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May 30, 2013

Being an American Around the Globe

“Its rather difficult traveling the world as an American, isn’t it?” our Australian host asked as we drove from the airport.  It startled me.  I’d been relieved when Obama took the White House; we were traveling in Asia and Europe at the time, and the political discussions under the Bush era had become tiresome. And embarrassing.  But difficult to travel as an American?  I’d never thought of it in those terms.

He asked the question because of the question I’d just asked him.  His two daughters, both grown now and also traveling the world, were born in the US to Australian parents.  “So they could have duel citizenship, then?” I asked.

“Yes, I guess they could. But they’ve never bothered. Just never saw a reason for it.”

I think it was the first time I’d ever encountered someone who didn’t see any benefit to US citizenship. My arrogant American self – the one I try so desperately to avoid – was stunned.

“Less controversy traveling as an Australian, I reckon,” I replied.

We both changed the subject.

I couldn’t shake the thought as we continued on our travels. I’ve not always been proud of my country’s actions, but I am proud to be an American.  When a cab driver in Adelaide – recently immigrated to Australia from Syria – showed me the Queen’s face on an Australian coin and asked if the US is also loyal to the Queen, like Australia, I couldn’t help but smile. “No. We waged a war over that one. And won.”  He seemed shocked.

We consider ourselves global nomads, but we are first Americans. I was reminded of this in Fiji once, when a young French woman – convinced that the US knew nothing of how the world really works – started a brisk discussion at our dinner table one night.  A smart young army officer also shared our table, and I had some sort of out-of-body experience, tag-teaming with him to defend our nation’s integrity, showcase our considerable achievements, and share a tutorial on the US / French relations dating back to WW II, a piece of history she seemed to have little knowledge of.  The beer flowed – and the politics were fiery – and I remember even being surprised by my veracity. Apparently she’d touched a nerve I didn’t even know existed — desecrating a country she later admitted she’d never visited — and I felt honor-bound to wave the flag.  She left the next day, so we never got to finish our discussion, but I took some childish pride in knowing she’d locked herself out of her bure that evening and had to break in through the outdoor shower to find her bed in the wee hours of the morning.

But I digress.

Australian Defence Force Memorial, Kings Park, Perth Australia

Australian Memorial to those lost in Iraq & Afghanistan

It was a couple of weeks later, still in Australia, that my friend’s words resonated again. We were wandering through King’s Park, a magnificent oasis in the middle of Perth, larger and more manicured than New York City’s Central Park, with spectacular vistas sweeping out across the city. It’s a working park, with kids playing, ladies sharing their wine and biscuits on the sweeping lawns, and meandering waterways and hiking trails and memorials.

The park’s memorials are its centerpiece.  The original memorial was built to honor the Australians who died during WW I, but as the conflicts around the globe continued, so did the memorials in the park. There’s a wall dedicated to Korea and Vietnam, and another section that honors Australian women who’ve served their country.

It was the shiny new addition, off to one corner, which stopped us in our tracks.  Emmi spotted it first.  “Look mom,” she whispered.  The granite was new and shiny, the brass lettering polished, and the flowers at its base still fresh. A hand-written note was stuck to the wall, ink still new and legible. There aren’t many names listed, but even those are too many. The memorial, honoring those fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan – conflicts for which no end date is noted, because none is yet known – is there because we called the shots, and we brought our friends with us.

In that moment, I heard my friend’s question again. In that moment, it didn’t feel so easy being an American, looking into the face of loss we’d brought upon our global neighbor.  In that moment, I was struck by all our power and our might and our force, yet wondered where in it all our integrity and our honor might still shine through.

Note on War Memorial, Perth Australia

Sentiments from around the World....when will it end?


May 10, 2013

Why DOES the Kangaroo Cross the Road?

There’s a fine line between adventure and stupid – my mantra when traveling. And particularly so when traveling alone with the kids. Yet somehow, no matter how hard I try, I all too often find myself teetering there, wondering how the hell I managed to do it again.

Such was the case driving back to Penneshaw from far western Kangaroo Island tonight.  We’d known it would be a long day, taking the southern highway to the far end of the island to see the Remarkable Rocks.  “They’re indeed remarkable,” our friend and local host promised.  “You’ll surely remark,” he snarked.

