April, 2012 Archives

29
Apr

LSS: For a thousand years…

by Jan in Uncategorized

I’ve had a song in my head for two weeks now.

Can’t get it out.

I sing it over and over and over.

Much to the delight of my 14-year-old daughter.

If you’ve ever had a 14-year-old daughter, you will remember how charmed she often is by most anything her parents say, do or sing.

But actually, I’ll take that back. Two weeks ago, we celebrated a Quinceanera for Greer, our 14-year-old daughter. And, no, you’re not imagining things. A Quinceanera is designed to celebrate a girl’s 15th birthday. Our daughter’s birthday is in August, and we just didn’t think it would be much fun to invite a bunch of out-of-towners to Lafayette in August.

April, however, is another story.

April in Lafayette is a perfect time to get a song stuck in your head (thanks to Festival International. If you aren’t there reading this, put on your flip-flops and get on down there.)

But this is not a column about the wonders of Festival International, though there are many. This is a column about that song stuck in my head. I fear it may be there forever.

The song is called A Thousand Years by a young artist named Christini Perri sings it.

During our daughters’s Quinceanera celebration right after the mass at church, she and my husband danced to that song. There were many points in the day that were overwhelming and wonderful — like when the mariachis arrived at the party and everyone began to dance. Like the point in the church service when my daughter publicly identified and thanked 15 people who have had a positive influence on her life. But, that moment in the church hall when those two people I so dearly love waltzed (almost gracefully) is likely one that will stay with me until nothing else does.

You see, as I stood there watching them dance, I was able to take in the beauty and say a prayer of gratitude because I knew deep in my heart what was plain for everyone watching to see. That man wearing the purple bowtie — just like the little girl waltzing in his arms requested — unwittingly lives the lyrics of the song she picked for their waltz as sure as anyone is able. Like the song stuck in my head says, in whatever way it is possible to love someone for a thousand years, my husband has loved that little girl in his arms for that long and will love her for a thousand more.

As much joy as is possible for a person to hold, in that moment, I held it.

To be honest, the whole day was like that, on a slightly lesser scale (other than the near-miss wardrobe malfunction when I turned into Quinceanera-zilla mom — however, thanks to the dedication and willingness of a friend, that crisis was averted).

The point of the Quinceanera celebration is to serve as a formal rite of passage representing the girl entering the beginnings of adulthood. In the days that followed our big event, I suspect that Greer wasn’t so keen on all that adulthood holds. As my husband and I got back to work, Greer spent the bulk of three days cleaning and washing and folding.

I believe all the work she did to help our home and lives recover from the festivities was a good reality check for her. Maybe it helped teach her a lesson: If you’re going to go big, at some point you have to go home and clean — a lot.

Otherwise, life just doesn’t work very well.

22
Apr

LSS: College is not for everyone

by Jan in Uncategorized

On Thursday evening, the State Superintendent of Education’s office sent a press release to media outlets across the state, including my inbox.

Getting past the opening paragraph took time.

Here it is:

Yesterday Governor Bobby Jindal signed three pieces of legislation calling for major changes in Louisiana’s Pre-K-12 education system. Wasting no time, today, State Superintendent of Education John White announced he is launching an extensive statewide outreach initiative, Louisiana Believes. White said he is asking educators to work with him on the formulation of a comprehensive plan to make certain these reforms are implemented to achieve one central objective: ensuring all students, at every grade level, are on track to attain a college degree or succeed in a professional career.

Shortly after I left full-time journalism in 2008, I spent a year and a half teaching in local public schools. I will be among the first to agree with the governor that the education system needs a major overhaul. It is indeed largely broken. I will also say I know many educators who put their hearts and souls into providing the best education possible for their students. But the point of that paragraph that troubled me most was the state Superintendent of Education’s comprehensive plan’s central objective: ensuring all students, at every grade level, are on track to attain a college degree or succeed in a professional career.

