Sunday, May 31, 2009

Postcard: Writer's Block

What if the idea isn't there, and the words won't come?

The poet William Stafford had a solution to writer's block:
"I just lower my standards and keep on going."

I'll be home today and my mind will be overflowing with ideas,
so overflowing in fact, that they will probably have flown away.

Here's an essay I wrote on writing to remind us why we do this hard thing.

I can't wait to be back at my desk, unpacking my thoughts.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Postcard: What's Your Story?

—Image by

"You begin to wonder . . . do your friends go home after a party
and tell stories about you? I hope so . . ."
—William Norwich

It's Travelin'Oma time again. We hope to tell a few stories and get a few to tell. Here are some of our favorite summertime Hero Legends, for inspiration in remembering your own.

I'll be back soon!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Post Card: Don't Knock It

Father and Sons, 1984

This week I'm on the road with some grandkids. Just in case you're planning something similar, I have some fun tips that will knock the socks off the kids at your Family Reunion story-telling hour.
Plan something fun!
See you soon.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Postcard: Oma Tip

The inspiration on Oma's wall.

I'm a Travelin'Oma this week.

I always take a few Oma activities to make memories with the Grands. You can find a tried and true Oma tip in my post Button, Button.

I'll be back soon!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Postcard: How to Pack

We're off on an adventure this week.

Need help traveling light on your next trip?
Here's my blog on Packing.

See you soon!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Oma Storybook Collection

The eleventh volume of my Oma Storybook Collection
is now in the hands of my readers.

My little granddaughters acted out a story from my childhood.
With costumes and props we turned it into a photo-shoot
to illustrate my newest book.

It's a story about a doll collection prized by a little girl named Marty,
and what happened to it at the hands of her
wicked (though darling) little sister.

It ends with an ironic twist—the destruction of the mother's
prized tea set, instigated by her wicked (though darling)
little daughter—

So now I'm off on a Travelin'Oma book tour. Isn't that what authors do? They visit their fans, sign autographs and discuss the symbolism and foreshadowing that makes their work deep. I'm visiting kids who go to book signings so I'm sure I'll learn the ins and outs of the real deal. And I'll explain how they are the motivation for all my books!

I won't be gone long,
but I'll be sure to send postcards!

Friday, May 22, 2009

History in the Making

"Nobody trusts a young historian."

The door opened and I heard the jingle of Dee's keys as he put them on the table. Then I heard his briefcase thump as he dropped it on the chair. I went in to say hello and was startled to see his mud-streaked pants. He looked miserable! His arms and the backs of his hands had splotches of caked, dried mud spotting them, his shirt was damp and dirty and there were patches of mud on his forehead when he removed his wet baseball hat.

"What happened to you?" I asked. In a pathetic whimper he said, "Dear, I've had a really bad day."

He peeled off his wet and dirty duds, washed the mud out of his hair, and came into the kitchen shaky with hunger. After a restorative ham sandwich, he was able to tell me his tale.

Dee puts the story in history.

Dee is writing a second volume about the history of Midway, Utah, this time detailing the stories of more contemporary events and people. He had an interview scheduled with a former mayor. The 80+ year-old rancher met Dee at the town hall, riding a Mule. It does everything the animal does: packs a load and is sure-footed on steep curves. But it's more like a 4-wheel drive golf cart, open on the sides for a breezy ride.

The mayor wanted to show Dee some particular accomplishments of his administration, and said they could get there easier in the Mule. Dee hopped aboard and they toured the irrigation ditches and discussed bringing water to the desert community in pioneer times. They visited some of the numerous old homes, and drove up to the top of Snake Creek Canyon. It was a great interview from both perspectives. The mayor had lots to talk about and finally somebody anxious to listen, and Dee was filling in many gaps in his research. There's no source like an original source, and this guy had actually lived Dee's story.

