Painting perspective

Guest bedroom.When I visit my mother and stepfather, I sleep soundly. I feel safe in what I call “my” little bedroom in their Green Valley home. I am protected from the anxieties of daily life—buffered in that quiet space against the insurmountable challenge of growing “to do” lists, relationships that sometimes feel like work, even the endless, insecurity-driven attentions of Lucy, my sweet black cat who is so aloof during the day but craves constant contact throughout the night.

In this quiet room, surrounded by the latest of my stepfather’s paintings, I fall eagerly into bed at night. The colorful beauty of Paul’s landscapes and beloved day lilies inspires me to dream.

IMG_3033Paul’s work has improved measurably during more than two decades since he first began painting.

He took some classes initially, as part of a group where everyone did the same painting, with steps and techniques described and demonstrated by a teacher. He may have learned rudimentary skills in that process but it wasn’t until he began his own study and exploration outside of those boundaries that he truly came into his own as a painter.

IMG_3028He is collecting some of his recent works to display at church, something he does periodically. I am stunned by his bravery. Sharing expressions of your thoughts and passions invites criticism and misunderstanding, even as it brings admiration and affirmation. Either can be uncomfortable to receive. But in putting yourself out there you are opening the greatest gift of all—your uniqueness—to share with those around you. Many people live and die without ever sharing that essence.

IMG_3008Only he can interpret what he sees in the photographs he re-imagines in oils on canvas. Only he can build the infrastructure for his rendering—meticulous work to transport the image to his canvas to scale, then choose, mix and apply the colors that bring it alive.

He has an enthusiastic (if honest) critic in my mother. It surprises and delights me that she feels comfortable telling him when a painting isn’t quite right. I admire her willingness to be truthful—even when the message is “it can be better.” He receives her suggestions graciously, thoughtfully. And he typically heeds her advice, removing a green shoot that seems out of place in a grouping of day lilies emerging from the mist, or adding a small wildflower on the sand behind a wooden, weather-worn beach fence to provide a splash of hopeful color against the gray and black and brown.

Paul Chaffee, art, painting, Karen Barr

With my stepfather, Paul Chaffee, who has been a loving and true father to me for the last 28 years.

Paul has shown me that there is no age limit on creative expression, no “privilege” to art, no external barrier to learning, trying and sticking your nose out there to share the joy of what you’ve learned.

He and my mother continuously demonstrate that a truly great marriage includes mutual admiration and tactful honesty, holding each other up in love and respect while encouraging each other to keep growing and striving.


A few more of my favorites from Paul’s collection:

IMG_1246 paul-chaffee-adobe-snow "Thirsty," by Paul V. Chaffee.


Writing about food


I still have Grandpa Art’s typewriter.

My grandfather kept a small manual typewriter with him when he traveled so he could keep in touch with family and friends. He hunted and pecked his way through many long, detailed letters describing the places he visited, the people he met and the meals he ate as he and my grandmother spent their retirement years roaming around the U.S. in an Airstream trailer holding most of their worldly possessions.

I never understood why he spent so much time describing the food, much of which he enjoyed at low-budget buffets (Luby’s was a favorite).

I finally get it.

From the moment Dan and I started our long-dreamed-of sabbatical, I kept my own copious notes about what we were eating. Sometimes I’d even snap a picture.

At first I thought this was just a new iteration of my naturally compulsive side. Without the burden of overwhelming “to do” lists for work and home, my brain needed something to grab onto as I eased into a more relaxed state of being.

It wasn’t until we hit our fifth country and eighth city in 18 days that I realized why I needed to remember the food: It triggers the memories of everything else.

Pretzel, Salzburg

Pretzels on the patio cafe at Panorama Restaurant at the Salzburg Fortress in Austria.

When I remember the food, I remember the feelings. The giddy sense of freedom as we enjoyed pretzels and beer on the patio of a restaurant with breathtaking views of the Alps. The sheer joy of shared discovery when we stumbled upon a restaurant with an innovative menu and a quiet outdoor table sheltered from the noisy city street by a natural wall of shrubbery. Feeling that the whole town was celebrating with us as we emerged from a special-occasion dinner within the tunnel wall of an ancient stone city to find that an evening street fair had erupted while we were eating.

Even the less magical meals — the night we ate hamburgers at the hotel because we were simply exhausted, the disappointing minestrone soup — carry memories I cherish for the lessons they taught me. Extraordinary days usually just happen; it is the serendipitous nature of an unexpected experience that makes these moments so special. Ordinary days have their own, quieter purpose: a chance to rest from the constant stimulation of newness. Time to process and be grateful.

For two months, Dan and I explored walled cities and majestic churches. We saw expansive bridges and imposing castles, swollen rivers and lush farmlands. We absorbed heartbreaking stories at a number of historical sites. And we rarely ate a meal in the same place twice.

