BY PHYLISS MERION SHANKEN
Phyliss Merion Shanken is a retired psychologist, playwright, and creative writing teacher, who has been published in psychological journals, literary publications, and newspaper and magazine columns. In addition to her literary and poetry awards, she is author of SILHOUETTES OF WOMAN, PEANUT BUTTER SANDWICH: The Joys and Frustrations of Parenting, as well as a number of stage and screenplays. She has two novels, EYE OF IRENE, and THE HEART OF BOYNTON BEACH CLUB. CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFECT STRANGERS: Memoirs of a Psychologist is the culmination of her life’s work.
Phyliss Merion Shanken has been published in Dreamers Creative Writing;The Write Launch, Abstract Contemporary Expressions, Non-Conformist, Beyond Words, Scarlett Leaf, Sad Girls Club, Catchwater, Fahmidan, Pure Slush, Quillkeepers, Open Door, The Poet, Fragmented Voices, Sweety Cat Press, among others. “Eternal Elixir” was nominated for Best of the Net, 2021. Produced play include: The Comeback Kid (SPQR Stage Company), Tiberius (AC Safari Theater), Wise Old Owls: A Trilogy, (Equity Library Theater of NY), Mister Peanut Rides Again! (South Jersey Players, Inc), and Love N’ Zoom, (TTS World Wide Virtual Fringe Festival). FB@phyliss.shanken
No one would have predicted that my father, despite his minimal education, turned out to be the world’s best teacher. When he was a kid, his father enrolled him in vocational school because he was “good with his hands,” which meant, not so good with his brain. He was dubbed a “slow learner.” Yes, he took longer than most to respond, but this was because his internal wheels were constantly turning as he dissected every conveyor-belt thought that entered his mind.
Eventually Dad became a master bridge teacher, and for years, he served as mayor of a southern town. Because he understood and had been ridiculed for his own methodical learning style, he afforded his students and constituents the leeway required to absorb information without characterizing them as “slow”. He encouraged us kids to be patient learners, and often recited his favorite fable, The Tortoise and The Hare…
Dad taught us how to swim, ride a bike, swing a bat, use power tools, create a filing system, and more. Most treasured, though, was the unique way he taught us how to drive a car.
Throughout my life, even though I adored my father, I sometimes clashed with him over his controlling style of imparting life plans for me. We shared some all-nighters where we debated over my academic pursuits, my boyfriends, my breaking of curfews and the like. He and I matched wits, since I was just as stubborn as he. Yet, I also possessed the same learning style as he did, the difference being, he rewarded me for my thorough problem-solving capacity. When I asked questions of my teachers and others, they might often have considered me “slow”: Why doesn’t she understand?
But , in reality, I delved below the surface and took nothing for granted, eventually getting to the bottom of things, going way deeper than most people could manage, just like my newly formed hero: my dad. Whereas he had been ridiculed for his cognitive processing, my loving father had rewarded me for possessing these “gifts”. Because of his high regard, in my life, I wasn’t embarrassed or in conflict over my abilities, consequently, others eventually valued my contributions, and I succeeded in most every endeavor I pursued.
When it came to my driving lessons, we could have had similar conflicts, but I was the unquestioning student. I appreciated his wish for me to remain safe. After those times, having developed mutual respect, I stopped arguing with my father. It was only later, when the roles were reversed that I needed to readjust my insight about his
In the end, did he practice what he preached?
…At the first driving lesson, he established himself as the
benevolent dictator. From the passenger seat, Dad maintained
robotic control even though he wasn’t the driver, as he spouted
his all-consuming Go-Stop commands:
Go! Foot on the gas.
Stop! Foot on the brake.
According to his plan, we would develop instinctive muscle memory, assuring that in the real world, we wouldn’t panic and “go” when we should “stop” or “stop” when we should “go”.
At a turtle’s pace, he finally included more instructions: Always keep your foot hovered over the brake. When the taillights in front of you turn red or brighten, immediately press your foot lightly on the brake; then gradually push down harder as you get closer. Gently depress the gas and avoid jerking the car. After you achieve a safe speed, return your foot above the brake.…
Soon after Dad’s eighty-eighth birthday, he moved back from Florida to my neighborhood. With our roles reversed, I was to teach him easy shortcuts and landmarks to help him find his way.
The first day, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, I sat in his familiar spot — the passenger seat. Repetitively, he pressed his foot on the gas and accelerated toward the car in front of us, which had already shown bright red taillights.
I held my breath each time he lurched the car forward, always within inches of the one in front. I had no guarantee he would hit the brake in time.
I vacillated but finally blurted out, “Dad, I’m just wondering: Why do you drive so close to the cars in front of you, and why do you keep your foot on the gas pedal and not over the brake?”
With certainty, reminiscent of our earlier days, he declared, “I keep moving so I can save money on gas.”
“So, you bend the rules to save money?”
I didn’t pressure him further. The tables had turned. Since he wouldn’t be with me much longer, I figured I would be the one to let go of my obstinance — this time. My dad, my hero, had returned to my world and I would go along with his
At least, I owed him that much.