Gratitude

8 Aug

I’ve had a rough week and have tried hard to not sink into a funk over it. One thing that helps me when things aren’t going the way I’d like is to put together a gratitude list: an inventory of what I’m thankful for. It works wonders to improve my mood.

This little exercise can go beyond the obvious things–family, friends, health, having some measure of prosperity. People complain a lot about what this world has come to, but by thinking of what has made a difference in my life (even in little ways), I can start to see beyond the negativity.

Here’s a list of three “small” things that have made a big impact for me:

1. DOGS: The dogs my husband and I have owned together have made my life so much richer. They have taught me more than school, more than religion, and more than any person about what it means to be living in the moment. They are companions in ways beyond human understanding.

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2. ALLERGY MEDICINE: This week, in the midst of my “meh” attitude, I also ran out of allergy medicine and had to go for a couple of days without it. I had the itchy eyes, ears, and throat along with the nonstop sneezing–the whole bit. It was dangerously close to “Phase 2″ allergy symptoms, which for me translates to eyes swollen shut, ear infections, and feeling like a wreck. Like a flu without the diagnosis.

Back before the days of Zyrtec, I felt this way for most of April and May because of the tree pollen, and then again for most of July and August because of whatever is blooming then. I had to stay in the AC and take Benadryl; this was before the days of non-drowsy. I felt sluggish most of the time. If I didn’t take the Benadryl, I had sneezy fits and spent most of the time walking around with Kleenex up my nose. Not pretty.

It’s no joke that allergy medicine has really changed my life. I can’t imagine going without it, and this week was a good reminder that I’m thankful I don’t have to.

3. ANTIDEPRESSANTS: I come from a long line of women who worry too much. Not normal worrying–I’m talking the kind of worrying that makes you not go out of the house for 10 years. Yep, that was my Mom. Severe panic attacks and agoraphobia. My Grandma had the worrying problem, too–but she took care of it by smoking a lot.

When I was young, my version of the worrying first showed up as a fear of choking to death. Perhaps I’d seen too many PSAs about how to do the Heimlich maneuver; this was something that was getting a lot of publicity at the time. Somehow, in my 8-year-old mind, this translated into needing to chew the life out of my food.

There was a time when I probably wasn’t getting enough to eat because I was so worried about choking. I remember sitting at the table until late at night because I couldn’t leave the table until I finished everything on my plate. Believe me, eating takes a heck of a long time when you chew every bite 200x.

By the time I was a young woman, with the stress of college and responsibility, the worrying got worse. I was an overachieving perfectionist. I obsessed over little things that really didn’t matter–mostly my grades and whether or not people liked me. This took a toll on me.

I had several incidents where I felt completely out of control over my life and overcome with anxiety. One time when I got up 15 minutes late for a babysitting job, I felt so bad about the mistake I’d made and had an overwhelming sense of shame. I started hyperventilating, shaking uncontrollably, and had a hard time clearing my head again. Every criticism I could make of myself ganged up on me all at once.

Looking back, it’s pretty clear that I was having panic attacks from the time I became a teenager. They leveled off for a while only to return after my daughter was born and again when I was pregnant with my son. Remembering what my Mom went through during the time when she was so incapacitated by anxiety that she was afraid to go out of the house, I knew that I couldn’t go through that. I needed to work, for my livelihood and to satisfy my obsession for problem-solving (also clearly an issue, but a productive one in this case). So, working with my doctor to take some tests and rule out heart or thyroid issues as the cause for my periodic “episodes,” we came to the conclusion that my genes had caught up with me.

I was extremely resistant to taking medication for this issue. For me, it was a sign of personal failure. But after talking with the doctor, my husband, and family members, I was encouraged to think of it more as a family health issue, which it is–much like heart issues running in the family. I don’t have patience with people who issue judgment over mental illness. It is serious business in the same manner as medical health problems and deserves equal attention.

After trying one antidepressant that made me paradoxically more anxious, I was reluctant to give it another go and white-knuckled severe anxiety for about six months. This was no cake walk and prompted me to trust in just one more try. Luckily, the second time it worked.

