I’ve been thinking about numbers

 

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More specifically, I’ve been thinking about the overwhelming number of numbers in my life.  Before I started kindergarten, my mom drilled me in all the important numbers I would need to know: phone number and street address. When I had mastered those, she added the emergency number for my grandmas house if something happened and Mom couldn’t be reached at home. I already knew the plate number for our car: CVE-952. I was overwhelmed.  The world was filled with so many numbers to remember!

I had no clue what was to come!

Maybe it’s only me, but lately I am feeling overwhelmed by numbers again. I stopped to buy something at a store and realized I had forgotten my frequent buyers card.  “Not to worry,” said the clerk.  “We can look it up.  What’s your phone number?”

I stood there staring blankly at her for a moment.

“Which one?”

“Just start with one.”

So I do, I just start rattling off a number, but it’s not the right one. Then we try another and it too, is not right. I try to remember how long I have had this account. Then, I try the number of my former cell phone–not right–and then struggle to remember my former house phone–mining one numeral at a time from some deep, long forgotten fold in my cerebrum, a phone number from five years ago–a phone we used only briefly before we got so fed up with static on the line and endless robo-calls that we disconnected it . . . Bingo!

One of my kids had a school form that needed to be filled out to be excused from class for a doctors appointment. I stood at the school secretary’s desk filling it out.  It asked for mother’s and father’s cell phone numbers. I can’t ever remember my husband’s actual phone number. It is #2 on my speed dial. How can I be expected to remember the actual number when I never actually call it? He used to be number 1 but then we got a new cell phone service and #1 is always voicemail on this service. He has not been happy about being demoted to #2 in my life, but what can I do?  Sometimes the numbers are predetermined! When I’m in a hurry and need to ask him a question or tell him I’m stuck in traffic and he needs to pick up a kid on the way home, I still punch #1 and get voicemail.  For him it’s worse. He doesn’t even need to dial any more. He just says, “Siri, call Peg.” No number is involved.  Well it is a number, but he need not ever be conscious of it.  For the most part, these unconscious numbers are not as much a problem until someone, like a teacher, asks for it.  They probably think I’m stupid because I don’t know my husband’s cell phone number. “And they expect us to teach their young? It’s hopeless with parents this brain-dead!”  They never say this–out loud–but I can hear it.

I drive up to the bank and insert my card and then have to remember the pin number which is not the same number I have to remember when I log in online.  And then there’s the other bank account for business expenses which of course, has a different pin number.  And the credit union at work is yet another number.  And the mortgage bank has a different pin and the credit cards for gas and each different store where I shop and the log-in on my computer at work and at home, and the log-in to the company shared drive and my documents file and the gate to the storage unit where we store documents from a long ago business all have different pin numbers. I have kids and they have schools and lunch accounts and student ID”s and activity codes . . .

I buy things online and for each site that I buy from, there is a different log in e-mail and pass code. The trick is to remember not only which e-mail address I used but which passcode goes with that e-mail on that site.

I have a facebook account and twitter account–times three–one for personal stuff and one for my job and one for my author stuff.  Each has  different e-mail address and password associated with it.

I sell books online so there are another set of pass-codes and e-mail addresses for that.   Sometimes, for the same site I have to log in differently depending on whether I am buying or selling and whether I am buying for work or for personal use. And if I want to edit my webpage, there’s a code for that, but a different code for the work webpage. Security guru’s all caution against writing these passcodes down so I try to be clever and make up codes I will remember, but no, this one requires numbers, capital letters and lower case letters. That one allows no punctuation marks or spaces, another requires a “special mark.” And never use the obvious: 123password!

Sometimes, OK, way too often, I can’t remember a password so I have to reset it, sending a link to the e-mail address associated with the account and not finding it, I realize that it must have been a different e-mail address than I had thought. So I have to check all my e-mail accounts including ones I haven’t used since, well probably since the fall of Rome and follow the link back to the site.  And then five minutes later I can’t remember what I reset it to, because of course, to be safe, I chose random numbers, didn’t write them down and now can’t remember them. At least now I remember which e-mail account is associated with this web site! I think.

