CALM Author’s Lunch Serves Up Food for Thought

Greg Behrendt (He’s Just Not That Into You), Joyce Dudley (Santa Barbara County Senior Prosecutor and author of (Justice Served), Karen Joy Fowler (The Jane Austen Book Club), Harley Jane Kozak ((Dating is Murder), Helie Lee ((The Absence of Sun) and Robert K. Tanenbaum ((Hoax) will join the ranks of the more than 70 authors who have informed, amused and moved Santa Barbara audiences for the past 18 years at the annual CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation) Celebrity Authors’ Luncheon.

About 800 people are expected to attend this year’s event, which will be held on March 5 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort.

Co-chairwoman Sharon Bifano said she was originally inspired almost 20 years ago, by Erma Bombeck’s Celebrity Authors’ Luncheon, to benefit the Kidney Association in Scottsdale, Arizona. When she moved to Santa Barbara and found out that CALM was looking for a new fundraiser, Bifano and co-chairwoman Stephanie Ortale stepped up to create CALM’s first Annual Authors’ Luncheon in 1987.

Unlike many philanthropic events, which pass the chairman’s responsibility on every year, Bifano and Ortale have managed to stick with the author’s lunch, as a team, since the very beginning.

While Bifano said, with a twinkle in her eye, that, “it hasn’t gotten easier,” the income and prestige have grown each year, along with the receipts. “We had 198 people at the first one,” she said. “I think we made about $200.”

Today, at $100 per ticket, the event routinely sells out.

“The success is really a compliment to Sharon and Stephanie,” said Marty Silverman, the CALM Auxiliary’s Second Vice President.

“It’s been a real learning experience,” said Bifano, who credits the late Paul Lazarus with the idea to use a lively interview format with the authors, rather than simply have them make speeches, as many events do.

KEYT anchor Debby Davison and Borders Books’ Kate Schwab will keep the proceedings dynamic, asking the authors questions about the writing process, their inspirations and even their personal lives.

Over the years some of the authors interviewed have included: Sue Grafton, Jane Russell, Barnaby Conrad, Michael Crichton, Julia Child, Ray Bradbury, Fanny Flagg, Maria Shriver and Jonathan Winters.

While big names help fill seats and raise money for the child abuse, sexual abuse and incest services and programs at CALM, Bifano cautions that the “best known celebrity is not always the best interview.” She cites “the two boys who own Three Dog Bakery” (Dan Dye and Mark Beckloff, authors of All-Natural Paw-Lickin Treats for Your Dog and the Three Dog Bakery Cookbook) as among the most entertaining interviews in past years. Another favorite was Iris Chang (The Rape of Nanking). “After the interview all of her books were sold.”

While helping a good cause motivates the authors, as does the chance to spend a weekend in Santa Barbara, Bifano said, “Most people come because we sell a lot of books.”

In addition to purchasing books by the interviewed authors (with a portion of the proceeds going to CALM), the following authors will also be available for book signing: Susan Branch, Jack Canfield (who will also serve as master of ceremonies), Deanna Moreau Cohen, Alan Glasser, Erin Graffy, Valerie Hobbs, Karen Langley, Ann Marie Parisi, Donal Sweeney, M.D. and Flavia Weedn.

Tickets are $100 and are available by calling 682.3925. For more information about CALM, visit

Originally published in South Coast Beacon on February 24, 2005.

J.R. Richards, former Santa Barbara High Principal

Santa Barbara High School’s colors were green, gold and black this week, as the Dons mourned the death of former principal J.R. Richards, who died unexpectedly on Saturday. He was 63 years old.

Affectionately known around town as “J.R.,” Richards was the only graduate of Santa Barbara High to serve as the school’s principal. He was a mathematics teacher in the Santa Barbara High School District for 25 years, becoming assistant principal at Santa Barbara High School in 1993 and serving as principal from 1995 until the summer of 2003.

