Monday, April 28, 2008


Your team

Ok, at the request of several friends, I present Rule # 3: You have a team. Whether you like it or not, you are NOT a solo act. And whether you pick em or not, you are part of a team—whether it’s the dysfunctional group of cubicle dwellers you hang out with at work, or the people who by fate or realtor machinations call your street home, unless you are a hermit in a cave on a mountain top in Nepal, you are part of a community.

It is better to choose your team instead of letting it happen to you. Pick people who you can rely on, whose taste you trust and whose energy uplifts you and does not drain you. Always take first round draft picks—the folks that have talent and brains and skill that can benefit your ongoing operation. Don’t be a martyr and get into victim mode dragging around a team that weighs you down and slows you to a crawl. If you need to, create farm teams of folks you have your eye on to move to your majors. Farm team helps you with the teacher appreciation lunch, the majors help you bury your mother. Make sure your team includes offensive and defensive players—offense takes you shopping when your wardrobe makes you look like an old lady, defensive players tell you to leave the second piece of cake alone and help you start a walking club. Build a big team, one with lots of bench strength. Even the best quarterback can get injured and be out for the season, so always have team members in the wings.

Which means you have to devote part of your life to recruiting, caring and feeding team members. When you are working 60 hour weeks for the last quarter and your laundry has not been done since you brought last season’s clothes down from the attic, the last thing on earth you want to do is host a dinner party to wine and dine your recruits, or go to that book group when you could be taking an evening long bubble bath. But you have to do it. It’s the best investment you can make in winning the game: also known as holding your life together. Trust me: take the Team seriously in your life.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Puppy spring

Since we moved in together 19 years ago, my husband and I have been a 2 dog family. At one point we were a two dog, two cat, two turtle, two rat, snake, rabbit and hamster family, but there was a fall when many of amphibians fled, and natural attrition got us down to one of most things, none of a few others.

Well, last weekend we went back up to two dogs. I fought it, being totally overwhelmed on a good day, since we had to put our beloved Sonya to sleep the weekend before my first child’s bat mitzvah sixteen month ago. I tore my rotator cuff falling down the back stairs to take her out in the last months of her life. After that I enjoyed the relative sanity of raising a single puppy who was supposed to grow to 50 pounds and instead tips the scales at 70. And my husband WANTED him to sleep with us. He is mellow and sweet and a gem. But my son needs a project, and life was just too calm. Our single dog was acting old and sleeping all day, so we trundled down to a local shelter, and prepared to fall in love. It took several visits. And they come check out your house. Which was not clean and had a rabbit running around and there's the cat with the shady understanding of the concept of Litter Box. But it was clear we like animals and tolerate some questionable behavior.

Getting a dog is upsetting the apple cart of organization in your life. Getting a puppy is like having children—if you really thought about it, you would never ever do it. Getting a lab/hound mix is just patently insane, but if you are ok with spending a year having everything chewed up, you end up with the best friend you always wanted.

Every animal that lives with us was rescued. We never really pick them, they find us-- we allow a slit of an opening of acceptance of another sentient being in our lives, you know—Mom says yes—and they see that sliver of light and go for it and move on in to our hearts. I thought we would get a boxer or a dachshund—but there in a crate at the shelter was a set of sad brown eyes disturbingly similar to another pair of eyes that I miss—Sonya’s sad soulful eyes. If this pup, named Houdini for his natural ability to escape, turns out to be a Vizsla like she was, he will be a cuddly escape artist able to gingerly remove food from counter tops. He will chew expensive items that cannot be easily replaced. He will make more work for me. He will drive us mad and cost us a fortune. And we will love him beyond all reason. My children will sleep on him and tell him their troubles and get into pickles and mud fests with him. Because getting a dog is like having children, there is no logic or sense to it, but your life is never the same in a positive way, when you take that leap of faith and say.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Musing on schools

Watching my completely dysfunctional school district at work, I have come to the following conclusion: You need 4 things to have a good school and these four ingredients are probably necessary for any good organization.

First, you need a vision of the good school you want. This vision has to be perfect in your mind and you should be able to taste, smell and hear it in your minds eye. You must create it first in your head. Now, you might be a school board member, the superintendent, a teacher, a parent—any stakeholder, in the end, each of you needs this crystal clear vision for the enterprise to work—and for it to be great, everyone’s vision will need to be congruent with everyone else’s vision. And so you need the second thing.