Now that we have returned home, people often ask me, “What was your favorite place?” “What was tour favorite meal?”

Every place. Every meal.

Yoghurt with creuseli

Yoghurt me cruesli at Staalmeesters in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Grilled mackerel

Mackerel grilled over an open flame at the Fränkisches Bierfest (Franconian Beer Festival) held in the moat of the castle in Nürnberg, Germany.

World Cup sandwich

A World Cup-inspired sandwich at the train station in Nürnberg, Germany.

Pizza vegetariana

Pizza Vegetariana at Pizzeria il Fondaccio in Castellina in Chianti, Italy.

Vegetable au gratin with pecorino

Vegetable au gratin with pecorino at La Bottega di Giovannino, Radda in Chianti, Italy.


Cappuccino at Hotel Milano in Verona, Italy.

Dependence and independence


Castellina in Chianti, Italy – It’s been great for Dan and me to have so much time together during this sabbatical. Our jobs and lives at home keep us very separate. Like many couples our age, we often share the same space and time but not the same experiences.

During four weeks of absolute togetherness, we’ve had a few moments of fatigue-induced crabbiness (mostly mine). But for the most part our time together has been cozy, collaborative and comfortable. We’ve rediscovered what good friends and easy travel companions we are. I’ve come to rely on our shared troubleshooting of common inconveniences and errors.

On Monday, I decided to reassert my independence. We needed groceries. Dan was happily settled on the couch with a book. I was restless and eager to fly solo for awhile.

Going for groceries may not seem like a big deal, but it is when you’ve never driven an Italian car in Italy.

FiatOur Fiat rental car (or van, really—it seats seven so we can accommodate shifts of guests we are expecting soon) is a lot bigger and boxier than most of the cars we see on local roads. And the roads are much narrower than what we’re used to in the greater-Phoenix area.

Ancient stone walls on both sides of many city center roads feel like they’re closing in on you. Then a delivery truck or (even scarier) an enormous tourist bus starts charging your way from the other direction.

Don’t even get me started on the challenges of parking an oversize vehicle in spaces better suited to Smart cars. And then there are the hazards of distracted pedestrian tourists, local residents darting in and out on bicycles and motorcycles/scooters following no apparent rules of engagement.

I’ve read a lot of stereotyped descriptions of Italian drivers (who are often accused of hyper-aggressive driving and chronic tailgating) but I prefer to look through the same lens as Joseph F. Lomax: “People who say Italians do not know how to drive are measuring them by the wrong yardstick.” Italians are skilled, attentive drivers. It’s their very confidence that makes you realize how scared and uncertain you are.

I knew all of this before I even tried to drive our rental car because I watched Dan do it first. I saw his white knuckles and heard his colorful language as we tried to navigate our way from Milan to Lake Como without a map or GPS. (The rental car agent skipped a few steps while explaining how easy it was to get there.)

And there’s one more thing: The Fiat has manual transmission, which neither of us has driven in, well, close to 30 years. And it has an unbelievably finicky clutch. This was confirmed by John Genzale, a writer and friend who lives in Como. John graciously agreed to do the driving when we visited so we could enjoy the views–and probably because he saw how freaked out we were.

When I decided to take the car out for the first time I wanted to do it alone. I didn’t want anyone watching me or telling me what to do or try (like I’d been doing to Dan). And I certainly didn’t want anyone I knew within earshot if I got myself in trouble.

I learned to drive a stick shift at age 22, when I bought my very first car as a newly employed reporter for The Pacific Daily New on Guam. I paid my deposit, got the keys for my brand new white Honda Civic and sat down in the driver’s seat. I panicked when I saw the four-on-the-floor gear shift. I looked at the salesman sheepishly. He gave me a very quick description of what to do and I was on my own. The dealership was at sea level; my apartment was at the top of a very high hill in Agana. Motivated by a strong desire to keep my life, my job and my new car, I very quickly figured out the “feel” of the clutch and the gear shift.

I was no less motivated to reach an understanding with this Fiat. I went outside, started the car and…couldn’t remember how to put it in reverse. I struggled for several minutes before swallowing my pride and heading back to the house to ask Dan to explain it.

Back in the driver’s seat, I backed up and pulled forward to ease down the rutted gravel road leading from our villa to the road below. I crept slowly and carefully into town, allowing everyone behind me to pass. I made it to the store, managed to park, bought groceries and headed home.

The road leading to our villa pops out of nowhere after a hairpin turn. I made a sharp right turn, crossed a narrow bridge that doesn’t look anywhere near wide enough to accommodate a mini-van and experienced an elated sense of accomplishment I haven’t felt in a very long time.

“That was fun!” I declared, a bit over-confidently, as I walked into the kitchen with our groceries.

