Red Light, Green Light

Here is a quick reader pop quiz. What major American Holiday did you celebrate last week? Any choice is valid; I won’t judge:

A.Black Friday

B. Cyber Monday

C. Football Rivals Saturday

D. Thanksgiving Thursday

Perhaps you are a competitive shopper and picked “A,” Black Friday. Last week was all about the preparation and planning required to seize the bargains. Your activities included an extensive scouting report and plan before proceeding with your hunting party. Hopefully going in for the “killer deal” did not lead you to brandish pepper spray like the woman at the L.A.-area Wal-Mart; she felt threatened by fellow shoppers who might have gained an advantage on a game console that was on sale.

If you were an employee of Macy’s, Toys ‘R Us, Wal-Mart or Target, “D,” Thanksgiving might not have even been an option since you had to work on Thursday so those retailers could open up early to get a jump on “Black Friday.”

Maybe you picked “C,” Saturday, as your big day was the snack, drink and betting line of college football games. The rest of you might be “B,” Cyber Monday seekers watching for early bird special apps that could bring up-to–the-minute “steals” to your cell phone. No matter which event you celebrated it all adds up to one thing: the kickoff of holiday stress season.

While I enjoyed a little bit of each day, call me old-fashioned, I still like to think that the main event of the four-day stretch involves pilgrims, turkey, cranberries, pumpkin pie and thankfulness and I find the commercial intrusion disruptive. It appears, however, that the biggest non-secular holiday we all share has been demoted to a meal wedged between Halloween and Christmas. Without the “timeout” of Thanksgiving, the feeling becomes one of being swept up in the tide of holidays rather than riding the wave.

Most moms I know, in moments of complete candor, confess that this is not their favorite time of year. Black Friday becomes the signal to strap on the oxygen mask and begin the ascent of the Mt. Everest holiday anxiety climb with too many “to-dos” in a very short period of time. So, this year I started to strategize a way to channel the onslaught of holiday frenzy, guilt and stress. My epiphany happened while waiting at a traffic signal. While watching the three-color cycle it dawned on me I could be my own traffic cop.

As invitations, reminders, solicitations and cards have begun to flow in the house I am immediately sorting into three traffic light piles. Red means stop, don’t do it. Yellow means proceed with caution. Green means go for it.

I am already reaping the rewards of this system with a sense of calmness and happiness during the holidays that I have not felt in years. Shedding and sorting without guilt allows Ode to Joy to take up residence in December rather than the Grinch. I would have played “Red Light, Green Light” years ago had I known it would spike my holiday spirit. Bring on Boxing Day!

Carol Lewis Gullstad  November 28, 2011

Fighting Like Cats and Dogs

Who would have thought that a pampered cat and an oversized, Clifford-like dog could teach me a lesson on sibling rivalry?

For years, my four kids –including three boys born in three and a third years—as well as my cat and dog, fought like, well, cats and dogs.

My mistake, I think, was throwing creatures with very strong and diverse personalities together and simply expecting them to get along.

I remember my own childhood—with three brothers, two sisters and a menagerie of furry creatures—as being harmonious, and I believed my own kids would enjoy similarly positive relationships.

As adults, my siblings and I love, respect and trust each other. We rarely argue and genuinely relish the too-rare time we spend together. We share wonderful memories of annual family ski trips to the Rockies, during which we skied together all day and played heated games of Monopoly at night. We adored each other, and thoroughly enjoyed time with our parents.

I like to recall Sunday afternoons sailing on Lake Michigan, lively birthday celebrations, warm holiday dinners with our best-friend family and hours spent watching Saturday-morning cartoons, vintage Laurel and Hardy films and home movies.

Traumatic events only solidified our bonds. We drew strength from each other after our father’s premature death – when our ages ranged from 22 to 30 – and tagged-team trips to Hawaii when lung cancer struck our oldest brother. I savored my siblings’ support while my husband was hospitalized a dozen years ago (my oldest sister visited twice during that time, as well as after each of my babies arrived).

