Dispatches: Because, Above All, We’re About Advocacy

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We’re all about championing a cause, the more righteous the better. Now, because we’re advocates at heart, always looking to spread the good word, it’s only logical that we try to press our own kids into public service, too.

Kayt Sukel, a single mother in Texas, wrote an open letter to her baby son Chet about a controversial political action she recently took regarding birth control, despite cautionary advice from her mother that it would be “impolite” and her child miight someday read all about it. It involved a satirical piece she wrote about the potential use of aspirin as a contraceptive. Author of the recent book, “Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex and Relationships,” Kayt explains here why she assumed her self-avowedly “impolite” stance against what she calls Republican attacks on birth control. “It’s important to me,’ she writes to her son, “that you grow up thinking of women not as fragile creatures that need to be patronized or protected (as sluts or angels, so to speak), but as equals who should have the right to their own power and freedoms.” http://www.xojane.com/issues/open-letter-my-son

Roxana Soto wrote a letter to her five-year-old daughter, who has asthma, about her own efforts to save the environment. “You’re still too young to understand the perilous state of our planet,” she writes.” Roxana admits being embarrassed about doing little to improve matters until recently. Now she has joined an organization to fight against Congressional action to weaken laws that safeguard clean air and water. “I know you have no idea what I’m talking about,” she writes, “but one day you will.” http://www.care2.com/greenliving/a-letter-to-my-children.html

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Guest Columnist Tom Weck: Now, Son, We Tell Stories Together

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Tom Weck and his wife Sandra, who live in Wilmington, Delaware, have four children — David, 42, Peter, 41, and Kathryn, 39 and Andrew, 32– and seven grandchildren. Tom, a retired engineering and environmental executive, and Peter are co-authors of a series of children’s books about a kingdom of beans, the size of lima beans, who overcome many of the challenges that small children face. Among the titles are “The Labyrinth,” “The Megasaurus,” “The Cave Monster,” and “How Back-Back Got His Name.” For more details, see limabearpress.com.

Dear Peter,

This is a long overdue letter to thank you for pushing me to share with others the Lima Bear Stories that I made up and told to you and your brother David and sister Kathryn (and, of course, to Andrew, too, later on)when you were all somewhere between three and eight years old.

I can still picture the four of us in the double bed with my arms cuddling the three of you as you all eagerly awaited the story. You all loved the bean-sized characters because, as small children, you could relate your own challenges in coping with an “oversized” world designed for adults to the challenges faced by these tiny beans.

Some of the Lima Bear stories I must have told to you kids at least 10 times. You can imagine my delight when I discovered that all of you seemed just as happy hearing an already-told story over again. You and your siblings would, on occasion, tell some of the stories to each other – a delightful experience for me whenever I witnessed this.

You were always my biggest fan. You would laugh the most, even at a story you had heard many times before. Your laughter was a great tonic to me.

But all this storytelling introduced an unexpected challenge. When I retold a story, sometimes I was unable to recall all of the original details. But you could, and whenever I made a “mistake” — for example, calling King Limalot’s robe red when I had originally called it purple — invariably you would correct me. Sometimes, particularly when I was really tired from a hard day at the office, it seemed I made a lot of mistakes. Your corrections became so numerous as to interrupt the flow of the story.

Finally, your exasperated brother, David, would say, “Peter, just let Daddy tell the story. What difference does it make if he called the robe‘red’?”

Kathryn, the born mediator of the family, would then chime in, “But David, it was purple.”

I needed a solution, and I needed it pronto. At first, trying to remember every detail of a retold story proved inadequate. Then I latched onto a different strategy. A case in point: as a story came to a certain point, I would say, “And the king’s robe colored a beautiful…Peter, I bet you remember the color of the robe.”

Without a pause, you would advise that it was purple.

And I would say, “That’s right, purple,” and go on with the story.

This approach seemed to satisfy all parties.

Luckily, in 2000, you approached me at the age of 29 to volunteer to join forces with me to create a children’s book publishing company. You were concerned that the Lima Bear Stories, now fallow, would vanish unless put into print. You began a campaign to prevent this from happening. The idea was that we would each contribute our memories, still vivid, to bring these stories back to life.

It was your persistence that led us into this venture. As I once told you, if you were ever reincarnated as an inanimate object, you would come back as the tide. And we’ve collaborated ever since. And what a joy it is for me to have this unique relationship with you as we reconstruct the stories. I think both of us are still young at heart, with all the wonderment, curiosity and innocence of children.

Our partnership has warmed me in ways hard to express in words. And as we reconstruct the stories, hearing you laugh all over again with that same infectious laugh as when you first heard these stories motivated me even more and made me glow inside. It has lent to our togetherness as father and son a new, wonderful dimension.

Your memory has surely proved useful as we reconstructed the stories for ultimate publication through our company, Lima Bear Press, LLC. Thanks to you, and to our combined efforts, and also to our team of five professionals, eleven stories are now written, with four published and a fifth due out early this year.

Love,

Dad

Thomasweck

Getting Personal: How To Write Family History For Your Kids In 2013 (part 5)

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Here are more tips on how to write personal family history for your kids:

8. Tell A Story. Your toddler is venturing his first steps, wobbling, about to keel over. Right away we wonder what will happen next. Will he make it across the room? The suspense is killing us. We’re rooting for the kid now. In doing my journals, I sometimes looked for an issue, a conflict, a turning point, a decision. Michael kept getting ear infections, for example. I looked, too, for signs of growth, of a change in character, of a coming to terms. Then I might try to translate events into some kind of insight. As in: “Only then did I realize . . . ” I’ve always believed that what counts is less a matter of what you know than what you make of what you know.

9. Make Every Word Count. See # 7 (Briefer Is Better). This philosophy is worth underscoring twice. Ever sentence should advance the overall cause. Nobody expects you to nail every single detail – only the right ones, the ones that are essential.

10. Anyone Can Write. I know that sounds like lip service, so let me clarify. Everyone has stories to tell. Every life has its drama. All of us are inherently more interesting than we probably realize. And nobody knows your story better than you. Do you have to be a writer? No. It comes down to harnessing the memories we all have within us to honor our heritages.

Now for two bonus tips, free of charge:

11. Lend Yourself A Hand. I wrote the journals by hand. The handwritten comes across as more personal than anything typed – more organic, more authentic. Words written carry a primal quality that harks back to stories told on cave walls.

12. Keep Secrets. I gave my kids the journals as surprise Christmas gifts. Keeping a lid on the news made the project much more fun for me.

P.S. – So what do you think? Ready to take action?

Getting Personal: How To Write Family History For Your Kids In 2013 (part 4)

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Here are three more tips on how to write family history for your kids:

4. Stick To A Schedule. Every Saturday or Sunday morning, I logged an entry in my journals. Same time, same place, day in and day out. It keep the commitment doable, and so I easily found the time and energy needed. That’s what worked for me. Disclaimer: Do your stuff any time the mood strikes you. The overarching idea here is to get it done. After all, your kids are waiting for your news.

5. Keep It Spontaneous. I know: this tip contradicts tip # 2 (Plan It Out). Let me explain: I planned my journals precisely so I could then be spontaneous. If you start with a general direction to take, you no longer need to worry about the course to follow. So I went with pretty much whatever I felt the impulse to say. I changed nothing, crossed out nothing, added nothing after the fact – no second-guessing, everything done on the first take. Robin Williams once described peak experiences in standup comedy as going “full-tilt bozo.”

6. Briefer Is Better. Most of my journal entries ran about 400 words (this post clocks in at 320). I’ve often favored writing that’s more suggestive than expansive – writing that’s understated, implicit, allusive, elliptical. It seems to me sometimes more dramatic to leave something between the lines – to say what you have to say without always coming right out and saying it. Let the facts speak for themselves. Facts tend to be eloquent. Let those facts accrue, telling your story for you, the less explanation, the better. The trick is to leave out whatever you can leave out without actually appearing to have left anything out. Kids, like adults, know how to fill in the blanks. Disclaimer: Ramble from one non sequitur to the next without any prayer of coherence for all I care. I just work here.

P.S. – Part 5 will appear tomorrow.

Getting Personal: How To Write Family History For Your Kids In 2013 (part 3)

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Here, in further detail, are the first four tips on how to write about your personal family history for your kids:

1. Decide To Do It. If you really mean to do it, chances are you will. So you might treat the idea the same as you would getting married or quitting cigarettes. Here’s a little trick I used long ago when wondering whether I should marry my then girlfriend, Elvira. I asked myself every day, “Should I marry her?” I asked the same question for at least 25 days in a row. And day after day my answer came back as a “yes.” That self-survey helped me decide. We’re now married 33 years.

2. Plan It Out. Before I jotted a single word, I daydreamed for weeks about what I might write. I opened the gates to my memory until images and fragments of dialogue poured through. Then I took notes – “gleaned my teeming brain,” as John Keats famously wrote. “Caroline singing for Nanna,” one note said. My notes amounted pretty much to the kitchen sink. But ultimately they served as cues and clues to the stories that came. So please, muse away. Disclaimer:You may prefer simply to cut loose with whatever comes to mind. Hey, it’s still a free country.

3. Vote For Reality. I’m big on facts. Facts are presumably verifiable and certainly more believable. My son Michael and I sometimes butt heads. That’s a fact. My daughter Caroline sometimes resists my advice. That’s a fact, too. All of us occasionally feel tempted to rewrite history, to paint the past only with bright, sunny colors. But kids have an inherently keen sense of truth. So you might as well keep it real.

4. Single Out Highlights. I could have written about anything. But I knew I would be better off writing about something particular — something, if possible, singular. A story that is mine and mine alone to tell. So I sifted through all my notes and set priorities. I decided to zero in on memories that resonated as special, that mattered, that meant something. And to seize, above all, on moments, the truly momentous. It might be a single action or comment or incident. It had to be specific, tangible, revealing – a moment of understanding and discovery, perhaps a revelation. Disclaimer:You retain the right to be arbitrary, even freewheeling. This is supposed to be a pastime rather than a job.

P.S. – Part 4 will appear tomorrow.

Getting Personal: How To Write Family History For Your Kids In 2013 (part 2)

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Here, then – in brief for now, with further details to come in the days ahead – are my all-time top 10 tips for writing about personal family history for your kids:

1. Decide To Do It. No, really. Decide wholeheartedly. You’re either in or you’re out. That’s square one.

2. Plan It Out. Do at least an outline. Even Shakespeare needed a blueprint. Call it a GPS for the flow of your thoughts.

3. Vote For Reality. Kids can smell spin from a mile away. So opt for the truth about yourself and your family, however much it might hurt you to do so.

4. Single Out The Highlights. Draw only from the richest memories, the most lasting moments, at your command. Forgo trivia and the otherwise mundane.

5. Stick To A Schedule. A little regularity never hurt anyone. A half hour or so once a week is probably realistic – better still, shoot for a set time on a set day.

6. Keep It Spontaneous. First thought, best thought, poet Allen Ginsberg famously said. Theoretically, then, you’ll bring yourself within flirting distance of the genuine.

7. Briefer Is Better. It’s the soul of wit, no? Enough said.

8. Tell A Story. Each entry will ideally have a real narrative, how this happened, then that happened – in short, a beginning, a middle and an end. Maybe even a point or two as well.

9. Make Every Word Count. Your readers will, in a sense, be keeping score. So why waste any time?

10. Remember: Anyone Can Write. We all have stories to tell, professional writers and amateurs alike. We’re all storytellers at heart. Period.

P.S. – Part 3 will appear tomorrow.

Getting Personal: How To Write Family History For Your Kids In 2013

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Let’s say, with the new year now here, you’re ready to make the big leap. You’re finally going to write about your personal family history for your children.

Good for you. Still, you might be asking yourself some questions about how to go about it.

Where should I start?

Should I go chronologically or jump around in time?

How do I say to my kids what I want to say?

How can I make it memorable?

Well, all I can tell you is how I went at it. I devoted two years to keeping journals for both our kids, compiling more than 100 vignettes.

So let me start with this advice: Go at it more or less however you wish. After all, I’m me and you’re you.

You might write letters to your kids with the merriest of hearts, brimming with love and understanding. Or you might prefer to look back on your life in anger, unleashing all the bile and bitterness at your command. Or both. Or neither.

Again, that’s your prerogative. To thine own self be true, and all that.

My point is this: you’re going to have to do this on your own. You’ll have to find an approach that best suits you.

Please feel to call this strategy laissez faire (“a philosophy or practice characterized by a usually deliberate abstention from direction or interference especially with individual freedom of choice and action”).

Still, I’m going to try to be of some service to you here. So over the next five days, I’ll be posting tips about getting personal and writing about family history for your kids. How to decide what to write. How to find the time. How to do justice to your memories.

These tips as intended only as guidelines rather than some kind of guaranteed formula. My aim is simply to help you to get going in the right direction.

Remember, this is your life we’re talking about. And you know your life better than anyone else. It’s your turf, so you get to claim absolute sovereignty. You’re entitled to tell your story as you please.

So go with your gut. Do what comes naturally. Those are my only real edicts. Soon enough you’ll get into a groove.

And if you’re lucky, you’ll find your true voice. A voice your children will hear loud and clear and cherish for the ages.

P.S. – Part 2 will appear tomorrow.

Guest Columnist Matt Collins:Family Painting A Mystery Solved (And A Lesson Learned)

 

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Matt Collins lives in Hastings on Hudson, NY, with his wife, Michelle, and two daughters, Jacqueline and Michaela. A graduate of Amherst College and the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, Matt currently is Director of App and Partner Marketing at Nokia. 

 Dear Jacqueline and Michaela, 

Someday, you may find yourselves balancing precariously on attic beams, looking through tattered cardboard boxes for family relics. Among those artifacts, you are likely to find posters and pamphlets emblazoned with the green lettering of the University of Oregon. They represent a vestige of a two-year investigation into a family mystery. Its resolution offers some hints at talents and abilities possibly hiding within you.

You may recall a dreary fall weekend in 2010, when we made our final trip to Cutchogue, NY, to say farewell to the old family summer home. Though parting with the house was painful, we salvaged many photographs, books, and artwork, mostly of purely sentimental value. That included a painting of what was at the time unknown provenance. It is called Deeploma O’Litho, and it once hung in your great-great grandmother’s bedroom. Her name was Persis Weaver Robertson, though the family called her “Grammy.”

Perhaps to soothe the broken heart I felt about the house, I poured myself into learning who painted Deeploma and why Grammy kept it in her room. I learned that in 1932 and 1933, she left her two daughters and husband in Des Moines to study lithography at Grant Wood’s art colony in Stone City, IA. (You may recognize Wood as the master who painted the classic, American Gothic.) Her instructor was a young artist named David McCosh.

It’s unclear what transpired between the two, but Grammy impressed McCosh enough that he created an original, one-of-a-kind painting for her to acknowledge her “graduation” from his lithography class — hence, the name Deeploma O’Litho. Even though no one in the family can remember Grammy talking about it, she clearly cherished the gift, which is why she kept it in her bedroom all those years.

It turns out that McCosh went onto become a renowned regional painter of the American northwest, as well as a professor at the University of Oregon. Unsurprisingly, Deeploma, when appraised, was more valuable than we had imagined that sad weekend. Even so, when I learned all of this, I decided to donate the painting to the University. It belongs in a place where McCosh is still studied and admired.

Jacqueline, you may recall our trip together to Eugene, OR, in 2011 to see the painting in its new home. What you may not recall was the unsolicited feedback we received from the university staff and at the art gallery we visited. Grammy, they told us, must have had great talent in order for McCosh to have created such a gift for her. In fact, Grammy was very good. She exhibited her lithographs at many of the finest art museums in the United States and won several juried awards. Her lithograph Front Door is in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I had the privilege of taking several of her pieces to the 40th annual Grant Wood Art Festival this year in Anamosa, IA. Scholars there told me that her lithographs were on a par with those Wood himself made.

Here is where the lesson for you both comes in. Grammy clearly was really good, good enough for a famous artist to make her something so special as a sign of his respect and admiration, that it now hangs in an art museum. If you choose to pursue a career in the arts, I hope you will find strength and optimism in this knowledge about your ancestor. On the family tree, your branches are near hers. You, too, might have what it takes to excel.

I look forward to our finding out together.

Love,

Dad  

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Guest Columnist Matt Collins:Family Painting A Mystery Solved (And A Lesson Learned)

 

Matt_collins_with_daughters

Matt Collins lives in Hastings on Hudson, NY, with his wife, Michelle, and two daughters, Jacqueline and Michaela. A graduate of Amherst College and the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, Matt currently is Director of App and Partner Marketing at Nokia. 

 Dear Jacqueline and Michaela, 

Someday, you may find yourselves balancing precariously on attic beams, looking through tattered cardboard boxes for family relics. Among those artifacts, you are likely to find posters and pamphlets emblazoned with the green lettering of the University of Oregon. They represent a vestige of a two-year investigation into a family mystery. Its resolution offers some hints at talents and abilities possibly hiding within you.

You may recall a dreary fall weekend in 2010, when we made our final trip to Cutchogue, NY, to say farewell to the old family summer home. Though parting with the house was painful, we salvaged many photographs, books, and artwork, mostly of purely sentimental value. That included a painting of what was at the time unknown provenance. It is called Deeploma O’Litho, and it once hung in your great-great grandmother’s bedroom. Her name was Persis Weaver Robertson, though the family called her “Grammy.”

Perhaps to soothe the broken heart I felt about the house, I poured myself into learning who painted Deeploma and why Grammy kept it in her room. I learned that in 1932 and 1933, she left her two daughters and husband in Des Moines to study lithography at Grant Wood’s art colony in Stone City, IA. (You may recognize Wood as the master who painted the classic, American Gothic.) Her instructor was a young artist named David McCosh.

It’s unclear what transpired between the two, but Grammy impressed McCosh enough that he created an original, one-of-a-kind painting for her to acknowledge her “graduation” from his lithography class — hence, the name Deeploma O’Litho. Even though no one in the family can remember Grammy talking about it, she clearly cherished the gift, which is why she kept it in her bedroom all those years.

It turns out that McCosh went onto become a renowned regional painter of the American northwest, as well as a professor at the University of Oregon. Unsurprisingly, Deeploma, when appraised, was more valuable than we had imagined that sad weekend. Even so, when I learned all of this, I decided to donate the painting to the University. It belongs in a place where McCosh is still studied and admired.

Jacqueline, you may recall our trip together to Eugene, OR, in 2011 to see the painting in its new home. What you may not recall was the unsolicited feedback we received from the university staff and at the art gallery we visited. Grammy, they told us, must have had great talent in order for McCosh to have created such a gift for her. In fact, Grammy was very good. She exhibited her lithographs at many of the finest art museums in the United States and won several juried awards. Her lithograph Front Door is in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I had the privilege of taking several of her pieces to the 40th annual Grant Wood Art Festival this year in Anamosa, IA. Scholars there told me that her lithographs were on a par with those Wood himself made.

Here is where the lesson for you both comes in. Grammy clearly was really good, good enough for a famous artist to make her something so special as a sign of his respect and admiration, that it now hangs in an art museum. If you choose to pursue a career in the arts, I hope you will find strength and optimism in this knowledge about your ancestor. On the family tree, your branches are near hers. You, too, might have what it takes to excel.

I look forward to our finding out together.

Love,

Dad  

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