“Good!” said Dan, an intelligent and easygoing guy whose sense of self-esteem is largely driven by the satisfaction he feels in solving problems–his own and those facing his litigation clients. “You’re in charge of the driving.”




tuscany-lavendarYesterday my husband and I ended a 23-day dash around Europe. Today we begin a quieter four weeks in the Tuscan countryside, nine kilometers north of Siena, Italy.

So where to begin? We committed to this sabbatical two years ago. Preparations for it were exhausting, expensive and often overwhelming. Dan and I both have demanding work lives and tasks that had to be taught and delegated to others. We have a home, a cat, bills that must still be paid and concerns about aging parents.

Our plan was probably too ambitious. But here we are. Thanks to the generous and insightful planning of earlier partners at Dan’s law firm who recognized the value of regenerative time, we are on sabbatical: two months of time to travel, think, read, write, experience, enjoy and celebrate.

I have been taking hundreds of pictures and furiously scribbling notes in the Italian leather travel journal my sons David and Andy gave to me for Mother’s Day this year. (“They know their mother well,” my husband said when it arrived in the mail.) Any time we had a few hours on a train, I’d pull out my laptop and pound the keyboard. I didn’t want to forget a thing–not one meal, not one scenic vista, not one exciting revelation.

Now it is time to process: to absorb, reflect upon, appreciate and enjoy again the experiences of the past few weeks. And to gently step into the new adventures this beautiful Italian countryside has to offer.

Before we went to bed last night, Dan and I were relaxing in an upstairs room the first of our guests (my cousin’s daughter Andrea, 23, and her friend Lauryn, 21) immediately dubbed “the wi-fi room.” Dan was catching up on some reading and I was emailing family members when a huge wasp flew in through one of the screen-less windows.

It couldn’t figure out how to escape. It would buzz angrily, then pause for a bit of rest. It kept setting its sights too high–aiming for the ceiling instead of recalibrating its flight back toward any of several large open windows.

So many obvious escapes. So little satisfaction from pounding relentlessly into a hard brick ceiling and ancient wood beams.

There was nothing Dan or I could do. We didn’t want to risk getting stung by trying to ease the wasp toward an opening. Eventually we went to bed, closing our bedroom door against the sound of its frustration.

This morning, as I tiptoed down the red-tiled stairway to the kitchen, I found the wasp, dead, on one of the steps. It had exhausted itself.

I made some coffee and enjoyed my breakfast — hazelnut biscotti, a ripe banana, some sunflower and pumpkin seeds. A gentle breeze and the whispers of tall, swaying pines just outside the kitchen door drew me to the patio, where I discovered a giant patch of lavender. Dozens of bees buzzed happily around it, doing work they know in a place they love. Just enough work.

In memory of Mr. Katt


This is how I want to remember him. Regal, imperious. Caring not one bit that he might be in the way.

Mr. Katt had a gift for occupying the single most inconvenient place in the room. If I was trying to read the newspaper, he’d poke his head past my outstretched arm and worm his way onto my lap. When I tried to make a bed, he’d jump between the sheets, forcing me to shoo him away before I could finish my task. If I was trying to pay bills, he’d plop his significant girth smack dab in the middle of my pile of mail.

How dare I think that anything I was doing might be more important than his immediate comfort and pleasure?

Most of the time I was mildly annoyed with him. “You’re kidding me, right?” I would say as he occupied my favorite space on the couch. “Really?” I’d say as he flopped across my paperwork. Sometimes I had to gently shove him aside, he was that unwilling to yield his position.

Now I find myself hanging onto memories of the love/hate, give-and-take, mutually tolerant relationship we shared.  I would give anything to be annoyed at him right now.

Instead, I am sitting on the couch alone, typing without his head draped protectively over my right wrist. I am missing the deep rumble of his ready purr.

I was getting ready for work Friday morning when I heard our other (much younger) cat, Lucy, meowing plaintively. She often whines for no apparent reason, so I’ve learned to tune her out. But something in her tone sounded different this time.

I looked at her, then just past her, to the source of her distress.

Mr. Katt (his seemingly uninspired name is a long story) was lying on the floor behind the reclining chair he often fights my husband to occupy. Something was wrong.

He was flat on his back, all four legs flailing in the air. And he was panting. Not an “I’m tired from recent exertion” panting but a scary, gurgling, “I’m having trouble breathing” kind of panting.

I called our vet and was told that the office was really backed up. “I can’t wait,” I said. “Where can I take him?” They referred me to a nearby veterinary hospital.

I quickly pulled on my oldest, most comfortable blue jeans and a gray turtleneck sweater. My heart was pounding hard. Not today, I thought. I can’t deal with this today.

