Monday, December 28, 2009

My Top 10 for 2010

I'm not one to make resolutions. Hence, this is not a "Top 10 Resolutions for 2010". I can't imagine having one of them, let alone ten.

This is more of, perhaps, ten of my "wishes" for 2010. I'm a realist, you see. Resolutions are for optimistic people. I am not one of them. I'll hope for the best, and prepare for the worst.

That said, here is my Top 10 - whatever - for 2010:

10. Better focus. This is probably as close to a resolution that I can get, because it is something I can cognitively work on. Working at home tends to fragment your schedule and I still struggle with trying to manage my time between work, household and kids. Then there's that damn Facebook....

9. An improved work economy. Who doesn't wish for this? I know there are plenty of people out there in a worse situation than I, and my heart truly goes out to them. For myself and those individuals, I pray every day that jobs can be created and maintained... sooner rather than later.

8. More available flex-time opportunities. If you're not aware of flex-time, it is the the ability to be a little "creative" with your scheduled hours if you are indeed working for someone else. Many employers are now implementing flex-time to better enable their workers to achieve a work-life balance. I wish more businesses would see the benefit of flex-time - especially for those in a profession like mine where a 9 to 5 isn't really necessary. And it has been shown that flex-timers have a tendency to work even harder for their employers because of the arrangement.

7. That District 150 will get its act together. Right now, I think that's going to take an Act of God, but hey, I say "bring it". From what I've seen of the near future plans put forth by the District, I'm again not too optimistic. A prominent District 150 voice said to me once that she thought someone should just come in and scrap the whole district and start over. I'm starting to think that may be the only answer. Save our kids, please...

6. Speaking of kids, I pray for a healthy, learning and loving 2010 for my two. My oldest has had a tough go of it this year, but I think we are slowly chipping away at some of the issues enough to see the real deal underneath - a great kid. I often describe my youngest as "just happy to be here", and I hope he can stay even-keeled and resilient to any changes that may come to pass in 2010.

5. That I can get my pre-babies body back. I know, it's completely vain and probably in vain, but I have a 6-month gym membership and a trip to Mexico on the horizon that are both my incentives. The low-sodium diet is certainly doing the trick - now I just have to firm up a bit in those places where nature has been oh, so unkind.

4. That writing exposure = writing success. I've been blogging and freelance writing since I was downsized from a little local agency in late June, but I'm still waiting for that big opportunity. I know I'm a good writer, and I know there are businesses and organizations out there that would benefit by hiring me to be their "spokeswriter". In 2010, I'm going to make sure I find them.

3. Keep the great friends and good people I met and forged relationships with in the past year. This was a banner year for me both professionally and socially. I found for the first time that I actually LIKE meeting new people now that I realize how interesting everyone really is. From the master-carpenter-turned-engineer-turned-chef to the teacher I saw on TV who is now a trusted confidante to the Facebook friends I've never met but make me laugh every single day... I definitely hit the mother lode this year in the meet 'n greet department - and I am so thankful.

2. To help my kids get closer with God. And no, I don't mean having one of my famous "Come to Jesus" family meetings. They're familiar with those. Because I was raised Catholic, I went to church every single school day, hence got to know the Big Guy and his Book pretty well. My kids, not so much. We are Lutheran now, and regular church attendees. My son is taking Confirmation classes, and really enjoying them, but I know he's way behind the learning curve. And my youngest? He asked what that guy's name was with Mary when Jesus was born. Ohhhhh..... my bad. Totally my bad.

1. Peace for me. I know this sounds selfish, but it encompasses a lot of stuff. Peace for me would include knowing my parents are healthy and happy and ready to take on another year with the Talcott family. Ditto to the rest of the clan, who have had their share of trials and tribulations in 2009. I'd like a little financial peace in the next few months as things are starting to get a bit shaky. And though I'm not sure it will ever happen, some peace for my shaky heart would be welcome, as well.

So there you have it. My Top 10 for 2010. Above all, I wish each of you who read my blog and support my efforts a healthy, happy and well-written new year.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Hope and Change

Everyone has change.

Some throw it in old coffee cans, mason jars or any other miscellaneous container they have lying around. The less organized may not have a central location; couch cushions, dresser tops, and pockets are where their coins seem to accumulate. Me? I have a bottle on the top of my refrigerator marked "Wine Money" where I throw my spare silver. (Just for the record, I've never actually used the money for wine.)

So what do you do with all that money once your container is chock-full of change?

A good friend of mine gave me a wonderful idea, inspired by the book "Christmas Jars" by Jason F. Wright. He had been accumulating change for nearly two years, and after reading the book, decided to turn his extra fortune into a life lesson for his young daughter. They took the jar to the bank and walked out with nearly $200 in cash, which they in turn used to purchase needed items for a local Peoria shelter. He set up a tour of the shelter for his daughter and him, and they were able to both experience not only a first-person view of the hardships that some people in our community are going through, but how much contributions such as theirs mean to the organization and the individuals it serves.

Now, in the book, journalist Hope Jensen is devastated when her adoptive mother dies from ovarian cancer shortly after Christmas. Adding to her woes, her apartment is broken into and all of her emergency cash stolen. Hope then discovers that someone has left her a gift - a glass mason jar labeled "Christmas Jar" filled with money. Using her investigative skills, she learns that in recent years, several people have reported receiving these mysterious jars in times of need.

That's an option as well. But I think what my friend did was an important step in nurturing the "giving back" trait that seems to be getting lost in today's youth. It's one thing as an adult to do a good deed just for the sake of it, but sometimes kids need to see how their generosity really makes a difference in order to instill that altruistic spirit as they grow and mature.

My friend has inspired me to replace my "Wine Money" bottle and start a Christmas Jar with my kids at the beginning of next year. Just think if everyone followed suit - how blessed some needy people could be this time next year.

Make your next holiday season full of hope... and change.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

If you have a website, read this. If you need a website, read this.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that websites are one of the keys to good marketing success. Many times, your site is a potential client's first impression of you... what you're offering and how you're offering it.

Many people think they can throw together a website quickly "just to get it out there". But think of your website as a piece of fine artwork; it takes time, research and talent to make it not only professional looking, but user-friendly as well. In addition, there are specific intricacies of a website that - if you know about them - can make it work for you as well as your top salesperson.

Judy Rosella Edwards is making it her passion to help small businesses in the Central Illinois area grow and succeed. She is currently compiling stories about such businesses in the hopes of not only telling our stories, but helping us network among each other. If you are a small business in the area that would like to be considered for a profile, contact her at judy@judyrosellaedwards.com.

I encourage you to read her latest post entitled "Make a New Year's Resolution to refresh your company's website". She offers some key points that are good advice not only to those who need to brush up their site, but valuable information for those who may be looking to create one as well.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Shhhh!!! Be vewy, vewy qwiet.... we're hunting wabbits!

I like bunnies as much as the next girl.

But my friend and I and our kids had a rare opportunity to watch that whole "circle of life" thing take place on Saturday when we participated in - yes PARTICIPATED in - a sport called "falconry".

Falconry is the art and practice of hunting for wild quarry with a trained hawk or falcon. With my apologies to seasoned falconers out there, this is my own, amateur, "birds-eye" view of the whole event.

EZ is a red-tailed hawk, and Jim is her owner. EZ was obviously well-trained and knew where her bread was buttered. She clung to Jim's glove like a needy girlfriend. Jim distributed walking sticks to the kids and instructed them to head out into the field and beat the brush with the intent of flushing out some grub (aka rabbits). If they spotted one, they were to yell, "RABBIT!"

Clever, right?

Give four boys some sticks and send them out into a field and you have, well, four happy boys. They did just that. Jim let EZ go, and she perched in a tree to watch... and wait. Finally, whether it be due to the kids' activity or her own "eagle eyes", she spotted one, and in literally a split second, she swooped down and had her prize.

This was the part I could have done without. Rabbits scream. "Can you hear the rabbits screaming, Clarice?" Yeah, I could. But again, I kept telling myself, "Circle of life. Circle of life. Food chain. Food chain."

Next it was Gypsy's turn. Gypsy is new to the whole "full service dining" thing, which means she hasn't been with her owner, Bear, very long. He placed a small telemetry device on her before he let her loose so he would be able to locate her in case she tried to move on to greener pastures. We flushed out several rabbits for Gypsy, but she was being stubborn. Finally, Bear held up his glove, and after 10 minutes or so of calling for her, ("Hey! Chicken Butt!!") she returned to her owner. More work to be done there, but that's what the training is all about.

