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Planting Happiness


     Yesterday, as I headed to meet up with my power walking pals, I noticed that my favorite Red Bud tree was showing its vibrant colors. Ah spring is in the air, I thought contentedly. As I drove along, my eyes fell upon the row of sunflowers that someone has whimsically planted in the vacant field by the elementary school. I smiled to myself as I admired their open faces. I could not get the "I-love-the-world" smile off my face! 

     Soon my friends and I were consumed with our fast paced strides and catching-up chat. We proceeded along for a few miles when suddenly, our friend, Diane, exclaimed, "Donna you are always on the look-out for precious moment. Here's one for you. Look. There!" she said pointing toward the neglected, wild open space by the trail. With that I looked more carefully to discover the source of her intrigue. There it was, something magical and serendipitous: about a dozen brightly colored bird houses and feeders planted all around, like a garden, in a forgotten patch by the pathway.

     All evening, I could not stop thinking about it. I told Ken and he shared that as he was driving to work he looked over and a young mother with a car full of kids, was singing her heart out as she waited at the signal. Happiness was abounding, it seemed contagious. We laughed about it.

     Today I went back to that bird house garden to take some photos. I examined the blue one labeled, "The Swallows Inn," the bright yellow one said, "by Cash Vargas age 7," another had a crazy skull and crossbones on it, while another was adorned with pink hearts. The garden was alive with color and whimsy. I was in heaven delighting in each little work-of-art house.

     A lady with two small poodles was crossing the street as I went back to the car. I asked her about the bird houses. "Oh, the neighbor down the street, the pastor, thought it was such a shame that in a beautiful town we have such neglected areas. A few years ago he began with the stone wall, then he added some bird houses, then the rock pond. People have added the plantings, more bird houses and feeders. It is growing. You should talk to him," she concluded, smiling at me.

     "So it has a spiritual element with the pastor and all?" I asked.

     "Of course," she responded knowingly.

     "Well it certainly called to me. I am very excited about it. I think it is a celebration of life. Thank you." And I hopped back into my car, loaded with my three huge Golden Retrievers.

     So, I am inspired! I am going to plant myself a bird house garden and I know just where to begin, the grand kids have gifted me some of their crafty houses, perhaps I can show them off! Maybe I could embellish the garden with some wind chimes. . . What fun. With the California drought upon us it is a perfect time to take out some of the water hungry plants and try something new. The more I think about this, the more

Donna's own whimsical plants

excited I am becoming. But there is something else here, the lesson could be about imagination and taking action. The man behind this has started something precious. His random act may not be for any huge, important reason other than to bring joy. My guess is that he is happy for no reason, and cherishes the thrill of being alive in the world. I hope you are singing your heart out in the car and finding precious moments in the strangest places. I would love to hear about it. 






Journey to the Center of the World

Hi there, it seems like I have been sort of missing in action. I have been finishing my book, Cherish the Light, and traveling. Now with school back in session life is getting back to normal. You might know that one of my dreams for my eleven grandchildren is to help them to feel comfortable as citizens of the world. To that aim I have been taking them, often two at a time, on adventures.


A week and a half ago we returned from a marvelous journey to the center of the world. I took my two 16 year old grand girls and it was joyous for me to watch them as they discovered more about our planet. At the Center of the World, which is the equator monument in a tourist village, not too far from Quito, Ecuador, they delighted in having one foot in the Southern Hemisphere and the other in the Northern. My daughter’s girl, Jaycelin, has an app on her phone which allows for truly tricky photography. She and her cousin Megan entertained themselves with this app for some time. The result showed their full bodies in both hemispheres at once! They were entertained by the photo trick and I was gratified watching them discovering all that they were learning in the middle of the Earth.


Ecuador has 250 volcanoes, some active, and we spent a good deal of our time at high elevations, both admiring their splendor and hiking below them. The headwaters of the Amazon River are also in Ecuador and we enjoyed three days on the river exploring the rain forest. I admired the way the girls climbed like gazelles up wet and steep mountains in the jungle with never a complaint. They were enthusiastic participants when it was time to float down river on the balsa wood raft, or to practuce on the poison blow-guns of the indigenous people, or even to carry on a conversation in Spanish. A big hit for them was taking photos of the monkeys leaping through the trees overhead, and of the various loose dogs we constantly encountered. Perhaps the biggest reward I took away from the eight days was being reminded again of what delightful fun young people can provide.


Sometimes when we are out of our usual comfort zones new opportunities are presented. This tour was such a case. There were 28 of us on the trip, Americans of all ages from all over the country. We were together for all of the activities including three meals a day, for eight days. That was a lot of togetherness! My true delight was to observe my girls interacting with the others, sharing thoughtful opinions and political ideas. I got to learn first hand, their world views.


In the weeks leading up to the trip, I had perhaps a dozen people ask me to please put them in my suitcase to take them on the journey. Of course, I always smiled as I replied, “Of course.” I sometimes sensed that others do not see themselves taking advantage of the precious opportunities that are out there. It seems to me that we can have the life of our dreams if we can imagine it. Certainly it does not have to be a trip down the Amazon, it could be a camp-out in the backyard, but everyday creativity and imagination simply mean breaking out of our usual patterns and trying on something new; perhaps even rounding up some young people. They can be a hoot. How have you used your imagination lately? I would love to hear about it. My best, donna







Look, a Unicorn!

Yesterday my three grand girls who live across the street came swimming at our pool. Ashley, age 9, shared with me her Sunday afternoon petting zoo adventure with her daddy. It seems that upon their arrival, my son Dan, their dad, spotted a goat with a single horn. In a delighted tone he called his girls' attention to it saying, "Girls look, a unicorn!"

"No Daddy," corrected Ashley in gleeful tones, "A unihorn!"

I am sure that they all laughed at Ashley's clever turn of phrase, I know that I have been mentally replaying her line and each time a smile and chuckle bubbles up inside me. "No Daddy a unihorn!" Ha Ha.

Earlier in the day yesterday I presented a training session for the staff of a county agency devoted to preventing child abuse in the community; a difficult and stressful job. The training was aimed at helping the participants to decompress after stressful cases. Toward the end of the workshop each member was asked to share his or her most effective stress reduction strategy. They had good ones: exercise, yoga, meditation, prayer, working with the preschoolers at church, listening to music, zumba dancing, blogging, playing with their grandchildren, or visiting with nieces and nephews. All of these were effective coping methods, but I noticed how many were in touch with the power of children. I recalled the statistic that children laugh about 425 times a day compared to 10-15 times a day for adults. Clearly as we take on the burdens of adult life we lose something. Perhaps silence grows within the humorous jokester inside of us.


As Ashley related her "unihorn" story to me she was strapping on her new lavender swim fins and matching mask and snorkel. Soon she slipped into the pool and began cruising the length of it, back and forth, no doubt imagining some treasure lurking at the bottom. As she swam away, I remained in the spa with her 3 year-old sister, Caroline, who now had me to herself.

Princess-loving Caroline


"Mimi, will you play with me?"


"Sure, Caroline. What should I do?"


"Well I am going to be the evil queen Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty and I am going to......." And with that she outlined a very elaborate plan which somehow paralled the Sleeping Beauty story. "So Mimi, when I say all that, you say, 'Okay', alright?"


With that, Caroline donned her mask and repeated the rather complicated story line. I was getting the idea that somehow we were actors in a play. When her words came to an ending, I dutifully repeated, "Okay", as I had been directed. A huge smiled beamed across her face and she dived into the water. Clearly I had said my line correctly! I was very pleased with myself.


As she merrily swam away I grinned. At that precise moment, 12 year-old Elizabeth did a running double flip off the diving board, sending a wave of splashing water cascading across the pool deck, much to the delight of 12 week-old Lacey the Puppy who had been standing nearby taking in all the excitement that shadows these three exciting girls.


Neuroscientists know that the mirroring neurons in our brains act like wi-fi, picking up signals from those around us; that depression and joy are in some ways "contagious." Science also knows that the mere act of creating a smile lets us feel happier. There is evidence that 40 smiles a day can actually allow endorphins to dump into our blood stream, that it is possible to "trick" our brain into thinking we are happy even with a fake set of smiles, and then we actually feel better! Why wouldn't we want to feel happier? Perhaps we should give ourselves permission to fall into the magical world of the children around us? If we would just stop for awhile and really enter into their imaginative and creative worlds, I think we would laugh and smile a whole lot more. So have you orbited with the kids lately? I would love to hear about it. 







Start Horn Blasts in the Early Morning Dark!

Hi there, Happy Mother's Day. You might recall that I have been adventuring in Croatia and some of the Balkan Republics. I have found myself hitting the ground running, literally! I arrived home a little over a week ago and collected

my new puppy the next day. At the same time my son, Rick, invited me to participate in the Orange County Marathon last Sunday. Since my granddaughter Jill was going to run it, her first such event, I jumped at the chance to spend time with them.

Sunday morning in the dark, we three adventurers met up at 4:30 a.m. with our running shoes securely fastened to our feet for no reason other than a chance to challenge ourselves. We arrived at the start line along with some 12,000 other like minded enthusiasts. The air was charged with excited energy. Jill and I saw Rick off for his full marathon at 5:45 and before long the starting horn sounded for our half marathon. We were off! Jill and I smiled our best wishes and headed south toward Corona Del Mar. She soon pulled ahead, intent on running, while I stayed focused on my passion for power walking. As I found my stride, I could feel the smile covering my face. As the thousands of us wound through the early morning streets, the residents cheered us on. My grin grew wider. Dawn was breaking and the Pacific Ocean glimmered in the background. What a great delight!


