Keep calm and carry on

September 13th, 2015

So the first text message I got from Jennifer after she arrived in Shanghai on Thursday for her year-long study abroad program was “I finally have Internet” and “I’m not dead” – always reassuring information for a parent. The second text message was “Do you have a copy of my Fudan University application? Why didn’t I bring it! Aaargh! Please get back to me as soon as possible.”

Yes, I did have a copy of her application for the Chinese university where she will be studying while she’s in China so I immediately scanned and emailed it. If that wasn’t sufficient documentation, I texted her than we could FedEx to her (for a surprisingly low cost of about $50) and she would have it in two days.

So the mechanics of not having packed the application weren’t the issue because we quickly figured out a solution. The real problem is that I’ve never learned how to not have my children’s anxiety become my anxiety. All it took was receiving a text message with a few exclamation points conveying my daughter’s panicked state and my stomach started to knot up.

Because Jennifer knows that it doesn’t take much for me to go into a Code Blue – hair on fire – sound the air raid siren – kind of overreaction, she oftentimes takes care to soften a situation that she knows is likely to stress me out. For instance, a day later, when I got a text message from her at 11pm saying that her Wells Fargo ATM card wasn’t working at the Shanghai bank and she couldn’t withdraw money, she started the text message with, “When you have a chance, please call Wells Fargo….”

My chance to do that was RIGHT AWAY. Jennifer is in on the other side of the world and she can’t get to her money…this calls for immediate action! Wells Fargo says their customer service is open 24/7 and I’m not going to be able to sleep until it’s solved so I’m out of bed and changing into SuperMom mode.

BTW, you really can speak to a Wells Fargo customer service representative at midnight if you’re willing to hold for a half hour. I got the information I needed from the bank and passed it onto Jennifer.

So why did I rush to instantly solve the problem? It wasn’t an emergency; I could have waited to call the bank until Sunday or even Monday. I knew Jennifer had plenty of cash with her; the reason she wanted to withdraw more is because she is still figuring out the exchange rate and wanted to be sure she had enough for the coming week. We exchanged some more texts and it turned out that everything was fine with her ATM card. She was just trying to withdraw more than her $300 limit.

And that’s really the point – even when things – both big and little – haven’t gone exactly as planned, everything turned has still turned out fine.  It has for Steve and me and for our other two children every step of the way.

This is a lesson I best remember particularly as I celebrate another birthday today. Getting older can’t be changed but the furrowed brow that comes from stressing? That I can do without.

Summer makeover

September 7th, 2015

One of the wonderful things about being a college student is being able to reinvent yourself over the summer.  During the three months that you’re separated from your college friends, the opportunity for transformation exists – to return to school in the fall as a new and improved version of you.

We certainly saw this happen with Jennifer Lynn this summer as she did a “makeover” on herself during the three months she was home. Even though she and her friends Skyped regularly so any changes in appearance weren’t going to be a total surprise, I know she was looking forward to being greeted with shrieks of “You look amazing!!!” from her buddies.

It’s why makeover scenes are such a staple of rom-com movies. Who doesn’t love the confidence boost that comes from feeling…and being told by people whose opinion you value…that you look really, really good.

Thinking back on how the summer started, I don’t think Jennifer consciously set a goal of changing her appearance – it just evolved.

First, she began exercising. And I give her a lot of credit for her discipline to stick to with it. Though Jennifer grew up with a mother and an older sister who could fairly be described at gym-rats and in high school, she did stints in wrestling and cheerleading, she was never into ritual sweating. She would rather stay flopped on the couch, scrolling through Netflix.

But she didn’t. Instead, she faithfully squeezed in a run between her shifts at the Gap Outlet and her other part-time job as a social media videographer. Once she started seeing results – I would glance over to see her inspecting her new found abs in the mirror – motivation was a lot easier to come by.

