If Money Didn’t Matter…Turning a School Project into Real Life Advice

This week was Back-to-School night at my younger daughter’s high school. Walking around campus, I was painfully aware that all of the fresh-faced parents I’ve known since our teens were just tots in elementary school have become, well, to put it mildly, older.  And that if I’m calling them “older”, I have to look in the mirror and acknowledge that I’m there, too. I was also mindful of the fact that this was the second-to-last time I would ever go to a back-to-school night. EVER.

My daughter had told me ahead of time that her history teacher was one of her favorites and that he coincidentally had a great deal in common with me (UCLA grad, fan of music) and her Dad (back-packed through Europe in his younger days). As expected, his classroom was my favorite: as we walked in, we could smell fresh-brewed coffee, the lights had been dimmed and the John Mayer Pandora station played in the background. His presentation did not disappoint and the parents were given one of the same assignments he’d given to the students that week: to watch a popular, short video making the rounds on YouTube and social media called “If Money Was No Object” and write a response to the video focusing on advice, hopes and dreams for our student’s future.

Naturally, my engineering/math-brained husband looked in my direction and my eyes lit up at the prospect of a creative writing assignment.  I’m not sure if I was the first parent to turn in their paper the next day….but it’s very possible.

I don’t know if youth is truly wasted on the young, but I certainly felt a small pang of longing when I read my own words and realized that I could have been better at taking my own advice, say, 35 years ago. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I’d like to believe that there are still a few nuggets here that apply to us older and wiser folks.  In case I’m right, here are a few excerpts from my response to “If Money Was No Object”. These were the pieces of advice I crafted for my daughter, with a little commentary plugged in for us older folk…

  • Explore your options now, while you’re young. While I don’t regret the path I took, I do have the “what ifs” from time to time. What if I’d gone back to school right away and pursued an MFA in creative writing? What if I’d studied a semester abroad and done more traveling? What if I’d parlayed my college tutoring job into a teaching job or, early in my career, moved from marketing and PR in the technology realm into an area I was more passionate about like music or sports? Explore the things you are passionate about now, while you’re in high school and for as long as you can in college and early in your career. It’s hard to change direction when you’re 40 or 50.

Ok, so for those of us who are getting up there in age, admittedly, it is hard to change direction entirely. But not impossible. And if you can sprinkle just a little of what you love or do just one thing each day that keeps you in touch with those earlier passions, you’ll still be exploring those options, if not making a radical move towards them.

  • Find ways to travel early on. See the big, wide world. Look for opportunities to study abroad in school. If you’re a dual citizen, as my kids are fortunate enough to be, go to school or work abroad. Grab the opportunity and see what’s out there.

Great advice for the young, but of course, easier said than done once you are settled into a career (unless it happens to involve world travel) and have a mortgage and college tuition to pay for. But when those opportunities arise, take them.  Add a few days onto that business trip and see the city you’re working in.  Plan to use that bonus money for a weekend somewhere you’ve never been instead of upgrading those bathroom floors. I truly believe that travel is the best education there is. I can’t tell you how many people make comments about Sweden, its culture and system of government to me and my Swedish-born and raised husband without ever having stepped foot in that country. Not surprisingly, they are usually all wrong. Go, see, and learn for yourself – there’s nothing like it.

Quick illustrative story: I was once on a press tour in New York City with the CEO of a start-up I was working with. He told me that he’d been to New York numerous times in his career but had never been to the top of the Empire State building or seen a Broadway show. I asked him why not and he couldn’t answer, but for some reason, on this trip, he decided to change all of that. We went to the top of the Empire State building after our meetings and looked at the glorious view. We saw not one, but TWO Broadway shoes on that business trip!  A few months later, he passed away unexpectedly; while on his regular, early morning walk/run with his dogs, he had a heart attack. He was only 51 and left behind a wife and two young kids. I felt fortunate that I got to accompany him on that very special trip to New York.

  • Rekindle and/or nurture your love for reading. Reading expands your mind, opens new doors, and teaches you empathy. Beyond that, as I advised my daughter, reading improves all of those great communications skills you need in virtually every college class you’ll take and every job you’ll ever have.