I still take the pediatric dose in the summer and slightly higher in the winter and am thankful to carry on with my affairs without the crippling anxiety I’d come to know. It’s a good feeling to know that I can manage this health issue without having to resort to unhealthy medications like alcohol and nicotine. My own experience has given me compassion for others, including my daughter, who also face similar challenges.

Family Stories

10 May
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Left to right, Karen Foltz (my Mom), Anna Foltz (nee Stein, my Grandma), and David Foltz (my uncle)

I come from a family of storytellers. There are more than a few interesting ones to tell about family history alone. Some family members, my Dad and paternal Grandmother among them, are/were amazing oral storytellers. This made my childhood quite colorful and gave me the gift of imagination. The gene for telling stories was not passed on to me, but I can write decently enough to help continue sharing them. So I do.

Among the true stories, some are easier to tell than others. Today I was thinking about my Mom and my maternal Grandmother, as we get ready for Mother’s Day 2014. Much of my childhood, my Mom was housebound dealing with severe agoraphobia. She didn’t really leave the house for years, pretty much from the time I was five until I was in high school. I have a close relationship with my Mom and learned a lot from here during that tough time, mainly about resilience and spirituality. Thanks to modern-day anti-depressants, Mom doesn’t have to stay stuck at home anymore, which is a great thing.

My Dad was busy working most of the time when I was a kid, when Mom was sick, so my brother and I spent a lot of time at my Grandma’s house. She was the caretaker for a well-to-do family in Reynoldsburg named the Hafts. They had a large house on a bit of land right off Main Street. Inside the house was a bar, which was a real sign of wealth as far as I could tell. Their old stable had been converted into two apartments behind the house, and Grandma lived in one of them. I could walk to kindergarten from there, and every day I passed by a house where a monkey lived in the backyard, on a chain.

Grandma took care of the elderly Hafts to make a living, and my brother and I played in the little woods between her home and the Haft’s house. We rode our bikes up and down the lane and climbed high in the pine trees and sat up there for hours, getting sap all over our hands and legs, and were difficult about coming down when Dad picked us up.

From those trees we could see the awesome set-up of a neighbor family that had bought a trampoline for their kids. It was, according to all adults in our family, an irresponsible thing to do and sure to result in injury. But we loved to watch the kids jump on it and wished we could, too. When we were not in the pine trees, we could see the kids’ top halves flying up above the six-foot fence. It really wasn’t fair, but in the end we had the woods to run around in, and they didn’t.

When Grandma wasn’t stuck in her chair with back problems, she was getting herself in trouble with my Mom by trimming our bangs (unevenly), encouraging us with art projects (she was quite the artist), or patiently listening while I played the first Wings album over and over again. I remember her being patient when I flipped out over any TV shows featuring UFOs. Much to my brother’s disappointment, she made us turn off any program involving guns (including “Bonanza” and “Big Valley”). I remember that she helped us save a baby bird we found under a tree. We put it into a shoebox with some old cloths to keep it warm. It died anyway, but we tried.

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Robert Foltz

Much of Grandma’s life, and by extension my Mom’s, was greatly influenced by my Grandfather, a man I never met. His name was Robert Foltz, and he left for WWII when my Mom was five. While overseas, he met a Canadian nurse and sent Grandma divorce papers around Christmastime. I’m not sure what year it was. He was very intelligent and handled logistics for the Army, and I believe he worked for a long time after his service in high-level corporate positions dealing with transportation.

He passed away a few years ago, and in his obituary his family thanked his long-time personal nurse. When my Grandma passed, I was in my mid-20s. My parents were away on vacation, so someone from the nursing home called to tell me that she had “expired.” I was devastated, really, because I’d always had a close relationship with her. But I had just visited with her and was the last to see her alive, so I was glad for that.

My husband often uses my Grandma as an example for why Social Security exists. She worked her entire life in various creative ways. After her husband left, her older brothers and sisters let her live at the old family house, which she rented out as a home for unwed mothers. She did the women’s fashion window displays at Lazarus in the 50s, and she worked in the paint department at a store in Florida. In the 60s, she was a house mother for Grant Nursing School. Over the years, she always worked but never made a lot of money, and died in a place that took Medicare and Medicaid. My Mom and uncle ate a lot of ketchup sandwiches growing up, and my Mom’s toes are curled because she never had shoes that fit. My Grandfather did pay back child custody years later, after my Grandma took him to court, but that was after Mom and my uncle were grown. I don’t think that his second family really knows much about us.

