Friday, March 26, 2010

If It Smells Like Chicken...

I caught the new reality series, Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution tonight. My mouth is salivating. Forget school children, if I could enjoy the three lunches Jamie prepared for the Huntington elementary school children, I'd be in seventh heaven!

So here are a few take-aways for me:

1. Our public school lunch programs are in series need of an overhaul. No surprise there. The balance is cost versus real food--we all know to eat real food costs more. However, our country also wouldn't be crippled with its present health crisis or the crippling cost of health care (which after this week...well, I'm not even going there) I'm interested to see how Jamie balances this. Can it truly be done?

2. School children who cannot identify a tomato or potato (as seen in tonight's episode) all too clearly indicates serious lack of education/awareness. This put me squarely in Jamie's corner. Especially since they could easily identify chicken nuggets and frozen pizza--which appears to be two staples for many of the young residents of Huntington.

3. The mass of food waste produced each day just in the one elementary school featured--for both Jamie's and the school's meals--was astounding. I thought it interesting that the adults didn't encourage the children to finish their food. A man stood everyday by the trash can and took the children's tray and dumped the left over food. On Jamie's last day, he asked the staff to encourage the children to keep trying the food and many of them cleared their plates. He also really shook things up when he asked for forks and knives to be made available to the children. Both he and the principal had to show the children how to use them. You know that only encouraged the stereotype that people like me have of places like Huntington (one of the most obese cities in the country).

4. The food waste especially hit home to me as I watch middle schoolers every day throw away whole apples, carrots, etc. in the trash can as soon as they purchase their lunch, only because they have to take the fruit/veg to fulfill the lunch requirements, but of course no one can force them to eat it. They are literally charged for the food and then toss what they don't want as soon as they exit the lunch line. This kills me, in light of so much starvation in this world, as well as the cost to the parents who are paying for the lunches, but unaware of the waste. Which brings me to....

5. In this week's episode, Jamie found himself in trouble with the lunch staff because one of his lunches didn't include two starches--the national school requirement. He was serving chicken and rice with a vegetable (hmm, that's exactly what I serve at home) How many times in the lunchroom where I work have I watched kids pile on greasy pizza or mac-n-cheese with so much cheese it flows over the side, only to be told they have to take a dinner roll or muffin as well to fulfill the two-starch rule? Meanwhile, I'm watching numerous "muffin" bellies hanging over the waistline of jeans. The school lunch requirements, as pointed out by Jamie, are 15 years out of date.

6. And finally...I got a real chuckle out of the lunch ladies themselves. These "beautiful girls," as Jamie called them, were like so many lunch ladies I've known--sorta rough around the edges, hard workers, and rule-followers to a fault. And they DON'T like anyone messing with their kitchen (one in particular brought Jamie to tears)! These women don't get the respect they deserve, feeding our children day in, day out. But it also seems obvious to me that something has got to be done to re-tool this system. It's one lean, mean school lunch machine (well, maybe not so lean).

Confessional Time: I really like the mashed potatoes at Cityside Middle School. But I skip the bright yellow gelatin-like gravy. And mostly I just eat the salad--only that's mostly iceberg lettuce...and then there's those breaded barbecue chicken chips...but after tonight's episode, I don't think I'll ever touch a round, finger-size "smells like chicken" poppit as long as I live.

He's got endless obstacles to overcome and I'm not sure he can change the country's entire school lunch system, but I'm rooting for Jamie Oliver and his brassy "Breh-ish" love affair with food which cannot be ordered under "P" in the yellow pages or purchased from your local grocer's frozen food bulk aisle.

Monday, February 15, 2010

What Percy Jackson Taught Me About Letting Go

We took the boys to see Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightening Thief this weekend. I dig a message I found in this story which even its creators may not have given real thought to. At the end of the movie, once Percy has successfully completed his journey, he returns to the "camp" where other kids like him (Half Bloods: half human, half god) live and train. His mother is with him but she can't enter into the camp because she is fully human. So they stand at the entrance and she hugs him tightly; they promise to see each other soon, and then she tells him this is where he belongs now, to not worry about her. He has a destiny to fulfill and she's not going to stand in the way.

