Friday, February 14, 2014

Valentine's Day is for White People?

Today is Valentine's Day! Happy Valentine's Day!

So, quick question: Am I supposed to do something special for my kids today? Like a Christmas stocking or Easter basket sort of thing?

I always thought of this occasion as a school thing, not a home thing. Aren't you supposed to decorate shoeboxes with doilies, construction paper and glitter at school? And then pass out store-bought Valentine's Day cards - perhaps Star Wars themed - at school?

This all started when I called a friend who said she needed to run "Valentine's Day errands" this afternoon. Say what?

"But it's already Valentine's Day," I said.

"Yeah, but I wasn't ready. So now I have to go get some chocolates and supplies to make the boys their Valentines for when they come home," she said.

Huh? Parents making Valentines for their kids? I'm befuddled. I understand romantic couples celebrating Valentine's Day with dinners at fancy restaurants, champagne, chocolate-covered strawberries, diamonds, new cars and all that stuff you see on TV. And I know kids hand out Valentines at school. But are parents supposed to make special Valentines for their kids? I'm so confused I'm not even sure if I should be capitalizing Valentines and/or using an apostrophe. This whole thing is so weird to me.

I'm the daughter of Asian immigrants, so maybe I'm feeling that whole "I love yous are for white people" thing. Plus, our family just celebrated Lunar New Year and the boys got their red envelopes, so can't they just take that money and buy themselves some candy?

What does your family do for Valentine's Day?

Monday, December 9, 2013

Cleveland sports, the Ohio BMV and forward progress

The process of registering my car in Ohio after moving from California has been a tale of misery, heartache, frustration and false hope. Growing up as a Cleveland sports fan has prepared me well for this emotional roller coaster.
I'll get you, my pretty!

The process is taking months. I've been to the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles multiple times. I've phoned and faxed the Bank of America, who holds our car loan, even more times. I've asked, pleaded, cajoled, begged - all to get different answers from everyone I have encountered. I know I am not the first person to move from one state to another and attempt to register a car accordingly. But it sure feels like it.

At my last trip to the BMV, I was told that my husband needed to be present since both of our names are on the car loan papers. So on Saturday, my husband accompanied me to the BMV once again. The woman behind the counter asked us what color our car was. "Silver. I mean it used to be silver. Now it's really dirty from the snow and sleet. You know, the wintry mix and all," I replied, at the same time my husband merely said, "Gray".

Although we weren't able to complete Ohio registration for our car that day, we were able to walk out with a temporary tag. After leaving the BMV, Vic and I crossed a snow-slushy parking lot and made our way to our dirty-gray-silver car. I held the cardboard temporary tag above my head like a WWE championship belt and whooped. Vic told me not to celebrate prematurely. "It's not a touchdown yet," he said. "Don't be Leon Lett."


"I know that," I snapped. You have no idea what I've been through to get this far.  I've actually made forward progress. I know it's not a touchdown. I'm just trying to get a first down."

Vic and I sat in the car, in the middle of a suburban strip mall parking lot on a cold, dirty-gray-silver Cleveland December afternoon and looked at each other, silently realizing what years of growing up as Cleveland sports fans has done to us. We are irreparably damaged.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Tribute to my tee ball team

Tee Ball Indians: the cutest team in the league
Photos courtesy of Kelvin Li

Dear Tee Ball Indians:

It's been a week since our Little League's closing ceremonies and I am still thinking about our team. The trunk of my car seems strangely empty and quiet without all of our team equipment inside, without the sound of bats and helmets clanking.

This was the first time I managed a team (OK, I did manage some intramural teams in grad school, including a pretty successful volleyball team and a horrendously awful innertube water polo team) and it was an unforgettable experience. 

I hadn't planned to manage a Little League team. Last year, I had been an assistant coach for a tee-ball team but most of the time, I monitored the dugout and coordinated snack duty. This year, there was a shortage of managers so I was talked into leading a team, with the promise that I'd have great coaches supporting me. I was reluctant and fretted that everyone would learn weird baseball skills from me, kinda like this: 

The league made good on their promise, though, and not only gave me three great assistant coaches (thank you, John, Nirav and Ramki!), but a whole team of wonderful families. 

Tee ball Indians, your parents were energetic and enthusiastic and helped everywhere needed. Some of them shared their own baseball skills and coaching knowledge. One day, I enlisted one of the dads to help with coach pitch practice. I asked him to use the hard balls instead of wiffle balls so you all wouldn't be thrown off by the speed of the pitches. Almost immediately, his own son nailed him You Know Where with a hard line drive. Do you guys remember that? I'm sure he does.

