Thursday, April 28, 2011

Buddy the Wonder Dog!

"Happiness is a warm puppy." 
                                -- Charles Schultz

Today is Buddy's birthday and what can I say?  I LOVE that dog. He's the best, no doubt about it.  He is a dream come true and has become one of my greatest joys in my daily life.  If you don't have a dog, I hesitate to tell you what to do, but I truly am sad that I let so many years go by without a dog in my, don't walk, and get the dearest friend for life.

I have always wanted a dog.  I actually never had a particular breed in mind but I just knew that I wanted a cozy companion.  Growing up, Brian and I would periodically beg for a dog but my mom would get a look of disgust on her face...I know it well, since I'm sure I made the same look to my own kids.  No way, I'll have to do all the work, all the clean up, all the walks, all the baths...too much work!  Little did I know that it would be a labor of love.  None of it seems like work when you're smitten.

When I was 11 and Brian was 9, our parents sat us down and told us they had something important to tell us.  They made us play 20 questions to guess the secret.  Our first question: "Does it have fur?"  They looked at us a little reluctantly when they answered, "Sort of".  That was good enough for us.  Together we bounded out of our chairs and acted as if we had won the lotto: jumping up and down screaming, "It's a dog!  It's a dog!"  Sheepishly, they revealed that it wasn't a dog but instead a new baby sister.  "What???" "Gross!"  We both ran to our rooms sobbing. (I'd like to edit to say that my sister has been one of the biggest gifts in my life and some day she will get her own blog post but at the time we wanted a dog, dammit.) We never did get one.

Fast forward to my freshmen year at college.  I leave for UC Davis and come home at Thanksgiving to of all things a dog!!! What?  I was replaced by a dog??? Who was this interloper?  I had no say in the dog, the name, the situation at all.  Apparently, Mary Claire had difficulty with my absence and so a dog entered the Boyan family home. The dog didn't know me and although I thought he was cute, I never had an attachment to Sam.  His specially prepared rice and ground turkey meals made me roll my eyes. Why did this dog, a mutt from the pound, need all of this special treatment? I couldn't relate at all. got the better of me and I found myself happily married and busy with little children.  There just never seemed to be a good time for a dog.  And, then, with the whirlwind of life I realized that if I didn't get on top of finding a dog for our family, I would repeat what happened to me and Jack would be away at college when a dog joined our family -- an irony not lost on me!

Last year I began the search.  I thought I had found a perfect match for our family when I spoke to a woman with a miniature poodle -- he didn't shed, was smart enough to train and good with kids.  She gave me her email and I put it in a safe place...such a safe place that I could never find it again. I walked and walked that same neighborhood where I had met the woman with no luck.  I guess miniature poodles weren't in the cards for us.  Months later, I saw an adorable puppy and asked the woman about her dog.  She told me he was a golden doodle.  She mentioned that there might be a breeder in Davis and so I looked online and found them.  They had photos that warmed my heart and I was hooked.  I called the breeder and we talked dogs.  I told her my fears and she offered me an escape hatch: we could get a dog from her and if it didn't work out, we could always give him back.  She would make sure that he was the pick of the litter and introduce him to children at just a few days old.  We agreed to meet the puppy at the beginning of June.

Our family tumbled out of the car and saw a tiny little cinnamon colored puppy in the grass. The heavens opened up and the angels sang.  I'm not joking -- we were entranced.  Watching a pup nip at the heels of your children is like some kind of movie moment.  We took turns holding him, snuggling that tiny bundle and laughing at our good fortune.  It was torture to get back in the car and wait another month but that's what had to happen.  We spent our time discussing names: Caroline wanted Fluffy, Cutie, or Rainbow; Patrick was determined to have Buddy; Jack and Mary Kate thought Teddy was cute and that Cinnamon would work; John offered up the age old Shit Head as a viable option...nice.  Like any world leader, I held the veto power and sided with Patrick -- Buddy it was.

