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Candidly Yours

Candidly Yours

The Value of a Vote

November 8, 2016

It was as a very young woman, living without family and under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, when I became a patriot.
That experience changed my world view and my life, forever.

There, in Davao city, I learned the value and privilege of voting by secret ballot. (There was no free vote, press, or speech under martial law.)

I have lived, collectively, over 10 years outside the USA and while I miss it, and often prefer life overseas, I remain a patriot.

(Even today, I become emotional when I stand alone, pencil in hand, to cast my ballot.)

This means that no matter who is elected today, the next president will be MY president and I will hope and pray that she or he will be the best president for us all.

So vote thoughtfully.
Vote with pride.
And for those of you who have never truly understood that voting is a right and a privilege not enjoyed by all, vote with gratitude.
But by all means, vote.

Candidly Yours

A Good Saloon

May 13, 2015

In memory of my father, William Lee Ballard, 1926 – 2007

One of the things my dad passed on to me was an appreciation for bars and bar life in general.  I’m not referring to loud, hot nightclubs, but to a good neighborhood bar, the type of place dad referred to as a “good saloon.”

Back in the 1960s, when the business of advertising was still fun, Billy Ballard was a bit of a legend.  Those were the days when four-martini lunches and after hours cocktails were part and parcel of the job. Dad had an extraordinary wit; he was notorious for his colorful tongue and outrageous irreverence, as well as his thoughtful generosity and unpretentious ways.  He was also a resolutely unapologetic drinking man.

Over the years, during our many father-daughter lunches and dinners, I learned that a good saloon can take on an element of sanctuary. It is at once a meeting place, a book swap, a podium for debaters, and a message hub where you could also pick up sound advice.  It was where you caught up on the latest news or local gossip, or where you could ask about a reliable plumber or a good stockbroker.

A good saloon was usually an establishment frequented by locals who expected or demanded the trusted absence of change. It was a place with a rhythm all its own, its dependable beat tapped out daily by the steady coming and going of its patrons.  You could tell the time of day by who walked in the door, who was already settled into their regular spot, or by the absence of a particular patron.

And, for the last ten years of Dad’s life, that particularly good saloon was The Gator Club, in Sarasota, Florida.

Part of Sarasota’s early history, The Gator Club is a pinkish brick building on the corner of Main and Lemon and has served, over time, as Sarasota’s first grocery store, a brothel, a dive and a package store, and an upscale gentleman’s cigar and scotch bar.  And for a good stint, the Gator Club served as what my dad referred to as his “office.”

Rose, the day bartender, said she knew it was opening time when dad’s face appeared at the side entrance, his wicker and Styrofoam ice bucket in tow, filled with his own ice cubes made in those aluminum, pull-handle trays. “Rose, don’t give me any of your half-assed ice cubes!” dad would protest.  He also carried with him his own mixers in small bottles, feeling strongly that “the stuff that shoots out of that bar gun is shit, Rose.  I’ve strongly recommended to Ernie (the owner)  that he change to bottles, but Baby, I’m fighting an losing battle.”  And of course dad always had with him his signature Tervis Tumbler he’d been carrying everywhere and at all time since the early 1960s, when they were hard to find.

Dad would take his seat at his table, the central-most round, marble high-top set on a heavy, filigreed iron pedestal, and directly beneath the line of wicker fans that swayed gently to and fro under the tinned ceiling.  From about 11:00 a.m. until around 1:00, the place really belonged to dad. He even had a telephone installed at the back bar (which remained closed until the Gator transformed into a nightclub after dark) to use for personal calls with some degree of privacy.

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Entering in dribs and drabs as lunch hour neared, the group would gather and the conversation took on a momentum that reflected whoever was present.  There was quick-witted banter and serious, heated debating, or, more often, bawdy, ribald and racy exchanges.

At first glance into any local pub, and taking in each character one-by-one, they look like a pretty squirrelly bunch; a mix of kooks and misfits.  But taken together, they made up a collective ethic you could trust, even to look after a lost kid until a parent or the police were contacted.  And as far as characters went, The Gator certainly had its share.

At the next table was the unstoppable and loquacious, fidgety telemarketer, “Talking George,”  whose left hand was limp from a war injury and who went in and out of jail.  If the television channel was set to the stock quotes,  “Flaherty,” a stockbroker whose eyes never strayed from the ticker running across the bottom of the screen, was in the house, sipping a vodka on the rocks.  For a time there was “Alabama Rick,” an outrageously funny, loud and commanding gay dope dealer missing three bottom teeth. Alabama Rick held court at the table next to dad’s as his buyers came and went, until one day he was hauled off to prison.

