Archive for the ‘communication’ Category


As I was preparing for the last week of College Writing, I found myself reflecting on what we’ve been exploring this term: How regular writing—even if it’s not long, or even directly related to a single subject—can capture the essence of experience. Joan Didion calls it “keeping in touch with our past selves.” I call it a survival kit. Let me explain.

Almost exactly a month ago I got a “friend” request on my Facebook page. It was from a gray-haire but otherwise beautifully preserved man who called himself “David,” which, in the reality of internet security, I understood to mean that his name might or might not actually BE “David.” I don’t judge; I am known in some internet circles as “Bodie Parkhurst.” I have a friend who goes by “Shamala.” This is common practice. But I digress. 

Unlike many of the men from whom I get “friend” requests, David wasn’t a three-star general, a Nigerian prince, nor even a doctor with Doctors Without Borders. He said he was a marine engineer. Given a steady diet of generals, princes, and philanthropists I was understandably eager to learn more, but David proved surprising coy. “I don’t want to talk about work,” he said. “I talk to you to escape from work.”

I thought about that, and wondered if I wanted to be anybody’s “escape” from life, but I didn’t worry too much about it. After all, I had a good friend in law enforcement who once told me that she told people I was her “Bohemian” friend, because I lived below a tattoo parlor and designed things on the computer rather than going to a regular office job. Maybe being trapped on a ship doing machiny and engineers things got old for David. Who was I to criticize?

In the beginning most of our conversations were of the, “Hi, how are you/Fine, I’m just headed out the door/Okay, have a good day” variety. David was invariably polite and supportive of my busy schedule. He never implored me to switch to What’s App, which seems to be the generals’, princes’, and surgeons’ platform of choice. He never became angry when I couldn’t or didn’t respond immediately. In internet friendships on my page, this counts for quite a bit. But then a few weeks in things started to shift. Maybe David caught me on a good day or maybe the long series of tiny polite exchanges just gradually evolved, but one evening I was somewhat startled to discover myself in a real conversation with David.

We talked about his daughter. We talked about my son. We were suitably guarded and respectful, but it felt real. And then one day David said it: “I’d really like to meet you. I feel like I’m developing feelings for you.”

Well. I am not a person for whom men readily develop feelings, particularly on such a scanty basis. I’m more the “wear them down and then pounce in a weak moment” kind of person. When David said he had feelings for me, it took me by surprise. What surprised me most of all was that I wasn’t terrified. Something in my brain woke up and said, “This is the point where you’re usually scared spitless. Why do you just feel good about this?” A part of me worried that maybe I SHOULD be scared, but the larger part felt a little bit proud. Maybe the thirty years of therapy were finally paying off! Maybe at last I was figuring out how to be comfortable with being courted? Maybe I could learn not to laugh at romantic overtures? Maybe I was finally learning how to be normal?

So I took pride in my lack of fear, and chatted happily back. David talked more and more about his feelings. I took some time to reflect on my own. I didn’t love David, but I thought that maybe, once his current contract ran out, it would be nice to meet and see what, if anything, developed. As I have said, I’m not the sort of person who provokes amorous intent in available men, so I was prepared for David to retreat hastily to friendship upon meeting me in person. Still, though, it was nice to think that someone found me worth pursuing. Someone said I was beautiful. Someone enjoyed my conversation, even if he was strangely leery about offering details about himself.

And so it went. Until David’s birthday came up. “I have a small favor to ask of you,” he wrote. “I need you to buy $500 of Steam cards and send me the numbers. I need them for my phone. I’d like to do a video chat on my birthday.

“I’d like to help,” I chatted back, “but I’m not made of money, and $500 is a lot for me. Also, isn’t Steam just for gaming?”

“I use the software on my phone,” he responded, somewhat ambiguously. Still, though, we had been talking for a month. He had feelings for me. More, he made me feel beautiful. “If the money’s a concern I’ll send you my banking information and you can transfer the money out of my account into yours.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. “Okay,” I said. “Let me get home.”

At home I told my son what was happening. My son is the tech savvy member of our household. Also, my son had not been chatting with David, so he tended to see things a bit differently. “This sounds scammy, Mom,” he said. “Why does he want Steam cards? You can only use them in gaming. They won’t help with his phone.”

“He says he uses them to run the video chat software on his phone.”

“How long is he planning on chatting?” my son asked, and he asked it with a certain tone. At least I thought I heard a tone.

“He’s going to be at sea for another couple months,” I answered.  “And he’s not asking me to front the money; he’s given me access to his account.”

“He gave YOU access to HIS account?” my son asked. 

“Yes, so I can transfer the money.” I clicked into his bank account. Lines wiggled. Bar graphs shot up. It looked far more creative than what I was expecting. Also, the spelling on some of the terms was creative, to put it mildly. Maybe it’s a bank from a non-English-speaking country, I decided. Maybe this is badly translated.

