Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Coffee, An Orchid Show, And A Long Cold Winter

Recently, the winter cold seemed particularly biting. It had seeped into my very bones, making every cell in my body shiver and do it's own version of the cell jive to stay warm. It was particularly bad the evening some friends of mine and I attended an orchid show. I was originally going to stay home and keep as warm as possible, but I really wanted to spend some time with my friends as well. When my friend Sara invited me over for supper before heading over to the show, it clinched the decision for me. Food always clinches the decision for me, particularly when I don't have to make it! The delicious stew she made just seemed to hit the right spots. It warmed me up from inside out. Okay, now I was ready to tackle the cold. It was bitter, but I soon discovered the joy of heated seats in Sara's car. What a beautiful feeling. Heaven at that moment was a heated car seat! I don't know who thought up the idea, but kudos to them!

We made our way to the orchid show, and to be honest, I wasn't sure what to expect. I'm not really an orchid kind of person, but when you go to a show like that and see the breadth of variety and blooms, it takes your breath away. There were so many different types of exhibits, and interspersed in between was art work featuring orchids. My friend Karen's piece won one of the first place spots. Orchids seem like a rather standoffish and sophisticated flower. They are like a painting in a museum, asking you to look but not touch, to appreciate and marvel at a comfortable distance. They are an unusual and unique variety of flower, and I thought that the show really showcased them well. The colors, patterns, shapes and displays were extraordinary. It was a troubadours call "Ladies and gentlemen God is in the house!" He's always in the house, and out of the house, and all around, but what a beautiful display of His creativity and glory. Who else could clothe these flowers so beautifully, and in such varied and unique hues? Each petal a painting unto itself.

After the show it was time to fellowship over hot cups of coffee. 

Coffee with friends I have found to be another great way to get through the winter. Have lots of coffee times with friends. It's my new winter goal. Coffee and conversation. The two C's. Necessary, when the other C (cold) threatens to take over your life. As always in Alberta, we tend to talk about the weather - a lot! That evening was no exception. I shared with my friends my bed time ritual of  turning on my heating pad, and curling up in bed with it. It's an addiction now. There's no going to sleep without it. The humidifier goes on with it's drops of essential oils perfuming our room (much to my children's and husband's disgust), and the heating pad is set to high, and of course our electrical bill shows s clear spike in use! I live in terror of the next bill!

Can you imagine what the earlier settlers had to live through? If I, in the comfort of a warm home, surrounded with modern conveniences, can still sit here and whine about the cold, what must they have had to complain about! I think they were a whole lot heartier than myself, both physically and emotionally resilient. I remember reading all of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books as a child and loving them. It is only now as an adult that I can appreciate the true strength and stamina of the characters in those novels. When one thinks about the novel The Long Winter, based on an actual real life experience, to recall the story of a town hit by blizzard upon blizzard, stranded, the railway stopped, with little food to get themselves through the winter, it gives you pause. It makes you realize that we really have little to complain about, but complain we do. I know that I do!

Instead of hibernating the winter away in front of my t.v. and snuggled under my blanket, and wasting all those precious hours, I've decided to take a more proactive approach to winter. That does not mean that you will see me on a ski hill any time soon, but you might catch me out having coffee, or taking in an Orchid show, or maybe having friends over for a game night. Spending time with people, instead of glued to the t.v. set. The only interaction being reactions to the shows as opposed to each other. What did those families of old do when they were cooped up during a blizzard? Maybe they talked, cooked, laughed together, worked together,  or perhaps even played games together. Maybe they made up skits to entertain one another like the daughters of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, or maybe they sat down and painted and drew, or imagined and dreamed. I don't know if they sat passively, they probably didn't have time to do so. I really don't know. But I think I will take a leaf out of their life stories and try to do something useful and interactive. Lethargy is easy to slip into and hard to pull out of. I think I'd rather participate in life than have it slip by only having been an observer to it.

There I go meandering again! It's a bad habit of mine. Back to coffee and the orchid show. It was a great evening. I'm glad Sara's food lured me out of my cave. If it hadn't, I would have missed getting closer acquainted with a beautiful species, and not had the fun of sharing winter warming rituals with friends, and the simple joy of sharing lives.  What's t.v. compared to real life. Life doesn't stop when the weather cools down. It keeps going, and I think, so will I.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Julia Child I Am Not!

