Cow’s Tale

My son Dale was the first grandchild for Garnet and Ray Rex Taylor.  No wonder everything had to be just right.  As soon as mother’s milk wasn’t enough to keep him tick-full and happy, Garnet began hand milking an especially good Guernsey morning and night and bottling it on-the-spot for his pleasure.  She explained that an infant’s delicate digestion would be less challenged by using a single cow than by mixing an uncontrolled assortment of sources.  The “Perrier” of milks, it was literally  “Bottled-at-the-Source.”  The cow’s name was Nosey.


The Taylors cash crop on their three-hundred acre West Virginia farm was keeping a mixed dairy herd of Holstein, Guernsey, and Brown Swiss.  As a newbie with fresh-off-the-sidewalks-of-New-York-and-Connecticut provenance, I enjoyed the crash course in animal husbandry accruing to my position as wife and new mother in that family endeavor.


I made it my business to follow Ray Rex around, plying him with questions and getting his take on all things pastoral.  The first thing I had to do was cut my fingernails.  That made it possible for me to learn how best to squeeze a teat without ensuing pain and swift kicks.  There were a never-ending series of new amazements to see and apply to this lovely nepotism.  While the pecuniary emolument was non-existent, its rewards were rich and gratifying.   I arose, dressed, and helped with breakfast every single day without exception, then leaving my lazy husband to his bed, I followed Ray and Garnie to the barn where the cows waited, impatient, tails switching and hooves stamping, registering the urgency of need- to-be-emptied.  A more benevolent evolution would have provided for self-evacuation, but when push came to shove, natural selection must have voted on the side of waiting for the calf to do the job.  There’s no Darwinian advantage to trickle-moisturizing a green grass meadow with fresh cow’s milk.


There was no end of things to learn about the animals.  I noticed, for instance, that most bulls are exuberantly bi-sexual, a fact demonstrated daily in the barn lot, along with much swinging back and forth of impressive sacks bulging with fecundity.  Life on a farm does make a girl lusty.  It’s no wonder that when Ray and Garnie disappeared down the road on a well-earned February vacation, the first thing my new husband and I did was to check out the milk cooler.  No.  Not to look in-it, but to jump on-it and make love.  That’s when Dale got his start in life as an October surprise.


But I digress.  As Ray Rex’s side-kick, I picked up the occasional veterinary tidbit.  He showed me what to do when a cow gains access to early spring grass.  The first shoots of sprouting new growth are often poisonous to cattle, causing gas to build in one or another of their rumens.  A Vet fixes this with an IV of calcium.  A farmer, lacking access to parenteral solutions, can save the day with a quick knife jab to the swollen stomach.  The pressure relieves, and the animal is saved for another season of profitable breeding and milking.  Where evolution failed to install an escape-valve, the farmer makes one.


One lovely spring day Ray Rex brought home a pretty and very pregnant black Jersey from a livestock sale.  He pastured her on our side of the river.  She was a little gem, unique to the farm, since the Taylors specialized in run-of-the-mill breeds typical to commercial dairies.  These provided milk with relatively less butterfat than a Jersey milker.  More volume.  Less richness.  Since we didn’t separate the cream and churn butter, that made a lot of sense.  His idea was to sell her calf and keep her as Dale’s “source” when Nosey went dry.  Even a cow deserves a vacation, and Nosey had done her share.  She would get her three months of rest and cud chewing.


One day when Ray Rex headed off to town, I checked on the new black heifer.  She was in labor and was not happy about it.  Why did that have to happen when I was alone on the farm?  I kept an eye on her, and eventually she delivered a lovely fat bull calf but wouldn’t get up to let it nurse.  She lay on the barn floor and panted, her eyes glassy and unfocused.  The calf was up but hadn’t yet bonded with its mother.  Not good.  As the evening wore on I began to assess the problem.  It was complicated by what must have been too much spring grass.  A balloon gathered just forward of the animal’s left haunch and threatened to constrict breath and blood.  I tried to get her to stand, but she was having none of it.  Eventually she was flat on her side and groaning.  I was going to lose this animal.  It was then that I ran to the house and fished out my favorite paring knife.  I didn’t have a handy-dandy Swiss-pocket-tool.