This is advice that applies to anyone, at any age. There is always time to read a book, just like there is always time to fit in a workout – you just have to want to find that time. 10 minutes here and there – waiting in the car to pick your child up from school, while dinner is in the oven, on your lunch break from work, 10 minutes before turning out the light at night.  I truly believe that reading is the single easiest thing to do to keep your mind active, continue learning, expand your horizons and visit new places virtually. Bonus: it’s enjoyable and relieves stress!

  • Remember that there are trade-offs. This is where we have to acknowledge that money does matter and that means there are compromises and trade-offs to be made. If you’re passionate about traveling, find a job that allows for it, or be prepared that you’ll be backpacking through Europe and sleeping in youth hostels, not four-star resorts. Living in this area and having so much, our children sometimes get the message that having the latest iPhone or the coolest car are things that matter more than what you spend time doing each day. Some jobs don’t come with a big paycheck, but my message would be, try it when you’re young. If you truly love it, it will be worth the trade-offs.

As adults, we are always making trade-offs.  The hope is that when you’re in the rocking chair at 80, looking back on your life, you’ve made the right ones. I live in an area where people seem to “have it all”. They don’t have to decide between that expensive vacation, redoing their kitchen and paying for private college tuition. That doesn’t mean they haven’t made trade-offs. To afford that lifestyle, one or both parents may not be spending as much time with their families as they’d like.  Maybe the wife gave up a great career that she misses to stay home so her husband could have a job that involves a great deal of travel. Or maybe they are both working at jobs they really don’t love just to keep the wheel spinning. We all make trade-offs and compromises. The key is to figure out which ones you can live with.

  • What will your verse be? The famous line from Whitman’s poem and the words that Robin Williams famously spoke in “Dead Poet’s Society” are words that haunt me a bit every day. Make sure that something you do in life makes you feel that you’re contributing, giving back, adding something to your community, to society, to the world at large. Find something that has meaning not just to you, but to others.

While I haven’t figured this one out completely, I’ve taken little steps here and there to be sure I’m moving in the right direction. Is there a specific cause or issue you believe in passionately? Give your money and more importantly, your time to it.  Write about it.  Or to come full circle to the assignment and “If Money Was No Object”, make a video about it and share it with the world. Someone might listen and be inspired.

What advice would you share with your kids in response to “If Money Didn’t Matter”?  And do you think that advice is helpful for all ages for just for those of a certain, youthful age?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Thing Worth Remembering: Thoughts on the Anniversary of September 11th

 

imagesWe awoke to an unremarkable Southern California day. That is to say, it was brilliantly sunny and warm with blue skies – unremarkable for our little corner of the Earth.

It was a workday and a school day and like most families, we were preoccupied with our morning routine. My husband and I were getting our then-eight year old ready for school and preparing breakfast for our then-three year old. I would take our oldest to school, our nanny would arrive so my husband could go to work and then I’d head into my home office to start my workday.

The phone rang. It was my Mother.

“Are you watching the news?” she said, a little breathless.

“No, we don’t have the TV on in the morning,” I answered, a bit irritably. Our days were typically a jam-packed juggling routine and I didn’t have time to watch — much less chat about – Good Morning America or whatever else was on that time of morning.

“Turn it on,” she commanded. “You won’t believe what’s happening. New York is under attack.”

Like millions of Americans, I tuned in that morning and for weeks could not tune out. Smoke was billowing from one of the World Trade Center towers. The scene was unreal – like something out of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. This couldn’t be the actual news, could it?

We stumbled through our routine that morning, in a murky haze of uncertainty. Our younger daughter was too little to understand what was happening. Our older daughter had a vague notion that something bad had happened and airplanes had crashed into important buildings in New York, but of course, at that time of the morning, no one knew the hows and whys. Would school be cancelled I wondered? As the scene unfolded before us on TV, the entire country woke up to the nightmare of September 11th. Neighbors and friends began calling and talking, wondering and worrying. Did we know anyone on those planes? In the towers?

I remember scattered fragments of the day.

