Carol Kaufmann

Writer, Editor, Etc.

Pre-Inauguration Angst January 27, 2010

Filed under: Reader's Digest stories — carolkaufmann @ 10:01 pm

As the inauguration approaches, my inner-grump begins to emerge. I remember past Inauguration Days all too well.  The freezing temperatures, the huddled cold masses of bodies searching for available viewing spots and Port-o-Potties. I distinctly recall leaving off that crucial layer of thermal underwear because I thought someone might actually care about my bulky, unsightly jeans.

This particular year, worst of all, the District is cautioning residents daily to not rely on our normal modes of transportation–the fabulous Metro, Buses, our cars–because security will be so tight and the lines so long, that chances are we’ll be outside the security perimeter come swearing-in.  I can’t even go to work that day because our building is way, way to close for comfort and will be shut down.

Then there are the Don’t-Get-Me-Started Balls. First of all, they’re not balls. At a Ball, the coat check isn’t a mosh pit with hundreds of long, black wools ending up on a grimy floor. At a Ball, it’s possible to dance without smelling what the couple next to you had for dinner. Oh, and at a real Ball, there might actually BE dinner…not wine in a plastic cup that costs $5.00 and boxes of peanuts and a white bread sandwich for a few extra bucks. These, er, gatherings should be called exactly what they are: hysterical parties. This is all perfectly fine—for those who have extreme bladder endurance, coats they don’t give a hoot about, and have learned over the years NOT to wear anything full-length because it will inevitably wind up with at least one large footprint or unsightly tear.

See? The inner-grump emerges.

Yet, this year, there’s just no way I can sit home. My mother announced she’d be traveling to D.C. to take my darling 10-year-old niece to witness this event of history. Mackenzie is over the moon about the trip and has persuaded her teachers to let her go, a full report promised upon return. My mother says she’s never been more excited about a president since JFK–and there was no way she could go to that inauguration when she was 10. Being smack-dab in the middle of these generations, how can I not witness what shall surely be a spectacle?

But as fun as our adventure getting to the Mall might be, I know deep down they’re only part of the reason I’ll make the trek. Even though the economy is teetering on a precipice, even though everyone I know (generally parents with small kids) aren’t buying a thing because they’re scared of spending, and even though many people I know are in serious danger of losing their homes, not to mention their jobs, there is something stirring. In the midst of all uncertainty, this president-elect is ushering in a palpable, undeniable feeling of hope. The hope has spread across this huge and multicolored continent and tomorrow it will emerge in human form in one three-mile stretch from the Capitol building to the Lincoln Memorial. Touching that, being a part of that illogical optimism that might actually make perfect sense, will be well worth the cold feet.

This Inauguration—this beginning—is also the time for me to depart Shared Space (Those corporate budget cuts run deep!) I’ve loved spending time with you. Thank you for writing in, sharing your thoughts, and being a part of something that is bigger than all of us.

First appeared on rd.com, January 7, 2009.

 

A Mother in Iraq

Filed under: Reader's Digest stories — carolkaufmann @ 10:00 pm

Today, my post is a bit of a departure. Last fall, I had the chance to talk with Linda Robinson, a wife, mother, and long-time volunteer from Dallas, Texas. Linda had accepted the mission of opening the first USO center in Iraq. The center is located at Balad, an enormous American base in one of the most hostile parts of the country. Linda and I continued corresponding through email once she was there; she’d graciously answered my questions, though managing the center demanded nearly all of her time and energy. She has a special interest in taking care of the troops in Iraq; her son is about to be one of them. Linda gives us a glimpse of downtime during war, reminding us how some Americans are spending their new year.

Here’s her story.

I had never been away from my family so the thought of being this far for this long was a big decision.  My husband knew that I did not just flippantly decide one day to leave it all and go to Iraq. He knew that coming here was a deep calling that I felt from God.
Linda in Iraq
Linda poses with two soldiers in Iraq. (Courtesy Linda Robinson)

Even though this is the first USO Center in Iraq, we still have troops come in who are surprised to know there is a place that provides them some of the comforts of home. All the snacks! My friends in Texas organized a chocolate drive and shipped us over four hundred pounds of chocolate. It was devoured in less than a month! We try to keep peanut butter and jelly out for them. They would rather fix a PB&J and sit here than go to the dining facility where there is every kind of food imaginable. I think they love being in a homey environment and having nurturing women to talk to.

