Tag Archives: Arizona

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.


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.

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.

Speaking up–finally

I used to work for the Arizona Republic. In fact, my husband and I fell in love while co-writing middle-of-the-night reports about homicides, fires and robberies. (He was in the field; I was at the night rewrite desk.)

We left the Republic to pursue graduate school (a law degree for Dan, an MBA for me). Seven years and two children later, I started Raising Arizona Kids Magazine.

I held my tongue as I watched what evolved at the Republic over the next few years. Raising Arizona Kids pioneered one project after another–comprehensive calendars of events, annual summer camp directories, birthday party resource guides and more–only to see our ideas duplicated in the larger and more efficiently distributed daily newspaper. I held my breath and suffered countless sleepless nights when the Republic (through its magazine division) started a monthly magazine for parents in the East Valley. (Our Kids lasted less than a year before it was yanked for failure to thrive.) And then came the final blow. The Republic claimed moms for its own, providing “new” resources online that we’ve offered decades–but with the advantage of huge teams of web-savvy professionals who could add all the bells and whistles (if none of the depth). Versus me and one part-time IT guy.

But now I’ve really had it. The Republic, in the Gannett model of market-research-driven, increasingly superficial and fluff-oriented journalism, has gone too far. In this month’s az magazine (which is devoted to “buzz, people, style and culture”), self-annointed parenting expert Karina Bland advocates a parenting strategy designed to put children “Ahead of the curve” by enrolling them in what she describes as “10 of the Valley’s best enrichment programs to help your child beat the competition.”

I felt physically ill as I read her describe how today’s parents will “do just about anything to help [children] get a leg up on the competition–even it if means instruction in Mandarin well before they’ve mastered English or college classes before they’re old enough to drive.”

It’s not that the 10 places she lists are bad places (although I know from receiving the same press releases she gets that the Bambini Language Immersion Preschool she recommends just opened on Nov. 17th, so how it can be the “best” with no track record floors me.) It’s her premise that the only way to be a good parent is to push your child to be better than everyone else.

The irony is striking as I proofread copy for our February issue. We have an article by Scottsdale early childhood education expert Melanie Romero, who through both education and experience is far more qualified than Karina Bland to tell parents how to best approach their parenting. In “Parenting on Overdrive,” Melanie rejects the strategy of trying to raise super kids (a concept, frankly, that was on its way out 23 years ago when I had my first child). To quote from Melanie’s article: “Parents who over-schedule their children or push them to achieve risk creating young people and adults with chronic stress, burnout, low self-esteem and lack of creativity.” She condemns “hyper-parenting,” a phrase first coined by Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D. and Nicole Wise in their book The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap.

When I attended journalism school I was taught that professionalism dictates objectivity, despite your own innate preferences and choices. My staff has been trained to work this way. We believe that parenting is a serious and carefully cultivated skill enhanced by exposure to different professional opinions. We consciously choose to avoid recommending any one approach or hyping something as “best” because we know that all parents are different, all children are different, all families are different… and what works for one does not necessarily work for another. We strive to be a place for the exchange of ideas, rooted in a professional perspective provided by local experts we interview or whose articles we publish. We expect that our readers will ponder the options and strategies we describe and choose wisely from their own insights about their respective situations.

In this blog-eat-blog world, we increasingly accept as “news” and “fact” the opinions of people whose intelligence and personal experience often encompass no more than the ability to type and hype. It saddens me that the Republic has such a large and powerful platform on which to promote what their marketing department has determined will sell magazines.

I refuse to relegate my parenting — or my company — to that model.