I grabbed an old Seattle Supersonics blanket that was draped over our leather sofa (it used to be part of a basketball-theme room my two young sons shared). If I didn’t already know something serious was wrong, my hunch was confirmed when our plump orange tabby failed to fight me as I wrapped him in the blanket, lifted him gently and carried him to the car.

He panted, gurgled and flailed in the front seat as I drove. I tried to comfort him, stroking him with my right hand as he thrashed about. At one point I must have touched something that hurt; he jerked his head and bit my wrist–hard.

When we reached the clinic, the staff quickly whisked him away for assessment. When a young veterinarian joined me in an exam room, her face was grim.

“It’s not good,” she said. Our 14-year-old cat, who had shown no signs or symptoms of distress until that morning, was suffering from congestive heart failure. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

“I’m more concerned about the fact that he can’t move his back legs,” the vet said. “His feet are cold, which tells me he’s not getting any blood circulating in his legs.” She was certain he’d thrown a blood clot that had traveled to his lower torso and was now creating the paralysis.

She had given him pain killers and diuretics in an effort to ease his breathing. Still, he was struggling, frightened and wild-eyed. His tongue was blue and hanging out the side of his mouth. A normally meticulous groomer, he was salivating profusely down his cheek and soaking the blanket.

“The congestive heart failure can be treated,” she said, tactfully adding that “I can do a full workup for you….” It was clear to me that we could pay a lot of money to restore his ability to breathe and perhaps prolong his life for a short amount of time. “What worries me more, however, is the legs,” she said. “We can’t really do anything about the clot. And if he’s thrown one, he’s likely to throw more.”

I took a deep breath. “It sounds like it might be time to put him down,” I said. It wasn’t really a question.

“It probably would be best,” she answered quietly.

“Can I call my family?” I asked. I didn’t want to make this decision alone.

“Of course,” she said. “Take whatever amount of time you need.”

So here I have a confession to make. I was freaking out as I drove the cat to the vet. I was afraid that exactly this type of news was looming, that I would be alone with a decision no loving pet owner wants to make. While stopped at an intersection, I did something I probably shouldn’t have. I used my iPhone to take several seconds of video showing our writhing, suffering cat. I emailed it to my husband and two grown sons. I told them where I was going and that I was scared. It felt like they needed to see what I was seeing, so they would know I didn’t really have a choice.

When the vet left the room, I immediately called David, our 25-year-old son, who lives in Chicago. Mr. Katt was really his cat, after all. He’d picked him out from among dozens of kittens that were available the day we visited the animal shelter.

mr-kattThat tiny, scrawny ball of fur originally was selected to heal a broken heart. A short time earlier, we had returned from our first family trip abroad to find one of our two cats missing. The pet sitter we hired failed to notify us when she couldn’t find the declawed, defenseless and always-housebound cat in our home. So Sparky was out in the elements alone, during the heat of a Phoenix summer, for nearly 12 days. We later found out one of our neighbors had found him near death and taken him to a shelter, where the staff promptly ended his suffering.

After David mourned his cat for a reasonable amount of time (even writing a heart-wrenching letter to the pathetic excuse for a pet sitter) we agreed to his request for a new pet. He picked an orange tabby because it was the spitting image of his lost pet. He even named the kitten Sparky, as though he could patch the wound and and move on without pain.

Within days, however, he changed his mind. “He’s not Sparky,” my then-11-year-old said sadly. “I don’t want to call him that anymore.” So we didn’t. And we all waited for an update from David, who certainly had earned the right to choose a better name.

Somehow, he just became “Cat.” Until I had to take him to the vet and they asked his name. “Um…’Cat,'” I said.

“Just C-A-T?”

“Um, no, actually…K-A-T-T,” I fudged, hoping to imply some sort of context that didn’t involve apathetic owners. “It’s a long story.” But Katt he stayed, until David added the “Mr.” and it seemed to suit him.

David had made the decision that gave this cat a good life and David had the right to decide if that good life was over. He’d seen the video I sent. “I’m sorry,” I said, as though I could have done something to prevent a blood clot. We cried together and quickly agreed we did not want our pet to endure any more suffering. I knew my husband and other son would agree.

The vet brought the paperwork and told me to take my time saying goodbye. I asked for five minutes. I told Mr. Katt that he’d been loved, that we were grateful for his place in our lives. His pupils were fully enlarged, turning his green eyes black. He looked like his spirit already had left him, that only his body was fighting to stay.

After less than a minute, I pounded on the door. “I can’t make him wait any more,” I said when the vet returned. She placed the syringe into the already-prepared port, which was wrapped in red medical tape. Nice, neat, tidy. She looked at me and I nodded. Yes. Now. I can’t stand to watch this any more.

She slowly squeezed the syringe. It only took seconds. He sighed, then was still. She pulled out her stethoscope, listened for a heart beat and then looked at me sympathetically. “He’s gone,” she said. She quietly left the room.

