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Ready for your ‘Trick or Treat’ close up?

celebrating Halloween 2014
celebrating Halloween 2014

Last year I had more fun on Halloween night than I’ve had on that holiday in decades. Somewhere in the week before we celebrate everything orange and black, I read an article about the old Halloween custom of children performing a “trick” of some sort before they received a reward — be it candy or a nickel. The trick could be a song, dance, joke or even a magic trick.
Much to my teenage daughters’ embarrassment, that article was all the encouragement I needed. I set up my chair and baskets of treats just off my front stoop and proceeded to explain to each individual or group of Trick or Treaters that they had to perform for their treats.
If you think children balked or turned shy and hid behind their mother’s skirt, you would have been surprised. Some immediately burst into song (and dance) right on the spot! Others walked to the side and thought for a moment before returning with a song. With the exception of one young fellow who took off running down the street, every one of the Trick or Treaters (and we had close to a hundred) performed — even if it was just sing “Happy birthday” or “Twinkle Twinkle.”
The night was fantastic! I had a blast. Though I can’t be certain, I believe most, if not all, of the children enjoyed the performance and audience — and I believe the parents did too.
I’m a believer in the notion that it does, indeed, take a village. I believe one of the reasons the children enjoyed their impromptu performance is that they too, at some level (even amidst the stranger danger fearfulness that is propagated through our society), recognize the importance of connecting with other adults. Sadly, Halloween is one of the few times of the year that many neighborhoods are out and about engaging with each other.
So this year, I’m doing it again. We’re stepping it up a notch and may incorporate a little spotlight for our Trick or Treat informal stage. If you’re reading this and want to have some fun on Halloween night, I encourage you to give the trick-for-a-treat performance request a try. You’d be surprised at the minimal prodding most youngsters need to perform a little ditty.
When they walked up and said, “Trick or Treat,” I said, “For your treats, I’m asking you to perform a little trick. You can sing, dance, tell me a joke or do a magic trick — or something else, if you have a special talent.”
From there, I tried to be super encouraging and rewarded great effort!
Last year (my first foray into Halloween demand performances), the kids would stand there with their mouths gaping for about a second, then they would eye they big basket of candy (and I splurged on the good stuff). Within ten or so seconds, the vast majority of them were past the opening line of their performance. Some colluded on group performances, which were also encouraged. Others preferred to perform alone.
All in all, the night was memorable. The next week, I got a note in the mail from a mom I didn’t know who told me that her kids were still talking about their “Halloween performances” and planning for next year.
I say, “Bring them on!”

The middle is hard.

the middle is hard

Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

His point was that even the longest expeditions have to start somewhere — and certainly, he’s right.

My issue is that I’ve rarely had a problem with that first step or even the first mile. It’s mile no. 627 that usually gets me.

The middle is hard.

Beginning is easy enough. The ending isn’t necessarily a cakewalk, but the middle is tough. Learning the lesson of how difficult the middle can be has taken me decades to realize. But finally, I know that somewhere along the way in almost every project, there comes a point that is so clouded, so difficult, so seemingly unresolvable — that most of us just want to throw our hands in the air and say, “Forget about it.”

In fact, I believe that most of us do just that.

Walking away, starting something else, quitting or saying, “Well, this wasn’t where I really wanted to go, but I guess this place will do,” comes easy. Murkiness and hesitancy in narrowing our options, identifying the right direction, choosing which fork in the road to take can be almost paralyzing — or, at the very least, discouraging. Sometimes we want to run the other way, and sometimes we want to plop down where we are and just stay there — regardless of its appropriateness, comfort or general desirability.

For me, in those times, the project has seemed doomed or impossible. To be fair, I suppose, some projects are truly unachievable and should be forsaken. But like Kenny Rogers said, the trick is knowing when to hold ‘em and knowing when to fold ‘em.

