Written Acts of Kindness

On Thanksgiving Day, I dragged through the work feeling sad, wondering why bother to connect kids and cultures in my job as an international schoolteacher and ex pat blogger. I suffered from writer’s angst about my upcoming memoir publication. I missed my homeland, friends, and family, including both Big Kids now living in the States.  Like the November weather outside my window, a dense fog settled in my soul. Then I received an unexpected gift – the Written Acts of Kindness Award – from a friend I have never met personally.

Kathy and I took Dan Blank’s Build Your Author Platform Course  in 2011. Now we follow each other all over cyberspace! Kathy is a grandma on the go, retired family nurse practitioner, cancer survivor and inspiring writer, whose strong faith and sense of purpose comes through admirably on her blog site, Memoir Writer’s Journey. She is working on a memoir about the power of hope through her faith in God.Read more

The Great Thanksgiving Hunt Abroad

Ever since I moved to Europe thirty years ago, I have been hunting for Thanksgiving a l’américaine. My first year abroad I invited French teammates and they ate the food in courses, one dish at a time. The next year in Germany, the team turnout was so great, there was standing room only; we never sat down to dine. Another year French relatives replaced the turkey with chicken. Tom Turkey seemed gluttonous even for the hearty-eating French.

Thanksgiving in Normandy, 1984

Thanksgiving in Normandy, 1984

When I was living in Dijon, I invited a Franco American family for what turned into another Thanksgiving fiasco starting with the great turkey hunt. Local merchants explained that whole turkeys are obsolete until the official slaughtering date on December 8th. I finally found a black market butcher, who ordered me a clandestine turkey, smuggled from abroad. I was stuffing the bird when the family that I had invited called to cancel as their child had the flu. We postponed Thanksgiving until Tuesday night since French children have no school Wednesdays.Read more

A Dozen Tips to Endure Back Pain

I am up before dawn to see my chiropractor for the early bird special. With a 7 a.m. appointment, there is no wait; we beat the city traffic, and best of all Le Frenchman can chauffeur me there. For as long as I can remember I have suffered from chronic back pain. The decline began in college when a Big Mama landed on my back on a rebound in a basketball game. After that I walked so crooked that my college roomies tilted the pictures in our apartment to make me feel better. I have tried every treatment that exists, except surgery, and have become resigned to the fact that, okay, my back hurts, but life goes on.

Take one spine; add two herniated lumbar disks, three compressed dorsal vertebrae, four whiplashes and five concussions, and what do you get? One heck of a backache! My bod has undergone a lifetime of trauma. Bad back is an understatement. Yet if you look at me, you’d never know, because I keep on keeping on.

Here is how I cope with a full-time job, cross Atlantic travel and a semi active life.

laying down in Central Park, 1980s

laying down in Central Park, 1980s

  1. Take mini breaks. I have a yoga mat in my office at school; I lay down and stretch in the middle of the day.
  2. Wear tennis shoes with orthopedic soles. If your feet are imbalanced, your spine will misalign. Heels are a big no-no !
  3. Use both sides of the body equally especially when lifting.
  4. Invest in a good recliner and firm mattress to sleep on and a great pillow.
  5. Alternate heat and cold. Sometimes only an anti inflammatory medicine can help the healing process begin as the muscles will become inflamed to protect the injured area.
  6. Find a good chiropractor!
  7. Try a combination of alternative medicine – physical therapy, massage, relaxation and meditation techniques.
  8. Maintain mobility by staying fit – sometimes it is too painful to sit, but usually I can walk without too much discomfort.
  9. If you have acute pain, limit riding in a car. If you do have to travel, stop, get out, and stretch every half hour.
  10. If it hurts to sit, stand, or walk–then crawl. My Swiss chiropractor recommends getting down on « quatre pattes » as the crawling movement is natural before we became upright, back breaking bipeds.
  11. Swim – there is no pressure on the joints and the water soothes the soul.
  12. Find a good partner even if it means going halfway across the world.

    ... and above Mürren, Switzerland, 2012

    … and above Mürren, Switzerland, 2012

When I get discouraged from the pain, I try to focus on someone else’s troubles. There is always a student, a colleague or a friend that is facing challenges far greater than a bad back. Anyway, I won’t be upright forever in my next life, I’ll be a fish.

