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December 17, 2006

Searching for that Fairy Godmother Feeling

Kelly's column is reprinted here with permission from The Hills Newspapers.

You know how sometimes it’s really hard to feel integrated with the larger world? How you want to make a meaningful contribution but the little things, like bagging up canned food for the local drive, don’t seem to add up to much? Or how, when you’re writing checks to charities, you get that little high looking at the pictures in the brochure but twenty minutes later the high is gone and you wonder if there isn’t a way to get more connection for your philanthropic investment?

I found a way.

At least, it’s working for me. It’s called Donors Choose and it’s one of those brilliant applications of the web that leave you wondering how we ever survived without it.

Teachers--that underpaid, overtaxed lot to which we assign our most important work--write up three or four paragraphs about something they need to make magic happen in their classroom, or even just give their students a fighting chance to learn anything. It’s all there—from basics like textbooks and staplers to elective supplies, like recorders and basketballs. And it’s searchable by subject, by location, by grade.

I sorted first by Art & Music Projects, where I quickly stumbled upon Mrs. Dien, an elementary school teacher down in LA. She’s leading a field trip to see Dan Zanes perform in April. Dan Zanes is a storyteller and musician and my girls love him, especially his Polly Wolly Doodle duet with Sheryl Crow. Now, no one could say a Dan Zanes show is something students need to succeed in life. But as I read the second paragraph, I learned that the entire student body is going, except the special needs kids. For them to go, the school would need to rent a bus with a lift, which costs $382.53 a day, including gas, insurance and the driver’s pay. So I picked up the tab. Come April 2007, those special needs kids will be humming alongside their luckier schoolmates.

The next week, I got this note:

Dear Kelly and Edward,

Thank you very much for funding the bus for our students to see Dan Zanes at UCLA Performing Arts Center. My special students have a difficult time learning academic subjects, but one area that they all enjoy and can relate to is music and story telling. Thank you for making this possible. We will be sending our thank you letters and pictures of our trip after we attend the performance in April 2007.

Thank you,
Michelle Dien


It was better than finding the perfect sweater to go with the brown skirt I bought last year and never wear because, well, I don’t have the perfect sweater to go with it.

High on the Michelle Dien letter, I went back to Donors Choose. This time, I found a high school in Chicago where 92% of the students are on free lunch. A Geometry teacher there was asking for $322.81 to buy a manipulatives kit that he is sure will help his students finally understand geometry. One click, and I had solved the problem.

It’s a little problem, I know, and there’s another problem right behind it. And sure, it’s just one set of tools for one set of kids. But before I went too far in that direction, I got another letter:

Dear Kelly and Edward,

My students and I cannot thank you enough for your generous donation to our classroom. When I informed my students of your generous gift, they were all incredibly ecstatic and astounded that someone from outside their community truly cared about their education. They were also very eager to start using the materials to help them learn geometry in new and innovative ways. Once again, thank you very much.

Regards,

Vinay Mullick
Paul Robeson High School


With $322, I made some kids in Chicago “ecstatic.” I “astounded” them. I showed them that people they don’t know care about what happens to them. And Vinay gave me his email, so I can check in any time. Now that’s the connection I was hoping for.


Donors Choose is online at www.donorschoose.org.

December 05, 2006

The Noey Effect

Kelly’s column is represented here with permission from The Hills Newspapers.

My seventeen
year-old babysitter, Noey, doesn’t know how to work our TiVo, nor does she want to know.

Noey is an industrious first-generation American with her eyes on Stanford. She studies all the time. Doesn’t care what time we get home since by her calculations, she’s getting paid to prep for the SATs and finish her AP Chemistry homework. Every time she comes, she asks if it’s okay to use my computer. “Just checking,” she says when I say “Of course, Noey.” “Thanks a lot,” she adds, in a tone so genuine it makes me wonder if my kids have ever sincerely thanked me for anything.

Noey, I should mention, is fit for the cover of a magazine. She has the kind of face that makes some girls stop trying and just coast along on the perks that come with show-stopping beauty. I keep telling her she could make money a whole lot faster than $12 an hour if she was willing to send a couple photos off to the nearest modeling agency.

But that’s not her style. She wants to be a doctor.

Noey’s parents are Nicaraguan immigrants who work as Custodial Managers at UC Berkeley. They found a high school for her in Albany, even though it’s five towns north of their home, because it’s the kind of high school that sends its graduates to college. When Noey matriculates, she will be the first in her family to walk the halls of a freshman dorm looking for her name on a door, or comb through a university bookstore filling a basket with $400 worth of textbooks, or harbor a secret crush on the guy in Chem Lab.

But that’s where Noey is headed.

When I ask her why college is so important, she says, “That’s why my parents came here. That’s why they left everything behind.”

When I was seventeen, I could be found in front of the mirror, wondering if my hair looked better in French braids or a bun and rolling my eyes at my mother who was always calling up to me to “Get downstairs now!” When I was finally satisfied with my locks, I’d slip on my Mia flats, noting the scuffs on the toes and wishing for a fresh pair. I rarely said thank you spontaneously and was quick to remind my mom, in our regular showdowns, that at least I wasn’t pregnant or on drugs. It wasn’t pretty.

And my girls – they are the luckiest kids in America. Piles of books in every room. So many clothes that when they’re all clean, they don’t fit in the dresser. Soccer, choir, summer camp. Trips to the circus, the beach, the Big Apple. And perhaps the ultimate luxury: a well-rested, at-home mom, not to mention a father who can’t wait to get home to them.

But there are things Noey has that I can’t give my children. There are advantages to “disadvantage.” Noey appreciates a Coke. She saves the last bit of cream cheese because if you really scrape around the sides, there’s enough for another bagel. She found an SAT course that is half the cost as Kaplan, but just as good. She’s more resourceful and self-sufficient than some forty year-olds I know.

But she has one more thing I wish for my kids—the thing that makes the world her oyster. Noey has the pride and the insight of the entrepreneur, the person who takes an idea about what could be and makes it real. She came by her daring and will honestly, through her parents.

November 20, 2006

As Powerful As Brylcreem

Kelly's column is reprinted with permission from The Hills Newspapers.

