What Am I Doing In a Documentary About Rap Music?

 
     Journalism is only partly about writing. For me, research and interviewing have been equally satisfying (and usually less stressful).
     In the 17 years I worked as a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal, my mind was opened wide by the staggering range of people I met — and whose lives I had a ticket to explore. I interviewed farmers and movie stars, CEOs and Rockettes. I hung out with Rupert Murdoch, the inventor of kitty litter and Jeff Koons. 
 
Always did have a "busy" desk with piles around me!

Always did have a “busy” desk with piles around me!

 
 
     But perhaps the most fascinating person I got to know during those years was Russell Simmons. Before the mansions, philanthropy, yoga-mastery and swimsuit models, Russell Simmons was a driven young man with an idea that seemed wildly implausible at the time: to develop rap into the soundtrack of the nation, and to make a fortune for himself in the process. 
 
     Our paths first crossed in 1984. Russell was in his 20s, promoting a handful of unknown rap performers at clubs and working out of a tiny midtown office with graffiti -covered walls. A colleague trying to get publicity for Russell’s tiny DIY label, Def Jam, called me up and said this hip hop thing wasn’t a fad, and I should interview Russell because he was the “mogul of rap.”  That seemed like a laughable oxymoron, but as a hook, it got me. 
 
Russell Simmons & LL Cool J

Russell Simmons & LL Cool J

 
     To start with, Russell said I needed to go with him to “the birthplace of rap,” a dingy club in the South Bronx called Disco Fever, and I needed to go at 2 am, because that’s when it gets interesting. He wanted to bring along his young protege, a guy too young to drink at the bar, but his first single had just come out: his name was LL Cool J. To report that first story, I traipsed around with Russell as he took rap records with a single song  from one hot downtown club to the next, trying to persuade the DJs to play the music. I travelled to Baltimore for a touring show called the Fresh Festival, which included some of the hot acts of the day like Run-D.M.C. and the Fat Boys. 
 
disco fever
 
   
Run-D.M.C. (Run, aka Joseph Simmons, is Russell's little brother)

Run-D.M.C. (Run, aka Joseph Simmons, is Russell’s little brother)

 
       Over the years I covered rap (when my beat was the business of the arts, and later, the music business), I wrote about the changing scene. I interviewed up-and-coming stars like Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Peppa, and the guys who started the Source magazine in their Harvard dorm room, but I kept in touch with Russell. What always impressed me most about him was his work ethic. He was a total Type-A workaholic and obsessed with his projects, and always eloquent in his defense of the music. I recall one lunch at a diner in the East Village early on when a middle-aged black man sitting at the next table, overhearing us speak about the state of rap music, started attacking it as vile both musically and culturally. As always, Russell responded with a detailed, passionate defense. 
 
     
You can tell how little the WSJ editors thought of rap by the headline, right?

You can tell how little the WSJ editors thought of rap by the headline, right?

 
 
        I’ll be honest and admit that rap is probably still my least favorite genre of music. But there is absolutely no denying that Russell Simmons and all the other artists and producers of this music have lived out his dream, and I don’t just mean his net worth exceeding $300 million. Rap is the soundtrack of 21st century America in many respects, as likely as rock to be in the next ad you see. 
 
      I’ve not seen any of this 4-part documentary, The Tanning of America: One Nation Under Hip Hop, but I can say the producers were extremely professional, well-organized and thorough. I kept telling them no, I didn’t want to be interviewed for a rap documentary, but they kept asking until I said yes, explaining that Russell Simmons told them it took being quoted in my front page story for him to get the mainstream credibility he needed to finally sign a big record deal. I’ll be very interested to see which of my comments during the hour they filmed me made it into the documentary, but yes, Russell Simmons did call me “The Ivory Snow Queen.” He said I was the whitest person he ever met. 
 
       So that’s how I wound up becoming a talking head in the The Tanning of America (they tell me I appear in parts 1 and 2.). It will debut Monday, Feb. 24 on VH1, at 11 pm, running four consecutive nights, and afterward, will be available for streaming online, including at iTunes. You can watch the trailer here, and see if it isn’t worth checking out.
 
         rap poster

You Gotta Have Heart!

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     Page Hodel is a DJ living in San Francisco. She fell madly, wildly in love with her neighbor Madalene Rodriguez in 2005, and every Monday morning, Madalene would wake up to find a Page-made heart on her front porch. The hearts were constructed out of whatever objects caught Page’s fancy: flowers or twigs or corks or stones or tiny toys. 

     Sadly, Madalene was diagnosed with a virulent, fast-moving cancer, and about one year after the two women met, she died. But Page has continued to make these hearts every Monday for her forever sweetheart, sharing them with the world through photographs. So far, she has made over 400 of these hearts, using as her materials anything from human beings to the innards of a de-constructed piano. I’ve been privileged to be on her email list for years, and find one of these magnificent hearts in my inbox every Monday morning. But anyone can enjoy these amazing creations on Page’s website. See them all displayed, and if you wish, sign up to receive these weekly treasures in your e-mail inbox. I also heartily recommend Page’s book, as well as her licensed notecards and posters. The image above, showing shirts fashioned into a giant heart, is from a poster. 

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    For Valentine’s Day, I urge you to look at Page’s hearts, and be inspired to make your own. That’s what I decided to do this year, make hearts out of any objects or substances, whether found in nature or man-made, that crossed my path or tickled my imagination. I’ve been shaping these all week, and thinking about a particular person I love with each one. I’ll be sending them out in e-mails with sentimental or romantic notes on Friday. Make some hearts, and share them with those you love.

