Saturday, February 7, 2015

Live Like You're Hosting an Exchange Student

Last week we hosted a Chinese teacher and student in our home as part of an exchange sponsored by Big Sis's International Baccalaureate middle school. We learned about the exchange only a week before, and it seemed like there were one hundred reasons to say are you kidding me no, we do not need this in our lives right now, including that the visit was falling on a week of major events at my school (annual Strategic Planning, school board meeting, basketball game vs. rival high school, "Dirty in the Paint" dance--yeah, don't ask).  Adding in fun cultural activities, complicating an already complex carpool scheme, and cleaning the house in preparation could very well take me over the edge.  But Big Sis was excited.  And we have plenty of space in our house, which we bought for the purpose of sharing.  This is the kind of thing we love to do.  So we said yes.

The exchange students and teachers were arriving the evening of Super Bowl Sunday, and we learned in the morning that we had been assigned a male teacher and student.  We were disappointed; as a family of three girls it seemed obvious we would be paired with girls.  And how would it work with one adult and student?  We made an attempt to "trade" our guests with friends matched with two Chinese girls, friends who have three sons.  For a variety of reasons, though, we needed to stick with the original plan.  And that night we met our teacher, Dong, and student, Li Ze ("Tony"), and began five amazing days of cultural exchange.

Dong and Tony accompanied Big Sis to school each morning, so they participated in carpool and shadowed middle school students and teachers.  We picked them up each afternoon, taking them to the beach, Balboa Park, the Hotel del Coronado, and Seaport Village.  We introduced them to Souplantation, celebrated my birthday with them at Corvette Diner, and ended the week with Tony's favorites, pizza and spaghetti.

It took only a half-day for the awkwardness to wear off and for us to realize we were experiencing something wonderful.  I began thinking that there were some life lessons to be gleaned from our week.

1.  Opening Our Home Opened Our Family.  Hosting guests brought out the best in all of us.  Big Sis was a gracious, attentive, and generous hostess, ensuring that Tony was included in all conversations and activities at home and at school.  They became fast friends.  After a week when Big Sis and I had not been jiving, I welcomed reasons to praise and appreciate her.   Tootsie was charmed by our new family members and had Dong, father of a four-year-old, carrying her around and adopting a special protectiveness of her by the end of his first day with us. Hosting a foreign exchange inspires such simple generosity--we became ambassadors for not only our family and our daughter's school, but for our city, our state, our nation, our culture.  We became Team Family, with a shared purpose (versus what sometimes feels like competing interests):  invested in them being comfortable, welcomed, part of us.  We wanted them to have whatever it appeared they desired or wished for during their visit.  We saw glimpses of ourselves in their reactions to us:  we're funny; we're loud; we're busy.  We practiced our best behavior for most of their time with us until inevitably our warts (sibling bickering, parental impatience) began to show.

2.  We Need to Act Like Tourists More Often.  While some of my work obligations were non-negotiable, our guests inspired us to leave work and school early and embark on mini-adventures we normally wouldn't on a weekday:  roam the park, play at the beach, make family dinner a priority every night.  One evening during our dinner-time sharing of the Best Parts of Our Day, Big Sis offered that spending more time as a family and doing simple but fun activities was a highlight of the week.  It was a powerful reminder that the busy schedules of our daily lives don't have to preclude a quick evening dip in the ocean or pick-up soccer in the park, exploitation of this beautiful city we live in and all it offers.  We are challenged now to think, if we had foreign guests right now, where would we take them; what would we do?  And then consider doing just that, just because.

3.  Expressing Curiosity about Fellow Humans Enriches and Expands Us.  We were excited to share our guests and our experience with family and friends.  My brother and his wife brought their children over for a boisterous family dinner with Google Translate experiments, comparisons of and cross-cultural help with homework, discussions of food, and passing around of babies. We were reminded by Dong, who, per the Chinese norm, has one daughter and wishes he had more, what a privilege large families are.  Each new person we introduced Dong and Tony to brought out different sides of and information from them, too, including our Auntie T who's been to China four times, and our friends who are half Chinese.  We take a certain amount of multiculturalism for granted in our country, but we don't often take the time or have a safe opportunity to question and share with the clear intent of understanding one another's culture for the sake of better understanding humanity.

4.  We Live in a World of Wonder and Wonderfulness. Approach Life as an Adventure.  Practice Curiosity. Tony and Dong had never been to the ocean.  Have you been to the beach with people who've never been to the beach?  That made the beach 10,000 times more fun than it usually is.  The digging in the sand, the cartwheels on the shore, the squeals when waves of chilly water lapped over toes, the sunset:  all of it inspired a giddy celebration of simply being, and being in nature.