If you can get past the whole screaming bunnies thing, this sport is actually quite awesome. The relationship between these hawks and their owners is truly unique. Apparently the falconers wear the same clothes every time they go out so the birds will recognize them. At one point EZ hopped from Jim's arm to his steel-tipped toe, sulking after she didn't get her fill of her kill. These are beautiful, well-cared for birds, and their owners are incredibly knowledgeable and respectful of them. And for all you bunny lovers out there, again, you have to realize, this is what hawks, falcons and the like DO.

This adventure will definitely go down in the Kennard kids' books as one of the coolest things they've done. And hopefully it gave them a new appreciation for nature, the beauty of these winged creatures, and the fact that everyone and everything has to work for its next meal.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Things were heating up at the Chamber this morning!

It may be cold outside, but a group of people today at the Chamber were on FIRE.

Early this morning I attended Speed Networking, an event put on by the Peoria Chamber of Commerce. Basically, it's like Speed Dating (which for the record I have never done). Twenty or so local business professionals faced each other in the conference room, and each of us was given 90 seconds to give our "elevator speech" to the person across from us. After each person gave their spiel, we switched and moved on to the next.

At first I was nervous. As a writer and marketer, I have found it's very hard to describe out loud exactly what I do. But after the first few "speedsters", as I affectionately call them, I hit my stride, and by the end of the hour, I felt like a well-oiled marketing machine.

But what I took away from this was more than just networking. I was truly inspired by the individuals that I met, the challenges that they face, and the goals they are trying to accomplish. I met the CEO of an IT and web management service company who was well versed in marketing, but didn't have the time to give it his full attention. I met a life coach who was amazing at what she did, but said that marketing "made her head hurt". I met a medical professional who struggled to get the word out about the benefits of his practice's services over another.

What has occurred to me before hit me again: We are all in this together. Yes, we are all looking for more work, more clients, better opportunities. But I think in addition to that, we all want to see businesses in Central Illinois grow and succeed.

I felt such a connection with a few of these people today, and I left there with a deep desire to HELP them succeed - not only for MY benefit, but for theirs as well. I think that when people collaborate - whether it is a business and a marketing agency, a patient and a medical practice, or a writer and a client, we all need to see that it is a more than a business agreement - it is a partnership. Each person gets something from the other, but also gives something in return. I WANT to see these businesses succeed, and giving them ideas or helping them with those successes is what drives me to do what I do.

I encourage anyone who is interested in networking to attend a Chamber Speed Networking event. You can find out more by clicking here.

Monday, December 7, 2009

NaCl = Nearly avoiding all the Cuisine that I love

Sodium is my new enemy.

In order to alleviate a small health issue I am having, I have been placed on a low-sodium diet. When the doctor told me to reduce my salt intake to 2,000 milligrams a day, I thought, "2,000 milligrams? Piece of cake!"

Ah, no cake.

Also, no crackers. No cookies. No chocolate. No chips. No condiments. Pretty much anything starting with the letter "c" I can't have.

Armed with my new laundry list of can- and can't-have foods, I spent an hour and a half at the grocery store, reading labels and searching for any sort of tasty, fulfilling, low-sodium food items that I can put in my piehole.

Whoops. No pie, either.

What I found is quite amazing. Those low-fat soups I thought I was consuming and thinking I was so healthy - more than 800 milligrams of sodium in just ONE CUP. Those Healthy Choice and Lean Cuisine cardboard dinners that I've been living on? Chock full of the salty stuff. And that lean turkey lunchmeat? Forget about it. Oozing with the enemy.

Lunch today was a baked potato with I Can't Believe It's Not Butter - spray. I have never "sprayed" my food. But it was tasty - and filling - and salt-free. Dinner will probably be one of these new soups that I bought that were specially labeled "for those with sodium-restricted diets". I'm sure it will taste like water, with a few noodles thrown in for good measure.

I joked with the nurse that asking me to cut out treats three weeks before Christmas is like inviting an alcoholic to a wine tasting. Cruel. But I'll do my best for the next two months and see what happens. I'm thinking if I make it that long, I'll either be very, very healthy or very, very skinny.

In the meantime, in the words of Marie Antoinette, "Let them eat cake!"

Because I can't.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Christmas will not be the end of me this year!

If it weren't for my children, I think I would curl up in bed and sleep through the next month or two. With each passing year, the commercialism and stresses of the holidays following Halloween seem to increase like the price tag of my kids' Christmas lists.

In past years, I pulled out all the stops. The house was decorated to the nines, and involved bins and bins of holiday trinkets, precarious moments on the extension ladder, and more wafting evergreen candles than my nose could take. We (OK, mostly me) baked more than ten different kinds of cookies, played every Christmas CD ad nauseum, and attended every holiday event in town.

By New Years, I was exhausted, crabby and broke.

Lately, I've managed to get a grip on what's important, and have made some changes. Gone are the intricate strands of icicle lights, replaced by a few strategically placed glowing snowflakes. Less is more as far as the decorations are concerned, with many of my "must have" Christmas knick-knacks sitting on Goodwill's shelves. The kids each get to choose one kind of Christmas cookie they can't live without, and we make them together, or not at all. (I send them to Grandma's for those cut-out ones that you decorate with frosting and sprinkles... my kids think she makes them "best" anyway.) Oh, and fighting the mall crowds? Forget about it. If it's not on Amazon.com, you're not getting it.

However, there are some traditions that I just won't part with.

Our Advent wreath has a special place on our kitchen table, and each week we read what that candle signifies. The boys alternate who gets to light it, and who gets to "snuff" if out. They love eating by candlelight, and it forces us to sit around the table for dinner and have real conversations without SpongeBob in the background.

We still make gifts for the family. I have always told my kids that the best gifts are made, not purchased. And we do try to make functional items, like ornaments, pot holders, or picture frames. My favorites were the coasters we made out of ceramic tiles that bore their painted handprints. They have fun doing it, and it helps instill in them a not only a sense of giving, but a sense of accomplishment as well.

We pick a child. Usually it's from a nametag placed on the Angel Tree at our church. I let the kids select a name, and we shop for a few items on that child's list. We talk about those who are less fortunate, and even though they never meet that child or see them open the gifts, I hope they know that they are making a little boy or girl's Christmas brighter with their generosity.

We go to church. Our church, Redeemer Lutheran, has a wonderful 4:00 service on Christmas Eve that they call "Birthday Party for Jesus". It's awesomely kid-friendly, complete with the singing of Happy Birthday followed by cake and ice cream. In addition, we bring a baby gifts to be placed in the manger, which are then donated to a local women's shelter.

We have Christmas as a "family". Granted, I'm divorced. But so far, there has not been a year where their dad has not come over bright and early on Christmas morning to partake in the opening of the gifts. (And for the record, since they've been born I have adhered to a "three gift" rule - since Jesus received three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.) We have breakfast, then they spend a good part of the day playing with their treasures until it's time to go to Grandma and Grandpa's for the family celebration. I am truly blessed that all this is still possible, and enjoyable.

So maybe we don't have all the Christmas goodies we used to, or attend every Santa sighting, parade or other holiday event. But I think I've managed to purge the stuff that makes the holidays overwhelmingly stressful, and kept the important things that my kids will remember - and hopefully make their own traditions - for years to come.

Friday, November 27, 2009

"He's just not working up to his potential..."

My son thinks "outside the box". He always has. I know every parent thinks their child is the cutest, smartest, funniest, etc. But I truly feel my kid thinks differently than a lot of his peers. In fact, if you put him in a roomful of kids and adults, he'd much rather converse with the adults. He's literal, logical, and dare I say smarter than me sometimes.

Blessing or curse? You decide.

In primary school, lessons came pretty easy to my son. He never had too much homework, and any he did have, he breezed through. In fourth grade, he was recommended and accepted into the gifted program for middle school.

I was warned that some students struggle at first because they are used to having the best answer, the first answer, the "right" answer. Now, in a roomful of students that are as "smart" or "smarter" than you are, it's sometimes quite an adjustment to not always be the first to raise your hand.

What I wasn't quite prepared for was the apparent complete lack of motivation that my son would showcase as he fumbled through those middle school years.

I guess I thought that in a school full of kids "just like him" he would feel challenged - would WANT to rise above - would STRIVE to do the best he could do. Not so. In fact, he seems to be reveling in his mediocrity. He's even threatened to flunk out so he can be put in an "easier" school where it won't be so difficult for him to excel.

And the thing is - he knows this stuff. It isn't hard for him. He just doesn't want to do it. I told him it was one thing to be struggling with the material - but he's not. He's just... lazy.

I wonder sometimes where I have gone wrong in his upbringing. I look back to my own and I know for a fact that there was a definite work ethic instilled in me from a very young age. Do it, and do it well. Why have I not passed that on to my child?

I am at the point where I have done everything I think I can do to light a fire under my son. Incentives, punishments, tutoring, coaching, praising, encouraging... my last ditch effort was to threaten to show up in his math class two weeks from Monday if he didn't step it up a notch. Judging from his reaction, that might just be the ticket - this time.