There are always two sides to every story. I have no doubt that my Grandmother, as much as I loved her, was not an easy person to live with. So I’m sure that Robert Foltz had some reasons for deciding to leave. But I think it haunted my Mom for years, and still does. He never wanted to have any contact with his old family. I think Mom talked with him on the phone from time to time. She always wanted to see him but never did after he left. Sometimes when people go, there’s just an empty hole that the people left behind have to find a way to fill.

I wish I’d met him, too. He sounds like a person I would have liked, despite the family history.

 

 

 

The Deeper Business of Being Beautiful Inside

4 Mar

Screen Shot 2014-03-03 at 11.11.10 PMIn a moving speech given prior to her Oscar win for supporting actress, Lupita Nyong’o encouraged women to “get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside.”

It’s a simple but difficult proposition.

In the same Oscar ceremony where Nyong’o won her award, 81-year-old actress Kim Novak also appeared–noticeably and disturbingly altered by plastic surgery.

What a contrast. I was named after Kim Novak, so I’ve always paid attention to her over the years. It’s sad that she felt she had to go to such lengths.

Why can’t an 81-year-old woman look 81? Grandmas rock. I always thought my grandmothers and older aunties were cool, even if they wore funny teased-up hairdos and cat-eye glasses with rhinestones. They made excellent peanut butter cookies, smoked Salem cigarettes, and ate Chinese food. Their skin was soft and pale–protected from the sun because it was a sign of poverty to have so much color on your face. By night, they wore Pond’s cold cream, and by day they wore little to no makeup. Well, maybe a little bit of lipstick.

It was a shock to see Novak’s face, but why? There’s an expectation that women will look young for as long as we can. With many women my age, it starts off with Botox or collagen injections. Mouths go from normal-looking to Joker-esque. Courteney Cox, Demi Moore, Cameron Diaz, et al. And it just gets stranger-looking from there. Joan Rivers and Madonna–why? Looking one’s age is better than looking like someone else–or like a puffed-up doll.

I read today that Kim Novak was criticized from a young age and began altering her look long before preparing for last night’s Oscars. Even during the era of Bell, Book, and Candle and Vertigo? What a shame.

I remember when I was a teenager looking at myself in the mirror and not liking what I saw. At the time, I pretty much felt like an ugly duckling and looked nothing like Kim Novak in the movies. I don’t think I started liking what I saw until I was in my late 30s. I regret not appreciating even little things about myself, inside and out, much earlier.

Now, it’s fine. I am content with what I see and who I am. There are scars, lines, and wrinkles on my face. I’ve made mistakes and learned from them. I have light skin, freckles, a noticeable nose, larger than I would like pores, and a stripe of silver hair in my center part. I procrastinate and indulge my children more than I should. So what?

If I saw something different, it would be a lesser version of me. Why go to all the trouble of changing what it took so long to earn? I don’t want to go back to my 20s or look like I could be 20. Why not go forward?

A natural face at any age is more beautiful than plastic. And Nyong’o is right: it’s inner beauty that makes for happiness. We need more Betty White than Kim Novak.

Influenza Wang-Dang-Doodle

18 Dec

This week I’ve had the flu, and it’s given me new perspective on living without it.

Currently on Day#5 of a Super-Fun Flu Saga, I cannot remember being this immobilized since I was sick as a child. It’s brought back some memories. I was sick with strep throat and other childhood variety ailments more than once during the week before Christmas.

Unfortunately for my parents, I was a sleepwalker when feverish. My routine included wandering around the house like a zombie at the height of my fever (usually 2-4 am) and waking up Mom in my delirium, saying overly creative things. It freaked her out, so she tapped me (gently) on my cheeks to get my attention and wake me up.

Good thing I don’t do that anymore.