As the mile markers clicked by, I was alone in my thoughts. I took in the sayings on each. One of them said, "I celebrate our armed forces who give me the freedom to run." I thought about that and the fact that my nephew had just made the rank of sargeant in the Army. A wave of pride washed over me and a pang of gratefulness as I thought of all our young men and women risking their lives so we can be free. I lingered in the idea of what a privilege it is to be able to run. Another mile marker proclaimed, "I run for those who cannot." I thought of my friend who passed away six weeks ago. I imagined how much she would have loved to be out here celebrating the sheer pleasure of life.


A young woman speeded ahead of me and the back of her shirt said, "I am a survivor" and I flashed to the devastation that was my childhood and mentally paused to think about what it had taken to wade out of the murkiness of my father's pathology. For a long minute, with a few tears on my cheeks, I allowed myself to reflect on the little Donna inside of me who never gave up. Her deepest desire was to get free of her father and to live a normal life. I let myself feel a pang of respect for that brave little girl. I continued onward contemplating my thoughts. Soon another mile marker, "I run because I can!" By this time I had come upon some age-mates, grey hair, more my speed than the youths who literally raced past me. I raced up to one handsome couple, "Hey, there you are, my age-mates!" They laughed and greeted me back. "We race for longevity don't we?" I heartily agreed. "Motion is lotion!" I replied as I slipped ahead of them. They smiled.

Later at mile marker 13 they came upon me, "Hey your age-mates are here!" We all laughed again, and because I was in no real hurry I let them get ahead of me, afterall, I was just there to have fun. That smile was still plastered on my face. I powered into the finish line with 600 people behind me having thoroughly enjoyed it. I was presented with my medal and met up with my family. Later, my husband, Ken, went online and discovered that I was one minute and thirteen seconds from taking 3rd place in my age category. So now I am thinking perhaps I could have steamed ahead. I actually had no idea that I was anything like competitive in my age group, I was just trying not to come in last! Now there is a new idea in my head. Hummmm......... Competitive power walker! That sounds like even more fun. June 2nd we are all signed up for the San Diego Rock n Roll Marathon....


I just love the fact that there is so much opportunity out there in life if you just imagine it. An 80 year old man won the half marathon in his age group by doing it in 2 hours and 8 minutes!!! . I admire the 67 participants in the events of Sunday who are age 70 and over. It goes to show that it is not over until it is over. One single idea can set off a life-changing chain of events. Here I wanted to spend time with Rick and Jill and now I am imagining being competitive in San Diego. What a crazy and exciting idea! What crazy new adventure have you been thinking of? I would love to hear about it. I have my shoes on; I am out the door to train for San Diego!







Let's Live Out Loud!

Let's "live out loud!"


"Let's live out loud!" Last night that sentence practically jumped off the page of the book I was reading as I recalled the spectacle of the week before when 11,000 of us lined the streets for the biggest, noisiest non-motorized parade in the whole of the United States! We thrilled to 400 prancing horses as we celebrated spring and the return of the swallows to San Juan Capistrano. Spell bound by the pageantry of 200 entrants, we cheered dancing horses, admired the nutty clowns, enjoyed the spinning tee pees, the 11 marching bands, troops of acrobatic girls, and energetic old time cowboys. Costumes, music, and rowdy antics; it was a festival of noise and fun. It was Americana living out loud!

I thought about living out loud in terms of my new coaching clients who have challenged me to help them to grow their self confidence and happiness. Life can squash down the resilient part of our personalities leaving us feeling bereft. I think it is important that those with wounded hearts take back their power and find the courage to transform themselves into having strong "warrior's hearts." A "warrior heart" is one which once broken mends stronger than ever.

Certainly we cannot always control what happens to us but we can control our attitude toward it. A first step is to adopt an attitude of gratitude, to cherish precious moments. It is up to us to nourish our tender inner child. Our American culture celebrates hard work, but many get stuck overdoing the work aspect of life, while others become frozen in despair. Studies show that at the end of life few people wish that they had worked more, but many do regret that they did not stop and further enjoy life; many wish they had been fully present in their own lives.

There is no time to waste. Living out loud is about living life in vivid Technicolor. You can become conscious of the moods and messages you allow yourself to have. You can stop the negative narrative that our brains seem to automatically run. It is up to us to nurture and care for the tender child within. We need to make time to have fun and to develop an action plan to become "unstuck." Let us make the conscious choice to live the best we can. Let's more fully control our brains by seeing the positive all around us. This is YOUR TIME NOW! What specifically did you do this week that was enjoyable? How did you live out loud? I would like to hear about it.







Go Beyond

As I clamored into the rickety old motorized rickshaw called a "tuk tuk" at 4:40 a.m. on a pitch dark October morning in Luang Prabang, Laos, I was about to realize a dream that had dwelled in my heart for a very long time. Inhaling the fragrant perfumes of the tropical night, a smile played across my face. I recalled the hunger I felt across my teaching decades as I studied the world map mounted in my college classroom; I would imagine a time when I would be free to experience the planet. I hung on tighter as the tuk tuk bounced me along the rough road toward the day's adventure. One of many I planned to have in my life after 45 years in academia.

I felt fluttery with nervous butterflies as I readied myself to participate in an ancient tradition of giving alms to the town's Buddhist monks. Our little group disembarked the rickshaws at curbside where embroidered mats were lined up with pots of steaming sticky rice provided by our group's support. We were instructed about the seriousness of this religious tradition of giving alms in the hopes of earning good Karma. We were told it was imperative that we be properly draped in our silk scarves and exhibit the appropriate solemn demeanor. We were warned not to raise our heads higher than the monks' (we are mostly taller than they, so this required a lot of bending forward) and we were admonished not to look at, nor touch the monks as we presented our food.

I was not sure what to expect as I peered into the murky darkness hoping for a sighting, I had only read about this; I knew they would be coming with their collection pots. The streets were alive with excitement as others were vying for good wishes through giving to the hundred or more who would pass our way. Finally, after much anticipation I spotted a flash of orange color way up the street. They were coming! Suddenly out of the humid night, a single-file line of men was in front of us. They were moving silently and very rapidly. I scrambled to get my portions of rice into their waiting buckets. There were mere seconds between buckets to manage the rice delivery. I felt pressure to do it right and I had to learn fast, focusing completely on the task before me. I could hear my fellow travelers' worried whispers as they missed their targets and rice servings fell to the ground.

After the first group went through, I began to relax a bit. With the next band I found a millisecond to look into the open pots to see fruits and candy bars donated along the route. My bravery was increasing as each cluster came. With head bent down I studied their bare feet, and eventually sneaking a peek, I noticed a wide range in ages from a few men over sixty years old down to boys as young as six. The area's dozens of monestaries offer the best chance for an education for the boys of rural Laos. The monks venture out each day, all year, to collect the meals. For many this is their only food.

As dawn broke and the processionals dwindled, I could see the gatherings of colorful monks along the streets as they returned to their sanctuaries. I took a deep breath. It had been such a thrill. Then I took in another longer breath and slowly exhaled, lingering in the amazing images of the morning. I could only think "Wow, Really?" It is my turn to see the world; to explore what I only dreamed was out there waiting. Participating in that ancient rite had been awe-inspiring. I marveled that in my decision to travel alone to Southeast Asia, I was opening a personal door to a new world. I had been anxious about traveling by myself, as it was out of my comfort zone, but my time had come. Often the window of opportunity between the responsibilities of career and family and the ability to travel is small. As I headed back to the tuk tuk, I thought about the words of Emerson when he wrote "Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow." There is some truth in that, as well as a whole lot of adventure! Please seek your beyond






Gone Fishin'

As you might recall I have committed to training for my first full marathon (26 miles!) thus giving me more time than ever to reflect as I trek through the long miles readying my body for such challenge. Earlier this month, my husband and I lost a dear friend to cancer. My mind keeps returning to thoughts of her, on how well she lived her life; in joy and productivity as she modeled excellence for her two daughters. I think her life was her lesson. I keep coming back to how important it is that we be present in our own lives, not on automatic pilot. In a way, how we live could be seen as our ultimate art project. Is your life rich and vibrant, valuable, and enjoyable? Is it full of color and adventure?


Last week I was training along the shoreline at Crystal Cove and several surf fishermen were casting their lines in the gentle waves and it reminded of another such scene I once encountered. Ken and I were on the way home from one of my presentations when we decided to stop at Carpenteria State Beach, in California. We delighted in being together on a sunny fall afternoon and removed our shoes to wander hand-in-hand along the wet sand. Far down the beach we came upon a barefooted woman standing in the surf throwing out her fishing line. Curious as to what she had caught, I raced up the beach to peer into her bucket. It was empty.


As I walked back down to her we exchanged smiles. I noticed her wide straw hat, her radiant face and the fact that she was well into her eighties. Remarking on her activity, I asked, "Are you enjoying your life?" That question might have startled her a little, but immediately her face broke into a wide grin as she heartily explained, "Why this is fun!"


"So did you catch anything?" I continued.


