A Grand Slam

Sing it with me:  Take me out to the ball game, take me out to the crowd.

  If you’re an avid baseball fan in the greater Houston area, it’s likely that you’re disappointed with the Astros right now.  Maybe you’ve felt that way for some time.  They hardly ever win and there just isn’t much energy, enthusiasm or drive.  Let’s be honest – you might even be frustrated with them.  There doesn’t seem to be much to celebrate about the team or the job they’re doing on the field.
  Off the field, however, the Astros organization recently earned some major-league points with us.  Here’s the scoop:  A softball pitcher who’d played the sport for ten years, our daughter seemed like a really solid applicant for their Grand Slam For Youth Baseball scholarship.  She dowloaded and filled out the form, wrote her essay, secured her letters of recommendation, requested and picked up an official transcript, postmarked it by its due date, then waited and waited, fingers crossed that she’d get an interview.  But alas, the early June dates came and went and we pretty much figured that she hadn’t been selected as a finalist.
  We’ve gotten used to assuming that she hasn't been selected because we've found that typically the scholarship committees don't send letters of acknowledgement or rejection anymore.  No "thanks for your interest" or "we wish we had enough funds for everyone who applied" sentiments.  Not a word, which is so different from when we were going through this process.  And that can make it really frustrating, waiting and not knowing. 
  That’s what has set the Astros organization apart.  Not only did they honor our daughter with a letter to thank her for her application and to let her know that they weren't able to grant her a scholarship at this time, they also sent her a coupon for a gallon of Minute Maid orange juice along with four tickets to attend the July 18th baseball game at Minute Maid Park.  Talk about your grand slam.  She gets to take her friends (or family?!) to watch the Astros play the Nationals; what a treat!  She also gets to celebrate with this year's scholarship recipients.  It felt as though she’d scored even though she’d struck out on that scholarship.
  With the velocity and strength of a perfectly hit fast ball, a little courtesy can go a very long way.  Thanks, Astros; see you at the ball park.


It’s A Sign

 Who doesn't love a good mystery?

I traveled to Wisconsin in mid-June to speak at a conference called Character . . . The Wisconsin Way put on by the Jefferson School District.  I flew in to Milwaukee and en route from the airport to the conference center, my brother Mark pointed out a very plain but simply powerful digital message on a billboard that reads: What Is The Content Of Your Character? It stayed there about six seconds and was gone. 
 When I inquired about it, Mark, who works as an account executive for Clear Channel Outdoor, said that he doesn't know who had sponsored the intrigue.
 After that day, I saw five more messages: Your Character Is Your Fate, What Service Can I Be?, Your Shadow Never Leaves You, It's Time To Be Better Citizens and my personal favorite, Find Yourself In The Service Of Others.  I liked this one so much, in fact, that I came home and put it on the marquee in front of our school.  And what would a campaign like this cost?  Mark told me that it would be somewhere between $150 and $300 per board per day to get that kind of outdoor advertising exposure.
 These mystery messages made from neon-green letters on a stark black background not only caught my eye but piqued my curiosity: Who is behind this creative campaign for character? The Foundation For a Better Life? The Character Education Partnership? The Josephson Institute Of Ethics? The Character Development Group?  A Philanthropist With A Little Extra Money? 
 Or does it really matter? If it works as a way to encourage some personal reflection, to get people to think and wonder, to spur someone into action, to maybe even make this world a better place today than it was yesterday, then it's a sign, a sign that made an impact and that's all I need to know.


That Doll

I found out yesterday that today just happens to be a certain flower girl's birthday.  Serendipitous, don't you think? 

