Integrity and Conscience

Because of recent events in the world of American politics, I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about integrity, honesty, and conscience, and I haven’t been too pleased with the present state of any of them in our public discourse.  When I was growing up, honesty was held up by adults as the epitome of character traits for which we were all aiming.  If you got caught doing something wrong or stupid, it was your responsibility to confess, show remorse and take your lumps.  Doing the right thing, no matter the cost, was seen as a sign of maturity that fostered a sense of responsibility, community and compassion.  Disney’s Jiminy Cricket delivered the message to “let your conscience be your guide,” which implied that we already knew what was the right thing to do, we just needed to have the strength of character to do it.  No study of history in school was complete without the obligatory story of George Washington and the cherry tree, and how he never told a lie even in the face of punishment.  We all had national leaders and heroes that we admired for their adherence to the cause of truth, justice and the American way, who overcame adversity to become sterling examples for us all to follow.

But somehow as I have gotten older, those clear lines of character have been slowly eroded in a discernible and insidious way.  People who show an unwavering desire to be truthful and forthright in their conduct are seen as unsophisticated, as patsies or suckers who deserve to be taken advantage of.  Many people love the anonymity of online relationships and don’t think twice about creating all kinds of alternative realities for themselves.  And if some people find themselves in a jam that’s uncomfortable and restrains them in any way, they just make up stories to fit the circumstances in which they find themselves, all in the hope that they’ll be able to deceive other people and wriggle out of responsibility.  Personal comfort and the easy path are more important to them than integrity and character.

I grew up in an era where parents and adults held center stage.  Children were expected to look up to adults, emulate them, fit into their world, and aspire to become them someday.  Adults were addressed as “Mr.” and “Mrs.”  We dreamed about what we’d be when we grew up, that magic time when nobody else could boss us around or criticize our every move.   If we didn’t like what Mom cooked, her answer was, “This is what I made for dinner; if you don’t like it, go hungry.”  We adjusted our schedules so as not to inconvenience our parents, and would never dream of demanding something frivolous or expensive just because we wanted it.

But somewhere along the way, those attitudes began to change.  In the ‘90s when my children were small, I distinctly remember a commercial campaign on T.V. called “Children First.”  The philosophy advocated putting children at the center of the family universe, where their needs always came first.  Children were given more choices than we ever had growing up. And almost overnight, parents were expected to fit into their children’s world, adjusting their schedules and spending habits to fit the needs of their kids.

While I’m not advocating a return to the “good old days,” it’s interesting to analyze how those changing attitudes affect our families in today’s world.  The pace of the modern world has increased to the point where parents routinely rush through the drive-through at McDonald’s to feed their families just because it’s quick and easy. The concept of "quality time" has become acceptable, and many parents run themselves ragged, scheduling their children's every moment with after-school clubs, music lessons, sports and art lessons in the hope that these will produce accomplished, skilled artisans and future citizens who are problem-solvers and critical thinkers.

I have grown to appreciate more than ever before the fragile nature of our consciences.  Our own personal thoughts are truly one of the last places where privacy is impenetrable.  No one else can force you to betray your innermost thoughts and convictions, yet many people treat their own consciences like something cheap and negotiable, easily tossed away for the right price.  I’m not talking about the minor things we all do to get along with others in the world.  I’m talking about the deeply personal convictions that can sway the balance between life and death.

Study the lives of the Founding Fathers of our country, and you gain a true admiration for their ability to speak truth to power, to stand upright and proud in the face of certain death for their beliefs.  “Give me liberty or give me death.”  Simple words to say, earth-shattering to live.  The simple act of signing their names to a document one July 4th afternoon was the same as signing their own death warrants, and they all knew it.  But they did it anyway -- because they didn’t want their children to live in a world where tyranny was normal, where their dreams for a better world were trampled on by kings greedy for power and wealth, or where their choices for themselves were made by others.