"Why I caught a rather nice perch a few minutes ago though I put it back." Consipiratorially, she whispered, "We don't like to eat them!"


In that moment I saw her key to happiness. She was doing what brought her joy. She was fishing in the warm November sunshine for fish she did not need nor want, just for fun. That simple incident highlighted for me a secret to a satisfying life. I think we need to find things to do which fill us up. This may require some changes on our part. By making the best choices available, happiness and taking care of ourselves can become a habit. As the authors of our own lives, I like these words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: "It is not length of life, but depth of life," and I take solace in the fact that my wonderful friend lived a rich, deep and joyful life. I'd love to hear about how you are taking steps to ensure yours is too.






Love, Newfoundland Style

Donna with Cory, 1985
Donna with Cory, 1985

Friday afternoon I had the privilege of taking three of my 9 grand girls shopping for birthday girl, Elizabeth who was turning 12.   I had thought of lunch, shopping, and a movie, but the girls’ had no movie interest. I secretly worried that I could not entertain them all afternoon with just the mall. Well how completely WRONG I was about that! Claire’s, where you buy earrings and such, took almost an hour by itself! Anyway, weary from the clothes shopping leg of our expedition, I suggested we look at the puppies in the pet store. The girls were delighted.


We were enjoying viewing all the breeds of puppies when the girls spotted a black 6 week old Newfoundland. “Mimi, Look!  A Newfoundland!” They were proud of their discovery as they knew I had once had my own precious Newfy.  The four of us stood spellbound studying the adorable black fluffball when suddenly the clerk appeared behind the cage and lifted him out!


Is there a chance we could pet that little guy? I thought. I must have voiced some of my excitement because the young couple behind us explained,  “He is taking him out for us. We are going to meet the puppy in the visiting room.“ I turned to look at them, my enthusiasm spilled over as I shared with them about my Miss Cornelia Springhaven, a dog I got to adore for ten years. They were hanging on my words.

 “Hey come with us! Come into the room with us!”

 “Really?  You would let me?”

“Come on.” With that encouragement of course I followed along. The girls were off admiring all the other puppies. Secured within the visiting area, the clerk gently placed the Newfy puppy in the young man’s arms.  Time seemed to stand still as his wife and I admired the scene in front of us; a great big, tall, twenty-something young man cuddling a little 12 pound puppy.The puppy melted into his arms. We stared as he smiled a serene satisfaction.


After a bit, his wife begged to hold the dog and I offered to take their picture with my phone camera.  With that she handed me her phone and  I photographed the three of them while we chatted and exchanged names.  They seemed hungry for my motherly energy and I felt a bit like we were in the hospital delivery room crooning over a newborn.  I learned that they were from Mississippi , currently stationed at nearby Camp Pendelton, California, had been married a year and were not ready for a human baby, even though they shared possible baby names with me! I sang the praises of my Newfoundland experience.


Before long, the shop clerk came back to check in with them.  They did not offer much, dazed as they were by the puppy, so I volunteered, “I would like to adopt these humans!”  Everyone laughed. Of course I was not really kidding.  There was something so open and innocent  about these  young people. Soon my girls came to collect me as the Sweet Fac tory was the next stop on our list.


I lingered a bit longer.  The couple had decided to purchase the puppy. Not a small decision as he cost $2200, no doubt a large sum on a military salary.  I smiled my good byes.


That brief encounter  has stayed with me. I woke up thinking  about them this morning . How precious they are in their youthful attraction to the puppy, their charming  southern accents, how brave they are being away from home.  I recalled the earnest way the young man, Kincaid, spoke to me. He told me that he would soon ship out again.


 “Are you concerned about it?” I had asked.


In his beautiful slow drawl he replied,  “It will be the last time. The puppy will keep Kendra company while I am gone. I am not worried.”

 “You two know this little guy may grow to 150 pounds, right?”

 “We’ve been looking at Huskies. We know.” He smiled at me.  I just smiled back.


My thoughts today keep returning to them. They are far from home, the holidays just passed and they did not get to go home. They are alone out here in California, yet their attitude is so positive. He is not concerned about himself, for him it is about wife and country.  I watch a lot of news, BBC and World News, and I see a lot about  our forces overseas and the wars going on in the world.  This couple has brought some clarity to me about the sacrifice it takes to keep our country safe.  I am not sure I have seen our military through these eyes before, a boy, a girl and a puppy.  I hope we Americans, while we worry about the fiscal cliff and banning assault weapons, truly appreciate what it takes to mount our volunteer  military. We are sending our national  treasures, our  sons and daughters, our beautiful cherished youth, off to  do battle; to lose limbs,  peace of mind, and sometimes even their lives.  This young couple is just the tiniest sampling of the dedicated young people our country has raised.  I feel proud and humbled and delighted that the Newfy puppy can do his little part for this family.


It is a blessing when we can appreciate precious moments like this one with the couple who were learning to love Newfoundland style!






Meeting "Spider Woman": SE Asian Adventure

Since the 1970's when my college classes began to fill with Viet Nam War vets, some on hospital guerneys, I had a vision of visiting S. E. Asia. Later, as Saigon fell and thousands of Vietnamese refugees settled in Orange County, and many found their way to my classroom, my interest in that part of the world became significant. Last month that dream became a reality as I visited Thailand, Laos, Viet Nam and Cambodia, traveling to places and offered by means often outside my comfort zone. There was much to learn, but two highlights stand out. The first is a beautiful Cambodian woman known as "Spider Woman" and the second is my impression of a people who have been through so much.

As a Hollywood afficianado, hearing our guide, Sang, announce that we would soon be pulling into the village of "Spider Woman" captivated my attention; visions of old Spiderman movies danced in my head! He explained that her village is famous for its prized delicacy, fried tarantula! We were heading to Seam Reap, the starting point for treks into the famous Angkor temples, when our bus stopped in front of a typical bamboo house on stilts and a dozen or so young children ran to greet us in various stages of dress. The 16 of us in our group disembarked and cautiously strolled over to where an attractive young mother of three was waiting. She had her tarantula hunting stick in hand. The guide explained the process of tarantula catching and its value to the village. The villagers support themselves through farming but the tarantula business is a lucrative sideline with one fried delight selling for the equivalent of fifty cents American, a high price on the low per capita income in that country.


As Sang introduced "Spider Woman" to us, she smiled shyly and then guided us to a grassy corner of her yard. We watched with excitement as she poked her hunting stick into a deep hole. She kept working it until suddenly, success! She had one! Very carefully she urged the hairy creature out of its hole and coaxed it into her open palm. The guide narrated as she defanged the tarantula. For long minutes the spider remained in her open hand while we shot photo after photo. Next, she took it to her outdoor kitchen where she placed it in a colander with a dozen other spiders. With a quick pinch she ended their lives, washed them in water, rolled them in seasoning and placed them in a frying pan. They sizzled before us. The crowd laughed nervously, knowing that soon we would be invited to eat them. After a few short minutes of deep frying she drained them and offered them up!


My fellow travelers hung back. Sang put one in his mouth. The group did not move. As a grandmother of two strapping boys, I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gain an authentic "street cred" with my boys! I stepped forward, the group gasped. My friends got their cameras ready as I placed one hairy leg into my mouth and chewed! I even managed to swallow it! Some of the men in our group were not to be outdone and they too sampled the crispy delicacy. The excitement of eating tarantulas sustained us for the rest of the bus ride that day. In fact we are still talking about it! When I emailed photos of my tasting adventure to my grandsons the 17-year old said, "Even I would never be that daring!" Clearly those awful scratchy bites were worth it!


The nearly 3 week long expedition was through tour operator Overseas Adventure Travel. Known as O.A.T., they are dedicated to cultural immersion experiences through small groups. The result is that we got to meet many people in their homes and villages. I sought out the children who seemed fascinated by my blonde hair and my video camera. It was rather emotional for me to have so many groups of little kids surrounding me everywhere we stopped. Huge brown eyes greeted me and took in my every move. I began video taping them and sharing the camera shots which resulted in hysterical giggling, shoving, laughing and more giggles. They demanded rewind after rewind. Sometimes I filmed their mothers and then showed them the movies. Shy smiles would be my reward.


The days were filled with fascinating experiences from pre-dawn alms giving to the monks, to a Hmong chief who danced for us in his hut. This was especially meaningful to me because my husband and I both taught Hmong refugees who came to the U.S. in the 1970's as illiterate children. We joined school children at their desks and met a blacksmith pounding out his wares on an old shell casing; we met an educated man whose life work is to teach organic farming and the importance of using adobe bricks over bamboo for housing.


Reminders of the long war were everywhere, from dilapidated old jeeps rotting in the grass to bomb shells sitting in nearby doorways. One day our bus parked on an abandoned air strip that had been used by the American forces. At night it becomes an impromptu marketplace. We learned that in both Laos and Cambodia there are millions of active land mines buried in the fields and hills, a constant threat to the children playing nearby. Seeing people with missing limbs became a common sight as did bullet holes in the walls of temples. I was particularly shocked to find that Communist controlled Ho Chi Minh City (previously Saigon) is not only vibrant, but affluent with its designer shops lining the wide boulevards as thousands of young people dash about on motor scooters.


