Archive for July, 2012

July 22, 2012

A Cool Place to Work

One of my new colleagues shared a video link with me this week. It is a video tour of Scholastic. There are many remarkable things about Scholastic. Probably the most important is that it is very much a mission-driven organization. Unlike any other publishing company I can think of, the culture and the business of Scholastic are deeply steeped in the mission of engendering a love of reading in kids.

The mission expresses itself in many ways. The walls are lined with art form the programs Scholastic sponsors which identify and support arts activities for children. The business itself is completely involved with getting books into kids’ hands and also helping children to read. Scholastic takes very seriously its role and has unparalleled connections to teachers and the classroom.

Scholastic Book Clubs were one of my favorite things when I was a kid. I loved getting the flyer each month and I ordered more books than anyone else. I actually still have a copy of BRIGHTY OF THE GRAND CANYON which has a Scholastic Book Clubs logo on it–and very yellow paper. I was always a huge Marguerite Henry fan.

Of course, working with children requires a sense of fun. That sense of fun expresses itself throughout the offices. The offices are filled with light and color and decorated with the many characters and brands which Scholastic has published over the years. It is a very cool environment.

Every morning I get my coffee in the Red Bar Cafe. I love using the internal staircase to go up and down to meetings. I always see people on the stairs and it is great fun as well as good exercise. I also really love meeting people for lunch by Clifford in the lobby. My office is in the old building. The two buildings really are seamlessly joined. It is a very unique working environment.

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July 21, 2012

Wonderful Ewe

Hoping to inflame me with thoughts of passionate self-expression, Jim sent me the above photo. He thought seeing the source of the object of my desire would be inspirational.

Sure was, I grabbed those needles and cast on immediately. Isn’t that what he meant?

July 18, 2012

Greetings from Cochapata

Ellie returns from Peru on August 8th. It will be a joy to see her. She will have been gone two months and, with few exceptions, she has been out of touch for the entire time. In our contemporary world of Twitter, Facebook, email and texting, it seems even more odd to be “off the grid” as it were for so long.

Happily, last Saturday we did have a chance to hear from Ellie. Thanks to the wonders of Facebook Video chatting, we spent about 90 minutes talking to her and we got to see her at the same time!

It was a sort of mid-term break and Ellie and the other volunteers gathered back in Cusco to touch base, re-connect and get a shower. Ellie said the minute they hit town they went from Starbucks to McDonalds and to virtually every fast food place in Cusco. It was a riotous re-connection with civilization.

Ellie says her family is nice. In fact most people in her community seem to be pretty welcoming. The Peruvians tend to be a bit reserved and there is the language barrier, but overall she said they feel welcome. She is called “Gringita.” I can imagine that with her height and blonde hair, she stands out a bit.

Living conditions in her community are pretty primitive. Her family has a dirt kitchen floor. They do have electricity in the form of one hanging bulb and a tv which receives two channels. Ellie shares a room with the 16-year-old daughter in the family. She said the daughter seems very reserved, but Ellie had launched a charm offensive and was determined to make friends.

Ellie and her two partners take meals with different families to spread the burden of feeding extra mouths. She said the primary diet is potatoes and they have potato soup for all three meals most days. Her host mother was incredulous that Ellie was so inept at peeling and cutting potatoes. After some translation issues, Ellie deduced that her host mother was asking if Ellie had kitchen servants. Well, I suppose she does in a way, Jim and I have both had a turn in the kitchen. I don’t think that’s quite the same. Ellie’s host mother was equally incredulous to learn that Ellie’s father cooked and her mother worked in an office. That is only one small indication of the cultural gulf between the community Ellie is visiting and the culture in which she grew up.

Running water in Ellie’s house is the pump in the yard. There are no showers or baths. Obviously, this limited availability of water impacts many aspects of their lives including cooking, cleaning and washing clothes.

Ellie and her partners teach English in the local school and help their families with their animals. School is only held four days a week and some days the teachers don’t show up. The women tend to leave school early because they are needed tending the animals.  Almost every man in the village is a farmer and they are in the fields all day. The children care for the animals which include sheep. Aside from potatoes and the animals which are raised and slaughtered for food, the diet is pretty unbalanced nutritionally. Ellie said the men and women in the community are all very strong from working so hard, but the high percentage of carbohydrates in their diet makes them a little puffy.

Ellie said it is pretty stressful living in such a different environment, but she also feels she has learned a tremendous amount about how many people in the world live and the tremendous challenges people face who live in poverty, cannot afford to get an education and are basically destined to stay in their villages. This is all quite different from the expectations with which we grow up in our society.

The day that Ellie and her partners were to head to Cusco, they were delayed. Their host family for breakfast had killed a sheep in their honor. Ellie watched it being butchered and then they were served sheep’s liver for breakfast. I asked how it was and her response was, ” After three weeks of potato soup three times a day, it tasted pretty darn good.”