Most of us don’t deal with life-or-death choices in our lives, but we still make choices every day that represent who we are as people.  It’s tax time; do I fairly and honestly prepare my return based on the reality of my finances this year, or do I “fudge” every chance I get?  Is that little white lie told to someone I don’t want to have lunch with really so terrible?  When someone seeks my advice, do I tell them merely what I think they want to hear?  Do I tell someone I think they’re great, but then bad-mouth them when their backs are turned?  All the little decisions we make regularly throughout our days don’t seem like a big deal as they’re happening, but they add up after a while.  All of those tiny erosions of character can go from being a fluke, to a common occurrence, to a pattern, to a habit, and finally to a character trait.  That slippery slope is so subtle that sometimes you don’t realize it’s happening, and then one day you wake up and realize you don’t really like that person staring back at you in the mirror.

It helps me to think of my conscience as a fragile bird, a tiny delicate creature that must be tenderly cradled in my hands, secluded away from the winds that would tear its wings to pieces if exposed to the whims and terrors of the world.  It takes constant vigilance and care to ensure that this essence of who I am is able to sing a clear and confident song.

When my time on Earth is through, and I stare into the eyes of the guy guarding the Pearly Gates who wonders if he should let me in, my conscience and personal integrity are all I’m going to be able to produce to vouch for my life.  My hope is that he will indeed let me in, and hear the words, "Well done, good and faithful servant."


Failure is Always an Option

Failure should always be an option.

We are obsessed in our society with failure.  Or maybe the opposite is actually true -- we are obsessed with not failing, and go to great lengths to ensure that every endeavor is “successful.”  Students strive for A’s in every subject in school; Olympians push for the elusive first place in every race, where a hundredth of a second makes all the difference; beauty pageant contestants are crestfallen unless they emerge from the contest wearing the crown; even little kids on soccer or baseball teams are indoctrinated into the culture of “success” when everyone on the team gets a trophy, regardless of their accomplishments.    

But what does it actually mean to fail?  The dictionary states that failure is “the condition or fact of not achieving the desired end or ends; the condition of being insufficient.”   But that only describes the end result, not the struggle, and deters us from appreciating the fruits that are borne as we wrestle with challenges every day. 

I would suggest that failure in and of itself is not something to run from, but should rather be seen as a stop along the way to a destination.  Think about it.  When does actual learning occur?  Is it when you do something perfectly the first time?  Or is it when you don’t reach the goal, but pick yourself up and keep going, trying once more, twice more, three times more, until you finally succeed at the task?

My sister is a middle school music teacher, and she tells her students all the time: “Practice makes permanent.”  Not practice makes perfect, but rather practice makes permanent.  You have to repeat something many times over before it becomes part of your muscle memory, until you no longer have to think about how to do something.

My aunt (from whom I took piano lessons) used a technique when I was learning a passage of music and struggled with a difficult part:  pick a certain number of measures in the piece and repeat them consecutively five times perfectly before going on.  The tempo itself didn’t matter; what was important was that there could be no mistakes in the notes or hesitation in the timing as I played it through five times.  As you might imagine, there were many times when I’d get to the fourth time through, and there would be a lapse in concentration for the split second it took to make the dreaded mistake.  Then it was back to square one.  It could be incredibly frustrating at times, but eventually it became a habit that allowed me to calm down and focus (especially as the fifth run-through approached).  It was a good lesson in perseverance, but it also reinforced that the goal was possible -- you just had to concentrate on the task at hand and keep going.  Failure was not a moral judgment in that circumstance, just an opportunity to learn and do better next time.  With each repetition played well, confidence grew that I indeed had it under my fingers so that I knew I could play that passage smoothly once I was playing the whole piece.

She used another technique that encouraged me to focus on playing the correct notes.  Sight-reading has always been my Achille’s heel -- I do much better playing by ear, or when I’ve heard the piece played first to get an idea of what it should sound like.  She learned that fact very quickly with me when I started lessons as a 7-year-old, so she forced me out of my comfort zone.  She would randomly pick a couple of measures that had no real meaning outside the context of the passage in which they were found, and make me repeat those five times without mistakes.  It forced me to really look at the notes on the page, rather than relying on my ear to direct where I thought the melody and harmony were going.

