Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Leah’s List of 10 Zany, Random Tips That May or May Not Help Change Your Life

I used to like teaching mathematics because it was neat and tidy and you could tie it up in the bow of a right answer.  Nowadays we incorporate lots of problem solving and critical thinking and challenging activities and games that make it more complicated to organize but a whole lot more fun to teach (and do).  The cool thing is that there is more than one way to come to an answer.  There may be a formula that you've been taught to use in math, but there may just be another way to figure it out, too.  How great is that?

I get stuck in patterns that sometimes go on for years.  Some of them are good, some of them not so much.  Every once in a while I hear something (either in my head or someone tells me) that really resonates with me, but goes against the status quo and I decide to give it a try.  Here are some of the non-status quo tips that have helped me to become the person I am today, in all my nuttiness.

Leah’s List of 10 Zany, Random Tips That May or May Not Help You Change Your Life

(By the way, feel free to steal any that might work for you, and call them your own!)

1.    Use the ten minute on/ten minute off strategy

I don’t know who ever put me on to this or if I invented it myself, but I don’t have a long attention span, especially when it comes to studying or doing homework.  I got through my undergrad, my masters and writing a novel 10 minutes at a time.  The idea was that if I worked solidly with no interruptions for 10 minutes, I could take a 10-minute break and do whatever I wanted during that time off.  The ideal is that you find yourself so engrossed that an hour has passed instead of 10 minutes.  Then, of course, you get one hour off.

2.    Celebrate your birthday two weeks before and two weeks after

Some diva from my past taught me this one and I have adhered to it quite closely.  People call me high maintenance, but I am worth it. Just ask my sweetheart.  Anyway, most of the celebratory treats are self-indulged anyway.  Treat yourself like a queen and politely request that others do the same.  Who doesn’t deserve a whole month of “insert your name here” time?  I highly recommend this one.

3.    Write for five minutes every day

I am presently on page 60 of a memoir about my personal puberty perils doing precisely this.  (Don’t worry: it’s not highly alliterative.)  I have written essays, articles, and stories by simply committing to the five minutes a day rule.  If I had done this consistently for the past 20 years, I’d be prolific and just maybe famous. Here’s hoping I can stay consistent on this one so you can read all about my dorky teenage years.

4.    Don’t be a perfectionist except when it comes to punctuation

Perfectionism comes at a high cost: happiness.  As a teacher, I find looking at the big picture a much more effective way to help kids learn and to move forward with inquiry.  When I get into the minutiae, things get over done to the point of being stagnant, boring and uninspiring.  Big picture thinking enables me to think of the big ideas, dream big, and be flexible.  Plus, you don’t feel like you need to commit suicide every time you screw up.  You just look at the big picture and keep moving toward it. 

Also, I hate fiddly stuff.  Except for punctuation.  I love it.  It’s important, folks.  Learn it.  People will judge you for your punctuation or lack thereof. (Facebook has exposed many culprits who do not take this tip to heart.) When you know the rules of punctuation, you can break some of them, as you may have noticed I sometimes do.  Until you know them, however: Do. Not. Break the Rules. Ever.

5.    Try things you’re not good at, but stick with what you’re good at for a profession

That makes good sense, doesn’t it?  I was kicked out of candy striping (volunteering at a hospital to see if you might just want to be a nurse) at the Chilliwack General Hospital at the age of 15 for a serious mishap involving broken dishes, a trolley, a long hallway and a race with my best buddy.  But that worked out okay because I’m not good at blood or biology.  This leads well into my next tip.

6.    Don’t choose a profession where you have to wear a uniform (unless you like wearing uniforms: then, by all means, go for it)

  Enough said on this one.

7.    Wear a pedometer and get to at least 10,000 steps every day no matter what

This isn’t going to turn you into a lean, mean fighting machine, but at least it gets you moving, or in my case, shuffling.    You should do it even if it means jogging on the spot when you brush and floss and shaking the pedometer under the covers before you go to sleep. 

8.    Turn what you don’t like doing into a game

A long time ago, I taught in the Canadian Federal Prison System.  It was insanely exciting, but that’s another blog (or book).  In order to work full time, I was told I would have to teach GED mathematics, which involved rudimentary algebra.  I had taken honors algebra in high school but nearly failed.  (The only reason I took is because my dad told me it was “Mickey Mouse” to take the “dumb kids math” and I didn’t want to disappoint him.  This was a colossal mistake that you can read more about in my puberty memoir if I keep writing for five minutes a day.)

Anyway, I needed the work so I agreed to teach the algebra, but first I had to learn it.  How did I do it?  You guessed it.  I turned it into a game!  I loved crosswords and acrostics and puzzles involving words so I decided to love games that involved numbers, too.  And then I started calling algebra a game.  And then I learned.  And I actually liked it.  It was fun.  How do you like that?

9.    Ask, “What’s good about this?”

Being a pessimist by nature, this one is important to me because I am always finding things to complain about. I am also convinced that I or someone I love could be dying at least 50 times every day.  I could easily turn into one of those doomsayers who preach the end of the world is coming tomorrow at 2:00 pm because it appeals to my morbid personality. 

What I’ve learned to do through sheer force of habit is to stop myself in my tracks every single (okay, not quite every single) time I have a negative-ish thought and ask myself, “What’s good about this?”  For example, when I realized I had paid the equivalent of 500 US dollars for a stalk of celery at the grocery store and not even questioned it, I asked myself, “What’s good about this?” (In my defense, we were having a party and I had bought quite a bit of alcohol.)

My answer was:
a)    My sweetheart was smart enough to question the exorbitant grocery bill
b)    My sweetheart was kind enough to fish the grocery bill out of the stagnating garbage
c)    My sweetheart was ambitious enough to take said stalk of celery along with the receipt back to the grocery store and get a refund
d)    We got to keep the alcohol
e)    It makes for a good story

Which segue ways very nicely into my 10th and final tip:

10.                  Learn the art of self deprecation

In other words, make fun of yourself before anybody else does and your feelings will never get hurt (except by yourself).