I remember taking my older daughter to school, reassuring her that everything was fine and it was a safe place to be, all the while realizing that my whole notion of “safe” had been turned upside down. Nowhere was safe. Every parent dreads the day when his or her children begin to realize that Mom and Dad can’t protect them from all the bad things in the world and the events of September 11th underscored this all too well. The tragic events brought home for all of us the fleeting nature of life, the way it can all be swept away so suddenly and without any warning.

I remember arriving at our elementary school, walking my daughter to the square in the center where the students recited the pledge of allegiance, the administration made announcements and the teachers and students lined up to file into their classrooms every morning. On this completely foreign morning, our principal talked to us about how important routine can be when and event like this occurs and how letting our children attend school and have a “normal” day was the best thing we could do for them. We envied our children their normal day in the middle of such an abnormal circumstance.

Parents who had barely spoken to each other before, hugged in the courtyard and clung to each other, speaking in hushed tones about waking to the tragic news. We left our children reluctantly, knowing how hard this simple act would be today. It was pre-smartphone and pre-social media days – we did not know how we’d wait six hours to see or hear from our most precious treasures.

I remember that no one could focus on work that day and no one expected us to. My husband stayed home. We took a walk around the lake by our house in the afternoon. We still didn’t know how to process what had happened. The skies were eerily quiet since no planes were allowed to fly.

That night, I remember not being able to sleep, laying in bed, listening to the complete and utter silence outside and wondering if it was over, if the terrorists were done, or if there would be more devastation. We still didn’t know all of the details and Los Angeles was mentioned as a potential target. I remember thinking that this sort of thing just didn’t happen in our country. But now it had.

Over the next few days, details emerged, names and photos of the missing and dead began appearing. All of us felt touched deeply by the tragedy, but we also all knew someone who had been affected more personally, whether they had been in New York at the time, had family there or had a loved one who worked in the twin towers. Some of us even had family and friends who died that day. It was a painful time and tears flowed easily.

A few nights later, our neighbors, like many others across the country, gathered at our community park just up the street from our house, with candles lit to remember the fallen, to pay tribute, just to be with each other in our sorrow and grieve together. We had a new family who had just moved into the house across the street and diagonally from ours. I had not met them yet, but when I stepped outside that evening, the parents sat on their front porch with their two year old daughter in their arms, holding candles, the Mom with tears streaming down her face. We acknowledged each other with a small wave, understanding that we didn’t need to speak.

The remarkable thing is that it still hurts. To watch the footage of the towers falling still causes me to gasp and turn away. To watch video of the tributes from those in the public eye on that day, whether it be interviews with the firefighters and police who valiantly stayed to search and repair, addresses by Mayor Giuliani, the late night talk show hosts or the stoic news anchors who simply couldn’t remain stoic, still brings tears to my eyes. I know I am not alone.

But what also remains is the feeling of bonding together during that time – not just friends, family and neighbors, but even those we barely knew, the strangers on the street, the heroic first responders we might never know save their weary faces in newspapers and TV, those we never agreed with and might still not, but in whom we found temporary kinship and solace. We were all impacted by this terrible nightmare. We were all one nation.

Though “cherish” is a strange word to use when remembering a terrible tragedy, that bond we felt to our fellow humans may be the thing I cherish most from those long and sad days. With so many things about that day we don’t want to recall, that human bond, the way we came together in love and acceptance, may be the one thing we so desperately need to remember and cling to each and every day of our lives.

It’s a New Year…How about those Resolutions from the Last Year?

And so, it’s January again.  Time to take stock and look back at the New Year’s resolutions that have come and gone. While I say I’m not one to make resolutions, I did, in fact, make a small list of things I wanted to work on last year.  How’d I do? Well, let’s just say that of the six I listed in last New Year’s blog post, I probably made some minimal progress on three of them. Hey, that’s a solid half, right?!

The issue with resolutions is that, once made, we need checkpoints to assess how we’re progressing and take action when we’re not making progress. Just like at work, there are certain milestones that need to be checked off the list and progress reports, if you like, need to be turned in.  I don’t know about you, but given I have to be accountable for these kinds of activities at work, I’m not likely to hold myself to that same structure on the personal front!

