Death Notice

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636554126949761516-1404230167000-candledeathnoticesI thought I was a little weird and morbid because I occasionally read the obituaries in my local paper. Then yesterday I read that the late Russell Baker once wrote, “Obituaries often provide the only pleasure to be had from the daily newspaper and should be savored slowly, for leisurely reading over the last cup of breakfast coffee.” I hope he didn’t mean “last cup” literally.

I haven’t reached the age where I peruse the obits looking for people I know. But there is something beautiful about reading about the legacies left behind by ordinary people. Most death notices give lists of surviving family members. Often the accomplishments of the deceased are detailed, and the obituary provides a kind of homage to the life of a loved one.

Today I read about a 93-year-old man named Jack who was still vital and active, attending Mass every day and always having a project to do. Jack died after falling on ice, proof that winter really can kill. Most of the people whose stories grace the pages of the death notices were elderly. Often, though, I read about the death of someone my own age or younger, and the realization shakes me a little. Sometimes I find myself in tears reading about the untimely death of a young adult or child and try to imagine the grief their loved ones must be experiencing.

I’m glad there is a place in our society where we honor our beloved dead. I’m grateful for a glimpse into the lives and loves of ordinary people who existed for what is only a brief moment in the history of time. I reflect on my blessings, too numerous to count, and vow not to take my loved ones for granted.

I may be weird and morbid, but reading the obituaries makes me just a little more human.

College Craziness

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img_4718_42College craziness has hit my little world. I’m not talking about older adolescents doing jello shots and dancing on the roof of the fraternity house. I’m talking about the craziness that comes with trying to get into college.

When I was a teen, the process of getting into college was a lot more straightforward. The average kid I knew took the ACTs and SATS, sent the scores to their state schools, and waited to see if they got in. Some of the more elite students might apply to a private school or two, but no one I knew applied to upwards of 10 different colleges.

Today, the college application process is so fraught. My daughter is overloaded with honors and AP courses and frantically trying to prepare for the ACTs, all while participating in sports and extracurricular activities in an attempt to show colleges what a dynamic, interesting, and passionate person she is. It’s exhausting, and not just for the teens.

A case in point is the process at our high school for becoming a member of National Honor Society. NHS has been around since I was in high school. Back then, if you maintained a certain GPA, you were automatically accepted into the organization and the designation became a nice little addendum to your grades and test scores on your college application. For my daughter, applying for membership in NHS has entailed a laborious process that includes performing 20 hours of community service and completing essays on one’s character, scholarship, leadership, and service.

That leadership requirement is the one that really gets me. Don’t even try applying to college unless you can demonstrate what a leader you have been in your school and community. These are teenagers, for crying out loud. And how can they all be leaders? Don’t leaders need followers?

The entire college application process has become hopelessly complicated. Most students apply to numerous schools, each with their own application requirements (not to mention fees). And don’t be fooled by their acceptance of “the common app.” Most schools will have additional essay requirements above and beyond the one required in the common app.

Why has applying to college become so complex? The answer is competition. So many more students are applying to college today, and the Baby Boomers have left a legacy of overpopulation when it comes to the pool of applicants out there. So colleges can demand anything they want. High school students are left feeling that they have to design a unique computer app or find the cure for cancer in order to be attractive to some of the more selective institutions.

Then these very same institutions turn around and chastise parents and schools for stressing out their kids. In the documentary Race to Nowhere, which was required viewing at many schools, a UC Berkeley administrator bemoans the fact that kids are burning the midnight oil and becoming suicidal over academic expectations at their schools. This from a university whose acceptance rate was 16.9% in 2015.

Of course, we do have a choice to opt out of the craziness. I have no doubt there are many good colleges that do not have such insane expectations for their incoming students. But like many parents, I want my daughter to be able to dream big. I want to encourage her aspirations, not curtail them. What this means for my family is a participation in the craziness for the next several months.

