Traffic Jam Jammin

Sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, I looked around me. It was 5:30 pm and some cars, like mine, were just trying to get home from a normal day’s work. Others, like the car in front of me, with the kayaks strapped to the roof, or the car to my right, with four bikes on a rack in the back, were heading off for a holiday weekend.

But we were all stuck, in traffic, almost at a stop, on Interstate 295.

I looked to my left, at a driver holding his forehead, and then hitting his steering wheel in frustration. To my right, the driver had a look of defeat, and was actually slumped down in her seat as she inched along. An ineffective horn blasted from far behind us, like a cry of exasperation.

But then, another driver let the stress break him down and he suddenly jerked his car onto the shoulder, speeding up and passing two or three cars, and then unexpectedly cutting back into traffic. Cars veered away to avoid a collision and horns blasted all around.

As my heart rate slowed, I let out a sigh of relief that the road ragers were in front of me, at least for now. Aside from this hellish traffic, I was having a particularly stressful day and for a moment, I embraced the reaction of my fellow drivers, and let my forehead rest briefly on my steering wheel.

But then, I glanced in my rear view mirror and I saw something wonderful. The driver, in the car behind me, who looked to be about 25 years old, was singing, and with incredible zeal.

I wondered what he was listening to, and took a closer look at him. He was wearing a short sleeved button down checkered shirt and chunky Buddy Holly glasses. His hair was messy, and was sticking up on one side, like he had just gotten out of bed without brushing his hair. A bedhead cool guy persona was emerging in my mind for him and I imagined that he bought that shirt in a thrift shop and that those glasses were just for show, and probably had no lenses. He probably had a messenger bag in the passenger seat, and I was willing to bet that he was vegan.

My new hipster traffic jam friend was tapping out a beat on his steering wheel and bobbing back and forth in his driver’s seat. And unlike the other drivers, he didn’t look frustrated, or the least bit impatient. Instead, he looked happy. I was liking him more and more.

We were at a dead stop, so I had the time. I quickly started flipping through the radio stations on my car stereo, determined to find the song he was singing. What would my milennial pal like? Would it be Weezer, or Modest Mouse, or maybe some broody Pink Floyd?

After about ten tries, I found it. I stared into my rear view, intently watching his mouth move, as he waved his arms around, dancing in his seat. As the words coming from my radio and the movement of his mouth lined up, I started laughing with surprise.

“Wake me up before you go-go
Don’t leave me hanging on like a yo-yo
Wake me up before you go-go
I don’t want to miss it when you hit that high”

Wham finished up and the next song queued up, and Whitney Houston’s smooth and charismatic voice began.

“Clock strikes upon the hour
And the sun begins to fade
Still enough time to figure out
How to chase my blues away”

I felt giddy with anticipation. Would hipster guy stay with Whitney, or change the station?

To my joy, he snapped his fingers and started singing, still happy.

I looked to my left and the driver there still gripped his forehead. To my right, the driver now looked downright despaired.

But I had no deadline, so why entertain the stress? I turned up my radio and started belting out the song, knowing that that my buddy behind me was doing the same.

“Oh, I wanna dance with somebody
I wanna feel the heat with somebody
Yeah, I wanna dance with somebody
With somebody who loves me”

I wondered if the driver in front of me might glance in her rear view mirror and see me singing. What would she imagine about me and would she scan her own radio to find my song? And above all, would she chime in too?

In this world, with very real troubles, disease, and loss, we really need to be more selective about which things we allow to cause us stress. Traffic is usually just an inconvenience, and is not worthy of the stress-inducing power we give it.

After all, what exactly is a traffic jam? Its a chance to sing my jam, that’s what!

So next time you are stuck in traffic, look around. You just might see me, or my new traffic jam friend, defying the stress, and embracing our inner Whitney!

Join us! Choose happy!

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Surviving Summer, 70s Style

A friend of Jake’s got a minor burn, while working on an engineering project in our backyard yesterday. As his pointer finger developed a small blister, Joe provided burn cream and band aids and, in a show of support, Joe and I shared stories of the minor burns we have experienced over the years.

Surprisingly, most were in our youth.

As a kid, I experienced small burns many times while baking, both in my Easy Bake Oven, and in the real oven, which I used on my own, stretching my eight year old arms to reach the cake pan or cookie sheet deep in the hot oven.

Joe described getting minor burns while starting a fire in one of the forts in the woods that he and his preteen buddies loved to build. In this case, they had dug a deep, wide hole, covered the top with pieces of plywood and tree branches, and then sat around in the hole, summer day after summer day, shooting the breeze, and of course, starting fires.

“It’s a real miracle we didn’t die from carbon monoxide poisoning in that hole,” Joe said, thinking back.

“It’s a miracle we survived summers in the 70s at all,” I responded.

