Archive for June, 2008

Close Encounters of the Best Kind

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

I love it when I’m on the phone or just going about my day and I’m able to make a connection with a person in an unexpected way. It really feels great to know that after the conversation has ended and we’ve said our goodbyes that I’ve made a little bit of a difference in that person’s day.

I had two of those instances last week.

The first one was during a phone call with our new CPA, Joel. I’ve really enjoyed working with him over the past few months; he has such a warm voice and honest Midwestern accent that a conversation with Joel always leaves me feeling less stressed about our finances.

In this particular phone call, after we finished discussing the QuickBooks reports that I had emailed him, I asked him about his family; even though he has five years of our tax returns in front of him, we’re still getting to know each other. He told me he had two sons, one married and one in college, and then went onto say he had a daughter entering seventh grade. That instantly formed a connection between us because our youngest daughter is also entering junior high.

Then he went on to tell me how blessed their family was because they had adopted their daughter as a very young child from an orphanage in India. That was an amazing piece of information to learn about him; he lives in a heavily Scandinavian area in northeast Montana, almost on the border of Canada and North Dakota. Joel told me that they seek out opportunities to honor their daughter’s heritage. They make frequent trips to an area in Canada that has a large Indian population so she can have some exposure to others of Indian nationality.

While I certainly was intrigued to learn more about the whole process of bringing this girl into their family, I wouldn’t have had anything to give back to the conversation if it wasn’t for an unusual coincidence. The night before, I had rented a movie called “The Namesake.” The movie follows the lives of an immigrant Indian couple as they struggle to blend their culture with that of their very Americanized children. I told him it is a very sweet movie and gives some fascinating glimpses into Indian culture.

When I suggested to Joel that “The Namesake” might be a movie his family would enjoy watching, he didn’t just give me a polite response; he seemed genuinely appreciative of my DVD recommendation. This was confirmed a day later when he sent me an email saying that he had looked it up online, thought it looked really interesting, and was looking forward to tracking down a copy of it to rent.

Suggesting a movie is a pretty small gesture, yet it made me feel as though I had given him a real gift. I think God puts those incidents in my life as a small reminder that he’s working behind the scenes to give me encouragement.

And one more example, that is really more about my 16-year-old daughter, Valerie than me but I still got to enjoy the good feeling behind it. Steve, Valerie and I were in Starbucks ““ nothing out of the ordinary there ““ when Valerie spotted the teacher she had for seventh and eighth grade Spanish waiting at the counter for her drink.

I’ve always thought that junior high school teachers deserved sainthood for dealing with the exploding hormones of kids at that age. And this teacher in particular was exceptional because she was always enthusiastic about what she taught. I always remembered this teacher as one who actually seemed to like the kids she was teaching as opposed to just putting up with them.

So when Valerie had a chance to say hello to her in Starbucks and tell her that she loves speaking Spanish, and that she had just returned from a week in Mexico where she spoke almost fluent Spanish, this teacher’s face absolutely lit up. I know it made her day to have confirmation that she made a difference in the lives of one of her students.

Again, a small gift, but a lasting one.

Thankful Thought #4

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

Last night our family had dinner together and everyone was hungry and everyone ate what I had prepared. When those three things fall into place, it almost feels like a supernatural force has been at work.

That is because more often than not, at least one of the kids is at work or at an activity or they’ve eaten a big snack, late lunch, or they have other stuff they want to do at dinner time. So it’s rare when all five of us sit down and are actually ready to eat at the same time.

And then as a mom, there are the calibrations that I go through to try to figure out something to serve that everyone will like. And if I solve that part of the puzzle, does the recipe require a trip to the store or need to be started six hours in advance of serving it ““ in which case I’m back at square one.

