Thursday, June 27, 2013

What's the true worth of an achievement medal ... really?

The room was freezing, but we didn't care. After all, it was our daughter's middle school graduation. Yes, middle school - not high school, not college - but she'd worked hard to get here and she was very excited, so we were, too.

After all, she'd made straight As all year, worked her butt off, and frankly, we were happy that her efforts would be recognized and the relaxing days of summer could begin.

The principal cleared his throat and began announcing the students who had maintained a 4.0 GPA all year. Seated in the back, we couldn't see our daughter,  but we could hear the names, see the students as they climbed on stage and smiled as they bowed their heads and received their achievement medals.

J, K, L ...N, O, P ... no M. No Majeske. Where was Katie Majeske? Our daughter's name wasn't called. My husband and I looked at each other, confused. We were certain our girl had earned the ranking. In fact, I was absolutely positive. A bit of a hoverer, I had checked the online grading site available to parents earlier that week and seen she'd earned all As.

The ceremony went on. Diplomas were distributed. At the end, we met Katie in the gym for cake, ice cream and photos. She was excited and giggly, posing with her friends. She mentioned the medal briefly.

"I was supposed to get one," she said, rolling her eyes. "I don't know why I didn't." She opened up her diploma folder and pulled out a second sheet. "Honored for Academic Achievement," it said.

She didn't seem particularly upset. But for some reason, I was. I found the principal and politely mentioned the omission. He looked dutifully disturbed, then clicked a message to  himself on his phone. "I'll see if that's correct," he said. "I'll talk to the teachers who compiled the names ...and I'll be in touch with you."

No one contacted me that week. Or the next. My frustration faded. Then report cards arrived, and it flared again. I sent emails to the school, to the teachers involved, to the principal.

I received a reply from a teacher: The documents they'd reviewed indicated my daughter had a lower GPA. That was incorrect, I wrote back. They had been misinformed - and I would like her medal, simply as a keepsake.

I got it. It was left for me in the main office. It had a sticky note on it with her name attached - spelled incorrectly.  I brought it home and hefted it in triumph in my quiet house. My daughter, lying on her bed with her laptop, just shook her head.

"Oh, yay," she said with a small smile. "You beat the system, mom. Way to go."  And we laughed. I don't know why I cared so much about that medal. Having Katie is my real award - and  that's what I need to remember.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

In the lazy days of summer, I dream of my brand-new fence

As summer kicks into high gear and my friends talk of warm days and new bathing suits, I dream about fences.

In fact, I obsess over them. As I drive to work, I note their styles from the corner of my eye. Solid wood, chain-link, split-rail, vinyl. I look to see if each board is notched or placed straight across. I can tell the do-it-yourselfers, the professionals, the old-timers, and the brand-new additions.

And I wait and wait for mine.

I'm putting a fence in my back yard. Not a full fence, mind you - just two sides and a gate. A back fence already exists. I just wanted a simple privacy fence. You know, room for the dog to run around. A little place to relax.

The project has been far more complicated amd expensive than I ever imagined, and I tell the kids this is their trip to Disneyland, their summer vacation.

They seem strangely unappreciative.

My co-workers get unusually busy when I talk about my fence project - it's almost like they're not interested. It's so odd.

See, I thought this would be so simple - it's half a fence, after all. But after the installer came out, he shook his head. Nope, he told me. Our township has a new rule - no more simple privacy fences allowed. All fences have to be "mirror-image," or shadow-boxed.

That involves more lumber, for you fence novices out there. It's more expensive. "But I live on a cul-de-sac," I whined. "Who cares?"  Then the installer squinted over at my neighbor's house. He shook his head again.

"That house is set really far back - it's actually in your back yard," he said. "I can only put a six-foot fence to the edge of that house ... then the height has to drop down - I think. We'll have to see."

One survey and two permits later, we found he was correct.