Suddenly there was a lightning bolt and an immediate crash of thunder. A cloudburst drenched them both within seconds. The rain wasn't falling down, it was being blown sidewards right through the open sides of the cart. The rancher knew all the hide-a-ways, and drove quickly to a passageway under the road where sheep cross without blocking traffic. The men clamored out of their cart and slid down to the tunnel, where they stood, sheltered from the pelting rain, listening to the fireworks going off in the sky. After about 30 minutes, the clouds cleared, and the sun came out.

As Dee was climbing the slick mud hill back up to the road, he lost his footing and slid, finally losing his balance and landing face first in the sludge. Embarrassed in front of his weathered guide, he said it was nothing, he was fine. He must have convinced the old guy, because he continued the excursion around the valley while Dee air-dried.

When he was dropped off back at the town hall, the mud was too wet to brush off, and not dry enough to chip off, but on the hour-long drive home it hardened and most of the big chunks fell off when he climbed out of the car. He staggered to our door and burst inside in a poof of dust.

Some people think historians just sit in a library and memorize dates. Not always. Lots of the time they're exploring interesting places looking for clues to unravel a mystery. The clues are in the types of mortar used in the buildings, the way the stones were cut, the tools left forgotten in the back of an ancient barn. There are clues in irrigation records, carved in tree trunks, and especially in the memories of old folks who did things the hard way and built a community.

Dee writes about many previously unknown heroes who made a difference in the past that made an impact on the future. They crossed rivers, stood against enemies, harvested boulders, chopped down trees, faced fire and floods, and probably had a lot of really bad days. I think Dee takes pleasure in having a bad day of his own once in a while, while pursuing and telling their stories.

Who in your past made a difference? What difference are you making for the future? If you've ever found yourself wallowing in the mud, writing about how you got out is really important. It might make a difference to somebody else when they have a really bad day. That's your history, in the making.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Follow Your Bliss

Chloƫ and Jess, 2008

If you ask most people what they've always wanted to do, they haven't done it.
Have you?

When I was twelve a teacher had us write a letter to ourselves, listing all the plans and dreams we had for our future. She said she'd send it to us when we were grown up, so we could see if we'd done what we had hoped to do. I never got the letter back and I've often wondered what I wrote.

I'm sure I said I wanted to be a writer, since I was already writing private limericks , embarrassing family stories, back-yard plays, and daily letters to pen-pals and cousins. I had voluminous diaries which were in circulation amongst my little brother's friends. It was easy to grow my readership by letting it slip that I wrote about them.

I tricked my brother into watching me secretly hide the locked diary under my pillow and hang the all-important key on the lamp switch. The intrigue was too much for the neighborhood's Hardy Boy sleuths, and within hours I was a well-known author, being sued for slander and defamation. Hey, it's all good publicity, right?

I had other plans, too. Whenever I was brought back to class from a daydream, I realized again how badly I wanted to go somewhere else: travel. My grandparents gave me a world globe for my 10th birthday, and a favorite activity when I was alone in my room was to close my eyes and give the globe a spin to determine where I'd go someday. Wherever my finger landed was written on a list at the back of my diary for future reference. I actually still have the list. (It's right under my boyfriend list: Kent Spencer, Kenny Clark, Jimmy Day, Steven Jones.) Sadly, my fantasies for my future didn't match up with my parents'. They didn't see my potential in the glorious ways I envisioned it.

They did have high expectations for me: "Marty, you could be a really good pianist if you'd just practice!" "You need to work hard on math, if you want to be a nurse." (I had a kit and a nurse's outfit. It was an OK assumption.) "You've got to type and know shorthand if you want a good job in an office." (These were skills that had served them both well.) "You are smart enough to get a full-ride scholarship, if you just applied yourself" (and went to class regularly). The problem was, these paths didn't excite me and it was easy to set aside what did, with lack of support.

I grew up more aware of what everybody thought I should do than what I could do. It's funny that nobody in my entire world, including me, took seriously my desire to become a writer and/or go traveling.

