#79 Cheating

Cheating.

When I was growing up, “cheater” was an accusation that carried great weight. The matter of degree wasn’t the point, whether the charge was leveled in backyard play out of the eye/ear range of adults or not, once the label of “cheater” stuck it was going to be an uphill climb for a long time. Formal charges of cheating in institutional settings wrecked future opportunities in education, jobs, careers, and relationships.

In the present world it feels like there’s been a shift and my aging self can’t quite wrap my head around what seems to have flipped. Childhood efforts to follow some kind of straight and moral path seems locked in history.  Way-back-when parents felt a sense of failure if their children did not measure up. Getting caught cheating was serious business indeed.

In this new world the concept called “Gaming the System” is grudgingly or enthusiastically accepted (and sometimes openly admired). “Gaming the System”, means finding ways to advantage oneself or one’s interests (individual to corporate), creating a way or ways to alter desired outcomes to achieve desired results. Is this a now accepted form of what I would have once called “cheating”? It feels like the value shift demonstrated by “gaming” is placing millionaires / billionaires on admiration pedestals as we collectively turn our gaze away from the “hows” to focus our adulation on the “haves”. Are we now enthusiastically embracing the Machiavellian concept that “the end justifies the means”, where “Having“ is the measurement of all success?

There are so many small, daily, versions of cheating.  Cars running red lights is one of these as their drivers shout through their actions that the rules of the road do not apply to them (thus endangering the rest of us).Or how about our referrals to slip ups from self imposed food prohibitions or our lack of meeting self-generated goals as “cheats”? Big picture cheats include money paid to college personnel for spots in freshman classes of selective schools, behavior demonstrating the lack of trust wealthy parents have in the worthiness of their children. These desperate acts damage everyone,  the potential students most of all. And then of course are the endless stories of politicians of all persuasions ranging from phony vote getting promises to the myriad ways of bending the rules in order to stay in office, via examples of gerrymandering districts to lining the pockets of cronies, reminding us all that making as much money as possible and grabbing power are what matters most.

Despite my tone, choice of words, and the examples I’m using,  I am not on a high moral horse accusing others while holding myself unaccountable. My thoughts are on the personal damage done through little and big cheats, those I’ve done myself while my internal “compass” waved in alarm. When we cheat we know it. Cheating is giving ourselves zero credit for our ability to surmount obstacles, its essence a demonstration of a lack of faith and a lack of trust in our capabilities to find solutions without resorting to “shortcuts”.

I (maybe we) have reached a point of exhaustion on cheaters and cheating as the daily headlines scream the latest versions. I know we will not return to my childhood backyard concepts of what was fair and what wasn’t. All implications of implying a return to an earlier era as the solution for current problems is useless. Selective memory forgets it wasn’t that good then nor would it be now. But my recollections remain; cheating back then was a far bigger deal than it is now. Our weariness is showing through, our seeping cynicism akin to the proverbial leaky boat filling with water on its way to the bottom. I believe we are longing for trust, in ourselves, in our loved ones, and in our leaders. Not having to suspect every motive and action would allow breath to expand, hearts to grow, and allow the possibility of love to replace suspicion, all of which would alter our existence.

From Wikipedia:

Gaming the system (also gaming or bending the rules, or rigging, abusing, cheating, milking, playing, cheating the system, working the system, or breaking the system) can be defined as using the rules and procedures meant to protect a system to, instead, manipulate the system for a desired outcome.

#80 The Range of Beauty

The Range of Beauty.

Many of us in cold climates grumble about January: it’s long, it’s cold, it’s dark, and worst of all, it is a very long way from spring.

First there was an odd warm spell followed by a falling-in-clumps day of unserious snow, one of those pretty snows like the lazy flakes depicted on holiday cards. By afternoon the glop was present most everywhere with cleaned up roadways and good going. Then the wind picked up in late afternoon and by nightfall the temperatures plummeted and the glop froze solidly into ice ruts. By morning it was 11 degrees with 40 mph wind gusts. It became one of those winter trials where something–the car, the house–something, will break down because that is just the way it works when weather goes to extremes. There were repair trucks in driveways fixing the (most likely) expensive problems.

