Tag Archives: Jan Risher

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 those 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.

Done so.

The book, Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West by Hampton Sides, describes Kit Carson as a man of action.
“To an unusual extent, Kit Carson was a person who lived not in words but in action, responding to situations with a preternatural swiftness. Nearly everyone who knew him mentioned this quality,” Sides writes.
Sides continues that a physician who knew Carson commented on Carson’s “shrewdness of perception” and “promptitude in execution.” Apparently, Carson’s favorite phrase was “done so.” Stanley Vestal, one of Carson’s early biographers “observed that Carson constantly used the construction “Concluded to charge them, done so,” noting that he often rendered it in a single sentence, ‘To Kit,’ Vestal said, ‘decision and action were but two steps in the same process,’” Sides writes.
I respect Carson’s take on action. Though I enjoy a lazy afternoon as much as anyone (and I love sleeping late), when it comes time to get something done, I would rather just get it done as opposed to waiting for a better time or until everything is in exactly the right way or whatever the reason is for delaying action.
My perspective on getting stuff done is in direct and obvious contrast to my husband’s. Nonetheless, we’ve found our kabuki dance around our differences and have come upon a way that makes our relationship work. He is the yin to my yang, so to speak. After nearly 20 years of marriage, for the most part our different natures have grown to complement each other as opposed to aggravate. We make it work, and for that I am grateful.
However, for all the years it took my husband and me to adjust to our contradictory paces of life, I have yet to find a resolution to the snail-like approach and reflexes my 16-year-old daughter uses to meet each day.
She is the anti-Kit Carson.
To an unusual extent, she is a person who lives life in words not action, responding to situations with preternatural sluggishness.
It makes me crazy. As she approaches adulthood, we have yet to come upon the yin and yang of our relationship. She is a good girl, a smart girl. She has a kind and generous heart, but her tendency to stall and procrastinate is pushing me over the edge.
Lately, I’ve tried differing tactics to instill some sort of sense of urgency within her, but speed and urgency go against who she is to such a degree that, at times, doing the task myself would be easier.
But that’s not going to happen. After months (who am I kidding?)…after years, of trial and error, I have found her Achilles heel. It is her telephone. These days when I ask her to do something and she responds with her go-to reply, “I will. Just a minute.”
I say, “Do it now or I take your phone.”
I feel a degree of remorse that sometimes things might be more convenient to do if she waits a bit, but I have learned that, “Now is a great time.” I’ve also learned the hard way the betterment of having the task completed on the spot. Otherwise, it generally doesn’t happen.
Granted, part of her listlessness may be a function of being 16, but a function of being a 16-old’s mother is to guide her toward a better life. And in our case, that responsibility seems to require that I figure out what can light the fire beneath her so she gets the stuff done than has to get done.
Kit Carson, smile upon us.

LSS: Come to your senses

Like me, you’ve probably experienced learning a new word or phrase you’ve only to hear it often or in surprising places in the days that followed. This week instead of a new word or phrase, I was constantly referred to what I could best describe as a theme. It wasn’t new, but it kept popping up in unexpected places. The theme of my week can best be summed up in a passage I read in my book club’s selection: The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro.
One character said to another, “Come to your senses.”
The characters then discussed the meaning of that sentence.
One of them said, “It means to be reasonable, sensible.”
After some discussion, the other said, “Maybe it’s an invitation. Maybe we need to literally come to our senses, to return to a sense of taste, touch, sight, smell, hearing and find sustenance in them, inspiration. Life is, after all, a sensual experience. Our senses have the power to truly transport us but also to ground us. Make us human.”
That beauty of that passage took my breath away and culminated a week when one experience after another led me to consider our five senses.
For example, I heard a short story on KRVS about a blind man who traveled across the country to visit a friend. The friend’s husband narrated the story, constantly referring to their guest as “the blind man.” The story posed a series of questions about the character’s considerations on the protocol of entertaining a guest who happens to be sight impaired.
The story made me wonder, “As much as I love to travel and see the sights of the world, if I was blind, would I still like to travel?” How much of my experiences in a new place are based on the sights I see? Do I over-emphasize that sense, in comparison to my others? Would I travel, say to San Francisco, just to eat the food or feel the air or listen to streetcars clang up and down its hills? How much of my experience would be affected without the view?
In another sense-related scenario this week, I read about a study that concluded that the aroma of freshly baked bread makes people kinder toward strangers. The researchers said that their results, published in the Journal of Social Psychology, “show that, in general, spontaneous help is offered more in areas where pleasant ambient smells are spread.” After I read of the research, I began to wonder how I could use scents to encourage my children to be nicer toward each other. I also wondered if it’s possible to promote more benevolent behavior among co-workers by using certain pleasant odors.
If you’re a Project Runway fan, maybe you caught last week’s episode that largely focused on the designer who is deaf. His efforts gave the audience a chance to consider how his unique perception of the world affected his fashion sense and his sweet spirit was inspiring.
All in all, this week’s emphasis on taste, touch, smell, sound and sight has made be consider that perhaps I would do well to take the advice of the character in the book and find sustenance in my senses — and do my part to help others do the same. In doing so, maybe we do focus on our common humanity as opposed to the differences between us all.