“Call your bank,” my son insisted. “This sounds like a scam. Listen…” and he started reading from some site discussing scams and Steam cards. 

“But David’s not asking me to spend my own money. He wants me to transfer the funds to my account and then buy the cards. How could he be scamming me?” I asked. And I defiantly pushed the button. 

“Call your bank,” my son said again. “Ask what they think. This sounds like a scam to me.”

Every time he said “scam” I found myself getting more and more irritated. Finally I offered a compromise. “I’ll call the bank. Whatever they suggest, I’ll do.” 

This would probably have been easier to say if I hadn’t just spent the last couple weeks congratulating myself on having moved past my fear of intimacy to the point where I could feel good about chatting with David.

You probably know how this story ends. The bank called back. “We’re locking your account, closing it, and opening you up a new one. This is a scam. When you put in the money transfer information they have your banking information. They get you to give the Steam card numbers, then they reverse the transaction. Sometimes they empty  your account.”

I felt heartsick. David had been my friend, or at least I thought he was. Worse, I had had all the old messages from my childhood, that romance wasn’t for me, that people wouldn’t care for me for myself, and that I was only worth duping, reaffirmed. Suddenly I was right back at the “self” I had been in the bad old days. I felt worthless. I felt stupid. I felt embarrassed. I felt ashamed.

How had I, veteran kicker-to-the-curb of three-star generals, Nigerian princes, and philanthropic doctors, been fooled? How had David slipped past my defenses? And then it occurred to me: I could know exactly how it happened. I had our chat. 

And so I went back and started reading, analytically this time. I noticed how often David evaded responding to questions about himself. I noticed how his language challenges—he said he was Norwegian—ebbed and flowed. I noticed how often the details he offered reflected details about myself that I had previously offered. 

And then it hit me: David had provided me a framework—a few chats and a few pictures—and I had constructed a person. And then I had decided that person was my friend. I had participated in my own scamming.

The people who know about this all said I should block David, but there was still a part of me that hoped for some explanation—even as the smarter part of myself recognized that the most overwhelming possibility was exactly what appeared to be the case: David wasn’t David at all. He was probably some kid seeking out vulnerable people online, and then scamming them.

David and I had a final conversation. I told him that what had really tipped the balance for me was the long list of evasions. When the time came that I really, really needed to trust him, there simply was nothing there to trust. He responded sarcastically, telling me he had been “straight” with me, and answered every question.

I sent him a list of all the questions I had asked, questions he had carefully slid around before charging off on another conversational tack. 

“That’s what you’re basing this on?” he asked. “Those are details.”

And then he informed me—in perfect English, yet, that I was the “sketchy” one, and that he would never trust me after the “stunt” I had pulled. 

“I googled your bank,” I said. “I couldn’t find it.”

He shot me back a screen capture. “Here’s the bank you “googled,” he said. “Click the link.”

I read the name of the bank, went into my search engine, and entered the name. “The bank’s name is different,” I told him. And it was. The screen background was the same. The client information box style was the same, but the bank’s name and logo was completely, completely, different.

“There were a lot of misspellings on your account page,” I typed.

“Probably because you were making an unauthorized transfer,” he shot back, conveniently bypassing the fact that he had instigated the whole thing and had, in fact, pressured me to transfer the money.

“People who have seven-figure bank accounts don’t need random people on the internet to buy Steam cards so they can use their phones,” I finally said.

And that was when he told me that I had been a waste of time, and that I had “trust issues.”

I thought about that. “In this case, you’re right,” I finally typed. And then I blocked him.


So what is the meaning of this? Why am I writing about this? Because tonight I found myself thinking that the record of our conversations—a kind of journal, certainly a kind of notebook—I had kept had, combined with my son’s sharp eye and persistence, had first, saved me from quite possibly devastating financial loss. More important, though, they showed me what it meant to be me in this last month—and what it meant to be David. In the end, that chat has shown me that I don’t know myself as well as I think I do. When I look at that I see a woman who is not as ready to give up on the idea of love as she has thought. I’ve seen a woman so entranced by the idea of being thought beautiful and valuable that she was willing to risk far too much to perpetuate the illusion. But it also shows me a woman who, once she has a place to start, can analyze, evaluate, and learn from an experience, no matter how embarrassing. Finally, I see a woman who, while she might be embarrassed, refuses to be ashamed. She speaks up. She tells her story—even if she doesn’t look particularly good in it. She owns her truth. 

The truth is that David was a scammer. But I helped. And in looking at HOW I helped, I am learning a lot about who I am, and who I want to be.

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This morning The Boy and I were talking about brains, and how, during adolescence, they don’t work as well as they do both before and after. According to PBS (my authority on all things scientific) this is because the adolescent brain is flooded with hormones, and undergoing massive changes. This got me thinking about one of the things that my mom used to say:

“You need to obey the first time I tell you to do something,” she would tell us. And from time to time she instituted a “Tell You Once, And then You Get Spanked” regime.