We have this beautiful theater room with comfy chairs and yet the soldiers seem to prefer to sit in the lounge where the staff members and volunteers are and watch movies. I think it is because they are hungry to have someone to talk to…I should say to have someone listen. I hear the stresses that many of these troops face, the broken homes and financial struggles. In a typical day, we see pictures of their children, hear stories from R&R, and console a few broken hearts.

United Through Reading continues to be one of the most popular programs here.  This is a program that enables the troops to videotape themselves reading a book to their children.  The USO then sends the videotape/DVD and the book to the soldier’s family so their children can have the experience of their parent reading to them while they are still serving away from home.  It may sound a little strange, but it is one more thing that we do to try and keep the troops and their families connected. The response here has been overwhelming.  We filmed 601 recordings in July alone.

United Through Reading

A soldier in Iraq reads a story to his child as part of the United Through Reading program. (Courtesy Linda Robinson)

The troops need to know that the American people back and support them! I would encourage others to find ways to encourage the brave men and women serving in our military. It can be something simple like sending a care package or prepaid phone card, participating in a deployment or welcome home ceremony at the local airport, or supporting the wide range of USO programs, all of which make life better for our young men and women serving in uniform.  Whatever you do, our soldiers will appreciate knowing that you took time to think about them and their needs.

I love being here with the troops. They are all my sons and daughters. My son, John Micah, is at Fort Stewart, Georgia, and will leave for Iraq again [soon] for another tour. I see my [him] in so many of the troops. I watch them and wonder what my son would say or do in similar situations. I see the lines for phones and computers and marvel that my son would be so patient to wait in a line like that to connect with us when he was here in 2004. As I drive around the base, especially out by the wire that protects me from what is outside, I find myself praying for my son’s safety even now before he is deployed. I know the reality and know my son will possibly be out there and plead with God now to protect him.  My husband has been my greatest encouragement. I am sure there were times when he would have liked to have told me to pack it up and come home, yet he supported me through the tough issues. Several times a week he sends me poetry.

First appeared on rd.com, December 23, 2008.

 

The Best Gift Ever

Filed under: Reader's Digest stories — carolkaufmann @ 9:57 pm

I grew up surrounded by teachers. I remember the late nights my mother spent grading papers, correcting first attempts at cursive writing, meticulously cutting giant letters out of construction paper for bulletin boards for her second graders. She and my aunt, who taught first grade, would sometimes combine their efforts and traipse the countryside searching for the perfect pinecones for a Christmas tree craft project (this, before the PC era of no religion in schools). Occasionally, their mother would assist. A retired teacher who taught in a one-room school house, grades 1-6, she understood their needs and would lend her stash of buttons or quilt patches. So much of their effort was on their own dime. They did all this because, well, that’s what they did. Teaching children was their vocation.

I think most teachers are like this. Completely committed, often self-sacrificing underdogs—and rocks—of our communities. That’s why I was estatic to come across—quite by accident—the best gift idea ever. Donorschoose.org connects teaches who want educational supplies for their needy students in low-income or poverty-stricken areas but are unable to buy them because of tight public-school budgets.  It’s simple. Teachers submit proposals for their idea on this not-for-profit website. The site categorizes proposals by subject, area of interest and state. Anyone online can choose the project nearest and dearest to them, select to fund the whole thing, or contribute a few bucks. When the project is fully funded and materials are delivered (by donorschoose), each donor who contributed over $100 received hand-written thank you notes from the students themselves. The kids send photos of themselves using the materials and write thank you notes to the donors.

What could your donations buy? Mrs. C, a high school teacher from Liberty, Mississippi, requests 150-200 preserved frogs for dissecting purposes. Mrs. M, a reading specialist in Houston, Texas, requests the magazine Time for Kids to help her students get excited about reading. Ms. R’s would like 22 copies of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Girl, Interrupted for her Maryland psychology students.

The site tracks and posts all donations. Since 2000, $27,092,093 has been given to over 1.6 million students in all 50 states. That’s a lot of chalk! (actually books, stethoscopes, memory cards, audio cards, toner cartridges, video cameras… and frogs). And if you can’t decide what to give, there are always Giving Cards you can purchase in honor of someone else—and the honoree gets the thank you note.

Yes, friends, philanthropy has never been easier. I can’t wait to tell Mom.

First appeared on rd.com, December 10, 2008.

 

Surprise!

