Archive for January, 2011

More Than a School Secretary

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

I know I am going to embarrass her by writing this because she is not someone who seeks to draw attention to herself, but Carolyn Lorenz, who retired on Friday after 30 years as the school secretary at Cinnabar Elementary School, deserves to be celebrated. She truly has a servant’s heart.

I initially got to know Carolyn in 1994 when we moved to Petaluma and enrolled our son at Cinnabar for first grade. By the time our youngest promoted out of Cinnabar three years ago, we had had children in the school for a span of 14 years. And we have continued to have a connection with the school because Steve has served on the school board for the past 10 years.

Whenever I had a reason to call the school or stop by, Carolyn’s genuine positive spirit was absolutely contagious. Without fail, my day was always brighter because of talking with her. I distinctly remember how her warmth put me at ease as a first-time parent sending my over-protected first-born son off to school. Over the following years, I always looked forward to having a reason to call the school office because it was such a pleasure to have Carolyn on the other end of the phone.

Carolyn had the same enthusiasm for her work in her 30th year that she had in her first day on the job which in itself is something to be admired. But when I think about what filled her days for those 30 years, sainthood may not be sufficient. If she had gotten paid by the number of skinned knees, crying children, anxious parents, forgotten lunches, upset tummies, district forms, board packets, and yes, head lice inspections, she would be a wealthy woman.

But I know Carolyn’s motivation behind her job wasn’t to get rich; it was to graciously serve whoever called or came into the office.

Not surprisingly, lots of people feel the same affection for Carolyn that I do and it was wonderful to see the community of parents, teachers, staff, family, and friends honor her on the day of her retirement. At the end of some presentations and gifts to her, she made a short speech in which she said that the word that has defined her is “grateful.” When she started her job 30 years ago, she was grateful, and she says goodbye, being grateful.

Her attitude is an inspiration to me. Thank you, Carolyn.

Why I Will Never Be a Tiger Mother

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

When I saw the full-page article in the Wall Street Journal titled, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” with the photo of the mom with her arms folded in a “it’s my way or the highway” kind of defiance and her two perfect daughters practicing the violin and piano, while my own 14-year-old daughter was sprawled on the couch watching a rerun of “That 70’s Show” I took the bait. I had to read what she had to say.

The article was an excerpt from a book called “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” by Amy Chua, a Yale law professor. Ms. Chua certainly meant to be provocative about her child rearing methods because in the first 100 words of the article, we learn that the reason her daughters fit the stereotype of high-achieving Chinese students is because they were never allowed to “attend a sleepover, have a play date, be in a school play, get any grade less than an A, play any instrument other than the piano or violin,” or complain about any of the aforementioned rules.

One of Ms. Chua’s points is that “nothing is fun until you’re good at it.” She goes on to tell a story that from my perspective, borders on child abuse. When her daughter was 7, she insisted that she master a particularly challenging piano piece for an upcoming recital. When her daughter wanted to give up on learning it, Ms. Chua refused to let her. “We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not even for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone.” According to Ms. Chua, the end justifies the means; her daughter mastered the piece and Ms. Chua describes their hugging and giggling that night in bed as evidence that all is forgiven between them. Hmmm, her daughter doesn’t have any lingering resentment about her mother’s treatment of her? I have to wonder about that.

I think back to the seven years my son spent in Karate. Steve also took Karate and insisted that Ethan practice along side him. What was the net effect of those years in Karate for our son? I’m not going to say it was nothing because you never know in life how an earlier experience will benefit you, but the day after our son hung up his Gi, it was as if Karate never had happened. Disproving her theory, he got good at it but it was never fun. He felt no sense of accomplishment. He really just wanted to get back to video games which were the activity that really captured his imagination at the time.

Like most parents of girls, I made sure Jennifer and Valerie took ballet classes. As much as I would have liked them to follow in my pointe shoes, it wasn’t something they were interested in. Valerie happened upon rhythmic gymnastics and there was no stopping her; in spite of having only one arm in a very two-handed sport. Although Jennifer hasn’t found a passion in some type of physical activity, she is passionate about creating art. Would my daughters’  futures be brighter and their worlds happier if instead of letting them pursue their self-identified interests, I limited their extra-curricular options to playing piano or violin? I don’t think so.