One of the most colorful characters was a tall, albino diabetic, a double-amputee who managed to also be a gay veteran with no less that four angry ex wives.   Dubbed “Peg Leg Charlie,” he once strode into the Gator on a new set of prosthetic legs and proudly  announced  that he was now a full two inches taller.  And at the helm was Billy, my dad, the guy who set the rhythm going every day, the one everyone gathered around, asked about, checked in to see.  The one they all went to for advice, for an occasional loan, and of course, for a drink.

Once, during dad’s Gator Club tenure, I overheard him on the phone in his kitchen as he gently directed the rescheduling of a planned, outpatient eye surgery so that the operation would end in time to allow for his usual Gator Club stop.  He was polite and soft spoken with the receptionist as he gently explained his predicament. “Darling. You have them operating on me at noon. By then I’ll have had nothing to eat or drink starting the night before.  That’s a full seventeen hours, dear.  Now I’m a serious drinking man.  I’m what you might call an accomplished alcoholic.  And I’d like to have my driver pick me up from the surgery by one o’clock, at the latest.”  (I was his so-called driver.)

Eventually the days of dad and his Gator group fizzled out. Talking George changed companies and had to switch bars.  Peg Leg Charlie drowned in his tub after an evening of too much wine.  Flaherty fell out with the group and stopped showing up.  Others moved away. Alabama Rick went to prison.

But for a good while The Gator Club was a fundamental and integral part of dad’s and our daily rhythm.  It was when and where he started his day, where plans were made, books and opinions exchanged, news and gossip shared.  For a long time it was his compass.

And for a long time, he was mine.

Lucky me

Candidly Yours

Why Raise Kids in Rural Panama?

April 20, 2015

“You’re making a big mistake, Elizabeth. Your son is only nine, he’s just started third grade and he’s still learning to read in English. If you move to rural Panama, you could really mess up his entire educational future. Think twice, girl.

I thought more than twice about this big step. And I knew my friend Valerie’s concerns were valid. After all, she was a veteran mother of four terrific boys; she was also a specialist at the master’s level, teaching reading to young children. I had to ask myself: Did I want to jeopardize my kid’s formative learning years in exchange for a life that I hoped would be freer—a lifestyle less available to a society that was becoming increasingly dictated by technology? Was trading in a good education, in his native English, for the possibility of a richer cultural education a fair swap?

In 2006, when my family was still in Florida and my son was eight, I had begun to feel I was fighting an uphill battle against forces that weren’t evil, but that were intruding from all sides on my vision of how I wanted to bring up my child. My stepson, a terrific kid,  was eight years older an college bound. I had my youngest all the time, and I didn’t want to screw motherhood up.

Our society seemed to be changing at a pace I couldn’t manage. The increasingly ubiquitous electronics devices, (remember, this is 2006), seemed to be overtaking the social interactive development of our children. And I consider social development equally important to academics..  Kids would sit next to each other, each with his or her own Gameboy in hand, sometimes paying separate games, sometimes together. They were mesmerized and hardly able to pull themselves away from the rapid and seductive images  before their eyes.  I wan’t sure what was going on, but I knew one thing: I wanted my boy outside, playing, wondering, letting the world happen, awaiting the next surprise adventure.

Then there were the loving and very well-meaning parents anxiously imposing over-managed, highly structured schedules that kept their kids running all day from one organized activity to the next. The children were distracted from dawn to dusk, leaving little time for relaxing into a natural rhythm of play. Often the parents themselves were tethered to the cell phone as they walked their grade-schoolers, hand-in-hand to class, yet oddly detatched from the present moment.

I was hardly without guilt! I had been increasingly sucked into the need to stay connected by cellphone to my job, at all times. My son felt frustrated by his inability to either get my attention or by the constant interruptions. “I hate that cell phone, Mom!”  So, one day, I went “cold-turkey” on the thing. I turned it off when we were together or work hours were through. I figured the world would indeed turn without me.

I imposed other rules: only enroll my son in one extra-curricular activity at a time; leave my brief case locked in the car after work; allow no incoming phone calls at story/bed time. I was no longer tied to the outer world but connected to what was directly around me. But it felt like I needed more.

Most weekends I was hoping to arrange a simple“free-play” play-date for my son, and this I was  finding increasingly difficult to attain.By this, I am thinking of the summers of my own youth spent languishing with my best friend in the woods on moss-covered rocks, climbing trees, building forts, swimming in the pool until we our little bodies were wracked with shivers, running through a sprinkler, swinging on swings, and coming away only when our mothers hollered for us.