Here’s why:

  • Television: Nowadays, we worry about the risk of too much screen time. Back in the 70s, though, we had only seven or eight channels to choose from, and no internet, video games, dvds or on-demand programming. So while our screen time was limited by lack of options, we did carve out dedicated time for gems like the Banana Splits, Johnny Quest, the Partridge Family, and Underdog. But although our parents repeatedly told us to back up, back up, back up, we sat right on the floor, less than one foot away, from our radiation producing cathode ray tube television set.
  • No Supervision: With nothing on TV, we went outside, all day. We roamed the entire neighborhood, unsupervised, and with no cell phones or GPS tracking, our parents had no idea where we were. They went on good faith that we’d be safe, even if we were running around in the woods (which we were), climbing trees (yes), jumping on slow moving freight trains (not me, but my friends), or if you were Joe, setting fires in a hole in the woods!
  • No Seat Belts: Were cars even equipped with seat belts back then? We would sit on a grownup’s lap, or we stood up in the back seat, and we loved to climb from the back to the front to the back seat again, all while the car was in motion. If we were lucky enough to ride in a pick up truck, we rode in the open bed, sitting on a wheel well or even better, sitting on the open tailgate, swinging our legs and watching the road pass by under our feet.
  • Playing in the Street: Kick The Can, Wire Ball, Box Ball, or even just having a catch, we did it all in the middle of the street! The playground, luckily, had no risk of passing cars, but there, the monkey bars and sliding board were ten or twelve feet high, and if you fell, your landing would be met only by a cushion of gravel or asphalt.
  • Our Toys: Lawn Darts could impale a slow moving kid, Clackers might cause a concussion, Super Elastic Bubble Plastic produced toxic fumes, and molded plastic Legos contained the heavy metal cadmium. Saturday Night Live even did a skit in 1976, where Candice Bergen, as a news reporter, exposes a toy company for manufacturing unsafe toys and Dan Ackroyd comically defends his products, like the oh so safe, Bag O’ Glass. I am sure some of our own 70s toys provided the comedic inspiration for that bit!
  • Heavy Metals Everywhere!: Our bedroom and living room walls were painted with lead paint, which was not restricted until 1978. What better places to play with those colorful and contaminated Legos?
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  • Eat Your Vegetables: In the 70s, a kid who didn’t eat her vegetables might still be sitting at the kitchen table, hours after dinner ended, in a battle of wills with one or both parents. 70’s parents were convinced that without canned or frozen brussel sprouts or asparagus spears, their kids would surely have stunted growth. They were not concerned, though, that we were bathing those veggies in butter and salt, and that for breakfast that morning, we had filled our bellies with sugar cereals like Cocoa Puffs or Captain Crunch. Later, at the little league field, our carefree folks would hand us a quarter, knowing that this would buy a bounty of sugar and carcinogen Red Dye #2, in the form of pixie sticks, goldfish, shoe strings, and candy buttons, all washed down with orange soda.
  • Haze of Smoke: Every adult I knew smoked cigarettes. They smoked in the house, in the car, in a restaurant, and our teachers even smoked in our school, although they mainly kept it to the teacher’s lounge. A childhood friend would regularly ask her parents to not smoke when we were riding in the car and like the good parents they were, they would laugh and tell her she was being silly.
  • Bugs or No Bugs: We all know that mosquitoes can carry disease. In the 70s, we combated that risk with the ever popular Mosquito Truck. That truck drove all around Oak Valley, traversing every street, and we were called to follow, on bike or on foot. We laughed and we frolicked in the greenish, sweet smelling mist, like mice following the Pesticide Pied Piper. Somehow, however, I was always covered with mosquito bites!

Amazingly, most of us got through our 1970s childhoods unscathed, but not due to skill or smarts, and mostly due to plain dumb luck.

But I do think we learned a lesson or two along the way. At a time when our parents were practicing free-range parenting, not by choice, many of us learned to be independent and confident problem solvers. And I learned, by trial and error, to NOT climb all the way to the top of the too-tall monkey bars.

Plus, if nothing else, Joe and I both learned how to treat and care for minor burns.

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For Whom the Bell Tolls

When I was your age, I walked to school everyday.  And it was two miles away!” – pretty much any grandparent, spoken to pretty much anyone younger

We all have heard our elders tell the tale of how much harder they had it, way back when.  And whether our granddad said it or not, we know that the long walk to school in the rain and snow, was uphill, both ways!

Recently, I was reading through the hand-written and detailed minutes from the board meetings of our corner church.  These minutes were recorded in the 1920s, and I was struck by how resourceful and gritty those folks were back then. 

The first planning meeting of local residents in Colonial Manor, who gathered to discuss their desire for a church, happened in March of 1922.  The start of construction happened on October 21st of that same year, only six months later, and involved close to 70 volunteers from the neighborhood. 

