Sunday, December 30, 2012

It's Surprising What You Learn

Well it only took fifteen years but last night we hosted a neighborhood holiday get-together.  It was an intentional effort to reach out - the people we invited we have known for years, and they've been to our home for all the milestone celebrations, but never just "because" and now, well, that's where we find ourselves - doing a lot of things just because we can.  For years, we've been dashing in and out and always in a hurry and rarely had the extra minute to extend more than a polite hello to our neighbors.  Not that too many have noticed - everyone seems to be just as busy.

And just when I thought I might not have too much in common with these people on the guest list, I realize - hey, we all chose this neighborhood to live our sacred lives - that's a fairly compelling commonality!

It's surprising what you learn when you have a chance to talk to your neighbors.  One neighbor is a pilot and has offered to take us on a joyride.  Another built a fence on the side of his house so he wouldn't have to look at his neighbor next door, someone else isn't talking to someone else, and mostly everyone is bothered by the parking habits of another.  And, while choosing similar spots on this quiet residential street, we are all over the map politically.  But the biggest takeaway, the most important discovery, is that we have way more in common than not.

Navigationally, we are united - this street is home.  It makes sense to invest in these relationships.  Oh - and I tried caviar for the first time ever and discovered something else - fish eggs are delish!

Friday, December 28, 2012

What? WoT

WoT - The Web of Things

We are already so connected to all-things-web that there are new, mostly online (ha!), global conversations about digital detox - about the need to ditch the devices, go offline and reinvest in what really matters, in relationships.

In technology circles, I've heard more and more about WoT - the initiative to convert traditional things to web-connected SMART things that can store and share data - and can also allow programming so the devices can make decisions.  Kinda like The Jetsons.

We're already doing this.  If you have the newer equipment that controls DIRECTV, you can make a last-minute and remote decision - from nearly anywhere - and make your DVR at home record a favorite show or game.  Others can monitor their home's security and energy consumption from afar.  If my children were still in daycare, you can bet I'd be leveraging technology somehow.

On Christmas Day, with everyone gathered around the brunch table, we sat and scribed 2013 goals.  Ian wants to write an app.  I've been thinking about that.  From mundane tasks to opportunities where precision is required, where will we trend?  What do we want? 

I'd like someone to refrigerate the red about 20 minutes before I arrive home and also draw my bath.

Oh...I already get's my Shawn app.  Back to reinvesting in relationships.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Life Permits

The campus is, not surprisingly, quiet today.  Not much going on in academia between semesters.

Why is it that when no one is around, when it's quiet, it's also scary?

Maybe because we have had 31 school shootings since Columbine.  Because weapon sales are up.  Because we've seen so many massacres on school campuses.

Yes, we need to make an effort, but what?  Conneticut's gun laws were among the strongest in the nation, and that didn't help prevent all the horrible, senseless killings earlier this month.

I'd like to see a ban on those automatic and semi-automatic weapons - not sure what they are called and couldn't identify one but you know the kind:  they can hold a whole lot of bullets with the capacity to slaughter hundreds of human beings in just a few minutes.

The U.S. has more guns and more gun violence than any other civilized country in the world. And in the last few years, states' budgets for mental health services have been cut by more than $1.6 billion (per the National Alliance on Mental Illness).  Why am I thinking about this?  How can I not.  Some grim and current estimates claim there are about 300 million guns in American homes; also that there are 50 million Americans living in poverty.

I'm not so worried about Americans' rights - just our precious lives.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Principles of Kwanzaa

One by one, the presents were unwrapped, the food was served, the wine was drunk, and the kids hugged me goodbye and returned to their homes.

Even the Roto Rooter guy has come and gone (damn potato peels anyway).

My sugar high is completely worn off and my crash was hard. I'm guessing the next time we will be all home together will be in October, in advance of Matt's wedding.  That's our lives now and a quick reminder that the alternative is for them to be watching TV in the basement is all I need to slap me back to our wonderful reality.

There are still things to celebrate - they want to visit and say as much.  They refer to our home as "home" and describe it not unlike a destination retreat.  That makes this mama smile.

