"Fully Dressed" (NPR Michiana Chronicles WVPE 88.1 FM)

You can hear the audio of this on NPR station 88.1FM WVPR by clicking HERE.

"Fully Dressed" By Heather Curlee Novak

When I was young and single every day was an adventure of possibility; would I meet a cute guy?  What would happen at that party? Would those new shoes hurt my feet?  Nowadays as a middle aged mama and wife, my thoughts (if I have any at all) are more mundane: What could I make for dinner?  Will my pants hurt by the end of the day? What the hell am I going to make for dinner? 

I try to recapture the joie de vivre of my youth in little ways like buying clothes in an ambitious size, using glitter eyeshadow though I probably shouldn’t and smiling at strangers.   Because I am now officially a grownup, I usually shuffle through my day with a serious face, but I used to smile at everyone.  Smiling is free and frankly, it is a size that fits, so I’m wearing one. 

As a little kid I listened to records instead of the radio.  Fiddler on the Roof, The Sound of Music, Michael Jackson Thriller and of course, Annie. I’d stand up on top of my dresser and belt out  “Tomorrow” and “Maybe” and “You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" written by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin.  I’d sing and smile and the world would be transformed.  I need that now in my adult life.

I walk through the shopping center parking lot and grin and greet anyone in my path.  They often look surprised I spoke to them.  They wonder if there is something wrong with me, and usually they smile back.  I feel like smiling at strangers is an easy way to cut through all the crap going on in the world lately.  I don’t know where to put my time or my money or my presence because there are so many things wrong and thanks to the internet I know about all of them and they all matter.  I can’t give money to everything, I cannot show up for every protest or meeting.  So I pick what matters most to me.  I spend money there and show up there. And I smile at everyone else because it is a small regular thing I can do no matter what else is on my twitter feed.

This smiling, it came into play last weekend when I was in Chicago with family and friends. We were slogging through the rain for a Lyric’s Children’s Opera. We whined and cried (not just me but the kids too) about our wet feet and hungry bellies and pouring rain.  I talked with my kids about homeless people and rain and helping others.  After the rain let up we slowed our pace and a young man stopped my Father on the sidewalk.  His name was Dominick and he was well dressed with an untied bow tie.  My dad, he was well dressed with a tied bow tie.  Dominick asked my Dad to teach him how to tie his bowtie.  He and his two gorgeous lady friends were dressed up heading to a wedding and he’d been looking for a bowtie-tier. 

As our party of eight stood around their party of three on Michigan Avenue my Dad tied Dominicks’ bowtie with as much care as he ties his own.  I watched him, a tall older white guy, tete a tete with this young African American man in this intimate clothing moment.  Man to man.  Generation to generation.  Race to race.  It was a holy moment of love and instant friendship and I’m ashamed to admit I took pictures.  I wanted to remember the small things matter.  That THIS was my America.  That no matter what else was true, this moment was just as true. And I smiled.  We all did.

Household Area 51: Where the Lost Socks and Missing Halloween Candy Live

My Dad is great Dad & Grandpa.  He fearlessly watches our two girls once a week when he stays with us on his Honey Hawking route from South Bend, Indiana to Chicago, Illinois.  He feeds them dinner (often an entire container of grape tomatoes...is that a normal side dish?) and bathes them and plays them harmonica before they drift off  about nine o'clock (too late for this mamas taste, but I'm not on duty so GO FOR IT G-PA!!!). 

He really loves his time with the girls and they love him.  (NOTE:  They also adore John's folks Baba & Papa too, lest anyone feel disparaged...and Portia is inviting Baba to come to her school as her special guest when she is the SUPERSTAR...so these two little girls are blessed & covered in love.) BUT.

BUT.  While my Dad is fearless and complaint free when it comes to managing two little wild girls, he isn't perfect.  We share the same chromosomes, so you know it is true.  He can be a little clueless in some little safety areas and we tease the heck out of him for it.  Hey, he is willing and free and full of love for all of us, what is  a nail among family.  Yeah.  He brought an old fashioned nail to share with the girls.  And monogrammed rings for them made out of nails.  

