Author Archives: Kathleen Thometz

Miniatures: The Secret Weapons of Success

IMG_2652 (2)I believe that my life-long obsession with miniatures began on Christmas day in 1967 when I received The Little Girl And The Tiny Doll by Edward and Aingelda Ardizzone. It is a beautiful, pen and ink-illustrated story about a little girl who finds an abandoned doll in the frozen food section of a grocery store. She ends up making and bringing the doll an item of clothing each day and eventually asks the store clerk if she take her home. Fifty years later, I still go back and reread that story.

I spent my childhood fantasizing that I, too, would come across a miniature person that I could create a tiny world for, complete with clothes, a home, and tiny yard. Of course it never happened but my love for all things mini has continued to grow and informs a lot of what I do in my life. I’ve prepared a mini Thanksgiving dinner, built and furnished a mini cabin for my backyard, and participated in a nail-biter bidding process to procure a Mackenzie-Childs mini petite tuffet.

Of course I was riveted while reading The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin. In 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, the diminutive marriage of Lavinia Warren and Charles Sherwood Stratton riveted the nation. They were proportional dwarfs employed by P.T. Barnum, who created a moneymaking spectacle around their society wedding in Manhattan. You can Google their lengthy New York Times wedding announcement, complete with a description of their custom-made, miniature wedding gifts. I scoured the internet for pictures of the Thumb’s, to pin to one of my many Miniatures Pinterest boards.

As crazy as I may sound, miniatures are not something to be laughed at or written off. Scale models, which are miniatures, are used in many fields including architecture, engineering, the military, moviemaking, and theater. Designers create small prototypes of their concepts as a cheap and quick way to explain their ideas and determine if they are viable. The makers of the Harry Potter movies built a complete model of Hogwarts, which they used to test lighting concepts and also used it to film some scenes in the movies. War maps reduce the world to miniature so that military leaders can see the big picture and plan strategy.

Besides their practical use, miniatures are compelling because they create a longing in us because we cannot shrink down and be a part of those worlds. If you’ve ever visited the Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago, you’ll understand.

Have you ever noticed that some of the most popular toys ever sold are miniature? Look at Barbie, GI Joe, Monopoly, and Legos. All of these toys allow kids to create their worlds in miniature. This gives them control of their environment so they can test their ideas and act out real life situations in a safe and fun environment.

I remember a time when my kids, ages four to twelve, created a city in the basement, built with all of their toys including wooden blocks, Playmobile, Polly Pockets and whatever else they could find. I was heading downstairs to put something away when I heard my twelve-year-old’s nightclub owner, firing my eight-year-old’s employee for being passed out drunk on his job. I scuttled upstairs without being seen, shocked at the content of their play!

My fixation on minis has created some small annoyances to my family and what some might think are questionable financial expenditures. During our mini Thanksgiving dinner, while my husband chomped on his tiny Ritz Mock Apple Pie and sipped a thimble-sized glass of champagne, he complained that my teeny “turkeys” were dry. He clearly missed the point of the dinner, which was more art installation than gastronomic exploration.

I’ve am very fortunate because my husband has been indulgent in spending significant resources on gifts for my miniature obsession; purchasing a collectible dollhouse, a tilt-shift lens for my camera to photograph miniature scenes, and supporting my purchases of materials to create miniature rooms out of wood and paper. Like many people with a pricey hobby, I am always trying to monetize my interests. I’m hoping the “Do what you love and the money will follow,” mantra will one day apply to me.

I’m testing the “teaching with miniatures” concept weekly at my Doodle Art & Design studio. We are always making small models of things from houses and tiny islands, to superheroes. This summer I am taking on my biggest project to date, a Micro Mini Biz Entrepreneur Camp. My goal is to teach my campers all of the things they need to know about owning and running a business by having them build miniature shops and create miniature merchandise, which they will sell at, you guessed it, a mini sidewalk sale!

Organ Donation: I Had A Change of Heart!

Photo by Kathleen Thometz

Photo by Kathleen Thometz

My mother once told me a story about a heart transplant recipient who often found himself at the McDonald’s drive-through. He never liked McDonald’s food and couldn’t understand his compulsion. It turns out that the previous owner of his heart loved McDonald’s and it appeared had a “memory” of it. That sweet story of a donor living on through his recipient both enthralled and repulsed me but did not compel me to write “Yes” on the back of my New Jersey driver’s license.

In fact, I remember writing a big NO in sharpie over the area. I was not going to be an organ donor. I had a fear that if I was in a bad accident and there was a younger person with need of an important organ, the doctors would let me die in order to get their hands on my liver or whatever. Once you become obsessed with doing something you feel guilty about you search for evidence to support your position. I solidified my “I’m not an organ donor” stance with a story about a hospital, which did not release the body of a brain dead young man to his family because they were hoping to change their minds about donating his organs.

