Saturday, August 31, 2013

Overthinking Rule No. 9

Rule #9: Make the World Your Oyster (Stew) can be deconstructed into twelve sub-principles illuminated by Karen Karbo. (Over-thinkers Anonymous, here I come.)

A. Have everything you need before you begin.
B. Ignore the age spots.
C. Be the Best Middle-Aged __________ Ever.
D. Hog the spotlight.
E. Look good while you're doing it.
F. Stop over-thinking.
G. Identify your passion.
H. Take as long as you need to get the job done well.
I. Snore unapologetically.
J. Get your own bed if anyone complains about your night habits.
K. Let others be right if they must, but live your own truth.
L. Screw ambivalence.

I covered A, F, and L in my blog post on Friday, and addressed B on Twitter earlier today:
Today's focus was Rule 9, Sub-principle E: Look good while you're doing it. (Can you tell one of my undergrad classes was called "Effecting Change Through Policy Reform"?)

For Julia, that meant "skirts, blouses, and her famous pearls." She later had an eye job, face-lift #1, and face-lift #2. I'm not much for skirts, and I don't know any plastic surgeons that accept payment in pine cones or dessicated animal bones which are about all I'd have to trade. I have a graduated string of pearls I bought while I was in China. I'd be willing to accessorize like the Mighty J.

This young woman strung them while I stood there. I tried to learn a little Mandarin before we went. All I've really retained is 谢谢 (xiè xie) which means "Thank you." It came in handy.

I dug the pearls out today--I've never worn them--and put them on Julia-style, and then I took my lard butt outside for a walk on the property.

I can see why athletes and middle-aged walkers don't wear pearls while they work out because the pearls add a little weight and tend to curl up against any fold of skin they can find which in my case wasn't that hard to do.

But damn, I looked all pearly while I ambled through the trees.

Signing off with my Chinese name 石诗海 (translated loosely to mean Stone-Poet-Sea.)

Friday, August 30, 2013

Answering Karen Karbo's Call to Live Like Julia

I'm super excited about Karen Karbo's newest book in her Kickass Women series: Julia Child Rules: Lessons On Savoring Life, due out in October, so it was only natural that I decided to play along with her invitation to Live Like Julia. The book is comprised of ten rules that Julia lived by, including one my kids would say I've already mastered, "Play the Emperor".

I decided to go with Rule #9 - Make the World Your Oyster (Stew) because I had no idea what that meant beyond life being full of richness (if you're lucky enough to find a pearl) or seizing what you want, as Shakespeare's Pistol declares, "Why then, the world's mine oyster which I with sword open."

Seize what I want? Like a pirate? Insert a knife between the shells and force it open for the treasure?

Then it occurred to me: Julia may have worn pearls but she made masterpieces of meat. It couldn't be about looking for treasure, hoping for treasure, dreaming of treasure, seizing opportunities and forcing myself in for my own gain, could it?


Int. Doctor's Office - Day

I sit on the exam table devoid of bra or panties in that special washed-to-threadbare-thin gown (attire that gives physicians the assurance you will not run out before they're done talking) that ties in the back, trying to read her face.

I'd like you to go on blood pressure medication.

Yeah, I'm not going to take any medication.

Well, yes, you need to.


Me frothing at the mouth at home. A normal person might be pacing but pacing could be construed as exercise and god knows I don't exercise, so...

Here is where the insanity becomes clear. I know about motivating people because I spent several years engaging objects at rest (known to others as "students with below a 1.0 GPA) to become objects in motion, thereby passing their classes. I spent another couple years visiting truant elementary school students and their overwhelmed, underachieving parents in order to help the children engage in regular attendance. I even had a poster in my office at Oregon City High School that looked a lot like this:

Simple, right?

Karen remembers an episode of Julia Child's The French Chef where Julia cautioned viewers to "make sure we had everything we needed before we began."

If I'm going to reduce my blood pressure, I might need to make a list of what I'll need.

Turns out, I already have what I need. A gym membership, a yoga mat & video, yoga blocks (still in cellophane), pedometer, elastic bands, Fitbit to monitor motion and sleep, a trampoline, a nice bike, a hot tub (in which to recuperate) two arms, two legs, a body (if you can still call it that) and a head.

The head is the problem.

Remember that block that says, "I choose."--The one that I used to iterate and reiterate to students was the essential step in change?--I don't actually do that step. I'm fond of explaining to people that I don't actually like to exercise. Or to sweat. Or to feel my heart pounding in my ears. I once told my buddy Joe Koziol, "I am content living in my head," to which he replied, "If you don't take care of your body, where will your head live?"