While Ms. Chua certainly seems tough on her daughters, I think that her method of parenting is really taking the easy way out. For her, everything is black and white; there aren’t any gray areas, and it’s the gray areas of parenting that challenge us.

For instance, should I let my daughter sleep over at someone’s house when I don’t know the parents that well? For Ms. Chua, there are never any sleepovers. Decision made; no need to give it a second thought. And for any other questions that may come up about school activities, classes, or friends, all Ms. Chua has to do is follow her list of established rules: “no” to everything except straight A’s and three hours of practice on the violin or piano.

Apparently, she sees parenting as a science and not an art: follow these steps and the result will be a child with the perfect application to Harvard. No thanks; I would rather raise a human than a robot.

Taking a Bite Out of College

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

College can be a time of life when kids experiment with lifestyles that are different than their parents. Our daughter who is a freshman at a smallish private university in Southern California seems to be doing just that. However, unlike many kids who really try out some risky behavior just because they can, I am thankful that Valerie is expressing her independence from us in a way that won’t show up in some pixilated video on MTV’s Spring Break.

Valerie has chosen a more modest approach to separating from us; she announced to us over Skype with more than a little “I’m my own person now and so don’t try and talk me out of it” tone in her voice, that she had become a vegetarian. I think she would have really liked us to gasp in horror when she gave us the news; after all, shocking your parents with your “radical” behavior is half the fun. But the best we could do was, “Well that’s interesting. Tell us why.”

Apparently, she has a masterful professor for the “Introduction to Environmental Science” class she is taking during the interterm session; rather than get highly emotional about environmental causes, he has presented the information in a very logical way which Valerie really responded to. She must have soaked up every word he said because she gave us a fifteen minute lecture on why eating lower on the food chain would save our otherwise doomed planet.

When Valerie does anything, she never does it halfway and this is no different. She has always been concerned about eating healthfully ““ only non-fat milk, whole grains and she would rather go hungry that eat fast food ““ but now she has a new cause to sink her teeth into. In the 15 minutes since she became a strict vegetarian, she has already done a ton of research on how to combine foods such as rice and beans and why quinoa should be a stable of our diet.

We have absolutely no objections ““ nor would it make any difference to her if we did ““ to her becoming vegetarian. In fact, we reminded her that not only were we vegetarians for about a year-and-a-half when she was six, we went the extreme route and became vegans”¦until Steve lost the will to live when I served him a pizza made with soy cheese. His response, “Just shoot me now.”

Actually, we are enjoying Valerie’s righteous stance over her new found cause. She loves to argue and her class has given her plenty of ammunition. Steve feels like he’s reliving talking to fellow students at Berkeley in the 1960’s. And her younger sister is having a lot of fun teasing her about her new natural approach. Jennifer wanted to know if she was going to let her hair grow into dreadlocks and only wear hemp. And what about soap? Are you sure that wasn’t tested on animals?

I, too, am willing to help her stay pure. “You know all those really cute, pointy-toed LEATHER ballet flats that we bought at Nordstrom Rack? I would be more than happy to relieve you of your guilt that a cow gave his life for those and take them off your hands”¦or feet.”

This may just be Valerie’s first step in exploring an alternative philosophy from us. I think we are going to have some fun when she takes a political science class.

Promoting Petaluma

Sunday, January 9th, 2011

After camping out on Craigslist for two months looking for a job, an opportunity to work with the Petaluma Visitors Program popped up. Of course, I am happy to be bringing in some income again, but I am equally excited because I love living and working here and this position gives me a chance to put my skills to work passionately promoting Petaluma.

So in taking on this new responsibility of telling the world about how great Petaluma is, I have been giving a lot of thought to what makes Petaluma someplace special and from a visitor’s point-of-view, a place that is worth getting off the freeway for”¦and hopefully, spending the night”¦and some money on shopping and dining.

Petaluma has personality that comes from not being overly polished or pretentious. Here’s what I mean: Petaluma’s signature event, the Butter & Egg Days Parade, is a come-one, come-all type of affair in which the community feels total ownership. You don’t need to be a beauty queen to ride on a float or a member of a precision marching band to participate. Last year, when the junior high marching band was in need of a drum major, after a five minute audition, my daughter was handed the mace and sent out to lead the band. Inexperience was no barrier. She had a great time in what may have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience for her.