Some of your parents served as base coaches and helped with awkward batting stances and throwing motions. Other parents helped keep the batting lineup organized and kids safe in the dugout, not easy to do with 11 five-year-olds! Many of them joined us in our raucous Freeze Tag warmup at practices. By the way, you guys never stayed in bounds when we played Freeze Tag - just sayin'. 

Your parents took photos, invited friends and family to expand our cheering section at our Saturday games, erected a tent to keep our team cool on sweltering summer afternoons, and perhaps, most important, brought SNACKS! 

Tee ball Indians discuss game strategy.
And let's talk about you, Tee Ball Indians! In the beginning of the season, you wore nametag stickers, but by the end, we all knew each other's names from loudly cheering at our games ("Here we go, Nolan, here we go!") week after week.

At first, many of you did not know what to do after hitting the ball off the tee. When told to run home, some of you ran from third base straight into the arms of your moms, never crossing home plate.

Later in the season - no more tee!
Earlier in the season - hitting with the tee
Some of you started off tentatively, while others swung wildly at bat. Halfway through the season, when we introduced coach pitch, you did well without the tee. You improved dramatically and I will be looking out for at least one of you to make the Majors!

I'm so proud of this team and how much you developed over the season. In the beginning, you often fidgeted, plucked and threw blades of grass at each other, sat down in the outfield and complained about playing certain positions. I remember when one of you, playing second base, showed his belly button to every opposing player coming his way. 

Good game, Indians!
By the end of the season, you were more focused and made some good plays. Did you hear how loudly we cheered for you? You hit the ball hard, ran fast and showed grit and determination. One of my favorite moments was when the sole girl on our team, spunky and unmistakable with her pink batting helmet and sparkly shoes, tagged someone out at first base. After she did it, she smiled sweetly and tickled him too!

With everyone's support, we met our goals of learning about baseball while having fun, being safe, and doing our best. Good job, Tribe!

Our league's closing ceremony was a lot of fun, even though it was a blazing hot day. I loved running the bases with you all, high-fiving all the other coaches and older kids in the league. I loved seeing you all running through the tunnels the big kids made for you with their arms overhead. I loved seeing the smiles on your faces when you held your trophies.

I enjoyed our team picnic afterward, when you presented me and the other coaches with the best coaches' gift I've ever seen. I'll always treasure the beautiful framed collage of baseball cards featuring all 11 of our Tee ball Indians players. Thank you for signing it with your name and team number. I'll never forget you!

Great season, Tee ball Indians! Way to go, Tribe!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Wanted: hometown heroes

Note: A version of this post was also published on BlogHer on May 9, 2013.

I went to high school with Charles Ramsey, one of the men credited for helping to rescue Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, three Cleveland women who had been missing for 10 years.

Charles F. Brush High School yearbook
 Photo courtesy of Leigh Goldie
We didn't know each other as students at Charles F. Brush High School, even though we graduated the same year. It was only after fellow high school classmates posted on Facebook this week that I learned our lives had intersected then. 

Like many people who watched the media reports this week, I regarded Ramsey as a stranger. I marveled at the sight of this McDonald's-lovin' man recounting the extraordinary experience of holding a half-eaten Big Mac as he helped a woman kick through the door of the house she was trapped in. Although I didn't know Chuck Ramsey, something about him seemed so familiar. Maybe it was the way he wore his Cleveland Indians baseball cap in one of his local TV news interviews. Maybe it was his cadence and storytelling style.

Local and national media proclaimed Ramsey a hero. First, he was an Internet sensation trending on Twitter with his interviews autotuned and remixed. Then, reports surfaced of Ramsey's criminal record and domestic violence convictions. The media coverage was fickle, building him up one day and tearing him down the very next.

It reminded me of a passage from Cleveland writer Dan Chaon's short story "Prodigal":
It doesn't matter what you do. In the end, you are going to be judged, and all the times that you're not at your most dignified are the ones that will be recalled in all their vivid, heartbreaking detail. And then of course these things will be distorted and exaggerated and replayed over and over, until eventually they turn into the essence of you: your cartoon.
My husband, a native Clevelander and fellow Brush High School alumnus, and I observed the media storm from afar, thousands of miles away in California. We remembered the last time Cleveland was in the national news for a horrific crime story. Nearly four years ago, Anthony Sowell made the news for killing 11 women and hiding their remains in and near his house. This week, Ariel Castro was charged with kidnapping and raping three women in another Cleveland neighborhood where he reportedly ate ribs with neighbors like Ramsey.