However, perhaps we “fold ‘em” too often because that’s the easiest option. In the last few years, I’ve come to learn and appreciate that having the fortitude to keep going in the midst of such opacity and “project despair” can lead to amazing places.

I suppose some readers might apply this story to a relationship — and you’re welcome to do so, but my personal experience around this phenomenon has been more in the professional realm. For example, publishing a book is hard. Writing the book turns out to be one of the most do-able aspects of the whole process. After the writing is complete is when the going gets tough. Editing. Getting feedback. Gaining consensus. Working with other people to make it a better product — that’s the hard part. When I’ve persevered, the path has gotten easier and more clearly marked. I’m not completely sure why, but acknowledging the struggle of the middle has made things better. Now, when I get to the hard part of a project, sometimes I catch myself saying, “Wow, this is hard.”

Then, a bell sounds in my brain, and I say, “Oh, this is the middle. I’ve got to keep going. I may not see the end right now, but if I keep going, things will clear up” — and, amazingly, they do.

I wish I could have learned the lesson long ago.

Perseverance is a powerful thing.


My new mantra is…

My husband, Julio Naudin, is good at doing one thing at a time. Here he is placing the final stone on a small cairn in Northern California.
My husband, Julio Naudin, is good at doing one thing at a time. Here he is placing the final stone on a small cairn in Northern California.

Four simple syllables give me the heebie jeebies.
I used to believe the same four syllables were wonderful. I used to believe they represented something I wanted to be doing as much as possible. I used to believe they embodied the utmost of productivity.
I now know better.
I was wrong.
The four simple syllables are not the be all, but after years of experimentation with them, I realize they could be my undoing.
The four syllables are mul-ti-task-ing.
Multitasking is not my friend. For that matter, it’s not your friend either.
I came to this decision on my own, but as it turns out, this isn’t just my opinion. Science backs me up — by doing less, we do more.
Plus, it’s not good for our brains. Chronic multitaskers have a “failure to filter,” according to research by Stanford University. And that filter failure doesn’t allow them to distinguish between the information that’s important and the information that isn’t.
I had missed that newsflash when it came out a few years back. I came to my anti-multitasking stance based on observation and personal experience.
For example, I’ve had a lot of conversations recently with a young mother who works part-time from home. She has a toddler. Until recently, she spent most of her time trying to watch the toddler and get work done in spurts when the child was occupied.
This is what we do now, isn’t it? We check emails when we’re closing the car door and walking in the building. We used to just walk in the building. We catch up with loved ones on the phone while we’re watering the plants. We used to just water the plants. We go walking or running and listen to a book on audio. We used to just walk or run.
The whole thing seems to work, but maybe it’s not working as well as we think. Science says that our brains just aren’t wired to take in more than one message at a time.
The young mother says she was constantly frustrated with her young daughter and the little girl whined a lot. Maybe that was because she never had her mother’s full attention. The lines of our lives have been so blurred. Most of us are never fully at work or off work. That constantly on with constant access isn’t working as well as we think it is.
Let me say that I’m as guilty as any. As I tried to write this column, my 18-year-daughter came up and wanted to chat. In case you’re keeping score at home, the 18-year-old daughter wanting to sit and chat doesn’t happen often. She sat beside me as I sat with my computer open. She just wanted to talk. I felt like I had to write and finish this column.
The irony was not lost on me.
I ended up closing the computer and pushing it away. Had I been writing about any other topic, I’m not sure I would have taken my own advice.
But the truth is, how many more times is my girl, while she’s living at home, going to want to sit and talk to me about the new choreography for their Spirit Week dance at school? How many more times is she going to want to look at information on colleges and have a rational conversation about where she should go?
I missed my deadline on this column — and maybe I don’t have all the words just right, but I did have a lovely, distraction-free conversation with my daughter tonight.
“One thing at a time” is my new mantra.

Gathering experiences instead of t-shirts

Zooziana's owner George Oldenberg gets up close and personal with Gabriel.