It had been fifty years, but Betsy remembered every detail as if it were yesterday. It wasn’t every day, afterall, that the older girl whom you looked up to and absolutely adored gets engaged and asks you to be her flower girl.  Years before she was born, their moms had met through the PTA and their families had become fast friends.  They went to the park where they’d play together and enjoy picnics almost every Sunday in the summer.  During the winter, they’d get together to play cards.  Sue was almost a teenager when Betsy came along so, in a way, she was like Betsy’s big sister.  As she grew, Betsy often went over to Sue’s house and just loved going into Sue’s room, hanging out with her, and looking at her stuff.  She was captivated by how it was arranged, the décor, even the scent.  She was fascinated with Sue’s Storybook Doll collection.  But most of all, she loved that Doll, the porcelain Asian one in the middle of all the others, the one that was housed in its own glass case for safekeeping on the shelf next to Sue’s bed.  That Doll was truly a treasure, not just because it belonged to Sue, but also because it had come back from Korea with Sue’s uncle Chuck.  Betsy loved that Doll, and she spent countless hours during her childhood staring in awe at its rare beauty.
 Wedding day finally arrived; what a thrill for a flower girl to be princess for a day and walk down the aisle behind the beautiful bride.  As if it weren’t enough of a treat to have a starring role in Sue’s special day, it was customary for the bride to give her attendants a gift.  Sue knew exactly what she would give to her young friend. Imagine Betsy’s delight as Sue handed her that ornate Doll, safely encased in glass and staring back at her, as a way of saying “thank you!”  For the next fifty years, that very Doll on Betsy’s shelf served as a gentle but constant reminder of Sue’s thoughtfulness, compassion, generosity, friendship and love.
 I first heard this story last May at Sue’s Golden Wedding Anniversary gathering during our walk down memory lane.  Betsy, now 58 years old, stood up to toast the happy couple, to talk about the bond that connected the two families, and to share details about what an indelible impression her flower girl experience had made on her.  She did her best to convey how excited she was to have been chosen and how incredibly special it made her feel when she got Sue’s remarkably selfless gift. I remember thinking that this was such a sweet story and wondering what made Sue think to give Betsy that Doll.
 But that’s not where this flower girl’s story ends.  In a touching twist that left everyone tongue-tied, Betsy reached for a tall pink box behind her and handed it to Sue with these simple words, “And now it’s time for that Doll to come back home.”  Saying that there wasn’t a dry eye at that moment in the crowd of anniversary-goers might be an understatement.  I choked back tears of my own as I watched Sue hug Betsy and slowly open the box to see that Doll, a symbol of thoughtfulness, compassion, generosity, friendship and love, staring back at her exactly as she had remembered it, from inside exactly the same curio case, and in exactly the same shape that she’d given it to her flower girl fifty years earlier.
 Curiosity got the best of me, so when I could compose myself, I asked Betsy what prompted her to return that Doll.  She said it simply seemed like the right thing to do, that she’d enjoyed it long enough.  She figured that its homecoming would make the perfect Golden Wedding Anniversary gift to Sue and to her family, that giving that Doll back would complete the circle.  I couldn’t agree more. 
 When good goes, it always comes back around.  What a blessing to experience the power of giving brought full circle by a bride, her flower girl and that Doll.


Hip Hip Mooray

Inspired by a real-life story from Mr. Whitlock's family farm, today's post is the fictional tale of a donkey in search of his "raison d'etre" - reason for being - in the voice of the little goat who befriends him.  If you ever find yourself in Morray's predicament, I hope you'll care enough to keep searching!