As the summer progressed it became clear that Jennifer was intent on reshaping not just her physique but her whole “package.” A trip to a trendy eyeglass store in a hipster enclave in San Francisco yielded a pair of retro-chic spectacles and a visit to Kim, who’s been cutting the family hair for more than a decade, produced an adorable asymmetrical do. She knew she had found her look because strangers would spontaneously compliment her on her haircut.

While the young woman that Steve and I deposited at Pepperdine last Sunday was still our daughter, she was very much a creation of her own imagination – ready for her next adventure.

Watch out Shanghai.

Countdown to China

August 30th, 2015

What seemed so far off at the beginning of summer is almost here. Next weekend, we’re driving our youngest daughter Jennifer Lynn back down to school in Southern California. On the following Wednesday, she’ll fly out of LAX to begin her year studying abroad in Shanghai.

Why China? Steve and I joke that one of Jennifer Lynn’s life goals is to be as far away as possible from her AARP parents and the possibility of having to live out her life in a 1600 square foot condo in Cotati. Since Pepperdine doesn’t offer a study abroad program on the moon, China had to suffice as a destination.

From Jennifer’s perspective, the reason she chose the Shanghai program is because she likes a challenge.  She is sure that assimilating to the Chinese culture and tackling the language will test her mettle much more than studying abroad in Heidelberg or Buenos Aires.  Her “bring it on” attitude is how she shows her competitive streak. When her classmates lament the difficulty of speaking German or Spanish, I know she is thinking, “Not only do I have to learn how to speak a new language, I have to learn how to write a new language. Top that!!”

While we were running errands yesterday to gather the remaining items on her list that she’ll need for living in Asia, she was describing the reactions that she gets from people when she tells them that she’s going to be studying abroad in China. She said that if she told someone she was spending her sophomore year in Italy, they would nod and smile and tell her how much she’ll enjoy the architecture, art, and history, and what a great experience it will be.

But when she tells them she’s going to be in Shanghai for a year, their face becomes very serious and they ominously respond, “You’ll never be the same.” What does that mean? She’s going to come back as a zombie? I think people have that reaction just because it’s hard for most of us to picture what life in China is like.

We noticed a BBC TV series on Netflix called “Wild China,” so as a little bit of immersion into the vastness of China, we watched it. One of the scenes showed a Chinese “pharmacy” where the patient received a remedy that consisted of a dried lizard head and bags of scary looking stuff – were those beetle exoskeletons that the doctor just scooped out of that bin? Yes, life in China – and especially Chinese medicine – is very different than we are used to. No wonder the info packet from the school advises bringing your own year-long supply of Tums and Imodium.

While it’s sad for us to think about not seeing her for eight months, we know that this is going to be an amazing experience for her. Not only is she going to learn about the art and history of China – something largely ignored in our European-centric curriculums – but she is also going where the action is in terms of today’s world economy which I think will have lots more potential for her influencing her future than learning about Renaissance artists.

Yes, she will come back changed. But I believe it will be in the best possible ways.
As a coda to my post and as a way to procrastinate packing, Jennifer Lynn created this Instagram post:

 It’s 10 days now until I leave for China and I figure I need all the luck I can get #packingprocrastination #speedpaint

A video posted by Jenny Rustad (@jennylynnrust) on



Cat Cafe

August 16th, 2015

Our middle daughter Valerie loves cats; she gets teased by her siblings about turning into a crazy cat lady when she gets old. In the five years since she left to go away to college, we’ve never been sure who she misses more…us or the cats. Many, many photos of our obnoxious orange cat Nigel have been texted to her.

Since she can’t have a cat in the townhouse that she shares in Southern California, maximizing her facetime with cats when she visits is a top priority.

So prior to her arrival for a mini-vacation with us, Valerie sent us a link to a place that she had discovered in San Francisco called . It’s a cat lounge/tea house where you can pay to play with cats.

At first, I didn’t understand the concept. Cats sleep 18 hours a day so as much as I enjoy a trip into the city, I was wondering what made visiting the cats at KitTea so special that it required reservations plus a 50 mile drive when Valerie could pet our snoozing feline freeloaders – as well as a few random neighborhood cats – for free, any day at any time?