So thank you Costco for the “Curly’s” ribs that I bought at least six weeks ago and still had hadn’t reached their expiration date. All I had to do was turn on the oven, flop the ribs in the pan, get out of the way during the rib feeding frenzy. When we were done, I tossed the mountain of bones and napkins into the trash. Everyone left the table full and happy.

iPods and Hedge Trimmers

Sunday, June 22nd, 2008

I was standing in the front yard watering the perennial dry patch in our lawn, when my 11-year-old daughter, Jennifer, came out to join me. She started the conversation with, “Guess what happened?” I don’t know, what?” I answered warily. The tone of her voice communicated to me that even though she was doing her best to act upbeat and perky, what she actually had to report wasn’t going to be good news.

“You know the canvas bag that you washed today, it had my iPod in it.” Jennifer bought this iPod about two months ago with money that she had diligently saved up from Christmas gifts and allowances. I winced. Jennifer continued on, saying that once she remembered where her iPod was, she fished it out of the soggy bag that was hanging to dry and immediately plugged it in the computer.

I suggested that we go inside and take a look at it to see if it showed any signs of life. She furiously punched at the “menu” button. The screen stayed lit up long enough for us to see streaks and spots of water before it faded to black. In her panic, she actually tried giving it mouth to mouth resuscitation by blowing into the charging port. She thought she could help it dry out until I told her that adding more condensation from her breath probably wasn’t improving its chances of recovery.

While this was going on, I was struggling inside with what to say to her. My first reaction was, “Well, you should have checked your bag more carefully,” or something even more punishing like, “That wasn’t a very smart thing to do.”

But I am thankful that I resisted the urge to scold her and give her a lecture about being responsible; this is a child who has never lost so much as an eraser at school and who stresses if she can’t complete every problem in her math homework. I know she was already being hard on herself and she didn’t need me to add to it.

The reason I was able to have some compassion for her is because just a few days earlier God had given me a lesson in remembering that we all make mistakes. My “Gosh, I feel like an idiot” incident happened when I was doing yard work and in a hurry to finish trimming some bushes. While wielding our electric hedge trimmer with a vengeance, I sliced through the extension cord. I found another extension cord in the garage, plugged it in, and proceeded to do exactly the same thing again.

After doing it the second time, I turned to Jennifer who was helping me in the yard that day and said to her, “The next time you forget something or “˜make a mistake,’ remind me that cutting through the extension cords “˜wasn’t too smart’ so I won’t be too hard on you.”

As it turned out, her freshly washed iPod gave me an opportunity to put that into practice. We’re all going to have a thoughtless moment or forget something. And it really is okay. The sooner that I can forgive myself and move on, the better; I want to help her learn to do the same.

I am happy to report that the iPod’s condition wasn’t terminal. Jennifer continued to check on the patient and after a day of rest, it turned on and stayed on. Over the next few days, the screen showed steady improvement. Now I can thankfully say that the most recent generation iPods, if given a few days to dry out in a warm house, can survive the spin cycle. And as Jennifer said, “Now my iPod is squeaky clean.”

And, she is also thankful that she won’t have to save up for another year to replace her cool piece of technology.

Thankful Thought #3

Sunday, June 22nd, 2008

I had two conversations in the past two days that lifted my spirit. One was a phone call from a business associate and the other was with a friend and neighbor who I ran into while I was walking our dog. Both conversations were brief and casual, really just catching up on what was happening in our lives and that of our families.

So if these conversations were short and really not anything out of the ordinary, why did they have such an impact on my day? It was because from the moment I said “hello,” these people communicated to me that they were genuinely glad to see and speak with me. It wasn’t just perfunctory politeness on their part. Even though some time has passed, I can still think about how I felt talking to these folks and it still makes me feel really good; they cared about me.

Isn’t it amazing that just a few words delivered with the right feeling can have such an impact for so long?

Thankful Thought #2

Sunday, June 22nd, 2008

Our business year end is coming up at the end of June and that means sending off a bunch of reports and statements to our accountant. I can find my way around QuickBooks for invoices and day to day entries, but when it comes to pulling together the data into a way that means something to a CPA, I’m out of my element. I start stressing that it is going to be a difficult process.

