Friday, June 22, 2018

Penny For Your Thoughts




One of the most valuable lessons I learned in college was also one of the simplest.

A religion professor once asked me to describe what I would see if I held a penny directly in front of my eye.

A penny, I answered.

What else, he asked?

Probably nothing, I said. If it was directly in front of my eye it would eclipse everything behind it.

Then, he asked what I would see if I took the same penny, taped it to a wall, and looked at it from across the room. I would still still see the penny, I said. But it would look much smaller, and I could also see everything around it.

He was illustrating the ability to keep life's challenges in perspective, an imagery that has always stayed with me.

My favorite kind of people are the ones who don't hold pennies in front of their eyes. Those who are dealt the inevitable challenges of life, but who refuse to be defined by them.

I was reminded of this yesterday when I heard of the passing of of Charles Krauthammer, one of my journalism idols. He was a brilliant psychiatrist, turned political speechwriter, columnist, pundit, and diehard Washington Nationals fan. I devoured everything he wrote and said, following him in print and on television for years

before I realized he was paralyzed.

It turns out, I was surprised to learn, that when he was 22 and in his first year at Harvard Medical School, he was in a diving accident that severed his spinal cord, and left him paralyzed from the neck down. After 14 months in the hospital, and adamant that the accident not define who he was, he returned to medical school and went on to graduate, marry, have a family, work as the speechwriter for the Carter administration, write a weekly editorials for Time Magazine and the Washington Post, earn a Pulitzer Prize, and unknowingly accept me as a member of his fan club.

A severed spinal cord is certainly a penny he could have held in front of his eye, and no one would blame him for it. To quote Cameron from Modern Family, "If an accident does happen, I hope it kills me, because I don't think I would be a very inspiring disabled person."

Charles Krauthammer, on the contrary, once said of his paralysis, "All it means is whatever I do is a little bit harder, and probably a little bit slower. And that's basically it. Everybody has their cross to bear - everybody. It's very easy to be characterized by the externalities in your life. I dislike people focusing on it. I made a vow when I was injured that it would never be what would characterize my life."

One of the best tributes I have read since his passing came from Chris Wallace, who said, "In all the years that I knew Charles, I never heard him express any sense of pity, or why me. He led his life fully, vibrantly. Yes, he was very bodily disabled. No use of his legs, almost no use of his hands, and yet he lived a full life...a life of passion and great consequence."

I'm no Chris Wallace, but wanted to add this simple tribute of my own to such an admirable man. Grateful for what I learned from him about journalism and life, not up close, but from across the room, so to speak, at a distance.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Humpty Dumpty


My dad passed away 16 years ago, but I still consider Father's Day an occasion to celebrate. I plan a favorite dinner and pick out a gift, just like everyone else. The only difference is that instead of the golf balls or guitar picks I used to buy, my gift now is a favorite memory that I take the time to write. 

This is one of my very favorites. 

Dad was a logophile - A lover of words. When I was a girl, he used to teach me "Sesquipedalian Nursery Rhymes" - Classics like Little Miss Muffet or Jack and Jill, that he would translate into sophisticated language, and we would memorize together. For instance, 

Little Jack Honer sat in a corner 
Eating his Christmas pie 
He put in his thumb
And pulled out a plumb
And said, "What a good boy am I!"

Became 

Little Jack Horner was seated in a mutual intersection
Masticating pastries
He inserted his opposing digit 
And extracted a genus prunus
And exclaimed, "How astonishingly precocious!" 

We thought we were so funny.

When I was in fifth grade my teacher, Mrs. Olson, announced one day that for our English assignment we would be using classroom dictionaries to transcribe the words of nursery rhymes into synonymous terms. 

Wait, did I hear that right? My moment had arrived!  

When she finished explaining, I pompously raised my hand and pretended to be confused. I told her I didn't quite understand the assignment, and asked if I could run an example past her. She consented, and doing my best to sound off-the-cuff, I said, "So, like, if we chose, say...Humpty Dumpty, would we write something like.....

