After our fifty-mile bike ride in the hills of Galena, Illinois, this past Saturday, we awoke Sunday morning to do a long run back home in Illinois.
It turned warm and the long run turned out to be, in my wife’s words, “A lot of ouch.” When we got home she proclaimed that she was going to take a relaxing bath.
She does not do that often. More typically she takes a shower “on the fly” after her morning and afternoon workouts. That’s why her plan for a late-morning bath seemed like a good idea.
Knowing that my wife wanted to slow down and indulge herself a bit inspired me to move into the background. She did request that I bring her favorite shampoo, conditioner, and deep conditioner to her in the tub. I delivered those and flopped back on our bed to rest my own tired body after an earlier shower.
From my reclined position in bed I could see her head as she ran the whirlpool. She called out: “I’m flexing my toes…They’re really tight.”
I flex my toes that whirlpool tub as well. It feels good to let the jets work out the stiffness in joints. Finally the jets turned off and she took to washing her hair. Her blonde mane darkened as it got wet. Watching her ply her hair with product made me smile. She was due for a stylist appointment before the weekend but it didn’t work out. “So, much, hair,” she observed.
Like many couples, we’ve shared the bath and shower a few times over the years. Those moments of intimacy are blessed connections when the time is right. There are also times when the best thing a husband can do is be the “support crew” for her relaxing bath.
I went downstairs to make breakfast. The vision of her bare body in the tub made me feel a tremendous intimacy that had less to do with sex and more to do with bathing her in my love and respect. A woman deserves that and more.
A number of weeks ago while speaking with a friend who runs the INCubator program for high school students in which I’ve served as a Mentor and Presenter the last five years, we talked about how schools are adapting during the ongoing pandemic.
“A lot of people are out,” he told me. “We need subs.”
I dug into the requirements to become a substitute teacher and learned that people without a teaching degree can register to become a short-term substitute. That means teaching according to the lessons plans provided by the full-time teacher.
It took several days to fill out and submit the paperwork, gather transcripts from college and high school and file it through the Illinois website. Then I needed to register through the county website and get fingerprinted. Finally it was time to fill out the district paperwork.
Much of that signup could be done online. But wanting to put a face with a name and forms, I stopped at district offices to meet briefly with human resource directors. It is always good to become a known quantity.
I was impressed with the relative efficiency of all that registration. The districts I’m serving also have a great way to sign up for substitution assignments.
Middle school subbing
My first days of teaching were in middle school, running physical education classes all day, managing a language arts class and becoming a “floater” as teachers were getting vaccinated and needed someone to oversee class time and assignments.
I’ve spent many hours in classrooms and teaching in other ways over the years. My late wife was a special education teacher for ten years and a preschool teacher for twenty. She asked me to teach her class now and then. My mother was an elementary school teacher for twenty years. I visited her classroom many times to talk about birds, art or other subjects. I’ve also been a guest speaker for the “art people” trained by the Art Institute of Chicago to share art with student at all grades. Some might say teaching is in my blood. Perhaps it should have been my profession. But it’s never too late to start…
My next round of assignments were in an elementary school two miles from our house. At the front desk, a fellow substitute and I met with a teacher and administrator to determine who would take the music or ILP classes that day. ILP stands for Individualized Learning Plans, a term describing students with specific needs. My mother often tutored children in our home that needed individualized learning. She’d tell me, “These are your classmates, and you can go out and play after their lessons, but you need to let them learn while they’re here.” She also told me to keep their tutoring a private matter. “They learn differently than other kids,” she explained.
To some degree, I was one of those kids too. Only late in life did I ascertain that there is a certain amount of attention-deficit disorder at work in my brain. Looking back at my education years, I now recognize patterns of difficulty, obstinance, and outright frustration or failure when it came to certain learning circumstances. I’ve had to work a bit harder than others on certain kinds of tasks, and build discipline and good habits into my routines. I take pride in that now.
I think it can be accurately stated that every human being on earth has some kind of learning disability if a fine enough focus is placed upon it. Some excel at math and stink at English. Others love the social sciences and history while some find it excruciatingly boring.
Individualized Learning Plans
I chose to work with the ILP children earlier this week even though teaching the music class that day seemed like it would have been fun. I’ve played in bands and can sing fairly well, but I knew that past experience in classrooms with special education children would help me help them.
The ILP teacher walked me through the day’s lessons, materials, and tools used by the students to practice and learn. Each child had their own ‘best practices’ to follow. They took pride in pulling out their respective memory cards, books, and speaking devices.
The first boy I worked with was a charming child with Down’s Syndrome. He applied himself with energy for the most part, with only occasional drifting or distraction. His favorite part of the lesson was going through a series of slides depicting people expressing different kinds of emotions. While he did not recognize all the words, some of them were pretty long, he loved working with me to imitate the facial expressions and body language of the kids in the photos. We had a particular laugh at my imitation of the person exhibiting a ‘dubious’ expression. I turned my head to the side and lifted my chin, looking at him out of the corner of my eyes. He came back to the slide several times to coax me into the dubious mode, and we’d laugh all over again.
