Monday, June 28, 2010


I just finished reading a book by Michael Eisner simply titled, Camp. It was fitting to read about Eisner’s formational years while we dove into Disney and experienced the success and productivity that resulted from Eisner’s development of work ethic, dreaming big and persistence in the face of adversity. (I have only read a little about Eisner’s controversial exit from Disney, but I personally believe it was vindictive hype and he bowed out gracefully, and fortunately for us, began to write this book.)

Camp is a memoir about a special place called Keewaydin, where many kids spent weeks in the summer being challenged and formed by the setting, program and staff. The author says it better than I could…
“[Camp] is God and humans teaming up to provide nature’s ultimate playground, where survival in the woods becomes an exercise in training for life’s real-world, man-made challenges; where young people can develop their physical and natural skills while also maturing and growing socially.” p. 172
Although the book leaves me wishing I’d had more such formational experiences as a growing child, I realize that I did have camp adventures that are a part of who I am today. The most significant was Girl Scout camp.

The adventure of camping would begin many weeks before we’d actually embark. Our Leader insisted that all planning would be done by the troop, with his watchful eye overseeing the process. (Yes, my Girl Scout leader was male. Long story, but very beneficial for those of us who were lacking male approval and attention in our lives.) From meal planning to grocery shopping to packing gear, we all worked on the community project that would take us to some natural spot for fun and learning for a few days.

Fun was the cover for learning. Most of the time, we didn’t realize we were learning. Learning about ourselves and our inner capacity to overcome fears and obstacles. Learning about teamwork and its synergy, plus its struggles. The fun was the main draw. We knew some work would come along with the fun, and we complained some at the time. But the work was crafting us into women who could get the job done.

Once, we arrived at our destination to find that the afore-promised supply of firewood was not left by the venue staff. (Or was this one of those crafty and carefully planned schemes of our leader, designed to stretch us?) Up a wooded hill we went, hacksaws and hatchets in hand, not a minor thing for this girl who was previously vexed to be within a few feet of any sharp blade. A few hours later, we emerged, beaming through the sweat and filth with our booty of firewood that would warm us through the chilly nights and cook our delicious campfire recipes.

Evenings were a special time of fellowship and reflection, in addition to bizarre stunts and inevitable potty humor. And the dancing! Our leader made a deal with us early on in our camping times together. On Friday night, he would tune the radio hung in the rafters of the pavilion to our pop/rock station. In exchange, (like we had a choice) on Saturday night his choice of music would prevail… solid gold oldies from the 60’s and 70’s. We moaned and complained, but my taste in music was drastically and permanently changed. I am the only person my age that I know who idolizes Franki Valli and the Four Seasons. Our leader showed us the dances of the time and insisted that we take in the cultural lesson we didn’t know we were learning. He never said much about his time serving in the military. His fierce sense of patriotism said all we needed to know. We didn’t know what a hippie was at the time. But the wedding photograph of our leader and his wife in which she wore a micro-mini wedding dress and thigh-high gogo boots was a tipoff that we were being exposed to another time with unique tastes and trends.

I recall one time I was invited to take a late-night shift on fire watch. I’m not sure if the fire actually needed watching, but I was up for the challenge. As our leader strode off into the dark toward his tent, I wondered if he usually stayed up all night, or the few early morning hours between 2 am and 8 am, when we slept. I had never thought to consider this before. The night took on a magical quality as I relished what solitude really was. I think it may have been my first taste of truly being alone and quiet. A life-long obsession for this luxury began that night. It felt like hours that I was entranced by the glowing orange embers. My mind cleared as I breathed in the anointed night air. I think I probably processed some of the conflicts and insecurities that I was facing back home in a family that waivered on the brink of stability.

I think children are very busy between the ages of 6 and 13 becoming who they are going to be for a very long time, yet unaware of the foundation stones that are being placed. As a parent now, I try to instill some of these same camp experiences and challenges in the lives of my children. Yet, I am suspicious that certain types of growth and development cannot be done with a watchful parent nearby. I’ll be enrolling my oldest daughter in Scouting this Fall. I doubt her experience will be the same as mine. I only hope some of the basics are there, like finding inner strength, embracing responsibility, and enjoying the quiet of the evening.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

I've some serious lolling about to do

Yesterday was the first day of Summer, both officially and for me personally.  We vacationed on the last week of Spring (which felt like the dead of Summer, with 98 degree temps in Florida).  Now we are back in the mountains where it is tolerable to sit outside and soak up the suburban sights of lawn sprinklers and kids playing in the cul-de-sac. 

I am slowly adjusting to this lifestyle.  One challenge is that my home is surrounded by neighbor kids who attend the school where I work.  Remember when you were a kid and you saw a teacher in public?  It was the strangest feeling.  They exist outside of that building?  Turns out, it is every bit as awkward for the faculty member, especially if they are not feeling their professional best at the moment, which in most instances I am not when stepping out to the mailbox or screaming at my kids not to play in the mud.

I must insert a caveat here.  My new pet peeve is being called a teacher.  I am not a teacher.  That's the whacky thing about my job.  I am trained as a counselor, they hired me to be a counselor, I'm great at being a counselor.  Yet, a large portion of my time is spent in a classroom teaching kids.  Granted, I'm teaching character concepts and life lessons, which I am passionate about because an education devoid of this type of learning is not an education in my opinion.  I am a guidance counselor who teaches.

Why am I talking about work when I am supposed to be lolling about?

Many people have noticed that the overwhelming majority of conversations with me include a book recommendation.  Here's the one for today.  If you need a good laugh at cultural mores of the South, look up and get a book about the Sweet Potato Queens.  They use the phrase lolling about to describe the serious discipline of doing very little in the summer.  It can include reading a magazine, talking to a friend on the phone, or painting your nails.  But not much else.

