The parent trap

January 10th, 2016

With the holidays fast receding the rear view mirror Steve and I looking at the New Year with mixed emotions.

This last Christmas, the first without all three kids around the tree on Christmas morning opening presents, seemed to herald a future where Steve and I are finally done with our nearly three-decade long career of raising children and onto the next chapter of our lives, once again as a couple. Last time this was the case Reagan was in office.

As I write this, Jennifer is winding up her nearly four-week trek through South East Asia. Though we had regular calls and texts, she was effectively on her own handling the many challenges of third-world travel with a maturity that belies her age. Odds are she won’t be moving back into the yellow bedroom with the framed picture of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Her siblings are off building careers and relationships well outside the shadow of mom and dad, so I guess you could say that we did our job as parents. Steve and I should be trading high-fives and booking a Princess cruise on the Rhine.

The truth is we liked the parenting roller-coaster ride, the sense of mission, the on-going soap opera of kid relationships, grade point averages, after-school activities and semester projects. Our calendar was check-marked for nearly 30 years with fund-raisers, parent conferences, chauffeuring kids to and fro, talent shows, graduations, college applications, school visits, summer jobs. I wrote grants to raise funds for the elementary school and participated on the site council. Steve sat on the school board for 12 years.

You could say we’re going through parenting withdrawal. Recovery is a bear.

Thanksgiving table for 2

November 29th, 2015

No matter whether I was at the gym, at the office or just out and about, for the week prior to Thanksgiving, everyone’s conversations centered on “what are your plans for Thanksgiving?”

This year, when I was asked if I was cooking or how many people we were hosting, for the first time in the 30+ years that we’ve been married and probably in my whole life, my response was “We’re going out for Thanksgiving.”

Before the person I was speaking to had time to make any judgements about this information such as: “That sounds really pathetic. Are they orphans or such unpleasant company that they don’t have any family or friends who will take them in for the evening? Even homeless people get invited to share Thanksgiving,” I quickly added, “None of our kids are able to make it home for Thanksgiving and neither Steve or I really saw the need to cook an enormous amount of food for just the two of us.” As I was saying this, I hoped that I didn’t sound too defensive.

If going out for Thanksgiving meant trying to find an open Burger King, I think that really would be depressing. But we had an opportunity to make it special because we rarely go out to eat and after all, it is Thanksgiving, so we made reservations at in Glen Ellen. They were serving between noon and 6 p.m. and we made reservations for 5:00.

It turns out that we’re not the only ones who decided to let trained professionals prepare, cook and clean up for Thanksgiving. The place was packed. While I certainly would have expected to see lots of empty nesters like us, there were lots of multigenerational families. It totally makes sense that if both parents are working, and they don’t have the time or interest in cooking, and grandma and grandpa are coming into town, eating out for Thanksgiving could relieve a huge amount of stress.

The menu at the café was a three course meal, with four choices for an entrée; Roasted Turkey, House Ham, Pan Seared Flounder or Risotto. Steve and I both chose the turkey but he started with an enormous Arugula salad with figs, goat cheese and pancetta. I had the Butternut Squash soup. For dessert, we both ordered the Brownie Sundae with Brandied Apples.

Everything was absolutely delicious. There was no need for the waiter to ask if I was done with my soup; I had practically licked the bowl clean, it was that good. And the service was efficient but friendly.

People often say that the best part of Thanksgiving is leftovers. No need to cook just for those. The portions at the Girl & Fig were so large that we brought home another full meal for the day after.

Our only disappointment of the evening? We couldn’t figure out how to bring home the leftovers of our Brownie Sundae without the melted ice cream leaving a puddle on the car floor.

Here to stay

November 16th, 2015

I am celebrating the start of a new chapter in my life…actually, it’s probably less of a new chapter and more of a sequel.

Because on Monday, after working in a totally different industry for the past two years in Marin, I’m going back to work at the Petaluma Visitors Program – and I couldn’t be happier.