Here are some of the unique benefits to having the flu as an adult:

  1. Koko Taylor Voice. Either I have no voice at all, or I sound like the now-deceased blues singer Koko Taylor. She has taken up residence in my vocal cords and is experiencing new life every time I open my mouth. While I appreciate the concept of temporarily channeling the elderly African American “Queen of the Blues,” I would like for her to move on to another host right about now. I’m tired of pitching a wang-dang-doodle, all night long or for any other imaginable length of time.
  2. Going back to old-school food basics. Green or chamomile tea with lemon, OJ or Emergen-C, oatmeal, chicken broth, crackers, ice-cold water with lemon and 2 ibuprofen, cough syrup, REPEAT. This is my routine. These are the only things that taste good. I will probably not eat any of the foods again for quite some time after this is said and done. And while I do clearly have the flu, by God I sure won’t be getting scurvy anytime soon. I’m going through two lemons per day on this diet. And I have lost weight but would not recommend the approach to anyone.
  3. Plenty of time for TV-watching, random videos, and reading. I don’t tend to watch much TV, so the allure is not there, but I have been sucked into the same “dog and cat video vortex” that seems to grab my daughter at least 99 times per day. Titles like “Watch boxer and kitten play together” and “See boxers getting into mischief” have enticed me more than I’d like to admit. And while I have enjoyed reading more of James Herriot’s stories about being a young vet in the English countryside, I can only do this for so long. It’s maddening to be so bored but to have little energy to do anything else. Despite my husband’s warnings of “Don’t you dare do any work today,” I have snuck in a fair amount of it because it keeps me from feeling so idle.
  4. New use for exercise wear and off-season clothes. It’s not very comfortable sleeping with a fever. People tend to think that sick folks get a lot of rest, but the rest is not restful, and it’s not what I would call “a good night’s sleep.” Body aches make me toss and turn, and the coughing fits wake me in the middle of the night. Probably worse is having a dream that I’ve been caught in a warm rainstorm and am for some reason laying in the puddles–except the rainstorm is from my fever and the puddles are my bed. That’s where wicking exercise-wear and summertime tank tops and shorts come in. Normally at this time of year I’m cold, but not so thanks to high body temps brought on by the flu. I’ve been riding at 100 for the past few days, and it dropped to 99.5 this morning. So we are making progress.

I’m really going to be thankful when everything is back to normal, without the flu wang-dang-doodle. I can’t say enough how much I appreciate my husband’s patience and caregiving.

And one final note: Please, people…get your flu shots. It’s so worth it. I didn’t get mine, which I greatly regret.

Memories of the Hawaiian Room and Outer Space

23 Nov
Image courtesy of bulldogz at freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy of bulldogz at freedigitalphotos.net

My uncle Barney Barnes just passed away. He was 82 years old, extremely intelligent, and a unique individual. I know that his widow and my Dad’s eldest sister, Aunt June, misses him greatly, as does my cousin Greg Ratcliff, who was greatly inspired by Barney in scientific ways.

I did not know Uncle Barney all that well into his later years, which I regret. But I do have vivid memories of time spent with him and my dad’s eldest sister, my Aunt June, when I was young. Here are some of them:

THE HAWAIIAN ROOM

When it came to visiting relatives’ houses, Aunt June and Uncle Barney’s mid-century modern home in east Columbus, Ohio was hands-down THE BEST. I’m confident that my brother Kirk and many cousins would agree.

June and Barney did not have any kids, so they were extraordinarily patient with their many nieces and nephews, but the key attraction in visiting them was their back room. One step down from the kitchen, this room was decorated entirely in a Hawaiian theme: tiki hut bar, palm tree, waterfall, and a lot of plants. I don’t remember whether or not the plants were real, but the palm tree was not. It didn’t matter.

For a young child, this room was 100% fascination and playground for me and my cousins. We served each other “drinks” from the tiki hut, rearranged the water flow in the waterfall (which I don’t think we were supposed to do), and pretended to be in, of course, Hawaii. I wish I could see that room today, but the house was sold long ago.

PROFESSIONAL ROLE MODELS

Both June and Barney were professionals–rare role models for me as a youngster.  They worked in engineering at North American Aviation/Rockwell International, and June went on to pursue a creative career as a photographer (my brother and I appeared as child models in many Christian Sunday school collateral).

