No TV Week: A Worthy Challenge

This last week students and families at Monterey Hills and Arroyo Vista Elementary Schools were encouraged to participate in “National TV Turnoff Week.” A special pajama story-time at each school was held on Thursday to drive home the value of turning off the TV, turning on a book, and sharing special moments together.

Consider the following statistics by “TV Free America,” a national nonprofit organization founded in 1994 and sponsor of the National TV Turnoff Week: number of minutes/week that the average parent spends in meaningful conversation with their children – 38.5, hours/year the average American youth spends in school – 900, and hours/year the average American youth watches TV – 1500.

The challenge to South Pasadena families was to turn off the screen, except online research for necessary homework. It is a straightforward and simple concept, right? Well, not so simple to accomplish.

To not engage in electronics was optional, but done in an effort to encourage more meaningful interactions with people (especially family) and discover the wonderful, sometimes forgotten world of physical activity and worthwhile pastimes (like reading, enjoying nature, and playing).

Translation: no video games of any sort, no movies, no computers, no smart phone browsing, no YouTube, no Facebook, no nothing I do all day. In this area, I failed. But my kids… they did great!

Arroyo Vista’s librarian, Joanna LaFave, distributed “Get Out & Play, Read A Book” guides. Inside, it encouraged families with a list of best books to read, non-electronic activities to try (from the South Pasadena Public Library), a PlayDough recipe, puzzles, and a certificate of completion to be exchanged for a prize.

LaFave also participated at home, but admitted, “It [was] hard on me because I’m a big sports fan.”

With a bright yellow “CAUTION” tape, included in the guide from Arroyo Vista, wrapped around our TV screen, my forth-grader was vigilant about sticking to the rules.

The computer was a necessity for me to do my work, so it was unrealistic to do away with that aspect all together. And my boys, thankfully, do not have the kinds of social connections I have online, but they will, all too soon.

But to rid the home of the extra media entertainment (TV, movies, games), I must admit, was refreshing! And most of the parents I spoke with agreed.

There was the occasional chanting from my four-year-old, “I want TV, I want TV, I want…” But beyond that, it was a good week.

One Arroyo Vista Parent, Suzanne Ebner, dusted off an aging “Clue” board game and enjoyed watching her son and his friend discover this new, yet ancient, form of entertainment, playing 3 times straight through.

Michelle Hammond, parent at Monterey Hills, did not watch much TV to begin with, so foregoing the screen was not too painful. But it also didn’t come completely easy either since she relies on it during dinner preparations, “It’s the only way she [younger daughter] won’t injure her big brother.” The most important thing for Hammond, “that he [older son in first grade] wants to do it himself. He’ll feel more accomplished if I’m not forcing him.”

A mother at Arroyo Vista, Gina Chang, said of the challenge, “There was no complaining from the kids [one in kindergarten and the other in second grade]. Especially if it’s a school-wide thing, they think, ‘why not.’” She noticed that certain TV viewing sometimes had adverse effects on her son with the occasional over-stimulation, causing him to be more ornery than usual. So the break was a welcome change for the entire family.

We live in an age where electronic media is as common as drinking water, perhaps more so since I definitely spend more time online than I do drinking the recommended water intake to keep me healthy.

Certainly, TV and electronics are not all-together evil, unless it becomes the glowing babysitter for hours on end. But it behooves us all to stop and think: can we use our time better? Can engaging the mind and body to actively learn something be better than passive learning via TV? What am I giving up to engage in this form of media?

Simply saying, “NO” to this omnipresence is a challenge for most and even a near impossibility for some. But it is an endeavor that is well worth the effort.

If you missed the official National Turn Off the TV challenge, and believe it could do you some good, do not wait to try and catch it next year (be honest, it’s probably just an excuse to not attempt it at all).

Rather, give yourself a healthy diet of periodic TV or electronics fasts. Read a book. Try a new hobby. Take a walk. Meet your neighbor and get them to stop watching TV. Re-think life. Do nothing. Talk with and really listen to the humans closest to you. Take the no electronic plunge or wade a bit by taking just one thing away for a day; you’ll be glad you did.

For an entertaining look at the effects of Television, I highly recommend a classic read by Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”

For kids (and kids at heart) to learn everything one should know and do while growing up, try “The Dangerous Book for Boys” by Gonn and Hal Iggulden and “The Daring Book for Girls” by Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz.

Brewing Coffee, Creativity, and Community

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Drew Gale, co-organizer of Kaldi's Open Mic Night

Good coffee. Live music. Relaxed people. All warm the soul on a rainy brisk Friday evening, “Open Mic Night” at Kaldi, on the corner of El Centro and Diamond.

