Little People, Big Words

It snowed this morning.  Again.  We think it’s beautiful.

B especially likes playing in the “snowflakes” with Daddy.  Getting bundled, however, is a chore.  There are layers, plastic bags between socks and boots (The Fuentes Way) and more layers.  It’s like the scene from A Christmas Story when he couldn’t put his arms down.

Tights, socks, plastic bags, boots, snow pants, onesie, two shirts, jacket, socks on hands, more plastic bags, mittens, rain coat, hat, and scarf later, B stands at the top of the stairs.  Seeing John in a similar getup she says, “Daddy, you look ree-dick-luss like me!”


She’s right.  The two of them together look warm, if not slightly like a rummage sale, wearing what appears to be 80% of their wardrobe at once.  But it’s the words and the sentence construction that catch my ear.  She correctly used the word RIDICULOUS.

It’s one of the 30 million words that kids need to hear and use before entering school to prove successful over their lifetimes.  “How parents interact with their children is of great consequence,” according to this Rice University study.  Whenever John or I are being particularly verbose, or use a word not commonly heard, we are fond of saying, “That’s one of the 30 million words” reminding ourselves of what we are positively exposing our children.  Check out the study!  Update your vocabulary lists, Home Schoolers!  Raise the level of discourse!

Enjoy the weather, keep warm, and keep talking to your kids!


What words have your children surprised you with?  Thoughts on the 30 Million Words Gap of the Rice University study?  I would love to hear from you.  Leave a comment below.  Let’s keep the conversation going!



Reflections on My Father, A. Taylor Clapp

The following was read by myself at the Memorial Service for my father, A. Taylor Clapp, at the Spencerville Adventist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland on September 29, 2013.  For my six excellent ways to write and deliver a eulogy, check out my post: How to Write and Deliver a Eulogy that will Knock ‘Em Dead.


Reflections on My Father: A Eulogy.

Reflections on My Father: A Eulogy.

My father was born, and almost 61 years later he died. Between those bookends are a collection of stories we will remember as his life. Between those certain, unbudging dates he navigated through the uncharted waters we all wade through on our own journeys. How fortunate we all are to have crossed paths with Taylor, or even traveled along side him for awhile.

Perhaps some of you know that Taylor had eidetic memory, which is a gift that allowed him to remember everything in full color detail, and to replay whole events from his past in his mind as vividly as when he first experienced them. He often spoke of his memory as a curse — what a burden, he’d say, to carry everything with you all the time — to never forget the good, but also the bad.

Today is our day to remember him, in vivid color, to recall all the details, the nuiances that, like a fingerprint, made his life unique.

Taylor was born into a family, who on his father’s side, stretches back 13 generations to our ancestor Captain Roger Clapp who arrived in what is now Massachusetts nine years prior to the Mayflower. His mother, in contrast, is a first generation American, born of Polish and Russian immigrants who, we found out only a few years ago, never legally gained citizenship, but worked very hard and were proud Americans none-the-less. Taylor lived with this dual legacy — the certainty and history of an old family line, and the direct connection back to Europe. He remembers sitting on his Grandmother’s lap, while she told him stories, thick-accented, of “dee owld county.”

If you ask his mother, Franna, she will tell you that on Christmas Day, 1952, she was quietly but painfully in labor all day as she and Allen entertained holiday guests. That night, they drove from their house on Riggs Road to Washington Adventist Hospital and on the 26th Allen Taylor Clapp Jr. was born.

Within a couple of years, the threesome moved to a house on the Severn River, which feeds into the Chesapeake Bay. He could sail as soon as he could walk. The boat he remembers best was the Alfranta, an amalgamation of Allen, Franna, and Taylor. He loved the water, and it called to him. In recent years, he enjoyed the occasional yacht cruise down the South River out of Annapolis, or simply a meal in a restaurant overlooking the harbor.

Taylor attended public school in Anne Arundel County, and then for 7th grade, Al and Franna thought is was important for Taylor to attend Adventist school. So during the week he lived with his grandmother Clintie and his mathematician aunt Dee, whom he adored, on Elm Avenue in Takoma Park so he could attend John Neven Andrews School.

Taylor had no siblings, and no cousins. He said to us once that at family gatherings he was hovered over and doted on profusely. As an introvert he appreciated escaping the masses and making his own fun. He developed a voracious appetite for reading, enjoyed building small electronics, and tinkering with chemistry.