Uncle Barney, notably, designed many missiles for Rockwell and then Boeing. I remember going to company parties at the Rockwell Park and receiving models of the Space Shuttle that they helped to architect. This was exciting–to have a relative playing a role in the company making the next generation of space exploration in the 1970s and 1980s. It made an early impression on me seeing my uncle’s use of his mind to create things, and this exposure in part inspired my desire  go to college and have a professional career. Uncle Barney was curious–and I absorbed a small part of his considerable spark.

THE INTERNET

In 1990, I went to Atlanta to visit Aunt June and Uncle Barney when I was a senior in college. They relocated there in the early 1980s when Rockwell was bought by Boeing. I remember sitting with Uncle Barney at his desk while he showed me a unique new thing: the Internet.

Barney demonstrated how he and his defense contractor colleagues shared “instantaneous”  messages through this new technology. It took longer to push things through the tubes then, but this was my very first look at the Internet, introduced by my technologically advanced Uncle Barney. I thought it was pretty cool, and since then I’ve sent and received about a million emails.

Rest in Peace, Uncle Barney. Your star is still shining brightly in our memories.

American Education: Being Number 1

31 Aug
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Image courtesy of Photokanok / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As millions of American schoolchildren head back to class, they carry on their shoulders a heavy weight–and they don’t even know it.

Despite our collective and constant sense of being “Number 1″ in every way, America is far from it in education. Both anecdotal and quantifiable evidence tell us this: America has fallen behind our worldwide peers in the race to be the best and the brightest.

It’s not a big leap to look at this reality and see how it impacts us from an economic and political perspective. This should be a wake up call for American parents and students. Here’s a story about jobs being off-shored because American workers were not skilled enough to fill them–a sad testament to our reality.

We are no longer the “smartest” country in the world. Not only that—we’re often not in the top 20. According to one of the most widely respected comparisons provided through PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment), we are 31st in math, 23rd in science, and 17th in reading. We may feel like Number 1, but we are not. (For a deeper look at 2009 PISA scores for reading, math, and science across all countries, see here.)

Here’s an important question: How badly do Americans want to be (and not just have the illusion of being) Number 1?

From my own experience, not badly enough. American students have sadly become smart enough to get by. I did it myself in high school, I have seen one of my children trying to do this (and not get away with it because my husband and I won’t let it pass), and I know that it happens for friends and other family members’ kids.

Teaching graduate-level classes at The Ohio State University, I work with students who operate at a high level of personal expectation and performance. Their dedication is infectious across the board. But this week I had separate conversations with three mainland Chinese students in my classes that really left an impression on me. Despite the language barrier and cultural differences, these students bring a work ethic and desire to succeed that American students don’t always have. They are hungry to learn.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that my American students are not hungry to learn. On the contrary, I’ve been lucky to work with highly motivated individuals. But across the general middle school, high school, and college-aged population of American students and parents, I do believe there is an element of taking education and achievement for granted. There’s a spirit of “We’ve always done well, so we always will.” This is dangerous thinking.

I don’t think that we want this badly enough–and we often don’t know what it will take to get back to being Number 1. For middle-class families, we are satisfied to get by, meanwhile spending more time on legitimate but less impactful leisure interests like sports and video games. For poor families, who have far less time to provide support to children’s education, we lower our educational expectations and provide little or no support to neutralize the effects of poverty. And for the “1%”–there’s little incentive since success can be purchased rather than earned through hard work.