Another time they brought out his (sheathed, but STILL, People!) Crocodile Dundee knife from his overnight bag.  Accessible and dangerous.  YIKES.

And he bought them rope-burn-heaven-rough-scratchy-old-fashioned-sisal jump ropes. They were long enough for toddlers to get into serious trouble with . (Never mind the other normal little kid jump ropes he bought them before;  they strung toys up with those and thus they disappeared into "I think they are somewhere in the basement, have you looked?"). 

You know that  Area 51 every family with children has where the loud toys and odd socks would be found.  Along with the rest of every kid's Halloween Candy Mom and Dad DIDNOTEAT.  Seriously.  Household Area 51.

So here is the jack o'lantern I Tom Sawyered* G-Pa into carving with the Littles for Halloween.  While I went out with my hubby on a date instead.  

*("Oh Boy, carving this pumpkin would be great fun with the girls. Gee, do YOU wanna have this much fun with the girls, Dad?") 

He even roasted the pumpkin seeds for us!   And do you see where he put it? 

Yeah... that is a lit candle inside a jack o'lantern sitting on the arm of my COUCH. 

I was a little verklempt about it.  I asked him why it wasn't OUTSIDE where normal people put their pumpkins when they are on fire.  He said he and the girls weren't quite ready for it to go outside yet.  And he though John & I might get a better view when we got home with it there.  On fire.  On the arm of the couch.  

So in love,  jesting, sugar overload and Halloween festivity, Our family wishes yours a Happy and SAFE Halloween!
P.s. I actually forgot a lot of these examples and had to call my Dad to ask him what safety issues we make fun of him for.  AND he was actually amused!  I love you Dad!  

Screen Free Friday: Actually Awesome! (NPR Michiana Chronicles WVPE 88.1 FM)

You can hear the audio of this on NPR station 88.1FM WVPR by clicking HERE.

We often tell ourselves stories that are not actually in the least bit true.  I tell myself I am laid back. (Actually, Not. True.)  I say I'm easygoing(Nope. Actually, Quite Controlling.)  I say we choose as a family to be UN Busy.  And...well that is partially true.  I'd like partial credit.  Our daughters didn't play golf as four year olds and we limit their after school activities.  I try not to cram forty l'even things into one week.  OR day. (Here's lookin' at you, Dad!) I still feel too busy.  

I'm trying meditation, the calm.com app is free and splendid.  My daughters are less spazzy when they are doing even five minute meditations.  I'm trying to exercise.  I use essential oils from the health food store to be more mellow.  I'm trying to get to sleep earlier...but actually...  I found myself reaching for my smart phone all the time.  I went to bed with my iPad because my husband goes to bed with his.  Wild marital times.  As I started taking inventory of my time and tried to figure out how to get more out of my days with less in my days, I decided to fast.  

Fasting sounds weird.  It is usually a medical term where you don't eat or drink before tests or surgery.  For the religious among us, fasting from food can be a spiritual process too.   I will occasionally fast for spiritual reasons, avoiding food for a short period of time in order to focus on prayer.  (Usually I just pray the time passes because all I think about is Cheetos and Diet Coke.) It's practically UnAmerican to intentionally go without something...anything!  I get some side eye when the topic comes up because depriving oneself on purpose feels...like deprivation.

I decided to take a random June Friday as a Sabbath day of rest and retreat. I chose to fast  technology by turning my cellphone 'off' and throwing a darling rooster apron from the Farmer's Market over my desktop computer.  I posted my landline digits on Facebook for anyone interested and explained I would cease to exist for the day.  Then I waited. I waited to see a total personal transformation.  I waited to see what disaster would happen while I was out of pocket, out of touch. 

Seven things happened.  Seven times I lamented the lack of technology.  

