Why Teachers Need Summers Off (It’s not for the soap operas and bon-bons)


It is the end of my twenty-second year of teaching. Twenty-two years. I’ve spent almost half my life as a middle school educator in a small city. Every year when summer break finally arrives, I usually feel a sense of relief. The relief does not come because I’m going to have the “summer off” to watch soap operas and eat bon-bons, although that’s probably what most Americans think teachers do over the summer months. Actually, many teachers take on second jobs over the summer in order to support their families (we do not get paid over those months). Others take summer courses, attend workshops, or develop new curriculum for the next school year. I am no different. Yet even though I will continue working in one form or another during the break, I feel relieved that the school year is over. I’ll get a reprieve from the mounds of paperwork, the endless meetings, the data-crunching, and the never-ending workdays. I’m glad I’ll be able to go to the bathroom whenever I need to, and that I’ll have time to eat lunch like a normal person instead of inhaling it in twenty minutes or less. And sleep! Hopefully I’ll get enough shut-eye to rid myself of the perpetual bags and circles under my eyes. All of these things are great, but it took some soul searching to uncover the deeper reason I feel relief.

I realized that the real relief I feel at the end of a school year is emotional relief. From September to June, most of the emotions I feel are brought on by the empathy I have for my students. Many of my seventh graders have lives that require them to be in survival-mode, and school is a safe place where they know they will find the structure, guidance, and support they need to get through another day. Urban schools provide mental health counseling, basic nutrition (many only get food to eat when they are at school) crisis management (we have a resource officer stationed in our building and continuous contact with Child Protective Services), and drug counseling. They teach tolerance toward others, anger management skills, and basic hygiene. Delivering these services has simply become second nature to those who work in inner city schools. However, witnessing the conditions that make these services necessary in the first place takes its toll on teachers. We know what these kids go home to, and we worry for them.

But when you experience certain feelings long enough, they become your normal. You become accustomed to the level of anxiety. I didn’t realize how emotionally draining my job is until my student teacher pointed it out. Mike was getting ready to begin teaching a couple of my classes, and he wanted some background on the kids in each class. So I gave him the basics: this one attempted suicide for the second time earlier in the year, and misses class frequently for counseling; these kids have parents who are incarcerated; this one has been sexually abused; all the kids in this group have been removed from the home and are living with other relatives; that one became homeless last year when her dad lost his job. In between copious note-taking he stared at me wide-eyed, in disbelief. I told him not to worry, that the kids were great and he would love teaching them. And he did! When Mike met my students for the first time, he thought they looked like typical seventh grade kids who love to dab and play with fidget spinners. His frame of mind changed when he read their journal entries.

Most middle school kids love writing assignments that allow them to talk about themselves, and my middle schoolers are no different. So Mike created activities that used the lyrics from popular songs to teach different types of figurative language. Then, in order to make a personal connection with the kids, he asked them to write a journal entry about a song that evoked a memory. He was not prepared for the stories they shared with him.

 

One young man wrote that every time he hears Luke Bryan, he remembers his father, who used to beat him regularly until his mother finally kicked him out. Luke Bryan was his dad’s favorite country singer. His songs make him cry, because although his father was abusive, he still misses him.

A quiet girl with glasses described the music she listens to when she feels sad about her mom. Earlier in the year, her mother was assaulted and beaten to death.

Whenever a certain artist from the sixties comes on the radio, another seventh grader is reminded of his father who died from early onset Alzheimer’s disease. His uncle died from the same condition. At twelve years old, this boy is already worried that he will suffer the same fate.

When Taylor Swift sings, a beautiful young lady recollects the time her drug-addicted mother kidnapped her and her younger brother from her father’s house and attempted to take them across state lines.

Another child described the song an EMT sang to her in an effort to keep her awake on the way to the hospital. The girl had overdosed on her parents’ prescription medications, and she ended up being in a coma for some time before she recovered.

 

These are just a few of the topics my students openly discussed for this assignment. After reading their entries, Mike was visibly upset. He said he never would have known these kids had such traumatic backgrounds.

“I don’t know how these kids manage to get through school each day. As a teacher, how do you deal with these problems day in and day out?” he asked. “After reading about these kids’ lives, I feel like there is a black cloud hanging over the school. How do you balance teaching with caregiving?” I told him that over time the balance comes naturally.

But later on I realized that wasn’t really true. There is no balance. There can’t be when you are talking about helping students survive life-changing circumstances. Yes, my main job is to teach my students to be successful readers and writers, but they cannot achieve that goal until they understand that I care about them as individuals. I want them to feel safe in my classroom; because once they know they are safe, they can share their difficulties and hopefully learn how to overcome them. Through the life lessons of literary characters they learn that their trials and tribulations do not define who they are or who they can become. Through writing they learn how to express their feelings in a creative way, as well as logically support their arguments or positions. So both things occur simultaneously. The teaching continues. But my worry remains the same.

When the school year finally draws to a close, my students leave my classroom one last time and move on to a new grade, a new classroom, and a new stage in their lives. I leave my classroom and spend time organizing, restructuring, and creating for the next school year. Most importantly, however, the summer gives me time to decompress and distress. Educating and guiding 130 adolescent students is a momentous task in the best conditions. For a teacher in a poor city school district, the feat often seems insurmountable. Yet I will be back in two months’ time to do it all over again. Just give me time to recharge my batteries before I start the next marathon.