When I got straight A's in advanced high school creative writing classes, and even an A+ on my freshman English research paper, I was encouraged to clep (skip w/credit) future English classes and get right to work on my major—German—where I was getting C's. In a round-about way, even English teachers were saying "Don't stop here. There's no future here." I got the message that anybody can write. I needed business skills to get a real job, and if I was going to stay home with kids, I didn't need any skills at all.

So much for personal interests. I could write for a hobby, (whenever all my nay-sayers needed something written—like a lesson for Sunday School, or a poem for an invitation, or a skit for their party.)

European travel was another frivolous goal viewed by my parents as too expensive, dangerous, and unnecessary to even discuss. After a few years of nagging him, my dad asked, "Why do you want to go to a place like Germany? They were Nazi's. Our enemies! And the whole country stinks, because they don't take baths." (They had some left-over war-time prejudices!)

They finally agreed to pay half, if I paid half, for a semester abroad in Salzburg, Austria, which changed and defined my life. I had been right about what I wanted. But by then I had new desires to factor in, and "I [happily] took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."

Gretchen at The Happiness Project quoted Walter Murch, an Academy Award-winning film editor and sound designer:

“As I’ve gone through life, I’ve found that your chances for happiness are increased if you wind up doing something that is a reflection of what you loved most when you were somewhere between nine and eleven years old…At that age, you know enough of the world to have opinions about things, but you’re not old enough yet to be overly influenced by the crowd or by what other people are doing or what you think you ‘should’ be doing. If what you do later on ties into that reservoir in some way, then you are nurturing some essential part of yourself. It’s certainly been true in my case. I’m doing now, at fifty-eight, almost exactly what most excited me when I was eleven."

So am I. It's fun to end up where I started. I don't regret a thing. The path I've taken has brought me to the exact place I wanted to get to, and I haven't missed anything important by going the long way around. And I've got joy, experience and wisdom I would have missed if I'd skipped the round-about journey.

What did you want to do when you were ten? Are you doing it now? Why, or why not?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Art from Jillian Jiggs by Phoebe Gilman

"You need a good talking to!" Well, that was the goal. What my kids often got instead was a bad talking to.

After I'd caught the kid in the act, I'd usually yell and scream, and (if I was pregnant) end the episode by bursting into tears. Dee would come home, hear my incident report and then immediately ground the kids for way too long. About then I'd realize I'd overstated the whole thing, feel bad, and get mad at Dee for blowing it all out of proportion, saddling me with grounded kids for the next month. This happened regularly.

Kids in Time Out

I missed opportunities to teach self-control by losing mine. On the rare occasions I took time to calm down and think things through, I was able to discipline rather than just punish.

Here's a discipline question from Kenju:
What would you say to a 13-year-old girl who lied to her parents about finishing a school project so she could go on a school trip to an amusement park? They had told her if she didn't finish the project, she couldn't go. What would you say to her or do to punish her?

I actually recognize this scenario from when I was the girl, and from when I was the mom. Some things never change. I won't pretend I had all the answers back then. But now I do. (It's much easier to be a mother without all those kids running around.)

Here's what I'd do in retrospect:
I'd call my daughter into a private place and serenely ask her to explain what she was thinking when she made this decision. I'd tell her how disappointed I was in her behavior, especially her lie, and that I had expected more of her. I'd try to compliment her on something "You're usually so reliable. I'm surprised you didn't think this through."

My best "chats" with my kids happened when I told them how I once did something similar (which I always had) and I understood that we all make poor choices, but that there are always consequences. Becoming accountable for our behavior is a sign of maturity. One consequence of lying is that people stop trusting you, and it takes extra effort to earn trust back once it is lost. It's an important lesson to learn and here's an opportunity to learn it.