I’m embarrassed to say that even reading the Facebook posts of an acquaintance of mine, who’d spent 157 days in the hospital waiting for a heart, did not sway me to change my status. Linda told me that her heart is from an eighteen-year-old boy and she thinks about him and his mother everyday. She is humbled by the strength and grace of her donor family in the face of making a choice, which has given her a second life.

Then in March I blew out my knee while skiing and was opting to undergo surgery to get my ACL repaired. While I have no desire to ever ski again, I do want to be able to be active in other aspects of my life. While investigating my surgical options, I learned that I had two choices: harvest my own tendon or get a cadaver tendon. Harvesting a tendon can make your recovery from surgery more painful and longer. Cadaver tendons have proven to work well on people over forty. At 54, I was more than eligible.

After being wheeled out of surgery, I was given a brochure with the information to write to my donor family to thank them for my new tendon. Whoa! Somehow I didn’t connect my frozen “cadaver” tendon, with the heart that Linda got during her transplant. I don’t know where I thought my new ACL was coming from but certainly not from someone who had probably died tragically, and whose family had to make what may have been a heart-wrenching decision to donate their son or daughter’s organs. I feel so honored to have received such a gift that I have done a one-eighty on my stance on organ donation. My daughter, Mary Jo, just home from college found this interesting.

“So we are now allowed to be organ donors?”
“Of course, did I tell you you couldn’t?”
“Mom, you told us that if we were in an accident and the EMTs saw that we were organ donors, they wouldn’t work as hard to save us.”
Ugh.

When I recounted this story to Linda, she was not appalled. “When my daughter was talking about being an organ donor to her college friends, they had the same reaction. The EMTs are not looking at your license. The discussion doesn’t come up until there is no chance a person is going to recover. If more people chose to be donors, people waiting for transplants wouldn’t have to wait so long.”

I’m not sure that I have any valuable parts at my age but my mind is awhirl with possibilities. Can they use my near-sighted eyes? I don’t know if they do breast transplants but while mine are droopy, they are champion lactaters. I have nice thin wrists and ankles, so someone might want them. My crowning glory is well, on my crown. I have an enviable head of hair with very little gray. If someone needs a scalp transplant, then I’m your gal. Linda told me that they can’t reuse her heart but she will allow them to take whatever they want.

Recovering from any illness, can take a village of friends, family, doctors, and strangers. So as I go through physical therapy with Craig and my new friends at Clarity, I’m eager to get my knee back in shape and my new ligament acclimated to his new home. I’m excited to honor this present by taking care of myself, and my new ACL. I’m looking forward to writing to my donor family to thank them for this priceless gift and have already added this family to my daily prayer list.

As I think about my new ligament, pretty much constantly, I can’t help but wonder about my donor. Are you male or female? What did you like to do? Who is your family? Does my new ACL have memory of his old life and will it influence mine? I was never much of a dancer. Did you dance? Were you an athlete? Did you play baseball? Selfishly, I hope you didn’t ski. I’ve been thinking of taking up a safe exercise like swimming even though I’ve always been fearful of water. Did you love the water, and if so, will I no longer be afraid?

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A Slow, Sloppy, Tornado Spins To Maturity

FullSizeRender 7 (1)What do you do when you have a nice, really funny, and sweet middle-schooler who seems to lead a wreck of a life? Do you step in and organize him and basically sherpa him until he can sherpa himself? Or do you just enjoy him?

The other morning I saw the fellow in question heading up to his sister’s room bundled up in his hooded, fur robe, looking like a giant, skinny gnome. Where was he going? He needed to leave for school in twenty minutes and he hadn’t showered or eaten breakfast. Granted, he has his school work strewn about the house: a math book in the kitchen, a computer in the family room, loose papers on the floor of his room; perhaps he had a project brewing up in his sister’s room. “I have no time for a shower. I’ve got to do my homework.” I know I’ll be getting an email informing me that he has “homework club” that afternoon.

So this is my life with my youngest child. He wanders around eating and watching videos every day after school, until bedtime. He’s the child who locks his long underwear in the safe on a ski trip and can’t remember the combination. He’s the kid who balances a full glass of soda on a plate and then spills it on my newly cleaned couch. He is the teen who erases my list of things to do and draws smiling genitals on my white board. He is my slow, sloppy, tornado (SST) and I alternate between laughing and worrying about him.

I question why some of my kids are driven and organized and he is happy-go-lucky. Has the robe lead to his slovenly behavior? A year ago I was so excited to give my kids some luxurious, fur-trimmed robes but now I just want to burn them. SST comes home from school, strips out of his clothes and puts that darn thing on. I’ve seen him walk dogs in it, shovel snow, and try to sneak a liter of soda hidden in it, up to his room. It is certainly not the clothing choice for a “dress for success” attitude.

Last week he was wearing it while he ran over to take care of our neighbor’s two tiny Papillon dogs, Remy and Genevieve. “R & G got quite the surprise when they looked up my robe,” he said. “I forgot to put underwear on before I ran over!” I don’t even ask why he took his underwear off in the first place. Perhaps I’ll find out when I do the laundry.