It's time to for me to get a move on - I don't wear pathetic well - what's next up?

Well, Kwanzaa started today and while I have zero ties to an African heritage and I'm not a big fan of week-long celebrations (three days of eating too much while sleeping and exercising too little has contributed a bit to my situational mood today), I do find the seven principles interesting:

  • Unity - to strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
  • Self-determination - to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.
  • Collective Work and Responsibility - To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers' and sisters' problems our problems, and to solve them together.
  • Cooperative Economics - To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
  • Purpose - To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
  • Creativity - To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
  • Faith - To believe with all our hearts in God, our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

  • Now that I'm thinking about it, these same principles are ones that I've encouraged in our home, over the years, in an unwritten way.  And maybe that's why it is so much fun when we are together, and why it's so bittersweet when it's time to say goodbye.

    Saturday, December 22, 2012

    Secret Santa

    This time of year I always reflect on a few desperate Decembers in the early nineties: when the children were young and their ToysRUs wish lists were more compelling than the household bills - and I was responsible for all of it.

    There were annual late night holiday visits from my new friends Beth and Jim. They were second-time-a rounders and they seemed so happy together. They seemed to understand what really matters: love and generosity. I met them one Fall when they started to routinely park on my front lawn for Hawkeye football games.

    Anyway, a few days before Christmas, Beth and Jim would stop by unannounced, barely ducking in my back door, just long enough to press $300 in my hand and wish my family a Merry Christmas. Every year they told me they were just passing the money to me - from someone who wanted to remain anonymous, somebody who admired me and wanted me to spoil the children. And so I did. Instead of just socks and pajamas, the kids received games and toys and candy those years.

    And after a few of these Christmases, I met Shawn Steil and the holiday visits from Beth and Jim stopped. I guess they knew it was time to spoil someone else, but their gifts, the lessons I learned from them, will outlast any other present I've given or received.

    Thursday, December 20, 2012

    Gift Giving

    So I've been humming a few bars of "The Servant Song" by Richard Gillard lately. I love that song - so much that I included it at my Wedding Mass, and last year Kate included it in hers:

    1. Will you let me be your servant?
    Let me be as Christ to you.
    Pray that I might have the grace
    To let you be my servant, too.

    2. We are pilgrims on a journey.
    We are brothers on the road.
    We are here to help each other
    Walk the mile and bear the load.

    3. I will hold the Christ-light for you
    In the night time of your fear.
    I will hold my hand out to you;
    Speak the peace you long to hear.

    4. I will weep when you are weeping.
    When you laugh, I'll laugh with you.
    I will share your joy and sorrow
    Till we've seen this journey through.

    5. When we sing to God in heaven,
    We shall find such harmony
    Born of all we've known together
    Of Christ's love and agony.

    What I love the most about these lyrics is that it addresses both sides of gift giving, both the giving AND the receiving. Sometimes the RECEIVING of a gift is a gift in itself:

    Pray that I might have the grace
    To let you be my servant, too.

    Tuesday, December 18, 2012

    Miss Rank

    "Guest Readers" - yep, that's us! We had the honor of reading some holiday stories to Miss Rank's 4th grade class today!  What a thrill to see my special niece, my Goddaughter, Miss Rank, in action today.  Although a new college graduate, through her own effort and talent she has her own classroom - first year out - no small accomplishment!  And gee, is it HERS...she is clearly in charge command - while still being so very warm and kind, so very Jen.  It was fun to see her in a totally different role, the role that clearly is her passion, her identity.  I was fighting back the tears, I was so proud of her.  And then she introduced us, and explained to her "boys and girls" that it's no secret that her name is Jenifer - and then she told them she was named after me.  Wowza - then I was REALLY choking back the tears.  Thankfully one of her students, a boy, shot up his hand and said, "Miss Rank...does that mean you are Jenifer Junior?!"  It was just what I needed.

    I read O'Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" and Shawn read a simple rendition of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol".  We were so happy to get a peak into Miss Rank's world and I kept thinking that I wanted to time travel back to fourth grade and sit in one of those small chairs and learn from her all day long.

