Tuesday, June 24, 2008


As a kid I was an odd duck. I spent my days listening to family stories in my grandmother’s beauty shop, or traveling around Monticello with my grandfather checking on the houses he was building. Occasionally, I could be found hanging at Allerton Park with my young mom and her scruffy crew of friends whom my grandparents suspiciously called “hippies”. I knew how to wrap a perm, carried a carpenter’s pencil in my pocket, and could easily discuss the various merits of Cat Steven’s latest song. My social skills with children, however, were awkward at best.

At school I was so painfully shy that I rarely spoke to anyone. Eye contact was fleeting and uncomfortable. I found my peers fascinating, unpredictable and sometimes frightening, so I sat back and watched. I spent many recesses examining playground gravel, looking for fossils. Perhaps now, I would have been labeled with social anxiety disorder and medicinally jolted into a stimulated state. Back in the 70s, I was just a shy kid.

Children are expert diagnosticians. They can enter a room filled with children and within seconds have sifted out and mentally flagged those who are in any way unusual. As a child, I seemed to be a blip on every kid’s –“weird-dar” screen.

In 2nd grade, a larger, louder girl, inspected me as I sat sifting stones and began an interrogation. When I remained stubbornly silent, she became annoyed. Suddenly, a look of recognition came over her face. “Humph!” she sniffed with authority to the large, appreciative crowd around her, “My mom’s a nurse. This kid has brain damage.” That scene set the tone for the remainder of my early school years. I recall my chagrin when entering the batter’s box to a chorus of,” Brain damage is up! Easy out!” I would then proceed to either strike out, refuse to swing at a succession of one million pitches, or trip over my feet thereby re-confirming their diagnosis.

While I wasn’t deeply scarred by my social dysfunction, and did ultimately enjoy some successes and lasting friendships in my early youth, I was generally inept with my peer community. I was unsuccessful not from a lack of desire for relationships, but from inability. Often a fear of embarrassment kept me from finding my voice.

Now, in my 30s, although I have improved, I continue to be shy. I know that there are people to whom congeniality comes easily, naturally even. These self-extenders seem to have been born with qualities that attract others.

I think of people locally who continue to teach me so much about the art of self-extension. People like my long-time neighbors, Billie and Terry Van Tine. They have been extra grandparents to my boys (They even painted a basketball court on their driveway!). Billie has cared for me when I was ill, while Terry has fixed and replaced things around my home without allowing me to reimburse him. Their generosity is overwhelming. (A large percentage of Jerry’s obesity can be traced the daily snacks they provide.) I can’t imagine better friends and neighbors.

I think of people like Kim and Matt Usher who exemplify their faith by simply giving of themselves, caring for others.

I think of people like Angie O’Brien and Cristin McMullen- each time I speak with them; I come away feeling a little better; as though I had been hugged. They both are genuinely warm without pretense.

I think of the great teachers I have experienced and whose teachings have had staying power: Mr. Nolte, Mr. Gardner, Ms. Moore, Mr.White. I think of teachers who have been touchstones in the lives of my children: Mrs. White, Mrs. Stratman, Mr. Smith, Mr. Hehn, and Mrs. Rose (my youngest son still corresponds with Mrs. Rose after nearly 4 years).

I think of the Coursons who embarked on a mission to create a mission and have already brought visible compassion and love to Cisco.

I think of the many people I work with who face overwhelming societal problems but who continue to serve on committees to find solutions in spite of depressing statistics. People like Chief Judge Shonkwiler, Sheriff Manint, J.D. Russell, Gayla Hislope, Kelle Sebens, Doug Edwards and others who tirelessly serve.

All of them self- extenders and our peers. I think about the word community and what it really means. Maybe it simply means offering ourselves to others; sharing what we know and what we have with one another. Finding solutions when others are experiencing difficulties. There was a time when our first response to friends and neighbors in need was, “What can I do to help?”, rather than, “What is this going to cost me?”