Removing the layers of outerwear and chills from a frigid wind, I was immediately distracted by the friendly atmosphere. Susan and Chanho Park (not the former Dodger pitcher, but former CFO at a Korean Bank and coffee bean enthusiast) became the new owners this last December.

Along with their daughter Christina, a graduate student at USC, the barista staff, and loyal customers, new and old, a steadily growing audience prepared for a night of exchanging laughs and artistry.

Of Kaldi’s ambiance, Christina stated that there’s “an atmosphere [here] that breeds creativity as well as intellectual juices.” And glancing at the display of local art (from photography to sketches) and people reading, writing and in conversation, I can’t deny it.

Nestled amidst and among the city’s 41 historic landmarks, it seems apropos that Christina, a current student in historical preservation, along with sister, Jennifer, help their parents at Kaldi, originally the South Pasadena Bank Building (keeping Mr. Park loosely tethered to his former life in banking).

So in our quaint city of preserved landmarks, a modern surge of creativity brews at Kaldi, the namesake of a legendary goatherd from Ethiopia, believed to have discovered coffee while watching his goats find renewed energy after eating certain red berries.

Passionate about coffee beans, even roasting his own at home, Mr. Park and his wife have brought a new brew to Kaldi. Along with new beans, a new “Open Mic Night” has also been added.

May of 2011 was the last time an event like this took place at Kaldi. But even then, it was not the same because there were only three scheduled acts.

Last Friday marked the first of many to follow. Co-organizers of the event, a local Drew Gale (former Kaldi employee, award winning personal trainer, and musician) and Jonathan Zadok (stand-up comic, entertainer, and musician), who both met while working at the historic Rialto, hope to create a new open-mic tradition of sharing talents while having fun.

When asked, why they switched to an open-mic format, Gale responded without hesitation, that it would be great to “try to get in new people and make it more for the community.” Even children are invited to perform and participate in a coloring contest with prizes. Though kids were not present Friday evening, it was nice to know they are always welcome to join-in.

Though the “open mic” format, in general, originated with the sharing of folk music, today it is an opportunity for members of a community to share their creativity in a supportive environment, be it poetry, music, spoken word, comedy, or a host of other mic-related performances.

But on Friday, original acoustic guitar pieces dominated. Gale, opened the evening with tunes like “Movies with Lewis,” dedicated to an elderly man (a client he walks with as a trainer) with whom he also enjoys watching movies.

Next up was Richie Webb, staff at the local Kinesthetic Kids and a South Pasadena resident. Webb played his music as well as improvising by encouraging the crowd to throw out words. They chose random ones, like “cats, bake sales, and airports.” And Webb delivered with a rhyming musical concoction of a cat getting sick from a bake sale on the way to an airport.

Zadok followed, wearing a multi-colored beanie and singing witty tunes, in line with his life in comedy. Then a soulful Mike Sanjuan shared his original pieces next, enjoying casual tunes among friends. All were amazingly professional, laid-back, and gifted.

Wearing my “Open-Mic at Kaldi” swag, a button pinned to my shirt, and as I spoke with customers and those sharing the mic, I couldn’t help but feel what Mrs. Park spoke of, “Each day I’m learning that [Kaldi] is more than a place to get coffee.”

Yes, in fact, it’s one of several gems in our diverse and small-town neighborhood, where community is more than buildings and programs, but people who help each other, grow and enjoy life between generations.

Future “Open Mic Nights” are planned for every second Friday of the month, sign-ups for acts begin at 6:45 PM with performances winding down by 10 PM.

New Owners: Susan and Chanho Park with daughter, Christina.

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Kaldi: one of South Pasadena’s 41 historic landmarks

Chess is Cool at Marengo

Enthusiastic arms shot up in unison with muffled “Oh, oh, oh’s” in a thick crowd of third to fifth graders at Marengo Elementary School. You would’ve thought someone was giving away the latest game consul on the market; but no, this was chess.

Tom Eilers challenges chess player.

Nearly 60 boys and girls, heavy on boys by just a little, participate every Thursday after school for an hour of masked learning (education via fun) through lessons, one-on-one chess play, creative team chess, and deciphering original chess puzzles created by volunteer chess coach, Tom Eilers.

Marengo’s chess club is a free activity for the children, made possible by wish night donations that help toward buying the necessary chess sets and learning tools.

Lisa Robinson (third grade teacher, member of the Marengo family for 19 years, and teacher for 26 years) is in her 13th straight year as the club’s advisor. “This helps me keep in touch with the kids and have fun.”