I don’t even want to think about what she’ll be doing when she actually get there!

Make America Good Again

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The Covington Catholic boys didn’t have a chance. Once videos of their confrontation with a Native American leader on the Washington D.C. Mall made it onto TV and social media, their images and actions were pounced upon by an American public that has become too swift to judge and condemn.

Initial videos appeared to show the boys taunting Nathan Phillips as he performed a traditional Native American song. With their MAGA hats, their whiteness, and the “smirk” on the face of Nicholas Sandmann, the Covington boys were quickly painted as white supremacists in training. The subsequent release of further footage, however, showed that the boys themselves were being verbally attacked by a group known as the Black Hebrew Israelites and that Nathan Phillips approached them, not the other way around.

I’m not defending the boys from Covington Catholic. They may very well be entitled brats  who like to stir up trouble. On the other hand, they may have been in an uncomfortable position and were acting out to make themselves feel less powerless. I just don’t think I can judge them based upon a video, not having actually seen the incident. And I don’t think others really can either. What is remarkable is how quick the Right and Left are to leave their corners and spar over every incident, large and small, that comes into the American consciousness.

There is a reality to the concept of too much of a good thing, which is the case in our digital information age. We have so much knowledge at our fingertips but very little understanding. There is no filter for people. They jump before considering all the facts and nuances of a situation.

As for the MAGA hats, I personally don’t understand how any thoughtful person can support the agenda of Donald Trump. That doesn’t make wearing one akin to donning the white hood of the Ku Klux Klan, Alyssa Milano. Making statements like that undercuts legitimate criticism of many things Donald Trump has said and done since entering the race for president in 2015.

But that is the state of discourse in America. We are shouting into the ether and hoping someone latches onto our pronouncements and validates our thoughts. Truth, compassion, and understanding be damned.

Overshadowing the hysteria about the incident between the Covington boys and the Indigenous Peoples Marchers is the total lack of judgment on the part of the boys’ adult chaperones. In a situation that could have escalated and potentially become violent, these adults stood by instead of acting to remove the boys from the confrontation. The march was over, and they were merely waiting for transportation to leave the Mall. Why not shepherd them away from the madness and diffuse the situation? Covington is a Catholic high school. Why not step away and initiate prayer? If I were a Covington parent, I would have been incensed at the adults’ poor judgment that day.

As Mike Pesci writes in Slate, “The bothersome teens of Covington Catholic aren’t heroes or horrors.” (“Covington Boys: the Difference Between Jerks and Monsters,” Slate, Jna. 24, 2019) They just have the misfortune of growing up in an age where everything they say and do can potentially find its way into the public eye. I hope the incident has served as a learning experience for them and that leaders at their school, as well as their parents, use the opportunity to teach the boys about tolerance and compassion. They were, after all, in Washington to espouse their Christian love for the unborn.

We need to find a way back to rational discourse in America. Beyond the problem of fake news, we need to consider the multi-faceted nature of most issues and strive to look at all sides before jumping in to praise or condemn. Let’s summon our better angels and try to resurrect the values that truly make our country great.

 

 

The Wall

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Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” So begins Robert Frost’s memorable poem “Mending Wall.” I’ve been thinking a lot about that poem as President Trump and the Republicans dig their heels in about erecting a wall across our southern border with Mexico.

Illegal immigration has become a divisive issue in our country and one that is long overdue for compromise. While I sympathize with the plight of Central Americans fleeing poverty and violence and believe our country should do everything in our power to help relieve suffering, I also recognize that we need to protect our borders and insist upon an orderly process whereby residents from other countries apply to live in the U.S.

The problem is that building a giant wall on our border with Mexico is expensive, environmentally damaging, and impracticable. And most of all, it won’t really work to stem the tide of illegal immigration or deter criminal activity. Most drug and weapons seizures, for example, occur at legal ports of entry. U.S. authorities have also found tunnels running under existing fences and other barriers, so those determined enough will still find ways to get into our country. And the urgency to build such a barrier has, if anything, decreased over the past decade, as illegal border crossings are at a 12-year low.