He came at just the right time:  Jack needed a distraction from college angst, Mary Kate needed a lovable friend away from the teen drama, Patrick needed an opportunity to be responsible and a friend to cuddle, Caroline needed a chance to baby something and John needed something to wash away that work-a-day stress.  As for myself, I was convinced that the kids would love him and that I would like him.  I couldn't imagine loving a dog and I just thought I would be able to enjoy him in a from-a-distance kind of way.  I was completely shocked to find myself head over heels in love with a dog.  It was irrational, silly and super fun.  He demanded nothing from me, except my presence.  Just sitting by me was enough and I can't tell you the soul comfort of that kind of friendship.  In his short time with our family, he has made me giggle, sigh in contentment, ponder joy, get lost in playfullness and watch in awe as a friendly wag of a tail or a cherished cuddle fills everyone up and smooths out the rough spots of our family.

Buddy with his birthday cake and his fan club!

Grace with Buddy is everywhere: in his chocolate eyes, his lovable temperament, his playfullness, his loving and accepting presence, his patience with many, many kids and his absolute joy at you being on the planet at the same time he is.   I'm grateful for his lovely sweet self and amazed that he found his way into our family.  Caroline just a few weeks after we had Buddy told me: "Buddy will always be in my heart."  Then she paused and looked up at me.  With wide eyes she dared to ask: "Will he be in yours?"  I didn't have to think or blink, "Without a doubt, baby, without a doubt."

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

An Ode to a Very Special Few

"A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops." -- Henry Brooke Adams

Where do you get to fingerpaint, dress up, have a snack, read Big Books, sing songs, learn to share, climb, run, dance, ride a tricycle and dig in the sand freely and without a care?  Where is it allowed to wiggle, day dream, whisper, give clues to the surprise box and not know the answers?  Where are you encouraged to make friends, solve problems and climb up into the story loft? Where is curiosity a commodity, wonder a skill actively developed and where does joy envelope the room? A magical place.  One where ALL children should get the chance to first nibble at the giant cookie called school...preschool.

I have a very special place in my heart for preschools and we have gotten to be a part of several amazing ones but our local preschool in Davis has been the one we've been a part of the longest -- 10 years.  It could be because I am rounding the bend and know my preschool days are numbered; or it could be because I spend a chunk of my time in elementary classrooms where No Child Left Behind has left its horrid, indelible mark so similar to the dark mark from Harry Potter that it is eerie; or it could be that I can just feel in my heart an essential truth when I see it and this preschool is full to the brim with the essential truths of early childhood: simple is beautiful; let them say it in their own words; let them discover it for themselves; the world is full of wonder just open the door and let them walk through.

When teachers get together, the preschool teachers are often left out.  They don't require a credential.  They aren't on any campus.  They are just "playing" and it isn't really "standards based learning".  In short, no one takes them very seriously and that is a mistake. A big mistake.

As a group, preschool teachers are one of the wisest groups I know.  They are gentle, patient and humble.  They are really superheroes but like any good superhero, they stay undercover and you'd never know it.  They get paid like crap.  They deal with snot and other bodily fluids on a daily basis.  They fix "owies", dry tears, and melt away fear.  They create in the simplest of spots a world that draws even the most reticent kids inside.  They instill confidence through play.  They teach the basic skills of school -- sharing, caring and trying -- while telling a story, eating a snack or figuring out whose turn it is on the trike.  They never run out of the right words to say or the big open arms for an embrace.  They know the secret and it's pretty simple: discovering it for yourself makes us want to learn more, sharing it with friends is downright addicting.