In between those dates, in just six short months, the eager neighbors had to petition the Methodist Episcopal Church for membership, had to obtain a suitable and free (yes, I said free!) piece of property, and had to hold church services in neighborhood homes to build interest in the community.  They had to recruit extensive financial donations, plus, they had to design and plan a church! They essentially had to do all the tasks that a big mega-building firm does nowadays, usually over several years.

old church picture - grayscaleBut the church building was not built by general contractors over several years.  It was built by the members of a small neighborhood, and in a fraction of the time.  The written minutes recounted that after digging the church basement with a team of horses (I cannot imagine what that means), the dedicated folks managed to get a significant amount of the building structure competed in only one day.  

I thought of all those old granddads out there, accused of telling tall tales.  Perhaps there is more truth to their seemingly inflated stories than we know. 

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In 1926, according to those same written church minutes, the church went on a quest for a bell to complete its bell tower.  They formed a committee and made a detailed plan and time line.  After all, the bell tower had been empty since the church’s construction four years earlier!

But tower bells were expensive, or so I imagined.  Because, strangely, those usually detailed and specific notes are vague about the acquisition of the bell.  The minutes outline the desire for a bell and the beginnings of a plan,  and then … radio silence.  The bell is never mentioned again.    

But yet, there is a bell in the bell tower, and it looks pretty darn old. So what’s the story of the bell?  

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My son, curious, opted to climb up in the tower and see it for himself. While up there, he realigned the pull rope and replaced a pulley, so that the bell can now be rung. 

The name of the city of Troy, NY is embossed on the bell, and from the internet, we learned that Troy had two busy foundries in the ’20s that made most of the country’s church bells at the time. Joe asked several bell experts in Troy to look at pictures and videos of our bell and they all agreed that the bell’s cradle had been jury-rigged and that our bell was not made for a church tower at all.   

Word-of-mouth lore tells two conflicting stories of the origin of the bell.  One version comes from an elderly gentleman who says that his elders said that the bell came from a ferry ship on the nearby Delaware River.    

But another gentleman, now 94 years old, tells a different tale.  That fellow’s own father was the church secretary, and it was his hand that would have written those puzzling minutes.  He also happened to be an employee of the Pennsylvania Railroad.  And that church secretary told his children that the bell came from the locomotive engine of a Pennsylvania Railroad train.

DSCN0301To this day, we don’t know the story of the bell.  But there is one thing we know.  

In early 1922, the church on the corner was just a daydream in the minds of a few gritty men and women.  But daydreams became reality when people were motivated and ready to work hard and to improvise.  

Desire and grit built a church.  And desire and grit acquired a bell.  

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So take a look at the bell, or better yet, come visit and ask them to ring it for you.  What do you think?

    • Does that bell look and sound like a passing ferry boat on the Delaware? 
    • Does is look and sound more like a Pennsylvania Railroad train coming round the bend?
    • Or does it look and sound like the dedication and grit of a group of incredibly resourceful people? 

Because tall tales aside, I am sure the true story of the bell was inspiring when those neighbors brought that bell from somewhere, to the little corner church.

And it was probably uphill – both ways!  

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What Would Jesus Do?

This week, the United Methodist Church made a loud and clear statement. After a contentious vote at a special conference in St. Louis, they voted to prohibit same-sex marriage in their churches and by their clergy, and to prevent homosexuals from being ordained and holding the church’s highest leadership roles.

Unlike the Catholic Conclave, where cardinals are sequestered in St. Peter’s cathedral, with no outside observers present, and only smoke from the chimney to clue us in to what is happening, this United Methodist meeting was live-streamed over the internet. So we saw first hand how heated and emotional the debate was over this matter, and I felt proud of the many strongly spoken leaders that argued for equal rights and inclusion for all.

But to my dismay, the group of international delegates narrowly passed a plan called The Traditional Plan, that maintains a policy that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

The plan allows LGBTQ parishioners to attend and participate in the church, but puts on the brakes if those individuals ask for the same opportunities as other members and if those individuals are called to the ministry or desire the holy rite of Christian marriage.

Discriminatory policy against individual groups has a long history in our country. In the past, groups have been told:

“Of course we will let you ride the bus, but you just have to sit in the back.”

“Of course you need to follow the laws, but you aren’t allow to vote for those who make them.”

“Of course you can join the military, but just keep your sexual orientation secret.”

But our country has made great strides, and while racism, misogyny, and homophobia still exist, we have passed nondiscrimination laws that prevent small minded people from making their small minded ideas into policy.

But the church is held to a different standard. So instead of breaking down barriers and spreading the love of Christ, the United Methodist Church is building a wall, and reminding us, in spite of all the strides we have made in moving toward a kinder, more inclusive world, that they support institutionalized discrimination and prejudice. If the UMC was not protected as a church, their policies would be illegal.

So what would Jesus do?

Jesus preached inclusion and ministered to marginalized groups. He stressed that everyone was deserving of God’s love and asked us to show our faith with acts of love and kindness. Jesus came down hard on those that supported exclusion, and those that saw themselves as superior in God’s eyes, like the Pharisees, and made his displeasure widely known.

The conservatives in the church, however, are fond of quoting a few particular lines of scripture, about human sexuality, to support their view that Jesus would be on board with their policies.