Sometimes, I need to access something fast.  My boss is hovering over my desk looking for some obscure piece of information. This is his password I need to remember.  He set it up, but he doesn’t remember it.  At these times, all the passwords in my brain seem to swirl in an incomprehensible stew. This one, no that one?  These letters, those numbers–or the other way around? How can I not remember a simple password?  At least, I console, myself, he doesn’t remember either!

I don’t like looking stupid.  I tried one of those smart web apps that remembers your pass codes but it didn’t allow for folks like me who have separate personal, work, sellers and authors accounts at say Amazon.com and each have different log-in e-mails and passwords. I think I drove the app crazy–or maybe it drove me crazy.  I can’t remember. At any rate, we’re no longer on speaking terms.

I feel like my life has been taken over by pass-codes!  Seriously. I spend a good chunk of time every day remembering, resetting and monitoring pass-codes–increasingly as my life seems to involve more and more web applications, this seems to involve way too much time!  I could be far more productive if I could just remember the passcode for that!  Wait!  Does productivity have a passcode? I can’t remember.

I’ve been thinking about the power of fear . . .

When I was eight, I was pretty sure that monsters with claws six inches long and jowls as slobbery as a three-headed mastiff lurked beneath my bed. They crouched in wait, ready to snatch me by the ankle if I dared to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.  I knew they would drag me to a dark pit that would open up beneath my bed and from which (I was absolutely positive) there was no escape. The only possibility of getting past these monsters was to leap off the safety of my bed into the middle of the room, where a writhing hoard of nearly invisible black snakes slithered across the night floor blocking my way to the door. If I happened to step on one of them, I was pretty sure it would rise up and bite me with venom that would make my face swell and then pop off my head in fewer seconds than it would take to rouse my parents and alert them to the likelihood of my imminent demise.

If I managed not to step on them, these sneaky snakes would surely race toward me and slither silently up my pajama legs and wrap themselves around my arms, before biting me in the neck. That much was certain.

If I jumped off the bed and survived the journey across the bedroom floor far enough to make it to the door, there was an enormous fox who lived in the closet just beside the bedroom door who would lurch out just as I reached for the doorknob.  He would grab me by the scruff of the neck like a helpless kitten and stuff me into his boiling stew pot.

Consequently, I sat awake in bed many nights urgently having to pee but too immobilized by fear to even attempt to make a break for the door until the light of dawn revealed the absence of any previously lurking denizens.

It wasn’t just things in the night that scared me.  Oh, no, I probably invented a host of phobias as yet unknown to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual!

imgres-1Taking a cue from the Cowardly Lion who only needed to be told he was brave to find the courage he lacked, my mother hatched a plan to develop courage in me. She parked the station wagon in the lot across the street, assured me that as the eldest, I was the most suitable designee for this job, give me a dollar and commanded me to walk to the Cumberland Farms store, a mere twenty yards across the street to buy a gallon of milk while she waited in the car with the “little kids.” The enormity of the task loomed ahead like a hundred mile obstacle course!

I was so sure, absolutely positive, in fact that I would be hit by a car and flattened like a pancake that I WOULD NOT cross until I could not see any car in any direction. This drove my mother crazy. “Cross the street!” she would yell from the comfort and safety of the car.

My younger brothers would chant “Now! Now! Now!” from the back seat.

“Not yet!” I would whimper back as I stood, knees knocking, stomach in my throat, too terrified to move, watching until the last taillights disappeared over the horizon–because as we all know, drivers are apt to unpredictably shift their cars into reverse and back up in the middle of the road at full speed, giving no chance of survival to anyone crossing the road at that moment. Only when there was absolutely NO car in sight, would I race across the street as fast as adrenaline could propel me. I would purchase the milk and then I would have to take the harrowing trip back across the street to the car. After repeated trials with no discernable improvement, my mother gave up, pronounced me, “hopeless” and allowed my daredevil younger brother to complete the errand. How that kid could saunter across a street! To this day, he has absolutely no respect for impending doom.

One day, I gained a secret weapon. Aunt Amy gave me a magic blue flashlightaclk that had the power to make any monsters evaporate when they are exposed to even the faintest beam of its light. And, as strange as it may sound, it worked! That magic beam was as powerful as any light sabre and it saved my life on more occasions than I can count!

