“I Dare You”

In 1975, at my high school awards ceremony, in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, I received an award that made me uncomfortable. It was called “I Dare You” and the prize was not a scholarship, not a restaurant lunch with my favorite teacher but a privately published book written by one of St. Louis’ leading citizens, William Danforth. I didn’t know this at the time but he was then chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis and had been promoted from vice chancellor of medical affairs to chancellor one year after his family foundation gave the University a $15mm gift.

The book’s theme is that people should challenge themselves to achieve their potential. Distributing these books to “promising” high school students was a way that William Danforth hoped to inspire young people to make the world a better place.

That sounds innocuous and at the time, I took a brief look at the book and put it away. I found it again as I continue to winnow the books on my shelves. This book’s fake embossed leather cover is decorated with a boyish male profile, clearly the author’s originally intended audience.  The award was first given in 1941 and the language in my 1970s printing reads as if it had not been updated.  The sexism in the writing is consistent with that cover – males do great things and a very few women do traditionally ‘feminine’ things in a heroic way. The tone of the Horatio Alger style booster-ism is Victorian, as evidenced by the drawings showing the contrast between erect male figures and slumping female figures.  Looking online, it seems that the award is still being given. In the Google images that pop up, the recipients all appear to be white, proudly holding the same book with the same young male profile.

What does it take to keep such a flimsy exercise in self-promotion going for decades? Can anyone self-publish a worthless book and write to school administrators offering a copy and a certificate to students of the administrators’ choice? Or do you have to be the grandson of the founder of a large company with an ivy league pedigree? Do full-time employees work to keep this alive and are their salaries someone’s tax deduction?

At least, as a gift to humanity, William Danforth’s insipid inspirational campaign is less destructive than his brother’s work. John Danforth, who was Missouri’s attorney general and then a US Senator, helped elevate two notable proteges, Clarence Thomas and Josh Hawley, two corrupt men who are a Supreme Court Justice and US Senator, respectively. My high school discomfort was my spidey sense telling me that the Danforths are not my kind of folks

Thanks, Mariko Kondo

Mariko Kondo says if it doesn’t spark joy, dispose of it. If I were getting rid of fast fashion and furniture I might find it easier, but many of the things that take up space in my home carry more complicated baggage.

Recently, I impetuously donated a chair that I had owned for more than 40 years to a high-end thrift shop. As I drove away, I felt a pang. That chair carried so many memories… I purchased it on a day when I gave myself permission for a tiny vacation from college and the worst waitressing job I ever had (at a chain motel along the interstate).  On a Saturday, I drove the scenic route, instead of the interstate, from campus to visit my parents, who lived hours away (two if I took the highway and three or four that one time I took the scenic route). On the way, I stopped at an antique/junk store and bought this chair, if memory serves, for $5 — back then, the total of my tips from an entire breakfast shift.

Eventually, I refinished the chair at my parents’ house, scraping paint off of the oak and giving it a light finish. Eventually, I had it re-upholstered with fabric I purchased from a small Harlem-based not-for-profit for which I did some volunteer work. The not-for-profit was founded to help neighborhood young people build design skills and many of the fabric patterns were based on traditional African prints. The pattern I chose was inspired by mud-cloth, which comes from Mali. Back then, if I had the courage and skills, I would have loved to start something similar.

When I was much younger, I used to imagine myself as an ‘old’ person appreciating reminders of my youth — I vaguely saw myself happily remembering the good times.  Now that I am getting close enough to old age to see it on the distant horizon, I realize that even if I become decrepit, I am not going to want to read old letters or gaze at things I acquired long ago. It would have shocked my younger self, but so far, the good times continue.