Filed under: Reader's Digest stories — carolkaufmann @ 9:56 pm

December birthdays are tough. Those of us who were born around the busiest, most anxiety-ridden and cash-strapped time of year know.  Everyone who has a December baby in their lives—and given that our conceptions took place in the Spring, this should be about everyone—may also have encountered this non-birthday phenomenon.

But if not, allow me to share. As a child, your BIG DAY comes amid the class holiday party so any recognition is shared with cupcakes with red and green icing. Winter vacation has already begun and many of your friends have “family plans” that prevent them from celebrating your day accordingly after school. High school and college only bring final exams, due theses, or the anxiety that goes with end-of-semester stress. Friends are busy cramming, too, or stuffing their laundry bags for home. Later, in the professional, post-college life, office colleagues focus on the potluck or finding a clever Secret Santa gift. Friends are caught up in the Christmas swirl of events, traveling home for the holidays, or if they’re very glamorous, the Caribbean.

Not that I’m bitter or anything.

But from where I have sat for a good thirty-something years–on the calendar square of December 19—I’ve never understood what all the hoopla is about birthdays. Party hats? Streamers? A sugared sheet cake? Whatever! No, I never got it. Until this weekend.

After a tough year that brought my little nuclear family of four loss that we’ve never experienced–the loss of my dad, our jobs, and not to be overlooked, our health insurance,  my sweet husband threw a surprise party for me. A surprise, especially, because it occurred a few weeks before the actual date of a birthday that didn’t end in a five or zero. If he threw a party on the actual date six days before Christmas, he thought, our friends would be too soaked in eggnog, committed to making fruitcake, and unable to add anything else to the holiday plate. This, I thought, was genius.

The move was also brilliant because it gave me the one thing I most needed during a sorrowful time—a circle of friends, in person, at a small creperie on a Saturday night. To top it off, my best friend, who I hadn’t seen in way, way too long, got on a train on a frigid night and hightailed it down from New York. This memory—the sight of people I love around a messy dinner table with savory food, wine and conversation flowing will keep me going until my bad luck lifts. A gathering of old friends does everyone some good. I could see it in their faces.

You never know who you’ll touch by your effort. In this cold, harsh winter, surprising one who leasts expects it can change her—or his—entire outlook in ways you can’t imagine. So go ahead. You don’t really need an excuse. Surprise someone this season.

Especially if they were born in December.

First appeared on rd.com, December 9, 2008.

 

Ending with Grace

Filed under: Reader's Digest stories — carolkaufmann @ 9:55 pm

One of the greatest gifts my father ever gave me was planning his own funeral.

When my seemingly healthy, physically fit father was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer last year, he went to his financial planner and made sure my mother would never have to worry about a bill. WIth Mom’s help, he cleaned out the attic so my brother and I wouldn’t have to sort through piles of “collectibles,” junk, and memories. He went to the funeral home, picked out a casket and plot and paid for everything in advance. He updated his will and made a living one. Carefully, he told my brother and I he had done all of this, assuring us our inheritances were set. I didn’t want to hear any of it. I knew—just knew—he’d beat this thing. Kidney cancer was a bizarre diagnosis for an optimistic, easy-going sixty-something who never suffered more than a bad cold for as far back as I could remember.

I was wrong.  After my mom, brother, aunt and I watched him take his last breath on a cold Sunday morning a month ago, we were immediately thrown into the frenzy that happens when a man with many friends passes on.  Among the numerous calls, emails, visits, and covered dishes, we spent a long afternoon with a kind funeral director who had what seemed like thousands of questions.

Three-quarters of them had already been answered, thanks to Dad’s planning. The rest weren’t too difficult because we knew what he would have wanted; he’d either told mom or conveyed the answers to us kids. The process still took a good four hours and our biggest decision was which songs we wanted the soloist to sing. I couldn’t imagine enduring another minute that afternoon, which we would surely have had to do if we needed to select a casket and satisfy the bill (no small price tag, these funerals).  In retrospect, I realized my brother and I had time to write the tributes we gave at the service.

After the last of the well-wishers had gone home and the final casserole put away in the freezer for another day, Mom set about the business of settling his affairs. Once the death certificates came, it took her about a week. Though we’re still writing thank-you notes, the big check list, with items like bank accounts, property deeds, and  income for Mom, has been tossed. Instead, my brother and I spend the energy on the slow process of figuring out how the world works with our father not in it.