Monday, January 30, 2012

Just Walk Away

I actually googled "Why do my feet hurt so much when I wear high heels?" when I got home from work today.  Duh.  I think the answer is in part two of the question.  I am a slow learner.  (In fact, sometimes I never learn.)  Tonight, my daughter Emily helped me learn a lesson that's been a long time coming.

The evening started off well enough: a nice whole wheat pasta dinner with salad, Don sneaking cheese onto the Leah-imposed vegan table, the children talking with their mouths open and laughing uproariously about things to do with farting and burping and all of us saying what we were thankful for.  In short, we were happy campers.

But then Mama had to go and say the dreaded words: in fact the words dreaded only to me, but that somehow managed to put a mist of dread in the air that then landed right on Emily's head.  

"You gals need to practice your piano tonight.  It's been a few days and your piano teacher is coming on Friday."  (It is my habit to utter this sentence only two to four days before Mrs. Wong, the piano teacher, comes; it is usually said out of parental guilt because I do not want Mrs. Wong to think I am a bad parent because I do not make my children practice their piano even though we pay a lot of money for weekly lessons.)

I hated practicing piano as a kid and by default, I hate it when my kids practice piano.  I know this sounds stupid (and it is) but I actively do not want my children to practice piano. 

When I hunch over beside those keys and watch Emily's fingers furtively guess at the right note which I know she can't even see because her eyes are swollen up with tears, it viscerally brings back all the memories of torturous lessons where I suffered through reprimands and hand corrections because I had succeeded in practicing about ten minutes the week before, lying to my mother and telling her when she called me from her job at the shoe department at Sears, "Of course, I'm practicing.  I'm doing it right now.  Can't you hear me?"  (Plunk, plunk.) 

It appeared tonight that I had succeeded in passing the "I hate piano practice" baton on to my youngest daughter, Emily.  (My eldest, Charlotte, is another story: she sets such high expectations for herself she doesn't need a momma setting them for her.  In her two years of piano she has overtaken me on my nearly ten.  I am as good as dead to her now in the piano-playing world.)  

I want Emily to appreciate music, to be able to play the Reader's Digest version of Billy Joel's "Piano Man" on her first try, if she so desires.  (My goals are not lofty.)  I just don't think she should have to practice to get there.  She should just be able to hang around the piano for a few minutes every week like I did and it will come to her through transmutation or evaporation or osmosis or something like that.    Like it did for me.  Not.

Okay, I don't think she should have to practice with me sitting on the piano bench beside her to get there.  I don't think I should be saying, "Emily, that's middle C.  It's the first note you ever learned.  I don't think I should be chanting, "One two three four" when I've never figured out what a whole note is and my fat fingers trip all over each other on even the simplest of tunes.

Basically, I hate helping my kids with piano.  There I said it.  I love helping them to read and write and teaching them how to bake and do word games and puzzles, but I really actively hate helping them with their piano.  Does that make me bad?  (I'm guessing that to some of you, it does.)

My own piano playing hell ended on the fateful day my mother got a phone call to say, "Are you sure Leah still needs to take piano lessons?  She's been playing for nearly 10 years now and she doesn't seem to have much of an aptitude for it."  Finally my mother threw in the towel and let me quit.  I had won!

(It's true I have no rhythm and I'm lazy, but I still think my biggest limitation was the tininess of my hands - I can barely reach an octave and my hands suffer from over-use and near exhaustion just past the five minute mark when I am tinkling the ivories.  They're just not cut out for the piano. Maybe I should have stuck with the recorder.)

This evening with Emily, I just had to walk away from the piano and take myself upstairs before I lost my temper.  "She's not even trying," I thought to myself indignantly.  "It's her own fault if she loses all her Matchbox car time and has to sit in front of that piano until bedtime.  If she wasn't so stubborn, she could just sit down and practice and be finished in a few minutes.  But will she?  No!"  

And with those self-righteous thoughts, Mommy dramatically swept herself upstairs as big slippery tears dripped from Emily's adorable eyes, mixing with her snotty nose droplets which collectively puddled onto the piano keys, forming a wet, slimy surface that Emily slowly, deliberately massaged into each key.  

Mommies can't be patient all the time.  But mommies can walk away.  And let daddies take over.  

And so I came upstairs, flung myself on the bed (still being dramatic even though there was no one to see me) and sighed grandiosely, thinking to myself, "Children are such hard work!"

I know as a parent (and as a teacher) I have those days where I could rant on and on.  "I work my fingers to the bone for you and what do I get...?"  

You know the tale of lament.  But kids don't care what you do for them.  They just need to know they're taken care of and loved no matter what. 

My lesson for today (and many days) when I feel like I am not being appreciated enough and nobody is listening to the pearls of wisdom that drip from my mouth is to shut up and walk away.  If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it at all does not exactly apply to childrearing because children need to be corrected and guided to some degree, but 

JUST SHUT UP AND WALK AWAY(even if you must do with a flair of drama because that's just who you are) UNTIL YOU CAN COME BACK AND BE NICE ABOUT MAKING YOUR KIDS DO WHAT YOU WANT THEM TO

does apply.

About three minutes on the bed and the self-realization that "I am Emily: Emily is me" brought me back downstairs to find Emily playing with Daddy on his iphone and having a grand, giggly time.  She got a bit of down time, I got a bit of breathing space, and we were both good to go.

After a few more goes, Emily mastered "The Merry WidowWaltz" and then went on to do several rousing rounds of "I'm a Little Teapot."

As long as Mama was saying, "Bravo, bravo.  Encore, encore," Emily was happy to keep playing.

Lesson learned.  Until next time.

In My Next Life:

I am going to practice my scales religiously and learn to play some Billy Joel tunes with real pizazz.  (I am also going to master all the ABBA songs so I can drive Don nuts.)

