Monday, March 30, 2009

The Part-time Dog

There are many merits to traveling the world as a senior citizen. After slaving away for decades, exciting adventures await in such places as Angkor Wat, Siberia, and the North Pole. I miss my mom and stepdad when they are away, but they've earned their fun. They have such a simple life that when they want to pick up and go basically all they have to do is fill a suitcase and lock the doors. They have no attachments to pets at home, so Max is their welcome addition when it's my family's turn to leave town. When the timing of our little trips (never so far away), and their short stints at home line up, "Grammie and Chuck" get to serve as volunteer dog-sitters. It saves us hundreds on kennel bills, and Max loves all the extra attention plus more generous portions of kibble than he normally gets in his bowl.

Last week when we left our codependent shepherd, I was happy to be free of him for the drive. Eight hundred miles of shedding and panting tends to wear out my patience for our family mascot. Every time we leave, the biggest dilemma we have for the trip is, "What will we do with Max?" During the holidays, he displaced my daughter's cat and took over her apartment. Last summer, we had a neighbor check on him at home twice a day--turns out it wasn't quite enough. Max has even determined where we would live, as he didn't get along with a former neighbor's dog so we had to move. Obviously, the dog is a high priority for our family.

While taking a break last week from the dog who follows my every move, Sheridan talked me into seeing the movie, "Marley and Me," to which I reluctantly agreed. I grabbed a pile of napkins from the popcorn counter because I'd heard it's a bawl-fest. The film really is a sweet story of how the retriever's mischief becomes family lore, and no matter what he does he will always be an integral part of the clan. At the end of the story when Marley is old and in failing health, I looked at Sheridan and realized that this too could happen to Max! For as much hassle and extra vacuuming he's caused, the idea of the pooch not being around is impossible to imagine.

I "wished Max away" one time a few years ago when we had recently moved from a more rural location in Utah and I realized how much he was shedding indoors. I told the girls quite emphatically that if they couldn't help keep the dog hair off the floors, we'd have to get rid of him. In my frustration I started to clean late that night and then Max escorted me out to the garbage dumpster. I grumbled out loud about being too tired to deal with this, turned around to walk back inside and he was gone. He decided to go back home. I found out at 2:00 a.m. that he had trotted along Highway 101 Southbound (in the right direction!), right up to a Highway Patrol car helping a stranded motorist. When the officer tracked me down that night and returned our family pet, he complimented me on Max's looks and appeared to understand how generally exhausted I was. Tired or not, I decided not to complain and just appreciate all the warmth he brought to our home.

When we picked Max up from Grammie's last night, we could tell he had been sufficiently spoiled by his nurturing part-time dog sitters. He is easy to love, but lots of work of course. If was a relief to have him taken care of by loving family members and not to have him locked up in the house or a kennel. Now I'm back to "the shadow" following me around all day and night, and more cleaning up. After watching the senior citizens have so much fun with him, and seeing the way Marley became a family's historical centerpiece, I am more appreciative of the joy of pets. I'm especially thankful to those who help us take care of our dog when I need a break.

Cool volunteering tips:
  • Adopt a part-time pet! Once a week, once a month, or anytime, you can offer to take care of a pet for a friend, neighbor, or a relative. They'll appreciate the help, and the pet will love the extra attention.
  • Check out this fantastic website to help collect blankets for abandoned animals:
  • For a regular gig working with animals: Contact your local animal shelter, homeless pet organization, or the local humane society.
  • Every organization benefiting animals is in need of cash: consider raising donations.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Search and Rescue Service: One Beloved Volunteer is Gone

Since I’m not much of a television watcher, I usually try to stay informed about popular shows from family, friends, and the press. Music is something I do thoroughly enjoy; I’ve even produced some benefit concerts with some of my favorite musicians. My oldest daughter and I stayed up late last night watching the ten finalists of “American Idol.” She had recorded it, so we blasted through the commercials and took the extra time to watch a few of the best performances twice. After watching the entire show for the first time, I now understand why it’s habit-forming. I fell asleep wondering who would end up winning the career of their dreams.