Of course, I do tend to sugar-coat the past. My memories gloss over the early battles between my two oldest brothers, born just 15 months apart, which often ended in bloodshed. I forget about the relentless teasing that could bring any of us to tears. And, I ignore the fact that it took 14 years for my oldest sister and I to develop the friendship that’s now our lifeblood. Back in the day, my parents seemed to ignore the problems, and they did, in time, disappear.

My own kids’ strife brought me considerable angst. From the time my two oldest were tiny, they seemed constantly at odds. I obsessively read books and magazine articles about sibling rivalry. I joined a parent-education group, populated with mothers of “spirited” kids. And, for a few months, I even hired a counselor to deal with the boys’ differences.

Nothing seemed to work; the sparring continued, becoming more mentally hurtful and vicious as the boys aged. We kept the peace by keeping the kids separate; they had their own rooms, own friends and own sports teams. On vacations, we divided them into functional pairs for hotel rooms and rental cars.

A few years ago, after a traumatic brush with death, I decided to add a dog to the mix. The kids immediately took to the adorable Golden RetrieverStandard Poodle mix, but our middle-aged cat did not.

Life for my beloved Pumpkin went into a tailspin. He hid from Bauer, the super-sized puppy, whenever he could. When confronted by the overzealous newcomer – who soon tipped the scales at 85 pounds – he hissed, growled and swatted. Pumpkin no longer sought out my lap for stroking; instead, I became a repository for tennis balls, dropped by a pooch that was ever ready for a game of catch.

Our Tom Cat took his frustrations to the street, and our veterinary bills skyrocketed.

It took a year and a half, but at some point recently, I realized that the two pets had settled into an amicable relationship. The dog now barks to let us know when the cat wants to be let in or out, and will even lick the feline’s wounds after a street fights (gross, I know). The cat now goes out of his way to brush against Bauer in passing, and even encourages the dog’s slurpy forehead licks. (See the recent video clip of my pets here.)

Ironically, the pets seemed to have paved the way for my boys who, with no help from me or “the experts,” have started to get along, as well. In fact, the oldest – a college freshman – recently commented that he “wouldn’t mind” his younger brother attending the same university.

So, my pets have taught me an important lesson. Instead of stressing about and inserting myself into sibling situations, I need to stand back and let life take its course. Apparently, my own parents knew this all along.

–          Linda Williams Rorem, 21 Nov. 2011

Beginnings and Endings

This weekend I attended a memorial service for a woman who led a good life by any measure. She lived for 73 years, was married for 53 years and had two children and six grandchildren. She had worked outside the home, volunteered in her community, felt love, sorrow and traveled some.

She exhibited ambition, determination and pluck as a 12-year-old when she ran away from a terrible home environment. She was born with sight in only one eye but had no trouble seeing the character of people as a social worker in a tough part of town in the 1960s. She loved a good political debate and waged many of her own fights for causes she cared about. She lived long enough to experience the joys, successes, heartbreaks and regrets of a full life.

While she was not known outside her immediate circle of friends, family and colleagues, she was appreciated by those who did know her. She was eulogized by one friend as “brave, elegant, unique and never afraid to be true to herself. She was so brilliant and quietly giving. She never sang her own praises, but what a strong, singular, beautiful human being she was.” She was described by many of her long time friends as cool and courageous.

Most of us usually leave a funeral feeling we know the person better after listening to stories told through the multiple prisms of peers.  We feel either better or remorseful that we didn’t have a full appreciation of the person until they died. An 18-year-old woman stood up to talk and introduced herself as the oldest grandchild of the deceased. The granddaughter remarked, “I learned more about my grandmother today than I have ever known. “

In her final days in hospice, the woman who died reflected that she saw her life as quite ordinary and wished that she could have done more. The 18-year-old was sad that she had not seen her grandmother more recently. On any other occasion she would have been talking to the relatives about embracing the thrill of unveiling life’s opportunities as a college freshman. I was sad about the regrets on both ends as neither was warranted. I know this to be true because the woman whose life had ended was my mother; the woman whose life was just beginning is my daughter.

When my sister and I planned the service we hoped to bring some peace and comfort to our dad, who was suffering immensely from the loss of his life partner. However it became clear that the most affected people in the room were the grandchildren, as they tried to grasp the meaning of death and understand more about their grandmother’s life through the prose of the participants.