In a very typical New England winter weather pattern the cold was broken a day or so later when a snowstorm moved through, warming the air and dumping ten or so inches of pristine white over everything. The sun rose brilliantly in the early morning, the storm having moved north. The colors of the ocean and the sky and the light were exquisite and constantly shifting  the whole day.

Silvers, blues, traces of pink here and there, with tinges of green as the waves gently broke on shore, and a shining band of light on the horizon, like a magic highlighter pulling your eyes to the dancing light of that line of shimmer.

My thoughts turned to the beautiful summer houses on the shores of the Atlantic, empty, their owners far away in warmer climes. The measurement of abode when one has choices are often based on “climate” usually meaning temperature. We humans don’t care for being cold (many of us but not all.) But today’s winter beauty was every bit as glorious as a peak summer’s day. It might have even exceeded it, in the stark light and sparkling white. A gull lifted off the rocks, just as it would do in the summer, only the backdrop to the flight was gray and black and white, the colors of the bird itself.  The symmetry was precise and cause for a gasp of recognition and elation. This exquisite day was missed by those who were elsewhere.

I sat on the porch warmed to 70 degrees by the sun, my heavy wool sweater discarded temporarily on the floor. When the sun slides down under the horizon at day’s end the sweater will be needed again, but for this afternoon of light and beauty there is only “Thanks”.

#78 The Anger Refugee

The Anger Refugee.

An image formed in my mind as I was thinking of the angry men I’ve encountered in my life, an image of a Chinese foot binding shoe and how it physically deformed and crippled female children.  My mind swooshed, linking the image of the physical damage done to female children via foot binding to the (modern) psychological damage done to the psyche of a growing young male, his feelings twisted and malformed by psychological restraints. In my psychobabble shortcut, these impossible restraints happen to young boys and men via demands of family or society in the suppression of expressions of love, fear, or emotional vulnerability when outlets for these hurts through healing talk and sharing is also suppressed. Again with the psychobabble, I think of how women are thought to be better at sharing and talking out feelings than men, either young or old.  I am drawing John Wayne stereotypes here and I ask your indulgence.

Modern Moms are working very hard to not use templates of the past, trying to deeply alter what has come before their shot at making a difference in the sons they raise with so much love and hope. I do not know how possible it is to rectify the past that lingers still, given our history and our prevailing culture’s grip on the idea of what it is to be a man.  My hope is that progress is being made but my thoughts turn back to the damage already done in the generations flanking my own.

Like so many women I’ve had up close and personal encounters with angry men. “What do you mean ‘I’m angry’?” “I’m not angry!” flying out of mouths as eyes bulge and red hues spread across brows, the intensity of sound beginning to bounce off the walls, gasoline tossed on a fire if you attempt to state the obvious. Holding silence as a buffer, you ride out this storm covering your own gut fear which is only a paper shield attempt at protection.

Not intended as criticism nor intended as excuse, from my safe distance of survival many miles and years  away from the fuse of past experience, I return to examine my conscience and my memories. Every day there are screen repeats I can watch to remind me of what I once intimately lived, and worked alongside, and saw repeated in the lives of women friends. We knew we were up against danger even if we had not been hit, always carrying the silent “yet” at the end of that thought. I carry sorrow and shame for myself and all the others, those who did not get to that “yet”, who suffered or fled, who did whatever could be done to shield themselves and their children. And I carry sorrow, shame, and grief for those who still suffer, for those who sometimes die.

The image of horridly malformed feet stays with me as I picture a hurt boy struggling to suppress his tenderness or his fear, told to be a man and suck it up, told to not ‘be a girl’. ( And yes, girls sometimes get similar treatment.) The psyche twists, confines itself to the required space, permanent damage done, and the questions hang: how will this manifest, what pattern will it take, who else will suffer as a result? Most often we can never get to “Source” which becomes embedded in these lives. No matter how much  faith I have in talk therapy, such damage runs as deep as an underground river. To those men and to the well-intended professionals working hard to repair the damage: please, please try and keep trying.