I THOUGHT I knew all about empathy. I’ve written about it, given speeches about it, made a web site about it (www.circusofcancer.org) and generally evangelized about its terrific healing powers on every street corner since 2004. In that year, I was the recipient of so much empathy (thanks to a run-in with late-stage breast cancer), I thought I could write the book on it.

Silly girl.

Empathy isn’t just the thing you pack in your bag on the way to see a friend in crisis. Rather, as I was shown last week, empathy is your primary tool for every interaction. But that’s putting the punchline before the joke, so to speak. Let me back up a bit.

Last Wednesday, I had coffee with Tracy, an old friend whose parenting style leans towards…um…well, let’s just say she is kinder with her children than I am with mine. In my dark days, pre-enlightenment, I may have even described her mothering as indulgent. She starts every interaction trying to make sure her children know she understands how they feel while I start every interaction trying to make sure my children know who’s boss.

Tracy and I had a long time to talk; we were AWOL mothers in New York City, many states between us and our children--and their overripe diapers, unbuckled shoes and running noses. Buzzing with caffeine, trapped in a café by sheets of rain, we talked about what she’s learning in her parenting classes, which she gets for the cost of tuition at her children’s private school.

Oh boy, have I been blowing it around here.

Children, Tracy reported, want to feel that they have been felt. (Children are clearly just like people in this way.) Hmm. In my interactions with my children, I am operating as my husband sometimes does with me. No time for empathy! Let’s get to the good part, the satisfying part: problem solving! But satisfying for whom? Like me, my kids may not need a solution as much as they need someone to hear them out, a little emotional camaraderie. “It is hard to zip up stiff, new boots.” “Amoxicillin chewable tablets do taste like Ajax.” “I like it when Toto pulls the curtain back on the Wizard too!”

But here’s the finer point, and the place where I oversimplified. While empathy is big enough to reshape any interaction and consequently any relationship, in most cases, the empathetic act is, by comparison, microscopic. A nod is the quintessential show of empathy. Eye contact is also high on the list. Mirroring expressions – a frown for a frown, a furrowed brow for a furrowed brow – ranks right up there with actually mirroring their words. “You really want to have a playdate.” “You’re so hungry you could eat a horse.” "That homework assignment is pretty tough." I find after addressing the urgent need [to be heard and acknowledged], it’s easier to explain that dinner isn’t ready, we can set up a playdate for tomorrow, and homework is homework, everybody’s gotta do it.

Mirroring and eye contact and nodding may sound like a lotta touchy-feely garbage but the thing is if your children (or, for that matter, your spouse) can’t tell from your behavior that you’re really listening, you might as well not be. So though the temptation may be strong, you cannot hope to empathize while reading the paper or checking the score of the game or finishing a column. The good news is you don’t have to. Empathizing is so powerful that, as the old Brylcreem ad went, a little dab’ll do ya.

November 10, 2006

Sandbagging

Kelly's column about Sandbagging originally appeared in The Hills Newspapers and is represented here with their permission.

I’m married to a good man who works hard, between between tracking his fantasy football players and picking wines online and finding the occasional sportcoat deal on jcrew.com… and I’m a good woman , an at-home mom who works hard, between writing columns and coffeeing with friends and catching a spin on the elliptical trainer down at the Y). Between us, we’ve got nothing to hide.

Still, I’ve noticed this trend in our daily check in calls. He seems to want me to go first so he gets right out there with "how's your day?" and that’s when it happens. That’s the moment I feel myself hedging, wishing I knew which way his day was going before I rattle off a list of small but mission-critical achievements, like picking up dry cleaning and getting his prescription filled OR focus instead on the hour that the girls played quietly while I flipped through old Pottery Barn catalogs and yakked on the phone to my friend down the street. I mean, it's unwise (right?) to let your husband think it's too cruisy back at home. Stories of heroism always involve great obstacles and unforeseen challenges, right? What credit will I get at the end if I make motherhood out to be one long afternoon of crayons, cupcakes, and Curious George? Best to report the tantrums and timeouts. Best to cast the corporate world as a haven, predictable, logic- based, preferable on all counts.

Guilt seeps in.

But then I notice that he sandbags me too. Calling from a first-class trip to Tokyo, he hesitates to describe his hotel room, or his dinner, or his schedule the next day. He plays the hold-back game. Which means that somewhere along the line, I've communicated that I don’t want to hear about the $100 bottle of wine he had with his brainy, interesting boss while exquisite women scurried to and fro in silk kimonos bringing course after course of award-winning food.

More guilt. I mean what kind of bitter killjoy doesn’t want her hard working husband to enjoy the occasional boondoggle?

So I say to him one night, after a particularly effective glass of red wine, when he is wearing a shirt I like and the girls have gone to bed in that charming way that kids do sometimes, I say, "Edward, sometimes I kinda lie to you, or just kinda omit things." I go on to explain that if I sat in a hot tub after working out on a Monday morning while he was in that weekly staff meeting that he just hates, I usually don't mention the hot tub. And he says, in this weirdly convincing way, that he wants me to be happy. And I, of course, recall a similar desire for him. And so we agree, after chewing on it for a while, that sandbagging is more silly than sensitive and that we should, from now on, revel openly in a good day.

This column served as fodder for a a recent Today Show segment. To see it, go to: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12065856/ and scroll down to THURSDAY's VIDEOS and select TRUTH IN MARRIAGE: Stop Sandbagging. And if you want to see more columns like this on Today, please email today@nbc.com and let them know.

November 04, 2006

It’s Going Around Town

Kelly's column is reprinted with permission from The Hills Newspapers.

My popularity at home is at an all-time low since my daughter started elementary school in August. Every day, she manages to work into conversation that Fiona has a dog, Sadie has a princess backpack with pearl trim and Olivia has cowboy boots. We don’t have a dog, Georgia’s backpack is cute but plain and the coolest shoes she has can’t touch Olivia’s pink boots. It’s not peer pressure. It’s not groupthink. I guess I’d call it instinctive conformity. If only I could channel it to her advantage. Instead of “But Becky gets Pop Tarts for breakfast!” it could be “Why can’t I have broccoli and tofu dogs like Jane?”