Meanwhile, my husband was beginning to tire from decades of managing night shifts at a busy tourist restaurant. Having spent a good amount of time in Costa Rica, in his twenties, he had long harbored a dream to live once again in a Latin country. We enjoyed our life in Florida, and we happily managed the usual responsibilities of adulthood. But life ticks on, one day runs into the next, years pass and dreams become an occasional whisper in the back of your mind “one day, one day soon.”

We were an extremely hard-working couple and our collective jobs supported a decent—but less than extravagant—lifestyle. We had a mortgage we could afford; we didn’t own a big screen television; we drove small, used cars. We belonged to no clubs and had no expensive hobbies. We paid our bills on time and only twice in ten years of marriage, did we take a family vacation lasting more than a few days. Together, we earned over six figures, yet as is true for many couples, there was little left over at the end of the month for little luxuries.

Still, it wasn’t my husband’s dream alone that propeled us toward the move abroad. I had traveled in my youth, once as an exchange student to the Southern Philippines during high school and later to Mexico. I had come to see travel as one of the best teachers and I wanted our son to have a broader world view. I also wanted him to speak another language.

In 2005, we took a rare family vacation and visited some neighbors who had moved house with their young daughter to Boquete, a town in rural Panama and currently high on the list of “hot picks” for retirement relocation. We stayed nine days, impulsively purchasing a small but lovely lot near town.

Boquete’s is known for its lush beauty. Peppered with gated neighborhoods, Boquete is nevertheless a farming town. It is nestled in the mountains of the highlands, and in what is often referred to as “the valley of the eternal rainbow: or “the eternal spring.”  Even the heart of downtown is rich with flowers, rivers, little farms, and livestock.

Life appeared simpler. There were uniformed children walking hand-in-hand to school; a farmer chasing after a small herd of stray cows in the heart of town; chickens and goats and dogs and children were everywhere. And, as with most small towns, everyone knew everyone, which felt safer.

Oh, I thought, as we signed on the property, only two days before returning to Florida, This is where I want to raise my son!

Over the next two-plus years, and largely from a distance, my husband oversaw the construction of what was to be a dream home. I stayed somewhat removed from the project, involved with mothering, work, caring for my beloved dad (who had become ill), and feeling torn about leaving. I wanted something different, but it is not always easy to give up a settled life.

My breaking point came one day after school. My son was now beginning third grade in Florida, a confident and happy little kid just getting a grip on reading. One afternoon, he stepped down off the bus looking all long in the face. “Mom. So-and-so said he’s in the ‘gifted reading program’ and he said that I’m dumb because I’m not in the gifted reading program.”

My heart sank. “Hey, buddy. You can be in the gifted reading program, if you want to. But they give way more homework and I just didn’t think you wanted extra homework.” He perked up. “Oh! Okay, Mom. Want to go skating?” And as soon as we were in the door, we snapped on our skates and glided

Three months later, (by this time, my father had passed away), we were on a plane to Panama, just two suitcases each, one of mine packed with clothing and the other stuffed with a purchased distance learning curriculum. Larry was in luck. Despite being a nester at heart, I am highly adaptable, which means I can make my nest just about anywhere.

My son, then nine, spent mornings working an accredited distance learning program with his dad, and three hours in a local parochial school, just a kilometer from our house.  He played with the neighbor kids, all local, and on weekends he saw children from the handful of expat families around us.  After ten months in Panama, we distanced him completely from expats so that he could blend even more, and the Spanish really kicked in.

Guari and Dance 020Life was indeed simpler. Most of my son’s friends lived nearby and played outdoors every day after school.  All the children wore uniforms to school, the boys sported the requisite buzz-cut hair, and these were great equalizers, eliminating any battles about what to wear or whom to keep up with.  If neighbor kids had electronic games and such, they were usually broken or quickly lost or stolen. Skating rinks and skate parks were missed, but these were exchanged for soccer and basketball.

Birthday parties were a welcome family affair, and not only for younger kids, but also for the famed “quinceañera” or “sweet fifteen” birthday parties attended by peers and parents alike. Sundays were also family days.  All this family time and the fact that children are not permitted to drive until age eighteen, rendering parents the chauffeurs, seemed to keep family ties strong.