Throughout my life I witnessed angry men rising in their jobs or professions , seeking solace in power over others, a balm or elixir for wounds from their own histories or experience over time. In our work places, in our government, in our homes, and as fathers to our children, they are still there and still rising, the damage of personal histories played out in so many ways. Without answers, I only have this image of the bound foot released, yet far too damaged to ever be completely repaired.

I live my life purposefully far distanced for a very long time, no longer willing to participate in the intimate,  up-close-and-personal, bravery of partnered life. I am an anger refugee. But of course my own anger spurts out on occasion evidenced by loud four letter words when there’s no one to hear. There are many of us who have chosen such self-imposed exile over the pain of daily confrontation. We watch from the sidelines. We know it when we see it and we grieve for what we have all had to bear.

# 77 Honoring the Women of OLLI

Honoring the Women of OLLI.

If we have spoken face-to-face or by phone  or via email in the last couple of years you have heard me gush about OLLI. There are a number of such lifelong learning programs throughout the country: Senior College, Elderhostel, and the Osher Institute of Lifelong Learning are three such programs. I found my way to the program in Portland where the offerings are broad and the people are fabulous, where OLLI has its own LEED gold star building, and the program was founded and funded by a native Maine philanthropist. There are OLLI programs throughout the country and they get raves everywhere.

No doubt my course choices (Consciousness, Aging, and Women’s Issues mostly) have led me to coming to know more women students than men and Oh! what women! (both students and instructors). Having the privilege of returning to school over age 50 brings out some of our best qualities; egos left outside the door; our ticking clocks  keeping us mindful and focused; the collective intelligence and vital inquisitiveness of the participants are all baseline.

Where there is joy there is also sorrow. I attended the service for one of the women I met in a fabulous class entitled Women & Aging that was offered a year ago. It is logical that given our age range (classes are free for those over 90) loss should be expected. Only it wasn’t. The depth of wisdom and intelligence of this particular woman made it a privilege to have known her in that context even though the class contact was defined and brief. I could write that about dozens of women with whom I’ve shared these classes and this woman would still stand out.

“Lifelong learning” is bedrock. Why did we ever think anything other? What is brilliant is taking this truth and giving it space and place and opportunity. This can be done in a formal setting like Senior College and it can be done in libraries and living rooms, in church basements, most anywhere there are numbers of retired people of active minds and deep conscience, people who have life experiences to share and longings to continue exploring.

The women (and men) I’ve met in these classes in these last two years have altered the path of my later life. I’ve been in school in one form or another since I was five and none of what came earlier was as richly rewarding as the expansiveness possible at this age and through these classes. To these wonderful women-and men-of OLLI, I give thanks.

And to Sally: Godspeed.

# 76 The Obvious

The Obvious.

Another ”Duh” moment has arrived. I was trying to figure out why I have kept one particular library book so long overdue. “I like this author”, I rationalized only then realizing in the past I have purchased her books while “forgetting” to read them or, like this time,  I’ve pushed past a library renewal due date while leaving the book abandoned and untouched on my bookshelf. “But she’s so clear, so succinct in shedding light on important issues of the day…” continued the swirl in my head, until it dawned on me that it does not feel good reading about hard world realities no matter how gifted the writer.

I then thought of my current tendency to binge watch series TV. I rationalize, thinking this is a temporarily distraction which allows my thoughts to escape into ease. I avoid dire. I cannot abide violent themes or films with protagonists with no redeeming character. I crave ”uplifting” and ”heartwarming”. I relish “overcoming” and gleefully immerse myself in stories where difficulties lessen as progress is made.

Lightbulb moment:  I watch or read things that allow me to feel good. ”Why is that?” I ask myself and the immediate, and obvious, comeback is that my aging body already hurts enough. Reading or watching stories containing pain and suffering pile emotional discomforts on to physical discomforts already present in sufficient amounts. Diverting attention toward things that feel good helps. Enormously.

Maybe a dash or two of “reality” reading or watching is enough, in the same way adding chili pepper flakes or jalapeños to food is sometimes worth a bit of gastric distress. Just not too much and not too often.