And then, just as Dad and I had practiced all those nights at the dinner table, I said, 

"Humpty Dumpty placed his nether portions upon a barricade. 
Humpty Dumpty suffered a descension of an immense precipitation 
The entire standing army, and the retinue of the Emperor 
Were unable to reassemble the outer extremities of the unfortunate Humpty Dumpty"

I can't recall exactly how Mrs. Olson reacted, or when and how I confessed to her the story behind my theatrics, but I'll never forget the moment Dad came home from work and I told him what had happened. I don't think I'd ever seen him so proud, and boy did we laugh. 

This was our bond until the end. When I was in college, my friends and I invented a game, wherein we would go through the dictionary in search of the most obscure word we could find. I would call him on speaker, and if he knew the definition, I won. I was undefeated. Sometimes he would have us in stitches by inventing definitions that were better than the original. When asked to define "gerenuk" for instance (a breed of antelope), he said, "It's a pacifier for old people." 

When Dad passed away, there were three of his possessions I had to keep for myself. 



A crossword puzzle, Six Weeks to Words of Power by Wilfred Funk, and a box of English vocabulary cards. 

Words are the things that help me feel close to him, so more than anything on earth I treasure his collection of thousands and thousands of words. Words to describe every thing and place and thought and experience and human emotion. 

And yet, not a single one that can adequately express how much I miss him. 



Friday, June 8, 2018

Fancy is Fun



I had not planned to publish a post today. The kids got out of school for the summer this week, so there's that, and I've been busy copywriting for a new project, so there's that too. Cal was also in a baseball tournament, and Jack was out of town, and excuse after excuse.

But now here it is, Friday night at 8:36 pm, and it occurred to me that if I don't publish something I will be breaking a 12-week effort to write consistently, which felt defeating.

So, I thought I would drop in briefly and share three thoughts that always motivate me through these types of scenarios. I have an all-or-nothing personality, so it's typical for me to be paralyzed by the idea of doing something haphazardly.

Whenever this happens, I try to remember the following -

1. Done is better than perfect 

I wondered where I first heard this, and according to Google it's a quote by Sheryl Sandberg. I love me some Sheryl Sandberg wisdom, but have a hard time believing she was the first to say it (fake news!). She undoubtedly coined "lean in" though, and I applaud her for it. 

2. Perfection is the enemy of progress

Google credits this to Winston Churchill, which I do believe. I'm not a Winston Churchill expert by any means, but I did see The Darkest Hour. And am not afraid to "lean in" and say I thought it was slow and overrated. 

3. Fancy is fun, but simple is done 

I first heard this from my friend Nanci in Santa Barbara. It's nowhere to be found on Google, so I'm declaring it her original thought. Nanci, you are the best! You also need to file for trademark protection. 

And finally, a quick illustration from earlier this week. 

On Wednesday night, we were at a baseball tournament until 8:00 pm. Jack was out of town and we hadn't had dinner when we returned home and I remembered that Leah's last day of school was the next day, and she didn't have a gift to give Ms. Pettibone. This certainly wasn't a crisis, but WE'RE TALKING ABOUT MS. PETTIBONE

When you have an all-or-nothing personality, there are two options in this scenario:

(1) Drive to Target. Wander for twenty minutes searching for the perfect present, and another ten looking for the perfect greeting card. Drop by Bath an Body Works afterward, just to be sure there isn't something better. Spend a half hour composing a letter that adequately expresses my gratitude, and another twenty minutes helping Leah make an elaborate homemade card of her own. Wrap the gift, arrange for a town parade in Ms. Pettibone's honor, including fireworks, write an essay nominating her for Presidential Medal of Freedom, finish and go to bed at 4:00 am. 

(2) Do nothing. 

It's times like these when the three above quotes came in handy. Perfection is the enemy of progress Katie! Fancy is fun, but simple is done! Done is better than perfect. Sheryl Sandberg said so herself. 