For those of you in UMC leadership who believe that Jesus would support exclusion in our present day world and that our God actually views LGBTQ individuals as less worthy of God’s grace, I would refer you to the Book of Exodus, where you can read the story of thousands of people leaving a place where everyone was not given equal treatment.

Because the United Methodist Church is about to see a mass exodus too!

4/22/19 Post script: Almost two months later, the UMC remains divided over this. Large factions of the church have pushed back against the ruling and have argued that they will continue to act based on what they know is right and what they see as true Christian behavior, rather than by biased and harmful church law. It remains to be seen whether this ruling will splinter and split the church and if the UMC will emerge from this whole, or in pieces.

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Disaster Prep and Facing Suburban Wildlife

During our staff meeting, nurse practitioner Karen reviewed a twelve week plan to prepare our homes for weather emergencies and natural disasters. The two-paged brochure advised stockpiling canned goods and communicating a clear plan to family about what to do and where to go in the event of crisis. The brochure also suggested a simple home fire drill.

I thought back to the last time my family had attempted a fire drill.

It was 2007 and Jake was an oh-so-cute 8 year-old Cub Scout. His Wolf Pack was learning about household safety and he had carefully drawn an accurate map of our house and had mapped out several evacuation routes.

Incidentally. around that same time, rumors were swirling through our suburban streets and the bus stop moms were astir with alleged sightings of a misplaced brown fox. People had seen that fox in the recesses of their backyards, or from the corners of their eyes as they drove down tree-lined streets. In my tiny neighborhood, many people had thought they had seen the renegade fox, but no one was quite sure.

Of course, since then, wildlife has, in fact, encroached on our West Deptford suburbia. As natural habitats have been destroyed, we now have wild turkeys in the woods near the highway, and turkey vultures sometimes sun themselves on our roofs. We have owls and bald eagles and have seen an explosion in the deer population. To avoid hitting a deer while driving, both automobile and golf cart operators need to be mindful, since deer are regularly seen along our streets and all around our golf course.

But twelve years ago, aside from squirrels, chipmunks, and an occasional raccoon, we never saw wildlife near our homes. So the kids, having heard talk in school, asked us if they should be worried. We assured them that we live in a non-wooded area, and we told them, and believed, that a wild fox would have no reason to stroll around our lawns and that surely, all this scuttlebutt would turn out to be gossip and nothing more.

So on the night of the fire drill, Joe and I were ready. At the designated time, I would yell out that we had a kitchen fire. Joe would run into the kitchen to feign assistance and would immediately call for evacuation.

“Fire,” I yelled.

“Evacuate now,” Joe yelled. “Head to the meeting place.”

I smiled as I heard the front door slam closed, knowing that our boys and Joe would be running toward the corner gathering place. When I hustled out the back door, though, which was my nearest exit, it was surprisingly dark. I silently cursed myself for not turning on the outdoor lights before evacuating.

Stepping into the dark space, I encountered a pair of eyes. At first, my confused brain thought that young Jake might be in the backyard with me somehow.

“Jake?” I called out softly. “Hello?” No answer.

My heart rate increased as I realized the eyes were not those of a small child, but of an animal. Was a neighbor’s dog in my yard?

The small glowing eyes seemed to move closer to me just as my own eyes adjusted to the darkness and I began to make out a shape. Son of a gun, the rumors were real!

“Ahhhh,” I yelled, and took off. I reached the gate to my backyard fence, and tried clumsily to work the latch. Of course, it was stuck.

Joooeee,” I yelled at the top of my lungs, watching Joe and the boys still jogging toward the corner. I continued to fumble with the latch.

“Wait!” I hollered. “Wait for meeeeeee!” They kept going.

I got the latch open and started running.

It was the longest half block I have ever traversed. In my mind, I fully expected that the fox was right behind me, ready to bite at my heels.

When I finally caught up with my family, bending over to catch my breath, I excitedly told them about the fox.

“How would a fox have gotten into our fenced-in yard?” Joe asked with skepticism. “It probably was something else, like an opossum, or a big squirrel.”

And just like that, my own sighting was discredited with the rest.

Over the next week, accounts of the fox started to wane. To this day, I don’t know if the fox’s presence was ever verified, but I know what I think I just might have maybe seen.

Reading Karen’s disaster preparedness brochure today, I made a goal to prepare my household. I did a quick inventory of the non-perishables in our cabinets and made a plan to purchase bottled water this week. But what about a family fire drill?

Last year, our town was abuzz again, but this time, with rumors of a roaming coyote, posing a threat to vegetable gardens and all unattended kitties, Chihuahuas, and Teacup Yorkies. As the sightings increased, one resident even created a Facebook page for the “WD Coyote”.

Given that urban sprawl continues to displace wildlife, I guess I should do some research on encounters with foxes, coyotes, and just in case, bears!

And moving forward, all of our family fire drills will take place ONLY during the bright light of day!!