I want to thank the many gifted and grace-filled preschool teachers that have touched my world.  In particular I would like to give a shout out to Teacher Betsy.  She was the director of the school when Patrick was born and Mary Kate was in preschool -- our first year there.  About a week into school, Patrick was facing open heart surgery and all I could think of was that I wasn't going to be able to keep my end of the bargain in the co-op situation for awhile.  I approached Betsy with this news basically trying to keep it together and hoping desperately not to look as scared as I really was.  Her words are frozen in time for me: "Beth, no problem.  We will figure this out.  It will be fine. And I hope that when it comes time to choose a school for Patrick that you will consider ours." Still those words bring tears.  I cannot tell you what a paradigm shift that was for me.  I was holding a baby that the world regarded as defective and broken, only weeks old.  In my heart I had wondered where he would be "allowed" to be educated.  I, most assuredly, had not entertained the notion that I might be in a place where I would have a variety of options and that I would get to "consider" several places.  In one sentence, Betsy gave me a vision of my future that was not only optimistic, it was inclusive...Patrick was wanted.  It planted a seed within me that has not only taken root but has already born fruit.  I am forever grateful for her open arms, open heart and open mind. Patrick did, indeed, choose to go there and he thrived.   I will never forget watching Patrick share his "Surprise Box" with his class with Teacher Betsy's careful guidance.   His inclusive education in preschool most definitely set the stage for his inclusive education in elementary school. Preschool paved the way.

I am filled with gratitude to Teacher Mary and Teacher Ellen who helped Patrick navigate the first years of preschool with hardly any verbal language.  They willingly learned sign language, held Patrick to the same behavioral expectations as his classmates and yet allowed the proverbial wiggle room. I want to thank deeply Teacher Lonna who showed me how to love and admire curious toddlers.  With her as my model, I could listen carefully, stop and slow down and relish in the moment.  I want  Teacher Brenda to know that her gentle encouragement helped Caroline to grow and bloom.  A favorite memory for me is the moment the Early Explorers actually sat still on the steps and ate "pops"each week.  Teacher Patty's welcoming smile and care allowed Caroline to feel comfortable and safe.  I want Teacher Rosa to know that Caroline has grown more curious and full of wonder because of her experiments on "I Wonder Wednesdays" and because of the exposure to your native language, Spanish.  I know she's also grown more gentle with your example. I want Teacher Liz to feel my deep gratitude for her love, creativity and sense of fun.  She has helped my adventurer to grow in confidence and to truly love school.  Most importantly, Liz has stepped into the leadership role of this beautiful place and made it a fantastic, magical place to learn.  My heart is full with the many many beautiful moments and friendships that have happened at this incredible school.

My wish for all children is a welcome into the world of learning and school as gentle, encouraging, loving and fun as our little happy school here in my town.  You've got some special mojo, DCCNS.  Could it be grace? Without a doubt.  My children have known love and acceptance here and that has allowed them to become the people they are meant to be.  There are no words deep enough or strong enough to convey my admiration, my full heart or my joy in our paths crossing.  Thank you.  Gracias. Merci Beaucoup. And Teacher Betsy: Dank u wel. "I think You're Wonderful!"

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Happiness on Wheels

When I was in grade school I had a green Schwinn Stingray bike with a banana seat -- so cool -- it still makes me smile just saying it.  I lived in a cul-de-sac and could ride and ride the court but that was about it.  My neighborhood was hilly and not too bike friendly so I couldn't ride very far, very often.

In the summer, I'm sure out of complete exasperation with our lazy selves, my mom would give me five dollars and tell my brother and I to go play tennis and get some lunch at the local McDonald's.  We willingly went and we'd ride our bikes down to the local community college.  Brian and I would always play a heated match of tennis and more often than not I would beat him -- I am two years older after all.  Disgruntled, Brian would follow me on his bike and bang my bike fender with his racket calling me a cheater all the way to the McDonald's.  As soon as we spied the Golden Arches, the bickering would stop.  Food was involved and we needed to cooperate in order to get the most out of our $5. So, we'd order some large fries to share, a complete delicacy to both of us, cheeseburgers and cokes. All would be mended over the fries and away we would go back home.

