Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Prize

My eye had been on the prize for more than ten years. Over a decade of planning and anticipation, of maneuvering in place to claim the reward. After thirty-seven years on the job, the founding head of my school finally announced her retirement and I knew I had put myself in great position to assume the mantle.

I alone, I believed, had the vision to carry this school forward for future generations. I knew the philosophy like the faces of the children I taught. I had built excellent relationships, not only with the students and faculty, but with the movers and shakers in whose hands this decision lay. I understood that this school had a spirit like no other. I embodied that spirit and I was uniquely qualified to articulate it and give it opportunities to thrive. I had the energy and the passion to be the leader and the visionary whom the school was seeking.

The search committee asked for a cover letter and references. I gave them a portfolio to knock their socks off. It was indexed and cross-referenced, a feast of essays, anecdotes, photographs, and dozens of letters from every corner of the community. I hand-delivered it to the committee chair, feeling like all he had to do was hand me the keys to the new job. I bought a fine suit and aced the first interview, dazzled them with charm, knowledge, and grace. I was confident and proud to be taking over the reins.

A second interview never came. The chairman of the board called me the afternoon that school was out for winter break. Not qualified. Better candidates. Lacking the experience. I was numbed into silence. And then I collapsed. Hurt, devastated, I let out my anguish. Ten years of built-up anticipation and preparedness came crashing down in the space of a single phone call. This had been the grand plan. There was no other. Humbled and dispirited, I later watched as other candidates were paraded in front of the faculty. I could hardly stand it.

Before the school year was over, the intense pain lifted and a voice called out. “You’re not an administrator,” it said, “you’re an artist!” And I listened. Over time, the voice became clearer and more playful. It told me of a new path. A path of theater and of writing. It convinced me that leading a life of meetings and long range planning, of financial analysis and the buck stopping here was not for me. I like our new Head of School. He’s a good guy and clearly the best man for the job. I thank divine spirit every day that I’m not wearing his shoes.

Instead, I create. I bring stories to life. Three weeks after the phone call, I took my family to a pottery studio for my daughter’s birthday. I wrote about the experience, my first piece of creative writing in twenty-five years. I read it at the Deadbeat Coffeehouse and before I knew it, I was in the newspaper. I’ve been writing ever since. There are so many stories to tell, so many words to share.

I bring stories to life on stage. I write, adapt, direct, envision. Seeing thirty or one hundred and thirty kids act, with common purpose and joy, on a play that I have guided onto the stage is truly an awe-inspiring experience.

I am a writer and I remain ever thankful for the twist in the road and this creative life that is my prize.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

New Beginnings

It’s been a tough old year. My writing dried up for a while, and with it my attention to this site. I’m glad to be back.

Thank you to my friends and family for being there through the year, and to my new community of writing friends at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver for helping me to jumpstart my writing engine.

I have posted three new essays this month with more to come.

A Sommelier of Semantics is a light-hearted look at how we use different language when talking and writing to different people.

Seven Thousand Miles is an intimate portrait of a school I attended as a child, the one where I teach now, and the personal journey that lies within.

A Whole New World is an amusing take on how the books I read as a child might have affected my choices as an adult.

Enjoy these words and feel free to sign up to follow this blog, to leave a comment or two, to send the link to this blog to those who might be interested, and to check back here when you have a free moment.

Thanks for visiting.

A Sommelier of Semantics - in search of the perfect language

There was a time when I was always from somewhere else.

In Denver where I live, I used to open my mouth and people made a wide range of guesses at where I might be from: Australia, Massachusetts, South Africa? Close, but no cigar. In my native land of England, when I visited from my home in the States, they wondered but often could not place me – maybe Newfoundland? On either side of the Atlantic, I felt like I was always from somewhere else. And maybe I was.

That was a decade ago. Now that I’ve been an emigrant for twenty years, my spoken English is firmly on the American side of the water. I’ve forgotten some of the British colloquialisms I grew up with and I’ve been speaking like a Yank for some time now. I even noticed myself using the adjective “good” in place of the adverb “well” the other day. Crikey! My haughty boarding school English teacher would be turning over in his grave. Have I really replaced “Terribly good show, what, old sport!” with “You did good!”?

One of the advantages of being a classically educated Englishman in cowboy country is that I occasionally sound like I know what I’m talking about – even when I don’t. But I’m fascinated to think how differently I sound depending on whom I’m talking to.

My nine year old came into the bathroom this morning, still half asleep, and lapsed into baby talk. Never one to encourage my girls to grow up too fast, I went right there with her. Like all families, mine has all kinds of words left over from the toddler years. My two favorites are hep, which is what my older daughter used to substitute for except and ambliance. No one can park in the hospital parking lot, hep the ambliances. This is the stuff of family legend.

When I teach my graduate students, I use entirely different language. When I speak to my class of third graders, different again. I choose a wide range of vocabulary, cadence, tempo, and tone depending on my audience: my hard of hearing neighbor, my children, the jerk at the post office, my buddies at the bar, my boss, my wife. Imagine using one form of our spoken language in place of another. What if I whispered sweet nothings when I’m trying to return a salad shooter at the mall. Ugh!

The same goes for written form: e-mails and letters to friends, job applications, school reports, sticky notes left in the kitchen to remind my kids to take out the trash. All with a very different purpose and I adjust my language accordingly. As an essayist, my written language varies according to topic and intended audience. When I am trying to inject humour into my work, I tend to write in a more conversational tone. I like to imagine my essay as a speech, my audience sitting there before me, guffawing along with me. When my subject matter floats towards the more serious and emotional, so does my language.

