Monday, December 28, 2009

The Auntie Clause

I have been accused for years of being a Scrooge around the topic of Christmas, but I feel that I have merely been misunderstood all of these years. I have earned this reputation over the many years of requesting family members to not buy quite so many presents for our children. Long ago I requested that there be no gift exchange for adults, or at least remove us from that when others objected as they did.

I read a book this year called "One Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas" by Bill McKibben and the book really resonated with me. The author argues that when Christmas (the commercial version involving trees and toys, not the religious version) was created (by merchants) it was a time when families lived and worked together and there were few diversions like TV or video games to interrupt that family time. What was less readily available was material wealth, so the gift of an orange in the winter was truly a special treat. A handmade doll, would likely have been a child's only toy and was therefore treasured and loved to pieces. Now, however, most people have far more possessions but a lot less time together, but we still treat others to things , which we have in abundance, rather than time, which we need.

Like Bill McKibben, I am not against the celebration of Christmas, even as a practicing Buddhist. I just don't like the material focus of it. I want it to be more meaningful, special, and spiritual. Even if you are not a Christian, there are plenty of opportunities for a more spiritual tone for the entire month. This month, for homeschool, we learned about and celebrated Bodhi Day, Hanukkah, Christmas, the Winter Solstice, and Kwanzaa. The history and meaning behind each of the rituals and celebrations was more important than the commercial aspect of them. I want my children to understand that happiness comes from within, not from things and Christmas as we know it now, undermines that lesson terribly.

I don't like how the season feels like more of a transaction than a celebration. We are reminded to give gifts of money in this season to people who serve us in various ways throughout the year, like nannies or teachers and the like. To me, when we are required to give now, it reinforces the commercial nature of the season and becomes an expected transaction that spoils the spirit of giving. It also stresses out many families, making December spending something to worry about later. Why not generously tip your waitress in September or every time you go out eat? What if we supported our children's teachers throughout the year, helping and participating all year? What if nannies and housekeepers knew just how much we appreciated them at any point in the year? I prefer to be generous with praise and gifts when it is not expected of me. It feels more meaningful and sincere that way.

Last night at dinner John asked the kids to name every present they got this Christmas. I added, jokingly, that if they couldn't name it, they couldn't keep it. When including the gifts from family, santa, and the contents of the stocking, each kid got more than 20 presents and they needed help to remember them all. Clearly as a whole, this family spent far more than $100 for the holiday. At one point John jokingly called me "The Anti-Clause" but my children, who didn't understand that, cheered and said that "Auntie Clause" was a great thing to be. I liked that and would prefer to think of myself as the loving Auntie who brings cheer and joy with as many interactions as possible all year long. The kind of Auntie who you are certain loves you, who wants to spend special time with you, and who you would turn to when you had a problem or a reason to celebrate. Auntie Clause isn't like Scrooge, she is all about love and joy.

Right now, my kids are playing in a fort built with boxes that held the multitude of presents they received. Although they liked the things that were given to them, they have had far more sustained, cooperative, laughter-filled playtime with those boxes than any of the presents that arrived in them. There is a lesson in that.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Repost: Wanted General Employee

This is a repost from a blog entry I wrote earlier in the year. Happy Holidays all!

WorkWorld is 200-year old unchanging industrial company dedicated to producing standardized widgets and superior scores on high-stakes reviews, regardless of market demand. The company is proud to offer a rigorous, rigid environment that promotes well-rounded employees who are responsible for work in all departments, which are structured as unconnected silos. Due to heavy turnover, WorkWorld is constantly looking for General Employees.