See how a logical argument will ruin a perfectly good excuse?

My process--I didn't even try to share this with my doctor--looks more like this.

You might have to squint at the INTENT box because there's a lot of internal dialogue going on there. (Click on it if you're really desperate to read what my head traffic does.)

But back to my taste test of living like Julia. I read Chapter Nine: Make the World Your Oyster (Stew) and nowhere did it say that just because you eat what you like, you get to become a slovenly pig that hides out in jeans and sweatshirts. Not at all. Instead, Karen notes, Julia wore pearls while cooking.

Pearls? I could wear pearls while I exercise. That's ludicrous, isn't it? Like I'd be trying to look good, or something. Nobody accuses me of that now. Of course, I may keel over from a heart attack or stroke if I don't change the INTENT box to things that generate ACTION.

Which brings me to Julia's practice of refusing to overthink things. (I bet she never knew how great it feels to think so much. Like I don't understand pâté. Give me a slab of beef, medium-well.)

I don't think I can stop the overthinking part cold turkey. It's radical. I need a cigarette just thinking about it and I don't even smoke. I've decided that my part of the Live Like Julia, Rule #9 is going to need to skip intent all together and get straight to action. Julia was not a woman who wallowed in ambivalence. She prepped, she cooked, and she served. Action-action-action.

I'm going to get my ass in gear and I'm gonna wear pearls while I'm doing it. Screw ambivalence. For seven days, I'm not gonna overthink, I'm going to overdo. I'm going to sweat, beating heart and all. If any of you bloggers living Rule #10: Every Woman Should Have a Blowtorch, see me lolly-gagging around like I'm waiting for the perfect oyster to detach itself, roll ashore at my feet to reveal a precious stone, do me a favor: Brandish a little flame low enough to get me out of my head and onto my feet.

Insidious Beasts

You sit in somebody’s living room and try not to stare. Try not to let your eyes scan the room like a streak of light, or if you do, hope to make your face flat and quiet, as if what the lenses capture is without impact. A carefully watered plant holds the same weight as a ragged shoe or yesterday’s remains from the dog nobody let out. Truancy isn’t about the house.

Still, it’s hard to hold the eyes of someone who won’t make eye contact, and when their eyes lead yours, it’s almost impossible not to dance. Whatever the condition of the home, you can bet there will be apologies offered, as if a child’s pattern of absences is exposed in shameful household deficits. Truancy is about patterns, which the environment eagerly reveals.

I’m in a home that reeks of yesterday’s urine and this morning’s feces, last night’s dinner, yesterday’s dirty clothes. I’m demonstrating to the family how to comb nits from the hair of a child who can’t ever remember not having them, whose entire school career—four years—is punctuated not with spelling tests or classroom parties, but absences due to blood-sucking parasites.

I don’t think it was lice the secretary saw, the mother tells me. I think it was a flea.“Well,” I say, “they don’t want fleas at school either.”

I separate a thin strand of hair with the tail of a comb, then pull the segment of hair taut between the child’s head and my fingers. Sun filters through hazy windows as I point out how live nits glisten like crystals. Semantics won’t help the child’s head, but they may save the parent's pride.I'm not against them saving face during the interminable process of nit-picking. Medical experts will tell you head lice is not about cleanliness, but experience will remind you that it is about attention to detail. This home clearly needs more of both.

* * *

I knock at the door of a well-manicured home in a new subdivision. The mother invites me in, serves iced water in a sparkling glass as we sit in the family room on soft leather chairs. Everything is clean and in its place. The student I’m about to meet has become expert at excluding herself from school and the parents are frustrated with their lack of control.

“Where is she?” I ask. The mother’s chin lifts toward the stairs, as if she is so tired of the battle she cannot even raise a flag to defeat. She leads me up to the girl’s room and opens the door. The room is dark with tidy curtains. A shaft of light slips around one edge of the fabric, catching the silver gleam of the television, the stereo, the cell phone charging in its cradle. Sterling necklaces dangle on corner of a mirror. Earrings glint on the dresser top.

“How you doing?” I ask.

The teenage girl in the bed remains with her back to me, facing the wall. Blankets cover all but a tuft of black hair on her head.

“Mind if I sit down?” I ask, not waiting for her answer before I plant myself on the corner of the queen-size bed. Her mother withdraws from the room, leaving the door ajar. For half-a-second I conjure how sitting alone in a truant student’s bedroom would appear to an outsider. Or to my boss who doesn’t understand most of what I do, but likes the way reduced number of absences stack on a page.

“So you have cramps?” I say.