I am going to continue to aspire to learn from the many altruistic folks around me. I truly believe that community is what children and families need most. In these often dark times, communities offer hope. We desperately need to work together for the common good. Communities are, as author Mary Pipher eloquently says, “the shelter of each other”.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Little Jerry

Jerry, our elderly rat terrier, is the dignified veteran of our wild family of three dogs and three boys. Once spry and fast, he is now shamefully puffed with kibble and steak scraps, afflicted with stiff joints, and too genteel to poop in the rain. He seems to gauge the weather each morning. Pausing at the front door, he lifts his graying muzzle, sniffs the air suspiciously and if he detects a hint of moisture, refuses to venture out. I wheedle, demand, and then wearily carry him out and deposit him in the grass where, after a baleful glare in my direction, he resentfully does his business.

James, my 14 year old, purchased Jerry with his own, long saved money we he was very young. At age 7, James went to the Humane Society with his grandmother- his accomplice and advisor in all things pet related. I had no idea what they would bring home and steeled myself to accept anything from Great Dane to Poodle. When the two came home, thrilled with their small black and white choice and plunked the animal in front of me, my first startled thought was, “What is it?” The dog was terribly emaciated and resembled an oversized mouse. His head also appeared to be several sizes too small for his body. He was, in fact, a severely abused rat terrier of unknown age. He had been starved almost to death, thrown against a wall and his broken foreleg was wrapped in a bandage. Still convalescing from his long ordeal, he was understandably skittish and wild-eyed.

James, however, was beaming. He announced with barely contained pride, “He is Jerry. I’ve named him Little Jerry”. I was taken aback, but immediately squashed my misgivings regarding both dog and name and mustered enthusiasm.

Most parents know that giving a young child license in naming an animal can lead to some odd choices. In this case, our next door neighbor was also “Jerry” and this commonality led to some awkward moments. In the early days of attempted dog training in the yard, I would often shout, “Jerry, stop that right now! Or “Jerry, NO!” or “Jerry, DROP IT!” in a commanding or more often, frantic, shrill tone. Each sudden outburst caused Jerry, my human neighbor, peacefully waxing his car or raking his yard a few feet away to either freeze or induced a powerful startle reflex resulting in dropped rakes, botched wax job and strained neighborly relations. My howls and demands invariably had no effect on Jerry the dog.

I suppose I should feel good that James’ naming abilities were only mildly quirky. My mom once allowed my brother at age 5 to name his cat and we all regretted his choice, but faithfully referred to the cat by the name Nick chose, “Pizza Hut”.

Pets contribute so much to our lives. Children learn invaluable lessons about life, compassion, illness, bereavement throughout their pet’s lifetime. Pets help children learn empathy, responsibility, connection to nature and unconditional love. Sadly, with today’s hurried lifestyle many families simply do not have time for pets. Interestingly, a decrease in pet ownership is being noticed in several countries. A recent Australian study blamed their decline in pet ownership was due in part to children choosing video games over pets. The president of the Australian Veterinary Association, Kersti Seksel, said “These days children interact more by playing computer games and less by going out there and throwing the ball to a dog. We need to learn people skills, physical skills, and sitting with a computer doesn't teach you that."

Pets demand time and unconditional love. They teach us that life can be messy, come with unpleasant aromas, and that you don’t stop loving someone even though they are flawed. Jerry, despite his many deviant behaviors has become a much beloved member of our family. James has created a wonderful semi-fictitious persona for his dog and insists that Jerry is the Chuck Norris of dogs. Despite obvious evidence of Jerry’s propensity for overindulgence (his physique can best be described as spherical), and a head that never grew to match his now bulbous body, James swears that his dog is “ripped”. We can’t remember our life before he came to us. There has been occasional destruction of much of our boy-worn property, foul excretions, expenses and time spent in exasperated frustration as Jerry leisurely strolled the yard looking for the perfect spot while crucial deadlines and appointments loomed. It has been worth every second. He is and ever shall be ‘Little Jerry.”

Children and families need these experiences. Everyone should of sit side by side with a good dog. As the writer Milan Kundera said, “To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring - it was peace.




Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Great Things to Do This Summer

In these difficult financial times everyone is feeling the strain. It occurred to me, however, that the rising fuel and living costs may actually benefit our community in some meaningful ways. Rather than driving to other larger towns and cities for recreation and shopping, many of us will be staying closer to home this summer and scaling back on spending. Living and playing locally strengthens our communities. These difficult times may be an opportunity to regain unhurried time with friends and family and to form deep community roots that have been slipping away.

