My Daughter the Tortoise: Green Prints, Fall 2010

Heard of Green Prints? It’s a fine little literary mag that’s aptly called “The Weeder’s Digest” because it contains nifty and touching stories about the true world of gardening.

I submitted a story to them about, oh, five, six years ago. They liked it, bought it and sent me a check. Now, in this fall’s issue…I finally see the story, “My Daughter, the Tortoise” appear in print. Well worth the wait!

Here is the story:

My Daughter the Tortoise

By Brenda Rees

We’ve babysat kids and took care of neighbor’s cats, but when Janna called one late September evening asking if we’d watch Rocky for a few weeks while she was out of town, there was no hesitation in response: Yes!

As a 19-year-old desert tortoise, Rocky had been a contender for our permanent backyard pet, but once my husband and I realized that such beasts live to well in their 100s…well…we just couldn’t make the commitment, no matter how darn cute they are – and desert tortoises are absolutely delightful, especially when they wag those chubby little tails.

Still, if we couldn’t be fulltime parents, we were more than happy to take care of Rocky as a part-time pet.

Before Rocky’s visit, I checked out a desert tortoise website and discovered, to my dismay, that many of the plants in our Los Angeles backyard were deemed poisonous to the reptiles – namely agapanthus and scheffleras. I mentioned this to Janna who nonchalantly replied, “Oh I don’t think he’ll be interested in them.”

Wellllll…okay…I just didn’t want to find a stiff Rocky one morning whilst watering the Mexican sage and buddleia. Still, Janna raised Rocky and six of his brothers legally from eggs. She was the source. She should know her clutch.

Upon his arrival, Rocky popped out of his carrying cage ready for exploration, taking off like a shot. He snooped under tomato plants, crunched through plectranthus, dug around the jades. He was in heaven. Janna said, “A new environment should stimulate him. Maybe it will make him smarter.”

We found a shady place for a water bowl and food plate. Where would Rocky sleep at nights? “He’ll find a spot,” reassured Janna. “He’ll make a burrow somewhere safe.”

Watching Rocky slowly and methodically troop about, I found myself grinning on the inside. It’s one thing to watch birds flitter back and forth from seed socks and birdfeeders, but a tortoise invokes mediation and reflection. Rocky forced me to slow down.

Still, I worried about those poisonous plants. Every morning once the sun warmed our Southern Californian grass, I rejoiced and gave a sigh of relief when I saw the shuddering fuchsias spew out one pleased-looking reptile. He certainly was being stimulated…you can tell by the twinkle in his beady – and I do mean beady — little eyes.

Topping it off, Rocky had the nail-biting habit of burrowing down among the agapanthus and scheffleras. There were many other locales for a perfectly fine burrow, still he choose the most toxic environment possible. Eeerk! Would one of the leaves tempt him? Maybe just a nibble? Just how deadly could they be??

In order to keep Rocky’s mind off those plants, I enticed him daily with some of a tortoise’s irresistible foods – rose petals and hibiscus. Walking my daughter from her new kindergarten, we would find bright red and yellow hibiscus blossoms to bring home. Katie squealed with delight when Rocky eagerly chomped the tasty buds from her hands.

Katie loved showing off Rocky to her friends. She liked picking him up and putting him behind the jade, letting him walk over her feet. He was a wonderful small living “dinosaur.”

While the home front was magical, the academic world was problematic. Katie was attending an inner-city kindergarten that served plenty of bright kids, but also kids with issues – kids from poor, broken homes.

I cringed sometimes as I walked by classrooms, observing some students struggling with internal demons, acting out and crying out for attention. With breakfasts of cookies and tortilla chips, these kids were literally spinning out of control. They spat at their teachers, punched smaller kids and walked out of classrooms for hours at a time.

Even though they were few, they were there.

Then, I had heard rumors that students in a neighboring kindergarten class were suspended for verbally harassing and threatening another kindergartener. Obscenities and violence. I felt as if the school was poison. It made me sick.

