Archive for May, 2008

Inspiration and Meals…on Wheels

Sunday, May 25th, 2008

For more than 10 years, Steve and I have delivered Meals on Wheels. I’m not telling you this to hold ourselves up as stellar examples of model citizenship. We drive Meals on Wheels because it is about as easy as volunteer duty gets, it’s rewarding”¦and it’s a great cheap date for Steve and me.

One reason we have driven Meals on Wheels for so many year is because it doesn’t require any brain power which is a welcome change from the challenges that come up during the work week. All we have to do is show up every other Saturday at 11:30 am at Petaluma Valley Hospital. Waiting there for us is a cooler of sack lunches, an insulated container of hot meals, and a clipboard with the list of addresses and the seniors who are getting meals for that day. Steve does the driving and I do the legwork to run the meals into the house or apartment.

We started driving Meals on Wheels because we wanted to be a good example to our kids by doing some community service. So we used to insist that they ride along and help deliver the meals. But as so often happens, the kids’ lives got filled up with activities and we were left with the responsibility. However, Steve and I quickly discovered that we didn’t miss them or their whining. In fact, we really look forward to the hour and a half that it takes us to drive our eastside route because I’m not distracted by household chores and Steve has a break from the computer and emails. It may not be as romantic as a walk on the beach but when we’re driving and delivering meals, enjoying one another’s company has our full attention”¦and we come home a lot less sandy.

Just as Steve commented to me today when we were delivering meals, “Do you remember when this used to seem like work?”

That was before we realized that we really made a difference in the lives of the seniors we delivered to. From our perspective, how significant could dropping off a little tray of hospital food and a few minutes of small talk be? In the many tasks we had to accomplish that day, that was barely even a blip.

But for an elderly person whose life isn’t filled with work, kids, and activities, and the TV is the only company you have all day, every day, even a brief interaction with a real person is meaningful. I saw it with one of the seniors we delivered to today. Theresa is one of our long time recipients; I think she was on the list when we started driving years ago. Even though she is often not feeling well, I always look forward to seeing her. In spite of her eighty-something years and infirmities, she’s got a spark.

But when I came in this afternoon, she looked pale and seemed pretty depressed. She talked about how her heart medication makes it impossible to sleep”¦I commiserated with her about how miserable it is to be up at 3:00am. I’m sure that she had been thinking about her medication and her trouble sleeping for hours but she had no one to express it to. Once she had a chance to say it to me, she felt better. I probably wasn’t there more than five minutes but by the time I left she had color in her cheeks and she was talking about trying to go out for a short walk around her apartment complex.

Because of my small gesture, Theresa had a better day. How did that make me feel? Like a very important person.

If I thought having a good outlook on life is important now, driving Meals on Wheels has shown me that attitude is everything as you get older. It’s safe to say that all the seniors on our route are limited by their physical abilities. After all, if they could shop and cook for themselves, they wouldn’t be getting meals delivered. Yet many of them are absolutely the personification of a positive attitude. Take Eddie for example. He’s a stringy little guy with huge glasses and no teeth who is over 90 years old. Four months ago, his only son passed away, and then his wife of 60 years died on Mother’s Day. While it was obvious that he was grieving over these losses, he says, “You just have to keep going on.” But he doesn’t say it as someone who is defeated, just someone who has accepted the vicissitudes of life.

On our most recent visit, we had chatted with him for a few minutes and when we were getting back into the car to leave, his 87-year-old “baby” brother, who was there visiting, told us to wait a minute; Eddie had something he wanted to give us. Apparently, Eddie used to have pigs on his ranch, and he wanted to give us a big frozen pork roast from one of his butchered pigs. Here’s a guy who has just suffered the two biggest losses that anyone can experience ““ death of a child and a spouse ““ and he’s giving something to us?

That’s something to aspire to.

A Tribute to Cinnabar Elementary School

Sunday, May 18th, 2008

For my youngest daughter, Jennifer, her sixth grade promotion ceremony on June 5th will certainly be a milestone in her young life; she’s moving on from elementary school to junior high. But her promotion is also an important event for me because I’ll be saying goodbye to Cinnabar Elementary. It’s the school that I’ve dropped off kids at”¦and picked them up from”¦every day for the past 14 years. It has been a wonderful school for our three children and I’m going to miss it dearly.

What has made Cinnabar such a great school for us? It certainly wouldn’t be obvious if you were to look at Cinnabar’s statistics on paper. It’s not the school with the highest Star test scores, it doesn’t offer the most extracurricular programs, and it doesn’t have the newest campus and nicest multi-use room. In fact, if you were to drive past it, you might think that it’s an anachronism ““ a school with less than 170 students that is its own school district, built in the 1950s, and located in a rural setting.

It may not be an impressive school from the outside, but what happens on the inside is terrific. The atmosphere at the school is warm and personal. The superintendent and bus driver greet students with genuine affection. Because it’s small, no student gets lost in the crowd. When my son started first grade there in 1994, I can remember being amazed that the school secretary knew every student by name. And now these many years later, I’m really going to miss walking into the Cinnabar office and being greeted by everyone there with a genuine smile; how many other places do I go to during the course of my day that makes me feel so welcome?