“He was the most connected person I think I’ve ever met. Everybody he ever dealt with walked away feeling like he totally cares about him. He established a loyalty in people that came from his own loyalty to them. He made you feel like you were really worth something,” said Peter van Duinwyk, a colleague for 30 years, who retired from Santa Barbara High with Richards in 2003. “He got kids — and teachers — to put out that extra five percent that made all the difference in the world. …Whether on the playing field or state test taking, it’s all related.”

“He had a great sense of humor and was a good teacher,” said Santa Barbara High Teacher Bruce Lofthus, who also taught with Richards at Dos Pueblos High School. He was one of the people responsible for getting me back into teaching. “Just one of those very enthusiastic people. You knew that he was interested in young people and it showed,” said Lofthus, noting that Richards also taught math to his two daughters. “They thought he was great.”

“It is hard for me to think about Santa Barbara High School without thinking about J.R. and his dedication to the staff, students, and school community,” said Superintendent Deborah Flores.

“The more said about him, the better,” said van Duinwyk. “He’s such a community jewel, we want to talk about him as much as possible so that others can follow. … As an administrator, I’d go up and ask him questions. His answer always was, ‘if its good for kids, lets start there.’ And it wasn’t necessarily the thing that everybody approved of. That was his standard.”

Richards’ high standards have lived on at Santa Barbara High. “He instilled so much in the kids and the staff,” said Patty Diaz, his longtime secretary. “The staff knows to put the kids first.”

“He had a lot of stuff done to him that was not equitable, not fair. But he never had a bad word to say about anyone. It was a pure joy to have him around for the additional year that we got him. And that he was able to go out on his own terms,” said Diaz.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Originally published in South Coast Beacon on February 24, 2005.

Young Jews embark on rites of passage with Bar/Bat Mitzvah

Photo by Peter van der Sluijs, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Photo by Peter van der Sluijs, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

While the passage from childhood to adulthood is murky, at best, for many of us, virtually all societies determine a specific age that separates the children from the adults — the age when an individual assumes his communal and religious responsibilities to society.

For Jews, the establishment of becoming a Bar Mitzvah at 13 years plus one day for boys and a Bat Mitzvah at 12 years plus one day for girls, has historically been viewed as a first step in a young person’s acceptance of the obligations to family and community as a responsible Jew.

Though Jews have wrestled with the problem of how to safeguard the spiritual elements of Judaism in an age that openly embraces materialism, most Santa Barbara Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations are relatively low key, at least when compared to what goes on other places.

Jennifer Lebell, whose son, Jacob, recently had his Bar Mitzvah, recalls a family Bar Mitzvah, which took place in Canada. “It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my life, ” she said of the ceremony, which she described as being “very light on the Judaism.”

“There’s this elaborate stage and then there’s this little stage with a flowered archway and these (two 15-year-old) glamour girls are on each arm of the Bar Mitzvah boy, as the master of ceremonies said, ‘And now, may we present…’ and it totally darkens, and then actual fireworks come out of the arch,” she laughed.

“I mean it was such a stereotypical … Hollywood would have just gone nuts. … It was so bizarre. We knew that if we were going to do anything, that was the one thing that we were not going to do.”

Avoiding the glitzy route, the Lebells elected instead to take the path advised by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin in his book, Putting God on the Guest List. “Decide as a family what you are celebrating and what this moment in your life means. This decision will help guide you through the rest of the planning stages.”

For the Lebells, this meant enrolling Jacob into Hebrew school (a large part of the Bar Mitzvah involves reading from the Torah in Hebrew) when he was in fourth grade.

“Learning to read in Hebrew was a special challenge for Jake because he has a learning disability,” said his mom. His teachers weren’t very optimistic, but his mother was determined. “It just proves that you can do something if your mom puts your mind to it,” she said.

“When I started working on my Bar Mitzvah, it was mostly about my parent’s expectations and their faith that I could master this stuff,” said Jacob. “It seemed too big and I was in denial, even as I went to my weekly classes. Eventually, it all started to make sense, and so what I learned is that if I keep showing up and have the right motivation, even huge things like this are doable.”