It takes me back. As a girl, my impossible dream was pierced ears (which, it was explained to me repeatedly, God would have put there Himself if He’d wanted me to have them). By the time I bellied up to the Piercing Pagoda at the mall, the Beckys and Janes in my class all had jewelry boxes bursting with posts, hoops and dangles. I survived, and took the message to heart: Everyone else is doing it is not sufficient grounds for action.

Conformity doesn’t end in childhood, of course. I often hear myself saying to my husband that I need an eyebrow wax, I must replace my lumpy sofa, I should really get a nice dress for the holidays. I’m not sure those were my ideas. In fact, I think I could be parroting my friends, just as my daughter parrots hers. But these are benign desires.

I get good ideas from my pals too. My friend Susan started an exercise studio when she turned 40. She opened up a beautiful place on Piedmont Avenue called The Dailey Method and every day, she’s in there taking women to their physical limit in the name of improved health and a good tush. When the sign went up out front everyone I know wondered if they didn’t have a small business bubbling inside them. Other friends are volunteering, designing handbags, teaching Sunday School. What would we be if we weren’t open to the new idea blowing around town like wind? Personally, I’m keeping my door wide open.

But it’s not just inspiration and optimism that shake the leaves. I heard a story recently about L., a married woman who has reconnected with an old flame from high school and spent the summer emailing him, the fall calling him, and if she gets on the flight next week, the winter visiting him.

I mentioned it to my mom and she said, “My friends just didn’t do that.” My parents ran in a crowd where no one got divorced, even if maybe they should have. It just wasn’t done. And I don’t think it was a coincidence. Sometimes it’s subtle, but I believe peers can influence us in every conceivable way; everything is contagious. Wearing seatbelts, eating organic, joining clubs, flirting with infidelity.

It has something to do with that old adage: you pick your advice when you pick your advisor. Meaning, if a woman like L. told my mom she was talking to her old boyfriend, my mom would probably furrow her brow and shake her head before saying something blunt and unmistakable, like “That’s awful.” But if L. confided in a friend who’d strayed from her own marriage, L.’s friend might say, “What are you going to wear?” which is, for all practical purposes, saying, “Go for it. And tell me all about it when you get home.”

There’s a rule in advertising that says it takes six impressions before a customer will make a purchase. The impressions can be miniscule and fleeting—a logo here, a banner there—but they combine to create a feeling of inevitability. Eventually, you say, “Of course, we’re going to get Yahoo DSL!” So maybe if we surround ourselves and our children with principled, gutsy people, we’ll be bombarded with impressions that will have the net effect of reinforcing what we know is right. We’ll be programmed to pick a designated driver before the night begins, withdraw from the behavior that leads to family ruin, explore new career options, and every now and then, splurge on a pair of pink cowboy boots just like Olivia’s.

October 23, 2006

Striking Out

Kelly's column is reprinted with permission from The Hills Newspapers.


My friend Deryl
came over the other day with his Gibson acoustic and humored me on another one of my “projects”: a children’s song about Homonyms. (My kindergartener and I have been tripping over homonyms for months, ever since that fateful morning when she got twisted up in “two,” “too” and “to.”) You can’t believe how often homonyms pop up. Bare, Bear. Aunt, Ant. Wring, Ring. Anyway, I really thought there was a song there. Possibly even a song and dance that could become a video that would go around the world on YouTube or find it’s way onto Sesame Street. (I’m overrun with daydreams—can’t stop the images from coming.)

So Deryl and I spent an hour on my deck playing various types of music, looking for something to build a melody on. Country, then bluegrass, then Jack Black-ish hard rock. From there, we started to work through the lyrics. The opening line was a cinch:

“When my friend Phil said ‘Fill it to the brim,”
I said ‘Whoa! Is that a homonym?’”

For that one minute, it looked like writing a kids song was as easy as it sometimes seemed. We joked that guys like Dan Zanes and Elizabeth Mitchell were robbing the bank with their albums. (We even used finger quotes when we said “albums.”)

On to the next verse! Nose and knows. It took a little longer than Phil and fill but eventually, I suggested something like:

“Every pirate knows that a ticklin’ nose
means ‘Look out boys! Thar she blows!’”

I could tell by Deryl’s guffaw that he didn’t think that one was even worth transcribing. Concerned about losing our momentum, we quickly scraped the nose-knows pairing and tried to come up with a verse using blue and blew. Surely there was something there, something about blue skies and wind that blew, but we couldn’t find it, and by then, it was time for Deryl to get back to his real job as a software developer.

So the afternoon didn't yield much and another day went by that I didn’t return the plastic ponys and flip flops that my children brought home from playdates last week. I guess The Homonym Song was a stupid idea.

All I can say for myself is that it was fun and refreshing and humbling, like falling in the snow. Being a beginner, being lost, making things up, that made me feel young. Plus, my short-lived foray into songwriting made me love a good song all the more, just as the experience of making a bench made me appreciate the tidiness of a properly mitered edge, and the experience of painting a laughably misshapen portrait of my daughter made me recognize how layered and clever even the simplest paintings are. And lastly, it can’t hurt for my kids to see me try to do something I’ve never done and fail so happily. Especially when their lives are a near-endless string of new things they are forced to try—tying a shoe, dribbling a ball, inverting a fraction.

So I say: Take a swing at it. Whatever it might be. And make sure your children are around to see it. A handful of afternoons watching you venture and stumble and maybe even come up short will save you a lot of long lectures about trial and error, gumption, and the joy of shrugging your shoulders and saying “What the hell? I’ll give it a whirl.”

September 26, 2006

Why We Do It

Kelly's column is reprinted with permission from The Hills Newspapers.

I met my old friend, Andy, at Chrissy Field this weekend. He had his family and I had mine. Plus, we had a Frisbee, four bottles of water, a slowly deflating football and two sand buckets. Not ten minutes into it, we started to make up a game. This is Andy’s specialty. In fact, as he outlined the rules, I could see the faded outlines of a hundred previous games. A speed round where you run with a bucket upside down on your head, bonus points for making a catch with a toddler on your hip, negative points for whining—all the makings of a game that could entertain us all for an hour. And it did, even as we appealed to Andy for clarification on one rule or another. Suffice it to say, Sunday was one of those completely satisfying days where you feel like things really couldn’t be any better.