Rather than focusing on the myriad of problems and issues with the legislation Jindal pushed through, I’ll start with a few obvious questions about White’s central objective:

- When in history has every person in any education system worked on grade level with plans to go to college?
- Where does anyone get the idea that a successful education is being on track to attain a college degree or succeed in a professional career?
- Define professional career.
- Since we don’t live in a society that solely needs professionals, how would we plan on functioning if the state Superintendent’s utopic objective were achievable?

When I read the press release, all I could think of was The Emperor’s New Clothes. I realize the lack of political correctness required to stand behind the obvious fact that every student is not college bound (or is capable of being college bound) and would wager that anyone who’s worked in education recognizes the impossibility of the superintendent’s stated objective for just that reason. A grassroots movement demanding a strong dose of reality and common sense be incorporated into the state plan would go a long way in saving time, energy and loads of money/frustration. Why not have a realistic and healthy goal in mind — along the lines of, “every student achieves to his or her maximum ability”? How could anyone believe additional bureaucracy is going to eliminate the reality of a bell-shaped curve?

Educators who have spent time in regular classrooms, especially in the last few years, realize the barriers some students face — barriers caused by both medical and psychological issues that plague some children and will never allow them to read on a high school level. To put those students in classrooms where the only goal is one they will never be able to achieve is disheartening and worsens an already dire situation, causing even more behavioral issues.

Our school systems desperately need more opportunities for those children who won’t go to college. There is honor in physical work or learning a trade. Why take that away? An education system whose primary goal is perpetually out of reach further ostracizes and disengages the students most at risk. Those students also deserve to be motivated, and the best way to motivate them is to create opportunities where they are capable of succeeding too.

Jan Risher’s column appears Sundays. Email her at jan@janrisher.com.

16
Apr

How to plan a Quinceanera…

by Jan in Uncategorized

Planning a Quinceanera took more time and energy than my daughter or I expected! There is more to it than meets the eye. While it’s still fresh in our heads, we decided to share our newfound knowledge and advice with others.

On the girl’s 14th birthday, start considering possibilities for the Quinceanera. Where? When? How much? If you come up with a budget, know right here and now that the actual event will double or triple whatever budget you initially set. So, plan accordingly.

I recommend setting the official date and time of the Quinceanera from ten to 12 months in advance. To do so, you should meet with your priest and church.

Spend the next month or two researching, looking at photographs and deciding how formal or informal you want your event to be and where the party will be. About eight months before the event, start the official dress search. Try to have it picked out within that month. It set the tone for much of the rest of the event.

As much fun as it is to think about the party, start thinking also about the Mass. It’s a bigger deal than you realize at this point. I highly encourage your daughter to include the Candle Ceremony in the Mass. It’s a simple, but very moving piece of the program. She invites 15 people who she would like to thank for their presence in her life to light a candle. During the Mass, she will call each by name and say a few words of thanks, specifically explaining the positive difference each has made in her life.

It is also time to think about the court. We went with seven girls and eight boys. Our court started practicing their waltz about five months before the event. While they didn’t practice every single week, they practiced most weeks up until the event. Ours was a fairly complicated waltz that came off without a hitch. If you don’t know a good choreographer, consider asking someone in a nearby university’s dance program or a local dance studio.

Start working on the dama’s dresses. They take much more time than you’ll realize.

We’ll continue more later…about the Mass and the fiesta.

15
Apr

LSS: On La Quinceanera

by Jan in Uncategorized

My husband’s family came to the United States from Mexico when he a young boy. Their family did what families do when they move to a place and blend cultures.

They became the new place, but the Mexican-ness still stands.

His family’s passion for their culture has further convinced me that no group can corner the market on pride in its heritage. Large segments of every culture believe their own way of life to offer the best food, the best traditions (even religious ones), the best holidays and the deepest love for their families.

Here in Cajun Louisiana, we do our best to be certain that our daughters know as much as possible about their dad’s heritage and traditions.

That goal was only one of the reasons that months ago we decided to host a Quinceañera for Greer, our daughter who is nearing her 15th birthday. La Quinceañera is a rite of passage for 15-year-old girls of Latin descent. It includes a full Mass at church, specifically designed around the Quinceañera and a party afterward.