The burden of Dad’s death was enormous and is still very fresh. Having to make major decisions about the service and sorting through my mother’s financial situation would have sent me to the white-padded cell, I’m sure. There are enough conversations to have without adding major decisions to the heavy load. Dad’s compassionate gift of planning his final passage gave us unbelievable comfort at life’s most difficult, heart-wrenching time.

I write this for parents so you might considering talking to your children about your final passage and planning as much of it as you can.  I write this for children so you might ask your parents what they want in the end. If your stuck, the Engage with Grace project and the five questions they suggest answering can help get you started. Though you may not want to discuss it, I can assure you forethought is a gift of love.

First appeared on rd.com, November 29, 2008.

 

Virtual Counseling

Filed under: Reader's Digest stories — carolkaufmann @ 9:54 pm

A young woman named Roxy recently posted a plea for help.

“I’m disgusted with myself,” she writes on the web. “I’m having a real hard time with food. I am an uncontrollable eater, that’s all I want to do. But it’s not healthy food…it is chocolate bars and chips or 7-11 food. One day I ate four chocolate bars!!!!!!!!  I cried because I know what I’m doing and what can and will happen to me, I want to change so badly but I need a lot of help I don’t know what to do for myself.”

Roxy has Type I diabetes, an autoimmune chronic condition with unknown origins. Her pancreas doesn’t make insulin, the hormone that breaks down carbohydrates, so her blood sugar levels register in the unhealthy range. Left unchecked, her eating habits could cause organ failure, induce a coma, even kill her.

But another diabetic who’d been through similar struggles and emotions answered her call with a combination of tough-love pep talk, sound advice, and compassion.

“You’ve already done the first part, which, I think, is admitting and being honest about what’s really going on,” 23-year-old Ginger writes the same day her post appeared. “The second part, though, is forgiving yourself for not being perfect, for struggling with something is incredibly challenging and knowing that it’s okay.”  Ginger then walked Roxy through some practical steps to getting her blood sugar under control, as well as her life. Other diabetics wrote in as well, with advice on where to get supplies, tips for eating, and, perhaps most importantly, emotional support.

Ten days later, Roxy reported that her blood sugars had improved. She was keeping a food diary and recording her workouts, all of which she posted online. “It has only been a couple of weeks,” writes Roxy, “and I already see a little improvement, just a little, but I will get there, I have to I made a promise to myself.”

Roxy’s virtual guardian angel, Ginger Vieira, is the de facto traffic cop and camp counselor for DiabeTeens, a website where young people with Type I diabetes can go to get advice, blog, talk in chat groups or simply rant about their condition. A new kind of medical website, DiabeTeens’ is creating a community of 13-to-25 year-olds who struggle and triumph with their life-long disease.  Speaking their language, Ginger is someone who’s been there, done that.

“Kids have so much guilt because doctors say you have to have your blood sugar perfect or your suffer complications,” she says. “They think ‘I might as well give up!’”

In addition to dispensing practical advice on determining appropriate insulin levels, Ginger offers tips on everything from how to manage overbearing parents who don’t understand feelings associated with diabetes to tell ing someone you have a crush on that you have a chronic disease. “The hardest part isn’t remembering to take insulin, but balancing your life,” she says.

DiabeTeens is one of 35 communities on http://www.healthcentral.com, a hub for health sites that deal with specific diseases and conditions like migraines, Alzheimers, breast cancer, and HIV/AIDS (to name just a few) that not only gives viewers medical information, but access to people in the same stage of life who can talk to each other about how to live.  Having Type 1 diabetes when you’re 16 is much different from having the condition when you’re 47, the folks at Health Central surmised when they created the site.  “Lots of diseases have a unique impact on kids at certain ages,” says Health Central’s CEO Chris Schroeder. “Age is important.”

Though there’s a healthy amount of medical advice on Health Central’s various sites and doctors available for counseling (DiabeTeens has Dr. Fran Cogen from Children’s National Medical Center), the thing that makes the site work is people who have experience with the actual condition, like Ginger.

The New Hampshire native first began to feel the effects of her diabetes when she was 13 years old. No one knew what was causing her flu-like symptoms until she checked in to a hospital. Blood and urine tests quickly revealed she had Type I diabetes (also known as juvenile-onset diabetes.) Unlike the more commonly known Type II diabetes that often results from an unhealthy lifestyle, Type I may be genetic or the result of a viral exposure—and there is no known cure.

After hearing the diagnosis, Ginger spent a couple hours crying. Then, she asked the doctors if she was going to die.