Here are 10 great things to do with your family this summer, close to home and for little or no cost:

(1) Make my AMAZING GIANT BUBBLE MIX- Bubbles so big you can enclose yourself inside. Wands are made with straws and string. Prepare to be amazed.

Bubble contest-

Send me photos of best bubbles you make. Best bubble makers win super prize!

Here is a wonderful link to a place where you can learn everything about giant bubble making, including the recipe.

And another great recipe.

(2) Walk the trails at a local woods and look for owls. Sometimes if you hoot, they hoot back. Owls are elusive and tricky. Take some binoculars and move quietly through the woods. Let me know if you see one.

(3)Hike various woods together and clock your miles or steps with a pedometer. Keep a tally through August and send me your stats. Let’s see how many we can do. While hiking, discuss the unique personality of each wood. For example, some woods have spooky vibe sometimes. Look closely at the trees. Did you know that modern children can, on average, name over 50 brand names by age 3, yet many high school kids can’t identify 5 different types of trees?

(4) Make homemade lemonade and sit on the front porch or under a tree together.

Great Lemonade


  • 1 3/4 cups white sugar
  • 8 cups water
  • 1 1/2 cups lemon juice


  1. In a small saucepan, combine sugar and 1 cup water. Bring to boil and stir to dissolve sugar. Allow to cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate until chilled.
  2. Remove seeds from lemon juice, but leave pulp. In pitcher, stir together chilled syrup, lemon juice and remaining 7 cups water.

(5) Choose one night a week when you collectively turn off all electronics. Tell the kids they can do anything they want as long as it doesn’t involve spending money or using electricity, or cell phones.

Great site to get you motivated to TURN IT OFF.

(6) Camp one night the old fashioned way- no camper, no electronics. Real campers don’t take a television or radio. My camping trips usually go like this- Pitch tent, manage to create unique, unintended octagonal shaped tent. Fish the pond. Enjoy the tugging sensation of swarms of piranha-like baby fish consuming all of your worms at lightening speed. Catch nothing. Make and eat s’mores, eat more s’mores, have another so the last half of the chocolate bar doesn’t go to waste. Remember that your fingers are wormy from fishing. Feel vaguely nauseous. Tell scary bear-attack stories around the campfire. Discuss the possibility that Bigfoot could be wandering Central Illinois. Notice the odd, rustling, Big-foot-like sounds coming from nearby woods, suddenly feel the urge to retreat to tent for safety. Turn on flashlight inside tent. See millions of bugs inside tent. Spend sleepless, sweaty night, wide-eyed, head zippered completely into sleeping bag imagining bugs crawling into ear. Wake up ready for a morning s’more.

(7) Older kids should read “Harris and Me” by Gary Paulsen. Read aloud each evening as a family or alone, it is one of the funniest books ever. “Hatchet” is another good choice. Younger kids- read Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Link to Hatchet Site

Link to Farmer Boy

(8) Harness the power of youth. Get behind one of our communities worthy projects as a family. Willow Tree Mission is trying to put a roof on the building that will assist children and women in need. An Animal Shelter is being created for our County. Children want to make differences and should be given the opportunity. Kids don’t operate in the same red tape and beaurocratic universe that adults do. They see problems and have answers. Often, given the chance, kids have the enthusiasm to make real change happen. Grassroots movements are wonderful opportunities for children to make positive impacts within the community.

Willow Tree Mission

Piatt County Animal Shelter

Youth Volunteer Corp

(9) Get some kids together in the evening for a night of little remembered games. Some great games are falling into oblivion and need to be played and rescued from oblivion. Try Kick-the Can, Ghost in the Graveyard, or Stalking the Drum. Try this game for wild kids (with mom’s who have nerves of steel): Noodle Battles! Choose a day when everyone has too much energy. Purchase several pool noodles- those long, Styrofoam-ey things. The cost is minimal. Cut each in half. These make wonderful whacking toys. Devise a simple fencing game with points or do what we do- have the entire family take part in an outdoor battle. It is wonderful fun with lots of movement, yelling and noise. The smack sounds impressive, but it is usually painless. It satisfies a deeply rooted boy instinct to whack one another-without the unpleasantness of blood and trips to the ER.

Link to outdoor game rules.

(10) Stop and buy at each lemonade stand you see. Send me time and place of yours and I promise to come.

Chris can be contacted at csanant@yahoo.com