Barbie, Midge, Robin and Me

The father of my best friend Robin owned a tool business franchise which provided two young girls with opportunities to fill bins in his wonderful red truck, to bake cookies he could share with customers, and access to dozens of interesting empty boxes.

Robin attended 95thStreet School and I went to parochial school, but we had matching pencil boxes in our desks. Most kids found a source for cigar boxes, but we had decorated paper boxes not needed in his truck into unique containers with compartments for pencils, color pencils, scissors and such. We didn’t know each other’s school friends, but we shared something deeper: hours of playing with Barbie, Midge, Skipper and Ken in wonderful houses, stores, airplanes and schools constructed out of even more empty boxes.

When the weather was cold, Robin’s basement became a town for an afternoon of play. Her Barbie had a flight attendant outfit, mine had a tailored suit. We shared a plastic pseudo-Barbie car that took one to the airport and the other to an imaginary office. Neither of us knew anyone who worked in an office or flew on planes so eventually the story turned back to all the dolls sitting at little box desks with one Barbie, attired in a skirt and sweater, called teacher.

Robin had an older sister and we both had moms so we knew real women weren’t built like our Barbie crew, but we didn’t know flight attendants, nurses, doctors, brides, or girls who wore wonderful ballgowns. Our parents didn’t buy us Barbie’s plastic house or bedroom furniture, but Robin’s dad shared tape and scissors and boxes to build furniture and a variety of workshop towels to make blankets. We stood next to him in his wood working shop as he made small frames and blocks that could extend our Barbie furniture building. We learned how to sand.

Our Barbie phase lasted less than a year, a simple time when we creatively explored, built and did what kids are supposed to do. Parents helped feed our play then stepped back. And we did okay. And I wish I could say thanks to Robin’s father and all the other parents who stepped out over the years with camping trips or garden planting or an evening at the opera to expand the world beyond the girl toys of Barbie and her crew. And those who do that today as  they parent another generation of kids.

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Self-Destruction: Food?

Diabetes and heart disease roll through my family history. A past generation stopped farming, but kept eating three squares plus in-between all with a strong coffee. They dropped eating pie at ten and two, but substituted snack foods. Then there were the midnight suppers on card club nights. Three bowls stood on the table in our family room: nuts, pretzels, and chocolate kisses. Somehow I was a skinny kid and stayed that way into my mid-twenties.

One grandfather was tall and thin, one short and wiry. They ate substantial food and drank a fair amount of alcohol. Then there is the picture of my mother’s mother with two of her sisters. They were all in their late forties and belts in the middle of their dark dresses suggested they once had had waists.

Pregnancy brought gestational diabetes my way. For seven months I managed my nutrition with extreme care. The rewards were simple: a healthy baby and no need for insulin. The years since have not been worth noting. I stay physically active. I stay away from excessive eating, alcohol, and eat a relatively balanced diet. But I eat too much, have just recently scaled back carbohydrates and sodium and given up French fries. My doctor wouldn’t call me stout, but said I had muscle structure that meant I’d never be thin again.

Having lost sixty pounds in his forties, my father watched everything he ate to manage diabetes and congestive heart failure. If the scale was up two pounds he reviewed the prior day and made adjustments. That was his daily discipline for decades.

I watched his diligence with admiration and an increasing sense of doom. But I have to admit that as he began hospice and food restrictions were lifted the message was odd: Now that you’re too frail to make it to the dining room, too tired to sit with your family or friends, too confused to enjoy an old favorite meal, eat whatever you want. All those gooey caramel rolls, omelettes, steaks, grapefruits, glasses of orange juice he had given up over the years; all the notebooks he filled with blood sugar levels, calorie counts and sodium amounts; helped prolong his life. Food could have killed him.

The only living member of my birth family, I wish the lessons learned as my brother and parents passed were enough. On a daily basis, treat food as fuel, don’t confuse eating with comfort. Now. It’s a statement about self-worth and the larger hunger for more good years.

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September Glory

My clock resets itself September. One August morning the temperature barely cracks fifty and I start thinking about the back to school ads and replenishing my studio writing supplies. When the air suggests jeans and a long-sleeve shirt, the sense of pure potential tricks my mind into pulling together a short story submission calendar. Kids wearing new shoes on their way to the playground reminds me my old backpack is in fine condition, but maybe a new leather bag might refresh fall clothes?

Heading back to school as a student or teacher for almost three decades has hard-wired an unexplainable sense of optimism each year when school buses begin traveling through our neighborhood. It’s easier to daydream about new directions for characters or plots when golf courses slow down, weeding gardens gives way to yanking annuals and high temperatures fade. In this month of transition, I look forward to sitting at my desk and making the most of the year which begins in the ninth month on the calendar.