So instead, I took Leah down the road to my sister's to raid her craft supplies and creative mind. She gave us shrinky dink paper, picked up a chain from Michael's, and twenty minutes and $3.00 later we had this. 


Leah was so proud, and we were in bed by 9:30. 

Speaking of which. My inclination at this point is to attempt some type of clever conclusion, but am instead going to follow my own advice. 

This post is done. 

Friday, June 1, 2018

Look at Yourself





My parents, bless them, had three teenage daughters at once.

When I turned 13, my sisters were 15 and 17.  We shared clothes, friends, inside jokes, an older brother, and a bathroom. And in that bathroom, we shared VervĂ© perfume, Paul Mitchell hairspray, Avon makeup, and a Nike ad.

The ad was placed there by our mom. She had torn it from a magazine and taped to our mirror. It featured a woman in Nike leggings and a tank top, running alone down a wooded path, and across the top it read:

I believe that if you can look at yourself and see what is right, instead of what is wrong, that is the true mark of a healthy individual

From my freshman year until I left for college, this quote stared back at me every time I looked in that mirror.

Four years of waking up at 5:00 am for early morning seminary. Four years of transitioning through adolescence and navigating precarious teenage relationships. Making new friends, losing old ones. Dating, breaking up. Four years of testing boundaries, developing a sense of autonomy and dealing with teenage insecurities. Braces, breakouts, perms and unflattering trends. Four years of high school tryouts and elections with all of their inherent vulnerabilities. Of summer camps, first jobs, and college applications. Four years of both achievements and rejections, underscored by all the emotion of leaving behind my childhood.

Four years.

Look at yourself.

See what is right.

Instead of what is wrong.

I'm no biologist, but I think there are times in our lives that our brains visit neurological tattoo parlors. Certain phrases and life lessons we pick up along the way are permanently etched in our minds, in scrolling fonts and sometimes with iconic symbols like bleeding hearts, angel wings, roman numerals or Smokey the Bear's face (a childhood story for another day).

That Nike ad is tattooed in my mind, with the image of the woman running alone down a wooded path. It's not a concept I've perfected by any means, but it has been a significant contributing factor to my happiness. After reading it, over and over, for four formative years, my brain seems to understand that my emotions aren't dependent on my circumstances, but are instead shaped by my perspective.

Am I self-conscious of my worst features, or proud of my best ones?

Do I focus my energy on people who don't accept me, or count my blessings for the ones who do?

Should I mutter about the messes and unfinished projects in my home, or delight at the sight of the paintings I have hung, and evidence of a thriving family?

Do I complain about our student loans, or am I grateful for our education?

Bemoan the division in our country, or celebrate the freedom to disagree?

Indulge in self-pity over my child's deficiencies, or pride in her accomplishments?

I think that the true mark of a healthy individual, according to Nike in the 90's, is worth some reflection. Perhaps the one your teenage daughter sees in the mirror.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Toss Your Hats and Your Heroes





Next week is high school graduation here in Utah, and also for my niece in California.

This has prompted me to consider what advice I could offer the Class of 2018, should they ask, and I decided if the opportunity presented itself I would begin by telling them about Joe Paterno.

Joe Paterno, as they may not be aware, was head coach of the Penn State football team for 46 years, and is the second winningest coach in college football history.  In 2001, a 7-foot bronze statue of him was unveiled at Beaver Stadium in recognition of his contributions to the university and because, well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Ten years later, in light of his involvement in the Penn State child sex abuse scandal, the statue was removed, and replaced by trees. The lesson? Don't erect a 7-foot bronze statue in someone's honor while they are alive, and still have a chance to prove you wrong.

I learned my own Joe Paterno lesson in 1993. At the time, I was finishing 8th grade and asked to give the commencement address at the Copperwood Elementary School graduation. My speech, like Joe's statue, seemed like a good idea at the time.

Here is the introduction to it, which I excerpted from what was then my favorite book by Dan Clark. Keep reading until the end. The end is the best part.