Memorizing a piece of music (which all her students had to do with every piece of music they played; we were never allowed to perform at a recital with music) was accomplished by using a combination of these two techniques.  I had to start with the last measure of the piece and play only that measure through five times without hesitation.  Then I would look at the last two measures of the piece and play them through five times;  eventually I worked my way back (adding one more measure each time) until the final passage was mastered and memorized.  I repeated that process with each section of the music, dividing the piece up into smaller manageable chunks.  I also applied this method to learning the transitions from one section of music to another, and eventually the piece just flowed together beautifully with no “trouble spots.”

As we grow older and gather more and more experiences, we begin to really get good at the things we spend our time doing.  Eventually we no longer have to even think about what we’re doing, but rather just enjoy the doing.

I enjoy projects that are complicated and time-consuming, and that require some degree of expertise;  there is tremendous satisfaction and joy in accomplishing a difficult task.  But periodically I appreciate the opportunity to just do something simple and elegant, a quick project that only requires me to skim the surface of my creativity:  a handmade card sent to a friend, a small token of friendship or encouragement given to someone from my heart, a pretty quilt or pair of knitted booties given to welcome a new baby into the world; all quick but well-made after years of practice.

When I was in college in southern California, I had the opportunity to see Vladimir Horowitz in concert.  It was an amazing experience, as he was considered one of the elite concert pianists in the world at the time.  He dazzled the audience with his repertoire, playing one difficult piece after another to the astonishment of the crowd.  He obliged us with two challenging encores after his program was complete, but when it came time for his third encore, he was spent.  Somehow he found the energy to come back one last time to the piano.  He sat down and started to play Bach’s Minuet in G major, a piece that every piano student learns in elementary school.  You could have heard a pin drop as the audience hung on every note, taking us all back to that time when we were small children, with legs dangling high off the ground and hands that were too small to comfortably span the keys, determined to tame a piece that to a little kid seemed like a daunting masterpiece.  His hands had played those keys millions of times with complex flourishes and furious arpeggios dispatched at breakneck speed, but it was the elegant dignity of that last simple piece that I still remember.  Even after accomplishing a complex and exhausting program, there was still joy in a little child’s song played with nostalgic longing and tenderness.

The Golden Rule

When I first started my gig as a mom, I worried (as most moms do) about whether or not what I was doing with my kids was working to produce healthy, happy children.  My own mom was a bit of a yeller at times, so that’s what I did at first, too.  My oldest son, who was a tender-hearted, sensitive little boy, responded to that style with immediate compliance (“obedience,” as my dad would have described it).  Even a hint of anger on my part guaranteed that he’d back right down and do whatever I asked him to do.  He was a morning person, so bedtime was always easy and welcomed.  He was a joy to deal with because he was good-natured, readily responded to “the look” to keep him in line, and had a need to please others.

But then along came my second son.  All those carefully cultivated methods that worked with my oldest son no longer had the same results with him.  If I stood my ground, he dug in even deeper.  If I yelled, he yelled louder.  If I gave him the silent treatment, he simply responded in kind.  He could outlast me in any argument, had infinite patience when it came to any showdown, and didn’t budge an inch.  Bedtime was a tug-of-war since he was a night owl.  His favorite stance was with his fists on his hips, feet planted far apart, and a scowl on his face as he proclaimed, “Mom, you make me so mad!”  I would repeatedly give him the lecture about how I couldn’t “make” him mad; only he could decide to become angry with what was happening, and only he could learn to control himself.

It wasn’t long before I began to realize that those tried-and-true methods from my childhood weren’t working so well with my own two kids.  My oldest was learning that obedience in all things was the best way to keep the peace, and that others’ needs were always more important than his; with my youngest, I wasn’t teaching him to cope with his life, but was rather teaching him to be a bully.  All he had to do was yell louder, push back harder, or stubbornly stand his ground longer, and life worked out great for him.  But nobody who wants to raise a responsible, fair-minded future member of a civil society wants that for their children.  I had to take an honest inventory of the methods I was using with both my boys, and whether I could improve on those methods.