So when our bookkeeper came this afternoon and in a matter of a half an hour imported the numbers from QuickBooks into neat looking Excel spread sheets and had the information on its way to the accountant, I felt like I was watching a chef whip up a soufflé that she had made a thousand times. She made it look so easy. It was such a relief to be reminded that I don’t have to know how to do everything. Thank goodness for a pro who’s there to help me; it really lightens my load.

Thankful Thought #1

Monday, June 16th, 2008

Today is Steve and my 24th wedding anniversary. I can remember it like it was yesterday when I first spotted Steve across the conference room at the company we both worked at in San Francisco. I was instantly attracted to his broad shoulders and straight nose and as I got to know him better, I loved his sense of humor and the way he could tell a great story. Cute and funny”¦in my callowness, those seemed like good reasons to marry someone.

Well, after 24 years, he’s still cute and funny but he has proven to be so much more: a man of integrity, generosity, creativity, and a great father. When I was in college, my best friend got on my nerves after two days, but Steve and I are together every day in our family business and it has made me appreciate him even more.

Twenty-four years ago we didn’t just get married, we were joined in holy matrimony; that explains why we’re still together today. And gives me confidence that we’ll still be together tomorrow.

Summer Reading

Monday, June 16th, 2008

Our soon-to-be 12-year-old daughter, Jennifer, loves to read. Given the chance, she would be happy if I dropped her off in our local bookstore and didn’t come back for her until the next day. She would much rather go to the library than the mall. And if her room was big enough to accommodate it, she would love to have one of those big round Papasan chairs from Cost Plus because it would such a cozy place to curl up with a book.

So Jennifer was delighted when the errand du jour was going to be to the library; her older sister, Valerie, needed to find a book off the teacher’s list for her high school summer reading assignment. (If you read my blog last week, you know that I give the teacher two thumbs up for offering the kids some choices in what they read over the summer.)

At the library, Jennifer had a specific author she was looking for and headed straight to the Young Adults section to look for more in the series that she hadn’t already read. I followed Valerie into the Adult Fiction so she could literally weigh her options from the list that her teacher had handed out. One look at the heft of “Moby Dick” was enough for Valerie to know that she wouldn’t be calling anyone Ishmael.

She thought the books on her list by women authors might be more promising so we stopped at the “W’s” and found Edith Wharton. Valerie picked up a collection of Wharton’s works that included two of the books that were on her list: “The Age of Innocence” and “Summer.” I was grateful that the library actually had what she was looking for. Now, onto trying to figure out if the subject matter of the books holds any interest for a 21st century suburban teenage girl.

On the book’s cover was a painting of a rather bored but beautiful woman draped in satin reclining on a chaise. Valerie liked the lush artwork. On the inside flap, Valerie read to me that “the reader is transported back to an era of resplendent drawing rooms.” That struck a chord with her; maybe it would be like a tour of rich peoples’ houses on HGTV.

And as she read further down the summary, the other Wharton novel, “Summer,” was described as “shocking its straitlaced readers in 1916 with it’s revealing depiction of the sexual awakening of a young woman.” I can practically hear Valerie thinking, “Maybe this summer’s reading won’t be so dull after all.”

Just to make sure she’s covered all her options, Valerie tracks down another author and book: Willa Cather’s “Death Comes to the Archbishop.” The title alone makes the book sound like a real downer. She reads the synopsis of it and decides that given a choice between priests hunkering down in a cave during a blizzard in “Archbishop” or love blossoming for a young girl in New England in “Summer,” Edith has it all over Willa. Mission accomplished.

We meet up with Jennifer who is delighted because this library had two more books in her favorite series plus she’s found an armload of other books she wants to check out. Valerie is happy because she’s got books that both meets the assignment and don’t look like they will be total drudgery to read over the next two months.