She grunts acknowledgement and shifts a little under the lump of covers but doesn’t make any attempt to engage.

“Take anything?”

I can’t, she says. It’ll make me puke.

“Oh…” I say. “So you can snort coke and drink beer, but you can’t take Ibuprofen?”

Her head snaps out of the blankets to size me up, then she rolls onto her back. I can see half her face now.

That’s right, she says.

“Big problem.” I tell her. “Because you’re going to have periods for another thirty years, so we gotta make a plan.” She rolls her eyes and glances at the cell phone on her nightstand. Examines her fingernails in the half light. She closes her eyes and then opens them to check if I’m still there. I am.

“You like Starbucks or Dutch Brothers’ coffee?” I ask.

"Never had Dutch Brothers."

“Well,” I say, “You better get up, so we can take a trial run because tomorrow morning I’m going to be here at 7:15, cramps or no cramps, and I need to know which coffee to bring because we won’t have time to stop for another if I get it wrong.”

She rolls on her side to face me, propped on one elbow. Smiles. Asks if I really think she’s going to go out looking like this, waving her hand at her face and hair.

“Dutch Brothers is drive through,” I say. “So you’ve got five minutes to do your face and fix your hair. Everything from here up,” and I gesture from my shoulders skyward.

I turn and leave. Hear her rustling around in her room before I’ve even touched the bottom stair.

Is she going to school today? her mother asks.

“We’re just taking a trial run,” I tell her. She’ll be back in half an hour. But tomorrow, she’s going to school.”

Missed school days are insidious beasts. They creep up one moment at a time: one lesson, one class, one day passed without the benefit of school. It doesn’t matter whether the sparkle that keeps a child home is due to the reproductive habits of parasitic pests, the allure of a computer screen’s alternative world, or the call of friends on the silver cell, the damage is the same: missed days equal missed education.

Some children who have too many treasures miss school as often as children who have too few.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

What To Expect if I'm Appointed as Your Child's CASA

I am an unpaid volunteer appointed by the Court to investigate and monitor the things that happen in you and your child’s life while your family is involved in dependency court. I sometimes facilitate communication, resources or services; and I advocate, in and out of court, for things that need to change.

Some judges call me the eyes and ears of the court. The voice of the child. As a CASA, I made a pledge to ensure that the Court, the child welfare agency, and your child’s attorney fulfill their obligations to your child in a timely manner .

I will meet you face to face, and get to know your child. I will talk to the people involved in your family’s life: social worker, attorneys, counselor, addiction specialist, teacher, doctor, child care provider, psychologist, neighbor, family members and friends. I'll visit you in your home and in the community. I will observe visits between you and your child. I will visit your children in the foster home and at school .

I will review documents. I will hear about your failings, but also seek to understand your strengths. I hope you will share what you do well and what kind of support you have available in your family and community. I will ask many questions .

In court, I will stand beside you, or your child, if they’re old enough to attend—or beside your attorney, or your child’s attorney, or the State’s attorney, or the social worker—at a long table in the juvenile courtroom. I will have a legal pad and a cheap pen, a Bic maybe, or a Zebra, or—on a good day—a Precise V5, blue ink .

Seated at the table facing the judge, I will make note of what each party has to say. I will take stock of the state’s accusations, itemized on the petition as alleged acts or behaviors. I will jot a list of everyone present. I will watch who talks to whom and for how long. What is their body language? How do they occupy space: Hunching close? Leaning well apart?

I will take time off work to appear in court. I will miss my own child’s soccer game to meet when you get off work. I will visit you on weekends or evenings if that’s when you can be home. I will think about you and your child on holidays. I will live with your family between my ears.

I will form opinions. I will share them with you and the other parties. I will push. I will prod. I will rub people the wrong way. I will strive to be respectful and compassionate, but sometimes what I say will be hurtful. I will feel sorry for that, but will say it anyway on behalf of your child.

I will write a report to the court that includes a summary of why your children came into foster care, how they are adjusting, your progress to fix what’s wrong, the efforts of the child welfare agency to help you, and recommendations about services that may still need to occur. I will give kudos where they have been earned. I will ask the court to remedy what has gone wrong.

I will encourage you to make the changes necessary to reunify your family, but my primary focus is to ensure your child has a safe and stable home in a reasonable length of time. I hope it is with you. Whether it is or not, I will advocate zealously for your child.

From Boxing Peers to Boxing Dogs, Vacuuming is Key

Today I was at an elementary school and met a little guy who was having a hard day. He'd been sent to the principal's office for hitting other children and he was perseverating about one of his favorite topics: vacuum cleaners. Did I have a vacuum cleaner? he wondered. I said I did. What brand? Darned if I could remember.