So this morning we’re kicked back and I’m telling The Boy how important it is to repeat things when your kid’s an adolescent, and suddenly, out of my own mouth, I hear this: “It’s like in advertising–the rule is that you have to touch consumers three times before they even register you’ve said anything, and when I was learning to teach my professors said that it was important to repeat an assignment at least three times, ideally in different ways–that it just doesn’t register, otherwise.”

And then I stopped, horrified. I realized that while I had never gone so far as a “Tell Once and then Spank” policy, I had, like my mother–and like many parents, I suspect–been expecting something of The Boy that is simply not realistic, given the way our brains seem to work. I had been expecting instant, regular, compliance without ever having to repeat myself.

The power of three is everywhere–christianity posits a three-person deity, one of whom stays dead for three days. There are three wise men in the nativity story. Fairy tales are full of three sisters, three witches, three days. When we apply for jobs we are customarily asked for three references. Baseball allows three strikes. Three is everywhere in pre-christian religions. There are three Stooges, three Musketeers, three blind mice, three Graces, three faces of the Goddess, and of her consort. Three is the largest number we can visualize without breaking it down into groups.

Three is more than how we remember–it’s fundamental to the way we understand our world. It’s time to start treating the fact that as parents we find ourselves repeating things to our children not as an imposition imposed because our children “don’t pay attention,” but as something that is simply part of conveying an idea. It’s time that we allow our kids to be as human as we are. For myself, I’m going to stop expecting The Boy’s compliance after a single request. In the same way that I plan on repeating assignments in my classrooms, and that I plan advertising efforts to include three “touches,” I’m gong to simply factor the reality of repetition into our communications.

If something’s important, I’m going to plan on saying it not once, not twice, not even three times, but over and over, and over again. And I’ll start with, “I love you. I’m glad you’re in my life.”

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The B0y came home from school day before yesterday talking about Middle English. Well, that was just like a red cape to a bull around here. I took a Middle English translation class in graduate school and have been simply pining for a place to put all that esoteric knowledge. Little did The Boy know what he was unleashing when he innocently spoke of having to write a short passage using certain Middle English words!

Imagine, for a moment, what it’s like to be my child. You go to school. You get an assignment you find mildly interesting. On the way home you mention it in passing, on the way the really vital discussion of whether or not McDonald’s is in the family’s immediate future.

And suddenly you find yourself buried under an avalanche of information about how one dates and geographically places Middle English texts, a spirited re-telling of “Sir Gawain and the Grene Knight,” (complete with “voices”), an analysis of how natural barriers like rivers and mountains factor into dialect formation, and a brief detour into natural barriers’ role in national boundary formation, complete with cautionary examples of countries who try to exist without them (Poland, something of keen personal interest, since while the family is ethnically German, we come from north central Poland).

And all this because you innocently mentioned that you were talking about Middle English in school. It must be hard.

Of course, it’s no picnic being the mother in this scenario, either. The Boy expressed mild interest in the fact that it’s possible to place Middle English texts, given a decent sample, and I wanted to show him the maps I got in graduate school, graphing out which variants were used in which parts of England. And of course I can’t find the damned book. I’ve looked all over. No joy, as they say on the detective show I’m currently watching on Netflix.

I’ve looked online, and can’t find them there, so this tells me that this particular bit of information is really, really esoteric. So I’m back to relying on my own resources. I’ve vowed that I’ll find that book if I have to clean the whole house to do it. Well…maybe not that…that’s a bit extreme. But I’ll at least look in the bedroom again. And on the shelves in The Boy’s room, where my overflow books live.

But let’s leave that for the moment. Our conversation (read “my monolog”) on the subject of how dialects grow and change based on boundaries has gotten me thinking about how our language reflects our history, and never so strongly as when we are forced to accept things we don’t like. Old English became the language of England in the wake of the Anglo-Saxon invasion. Norman French took over with William the Conquerer. Middle English fought its way back to prominence, only to find itself exposed to new ideas, expressed in new languages, from the Middle East.

The Puritans came to America, and their language immediately began taking on a freight of Native American words, and then, as they encountered settlers from other European countries, words from their languages as well. The influx of immigrants and refugees from Southeast Asia, Mexico, and South America have added words to our language.

Someday, linguists will take out their charts and attempt to place one of our written documents geographically and chronologically. And they’ll be able to do it. Our language carries our history in its bones. No matter what some may say about who the “real Americans” are, and what the “real American language” is, our language tells the truth of us–we are a nation that has grown on the shoulders of ancestors from all over the world. We have been a global society since our very beginnings. To say that any one ethnic group or language defines us is to deny all of the forces that have shaped us for thousands of years.