Then it was time fo reading, and he read me a book about a cat named Puff who liked to hide.He pulled out another book about a Mama Bear gathering berries, nuts and fish for her family. We talked about why the characters liked to do what they were doing.
By then he’d earned his ten stars for progress and I moved his behavior code up to blue from green, a promotion! He’d been good for me. Then he could grab his Chromebook and spend time with Baby Einstein software. He plunked his fingers on the screen to make a pool of faux water send ripples all around. It looked like fun. And gratifying.
Speed it up
The next student on the morning’s schedule was a charming young girl who arrived at class upset about something that had happened on the way to school. She was comforted by the paraprofessional and following a quick hug and a reminder to wear her mask the proper way, she got her stuff put away. When it came time for me to learn with her, she informed me that I was dawdling with the word cards. “Too slow,” she frowned. We sped it up.
Later when I needed help getting another student logged into their Chromebook, she washed her hands first and jumped over to log him in. I thanked her, and she asked, “Are you going to be here tomorrow too?” She was missing her regular teacher, I knew. “Probably not,” I replied. “But I want to thank you for being such a good helper today.”
“I like to help,” she chirped, then hurried to her cubby to prepare for recess and lunch.
Some of the students in class were non-verbal. We worked together on reading. I was quite impressed with their ability to key in words and letters and hear them read aloud by the device. One of the students keyed in the entire first half of the Dr. Suess book Green Eggs and Ham. You know the one: Sam I am. When he finished reading, I hummed a little tune, and he hummed back. I’d noticed that he was singing to himself before class. Why not speak the same language?
The fifth child was the most challenging for me to teach. Instead I tried to learn from her. Her autism gives her a keen energy and a need to jump up now and then. She engaged in some massively dreamy stares at times. I thought about her parents and how much they must want their child to learn on her own terms.
We read two books together and my instructions were to ask her to speak clearly, well above a whisper. She did fine with that, but ultimately felt like she’d had enough and pulled out a sheet of paper to repeatedly “knuckle” a symbol in the middle of the sheet. She wanted something specific to happen, but I could not tell what it was. One cannot learn everything a student needs or wants in one session. We do our best, and move along.
Toward the end of our fifteen minute session, she broke free from all of that and leaned toward me to study my face or simply break the tension of having someone new in her presence. It felt to me like she had three strong signals going through her brain, competing for space. I don’t know if that’s an accurate description of how autism works, but I could relate to that, and perhaps that’s what counts.
The teachers who work with these students have the knowledge, compassion, and commitment to help children learn despite their supposed limitations. That’s all that any of us can do. Keep on learning. That’s the Right Kind of Pride.
Black History month
I closed out the day teaching a class of first graders about Ruby Bridges, the American civil rights activist whose brave story of being the first student to desegregate a Southern school was read aloud in a video we watched together. I paused the video to ask the children how they would feel in Ruby’s place. We also looked at a painting of Ruby walking to school in the company of federal agents. That tomato smashed against the wall held so much symbolism.
That story has taken on greater meaning in the last year with civil unrest unfolding around the rights of Black Americans that have been threatened or killed by police, chased down by vigilantes or otherwise abused by institutional racism in the United States of America.
I looked around at the kids in that class. They were the same age as Ruby Bridges, six years old, when she dared to learn in the face of massive bigotry that unfortunately, has not dissipated in the country where she continues her work in civil rights. Some lessons take so long to learn, while some people just refuse to learn them.
That’s not what I saw in the eyes of the children in class that day. It is a gift to be present for that.
I recall so strongly one of the moments I heard this song during that period of my life. I’d spent three hard days and nights in the hospital after one of my wife’s many surgeries. She was beat up from the procedure and facing chemotherapy. Due to my work obligations, my mother-in-law spent the first night with her. When I arrived to take over, she warned me that the chair provided for hospital guests was far from comfortable. In recline position it bent backwards, forcing anyone trying to rest in the device to sleep like a dying dolphin.
On top of that, the nurses rolled in and out checking on her every hour. The machines beeped and the pumps pulsed. Doctors slipped in without warning. She’d greet them with a look of hope in her eyes that broke my heart. Was the cancer gone? Again?
Oh simple thing, where have you gone? I’m getting old and I need something to rely on So tell me when you’re gonna let me in I’m getting tired and I need somewhere to begin
At that point my wife and I had been married for nearly twenty years. All she wanted was to be free of the disease, to work in her garden and teach her precious preschoolers. She wanted to love her children without fear of leaving them. She wanted to live.
I came across a fallen tree I felt the branches of it looking at me Is this the place we used to love? Is this the place that I’ve been dreaming of?
After three days I needed to get back home and check on things around the house. She would spend two more days in the hospital watched by friends who volunteered to stay with her. I climbed into our car, leaving behind a wife still trying to fart to prove that her digestive tract was back in working order. It’s true: the things that stink about living are the things that keep us alive.
I drove back home through the black night on wet streets thinking “Why does she have to go through this? Is it worth it?”
And if you have a minute, why don’t we go Talk about it somewhere only we know? This could be the end of everything So why don’t we go somewhere only we know?