When I was thirteen, my Welsh grandmother gave me a paperback copy of Roget’s Thesaurus. I still have it and use it frequently. It’s dog-eared, bent, and falling apart at the seams. That amazing volume of vocabularious lexiconality (okay, I just made those words up) has got me through many a stumbling point in my writing adventures. I don’t know who Mr Roget is or was, but his store of knowledge will always be more meaningful and beneficial than the electronic versions they have nowadays.

As I writer, I love to ponder the nuances of meaning, selecting just the perfect word or phrase at the perfect time. I imagine myself as a sommelier of semantics, an owner of a vast array of delectable flavors, savoring each old friend, trying to discern exactly which one will hit the spot with each course. I don’t always find the right mark, but I enjoy the game immensely.

Seven Thousand Miles

April 1975. Summer term at a traditional English boarding school. A former mansion, tucked away into the thick woodlands of the southeast. The greystone edifice perched atop a hill casting a foreboding eye on all it sees. A small and sensitive seven year old is left for the first time at the grand front portal as his parents, young and unknowing in the ways of child development, drive away. He would see them every other weekend while school was in session - for the next eleven years. He is trying hard not to let others see the fear and hurt in his eyes.

It is a school where rote learning is standard; where good study habits mean copying pages off the board verbatim; where the art teacher gets angry if the boy doesn’t do it her way; where he is told to stand facing the wall for two hours after getting caught talking after lights out; where he must wear shorts even on the most biting of winter days; where no one knows his first name, only his last; where bullying is regarded as an acceptable form of character building; where missing chapel results in a beating; where untrained teachers rely on the pedagogy of their own post-war school experiences. The small and sensitive seven year old has no opportunity to find out who he is. He simply hides himself away.

That same April 1975. Seven thousand miles away, at a small school attached to Montview Church in Denver, Colorado. A teacher, trained in that same post-war England, is watching and listening to children. They are just returning from spring break. The sun warms their faces. All around her there is joy and laughter. A few of the children are seven, small, and sensitive.

These children, however, are painting glorious pictures; they are pouring water and digging in the sand; they are reading and writing - anything they want; they are sewing, building and gluing; they are playing dress-up and make-believe; they are learning math with blocks and color; they are learning how to give and take and share; they are celebrating each other’s successes; they are hugging and being hugged. The English woman does everything in her power to help these seven year olds find out who they are. And they sparkle.

The teacher’s name is Carolyn. She has recently arrived in Colorado, from England, with a young family of her own. She is in the process, although she doesn’t know it at present, of founding a school that would later grow into a beloved institution, educating thousands of children. All of them touched personally by her strong principles, her guiding hand, and her love.

The boy’s first name is Steve. Me.

Everyone calls me that now, even my students.

Fifteen years after those humble beginnings, I stumbled upon Carolyn’s school. She hired me and I have learned. I have been a teacher and theatre director here for almost twenty years, the length of a childhood. Her school, now known as the Stanley British Primary School, has taught me well.

I invite you to walk into my classroom. I am proud of the joy to be found. Children feel safe, knowing there are clearly defined limits and high expectations. They are free to be themselves, to explore while learning, and to find success. They are encouraged to take risks and they are guided as they learn from their mistakes. We work together to find out more each day about what kind of learners they are. They learn to articulate their strengths and they work to strengthen their weaknesses. They know they can make a positive difference in numerous ways. They are supported, trusted and loved. They are on the pathway to discover who they are.

I think of John, a third grader who has been diagnosed with a severe form of dyslexia. Reading is an immense struggle, as he meets familiar words for the first time again and again and again. His writing is almost impossible to read. Letters are misshapen or reversed. He occasionally forms entire sentences in mirror image from right to left. Expressing himself on paper is the hardest thing anyone has ever asked him to do.

The class is studying pre-Revolutionary War America. One group decides to make a dramatic presentation of the events surrounding the Boston Tea Party. John is one of the kids volunteering to play the part of Sam Adams. This needs to be improvised. They have been given ten minutes to produce a skit. There is no time for further study. To my surprise, his peers pick John for the role. I am unsure of what he knows. The kids know better.

With barely any practice, John gives a fluent and knowledgeable oration, recounting all the reasons that taxation without representation is unjust, why the tea on the ships floating out in Boston Harbor represents all that the colonists found so wrong with British rule, and what steps the American militia should take to unseat the occupational forces. It is an extraordinary moment. John has since gone on to star in theater in high school. Learning lines is still hard for him, but he has figured out that if he records his part and plays it back, he can memorize without too much trouble. He knows who he is as a learner.

My classroom is a place where parents feel welcome, included and appreciated, where they are free to give opinions, ask questions and participate fully in the education of their child. Their questions are answered honestly. Knowledge about child development is dispensed freely and without judgment.

I think of Lisa, the parent of an only child, a librarian by training. She grew up in San Francisco with a deep-seated phobia of math and no confidence in her mathematic ability. She mentions to me that she is struggling to help her daughter with her homework on subtraction and borrowing. She knows how to do it, just not how to explain it. She and I spend a delightful hour, one afternoon after school, playing with base ten blocks, looking at subtraction from various conceptual angles, and talking about the differences in experience and learning style between herself and her daughter. Homework now breathes more easily in Lisa’s house.

I invite you to come to a play rehearsal or to see children performing in one of my productions. Anywhere from thirty to one hundred and thirty kids working in harmony towards a common goal. As in the classroom, I am proud of the joy dancing through the theatre. Children are encouraged to reach outside their comfort zone, to strive for something they did not know they had inside them. Humour and delight abound.