Looking for the Niña and her crew


“She has been sailing since she was nine years old. She loved it,” her mother said, notably switching between verb tenses.
That verb tense switch is the constant question for Robin Wright, mother of Danielle Wright, a UL student who left a New Zealand port along with a crew of six others on a schooner called Niña June 4. They were bound for Australia and chances are you know the rest of the story’s big specifics.
The boat ran into multiple storms. The New Zealand government launched their largest search ever for the missing boat, finally declaring that the boat was believed to have sunk during a storm. Shortly after the New Zealand search ended, a lost and somewhat cryptic satellite text message was recovered and led the Wrights and others to believe that New Zealand’s search crews may have been looking in the wrong place. To New Zealand’s credit, their search for the Niña was the biggest search they’ve ever performed.
But they didn’t find the Niña.
Or its wreckage.
“In third grade geography, Danielle had to create her dream vacation — it was sailing in New Zealand,” Robin told me. “This trip was a dream come true for her. When they said, ‘Come sail with us and spend the summer.’ She didn’t blink. We didn’t either. We trusted David as a sailor, the Niña as a boat and Rosemary to watch over her.”
Ricky and Robin Wright met David and Rosemary Dyche, along with their 17-year-old son David, about four years ago in Panama. The Dyches had been sailing the world over for nearly 16 years, and the Wrights were new to the life of living on the sea.
Robin Wright said that Rosemary Dyche is the person who taught her about living on a boat.
“They were our first sailing friends. She gave me books to read and recipes,” Robin said. “There are all sorts of means to keep your provisions longer on a boat. Not only did Rosemary know the tricks, but she was happy to share that knowledge with me.”
The Dyches had just come through the Panama Canal when the two families met.
Robin bristles at the idea that the Niña wasn’t seaworthy.
“They went to Ecuador and on to Galapagos and then the South Pacific. David was a professional captain,” she told me. “Do you really think Captain David would have his family on an untrustworthy boat? I don’t think so.”
For me, a visit with Robin Wright was a testament in faith, persistence, grace and delicious lemonade. By the time I left, my heart was full of hope for this mother with a missing child. She happily shared photo albums, smiles, stories of her daughter and other lost mariners who were eventually found after being missing at sea. Last week, when the Arizona couple was found after 91 days at sea on a broken boat, Robin’s spirits were buoyed again. New information found using volunteer civilians scanning satellite photos of the Tasman Sea on a website called tomnod.com has produced even more hope. Anyone with access to the computer and the Internet is encouraged to go to the site and scan high-def images of the sea to look for signs of the Niña or its life raft.
On the Facebook page, Bringing home the Niña and her crew, someone posted a map of the Tasman Sea where the Niña went missing. The map includes sites where other boats were abandoned, drifted and the spots where the boat was eventually found. For example, the Windigo was abandoned near Tonga and appeared on the Australian coast four months later. The Air Apparent was abandoned near the coast of New Zealand and drifted for 13 months before being found off the coast of Australia.
So even though the Niña and her crew have been missing for 85 days, the Wright aren’t giving up hope. The Tasman Sea is vast, with little sea or air traffic. The Wrights believe their daughter and the rest of the crew are drifting with no sails or power and could be found today, tomorrow or a long time from now.
“I could stay in bed and pull the covers over my head and never leave, or I can get up every day and do everything I can to try and find my daughter,” Robin said. “I know wherever Danielle is right now, God is with her.”
The Wrights are shepherding efforts to continue the search for the Niña. They’re working with Texas Equusearch and have narrowed the search area to about 300,000 square miles. The daily search flights cost between $15,000 and $20,000 a day to operate, and the Wrights are doing all they can to raise money to continue the searches for as long as possible. If you’d like to donate, contact the Community Foundation of Acadiana or go online to www.texasequusearch.org and add instructions to direct your donation to the Niña search.