Somewhere along the way, I stopped buying the t-shirt. I realized I just didn’t need another one.

I didn’t need proof that I had been there or done that. A few years after that grand realization, I stopped wanting little knickknacks and whatnots. More didn’t equal better or more beautiful — it simply equaled more. More to clean or dust or put away.

Through the years we have done our best to provide our children with what they need, but, for better or worse, we also started trying to cement in their perspectives the value of experiences over things.

As Greer, our oldest daughter, approached her 18th birthday, she couldn’t name one thing she wanted as a gift. She is not your typical 18-year-old girl. She listens to the beat of her own drummer — and the thing that interests her most is working with animals. I wasn’t sure what we were going to do or how we were going to celebrate her birthday, but I wanted it to be special.

When I spoke with George Oldenburg, the owner of Zoosiana, we came up with an idea.

Years ago, George was living a normal life and working in a bank. Then, in 2002, he bought a zoo. Needless to say, his life has changed in the years since.

On the day Greer turned 18, George met us at the front gate of the zoo just as it was closing. As a party of five, we were the only humans in the zoo. Granted, it’s not a typical gift for an 18-year-old girl, but for our girl, it worked just fine!

Walking around the maze of paths and seeing how the animals responded to George was truly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced. He gave us the up close and personal experience with the animals, and we had the chance to learn so much about their personalities and the care required to keep them healthy.

With George as our guide, we were able to get closer to some animals than I had ever thought about being. For example, I wasn’t certain I wanted to let a lion lick my hand (through a strong fence, I might add), but I did. And just like a house cat, you’ll be pleased to know that a lion’s tongue feels like sandpaper. And, for the record, a giraffe’s tongue is long and purple. We learned that as Gabriel, the zoo’s male giraffe and George’s favorite animal, ate some leaves from a small branch I was holding.

We also were able to get up close and personal (with a fence between us) with two tigers — I was a nervous wreck, but my daughters loved it. We learned that cranes are rather mean. The parakeets were fantastic and very social. There’s a monkey named Myron that loves to ring a bell for treats. The aforementioned lions (with the sandpaper tongues) are from the MGM lions in Las Vegas. We learned that George’s zoo, Zoosiana, has the largest collection of squirrel monkeys in the country, and that he had to find a different home for a donated parrot that talked like a sailor.

All in all, he has more than 150 types of animals. When he showed us the food prep area, we were amazed to learn just how well these animals eat! There are seven feeding routines and zookeepers keep careful reports of how the animals are eating. We also saw the zoo’s vet center where sick animals are tended.

All in all, it was a magical night — one our family will treasure for decades to come. In fact, the night went so well that George has decided to make the experience available to others. I am grateful for the opportunity.

In our time together, I could see that George values experience in much the same way we do. The joy in his life is not that he owns a zoo. From what I can tell, the real reward to George is the experience with the animals — and that’s what he shared with us.




Looking toward the stars from Old Algiers

All hope isn’t lost — and this is how I know.

On Thursday, my husband and I drove to New Orleans and sat on a bench in Jackson Square waiting.

My husband didn’t mind carrying the oversized gift bag containing a small red telescope, glow-in-the-dark ceiling stars, copies of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “The Lightning Thief.”

I had never met the young man I had bought the gifts for, but amidst all the Katrina anniversary hubbub, he was celebrating the 10-year anniversary of his birth. I wanted to celebrate with him and his mama.

Every now and then, the stars align and the universe, along with everyone in it, seems to want to be certain that we keep hope alive. Thursday was one of those nights.

It was also one of those nights that makes me reconsider the ancient Chinese belief that each of us who are supposed to meet are connected by an invisible red thread — which may be long and twisty. However, if we’re supposed to meet, eventually we will.