A few weeks ago, the snow and cold of our winter days drove me in desperation and self preservation to issue an email cry of help to some of our friends, in the guise of a games night invitation. It was to be a potluck dinner, my favorite kind of meal planning! I am one of those people who really loves the idea of cooking. I love to browse through the aisles of stores like Stokes, or any other store that carries items pertaining to the kitchen or entertaining. I am fascinated by kitchen gadgetry! I often think to myself, now if I had that handy little gadget, I'm sure I could turn my plain ordinary "hit or miss" fare into a culinary masterpiece. Perhaps then I could meet the stringent ambiguous standards within my mind.

My mother is a fabulous cook, as was my late mother-in-law. Mom would come home from a day that began at 5:00 a.m. in the morning, returning from work at around 6:30 pm (three hours of commuting a day!), and somehow throw together a meal that always tasted exceptional, and looked exquisite. My mother-in-law had one of those ovens we fondly remembered as the magical oven. The food that came from within its depths never seemed to end! Commuting home to Princeton from New York everyday, there were days our car would display a mind of its own, and before we knew it, we would find ourselves in the driveway of my in-laws home. This by the way, was well before I married my husband, our families having been close family friends for years. My mother-in-law always seemed to have enough food not only to feed her husband and three sons, but whoever dropped by their home on the whim of a car! Both my mom and my mother-in-law entertained guests almost every weekend of my growing up years, or so it seemed. I always thought I would inherit my mothers cooking abilities, thinking it a part of my genetic makeup. My mother after all, didn't know how to cook until she was married, and most of her initial cooking lessons were taught to her by bachelor friends of theirs in Nigeria. I never had an interest in cooking growing up, and just assumed that I would pick it up naturally when needed. What a surprise it was to find out that this was not the case! My mother was an organized, quick and creative cook. She still is. Watching her cook was something to behold! I on the other hand, must have meticulous directions in order to prepare a dish. And by meticulous, I mean meticulous! Nothing is to be left  to chance or heaven forbid, guessing! Cooking for me, is a stressful time, somewhat akin to labor pains. And my family regardless of gender, feel that same pain when we entertain, because I'm not a believer in suffering alone!

I love people. I love having people over. But when it comes to planning and executing a menu, I become a totally different personality, a sort of Dr, Jekyll / Mr. Hyde transformation takes place, if you will. My family would prefer to be anywhere else but home, and if they had their druthers, would time their arrival  home at the same time as our guests! I guess I really don't blame them. For a people person who would love to have friends over more often, this stumbling block is the wall I need to get over every time I consider inviting someone over. My husband takes on the mantle of errand guy, and my children become child laborers. I try to be prepared for these events, but often find myself in a chaotic whirl minutes before our guests arrival. Of those friends who have had the rare privilege of eating at our home, some have even found themselves arriving to help cook the dinner they were invited to partake of! Now, for friends of ours who might be reading this (for lack of anything better to do apparently!), I want to assure you that as soon as you enter the door, the stress of cooking and preparing falls away. So, please don't take any serious note of this bizarre personality trait of mine. You are still required to answer "Yes, we'd love to," when I invite you over!

I must say that, over the years, I have relaxed a bit. I now have the local pizza stores phone number ready to go if things don't appear to be going well, and I've learned to look forward to the evening ahead to help get myself through the in between time. I even experiment with new dishes when having friends over. Especially good friends. I've slowly come to realize that it doesn't matter if I am not the greatest cook, or set the most beautiful table. What matters is the getting together. The fellowship of friendship. And on that note, let me get back to the dinner that began this lengthy discourse.

Our friends arrived, and over lasagna, salad and a lovely variety of desserts, we conversed. We laughed and told stories, and through them got to know each other better. We enjoyed each other. It was a warm and convivial time. Our fireplace wasn't lit, but it was that type of warmth that was felt in relationship. It was good to get together, to spend some time, and to break the winter chill with the warmth of camaraderie, and even though we never did get to play those games, that's okay, maybe next time!

