Monday, September 30, 2013

A Window into a Life

"Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition. It may look like a casual and even random calling up of bygone events. It’s not; it’s a deliberate construction."                    
          William Zinsser
          On Writing Well 

Tomorrow is the beginning of Jane Ann McLachlan's October Memoir Challenge. It'll be a great way to mine for additional material to include in future rewrites of Mother Up, and for my follow-up book: Mother Enough?.

I have bookmarked my challenge comrades blog pages, and I'm looking forward to reading memoir challenge responses by:

Joy Weese Moll
Amanda Darling
Pearl Ketover Prilik
Katie Argyle
Stephanie Ingram
Terri Rowe
PK Hrezo
Stacey Rene
Claudette Young
Kay Kauffman
Leslie Hauser
Gerry Wilson
Susan Tilghman Hawthorne
Satia Renee
Lara Britt

From Jane Ann McLachlan's page: 

"Week 1: Childhood. I’m sure we barely scratched the rich creative soil of our youth last year.

Week 2: Relationships. Memories or incidents involving our parents, siblings, friends, romantic interludes, marriages, even our children or grandchildren.

Week 3: Secrets. Dig deep, fellow bloggers, this is powerful stuff!

Week 4: Roots and Wings. Memories of home, leaving or finding it, and of travel or journeys.

Week 5: Gratitude and Regret. The people, experiences, choices you are grateful for or that you regret.

Remember these are options: the over-riding theme is memoir and back story, and we’ll all love seeing just how you choose to explore that!"

If you'd like to join in this memoir challenge, contact Jane  @JaneAnnMcLachlan on Twitter, or visit her website at Jane Ann McLachlan.

Woot! Woot! Tomorrow is the book launch for Julia Child Rules.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Obey Your Whims

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
                                                                                         King James Bible

This quote came to me this morning as I was reflecting on the month I've spent with Karen Karbo's newest book Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life. 

In particular, I was thinking about the chapter "Obey Your Whims" because I was surprised to discover that Karen had written about one of the whims I'd followed last year, namely, to pack a bag, leave my husband and son to fend for themselves for three weeks, and go to Warren, Pennsylvania to manage one of Obama's grassroots campaign headquarters.

I understood from the Area Coordinator that I was walking into a proud community of Obama supporters who had strong ideas about how to approach the election. The group's point of view was at odds with the Democratic Party in the town ("a bunch of old white guys sitting around drinking coffee" is how one supporter described them) and the Obama organization ("a bunch of paid organizers who don't have to live in our town after the election is done"). My unpaid responsibilities: keep peace, recruit volunteers to follow the official canvassing expectations, and ride herd on the whole lot.

This whim I'd undertaken wasn't going to be any kind of wham-bam-thank-you-Ma'am; it was going to be a real chore.*

I covered the word "captain" with GRUNT.  I wore the button like a giant barrette to show I didn't take myself too seriously. I never do.

I take the job seriously.

If I say I'll do it, I do it.

I'm your git-'er-done girl.

Of course, that means I do more than my fair share of directing, imploring, cajoling, and reminding (traits that have inspired descriptors such as bossy, demanding, stubborn, and relentless) in order to get the job done. It also means that I will work as hard as I expect from anyone else.

In my teens and twenties, I was an impulsive young woman. Along the lines of the opening quote, with a slight moderation: When I was a child, I was impulsive as a child, I was impetuous as a child, I lacked forethought as a child: but when I became a woman, I put away my reckless ways.

I had a husband and a few children (okay, 32--but who's counting?) to love and support.  Wikipedia (which we all know is the absolute authority online, right?) defines impulsivity as "a multifactorial construct that involves a tendency to act on a whim, displaying behavior characterized by little or no forethought."

In the lives of my foster and adopted children, impulsivity was often a trait resulting from their birth parents' substance abuse, mental illness, or thinking errors compounded by poverty and lack of support systems. At that time, foster care felt to me like an us-and-them framework: good parents on one side of the agency, bad parents on the other side. With my inexperience and polarized thinking, I did not want to identify with the bad parents. That, and I had a lot of people's needs to manage, so I interred my impulsive spirit some place deep inside, as if I had decided there was no room for reckless at the inn.

The trouble is, in time, I lost my sense of spontaneity too.