January’s short days are made for serious stuff like cleaning closets, balancing finances, planning home repairs or starting diets, but the bright green days of September remind me I am still very much alive and hungry to learn and try new things. This is the time to read those community education booklets, sign up for dance class, buy a pile of books, begin a progressive dinner group. Anything that will keep you energized while minimizing January…and February.and March.

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Technology Work Around

Relatively low-cost technology including a reliable computer, makes freelance work possible for over 53 million Americans. It’s not enough to be able to use the old office suites, now there are multiple suites plus programs and apps. For many talented freelancers serving as their own IT department eats project, or personal, time when least appreciated.

My desktop computer began slowing down months before I was willing to accept it should be replaced or brought to a tech service group. The unit cost about $400 when I bought it on sale five years ago. The manufacturer still sells the exact same unit at a higher price. With confidence built on owning a new primary laptop, I decided to strip the desktop model to the manufacturer’s settings then reload what I needed. There seemed to be no downside unless you count relying on a couple of websites for total tech support.

About two hours later the desktop computer was back in working order and humming along as quickly as its old processer would allow. It isn’t fast, but better than good enough for writing and word processing. My tech confidence soared.

The devil is in the details that I haven’t been able to restore. While I know using the cloud to transfer data from the laptop to the desk unit may be the culprit, I haven’t been able to correct the annoyances. For example, I now have double entries in my contacts. A mess of old files found their way into my Dropbox. One email account doesn’t want to make itself visible. So I work around or ignore these issues and work on correcting them when there is time and energy.

Staying on top of technology is a challenge for many self-employed or retired people. I have a pair of role models that define expectations. My father managed technology fairly well into his eighties when motivated to learn about streaming services to follow his favorite baseball teams. We knew his cognitive skills were slipping when there were more calls for routine tech actions. My mother-in-law was ninety-one when she began struggling with printing photos from her iPhone and keeping up with hundreds of friends online.

Our smartphones and computers are a necessity of a full life. What will be more frightening to the Baby Boomers: giving up their car keys or losing the ability to schedule a Lyft?

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What Work Would I Do if I Were an Immigrant?

Olga*, 42, was an architect in the Ukraine and now she is a homemaker. Gina, 28, was a civil engineer in Venezuela and now she is a server. Deqa, 32, was an accountant in Somalia and now she works as an assembler. When I tutor these adult English Language Learners, I often consider what it would be like if the situation were reversed and I were the immigrant. What work could I do?

I’ve made my living as a writer and a teacher—work that requires a good command of the language, both written and spoken. As a marketing communication writer, understanding connotation (e.g., ‘cheap’ vs. ‘inexpensive’) and nuance (e.g., the perspective of suburban mothers vs. that of urban mothers) were key to being persuasive. Since project management was a big part of my work, I developed schedules and budgets and coordinated the efforts of several other team members.

As a teacher, I’ve needed to use clear, simple wording and examples that would help someone comprehend a word or concept. I’ve had to be quick with alternative explanations, too. When I tutor immigrants, I am also teaching American culture as well as English language so I must remember not to make assumptions about anybody’s worldview or beliefs.

If I lived in Ukraine, Venezuela, Somalia, Mexico, Thailand, Ethiopia, Vietnam, or any of the other places my students come from, I wouldn’t know those languages and cultures well enough to make a living as a teacher or writer. My M.A. in English would be irrelevant, just as Olga’s, Gina’s, and Deqa’s degrees are.

When I review my non-language-based skills, my list is short and sounds like the work my students do: cooking, cleaning, factory work, or stocking merchandise in a store. With time and a bit more knowledge of language and culture, I could take care of children or infirm adults. As my language improved, perhaps I could be a sales clerk, wait tables, or drive a cab.

But professional work in which I use my communication, analytical, and organizational skills would be closed to me. What also would be lost to me is the respect that goes with having a professional career. If I were an immigrant with poor language skills, most people would assume I was stupid and uneducated—nothing more than the cleaner or babysitter I appeared to be.

If I were an immigrant, I wouldn’t want to be pitied for the challenges of learning a new language and culture (and neither do my students). I would have chosen to emigrate. Or maybe I’d be a refugee who didn’t want to leave but needed a safe place to start over. Either way, before I moved, I would have been aware that it’s hard to learn a new language and work in a foreign country—the bare minimum needed to survive. If I missed my homeland, was lonely, felt disrespected, or experienced outright hostility, it would be mine to deal with. In time, I could hope that safety, security, and a better quality of life would come.

When I work with student immigrants, I keep in mind that it’s hard to do what they do, even though they chose it. I admire their grit, persistence, ability to work toward long term goals, and overall resilience. I wonder if I would have the same qualities if I were starting over in a new country?

*All names have been changed to protect student privacy.