There is one story I know staring my Dad and a certain young Gary Schewell that features the two of them wiring a toilet seat to deliver a shock when sat upon by presumably Gary’s grandmother. As I understand it, she was more impressed than upset, but maybe we should ask Gary about that later.

Adeolescent Taylor, known to his school friends as Tayl or Flick, continued his education at Takoma Academy, where he became close to a few, friends with many, and liked by all, with his quiet, thoughtful demeanor, often seen with his camera and photography equipment.

Over the years, thanks to online social networking, he reconnected with many of you here today that he met during those formative TA years.

With no siblings nor cousins, Dad was free to construct his own ragtag crew of a peer group. I imagine my father, a kind of Peter Pan, at the center of a pack of lost boys, roving Rock Creek Park, reenacting scenes from Lord of the Rings, and hoping beyond hope for a date Saturday nights.

When Taylor was 16, Franna and Al bought a Royal Berry Wills-designed house in Hillandale. With his Dad, Al, he helped construct a small barn, a harpsichord, a greenhouse that to this day houses hundreds of exotic orchids, and his very own darkroom in the basement for his photography.

In 1970 he graduated from Takoma Academy and that fall began work towards an associate degree in electrical engineering which he completed in two years before attending Collumbia Union College. While there, he enjoyed writing and taking photos for the college newspaper and working for Stewart Bainum. After two years at CUC, Taylor graduated as a Bachelor of Science, having studied business administration. This, his father told him, would unlock many doors to him. Though, I suspect my Dad would have prefered using a lockpick on an actual lock rather than the perverbial one that formal education was supposedly going to open.

Dad always learned best by teaching himself. In 1980 when he began working at the Psyciatric Institute of America, which later became National Medical Enterprises, he helped create computer networks and data systems the so-called experts deemed impossbile. He always thought beyond the problem in front of him.

During our discussions over the past few years, I began to understand how my Dad visualized the evolution of technology from the lever and wheel straight through the 20th century industrial boom and into the age of information today. He was capable of following this trajectory into the future as we discussed predictions for space travel, medicine, and weapons development and the ever-changing political and economic landscape within which these technologies would burgeon or fizzle.

I have always been fascinated by the eclectic pack of people my Dad ran with. Be it at PIA, NME, Chestnut Lodge, Genetics and IVF Institute or more recently at Compania, he developed strong personal and professional relationships with lots of different kinds of people, with a wide variety of technical backgrounds and skills. He had a brilliant way of empathlising with you and unlocking what it was you cared for or knew the most about. Chances are, he knew something about your passion and the communion of common thought began, and a friendship sparked.

And now we get to the part about Arla, his best girl, as he refered to her affectionately on Facebook.

Taylor and Arla met on a blind date set up by a mutual friend after Taylor’s initial plans for the weekend fell through. They went to the Kennedy Center to experience Bach’s Mass in B minor. A high bar to set for date number one, if you ask me. But music was always something that brought my parents together. A shared passion.

So much so, that Taylor asked Arla if she would like a harpsichord of her very own. As a proficient organist and pianist, she enthusiastically said, “Yes!” “Well I don’t have one, Taylor said. “But I can make one for you.” So they cleared out a space in Franna and Al’s basement and got to work building the instrument together.

Over the following weeks, the two worked whilst discussing a range of topics, getting to know each other better. Until one day, Taylor confessed that if he were to propose marriage to a girl, he always wanted to do it in front of a monument or public statue — you know, some place important so that years later they could drive by with the grandkids and say, “That’s were Pop Pop proposed to Grandma.”

I think my mom said something like, “That sounds like a nice idea.” And they tromped up the stairs to the living room where Al lowered his newspaper to ask if they had hit a snag with the harpsichord. My Dad, in plain-spoken TC-fashion, said, “Well, Arla and I are getting married.” Franna hit the ceiling with excitement.

This, of course, was news to my mom who thought at the very least she’d have a car ride to the Washington Monument, or whereever, to gather her wits.

They were married in Mom’s home church in Carmichael, California in March of 1980.