Ten years ago in the wake of Katrina, a young mother named Qiana Ruffin ended up at Lafayette’s Cajundome as an evacuee. In the chaos of thousands of people in the Cajundome parking lot, Qiana grabbed me as I walked past. She’s not sure why I was the one. All I know is there were lots of other people around, and Qiana was distraught bordering on hysterical. When she told me what was wrong, I understood why.

In the course of the storm, levees breaking and hospitals evacuating — she had gotten separated from her newborn son. Someone had given her a tiny list of seven Louisiana hospitals where he might be. She had called them repeatedly, but no one knew where her son was.

By the time our paths crossed, she had been searching for him and seeking help from any and all sources for three days. Once I started making the calls and queries for her, other volunteers got involved. We were able to find the baby within an hour.

We didn’t call any different or magic numbers than the ones she had already been trying, but for reasons long, complex and sad enough to make me cry forever, when I asked the same questions trying to locate her missing newborn son that she had been asking for three days — we got a different answer.

The baby was in Baton Rouge. A volunteer took the parents to pick him up and the Ruffin family was gone from my life. They left me which much to consider — primarily the lesson of responsibility that those of us who have a voice have one for those who don’t. That lesson was seared in my soul in a way it hadn’t been previously.

And for 10 years, that’s where the story ended for me.

Back then, when I got back to the newsroom, I wrote a news story about it. With all the news of that time, the story ran on page 2A. I never forgot their names and searched for them to no avail.

Two weeks ago, Qiana Ruffin sent me a Facebook message and told me her son really wanted to meet me. My husband and I decided to come to New Orleans and throw him a little birthday celebration. Wrapping up Katrina’s most lingering story for me was a good way to mark Katrina’s 10-year anniversary.

The invisible red thread connecting us was definitely a long and tangled one, but Keldon Ruffin and I finally met Thursday night.

As I was planning our evening, I considered taking Qiana and Keldon to my favorite New Orleans restaurant — Irene’s on St. Philip toward the edge of the French Quarter. I called to make reservations and explained the circumstances of our celebratory dinner. Chef Nicolas Scalco, son of owner Irene DiPietro, called me back. He and I had never met either, but we had one of those conversations that restores your faith in humanity. He told me he was a dad and couldn’t imagine what Qiana had gone through. He assured me he and his staff would make the night one to remember and asked if he could take our photograph to hang on the wall of his restaurant.

If you haven’t been to Irene’s — go. The charming little restaurant with its impeccable staff serves food so delicious that sometimes after I eat there, I dream of its red sauce. It’s been my favorite New Orleans restaurant for years. On Thursday night, its status moved up from there.

From the moment we arrived, Chef Scalco and his team went to unheard heights to make our unlikely party of four feel special. They did little and big things all night long that still make my eyes well up.

It was a night of a thousand small beautiful things tinged with other moments of clarifying heartbreak.

Things like Qiana pulling out her 10-year-old copy of the story I wrote about her search for her son that ran in The Daily Advertiser. She explained that the very tattered copy was one of her most prized possessions. She keeps it in her box of special things, but it had clearly seen better days.

Things like the chef preparing cannelloni, a dish they had taken off the menu years ago. I mentioned how much I had loved it when we chatted on the phone.

Things like the whole restaurant stopping to celebrate with us when they brought out a birthday cake with a tall sparkling candle for Keldon — and in that moment it really felt like they were all with us, all rooting for Qiana and Keldon.

Things like Keldon being more enamored by the sparkly thing than actually eating his cake.

Things like the chef taking a photograph of our party of four to frame and put on the wall of his restaurant alongside the other photographs of more likely suspects.

Things like Qiana and I having a real conversation about what she needs to do to get her GED.

Things like Keldon telling us he wants to be a football player when he grows up and Qiana quickly telling him that he has to get an education first.

Things like the story of their neighbor, who is also rooting for them, who made special arrangements to bring them to the French Quarter that night.

