Moving at Winter’s Speed

Outside, a cold weather front is trying really hard to snow. Or, what passes for snow in the DC area. Which is actually sleet. Inside, the aroma of a leftover roast being reheated into sandwiches wafts up from the kitchen. The house is full of us, but quiet. ¬†Though it’s still astronomically autumn for another week, it sure feels like winter has arrived.¬†

My family and I came from a place where winters are considerably tougher. My teenage kids especially miss the deep snows of Wisconsin. I am glad for the longer falls here and colorful early springs, which make the winter season shorter and easier. Even so, I can find the darkness a challenge, since my office job takes me inside during the few bright hours of December weekdays. I have to make a conscious effort to see the sun.

Winter used to get me down. But years ago, an apple farmer pointed out something to me that people closer to the land understand. Every living thing that experiences winter goes through an adjustment, a change of gear. Trees pull into their roots. Animals grow new coats, hibernate or fly south. Our own bodies go through metabolic realignment as we become accustomed to the cold. We crave different foods for a reason. Before we had artificial light, allowing us to stay awake at all hours, people slowed down in winter, too. Winter asks us to change our routine. But how many of us do? How many of us expect to keep the same pace all year round, or worse — speed up as we move through the holidays?

Once I accepted the premise that winter is about down-shifting, I began to enjoy it more. Roll with it instead of fighting it. I go to bed early. I switch sports. I bike less and do yoga more. I tighten my social calendar. Family sees more of me and friends see less. I get back to reading my book list. Mostly, I take the pressure off to be productive every single minute. I allow more time for sitting still. And in that sitting still, I reflect. On the past year, a snowy view, a warm house…

A few weeks ago, I finally finished a couch-to-5K program that I had been working on, guided by podcasts in my phone. My progress was so slow. Life kept getting in the way. It took me three tries before I could complete the nine-week regimen, which requires three interval training sessions per week with incremental increases in the running time. And then one day, I ran the full 30 minutes. Sometimes progress is like that. It can be hard to see your next breakthrough when the improvements are imperceptibly gradual.

Winter can be like that, too. From the moment it officially arrives, on the solstice, the season is already on its way out. The days start growing longer again. Just a few minutes per week, but that’s all it takes. Soon it will be time for a new growth spurt and a new year.

So in the meantime, below the surface, winter is strengthening the roots of your life. My advice is try not to rush it. Enjoy. Do get out in the daylight if you can. Bundle up. Reconnect with loved ones. Then have a cup of tea and a nap. And let winter do its thing.



Sharing Gifts of the Heart

Sometimes fortunate things come to us by way of unfortunate events. Happiness is a choice, and humility, gratitude and generosity are at the heart of it.

My friend Dr Hassan Tetteh is such a wizard at turning unfortunate events into blessings, you might think that his entire life has been charmed. I have been meaning to write to you about Dr. Tetteh, whom I know simply as Hassan, for a while. I wish you could meet him. You would feel better about everything if you did. Hassan is an award-winning heart surgeon, a commander in the US Navy and assistant professor for surgery at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. Based on his experiences in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan in 2011, where he treated critically injured Marines in the sand and heat of a war zone for several months, Hassan wrote an inspirational, heartfelt novel called Gifts of the Heart, published this summer.

I first became aware of Hassan’s inspirational gifts while at his house on July 4th, 2011 for his deployment send-off party. A large gathering of family, friends and mentors from throughout his life came to celebrate his achievements and wish him well. At the time he received his letter, this dedicated father and health policy expert had other plans. Like many of our men and women in uniform, he was abruptly called to leave behind his young family and home to be put in harms way. He said he wanted to go with a positive attitude. I was struck by the grace with which Hassan accepted what he was called to do.

As I was leaving the party, I told my friend so. And he shared with me then one of the life lessons that later pop up in his book, about facing great doubt, uncertainty and even despair. In a nutshell, there is no looking back, only forward. “When we live the committed life to which we are called, we will make a mark in this world,” he said.