    I admire her happy room, and totally love this poster about what really matters.

    She is barely taller than about half of the students but look at her - kind and involved and totally in charge.

    "Rank Bank Bucks" can be earned by working on optional activities, like working on verbs.
    The bucks can be redeemed for things like working at Miss Rank's desk or buying a pencil.

    This is one very organized educator.

    Monday, December 17, 2012

    RFC 2012 - One for the books!

    I've nearly recovered and am definitely renewed from the annual "Rank Family Christmas" and I smile whenever I think of my time, our conversations, the laughs and the fun.  A visit from Santa, a photo booth, a keg of Bud Light, Card Bingo, a Holiday Puzzler  and Who Am I? games!  This group rocks!  43 of the 53 made their way to Cedar Rapids.  There was so much to celebrate - two new babies celebrating their first Christmas, two babies that most of us haven't seen taking steps, a baby announcement!, a newly married couple, a newly engaged couple, an impending retirement, and one of our favorites upstairs in a hotel room battling a debilitating cold.

    I guess you would say "LIFE" is happening all around us.

    It hit me hard when we were gathered in church, as I saw the familiar family faces returning from Communion.  Everyone has their ups and downs, their challenges and their reasons to cheer.  This is always a sentimental time, a hard time when we remember our personal losses, and especially this raw time, as we learn the news of another senseless school killing involving dedicated teachers and innocent children.  But getting together with people who know your life and your loves, and support you through all of it, that is priceless and I really do recognize this unique bond as a huge blessing in my life.

    We don't have too many chances to get together as a family, and I value it, and look forward to it, every time.  It's why I didn't go to sleep until 3 and was back up by 7 - every minute matters.  It is a thrill to belong to something this big and wonderful, and I'm very grateful and proud to be an original. 

    Thursday, December 13, 2012


    I want to share an exercise I recently did, and honestly, it's a fun doesn't even require any aerobic activity!

    The exercise involves a book by Tom Rath called Strengths Finder 2.0.  The key idea in the book is that we should focus on discovering, and then improving, our strengths.  I learned that our strengths are actually the totality of the following three things:
    • skills (acquired through training and practice),
    • knowledge (acquired through learning), way to get around it...
    • talents (things that come naturally to us).
    The book costs about $13 on Amazon ( 

    Part 1 discusses what's "right" with people.  Instead of focusing on our weaknesses, like so many self-help books do, this book doesn't even hint at a "fix" for ourselves.  This book recognizes and celebrates that, as individual as we each are, we possess unique strengths, in varying degrees.  So that...instead of ruminating about what I need to work on, I can acknowledge my strengths with the goal of turning those strengths from good to great!  People who have the opportunity to focus on their strengths, according to the book, are 6 times as likely to be engaged at work and 3 times more likely to report just having a pretty excellent quality of life generally! 

    Another compelling notion is that we CANNOT be anything we want (this goes against popular American culture but let's face it, I'm not gonna dance with the Joffrey ballet) but encourages us to realize that we can be a lot MORE of who we already are!

    Part 2 includes a unique ID code which allows you to take an online strengths assessment.  The assessment report is a valuable tool to help identify what strengths I had...and it was a fun kick on a trying day, too!  I list my strengths, for you dear reader, below, in the hope that you will share yours with me, too!  Naming our strengths to those we interact with can help with understanding and influence.  Imagine if we all recognized and appreciated others' strengths as we approached them for time, money, assistance, attention, comfort.  What might you achieve and who might you influence if you tapped on and leveraged your strengths more intentionally?

    You can see that I'm borderline obsessed on this topic.   Fair foreshadowing for anyone coming over to open gifts under our tree with me soon - get ready!

    Empathy - quiet by nature, clear-sighted, tune in to others' feelings

    Harmony - practical, realistic, attentive to what people share

    Input - your goal is to read a lot and comprehend everything you read so you are transformed in mind and spirt

    Intellection - acquiring knowledge is as much a pastime as it is a necessity of life

    Learner - you yearn to increase your knowledge and engaging in "small talk" seems like a waste of time

    Monday, December 10, 2012

    He's In!