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 Happy Valentine’s Day to all of you!!!!!

And don’t forget, there are hundreds of great traditions and celebrations in my book, The Book of New Family Traditions. 

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Reviewing the Year as it Ends: A Questionnaire

Every year, we sit down as a family on New Year’s Day and we each write 3 resolutions, which we save on the pantry door.

But a bigger deal is the list of questions we ask each year.  Part of the fun is re-reading what we wrote in previous years. P1040635

However you choose to celebrate, I wish you all a very happy New Year!! And hope I see you back here in 2014. 

Here are the questions for 2013:

QUESTIONS ABOUT 2013

BEST THING THAT HAPPENED TO YOU?

 WORST THING THAT HAPPENED TO YOU?

BEST THING YOU ACCOMPLISHED?

 DESCRIBE THE YEAR IN ONE WORD.

BEST MOVIE YOU SAW IN 2013? WORST?

 BEST BOOK YOU READ IN 2013?

 BEST TV PROGRAM OF 2013?

 WHAT EVENTS OF ’13 WILL MAKE HISTORY?

 WHAT YOU WILL REMEMBER MOST ABOUT ’13?

 3 THINGS YOU HOPE FOR MOST IN 2014?

 

 

How to Turn Cash Gifts Into a Tradition with Meaning

1386285536000-cash-gift       Ever since their teen years, my nieces and nephews have had just one item on their Christmas wish list: CASH.

      Chances are, you’ve got some young folk with the same requests. Maybe, like me, you understand that they’ve got their own tastes and wants, but you find giving money kind of boring. They spend it, it’s gone, with nothing left over to indicate there was a relationship between the two people in this transaction. 

       Maybe I got to thinking about creating new rituals for money gifts because of my grandfather, Michael Hohenstine, a craftsman and jeweler in Columbus, Ohio. He didn’t like to just give plain bills either. So he would get new bills from the bank, and using glue on one end, turn a stack of money into a pad. His 4 daughters got pads of twenty dollar bills every Christmas, while each of the grandkids got 20 singles glued in a pad. So simple, I know, but it made spending the money an adventure, because of the reactions of sales clerks when you started peeling off your bills!

MrP_tb_moneypad

 

      But I wanted more than a memorable sight gag. I’m a word person, dontcha know, and I wanted to share wisdom and wishes with the cash I gave.  So I started doing what I call “Cash-PLUS.” I go to the bank and get new bills, like my granddad, but I take each bill and wrap it into a small scroll along with a thin piece of paper. On that paper, I write a series of inspiring quotes, or, depending on the occasion, my wishes, hopes and dreams for that child. When they reached milestone birthdays, like 21, I would use 21 bills (either fives or tens). 

      For Christmas, why not wrap your scrolls in holiday paper? You might consider writing on the papers events and accomplishments you hope for the kid in the coming year, or list the qualities of their character and personality you appreciate the most. 

 rsz_cash_quotes

     

 

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       What I try to do is find a small attractive box to hold the scrolls. This gives you something to wrap, and it gives the recipient a place to save the scrolls as a keepsake. 

 rsz_cash_box_outside

     rsz_1cash_box 

            Do you have other ways to make money gifts special? I did find some on a blog called Party Animal, including things like folding bills into origami shapes.  But I would love to hear some fresh ideas from you!

            Here is another idea from my friend Nancy Breland. When she turned 25 and was a “starving” graduate student, her father sent her a prescription bottle full of cash. On the label, he was listed as the prescribing physician, and he wrote: “RX: Take as needed.” Nancy says you can get new prescription bottles at your local drugstore and do this yourself for a loved one’s gift. I could also see this being done for a Christmas gift. 

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Special Giveaway for Reading or Parent Groups!

 

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     Here is a special deal for any group using The Book of New Family Traditions to learn more about creating memorable rituals for families. Whether your group is school- or church-based, a regular book group or informal mommy group in your living room, you can get free handouts and discussion guides.

     All you need is a group of people planning to meet and discuss my book, and give me at least one weeks notice. I’ll send you a pdf of a handout on How to Conduct a Rituals Inventory, a great exercise at the start of a new year, and an essay called You Are What You Celebrate. Your group will also get a discussion guide, with questions to enliven your meeting. 

     Finally, assuming that my calendar is open for the time of your meeting, I’m happy to make a Skype call to your group to answer any questions you might have and share some further resources that aren’t in the book. 

      If you would like to take advantage of this offer, please contact me by sending an email to meg@megcox.com. Please write Group Giveaway in the subject line. 

       Discussing family traditions with a group is a terrific way to gather fresh ideas, and share some of your favorite ways of celebrating. 

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Advent: Creative Ways to Count Down the Days

     

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       Advent means “the coming or arrival” and counting down the days to Christmas is a wonderful daily activity to do with children. They actually get a little less antsy, because they can celebrate in small steps. 

mini-tree-advent-calendar

     There’s a family in my book, The Book of New Family Traditions, where the mother puts a small stocking on her son’s bedroom door. Every day, starting December 1, he wakes up to find a tiny toy in the stocking, and each one is part of a bigger set. One year it’s all the animals in a farmyard, and the next all the soldiers in an army. By Christmas Eve, he’s collected an entire set but his mother only had to buy one thing, at the dollar store. 