"Maybe a Hoover," I said.

You don't know? I shook my head. Can you draw me a picture of it? I told him I couldn't draw well and asked him to draw it for me. What does it look like?

I described my upright vacuum while he asked me if it was short or tall, if it had a rotating beater brush and what kind of attachments it had. Does it have an extender rod? Could it suck up a dead mouse?

I asked how old he was. He ignored me. I asked what kind of vacuum he had at home.


"That's a good one," I said.

Do you have a shop vac? I said I do. What brand? I didn't know. He was incredulous.
What kind of vacuum do you use to vacuum your car?

"I don't usually vacuum my car. What do you like besides vacuums?" I asked.

He ignored my question. Can you please draw your vacuum? He passed me a piece of paper and a blue Crayola. I asked him for a brown crayon instead.

You have a brown vacuum? What brand is it?

He watched me draw from across the desk; the image was upside down to him. That's a funny kind of vacuum.

I kept drawing, adding a table with plates on it and a few bits of food on the floor. I turned the picture around to show him.

A smile spread on his face. Your vacuum is a dog?

"Boxer brand," I said.

I told him I thought it would be a good idea if he didn't hit others--maybe he could earn more time using vacuums. "You could even study them. That way," I said, "you 'll be an expert and you will be able to design better vacuum cleaners than anyone else and maybe someday you'll design your own brand of vacuums with your name on them."

He grinned ear to ear.

I believe it. This child's passion could translate into that kind of success. But first he needs a little guidance.

We want to talk about one thing, but we end up talking about another. If we're patient and let them lead, sometimes they come along.

The Beat Goes On

As I arrive at my CASA child’s home, the birth parent throws open the door to the apartment, calling to the child, Sweetie, your angel is here.

“I’m no angel,” I say. The parent shrugs it off as the child comes running to greet me with a fistful of popcorn. She offers me a bite as I bend to say hello.

Inside, I sit on the sofa and notice the house looks a little messy. I wonder how the parent is coping with the child being home.

The child toddles out of the living room and returns with a book. She climbs up and nestles alongside. The parent offers me coffee.

I say yes, even though I know it’s going to be Sanka with a rounded spoon of brown sugar and a splash of nonfat milk. One of the things I was taught in training was, Never refuse a cup of coffee or tea. It's an invitation to stay a while.

The child’s eyes are heavy by the time the parent brings my coffee. She stayed up past naptime waiting for me to arrive. I know how challenging it can be with toddlers who fight sleep. I am curious how the parent will do getting the child to bed.

The parent goes over to the CD player, turns the CD player on low, and sits down with her own cup of coffee. "Jesus Loves Me" begins to play; in the background, the soft thrum of a mother’s heartbeat.

The child looks at me, then her mother, slips off the sofa and runs out of the room, returning with a satin edge blankie trailing behind her. She runs to her parent and lifts her arms: the universal sign for up.

You ready for nap? asks the parent.

The toddler nods.

Mom picked her up and carried her to her crib. And that was that. The child’s mother and I visited for an hour or so, I finished my Sanka, and went home.

Except, a couple years later when I had another baby, I went out and bought the Heartbeat Lullaby Music. I played it for our son during naps and bedtime from birth well into elementary school. Bedtime was always a peaceful transition for him.

Sometimes, you go out to learn something to benefit your CASA child and you learn something that benefits your own.

Outside, Looking In

This week I went out to visit my CASA children. They had each painstakingly cut a Valentine from pink construction paper and signed their name in large block letters. One, in the shape of a deeply curved heart with abrupt edges, like wings of a moth that had been snipped off midflight. The second was a rectangle folded in half, adorned with sparkly stickers reading "Sweetheart". No one has given me their heart in a long time, nor has anyone shown such interest in my arrival.

I saw you in the window, the small child says, curving her palms like a pair of parens and holding one on each side of her face, mimicking the way she peered through the one-way mirror into the observation room when I was at Childrens Services a few weeks ago to observe a visit with her parents. "It's my CASA!" she said to her birth parent. I had hoped to observe unnoticed, knowing that however unobtrusive a CASA tries to be, his or her presence affects the parent-child interaction.

The image of her little hands cupped around her face made me think of an older child in another family, some time ago, who told me that visiting her parents in an observation room was like being a monkey in the zoo. Everyone stares at you. Such insight reminds me that even when we are mindful and considerate--even when children hand us their hearts--CASAs are in the business of asking children to trust us despite being strangers, despite being on the outside looking in.