When I returned, the cow’s tongue was hanging out sideways.  She was panting in groans.  I aimed the knife at the bulge and poked.  Nothing happened.  The knife was good for butter, but not much else.  Another trip to the kitchen yielded a serrated steak knife.  It wasn’t much better, but I finally worked my way through sawing at the tough outer skin.  It seemed a reasonable thing to open the internal organ at a spot not lined up with the skin access hole.  So I pulled the outer hole left and proceeded to open the rumen.  As soon as knife hit air, the hole erupted, spewing gas and digesting grass all over me.  I didn’t care.  It was so good to have relieved that killer pressure bolus.  She sat up, shook her head, and began trying to get up.  After a few attempts, she made it.  I collected the calf, which with all due-forgiveness began to suck with all due-diligence.


When Ray Rex came home, he congratulated me on my emergency veterinary procedure.  He was proud of me, and I was feeling a wee bit cocky, but as time passed, flies laid their eggs in the wound.  They turned into maggots, which is what fly eggs are wont to do.  When I pulled the skin sideways to peek at the stomach hole, a stream of slime and maggots flowed down he heifer’s flank.  I thought I had failed, but Ray Rex assured me that everything was just fine.  He said that flies and maggots conspired to provide cleansing for open air wounds as a natural aid to healing.  Whew!  What a relief!


The heifer healed.  The calf went to the sale for veal.  Nosey got to retire for the summer, and Garnet began tapping the rich Jersey milk of my erstwhile surgery patient.  No wonder Dale grew up so hearty.  He started out with the big feet of a pick-of-the-litter puppy, and lived into them with the integrity he has ever been famous for; It wasn’t until I brought home a baby girl swathed in pink and ruffled lace that I truly realized how staunch was his hold on the life I gave him.  Compared to her dainty hands, his had the look of a stevedore.  It’s amazing what comparison can do to perception.  The week before, I had envisioned him as my sweet little baby boy.  Suddenly he was a bumptious big brother who would put the cat in the freezer to yield a “catsicle.”  I would love them both.  I would love them all.  It was I, after all, who put a board on my duck and stood on it to make it quack.  Who am I to judge creative persuasion?

Fitting In

Yesterday at Sunday service I discovered something earth-shattering—something that caused the heavens to open and the lightning to rend the temple veil.  I do not usually expect such insights from a trip to my local episcopal church, but that was a signal experience.  My personal pattern, long acted out in a gathering of others, has been to dread the awkwardness that ensues with cessation of whatever might have been drawing attention to the front of the room.  At that point, each and all are abandoned to the devices of our own personal social graces—or lack thereof—and all bets are off.


I’ve been observing this quandary for nigh onto eighty years and was consistently puzzled about what to do.  At that point, everybody turns to each other and begins talking.  About what?

I don’t know.  Everybody else knows, and they’re not telling.


Maybe I was in the wrong place.  That was the most plausible explanation.  A change of place could solve the problem entire.  A new church.  A new town.  A new family.  A new religion.  A new politics.  If I could find the perfect place all would resolve, and I would fit in– or would I?


Perhaps a change of marital status would be most right and proper.  A life partner could make the impossible possible.  Someone who shared my own commitment to common bed and board would do the trick.  Yes?  No.  Well OK then.  Divorce was sure to be the answer.  A new and different partner would make the crucial difference.  If number two didn’t do the trick, then number three would herald the final solution, once and for all.  Yes?  No.


Maybe I’m not cut out for living-together.  Acceptance of one’s nature is a good thing and must lead to peace vis-à-vis self and others.  But living alone is quiet—too quiet—a jail of solitude.  Lonely.  What about joining?  Being part of some common effort—some sharing of values and ideals.  Just being part of a choir is something I have always done but never understood beyond technology and technique.  A choir is more than an enjoined effort to produce music.  It is people.  I signed up with the choir at Redeemer Episcopal Church, an aggregation of people who share my world view, religious philosophy, and who delight in the same enjoyment of music-making that I had experienced across the entire arc of my existence.  What better situation?


What indeed.  Perhaps the worst ever comeuppance was discovering that stopping for a break, for coffee and a bit of socializing, was as much a minefield in this so perfect place as was Miss. Chater’s first grade or Staples High School’s cafeteria.  Here were people who were as smart as me if not smarter, as educated as me if not more so, and who shared my social status, religious beliefs, political leaning, and who shared my love for all things musical.  So what happened?  Whenever the director called a halt, everyone–everyone but I–instantly fell into a mode of conversation.  I, I alone, stood in their midst and stared in disbelief at all these lovely people enjoying each other, while I stood– stark as a totem pole– in their chattering midst.