Still, when my husband and I approached Katie with the idea of switching schools, she burst into tears, announcing that she “loved her school! I love my friends! I love my teacher!” She wanted to stay.

I tossed and turned that night, wondering how to protect my daughter from the obscenities and violence of not only her school, but the world. It seemed as if she wanted to burrow right down there among the poison…

I sat up in bed.

Katie was Rocky. She loved the freedom of kindergarten, she relished in the joy of learning and despite the few bad influences around her, she was determined to thrive and survive, just as Rocky did in our backyard of what I mistakenly referred to as “poison.”

When Janna picked Rocky up later in the month, she was thrilled to see a confident, spunky tortoise. Hibernation was coming soon, so we’d have to wait until spring to once again open up our backyard tortoise sitting service. “I’m so glad I can count on you,” she told us and she carried Rocky into her car.

As she drove off, I was sad to see Rocky go, but thankful that he reminded me about the nature of the world. We can’t hide from all the poison that’s out there, but we can be smart, find good friends and alliances, and keep our hearts in the right place.

Now when I send Katie off to school, I imagine her with an invisible armor of love, a shell of common sense and faith that will keep her safe. And maybe it won’t protect her from all the poison out there, but it will give her the strength and courage to do what’s right.

Just like we fed Rocky rose petals and hibiscus, Jim and I strive to keep Katie well-nourished spiritually and physically. We want her out in the warmth of sun, exploring this life, as she charts her own course among the nooks and crannies, underbrush and shrubs, rocks and holes.

Let her be a tortoise, I tell myself. It’s a fine thing to be.


“A Tuition Math Tutorial,” “Kiddie Object Roundup,” Arroyo Monthly, September 2010

September Issue

How often does this happen? September’s Arroyo Monthly Magazine has not one, but two of my articles! One is a roundup of popular must-have items for kids while the other one is an indepth look at how parents are coping with the high cost of private schools in this dismal economy.

Here’s the school story:

A tuition math tutorial:

One plus one plus one plus… Parents of private school students find help for the headache of relentlessly rising bills in a grim economy.

By Brenda Rees

Last year at my daughter’s school, St. Philip the Apostle in Pasadena, parents were buzzing about the big-ticket raffle prize at the annual dinner dance and auction. Was it the kind of temptation offered in years past, like a new car? Ample vacay time in some exotic condo? One of those fancy pedigree pooches?

Nope. It was a year’s free tuition — four of the most wonderful words parents of private school students can hear these days.

Chet Crane, head of school at Maranatha High School in Pasadena, says that during the last school year, he witnessed “a big spike in requests for tuition assistance — about a 5 to 10 percent increase.” Last year, Maranatha awarded about $1.2 million in financial aid. “It’s a real challenge to meet everyone’s needs, because there is only so much money to go around.”

Indeed, never before has sending your child to a private school been more of a privilege. In today’s miserable economy, committing to a private school education can be akin to tying a heavy weight around your neck for the next 13 years and throwing yourself into the rushing river of the Great Financial Unknown.

Even in flusher times, many parents moved to more desirable school districts for their kids, but these days, some have been forced to take on a second (and perhaps third) job or hit up the grandparents to support junior’s academic aspirations.

It’s daunting for parents to realize that, despite all these sacrifices, they will see tuition increase practically every year. At private schools across the board, these increases are mainly to cover rising teachers’ salaries and health care costs. Most schools try to limit these tuition hikes to the modest 3 to 5 percent range, but when you’re talking about an annual tab that can range from $5,000 to $16,000 a year, those small increases can quickly add up… and sap bank accounts.

So what happens if dad gets downsized or mom is laid off? What can parents do if they want to continue down the independent school route?

“Don’t wait until it’s too late,” advises Dr. Richard Gray, president of LaSalle High School. “Talk to the school and let them know what’s going on; we want to work with you.”

Gray says that private schools, mindful of the pressures on parents, are extending more financial aid than ever before; last year, his school awarded $1.1 million from an emergency fund specifically designed to deal with these kinds of economic hardships. “We hadn’t had to tap into that fund in years, until about two years ago,” he says.

