The enduring appeal of Lyle

The hardcover picture book is yellowed with age. Its corners are ragged and worn. It has survived endless cycles of packing, moving, unpacking — always managing to survive the sorting and purging process that accompanies such transitions.

I don’t remember when I received my copy of The House on East 88th Street. I don’t remember who gave it to me, or why that person chose this particular book. I don’t know if it was a Christmas gift or a birthday gift. It may just be that it was “the” new children’s book that year and someone wanted me to have it.

The story, written by Bernard Waber, was copyrighted in 1962. I would have been 6 years old, and newly enamored of the privilege of owning a book. I proudly printed my first name on the inside cover with a pencil — slow, careful, blocky letters reflecting my earnest desire to get it right.

I loved that book. I’m not sure why. It’s kind of a goofy story about a family that moves into a house in New York City and finds a crocodile in the bathtub of their new home.

I didn’t visit New York City until I was 25. I don’t particularly like crocodiles. Yet the story got under my skin and stayed there.

Earlier this month, I had an opportunity to revisit the story in the company of two young children I borrow from friends when I’m missing little-kid time. The renowned Childsplay professional theater company is performing a holiday version of “Lyle the Crocodile” at Tempe Center for the Arts through Dec. 24.

The characters of Lyle ( Adam Hostler) and Joshua Primm (Colin Ross) made an appearance at "Lyle's Pajama Party," which preceded the Dec 3 production of Childsplay's "Lyle the Crocodile" at Tempe Center for the Arts. The play continues through Dec. 24.

As the curtain rose on a scene of the street outside the recreated brownstone house, my 4-year-old companion cried out, “How did they get that building up there?” His sense of awe continued throughout most of the performance (except for a brief bit of time at the end of Act I when he drifted off to sleep, worn out from “Lyle’s Pajama Party,” which we attended earlier that afternoon). His 5-year-old sister sat on the edge of her seat during both acts, glancing at me periodically to share a wide-eyed smile.

The musical is enchanting, particularly a scene that recreates the ice skating rink at Rockefeller Center. The character of Lyle (played by Adam Hostler) doesn’t utter a word but communicates with great effectiveness through innocent, eager-to-please expressions and “many good tricks” he performs throughout the play. (Juggling, dancing and — most amazing to me — double-rope jump-roping while carrying a crocodile tail!)

It wasn’t until the end of the play that it suddenly occurred to me why I’ve always loved this story. My family moved a lot when I was growing up. Like Joshua Primm in the story, my brothers and I faced many anxious transitions into new cities, new schools, new friendships.

Like Lyle, I chose a strategy of frantic performance to prove my worth in each new community. I wasn’t as talented as he is but I made up for it with hard work, good grades, dutiful behavior and a conscientious attempt to read the landscape and react in ways I hoped would help me gain acceptance.

For today’s generation of children, there is a strong but subtle message in “Lyle the Crocodile” about accepting each others’ differences — and not making judgments until you really know someone. For today’s generation of parents (and grandparents!) there is nostalgia, clever dialog, inspired choreography, uplifting music and the chance to experience the magic of Christmas in New York City.

In our PJs at "Lyle's Pajama Party" earlier this month with my young companions. Photo and accessories provided by Childsplay.

Shopping for the lost angels

Toys for the Lost Angel program. Photo courtesy of 3TV.

I don’t enjoy shopping. But I never felt more like going shopping than one night last December, when I realized how many children who were part of the Arizona’s Family Christmas Angel Program were going to end up with items that were not even close to what they’d requested on their wish lists.

I hadn’t gone shopping for an Angel that year. In fact, I hadn’t done it in a lot of years. Not since my sons were still home to do it with me. They are 26 and 24, so that’s obviously been awhile.

But last year, I found myself in The Salvation Army warehouse on East Washington in Phoenix. My husband does some legal work for 3TV, and he is invited each year to help sort through toys, bags, labels and shelves so that everything is ready when grateful parents, all living below the poverty level, drive up to the warehouse to pick up the only Christmas gifts their children will receive.