“One of the things during this ritual that I really love is the handing down of the Torah,” said Jennifer. “The Torah is taken from the ark by the rabbi and given to the oldest direct family member, in this case Grandma Malca and Grandpa Don, who then pass it to us (the parents), and then we pass it to Jacob who then processes around the sanctuary holding it allowing everyone else to touch it too. The other aspect I find significant is the grueling study and the humbling presentation before community. It really seems to give them acknowledgement for what they have done and confidence that if they can do this, they can do anything.”

For some families, instead of the traditional Torah reading and reception after the services that the Lebells did, this involves celebrating with another kind of journey. For example, last summer Madeleine Bordofsky and her father Michael took a trip to Europe to explore their Jewish roots. While Madeleine is definitely enjoying attending the Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties of her friends, describing one of them as “the best party ever,” she said, “I’d rather have a trip.”

Another important part of the ritual is a good deed, or a mitzvah, as part of the initiation into adulthood. A percentage of the total cost of the reception food is typically donated to Mazon, an organization that helps feed hungry people nationwide. Since money is commonly given as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah gift, most people designate a portion of their gifts to go to charity. For example, Jacob Lebell was planning to donate to Direct Relief International’s Tsunami Relief Fund.

While some may debate whether it’s realistic for a 13-year-old to be considered an adult, most Jews view the Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony as just the beginning of the acceptance of responsibility.

As Jacob wrote, “Through the entire time of writing this speech, the rabbi, the cantor, my folks and my godmother kept asking me what does being a Jew and having a Bar Mitzvah mean to me. I still don’t really know, but I do know I have begun to find out.”


What is a Bar Mitzvah?

Historically Bar Mitzvah and later Bat Mitzvah is the ceremonial occasion that marks the time when a young person is recognized as an adult in the Jewish community and is responsible for performing mitzvot. For example, before children are Bar/Bat Mitzvah, they do not need to fast on Yom Kippur.

The ceremony consists of the young person chanting the blessings, and his or her Torah portion, which is the Torah portion of the week.

Over time the Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebration party has evolved. The custom is to serve a special meal to commemorate the mitzvah taking place. Moreover with extended families spread out over the country, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is also an opportunity for families to reunite and spend time together.

Children begin studying for their Bar/Bat Mitzvah by going to school some years before they actually turn Bar/Bat Mitzvah age.

In the year leading up to the event the person begins more intense training focused specifically on their Torah portion and the accompanying prayers. The day the young person is Bar/Bat Mitzvah is the first time he or she will have ever been called to the Torah.

In addition to preparing one’s Torah portion, the preparatory year serves as a chance for the young person to begin thinking about what being a Bar/Bat Mitzvah really means. In some synagogues the young person may make a commentary on their portion and try to apply the teachings of Torah to his or her own life.

Spotlight on B’Nai Brith

There are 28 young people scheduled to have Bar or Bat Mitzvahs at Congregation B’Nai Brith this year, said Cantor Mark Childs, who teaches the students at their final preparation stage. Of those 28, 13 are girls, he said.

“We’re a reform, progressive liberal synagogue, so we give equal status to both genders. You might find fewer girls being Bat Mitzvah in an orthodox setting,” Childs said.

Bar and Bat Mitzvahs are usually scheduled far in advance. For example, Childs said he put one on the calendar this week for June 2007.

While some students begin to study Hebrew in kindergarten, “even as young a preschool,” according to Jennifer Lebell, who has three children, “it really starts to get intense in fourth grade.”

For grades kindergarten through third, religious school is on Sunday mornings. In fourth grade, a Wednesday afternoon class is added. In seventh through 10th grade, students begin to attend a junior high and high school class on Wednesday nights, rather than Sundays.

In addition, when their Bar Mitzvah date is set, “they have private tutoring nine months before the date,” said Childs. After the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, conversational Hebrew becomes an elective, he explained, with further classes devoted to religious study. “We have a 90 percent retention rate after Bar Mitzvah, then they are confirmed at the end of 10th grade.”