Why can’t we just play nicely?

My son David is one of about 600 bright, enthusiastic young people in Chicago who have essentially given up their personal lives for the past several months. They work 12 hours (or more) a day, seven days a week, hoping their sacrifice will result in the re-election of President Barack Obama.

David is a research associate for campaign. He spends his days glued to a computer screen, prowling the Internet for facts and figures to shore up campaign strategy and poke holes in the opposition’s. Once the third and last presidential debate has concluded, he will be sent to the field, where he will spend long days knocking on doors and encouraging people to exercise their right to vote.

My son Andy, who is here in Arizona, is part of an exponentially smaller but no less dedicated team of young people working around the clock in feverish pursuit of a Democratic senate seat in Arizona for the first time in 22 years. His job as communications director for the campaign of former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona has required him to spend most of the last year away from his girlfriend, who is working for a senate campaign in Virginia. Even when he manages short breaks to come home for Sunday dinner, Andy is constantly plugged into his iPhone — fielding calls, answering email, placing and monitoring tweets, planning ahead. He is never “off.”

My sons are tough competitors. They both played high school football; Andy continued through college. David also played lacrosse through high school and college. These guys are not afraid of hard work. They’ve both been down in the mud and the dirt, pushing with everything they have in them to benefit their team. They’ve both experienced thrilling victories — and their fair share of bad calls, disappointing losses and personal injuries. They are strong. They are self-aware. And, like their dad, they are deeply analytical. So I know that they will weather this election, whichever way it goes.

As their mother, there is little I can do to help them. It feels just like those days when I sat helpless on the high school bleachers, admiring them for taking on tough challenges while hoping with all my heart that they would not get hurt.

In those days, I showed my support by making “Game Day Pancakes” packed with flaxseed and oatmeal. With other moms in the booster club, I served spaghetti lunches on Friday afternoons. I transported endless flats of Gatorade to grassy fields, bought more team T-shirts than I could possibly wear and put the resources of my magazine to work creating beautiful team programs for each new season.

This election season has many parallels to what I remember from those days on the field. Often, my sons were pitted against boys with whom they’d grown up. Playmates on the playground were now enemies on the yard line. The mothers and fathers of those “enemies” were friends of mine. It was always awkward to run into them before the game started, before we headed our separate ways to bleachers separated by wide fields of green. I wanted my sons’ teams to win; I wanted their sons’ teams not to lose. I longed for those early days of T-ball, when we were all in this together. When the goal was learning a skill and expanding horizons, not taking score.

Many of us are disheartened by the ugliness of these last few, down-to-the-wire campaign weeks. It is discouraging to read, as I did in this morning’s paper, that it is impossible to cut through the glut of messaging to gain attention without going down and dirty. It sickens me to realize what that says about our society.

Politicians have no choice but to “go there” to win elections. We, the electorate, apparently demand that of them.

Must we also expect it of ourselves? This season, perhaps because my sons’ involvement has me more tuned in than ever before, I’ve been most upset about the pettiness exercised by individual citizens. Some misplaced sense of entitlement disguised as “supporting the team” has turned ordinary people into thieves and vandals.

Several months ago, David bought me a magnetized “Obama 2012” sticker for my car. I displayed it proudly. To me it wasn’t just showing support for the president; it was showing support for my son. One day, while I was camped out at a coffee shop editing magazine articles, someone slapped a sticker with an “Obama must go” message over it.

On another day, while my car was parked in the underground garage at my office, someone removed the magnet sticker entirely. Apparently his (or her) right to thwart my right to freedom of expression justifies theft. I was so furious I went home and ordered 10 more — and 10 bumper stickers, too.

My husband and I participated in the Walk to Stop Diabetes on Oct. 6. Part of the route headed south on Central Avenue, where we were dismayed to see that two campaign signs for an Arizona legislative candidate had been purposely bent to the ground. Dan and I stopped our walk to right the signs.

On my way to work recently, I noticed that someone had taken box cutters to a “Carmona for Arizona” sign on a busy intersection on Scottsdale Road. I stopped at Walgreen’s on my way home to purchase duck tape. The next morning, I popped the roll of tape onto the handlebars of my bike and threw a pair of scissors in my Camelbak. My husband grabbed a hammer. We rode our bikes to the intersection, where he re-pounded the rebar firmly into the rocky soil and helped me hold the sign pieces so I could tape them back together.

I used to be embarrassed when families on my side of the field would “boo” the opposing team. Those earnest guys on the field weren’t usually guilty of anything but being members of the opposing team. They were good guys, too, hardworking guys. Guys with parents and siblings who loved them and didn’t want them to fail.

