The Lady with the Chalk (aka: Heroes All Around Us)

Yesterday, my teens and I watched Unbreakable, a 2000 film by M. Night Shyamalan. It was such a good movie. Super, you might even say. Afterward, I couldn’t help but ask my kids, “How would you feel if you learned that one of your parents was actually a superhero?”

My 13 year-old replies, “If I found out that Dad was a superhero, then I’d be shocked. Like, what the heck? But if I found out that Mom was a superhero, then I’d be like, oh. Okay.” He shrugs. No big revelation there. My daughter nods in agreement.

This has been a long-running theme in our family. You see, no matter how much I try to dissuade them, my teens are convinced that I am either a). A superhero in disguise, b). A CIA operative, just like Sydney Bristow; or c). a super hacker. Or possibly a combination of all three.

“Please,” I say each time the topic comes up. “I am just an ordinary, cookie-baking mom who works in a cubicle at a tax agency.”

“Su-u-ure,” one of my kids will answer. “Perfect cover.”

I’m not sure what led my kids to believe that I am somthing greater than I appear to be. Maybe it’s my hopelessly INTJ prsonality. Maybe it’s my ability to run very fast (though nowhere near the prerequisite superhero speeds displayed by the Flash). Or maybe it’s my steady lack of close friendships. Superheroes know how difficult it can be to form attachments while keeping their true identities a secret.

It is flattering that my kids think so highly of me, I guess. But I would prefer that they look arond them to honor the real heroes that walk among us. No, not cape-wearing comic-book characters with extraordinary superpowers to fight gainst supervillains. I’m talking about the real people who help humankind with their courage, altuism, and sense of duty. Police officers, firefighters, soldiers. Teachers, surgeons, and even regular people, from time to time. The heroes who save lives, offer hope to those who have lost hope, pick up the lost and set them on the right path.

Not long ago, I encoutered one such real-life hero in my own neighborhood. While out for a run one day, I came across something that made me stop in my tracks. A large, colorful chalk design had transformed a section of the sidewalk into a work of art. “You are needed here and now,” the message read. My heart soared with the positive impact of those simple words. As I continued to run, that day and in days to come, I came across more of these beautiful, uplifting messages, as did my daughter, as did other people in our neighborhood. They brightened our day each time. They filled our sails with wind.

And then, one day, we happened to spot the woman who was responsible. She wasn’t wearing a cape or a super suit. She was an ordinary human being, anyone’s neighbor from Anywheretown. She probably didn’t even realize that the offerings she had left had such an enormous impact on the people in our neighborhood. In fact, she seemed surprised, and perhaps a little timid as I thanked her for making such a difference.

Can you imagine what our world would look like if each one of us strove to become a hero in our own small way? No, not a superhero. We don’t need X-Ray vision or Iron Man suits or the ability to fly to save lives, or to make someone’s life better. Maybe all we need is to care a little deeper. To show our compassion for those who are less than ourselves, rather than our disdain. To use the gifts we have been given to do good, rather than to do harm. To offer someone a genuine smile and encouraging words to give them a positive boost. Maybe all we need to save each other, to be something greater than we are, is a piece of chalk and the willingness to make the world a better place for the people around us.

 

Advertisements

Lights, Camera, Action! (aka: Family Movie Night)

family movie nightIn our house, nearly every Friday night is Family Movie Night. With three kids and busy schedules, it is not always an easy date to keep. But whenever we can, my three kids and I love to curl up on the sofa, eat homemade pizza and popcorn, and watch a movie together.