That freedom of my bike and my brother and our adventure into maneuvering out in the world has stayed with me.  I will forever love that old green bike, long ago lost, but vivid in my memory.

When I came to UC Davis as a college student, I was thrilled.  Biking was not just a fun idea, it was a big part of college life. Here, the roads were flat, there were wide bike lanes and even special roundabouts built on campus to deal with all of the bike traffic during the hectic rush of changing classes.  I remember the thrill of going around that first roundabout with dozens of bicycles and I remember the joy in bike riding on a daily basis.

Getting around the town by bike, I relished in my freedom.  I loved my up close parking spot, my lack of traffic, and the way I felt after a ten minute ride. I knew that I needed to live this way for the rest of my life.  And, so, after a few years of married life, John and I moved back to Davis dug out our old bikes and immediately got back in the groove.

About four years ago, I got offered a job back on campus supervising student teachers after taking a seven year sabbatical to be a full time mom.  It was a small job with a small paycheck but it was soul satisfying and wonderful to be working alongside earnest, enthusiastic and energetic beginning teachers.  Receiving my first paycheck made me feel like a kid again.  I suddenly had "my" money. It wasn't really enough to have it do something important but I wanted to be careful otherwise I might just fritter it away by putting it into my regular account and paying for the dry cleaning, groceries or hot lunches with it.  I wanted to find something special to do with it.

One fall day, I was walking downtown and noticed a slew of bikes on display for the new students at UC Davis.  They were a colorful line of beach bikes: purple, polka dotted, striped, candy apple red and sunshine yellow.  I couldn't help but smile and think of the many new students experiencing their own joy of the roundabouts, the freedom of bikes and the adventure of college and being on your own for the first time.  In the middle of that inviting line up I saw her: my dream bike.  She was sky blue with daisies.  I knew that was my bike in an instant and I wanted to take out my credit card and take her home.  But, I stopped myself.  This was going to be my special something to remember this special job.  Every month, I would steal a little money away and save it for the big purchase at the end of the year.  Every few weeks or so, I would walk by "my" bike and admire her.  I would stop and notice which ones were gone.  The yellow one with daisies was missing now along with the green polka dotted one.

Winter and the rains came and went but those bikes stayed outside serving as both a reminder and a temptation.  In the spring, Caroline was toddling around and I knew we could both go bike riding.  So, in celebration of my May girl, I took my secret stash of cash and walked down to my favorite bike store.  I walked right in and didn't spend a second looking.  I told them I was ready to buy a bike and showed them my old friend.  The store owner looked at me and said, "All year I've been waiting to see who would buy that bike.  That's our one and only blue daisy bike and they just stopped making it.  You're getting a treasure."  I smiled and agreed, knowing we were meant to be.  They outfitted me with a baby seat, a helmet, and a lock.  I took a practice run while they were totaling up my goodies.  I pulled out my cash and happily paid them for my dear girl.

I rode home like a kid: making swirly patterns, sitting up straight with my upright handlebars, practicing braking by pushing backwards and feeling the rush of riding.  She was "happiness on wheels" and she was mine.

That was four years ago.  I still smile whenever I go for a ride, find her in a crowd of bikes, or talk to Caroline and feel the pat, pat, pat of her hands behind me.  I know my days are numbered with my cherub riding directly behind me.  She's itching for her own bike and her own freedom and who am I to deny it?

I know she will fall in love with the breeze of the ride, the joy of seeing the world at a slower pace, the smell of freshly mowed grass, spring blossoms, chlorine at the pool and a million other details that you only notice on a ride.

It's sunshine-y again and I'm going for a ride...honk if you see me.  Or better yet, ring your bell!