And an amazing thing happened when I started to really look at my kids as distinct individuals, with unique needs and approaches to the world, to help them grow into the smart, talented, curious, accomplished young men they would eventually become.

I first had to acknowledge that they were, above all, precious gifts.  We had waited almost ten years for our oldest to enter our lives; a mere 13 months later, our youngest was born.  In a very short period of time, we went from being set in our ways and childless, to having two sweet rosy-cheeked little boys who were curious, bright-eyed, and into everything.  Two smart little blue-eyed towheads, busy guys who wanted to know everything about everything, and who explored their world relentlessly.

I began to see my oldest not as a timid little kid who avoided confrontation at all costs, who needed toughening up, but rather as someone who led with caution as he explored the world.  He needed to analytically scope out any situation before he jumped in with both feet.  He was a fierce and loyal champion for his friends, who saw others as people who needed empathy and kindness, and who was more than happy to give them the support and friendship they needed.  I’ll never forget the day I subbed at his school, and I watched him at lunch as he sought out and sat with the kids who weren’t the most popular, or the best academically, or who were not easily accepted by everyone.  As a matter of fact, most of the kids he ate lunch with were those that had been the most trying in the classroom, who couldn’t sit still, who weren’t able to stay on task for very long, who were constantly being reprimanded for their behavior by every teacher with whom they had contact. He instinctively knew they longed for a friend who accepted them for who they were, and he was there to extend them his friendship.

I began to see my youngest son not as someone who was stubborn and belligerent, but rather as someone who had a strong need to control his own destiny.  He was good at seeing possibilities for his own life, and was clear-eyed and confident that hard work, perseverance, and an optimistic viewpoint would produce results for him.  His independence and willingness to try new things became for me something to admire and emulate rather than to try to control or fear.

I also had to acknowledge that my children are not “mine” to do with as I please.  They were not put on this earth to simply make me happy, nor was it their job to be responsible for my emotional well-being.  We decided to bring them into the world of our own accord, because we wanted to have a family born of the love that two people have for each other.  And in God’s wisdom and kindness, He allowed them to look like us, act like us, along with all our mannerisms, quirks, and flaws, to reflect back to us just how unique and precious we are as well.

You can read hundreds of books on child-rearing, and analyze every nuance in your child’s behavior, looking for the magic key to raising happy, healthy kids.  But it all boils down to one simple rule:  the Golden Rule.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

So simple, so elegant.  But what does it look like in the rough-and-tumble whirlwind of that messy thing we call life?

It’s in the million and one little things you do every day with each of your kids. In the way you hug him every morning, just because you’re glad to see him. It’s how you comfort him when he’s fallen off his bike and skinned his knee. Or patiently explain for the zillionth time how to tie his shoes, or button his shirt, or put on his mittens.  Or how to “help” Mom or Dad set the table for dinner, even though you know it will take about four times longer than it would take you to do yourself.  It’s honoring his schedule by showing up on time to pick him up after school, when you reminded him to be ready to be picked up at that time.  It’s not laughing when he does something awkwardly for the first time, or when his first attempt at talking to a girl he likes ends badly.  It’s cheering him on when he makes it to first base after five strikeouts in a row.  It’s waking up when lightning strikes in the middle of the night to check on him because you know he might be fearful.  Or being the first face he sees when he wakes up from a surgical procedure.  And yes, it even means letting him fail sometimes -- because that’s how we learn to do things better. It’s treating your kids with respect, humility and encouragement, because that’s how you want them to treat you back.

I have always appreciated the wording of the Golden Rule.  The “do unto others” part comes before the part that references what others “do unto you”.  It’s a proactive approach that requires not only a leap of faith, but also a fair degree of vulnerability on your part.  You do something first for others, in the hope that they will respond in kind.  But it is only a hope that others’ better angels will reveal themselves, and never a guarantee.  You never know what others will do, but that’s not really the point.  We should do (and be) our best, regardless of how others respond and whether or not they reciprocate.  Because it’s the right thing to do.