-------------------------------------
"In 1957, a ten-year old boy in California set a goal. At the time, Jim Brown was the greatest running back ever to play pro football, and this tall, skinny boy wanted his autograph. In order to accomplish his goal, the young boy had to overcome some obstacles.

He grew up in the ghetto, he never got enough to eat. Malnutrition took its toll, and a disease called rickets forced him to wear steel splints to support his skinny, bowed-out legs. He had no money to buy a ticket to get into the game so he waited patiently near the locker room until the game ended and Jim Brown left the field. He politely asked Brown for his autograph. As Brown signed, the boy explained, "Mr. Brown, I have your picture on my wall. I know you hold all the records. You're my idol."

Brown smiled and began to leave, but the young boy wasn't finished. He proclaimed, "Mr. Brown, one day I'm going to break every record you hold!" Brown was impressed and asked, "What is your name, son?"

The boy replied, "Orenthal James. My friends call me O.J."

O.J. Simpson went on to break all but three of the rushing records held by Jim brown before injuries shortened his football career. Goal setting is the strongest force for human motivation. Set a goal and make it come true."

-----------------------------------------

Ah, my hero.

Susan B. Anthony? No. Martin Luther King? Nope. Sandra Day O'Connor? Keep guessing!

Oh I don't know...the first woman in space??

No sir! MY hero was OJ Simpson.

A year after I gave that speech, on a blazing hot day in June, I returned home from summer camp to find my family glued to a white Bronco chase on TV. In the backseat of that Bronco, I was told, was my hero, having been accused of murdering his ex-wife and her companion. A year and a half after that, sitting in the back row of a portable classroom at Ironwood High School, I watched as his verdict was read, and heard an outcry of reaction from the diverse group of students around me.

Thirteen years to the day after that, while my two young children played in the next room, I read on The Drudge Report that he had been found guilty of twelve counts of robbery and kidnapping, and sentenced to a minimum of 9 years in prison.

He was my hero. Until he wasn't.

In light of this turn of events,  I would like to offer the Copperwood Elementary School Class of 1993 the following addendum to my commencement address, which I hope can also give the Class of 2018 something to think about.

-----------------------------------------

There was a time when "famous" and "hero" were synonymous, because people became famous for doing heroic things. Abraham Lincoln was famous, because he was a hero. So were Susan B. Anthony, Helen Keller, Amelia Earhart and Neil Armstrong.  All heroes. All famous.

Today, it's different. Today, all you need to be famous are a cell phone and a social media account. As a result, we are living in a culture saturated and obsessed with celebrity. A 2012 UCLA study found that becoming famous was the number one aspiration among children 10-12 years old, surpassing their desire for financial success, achievement, and a sense of community.

That group of children, who were 10-12 in 2012, now comprise the Class of 2018.

So Class of 2018, what is your number one aspiration today? Are you more concerned with your future success, or your Snapchat streaks? Do you dream of being a YouTube star, or a youth leader? Followed on Twitter, or as a teacher? Do you spend more of your time seeking inspiration, or scrolling Instagram? Counting likes, or living life?

Being famous is easy. Being a hero is hard, and we could all do well to identify the ones that most people have never heard of. Your mother, who taught you the value of sacrifice. Your father, who taught you the value of hard work. The coach who pushed you to be better, youth leader who inspired you to be kinder, or teacher who motivated you to dream bigger.

Henry David Thoreau once wrote, "The hero is commonly the simplest and obscurest of men."

In 1862, he died.

A century later, a 7-foot bronze statue of him was unveiled at his former home on Waldon Pond.

It still remains today.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Habitually Truant




My oldest child has a criminal record that begins when she was in kindergarten.

That's the first time we received a letter from her school, informing us that she was habitually truant and in violation of California Education Code 48260.

According to the principal, who signed the notice, her attendance was so deficient that if we "continued to fail to meet (our) obligation, (we) would be guilty of an infraction of the law, and subject to prosecution pursuant to Education Code 48290-48296."