Of course, it can be tricky to choose a movie that everyone will enjoy. My 15 year-old tends to favor exciting movies filled with action, like The Matrix or the Bourne Identity series. My 13 year-old daughter goes moony-eyed over typical “teen girl” movies, like Mean Girls or Divergent. Meanwhile, my 10 year-old still loves the Disney videos and adventurous kid films that the rest of us have seen nearly 100 times, like Finding Nemo or Pirates of the Caribbean. Disney Finding Nemo

And then there’s me. While I am happy to watch just about any movie, I have an affinity for the Great Films – films which tell a good story, are supreme examples of their genre, or portray the depths of the human experience in a unique way. Some years ago, I was introduced to the Criterion Collection. For those of you who are classic film virgins, the Criterion Collection is a tremendous library of some of the most prolific, outstanding, and or groundbreaking films of all time. The films are not always as well known, though the directors may be. They often feature themes and plots which require some thought and reflection on the part of the viewer. And no, they are not usually wrapped up with a neat, colorful little Disneyland happy ending like most films we are accustomed to today. More often than not, the films from the Criterion Collection leave the viewer rather unsettled, by introducing a disturbing ethical dilemma, then refusing to offer a neat solution. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have sat, watching the credits with wide-eyed incredulity and a sense of injustice. How could the director have allowed the film to end there? Why did the protagonist make such a choice? And for the next day or two, I walk around in a daze, chewing on the deep moral issues raised by the film like a piece of succulent grilled meat.

The Criterion CollectionSadly, my kids just can’t see the greatness of the Criterion Collection films. “Mo-om…not another black and white movie!” they complain. So I have learned to save these films for the weekends when the kids are away. After all, the point of Family Movie Night is not to persuade my children to think like me and enjoy what I enjoy most. The point is two hours of fun and laughter as we bond together as a family – even if that means watching Finding Nemo for the 100th time.

Great Picks for Family Movie Night 

The Goonies D.A.R.Y.L.
Pirates of the Caribbean Homeward Bound
Earth to Echo The Parent Trap (both)
The Indiana Jones films Freaky Friday (both)
The Hunger Games Akeelah and the Bee
The Harry Potter films Big Hero 6
Catch Me if You Can Night at the Museum
Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen Jumanji

Got any more suggestions? We are always looking for new ideas.

Great Criterion Collection Films for Beginners

The 400 Blows (1959) 12 Angry Men (1957)
Bicycle Thieves (1948) The Virgin Spring (1960)
The Game (1997) Walkabout (1971)
Rashomon (1950) My Life as a Dog (1985)
Au revoir les enfants (1987) Cria cuervos (1976)

 

50 Shades of Terrible Writing (aka: Stop Biting Your Lower Lip!)

fifty shades film actors

Ooh, Mr. Grey…whatever do you plan to do with that tie?

Yesterday was the big day — the release date of one of the most highly anticipated movie trailers this year. That’s right — Fifty Shades of Grey has at last been made into an NC-17 film for our viewing pleasure. Fifty Shades of Guilty Pleasure. Fifty Shades of Smut. Fifty Shades of Oh-My-God-Is-That-Even-Possible? That adorable pair of fun-loving sex addicts will be portrayed by actors Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan. (Oh my — is it just me, or did the temperature just spike a few degrees in here?)

Cue the giggling teenagers! Cue the feminist backlash! Cue feeding frenzy of housewives with longing in their eyes! Cue the scandalized conservatives holding angry picket signs in front of movie theaters across the nation!

The uproar surrounding the Fifty Shades film is unsurprising. After all, when the books first hit the shelves, they released a firestorm that had half the nation burning with desire and the other half burning with outrage. (Now I am giggling to myself, imagining a horde of Sarah Palin wannabes and male-bashing misandrists chasing down poor Christian Grey and attacking him with his own private stash of sex weapons).

Yes, I read Fifty Shades of Grey. And one of the sequels. For purely educational reasons, of course. 😉 And here’s the thing: these angry hordes have got it all wrong. You see, they are burning books over the issue of sex. Consensual sex between two adults. Yes, violent, wild, passionate sex. But still — two consenting adults. Yes, sadomasochistic sex, sex with riding crops and cuffs, sex with toys I have never even heard of before. But still, two consenting adults, behind closed doors (or elevator doors, at least), who are clearly turned on and happy with their choices. cuffs for the couple

Sex, control, and BDSM is not the thing that the world should be protesting. The thing that seriously sucks in the 50 Shades books is the writing. The books are filled with repetitive language, over-baked adjectives, and such unrealistic dialogue that I had to remind myself that it wasn’t meant to be a humor novel.