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Long and Winding Road

"Whether or not it is clear to you, the universe is unfolding as it should."
      -- Max Ehrmann (Desiderata)

I'm starting this post by saying I'm very fragile right now.  I've actually never felt like this as a parent.  I'm filled with so much nostalgia, love and surreal feeling that I can barely go through my ordinary tasks.  The long and arduous journey of selecting a college for Jack is winding down.  We're close, super close. There's a lot of grace wrapped up in this epic tale which is why it gets a shout out here.

When Jack was born 18 years ago our hearts were overflowing with joy, love and take-your-breath-away wonder.  How could such a miraculous, beautiful soul be a part of us?  How did we get so lucky to share the joys of life and beauty with such a sweet, sweet soul?  Jack is gentle, kind, smart, compassionate, funny and curious. He's cautious and non-confrontational and extremely cool-headed in a crisis.  He is warm and optimistic.  He's pretty incredible and I know that I'm partial to his good points because I'm his mom but I also know that doesn't diminish his incredible-ness.  I take no credit for his ways...he clearly came straight through me.  He has always been his own person and been able to listen to his heart above the noise of the outside world's cacophony. That's just him.

Finding a college for Jack has been both a fabulous adventure and a heart-breaking journey.  Jack's always been one of those kids who loved school.  It came easily to him and he loved learning.  He sailed smoothly through elementary school and junior high and really loved high school.  Finding a college seemed like a no-brainer. When he was a sophomore, Caroline, Jack and I went on a road trip to see 9 colleges in 5 days.  We saw tiny colleges, giant universities, ones on the coast and ones in the city.  We saw Catholic universities and public ones and of course we saw the big names of UCLA and USC.  Jack fell in love with UCLA (who wouldn't?) and came home excited to work hard and make his way.  His high school counselor flat out told him that he wasn't going to be getting into any UC.  Here he was second semester of his sophomore year and it was already out of reach.  We were stunned. How?  His grades weren't perfect but they were strong.  He hadn't taken the SAT yet, how could this counselor look him in the eye and crush a dream? College admittance was treacherous territory.

Turns out that Jack's GPA needed boosting, clearly, but it also turns out that when Jack wants something he goes for it.  He became a very focused student.  He took weighted courses to boost his GPA and he studied like crazy for the SAT.  He also happened to be applying during the very worst year ever.

Junior year, we made road trip #2.  This time we took along Mary Kate and visited a few of the old favorites but a whole host of others as well. I repeated my same speech as the first time: "College is like choosing a favorite flavor of ice-cream.  Every one is delicious and wonderful in its own way; but it is what tastes good to you that matters." We attended a volleyball game at USC's Galen Center.  We watched the band circle the players after the win.  I called John from the gift shop and told him that I'd buy him a T-shirt if he wanted one -- the vortex of Trojan sports had sucked me in! We left USC and made our way to other places along the way.  Jack came home and made a computer collage of CAL, UCLA and USC -- his three favorites -- and placed it above his desk.

This year he crushed the SAT.  He got the best grades of his life and wrote essay after essay hoping to get a shot at one of these schools.  He knew he was throwing up a Hail Mary pass and pragmatically he started making more realistic choices.  He found a few schools where he would safely get in, zeroed in on the famously called "target" schools and kept his eye on the "reach/dream" schools.

Everything today is digital in the application process.  You send in your application online, you ask questions online, and you are notified about your acceptance online.  This unnerved me.  I was constantly worried that nobody received anything; but Jack, who grew up using computers just as often (if not more) than a telephone went with it in his typical easy-going manner. USC offered an optional interview and Jack jumped at it.  Of course, with true Murphy's Law predictability the traffic into Sacramento that day was unbelievable and my normally casual son called me with a shaky voice.  We spoke back and forth for what seemed like ages trying to keep things light and relaxed and knowing the entire time that a dream was being held in limbo.  He made it -- enjoyed it and came home enthused.   After months and months of thinking about it and preparing for it, Jack clicked "send" on all of his applications. Now there was nothing to do but wait.