What do you do with a kid like this? Try to organize him or let him be? My husband, some of his teachers, and I have had discussions about how to handle our child who seems to be going through life in a haphazard manner. It took answering two questions to figure out what to do. Am I going to attend college with him? No. Do I want to monitor him while he is in high school? No. So when his teachers ask “Will you check his homework each night? The cold, clear answer is “No.” He needs to figure out how to balance his life, hopefully, before he gets to high school.

Aside from trying to persuade me to call him in late on the days he hasn’t finished his homework, he doesn’t want us interfering in his life and had been bugging us for a year to relinquish control over his electronics. We never monitored our more scholastically conscientious kids, I argued, in fairness, why should we supervise him? After going back and forth, my husband and I finally decided to let him run his life.

We agreed to turn over control of his phone, his school-issued Chromebook, laptop, desktop, and Xbox. In return he agreed to keep his grades to a B- or above, clean his room once a week, do his other chores, and make his own lunch for school. We were expecting failure but he has pretty much delivered. I’ll be honest; I’m always a little surprised when one of those high honor roll certificates arrives in the mail.

He is still a disaster. I sip my coffee and watch him whirl around the house, robe flapping, while he tries to cobble together the art supplies that were due last week, and I have to stop myself from helping.

But sometimes I slip back into my old ways. A month or so ago, I noticed he wasn’t making a lunch and asked him about it. “Some of the other kids give me food,” he responded. I could just picture the conversations that may be going on in those kids’ homes about him, and by extension, me. I started making lunches for him and cramming them between the lock and the doorknob so he wouldn’t forget.

“Mom, do you want me to be resilient?”
“You know I do.”
“Then stop making my lunch.”

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Art Class: The Perfect Place To Fail!

Kindergarten kids playing with the wolf hobbyhorses that they made in art class!

Kindergarteners playing with the wolf hobbyhorses they made in art class!

I spent all of 2012 building tree houses for my Treehouse show that was held at the Riverside Arts Center in May of 2013. While I’d taken some wood shop classes over the years, I had no formal training in constructing homes, so there was a lot of trial and error. My biggest failure was my Candy House. I spent probably twenty hours covering a tree branch turned mini tree trunk with melted Tootsie Rolls to make candy bark. I then took Lego-like candy blocks and built a house with windows, doors and a porch. I placed the house on the trunk and fashioned branches out of more tootsie rolls and thankfully, photographed it. Days later, like The Blob, the Tootsie Roll bark started migrating down the tree. Somewhat frantic, I showed my husband, who is in the candy business.

“Cold Flow,” he said.
“What is cold flow???”
“Cold flow happens when candy shape changes due to gravity. I’ve only seen it happen in those lollipops with faces.”

Ugh. Experiencing failure in art making is more common than not and I learned that I should’ve prototyped my idea on a smaller scale before investing so much time in that piece. I ended up scrapping the candy house idea and moved on to my next concept. While making art can be about making beautiful things, that can’t happen without a lot of problem-solving which always involves failure.

I try to teach the kids in my Doodle Art & Design classes that experiencing failure is a good thing. It can be tough because we live in a time where we expect a lot from our kids. We want them to take a career test in high school and know what they want to do with their lives before they get to college! There is little encouragement for exploration probably because of the high cost of college. So in addition to exposing my students to art from around the world, and many different materials, my goal is to help them become more creative and resilient, and become comfortable with failure as part of any of their journeys in life.

I’ve been teaching my Doodle Art program for three years and I am always amazed at my students’ interest in each project, the urgency with which they grab the materials, and the calmness that settles in the room as they begin to work. These kids tell me that they’d rather build stuff than draw or paint. Making art allows them to explore their physical world, use the tools they learn in math and science classes, and test out their ideas. A bonus is when they create something they can play with, such as swords and hobbyhorses. Another benefit is that making art allows children to fail in a safe place. Being able to accept failure is so important to becoming successful.

Last week we made birds and birdcages. It was a difficult project and in one of my classes, there was a bit of whining going on. Making the cages consisted of sticking wire into holes in a base, adding some glue and a bead for stability, and bending them out and attaching them with more wire at the top. Some of the kids gave up when the first wire didn’t go in easily. I explained to them that art making isn’t always easy and they need to persevere. Once the cages were built, they were to begin making their polymer clay and feather birds, which I thought was the easier part of the project.

I gave my students some suggestions such as don’t make the clay part of your bird too big, or too delicate that they can’t sit on their perch. Some kids asked me to make their birds before they even touched the clay! When I refused they sat down, got engaged, and created fun and feathered fowl! Some had to remake their birds when they discovered that a long-necked, Dr. Seuss-like bird looks great on paper, but when you build it out of clay, may not be solid enough to sit on the perch. Then you’ve got to tweak your design, and adapt it to fit.