This week, I stopped by the thrift store — the chair was in the window with a $125 price tag. The validation that this old chair could have that much value to someone else is nice, but I am glad I got rid of it. Keeping these souvenirs feels increasingly maudlin.  In fact, a lot of the possessions I am trying to get rid of give me an unpleasant cloying feeling once I pay careful attention.  I still want to donate these objects where they can do some good, rather than occupy space in a landfill but suddenly the list of possessions I am ready to part with is growing. Now I defer to the insight of Mariko Kondo – if it doesn’t give me joy, I will find a new home for it!

Faith

I recently spent about eight days visiting a good friend who is almost overwhelmed with the stress of her obligations. Her biggest challenge is taking care of an older family member who has been in a wheelchair for decades and is now suffering from dementia, cancer and depression … my friend also has an 11 year old, a challenging job, three pets and a deep desire to celebrate the holidays. For those eight days, I pitched in any way I could: consulting on which Christmas tree to buy, helping to set it in the stand and secure it to the wall so the cats don’t knock it down, plus grocery store runs, waiting with her for the home health aide (who never showed up three days in a row), wrapping Christmas packages, sous chef… She told me that having me there felt like taking a weight off her chest

I have also been making efforts to volunteer with not-for-profits that focus on work I believe in. This blog has described a couple of days working in food pantries (Ethics and Eating, July 9) but I am also training to tutor public school kids who are lagging in reading, practicing job interviews with formerly incarcerated people who are working on re-entry, and writing to a prisoner who is working on a book about his spiritual beliefs. These volunteer efforts are far more challenging than dedicating eight days to help a friend – the commitments are inconvenient, the technology is out of my comfort zone, and the work can be physically exhausting. I have to learn new practices and work as a cog in a usually creaky system.

But the biggest difference between helping my friend and my volunteer efforts is the feeling of accomplishment. When I volunteer, if there is success, I haven’t seen the celebration and I don’t know how much I contributed to that result. But after 40 years of friendship, I have a good idea of what will be helpful and I can efficiently deliver that. The reward of hearing my friend tell me that a weight is off her chest is enormous.

My conclusion is NOT that I will stop pursuing these volunteer efforts in favor of weeks visiting friends to help them with their personal burdens. One lesson from my long career is that a feeling of accomplishment easily bleeds into ego gratification and can warp my priorities. Since each of my volunteer efforts supports something that is important to me, I will teach my ego to be patient while I learn my volunteer tasks and wait for the signs that the volunteering has impact. If those signs never come, maybe I can contribute to improving the process or possibly I need to have faith in consequences I can’t see. 

Democracy

In 1867, The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry (usually simplified as The Grange) was founded as the first national American agricultural advocacy group. The beautifully simple community centers built by local Granges to host their activities still stand at rural crossroads. The organizational efforts paid off: In the 1800s, the Grange successfully lobbied for laws to lower railroad shipping rates and for free postal service to rural areas.

More than 150 years later, Granges still serve as political and community centers. As an example, I spent election day November 2021 as a clerk at the Enterprise Grange in Torrey, PA.  About 200 Pennsylvanians stopped by to vote (out of 531 registered voters), say hi to their neighbors and patronize the small bake sale benefiting the Grange. 

As clerk, I was the junior staffer of a team with two other women. We made sure that those voters were on the voter rolls and that their ballots were safely inserted into the locked ballot box. If they were registered — and everyone who came to vote was registered — those who had not previously voted at this place showed ID and the rest provided signatures to be matched with those on file. At least a dozen who did not need to provide ID volunteered to show their drivers licenses, possibly eager to prove the point that voter ID requirements are so reasonable.

Over the course of the day, several voters felt entitled to loudly share their frank opinions.  Unsurprisingly, because this is such a rural area, those opinions reflected Republican talking points:  “America is full of free-loaders who want to live on government benefits”; “I am so tired of hearing about COVID” (which does exist but is apparently not a huge risk); “these voting systems can’t be trusted”. Agreement with those opinions appeared to be unanimous (while there may have been dissenters, like me, they chose to remain silent).