8AM I couldn't text my neighbor to borrow something.  I'd have to walk or drive to her house...or in this case I waited till the next day & then texted her.

8:10AM I couldn't take a picture of my awesome lipsense lipstick combination and post it.  I wonder how the world is still spinning.

9am I couldn't check the weather!  I actually dug out the paper phonebook and called Time & Temperature. (Remember that???)  It couldn't give me the hourly weather though, so I was unsure of when it could rain.  I called my husband and he expressed disdain that I would put my tech free burden on him.  He said I'd have to get my weather report the old fashioned way...but I reminded him the TV was included in my fast.  He said the weather should be fine until mid afternoon.

9:08am My friend called the landline to offer me her CSA for the week.  We ended up TALKING.  I felt like June Cleaver, sipping my coffee and having a telephone conversation.  It was delightful and refreshing.  If I'd had my smartphone on, it would  have been two texts instead of wonderful conversation.  I would've saved time at the expense of personal connection.

9:25am I worried my appointment might be late or need to check in with me....then I resolved to just call if she was 15 minutes late.  She wasn't.  She was right on time.

10:15 am I wondered about the the weather again.   I didn't call my husband, but I wondered.  I couldn't meditate.  My meditation is firmly tied to the app on my iPad.  I just did some thoughtful meditation and breathing the old fashioned way.  It was great, actually.

10:25am There was an emergency where I needed to watch my friend's daughter, so I did turn my phone on silent, and when the girl's dad called to pick her up (4:00pm) he used my land line anyway, to honor my fast!

I ended my tech fast that evening to watch a movie with my family.  My laundry was actually finished.  The house was clean, and I'd read a magazine the day it came in the mail. I felt more relaxed, satisfied and accomplished than usual.  It was like playing hooky from the world and I relished the peace of a simpler day.  I was more aware of my dependence and addiction to technology and vowed to make a tech fast a regular occurrence   Do you want to try your own fast? I'm doing it again next week, actually...

Complement the Bully: Help your Child Overcome this Back to School Fear

School starts in just a week for many of us, and our families are gathering all the back to school stuff that entails.  Updated clothing in sizes that actually fit, new shoes (Hightops this year are apparently IN!) sharpened pencils and all the things.  Many children, particularly those starting kindergarten or first grade may be nervous about the unknown back to school stuff...and what about mean kids, bullies, or teachers who are not the one they hoped for?  Our family has ONE SECRET TIP any child can use on any bully any time.  Yes, I'm going to share it. It is a compliment.  

I shared the book "Have You Filled a Bucket Today?" in this NPR piece last Fall. Our Secret Tip comes after we read that sweet story through another time this afternoon.  We decided that if the girls had a bully say something unkind to them, they would reply with a compliment!   We decided to compliment the bully would throw that bully off balance, but also help them fill their bucket.  

We practiced complimenting the bully too! After all, back to school stuff isn't just shopping, but preparing to be the people we want to be in the world.  We took turns saying something mean to each other and while at first being intentionally mean was hard, it got all of us used to hearing mean worlds and in turn offering a positive compliment or statement back.

What tips do you have for dealing with back to school fears?  Have you or your child encountered a bully?  What did you do?

Gratitude is a Matter of Choice and Perspective: Life in Kenya vs Life in America

There are lots of ways to support causes today, but the best cause is where you can touch and talk to the people you are helping.  I've come to know Amy and Edwin Ahiga who with Amy's sister and  lots of help) created "Grain of Rice Project" so support people living in Kenya near where Edwin grew up.  As I spoke with Amy recently after they returned from a another trip to Kenya, she as sad and missing Kenya.  She found it hard to adjust to the hugee cultural differences and I asked her if she would share her thoughts in a guest post here.  And she did! In reading her words I'm sure you will agree that gratitude is a matter of choice and perspective.