Certainly a feature of Petaluma that sets it apart from other towns is that it has some history behind it. Don’t get me wrong, I love Rohnert Park, especially until Petaluma gets its own Target, but Rohnert Park looks like it has been around for about five minutes. The fact that Petaluma is more than 150 years old makes it downright ancient in terms of California History.

Petaluma’s walkable downtown has spoiled me. After living here, I don’t think I could be happy in a city that didn’t have a downtown area with plenty of window shopping; it’s been a major source of entertainment for our family.

What typically happens for us is that prior to the weekend, Steve and I will often talk about something we could do to get away from the computer that would be refreshing. We come up with a list of potential outings, but when we actually get to Sunday what really sounds good to us is staying close to home and walking around Petaluma.

You can call us unimaginative, but we always enjoying chatting over coffee at Starbucks, strolling over to Knitterly or HeeBe JeeBe and then ending up at Copperfields. This was such a routine when our kids were little that we still jokingly refer to Copperfields as “Copperfee-leds;” the way our 18-year-old daughter pronounced it when she was a toddler.

And though I probably lived in Petaluma for five years before I even noticed that a river runs through it, the slough is a unique feature of the city. It was great to see the story in last Thursday’s Argus about groups who are working to implement a 1996 Petaluma River access and enhancement plan. There is a lot going on behind the scenes to make the river more attractive destination for residents and visitors.

I am grateful for the opportunity; I’ve got plenty to say about Petaluma”¦plus, I get paid!

On the Road Again

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

Last fall, when our daughter, Valerie, went away to college in Southern California, she decided not to take her car with her. She said she didn’t want the responsibility that went along with having a car at the same time she was getting adjusted to living away from home.

If I were talking to anyone else who was moving to Southern California, my thoughts would have been, “Are you crazy moving to Southern California and not having a car? Public transportation in Los Angeles is probably just an urban myth. And even if it does exist, who rides it? It is probably mostly empty buses with just the occasional creeper lurking in the back.”

But when it came to my own daughter, the thought of her having a car in LA scared me. In the year and a half since she had gotten her license, her driving experience was pretty much limited to a five mile radius in Petaluma between home, work and school. I imagined her trying to navigate her way among a sea of cars on the Golden State freeway where no one goes below 75 mph or it’s totally congested stop-and-go traffic and any driver who is the least bit indecisive gets a raised middle finger. In short, I was sure she would get eaten alive on the LA freeways.

But those were my thoughts, not hers. Because when it came time to discuss how she was getting back to school in Orange County after Christmas break, she said that she had been thinking about it, and she wanted to have a car for the rest of the school year.

For the first semester, she had done her best to get around on public transportation or to hitch a ride with friends. I was very proud that she gone to Target on the bus a couple of times and she had even made a four-hour trip on trains and buses to UCLA to visit her friend. But she said it took forever to get anywhere on the bus and she really wants to get a part-time job off campus which will be nearly impossible to do if she doesn’t have a car.

Gulp. My little girl on the big, bad, LA freeways. But before I could say anything, Steve said to her, “That’s a great idea. I think you will enjoy school a lot more if you don’t feel like you’re trapped on campus.”

It’s times like this that I am especially grateful that I am not raising my children alone; if it were solely up to me, I would have let my fears and overprotective nature undermine Valerie’s desire to take another step of independence.

So the plan was made that she would make the seven hour drive to Chapman in Orange County early on New Years Day ““ hopefully traffic would be fairly light at least for the beginning of the drive ““ and Steve would ride shotgun to navigate. And once they got to Orange County, Valerie would drop Steve off at John Wayne Airport so he could fly back the same day. Of course, she would have detailed directions about how to get from the airport back to campus.

Steve and Valerie made the trip safely with Valerie doing almost all of the driving. When we talked with her on Skype after I picked Steve up from the airport, she looked totally exhausted from the drive ““ and we were all a little teary over saying goodbye to her after a really nice Christmas break ““ but the important part was that she had made the drive and now had her car with her so she can start the semester with a new sense of freedom.

And as for me”¦I’ll be praying for a bubble of protection around Valerie and her 2001 Volvo