Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Scent of Pine

Volunteers haul brush at a recent workday for the DNRE.
I went back to my roots Saturday morning. Or rather, I went back to the brush and boughs of my youth.

When I was about ten, my mother took a part-time job at a senior citizen center about three blocks away from our home. During her work days, I was allowed to stay home without a sitter. The idea thrilled me. While my friends had to be carted away to some middle-aged woman's home with crappy playground equipment, I was going to be free to roam. But, my father had other plans, and he made sure to keep me busy with a multitude of chores. I could earn five bucks a day. It was a pretty good deal for both of us.

Mowing the lawn and weeding were pretty standard chores. Doing the dishes and picking up the house didn't bother me. I didn't even have a problem scrubbing a toilet. But when my dad told me that part of my summer tasks would include picking up sticks from the woods, I was skeptical.

"Dad, it's the woods...sticks are in the woods. You know?"

My protests and groans did me no good. I was to pick up sticks and brush that would later be burned. I still don't see the rationale of burning brush that would naturally decompose.

Our home sat on a three-acre lot at the edge of town. Rows of red pine lined the back yard, resembling aisles as neat as a grocery store. Red pine is good for nothing except for snapping in half and making a mess during Northern Michigan ice storms. Now it was going to dictate how I spent my three-month reprieve from school.

As an adult, I've started to see the wisdom in my dad's plan. I was ten years old, left alone in our home. I  realize that my dad just wanted to make sure I didn't get into any trouble between the hours of nine and three. And it worked.

So when I was e-mailed information on a workday for the DNRE, it was pretty easy to show up to the Silo Field Trial Area at Highland Recreation for a day of work I was familiar with.

When I arrived at the field, I thought I had stumbled upon an ad for Carhartt. Most of the volunteers are involved in field trial training for various dog breeds. I was asked a few times what dog group I was from, and when I said that I wasn't, I was asked who I was affiliated with. It seemed that no one could understand I was representing myself. So, I gave The Oakland Press some credit even though the paper really has nothing to do with my project except for hosting the blog on our website. Mostly, I tell people I'm an editor at the OP because it excites them because they might be featured. And it never hurts to promote my work.

After we filled out volunteer information, we headed back into the field. I decided I would walk out with another volunteer, and I ended up winded by the time I reached the site. Once there, we started hauling brush and limbs through the snow, towering them onto piles. This was fairly steady work for about an hour and a half. After a while though, we started to catch up with the downed limbs, and I mostly gabbed with people for a half hour.

I listened while the volunteers talked shop, movies and what deer they bagged this fall. It felt like home.

The work was gratifying. The cold air was refreshing, but lacked the bite often associated with January weather. I only got snapped in the face about a half-dozen times and I managed to catch myself from a face plant after my leg tangled with some sort of invasive vine. I'm starting to understand some of the work the DNRE is trying to accomplish.

When it looked like most people were doing more standing than working, I decided to cut out early. I don't use these fields and I had to prepare for about fifteen guests coming to my home for the evening. I said good bye to my fellow volunteers and caught a ride in a pickup with one of the men I met earlier.

Volunteering with the DNRE is not only a great way to get out of the house, it also helps out the state because it provides free labor. It also helps restore the native species that provide habitat for wildlife.

If anything, Saturday's work gave me some exercise and a time for reflection. I've noticed that many people don't get the same satisfaction I get from doing manual labor. Those people are probably smarter then I am. Regardless, I met some new folks, and I have an idea for a feature story on this sector of Oakland County dog enthusiasts. The DNRE offers a variety of work days in various parks, if interested, click here.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Flash from the Past at the Soc Hop

I'm hanging with the oldsters tonight!

I, along with my gal pal, Jacquelyn Gutc, will be heading to the Older Persons' Commission in Rochester for one of its biggest fundraisers, the Soc Hop.

This week has been full of extra projects at home and I need a night out. Ever tried painting a dining set? To be blunt, it sucks. For two to three hours every night after work I have been sanding, priming and painting. I am tired of looking at those chairs and I'm even more tired of scraping paint from beneath my fingernails.