I recall falling into a rage of sobbing tears that night. Felt guilt over being free of the hospital and driving back home while she lay there hooked up to drips of painkiller and antibiotics and fluids. Her blue eyes still twinkled through the haze of hospital dreams.
We were years into cancer survivorship by that point.
My strategy to cope with caregiving duties for my wife and my father, a stroke victim, was to work through a series of lyrical albums by Andrew Bird and Indie group CDs that my daughter compiled from her catalog.
Then I dug deep into the Beck catalog, so deep I thought I’d never come out. Then came Modest Mouse, Regina Spector, the quirkier the better. On and on the music played as I clung to jobs trying to take care of everything, protect our insurance and keep the money coming in. Always the money. The goddamned money.
That’s why I let myself cry so hard in the car this week. This strange, hard year has affected us all in strange, hard ways. For a moment, I needed to be weak and vulnerable, to let it all out, and admit that life has been hard in some ways. This was a deserving burst of grief.
It is also important to say that I have found love again with a woman I appreciate and respect. We are also meant to be together. But there is great value in remembering all those you love, wherever they are. It doesn’t last forever, you know, this thing we call life.
Perhaps you’ll be moved to sing along when a song like this one comes along. Allow yourself a bit of deserving burst of grief in these times.
Oh, this could be the end of everything So why don’t we go somewhere only we know? Somewhere only we know Somewhere only we know
As Year 2020 grinds to a close, we can agree that we everyone has shared in the difficulty of a manic year. The pandemic disrupted all aspects of life and normalcy, and people are grieving loss and pain at many levels. The active symbol of that grief is the face masks we’re wearing to keep the pandemic from getting even worse than it already is.
Some people resist wearing face masks, claiming it is an impingement on their freedom. The reality is that wearing masks in public is an act of respect for the health of others and for ourselves.
The irony is that so many people seem determined to deny that reality.
Spreading disease––knowingly or unknowingly––is the least acceptable option in a civilized society. Wearing a mask is not a restriction of freedom, it promotes it. If more (even all) people wear masks in public we’ll all have greater freedom as long as this pandemic lasts.
All societies depend on etiquette to protect lives and get along in a civilized manner. The basic rule of driving on the Right side of the road in the United States is an excellent example of people agreeing that social order depends on predictable behavior to govern safety and protect lives. In other parts of the world, people drive on the Left side of the road.
Being required to drive on the Right or Left side of the road isn’t an impingement upon freedom. It is a guide designed to provide greater freedom for all. The same holds true with wearing masks during a pandemic. These are not political demands. They are practical measures designed to keep people safe.
The threat of getting sick and dying during this pandemic is real. More than 330,000 Americans have died from infection. The numbers continue to climb, and America’s infection and death rates are devastatingly real, as bad as anywhere on earth. But why?
It’s simple, and symbolic: some people still find the request to wear a mask in public a great affront.
A recent Huffpost story shared the heartbreaking tale of a man battling Covid-19 in the hospital. Days before he was intubated, he wrote his wife a series of messages, including this loving recognition of his mortality:
“If I don’t make it I want you to know that I lived a happy…life with you and would never have traded it for all the riches in the world.”
He also gave his wife a blessing to live a happy life and find love again if he passed away. That is the right kind of pride: Gratitude and selflessness are the two greatest signs of character in this world.
Yet some people don’t get that. Some people thumb their noses at the idea they have to listen to anybody when it comes to wearing masks. They appear determined to hold out due to some selfish sense of tribal pride. “Don’t tread on me?”
The irony in that the same people determined to avoid wearing masks seems so eager to obey the cynical directives uttered by politicians, business moguls and religious public figures eager to exploit the masses for political, financial and personal purposes.
That’s because the wrong kind of pride vanquishes conscience and steers people away from the truth in favor of arrogant, selfish motives.
Bathed in the light of vainglorious cause, the people that claim to hate wearing masks seeks out alternate views of reality to replace those they hope to avoid. There is a massive psychological game being played in American culture in which people that respect others enough to protect them from disease by wearing masks in public are being portrayed as ignorant and sheeplike. That is gaslighting.
The wrong kind of pride encourages people to embrace resentment, greed, and fear over genuine conscience and consideration.
Even religious channels are being used to communicate this alternate view of reality. This brand of corruption is toxic and painful to witness. It encourages people to care only about themselves, or their tribe. That is the exact opposite message of the world’s major religions, all of whom seem to embrace some form of the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would have others treat you.
While most of us mask up and recognize that this pandemic can end if people use common sense and gain enough perspective to know that the suffering will someday end, those who refuse to do so literally separate themselves from the norms of humanity and in the process, bring more suffering upon themselves and others.
That man dying from Covid who wrote loving last words to his wife knew better than everyone the value of life, and love. That is the message more people need to hear; that life is precious, and the right kind of pride is having the humility and respect to care about others.