I'd ask what consequence she thought would be logical and fair. If her answer seemed reasonable I'd agree to it. Otherwise I would say that I was going to take away some privileges, like going to the mall, or going with her friends after school, or something that would be a hardship for her, but easy for me to follow through on.

"You're going to stay in your room the whole summer!"

One time, after some minor crime, I told our son Micah he couldn't go to his baseball game on Friday. It was something that he was sad to miss, but it wouldn't bother me a bit. His coach called later that week to tell him he was going to pitch in Friday's game. It was devastating for Micah to stay home, and heart-wrenching for me to follow through with the punishment. Dee told Micah how I'd cried over his disappointment at missing the chance to pitch, but that it was most important for him to learn that bad choices lead to unhappy consequences. I don't have any idea if Micah remembers this lesson, but it made a huge impression on me.

The great thing about parenting is that kids are so resilient. As long as one of us learns something, and we're quick to forgive, and quick to laugh, I don't think the mistakes matter much (theirs or ours.) Kids figure out very early that their parents don't know what they're doing. But they are gracious about letting us grow into our roles, when we're gracious about them growing into theirs. We just need to communicate our love. Actually, what everybody needs is a good talking to.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Parents: Please Advise Your Parents

M & M, 1987

Like childbirth, the painful parts of motherhood seem a little vague in my 60-year-old memory. Now it's the miracle of the whole process that stands out for me. I look at my kids raising their own kids and I'm filled with respect, awe and wonder. I can't believe I actually did it! It's so exhausting, demanding and constant, and it takes so much creativity and endurance. But, in my experience, it is so worth it. That's why I want to be a cheerleader for the new team.

When I see a young family bravely entering a movie theater, or a mom herding her little flock through a department store, I always want to give a shout out. Since I'm wandering peacefully on my own, dodging the stroller and the run-away toddler, the mom probably doesn't realize I'm an alumni of the motherhood club. I try to give her a rallying smile and hold the elevator door open, but in this age of stranger danger I can't actually grab the kid who's running up the down escalator. It's even risky to pay much attention to the friendly baby. So I say what I hope sounds like a morale booster: "Wow, you've sure got your hands full."

Gabi (my daughter, who has her hands full) wrote a post about her crazy, kid-filled Saturday. Apparently she hears that phrase often when dealing with her (sometimes) high-octane kids in a public place. It sounds like a criticism to her. She asked her readers how they respond to "You've sure got your hands full!" and the comments confirmed that it is an offensive phrase moms don't want to hear.

The team spirit we alumni feel when we give this shout out seems to be lost in translation. What I mean to convey is, "Wow! You are awesome! I know how hard you're working and how unappreciated and frustrating your job can be. My hands look empty now, but I used to have my hands full, too. It's worth it! Hang in there! Bless you! Good luck!"

Our gang in a restaurant, back in the day.

All those thoughts take too long to say to a stressed out mom coping with a two-year-old's tantrum in Target's toy aisle. I have to step over the kid, so it seems silly to ignore the situation, and I don't want to hang around looking like I'm judging her choice of discipline, so I just give a supportive smile and say, "You sure have your hands full."

Maybe some people mean it mean. I think most of us just mean it as encouragement to moms who are enduring hideous days so their kid will have a good upbringing and end up capable of having her own hands full. Older folks have usually raised kids. We understand that they are often uncontrollable, and always unpredictable. When I see childish antics my first reaction is, "I'm glad it's not me. Been there, done that." And then I hide a chuckle, because it's funny to see how even a baby can totally control his parents.

Anyway, I want to know how to support and encourage moms and dads. There are times I'd like to pick up a toddler and help the mom to her car, or hold the baby while a mom goes into a restroom stall, or lift a little boy up to get a drink. But I'm a stranger, and I don't want to trespass into private territory. What can I say that sounds friendly or cheery? Instead of making the unwelcome observation, "You sure have your hands full!" I just want to say:

Go team, go!