Things like walking with them after dinner to meet the bus that would take them home. It was a walk that felt a lot like being Cinderella after the ball. The chef and I could do what we could to make the night almost perfect — and it was — but the reality was that they had to go back to a life that isn’t an easy one.

The experience of meeting Qiana 10 years ago has, through the years, made me contemplate what is necessary to teach people who don’t know how to be their own best advocates how to do a better job of getting people to listen to them. I am not certain a well-designed program will work. Maybe the only solution is when one end of the red thread meets the other that we figure out how it is we can help each other — and we keep helping until it doesn’t make sense to do it anymore. Surely, we are a long way from that.

In the meantime, there is a little boy near Old Algiers who has a red telescope now. I hope and pray that he will continue to look toward the stars.

$10 dinner for four — for sure

$10 dinnerWith the start of the new school year, my family and I have started a new program. I asked our oldest, Greer, who is a senior this year, to pick one night a week when she would cook dinner. I gave our youngest, Piper, who is in the 8th grade, the option to continue with her kitchen cleaning responsibilities or add cooking into the mix as well. She also chose to cook.
Greer will cook dinner Monday nights and Piper will cook Thursday nights. I added the caveat that if they needed anything special for their meals, that I would give them a $10 budget. Our pantry and refrigerator stay well stocked — I thought the budget was generous. Friends have advised me otherwise. However, for now, we will stand by the $10 and see what transpires. Plus, I’d rather the girls get more practice cooking before we start splurging on more expensive ingredients!
There are other stipulations to our so-called Teenage Cooking Plan. Only one of them can cook pasta each week. To be fair, we’ll rotate weeks. Also, there has to be something green on the plate.
In their first week of cooking, they both surpassed all expectations. Greer made bowtie pasta with clam sauce — and a salad). Piper made chicken and vegetable tikka masala with rice — and a salad. To be clear, Greer made the clam sauce from scratch, and Piper used a packaged sauce for the tikka masala. Either way, they were both delicious meals, and I couldn’t have been more proud.
I posted a photograph of Greer’s meal on Facebook and explained the parameters of our little project. Many of my friends couldn’t believe the $10 limit I had set. I got so much flack about it, I decided to prove a point.
On Tuesday, I went to the grocery story with only $10. I wanted to see if I could buy all the ingredients for a complete meal to feed a family of four. For the record, I succeeded and had many options. I chose to buy a pack of chicken wingettes ($5.10), a bag of black beans ($1.88) and rice (.88 for the whole bag) — totaling $7.86. I had the stuff for a green salad at home and added those into the mix. My salad fixings cost less than the $2.14 I had left on my budget.
Plus, the meal was easy to fix. I just soaked the beans, drained them and cooked them with an onion and a can of Rotel. For the chicken wings, I sprinkled seasoning salt on them and put them in the oven to roast — delicious. The next thing I did might not make it in the kitchens of healthy fanatics, but I did it anyway. After the chicken had been cooking for about 20 minutes, I prepared to cook the rice. I took the cookie sheet out of the oven and poured all that greasy goodness into the pot where I would cook the rice — scrumptious.
I want my daughters to learn what goes into cooking a meal and how much less expensive it is to eat at home than going out for dinner. With a little thinking and elbow grease, it’s possible to prepare fantastic meals at home on a low budget. Plus, once the meal is prepared, we get to sit at the table and eat together. As this is our oldest daughter’s senior year, we are appreciating that the normal evenings of the four of us being at home together are numbered.

Are you up for the $10 dinner challenge? Send me a pic of your ingredients and meal to be featured!

Call tugs at my Katrina heartstrings

Like anyone else who was in South Louisiana in 2005, the looming 10-year Katrina anniversary has had me remembering details from that nightmarish time. Even so, I was surprised when a message popped up on my computer screen Wednesday night.

“Hi My name is Qiana Ruffin on Sept. 3, 2005 u wrote a story about my losing my son through Katrina I been try to reunite with u.”

My heart skipped a beat.