Last Friday night I sat down to check email one more time before relaxing for the evening. There was a message from a website called FineArtAmerica. A woman named Delinda was writing to inquire about a painting that she owns. This is what she wrote:
Good day, I am inquiring about this magnificent print of yours, titled on back in handwritten notecard, reads: Great Horned Own with Red Phase Ruffed Grouse. 3/5 life size. Curious, it says ’78 perhaps as a date? I can send pics if you need to see it, hoping to get more info about who it may have been commissioned for, or if its just a random print? I love it so much, its so lifelike it scares my cat lol. Thanks in advance, Delinda
The painting was a labor of love a long time ago. It bears similarities to a watercolor by an artist that I admired and emulated. His name was Louis Agassiz Fuertes, one of the greatest bird artists that ever lived. I’d gone to Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology to study the work of Fuertes and other great bird artists. I did my best to absorb what I could from studying their work close up.
My aspirations were to become as great a bird artist as I could. This particular portrait was a refinement of an earlier study I had done. I also executed an ink drawing of the same pose. But the pose originated from a painting I produced as a freshman in college from a stuffed great horned owl borrowed from the biology lab. That painting copied the mussed up feathers verbatim, a condition that a live owl would never likely allow to happen.
When I showed the 1975 painting to Dr. Lancaster, the Director of Laboratory of Ornithology, he blurted, “That’s some of the finest featherwork I’ve seen.” I took that as a kind compliment. Clearly he saw my potential, but also noted that much further study of birds was in order to become a fully accomplished bird painter.
That I continued to do. But the challenge was finding suitable resources. I’d learned taxidermy in college, but it was illegal to collect and own dead birds of any kind. Still, I collected specimens and kept them in our second freezer for reference. I owned a camera with a 300mm lens but never seemed to get good quality photos to copy. Plus it takes years or genius to absorb and render the “true” lines and forms of birds in the wild.
The years passed and I produced hundreds of paintings of varying quality for patrons public and private. Almost all of those are in the possession of people whose whereabouts I do not know. Occasionally I’ll be contacted by someone who wants to know if I’m still painting. We have a good chat and they send me a picture of the painting they own. That makes me feel good. Someone prizes a bit of my work.
I’ve even gotten calls from strangers who came into possession of one of my paintings. One of them started our phone conversation with a question, “Are you famous?” They’d picked up one of my watercolors at a garage sale of a couple getting a divorce (I remember the couple) and wanted to know if the painting they’d purchased for $25 was worth a bunch of money. “I hate to disappoint you,” I related. “But I’m not famous.”
Last year a friend found one of my paintings at an antique shop in Michigan. They were browsing the store and saw a painting of an eagle that I’d painted long ago. I’d done the work on commission for Robert Van Kampen, a patron who went on to sell his investment company to Xerox for $400 million. He hired me to do a series of hawk paintings when I was 18 years old. Somehow it escaped his estate and has been kicking around antique shops the last forty years.
Last Friday night, I wrote back to my new friend Delinda thanking her for getting in touch with me about the owl painting from ’78. She explained how she came to own it.
“So happy to hear from you! I live in San Diego, ocean beach, and people leave things in alleys all the time. The owl I’m guessing was from someone older who may have passed away. I’ve had it for about 5 years now. It was in an alley for about ten seconds before I grabbed it, others really wanted it too but I won lol. I knew it was special, and would be happy to return to you if you’d like it, or donate to the school or elsewhere that might appreciate it. Otherwise, I will cherish it forever, as I love owls and birds! XO”
I told her that I wanted her to keep it for as long as she wanted it. We agreed that if I get out to visit my son in Venice, California, we’d get together as friends and share a drink by the ocean.
That’s the most an artist can hope for in some ways. That the work builds connections. I’ll not pretend that I became one of the world’s greatest bird artists as I once believed was possible. But I also haven’t quit. These days, with the camera and lens I now own, and ability to collect good reference material, my work has improved and continues to do so.
I may never be a Louis Agassiz Fuertes. No one ever will. But I can be the best Christopher Cudworth that I can be. That’s the art of not being famous. And that’s the right kind of pride.
Recently I held Zoom call with a cousin that lives in Florida. His parents were my favorite aunt and uncle during my youth. They ran the farm on which my mother grew up. My father grew up on a farm right down the road and they met as kids and married after World War II. Then our family history began.
We lived through all the typical vagaries of families in America. My dad was in and out of work as an electrical engineer. My mom carried us through by teaching elementary school for 20+ years. There were hints of an affair by my father at one point, but my parents stuck it out for all of us. Four boys. All athletes. All creative. We lost a sister during childbirth between my next eldest brother and I. We seldom talked about any of that.
Instead, our family’s move from the East to the Midwest left us all without much contact with our relatives. That meant I never heard much about the rest of our family history from other perspectives. Our parents didn’t tell us that much either. More likely, we weren’t that interested in listening. Too preoccupied with sports and hormones.
Family history eventually does catch up with us all. It would be decades before I realized that my dad’s father suffered through the loss of his wife to sepsis after a breast cancer surgery. Or that he lost his farm in the Depression, then lost a store and another mate, and ultimately succumbed to deep depression requiring an institutional stay. All that family history was locked away in the Let’s Not Mention It Chest.
By the time it finally emerged, I’d long come to recognize symptoms of anxiety, depression, and some anger issues in myself. I met with counselors to help me sort it all out. Over time, I adopted coping strategies and gained cognitive perspective on triggers and traps that send people into ruminative thinking. That is the centripetal force of anxiety and depression. It is its own Black Hole.