Top 10 Ways that Life in the U.S. and Kenya are Different

People often ask me what life is like in Kenya, and the first thing that comes to mind is that it’s really different than you think.  It’s rare to see that image of the African mud hut with the thatched roof.  In fact, I once had the audacity to tell a teaching colleague that I thought she should remove her stereotypical pictures of Africa that were hanging all over her classroom!  You see, Kenya is really a welcoming place with a diverse landscape.  Here are the top things that come to mind when comparing Kenya to the U.S.:

1) Kenya is all about hospitality and a sense of community.  In the U.S., we often hit the garage door opener, pull in with our car, and disappear for the night, without more than a simple wave to the neighbor.  In Kenya, people regularly stop by the house to say hello, to borrow a cooking pot, to eat dinner.  You don’t have to be invited for a visit, and even if you show up unannounced, you’re likely to at least be given a cup of milky chai tea.  Even families that can barely feed their kids will scrounge up something to give you, whether it’s bread, a soda, or something from their farms.  If you’re a foreigner, you’ll be treated with even higher regards.  I once had an experience where they kept piling my plate with more meat than they were even feeding the eldest man in the family.  And out of a sign of respect, you eat what you’re given, with a smile on your face, even if the small fish eyes are staring back at you and even if you have a gluten intolerance like me.
     2)  The pace of life is different.  While other countries in Africa have a reputation of being even more laid back than Kenya, the saying “pole pole,” meaning slowly, slowly in Swahili, is there for a reason.  Things just take longer.  Meetings, church, and events, all start at least 30-60 minutes late.  In Western culture, being on time shows a sense of respect.  But in Kenya, it’s more about relationships.  So it would be better to stop and check on your neighbor than to worry about being on time.

     3) The gap between the rich and poor is much bigger than the U.S.  Kibera, East Africa’s biggest slum, where people live in shanty dwellings with no indoor plumbing, is literally right next to huge shopping malls, the vice president’s mansion, and other posh homes.  While around half of Nairobi is living in slums, the members of parliament are some of the highest paid in the world.  Unfortunately, corruption runs deep, from the top levels of government, to the average person.  Bribes are so common that they are expected.  Despite the poverty and hardship, there is laughter, smiles, and a vibrancy about the slums.

      4) It's more common to travel on foot or by public transportation than in a car.  While it’s necessary in the U.S. to have a car, in Kenya it’s not.  It’s becoming increasingly common for the emerging middle class to own cars, but many people in the slums are still living on less than a few dollars a day.  Public transport is cheap and widely available.  15 or more people are stuffed into minivan size taxis called matatus, for a daring, thrilling ride that often involves driving onto sidewalks and through backroad short cuts as well as paying daily bribes to the police.

      5)  Small shops and kiosks are on every street and corner.  They are an easy, convenient place that customers can walk to and purchase all the basic groceries and more.  When my husband first moved to the U.S. from Kenya, he wanted to know if we could open one in our front yard for our neighbors.

    6) The education system is all about memorization.  As a former teacher, I know we have challenges with over testing our kids in the U.S.  But in Kenya, it’s a whole other level.  The students in eighth grade cram for months on end for one test that determines not only where they go to high school, but in their minds, it also defines their entire future success.  The rest of the years of school are also spent memorizing and testing, with homework grades not counting towards final grades, and many kids receive little individual instruction to help them improve academically.  While caning kids is technically illegal, it’s still happening in many schools across Kenya.

     7) There is less emphasis on material possessions.  While it’s true that many Kenyans dream of having a nice house and a car, they spend far less time accumulating so many things the way we do in the U.S.  Many houses in the slums have too few beds for everyone to sleep and little furniture.  And even people who are well off do not have garages stock piled full of things the way we do in the U.S., where we often falsely believe that more things will make us happy, but in Kenya they do not.

     8) The healthcare system is all about pre-paying.  You must pre-pay before every doctor visit, before every blood draw, before every test.  If you can’t pay, you won’t be treated.  Most people do not have insurance, but yet it’s common for them to run to the nearest hospital or chemist shop every time they have something even as small as a bad headache or cough.  People constantly think they have malaria even though they don’t.  Being misdiagnosed is common…they told me I had malaria 3 times, when in fact I did not. 