In both cases, a man held women captive in his home and sexually abused them. In both cases, the media referred to the home as a "house of horrors". Both times, media reports depicted impoverished Cleveland neighborhoods. In this week's case, reports stated that Castro's house is valued at $36,100 and flagged for foreclosure

"They make Cleveland look so bad," my husband said to me. "It's embarrassing."

It was beyond embarrassing; it was outrageous. Yes, Cleveland is a gritty city in stark contrast to the sunny Silicon Valley suburb we live in right now. But it is our hometown; it is in our hearts. And it is incredibly frustrating to see Cleveland depicted as a place where people barbecue while women disappear and go missing for years

Clevelanders love deeply and fiercely. We actively seek heroes and causes to celebrate. So we rejoiced when the media named Chuck Ramsey a hero, even though he dismissed the notion and said, "I'm a human being. I'm just like you. I work for a living." 

It's easy to see why national media swarmed to cover this story. There was drama, mystery, sex, violence, good guys, bad guys, tragedy, triumph. But eventually, the reporters will move on to other stories. In the quiet, there will be much healing that needs to take place. We will need to connect to each other more meaningfully to strengthen our communities. And in that process, maybe we can be our own heroes.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Lean On: A Tribute to Susan Lewis

A lot of people are talking about Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. I've only read excerpts of it so far, but her words remind me of another extraordinary woman: my friend Susan Lewis.

Susan Lewis, friend and leader.
Photo courtesy of Tim Crowley
Susan passed away on Friday after a hard-fought battle with cancer. She was a principled and focused leader with high expectations for herself and everyone around her.

I met Susan five years ago when she came to work at Case Western Reserve University's College of Arts and Sciences as executive director of development and external relations. She had worked at the university years before and some of my colleagues knew her to be a take-charge, no-nonsense boss. 

When Susan returned to the university in her new role, some of us didn't know what to make of her. She was too cool and composed. She was direct and demanding. I regarded her warily. As we got to know each other, though, we developed a rich working relationship and a cherished friendship. We shared our personal and professional lives. We brainstormed ideas for projects, we shared parenting stories, we chatted over countless cups of coffee and tea. 

Susan offered valuable career advice and helped me navigate treacherous university politics. Her children were older than mine and she shared her wisdom and experience generously, especially the year my son's third-grade teacher seemingly had my cell phone number on speed dial. One thing I loved so much about Susan was that she was always willing to listen and always ready to help. 

As supervisors, we often discussed ideas about leadership. Both of us were committed to promoting the university's Women Staff Leadership Development Initiative. We wanted to build a robust community of women leaders. We wanted to nurture an environment that supported women in the workplace. 

I often leaned on Susan for support and advice. One afternoon at work, I received the devastating news that a friend had taken her own life. Overcome by shock and sadness, I felt unhinged. The world no longer made sense to me and I was lost. In the middle of a dean's cabinet meeting, I burst into tears. Afterward, I told Susan how embarrassed I was that my emotions overcame me so publicly. She comforted me, reminding me that we are human, that we have emotions. Sometimes we lose confidence in ourselves, but we gain it back. "Fake it 'til you feel it again," she said. 

On another day, Susan came into my office smiling shyly. She asked me to review two essays she had written for a graduate program application. I was flattered that she sought my input on something so personal and meaningful to her.

In one of her essays, Susan had written about her diagnosis of cancer in 2003, a life-changing event that suddenly derailed her successful career. Up until that point, she had defined herself by her professional accomplishments and career path. 

"I loved to do, to achieve, to solve, to be active," Susan wrote. "I had fallen victim to the mindset of valuing oneself as a reflection of what one does. The experience of cancer and cancer treatment opened my eyes to the endless possibilities of one’s career, and enabled me to construct [a] more balanced and satisfying personal and professional life. In the end, it was my cancer 'milestone', and the opportunity to step outside my 'professional' self that was truly the starting point on my journey to professional self-awareness."

Prior to reading her essay, Susan and I had not talked about her battle with cancer. I did notice the sun hats she wore even on cloudy days. Sometimes I overheard her chiding fair-skinned colleagues to cover their bare shoulders and arms and at least wear sunscreen. I had chalked it up to her motherly instincts, though, and not known she had fought skin cancer.

Suddenly, Susan's tough exterior made sense. She was a warrior. For 17 years, up until her original melanoma diagnosis, she had worked for the Boy Scouts of America and been surrounded by men in a traditional top-down organizational structure. The experience had steeled her and motivated her to focus on organizational leadership as a personal and professional mission. 