As I awoke this morning, the word “idol” was still on my mind. When I looked it up on the web I discovered two things: 1.) The show is also a popular format in several European countries, and 2.) The term itself can be defined as “someone who is adored blindly and excessively.” It is an empowering concept for an entire country and judges to choose the next pop idol. The emerging talents would never have been discovered without this method. As Sheridan suggested last night, “If you make it into the top ten, you’re set.”

There is also another kind of “top ten,” the people I like to write about. I can’t say I adore them blindly or excessively, but they inspire others around them. "American Idol" stars have instant name recognition in pop culture. The examples I’m thinking of today leave a more subtle yet long-lasting impression. I worked with one yesterday at the ski resort.

“Ray” is a man who spends his day making others laugh and reminding us to take life a little less seriously. He can find humor in every situation, and he doesn’t belittle or tease. With no personal reward, he genuinely goes out of his way to make people more comfortable. He made my day brighter by offering extra help as I wrangled a group of small children on the “green” ski runs in a snowstorm. He had ski wax when I needed it, gave me an update on trail conditions, cleaned off the kids’ plates at lunch, shuttled a child with her skis from my group to the next, and slipped the “Miner’s Camp” obstacle course for a smoother ride. Who knows how many other little works Ray did yesterday; these were just the ones that affected me personally. His happiness seems to derive from these small acts, so if polled I’m sure the other instructors would have similar stories. His joyful demeanor permeates the mountain school, and leaves us with a desire to be kinder to each other and to our guests.

Thankfully, there are many people like Ray on this earth for the rest of us to admire and aspire. One of the best lifetime performances in this “top ten” realm, however, was taken too soon. Darren Westerfield was a man whom I knew through his “Young Professionals” post-construction cleaning business; I also knew him as an athletic trainer at the gym where we both belonged and through mutual friends. Darren not only touched lives through his presence, he also volunteered hundreds of hours to his local Search and Rescue program.

Just like Ray, Darren was a light. Every time I saw him or talked to him, he was full of joy and enthusiasm. It didn’t matter what he was doing, he put his heart and soul into each day. He never seemed to be bogged down with the pressures of life. His positive attitude and energy intrigued me as I wondered, “Why so happy all the time, Darren? Don’t you know how hard life is?” Darren’s life was just as difficult as anyone’s. The hardest trial he faced was his first wife Cindy’s battle with ovarian cancer, to which she succumbed in 2003. Darren courageously pulled his three children together and they kept the faith. He later married a lady who was just as bubbly—what a pair.

Darren set an example of joyous living, serving others with a smile, and making anyone in his midst feel comfortable and accepted. He died at age 47, along with his stepson and stepdaughter, in a horrific rollover accident this past summer (2008). A Google search describes the sad details, but Darren’s wish would be to look beyond the tragedy and to share his generosity of spirit. He truly left an impression everywhere he went. I’m sure he wouldn’t ask to be included in my “top ten” list of positive influences for good, but his happiness is unforgettable.

While the talented stars of “American Idol” may become the “objects of blind, obsessive attraction” and on the brink of fame and fortune, Ray and Darren prove there are still people who want to do good for no tangible reward. Ray sows the seeds of happiness each day with his kind acts and smiles. Darren shared his kind heart and spirit to leave a legacy of love and inclusion. I know who might win the “American Idol” contest this time around (guesses, anyone?); the real winners, the long-term beneficiaries, are any of us who have been blessed to know “Ray” or Darren.

Link to Search & Rescue Volunteering in Salt Lake City, UT:

For Search & Rescue Volunteering in other locations: Contact your local county's website, or the sheriff's department.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Move Over, Range Rover!