True friendship is like basking in the suns warm embrace 
It's golden reaches, comforting a soul with grace.
Rippling laughter cuts through loneliness'  pain
Conversation and humor a powerful refrain;

(An unfinished "Ode To Friendship" by Jeenu)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

"Waiting For Superman"; A Disturbing Look At Public Education In The States

My cousin Marina mentioned a documentary she thought I should watch called "Waiting For Superman". Ever since our conversation, I have been keeping an eye out for it on the DVD shelves of our local video stores. This past week, the DVD made it's debut appearance here in Canada. My husband and I sat down to watch it, and what I saw disturbed me to no end. It moved me, it enraged me, and it saddened me. What it did not do, was leave me untouched or uninvolved.

Over the course of the last two years, in discussions together, my husband and I have touched on some of the subjects covered here, but with respect to the Canadian public education system, specifically in Alberta. But we'll get to that later.

The debate on public education in the States is ongoing and necessary. Public education there is currently in a state of cardiac arrest. When proficiency tests in English and Math of eighth graders across the country show results that range from the lowest (in the nations capital) of 12% to the highest of 40% (NJ) on average, there is something inherently wrong with the system. Something is not happening that should be, and something that has been stuck needs change to free it. Those are some of the staggering statistics illuminated by this film. 

The filmmaker, Davis Guggenheim, in 1999 filmed a documentary on public school teachers, the heroes of education. But when the time came for his own children to go to school, witnessing the state of public education, he chose to go the route of private schools. In examining this choice and the reason for it, he looks at those who have no choice, who have to make the best of the cards life has dealt them.

The film follows 5 children: Anthony, a fifth grader from Wahington DC, being raised by his grandmother; Daisy, a fifth grader from East Los Angeles, whose father is unemployed, and whose mother supports the family on a janitor salary; Emily, an eighth grader who lives in an affluent area of Silicone Valley; Francisco, a first grader from the Bronx, whose mother is a social worker, and the first college graduate in her family; Bianca, a kindergartener from Harlem, whose mother, on a receptionist salary pays $500/month to send her daughter to a private Catholic school.

These five children are the cast of real characters through whose lives we witness first hand the glaring issues within the public education system in the states. There are other characters as well: The Teacher's Union, whose teacher's contract includes guaranteed tenure to teachers, making it virtually impossible to fire teachers, keeping poor and uninvolved teachers within the school system without any form of accountability; Michelle Rhee, former Washington DC Chancellor of Public Schools, and founder of The New Teacher Project, which trains and hires high quality teachers, to be placed within the public school system; Geoffrey Canada, the founder of Harlem Children's Zone, a charter school in Harlem that follows the children from birth through college, partnering with them along the way; David Levine & Mike Feinberg, the founders of the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools, a charter school that began in Houston, Texas's inner city. There are now 82 KIPP schools across the country, showing outstanding results.

The documentary points out a failure not in a particular school, though some are highlighted, but in a system of schooling. Children who in elementary school were B students, once they reach 7th grade have become D students, on a road to nowhere. Some schools have earned the dismal title of drop out factories, where over 40% of their student body never graduate. This in turn has an effect on the neighborhood. With so many drop outs, with no training or skill and with too much time on their hands, we see crime rates increase, and many turn to a life of crime as one with purpose and the only viable alternative. Even affluent schools have their issues, with tracking systems that send high test performers and low test performers onto different tracks. Those placed in a lower track often get the worst teachers and lower set expectations. The inability to evaluate teachers, to fire them or even to reward them, due to the tenure clause, causes more harm than good for American students. It shouldn't be easy to fire teachers, but it should be an option. Being married to a university professor, I know the strenuousness and length of the tenure track. It takes years to receive tenure (not everyone does), and the process of evaluation is rigorous and many faceted. Tenure, once achieved is not a guarantee to complete freedom of accountability. There is a degree of security and safety within it, but a tenured professor can still be fired if they fail to perform to the expectations and standards set by the university. So this concept of almost immediate tenure for public school teachers, truly does baffle my mind.