Our task that evening was to do the best we could to fulfill the wishes of the Lost Angels — children whose wish lists were taken by supposed do-gooders who apparently found better things to do with their time and never came back with the requested list of toys.

Thankfully, there are patrons of the the lost angels who donate mounds of toys and gifts, never knowing which child will get them or what will become of their generosity. Last year, The Salvation Army received hundreds of basketballs, board games and sets of jewelry and lotion that went to children who at least got something for Christmas.

The deadline for making Lost Angel donations is this Friday, Dec. 9. If you want to help, here are your options:

Bring a new, unwrapped toy or monetary donation to Today’s Patio. (If you do, you’ll receive an additional 10 percent off your entire purchase.)

Donate new toys at any Phoenix Fire station.

Join 3TV’s Yetta Gibson and Royal Norman from 7am to 6:30pm Friday at Chandler Fashion Center, near Kona Grill.

Since its inception in 1986, the Christmas Angel program has donated more than one million toys to 500,000 underprivileged children. And each year, 3TV and The Salvation Army make a commitment to ensure that every child represented by a Christmas Angel tag will have a gift. It may not be what they asked for, but it will be something.

So I plan to go shopping. For a Christmas Angel, and for a Lost Angel, too.

Learn more about the Christmas Angel program, which continues through Dec. 23, in the RAK Community blog.

Happy times and high stakes

Musse and Jesmina deGuzman blow on kazoos during the pajama parade at "Lyle's Pajama Party," held before Childsplay's Sunday afternoon performance of "Lyle the Crocodile" at Tempe Center for the Arts.

Warm flannel pajamas and cozy slippers on a brisk December afternoon. Pizza and pretzels, cookies and lemonade. Face painters, costumed characters, crafts. The giddy abandon of parading around a place more typically associated with culture and refinement while blowing on kazoos.

A play based on a favorite childhood book. A cast of characters clearly devoted to the excellence of their craft. And the company of two young children who have become very dear to me in the two and a half years I have known their family.

A few blocks away, a group of graduate design students near the end of a semester-long project. As I sit with two wide-eyed children in a darkened theater at Tempe Center for the Arts, these students prepare for a performance of their own. Their final review is Tuesday and the stakes are high. Not just for them, though this project will likely be part of any future career-related discussions and job interviews. More pressing than that are thoughts of a trusting, grateful  community in a remote Ethiopian village where a lot of people are counting on them.

Their task: designing a campus where 2,500 children — some who walk to school each day from up to 10 kilometers away — will be educated. The process has been exhilarating, agonizing, exhausting. The hard work and long hours have been full of frustrating uncertainty, conflicting opinions and the challenges of team dynamics. The determination to persist came from a place of higher accountability than grades or degrees. Unlike most graduate-level design studios, where final plans remain theoretical, these plans will be used to build a school.

A school that the parents of my two young theater companions have pledged to build.

Phoenix architect Jack DeBartolo 3 AIA, an adjunct professor at The Design School at ASU's Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, leads a discussion with graduate architecture students at EthiopiaStudio 2.0.

An operose project

I am a longtime subscriber to Dictionary.com’s Word of the Day. This was the definition that popped into my in-box yesterday morning:

operose \OP-uh-rohs\, adjective:

1. Done with or involving much labor.
2. Industrious, as a person.

It’s not a commonly used word. In my 30-plus years as an editor I’ve never run across it. The contextual examples Dictionary.com provided were from writers of a different era: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Though not the final version of our 2012 cover, here's an idea of what it will look like. The book will be mailed to subscribers in January.

But the arrival of this word into my consciousness couldn’t have been more timely. My tiny team wrapped up production on our annual Schools, etc. education guide at nearly 10pm the night before (after several “near 10pm” days at the office last week). We were almost too exhausted to be happy that it was done.