That’s not to say that I’m not grateful for what I gained in the time I was away from the PVP. I’m coming back with skills I didn’t have before. I thought I understood multitasking but now my game has really been upped. My recent  job could was like being a Chinese circus performer that that has to keep a dozen plates spinning at once; lose focus and in a matter of minutes, it all comes come crashing to the floor. Except in my case, instead of plates, we were spinning logo’d mugs, branded tote bags or embroidered jackets.

I also learned how to press forward – in a gracious but determined way – until you get the answer you need. And because the company differentiated itself by providing outstanding customer service, I’ve learned how to always communicate a smile over the phone.

But what I didn’t have in my job in Marin was relationships and a community…where the people are more important than the bottom line. When I left the PVP in 2013, I was choking back tears as I said goodbye to the staff and volunteers. That’s how much these people meant to me.

But when I said my goodbyes on Friday, it just wasn’t that hard because I didn’t have the same kind of emotional connection. Now I understand how wonderful it is to develop a community within the workplace. It adds so much fulfillment and gratification to work with people who you really care about. Needless to say, I am really looking forward to reconnecting and rebuilding relationships with the wonderful staff and volunteers at the Visitors Center.

And, it’s going to be an exciting time to be promoting Petaluma as a destination. There are new hotels in the works, the SMART train will start running in 2016 with a ticketing station right at the Visitors Center, Lagunitas is expanding, and winery tasting rooms are starting to pop up downtown. And we know how much Petaluma loves events. You’d be hard pressed to find a weekend on the calendar that doesn’t have a festival or fair happening in Petaluma…so there will be plenty to talk about.

If this wasn’t reason enough to be rejoicing, I won’t have to commute! Sure, it’s been fascinating to watch the amazing “Bigge” cranes that always remind me of a book I used to read to our son when he was little; it was titled “Machines as Big as Monsters.” But adding two hours a day to my life because I won’t be sitting in traffic on 101? I will be much less cranky. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

Fake fir

November 9th, 2015

I held out as long as I could but I finally gave in and went to the dark side…at least that’s the way my daughters see it…because I bought an artificial Christmas tree.

In the past several years as the quality of a Tannenbaum in a box has gotten better, getting an artificial tree became and more and more tempting. It was harder to justify the work that goes into buying and decorating a real tree. There’s the hassle of manhandling it into the car, dragging it in the house, adjusting it in the stand – “Is it straight now?” – and vacuuming up pine needles until Easter. But our daughters insisted that an authentic Christmas celebration required and authentic tree.

Even though this whole process was a lot of work, I could always wrangle one of the kids to help out. Especially our youngest daughter – Jennifer really cared about having a real tree and was willing to invest the time to make it happen.

Early in the holiday season, the two of us would plan an evening that we could shoot up to Costco and get the tree. While buying a tree at Costco isn’t quite an “over the river and through the woods” kind of picturesque outing, it was a bonding time for us. She always wanted me to wait to decorate the tree until she could be around to help. As we unwrapped each ornament, we reminisced about the moment in time when we bought them.

But this Christmas, Jennifer is in Shanghai and she definitely won’t be popping in for the holidays. And neither will our other two kids. Valerie is working most of the Thanksgiving weekend and Ethan has only been at his new post in Kansas for a couple of months.

So there’s no chance I’ll be letting anyone down by assembling and fluffing the artificial Douglas fir that I bought from Target.

I think the switch to an artificial tree is symbolic of a bigger change than just choosing to make decorating and cleanup from the holiday season a little easier for myself. The artificial tree represents a change of seasons in our lives. For so many years, the holidays were about making the holidays meaningful to the kids. But that time has passed. Now, it’s up to Steve and me to set the agenda for the holidays.

It’s a both uncomfortable and freeing. It will take some getting used to but we may actually rediscover what life was like BK…before kids.

Counting my blessings

November 1st, 2015

God has been so good to us.

Four years ago at this time, we were in the final stages of packing up our house in Petaluma in preparation for moving. The Great Recession – which at the time didn’t seem all that great – had reduced our income by two-thirds which meant a two-thirds reduction in our living space.  We had gotten to a point where trying to make our bloated mortgage payment to Wells Fargo was like trying to “get blood from a turnip”…as my mother used to say. We couldn’t give what we didn’t have. And since we couldn’t offer up our firstborn as payment on our HELOC, like millions of others, we took the hit on our credit rating and sold our house in a short sale.

