Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Power of Respect

I’d heard the sound before. . . . sitting in my car at a stop light. It was coming from the car in the next lane. It looked like the young man in the car was listening to his radio, seemingly unaware of the low guttural sound emanating from his vehicle. He was sitting proud and working hard at looking cool.
“Gee Whiz,” I thought. It seemed that if one had the finances to enjoy a very spiffy car, they would see about that noise. It was obviously a sign of something going very wrong; certainly a problem worthy of a professional mechanic.
This weekend, when I was working in my garden, my quiet space where I relax and putter among the plants, I was struck by an inner vibration; one that started in my head, went straight to my rib cage, then down to my toes. It was rhythmic and never ending. It was the sound of that car in the next lane. I tried very hard to ignore it, but it just wasn’t possible. Where was the intrusion coming from? Why wasn’t my quiet time in my garden being respected? After all, I’m a hard working woman. I deserve to go into the privacy of my backyard and enjoy the calm; to communicate with nature and restore my inner self. It’s not asking too much.
Now, just so I don’t sound like a complete moron, I want you to know that I do know about the bass lever on a radio and I do know that teenagers, especially the boys love the “bottom end.” I’m talking music here.
When I’d had enough, I went in search of the noise. I passed my husband who was busy pressure washing the porch. It wasn’t him. I passed by the roar of a lawn mower. It wasn’t that. I followed the movement of the earth and ended up in the driveway of my neighbor; a young man polishing his very beautiful blue car. It was clear that he was enjoying the noise. So, here I was face to face with one of my new neighbors. They’d moved in sometime over the winter. I introduced myself and he shook my hand and told me his name was Marcus. Marcus is a nice looking kid and it was immediately apparent that he’d been taught extraordinary manners.
“It’s nice to meet you, Marcus,” I said in a professional way. I wasn’t about to let his manners get in the way of my inner peace. “Marcus, we need to talk. Your music is making a very odd sound in my backyard. It’s actually worse over there then it is standing here next to it.”
Marcus couldn’t have been more delightful. “No problem,” he said. “I’ll turn it down.”
I felt the need to explain myself. “You know Marcus, I’m old.”
He smiled and repeated himself. “It’s fine, really.”
I thanked him and went back to enjoy the peace of my garden. As I began pulling weeds and rearranging the impatiens, I realized that my new friend had not only turned the music down; he had turned it off completely. I started to feel bad. Marcus had just as much right to enjoy his yard and his home as I did. Surely he could listen to his music and we could find some degree of compromise. I peeked over the side of the fence and said, “Marcus, I really didn’t mean for you to turn it off completely.”
“I know, but it’s okay,” he said. At this point I wanted to go over there and turn the music up so the whole neighborhood could rock to the intrusion of that awful sound. Marcus had won me over.
Now, I like to think of myself as open minded and having tastes of an eclectic nature. I like many kinds of music from classical to country to classic rock and most especially Broadway music. Surely I can find something good about the music Marcus likes. I don’t have to love it. On my quest to appreciate this new sound I found myself thinking about the type of person that stereotypically listens to it. Wait a minute! Admittedly, I don’t know Marcus. We’ve only had one encounter. But I have a good intuition about people and Marcus doesn’t fit the picture in my mind of a kid who listens to that stuff. So, in addition to finding something positive about the sound, I need to work on my attitude. If my mother could do it, so can I. She thought the Beatles were evil, if you can imagine that and don’t ask her about the Rolling Stones.
Marcus started me thinking about something else, too. He took me from an angry woman to a blithering idiot anxious to make him happy and willing to try to enjoy whatever they call that sound. How did he do it? Well, I can tell you. He did it by having good manners and respect. He was, in a nutshell, absolutely adorable and eager to please. I’m sure he was almost done with polishing his car. It looked brand, spanking new. I’m also sure he’s a typical teenager; not always perfect. But man oh man. . . . he taught me a lesson that I needed to relearn. Respect and courtesy are mighty powerful.
So, I’m issuing a formal warning. If you are sitting at a red light and there’s an unusual sound coming from a van with an older woman sitting in the driver’s seat, it’s me! I’m on my way to the music store and I might look into a new sound system, too. I’m officially expanding my horizons.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Just Asking!