   We were all living together on Uncle Paul’s farm, the ducks, the range cattle, the older goats, and me. Life was pretty simple really. The ducks swam with the ducks, the cattle grazed with one other, and we goats got into mischief together. I know I’m just a kid, but it seemed to me that things fit together perfectly!
   Until a few days ago, when Mooray showed up. 
   With his long thin face, his sad brown eyes, and his big oval ears, he didn’t look like any of us.  He didn’t talk like us, either, with his ear-piercing Hee Haw sounds.  And he didn’t act like any of us.  Even his name was odd.  He was so different that everyone else thought that this was some sort of mistake, that he might not really belong on our farm.  Me?  I wasn’t sure yet.
   After several days of keeping his distance and watching from afar, Mooray tried to break in with the ducks.  Were they ever surprised when that big brown donkey took a dive into the water where they were taking a morning dip!  When his big splash sent the feathered friends flying, they quacked at him to kindly stay out of their pond.  I’m not kidding when I say that you don’t want to know what happened when he tried to join them for a round of Duck-Duck-Goose.
   A few days later, Mooray mustered up the courage to ask the cows to share some grass from their pasture, but they just bellowed for him to moooove it along.  Mooray got discouraged and didn’t even bother to ask if he could cruise with the calves.  After that, Mooray spent a lot of time by himself.  I know, because I was curious and kept an eye on him.  I wondered why he’d been brought to Uncle Paul’s farm; what was his purpose for being there?  Why weren’t there others of his kind? 
   One afternoon, I got brave and asked him join our game of Hide and Goat Seek.  Though he’d never played it before, Mooray reluctantly accepted my invitation.  He picked okay hiding places, but his size made him pretty easy - okay, simple! - to find and he spent most of the time being “it.”  He wasn’t very good at finding us either, so the other goats in the herd decided that Mooray wasn’t really cut out for this game.
   Mooray seemed kind of lost, confused, and alone.  I felt so bad for him.  Surely there was some way that he could fit in, somewhere that he belonged.  But how?  Where?
One night, we heard an all-too familiar noise, that of a hungry coyote looking for dinner.  The ducks waddled toward our rock pile with the cows right behind them, and there we all stood, frozen like statues, waiting to see what that coyote might do. 
   Mooray, on the other hand, wasn’t waiting for anything.  He instinctively jumped into action.  He bravely brayed a warning and paced back and forth in front of us as if he were a palace guard protecting his queen and her castle. As the coyote approached, Mooray charged toward him and kicked in his direction so swiftly that it scared that wild dog back into the woods.  Mooray had saved our lives.  Turns out he's a guard donkey. 
I know, I know, you’ve never heard of such a thing.  We hadn’t either.  A guardian angel, maybe, but a guardian donkey?  But it was perfect for Mooray; he was exactly what we needed.  He found his purpose and we enjoyed a new-found peace.  We huddled around him, the ducks, the cows, and the goats, and let out a barnyard cheer for our new guardian friend:  Hip-Hip-Mooray, Hip-Hip-Mooray, Hip-Hip-Mooray! 
   We slept more soundly than ever before that night and every night since then, because with our guardian donkey on duty we know we’ll be protected and that makes us feel safe.  Mooray sleeps well, too, because he found a way to connect and now he’s right where he belongs.


Running On Empty

Have you ever felt like you're running on empty?  Today's post tells the story of an FHS Hometown Hero who helped a random runner refuel during a Cross Country competition.  
 Unless you've run a Cross Country course or attended a Cross Country meet, you may not completely understand the depth of this random act of kindness, but let me give it a shot.  Cross-country running is about staying the course.  It can be kind of lonely and it may seem a lot longer than the three miles you know it to be.  The course isn't typically smooth by any means, and often it's riddled with challenges like hills, holes, bends and brush.  A bit like life, really.
 Imagine now that you're the kind of kid who really isn't a natural runner, the kind of kid that doesn't necessarily even like competing. The kind of kid who’s giving it his all, but whose all doesn't seem to be nearly enough this time.  Maybe the kind of kid whose inner voice is talking him out of even finishing the trail.  The kind of kid who needs the team more than the team needs you.  What would you want?  What would you need?
 That's where Tommy comes in.  A high school senior, Tommy doesn't know this kid.  In fact, Tommy, a runner for an opposing team, is just a spectator during this particular race.  I’m not sure if he has already run his race or if he's about to, and I'm not sure it really matters.  What matters is that when Tommy notices this kid and sees that he's struggling, he joins the crowd in encouraging him and cheering him on.  That's nice, right?   But then Tommy does something that no one else did.  He jumps into the race to pace the kid.  To whisper words of encouragement and talk him through his breathing, keeping him in the game mentally and physically.  Not just with words, but with action, by running alongside of him.  Not just for a little bit, but for the rest of the course.  Tommy saw a need, listened to his heart, and helped that kid - who was clearly running on empty - finish the race.  This kid he's never even met.
 Touched by Tommy’s compassion, that kid’s coach wrote a note of affirmation and thanks to Tommy’s coach.  The coach read that letter at the Cross Country banquet, and Tommy got a standing ovation, not for being the Most Valuable Player, for winning the most medals, or for making it to State, but for his strength of character.  When good goes, it always comes back around. 
 It reassures me to know that there are teens like Tommy in this world, ready to help next time I’m running on empty!