What a powerful message. Let me repeat in my own words for effect: You are becoming a man now, and that journey is more important than my own need for you. I want you to succeed in your destiny. I'm not going to stand in the way.

Much has been written and analyzed over the years about mothers and their little boys who are tied to the apron strings. We all know men-boys who never really launched into manhood and quite often there is a strong mother figure behind him refusing to let him go. In fact, our culture is drowning in a culture of youth who have no idea what it means to become an adult. We adults tsk-tsk their lack of vision and commitment. But have we helped show them HOW? or are we standing in the way?

Being the parents of three boys and often feeling dismayed about how best to help them become men, we've been doing a lot of talking and research on the topic. Various cultures hold rites of passage for young men and women. The most well known are bar mitzvahs--the Jewish celebration for an adolescent boy who has reached puberty. Some cultures observe more stringent practices, such as sending a boy into the wilderness for a vision quest. We've talked to other parents who have created their own types of passages because nothing really exists in the American culture to help our youth GROW UP.

With that in mind, Tom and I are planning a sort of Christian Bar Mitzvah for Graeme this summer when he turns 12. We are beginning now with a range of teaching tools to help prepare him. Traditionally, the Jewish culture does this at the age of 13 for boys but we felt with Graeme entering into middle school, we want to prepare him now. I discovered a book called Bar Barakah a blessing ceremony meant to empower a young person into adulthood:

If parents do nothing else on this earth regarding their children, the one thing God intended for them to do is to make sure that they are agents of God's impartation of identity and destiny to their children...Blessing is God's mechanism of settling identity and destiny in the heart. Without it, many people spend a lifetime trying to settle in their own way the internal issues of identity and destiny (Am I of any value? Do I belong? Do I have purpose?)

How many of today's teens are lost in depression, drugs, sex, crime trying to answer those very questions?

As a mother, this is especially challenging because to become a young man, my boys need to identify less with me and more with their dad. In part of the Bar Barakah ceremony, the mother and son stand together and she blesses him, then sends him to the front to his father and other men from the community where he will take his place among them. She's still his mother but she's no longer his mommy. There's a big difference. And the reality that as the mother of three boys I may have to face some loneliness as they move away from me towards manhood. I recall the scene in Percy where his mother reassures him that she'll be alright on her own. Again, his destiny is more important than her emotional drive to feel needed. The world needs him to fulfill that destiny.

I believe the world needs Graeme; bright, sensitive, loving Graeme. Have you seen this kid? I have always said you could drop him into the middle of nowhere and he would emerge with a friend, even if he couldn't speak the language. He's a friend to everyone. God's got a unique plan for him. I wouldn't want to stand in the way.

At the end of the day, my mark of success as a mom won't be how much my child loves me but how much I love him--enough not only to let him go but to be his launch pad into manhood with a smile and a "I'll be okay. You've got great things to accomplish. Now GO FOR IT!"

Sunday, January 24, 2010

What Financial Hardship Teaches About Humanity

Acquaintance with financial hardship is not something with which most Americans want to admit. There is most often an attitude of condescension: "Surely he or she must have brought this upon him or herself." "The culprit must be irresponsible, a quick draw with the credit card." "He always seemed a spender rather than a saver."

We disdain the idea and yet most of us juggle some type of financial hardship on a daily basis. I don't mean the type that plagues most of the world--a poverty of resources that we can't even begin to imagine. No, this type is the kind that comes with living and having too many options sometimes. And quite frankly, my pride has kept me from expressing for years what has plagued my very existence.

Five years ago, we began plans to build a house. This decision was immersed in sweat, worry, prayers and more sweat for several months. Several times I talked us out of the decision. And finally, when it seemed we were dead set on the idea, something happened that told us to move forward; something that we couldn't orchestrate ourselves. We knew enough to know that there were plenty of mistakes to be made. And we made most of them. We tried very hard to be careful but like every other family who has EVER built a home (ask around and see if I'm wrong), we easily went over by 20% and we were already pushing it.