It’s a pressing problem across the country. According to the National Association of Independent Schools, in the 2001-02 school year, only 15.6 percent of students received financial aid; during the 2009-10 school year, the percentage of students on aid jumped to 21.6.

But is all this assistance available only to parents of kids who are already enrolled? At some schools — like High Point Academy in Pasadena — yes, but others also offer help for incoming families. And lest you think that ability to pay is a criterion for admission, most private schools keep their financial aid committees completely separate from admissions committees; schools say they look at personalities and academic achievements — not the size of the parents’ purse — when screening candidates.

At High Point Academy, Headmaster John Higgins has seen tuition assistance ebb and flow over the years. “We have had families on financial aid for perhaps a few months [because] a parent lost a job and then a few months later, they’re back at work,” he says. “But then we have other families who have been drawing aid in fifth, sixth, seventh and even eighth grades.”

Such arrangements are kept private, so participating families needn’t worry about any social stigma. But that didn’t make it much easier for Cynthia A., who says she had to swallow her pride to ask for aid. With two kids in a Pasadena private school, Cynthia and her husband, once prosperous in their own businesses, found themselves hitting hard times during the past school year. They changed careers and made other financial adjustments, but money was still tight.

“It was a teacher who knew what was going on with us who suggested we look into financial aid,” explains Cynthia. “I never even considered it [and] it was almost too embarrassing to admit we needed help. The school walked us through the process and it all worked out. I was surprised at how generous they were to us. They really came through.”

Despite doling more out in tuition assistance, private schools say the general socioeconomic makeup of their student bodies has remained fairly constant, perhaps indicating how vulnerable people can be even higher up the economic ladder. In addition to tapping emergency funds, some schools are asking their alumni to kick in more toward the health of their alma maters. Gray says a new LaSalle campaign, Keeping Our Promise, invites alumni to sponsor a specific student who needs financial help. For the program’s first school year, alumni have pledged more than $100,000.

And extended family members — particularly grandparents — are pitching in to help with tuition as well, says Diane LaSalle, admissions coordinator at Pasadena Waldorf School. “Grandparents are usually overjoyed to be asked,” she says. “They feel like they are contributing in a very significant way to their grandchildren; I’ve seen this make families even closer.”

Despite the dismal economy, private schools are doing their best to maintain the status quo and holding their own overall. It’s a juggling act to pay the bills, work with struggling parents and maximize fundraising efforts to keep the wheels of education greased and humming.

So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that an uncertain future is always in the back of many educators’ minds. “You know what concerns me most?” says Principal Jennifer Ramirez of St. Philip the Apostle. “What if things get worse? We’re able to keep up now with the way things are going, but what happens if more families lose jobs, the economy gets stuck or keeps sinking? We can’t do much more than we are doing now. What then? Do we lay off teachers? Deplete programs?

“Those are things I don’t even want to think about — and I hope I don’t have to.”

And here’s the kiddie roundup piece:

Playtime Finessed: Cure the “Back to School” Blues

After the long, lazy days of summer, September schedules can be oh-so-difficult. Groggy mornings, burnt coffee and grouchy carpools. It’s time to get back into the swing of things and remind the kids – and yourself – that schooltime doesn’t mean the end of playtime. You just have to do your homework first and put the Wii in storage.

The classic wooden car is cleverly reinvented for a new generation with the high-quality Automoblox series of cars, hot rods, and assorted vehicles. Part building blocks, part puzzle, Automoblox cars have interchangeable elements, shooting play potential up to a gazillion points. Tear apart the car, fidget around with the pieces and then reassemble. Voila! A brand new means of transportation that glides across the floor, just waiting for its next incarnation. Individual cars range from $10-$45.
Available at Swain’s ToyFun, 537 N. Glendale Ave., Glendale. Call (818) 243-3129.