I believe that this documentary calls all of us into accountability. For those who can afford to live in good school districts, this might be a blip on your screen. But for a majority of Americans in inner city and urban schools, this is a matter of life and in many respects on an emotional, practical and self perception level, death. When your child is one of those in an overcrowded urban school, with overwhelmed teachers, trying to do the best they can, and you know with  a certainty of despair and hopelessness, that unless you get them out of this atmosphere, you will lose them and all the possibilities for their lives, it is a matter of desperation. For those of us with options, it calls on us to join in the debate, to work for those who have none. 

Watching these five children and their parents, who want the best for their children, but unlike others, have few if any options, breaks the heart. It breaks your heart to know that Daisy's hopes and dreams of one day becoming a surgeon or a veterinarian is contingent on a lottery at KIPP LA Prep, where she is one of 135 students competing for 10 spots. It breaks your heart to hear Francisco's mother try everything in her power to provide what she can for her son, from extra tutoring, to working with him herself. Her only hope for him, to get him into the Harlem Success Academy through the lottery, where 792 children are competing for 40 spots, knowing that this is the only chance he has of getting into this program, his age being a key determining factor. It inspires you to watch Nakia's (Bianca's mother) determination to see her child go to college, to have a career instead of a job. Paying $500 a month for tuition, an amount that even for my husband and I would prove to be a high monthly expenditure, and yet here she was doing it, until her work hours were cut and she could no longer afford the school. To see the hope and possibility in Anthony, who with the help of a great second grade teacher and the backing of his grandparents, turned his academic record around, but who attends the worst public school in the country. It breaks your heart. How can it not?

These parents are determined to hope for their children against crushing odds. They are determined to dream for their children, in places without dreams. They are determined to sacrifice so that their children can have a better shot at life. And then I see so many of us who take our lives for granted, who do not value what we have, and often complain about these gifts, and it puts me to shame.

In Alberta, we are blessed to have a sound public education system. It has it's issues, but on the whole is fairly strong. We have the choice of sending our children to schools out of our district. We have faith based, language based, sports based, arts based, and academic based alternative programs that fall under the umbrella of public education. We have so many choices, that sometimes it becomes hard to choose. We have good teachers and we have bad teachers. For the most part there have been more good teachers than bad. With respect to the bad ones, my husband and I have often wondered why there is no stringent evaluation process for teachers. Something that could help those who are not quite there as teachers, improve and get better, by identifying their weaknesses. I think that that is something that should always be within the system that is public schooling. I do not want to give teachers a bad rap here, and if I have done so, I apologize for that. I understand all the other issues and baggage that comes with teaching within the public school specter that makes it a very challenging job. Teachers should be respected for the commitment they show our children, but they should also be held accountable, as anyone who has a job should be held accountable.

I encourage all of you to watch this documentary if you have a chance. It will engage you and provoke you, and perhaps inspire you to join in this debate, to help change things for our students, and for our teachers.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Friday Night With Good Friends & Sara McLaughlin

Last Friday didn't start out very well. I had to drop my car off at the dealership to get some work done. As a result I reached work late. To top things off I was still feeling the effects of the virus I recently fell victim to. Not a great start to the day.

By the time I got home later that afternoon, I was exhausted and irritated, and even though I had a wonderful evening to look forward to, I couldn't seem to get past my own misery. A phone call from my friend Karen snapped me out of the misery pit I was digging myself into. The excitement and joy in her voice was contagious, and lifted me out of my personal wallowing session. We were going to see Sara McLaughlin in concert that evening, how could I feel glum with such an night to look forward to!

As I waited for Karen to pick me up, I searched high and low for my Sara McLaughlin CD, wanting to set the tone for the evening, mood music if you will, but I couldn't seem to locate it anywhere. All week I had been waking up to her voice in my ears, as my radio alarm, set to music, played her tunes. I thought it odd that the station played only her music every morning, but shrugged it off as part of the build up to the concert. I didn't even know what station it was, no radio hosts ever seemed to make an appearance, and when I tried to find this same station on my living room set, I never could seem to do so. Mornings are never my best time, and it's hard for me to put any coherent thoughts together at that time. It was only this morning, a number of days after the concert, that I was struck by the fact that I was still waking up to Sara's dulcet tones in my ears. After many concerted attempts, the lightbulb eventually did click on in my brain, and I finally realized where my missing Sara McLaughlin CD had gotten to; apparently, within the depths of my CD/Radio/Alarm player! And the slow seepage of grey matter continues merrily on its way!