 

Advertisements

It Took Me 45 Years to Learn This…

 
Yesterday was my birthday, and I am now 45 years old! That means according to the average life expectancy, half my life is over (that went by quickly!). Many things have become very clear to me since I entered my forties. Looking back over the years, it surprises me that it took me so long to come to certain realizations, but I think if you take the time evaluate the experiences life offers you, you can gain some wisdom. On that note, here are some of the most important lessons I have learned so far:

1. Live in the present.  People told me this all the time when I was younger and busy wishing my life away. “I can’t wait until I graduate from college.” I can’t wait until I get married.” “I can’t wait until my kids get older.” I was constantly wishing to be somewhere I wasn’t, doing something different, and I was never happy with where I was. And then my life changed when I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. I was sick for months on end; during that time I was frequently too ill to go to work, spend time with friends, or even care for my family. I began to miss the simple things like joking with my coworkers, going to sporting events and concerts, and picking up my girls after school. You might be thinking, “I would love to get a break from all of my responsibilities so I could lay around and do nothing!” Yet all of these responsibilities and moments make our lives full and our relationships strong. After six months I was finally diagnosed with lupus, and three months after that my medication began working and I started to feel better. Now that I can manage my condition, I understand that every day offers something new. Difficulties in life make us appreciate the good. Don’t get me wrong, I still have my “Woe is me” moments. But I try to remind myself to appreciate every day for what it is, and be thankful for the here and now.

2. Make time for your relationships.   I mean all relationships—with family, friends, life partners, and children. You’re busy, I get it. Everyone in the United States is busy. We are so busy that we often put things off. “I’ll call my mom tomorrow.” “I was thinking about my college roommate today. I’ll email her tomorrow.” “I can’t play a game with you tonight, honey. I have work from the office to finish. Maybe we can play tomorrow.” We put things off, and time passes. Our parents age, we grow apart from our friends, and our children grow up and move out. Eventually the time will come when we all will be forced to slow down, and all we will have to look back on are missed opportunities. If you don’t believe me, watch Adam Sandler’s movie Click.   It isn’t one of his most famous movies, but I guarantee it will put things into perspective for you. We need to spend the time with the people we love now and create memories we can draw on in the future when free time is abundant but age or distance prevent us from sharing it with the ones we care about most.

3. Be kind to others.  Most everyone learns the Golden Rule as a child, but as we get older we often forget to practice it. Yet something as simple as smiling at the people we come into contact with can show kindness and make such a difference. My husband took me out to dinner for my birthday, and as we were getting ready to pay the bill, our waiter commented on what a pleasure it was to serve us. He said it was so nice to wait on people who were so friendly and obviously happy to be enjoying a good meal together. I smile very easily and my kids joke that I can start a conversation with anyone (I inherited these traits from my dad). But the server’s comment made me wonder how many of his customers were unhappy or rude. I’d like to think that after waiting on us his day was a little brighter! Plus, a study done in 2013 supports that people who smile live longer and are generally happier, even if they were “faking” their smiles part of the time. If something so simple can extend my life, make me happier, and improve the lives of those around me, I’m all for it!

So what’s the main point of this post? I think it’s that instead of dwelling on the concept of getting older, I want to use my past experiences to make my future better. With that in mind, I’m hopeful that my next 45 years will be even better than the first!

Hate is Learned, But So Is Love.

41616136-BFFD-497E-BB9A-9612B31C1C9C

Hate is learned.

We are not born knowing how to hate.

We are taught to hate.

Our teachers are our parents, our relatives, our friends, our culture, our religion, the media.

My daughter Maddie started learning what it meant to be different when she was in second grade. It was Black History Month, and her teacher read the class a story about Ruby Bridges and her integration into an all-white school. When Maddie ran through the door that afternoon, her first words were, “Momma, did you know Makai has brown skin?” I answered yes, and she said, “In the olden days, Makai wouldn’t have been able to go to school with me because he has brown skin!”  Makai had been her best friend since kindergarten.  She was so visibly upset by the idea that if she were going to school during Ruby Bridges’ time, she would not have been able to attend school with Makai, let alone be friends with him. I reassured her that the world was not like that anymore, and she did not have to worry because Makai was in her class.  I was so worried about reassuring Maddie that I missed the bigger lesson: before this event, Maddie did not realize that Makai was different from her in any way.  His skin color meant nothing to her. Makai was her friend, and that’s all that mattered.

When my daughters were little, they were unaware of many of the differences that separated them from other members of society. Likewise, neither girl understood that people of different races or cultures were not always treated equally. They were mesmerized by the colorful hijabs that were worn by the mothers of their classmates.  At their friends’ birthday parties, they loved eating the ethnic foods that didn’t get served at their own house.  Furthermore, although both daughters had fine, straight hair, they couldn’t understand why cornrows wouldn’t stay in their hair like their African American friends. Neither Maddie nor Abbie realized that the characteristics that they found unique and desireable could also be the cause of discrimination.

Unfortunately as my girls have grown older, they’ve both witnessed and experienced discrimination.  Most of it has occurred at school.  Maddie has been on the receiving end of sexist comments from male students and teachers.  She has witnessed LGBTQ friends get bullied by the other kids at school. Abbie has defended her friends when they’ve been judged for their race, social status, and even for ongoing mental health issues.  My kids used to love school, but now it’s become more of a battleground.  On days when they are sick and tired of dealing with the harassment, I tell them that when they get older and go to college, they will meet people who are more accepting and open-minded.  Then I watch the news, and see what’s happening in Orlando, St. Paul, Baton Rouge, and Dallas; I hear people like Donald Trump spewing xenophobic remarks about Mexicans and Muslims; it seems as though there is too much hate to overcome.  I worry that there aren’t enough just and loving people to counteract it.

