Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas and New Year 2013

Dear Friends and Family,

This is the latest I have ever sent out a Christmas letter, which at this point qualifies more as a New Year’s card.  I could come up with heaps of excuses, but the truth is that I just didn’t do it until now.  I hope honesty is refreshing enough to keep me on your Christmas lists.  I love getting cards, both real and electronic. 

I expected 2013 would pale in comparison to 2012, and it did.  (Tough to beat three weeks in France).  However, I got to travel for Cisco to Denver, New Orleans, and London and left a few days early to visit a friend in Amsterdam.  My sister Jessica and I spent ten days in Japan.  As a family, we went to San Diego, took several ski trips, and an impromptu road trip to Whistler when Tracy’s sister got married in Seattle on short notice – lots of camping and mountain biking.

This is the first year we have three kids in three different schools.  Fortunately, they can all get themselves there and back, so if they’re late, they can’t blame it on anyone else.  

Skyler started high school this year.  He shocked us by getting into classes we didn’t think he had the grades for, and despite his haphazard approach to turning in homework, he might survive ninth grade.  He is nearly as tall as me and can cycle faster, but I’m sure I’ll outweigh him until he graduates.  He’s still fencing, playing tennis, programming, and hanging out with friends in his own little man cave or as far away from the house as possible, especially if there are girls involved. 

In seventh grade, this year Liam joined the El Camino Youth Symphony in Palo Alto.  As the only baritone player in their intermediate band, he was in high demand before he even auditioned.  Liam also spent two weeks living in the rain at caveman camp at Turtle Island this summer, where he got to meet my cousins in North Carolina.  This fall, he joined the Mountain View junior development tennis team.  I think both boys just like sanctioned hitting things.    

This is Hadley’s last year in elementary school, and she is still packing her schedule with as much soccer and dance as she can.  Her affinity for horses has not faded, so in the shrinking soccer offseason, she’s fitting in some horseback lessons.  At eleven, we get glimpses of a drama queen we’ve never met before, but most of the time she’s enthusiastic and easy going, especially if her brothers are elsewhere.

I converted from a contractor to a Cisco employee in July, so I’m learning the tricks of navigating a large company.  Working full time has done nothing for my tennis game, French fluency, or social life, but it’s hard to beat the paycheck, and I enjoy the work.  I sprained my ankle in March and it was nine months before I could comfortably run and play tennis again.   Ouch.

Lockheed is still stumbling along, so after 18 years, Tracy has reasons to stay.  He’s been helping the American space program by working on Orion, the human space travel capsule, and was instrumental in fixing part of the launch structure – makes the astronauts breathe easier.  He also placed third at a national fencing tournament that boosted his ranking.  I’ve been dragging him out onto the court as my hitting partner, but I haven’t beaten him yet. 

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!  We are so happy you are part of our village, both near and far.  One more time around the sun… here we go!
 
With Love,
Tracy, Julie, Skyler, Liam, and Hadley
Flynn and Pixel (the cats)
Yuki (the bunny – we lost Xavier to a raccoon :( 
The geckos of shame who have no name

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Colwell Christmas 2012


Today is Christmas Adam (the day before Christmas Eve).  I have never written a Christmas letter this late, but it didn’t make it to the top of the list until now. Some of you over-achievers got your letters out by Thanksgiving. Congratulations. I’m sure all your shopping was done in August, right? 

2012 was the start of parenting 3.0 in our house.  With all kids in double digits, a waning interest in legos and increasing requests for electronics and privacy, we’ve definitely stepped into the PG13 phase of life.  Half the time I don’t know whether to ground the kids for their awful jokes or choke with laughter.

For me, this year was magic.  I would happily rewind to January and start over.  Multiple ski trips to Tahoe and Bear Valley, even one with three moms and ten kids!  Three weeks in France, 10 days in Hawaii, camping with friends, Portland/Seattle and a fall trip to mountain bike in Moab with an accidental day hiking in Zion (because I mixed up the time of my flight home).  These trips were all such brilliant gifts, and I expect it will be a long time before I get a chance to travel so lavishly again. 

However, to fund more potential trips, I gave up the freelancing/tennis/ French-classes/semi-working mom life in October and took a full time job at Cisco doing marketing communications for partner services.  The transition wasn’t seamless and I’ve never been good at balancing and organization, but I’ve landed on a great team and I have the flexibility to work from home when I need to.  It was time to go back, and I’m grateful for the chance to earn a regular paycheck without the feast or famine rhythm of freelancing. 