OK, enough whining. (But if you have tips on painting furniture, I'm open to suggestions!)

I expect this event to be similar to the Island Party I attended during the summer. Again, I will be helping out with food and cleanup. But, I'll be honest, this does not feel like work to me. I love senior citizens, and this group is, by far, the coolest I've met.

If retirement means that I can spend my days playing sports, swimming and dancing, count me in. Can we get some more OPCs throughout this state?

Though I won't be able to join any senior centers just yet, tonight, I'm looking forward to the costumes. I myself am going to attempt a modified 1950s vibe. I don't own saddle shoes, so I'm turning to my my retro pink Nikes. I'm rolling my jeans and sporting a pink top. It's not going to be as cool as some of the others, but I'm trying.

My only qualm is dancing. Last time, I proved again that my moves are as cumbersome as applying mascara while driving. I am not talented, but I like it. The only thing I do have going for me, is that I also have no shame.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Recapping the Action

Goodbyes, blood and music topped off my volunteering for last week.

Because I more than fulfilled my quota for the first week in January — tutoring ESL, donating blood, and chaperoning a high school benefit — I gave myself a break this week. It was needed, because I still have to schedule volunteer gigs now that tutoring ESL is over with.

Quick note: When donating blood, make sure to drink plenty of water and eat well. I thought I had done this, but after passing out at my desk in front of concerned co-workers, I realized I obviously did not prepare myself. 

Yes, I embarrassed myself in front of the people I work with. At one point, ripping off my sweater, and yelling, "Oh My God! Look how much I'm sweating!"

Candy bars and juice were summoned, and I was again, reminded of how lucky I am to work with such kind people. My wish in sharing this is not to deter people from donating blood, though. While I still don't enjoy donating, and passing out can happen, I think it's incredibly important to do. Because I am healthy enough,  I will continue to donate — but maybe not in between work at The Oakland Press.

Fully recovered, Friday night proved to be the real gem of the week. The Concert for Hope event was coordinated completely by students and left me thoroughly impressed. Not only did I get to listen to some sweet bands — The Cats and the Fiddler blew my bluegrass-loving mind — but I got to nosh on some barbecue, shoot hoops, and play video games all for a cause to raise funds for a local family dealing with medical bills.

As a chaperon, I mostly milled around and talked to kids. But these students were outstanding, and I realized that sometimes teenagers get a bad rap. These students, past and present, not only coordinated local bands to perform throughout the evening, they also had a silent auction, gym time, board games, video games and food. Giving up their weekend, they hosted the event both Friday and Saturday. Teachers and staff also gave their time. Rob put in a solid seven hours after teaching all day.

For me, I felt like I had entered a time warp. After shooting and missing about twenty free throws in a row, I sat down to watch Rob play one-on-one with a much shorter student.

"Kick his ass!" I encouraged the kid.

OK, I know that swearing probably makes me the worst chaperon ever, but Rob and I are incredibly competitive, and I wanted this half-pint to cream him and my inner sailor took over. The student didn't win, but he was a good sport and he gave Rob a good workout!

While watching the game, a girl plopped down next to me.

"Hi, what grade are you in?"

(Laughter) "Ha, I'm 26, and I'm married to your teacher," I said.

Yep, you thought that was me asking what grade she was in, right? I told you, my chubby cheeks do nothing for me. I'm also very short."

After a few more laughs, I learned that this young woman wants to be a pediatrician. I played reporter and asked her a ton of questions. She talked about the drama of high school. I was afraid to tell her that some people bring drama throughout life. I doubted she would be one of them. I was inspired by her self-assured manner. I was not that together as a junior in high school.

It wasn't all playing around though. Rob and I also visited the "Hope Room." It was hard not getting emotional in the twinkle-light lit room. Posters and markers were available for people to write words of encouragement, and also to write the names of those who have died from cancer, and those who are fighting it.

When Rob wrote his father's name down, "Mark Hamilton, sarcoma, remission." I almost had to leave the room.