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        Of course, there is nothing wrong with buying an Advent calendar readymade: there are thousands of options made of paper or wood, stuffed with candy or little ornaments or toys. For years, we have bought a Lego Advent calendar every year. Even now, in his first year of college, my son wanted a Lego Star Wars Advent calendar sent to his dorm room.

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         But there are also many clever and personal ways to make your own version of an Advent calendar, and I want to share some of those.  You can do something as simple as sticking little envelopes or paper bags to a wall or posterboard, with numbers on the front. The dramatic example at the top of the blog, with the red envelopes in the shape of a tree is from Martha Stewart. No matter what containers or pockets you create to count down, each day, your child can pull out something after finding the proper number. It could be a candy cane, tickets to the local Nutcracker ballet, or a a toy. 

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       And here are links to some blogs and websites that have amassed collections of Advent ideas, so you can scout around for one that is perfect for your own family: 

        

35 DIY Advent Ideas at the Crafty Crow

35 DIY Advent Ideas at the Crafty Crow

         Go here for the Crafty Crow suggestions on homemade Advent calendars. That’s where I found the Martha Stewart red envelopes as well. There are 20 more clever countdown ideas at the Babble website, here

         Being a quilter, of course I have to include one version that is quilted. This is from the Sew Mama Sew website, and there is a free tutorial on the site about how to make this. It’s probably too late for this Christmas, unless you are a very speedy sewer, but you could save the idea for next year.

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          When I write and talk about traditions, I’m always emphasizing that traditions should reflect the parents’ passions and values, so when my son was little, we were always looking to add rituals that made books seem valuable and special. I interviewed a woman who used to wrap her Christmas books up like packages and put a number on each one (she got the idea from the marvelous Family Fun magazine), and we adopted that idea immediately. 

         It’s very simple to do: I always hid the Christmas books the rest of the year, so they would be fresh once a year, and before December 1, I would wrap them all after laying them out on my study floor: I wanted the longer books to fall on the weekends, and The Night Before Christmas to get opened on December 24. If you haven’t got 24 holiday books, borrow some from the library, or find some good stories online and print them out and wrap those. 

      xmas book tradition

         Part of the tradition was that lovely moment each night after dinner, when my son would run into the living room to find a wrapped book under a little felt Advent calendar. He would grab it and run to the sofa, to snuggle in my lap while I read it. It was so much fun to open an especially beloved favorite book like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Olive the Other Reindeer, Night Tree and The Polar Express. 

        I found other people who have their own versions of this, and loved the Craftsmumship blog about how she has her kids make the numbers that go on the packages for her literary Advent tradition.

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         A more ancient way of celebrating, of course, is to have an Advent wreath and light Advent candles. Here is a link to a website that will tell you which are the proper colors, and suggest some hymns or Bible verses for candle-lightings. 

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         But while searching for new ideas, I also stumbled across a website called the Advent Conspiracy, which really piqued my interest. It was established a few years ago by a small group of ministers whose goal was to help people celebrate Christmas in a less materialistic way. They’ve done a beautiful job of creating what they call the Advent Conspiracy Calendar, full of ideas for making this countdown a time of giving and spiritual contemplation. 

        It turns out that virtual Advent calendars are a growing field. Some are free, others will cost you. You can find some apps to check your virtual calendar on your smartphone, but I also found two really creative ones online. For the more religious, I recommend the one on the Busted Halo website (which calls itself “an online magazine for spiritual seekers.”) The December 1 item is a photo of the Pope, and clicking on it reveals a quote from the pontiff. Like the Advent Conspiracy calendar, you can’t peek at future days: they won’t open until that date. This is not true of another virtual Advent calendar over at Red Ted Art, a website offering tons of creative activities for kids. All the links are open now, and they each lead to craft activities on various blogs. 

        I have many, many more Christmas ideas in The Book of New Family Traditions, which itself makes a wonderful Christmas (or Advent) gift. However you count down these days, I wish you much warmth and intimacy with your loved ones, and a deep sense of the season’s meaning. 

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How to Make a Thankfulness Tree

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             One of my very favorite personal family traditions is our annual Thankfulness Tree. We’ve been doing it for more than a decade, and it means more with every passing year.

            This year, I discovered that the concept has blossomed all over the country and there are many wonderful variations of Thanksgiving trees. I’m sharing some of my favorites here in hopes they will inspire you to embrace this tradition and make it your own.

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Jeanine Hays did this one for HGTV

           

            There are several steps in how I start our Thankfulness tradition each year. First, I go outside and gather an armload of thin, bare tree branches in the yard. These will get decorously stuffed into a large, pretty vase.

            Step 2 is to cut out the paper leaves that we’ll use to write down our gratefuls. I use plain old construction paper, in red, yellow and orange.

           cut leaves

            My template for leaves is to draw around a cookie cutter shaped like a maple leaf, but there are so many other ways to do this: trace around actual leaves you find, make up your own simple leaf shapes, or pick up some precut paper leaves from an art supply store like Michael’s. There is an actual template on page 250 of The Book of New Family Traditions, if you have a copy of my book or borrow it from the library. Once I cut the leaves, I make a small hole at the top of each one, and tie a string or ribbon onto the end so the leaves can easily be hung on the branches.

         use actual leaves

            Step 3 is the actual ritual of everyone writing on the paper leaves. There are many ways and times for doing this. Since our extended family members aren’t really into this tradition, we tend to write on the leaves before the Thanksgiving feast, often early on Turkey Day.

           

In 2002, my son was grateful for "My Brane".

In 2002, my son was grateful for “My Brane”.