I am going to be less of a drama queen (though I can't imagine).

I am going to stop wearing heels, especially the ones that pinch my toes.

I am not going to have to walk away because I will already be good-humored and patient.

I am going to still choose to be a mom (even though I know it's hard).

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Lost Day

Yesterday was lost to me.  I am a learned optimist and have led a pretty grand life, especially these last 20 years or so.  A friend once described me as “having a horseshoe up my ass.”  Fact is, I’ve had my fair share of hardships (which, incidentally, make really good stories) and what’s good in my life is a good part luck (or blessing or being in the right place at the right time or whatever you want to call it), but it’s also because I have made it so through good choices, focusing on what is good, and choosing to do good by others.  I am a big believer in karma: what you throw out to the universe is going to come bounding back at you like a big ol’ boomerang. 

Well, I don’t know what I put out there yesterday, but it was one of those days that was just as well not lived or was certainly not lived well.  It started off with an MRI which is never a good way to start a day, especially if you don’t get to have any coffee or breakfast before and you have to take a variety of planes, trains and automobiles to get there (Okay: a mini bus, a double-decker bus and a taxi).

If you’ve never had an MRI before, I would compare it to what I’d imagine it’s like to be fired at while in a helicopter in a war zone.  I have no idea why procuring magnetic images of your body or brain involves skull-rattlingly loud noises resembling gunfire and grenades, but I’ve been having MRIs for going on twenty years now thanks to certain brain and back maladies, and they are still exactly the same.  What’s more, you’re encapsulated in a tube where you're forbidden to so much as wiggle your toes for upwards of an hour.  Unbelievably, excruciatingly not fun.

When I emerged from said MRI, I had a migraine developing, likely from lack of food and water and abundance of ammunition noises in close proximity to my head.  After finding food and libations (in the form of coffee and cereal) and taking care of some business I had in the city, I was practically on my hands and knees from pain, but I still needed to get home from the legion of people that urban Hong Kong is.  I couldn’t find the right bus.  The subway system was eluding me.  I was hallucinating, my head felt like someone was going at it with a staple gun, people were jostling me from all sides, I wanted to vomit and random men kept asking me if I wanted to buy a copy watch. 

I have never ever wanted to be teleported to my bed so badly.  And all that optimism my blog is usually so full of?  I wanted to take it all back and just say, “Shoot me now and put me out of my misery.”  Where is Dr. Kevorkian when you need him?

It took me two hours to get home (it should have been about 45 minutes) in between which time I was cursing public transportation (HK has some of the best in the world), my lack of Cantonese (I have spent so many years trying to master basic Mandarin that the thought of taking on Cantonese fills me with dread and inadequacy), and my weak constitution which is so prone to pain and so receptive to hot baths and snuggly beds.

When I arrived home, I practically threw myself in a tub of hot water and bubbles and when all the hot water had evaporated, I went straight to bed, only to emerge briefly from my covers for some Campbell’s mushroom soup and rye bread.  Head under pillow (while I recklessly, uncaringly allowed my children to watch that sarcastic villain of a cat Garfield on the TV in the bedroom instead of reading bedtime stories), I fell into a heavy, dream-filled slumber.

Yesterday was a day of pessimism and pain.  That’s why today, even though I spent half the day spending half our income to arrange flight tickets to go to Canada and the States for the summer and the other half straggling up a mountain side, with a cane, in pain, for the sake of being with my family and enjoying the sun that has finally decided to emerge after it eluded us the entire week of our Chinese New Year holidays, I still managed to feel like a million bucks and then some.

You need a few bad days to realize how good you’ve got it.  I’ve got it real good. 

Yep.  That's how my head was feeling.

For today:

No complaining
No cursing
No headaches
No trips into the big, bad, busy city
No judging people who do complain (They probably have really good reasons.)

I am sorry that my veneer occasionally cracks and the dark Leah emerges.  I have put her back in her cage.  It’s not a lost day today; it’s a “lots” day.  So much better!

For today:

Lots of laughs
Lots of gratitude
Lots of family time
Lots of bed and bath time
Lots of compassion for people who have "lost days" most days

Yes, life is good, even when it's not perfect.  I can only hope for you (and me) that our lost days are few and far between.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Loving What Is

I stole this title from one of my favorite books of all time by Byron Katie.  If you’ve not read it, run, don’t walk, to your favorite bookstore or Kindle your way to it in a hurry.  Just read this book!  The title says it all.  Learning to live with acceptance of what is and getting on with your life is the secret to happiness.  Stop waiting for it to get better.  It doesn’t.  The best is right now.  Now is the moment you’re living in at this second and the only moment you have.  (Even if it sucks.)

When people talk about how they can’t wait for the weekend (and I’m in that crowd quite often), sometimes I say to them (but usually to myself because it tends to hurt their feelings and then they don’t like me any more), “Yeah, you’ll be four days closer to death by Friday.  Get a move on!”

Admittedly, I’m morbid by nature.  Sometimes when I go to sleep at night, I think to myself, “Another day closer to death.”  Note to self: it’s also not the best thing to say to the sweet man who sleeps beside me as he is dozing off.  In my own head, it’s funny; when I say it out loud, it just isn’t.

The thing is, I’m not scared of death.  Do you know how I know this?  Every time I go up in a plane and there is the slightest bit of turbulence, I am convinced the plane is going to go down and I am going to meet a fiery end that also involves drowning.  Even so, I am remarkably calm (and no, I don’t take sedative or drink when flying).  I just feel like if it’s time, it’s time.  I continue reading my celebrity magazine or watching the cheesy inflight movie, thinking I might as well go down in good spirits:  feeling a bit smug, knowing I could look just as good as those movie stars if I had a personal trainer and a cosmetic surgeon on standby.