At the time, leaving the house that we had lived in for 17 years and downsizing to a rental in Cotati was painful. We take our commitments and our promissory notes very seriously so when we couldn’t keep up with the payments, we felt like we had failed. Also, the maintenance – or lack thereof – on the house constantly wore at us.  There were mysterious water spots appearing on the ceiling and termite holes big enough to drive a car through. Everywhere we looked we saw something that needed attention. Having a 2700 square foot albatross around your neck can really weigh you down.

So now, four years later, we have gotten some perspective on the transition. Being freed from the burden of the house was the best thing to ever happen to us. It lightened our load both financially and emotionally.  It’s a relief living in our very manageable condo. We’ve been able to get out of credit card hell. I am absolutely rejoicing when I look at the line on the Visa, MasterCard and American Express statements and instead of triple digits, I see a zero.

Add to that, that our kids seem to be on good paths and God has provided steady work and good health for Steve after his triple bypass surgery 18 months ago.

So for this moment in time, everything is okay. Then we get a call from the owner saying that she wants to visit us. There had been rumblings when we first moved in that she might need to sell the property for tax purposes. Okay, this is it. She’s going to drop the news on us that she’s putting our place on the market. After all, housing prices are up and she lives out of the country.  My guess is we’ve got until the spring and then we’re getting the boot.

Expect the worst? Yep, that’s my MO. There’s a passage in Luke that says if a son asks his father for a fish, will he give him a snake instead? If us sinners wouldn’t disappoint someone we love, how much better will a perfect God be to us? In my backward thinking, I’m sure I’m going to get handed the snake.

But almost unbelievably to me, our landlord gave us a fish. She is very happy with the arrangement and has no plans to sell anytime soon. Steve and I breathed a collective sigh of relief.

I relayed this story to a friend. “I can’t believe how good God continues to be to us.” I suppose I sounded like we had used up all the blessings allotted to us. Her response?  “He’s not done.”

Like the hymn says, “I stand amazed.”

Drawn to Halloween

October 18th, 2015

Starting back on October 1st, just as I was plugging in my phone and crawling into bed, I would see a notification pop up on my phone that our daughter Valerie had posted another illustration on Tumblr.

The illustrations that she is posting are part of “Drawlloween” which is a month-long, online gallery for Halloween-inspired art. I’m not sure which rabbit hole of the internet you would have to dive down to find out how Drawlloween started, but every day of October is assigned a subject such as ghost, pumpkin, raven, amulet, skull, werewolf…you get the idea.

Valerie's Drawlloween #7: Pumpkin
Valerie’s Drawlloween #7: Pumpkin

Creating an illustration every day or almost every day – Valerie combined alien, eyeball, and zombie in one illustration – is a lot of work. So why is she doing it? Drawlloween isn’t a competition and there really aren’t even bragging rights unless you count the “notes” (the equivalent of “Likes” on Tumblr) that each drawing receives.

For Valerie, it’s another opportunity to explore and refine her illustration style. And because the goal is to post one illustration a day, she can’t agonize over her work. She knows that if she wants to be a professional animator or illustrator, speed – in addition to skill and style – is going to be a required.

But participating in Drawlloween is more than that – Valerie just can’t help but do art. Until I had her and watched how she was compelled to draw at every stage of her life, I didn’t understand what it meant to have creative drive. Starting with when she was a toddler and would sit at her Little Tikes table imitating the drawings in “Angelina Ballerina” books right up to today as a 23 year-old woman, she is always creating. Sometimes it takes the form of doing an original embroidery design, or a mobile or a gif, but usually, it’s an illustration. So Drawlloween is just the current creative outlet for Valerie.

It makes me appreciate what a true artist is and how different they are from most of us – whether their art form is music, writing, visual arts, or even cooking – constantly expressing themselves through their art form is as necessary as breathing.

So with a little more than half of October behind us, I hope that you enjoy Valerie’s Drawlloween drawings to date.

Toto, we’re not in Korea anymore

October 11th, 2015

In an unusual happenstance, at the same time that our daughter Jennifer is struggling to adjust to life in Asia, our son Ethan is dealing with re-acclimating to life in the US after spending the past year in Asia…Korea to be specific.