Just recently, my neighbors inexplicably began digging around their back fence - apparently to reinforce the bottom with chicken wire to discourage their dogs from digging. They also unearthed a giant cable that snakes into my yard. I'm hoping it won't impede my installers. So far, so good.

Yesterday, the posts went in. And my excitement grew. If the rain holds off, the fence might go up soon. The kids don't seeem that interested.

But the dog is very excited.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Seeing woman's cane raps a little sense into my head

My home repairs were many and costly - the brand-new faucet was cracked, the roof needed replacement, and a back-yard fence would apparently cost more than a trip to Europe.

I was expanding on my litany of woes to a friend while drinking overpriced coffee at a local mall.

"It's so overwhelming," I told her. "It's like everything is breaking at once. We work and work, and we never seem to get ahead!" I was disgruntled - feeling cranky, stressed and poor.

My friend sympathized, but then I noticed her eyes looking over my shoulder. They brightened with delight, and she starting waving someone over.

She introduced her friend to me. The woman was petite and very pretty, in a casually fashionable outfit, cute, spiky hair and fun chandelier earrings so long they brushed her shoulders. She was so put together, in fact, you barely noticed the cane she leaned upon heavily as she walked.

"We were just talking home repairs!" my friend said, introducing me to the new arrival. It seemed her friend and husband had just purchased a foreclosed home and were spending much of their time at home improvement stores trying to put together what the last, irate homeowners had torn apart.

Her friend stood with us for a few minutes, showing us photos on her iPhone and laughing over recent repair mishaps. Then the phone buzzed and she was called back to work. Saying her goodbyes, she limped away, taking each step carefully.

My friend watched her leave somewhat wistfully. "Her MS is back," she told me quietly. "It was in remission, but now it's getting worse. She's taking medication ... but she's having more trouble standing."

She turned her attention back to me and smiled. "Now, what were you saying?"

But I was tongue-tied. In fact, I felt like a shallow jerk. My complaints, I suddenly realized, were ridiculous. I remembered a phrase from a book I'd read by Philip Gulley, titled "Front Porch Tales:"

"One thing I've never understood is why I'm so blessed - good parents, good spouse, good kids, good job - and others aren't. I used to think it was because I was nice to God, until I met some battered saints. Now I just think there's a randomness in this world beyond my understanding. The apostle Paul said that on this side of things, we see in a mirror dimly.

If you woke up this morning and your kids were healthy and your parents loved you, then you don't have any problems. You might think you do, but you don't. And if at night, when you steal into your child's room and watch her little body rise and fall with the breathing, and your heart aches with love, consider your life sublime."

Let the faucet run and the roof crumble. That's what I need to remember.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sometimes, even seeing a small good deed can help lift your spirits

The hour was early, and the grocery store was very quiet. I'd only run in for a moment, hoping to grab a few items before work and be on my way.

Then I  heard it. The wailing of a child. It wasn't a big deal, really - grocery stores are often filled with children crying. But this had been a week so filled with sadness that I actually almost left - I simply didn't want to see anybody else in tears.

But I needed one more thing - a box of cereal. And I was so close, I figured I'd just get it and go.

As I rounded the corner, though, I saw the reason for the tears. A pink balloon, starting to float toward the ceiling.

A chubby little toddler was jumping up and down, trying in vain to catch the balloon's pink ribbon, and crying like she'd lost her best friend.  Her mother, apparently used to such calamities, was staying calm.

"It's OK," she reassured the little girl. "Don't worry. We'll find a tall man."

The little girl kept jumping, the balloon kept floating, and the mother quickly walked around the corner. The balloon was pretty high by now - too high for me to reach - and the little girl was starting to look a little frantic.

The mom reappeared. Sure enough, she had found a tall man.

He looked a little confused, and more than a little rough around the edges. He had on work boots, torn jeans, and an old jacket, and he looked a little sleepy.

But once the mother pointed to the balloon and explained her predicament, the man grinned. He jumped - he was indeed pretty tall - and grabbed the tail of the ribbon.

