Archive for the ‘Service’ Category

To Do List

Friday, July 30th, 2010

I’m always looking for ways to improve myself and here in the world of blogging it’s easy to get lost in our heads.  We think lofty thoughts.  We analyze and distill the world around us.  We mull and ruminate and ponder and probe.  But the blogosphere doesn’t always offer opportunities for us to act on all of the thoughts we think and words we write.  So today I’m skipping the Ten Dollar Thoughts and offering ten one-dollar ideas for things we can do that might help us end the day a bit better than we began it.

  1. Open the door.  Chances are that at least once a day (and with only mild inconvenience) you have the opportunity to open or hold the door for someone else.  Do it, it might make their day.
  2. Drink a smoothie.  Most of us don’t come close to eating as many servings of fruits and vegetables as we should each day.  The following recipe contains three full servings of fruit as well as lean protein and calcium.  Put into your blender: 1 sliced banana, ½ cup plain nonfat yogurt, ½ cup plain soy milk, heaping ½ cup frozen blueberries, heaping ½ cup frozen strawberries.  Blend until smooth.
  3. Pick up some trash.  Whether it’s a water bottle or a candy bar wrapper, when you see a piece of trash on the ground pick it up and put it in the nearest garbage can.  You can leave the world a little better than you found it.
  4. Word of the allows you to register for their Word of the Day.  Expand your vocabulary one day at a time.
  5. Take a walk.  Most decent television shows are in reruns right now.  This evening instead of curling up on the couch take 30 minutes and walk around your neighborhood.  You’ll burn some calories, stretch your legs, and maybe have an interesting conversation with a neighbor.
  6. Floss.  There are all kinds of health benefits to flossing.  See for yourself.  Besides, flossing is easy and it only takes a minute.
  7. Go to bed early.  We are getting less sleep than we used to, and there are some important benefits of sleep.  So get some extra Z’s and thank yourself for it.
  8. Pay a compliment. We all feel better when someone says something nice about us.  Say something nice about someone else and know that they’re probably happier than they were before you opened your mouth.
  9. Five Dollars.  Chances are you’ll pass someone today who has fallen on hard times.  If you can swing it give them a $5 bill.  It’s more than most people give and could buy them the first hot meal they’ve had in days.
  10. Be the new kid. Visit a blog you’ve never read and leave a comment.  You will be an unexpected perk in someone’s day.

In My Infinite Wisdom

Friday, June 18th, 2010

Earlier this week Jane posted a challenge to her fellow bloggers: write the commencement address that you would give.  I’ve sat through several commencement addresses, and most of them have been pretty worthless.  The one such address I’ve ever heard that I found worthwhile, or at least thought-provoking, was actually a Baccalaureate address.  I’ve thought a bit about what philosophical brilliance I might impart on young graduates, but after much mulling over I’ve decided that intangible insights are not what we need most as we embark upon the real world.  So, rather than stumble my way through something that would almost certainly be no better than those speeches I’ve heard in my past, I’m providing a list of real-life lessons I think would be most valuable to the new college grad.

The Financial

  • Pay yourself first.  When you sign up for direct deposit at your first job, divert a set amount straight into your savings.  If you never “have” it, you’ll never miss it. 
  • Plan to retire.  Want to work until you’re 70?  If not, put at least 10% of your salary into your company’s 401(k) or comparable plan.  If your employer doesn’t have one, set up a Roth IRA.
  • Credit card debt will be the death of you.  Pay off your credit card every month.  No matter what.

The Practical

  • Buy machine washable clothes.  I’ll never forget my first really big dry-cleaning bill.  I had to pay $90 to get my clothes out of hock and literally cried because it was such a big (and unplanned) chunk of my entry-level income. 
  • Change your oil.  No matter what fancy-pants synthetic oil they put in it.  Even if they tell you it only has to be changed every 7,500 miles.  Change it every 3,000 miles.  It will do wonders for the life of your engine.
  • Don’t go to the dealer.  Car dealerships pad their service tabs with unnecessary services.  Find an independent service facility that specializes in your brand of car. 
  • Exercise.  You may not like it, but your metabolism is slowing down.  Establish a regular exercise routine now and maintain it.