This event was to raise funds and hope. It did both. Personally, it rejuvenated my hope and faith in teenagers, who are so often portrayed negatively.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Chaperoning for Hope

Photo courtesy of Maddie Millis
Kevin Thibodeau performed
in last year’s Concert of Hope and
will perform again this year
at Milford High School, 2380 South Milford Road.
Friday night is quickly approaching, and what with my uber-active social life, I will be hanging out with a bunch of teenagers tonight — as their chaperon. It's all for a cause.

Now, I have chaperoned a high school event only once before, and I can tell you that the experience has left a harrowing imprint on my mind.

(Cue some scary score from a psychological thriller.)

A few years back, my husband was a first-year teacher. I was about to graduate from college. We were chaperoning prom. You know, the girls get all glammed up in dresses with slits that run navel-high, and the boys are hoping to get lucky. After an awkward dinner where I spent most of the time talking to an engineer — because teachers tend to be the most cliquish group I've ever been among — the dancing started.

Now, for most of you who have been removed from the high school experience for a decade or two, you may think dances resemble a group of choreographed line dances perpetuated by teen dramas. You would be wrong. It more closely resembles the club scene, with skirts raised in the air and thighs grazing thighs.

It was like watching kiddie porn. But you couldn't dare break up this kind of mass sexual tension. Instead, we all shut the door, and went into the lobby and let them copulate. OK, I exaggerate. It wasn't that bad. But a few of us did head outside to escape the blaring music. So as not to pick on one high school, I think this is indicative of how many teenagers dance on the "best night of their lives."

But I expect tonight's event to be a bit different, because I'll be chaperoning a benefit concert that's open to the public as well as students. So, I'm not really scared. And I'm hoping that if you're in the area, you'll stop by.

The two-day concert will be from four to ten o'clock tonight and tomorrow at the Milford High School in an effort to raise money for the Dickey family. It's an unfortunate story that has become common today. Shari Dickey was diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer and her husband, Michael, lost his job. Medical bills are on the rise, and the family has children to support.

The students' lofty goal is to raise more than the nine-thousand dollars that they raised at last year's event to help Chris Cooper, a twelve-year-old Highland Middle School student battling cancer.

The event is featuring local musicians, including Carter Moulton, Cats & the Fiddler, Fighting Lights, Jeff Pianki, Joe Hertler, Kevin Thibodeau, Patrick Gauthier, Rival Summers, and Taylor Robida.
Families can take part in games and sporting events. A silent auction will also be available to help raise funds. Tickets are seven dollars for one day, and ten for both.

Milford High School is at 2380 South Milford Road. Most everyone has been affected by cancer, so I urge you to stop in and listen to the local talent. This is a really great school surrounded by a supportive community. You'll be helping a local family, and hopefully, having a good time. And good news for you, you won't have to chaperon, you can just enjoy the events!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Saying Goodbye to English — as a Second Language

OK, I'm going cornball on this post, so if you hate sad saps, stop reading now.

Yesterday was my last tutoring session in Highland. I didn't want to go because I didn't want to say goodbye to the three women who have added so much to my life. When I arrived though, hardly any students were there, including any of the original three I had worked with.

So, I was paired up with a new woman who lived fifty years in Shanghai, China, and the last four in the states. Since it was my last day, I just wanted to spend some of my time getting to know her. For the blog purpose, her name will be Kim.

When Kim arrived in the states, she could speak no English. Yesterday, she chatted away about her past job working as a photographer for a modeling company before she moved here. This hip woman looks about thirty-five and is a size four. She's pulled together, and made me wish desperately that I had worn some lipstick. She's a world traveler: England, Italy, Morocco, France. Next on her list is Egypt.

"I want to know everything!" She said. "I want three jobs."

Motivation and enthusiasm oozed out of her. After learning a bit more about her family, we tackled her workbook. The selection focused on music.

"I love Mariah Carey! And Michael Bolton!"

She also saw Justin Timberlake with  her son in Australia. Then she threw out Lady Gaga, who she hasn't seen, but her son has.

"She's pretty out there," I said.

"Yes, but she's so giving."

