Long Story Short: Looking at lunch

The land of plenty’s problems with food are well documented.
Who among us hasn’t heard lengthy discourses on the value of eating healthier?
Leafy greens. Fiber. Fresh fruits and vegetables. Smaller portions. Easy on the carbs and fats. Watch the sugar. Drink more water.
Then there’s the way we eat and think about food that most of us know well.
Take it slow. Using candy or other sweets as a reward to bribe good behavior out of children isn’t wise. When it comes to making healthy food choices, presentation plays a bigger role than most would expect – especially when it comes to kids. Basic table manners make good digestive sense.
While I’m a firm believer in children having the opportunity to learn where ever they are, school, for all its rights and wrongs, is — for many children – the place where the most learning takes place. The very purpose of going to school is to learn.
What are our children learning in school about food and eating?
The consensus I hear from public school students and teachers alike is: Eat fast.
I’ve asked administrators about the short amount of time allotted for lunch. The response has focused on allowing less time in the cafeteria means fewer behavior problems. I understand. However, I also understand the long-term implications of lunches akin to competitive sprints.
What our students are eating is another matter altogether. Maybe you remember hot plate lunches from decades past. Those days, my dear reader, are gone.
In a place that is known for good cooking, serving many a lunchroom meal must be a bittersweet experience for the cafeteria worker who knows good food. In defense of the school system’s food services staff, their budgets are meager. No doubt, they’re doing the best they can.
The logistics of planning, cooking and feeding the children of Lafayette Parish every day is a throwback to five loaves and two fish to feed 5,000. The results seem to be short of miraculous.
We owe the next generation better than what they’re getting when it comes to lunch at school. I know the problem is a big one. I know the resources are slim. I know there is resistance to change.
I also know there is a better way. The people of Acadiana are folks who know how to solve a problem – just look at how people in Vermilion Parish handled the Hurricane Rita rebuilding. There was no whining. They just did it.
The long-term costs of poor eating habits will be extreme. Even if your child eats tastier lunches in private schools or lunches from home, he or she will help pay the price for a generation whose poor eating patterns were set long ago. Obesity, diabetes and heart disease statistics are sure to climb.
This community has an opportunity to make a long-term positive impression on the lives of students. There are few better ways to a person’s heart than the stomach. The possibilities for change go far beyond what’s being scooped on a plate.
I challenge parents, businesses, school board members, faculty, administrators, healthcare professionals and other community leaders to do some investigating – beyond a cursory glance at the menus. Take a look at how much time a student has to eat – once he or she leaves the classroom, waits in line and sits at a table.
From there, take an investigative approach. Look at how other school districts across the country are feeding their students. Many do it better – and for not much more money to the district or the student.
Eating healthier, higher-quality, better-looking food happens at many school districts across the country. Students also have enough time to eat with a register of dignity and manners.
Our students deserve just as much.

a contest…

Read the fine print for all the rules and regulations, but the basic idea of this contest is simple: Your task is to send the single funniest word to me. For this go-round, the word must be an English word. (We’ll branch out into other languages later.) A prize will be awarded to the winner. That’s it. All entries due by midnight (CST) Nov. 30. 

E-mail your entry to me. Leave a comment here if you need my e-mail address. I will send it to you.

With your entry, please send your name and e-mail address. If you’re one of the finalists, I’ll contact you by e-mail for your mailing address to send the grand prize (don’t get too excited here). The prize has yet to be determined, but rest easy in knowing it will fit the grandness of the contest in general.

By the way, while I may consult friends, experts and/or organize a poll, the pressure and pride of deciding The Funniest Word will rest on my shoulders. Trust in knowing that I will give it my shot.

on books…

OK, you have to read this book. Seriously, it’s riveting.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.

The book is stunning. Hard to put down. Hard to work, because you just keep thinking about the book. Hard to drive, because you want to read at every stoplight. Be warned. The book has some dark spots, but the story is so well paced — it will boggle your mind. Please read it soon. I need someone to talk to about this book. Absolutely amazing book.

Oh, it’s Larsson’s first novel. Fortunately, he’s got a second one and a third one coming out soon. However, he wrote all three before he took any of them to a publisher. They were all accepted immediately. He then died of a heart attack. A little creepy. But don’t let it deter you from reading this book.

heard in the bookstore…

simultaneously on either side of an aisle…

“Well, he’s got some good people backing him. You know that colored man who was Secretary of State? What’s his name?” — an old guy in a green jacket on a cell phone

other side of the aisle

“Now that’s something you can’t get enough of — Italian. It’s a beautiful language.” — one teen to a three others after a dramatic pause as he lowered a book upon the conclusion of his reading a short passage to two other teens with strategic piercings


Long Story Short: Homecoming vs. Coming Home

Fifth grade is a time of wonder.

Middle school opens all sorts of doors. Of course, choosing which ones to open is the secret to life, but that initial realization of glory – the good stuff – that is there for the taking of youth has the potential to be beautiful thing.

I saw that glimmer in my daughter’s eyes this week.