Any suggestions to the alumni?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

How to Treat a Girl

Grampa's Birthday, 1985

It was still dark when I heard someone outside jiggling the door. It was 1972, our trailer was over-stuffed with our growing family and the kids got the closet-sized bedrooms, so we slept on a hide-a-bed in our living room. I heard a car pull up about 4:30 am, then the creak of the wooden steps, and a muffled rustling under the window just a few inches away from my head.

When the doorknob moved quietly I thought my heart beat would scare the intruder away. A minute later the tires crunched the gravel and my jaw unclenched enough that I could wake Dee. He checked the kids first, and then opened the door. There on our tiny porch was a pound of butter and a pint of whipping cream.

Our secret benefactor was my father-in-law. He was a steel worker, on his way to an early morning shift, and he knew how much I disliked the ghastly, fake yellow lard that passed as butter in our house. We drank a horrible-smelling blend of powdered milk mixed with skim, and we added Dream Whip to that for a lumpy whipped topping. Real cream and real butter were some of the sacrifices we made to afford a college degree.

It has always touched me that Dee's dad found such sweet ways to support us. His wife had MS so he had taken over the kitchen. He canned fresh peaches and homemade jam of unique concoctions: cantaloupe/peach, or apricot/pineapple/walnut. A box of oranges, or a half-a-ham and a container of frothy layered jello often arrived just in time for dinner. Money was tight on both ends, and his contributions were made-to-order.

My father-in-law was bashful. It embarrassed him if I gave him a hug or acted at all affectionate. I think he liked to give in secret so he wouldn't have to endure uncomfortable scenes of appreciation and gratitude. There were no deep conversations, and we never told him our troubles. Rather, he sensed our needs: when we'd need his tools to unfreeze our pipes, when he ought to drive by with hangers to unlock our car doors. A few times he shyly gave us a $10, $20, or $50 bill at just the right time, or a tupperware filled with lamb stew. He observed our challenges, let us handle them together, but was there with support.

I learned a lot from him. He may have thought our judgment was naive or impractical but he never voiced that opinion. He never tried to steer us toward one career or another; he gave us the impression he thought we could make good choices. His support and encouragement were quiet and steady, and his criticism was non-existent.

Looking back, I realize how his trust and confidence gave us courage to dream big. I don't ever remember a time he had his feelings hurt that we weren't somewhere for something. He understood we were busy trying to establish our own family traditions and he allowed us to do it, and invite him occasionally to participate. I never worried that our new ways were offensive, smashing his meaningful, old family rituals in favor of our enthusiastic plans. He enjoyed whatever we were doing and cheered us on from the background.

He respected me as Dee's wife, and the kid's mom, and sustained our determination of lessons, sports, bedtimes, discipline, chores. I felt we were doing a reasonable job as parents, largely because he wasn't second guessing our decisions or watching to see the error of our ways, and comparing it to the wisdom of his. He stepped aside and let us have our turn at life. I love him for that.

It's his birthday today, and I hope he's celebrating in heaven with a special dinner of his own distinctive dishes. He was a dear man and raised a hard-working, loving son, and he sure did know how to treat a girl.

A Piece of Peace

Spectators at the Parade by Norman Rockwell

"I want a little piece of peace."

People go lots of places in search of peace: a mountain top, a bubble bath, a voting booth, a garden, a museum, a convent. We all long for peace, but few of us have much enthusiasm for doing what actually creates it. Peace isn't like an unexpected rain shower; it is achieved deliberately. And luckily we don't have to wait for the whole world to be at peace to live in a peaceful world.

As a new bride I decided to create a home where our family could retreat from the tension and conflict of daily life. I had some great ideas of what this peaceful haven would be like. Interestingly, Dee had different great ideas. We discussed, then debated, then argued.