I have told him time and time again that even if he doesn't have faith in himself, I have faith in him. I know he can do this. It's not rocket science to him. He just doesn't feel like it. And yes, I could let him sink or swim - but I tried that, and he sank.

So for now, I'm pulling out all the stops to try to find the magic formula to make my child WANT to succeed. But I somehow feel like that parent that shakes her head wistfully as her 35-year-old son kisses her goodbye to set out on his world tour with his heavy metal band... "He had so much potential!"

Monday, November 23, 2009

Quitcherbitchin!

The mayor of Galesburg has the right idea.

Mayor Sal Garza and the Galesburg City Council have designated this Wednesday as "No Complaint Day."

In addition to helping the city foster positive feelings about the future of their economic development, he says the day is mainly designed to help residents reflect on the good things in their lives, such as friends and family.

We could all benefit from a "no complaint day".

Really, if you look at it, we have it pretty good. Sure, we all have our challenges that we face each and ever day. And I think there's nothing wrong with taking a little time out every now and then to voice our irritations - something I like to call "having a pity party". But like all great parties, at some point, someone gets drunk and falls in the punch, and then it's over.

A friend of mine has made me see this whole complaining thing in a new light. He works a crazy shift schedule, sometimes 70 hours a week. In addition to that, he's taking college classes to further his career, refinishing his basement, and spending quality time with his two children. I don't know on how many occasions I have said to him, "I don't know how you do it." His response? "I'm lucky. Some people don't have jobs. Some people can't go to school. Some people don't even have a roof over their heads, or kids to spend time with. I'm really very blessed."

I know people who constantly complain about anything and everything. Sometimes, it's my own child who seems to find nothing right with his world. I say to him what I wish I could say to some of these other people: if you don't like what's going on, change it. If you can't change it but want to, then ask for help. But sitting here and moaning and groaning about it isn't going to do anything for you, and is only going to irritate those around you.

Again, a little complaining is fine. It's the whole "misery loves company" aspect of our human nature that makes us feel like we're all in this together. But if we can bond together in our angst, let's team up and do something about it.

This Thanksgiving, amidst everything that may be wrong in your life, take a minute to reflect on what's right. You may be surprised at how blessed you really are.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

I'm not a designer, nor do I play one on TV.

I'm getting a little miffed about the apparent blurred lines between "writer" and "designer".

I think I've gone to great lengths to define my skills, that is, writing for a living. But it seems at first meet many potential clients and employers alike seem to equate being able to write with being able to design.

Granted, the full-time jobs I have applied for have been marketing-based, asking for things like:
* developing advertising opportunities, which can involve placing ads in national, regional and specialist publications or on the radio;
* maintaining and building contacts with the media;
* writing and distributing press releases;
* managing the production of marketing materials, including writing and proofreading copy and liaising with designers and printers;
* carrying out market research and customer surveys to assess demand, brand positioning and awareness;
* evaluating marketing campaigns;
* monitoring competitor activity;
* contributing to and developing long-term marketing plans and strategies;
* managing budgets.

Lately, I've found they've tacked on one job requirement at the very end: "design skills". Wait, what? I have a degree in Journalism and a minor in Marketing. Sure, I've messed around with making my own greeting cards, creating fliers for my kids' schools, or perhaps making some "creative" alterations of a picture or two in Photoshop, but design SKILLS?

Bear with me. I understand that times are tight and employers out there are looking for employees who can multitask. But I also know that good writers are good writers, and good designers are good designers.

I gained a new appreciation for this while working closely with a young designer who turned out to become a very good friend of mine. She went to school for design and is extremely talented at it. It's her THING. She and I had many discussions about having our strengths diminished by people who "think" they can do what we've trained for probably half our lives at least. Honestly, it would be like one of us stepping in to an operating room and asking for that "pointy thingy" so we can perform an appendectomy.

OK, well, maybe not so much like that.

I guess what I'm saying is, I don't do many things WELL. But I write WELL. Sure, I could take a couple of design classes (which I think is ultimately what is going to happen) so I can add that "skill" to my repertoire, but I feel as if I am depreciating the abilities and talents of those like my friend who have a passion for it and are truly proficient at it. I would never classify myself as a designer, unless you consider stick figures fine art.

So yes, I will probably break down and try to navigate the world of Photoshop, or InDesign or Dreamweaver. And I may learn how to throw together a website just to say I can do it. But in the back of my mind, I will have my designer friend over my shoulder saying, "I can't believe you're doing that. We TALKED about this."

Writing - it's my thing. Hopefully someday someone will let me do my thing.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The man on the corner

He sits in a wheelchair in his pajama pants and fleece vest.

I've passed him numerous times on my walk as I make the loop up Orange Prairie Road and around the streets that border Liberty Village, a retirement community.

At first, I simply waved, not wanting to be slowed down or distracted from my iPod tunes. This day, he motions me over, and I cross the street to say hello.

"What's your name?" is the first thing out of his mouth.
"Amy," I reply.
"How far do you walk?"
"About three and a half miles or so."

He stares at the Velcro iPod wrap I have on my arm.
"Does that check your blood pressure?"
"No," I reply with a laugh. "That's my music."

We chat for a bit - mostly him, asking me various questions about my trek. I answer, keenly aware that my heart rate is dropping and I need to get back at it. After a few minutes, I leave him sitting there and continue on, but he doesn't leave my thoughts.

A few days later, he's there again. This time, I approach him. "Have you been sitting here all this time?" I joke. He answers, "Tell me more about yourself."

I give him the general,"stranger-danger, Cliff Notes version", but that's not good enough for him. He wants to know everything - am I married... do I have children... what do I do for a living. I tell him I'm divorced with two kids, and a writer, currently "unemployed". He says he's written a few things as well, and proceeds to tell me about a lodge he and his son built up near Princeville for friends and family so they have a place to stay when deer hunting. "I call it 'BuckSnort'," he says. "I wrote about it."

I say I'd like to read it sometime. He says it's in longhand and he needs someone to type it. I offer.

"I'll pay you," he says.
"No payment necessary," I say. "I'd love to read about it."

As we chat, he tells me he was a salesman. "My customers weren't just my customers. They were my friends. I wanted to know about them - their lives." Now in his 80's (I would guess), he's recently had a stroke, and is suffering from lung cancer. He's also had a bout with skin cancer, which is evident when he pulls out a small tube of SPF 55 and offers it to me. He continues to want to know more about me, and it is obvious he is lonely.

"Isn't it funny," he says as we talk. "You have such a life, and no money. I have money, but no life."

I stood there and talked to him for probably half an hour or so - my lowered heart rate and time schedule could not have been further from my mind. I got to thinking - this man has had quite a life, and the stories he must have to tell. He points up the street to where he lives, and I vow to stop by sometime to pick up his essay and type it up for him.

As I walk home, I wonder how many others who are late in life have a treasure trove of stories that beg to be told - to their children... their grandchildren... or anyone else who can appreciate what our elders have gone through in decades past. If your grandparents are still living, do you know their story? What about your parents? Wouldn't you like to know the lives they led, the challenges they faced, the triumphs they experienced?

My mother gave her children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren the greatest of gifts. Before my grandmother on my father's side passed away, my mom took months interviewing her and wrote "Roses in December: Reminiscences of Gladys Talcott". She had 50 copies published and bound in hard cover and had my grandmother sign them all. It's a fascinating, poignant, funny and sometimes gut-wrenching window into my grandmother's life that probably would have followed her to her grave had it not been for my mom's persistence and vision.

I hope to learn more about the life of the man in the wheelchair, and more like him. If you know of someone who is interested in sharing their story, please contact me. I'd love to be the one to tell it.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Hurry! There's not much time left!

For all of you (like myself) who are lamenting the impending doom that is winter in Central Illinois, good news! There are still some beautiful, semi-warm days left. Take advantage of them before they are gone!

Usually by this time of year I've started my yearly winter weight gain, dug out my sun lamp and waited for that seasonal-affective disorder to kick in.

Not this year.

We've been blessed with some pretty awesome days lately, and I'm making the most of them. Here are a few fun things to do when the skies are sunny, the air crisp but not biting, and the breezes still a bit southerly:

Take a walk
I walk the same route about 3-4 times a week. I never tire of it because the landscape is always changing. In the spring, I get to see the budding trees and the geese return to the lake. In the summer, I marvel at how green everything is and how many of the same people I pass that are out doing the same thing. In the fall, my tree-lined route is gorgeous with color. Now, as things start to look a little more barren, my view is extended beyond the trees and every once in a while I catch a deer or two, that at this point are so tame they seem oblivious to the walking traffic.
Have a cookout
We have a little fire pit in the backyard that we used most of the summer. As much as I enjoyed pairing the heat of the fire with the balmy evening temperatures, there's nothing like roasting hot dogs and marshmallows while snuggled up in sweatshirts and sipping some hot apple cider. The kids and I can't get enough of it.

