Confessions of a Slow Learner

I once facilitated a tele-conference. I should have gone to the dentist for a root canal instead.Inside modern conference room, focus on phone

Being anxious about the electronics involved, I arrived thirty minutes early. I wanted to be sure of the connection, the buttons to push, and the codes to enter.

Some participants would call in from their homes or offices; others would group in a nearby community to call; and a few would join me in the conference room in Craig. All were busy people; I didn’t want to waste their time.

I started the meeting fifteen minutes late.

First, I couldn’t get an outside connection in the assigned room no matter how many times I pounded button nine. Then I aged five years running around looking for another room to use. Finally, when I entered the correct codes and established communication with all participants, the Craig attendees, who managed to track me to the new room, couldn’t hear the telephone conversation — though I had pushed the conference-call button and could see its little green light glowing.

Finally, a participant accustomed to working with the incompetent told me to hang up the receiver.


How was I supposed to know that?

I never know how things work — things other people use without apparent thought. One of my earliest memories is trying to open the front door at my grandmother’s house with a big key. I remember sweating out my ringlets as I twisted the key, struggled with the doorknob, rammed the door with my shoulder, then turned the key over and repeated the process. Behind me, older cousins questioned my intelligence, shoved me aside, and opened the door.

I panic when faced with unfamiliar gadgets: easy-open pill bottles, cell phones, remote controls, can openers. Truthfully, I’m still perplexed by the wider prong on an electrical plug.

The computer program, PowerPoint, a meeting must-have when I was consulting, nudged me toward retirement. Too often, in meetings I attended, the participants never saw the PowerPoint presentation because the technology didn’t work. Red-faced people rushed around trying to correct the problem while the audience fidgeted and glanced at the clock. Imagine me responsible for that mess: I had difficulty with overhead projectors.

"IT could be that it's not plugged in, but that would be too easy."

I am trainable, though. In the past, with time and practice, I mastered a sewing machine, an 8-track tape player, and alarm clocks. I even achieved proficiency with computers, though I had my doubts in 1980 when I attended a word-processing workshop where the instructor mopped away sweat, rolled his eyes, and became irritated when most participants didn’t know how to turn on the mystery machines sitting in front of them.

Though I feel partially proficient with computers now, when we upgrade to a model with different bells and whistles, I become so tense I speak in squeaks. Usually Joel, responding to my frustrated howls, reaches over and casually accomplishes what I spent thirty minutes trying to do.

Then I feel resentful.

I tell myself his advanced skills result from extended experience, not intellectual superiority.

But when I’m flummoxed by the apps on my new cell phone, I wonder.

Perfectly Said

When I discover quotes that succinctly state an idea I have entertained, but never solidified, I appreciate the person who captured my vague notion in brief, concise words, whether its Eleanor Roosevelt, Confucius, Mark Twain, or Eminem.

Some of the quotes that strike me fade with time; but many have staying power and I readily recall their insights.

Following are six quotes from my collection preceded by my reasons for liking and remembering them.

I exercise and will continue to do so as long as I’m able. Sometimes it isn’t easy, and I consider crawling into my recliner to snooze, snack, and read. But I drown the self-defeating thought in laughter by remembering this quote:

“You have to stay in shape. My grandmother, she started walking five miles a day when she was 60. She’s 97 today and we don’t know where the hell she is.”
Ellen DeGeneres

Ellen DeGeneres

Ellen DeGeneres

Anna Quindlan’s brief explanation of aging captured the process and emotion of doing so. I frequently think about, write about, and talk about aging with others who share my defeated skin, reluctant joints, and challenged eyes. As I watch my circle of friends and loved ones grow smaller, I understand I could be the next to surrender my space among the living. Thus, my kinship with this quote:

“Mortality is like a game of musical chairs.”
Anna Quindlan

Anna Quindlan

Anna Quindlan

Most women I know struggle with insecurities in a culture that emphasizes beauty. A common saying, designed to comfort those of us who don’t look like Princess Kate, irritated me no end when I was young and unhappy with my appearance; so I enjoyed seeing it skewered by the lady who wrote Please Don’t Eat the Daisies.