The Killing Fields of Cambodia and the Cu Chi tunnels near Saigon where 16,000 Viet Cong struck at our military forces from below, were a grim reminder of what has transpired in these war torn countries. The Genocide Museum and the War Remnants Museum left a tragic resonance in my heart. I have come away with a new understanding of South East Asia, an appreciation for the harsh realities of a political system where one is not safe to express an opinion, and I have gained a deep respect for these modest people. So many millions of them have so little, but yet all I had to do was take a simple photo to be engulfed in giggles and laughter. This adventure showed me the warmth, the kindness and the joyful souls of the people of South East Asia. It was my honor to visit them.






It Takes a Village - Trials of a Toothfairy

Labor Day weekend found our entire family at our mountain cabin. Our grand daughter Katie, age 7, came running to a group of us and announced that she had lost another tooth! She was so excited! "Wow! We all responded with appropriate enthusiasm. Aunt Julie asked, "Will the tooth fairy find you here?"


In a confident tone Katie responded, "Well she always finds me at Catalina and when I am on my trips. I think she will find me here! I cannot believe that it fell out while I was eating an Oreo!"


 A little later her 10-year-old sister Ella came in and announced that she too had lost a tooth.


 "Oh No!" I said. "What is happening to your teeth girls? Is it the candy?"


 "No Mimi. You silly. It is natural, our permanent teeth are coming in!"


 "Oh!" I responded thoughtfully.

Not much more was said about the lost teeth, as ultimate frizbee was played, a contingent went on an exploratory hike, then dinner, and finally a big dance.


After the dance, everyone went to bed. Suddenly my daughter, their aunt Julie realized as she was fluffing her pillow that perhaps her brother and sister-in-law forgot the tooth fairy. Julie found Katie's older sister Jill. In an urgent whisper she asked,"Jill did they forget the tooth fairy?"


 "Oh gosh, I'm not sure. I'll go ask my parents." Jill quietly roused her dad who was asleep. "Dad, did you guys do the tooth fairy?"


 "Oh no! I forgot all about it. Take care of it for me. Please." And he rolled over and went back to sleep.


Jill came back downstairs and reported, "Aunt Julie they forgot."


Julie frantically rummaged through her purse and found only twenties and a five. She knew Ella had also lost a tooth that day. She needed to find some money fast! The usual tooth fairy amount was two dollars per tooth. Julie ran around the cabin asking any one who was still awake, "Do you have some ones? "

Jake, her 17-year-old responded, "Mom, I have a five. But it is only a loan!"


"I'll take it!" With that Julie slipped quietly into the sleeping girls' room. She bent down to kiss each sleeping girl good night and surreptitiously slipped a five under each pillow.


Julie came upstairs to where her dad and I were reading in our room and reported this little drama of how the toothfairy was forgotten! We laughed and thought maybe by the last of five girls it is harder to remember all these details. We said goodnight and enjoyed Julie's little adventure.


Early the next morning, I awoke and quietly went downstairs for coffee. Katie was already up and had quite an exciting story to share.


"Mimi you won't believe this," she paused and took a breath, "but that tooth I lost yesterday must be my lucky tooth because I am 7! Guess how much the tooth fairy left?"


I paused thoughtfully to play her game. "I think 2 dollars."

"No, Mimi. It must be my lucky tooth. She left five dollars! I just knew she would find me here but five dollars! I cannot believe it! What is so odd is that when I went to the bathroom about an hour after I had gone to sleep I found the money on the floor near my pillow. Maybe when I turned my pillow it fell to the floor. It seems funny that the tooth fairy came so fast!"


This little vignette illustrates the sheer joy children are able to find in small events, and as adults I think it is important for us to search out these precious moments when we can. It seems like when we are successful in appreciating the little things, they can string together to create happiness. I know they do for me. I hope Katie is not getting suspicious...






Road Trip to the Past: Laffing Sal

Last week on a look-at-colleges road trip with my daughter and two grandsons, I was reunited with an old friend, an enchantress of my youth, “Laffing Sal.” She and her sisters were the iconic animated cackling figures that laughed and gyrated in amusement parks across the country from 1930-1950. I discovered her on display at the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz. She was the trademark of a bygone era; the water front amusement piers. The Laffing Sals, 300 of them in all, were the stout gap-toothed animated figures who beckoned to patrons long before Disney’s animated characters were born. During my childhood I enjoyed the Long Beach Pike, Venice Pier at the end of Venice Boulevard, the Ocean Park Pier which was south of the still standing Santa Monica pier, the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz and Playland in San Francisco. The Ocean Park Pier became Pacific Ocean Park (POP) in the 60’s and then was later torn down. There were two Sals greeting us at Ocean Park and all it took to turn on my own giggle machine as a child was to hear their crazy laughs.


Moving past the Sal exhibit we came to an original 1920’s carousel. As we climbed up onto our colorful carved horses, Sal’s cackle was still filling the midway, causing me to smile and maybe to giggle a bit inside. The organ music started up and our horses began to move, slowly at first, but gaining speed with each rotation. We were off, hoping to get the brass ring and a free ride. I watched as daughter Julie successfully plucked her first ring, then grandson James who missed his, then my turn. Out went my eager fingers but I missed. Around we went again gaining more speed; the others easily grasping their rings. My turn again and this time I nabbed it! I was so elated that I forgot to toss it at the waiting clown face. Around and around we went faster and faster. I managed to clutch another and as we were whirling and grabbing, smiling and laughing, my brain spun backward to my 7 year old arm stretching out as far as possible ready to grab the same kind of ring. It was the Ocean Park Pier of my childhood. The 1940’s, still the hay days of the water front amusement piers up and down the west coast. In full view of my memory, I could almost smell the cotton candy and hear the delighted squeals of the children mixed with the canned laughter of the two Laffing Sals. My sister and I rode the merry-go-round so often in those days that catching the magical brass ring and getting a free ride were frequent yet coveted events.


In my memory I vividly saw my sister and myself taking the boardwalk tram all the way from Venice to Ocean Park, for just a nickel, where we would find our grand father playing checkers at a table at the base of the pier. He would have reached into his dark suit pocket and pulled out enough change to let us ride for hours. Pulling myself to the present, I thought that this experience today is not so different from that of 60 years ago, except that now I am the grand parent and the children are my grandchildren, I am not going for a checkers victory, I still am after that brass ring! Silly Donna, I thought to myself, surely you have it. It has to be the brass ring to live this long, to raise a beautiful family and decades later to be playing the same kinds of amusements with them that you enjoyed.


The beach amusement parks have mostly disappeared across time, victims of storm damage and social change, but this one in Santa Cruz boasts that it is the only such one on the whole of the west coast that has been in continuous operation, since 1907. Sadly, the Sals have not been seen much since the 1950’s and they are mostly extinct. As we climbed off our carousel horses the kids spied the bumper car attraction nearby and we were off again. I lingered in a last memory of warm blue berry pie at Playland, the Artic frozen creams at Ocean Park and rolling in the spinning tunnels of them all. As I raced to get a good bumper car, I wished that the tourists at the “scene” that is Venice today could have known that graceful pier that jutted out from the sand. I thought how rich and wonderful it is to appreciate these little moments, our rich California history, and to share them with loved ones. I feel so joyful and why not? I got to revisit a delightful chapter of my past. Thank you Laffing Sal!






A Whale of a Tail

A few weeks ago I read this amazing story, Chasing the Light by Eugene O'Kelly. It was a beautiful little story about this charismatic and handsome 52 year old finding the truth of happiness at the last minute. As a top level CEO he regularly worked 90 hour weeks, traveled 150,000 miles per year and missed all of his young child's school events. He described his life as "running, always at 100 miles per hour." Bedtime for him was a chance to plan out six to fifteen months in the future. With his diagnosis of terminal, inoperable brain cancer, he had the epiphany that somehow he had missed the bigger picture. His story was of discovering happiness in those last few weeks of life. He came to understand that life cannot be lived in the past nor solely focused on the future, for what we have is just each moment in time, the NOW. He learned that happiness is about stringing little "perfect moments together." He confessed that during the last weeks he had more of them than in the past ten years put together.


Those of you reading my posts, know that my take on life has been the same. So many people seem to forget this. We have NOW. Let us not let it drown in worry, disappointments, grief and anger. Last week on the Catalina Express ferry on the way to our annual family vacation, the captain yelled, "Out there! A blow! Blue Whales! Ladies and Gentlemen, we are going whale watching!"


Within minutes he had gone off course, stopped the engines, and opened the bow to us. Elizabeth and Ashley were securely tucked under each of my arms as we sat excitedly on a bench in the very front. A gasp went out from the crowd. There it was a distant blow. Then another! "He has gone down. He will be up in five minutes. Hold on! Everyone sit down."


Ken slid in next to me. We scanned the horizon for any sign of the whale. We held our breath. You could feel the electric current of excitement between me and the girls. Before long there was another blow, closer now, and then a sight which was only of my dreams. Suddenly a glorious shiny black whale tail broke through the surface of the blue water! The crowd exclaimed in unison. The whale gave us a glorious extended view while the crowd sat and stared in stunned silence. The tail and time seemed to stand still. What a beautiful long perfect moment. After the tail slipped below the surface we dared to breath. It had been magical!