This period of time was true torture.  We discussed the potential results almost every day.  We tried to predict outcomes, plan contingencies, rationalize away weaknesses in Jack's particular app and visualize the future. In one word: impossible.  Those smart few who applied early found out their news and started making plans.  Christmas came and went. We welcomed in the New Year, 2011, with knowing eyes...where would Jack be?  It was anybody's guess.  Around February it really felt like nobody had received his application.  The mail was empty, the email nonexistent and a big fat silence settled in around our house...tension started to build.  We knew March might start giving results but we didn't know when.  Suddenly, out of nowhere University of Oregon admitted Jack!  Life was good -- Jack had a spot somewhere. :)

Slowly, other schools started trickling in but the big three were set for mid to late March.  In true Foraker fashion, Jack got his first rejection about a half hour before his younger sister's Confirmation.  Extended family was there, waiting on pins and needles, for the website to "go live" so that Jack could check UCLA's information.  Not hearing any screams of joy, I knew.  Seeing him walk downstairs and imperceptibly shake his head ever so slightly "no" brought tears to my eyes and the knowledge that I couldn't let them show.  Hugs all around.  All sorts of rationalizations and excuses about why this couldn't be true for the other favorites came out quickly, too quickly.  The unspoken pain was that we all knew it could easily be the case for the others.  I watched my sweet son congratulate friends on Facebook and be genuine about it.  His heart is big and he was able to recognize someone's else's dream coming true.  The truth is that he handled that rejection a whole lot better than I would have.

And then THE day arrived.  March 24th was going to be the day that CAL released its admits.  We also had heard a rumor that USC was going to be mailing out their acceptances that same week, unusual in this electronic world.  In a weird twist of circumstance, both Jack and Mary Kate were home after school.  A colossal rainstorm had delayed Jack's volleyball game and Mary Kate's lacrosse game.  They were both at home when the mail came at about 4 pm.   John (also randomly home) and ever the casual stealth dad, intercepted the mail and found a "big envelope".  He saw the return address and called for Jack.  Since I wasn't there to witness the opening, all I can tell you is what greeted me at 4:13 pm --  Mary Kate waving to me from the window as I pulled into the driveway.  I walked in saying my prayer that I had said for so many months, "Please Lord, let it unfold the right way." Both Jack and Mary Kate were jumping up and down and I could tell it was something good.  Jack had been admitted to USC but as a spring admit. (What?) Watching his sheer joy, relief and thrill made me get caught up in it too...the USC vortex had reappeared.

Ten minutes later, John, Mary Kate and I were standing behind Jack at his computer upstairs with fingers crossed. We heard the audible sadness at being rejected through a sigh and we knew without having to see the eyes or face filled with that sense of "not being good enough".  For both John and I, we were thrown off.  Jack's dream had (sort of) come true but he had been denied at CAL, the college that seemed to fit him best.  However, watching him shed his disappointment like a skin in a matter of minutes and seeing his ability to find his way in this crazy maze of college acceptances with a clear head made us stop and just drink it in.

We don't know any final answers yet but we do know that he's got some good options and one big favorite.  We'll be practical and visit the top three and make lists of the goods and the bads about each.  We'll find our way to deal with what happens if a spring admittance is really the right choice and we'll take comfort in the fact that the universe is unfolding just the right way.  I have a feeling that I won't be saying good-bye to Jesuit's red and gold for good but it's just a guess. Where he ends up seems like a crazy ride with a little smattering of grace: an interview that happened in spite of terrible traffic, an admission office that believes in the old fashioned idea of snail mail, a rainy day that allowed for a treasure to be given moments before a bitter rejection and a little sister who searched out an old favorite stuffed animal to sleep with the night before the mail came.  Yep, that stuffed animal was "Bavo" the teal green elephant that was purchased in the USC bookstore on that fateful first roadtrip. It's a long and winding road but we're almost there.  With Bavo by our side, it has to be good.

                                                       Bavo, the brave, daring to sit near a Bruin.