Requirements include:

• Willingness to perform seemingly meaningless tasks without question
• Propensity to work with isolated, fact-based data that is driven by the review process
• Superior rote memorization
• Commitment to performing only those duties outlined in the standardized review, and not more
• Willingness to labor alone (collaboration is cheating) and to show your work (use of calculators is cheating).
• Maniacal focus on the clock. You must be at work from exactly 7:25 AM to exactly 3:30 PM with a 15 minute lunch break
• A low attention threshold with the ability to switch focus to a different department every 50 minutes when a bell is rung.
• Willingness to take work home nightly, including weekends and vacations (two to four hours daily)
• Exceptional bladder control – bathroom passes are limited

Responsibilities Include:
• 50-minute workloads in the following departments: Accounting, Sales, Marketing, Manufacturing, Distribution, Customer Service and Software/Hardware Design (note: the Customer Service and Software/Hardware Design Departments are inoperative, though attendance and production in these departments is mandatory nonetheless)
• You will be assigned to a different micro-manager in each department and expected to conform to his or her leadership style
• No talking
• Raise your hand if you have something to say

Equal Employment Opportunity
WorkWorld is committed to employing a diverse, multicultural body of employees in an atmosphere that values compliance, respect for authority, the conventional, and quiet. All employment decisions are made without regard to emotional intelligence, competency, critical thinking, creativity, innovation, or even interest in the job.

To apply, fill out this scantron sheet with a number two pencil, filling all of the bubbles in completely.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Our Kenyan Visitor Heads Back Home - Being Comfortable with the Uncomfortable

Marta left for the airport early this morning. We all truly enjoyed her two-week visit here. Not only did we learn a lot about Kenya and an African's perspective, we learned a lot about ourselves in the process.

Marta was here with Critical Mass Leadership Education, who partners with the U.S. State Department Youth Leadership Program. There were 20 students here between the ages of 15-18 with four school administrators from Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, and Nigeria. The students were identified as future leaders in their country and the program helped them develop the skills, connections, and inspiration to initiate big projects in their home countries that have a profound impact on their communities.

Last night we attended a ceremony and presentation from the students and the teachers who attended, as well as the leaders who run the program. It was so moving to our family to be a part of the program and the presentation. There were many young African women who found their voice in the program and spoke publicly, with confidence for the first time to a standing ovation. There were some plucky, confident, earnest boys who proclaimed themselves to be their country's future presidents. I was so impressed with the level of maturity, caring, and commitment of the students. The teachers who attended more as chaperones learned as much as their students did and were so deeply committed to transforming this opportunity into responsibility for their community once they returned.

I understand that every guest and host family had a very positive experience and exchange. There was so much gratitude for the hosts who housed, fed and drove the visitors and made them as comfortable as possible. But, the hosts benefitted almost as much from our participation. There was a lot of laughter and sharing and learning for everyone and the younger people definitely broke the ice and made that learning and sharing easier. For example, the first morning I picked up our regular crew of participants in my neighborhood (we families shared the driving responsibilities) they were wide-eyed, polite, and quiet. On the first morning my passengers, who included Marta, our Christian, Kenyan, female teacher; Sengasu, a Muslim, Tanzanian, male teacher; and Ayla, a South African female student silently looked out onto a frozen, foreign, city landscape full of the discomfort of the unknown on the way to their classes. My normally shy four year old son, Jude, dressed in jeans with the underwear on the outside (Superman style), a blanket duct-taped around his neck for a cape, and shoes (always) on the wrong feet, uncharacteristically busted out singing loudly, "Don'tcha wish your girlfriend was hot like me". Everyone laughed and fell in love with him and all became friends right then. Jude struck up quite a friendship with Sengasu and at the ceremony on the last day, he presented him with a picture he drew.

At the presentation, one of the speeches that struck me the most was one that said that being comfortable with being uncomfortable is the key to growing and learning. Everyone who came here endured the scariness of the unknown, and the hardships of the unfamiliar, like the cold, the food, the customs....) sharing intimacy with people they did not know (yet). Even the host families had to contend with the first awkward moments of polite quiet and the challenges of having a stranger living in their homes. But as the speaker so eloquently pointed out, it is through enduring those difficult times that the best of us comes out and emerges far better than before. Knowing the payoff, it helps to be comfortable with the uncomfortable in nearly any situation in life. It was a great living lesson for us all.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Video Games vs. Nature

My husband bought Ronan a video game, despite my objections to the contrary. This is one of the hardest things about parenting - not being in complete agreement all the time on how to raise your offspring. I am sure that it is a phenomenon in our house. John felt this game not only would be fun, but educational too. It is called Spore and it is all about evolution. The player gets to choose how to evolve (get eyes, go from water to land, be a carnivore or an herbivore, etc.). Of course, Ronan loves to play the game and if we let him, he would sit at the computer for days on end without food or drink to play it. This sets up a constant negotiation in our house. We have decided that he can play the game in the evenings if he has earned it (meaning that he has done his school work with no whining, he has done his chores, he has been kind, etc.)and for a couple of hours on the weekends.