Surely that was enough of a perfect moment for anyone for a day, but there was more to come. Nine year old Ashley fell asleep in my arms as the boat resumed our trip to Avalon. I gloried in her steady soft breathing as I rested my chin against her blonde curls. I am keenly aware that these beautiful children are growing up so fast. I stayed in that "moment" all the way to the island. It was especially comforting after the two rough weeks I have been suffering. Suddenly two Saturdays ago I awoke with the vision lost in my right eye. The retinal specialist administered a shot in it and hopefully within a year some of the vision will be restored, but the point is that I was able to climb out of my own anxious knot of fear of losing my vision and glory in the moment and the blessings I have right now. I have felt positive and strong ever since, and slowly the vision is improving. Eugene O'Kelly teaches a harsh lesson, we do not have time to live agonizing in anxiety, fear or rage. I would love to hear from you. What "perfect moment" have you enjoyed lately?






Snake Charmers - Drawn to Danger

As an adventurer, I love nature hikes. This all began a few weeks ago, when my power-walker gal pals and I were striding through the hills of San Juan Capistrano, when suddenly my friend struck out her arm to stop me. "Listen!" She exclaimed. The rattling sound was so loud that I thought someone had turned on the sprinklers. This was dumb, as we were far from civilization: no sprinkers here! Holding our breath, our eyes darted and quickly spotted a very thick three-foot-plus rattler crossing the dirt trail just in front of us. Loud was his warning: stay back! And we did. Very excitedly, however, as it was a very loud rattling. That sent us into spasms of chatter for the rest of the hike. It was quite breath-taking.


This last Sunday, it happened again. We were on a family Father's Day six-mile-hike in the canyons above El Moro by Corona Del Mar, our little band of five grand girls and three adults was walking along enjoying the ocean views when there it was, a very much alive, very long, rattle snake in the middle of our trail. We stopped, took our time, each of us planning our strategy for scooting past it. Once safely out of danger, we began to admire it from a few feet away. My son Rick pulled out his cell phone camera took its photo, and then I had the idea of being in the photo with the snake! That started it: we all posed with it! I cannot help but laugh at how quickly I have become charmed by these long scary fellows.


In between these encounters, a week ago, I was in my garage at home when I looked down to see a little baby rattlesnake near my feet. It was not moving. I did not freak out, as I called to husband Ken. "Hey, Ken, there is a baby rattler in here, I am pretty sure it is dead." We have lived in snake country for 40 years and Ken teases me for assuming that all snakes are rattlers! So with a cynical expression painted on his face, he came to check out my situation. His tone was derisive as he pronounced, "It is a lizard!"

Now, I admit we are at the grandparent stage of life, which is pretty funny in itself, however we have not both lost it! I grew more certain that the beheaded thing was in fact a baby rattlesnake. I responded, "Ah dude, here put on my glasses!" With glasses on, Ken now examines the critter and finally agrees, "Yeah, it is a rattler. Watch the cats today." With that he went back to whatever he was doing. I was left thinking, Hey wait a minute! (This was clearly a "husband" job!) "Honey will you get rid of it for me?"


A little later he comes into the kitchen and warns, "Donna you are going to have to learn how to do these things yourself, and to change light bulbs for when I am gone..."


"Where are you going? I asked, knowing the rest of his warning. "You are even off your blood pressure medicine. The doctor gave you a good report!"


He responded, "I know, I am just saying..."


This is a truly weird stage of life! Anyway, I have been thinking: what is it about danger that so attracts us, that takes our breath away? We humans are drawn to speed, to roller coasters, to fire, to adventure, and apparently the thrill of being near poisonous snakes! I wrote this before my morning walk today and darned if I did not see another long diamond backed snake, but I saw no rattles and I dared not get too close...






The Great Catalina Marathon Adventure

Months before the Catalina Marathon, my marathoning husband, Ken challenged Jake to complete the 26.2 mile event with him. Jake at 14 had never considered such an arduous activity and had his reservations, but with both uncles competing and his grandpa, he was persuaded to sign up. When the big day approached, Ken and both uncles, Rick and Dan, enthusiastically advised him on all aspects marathon. Jake must have felt a bit like a deer in the headlights with so many big men energetically initiating him into their passion for running.


The big day arrived, under cover of early morning darkness, the Avalon boat took the racers down the twenty some miles to the Isthmus to the race start. Ken advised Jake to stay by his side so that Ken could pace him and mentor him. The gun went off! The race began! Jake took off and after an uphill ascent looked around for his grandfather. As his grandfather was nowhere to be seen, Jake ran back through the crowd of runners to find his grandfather. After about two miles of Jake walking as he slowed for his grandfather, Ken, finally realizing that Jake was light years faster, said, “Jake go ahead, you know what to do. Just ask for help if you get in trouble.”


Many hours passed and those of us at the finish line knew that Rick and Dan would be finishing soon. Jake’s sister, Jaycelin, and I set up our spot to cheer in our four competitors. As expected, Rick and Dan charged across the line in about 5 hours. They felt strong and had a good race, but they had not seen Jake nor their dad since the race began. They invited us back to the hotel while they changed and had a snack, as they were certain Jake was at least an hour or two behind them. After all, it was his first marathon and it is a difficult one.


Jaycelin and I looked at each other. “No. We are staying here. What if they come in and we miss them? This is Jake’s first race and he would be disappointed if no one were here to cheer him in.” My sons insisted that it was not possible that either Jake or their dad would be along very soon. It is a hard up and down hill race with several thousand feet of elevation. Jaycelin and I would not budge. We were staying.


Holding vigil along the finish of the course, we eyed the racers as they came in. Ten minutes passed. We continued to keep a watchful eye to the finishers. More minutes passed, when suddenly, Jaycelin yelled, “Mimi that’s him!! There’s Jake!”


We were so excited that we could hardly contain ourselves. We were jumping and yelling as Jake, hardly even sweating, keeping a nice steady pace, waved to us as he ran by.


At the finish line, other participants were coming up to Jake and giving him “high fives” and calling out “You’re a Rock Star!!” “We can’t believe you!” Jake mostly smiled. He was not particularly out of breath nor flushed and he had just run a huge distance!


That level of congratulation kept up the entire time Jake was cooling down and we were waiting for Ken. More back slaps. “You are a star!” “You are amazing!” On and on it went as celebrants reeled Jake into their culture. I, as the proud grandmother, basked in the reflected glow from Jake. The other racers could not get enough of him. It was incredible. One older man who had taken Jake under his wing along the course went over to the stats sheets and came back with the news that Jake had won first place in his age category and that he was the youngest racer in the event!


Jake just smiled and “high fived” them back, and nodded his head, but I could see what Jake was thinking. He could not imagine what the big deal was all about. There were 26.2 miles up and down hills and he just put his mind to the task and completed it. Not a big deal.”


Another hour or so passed and Ken came in and was a bit concerned about where Jake was and was he okay? Ken could not believe it when he heard the news that Jake won his age classification and was over- all the youngest racer. Ken just smiled as he caught his breath.


To date, Jake has not yet run another marathon, having gone to a high school life filled with academics and school athletics, but he still talks about that race and his realization that his mind can carry his body to unexpected success. It is often well said that life is a marathon and not a sprint. We have to believe in ourselves and commit to the time and energy it takes to make a winning life.


"People see the world not as it is, but as they are."~ Al Lee






A Valentine Memory - Pretty Woman

Twenty three years ago, my husband, a pretty conservative guy by nature, decided to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary by doing something out of character for him. To the family’s shock, he had the words” Lady Donna” permanently inked on his back hip! As a former mayor and high school principal this was so surprising that it became a source of great fun and interest to the entire family. However as the years passed and the grand kids arrived not much attention was given to the subject. Recently I was recalling that tattoo story and for some reason my mind jumped to this funny incident regarding it.


It was summertime and I was entertaining two of my granddaughters, Elizabeth and Ashley.  We planned to swim in the pool, but six-year-old Elizabeth had just had an eye exam and her eyes would be dilated another hour which prevented her from swimming. In order for her to even be outside she needed to keep her dark glasses on. They were big oversized dark glasses. To entertain herself while her sister swam, she was playing with some toys next to the pool when suddenly the song “Pretty Woman” came on my CD player.


Instantly Elizabeth was on her feet and began to mime the lyrics of the song as she danced. When the words “pretty woman walk on by………..” were crooned, she strategically placed her left hand on her little hip and sashayed across the pool deck in perfect time with the beat of the song. When the words explained that the pretty woman was okay, Elizabeth, still strutting, gestured the OK sign with her right hand all in sync with the music. She kept that exaggerated miming on for the entire song. As an observer and an adoring grandmother, I was not just impressed with her dancing ability put so enjoyed her wonderful sense of humor. Of course those huge dark glasses added to her mystique!


The next song to come on was “Who is Holding Donna Now.” Continuing to dance and pantomime, I asked Elizabeth, “So, who is holding Donna now?” (Mind you all the grandchildren call me “Mimi.” I am not sure that some of them even know my given name). Without missing a beat she smiled and said, “Poppa.” I responded, “How do you know?” With that, still dancing and in time with the beat, she gestured with her hand to the back of her right hip where we both knew that her Poppa had a tattoo that declared, “Lady Donna.”


I am still smiling about this and reminding myself that kids really do not miss much and that they often remember the darndest things!!! This Valentine’s Day you might just think of something funny, charming and loving that crossed your life’s path. Happy Valentine’s Day! Affectionately, Donna








Just Thinking about 2012

Happy 2012!