I’m not sure if there’s more bigotry now than there was when I was growing up, or if it’s just more obvious.  There is one thing of which I’m certain:  my girls were not born knowing the proper way to treat other human beings.  They’ve learned acceptance and compassion from watching the adult role models they have been surrounded by since birth.  Even now, as teenagers, the conduct they observe helps them determine the qualities they want to possess as adults.  So when I hear people state that nothing can be done to end the racial, social, and cultural divides in our country,  I tell them I disagree.  We all have an important role to play in making change happen.  In 1946, Albert Einstein made a statement which he titled “The Negro Question.”  Even though Einstein knew first hand what it was like to suffer from the anti-semitism that was all too common in the United States during his time,  he also was a witness to the racism against African Americans.  In this text he stated:

     A large part of our attitude toward things is conditioned by opinions and emotions which we unconsciously absorb as children from our environment. In other words, it is tradition—besides inherited aptitudes and qualities—which makes us what we are. We but rarely reflect how relatively small as compared with the powerful influence of tradition is the influence of our conscious thought upon our conduct and convictions…

…What, however, can the man of good will do to combat this deeply rooted prejudice? He must have the courage to set an example by word and deed, and must watch lest his children become influenced by this racial bias.

What can we do to end the cycle of hate? Listen to Albert Einstein and set an example by word and deed.  Show the children in our lives how to be compassionate, tolerant, patient, understanding, empathetic, and kind through our actions.  Treat everyone with the respect that all human beings deserve.  Not just human beings who are a certain color, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or social class- EVERYONE.  If we all made an effort to do this, imagine the difference we could make in our communities and the world.

We are all teachers.

Our children will follow our lead.

Let’s teach them to love.

 

 

 

 

 

5 Reasons Why Camping Will Make Your Life Better

IMG_3604

Letchworth State Park, the Grand Canyon of the East, where my family and I go camping every year.

 

 

Camping season has officially begun! For those of you who say, “Camping is NOT for me,” here are five reasons you should leave your comfort zone and try it out this year.

  1. Fresh air

If you live in a metropolitan or suburban area, the air you breathe daily cannot be considered “fresh air.”  Although you may not notice it, the air in populated areas is laced with automobile exhaust, factory and business emissions, and other forms of pollution that come from living in a densely populated area.  We don’t pick up on these because we have become accustomed to them. However, once you go camping in middle of nowhere, you will know what true fresh air smells like. You pick up the different scents of the trees and foliage, the water running through a nearby brook, the dead leaves and pine needles that form the forest bed.  THIS is fresh air in its truest form!

  1. Hiking

According to the International Health, Raquetball and Sportsclub Association, Americans spend 2.8 billion dollars a year on gym memberships in order to get exercise. We spend countless hours on treadmills, either running or walking, and not getting anywhere. Hiking is free exercise.  No gym, treadmill, or personal trainer required.  Just throw on some hiking boots and set off down a trail. Maybe the trail leads to a fishing hole, or winds up a hill, or meanders to a waterfall.  Maybe it just loops back to where you started.  No matter what, you will get the blood flowing and inhale some of the fresh air described in #5.  Two for the price of one.  Plus, you get to see all the beauty of nature.  We often overlook the natural wonders that are so close to home– woods, mountains, deserts, streams– whatever the terrain, you are certain to see things that you didn’t know existed in your area.  The world is such a beautiful place, and hiking gives you a chance to actually see and appreciate all that it has to offer.

  1. Camp food

Some say it’s the air, or it’s the exercise, or even cooking over the open flame of a campfire.  Whatever it is, camp food is some of the best food in the world. There’s something about camping that allows you to stuff your face until you are inches away from being grotesquely full without suffering from tremendous guilt.  You can just work it off tomorrow while you’re collecting kindling to start the fire for the next meal.  If you aren’t convinced yet, I have one word for you– s’mores.  ‘Nuff said.

  1. Disconnecting from social media

In this day and age, no one can seem to survive without his or her smart phone.  We must be constantly connected to the internet in order to receive our news, weather, and society updates.  A recent article in Time magazine stated that the average American checks his or her phone 46 times every day.  Camping in a remote location without cell service forces you to disconnect from your screen and reconnect with your surroundings.  You talk to the people you eat with.  You point out the woodpecker high in the evergreen tree to your fellow camper.  You ask them how they like their marshmallows cooked for their s’mores.  You may discuss more serious things, like politics, global warming, or the Common Core.  You may discuss trivial matters, such as why you put the wood in a teepee formation when you build a campfire when your significant other uses a hatch method.  The topic really doesn’t matter.  It’s the fact that you’re having human interaction and building relationships.  This is something we all desperately need to do more often.

  1. Campfires

Campfires have been around since the dawn of time. When cave men discovered fire, the first thing they did was sit around the open flame and stare at it.  We haven’t evolved that much since then!  Sitting around a campfire gives you time to reflect on the day.  You can think about the hike you took and the great food you ate.  More stars are visible in the sky when you are camping than you would be able to see on a clear night in the city or the suburbs; the illuminations from buildings, streetlights, and cars make the stars less vibrant in the sky over populated areas.  But when you’re out in nature, there are very few man made lights to distract from the natural beauty of the night sky.  You may even see your first shooting star! Also, campfires provide the perfect setting for storytelling.  Here is a great way to start a group campfire story:  one person begins the tale with a couple of lines, then each person around the campfire takes a turn and adds a line or two to the plot until it’s finished.  This is a great way to include kids; they often add the funniest things! Campfires can easily last late into the night, because time flies by when you’re relaxing with good company and feeding off one another’s creativity.