Hassan is a gentle spirit with nerves of steel, capable of skillfully stitching your heart back together under the most austere or hectic conditions and just as skilled with a word of praise or comfort. Gifts of the Heart follows the harrowing experiences of a similarly talented surgeon on the battlefield. Hassan has kept a daily journal with notes about his life for many years. After returning from his deployment, he dedicated several months to turning his experiences into a book, timing it’s release to coincide with a speaking engagement at the International Toastmasters Convention. Writing the book was one way for Hassan to share life lessons about gratitude, humility and expanding one’s capacity for love and respect for others. “It was cathartic,” he said at a recent book-launch. He has also started a blog called doctortetteh and is on speaking tour promoting his book. His goal is to reach one million people with its hopeful message. Part of the proceeds go to support veterans organizations.

In addition to the writing projects, Hassan has been visiting schools and giving motivational talks to young people. He recently spent two days traveling to speak with teenagers at Brooklyn Tech High School, elementary school students at BelovED Community Charter School in Jersey City, and pre-health professionals at University of Maryland College Park. He shared his professional life story and encouraged them to aim high, work hard, never give up, and seek rewarding careers in health care. He also talked about the power of faith and grace.

Hassan is the son of immigrants whose courageous journey to the Unites States from Africa factors prominently in his fictional, reality-based tale. At a recent book-signing in Washington, DC, I heard him speak about our military heroes and his deep-seeded faith in the US despite all its troubles. “It’s the most imperfect, perfect place to be,” he says.

During his deployment, I wrote to Hassan from time to time to offer a word of encouragement, inquire as to how he was doing. I hadn’t done such a good job staying in touch with soldiers in my family who had been deployed earlier and I wanted to do a better job of supporting my friend. Hassan replied to every email and thanked me for staying in touch. In one of my messages, it was the tenth anniversary of 9-11, and I wrote about my son Henry, who insisted on a family moment of silence that morning in honor of the people who died, though he was a toddler in 2001 and has no memory of the attacks.

When Hassan returned to the States, he told me he had a gift for my boy and asked when he could meet him. It happened that Henry was planning a party – a classic Henry-style extravaganza with an elaborate menu and creative activities for younger kids. So I invited Hassan and his family to join us.

Hassan and his wife Lisa and their children came to the party with this giant red box addressed to Henry. In the midst of the party, Henry and I sat on the couch and opened it together. Inside was a huge wooden black frame behind glass that held an American flag, folded to a triangle with just the stars on blue showing. Below the flag was an official document stating that the flag had flown over Hassan’s base in Afghanistan on December 10, 2011 in Henry’s honor.

When he first saw the flag, Henry didn’t really get the full meaning of it. He thanked Hassan and quickly went back to the party.

Later, after his guests had left, my boy took a closer look at the American flag, the document and the case they came in. He asked me if the flag had already flown. I said “Yes, that’s the whole idea. It flew in Afghanistan and its dedicated to you, for your patriotism.”

Henry’s eyes widened.

“How does that make you feel?” I asked.

“Proud,” he replied, with a look of surprise, as if the emotion were brand new to him.

At the time, Henry was going through a really difficult period adjusting to his first year of middle-school, dealing with bullies and a heftier course load. At home, his older sister wasn’t giving him much relief, in fact she snubbed his party. Watching Henry take in the full meaning of an honorary US flag in his name was like watching the lion in the Wizard of Oz get his courage. The display now hangs prominently in his room.

You never know what a word of encouragement or thanks might mean to someone else, whether he’s a soldier in a war zone, or a 12-year-old boy just trying to make it through the sixth grade.

Hassan makes it a practice of doing thoughtful things for people and he suggests that all of us do the same. At the book-launch, he left his listeners with what he calls a “A Recipe for Happiness,” a list of actions to focus your mind and your life on joy, based in part on the happiness work of a Harvard classmate, Shawn Achor. These actions include habits you have heard before – focusing on gratitude, physical exercise, journaling and simple meditation. But the capper is making “random acts of kindness” a part of your daily life.