I’m not quite sure where I was going with this. Maybe it’s just to say that our language reflects not who we wish we were, but who we are. It holds our reality. And keeping it vital and strong means allowing it to grow and evolve to reflect our changing selves.

So what does that mean today? Maybe it means that instead of rigidly insisting that English and only English be spoken, we adapt to the reality that there are millions of people here, now, whose language holds a different history. And maybe we become bilingual? Or trilingual? At the very least, I think it means understanding that, like it or not, our language is changing, and will continue to do so, if it is not to become as dead as Latin.

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This summer I’ve done something that I’ve never really done before: I made formal arrangements to give a little something back to my community. I’ve always been happy to support community and school activities, but I’ve never before made a formal time commitment to give in a specific way.

I know I talk about living in a small town a lot, but one of the things I love the most about it is that you don’t have to be very good at a thing to make a contribution. Take, for instance, music. I’ve mentioned that Patrick is very good at music, but he apparently got that from the milk man, because I can’t carry a tune in a bucket with the lid nailed down. Nor am I very good at instruments. I play the piano well enough to entertain myself, but those around me usually breathe a sign of relief when I close the keyboard. I’m not good at it, but I do know the basics–the notes, timing, registration, stuff like that.

Patrick and I have benefitted enormously from Megan’s after school and summer daycamp program, and this spring we decided that it was our turn to give a bit back. We talked to Megan, who was delighted to slot Patrick in with some tutoring time in math and reading. And we decided that I would give piano lessons.

As I said, I am far from concert caliber, but I do know the basics. Megan made a list of the kids who wanted to learn. It was a mixed bag; several face special learning challenges, while some were already proficient on another instrument, and just needed help transferring their skills and knowledge to the piano.

And so this summer, every Thursday and Friday, I go out to the day camp and give music lessons–in most cases to young people who find complexity baffling. And they’re actually learning–and what’s more, they’re loving the experience.

They’re learning, but I’m learning far more. This summer has challenged many of my ideas about music, and learning, and teaching. Most of all, it has taught me the beauty of simplicty. Take, for example, how music is written and read.

For those of you who never took music lessons, this is the process:

1. Memorize the piano keyboard, using the letters from A to G.

2. Memorize musical notation, which is nothing more than black dots and lines, placed at various points on two five-line, four-space areas. Notes may also be written far above and below the baselines and spaces. Notes for the two lines occur at different points on the lines and spaces.

3. Identify the note based on its location on the lines and spaces, and translate that note to the piano keyboard–a completely different, and absolutely arbitrary transition.

4. Identify how fast or slow to play the note.

5. Play the note.

6. Do the same thing for every single note on the page.

For the thousands of people who play the piano well, this happens so quickly that it’s nearly instantaneous. But even before I started, I realized that the abstract connection between written notes and the keyboard was not a connection that some of my students would easily make, and unless I could find a way of simplifying the process frustration would end the experiment before we had even started.

And then I got the idea of color coding. I color coded the keyboard and each students’ fingers–and then I found simple music (no more than one note at a time) and wrote it not in musical notation, but in color.

And it’s working. Through a process of trial and error I’ve learned that for one group of students–the children with Down Syndrome–one note at a time is all that we can comfortably manage for the moment. But the linear focus that makes adding additional notes difficult proves a wonderful asset in another way. We started playing together–rounds mostly. Today we had three people each playing one part of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”–and it absolutely worked. Harmony and complexity happened.

I’ve been tracking down rounds and writing them for five notes, using color. And it works. And suddenly I’m seeing that the sky is the limit here. By combining players carefully (one student who is a beginner with one or two who are transferring to the piano) even I, who am no musician, can offer the experience of music to a group of people for who it has been out of reach.

I love my mornings there. I spend hours in between tracking down simple musical arrangements and transposing them to the color notation system. I’m on the prowl for a young readers’ life of Beethoven for Annalee, who is deaf, and who is experiencing music in the same way that Beethoven did when he wrote his Ninth Symphony–by leaning against a resonating surface and feeling the notes vibrate in the wood. I’m going to download the Ninth Symphony, find the biggest speakers I can, have Annalee press her back against them, and crank the stereo. I just found the music for one of the very first songs in the English language for which we have music. It’s a round, and it talks about cows farting, of all things. I’m going to teach it to the kids. How cool is that? These kids, who are just starting to explore the world of music, will be playing a song that was written when English-speaking people as a group were just beginning to to do the same thing.

I might be teaching the day camp kids the basics of music, but this summer has taught me far more. I had always thought of music as something I heard. This summer has taught me that it’s so very, very much more.

So, here’s where you can help. Think back to camp, or church, or school, or whatever, and send me the names of the rounds you sang.

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Susan Wittig Albert

NYT Bestselling Author


WRITER, memoir teacher, knitter, quilter, happy trail walker...

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