Kangaroo, Kangaroo Island Australia

Kangaroos should not be hood ornaments

Of course, he also advised against driving all the way out there, recommending instead that we take one of the coach tours.  Our aversion to bus tours, however – except in Iceland where they do them brilliantly – sent that suggestion whistling in the breeze.

The rocks were, indeed, remarkable, a moon like landscape perched by the sea, eroded by hundreds of years of wind and waves.  As, too, were the seal colonies we visited, the koalas stoned on eucalyptus hanging on to the tippy top branches of massive trees, and the sand dunes that stretched for miles along the coast.

“Driving all the way back to Penneshaw tonight?” the park ranger asked as we headed into Flinders Chase National Park.  “Be careful. Drive slow. You have no idea how many creatures there are on the highway at night.”  We’d heard the warning before, and nodded dutifully, then sped off down the track towards the rocks.

It came out of nowhere. That’s what they always say, but now we know why.  It really did come from nowhere, a blur of furriness as it dashed in front then under the car.  Thu-thump.  The wallaby’s eyes were still looking back at us as its little body was flung to the far side of the road, lifeless.

Yikes.  And it’s not even dark yet. And that was a cute little wallaby, not a 6 foot tall, couple hundred pound kangaroo.

I’ve driven through oceans of fog; I’ve driven on fuel fumes through the back roads of Maine in the middle of the night; I’ve driven through mud tracks under the moonlight in Mississippi soybean fields, having sneaked out after curfew and worrying that I’d be caught. But never have I driven as I did tonight.  160 kilometers of inky black roads and Australian bush. My toes cramped; my thighs ached; my lower back screamed, and my eyes darted constantly left to right, right to left, then straight, repeatedly, until they ached too. And all of this on the wrong side of the road, as though it mattered, given only us and the creatures wandered the night.

Quickly proficient at spotting the wallabies, we weaved, bobbed and braked through their midst. They seemed almost suicidal, waiting in the brush until our lights were upon them, then darting across the road in front of us. There’s an entire island here they can roam, and only three roads. Do they have to claim the roads too?  Apparently, they do.  Our favorite, an albino wallaby, shot across in front of us just a few kilometers out of the park.  “Albino ones are really rare,” Austin shared from the back seat. “Well then, glad we didn’t kill that one,” Emmi and I replied in unison.

It was the kangaroos that were most daunting.  They say the kangaroos are bigger and burlier on Kangaroo Island than throughout the rest of the country. While no experts on the subject, Emmi and I can attest that the ones lumbering along the road, gathering in groups as though plotting our demise, were the biggest we’ve ever seen.

Yeah, I know. Kangaroos are cute and funny, hopping and carrying their joey in the pouch. They aren’t scary, right?  That’s what I thought, too. Until tonight.

Remarkable Rocks, Kangaroo Island, Australia

Hanging out at the Remarkable Rocks, Kangaroo Island Australia

Just as we’d settled into the 60km/hr pace, daring to pick up a bit of speed on the longer stretches, a massive ‘roo stood us down, right in the center of the road.  The bright lights illuminated his muscular frame, his eyes staring straight at us. Emmi and I both gasped loudly, and I think she yelled something. All I could absorb were its eyes, staring at me and owning the road. They say the car lights blind them momentarily – which I’m sure must be true – but to me, we’d locked eyes and were in a face off.  And the kangaroo was winning.

I swerved hard right (the blessing of an open road), then back again, barely correcting before careening off the other side.  The menacing ‘roo stood in place, watching, then with a snail’s urgency, hopped off to the left, seemingly irritated we’d cost him his coveted spot in the middle of the road.  Our road, I wanted to remind him.

Finally breathing again, we took our place on the wrong side of the road, resumed our plodding 60 km/hr pace, and continued the trek. It was still dark; I still ached; and Emmi still stood guard from the co-pilot’s seat.

Then there were the mice.  Tiny, quick little buggahs, these guys also darted across the road in the beam of our lights.  They deserved it, I reasoned.  No braking or swerving for them.

Half way home, we’d settled into some sort of rhythm.  My toes cramped and back ached and Emmi stared at the road pointing out every possible creature as well as the inevitable bush-a-roo that seemed so daunting in the night shadows.  It wasn’t fun, per se, but it was our rhythm.