Check out the apple orchards
We made our annual pilgrimage to Tanners this year just the other day - way late in the season. Because of this, we had the place to ourselves, and there was no charge for the playground. The pies were "Buy 2, get one free", so of course, we bought three frozen ones to get us through the dull days of winter. We sampled the apple cider, purchased some donuts for breakfast, and drove home around 5:00 while watching the farmers perform their late harvests by the light of a gorgeous sunset.

Get out in the yard
Sometimes it gets so cold so early I give up and leave it until spring. This past weekend it was so beautiful I just had to dig in and clean up. There's something somewhat therapeutic about raking leaves, cutting down dead plants and closing up for the summer - hoses put away... check. Patio furniture covered... check. Lawn mower drained... check. One less thing I have to do in the spring.

Enjoy these days - sometimes we in Central Illinois aren't always as blessed to have the fall we've had. There will be plenty of days not too far off where we'll be held captive in our homes - either due to cold, snow, or that ever-popular "wintry mix" that you know is on its way.

I know I'm doing my best to hold those days at bay as long as I possibly can.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Altrusa a little-known "do-gooder" in the community


"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

This quote is attributed to Margaret Mead, but it most certainly applies to a small group of women with whom I had the pleasure of visiting as their guest speaker last evening.

The Peoria Chapter of Altrusa, International is comprised of a group of local, distinguished women from all walks of life - some retired professionals, others still in the workforce - all with the same mission: to volunteer their energies and expertise in projects dedicated to community betterment. They promote volunteerism, service, and have a passion for literacy and the general well-being among children in our community.

On this night they were "wrapping up" (no pun intended) one of their fundraisers - selling gift wrap - which netted more than $800 to be used to facilitate a number of service goals including (but not limited to) monetary, literary or other "wish list" items for people and agencies in need.

In addition, bags and bags of hats, gloves and mittens were piled on the table next to them - donations to the kids at Irving Primary, a school that Peoria Altrusa has taken under their wing.

They are also responsible for providing baby's first book to new moms and their infants at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center. Nothing like getting kids on the reading bandwagon from the get-go! These active women also assisted in painting walls at WomenStrength, provide tutoring and assist with at-risk children within the public school system. They are in the process of offering an Altrusa Scholarship through Illinois Central College to assist a single mom or middle-aged woman trying to further her education.

Altrusa is not a new organization. It was founded by Dr. Alfred Durham, a member of Kiwanis, in Nashville in 1917. Record numbers of women were going to work during World War I and Dr. Durham saw the need for a women's civic organization. Mamie L. Bass, who served as the Superintendent of the Women's Division US Employment Services saw a higher vision for Dr. Durham's idea and through her hard work Altrusa became a classified service organization for women in 1918.

Altrusa International now has more than 17,500 members in 538 clubs in nearly every state as well as in other countries such as England, Russia, India and Ireland. They are at heart a grassroots organization that seeks to solve the problems in their own backyards. Inspired by Thoreau, Mamie L. Bass put it best when she said, "It is not enough to be good; Altrusans must be good for something." In fact, their name is an acronym for "Amity, Loyalty, Talent, Reciprocity, Unity, Service and Achievement".

I was honored to be a guest speaker at their monthly meeting last evening. I was humbled to be in the midst of so much talent, wisdom, professionalism and generosity to the community. I would encourage any of you interested in learning more about the Peoria Altrusa to contact Janet Reist at (309)635-0983.

Sidenote: When meeting with Altrusa, I mentioned their need for a website, and they agreed. If anyone is interested in partnering with me for the design side, I'm interested in making this happen for them.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Motivation is the mother of invention...

Unfortunately, sometimes, I'm the deadbeat daughter when it comes to this discipline.

Now I know I'm driven. I'm ambitious. But sometimes it's easy to let motivation fall through the cracks, especially when you're making your own hours like I am.

Take this damn computer. Please.

As a writer, I'm on this thing probably eight to ten hours a day. When I'm writing I'm in the zone, and can sit here literally for hours on end without even paying attention to anything or anyone else else around me. Other times, I'm checking emails, reading online news reports, or Facebooking... when I really should be producing some enlightening prose, combing freelance sites or making contacts.

Working from home has made me less motivated in this house I call my office. I used to be pretty OCD and still (proudly) consider myself a bit anal-retentive. However, I think I've overcome that as I look at my "office desk", otherwise known as my kitchen table when the kids are home. Looking around, I see a pile of unread mail, a grocery list, two freelance books, a huge file folder marked "To Read", a flurry of Post-It notes bearing cryptic phrases that apparently should trigger something important I have to do, a bottle of water from two days ago, some dying flowers and a Popsicle stick. Yep, I think I'm over that OCD.

Not being a slave to a schedule has reduced my motivation to give myself "set" working hours. I still haven't gotten the hang of combining working for myself, single parenting and household labor into a well-oiled machine. My plan - in a perfect world - would be to get up early (earlier than the current 5:45 am), work out, get the kids off to school, work, do a little household stuff, help kids with homework, make dinner, spend time with kids before bedtime, then more work. But somehow if my motivation isn't there for any one of those daily items, my whole day is thrown off.

For instance, there's a 2-1/2 hour window between the time my oldest and my youngest leave for school (ridiculous, I know). Sometimes I'll work during that window, skipping the workout. But if I workout later in the morning, that means a shower around noon. With my son getting out of school at 2:00 (again, ridiculous), my day gets cut short, so I try to squeeze in more work later in the day, which makes dinner nearly non-existent in our house. And though sometimes I can get motivated to work after they go to bed, other times my brain just hurts too much and the couch begs for some serious alone time with me.

Motivation is critical when you don't have anyone telling you what to do. The more I think about it, I wonder if there's a market out there as a "virtual boss" - someone whose job it is to keep all you freelancers and work-at-homers on task. Perhaps that's the only way to make ME accountable for my own time.

I need something... as I sit here at 8:00 at night - in my workout clothes - with SpongeBob SquarePants blaring in the background, because my kids are eating grilled cheese on the trays in front of the TV... again.

Sigh. I guess in the immortal words of Zig Ziglar, “People often say that motivation doesn't last. Well, neither does bathing - that's why we recommend it daily.”

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Happy Birthday to me... I'm 43!!!

So, 43 years ago today I came kicking and screaming into this world. And 43 years later, I'm still kickin'... and screamin'.

As I look back on my four decades plus on this planet, and look ahead to the future, I am decidedly and unusually (for me) optimistic.

Here are a few reasons why:

1. I had heard that when you turn 40, something "magical" happens. My mom said her 40's was the best decade of her life. When I first heard this back in my 20's, I thought she was smoking crack. But when I was approaching 40, I found myself looking forward to it. My teens, 20's and 30's were less than stellar, so it couldn't be any worse, right? Right. It's better. True to my mother's wise words, my 40's seem to be the decade where I am finally starting to figure it out. I'm more comfortable with myself and who I am, I'm aware of my faults and do my best to correct and deal with them, and I'm embracing and accepting the talents that I seem to have held at bay for the past few 20 or so years.

2. I may be ready to have an actual "relationship". To quote that incredibly funny comedian, Dane Cook, I've had my fair share of "relation-shits". In the past year, I have met someone who may have some serious potential (insert "wink" here). And though I don't know where it's going to lead, I am willing and surprisingly able to give it a conscious "go".

3. I'm doing what I love. Sure, this blogging thing isn't paying me a dime, but I somehow feel more fulfilled than if I were to win the lottery. And though I started this with the intent of making it a means to an end - that is, showing employers what a great writer I am and yes, they should hire me - in the meantime, it makes me feel alive in ways I can't explain. I have been writing since I was old enough to spell, but have not had the chance to really make a living at it until now. With my attempt at Kennard Communications, I feel I am finally ready - talent-wise, ambition-wise, and connection-wise - to make this dream a reality.

4. I'm parenting at warp speed. I am a single mom with a 12-year old who kicks my ass every day, and an 8-year old not far behind. I was never good with the baby/toddler years, and find I am truly embracing the fact that my kids are now old enough to enjoy some of the things I enjoy, like being outdoors, traveling, and doing stupid stuff around the house, like dancing in the kitchen or guessing the song artist on the radio. It's an exhausting, frustrating and completely exhilarating time to be a parent, and for the first time I feel like I have grown into this mommy role. No, I'm not perfect - faaaaaarrrr from it. It's a roller coaster, that's for sure, but at the end of the day, I am enjoying the ride.