They never made it to a famous place for a proper proposal, but almost exactly 30 years later, when my then boyfriend Johnathon flew me to Berlin and proposed as the snow was softly falling by the Brandenberg Gate, my Dad told me he knew Johnathon was a good guy because he had done it right — the way he had always wanted to propose to Arla, but was too excited at the prospect of marrying his best girl to get any further than his parent’s living room.

That living room has seen a lot over the years. Christmases, birthdays, Christmas-slash-birthdays. (My Dad always felt cheated in the gift-department having been born on December 26.) That living room even hosted a wedding — Franna to her old flame Gordon Laing in a small ceremony where my sister and I stood as bridesmaids and Taylor walked his mother down the aisle.

In May of 1984, I was born, and in February of 1988 my sister Elizabeth came along. We share fond memories of trips to the park, museums, watching This Old House on Saturday nights, grits and saucettes for breakfast on Sunday mornings while Mom was working playing the organ. We remember pinball marathons in the basement, watching as he carefully measured and cut wood in his workshop for this or that project. We remember Star Trek and Orson Wells radio dramas and VHS tapes of the moon landings. We remember listening to him riff on the piano when he came home from the office, working out from memory songs he heard on the radio during that morning’s commute. Elizabeth remembers dancing — spinning and spinning herself dizzy as Dad played tunes from the Moody Blues, The Beatles, The Who, Brahams, and British hymns alike. Dad coined her nickname, Dizzy Lizzy, perhaps because of moments like these. I remember my Dad teaching me to drive stick shift, and helping Lizzy move to Austin last year, and I remember seeing him hold his granddaughters for the first time.

He was always up for a project, working with Mom on the design and making things in his basement workshop, using their half-finished harpsichord as a workbench. In case you were wondering, it’s still there, the carcas of a harpsichord, in my Mom’s basement, waiting to be finished. There’s nothing Taylor liked more than starting a project.

Taylor was a maker and enjoyed constructing elaborate Halloween costumes including a butterfly, a shower, dresser with drawers, and a traffic light complete with wiring allowing the wearer to change the lights from green to yellow to red.

The piece I am proud to say will remain in the family for generations to come is a rocking lion, patterned after an FAO Schwartz version he studied on his lunch hour. He even called his aunt Dee to get a refresher on the quadradic equation to get the curve of the neck just right. Lizzy and I loved to rock on that lion, and now Taylor’s grandchildren, Beatrice who turned two yesterday, and little Penelope, will be able to enjoy Pop Pop’s rocking lion, too.

On Taylor’s Facebook page he posted photographs of his latest projects made with a Carvewright, computer-driven wood-carving machine. You can see his attention to detail and love of the materials. There was nothing more exciting at the start of a project than an untouched board of cherry wood or black walnut.

He had slowed his pace in the last few years, opting instead to channel his creativity once again into his writing, mostly in the form of pithy Facebook messages and email correspondance with old friends. It was through this network that my sister and I were able to reach out and inform the world of his health. And you all answered back, allowing him to be surrounded by words of love and comfort in his final hours. I thank you all now again for that wonderful gift.

I am thankful also for the technology that allowed my parents to communicate a world away as his kidneys were failing and Arla was in Indonesia. My Mom and I were Skyping, in fact, when my phone buzzed and it was Dad’s doctor telling us he had passed away. We were together despite the 12 hour time difference.

Dad often began statements with the phrase, “When my ship comes in.” He used this to describe some wish or looked-forward-to event, usually requiring extra time or money.

“When my ship comes in we will start this or that project.” “When my ship comes in we will go on that trip or do that thing we have been meaning to do.”

Dad, I hope you know that your ship has been here all along, moored fast to the dock where you stand searching for it, but so massive and vast is its hull that though you stand beside it you never noticed it at all.

Dad, your ship has come in, and it leaves port with you now, destined for a beautiful place, sailing swift and sure through the waters with a seasoned navigator at the helm.

May you rest now, soothed by the rocking of this great boat. Sail on, Dad.

And what is the destination? To quote Captain James T. Kirk at the end of Star Trek VI, the Undiscovered Country: “Second star to the right, and straight on ’til morning.”


Thanks for reading!  This is a very personal piece of writing, for obvious reasons, but one I am proud to share, as I did for my father’s memorial service.  For six excellent ways to begin a eulogy for your loved one, check out my post How to Write and Deliver a Eulogy that will Knock ‘Em Dead.  Leave a comment!  I would love to hear from you!