Precious Pollabies
Move over American Girl  – there’s a new doll in town. Precious Pollabies are collectible soft dolls based on the characters of a children storybook Grandpa’s Treasure Box – the Adventures of Bobo & Tashi. Youngsters can recreate or make up new journeys for the globetrotting twin sisters Bobo and Tashi. Each Precious Pollabie comes with her own embroidered carrying pouch and an artist-signed certificate of authenticity. $45 dolls, $18.95 book.
Available at Huntington Library and Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino. Call (626) 405-2142.

Beatrix Wheelie Bag
Is it a traveling suitcase? School backpack? Overnight bag to grandma’s? Whatever your kid decides, this practical and fun wheelie bag is big enough to hold all the treasures – and, yes, school books – your kid can pack away. Choose between images of hungry Dieter Monkey or growling Percival Dinosaur. Made of heavy-duty nylon over a sturdy metal frame. Greenies, take note: these wheelies are PVC-free, lead-free and phthalate-free. $103.50.
Available at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Call (626) 449-5320.

Silver Bullet RC Mini-Helicopter
The Silver Bullet mini remote control helicopter is just the ticket for kids who yearn to be in the pilot’s seat, but who still might need a booster seat in the car. Easy to maneuver and quickly rechargeable, these indoor ‘copters can fly up to 100 feet away from the remote and feature built-in LED strobes for night flights and landings. For all the inevitable bang-ups and crash landings, you’ll want to opt for a warranty policy for replacement parts. Believe us, it’s money well spent.  $29.99, 2 for $50. One year warranty $3.99.
Available at Brookstone at the Paseo, 340 E. Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena. Call (626) 568-1410 or visit

Ultimate Gum Kit
Chemistry lesson + culinary desire = a wicked fun taste treat. Fess up, who really knows how gum is made? Well, the mystery will be solved after the kids get their hands on the Ultimate Gum Kit which contains everything they need to make mountains of homemade gum. Your inventive little chefs can mix up to 15 different flavors and name their experiments accordingly. Monster Mastication? Blasting Blueberry Bubbles? Chewbacca Chew? You get the idea…$31.99.
Available at San Marino Toy and Book Shoppe, 2424 Huntington Drive., San Marino. Call (626) 309-0222. 

EZ Roller
Imagine the Big Wheels of the 70s getting a extreme makeover and you’re beginning to get the picture of this super stealth awesome riding machine. Equal parts scooter, bike and luge, the EZ Roller doesn’t require messy chains or batteries, just good ol’ fashion kid power to made this vehicle skedaddle and streak across the playground. Riders claim they feel as if they are gliding like snakes as they silently speed up, twist and turn on a micro-dime. Dang, you’ll wish they came in adult sizes. $110.
Available at the Dinosaur Store, 1510 Mission St., South Pasadena. Call (626) 441-2767.

Calico Critters – Cloverleaf Manor
As the Mc Mansion of the tot set, this top-of-the-line playhouse from Calico Critters is an impressive structure that boasts nine rooms on three stories, a balcony and rooftop patio, not to mention a light-up chandelier that can be placed in any room. Out of the box, it comes a blank slate without furniture or figurines; you’ll have to supply your own posse, interior decorator and landscaper. It’s big – three feet across and nearly two feet tall – but it conveniently folds up for easy storage. Still, with all the imaginative play possibilities, who’d ever want to close it?
Available at Dollmaker’s Kattywompus, 412 S. Myrtle Ave., Monrovia. Call (626) 357-1091.

My Pet Night Lamp
No one will be afraid of the dark when a refined pink Siamese cat or a friendly blue dachshund is standing guard emitting a soft incandescent light that’s technically-proven to scare away monsters, nightmares and crying spells. My Pet Night Lamps are glowing molded plastic statuary that are both arty and functional. They’re perfect for 3 a.m. diaper changes in the baby’s room or for the older kid who would welcome a colorful nighttime companion, but doesn’t want to publicly admit it. $60.
Available at Giggle, 517 S. Lake, Pasadena. Call (626) 744-0233 or visit