     9) People have a deep sense of faith.  Many people in the rural areas and in the slums do not know where their next meal will come from.  They literally must rely on God.  Church services last for hours, and it’s often by choice that people are there so long worshipping. 

     10)  There is amazing wildlife in Kenya.  While the giraffes and elephants are not exactly walking around your backyard, there are huge game parks stretching around the country with all kinds of animals.  Many people visit Kenya each year to witness the great wildebeest migration, take a balloon safari, and experience the wildlife and people in Masai Mara.  Even Nairobi boasts the world’s only national park right within city limits where all of the animals can be found.  And even when you’re not in the parks, occasionally in Nairobi there are baboons and monkeys greeting you on your roof.

      I  pray you found this fascinating and it helps all of us appreciate our small place in the world.     Find out more about Grain of Rice Project, shop for yourself or friends and family, or consider supporting the ministry with a donation.

Remember Your Vacation with this Postcard Trick!

I road tripped 32 hours with a six year old and an eight year old and I lived to tell about it.  If you are anything like me, there are MANY THINGS about a family road trip you'd like to forget.  We will just agree here and not compare notes. This truth aside, what about those wonderful moments during a trip that fade to fog quickly after you have unpacked?  How can you remember all the little things that color the feeling of a past vacation?  I have a wonderfully unique tip from my dear friend Whitney Hibbits of Wildberry Sanctuary.  Of course I will share with it you: Keep your Vacation Memories with a POSTCARD QUADRANT!

Pick two all encompassing POSITIVE words or phrases for the top and right hand side titles, and two NEGATIVE (Or just plain funny) words or phrases for the left and bottom quadrant titles.  This is usually the most fun part.  One of Whitney's best was the word "Hecktrocity" .  I've also used a variety of colorful language.   After you pick your four titles,  plot moments and experiences from the trip in the left top quadrant for moderately troublesome, bottom left quadrant for things you wish weren't part of your vacation memory, the right top quadrant for the best of the best and the bottom right for not so great, maybe not sooo bad!
For example, in the "Estes Park 2017" postcard, my quadrants are Llama Petting, Sound of a River, Bear Mauling and Sound of Whining.  I plotted memorable but not so great parts of the trip (trying to figure our dinner logistics with 6 adults and two kids, our dog breaking through every barricade to get up on my uncle's bed...when he is allergic.) I also plotted the best parts ( Bear Lake Hike is upper Right  quadrant because it was smoother than Calypso Cascades Hike (lower right quadrant) where Libby was DONE twenty minutes from the best waterfall so we turned around and headed back to the car.)

Whitney shared this funny little thing she and her husband Richard use for their side trips and all in vacations.  It really resonated with me as a way to be intentional about vacations and my memory of them.  I have used this ever since...and often if I do not get the postcard made, I find the notes nearby and can apply it said postcard afterwards.  Whitney is cool for this but many, many other reasons. She brings out my wildness and is always encouraging. She is at times an old soul and then again a newborn free spirit.  She got my kids into every creek we passed and I try to remember this  wildness when my natural tendency is to keep things easy and tidy for me.  I miss having her closer, but she infiltrates my life with joy filled memories and wise adages like this postcard quadrant doohickey.

Should you find yourself near Barnardsville North Carolina, look her up and plan a visit to Wildberry Sanctuary where Whitney and her husband Richard help folks enjoy the wilderness playground of the hills, animals, honeybees and more. "Wildberry Sanctuary is a healing retreat offering summer day camps and therapeutic services for children in the foster system and their families, abused women and other people experiencing trauma.  We are located in the blue ridge mountains and want something that has the feel of our location, which translates to natural, rustic and healing. We have many structures made with weaving of branches, a creek that runs through the property and nearby forested area." Like their Facebook page, if you will!   Check out the views from Wildberry Sanctuary before it all began, here!