The second thing you need is a supportive community. Here is the tricky thing—most of the time you don’t get that at first. If you are beginning from scratch, your organization is being created to solve a problem, so the community might be fractured or fractious, might be dysfunctional, disengaged. In any event, you’ll have to suss out the problem and then get the vision and only then begin the community and get them all to buy into the vision. In the school business, everyone is always working on the curriculum the curriculum the curriculum. But until you have a community, a curriculum is only a lot of pretty words on a paper. A vision does not come into the world without the hard work of the people, and the people are your community. And if you are coming into an existing school/organization it means someone left, or a vacancy was created so that a big problem can get solved. So you better be sure in that case that everyone agrees on that vision as you begin to build the community.

The community is the food of the school. Everything falls apart without it. Before you fix the curriculum you MUST fix the community and bring the people together. Dictators never figure this out, and this is why they ultimately fall.

The third ingredient of a successful school is passionate teachers. You can actually go pretty far without the first two if you have a bucket load of this third ingredient. But you will not be able to sustain it. And you can’t attract new batches this essential ingredient if you don’t have the first two. Money might help, but it won’t give you anything long term, since good teaching is too hard if you don’t love what you do.

Finally, the last ingredient, the whipped cream on the top, is lovely raw materials. Don’t have any money—who says they have to cost? Imagination can be got for free. Some of the best art projects I have ever taught we done with objects plucked from judicially selected trash heaps (I only dumpster dive the best neighborhoods). Great literature, fresh pencils—these are not costly, but they are rich. You can’t grow a mind in barren soil, and raw materials fertilize the intellect.

So simple, four ingredients, and in the end so hard. When I look at my own community, I see no clear vision—goals yes, mission yes, but no VISION. The community is more like warring camps. We have a number of passionate teachers but many of them will retire in the next 5 years. And some schools have great raw materials. It breaks my heart, because in the end, my child will have all of these things because I build them into her life outside of school. But no matter how many of my tax dollars go to the school, it will not give them any of the four essential ingredients.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Second Rule

It will all work out.

Sometimes you are involved in a project that has more arms than an octopus, more teeth than a mad nasty monkey, and the whole experience just feels like waiting for the train wreck to happen. At times like this, you need to invoke the second rule of everything.

Given that the universe is always moving towards chaos, this second rule of everything makes no sense whatsoever, but I have seen it work time and time again. If you move forward with an open heart and faith, or at least a fervent prayer, that it will all be ok, somehow it will all work out.

Now it may work out because you don’t sleep for three days, and you are buzzed on double shots of espresso, or you burn out your transmission trying to get there to make it work out. It may work out because you have pressed every one of your relatives into service and promised your spouse sexual favors into the next millennium. You may spend the rent money on some emergency tablecloth purchase or you may alienate all your friends and bankrupt your favor bank for years into the future to get it to work out, but the pieces will all fall together, more or less.

I recently volunteered to help out with two projects relating to my children’s lives. I discovered that volunteerism in my community is in an anemic state. “Help out” turned into doing two massive projects all by myself in a week when I was already pushed to the wall at work and at home. Help out, which in my mind is phone calling, emailing and delegating,--you know, pitching in with a team, turned into frantically shopping, setting up massive rooms of complicated projects, cajoling teen helpers to do their half baked helping with lots of loud socializing, and hours and hours of my own labor when there was no one to delegate to—and all this when I really needed to be grocery shopping and doing laundry since the fairies quit at my house ages ago due to the lousy working conditions. What’s the song in the Musical WICKED, No Good Deed Goes Unpunished….. in any event, I spent a few anxious hours and a sleepless night stewing over being overwhelmed and envisioning impending disaster, then jumped off the cliff of what the hey with an innate trust in my improvisational abilities. I just started saying It Will All Work Out, over and over under my breath like a crazy old lady and took Deep Cleansing Breaths when I felt like smashing my own head against the wall—when it was all spinning dangerously towards entropy and the crash was about to come……., and in the end,

It All Worked Out.

It was not great. I was not necessarily proud of my efforts. I was not as pleasant as I wanted to be. Perhaps I relied to much on Mr. Chardonnay and the aspirin in big quantities to calm my nerves and quiet the stress headache…. But it was fine.