Jean Kerr

Jean Kerr

“I’m tired of all this nonsense about beauty being only skin-deep. That’s deep enough. What do you want — an adorable pancreas?”
Jean Kerr

The seasons in transition fascinate me and I often write about a new personality forcing its way into the world: spring’s lighthearted playfulness, summer’s amiable offer of friendship, fall’s colorful briskness, and winter’s implacable nature. I’m particularly fond of describing the battle for dominance waged by the seasons in March; but I’ll never equal the master:

“It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.”
Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

 Yogi Berra quotes abound and make sense in an offbeat way. I repeat his words when I find myself moving full-speed ahead without knowing what I’m doing, as I did when starting this blog, learning to be a principal, and driving around with my husband in a strange city looking for a small restaurant because a man at a gas station recommended it.

“We’re lost, but we’re making good time.”
Yogi Berra

Yogi Berra

Yogi Berra

Finally, when I can’t sleep, I ponder this quote by comedian Steven Wright. Feel free to use it when you’re awake and alone in the middle of a dark night:

“If toast always lands butter-side down, and cats always land on their feet, what happens if you strap toast on the back of a cat and drop it?”
Steven Wright

Steven Wright

One Person’s Comfort Food

Gourmet Peanut Butter Pie on a background

After eating dinner in a Reno restaurant with a group of female colleagues, I ordered peanut butter cheesecake for dessert. A fellow diner laughed through her thick lipstick and announced to everyone within range, “I guess Janet’s taste buds didn’t make it out of junior high.”

Because my Uncle Gus advised me to never argue with a jackass, I smiled sweetly, but I thought, “Who made you the judge of desserts, Ms Snooty-Tooty? Why don’t you nibble the piece of bitter Belgium chocolate you ordered, smear lipstick on your glass of red wine, and let the rest of us enjoy ourselves?”

Then I ate my cheesecake.

I consider peanut butter in all its guises a comfort food because I ate as much of it as I could during my childhood: straight from the jar, mixed with honey or jelly on bread, and in the best-textured cookies ever created.

But products of my mother’s kitchen dominate the list of foods that make me feel good: pot roast with vegetables and gravy, baked winter squash with lots of butter, macaroni made with hamburger and tomatoes, beans cooked all day with bits of ham, frosted cinnamon rolls, raisin cake with caramel frosting, pies with unfashionably thick crusts.

Much as I enjoyed these favored foods, my young self also chased food fads, yearned for store-bought products, and wished Mom believed in snacks and fancy appetizers.

When I could get away with it, I swigged copious amounts of Kool-Aid and a sugary breakfast drink called Tang, popular because it voyaged into space with the astronauts. I preferred Campbell’s soups to Mom’s homemade versions and, after a lifetime of slicing homemade bread, considered Wonder Bread a special treat.

Home-made white bread

I liked to visit friends who had sugary or salty snacks readily available; Mom usually told me to go eat an apple. I remember a glorious day when a friend’s mother, trying out appetizers for a party, fed her daughter and me a mixture of deviled ham, mayonnaise, and chopped sweet pickles on saltine crackers then followed that delicacy with pigs in a blanket, which we daintily dipped in mustard.

That evening, when I suggested to Mom that she start serving appetizers before dinner, she raised an eyebrow and spoke not a word.

Fortunately, I soon outgrew my foolish notion that processed food was better than homemade — except for cereal. I’d still choose Cheerios or Cornflakes over a bowl of oatmeal — a breakfast standard Blaine called glue and Barbara decorated with dead flies so she wouldn’t have to eat it.

I suppose, like most people, my comfort foods have always been the foods I ate surrounded by my family when my appetite was inexperienced and unconstrained, my happiness easily won, and my future unlimited.

The Dividends of Drifting

I apologize for the late post today; I was having technical difficulties. And now, a confession: I wrote this post to justify my upcoming behavior. For the next three weeks, I’ll be on vacation: letting my mind roam at will like a free-range chicken. Doing so will make it impossible for Aunt Beulah to post on October 6 and 13; but she will return on October 20: rested, renewed, and eager to engage with her readers again.Top view of woman sitting in veranda

It’s foolish to spend every minute of our leisure time imitating The Little Engine That Could.