All of these aspects of camping will make your relationships richer and your love of nature stronger. Your head will be clearer (as will your lungs from the clean air).  I can also guarantee that when you get home, you will thoroughly appreciate your indoor plumbing!  So go camping this season. The memories and benefits will carry you through the year, until you’re ready to plan your next wilderness adventure!

girls camping at letchworth

My girls on a hike during one of our earliest camping trips.

Life Lessons From My Brother (Who Happens to Have Down’s Syndrome)

When my younger brother BJ was born, I was twelve.  I remember being so excited to meet the newest member of our family.  Before my dad took my brother Rob and me to the hospital, he sat us down for a talk.  My father looked sad and unsure as he told us our baby brother was born with “problems.”  He told us BJ had Down’s syndrome, and that meant that he would never be able to do the things a “normal” child would; it would take him a long time to learn to speak and walk, he would never be able to read and write, and he could have severe health problems also.  Needless to say, this came as a huge shock, and I tried to prepare myself to see my brother hooked up to tubes and wires, fighting for survival.  However, that’s not what I saw when I got to the hospital.  Yes, BJ was in an incubator because he was jaundice, but other than that he looked like a chubby, healthy baby boy.  When I was much older, I learned why my father was so afraid.  After BJ was born, the pediatrician came in to my mom’s room and informed my parents that BJ had Down’s syndrome.  He said that because of this my brother would be severely mentally retarded and would require constant care for the rest of his life.  He finished by stating that the best thing my parents could do was place him in a home for the disabled and forget they had ever had him.

Fortunately, my mother refused to listen to the doctors, because she knew through experience that physically and developmentally disabled people could accomplish great things.  Her younger brother, my Uncle Fred, had been born with spina bifida.  Fred was a paraplegic, but that never stopped my uncle from trying new pursuits.  He graduated from high school, held a job, played wheel chair basketball, collected coins, was a HAM radio operator, and loved Monty Python movies.  Most importantly, he was one of the people to lead the fight to make all public buildings in New York State handicapped accessible.  We still have the newspaper articles detailing his protest at the state capital.  Yet when he was born, his doctors doubted he would survive.  He proved them wrong and accomplished great things in his life.  So instead of listening to BJ’s doctor, my mom began doing research on Down’s syndrome.  She contacted parent support groups and advocates for the disabled, and before we knew it, BJ was enrolled in an early intervention program to help him develop both physically and mentally. Although he’s had his ups and downs (doesn’t everyone?), today BJ is a healthy and happy 32 year old who lives in a group home with other guys his age. He loves painting, playing video games, and going to the movies. Recently, he has started his own wood turning business.

If my grandmother and mother would have listened to “the experts” when my uncle and brother were born, our families would have missed out on having these talented, giving men be a part of our lives. Often in our society when we see people who are different than us, whether those differences be physical appearance or ability, skin color, ethnicity, gender, or religion, we make assumptions and judgments instead of taking it upon ourselves to become educated about those distinctions. When we don’t appreciate the diversity of those around us, we miss opportunities for growth in our own lives.  I’ve tried to instill this lesson in my middle school and high school students through the literature we read and discuss, and I’ve endeavored to raise my children with this sense of acceptance as well.  I assumed, that with the passage of time, the stereotyping and judgement that my uncle and brother faced would have faded, especially from people in the medical and educational fields.

It’s obvious that I was wrong based on what happened to BJ just last month.

My brother had a meeting regarding his job within the community.  BJ works one day a week at the local sandwich shop.  This position was secured for him by a state agency that has the goal of getting all mentally and developmentally disabled individuals outside employment instead of having them spend their days in a workshop setting.  As a developmentally disabled adult, BJ has the right to have an advocate present at these meetings to speak for his interests.  My mother, who is BJ’s advocate, was not informed of or invited to attend this meeting.  The purpose of the meeting was to evaluate BJ’s job performance, as well as make a plan for the future to ensure that he moves forward toward his goal of full time work.  My mom received the paperwork from the meeting much later, but the first issue she was made aware of was that BJ was very distraught when he returned from the conference.  He told his group home supervisor that they were making him give up his wood turning business.  This didn’t make any sense—why would an organization that was designed to help the handicapped get jobs want to stop a small business that was becoming successful?  When the person who had been in charge of the meeting was contacted, it was determined that that was exactly what they wanted to do. The supervisor, we’ll call her “Mrs. Smith,” told my mom that BJ needed to give up his business because it was interfering with his job at the sandwich shop.  His efforts should be solely focused on that job, and according to the plan that Mrs. Smith established, BJ was not to speak of his woodworking business anymore, either to his coworkers at the sandwich shop or his care providers at the group home.  Support of any kind for his business was to end; coaching efforts were to be offered for his sandwich shop position only.  In return, BJ would be guaranteed one four hour shift per week at the shop.  One four hour shift per week?  What about the other 36 hours BJ could be working to earn income?  When my mother asked this question, Mrs. Smith informed her that she had 30 years of experience in her position and she knew what was best for BJ.  She also stated that if BJ or my mother didn’t like her decision, she had the ability to take away the sandwich shop job permanently.

When my mom told me what was going on, I began helping her fight for my brother’s rights through phone calls to Mrs. Smith’s superiors and letters to various agencies and politicians.  I’m confident that with my mom’s persistence, this situation will be resolved and BJ’s business will continue to grow.  He recently gave a presentation of his wood turning skills at a fundraiser, and ended up with an unbelievable number of product orders from gift shops and individuals across the area.  At this rate, his wood turning skills will provide him with full time employment in no time.

But what if my mom had listened to those doctors when my brother was born?

What if, as a family, we accepted the decisions of people like Mrs. Smith who want to bully and manipulate my brother into doing something that is not in his best interest?