Sometimes Good Works are the intentional kind, where we set out to volunteer our time or talents to further a cause. Without this effort from members of our communities, charitable organizations would go broke attempting to pay salaries for the jobs volunteers do. Good Works are also the subtle things we do every day, when we take a minute to think about others before ourselves. I am simply an observer of human nature on this subject, by no means an expert. I experienced a lesson of the second type on Saturday while cycling the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

As I began the ride pedaling through my favorite hangout town where I lived as a little girl, I discovered all the traffic lights were out. Drivers typically know how to handle this, by alternating stops according to custom and law. Try this on a bike, however, and the cars sometimes forget the rules also apply to us. I was relieved that I had on my obnoxious neon vest, and they kindly gave me my right-of-way. All through the town, the vehicles and pedestrians patiently navigated this inconvenience without effect. It was just another sleepy Saturday morning in the Village, and I remembered the air of civility was one of the primary reasons why this was my favorite place.

Leaving downtown and heading into the hills, I very carefully crossed the busy expressway and exhaled. I made it. The next part of the ride was a series of winding hills, past the picturesque barn and then down the “S” curve, headed for home. After the gentle drivers in town, I felt like we were all sharing the road this morning—something that doesn’t always happen on a hurried weekday. The streets leading from the barn were frequented by more bikes and dog-walkers than cars, so I confidently accelerated into the turns. Wheeeeeeeeee, just like skiing! I was careful to stay on my side of the road in order to avoid a potential catastrophe.

It turns out not everyone was in the mood to give right-of-way, as a black SUV came whizzing around the turn, crossing over the double yellow line. I praised the guardian angel that had kept me from nearing the line, and gave a big pointer-finger (no, not that finger!) to the couple in the Range Rover to remind them that they could have killed me. I hope my mom doesn’t read this or my biking days are numbered. After trying to reprimand the hurried couple, I thought how polite the drivers had been down in the valley when their stop lights weren’t working, and I considered the accidents that could have occurred if any of them had been so pushy. For all of us—you and me both—let’s remember that the goal is for everyone to reach our destinations in one piece. We’re all in this together.

Looking for a cool service project idea?
A nearby town recently launched a transportation safety campaign, distributing hundreds of "Share the Road" bumper stickers and signs. Start one in your community by ordering bumper stickers from, or designing your own at

Friday, March 20, 2009

Wonder Girl's Secret

The "volunteer extraordinaire," mentioned in an earlier post, still hadn't figured out that she was the example being discussed until I surprised her this week. She possesses the typical trait of a dedicated volunteer: humility. Because I studied the motivators and behaviors of volunteers for a master's thesis, I'm always impressed by the infinite hours of unpaid labor that improve the projects I've worked on. Many have involved school activities, and others have been related to different children's causes. The benefits of volunteering can be garnered in any genre, from education, to animals, health care, or the environment. Those who take advice from volunteers such as Wonder Girl can make a difference.

What motivates us to become involved in a cause outside of home or work, where there is no direct personal benefit? Data from a recent study suggests such intangibles as these:
  1. A sense of belonging to a larger entity
  2. A desire to affiliate with like-minded individuals
  3. Improved self-esteem
  4. Making friends
H. Bussell & D. Forbes (2002, August), Understanding the volunteer market: the what, where, who and why of volunteering. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 7(3), 238-244.

Even though at first glance volunteers might seem to be those who have extra time on their hands, the most passionate volunteers are usually the busiest people in other areas of life as well. The desire and opportunity to do good provides a sense of accomplishment not found in their salaried jobs. Wonder Girl is typical of many committed volunteers in that she has a very advanced degree in a highly specialized field. (Remember, I can't give away her identity!) The ability to participate on a volunteer project provides an additional creative outlet not found at home or work; there is usually more camaraderie and collaboration involved in these efforts. When questioned recently, this "volunteer extraordinaire" shared the personal benefits she has gained from doing good:
  1. Working with other adults in a professional setting
  2. Meeting people and making friends
  3. Improvement of interpersonal skills.
Given all of the rewards of volunteering, it's impossible to imagine why anyone wouldn't want to give it a try. This is a hurried and complicated world, but volunteering helps us to slow down and remember what is truly important. The great thing about unpaid labor is that you can sign up for as much or as little as you want; but watch out, the happiness derived from volunteering is highly addictive, as Wonder Girl and others can attest!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Retail Therapy

With popular stories like "Confessions of a Shopaholic," the idea of shopping might sound therapeutic to some. When I walked into the mall with two teenagers on Saturday, I froze. I was on another planet. We set our rendezvous time and they were on their way for an hour of bargain-hunting; I stood there looking around as if I'd never seen a place like that. I've been steeped in work, with no time for malls lately. Luckily I had taken with me a bag of reading and I almost plopped myself down like the older gentlemen do, waiting for their spouses so they can go home. I realized, however, that I really did need three simple things: a watch, a coin purse, and some vitamins.