5. I'm truly blessed by my family and friends. My parents aren't getting any younger, and I am very aware of this. I adore my mom and dad. I also realize that parenting NEVER ends, and they continue to rally for me and support me like they did at every sports and extra-curricular function they attended way back when. Through Facebook, I've re-discovered my brother in New York and his amazing children. My younger brother and I, enemies in childhood, are now the best of friends. And speaking of friends, I've never been one to have an army of them, but I am SO thankful for the few that I do have in my life right now. People like Frandy, Amanda, Tracie, Shannon, Mike, Wynton, Mary and Lauri are a few of the reasons I have a smile on my face, an optimistic view on my life, and a reason to wake up in the morning. They are smart, funny, supportive, and I am so happy that they are in my life.

Every New Years Eve for the past few years, I've written myself a letter - a retrospective, if you will, of the past 365 days. The past few years they've been a bit morose - divorce, a stagnant career, and other issues have made that particular year in review a real downer to read. But this year, I somehow feel that is going to be different. I'm peacefully happy, which is a short statement that I haven't been able to say in a long, long time.

So, Happy Birthday to Me! I'm 43! Here's to a great year ahead, and a big thank you to everyone who has helped me get where I am today.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Why I love Halloween more than Christmas

First of all, let's get one thing straight. I KNOW Christmas - in its essence - is more important than Halloween, for obvious reasons. And if you could take all the crap that has managed to become associated with that holiday and make it go away, I'd be completely on board again. Until then, though, Halloween trumps Christmas in my book.

Halloween is one of those holidays that doesn't really require commercialization. Sure, you have your stores filled with spooky knick-knacks, your haunted houses and your candy sales, but for the most part, it is what it is. The trees are golden, the air crisp, the wind whipping and the moon nearly full. The weather alone creates the perfect aura.

There's very little to want, or to buy. It's all about what is around you. Sure there are the costumes, and if you're creative and don't have to purchase one then more power to you. But half the fun is spending an hour or so at each of those temporary Halloween places in town checking out the funniest and freakiest costumes and accessories. There are no lists to check twice, no cooking or baking involved, and no worries that someone has been left off the guest list.

Halloween even rivals Christmas as far as tradition, which I am a sucker for no matter what the holiday. Every year we make the trek to a pumpkin patch and spend an afternoon carving our creations. We sift through the pumpkin goo and pick out the seeds to roast for a yummy treat. In past years we've "boo'd" neighborhood kids - leaving secret treats on their porches and encouraging them to do the same for someone else.



This year, since Halloween fell on a Saturday, I had the pleasure of watching my two kids bounce off the walls nearly all day. My friend and I had our faces painted at ci|creative then tried to shove some healthy food down their throats before we headed out to trick or treat. As the kids tore through the neighborhoods, I took in all the moms and dads out with their costumed children, the adults sitting around the bonfire drinking spiked (I'm assuming) cider and passing out treats, and the amazing houses that were decorated to haunt. What a great way to have an old-fashioned good time with friends and family.

Halloween to me is one of those "easy" holidays to just have some fun - both adults and kids - with little pressure and very little cost. And even though this year it fell on a Saturday night and there were tons of parties around town, you would not have found me anywhere else than with my kids on this All Hallows Eve. What a treat!!!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Get into the "spirit" of Halloween at ci|creative

What: ci|creative Halloween Makeup Fundraiser
When: Saturday, October 31, 2009
Time: 3:00pm - 9:00pm
Location: ci|creative(space) at the Shoppes at Grand Prairie
Register by Oct. 30 at: register@cicreative.org

Come let some of our local makeup artists give your Halloween costuming the finishing touch.

Emily Rusk and talented others will be transforming kids and adults all day and evening.

Appointments will be taken up until October 30th. Email to register@cicreative.org to get your space and also include what "character" or face you are looking to do. We feel these slots may fill up fast... email early!

Adult Fees will begin at $10.00 for a basic facepaint. Email us with your ideas and needs and we will give you a price.

Be creative! Challenge us!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Wanna get your creative on? (Yes, you have one...)

Through six degrees of separation I have stumbled upon some amazing people and opportunities here in Peoria lately.

One of those people is Amy Lambert and the opportunity is ci|creative.

ci|creative is a grassroots non-profit organization working to strengthen the creative community within Central Illinois.

Before you click away because you don't consider yourself creative, just give me a minute here.

ci|creative's mission is to cultivate resources, opportunity, connections and education to attract and retain the creatives in our community. In addition, they strive to assist those who pursue all things creative by connecting them with other people and organizations who could provide mutually beneficial resources to each other and to the community.

So even if you don't consider yourself a creative person (and we all are in some way, shape or form), you can still be a part of it. As a resource. As a mentor. As an event participant.

Amy Lambert is the driving force behind this venture which was launched just this past March. I have had the distinct pleasure of meeting with Amy on several occasions at the ci|creative(space) in the Shoppes at Grand Prairie. For those of you who haven't been out there lately, it's where the old Kirkland's used to be across from the Holocaust Memorial.

It's called the ci|creative(space) because it is - literally - a space. Artwork, photography, sculptures, wearables and more by local creatives adorn the walls, floor and furniture - artists pay a one-time fee to display their works for a period of time. The space is set up to be mobile - workshops on everything from writing and social networking to open painting and even a "show-and-tell" offer something for every creative, and even those who may not consider themselves one.

At first, I wasn't sure I quite fit in with this group. I can't paint, sculpt, knit, draw, sew, play an instrument or decorate to save my life. But I can write. And that's creative. Plus I've found a little niche - helping the organization get the word out and heading up their new newsletter ci|stories, which will debut in January. Much more to come on this later as I will be soliciting ideas and inspiration for articles, as well as looking for writers.

I encourage everyone who reads this blog to learn more about ci|creative by visiting their website (still a work in progress) at www.cicreative.org or their Facebook page. Make sure you check out their upcoming exhibits, workshops and other events - they truly have a variety of unique offerings and opportunities.

The Board Members and volunteers who are making ci|creative happen are local people that have day jobs, significant others, children and other commitments, yet they see the need for such an organization and are working together to "bring back the creative" to Central Illinois. To have a place - and a (space) like this in Peoria is really quite a coup.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

I don't wish for happiness...

People often think "What does it take to make me happy? What do I need to do to obtain this elusive thing called happiness?"

I think we've got it all wrong.

Happiness is fleeting. It's how you feel on a crisp, fall day when you and your kids are outside playing in the leaves. Two minutes later maybe, one pokes the other in the eye with a stick and they're both in Time Out. End happiness.

Perhaps it's that feeling you get after you've just purchased that flat screen TV you've always wanted and have settled down to watch your favorite football team. Then they lose miserably, and you caught it all in 50" high def. End happiness.

Or maybe it's accomplishing a project at work and receiving big praise from your boss, only to find out the client hates it. End happiness.

Just so you don't think I'm being a Debbie Downer, here's my point. We all seem to search for something that is going to make us happy - and it's usually temporary.

I've changed my mantra - I don't seek happiness, I seek peace.

The dictionary defines peace as "the freedom of the mind from annoyance, distraction, anxiety, an obsession, etc.; tranquility; serenity." To me, this is something that takes much more effort than happiness. And though from the definition you may think it is as fleeting as happiness, peace to me is a trait that can be found whether you are happy or not.

Today I am happy. God has definitely blessed me with many things to be happy about. He's also given me many challenges, some of which make me very, very unhappy. But through it all, I think I've finally found the peace to deal with them, whether I am happy or not.

So know that as you enjoy this beautiful fall day, it's OK to find things that make you happy, as long as when things go south (as they do), you still find that you have PEACE.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What "color" are you? Find out here...

I attended a fascinating workshop yesterday that assigns "colors" to certain temperaments. Real Colors was developed by David Keirsey based on the work of such researchers as Carl Jung and Isabel Myers and Kathryn Briggs (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) to categorize your personality in order to increase your understanding of not only who you (and others in your life) are, but how to learn to communicate with the other "colors" in your life.

You have to pay for the workshop, but here's the gist of it. If you've ever wondered why you are the way you are, why your spouse thinks the way he or she does, or why your kids act the way they do, you can gain some real insight by going through the workbook they provide to find your/their predominant temperament. While some people may lean strongly toward one "color", some, like me, have tendencies to waver between two. And though you can exhibit characteristics of the other "colors" at different times with different people, you are inherently the color that describes you the best overall.

There are four basic colors - gold, green, blue and orange. Here's the breakdown we received between parents and children:

Gold Parents
These parents are sensitive, practical, organized, a good provider, firm, stable, thorough, punctual, dependable, painstaking, conservative, detailed, hardworking, solid, strict, consistent, structured, dutiful, predictable and reliable. They expect their children to pull their own weight and behave in a responsible way. They regard parents as authority figures and think that children should naturally respect and obey them. They feel that providing a secure home environment is their most important job.