What if I accepted the idea that people who differ from me in intelligence, gender, color, ethnicity, or religion are not valued in society?

What if I was complacent, and as a teacher and a mother I did not educate my students and children to see everyone’s worth, to value individual differences enough to stand up for others when they are being treated unfairly?

If my brother BJ had not come into my life, I don’t know if I would have realized the importance of acceptance, and the significance of standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.  Every day through my words and actions I try to impart this moral to my children and my students.  My younger brother BJ taught me this lesson, the most important one of my life.  I am forever grateful that my mom did not listen to the doctors and listened to her heart instead.

BJ photo

My brother Bj and me

Read Between the Wines – 2014 Rooster Hill Estate Gewurztraminer and Garlic Chicken with Orzo Noodles

Everyone who knows me knows that one of my favorite things to do is drink a good bottle of wine, but I’m not a wine snob (no, really I’m not!).  Wine doesn’t have to be $50 a bottle to be absolutely delicious.  As a matter of fact, I love trying out wines that are under $15 a bottle.  When I find one that’s exceptional, I feel like I’ve discovered a gem and I can’t wait to share it with the world.  I also try to pay attention to the style of wines my friends like to drink, so that I can make sure to have their favorites on hand when we get together.  For example, I know that Amber likes sweet wines like Moscato, Larry’s favorite is a dry Bordeaux, Livia prefers Champagne, and Kathy enjoys a good Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.  When I discover a wine that I know one of my friends will love, I feel like I’m giving them a gift when I introduce it to them.  It’s great to compare their first tastings to mine, to see what flavors their palettes pick up.

Because of this need to share, my friend Melanie suggested I write some periodic posts about the really good wines that I drink, so I can convey my obsession to the world! I thought that if I’m going to discuss good wines, I should also pair them with good recipes; I know many people will only drink wine in combination with a meal.  My husband is one of these people, so for my first wine/ meal pairing, I decided to review one of my husband’s favorite dishes, along with a wine from one of our favorite wineries.

First, the wine…. 

My husband and I love visiting the Finger Lakes of Central New York.  Not only is the scenery beautiful, but the lakes are home to some of the country’s best wineries, breweries, and distilleries.  If you are in New York State for business or pleasure and you are a wine lover, you have to taste in the Finger Lakes!  One of the wineries we love to visit is Rooster Hill Vineyards which is on Keuka Lake in Penn Yan, New York. Their wines are frequently reviewed in Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast , and have won awards for both their reds and whites.  One of these award-winners is their 2014 Estate Gewurztraminer.  It recently won the Silver Medal at the 2016 Finger Lakes International, and it’s only $17.99 per bottle.  An awesome price for a wine this good!  Many people are afraid to try Gewurztraminer because it is often referred to as “spicy.”  In reality, many Gewurztraminers have hints of ginger, and this is what the palette picks up.  This wine is no exception.  The bouquet presents pear and floral notes, with traces of citrus.  There are suggestions of ginger when the wine first hits my taste buds, but the finish is smooth and slightly creamy.  Gewurztraminers are often recommended to be served with spicy Thai and Szechuan dishes because they balance out the heat.  This wine definitely balanced the strength of the garlic in the orzo.  Rooster Hill’s 2014 Estate Gewurztraminer is a great place to start if you have never tried this style of wine before and want a nice bottle of wine to go with a spicy meal.  You can order it directly from the winery, but it is also sold at many retail wine stores.…and now the food!

I need to start out by saying that if you love garlic, this is the recipe for you!  The other nice thing about it is it’s really easy to make.  I get tired of making the same old thing week after week.  This recipe switches things up a bit, using orzo instead of the typical spaghetti noodle I would usually turn to while making dinner on a weeknight.  Cooking the orzo in chicken broth gives it a nice flavor as well.  To make this recipe even easier, I use the precooked chicken strips so I only have to heat them up in the garlic/red pepper/oil mixture.  I also buy the prewashed baby spinach to save myself another step.  This meal cooks up in about 15 minutes, which is perfect when I’m tired from shuttling my teenagers around town for their after school activities. This recipe serves a family of four, but it’s very easy to double for a bigger family.  Plus, when you plate it and put grated parmesan on top, it looks like a dish you would get in a five star restaurant!

I hope you enjoy both the wine and the meal, and feel free to let me know your impressions of both.

Cheers and bon appetit!

Recipe adapted from Allrecipes.com

INGREDIENTS:
1 cup uncooked orzo pasta
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts – cut into bite-size pieces
salt (or chicken bouillon) to taste
2 cups fresh spinach leaves
grated Parmesan cheese for topping

DIRECTIONS:
Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. (I usually cook mine in chicken stock, it isn’t necessary, but it definitely gives some added flavor.) Add orzo pasta, cook for 8 to 10 minutes, until al dente, and drain.

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat, and cook the garlic and red pepper 1 minute, until garlic is golden brown. Stir in chicken, season with salt, and cook 2 to 5 minutes, until lightly browned and juices run clear. Reduce heat to medium, and mix in the cooked orzo. Place spinach in the skillet. Continue cooking 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until spinach is wilted. Serve topped with Parmesan cheese.

“To Be Old and Wise You First Have to Be Young and Stupid”

When I was younger, I remember wondering why older people were so cranky.  Why did they seem to have such short tempers?  Why were they so quick to fly off the handle when someone said something that they felt was inaccurate or inappropriate? Why did they get so angry when they were asked (or expected) to do things that weren’t necessarily their responsibility?  Wouldn’t it be easier (and nicer) to just do what was requested and not make waves? It was as though they had all the angst of teenagers, but unlike teenagers who often sit and stew in their misery, these adults weren’t afraid to make all of their complaints known. I couldn’t understand what they were so miffed about.