    Remember how I talked about Austin last week?

    Well, he's in!  He's been admitted to The University of Iowa College of Dentistry!  This is a top-tier school, one of the best in the nation, and the only one in the country to offer every ADA-recognized specialty!  And he'll only be 30 minutes from home!  We are overjoyed.

    He's going to be a Hawkeye, or, in his words, a DuHawkeye!  I can't wait to share the town with him!

    Sunday, December 9, 2012

    Oaknoll bus

    Last night we had tickets to see Dan Knight Trio, featuring Marcia Hughes, in a Christmas concert.  Dan is an accomplished jazz pianist and composer and Marcia has pipes like none other - I have a special fondness for her voice as she sang at Kate's wedding and the memory of her rendition of  "Ave Maria" still keeps me awake at night.

    Our friends, Liz and Bill, joined us, and, after a bottle of very good Argentinian cab at the Mendoza wine bar, we found our places and for the next two hours were delightfully entertained as they, along with a fabulous bassist and a percussionist, performed some classics and also introduced us to new songs.

    But we couldn't resist the running joke:  "When is the Oaknoll bus going to show up?"  This was a very PG event and we were on the younger side of the attendees.  I was the only one in our group not quite eligible for the senior rate, and yet I warned everyone I might doze off.  We laughed at ourselves a lot - nervously probably.  Who are we becoming?  We decided on the evening with the carefree spontaneity of thrilled teenagers...and yet, looking around, we were definitely with the senior set.  We really enjoyed ourselves.  I'm always digging live music, Shawn enjoyed seeing the inside of the new Coralville Center for the Performing Arts building, we needed a holiday push, and getting together with old friends is always a treat.  Maybe it's time to embrace this new period of our lives - that we can go to a general admission concert and get good seats, that there is value in things that the very young and very old like alike, that aging brings with it worthwhile opportunities that our younger selves would've passed on.

    Liz and me, shortly before we squeezed thru the no-exit exit.

    My new bag - a gift from Liz, who calls me Wonder Woman.                                                          

    Saturday, December 8, 2012

    Holiday Happiness

    I'm at that point.  It's starting to come together. 

    And I'm really happy that Shawn and I have a clear division of labor for this holiday:  I make the cookies and he strings the lights outside; he makes the Chex Mex and I make the cards; he hauls in the tree and I, well, I praise him.

    We don't even discuss what a pain this is -
    we focus on the smell.

    My sister, Marie, made this wreathe for me
    many a Christmas ago and I cherish it.
    I love my handmade tree skirt...thanks, mom!
    O Holy Night!

    Tuesday, December 4, 2012


    It's almost the new year, and I'm getting older, and someone asked me about my bucket list recently.  I didn't have one.  Now I do.  I want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

    I've been learning a little about it and with Africa more than just a hop away, it's an expensive idea.  There's the transportation issue and then the cost of the organized - and obligatory - trek guide (some pay as much as $5K).  Oh - and it's sorta important to be rather fit.  After all, you are hiking for 7 days to reach the summit at 19,336 feet!  It is the world's tallest walkable mountain and hikers go through 5 different climatic zones to reach the summit.  It really does sound amazing and so bucket-list-worthy.  Who wants to join me?

    Monday, December 3, 2012


    The end of Austin's cross-country days are here and, while he is gearing up for one more track season, he is starting to realize that there are other things to chase - like dent school.  He spent a lot of his day today on the UI campus, interviewing at the College of Dentistry for a chance to be one of the lucky 70 (out of 400 chosen to interview from the pool of 900 applicants).  Fingers crossed for this 3-time All American standout, who has logged more than 12,000 miles in college.  We love you, Aust!  On to new challenges and new victories - no matter what path you choose!  Cheering from the cheap seats, I will be betting on you forever...xoxo, mom

    This is typical Austin - when I asked who
     "them" was - he told me it was the team.

    Proud fan.

    Goodbye, season, er, career.

    After today's interview, I just had to treat him
    to a Gatorade at the Den.