LSS: Crooked paths and careers

My friend Denise Young from Reno, Nevada, had a clear idea of what she wanted to be all along. Denise loved pigs. Her entire home was decorated a la porky, with porcine accoutrement adorning every pink pig-face knob and handle. Since she was a child, she raised pigs for 4-H competitions. Blue ribbons papered the hallway of her mom’s house with its first-class pigpen in the backyard. Denise’s prize-winning sow was named Wilma. Wilma paid for a significant portion of Denise’s college by producing plenty of prize-winning piglets. When Wilma died, Denise had the giant head stuffed and mounted.
I kid you not.
Pigs became her trademark. When Denise was sitting on the sofa reading a magazine, chances are high its name was something along the lines of Swine News. She picked her college based on which state had the best barbecue. And, of course, she went to there to study pigs.
I was a tat envious of Denise for how clear she was about her career path. I love to be around people who are pigheaded about what they’re interested in — to the point that they don’t care what anyone else thinks. Personally, I’ve never been as interested in any one thing as Denise was. Instead, I’d like to believe the list of all the jobs I’ve had since and including college reflects that varied interest as opposed to some lesser character trait.
I had to include college because my first college job was working for a nearly mad scientist who made frequent trips to the Amazon jungle. He would clip hundreds and hundreds of plant specimens, press them and bring them back home to be placed in one of many stacks of press plants — all waiting for me to carefully glue them to a special non-acidic paper. I lasted a semester.
My list of jobs includes a stint as a movie theater auditor, a 411 operator in training, answering calls for a team of janitors, three months as the social services director at a nursing home playing Bingo and serving snacks. There are also a string of editing, writing and English teaching positions I’ve had through the years — teaching English from its most basic to its most lyrical.
Plus, there was work that just doesn’t fit into any of those categories. These are the jobs that aren’t easy to explain. Some of them may seem incredulous even. I once spent a weekend as unarmed security for Nelson Mandela. In Eastern Europe, I coached a high school girls’ basketball team that did not speak English. Let me repeat that. Not a single player spoke English. Our practices were like episodes of I Love Lucy with me flailing all over the court as the team stood on the sidelines stone faced.
Unlike my friend Denise, I never had a clear idea of what I’d be when I grew up — and it shows. All in all, I’ve had 25 different jobs doing 25 different things.
I never saw that coming.
But that’s the way life works, isn’t it?
Even for people like Denise, life’s projected trajectory takes unexpected turns. When she went to graduate school and started taking statistics, she turned out to be a statistics wizard. Instead of spending her adulthood working with all things piggy, she’s ended up teaching and practicing statistics professionally.
Life is not a straight line.