Though they seemed very real to me in the dark night of my childhood bedroom, I have learned since then that most of my childhood fears were imagined. The absurdity of my monster fears hit me one day in college and I burst out laughing.

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In truth, if a pit were to actually open beneath my bed, it would have sucked me down to deposit me in my father’s lap where he sat in his La-Z-Boy, watching TV in the family room directly below my bed. But you couldn’t have told me that as a child.  As I child I lived in that vaporous reality between imagination and verifiable truth.

Dismissing these imagined demons of childhood doesn’t mean that the world isn’t full of monsters. Quite the opposite! The world is full of pitfalls and perils of far greater consequence than mere monsters. But, I have learned that life is nothing if we let fear control our path. In fact, the shortest way to success, and our greatest happiness is often plotted by taking a flying leap off the safe places in life and landing feet first into the middle of a writhing ball of invisible black snakes; doing the very things we fear most!

I suspect in fact that even as adults, our own fear; particularly the fear of failure is the biggest thing that keeps us from achieving our goals. Reason is the flashlight of adulthood.  Like a well-aimed laser beam, reason casts light on fear and zaps it into oblivion or at least slices it neatly into perspective. Given the right pieces of information, we can analyze complex situations and banish even the giant foxes hiding in our closets!

I have found that the motivation to complete a real life obstacle course and confront demons cannot be handed to someone or demanded of or shamed into someone. That courage must be born of determination that rises from within. Cultivating courage can be a slow process for a timid person. With each little stroke of success that life has handed me, I developed another layer of strength to fight even bigger, less imaginary monsters.

After completing a BA in English and Anthropology, I took a flying leap into Counseling Psychology—a complete change of major. I landed firmly in the middle of that writhing ball of snakes usually known as grad school. In a way, the snakes did climb up my pajama legs and wrap around my arms. I was afraid and overwhelmed for a while. It was like landing in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language. I was sure I would flunk out before the first semester ended.  But I did not quit. I kept battling that mess one snake at a time! Imagine my surprise when I ended the semester with straight A’s. I looked around and all the grad school snakes had evaporated; they’d been cast into oblivion by my hard work and hard won confidence.

My husband and I had long decided that it was past time to leave Minnesota. Spring is the time to sell a house in Minnesota, not winter when the foundation is buried in snow and the driveway has to be shoveled hourly.

But the long distance job hunt was not going well. The time to move was upon us. If we did not jump soon, the moment of opportunity would be lost for at least another year. The only way to move beyond the nearly endless winter of Minnesota was to sell nearly everything; a lifetime of accumulated possessions and move to a warmer place where we had no jobs, no promise of a place to live, no family, no friends, no security, nothing to rely upon but our combined wits. We gathered up our kids and with both eyes opened, jumped into the thing we both desired and feared the most: a warmer life in North Carolina.

It was a difficult landing and we struggled for quite a few years. The snakes of life wriggled mightily, but I can honestly say that this biggest leap of our lives has been the most rewarding.

imgresEach of us has the power to fight the monsters under our beds, the writhing balls of invisible snakes in the middle of the room, and even the giant foxes in our closets. If you start with the focused light that is belief in yourself and aim that beam at one goal at a time, you will evaporate them all, one monster, one snake, one giant fox at a time.

Is there something holding you back from your goals? Take a good long look at it. Shine a clear light directly on it.  Analyze the situation and take the steps to reach your goal.

I’ve got a magic blue flashlight I don’t need any more. You’re welcome to it if you need one. Just pass it on to someone else when you’re done with it.

 

 

I’ve been thinking about privilege . . .

I’ve been thinking about the place of privilege in the career success formula.

My parents were first and second generation Americans. My father’s father had emigrated to the land of golden opportunity with not much more than a Catholic prayer book (now in the Ellis Island Museum) and a pocket full of dreams. They believed that if you worked hard enough in America, good things would come to them. My grandfather had worked in the steel mills of Johnstown, PA and farmed to keep his family fed. Having left abject poverty in rural Croatia, it was relative prosperity: steady income and good soil produced adequate nutrition and shelter for his family. He left seven children when he died. My father, the youngest, was twelve.