When my boys reached their teens, I waited with apprehension for those dreaded rebellious attitudes to begin to display themselves.  After all, we’ve all been led to believe that teens must go through a rebellious phase, right? Well, it never occurred the way I thought it might.  My boys were always respectful and kind toward their parents.  They looked us in the eye and carried on conversations face-to-face, person-to-person, heart-to-heart.  Sure, they had their moments when emotion, exhaustion, or frustration bubbled to the surface.  But who doesn’t have those days?  In the end, we loved spending time together, loved talking to each other, and still love sharing all the joys and frustrations of life together.

Stooges and Godzilla

I never liked the Three Stooges when I was growing up. I thought they were the dumbest thing on TV. But after having boys of my own, I love watching them now. Actually, I love watching my boys watching them. One day when they were about 4 and 3, I heard one of them calling from downstairs, “Mom, come on -- it’s a new episode!” They never knew that what they were watching was filmed back in the 1940’s and ‘50’s! But it was new to them. The Stooges would do, well, stoogey things, and my kids would just squeal with delight at their stupidity and physical comedy. The boys would get so excited, jumping up and down and flapping their arms while they tried to duplicate the actions of these three idiots on the screen. The kids would chase each other around, repeating lines and movements they saw on screen. (“Slowly I turned; inch by inch…”)

But the best movies to watch with little boys are the old Godzilla movies, dubbed into English from the original Japanese. Apparently Japanese uses fewer words to explain things than English, because the dubbing was always so awful! Words were spoken rapid-fire and clipped in order to keep pace with the action, and the people dubbing the words used a staccato, monotone delivery that was comical. Often we’d turn the sound off and just make up our own dialog to fit the action, sometimes with truly hilarious results. During one scene, a man dressed in futuristic clothing showed up on screen, obviously throwing his weight around and lording it over the others.  The costume designer for the movie must have had a field day in the notions department, because the actor had zippers all over his jacket, and it was obvious that the “helmet” he was wearing was a cheap plastic fish bowl duct-taped around his neck. We took that concept and ran with it in our made-up dialog:

Man with zippers: “Do as I say!”
Other guys: “No, we won’t!”
Man with zippers: “Yes, I said you must do as I say!”
Other guys: “And we said, NO!”
Man with zippers: “I am in charge.”
Other guys: “No, we can do whatever we want. You are not the boss of us.”
Man with zippers: “Can you not see all the zippers I have on my jacket? This proves
         that I am in charge. You must obey me!”

My boys would just howl with laughter at the ridiculous things they could make the actors say to each other. Eventually Godzilla would show up and shoot lasers out of his mouth, waving his arms and stomping his feet in outrage while getting caught up in electrical wires that shot sparks high into the air. Mothra would swoop in and engage in an epic battle-to-the-death while the Army guys drove wildly around in circles, shooting their tiny cannons and rifles at Godzilla in a feeble attempt to stop him from destroying life as we know it. There was usually a mad scientist-type guy who worked on experiments that would change simple lower forms of life into giant monsters (always with large tanks of water and colorful pyrotechnics), and a beautiful girl who kept the scientist from destroying the world. You know, reality TV. Then we’d make popcorn and hot chocolate, followed by a nap.

I truly miss those days.

First Blog Entry, Christmas Day, 2016

Well, I finally did it.  Started a blog.  I've wanted to do this for a while, but never really had the courage to give it a try before today.  So here we go.  I know I will make many mistakes along the way, but I truly believe that that's how we learn -- we try, we make mistakes, we try again, and improve with each new attempt. 

Even though this blog will devote most of its attention to my creative pursuits, I hope from time to time to put down some of my thoughts about life. It’s taken me about 60 years to finally figure some things out, so I hope my thoughts might help others put their lives into perspective, too. Things I worried about in my ‘30’s and ‘40’s no longer have the same degree of concern for me, especially where my kids are concerned. Most of the entries in this section will be stream-of-consciousness stuff, with no apparent purpose other than me working through my thoughts.  And reminding myself of everything I have to be grateful for.  I also like to write (my favorite classes in high school and college were creative writing); it helps me work through my thoughts and problems -- putting it down on paper somehow validates that it's okay to be who I am.  And that is a very big deal for a Baby Boomer who has spent most of her life trying to please other people.