Skyler marked his last year in middle school by moving into his own room.  He’s claimed our guest room, and as the neatest Colwell kid, if we have to kick him out to host friends, at least it doesn’t take long to get the room ready.  He continues to fence at Stanford and compete in local tournaments.  He’s also taking German, tennis, and fixes my computer.  At thirteen, he’s threatening to become a responsible adult, although his logic and sarcasm still need some refinement.   Soon, I’m sure.

Liam loves middle school because it’s much harder for me to locate and talk to his teachers.  I haven’t gotten any phone calls yet, and he spends enough time doing homework so he appears to be managing just fine.  This year, Liam took up tennis, joined the wrestling team, and played in the band -- dabbled with the tuba, but has resettled on the more manageable baritone horn.  His goals are to wear the least amount of clothing that is socially acceptable, grow his hair back out, and acquire an alpaca. 

Hadley is still packing more into her schedule than anyone else:  tap, jazz, ballet, soccer, French, clarinet, and math Olympiad.  I think she’d give it all up to live on a ranch and ride horses.  She loves her teacher, her friends, her rabbit, everyone except her brothers whose goal it is to taunt her mercilessly.  She uses this to her advantage and has developed the skill and subtlety to get them in trouble.  Her highlights this year all involve horses:  a week at Ranch Camp in Trinity Alps and a week at Webb Ranch in Portola Valley.

Tracy has gradually shifted his primary athletic pursuit from cycling to fencing, and climbed back through the competitive ranks past the class he held in college.  He still manages to ride some locals off his wheel, but the new contenders are getting faster.  At work, the government’s lack of ability to agree on anything has kept Lockheed treading water, so he had to make up for it by joining me in Grenoble for a week.  If things are miserable this year, we’ll have to plan another international trip, but he’s cautiously optimistic. 

Thank you for being part of our village.  We love our community and we are so grateful that we are in this together.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!






With love,
The Colwells
Tracy, Julie, Skyler, Liam, and Hadley
Flynn (the only cat since Malarkey moved into the Greater Neighborhood)
Xavier and Yuki (the bunnies)
The geckos in Liam’s terrarium


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Top Ten (or so) Things I Learned in France


After twelve years of local family trips with one foray to Boston, a long weekend in New Orleans, and an escape to Hawaii, I got to go back to Europe.  A lifetime ago, I'd planned to live there.  When I went to grad school in the UK, it never occurred to me that I'd live and raise my family 10 miles from where I grew up, and two blocks away from my elementary school (that was turned into a fiefdom of pseudo-Tudor homes when they were all the rage in the 80s).  I thought I'd gradually lose my American accent, acquire another language, and fade into English or maybe European society.  Didn't happen.  Life did, and it was good, but different than I expected.  (Is anyone actually living exactly how they expected they would?)

So almost twenty years after I left, I got to go back.  It was magic, of course, as new things are or old things that become new tend to be.  This time I went with friends and to visit friends (and Tracy came too, eventually) which was much better than traveling alone. 

In addition to an onslaught of new French words, how to drive in Paris, not wearing shorts or a ponytail unless I was doing something sporty, or ordering coffee with food, these are the top ten (or is it eleven?) things I learned:  

1. Good white wine is better (and cheaper in France) than diet coke.

2. You can mimic French fashion enough to get other tourists to ask you for directions, but no native will be fooled.

3.  Everyone knows English swear words because they all watch American movies.

4.  Patisseries and caf├ęs on every corner would make me happy.

5.  When you have fought war after war on your own native soil, you think twice about knocking down a buidling to erect another one.  If you wait long enough, some other country might come knock it down for you.

6.  You can live in much less space and with much less stuff than you think.  No one needs their own room, although I think it reduces the screaming fights.  

7.  I have too many clothes.  If I had to hang them out to dry all the time, I'd get rid of half of them.

8.  The voting, driving, conscription, and drinking age should be 18. 

9.  Personal comfort and individual safety should never make the top ten national priorities.

10.  It’s hard to talk on your cell phone or text when you’re driving a manual transmission.

11.  Nothing beats a native tour guide.

Oh, and here's a few other things, because after three weeks, I sure hope I picked up more than eleven new epiphanies, but it's a more digestible number than, I don't know thirty, or however many other things I didn't know before. 

So, a few more:

American public transportation is terrible, but we are a really really big country and our entire western section was built to accommodate cars.

Paper towels in public restrooms are totally unnecessary.  Your hands will dry.

Drinking with your family as a teenager should not be a crime.

Socialism would not work in America... at all, ever.

No one can wear a scarf with such casual elegance as a European woman.

French people don’t snack.

If the French had not adamantly protected their language and history, it would have been diluted by the Germans and the English (and probably also other immigrants and imperialists).