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Put Your Potatoes In

“Put your potatoes in,” 8 year old Susie yelled enthusiastically, and held out a single fist, knuckles to the side. We formed a quick circle around her, in just a few seconds, and each of us pushed two balled up, and dirty fists into the center.

“One potato, two potato, three potato, four, five potato, six potato, seven potato, or……”

It was 1975 in New Jersey. The kids from Muhlenberg Avenue were doing what they did most evenings, at least until the street lights went on……they were playing.

Peggy’s “potato” was gently pounded with that “or” and she sighed, folding that arm behind her back. She kept her other fist in the circle, but looked worried. The rest of us stood a little taller and held our own potatoes out with a bit more confidence as the elimination continued.

Back in the 70s, young folk knew how to get things done. A large group of kids was able to organize very quickly and could settle on which game to play by simply calling out their preferences. If a consensus couldn’t be reached in a minute or so by yelling, then flipping a coin would almost always work.

When deciding which kickball or stickball team got to head up to bat first, we would have our captains shoot for odds or evens. On a count of “one, two, three, shoot,” each team’s captain showed one to four fingers and just like that, a decision was made. Kinder versions involved a best of five or seven, but when twilight was looming and daylight was short, things were finalized on one shoot only.

And when we needed to select a kid to be “It” for Kick the Can, or Hide and Seek, or Tag, we might rely on Eenie Meenie Miney Moe, but more often than not, we would just put our potatoes in.

Times are different now and it seems that parents prefer their children stick to structured, and well supervised, activities, rather than the child-run playtime of my youth. These days, you rarely see groups of kids playing together outside, at least in my neighborhood, and I actually know an elderly fellow who was so surprised by the sight of a group of kids gathering on his corner, that he panicked and called the police. But thankfully, it was just a group of middle schoolers trying to organize a game of wiffle ball, and not the beginning of The Purge.

Whether the decline in outdoor and free play was caused by our electronic pastimes, like video games and the internet, or by modern parents’ real and rational concerns over safety, abduction, and bullying, something has been lost. And while I am in no way advocating for free range parenting, I still need to acknowledge that today’s kids are missing out on the benefits of kid-run playtime.

Michelle Obama has made it clear that outside playtime equals health and fitness, and it is true that there were many fewer overweight kids back in those days. But aside from health benefits, free play also taught us life skills, skills that I continue to use, both in my personal and my professional adult life.

Because we wanted to spend our precious time playing, we learned to organize ourselves and to agree upon rules for our games, both quickly. We learned to collaborate and negotiate, and to compromise, since each of us did not always get what we wanted. If we wanted a voice at the table, though, we learned to make our individual voices heard in a crowd. We also learned flexibility and could change the rules on the fly when needed, like when an extra kid joined in after the game was in progress, and we learned to regroup and reorganize when needed, like when we had to change locations suddenly when the dad of the house, in whose yard we were playing, got home from work and asked for “peace and quiet.”

It was down to only two kids now. “My mother and your mother were hanging out the clothes,” Susie continued. “My mother punched your mother right in the nose. What color blood came out?” The word “out” landed on Chrissy’s outstretched fist and we all waited, with expectation, for her answer.

Boy oh boy, those were different times. But there we all were, not just having unsupervised play time and planning a game that would be played partly in the street, but we were also imagining a clothesline brawl between out mothers! Those of us who were crafty, though, were also counting the letters in various colors and calculating where Susie’s potato would land.

“Yellow,” Chrissy responded and we all waited. This time, the pounding fist came down on me, and I reluctantly tucked my second potato fist behind my back and was out. I had really wanted to be “It” for this game of Kick the Can, and I know my face showed my disappointment. I didn’t cry or throw a fit, though, because, after all, I wanted to stay in the game. Free play with the neighborhood kids had taught me to show some grit and to bounce back when things didn’t go my way.

Kid-organized play time taught us teamwork, communication, leadership, and resiliency. Looking back, I am amazed at what a group of scrappy kids could accomplish.

If only all of my adult work groups could get things done as efficiently and effectively as my childhood neighbors! At the next work meeting when the group is struggling to reach a consensus, I may just yell out, “Everybody, put your potatoes in!”

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The Reluctant Artist

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On that day, a few years ago, the Sunday School kids each were each looking down at a piece of watercolor paper. They each had a supply of pastels and crayons and watercolor paints at their ready and a plastic cup of water for rinsing their brushes.

I had expected this to be the best Sunday School class ever!  We’d be talking about the beauty of God’s creation and doing art!  Kids love art projects, right?

When I was a kid, my art supplies were my toys.  I played around with crayons and paints and clay and charcoal in relaxed, creative playtime.  Family members offered occasional guidance and loose instruction, but mostly encouraged exploration and fun.

So that day, I figured we’d have fun with art. I was excited to share the technique of crayon resistance paintings using watercolors.

I spent a minute explaining how it worked.  With resistance painting, you draw with a wax crayon or a pastel, and then you paint right on top of your drawing.  The background will soak up the paint, but your drawing will be unchanged and will shine right through.

