessions to my age.
Psychologically, I am still strong, finding the best of what my life has to offer. A lot of that Iattribute to my wife, who for 50 plus years has shared that which has impacted our lives together. Oh sure, we grouse at each other and spend more time trying to correct each others faults then we do appreciating the virtues that attracted us to each other in the first place. However, our relationship at this point is as comfortable and dependable as an old pair of slippers. The bond is something that is just there and we don’t give much if any thought to it ever changing. It doesn’t occur to us that we have so much more than most.
I see around me those that have been left to complete the journey alone and how it has changed them. Outwardly, they look and, for the most part, act the same. But inside, there is an empty place that is no longer nurtured, hidden from view, but sneaking out from time to time in casual conversation. Perhaps that is why we tend to hold our memories a little more tightly, polishing them frequently to increase their value.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to be alone. Too many years as half of a team I guess. Having worked out the rough spots several years ago, we now operate independently but cohesively, instinctively knowing what the other is going to do or think. There is comfort in that.
I suspect the material changes, while important, probably pale in comparison to the emotional ones. Suddenly all the decisions are yours and, although that is something you always thought you wanted, you find you are uncomfortable in the role. You no longer have that person that knows you as well as you know yourself. Who knows the right things to say and when to say them. The one that strokes your ego and makes you feel like you have something to offer. Someone to whom you are important.
I guess, as with all things, there is the good and the bad to walking alone. The good is that you can do anything you want and no one cares. The bad is that you can do anything you want and no one cares.

Originally published September 2012

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