Then, she levied the following shocking allegation.


Four days. WITH FAMILY.

So egregious we posed her for a mug shot.



That kindergartner is now graduating from 8th grade. She's too old to pose in a wife beater with a placard (5 is such a precious age!), but I'm pleased to say we have come a long way. In kindergarten, she had 5 unexcused absences. This year, she had 29.


In the past nine years it seems, we have progressed through the seven stages of truancy. They range from shock, shame and guilt, through questioning and resistance, to planning a seven-day trip to Disneyland in the middle of October.

When we lived in Virginia, where she attended 1st through 6th grade, absences were reported to a voicemail that required parents to specify their child's ailment from a list of options that included fever, vomiting, rash, diarrhea and sore throat. My kids always begged me to make this call on speaker. Evidently there's something about hearing the school secretary say "diarrhea" that just never gets old.

Once, when I called and honestly reported that she had a "stomach bug," I received a call back a few hours later, requesting more specific details. This struck me as so intrusive that I reacted defensively by giving the information they requested, and then some. I think it was the point when I offered to provide a stool sample that they marked her excused and ended the call.

Last year, the Washington Post published a list of acceptable reasons for a child to miss school. It included strep throat, influenza, pink eye and hand foot and mouth disease (which, by the way, included the caveat, "especially if they are unable to control their drooling." Gee, you think?).

Our family also has a list of acceptable reasons to miss school. Over the years it has included visiting Gettysburg, the Grand Canyon and Statue of Liberty, solar eclipses, weddings, mission farewells, visits to grandparents, the beach, Disneyland, and their mother's PMS.

Before proceeding, I must clarify that this post is a confessional, and not an advocate. I completely understand the reasoning behind truancy codes, and importance of consistent attendance. Absences create an undue burden on teachers, who are my HEROES, and require them to invest time and attention that diverts from other important aspects of their job. Also, it is my understanding that most schools are funded using a formula that incorporates average daily attendance, so that absences mean fewer dollars allocated.

But. Watching my daughter turn from a kindergartner to a freshman faster than I can say "habitually truant" has also taught me that childhood is crushingly fleeting. The joy and heartbreak of watching her and her siblings grow and gain independence has prompted me to adopt a "What will we remember more?" approach to raising them. Whenever the option of a second-grade history lesson or day at a museum presented itself, the museum always won. And when we've had opportunities to take vacations that create memories beyond recess and worksheets, we've taken them, even when they haven't fit within the confines of winter break or early release days.

Also, when they are in school (which is the majority of the time!), I make a concerted effort to compensate. I love their teachers exceedingly, and shower them with gratitude. I'm the first to volunteer to assist, and provide classroom supplies, cupcakes for parties, and children who are prepared, respectful, smell good, brush their teeth, and never tattle.

Which is why, at the beginning of this school year, when mothers I follow on social media were posting their inspiring annual family mottos I decided that we need one too, and selected after much consideration, "Erbs have Unexcused Absences."

It may have been deprecating at first, but as the year has progressed it has evolved from evoking feelings of sarcasm to sentimentality. Jolie is on the precipice of high school, and with the pressure of college acceptance on the horizon I know that soon we'll no longer have the luxury of of compensating for absences with a simple stack of makeup work. In four years she will be out of the house, and when she is I know I won't regret a single call to the absence voicemail to excuse her to spend extra time with us.  She missed 29 days this year but is ending it with a 4.0, which makes me proud, and an accumulation of family memories, which makes me prouder.

Earlier this year, after back to back trips to California, Arizona and Idaho, her younger brother came home from school one day to tell us that a boy in his class had never missed a day of school. "Not one in his whole life Mom," he said, "Not even since kindergarten. That's called perfect attendance."

And then, just as I was beginning to feel guilty and a little defensive he said, "Isn't that sad?"

Penny For Your Thoughts

One of the most valuable lessons I learned in college was also one of the simplest. A religion professor once asked me to describe...