Americans have never overcome their Puritan roots.

We all have bodies and kids don’t need to be “protected” from naked art.  It’s adults who teach them be to be uncomfortable.

You never know what you’ll find behind a door on a street in France, no matter how decrepit it looks.  Could be a garden, a lobby, a bar, a spiral staircase… it’s always a mystery.

Iceland Air pilots should make a calendar.  Jet Blue flight attendants should not.

One coffee is not enough to get me started in the morning.  I still need a carafe.

American food is too sweet.

Dinner should last longer and we should eat slower.  This is easier if your children are adults.

Teachers are there to teach you to learn, not to make you feel good about yourself.  You might feel great, but know nothing.  Competence is a great confidence booster.

A rabbit can live on your terrace without a hutch.

Don't tie a jacket or sweatshirt around your waist.

American are relieved to travel to places that are not governed by the same “safety” restrictions we have to follow at home, yet we continue to vote them into our state and national policies.

Kids as young as eight or nine in Paris fly around on scooters without helmets.  Some people yell at them, but no one runs them over.

You can get used to living anywhere in any way if you don’t try to control everything.

Hopefully it won't be twenty more years before I get to go back again!







Monday, April 25, 2011

The Communion of Saints

Communion in Protestant churches is supposed to be an inclusive affair.  If you’re there and you don’t want to look like you’re not part of the club, you take it. I was five the first time I noticed that there were snacks for the grown ups in Big Church.  Usually, if we were going to have donuts or cookies, they were out on the patio between services, but this time, it was clear that the grown-ups had eaten without us.  I felt excluded... we only got stale graham crackers and water in Sunday School, but they got grape juice and cake.  Party food!  And it was served in cute little glasses.  Sneaky adults.    

When I asked my mom what the snacks were for, she gave me a lengthy explanation about blood and flesh and wine and bread, that did not seem related to the cake and little glasses.  So I left and went to the playground with my sister Heather to discuss why the cake was cut into such tiny pieces, and how we were going to get some of it.  We figured the deacons would probably put it in the kitchen and if we were going to get some, we should go there.


What luck!  The kitchen was empty!  We found the stacks of little glasses -- (this was when they were still made of glass.) Heather and I decided that if we were going to eat the cake, we ought to do something helpful first, so we rearranged the stacks of glasses like bowling pins on the long kitchen counter.  The cups were small, cool, and hefty.  I wanted to pocket two for my dolls, but after all that blood and flesh stuff, taking them seemed likely to upset someone, although I wasn’t sure why.  Next to the stacks of glasses, was the jackpot!  A leftover plate of diced cake covered in a dish towel.  I nicked a few cubes and tasted them.  They were delicious.  They reminded me of Winchells Donuts’ cream cheese cake.  No wonder the adults kept this treat to themselves.  Heather and I began cramming handfuls of it into our mouths.  Just then (of course), the ladies brigade marched into the kitchen with more glasses and leftover cake.  

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” one bellowed.  “Don’t you KNOW that is the BODY of Christ?”

We cowered, wiped the crumbs off our mouths, and ran.  Later that afternoon, my dad told us, “You know... that’s really not a good idea. Communion bread is not a snack.  Please don’t do that again.”  We didn’t... but we wanted to.  Sometimes we took two or three squares during communion, which was especially justified if they were stuck to each other. And to this day, if I could figure out how to make that bread, I would.  


Whenever we went on vacation, my dad made us go to church.  Chances were good that he’d already met the pastor of someplace nearby and we’d go there, but if not, we’d cruise around looking for something within denomenational firing distance of Presbyterian.  On one trip to the Midwest, all we could find was a Lutheran church, so we crept into the back and sat down in the pews.  The sermon was dry and boring, and my sister and I drew butterflies and flowers on the bulletin to pass the time.  Just when I thought we were finally going to get to leave, in marched the ushers with communion trays.  These were not the soft squares of sweet bread I was used to.  They were papery wafers and they stuck to the roof of my mouth.  In our church, we ate the bread together to symbolize community in Christ, but we could drink the juice whenever we wanted to, to show we were individuals as well.  I could not get my juice down fast enough, but it smelled a little strange, and out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my mom’s eyes tear up as she shot back her juice.  I lifted it to my mouth and drained the cup.  It was bitter and tannic -- wine!  I tried to swallow, but couldn’t, and when I tried to breathe, I hacked the contents of my little cup and tiny chunks of wafer into the hair of the person in front of me.   She reached back and patted her spattered hair, but didn’t turn around.  As soon as the pastor began his closing prayer, we slunk out the back.