“So go for it!,” I told them and picked up a crayon.

“Wait,” one child said loudly. “Miss Lisa, what should we draw?”

I looked around expecting hands to be grabbing at crayons, eager to start.  Instead, every hand was beneath the table….not a hand in sight.

So I gave them some ideas…..like a bunch of white crayon stars painted over with a black night sky, or brightly colored fish painted over with a blue sea.  I told the kids that they could draw flowers and then paint on the green meadow, or they could draw and color in clouds and then add a blue sky.

“But what should we draw?” another young boy asked, after I finished talking.

“I don’t know what to draw,” a girl chimed in.

“What are we drawing?”

“Should we all draw the same thing?”

“No, you don’t all have to draw the same thing.” I said.  Looking around, I noticed that all of their small hands were still tucked neatly under the table.

“If you want, maybe try one of the ideas I just shared.” I gave my fish two fins and an eye.

“But which idea?”

“Should we all draw a fish?”

And then, one of the preteen girls said the one thing that should never be said about art.

“I’m scared.”

Scared?  What the heck was going on?

How in the world could a kid use that word to describe a little light-hearted painting?

I wondered if this could be a symptom of the times….a symptom of this electronic age when kids rely on YouTube and the internet for easy and quick entertainment.

A generation ago, a kid who wanted to stay entertained needed to exert effort.  Back then, kids had to look around for activities to keep busy and often had to step outside of their comfort zone and be challenged.  So even when those kids had no interest in  jumping into something new, they did it.  Cause when they had to choose between trying something new and just staring at a wall,  something different seemed a bit more attractive.

When I was a kid, if given the choice between playing Connect Four with a friend and a frenetic outside game of Kick-The-Can with ten to twenty of the rowdy neighborhood kids , I would have chosen the inside game 100% of the time.  But when choosing between Kick-The-Can/Lord of the Flies chaos and just sitting in the house watching the Dinah Shore show with my mom, I tightened up my bobo sneakers and headed outside.  I was pushed outside of my comfort zone again and again when the alternative was boredom.  I drew, I painted, I learned to crochet, I played jail break, I learned to double dutch, I played box ball, I played lawn darts, and I made houses from playing cards.

But keeping a child engaged and occupied these days is easier than it was back then. In my youth, a parent kept a restless or cranky child quiet in a busy restaurant with paper and crayons, legos or playdoh.  But nowadays, even the youngest child is simply handed a cell phone and is instantly quieted.

So I guessed that art as free play was a little foreign to my Sunday School kids.

Fortunately, we got through the crayon resistance project.  To my relief, the kids felt better when I suggested drawing puffy words, like Love and Peace, or even their own name.  With encouragement, they all drew and painted and they seemed  proud of their work.

So what to do?

Moving forward, I would like to see Sunday School classes that includes more art projects. I would like to see elementary school art classes encourage free expression. I would like decoupage, paper mache, pastels, and water color to be common childhood activities.  And I would like small children that are bored to be handed a crayon instead of a cell phone.

Maybe I can gather those Sunday School kids for a Jackson Pollock project some time soon.

If those kids thought that the water colors were scary, wait til I encourage them to start throwing paint!

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Reaching for the Stars

The boy, about 10, was clearly excited.  He was walking in front of us, alongside his father, as we entered the exhibit on space travel at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. My husband and I, and our son Jake, were vacationing in DC and we were taking in the most popular sites.

Blue Pink and White Andromeda Galaxy WayThe Air and Space Museum is chock full of the stuff that dreams are made of.  Actual airplanes, missiles, rockets, and space shuttles hang from the ceiling or are installed so you can peek, or even step inside them.  A piece of Moon rock is right there to touch.  The walls are lined with stories of the innovative and the brave, with names like Wright and Lindbergh, Earhart and Hughes, Armstrong, Yeager, Ride, and Musgrave.  The museum inspires us that regular people can do incredible and amazing things!

“Dad, Dad, Dad,” the boy was hurrying to catch up to his father.

I could hear the awe in his young voice and I watched as he lifted his head, and eyes, to take in all that was before us.

“Do you need to be smart to go into space, Dad?” the boy asked, with a hesitance in his voice, as his wide eyes continued to take in the exhibit around us.

“Oh you don’t just have to be smart,” the dad replied, a bit too matter-of-factly.  “Smart isn’t enough. To go to space, you have to be an actual genius.”

The dad put a punch on the word genius that made it sound fantastical or mythological.  He might as well have said, “to go to space, you need to be a wizard, or a unicorn.” I heard it and the boy heard it, that this opportunity was out of reach for all but a select and unusual few.  Maybe without realizing it, the dad had said to his son, “This is not for you,” loud and clear.

I watched from behind as the the boy exhaled and his shoulders fell. He continued to move through the exhibit, but without that pep in his step.  The dad didn’t seem to notice as his son’s dreams evaporated into the air around us.