The Telltale Heart: A Valentine’s Day Lesson for Both of Us

Learning to Love the Perfect Imperfections of Toddler Art

Learning to Love the Perfect Imperfections of Toddler Art

Today B (2 and a half-ish) and I began making Valentines for close friends and family. I LOVE making Valentines–really any handmade, post-bound object–and I had everything planned out. I had beautiful
paper, stickers, glitter, potatoes and paint for making stamps. B has been practicing signing her first initial. My imagination (and Pinterest board) have been running wild with cute toddler-made pink
and red cards for months. We were ready.

Until my toddler made something I never expected.

The lesson for her: The plan was to work on them over several weeks, in stages, with each part aimed at a different skill I want B to work on. There’s shape and letter recognition, writing her first initial, stamping with rubber stamps and Mommy-carved potato stamps, following directions, and how the postal system works, not to mention the gift giving itself. I had a comprehensive activity and we were ready to get it done. Step One: using paint, stamp with the two-heart potato in the upper right hand corner of the envelope. Here we go.

B was excited, her little hand gripped around the freshly cut potato, as she swirled it thoughtfully in the light pink paint. I appreciated the seriousness, her devoted concentration, her little tongue at the corner of pursed lips as she delicately, so delicately positioned the stamp over the paper. I smile inside because I know I am in the presence of the next Frida Kahlo, and then PLOP! SMEAR! And what I envisioned being a precisely-painted Valentine heart turns into a pink puddle on soggy paper. “Mommy, Mommy, I did it!”

And here’s the lesson for me: She DID do it. She did exactly what I said. With the materials I provided. And my first thought was that it was terrible.

Expectations... and Reality.

Expectations… and Reality.

Okay, that’s harsh. Let me be more specific. It was aesthetically displeasing. It was a mess. It was not the cute little pink duo of hearts I expected.

And yet, as B climbs down from her chair to read a dinosaur book in victory, I look over the matrix of pink envelopes, each with their own mush mark in the corner, and I can’t help but smile. Each one is perfectly executed, to the best of her ability. She had a great time doing it. The recipients will cherish them.

So I let go of my adult preconceptions, my impulse to start over, or add something more so people know what it’s SUPPOSED to be. Because what it’s supposed to be is evidence of a moment well-spent, a good try, and a skill in process.

I’m sure next year’s Valentine’s will be “prettier” and “neater” and “more artistic.” But these are perfect for who B is and where she is at this moment, now. And I heart them.

How to Write and Deliver a Eulogy that will Knock ‘Em Dead


It is a privilege and a burden to bear the responsibility of delivering a public address celebrating the life of a loved one.  I recently wrote and delivered my father’s eulogy, and though I have both writing and performing experience, I found the task heavy and difficult to approach.

After several drafts over almost three months (yes, my Dad was still living when I began—read on!), I arrived at a text I was pleased and proud to present at my father’s funeral.  After speaking, I sat down with no regrets about what I had done or said.  I remained confident and poised despite the stress of the experience.  I received many compliments at the reception, and to this day friends remind me of how well I shared my father’s life.

Here’s how I did it.   You can do it, too.

 It seems morbid, but the sooner you begin putting thoughts to paper, even just bullet points, the task will become manageable.  My Dad was hospitalized in June, and though at that point he recovered and returned home, I had a gut feeling he may not be long for this world.   So I began writing and I am so glad I did.  He passed away three months later in September.  Writing a eulogy is an emotionally charged task.  If written hastily under duress, you may miss important details, dwell on something that is actually less important, or forget significant moments all together.  However, if the death of your loved one was sudden, you may not have the luxury of time.  Don’t worry, keep reading.  You can still do a great job.

Write anecdotes, stories, funny memories, and any details immediately as you think of them.  Have paper by your bedside and in the car.  Dedicate a notes page on your phone (or a draft on your blog!) to anything you know you want included in the eulogy.  When you are staring at the blank page or computer screen, have this comprehensive list with you.  This way, it feels less like writing and more like just putting a structure to your notes.  Use highlighters or post-its to organize like-topics, like Work, Family, Humorous Moments, etc.  You will begin to see a flow, and begin to make choices about what should come first, or what story you want to end on.  It is likely that you will use only a percentage of these notes, but you will quickly notice what subjects need more material, and you will be able to get over the writers’ hump of beginning.