Now I get it.

There are many reasons why older, or as I prefer to be called, “mature” people speak their minds so freely without fear of judgement or hurting people’s feelings.  It took me forty-five years, but I now understand these people and support their resentment wholeheartedly.  Why?

Because I became the older person.

Years of being beaten down by the system, striving for goals and then being disappointed by the outcomes, and being overworked and underappreciated will mold a person into the crotchety man or woman that young people look down upon. Yes, twentysomethings!  Your parents and grandparents didn’t always have these attitudes!  We used to be optimistic like you!  We used to let the little things go in the hopes that our hard work and generosity would be acknowledged and would pay off in the end!  Oh how things change!  Here are the reasons why.

  1. Unappreciation

No matter what our occupation or marital status, by the time we reach our forties many of us have experienced being unappreciated for our efforts.  We have taken on extra work to help our co-workers or spouses.  We have single-handedly finished projects at home or at work which would normally require a whole team to complete. We have come to the aid of family or friends in need, often at our own personal expense.  Inevitably, in one or more of these instances we have not been appreciated for our efforts. When we took on the extra work, we didn’t do so because we expected praise or rewards.  However, somewhere along the way our extra efforts became expected.  It was that moment when our attitudes started to change.  Showing a little thanks and gratitude goes a long way. Being acknowledged for our labors is motivating.  These small acts of kindness make people more willing to go the extra mile in the future.  Likewise, when others begin to assume we will take on additional responsibilities and then aren’t grateful for our help, we learn that it’s not worth the effort.  When we see colleagues complete the bare minimum yet advance in status because they know how to schmooze the boss, we realize that hard work doesn’t pay like we’ve been told it would.  When we hear about moms “going on strike” because their families simply expect them to work full time and then come home and care for them full time, we understand. Being unappreciated in any position breeds bitterness. Bitterness leads to a lack of willingness to do extra.  The consequences are unavoidable.

  1. Being Taken Advantage Of

Unappreciation and being taken advantage of go hand-in-hand.  Many people are willing to help another person in need.  Unfortunately, once a person is taken advantage of, he or she will become less likely to want to lend a hand in the future.  The definition of “taking advantage” of someone is when a person can do a task on his/her own, but instead expects someone else to complete the task for him/her.  An example of this is when a teenager knows she is supposed to wash the dishes, but instead leaves them in the sink for mom to do when she gets home from work.  Or when a neighbor sends her kids next door to play for the day, because she knows the mom will feed all the children lunch and keep an eye on them while the neighbor watches her afternoon soap operas. Or when the boss assigns the employee a project and then takes all the credit for it at the monthly staff meeting.  The list could go on and on.  When we are younger, we are more likely to shoulder a certain amount of these acts in an effort to keep the peace at work, at home, or with neighbors and friends.  As we get older, however, the realization hits that the peace isn’t worth the added frustration.  So we speak up and say no when we’re asked to do something that we don’t have the interest/time/energy to do.  We are blunt and say, “You can do that yourself.”  Others may view this as selfishness.  We realize it is simply self-preservation.

  1. Knowing the System

When we hit middle-age, we have lived half of our life expectancy.  We have held many jobs, gone on many adventures, had many successes and made many mistakes.  We know how the world works.  We have been in the same career for a decade or more. This means we know how to get things done, because we’ve learned through trial and error.  We can be excellent mentors for young people who are just entering our fields of employment, because the younger generations do not have these experiences to draw from when it comes to making decisions and accomplishing tasks.  However, many times young people with little to no experience are hired for leadership positions because they are vibrant and viewed as “go getters” who will motivate and energize the workforce.  This is wonderful in theory, and can lead to success if those in leadership roles are willing to listen to veterans who have understanding of the business and the skills needed to meet the goals.  Unfortunately, many young people come out of school thinking they know everything (see my Teenager for Sale: Make an Offer post).  They look down upon the older generation, often assuming they don’t want to try new things to get the job done.  Here’s the truth:  they aren’t “new things.”  They are the same old ideas being repackaged with new names. They’ve already been done! And they didn’t work!  Veterans have been down these roads before.  We were once the young people trying to find our way through demanding careers with tasks that seemed insurmountable, and we came out the other side.  Time has shown us the quickest, most successful ways to complete jobs.  So when the newbies look at us and think we’re being bullheaded about not doing things their way, it’s not because we are trying to be stubborn. It’s because experience has taught us the right way to do it!

So the next time you hear an older person speaking his mind about a request or expectation, look at the situation from his perspective.  As Atticus Finch so famously said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Experience is a wonderful teacher, and older people have had many more lessons.  These lessons have taught them to stand up for themselves and to speak their minds, but they are also willing to share their knowledge with those willing to accept it. Don’t write off the “older generation” as a crotchety bunch of fogies!  Listen to what they have to say—you just might learn something new!

12WATCHMAN-master315

Atticus Finch talking to Scout about “walking in someone else’s skin.”

Crockpot Meals and the Clean Plate Club

Like many working moms, it can be very difficult to make healthy meals for my family during the work week.  Between after-school activities and late nights at work, it is rare that we sit down to eat dinner before seven o’clock in the evening.  For a long time, it seemed like I was making the same old meals every week, simply because they were quick and easy: spaghetti, fish fillets and french fries, baked chicken and frozen veggies that I could throw in the microwave.  On the nights when dinnertime was closer to eight p.m., we would often just run out and get a pizza.  I was glad that with our busy schedules we didn’t give up on having dinner as a family and catching up on daily events, but I felt like I wasn’t teaching my kids to have variety in what they ate.