It was a surreal circle of life as blanks were filled in for the younger generation. Most importantly, it gave them all insight into which relationships mattered most in their lives. I was buoyed by the presence of my parents’ long-time friends and family. I also was able to get an occasional glimpse of my childhood friends in the back row.

Mom had battled multiple physical illnesses for 40 years and I felt a wash of relief after the service ended.  However, it was the tribute to the other parts of her life that brought closure. The next generation was able to embrace the totality of life at its peak and inherently understand it was their turn to carry the torch. It took the sting out as it felt every bit a beginning as an end to a life story.

Carol Lewis Gullstad

November 14, 2011

Milking It

Thanks to Al Gore – or whoever really invented the internet – I can communicate frequently with my college freshman. Families with far-flung kids now keep in touch through texts, emails, Skype sessions and Facebook posts; we’ve come a long way from the Sunday night calls from our dorm rooms.

However, I’m still hoping for the “I miss you and the family” and “I’ve begun to appreciate all you and dad have done for me” messages. I know better than to hold my breath.

Instead, I receive frequent texts requesting reimbursement – for another pair of shoes, a jacket for fraternity functions, snacks for late-night studying and even water (although a friend suggested that might be a euphemism for a different kind of liquid).

You can’t blame a kid for trying. Nevertheless, I’m waiting for my son to gain some perspective on all that he has, and all that others on this planet do without. How do I help him understand that the $100 he wants for Nikes could literally change the future for a Latin American family? Is the typical teenage boy capable of that sort of appreciation?

I wish he could have attended the Global Partnerships luncheon in Seattle last month, where Albertina Calanchi, who lives in the Peruvian Andes, recounted (thanks to a simultaneous translator) how she used a series of microloans to expand her dairy business, which in turn has afforded a bus for her husband’s business and dental school for her son.

Every time I attend this annual fundraiser, I am struck by how women in Central and South American turn tiny loans – often as small as $100 – into life-changing livelihoods.

Global Partnerships focuses its energies on Latin America, where 94 million people live on less than $2 a day. (Many of us spend more than that on daily lattes or “water.”) The Seattle-based organization has invested close to $40 million in microfinance organizations and cooperatives that provide small loans, job training and services such as health care to a quarter million people in Central and South America.

Albertina, this year’s featured speaker, told 1,000 Global Partnerships supporters about her journey: the youngest of seven children, she was discouraged from attending school, so ran off to join a convent. When that didn’t work out, she returned home and defiantly enrolled in a teacher-education program.

Due to financial pressures, Albertina had to quit school, and soon married and had a son (he is 16 now; she also has a 10-year-old daughter). To help provide for the family, she bought a cow and started selling its milk to neighbors.

With a vision towards growing her business, Albertina joined seven other local women, all dairy farmers, in a cooperative bank, which secured microloans through a partner of Global Partnerships. (Not incidentally, the pay-back rate of such community-bank loans is 98 percent, compared to 80 percent among top U.S. banking institutions.)

Before long, Albertina owned 12 Holstein cows and a thriving dairy business. (That’s her in the photo, taken by Adam Weintraub.) She begged and cajoled a local supermarket owner to carry her milk and now sells 500 liters a day.

Albertina spoke of her success non-chalantly; clearly, when she ran into a challenge, she pushed through it, always with an eye towards a better life for her family. Her persistence, vision and intelligence served as great inspiration to those of us who take our many blessings for granted.

In our household, we have always promoted charitable giving and volunteerism; in fact, our oldest son has helped build houses in Tijuana and worked with schoolchildren in Bri-Bri, Costa Rica. Yet, somehow he now believes that we should dedicate our donations towards a not-so-struggling college freshman.

I think my husband and I can do more to humble, instruct and inspire our kids. I’ve read that Global Partnerships includes the public in its trips to South and Central America, to see first-hand how rural entrepreneurs put microloans to work. And so, I’ve mentally scripted the next text to my son: “How R U? HV GR8 idea 4 spring break. CM! TTFN. ❤ Mom”

Linda Williams Rorem, 7 Nov. 2011

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