The wall is not a practical reality but a symbol: a symbol of Donald Trump’s attempts to portray nonwhite immigrants as criminals. Ironically, Trump’s stance against Central American immigrants has spawned the phenomenon of migrant caravans crossing into Mexico, a kind of thumb on the nose to the president and his anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The other reason Trump is insistent upon building a wall is that he wants one, and he hates to lose. He is willing to shut down the government and let federal workers go without pay so that he can get his “big, beautiful” symbol of exclusion and isolation. Meanwhile, no meaningful conversations go on about realistic ways to secure the border and deal with the thousands of immigrants already in this country.

President Trump, we don’t need a wall with Mexico. What we need is leadership, something that has been sorely lacking since you became president two years ago. It’s time to ditch the idea of an expensive and impractical wall, sit down with Democrats, and work on real solutions to our immigration issues.

Minivan Mom

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Of all the cars I’ve ever had, the minivan was my favorite. Back at the turn of the century (I’ve always wanted to say that), we owned a “denim blue” Toyota Sienna XLE, the Rolls Royce of minivans. I’d roll up in the school drop-off line, slide open that side door with the push of a button, and deposit my precious cargo onto the sidewalk. Oh, yeah: Minivan Mom.

I loved everything about that minivan. Its color was so distinctive, and it was so decidedly NOT an SUV, that it was easy to find in a parking lot. The inside was spacious, even for three or four children, and the space between seats made it easy to separate squabbling siblings. At the time, Toyota refused to put DVD players in their minivans, reasoning that they’d prove a distraction to drivers. So my kids were left to the radio, their little books on tape, or – perish the thought – talking to me and each other. One of our favorite things to listen to in the minivan at Christmastime was my brother-in-law Dave Rudolf‘s album Completely Cracked Christmas. The album features parodies of well-known carols, and you could hear us warbling for miles: “What’s that smell? I can tell/We’re getting fruitcakes for Christmas.”

The much-maligned minivan has been the subject of mockery and condescension for years. Owners of the much chic-er Ford Explorer, one of the most popular SUVs at the time, would look down their noses at the Dodge Caravans of the world, as if to say, “We know you’re a harried mother of 6 with your hair in pin curls and your bunny slippers still on at 4 in the afternoon.” But I never cared about the image of Minivan Mom. I drove that baby for over 100,000 miles until its untimely demise.

It happened one warm summer day in June. My teenaged son had left the house in the Sienna, headed to the gym for an early morning workout. Literally on the next block, he ran into an old electric pole, which cracked and thudded onto the roof of the van. Luckily, my son did not get hurt, and we never did get the straight story as to what precipitated the accident. But due to its age, the insurance company declared the minivan totaled, and we had to say goodbye.

We’ve never owned another minivan, but I still miss having one. It was so nice to be able to drive the whole family to Grandma’s house or out to dinner. Now we have to take two cars. Our kids are more likely to argue about who gets to ride shotgun because the back seats in our other cars have never been as spacious.

I’ve heard that affluent families have started gravitating toward old-fashioned station wagons, a relic from my youth that I do not miss at all. Who wants to spend life facing backwards in the way, way back? Maybe the minivan will make a comeback in time for me to drive my grandkids around and teach them twisted Christmas carols.

 

Birthday Blues

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The birthday year following a milestone birthday can be a bit of a letdown. Last year I celebrated six decades of life with a wonderful family trip to Hawaii and a surprise luncheon on a snowy day. But this year 61 is just – blah.

I remember how depressed I was the year I turned 31. Turning 30 hadn’t fazed me. I was young and in love and would ultimately get engaged and married that year. But the following January, it hit me: I was OVER 30! I just couldn’t get over that fact, remembering the famous Sixties mantra, “Never trust anyone over 30.” Now I was in that square, uncool demographic for good.