My colleagues were not the instigators of these discussions, but they were clearly in agreement. Still, despite our diametrically opposed political views, after spending 14 hours with them, I developed a strong appreciation of their attributes:  the younger one, who I guess is in her 50s, owns an organic food store, is trying to grow sourdough starter, and helps her husband raise grass-fed beef cattle. Like me, she is curious, gregarious and entrepreneurial.  I wonder if her political views would be a little more like mine if she hadn’t lived entirely in a homogenous, conservative culture — a beautiful place, on a family farm surrounded by loving relatives and a close-knit church community. The other woman is in her 80s, has an infectious giggle, a profound sense of her own privilege and a sincere interest in why she and I view the political world so differently. At her request, she and I discussed Joe Biden vs Donald Trump in one very civil conversation and I hope we can talk about politics again. She says she wants to know why others disagree with her but no one will talk to her about it; I have only a slim hope that I can influence her at all but two people talking across the divide would be a small contribution to preserving our democracy.

Finally, adventure

This fall, I have been occasionally working as a substitute teacher at the local public high school. Chatting with a regular faculty member, I described it as an adventure. Half an hour later — slightly bored, watching ninth graders take a math quiz — adventure seemed like an odd word choice. After solving the quiz problems, I recalled a boring afternoon on a real adventure decades ago: In the 1980s, traveling solo in central Java, I waited hours for a delayed train in a small town station and took some photos to kill time. That afternoon is only memorable because one of those photos sticks in my brain. At the high school, waiting for the students to finish their quizzes, instead of taking photos to entertain myself, I started hand writing this blog post on a piece of lined paper.  Adventures often include long boring hours and part of the adventure is how you choose to fill those hours.

Adventurous aspects of substitute teaching also include the huge adrenalin rush the first day, the result of doing something totally new that might have turned out to be an epic fail plus the familiar first-day-of-school anxiety, which I had not experienced in decades.

But to me, the best aspect of an adventure is unanticipated beauty and glimpses of life from another angle. On that trip to Java, one revelation was the traditional dancing, gracefully syncopated and — back then, at least — woven into daily life. With substitute teaching, the revelation is that high school kids are not slightly smaller fully formed adults, the way I remembered them. No, most of them are children! Heartbreakingly young, fronting whatever attitude each has chosen, and adorable in their own funky ways. I imagine how much their parents probably worry about them, facing this increasingly harsh world, and how much they must love them. 

I decided to try substitute teaching because I thought I would learn something new, and even after only a few days, I see ways that differences among teachers impact the quality of the learning. I hope I can internalize some lessons about leadership from this but I am sure subbing has much more to teach me.

My best life

My retired brother is enviably clear about what makes him happy. This summer he built himself a small camper for the road trips that are one of his greatest joys. He enjoyed the process of building the camper and a few weeks ago he headed out. This trip is expected to last almost three months, the fourth of months-long journeys in the last two years, visiting National Parks and seeing friends along the way.

He also seems happy when he is not on the road. He reads books on his phone that he tells me are junk, is a popular bartender at a local high end restaurant, goes fishing and sleeps a lot. If he has my compulsion toward constant goal-setting, he hides it well.

Last week, he texted me praising the great camping in North Dakota’s Teddy Roosevelt National Park along with a photo of a bison on the range. When I shared a screenshot with the rest of the family, one of my nieces responded “He is living his best life.”

The insistent internal voice telling me to improve myself is temporarily satisfied whether I learn something new, reduce my carbon footprint, or act more kindly and I do experience joy when I achieve any of my self-improvement goals. My brother’s message and my niece’s response are fresh reminders that living my own best life also requires pursuing pure joy unrelated to self-improvement.

Souvenirs

Imagine an immigrant living on a country road near Durham, North Carolina with her husband, also an immigrant, and four children aged 8 to 13, managing her household on a tight budget. It is 1970. She has a high school education, no other nearby relatives, and no longstanding friendships in the neighborhood. And she is reading Cancer Ward, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who won the Nobel Prize that year. That was my mother and I am trying to imagine whether this very serious book is how she entertained herself when her kids were at school and the housework was done (was it ever done?) or if it was something she plowed through to talk about with my father, who was fascinated by Russia.