The event has been an opportunity to reflect on how fast time flies and our daughter’s burgeoning place in the world. La Quinceañera represents a young girl being escorted into adulthood by her family, witnessed by her community, which includes a full court of 15 of her friends — seven girls and eight boys who learn and perform an elaborate waltz for the gathering. Our court has practiced for months on this dance. Watching the beautiful awkward teenagerness transform into grace has been a thing of beauty.

In essence, during the Quinceañera, the girl steps through an invisible door as a child and comes out the other side as an adult. (Yes, it’s a stretch, but that’s the goal!)

Researchers have proven that the origins of the Quinceañera are traced to ancient customs of the Aztecs. However, the ceremony and its symbolism are similar to other, early cultural initiation rites that occurred throughout the world. Few of which have carried through into our contemporary world.

I have a confession. When I started planning this event with my daughter, I focused a lot of energy on how much fun the party could be and how much fun it would be to see everyone. As I’ve done more research, I’ve realized and come to appreciate its value on so many other levels.

When La Quinceañera emerges on the other side of the invisible door she is choosing to step through, she does so a young woman with new responsibilities. Those who know and love her will see and treat her differently from this day forward. It’s a living affirmation of the adage: To whom much is given, much is required.

Even though we’re all exhausted from the extra work, planning, cooking and socializing, our little event — meager by many standards — has been a good thing for our family.

Specifically, it’s been good for our daughter. Fourteen can be an uncomfortable age for a girl, but in the last few months, she has flourished with the positive attention and appreciated the chance for extra time with friends practicing their Quinceañera waltz. I’m a firm believer that our society needs more positive rites of passage that offer a chance for the almost-adults among us to be challenged to be more responsible. Sometimes a defining point, even a choreographed one, helps bring home the fact of one’s place in the world.

Even in this slightly unorthodox Louisiana version of a Latin American institution, it marks a special event that happens only once in a girl’s life. It has been a time for rejoicing and reflecting on the miracle of life and reaffirming our commitment to family, friends, tradition and community.

Jan Risher’s column runs every Sunday. Email her at jan@janrisher.com.

8
Apr

LSS: Easter egg hunting (of sorts)

by Jan in Uncategorized

A week ago today, my daughters and I went Easter egg hunting.
Of sorts.
Each of us tucked baskets under our arms, and we were off.
Technically, we weren’t hunting for eggs.
Nope, when our friends mowed a giant field near the back of their farm, they found the entire undergrowth jam-packed with wild blackberries.
They knew just who to call.
Picking wild blackberries is a job for children. Both my friend and I remember long afternoons that lazed into evening when we were banished from the house armed with nothing but buckets and a quest for blackberries.
Hours and hours we would spend wandering through open fields and woods we knew well, picking enough blackberries to seem productive, but largely just talking. Or singing. Or inventing imaginary civilizations.
My friend was in Louisiana. I was in Mississippi — and we didn’t know the other existed, but we both have the memories in common. Friendships are built on the backs of such shared experiences.
All in all, picking blackberries brought back memories, but it also brought a lot of joy.
Part of the joy came in the perfection of the afternoon. It was one of those exceptional days, with a slight breeze and a blue sky that began to burst with streaks of orange and red as the sun set. The outing was, to be sure, was perfect enough for a song of its own.
The blackberries were everywhere. They were truly wild. It was a whole field full of the tiny untamed treasures.
If we had been on a real Easter egg hunt, it would have been the one designated for toddlers. You know the roped-off section of the yard where well-meaning adults just dot the grass with eggs. No hiding required.
Aside from a couple of paths, we couldn’t put a single foot down without stepping on a blackberry or two. At one point, I decided I was going to methodically pick every blackberry within my reach — which may have been inspired by the need to stop bending over and sit for a spell. I sat in that one spot, steadily picking for at least 10 minutes — that’s a lot of blackberries.
After about an hour of picking, the lot of us had picked a couple of gallons of berries. We stopped because we had our fill not because there were no more. Leaving a field still full of such deliciousness went against human nature.
But we did. We knew a cobbler was waiting in the not-so-distant future.
After the cobbler, our friend sent us on our way with the remainder of the afternoon’s bounty.
Come Monday afternoon, Piper (our 10-year-old daughter) and I decided to tackle the berries and make some jam. The evening before I had watched 60 Minutes report on the toxicity of sugar and faced a literal moral dilemma: how could I make jam without quite so much sugar (and no pectin)?
I decided to give it a go. How could we go astray? I remembered a blueberry jam recipe I had used several years ago that recommending not only using the juice of lemons, but slicing the lemon peel into the mix, as well. I decided to go for the utmost lemon flavor to complement the fresh blackberries — and I cut the sugar considerably.
All of that may seem like a lot of detail about my decisions regarding making blackberry jam.
But that’s only because you haven’t tasted said jam.
Piper and I believe it may be the best stuff either of us has ever tasted. I am so happy to have someone to share my joy in just how good this stuff tastes. And we are both very aware that it tasting so good has little to do with our convoluted decision making in modifying the recipe.
It’s all those tiny blackberries we picked from the middle of a field off LaNeuville Road.
Nature did the real work — in true evidence of the rebirth spring offers. And isn’t that what Easter is all about?