I found the watch in the first five minutes. The customer service at the store was what kept me there. The young lady behind the counter worked for twenty minutes to adjust and re-adjust the links on my new "affordable" Fossil watch as if it were a Rolex. She used her best manners and didn't seem to lose patience with this tedious job. I walked out of the store feeling like a new woman, no longer needing to carry my phone around to see the time. I grabbed the vitamins next and then ended up at the department store in search of the coin purse. I found it quickly, but as I approached the register I realized there was a line. Dread. That's when I usually give up and walk away, but the conversation I heard from the mother/daughter pair surprised me. They were praising "Cassie," the salesperson for her excellent customer service. She had a pierced lip and two bright red streaks on either side of her long dark hair. She did not look like the epitome of service, but her smile grew as these gals continued their compliments for her money-saving advice to them on how to get the best deal at check-out.

It was my turn to have the sale rung up, and Cassie was still beaming, lip ring and all, from the earlier pairs' praise. She greeted me warmly, regardless of my small purchase, and wished me a great day. I felt valued as I left the store, and I sensed that Cassie enjoyed brightening people's days just as the girl in the watch store seemed to enjoy helping people with the right fit. Customer service was a priority for those I encountered on the weekend, and when Monday rolled around the theme continued. I made a deposit Wells Fargo and they were more cheery than the weekend retail salespeople, even calling me by name. I stopped at the market to purchase milk and juice, and the checker was happy to share the excitement of his son hitting a home run! The bagger chimed in about her favorite sport and we all had an instant connection.

These are just my little daily errands, but in the space of two days I was met with so many smiles that I wondered if the world had suddenly gotten back on course. I realized that the people who were so full of kindness and pleasant manners must simply be happy people doing their jobs and feeling good about that. They didn't appear to be stressed out about their 401k plans, they were just getting by and making it nicer for those in their midst. There is enough time to worry and to be self-absorbed; believe me, I speak from hard-won experience. Some people, like the watch salesperson, Cassie, the bank teller, and the grocery store checker all work as if they understand the secret to happiness is treating others with kindness throughout each day. We can be vigilant and return these retail kindnesses by acknowledging when we see them and by sharing their contagion.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


While I was watching some high school students play volleyball last week, I noticed that they were having the most difficulty calling out to each other who had the ball. Some would look up in anticipation rather than around to see who was there to help. They acted as if they thought the game was entirely up to them, while others assumed one of their teammates would handle the situation so they stood there waiting. Those who had the best teamwork, and calling out who had the ball, were the winners sometimes even regardless of talent levels. Luckily for me, I've had a great group to work with during these last two weeks, so we were able to pull off our career speaker event for all of the students. Last Tuesday, however, even some from my "team-at-large" stepped into last-minute action.

I realized Monday night at 9:00 p.m., while double-checking with the dancer coming to speak, that I had scheduled her and the attorney's presentations using the same LCD projector at the same time in different rooms. Our department only owns one projector. I tried to see if one of them might be able to speak without using their visual aids, but that hardly seemed fair after they both spent time preparing. Of course, I couldn't sleep that night as my brain worked over this dilemma like a math puzzle. I tried to think of people from whom I could borrow at work, even around the neighborhood. I was very upset with myself at this oversight. The next morning, as soon as I walked into my office I called two technology people and left messages to see if they knew of any extra equipment. As the start time for our presentation approached I had given up the idea of having two projectors, and one of the speakers would have to go without. It was then that the drama teacher offered one she had tucked away in a closet. Then, as the ballerina and the attorney both arrived, they informed me that each had brought their own projector just in case we needed it. They both wondered why I laughed so joyously at the sight of their LCDs. Minutes after the speakers' good news, the two IT people I had contacted earlier were on the phone asking how they could help. The problem was solved.