Gold Children
Gold Children are neat and organized. They are responsible and usually get their work done before they play. They don't have a lot of ups and downs, and can be counted on. Then enjoy school, follow the rules and respect authority. They prefer structured situations and are often serious about life. They want to be on time, are loyal and faithful. They do not like change. They pay attention to detail, and keeping their rooms clean comes natural to them. They are Mommy and Daddy's little helpers.

Green Parents

Some words to describe Green Parents are: rational, questioning, unemotional, objective, intellectual, modeling, logical, cool, calm, collected, analytical and theoretical. They do not have a "predetermined" path that they wish their children to follow. However, they want them to emulate the attributes that they think are important. They provide opportunities in the home to discuss curious and intellectual topics, and help their children to make well-informed decisions. They find that arguing with their child is unproductive.

Green Children
Green Children see things differently than others. They are curious and have a lot of questions. They need to research their options before making decisions. They don't mind being alone and usually do not talk about their feelings. They like to study things that interest and challenge them, and are easily bored with routine. Things are seldom black and white for the Green Child. They are the kids that are constantly asking "Why?" The Green Child does not respond well to physical punishment and sees it as a violation of their dignity. They may begin speaking in phrases at a very early age.

Blue Parents
These parents are devoted, sympathetic, insightful, compassionate, personal, peaceful, sincere, empathetic, spiritual, sensitive, accepting, patient, giving, understanding, forgiving and true. They are the nurturers who love to talk to their children about their feelings. They avoid conflict and confrontation. They feel that their family can stay close-knit and strong if they talk openly about their feelings, forgive each other and keep communication open. They love to feel cozy and warm in their home, and put the needs of their family before their own.

Blue Children
Blue Children enjoy being with others and are very comfortable talking about their feelings. They don't like conflict, arguments or tension. They make friends easily, and sometimes get in trouble for talking too much. They follow their hearts, respond well to encouragement, and make good and loyal friends. They are charming and people seem to be drawn to them. Blue Children need a great deal of reassurance that they are loved and appreciated by the people in their lives. They have a rich imagination. They have a very difficult time in homes where there is dissent or tension.

Orange Parents
Words to describe the Orange Parent are: generous, impulsive, witty, spontaneous, troubleshooter, optimistic, flexible, charming, willing, reactive, excitable, enthusiastic, easygoing, compromising, persuasive and fun. They enjoy doing fun and exciting things and take risks. They are unpredictable and sometimes a little "off-the-wall". They can be quick to anger when stressed. They don't get too upset when things are not clean or tidy. They use humor to diffuse tension. They are accepting of their children as they are, and want them to do their best in whatever they decided to do.

Orange Children
These kids like to do new things without thinking or planning. They are eager to try new things, and get bored with structured jobs, classes or activities. They need independence and freedom, and find it hard to follow rules and respect authority. They would rather learn by doing. They see life as a game or a party, and are very active. They are not orderly. If they find something interesting, they can be very focused and persistent. However, they have a tendency to lose interest quickly. Orange children need wide boundaries in which to explore and take risks, and respond to reward programs more than punishment for inappropriate behavior.

After working the matrix, I determined that I am a Gold Parent with Green tendencies. My oldest son, on the other hand, is a definite Orange, which tells me VOLUMES about his behavior. My younger son is a true Blue.

There is SO much more to this workshop, and if you ever get the chance to attend one, I encourage you to do so, especially if you are a parent. Not only does it give you insight into your temperament and those close to you, it gives you communication tips for the rainbow of colors that may be around you in everyday life.

For more information on the Real Colors program, go to www.realcolors.org.

Monday, October 19, 2009

When shooting is a good thing...

If you need a photographer, I've got your girl.

The boys and I had a great "photo shoot" yesterday with a talented young photographer, Caroline.

A little background - and irony (that's how my life goes, you know). Earlier this year I was desperately searching for someone to care for my kids during the summer. We'd tried camps for the past few years, and though I enjoyed what they had to offer, both the kids and I felt as if they were somehow missing out on the summer (we have a pretty active neighborhood here).

I had contacted my church's youth minister to see if he could put me in contact with any nice, responsible Christian college kids looking for a summer job. He gave me a few names, then followed up a few days later with Caroline's. I interviewed her, and was sold. I found out later that she was slated to take a summer job out on the East Coast, but was having second thoughts, and really struggling with the decision. My offer couldn't have come at a better time.

Over the summer I got to know Caroline, and she got to know me. She learned a LOT about my boys and stepped up to the task. She was a powerhouse on our volleyball team, the Volley Llamas. And I found out she was a talented photographer and had the pleasure of hearing about her passion and viewing her portfolio.

I've missed seeing Caroline since the summer ended, so when she called yesterday and offered to take our annual fall photos, I jumped on it. I love the casual, outdoor shots, and she had just the place - an old barn in the middle of a cornfield. Perfect.

The photos are BEAUTIFUL and exactly what I wanted. Caroline is such a pleasure to work with - she's easygoing, she knows what works, but she'll also listen to your suggestions. She has a plethora of cool places to shoot, and is always looking for more.

I encourage any of you who are looking for a photographer for that yearly picture of your kids, a Christmas card portrait of the family, engagement or wedding photos (she's done both), senior pictures, or even a group of friends - to CALL CAROLINE. Her business name is Creative Clicks by Cari and the website is www.creativeclicksbycari.weebly.com. You can also check her out under the Facebook page by the same name.

Her portfolio is diverse for such a young talent and the photos are truly amazing. And the best part is that for a flat fee, you retain ALL of the rights to the photos upfront. That's not going to happen with the pricier places in town.

I highly recommend giving this girl a shot for your next portrait. Yes, pun intended.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Are you sick and tired of being sick and tired?

I bet you're sick. If you're not, your spouse is. Or your kid. Or your friend. Or your neighbor. Good God, whatever it is that is going around is spreading faster than a juicy rumor at a coffee klatch.

I would say the majority of the Facebook posts I have read lately go something like this... "My fever is 103, someone shoot me..." or "They say if your child has the flu, keep him or her home for 7 days - are they kidding?!" or "My husband has a cold and he's the biggest pansy in the patch."

Being sick sucks. It rarely happens to me, but I got a taste of it a few weeks ago, and it sucked. As much as you think snuggling under a warm blanket and watching TV shows you would never watch in the middle of the afternoon would be fun, it isn't for someone like me.

I'm better now, except for that residual phlegmy cough that makes people give you dirty looks in the checkout line at the store. But now my kid has it, and he is the poster child for disease drama. It's not like when he was little, and I almost relished him being that "I want to snuggle with my mommy all day" sick. This is, "I'm bored and whiny and I want you to make me something fabulous that will make me feel better" sick that pretty much chains me to the house all day.

Articles in the paper and on the web are sending conflicting messages about "seasonal flu" vs. "H1N1", and how since seasonal flu hasn't gotten to Peoria yet (it apparently arrives sometime later in the year via a special sleigh or Brinks truck), anyone having symptoms mimicking this flu "must" have H1N1. But don't worry, the articles say, just treat it like you would the flu, because it's most likely not going to require hospitalization. Then you turn the page and see that 11 kids have died in the past week from complications of H1N1. That may be a small statistic in the grand scheme of things, but that's 11 kids too many in my book.

With regards to the vaccine, I am torn. Although I applaud the FDA for pushing this out so fast, I'm a little reticent to pump it into my kids' bodies, or my own for that matter. Maybe I'm naive, but isn't there something to be said for our own antibodies? Sure, the classroom setting is a breeding ground for all kinds of nasty stuff, but is this shot really going to be the cure-all? I don't know.

Until then, I guess I'll join all the other anal-retentive moms who are slathering their kids with hand sanitizer and jumping at every sniffle, cough, and temperature reading over 98.6.

It's gonna be a loooonnnggggg winter, folks.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

How to keep a kid organized (aka How to nail Jell-O to a tree)

I may not be the sharpest crayon in the box, but I do pride myself on my organizational skills.

My son is the antithesis of that statement.

This kid has been blowing me away with his smarts, logic and pattern of thinking since before he was old enough to speak. However, at age 12, I am amazed he finds his way to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

I just got a friendly call from one of his teachers alerting me to the fact that he received his third write-up for forgetting his materials for class. She felt the need to call me so I would not be "shocked". HA!!!! You're kidding, right? I could have seen that detention coming from a mile away.

I have told my son from the time he started middle school that while I could not do his homework FOR him, I could help keep him organized. That is MY strength. And because I know everyone's method of madness is different, I promised we would find the best organizational system that would work for him.

So far, he's tried special planners that organize his homework by day, time, subject and priority. Then he switched to a smaller, pocket-sized notebook that he could carry around at all times. He went from having seven notebooks (one for each subject) to two - one for the morning classes and one for the afternoon. He's tabbed all his binders, post-it noted all his homework, and stuck a write-on, wipe-off board in his locker.