I thought about this, as I was in line to receive a copy of Gifts of the Heart at the book signing. Since I already had one copy that my friend had autographed to me, I stopped to think about who I should have this book dedicated to. I was reminded of my dad, a Korean War veteran who is also retired colonel with the Wisconsin National Guard. Like Hassan, my father has also worked in war zones and treated injured soldiers. Perhaps he would appreciate the thought. So I asked Hassan to autograph the book to him. A few days later, I mailed the surprise gift with a card thanking my father for his service and for being my dad. Come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever thanked him for either of those things before.

Hassan was right. I felt happier after sending it.

A week or two later, my father called to thank me. He enjoyed the book and said it reminded him very much of his service in medical tents in Korea, a pivotal time in his youth. Medicine is more advanced now, but many of the same battlefield challenges remain. My dad can talk. A long time. And normally, I am shorter on patience. But the very least we can do for our soldiers who have bravely served, whether recently or long ago, is to hear their stories. So, I let him talk. And with new appreciation. We were on the phone for over an hour.

My dad had questions about my friend, the author of the book. He wanted to know how I knew him and how a heart surgeon with a family could possibly find time to write a novel. I explained that we were classmates at the Harvard Kennedy School. In addition to his medical degree, Hassan has an MBA from Johns Hopkins University and an MPA from Harvard. “There are two things you need to know about Dr. Hassan Tetteh,” I said. “First of all, there is nothing he can’t do. He’s extraordinary that way. And secondly, we’re pretty sure he doesn’t sleep.”


If you are in New York City for Veterans Day, you can meet the author at his NYC Book Launch Event on Sunday, November 10, from 5-7 pm at the Broad Street Ballroom, 41 Broad Street, New York, NY 10004. To register or make a donation to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Organization, visit the link here.

For more about the book Gifts of the Heart.

Or follow Doctor Tetteh at or on twitter @doctortetteh

Story by Amy Ambrose




A Little Play Goes a Long Way

Play is the root of everything. Every relationship begins with play. Play is the beginning of trust.

These are among the lessons you learn when you hang out with Gary Auerbach, otherwise known as The Frisbee Guy. Gary’s life work is play. In 1995, Gary and his Frisbee partner won the World Championship in Freestyle Frisbee. Gary has been promoting Frisbee, and play in general, ever since.

He travels the country from the Mid-Atlantic and North East to North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and New Orleans, showing folks how to catch and toss a Frisbee and introducing people of all ages to his favorite sport.

I first met Gary in 2012 through my husband, who is also a performer and has attended many showcases with him. The Frisbee Guy stayed at our house last summer as he passed through town for a show. In gratitude, he brought a fresh berry pie. While my daughter and I served up the dessert, the Champion of Play told stories about his travels. I admired how sure he was of what he loved to do and his complete lack of pretense. While we talked, he brought out a handful of little plastic pin-wheel toys called Flarbles. They reminded me of the winged elm tree seeds I remember tossing in the air as a kid, to watch them twirl back down. “These are helicopters,” I said, reminiscing.

Gary showed my teenage daughter and me how to hold the stem of the plastic helicopters between our ‘snapping fingers’ and how to give a quick flick and watch them go. At first, I fumbled my Flarbles; they repeatedly refused to launch. I laughed as they bounced off the table and hit the floor. But within a few tries I had the little pink and green tops flying across the room. So did Carolyn. I was surprised at how amusing this was and how it immediately put us all at ease.

Gary is an unfailingly kind and patient person and I’ve only ever seen him in a cheerful mood. Think of an extra-energetic Mr. Rogers with curly auburn hair. At 47, he carries himself with the agility of a much younger person and with the centeredness of a studied guru. His message is simple. Play a little more. Stress a little less. Here’s a Frisbee. It’s easy. Let me show you.

At his shows for schools, camps, corporate and family events, Gary combines athletics, story-telling, a little juggling and a few tricks — like the one where he tosses a Frisbee across the full length of a basketball court and sinks it in the opposing basket. These days, his demonstrations are less about showing-off his skills than they are about helping folks in the audience discover what they can do. “I want to show people what they can learn in an hour or ten seconds, not 10,000 hours,” he says.