Tony and Dong approached all moments with eyes wide open, ready for surprises and learnings.  Every meal, every routine, every drive somewhere inspired more curiosity and questions and awe from our guests.   There were some comical iterations of this, too.  I sent Big Sis downstairs with a box of tissues for their room on the second night Tony and Dong were here.  The square Kleenex box, decorated on the outside as is customary, was mistaken by our guests as a gift, so they expressed overwhelming gratitude to Big Sis for the specially delivered present...and then found out it was tissues and were a little embarrassed.  Our tall pepper grinder was a mystery, so we emptied it to show them what it was and how it worked, with all of us grinding and sniffing pepper in demonstration.  The pepper reveal led to a tour and tasters from our spice cabinet, with Dong sampling Tajin and needing a tall glass of water as a result. Our family's structure, with Husband having the day off on Mondays and watching Tootsie, and my often-long work hours, was eye-opening to Dong, who described more traditional gender roles in Chinese families.  Meanwhile, we kept reminding ourselves that China was a country of largely no siblings, recognizing how our big-family backgrounds informed our world views, and even the questions we asked our guests.  We asked Tony and Dong what surprised them most about America.  After thinking a while, Tony, from Beijing like Dong, responded, the air.  The clean air.  Viewing our world through their eyes imbued with a renewed sense of gratitude.

5.  Caring and Giving Provides Us with Higher Purpose.  Most of us give to and care for others as part of our daily lives.  But moments when we are accountable to others in new ways recalibrate our priorities and help us find our center.  I have times when I work later than I planned and my family pays, and I feel guilty but also that the sacrifice is necessary.  But this week I felt a renewed sense of obligation and tug.  When I left work it was to be there for my family AND our special family, whom I grew to love in short time.  Hosting Dong and Tony made work feel a little less critical.  It made going home more so.  It made life richer for all of us.  We're going to try to hold on to the important parts, and embrace opportunities that stretch our family beyond ourselves.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

2015: In Which Lice Appears to Be More Important Than Family News

Well, hello there 2015; I'm finally getting around to acknowledging your arrival.  We greeted you in the company of my parents with a champagne toast, fresh off the plane from a wonderful visit in the Caribbean with my brother’s family, where seven cousins, two extra aunties, as well as dogs, cats (both young and old and ailing*), guinea pigs, iguanas, geckos, and mosquitoes shared a house with a view of the sea.  We swam, ate, hiked, cooked, played football and baseball, talked, snuggled, and mostly just enjoyed being related and being together.  Tootsie soaked up love and attention twelve-fold. 

2015 opened with Middle Sis’s 3rd grade teacher’s resolution that There Shall Be No More Lice in her classroom (even she contracted the critters, poor lady).  I’ll be discreet and share that we were intimately involved in a lice intervention the day before school resumed, and it was only a week later that we received the teacher’s email of surrender:  “Lice Is Back.”  If one can conjure humor while managing the specter or reality of lice, there’s a certain comedy to be recognized in its effects on otherwise sane-appearing and level-headed mothers.  Creatures so tiny with such magnitude of power to bring successful, confident, resourceful women to their knees!  We join a sisterhood around the trauma of lice, a sorority of horror and sharing of remedies, with crying and raw-scalped children who are victims of and audience to the drama of slathering, combing, shampooing, laundering, drying, spending, rinsing and repeating. 

Lice is prehistoric.  Lice doesn’t discriminate.  Lice will never be vanquished.  It’s kind of awesome, and I mean that literally, how the little buggers maintain their hegemony over us, no matter how rich, educated, clean, willful, and powerful we think we are.  It’s only our Type-A vigilance, our determination, that keeps the villains from rising up in whole new civilizations, complete with hierarchies and alphabets.

[And here's where Big Sis points out with disdain that I've devoted more of this blog post on lice than I have on our trip to the USVI--Ed.]

Big Sis wants No Part of Lice, so while I was out of the house for a few hours one day, she helpfully stripped our couches, beds, and pillows and generated a mountain of (quite possibly) unnecessary laundry.  It wasn’t long after I recovered from my own grousing and folding of sheets and towels that our elderly dog’s bladder control surrendered.  Into the washer and dryer went multiple loads of dog bedding and towels.  And it wasn’t long after I committed myself to the cycle of dog clean-ups that our washing machine surrendered.  And it wasn’t long before the washing machine broke that Husband conveniently left town.  Right after that I recognized that Tootsie had Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease.  Right after that our babysitter fell ill with a horrible flu.  Right after that Tootsie spent some time in my office at school.  Right after that I had my own cry right there in my office.  And my mother’s help and proximity became valuable AGAIN.  Not to mention her washing machine.