I’m sure that’s true of candidates, too. At root, there has to be a lot more than ego guiding a person’s decision to run for office. Who would put themselves through this if there wasn’t some higher purpose they hoped to achieve, some sense of duty to sacrifice self for the team?

But that’s not the world we live in. We allow no room for gray area, for meeting each other halfway. You’re either a good guy or a bad guy. We, the electorate, are left with little but mud-slinging and innuendo to guide our decisions. We’re all too lazy to do the real work — the thinking work — that should guide such monumentally important decisions.

Someone must win; someone must lose. The team that wins isn’t always the most deserving. That’s life.

Because of sports, my sons learned these lessons early. They also learned how to toughen up, to withstand criticism. To know what they stand for and not let what others think affect them.

You may disagree with their candidates, or with our family’s politics. You have every right to choose a different path. I respect that. I just hope that, when we exit the field, we can put the boos and cheers behind us and accept the outcome with grace.

A tale of two fathers: #8 and #9

In Santa Fe during a family vacation in 1969: my dad, me (in the pool) and my younger brother.

I have been blessed with two fathers. The father of my childhood taught me to dream. The stepfather who followed showed me what it means to be a grownup.

When I was a child, I thought of my dad as an adventurer. He was 10 years older than my mom and had spent part of that time traveling the world in the Navy at the end of World War II. Whether struck by wanderlust or fleeing demons, he couldn’t seem to stay put for more than a short time. He changed careers a half dozen times in the 20 years I lived at home. My family lived in nine different cities in five different states before I graduated from college.

My dad had a natural, if frenetic, charisma and was prone to teasing and jokes that I mistook for social skills and self-confidence. Because I knew no different, I thought of our frequent moves as romantic crusades in quest of happiness and creative fulfillment. My dad left sales to study journalism. He talked of writing a book. But always there were things in the way. I grew up thinking it was my mother, my brothers and me.

Much of my father’s earlier life was cloaked in mystery. He never talked about the house that burned down when he was small or the late-night trips when his mother bundled two sons into the back seat of the car and went out searching for a drunk husband. Later in his life, he watched a lifelong friend succumb to ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He never talked about that, either.

But my dad did eventually realize his dream. After my parents divorced, he moved into a boarding home near a beach in Florida and managed to complete a manuscript. He always told me it would explain everything he couldn’t tell me. When he died, I couldn’t read it. I didn’t want to be disappointed yet again.

By then, my mother had remarried. With so many unresolved issues about my relationship with my birth father, I wasn’t in any hurry to bond with this one. I faced their marriage by forcing myself to realize that it was my mother’s life and happiness that mattered, after all. Not mine.

"Grandpa Paul" reads a book to my sons Andy (left) and David in April 1989.

But in tiny ways, over several years, this wise man won me over. I saw how sincerely he loved my mother, how much better he made her life. I saw how joyfully he welcomed my sons into his life and became the only grandfather they ever knew. I saw how patiently he waited for me to come around, never forcing the relationship, never indicating by anything he said or did that he was impatient or hurt. He let me build my castle walls and defend them with polite but determined vigor.

And quietly, before I even fully realized it, he became part of the foundation beneath me. His opinions mattered to me. His example inspired me. His perspectives on life, love, spirituality and self-fulfillment seeped into my consciousness and I found myself wanting to emulate him. He’d had moments of terrible sadness in his life, too, but he’d risen above them with maturity, honesty, communication and grace.

And so, on this Father’s Day I am thankful for two fathers. The one who planted seeds and the one who taught me how to cultivate them.

Andrea (as close as I’ll come to having a daughter)

It’s simplest to introduce her as my niece. “Second cousin once removed” is too much of a mouthful and leaves people with puzzled expressions of confusion. She is 20 years old, born and raised in western Pennsylvania, the daughter of my second cousin Sheryl. Two summers ago, Andrea and her friend Morgan flew to Arizona to stay with me for a week. For the girls, it was a high school graduation trip. For me, it was a chance to temporarily rejoin the giggly, spur-of-the-moment, life-embracing exhuberance of teenage girls.

Summer 2008: At the Grand Canyon with Andrea (center) and Morgan.

I took them to the Grand Canyon and hot yoga. They took me for a pedicure and a shopping trip. I fell in love with them, and Andrea fell in love with Arizona. A year later, she returned for a second visit with her mom. And then, in January , she transferred to Arizona State University, where she is taking a rigorous course of study she hopes will prepare her for dental school. For this semester, she is living with us in what used to be our son Andy’s bedroom. She calls it the “man cave.” It’s anything but manly now. For the first time in my life as the mother of two sons, lovely, perfume-y scents waft down the hallway and pretty, pastel items have joined the cozy clutter of my household. Several times since Andrea moved in, friends and family members have asked me, “How’s it going?” — usually with concerned looks on their faces. Well, I can honestly say it’s going great. Andrea is, for this short time in my life, the daughter I never had. For someone who also grew up with two brothers, and never experienced the close bonds of sisterhood, this has been nothing short of transformational.