While it’s tough to keep up that schedule in high school, “it’s a test of their priorities,” said Childs. “We hope that religious education is going to remain a primary priority.”

Originally published in South Coast Beacon on February 24, 2005.

Gang-related crime is up

Gang activity is increasing on Santa Barbara’s streets. Arrests are up 51 percent, from a total of 189 in 2002, to 369 gang-related arrests in 2004, said Sgt. Ralph Molina, who gave a special presentation to the Santa Barbara School Board on Feb. 8.

“The good news is that when it comes to schools, we have seen very few isolated incidents during this past year,” Molina said, attributing this to the strong relationship between the schools and the police.

One of the reasons for the upswing in activity is that there are a lot of older gang members who were incarcerated and are now back on the streets. “They begin to go out and recruit and their numbers begin to increase,” he said.

Molina estimated that there are 3,000 gang members in Santa Barbara County, with approximately 1,000 of them in the cities of Santa Barbara, Goleta and the unincorporated area in between. In the city of Santa Barbara he estimated there were about 600 gang members, with 40 percent of them under the age of 18 and about half of that group in junior high.

Board members requested the presentation after a recent expulsion of a student involved with gangs.

“My experience is that about 90 percent of these kids that are gang members, are pretty good kids,” said Molina, who has worked in the gang unit for the past 13 years.

” They just have a lot of serious problems and they turn to that lifestyle without knowing an alternative. But when we get one on one and we talk to them and establish that relationship…you’ve got to find out what they’re all about if you’re going to deal with them, you can’t just arrest them and put them in jail,” he said.

In addition to the increase in the sheer numbers of known gang members, Molina said he is also seeing a big connection between gangs and drugs. “A huge connection. All the other cities outside of Santa Barbara have had that problem for years, where it’s been gangs and drugs. … The last couple of years we’ve seen a huge increase with gangs and selling of drugs.”

Molina said he is also seeing a lot of large gang fights, especially among the younger members. “The kids between 13 and 17 are keeping us busy. … That seems to be the core of the activity.”

There is also some evidence of increased gang activity among girls, but it’s harder to document, Molina said. “They’ll portray themselves as the girlfriends … we know that they are associating. … We’ve seen an increase on the girls and there’s been a couple rumors that they’re trying to form their own gang, but that we haven’t seen yet.”

As a result of the increased activity, in January of last year Santa Barbara Police brought back the youth services unit and increased the enforcement level, which may explain some of the increase in number of arrests, Molina said. He added that he would like to see the district reinstitute a program in which officers taught classes on gang violence. Funding for the program dried up a few years ago.

When asked by board member Nancy Harter whether there was a correlation between loss of funding for these types of programs and increased gang activity, Molina said he wasn’t sure.

“There’s always more we can do. The schools do a good job. There’s a lot of community-based organizations that really get involved. (We need) everyone working together to deal with this.”

Originally published in South Coast Beacon on February 17, 2005.

FitFest aims to raise energy level

Photo courtesy

Photo courtesy

There’s something about physical activity that breaks you out of hamster wheel-like-thinking and makes your mind feel refreshed. It also alleviates stress, improves self-esteem and reduces the odds against developing all kinds of serious illnesses.

For women and girls in particular, “physical inactivity and poor diet together have become the second leading cause of preventable death after smoking in the U.S.,” said Lisa Braithwaite, executive director of Body Electric, which will hold its annual Women’s FitFest 2005 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Feb. 26 at Earl Warren Showgrounds.

Braithwaite said she wasn’t an athlete growing up, but in her junior year at Cate School she was required to play sports.

“I learned how to play basketball and I learned how to throw the discus and the shot put. It was totally great,” she said.

Years later, while working at Shelter Services for Women and Girls Inc., Braithwaite got caught up watching the women’s NCAA basketball tournament on TV.

“I just was blown away by just the level of athleticism that women had come to. I had no idea. … I sort of had this epiphany, I was already working in domestic violence and spent all of my time talking to teenage girls about healthy relationships and body image issues and what our society tells girls they should be … I had never really made the connection with sports,” she said.