Meanwhile, Husband and Middle Sis were in Arlington, where his father was interred at the National Cemetery.  The special ceremony was on Husband’s birthday, and he was surrounded by a crowd of family members.  He and Middle Sis visited sites in Washington D.C., and bonded with cousins Middle Sis had never met.  The three of us who remained at home sent our hearts, and Big Sis worked through her disappointment over not attending and experiencing all the family bonding back East.    

And Middle Sis returned home last night with an eye infection* and was excluded from school today.  SIGH. 

Some weeks just bring more gifts than others.  I'm feeling gratitude that Husband is back, Middle Sis's eye is healing, Tootsie seems healthy, dog has puppy pads to pee on, we don't appear to have lice, and we've got a three-day weekend to purchase a new washer.  


Sunday, November 30, 2014

It's a One-derful Life

It's Sunday night, or Back-to-School-After-Thanksgiving-Break Eve, and I'm feeling grateful for the time off and the good times.  I'm also noting that last year at this time I felt grateful, but walked on shaky legs, wondering how to cope with my life and my job and mostly just Being Myself.  This year, I'm celebrating this one-year-sixteen-month-old and all the joy she has brought us.

I was explaining to my aunt, who was here visiting this week, that without Tootsie, it would be easy for us--with two daughters eight and eleven years old--to each go our own ways:  someone reading here, another on a computer there, someone at a friend's house, on a bike ride...but instead Tootsie is her own nucleus for the family, our touchstone.  Everyone gravitates to her in the mornings when she wakes.  She's the first one we ask for upon arriving home.  Her antics and tricks are the center of our attention.  And as she's a toddler, we know where she is at all times, in her best interests and ours.

Last year she felt like a hurricane to me in terms of magnitude on our lives.  This year I recognize her as the eye to the hurricane we are, swirling around her and magnetically drawn in, a beautiful antithesis to entropy.

We took her on a few hikes and walks this week.  She's almost running and jumping now, loving to walk on different surfaces and stopping to run her hands in the dirt (and to eat a rock or two) and to smell every flower.  She practices words and phrases and signs some too, and when she doesn't know what else to say, it's "bee-baaa" or "baaa-beee."  She dances to Sesame Street and Katy Perry.  She's empathetic and compassionate and caring, giving loves and hugs to her cousins and friends and siblings and often teary on our behalves.

She's been sick the past few days with a high fever, sleeping and cuddling and breastfeeding around the clock.  Our initial panic at her high temperature reminded me that she has been remarkably healthy since her time in the hospital.  Our hearty, heart-full, happy girl.

We are so, so grateful.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Pumpkin Made Saucy

I'm not doing so well at the writing-every-day routine so far.  But I'm thinking about writing almost every day!  I'm also thinking about exercise every day.

Tonight I made both pumpkin pizza (original recipe here) and ravioli with pumpkin sauce, two favorite seasonal dishes I haven't made in a while.  For tonight's version of the pizza I used naan bread for the crust (super quick and way easy), sweet Italian chicken sausage, shredded mozzarella and romano cheeses, and arugula.

I used the same pumpkin sauce for the ravioli (spinach and cheese), and sprinkled with shredded romano cheese.  The ravioli went to feed the twins' parents.  We ate the pizza.

Pumpkin sauce makes for a mellower/less acidic sauce on a pizza, and in my view, draws more attention to the toppings.  Worth a try!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Twins...and Toddler

Our new baby cousins were born last week--beautiful, healthy baby girls and an uneventful labor and birth!  Now we have Tootsie and her cousin, only two weeks younger than she, and the twins.  It's going to be awesome to have two sets of kiddos at the same heights bumbling around.  The two older toddlers are already great fun.

Slay me for this, but I wouldn't mind another baby.  Husband said he wanted to throw up at the mere mention, and can rest assured that my tubes are tied.  So I'm happy to have not one, but two new babies to satisfy my need for infant snuggle time.  And when I watched my sister-in-law pumping yesterday, in an attempt to build a store for two babies (how do you do that?), I backed off my baby envy a little.   I am still breasfteeding Tootsie.  Which is not like breastfeeding an infant, by the way.  More on that later.