LSS: Square plate lesson

After reading this piece, you may wonder if a friend bet me that I couldn’t write a column about dinner plates — and you may be right!
I have come to the point in life when I try to do more with less, but I have a confession — dishes are my Achilles Heel. So about five years ago when I thought the time had come to buy a set of new dishes, I looked long and hard to make my careful conclusion about which dishes to buy.
Ultimately, I settled on a new set of gorgeous white dishes — not just any dishes, mind you. I decided to buy square ones.
Square dinner plates. Square salad plates. Square bowls. Square serving platters.
You get the picture.
I was so pleased with my new dishes. You know, the kind of pleased that earns a moment of taking it all in — they set a beautiful, contemporary table. I stood back and admired them in all their square glory.
Shortly after we ate our first meal on the square plates came the not-so-fun part of dishes — doing them. Even with the first washing, I screeched when I dinged the corner of a square plate on the sink divider, but I thought little of it. However, as time passed, the chips began to show — much more quickly than nicks had shown on previous dinnerware. Almost every time we washed these dishes, at least one would suffer a new mark of endearment.
I’d like to believe that I’m not a reckless washer, but standing at my kitchen sink, I began to give real thought to this geometric dilemma. Corners of a square plate, it turns out, are out there much further than any particular part of a circular plate.
Stay with me as I acknowledge that part of this quandary may have something to do with the fact that most of us are more accustomed to holding and washing a round plate. (You’re welcome to give this as much thought, as you’d like — go ahead and close your eyes and think about how you would hold a square plate in one hand versus a round plate in one hand.)
Yes, the shape of the plate doesn’t affect the amount of territory it offers, but the differences in shape require two total different approaches when it comes to care and hardiness.
The fact is that I lived more than 40 years of my life without ever owning a square plate. My mother never had square plates. My grandmother never had square plates. In fact, a little research suggests that circular porcelain plates have been around since the 5th century. Some of the explanation for the circular shape is likely related to fundamentals of ceramics and other archeological reasons beyond my realm of knowledge.
Even without the three generations of my family, circular plates have been around for more than 1,500 years.
A millennia and a half of tradition has to stand for something — and this I know: square plates are not user friendly. I bought them because I thought they were cool. I thought square plates might fit better in the cabinet — hug the side of the cabinets and maybe take up less space even. However, the truth is that for our family, none of those reasons is good enough to ever buy square dishes again.
All this thinking — specifically about plates, but generally about something much larger — has brought me to a conclusion. Even though I believe in progressive thinking about most issues of life, sometimes there are solid reasons backing up the traditional ways of doing things. Round plates are just one example of the merit in traditional know-how and reasoning.


LSS: Finding hope on Cape Fear


With two old friends and their families, we’ve spent the week on a tiny island off the coast of North Carolina. My friends and I became friends in our mid-twenties in Washington, D.C. We were young and unmarried. These women know things about me, and I about them. Getting to spend significant time with each other and have the opportunity to know each other all over again has been a gift.

We’ve spent the week near the tip of this tiny island, where a large triangular swath of sand juts into the ocean. It’s called Cape Fear — yes, like the movie. (And in the trivia department: this week I learned that Cape Fear is the fifth-oldest surviving English place name in the country. It was named in 1585 when a ship’s crew became afraid their boat would sink after it got stuck in a sandbar near the cape).

The island has no cars and is as idyllic as it gets in the American South, or just about anywhere, in my book. As one of my friends said, it has been a week to do little but focus on the simple things of life — friends, food and family. We cooked a lot and cleaned a little. We ate like kings and queens. Our biggest decisions were what time to head to the beach or if we should have ice cream or sorbet.

We threw indoor boomerangs. We sang James Taylor and Van Morrison. We danced a dance called Taco Bell. In the dark of late, late night, we waited for sea turtles to come ashore and lay their eggs. We found the Milky Way, the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper and a million more stars in a sky as dark as ink.

As our daughters learned to surf, one of my friends found a whole sand dollar. The rest of us found the sand dollar equivalent of spare change. Throughout the week, we laughed long and loud. We had plenty of time to catch up and philosophize.

With our toes in the sand, we counted the waves and our children’s bobbing heads in the water. Between regular intervals of abundant sunscreen lathering, we discussed whatever came to our minds.

By mid-week, we had covered politics, parenting and our favorite movies. We sat around the dinner table one night discussing the geographical details of our surroundings, Cape Fear specifically. We were comparing the island’s actual promontory to the nearby general region around Wilmington that has also taken the name.

One of the girls said, “I thought Cape Fear was the tip of Africa.”

“Nope, that’s the Cape of Good Hope,” several adults said in unison.

But we all understood how she got the two confused.

Hope and fear.

Emotions that play off of each other.

Emotions that drive us and so much of what we do.