Although this information is not new, too many American parents and students refuse to believe it. Or do anything about it. What will it take for us to be Number 1 again? The big shift is to make educational excellence a personal, family, and community priority. Here are some steps to get there:

  1. Set high expectations and hold ourselves to them. For example, I have one child who works hard for As–and earns them. I have another child that doesn’t work hard for As. I push each of them differently. The first needs support and encouragement to build confidence. And the second needs a cattle prod to go beyond “good enough”–and also build self-discipline for future performance.
  2. Pay attention to the new Common Core State Standards and support our students and schools to exceed them. The standards describe what students need to know and be able to do based on not random desires but the needs of businesses–our kids’ future employers. Their development and implementation has spanned the Bush and Obama administrations. The standards are about American economic livelihood–not politics. Don’t get sucked into extremist rhetoric that politicizes these common-sense expectations that will build our children’s and nation’s futures.
  3. Follow through on the promises we make to the next generation. This means doing what it takes educationally to compete in a global economy where the game has clearly changed. Being educated is not elitist. It is not uncool. It is above all a practical necessity in today’s world. As parents, at a minimum we need to push our students to study things we never had to–because this is what will get them to OUR standard of living–and then they must go beyond because this is what it will take to get us to Number 1 again.

What’s the lesson? Here’s a quote from The Economist that speaks volumes:

A big message is that national culture matters more than the structure of an education system. So the main lesson for policymakers may be to put education at the forefront of the story a nation tells about itself. Countries which do that with conviction and consistency can leapfrog the complacent. Outcomes can change rapidly: many students in the Asian “super league” countries have grandparents who are barely literate. Israel has also leapt up in maths and reading. Rankings and data do not tell the whole story. But they provide a useful spur.

When the Tween Has Outgrown the Teen (and everyone else)

24 Aug
Boy giant and his big sister

Boy giant and his big sister

We are now a household with a 12-year-old who is larger than the rest of us. No one else is bothered by it, but his 16-year-old sister is not in favor of this new development.

“Why couldn’t he just stay small?” she complains. “I liked him better when he was little and had those cute cheeks.” When he was a baby, she called him “Pillow Cheeks Cheeto Face.” I’m not sure why she added the “Cheeto Face” part, but it was his nickname for a long time.

Now, the cheeks are all but gone, having been stretched into a much longer, more grown-up-looking mug. He bears an alarmingly close resemblance to my dad circa his HS senior photo, including the super-sized eyebrows to match. And all of a sudden he has very particular fashion choices, only wanting to buy A&F jeans and athletic wear from a ridiculously expensive place called CHAMPS. He has entire color-coordinated ensembles by the famous designer Kobe Bryant in color-blocked schemes alarmingly reminiscent of the 90s men’s fashion that I have already once lived through.

Every time I come back from even an overnight trip he looks different. His legs are long and knobby-kneed, he wears a men’s size 11 shoe, and he’s in men’s medium shirts and young men’s jeans. There is a hint of facial hair. The doctor tells us that he will likely be 6 foot 5–a regular Jolly Green Giant compared to the rest of us. Good thing he plays basketball.

Curious onlookers have started asking: “Where does that height come from?” True enough, the gene for height clearly did not manifest for either of the boy’s parents. But our families both have it. My maternal grandmother’s father and her husband’s father were German (one of them living in Columbus’ German Village). For this reason, my mother is taller than my father, and my brother is 6 foot 5. My husband’s mother’s family is from Denmark and Poland three generations ago, with the result for his generation being that two of his sisters are taller than him.

This family history is a source of great disappointment to my 16-year-old girl, who bemoans her “fun size.” She complains, “Mom, it’s not fair. I’m not even as tall as you.” True, she is only 5 foot 2, but she won out in other ways as a result of heredity.

The lottery of genes has winners in different ways with both of them. In my daughter’s favor are a natural toughness and no-nonsense attitude, which serve her well in keeping her brother in his place. She hits hard, and my son knows it, so it’s quite amusing to see how she coerces him into doing what she wants. Even without the height. She can be very intimidating.

Often, my son will play the “I’m still the baby card,” and ask her to get him a glass of “ice-cold water.” This is pretty ridiculous coming from such a large person, as well as a 12-year-old, and she understandably laughs and tells him to “go get it yourself, dumbo.” At other times, she manipulates him by not letting him eat–an artful use of the carrot approach that works quite well with him at this stage (and probably for another 10 years at least). “No, you can’t have the donuts. I have them locked in the car,” she declares. Pretty good, especially when she hides the keys from him.

Ahhh, siblings. It’s fun as a parent to sit back and watch them work out their differences, being themselves, and growing up together–even if “up” no longer means height for the one.

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