When his brother, my Uncle Jim returned home after WWII, he moved his mother and294238_10152875039585035_713893648_n-1 younger siblings to the New Jersey Shore where my widowed grandma could run a boarding house. My dad was a hard worker too and even at a young age, he found work on the boardwalk, sewing names on hats for tourists, and flipping burgers at a hamburger stand. He married his high school sweetheart a few years after graduation.

942249_10152875039910035_1271486173_nMom had wanted to be a nurse, but in those days, once she married, a woman was no longer permitted to be a nursing student. She left school to became a full-time wife and started right away making babies in true Catholic fashion.  I was born ten months after the wedding, thirteen months later came my first brother and 11 months later a second brother . . . and we kept coming  until there were six of us.

My dad continued to work; one job to feed the family and pay the bills and the second job to pay his tuition. At the same time, he attend night school, finally graduating with a degree in accounting when I was in third grade. We were never rich but he managed to build a successful practice despite some changeover in partners and a couple of bad business decisions. Despite setbacks that would have discouraged lesser men, he kept going, one step at a time, weaving the growth of a business and a family with his personal growth, pursuing the American dream. He finished his master’s degree after I (taking a more traditional college route) had already finished mine.

My dad was, I believe unique for his time. When I was in seventh grade, the leading partner in his firm died. In order to keep the business afloat, he sunk his limited personal assets into the practice. He told me this meant that he would not be able to help me with any money but that I must go to college. In order to do so, I would have to work hard and start my own savings for college. I would also need to remain academically strong so that I might qualify for scholarships. I worked part time from seventh grade onward. In the summers, I worked two or three jobs. I saved nearly every cent. In high school I took all the “hardest courses” and did not “waste time” taking study hall and maintained a B+ average despite working after school and on weekends. I also rose to the highest rank of Girl Scouts; First Class. I was vice president of the council’s senior planning board, student representative on the board of directors and a representative of the council at two national events. Though I won several other small scholarships because of this activity, I was dismayed in senior year that I had worked so hard–far harder than a lot of my classmates and had not earned a national merit scholarship. True, I didn’t have a straight A average as all of these students did. I could have lived with that realization until I discovered that  one person I knew, who took all the “easiest courses” including typing (which my dad considered a waste of time and talent) and was in no school clubs or after school community service organizations had gained a national merit scholarship! Clearly this scholarship was not about hard work. It occurred to me that winning was all about knowing the rules of the game. And, I had not known the rules of this game. If I had taken all the easiest courses, perhaps I would have maintained an A average, but I wouldn’t have gotten the most learning possible out of High School. And, in my father’s rule of life, that was the most important thing. That’s why, in college when I was on a scholarship that allowed me up to 20 credits per semester, I always took all 20 credits. Some people consider that academic suicide.  One can’t manage more than 16 credits a semester–12 if you are working! I always took twenty credits and I always worked. I wouldn’t have been able to finish two majors in four years if I hadn’t done that.

The messages I received as a child said that one should work hard, focus on the desired prize and delay all gratification until the goal had been reached. Once achieved a goal was celebrated briefly and then a new, higher goal was set. One did not spend money or time frivolously. For this reason, when I was twenty-one and presented with an offer by the Monmouth Council of Girl Scouts to chaperone a bicycle tour through Europe for the summer, I turned it down. To accept would have meant that I would have had to delay college for a year. If I didn’t earn my annual tuition each summer, I couldn’t afford to stay in school.

When I look back, I realize how little guidance I received from anyone who knew anything about higher education. My dad was my primary adviser and he was, in retrospect, more a graduate of the school of hard knocks than of Rutgers University. The career advice he gave me:

  • Learn how to type but don’t take a typing class or stenography class and never put on a transcript or a job application that you know how to type. If they know you can type they’ll never let you out of the typing pool. You’re too smart to waste your life typing!
  • You need to go to college to get a good job. I don’t want you to get married because you need a husband to support you.
  • Accounting is a good career for a woman–except during tax season.
  • Follow the money.  If they offer you a scholarship go to that school. If they offer you a better job in a different city, move.