That was the last time we went to a Lutheran church on vacation.  It was a steady stream of Baptist, Presbyterian, or Bible churches after that... anything to ensure grape juice!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Be Sorry and Get a Grip!


               
I couldn’t move.  I was lying on the queen size camp bed in Curry Village after a mad dash up Half Dome in Yosemite.  My husband treats every hike like a race, so we’d scrambled up and back in seven hours.  Ouch.  After a shower, a beer, and half a pizza, I was done using my legs.  So I was on the bed listening through the canvas walls to other people arrive.

It was clear from the conversation around our tent cabin that we were in the middle of a group that had arrived for a long weekend together.  Some knew each other well, and some were meeting for the first time.  It was mostly families with elementary aged kids.    

When I’m not around my kids, I pay closer attention to how other parents talk to their kids.  Most of the time it makes me feel guilty, because either I hear someone who is infinitely more patient and creative than I am, or I can hear myself in the yammering, scolding, and lecturing of other moms.    
I couldn’t see her, but I heard the voice of a particularly perky mom who didn’t seem to know anyone else in the group very well.  She arrived and introduced her daughter to a potential playmate named Sidney.  The entire conversation went something like this.  “Hi, you must be Sidney.  This is Emmeline.  Are you seven?  Oh, only six.  You must be going into first grade then, yes?  Emmeline is going into second grade.  This summer Emmeline spent most of her time on the swim team, so she is very excited to go in the pool here.  Have you been in yet?  Oh, well, maybe tomorrow, the two of you can go in together.  Sidney, why don’t you show Emmeline your cabin?”

As the two girls skipped off together, the competition continued.  “I think I’m taller,” said Sidney. 

“Maybe, but this ground is slanted,” said Emmeline, “We could get my mom to measure us.”

“Do you like Taylor Swift?” asked Sidney. 

“I have all her songs memorized,” said Emmeline.

“Oh, well, I saw her in concert,” said Sidney.  “I got a shirt.”

“I bet my mom would give us money for ice cream,” Emmeline changed the subject. 

“Okay, go ask her,” said Sidney.

By this time, Perky Mom was sharing her competitive cheeriness with other members of her group, and Emmeline went back to her tent cabin on her own.  She was struggling with getting the key in the lock when her mom showed up, and the monologue began again, “Emmeline, why are you back?  Where’s Sidney?  What are you doing?  You should give me the key.”

“I’m doing it myself, Mom.  I need money for ice cream for me and Sidney.”

“But you’re not doing it right.  If you want ice cream, you need to give me the key.”

“No, I can do it.”

After several more exchanges, Perky Mom shouted, “Emmeline, you’re going to get a time out.  A WHOLE LOT OF TIME OUTS!  Do you want to spend your whole weekend on time outs?” (Sure, Perky.  Like you can enforce that.)

“No, but I can do it.”

“EMMELINE, you need to BE SORRY and GET A GRIP!  Give me the key.  You don’t sound sorry at all.”

At this point, Perky Mom yanked the key away from Emmeline, opened the door, and handed her five dollars.  “Go get ice cream and bring me the change.”

Emmeline won!  She got ice cream.  Go Emmeline! 

But seriously, be sorry and get a grip??  I’d like to get some mileage out of that one.  Many many times I have wished my kids would cough up some repentance and buy a clue.  Perky Mom may be socially competitive, make idle threats, and cave under pressure, but she can spin a phrase.  Maybe it’s evil, but I am so relieved when I hear other moms lose it or flail when they’re dealing with their kids.  It makes me laugh and cringe at the same time.

It’s too bad I couldn’t move my legs.  Otherwise I would have offered to buy Perky Mom a drink, so we could commiserate on what we wish our kids were, what we tried to make them out to be, and how impossible it is to keep our tempers in check, especially on vacation.  Maybe we could both be sorry and get a grip!   And then we could finally relax. 







Monday, July 19, 2010

The Greatest Generation


I’ve been reading Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, which is a collection of stories about individual Americans involved in WWII.  What strikes me the most is how many are poster children for a deprived upbringing, and how instead of falling apart as adults, they bootstrapped themselves into the educators, politicians, writers, and business people who shaped America after the war.   Most were teenagers in The Depression and had to work as early as they could hire themselves out -- not to make their own own spending money, but to contribute to the family resources.  When babies were orphaned, they were taken in and raised by friends without the rigamarole of lawyers and agencies.  When WWII rationing began, people saved gas and food cards together because everything went a little further when it was shared.  There was an essential, almost urgent sense of community, and not a shred of entitlement.  


After spending the first three weeks of summer listening to my kids bicker incessantly, even though we were in Tahoe and then Hawaii, I am convinced they could benefit from a little deprivation and forced community.