What we ended with was a beautiful, unique home, infused with an aesthetic quality we felt many of today's homes are missing. We were able to do this because of Tom's background in carpentry. What we also ended up with was a top-heavy mortgage. However, times were good and the equity cushioned the reality of being strapped. We had made our bed and now we had to lie in it, literally, every night, living in this kind of albatross. It was embarrassing. I was ashamed. To make matters worse, we live in an affluent area. And while I do not aspire to live my life with affluence, I now found myself faced with this as well. I was not only a duck out of water, I was an ugly duckling, split between my love and hatred of the whole situation.

Deep beneath it all though was this clarity that for some reason we were meant to be here. That was not a mistake. Twice we have tried to sell the house. Twice, people have oohed and ahhed their way through and not one offer. Most recently, we put it up for sale (like half of America), convinced that we had to get out, following months of unemployment last year. Our goal: to avoid foreclosure. With shame I had to listen to many who complained of the place Americans found themselves in for we were in that place too and I despised myself for it. Why couldn't we have chosen differently here, or done this instead? It is a cruel but true reality: Hindsight is 20/20.

Oddly, when I told God one morning He could have the house; we'd start over, he very clearly replied (not audibly), "Yes, I know you'll give me the house. But will you keep it?" What sort of insanity was that?

Tired of carrying my shame around, I began to open up about our reality. Neighbors would dismiss the idea of our moving away, kidding about how they could sabotage a sale. We'd laugh and then I'd say, ah, but if you wish for us to not sell our house, you're wishing us into foreclosure. That's one way to shock your neighbors. It wasn't that I was trying to stun them into silence, I just had had enough of keeping up appearances, if you will. We are real people who took a gamble and it appeared to be turning out quite badly. We took this gamble for our children, for an investment, for many good, good reasons. But we'd tangled ourselves in a snare in the attempt.

However, something funny began to happen. Neighbors and others in town began to open up to us about their own struggles. A lost job here. Worry over paying the bills. Little by little as the economy tanked and I got real about things, so did my neighbors. Interestingly, they weren't always telling each other these things. I could tell by conversations we had later with other neighbors. Suddenly, my ideal of people began to fall away. I was no longer intimidated or fearful of what others would think because I knew a good many of them had very similar worries to my own. Perhaps their troubles weren't even financial, but when I began to open up, they opened up about all sorts of struggles. When many drive down our quiet streets they see a kind of privileged life, safely tucked away from harm. What I see are homes with real people, families, trying to make ends meet; thanking God for work this month in some cases. People celebrating that we're all still here because no one really wants another to meet with failure.

Financial hardship has humbled us all.

Today, we pulled our For Sale sign out of the yard. I will not recount the hours and hours of wrestling with God over this house. I realize in the end it's just a house. Ultimately, He's not overly concerned where I live. He just wants me to be obedient even when I can't see the answer (Yes, but will you keep it?"). We have been expecting an answer from our bank. It is taking longer than expected. Thousands of homeowners are trying to save their homes. I am someone trying to save my home. We have done all we can. By all human account, we shouldn't even still be here. But we are. Because for now it's God's plan. I wanted an answer before I pulled the sign up, but recent circumstances made us realize (here we are still learning) that trying to sell was fruitless. We'd sell ourselves into foreclosure. So call it a fight, if you will. Perhaps its part disciplining for our choices. I can accept that. Perhaps God wants me to fight for it because quite frankly, some days it would easier to walk away. Perhaps when we relinquish all rights to anything, He is pleased to give back the very things we give up.

In tight-laced West Michigan where appearances have ruled the landscape for so many years, perhaps he knew I'm too unconventional to ever aspire to that type of life. If I can't live truthfully, I'd rather not live. It's not me. He just wired me that way. There's a lot of hurt out there--right next door perhaps--and sometimes someone just has to be willing to admit it. A kind of circle begins to emerge when we're honest with each other. A circle of recognition. Oh, so you're touched by this thing called humanity as well? I'll be darned.

Lack of money is a great equalizer. I have more of a relationship with some of my neighbors than I ever did before. I am privileged to know them for who they really are. Proving yet again financial hardships can render some of the most powerful blessings.