At a typical summer camp demonstration, I watched the kids lined up in rows in a gymnasium to practice the crab catch and alligator catch, following The Frisbee Guy’s example. Then he taught them to toss a Frisbee in the air and clap their hands before they caught it again. For the older grades, he explained the wide array of newer Frisbee sports, from Ultimate Frisbee to Frisbee baseball, disc golf and Frisbee bowling. For the littler ones, he took the time to let each child spin a Frisbee on one finger. For this, he used a ‘trainer Frisbee’ called a spinjammer with a place-holder on the underside, making it easier to learn. One by one, the tots watched in amazement as the spinning discs on their fingers seemed to balance in mid-air.

In addition to winning the World Championships in “freestyle”, Gary has been to several world club championships in Ultimate Frisbee. While he could focus on competitive play, he prefers his traveling, interactive shows as a way of connecting with people. “Even though I am absent at each year’s World Championships, I am still promoting the sport. I would like to reach thousands and thousands of people. Put a Frisbee in their hands. And you might say, Oh, no, I can’t. But in a few minutes I can show you that you can,” he says.

Gary points out that when people play together, they start connecting. They smile. Laugh. Let down some barriers. They relax a little more. Stress a little less.

The world could use a little more play. Most of us as adults make a point of scheduling our lives around work, taking care of home and families, maybe the occasional night out, some creative projects, reading, maybe exercise. But fun for the sake of fun? Come to think of it, I run out of day before I get to that part. I bet most of us do.

Fortunately, according to Gary, our nation is in the midst of massive movement bringing people back to a community of play. In August, Pittsburgh held its annual City of Play Festival, one of many national conferences discussing play and introducing new games. At the Come Out and Play Festival in New York, one group invented a game called Bicycle Opener, a team sport with hula hoop goals attached to bicycle helmets. These are grown-ups we’re talking about. Gary’s favorite play conference is the US Play Coalition in Clemson, South Carolina, where he has presented sessions on “Hands-On Play,” and plans to again.

Whether it’s a team of co-workers or a congregation or a family, the way to build relationships is through play, Gary says. “Play together at least once a week. Play something new. When you see what makes your peers laugh, you see what makes them tick, what motivates them. And that’s some deep insight!”

Gary has lots of new ideas for promoting play. One of these is to present himself as a Playcologist, a guy in a labcoat with a booth like Lucy with her psychiatrist booth in a Peanuts cartoon. At your appointment, the Playcologist will run some stress tests and give you a play prescription. He might prescribe you to skip around, or stand on one foot and make silly faces. Or he might get you to spin a Flarble in your kitchen.

I happened to find one of the little helicopters while cleaning my living room recently. I wondered where the rest of them disappeared to and I thought about tossing this one out before it jammed the vacuum cleaner. But instead I shut off the machine. I picked up the pinwheel, pinched it between my snapping fingers and set it loose in the air. It hit a wall. So I tried again. It spit straight to the floor. So I gave it several more goes.

Well, waddya know. There’s hope for me, yet. Eventually, I got that little toy to fly again. I set the gift aside in a safe place. And with a slightly brighter heart, I went back to my cleaning.




The Long, Winding Road

My mind keeps coming back to the long, winding road up Mount Tamalpais.

After a week of bouncing around Los Angeles and San Francisco, showing her art portfolio to college advisers, visiting landmarks and sharing time with family and friends, my 17-year-old daughter and I took a day by ourselves. We rented a car in Berkeley and set out to find the Muir Woods and the seashore.

Our California vacation was the culmination of several weeks on our own together, while her brother and dad have been on an extended road trip. While home, she had been working through a number of action steps on a rising-senior’s to-do list, from completing her art concentration to researching colleges, getting her drivers permit and studying for placement exams. A few weeks ago she had a revelation that wherever she goes she wants to focus on global history. She wants a smaller venue if she can find one, but also a platform from which she can travel the world. For the most part, she takes her upcoming applications and decisions in stride, at least outwardly. I can sometimes feel a little overwhelmed by the tyranny of details, the onslaught of options.