Fortunately for me, Karen was playing her CD in the car when she came to pick me up, and on the short trip to the concert hall, catching up on the week with each other, Sara's voice set the mood for the evening ahead. 

Making our way to the lobby, we noticed a box on the merchandise table with the label "Ask Sara," and decided to do just that. I filled out a question for Sara, as did my friend Karen, not dreaming that it would ever see the light of the concert stage. On Karen's advise, I refrained from asking a "normal" question, and instead asked Sara "What was your most absurd inspiration for a song?" As the paper dropped from my hand into the box, the inclination to catch it back up grew strong in me, the word "absurd" echoing in my mind. Why did I use that word? What an absurd word to use! But it was too late. The die was cast. Karen's two questions for Sara were "What was your most embarrassing moment on stage?" and "This is my daughter Katie's first concert, what was yours?" And with those questions firmly in the clutches of the "Ask Sara" box, we made our way to our seats, the questions now fading away under the clamor of the audience voices, and the growing anticipation of Sara's appearance.

The lights dimmed and the concert began. What we experienced was a lovely treat. Sara McLaughlin's voice translates beautifully on CD, but nothing compares to hearing her sing live in concert. It was a comfortable feeling in the hall that night, a tone set by Sara herself. She was honest, straightforward and warm. There were no flashy costumes or over the top numbers. The music stood for itself. Instead of an opening act, Sara chose to showcase two of her band members musical giftings; singing back up on their numbers. It was a generous thing to do; something I don't think very many headlining musicians would. Karen and I enjoyed these artists named Maureen and Butterfly. Both with powerhouse voices, and very different styles.

In the middle of the first half of the concert, the black hat containing the audience questions made its first appearance. Putting her hand in it, Sara scrounged around and pulled out a peice of paper and proceeded to read "What was the most absurd inspiration for a song?" Pausing, she continued, "Absurd, what an interesting word." The echo of that one word sang out in full harmony within my brain. I knew I should have used a different word! Where was "Strange" when I needed it!  But another voice sang out "She read your question!" And that was just the beginning, because the next two questions she pulled out were Karen's! When she came to the question referring to Katie, Sara asked where Katie was, and after identifying her spoke to her personally! What an amazing moment! Sara shared that her first concert was Twisted Sister, but how privileged and honored she was to have Katie's first concert be a Sara McLaughlin one. After that surreal experience, the rest of the evening fulfilled every expectation I had, and more.

I shared that moment with my sister-in-law Bridget, thinking how wowed she would be by it, but she had her own moment which certainly matched up to mine. On a recent trip that she and her husband took to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, while attending a ball, seeking some fresh air, she went outside and struck up a conversation with a lady who was doing the same. A little later, my brother George came out in search of her and joined in the conversation. At some point George made a comment as to how familiar this lady looked, the reason for that soon became clear, because seven days before, he and Bridget had watched this same lady, Melissa Leo, accept the academy award for best supporting actress for her role in the movie The Fighter! Definitley a special moment for them and they have a picture to prove it as well!

Well, back to my own special story. There really isn't much more to tell, perhaps just to end it by saying, that for a day that started out on such a discordant note, this particular Friday evening turned out to be a wonderful time spent with good friends and Sara Mclaughlin.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Parent's Hope

I'm sitting quietly at home today, both of my children sleeping down the hall from where I am. One enjoying the freedom and stress of Reading Week, the other sick and sleeping away the discomfort of illness.

It's quiet in the house. The sound of my son's air purifier a constant music of white noise in the background.

It's an interesting time in our lives. My son is now a young adult, a freshman in university, and my daughter just finished her 17th year of life. They're growing up these kids of mine, hopefully unscathed from our parenting job. In spite of ourselves they have turned into wonderful human beings, caring and sweet. I still worry about them and what lies ahead. I guess I will continue to do so until the mind disappears,  or death announces it's arrival.