Then came Monday. Bad day, Monday. A children’s book I have been tinkering with (well, okay, more like laboring over) for oh, six months or so was slapped down by an agent at ICM in New York. Then, an article I pitched to a magazine that no one I know reads (no sour grapes here) was rejected as unoriginal. This, from a magazine that has an article on flattening your abs each and every month. (Again, no sour grapes.) Oh, and the pedal on my daughter’s new bike fell off and she’s been asking me to fix it every day for a week now. Suffice it to say, Monday was an ugly mix of frustrated and overwhelmed.

Then I talked to my husband—stick with me here—who had just finished a long meeting about the new product his company is developing. The feature list is apparently growing as each engineer thinks up a new bell or whistle that will make the product irresistible to the market. Just when the work seemed like it was about to cross over from challenging to grueling, someone laughed and said, “Why do we do this to ourselves?” My husband quoted his old boss at TiVo, Mike Ramsay, the guy who thought up that most wonderful of all gadgets. When asked the same question by his team, Mike said “Smart people will make tasks complex enough to make them interesting.”

Oh, so that’s what we’re all doing. That’s why my friend Beth breads and fries chicken for her kids instead of grabbing a big bag of frozen nuggets at Safeway and why Amie makes Halloween costumes fit for the cover of Martha Stewart Kids. That’s why Christine signed up to be a room parent while she’s writing her PhD dissertation and why John volunteered to coach soccer while he’s remodeling almost every room in his house. Besides wanting to do right by our kids, we all crave a certain level of complexity. Complexity keeps things interesting.

So now, when I find myself adding projects to my To Do list, when I see my hand go up for the fundraising committee, when I decide to keep pushing my children’s book up the hill, I just shrug my shoulders and think, “You did this to yourself, Kelly. Admit it, you like it. You could kick back, fixing broken toys and keeping the fridge stocked but you’d miss the speed rounds and bonus points.” And so would everyone you know, whether they are opening a small business or planting an herb garden. That’s what makes them compelling, evolving people—they know how to make up a good game.

August 28, 2006

Unclenching

Twice lately, I've been shoved into a state of teeth-grinding anger, the kind of anger you just know they’re talking about when they refer to “unhealthy stress”.

First, there was Earl, the taxi guy.

My husband found Earl in the phone book and booked him several days in advance to take us all to the Oakland Airport at 7am. [I had suggested a different guy, a guy named Ala that my totally-on-top-of-it friend, Michele, recommended.] Earl was 15 minutes late, which is not late enough to cause any real problems but just late enough to make you pace, panic, reconsider, and bicker.

A 101 Psych student could have decoded my sudden coffee brewing as a nonverbal cue that I had lost faith in Earl. Finally, he pulled up. I must mention, though it doesn’t forward my thesis, that Earl drove a white stretch limo, the kind you may have rented with ten friends on prom night, the kind with fake, often mauve flowers and dusty liquor decanters clinking around in the “bar” area. My husband posited that Ala probably didn’t have nice place for our morning whiskey.

Anyway, as the girls marveled at Earl’s luxurious chariot, I passively aggressively coached them to "Get your seat belts on now or we're going to miss our flight." To which Earl said casually, "Plenty of time, plenty of time." I was really hoping for something more like "I'm sorry I'm late." It was then that I knew I'd be writing about Earl some day.

Next, the snit at the doctor's office.

S., as we’ll call her, is the manager of all the admins at the medical center I use. She became the manager, I presume, because she is extra good at following the rules. When I signed in at the front desk, S. informed me, over the shoulder of her tongue-tied subordinate, that I did not have the necessary authorization and would not be able to receive service until such authorization was in hand.

Did I mention that in order to be there begging S. for "service," I got a babysitter, drove through the rain and found the last parking space in a five-story underground garage. And did I mention that—as is often the case when people go to the doctor—I wasn’t in there for something optional like Botox or a new pair of perky breasts.

Anyway, twenty minutes after I promised her that my HMO didn't require an authorization for this procedure, S. was informed by her now-vocal subordinate that she had reached my HMO and apparently, I didn't need an authorization for this procedure. But by then, S. had sent the only qualified medical technician on duty off to lunch. He'd be back in about thirty minutes. Here's where an "I’m sorry" would have really loosened my jaw. S. just said, “Please be seated. It won’t be long now.”

I know the feelings that make apologizing so hard—a little shame, a dash of defensiveness, even a smidge of self-loathing. I know because I have to apologize a couple times a week, mostly for choosing to indulge myself in some way instead of doing something I’m suppose to. Like today, I wrote this essay instead of finding the eyeglasses my mom left in my car last weekend, the ones she’s called about twice so far. I'll have to apologize for that. And although it was on my calendar, I forgot my sister-in-law’s birthday, again. [She never forgets my birthday. Unfortunately.] And I borrowed my friend’s galvanized tub for a cocktail party I had a few weeks ago and as I type, it sits on my deck with the last few Sierra Nevadas on their side, sun bathing in an inch or two of water. So I’ll have to apologize for that.

But I will. I will "own it" as my therapy-lovin' friend always says. And as that same friend taught me, while I’m owning it, I will neither complain nor explain. In other words, I will not smother the apology in so many excuses that it is unrecognizable as an apology. I will just put it out there bare: “I’m sorry I didn’t call you back sooner.”

Thanks to people like Earl and S., a timely, unadorned apology is still an impressive act of interpersonal bravery. And like most acts of bravery, it will be rewarded. The payoff for saying those two little words is forgiveness, which is, as the old saw goes, divine.

But what to do with my anger? How to spare myself the buzz of self righteousness that may be doing permanent damage to my jaw? Well, there’s always breathing, sure. A mantra perhaps. An imaginary trip to my happy place? Maybe for you.

For me, I’ve decided the only way is to smile. Like a first grader in front of a camera. Big and dumb. Because it makes me laugh. Because it makes me remember that almost everything is silly and who really cares and it happens to everyone. All of us. All six billion of us. Every day. So really, next time life rubs up against you and leaves you chafed, refuse to give in. Force a smile, even a phoney one will do. Trust me. You’ll see.

August 21, 2006

The Way of the Peaceful Sherpa

You shouldn’t try to teach a pig to sing. It can't be done and it makes the pig angry.