Sometimes we need to consciously remind ourselves that we are not alone. Monday night, I felt very isolated in my angst, beating myself up over a simple mistake. I had to force myself to go to bed with no closure. By Tuesday morning, the projector issue was no longer apparent simply because of five conscientious people (count them: 1 teacher, 1 ballerina, 1 attorney, and 2 IT experts). In the broader sense of the word "team," anyone involved in a collaborative effort can make a difference if they care, and if we are willing to ask them for help. There is no guarantee they'll say "yes," or that they will have what we're hoping for (ex: a random LCD projector lying around), but it's important to recognize the potential impact of others when we work together.

It has taken me a lifetime to learn to accept my many weaknesses and ask for help when needed. I had no idea what I was missing by not enlisting help from others on the team. As I watched the teenagers play volleyball again today, I felt sorry for the players who were running around the court trying to bump, set, and spike alone. It was more fun for those who had figured out the game and knew when to call the ball, when to ask for help, and when to save a score. I'm not sure who gets the credit for saving our PowerPoint presentations the other day; I suppose I owe thanks to the entire team for simply being aware of the game going on around them and recognizing a need.

Three Elements of Teamwork for Volleyball, PowerPoint Presentations, and Life
  • Unselfishness: putting others above one's self, generous (ex: letting the other person have the ball, thinking what the other person might need)
  • Dedication: wholehearted devotion (ex: being in the game, staying engaged)
  • Awareness: vigilance, attentiveness (ex: watching out for other player's needs, offering assistance)

Monday, March 9, 2009

Mud, Sheetrock, and Volunteering

Two of my favorite pastimes are running and community service. There are probably lots of blogs about running; I'm writing about an analogy that I discovered while approaching my favorite trail and thinking about a great volunteer effort going on now at my work. I talked earlier about "Wonder Girl," the amazing volunteer who shall remain anonymous--only that person will know who she really is. Even though W.G. is the quintessential volunteer, there are dozens and dozens of others I've come across over the years that share her exuberance for making a difference in the world in some small way. If you've ever signed up to help in the community, at the school or church, you may have had the experience where you got into something unexpected, out of your comfort zone.

An acquaintance from the ski hill, Mermer Blakeslee, wrote a book titled, In the Yikes! Zone, all about expanding our comfort zones through skiing for a more enjoyable and meaningful life. Today, I decided that the Slogging Zone is in close proximity. After working hard all day, I decided that to preserve my sanity I simply had to go for a run. It was a perfectly sunny, albeit cold, day. I put on my brand new Nike Air Equalons and headed for the trail which starts about two miles from home. As I approached the canal pass where I needed to cross under the freeway at the start of the trail, I noticed it was much drier than last time I had tried. I wouldn't be discouraged by a little mud--I needed my trail running therapy today. I remembered the relative quiet on the other side of the freeway, where a bird sanctuary and golf course meet the municipal airport. I thought about all the native birds I would see on my favorite part of the trail.

As I proceeded under the freeway along the canal, I could see that the rain had washed a deep earthen path from the city to the wetlands forty yards away. About ten yards into it, I wondered if the mud would get deeper, but all I could focus on was the light on the other side and the clear path if I could just get to it. Another ten yards or so, and my brand new Nikes were stuck in four inches of gooey, slippery gunk. There I was, half way. I could turn back and hopefully save my new shoes, or I could just keep slogging and try to make it to my destination: the joy of running with pelicans and pheasants alongside pilots in small planes. I looked at myself in this situation and smiled, scanning back and forth along the canal pass. Why did I feel the need to keep going, regardless of the condition of my shoes, even not caring if I slipped a few times in the mud? Why did anyone ever cross the road, right? Exactly: because it's there. And what I saw on the other side made me happy, so I had to proceed.