The little girl stopped crying at once, the tears still staining her cheeks.

"Maybe the tall man will tie the balloon a little better to your wrist," the mother said to her daughter and their new friend in that motherly way that makes it impossible to say no.

The tall man did just that.  He walked away, smiling.

So did I.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Is 'abracadabra' the new magic word? (Or: Where are our manners?)

"We're moving to the country to raise llamas," I announced to my family the other day. "We are going to start living a slow, simple lifestyle."

My husband hurriedly grabbed his breakfast and scurried down to his office, not at all eager to discuss my new edict.

My son barely looked up from his iPod, but I thought I saw him roll his eyes.

My daughter, getting milk from the refrigerator, paused thoughtfully. "I don't think you want to raise llamas," she said. "I think you might be thinking of alpacas - I hear they're nicer. Llamas spit."

Well that's just great. Spitting. It's that kind of behavior that's pushing me to my isolated country home in the first place. See, I just decided the other day I couldn't take it anymore.

You know what I mean:

  • The angry guy behind you who honks as soon as the light changes.
  • The receptionist who cuts you off mid-sentence.
  • The driver who practically takes off your front bumper as she cuts into your lane.
  • The surly customer service guy who has absolutely no interest in customer service.

The complete and utter lack of civility.

You know, my son wanted a cookie the other day; I asked him for the magic word. He said "Abracadabra." He might be right. Because I think all the other ones have been forgotten.

In a previous job, I was standing by a bank of elevators when the doors opened and a young woman got out, a little unsteady on her feet. She smiled shakily at me, and told me she'd just given blood at the blood drive downstairs.

"Are you okay?" I asked. "Sure," she said.

 Then she took a few wobbly steps and collapsed like a sack of potatoes - down for the count. Not two seconds later, a manager came zipping down the hallway at breakneck speed, his eyes intent on his mobile phone. I'm not making this up - he STEPPED OVER HER and continued down the hall.

Wow. Not good.

Hey, let's change that, you and me. Let's make behavior like that unacceptable. Let's say please and thank you, chew with our mouths closed  and help little old ladies across the street.

Let's bring back niceness. At least a little of it.

Because really, I'm not too sure about the whole alpaca thing. Not yet, anyway.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

We can think in 140 characters - but can we really write anymore?

The other day, I was telling my kids about my childhood. I mentioned I didn't have a computer.

My son looked at me in amazement. My daughter gave me a pitying look.

"Were you, like, really poor?" she asked gently.

After I stopped laughing I told them, no, I wasn't really poor. We just didn't have that technology - we didn't have Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or Vine or  well... heck, we didn't even have a remote control for our television set.

My son, who has a Vulcan mindmeld with Minecraft, was amazed. "What did you" he finally sputtered.

We had an interesting conversation then - wherein I reminded
the kids about nature and books and sports, and all that exists outside of circuitry.

But the talk started me thinking about technology, and the effect our ever-changing world has on writers. We can think in 140 characters. We can text in shorthand. We know how to add links and photos and videos and easily hyperlink to our sites ... but can we still create a beautiful narrative? Can we write poetically, with emotion?

Can we offer the type of prose that gives readers goosebumps, the kind that brings a lump to their throat, that stays in their memory for days?

It's harder for me, I know that. It takes more concentration, more effort to switch gears, to feel I've succeeded.

I have a few days off. I think I'll spend them buried in a few good books, just to remind me how it's done.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Happy Easter - from Bloody the Blood Drop

Every year I set up a little Easter vignette in the picture window in the living room.

I gather all the appropriate stuffed animals - you know, bunnies, ducks, lambs - from downstairs, and I arrange them in a sweet little pile along with some appropriate Easter books to help set the mood for the holiday.

This year, time got away from me, and I was running behind - digging in the depths of the basement late at night for apparently non-existent rabbits while my two uninterested children watched TV and played on the computer instead of helping me.