Another (real) near death experience I had was about 20 years ago when I had a very traumatic motorcycle accident (for which I’ve just been told by an orthopaedic surgeon today that I may need a spinal fusion (!)).  As I plunged 50 feet over a bridge into a bed of rocks below, I remember thinking, “Oh, I guess this is it.  Today is the day I die.”  There was no “come to Jesus” moment (I already had), or my life flashing before my eyes, just the somewhat sad realization that my time had come.

My then-new-boyfriend, now-husband, was right behind me, watching the motorcycle wheel hit the bridge deck, and seeing me as I flipped over and plummeted down, down.  He tells me his response was, “Ah, damn, and I had just started to love her.  Now she’s gone.  Bummer.”  (Okay, it might have been a bit more romantic and panicked than that, but you get the picture.)

As luck would have it, my time had not come, though the time to be in chronic pain for the next forever had.  Even so, I have very fond memories of my early recovery days because while I was going through all the trauma and pain and anxiety (and not understanding anything that was going on because we were living in Taiwan and we had barely started to learn Mandarin), I was also falling deeper and deeper in love and realizing the guy who had accompanied me on this, my first and last motorcycle jaunt, was indeed a keeper.  Even now, my pain brings me memories of joy and love and laughter (and shuffling all over Asia with a cane and a back brace).  More often than not, I actually feel grateful when I have back pain because it reminds me that I am alive and still kicking and still able to make a difference in the world.

The point is: what you’ve got is what you’ve got.  It’s Monday.  So what?  Enjoy it.  Your back is killing you?  At least you’re not dead.  What else feels good?  Focus on that and go have a hot bath and take a pain killer if you need to (or have a spinal fusion for that matter). 

Life is for the living and there are ALWAYS going to be problems and things we look forward to doing more than what is happening at this moment except for those blissful orgasmic (including orgasms!) moments that come along only once in a while. 

So suck it up and love what is.  Now.  Whatever it is. Who knows: tomorrow you may be hit by a bus.

For today, I am going to:

Love that I still have three more days of vacation.

Love the tub and all the joy and relief that it brings me.

Love my most wonderful family (who have been out hiking while I've been out consulting with back doctors: ah, the irony).

Love the fact that my doc told me I could still wear heels.  (I look SO much better in heels.)

Love that there is nothing in particular that I need to do for the rest of the day.

One of my better moments!
PS: I also love writing this blog and love the wonderful reception it has been receiving.  I am so thankful to all of you for your positive comments and for reading.  You really like me - or at least my writing!  Please pass the link on to your friends if you do enjoy.  It means a lot to me.  I'm presently figuring out the whole podcasting thing and I'm going to give it a "real" go in the next day or two.  This is incredibly gratifying and rewarding for me, and I am thrilled to bits that people are reading.  I LOVE that!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Bad Parenting

Our eight year old, Charlotte, is a sensitive soul, easily stressed.  She's a high achiever who is constantly turned-on and ready to go whole-hog.  She is the kind of gal who creates her own homework and delights in spending hours at it, but also becomes agitated if she doesn't get it done before bedtime.  Who's going to be disappointed in her?  No one but herself.  Emily?  Not so much.  She is never disappointed in herself and has the soul of a tigress.

Charlotte also has very little stamina for movies or stories that have any dramatic tension.  As much as we tell her that something isn't real, it is still completely and utterly real in that head of hers.  This is, of course, the same for all of us.  It doesn't matter if something is empirically real or not, does it?  If you think your boss is going to fire you and he's perfectly happy with your performance, you're still going to be stressed by what you think, not what is actually true.  Apparently, we emit the same fight-or-flight hormones that we do when we are watching something stressful in a movie as we do when we are actually experiencing it for real.  (I am not an actual scientist so please do not quote me on this.  I also only really know about the puberty-type hormones because I am required to teach about that in school.  Which I love.)

A few months ago we made the parental mistake of watching that old classic ET as part of our Sunday evening "let's watch a movie and have a sushi picnic in bed" tradition.  Don and I remembered it as a sweet little movie from our childhoods about that lovable creature who flew through the air in the bicycle basket with the moon as a backdrop, that adorable voice rasping "ET phone home," and, of course, the drop-dead cuteness of Drew Barrymore who is still equally cute 30 years later.  (How does she do it?)

What we didn't remember were the scenes that struck terror in the hearts of both daughters: the crew of burly men in the forest at night sweeping through with searchlights looking for ET, his pale, sickly (sorry) ugly body as he withered away, the whole suburban house enclosed in a bubble as doctors performed surgery on ET: I could go on.  It was alarming, even for me.

And did we think we'd be having hours discussing what divorce was, how we didn't think extra terrestrials actually existed, and that it's not really okay to swear like those kids did in the movie?  No, we did not.  We just thought we'd be having a sweet little movie night with the gals that would bring back fond memories of our childhoods.

We were just a few minutes into ET when we realized the error of our parenting ways and that we probably should have waited a few more years for this one.  We both knew, however, that to stop in the midst of all the unresolved stress of ET withering away and Elliot running away to look for ET was a recipe for a lifetime of bad dreams.

So we hunkered down with the girls and made them watch to the bitter, happy end, our arms firmly clasped around their trembling bodies.

"See?" we said when it finally finished.  (It's a very long movie.)  "It's a happy ending!  Everything is okay.  Happily ever after.  It's time for bed.  Brush your teeth."

That was not to be.  It was a night of up and down and Charlotte asserting again and again, "I can't think any happy thoughts, Mama.  ET is a bad movie.  Why did you make us watch it?"

Which brings me to tonight: another family picnic-on-the-bed-movie-night in our Chinese New Year holiday.  Thinking I could not bear to sit through another animated anything, I dug up a copy of Night at the Museum, thinking most un-sagely, "It'll be fun. They'll learn about historical characters when they come alive at night.  And that Ben Stiller.  He sure is funny.  Everyone will enjoy themselves."  Silly, selfish mama.