She had the epiphany in 1997 and went on to found Body Electric –with co-founder Brenda Britsch and their friends, Kira Anthofer, Ginny Benson, Jana Johnston and Kim Reese — based on the common goal of educating Santa Barbara girls and women about the benefits of physical fitness. “(Physical activity) makes you feel good,” said Braithwaite, whose group also advocates for gender equity in addition for providing opportunities for physical challenge.

“We’re here to encourage women and girls to adopt physical activity in ways that work for them, and to help break down the barriers that keep many of us from achieving our goals,” she said.

Time — including commitments to work and children — money, and body image are the barriers that keep most women from working up a healthy sweat.

But Body Electric is helping to change that attitude by building awareness of just how much fun sports can be at its free annual sports/health/fitness fair, which will feature sports clinics and demonstrations, exhibits from local businesses and nonprofit organizations, a scavenger hunt and a raffle.

Activities and demonstrations will include a climbing wall, body fat analysis, dancing, martial arts, belly dancing and gymnastics, with interactive exhibits from Mark French basketball summer camps, Real Living Nutrition Services, Santa Barbara Outrigger Canoe Club, Titan Sports Performance, One Legacy, and other health, sport and fitness organizations.

For more information about the Women’s FitFest and other fitness activities,

Originally published in South Coast Beacon on February 17, 2005.

Price points to shopping paradise

Costco in Irvine, CA, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Costco in Irvine, CA, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Stalking Costco’s aisles is much more than a spectator sport for bargain hunters

Our anniversary is coming, so naturally when my husband told me he needed to “go to Costco,” I was sure he was going to buy me that Chagall lithograph I’ve had my eye on.

When I heard that Costco was beginning to sell fine art, I knew that it wouldn’t be long before we got lured into the excitement. My normally shop-o-phobic husband has a hard time resisting the temptation of big box bargains.

We once ate hot dogs every night for an entire summer, just to use up the enormous vats of relish, mustard and catsup he couldn’t resist. And we’ve still got 39 cans of pickled brussel sprouts sitting around from the time my son swore they tasted delicious, “the way that Grandma made them.”

Pretty much anytime we walk into Costco, we save so much money that we go broke.

So when I read that an original crayon drawing by Pablo Picasso sold at for $39,999, I knew that the $8,799 Chagall would soon be on my walls, because when you enter Costco, Costco logic prevails.

Which is why I have an unopened ten-gallon bottle of Tanqueray Gin still making a dent on the top of my fridge, from a long ago party where “someone might want a gin martini” and an industrial-sized kennel of baking powder for all of the cookies I was going to make for holiday gifts one year.

While high-end retailers hire merchandising specialists to help move you through their stores, Costco logic relies instead an unwritten law. “Whatever you look for at Costco will be on the far opposite side of the store. And in your quest to find the desired item, you will always find a minimum of seven other items you can’t live without.”

Try it sometime. It’s science.

I know that eventually, at some point in the future, I’ll come out ahead on my Costco purchases, but I’ll have to live to be 107, because that’s how long it’s going to take me to eat all of the chicken noodle soup I bought three flu seasons ago.

At least the soup purchase had some practical application. Lately I’ve been lured in by “new” products like Sierra Mist Free — which is really just Diet Sierra Mist with microscopically different packaging — or Wheat Thin crackers with zero trans fats (and exactly the same ingredients as the old crackers).

While customers are buying in mass, Costco is taking its profits in bulk. In a flat retail year, gross profit was up 13 percent last year with annual revenues of 47.5 billion dollars.

That’s an awful lot of Cherry Pepsi Free.

What else are people stocking up on?

In my case, there are the 14-foot-long rolls of coordinating wrapping paper, that I may need someday, and the gigantic tub of cinnamon-spice hand cream that I couldn’t resist. My husband’s temptations usually relate to outdoor activities — which is funny if you know him — like the tent could literally house a village, or the ice chest that could surely hydrate them. Costco’s marketing gurus even have a name for these items — the ones that never make it onto your shopping list, but somehow inevitably make it into your shopping cart — they call them the spice.