I think of Katie who, a few short years ago, squeaked out a couple of barely audible lines in Peter Pan. She later starred in a major role as Alice in Wonderland, to rave reviews. I think of Will, who in the past has lacked confidence and brought a slight awkwardness to social situations. He recently played the lead, all 400 lines of it, as Sheridan Whiteside, the outlandish curmudgeon, in The Man Who Came To Dinner, and emerged as a true leader among the cast.

There is a unique spirit at Carolyn’s school. It recently hosted a statewide meeting of independent schools heads. Administrators from some of the finest schools in Colorado entered the front lobby of the school and the reaction was universal: “There is such a feeling of warmth.” Later, they toured our campus. More comments were heard: “What a delightful place this is; how happy the children are; look how the children’s work is everywhere; there is such a relaxed atmosphere; the campus is beautiful; the students are so comfortable in their environment; there is a spirit here I haven’t experienced elsewhere.”

I am overjoyed to have been a part of growing that spirit. Yet, more importantly, I am overjoyed at how the school has been part of my growing spirit.

It has taught me how to watch and listen to children. It has taught me what a joyful place school can be. It has shown me that the process is more important than the product. It has helped me understand what it means to be a lifelong learner. It has surrounded me with color and creativity, laughter and friendships.

While my formal schooling in England taught me dates and facts, Latin and Greek, competition and one-upmanship, there was so much I did not learn. I never learned about support, justice, cooperation or trust. I never learned joy, gratitude or love. I never learned the importance of play. I have learned these things at the Stanley British Primary School. I have learned them from Carolyn, from colleagues, and from parents. But most of all, I have learned them from the children. I watch them and listen to them and they teach me. Every one of them. My first class of five year olds as an intern twenty years ago, my current class of third, fourth and fifth graders, and the middle and high schoolers, many of them former students, whom I direct in theatrical productions at the school each summer.

I now know that I did not stumble upon Carolyn’s school. I was guided here for a reason. Within this safe, warm and inviting space, I have at last experienced everything that Carolyn’s kids were participating in, and that I was missing out on, all those years ago. This school has quite simply allowed me to experience my childhood.

It has brought me out of hiding.

I have finally discovered who I am.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Whole New World

A childhood spent on a small island in the North Atlantic watching the cross-dressing antics of Bennie Hill and the Pythons must be regarded with a wary vigilance. I fondly recall my first purchase of a .45 record. In the early seventies, while others were snapping up the first hit singles by ABBA or the last by the Beatles, I saved my pennies for a oddly appealing little number called The Funky Gibbon.

I learned to read by devouring the classic ‘Ladybird’ series, small hardback books with vaguely sexual titles like Dick Whittington, Peter and Jane, Puss in Boots and The Enormous Turnip. They innocently portrayed an idyllic version of my rural English upbringing, complete with the joys of nippy seaside holidays under grim skies.

Tossed into my reading mix were freshly imported American authors like Dr. Seuss and Richard Scarry, who nuzzled their way into my favorite nook and opened my eyes to an alien world. They introduced characters with ridiculously exotic names I’d never heard of like Aaron and Pop. They showcased peculiar scenes of happy farmers building impossibly red barns, growing fictional vegetables such as corn and pumpkins. How could this be true? Such produce didn’t exist in my world. They lied about footwear called sneakers and kids who wore their pants on the outside. Didn’t they know that pants are what I called underwear? They depicted towns with gobbledygook names for familiar objects like garbage truck, and mail delivery person. Whoever heard of such poppycock? What’s wrong with rubbish cart and postman? I learned that people in America weren’t even people, but bears and foxes and pigs and they traveled by railroad or station wagons, whatever those were. What nonsense! And the dogs were uniformly brown, had droopy ears, and wore T-shirts. What a strange country this America must be.

And then a funny thing happened. Later on, I met an American, and married her. I moved to this bizarre land and discovered a few things for myself. The temperature varies by more than twenty degrees between summer and winter – shocking! It is a country plagued with wildfires, tornadoes, and mudslides. Camping means driving an RV complete with microwave and satellite TV. Portion sizes in restaurants could feed a European family of four for a week. Quick is spelled K-W-I-K and internationals news covers stories from as far away as Canada and Louisiana.

Even though I’ve been on this side of the pond for almost two decades now, there are still a few things that puzzle me. Why is it that when I compliment someone on their sweater, the unwavering response is never “Thank you” but always “Macy’s, on sale, 19.99”? Who needs the supermarket to be open at 2:36 a.m. and can I really buy pickled pigs’ feet there? Do people honestly drink Super Double Big Gulps? Why should I tip when the service is mediocre or worse? In public restrooms, who exactly wants to see the feet in the next stall?

Such are the unanswerable questions that stick with me as I navigate this American life of mine. I never guessed I would end up here or that my first forays into reading were hinting at the madness to come.

What a strange country this is.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Theatre On My Mind

It's been a while since I've put anything new up here. I've got a few new essays in the works, but I have been working principally on my upcoming theatre productions. My mind is full of dialogue. Some scripts are complete, others are in progress.

I'm directing four plays over the summer months. All are held in the ballroom at the Stanley British Primary School in Denver. Admission is free, however participation in all the plays is sold out, with the exception of Happy Daze, the production for high schoolers. For more information on registering for the high school theater camp, please visit http://sbps.schoolfusion.us/

Alice in Wonderland Jr. for grades 3-5 Tuesday May 19 and Thursday May 21 at 9:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. (musical, co-directed with Jill Teas)

Funny Money for grades 4-9 Friday June 26 at 10:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m.

Happy Daze, Or The Short Happy Madness of Julian Thaddeus Springer for grades 9-12 Friday July 17 at 10:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m.