I finally finished Cancer Ward after owning it for roughly 15 years. As I was reading it, the character of Vadim, who has a fatal melanoma, reminded me of my mother’s long ago foray with Solzhenitsyn.  When I was in 8th grade, she became so concerned that the large thick mole on my lower back could be cancerous that she took me to a dermatologist to have it removed. I remember two trips to the doctor; the first when she told him that we were there because she read Cancer Ward which alerted her to the potential danger of large moles. The second trip was for the removal. I have a clear memory of lying on my stomach and the pinpricks of the local anesthesia on my back and then later seeing the mole (not malignant) floating in liquid in a jar.  

I believe I remember this so clearly because, like all children, I wanted attention and this event was one of the rare instances when I received special attention. (Such events were so memorable that I could do another blog post about the one other time that I remember receiving special attention.)

Cancer Ward’s story of cancer patients and their caretakers in the Soviet Union of the 1960s are dark and moving and I loved the recognizable influence of Tolstoy, who will keep his several inches on my bookshelves because I am likely to re-read War and Peace, Anna Karenina and some of his shorter novels. However, since I don’t think I will want to re-read Cancer Ward, I am giving it to a friend. Even though it brought back such a powerful memory of my mother, I have many strong memories and many irreplaceable physical souvenirs of her — china, linen, silver, pictures, handiwork.  What I would love and cannot have is to ask her what else she got out of Cancer Ward beyond confirming that a mole would not kill her eldest child

What to keep

Like the rest of the privileged world, I am decluttering my life. That even means my bookshelves. Some books are easy to put in the ‘donate’ pile (decades-old guidebooks,  literary fiction that I enjoyed but know I don’t need to read again) but many books fall in a gray area and so I am re-reading a few to help me decide whether to keep or give. 

Some Prefer Nettles by Junichiro Tanizaki
I have two books by Tanizaki, the other being The Makioka Sisters, which was the basis of a 1983 movie that I loved and left me with a memory of a shot of a beautiful red silk kimono. I must have bought both books after seeing the movie.  Some Prefer Nettles, published in 1955, is much shorter, and therefore an easier read although it assumes a knowledge of Japanese culture and geography that I don’t have. The plot revolves around a couple in the 1920s who have made a decision to divorce but make only the smallest steps toward acting on their decision. Mannered but with surprisingly modern attitudes, it’s a keeper because I love to read books by local authors when I travel and a trip in rural Japan is on my wish list.  With its descriptions of theatre and place, Some Prefer Nettles will help set the mood I want on that eventual trip.

The Cloud Forest by Peter Matthiessen.
The date on the price sticker tells me I bought this after my trip to the Amazon, which makes sense because I came home wanting to learn more. I loved Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard the first time I read it but on the second reading, his selfish treatment of his family ruined the book for me. On the second reading of The Cloud Forest, published in 1961, his cluelessness about the vulnerability of the Amazon is infuriating. He wrote: “It is difficult to accept that a wilderness of this dimension still exists… we cannot really enter it but only skirt its edges. This will change, of course, but it will change slowly.”  Material deforestation of the Amazon began right after the book was published, and 60 years later, at least 20% of the rainforest is gone. That feels fast, especially since a healthy Amazonian ecosystem is critical to avoiding the worst consequences of climate change.  While it may not be fair to blame Matthiessen — his arrogance reflected the optimism of the times, plus he was writing a traveler’s tale with a focus on birds and not an analysis of potential threats to the Amazon — his point of view hasn’t aged well. I hope someone else will enjoy it.