The Rainbow Connection

Today's post is more about an elevating experience than a person, but what if people could generate the beauty and magic of a rainbow?

   Traffic was backed up for nearly a mile in front of school on that eerily yellow morning.  Maybe you saw it, or worse, maybe you were even stuck in it.  People slowed way down, some just to take in the magic, some to ooooo and ahhhh, others to take pictures with their cameras and cell phones in an attempt to capture the moment and keep it forever.  As kids got out of their cars, they were asking, “Did you see it, Mrs. Gruener?” and “Isn’t it unbelievable, Mrs. Gruener?” and “Did you know that there were two of them, Mrs. Gruener?” Typically it’s a fender bender that delays traffic like this, but this morning it was no accident causing the jam; it was a rainbow! 
   Curious about its power to generate so much enthusiasm, energy and excitement, I asked my middle child to explain the majestically colorful arc.  He told me that since it had rained, drops of moisture were still lingering in the atmosphere and they were reflecting spectrums of light against the sun-lit sky.  Kind of like what the prisms hanging in my window do? I wondered.  So I googled rainbow and found the scientific explanation on Wikipedia:

A rainbow is an optical and meteorological phenomenon that causes a spectrum of light to appear in the sky when the Sun shines onto droplets of moisture in the Earth’s atmosphere. They take the form of a multicoloured arc, with red on the outer part of the arc and violet on the inner section of the arc.

A rainbow spans a continuous spectrum of colours; the distinct bands are an artifact of human colour vision . . . rainbows can be caused by other forms of water than rain, including mist, spray, and dew.

   As a child, I was taught that the rainbow dates back to the Old Testament in the Bible because it actually came about as God’s promise to never send a destructive flood like the one that Noah survived again. Wikipedia reports that there are many cultures that subscribe to myths about the rainbow:

The rainbow has a place in legend owing to its beauty and the historical difficulty in explaining the phenomenon.  In Greek mythology, the rainbow was considered to be a path made by a messenger (Iris) between Earth and Heaven. In Chinese mythology, the rainbow was a slit in the sky sealed by goddess Nüwa using stones of five different colours.  In Hindu mythology, the rainbow is called Indradhanush, meaning "the bow (Sanskrit and Hindi: dhanush is bow) of Indra, the god of lightning, thunder and rain."
   Over the years, I’ve heard the rainbow referenced in songs like Judy Garland belting out the beautiful ballad Over the Rainbow from the Wizard of Oz, and the heartwarming Under the Rainbow by Peter Alsop, a song I heard for the first time just this summer.  Actually, there are over a dozen different variations with that same title, just do a Power Search on iTunes and see.  And who can forget Jim Henson’s Kermit the Frog singing the lyrics by Kenny Ascher and Paul Williams about The Rainbow Connection

Why are there so many songs about rainbows 
And what's on the other side?
Rainbows are visions, but only illusions, 
And rainbows have nothing to hide.
So we've been told and some choose to believe it. 
I know they're wrong, wait and see.
Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection, 
The lovers, the dreamers and me.

Who said that every wish would be heard and answered. 
When wished on the morning star? 
Somebody thought of that, and someone believed it, 
and look what it's done so far.
What's so amazing that keeps us stargazing? 
And what do we think we might see?
Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection, 
the lovers, the dreamers, and me.
All of us under its spell, we know that it's probably magic...