Then she saw something else. I saw it too. Small, furry, and sauntering about the middle of the road, seeming dazed and confused.  “Holy crap!  It’s a koala!” she yelled. It seemed vaguely aware of our imminent arrival, but completely unphased. Koalas live on eucalyptus, which is a mind-altering substance of sorts, so truth be known they spend their entire lives totally stoned.  It wasn’t surprising it just wandered. I slowed to a crawl. He took a couple more twirls in the middle of the road, and eventually sauntered off towards the bush. “A koala!” she yelled again. “I can’t believe we saw a koala in the middle of the road!”

Austin, seemingly mostly oblivious to our front seat piloting since the albino wallaby, piped up. “It was a possum.”  Then he was quiet again, almost as though he had not spoken at all.

“We’re in the front seat, and it was a koala,” I declared.  I’m the mom. I get to make declarations like that. Particularly when my toes are cramping, my bright lights can’t possibly be bright enough, and there’s 75 kilometers more of black road in front of us. A koala siting was what we needed to get us home.

Austin quieted back down again, seeming to know he stood no chance against two women in the front seat.  Emmi continued her expert piloting, and I pressed on.  Somewhere at the end of this black track was a cold bottle of chardonnay.  I was determined to get to it without a dead kangaroo as my hood ornament.

The wine’s never tasted so good.


June 17, 2011

Kid Wisdom

Glow Worm Cave, North Island New ZealandFriends and wisdom show up in some of the most unexpected places.  I’ve recently  discovered a terrific Facebook group, Families on the Move, and this poem appeared there over the weekend from Mojito Mother.  (I’m captivated simply by the name and her blog: Mojito Mother — Putting the MOJO Back into a Mother’s Life.)

Raising kids is hard, at least if you want to do it well.  Teaching them, mentoring them, knowing when to dial it up then dial it down. It’s a balancing act, and all of us struggle to figure out how to do it right. I remember almost 15 years ago when my god-daughter (who was around 15 at the time) observed “I think Mom needs to set more boundaries for me. I need them.” It was one of those notes-to-self moments.

Now, all these years later, you’d think I’d know something after wearing the  MOM badge for over twenty years, but three kids and a step-daughter, and I’m still learning. This piece from a child’s perspective hit at just the right time for me — funny how fate works it out that way sometimes — and I  thought it should be shared.

Don’t spoil me. I know quite well that I ought not to have asked for it.

I”m testing you. Don’t be afraid to be firm with me. I prefer it…. it makes me feel more secure.

Don’t correct me in front of people if you can help it. I’ll take much more notice if you talk to me in private.

Don’t make me feel that my mistakes are sins. It upsets my sense of values.

Don’t be too upset if I say “I hate you.” It isn’t that I hate you; I only need your attention.

Don’t protect me from consequences. I need to learn that way.

Don’t take too much notice of small ailments. Sometimes they get me the attention I want.

Don’t nag. If you do, I shall have to protect myself by appearing deaf.

Don’t make rash promises. Remember that I feel badly let down when they are broken.

Don’t forget that I cannot explain myself as well as I should like. This is why I am not always accurate.

Don’t tax my honesty too much. I am easily frightened into telling lies.

Don’t be inconsistent. That completely confuses me and makes me lose my faith in you.

Don’t put me off when I ask you questions. If you do, you will find that I stop asking and seek my information elsewhere.

Don’t tell me my fears are silly. They are terribly real and you can do much to understand.

Don’t ever think it beneath your dignity to apologize to me. An honest apology makes me feel surprisingly warm to you.

Don’t forget how quickly I am growing up. It must be very difficult for you to keep pace with me but please try.

Don’t forget that I love experimenting. I couldn’t get along without it, so please put up with it.

Don’t forget that I can’t thrive without lots of love. But I don’t need to tell you that…. do I?

– Anonymous

March 1, 2011


Christchurch Cathedral 24 hours before earthquakeIt’s been a week exactly since the tectonic plates beneath Lyttleton Harbor brought Christchurch, New Zealand toppling down.  The city’s famed cathedral spire lay crumbled in the town center, twenty two visitors feared crushed beneath it.