Maybe I am too old.  Maybe I haven’t been a member long enough.  Maybe oral or underarm deodorants have failed.  No?  No.  Enough!  I’m kidding myself.  There’s something else afoot.  I decided to set aside all the mental meanderings that led to some inadequacy on my part.  The problem is certainly not something that I am but something that I am doing.  I can’t change who or what I am, but I can and will modify behavior.  No wonder Rachael Maddow always says to watch, not what they say but, what they do.  Observing has ever been my favorite pastime.  I watched.  What I noticed was that as soon as the break was called everyone but I fell effortlessly into discussion.  They, as if hearing the clap of a starting pistol, turned in toward the center of the room and engaged whoever was close at hand.  These were people who had known each other for years as well as those who were newer to the group than even I.  They were employing a learned skill, something acquired and utilized for entire lifetimes of living in a world of naked and conversational primates.


Yesterday morning I awoke and promised myself a change—a change for the better.  After the Redeemer Sunday service, I gathered with others at the Adult Forum and expected to be a part—not an observer.  Rather than importing my considerable resentment at facing a social maze I could not penetrate, I simply determined to find any person and start talking.  OMIGOD.  It worked.


Sure, one Sunday won’t correct a lifetime of gawky, but it’s a start.  If I get carried away with the headiness of progress, I will approach a couple of old friends in earnest conversation who just want me to go away.  There’s a middle way to be steered on this path.  I can count on friends and neighbors to keep me heading straight.  You never get to be too old to learn a new thing.


After Redeemers new organist completed his first Sunday service of the new church year, I bounced up to the organ dais and announced, “I like your snappy style.  Those hymns bounced right along—no slouching to Jerusalem here!”  I wasn’t alone.  Several others of the choir had rushed the organ after sitting transfixed through the Bach postlude.  It had been a game-changer of multiple proportions.


But then I hedged the awkwardness of the moment, speaking to my stature as an ancient, hanging on for dear life.  I surveyed the crowd and conceded, “Sure, he really needed to hear that from me.  Actually, he needs to hear that from everybody!”


“Hear.  Hear,” the group rejoindered,  a jovial concession to elder wisdom.  What’s going on here?


The problem seems to be a readiness to give opinions where none is solicited.  Who asked me?  Nobody–but I have nourished a style of supplying compliments, where though none is required, I am nevertheless sowing them in generous bounty.  What better way to assuage a growing sense of disenfranchise than rounding up dogies of excellence and posturing in their patch of sun?  Calling them out on their success is a focus on their achievement, but it also claims a wise understanding of its import.


I provided a pat-on-the-back to the new basso profundo section leader.  He has an arresting vocal apparatus that reminds me of Henry Kissinger.  What a voice!  He’s wonderful!  Why shouldn’t I tell him how his performance speaks to my soul?  Perhaps because others don’t spread compliments launched in reckless abandon, like flower petals twisting in the eddies of a spring zepher.  Others are more circumspect—more collected.  Others are more balanced in their adulation.  No wonder my mother’s favorite question of me was, “What will people think?”  What, indeed?  They will think I am claiming some superior knowledge—that I know better—that driven by some perceived surety of understanding I am weaponizing truth to my will.  Are they correct?  I hope not.


A 1970’s book, “What Others Think of Me Is None of My Business,” was a hallmark in sounding my depths—or my shallows.  I took its admonition as a cautionary tale and let the chips fall willy-nilly—weighted to the side of self-expression and pride-of-species.  I am happy to be a human animal.  Homo-sapiens-sapiens is indeed the crown of creation, whether evolved or—if you insist—formed by God’s own hands.


That doesn’t lead necessarily to pride of person.  At Redeemer, I am surrounded by parishioners of superior intellect, more sterling bona fides, and better connections.  In the face of such daunting surroundings, I continue to offer my opinion as if it matters.  Am I oblivious?  No.  It does matter.  One of our altos is an alumna of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, with a specialty in Architectural Engineering.  I am titillated with the thought of picking her brain for building design morsels.  What an opportunity!