I have seen this Rule work with massive festivals pulled off with virtually no staff. It has worked when my media camp had all its equipment stolen and the main teacher quit three days before it opened. It worked for my daughter’s bat mitzvah. And though I have left the world of storefront theater behind being too old for the drama off stage, many major works of art come out of near train wrecks.

You cannot use this Rule too often though. You will get sick, the train will crash, bankrupted favor banks will foreclose on you.

But when the co-chair of the school fundraiser backs out on you or the caterer skips out on your bosses important impress his bosses meeting, when the main actor gets into a car wreck an hour before you open and the critics are in the lobby, close your eyes, calm yourself and chant, It Will All Work Out, then call every resource you have ever known into your corner and come out swinging.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

kidneys and oz and tv's, oh my!

You know, its been one of those weeks.
I think I have had a nervous breakdown but I am just too busy to bang my head against walls and drool. I am talking to myself and forgetting everything.

My aged cat and my 7 year old daughter both have not completely identifiable kidney problems which means the cat is pissing on all manner of weird objects: a jewelry box left on the floor, the clean basket of towels—ok, they are all square with absorbent surfaces, ok maybe it could be a litter box…..and the kid is going every 15to 20 minutes.

This morning I forgot an important first thing in the morning meeting because I had to get son to track practice (oh my god are there any more spring sports????) and get a FIRST MORNING URINE MIDSTREAM sample out of a 7 year old. You have to really love your children to let them piss on you before you have had your coffee in the morning. Really love your children. Yes.
Then I had to race the specimen to the lab, since it had been stressed that freshness was critical to a proper diagnosis. And when your kid is going to the bathroom 40 times a day you want them to tell you what is causing it. You want someone to make it stop. Please.

And its only Wednesday.

While racing to the lab, I discover my car is almost out of gas—I am trying this experiment and only putting in $20 bucks a week and just not driving when I am out of gas. Some days this is not a good idea.
Every week $20 fills up less and less of my tank. I think the oil execs just wake up every morning and throw darts at a board with prices on it and decide, ok today gas is $3.59 a gallon. Every time I fill up the price has gone up 5 or 10 or 25 cents. I don’t know about you but the run on gas prices is messing with my head. It reminds me of the Wizard of Oz. When you are little and you first see the film, ok the flying monkeys give you nightmares. But when you are a little older the most distressing thing is the scene where Toto pulls back the curtain and you see that the Wizard is really just a lost pathetic man, and there really is no one who will give you brains or a heart and you have to do it all yourself. It’s the end of innocence, and the Anti-cinderella. No handsome prince will rescue you and get you out of the mess you are in. I wanted there to be smart people running the place, but I learned the hard way when my dad died right before I was a teenager that sometimes the people in charge bug out on you, but hope springs eternal that there is someone up the line who is smarter and wiser than me and they are running things....

I feel like that kid watching the Wizard be unmasked now. There is absolutely no one in charge and the people in Power have messed this up so bad that no one can fix it. The President, the congress and Lord God the messed up Judicial branch are all sad little lost men with good special effects. I wish I knew how to tap my ruby slippers and get myself outta here and back to Kansas.

And its like ten days to Earth Day and I am trying so hard to live sustainably. In my world that means buying less stuff (good idea when you are broke, right?) which means owning less stuff which means storing less stuff—you get the picture. The problem is the whole economy is going to hell in a handbasket because its built on us idiots buying lots and lots more stuff.

So now we aren’t buying enough (because our real incomes have actually gone down in the last few years and the boondoggle of using our houses as cash machines came apart) so the latest government brain fart:

Make all our tv’s obsolete.

Hit us where we live, in the boob tube. Does anyone have a concept what millions of tvs in landfills is going to look like? On February something next year all our pictures turn to snow.

A brilliant evil plan cooked up I am sure by Sony, Panasonic and LG. They will have banner first quarters next year as we frantically replace 30 million tv sets.

The heartbreaking thing is that no one is going to replace the sets of those who have been left out of the digital revolution: the poor, the infirm and the developmentally disabled, for whom tv is a major connection to the world.

I just can’t see nursing homes in my state, which came in 51st in the nation is caring for the developmentally disabled, trundling out replace their myriad sets that have been donated over the years—not when they can’t find or afford decent direct care STAFF.