But it’s not just about petting cats, it’s the total experience, right? So I went online and made reservations for 30 minute sessions ($15 per person with unlimited tea) for Valerie and Jennifer Lynn in the cat lounge.  Like everything these days, liability is a consideration so there’s a waiver to sign in case a kitty goes rogue during your visit.

We arrived early (and were glad we did – more on that later) for our daughters’ 11:30 appointment at KitTea in Hayes Valley. The first impression when you walk in is how bright, clean, and sunny the space is. We were greeted and told the rules – place your tea order in the cat lounge and pick it up just outside the door; health restrictions permit serving it to you in the cat lounge.

I didn’t make reservations for Steve and me – I’m fine with only petting cats that I can pet for free – so we sipped our tea in a delightful café setting and watched the girls playing with the kitties from the other side of a big glass window.

And they really were kittens (not cats!) so at this time of the morning, they were playful and energetic instead of just being fuzzy slugs. The lounge is filled with cat toys that guests can use to entice the kittens to pounce and leap. We got our money’s worth in entertainment value; we might not have felt that way if our reservations had been for later in the day.  When we strolled past after having lunch, there were some very tired kitties; still cute but lacking on the interactive scale.

Providing entertainment for cat lovers is great but the best part about KitTea is that it is also an adoption center. Twenty-one cats have been adopted since it opened less than two months ago. As much as we would have loved to make it 22, Valerie did not get to bring home a kitten for a souvenir.

The experience exceeded expectations. A big round of ap-paws for KitTea!

China is where she wants to be

August 2nd, 2015

A couple of Saturdays ago, when we were driving through the city from Hayes Valley to the Golden Gate Bridge, we happened to go past the Chinese Consulate on Laguna Street. I was pretty excited – not quite as excited as when we were driving through San Francisco and I saw a naked guy (except for cowboy boots) walking along Market Street – but excited nonetheless to have accidentally found the Consulate.

You see, visiting the Chinese Consulate has loomed large in our summer plans. Our daughter Jennifer Lynn will be studying abroad in Shanghai next year which requires a student Visa. She can only get her Visa by taking her passport and university documents to the Chinese Consulate for processing. It’s a little like going before the All Powerful Oz to find out if you can be admitted into the Emerald City of the Peoples Republic.

Finding the location of the Consulate was perfect timing because when we got home that afternoon, the paperwork for Jennifer’s Visa application was waiting in the mailbox. So Jennifer and I made plans for taking a day off work and heading back into San Francisco.

I’ve never traveled outside of the country so I had no idea what the process for getting a Visa would be like. But visiting a Consulate conjured up images of diplomats and protocol. I pictured Jennifer and me entering through the stately double doors into a sedately carpeted room where a beautiful Asian woman sits behind a mahogany desk greeting visitors and directing them to the appropriate office for Visa processing. People speak in hushed tones because important diplomatic work is going on.

So on Wednesday when we arrived at the Consulate, the sign on the door said that to get to the Visa office, we needed to walk up to Geary Street and turn right.

Okay, no problem. I was a little disappointed we weren’t going to enter the Consulate through the impressive entrance with the red Chinese emblem but at least we were within walking distance of where we need to be. When we got to the entrance, there were about 15 people waiting for security to check the contents of their bags and backpacks.

Once we were inside, my brain couldn’t make sense of what I saw. It was a noisy, crowed room with linoleum floors, metal chairs and white cinderblock walls punctuated with the sound of screaming kids. Where are the plush Oriental rugs, lacquered screens, carved Chinese dragons, and tea ceremonies? I kept blinking but nothing changed.

Then it hit me. Oh my gosh – the Consulate is the Chinese DMV! I was so disappointed. “Now serving 104 at Window 8” scrolled across the digital board in both English and Chinese characters. Jennifer had number 186.

Jennifer was totally amused at my naiveté. “You know, Mom, I’m just not that special.” I suppose that just because travelling to China is totally outside my realm of experience doesn’t mean that it is for lots of other people – especially in the Bay Area.