The Personal

  • Meet people.  Rooming with a friend from college?  Great.  But meet new people in the “grown up” world.  Have lunch with a coworker.  Go to church.  Join the Junior League.  Surround yourself with new people and make friends who give you room to grow beyond your college self.
  • Harness your strengths.  We all have strengths and weaknesses.  Rather than spending a lot of time trying to be something you’re not, work on playing to your strengths and working around your weaknesses. 
  • Do things alone.  If you have the courage to do it, outings alone can be one of the most freeing experiences you’ll have.  Go to a movie alone.  Go out to eat.  Sit at the bar and chat up a neighbor or bury your head in a book.  Besides being liberating, it’s a valuable life skill. 
  • Get regular checkups.  You are young and you think you’re invincible.  But regular check-ups, teeth cleanings, and (if applicable) gynecological exams are crucial to long-term health.

The Professional

  • Don’t apologize for not knowing.  More than any other time in your life as a young professional it’s okay to say “I don’t know.” Take advantage of your neophyte status and use it to ask countless questions and learn as much as you can.
  • Don’t be afraid to switch gears.  You don’t have it all figured out just because you donned a mortar board.  If your first foray into the working world doesn’t turn out to be a fit, remember that your career ship hasn’t sailed.  Your entire adulthood is in front of you.  Find something you love!

With that, I would politely sit down and let the kids go out to enjoy their lives.

Once More, With Feeling

Friday, April 16th, 2010

“Once more, with feeling.”

That’s what I wanted to say to the guy. 

It was Wednesday night.  I had just thrown a chicken into the oven to roast and had to pop out to Whole Foods to pick up ingredients for my dad’s birthday dinner the following night.  I had less than an hour to drive to Whole Foods, find the things I needed, and return home in time to take the chicken out of the oven so that GAP wouldn’t have to be entrusted with determining whether or not the chicken was done.  So I was in a hurry. 

I pulled into the parking lot and briskly walked toward the door.  As I stepped up onto the curb I clearly wasn’t paying enough attention.  The toe of my shoe scuffed the corner of the curb.  I thought, “I’m going to stumble a little.  This is going to be embarrassing.”  That’s when slow motion kicked in.  The angle of my torso shifted downward and didn’t come back up.  My purse fell from my shoulder.  My hair flew into my face.  I was about halfway to the ground when I realized this wasn’t a stumble.  I was going all the way down. 

Palm.  Palm.  Knee.  Shin. Hip.  Gale on the ground. 

I sat still for a fraction of a moment.  Damage assessment: scuffs, but no bleeding.  And then, for what reason I don’t know, I looked around.  I saw a guy walking into the store who had clearly watched me bite it on the sidewalk.  With his cell phone pressed against his ear he kept walking.  He was going to try to avoid me!  I gave him a pleading look.  Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I was hoping he would come to my aid.  (When did I develop a Rapunzel complex?)  Instead, in a tone that can only be described as obligatory he said, “Uh.  Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” was the only response I could muster.

“Let’s try that again, shall we?  Would it kill you to feign concern for a woman who just wiped out on a public sidewalk?” was what actually first sprang to mind.  (Actually, my first thought was somewhat coarser.  This unspoken thought only formed after I collected my ladylike sensibilities.)

There I was, feeling foolish and clumsy.  Feeling flustered and a little scared.  And feeling a bit mad at myself for doing something so stupid.  I watch IEP fall down dozens of times each day.  But babies have more padding and a shorter distance to fall.  For an adult (who’s not playing beach volleyball) it’s very unnerving.  And for me, the most overwhelming part about it was loneliness of the whole affair.

Cell phone guy, with his I-can’t-be-bothered-with-your-pavement-wipe-out attitude, was isolating.  I was on my own, and his cool body language made that abundantly clear.  He had better places to be and better people to talk to.  I was a momentary inconvenience in his evening.  And in a moment of need that’s a pretty hurtful vibe to get.

I walked into the store and started meandering among the produce when the tears came.  Not many.  Just one or two.  But enough to make me feel more foolish than I already did.  Crying in a sea of vegetables over a fall that wounded little more than my pride?  Talk about ridiculous.  But it didn’t feel ridiculous.  It felt real and painful and scary and lonely. 