As of last week, Ellie was writing in her journal each day. I think she will be grateful to have this account of her adventure. There are bound to be many events which slip her mind. I am very proud of Ellie’s strength, her respect for the culture in which she now finds herself, her newly gained recognition of the benefits she enjoys in life and her desire to contribute to the world. I think that she will have learned so much in the weeks she has spent in Peru and that it will impact her for the rest of her life. I am both filled with admiration of what she is doing and a little envy.

July 15, 2012

Would You Buy A Burger From This Guy?

Despite the sun squint on his face, this week marked a big step in Peter’s life. This week Peter joined the working world!

After weeks of trying to crack getting that first job, Peter was hired at a newly opening franchise for the burger chain, Smashburger. I have to admit I felt good about his chances at getting hired when Peter reported that he had engaged the hiring manager in conversation. When Peter chats, he is devastatingly charming. When the call came, Peter got the barest details, but he knew when to report for training.

Monday was his first day. Jim and I waited anxiously for Peter to return home after his first day. He arrived home after 10 p.m., but he was upbeat and happy. He reported that only 6% of the beef used in burgers in the U.S. is Angus, but all burgers at Smashburger are 100% Angus. We had to admire his enthusiasm.

Subsequent days have supported this positive situation. Peter reports that he is doing well at work. The restaurant is set to open this coming Wednesday so they are still in training mode, but the set up seems ideal for Peter. Orders are placed at the front register and then diners take a number and sit down at the table. Orders are then assembled and brought to the appropriate table. Peter is working the front of the restaurant so I guess he’ll be taking orders. This is a great situation for him.

Working is a major milestone in everyone’s life. Having a job makes one feel useful, builds confidence and, despite the loss of freedom, gives one a sense of purpose. This is all happening for Peter and it is very exciting. The next big development is getting that first pay check. We can’t wait to see how Peter reacts to having truly earned the first money in his life. That money represents accomplishment and self-sufficiency. We are loving watching Peter reach this stage in his life.

July 8, 2012

A Country Walk

When Jim and I are in CT, we love to take long walks. Most often Dakota accompanies us on our walks. He’ll walk along grinning like a fool. He loves walking along with us when we’re talking. He feels like one of the gang. Sometimes we leave him home. While I love taking Dakota with us, he does tend to dawdle and sniff and sometimes he tries to sit down because his feet get tired. When we walk without him, we can move faster.

One of our favorite walks is up Grantville Road. The short walk is up Grantville to the White House No One Lives In. The long walk is to the end of the road. The long walk is about 4.5 miles round trip, but it features a killer hill. The short walk takes about 45 minutes and the long walk closer to 90.This is the beginning of the walk. Our neighbors, Jim and Sandi, are right next door. We’ve been neighbors for 29 years. Once past Jim and Sandi’s, we quickly hit a hill which is a bit tough when you’re just getting going.

Jim really hates that hill. It is deceptive looking. It is goes on for quite a while.

While we live in a rural area, there is some multi-family housing. Above you see an example of a local condominium. Look closely up high and you will see there are many tenants. We can hear them pecking as we walk along.

We call this the Gifford’s House. The Giffords haven’t lived there for at least fifteen or twenty years, but they used to. It is a very attractive farmhouse. The addition went on after the Giffords sold it. After the Giffords a couple lived there. The woman died about 18 months ago and in the last few months some new people moved in. We haven’t met them yet other than to wave as we walk past.

I am not sharing every house we pass, just the ones we really like.

This house we think of as the Webster’s. I believe Mr. Webster was a Judge. He passed away quite some time ago and now his granddaughter has the house with her family. They are exceptionally nice and have a large garden. They also put in a pool. I think it is the only pool in the area I can think of. It doesn’t really get warm enough to need to swim that often and there are lots of ponds and lakes around just perfect for swimming.

The Webster’s house is also obviously quite old. In front of it stands a hitching post. There is lots of stone around, walls of stone, slabs of stone protecting mailboxes. There is just plenty of stone. At the beginning of the 21st century twice as much land was farmed as it is now in this area. There are lots of full grown forests with stone walls made hundreds of years ago through back-breaking labor as a farmer cleared a field for planting.

A perfect example of both the stone walls and the size of the boulders. Lucky that boulder was on the outside of the fence because nothing was going to move it. These are all souvenirs of glaciers long ago. They carved hills and lakes and dropped much debris as they went. These stone walls are all dry walls–as opposed to walls held together with mortar.

Walking up the road, the sun breaks through the trees. Every time of day has its own show of light and shadows. Sometimes the light slants through the trees, sometimes it seems almost dark in the middle of the day. It is always cool and comfortable walking up the tree-lined parts of the road.

This house, which is quite hard to see, has no one living in it. It belongs to a family who own quite a bit of land up here, but they had a falling out. This house’s owner hasn’t been here in twenty years. It is in worse and worse condition. It sits on a gorgeous piece of property which will one day be sold as part of the woman’s estate. For years, I coveted the property. It has a gorgeous sweeping field and beautiful stone walls. But I finally realized that our property is cozier and our pond more beautiful. I still love to peer at the house as we walk past and wonder what will happen to it.