The girls were so pleased with what they found to check out that I started to get caught up in the idea that reading a novel”¦something I haven’t done in decades”¦might be an enjoyable thing to do. But I couldn’t choose just any novel. It had to be one off of Valerie’s list of classic American literature. That way, I could read and feel righteous at the same time. No, no frivolous New York Time bestsellers for me, I would be reading something of substance. Kind of like eating breakfast cereal with added fiber; it may not be very tasty, but you know it’s good for you.

So I checked out “O Pioneers!” by Willa Cather. Plenty of frontier grit to sink my teeth into.

But unlike Jennifer who just plain loves to read or Valerie who has to read to maintain her GPA, now that I’ve got “O Pioneers!” at home I’m really not sure what to do with it. Can I really sit down and enjoy reading it when I can practically hear the weeds growing in the backyard? Or if I want to make myself feel really guilty, how can I read a novel ““ even if it is a classic ““ when I haven’t picked up the Bible for days?

And then there is just the problem of staying awake whenever I sit down for more than five minutes”¦And to Jennifer I say, enjoy reading now. It only gets more complicated.

Summer Homework

Sunday, June 8th, 2008

I can remember how great it felt to get out of school for summer vacation and breathe a big sigh of relief. It felt like such freedom to have almost three months ahead of me without any tests to study for or papers to write. At last, I could enjoy Sunday nights because I wouldn’t be worried about whether I was prepared for my classes on Monday morning.

However, for many high school students, including my daughter, relishing a summer free from homework is a thing of the past. For the students who are taking Honors or Advanced Placement classes in the fall, summer vacation no longer means a vacation from homework. Teachers assign reading and research papers to be completed during the summer. Students can plan on taking a test or turning in a paper on the first day of class in August.

This approach to summer homework doesn’t make sense to me. The achieving kids who have already proven that they are disciplined and can complete assignments are given homework while nothing is required of mediocre students. Wouldn’t the students who struggle academically benefit and improve their chances of succeeding in the coming year if they were assigned some reading and writing over the summer months, too?

So in a way, summer homework punishes the most responsible students. The kids who have been stressing all school year to balance their academic load and extra-curricular activities are rewarded with having to do more of the same during the summer while the slacker students are free to keep slacking.

And the result is that the good students never, ever get a break. College students get a break when the semester ends. Adults (unless you work for yourself) generally get a break from the demands of work. But for achieving students, there is always an assignment that they could be working on so there is always that awful feeling that there is something hanging over their head. Instead of a time of rejuvenation, summer just becomes an extension of the school year except that the kids don’t get to see their friends everyday.

Plus, the nature of many of the assignments is so tedious that it actually causes the kids to lose interest in the subject. Valerie’s summer reading assignment last year was The Odyssey. I doubt that would ever seem fun, but my guess is that if it was taught during the school year that it would have been covered in a shorter amount of time. So Valerie might have ended up just disliking The Odyssey as opposed to loathing it. Also, as a parent, I would have really appreciated only three weeks of listening to her whine about reading it versus three long months of grousing.

If I were in charge”¦and I’m sure it’s a good thing I’m not”¦I would require every student to read over the summer. But options on the reading list would be very broad so that kids had a chance to choose something that they were interested in, whether it’s science fiction, mystery, etc. That would seem to me to be a good way to encourage a love of ongoing learning and not turn kids off on reading.

If the rationale is that summer homework is necessary so kids can compete for the best colleges, wouldn’t their time be better spent studying for the SAT instead of doing make-work homework? That would have real life implications on where a student goes to college and the amount of financial aid they receive.

And as for keeping the best and brightest kids intellectually challenged? I don’t see any point in having them do during the summer what they obviously do so capably doing the school year. If the schools are going to require homework over the summer, wouldn’t it be great to encourage them to pursue something they are passionate about in depth. The summers that meant the most to me were when I had a chance to take dance classes all day long”¦alternating with working on my tan. I went back to school proud of being a better dancer and my cool tan line. Slogging through Greek mythology? That would been forgotten one minute after I took the test.