Along Came the Crockpot

To change this pattern, I decided to pull out a kitchen appliance that had been collecting dust in my pantry—my crockpot. I’ve always thought crockpot meals took too much time to prepare.  Crockpot meals are great on the weekends when there’s time to prepare one, but when you leave for work at seven a.m. during the week, an extra half hour of sleep is much more important than getting up early and getting the crockpot ready.  Then my cousin posted a comment on social media about putting together ten crockpot meals that she could freeze and cook later.  Why didn’t I think of that?!? She also included a link to a site that had multiple freezer recipes, so I opted to give them a try.

The first thing you need to know about making a bunch of crockpot freezer meals all at once is that you need to prepare ahead of time.  Go shopping ahead of time to make sure you have all the ingredients and you don’t have to make an emergency run to the grocery store in the middle of cooking.  Make sure you have freezer bags, a sharpie to write the name of the meal and the cooking time on the outside of the bag, and something to hold the freezer bag while you fill it.  They have these cool little stands you can buy for this purpose (Jokari Hands-Free Baggy Rack), but I just balanced the bag inside a bowl.  Finally, if you’re like me, plan on having a good chunk of time designated for putting your freezer meals together.  Many recipe sites state that the meals can be completed in an hour or so.  It takes me at least twice as long.  But remember that the time you spend on a weekend putting these together will be worth it when you come home from work during the week and dinner is ready and waiting for you!

The Clean Plate Club

Some of the sites that specialize in crockpot freezer meals are Eating on a Dime and New Leaf Wellness, but I’ve also found quite a few recipes on Pinterest.  You can find recipes for every taste and style of food.  I asked my family to list the recipes they liked the best.  Here they are with the recipe links included:

The all-time favorite is the chicken alfredo.  I cook up frozen broccoli with the linguine noodles to add a vegetable to the meal.  Everyone loved it!  I was worried the cream cheese would separate and not blend well, but this was easy, creamy, and delicious.  Even my picky eater had a second helping.  We give this a five clean plates rating!

Second place goes to slow cooker cheesy tortellini.  The recipe calls for ground beef, but I modified it so my oldest daughter, who is a vegetarian, would eat it.  I swapped the ground beef for a “beef crumbles” meat substitute.  Because of this the recipe was a little quicker to make because I didn’t have to brown up ground beef; I just threw the frozen crumbles into the freezer bag.  I also added several cups of fresh baby spinach to get that extra healthy boost.  The important thing with this recipe is you need to add the tortellini towards the end of the cooking time, so they don’t get mushy.  My husband normally doesn’t like tortellini, but he asked me to make this recipe again, so I know it’s good.  I also was able to get two meals for a family of four out of this recipe, which was a nice bonus.  We give this a four clean plates rating!

The third place award goes to the Hawaiian chicken recipe. This one was so easy to put together — only four ingredients.  The one change I made to this recipe is I shredded the chicken instead of cooking it in chunks.  It was great over rice.  Everyone loves the sweetness of the pineapple too.  We give this a four clean plates rating!

The key with crockpot recipes is you can’t be afraid to play around with them.  If there’s an ingredient you know your family doesn’t like, leave it out or substitute something else.  Also remember that not every recipe will turn out the way you want.  I have learned the hard way that there is no good recipe for crock pot mac and cheese (at least there’s not one that my family likes).  The important thing is that with each new recipe I make, my family tries eating something new, and I have less stress when it comes to cooking dinners during the week– less stress is always a good thing!  Good luck with your crockpot cooking, and enjoy!

crockpot meals

A sampling of some of the freezer crockpot meals I have made.

Teenager for Sale: Make an Offer

“For Sale: Teenager, comes equipped with rolling eyes, deep sighs, and sarcastic comments. Plays video games and texts 200 wpm. No reasonable offer will be refused.” I laughed out loud when I saw this meme, because as a mother of two teenage daughters, I get it! When my girls became teenagers, it was as though a switch was thrown and they instantly believed they were all-knowing.  Correction: if they don’t think they know everything, they definitely think they know way more than Mom and Dad.  No matter what the issue– overscheduling activities, the importance of middle/high school, or settling conflicts between friends– Mom and Dad don’t have a clue.  My husband and I have tried giving them advice and guiding them through these struggles, but often to no avail. After all, how could we possibly understand their situations when we’re so old?!?  We don’t know what it’s like to be a teenager in this day and age.  We didn’t have these pressures when we were young.  We didn’t have the same kinds of problems when we were growing up.   When I hear these things from them and I’m ready to go ballistic, my husband reminds me, “They’re teenagers.  We behaved this way too.” I know he’s right; I listen to his advice and don’t fire back.  So when the tears start flowing from Daughter #1 because three of the four clubs she joined are meeting on the same day at the same time and she can’t possibly go to all of them simultaneously, I hold my tongue.  When Daughter #2 complains of insomnia but won’t put her electronics away in the evening to let her brain relax, I bite my lip.  When high drama ensues for Daughter #1 because two close friends are fighting over some perceived slight and she feels the need to either take sides or fix the situation, I keep my mouth shut.  However, when both girls give me attitude about helping with the household chores, that’s when I lose my mind and start screaming like a banshee. “I ask so little of you and do so much for you, and this is how you treat me when I ask for help!?!”  Everyone with teenagers has uttered words like these, or maybe something worse, at one point or another.  We all have our breaking points.

