Thursday, December 26, 2013

Book Review: Coolidge

I've enjoyed watching Justin reading Amity Shlaes' Coolidge over the past few months. He would chuckle and say of Calvin Coolidge and his wife, Grace, "Those two remind me of us. The classic introvert and the classic extrovert." Given today's political climate it seems that this book is a timely one for us Americans and I look forward to reading this after I clear some other books of my GoodReads shelf.    

Enjoy Justin's review: 

Such a great enough to give you a good picture, but pretty tightly paced so it never drags.

Calvin Coolidge was a fascinating yet unassuming fellow who was loath to promote himself, preferring to work hard and be "in the stream" so that his excellence would be noticed by others at the right time. Shlaes speaks up where Coolidge himself may never have, poring through papers and letters to allow his choices and perseverance shine forth as the example for others he always hoped they would be. He comes across not as the cranky, taciturn caricature most Americans hold, but as a shrewd and calculating political operator with steely-eyed convictions and a keen eye for public perception. Moreover, he was quite family-focused, cherishing and protecting his wife through a life lived in public, holding onto his family land in Vermont throughout his presidency (even micromanaging his tenants at times), and suffering incredibly through the sudden loss of his 17 year-old son during the 2nd year of his presidency. Shlaes gives ample treatment to both his home life and his official capacities, offering a window into the sacrifices the whole family made for the sake of the country.

If there is a weakness here, it is that Shlaes focuses heavily on the nuts and bolts of Coolidge's policies, though I actually appreciated that. Economics and tax policy seems to be the stuff that rings her chimes, from other pieces I've read by her (and interviews, etc.), and the tone throughout the book suggests that she would clearly like to see those in the political realm revisit the inner workings of the Coolidge administration and apply some of his solutions to today's issues.

In all, a great read. I foresee that Shlaes book will have the same recussitatory effect on Coolidge's historical standing that McCullough's work had on Truman's.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Movie Review: Saving Mr. Banks (and a plug for Marry Poppins)

Our oldest (at age 2) dressed like Bert, the chimney sweep

Before I married Justin, he told me that one of his all time favorite movies as an adult was Mary Poppins. Though I loved the film too, my first reaction was, "But it's a kids movie?". In other words, I was saying, "I can't wait to show it to our children someday because I have that childhood nostalgia, too" but I soon learned that is not what he meant. I was like Walt Disney telling P.L. Travers in the Saving Mr. Banks trailer that he thought Mary came to save the children.

Justin knew Mr. Banks was the one who had to learn the lesson, not the kids. I think he was always in awe of how Disney was able to make Mary Poppins accessible to children, yet pack such a punch for adults. For instance, do you remember Bert saying this to the children?

Bert: You know, begging your pardon, but the one my heart goes out to is your father. There he is in that cold, heartless bank day after day, hemmed in by mounds of cold, heartless money. I don't like to see any living thing caged up.

Jane: Father? In a cage?

Bert: They makes cages in all sizes and shapes, you know. Bank-shaped, some of 'em, carpets and all.

or perhaps this interaction at the fireplace between Bert and Mr. Banks

Bert: You're a man of high position, esteemed by your peers. And when your little tykes are crying, you haven't time to dry their tears... And see their thankful little faces smiling up at you... 'Cause their dad, he always knows just what to do...

George Banks: Well, look - I...

Bert: Say no more, Gov'ner. You've got to grind, grind, grind at that grindstone... Though childhood slips like sand through a sieve... And all too soon they've up and grown, and then they've flown... And it's too late for you to give - just that spoonful of sugar to 'elp the medicine go down - medicine go dow-wown, medicine go down. Well, goodbye, Gov'ner. Sorry to trouble you. [Bert exits, whistling "A Spoonful of Sugar"]

Mr. Banks may not have been P.L. Travers' impression of her father, but Mr. Banks is certainly many people's father. Justin says that the full circle Mr. Banks achieves (where he becomes who he always needed to be) is because his identity changes. He is no longer George Banks the Banker, but George Banks the Father. He claims that Mary Poppins has the best 3rd act of any movie he's ever seen, the final beautiful, resolving chord at the end of a symphony. 