My husband and I once made a living in the Sierra Nevada, drafting building plans for people wanting elegant cabins and designer homes in their Mammoth Lakes and June Lake neighborhoods.  We launched High Country Drafting from our less-than-elegant cabin on Mono Lake.  We had one drawing table.  Adjusting it to vertical, Lorenz drew on the back; I drew on the front.  We agreed to announce incipient erasures.  We managed–and we had a marvelous time!  We soon expanded to an office in Lee Vining, equipped with his ‘n hers Vemco V-Tracks, where we turned out some memorable creative effort.  Does the honest humility of this situation dictate a future of not-good-enough?  I think not.  We did some good work.  I look forward to an exchange of war stories with my alto choir buddy from Harvard Yard.  Why not?


Who am I to render an opinion about anything?  A nobody?  A somebody?  A body who cares.  I have as much right to an opinion as anybody who has eyes to see, ears to hear, and mind to assess.  It is good to remember that this is an internal dialogue.  Nobody has raised this issue in the range of my hearing ears.  This is a castigation of and by my own devices—my own Trojan horse.  It is up to me to lead him out, give him a swift kick, and send him off into the hills where he won’t bother anybody ever again.


Our Director, Dr. Brett Scott, is doing a wonderful job of selecting professional music-makers.  He deserves an Atta boy.  If somebody doesn’t thank him for his good work, I will have to do it myself.  Somebody’s got to do it.  Inner dialogue cautions that he does get paid to choose soloists.   I rejoinder to that pesky voice in my head, “He is paid to fill employee openings; doing it with panache must be honored in the coin of gratitude.”


Consonants are important.  Nobody denies that, but it is what happens in between those t’s, p’s and d’s that dictate hearer’s perceptions of our divine nature or lack of it.  Nowhere is this more effectively driven home than in choral performance, where even the lowliest chorister has a stake in enjoined success or failure.


The French choral ensemble Arsys Borgoyne does a superlative job of delivering vowels beautifully.  A trip online to You-tube selecting Mozart’s Requiem will bear me out.  Arsys Borgoyne pops up as highly representative of the composer’s best expression.  Maybe it’s a French thing as in “French Fries.” Though once renamed “Freedom Fries” they soon happily reverted to the o-la-la moniker.


Wholesale vowel and consonant determinism accrues with a hop across the pond to Great Britain where any representative royal tenses vocal apparatus into a benevolent chasm for reverberation and projection.  It does sound great.  We all agree.  On TV news we watch Katty Kay and resent her nullifying every “r” in her daily drill. That makes her sound hoity-toity—an assertion that she is better—that hers is a superior vocalization.  Maybe it is.  Certainly it is more respectful of the King’s English than my own Texas drawl fracturing it anew with every breath.  Watching John McCain’s funeral televised from the National Cathedral (Episcopal liturgy), I hear that people are waiting to get in, not waitin’ t’ git eun. 


American choirs must, in pursuit of excellence, deal with Katty’s dilemma.  R’s are derided.  Crunching an r clenches the elocution of a singer.  Ideally, lower jaws must float, relaxed and agog.  We are told to mimic an idiot, with jaw seemingly untethered to intellect.  That produces a better sound than the alternative which intimates strain and pain—not gain.  Much like a stutterer who appears instantly cured when singing, I can drop my r’s in the choir room, but staunchly conserve them when speaking.  Vowel mindfulness is definitely a work in progress.


The musical play My Fair Lady features elegant speech for posterity, as Eliza Doolittle and phoneticist Henry Higgins battle the language war onstage, to the delight of audiences everywhere and every-when.  The fun spills over into the battle of the sexes where both sides are postulated to vituperative advantage.  The professor wins the speaking battle but loses the gender war as he succumbs to Eliza’s manifest female destiny.  Both singers make their final exeunt, embracing each other as indictable co-conspirators.


My Fair Lady’s cultural hallmark The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain highlights the universal problem of the diphthong.  Injecting two linked vowels into a single word is a recipe for trouble.  Rain, Spain, stays, mainly, and plain all contain diphthongs—if you have a cockney accent.  What should be a long pure aaaa is tortured– stretched out across the rack of an i and an e– to the smirks and grimaces of listeners everywhere.  A cockney dialect renders it as “The rien in Spien sties mienly in the plien.” It is in the covenant of every choral conductor everywhere to lead singers safely through each and every vowel pair–indeed a valiant endeavor.


My favorite movie has ever been “The Sound of Music” with Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.  I never tire of raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.    Everyone in the cast is a British native speaker/singer.  All seven children pirouette through the musical score with the perfect vowels of the Kings English.  They were born to that ability.  The adults, too, seem to do it without thinking.  Other productions have been attempted but in my estimation fall short.