It makes me want to toss half their toys, throw out everything we own with a screen, make all three of them share one room, and pack the other two rooms with house guests who have no where else to go.  I want them to have something real to overcome – adversity training or at least close, long-term contact with a whole bunch of people with whom they can practice resilience.  


It’s the teamwork that stumps me.  It is the middle of summer and during the weekdays, there are no kids out on the street in my neighborhood.  They are all in “camps.”  (Although if your hair doesn’t smell like smoke, you’re not covered with mosquito bites, and you’re still clean, it’s not really camp.)  I can’t send them out to “play with other kids” because there aren’t any.  If I keep them home, I can try to teach them to work together, but eventually, frankly, they could use some variety, and so could I.  


It’s very modern to talk about the challenges our kids encounter and how stressed out we are these days, but when you think about the reality of the circumstances most of them face, it’s hard to fathom exactly why that is.  Their lives are as manicured as a golf course.  We treat playground spats with gravity worthy of a felony.  Everything is closely supervised.  Instead of talking to our children about coping with a social conflict or addressing other children with whom they’ve had the conflict, we tattle to other parents and teachers.  That would never have happened to kids growing up 75 years ago.  They may have had fewer resources, but they were allowed to practice solving problems on their own.   Equal parts responsibility and capability leads to less stress.
After reading about the WWII generation, it seems like it should be more stressful to have three sons deployed overseas without any contact with them for months.  Or to be sidelined by crushing racism or sexism.  Or having your crops fail without government subsidies, welfare, medicare, or a back-up plan.  Or discovering that you’re pregnant for the ninth time, married to an asthmatic coal-miner in Appalachia?  That sounds a lot worse than a bad grade, too much homework, or even (gasp) a bully.  (And let’s quit pretending that our kids are never bullies, only victims).


I don’t want my family to have to endure what our WWII veterans went through to build resilience and resolve.  But, there is no character development without real hardship and no generosity without sacrifice.  I just wish I knew better how to help my kids turn their disappointment, conflicts, and isolation into compassion and determination instead of despair and how to influence them properly without controlling them oppressively.    

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What Bugs Me about Student of the Month



Since I have three kids, I have to sit through three Student of the Month assemblies each year.  At our school, there is one characteristic for each month, and the teachers choose a selection of students from each class for the award. 

Like everything else in childhood these days, everyone gets to be student of the month at some point, whether or not they exhibit any redeeming qualities.  Conveniently, the last characteristic of the year is “citizenship,” so even if your kid can’t keep his hands to himself, finish his homework, or tell the truth, he’s still a “citizen,” and can be awarded thusly.  Our school does not give out bumper stickers, which is good, because there is no way on God’s green earth that I am putting that on my car. 

On assembly mornings, the multi-purpose room is packed, and if you want a decent seat (or a seat at all), you have to reserve it with a jacket or book before school even starts.  Parents are glowing with pride, and shoving each other out of the way to get the best camera angle of their charming child.

The first Student of the Month assembly I went to, there were several students from each grade chosen to speak about how great they were at that month’s characteristic.  Most sounded like this, 
“This is what self-control means to me.  Self-control is what I do when everyone is being mean to me, but I don’t fight back.  Self-control is not tattling when Jacob cuts in front of me in the lunch line.   Self-control brings a smile to my teacher’s face.  I always try my best to be self-controlled, so I will be a success.  This is what self-control means to me.”
What bugs me the most is how artificial these assemblies are.  For the most part, these are decent kids who are being asked to brag in a public forum that is not only uncomfortable, but thoroughly self-indulgent.  I would cower in shame if my kids gave a speech like that (I’m usually cowering in shame because of something they’ve done anyway, so nothing new there.)  There is no community cultivated by these exercises.  Instead, we force kids to wrap grown-up language around an esoteric quality they only understand in concrete terms.  In their speeches, kids say that they “always try to do the right thing,” which is not only patently false, but crazy that we as parents applaud the claim.


I'm all for awarding exemplary behavior, but I think we could do a better job of helping our kids articulate good character traits.  In all the assemblies I’ve been to, there was only one kid who made it real.  He was in fourth grade and I think he was up there for generosity or kindness.  He said, 
“I lost my speech on the way to school and I can’t remember what it said.  But being nice is hard.  I have two younger brothers and they like to take my stuff and break it.  Most of the time I yell at them, but sometimes I don’t.  When I don’t, it makes me feel better and I like them more.  Then we can all play with my stuff and we don’t fight so much.” 
BINGO!  Rock on, little man.   That’s a speech a mom can be proud of.