Robinson, Eilers and Sandra Moore (who has since moved away) started the chess club in 1999. Then, Eilers had two children at Marengo. Now he volunteers for the pure fun of it.

Though Eilers took a break from the club for several years, he has been back in full force for the past 2 ½ years, starting a chess club in neighboring Alhambra, organizing chess tournaments, tutoring in chess, and teaching chess at Mathnasium in South Pasadena on Saturdays. Not to mention, he also has a non-related full-time job.

When discussing the countless hours Eilers puts into helping children with chess and hundreds of puzzles he joyfully makes to challenge players, he couldn’t help but joke, “My wife thinks I’m a little obsessed.”

Robinson especially relishes in being a part of the club because “There are kids who do sports and kids who don’t. They come here and they’re equals. There’s no pressure to be a chess genius… The kids are wonderful!”

Chess club is a stimulating place to be. And it’s not easy to keep 60+ elementary-aged children engaged for an hour when they’ve already had a long school day and hunger pangs begin to set in after 2:45 PM.

But somehow, Robinson and Eilers along with other volunteers (parents, an occasional middle school student and high school students who can even receive ROP credit) come in, encourage, teach, and get the job done with fun at the core.

When asked about why he volunteers, John Tashiro, parent of two boys in chess club and faithful chess club volunteer said, “[Chess] makes these kids think ahead, anticipate more, and strategize… I like watching these kids grow and see how they think.”

In the background, teams of chess players cheer and give each other high 5’s as if their team just won the super bowl. A smile and some chuckles escape an on-looking parent. His kids are enjoying chess.

At the end of the day, Eilers reflects on his time with the young chess enthusiasts, “I can’t think of a better way to spend my time, making kids happy while they learn.”

And simply put, the bottom line is emphasized by third grader, Zoe Albornoz, “It’s really fun!”

If you are interested in having your K-8th grader join-in a chess party and tournament save the following Saturdays: February 25 (for K-3rd grade) 2-4 PM or 4:30-6:30 PM; March 3 (for 4th-8th grade) 4-6:30 PM; March 10 (for K-8th grade) 2-6:30 PM. There is a $12 entry fee for each session, with trophies and prizes for all.

To register for and for more information on chess tournaments and classes, contact Tom Eilers at tomeilers1@gmail.com or (626) 375-5135.

A Dog, a Moment and a Sunny South Pas

It was an absolutely gorgeous, sunny winter day last week in South Pasadena, California, just a tad under 80 degrees with bright blue skies and fresh, rain-washed air. It was the kind of day for which people uproot their entire family and move here!

My faithful Terri-Poo, Bree, and I were on the back porch soaking in the sun. Bree was enjoying the splash of water from the fountain to the grass and I was enjoying a wise and hysterical book on writing by Anne Lamott.

When it was time to go in, I called out “Breezy” to make sure she knew where I was going. But really, I think I called her because I needed a dose of my pooch’s love. And she delivered.

As the following unraveled, I was reminded of why I love this member of the family so much.

While entering the house, Bree was quick to follow, but then she paused just outside the threshold. She turned, craning her neck around to glance behind at the beautiful outdoors. Then she glanced longingly back at me, as if to say, “What? You want me to come in on a day like this? You’ve got to be kidding me! But you feed me and I love you more than this day; and if you want me to come in, I will.”

Yes, I am a dog whisperer. She said all this in one adorable glance.

Then uncaringly, like many distracted pet owners, I walked inside to go about my business. But I wasn’t completely uncaring because I left the door open for her to choose to stay outside or come in.

She came in, dragging her paws and with head held low. I heard her quiet, complaint-filled mumbling behind me, “Fine. I’ll come into the cold cave you call home because you’re too cheap to turn on the heater. I’ll come in; but I don’t have to like it. Grumble, grumble.”

So I turned around and got down to her level, kind of like I do with my 4-year-old human (many similar training techniques, but that’s another story). And I began to stroke her and speak gently into her big dark eyes, like she understood every wise word issuing from my lips. “Breezy, You don’t have to stay by my side. You can go out and enjoy the perfect day.”

And surprisingly (I mean, I knew she understood my every word all along), I kid you not, she turned around and leaped back toward the door. But she also stopped midway and turned around as if to say, “Are you sure now? Because once I step across to the other side, I’m outta here!”

I responded aloud, “Yes, go ahead. I’ll be right here with the door open, waiting for your return, and writing about how much I love sunny South Pas and you.”

Wind Whipped War Zone

In the wake of an early morning whipping from the Santa Ana’s, South Pasadena and surrounding communities suffered one of the worst windstorms in recent history.