This is when I learned that we were soul sisters. Kim started talking about how we need to give back, and not just focus on money. In China, I have the feeling she was the life of the party. She even brought egg rolls for all of us to enjoy last night. She said she always wants to meet new people so she can speak and learn English.

Not being able to speak English fluently has held her back, but with her personality, I doubt she'll have to worry for long. She invited me to Chinese New Year, and I want to go. I want to know more about this woman and see her previous work. I wish I could have met her earlier, but I think I would've felt this way about meeting any of the other students. Not being a world traveler, yet, this is my free passport to learn about another culture on a miniscule scale.

During the break, I talked with another man from South Korea who is my age. He's a student at Oakland Community College, who wants to attend the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, but he has a language test in two weeks. And he was sweating. He's already taken the test before and did not pass. He's trying again. I threw out every cliche in the book. Everything my mother has told me.

"Eat a good breakfast. Take three deep breaths before you begin. If you fail, try again — nothing easy is worth getting."

We ended on a fist bump. I had to throw in some semi-original flavor.

If I've learned anything from these students, it's that they are not wimps and they don't give up. Out of all of my volunteer stints these past nine months, this has been my longest tenure. The class will continue next semester, but I will be trying new adventures and meeting new people. After this year-long experiment is over, I would like to volunteer with ESL again next fall, but without documenting it.

For anyone who wants to get involved, I strongly encourage it. You'll get more out of it then you give. For those who are interested in helping out in the Highland area, please call the Adult Education office at (248) 676-8398 or email

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year's Resolutions: Cliches and Whatnot

Many people may be huddled around television sets, watching the game and nursing a hangover from last night's revelries. My day is a bit different. I started out by sleeping in and then trudging twenty feet toward the couch to watch three episodes of "The Twilight Zone." Later, I shut off the TV and went to the park to exercise in the "warm" temperatures with my husband, Rob. It's almost four in the afternoon and I have not showered yet.

But, like many, I am also mulling over resolutions. Again, like many, mine are self serving. When asked what I wanted to improve on for the coming year, I responded that I would like to keep my toe nails polished more regularly. My husband's look of sincere sadness said it all. But who out there doesn't have some vain resolution? Of course I have more, and being a cynic, I expect that I will not commit to all of them for long. But it's the effort that counts, right?

Be more organized
Cook healthier meals
Spend less money
Exercise less sporadically
Travel more
Improve my home (it's still pretty bare)
Get enough sleep
Be more patient

In truth, I find that my new year will come in April, when this project comes to a close. With the exception of a couple of vacations, I have volunteered on a weekly basis for about nine months. It's hard to quantify the experiences. But I can say the experiences have added value to my life and pushed me to try new things.

My friend and colleague gave me "The Happiness Project" for Christmas. I am about halfway through, and while I find the author somewhat annoying and self centered, she does have some good advice and I am finding that I, too, am thinking of changes in an effort to ultimately make myself happier. Isn't that what the new year is all about? Reinvention.

"The VALunteer Project" is a gimmick, like many out there. Taking a year to experience something new and hopefully finding something about myself in the process has been written about in several books and movies. If anything, I have learned to appreciate my life more. My experience did not take me to tropical countries, turn me into a chef, or have me contemplating religious institutions. Instead, it has taken me to shelters and parks, walking dogs, and serving food.

At a mere twenty six, I have no authority to dole out advice, but I am finding out that having goals is the key to my own happiness. This year has been full of both good and bad experiences. I have purchased a house with my husband, and learned the responsibility of taking care of a home (OK, to be accurate, we bought it at the end of 2009). I endured a painful end to a waning friendship that had turned sour a couple of years ago, but clinged to it because of unfortunate circumstances. I have enjoyed the best relationship with my parents than I have ever had, and look forward to visits with them.

My real hope this new year, is that I will continue to learn and eke out enjoyment in even the most mundane circumstances. I will aim to surround myself with positive people and learn to accept negative situations. When April rolls around, I will take on a new project for myself. But today, I will enjoy the ending of my holiday vacation. And take a shower.