The stories keep coming.  The 14 year old boy, on a local bus headed into town to plot how best to spend his birthday money; the bus is crushed; the boy, not heard from.  The young woman trapped under her desk, texting her fiancé, who led rescuers to her then helped as they dug her out; they were married, as planned, three days later.  The husband who survived the quake, then hoofed it over Bridle Path (the bridges & tunnels closed) to reach his family; “I’m OK. Walking.  Home in 10,” he texted, just before he was struck and killed by boulders tumbling down during an aftershock. My heart breaks everytime I read another story, hear the latest fatality count.

Less than 24 hours before the earth shook, we walked those streets, exploring this quaint little city so proud of its ongoing recovery from last September’s quake.  We frittered away the morning at the Boat House Café, Sacagawea and Dundee pedal boating and kayaking up and down the Avon, while Columbus and I enjoyed a scone and a cuppa. We’ve not heard the fate of that beautiful little boat house since.

Midday found us in Cathedral Square, Columbus drawn into the act by a unicycle-riding-juggling street performer with an inflated surgical glove on his head who needed a ‘big strong man” for his theatrics.   That open-air stage now lay in heaps of rubble, the epicenter of mourning for this frightened little city.

As the afternoon wore on, the kids and I hopped a city bus back to the port in Lyttleton and settled into a hole-in-the-wall pub for some fish and chips, while Columbus hunkered down at a swanky internet café to get some work done before meeting us back on the ship.  The signage from the café can be spotted in the footage of the rubble, while the entire Lyttleton block of that sweet pub has been leveled.

Christchurch is a small town in a big city’s hat. The comingling of old and new – modern buildings with an iconic cathedral and cheeky little trams, picturesque gardens and confidant entrepreneurs – seems the heart of the city we explored.  Yeah, they’d taken a hit last September, but they were quick to show us they were back and ready for business, ready for the Rugby Cup this fall, ready to get on with life.  Twenty-four hours later, it tumbled down again.

Timing. Fate. Karma. We all know it and think we understand it.  The car accident that happens just ahead, the one we might have been part of had we not taken that last call or gotten caught at that last light.

For us, however, this one seems a big bullet to dodge.  We keep thinking through it, how we would have been just beneath that spire as it toppled, or would have been separated on the Avon, or between Christchurch and Lyttleton.  Like everything in our travels, we talk it through.  We discuss emergency procedures, self-reliance, how and what to do.  And we answer the questions as they come, admitting we don’t know all the answers.  None of us ever do.

Yet, like other travelers, we keep going.  These moments, however frightening, are a vivid reminder that life doesn’t wait. It’s a big world, and bad things sometimes happen.   We are so touched by this earthquake because we were there; we feel in our own way we know this quaint little town, and we’re pulling for it to recover yet again.  When Thailand’s king celebrated his 83rd birthday before Christmas, we celebrated too, picturing the festivals in Bangkok and around the country, our friends there laughing and celebrating until all hours.  When floods and cyclones ravaged Queensland Australia, we cried too, fearing for the safety of friends up and down the coast and mourning the secret treasures we discovered during our journeys there.

It’s our world – not just our street, our town, our state, or our country – and these are our local events.  Just as we plug into our local community back home, so must we plug into our world.  That’s why we travel.  It just took Christchurch to make me realize it.

October 3, 2010

Taking Education on the Road

It’s always good to know we’re not alone.  No, we’re not crazy, others are doing the same thing, and we can give our kids something better than the failing education system.  In their Education Nation series recently, NBC focused on the many aspects of education in America, including our own version of “roadschooling.”  TODAY Show article, A Moveable Feast: For Some, the World Is the Classroom

For us as parent/teachers, it was terrific affirmation that others we’ve never met are having the same thoughts, taking the same steps, and following their instincts.  Are we right?  Who knows.  But what we do know for sure is our kids are thriving, and that we’ve found a way to connect with them and with the world in a meaningful way.

The numbers tell the story.  In 2003, 20% of home school families reported travel and “other” as their reason to step out of the traditional classroom.  By 2007, the number had jumped to 32%.  As the numbers grow, the stigma fades.  Once thought to be the choice of whacked-out, butter-churning, religious fundamentalists, homeschooling has gone mainstream.  More than 2 million children nationwide have opted out of the traditional classroom for “homeschool” type programs, and by all measures, their demographics and ideologies mirror mainstream society.