While talking with my cousin about mental health on my father’s side of the family, he mentioned that anxiety and depression were ‘well-documented’ on my mother’s side as well. “Your grandfather was depressive,” he told me. “His father was worse.”
Finding out that ancestors dealt with mental health issues seems depressing, but in many respects, the opposite is true. I believe that knowing family history when it comes to mental health is a vital tool for living a healthy life. If you know the lay of the land, it is much easier to navigate it.
The same goes for attention-deficit disorders. I wish that someone sat me down during those early years, even in grade school, to explain that my mind works differently than other people. I already knew that from dealing with boredom and distraction in the classroom. I’d have welcomed the chance to address those issues with an adult who was honest with me, maybe even encouraging. Let’s be realistic: kids are much smarter about their own brains than most people realize.
My method of coping largely involved pouring energy into creative outlets such as art, painting or exercise. I could feel my brain engage and then relax while doing those things.
These days, psychologists often recommend art therapy and exercise to give people with ADD, anxiety or other mental health issues a healthy way to wick off distracted energy.
Even at a young age, I knew that I could often do the work if given the chance to get my brain on task. My fourth grade teacher understood that, and I thrived with good grades all year. The next year, my teacher was a stiff-necked disciplinarian who wanted nothing to do with creativity. Just learn.
Being to just “sit still and do it” was the opposite of how my mind worked, or what it needed. I rebelled at times, sometimes aggressively in the childhood manner of fighting back in various ways. That was an instinct exacerbated by a domineering father who probably suffered from ADD, anxiety and depression as well. He likely hated seeing the same symptoms in his children, even if he didn’t fully understand the source of his frustration.
So these cycles of relative sanity versus ruminative negativity are difficult to identify and cure. But it can be done. That is why I still find it fascinating to talk with a long-lost relative and hear about how people who came before us dealt with life’s challenges, and there were many.
The thing that sustains me through self-analysis and confession is the knowledge that while my relatives and ancestors faced sometimes significant challenges, they also worked hard to lead productive lives. My mother’s father was a farmer. He also a highly cultured man, encouraging my mother’s musical talents. He even hand-built her a violin that she took to Potsdam College in Upstate New York to become a music teacher. Decades later, my daughter Emily Joan (named after both her grandmothers) learned to play on that instrument before we purchased her a better instrument during her progression in music.
The other thing that I retain from the grandfather who built the violin is a hand-constructed chest made out of wood, tin and metal fasteners. I think about the talent and care that went into building that chest, and the home-grown knowledge of how to do it. The leather strap handles are long since gone, but I can lift that chest and know that the hands of a man I never met were what built it. There’s value in that.
Let’s talk about aging faces. I have no real way of knowing the age of the people who read this blog. There are about 1500 subscribers, and there are some who don’t subscribe but read these words through social media and other portals. But no matter what age you are, we all deal with the aging on our faces.
When you’re in your tweens and teens, those facial changes have profound impact on your self image. Getting zits and growing facial hair is a part of growing up. Dealing with tweezed eyebrows and the right makeup mix, or watching a callow jaw shift to manhood are all part of the process. Hair length also affects how facial changes are seen.
So the process of dealing with our aging faces starts early in life. Add in the impact of getting braces on your teeth, or in my case having a baseball accident smash a front tooth, and the changes never cease.
Those of us that compete in athletics put our faces through an entirely different kind of strain. The grimace lines wrought by the pain of endurance sports begins the process of forced aging that continues throughout our lives.
So perhaps it’s time for all of us to take a healthier form of pride in that aging face we see in the mirror each day. That face of yours has so much to tell about all what you’ve gone through. There is laughter, joy and excitement. There is sorrow, fear and depression. All in the same face. It’s a wonder we don’t wear them out with all these emotions.
In recent years, I’ve worried that the look of my face has begun to limit opportunities in life. The ugly specter or ageism creeps up on you secretly. People aren’t going to tell you to your face that they consider you “too old” to do a job or fit into a workplace culture, but it happens. By law, age discriminate is illegal. Yet we all know that it still happens.
Wattled and tired
I was sickened one day while reading an article that popped up in my social media feed. A younger writer crowed that he wants nothing to do with people whose faces are “wattled.” That’s a disqualifying factor in his mind. His thinking seemed to be centered around the idea that if someone looks old, they must be unable to think clearly or creatively.
That would be news to millions of people throughout history whose contributions to this world continued or even began in their later years. I think in particular about the life of R. Buckminster Fuller, one of the most creative yet practical individuals to ever live. One of my favorite quotes by Mr. Fuller evolved from an experience of great sorrow and near defeat in his life. He’d experienced a great personal tragedy and was depressed beyond imagination. He indulged in a period of intensive personal isolation to figure out what to do next and emerged with a vision of new purpose, “You do not belong to you. You belong to the universe.”
He used that perspective to face the world in a new way. Among his many inventions were the geodesic dome, a mathematical breakthrough in architecture. His influence and thinking continue to expand to this day. No one cared that he looked young or old. What matters is how he thought. We all need to grab that truth and never let it go.