IMG_1942 (1)Interestingly, in another class with the same project, I watched a child take apart her entire cage when she discovered she needed to glue the wires in. She neatly reassembled it and then went on to build very detailed birds with curved beaks to put in her cage. This child had a vision and was enjoying the process of trial and error. Not only did she not mind starting over, she seemed to expect it in order to bring her vision to fruition. And that is the goal of art class.

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A Hug Can Save A Life

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When I throw a party, I find myself kissing and being kissed by people I’d never dream of kissing otherwise. I don’t like the insincerity of an air kiss, the wetness of a cheek kiss, and don’t even come near me if you are a lip-kisser. If you absolutely need to kiss me, then blow one. Those are cute. If you want to come in for a big bear hug, I’ll absolutely oblige. Hugs save lives. You can Google it and see examples from dogs avoiding euthanasia, and a hero mitigating the number of deaths by a suicide bomber, all with a hug. We don’t need to give heroic hugs but everyday hugs can make someone’s life a little bit better.

Recently, I’ve had two remarkable and inspiring hugs. The first was from my oldest son over winter break. I had been haranguing him about a housekeeping issue. He wasn’t responding the way I wanted him to, so I got a little meaner and realized that I owed him an apology. I said I was sorry and looked at him waiting for a response. Next thing I knew he opened his arms and gave me a hug. That is the first time I’ve ever known that one of my apologies was truly accepted. Shortly after that, my dog of fifteen years died, and a neighbor I don’t know that well pulled me into a hug in the middle of the grocery store!

Historically, I’ve never been a big hugger but I became interested in hugging for a few reasons. I learned that if you maintain a hug for more than four seconds, your brain releases two of your body’s “happy chemicals,” serotonin and oxytocin, which makes you feel good. While eating chocolate causes a release of dopamine, another happy chemical, hugs won’t cause weight gain! My new interest in hugging, led me to read The Ten Essential Hugs of Life by Roy Spence. Mr. Spence claims to have gotten rich by hugging pretty much everyone he encountered in his life from waitresses to CEOs. Lastly, my hairdresser made a comment that confirmed my suspicion that hugs may well be life saving.

Rebecca and I were discussing the new Illinois law that requires all salon workers complete domestic violence training in order to maintain their licenses. Rebecca said that the Listen. Support. Connect. training would be helpful. “Do you know that for some of my clients, my touch will be the only kind touch they get every six weeks?” No. I’ve never considered that. As a wife, and mother of four kids, and two dogs, I never thought about people living alone with little physical contact, or living in an abusive home, with unfriendly physical contact. My four-second hug could make someone ‘s life a little better.

I wasn’t comfortable just giving people hugs, so I had some stickers made up that say, “I Give Hugs.” Whether people read them or not, I don’t know. The kids in my classes loved them but I found that they didn’t work in the outside world. One woman suggested that people aren’t comfortable reading things affixed to a woman’s chest. So in addition to wearing the stickers, I began asking people if I can give them hugs, and all of them have said yes. I injured my knee recently and have taken to asking my doctors for hugs before they give me news about my prognosis. One doctor had no problem with the hug; the other gave me a “Christian Side Hug.” I don’t know how they felt about the hugs but it made me feel better, and I just so happened to get good news. I find that I now like to say hello to my friends with a hug. I prefer it to a handshake or the dreaded kiss.

As far as greetings go, the handshake is said to have originated as a sign of peace to show you have no weapons, and social kissing, in addition to being gross, has too many rules, and permission is never asked. The hug is great, no germs spread and unlike with kissing, the huggers are on equal standing. The beauty of the hug is that they are so all encompassing that you don’t think of anything else while giving or receiving one. Both huggers feel safe and loved in that short moment. So besides the release of feel-good hormones, and the prospect of getting rich, the last and probably most powerful reason to start hugging is because you may give someone a moment of comfort.

No hugmaker’s kids here! I’ve started to hug my kids more, which initially received a chilly reception. Like one of my doctors, they try to give me a Christian Side Hug but I pull them close. The other night my seventeen year old came up to see me while I was brushing my teeth. I looked at him to see what he wanted fully expecting a request for a special breakfast or money for something. “I just came up to give you a hug.”

The Perils of Picking A Book Club Book

IMG_1724 Last December, I picked Pussy: A Reclamation by Regena Thomashauser for my book club. As part of our evening we made pussy ornaments for our Christmas trees. I had no idea that a month later my pick would be legitimized, by women wearing pussy hats and marching in solidarity around the world. Was the book a success? Not really. I’m the only one who read it in its entirety but my craft project was a hit. I’ve been in various book clubs for more than a decade and so I’ve developed a thick skin when it comes to my picks.

A couple of years ago we met to discuss Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins. It was an easy summer read and we talked about the characters and such. Some of the group didn’t particularly like it, including me. “Who did Ms. Hawkins sleep with to get this published,” I remember asking. On the way home someone asked if any of us thought that the negative comments offended the book picker’s sensibility. The answer is probably yes.