The new year can provide an opportunity to look at your life with fresh eyes. Maybe now is the time to reset your compass? Last week my husband and I toured some local university campuses with our oldest granddaughter as she thinks about her future.  At one of the campuses we came upon this quotation by Franz Kafka, “The world will freely offer itself to you, to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” I am not so sure about the ecstasy part, but the idea that opportunity freely offers itself to us got me thinking about how our lives are the result of the choices we make.


Back in the 1970’s I had a student in class whose speech and motor ability were severely affected by cerebral palsy.  She joined my public speaking class and seemed to really enjoy it, and then after the first video taped assignment she dropped the class. I was very disappointed.  I felt we had a connection and I had wanted to work with her.  The next summer she completed speech with another teacher and moved on with her life becoming a television actress and author.  Just a few years ago she came back to our college to be honored as an outstanding alumnus and I was her host.  She remembered me with a big hug and I was able to ask her, “So why did you drop my speech class?”  With no hesitation at all she replied, “That video tape you made was the first time I had ever seen what cerebral palsy looked like.”  She was very open about how traumatic that had been for her.  Finally four decades later I learned what had transpired with her in my class.  What impresses me is that instead of giving up and hiding from cerebral palsy, she took it as a challenge.  She is best known as Cousin Geri on the 80’s sitcom “Facts of Life” and was one of the stars of the 2004 TV series “Deadwood,” but the real story is that not only did she face her condition, she was the first person in television history with a disability to have a recurring role on prime time!  Geri Jewell took what she had and became a trail blazer, a hero.


I really enjoy art metaphors.  I think our individual lives can be the ultimate testament of our creativity, of our “artist” ability.  I think our choices and actions are like brush stokes against the canvas of our being.  I know scores of people who have quietly “painted” satisfying and fulfilling lives.  Are you one of them?  Or do you sometimes feel a nagging restlessness?  Do you sometimes think; so is this all there is?  This could be the year that you dive in and embrace something else that would be challenging for you.  Now may be your time to “paint” something vibrant in your life, perhaps an idea that has lain dormant these past years?  It could be your time to unmask the world and let it roll freely at your feet!






House of Joy

Just two weeks out from Christmas and all around I can see stressed out holiday people. Parties and tree lightings, open houses and gift exchanges, trips out of town……..opportunities abound to socialize, or perhaps obligations abound to socialize? It is easy to get caught up in the fever of it all. This afternoon my son stopped by to return a borrowed table, his three girls were belted into their seats of his car in my driveway.


As I walked him out of the house to his car, he said, “Mom I have been turning down all these party invitations…” I heard the apology in his voice as his sentence trailed off. “There were three just for today …I guess I am not being very social. I want to build the girls a new playhouse.” I noticed as he said that the tone of his voice began to lift. “This time it will be waterproof!” As he described the specifications of this new, better playhouse, I scanned the interior of his car. The girls’ eyes were bright with excitement. Clearly they were onboard about the new playhouse idea!


Intuitively my son chose the right audience in me when he mentioned his concern over turned-down invitations. My immediate response was to agree, that he needs to consider himself. I knew that during this week he had spent at least two days out of town on business. I stood a few moments longer at the passenger door as he climbed in. From the back seat I could feel the vibration of excitement emanating from eight-year-old Ashley, eager to share her morning with daddy and her sisters. Next to her was her chatty two-year-old sister, Caroline, all cinched into her baby seat, pointing and exclaiming to me in her baby talk ways. In the driver’s seat sat the eldest, eleven year-old Elizabeth, who was getting some behind-the-wheel coaching from her daddy in my private driveway.


All afternoon I replayed that sweet scene. My son apologizing aloud for wanting to devote his day and his energy to his little girls, teaching them adult skills, and building them something of delight, instead of hiring a baby sitter and running around to parties with people he scarcely knows. It does not seem like much of a conflict to those of us on the outside looking in. We know that those three little girls will be grown and gone in a heartbeat. These days are the “good old days” he will look back on in the future. How wise he is to spend the time and energy as he chooses with his loved ones, instead of in social obligations.


During my decades in the college classroom one of my favorite sayings to my students was to command them in a strong tone, “Get out of the House of Should and into the House of Choice!” They would look a bit stunned and then when I followed up with “Stop shoulding all over yourself!” they burst into laughter. But they listened. There is some serious truth in that idea. Maybe during these holiday weeks you can do that a bit more. Choose where you want to put your time and energy. Let us stop running on automatic pilot saying “Yes” when we really want to say “No.” Let's strive to make joyful decisions.


I think my son was wise to invest in his girls. I hear him hammering across the street just now. How ironic, I talk about the House of Should and he is literally on the slope of his yard, just across the road from my home, building a House of Joy.


My husband, Ken, spent all day yesterday with his friend of forty years who will soon be ninety. They attended an eight hour marathon of high school football at Anaheim Stadium. They had a marvelously good time. All he could talk about was the incredible lust for life his friend has. Ken came away convinced that a life well-lived must come with a big dose of adventure and joy.


Please live in the house of joy! Why don’t we promise ourselves that we will do that this season as well. Perhaps do this all year long? Our time on the planet is so short. We deserve to enjoy the majesty of life, to thrive as we live on this beautiful earth. We owe it to ourselves to remember the thrill of Christmas when we were five years old. Happy Holidays to you. 









I listened with ears on my heart!

Last week the participants in my life coaching class were sharing a success they had enjoyed during the previous week. One lady, a mother of two grown sons, reported that when her son began his usual long monologue of complaints about his younger brother, that instead of trying to solve it or minimize it as was her habit, she told us that she listened with ears on her heart. Instead of following her old Parent ways she relied on her feelings. She said her son’s response was immediate. His entire attitude changed in a good way as he saw that he was really being heard.


It got me thinking about how much more comfortable it is for so many of us to stay in our “heads” or as Dr. Eric Berne would have said, to stay in our Parent State. In that know-it-all place where we probably give unwanted advice, lots of criticism, or withhold approval, we feel in control. But that sense of personal control must come at the expense of the others around us who are hoping for understanding and love.


Imagine what the world would be like if we got more into our hearts than our heads and really listened to our family members, friends and coworkers. Perhaps the angry daughters would soften toward their mothers if mother would just LISTEN. Possibly the controlling husband would have a happier wife if he would actually acknowledge her point of view. Maybe the rebellious son would stop acting-out if he did not have to work so hard to be seen.


When my kids were teens I taught them to get out of the “House of Should” and into the “House of Choice.” I was trying to get them to stop going on “automatic pilot” and think about what they really wanted to do. As time passed and they would catch me doing something that my strong Parent State said that I “should” do, which clearly I did not want to do, my kids would parrot back, “Mom, get out of the house of should!” It always made me giggle a bit to hear their wise advice and it would snap me to consciousness. They helped to keep me in touch with my heart and not let my strong head do all the ruling.


In my field, I see a lot of blaming of the economy, blaming of ex-husbands, bad families, and self pity for the difficulties in life. I think if we could lose the “blame game,” the “I’m too busy game,” or the “when my ship comes in” magical thought, we could be happier. It is time to be accountable for our actions, to stop the accusations and the procrastinating. What if we examined our own rackets and ways of manipulating the people in our lives? What if we honestly evaluated our lives to see if we are stuck? If you are not experiencing the life you have imagined for yourself then the old behaviors are not working.


A way to get on track is to become accountable. You are 100% responsible for your life. To begin, you could discover five of your most self defeating behaviors and change them. Starting today you could take action to make your life what you imagined, but it requires getting out of the old comfort zone and taking profound action. You have to set specific goals with time- lines, you would have to become a ruthless time manager who refuses to let others distract you. Now is our time. It is up to us.


Personally, I think we humans are amazing miracles. We managed to get born and live in this beautiful time in history in this beautiful place. It is time to let go of blaming others for our place in the world. I think it is essential that we become authentic and accountable. We are the only ones in charge of our happiness. Are the stories and words that you say to yourself and others enhancing or sabotaging life?


Across the years and across the world I have told my story, my horrible ugly story of having been raped by my father since my earliest memory, of the 15 month long trial against him when as middle aged women, my sisters and I had to endure just to get him to stop molesting our 4 year old niece, his granddaughter. Everywhere I go audiences want to know why I seem so okay. For years I felt like a deer immobilized in the headlights when asked that question. Now I realize I always had a plan. As a youth I forced myself to get excellent grades because I saw them as the yellow brick road out of my father’s tyranny. As a newlywed and college graduate I enrolled in a master’s degree program while I earned my teaching credentials and gestated my first child.


The get-away plan worked. I took a tenure track college teaching job, my husband and I began to buy up rental property. We had our babies and kept the hard work up until we were financially independent. We have three successful adult children and eleven happy successful grandchildren. We have both learned that each day is a gift. We try to acknowledge our blessings and strive to enhance our lives and the lives of those around us.