So far, my pattern (established only yesterday) is to loll about, then putter around, then loll about some more.  Puttering is my term for slowly doing tasks around the house, not based on priority, but based on what looks fun or rewarding at the moment.  I will let dust sit on furniture or floors keep their grime and instead put pictures on the wall and spiff up my bedroom.  If I'm on the way to the hamper and something interesting catches my eye, I'll just stop and do it.  When I become the slightest bit interested in sitting down, back to lolling about it is!

My first Summer off in 18 years.  Good times!

My kids, you ask?  Since it's only day 2, the novelty of Summer break has not worn off yet.  I expect I'm on borrowed time there.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Faith and Fatherhood: Wisdom by the Water

editorial note:  this essay is based on some deep conversations I had recently with my own dad sitting on the beach.

Faith has nothing to do with religion, rules or ritual. It’s all about relationship. Faith is the belief that there is a benevolent Father who lovingly crafted a nefarious scheme to enable and entice you to live near him forever.
It makes sense that some people have more trouble with faith than others. Seems to me that lots of people get their ideas about God from the connection they have with their human father during childhood. Those who experience loving protection from a caring father figure have an easier time accepting the possibility of an ultimate Father with similar traits (to an infinitely greater extent). Those who lived with a distant, harsh or abusive father understandably find it harder to swallow this idea that God means well toward them.
“People do business with those they like and trust,” a wise man told me once. It’s not that faith is a business in the traditional sense, but it is couched in relationship, the business of the heart. Somewhere deep down, we all know we have business do to with God. He continually beckons us through beauty, creation, and divine inspiration. These are the “bait” he uses to assure us that there’s so much more where that came from. Unlike a fisherman who’s perfected the art of bait-and-switch, God makes good on these promises.
Here we are back at the faith crisis again. Can we take the risk of believing that God keeps his promises? How do we test the waters and see if this is a business we can buy into? We do business with those we like and trust. Do we like God? We like his blessings, his gifts, his art work, his provision and protection. But will he be there when times are though? If he’s so all-loving and powerful, why do hard times come at all?
Every father aches to watch a child hurt as a result of choices made, yet he must maintain a loving and genuine posture while the wayward child finds her sea legs again. He remains with open arms until she returns home.
We get to know and like others through conversation. Talking and listening, sharing what’s important, asking tough questions. Slowly, conversation by conversation, trust builds between Father and child. The end result is faith, the belief that a loving Father is there and will always care.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Things I've learned in Elementary School...

1.  5 minutes is a LONG time.
2.  5th graders smell bad after PE.
3.  Children are extremely observant and brutally honest.
4.  Most Kindergarten children can't pronounce Trustworthiness.
5.  For some children, running in the hallway is an uncontrollable form of personal expression.
6.  You can't judge a family by its outward appearance.
7.  Teachers get quite cranky if they miss their planning time.
8.  4th grade boys giggle a lot.  As with most giggles, any attempt to squelch them makes them multiply like bunnies.
9.  The intake lady who answers incoming child protective report calls deserves the right to be an unpleasant person.
10.  Good manners go a long way.

I realize that there need to be standards in public education.  I agree that we do not want children to be left behind educationally.  I've watched the state-wide regimen of preparing for the aptly-named (for some kids more than others) SOL tests.  Many of the preparation strategies are based on a forced, robotic rote recitation of, not test content, but test taking strategies. (Wear comfortable clothes, get your rest, check your answers, read the question carefully... there was literally a chant.) There are guest speakers, videos, graphics and countless class lectures that result in dazed looks, but darnit these kids know how to test!  I'm also in the direct line of fire for the most vulnerable kids who are proned to anxiety when the stress is on.  One poor 2nd grade girl has been pacing and crying for days.  But, we can't tell her that the 2nd grade tests are only practice tests to prepare for the actual ones that count for evaluation in 3rd grade. 

All of this testing hullaballoo makes me think of the Mark Twain quote, "Don't let your schooling get in the way of your education."

Friday, June 4, 2010

Lessons from a Ball of Yarn

When I selected an activity for my elementary school students using a ball of yarn, I was not expecting how much I myself would learn in the process.
The idea was to roll the ball from person to person across a circle of seated children. The result was a web, symbolizing the relationships students have formed in their class throughout the year. Each student said something friendly about the person they rolled the yarn to.
Once the little ones left the room, I ended up with a huge tangle of yarn it took hours to unravel. The complex knot was an illustration of relationships among a network of people, whether it is in a work setting, a family, a church or community. The strings, loops and obstacles stand for different individuals, dyads, triads and clumps within a group.
Here are some things I learned in my attempt to find the straight and narrow:
First instinct is to pull and tug. The stress on individuals tightens the intricate mess. I found it helped to loosen and separate on the whole system, making some space amidst the fray, which was counter-intuitive. It’s best to open things up so I can see my way through.
Even tension and stress on one string can tighten the whole knot back up into a wad where it’s hard to tell who’s who.
I feel like the end of the string. I realize I have to travel back through the mess I’ve been through in order to come out. If I try to run away from the knots, the aforementioned tightening occurs. The way out is through contact with others, not avoidance. Some wringing and twisting can be involved.
It may benefit me to pause and observe where others have been before I attempt to untangle myself from them.
If I take shortcuts, it may look like things are getting better, but it’s “knot”. At times things have to get worse before they get better.
Sometimes I’m just tangled up with myself.
Inevitably, I must navigate through the chaotic center of the tangled mess. There is fear of getting lost. But the hard-won freedom and growth is worth it in the end.