As I slogged through piles of plushies previously considered precious, I could feel my spirits drop. Apparently, nobody remembered any of these little guys. Nobody cared about decorating, nobody but me.

I was all set to have a little pity party.

And then I found him. There, at the bottom of the last bin, smiling up at me.

Bloody the Blood Drop. Yep, that's his name. The little plushie that I quite literally paid for in blood. He's a little beanbag in, you guessed it, the shape of a blood drop. He has a belt buckle that boasts "BB," and he wears a very cool black cape with a medical cross on the back.

He was the prize at a Red Cross blood drive at my daughter's elementary school when she was in second grade, and she wanted to win him SO bad. (Who wouldn't, right?) For every sponsor who would give blood, your name was put in a bowl ... and then maybe, just maybe, you - lucky you - would win Bloody the Blood Drop.

But Katie didn't have any sponsors. She comes from squeamish stock - I'll admit I'm not big on blood donating. I do it - I just don't like it. But she begged and pleaded and I finally relented. So her name was placed in the bowl - once.

Usually, my donations are uneventful. But this time I became so nauseous the nurses flipped the gurney I was on so my feet were higher than my head. Lying there, sick and inverted, I heard my daughter's name called; turning my head, I got to see her jump for joy. I figured it was worth it.

I carried Bloody up the stairs. "Do you remember this guy?" I asked my daughter as she sat at her computer. Her  face lit up immediately.

"Bloody the Blood Drop!!" she cried. "I love that guy!'

I might just have to add him to my Easter vignette. You know, somewhere in the back.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Writing inspiration from frosting and anxiety . . . .

I've never really believed in the necessity of writer's angst.

You know what I mean - the belief that a writer can't churn out the copy unless she's dreadfully unhappy. Sure, you hear all about these authors with tortured souls - and I'm sure they have their reasons - but most of the writers I know are pretty even-keeled. Funny, even.

Yes, they may get kind of cranky, but that's mostly because of the paychecks they're pulling down.

That type of angst I find completely understandable. The other kind truly mystified me ...  until last week, when my daughter was leaving on an out-of-state school trip. She and I are very close - and I'm horrendously overprotective - so when she and her dad left for the airport and the house was silent and still, I felt close to tears.

At loose ends, I grabbed a cupcake from the kitchen. I ate off all the frosting. Then I sat down listlessly at my computer, dawdled a few minutes, then started to write. And suddenly, I was able to come up with the intro to a new project I've been wanting to try  - a romance. I've never written one before, and though I had an outline, the beginning was stumping me. Having a place to start my story made me feel (a little) happier that day.

Maybe that's how the whole writer's angst thing works.

"He was gone. And I couldn't stop eating.

Grief does strange things to you, you know. It keeps you up late at night as you sweat and turn and tremble, it makes your eyes glaze over with memories,  it forces you to obsessively search your inbox for messages you know will never arrive.

And it makes you eat. A lot."

Sunday, March 17, 2013

I'm back to blogging ... with some fun 'Chicken Soup' news to share

Blame it on Disney.

You know, that show - "Dog with a Blog?"  Maybe that's why I stopped blogging for awhile. I figured that if canines were blogging, maybe it was time for us humans to give it a rest.

Or maybe my blogging muse was simply on vacation. I wish I would have known; I'd have asked for a postcard. Regardless, I took a little break. But now I'm back. And I have some exciting news.

I just found out that a short story I wrote, "Word by Word," will be included in the new "Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Writers" book, which will be released on May 21. I found out about a month ago I was a finalist, and then last week that I'd actually made it in.

The story focuses on how I lost - and found - my creativity with the help of my family after my sister died. I hope it shows other writers that even if/when you hit a dry patch, it's okay - it doesn't mean your writing days are all behind you.

In the meantime, I'll be doing most of my blogging on this site, and so I hope you'll give me a follow. I promise I'll keep blogging - no wonder what species Disney has blogging next.