As we started our journey up the hillside on California Route 1, it was late morning. The Indigo Girls were singing “Power of Two”. We listened to a lot of music that day, but the lines of that song would ring in my head for the next week: “So baby we’re fine, we’re okay. And I’m here to stop your crying. Chase all the ghosts from your head. I’m stronger than the monster beneath your bed…” Though its meant to be a romantic tune, the lyrics speak to me as a mom, part guide and part passenger on this amazing route with my daughter where neither of us knows the way. I think I first heard the tune when she was a baby.

The road up Mount Tamalpais curves around bend after bend. The combination of height and tight turns made my knees wobbly. I couldn’t see what was over the edge or what was ahead of us. I hung onto the steering wheel like it was a life raft, trained my eyes on the white and yellow lines marking my lane, and only occasionally glanced over to see the view, which at that point was mostly a wall of fog. We knew grandeur was there even though we couldn’t quite make it out. Once in a while the sun broke through and we caught a glimpse of the low valleys, lush and green and deep. And a moment later, the mist would hide the view again.

When we arrived at the Muir Woods, the main parking lots were full and we missed our chance to park along the road, to hike the main trails to the redwood forest. Carolyn suggested we just keep driving rather than turning back.

So we continued on. We rounded curve after curve, sometimes toward the shoulder rail and sometimes hugging the mountain-side. Cars coming around the other way, especially doubly-tall tour buses, made me inhale and focus. On a rational level, I felt safe, but at the same time I had this strange feeling that the car could slide off the hill at any moment or launch off the curve into midair, as if gravity itself could lose its grip. I took it slow. And paid attention.

It is said that we are born with only two fears, the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. Every other fear is learned. I remember the moment I learned to fear heights. As a kid I got too close to an open window on the second floor of our house. My dad swooped me up and spanked my behind good and hard in order to keep me safe. This worked. I never went close to an open window again.

Carolyn is proof that learned fears can skip a generation. I’m thankful they do. She stared out the window with a relaxed gaze. In those moments when we caught a sense of how high we were, she was happy to look way, way, down. And to mock me.

Eventually, we left the mountain and stopped for a cup of a cocoa in Stinson Beach, a little town that doesn’t like tourists to use their bathrooms.

We decided to keep driving and to follow the signs to the Point Reyes Lighthouse. We passed through 25 miles of bucolic fields peppered with cows and horses and seaside towns. Most of the time we didn’t speak, except to remark on the landscape. Carolyn worked the radio as it cut in and out and blended musical genres in odd combinations.

I noticed a beached boat on a sand berm and stopped to take a photo. Ladies with paints and canvas on easels told us the boat had been there for fifty years, a favorite subject among artists. I was reminded of the saying that a ship at harbor is safe but that is not what ships are built for.

We kept driving, up and around a thousand plush, green hillsides. After we arrived at the parking area for the lighthouse, we followed the other tourists up a footpath where dark trees leaned over as if in a storm. An empty park bench overlooked a beach far below, watching waves push foam ashore.

Then we saw the little lighthouse which was set way down the other side of this crest, closer to the water. Such a little landmark for all this fuss, I thought. To get to it, we climbed down a long, narrow staircase. We paused.

We breathed in deep the sea air and stared out over the open water. I thought about how such a small light could have had such an important job, warning ships. It doesn’t take much to tell you where you need to know to go, and where not to. A fog horn sounded. We looked back and saw the drop-off of a the rocky cliff to the water.

On our return trip to Berkeley we decided to go back again through the Muir Woods, to see if there was any more of the forest we could see, now that morning’s veil had lifted. Along the way, we spotted a white heron on the water’s edge. I stopped to get a better look and he flew away. But not so far. I snapped some distant photos as he gracefully stepped among the water grasses.

From the moment they arrive they are already inching away. Kids, that is. To the bassinet, to the room down the hall, to grade school. And they keep stepping. On our first night in San Francisco, Carolyn decided to take a walk on her own in the unfamiliar neighborhood we were visiting. By nightfall I was worried she had gotten lost. A friend asked what would you do if she were living away at college? That’s different, I said. Because then she wouldn’t be coming home to me. We started combing the neighborhood, looking for her. About fifteen minutes later she called for a pick-up. While we were concerned, she was happy as a clam. It was dark and foggy. She didn’t know where she was or how to get back to the house. But that’s not the same as being lost. As far as she was concerned, she was right where she needed to be.