Beauty and the Beast for grades 3-9 Friday August 7 at 10:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m.

In addition, I will be performing at Stanley's 17th Annual Deadbeat Coffeehouse on Saturday April 25th at 7:30 p.m.

I hope you can come! Please check back here again soon for more musings on life, teaching, parenting, and finding the good in this crazy world.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Good News!

I write for my own pleasure. My head swirls with all manner of random thoughts. Some of them make it as far as my journal, some of them all the way to my computer and beyond. I enjoy observing my world and once in a while I discover that I have some commentary to make about the state of it.

Like many writers, I write about what I know. My world is filled principally with parenting and teaching. Human relationships. My subjects are the people I meet, the places I frequent. There’s not much chance of me becoming an adventure writer at this stage of my life. My wildest adventures encompass road trips in the minivan to visit the in-laws and excursions to the zoo. Don’t get me wrong. I’m fond of both, but sadly you won’t find me running rapids down the Amazon or scrambling up Ayers Rock any time soon.

I do, however, consider myself a worldly, well-educated fellow. I have done my fair share of international travel. I’ve lived in three countries on two continents. I’ve certainly met several books-worth of interesting characters. Of course, I only have to take the #15 bus through central Denver to find those folks. They are the same people that Kerouac used as fodder for ‘On The Road’.

I like to keep abreast of the world’s events. I enjoy my morning newspaper. I’m a skimmer. I run my eyes over the headlines and photos and only settle on the stories that appeal. I confess that I have little tolerance for the stories that have been part of my reading for decades now. As important as they are to millions, I don’t dwell on peace and war between Middle Eastern countries nor between the blowhards of the U.S. political parties. I’ve given up reading about violent crimes, particularly those against children. I don’t intend to create a false view of the world. I just have an intense need to avoid the worst of humanity. Life is too short. I look for the best.

The pickings are slim. It was Laurel Thatcher Ulrich who said that well-behaved women rarely make history. Good news is few and far between in my local broadsheet. A quick glance at today’s paper illustrates my point. It is full of depressing economic stories and a new president struggling to come to terms with the mess he has inherited. In addition, the front page carries stories about dead soldiers being brought back from war, a verdict in the case of a man accused of murdering his infant son, arguments about environmental impact of offshore drilling, devastating wildfires in Australia, and deadly tornadoes in a neighboring state. I empathize with the victims, I truly do, but I can’t allow that kind of energy to color my days.

Instead, I try to find tidbits of good news, happier times. There’s not much. But I’m grateful for what I find. A picture of the first signs of spring. Michelle Obama committing to taking her girls to school as often as she can. A few jobs opening up in the rural areas of my state. A dinner in honor of the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives. That’s about it. All in all, about six inches of column space. Slim pickings indeed.

There were a couple more mentions of events that aren’t altogether bad news, not nearly in the same vein as murder and natural disasters, but they certainly don’t feed the soul: Barbie turns fifty this week. That’s Barbie, the ridiculously shaped plastic doll. New York is hosting a Fashion Week event in her (its?) honor. And even more bizarre, “a Michigan zoo is hosting a exotic, erotic afternoon on Valentine’s Day when consenting adults will get an unabashed look at how wild animals make babies” (Denver Post 2/11/09). Is this the state of our world – when okapi pornography is among the least worst news we have to report?

I’m thankful that I’m a reflective writer, not a reporter. Most reporters, at least those not chasing the latest celebrities through the undergrowth of fame, are wonderfully intrepid individuals. They are undoubtedly doing the world a great service. But I find I need to be selective in what I inhale. My soul cannot stand too much tragedy and disaster. It needs to find kindness and compassion to grow. The goodness of humankind is what I crave.

I find very little of it in the news media. I find it in my family, in the children I teach, in the smile I encounter from people I pass on the street, in the gestures of friends, in the generous offers from neighbors, in my community. I find the goodness of humankind in the world around me, in my world, not in the news reports from the world at large.

And here’s the good news. My community is one of hundreds of thousands around the world. What I label as “my world” is duplicated for every single other individual on the planet. Not only does each of us receive some sort of kindness every day, however small, more importantly each of us has the ability to be kind to others. I’m pretty sure that every one of us does show some sort of kindness to one other human being every day. But we can do more, all of us. Each one of us has the potential to show one more kindness, show one more ounce of compassion, do one more favor.

None of it will reach my morning newspaper, but altogether, it will change the world.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Past Present Future

If you’re on Facebook, you know all about “25 Random Things About Me”. It’s become such a phenomenon that the New York Times recently wrote a feature about it. If you’re not, allow me to explain. Someone, anyone, writes 25 statements about him or herself: childhood memories, current beliefs, high school crushes, favorite books or movies, quirky information. He or she posts it on their Facebook profile for all their friends to see.

When I first saw one, I was amazed at the openness. I loved learning about a small slice of my friend’s background. It was fun, thought-provoking, and enlightening. Over the last few weeks, more and more friends have bared their souls. Never feeling like I was reading TMI, too much information, I have been pleasantly surprised at how carefully I’ve been taking them in. Windows have been opened and wonderful discussions have followed. I have learned things that I would never have discovered over coffee.

Inspired by my friends, I have just finished writing my own. It has been a fascinating process. What information would people want to read? How can I narrow it down to 25 things? Is this supposed to be a summary of my life or of my current thinking about the world? Should I be sincere, humorous, vulnerable? What would people think? What I discovered in the course of writing is that one ‘fact' flowed into the next. It doesn’t matter what people think and it’s not a résumé. It is simply an exercise in taking a little time, going inside for a short while, checking in with me, and seeing how I am doing.

