Friday, June 29, 2018

Load-Bearing Walls

Leah struggles with coordination. Before we understood the nature of her challenges, we just thought she was clumsy. Adorably and sometimes maddeningly clumsy. Genuinely baffled when she was about three, Jack once asked, "How is it every time she's in her room getting dressed, it sounds like she's taking down load-bearing walls?"

By the time she was four, she had chipped two teeth from falling on her face, self-sustained enough bruises to call our treatment of her into question, and was the first child in history (of which I'm aware) to sustain a black eye while serving as the reverence child

But this post isn't about Leah. This post is about Jack.

I was sorting old pictures the other day, and found a sequence of three from about ten years ago, that perfectly encapsulate his relationship with her. 

In the first picture, we see her typical path of destruction. I can't recall exactly what happened before it was taken, but it appears that in the process of getting in or out of the bath, she managed to detach a shelf from the wall. Naturally.

The second picture breaks my heart a little. It's the familiar realization of what she's done. Hiding behind her tiny arm, and naked to boot, you can see in her eyes the fear of the crash and the consequences.

The third picture explains, in a single moment, why she has grown to be so self-assured and resolute, in spite of her limitations. In the third picture, her dad enters the scene.

He arrives just after she (and the bathroom) (and probably her mother) have fallen apart. He steps over the damage and scoops her up to make sure she's okay. While I don't remember exactly what he said, I'm positive that he told her that he loved her. That she was his "Perfect Leah Lou." At this point in her life, he's starting to get her. He understands that bathroom shelves can be repaired. Little girls hearts, not so easily.

And before long I'm sure she was off and running, the bathroom aftermath fading into the background. Probably knocking a picture off the wall as she went, but off, and running.

I've read that fathers, more than anyone else, set the course for their daughter's lives. I believe that's true, for better or worse. Girls may take their mothers for granted, but are never ambivalent about their fathers.

When Jack speaks, my girls hang on what he says. They love his attention. When he's teaching them something, they're laser focused, wanting so much to make him proud. When we attend their performances, their eyes always find him in the audience.

I'm painfully aware that not every girl is as fortunate to have a doting father. It's something I have never taken for granted myself, nor have I as I've watched Jack raise our daughters.

In the structure of their lives, I pride myself in providing them with a good foundation. And rooms to explore, so to speak, with pretty coats of paint. I'm the blankets that cover them at night, the kitchen table around which they gather, and the fireplace that warms them when the outside is cold.

But their dad, he's the load-bearing wall. He sustains the weight of the elements above it. The load-bearing walls, more than anything in the house, provide a sense of security. Good fathers provide their daughters with a structure that can resist buckling under pressure, of detached bathroom shelves, or mistakes, or broken hearts, or life.

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 a 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!"


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.

A Brother Like No Other

(Written by my mother Susan Foutz, who would like to clarify that she actually has two brothers like no other ) If you lived in Arizona in t...