Susan wrote about her shift from focusing on her own goals to helping others achieve theirs:

Each day I interact with staff, faculty and alumni of CWRU and have come to admire them as individuals; have come to be inspired by them as contributing, engaged members of the greater community.  It is through these interactions that I have come to realize that I have a longing to learn and know something more – about myself and the world around me.  Further, I have a longing to make a positive impact on the world around me by providing leadership and direction for those, like myself, who are searching for something more.  

Susan was accepted into the program. 

She thrived in it and loved to share what she learned. She was eager to put her knowledge and skills to work. She mentored younger co-workers and encouraged them to challenge themselves and accept roles with more responsibility.

Two years ago, after I left the university and moved across the country, I kept in touch with Susan mainly through emails, phone calls and yes, Facebook. I learned that the cancer had returned. I made a few trips back to Cleveland and Susan always made time to see me. We'd catch up over lunch and then we would hug as if we wouldn't see each other again. 

Over the next several months, her email updates announced bad news. The cancer spread rapidly to her liver and lymph nodes. Last April, she wrote, "My cancer journey continues tomorrow and I ask that you keep me in your positive thoughts. I was recently diagnosed with not one, but two brain tumors – a result of malignant melanoma legions." 

In May, she reported happy news: "I am thrilled that I will be collecting my diploma for my Master of Science in Positive Organization Development and Change from the Weatherhead School of Management at CWRU this Sunday! My parents, Tim and the kids will be there for me at graduation. This MPOD program, and all that I have learned and experienced, has been a powerful force in my life...especially through relationships built with my classmates, and most timely with my life (health) adventures over the last 9 months. The focus on the positive, the appreciative lens, and the openness to embracing change, all played a significant role in how I, and my family, have chosen to live this journey. I am truly humbled that this opportunity appeared at the time I needed it the most."

Susan leaned in. In her fight against cancer, she endured pain, fatigue, treatment therapies and surgeries. In contrast to her first bout with cancer, when she fought the disease alone, this time, she shared her experiences at A Gathering Place, a support network of cancer patients. She worked full time as long as she could. At home, also, she charged ahead, cheering on her husband during his long-distance races and her daughter during her soccer games. Last year, she stood by her son as he earned his Eagle Scout rank and started his first year of college. This year, she guided her daughter in her senior year of high school.
Susan allowed others to lean on her, and when she needed it, she leaned on us. She showed us the importance of sharing yourself, your dreams, your strengths and your frailties and letting others do the same. 

She leaned and she led. And we loved her for it.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Parenting Anxiety Attack #95234: On Kindergarten Redshirting

Oh no, I'm having a(nother) Parenting Anxiety Attack.

I just finished perusing my younger son's kindergarten class Share Journal, where you can see all the kids' writings and drawings about an item they chose from home to bring to their classroom. Reading the journal supports my belief that we should have waited a year for him to start kindergarten. 

The Jumbo Pencil
Photo credit: Amazon.com
Nolan started this year at age four and has found himself in a classroom with some kids who are seven years old. I was unsure about him starting this year since he has a late September birthday, is small for his age, is quite shy and has significant asthma and allergy issues. (Will he be too shy to speak up for himself around foods he cannot eat?) 

On top of that, academic redshirting seems to be the norm in the area we live in, I've now learned, especially for boys. We live in Silicon Valley, in an area where the majority of parents are Asian immigrants who prize academic achievement. Many parents work at Google, Apple, Yahoo, etc. 

My husband has a late September birthday too, though, and assured me that being small and young isn't a big deal. Besides being the last kid in his class to graduate from the fat pencil to the skinny pencil and requiring extra scissors practice at home, my husband did fine academically and caught up with his classmates in size in a few years.

This year, I made sure to volunteer in Nolan's classroom. I'm there one to two times a week and I have seen how he fits in with his classmates. Once we got past the rocky first week of school, he adjusted well. He's the smallest in his class but he seems to blend in with the others. I think he's the only one who needs his teacher's help putting on and zipping his jacket, but when it comes to the schoolwork, he is OK. Identifying and creating patterns seems to be his specialty.

Still, I started to feel alarmed again when we received a kindergarten-wide email to parents early in the year. It was in regard to Reading Racers, a program that develops children's ability to recognize and read simple words. Here's an excerpt from that email:
This program was not designed to be a contest but to differentiate to our students' individual needs as our students are budding learners at all different levels. Also, please remember that children are listening and watching your reactions to their work. Comparing lists after school with other parents could potentially be hurtful to individual students which could affect their self-esteem and confidence when they see that some students are at a different level than them.