Visiting the Consulate wasn’t the experience I was expecting but it still was a memorable experience. Great people watching and good bonding time with Jennifer during the two hours that we waited until her number was called. And the good news?  We get to do it all again in a week when we go to pick up her Visa.

Time share

July 26th, 2015

In about six weeks, our daughter Jennifer Lynn leaves for her year-long study abroad program. She will be spending her entire sophomore year in Shanghai; we’re excited for the adventure ahead of her but my stomach knots up when I think about not seeing for more than eight months.

I wish I could take the time that we’re spending with her this summer and “bank” it, so we could withdraw it over Thanksgiving, Christmas, and weekends – times that I anticipate that we will especially miss having her here. Since that’s just not possible, the best we can do is to take the opportunity to spend time together as a family when our schedules open up.

Saturday was one of those days – Jennifer had the day off from The Gap Outlet, and Steve and I were happy to procrastinate the shopping trips to Costco and Target, vacuuming and laundry, and bookkeeping that usually fills our Saturdays.

So what would be a diverting and gratifying way to spend our day together? We love going Into San Francisco with an objective but also staying flexible. We have found that it’s often best to let the availability of parking in San Francisco drive the day instead of driving to park.

So with that in mind, our first destination (and amazingly we got a parking space without even circling the block!) was . I know – I had never heard of it either until Jennifer came home from a trip to San Francisco raving about what a cool place this is to shop for frames…as in eyeglass frames.

My standard response to just about every shopping need is, “Why don’t you just get (fill in the blank) at Costco?” But for a fashion forward 19-year old who just got a super-cute rock star haircut (I know I sound old), getting your glasses prescription filled at Warby Parker in Hayes Valley is like a hipster holy grail. And it worked out just great; it was affordable and the verly attractive 20-something staff were helpful, friendly and super-efficient with their iPads and paperless transactions. Jennifer’s glasses will arrive in 7-10 days.

When a day starts out with finding parking in San Francisco you know you’ve got a blessed day ahead and that proved to be true for us as the day wore on. We found a great place to eat (only a 10 minute wait!) in the Hayes Valley neighborhood. With our tummies happy, we thought we would try for some window shopping along the trendy area of Fillmore Street but since we couldn’t find parking we continued onto Chestnut Street (again no parking) so we continued north across the bridge.

It was still early in the afternoon and the sun was shining in Marin. My first reaction was to say “Let’s just head home” but Steve understands the value of cherishing the moment and suggested extending the nice time we were having by stopping at the Village in Corte Madera.

The affluence that envelopes that shopping center always makes me feel a little like I’m stepping aboard luxury cruise ship. But it makes for great people watching. Sitting under an umbrella outside of Starbucks watching the moms and daughters leave Nordstroms with their Anniversary Sale bags, I felt like I was on vacation.

But the great thing is that sitting there and taking in the view didn’t cost us more than gas and a Frappuccino.  If Jennifer has next Sunday off, let’s do it again and make another deposit into her “we’re going to miss you!” bank account.

Mommie dearest

July 19th, 2015

It’s news to me, but according to the experts, the family relationship that is the most troubled is the one between mothers and their teenage daughters. Think of the door slamming, the silent treatment and the snarky comments hurled between Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan (back when she was cute) in “Freaky Friday” – a movie which we have watched and enjoyed many, many times.

Psychologists say that the root of these conflicted relationships is the result of the mother seeing her daughter as an extension of herself at the same time that the teenage daughter is desperately seeking her own sense of self. The article that brought this to light described a mother and daughter who hung out together on Friday nights, eating their favorite candy and watching “Project Runway” in their jammies.

Everything was fine until high school, when the daughter wanted to hang out with her friends instead of mom. The mom reacted like she had been stood up for a date and became resentful that her daughter was choosing to spend time with her friends instead of with her. Her daughter felt conflicted about going out with her friends because she felt like she needed to take care of her mother’s feelings. After reading this, I couldn’t help but wonder: who was the adult in that relationship?