   A plethora of books, from novels to children’s literature, with Rainbow in the title flood the market.  Children from a very young age learn to draw the rainbow as a symbol of peace and tranquility.  Artists often add rainbows into their creative landscapes.  And organizations like Rainbows and Rain, The Rainbow Bridge, Rainbow Canada and Rainbow Kids that use the Rainbow as a symbol of comfort and hope for people who are journeying and working through their grief and loss abound.
   But why the rainbow?  What is so cathartic about seeing this not-so-common colorful arc?  Is it because it’s so rare that it’s so magical?  Does it visually stimulate some sort of therapeutic cure-all?  What if you could build a rainbow?  Would you go with the standard ROYGBV or would you put other shades of the color wheel?  Could we actually see each other’s rainbows?  Would they offer some sort of secret solvent in an otherwise scary and sometimes very sad world? 
   I couldn’t find any concrete evidence about the curative nature of the rainbow in my research, but what I do know is this:  Seeing the rainbow on that eerily yellow morning, especially after a significant drought, set the tone for an amazingly peaceful and productive day.  Children and grown-ups alike were in awe by the beauty and inspired by the majestic skies.  Some even mused about being at the end of the rainbow and wondered if our school could be their pot of gold.  And if that isn’t powerfully therapeutic, I don’t know what is.  If only we could figure out a way to bottle that feeling and put it on the market; until then, we’ll have to keep on singing, writing, reading, drawing, feeling and yes, building, the magic that is - the rainbow!    


I Love Joshua Day

This teacher's not-so-random act of kindness has become one of my most memorable mommy moments.

You might know the feeling. You’re in a meeting when the phone buzzes in your pocket or purse. You can’t get outside quickly enough and you miss a call from your child's school. You try frantically to call back, but you’re not even sure who was calling in the first place. The counselor? The nurse? His teacher? The principal? Oh, please NOT the principal! There’s a beep while you’re on the other line trying to figure it out that indicates that whoever called has left a message.

 Her message made me cry. Inside and out, a bit from relief but mostly from the feeling of joy I was experiencing. I seriously started sobbing because I could hear him in the background. And I could feel his excitement and pride as Mrs. Bockart said out loud, “I’m calling ‘cause today is I Love Joshua Day in my classroom and I just want to tell you what a fantastic kid he is and how much I enjoy having him in my class. He always smiles and always has a positive attitude and he always gives 110% and I couldn’t ask for anything more.” She went on to say that they were sorry that they’d missed me and that they hoped I enjoyed their message.
 Joshua’s teacher had made a 30-second phone call that totally made my day. And talk about a win-win for Joshua, his role model bragging to his mom about him, explaining what makes him special and why she loves him. I didn’t have to see his face to know that my child was beaming from ear to ear.
 And that night, Joshua said a prayer of thanks for Mrs. Bockart, ‘cause she finds the good in everybody. Then he added slyly, “Even if they’re bad.” No wonder she loves that kid!
 This thoughtful, compassionate teacher weaves this amazing climate of caring into her classroom with planned acts of kindness, like taking the time to share that message with Joshua's number one fan, me. She teaches her students by example and helps them to be better every day, not only at reading and language arts, but at smiling and staying positive, at trusting and caring, at being in the moment and being a good friend.  Her small act went a VERY long way and rippled out in so many directions for me that afternoon. 
 We carried I Love Joshua Day on into the night, of course, and have been looking for ways to pay it forward ever since.  Thank you, Mrs. Bockart!


Monte's Ministry

Years later, I'm still reminded of my friend Monte and her pecan pie ministry when I pull out my rolling pin. Read about the impact she made in my life and the legacy she left behind.

Nuts. We struck up a conversation on Flight 2358 about nuts - pecans to be exact - when I offered her one of my turtles. She gladly accepted one, maybe two, before introducing herself and sharing with me that she likes pecans so much that makes a pecan pie for every member of her church on their birthday. That would sometimes mean up to four pies a day. People from all over bring pecans for her husband, Bill, to crack and shell while she prepares her homemade pastry and the scrumptious goo for her ministry. Turns out we shared a passion for this dying art form so we traded mouth-watering recipes and tricks of the trade as our plane headed south. As we visited, we decided to send each other a new recipe to try each month. Monte wrote down her pecan pie recipe and gave it to me along with her promise to be my recipe pen pal.

We kept that promise for six years. Every month, I would receive an update about her family, her pride and joy. I remember her funniest letter said that during an arteritis illness which curtailed her pecan pie ministry, Monte had discovered that there were so many things she’d been doing for Bill over the past 58 years that he could actually do for himself. Each letter would bring a recipe from her collection. Some of my family’s favorite recipes have come “from the Kitchen of Monte Prude.” Monte was old enough to be my mom, but letter by letter, she was turning into one of my treasured peers. We shared secrets, successes, sorrows, stories, and savory sensations. We even phoned one another periodically and it was always nice to hear the friendly voice of that accomplished chef, my mentor and role model.