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Water Wars (NPR Michiana Chronicles WVPE 88.1 FM)

 You can listen to this radio essay by clicking here.

My family went to war this week with a neighboring house. We planned and prepared and plotted the attack.  We are civilized people and we warned them, we did the chivalrous things and then we told them how it was.  Although children should be shielded from all aspects of war, we used our innocent daughters to deliver the initial blow.  They carried the formal written challenge in a Turkish letter scroll carrier made of metal carved with filigree and finesse.  They chose matching dresses for their courier uniform.  They crossed the street and knocked politely.  (They did have to knock louder the second time, but they did not relent.) Our girls greeted the neighbor and stood outside after curtly stating “We will wait for your reply”.   The challenge was accepted.  The time of battle was set for 1:00pm July 4th, 2017.

You may realize I do not get out much.  I’m not too fun, I like things tidy and I’m the kind of mama who tries to avoid a mess.  I am a decent parent so I say “No” and “Clean that up” and “Eat your dinner, use your napkin why isn’t your napkin in your lapstoptalkingwithyourmouthful!”  I try to tip the balance in my favor occasionally.  For example;  I buy too many ice cream cones.  We go out in pajamas.  I bring home crafts and we fuss in the kitchen together.  I also have a secret: I like a good water balloon fight. 

I’ve purchased crummy cheap squirt guns that get ruined with sand at the beach, and we have struggled to fill water balloons at least once a summer. Then something happened:  Some company called Zuru made instant fills & seal water balloon kits (and charge the equivalent of college tuition for them).  I watched them in the stores all last year.  Too much money for something that would essentially last five minutes and then need to be cleaned up. Everything changed when we made our bi-annual Costco trip and they had 350 water balloons for $20.  The wheels began to turn and we declared war.  Or I sent a text message anyway:

US:  R u around this weekend?  There may be a family challenge pending.

THEM: Bring it. Down 1 kid so it’s even numbers

US: The House of Rochon may be challenged by the House of Novak to a water fight within the next  24 hours. 
I also included a Bitmoji of myself as Wonder Woman that said “BRACE YOURSELF”.  (If you do not yet “BITMOJI”, you might want to start!) 

I sent text messages to some of our other neighbors alerting them to the battle between the House of Novak and the House of Rochon.  I invited them to join in or to watch.  Many of our neighbors make the effort to connect regularly in large and small ways and it feels good to really know my neighbors.

My husband started looking over the directions for the water balloons, another daughter brought a laundry basket upstairs to hold our squishy, bulbous weapons.  My suggestion of running to Michaels for war paint was rejected.  The breakfast dishes weren’t going to wash themselves so I turned on Spotify and found the playlist “Epic War Songs for Glorious Motivation” and cranked up the volume.  Dishes aren’t exactly inspiring, but the music was.

Before long it was time to begin assembling munitions which included three mangy squirt guns in addition to our 350 Zuru water balloons in magic quick fill clusters.  My husband had the proper wrist finesse to detach the filled balloons, so he did that while I used our kid’s wagon to move laundry baskets of ammo across the street to our neighbors’ neighbor’s yard.  We set six year old Libby as the guard of the goods.  She sat in the wagon armed with a water balloon and a crummy squirt gun.  She was impossibly cute and ferocious. 

I made flower crowns for the Queen of both Households.  We got a selfie in them, which is great because they were decimated within five minutes.  I’d decreed the winner of this battle would be determined by which side was wettest and which crown was stolen first.  The crowns were just gone almost immediately and the House of Novak fell to their foe wetly with plopping sound effects.  There may have been a home court advantage in the form of a hose, but all is fair in love and war.  The House of Rochon offered us losers some pretty great brownies with whipped cream.  Brownies soften the sting of defeat. House of Rochon, prepare for a rematch…we can bring the brownies this time! 

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