There were little things that made life simpler, such as being able to make and take baked goods to school my son’s classmates, or to any school event, without issues. (This was not the case back home, where the school board had ruled that parents could not take home-made treats to school. All treats had to be store-bought and presented in their original wrapping.)

When my son was eleven, we moved to the center of town and I broke down and purchased a cell phone for him, as this was the best way to locate a kid running free with his posse of friends as they gathered up empty soda cans and bottles to trade in at the local store for treats. Sometimes they spent hours playing soccer, or rummaging the nearby river for errant golf balls for resale.

When he turned fourteen, I buckled and gave a green light for my son to get his first “Play Station.” (I regret this decision to this day!) And, despite my earlier vow to wait until he was sixteen, I gave the “okay on a Smartphone. Like nearly all kids and grown-ups today, this device has become my son’s lifeline to his inner and outer circle: as with most teens, he’s never without it.

Still, I had him close for a long time, longer than I suspect I would have if we had remained in Florida. He is completely fluent in Spanish and moves easily between the two cultures he embodies.  He wants to return now to the United States for his last two years of schooling and also to reconnect with his cousins, and just be a regular American high school kid.

I doubt my son will be quite the regular “American” kid he thinks he is simply because he now and forever, bicultural. Will he need to catch up, academically? Time will tell. He son has navigated some tough waters in order to blend in, make friends, and learn a language. I trust he has the skills to face whatever comes next and certainly, we will be there to guide him, whether it be here in Panama, where we remain until the summer months, or back in the United States.

So, by leaving, did we do ourselves a disservice, or did we enrich our lives? This is something we will find out in time. I think that if you want to move forward, or find out what stuff you’re made are made of, sometimes you might want to step away from the herd. And that is just what we did.

You can read the first few chapters of  “Helping Expat Kids survive Thrive: Advice on schooling, on Kindle,  Free, by clicking HERE.

Candidly Yours

Interview with Jackie Lange

April 20, 2015

An interview with Jackie Lange, owner Panama Relocation Tours, January 29, 2015

I met Elizabeth Ballard the first time I went to Big Daddy’s in Boquete.  They have the best fish tacos and margaritas!

Elizabeth moved to Panama about 7 years ago with her husband and 9 year old son.   As a Mom, one of her biggest concerns was how to get a good education for her son and how to help him thrive in a foreign country where, initially, he did not even speak Spanish.  With Elizabeth’s help her son William made a smooth transition, is fully bi-lingual, and has both expat and Panamanian friends.

We have monthly internet marketing meeting in Boquete and I made a presentation about writing books for Kindle to make extra money.  I encouraged Elizabeth to write a book about how to move overseas with kids and how to get a good education.    PanamaRelocationTours.com gets emails often from people who are considering moving overseas with kids so I knew there would be a big demand for the book.

Elizabeth’s book Kids Helping Expat Kids survive Thrive is NOW available at Amazon Kindle.    Click on the link for instant access to order.   If you don’t have a Kindle.. no problem… because Amazon has free software you can download to your computer to read the book.  The book tells the story of how one Mom helped her son not just survive but Thrive in overseas.

Even if you don’t have kids, it is a good book to read about expat life in Panama.

Here is one of the reviews:  “Wow, I am so incredibly thrilled I came across this book. As a mom who is considering an extended stay in Latin America, I really needed the guidance and assurance that I wasn’t making a terrible decision for my kids. I had been going back and forth wondering if our family was making the right choice, and after reading this book, we are going to do it! Elizabeth Ballard’s book provided me with invaluable advice that put me at ease.  Her family survived, no THRIVED and ours will too! THANK YOU for this terrific book!”

See the Elizabeth’s interview below.
I’m encouraging her to write her next book about starting and selling a business in Panama.

When did you move to Panama?

I moved to Panama in February, 2008, so I’m coming up on seven years

Where did you move from?

We moved from Sarasota, Florida.

Where do you live in Panama and why did you pick that area?

I live in Boquete, a small but thriving town in the Chiriqui Highlands. I moved here in 2008 with my husband and our youngest son, who was nine.

I think sometime in 2005 we had taken a family trip to Boquete, visiting some neighbors who had already moved there with their daughter. And we were charmed. So before we left, we purchased a lot and over the next few years, built a house on it, from afar.

Tell us about your business and how you got started.

Well, initially my husband moved to retire from the restaurant business. I retained a part-time job online, with an insurance agency. But that year the housing market in the USA crashed and then the stock market took that terrible dive.  So all our plans went down the tubes, along with that sweet part-time job.