After all this time, I couldn’t believe this woman had found me.

In the message, she went on to give me a phone number and asked me to call. Then she added, “He is big now and he truly wanna to meet u.”

She was referring to Keldon, her then-infant son — who will turn 10 on the Katrina anniversary. I assured her that I truly wanted to meet him too.

He was born prematurely the day Katrina hit. On the day after Katrina, the hospital sent her and her husband home. The baby stayed because of his under-developed lungs and possible heart issues.

The next day, the levees broke.

The hospital did an emergency evacuation. The parents went back to the hospital to get their son and found it empty. Someone there gave them the names of hospitals around the state where they might find their son. Qiana and her husband called every hospital repeatedly. Every hospital told her that they didn’t have her son.

By Friday, she and her husband were at the Cajundome in Lafayette still looking for their son. I was a reporter at the time and was walking in to cover First Lady Laura Bush serving lunch to evacuees.

As I walked by, Qiana grabbed my arm.

Last week, I asked her a question I had always wondered about: Why did she approach me?

She said, “Maybe it was God who told me to. I don’t know why.”

When she grabbed my arm, she said, “I can’t find my baby.”

I eventually learned the whole story. I went to the same people she had asked for help. Within an hour, we found her baby. He was in Baton Rouge. According to her, “Some volunteers took money out of their own pockets and gave it to us to catch a bus to Baton Rouge.”

But just as they were getting on the bus at the Lafayette bus station, another volunteer pulled up in her car and offered to take them directly to the hospital. There, they were reunited with their son.

I remember her husband so well. From the Cajundome, he had walked to all the hospitals in Lafayette, asking if any of them had his newborn son.

When Qiana and I spoke Thursday, I asked about her husband.

“We separated after 17 years,” she said. “The pressures of Katrina turned out bad for him.”

I asked what had happened after she got her baby back and we parted ways. She told me that they lived with her husband’s family for a little while. Then they moved to Atlanta for 18 months before she finally returned to New Orleans as a single mom.

“My house was totally destroyed,” she said. “I had to start all over.”

She told me, that in the years since, she had been working at Arby’s on Canal Street.

“But they closed. They say they’re renovating. They’re trying to get a liquor license. Have you ever heard of such?” she asked. “Only in New Orleans.”

In the meantime, she’s doing hair and says she’s occasionally the candy lady.

I asked exactly what she meant by that.

“I sell zuzus, candy, cold drinks, chips in my neighborhood,” she said. “All the kids love the candy lady.”

At 36, she’s just become a grandmother. She says her new little grandson looks exactly like Keldon did when he was a baby.

“We never found out from the hospital what happened,” she said. “All his records were washed away. Took me about two years to get him a social security number and birth certificate.”

When I first called the phone number she had given me, another lady answered the phone. I asked to speak to Qiana and the lady who answered said. “She’s not here, but I know who you are.”

I could hear a young child in the background talking to her.

“Yes, this is her,” the lady on the phone told the child. “I know you want to talk to her.”

And so she gave him the phone.

“This is Keldon. I want to meet you,” the little voice said.

“And I want to meet you, too,” I assured him.

The space between grief and hope

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In the week after the shooting at The Grand in Lafayette, Louisiana, friends and strangers folded 2,000 origami cranes and created two senbazurus for the families who lost loved ones. This is a watercolor of some of the cranes..

This is what I know — the space between grief and hope is fragile.

Upon further reflection, maybe I don’t even know that. Maybe there’s not a space between those two opposing emotions. Maybe sometimes they overlap making those of us experiencing them even more confused and muddled?

Whether the emotions are side-by-side or overlapping, I know that the energy required to balance grief and glimmers of hope has worn many of us down in recent weeks.

In the time since the shooting at The Grand Theater, many of us  have straddled that space between grief and hope much of every day. Personally, continuing on with the work in front of me has felt like anything but business as usual. In fact, getting the work done has felt more like a betrayal to friends directly involved with the tragedy than the right thing to do.