An example of a typical line from Fifty Shades: I can tell from his accent that he’s British. (You don’t say! Well, British accents have a way of cluing us in).

Another literary jewel: “Argon? It rings a distant bell from chemistry class—an element, I think.”

If not for the fact that I was reading on my Kindle app, I would have thrown the book across the room after that line. Seriously. Bad writing like this should be a crime. Forget protesting the upcoming movie — I should start an outraged literary group and lock E.L. James’ editor in Christian Grey’s Red Room of Pain to pay for exposing us to such filth (the bad writing, not the sex). Maybe I will. But first, I really should go and read the third book in the trilogy. Laters baby! little red riding crop

Life in Queue (aka: TV Binge Week)

So apparently, this is Hulu Binge Week, when Hulu is encouraging viewers to glue themselves to the sofa and veg out for a few hours with a TV show marathon. Woo-hoo! Another great excuse to slow down and play the couch potato for a while. Well, in theory, anyway. The truth is that I have been bombarded with studying, homework, and school projects, which makes it hard to find the time for marathon-viewing. And anyway, as I tweeted yesterday in honor of #HuluBingeDay:

 

Heehee. Okay, maybe not everything. But thanks to Hulu, Netflix, and too much free time (before classes began), I managed to watch every season and episode of Gray’s Anatomy, Parks and Rec, House of Cards, Scandal, Vampire Diaries, Supernatural, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Law & Order SVU, some telenovelas, Breaking Bad, and quite a few other shows, not to mention a few dozen excellent films from The Criterion Collection, many of which are available for instant streaming on Hulu. So at the moment, my personal queue is rather lacking. Any suggestions?

Yes, I know how this looks. If I were seeing this from an outsider’s perspective, I would be tempted to say, “Wow, you really should get a life.” My response? Okay, sure…tell me on which website I can download A Life, and I will happily add it to my queue. 😉

 

Plugged in and Disconnected (aka: Connecting With Kids)

“I’m baking poppy seed muffins!” I call out from the kitchen. “Who wants to join me?”

Sometimes my youngest son or my daughter stops whatever they were doing to join in. Sometimes no one. Which is actually fine, because let’s face it, it is much easier to bake poppy seed muffins or cakes or cookies by myself than with one of my kids. But that’s not the point.

I flop into my favorite chair in the living room. “So, what are we watching for movie night?” I ask the kids. Because at least twice a month, we have a movie night. Sometimes we rent from Redbox or so what’s on Netflix or pay-per-view. Sometimes we watch a comedy, or something thrilling or adventurous. Very rarely do we watch one of my favorite types of movies, but I don’t mind.

That’s not the point.

It’s about connection. I love spending unplugged time with my kids. By unplugged, I mean that the portable devices are off, the computers are off, and the only video games allowed are the ones that we are playing together. If I didn’t make a conscious effort to spend moments like these with my three kids, then they would probably spend a great deal of time “plugged in and disconnected,” as I like to put it. But  I want to teach my kids that connecting with people — really connecting, is the thing that adds value to life.

Plugged in Kids

It’s not always an easy thing to connect with kids. Each one is so different, with different interests and ways of communicating. My 9-year-old, for example, is an extrovert. He really gets his energy from being with other people. So to connect with him, I have to really be “in the moment” with him, actively listening to his stories and giving feedback. My daughter, whose personality is most like mine, is happy to connect in a variety of ways, from going for bike rides to cooking meals to reading teen novels together and discussing our favorite parts. My teen is a little trickier, as he prefers to withdraw beneath his headphones in his world of music, video games,  and YouTube videos. But sometimes I flop down beside him and stare at the screen along with him while he explains what’s so cool about it. I’ve also found that my teen will open up and talk about his life while the two of us engage in a game of table tennis or Nerf Ball catch in the living room.