They caught a blue lobster in Canada. According to reports, a blue lobster is only found once in every two million catches. Donald, as they are calling him, is now living the life of Riley in a restaurant tank and apparently attracting a large audience. He is special!!
Maybe I’m a cynic, but I can’t help wondering how the lobster community treated Donald. Did they make fun of him? Was he the bait of bullies across the seas? Was he the last lobster picked to be on the clamball team? Was he kept from certain, special places in the ocean because of his color? Were his rights somehow different from all the other lobsters? Was he allowed to marry?
Donald is different. He is rare and because he’s rare, he’s being treated as something of a crustacean celebrity by us, BUT. . . . What if Donald was human? Just asking!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Me? Misunderstood?

I like to consider myself a pretty good communicator. In fact it’s one of the things I do best. I guess that’s part of being a teacher at heart. I’m much better at communicating in person; lots of hand movements, facial expressions and the occasional total body gesture. It keeps the audience, whether it is children or adults, on their toes and interested, but I also love to write. The written word lets the reader have some ownership of the story, interpreting and accenting thoughts as they see fit. Having bragged about my skills at communicating, you can imagine my surprise when I am totally misinterpreted. It happens more often than I’d like to admit.
Each summer our camp has a theme. Last summer we were cruising and with each new week, we stopped in a different port of call, integrating cultural information into the camp activities. It was lots of fun and the campers enjoyed it. In an effort to bring our good news to the public we built wooden cruise ships and put them around our property. Each week we put another sign on the ships telling about our plans for the summer. After a few weeks I received a call from a woman who sounded like a very sweet senior citizen. She explained that she promised her neighbor boy she would send him on a church trip during the summer. Lo and behold, the church trip was cancelled for reasons unknown. The woman and her young friend were very disappointed – that is until she saw our signs. Her prayers were answered. She was going to send her neighbor on a cruise. Our conversation went like this:
“Now tell me, what cruise line are you using?”
“No,no,” I answered. “It’s not a real cruise, it’s just our theme for the summer.”
“Well, I think the theme is an excellent one. Do you leave from Galveston?”
“No, no. We don’t leave the campus. We just pretend to stop in different ports of call.”
“Oh my! I’ll have to tell his mother to get him a passport, post haste!”
“No, no. . . . We only go in our own minds.”
“This is marvelous . . . expanding the mind is icing on the cake, isn’t it?”
It was at this point I realized that my own personal cruise ship was sinking. My sweet woman had her mind set on a cruise; a real cruise on a real boat with a real skipper going to foreign places. I didn’t want to be abrupt or rude so I had to think quickly. I had no problem trying to take the easy way out so I said, “I think it would be best for me to talk directly to the boy’s mother. When she gets all the information, she’ll be able to help you decide if this is the right program for the young man.” She didn’t let me off the hook that easily.
“Oh no, this is a surprise! And when he hears he’s going on a cruise, he’s going to be about as excited as a tick on a skinny dog.”
I was not about to ask what a dog’s weight had to do with a tick’s happiness, but it did give me some insight. “You know. . . This cruise is the best thing since sliced bread and I’m sure your young friend will really enjoy sailing with us. We set sail on June 7th and we come back to port each afternoon. That way the children will be able to sleep in their own beds and have the best of both worlds.”
“Well, goodness gracious sakes alive. . . You can’t get to India and back in one day!”
“Of course we can. . . We’ll be using our imaginations and when you imagine, everything is possible.”
That was the end of our conversation. She said a sweet good-bye and I haven’t heard from her since. I’m sure her neighbor had a wonderful summer adventure.
I can't help but wonder. . . . What did she think about the signs we put up this year? They said, "GALAXY QUEST: Explore the far reaches of Outer Space!"

Friday, July 10, 2009

What's wrong? OY!

Her mouth naturally turned upward on the ends and her eyes had a twinkle about them. The lady at the grocery store had a happy face!!! I wish I had a happy face. I feel happy on the inside most of the time; actually sometimes I have to stop myself from laughing out loud as I think of funny things, but my face doesn’t show it. If I’m relaxed and minding my own business, my face looks sad, if not angry.
There have been innumerable times when someone has asked me, “What’s wrong?” I shake off the shock of the question, remember and say. “Oh, its just my face. I’m fine.” That reply usually requires more of an explanation, but frankly. . . . I’m tired of clarifying. There was a time when I tried freezing my face. I figured that if your crossed eyes, per my mother, would freeze that way, maybe an upturned mouth would too. It didn’t work, which makes me question my mother’s wisdom, but that’s another issue.
In truth, things have actually gotten worse. At my age everything is starting to sag. I won’t go into the gloomy details, but I will say that a sagging face is definitely not helping the quest for a happy face. My natural frowns are frownier and my eyes are dropping into a semi-angry position. This really does belie the woman I am.
So who am I? Aaahhh, the age old question. I’m older than I feel. I’m happier than I look. I’m busier than I want to be. I often laugh at inappropriate times. I say things I wish I hadn’t. I love way too much. I have friends who mean the world to me. I’m healthy. I miss my children when they aren’t here. I wish my parents lived closer. I need to be near the ocean. I love children.
Does it sound like my cup is half anything? Not even close. My cup is overflowing. I am drinking up the nectar of a lucky life and taking advantage of every opportunity that comes my way. I’m happy. . . very happy!
So, screw my frowny face and look into my heart. Its corners are turned upward and it beats to the rhythm of happiness and thankfulness.
Aha. . . The next time someone asks me what’s wrong. . . . My answer will be, “not a damn thing.”