Dressed up for the concert.

Andrea has helped me re-embrace my inner girl. She is the one who introduced me to texting and TLC’s “What Not to Wear” (I’d honestly never seen it before). When we go shopping, she drags me into Victoria’s Secret (I was always too intimidated) and some of the younger-demographic shops, including Tilly’s and her favorite, American Eagle. (I’ve actually bought a few things!) As a mostly-vegetarian eater and an avid student of nutrition, she has me re-examining what I put in my mouth. (I thought I was doing pretty well before, but she showed me how to up my game.) Over spring break, she went with us to visit Dan’s mom in Santa Barbara, Calif. We walked on the beach, groaned about the calories as we shared a piece of peanut butter ice cream pie at Tupelo Junction Cafe and spent an entire afternoon laughing, talking and painting our nails by the pool before we attended a performance at the Santa Barbara Symphony Orchestra (Dan’s sister Sally, is one of the violinists). On the drive home, we launched what we’re calling “The Great Shred of Spring 2010.” As we debated the rules for this project — which has both fitness and attitude goals — I typed the contract on my laptop. Andrea wants to tone up for swimsuit season; I want to increase my endurance and strength (no amount of toning will make these 54-year-old thighs feel good about a swim suit). We are both working on ridding ourselves of negative thinking and self-deprecation. Our contract spells out the consequences for slipping up: 20 pushups. (I’m not even sure I can do 20 pushups…but I’m quite sure Andrea will make me now that I’ve written something negative about my thighs). Yesterday, when our project began, I woke up to a message on my Facebook: Welcome to the 2010 Shred. Remember those 20 pushups calling your name 🙂 We met for hot yoga at 4, then came home to showers and fruit smoothies and a quick trip to the grocery store, where we stocked up on healthy foods for the rest of the week. At our required daily check-in, we compared notes on how we’d done with our eating and attitudes. This morning, we went for a 7am hike in the misty, aromatic, post-rain calm of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. As I trudged along far behind her, I watched her neon-green shorts in the distance and smiled. I wish this semester could last forever.

Grandpa Art and the art of finding joy

Arthur and Cleora Smock, my maternal grandparents, on their wedding day: June 4, 1929

My grandfather died in March 1990, just after I started publishing Raising Arizona Kids magazine. It always bothered me that he never saw it. And it always bothered me that just as I was really beginning to understand him, he was gone.

Arthur Smock was a stern, self-disciplined product of his generation. As a young husband and father trying to make a living during the Great Depression, he had to be. He didn’t have the luxury of following his dreams or holding out for career fulfillment. He had to put food on the table.

He ran a small dry-cleaning shop housed in a stand-alone garage just outside the kitchen door of the house in which he and my grandmother raised four daughters. Until he got his business established he’d spend hours going from house to house in his western Pennsylvania community, introducing himself and looking for business. He built a reputation — and a loyal following of customers — because he’d do whatever it took to ensure the highest standards of quality in his work. He worked from just after breakfast until well into the evening. In the summer, deep circles of sweat formed on his shirt as he hovered over hot steaming equipment and irons.

Smock Cleaners.

When I was growing up, I feared my Grandpa Art. Because he worked so hard for everything he owned, he was highly intolerant of curious young minds and the sticky fingers that often accompanied them. My brothers, cousins and I all have clear memories of Grandpa barking, “Get your hands off of that!” When I was older, and working hard to pay for my own things, I understood what he was trying to say: Show respect for the efforts of others.

Grandpa Art was my first and most profound inspiration for the entrepreneurial path I eventually took. He was the one who showed me that hard work and integrity of purpose were the truly essential elements in running a successful business. He taught me things like “the customer’s always right” and “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” But it wasn’t until yesterday that I grasped his greatest legacy.

My grandfather was an amateur photographer. During rare vacations — and later, throughout his retirement — he took hundreds of Kodachrome slides showing spectacular vistas from across the country. When he came to visit us, he’d pull out the projector and regale us with stories of his adventures and the people he’d met along the way.

After he died, my mother edited the collection down to 750 or so slides and wrote notes about the locations, people, dates and events she was able to identify. Then she gave the entire collection to me. For years the slides have been sitting untouched in boxes in my home office — most of them in their original projector carousels.

A rainy weekend offered an opportunity to acquaint myself with the $80 scanner I bought at the beginning of the year. I decided to practice with it by scanning some of my grandfather’s slides.

My grandmother, Cleora Smock, in 1969.