Choral directors work hard on vowels, since they are central to excellence.  They make much of precise consonants, but it is the vowels that sustain the sound and can make the difference between pretty-good and marvelous.  A note might be held through fourteen bars of music, and though an initiating consonant may get things started and a final one may signal the end, it is the vowel that sings through the fourteen lovely bars.  Adjusting the color of vowels can breathe beauty into vocal production.  A blatant eeee or aaaa will sing more sonorously if placed a touch farther back in the mouth where it is sure to benefit from complexity of tone.  Eeee mellows into a modestly covered ehhh while aaaa blooms into something richer that doesn’t rattle front teeth.  It’s complicated–but worth the effort.


Turning from sublime to ridiculous in the land of the vowel, we witness Donald John Trump’s abject evisceration of Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions III–for what?  For southern speech.  At the beating heart of what southern speakers do to the language is a vowel problem as well as a consonant one.  Yes, his mouth is full of marbles, or at least it sounds like it.  I can forgive Mr. Sessions for his conservative agenda, but I’ll never forgive him for his day in and day out mindless murder of my mother tongue.  Harrump!  That is the kind of rapacious skullduggery up with which Sir Winston Churchill (and I) will not put, evidenced by its requirement that I agree with The Donald on something.


This writing won’t turn readers into vocalists, but it might curry appreciation of the attention to detail that separates good vowels from inarticulate ones.  Our complex human brains discriminate between vowel subtleties much as the eye parses angle of hat on head.  How differently we respond to a hat set straight and level, to one pushed back in affected innocence, to one drawn down shading eyes and visage, to another cocked saucily at an angle.  Who but the supercilious Brits could carry off a fascinator?  Any discussion of the English language leads inevitably to the British Isles, as well it should, in the same tenor as “all roads lead to Rome.”


Other cues, also visual, accrue to length of ladies hemlines as fashion flirts with global state of mind.  Whatever will we do to express our economic truth if skirts give way once and for all to modesty of trousers?  Of course exception often speaks more poignantly than rule, exemplified by a Scotsman’s jaunty kilt.  To a woman, nothing, absolutely nothing is sexier than a man’s bare knee.  To a man, however, a skirt titillates with the not-so-subtle suggestion that access might be gained, that he is free to fantasize at will, cock at-the-ready.


Our language is what makes us human.  While consonants evoke the hard bones of our language, its linguae franca, vowels are its soul, the twinkle in its eye, the moist rich carrier of its song.


We do a lot of work convincing ourselves that we are smart, that we know a great deal, that others should perceive us as intelligent, and it’s all an elaborate farce.  In truth, what we actually do most is to convince ourselves that we don’t know, are not equipped to know certain parcels of cognitive real estate.  This describes a conflict, perhaps the most basic of human conundrums.


We do this to ourselves, tugging psyche in opposing directions.  We don’t question it, assuming it to be a given, and in so doing we cut ourselves off from banquets of reality, whole realms of understanding that could be ours to savor but that are declared off-limits to our quest for knowledge.


How do I know this?  I observe.  I watch myself and others actuate this silly mechanism again and again and yet again, denying ourselves sweeping vistas of vision.  You and me and him and her and they.  All pronouns apply.  Intelligent though we might be, every one of us succumbs to this stupidity.


How did I come upon this fact?  I watched.  I figured it out.  To wit:


Any action that I determine to take will foment a fusillade of thoughts that tend to sabotage intention.  If I want to add 564 and 783, my brain pops up with, “Girls aren’t good at arithmetic.”  If I try to remember the name of the man I met at church last Sunday, my brain snaps to the reminder that I’m getting old and am sure to be getting forgetful.  If I fumble a dinner plate, it would be super if I could just sweep it out of the air, but I must wait until my brain gets finished disputing my ability to make the catch and sends a signal to my hand to grab it.


There is a magic moment that exists between the plate falling and the brain’s conscious decision to do something about it.  Cognitive function just isn’t fast enough.  The plate hits the floor.  The autonomic nervous system, however, is perfectly capable of stepping into that magic moment, telling the hand to reach for the plate, even as it is falling, and in the same fluid instant, plucking it from the inevitability of destruction.  I don’t understand scientifically how this works, but I know it has saved many a dish in my kitchen.  Surprisingly, even as most other functions are slowing, I am still catching Corelle as it hurtles to oblivion.