We ended up selling our dream home in exchange for a modest, Panamanian fixer-upper.  After about a year, we realized we needed to start funding our life. And since we really understood the restaurant business, we thought that is what we would do.

Also, my husband had been paying attention to the food industry here and noticed that fish was an item not easily acquired in our mountain village.  We started a restaurant that specialized in the freshest fish. (Big Daddy’s)

Was it difficult to set up your business in Panama?

Well, “tricky” is the better word. First, we were not fluent in Spanish and also we were not well-versed in the laws around the restaurant industry. So it was important to have good, solid legal advice and also a good, local accountant.

We took our time and proceeded at the pace dictated by the paperwork. This could be frustrating because there were times when we had all our ducks in a row, but were stalled, awaiting a certain official to give us the required stamp of approval.

Do you have a web site or blog?

Well, that is no longer relevant as we sold the restaurant recently, in August, 2014. However, rather than maintain a blog, I primarily marketed our business via word-of-mouth, which today translates to Online.  (the older blog is active:  www.mypanamalife.com).

I was very active on Facebook, regularly, keeping copy and specials fresh, photos, etc. I was also active on Trip Advisor, which is an important site for helping to put your business on the map. A lot of business are frustrated with this site, but I got to know it and made it my business to monitor and reply to comments. I think this really gave us a great presence. Also, it was one way to note suggestions and take feedback into account.

If you could relocate to Panama all over again, what things would you do differently?

Knowing what I know now about how the restaurant industry works here, I would probably open a food business that was geared more toward take-away items and also required fewer employees.

But I wouldn’t trade in what we did or what I learned for all the tea in China.

What are your favorite things about living in Panama?

If you see beyond the gated communities, Boquete remains a small town, a farming town. I love that. I love raising our son in that environment. It feels like the 60s to me in many ways. And I love the climate we have here in the mountains, the extreme beauty,

What do you like least about living in Panama?

As a mom of a school-age kid, and I tend to view life through that lens. I definitely feel the absence of organized sports programs, a skate park, a teen center, and activities for kids in the summer. And better, much better schools.  Also, I dislike the public littering, the garbage.

As an adult, I miss being able to visit museums or go to really good theater. Panama has all this, but in the larger cities. So those things have to be planned for.

Do you have any tips for someone considering relocating to Panama?

Yes, of course. Come visit and rent. Don’t rush into purchasing property until you have had a real taste of all Panama has to offers. In our town alone, there are so many micro-climates, depending on your neighborhood. I’ve seen people come here, spend big bucks on a home, and then come to the conclusion they can’t stand the rainy season.  There are so many wonderful towns, villages, beach towns, mountain areas, and there is Panama City. I think it is definitely best to rent and travel before you buy.

In conclusion:

When we first arrived, I thought we’d stay about a year. Now, I can’t imagine living elsewhere and I don’t want to go back, except to visit family. I love my Panama life. I’m presently finishing up a book for parents who are considering moving overseas with kids. You can keep up with my progress by googling www.mypanamalife.com.

 

Candidly Yours

Treading Water. Life in the deep end.

March 2, 2015

There are people who seem to shoot through life on a straight arrow, right from the get-go. And then there’s me.

Even in grade school it seemed to me that he rest of the world was operating with a set of instructions that had somehow completely eluded me. They cruised along at a steady clip, on a cool stream that was obviously heading some place, while most of the time, I didn’t even know how to find my way from one classroom to the next.

Metaphorically speaking, I had landed — from  birth — in the deep end of the pool and it  was all I could do to keep my nose above the line. Somewhere, along the way, I had obviously missed the life boat. I was treading water.

I remember once, when I was about seven, I found myself standing in a classroom, smack in the middle of all the fuss over something called a “recital.” Serious preparation was going on all around me, scurrying, hurrying, hair combing, mothers applying make-up and toe shoes, but I had no idea what I was doing there — absolutely no recall of what had lead-up to this moment.

It was as if I’d been been beamed into that room, a true-life non sequitur, a tiny, 35 lb alien in black leotard and pink tights with a slice of elastic a strapping down pink dance slippers.

Someone was combing back my hair and fussing over me. Rather than reveal my confusion, I just quietly went along as we were herded onto the auditorium stage and arranged ourselves into neat rows. The place was packed with happy parents. I was ‘stage left,’ at the back, in a haze of confusion.

Below us a lady was gingerly tapping out dance exercises on an upright piano. The ballet teacher was calling out instructions in a thick accent, in time with the music. She had on a flowy chiffon scarf wrapped around her waist and thighs that hardly disguised the strong possibility that she spent more time on the sofa with a bag of chips than in a studio, doing plies.