However, the bottom line is that the same friends would be horrified at the thought of work not getting done or not focusing on making the world a better place — or life just not being lived to the fullest.
Surely in the face of such tragedy in our community, we can do something to be better. To be kinder. To more fully appreciate those we love and care about. To share more bounty and beauty with those who have less than.

On the flip side, I also realize we have to have emotional downtime — we just aren’t wired to feel at full capacity every moment. We need time when we just focus on learning to juggle or watering the plants or chopping onions. We can’t live with full intensity, even in appreciating those we love, all the time — our brains and bodies couldn’t handle it.

I was happy that in the face of tragedy, Lafayette offered free counseling to anyone who thought they might need it. In fact, on Friday afternoon, I decided that an objective ear would be a good way to help me have a better weekend. I just needed to talk through my own concerns, fears and grief with someone who I didn’t feel like I was burdening so that I could put the jumble in my head into some kind of order. So, I took advantage of the free counseling.

The counselor helped me realize that the way I was feeling was typical. She gave me a handout from the American Counseling Association that was full of good advice. All in all, here are its messages:

Take care of yourself. This is a time to “put your own mask on first.” If you don’t you can’t take care of others. Personally, I love to get massages. I decided to treat myself to an extra massage. Figuring out the best ways to tend to yourself — and doing those things on a regular basis — improves life exponentially.

Maintain a healthy routine. Be sure to eat, sleep, exercise and maintain as normal a daily routine as possible.

Pay attention to your emotional health. Remember that a wide range of feelings during these difficult times is common. Know that others are also experiencing emotional reactions and may need your time and patience to put their feelings and thoughts in order.

Be extra patient and kind with others. They may be struggling too. Give them the benefit of doubt.

Limit exposure to the topic. Take a step back from the media exposure. Individuals of all ages may experience stress reactions when exposed (even through media) to shootings or mass violence. According to the ACA, “Changes in eating and sleeping habits, energy level and mood are important signs of distress. Watch for regressed behaviors, such as clinging in children and intense emotional reactions, such as anxiety or a strong need for retribution in adults.” Going to see a counselor is sometimes a healthy option.

Keep your friends and family close. We all need a little extra tenderness sometimes. Rely on those who know you best and love you most.

Remember what makes you happy and provides comfort. Take some time and do those things that calm you.

Ask for help when you need it. Sometimes asking for help takes more courage than going it alone. Be brave and let others help you when you need it.

I’m working hard to slow down and spend time with the people I love most. Indeed, life does go by way too fast.

Seeing departure signs in some big airport reminds me of…

On a ferris wheel in Budapest on a trip that changed my life a long time ago.
Atop a ferris wheel in Budapest on a trip that changed my life a long time ago.

In the words of the great poet, Jimmy Buffett, “Changes in attitude, changes in latitude. Nothing remains quite the same.”

When you live in Louisiana, July can be the longest month. Traveling to cooler climes is literally a breath of fresh air. Our family vacation to Northern California and Lake Tahoe came at the right time, and much to our bliss, it required the daily use of fleece and sweatshirts. We all came home refreshed and ready to face the workaday world.

Traveling revives me in a way that nothing else does. I can’t do justice in describing the richness it has brought to my life, the friends I’ve made in new places or the relationships strengthened by the shared experience travel offers. Therefore, I encourage everyone I know or meet to travel as much as possible.

Get a map. Buy a travel guide. Drive your car or buy the ticket. Just find a way to get to a place that you want to go — whether it’s because someone invited you once upon a long time ago, because you saw a picture that you can’t get out of your head or because you read a book or saw a movie set in a place that tickled your fancy. Be it near or far, find a way to get there.

As a parent, I’ve tried to create as many travel opportunities as possible for my children. Maybe it was the right thing to do. Maybe it wasn’t. The jury is still out. Maybe travel can’t be fully appreciated until you’re the one footing the bill. (For that matter, maybe nothing can be fully appreciated until you’re the one footing the bill!)