When our passion for golfing, painting, fishing, spelunking, volunteering, or Words With Friends begins to feel like a job, it helps to take a break, listen to ourselves breathe, and drift aimlessly — though we should never stop spending time with our families and brushing our teeth.

Because I believe a body in motion tends to stay in motion, I exercise every day, varying the vigor of my activities. I also give myself permission to abandon my exercise routine on occasion. When I do so, whether for a few days or weeks, my rested body rewards me with increased motivation and effort when I pull on my exercise clothes and go at it again.

My passion for writing makes it my most absorbing and time-consuming activity, but I regularly abandon it for hours or days at a time. Doing so allows my mind to drift, to mull over problems, to reboot my ability to create.

When I stop writing to eat Oreos, ride my bike, or scratch my head and stare, my subconscious continues to consider issues, ideas, and techniques. Then, sooner of later, while I’m mindlessly deadheading my geraniums or cooking dinner, new ideas occur: I’ll know how to rephrase an awkward sentence, reorganize a piece for better flow, or handle a tricky transition. Perfect synonyms, apt metaphors, and future topics come to me easily when I stop pursuing them.

I also like to put aside a blog post or column I’ve finished and forget it for several days or even weeks. When I look at it again, I find weaknesses I didn’t sense when working on the piece continuously. My refreshed eyes are more discerning eyes.

No matter what activities we pursue for entertainment, betterment, or fulfillment, drifting pays dividends.

And I’m off to collect a few.

Trying to Get With It

Side portrait of a confused man using laptop at home

I sat in the top row of an arena during the first round of an NCAA basketball tournament, baffled by the timeout behavior of the crowd. When action on the court stopped, fans occupied themselves by visiting the Internet or sending texts on cell phones that glowed like fireflies throughout the stadium.

Why weren’t they stretching, snacking, mugging for TV, or talking to one another?

If I sound scornful, it’s my ineptness speaking. When it comes to technology I flounder around with the finesse of a hippopotamus taking a mud bath.

I do have a modicum of skill. For example, I use the Internet for important research: Recently, remembering a teenage crush, I googled Gorgeous George. Soon I was perusing photographs of the professional wrestler with blonde curls, whose valet sprayed him with Chanel #10 before he entered the ring.

I also use email. I enjoy the entertainment it provides when messages assure me I can re-grow my hair, consolidate my debt, lose weight, and increase my virility. I text so my grandchildren will respond; and Joel and I share a Facebook page, which we use more like voyeurs than participants.

But networks like Classmate, Plaxo, and Desktop Dating baffle me.

Classmate is a site for those who sometimes entertain idle thoughts about their high school years: “I wonder what became of that kid, Donny Hickman, who carried a wooden puppet every where and whispered to it?”

My husband succumbed when he was notified that Classmate had 188 registrants from his high school. After joining, he received a message: “You’re popular, Joel. Three people signed your guest book today.”

Seemed like a liberal definition of popular to me.

One of the questions on Classmate’s entry form stumped me: “What kind of person were you in high school: bully, clown, gossip, jock, loner, misfit, nerd, party animal, troublemaker?”

I couldn’t see a category for someone who mostly got along and did well — despite suffering occasional bouts of acne and having only three pairs of school-worthy shoes. So I didn’t join.

Next came the Plaxo hubbub. My siblings and I received email notifications that my older brother, Bob, had invited the rest of us to join him on Plaxo. We all like Bob. We forgave him long ago for sneaking into the basement and eating all the fruit cocktail Mom bottled as a special treat. So we signed up.

When we received no further messages, we called one another, “What is Plaxo, anyway? Sounds vaguely dental, doesn’t it? Is Bob losing it?” Finally, Blaine called Bob: “What is Plaxo, and why did you want us on it?”

“Heck, Blainer, I don’t know. I didn’t join anything.”

Right. He lied about the fruit cocktail, too.

Then I received an invitation to join in the fun of Desktop Dating. My fingers stumbled in their rush to delete it. The invitation supposedly came from my brother, Lawrence, a 77-year-old, married, great-grandfather at the time.

I’m not sure my family is fit for the age of technology.