The children around me seemed to magically anticipate every next step. I was struggling to follow along unnoticed. Then,  a wave of pure empathy washed over me, snapping me into awareness. Some poor kid was about to be publicly humiliated in mid-performance. The teacher — unbelievably — was interrupting the show to correct this loser. “No! No! Noooo! Zat ees not codect. Stop now!” she commanded, punctuating each shout with a clap of her hands as she loudly stomped her way up on to the stage.

Oh no, that poor kid I thought, even as I feel a hard tug at my left leg. She was yanking my left leg into a proper turn-out.”Left! Eet ees de left leg. Out … like zees!” she barked.
Me. Oh for the love of God, I thought … it’s me.

This is how it was for me… everyone just clipping along, and then there was me, spaced out, dazed out, lost in a fog, goofy little dork on stage with the teacher holding up her big fat mistake leg for the world to see. And so it went. At six, at sixteen, all the way into to mid-life.  Absolutely clueless, treading water, trying to figure out how everyone else seemed to know how it all worked, waiting for a lifeline

Candidly Yours

Cocktail Time! Grief on a fast track

February 26, 2015

If you moved at a steady clip through all five stages of grief, getting to the other side of the loss would probably take a fair amount of time.

In my home, growing up in the ’60s, grief was managed at a faster clip.  The pace went more like from Zero to Cocktails in the time it takes to shake up a frothy whiskey sour.  Or pop a heavy barbiturate called Tuinol.  Or two Tuinols  (Two-Tus). Or slide back a Valium with a daiquiri.

As I mentioned, it was the late ’60s to early ’70s, and that’s just the way we did it.  No school psychologists, no support groups.  No worries.  Just swallow.

My experiences with death began to gather and build from an early age.  A childhood friend, Julian, died around the age of 6 from congenital liver disease which also took all his siblings.  My maternal grandmother unexpectedly dropped dead of a heart attack, I was told, as she waited to check in to the Mayo Clinic for a scheduled face lift — a whopping thirty thousand dollars, cash, stashed in her brazier. My gentle grandfather followed not far behind, and tragically on the day after my brother Nicholas’ birth.  In between these losses, and after, more fatalities landed within my reach.  In elementary school, my friend Morgan O’Brien’s sister, Hopie, was bounced out of the back of a top down convertible as it drove, 5mph, over a speed bump, pre-seatbelt days.  In the fifth grade, my friend Roberta’s mother leapt from the third story of their beautiful Greenwich mansion to her death.

Two years later, when my brother was rounding the last stretch toward his sixth birthday, and my older sister,  Madeleine, was fourteen, we were told one morning that our mother had died.  Suddenly, shockingly and mysteriously.  “Improperly medicated by an intern” we heard.  “Malpractice” was the whisper.  “Suing won’t bring her back to us” lamented our father.  My mother was, I believe, forty-one, but our father changed the dates in the obituary, making her thirty-nine; “under forty” dad said, in deference to a more cordial time when one simply did not reveal a lady’s age.  I was twelve.

I believe that the day I heard the news, or possibly the day after, I just went to school.   During the months after our mother died, my sister and I were handed, and sipped on,  the various sweet cocktails. We took the pills we were given, we played loud sad songs by Simon and Garfunkle, and we spaced out. There were, of course, casseroles for a while, and parties.  Dad dated and he worked and he also drank a lot and played “Always Something There To Remind Me” by Jose Feliciano so loud you couldn’t hear anything else in the house. And he wept out loud and in my arms and told me that he didn’t worry about me as much as the other kids because I was a lot like him so he didn’t need to worry.  And sixteen months later he was remarried.

I remember once, maybe a year later,  drinking a mini green bottle of Rolling Rock on my early morning walk to school, just to see what would happen.  My life long friend and I raided our parents’ medicine cabinets for Valium and barbiturates, which were “in”at the time and handy.  Our older sisters set us up with small, oily black chunks of hashish so thick and gooey they reminded me of  bits of licorice. These we smoked in pipes we fashioned hastily out of aluminum foil.

So it went like that. Death continued to travel through the edges of my life at a slow trot, pulling greedily to steal my remaining grandparents but also quite a few young friends. Virginia (fire); Linda, Daniel and Diane (cancer).  All these deaths were pre-AIDS era.

Given my out-sized experiences with losing loved ones, my familiarity with how to actually sidle up to and embrace the aftermath of loss and all it’s accompanying, changing pain, is astonishingly limited.