Swimming against the current

Last summer, for exercise and pleasure, I swam laps across the Delaware River. The river is mostly wide and shallow in my area but I found a public access point where the water was deep enough to swim and, if I aimed upstream, the current would bring me roughly across from the landing where I started. For safety, I attached a boogie board to my swimsuit as a life preserver. At first, I relied on breaststrokes and kept my eyes above water so I could see where I was, but with more experience and confidence, I put my head down with each stroke or did some crawl and back strokes. Swimming these laps was peaceful, beautiful, and just the right amount of strenuous.

Then a friend showed me a place where, because the current was weaker close to the shore, I could swim upstream for as long as I felt like it, enjoying the trees and sky overhead, The current strengthened toward the middle of the river and by moving a few feet toward the center when I was ready to quit, the river quickly brought me back to my starting point. Just swimming upstream for as long as I wanted was magical.

With the gift of time that is retirement, I anticipated more frequent magic this summer. Unfortunately, the current has been so strong that when I head upstream, I stay in place. Since I have time, I’ve experimented with different public access points but haven’t found the right mix of current and depth to give me the joy I was anticipating. Still, this summer, when it is warm enough, I drive to the closest river beach and swim upstream (actually in place). Not trusting the current, I have been doing my eyes-above-water breaststroke. It is not as joyous as swimming upriver but much better than riding a stationary bike at the gym.

I imagine myself from the vantage of the families and groups of young people that play in the water or relax at the river’s edge (although they don’t seem to pay any attention to me): The tall woman parks her car, puts her towel, glasses and keys on a rock and walks into the river. After a few minutes to adjust to the cold water, she swims, head above the surface. Sometimes she slowly moves backwards, then stands up to walk back upstream past the white flag that is her towel. After 20 or 30 minutes, she gets out and drives away.

When I was in high school, I spent a lot of the summer at the local town pool sunbathing. (I knew that the sun would damage my skin but I was living in the moment and wanted to maintain the deep brown that came with fresh sunburn on top of a suntan). When my skin started to feel sizzling, I cannonballed into the pool to cool off, my hair floating in all directions until I emerged to resume sunbathing. My hope was the chlorine would lighten my brown hair a little. (And this was not even the dumbest thing I did in my youth.)

On the fringes of my preoccupations with unhealthy goals and unhealthier boys, I did notice older women doing slow breaststrokes back and forth in the lap lane. They kept their heads above water so as not to ruin their sprayed-in-place hairdos, with the result that they looked a little like ducks or swans, with their heads — made taller by the hairstyles — gliding through the water and barely a splash to indicate the below-surface activity that powered their progress.. To the extent I thought about them — enough to give me this vague memory — I wondered if those languid laps counted as exercise and decided it was sad to have hair that needed to be so pampered that you could not get it wet.

Now I am probably decades older than those women were then (40 seemed ancient when I was a teenager), swimming against the current, comparing myself to them and thinking about the ways we are the same and the ways we are different.

Ms. Fixit

Working with my hands is therapeutic after decades in a large bureaucracy. My garden is full of squash blossoms, small delicata and rapidly growing butternut squash, plus dozens of green cherry tomatoes. The thirty year old polyurethane on my dining room table has been stripped off and replaced by many coats of softly shining lacquer. A hand knit sweater (thanks, mom) that provided nesting material for mice has been darned and bright flowers are embroidered over what were formerly gashes. I have done all that and more.

These finished and imperfectly executed products of my attention give me pleasure. The squash plants are taking over my flower bed but the bees the coneflowers attract are fertilizing the squash blossoms so they will bear fruit. It took watching many YouTube videos to figure out how to apply an even lacquer finish and the result looks great to me but is certainly not professional. My embroidered flowers are a bit gaudy so I am thinking about how to tone them down.

Next on the list is webbing two chair frames with vinyl cord I ordered from Etsy. This project will require more YouTube tutorials. Learning new skills feels as good as exercising my dormant needlecraft skills.

I think all of this will help me figure out what I want to do when I run out of these projects but right now, I am going to focus on my handiwork.

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started