Throughout her decade-long struggle to deal with her condition, Ginger saw many doctors. “There are a lot of endocrinologists who treat Type I diabetics,” she says. “There are very few who are actually helpful. They treat the disease, not the person.” Ginger figured out how to manage her disease by testing her blood sugar several times a day and taking the appropriate amount of insulin to maintain a normal level. Now, the 23-year old is a personal trainer, yoga teacher, and weight lifter. In fact, she leg presses 600 pounds. She knows, at this point in the game, the more muscle she puts on, the less insulin she needs. But she learned this only through trial-and-error.

But managing diabetes is not an exact science for her. “I’m my own life-long science project,” she says. “I have the disease and know what kinds of things kids are confused about,” she says. “Many suffer so much guilt over not being perfect. They think ‘I might as well give up.’ They forget they’re not the only person it’s hard for…It’s such a 24/7 burden.”

A burden, she hopes, can be lifted—or at least eased—with words of experience and a little compassion.

First appeared on rd.com, November 24, 2008.

 

The Blurry Lines

Filed under: Reader's Digest stories — carolkaufmann @ 9:46 pm

About a week ago in Alexandria, Virginia, a group of women entrepreneurs, community leaders, and mothers met on a cold Thursday nighpost-watershed presidential election—for some wine and conversation. Led by a veteran journalist, the night’s discussion topic: Media bias. Thinking it would be helpful to hear some feedback on my profession from thoughtful people who are actually consuming it, I went to listen. The group leader started the conversation with a zinger: “Is the media biased?” and was met with a vocal “Yes” nearly in unison.

But it quickly became clear that the group wasn’t talking about The Washington Post, The New York Times, or the nightly network newscasts. They were talking about the blogosphere, political websites, talk radio, and the “screamer” interview shows on cable news and grouping them with journalists. I wondered, “Do these highly educated, smart gals really not know the difference?” Two seconds later, I thought, “Well, why would they?” Life is busy. Media is consumed in doses, fits and starts. What one reads in the morning paper, hears on NPR while carpooling or reads on a chat site all blurs together. We’re human; the most outrageous stuff can stick in the craw like a bad 80s tune, the origin quickly forgotten.


Comstock

The distinction is important. Journalists who work for newspapers and many news magazines strive for balance, objective reporting. Their stories are edited by those with the same goals and published by those who let their newsrooms operate independently of their commercial interests. Is it a perfect system? No. Are mistakes made? Of course.  But there is still a healthy community of reporters and editors who, minus an agenda, work hard to bring news to light. I know this.

On the other hand, ever since the Internet began to gain steady steam in the early 90s, the distinction between journalism and the websites, cable television shows and talk radio that embrace transparent points of view is getting pretty fuzzy. With so many choices available, like-minded listeners drift toward shows and publications that are most in line with their own world view. Fans of right-leaning Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh and left-tilting Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews watch because, more often than not, they want to listen to someone who justifies what they already believe…and justifies it loudly.

To make matters more confusing, journalists are also blogging for their company’s websites. Their words, while offering an insight you won’t read in a straight story, isn’t necessarily edited. This is both good and bad; you get to read the point of view of a professional who spends his/her days trying to understand the news. On the other hand, the blogs aren’t always fact-checked the same way a piece of journalism would be. But because of their professionalism and background, I believe, for the most part blogs by journalists can offer insight you just can’t get anywhere else. (By the way, reader, if you read a quote in Shared Space, I have run it by the quotee. In some cases, I run the whole essay by someone who can point out my mistakes. I do this because I believe that’s the way it should be done).

There’s a place for all forms of opinion and journalism in this first-amendment protected democracy. No matter how much Ann Coulter, or Daily Kos, or even Stephen Colbert gets under your skin, these voices are contributing to a dialogue that is now so enormous it’s difficult to comprehend, much less moderate. But the thirst I sensed on that chilly Thursday night wasn’t to have a famous face reinforce a deeply held opinion, it was for stories about the world, nation, and community—told straight.

This news costs money. It’s expensive to maintain bureaus in Baghdad, Beijing, London or any U.S. city. It’s expensive to keep a newsroom running and pay smart people to beat the streets asking the right questions. So if you’re looking for a balanced report of the news of the day, buy a newspaper.  Go out and get some ink on your hands.

(Helpful hint: You might also want to visit www.factcheck.org, a site that monitors major public officials and helps keep them honest!)

First appeared on rd.com, November 19, 2008.

 

 
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