Next Christmas, when you are looking for something charitable to do, donate a converter box or two to your favorite sheltered worksite or group home………

Dear Teachers

I believe we have reached a point in our mutually respectful relationship where we need to "check in" with some vocabulary words.
I think we can agree on the first one. Although everyone believed it would never arrive this year, Spring represents the time period when the weather warms again, the marking period is over or nearly over. While I do have some arguments with the calendar committee that decided that spring will occur next year sometime in the middle of April which is much too--a calendar that flies in the face of the longstanding tradition that spring, and therefore the airline blackout period, begins with the vernal equinox, I think we have no problems coming to consensus on the concept of Spring.

The misunderstanding, mistranslation as it were falls with the word BREAK. Turning to Webster, my go-to on all things word, I see that Break means all manner of violent and abrupt separation and disruptions. For example, "To discontinue Abruptly, interrupt, suspend." There is also "to scatter or disperse(that sounds like private school breaks where kids go skiing in the alps and off to places where you need your passport) and to come to an end, to dismiss."

In any event, a Break, spring or no, is a big deal and all parties and I be you needed it after the winter of respiratory ailments and endless snow storms and days off we just survived. I know I was not happy that I could not pawn my kid off on you this entire last week. In any event, I need to quibble with the idea that any child would Ever In a Million Years do assigned work on a BREAK. The have been dismissed, dispersed.

A child sees no advantage whatsoever to doin any sort of school work when there is no school. Not being a certified professional, despite my exalted position of my "child's first teacher" and the designated imparter of "family values", I have no training in how to do some of this new fangled homework if I even happen to locate them somewhere on the bottom of my car next to the moldy lunchbox in the minivan my husband parked in the airport lot awaiting their return from Spring Break. (I have to work on all school breaks)

My children are blithely willing to accept consequences for their lack of academic interest this week and given how little we parents see our actual children on a normal week, I am not willing to play homework cop when I payed for all these enriching activities on Spring Break.

So let us agree that if it is Spring, and it is a break, that all of us are OFF.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

april fools day

The blustery March Wind blew in last night- a Northeaster.

Of course, it’s April. Spring has been late this year.

My house sounds like a ship when it blows—beams creaking as though we are on a choppy sea. It gives me comfort that my ship is warm and dry after more than a hundred years moored in this spot.

The birds were singing—it’s been so long since I have heard that! when I left the house this morning at the crack of dawn, off to my Spring Break camp where I am locked in a room with 30 kids for 9 hours a day. The new state of child rearing. I am well paid to bring up others children even as I neglect my own, because childcare shifts are always more than 8 hours to accommodate the parents work schedule……
We hiked to the library yesterday past enormous rain puddles. We compared and contrasted the buds on various bushes and trees and we saw the aftermath of a spectacular car crash. It was an exciting walk, if not all that poetic. It is mud season. I am still waiting for green amongst the brown and black.

It is spring break week, which means while my kids are home shredding my house because I can't afford childcare other than my work at home husband, I am locked in a room with 30 or so kids whose parents can’t get the week off, running a highly enriching program which decimates me and the rooms we are in by the end of the week. I roll out this lovely classroom, art studio from a closet, completely turning a bare conference room into a stimulating creative environment for a theme based exploration of something that appealed to me way back when the copy was due last fall. My hubby will be ready to divorce me by Friday without liberal applications of alcohol and frantic homecooked meals which I have to cook after standing on my feet for 9 hours. Last year I wore a pedometer—11,000 steps and I never left the first floor of the building. When I run around after kids, I really run around. But I like to believe I hand em back at the end of the day at least as tired as I am…..

My laundry won’t get done this month.

Spring break is an archaic and quaint idea when 75% of parents of both genders are working. You only get 2 weeks a year off and you need one of them for the last week in August when school is out and NO ONE has a program you can sign your kids up for. ( I can’t find one single staff person so I am not going to run a program)And you need one week for Christmas. If your kid gets sick or your mom in Cleveland needs surgery, well you are plumb out of luck if you have used up your weeks and you don’t work for a company big enough to entitle you to FMLA. I have to say—keep all those breaks so I can continue to earn a fine living raising your kids for you. But really, isn’t it time to Reinvent the wheel?