If you ask the friends who know me well, they'd say, "She's fun, and funny, and probably ADHD." If you ask my children, they would probably say, "She loves rules."  This disparity bothered me as I worked on my  memoir. I see myself as somewhere in the midst of those two points of view. I  like rules because I want to do what's expected. But I'm  also spontaneous. The trouble was, I'd built a life encumbered by children who needed stability and consistency.

Eight children, even great children,  is a boatload of kids to manage.

Anyone who's gone from one child to two, or from two to three, knows that the complexity of parenting additional children cannot be quantified by the simple mathematical statement n+1. The correct mathematical way to explain it is n!, as in 7! or 8!. As a parent increases the number of children, the growth for potential conflict increases dramatically. A factorial equation expresses the difficulty: 1x2 = 2, 1x2x3=6, 1x2x3x4=24 and so:


How many ways can four children stand in line at the grocery store? 24
How many ways can seven children sit at the dinner table? 5,040
How many unique conflicts can eight children have with one another?  40,320.

A large family can obliterate a mother's desire for spontaneity. I wish I'd understood this then; I would have said, "What the hell? It's chaos already. What would a little spontaneity hurt?" Instead, I tamped it down. Stamped it out. I held on tight to hold them steady.

I was like a crazy woman on the beach flying eight kites at a time.

As the kids have grown, and I'm down to one child at home, I feel a strong pull toward improvisation again. I want to feel the wind moving through me instead of around me. I feel like I'm coming alive after a long sleep.

I appreciated Karen's chapter on obeying our whims because it flies in the face of what feels like institutionalized disrespect for spontaneity. It calls foul on the idea the pandemonium is always bad.  Obeying your whim is, as Karen writes, "employing your psychic divining rod, allowing it to lead you in a direction where something good, or at least different, is bound to enrich your life."

I fell in love on a whim. 
I became a mother on a whim.
I bought a horse on a whim.
I worked as an electrician apprentice on a whim.
I became a foster parent on a whim.
I went to Paris on a whim.
I learned to sail on a whim.

The moments that have shaped my life, the moments that identify the me-in-me, were initiated by whims, developed in determination, and sustained in commitment to the task.

Those who think impulsivity is evidence of an executive function disorder, inhibitory disregulation, or self-sabotaging scheme may be right some of the time, but let us not assume that we should always be scheduled and regulated.

Whim does not equal reckless. Whim equals open to possibility. Whim means I'm paying keen attention and see that something out of the ordinary is calling my name.

Karen's official publication date and book launch is Tuesday, October 1, at Powell's on Burnside. I was thinking about how much I enjoyed her call to "live like Julia" for a week or a month. Because I'm impulsive, or ADHD, or sometimes amazing, I thought about Julia stirring the pot of American housewives with her television show. 

Karen + Julia + stirring = a whim! 

I drove all over Portland looking for inexpensive flat-handled wooden spoons. 

I went to Michael's and bought some eensy-weensy alphabet stamps in three fonts.

I went home and stamped the spoons.

A woman with a whim + a woman with a book launch = a woman with swag.

Thank you, Karen Karbo, for helping me remember that obeying my whims is something I like to do.

*My experience working on the campaign in Warren, Pennsylvania was engaging, exhausting, and inspiring. The people I met in the campaign office and in the town of Warren were excellent comrades. If the whim to work an out-of-state campaign comes to you, do it. Really.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Going X When You Meant to Go Y

In "Learn to Be Amused" (the third chapter of Julia Child Rules) Karen Karbo wrote, "Her impulse to engage, to get involved, to mix things up, to see what happens when you do x instead of y was compulsive." As the mother of many children, as a social agitator, an agent of change, a rabble-rouser at the local level, I can relate to that. Unlike my husband, I enjoy change for the sake of change.

Maybe it's that I'm a Gemini. Maybe it's genetics. My mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were married six, four, and five times, respectively; my father married three times. We are a hopeful people, undeterred by the disappointment of broken promises. We love. We unlove. We love again.

Unloving is something not many people discuss even though 41 percent of first marriages, 60 percent of second marriages, and 73 percent of third marriages end in divorce. According to the law offices of Mckinley Irvin, a divorce in the United States occurs every 13 seconds. In my family, when someone was unloved, they disappeared.  A lot of people vanished during my early childhood: My mom. My siblings. Uncles, aunts, cousins.

My mother-in-law was a passionate woman: artist, golfer, and matriarch whose generosity and graciousness were evident from the moment we were introduced. She didn't point out the obvious: I was twenty years younger than her son, and his wife had passed away only six months before. She gave me a hug, and invited me into her home.