But Monte’s last call wasn’t so nice. It was her voice, all right, but she wasn’t calling to share a new recipe or give or get an update. She was calling to tell me that she had cancer and that, while she was going to stay hopeful, she wasn’t certain what the future held for her. She was calling to thank me for my friendship and she was calling to say good-bye. I didn’t let Monte say good-bye that day. I told her that she was strong and that she would fight this thing and that I was praying for her and that she’d be fine. I even sat down that night and wrote her a Get-Well-Soon card, optimistically including an easy recipe for her to try. Several days later, I got a note, but no recipe. It would be the last letter I ever received from my recipe pen pal. It read:

Dear Barbara, I enjoyed your letter so much. Thanks for your encouraging words. You know, I have felt good this whole time. God has blessed my family, especially me, for years. He gave me 2/12 months last summer of the best health I’ve had for years. We remodeled our house, carpeted, installed storm windows, got a new electric stove, and had new cabinets put in. But the most important thing is that I have been planning for years to write a book for each of our four boys. Through the years I have written down all the cute and funny things they’ve come up with so I typed all of that on real pretty paper and wrote each one a personal letter. It was a pretty notebook and quite lengthy.

They were all so pleased and touched. I feel like that time was given to me for that special purpose. While your children are so young, you might keep that in mind. I start my chemo in the morning and have no idea what to expect. I’m supposed to have six hours at the clinic, then they will install a contraption that will slowly drip for the next 48 hours at home. They’ll take it out Monday then all my sessions will be there in the clinic every two weeks. I don’t know how long. The only visible sign so far is my shaky writing. Thanks for the past 6 years. Love, Monte

Imagine worrying about her penmanship! I was so glad she had written and I cherished the sage advice from my valued friend, but I still didn’t know that this was good-bye. I bought a packet of wildflower seeds just before spring break and sent them to Monte instead of a recipe this time. I figured that, even if she wasn’t well enough on the road to recovery to plant them herself, Bill would put them into a planter box so she could see them from her kitchen window. I’m not sure if she ever got them. You see, I received a phone call during spring break from her daughter-in-law (Miriam I think she said her name was) that they’d buried Monte earlier that week. “It was a beautiful celebration of life ceremony”, I heard her say as I choked back tears. She thanked me for being Monte’s friend before she hung up. I pulled out some of Monte’s letters and re-read them through misty eyes that night, unable to believe that Monte was gone. I still wasn’t ready to say good-bye.

I called Monte’s husband Bill, who told me with pride that at her funeral, they asked all of the people who ever received a birthday pecan pie from Monte to stand up and that almost everyone in the room rose to their feet. Her son added jokingly that if there was anyone “who wished they’d gotten one of Monte’s pecan pies, would they please stand,” and Monte got her standing ovation that day. They were able to calculate that she’d made some 1700 pecan pies over the years. What a wonderful tribute to Monte’s tremendously giving spirit and generously delicious ministry.

Remembering Monte today, I am hopeful that there is a great big kitchen in heaven and that she is able to cook up a storm, serving the most incredibly tasty meals followed up fabulously delectable desserts to her heavenly family. If I could write to Monte one more time, my note would go something like this:

Dear Monte, It’s been almost a year since I got your last letter and I miss you so much. I think of you every time I pull out my recipe box. Thanks for sharing your recipes, your wisdom, your friendship, and your love. The children are growing like Texas Wildflowers in the springtime. I can hardly keep up with them. I talked with Bill today. He says he’s getting along okay, but he still misses you like crazy. You were such a great cook and a caring role model for so many people. I’m a better person, Monte, because I met you along the way on my life’s journey. You shared not only your recipes for the kitchen, but more importantly, your recipe for life, and for that I will always be grateful. Good-bye for now, my sweet friend. Love, Barbara

ps. If it’s not too much to ask, could you save me a piece of your pecan pie?
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