Emily immediately took to the idea of inanimate people and animals coming alive.  After the movie, she kept making us give her pretend pills so she could come unfrozen.  Charlotte, on the other hand, was completely traumatized.  She squeezed herself next to me for the duration of the movie, her thumping heart and sweaty body bathing my own in heat and stress.  She moaned constantly, like a dog who had her leg caught in a trap.  All we had to do was open the trap and let her out, but we knew, like ET, she had to finish watching.  We had made her bed and now she had to lie in it.

Honestly, most of the movie was just downright fun and the ending was happy, happy.  (Admittedly, I looked at the movie afterward (not beforeward) to see that it did have a PG warning.  What is the matter with me?)   In spite of the fun and happy ending, there was no joy in Whoville tonight for our gal, Charlotte.  "I'm going to have bad dreams forever now," she said, weeping into the pillow and snotting all over my sweater.

Meantime, Emily comforted her as Charlotte dragged her into the bathroom so she wouldn't have to go pee alone.  "Let me tell you about how it works, Charlotte," little sister expounded to big sister.  "I can protect you so you don't need to worry."

What was a mother to do but to suggest (before it was begged) that the two sisters share a bed tonight?  We all need someone to snuggle up to at least some of the time, especially when the parents have made an error in judgment and they know it.

Even so, exposing our kids to things that are a bit scary and letting them know that we're there to help them out and help them go through it, though we're not going to take them out of it?  I think that's good.    
I'm happy to take those two sweet girls through whatever valleys they go through in life, but they're still going to have to go through them.

Even so, my considerations after tonight:

Next time they ask me to watch Winnie the Pooh, let them.

Make sure to give Charlotte the heads-up on the Muppet Movie we are going to see tomorrow in the theatre.  Hopefully, Kermit and Miss Piggy will prove to be enjoyable, not stressful.  I'll read the synopsis tonight so I can fill her in.

Stay away from  museums for the next few months.

Make sure I honor the fear of others.  Fear is real, whether what is causing the fear is real or not.  Meantime, practice helping (them AND me) by gently leading the focus away from fear and toward what is hopeful, and fun and good about any given situation.

Keep exposing my kids to new (and appropriate) risks, making sure we're along to help them through.

Go back to sushi on the bed, not pizza, like tonight.  It's too messy and it stinks like pepperoni in here now.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Trouble With Being Photogenic (and Vain)

Do you remember that shampoo commercial from the '80s where some supermodel throatily whispered, "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful" as she swung her hair around seductively and fluttered her lashes like a baby calf?

Well, there's no need to hate me because I am NOT beautiful: sort of cute in a chunky sort of way maybe, but not even close to beautiful.  (My mother nailed it when she said I had "dirty dishwater hair" and a "Howdy Doody" smile.)

The trouble with being photogenic is that when people actually see me non-virtually, they often ask me, “Are you feeling sick?  You don’t look well.”  When I meet people whom I’ve never met, the comment usually goes something along the lines of, “Oh, I didn’t recognize you.  I was looking for someone prettier.”  Of course, I invariably end up feeling disappointed in the real-me who just can’t compete with the photographed me.

I’m sure many of you are as guilty as I am (especially if you are of the female, vain bent) of only posting flattering pictures on Facebook and quickly deleting any pictures you’ve been tagged in that expose anything in the way of a double chin (“little dab o’ whipping cream,” as Don calls it), flabby bingo arms, or pudgy knees. 

Do any of you remember the time Oprah showed herself without makeup in her magazine?  She did a whole photo shoot of the “real” her  and then the army of people it took to get her talk-show ready.  Well, I would NEVER put a picture of myself in my own magazine (Are there, like, three people in the whole world who actually have their OWN magazine?) that wasn’t flattering, and I would surely avail myself of all the help I could get to turn myself into the “Oscarized” version of myself for every public appearance or photo shoot I ever had.  I guess that’s one of the benefits of not being famous.  Imagine bearing the scrutiny of the “What Were They Thinking?” section of US Weekly.  It’s a good thing I don't qualify to be considered.

It’s also a good thing I am happily married and my sweetie likes me just the way I am.  If I ever have to get out on the market again (god forbid), I’ve got enough of a collection of cutie-patootie pics that I could post on match.com (many from my 20s) to get my share of hits, but then I’d receive a lot of quick reverse skid-outs out of parking lots when my prospective paramours laid eyes on me.

I think what I’m getting at is the same thing I was talking about a few days ago in the blog when I said something along the lines of, “Nobody is actually thinking about you except yourself.”  I mean, I hate to disappoint any of you when we meet by being a whole lot less pretty (or skinny) than I appear in my pictures, but chances are you either don’t give a flying flip or you get a quick hit of positive energy about yourself, thinking, “She’s not so cute.  I look a whole lot better for my age.”  Well, you’re welcome.  Anything I can do to help you feel better about yourself.

Meantime, my goals are to:

Spend less time thinking (or writing) about this superficial nonsense

Take a break from the fashion mags from a while so I can step away from the pressure of thinking, as a 46-year-old female, I should be looking like an Amazon supermodel

Sign up for my next eyelash extension from Groupon

Figure out how to use Photoshop 

Though I'm not a stunner, you're crazy if you think I'm going to (ever) post an ugly pic of myself!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Peaceful Dragons

My daughters are having a bubble bath which they've converted into a restaurant kitchen in the bathroom adjacent to my bed where I write this, lying down, with the portable fan blowing on me.  Don is reading the Sunday paper downstairs.  The lovely Olesen family has just left after sharing a simple luncheon of homemade soup and rye bread and lots of laughter and good conversation.  We are off to Saul and Claire’s, our dearest friends, to celebrate Chinese New Year’s Eve in just an hour or so.  Life at its simplest can be so nice, can’t it?