Then there are the actual spices, like Piment Despelette, which I bought a gigantic jar of once, because a woman who looked like Betty Crocker told me it was a once-in-a-lifetime bargain at 20 dollars an ounce

If the spicy new packaging or the advice from fellow customers doesn’t tempt me, the free samples usually do. While my dad usually trolls the Costco aisles for the “cheapskate special” lunch, I’m more likely to get sucked into the illusion that if I just bought that case of Jennie-O-Turkey with tequila-lime marinade, I’d somehow get in tune with my inner domestic goddess, the one who’s been MIA the past 40 years.

Sure, you’d expect the soccer moms hoarding juice boxes and the college kids stocking up on Easy Mac ‘N Cheese, but I’m most intrigued by the flocks of chic women who buy their thirty dollar Cabernet at Costco and their 200 dollar jeans at Blue Bee.

“Is that a good wine?” asks my husband, ever on the look out for both a bargain and the chance to chat up a pretty young thing.

“Oh yes. It’s quite a good value,” says Ms. Second Wife, as she bats her eyelashes at my First Husband.

“I hear the Chagall’s are quite a deal too,” I say, showing them both the lithograph print from my computer. My husband’s eyes go wide. Is he tempted?

“Wow, $8,799 for a work of art at Costco,” he laughs, in a way that tells me my chances of attaining it are dismal at best.

I wonder if Chagall does multi-packs.

Originally published in South Coast Beacon on February 17, 2005.

Schools turn to universal preschool

Preschool playground, Philippines, The Learning Connection Preschool, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Preschool playground, Philippines, The Learning Connection Preschool, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Public officials tout preparedness factor but finding funding is another story

The evidence is clear. Quality preschool education programs:

= Help children enter school ready to succeed.

= Promote positive child development.

= Prevent violence.

= Help parents move from welfare to work.

= Improve employee performance and productivity.

= Aid economic development and growth.

In fact, the most recent data from a 20-year study in Chicago estimates that, ” for every $1 that we spend for preschool they can save $7 down the line, in terms of special ed referrals, in terms of earning power, in terms of better health for children, in terms of youngsters later on not being in the juvenile justice system,” said Julian Crocker, San Luis Obispo County’s school superintendent.

Crocker was in town to address the Tri-County Education Coalition on a subject near and dear to the education community’s heart: universal preschool.

While subsidized programs like Head Start and state-funded preschools are available, those programs are overcrowded, with waiting lists for about 91 percent of the local Head Start programs.

Families living just above the poverty level are the least likely to find a quality program, Crocker said.

“They may not qualify for assistance, they may not qualify for Head Start, and they do not have the resources to pay for a quality private preschool.”

First Five California is one of the major efforts under way to optimize early childhood development.

“The whole idea of closing the achievement gap before they start kindergarten, which makes a lot of sense,” said Crocker.

“What they’re doing is trying to target the lower decile schools and … to prove the value so that, at some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, the idea of universal preschool will be state-funded.”

Finding funding for universal preschool is one obstacle, but Crocker sees organization as another big challenge. “There’s a lot of players involved,” he said.

He acknowledged that many people in public education are overwhelmed with responsibilities.

“Many times I have the thought that, my gosh, I can barely handle all the students I have now. What are you talking about trying to add 3 and 4 year olds to the mix, too?” he said.

“We need to change that viewpoint and I would hate it if we look back 10 years from now and have another whole system dealing with Pre-K that’s not part of the public school system. I think the most damaging thing we could end up with is a system of preschools that are separate from the public elementary schools.”

There are two major preschool initiatives in the works right now, Preschool for All, and an initiative sponsored by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell.

“One of the major things that’s going to be necessary is some kind of unified approach. … I think that’s our first challenge,” Crocker said.

As to the debate about whether a quality preschool program emphasizes child development or academics, Crocker dismissed it.