As much as I love birthdays, sometimes life just gets in the way. One year my entire family got stomach flu the week before my birthday. I myself came down with a cold and raging sinus infection, no doubt run down by all the ministering to sick kids and washing vomit-laced sheets and clothing. On other birthdays my husband was out of town and my  kids too little to put on much of a celebration on their own. This year, I’m just not feeling it.

My husband has been asking me what I want to do for my birthday, what presents I want, and when I think we should have cake and blow out candles. I’m kind of inclined to let the whole thing slide. But after 30 years of marriage, that man knows me better than I know myself. He won’t let the day go by without some form of celebration wedged in between school, soccer schedules, and dental appointments.

I did decide to treat myself to a morning at the salon today where I got my hair and nails done for no good reason other than it was my birthday and my roots were showing. I had a delicious latte at my home away from home, Barnes & Noble, and when I returned, there was a lovely flower arrangement from my kids gracing the kitchen table. Every so often I’ve been checking my Facebook page and enjoying the many birthday greetings from family and friends.

So although it’s a cold, gloomy, and blustery January day, I do feel a little bit special on this, my 61st birthday.

No Habla Español

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experiencing-ecuador-in-otavalo-market-264770The Galápagos Islands are part of the country of Ecuador, and the language spoken there and on the mainland is Spanish. With the ubiquity of the Spanish language in our culture, I know a number of words and phrases but would be hard pressed to carry on a conversation in Español. My kids still tease me about the time a man asked me in Spanish how I was, and I answered, “Delicioso!”

Traveling to a country with a different language can be difficult, as I discovered on our recent family trip to Ecuador and the Galápagos. Although our guides spoke English, there were many times when my family tried to order food, purchase something, or get directions from someone who spoke only Spanish. Luckily, my four kids all studied Spanish in high school, so they were a big help. I was impressed as the Spanish rolled off their tongues in restaurants and taxis. But even they admitted that it was hard to understand native Ecuadorians because of how quickly they spoke.

Language is just one of the many differences that can make foreign travel uncomfortable. Different currencies and time zones, use of the metric system instead of our less rational but more familiar measurements. By the time we left Ecuador, I vaguely understood that 24 degrees Celsius was pretty warm. And interestingly, Ecuador had recently converted to U.S. currency, so paying for things was easy – provided I could understand the amount being rattled off in Spanish.

It’s a good thing to leave one’s comfort zone for foreign travel. You get to see that there are different customs, practices, and attitudes, some of which seem odd or unappealing and others which you might want to bring back home with you. For instance, the plumbing system in Ecuador can’t handle toilet paper, so signs instruct you to throw it into a small wastebasket instead of flushing it. This was also the case when we visited China many years ago, and I suspect it’s true in many parts of the world. On the other hand, I enjoyed the pace of life in Ecuador and Galápagos. Meals were lengthy and relaxing affairs, something I’ve noticed in European countries such as Italy and France. We Americans could learn something from this approach to dining, as most of those countries do not face the same obesity problem we have in the U.S.

Shortly before we left for home, my daughters and I took a little field trip from our hotel in the Andes mountains on mainland Ecuador to see local people plying their trades in small villages nearby. We visited the shops of indigenous people who hand-craft clothing and rugs out of sheep’s wool and alpaca fur. They showed us how they use natural ingredients to make dyes that give the hand-knitted objects such vibrant colors. We wandered through a market filled with all manner of handicrafts made by the local people. We were less than half a day’s travel from Miami, Florida, yet it felt as if we were a world away.

It’s always great to get home after a long trip. Sleeping in our own beds, eating familiar foods, and traveling easily to our accustomed haunts felt good after 11 days away. Still, I’m glad we got to experience another little part of the world. It not only makes me appreciate the richness and diversity in the world, but it helps me appreciate the familiar pleasures of home.

¡Feliz año nuevo!