Here's where things get interesting though. You might think that after you've watched the Saving Mr. Banks trailer you're going to side with Walt Disney more than P.L. Travers. Well, you just might surprise yourself. I think this will particularly ring true with those of you who are avid readers. I'm talking about those of you who usually always read the book before watching (and screaming at) the movie adaptation. It hurts to see those characters (who you feel are like family) being turned into a "ghastly mess" :) The tone is wrong, the person's build is wrong, the clothes are wrong, the motivation is wrong. You get what I'm saying? Sometimes the movie version feels like a cast of strangers. I felt very much on Travers' side for most of the movie, all the way up to the scene with the movie's Hollywood premiere. I mean, I've read a Mary Poppins book and she is no Julie Andrews. However, as soon as they started showing clips from the movie, I started to cry. I just could not imagine my life (both as a child and now a mother) without having Disney's Mary Poppins for my family to cherish. I felt this uncontrollable emotional pull of, "Sheesh! Disney really did know what he was doing!" The movie somehow balances the highs and lows, the funny and the melancholy, the strict with the whimsical so well. After seeing Saving Mr. Banks, I felt like Mary Poppins the movie is actually the perfect marriage of Disney personality (carefree) and Travers personality (gravitas).  

As far as performances go, Emma Thompson is exquisite. I had high hopes for her and she did not disappoint. Tom Hanks is good at being Tom Hanks, the warm, lovable guy we all feel like we know. He doesn't convince me he's Walt Disney, especially with that accent. He tries so hard to be folksy he somehow ends up being Southern. It struck both of us that there was a grand irony in this -- Dick Van Dyke, the American, was roundly panned for his portrayal of a Cockney chimney sweep in Mary Poppins. Colin Farrell was an excellent choice for Travers' father. Every woman knows that Farrell is a handsome guy by his own right, but having him be that handsome, sanguine man in the movie added to the idealized version Travers clearly had of her father. As far as the Disney staff, the Ralph character was an unnecessary plot device, but the other important people on the Mary Poppins production team were endearing as they struggled to meet Travers' high (if not unreasonable) standards.        

So I can say that I heartily recommend this movie even if it was loosely based on real life events**


I came into this movie knowing that this "Disney version" of Disney events wasn't actually real. P. L. Travers went to her grave regretting ever signing the deal with Disney. She was initially on board with the movie after her consultation, but later in life she began to get aggravated with the film more and more. She never let the Disney corporation touch anything else ever having to do with Mary Poppins because she felt she they twisted her beloved creation.

It was very clear from reading up on P.L. Travers when I got home that her life was an outpouring of many unresolved emotional issues (see here for more on that) most of which seem to be daddy related. There was not any evidence that she had the emotional catharsis as shown in the movie. It's tragic to see someone succumb to such childhood trauma, to the point where it colors everything she is and does. However, wouldn't you say that personal suffering is how many of our most adored classics come to existence?   

Monday, December 16, 2013

Guest Post: 6 Ways To Change Your Learning Culture

We'll excuse the Pinterest typo just this once, Dos Equis man. 
"When you were growing up, you probably spent hours sitting in a classroom listening to teachers deliver lecture after lecture in school. Now, as an adult employee, the thought of sitting through company training seems boring, unproductive, pointless and wasteful compared to actual work you could be doing. And if that’s what you think, your colleagues are likely thinking the same thing." - Nate Magnuson 

I'm excited about a first on this blog -- linking up an article that deals with education in the workplace. This post specifically focuses on the idea of what company training could be with a new corporate culture, not just a "hot new strategy".

This post was written by a Bryan College friend (like most of my guest posts!), Nate Magnuson, who is a leadership development professional. He and my husband lived on the same dorm hall for 3 years and he is one funny and focused guy! I highly recommend you check out his personal website

The post of Nate's I wanted to highlight is called 6 Ways to Change Your Learning Culture. In it, he details how companies who don't embrace the fact that education is happening beyond training days are missing out on a lot of potential from their employees and volunteers.   

Here are some of the "old" ideas he seeks to move beyond in the workplace: 
    1. You can only learn when you go to training events
    2. The person leading training is the "expert"
    3. The company is in charge of the personal development of the employee
    4. Sweep mistakes under the rug  
    5. You can assess learning by tests
    6. If you pass the test, you're done with training
If you have ever been to a training seminar, you will probably know instantly why many of these methods of training can be outdated and unhelpful at times. They don't promote an attitude of lifelong learning. In fact, I recently published a blog post that featured a video of a teacher who says that $600,000 was used to train teachers for 2 weeks on technology. She details what the training consisted of (e.g. one WHOLE day was finding out what kind of "penguin" she was) and it sure didn't sound like money or time well spent. Stories like these aren't just cropping up in our schools though. They are happening at large businesses, small businesses, and non-profits. So why do we persist in doing the latest training trend devoid of a context of "culture" for the organization? A good leader will set the tone for its employees. 
I'm not saying that these 6 things never have a place in training, but considering the shifts that Nate suggests wouldn't be a bad idea if you're looking for a new workplace culture. Generally, I'm a late adopter for most any kind of technology, but I know the way people communicate with each other has rapidly changed over the last decade. I have more people ask me insurance questions through my personal Facebook than on my professional e-mail. You roll with the technology changes while creating an environment that promotes healthy, productive interactions (whatever that may look like for your organization).    