I regret that I didn’t speak up.  If I could have a do over, I would talk to the boy, and tell him that the road to space can have many different paths. I would share that the earliest astronauts were military pilots, so the US Air Force and Navy are still possible pathways to NASA.  I’d tell him that many modern astronauts are also engineers, scientists, doctors, and teachers, and that while NASA does want all nonmilitary applicants to have a Bachelors degree, nowhere is there mention of an IQ requirement.  I would also tell the boy about private companies making a bid for space, like Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

To get to space, the boy will need to work hard, of course. He will need to apply himself in school and take rigorous classes.  He’ll need to stay in top physical shape and work to be highly educated in his chosen field.  And he’ll need to be gritty and brave.  But the word genius is not on the list of prerequisites.

So I would tell the kid, and all kids, to dream big – – space is within reach.

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Later that same day,  Joe, Jake, and I  were taking in an exhibit about the prospects for a manned research mission to Mars.

The displays talked about inflatable habitats and years and years in space, plus the challenges of surviving an environment with no accessible water, no fuel, no oxygen, and almost no atmosphere.

“Yikes,” I thought, “who, in their right mind, would ever sign up for that?”

Jake spoke up, unsolicited.  “If I ever have the chance to go to Mars, I am definitely going.”

I looked at my 19 year old son in disbelief, as we stood next to an exhibit about dust devils on the surface of Mars.  Dust devils are small tornadoes, made of dust and debris, and on the inhospitable planet, they are everywhere!

“Really?,” I asked, honestly dumbfounded. “You would go to Mars?  MARS!?” I pointed at the continuous loop video showing  a cluster of intense whirlwinds, tearing across the surface of the red planet.

“Of course I would go,” his face was dead serious.  “It would be the chance of a lifetime.”

I realized then, that while raising Jake, Joe and I had managed to give our son exactly what that other parent had quickly denied to his: a belief in his own ability and a belief in the amazing possibilities of this world, and others.

So Jake will continue to dream big and his dreams will be shaped, as they should be, by his view of this world and not by mine.  If it turns out that space travel is in his future, I will fake a smile and encourage him.

I will keep to myself that when I told him, as a child, to reach for the stars, I meant it figuratively, and not literally.

So please encourage the young people in your life to dream big too.  After all, it’s a big world, I mean universe, with endless possibilities for them to explore.

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Postscript:  Joe always reads my posts before I publish them here. After reading this one, he looked at me seriously and said,  “I hate to tell you this, but if I was given the opportunity, I would absolutely go too.”

So please visit me, friends, right here on Earth, after my family leaves me to move to Mars!  In New Jersey, things may not be perfect, but so far, at least there are no dust devils!

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Out With the Old?

colonial manor

“We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”   – Martin Luther King Jr.

“The church, on my corner, was built in 1922.

Due to recent changes in leadership at my ninety six year old church, things are being tidied, cleaned out, and cleared out. The closets and filing cabinets have been emptied and I have been told that the mother church sees no reason for us to hold on to old books or hymnals, or paperwork and records, including meeting minutes.

“We don’t need to keep anything that is over seven years old,” the church leader told me.  “No reason to hold on to the past,” he said, after he had used a bolt cutter to remove the lock that secured the oldest records.

The church, on my corner, was built in 1922.

By then, the builders of the church had been meeting in each others homes for quite awhile, reading from the Bible, singing from borrowed hymnals. and wishing for a place of their own.

In 1919, the Colonial Land Company had bought up the Shivers Farm, and subdivided the fields into lots. They advertised in the area newspapers, not just advertising lots for sale, but advertising a neighborhood, a community, a way of life.  In the years after WWI, families came and built, with some buying kit houses from the Sears Roebuck, Aladdin, or Montgomery Ward catalogs and watching as the house parts came via rail car and were delivered to the train stop in North Woodbury.  Others relied on local construction companies, like Rose and Budd Builders, to design and build their dream homes.

The young families in the new Colonial Manor wanted a community and worked together to build one. They formed their own fire brigade and some desperately wanted a church.

Those determined neighbors met for worship in each other’s homes. Eventually, they convinced the Colonial Land Company to give them a piece of land and the large property at the corner of Elberne and Tatum was theirs. Although there was no building where they could gather, they wasted no time and purchased wood from Holloway Lumber and built benches to be used as pews. Kemble Church donated a few song books and these faithful neighbors began holding open air services on the empty lot.  In July and August, 1922, the Colonial Manor Methodist Episcopal Church met every Sunday, without an actual church building.  Ministers from Camden, Woodbury, and Verga came to preach and they had over 70 attendees at some services that summer.

Preliminary masonry work was done that summer, but the big day was October 21st, 1922, when the neighborhood held a Building Bee.  Thirty-seven men were engaged in construction on the church building, and an equal number of women, back at their homes, worked on preparing food for the working men. Their motto was “A Church in a Day,” and they aimed at doing most of the major construction in a single day.  Amazingly, by 6:30 pm, when the men finished working for the day, the structure of the church was in place, and the women were able to serve a meal in the completed church basement.