Apparently, some of the kindergarten parents were getting competitive about Reading Racers. (Note to educators: Perhaps consider not calling it Reading RACERS if you don't want to encourage competition.)  

And now we have the Share Journal. I was quite surprised to see that some of Nolan's classmates are practically writing novellas and illustrating their essays with beautiful, complex drawings. Nolan has very faint, wispy penmanship and writes short four-word sentences, e.g., "The dog went home." He draws very basic stick figures, often accompanied with hearts and balloons, no matter what the context.

Look, I really don't want to be a Tiger Mom, but what am I supposed to do when I'm surrounded by them? I was raised by Asian immigrant parents myself, so I know the Tiger parenting style very well. I don't want that for our family. But now I find myself second-guessing myself again. I'm tempted to inquire about Nolan repeating kindergarten next year. 

Am I out of my mind? What would you do?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Hello To All the Children of the World

International Fair
Hello, bonjour, buenos dias!
Hello, Bonjour, Buenos Dias
G'Day, Gutentag, Konichiwa
Ciao, Shalom, Dobre Dyen, 
Hello to all the children of the world!

Last Friday, I chaired an event at my sons' school: the International Fair. It was a wonderful celebration of culture and community.

Several months ago, the school PTA president asked for volunteers to help plan the event this fall. I signed up, thinking I'd basically be organizing a giant potluck. (When you say International Fair, I say food: Fair! Food! Fair! Food!)

We moved to California last summer, so we are still relatively new to the neighborhood. At our former elementary school in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, we loved the Soul Food Dinner/Multicultural Night that was held every other year. Food was a huge part of the evening, as it was essentially a massive potluck dinner in the cafeteria, flanked by parent-hosted country booths. The soul food selections were always fantastic: fried chicken, mac-n-cheese casseroles, banana pudding, sweet potato pies. The other cultural dishes were wonderful too. Latkes always disappeared fast, along with potstickers.

So at our new school this year, I agreed to chair the International Fair. And then I learned that it was more than a potluck. I worked closely with two other moms to plan the event. Juggling home and work responsibilities, we met weekly for the past month and a half to develop and execute a plan that included recruiting volunteers, lining up food and merchandise vendors, scheduling entertainment and coordinating publicity. Before this event, I had not met these two women, but by Friday evening, we had bonded. For weeks, we dealt with lots of logistical details together. Unexpected problems cropped up. Volunteers dropped out, food trucks broke down, performers needed special accommodations. We worked with some wonderful people along the way: committed parent volunteers and a supportive school staff, including our principal.

It had been years since the school last hosted an International Fair and in the past, the event had been held as a schoolday event only for students. This year, we hosted the event on a Friday evening and opened it to families and the larger community. With these changes, we didn't know if people would respond favorably. An hour and a half before the event opened, I stood alone on the school blacktop starting to worry. What if the food trucks don't come? What if the DJ doesn't come? What if no one comes?

Then, the first food vendor arrived: the charming El Sur food truck. They showed up early to begin baking their incredible Argentinian empanadas. When they rolled up, I was so excited I shrieked and ran up to them like they were the Ice Cream Man. I directed them and the other food trucks to park in a way that anchored a food court area. Then, the custodian arrived and set up tables and chairs, helping everyone all evening. Merchandise vendors came and set up clothing, jewelry and henna stands. Parent and teacher volunteers trickled in and set up various country displays.

Everything was coming together and I happily ticked off items on my checklists. I was starting to breathe normally again. When the DJ arrived and successfully hooked up his equipment, I felt even more relieved. And then when the martial arts team showed up, looking not unlike the Cobra Kai team from The Karate Kid, I knew everything was going to be OK. (Seriously, I expected their leader, at any moment, to say, ominously, "Sweep the leg.")

Families strolled in, many dressed in clothing from their native countries: China, India, Iran, Ireland, Japan, Korea, Phillipines, Romania and more. They practiced slapshots at the Canada booth, folded origami hats at the Japan booth, tried tinikling at the Phillipines booth. They sampled street food from the food trucks and the Indian chaat vendor.

Everyone swarmed the dance and music performances. One of my fellow event coordinators, a dance teacher among other roles, choreographed and led a delightful kindergarten performance that attracted a large mob of overbearing kinder parents (me being one of them). In all the time I worked to plan this evening, I had forgotten that my own younger son would be performing. When he and all the other kinders sang "Hello to all the children of the world", everything about the evening came together. All the logistical details swarming in my head fell away and I just listened to these adorable youngsters singing to celebrate our international community.

It was a memorable night.