I stopped looking back and just figured I would deal with possibly ruined running shoes later. The mud did get a little deeper for a minute but finally I made it to the Baylands trail, where I had one of the most enjoyable runs ever. Not only did I get to stop for a "visual timeout" to watch a flock of six white pelicans; I walked for a minute or two to check out the most colorful ringneck pheasant I've seen. My run was a success. Regardless of the fact that I now had to slog back along the same path to return home, it was worth it--even when my shoe got stuck and I pulled my foot right out of it. (If you've ever wondered about your running shoes, go ahead and throw them into the washer--it works, good as new!)

During this experience of hard-earned pleasantry, I remembered a community service day I had last fall when I signed up to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity for the first time. I always thought the idea of Habitat looked and sounded so cool: ordinary people come together and build houses for each other, no problem! Even though I have spent many a day on construction sites, this volunteer job put me into both the "Yikes! Zone" that Mermer describes and my newly discovered "Slogging Zone." I arrived with some friends from church early in the morning with my only preparation being old jeans and a sweatshirt, a cell phone in my pocket. The trained volunteer crew leader welcomed us and started inviting groups of four or five to accept the assignments she called out for the day: "Rebar! Trenches! Window installation!" She went on; none of the available jobs sounded like anything I felt comfortable doing, nor was I interested in learning how to do them. Finally, those of us waiting in the "Yikes! Zone" were left with the only remaining option: "Sheetrock!" We reluctantly raised our hands, I myself wishing there had been a simple task like stacking and sorting tile or wood for the day.

We were handed our tools and belts, and I remembered the last time I helped with sheetrock: Brody was two years old, and our sheetrock effort was a disaster. We found out that making a curved wall is only for experts, so we hired one. For this Habitat day I was the first to offer my services with another worker carrying the heavy boards upstairs, instead of being on the cutting and hammering team. But that job was quickly finished, leaving me with the only choice of going into the slogging zone: the tedious and frustrating work of measuring, cutting, and re-measuring after our mistakes (and there were a few). At the end of the day, after having gone into the zones of discomfort from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., I discovered that some things are just messy, there's no way around it. That's the way the job gets done. I was so proud of my efforts to cleanly pound the nails into that sheetrock, I almost took a picture. It was sheer pleasure out of pain and frustration; just like the muddy run.

Fast forward to these last two weeks at work, where I have led a volunteer committee to execute our first annual "Career Month" for the benefit of 1800 high school students. I invited volunteers from the parent community and another part-timer to help organize an event to bring nineteen successful career speakers from Silicon Valley to inspire our students to "find their passion in work and life." Two speakers would come to separate venues at our school each day for two weeks. After many months of planning, the time arrived for the event and my volunteer committee was called into daily duty. Little did we know the kind of response we would receive from the school; we just didn't want to fall on our faces. I promised we wouldn't! We hoped to get a dozen or two students to come to each speaker session, and as an incentive if they signed up ahead of time we had promised pizza/lunch. When the sign-up sheets were turned in on Friday with hundreds and hundreds of names, the Career Month committee was thrown into slogging mode! By Monday we had to figure out how to feed all those students, with little funds available. I didn't tell them, but as I drove south on Highway 101 that afternoon I thought how nice it would be to just keep on driving and I'd escape to Sally's house in San Diego by dark!

Now, we're on the other side of the "canal pass" and nearly through with the speaker series, we are out of the mess and into the pleasure. We asked for extra help and it came. We practiced the routine over and over, and now it's starting to feel like a procedure every morning, rather than an emergency. We can even sit and enjoy listening to the speakers if we want to. I am so thankful to the three parent volunteers and to my co-worker who stayed with me as we embarked into the unknown to create a new vehicle for students to explore career paths and interests. There is no way we could have known how messy and sticky it would become along the way, but now that we are on the other side I think we all agree it was worth a trip through the Slogging Zone.

The New World Dictionary defines SLOGGING: vi. 1. mak(ing) one's way with great effort; plodding 2. work(ing) hard at something; toil(ing).

To find local volunteer opportunities with Habitat for Humanity:
When you arrive, be ready to leave your comfort zone !