           If everyone in your family and guests want to join you, so much the better: you can arrange extra leaves on a table next Thursday, and writing on them can be one of the activities for hungry people waiting to celebrate.

            Note: however you create your Thankfulness tree, they make beautiful centerpieces. I always leave ours up for several days after the holiday.

            This part is important: SAVE all the leaves when you dismantle the tree, because they are fantastic keepsakes, holders of family memories that will remind you for years about what was most important to everyone in a given year.

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             I put mine in baggies, marked with the year in which they were made. Eventually, I may create a big scrapbook for them all or find another way to display them, but it’s fun to look back and see the people, things and experiences we treasured most.

            But as I said at the start, there are so many fun variations on this idea now. 

            

http://www.carinagardner.com/2011/11/15/giving-thanks/

http://www.carinagardner.com/2011/11/15/giving-thanks/

 

                     I like the clothesline approach, but your Thanksgiving tree can also be made from hand-shaped leaves. 

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                      This one is also sweet:  

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                       The tree above and the one below both came from the Shelterness blog, a post with 20 cool examples of Thanksgiving trees. Here is a link to that blog post

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                          And here is one more, in the Forsyth family blog that is just adorable and also a wonderful decoration for anyone’s dining room. 

                      

Go see the close-ups on the blog. This is awesome!

Go see the close-ups on the blog. This is awesome!

                         Whatever ways you choose to express gratitude this year, I wish you all a very memorable and delicious Thanksgiving!!!!!!!!!!! God bless you all.

 

Alert the Media: Quilters TOOK Manhattan!

 

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I’ve loved being president of the nonprofit Quilt Alliance, and I think my proudest accomplishment was deciding we should have a benefit in NYC every year. This past weekend marked our third annual Quilters Take Manhattan, and friends, we really took it in style.

A quilter from Australia, now living in North Carolina

A quilter from Australia, now living in North Carolina

 

Photo by Victoria Findlay Wolfe

Photo by Victoria Findlay Wolfe

 

Keynoter Hollis Chatelain sells her denim patterns

Keynoter Hollis Chatelain sells her denim patterns

 

Last year, attendees told us that they’d love for us to “take more of Manhattan,” so we added vendors, classes, tours of the Garment District and special events, and most sold out well in advance. We even had a quilter’s night on Broadway.

 
Mark Lipinski's Class

Mark Lipinski’s Class

Since the Alliance only has a paid staff of 3 people, this obviously requires passionate volunteers, and that includes amazing board members who came all the way from Texas, Georgia, Vermont and D.C. to help make this happen.  They taught classes, filled goody bags, erected quilt stands, whatever it took. Thanks also to the fab City Quilter shop, which let the Alliance use its classroom for free, and its basement for storing sponsor goodies.

Embellishing Class with Frances Holiday Alford

Embellishing Class with Frances Holiday Alford

 

Once again, our main event was an inspiring and exciting afternoon at FIT, the Fashion Institute of Technology, and we jammed the room with ecstatic quilters. We had great speakers like Hollis Chatelain and Paula Nadelstern, who brought eye-popping quilts.

Paula Nadelstern Meets Her Fans & Sells Fabric

Paula Nadelstern Meets Her Fans & Sells Fabric

There were primo vendors like Aurifil thread and Cherrywood fabrics, along with a silent auction and raffle prizes. As one person said to me, “This is better than a Hollywood premiere for quilters: I check the name tags and see one famous quilter after another!”

We had a party Saturday night, and that was an over-the-top experience, featuring a quilt design contest between three great quilters: Luke Haynes, Mark Lipinski and Heather Jones. The crowd went wild, watching the 3 create a design in just an hour, helped by people they selected from the audience (it helps when Denyse Schmidt happens to be at your party!)

 

Here I am with our 2 Quilt Star Referees: Yvonne Porcella & Jamie Fingal

Here I am with our 2 Quilt Star Referees: Yvonne Porcella & Jamie Fingal

 

Let the contest begin!

Let the contest begin!

 

The Finished Quilts

The Finished Quilts

The photo above is from Victoria Findlay Wolfe’s blog and if you go there, you can see tons more photos, and even a short video that captures the party’s madness (and loud music).

Mark Lipinski Won!  Champ Belt by Frances Holiday Alford

Mark Lipinski Won!
Champ Belt by Frances Holiday Alford

On Sunday morning, we had our final outing of the Quilters Take Manhattan weekend, a behind-the-scenes peek at a new quilt exhibition. Stacy Hollander, curator at the American Folk Art Museum, showed us the works from 3 artists she had chosen for alt_Quilts. One was Luke Haynes, an Alliance board member, who talked about his work.

All three of the contemporary artists in this show are amazing, but curator Stacy Hollander also mixed in traditional quilts with similar patterns to create a dialog across the centuries. 

Luke's work is at Right, and the other quilt was made by British soldiers in the 19th century

Luke’s work is at Right, and the other quilt was made by British soldiers in the 19th century

 

As makers ourselves, we all found it fascinating to watch the museum “make” an exhibition: they were still adding touches to the show, and painting the artists’ names on the wall. This terrific show will run until January 5.

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            Save the date for next year! The main event will be Saturday, September 20, and our keynote speaker will be the “it” girl of fabric design, Amy Butler. 

QTM 2013

Celebrating the Body I’ve Got

            I was one of those brainiac kids who loves school, but hates gym. My siblings called me a klutz. If not for a chance encounter my freshman year in college, I might never have paid my body any mind.