Here are some of the things I love right now:

Down pillows
Peacefully playing daughters
Maple syrup
The man about the house
My new Rockport heels with Adidas “technology”
The fact that I am back to my pre-Thanksgiving weight
A week off from teaching to celebrate Chinese New Year
Thermal socks
Knowing I can sleep in tomorrow

Happy Year of the Dragon, everyone!  May your fires all be ignited and your passions take you where you want to go this year.
Making dumplings last February at Chinese New Year

Friday, January 20, 2012

Scaring the Kids

I hate lion dances.  I mean I seriously hate lion dances.  At this time of the year, living in Hong Kong, lion dances abound.  One of the reasons I hate them is the ear piercing (not as in an ice cube-and-needle-in-the-ear piercing, but as in inner ear damaging) clanging of the cymbals and drums that goes on and on and on, with the same monotonous, unremitting tone.  My western (and maybe prejudiced) ears just can’t quite make peace with the assaulting sound.  (Of course, I was raised on Christian rock of the lighter variety so I have no experience with punk rock or guitars that play anything but acoustic or classical harmonies.  Even bluegrass and Tchaikovsky are completely rattling to me.)

Another part of my hatred of the lion dance comes from living in China for so many years and the reaction it spurred in my daughters: for a good month around Chinese New Year every time we turned around there would be another lion dance, seemingly making a beeline for us: in the alley behind our apartment building; in front of the 7-11; suddenly serenading us in restaurants while we were eating our noodles; as we were coming out of the bathroom at the mall. 

How a group of grown men dressed up as a gigantic, garish red lion with the head the size of a compact car could sneak up on us like that, I don’t know, but somehow they always managed.  Charlotte and Emily would shriek in terror, holding their ears, tugging my arms in opposite directions and screaming, “Mama, Mama – run!” 

And run we would.  And around the next corner, there would be another damn lion troupe up to the same discordant clanging and prancing, grabbing at wilted lettuce leaves and bobbing its head like some kind of horror show monster.  Honestly.  It’s like a recurring nightmare.

Today at school we had the annual lion dance in honor of Chinese New Year coming up next week.  I was with my older students in the back, craning my neck to be sure my daughters were not shrieking in the front along with the inexperienced preschoolers, several of whom were hysterically crying and being carried away by parents and teachers.  (For those of you who have never had the privilege, it really can be terrifying, especially if you are a virgin to the lion dance experience.)

Imagine my horror when I came home tonight to find Emily balanced on Charlotte’s shoulders, Charlotte standing perfectly erect and prancing around our living room. The girls do gymnastics and tricky skipping so I’m not surprised by a lot of their antics and derring-dos, but this was downright dangerous.

I don’t like to resort to scare tactics, but in this case it seemed both warranted and necessary.

“Girls, do you know what could happen if Charlotte slipped and Emily fell?”

They looked at me with big eyes and the same furrowed brow they have just before mommy is going to tell them even though daddy said they could, they are not going to get ice cream tonight.

“Could we die, Mama?”  Emily asked.

“Well, yes you could,” I answered reluctantly.  She’d stolen the worst-case scenario, but I had something even scarier up my sleeve.

“You could break your neck and be paralyzed forever.”

“Does that mean you’d be dead, Mama?”  Charlotte asked. 

I went on to explain the medical definition for paralysis, probably going to far by expounding on the words parapalegic and quadraplegic.  (I always take it just that one step too far.)

“So does that mean an ambulance would come and take us to the hospital?”  Emily asked.

I nodded.

“Yes, and we’d be dead,” Charlotte added for good measure.  (I didn’t bother to correct them because, as I said, sometimes the biggest scare is the best deterrent.)

I made them both raise their right hands and solemnly swear they would never ever carry each other or any one else on their shoulders either here or abroad ever in their lives.

They raised their paws, promised, and then asked if they could play lion dance with the red blanket on the living room sofa.

“So long as nobody is on anyone’s shoulders, you can do whatever you want,” I replied.

“You be the butt, Emily.  I’ll be the head,” said big sister sagely, ever the boss.

“Okay,” said Emily happily.  “That way I get to do all the bum wiggling.”

They danced away happily creating their own music by pounding pencil crayons on the coffee table and hitting each other’s bums for good measure.  A few minutes later, Emily came over and asked me, “Mama, when I’m a daddy, will I be able to carry my baby on my shoulders like daddy carries us?”

Ah, the sweetness. Out of the mouth of babes.

Charlotte patiently corrected her, “No, Emily, you can’t be a daddy because you don’t have a penis.”

And then the conversation went in another direction altogether.

On my ongoing list of things to do:
  • Record all the treasures that come out of my children’s mouths
  • Watch them like hawks for the next several days to be sure there are no children anywhere near any other children’s shoulders
  • Try to keep my explanations brief and succinct, without getting into unnecessary details
  • When I hear another lion dance (and I will), go the opposite way and take my children with me 
  • Try to keep my scare tactics to a minimum, unless they could end up saving a life
  • Teach Emily the facts of life

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Risk-taking Behavior

If any of you know Miss Frizzle from the Magic School Bus series, you’ll know what I looked like going to work today.  I had recently had some clothes made across the border in China (where you can get tailor-made clothes for a real steal!), and I took a risk by having a full length dress made with a very bold geometric pattern in bright blue and brown.  Frankly, I look like what a hip high school teacher probably looked like in the 70’s, though the greying roots and my lack of platform clogs didn’t completely catch that image.

When I came down for breakfast in the morning decked out in my geometry dress, Emily casually asked, “Hey Mommy, are you learning about patterns in your class today?”

I was tempted to go back upstairs and change, but I didn’t.  If there is one thing people (especially teenagers) could learn that might change their lives, it’s:


Really.  We’re not.  We’re so busy thinking about ourselves that we don’t have time to worry about what you look like or what you’re doing or how you’re acting.  Aside from physically getting into someone else’s space and irritating the hell out of them, people just don’t have time to pay attention to you.  (Even as a teacher, when I’m in front of the class in all my glory, I’d guess I have 70% attention at best and that’s when I’m telling a joke.  Actual teaching?  Who can even guess.)