“Tuesday is Crazy Socks Day,” she said. “It’s Homecoming week.”

Call me whatever, but I had never thought about Homecoming for a middle school. The town where I grew up had one middle school and one high school. Everything was all about the high school. On rare occasions, we middle school minions were invited to join the fun.

As I watched my daughter demolish any semblance of organization in her sock drawer, I remembered all those years ago when we too celebrated the esteemed tradition of Crazy Sock Day.

“Today was Crazy Hat Day,” she said as she tossed socks right and left. “But I forgot all about it.”
Ah, Crazy Hat Day. I remembered that too.

And Western Day.

Those Days haven’t changed as much as one would expect.

I realized those Days still had some inexplicable power. What some administrator probably considered as silliness did the job that it was suppose to do. Somehow, those Days ignited the flame of school spirit – which, in my little town and my family’s little home, was right up there close to the Holy Spirit.
This far down the road, I had almost forgotten about living in and with school spirit. Granted, maybe that’s because I’m not an LSU Tiger or a UL Ragin Cajun fan. (Before you hit the send button on the hate mail, know that I have nothing against either school. Go Tigers. Go Cajuns. However, the reality is, they’re not my schools. I come in peace.) At any rate, however hokey loving a school may seem to the uber cool, there is an impossible-to-deny appeal in that devotion.

As my daughter’s search for Crazy Socks continued, I realized that from her distant fifth-grade post, she was trying her school spirit on for size.

And she chatted on. She told me about the football game scheduled for Thursday night – L.J. Alleman against Paul Breaux. She told me about the decorative ribbons the cheerleaders were selling and how much she wanted one.

“At first, I couldn’t figure it out,” she said. “It looked like the ribbons said ‘Terrifying Tigers,’ and we’re the Trojans. That didn’t make any sense. Finally, I figured it out. What it said was, ‘Terrify the Tigers.’ Paul Breaux, Mom, they’re the Tigers.”

I nodded my head and remembered the forgotten joy of convincing my parents to let me have .25 to buy one of the ribbons the cheerleaders were selling – and my subsequent pride in the wearing.
Watching my not-so-little girl settle on one blue froggy sock and one pink monkey sock, I was jolted into the realization of something I’ve known for decades but never put into words before: Homecoming is not about coming home.

Homecoming is for the students. It’s is about building relationships to the people who will have known you when you were young. It’s about building a connection to a place that you will remember as an anchor of your youth.

All that talk about alumni coming home.

Not so much.

Homecoming is about students making the memories that will (hopefully) make them smile when they’re 44-years-old and watching their fifth-grade daughters search for Crazy Socks.

Long Story Short: Beauty in the Small Things

What you are reading is not the column I wrote for today’s newspaper. I was proud of the column I had written. It may have been one of the best ever.

But that column is gone.

Gone into the ether. I could re-paint the grizzly scene of its disappearance, but trust in knowing that I brought in the experts to help in my search of my hard drive. They came to the same conclusion I did.

That column is gone.

You’d think I could re-create it. You’d think I could remember just enough of the phrases and sentiments to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

But I can’t.

Sure, I’ve got the first line. It was, “Dear Ellen DeGeneres:”

There was another bit about the way I will always remember Piper as a child.

Not that I really thought Ellen would care very much about Piper specifically, but I was trying to make a point.

Piper is six. She is our youngest daughter. She is cute beyond reason. The sheer joy of her existence often paralyzes any good sense I ever had.

And such was the moment not long ago when I watched her.

Standing on her tippy toes.

In blue and green striped knee leggings and a pink shirt.

With her naval showing.

Tying knots into the roll of red and white ribbon I bought for her hair.

To last year’s Halloween pail.

Hoisting her makeshift dumbwaiter over the balcony’s rail.

To deliver her dad his wallet in the backyard.

All to avoid a trip back down the stairs.

In the years to come when Piper realizes her parents are no longer cool, that little flash of time will be etched in my mind. It was a moment that sums up so much of who she is. Happy. Resourceful. Silly. A problem solver.

Six years ago this week, I first saw Piper’s face. Our wait to adopt her from China had lasted longer than the gestation of an elephant. Two months after getting her photograph via e-mail, we traveled to the other side of the world to get her.

I rarely think of that arduous wait now, but I often reflect on the beautiful piece of the universe adoption has brought into our lives and hearts.

What does Ellen DeGeneres have to do with any of this?

Not long ago, I saw Meg Ryan on Ellen talking about the process of adopting her daughter from China. Ryan traveled to China with an entourage including a nurse. Ellen was mesmerized by the tale and Ryan’s stories of her daughter – nearly as cute as the one about Piper above. Ellen finished the segment with the line, “I need to get me one of those.”

Ellen may not meet the new qualifications to adopt from China, but there are plenty of kids out there who need good homes. If Ellen wants to adopt, I believe she could do so – even considering the little problem she had when she adopted the puppy not so long ago.

She seemed to realize just how daunting the task could be. Adopting is not for the faint of heart.