            There was an open house for the campus karate club, and Lord knows why, I dropped by. Goju-Kai was the type of karate, and next thing I knew, I was doing these boot camp-hard training sessions 2 and 3 times a week. After a couple of months, I realized with a shock that my body had changed dramatically: it was leaner, stronger, more defined. Hey, it liked all this attention!

Not Me-- Doing Karate

Not Me– Doing Karate

            Being strong felt great, and the ritualistic aspects of the training struck a chord I didn’t know was in me. But there were few women in the group. I could only spar with women. I got tired of being kicked by brown belts. By year’s end, I quit. My aha moment was realizing that the kata, the prescribed patterns of kicks and blocks and stances, were choreography. Hey, I was meant to dance!

 

Ballet Pose @ the Rodin Museum, Paris

Ballet Pose @ the Rodin Museum, Paris

            For a good many years after college, I took up to 5 dance classes a week, mostly ballet and modern. It kept me strong but also fed my spirit. Moving to live music, drums or piano, brought my head and body into the same rich hum. When that proved impractical, I switched to aerobics classes, in my teensy Jane Fonda unitards.

 

My fave fitness instructor in NY, Judith Scott, put a bunch of her students on the cover of her book, Good-Bye to Bad Backs!

My fave fitness instructor in NY, Judith Scott, put a bunch of her students on the cover of her 1988 book, Good-Bye to Bad Backs!

 

           For awhile, I had a personal trainer in NYC. In Princeton these days, I get my exercise fix through yoga, Pilates and Body Pump classes at the Y.

            But we all know what happens: life and children and age.  You come to crave that feeling of your body as well-tuned engine, and then accidents or disease steal it. You feel betrayed.  Frustrated. Angry. Helpless. Embarrassed. Cranky.

            I felt all those things. On top of the ordinary indignities of aging (like not being able to buckle any of my belts) I had to go through two “female” operations in the past 2 years. In a word, the first operation was botched, so I had to get it done properly, and endure the 8 weeks of recovery again.

            Doctors prescribed painkillers but after both surgeries, I found I needed to invent my own practical prescriptions to calm the impatience even more than the discomfort. There was a feeling of almost revulsion, inhabiting this sore, impaired, and strange-seeming body.  To lose my long-honed body-mind connection left me feeling lost, even though I knew that over time I would be able to resume my fitness level. The word “unfit” really stings.

            What was in my personal medical chest? In the first instance, my proactive response was dear friends and humor. I hosted a “Bye Bye Uterus” party the day before my surgery. I promised the “ritual burning of the tampons.”  (I’d been through menopause, but wanted to make light of what I was losing.) Instead of gifts, I asked my women friends to write toasts. We laughed and cried as they were read, and the winner of the competitive toasting was a raucous limerick I won’t share. (“There once was a woman named Meg…..)

Yes, We Are All Waving Tampons

Yes, We Are All Waving Tampons

            This medicine delivered swift results: I went into surgery still grinning. Feeling buoyed by love and empathy. When I came home to recover, there was a readymade circle of women, ready to talk to me, walk with me, feed me, or help in any way.

The Ritual Burning of the Tampons

The Ritual Burning of the Tampons

            Something different was called for the second time, a daily event that would promote physical healing but also engage my mind. I was told not to lift things, but to walk every day, so I made a ritual of it. I started a journal, on my computer, called My Comeback. Every day, as I began my walk, I took a photograph of my feet. I recorded the length of the walk, what I saw and thought, how I felt.            

Another Step Towards "My Comeback"

Another Step Towards “My Comeback”

 

            To keep from getting bored, I tried to walk lots of different places, and get people to join me. 

             In a slow, small way, it was profound. What it taught me is that the fullest, most satisfying way for me to live, no matter the compromised or aging state of my body, is to keep my mind and body aligned, It’s NOT my abs or butt that need to stay tight at all times, but the connection between all parts of my being.

               

College Days: My Spirit is Still Young!

College Days: My Spirit is Still Young!

                  I write this on the anniversary of my second surgery. At 60, I am not defined by the size of my waist, any more than I was defined by the size of my bust at 20.

 

Celebration and Invitation: More Reasons to Hire Me

 

A photo of Wagner in a birthday hat from The Atlantic, but it expresses my mood, OK?

A photo of Wagner in a birthday hat from The Atlantic, but it expresses my mood, OK?

What am I celebrating right now?

The new edition of The Book of New Family Traditions just earned its 15th 5-star reader review at Amazon.com, and I’m celebrating how good it feels when people tell me I made their family life even better. 

This latest review is entitled: “Improving Family Life One Ritual At a Time” and Lauri B. had this to say in her comments on the book:

“Unless you have the all time perfect family, you might profit from a little help as to how to reinforce connections in an era when there are so many distractions. I got many wonderful ideas from this book, and I am implementing them now with excellent results. I have purchased this book for several young women as Mother’s Day gifts and they have all thanked me profusely. I also appreciate the references to other books that might help me delve into related topics, which I have done. This book is a gem.”

Lauri B., whoever you are, I thank YOU profusely!

There is tremendous value from reading a good book, but often, people are helped even more by hearing from an author in person, and getting to ask questions.

There is a wonderful YES jar ritual in the book, and I usually bring a Yes Jar to demonstrate.

There is a wonderful YES jar ritual in the book, and I usually bring a Yes Jar to demonstrate.