We all seemed to forget that she chose a light book because we did short stories the month before. On a whim while planning that book club, someone said, “Since we are reading short stories, why don’t we all try our hand at writing one?” After a few glasses of wine we all thought this was a good idea. Everyone participated and it was an emotional experience as we all read our stories. An easy read seemed in order for the next month.

Picking a book for your book club can be fraught with peril. Some people don’t want to risk looking foolish so they pick something from the twenty-five hardest books to read list such as Ulysses by James Joyce; others pick something popular but lacking in literary merit like Fifty Shades of Gray. Most pick whatever is hot in other book clubs.

Years ago, when I belonged to my first book club in New Jersey, I chose the book, The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll by Jean Nathan. It is a biography about Dare Wright, the eccentric author of The Lonely Doll books. I chose it because I had recently come across my decrepit copy of Edith and Mr. Bear, and at the same time I read the review of Nathan’s book. It seemed to me that the universe was telling me to choose the book.

So with trepidation, I assigned the biography and bought copies of Dare Wright’s other books to share with everyone. Each of her book covers has a photograph of Edith surrounding by a gingham print, so I made a pink gingham headband for myself. I served cookies and milk. What I remember about the meeting was that some people were not happy with my choice and I felt kind of dumb.

I have since belonged to four more book clubs in two more states. In Tennessee, it was a very loosey-goosey club. Every time we met at the chosen restaurant there was a new set of faces. As a group we weren’t able to develop any chemistry or rapport, an important factor in the workings of a group. It was here that I read my first James Patterson book. I went to the library to see if they had it and the librarian replied, “Patterson publishes a book every Tuesday, which one are you looking for?” It was through this experience that I realized that not everyone was an English major in college.

Upon moving to Illinois, I was invited to be in a lunchtime group. When it was my turn to pick, I chose the riskiest book ever in my book clubbing life. Looking back, I don’t know what I was thinking. I barely knew these woman when I suggested Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, And Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money, and Sex, edited by David Henry Sterry and R. J. Martin Jr. I was a little uncomfortable with my choice and tried to legitimize it by showing everyone its New York Times book review. Two members in the club were morally offended and refused to read it or come to the meeting (ever again, I think)! It was a fascinating read and we had a lively discussion about a billion-dollar industry none of us knew anything about.

In my quest to find a book club as perfect as my first, I kept joining them until I belonged to three at once. One was filled with lawyers who liked to stay on point, so that was the first to go by the wayside. In the other, I suggested the book Tiger Tiger: A Memoir by Margaux Fragoso. One of the members contacted me and told me she wouldn’t read it because it was too disturbing. I was so rattled that I ended up scrapping it and choosing a cumbersome book about puppetry. I wished that I stuck to my first choice.

I finally committed to the first club. When it was my turn to host again I chose the chick-lit book, Definitely Not Mr. Darcy by Karen Doornebos. She lives locally and I thought it would be interesting to have her come to our meeting and talk about getting published. It was a fun read and Karen was very generous with sharing information about her journey to getting published. During the meeting, while we were getting drinks, one of the members pulled me aside and asked, “Who picked this book? It is not book club material.” Yikes! I sheepishly replied, “I did.”

I’ve always felt that belonging to a book club is an opportunity for us to read something we wouldn’t normally, open our minds a bit and socialize with others. If you don’t like the book, don’t shoot the book-picker; shoot the author, the editors or the publisher. If you are the one who picked a bad book, don’t worry about it. Move on and know that you can wow everyone with your next choice. Just Google “the top ten most difficult books, pick one of them, and everyone will think you’re damn smart.

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Activism Doesn’t Require Marching!

I will be wearing “I Give Hugs! stickers to see if I can spread a little love.

I recently asked a couple of people what activism meant to them. My husband said, “Raising awareness of and attempting to improve or solve the problems of an issue.” A dear friend and avid marcher said, “Activism is rooted in a sense of justice and I feel that no matter how small the actions I take, they will have impact. My seventeen-year-old son put it simply, “To promote change through action.” But what does action look like? I’ve always thought that activism was something all consuming, heroic, and a little bit crazy, which I’ve learned is called “front-line” activism.

Front-Line activists are people like Mahatma Gandhi, who went on a hunger strike in protest of caste separation, Julia Butterfly Hill who lived in a tree for 738 days to protest the clear cutting of forests, and Rachel Corrie, a pro Palestinian activist, who was killed while blocking an armored, Israeli,  bulldozer. I’m no hero, and never felt strong enough about any issue to devote my life to changing it. But with the presidency of The Great Galvanizer, Donald Trump, I have discovered that the activism spectrum is long and broad and goes from subtle to front-line activism and art to volunteer activism, and all of us are probably activists for something important to us, somewhere along the spectrum.

When I was a kid, my mom took my siblings and me to meet a family friend, Sister Mary Dolores. She was a cloistered nun with the Dominican Sisters of the Perpetual Rosary in Union City, New Jersey. Her convent took up an entire city block. The sisters rarely left the convent because they spent there time praying. We were able to visit with Sister Dolores but were separated by a lattice screen as if visiting a prisoner in jail.