I also discovered that looking backwards and looking inside isn’t enough. My random things are about my past and my present. As I wrote, I realized that where I really want to go is my future. So I have also generated some thoughts about where I’m headed. I have spent some time dwelling on where I want my life to go, and creating a vision for myself. I’ve called it Living My Vision.

Both my 25 Random Things About Me and Living My Vision are posted here. I have written them for me. But I post them here because I hope someone, maybe you, will enjoy them enough to be inspired. Perhaps inspired enough to go inside for a moment or to create a vision of your own. It has been a wonderful pause in my journey. Enjoy.

25 Random Things About Me

1. Being sent away to a traditional English boarding school at the age of seven has affected my adult life in more ways than I have previously cared to admit….

2. Negative impact: child abuse is never ever ever okay under any circumstance. Intimacy and trust are damn hard. But I’m working assiduously on both.

3. Positive impact: it has become very clear that my entire life has been and will always be about creating safe, happy spaces in which kids are free to grow.

4. Emma and Leah are the essential elements in my life. When I watch them sleep, I understand what is meant by ‘love hurts’.

5. Laughing with them brings me my single greatest joy.

6. I’ve never taken a class in theater in my life. I’ve acted in three plays, one in elementary school, two in college. All three were terrible. I was the only native English speaker in one – The Importance of Being Earnest – it was hilarious, but still terrible.

7. I am passionate about directing. Bringing a story from script to production is an awesome experience.

8. But not as awesome as seeing the light go on for one child.

9. I’m directing four plays this summer, bringing my total to 27 full-scale productions in the last ten years. My theater colleagues are among the most creative people I know.

10. I am an artist. I think I’ve always been one but nobody told me until a couple of years ago. I see the world in pictures. Books on tape are really hard for me.

11. I am grateful for those who see my artistry. You know who you are.

12. Writing is my thing. When the newspaper published my first essay, I wept. I plan on getting out there more. I know more about blogging than I ever thought I would. When I sit down to write an essay, I rarely know where I’m going. I believe that the Creative Spirit works through those who let her in.

13. I believe in Spirit. I am beginning to trust. I am learning to get out of the way. I’ve been here before and I know I’ll be back.

14. I believe religion is the root of much that is wrong with this world.

15. I love water – drinking it, listening to it, floating on it, walking through it, watching it, crossing it, standing under it, swimming in it. My best ideas come in the pool.

16. I am not a fan of movies or TV. I’ll go see live theater as many times as the budget will allow. Though I watch and know more about sports than anyone thinks.

17. I fantasize that one day I’ll still be teaching but earning the salary of a profession I value less.

18. Every year, I take the stage in Stanley’s Annual Deadbeat Coffeehouse. It is an amazing event involving the most incredible people. Every organization deserves such a night, a boost to the community spirit. I feel like an amateur compared to other performers. I am in awe of my musician friends. I wish I could sing like that.

19. I’ve played a lot of rugby, squash and water polo in my time, but I find it almost impossible to button the cuff on the right arm of my shirts.

20. At one point I was fluent in French and reasonably useful in Russian, Italian, Greek, Swahili and Latin. I have discovered that Colorado is not the place for honing those skills.

21. When I was small, my father owned the toy shop in our village. It was heaven for a little boy. I still feel guilty for stealing a plastic miniature Greek soldier. Sorry, Dad.

22. Some likes: Newcastle Brown, Brussel sprouts, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, beach vacations, kind people, Wings Seminars in Eugene, baseball.

23. Some dislikes: celery, beets, peanut butter, traffic, thoughtless and/or mean people, crowded places, shopping malls.

24. I don’t consider myself a material person, but I know that one day I will be the proud owner of a Mini Cooper S, a red one with a sunroof.

25. I didn’t plan on writing these, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how wonderful it’s been reading those of my friends. However writing what’s been before will never be as relevant as creating a vision of what’s to come. See below.

26. I’m not very good with rules (see #1), so I just had to write a 26th random fact – just to be difficult.

Living My Vision

I know who I am. I am grateful for the past and I know where I am going. I trust that I have everything I need for the journey. I am energetic, playful, humorous and kind. I am fully present and I dream big. I am courageous and adventurous and I take action, even when I am fearful, creating the results I want.

I am abundantly healthy, exercising at least twice a week and choosing a nutritious and balanced diet. I feel great in mind body and spirit. I always have choice and I am living a life of integrity. I am honest and joyous, celebrating my openness and vulnerability. I am emotionally connected to those I love. I am in a loving, supportive, mutually respectful relationship and I enjoy a close caring relationship with my girls, at all ages.

I work in a creative environment where I feel valued. I celebrate the artist in myself. I am writing and publishing, with positive reviews and strong sales. I am passionately involved in theater. I am assisting others to know and trust themselves, and I support them in pursuing their dreams. I am growing my wealth, investing in myself, my family, and for the good of the planet. I have enough money. I live in a warm and cozy house, where simplicity and comfort reign. I drive a car I love. I enjoy relaxing and exciting vacations at least twice a year.

I am a lifelong learner, seizing and embracing opportunities to grow. I trust the process of intention. I recognize the uniqueness and sacred in everyone. I know in my heart that each of us is capable, lovable, whole, and magnificent. I am building a culture which celebrates and honors children. I embrace service to my world and the people in it. I live in gratitude and bring joy and passion into my life and the lives of others.

I celebrate the happy carefree child and the wise guiding adult.

History starts now….