How, then, do we actually resolve and take action to improve certain areas of our life? It seems trite to simply say “I plan to be a better person in 2014”, but really, that’s the heart of it all, isn’t it?  Being kinder. Less irritable. More patient. Less hurried. More giving. Less judgmental. More understanding. Less stressed.

So this year, I’m going to give myself a break from the traditional list, knowing full well that putting in place the measurements necessary to ensure success is something I just won’t take the time to do.  I resolve in 2014 only this: to be a better person, in whatever way I can be.  That means taking time to connect with those I care about, rather than getting too wrapped up in the minute details of the day. It means making sure that all my good intentions don’t remain just that…that I occasionally take action and give to that charity, spend time doing something that yields no personal return for me or simply deciding to be understanding, rather than judgmental in situations that test my patience.  It means ignoring the insufferable, materialistic social media posts that clutter my news feeds and remembering that my family values experiences over things. Maybe it’s as simple as letting that car cut in front of me without swearing to myself or giving a stranger in the grocery store a complement, just because.

I know. It sounds like a lot of rainbows and fluffy puppy talk. But sometimes I think the world could use a little more of that. And a little less of the standard “10 Ways to Improve Your Life”.

Happy New Year, everyone. Enjoy 2014, however you resolve to do so.

Am I Still A Writer?

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Once a writer, always a writer…until doubt enters the picture, that is.  Every writer knows that to really call yourself a writer, there’s only one thing you must do and that is…write. It’s as simple as that. John Grisham was recently interviewed by the LA Times and was asked about the discipline it must take to write one or two books every year. Grisham said his goal each year is to begin writing on January 1st and end by July 1st. And within that timeframe, he writes five days a week, for three or four hours every morning.

To the average worker, that probably sounds like luxury, working only three or four hours per morning, but if you’re an aspiring writer, you know that three or four hours per day of writing is quite a bit. It takes discipline to sit in front of the empty page and fill it.  The ideas don’t always come easily and when they do, sometimes the words are lethargic and jumbled, not elegant and flowing.  It is trying. It can be depressing. It can make you stop writing altogether.

Those of you who follow this blog have witnessed this in action. One day I was full of ideas and writing regularly. The next morning, I woke up and realized five months had passed without a word. There are no explanations or excuses really.  Sometimes it works that way. It just stops.  In the interim, there has been much to do. Work. Family. Reading books. Watching hockey. Laundry. Dinners with friends. There is always something, but nothing that should really stop a writer from writing?

Am I still a writer if I do not write? Ideas spring forward in the mind but never make it onto paper.  Writing is happening…in my head, but not on the page. Am I still a writer? Maybe. Time will tell. Stay tuned and watch this page.

New Year’s Resolutions for Even the Most Non-Resolute

imagesI’m not a big believer in New Year’s Resolutions. I’ve always thought that if you really want to do something in life, make time for or accomplish something, you’ll eventually (to coin a Nike marketing phrase) just do it. There’s no time like the present and New Year’s Day or not, if you truly want to do something, you’ll do it and if not, well, maybe you don’t want it as badly as you’d originally thought. That said, there’s something about a new year, a fresh start, a clean white board, that gives one a tiny bit more motivation, that extra push to get a long languishing project moving.

In goal-setting, it’s always important to break big goals into smaller, more realistic steps and the same holds true for resolutions. You could resolve to be a better person….but specifically, how? You could resolve to be more organized, but what steps can you take to get there?

Pushing aside the notion that resolutions need to be daunting tasks that can only be thought of once a year, I’ve made a small, starting list for myself that I hope will have some impact.

1) I resolve that each time I want to curse silently – or not so silently – at an impolite or even dangerous driver on the road, I will take a deep breath and remind myself that they win when I feel stress.

2) I resolve that every time I think about calling, emailing, texting or otherwise reaching out to a friend or loved one I haven’t connected with in awhile that instead of saying I’ll do it later when I’m not busy (as if!), I will take five minutes to actually reach out or, at the very least, I will put it on the to-do list with an actual deadline so it becomes a priority.

3) I resolve to focus more and multi-task less.  The phone doesn’t need to be constantly in hand, the texts can wait and no reason to try to “save time” by responding to emails while on conference calls. Constant multi-tasking creates more stress and even more work. Better to focus on one thing at a time…unless of course it’s folding laundry while watching TV!