“To me it’s not an argument. It’s like should you have water or food,” he said.

“You need both of them. I think sometimes we hurt ourselves within the education community by staking out territory.”

Originally published in South Coast Beacon

For professionals, Career Day a full circle

US Navy Capt. Ricks Polk, commanding officer of Afloat Training Group Middle Pacific answers questions from students during a Career Day at Iroquois Point Elementary School, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

US Navy Capt. Ricks Polk, commanding officer of Afloat Training Group Middle Pacific answers questions from students during a Career Day at Iroquois Point Elementary School, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Face to face with the past, adults turn kids’ attention toward their future

I went back to high school last week.

No, it wasn’t for a Fast Times at Ridgemont High investigative article about San Marcos High School. I was there for Career Day, along with more than 240 other local professionals.

I’m not sure how impressed the students were by the movers and shakers moving among them — including Goleta Mayor Jean Blois, Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum, Olympic volleyball star Dax Holdren, sculptor Bud Bottoms (of Dolphin Fountain fame) and Santa Barbara Fire Chief Warner McGrew — but I sure was intimidated, especially when I spotted the sleek race car that NASCAR driver Greg Voight brought along.

Was that what they meant by props? All I brought with me was some copies of that week’s Beacon, which just happened to feature student body president — and Beacon intern — Eric Lauritsen on the cover.

But when I reported to the King’s Page classroom, I immediately felt right at home. While the adviser, Cara Gamberdella, was a few decades younger than my adviser, Virginia Chennell, seemed when I was 15, she had the same efficiency Mrs. Chennell did, as she introduced me to the first group of students and simultaneously recruited new editors for the paper.

I told the students the best way to find out if you’re cut out to be a journalist is to give it a try. There were definitely sparks in the eyes of a few students. They were the ones who asked good questions, like, “What’s your work environment like?” (Answer: Noisy, but fun.) and, “Do you spend a lot of time chained to your desk?” (Answer: No, as little as possible.)

One girl, who I’m sure is destined to be an investigative reporter, even asked me how much money I made. (Answer: Not enough.)

Another favorite question was, “What do you like about being a journalist?” As I told them, “It’s never boring and it’s really fun to do something different every day and be learning all the time.”

Later when I peeked in on Chief McGrew’s presentation, he said something very similar about his career as a firefighter: “I can’t wait to get out of bed and go to work.”

I hope those students get to go back to school and say the same thing someday.

Originally published in South Coast Beacon on February 14, 2005.

Principals offer plans to keep kids on track

Junior high and high school principals were in the spotlight Feb. 1 at a special meeting of the Board of Education highlighting their plans to raise academic achievement.

All three high schools met their adequate yearly progress criteria, which are required under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. On the junior high side, however, La Colina was the only school that met all components of its 2004 AYP goals.

To put the presentations in context, interim Superintendent Brian Sarvis said, “this has a lot to do with our accountability climate and especially an accountability climate that comes to us at the federal level in a model that’s a fairly punitive model.”

The bulk of the meeting focused on what the schools are doing to improve their test scores. For example, Santa Barbara Junior High has implemented several new programs, including a “STAR club,” which provides additional instruction and training for 75 students who fall just below the proficient level in English and math, and mandatory tutorials for students who don’t pass their instructional focus tests, said principal Susan Salcido.

At Goleta Valley Junior High, principal Paul Turnbull has instituted a program of midterms and finals to help gauge when students are having trouble with their work, rather than “wait until August to find out what we did and did not do well.” Some of the other interventions include working with community mentors, after-school tutorials and holiday and summer academic camps. Turnbull also said he is working closely with Dos Pueblos High to develop a six-year educational plan for each student.

Following Goleta Valley’s lead, La Colina Junior High has eliminated general math and is enrolling all students in algebra. The philosophy is to put the students in a higher-level class and then “teach them and support them,” explained principal David Ortiz. State standards call for all eighth-graders to take algebra.

Ortiz also noted that the principals are working together on ideas and strategies.