I know all this, and more, because I had access to written records that happened to be over seven years old.

Those handwritten minute books were incredibly detailed and were written in the most careful and proper penmanship.  They told the large and small stories of the church and also of the town. They told about the quest for a bell to fill the empty bell tower.  They gave details of times of prosperity and generosity, when the church had money to share, and every child was given candy and an apple on Christmas, and also of lean times, when church members picked up donated coal cinders that had already been burned, to sift through and use in the church furnace, since the church could not afford coal.  The surnames of the church members in those books are the same surnames of some of my current neighbors.

But alas, those records were greater than seven years old. To some, that meant they were valueless.

The church, on my corner, was built in 1922.

Today, on this Palm Sunday, the pastor of the church told the story of Jesus’ parade into Jerusalem and told, in detail, about the crowds laying palms on the ground and shouting Hosannas. His detailed sermon relied on the narratives of the Gospels, but also provided historical facts about Jerusalem in Christ’s time from other sources.  He talked about the politics of Rome and of the Jewish temple leaders. As he preached, his words let me see the streets of Jerusalem that Christ struggled through, carrying the cross.

I left church feeling uplifted and thankful for those who preserve history.

I may not understand the mindset and goals of our mother church right now, but I am grateful for those that HAVE preserved historical records over the last two thousand years.  Walking home, I silently thanked God for those that wrote down the stories of Christ’s life, so long ago, and those that risked their personal safety to preserve them.

And I thanked God for modern archivists, in small and large churches, in universities, museums, and at the Vatican, who continue to think it wise to keep written documents that are over seven years old!

To the Greater New Jersey United Methodist Church, I say this: You are making a terrible mistake. When you forget your history, you forget yourself.

old church picture - full color

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Is It Bread, or Is It Pudding?

bread

The leftover rolls from Christmas dinner would not fit in my freezer, no matter how much rearranging I did . There were only two choices. The trash…..or bread pudding.

Joe loved my mother’s bread pudding and repeated the same query whenever she served it. “Is it bread, or is it pudding?,” he would laugh as he shoveled spoonfuls into his mouth. “It’s both.”

Bread pudding, made from stale bread or rolls, was a staple dessert during the Great Depression. Nowadays, we throw that day-old bread away without blinking an eye. But at a time when households were operating on an incredibly lean budget, a family could not afford to throw away food that might have some life left. Bread pudding was born out of the necessity of hard times and is upcycling at its culinary best.

My mother’s bread pudding was simple, with only a few ingredients. She did not add nuts or raisins or apples to spruce it up, but instead relied on the right ratios of bread, sugar, and milk.

But whenever I tried to recreate that recipe, I fell short.  My versions were either too dry or too mushy, too sweet or too plain. When she was alive, I would badger my mother for advise, but she would explain her recipe with only vague and uncertain measurements.

“Tear up some bread and add about one sugar bowl of sugar,” she’d say.  “Add an egg and some cinnamon and a teaspoon of vanilla and mix it up. Then cover it all with milk until it is mostly covered. It’s that easy!”

What kind of recipe was this, Mom?  I wanted precise instruction, so how much stale bread is the right amount?  And how much, exactly, is some cinnamon? A teaspoon? A tablespoon? And since when is a sugar bowl a standard measure? Whose sugar bowl should I use?

But alas, in life, my mother couldn’t answer these questions. She explained that her original sugar bowl was long gone, so she had to eyeball it. And as far as covering it all with milk, this just required eyeballing too. “You can add more sugar if you need to,” she’d say. “Or more milk too.”

What the heck? In the end, I decided that my mother’s process was more about feelings and less about measurements. Yet, every single time she made it, her bread pudding was perfect.

“Is it bread, or is it pudding?” Joe would ask with a smile as he dug in.

After her death, I continued to try to recreate Mom’s flavor, determined to document an actual recipe. I approached it systematically and tried different sugar bowls and wrote down the sugar and milk measurements for each failure. Still, it was too dry or too wet, too eggy or too sweet. After many attempts, I gave up and resolved that her recipe was out of reach.  I would stick to brownies instead, where the exact measurements are conveniently printed on the box!

This Christmas, though, the freezer was full. I had over a dozen rolls headed for the trash. The conservationist in me knew I had no choice.

But instead of trying to find the right size sugar bowl this time, I decided to relax and just feel. I tore up bread until I felt like stopping. I poured on white sugar and then decided to add some brown sugar too! I added an egg and some sliced almonds and cinnamon and a splash of caramel sprinkles.  I covered it all with half and half until it felt right.

There were no measurements and it is unlikely that I will ever be able to recreate this same recipe again.  After 45 minutes at 350 degrees, it was done.

It was nothing like Mom’s, except that it was perfect.

Many years after her death, I am still learning from my mom.

“Is it bread, or is it pudding?,” Joe laughed as he dug in. “It’s both!”

 

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