 

 

I don’t always make a big deal out of connection time. After all, human contact is supposed to happen naturally. But in this odd age of electronic entertainment, sometimes our kids need a little nudge to pull away from the virtual world and reconnect to people in the real world. As do I.

connecting with kids

GREAT WAYS TO CONNECT WITH KIDS

1. Read a book or series of books together as a family.

My kids and I have enjoyed the Harry Potter Books, The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and the Pendragon series, among others. Sometimes I let my kids suggest the book, and sometimes I do the research to find something that we can all enjoy. Stumped? Try Planet Esme — I’ve used her children’s book suggestions for years with great success. Older readers? Hard to go wrong with the American Library Association’s suggestions.

2. Have a regular Family Movie Night.

In our house, Movie Night happens on Friday Nights, often with popcorn, cocoa, or homemade pizza. It isn’t always easy to find a movie that will suit everyone, so occasionally someone will opt out of Movie Night, and that’s okay, too.

Connecting with kids in nature

3. Find a reason to head outdoors together.

Hiking, biking, kicking around the soccer ball, flying a kite, tossing a frisbee, playing tennis in the park — there are so many great things to do outdoors with kids. If your kids are the hard-to-motivate type, then make hiking fun by passing around binoculars, setting up a nature scavenger hunt, or trying out Geocaching (more on this to come in a future post).

4. Root for a Team Together

I am still trying to make this one work with my kids. It’s tricky, because I am the only real sports fan in the family. But maybe one day…

5. Travel Together

Part of the fun is in the planning. Weeks in advance, I get my kids involved in helping to decide where to stay, what to do, and what to eat during our trip. When camping, I let them help to pick the spot, plan the meals, etc. The more involved the kids are, the more the vacation becomes “our trip” and not just mine.

6. Try New Hobbies

This doesn’t always mean together. After all, my kids and I share pretty different interests for the most part. But if my son decides to get into advanced yo-yo tricks, then I am happy to connect with him by watching his tricks, suggesting sources for learning new things, shopping for yo-yos, and cheering him on as his skills improve.

7. Explore New Foods

My kids and I have gone through a variety of international cooking phases, from Thai to Indian to French cuisine. We enjoy exploring ethnic markets for interesting foods, picking out restaurants, and, of course, tasting. Some foods turn out to be total flops, but others become family favorites that we return to time after time.

8. Grow  a Garden

For us, gardening is a family affair. My kids and I have built a raised bed together, studied garden books, planted, and cared for our small vegetable garden for years. This year, we are planning to continue our tradition at a community garden. It is a great way to connect with each other and with nature while growing our own healthy foods.

9. Family Game Night

This can mean a rousing group game on the WiiU or a good old-fashioned game of Checkers, Connect Four, or Monopoly. My kids and I recently discovered The Game of Life Zapped Edition, which uses an Ipad to turn a great family classic into something extra-special.

10. Make Something Together

This can mean woodworking, model kits, Lego structures, baking a cake and decorating it creatively, making handicrafts, or whatever sounds fun. You don’t have to be talented or skilled. The public library is brimming with how-to books that kids and parents alike can benefit from.

Goodnight iPad

Other good resources for family fun together:

Spoonful

http://www.sheknows.com/parenting/articles/842477/50-family-fun-night-ideas-for-families

I Am Walter Mitty (aka: Life is But a Dream)

I am Walter Mitty. Okay, obviously not really. I mean for starters, I’m a woman, and I don’t work at Life Magazine. But that’s not the point. I just went to see the movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I’d been looking forward to seeing it since I first saw the movie trailer a few weeks ago. It did not disappoint. 
Walter Mitty running

In the film, Ben Stiller plays a middle-aged man named Walter Mitty, who lives a small and not very interesting life. He is a daydreamer who often escapes into a world of fantasy and adventure in his own mind, though in real life, he is quiet and somewhat invisible, living an ordinary life void of adventure or romance.