4) I resolve to walk past the mess and clutter in the house at least once a week without stressing out, picking it up or yelling at someone about it.  Life’s too short, right?!

5) I resolve to have books, music, writing, exercising and conversation add up to more hours each day than any time spent on social media. I’m talking to you, new Pinterest addiction!

6) I resolve to put forth energy and action for at least one cause I believe in, rather than just ranting about it or reposting rants on Facebook and Twitter. Action speaks louder than words.

Are you making any resolutions this year? Do you think it’s a useful practice. Happy New Year and all the best to you and yours in 2013!

Is “Follow Your Dream” Good Advice?

“Follow your dream.” Maybe your parents gave you that advice when you were in school. Or maybe you read it in a self-help book along the way. Following your dream is certainly a deeply rooted idea in American culture – the idea that if we just do what we love, we’ll be rewarded – if not with riches, than with self-satisfaction and happiness.  Think of Olympians who say that their parents always supported their dream or Broadway stars who say that living just barely above the poverty line for many years was all worth it because they were following their dream.

When I was little I was convinced that my dream was to be a writer. I had a romanticized view of what that might entail and like most kids had no idea what the day-to-day reality of being a writer might really be, how difficult it was to be published and obtain some level of success at writing. Economic realities meant that I always had a job during my college years, seemed to always owe someone money and upon graduation with a Bachelor’s in English, was faced with the same question repeatedly from well-intentioned friends and family: “What kind of job can you get with an English major?”

Turns out, there are many jobs out there for good communicators, but the one I dreamed about, penning the great American novel, seemed awfully naive in the face of mounting bills and debt. After taking the summer to go home to San Diego and think about what I should do, I resolved to return to L.A., resume my part-time job of English tutoring at UCLA and search for “real” jobs.

After a couple of months of interviewing, I was rewarded with a job offer that I thought wouldn’t entirely compromise my dreams. A technology company wanted to hire me – an English major with no technical background – to write their user manuals. How bad could that be? I would be paid to write, albeit, about the ins and outs of test equipment and communications protocols. I was thrilled that I could pay my bills, pay off my debt and enter the real, working world. My writing dream wasn’t completely sacrificed, I thought.

But writing user manuals became tedious and un-fulfilling, to say the least. Fortunately for me, the head of the marketing department noticed my writing skills, my youthful enthusiasm and my desire to be more involved in the external-facing aspects of the company and offered me a job where I could apply my skills to public relations, event management, advertising, collateral and many other aspects of marketing communications. 25 years later, I’m still working in technology PR and marketing, but for myself and from the comfort of my home, with my own consulting practice that I’ve built over the past 19 years.

Did I follow my dream? Not exactly. When people ask me if I like my job, I always say that every job has good days and bad days, fun parts and frankly, soul-sucking parts. There is the reality: 25 years later I have a mortgage, one child in college and one heading there in a few years and a lifestyle that requires both my spouse and I to contribute. There is also another reality: I’ve quietly pursued my original dream, fiction writing, on the side and discovered something important – while I still love to write, I am probably not cut out for the life of a full-time writer. The reality is that even my so-called dream job has good days and bad days, enjoyable activities and those that are painful.

So what do you do when you discover that your dream isn’t truly what you had in mind? You move on. There are parts of my day job that I still enjoy and parts that I don’t, but all in all, it continues to reward me both financially and intellectually. Separately, I continue to pursue the parts of my childhood dream that fulfill me – taking classes to improve my creative writing skills, penning the occasional short story, continuing to work here and there on the novel I “finished’ a few years ago, when the mood strikes me, and writing this blog.  Outside of work and writing, there are other passion-fueling activities: family and friends, music, sports, great books, food and wine, watching my daughters imagine, explore and wrestle with their own dreams.  Some might say I didn’t follow my dream and I guess I didn’t follow the track exactly. Still, I can’t help but wake up some mornings feeling blessed and lucky, that despite it all, I am living the dream – maybe not the one I’d imagined, but one that fulfills me, nonetheless.