So, just a reminder, that I’m a skilled speaker and workshop-leader, and I work on this topic all the time. Currently, I’m starting to craft a workshop for a synagogue in Dallas, while working on a webinar about what to add and what to subtract when overwhelmed by the winter holidays. In addition, I’m preparing a Christmas holiday open house for a local retailer, with demos of fun and simple Christmas traditions. And working with school groups to help families overwhelmed by the digital technology create rituals using those devices in a limited and positive way.

Do you know a school, community, library, parenting or religious group that is looking for a powerful but practical workshop presentation? One real estate investment firm flew me to Atlanta for four figures just to lecture the employees during lunch hour, and a NJ drug company bought a copy of my book for every parent with a child in the daycare center on the premises (after I lectured at the daycare center). But many of my clients are non-profits, like libraries and museums, and I reduce my rates accordingly.

Send me a note at meg@megcox.com to discuss dates and topics, or click on the Hire Meg tab.  You’ll find out more about topics I’ve covered often in lectures and workshops, but I am happy to tailor a program just for your group. 

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Oh, wait. One more thing worth celebrating: the number of people who have “Liked” my traditions page on Facebook is getting very close to 500. So, I’ve announced a fun giveaway. When I reach 500 “Likes,” I am giving away a wonderful one-of-a-kind Ritual Toolkit, based on my traditions philosophy. This special box will be packed with confetti poppers, special candles, bubbles, sage bundles and a whole lot more to help your family celebrate all the milestones ahead.

How to enter? Just go to www.facebook.com/TraditionsBook and leave a comment for me under the post about the giveaway. And, while you are there, Like the page. A name will be picked randomly from all the comments when the time comes.

Why Not Celebrate on Facebook too?

Why Not Celebrate on Facebook too?

 NOTE: My Traditions page on FB reached 500 “likes” in less than 24 hours!! Thanks to everyone who responded. I will be giving away another ritual toolkit, and extra goodies, when the page hits 1,000. 

The Zen of Empty Nesting

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Here is a small sample of the questions I am NOT asking my son since he started college last month:

Did you shave?

Have you done laundry yet?

Are you making friends?

Did you sign up for all your classes?

Are you eating healthy food?

What will you wear when the freshman class has dinner with the new college president?

Do you miss me?

I’ve decided that August 28, the day we dropped our son off at Haverford College, was the polar opposite of November 14, 1994, the day we brought Max home from the hospital. On both days, our lives changed completely. This change, I think, is as hard as the earlier one, but not quite as scary.

After 18 years, we know him so deeply, and to whatever extent, our ways of being and loving helped formed the person he is. What he becomes next is something completely out of our control. As it should be. 

Drop-off was pretty classic: although we had carefully agreed ahead of time that my husband and I would stay briefly to do a few things like make the bed and build a bookcase, when the day came and the 3 of us were crowded into a cramped single dorm room, he just wanted us OUT of there. 

Max's Desk at Haverford

Max’s Desk at Haverford

What helped enormously was the panel discussion we attended led by the school’s counseling staff, who told us, “Get over the idea that in 15 minutes, you can tell your kids everything they need to do this brilliantly. You are done. Even if you are pissed at them, hug them and say good-bye.”

I didn’t have a complete plan for anything other than getting my son ready for college: I didn’t get me ready, really. But even in these first few weeks, I’ve figured out some basic wisdom about this new empty nest living that is serving me well. I started by insisting to my husband that we didn’t head straight home from the emotional day to an empty house: I booked a pretty hotel on the Delaware River near New Hope, Pennsylvania, and made a dinner reservation too. 

We arrived emotionally spent, but were met by a charming, old hotel with a river-view suite. After a delicious meal, complete with champagne toasts to our future, we fell into the luscious big bed and fell asleep. By the time we got home the next day, we had something else to talk about, and were returning from a fun adventure that reminded us that we know how to have a good time on our own. 

 

View from Our Hotel Room

View from Our Hotel Room

The first five days without a phone call, surviving on the crumbs of occasional emails, was killer hard. But I kept reminding myself that while only one thing had changed in our lives, EVERYTHING had changed in our son’s life, and he needed to pay attention to that. If he were out in the world and at a job, would I be calling him up and asking him “Did you finish that report yet?” or “Have you explained to the boss why you missed the meeting?” Of course not. That would be ridiculous. But his job now is learning how to live without us, and that should also be done without nagging, needling or unnecessary interruption.

The other big part of this change is addressing this new era for myself, seeing it for the real opportunities that are opening for both my marriage and my work life. Who am I now? What else belongs in my life?

So many things are coming now: like signing my husband and myself up for an 8-week course in digital photography. We can travel more, eat more veggies and less meat, go see movies without CGI special effects and battles. We’re doing movie nights weekly, and finally starting the book group we always wanted.

What is your hard-won wisdom for living wholly in the empty nest?

I think I might be able to make a habit of this letting-go. But I am so glad that he has now promised to call every Sunday.

 

The Secret to Empty Nest Happiness

The Secret to Empty Nest Happiness

School Rituals for The Whole Year — Not Just the First Day

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            Back-to-school rituals are wonderful and often quite emotional. One of the most popular traditions is to shoot a picture of the student, all dressed up, waiting for the school bus, or entering the doors of the school.

            We did that ourselves, beginning with kindergarten, as our son waited for the bus to come. These were simple shots, usually with him grinning and showing off the new backpack. The photos track his growth and changes in everything from hairstyles to facial expression.

First Day of First Grade

First Day of First Grade

            But I’ve realized two important things recently, including that these photos can be spiced up a bit and made a little more creative and zany.