I pulled it together before approaching the butcher counter for my dad’s birthday steak.  The man at the counter was helpful and jovial and took my mind off of my scratched hands and dented dignity.  I made my way through the rest of the store collecting the items on my list.  I returned home in time to take the chicken out of the oven and tell my sob story to GAP, who didn’t seem to entirely understand what was so upsetting to me about the incident. 

I guess the reason I felt compelled to tell this story here and now is in the vein of a public service announcement:  If you ever watch someone fall down on a sidewalk at Whole Foods, run over to them.  Help them up.  Ask if they’re okay, and mean it.  And tell them you know a girl who did the same thing once, and in spite of the humiliation she felt in that moment, wished someone had done the same for her. 

I’m sure there is a deeper message here; something about pride, or service, or the metaphorical stumble instead of the literal one.  But sometimes what happens on the outside – helping someone up from a fall – is every bit as important as the current of meaning and subtext that runs underneath it.

March for Babies

Monday, April 12th, 2010

I’ve never been a big advocate of “causes.”  This is probably a failing on my part.  But for most of my life affinity to any specific cause felt worthwhile, but contrived.  I didn’t understand with particular clarity why this was, but I didn’t question it.  I continued to endorse those causes for which my support was solicited.  But my involvement was always based more on an effort to be a good Samaritan than on personal investment.

With time and the experience it provides, I’ve come to understand the source of my detachment: Youth. 

When we are young our wingspan is small.  We have been fewer places, encountered fewer people, and (happily) been touched by less pain and fewer tragedies.  As we walk down various paths in life our exposure – to joy, wisdom, folly, and pain – increases.  And all of these experiences come with a face attached.  It is that process which takes the abstract and intangible “cause” and makes it something highly personal to which we feel intimately connected.

I wrote several weeks ago about IEP’s rocky start in life, including his admission to the NICU immediately after his birth.  We were among the lucky in that he was full term and has suffered no long-term effects of his neonatal diagnoses.  But not all families are as fortunate.  In the time we spent at his bedside in the NICU we also had the opportunity to see babies whose start in life was much more tenuous; babies born three months early; babies hooked up to tubes and wires for weeks and months, instead of days; babies whose futures could be riddled with lingering health problems related to prematurity. 

Many of you know of Madeline Spohr, who died at seventeen months of age just over a year ago due to complications from prematurity.  I have followed her family’s arduous journey through grief and birth for many months now, and in the process have become aware of the March for Babies sponsored by the March of Dimes.  The March for Babies raises awareness and money to fight the causes of prematurity.

Between my own experience in the NICU, and the intimate details of the Spohr family’s pain conveyed by Madeline’s mother Heather, I have come to feel personally connected to the cause of prematurity specifically, and struggling children in general.  And so it was with both excitement and sadness that I jumped at the opportunity to participate in my local March of Dimes chapter’s March for Babies when a friend of mine suggested it.  It was with additional excitement and sadness that I registered as a part of Team Maddie to honor Madeline Spohr’s beautiful memory. 

Part of me misses the days when I didn’t understand – at a visceral, rather than academic level – how people come to be passionate about various causes.  We become passionate because we have felt pain.  And through our involvement we endeavor to spare others the very pain we have endured.  My experiences and pain pale in comparison to that of many others.  But it is enough to spur me into action.

In two weeks I will join many other parents who believe in this cause.  Some of these parents will march with their children.  Others won’t have that luxury.  I have pledged $300 toward this cause and am eager to see my pledge fulfilled.  To that end, I will personally donate two dollars for each comment left on this post.  If you would like to contribute an additional donation to my pledge, please e-mail me at tendollarthoughts  (at) gmail (dot) com and I will connect you with my donation page.

Damaged or Destined?

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

Young Ted Kennedy and his father.

For the past several weeks I have been (slowly) making my way through Ted Kennedy’s autobiography, True Compass.  He was a man about whom I knew precious little as a child; only by his family name as a young adult; and increasingly by his own reputation into my adulthood.  When his brain tumor was diagnosed in the spring of 2008 I started paying more attention to his history and influence.  My attention span increased further when he endorsed and, throughout his illness, actively campaigned for then-Senator Obama.  When he passed away last August I had significantly made up for my prior ignorance.  But it wasn’t until I read his book that I realized how woefully uninformed I still was. 