A war happens when one side wants their own way more than they want peace, and I was willing to go to war—lay down my life, if need be—to prevail. Dee wanted peace. I wanted to win, but I actually wanted more than that; I wanted to be right. It took me a while to realize that I was the cause of tension and conflict even while I was trying to carry out my dream of peace. I didn't understand that peace involved more than agreeing on a Christmas tree or who should wash the dishes.

Peace is not just an absence of hostilities, it is a state of mind; a decision to be cheerful, understanding, kind, loving and lovable.

"Men who cry for peace sometimes look upon peace as something that may be picked as an apple from a tree, something that lies about within easy reach of humanity. If I pick an apple from a tree, I have first planted the tree, cared for it, watered it, brought it to maturity. Then in due time I may have the fruit.

"So with peace. It is not a thing by itself to be picked up casually, but it is the fruit of something sown.

"Peace can only be obtained by the use of a body of principles which, if obeyed, in time would give us peace. Jesus Christ is the Prince of Peace. There is the way to peace."
---John A. Widtsoe

I love the Young Women's succinct list of Christ's teachings. When I apply them to myself, and remember they apply to others, the result is peace, in every circumstance.
  1. Faith (The Lord will bless me.)
  2. Divine Nature (I am a child of God.)
  3. Individual Worth (I have something worthwhile to contribute.)
  4. Knowledge (I must search for wisdom and truth, and learn from experience.)
  5. Choice and Accountability (I will take responsibility for my choices.)
  6. Good Works (I will serve others gladly.)
  7. Integrity (I will be honest in my dealings, and repent when I fall short.)
  8. Virtue (I will strive to be pure in my actions and thoughts.)
Eleanor Roosevelt said, "It isn't enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn't enough to believe in it. One must work for it."

My marriage, my family, my home, my neighborhood: this is where I work for it. I want world peace, but I'm more likely to make a difference in my own little piece of the world.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Ten O'Clock Spot

"Everyone has a purpose in life.
Perhaps yours is watching television."
—David Letterman

Little kids have bedtime stories and lullabies; I have late-night TV. It started when I was about ten. From my bedroom downstairs I waited for the ice to clink, the Coca-Cola to sizzle, and I'd know my parents were relaxing to Jack Paar. By that time of night they were mellow enough that I could slink down the hall and stand behind them coyly without a reprimand. Eventually they'd acknowledge my presence and I'd finally get a sip of coke before I smoothly joined them on the couch. It was our bonding time. The little kids were in bed and we grown-ups laughed at racy jokes I didn't even get.

Jack Paar became Johnny Carson, then Dave Letterman and I'm still chuckling. The magic of late-night is that anything seems pretty funny. Re-runs are mindless and calming. I've had a whole slew of bedtime shows: Time Goes By, Fresh Fields, Streets of San Francisco, M*A*S*H, Cheers, Frazier, Seinfeld—I can listen to any episode with my eyes closed and picture the action. I can start watching a M*A*S*H, go into the bathroom, and still laugh at the remembered joke at the appropriate time, even though I'm in the shower, so that when I get out, I'm totally up-to-speed. These are life-skills I've developed by devoting my nights to television.

Bedtime routines stick with you. I can recite Madeline, and Donald Duck's Toy Train thirty years later—they were our kid's favorites. Their bedtime shows included The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie. When a TV show ends Dee still chants, "Mom! Can't we watch the scenes?" in memory of the days when staying up two more minutes was the ultimate goal of the kids we were so anxious to tuck into bed.

A friend of mine thinks televisions were invented to watch the Olympics every four years and the rest of the time they should be stashed in the storage room as a mind-hazard. She would be appalled reading this post. But I don't think TV is that bad. Without it I would know nothing about the Korean War, for instance. Or Boston Nightlife. Or anti-dentites . . . Would you?

Monday, May 11, 2009

New Mode of Travel

Check Spelling
Don't tell Oma.
She's getting a new ride for Mother's Day."

It's been 27 years since I've been on a bike.
The little girls ran behind me calling, "You can do it, Oma!"
Chloe (7) was encouraging with a shout: "Oma! You're almost as good as me!"