Or so goes one of my favorite quotes. I used to share it with co-workers who found our mutual employer to be impressively stubborn and unyielding. It soothed us all, partially because it reminded us to stop spitting into the wind and partially because it cast our boss as the pig, which is almost always fun.

Now, I share it with girlfriends who husbands never seem to change for long. I've learned. See, my beloved almost always walks up and down the stairs empty handed, sometimes stepping over or around little piles of shoes or stuffed animals in the process. In his special “off duty” goggles, he can’t see these items.

For me, going up and down the stairs is nearly always an opportunity to "get something done," like carrying the laundry up from the basement, or taking empty glasses from our nightstands to the sink. It's simple but it's a worldview too.

If your worldview is, "everything in the house that needs doing will be done by me sooner or later," then you might as well grab those old magazines from the bedroom and drop them in the recycling bin out front now, because you're gonna have to do it eventually anyway. See, I live in my workplace and my to do items are neatly organized on a list beside my online calendar. No, they are sitting everywhere I look, on every surface, on every floor, of every room. And unless I have a documented fever of 102 or higher, I am always on duty.

If however, your worldview is, "everything in the house that needs doing will get done by magic," or perhaps better said, "by witchcraft," you'll find that it's much more pleasant to go up and down unfettered by shoes, newspapers and bath towels. If you have left work and shaken off your work mood, your home is a haven, a place to put your feet up, a place to rest before the next day begins.

And so, in what I consider to be record time -- only six years of marriage -- I have stopped trying to teach my sweet pig to sing. I have accepted my role as household sherpa and my husband’s role as American Tourist. Lovable, oblivious, a good tipper.

August 01, 2006

Heat, as an entrée to bigger ideas

Kelly Corrigan's column is printed here with permission from The Hills Newspapers.

IT'S GOTTA PASS.

This is what I keep saying to myself as pour another glass of ice water and wipe my daughter’s hair off her sticky forehead. This is what I say as I toss out the three red candles that were too close to the window, the candles that folded over on themselves like playdoh.

But what if it doesn’t? What if this punishing heat is what environmental scientists, and their celebrity-sponsor, Al Gore, have been waving their arms about all these years? Is this what global warming feels like? Does this qualify as “climate change”?

It’s an obvious question. Like a couple million other people, I saw An Inconvenient Truth this summer. Besides being wowed by what Power Point can do these days and wondering if Apple paid to be Gore’s leading lady, I left the theater (the dark, cool theater) as motivated as I have ever been to make changes in our family’s wasteful ways. So far, we’re investigating three things: replacing old windows with double paned, energy efficient versions, putting solar panels on the backside of our roof—the side we never see, the side that bakes in summer sun for eight hours a day—and buying a hybrid.

These three changes have a few things in common; they cost money initially and save money over the long haul, they are visible to others, which helps nudge the country closer to what Malcom Gladwell calls “the tipping point,” and they help us talk to our kids about more than today’s swim lesson and tomorrow’s birthday party. It’s this last thing that really gets me out of bed in the morning.

Our kids are young, just starting school this fall, so we keep it simple. For now, it’s about sharing. Just like at preschool, where there are only so many glue sticks, and so many orange popsicles, we’re all sharing a single set of supplies—water, gas, electricity. So, I explain, when you refuse to use both sides of a piece of paper, or you turn the volume down on your CD player instead of turning the whole thing off, or when you stuff all your clean clothes in the laundry basket after playing dress ups with your friend, we’re using more than we need. At some point, that means that someone else, like some baby trying to nap in Modesto where it’s 113 degrees, might not be able to use her oscillating fan [which means that baby will cry for her hot, over taxed mother and I think we all know that hell hath no fury like a hot, over taxed mother.]

This conversation has the immediate benefit of keeping my bills lower and my conscious cleaner. But better than that by a mile is that this conversation implies that there is a giant world out there, a world that doesn’t go to The Piedmont Pool or to birthday parties at Kids In Motion gymnastics, a world that I so hope my girls become more and more mindful of. Because they can’t make it better if they don’t know it exists.

July 20, 2006

Call to Action from the Retirement Home

Kelly Corrigan's column appears with permission from The Hills Newspaper Group.

I HAVE a friend who’s turning 85 soon. Her family calls her Grandma Bea and, feeling as I do about her, that’s what I call her too. We sat together last weekend, talking about the comings and goings of her retirement home, a veritable Melrose Place for Bay Area widows and widowers. She said the women do well; they play bridge, they cook for each other, they meet at the pool and laugh about their sagging bodies. The men, she said, aren’t as communal. “They seem a little lost” was how she put it.

I nodded. This seemed predictable. Men, in my broad estimation, have a tenth the innate social aptitude of women. Or maybe it’s a tenth the interest. Or a tenth the time. Whatever it is, men don’t fall into connections the way women do. We counsel each other, we confess to each other, we track each other. How many men do you know that keep the social calendar for their household? As far as I can tell, they all defer to their wives, using the standard line: “Sounds great, but I better check with the boss.”

No, men work. And when they’re not working, they’re working out, usually alone. Then they head home, to kiss the boss.

So, Grandma Bea notes, when the boss dies, men find their social muscles have atrophied, leaving them with the same choice corporations face when they find a hole in their product line: buy or build? It’s a crass comparison but stick with me. “Buying,” in the case of the widower, is to find a nice widow who will pick up where the first wife left off. “Building,” always the more daunting option, demands that the widower relearn social skills and establish his own circle of friends.

Which brings me to golf. And mountain biking, tennis, and sports bars. It’s long been accepted that women bond by talking and men bond by doing. Consequently, much male bonding requires special shoes, which tend to be expensive mud-magnets that never quite find a suitable home, but I digress.

Golf and it’s counterparts (henceforth to be collectively referred to as “golf”) are often pooh-poohed as thinly veiled attempts to shirk family responsibilities, mainly because sometimes that’s exactly what they are. Just like the tenth grade field trip that was cancelled because a couple of hooligans tried to sneak a flask of Jack Daniels on the bus, a few self-indulgent men have ruined “golf” for everyone. But for most of the guys out there, “golf” is actually a path to fellowship, the very fellowship that will keep them emotionally alive and connected. So, at the risk of losing some girlfriends, I say here that “golf” is an essential component of a man’s emotional health.