We've observed a few things about Ronan and this game. It is certainly a motivating factor and he will often remind himself that he wants to play Spore and will make choices that allow him to play it, but not as much as one would think. He only got to play it one night last week, based on those choices. When he does play it, he delights in the creativity he employs to create these multi-eyed, multi-limbed critters, and if you are passing by he will offer to show you how he has evolved. He is motivated to do a little bit of reading and writing in playing the game as well.

The most surprising observation we have made is that Ronan does not seem happy after he has played it. Although the game is not violent (except for the carnivore aspect) it does inspire him to new heights of cruelty to his brother, sassiness, and a general despondancy for several hours afterwards. We shared this observation with him and he couldn't explain it, but did not deny it.

Yesterday he managed to crack the code I put on the computer to lock it, and began playing it before anyone else was awake. He played for about two hours until I brought an end to the day's evolutionary effort. As usual, after the game he moped around the house, complaining that there was nothing to eat and nothing to do (except hurt his brother). We decided to go for a walk, which was met with howls of protest. We walked to a pond in our neighborhood that has been iced over, thanks to a very cold week here. The boys played an impromptu, make-shift game of hockey for an hour and wanted to come back with more gear, which we did. The moment Ronan's feet hit the ice, a smile came to his face that never left and a fun, loving attitude broke through the surly one. He was a happy kid again, joyfully playing in nature the way millions of kids before him have played, oblivious to the cold.

We will take them to ponds and ice rinks to play, though we hesitate to do the organized sports thing. When it is too organized it seems to spoil it for Ronan. Playing tennis or baseball or hockey with Dad is fun, but doing it on a regular basis with a team seems to take the joy out of it, and ends all willingness in that activity for awhile. The magic seems to be this formula: play + outside + Dad. The formula for me is more like: creativity + mom. Either way, the formula for happiness requires no electricity, and I think we will be pulling the plug!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Hosting a Kenyan Woman

On Friday we welcomed the newest (temporary) member of our house - Marta Guyo. She is here accompanying five of her students who were chosen based on applications and interviews for a three-week leadership conference. Marta is a mother of five and a history and government teacher. Each of the students, and the others that were chosen from different areas are staying with different host families throughout Denver. Their first week was a retreat in the mountains, then they will spend two weeks going to classes and staying with host families like us in Denver, and then the last part of the trip they meet in Washington DC to tour and attend more classes.

Marta is shy yet affectionate. She spent a lot of time alone in her room the first few days. I recall needing the time and space to process everything when I did my overseas study in Spain, so I wasn't too concerned. Where she lives, in a remote village in Kenya very near the Ethiopian border there are very few cars or even roads and she said that people are always outside walking around. She says she doesn't see many people here - only cars. I wonder about her impression on many things here. For example, what does she make of a woman who goes to a heated yoga class and then occasionally treats herself to a Starbucks latte afterwards. I am not sure "yuppie" is in her lexicon, though she does speak English pretty well. Where she is from, exercise and sweat come naturally, without the aid of cute yoga clothes or thermostats. And there may be no Starbucks there but the coffee beans are native. I think she misses sweating - she has never seen snow before and spends a lot of time in her coat even indoors.