Understanding this to be a verifiable phenomenon, I have been motivated to study and utilize it in my own behavior.  I have never been good at names and faces.  Since I am indeed a visual learner with language skills verifiably intact, this deficit presents a puzzler.  Observing my thought process led me to an interesting discovery.  When presented with a human face, my first response, the one that clogged the magic dish catching moment, was the thought, “I can’t remember faces.”  In every instance, I was wasting the magic moment wherein I might have effortlessly linked the name and the face.  Based on this observation, I formulated an hypothesis:  The lag time that exists between autonomic perception and purposeful cognitive response is predictable and can be put to use to improve memory and performance.


Since 2007 I have been watching way too much cable news trying to parse American culture.  I have watched hundreds of talking heads pontificate for way too many hours.  No notes.  Just watched and listened.  Usually when a face would flash on the screen it was several seconds before the name and mojo of the speaker would appear onscreen.  I decided to utilize  my magic moments and see what would happen.  Internalizing Nike, I told myself, “Just do it”.  When a face appeared, I refrained from telling myself “you can’t”; I just spoke the name.  The amazing result was that I did know those people’s names and faces and could match them up amazingly well for a geek with a suspected learning disability.


The next thing to do was to examine my learning process both past and present.  From the time I could prattle letters and numbers, I was convinced that only a limited amount of information could be stored inside my little blonde pigtailed noggin.  I guarded my ROM’s capacity, refusing to memorize what I regarded as extraneous.  What possible use could be found for adding numbers, or worse still, multiplying them?  I would never have learned my times tables had a savvy teacher not taken away my library privileges until the deed was accomplished.  The problem was so bad that it was only in the seventh grade at boarding school that I began sneaking down into the first grade classroom during the wee hours and using baby flash cards to memorize addition and subtraction facts by flashlight.


My parents were complicit in this farce.  Mommy told me from the start that girls weren’t good at arithmetic, so I shouldn’t fret over it.  When I asked my dad for help with addition facts,  he showed me his all-time-best method for counting on my fingers.  Starting with the larger numeral he said to then digit count up through the second number to achieve the sum.  I employed that method until I invented a unique process for counting up visualized dots, unique to every numeral.  The number one had one dot at its base.  The number two had two dots, one at each end of its base.  Each number sported its commensurate number of dots positioned for ready visualization, the larger ones distributed in domino patterns.


All this functioned marginally, earning me B’s but denying me the A’s I wanted.  I had created a monster–a big ugly secret.  Guarding that secret became a knot of anxiety centered in my gut.  It moved in and took over my way of seeing the world of performance, like a cancer eating ability to sing, play an instrument, speak before an audience, and of course doing arithmetic spontaneously in the presence of others.  While as a child soloist I had sung before large audiences, I abdicated that spotlight and became one of a gaggle of choir sopranos.  I had once played the piano with remarkable dexterity and expression, but eventually gave up solo recitals altogether.


While arithmetic was ever my bane, conceptual mathematics tantalized me with its beautiful mysteries.  During the early grades, I spent time on the potty tearing up squares of toilet paper into ever diminishing progressions that approached but never achieved zero.  I marveled at the fact that each unit alternated between being a square and being a rectangle.  There was surely some truth lurking in the diminishing and alternating shapes.  It was like standing between two mirrors and trying to count the images that replicated to infinity.  In the second grade I discovered the fun of walking to school using every available hypotenuse, odd since I had not yet  met Pythagoras.


Then came Algebra, and I fell in love.  Algebra was letters–friendly letters.  Numbers were involved, but peripherally.  I was the duck; Algebra was the water.  An elegant proof could bring tears to my eyes.  It was time to make those A’s, but of course I got tangled up in the under-drawers of my arithmetic anxiety.  It slowed me down and added a boat-load of fear to the mix.  I was stuck in the purgatory of being a pretty-good math student.  One day my teacher provided a life-changing insight, removing the pressure of performance.  He put an equation on the board and announced, “No one will be able to do this, but I’m letting you people try it just for fun”.  Silence.  All the straight A students sat pondering as I walked to the board and chalked the entire solution.  The teacher smiled and said, “I always suspected there might be more to you.”  So I accepted myself as retarded at arithmetic but promising at mathematics.