Fail.

Part of his problem, he says, is that there is not enough time between classes, and he finds himself rushing so he's not late. This kid HATES to be late - I think it's actually a phobia. But short of micro-managing him to the point where I send him hourly text messages reminding him to keep it together, I'm at a loss.

And yes, you may think it's time to let him "sink or swim". I tried that. He sank. And I'm the type of person who thinks that someway, somehow, there is a solution for everything, and if we just try enough different options, something at some point is going to stick.

Until then, I ask, how many detentions does it take to get through to the head of a 12-year old?

The world may never know.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Postcards from Milwaukee

I had the pleasure of traveling to my old stomping grounds this past weekend in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. While I was excited to meet up with good friends and visit some of my old haunts, I was not prepared for how much I had missed what this city has to offer. Not only did I wax nostalgic at a part of my life gone by, but I found a new appreciation for this town that I enjoyed so much.

Here are some of my musings from Milwaukee:

1. The air is CLEAN. When I first stepped out of the car, I was greeted by this cool, crisp air that just felt, well, CLEAN. I remember my years on the Marquette University campus where, on a good day, you got wafts of Ambrosia Chocolate Factory, and on the bad days, the tannery. And there was always that strong odor of hops and barley permeating from the brewery that seems to be Milwaukee's trademark smell.

2. The city is easy to navigate. OK, so I am well known for not being able to find my way out of a paper bag, but Milwaukee's road system is set up just for people like me. I-94 will take you pretty much anywhere, and the north-south streets are numbered so if you know how to count, you can get from here to there with little or no problem.

3. There's so much to DO. We didn't even scratch the surface of all I wanted to see and show this weekend. We drove straight to the Lakefront and wandered down a beautiful stretch of walkways, marveling at all the sailboats that were out on Lake Michigan on this 40 degree day.

Some highlights:

We happened upon a place right on the Lake called Discovery World, and not knowing what it was, went in to check it out. This is a fabulous, 120,000-square foot facility that includes interactive science, technology and freshwater exhibits, learning labs, theaters, television and audio studios, and fresh and saltwater aquariums. I got to touch a stingray, view some amazing jellyfish, and see the world's largest model of the Great Lakes. We didn't have time to see the whole facility, but you can bet I will be back with my kids to explore it in full.

Next door was the amazingly impressive architectural structure known as the Milwaukee Art Museum. Again, it was too late to take a tour, but just strolling around the outside of the building on this gorgeous day was enough for me.


From there we headed to the Historic Third Ward, where we experienced the Milwaukee Public Market. Kind of like a mini Pike Place Market of Seattle fame, this indoor mecca contained everything from wine tasting and coffee, to fresh fish, ethnic foods and homemade chocolates.

Ready to imbibe in the beers that make Milwaukee famous, we found the Milwaukee Ale House, a large but cozy neighborhood micro-brewery. Now I'm a Guinness fan, but wanted to sample some of their own brews, and the bartender recommended their Sheepshead Stout. I hesitate to say this, but I found it as drinkable if not more so than my old Irish fave.

Which leads me to my next point:

4. Milwaukee is not smoke-free. I guess it never occurred to me, but when I walked in the bar, my first breath filled my lungs with cigar smoke. Looking around, I realized that the no-smoking law had not made its way up north. It never bothered me that much when smoking was allowed in the Peoria establishments, but after NOT having to deal with it for so long, I found it slightly irritating. But I pressed on...

5. Yummy Bloody Marys. With apologies to my favorite bartender at Sullivan's in the Heights, my love for Bloody Marys originated in Milwaukee. When I moved to Peoria and would order one, I would get some tomato mix concoction with a celery stick. Uh, NO. Milwaukeeans do their Bloody Marys right... a pleasing blend of vodka, tomato and spices, garnished with olives, a pickle spear, and last but not least, a shot of beer. The pickle is the perfect complement to the tomato flavors, and the beer takes the edge off the spice. When will the people of Illinois get on board with this?

6. Stop-and-go lights, bubblers, and Packers, eh? Yeah, I had forgotten about the accents up here - the one I used to have and is SO easy to pick up. Milwaukeeans seem to have their own vocabulary, and though at times it does still make me laugh, I find it quite endearing.


7. Hiking is a big deal, and there's a ton of places to do it. We were directed to Lapham Peak, a part of the Kettle Moraine State Park. This gorgeous area has more than 20 miles of hiking trails (and in the winter, cross-country skiing including miles of lighted trails), the highlight being the amazing view from the 45-foot observation tower atop the highest point in Waukesha County (1,233 feet above sea level). Though the trees up here were not at their colorful peak, the view was gorgeous, the trails paved and the scenery unbelievably breathtaking.

8. Milwaukeeans are nice people. We ate breakfast at the Wisconsin Machine Shed, where we gorged ourselves on calorie-laden, artery clogging brunch items and passed on the cinnamon rolls literally as big as your head. But what I noticed not only here but all weekend was the strong sense of family. Large families. Parents, grandparents and kids all eating breakfast together, hiking together, and seeing the sights together. It was really very heart-warming to see that still exists in a town that has the potential to rival Chicago as a bustling, too-busy-to-stop-and-talk city.

I found myself surprisingly happy and content to be back in Milwaukee, and saddened when it was time to leave. But I do know that I plan to return soon. I have gotten into the habit of taking my kids to either Chicago or St. Louis for a getaway weekend, and have completely forgotten about the town that I once called home. Now that I have been back and seen it with older yet fresher eyes, you can bet that it will be the next out-of-town destination on my list for my kids and me.

You know what I mean, eh?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Wise words from a District 150 Board Meeting???

Yes, you read that right. At last Monday's District 150 Board Meeting, one gentleman's voice rose above the fatuous din when he gave a moving dissertation about life today as a teacher in District 150.

As I listened to his speech, my thoughts turned to my own questions about how our children today are raised and treated versus when I was growing up. My initial reaction was to blog to that respect, but after obtaining a copy of Mr. Michael's words, I felt compelled to relay them in their entirety, and save my own retrospective for a future post.

Though the following is quite long for blogging standards, I encourage you to take the time to read through it. He truly makes some excellent points that hit home, and speak to not only the administration, but to teachers and parents as well.

I am anxious to hear your thoughts. Mr. Michael, you have the floor.

"Good evening, and thank you for the opportunity to share my views tonight. My name is Bob Michael and I am a proud graduate of the District 150 school system, having graduated from Calvin Coolidge, Roosevelt, and Manual High School. Believe it or not, my father, a graduate of Lee School, Roosevelt, and Manual, named me Robert Alan Michael so that my initials would pay tribute to the mascot of his alma mater, the Manual Rams.

Some 10 years ago, at age 50, I decided that it was a time in my life to give back to the community and attempt to make a difference in the lives of the young people of this great city. Although I began my teaching career at Loucks Edison, I am currently employed at Columbia Middle School as a physical education teacher, due to the Loucks closing.

I remember quite vividly my first couple of weeks at the helm of my physical education classes at Loucks and it became apparent early on that I was completely unprepared for what I was about to experience. Gone were the days of compliance on the part of many students, as was the concept of respect for authority. This is the reason that I am with you here tonight. My mission is to make you aware of what it is truly like to teach in today’s educational environment… a view from the front lines, if you will.

Decorum prohibits me from telling you of all the vulgarities that have been sent my way over the last nine plus years by many students, by both boys and girls alike. I’ve been called “salty,” “thirsty”, “joe”, “dog”, and occasionally “your ugly bald-headed self.” I realize that whether or not I’m good looking is entirely subjective, but “bald-headed”? I truly have a nice head of hair. Even the simplest requests such as “Please sit down” are often met with a lip smack, an “Oh, my god”, “You get on my nerves,” a low frequency groan, and even an occasional “You ain’t my daddy.”

I literally have to teach my students that the proper response is “Yes, Mr. Michael” or “Okay, Mr. Michael.” With persistence and practice, occasionally my teachings have paid off. I truly understand and appreciate from where many of our students come, but although that may in fact explain their behavior, it certainly doesn’t excuse it. Yet we constantly make excuses for kids rather than teaching them how to behave properly.

In addition, I have been shoved, punched, kicked by students and threatened with bodily harm by more than one parent. In all, this has happened some 10 or 12 times, yet I have been asked to appear in court only once. The other police reports that I have filed have apparently either been lost, forgotten, or simply not pursued.