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Lost and Lost

As I lead campers and counselors through the summer, there are a few things that I still can’t figure out about summer camp. Now I’m all for a mystery and I certainly don’t profess to know everything, but these are relatively harmless, simple things that should have easy solutions.
The first enigma is the lost and found. Frankly, I just don’t get it. I’m finally comfortable with the fact that the washing machine and/or dryer eat socks. I can live with the thought that forgotten and lost lunches happen. I can even relate to household pets eating homework, but I can’t figure out how things that end up in the lost and found belong to NO ONE.
I’m not a clean freak or even very organized, but I think that if I sent my child to day camp and he/she came home without something important like an expensive bathing suit or a beach towel, I’d take the time to look for it. Parents are asked to label everything, but few things actually have a name on them. The counselors do a great job sorting out what belongs to whom, but, honestly, it’s a job that is bigger than we are. Each day several new items are added to the pile in the lost and found. So . . .are moms going out each evening and buying new suits and towels? Do they wonder where the lunchbox ended up?
We have “Is this yours?” once a week. I hold up a lost item and ask who it belongs to. At least 70% of the time – it belongs to no one. I may not have all my marbles, but I know that someone brought each item that eventually ended up in the lost and found. I’ve actually said, “Come on, people. This towel didn’t come here because it heard we were a great camp. Someone brought it here and that someone is probably standing among us. Please look closely.” No one answers, so on to the next thing. A bathing suit. I often plead to their sense of style. “This bathing suit is adorable! Whoever owns this bathing suit has fabulous taste. Who lost it?” No one lost the suit. It belongs to no one. My frustration grows. Once there was a perfect pair of sneakers. How can someone lose a whole pair of sneakers and not know it? I talked about the blinking lights on the side of the shoes. I mentioned the really cool color. I begged! At one point I was reduced to saying, “Who wishes these were their shoes?” No one owned or wanted the shoes.
During one particularly difficult session of “Is this yours?” I, unfortunately, took my frustrations out on the counselors. I took them to one side and said, “Listen, guys, we have to be more careful when the children are changing. Make sure that everything is put in their backpacks.” Their response? I follow their gazes and I’m greeted with four backpacks. Guess who they belong to. NO ONE!
And. . . how in the world does anyone explain the occasional naked child; the one that has misplaced his or her entire wardrobe? That’s another thing I don’t understand. Last summer we had a little boy walk from the pool house to his home base room where backpacks, lunches and other personal items are kept, in search of his clothes. He did it in a complete state of nakedness. There was a counselor hurrying to catch him, towel in hand, with a shocked look on her face. When we both got to him, my friend, Paula asked, “Ricky, where are your clothes?” The six year old answered matter of factly, “Well, if I knew where they were, I’d have put them on.” How does one respond to that?
Just last week a little girl was with her group walking to musical drama with only a towel on. She was quite confident that she was well covered, but her entire back side was completely exposed and she had NOTHING on under the towel. Again a counselor said, “Maggie, you have no clothes on!”
Her response? “I know.”
“Don’t you think we need to find your clothes?” asked yet another shocked counselor.
“Okay,” replied Maggie. “When you find them, can you bring them to musical drama?”
Before you think we are completely inept, please know that both of these children left their clothes in the pool changing rooms and they were found promptly. There is always one swim counselor that stays at the pool and one that helps in the changing rooms between periods, but occasionally a camper just has to leave quickly for reasons unknown and although they don’t get far, it’s always surprising. I can’t imagine what they are thinking. I also can’t imagine what must be on the minds of the other campers when they see a partially clad body racing across campus. Am I the only one who seems to think this is odd? These children are not toddlers. I’m thrilled that they are comfortable with their bodies and I hope it remains that way, but let’s face it, there’s a time and a place for everything.
Oh, and two more questions. Do you think that anything in the lost and found belonged to Ricky? He’s certainly a likely candidate, don’t you think? The answer: Of course not. He’d never seen any of those things before. What about Maggie? She, too, says that those clothes and things in the lost and found don’t look familiar at all. After a few minutes of what looked like intense concentration, she declared, “They probably belong to NO ONE.”