How about you? Did you follow your dream?  Or find another along the way? Do you encourage your kids to follow their dreams? How do you support them in their quest to pursue a dream while still preparing them for the realities of the world?

Summertime….and the Livin’ Should be Easy

It has been more than two weeks since my last post and I can only blame it on…summertime. That’s right, it’s all summer’s fault with its lazy, long days that meld into night, the intoxicating smell of a neighbor’s barbecue at sunset mixed with the faint fragrance of summer flowers, the way the sun emerges from the June gloom daring you to come out and play instead of sitting at your desk all day.

Well, it’s not entirely summer’s fault. It’s true that I’ve chosen long walks in the sunshine, dinners in the backyard, sipping wine and conversing until the darkness forces us inside, and hours in the patio chair with a good book over more productive pursuits.  And of course, my older daughter is home for one week before she heads back to college and summer swim training, so I’m trying to squeeze the most out of every second that she is here.

I am trying my best to enjoy the quiet moments and the slightly slower pace that summer allows. Those who know me know that my very nature fights against a relaxed pace, that I am forever looking to “do”.  During the summer, though, a little voice seems to whisper that life is fleeting, that savoring the moments is the smart pursuit, that maybe in the slow-down, my mind and body can regenerate and renew, preparing me for the inevitable onslaught of Fall, when there will be plenty of time for productivity.

A recent NY Times blog entitled “The ‘Busy’ Trap” echoed my sentiments and made the point that Americans in the 21st century, in particular, are constantly self-imposing this “busyness” upon themselves. I plead guilty to what the author describes. It’s true I have plenty of activities to stay naturally busy: I work full-time, have two daughters, and attempt to pursue a second, part-time career by taking classes and working on my writing.  But the pace at which I live my life means that I sometimes try to fill those scarce, quiet moments when they present themselves with even more activity. In living a life of productivity, I realize I sometimes forget the pleasure in doing nothing at all.

I would argue that social media has enhanced our desire to be constantly busy.  We’ve all had to endure the postings of folks who really don’t have much going on in their lives and frankly, no one wants to hear about the fiber content of your breakfast cereal, how many hours you spent at the gym today, that you’re out of toothpaste or that your child finally went “poop on the potty” (yes, these are all real posts). That said, social media can make us feel that we must have something to say at all times, that we should be doing something exciting or productive at every moment — something worth proclaiming (or tweeting and posting, in this case) at the top of our lungs to show the world how busy we are and most of all, I suppose, that we are relevant.

So, I took a two-week break from writing, from the wheel of constant productivity, to try to sit back and enjoy the moments that are not filled with “something to do”.  I’m the first to admit that I’m not very good at it. I like being productive, being involved, contributing…yes, being busy. But it’s summertime. And I’m going to try my best to soak it up.

Getting Used to the Big Numbers…or 50 Things I’m Grateful For

At the end of this year, I will have to face a large number, a number that means I have reached five decades of existence. Why is this so difficult? After all, they say 50 is the new 30, a milestone, to be sure, but certainly not considered old age anymore. And as my husband is fond of saying, “it beats the alternative”. Maybe I fear it because I never imagined getting to this number. Like all kids, I couldn’t wait to be 16 so I could drive a car, 18 so I could go to college, become an adult and vote, and 21 so I could drink (ummm…legally). While I wasn’t anxious to reach the age of 30, I imagined where I would be and what I would be doing at that age (the year my first child was born, as it turned out –didn’t figure that!) and I could even see beyond that horizon to where I might be at 40. But 50? That’s just not a number I ever imagined.

So I’ve decided in an attempt to get used to that frightening number that I ought to start making lists of 50 that are not so scary. Like 50 things I’m grateful for, 50 things I’ve accomplished, 50 things I have yet to do, that I’m looking forward to doing some day.  50 places I’ve traveled and 50 I have yet to visit, 50 great novels (definitely won’t be including 50 Shades of Grey), 50 songs I can’t live without (maybe “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” should be on there), and maybe 50 posts I want to write. By making these lists maybe I’ll become accustomed to that scary-looking number by the time I get there….or maybe I’ll just have to drink a lot to hide the pain.