When I was in my early twenties and working in the circulation department of the Financial Times of London, my young boss, a Scarsdale girl named Randy Silverman, lost her dad.  She was so astonished by my apparent inability to connect her loss to pain, that she mentioned it to me.  I was just yammering away on her first day back to work after this devastating death in her family, maybe even whining and complaining, as if nothing had occurred. She look at me dead in the eye and said, with a perplexed expression and annoyed tone, “Elizabeth.  Do you understand I just lost my father?” I snapped momentarily into her reality with an “Oh. Sorry.”

I’m much older now, and a mother, and I handle the inevitable losses my family suffers much differently. With my son, we talk about our beloved people and special pets, now gone. We revisit and relive our memories with stories and photos. We check in with each other, without overkill — and certainly without the drugs and alcohol.  We take it bit by bit, knowing that losing someone we so dearly loved has forever  changed our lives and made our world feel less safe simply because they are no longer in it. And we remember also that our lives are fuller for having had the privilege of knowing and loving and remembering them.

Expat Kids

Educating Expat Kids

February 19, 2015

book cover 1

The above photo is of my son as he receives his 9th grade graduation certificate from AIB, an international school in Central America. But we are not from here, we are from the United States of America. For our first six years abroad, there was no so-called “bi-lingual, international” school, so he attended school in a second language, while we did some supplementing with some home-instruction and other methods.

How will you manage your children’s education if you go overseas?
If  you’re a parent considering a move abroad with kids, this is the big question, the thing that nags at that back of your mind in the middle of the night, or holds you back from going, or  stops you altogether from taking the leap.

Perhaps a big move overseas is just  a big dream, or maybe you and your family don’t have a choice about moving. Either way, concerns about how your children will adjust and stay happy is often the source of the most pressing questions parents have when facing this kind of chabge.  Let’s face it. For any caring parent or guardian, a happy kid equals a happy parent.

Before we pulled our son out of the tender third grade to move to rural Panama, I was frantic with just these questions. I had all the worry and little guidance. How in the world was I going to  1. continue with his education and 2. help him assimilate, make friends, learn the language, in other words, keep on being the fanstastic, curious, funny, interested and sweet kid he was?

It wasn’t easy. At the time of our move and for many years, there was not an international school in our little farming town destination. Heck, there wasn’t even a movie theater or a skate park and … we didn’t speak the language. But, step by step, day by day, little by little, I helped my son to continue his education,to  learn the language, to make friends, fit in and fully assimilate into a previously foreign culture, and in a rural, remote area. Take heart! If  we could do it, so can you!

I admit that my back ground in School Psychology & Counseling didn’t hurt — but the truth is, when it comes to parenting — I’m just a regular mom with the same fears, concerns, anxiety, hopes and dreams you have for your treasured child.

Today, my son William, only nine when we began our adventure, is now sixteen. He truly moves easily between the two languages and cultures he embodies and trade-offs notwithstanding, he has enjoyed a happy and full childhood.

Our journey was both difficult and easy. It was an adventure that throughout and ultimately brought us joy and personal growth, as well as collective growth as a family. It was a brave move,  but looking back, I would not change a thing. Was it worth it? Yes. Yes. Yes.

“Moving & Educating Kids Overseas: How one mom helped her child Thrive: is a primer full of tips, suggestions, check lists, sound advice and  ideas for making your overseas journey with your kids fruitful and joyous.

My child thrived and so can yours!

To read the first few chapters FREECLICK HERE.

 

Candidly Yours

A Good Saloon

February 19, 2015

In memory of my father, William Lee Ballard, 1926 – 2007

One of the things my dad passed on to me was an appreciation for bars and bar life in general.  I’m not referring to loud, hot nightclubs, but to a good neighborhood bar, the type of place dad referred to as a “good saloon.”

Back in the 1960s, when the business of advertising was still fun, Billy Ballard was a bit of a legend.  Those were the days when four-martini lunches and after hours cocktails were part and parcel of the job. Dad had an extraordinary wit; he was notorious for his colorful tongue and outrageous irreverence, as well as his thoughtful generosity and unpretentious ways.  He was also a resolutely unapologetic drinking man.

Over the years, during our many father-daughter lunches and dinners, I learned that a good saloon can take on an element of sanctuary. It is at once a meeting place, a book swap, a podium for debaters, and a message hub where you could also pick up sound advice.  It was where you caught up on the latest news or local gossip, or where you could ask about a reliable plumber or a good stockbroker.