When the first picture popped up on my computer screen, it took my breath away. It was my grandmother, Cleora Wheeling Smock, looking at some kind of brochure or map as she stood beside a towering Narrowleaf Cottonwood during a visit to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in New Mexico. The year was 1969.

Not much later, she fell victim to the slow decline of Alzheimer’s disease. But that didn’t stop my grandfather — the stern, intolerant guy I feared in childhood — from taking her around the country as he always had, pulling their Airstream trailer behind them, tenderly dressing her when she became unable to do it herself.

On a rainy afternoon more than 40 years after he took this picture, his granddaughter paid attention to the message: No matter how hard you have to work and no matter how difficult the challenges you face, you have to keep doing the things that give you joy. For my grandfather, that meant traveling the country and taking pictures. Even in the midst of my grandmother’s devastating illness and his own sense of helplessness and grief. — Karen

P.S. I managed to scan 150 slides in my grandfather’s collection. Here are some of my favorites:

Bryce Canyon, Utah, 1979. Photo by Arthur Smock.

During retirement, my grandparents caravaned around the country with his two brothers, Homer and Paul, and their wives.

Untitled photo by Arthur Smock. My mother\’s notes indicate this may have been in, or on the way to, the Chricahuas in southern Arizona, in 1979.

Untitled photo by Arthur Smock. This photo of my grandmother in her red coat was taken in 1979, just three years before she died of Alzheimer/’s disease.

Dan, my unflappable husband – #5

He didn’t even flinch. That’s the amazing thing. When I came home that day, I told my husband what had transpired during what should have been an absolutely routine photo shoot. I told him about meeting Keri deGuzman, her husband Brian and their two adorable children, Jesmina and Musse. I told him how Keri and Brian had traveled to Ethiopia to adopt their children, and how they were planning to return to adopt two more. And then I told him they’d invited me to go with them.

He didn’t even flinch. Not then, when I told him I wanted to go to Ethiopia, and not later, when I started dropping hints about how much this was going to cost us. And not this morning, when I woke up to an email from Keri saying, “CALL ME WHEN YOU GET THIS!!!! Here we go………..!!!!!”

All he said, with typical calm, was, “I’m very excited for you.”

I first met Dan when I was 25 — a year older than our son Andrew is now. I had just moved back to Arizona after a four-year stint on the island of Guam, where I had finished my senior year of college and worked as a journalist for the Pacific Daily News. I had just broken up with a Guamanian man who had once asked me to marry him. So when I started my new job at The Arizona Republic, I wasn’t particularly interested in starting a new relationship.

I was still living with my parents after returning from Guam, so I was eager to get my own place. A friend at work was living in an apartment complex near Seventh Street and Bethany Home Road. She liked her apartment well enough, so I decided to move into that same building. Little did I know how momentous that simple decision would prove to be.

The day I moved in, my friend introduced me to Dan Barr, who also worked at the Republic and lived in the same complex. I was happy to make a new friend — especially one who was willing to help me move my boxes up the stairs to my second-floor apartment. We had the same odd days off (Sunday and Monday) so we’d often run into each other at the pool or in the laundry room. Eventually we started going on bike rides, hikes or walks around the neighborhood. Then movies. Then dinner and movies. A year later we were married.

On our way to the wedding reception: April 17, 1982.

How do you recognize the “right” one? I find myself pondering that question as our sons rapidly approach the time in life when they will choose life partners. My marriage did not get off to a particularly dramatic or romantic start. It started quietly, with friendship and shared interests and long conversations. It was comfortable, reassuring, reliable. From the moment we first started “hanging out” together, I knew Dan was a good man — a solid, grounded man who’d grown up in privilege but emerged with humility and great depth of perspective. A man secure enough in himself to allow me to be whatever I wanted to be.

I’m not sure how I knew all of that when I decided to marry Dan; I just did. And though we’ve experienced the ups and downs any honest couple married for almost 28 years would admit to, I have never wavered in my certainty that he was the right choice.

Twenty years ago this month, I was preparing to send my first issue of Raising Arizona Kids magazine to the printer. Though our young family had to absorb the cost of that first printing bill (and many others to follow), my husband never flinched. He believed in me, so he believed in my reasons for starting a magazine. Since that time, he has been a source of steadfast support, my biggest fan in any undertaking — no matter how great the cost to our family finances or my emotional reserves.

During a family trip: July 2009.

This morning, as he quietly shares my excitement in the adventures that lie ahead — adventures that I will experience without him — I am overwhelmed with gratitude for this man who so selflessly encourages me to face my fears and follow my dreams. — Karen

On Jan. 2, I launched a project called “1,000 People to Thank Before I Die.” It is my version of a “bucket list” — an attempt to acknowledge the people who have guided and influenced my life before I lose the opportunity to do so — and was inspired by the book 1,000 Places to See Before I Die.