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Blueberry Picking

The scratches and small cuts across my arms, hands and back are proof that I became one with a bush; several bushes, really. I went blueberry picking this morning. It was a mother daughter excursion! My adult daughter and I set out at the crack of dawn, trying to beat the heat and the crowds in an effort to bond and collect a year’s worth of antioxidants. Blueberry conditions were not perfect thanks to the drought and record breaking heat, but off we went anyway.
I was, literally, in a bush when I heard the whine of a small child. “Mommy, I’m done. I want to go home,” followed by crying and what I believe was the sound of a small body throwing itself on the ground. Firstly, I must say. . . . I’ve been there. Every mother has been there. Maybe not among never ending rows of barren blueberry bushes, but perhaps in the grocery store or in the middle of the mall or well. . . name your place.
I smiled and thought to myself. . . . I’m so glad I’m past that. Most of the time I wish my girls were small and still allowed me to dress them in cute jumpers and Mary Jane shoes, but today I was thrilled to be the mom of a first year attorney who found time to spend with me. I dodged a few bees, sweated profusely and thought about my girls and the stages we’d gone through. In the end, and in spite of many parenting mistakes, they turned out well. I thought about going and finding the mother of the child in the midst of a tantrum to tell her that the future will be brighter, when I heard, “Mom?”
“Mom?” “MO-om?”
“Elizabeth, is that you?” I was pretty sure it was the sound of her voice, but I’ve been in several situations where I answered a strange child’s call for their mother.
“Yes, where are you?”
“I’m in a bush.”
“Mother, everyone is in a bush. Which bush are you in?”
I followed her voice and found her sitting on the ground. “I’m hot!” she said.
“Me, too.”
“Oh good, let’s go,” she answered way too quickly.
I looked at my bucket and it wasn’t even 1/4 full. I wasn’t close to being done with blueberry picking .
“Elizabeth, I came here to pick blueberries and I really need to continue.”
She agreed and we went about hunting for the blue bursts of color hiding among the greenery. It was harder than in past years. The blueberries were few and far between, but I was committed to the job, pulling tall branches down to search and finding great satisfaction when a small bunch of ripe berries were found. Slowly my bucket was filling. I had settled into a rhythm and found the process quite relaxing, until I felt small, hard pellets hitting me. No, it wasn't a bird nor was it small hail and it wasn’t wayward bugs. I looked around and found that they were blueberries. It seems that, once again, Elizabeth was done. She was cleaning her cache and throwing the bad berries at me, her mother.
“Stop that,” I said with a laugh. “What the heck are you doing?”
“I’m really ready to leave. I’m hot and tired and hungry.”
I considered the circumstances and decided that another fifteen minutes would be a good compromise. The compromise idea didn’t sit well with her, so she kindly announced that I could take my time and enjoy. She would wait in a cooler place. As she walked away, she added, “. . . And please don’t get lost.”
I did get lost in thought once again and finished up about 30 minutes later with only 3 pounds of blueberries. Not a great blueberry harvest, but I’d had fun. I began the hike back to the car wondering where I’d gone wrong. My daughter lasted only 30 minutes at best and began a somewhat more dignified tantrum than her 3 year old counterpart. In true maternal style, I was trying hard to place the blame on myself. It was then that I realized that we all have many roles. I know that for a very long time I was different when with my mother than when I was going about my daily life as a full fledged adult. Maybe I was, in some way, encouraging Lizzie to act like a child. My friend Judy often refers to me as “mom.” I can’t seem to help myself. My maternal instincts aren’t just reserved for children. They pop out before I realize it. I tell my husband to wear a jacket when I’m cold. I remind my friends what to bring when we are going on a day trip. I take care of people. Its who I am. Some would refer to it as a control issue. Maybe. I don’t really mean it to be. So. . . After a few minutes of objective introspection, I decided that I needed to work on this aspect of myself. No more over- mothering. I nodded, agreeing with myself and headed to the car where I found Lizzie sound asleep.
“Lizzie,” I whispered. “Wake up, I know a great place to buy you a jumper and some patent leather Mary James.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Summer Camp