Jo Ann Caines, La Cumbre Junior High’s new principal, attended the meeting but did not make a presentation because she had just started her job the day before.

“Day Two and I’m still smiling,” she said.

Originally published in South Coast Beacon on February 10, 2005.

My life as a movie

I did all of my best parenting before I had children.

I had a great “Leslie the Mom” movie going in my mind, where I was always impeccably groomed, incredibly patient, and my three perfect kids were always clean, well-rested and well-behaved — yet somehow not the least bit Stepford-like.

After spending some time at the film festival last week, I realized that making movies is kind of like raising a child.

“When you’re inspired, you have the dream and it’s perfect. Inspiration is perfect,” said Phantom of the Opera director Joel Schumacher, recalling a conversation he had with Woody Allen.

Then you get people involved, and it’s a whole other story.

You start out with a perfect, innocent infant. Ten little fingers, ten little toes and the sweetest little face you’ve ever seen. Your movie couldn’t get any better.

Then people start to give you notes on your project.

“Let him cry and he’ll feel insecure.”

“If you don’t let him cry he won’t learn to soothe himself.”

I know just how Schumacher felt on Batman Forever when the studio told him Nicole Kidman wasn’t sexy and the test audiences said she was too sexy.

Sometimes I wish I could just stamp a “child by Leslie Dinaberg” credit on my son’s head and feel secure in the notion that I directed his progress from infancy to adulthood. But I realize that idea is about as absurd as that “film by” credit you see on almost any movie these days.

As soon as you bring a child into the world you have all kinds of outside influences to contend with, and it’s up to you to filter the harmless things (Grandma gives him an extra cookie before bedtime — no biggie) from the dangerous things (friend’s dad falls asleep with lit cigarette while kids play with Uzi’s and lawn darts — biggie).

“You’ve got to trust your instincts, even when no one else agrees with you,” said Jeff Arch, who directed Dave Barry’s Guide to Guys.

Sometimes this involves acting like you think saying, “because I said so” is a satisfying answer to “but all the other kindergarteners are allowed to drink beer and drive their parent’s cars” — even if you’re faking it.

“The buck stops with you. You have got to give the impression that you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t, ” said Hotel Rwanda director Terry George.

Sure the buck may stop with me, but unless I want to raise a bubble boy, I need to realize that his friends, teachers, coaches, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and even current events have parts to play.

Paying attention to those outside influences just makes sense. If nothing else, at you can share the blame with these other people when something goes wrong.

“You don’t have to take people’s advice or their suggestions, but I think if you don’t listen to them you’re a fool,” said Schumacher.

Of course, there are bound to be conflicts. If my husband and I can’t agree on everything, how could I possibly expect the rest of the world to fall in line with my childrearing philosophy?

Then there’s the reality that children have likes, dislikes and quirks just like the rest of us. I sometimes feel like a stranger in a strange land trying to catch my son’s enthusiasm for Bionicles and snakes, but I don’t have the heart to tell him I’d rather be reading about the sale of Jen and Ben’s engagement ring or Martha Stewart’s post-prison reality show. Unlike Schumacher, who said, “sometimes I read excellent scripts but I think I’m the wrong director,” I don’t have the option to pass on building a fort or playing dinosaur bingo because “we have artistic differences.”

Like the script that comes to life with the right actor in the role, my son has taught me more about what he needs than any other parent or parenting book possibly could. Sure I’m his toughest critic, but I’m also his best audience. I just hope he has a boffo opening weekend, as he’s my retirement plan.

As actor/director Kevin Bacon said, the thing about film festival audiences is that they are there because they love films. Their “enthusiasm is seductive,” and tapping into that enthusiasm is partially why you have film festivals in the first place.

While I probably won’t ever match my son’s enthusiasm for tarantulas or his affection for anacondas, the light in his eyes when I read to him is more than worth the slight nausea in my stomach.

And looking back at that first draft of the “Leslie the Mom” movie, it seems a little boring anyway.

Except maybe the well-rested thing.

Originally published in South Coast Beacon  on February 10, 2005.