As a Kennedy there is clearly a big story to tell.  The wealth and privilege.  The fabled family.  The tragic loss of three brothers and a sister at ages far too young.  The life of public service.  The scandals.  The legacy.  But despite all these things, it was a passage on the 40th page of this 500+ page book that made the deepest imprint on my mind. 

My father’s voice was paramount.  He was never abusive, never wounding toward any of his children, but he had a way of letting us know exactly what he expected of us.  Once, when I was thirteen or fourteen years old Dad called me into his room for a chat.  I must have done something that prompted the conversation, but I don’t remember what it was.  But he used phrases so concise and vivid that I can remember them word for word nearly sixty-five years later: “You can have a serious life or a nonserious life, Teddy.  I’ll still love you whichever choice you make.  But if you decide to have a nonserious life, I won’t have much time for you.  You make up your mind.  There are too many children here who are doing things that are interesting for me to do much with you.”

I returned to that passage multiple times as I made my way through the rest of the book.  I noted the page number on my bookmark so I could easily find it.  I became mildly obsessed with it.  I cannot fathom what it must have been like to hear words like those as a teenaged kid just trying to find some sunlight in the shadow of your overwhelmingly impressive family.  And now, as a parent, I cannot fathom saying those words to any child of mine; particularly at such a tender and impressionable age. 

However, whether or not you agree with their politics, it is difficult to deny that the Kennedys set an unparalleled example of public service in this country.  Given that there have been many wealthier families who did not enter the public sector in droves, I believe it is fair to surmise that it was more than the financial edge afforded by family money that buoyed the Kennedys into these positions.  Clearly there was something about the way they were raised that spurred them to lives of service.  And statements such as the one above made by the senator’s father solidify that suspicion.

Throughout the book Senator Kennedy writes with sincere affection for his father.  But beyond that he writes with admiration that borders on reverence.  His father, along with his brothers, was a pillar in his life whose approval he worked ceaselessly to earn.  And despite the fondness that his words convey, I can’t help but wonder what frailties his relationship with his father suffered due to such profound expectations.     

Ted Kennedy is not the only man to achieve “greatness” whose relationship with his father was strained, distant, or altogether absent.  Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, both George Bushes, and Barack Obama all fit this bill.  And so I am prone to wonder what it was about the way that these relationships affected this collection of men that served as a catalyst for achievement rather than dereliction.  Federal penitentiaries are filled with men whose paternal relationships were equally strained and didn’t take the high road in response.  Where does the fine line reside that separates the damaged from the destined?

I believe in many of the principles that the Kennedy family has stood for, service being foremost among them.  As GAP and I raise our family I would be proud to see any of our children choose such a path.  But at what cost?  Could I bring myself to tell my son that my interest in his life survives only to the extent that I find his choices sufficiently “serious”?  And even if I could bring myself to speak such words (which I proudly doubt), would I want to?  Twenty years from now, as he enters adulthood and the parent-child power dynamic begins to soften, do I want IEP to see me as a dominant figure whose approval he covets?  Or would I rather our adult relationship be closer to friendship; something comfortable we can share and enjoy?

I find Ted Kennedy’s relationship with his father troubling.  I certainly would not be comfortable in it, and I don’t intend to parent in that way.  But I admire Joe Kennedy’s ability to impart the value of service on his children to such a profound extent.  (As an aside, I do not mean to shortchange the Kennedy daughters by omission.  Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded the Special Olympics.  And Jean Kennedy Smith founded an arts foundation for mentally and physically challenged children and also served as the US Ambassador to Ireland.)  However, I aim to find a kinder, gentler mechanism for fostering such values than the blunt instrument of ultimatum. 