For Calendar & Directories Editor Mala Blomquist, this marathon of a project has consumed most of her attention (and many of her weekends) since early October. She is one of the most industrious (diligent, hard-working) people I know, especially when it comes to this project. She is dogged (having or showing tenacity and grim persistence) in her pursuit of data. She is meticulous (showing great attention to detail; very careful and precise) about factchecking the information and crosschecking it every way she can.

For her, it is a project “involving much labor.” And truly a labor of love.

Now we are 2

A Sesame Street-theme cake for Tesfanesh and Solomon, now 2.

Tesfanesh and Solomon deGuzman — the children I first met as babies in Ethiopia — are 2 years old. They shared a birthday party Saturday with their older brother Musse (who turns 4 this week) at McCormick Stillman Railroad Park in Scottsdale. Big sister Jesmina (yet another November birthday!) enjoyed her party at a different location the night before.

Musse's party included a Captain America cake and an actual Captain America character.

The train park was filled with families celebrating birthdays Saturday. Balloons were tied to nearly every picnic table; all the ramadas were full. Gifts and pizza and cake covered every surface. Children ran in and out of giant inflatables rented for the occasion. The miniature train ran around its track nonstop, its horn tooting a friendly warning as it reached pedestrian pathways. The passengers’ smiling faces and waving hands added a sense of shared community to the festivities.

It was a day of milestones; none more remarkable to me than the fact that this was the very park in which I first met the deGuzman family more than 2½ years ago. The place where I first started learning about the arduous process of international adoption. The place where I shared a secret yearning to see Africa and Keri deGuzman said, “Come with us!” The place where a story began and a friendship was formed — both of which have changed my life in ways I could never have predicted and continue to discover.

The babies (they will always be “the babies” to me) are happy and thriving. I don’t see them as often as I’d like, but when I do, I thrill to their ready acceptance and recognition. It’s as though they know we are linked in some inextricable way, simply because I was in the room during those first few magical moments they spent in their parents’ arms. The day they became part of a family.

Jesmina had a cowgirl/boy-theme party Friday at Pump It Up in Scottsdale.

Brian and Keri deGuzman have a way of building family around them. With their own closest relatives living in far-flung parts of the U.S. (and abroad), they have created a family around them in Arizona. As four birthdays were celebrated in less than 24 hours, there were smiles and hugs among those of us who have found ourselves pulled into this loving and welcoming circle.

Even in the midst of this joyful flurry of activities, I could see that Keri had other children on her mind. She and Brian remain very much involved in projects to benefit the children in Ethiopia who will never ride a miniature train, never receive a pile of brightly wrapped packages, never taste a birthday cake and never know the security of a true family.

As the party was ending, I heard Keri talking with another mother who expressed interest in helping with fundraising efforts for the construction of Shebraber School in a remote village southwest of Addis Ababa. As they talked, I could picture the graduate architecture students who are part of EthiopiaStudio 2.0 at The Design School at Arizona State University  who were no doubt working that very moment on plans for the school, which Brian and Keri have pledged to build.

The students, under the guidance of Phoenix architect and ASU adjunct professor Jack DeBartolo 3, AIA, are giving a presentation Wednesday — a trial run, of sorts, for their final presentation in December. Like me, they took a chance, followed a yearning and found themselves drawn into a new level of awareness from which they will never return.

RELATED WRITING

Other blog posts about Ethiopia and the deGuzmans’ adoption story.

Sharing an Extraordinary Experience (Raising Arizona Kids magazine, December 2010)

An Ethiopia Adoption Story (Raising Arizona Kids magazine, December 2010)

Changing by Design (PHOENIX magazine, August 2011)

Puss In Boots makes a surprise visit

One of our colleagues at Allied Integrated Marketing in Scottsdale emailed an unusual request.

“Can Puss In Boots stop by the RAK office?” she wrote.