  Unless you’re Tom Sawyer, you’re only eulogized once.  It is a unique opportunity, as the eulogizer, to meet and reconnect with old family friends, co-workers, and distant relations.  After all, your subject is deceased–this speech is for the living.  Unless your loved-one was unusually private, every anecdote or story you tell will already be familiar to someone in your audience.  As you write each section, think about what details are important not only to you, but to the people in the audience who will remember “that time we all met there” or “the day when…”  Don’t be afraid to contact people to get their version of events.  As you write, pretend you are speaking directly to those people who will emotionally connect to those memories.  It will make the story more personal, and others in the audience hearing the story for the first time will feel a personal connection, too.

 As a general writing rule, cliches are to be avoided.  There are scads of overused phrases associated with eulogies that can put your audience to sleep.  I challenge you to skip canned sap, like “our dearly departed,” and “he’s in a better place now.”  Think of something better, OR use the lull-inducing language to your advantage.  I chose to begin my Dad’s eulogy with “My father was born.”  This is an expected beginning for the kind of laundry list, resume-type eulogy we have all heard before.  But I chose to turn it on its heel, setting the tone at the start of the speech that this was going to be something different.  This is how the first two sentences of my father’s eulogy read: “My father was born.  And almost 61 years later he died.”  Draw them in with something familiar, then hit them with a twist.  Keep your audience on the edge of their seats. (Cliche intended.)

 First, prepare your text for public reading.  Here’s the best way:

> Format the speech with one paragraph per page, so your pauses to turn the page coincide with the end of a thought.  Built-in, fool-proof dramatic pause.

> Forget grammar rules–Add extra punctuation.  Does it sound better splitting those clauses with a period for effect?  Go ahead.  Start that sentence with “Because” if it makes your speech read the way you want it.

> Make the font HUGE.  I printed mine double spaced with 18-point Times New Roman because I could see it at a glance while standing up straight at the lectern.

> Also, number the pages.  Seems like a “duh” tip, but numbering keeps everything in order so you don’t have your great-aunt Millie getting married AFTER she died in that terrible train wreck.

Once you have your text, read it aloud.  Then READ IT AGAIN.  And again.  And again.  Become super familiar with it.  This is good advice for any public presentation.  But in the case of delivering a eulogy, the repetition will allow you to become emotional BEFORE reading it to the crowd.  Practice reading the words without tearing up.  This is more difficult than you think.  You never know when grief will hit you, but you don’t want it to paralyze you to where you can’t even finish the words you carefully wrote.   You cannot over rehearse.  Trust me.

 You have chosen beautiful words.  You have formatted your text and prepared well, even if only over a few days.  Know that you will do your best, then let it go.  Let expectation and worry and guilt and WHATEVER STANDS IN YOUR WAY go take a hike.  Honor your loved-one.  Stay in the moment, trust the work, and you will do fine.  Cheers to a life lived, and a eulogy well-delivered!


I hope this guide is helpful to anyone preparing for this difficult responsibility.  My sincere condolences to you now, or in the future–whenever the task is before you.  What public speaking and speech writing ideas do you have to add?  Please leave a comment below!  I would love to hear from you!


Rock, Make-up, Scissors: Allowing Exploration of the Sometimes-Bazaar


“Wok, Mommy! Here ‘go!” says my daughter B as she hands me a beautifully smooth tan rock from the front landscaping of our house. This is, and I’m not exaggerating here, the fiftieth or so toddler-fist-sized rock that has been relocated from the front stoop to the toy bins.  My husband John even cautioned that we will have to trek out to Home Depot to get more if her obsession with stones doesn’t cease.

What does she do with them? Her collections defy Machu Pichu with their mystery. She stacks them.  Lines them up by size. Piles them by color. Sorts them by texture. And then what does she do? She decorates them with a layer of make up so thick it would make a drag queen blush.

She prefers an old purple and pink palate, gifted by Mommy, and a purple brush, to oh-so-gingerly apply healthy amounts of rouge to each defenseless rock. It is difficult to appreciate the subtly of her work, but I know it is important work, none-the less. B is so proud to show off her accomplishments.

And as her parents, we are proud to receive them.