Having had two daughters – and I still have one who is a teenager – mother-daughter relationships is a topic that I can speak from experience on.  While I’m not out of the woods yet, I can say that the relationship between me and my daughters has been relatively free of conflict and was even described as “good” by Jennifer…high praise indeed when you’re talking to a teenager.

How have we managed to avoid the fights and drama that are often a part of mother-daughter relationships? When our oldest daughter was entering junior high, I got some very good advice from a gifted family therapist who we saw regularly. He said, “Don’t try to be your daughter’s best friend. That’s not what she wants from you. She wants boundaries because that will make her feel secure.” That’s advice I’ve tried to follow. You won’t see us in matching bikinis on Facebook.

Another reason why we get along (and for which I can take no credit) is that I happen to be blessed with girls who want to please.  There are many parents who do all the right things and relationships still are strained just because that’s just the personality their child was born with.

And…and this is a huge…I have a husband who is ready to step in to support me and reinforce the boundaries when the occasional snarky comment is flung my direction by one of the girls.

That’s not to say that our household is run like an impersonal boot camp. My daughters and I have enjoyed many evenings watching “So You Think You Can Dance” together, sharing Jelly Bellys and trading backrubs. But should their phone ring with an invitation from one of their friends to go get coffee, I’m happy to for them to join their friends and leave me on the couch. Thank goodness they have friends!  All I ask is that you text me with what time you’ll be home.

Get a job Sha na na na

July 6th, 2015

So here’s a statement that will make me sound like I’m 110 years old: life is very different for teenagers today than it was when I was growing up.

The latest evidence to support that? Only one third of American teenagers had a job last summer; down 40% from 2000.

I don’t have the statistics on the percentage of teenagers who had summer jobs back in the dark ages when I grew up, but unless your parents were super rich and could afford to take you with them on a month-long trip to Europe, you spent the early days of summer scouring the want ads, asking your parents’ friends for jobs, or making the rounds of the local mall filling out handwritten applications.

Of course we worked during the summer…what else was there to do? Nobody knew what an internship was unless you were talking about the path to becoming a doctor. No one traveled to exotic locations to build houses for needy people.  And the year-round sports that consume so many high schoolers’ summers didn’t exist.

An informal survey of how my daughter’s friends are spending the summer confirms what the newspaper reported.  Jennifer Lynn and one other classmate are the only girls of her group who aren’t building their resumes by volunteering in the Dominican Republic, taking summer school classes in Florence, or interning at a high tech firm.

Those experiences can certainly teach valuable skills. But I think there is also a lot to be gained – in addition to the added funds in their bank account – by working a minimum wage summer job. Skills such as learning to work with people who you wouldn’t choose as friends, taking direction, customer service, respecting authority.

And there’s one more good reason for teens to have a summer job: you have to have some bad jobs so that you know when you’ve gotten a better job.

My first summer job was at Baskin Robbins. We had to wear white dresses that the manager had purchased at a medical supply store – hard to look cool when you’re wearing a reject from the nurse’s clearance rack. While the other soda jerks and I were earning $1.75 an hour scooping Jamoca Almond Fudge into cones (sugar or regular), the manager was in the back, reading romance novels.  Our closing time routine included scraping the floor with a putty knife, thanks to the popularity that summer of Bubble Gum ice cream.

That’s by no means the worst summer job ever; I have a friend who spent her summers in North Carolina picking tobacco.

But by the next summer, I was able to land a better job at a teen clothing store in a mall, working with girls I liked and a hard-working manager. While I didn’t want to make a career out of folding t-shirts, I had gained some perspective; at least I wasn’t scraping up gum. Learning appreciation? That’s wonderful on-the-job training for life.


Family ties

June 28th, 2015

There are lots of different activities that families do together to promote family bonding. Things like playing sports together or having family game nights, or camping, hiking. But our family’s favorite bonding experience? The bunch of us plopped on the couch with a cat or two strewn amongst us, watching TV.