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


I know a little girl, ten years old. She bounces when she’s excited. No mild bobbing, Aliza clears the ground by several feet when she’s got good news to tell me. She is a student in my class. She greets me in the mornings with a bright-eyed smile and a spirited hello. She loves school! Loves working hard, loves helping others. This is a kid who has a total zest for life. Every new thing is an adventure. She exudes a passion which rubs off on her classmates. You should see Aliza on stage, performing improv. This kid can light it up. You know when Aliza is in the room. You feel her presence.

She’s a mighty package in a little body. In fifth grade, I bet she’s barely pushing sixty pounds. But the hair, you can’t miss the hair. Aliza is blessed with a shock of red locks. Picture little orphan Annie given free rein with a bottle of spritzer. Aliza’s is all natural. It’s wild hair and it bounces with her, giving her the look of a giant pom-pom on a pogo stick.

In every way, she’s the epitome of a normal kid, a fun-loving, creative, singing, dancing, fort-building, regular little girl. Except she wears a small device on her torso and is rarely seen without a green purse embossed with ornamental flowers.

In October 2007, Aliza was diagnosed with Type 1 or Juvenile Diabetes. Her body's immune system malfunctioned, destroying the cells in her pancreas which normally produce insulin. Insulin helps the body move the glucose from her food into cells throughout the body, which need it for energy. When her pancreatic cells were destroyed, she could no longer produce insulin. So the glucose stays in her blood, where it has the potential to cause major damage to all the organ systems of the body. Like all diabetics, she must receive insulin from another source.

Aliza lives with this disease continuously. She won’t grow out of it. It won’t go away. Every day, several times a day, Aliza uses a small spring-loaded needle to poke through the skin at the ends of her fingertips. She measures her blood glucose levels constantly. At any moment, if she were not keeping an eye on her body, her blood could contain too little or too much glucose, resulting in serious complications.

She has to think about what she eats and how much she exercises in relation to the insulin levels in her body. A mini-computer, which is part of the pump attached around her middle, controls the amount of insulin entering her body. She has to think about her disease all the time: before she starts her day, before a snack, before a meal, before recess, before P.E. class, before a shower, before bedtime, during the night. And it all starts all over again the next day.

I talked to her parents on the day she was diagnosed. Imagine the shock, the fear, the overwhelming task of trying to come to terms with how this disease was about to affect her family’s daily existence and their future. Aged nine at the time, it was hard to imagine this new life for Aliza. How would she manage to do everything she needed to do, learn everything about the disease she needed to know, get through her school days, get through the night?

As her teacher, I wasn’t sure how we were going to incorporate all of the new routines into our day. How were we going to manage if her glucose levels fell outside of the normal range? I figured we’d figure it out as we went along. None of us counted on the one thing that has been clear from the start – the strength of Aliza.

This little girl does it all. She knows her body – she knows when she feels low or high. She tests her levels by herself, she knows how to work the pump and adjust her insulin delivery. She is fully aware of the carbohydrate and sugar contents of everything she eats. She is calm and masterful talking to both kids and adults about the disease.

In fourth grade, before she got the pump, when she was still receiving twice daily insulin shots, I took my class on an overnight trip to the mountains. This was the first time that she was to receive insulin without her parents’ direct involvement. I learned everything I could about how to administer the shots. I wasn’t needed. Aliza had it down pat.

Aliza recently attended a dinner for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. She came home that night armed with awards. Aliza had put together a team to walk in the annual JDRF Walk to Cure Diabetes. More than fifty people walked with her. Her infectious joy helped make the walk a fabulous success. Together her team raised more than $16,000. The organization recognized her as an outstanding first-time participant.

15,000 new cases of Type I Diabetes are diagnosed every year in Americans under the age of 20. There is no confirmed reason why the disease strikes one person over another. People with diabetes succeed in every walk of life, from corporate boardrooms, to professional sports arenas, from the halls of Congress to the ivory towers of academia. The history of diabetes is filled with incredible stories of people managing their disease and living out their dreams.

Aliza is doing the same. Pound for pound, her strength is remarkable.

Photo - Aliza at the JDRF Awards Dinner with former NFL star and fellow diabetic Jay Leeuwenberg.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Have They No Legs?

One of the benefits to teaching in a reasonably affluent community is the generosity of the families whose children I teach. I make no secret of my fondness for grande lattes, so largesse will often come in the form of a Starbucks gift card. This has the dual advantage of giving me enough energy to teach the little cherubs and underwriting my passion for writing where my feet don’t get in the way of the vacuum cleaner.

I can be found every other weekend or so, propped up at a corner table at one of various cafés around town, typing up random thoughts into some semblance of cohesiveness. I magically swipe my plastic card and a perky co-ed or underemployed actor hands over a steaming paper cup of high-octane go-juice. It’s a wonderful system.

Every so often, I don’t have time to stop and smell the beans. I have to grab a joe to go and make my way to my next fun-filled function. I’m in a hurry. Starbucks has clearly recognized this pattern among their caffeine-addicted clientele and gone the way of the ubiquitous fast-food chains – the dreaded drive-thru. Call me old-fangled, but back when I was in school, ‘through’ was a seven letter word. No longer. It has gone the way of lite beer and e-z money - away from the Queen’s English and into misspelled main street purgatory.

Just this morning, I headed out to procure the daily jolt to my nervous system. I found myself at a new Starbucks store, one armed with the dreaded drive-thru. I also found something else, something truly incredible. There were nine, count them, nine cars in line to order at the faceless little box by the side of the coffeeshop. I could not believe what I was witnessing. And none of them had switched off their engines. All were spewing poisonous gases into the atmosphere. I could choose to get in behind a blue Ford Expedition or maneuver to one of several empty parking places. Hmm, tough choice. I selected the latter.