This time, at Muir Woods, we parked at the first chance we got. Now the roads were fuller than they were in the morning. We took the first available trail, a short horse path that wound through brush and trees along a creek. The path led us to the only red wood tree we would see. As we approached, we noticed that it was actually two red woods, rooted closely together. We stared up through their branches to the canopy above. I touched the red-brick bark.

Shortly after that, we got back in the car and headed again up Mount Tamalpais a few more miles. Only now, the fog was gone. We had a bright, clear view of the panoramic valleys and tall bluffs — God’s handiwork, as my sister Edy would say. I took a good long stare at the forested hills that rolled down and away as fast as the years, at a horizon as endless as a young girl’s potential. More than once, I let out a gasp. And I understood why I couldn’t see it all before.

If I had any sooner, I am pretty sure it would have been too much to take.









A House Apart

I walk past dozens of homes in my leafy neighborhood on my way to work or to the corner store. My mind on other things, I notice, admire and immediately forget their many pretty porches, flower gardens and lawn furniture. I don’t often pick up on subtle changes. So, it took me a while to notice one house that had fallen into disrepair and what was happening to it.

At some point, this little one-and-a-half story cape cod started looking scraggly, the crab-grass lawn neglected. I am not sure whether that was before or after it changed owners. For a period of time it was boarded up. Then one day giant trash containers appeared in the driveway. Bit by bit, the innards of the house were removed and the dumpsters filled to the brim. Then the roof was taken away as well as the sheetrock of the interior walls and the supporting beams. After a period of weeks, all that was left was a white brick exterior, which was really red brick painted white, and the chimney. A tall shady tree overlooked these bare bones of what was probably once an active home full of family life. That house on the corner is getting torn down, I thought, observing its pitiful shell.

But that didn’t seem right. I looked again. I noticed slender t-shaped wooden braces supporting the brick in several spots around the exterior. And the layers of paint had been scraped off in a small area by the side door, as if someone had been inspecting the red brick underneath or considering whether to keep the white coat. It dawned on me, this house isn’t getting torn down. It’s getting rebuilt.

I looked at the same empty shell now and I saw it differently. Not so pitiful anymore, this was the beginning of somebody’s exciting new chapter.

Sure enough, fresh lumber was soon delivered to the lawn. The yard filled up with two-by-fours, plywood and stacks of trusses for a new peaked roof.

This scene made me think of the times when we choose to dismantle our life or something happens to dismantle it for us. Many of us have experienced this scary moment of being laid bare — through a career change, a divorce, a health battle or a major decision to start over. I think of when I moved my family to the DC area a few years ago with a newly-minted master’s degree and no job. We owned barely enough to fill half of a cube truck, rode into town on fumes. There wasn’t much left to stand on but our family’s deepest foundation, the outer facade I presented to the world propped up by the slimmest of braces. At a moment like that, just as quickly, you might realize that this seemingly fragile state is actually a sturdy beginning, that you are about to be rebuilt.

The next few times I saw the house, the wood deliveries on the lawn were moving in, gradually becoming a part of a growing home. I saw the frames of the walls going up and a skin of green plywood reinforcing their shape.

And then I saw something more. The new structure is not limited by the boundaries of the old roofline it shed. This house is not just coming back, it’s rising, and will stand a story taller than its former self.


Life According to Henry

If I get his voice mail, I’ll hear a sweet boy’s voice explaining that I can leave a message, unless I have the wrong number. If I talk to him live, I’ll hear something quite a bit lower with a squeaky undertone, the voice of a young man on his way.

Before he left on a three-week road trip with his dad this summer, I asked my 13-year-old son how we would like to spend a Sunday with me. Henry had two requests. One was to make a pizza from scratch using a recipe he found online. The other was to show me the collection of comic book super heroes and super villains he created. First, we shopped for ingredients and then we spent the afternoon preparing a delicious meat and cheese pizza with room for improvement in the crust.