Um, well…

“Sure!” I responded. And then my heart sank. We’re pretty boring at our office. We make phone calls and stare at computer screens. It can be pretty quiet for long stretches of time. What in the world could we do to welcome a furry feline who is starring in his own animated film?

And then I remembered our neighbors at Cortney’s Place. Maybe they would enjoy a visit from Puss In Boots!

We share a wall with Cortney’s Place, which  provides educational and enrichment opportunities for physically and mentally challenged individuals who have aged out of the public school system.

The staff at Cortney’s Place thought it was a great idea. “Our students have been wanting to go see the movie when it comes out!” I was told. But they decided to keep it a surprise until the moment Puss In Boots showed up.

I’ll let Dan Friedman’s wonderful photos tell the rest of the story. But before I go, I want to put in a plug.

Cortney’s Place is planning to expand so it can accommodate more than 50 students. The organization relies on donations to meet this growing need and there is a golf tournament and dinner on Monday, Nov. 7 to raise funds. Find registration information here.

Adventures with the older deGuzman kids

Jesmina (4) and Musse (3).

I knew I’d finally won him over when we were singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” in the car. We were taking turns filling in the blanks:

And on that farm he had a….

We’d run through the standard cow, horse, pig, chicken, duck, dog, cat. It was Musse’s turn to pick.

And on that farm he had a….

“Karen!” he shouted, then erupted into gleeful giggles, unaware that his moment of inspiration had me almost in tears.

I was midway through my Saturday adventure with the two older deGuzman kids — 4-year-old Jesmina and 3-year-old Musse — and I finally knew I’d been accepted by the always affectionate but sometimes reticent Musse. This moment was huge.

Jesmina, Brian, Musse and Keri deGuzman at McCormick Stillman Railroad Park in March 2009.

I first met Jesmina and Musse on the playground at McCormick Stillman Railroad Park in the spring of 2009, when they posed with their mom and dad for a photo that appeared in our May 2009 magazine. That morning changed my life forever. As the kids played in the sand with their dad, cardiothoracic surgeon Brian deGuzman, I talked with their mom, Keri, a former pediatric intensive care nurse, who shared the story of how these two Ethiopia-born children had come to be part of their family. Keri told me she and Brian had applied to adopt two more children from Ethiopia, a largely impoverished country on horn of Africa, where millions of children are orphans.

Before we left the park that day, Keri invited me to join them when they traveled to Ethiopia to bring home the two babies. Sixteen months later, in July 2010, I met the two youngest deGuzman children for the first time in a foster home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It was a deeply moving experience that left me feeling forever bonded to two beautiful babies who are now rambunctious toddlers, brimming with energy, personality and smiles.

In the 15 months since we all returned to Phoenix, I have visited the babies periodically, always interested in their growth and development, unwilling to sever my connection to their extraordinary family. Because my visits typically happened in the morning, on my way to work, I’d often miss Jesmina and Musse, who were off at school. As honorary “auntie” (thanks to Keri’s generous insistence), I’d been looking for an opportunity to spend some time with them, too.

So on Saturday, I took Jesmina and Musse to see the Valley Youth Theatre production of “Dora’s Pirate Adventure.” When I arrived to pick them up, Jesmina greeted me with excitement, a warm hug and a picture she’d drawn to thank me.

I love how Jesmina drew my hair -- and all of me, actually -- in yellow. I've always associated yellow with sunshine and happiness.

Musse was in double character as both Superman and a pirate. He wore the pirate hat throughout our five hours together, which included the (very cute and enjoyable) play, a pizza lunch, a long walk at the mall and, just before we headed home, a frozen yogurt treat.

At one point in “Dora’s Pirate Adventure,” Dora and gang encounter a character called The Singing Bridge, who is struggling to remember the correct words to “Old MacDonald.”

For me, that song will now forever be associated with two laughing children in the backseat of my car — and a tenuous connection made lasting and real in the joyful exuberance of a 3-year-old’s sense of humor.

Silly fun during our mall walk.