I love the school because the teachers and staff have made it a safe and nurturing place. Of course, they teach the required academic material so the students leave with a good foundation in their basic skills. But no matter what subject they are teaching, the teachers emphasize developing respect and compassion for others. As a parent, I’m grateful that Cinnabar has placed such a high value on developing complete human beings and not just students who can spit out the correct answers on the Star test.

I’ll give you an example of this with a story about my son when he was in the second grade. His class had a small gift exchange before winter break. When I picked him up from school that day, his teacher reported to me that he was the only one of the class who tossed aside the little action figure that he had been given by his classmate. Apparently, it wasn’t one of his favorite superheros so he didn’t feel the need to show any gratitude. His teacher didn’t make any judgements about his behavior ““ she left that up to us as parents ““ she just reported the facts.

Steve and I were horrified to hear that we were raising such a spoiled kid”¦but we were grateful to his teacher for opening our eyes to the truth. That incident caused us to make some serious adjustments in our parenting style. Even though he’s almost 20 now, he still remembers the year when he was seven and all his toys were boxed up until he learned a lesson in gratitude. That came about because his teacher knew that “life skills” ““ as they are called in the school parlance ““ are as important as math skills.

There are so many instances of teachers at Cinnabar giving up precious time with their own families, using their own money, or sacrificing their personal comfort in order to enrich the lives of their students. Planning a kid’s birthday party overwhelms me, yet their teachers are willing to take on the responsibility of overnight field trips for 40 students to Angel Island and the Gold Country so the students can experience history in a more real way.

And there are dozens of examples of small kindnesses that teachers have shown to my kids. When Jennifer had a favorite book that she checked out from the school library week after week, her teacher showed up at our house one day with the book as a gift for her. Obviously this teacher continued thinking about her students long after the bell had rung. Or how about the teacher who bought Jennifer a new calculator because Jennifer’s had disappeared under mysterious circumstances? Or the numerous times that a teacher let one of my younger children hang out in their classroom while I attended to some volunteer work at the school.

I am also grateful to the many parents who devote so much time to improving the school. Over the years, and particularly when my kids were younger, I was more involved as a volunteer so I saw firsthand the countless hours that many parents invested. More recently, I can appreciate that there are still many hardworking parents often doing thankless jobs behind the scenes to continue Cinnabar’s legacy as a great school.

Are having a warm staff, nurturing teachers, and hardworking parent volunteers unique to Cinnabar School? I know they are not ““ a lot of schools can claim these same qualities. But for 14 years these people have meant so much to me and my family. I am grateful to have an opportunity to thank them.

Where Have All the Mothers Gone?

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

Last week, there was another confirmation that what is celebrated in the world has turned upside down; Dina Lohan, mother of Lindsay Lohan, was named a “Top Mom” by a Long Island mother’s organization. Who was she competing against ““ the moms of Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse? Were they judged on whose daughter has the best mug shot, least times in rehab, and most paparazzi photographs wearing underwear?

If this wasn’t depressing enough, in the process of looking up the “Top Mom” story on Google, I came across the fact that Dina Lohan is getting her own reality show, “Living Lohan,” on the E! network this summer. The show is going to follow her as she “jump starts the music and acting career” of her other daughter, 14-year-old Ali. You know the saying, “With a friend like that, who needs enemies.” I’m thinking “with a mother like that”¦”

And it being Mother’s Day, I was prompted to think beyond Mrs. Lohan to how mothers in general are portrayed in the media these days ““ particularly television ““ and I wondered if there are any positive role models.

I came up pretty empty.

Sure, once a year around Mother’s Day, one or more of the networks feels obligated to take a break from their usual amoral programming fare and toss a bone to the millions of self-sacrificing and hard working moms out there, so they produce a program that is really little more than a Mrs. America contest without the evening gown competition. This year, NBC is airing “America’s Top Mom” hosted by Donny and Marie ““ the couple they always rely on to make sure that we understand that this is a show about Family Values.

It’s not much, but at least “America’s Top Mom” is more honoring to mothers than a Mother’s Day marathon of “Desperate Housewives” episodes.

But it’s the remainder of the year that is such a void when it comes to representing real mothers on TV. I’m talking about the kind of mothers that we know through our kids and schools organizations by the dozens. Commercials seem to be the only place that shows mothers who aren’t entirely self-centered. At least these moms are focused on their families, whether it’s using the Brawny paper towels to clean up a spill or the Bissell SpotBot to get the juice stains out of the carpet.

Otherwise, TV presents us with the likes of Playboy Playmate Kim Kardashian’s sleazy mother, overwhelmed and whiny mother Kate on “Jon and Kate Plus 8″, and a long series of incompetent mothers on Supernanny.

Of course the argument could be made that it’s really the tantrums and bad behavior that attracts an audience and that showing a nurturing mother who consistently doles out love and/or discipline as the situation calls for wouldn’t be very entertaining television.