Jan Risher’s column appears Sundays. Email her at jan@janrisher.com.

1
Apr

LSS: Spring, poetry and weather on the horizon

by Jan in Uncategorized

On Thursday, Piper, our 10-year-old daughter, went to sleep while I was running errands. By the time we got home, she roused and groggily said, “Usually, I’m bright orange or bright blue — I’m joyful, but right now I’m gray to black.”
I smiled at her colorful language as we got out of the car.
Walking toward the front door, she said, “It’s like my batteries are low. I feel like an Ipod about to stop playing music. I think I need to go recharge.”
I couldn’t help but smile at her perfect description of the way she felt and encouraged her to do what she needed to do to regain her normal vivacity.
Truth be told, I was feeling the same way.
Maybe the heat that did it to us.
While I appreciate the beautiful weather we’re having — and try with all my might to stay in the now, I have this impending dread building inside about what this summer is going to be like.
All these questions run through my head.
- Since we never got rid of the mosquitoes during our so-called winter, will mosquitoes the size of small pick-ups be buzzing around our heads by June?

- How much higher will our electricity bill be since the major-shade providing trees in our front yard were cut last fall?

- Will I be able to handle another Louisiana summer?

Trying to concentrate on something positive rather than thoughts that would keep me awake at night, I did my best to dispense with that train of thought and opted to focus on Piper’s lyrical language. Just one day earlier, as we worked on her schoolwork, she had lamented to me about her struggles with poetry.
I was surprised to hear she approached rhyme and verse with any difficulty since she lives life with such poetic flare.
Plus, I am a die-hard poetry supporter. Poetry makes me smile and life easier to bear. In an effort to share the joy it brings me, every April, I try to commemorate National Poetry Month in some way.
I have taken a variety of approaches. One year, I wrote an entire column in haiku. Last year, I wrote a poem in the form of a pantoum, a little known rhyming poetic form of Persian origin.
Hoping that spring will bring the poetry out in Piper and each of you, I’ll share three poetic offerings I came across in a new book of poetry.
The first is called A Little Madness in the Spring, and I was surprised to see that it was written by Emily Dickinson.

A little madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown —
Who ponders this tremendous scene —
This whole Experiment of Green —
As if it were his own!

The second, Nothing Gold Can Stay, by Robert Frost, is my all-time favorite poem:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leafs a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

And the third, a lesser offering, I’ll call Piper,

Bright orange and blue.
Joy and light, embodiment of you.
Days will come, child,
when you feel gray, black and riled.
Your batteries low,
sluggish and slow.
Take time when available,
recharging with deep breaths inhalable.
Weary is a temporary state.
For you, the world will wait.

Jan Risher’s column, Long Story Short, appears Sundays. Email her at Jan@JanRisher.com. You can also read the column at