The legend in our family was that Sister Dolores could perform miracles. I thought it was odd that she could do this without ever leaving the convent. My mom told a story about a school that needed about twenty-five typewriters and they asked sister Dolores for help. She had some good mojo because shortly after the request, twenty-five typewriters showed up at the school. Now looking back, I realized that she practiced subtle activism through prayer and meditation and perhaps a little of something else.

I think 2017 will be known as The Year of Activism. January saw women band together all over the world for The Women’s March. No only did the travel ban bring out protestors but lawyers came out in droves to help stranded travelers. Unprecedented numbers of people are calling their senators and congressmen with their concerns on topics from the Affordable Care Act to education, and churches are offering sanctuary to illegal immigrants. Aside from the activists responding to the policies of the current administration there are people responding to all kinds of ills and problems, such as gun violence.

Every couple of weeks, I get an email from Nicole Hockley, the mother of murdered first-grader, Dylan, on behalf of Sandy Hook Promise, asking for support. There is Martin Zimmer’s production of On The Exhale, a one-woman show inspired by the Sandy Hook School shootings. Denise Gathings, a Chicago police officer has written and is directing a play called, My Soul Cries Out: Stop!

There are medical activists such as Dr. David Fajgenbaum who was diagnosed with Castleman’s disease while in medical school. He has devoted his life to finding a cure, which includes experimenting on his own body. This list is endless and anybody can be an activist if they feel strongly about something. You don’t have to step outside your comfort level and you can use your talents to bring about change.

I prefer small-scale activism. I’m not interested in tackling the big issues. I’m currently working on spreading kindness because I believe that is where all positive changes start. Since I’ve unlocked my activist self, this is what my day looks like: A constipated kid comes to my art class and asks to work on the floor. I show him some yoga twists and suggest he drink a big glass of water when he gets home. I tell his mom how much I love my Squatty Potty and how helpful it is in avoiding constipation.

When I saw a neighbor on the street who’s husband just died, I offer to help her with her dogs or drop off a meal. I’ve taken to hugging people outside my family and have just designed and ordered I Give Hugs! stickers to indicate I’m happy to give a hug. My passion is writing and I use this Artist’s Eye column to share information about topics that are important to me. That is the whole point of activism. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

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Prepare Your Family For Strange And Regular Inheritances

Strange Inheritance with Jamie Colby

Strange Inheritance episode Junkyard Gems with Jamie Colby

Say you’re going away for a weekend with your spouse, and your college kid will be in charge of his siblings. Wouldn’t you leave a long list of things to do? Feed the kids, the dogs, lock the house at night, throw in a load of laundry, and drop your brother at religious education? Say you’re the same couple and you and your husband learn that both of you have only six months to live. I would imagine your list would be a bit longer. You’d need to talk to your kids about your will, estate, how to take care of the house, how to collect and manage the life insurance, you get it. Why not just do it now, so in the event you get killed in a car accident on your weekend away, your kids are as informed and prepared as possible?

Except for getting a will decades ago, I didn’t think much about estate planning until my brother Brian began producing the Strange Inheritance show for Fox Business News. I watched an episode about an Illinois farmer and hoarder, who left his million dollar farm to two 70s TV actors he had never met. His conscientious lawyer waded through the garbage in his house to find the will. I spoke with Brian afterwards.

“How’d you like the show?”
“I loved it but it was very upsetting! There was so much left to chance! What if the lawyer didn’t find the will? What if there was family who broke in and destroyed the will? Where are the protections?”
“You’ll be glad to know we now have a show Strange Inheritance: Unpacked, which discusses all of these questions.”

I have a friend whose mother had a life-threatening stroke a couple of years ago. When she arrived at the hospital, she discovered that not only was her mom close to death but her dad was suffering from what appeared to be dementia. Although she knew that her mom had a living will, she didn’t know anything else about her parents’ estate, except the location of the documents.

She had to wrangle a Power of Attorney out of her dad so that she could make the end of life decisions for her mom. After her mother’s funeral she had to make plans to have her dad move closer. He died a couple years later. It has taken her five years to unwind her parents’ estates. Settling them took so much physical, mental, and emotional energy, I’m not sure she had any left to properly mourn her parents’ passing.

My parents did not say much about their estate either but when my dad died nineteen years ago, thankfully, my brother Paul began helping my mom manage her finances. When he saw her begin to slip, he persuaded her to sign a Power of Attorney. He assured her that he would only use it when she was ready to hand over control. When she could no longer manage her beach house, he convinced her to it to give to us kids instead of selling it. I believe that because it wasn’t dumped in our laps until after her death, the five of us had the time to figure out how to manage it.

Herein the problem lies. How do you get your parents to talk about these things? Like the sex talks you give your kids, you just muscle through. There is no easy way. It is sad that end of life and estate discussions are shrouded in mystery. Time and money could be saved if people were more open with their children about estate planning.