Last year I was finally brave enough to retire after 45 years of college teaching. I have begun a new career as a life coach and speaker. It is thrilling and fulfilling. My mornings are packed with horse- back riding, speed walking with a new gang of energetic women, yoga on the hill in Dana Point overlooking the ocean and the on-going love affair with my three golden retrievers and six cats. I know that goal setting, hard work, silver lining thinking and reframing a situation into a positive, are tools that work for me to keep me happy. I also know that adequate exercise, enough sleep, and a proper diet are my essential foundation. I love this thought of Emily Dickenson’s "It will never come again is what makes life so sweet!" I hope you will make the most of yours! I hope you will listen with ears on your heart and let the people in your life really know you. I hope you are being your best self for yourself and realize that life is fun! My best, Donna






Water and Elephants: A Mixture of Bliss

“Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.” Deuteronomy 4:9


If we are lucky, there are a handful of particularly precious experiences packed into our memory. I know that the birth of my daughter was especially profound for me. Twenty-five years later, another momentous occurrence happened on a family ski trip. My husband, daughter and I were riding up the chair lift as she regaled us with details of her upcoming wedding. We were spellbound by the beauty of the telling when suddenly we were surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of migrating Monarch butterflies. They had chosen us for their brief encounter. The settled on our legs, our arms and in our hair. They made magic of that wonderful chair ride and I will never forget it! Heartwarming reflections but part of their beauty lies in their infrequency and their transitory nature. Impossibly, last week another such amazing happening was added to my mental treasure trove.


I had been enjoying a 17 day trek through the lower Annapurna Mountains of Nepal with 10 other trekkers. It had been marvelously energetic and culturally enriching. Two days of vigorous river rafting were included and I knew that the last part of the itinerary featured an elephant safari through the jungle. I had no idea what new enchantment that activity was going to hold for me.


Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal was the site for the elephant safari. The first stop was the elephant compound where a naturalist taught us the habits and characteristics of Indian elephants. To emphasize his points he brought out two 11,000 pound female elephants for demonstration. We learned that their teeth change out seven times across their lives, they live on more than 300 pounds of vegetation per day and drink 100 liters of water and in captivity require three handlers each. Elephants communicate with each other across vast distances at a very low frequency and they are the largest animals on the Indian subcontinent. Sadly they are also are on the endangered species list, victims of encroaching civilization. The conclusion of the talk featured a hand feeding of the elephants by us! When it was my turn, I gingerly approached my elephant of choice with a large packet of her favorite greens. Simply putting my 5’3” self up next to this 5 plus ton giant was a thrill. Serving the bundle of food to her big trunk was another. I could feel my grin spreading from ear to ear. This was so exciting! Seriously how could get it better than this? I even got to feed her a second bundle! Oh, but there were more surprises were waiting for me!

Our program continued, we left the elephant compound and climbed up into ox carts and journeyed to a local village to interact with the famous Tharu tribe which had historically been successful in resisting the malaria carrying mosquitoes of that wet lowlands. It was most inter-culturally enriching.


The next day our robust band of adventurers gathered at dawn for the elephant safari. We watched four of the elephants being driven slowly across the shallow Rapti River by their trainers. We hiked down to the river and descended to its banks ourselves where we boarded our dug-out canoes which were poled across the water.

Our elephants were now “saddled” and ready to take us rhino watching. I chose a particularly beautiful pink-eared elephant and was directed to shimmy up her body as she kneeled for me. I climbed up using her foot as a step and a loop in her tail that the trainer provided for me for the other step up. With a big pull I was on top of her! I took the front position in the wooden saddle and positioned my legs so that they were around the shoulders of the trainer. The trainer sat behind the elephant’s head with his bare feet placed against the back of each of her huge ears. He held a small sledge hammer in his right hand. My two friends, Joyce and Dale, climbed aboard and soon we were off! So how very exciting was this to trample through the jungle from our tall perch searching for wildlife? As we made our way deeper into the tropical jungle we fell silent, the only sounds coming from the elephant as she was directed to pull large branches from the trees to make a path. I smiled every time I spotted her wily trunk sneaking out for a snack. Her trainer quickly corrected her behavior through foot motions against the back of her ears. Kids will be kids! Our two hour safari included sightings of a family of one-horned rhinos and many birds, herds of deer and even a mongoose. It was a marvelous adventure and it could have stopped there, but the biggest thrill of the day was still waiting for me around the corner.


Once again we disembarked from our elephants, took many snapshots and returned to our dug-out canoes to go back to the camp. Our guide, Raj, invited us to bathe the elephants if we cared to, but that we needed to quickly put on our bathing suits and return to the river bank. We had ten minutes! On cue ten minutes later, the eleven of us lined the banks of the muddy river. It was a dark and drizzly morning, the remnants of monsoon season.


The Mahouts had two of the elephants standing in the water near the bank. Our guide asked if anyone wanted to sit on the elephant and be sprayed by her mighty trunk? What? I thought we were going to bathe the elephants, not the other way around! Without thinking I raised my hand and was immediately guided down the muddy river bank to the awaiting elephant. I was helped up on to her back which was now free of the wooden saddle. She walked into deeper waters.

Suddenly WHAM I was blasted by a trunk full of cold water!! The gang from the river yelled, “Donna close your mouth!” I tried to close it and then suddenly once more. WHAM!!! She sprayed me again. By now I was screaming with glee, trying to keep my mouth closed while yelling and waiting for the next blast! She sprayed me five times!! What great fun that was! Then she started to roll over onto her side and I had instant visions of my left leg being crushed so I scramble off of her back and into the water and swam to the shore. Oh my gosh. I thought!! What could be better than that? Who even dreamed this was a possibility? Who even dreamed this was possible in life?


Some of my fellow trekkers waded out in the water for their turns at elephant showers. We were all delighted by the picture taking and the elephants and the water. But still, we were not bathing elephants, they were bathing us! Sometime later, when all of us had had our fill of being water soaked, Raj, said, “So does anyone want to clean the elephants?”


“I do!” was my immediate response, not having any idea at all what this aspect of the day entailed. He directed me to wade down to the elephants yet again. By now they were lounging on their sides in about four feet of water. Clearly they were enjoying lazing around in the water. I was guided to one elephant’s back and I began to spread water up on her skin and rub. It was marvelous. Her dark grey hide was thick and felt rough to the touch. She seemed to really enjoy the caresses. Soon, growing more confident, I waded up to her gigantic head and began stroking and cleaning her enormous ear. I rubbed gently and she seemed to lean into my touch. As I continued my stroking of her ear, I studied her beautiful long thick black eye lashes, the few graceful hairs on her head, and noted the look of contentment in the visible eye. She was so huge and beautiful and wonderful. I could hardly take a breath for feeling the enormity of the moment I was sharing with her. It was something I imagine like being with God. She was still. She was relaxed. We both seemed to have moved into a kind of a bliss. It lasted for long minutes.


After a while my fellow elephant cleaners were trudging out of the water through the mud onto the bank of the river. We were all soaked to the bone. The rain continued and we were getting chilled. Everyone was starting back. I was still glued in bliss to my elephant’s beautiful head. Finally from the shore, Raj, called, “So Donna are you staying?”


That pulled me from my reverie. “Could I?” I meekly asked.

Raj smiled. It might be that he could see the expression that must have been on my face. He replied, “Yes.” But clearly it was time to go back. I lingered a few more precious minutes in the water, truly “soaking in” the experience and the magic. The elephant continued to lean into me and I into her.


Finally one of the trainers came to help me to shore. I was far behind my group and got a bit lost trying to make my way back to camp. On the trail, I passed three Tharu women who were out harvesting the morning crops. I think they read the rapture on my face, plus they could clearly see that I was disoriented. They giggled a bit at my expense. I was, after all, soaking wet, in a bit of a trance, and lost! Very gently they turned me around and pointed me in the correct direction toward camp. They shared shy smiles of understanding with me, and one woman even gave my arm an affectionate squeeze! Here I was, half way around the planet in a foreign culture, being assisted by kind-hearted women garbed in colorful red saris, and they reached out to me, sisters to sister. We did not share language or customs, but we did share a bond of understanding.

Poignant, short lived and beautiful. That was my moment with the elephant and water and with the beautiful Tharu women in Chitwan National Park, Nepal.


“It will never come again is what makes life so sweet.” Emily Dickenson






Relationship Corner: Does He Really Have Hearing Loss?

I have pestered my husband for years about not hearing me, even accusing him of having a hearing loss, to the point that he recently had his hearing checked by a specialist! Guess what? He can hear just fine! He just does not listen! That news inspired me to adjust my messages and to remember what I’d been teaching all these years; the important differences between the male and female modes of communication.


New brain research using MRI and PET scan technology has discovered that the male and female brains respond differently during communication. For women the emotion center as well as the language centers are highly activated. For men, it is only the language center. For example, if she is upset about something, she wants to ventilate, he on the other hand might say, “get over it!” In the male mode, he is more quickly able to get over an incident. Another problem for many men is that women drown them in details, blah blah blah…… so they tune them out! Females enjoy long well developed responses, while men just want to get to the point!


Another intriguing finding has to do with the indirect language style used by many women. Perhaps it is evolution, biology or culture, but many girls and women soften their wants and desires and talk in a coded manner. For example, if a woman asks her partner, “Do I look fat in these jeans?” she may be mining for a compliment. A lot of husbands and boyfriends probably get into trouble when they give what they think is an honest answer! Or she may say, “would you like to stop on the way home for a bite to eat?” He does not feel hungry so quickly responds, “No.” Then he is in big trouble as she sulks into her and he has no idea why!


The female code is hard for many men to understand. She might have wanted some quiet time for them as a couple before they got back to the kids. Men tend toward directness, while women have been taught from an early age to be polite and agreeable.