We should also never forget that our faces are attached to our bodies. Today I read an interesting article in the Chicago Tribune about the fact that people who do something more than walking in their exercise routines wind up having better efficiency and posture as they age. While walking is beneficial, it doesn’t stress the body in the same way that cycling, running or swimming do. It’s the classic training principle that applies to life itself: you have to push past your boundaries to gain the most benefit.
That seems to be the principle at work when we consider the condition of our faces as we age. If you’re engaged and passionate and pushing yourself to continue learning and trying new things, it shows in your expression and even the condition of your face.
Until a few years ago, I’d never heard the term ‘resting bitch face’ applied to the baseline expression of someone who looks dour or unhappy all the time. Is that term as bad as dissing someone through ageism? It certainly seems cruel. Yet there is a reality at work in how we project our emotions through our visage. I’m perpetually aware of the value of smiling during conversations with people.
That’s especially true in business situations. I once had a boss tell me, “I like you a lot more when you’re smiling.” He was right. I wasn’t a happy person during that period. My late wife had just experienced a recurrence of cancer and had a nervous breakdown as a result. I was scared, felt alone, and had little tolerance for the daily vicissitudes of business, which seemed so insignificant compared to what was going on at home.
Those internal conflicts showed in my face. There was little I could do about it at the time. Just put on the best face I could, and get through it.
So we perhaps don’t always have control of what our faces say about us. There’s always the possibility that a person with a ‘resting bitch face’ has gone through so much in life their face reflects that path. But then again, some people develop attitudes of victimhood and duress that dominate their existence. There is such a thing as becoming so bitter about life that it shows in everything you do.
I’ve got enough life experience now to look back and understand the causes of the challenges I’ve faced in life, and the reasons for the mistakes I’ve made. I’ve come to realize that a native anxiety affected many of my decisions. So did a likely associative form of ADD, a lifelong challenge that often determined the manner in which I processed information, or did not. In summary, I’m proud of having dealt with these challenges and adapted to succeed in some ways along the way. It all comes with knowing yourself well enough to accept past mistakes and not let them rule the present.
I can look at my face in the mirror now and see all sorts of experiences etched there. I see miles of training and racing, and the self-belief emerges from all those tests. But they keep coming. A former coach once told me, upon hearing that my late wife was diagnosed with cancer back in 2005, “Your whole life has been a preparation for this.”
He was quite right. That coach later faced cancer himself. He passed away a few years ago. The thing I remember most of all about him is still his face. I don’t see him as young or old. There’s a spiritual aspect to that, I believe. Take pride in that aging face, no matter what age you are.
When I published a memoir titled The Right Kind of Pride in 2014, my goal was twofold: to write about the journey that my late wife and I shared through cancer survivorship, and to share some of the things we learned along the way.
Eight years of dealing with the physical and psychological effects of medical treatments, surgeries, chemotherapy and its side effects is enough to test the mettle of anyone. Toss in the emotional components of dealing with medical scheduling and recovery, insurance premiums and bills, financial changes and losses, and the whole thing gets overwhelming in a hurry.
During those years of dealing with cancer and remission, work and family challenges, I kept sensing that there was a message in it all.
That’s the other reason I wrote The Right Kind of Pride. I learned that taking care of business in the face of a crisis comes down to three critical components. These are:
Character: the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.
Caregiving: the activity or profession of regularly looking after a child or a sick, elderly, or disabled person.
Community: a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.
To address how understanding these three factors helps one through a crisis, we’ll begin with the subject of character, and what that means to each individual.
Character is not a fixed trait
We often view “character” as a fixed quality in a person. But people respond to crisis in different ways. Some grow resolute, facing whatever comes their way with what seems like determination and courage. Others appear frightened or worried at the onset of bad news. There is no real predicting how someone will react to a crisis. Sometimes a seemingly strong person reacts with fear. At other times a seemingly timid person responds with great strength.
Character can even shift with age. Many character traits are subject to change over the years, especially as stress or life changes affect the emotional bottom line. Character can even radically shift within minutes if shocking new arrives. The death of a parent, a spouse or a friend. The birth of a child. All sorts of events, good and bad, affect how character is held or expressed in a given person.
That’s why it is important to understand the nature of “character,” and how to support it in yourself or the people around you.
We might like to assume that character is the foundation that carries us through all kinds of tests. We speak of a person with “solid character” almost like they’re a piece of granite able to withstand all sorts of conditions. Yet if you’re in a position of helping another person get through a test of some sort, it is vital not to assume how they’re feeling, or even trust what they’re telling you at times. Most people don’t like to show or share their fears.
That is why it is important to be patient when it comes to placing expectations on others during times of crisis. Some want to avoid attention or engage in denial, wishing it would all go away. Others want to tell the world what’s going on in their lives, as if that alone could cure the problem. Most of us fall somewhere in between or run from one end of the spectrum to another.
Out of character
If someone responds in a way that seems “out of character” for them, it is clear they are trying to process whatever news or stress they are experiencing. Even good news can be a source of stress to a cancer or heart patient used to hearing nothing but frightening words about their condition. It is hard to trust good news because we don’t like to let our guard down in case something bad is about to happen again.