For 12 months, Ethan was stationed at Yongsan Army base in Seoul. He was very fortunate to be assigned to headquarters where he worked with (as he described them), a very unique mix of personalities and experience that made it a great place to be. He totally respected his superior officers and over time, felt gratified that his talents were recognized by them. On weekends, he and his friends could grab a cab and venture out into one of the world’s biggest cities – Seoul was literally feet from the gate of the army base – and do whatever soldiers do on a night on the town.  As his mother, I appreciate that he was vague on the details.

Last week, he flew to his new duty station – Fort Riley in Kansas – and based on his phone call to us yesterday, he’s suffering from some culture shock.

Fort Riley is the third largest army base in the nation and as is typical for these huge bases, it is located on 100,000 acres in the middle of nowhere. No matter which direction you head, it’s two hours to either Wichita or Kansas City. The army base itself is so spread out, that to be able to get to any kind of entertainment, as he said, he needed to buy a car yesterday. Thankfully, he ran into soldier he was friendly with in Korea who is willing to share.

He misses the sense of place and purpose he had at Yongsan. When he was in Korea, his rank didn’t change but he became an individual to the people he worked with. He’s been in the army for three years and at 27, he is older and liked being able to show more maturity to his commanding officers. He wasn’t just another “SPC 4” which is the rank of all soldiers who complete their AIT (Advanced Individual Training).  But at Fort Riley, for at least the next two weeks during “In Processing,” he is back to being one of the sea of enlisted soldiers – many of who are 19 and have only been in the army for a few months.

He knows he just has to make it through the next two weeks of “death by PowerPoint” and he’ll be able to join his unit, settle in, and start work. Sure, he’ll have to start over in the sense of building new friendships and developing new routines both for life on base and off, but that can all be very positive. It all contributes to the person he will ultimately become.

News from Nanjing

October 4th, 2015

Shortly after Jennifer arrived in Shanghai, the talk among the students turned to what they were going to do when they had a few days off from school in honor of National Day on October 1st. Jennifer texted that she and a couple of friends were going to take the train to Nanjing – “Don’t worry Mom when the first thing that pops up on Google is the Nanjing Massacre,” otherwise known as the “Rape of Nanking.” Thanks for the reassurance.

But that’s (almost) ancient history. My immediate concern was whether Jennifer and her friends could find their way around in China when their grasp of the language is such that they can only eat at places that have pictures of the food.  If I had my way, they should all wear badges around their necks that say in Chinese, “If found, return to Shanghai, c/o Pepperdine University.”

This is one of those times that as a parent, it’s much better to pray that she stays safe during the trip and hear about the details after the fact. And besides, what could I possibly do? She’s 15 hours and 6,000 miles away.

Jennifer and her friends, did in fact, make it to Nanjing and back safely to Shanghai (“Oh Mom – did I mention there was a typhoon?”) and thanks to a 90 minute internet call on WhatsApp, we got to hear about the weird moments of the trip. And that’s the fun of going; coming back with stories.

A few highlights from Jennifer’s call:12032831_991505694241025_9095128276873964463_o

In Shanghai, wai guo ren (white people) get stared at but in the less cosmopolitan city of Nanjing, people stare like you’re ET. Of course, this is only exacerbated by the fact that Jennifer’s two traveling companions are blonde.  The girls shared an elevator with a young Chinese family and the child’s jaw literally dropped open in complete awe at the sight of them. His mom tried to close his mouth, but nope, he had never seen anything like these Americans and it fell right open again.

Feeling like you’re one of five white people in a city of 3.6 million can be a little intimidating when it comes to calling a cab in a very crowded marketplace.  They were barraged with nonstop shouts from cabbies of “Hey, pretty girl! You want ride?” They were relieved when a female cab driver rescued them from the melee.

Jennifer and her friends got blind massages. What does that mean? Getting a massage from a blind person is a common experience in China. In fact, there is a government sponsored program to train blind people as masseuses. Jennifer and her friends paid about $10 for an hour and a half massage which included the masseuse performing a Van Halen drum solo on her fully clothed butt.  Okay, the song may have been open to interpretation, but it was percussive and it was loud. Good thing that she and her friends were face down because it took everything that she had not to start giggling uncontrollably.