Making the Grade

Apple on a vintage report card

Elementary students carrying backpacks and a carefree attitude pass by my house on their way to and from school, shedding announcements, art projects, and jackets as mindlessly as autumn trees drop leaves.

Yesterday, I watched spruced-up children scamper by my house, dressed in new clothes and excitement, and wondered what they were thinking about as they began another school year. My teaching experience tells me they weren’t focused on increasing their knowledge and earning high grades. Instead, they were probably thinking about friends, teachers, lunch and recess.

Learning and grades didn’t dominate my thoughts at the beginning of a new school year until I became a teacher. I remember working diligently to establish procedures for collecting scores and assigning grades that would fairly represent the progress of each student, refining and improving my methods year in and year out.

Still, I was often surprised by the reactions of parents to the grades I recorded for their children.

When I taught ninth-grade English, Willy’s parents attended a conference at my request after their happy-go-lucky son received a D in my class. When I asked the smiling couple for their thoughts on how we could work together to help Willy increase his achievement, Dad chuckled and said, “Oh heavens, Mrs. Bohart, don’t fuss about Willy. If he likes his teachers, gets passing grades, and stays out of trouble, we don’t worry about him much and neither should you.”

That same year, a tense mother made an appointment with me to review her daughter’s grade. She told me her daughter, Ellen, wanted to graduate as valedictorian in four years. Then she studied the girl’s scores, checking my arithmetic with a calculator, hoping to find an error that would raise Ellen’s A- to an A.

Good grief. When I was in ninth grade, I worried about increasing my meager collection of Jantzen sweaters, securing a date for the junior prom, and keeping my uppity sister in her place.

Then there were children who were delightfully oblivious about the meaning of grades.

A kindergarten student rushed into my office to show me his report card, on which his required skills had been marked on a scale of 1 to 10.

“Look, Mrs. Principal, my teacher thinks I’m 7 on everything except this one here,” he said, pointing to his score for knowing the letters of the alphabet. “On this one, she thinks I’m 8. Wow. Really, I’m only 5.”

In the current AARP Magazine, Brian Grazer, a film and TV producer, said he realized when he graduated from college that he hadn’t learned much other than how to get good grades.

Grades and test scores matter; I wish learning mattered more.

Lessons for Life Learned in a Garden

I think you would like my flower gardens: each is multi-colored, overlapping, chaotic. Wandering my yard, you’ll see bee balm tickled by roses, pansies relocating beneath cranesbill, columbine dancing with poppies, and a tiger lily undaunted by the pink plumpness of an overhanging peony.

House Aspen Garden

If you listen as you stroll from flower bed to flower bed, you might hear honeysuckle whispering its secrets, pinks creating a commotion, lemon thyme creeping between paving stones, and giddy daisies dancing to the chant “He loves me; he loves me not.”

arbor from yard

I weeded yesterday. The sun warmed my back as tall spears of grass surrendered with reluctance and dandelions succumbed to my mud-slick fork. My hands stiffened by drying dirt, knees water-soaked, and heart content, I listed the lessons I’ve learned from my garden.

Work is required. I nearly abandoned my late-in-life desire to garden when Craig suffered a hard frost and most of my newly planted flowers observed Memorial Day by dying. A few struggled along well into July before giving up and taught me that knowing the difference between annuals and perennials wasn’t enough.

I had to be consistent with watering and fertilizing, persistent at weed removal and deadheading, vicious when fighting slugs and aphids, and careful about sun and shade requirements when deciding where to plop plants.

Patience is necessary. As my skill increased, so did my understanding of a garden’s ebb and flow. Trees and shrubs move at a majestic pace; perennials can take years to come into their own; and annuals sometimes burst big and then turn temperamental. All green things have their season: their month to flourish, their year to star, their time to struggle. They march to their own drummers rather than to mine.

Change is inevitable: I’ve quit trying to be the boss of plants. I now understand my job is to adjust as they defy my omnipotence by doing what they want when they want. While some make themselves comfortable in their assigned seats, others outgrow their space, creep out of bounds, hide as though camera shy, reseed themselves willy-nilly, or strangle their neighbors. And every year, beloved veterans give up and depart for plant heaven.