As gusts of up to 97 miles per hour (as recorded around Los Angeles) barged through December’s doors, we were not fully prepared for the equivalent of a stage 1 to stage 2 hurricane-like wind condition. Any wind speed above 75 mph is classified as hurricane winds, so we were well within what many southern states are usually forewarned about and prepared for.

Our homes, businesses, and trees were simply not used to this sort of abuse and few were ready. After all, we’re earthquake country, not hurricane ally!

Like many during the night and morning of November 30 and December 1, respectively, our family (including the dog) huddled together in the dark of a power outage. Emergency vehicle sirens, car alarms, and random wind-whipped objects kept us up, as we wondered when the calamity would stop. I could not sleep until after 3 AM; and that, only because I used earplugs.

The next morning, the electric alarm clock did not go off. But perhaps out of habit, we woke at about the usual time and rushed to get ready for the day, unaware of the destruction outside.

As we exited our home to get the kids to school on time, we surveyed the damage: our beautiful Australian Willow in the back yard didn’t make it through the night (thankfully, it fell away from the house), the front yard maples lost hefty branches, our 2-inch thick swinging wooden car gate cracked in two places, my hand-sewn seat cushion disappeared and more.

On our block, the house next door lost windows, the house across the street lost a significant part of their roof, neighbors were cleaning their property, torn power lines dangled in mid air, and three mature palm trees were decapitated. And this was noticed upon first glance, while walking the dog and talking with neighbors.

Perhaps, still in denial or thinking it was better at school, we proceeded with our usual routine. Then, the extent of the devastation began to sink in. We were weaving through a nature-induced war zone. And our street got off easy compared to the wreckage we witnessed: trees on top of cars, trees blocking streets, leaning fences and debris everywhere.

My boys kept saying, “Look at that! Oh, look at that! Oh my gosh…” I was simply focused on not hitting the car in front of me, going at a snail’s pace because the streetlights were all out. We were late; but it was a good thing, because while we were in the car I got the cell phone call from the SPUSD, school was canceled. We turned the car around and took the 15-minute, 1.5-mile detour home.

As the days rolled by, stories of individual hardships poured in. There was chaos with families as children were dropped off at various South Pasadena schools, then classes were canceled and parents had to fight their way back through traffic to pick-up or find their children.

One story that appalled me was of a friend who (like many were dealing with a mess on their property) was also burglarized while at work that same day, heaping insult upon injury. Though according to Officer Richard Lee of the South Pasadena Police, the number of burglaries since the heavy winds was not unusually high, the rates rising since October.

School was cancelled again for Friday. My friend (still without power) and I decided to take our children out to breakfast. As we visited one of the few open restaurants, we immediately noticed how packed it was with families, kids, people trying to connect to the Internet, etc. And strangers at surrounding tables, like family, shared their wind-induced hardships and close calls.

I never felt so much camaraderie with neighbors. It felt bitter sweet to connect with each other through our challenges, but that’s what it took: often, through hardship we break open.

I’m sad for our loss. We love our trees, excellent schools, beautiful homes, and quaint community. The clean up is extensive and expensive. People are still suffering loss. But if any good has or can come out of this, it’s that we all have an opportunity to better prepare for an even bigger emergency. And at least for now, we can also begin to more deeply recognize our humanity: people reaching out to help each other, sharing our stories, sharing our pain. Let’s not lose this chance to offer our help, big or small, and mean it.

What Would You Wish?

Peace-tagged olive trees, elementary school children, and Yoko Ono have converged on South Pasadena’s soil.

At Arroyo Vista Elementary (AV), children in all grades, K-5, drew or wrote their wishes for peace on sending labels and tied them to the branches of two donated olive trees.

While picking-up my son at school, I noticed a few children sifting through branches of these lofty potted trees, intently reading what looked like blossoms from afar. They were reading wish-filled tags, saying, “Hey, listen to this one…”

Intrigued, I too, read some… And I actually began to tear. Then I laughed. And then I did a double take. Surprised by what I read, I was in awe at the profundity of children’s hopes:

“I wish that my Geanie Pig was still with me and my sister.” “I wish my sister and brother wouldn’t fight with me.” “I wish my mom and dad wont fight anymore.” “I wish that everyone had a bed to sleep in.” “I wish we had a much cleaner and non-polluted WORLD” “I wish that all of the animals would be free and safe.” “I wish that people got more money!$” “No more war” “I wish that God will bless the solgers in the war fighting for this wonderfol place.” (Quotes are as is.)