Emotions that control so much of our interactions with others.

Hope is the opposite of fear. Fear is the opposite of hope.

We get to choose.

On the sands of Cape Fear, we chose hope.

LSS: Ten fe

Her response to my concerns, complaining and consternation was short and to the point.
I was chatting online with Mila, my husband’s cousin in Mexico. She had been a good listener as I went on about my general worries of parenthood.
If you’re a parent, you know the ones I’m talking about.
The ones that can best be summed up in the single question: “Will she be OK?”
In the big picture?
The really big picture?
Mila and I were chatting in English, because chatting in Spanish doesn’t come naturally to me. My Spanish tends to stick to the basics and likely sounds like the equivalent of a caveman to native speakers. Plus, chatting in English doesn’t make my head hurt. Mila asked me to elaborate on my concerns — and I was all too happy to respond. When I finally took a break, Mila typed her message to me.
“Ten fe, Jan,” she wrote.
No one had ever said that to me in Spanish, and it really caught me off guard. For some reason, the first thing I thought of was iron — as in fe, the element on the periodic table.
I looked at her words.
“Ten fe.”
She then typed, “Do you know what that means?”
And a sort of peace came over me. Mila is a wise woman. Of course, I knew what that meant.
Intellectually, at least.
“Have faith?” I asked.
“Yes, Jan. Ten fe.”
And I took a deep breath.
By nature, I am not a worrier. I tend to look for and expect the best. I don’t sweat the small stuff. However, when it comes to my daughters and the big picture of their lives…well, that’s a different story. I had gotten to a place that I felt a certain degree of righteousness in my concern. I needed to worry. I needed to do something.
In reality, what I needed to do is take Mila’s advice and ten fe. Don’t get me wrong, I know as a mom I need to support my daughters, be there for them, provide the best example I’m able to provide.
But am I supposed to worry about them and their future — next week, next year, when they graduate high school, when they go to college, where they go to college, what they study, if they study, if they graduate, what they do then, etc. etc. etc.?
No, I’m not supposed to worry.
I’m supposed to ten fe (or tener fe, as I suppose it would be grammatically.)
Sometimes the hardest thing to do as a parent is — nothing. Let them work it out. Let them figure it out. Let them bail themselves out. Let them wait it out. Let them make the mistakes.
And that’s how they learn, isn’t it?
They don’t learn from our worrying, concerns, complaining or consternation. They don’t do anything except get frustrated with us over that negative energy that we’re giving off. They learn from our strength.
Strength like iron.
Ten fe.

LSS: Boatload of family

Everybody involved knows it could have gone either way.

With 18 family members spending six days and nights together — and what with family dynamics being what they are, let’s be real. It really could have gone either way.

But it was my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.

To celebrate, my parents — especially my mom — wanted our whole family (including children, spouses and kids) to be together for a week. After debate, discussions, compromises and a ratification process that surely rivaled the Geneva Convention, we settled on going on a cruise together. For a year, we’ve been making arrangements — that’s how long it takes to coordinate the schedules and make arrangements for 18 people to go on a weeklong adventure together.

Yet, other people do this all the time. Indeed, large groups of people do this all the time. All I have to say is that I tip my hat to whoever organizes all those family trips and cruises.

I handled the logistics of this one. Such planning is not for the faint of heart. Most of my family is either afraid of me or recognized that this was a chance to take it in and be, as my niece said, an “accommodator”. Fortunately, they had the good sense to refrain from offering any unsolicited critique or much in ways of complaining.

By the way, if you have a person in your family who seems to magically make all sorts of events happen, let me tell you, it’s not magic. It’s hard work. Hug them. (Who am I kidding?) Hug her. Send her flowers. Tell her she’s wonderful. Don’t complain if the cole slaw isn’t just how you like it. Getting all this stuff together and trying to make sure all the pieces and parts fit, the place is clean, everybody gets invited and gets there and not offend or aggravate anyone in the process requires energy.

I will admit I was nervous going into this trip. My expectations were not high.

Family dynamics in my family are like most families — they’re complicated.

For us, differences in political opinions transcend most of our interactions.