But I disagree. I think a reality show that showed real moms with real wisdom working with their kids over typical issues of attitude, peer pressure, stress, body image, and family dynamics would be very entertaining ““ and we would actually learn something about how to raise a healthy and functional family.

Wasn’t that exactly what the most famous and well-loved TV moms of all time did? Think back to June Cleaver, didn’t she always know when the Beav needed a hug or he needed take responsibility and apologize for the fib he had told? And didn’t Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show” have the perfect blend of strength and compassion?

I never thought I’d be holding “The Simpsons” up as a role model, but Marge’s patience and desire to stay true to a moral compass comes through. Plus Marge Simpson is named after and loosely based on Matt Groening’s mother. I don’t think he would have done that if he didn’t feel that his mom was worthy to be honored ““ and that she could take some could natured ribbing. Compared to the other poor examples of motherhood that we see on TV, I’d say Marge comes out standing pretty tall.

Achy Breaky Parenting

Monday, May 5th, 2008

When the story broke earlier this week about Miley Cyrus’ seminude photo in Vanity Fair magazine, Steve immediately said to me, “There’s your blog topic for the week.” After all, I had just written about Terri Irwin and her advisors throwing Bindi to the wolves. The executives at the Discovery Kids Channel ““ and apparently Terri Irwin as well ““ want to make sure that they don’t lose the millions in potential revenue from the Bindi brand for something as inconsequential as her father’s death. “Get over it kid”¦you’re on your way to becoming the next Miley Cyrus.”

Or maybe not. It turns out that this week even Miley Cyrus probably wished she wasn’t Miley Cyrus. The girl had a rough few days. It sounds like she genuinely feels bad that she disappointed her fan base and she is taking it pretty hard. She has said “that the “photo shoot was supposed to be “˜artistic’ and now, seeing the photographs and reading the story, I feel so embarrassed.” She apologized to her fans and said that “I never intended for any of this to happen.”

I believe her because she is 15-years-old and still a kid. And kids ““ even if they generate $1 billion in business ““ don’t always have the experience to make the best choices for themselves.
So what really bothers me is that someone intended for this photo to happen. Whose agenda was it to show a side (literally) of Miley that we haven’t seen before? Who of the players involved ““ her parents, photographer Annie Liebovitz, her agent ““ thought that evoking a more sensual ““ albeit raunchy side ““ of a 15-year-old was a good idea?

My guess is that when Vanity Fair called to say that they wanted to do a piece on Miley and guess what”¦Annie Liebovitz is going to shoot the photos”¦that Billy Ray and everybody at the Miley camp just couldn’t wait. “She’s the most well known photographer in the world ““ she photographed John Lennon and now she wants to shoot the likes of us. Gol-lee!”

But nobody actually stopped to take a look at the photos that Liebovitz shoots. At the very least they’re provocative and oftentimes downright vulgar. Didn’t anybody take a look at the naked photos of Keira Knightley or Scarlett Johansson and notice that Ms. Leibovitz isn’t exactly the Norman Rockwell of photography world? And that maybe she isn’t really a good fit to shoot Miley, who thus far has been G-rated and is considered to be a role model for the preteen set?

There’s a good chance if you play with matches you’re going to get burned and Miley did.

But shouldn’t there be someone to intervene and protect a child when they see something going on that is dangerous and just plain say “Stop!” Yes, and they’re called parents. But apparently, everybody on the set was too star struck by being in the presence of such an iconic photographer. As Miley said afterward, “That’s what she wanted me to do, and you can’t say no to Annie.”

Oh, just watch me. I’m picturing myself in the photo shoot with my 15-year-old daughter and here’s Ms. Leibovitz saying to her, “You know what would really be interesting? Why don’t you take off your top, wrap this sheet around you, and let’s have you look over your right shoulder. People are going to see you in an entirely new way. It’s going to be an amazing shot.”
My response would be something to the effect of, “With all due respect to your artistic vision Ms. Leibovitz, that’s happening over my dead body. You’re keeping your shirt on, dear.”

It’s interesting to me that although Miley was manipulated by the adults around her, that she has taken full responsibility for the damage it has done to her image. There was no “my father and I are embarrassed” it was just “I’m embarrassed.” Did she issue this statement through her publicist against her father’s wishes ““ something along the lines of “We really didn’t do anything so bad, honey, and we don’t have anything to apologize for.” Or did her parents duck and run for cover, pretending they didn’t have any part in it, although they clearly did. Either way, they leave her bearing the brunt ““ but looking like the only one with any commonsense.

I wonder if she’s angry about this. She would have every right to be. All the “grownups” at the photo shoot thought it was such a great idea for her to have “such a natural and beautiful portrait” but when the whole experience blows up, she’s the only one to step forward. Today, Miley is a sadder but wiser girl.

I’ll bet Miley could give Bindi some darn good advice: “If Vanity Fair calls and they want to do an Annie Leibovitz photo shoot with you and some endangered animals”¦like maybe a snake or two”¦don’t do it. It won’t be a pretty picture.”