They were exhausted from the stress of the trip and were so glad and relieved to get back to their Jia in Shanghai. It’s amazing how a place that seemed so foreign just a month ago, now feels like home.

The pumpkin spice of life

September 27th, 2015

Back in the dark ages when I was growing up, if you heard the word “pumpkin, ” you could be quite certain that the next word would be “pie.” Everyone bought a can of pumpkin once a year for their Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. Or if you liked experimenting and wanted to make something “healthful,” you could make pumpkin bread and amaze your friends that pumpkin – a vegetable! – could be incorporated into a quick bread recipe.

But these days, the amount of pumpkin flavored products available is overwhelming.  And they start appearing on grocery store shelves as early as the end of August – even before Costco has their Halloween costumes in stock.

Especially at Trader Joes, the applications of the ubiquitous fall squash are very imaginative…even if they are a little questionable. There’s Pumpkin Salsa, Pumpkin Mochi, Pumpkin-spice tea, coffee and beer, Pumpkin Tortilla Chips, Pumpkin Spice Pumpkin Seeds (talk about redundant) and Pumpkin Body Butter, just to name a few. Slather on the Pumpkin Body Butter on a warm day and you might have your coworkers sniffing the air and asking where’s the turkey and mashed potatoes.

My favorite pumpkin product is one that has no reason for existing except to be the Nutella of the pumpkin-palooza at Trade Joes:  Pumpkin Pie Spice Cookie Butter.  Spread it on toast and consume three days worth of calories in one snack.

Then there are the truly horrible orange colored candies, cookies and chemicals such as Oreos, M&Ms, Pop-Tarts, coffee creamer, granola bars and marshmallows that were grown in a food science laboratory and not a pumpkin patch.

What prompted the plethora of pumpkin products to be produced? I blame Starbucks pumpkin spice latte for the trend.

Despite having its own Twitter account with more than 104,000 followers, a pumpkin spice latte is actually a pretty nasty drink – but it sounds so darn good. It brings to mind an association with something naturally authentic – a pumpkin – combined with the images of what Thanksgiving should be but in reality, rarely is – cozy times with family sharing warm memories and delicious food that smells wonderful while it’s being prepared. As I think about it, it’s actually amazing how on many levels Pumpkin Spice Latte speaks to us.

To tap into the sense of comfort that pumpkin spice generates, I’m going to get into the spirit of the season…starting with our cat. Instead of looking at him and seeing a lazy, annoyingly bossy orange cat, I’m going to think of him as a pumpkin spice cat. I feel better already.

I’m sorry, I’m an American

September 20th, 2015

Our youngest daughter Jennifer Lynn has been in Shanghai for about 10 days now; she will be there until next May for her year-long study abroad program. She hasn’t Skyped with us yet because it’s a little awkward to carry on a video call when your roommate is trying to sleep. So instead, she finds a hallway in the Jia where she can get Internet and calls us. Jia means “home” and when I Googled it, it said that the Chinese character for Jia shows a pig under a roof.  I hope that the college students living there don’t take that personally.

It’s amazing to me, that she can text and call from China and it’s free using one of the apps like WeChat or WhatsApp. I come from the generation when making an out-of-state call – let alone an international call – could could rack up lots of expensive long distance minutes. I learned the hard way when I had to reimburse my mother for the hours I spent on the phone with my boyfriend who lived three states away.

But now, the reception is better when Jennifer calls from China than when our other daughter calls from Southern California. And so far, there haven’t been any ugly surprises on our AT&T bill.

Jennifer’s most recent communication with us was a text message with a photo showing how good she looked in the jacket she had just bought. Last week, I was getting text messages filled with exclamation points about missing paperwork, blocked Internet connections and inaccessible emails. The photo of the blazer is a good indication that the glitches have been worked out and that she is tackling other important aspects of life…like shopping.

But I’ll let you read it in her own words. The title of her  is the most useful phrase that she learned in Chinese: