Conni

When you sign on to take in a foreign exchange student, it’s pretty clear what is supposed to happen. A new person comes to live with you, share your life, learn something and hopefully create a lifetime’s worth of memories. But then, they have to go home…

That happened in 2008 when Sofie, who lived with us for a year, went home and Shannon was just 7. She had a difficult time with it. That same summer, her best friend moved to the Bay Area and she felt abandoned. It was a tough time. Sofie came back to visit in July of 2010 and she was here for a month with her friend, Romi. That was a neat time, too and we all enjoyed each other’s company.

Conni came to live with us in January of this year. From Austria, she was younger than Sofie was when she arrived, but she had already traveled to the U.S. and around the world before and was comfortable with it. She’d just turned 16 and though a true traveler, Conni was overwhelmed when she arrived on a misty evening at Burbank Airport. We went to the wrong terminal originally to get her–I documented that here.

In the five months or so that she was here, she too became part of the family. In no time at all, her sense of overwhelm became a sense of family. She fit right in and became a second daughter, a big sister and a friend. The dogs took to her quickly and our lives fell into a new pattern. School overwhelmed her, too. She went to the school where I teach and it is three or four times larger than her school in Austria. It took a couple of weeks to get settled, but she did it and took to it well.

By mid-February, it was as if Conni had always been here. She’d made friends, she developed a routine and she was a joy to be around. Funny, smart, witty-she joined the other girls in this household (Simon, the dog-and I are the only males) as simpatico.

In May, when her father came to visit while in the state on business, it was a reminder that she wasn’t ours and we probably needed that reminder. in a very short time after her arrival, we simply accepted Conni as one of us and we never really thought too much about the prospect of June arriving and her having to return to Europe. It just wasn’t something we focused on.

But June did arrive and with it, Conni’s ineffable return to her life in Austria. When Sofie left, we were all sad. I remember taking her to the airport for an early morning flight. Wrote about that here. But with Conni, it was just as hard–if not harder. How do you measure the impact a person has on your life? How do you say goodbye to a person who shares so much of your world with you? It seemed nearly un-natural to have to put her on a plane and send her home.

We will, of course, see Conni again. We plan to go to Europe, perhaps next summer, and spend some time–having never been there. Her family comes to the U.S. with regular frequency and we’ll see her father again as soon as this fall. So, we’ve created a relationship, a friendship, that crosses boundaries and language and like having a child, becomes family.

Our lives have changed again-for the better-and forever-because we got to have Conni in them. We’re a little sad right now and feeling her absence very keenly, but with time and with connections-we will see her again and spend time with our families.

There are so many new horizons out there–you just have to be willing to find them and embrace them each day.

Onward.

Vacation, Family and Love

Simple things often rely on synergy, time, distance and perhaps a little bit of luck-or at least-natural selection. That’s true of relationships on some level, but I don’t let that confuse me into believing that relationships are a matter of fate. Love is a choice and the people with whom we choose to share it need to be reminded that we choose them.

So it was at vacation time in the Storer household last week. It was, as anyone might say, nothing special and something special all at once. Limiting ourselves to a vacation we could afford to pay for out of pocket, we began paying for it a few months ago, purchasing tickets to Sea World in San Diego and purchasing tickets to Disneyland before prices went up. Side note: If the crowding at Disneyland is any indication of prices of the park, then Disney needs to raise prices again. More on that later.

Last Monday, we hopped aboard a rented minivan and drove south to San Diego. The weather was perfect–and I do mean perfect. The daytime high was 72 degrees with light and passing clouds and a cool breeze. Famous Los Angeles traffic only materialized for about 10 minutes on the 405, the main north/south thoroughfare leading to San Diego-and we stopped for lunch in Redondo Beach, which proved to be about half-way on our trip. It took us about an hour and change to get to Redondo and about an hour and a half, a  bit less, to get to our hotel in San Diego, the Sheraton Marina.

We spent the afternoon Monday at the resort-like pool sipping wine (sodas for the kids) and enjoying the weather. Here it was summer vacation and the pool water was warmer than the air. Spectacular, I tell you.

This was Conni’s last trip with us as she is due to fly back to Vienna on Tuesday. We can’t bear to see her go, frankly-and yet we know she has a life to live and an education to get on with. She has been the perfect addition to our family-a fine big sister to Shannon, a virtual daughter to us and a fast friend-a person for whom our trust is complete and for whom we would do anything. Sue begins to cry whenever she thinks about Conni going back home and so does Aunt Laurie, who frequently threatens to keep Conni here–in a playful way. Next week after Tuesday will be difficult, even painful, I imagine. But her parents miss her more than we will and we trust that we have made a friend for life and that we’ll all gather together again when time allows.

Sea World was magnificent. Uncrowded, at least not crowded enough to cause problems, but full of people visiting from all over and so many different things to see and do that it was a delight. We got there on Tuesday morning when the park opened and left when it closed at 10 at night. The sea turtle exhibit was a favorite as was Shannon’s very favorite of feeding the bat rays and sting rays and the rides were pretty good for most of us, too. I made the mistake of giving into pressure and riding the park’s new roller coaster called Manta. I am not a roller coaster guy and really never have been. I don’t crave speed or twists and turns and frankly, my idea of a good time is Disneyland’s It’s a Small World–but, off I went. And paid for it. At night, apparently, they speed the ride up and Sue, who’d ridden it once before, heard my one primal scream at the speed–and then, she said, she heard no more from me and realized I wasn’t enjoying myself. True enough. But I survived.

Wednesday morning was leisurely and we spent it sleeping late, hanging around sipping coffee and eventually, after a great lunch find in downtown San Diego, heading up to Anaheim where we spent the night again and awoke Thursday to Disneyland for the day. Let’s start at the end:

The fireworks show that Disneyland puts on each night is amazing. It’s the best display, married with music and story, ever. We sat at the Carnation Plaza at the end of Main Street, U.S.A. and watched the whole thing as the castle lit up with each explosion in the sky. It was the best part of the day and it was Conni’s gentle insistence that we stay to watch it that allowed us to see it. I’m glad we did.

No need to review Disneyland–it is an icon and deservedly so. My family history with Disneyland is long and varied and I’m a fan, always will be. But in recent years, the unceasing crowd levels make Disneyland more conquest than vacation, more trudge than gallivant.

We were annual passholders a few years ago when Shannon was young and we thought we had money. We used to go up to 4 times a year and that too caused us what I imagine is the usual problem: Disneyland is exciting and fun precisely because it’s not something you see, hear or do everyday. When you begin to make it routine, it loses that luster and the stories, the atmosphere, the sheer abandon and escape become something of an entitlement and you lose the magic.

Still, while we had gone to Disneyland last March to celebrate Shannon’s b-day, we were excited to be back. Conni’s friend from school was with us and she had not been in four years, so it was a treat to have someone with us who saw it again for the first time and for Conni, only her second time at the park, she was still enamored. That makes it worthwhile.

Disneyland’s prices have gone up and that’s as it should be regardless of what people kvetch about. The park, which now has California Adventure as a part of it–and the revamping of that park has been spectacular and successful, is worth the money one pays. If, however, one chooses to spend a lot of money for annual passes, then Disneyland becomes what it is–a vast sea of people standing in line, waiting for their own personal dream to take place. I don’t begrudge anyone the right to spend their money as they see fit. I’m fully capable of seeing the charm of being able to go to Disneyland and escape a couple of times a year. But for me, the magic of the place is that it’s not an everyday event–and further, the magic of the place is somewhat marred by being so crowded that simply navigating from one spot to another with the people you love include directions like: “if we get separated, meet at…such and such a place” and you have to say that nearly every time you venture out.

The food costs are astronomical, far more even than at Sea World, and the quality isn’t there. Sea World, for whatever reason, has invested in some unique food items that include a focus on fresh and even local ingredients. Disney has not made that choice and while the food is certainly edible, fun and even alluring, it’s not great food. It’s just that I’m hungry, I’m on vacation and the idea of making smart or healthy choices don’t enter into the decision.

So, no-not a critique. It’s Disneyland and I could sit and listen to those stories of Pirates sacking towns, rescuing fair maidens, sailing the world’s oceans with children, light-speed space journeys, roaring rapids and rushing rivers and magical fairies and pixie dust all day long. Who couldn’t that had a heart for joy? But with crowds in the hundreds of thousands, wait times as long as two hours, bumping and jolting and aching and sore feet-it’s not something I want to do several times a year anymore.

The main thing is that what makes Disneyland or Sea World or any vacation worth the while-is being there with the people you love and care about, sharing the experience and knowing that they choose to share it with you. My family are great companions and we’ve done a lot of traveling together. It’s a real delight to be able to share that with each other and collect memories that in the future require only a knowing glance to conjure up and share again. That’s what vacations are about to me.

Home around Midnight Thursday and happy to be here. Summer is a joyous and wondrous time–here’s to more of it.

Onward.

 

22

June again. 22 times I’ve done this now-more time than I’ve done just about anything else consistently. I’ve no moral lessons this year, none anyway that wouldn’t be a repeat from the last couple of years. Neither am I plugging away incoherently. Each year, particularly the last few, is a new commitment to the craft of being a teacher. Each year brings me new challenges and new hurdles, some of which are really a lot of fun. At the end of this year, I got what’s called a “smart projector” in my room. It projects my computer up onto the white board and I can use a “wand” to actually control, mouse-like, what’s on the screen. This ain’t my father’s classroom.

At its core though, particularly this morning, I know that none of the technology, none of the regulations, none of the tests, none of the bureaucrats and none of the politics matters more than the one thing I’ve come to learn teaching is about: relationships. As that is true for life, it is true in the classroom, too.

The best classes–the ones where I feel like something is happening, while the kids are actually enjoying the process, are the ones where community develops. That is largely dependent on me, but a number of factors go into it and I’m not always responsible when things go bad. Still, it is the latest learning for me–the one that no principal, no superintendent, no board member, no politician–will ever get, not intuitively anyway: Yes-teachers need training and credentials. Yes, they need to be well educated. But the one thing you’ll miss if you simply choose from a pool of “qualified candidates” is the human element–community.

In year 23, the main thing I am going to focus on for all of my classes-is community. Within the first couple of months of school, each class will have its own structure, its own vibe and rhythm. There are no tricks to building, either. As there are no tricks to establishing friendships, neither do any exist for classroom community for trickery breeds in-authenticity.

Now, there is a summer to be about-deadlines to meet, stories to write, vacations to take, friends to gather with and the beauty of the time of year. My own daughter is excited to be out of school and to spend time with her friends and family. Last year this time, we were on our unforgettable east coast journey. One year ago today, we spent the day in Baltimore at the National Aquarium and at an event they called the Sail-a-Bration, a remembrance of the War of 1812 and the Star-Spangled Banner. What a time it was.

New memories to be made-new friends to embrace, old ones too and a time for reflection and as always moving…

Onward.

This is just to say…

The hospital third floor was clean, airy and inviting. Out the window, one could see the tall palms swaying in the onshore late spring breeze as wisps of thin and passing gray fog lined the blue sky. Summer is right next door and spring is fleeting.

Sue came home a month ago with tummy trouble. Eating became a chore she didn’t want to do. Nausea, pain and sickness settled in rapidly, sometimes when she ate, sometimes when she didn’t. Food became nothing more than a necessity to keep alive. It was always uncomfortable, always sickening but necessary. Something was wrong.

A month’s worth of expensive medical tests, each one a little more invasive than the last revealed the unusual characteristic that her gall bladder stopped working. No stone lodged itself, no clot, tumor or foreign body invaded, it just no longer did its job at the expected level. Diagnosed with a condition called cholesystic dyskinesia, which literally means a gallbladder that doesn’t work properly, the doctors decided the organ needed removing.

Up against a strange and self-manufactured clock, we wanted to deal with the issue quickly because we had pre-paid hotel bills for a vacation to San Diego. Cancelling the trip meant losing the money, or having to sell the rooms to someone who wanted to go in our place, and it also meant that our foreign exchange daughter, Conni, could would not get to go on the vacation with us. At the same time, in our small town, there is only one general surgeon and his first appointment for a mere pre-operative visit was a week before we were to leave on vacation. This meant that we’d either have to cancel or Sue would have to go on vacation feeling miserable and eating next to nothing in a place where food is half of the reason to go.

Our family physician, a fine and good man who has become a good friend, helped us find another surgeon just down the road in Oxnard. So last Monday, June 3, Sue was able to get into see him and as we prayed for a simple answer to this self-manufactured silliness, Sue called me from his office that morning to tell me that he had a slot open on the surgery schedule the next morning at Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura, a place we know well as Sue served as Chief Clinical Dietitian there and more importantly, our daughter was born there.

We were due to the surgical suite at 11 am and when we got there, we signed some forms and immediately Sue was whisked back and prepped for surgery. There was hardly a wait. By 12:30, they were getting IV’s in her and the nurse came in to tell her what to expect. By 12:45, the anesthesiologist was giving her a dose of relaxing medication and off she went.

While she was under, our dear friend and our pastor, Craig Beeker, came to be with me. We went across the street, cell phone in hand, to eat a quick lunch and when we got back, it was about an hour of talking and catching up. It was just what I needed to keep my mind off the ineffable worry and doubt. In the midst of conversation ranging from faith to community to the future of the church, Dr. Bryant came out and told me that Sue came through surgery just fine-that her gall bladder was indeed thickened and scarred and that he believed her tummy trouble would subside greatly. He was able to do the procedure laparoscopically and that meant diminished healing time. Even now, four days later, Sue feels much better, if a bit sore from the procedure. When she eats, there is no pain and no nausea. Last night, our friends the Tartisels made dinner for us with a vegetable and bean soup, vegetable quiche and Caesar salad and Sue ate all with no trouble. Delicious, too.

So, for posterity, then. 10 years from now, this will barely be recognized. It was a year ago that the school year ended, June 8, 2012 and two days later, our family went to Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Baltimore to visit family and see the sites. That  is, perhaps a memory that will last longer. But this year, Sue came through with flying colors–healing, happy and looking forward to the summer to come.

Onward.

Crosses and Cares

The weeks have crunched together and brought me to this point, the end of my 22nd year as a high school teacher. It’s not hard to believe. I can see the path, I just feel like I want some of the path back–Time Stand Still and all that, as I’ve written before, I know.

The past few weeks have been taken with another health issue for Sue. Her gallbladder has gone bad and we’ve been trying to compress the time between the onset of symptoms back in the beginning of May and the attempts to figure out what’s going on. It’s brought us to this point–the surgeon was about to go on vacation as he told her at the appointment today, and that would have meant waiting another month or so. Instead, he put her on the schedule for tomorrow and so we’ll head into the surgery center for what we hope is an outpatient procedure, allowing Sue to come home tomorrow night sans gall bladder. We’re confident all will be well.

Conni’s time with us draws too swiftly to an end as she is scheduled to go back home on our anniversary, June 25. We don’t want her to go–in fact, we’d love to adopt her and keep her–but of course–that cannot happen. She is a delight and as Sofie brought us a whole new world, so has Conni and it’s just sad to see it all end. We had the added advantage of meeting her dad when he came here on a business trip with his partner and so, we feel like we’re all part of the family. But now we need to get ourselves to Austria one day–perhaps, and hopefully, soon.

June-gloom is here, but it doesn’t reach far enough inland to cool off yet another fire. The fire season is off to an early start and we’re definitely feeling the effect of little rain–while in Europe, they suffer deluges. Seems odd-though I know it has happened before.

Things change on a dime around here. We go from trolling along peacefully to sudden health crises to people coming and going and we lose our footing. Slipping on the ineffable pull of time and motion and we’re not prepared, as focused as we are. In some kind of ethereal background, the shadows cast are our own, but we fail to recognize them and they settle slowly into patterns we neither recognize nor care to. It’s crosses and cares and we insulate ourselves away from the greater faith-though we know not to.

All thy crosses, and cares, and fears, lay them upon the Almighty, by faith and prayer. He directs this speech to his own soul, and to all good men in like circumstances. Suffer – As he doth wicked men. Tho’ he may for a season suffer them to be shaken, yet not to be overwhelmed.-Psalm 55:22

Amen.