Years ago, after one of many curfew arguments with my parents, I remember my mom telling my teenage self, “You’ll get payback when you have kids.”  Sure enough, she was right. Yes, I know I also behaved this way as a teenager, but why? Is this an inherited trait? Does this mean my kids got their “always right” attitude from me? Maybe they picked it up from their friends?  Or, the scariest possibility, is this attitude caused by bad parenting on my part? I needed to uncover the reason for this teenage viewpoint, not just so I could learn how to deal with my daughters better, but so I could figure out if the situation was my fault to begin with.

I did the first thing that every parent does when they’re faced with a problem in this day and age– I did an internet search. The first link that popped up was a website called EmpoweringParents.com. It had an article titled “Why Your Teen Thinks They Know Everything” written by Colleen O’Grady.  Within the first few lines O’Grady states that there is a clear reason teens all over the world behave this way.  “A significant part of your teenager’s brain, the prefrontal cortex, is undeveloped,” she proclaims.  She goes on to compare the prefrontal cortex to the brakes on a car. “The thing with teens is that they get the gas (the impulses), but they have a faulty brake system (an undeveloped prefrontal cortex).” This simple analogy explained so much about my kids! The brakes in their brain haven’t been installed yet! This is the reason my girls struggle with things such as planning ahead, managing emotions and delaying responses, showing empathy, and understanding the big picture. Here’s the really scary part: the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until age 25!  This means that for the next decade or so, I will need to keep guiding my kids in the right direction and giving them advice in the hopes of preventing them from making decisions that could have serious consequences.  With any luck they will listen to me most of the time.  Some of the time they won’t.  But that is what life is about. Every decision you make, whether you are the parent or the child, is a learning experience.

I now understand why so many people with teens have gray hair. But hopefully my kids will weather all this teen angst and become successful adults.  Then, if I’m lucky enough to have grandkids, one thing is certain.  My children will have teenagers just like them!  When my kids become the parents on the receiving end, they will ask the same question to my husband and me: “Why do teenagers think they know everything?” We can watch everything come full circle!

IMG_1697

With a Little Help From My Friends

As I’ve grown older, some of my memories have faded with time.  Others remain just as vibrant as the day they occurred. I can’t remember my first day of high school, but on my first day of middle school I remember the “cool kids” on the bus teased me about my outfit.  I have a vivid mental picture of my brother accidentally hitting me in the face with a snow shovel when I was in second grade. As I ran into the house with blood gushing from my lip he kept saying, “I’m sorry!  Please don’t tell mom!”  However, I cannot recall a much more important event, the day my little sister was born. These lapses cause me to wonder why we hang on to more trivial memories, when others which seem much more important fade like colored paper that’s been left in the sun.  One would assume our childhood friendships would suffer a similar fate. I’m talking about the friendships made from elementary school through college that time and distance should have altered.  As we grow older, it’s these friendships that by all accounts we should have long forgotten. Yet many times these people seem to know us best, even though we may seem very different than we were twenty or thirty years ago.

I read an article by Lindsay Holmes in The Huffington Post titled “10 Things Only Your Childhood Best Friend Understands.” One of the first lines of the article states that “Research suggests that strong social connectedness with best friends when we’re young could lead to more happiness and increased well-being as adults.”  I agree, but I don’t think it’s the connections that we make when we’re young that make us happy.  I think it’s the reconnections we make with those friends when we are adults that keep us going.

Many women (myself included) hit a time in their lives when they become so absorbed with career/children/marriage that the bonds they formed with childhood or college friends start to fray.  We stop getting together for coffee, then the phone calls are fewer, and before you know it months or in some cases years have gone by and we’ve lost track of the people who used to be our touchstones for true friendship. It’s not intentional—life and the needs and wants of others always seem to absorb all of our time.  Then one day, while putting together the kids’ lunches or getting ready for work, an old song will come on the radio, bringing memories flooding back to the surface.  Memories of driving around town in your best friend’s Chevette and singing Steve Miller’s “The Joker” as it blasts from the cassette player. Reciting all of the words to The Pixies “Gigantic” while drinking pots and pots of coffee with your roommate.  Sloshing through puddles of beer with your friends while dancing to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” in a college town bar.  What happened to these wonderful souls who were the staples of your life? As the day marches on, your mind keeps drifting back to these memories; your coworkers ask why you’re smiling, and you realize that although you’re sitting at your desk at work, you’re reliving days gone by on your mental movie screen.

At this point, you have a decision to make.  You need to decide if you’re satisfied with just reminiscing about “the good old days,” or if you want to make the effort to contact your old pals through social media searches or the old-fashioned telephone.  When I was faced with this choice, I decided to do the later, and I’m forever thankful.  Over the past ten years, I’ve reconnected with my closest friends from both high school and college.  I even got together with my college roommate whom I hadn’t seen in 25 years!  The amazing thing I’ve learned from these reunions is that although we are older and wiser, the original connections that caused us to become friends in the first place still remain today.  With these people by our sides we overcame our teenage insecurities.  Together we struggled through homesickness when we first went away to college.  Armed with a box of tissues (and a pint or two of ice cream) we helped each other pick up the pieces after painful break ups.  Childhood friends know us in ways others do not.  They have seen us at our worst and most vulnerable, and stood by us.  Sharing these formative experiences creates a different type of bond.

Our childhood pals often understand our family dynamic and our emotional weaknesses better than many others we see on a daily basis in our adult lives.  Now that our lives have come full circle, what better people to have in our corner while we face raising teenagers and caring for our aging parents.   Our old high school dramas have been replaced with career pressures and the daily offenses of the adult world. But on my worst days as a grown up, no one can make me laugh as long and as hard as my friends from my youth!  Those laughs are by far the best part of reconnecting with my oldest and dearest friends. So if you’ve heard an old song on the radio that’s made you remember those friends from long ago, take the next step and look them up.  I promise you won’t regret it!