In our case, it was the blunt realization that outsourcing our kids’ education simply wasn’t working.  We simply no longer bought the notion that children start formal education in kindergarten (or earlier), and with a bit of parent diligence to ensure homework was completed as assigned, educated, ready-for-the-world young adults would emerge at their high school graduation twelve years later.  Out-sourced education, like out-sourced financial management, promised big but failed to deliver.

What’s next?  Hard to know.  What I do believe, however, is that it takes a village to raise these kids, and that our national education system needs major over-haul.  As parents, we need to be part of that  movement.  And while we’re at it, seems to make sense to carve out a bit of time to see the world.  We might just learn something from our neighbors.

August 27, 2010

Girl Power

“The most powerful force of change on the planet is a girl.”

When a friend shared this Nike Foundation video on Facebook recently, I DARE YOU , I watched it and wept.   As parents, we’re raising the little girls who will change the world, and the boys who will marry them.  We’re their custodians, holding their hands as they cross into a 21st century world so very different — and quite likely so very much better — than the 20th century reality that brought them here.  We sell them short to simply teach them what we learned, because in their world, they hold power — and face challenges — that we could never have imagined.

In its recent article,  Women Will Rule the World, Newsweek confirmed the age-old saying that women control the purse strings.  Literally.  First in the US and many European countries, then more recently in the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India & China) and in other pockets of the planet, the rapid rise of female economic power is staggering and transformative.

Maddy Dychtwald boils it down to compelling, hard numbers in her book, Influence, released a few months ago.  “American women are responsible for 83% of all consumer purchases; they hold 89% of US bank accounts, 51% of all personal wealth, and are worth more than $5 trillion in consumer spending power — larger than the entire Japanese economy.  On a global level, women are the biggest emerging market in the history of the planet — more than twice the size of India and China combined.”

Closely linked to this economic power, of course, is education.  The Women’s Learning Partnership estimates that for every year beyond fourth grade girls attend school, a country’s wages rise by 20%. Stop and think about that for a moment.  Twenty percent for each year of education after 4th grade!

The trickle-down of this economic power is where it gets really good.  With women controlling the purse strings, what funding areas become more critical?  Does defense spending share top billing with childcare, healthcare and education?  Does quality of life  compete with GDP?  Does the little nation of Bhutan, with it’s commitment to “gross national happiness” (GNH) show the rest of the world how to really succeed?

Chip Conley, the hotel entrepreneur from San Francisco, weaves it all together quite nicely in his TED presentation, Measuring What Makes Life Worthwhile.  He points back to one of Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 speeches, where he opines that we count the wrong stuff.  Our GDP counts air pollution, redwoods destruction, and nuclear warheads, but doesn’t count health of our kids, our quality of education, or the intelligence of our public debate.  Perhaps it’s time for a new way to count, he suggested.  Conley goes on to remind us that, prior to the young king of Bhutan suggesting GNH as a national metric, the last world leader to invoke “happiness” as a viable government measure was Thomas Jefferson, in that bold, pesky Declaration of Independence.

With new metrics to measure life’s intangibles, coupled with the transformative power of women stepping to the economic plate, the 21st century offers hope, promise and possibility so different from it’s 20th century cousin.  Imagine a world where our daughters  realize their aspirations, and our sons don’t feel compelled to shoulder the economic burden alone. Imagine their world, where going into the world to do “good” is on equal footing with doing “well.”

Those of us with kids in college, we’re the women who fought the mommy wars.  To work or not to work.  What was best for us, our families, and of course, our children?   As with so many things, our competitive juices flowed, and a tangible, visceral struggle ensued to determine which mommy team was better.  Could we really raise our kids and bring home the bacon?  Were stay-at-home moms sending the best message to their young daughters about their potential, their place in the world?  And single, working moms?  Just the thought led to head shaking and furrowed brows from all fronts.  If you’re nodding, it’s because you remember the heated debates, countless magazine copy, and endless talking heads, the “experts” on the topic.  (If you’re nodding, it also means you remember the big hair and those awful “business suits” we wore.  But that’s another post for another time.)

Maybe its just me, but it seems we’ve moved on, put that issue behind us and concluded — as our moms before us and women throughout history — that as women, we can and will do what’s best for our families, whatever that may be.

And in doing that, we make the world a better place.