Opa took his turn, too.
He showed off his paper-boy skills with a no hands demonstration.

And for those of you who have worried about Pete,
I'm happy to report he's back in the seat less than three weeks
after his near-death experience.
(You can't even tell he's wearing both a neck and a back brace.)

I realize riding a bike is like, well, riding a bike to most of you. You're fit, or young, or athletic, or nature lovers, or all of those things. I'm none of those things. I actually didn't learn to ride a two-wheeler until I was in 4th grade.

My bike was old-fashioned even in 1958. Dad found it used in an ad in the newspaper: blue with fat wheels, a fat seat, and high, wide handlebars. There was a buzzer on the side and a book rack on the back, which could double as an extra seat (for a rider with good enough balance to take on a passenger. Not me.)

Eventually I felt comfortable cruising the neighborhood, but I don't think I ever rode more than a mile away from home. I was scared of bumps, wary of hills, intimated by barking dogs, uncomfortable in the wind, and alarmed by traffic. I know I sound pathetic, and I was. Am. My idea of exercise has always been turning the pages of a book quickly.

In those days I walked to school, and everywhere else, so my sedentary personality didn't mean a sedentary life-style. Later I was pregnant nine times in eleven years (just seven kids, though) and forever chasing two-year-olds, so my body was getting a workout without any extra effort.

Now, for the first time in my life, I can do pretty much whatever I want, whenever I want. And what I want to do doesn't take a lot of movement. My eyes, mind and fingers move nimbly enough, but the rest of me is more like a lump of clay piled on a desk chair. It's hard to pull myself into activity.

I have some exciting motivation, though. A fabulous new outdoor mall is being constructed just a block away. There will be restaurants, walkways, fountains, a stream and best of all, a giant new Nordstrom! Strolling this nearby three-block plaza sounds delightful to me, but the projected opening is not until 2012. I could be dead by then. Or at least old.

Which gets me back to the bike. I've decided I have to get mobile. My legs have to be in working order when I finally have my kind of neighborhood destination. I claim no noble incentive—my carbon footprint doesn't worry me much, and I don't stress about my core or my rpms or my muscle mass index, or whatever. I just want to have the physical strength to shop and not drop.

And there's even a tie-in to blogging. Five years ago I couldn't turn on a computer. Now I can't turn it off. I've learned to cut, paste and copy, download iTunes, upload files, overload iPhoto, and all sorts of stuff I didn't think I could ever do. I've even recalled an ability to write, and I've written some books. I can succeed at new things. So why shouldn't I become an athlete? After all, it's as easy as riding a bike.

Thanks, Opa!

Are you riding into new territory? What motivates you?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Monday, May 4, 2009

A Change of Tune

Art from My Picture Book of Songs

As a little girl I sat on my grandma's lap at church, and listened to her sing the hymns with her beautiful alto voice. She moved her finger along the music and I could follow the parts even before I started taking piano and learned to read notes.

It was great training. I sang alto in all my school and church choirs, in trios and quartets, and with my friends and family. I can hear the alto part as naturally and clearly as I can hear the melody.

My Picture Book of Songs

But inexplicably a couple of years ago my voice changed. I am stuck in a no-woman's land between tenor and bass (in the baritone range) warbling hoarsely as I search for a tune. Baritone notes aren't written in the hymnal, and I don't have an ear for how it should sound. I croak now. I squawk.

It's heartbreaking to have one of my main talents, actually one of my great joys, disappear from my life. I brood about it every time I try to sing in the car, or at church, or to my grandkids. I've lost part of the rhythm of my personality.

It has gradually occurred to me that people lose abilities all the time and then rise to the challenge of change. Women have strokes and learn to walk and talk again, men go blind and learn to read braille—surely I can learn to sing a different song, too.