Who Says Girls Can’t Get Dirty? Dad’s & Daughter’s Bond in Warrior Dash

As soon as I was old enough to walk, I was off running.  Before racing was fashionable for females, I dashed around the block of old East 19th Street neighborhood. In the winter, I ran circular laps around Jefferson, the first round school in town. In Jr. high, the coach let me run cross-country with the boys. In high school, when the law finally mandated equal opportunities for girls, I joined the track team.

Though my running days are long gone due to injuries, much to my delight my niece Marie was a runner. Though she no longer belongs to a team, she still enjoys a good race. Every July she competes in the Warrior Dash, a fun run where 600 runners lined up every half hour from 8am to 5 pm all weekend.

Her dad, Dick, a heart attack and cancer survivor, dedicated to fitness, joined her. After surgery in April to remove cancerous thyroid tumor, his goal was to run the Warrior Dash with his daughters. This type of cross-country run was fitting for his younger daughter, Hannah, a two time state championship rugby player, because it included army crawls and obstacles climbing.

Dick Carlson & John Pupkes coached daughters in team sports

Dick Carlson & John Pupkes coached daughters in team sports

The five-K run set on a ski slopes at Afton Alps Ski Resort in Minnesota was mostly uphill. Every 100 yards, an obstacle including a ten-foot high wall, had to be scaled by rope. Dick, ever the gentleman, sat on top of the wall to help women struggling to swing their bodies over the barrier. Then as soon as the contestants’ feet hit the ground, they crawled under barbed wire through mud.

“It gets tougher as you go cause your body is weighed down in muck,” Dick said, “and your feet slip and slide.”

But for Marie, a recent college graduate, the whole experience is “fun, fun, fun!”

To add to the gaiety, many competitors dressed in costume. At the end of the race, runners hosed off the mess and enjoyed a beverage, which for many was beer. Food booths sold chicken wings, turkey legs and hot dogs adding to the carnival atmosphere.

“Wear old clothes cause you’ll throw everything away,” Dick said, “except your shoes which are donated to charity.”

The entrance fee was $50 and competitors went home with T-shirts, buffalo warrior hats, participation medals, heads filled with pride and hearts bursting with joy.

“This year was better than last cause my friends ran,” Marie said, “ and so did my pops and sister!”

Thanks to Title IX dad coached daughters in soccer

Thanks to Title IX dad coached daughters in soccer

According to the fifty-six year old dad, “It takes a lot of upper body strength to climb over obstacles and the run uphill was much harder than I expected!

But Marie, insisted, “It was awesome! I can’t wait till next year!

If you love to run and roll in mud, check out this site http://www.warriordash.com/ to find the Warrior Dash in your area. Hit the treadmills and pump that iron! Work it this winter, so you can roll with the warriors next summer!

Stop Trash Talking Teachers

“If you can’t get a job, become a teacher. If you can’t teach, teach PE.”

A student told me a joke that he heard from his dad. Teachers get a bad rap.

Too many people see teaching as the fall back venue when more profitable career choices fail. No one ever enters the field for the pay, yet critics argue that overpaid teachers have too many vacation days.

Though poor teaching exists, do not dis teachers in front of me. My grandparents, parents, sisters, sister-in-laws, and many high school and college classmates dedicated their lives to educating youth.

Teachers give back to society with no string attached. My grandparents offered free room and board to athletes unable to afford college tuition, my parents provided meals before and after games, rides to and from extracurricular activities; and every summer, my sisters and I exchange professional development strategies.

teaching in the streets of Obernai (Alsace, France)

teaching in the streets of Obernai (Alsace, France)

Every teacher I know has lain awake at 4 am, wondering how to inspire students to calculate faster, write more accurately and read more comprehensively.

Each year, I learn how to teach another concept, in a new way, with the latest, greatest tech aid. All of which are programmed to DELETE personal contact at a time when society is moving so fast, few have time to attend to the real needs of the next generation of kids. Then once we alter everything, some guru of education develops a new groundbreaking theory that looks exactly like the model we used a decade ago.  In the end, like my mom knows, “everything I need to know, I really learned in kindergarten.”

Teachers may be our last link to kids, who are becoming increasingly more in sync with electronics and less tuned in to human beings.

Teachers are often blamed for society’s shortcomings, from children’s lower IQs and falling test scores, to lack of social skills. When the family disintegrates, the school is expected to pick up the slack by developing the children’s self-esteem and social graces that are no longer acquired in our homes and neighborhoods.

Cushy job? Summers off? Holidays a go-go? Teachers I know give up weekends, work late nights and put in overtime without pay. They do homework, grade papers on weekends, counsel kids during their planning time and coach on weeknights.