After dinner, he declared it comic book character time. He sat me down with a portable file box filled with pencil drawings of creatures, robots and people he made up. Ordinarily, tidiness isn’t Henry’s strong suit, but he keeps his comic book characters alphabetized. For each one, he invented a back-story, an alias, a set of super-powers, a costume and relationships to other characters. Some got their powers because of a science experiment gone haywire. Some were alien. Some were super-enlarged bugs or germs. A number of them were organized into leagues. Henry handed me several pages at a time and insisted I read each description aloud. He watched for my reaction. I pointed out the ridiculous. I called several in a row my favorite. He laughed heartily.

That first night we made it through the letter C. We got through the rest of his collection over a period of days and finished just in time to pack for his trip.

While the menfolk are away, I am clearing away the junk mail and old school work and I come across stray drawings of Henry’s, miscellaneous monsters and mutants that didn’t make it into the box. I stop to consider his approach to creativity. At his age, he’s not too concerned about whether his favorite things lead to a marketable skill, although they could. And even though people have been coming up with super heroes and villains forever, he doesn’t worry about whether his ideas are original. He knows they are. And he just likes making them. “Do what you love and you’ll always be happy,” he has told me before.

I set the drawings aside in his room, and give my son a call to see how the trip is going.

“Hi Mom,” he croaks.

By now, Henry is in favorite place, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where grandparents, and aunties and uncles and cousins abound as well as Cousins Subs, his favorite sandwich shop. He tells me about visits to Port Washington and Kenosha and going to the beach and watching the film The Lone Ranger. Understandably, I have been out of sight and out of mind.

I tell him that I am thinking of writing about him this week. He chuckles and asks why. “Because you say smart things,” I say. “Like what?” he asks.

“Like that time you said, you might as well like yourself because you have to be with yourself all the time.” He says he doesn’t remember saying that. But I have it written down. March, 2011.

I ask him if he has been reading. I had sent along a set of books on audio and in paperback that I bought for a family book club experiment. The idea is that father and son could read them on the road and our daughter and I would do the same at home. And then later we could talk about them. To my surprise, it’s working. We’ve read Treasure Island so far and have recently moved on to the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which his father recommended, inspired by something Henry did a couple summers ago.

In preparation for 6th grade, Henry needed summer school for math. Each day, he dutifully caught the bus to a nearby middle school. Each afternoon, I asked what he was learning about math. “Not much,” he would say. Only after the last day when he brought his stuff home, did I discover what was going on. Initially, the teachers led him to the wrong room and he never bothered to correct them. So, he spent the two full weeks studying English, a favorite subject that is already a strength, instead of math, which he dislikes. Afterwards, we introduced Henry to the word “scam” and explained that it was not a nice thing to do to your parents. His dad compared him to Tom Sawyer and Henry didn’t understand the reference, then. I think he does now.

“How far are you in the story?” I ask.

“Well, I am past the part where he paints the fence,” he says.

“That’s great,” I say, amused. “Me, too.”

Amy Ambrose,


Summer Resolutions

It’s the first week of July, half-past 2013. Do you know where your resolutions are?

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to ballroom dance. I forgot about that until just now. I’ll have to come back to it. I also resolved to work on writing and telling true inspirational stories. Toward the second goal, in addition to launching this blog, I joined the Toastmasters Club at my office building. This is a club for public speaking. I recently gave my second “prepared” speech to the group.

It’s not that public speaking is something I haven’t done before. I have addressed crowds of several hundred people on many occasions. But sometimes I find it nerve-wracking and sometimes I find it effortless and the difference has to do with how often I speak in front of groups. So one of my goals for this year was to make a habit of it.

At my first meeting of the Toastmasters a few months ago, I was struck by how structured it was. Our club meets every other Wednesday over a lunch hour. At each meeting, two or three people give a scheduled, 5-7 minute prepared speech. A member of the group times each speaker, using a lamp with three colored bulbs in a row — green, yellow and red, to signal how much time the speaker has left. Another Toastmaster counts the grammatical mistakes and another person does an evaluation for each speaker. In addition to the prepared speeches, each meeting includes table-topics which are prompts for spontaneous two-minute talks. Each meeting also has a theme for the day and a word of the day, which speakers are encouraged to incorporate.