Unfortunately, “golf” keeps fathers from children and husbands from wives for hours and hours on end. “Golf” essentially makes a Saturday just a sixth weekday for women. And, thinking about it from the man’s perspective, “golf” is short-term thinking. See, many of the activities I’m calling “golf” prefer the young. When age walks off smugly with a man’s youth, that man better have a Plan B for staying connecting.
So, here’s my big idea, 533 words into it. How about men start bonding over play dates, as we women have learned to do. I ask, would it be so laughable to imagine men organizing a weekend coffee? I mean, at the very least, they’d gorge shamelessly on the pastries instead of nibbling regretfully, one 15-calorie bite after another, as we women do. The conversation can still cover Barry Bonds, IPOs, Swimsuit Models; it just has to be clean enough to be overheard by minors.

The man play date corrects two flaws in the current arrangement: men practice connecting through conversation, sparing themselves the 11th hour Build or Buy conundrum, and women actually get a proper weekend, sparing them that low level resentment that builds up over decades of “golf.”

Huh? Whaddaya think?

July 06, 2006

Nothing To Do But Laugh


Kelly Corrigan’s column is reprinted here with permission from The Hills Newspapers.


So, it’s almost 10pm. My column was due today and I just opened a new document. I’m 700 words from bed. I had something going earlier today, but then I went to a t-ball game and realized that my column was all wrong.

See, I’d been stewing on this idea about kids and sports. I thought I wanted to write about the drawback of downplaying the differences between ringers and scrubs. As cold-hearted as this may seem, I thought I wanted to question the overt, “everybody’s-a-winner” message of t-ball. The truth is I find it suspect that every player gets a trophy and no one keeps score. The absence of ranking and competition is bound to ring false, even to a bunch of nose-picking five year-olds. Pretending that everyone is the same is a. impossible, b. unnecessary and c. confusing. I mean, just in the last month, my daughter has watched a World Cup soccer game, waited while Dad finished his tennis match, and overheard twenty-some conversations about winning and losing. And then there’s her natural inclination to make a competition out of everything from getting up the stairs to finishing her popsicle.

So basically, what I was gonna say was that kids know when we’re snowing them with Pollyanna lines like “Good try!” Say it ‘til you’re blue in the face but if they just saw the sea of painted faces on the sidelines of Brazil v. Ghana, the know that there’s something big about the ball going in the net. Even at t-ball, they notice that all the adults stop chatting with each other and tune back into the game when a kid hits a ball over the pitchers’ head and they hear us chuckle when a kid makes the ball dribble off the tee by whacking the plastic stand like a frustrated log splitter.

But I just got home from a t-ball game and tossed my draft about all that in the trash. While we may be giving them mixed signals, and that may be hurting our credibility and overemphasizing success in sports in the process, it’d be a sin to overlook the pure joy of t-ball. Honestly, tonight, watching the Indians take turns at bat with the Dodgers, well, I haven’t felt that pure in six months. It was exactly what I hoped parenthood would be when I was a dreamy college girl whose biggest ambition was having my own family.

Sure, a player I’ll refer to as “Number Two” was a natural slugger whose swing made my daughter look like she’d just had a body cast removed. Yes, all the adults scattered around the perimeter of the field sat up when he was at bat, and, yeah, the other kids probably picked up on that energy.

But the most palpable feeling there was joie de vive (and you know I must be serious if I’m resorting to French).

I sat next one of the dads, whose wife happens to be in oral chemotherapy. We couldn’t finish a sentence about doctors, new drugs and MRIs without pausing to laugh at something on the field. During the first “inning,” a kid ran from home plate to second base, diagonally, since the boy on first seemed like he was pretty settled in there and didn’t intend on moving. Then, a batter fielded his own six-foot hit, diving for the ball before the other team piled on. Eventually, the coaches had to intervene. The confused young batter kept saying, “But it’s mine!” My daughter, after her second at bat, did this little booty dance when she got to third base. “I have three!” she called over to me.

There’s time to question how we communicate to our kids about the spectrum of abilities, about winning and losing, about making the All Star team or getting cut from the Varsity, but for tonight, I wouldn’t dare cloud the t-ball experience by over-analyzing it. It was a Technicolor Keystone Cops movie and I’ll go to bed happy, with that old time piano music from Black and White movies bouncing around in my head.

June 20, 2006

The Thing About Acclimating

Kelly Corrigan's column, GRAIN OF SALT, appears with permission from The Hills Newspapers.

I HATE to hear a pregnant woman complain. I mean, think about it; it smacks of thanklessness. Sure, thousands of women get pregnant every day, but others never do. And those others, what they would give for morning sickness, back pain, stretch marks…In the same way, I make a mental note when rich people grouse about their gardener or their roof guy or their painters. A lot of people still paint their own walls, after all, and a garden, in the Bay Area, is a luxury.

I get similarly annoyed when I watch rock stars or overpaid actors or published writers find a way to upend their velvety lives. I wonder what they really have to be upset about, or what they would do under the strain of an actual problem, like disease or poverty. Rush Limbaugh, Russell Crowe, Kobe Bryant – have you forgotten that you are being paid millions of dollars to do what you love?

So, now that you know about my awful, judgmental side, get this:

Last week, I, Kelly Corrigan, a rich person who has a gardener, a painter, and a roof guy, a lucky writer whose first book has been bought by Hyperion for publication, a mother of two merry, untroubled girls, bellyached for a good twenty minutes to my husband about our whining three-year-old and our stalled deck project, the combination of which threw off my writing schedule by two whole days!

There’s more.

After I hung up with Edward, I roared so loudly at Claire (my “vocal” three-year-old) that my throat hurt all morning. That’s right, I said morning. I cracked early. It wasn’t at the end of a long hard day of button-pushing and limit-testing. I was screaming “Stop crying!” at my three-year-old by 9am, after sleeping for eight uninterrupted hours.

The shame.

It is a childish, black and white worldview where riches equal happiness, pregnancy equals bliss, and fame equals satisfaction. I should know better than to demand such, from anyone, including myself. Life is complicated. Many poor people fighting disease are infinitely more blessed than their wealthy, healthy counterparts. But, as a healthy and wealthy woman, may I never stop hounding myself to be more grateful.