How does one measure the value of a good teacher? What test score reflects the life of every child successfully nurtured into adulthood through the guidance of an educator? TLC does not count on appraisals. No one is paid extra for kindness. Yet the teachers, who shaped my life, took the time to wipe away children’s tears, to console troubled adolescents and to stand in for kids when others couldn’t.

Ask a grown child who was the most significant mentor in their lives outside of family members, they will name a teacher or a coach.

My son, a senior at one of the Midwest’s best academic colleges, is studying to be a teacher. Yet teacher’s pension programs are depleted, salaries blocked, and stress levels are at an all time high. I applaud his career choice, for the greater the social instability, economic distress and global strive, the more our world need more bright, capable, caring teachers.

Teachers never get enough credit for the great lengths they go to to motivate kids!

Check this out! The Armstrong staff in a Minneapolis suburban school show support before homecoming, Shaker Heights educators in Greater Cleveland area use ingenuity to teach the Making of a Molecule, and teachers at my alma mater, Sterling High School, step up to stay on beat to the modern day demands of our profession before a Homecoming football game.  Let’s give it up to the teachers for getting down to inspire kids!

Historic Cowsheds in the Alps Transformed to Contemporary Swiss Chalets

Midwesterners head up North to Wisconsin to escape. The Swiss just head up. Second home Swiss chalets tucked in alpine meadows are so common that there is a great migration upward every weekend. So when Cathy, a colleague, invited us to her chalet in the Vaudoises Alps, we couldn’t wait for Sunday.

meadows in the mountains

meadows in the mountains

The adventure begins with the drive to Les Ormonts, a village 1,200 meter high between Leysin, Les Diablerets, and Villars. We wind around hairpin curves carved into a mountainside, where hardy grapevines cling to the porous soil and cows appear to stand on two legs grazing on the sheer slopes.

Cathy and Jan’s chalet was tucked on a ledge in Les Vöettes, a hamlet of chocolate-colored cubes spill across the verdant valley like tossed dice. My friends bought the chalet in late 90s, but it dates back to 1755 when it was a herder’s shed sheltering livestock brought up for the summer. A historical landmark, like most of chalets in the area, any alteration must be approved by the Swiss government.

In the 1950s, the chalet was restored, renovated and expanded, yet retaining the original wood. The facade facing south across the valley from Leysin was a darker brown toasted by the sun. The faded red shutters, nearly 3 centuries old, were as light as cork and like the mushroom clinging under window ledge had turned to petrified wood.  In pots lining the balcony, red geraniums swayed in the late summer breeze.

geraniums on the front porch

geraniums on the front porch

Ducking into their front door was like stepping into a museum especially with Cathy’s antique decor. Three wood burning stoves heated the two-floor chalet in the winter. Even in summer the thick walls with small windows, maintained a temperature ten degrees below the one found outside. A cowbell, old farm implements, an ancient clock, and other antiques hung from the chalet walls. A four-poster bed, armoire, rocking chair like my grandma’s, and other family heirlooms, made me feel like I stepped back in time.

dining room

dining room

At a height of only 5’8, the doorways were made for the small statured people of yesteryear and only Cathy could enter the room without ducking. Both of our husbands had to stoop in the dining room.

On the veranda overlooking the valley, we enjoyed the picnic lunch that Cathy purchased in the village that morning. We savored the regional specialties: freshly baked, brown pull-apart rolls, sliced ham, aged sausage and cheeses, Tomme Vaudoise, a soft creamy cheese stuffed with garlic and a year old Etivaz, and a tangier 3 year old version. Dessert was a thick, creamy yogurt mixed with fresh raspberries.

From their chalet, we hiked up another 500 meters along a winding path. The woods opened up to green pastures where cows grazed savoring their last weekend in the mountains before the traditional désalpe, migration to lower lands. Back at the chalet, Cathy served apple struddle and Jan poured unpasteurized milk, compliments of the neighbor’s cows, from a silver milk jug of yesteryear.

hiking with friends

hiking with friends

The fresh cream, milk and cheeses were as good as those from his Normandy region, Gérald confessed, « But don’t tell anyone. The French maintain strict loyalty to their home regions. »

Then, as the sun began to sink behind the mountain, we bid farewell to Heidi land and followed the caravan of cars snaking down the mountainside toward modern civilization in the cities of Lausanne and Geneva.