But, she should also know that the end-result could be a child who puts together outfits of green and blue stripes and pink shirts and ties ribbon to an old jack-o-lantern to make a dumbwaiter.

I had said this next part much better in my original column, but the point is: When you get right down to it, can life get any better than that?

Jan Risher is a writer and working mother who lives in Lafayette with her family including her husband, two daughters, one dog, one cat and 79 koi. E-mail her at jan@ janrisher.com.

on books…

Ken Wells is originally from Houma, Louisiana, but he left long ago to pursue journalistic dreams in New York City. After writing for the Wall Street Journal for decades and producing several tales of fiction, he recently released The Good Pirates of the Forgotten Bayous — a narrative non-fiction about Ricky Robin and other folks down in St. Bernard Parish during and after Katrina.

Robin, a 52-year-old shrimper, rode out the storm on the Lil’ Ricky, the shrimp boat started building in his high school industrial arts class and has used in the years since to make his living. Robin and his family barely made it through the storm and the subsequent levee breaches. Wells does a good job documenting their quest to rebuild and re-create their home and community.

If you’re from Louisiana and know the Katrina story all too well, Wells’ significant research shows has the depth to offer new insight. If you’re not from Louisiana and never fully got the uproar or you’re interested in reading about some of the man-made causes of the post-Katrina catastrophes, you’ll appreciate Wells’ work. Check it out. Let me know what you think.

Midnight train to Budapest (and our nation’s financial meltdown)

Long ago, I was riding in a cold overnight train to Budapest. With a certain degree of trepidation, two dear friends and I were traveling into the unknown.

We had heard some scary stories of Americans traveling in Hungary. There were tales about Americans not having a mysterious passport stamp and, in the middle of cold winter nights, being thrown from trains at the country’s border. There were stories about the black market overtaking what looked to be legitimate places to change money and creating trouble for Americans. And stories about taxi drivers flipping a mystery switch on their meters to quadruple the fares of Americans.

As the train rambled along, I was reading about our destination in a travel guide. Even with all the uncertainty, in my mind at that point (and this is the scary part), life couldn’t have been better.

“There’s a saying in Budapest,” the travel guide read. “If only we could afford to live as well as we live, how well we would live.”

After a day in Budapest, I understood the spirit of the saying. Even as it dusted Communism off its once and future self, the city was magical. Its food was heavenly. The streets seemed enchanted. The views breath-taking. The music divine. Things like Ferris wheels would just appear as we rounded corners. Children would start singing as we crossed streets. Free concerts would spring to life in front of us. Crazy, but entertaining, taxi drivers would take us on hurly-burly tours of the city they loved. While I’m sure a re-visit could never live up to my memories, of this I am certain: My friends and I spent one of the most memorable weekends of my life uncovering one miraculous adventure after another.

In the last two weeks, I’ve thought a lot about Budapest.

Sadly, I haven’t been thinking of the wonders of the city. I’ve been thinking about that saying in the guidebook. The Hungarian city divided by the Danube may have started it, but we Americans have taken living beyond our means to new heights.

And, at this point, no one I know knows what to do about our predicament.

Economic experts say the American economy has turned a corner and entered a new era. Ultimately, they tell us, our economy has toppled because of subprime loans – mortgages offered above the prime interest rate to folks with below average credit ratings. Apparently, the below average credit rating could be due to a number of factors – the borrower’s poor credit status, his or her income and job history or the income to mortgage payment ratio.

In interest of full-disclosure, you should know that I had one semester of economics when I was a senior in high school.

In the last decade, I’ve thought what Mrs. Sue Minter taught our economics class about creating personal budgets made me feel sort of like my own children might feel reading a textbook about “one day we may put a man on the moon.” My vast knowledge of economics, largely based on Mrs. Minter’s early 1980’s thinking, was so out-dated.

“Plan to use between 30 and 40 percent of your income to rent your home,” she said in class one day. “And when you get ready to buy a home, you should have saved at least 20 percent of the price of the home you want to buy to use as a down payment.”

She went on to say that it’s a good rule of thumb to buy a house valued at “about twice your annual income.”

That silly Mrs. Minter and her old-fashioned common sense.

Just think where our country would be had we listened to our high-school economics teachers. We’d likely be living in and owning more of lesser homes, and our country’s banking industry would not be struggling.

Much like the train ride my friends and I took to Budapest, we as a country are headed into the unknown. For more than a generation, we’ve lived lives beyond plenty. Maybe this change in our country’s economic status is the only way our general population can re-focus priorities. The trick here is understanding that doing with less doesn’t mean life isn’t as fun or exciting. The trick here is looking deeper into those moments when we and those we love are actually happy. From there, this is a chance to be resourceful, revisit old decisions and make different choices about how we spend our money and time.

Who knows? This time of uncertainty could lead to new places and adventures – and a way of life as different and magical as that weekend my friends and I spent in Budapest long ago.

Jan Risher is a working mother and writer living in Lafayette. Her column appears in The Daily Advertiser every Sunday. E-mail her at jan@janrisher.com