I think we can trust that motivated kids if given some free time, will show their creativity. But that certainly won’t happen as long as they are kept busy answering questions at the end of the chapter.

A Thank You to Redwood Empire Gymnastics

Monday, June 2nd, 2008

My daughter, Valerie, has been on the rhythmic gymnastics team at Redwood Empire Gymnastics for almost seven years. Like all the parents who have a long-time team member, I’ve seen REG’s Annual Gym Show countless times. In the show, gymnasts of all ages ““ from four-year-olds still trying to master forward rolls to NCAA level athletes doing back handsprings so fast that they are just a blur ““ get a chance to show off their skills. And no matter how many times I’ve seen the show, it never fails to leave me bursting with pride for what Valerie has accomplished, inspired by the amazing skills of the young athletes, and grateful for the people there who dedicate their lives to working with these kids.

Over the years, I’ve loved watching Valerie improve and grow as a competitor. However, sometimes I’ve wondered if the time commitment and cost of participating in gymnastics at a competitive level was worth the sacrifice to the rest of the family. But watching her perform in the gym show reaffirmed that the time and expense has absolutely been worth it. It’s impossible to put a price on what she has gained in confidence. She knows she has worked hard and when she gets a chance to show off a bit, she radiates pure joy. It brings tears to my eyes.

I attribute what she has been able to accomplish to the positive message she has gotten ever since she started classed at REG. Valerie is unique in that she wears a prosthesis on her left arm. She had seen the Gym Show when her older brother took classes at REG and she wanted to give gymnastics a try”¦even though I had my doubts. I couldn’t really imagine how she was going to tackle the uneven parallel bars”¦I pictured her prosthesis still swinging on the bar after she had already landed on the floor”¦but when I talked to the coaches about signing her up, their attitude was that they would do everything they could to help her succeed in whatever she attempted.

When she started taking classes, the coach helped Valerie figure out a way to hang onto the bar usually by hooking her elbow over it or giving her a little extra support ““ keep in mind beginner gymnasts aren’t doing “giants” on the high bar ““ so that she could do everything the other kids did.

She hadn’t been taking the artistic gymnastics classes (the full name of the type of gymnastics that most people are familiar with that includes tumbling, bars, balance beam, etc.) for very long when we became aware that REG had rhythmic gymnastic classes. Although rhythmic gymnastics is definitely a two-handed sport that requires catching apparatus such as a ball, rope, hope or ribbon, the skills don’t require upper body strength like artistic gymnastics does. Valerie was always a kid who loved a challenge, plus the combination of flexibility and gracefulness of rhythmic gymnastics really appealed to her, so she signed on.

Rhythmic gymnastics suited her right from the start. There was never any discussion that she might be limited in how far she could progress in the sport because she wears prosthesis. The attitude of everyone around her at the gym, and particularly her coach, has always been “We’re not putting any limitations on you, we’re there for you as far as you want to go.”

Yet I have no doubt that it could have been a much different scenario. I know there are gyms where they would have taken one look at her and her prosthesis, and said that they didn’t have a program that could accommodate her.

But that wouldn’t happen at REG. The coaches and staff are there to serve the community and give whatever kid walks through the door the best opportunity they can to reach their potential. I’ve never had the feeling that REG is building its reputation on how many of their gymnasts go to Nationals or Junior Olympics; they aren’t only interested in working with the kids who have “star” potential. Sure, it would be great if someday an Olympic gymnast said that they got their start at REG in Petaluma, CA. However, REG isn’t holding out for that. Their goal is to bring out the best qualities in the kids they work with and reward hard work and determination.

I really appreciate that REG values the qualities a gymnast has on the inside and doesn’t exclude anyone because they may not fit what it considered the ideal gymnast. For a girl to feel like a success there, she doesn’t have to be 4’9″ and weigh 90 pounds. In fact, she doesn’t even have to have two arms. Thank you, REG.