The enemy of appreciation is acclimation. Acclimation is a good idea for hikers and mountain climbers, who couldn’t think straight without pausing on the way up to adjust to the ever-thinning air. It’s acclimate or bust for new parents too, who need to survive on less sleep, fewer cogent thoughts, and less carnal interaction.

But often times, we acclimate to things we needn't, like settling into a bad movie or adjusting to five new pounds by wearing jeans less and sweats more. (Inertia and acclimation are good friends, often working in partnership.) But making room for five extra pounds is no tragedy.

Forgetting your fortunes is. Every day, some mundane irritant, some nagging chore, some inconsolable child will jump right in front of us, waving frantically for our attention, and blocking the view to the larger picture. And I guess our job is just to step a little to the right so we can keep our eyes on the spectacular mural.

May 08, 2006

Learning to Riff

Kelly Corrigan’s column, GRAIN OF SALT, appears with permission from The Hills Newspapers and was first published on May 5, 2006.

One of my nearest and dearest friends adopted a baby girl late last year. Her name is Eliza and by all measures, she is perfect. My friend is in heaven watching Eliza unfold. “I don’t know who this girl is, but so far, all I can tell you is that she knows how to get what she wants,” my friend said, referring to the unmistakable communication Eliza has come up with to indicate that her binky has fallen out. (Eliza uses a certain screech that I believe many of us know.) But there was something about the way she said, “I don’t know who this girl is” that struck me as downright respectful, like she wouldn’t dream of rushing to judgment on this girl, like a mother’s job was to sit back and watch her child reveal her nature, lest a mother deconstruct and define her child prematurely (and inaccurately).

I think this wait, watch and listen thing may be a real advantage for adopted kids.

My daughter wasn’t finished her first day before we started ascribing her features and behaviors to various family members. In the maternity ward, the declarations about her having her mother’s eyes and her father’s long toes were a predictable and innocent part of the euphoria, even if they drew the conversation away from the eight-pound mystery before us. We were laying claim to this person we made. We were owning her. She was ours, and every bit of her was a possible reference to someone in our tribe, as if letting her remain a mystery for one more minute was to endure a state of intolerable suspense.

But when my friend held Eliza in her arms, she said something like, “Hi there. It’s an honor to meet you. I’m going to take care of you now.” Unlike women who become mothers over the course of nine months, my friend had not rubbed her belly a thousand times, imagining, anticipating and foreseeing her child. Instead, my friend got a call one Sunday afternoon and 90 minutes later she was alone in the maternity ward, dripping tears onto a day-old baby girl, shaking her head in disbelief and wonder and the very same gratitude any mother feels when she holds her baby against her chest for the first time.

On the long ride home from Eliza’s house, I was thinking about Eliza’s good fortune and listening to an interview on NPR with Bela Fleck, of Bela Fleck and The Flecktones. Bela Fleck, if you aren’t an indie music kinda person, is an inventive musician who is currently experimenting with the electric banjo. Bela Fleck is one of those people that defies definition. The interviewer struggled to label him—jazz? pop? bluegrass? Then it got to the part of the interview where callers join the conversation. The first call was from an upbeat guy named Joe, a big fan of the Flecktones, a jazz musician himself, and a new dad. Joe had a 13 month-old named Miles who was “already banging away at the piano!” Miles’ apparent interest in his father’s vocation was “a dream come true” for his dad, who was actually calling to ask how best to encourage his son’s interest. I got the feeling, from Bela’s response, that he thought Joe might be over interpreting his son’s banging.

My own reaction was empathetic recognition. I know how easy and comforting it is to see yourself--your interests, your talents, your hang ups--in your child. It makes things so tidy. It makes the family match. Diversity might have worked for the Village People and the Spice Girls, but when it comes to families, well, you’ve seen golfers at the driving range with their five year-olds and you can bet I am saving every little story my girls pen as proof that writing “runs in the family.”

Beyond just habits and hobbies, there is the giant matter of heredity. Genetic destiny is a persuasive idea that has made headlines and bestseller lists for years. It is the thing that makes women put off mammograms, because breast cancer is not in their families. It is the thing that undermines dieters who quietly assume that if their parents are chronically overweight, their body-fate is sealed. It is the thing that subverts ambition in kids of blue collar workers and keeps cycles of all types in tact. But lately, I’ve noticed that some researchers think that the idea of genetic destiny is about as reliable as a horoscope, which is liberating news for all of us.

The NPR interview ended with a long discussion of Bela Fleck’s tendency towards improvisational jams. He said rather than sticking to a planned structure, he much prefers to rif off his band mates, just kind of spontaneously respond to who they are at that moment, and what they're doing with their instruments that day. He said he thought playing a carefully rehearsed and pre-defined set of songs they laid out long ago would be a lot less fun.

Play on, Eliza.

April 28, 2006

Idea Du Jour

The more attention you give them, the less they'll demand.

They = your children, your parents, your co-workers, your plants, your gutters, your car, your body, your spouse.

If you consciously dole out attention, on your time and your schedule, you may be less vulnerable to break downs, emergency meetings, and crisis interventions of all types.

The more attention you give them, the less they'll demand.

This one is really working for me these days.

March 28, 2006

Slipping Into Complacency

About a month ago, I had this idea to get all the local school kids to sell Mardi Gras beads door to door, to raise money for the unrelenting frustrations of Katrina survivors. I imagined color-coded giving levels -- red beads cost $10, blue beads cost $50, gold beads cost $100. I found a place online to buy 1,000 beads for $112. I pictured those beads hanging around every neck in town on February 28. I thought it’d be so gratifying for all those kids to look outward together, beyond their Girl Scout troop, beyond their class fund, to make something big and satisfying happen. But I failed to convert the good intention into action. I mentioned it to a few people and then let just enough days pass so that I could say to myself, “You know, to do this right, you’d really need more lead time.” So, you can imagine, when Katie Couric and Jim Lehrer sent their crews back to New Orleans last week, I felt a little disappointed in myself.