After the White House No One Lives In comes a giant hill. Heading down the hill isn’t too bad, but the way back up is a killer. The hill goes on forever and at the bottom is Dale Marchione’s place. Dale is an artist and grew up on this farm. They still have sheep and chickens. Dale has a rustic studio in which he displays his art. It is bright and colorful and I very much like it. Dale and his partner, Ben, live in a 17th Century farmhouse with tiny rooms, low ceilings and a giant fireplace. It is quite amazing. A few years ago they turned the farm into a land trust so it will stay farmland forever and their animals are protected.

After Dale and Ben’s place there is just about a quarter mile to the end of the road. There isn’t much else until you get to the very end where Grantville intersects Grant Station Road. Grant Station Road has quite a bit of traffic and the zoning is for small lots. It isn’t that nice.

On the top of the hill at the end of the road sits this log cabin. It was built a few years ago and the owners are still working on the yard and the garage. They have two giant dogs who come running and barking. It is a little unsettling, but they never leave their yarn.

To the right at the end of the road is a very cute little old house. The owners put a metal roof on it and they have a nice yard. It is quite sweet.

At this point there is nothing to do but turn and head for home. After passing Dale’s house, the big hill begins. The photo below does nothing to showcase the long, torturous ascent. Driving down the hill in the winter is also quite un-nerving. Somepeople drive miles out of their way to avoid driving down that hill in January. Retracing our steps along the road and through the woods gives us a chance to see everything from a different angle.

We walk past all of our favorite landmarks. The same trees, rocks, stone walls, houses, and other markers we have passed at least a hundred times over the past 29 years. Some things have changed. There are some new houses, but much has remained the same. We are almost the longest term people living on the road. Jim and Sandi best us by two years. Lots of times not a single car will pass us as we walk along. Those that do all wave hello.

And when we get to the end of our walk, we get to see the most beloved, prettiest house of all.

July 1, 2012

Memories of My Mother

Please play video as you read this post. It is an accompaniment to the text.

Having recently read two books (WILD and Rachael Herron’s A LIFE IN STITCHES) where women wrote of their mothers extensively, I have been thinking a lot about mine.

It is very hard to believe that she has been gone almost two years. As time passes, I feel like I miss her more and more. It feels as if she has gone off on a trip and the more that time goes by, the more I think, “isn’t it about time she came home?” Enough already.

My mother was a pianist. She had studied piano in college. I think she loved it. It is hard to tell. Sometimes she spoke of the hours of practicing and of her choice of piano as a study major with ambivalence. But her piano meant a lot to her. When she and Ferd planned their move into an apartment and out of the house in which she lived for almost fifty years, she was unwavering in her determination to keep her piano. Whether she still sat down to play or not, the piano represented something important to her.

I remember when I was little lying in bed at night waiting to fall asleep, she would sometimes sit down to play. The melodies would drift up the stairs. To this day when I hear DeBussy’s Clair de Lune I travel back to that time and am once again lying in my bed drifting off to sleep as she plays. It is a song that is at once so wistful and haunting and also somehow hopeful. It is a song which ebbs and flows with emotion and truly carries the listener along on a journey.

I think it was a difficult time in her life. As a child, I was oblivious to what she was going through. I knew only that my father was gone. I missed him, but now I can understand that her life was broken. Her heart must have been filled with anger, hurt and loss. My mother once told me that divorce was the best diet on earth. That was much later. Playing alone at night after her children were in bed must have been an attempt at calming her emotions. She must have felt so alone and abandoned as she played. For me, lying upstairs, it was something beautiful.

Another memory hit me this weekend when we were in the country. Sitting in our living room is a black wooden rocking chair. This was a rocking chair my mother refinished many, many years ago. She re-finished a whole suite of furniture in black with gold stencils. It has taken a beating over the years. One arm has a broken piece of wood and it is more creaky with each passing year, but it is the chair in which my mother held my brother and I to read us stories or comfort us when we endured some childhood trauma.  There is nothing like the comfort of sitting in your mother’s arms.

Of course, I was fortunate enough to rock my children in this chair as well. Amazingly, while there was no more comfortable place than my mother’s arms as a child, I found out as a parent that that is one uncomfortable rocking chair especially with thirty pounds in your lap.

When my mother died, we gave her piano to Hepzibah House in Oak Park. She would have liked knowing that her piano would bring joy to children with troubled lives. It was Ferd’s idea and it was the absolute right thing to do. They put a plaque on it with my mother’s name. One of her friends actually was there one day and saw it.

There is so much I inherited from my mother. She had a tremendous love of and sense for color. I think I gained some of that. Certainly I love color. She was both creative and imaginative. I hope that is true of me. She had a style of her own, a wonderful sense of humor. She had mannerisms and expressions that I not only see in myself, I see them in Ellie. When I asked Jim what behavior or trait of mine reminded him of Bobbie, he said, “talk constantly with your daughter.” That thought makes me both very happy and very sad. It makes me very happy to think that there is a direct line between Bobbie, myself and Ellie. Actually, it goes one step further back to my grandmother. The thought makes me sad because I would give so much to be able to pick up the phone and have a good long chat.

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