My inaugural list is 50 things I’m grateful for. Here goes:

1)   My health and that of my loved ones.

2)   My husband and the fact that his personality is the opposite of mine.

3)   My daughters.

4)   My Mom and Dad.

5)   My friends who are still my friends.

6)   My friends who are no longer my friends, but who helped shape me.

7)   The people who loaned me money in college.

8)   Every teacher who told me I could do “it”, whatever “it” was.

9)   My first love.

10) Being able to attend, and graduate from, UCLA.

11) Working from home for almost 19 years now.

12)  When I was still commuting to work every day, getting to drive down PCH every morning.

13)  All the clients who have hired me, those who have referred me and most especially, those who have hired me repeatedly to do work for them.

14) A good night’s sleep, when I get it.

15) The fact that my husband likes to cook.

16) The fact that one of my daughters has already taken after him in the cooking department.

17) The unconditional love of dogs.

18) Getting to spend part of my childhood in La Jolla.

19)  Music, music, music.

20) Books, books, books.

21) Daffodils in the spring.

22) Good wine.

23) Good, strong coffee.

24) Mint chip ice cream.

25) The scent of fresh lemon.

26) Pilates, without which I would be an injured, aching mess.

27)  Nordstrom’s customer service – can you beat it?

28) Getting to sit in the front row of the David Cassidy concert when I was 9 years old.

29) Getting to sit third row and front-row, center, respectively, at two Dave Matthews concerts as an adult and experience it with each of my daughters.

30) Jon Stewart and The Daily Show.

31) The beach.

32) Sunsets, especially at the beach.

33) Bangs…without them I might have to resort to Botox.

34) Online shopping.

35) Being able to live in California.

36) Not having to live in Texas.

37) Watching sports on a big screen TV.

38) Sunday’s Los Angeles Times…in print

39) The trip to England, Scotland and France I took with my best friend for high school graduation.

40) The opportunity to spend time in my husband’s native Sweden.

41) Dishwashers.

42) The advice of friends and colleagues who experienced things before me and shared their wisdom.

43) Clothes that don’t wrinkle.

44) The iPhone.

45) Summer.

46)  The Hollywood Bowl.

47) Writers.

48) Getting to watch my older daughter swim at Olympic Trials.

49) Friday evenings.

50) Getting to watch both my girls mature, follow their passions, learn from their failures and enjoy their successes.

When it comes to reading, does anything go?

I have always been an avid reader and am a huge believer in the power of the written word.  One of my earliest memories, when I was maybe four years old, is of sitting on my family’s couch, literally surrounded by massive piles of books, all of which I was sure I was going to read that very day.  I know that I owe part of my passion for reading to my mom who modeled good reading habits for me and always seemed to have an Agatha Christie or other such mystery in her hands.

As a parent, I have always tried to instill this love for reading in my two daughters with, admittedly, mixed results. While I read to them both from babyhood until beyond the time they could read for themselves, and while I continued to model good reading habits with my own reading, my older daughter really never adopted a passion for pleasure-reading, but merely read what she had to for school. My younger daughter, on the other hand, does enjoy reading and has always reserved time in her schedule to do so, but as the burden of school-reading increases, I can see that this passion could cool over time, if we’re not careful to continue modeling and encouraging.

Given this passion for reading, I’ve always believed that “any reading is good reading”.  While I want my kids to read challenging works, classic stories and thoughtful literature, I’ve never discouraged them from picking up less intellectually demanding material like The Clique series or Pretty Little Liars books. These books serve a purpose, as well – they provide great escapism, simply story lines and again, they count as reading time (and time spent away from the computer and phone).

But I recently read some disturbing news that made me question whether any reading is good reading. A recent article in the Huffington Post about the results of a Renaissance Learning report, revealed that American high school students are primarily reading books that are designed for a fifth-grade reading level.  The most popular book among high schoolers last year was The Hunger Games – a book that is ranked at a 5.3 level, meaning it is just above a fifth grade level.

While The Hunger Games is a great story that both teens and adults have embraced (see my previous blog post on this topic; in short, I loved it), the repercussions of the study’s results are clear: if kids aren’t reading material that is challenging enough for high school – much less college – how are they to improve their reading and writing skills enough to think critically and to synthesize and analyze higher-level curriculum?   Unfortunately, the article points out, this study reflects trends in national reading scores which remain low and have dropped significantly between 1992 and 2009.