As it happened, the day after Mardi Gras, I spent thirty minutes organizing all the cancelled checks, W2s and receipts from 2005 for our tax return. In so doing, I was forced to consider the sum total of our charitable giving, which worked out to be a little more than 1% of our income. We could have given more, I admitted to myself, as I dug my toes deeper into my new Pottery Barn rug, sitting on my new Evolution sofa, tallying up purchases I could see around me and wondering what percentage of our income they amounted to. Maybe, I thought, our annual contributions should equal the total cost of our most indulgent purchases, like the giant TV for the family room and the high-end gas grill for the deck.

Curious about how we compared to others, I read over the first-ever IRS based report on charitable giving. Over a quarter of a million individual tax returns were analyzed and guess what, I was right, we were below average (which, for the Middle and Upper Middle class, was over 1.5% for people age 36-50 and jumped to close to 2% for those over 50.)

Not long after I had put a rubber band around the Tax 05 file and vowed to double our donations in 2006, a woman rang the doorbell. When I saw her clipboard, I rolled my eyes indignantly. In fact, if the girls hadn’t screamed straight for the door, I might have pretended we weren’t home. After all, this was precisely the kind of unwelcome nagging that stopped me from the Mardi Gras bead sale.

Her name was Jesse and as she articulated her cause, I found myself hoping she was making an impression on my girls, who are not exposed to enough Jesses. She explained that her group was lobbying congress to pass a bill that would force carmakers to increase fuel efficiency. After I wrote her a check and wished her luck with the bill, I closed the door. The girls didn’t quite understand the interaction until I explained, “Jesse is a person whose found a problem she wants to fix.” “But Mom, it’s raining,” Georgia noted. “Yeah, but it’s a pretty bad problem and she really wants to fix it.”

It was the perfect storm – Mardi Gras, tax returns, Jesse. And like a good storm, it had a clarifying effect. I want my family to be above average, philanthropically speaking. I want us to live up to my cocktail party bluster. I want to be a family that makes things better. Even if it means ringing doorbells. So darken the front stoop. We're coming.

March 08, 2006

In The Words of Willy Wonka...

Once a week, the girls are allowed to watch a movie, a whole movie. This is a highly anticipated event, possibly more by me than by them, since it buys me two uninterrupted hours, if I can excuse myself for exposing a two year-old to the Wicked Witch of the West's flying monkeys and risk teaching my four year-old Veruca Salt's tricks of the brat trade . Which brings me to their favorite movie -- Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, the one from the 70s with Gene Wilder.

If you can get past the 20 second boat-in-the-tunnel scene where a centipede crawls across a man's face and a chicken is beheaded, and forgive the directors for including it, it's a helluva movie. Not only is it dripping with entertainment value, it also offers a lexicon for parenting that kids instantly understand.

Here's what I mean:

1. All sentences that start with "I want..." are forbodden in our house. All I need say is "Hey, how did Veruca get in here...?"

2. Augustis Galooping, a new verb I am officially putting into circulation, is a reminder to adults and children alike to "save some room for later." When said with a German accent, this is the lightest possible way to communicate that someone is behaving piggishly.

3. Wonka's mysterious reminders have taken on a mythic feeling for me -- the kind of feeling you don't second guess or talk back to. My favorite, just edging out "You should never ever doubt what no one is sure about," is "A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men." I find these bring out the bouncy teenage babysitter in me when I've slipped into Military Mom.

February 05, 2006

Am I alone in wondering...

where the term toe-head comes from?

I can imagine how it came to be that people wanted to pick each other's brains and get each other's goats. And although I can't say exactly why people dress to the nines and go to hell in a hand-basket, it does not vex me. But toe-head has always weighed on me.

Until today, all I've known is that a toe-head is a blonde -- the really white-haired variety -- little kid. [I'm not 100% on this but I'm fairly sure you'd never call an adult a toe-head.]

Well, let the pasta boil over and the kids cut each other's hair! I've finally unearthed the derivation.

For starters, it's TOW, not TOE. This is a crucial revelation, since it shuts down all the foot-related theories I've heard proffered over the years.

And tow, back in the 14th century, was this flaxen, hemp-like material that textile types spun into yarn. So a tow-head is a kid whose head of tousled, white hair looks like tow.

It's not much, I admit, but it's my little gift for today. Tune in next week when I deconstruct cut the mustard.

January 24, 2006

Super Foods

As a girl who used to be a card-carrying schlub when it came to diet and exercise, I feel like I am turning my back on my roots by posting this but hey, cancer changes a girl. (I am all better now but the last year and a half has included surgery, baldness and much cell-zapping.)

I just spent an hour reviewing some things I already knew about food and its relationship to health when my pal Marge called. [She goes by Meg generally, but I like to call her Marge since there just aren't enough Marge's anymore.] I accidentally monopolized the conversation by bombarding her with facts about the Super Foods and their combined power to keep me and my family cancer-free when she stopped me and said, nicely, "So are you gonna send an email to all the people you love and tell them this?"

I was starting to do just that and I thought I could go one better. Here, for the people I love and the people I don't even know, is the Cliffs Notes on Super Foods:

1. The big winner is BROCCOLI, and Broccoli's cousins, Cabbage and Cauliflower.

2. Coming in right behind the Cruciferous stuff is BEANS (including soy). Beans rule in my house so this was good news.

3. Closing out the B run is BERRIES. Berries are fun for all, although kinda expensive, and these should definitely be organic. Those crap pesticides soak right into berries.

4. ONIONS and garlic and chives come next. Apparently, it is NOT necessary to go oranic here. Garlic seems like an easy thing to work into a recipe a day.

5. COLORFUL STUFF, like carrots, melons, spinach, tomatoes. Think rainbow produce.

6. FISH. It seems our friends from the sea come packed with Omega-3s and O3s are, as Beck says, "where it's at".

7. NUTS and SEEDS. So now you have en excuse to toss back a handful on your next trip to the country club.

8. GREEN TEA, and tea in general. We've been making a pitcher a day around here and drinking it over ice with a little Splenda. I've come to love it but I'm a sucker for stuff that's gonna keep the IV out of my arm.

My source is The Cancer Lifeline Cookbook and there's a hundred pages more to tell but for now, this seems like more than enough. xoxo, Kelly

A Little Love for This Very Blog

Parents Press, a montly newspaper for parents all over the San Francisco Bay Area, just picked this blog as the BEST NEW BLOG for MOMS, or something like that. I'd like to thank the academy, my agent, my mom back in Philly...