            The top photo is of Aidan, son of well-known quilt designer Heather Braunlin-Jones. I love that Heather used the chalkboard to mark the date and the grade her son is starting. I’m already having trouble recalling which of my son’s photos correspond to what grade in school, which is a pain.

Lori Ward Jackson, mom of 4, Best Family Traditions blog

            But here is another idea, a goofy approach that really cracked me up. Blogger and mother of four, Lori Ward Jackson, used to take the more traditional photos. But she began posing for these jubilant mom/annoyed children shots, with her kids’ cooperation, and posted them recently on her Best Family Traditions blog.  I know I felt like this most years as school resumed and so did most of my friends who are moms. I think this is a reminder that this can be more fun and theatrical. You can always take a more standard first-day photo in addition.

            Although first-day photos are a great idea, this is also a great time to think about traditions for the whole school year. Do you have little rituals for sending your kids off in the morning? For welcoming them back home at night? Have you created special rituals for homework? After-school snacks?

            There are all kinds of school-related rituals in the new edition of The Book of New Family Traditions, but I just wanted to share a few of them here.

            Pretty much every morning, whether he took the bus or I drove my son to school, I always had a catch phrase, some pithy quote of encouragement as my good-bye. It could be as simple as “Do great things” or “Be Kind.” I would often stick with one for months. I think there are many terrific possibilities that express a parent’s values about learning. My own personal favorite is from Ms. Frizzle, the science teacher in the Magic School Bus book series, whose motto always was: “Take chances! Makes mistakes! Get messy!”

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            Many daily rituals happened when school ended. We started early setting the pattern of a snack and brief playtime right after school, but then homework period started right after that, unless my son stayed late at school.  Definitely no TV until after dinner, if then.

            I’m not saying that my son didn’t have a few issues about working ahead of deadlines during high school, but this ritual really did develop a solid, early habit of doing homework almost immediately.

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            For a stretch of time during elementary school, I used to hide some of Max’s stuffed animals in trees and bushes near the house. He’d jump off the bus and run around searching for them, gleefully grabbing them off branches and hugging them.

beanies in the trees!

           

            I realize another special tradition for me during my son’s early school years was volunteering as “Library Mom” for his class. I took turns doing this with other mothers, but it meant I got to observe my son in the school context and get to know his classmates. I chose that form of volunteering because I’m a vocal advocate for reading (and writing) books. I think it was a treat for my son to see me play a role at his school, but many of the pleasures and benefits were my own: to this day, I am still friends with his grade school librarian.

           Any kind of ritual that makes school more fun or emphasizes the value of books and learning is worth doing: there is one family in the book that has special dinners before the first day each year, and on the last day as well. The dinner before school starts includes favorite foods, a special desert, and school-themed gifts that celebrate each child’s specific passions.

            Got any special school traditions to share, whether daily or annual? Feel free to post a comment, and to share this blog post with anybody who might find it valuable. 

 

How To Use A Wish Lantern

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  I’ve heard about wish lanterns, sometimes called sky lanterns, for a long time, but only recently got a chance to use one in a family ritual.

            These are rice paper lanterns that contain a flammable pad at the bottom. Once it is lit, the lantern fills up with hot air and then it can be released, carried off by the wind and eventually burned up completely. The lanterns come in white or colors, and typically are about three feet tall.

            Weddings are one of the festive events where sky lanterns have become common, and you may have seen photographs of dark skies dotted with dozens of bright lights.

            I’m taking some lanterns to the Jersey shore soon, and plan to launch some lanterns with my son to celebrate the milestone of his starting college, but my first use of wish lanterns had a more somber theme. I was gathered with immediate family at a small reunion on the coast of North Carolina in June. This is where my parents spent the end of their lives, and where their ashes are scattered: my mother’s at an ocean pier and my dad’s on the golf course, near his last hole-in-one.

Throwing rose petals on the water, in memory of our mother, June 2011.

Throwing rose petals on the water, in memory of our mother, June 2011.

             In the past, we have scattered rose petals where the ashes lay, but this time, I decided it might be good to try sky lanterns instead. I was able to buy two white lanterns at the local kite store, one for each of them. I decided that as part of the ceremony, we would write each write a note or wish to them on the lantern itself. This proved quite easy to do, as the rice paper was sturdy.

My nephew Stephen writes on one of the lanterns.

My nephew Stephen writes on one of the lanterns.

 

            All of us were staying in a lovely beach motel, and we gathered at dark on the grass in front of my sister’s first floor room.  It took a little time to get a feel for how the lanterns work: you have to hang on to them until they fill with air, or they drop to the ground.

 

Trying to light the wish lantern.

Trying to light the wish lantern.

          When it was full and gently tugging on our arms, we released the first lantern. It was so beautiful and hopeful as it rose, and all of us, even the teenagers, had tears in our eyes as we watched it soar slowly out of sight. Then we launched the second one, shouting good wishes to our beloveds.

         This was one of those pure ritual moments I love so much, when every sense and thought is collectively focused. We lived and breathed in those moments together, and felt the same things, and knew how connected we truly are.

 

We love you Mom & Dad!

We love you Mom & Dad!

         And as we stood there, we suddenly realized that many other motel guests were standing outside on the grass and balconies, watching us light and launch these lanterns. They clapped and cheered, and that magnified our feelings of joy.  It was a very special night.

         I’m eager to use this tool again, and explore some of the other milestones and occasions where it will deepen the experience.

Two cautionary pieces of advice:

*Remember you are, literally, playing with fire and you MUST take the recommended precautions seriously. Don’t try this in a high wind, or next to trees or buildings. I have watched a YouTube video where 200 wedding guests launched lanterns at the same time, and one landed on the roof of the party house and caught it on fire.