I had one mother take me to task for calling her son “you” rather than using his name, and as I met with her and my principal, she told me at one point that her husband was going to come to school and “knock me the f--- out.” Once again, I had made a simple request of this young man to please sit on the other side of the gym. As he (eventually) complied, I was able to hear him call me a filthy name. In an effort to get him to speak more respectfully, I told him he could continue in class as soon as he apologized to me. That request was met with another profanity- laced tirade. When my principal got wind of the incident, I was asked why this student was not allowed to continue in the P.E. activities. I stated that he would be reinstated as soon as he apologized.

Unable to get any support from my building administration, I eventually phoned the administration building on Wisconsin, talked to a high ranking official, and was told that the student, in fact, did not have to apologize and should be allowed to be part of the class the next day. Apparently, I was depriving him of his education. He did become, however, educated in the fact that a student can be horribly disrespectful to a teacher and suffer no consequences.

Another time, I had a student say “blank you” in front of the class. I sent him to the office, and as he brushed (literally) by me he made a statement to the effect of “Nothin’ gonna’ happen to me anyway.” Ten minutes later he was back in class with an “I told you so” smirk on his face. Twenty-eight other students learned a valuable lesson that day… it’s okay to cuss at a teacher. What are we teaching our kids?

A few years ago one of my students stole my cell phone from my desk. I was able to retrieve it quickly and the next day was called into the office to meet with her dad. His contention was that since I got my phone back, she should go unpunished. As he stormed out of the room while hurling profanities, he threatened to sue me and the school district as my principal sat speechless.

I could go on and on, but hopefully you get the picture.

Discipline is what I’m talking about here. The longest day of my young school life happened at Roosevelt Jr. High school when I was absent-minded enough to go to school without a belt. I bloused my shirt out over the top of my pants and prayed to God that our principal, one William Burdell “Buck” Smith wouldn’t discover my clothing gaff, a violation that would have sent me home early that day with a call to my parents. “Sorry, Mr. Smith, we’ll be sure that Bob wears a belt tomorrow” my parents would respond. “It won’t happen again.”

Well, I survived that day, and eventually I put an extra belt in my locker, just in case. My behavior had been modified.

Our District in general and some individual schools seem to continually lower the bar in an effort to make kids feel better about themselves. I’ve seen how we can adjust the Honor Roll to accommodate more students, thus rewarding them for sub-standard work. We were told in a faculty meeting once that if a child does nothing that we were to give them a 65%. I guess that a real world application of that premise would allow me to come to school, teach no classes, and receive 65% of my income. That’s a pretty sweet deal, but that’s not how things work.

That has been modified apparently, though, so that now if a student makes even a cursory effort to do an assignment, they are to receive 50%. This latest mandate, it should be known, was put forth by the administration without them being kind enough to extend either the teachers or the union the courtesy of involving them in the decision making process.

In another part of this edict, the grading scale has been lowered across the board ostensibly to allow for more consistent evaluation. For example, previously 93-100% equaled an “A”. It is now 90-100%. Please tell me how this helps kids. I should mention here that studies have shown that over the last twenty years, as grade point averages have remained stable or increased, test scores have continuously declined. In other words the grades are there, but the knowledge isn’t.

Get the picture?

That being said, I’ll submit this to you: today’s kids are no different than they’ve ever been. That should raise a few eyebrows. To paraphrase a quote: “The children of today love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and would rather talk than exercise. Children are now tyrants, not meaningful members of their households. They speak out of turn, gobble up food, and tyrannize their teachers.” By the way, the original quote was attributed to Socrates by Plato a couple of thousand years ago. I maintain that children have remained constant. What has changed is what we allow. Let me say that again… children have remained constant. What has changed is what we allow.

By allowing less aberrant behavior we will be able to once again gain control of our schools. Be mindful, though, that I’m not on a power trip here. I can control my classroom. It’s that I want what’s best for our kids. That’s why I teach. Many of our kids have no boundaries. We can teach them boundaries. Many of our kids lack social skills. We can teach social skills. Our kids have problems with accountability. We can teach them accountability. We cannot, however, teach these important “life lesson” concepts within the current constraints of our district’s discipline policy.

That being said, a wise man once told me “it’s easier to criticize than it is to create.”

Please give us a discipline policy with some teeth. Please empower us, your teachers, to draw a line in the sand and let the children decide whether or not to cross it. And please don’t make the line so vague or so far away as to allow a student to receive over 170 discipline referrals and six suspensions and still be allowed to terrorize the classroom on a daily basis. Yes, I’ve taught that student, and when that same student was given the ultimatum (with two weeks left in the school year) of “one more referral and you’re done for the year” this student, in fact, behaved properly for the remainder of the year and acted as a model student. Some students will still cross the line, and for that reason we need more alternative classrooms.

Recent contract negotiations have involved whether or not we should have a longer school day to increase student performance. For that argument I will offer an alternative. We can help our kids achieve more with a more efficient day rather than a longer day. If each teacher in the district has to spend three minutes per class for discipline, a relatively conservative estimate, then roughly a thousand teachers times six class periods a day times 180 days spend approximately 60,000 hours on discipline. Give us a responsible and workable discipline policy and we will be able to teach more effectively.

A word about P.B.I.S., or Positive Behavior Intervention Support. For those of you who don’t know, part of this program suggests that we give children a sticker or some other token for walking down the hall properly, for example. In other words, we need to reward compliance. Now, I’ve been driving for some 45 years, and not once has a state trooper pulled me over and given me a gold star for going the speed limit. I obey the law because that is what is expected of me. Children need to learn the same.

Yes, today’s kids are being raised, as have the children of the last two generations, under the banner of entitlement. Everybody has to feel good about themselves. Every soccer player gets a trophy. We reward children for coming to school. Well guess what, kids are supposed to come to school. And guess what, life doesn’t reward us for compliance. Extrinsic rewards work for the short term. Intrinsic rewards build character and allow us to be successful in the long term.

In closing, I guess I’m grateful that little Tommy Edison didn’t get a gold star for trying his hardest to invent the light bulb and failing on his first try. He may have in fact given up and we’d be in the dark here tonight even more than we already are."

Monday, October 5, 2009

HELP!!!

The Beatles pleaded for it, Joe Cocker got a little from his friends, and I finally broke down and asked for it.

Help.

I've always fancied myself as the strong, independent type. Who needs anyone? I can do it/fix it/figure it out myself - that's the only way to really get things done, right?

Wrong.

Over the past few months, I've found myself challenged on a variety of levels. This past week, all of those challenges seemed to gang up on me and try to take me down like a sumo wrestler fighting a 98-pound weakling. So I caved. I asked for help.

Funny thing, this "help". I was brought up to count my blessings - to know that no matter how bad you have it, someone else has it worse. And I do try to live that way. But I think at times it often precludes me from asking for assistance, simply because I realize that there are people out there who aren't as fortunate as I am, and who am I to ask for "a little help here"?

Ironically, what I found is that breaking down and asking for help has actually made me stronger.

My son is going through a rough patch right now... and has been for some time. I've read all the books and tried all the parenting tactics but to no avail. Finally, it came to a head this past week, and in complete and utter desperation, I cried out to a good friend, "HELP!"

She did just that - and spent the better part of her day doing it. Her guidance set the ball rolling to further assistance, and though the problem isn't solved, at least now I have a plan of action that I would NEVER have had if I had not asked for her help.

In addition to that, I found myself sicker than a dog this weekend. I haven't felt "right" for a few months, and finally bit the bullet and went to the doctor. I knew it wasn't anything serious, and I felt silly taking up her time with my complaints. The diagnosis? A severe ear infection that with a few days of antibiotics should clear up nicely, and abate my other symptoms as well.

Huh. I may be on to something here.

Professionally, things didn't go my way this past week as well. Passed over for a job I really wanted, at first I just assumed that I sucked. Giving it a little more thought, I sought help in the form of feedback. I received it, and now I know some areas I need to work on for that next interview or freelance job.

Three days ago, I was awash in self-pity, and at the end of my proverbial rope. I had done everything that I could do, and wondered why I couldn't find a solution, come to a conclusion, or discover the answer.

It's because I don't always have the answer.

Sometimes, you have to realize that answer - or the road to that answer - may not come from yourself, but from someone else. And it's not a sign of weakness to tell another person that you need help - it's actually a strength. By opening yourself up to others' ideas, suggestions and thoughts, you gain a new, neutral and fresh perspective on something you may have been drowning in for a long, long time. It's really no different than having a colleague proofread something you've written. You may look at it a thousand times and not see that typo. But for someone reading it for the first time, it might just jump off the page.

Finally, I try to put the shoe on the other foot. If someone asks me for help, I'm usually flattered that they've thought of me in the first place. It makes me feel good, even more so if I actually provide them with some sort of guidance or assistance. So why am I so reticent to ask for it in the first place?

We're all in this together, and we all know something that the other doesn't know. So in the immortal words of the Beatles, the next time you're in a bind, just ask, "Won't you please, please help me!"