Tootsie is completely smitten with the new babies.  She was like a Love Bully, kissing the baby I was holding with aggressive passion, over and over, and insisting on feeding her her bottle.  She must have said "baby" a hundred times or more.  She was transformed into (by juxtaposition) a giant smothering affection monster, a manic crazy overwhelmed older cousin in love.

It was quite a sight to behold, and I used my left arm for defensive moves as she continually came in for head butts/kisses, as my sister-in-law observed with nervous laughter.

There's no absence of love, as well as little fingers and toes in our family.  It's awesome.

Saturday, November 1, 2014


I forgot that I promised myself I'd write every day in November, like I did a few years ago in an effort to force myself back into a discipline, which, like exercise, tends to make me feel better about myself.  I  just haven't been writing, and recognizing that is a reminder of how much my life--and I--have changed in the past year and a half.  I'm determined to reacquaint with the Fer who writes regularly, the Fer who is excited to connect what happened today to some lingering thought that has been bouncing around in her mind.

But November 1 is almost over, and I only have scattered and disconnected updates:

Tootsie walks and talks and signs words like "please," "more," "dog," and "milk." But most importantly, she's learned very recently how to throw an epic tantrum, and has been practicing daily since.  We've experienced our first Store Episode and Stiff-As-a-Board-Can't-Get-In-Carseat Antics.  Thank goodness she's still cute and loving, and a dancer and snuggler.  Her habits include placing everything from belts to dishcloths to pajamas around her neck and pretending to feed and walk her dolls and Elmo.  And because of the number of hours she has spent since birth at the fields, she can kick a soccer ball.

At the Patty Griffin concert tonight, she covered a Jimmy Durante song:

"You've got to win a little, lose a little,
yes, and always have the blues a little.
That's the story of, that's the glory of life.
That's the story of, that's the glory of life."

I was struck by how true that analysis is, and what I'm still learning to accept--this notion of living with the blues a little.  I'm trying to fight less, stop myself from a mantra of "I don't WANT to be this stressed/tired/frantic/overwhelmed," and instead figure out how to make life less so, in the face of things I can't or won't change in the short term:  I'm a principal.  I'm a mother of three.  I'm busy.  I have bills to pay. I have laundry to do.   

And I was thinking earlier this week that there are seemingly a million little things people do for me and mine everyday to make life easier, better, more beautiful.  The colleague who waters my plants; the friend who texts me a coffee icon and an invitation for a fresh cup; the friend who drops off lunch; the parents who offer advice, childcare, and meals; the neighbors who drive my kid to school; the babysitter who comes to me to pick up my baby and goes out of her way every day; the friends who reassure, advocate for, and believe in me; the husband who holds it all together, day in and day out.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Message from Middle School

Big Sis is in sixth grade, for just over a week now.  And I've been tempted to post something to the effect of middle school:emotion::Pope:Catholic.  Because, wow.  Maybe it's just, as a BFF calls it, Transition Sickness.  But there's been a lot of turmoil, sobbing, exhaustion, nostalgia for the easier times of childhood, and, as it turns out, reflection.

Tonight, Big Sis busted out a soliloquy that I urged her to write down.  Because she's so right on, and she has managed, through her tiredness and tears, to focus on some big themes.  Her ideas resonated, because just last week I exhorted a group of seniors to think of college:life::wedding:marriage.  College isn't what you've spent 18 years preparing for; it's not the be all, end all.  Life is what you've spent 18 years preparing for, and you're actually living it NOW.

It took me 43 years to figure this stuff out, but Big Sis has some wisdom as a newly minted sixth grader (and I copy her text here with her permission):

OK, Here it goes.  I have just begun middle school, and lately we have been given a few talks.  During each one I am thinking.  We're hearing that middle school is all about preparing, preparing, preparing for life.  But really it's not just preparing.  It's all an experience.  You're not just learning to learn, you're learning for your own good.  You're living RIGHT NOW.  

You can't always be living in the future, because it's like we are only preparing for the life ahead of us, which makes us a big stress case.  Just go with the flow and relax and just think about how you're doing right now.  Because otherwise all you're doing is waiting.  All waiting will do is discourage you.  You're not always preparing if you're having a great experience living in the now.  

Of course it's alright to have your mind set on a certain career.  But think of other things you might enjoy as well.  For example, I love soccer, and would like to pursue my dream, but I can't put all my eggs in one basket.  I also love to read and would love to become an author as well.  

Not every stage in life is preparation for the next stage.  If we act like that, when will it stop?  The problem is, it won't.  We will keep living like this and it will never end.  

So, what I am humbly saying is that we, (especially us kids) need to think about life differently.  School, in particular.  We all need to think of it like an experience.