I am by nature a very easy-going person. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes not. I remember how frustrated my mom became when it came time to discipline me. “Go to your room!” That’s okay with me; I have lots of things to do in my room. “No dinner for you tonight!” Not a problem; I’m not really hungry anyway. “No TV shows tonight!” That’s all right; nothing good on tonight anyway. I’ll just read instead. “You need to put in more time practicing your piano lesson, since you didn’t practice yesterday.” Okay; I spent most of my time making up songs anyway, so what was an extra half hour? “If you don’t do what I say, you won’t be able to see any friends for the rest of the week.” Okay. I’m an introvert, so I was used to being by myself; when I was stressed about something, I actually preferred being alone. My mom was a very take-charge person with a can-do attitude, and I must have driven her crazy at times.

But that same ability to re-direct my focus and find new things to do has served me well over my lifetime. I learned very quickly to never tell Mom I was bored. She would get very excited and without a speck of sympathy say, “Oh, good, now you can find something interesting to do.” Or she’d find me something to do, and that was never a good thing. Cleaning something was usually her answer to our boredom. So we learned from an early age to just find something else to get into. Living in a small town, there was always some new adventure: riding our bikes, or playing kick-the-can, or swimming in one of the lakes surrounding our town, or ice-skating, or sledding, or swinging in the backyard, or having a scavenger hunt, or starting a new mess of some sort. I can honestly say that as an adult, I have never suffered from boredom. Even moments of quiet and inactivity can turn into a time to mentally plan my next project, or organize my thoughts on some topic. Or knit. Or...

Another lesson I learned from this was that I don’t need to entertain my own kids all the time. Boredom on their part could lead to all sorts of discoveries. My boys were always able to find something to do. Then they’d run to tell me all about what they had discovered. I called them my “tag-team talkers”. One would find me somewhere in the house, and regale me with all the cool stuff he had just found in the woods behind our house (sometimes he’d also pull out a bug from his pocket to show me). Once he was talked-out and scurried off to pursue something new, the other would almost immediately find me and tell me something else he had just seen. We live in a raised-ranch house, and the steps in the middle of the house got quite a workout as they raced upstairs to tell me things, one after the other.  All day long.

But I loved every minute of it. Two little boys, 13 months apart in age, was like having twins. Every doctor, dentist, or haircut appointment had to be made times two, and they became great friends and cohorts in all kinds of adventures. Every morning without fail, my oldest got up first. He would bound out of bed, full of energy and ready to meet the new day. My youngest had to be dragged out of bed, wiping his sleepy eyes and yawning repeatedly to try to wake up. But each in turn, they’d find me and we’d sit in our huge over-sized rocking chair and rock for a while to greet the day. Same two questions every morning: “How did you sleep?” “Good.” “Did you have any good dreams?” “No.” Then as boys are wont to do, we’d just rock for a while in silence until they were ready to scamper off to find something to do. The wintertime was especially nice to just snuggle under blankets while they were still warm from their beds. But then their energy would kick in, and nothing could hold them down.

The house is very quiet now. But a couple times every year, the noise and commotion again descends upon us, and for a while the old familiar rhythms rekindle. My oldest still gets up early (usually to do some reading -- he’s working on a Ph.D. in political science, and there’s never enough time for reading), and my youngest (who now works in Boston) sleeps late, then gets up to putter around before making himself some breakfast. They’re both still single, so it’s easy to revert back to our old habits when they’re home. I suppose that will all change someday when they have families of their own, and they make new routines.

They’re both home for Christmas for a few days. Oh, I hear somebody coming up the stairs. It’s my older son, ready to tell me something that he just read. Both boys are about 6’4” now, and still want to share with Mom.   And that means the world to me.