Feel free to share a time when your professional training has been unproductive or productive because of the learning culture.  

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

OCC: An Attitude of Gratitude -- Part 2

As you saw in Part 1, Operation Christmas Child is one of many ways families use to foster gratitude during the holiday season.

After volunteering there for 2 years now, I thought I might share some tips from the OCC warehouse for those of you who enjoy packing shoeboxes every year. Obviously, these are not official rules. I just wouldn't have known about some of these things if I hadn't volunteered there and seen it with my own eyes, so I'm trying to be helpful by showing you how to mostly ensure your items can stay in the box you sent.   

Tip #1 - Consider buying for the forgotten age groups. The age group that gets the largest amount of shoeboxes is the 5-9 range and girls get way more boxes sent than boys. For every 1 or 2 crates we filled for the 2-4 age range or 10-14 age range, we filled about 3 boxes of 5-9. Keep these age groups in mind when you're shopping. It's especially fun if your child or grandchild is in one of those forgotten age groups and they can pick out something they might like.

Tip #2 - Use the OCC boxes instead of odd shaped boxes. Samaritan's Purse tries to be a good steward of the money you send in which means trying to get as many shoeboxes in one large box to send to another country. When the box sizes are funky it's like playing Tetris to get them to fit. At the very least it means more shipping costs because not as many can go in one box. However, I understand why some people send the plastic ones so the child can have some extra storage for personal items.

Tip #3 - Try not to overstuff the boxes. Things frequently fall out of overstuffed boxes. Overstuffed boxes are extremely difficult to tape and difficult to fit into the larger boxes that get sent overseas. Consider maybe doing an extra box or giving someone else some items for their box instead of overfilling the ones you have :)

Tip #4 - Please read the what not to include list carefully. If you've been doing the boxes for a while you may think you know what not to include, but they change it up every year based on things they see happen during shipping. There were rumors they are going to ban candy next year because it causes so much trouble. When we inspect the boxes, people still send liquids like shampoo and lotions as well as foods which won't make it past customs. Those items get taken out of the box and donated to local charities.   

Tip #5 - Try to be sensitive about the commercialized American toys you buy. A lot of well-meaning shoppers don't think outside the American context. When we inspected one box, we found some "Bubba" teeth in one of the boxes. That may be funny to us who have great access to dental care, but at best it would be a joke that is lost on someone from another country, at worst a cruel joke to someone whose family can't receive or afford dental care. You may not bat an eye at Ariel or Jasmine, but someone in another country might. In other countries, especially Islamic dominated countries where the burqua or head scarves are standard dress, families would be offended by a gift like that.      

Tip #6- Track your box for no extra charge. One of the best things OCC has been able to implement is box tracking. Initially, it cost extra to track your box, but now if you charge the $7 per box to a credit card online at the Samaritan's Purse website, you get a pdf with a tracking barcode to print off and attach to your box. I think the ability to track is another great reason to send a picture of your family, a note, and an address where you have the possibility to hear back from the child who receives it. What a host of opportunities this could open up for you and your children to recognize God's larger story!

Tip #7 - Use this as a Gospel opportunity for your children. Obviously, a large part of OCC is that we get an opportunity to give out of our abundance and use God's resources to spread His Word to others in another country. However, it's just as easy to focus on what is going on over there and not explain to our own children about how salvation in Christ is so central and what motivates us to send the present in the first place. Role play with your children and transport them to a place where their box could be shipped. Walk them through how the Gospel gives hope and strength during a child's emotional and physical struggles and how it works the same way here at home even if some of our struggles are different. Find the testimonies from box recipients on the OCC website that can help bring the Gospel right where your children or teenagers are at.            

Do you have any more tips or stories from your family's experience with Operation Christmas Child?