I’ve always felt a little guilty that something so inert and seemingly non-interactive has been one of the most memorable and enjoyable ways that our family has spent time together. There’s a voice inside of me that says when our kids were growing up, we should have dressed them in their matching overalls (which of course of I have sewed out of the curtains), strapped on their little backpacks filled with granola bars and water and set out on a trekking adventure – ala the Sound of Music.

Instead, we’re sitting on our butts staring fish-mouthed at the TV.

But thanks to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, I now have some data that proves that watching TV together is actually a great way to bond.  According to the study in the Journal of Adolescent Research, shared media viewing led to more positive functioning for adolescent boys and girls and “greater parental  involvement” for both.

No need for me to feel guilty any more. The experts have quantified what I already felt was true – that when we watched TV together and laughed, and commented about what we were watching, and talked about it afterwards, we were developing – in research parlance – “positive social skills” in our children.

I remember when our kids were between the ages of 6 and 14 in the late 1990s. Every Saturday night, we looked forward to the line-up of our favorite TV shows. “Mr. Bean,” “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” and “Iron Chef,” back when it was the authentic Japanese series with English subtitles.

Now, when our kids are visiting during college breaks or are on army leave and they are in the mood for the TV equivalent of comfort food, they’ll suggest popping in a MST3K DVD for family viewing. “Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders” from Season 10, especially because it was partially filmed in Petaluma, is a perennial favorite.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we can (partially) credit Jennifer’s college scholarship to our family spending a day during Christmas break, binge watching “Cheers.” When her college application required her to write an essay about “If you could teach a course about anything, what would it be and why,” Jennifer, who aspires to be the next Amy Poehler, was ready with a full rationale about why she could fill a semester guiding students through why “Cheers” is “the best TV show that’s ever been,” as Amy says.

Jennifer is home from college for the summer. So what are the three of us bonding over? “Foyle’s War,” the British detective drama that takes place during WWII. Jennifer would never watch this on her own but sharing the experience as a family? You bet. She even surprised herself by saying, “I’m leaving my friend’s house a little early so I can come home and watch ‘Foyle’ with you.” When a teenager actually wants to spend time with their parents, you know something special is going on.

Happy Anniversary

June 21st, 2015

Thirty-one. If you’re talking about a person’s age, a 31 year-old is a young person. But in the context of marriage, 31 years seems like a really long time for two people to be together. I guess that’s why it’s hard for me to believe that Steve and I have been married that long. Time has gone so fast…we can’t be that old! But there’s no denying the math; we were married on June 16, 1984 on a breathtakingly beautiful Saturday in San Francisco.

So this year, in honor of our 31st wedding anniversary, we did something really unusual for us: we celebrated it. It’s embarrassing to admit that we’ve let the prior 30 anniversaries – except our first anniversary when we went through the ritual of eating the freezer-burned wedding cake that we had saved  – pass by unacknowledged. Our 26 year-old son had no clue what our anniversary date is until we told him yesterday.

What’s our lame excuse for ignoring the Wood (5th) anniversary, the Tin (10th), Crystal (15th), China (20th), Silver (25th), Pearl (30th) and all the anniversaries in between? “We’ve been busy,” she said sheepishly.

Once we had children, that’s where all our focus went…probably too much so. I’m sure our kids would not have suffered if we had taken a night away from them to honor our anniversary date. It might have even been a little shocking to them – in a good way – and demonstrated to them that the world didn’t begin when they were born…that their mom and dad were a couple with interests and activities and even some fun(!) before they arrived on the scene.

Now that our youngest daughter is in college, those years of intense parenting are behind us. We’ve entered the next phase of our lives when it really is all about us as a couple. It’s about time that we begin celebrating us!

So here’s a toast to another 31 years. Steve will be 101 (but because he’s blessed with such good genes he’ll only look like he’s 80) and I’ll be a youthful 89. God willing…if we make it to 2046, I’m sure we’ll still be wondering how it can seem like we blinked, and 62 years flew by.