Did these people have no sense? I’ll give one, maybe two, of these drivers the benefit of the doubt and assume that they were somehow incapacitated and unable to perform the strenuous task of getting out of their car and walking the seven yards to the door. Perhaps they had no legs, though I saw no handicapped stickers. I’ll also assume that one or two had a kid strapped in one of those complicated carseats which take an advanced degree and a good few hours to release and re-capture. They may be forgiven. But the rest of them?

I decided to conduct an unscientific experiment. I had a little time this morning. I went inside, bought my latte and a newspaper, took a seat by the window, checked on the time, and waited. It had taken me exactly one minute and forty-two seconds to get from my car to the table, coffee in hand. In that time, the first car in line had moved on. There were still however nine in line, as now a silver Volkswagen had snuck in behind the Ford. This would have been my place in line.

The paper had some interesting stories. The coffee tasted wonderful. The VW soon went out of view as it slowly snaked its way around the building, only to emerge thirteen minutes later on the other side. It was now only three cars away from the all-powerful window. I was onto the business section, with only an inch of milk and espresso left in my cup. Wow, the stock market fell again. My retirement plan was suffering. I hoped the driver in the silver car was too.

Another six minutes went by before the barista finally passed him his beverage. That’s nineteen minutes with the car idling to get a twelve ounce cup of coffee. Apart from the sheer waste of time that each of these drivers had just experienced (nine drivers times nineteen minutes equals almost three hours of wasted time) I couldn’t even imagine the environmental impact.

So, later that day, when I had a few minutes of my own to waste, I conducted a little research online. Took me no time at all to discover (thanks to www.greenyour.com) that every “two minutes of car idling consumes the same amount of gas required to drive approximately one mile. If a driver idles for one hour, one gallon of gasoline is wasted.” Not only that, I hear you ask, as you question the wisdom of not turning the engine off to save gas, the website went on: “contrary to automotive myth, restarting a car doesn't damage the engine and, in fact, ten seconds spent idling consumes more fuel than restarting the engine.”

So my friend in the German import had used approximately one third of a gallon, or roughly forty-two fluid ounces, in pursuit of his twelve ounce java. Not only that, I discovered that for every gallon of gasoline burned, whether driving and idling, a car releases twenty pounds of carbon dioxide into our air. Nineteen minutes of waiting at Starbucks translated into about six and a half pounds of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and a third of a gallon of fossil fuels wasted. That’s some footprint.

And what about the driver’s other footprints, the literal kind? What would the cost be to get off his butt, out of the car, and walk? Next time I’m at the gas station, I’m going to reuse my grande latte cup. I’m going to fill it up with eighty-five-octane gasoline, the cheap stuff, walk back to the Starbucks and offer it to the ninth person in line. It’ll save the driver a whole lot of trouble.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A Lesson In Real

I stop at yard sales. I enjoy poking around other people’s cast-offs. I’m softhearted when it comes to haggling over price, but I’ve picked up some wonderful books and great costume items for my theater productions. I like going with my young daughters. A trinket catches their eye, they ask a price, and invariably the kindly people trying to dump this stuff give it to them for free. If only I was that cute.

The best kind of yard sales feature a cherubic-faced child selling lemonade and cookies. I always buy, even if the lemonade is over-sugared and over-priced. I’m a sucker for misspelled signs – Limonaid 50 sents. I can’t resist. And I’m still waiting for that once-in-a-lifetime bargain. The painting for which I shell out $10, that I then take to Antiques Roadshow and discover it’s worth thousands.

The hardest sales to stop at are estate sales. A lifetime of memories at discount prices. Quite often, the family of a lost loved one has kept the choicest items, leaving the things nobody wants on the sale table. ‘We loved grandma, but none of us had a need for the crocheted bedspread or the china swan statuette.’

In some cases, there is no family, or none nearby, and the estate has commissioned an independent company to swoop in and sell off everything. These are sad sales. They’re great if you’re in the market for some antique crystal or collectible vinyl records, but I find it depressing to find price tags on a framed wedding photo or on the cans of soup or half—used garlic powder in the kitchen cabinets. You can feel the presence of the deceased. It’s only been a few weeks, but it feels as if they’ve just taken the dog for a walk.

I was at one of these sales recently. It was the last day of a three-day event. The antiques had been snatched up, the jewelry sold. The estate sale company was slashing prices – there were bargains to be had. Not much inventory left. Knick-knacks, some linens, assorted kitchen utensils, a box of Christmas decorations. I scored big on a circular saw that I found on a shelf in the garage.

On a table in the living room, between a silver-handled hairbrush and a porcelain creamer, was a small pile of papers bound in a rubber band. The hand written note on top caught my eye: “In Case Anyone Wants To Write Our Family’s Story, Not Just Last Names”. Clearly in the hand of an older lady, the invitation intrigued me. I picked it up and revealed a few newspaper clippings and a dozen or so envelopes containing letters dating from the years following World War Two. I was intrigued. An invitation from the past. A collection of correspondence which might reveal anything. My imagination soared. The old lady knew she had a story here and she just needed someone like me to come along and share it with the world. As a writer, I could not pass up the offer and secretly hoped for something juicy, a story I could turn into a series of magazine articles or, better yet, a bestselling book. An author’s version of the garage sale find on Antiques Roadshow: scandal, fame, fortune, love affairs, treachery, deceit.

The sellers gave me the papers for nothing, threw them in with the power tool. I was excited to open and read my findings. What kind of story would I find? I retreated to my favorite coffeeshop, almost drooling with anticipation. As I sat down with my steaming latte to unveil the package of papers, my eye caught a poster on the coffeeshop wall. Cups and words intertwined with the phrase: “Behind every good cup of coffee is a barista and a good story.”