The very first thing that struck me as the movie began was the symbolism, as Walter is so busy daydreaming that he does not see his train rushing by until it is too late, and he has missed it. This is a pattern for Walter, who often lets the real life and love slip away, because he is lost in his fantasies instead of being in the moment. 

Walter Mitty lost in a daydream

Walter Mitty lost in a daydream

But luckily for him, an opportunity comes his way to have a real adventure. All he has to do is get on train (or the plane, or the helicopter, or the ship, etc.).Naturally, I saw myself in Walter Mitty. I am an invisible person, living a quiet and dull life, just raising my children and trying to keep my head above water. I am too timid to make friends, and as for real romantic relationships – well, those are totally out of the question. But I, like Walter Mitty, live through a very rich imagination. When I lie in bed, wrapped in blankets and reading a good book, my imaginary partner is by my side, reading his own book and occasionally sharing the good parts, as our feet rub together. And when I out am shopping for clothes, my imaginary best friend is with me, telling me not to buy that sweater, because the color is awful on me. And when I took myself to the movies today, I was sitting with my group of imaginary friends, who were cracking jokes and laughing until the lights dimmed, and we all shared popcorn and diet Cokes as we rooted for Walter Mitty through his real and imagined adventures. 

Walter Mitty jumps on the helicopter

Walter Mitty jumps on the helicopter.

So yes, I am Walter Mitty. But he had more courage than I can even imagine. When he was presented with the opportunity to convert his dreams into reality, he faced his fears. He got on the plane. He jumped on the helicopter. He went to places he had only ever dreamed of. He learned to live in the moment, and to make his reality even better than the fantasy. And I wondered, is this only the illusion of fiction, or could someone like me do something like that? Will life always be just like this, with me hiding from the real world like a timid little mouse in her burrow? Or, should the opportunity arise, will I be able to find the inner strength and courage to jump on the helicopter?

 

An Extraordinary Moment on an Ordinary Day

ticket to the movies

Something extraordinary happened to me today. At least, it seemed extraordinary to me. You see, I was, until that moment, having an ordinary Sunday. Maybe slightly worse than ordinary, because I had a flat tire. While flat tires may not be a big deal to many people, to me it was, because I am a single mom, struggling to make ends meet. Every penny counts. So I somehow managed to scrape together enough money to go and buy a used tire (and have it installed, as I honestly have no clue how to change a flat tire by myself). When the job was done, I had $10 left in my wallet. Just enough to treat myself to a movie – if I went to a matinee showing, and if I did not buy any popcorn (a difficult decision, because popcorn is my favorite food in the whole world).

And so I took myself out to see a movie I had been looking forward to for weeks: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I asked for my ticket, and was just about to hand the cashier my last few dollars, when a stranger intervened. “I want to pay for her ticket,” the stranger told the woman in the box office. Then he turned to me. “Please. I feel very moved to buy your ticket. Please let me.”

I was speechless. No one had ever offered such a thing before. My mind raced, immediately jumping to conclusions. Did I look poor, with my disheveled hair, faded jeans, and tie-dye canvas bag slung over my shoulder? Was it something in my appearance – perhaps an unconscious sad expression, or the way I was walking, with arms wrapped around my body, perhaps as a shield against the cold or to protect myself from people that may harm me? Was he flirting?

“Don’t worry – I’m gay,” the stranger answered my unspoken question. “So I’m totally not trying to hit on you. I just want to buy your ticket. Maybe it is God or something.”

And so, I stepped back, and let a perfect stranger – a kind, mysterious, and loving stranger, pay for my movie ticket. And I thanked him, with tears that were already beginning to overflow with tears. Because sometimes, people can do beautiful things for no other reason than to be kind. And without knowing who I was, or even that it was a challenge for me to splurge and go see a movie this afternoon, this strange man paid my way, as a random act of kindness. And so, with tears still splashing down my cheeks and blurring my vision, I went to enjoy what turned out to be an excellent movie – and I was even able to buy a popcorn, after all.