So do we let our kids read whatever they want – comic books, tween “chick lit”, Seventeen magazine?  Or do we push them to read books that are indicated for their grade level and challenge them?

I admit, I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, since students are and should be expected to read works of literature in the classroom that are “at grade level”, I’m inclined to let mine choose what they read for pleasure. On the other hand, I’m cognizant of the fact that a steady diet of Pretty Little Liars is certainly not going to expand their horizons (much less their vocabulary) substantially. In a perfect world, they would choose to read much more challenging works during their free time, but even I am tempted to pick up the occasional People Magazine at the hairdresser’s or the latest pop culture phenomenon, Fifty Shades of Grey because it gives me a respite from some of the deeper and more thoughtful works I usually read (side note: don’t bother with “Grey” or at least, don’t spend any money on it. My take: it’s poorly written, the plot is old and tired, and the dominant/submissive thing was done so much better by Anne Rice in The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty and Exit to Eden years ago. Sorry, but poor writing, no matter how sexually explicit, turns me off).

So, should we try to encourage our kids to reach more intelligent and stimulating works? Should schools do more to encourage the reading of classics and weightier modern-day works?  Or should we just focus on encouraging the act of reading – regardless of the material? What do you think?

Saying Goodbye to Who We Used to Be

This weekend, my former writing instructor, Tod Goldberg, wrote a tribute to Adam Yauch of The Beastie Boys, who passed away last Friday. Tod wrote eloquently about what The Beasties’ music meant to him. One line of his tribute really stuck with me:

…you begin to recognize that the sadness you feel isn’t just about the loss of that person’s life, but also the recognition that who you were when you met that person is long gone, too.

This simple truth helped me understand why we can be so overwhelmed with sadness at the passing of someone we’ve never even met. After all, while we might feel like we knew Adam Yauch or Clarence Clemons or Whitney Houston or any of the countless others who we’ve lost recently through their public personas, most of us have never met, much less been a part of these people’s lives. What is it then, that causes the heart-wrenching void we feel when a favorite musician, actor, novelist or other public person dies?

As Tod so perfectly articulates, it’s the knowledge that who we once were, at a certain place, in a certain time, is gone forever. The young child, sitting in a mother’s lap, listening to a beloved story, the awkward pre-teen dressed to impress at a first dance, the college student, cramming for finals in a dorm room, the young parents trying to quiet a restless newborn in the wee hours of the morning. We recognize in the passing of the people who formed the backdrop to our lives that we can never again be who we were then – that a certain part of us has disappeared forever. It’s bittersweet, the acknowledgement that we’ve matured and grown, left behind pieces of ourselves in the process that only seem more dear to us with the passage of time.  Through the faded lens of nostalgia, even the bad morphs into good and we long for the feeling of being in that place and time again.

The loss of who we were seems to hit especially hard at this time of year, with Spring turning into Summer, the time of graduations and moving on. At this time last year, I was planning my older daughter’s high school graduation. Amid the excitement of parties and celebrations and orientation for her new life on a university campus, came the sad acknowledgement that things in our house would never again be the same, that a special period in our lives was about to depart from us forever and that we would all be changed. Walking her new campus during orientation, I was struck with nostalgia for my own college days, so much so that even the tough times began to seem perfect and magical.  It wasn’t simply my youth that I missed. It was the person I was in those days – the person I was before launching headlong into adulthood and the working world and before becoming a wife and mother. It was a time when I wasn’t even aware of all the milestones I was checking off – milestones I now realize are all in my rear-view mirror.

Ahead of me lies one daughter’s middle school graduation, the other daughter’s completion of her freshman year in college, our first summer without two children at home, and at the end of the year, a significant birthday that marks the passage of way more time than I’d like to admit.  I don’t mean to seem so morose – I embrace the future and look forward to all that is new. But I can’t help missing those people, places and times now departed. Because after all, their loss means saying goodbye to who I was when I encountered them – a part of me that I have to let go.