I asked her how American and Kenyan style of parenting is different (or at least our version of it). She said that she heard our four year old son shriek "Idiot!" at his Dad when he did not get his way during a trip to the mall. This word gets him a consequence each time. He has eight of them racked up this week so it doesn't seem to be working! She said that in Kenya a kid would never say that to his parent out of fear, but she thought that it was good for a child to be able to express himself because a Kenyan kid would feel that way too, but just be forced to keep it underground, which is not good. She didn't seem to be sugar-coating this for us and I was glad that it didn't merit a Kenyan Super Nanny intervention, though I am sure we could learn plenty from her.

Last night we took her to an Ethiopian restaurant that we love. Up until this point I had only seen her eating bread and tea. When she walked in, her shyness fell away and she immediately walked to the kitchen to warmly greet the owner in her own language - a dialect that was closely related to the owner's. She ate heartily, for once, and we were there for several hours talking about cultures, experiences, and life. I was glad to see her so comfortable and happy. We were invited back for a special Ethiopian breakfast and coffee ceremony in Marta's honor.

I look forward to our family learning more from Marta - about Kenya, the world, and ourselves through this experience.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Urban Organicz - Kids Growing Vegetables in Abandoned Lots in Detroit

A friend recently loaned me the movie “The Power of Community – How Cuba Survived Peak Oil”.  It was a documentary telling of how the embargo nearly crippled Cuba, but also on how Cuba became stronger as a result of it.  Out of necessity, Cuba transformed nearly every facet of its society.  It changed the way communities were laid out and fed for power.  The bicycle and mass transportation dominated the streets.  The average Cuban lost 20 pounds through biking and walking and eating a lot less and a lot healthier.  Where they had formerly been one of the highest users of chemical fertilizers and oil-based pesticides on industrial farms, they were now farming every piece of arable land organically.  This was true in Urban settings (Permaculture) in addition to Cooperatives and smaller farms that people could have free of charge from the government as long as they were growing food on it.  Their country is now being studied by many countries around the world as the rest of humanity prepares for the inevitable peak oil stage.  For Cuba, peak oil came artificially early through harsh embargoes, but it turned out to be a gift in many ways.

Just as Cuba turned adversity into opportunity, Detroit is facing similar circumstances.  Detroit has been in decline for decades and it is only getting worse as Michigan’s economy, highly dependent on the auto industry, faces significant challenges.  Detroit’s landscape is littered with abandoned buildings and lots, but this adversity has many groups poised to make some incredibly positive changes for the city.

Urban Organicz is a not-for-profit, large scale, urban farming program founded Ashley Powell, Mandisa McCowin,Brandon Chambers, DeCinces Martin, and Teeshlee Hawkins.  Their mission is to revitalize and stabilize Detroit’s economy by using vacant lots to grow vegetables, fruit, and grains for lunches in Detroit Public Schools and for sale at local restaurants and farmer’s markets.  Doing so will attain the goals of providing jobs, agricultural education, healthy food for schools and communities, and motivation for young people to be environmental leaders in the urban community.  The organization has adopted 10 lots in northwest Detroit and they expect that by the summer of 2010, over 6,000 students from Detroit Public Schools participating and managing the urban farm plots in their neighborhoods.  

They are opening up these opportunities to those interested in working and/or living with them. In return for living in the Urban Organicz House as a Co-Op member, a small percentage of  time will be used to manage gardens surrounding the property; recruit and manage volunteers; fundraise; and most important of all use their creativity/entrepreneurial skills to contribute to the community. For more information on Urban Organicz, visit:

The Greening of Detroit’s mission is to improve the quality of life in the city through reforestation and educational projects. They provide students and educators with the tool to increase their environmental science skills and stewardship.  Their many programs include TreeKeepers Kids, where kids experience nature first-hand, participate in after school clubs and service learning projects designed to revitalize their community.  For more information about them, visit:

I love how these and many other groups in Detroit are seizing on the opportunity to turn Detroit around by making it a healthier, sustainable, inviting community while encouraging young people to lead the way.  I hope that, like Cuba, Detroit will make adversity its reason to transform itself and in doing so, prepare the students of Detroit schools to advise and educate the rest of us on how to do it in our own communities! How great it would be to see Detroit filled with greens and vegetables, and young students taking back Detroit one green, sustainable lot at a time!