*Do not buy the cheapest, chintziest ones, as they can be defective and even more dangerous than the regular ones. I recommend the ones made by Birando, which are well made and packaged. I bought the 10 pack for about $25, which is quite reasonable. (They also sell wish lanterns to float on water, confetti cannons and plenty of other party and ceremony supplies.)

I’d love to hear about your experiences with wish lanterns, and I hope you’ll share a comment.

P.S. Having tried and failed to ignite wish lanterns on several subsequent occasions, I wanted to give you our “secret to success.” I’ve found that regular cigarette lighters and those long-handled grill starters are really difficult to use. The best bet is super-long matches, like these. We used them recently to send off a wish lantern the night before my son left for college. 

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The T-Shirt Quilt for My Son’s Graduation

What kid doesn’t have a mile-high collection of t-shirts? 

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Usually, these tees are a visual history of the things, places and activities deepest in the hearts of our children, a record more true than any trophy or scrapbook.

Like many mothers, I decided that making a tee shirt quilt for my son would be a perfect high school graduation gift. Although I’m a pretty confident quilter and have practiced the craft since the late ‘80s, it somehow made me queasy to cut into these treasures. Plus, I had no experience working with stretchy t-shirts. And a tight deadline.

So I hired a pro from my local guild, Sandy Merritt, and gave her very explicit instructions. I knew which tees I wanted to feature, and where, and what fabric I wanted to use between them. He was totally nuts for trucks as a toddler, but I thought 2 truck shirts was enough. I also wanted to include some embroidered patches, like the one he got for reading extra books for the library’s summer reading program.

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My son really loved this gift, and we’re going to hang it over his bed now. Partly because these quilts go back to toddlerhood, he’s not interested in taking this to college. I told him if ever stops wearing all his high school theater tees, I’ll make the next quilt myself!

I wanted to share this because I’m so happy about how it came out, and to encourage others to try this.

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TIP: if you are collecting tee shirts for a future quilt, let me pass on some advice. Store all the shirts carefully, and in a place you won’t forget as the years roll by. Sandy Merritt adds that you should NEVER store them in a dark plastic bag: not only will that lack of air cause them to deteriorate, but she knows a mother who diligently saved tee shirts for years in such a fashion. Until the day her husband decided to help clean up clutter around the house, and assumed the garbage bag was full of …. Garbage. 

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Got a Toddler? Do This Now for A Memorable High School Graduation

No, this isn’t about playing Mozart while your two-year old naps, or picking the right language to assure your kid is Valedictorian.  It’s about celebration, and memories. And thinking ahead.

            High school graduation is one of the major milestones of our lives, and perhaps the clearest and most widely accepted marker of maturity and independence. Childhood is done.

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            My son just graduated from high school last week, and I’m feeling exhilarated and sad. I’ve sorted through all his class photos, remembering the grinning, geeky child he was in grade school. That boy is no more.

            1st grade, w_Ms Heller                      

            But I started thinking about this day a long time ago, and preparing for a very special present that would track his growth and progress through the years, academically and otherwise. 

            I confess this idea didn’t originate with me: I was interviewing a woman for my first book, The Heart of a Family: Searching America for New Traditions That Fulfill Us. She told me that every year starting in kindergarten, she had asked the teachers of each of her children to write a letter the child wouldn’t receive until he or she graduated from 8th grade. The letters were going to be included in a lovely scrapbook.

            I seized on her idea, with variations. I wanted to gather teacher letters through high school, and then present them in a keepsake box rather than a scrapbook. 

             I soon learned that most teachers are very receptive to the idea, as long as you respect their workloads: don’t ask until the school year is over, and just request a highlights letter, not a massive report. I asked them to be as specific and as honest as possible.

            teacher w:letter

            The trickiest part was getting the high school letters assembled, because there was such a narrow window between the end of classes and graduation. I made the request to my son’s three favorite teachers: all of them had taught him at least twice. His favorite, the drama teacher, had been working with Max since middle school, and he’s had the biggest impact on my son’s life.

 

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            TIP: I did not start project this until 2nd or 3rd grade, and though I tried to catch up with some of the earlier teachers, they did not respond. There are missing years in my letter box, but that didn’t stop me, and it shouldn’t stop you either. I just presented the ones I had. Another option would be to create your own write-up of the missing years, listing the teacher’s name, favorite classmates, some projects or triumphs that stood out.

              3rd Grade                        

            I wanted to supplement the teacher letters in the box with others from family members full of memories and good wishes for the future. So I sent a request about a month before graduation, asking them to send a letter on paper rather than e-mails.

            On graduation day, Max was celebrated with all manner of treat foods and gifts. But he said the box full of letters was the absolute highlight of the day.  

            At the party, I saved the box for last, and my son was both surprised and elated. One by one, he read the letters aloud, and it was such a powerful experience to see the portrait painted by the succession of teachers who had taught him. The letters were full of anecdotes and humor, things he said, occasions he misbehaved, the funny “lobster dance” for which he was famous in 5th grade. His 3rd grade teacher wrote, “You had wild hair sometimes and you didn’t like to wear shoes so much.”  They all praised his amazing writing, and his extravagant use of big words.

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            Photographs are wonderful mementos, but they are insufficient to help us fully recall our past. Whether you follow this exact pattern or not, think about how you can someday deliver to your children a deep, emotional recreation of their childhoods. 

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