The other lesson I have learned in life?  (This is also a powerful lesson for teens.)


I just waltzed in front of the class declaring myself the geometry queen, we all had a good laugh, and we got on with the day.  In fact, several stylish girls in my class came up to me at recess and told me they quite liked my look.  So there.

On my ongoing to-do list for personal appearance:
  • Take more fashion risks (but not too many)
  • When in doubt, continue to wear black
  • Make most of my statements with accessories
  • Continue to floss
  • Get my roots done soon

(And, no: I’m not going to post a picture of myself wearing that outfit.  Maybe another day.)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

You Think You’ve Got it Bad…

When things aren’t going your way, it’s time to think of those who have it way worse.  It’s a sure-fire way to cheer you up.  You could put up a horrible, heart-wrenching picture of a ravaged, filthy chicken with no feathers trapped in a cage being injected with antibiotics right above your bed.  Then you’ll get out of bed cheerful every morning, raring to go!  Okay, now I’m just being irreverent (or trying to turn you into a vegetarian).  But you know what I mean.  Taking a moment to focus on other creature's misfortunes can put our kvetching into perspective pretty quickly.

You don’t like your job?  There are people who can’t put food on the table because there are no jobs to be had.  You’ve got a throbbing headache? There are people on respirators dying who can’t afford to pay their medical bills and may have to delay their death by declaring bankruptcy first.  Your kids are annoying you or, god forbid, disappointing you with their performance?  Be thankful they’re not heroine-addled vagabonds living in a crack house.  (Apologies if any of these apply to you; I guess then you really SHOULD feel sorry for yourself.)

My point is simply it’s just so damn easy to get caught up in and grumpy about the minor inconveniences of life.  I can complain with the best of you, but when push comes to shove, all I have to do is turn on the news to cheer up or think about how the 1000s of “aunties” in Hong Kong had to leave the Philippines and their families behind and come work in a strange land for strangers because it is the only way their families can survive and have hope for a decent life.   

The fact that my youngest daughter’s report card is sure to say that she needs to do her homework (She’s only in year one!) and start caring more about her performance in school, and the fact that there is not one damn comfortable chair in this whole entire house to sit on (at least I have a house and a chair, right?), and the fact that my sweet husband doesn’t always get me the most romantic gifts (a fuchsia down jacket for Christmas!) is not cause for a Xanax or having a snit fit.

Me opening my fuchsia jacket, which I've come to love because it IS super warm and people can see me a mile off when I go walking at night.  It could prevent my death.
It just is what it is.  And it’s pretty damn great.  My daughter goes to what I think is the best school in Hong Kong (the one I teach at!) and she’s having the time of her life; I’ve got a really comfortable bed AND an awesome bathtub so I don’t need to sit much anyway (I’m lying on my bed with the laptop perched right on it’s advertised part as I write); and Don asks me every single day, “Have I told you how much I love you?” and if he hasn’t, he does.  Also, he’s getting really quite accomplished at giving gifts, especially when he consults with my friends in advance.

So, I guess the message for today is: shut up and stop complaining.  You’ve got it good.  Or at least I think you do.  I sure hope you do.  I know I do.

My goal for the rest of the day:

To be grateful
To not complain
To tell my husband how much I love him before he tells me
To floss

Monday, January 16, 2012

Going Along for the Ride

As much as I’m a big list maker, I’m not a big planner.  I’m very much a big-picture kind of gal.  I don’t like to do nit picky kinds of activities or crafts or really anything that involves scissors.  (That may have  something to do with me being left-handed never having mastered the use of any sharp implement, or even a pencil for that matter.)

I like to get a broad idea of what I want to do (such as plan a unit for school or a holiday or a piece of writing) and then just let the pieces fall where they may.  Just kind of sort it out as I go along.  I’m comfortable with that.  It’s kind of like rowing your boat gently down the stream…you know.

That may be why I love both crosswords and jigsaw puzzles (both of which are kind of nit picky, I must admit, but don’t involve anything you could impale yourself with).  They give you a chance to peruse the landscape, see where you want to go and then work on chunks or segments, sometimes a little bit at a time and sometimes for big chunks of time. (The big chunks of time usually come on either rainy Sunday mornings in bed (Oh wait, that was before I had kids.) or involve mulled wine and cookies to keep me company while I’m working on them.) 

With crosswords or puzzles, you don’t have a time when you need to be done. In fact, if you don’t get done, it’s no big deal.  (Or you can cheat and look in the back of the crossword book to get one or two words to get you going again.)  I like to do crosswords with a mechanical pencil and an eraser so I can erase when I make a mistake and not see the messiness of the mess-up. Just start over.  Nice, right?  Same with puzzles.  You just dismantle or work on another chunk until the rest of it sorts itself out.  I love that.

I used to really feel the need to control my moments and monitor them, but it just seemed the more I went with the flow, the better things worked out and the happier I was. 

I remember the day that I started to “zen” it very clearly.  We were living in Korea and our boss, Mr. Park, decided to take us on a road trip one Sunday.  We got in the car and just started driving.  I asked him several times what our destination was, but, as was his habit, he completely ignored me, spoke to his driver in Korean and we went from place to place, stopping for odd spicy treats or delicious red bean filled rice cakes or to look at a famous mountain or to just have a pee on the side of the road. 

I had no idea where we’d stop next, what we’d be doing at that destination, or how long we would be staying.  Don seemed quite content to roll with the punches (being the type B guy that he is), but I was unraveling in the back seat, next to the dried octopus and seaweed snacks (both of which I have come to love and which are some of our kids’ favorite snacks).

What’s more, I had no clue when we’d be going home.  My Sundays were designated for relaxing and for me this was in no way relaxing.  I was trapped in a smelly car (albeit with plush leather seats and my sweet boyfriend-now-husband), my boss and his driver, Mr. Moon, who seemed to be surreptitiously taking swallows out of a dark, small bottle.