A good saloon was usually an establishment frequented by locals who expected or demanded the trusted absence of change. It was a place with a rhythm all its own, its dependable beat tapped out daily by the steady coming and going of its patrons.  You could tell the time of day by who walked in the door, who was already settled into their regular spot, or by the absence of a particular patron.

And, for the last ten years of Dad’s life, that particularly good saloon was The Gator Club, in Sarasota, Florida.
Part of Sarasota’s early history, The Gator Club is a pinkish brick building on the corner of Main and Lemon and has served, over time, as Sarasota’s first grocery store, a brothel, a dive and a package store, and an upscale gentleman’s cigar and scotch bar.  And for a good stint, the Gator Club served as what my dad referred to as his “office.”
Rose, the day bartender, said she knew it was opening time when dad’s face appeared at the side entrance, his wicker and Styrofoam ice bucket in tow, filled with his own ice cubes made in those aluminum, pull-handle trays. “Rose, don’t give me any of your half-assed ice cubes!” dad would protest.  He also carried with him his own mixers in small bottles, feeling strongly that “the stuff that shoots out of that bar gun is shit, Rose.  I’ve strongly recommended to Ernie (the owner)  that he change to bottles, but Baby, I’m fighting an losing battle.”  And of course dad always had with him his signature Tervis Tumbler he’d been carrying everywhere and at all time since the early 1960s, when they were hard to find.
Dad would take his seat at his table, the central-most round, marble high-top set on a heavy, filigreed iron pedestal, and directly beneath the line of wicker fans that swayed gently to and fro under the tinned ceiling.  From about 11:00 a.m. until around 1:00, the place really belonged to dad. He even had a telephone installed at the back bar (which remained closed until the Gator transformed into a nightclub after dark) to use for personal calls with some degree of privacy.
Entering in dribs and drabs as lunch hour neared, the group would gather and the conversation took on a momentum that reflected whoever was present.  There was quick-witted banter and serious, heated debating, or, more often, bawdy, ribald and racy exchanges.
At first glance into any local pub, and taking in each character one-by-one, they look like a pretty squirrelly bunch; a mix of kooks and misfits.  But taken together, they made up a collective ethic you could trust, even to look after a lost kid until a parent or the police were contacted.  And as far as characters went, The Gator certainly had its share.
At the next table was the unstoppable and loquacious, fidgety telemarketer, “Talking George,”  whose left hand was limp from a war injury and who went in and out of jail.  If the television channel was set to the stock quotes,  “Flaherty,” a stockbroker whose eyes never strayed from the ticker running across the bottom of the screen, was in the house, sipping a vodka on the rocks.  For a time there was “Alabama Rick,” an outrageously funny, loud and commanding gay dope dealer missing three bottom teeth. Alabama Rick held court at the table next to dad’s as his buyers came and went, until one day he was hauled off to prison.
One of the most colorful characters was a tall, albino diabetic, a double-amputee who managed to also be a gay veteran with no less that four angry ex wives.   Dubbed “Peg Leg Charlie,” he once strode into the Gator on a new set of prosthetic legs and proudly  announced  that he was now a full two inches taller.  And at the helm was Billy, my dad, the guy who set the rhythm going every day, the one everyone gathered around, asked about, checked in to see.  The one they all went to for advice, for an occasional loan, and of course, for a drink.
 Once, during dad’s Gator Club tenure, I overheard him on the phone in his kitchen as he gently directed the rescheduling of a planned, outpatient eye surgery so that the operation would end in time to allow for his usual Gator Club stop.  He was polite and soft spoken with the receptionist as he gently explained his predicament. “Darling. You have them operating on me at noon. By then I’ll have had nothing to eat or drink starting the night before.  That’s a full seventeen hours, dear.  Now I’m a serious drinking man.  I’m what you might call an accomplished alcoholic.  And I’d like to have my driver pick me up from the surgery by one o’clock, at the latest.”  (I was his so-called driver.)
Eventually the days of dad and his Gator group fizzled out. Talking George changed companies and had to switch bars.  Peg Leg Charlie drowned in his tub after an evening of too much wine.  Flaherty fell out with the group and stopped showing up.  Others moved away. Alabama Rick went to prison.
But for a good while The Gator Club was a fundamental and integral part of dad’s and our daily rhythm.  It was when and where he started his day, where plans were made, books and opinions exchanged, news and gossip shared.  For a long time it was his compass.  And for a long time, he was mine. Lucky me.