That puts us into a state of mind where character, “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual,” needs to be considered a tool for monitoring the emotional health of anyone facing a crisis. There really is no such thing as behaving “out of character” when we think about it. No one on this earth possesses a permanently rigid nature. Nor should we.
It is what it is
Obviously it’s desirable to stand strong and deal with necessary actions as they arrive. My late wife and I treated medical regimens with a brand of objectivity. We compartmentalized the cancer and its treatments by saying, “It is what it is.” In other words, let’s not fool ourselves or try to avoid medical advice that might be hard to hear, much less endure. But if you put that practical activity in its place, it is much easier to support the character or the person or person’s involved.
Being able to say “It is what it is” provides a clear focus on the most difficult aspect of life in the moment. That’s at least a degree of control, and knowing the truth and having a plan to follow takes pressure off the character of a person. Then the mental and emotional aspects can be addressed on their own terms.
Character on the line
The same holds true for many circumstances in life. A business or other venture has a “character” of its own. Applying these same principles; identifying the central challenge, categorizing the necessary response, and setting aside conflicting emotional, competitive or selfish aims to address problems is vital in facing life or business challenges. That is how to manage character as a rule.
Despite all our best efforts, there are often selfish aims at work behind the scenes of everyone involved in a crisis. Our primal instincts are to protect our own instincts. Fatigue and stress, fear and self-doubt all work to undermine our character when facing our own crisis or helping someone else face get through difficulties.
The important thing in understanding character is that it is the cumulative experience in a person’s life their character is built upon, including weak moments and strong. The key to supporting the character of an individual, a team or an organization is to identify common traits of belief, hope, determination and goals, then relate those back to the character of those involved.
Asking questions to gain answers
That means asking questions in order to gain answers about how people feel about their own character. These don’t need to be probing psychological ventures. A simple question such as “How are you feeling about this?” defines the person’s character in the moment. That’s what you need to know first. In what mental or emotional state are the people involved?
When I first found out that my wife had cancer all those years ago, a longtime friend and coach called me on the phone with a message of encouragement. “Your whole life is a preparation for this,” he told me.
That was his way of saying that I’d faced adversity before. Dealing with stress. Managing emotions. Setting near-term objectives. Reaching goals, however fluid they may be.
Every person on this planet has a foundation of their own from which to build and maintain character. Helping others do the same in times of crisis is one of the highest levels of compassionate behavior in the human sphere.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF ABOUT CHARACTER.
What are some of the most formative events in my life?
When were some of the times I was required to respond to crisis?
What do I consider some of my most important character traits?
How do I measure ‘character’ in others?
Why do I value character in myself and other people?
I’d be interested in hearing some of your responses to these questions and would like to post some (named anonymous, your choice) to this blog.
Send your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org. Your answers if you choose will posted anonymously. We can all learn from each other if we share.
I often work and write at any number of coffeehouses. I don’t visit these shops because I like coffee. Hate the stuff. But a cup of chai or an icy frozen hot chocolate stimulates the brain sufficiently.
Most coffee shops have “regulars” who treat the place like their office. So do I quite often. Yet I also move around from local shops to any number of Starbucks across the Fox Valley.
While not actively eavesdropping, one still does hear bits of earnest conversation. A week ago a pair of women next to me were consulting on a job search in which one of them was engaged. Hearing that affirmative dialogue on the part of the advisor and the job candidate’s self-examination was a case study in “figuring it out” in real-time.
Then there are the conversations you don’t overhear. But you can still tell the talk is serious in one way or another. Occasionally I’ll pass by people talking at a table and smile. Then I ask, “Well, have you solved the world’s problems yet?”
The question is typically so unexpected it draws a laugh from people, and that’s somewhat how it is intended: Let’s have a laugh at the absurdity of it.
Typically, the answers are just as humorous. “We’re trying,” is a common response.
I asked the same question to a table of women as my wife and I were on our way out of an outdoor bar space. They were talking intensely at the moment and my question caught them off guard. Still, they embraced the opportunity to share what they had been talking about––their experience as teachers for example––to point out they were “doing what they can.”
That’s all I really want people to think about. Solving the world’s problems is itself an absurd proposition. That will never happen. Even the claim that Jesus is coming back to fix it all is a misconception. In truth, scripture holds out for the day that we all do our part in making the world a “better place.” Only then can the so-called “return of Christ” take place. It’s not a literal event at all. Neither was the promise made by Jesus to “tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days” a literal prediction. The Lord’s Prayer confirms the same thing. “Our Father in heaven…your Kingdom come, your will be done…on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s up to us.
But the religious authorities of the era in which Jesus threatened to tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days did take him literally. They mocked his proposition and later conspired to get him killed to prove their authority over all challengers.
In other words, they sought to solve the world’s problems by killing off the truth that was hitting them in the face. The same thing is happening today.
I’m not here to proselytize that Jesus is the “only answer.” Readers of this and my blog at Genesisfix.com know better than that. What I do want to communicate is that solving the world’s problems isn’t a matter of shunting it off to someone else, or even counting on some future figure about whom scripture prophesies to return and create a “new heaven and a new earth.” That’s reverse literalism.