After my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, she had to move out of her home in Florida to live with my sister. My brother asked me to go down, clear out her house, and get it ready to sell. I donated most of her stuff and sent each family a box of keepsakes. We divided up her artwork using a lottery system.

This all sounds easy and businesslike but it’s not. It is very emotional. It took me two years to get around to completing the task I was assigned of dividing up my mom’s jewelry. Last Thanksgiving, when we were all together, I gave each female in the family an identical box holding various pieces of my mom’s jewelry that I thought each person would like. It was a nice event and everyone was excited to get a meaningful, yet unexpected, gift before Christmas. Most importantly, my mom was present for the distribution.

My brother’s goal was to dismantle my mother’s estate so that there is only money left for her care. When she does eventually die, he will be able to “unwind it” in five minutes. I’ve recently taken to watching more episodes of Strange Inheritance, one about a flight attendant who amassed a very valuable collection of beads, another about a family who inherited a not so valuable roadside attraction situated on very valuable land, and one about a fantasy artist whose children were fighting over his collection of paintings. Not only do I enjoy each show, they get me thinking about how I should be talking to my children.

Most of us don’t want to talk about death with our kids, so we don’t. Many people don’t want to give up control of their finances or they’re afraid that they’ll ruin their kids’ work ethics if they tell them they are coming into some money. But is receiving an unexpected windfall whether it is money or a dinosaur roadside attraction, a good thing?

A financial planner told me that the majority of people who receive a financial windfall usually spend it within a year and a half, regardless of the size. There are financial advisers who specialize in counseling children who receive huge financial inheritances so they don’t ruin their lives. Experts say that if you know your child is going to get an inheritance, a trust fund, or say access to a 529 account, regardless of the size, you should tell them at a young age, to prepare them for it. You tell them why they will be receiving something and the background of their benefactor, if for example, it’s a grandparent.

I’ve used this tactic with my kids. Since they were born, we’ve spent part of the summer at my family’s beach house, at first with my parents, and then with my siblings and their families. At times my kids complained and said they were bored or it was too hot at the beach. I couldn’t understand why they were so unappreciative. A couple of years ago, my husband and I sat them down and explained that we could never afford to buy a house like this, that it was because of their grandfather’s hard work and success, and their grandmother’s generosity that we had the house. We told them that we are able to continue to hold onto the house because my siblings and I work hard to get along and keep it going. Once my mother dies, the house will be the only physical glue holding our family together.

It became clear to them that Joe’s Place, as we call it, is a gift that a lot of people have worked hard to keep in the family. I saw a change in their attitude toward the house immediately. So when you’re reading to your kids, teaching them to ride a bike, giving them sex talks, and showing them how to manage money, why not tell them what is going to happen when you die?

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Please Don’t Ask My Teen What He Wants To Be

We need to give our kids room to explore their interests before settling on a career path.

We need to give our kids room to explore their interests before they settle on a career path. My oldest is designing the logo for the T-Shirt company he’s going to start.

I met a real live rock star last week at my art studio. While he and his daughter worked on the project, we chatted about art, our kids, and some of the things he did before he became a professional musician.

“Isn’t it really hard for bands to make it?”
“Yes.”
“So how’d you do it?”
“Once I chose to be a musician, I headed out to LA. My band experienced a ton of rejection but we didn’t give up. We were early users of social media which helped us a lot.”

This conversation was especially interesting to me because I have kids in middle, high school, and college, some who are trying to figure out what they want to do after they graduate. My husband and I tell them they just need to work at a lot of jobs until they find something they love. Apparently this is true whether you want to be a businessperson or a rock star.

Last week I attended the Lyons Township High School parent orientation for my eighth-grader. We were told that our children would be asked what they want to be when they grow up. I wish they wouldn’t. It is the rare fourteen-year-old who knows what he wants to be and asking the question is ridiculous and causes unnecessary stress. My husband and I spend a lot of energy counteracting this thinking in our kids.

Instead of asking my son what he wants to be, why not tell him to get a part-time job? Studies show that the earlier a kid starts working the more successful he will be in life. In addition, why not offer a semester program where kids can work in various places for a week, such as at a hospital, insurance company, animal shelter, bank, or architectural firm? Students interested in becoming teachers can already get classroom experience through a program at LT.

The presenter then laid out the necessary requirements for my son to graduate. After the required classes he would have five electives available to him. I got excited thinking about the small engines, furniture making, and photography classes he could take. Then came the caveat: if my kid is going to apply to a competitive college, he will need four years of math instead of three, four years of science instead of two, and three to four years of a foreign language. Where was he going to fit in the fun electives? It’s like sending your kid to the candy store with no money.

High school and college are a time of exploration. Kids should be taking lots of different classes that they enjoy and then start to get more focused by their junior year. Doing internships and information interviews with people in jobs they are interested in is a great way for them to learn more about potential careers.

Thankfully, there are resources out there to help everyone figure it out. I would highly recommend every high school and college student read Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans of Stanford University. They give great real life examples and exercises to help anyone, even people well into their careers, design a life and find a job they love.