As we live amidst an ailing economy, wars fought for the greater good, and hurting people, the hope for peace is often a distant ethereal dream. But without that dream, where would we reach?

Leslie Brill, volunteer parent and secretary at AV, took an active step toward peace and initiated the Wishing Tree Project out of a desire to inspire the children by providing an opportunity to voice their hopes while celebrating the United Nations’ International Day of Peace (September 21) “to recognize the efforts of those who have worked hard to end conflict and promote peace… It is also a day of ceasefire – personal or political,” added Brill. And her hope for the kids was “to think of a wish that was bigger than their selves.”

When the principal, Cheryl Busick, was asked about what she especially liked about the project, she responded, “I love walking out in the courtyard and seeing 6-12 students gathered around the quotes. It’s so inspiring knowing that these kids can change the world and make our school’s wishes come true.” Her own wishes include, “Happiness for all – I am a believer that if kids are happy, they will learn.”

A wish tree is not a new concept. Many cultures have their versions of a wish tree: the Norfolk Island Pine in Australia from the early 1800’s, the sacred Camphor tree at Meiji Shrine in Japan, and a healing ash tree in Scotland, to name a few.

At the core of these wish trees, there is a sense that certain trees have unique, even supernatural quality that draw people to whisper wishes toward it, touch it, walk around it, or place their written wishes on branches or at the base. For many, these decorated trees are a reminder and a representation of peace, hope, and a common unity that serves us all well (like the olive trees at AV).

The project at AV was modeled after one done by Yoko Ono, an artist, performer, and widow of John Lennon. Since 1981 she began to popularize the wish tree with her interactive “Wish Tree” project that spanned the globe. People in various cities placed their wishes on tags and tied them to branches of various trees.

Heavy and drooping with wishes, Ono eventually collected the one million plus tags and placed them in capsules around the “Imagine Peace Tower” of light in Iceland, her art piece commemorating her late husband while promoting peace and solidarity. The unveiling of the tower occurred in 2007, and was recently relit on October 9, 2011 in memory of Lennon’s 71st birthday.

With the holidays quickly approaching and the decking of our beloved trees and homes upon us, I search for meaningful traditions to help my kids think beyond the tangible joys of the season (lights and presents). The wishing tree project inspired me to prepare for a new tradition for our family this year: placing our written wishes on the Christmas tree and maybe even the trees outside our home, then choosing a couple and making them come true through the new year. Maybe you can do the same or some creative version of it.

This way, wishes are more than lofty dreams, they’re stepping-stones to a new reality.

Inspiration in South Pasadena

Whether born and raised here or adopted into the heart, like myself, South Pasadena is a haven, rejuvenating the soul, for those who value the warmth of a small town set comfortably in a modern world.

As I live in and enjoy my neighborhood, I am thrilled to consistently discover new gems to enliven my soul. Whether it’s learning to bake pizza at Fiore Market Café or being inspired during an author night at the South Pasadena Library, I’m deeply grateful for the place our family calls home.

With a rich history (officially incorporated into a city in 1888) and a vibrant future that is evident in the proud residents who occupy it, SOUTH Pasadena (the “crown of the valley”) draws in the population with a magnetism that keeps spirits and house prices high.

Immersed in our walkable city (“Tree City USA,” in fact) are excellent schools, an award-winning Farmers’ Market, good eats, remarkable turn-of-the-century architecture, large exotic (albeit ridiculously loud yet lovely) parrots, and a landmark vintage water tower overlooking friendly citizens (among many other charms I hope to highlight in the months ahead).

On the west, we have the southernmost section of the Arroyo Seco greenbelt, full of opportunities for outdoor enjoyment, from horseback riding stables, tennis courts, and golf courses to athletic fields, batting cages, and an open-air skate park.

We have a decent-sized hill in Monterey Hills; and for better or for worse, a train (which my sons happen to love) flowing through our nostalgic downtown mom-and-pop shops. We have a freeway of our own in the 110 and we proudly don’t have another freeway in the 710. So our topography is certainly varied and our resolve to keep our environs healthy, solid.

All of this (mini overview) to say: our town, however small (consisting of 3.44 square miles), is large on stimulating the psyche. Whether you are part of an exclusive umpteenth generation of South Pasadenans or moved in yesterday, there are treasures galore to enjoy, old and new.

As we journey into all that makes South Pasadena beautiful, I hope to walk with you as we discover (or rediscover) that which ignites our being – to see, to feel, and to give back to our diverse community, inspiring the senses, inspiring the soul.

Facts to support this story were found on the City of South Pasadena website and Britannica.com