I spent my first several meetings observing this process, avoiding any chance to speak and deciding I didn’t like this at all.

Did you hear the table topic I got? It was too weird. I can’t believe they actually tally up the ‘ums’ at the end of the meeting. How annoying. And that timer lamp is the worst. The Timekeeper reports the exact minutes for each person, not just the prepared speeches. And then someone else evaluates the whole meeting, even the evaluators. It’s a bit much. I really don’t know if this is for me, I said later to anybody who would listen. It’s a cult. And the schedule is a bother. I have other places to be at lunch.

Fortunately, even though this was my first Toastmaster’s experience, I have actually been here before. I mean, deciding to try something new and then listing all the reasons not to. There is a part of your mind that is an expert excuse maker and it can be very manipulative. That voice will make every complaint sound legit, when it’s really just the sound of you getting in your own way, to avoid a bit of effort or risk. But you can outsmart your excuse-making self. You can set up a commitment device from the get-go that will hold your goal steady until you get past this phase. In my case, I paid membership dues for several months and right away set a date to give my first prepared speech.

When you join Toastmasters, you get a handbook with 10 speech ‘projects’, suggestions for prepared speeches that you can give when you are ready. At the end of completing all ten, you get a certificate. Each speech has a focus such as body language, organization or using visual aides. The first one is the Ice Breaker, and the job of the speech is to introduce yourself.

On May 1, I was one of three people giving prepared speeches to a crowd of about 20 members. I told a story about my family of origin (which I then used as an early blog post) as a way of explaining where I was from. Though I knew the story by heart, I practiced it several times at home in the days before. The audience ate it up. Fellow Toastmasters wrote their reviews on little slips of paper and a few stood up to give their feedback. The Grammarian said he was so into my story that he forgot to count his ums. The Timekeeper said I could have talked all day. I was pumped. I wondered if this was beginner’s luck and right away scheduled my second speech for June.

On the day of my second speech, the theme of the meeting was summer resolutions. I hadn’t thought about summer this way before, but it’s a time for setting goals, too — things like working toward a fitness target, completing a household project or maybe just savoring every day. I like the idea of breaking a big goal down to the bit that you can accomplish in a season. Summer is also a chance to take a look back at the first half of the year and recalibrate. I recently began a daily meditation practice, something that wasn’t on my radar in January. I hope to be able to meditate in full lotus for ten minutes by the end of the summer. At the moment, the meditation class fits my schedule more readily than ballroom dancing, which will have to wait. As for the public speaking goal, that one seems to have stuck.

For my second prepared speech, I shared a story that I have written about on this blog, about going from Wisconsin to Harvard. This one I hadn’t practiced as much and I learned a valuable lesson. When I don’t practice the speech, I over-talk the first-half, and wind up hurrying through the conclusion when I see the red timer light go on. I also use filler-words more. I said ‘um’ six times in nine minutes and had one other grammatical correction. Despite this, the comments were once again very encouraging. One seasoned Toastmaster began her note by saying, “Amy you have quite the gift.” She recommended that I ask for more time at the start, rather than cutting material.

I made a mental note of the helpful criticisms, and then immediately tossed out the little papers they were written on. No need to dwell.

That last note I pinned to a bulletin board near my office computer, where I would see it often. It’s possible this reviewer was just being nice or that she says that kind of thing to everybody. But, no matter. I have decided to add one more resolution to the pile, and I recommend it to anyone. That is to believe the nice things people say.

When it was time to decide about continuing my Toastmasters membership, I noticed I was all out of excuses. So, I rejoined for another six months. I haven’t yet scheduled my third prepared speech, but I hope to do so in July. And now that I am benefiting from the process, I figure I might as well do my part. So, yes, at our next meeting, it’ll be me in charge of the timer lamp.

Story by Amy Ambrose,