As it turned out, we didn’t come home that night: we checked into a hotel without toothbrushes, pajamas or a change of clothing.  I had my little cry and then just abandoned myself to not knowing what was going to happen next and chose to ask no more questions.  I decided to just enjoy the journey.

Mr. Park went into the exclusive shop of the first class hotel he had checked us into, and bought himself a very expensive change of clothes, offered us to buy the-amenities we needed and treated us to one of the best seafood meals of my life.  Over the next day we explored coastlines and did a photo shoot (where someone actually mistook me for Meg Ryan!) and stuffed ourselves silly with wonderful spicy, home cooked Korean dishes that tickled my taste buds like no cuisine has since.  We understood very little of the conversations that went on around us, continued to have no idea what was next on the agenda, but I just went along for the ride. 

I knew I couldn’t get off the ride so I just went along for it.  These days I do that most of the time and I kind of like it.

Tonight I’m just going along for the ride.  No big plans, other than to write no more report cards and do only things that actively contribute to my happiness.

I’ll probably do some bedtime reading with my crazy kids  (I think it will be Ms. Frizzle visiting the ocean floor).

Oh, I’ve made the executive decision that now that I am finally flossing every single day, I’m going to teach my kids how to, too.  (Don’t judge me for those of you who have been having your kids floss since they were toddlers.  In so many ways I am a very bad mother.)

I think I’ll do a little work on the 1000 piece CARS jigsaw puzzle that has been sitting in our living room for the better part of a month.  McQueen’s eyes have been eluding me for a while now so that may be my focus.

I’m going to take a walk up to the next village on our harbor-hugging road, going just a bit further than I did on my last walk.

I think I’ll finish off the five pounds of cherries I’ve been gorging on over the last day or so. (I swear, cherries are nature’s candy!) Somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere it must be cherry season and we’re getting a lot of them here in Hong Kong, which is making me exceedingly happy AND reducing my cravings for chocolate.  Bonus!

And if something unexpected occurs, I’m okay with that, too!  I’m flexible.  (Well, actually I am literally not flexible AT ALL.  (Yoga is out of the picture for this gal with the fossilized back.) But as a figure of speech, I’m totally flexible.  I’m just here for the ride.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Family Rituals and Traditions

I’m snuggled in my fluffy blue robe with a cup of coffee at the kitchen table early on a Sunday morning as my husband snores gently upstairs and the children watch Finding Nemo on the tiny dvd player in their bedroom, their Sunday morning treat so mommy and daddy get to sleep in.  (Don’t get me started on the guilt of not sending them to Sunday school or of us not scurrying to get ready for church, put on our Sunday frocks and get the pot roast in the oven so it will be ready and the house will be fragrant when we get home for lunch.)

The traditions and rituals of my childhood fill me with the fondest of memories.  They are not, however, the traditions and rituals of my present family, and I am coming to the conclusion that this is okay. 

My students and I have been studying cultures in our year six class: we’ve been studying what makes up cultures, along with belief systems, values, and traditions and rituals. This unit always cracks my heart open a little further, forcing me to evaluate what it is I believe and what I would like us to embrace as a family.

One of the reasons I left organized religion (Christianity, in my case) in my late 20s was because I could not accept the exclusivity of it and the teaching that there was only one way to truth, everlasting life, whatever.  Much of the other teaching, I readily accept and incorporate into my life, but I understand, that as a full-on, evangelical Christian, I no longer qualify.  Not even close.

As a somewhat compulsive traveler and someone who has lived abroad for almost half my life now, I see the devotion and absolute belief with which people practice their religions and spirituality and I can have no doubt that they, too, are on the right track. 

For me: absolutely, I believe in a Higher Power and in goodness and that the God-force (I still have no good word for it and I truly don’t want to offend anyone.) is in all of us.  If that sounds airy-fairy or you take issue with that, so be it.  I’m not interested in emails trying to persuade me of anything different or to lure me back to my Mennonite roots or to tell me I am a prodigal daughter or a Whitman wannabe.  I have nothing but respect for the love people have for God and how it enables them to live their best lives, impact people and make a difference in the world.  My Christian friends and family have very much respected my parallel, but not the same, path and for that I am very grateful.

But here’s what I want for my children and our family:

  • To be actively making the world a better place DAILY through our actions.  Also, to be having ongoing discussions about this and to be planning how and what we can do as a family in our community and more globally.

  • For us to be grateful, to talk about what we are grateful for every single day, to give thanks, and to be sure we are actively helping those less fortunate than ourselves.

  • For us to be establishing our own rituals and traditions around practicing kindness and being together.  For example, we eat dinner together every single night but Friday, mommy and daddy’s date night (another tradition that we relish).  We are lucky that we are both teachers and have similar hours, and that we are blessed to have a wonderful “auntie” here in Hong Kong who fixes us beautiful food and helps us keep our lives and our house organized so we can give all of our non-work time to one another.  This is a privilege most people in the world do not have, and we are deeply grateful for it, mostly because it allows us to have more authentic, one-on-one family time together.

  • To be okay with our traditions and rituals being in a state of flux.  To carry on with, adapt, change, abolish or improve on what we’re doing now. To allow our children input into how our traditions and rituals will evolve.

  • To respect and involve our bicultural roots in our rituals and traditions. We are an international family: my husband is American; our children are Chinese; I am Canadian; we live in Hong Kong.  It’s important for us to create our own family culture that acknowledges who we are as individuals, who we are as a family and how we can embrace all of our differences and find our commonalities as well.

  • To expose our children to all belief systems and to let them choose the path they want to take.  Meantime, to model open-mindedness, compassion and respect for all philosophies and religions.

  • To help our children come to some conclusions, over time, that while beliefs may differ, values are what bring us together and keep us together.

  • To practice kindness. Always.