But travel doesn’t have to be all about expense. It doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. I believe the greatest enjoyment in experiencing a new place comes in that perfect balance of planning versus spur of the moment. Without enough planning or research, you won’t make the most of the experience. However, with too much crammed into too few hours, you will wear yourself out and it will all be a blur. As with the rest of life, the magic happens somewhere in between. For me, travel is more about realizing a new way of looking at things than it is about seeing the sights — it’s about truly being somewhere as opposed to doing something.

On the other hand, as James Michener, one of my favorite writers, said, “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.”

Eating the food, learning about the customs, respecting the religion and interacting with the people are the ingredients required to yield the kind of adventure that opens the door to a place and says, “Come in. Enjoy. Tell me about yourself and let me tell you about me.”

Something about traveling keeps us young. Seneca said, “Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” So if, as the English scientist Ashley Montagu said, “The idea is to die young as late as possible,” — travel could be the key.

If you’re looking for a sign, here it is. Go somewhere. And when you get home, tell me all about it at

My dad and a driveway

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On the left, writer Jan Risher – age 4, laughing beside her dad, Gary Risher, on the front porch of their home in Hickory, Mississippi (not the driveway home mentioned in the column below because this childhood was in an era without photos by the thousands!).

The people who built the house where I grew up had a giant RV.
To accommodate the RV, they built the biggest, smoothest, paved driveway anyone around there had ever seen. Other than a giant crack about 17 feet from the street, which I referred to as the driveway’s fault line, that driveway was as smooth as soft butter.
When I was eight, my dad gave me a pair of super cool skates — almost like the ones you rented from the skating rink. I spent hours and hours upon hours skating around that driveway.
When I was nine, my dad put up a basketball goal on the far side of the giant driveway — and my whole world changed. I played and practiced basketball almost every single day. Playing basketball on a smooth as silk driveway in a neighborhood full of boys does wonders for a girl’s social life. As the years passed, on most afternoons, about six kids came over, and we played basketball. Guests knew they had to leave the driveway open, so they parked on the side of the road to leave room for the daily game softball.
Afternoon basketball was our lives until I turned 12.
That’s when my dad got me a skateboard — believed to be the first skateboard in those parts. It was yellow, and the wheels had ball bearings and riding it was as smooth as the driveway.
No driveway has ever been a better one for skateboards. As long as I stayed on the house-side of the giant crack, I could make magic happen on that skateboard. The other side of the jagged crevice in the cement was much more littered with rocks. I deemed the street-side of the driveway fault line far too dangerous to skate on or really venture into often (except to check the mail).
Occasionally, when all the neighborhood boys would come over (with those faded circles on the back pockets of their jeans), we tried to do both skateboard and play basketball — to mixed results. Once we played softball in the front yard, but a broken window sent us back to the driveway. It was a safe place to play, and we did so until the streetlights came on, and everybody had to head home.
Though the driveway was my paradise, it was on occasion the bane of my existence. When I got in trouble, my father made me sweep that blasted driveway — and I really really hated sweeping that driveway. Once, I had to sweep it every day for three weeks in a row. I have never fully recovered from the injustice of that punishment — and the driveway was so big that sweeping it took at least 90 minutes. So, I had plenty of time to contemplate that unfairness!
When I turned 15, my dad and I drove to another town, and he bought me a blue Toyota Corolla with a standard transmission. I drove the car home from the dealership on my own, but it was really in that driveway that he taught me how to change gears.
We did not live in a fancy house. We did not take big trips to see the world. What we had was a driveway. Now I realize that somewhere along the way, my father figured out how to make the most of what we had. My dad and that driveway shaped so much my life and perspective.
Happy Father’s Day to my dad and all the other fathers out there — whatever style driveway you have, may you take the energy to make the most of it.