Perfection is impossible: Unlike humans, a garden doesn’t care about winning yard of the week. Every spring I hope my planning and work will result in a problem-free plant paradise; and every summer mother nature demonstrates her power: a patch of lawn abandons its former glory and turns scruffy with patches of clover; an aspen flecks the yard with diseased leaves; unusually hot temperatures burn red roses black; hail beats new clematis blossoms off the vine, and petunias fail to thrive in an area they loved for ten years.

Challenges are constant: Weeds never give up. Husbands voice opinions. Enough said.

As I learned to garden, I realized I was also learning how to live well and age well: work hard, be patient, and accept change, imperfection, and challenges.

Lessons for life learned in a garden.

The Worth of Mirth

I read that laughter lowers stress; but I already knew that: an unflappable first-grader gave me the gift of laughter when I was a first-year principal.

It was a tough day to be in charge. The temperature hovered near zero. Heavyweight snowflakes fell as though poured, and freezing winds whipped an icy playground. So I imposed indoor recess and discovered, as the day and the storm dragged into the afternoon, that young students don’t respond well to captivity.

Next, the copy machine gave up; the central office notified me the buses would be late; and the cap fell off one of my heels so when I walked, I clacked like a riveter.

Clicking along a hallway to check on demented laughter coming from the boys’ bathroom, I spotted Gus, a first-grade student and a favorite because we spent time together. “Guess what?” he yelled in his indoor voice, “I went to the dentist. He checked me and all my teeth.”

Scared cartoon boy visiting the dentist.

“Wow. Are you perfect?” I asked.

He furrowed his brow, considered my comment, and bellowed,  “No. He didn’t say I’m perfect. But I’m pretty damn good.”

Stress flees in the face of laughter.

I also read laughter promotes health and healing, but I already knew that as well, having learned it from my dad years ago. At eighty-five, after a bicycle accident and two surgeries, my optimistic, active father, who considered taking aspirin a sign of weakness, began to shrink and withdraw. Mom and I sat with him and watched his zest for life decline as one dreary hospital day followed another with no good news.

One afternoon, I went to a bookstore to buy a book Mom wanted. I also picked up a new book by Roald Dahl,  Revolting Rhymes, a retelling of fairytales. If Mr. Dahl wrote it, I knew I’d like it.


At the hospital, Dad, with closed eyes and sunken cheeks, didn’t return my greeting.

When I showed the book to Mom, she suggested I read something from it to her as she crocheted. I chose Cinderella, and we were soon giggling at the unusual retelling of the classic tale. Dad opened his eyes and turned his face toward us. I continued:

“Quickly, in no time at all,
Cindy was at the Palace Ball!
It made the Ugly Sisters wince
To see her dancing with the Prince:
She held him very tight and pressed
Herself against his manly chest.”

Dad laughed. I increased the drama. By the time Cindy ran out of the ball in her underwear, the three of us were laughing at length and volume. During the following days, we read all of Mr. Dahl’s poems and repeated our favorites. Nurses began dropping by to join the merriment.

I know laughter hastened my father’s healing. He soon mended to the point he could leave the hospital and eventually travel home; and when he did, he took Revolting Rhymes with him.

If we want to live well and age well, we need to look for opportunities to laugh each and every day.

Know Your Numbers

I prefer to work with words, but I’ve always known my numbers: how to count to ten, how many teeth I’d lost, how much I’d earn at twenty cents an hour, how many years until I could drive; my age, height, weight, and grade point average; mortgage loan rates, check book balances, mileage per gallon, years to retirement.

But it seems knowing numbers is a never-ending chore, and  I have to add more if I want my Janet-strives-to-be-healthy award. Health experts — no longer content with nagging me about my weight, water consumption, physical activity, and food choices — now insist I need to know and track my vital numbers.

Evidently, aging brings with it an onslaught of numbers useful for detecting significant changes in my weary body: blood pressure, cholesterol levels, blood glucose, triglycerides, body mass index and on and on and on until my head spins and my important numbers escalate into the danger zone.

taking blood pressure

When younger, I extended my arm for the blood pressure cuff as routinely and thoughtlessly as I swatted mosquitoes. When the nurse reported my numbers, I responded, “Is that good or bad?” and later couldn’t remember what they were when Joel asked.