I think that someone should print a bumper sticker that says “Old campers never die, they just become adults who can’t stop talking about the old days at summer camp.” Perhaps that’s a little long for a bumper sticker, but the point is that a summer camp, if done well, can create some of the best childhood memories. Silly counselor antics, fabulous activities, enriching experiences, new friends and the absolute promise of fun are the things that I remember from my camp experiences.
It’s not often that a thought or memory can create an out loud laugh, but that’s what happens when I think back to summer camp. There was the time we went rowing and during a particularly intense session of giggles, the oars fell out of the boat, far from our reach and we had to use our hands to paddle a very heavy wooden boat back to shore . . . a hard thing to do when convulsed in laughter. Anyone with common sense would have paddled to the oars and reinstalled them, but we were 11 and I prefer to think of the situation as a very entertaining learning experience. Another memory that comes to mind is the time we were washing our hair in the lake and an ornery goose attacked. When all was said and done, my friend Nancy finally got her bathing suit bottom out of the goose’s clutch and we were left, once again, laughing the kind of laugh that cleanses the soul. When I sit back, as an adult, and think about camp as a life experience, I realize that it had an impact on who I am today. Many of my camp experiences formed lifelong interests and friendships. My social skills were finely honed as a camper. It’s where I learned to make friends with other campers and the adults. It’s where I began to understand differences in people, and work as part of a team. And believe it or not, I learned to have fun . . . at camp!
This summer, on the first day of camp, wearing a silly cardboard spaceship, a silver colander headpiece with antennae and awesome space glasses, I found myself reverting back to those days at camp. While singing one of my favorite camp songs in front of a large group of wide eyed campers on their first day of what I hope and pray will be a host of happy memories, I could feel their anxiety – those nagging inner questions. Will I make friends? Will I ever learn the words to those songs? Will I pass the swimming test and be able to swim in the deep area? Will my counselors like me? As those questions passed through my mind, I realized that as a leader I had the ability to help make the answers to all those questions a resounding “YES”. It’s an awesome responsibility, but armed with my crazy get-up, some great and silly songs, and a group of amazing counselors I was up for the task.
So off I go, loudspeaker in hand. . . “LET’S SING AND HAVE SOME FUN!” Of course, as campers near and far know, camp songs add to the lasting memories. Who said that singing had to be in tune, in the same key the whole way through and in some sort of rhythmic order? What happened to singing for the joy of singing? At summer camp we break all the musical rules. Not only are the songs silly and funny, but in the end, it really doesn’t matter how well they are sung. It’s about the happiness they create. It’s about the feeling of being part of a group where everyone is singing the same song, if only in a semi-similar manner. It’s about the funny words and the counselors dancing. It’s about fun.
The campers are learning the songs I sang at camp and I find it funny that while popular music changes faster than the continuum of generations, camp songs NEVER change. It does, however, take time for the silly songs to reach a state of coolness, especially for the older campers. As one particularly stubborn preteen shared, “These songs are weird!” That did not stop the camp song extravaganza each morning after the pledge of allegiance and the obligatory announcements. The first morning we sang “Ravioli” to the tune of Allouette.
“Do I have it on my chin?”
“Yes, you have it on your chin.”
“On my chin?”
“On your chin.”
OOOhh, oooh oh oh. . . . “
The younger children took to the songs immediately, at first struggling with the words, but loving every minute of them. During the school year I encourage their very best in the classroom, but I don’t care one flip about the way they sing at camp as long as happiness is in the mix. By Thursday of that first week, after introducing several other songs, among them my personal favorites Zippity Doo Dah and Do Your Ears Hang Low?, I overheard the older campers doing their own rendition of Ravioli. I say it was their own rendition because their “sauce” was not just on the chin, nose and cheek. They took it to another level – “on my arm,” “on my neck,” “on my ankle.” I wonder why it took so long for the older campers to catch the song spirit. In any case its obvious that camp songs aren’t cool until they’re cool. When they make the switch is a mystery. I do know, for sure, that once they are under your skin, long drives in the car and cool evenings in front of the fire are never the same for a camper, young, old or in between.
Next week I’m going to introduce another favorite and I’m expecting huge, out of tune, just for the joy of it. . . participation. I can’t wait!
John Jacob Jingle Heimer Schmidt. . . . . . DA DA DA DA DA DA DA!