Yes, you’re right — that’s crazy. You are correct — people, especially families, shouldn’t let a little thing like politics cloud relationships. All I can say is that we’re trying not to let those issues creep in to discussions. We’ve been down that road before, and now we’re better. I believe when we’re together my family lives in a constant internal battle not to make assumptions or say off-handed comments that presume another’s views. We’ve all made this unspoken commitment to each other in order to remain as a cohesive family unit.

So, on this cruise, the 18 of us were on a boat big enough to do our own things as necessary and contained enough to get together often. Some of us met for trivia competitions. Some of us met by the pool. We cheered my baby brother on in the hairy chest competition. Before we had dinner together every evening, we gathered for at least an hour. My mom asked each of her children’s spouses to orchestrate simple programs about our family, offering a chance to honor one another and hopefully our children gathered some of the family history, as well.

We all took part in the programs — my parents, my brothers, their wives and all of our children and spouses. The gatherings were magical. They were beautiful. They were good for us. Adulthood gets in the way of families sometimes, doesn’t it? And that’s where our family had been for a while. After a week together, I feel a new kinship with each of them.

Even though none of us knew what the trip together would hold, my parents were right. A week together is exactly what my family needed.

LSS: Summer reading recommendations

Memorial Day weekend marks the official opening of summer reading. Whether you’re a voracious reader and can’t find enough to fill your appetite or you approach it much like the vegetables of childhood — something you have to do begrudgingly, I’ve tried to read a real variety to vouch for good stuff in different genres. I’ve read a number of other so-so books lately (The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer and The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout), but those on the list below rise to the top. Here are some recommendations, both new and old.


Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan — Such a fun read. About more than a funky bookstore. Much food for thought about technology, the love of reading and the risk of technology to isolate rather than bring people together, but basically it’s just a beautifully written and lovely story. Techy 20-somethings rejoice. This is your book.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. Sometimes this book’s writing took my breath away. The story isn’t exactly uplifting, but it is a lovely tale of love, loss and New York City.

Fall of Giants and Winter of the World by Ken Follett. If you like history, historical fiction or great storytelling, you’re going to be absorbed by Follett’s Century trilogy. They’re big, but you have the luxury of staying with the books long enough to really feel like you’re a part of the story. I’ve recommended Fall of Giants before, but I am happy to do so again. The books tell the stories behind World War I and II. Both gave me an understanding of the war’s absurdities. Winter of the World also offered insight into life inside Germany during World War II. Yes, the stories are fiction, but Follett’s research is remarkable. I am not a war buff, but I loved reading these books.

Personal favorites I’ve recommended before: The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson (three very different book types — all beautiful in their own way)

Young adult:

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. One of the most heartbreakingly beautiful books I’ve read in a long while. It leaves an impression and is sure to be a blockbuster movie. Read now and get ahead of the trend.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanha Lai. A lovely book, set between Vietnam and the Deep South. It is the story of one child’s transition and grief in the beginnings of war in Vietnam and her subsequent a trip across the world to rebuild a new life with her family and eventual new friends. A beautiful story, written in simple, poetic language. An easy read for children 8 and up.

These is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine by Nancy Turner. One of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in the last few years. Don’t let the dialect in the beginning discourage you. The difficult vernacular goes away, and the reading experience becomes smoother. Great book for teenage girls.


Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. Even though we may not love the book or agree with the details of her ideas, the book has prompted a lot of great conversation about women rising in the ranks of the business world.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. I’m the only person I know who didn’t love this book, but I still recommend it. Based on Louis Zamperini, born in 1917, and his incredible story of running in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and fighting in World War II. He has led a life stranger than fiction and survived more near death experiences than any cat around. Great book for adolescent boys and their fathers.

The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin. I love Seth Godin, his thought processes and his books. Overall, he’s got a huge message on business and living. This book is about not holding back and being the most you can be. In other words, follow Icarus’ lead and dare to fly closer to the sun. Your wings won’t melt. If you’re in the working world or aspire to be, you should read this one.

And if you’d like a taste of poetry, check out Darrell Bourque’s new collection of Acadian migration inspired work, Megan’s Guitar.

Happy reading!