Currently, under doctor’s orders, I’m taking my blood pressure at home: three times a day, two or three times a week, for six weeks. I put up with the nuisance of doing so because I hope to amass enough evidence to avoid taking another pill,  but I whine about it.

After I strap on the cuff, I sit quietly, breathing slowly and deeply, visualizing pleasant scenes: sunsets, thickly frosted brownies, a Powerball check with my name on it.

When I’m sufficiently calm, I push the start button and hope. Then I wait for my numbers to flash on the screen so I can record them, study them, compare them, and compute my running average. I’m beginning to feel like a baseball statistician.

hand holding blood in test tube and colored tubes test

I’ve also learned to recognize odd words like bilirubin and alkaline phosphatase. I pronounce them without hesitation or, unfortunately, comprehension. I can recite the acceptable ranges for blood glucose and calcium faster than Dr. Oz; and I don’t panic as the number of tubes drawn for my blood test escalates until I think if the blood-happy nurse doesn’t soon stop, I’ll need a transfusion.

I know my wish to avoid all serious illnesses until the day I die is as doomed as my childhood effort to never lick a wooden popsicle stick; but I also believe staying as healthy as possible for as long as possible will increase the quality of the years I have left to live.

So if you’ll excuse me, my doctor’s nurse just called to say my triglyceride level was a little high on my recent five-tube blood test. I need to go google some new numbers.


The Imposter Syndrome

A friend, a professional musician, told me that sometimes, waiting to be introduced, he looked at his trombone and thought, “What is this thing I’m holding? And what do all those people out there expect me to do with it?”

He called these occasional feelings of incompetence the imposter syndrome.

businesswoman speechThinking he was joking, I laughed.

Then came an evening when I finished reading to an audience from my book and asked for questions. A young woman volunteered first: “When did you discover your writer’s voice, and how did you develop it?”

 I stared at her, thoughts ricocheting in my head: “Who’s she talking to? Me? What’s voice? Who’s a writer? I have nothing to say to these people.”

I cleared my throat and managed to choke out an answer. Then, through some miraculous act, I returned to my body. My mind cleared, and my words flowed in response to their questions.

PARKERI described how the best advice I’d ever heard about writing came from Dorothy Parker, who wrote for top magazines including The New Yorker. When asked how to become a good writer, she responded in six words, “Read, read, read, write, write, write,” and took the next question.

I follow her counsel nearly every day.

94px-Stephen_King,_Comicon I talked about a revision strategy Stephen King advocates in his book On Writing: using the delete key. Frequently. It might seem ironic, but Mr. King, a writer who publishes books as thick as dictionaries, cuts his manuscripts daily and then again by at least ten percent after he thinks they’re finished.

After studying his reasoning, I vowed to eliminate bird walks, distractions, any word that doesn’t directly contribute  to my story or message — even when they are charming words I labored over and fell in love with.

Strengthening my relationship with the delete key has also strengthened my prose. I now understand George Bernard Shaw who sent a letter to his friend ending with: “I’m sorry this letter is so long. I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”

I also told my audience about my fourth-grade students who taught me another writing skill: reading my writing aloud to myself or others before I publish it.

In a safe classroom, most children like to read what they’ve written to their peers and, when doing so, read with conviction. Occasionally, however, a child in my class would grind to a halt, scrutinize what was written, look puzzled, then smile with relief and explain: “Oh, I forgot some words,” or, “I meant to say George did it,” or even, “That doesn’t sound good. I need to fix it.”

We hear flaws more clearly when we read our work aloud, because, when we read silently, no matter how many times, our sly, informed minds supply what is needed; and we think everything is hunky-dory.

I read everything I write aloud: sometimes the entire piece, sometimes only the troublesome parts, but always. My husband calls it my muttering phase.

As I shared with my audience the things I’ve learned by reading, reading, reading and writing, writing, writing, I realized I knew something about the craft of stringing words together in a meaningful way. I was not an imposter.

I suppose all of us who work at something we’re passionate about can fall prey to self-doubt and a loss of confidence. Fortunately, it’s usually fleeting.