I am thankful for my husband's calm wisdom that has balanced out my tempestuousness. I wince at the mistakes made over the years, and pray that I have not help knit together a web of insecurities and fears, "baggage" in my children's heart and soul. I pray that my own fears and insecurities have not somehow stamped themselves into their DNA. I am grateful that this is the Oprah show's last year, the fear of seeing my children one day appear on it for an episode titled "Mistakes My Parents Made," can now disappear into the netherworld,  where banished fears belong!

What do I want for them? So much.

I want happiness and laughter, love and joy, and a peace that passes all understanding for them. I want them to travel this strange world of ours in confidence; to make the best of their dash between the dates (by the way, if you have never read the poem "The Dash" by Linda Ellis, I encourage you to do so). I pray that they will always strive for excellence but always walk humbly and serve others. I want them to care about people, and nurture relationships. To be great communicators, and to always say "I'm sorry" when in the wrong. I pray for spouses who will love, honor and respect them, and who will bring balance, fun and laughter into their lives; And together have a firm foundation of faith, that will see them through the rough times, the hard times, the annoying and disgruntled days, the days of grief and sorrow. I want them to be passionate about life and it's gifts. To never close their minds, but to always be open to His leading. To never let fear keep them from opportunities or challenges. To have wisdom and discernment. To have careers that satisfy them, and family and friends to love and be loved by. To be givers of grace, and believers in mercy. To be able to forgive as they have been forgiven. To view the world around them with clarity and empathy. To be dreamers. To see the daily beauty that surrounds them, the miracles of life that permeate each moment of their day. I want so much for them.

Life is never perfect, easy or clean. And even though I would wish and pray that for them, reality intrudes, and I know that there is no one on earth who has experienced a life without road bumps or obstacles, and so in that reality, I pray that they will have the skills and wherewithal to deal with the eventful moments, when they crop up or pour down. I pray that their true compass will be based in His Word, and that it will guide their footsteps through dark days and rough terrain. I pray His comfort in days of grief. His strength when body, mind and emotions falter. His peace and rest when life overwhelms. His wisdom in times of confusion. And His love, always. That they will know and understand His constant love, when loneliness and self doubt threaten to draw them down and tear them apart. 

I want a life of purpose for them. 

My daughter, in junior high, had an english assignment to project herself fifty years from then, and to write about the life that had transpired in between. An interesting assignment. It called for her to picture herself in the future, and to look back on years of life that were yet to happen. It was fascinating to see what, at that point in her life, she pictured her future to be. It will be interesting to see what actually does happen and how much it changes from that junior high vision, for life always evolves and changes. My son's childhood dream of becoming a professional soccer or tennis player has changed, as he now finds himself studying engineering, and though still enjoying playing soccer and tennis, childhood dreams have made way for different realities. It's sad in a way. Those childhood dreams were beautiful in their lack of walls and limits. Reality had no place in them. As adults our dreams are always walled in by realities practicalities. Limits and speed limits firmly in place. In many cases we forget what it's like to dream. I pray that my children will continue to dream, for I believe that when we start to limit ourselves and our possibilities, we leave ourselves deaf and blind to life's opportunities.  That does not mean that I want them to disregard reality. No. It just means that I want them not to forget to dream while living in that reality.

My cousin last year, asked me what my children's passions were. I could not answer that. I didn't even know what my passions were, or if I even viewed life through that particular lens. But it started me thinking about it, and then wishing for my children to discover their passions, their gifts. I'm not sure, even if you were to ask them today, ifr they would even associate their lives with such a strong and evocative word. 

I pray that they will not be carried by life, but will rather forge through it. It's a short time that we have here, each one of us. It is my prayer and my hope that my children make the best of their dash. That it won't be measured by wealth or possession, because the end date has no respect for those, but that it will be measured by love and relationship, significance and caring. A life fully lived, within a purpose designed just for them. in a future filled with hope.

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, 
"plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
Jeremiah 29:11