As for these men who’ve risen to political peaks (I’m sure comparable examples are plentiful in the business, sports, and entertainment industries as well) I will continue to wonder what aspects of their relationships with their parents drove them to achievement versus failure versus something in between.  And I will wonder if it is possible to find a hybrid version of the same; an emphasis on service and philanthropy, but absent the cost of a dysfunctional relationship.  Is this too much to ask?  Surely these qualities are not mutually exclusive.  Perhaps my naïveté betrays me?  Check in with me in twenty years and I’ll tell you how things panned out.

A Sense of Conviction

Friday, February 19th, 2010

This is the part of the blog where I tell you that IEP was a NICU baby.
Because it was painful and because it is private, I will not provide many details except to offer this:  After 39 weeks of the world’s most routine pregnancy, IEP suffered head trauma during the final stages of his delivery.  That head trauma resulted in a follow-up CT scan, which resulted in a frightening diagnosis, which resulted in his transfer (by helicopter) from the hospital where he was delivered to a local children’s hospital when he was just hours old, so that he could be treated by teams of neuro specialists. 
Our experience was not nearly as dire or dramatic as many other NICU families’.  But it is ours.  And for that reason it has affected GAP and me every day since our son was born.  Some its effects are obvious and tangible, like the months of follow up appointments IEP has had since he came home.  Other effects are subtler and more discrete, like the way in which moments from that day creep into our minds unannounced and remind us of how terrifying it all was. 
I tell you all of this now because this experience is rolling back into our lives in a concrete way and on a regular basis. 
Last fall I spent many weeks grappling with the orbit of my life.  More specifically, I felt that the orbit was too local; local to me, my family, and my friends.  Not to discount their place in my life – they are my biggest priorities.  But I am fortunate.  I have a happy and healthy family (both nuclear and extended).  I have a lovely home and good job.  I want for nothing.  And in living a life that is so blessed, I felt remiss that its benefits so rarely reached beyond the circle of my own people.  I felt that everything I did had a very short radius back to me. 
I spent a great deal of time soul searching over this topic.  I shared my frustrations and concerns with my husband, sister, parents, and a couple of bloggy friends.  I didn’t want to just “pick a cause” so that I could go through the motions of filling a void.  I wanted to add something to my life that was both valuable to others and meaningful to me.  After several weeks it finally occurred to me.  Children’s Hospital is a place very dear to me.  It is the place that healed my son.  It is the place that gave us comfort and confidence when his new and fragile life was in its capable hands.  And it is a place where I can offer a unique perspective as a woman who has walked its hallways as a mother.

This is how it came to be that in November, after a relatively rigorous application process, I was accepted as a volunteer at Children’s Hospital.  On Wednesday night I spent three hours there participating in Volunteer Orientation.  And sometime in early March I will work my first volunteer shift.

During the orientation session we went through important but dry topics like HIPAA compliance.  We learned about the scope of our responsibilities.  We learned how to properly put on a gown, mask, and gloves if we are called to visit a patient in isolation.  We walked past patient rooms where some kids were being rocked by their parents, but others were alone in their beds. 

One boy in particular is burned in my mind.  He is probably slightly older than IEP.  He was sitting in his crib in hospital pajamas, playing with a rattle, and his cheeks were flushed bright pink.  His family wasn’t there.  He watched intently as our tour group passed by and I felt an ache deep in my gut as I was forced to keep walking, rather than turn on my heels back to his bedside.         

The evening concluded with a placement assessment wherein I met with the volunteer coordinator to discuss my interests within the hospital.  She asked why I wanted to volunteer and I told her about our experiences there and my desire to help others whose paths I’d once walked myself. 

I left the hospital with a strong sense of conviction.  I feel good about this.  Not eager.  Not excited.  Not happy.  But good.  In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever started something new in my life with so few doubts or questions.  I know this will be hard.  I know it will break my heart.  But I know that I can help and that this is the right thing for me to do.    

When I got home Wednesday night GAP and I ate dinner together and I told him all the details from my evening.  Then I made a new batch of baby food for my sweet boy.  Then I walked up to his room and leaned over the side of his crib, watching his curled-up body sigh with sleep.  I laid a blanket over him, ran my hand along the back of his head, and walked out. 

When I got in bed I started my prayer and gratitude journal for Lent.  There are many things I am thankful for.  The first two things on the list were:

Children’s Hospital
The fact that IEP isn’t there