How true this is. Behind everyone, there is a good story. We all have great stories. Some folks may lead more adventurous lives than others, some may be more widely traveled, their days populated by more colorful characters, but when we sit down to listen to each other, when we ask the right questions, when we take the time to be interested and to dig a little deeper, we all have good stories.

Turn on National Public Radio. For every David Sedaris, with his tales of Crumpet the Elf from New York city in SantaLand Diaries, there is a Bailey White, a small-town first grade teacher from Georgia who lives with her mother. For every news reporter painting a picture from the front lines of the war-torn Middle East, there is a new father telling tales from the front lines of Diaperville. Stories are not about the breadth of our experiences. They are about the richness that we choose to experience in our everyday lives.

A retired friend of mine bemoaned the fact that, despite owning aspirations to write, he may not have followed through, in his words, ‘due to the somewhat limiting outlook under which he lives’. I think that’s just an excuse. Not only are there interesting observations and stories unfolding every day in his walks in the countryside and in the characters he meets, I happen to know about quite a few hair-raising adventures in his lifetime. He’s told me of them. Great stories, all of them. When I tuck my children into bed at night, they are just as thrilled by the seemingly mundane true stories of my school days, as by the crazy capers I invent.

Robert Fulghum once wrote a whole book based on the premise of asking people to open up about their stories. He sat in a bar with a sign around his neck asking people to tell him their tales. He got spectacular results. I think about the ways that stories have come to us – from cave walls, animal hide, parchment, ancient scrolls, and simple oral tradition. It is hard for me to imagine writing my stories with out my computer, but the greatest books of countless generations were either handed down by word of mouth or written out in long hand. Everything from Homer to the Gospels to Laura Ingalls Wilder.

And now, sitting at the coffeeshop, I had in my hand a potential treasure trove of stories, found on a table where everything must go with an invitation to a writer. I opened the envelopes and read.

What I found was simple delightful sharing to a mother from her recently married only daughter. A newspaper clipping informed me that the mother, Lillian, was a twin born in 1891. Her daughter Betty writes often giving her news of her growing family. The letters are filled with benign chatter about everyday life in the late 1940s and early 1950s. There are frequent references to the state of the garden – how high the peas and sweetcorn are, how well the radishes and asters are doing.

Mother and daughter are clearly close, often seeing each other at the weekends despite the seventy miles separating their homes. Betty enjoys telling her mother about the social functions she attends and the clothes she wears to each. She writes about her young sons and the challenges of new motherhood. Both the subject matter and the language hark back to a simpler time. Some samples: “What are you going to do the fourth? We aren’t going anywhere because of so much traffic.” (June 28, 1949) Little did she know what was coming to the area over the next decades.

“Our trip to Dinosaur was less than we’d hoped for…about three days of driving for a 2-hr look in the museum. The scenery was horrible, the heat worse, the roads even worse, the dry ice in our refrigerator carbonated the milk, the campground was full, both boys were sick, we forgot the camera; other than that, it was swell.” (July 17, 1951) I laughed when I read this. It helped me appreciate how much simpler it is to take the family on vacation today.

Many parts of the letters were about the weather or the seasons. “Gee, I hate to see autumn come. Life is so simple in the summer.” (September 5, 1953) and “This beautiful spring weather sure makes me eager to get out and do yard work.” (February 4, 1954)

Later on, Betty became a little more feisty in her opinions. “We also enjoyed the Republican dinner. I was sorry that Michaels couldn’t be there, but this Edwin Bridges spat the vitriolic phrases about as well.” (February 22, 1954) or “I’m back to reading Steinbeck again. He’s nowhere near as vulgar as you would believe (Grapes of Wrath possibly an exception) and as a craftsman he’s unexcelled in my experience”. (May 1, 1954). I was pleased to read these – it put a little more meat on the bones of Betty’s character, although she also shared the sensibilities of the typical housewife of her era. After a visit to Central City, Colorado: “They’ve re-decorated a lot of the Teller House – you’ll really enjoy going up just to look. That’s the thing about those Victorian rooms – they’re swell to look at with their carving and brocade and satin – but what a chore to clean!” (May 13, 1954) Always thinking practically!

The adventurous writer in me was disappointed. There were no real stories here. Just the daily ramblings of a young mother sharing her life. It was not what I expected or hoped for. The letters were not exciting or filled with intrigue and mystery. In one sense, their greatest value may be the collectible 3c postage stamps on the outside of the envelopes.

However, in another sense, these letters are priceless. The surviving family may have chosen to discard these artifacts of their past, but here they were in my hand. Concrete evidence of a daughter’s love and her commitment to staying connected.

As I log onto Facebook in 2009 to stay in touch with my family and friends, as I send out another batch of impersonal e-mails into vacant space, I wonder when was the last time I put pen to paper and truly shared about my life in longhand, in a format that could stay with the recipient forever. It’s been a long time.

One of my favorite stories is Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit. The rabbit yearned to become Real. His dream only happened when he had been around a really long time and had been truly loved. The wise old Skin Horse had experienced life. He knew all about being Real. He told the rabbit “You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

It’s the same thing with the author and recipient of these letters. Betty and her mother Lillian may not have lived the adventurous life of the Skin Horse, but they were around a long time and they knew love. Perhaps their descendants or the folks from the estate sale company didn’t understand. Their letters are a gift. They did not provide what I initially imagined, but they lead me somewhere else. An appreciation of what is real and what lasts.

Author's note: The photograph shows the pile of papers I found. I have changed the names to protect the innocent....