I wonder, as I gaze at her creations, what skills this self-directed activity will garner for her later in life.  Besides the obvious shape/color/texture sorting (pattern recognition) and the painting itself (fine motor skills) there are greater lessons here that are more difficult to quantify.

Perhaps these are baby steps toward a career as an artist, and she will paint great masterpieces for an adoring public. Or maybe she will study to be an archaeologist, spending hot summers brushing away thousands of years of dust to reveal fossilized skeletons of great beasts. Perhaps landscape architecture is in her future, arranging boulders in pleasing patterns to define manicured outdoor spaces.

Or maybe none of these. Maybe she will do something I cannot currently fathom because gazing at her now, wandering our yard in search of more pebbles, all I can do is marvel at her innate curiosity.

And I realize, even at the tender age of two and a quarter, that the most important skill my child has mastered is the ability to explore. With this fundamental tool, B can do and be anything she wishes. It is an immeasurable, un-assessable, yet essential part of education. It is the core of our curriculum.

For now, though to an outsider it may look like an unimportant task, the collection of rocks will surely continue to grow, and there will certainly be more makeup “ruined”. She’s working on something important. And something very special, indeed.

Why there is a TARDIS on top of our Christmas Tree

"Have a time-y wime-y's the best part of the year..."

“Have a time-y wime-y Christmas…it’s the best part of the year…”

This is my husband’s third Christmas.  Ever.  Let me explain.

Growing up, John did not celebrate any holidays, including his birthday, because he was raised a Jehovah’s Witness.  (If you are not familiar with this group, other than the proselytizing, door-to-door part of their public presence, check out the official Jehovah’s Witnesses page at wikipedia.  OR for an outside-having-been-inside viewpoint, explore  Before we met, he left that church-like, religion-ish cult.  Thank God.  But some of the mental patterning remained, and so he had never celebrated Christmas.

Our first Christmas married, 2010, we had no tree.  Our second Christmas, I put up a wreath crammed with ornaments from my childhood.  By early December 2012, I suggested we drag the fake one out of the shed, left there by the previous owner, and maybe just use the top section in a centerpiece.  Sweetly, John said, “If you really want a tree we should just get a real one.”

Squee!  I had married my wonderful husband with ne’er a hope for my very own, real live, gin-scented Christmas tree.  And here it only took two years for him to come around!  Having cleared that hurdle, we began negotiating, you know, the IMPORTANT stuff, like, white lights or multicolored?  Garlands or bows?  Angel or star topper?

Here’s where we get a bit technical about the Christmas story.  As a JW, John grew up believing that the star that led the wise men to Jesus was created and sent by The Devil.  Yes, you read that correctly.  It must have been, you see, says the Watchtower, because the star signaled the baby Messiah’s location.  Basically, the star was an evil GPS tracker for King Herod, who tried to kill baby Jesus.  Therefore, the star of Bethlehem, a symbol of Christmas peace pasted on greeting cards, adorning evergreens everywhere, is a bad thing.

All to say, John was kind of against putting the symbol he once believed was evil on top of our tree.

Instead, cheekily, he chose an action figure of Onslaught, a lesser-known Marvel character from the 1990’s, to don the top of our first marital Christmas tree.  Special.

Onslaught - Our 2012 Tree Topper

Onslaught – Our 2012 Tree Topper

No really, it was VERY special.  It reflected both his interests and my interest in making him happy so I could have the tree in the first place.  And because the Christmas ritual is fueled by unique traditions, we decided, arms around each other, smiling, gazing up at the magenta and purple-clad Onslaught action figure, that we must never have anything expected on top of our tree.

So what to crown our amazing tree with this year?  Why, a timey-wimey, bigger on the inside, beautiful blue box, of course!  Nothing says “Bow ties [and Christmas] are cool!” better than our very own TARDIS flying in, reminding us to be ready for anything.  Because the unexpected is always around the corner.  Be it a timelord, or THE Lord, arriving as a baby in a manger, at just the right time, to save us from a broken, sinful world.

Did I just compare Dr. Who to Jesus Christ?

Why, yes, Allison, yes you did.

So that is why we have a TARDIS on top of our tree.  I wonder what will dress the top of our tree next year…


What Christmas or other holiday traditions are off-beat at your house this time of year?  Leave a comment!  Would love to hear from you!  Hope your holidays are full of wonderful surprises.

Merry Christmas,