The real way to fix the world’s problems is by looking at them with real eyes, in a real contest. We’re called as rational human beings to protect the world for future generations.
I will say that the present generation of leaders, the people that have led the rape of the environment and economic coercion of the masses have done quite the opposite. To make matters worse, the allies in this destruction claim to be in deep favor with God. That’s not the right kind of pride. That is human arrogance.
That is why I think the next generation, the much-maligned “millennials” hold so much promise for the future. They seem eager to dispense with traditional or conventional views of the human condition. Race and religion, nationality and economic status, sexual orientation or family position are not the defining factors in how this generation regards and treats each other.
I truly think that if I asked people of this coming generation if they have solved the world’s problems, they might quietly turn to me and say, “We’re ready for our chance.” In fact, I’ve done that a few times, talked to millennials at coffee shops and asked that same question. They typically don’t laugh it off. They honestly look at me as if I’m serious.
3 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
You may recall the fateful verses cited above from the Book of Genesis. That last line in Genesis 3:3 is a tricky passage when it comes to understanding the nature of temptation. When the Serpent said to Eve “You will not certainly die,” it was not a lie. Not in the short term, anyway. In fact, Eve took went ahead and ate the fruit, and lived. So did Adam.
They were both now engaged in a conspiracy theory of sorts and would have to hide their nefarious deed from God. That didn’t happen, of course. We all know the outcome of that story. Adam and Eve were booted out of the Garden of Eden. God then informed them that by listening to the Serpent and breaking the unspoken vow of obedience, they had lost the gift of eternal life. “Now you really will die someday,” God warned them. Ooops.
This tale is so popular in religious tradition that the “fruit” in the Garden of Eden came to be represented by an apple. That fruit is a good choice. Everyone recognizes apples. Even the Apple computer symbol has a bite out of it, and that’s no lie.
Apples play a large role in both religious and scientific history. As the legend goes, Sir Isaac Newton was bonked on the head by an apple that led him to consider the nature of gravity. History.com explains that didn’t quite happen: “There’s no evidence to suggest the fruit actually landed on his head, but Newton’s observation caused him to ponder why apples always fall straight to the ground (rather than sideways or upward) and helped inspired him to eventually develop his law of universal gravitation.”
We know that gravity behaves fairly consistently here on earth. The same cannot be precisely said about the genetic direction taken by apples. The human race has coerced and cobbled apples into countless varieties. Each tastes and feels different to eat. Some are tart. Some are mild. Some are crisp. Others are soft. All apples grow on trees, yet even these vary by shape. People love to play games with genetics.
While apple-picking this past weekend it was obvious that people also like the hands-on experience of plucking apples from a tree. The organic quality of that experience recalls the act of temptation conducted by Eve and followed by Adam. A ripe-looking fruit of any kind is hard to resist. We filled our quarter-peck bags with apples of different sizes and shapes.
Along the way, we shared bites of different kinds of apples. There were Liberty and Empire, Honeycrisp and many others either ready for plucking or waiting a few weeks until they were in prime condition.
On the ground lay the detritus of apples either discarded with bites in them or recently fallen from the trees on their own. Some would be plucked up for use. Others would serve as fodder for yellow jackets.
The potential energy in every apple is hard to imagine. The evolutionary processes and human intelligence that combined to create these fruits would not be easily replicated if some tragic cataclysm befell the world’s population. The art and science of apple breeding is collective as much as it is individual.
Certainly there are growers out there who take great pride in the quality of their apples. The docent who talked us through the process of apple picking tried to educate the milling crowd about the best apples for baking and eating. It was a short talk. Civilization seems to have little time for learning. The apples sat out there like Forbidden Fruit. Let’s go have a taste.
As we left, I discovered an apple on a tree that had a face on it. The mouth was agape as if it had just seen some distressing surprise. Someone said the fruit looked diseased. I picked it and put it in my quarter-peck bag just the same. It was coming home with me. That apple and I might share some time with a plate of peanut butter. We could talk about the birds and the bees, the sun in the orchard, and try to make some sense of why some people seem to believe in talking Serpents anyway.
I think it’s possible to wander through an orchard, a garden or a field full of goldenrod on a clear September day and realize that we can all look at the blue sky and see forever. We are alive in eternity. We can take pride in the fact that our human awareness enables us to consider the nature of our existence.
That brings us back to the meaning of the fruit in the Garden of Eden. Taking a bite out of that “apple” was not the whole story. The real sin in that situation was the Serpent claiming to own the authority of God and a shortcut to wisdom. That’s a warning against all others that would do the same. While tradition tells us it was the “Fall of Man” that took place in the Garden of Eden, in truth it was the Rise of Religion as one of the stumbling blocks between the human race and God.
That may sound shocking to some who hear it, especially to those who supposed that religion is the one gift from God that we can trust because it exists in close proximity with the Creator. That’s also not what scripture tells us.
Jesus learned that harsh lesson when Satan caught up with him in the wilderness. Just like the Serpent in Genesis, Satan offered food for comfort and all the authority in the world. Jesus wisely said no, showing that discernment is the right kind of pride even when the fruit looks so good you can almost taste it.