I can’t say enough about how important it is for kids to work. When my eighth grader, Max, was nine he worked at his sister’s barn, walking horses and playing with the cats and dogs. After that, he got a volunteer position at a rescue, socializing animals. But instead of petting birds and rats, he ended up cleaning their cages. During the second week he got in trouble for texting.

On the ride home he said he didn’t want to go back. I helped him draft his letter of resignation. From this experience he learned that not all jobs will be what you think they are and not all bosses will be nice. At age thirteen he has continued to work with animals, taking care of our neighbor’s cat and dogs.

My husband, Frank, and I are always sharing our career paths with our kids and making sure they understand that the process of finding your vocation has not changed over the years. My husband’s story highlights how talking to people in the business you want to go into and “trying it on” can save you time and money.

While Frank was still in high school, he decided that he wanted to be a disc jockey and would major in communications in college. His dad arranged an information interview with Bob Reitman of WQFM in Milwaukee. When Frank got to college, he joined the radio station, and realized that he didn’t like being a disc jockey but loved managing the station. No harm no foul. After working different jobs, traveling to Europe, and going to business school, he has been a food and candy marketer for nearly thirty years.

As of now my eighth grader is going to be a You Tuber with millions of subscribers who will make him rich. He is buying computer equipment with the money he makes as a dog-walker to bring him closer to his dream. I am perfectly fine with this dream and all of the others he will have as he explores his world by taking cool classes, talking to interesting people, and working lots of jobs until he finds what he loves.

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Can’t Stick To Your Resolutions? Would You Considered Getting A Coach?

pantry (2)

My past, present, and hopefully, future pantry.

How are your New Year’s resolutions working out? Still going to the gym, eating healthy, and spending more time with family? No? Would you consider enlisting a coach to help you keep them? A coach is someone who helps you to improve your performance in whatever area needs work such as your health, your life, and finding a job. A good coach won’t tell you what to do so much as help you to discover solutions to whatever it is you are working on. That way you will be more likely to make the changes you need to be successful.

I flukily ended up with a health coach a little over two years ago, and working with her has changed my life! I had been contemplating opening a business, and found myself walking around town, looking into windows of commercial establishments, and imagining mine in that space. I thought that the shop that was home to Omstead on Lawn Avenue would be perfect. My husband suggested that I reach out to Amy Cox, the owner of the business, to ask her if she had any plans to move out of her space. I wasn’t comfortable doing that. I figured I’d make an appointment and talk to her about my carbohydrate addiction.

When I arrived at Omstead, I was greeted with a hug and a hot cup of tea. Wow! That alone was worth it. I told Amy that my main reason for coming was that I wanted her space in order to open my business. She laughed and said she wasn’t going anywhere. After chatting for an hour, I chose to sign up and work with her. We would meet every other week.

She recommended that I take her fermenting class and I agreed to do so even though I had no idea what fermenting was or how it would help me. I didn’t even Google “fermenting” before I showed up at her house. This is where the notion of coaching comes in. Amy is a trained health coach and organic gardener, and I am not. I chose to listen to her and trust her to guide me. I recognize that I have my strengths in certain areas but in the realm of eating and exercising I need help.

Two years later, I have become a proficient cook, to the delight of my family. I have embraced a healthy way of eating and have begun to shed the weight that I never thought would come off. With Amy’s guidance, I opened Doodle Art & Design studio in a space around the corner from Omstead. Her willingness to share her experiences as a small business owner has been a huge help to me. I no longer need as much coaching with my eating, so I am basically on a maintenance program where I see her once a month.

There are all kinds of coaches out there that you can hire to help you when you get in a rut. A friend of mine, Dr. John Duffy, is a psychologist with a life coaching certification and the host of the Undue Anxiety podcast. This is what he said about being a life coach, “I enjoy coaching because it is very progressive and results and future-oriented. In therapy, we do a lot of working through and healing from the past. But I find with coaching, I see quick positive change in my clients’ lives. Integrating the two has made my practice far, far more productive.”

Because of the creative nature of my business, I’ve begun looking into getting certified as a creativity coach, which traditionally is a person who helps creative people accomplish their goals. My idea was to coach regular people who want to be more creative. While I haven’t gotten my creativity coaching certification yet, it is not going to stop me from giving you some free coaching on how to be more creative:

Take time to notice your surroundings, whether on a walk or doing chores, and let your thoughts percolate through your brain. If you like to do something creative, like write, alternate writing with the non-creative, editing. If you have a problem you are trying to solve, don’t obsessively turn it over in your brain, instead go cut the lawn, play ball with your kid, or chat with a friend. I guarantee the solution will come to you.

In addition to paid coaches, there are many people in your life who will coach you for free. My husband is my exercise coach and my business coach. My yogi sister is my mindfulness coach. She helps me keep balance in my life. If she suggests that I read a certain book, or start a meditation practice, I do what she says because I trust her and that is what coaching is all about.

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