In looking back over my career life and my choices of colleges and grad schools, I could certainly have benefited from some mentoring or at least guidance from someone who knew the rules of this higher education and career game. There are rules, but I am only now beginning to understand them. I have made many career missteps because I didn’t have the advantage of someone who understood what I wanted to do with my life, or appreciated those goals or had an understanding of the ways in which my innate abilities could best translate into a career.  There was no one who could offer solid advice on how to structure the steps of a career.

All colleges are not created equal. A scholarship does not guarantee a good or even an adequate education. As I reflect back on it, I think it might have been better to go into debt and come out of college having better career prospects and commanding a higher salary. I was accepted to Cornell and William and Mary but not offered scholarships, so I followed one scholarship after another, eventually completing my BA at St. Francis College in Loretto Pennsylvania and an M.Ed. in Counseling at James Madison University, Virginia.

I wonder sometimes how my life might have been different had I gone the more expensive route and attended Cornell or William and Mary without a scholarship. Would that have opened career doors I didn’t even know about? Would I have found a more informed mentor in one of these places?

I don’t think of this as anyone’s “fault.”  I was part of a new generation of women raised to believe, unlike our mothers, that we could have a career after marriage. Just because it was possible didn’t mean anyone had figured out how to make it work. The career rules that had worked for men do not work as well for women–especially when there is not yet an established infrastructure for balancing child care and the demands of a professional career.

I once toured Carl Sandberg’s home.  It was a foggy day and a pair of kittens played in the garden. I could envision, “The fog comes on little cat feet!” The guide showed us through his study to a high desk where he liked to stand to write.  I like to stand when I write!  She said that he also liked to write at night.  I love to write in the deep silence of night!  One of his wife’s chief duties, said the guide, was to keep the children quiet during the day so he could sleep. What I lacked in my writing career, I only half joked with my husband, was a wife to keep the children quiet while I slept!

Society, I believe, still needs to evolve in ways that better accommodates the needs of women in the career force. Girls need active mentoring that teaches them how to balance home and career worlds. This is far more complicated than the women’s activists of the 1960’s and ‘70’s might have led us to believe. The rules of this game are extremely complicated and often seem to contradict themselves.  Working hard is not enough.  Some women have concluded that there needs to be a choice between being a good mother and being a good employee. Many women have made the painful choice to be either a good wife or a good employee, sacrificing the joy of motherhood for the pursuit of a fulfilling career or choosing to devote themselves to a career over the satisfaction of raising a family. I believe this choice may be a real either/or reality for many women, but only because society has not yet provided the infrastructure to allow all women to be both–at least not simultaneously.

For myself, I opted for sequential achievement.  I had a counseling career for ten years, then opted to redefine myself as a writer while I raised children.  It felt like the only option that afforded me the flexibility to balance a career with involved mothering. Once the children were all back in school, though I continued to write, I also went back to a more traditional job.

Although women are no longer required to drop out of higher education if they marry or become pregnant, affordable child care still remains a barrier for many women. Live-in “help” remains a privilege of the most wealthy. Without adequate childcare, many working women, especially single mothers and those working entry level positions, end up trying to juggle at least three identities: career, wife and mother, housekeeper and cook, and all too often, especially for single moms, a second job to pay for the childcare. Flexible work schedules that accommodate family development need to be set in place so that parents of either gender who make use of this flexibility, do not feel singled out or deprived of promotions. Employer provided, on-site child care (including care for sick children) is a necessity if society is to equally value the contributions and honor the abilities of women as equal to those of men. Without this support, even the most skilled of women will remain trapped in unsatisfying, low wage positions. This seems to me a steep price to pay!  It means that the contributions of only half of society are valued. The full career potential of half of society is discarded as a means to enhance the contributions of the other half.

This is especially true for women who come from less privileged backgrounds. They begin with fewer support systems, little accurate guidance and fewer opportunities for advancement. Without education, they lack the opportunity to advance even if they possess innate abilities.  Without childcare, the addition of educational pursuits on top of the roles of mother, wife, worker, homemaker becomes unattainable except for the most determined of women.  Affordable, reliable, convenient childcare remains one of the biggest career hurdles for mothers.  It is really time that we, as a society provide the infrastructure to both empower women as workers and empower men as co-equal caregivers for their offspring.