That quandary haunted me through thirty-five years of a BS degree, and a career, though admittedly checkered, in engineering.  I was a rip roaring CAD jock and inventor, but never if somebody was watching.  Now it’s all over, and I am free to investigate the weirdness.  I have learned not to believe people when they say “You can’t do that,” “What will people think?”  “But you’re only a girl.” and the absolute worst, “You’re just a little old lady.”  I have learned to use those magic moments.  My job is to “just do it” and to pass that winning algorithm on to my progeny along with my still functioning set of Corelle.


Could it be that all of us start out as bloomin’ geniuses but are selectively dissuaded from flowering into our promise?  What if Mozart had been told at the outset that musically he was not all that special?  What if Einstein had suspected that he was not the brightest?  True he wasn’t super slick in advanced math and had to get help from his old professor detailing his insights on relativity, but that didn’t stop him.  He caught a lot of flak from the learning establishment, advancing only to “clerk” in a Swiss patent office, where he took his flying leap into immortality.  He wallowed in the art of the thought experiment, spending most of his waking hours adrift in their possibilities.  Perhaps Albert wasn’t the smartest, but he never fell into the rotten habit of asking, “What if I can’t?”






The receptionist smiled and proceeded to deliver her patent good-morning-and-how-are-you-today question.  Unremarkable until she added, “And what was your name?”


“My name is Dorothy Martin,” I replied, jaw muscles engaged.  “And it still is.”  To what period of time are you alluding?  When I was born I received my name, printed as a legal fact on my certificate of birth, attested to by the doctor who delivered me into my mother’s arms.  When I woke up this morning and looked in the mirror it was me that I saw.  I was still Dorothy Martin.  As far as I know, I continue to embody Dorothy Martin as a human entity, and plan to continue so doing until as far into the future as conveniently possible.


What is it with younger generations’ obliquity?  Why must they create an angled offset, a safe distance from some perceived confrontation, if not of distance, then of time?  Why must they root their question in the past, where they don’t have to own up to the truth of their own power to ask it?


Why must they enlist my support in performing their job—filling out their form—so we are gathered about our joined perception of an IT task, my attention safely diverted from their own real and vulnerable persona? Their face?  Their eyes?  Their presence daring to assert itself?


Perhaps it is a logical extension of valley-girl speech, where everything isn’t something, but only like something.  As if it were something.  The sure test for this error of cognition is to substitute “as if it were” for the ever ubiquitous “like.”  If it follows as a logical progression of thought, the answer is plain.  It’s sad to remark how this verbal crutch has taken over the language, testament to its’ ability to lower anxiety levels wherever it is inserted.


Turning to another error of cognition, my own is equally suspect.  Why must I analyze commercial conversations, parsing them out for foolish meanings, whether hidden or apparent? It’s no business of mine if a medical receptionist is totally honest, either to herself or to me.  What goes on inside the head of another person falls outside the purview of my own.  Surely it’s all I can do to police my own level of honesty.  Dissecting dialogue suggests its own form of distancing.  How can I even begin to relate to another if I am busy critiquing their performance? I need to focus on giving a civil reply to questions and saving my energy for more productive pursuits.  If I could actually do something about generational obliquity it might make sense to complain.


The Serenity Prayer addresses separating what we can change and what we cannot, citing as wisdom the ability to know the difference.  Good advice!

Lesson Learned

My mother snapped a shot
of two-year-old me.
It was to become her favorite,
the one she chose to install
in the small oval frame
touting the provenance
of the bronzed baby shoes
forever fixed
on right and left sides,
shredded toes attesting to
many miles crawled
before that first upright step
presaged many more to follow.
It captured my authentic self
before the world began
working its will
and having its way.

I like to say hello to this picture,
smile and say,
“I remember you.
You were the ‘me’
that got a hatchling
in your Easter basket.
You loved that fuzzy duck.
He was soft and yellow
and oh so very dear.
He was little; you were big;
You wanted to grok him.

“Your baby book said,

‘Cows go moo;
Dogs go woof;
Ducks go quack.’

“He was a bad duck.
You wanted him
to be a good duck
and say quack.

“You put him on the ground.
You set a board on top of him.
You stood on the board—
He didn’t quack.

“That was the day
that ended your duck’s
days of knowing
and began the long
parade of your own.
The first of
a great many
lessons learned.
“Thank your little duck,
two-year-old that was me.
He was a poor quacker,
but as it turns out,
a consummate teacher.”