So I've started a new interlude. I got some Cd's for my car along with coordinating books of music, and this morning I sat at the piano and picked out parts for ten songs, combining the tenor and bass notes for my new range. I rehearsed the unfamiliar harmonies, and now I can practice with the Cd's as I drive.

My friend Sarah was telling me how her voice has changed. She still has one, but nobody's listening to it anymore. After being a full-time mom for thirty years, the kids have grown up and moved out and the techniques she's perfected seem unnecessary. Grace's audience has disappeared, too. She had leadership responsibilities that have passed to someone else's shoulders, and she's not ready for the tempo of her life to slow down. Many of us seem to have a whole repertoire of songs we won't be singing anymore. Thank goodness there are a million new ones to learn.

An interesting thing happened while I plunked out the solid, repetitive, low notes on the piano today. I realized that while I had been crooning my familiar refrain, other voices had added a rich, dependable quality to the chorus. The high notes need the low notes to resonate.

My tune has changed. Maybe I can become one of the voices singing "Dong" at the end of Carol of the Bells, or "Pum" to finalize The Little Drummer Boy. A sonorous "A-men" always thrills the congregation. It's time for me to be the accompaniment and let someone else do the solos.

Mary Engelbreit

Saturday, May 2, 2009

What do you Stand For?

Photo from Cowboy Ethics by James P. Owen

Huge herds of cattle drifted around the plains of Texas during the 1860's, left from the days of the old Spanish Conquistadors. The animals had multiplied by the thousands. Businessmen were anxious to buy, so cowboys collected the herds and took them to Abilene, Kansas where the railroad was. It was a cattle drive of over a thousand miles.

Buyers hired a trail boss who then hired the folks who rode with him. The character of each man was critical to the whole group. Because they would face rustlers, Indians, and horrific weather extremes, as well as wild animals, stampedes and lightning strikes, the trail boss had to count on each man's loyalty at very crucial times. There couldn't be any quitters. Cowboys had to be willing to give their lives when working for their outfit. It was called "riding for the brand."

Photo from Cowboy Values by James P. Owen

Nowadays a brand is a logo. It stands for something, and tells people what to expect. McDonald's is a good example. As we searched for the tiny village of Bzianka, Poland last fall we recognized some golden arches off the highway. We knew what we'd get when we ordered a Big Mac. The decor, cup colors and ketchup pumps were all exactly what we anticipated. We were not disappointed. I've wondered if my brand is that consistent.

Our company just finished writing a book called Riding for the Brand about a man who has dedicated his life to certain principles. His ethics have become his brand. In thinking about this I've wondered what my brand consists of.

Years ago we decided our family mascot would be a Hero. A hero is a person who shows courage in difficult circumstances, sets a good example, serves others willingly, and has every other noble quality. The noble qualities I'd like to become my brand are:
  1. Faith
  2. Humor
  3. Joy
  4. Optimism
  5. Fun
  6. Love
  7. Intelligence
  8. Curiosity
  9. Support
  10. Encouragement
I think I'll ask my posterity what qualities they associate with me. I wonder if my brand is as consistent as Mickey D's, or if I'm one of those Brand X outfits that advertises one thing and delivers another.

Photo from Cowboy Values by James P. Owen

What do you stand for? If you died tomorrow, what would your children say was your brand? What were your values? Could your descendants list them? What was important to you? What have you given your life for?

I need to get working on this.
I don't want to ride off into the sunset without creating a memorable brand!

Photo from Cowboy Values by James P. Owen

P.S. Although it's a good idea in theory, I've decided not to ask my posterity any embarrassing questions, in case they give me embarrassing answers. Since my values still show a touch of variation, some days I could be branded a fraud. I need more time to firmly establish myself as the brand they're sure of, with the quality they can trust.

Rest Time

Min, 1985

"Think what a better world it would be if we all,
the whole world,
had cookies and milk about three o'clock every afternoon
and then lay down on our blankets for a nap."
— Barbara Jordan