So before I begin one of my typically rambling monologues with my husband, I need to remember these simple pointers. I must get to the point more quickly and to make sure that I actually have his attention before I start talking!






For the Love of Students: A 45 year Perspective

Yesterday was my last day as a teacher at Cypress College, in Southern California. I am the last member of the founding faculty to retire. My mind skipped back three months to the life altering step I had taken the day I met with the teacher retirement counselor. I still felt stunned. I cannot believe this! I could not believe that I was finally brave enough to give up the students and the classroom!

I recall the counselor, an energetic man with a booming voice as he proclaimed, “Only 3% of all teachers ever make it to 40 years and you are at 45! How did you do that?” I just smiled, while I thought, “Well it was easy, I did it for the love of our students.“


Driving home to San Juan Capistrano from the O.C. Education Office, I mulled over his question. How does one stay energized across all those four and a half decades and some 13,000 students? How does anyone stay energized in any profession?


I flashed back to when I joined the Cypress College family, it was a fall evening in 1966 and my husband and I had gotten our baby to bed. The phone rang, I answered, “Hello.”


“Donna, Congratulations!! This Dr. Dan Walker over here at Cypress Junior College, and we want to offer you a full-time tenure track teaching position.”


I happily accepted. I was a community college graduate myself, and although I was only 22 years old, I loved the idea of starting out my career with a brand new college. In fact Cypress Junior College had been written up in Newsweek Magazine as the “Instant Campus: From tomato field to classes in 74 days.” This was wonderful, but in the back of my mind I knew that I had a tiger by the tail with such a big job. We wanted a larger family and I knew the maternity policy in those days. There was no system in place for family leave and it was not considered acceptable to be in seen in a family condition in the classroom.


However it was the 60’s and society was changing, I took a risk and strategized a schedule that allowed the birth of my next two children to coincide with my long summer breaks. It worked! No one at all acknowledged my pregnancies…….truly it was an early version of “Don’t ask, Don’t tell.” My children arrived and I never missed a day of teaching. There were no congratulatory baby showers or campus-wide announcements. “Don’t tell!”


My 53 colleagues and I settled into building curricula, attracting more students and growing our campus. We expanded it from a few hundred students in the 60’s to the 17,000 students our college serves today. What has been a thrill for me is to see our community college system living up to California’s Master Plan for Higher Education, 1960-1975. The dream of the Master Plan was that the community college would serve the state’s higher education needs for the first two years, in addition to providing certificate programs and lifelong learning.


That dream has become a reality, not just in California but across the United States. The American community college system is the workhorse of higher education, educating 11 million students each year. That is half of all undergraduates!


For so many millions of Americans the community college is a door-way to hope. It is a place to earn an affordable education, a place for a second chance, or a place to learn where one fits into the world. The community college has taken on the daunting task of educating anyone who can benefit from an education. In our state, 40% of the students do not speak English at home, while 35% are the first generation in their family ever to attend college. Seventy percent of our students come to our doors under prepared in reading, writing and math.


I have personally been inspired these 45 years by being part of a culture dedicated to improving the lives of our community. My faculty and administrative colleagues are in sync with striving forward, our Cypress College motto decrees, “Motivating Minds.” It is a thrilling environment where students are turned on to learning new ideas, where one’s colleagues welcome students with open hearts, where each day a teacher might see the light of discovery flash across a student’s face.


I recall how magnetizing was my student ,Kerri, so disabled that she needed a robotic talking board and battery operated wheel chair to come to class. Her determination and perseverance were a daily lesson to her classmates of the power and value of education. How proud we all were the day she graduated from Cypress College. Currently, she teaches other disabled students. Then there was, Jack, retired military and newly sober in his 60’s, earning straight A’s and going on and finishing a Bachelor’s Degree. Today Jack is paying it forward working with others in the recovery field. Yesterday I met with the case worker to admit my 97 year old aunt into a hospice program. The social worker was a graduate of my college, had taken our communication classes and gone on to receive her Master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. She could not say enough about her community college experience, spending afternoons at her kitchen table doing homework with her two elementary- school- aged children. There are thousands upon thousands of these stories of triumph and hope within the walls of our community colleges.


The community college system, due in large part to the economic crisis that is gripping our nation, is living up to its full potential as the public universities are forced to cut more and more classes. Our classrooms are full to capacity and our students are more eager than ever. The energy field that emanates from them permeates the fabric of the institution, inspiring all of us to do our best. We are turning out business people, media consultants, future lawyers, doctors, nurses, psychiatric technicians, dental hygienists, automobile specialists, refrigeration experts, mortuary scientists, and more. These are good people ready to take their place in the world.


So as I move on to my new adventures, I feel proud that I hitched my dreams to those of the community college system, and particularly to Cypress College. I am proud to have watched it grow from the first scrawny trees to the premier learning institution it is today with its state of the art library/learning resource center, to its smart classrooms, its serene and beautiful grounds and its highly dedicated faculty and staff, How funny to recall the years of traveling on Valley View Street. In the 60’s and 70’s it was lined with odiferous dairy farms. Today that street is host to international corporate headquarters, quite a change in forty years! As Orange County grew up so did Cypress College and I am proud to have dedicated these decades to helping my students to have been a part of it.


Perhaps the answer to the puzzle, how does one stay energized across a lifetime career? Certainly it is something about really believing in what you do , in sharing yourself with others, with the excitement that each day brings. Absolutely, I do know that it was for the love of teaching and our students that kept me going all those years.






The Magical Classroom: 6th Graders Who Just Won’t Leave

Sometimes it is just a quick thing, suddenly there it is, an epiphany. I had that on this day and I want to share with you.




     I wanted to share this inspirational experience I had one day meeting up with some of my grandchildren. On this particular day, I had the pleasure of accompanying my daughter, Julie, as she came to pick her three children up after school.. You can probably remember the crazy energy and enthusiasm of all the children finally freed after seven hours in the classroom. It was contagious! I could not help but smile as the children of all ages raced past us, some playfully pushing at one another glad to be free.


     After meeting two of my grandchildren and their classmates and teachers, my oldest grandson, Jake, still had not come out of his 6th grade classroom, so we set out to find him. As a 40 year veteran of the public school classroom I felt comfortable on the elementary school campus and as a grandmother I was enjoying being able to share in my grandkids’ world if only for a short while.


    Upon opening Jake’s classroom door an electric wave of excitement spilled over the threshold. I was stunned to find that the room was still full of sixth graders happily working at their desks! By now about 15 to 20 minutes had elapsed since the dismissal bell and yet the students were not leaving or apparently even thinking about leaving. The culture of the classroom engulfed me in its warm embrace. It felt magical.


      I mentioned to Jake how late it was and yet the children were not leaving. He said, “Oh Mimi, we never do. We like it here. We always stay after.” Before I knew it, I was meeting a key element of the class: Tank. I was introduced to a big yellow service dog that the students support and clearly love. Why would the children want to leave?


      Tank is their philanthropic project. They support him and one other service dog, Foster, through their non-profit business. They make and sell dog biscuits as well as build and sell dog houses. All of this to help support the service dogs who assist in their reading-buddy project with the younger children of the school. They also donate money to the local animal shelter. I thought to myself, we have come a long way in education.


      Clearly the opportunity to know Tank and Foster, to support them, to have a business and a business plan had brought out the imagination and enthusiasm of the children while teaching them life skills to say nothing of fostering an interest in their own teaching and concern of younger children. Jake showed me the cubby area where the service dogs, the 1st and 2nd graders and the 6th grader work on the younger child’s reading skills. The young children get to read to the dog under the supervision of the older student. Jake explained to me that research evidence reveals a gain in confidence on the part of the young reader when the child reads to the dog. Clearly there is confidence to be gained by the 6th grader as well. I also know that in addition there is solid science behind the positive effects pets have on human beings. Talk about a win win situation!


       These days there is concern about inadequacies in our educational system, about the detrimental role of electronics and television on our youth, worry that children are not spending enough time reading and more. As a community college professor I frequently encounter students who are not wholly prepared for their academics. It seems to me that if more teachers like Jake’s “Mrs. B” could understand as she does how to truly rivet the students and to turn learning into magic, more students would be better prepared in the future. I applaud this school, Olivenhein Pioneer Elementary school in San Diego County, CA for its imagination and success and particularly Mrs. Benowitz of the 6th grade. She truly is making a difference.






Your Input!

Your time is now and it’s time for me, after 45 years in the classroom, to retool my life’s work into another direction.  Which of the following areas would interest you?


Workshops/seminars/personal life coaching in:


Personal growth:

  • "Survivor to Thriver: Human hardiness workshop for those were abused as children”
  • “Boot camp for energizing your self esteem”
  • “Kicking your happiness levels into high gear”
  • “Harness your own considerable power”
  • “Relationship Magic: We live in our relationships”
  • “Learn to cope with toxic-difficult people”
  • “You are driving me crazy!: stop the dysfunctional cycles around you.”
  • “Become an assertive woman: Get your own way!”
  • “Ideas for living a bigger, more amazing life!”


Workshops and seminars on effective communication:

  • “Giving a killer presentation”
  • “Making the most of meetings: from listener to leader”
  • “Become a master at small talk and real talk”
  • “Conflict resolution: Win–Win thinking in a Win–Lose world”


So what, in my areas of expertise, would you be interested in discussing?