Del was nearly seventy when I first met her, yet she was engaging and attractive, full of the vim and vigor of life. She traveled to Australia with us, staying in youth hostels that sold bread by the slice. She'd traveled to many countries staying at world class resorts, but felt comfortable everywhere. She had been married twice herself, and had a few other significant partners in her life. She was the kindest lover and unlover I've ever met. She had warm relationships with each of her exes. She respected the people she'd once loved, even if she was no longer in love with them.

In her later years, Del started to have difficulty with her memory. A few weeks before she died, she refused food and medications. She asked the doctor, who compassionately agreed to a house call since Del refused to go in, "Can you get my mind back?" 

"I'm sorry, I can't."

"Then I'm ready to go," she said. "Can you help me?"

"I can't help you," the doctor said, "but I can make you comfortable."

The doctor arranged hospice. Del continued to refuse food or medication. With quiet determination and grace, she grew less and less engaged with all of us who loved her.

"Don't be sad," she said. "I've had a good life."

Her body grew weak and she withdrew into her private journey toward death. It was terribly sad that we would no longer have her to visit and love. It was equally a gift to care for her as she left. I remember wondering why we couldn't always give tender care to those who are leaving.

Something about prunes made me think of this. Maybe because prunes are an old-fashioned kind of fruit, succulent and sweet. 

The second recipe I found in the Goodwill bins was handwritten on a goldenrod-colored unlined index card. The ink was from a fountain pen. The recipe is labeled "Prune Cake (Dorothy Strong) and contains a list of ingredients and some general directions. It lacks the specificity of a Julia Child's recipe but is not at all out of step with recipe cards of that era. 

I Google-searched the name Dorothy Strong to see if I might locate any information about the woman who is referenced on this recipe card. The name is not uncommon, and there are too many to hazard a guess. 

Prunes originated from Asia, and came to Europe from Syria, then to North America around the time of the gold rush. Louis Pellier reportedly brought French saplings west on his quest to discover gold. By 1900, this site for Taylor Brothers Farms reports, there were over 90,000 acres of trees in California. About that same time, orchards were cropping up near Salem, Oregon. Between 1905 and 1930, approximately 70 prune driers were in operation near Salem. 

By 1940, prunes were starting to show some decline in popularity. On July 28, 1941, the Reading Eagle ran an article about the State College of Agriculture advising the Prune Institute to increase the glamour associated with its product. In 2001, the FDA gave prune growers permission to relabel their product as dried plums, but denied their request to relabel the juice as dried plum juice.

True to this decision, the products I selected to make Dorothy Strong's Prune Cake were labeled accordingly. Granddaughter Faith was playing the game of Life with her dad, so I made the cake alone today. 

I gathered everything, then combined the dry ingredients  as indicated. Well, not exactly as indicated. The recipe says, "Sift dry ingredients together three times."  I didn't notice the word sift, so I mixed them well.

The next direction is "Add other ingredients." I wondered if it mattered which order. I decided to cream the shortening and sugar, add the eggs, then the fruit. The fruit was a problem. I sort of anticipated that my KitchenAid 5-Quart Tilt-Head Stand Mixer would moosh up the fruit within the batter of other ingredients. That was not the case. The batter coated and clung to the the whole prunes. For a brief moment I considered plucking the prunes out of the batter, rinsing them off, and cutting them up, but then I decided, Hey, live like Julia!  She was the queen bee of see what happens when you do x instead of y. I took the remaining prunes in the package, chopped them into fine pieces, and added them and the chopped nuts to the batter.

The recipe didn't call for a greased pan, but I opted for the old-school method of rubbing shortening over the surface and coating it with flour. Then I poured the batter. It was the color of rich butterscotch, heavy and smooth-- a little thicker than the hot fudge I pour onto a marble slab for cooling. I decided not to bang the pan a couple times as I typically would with a cake that had air bubbles. (I don't even know if bakers actually tap cake pans; it's how I was taught, so I do it.)

I baked the cake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. After cooling about five minutes, a two-inch wide strip in the center of the cake fell about 1/2 inch. That was disappointing, but it didn't affect the taste.

I served it warm with a dollop of whipped cream. If I were serving it cold, I'd consider a cream cheese frosting, similar to what you might put on carrot cake. Or you could warm it and serve it with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream.

It has an earthy, rich flavor with a hint of molasses-type sweetness. It's a forgiving recipe--you can go  x instead of y--that turns out a hearty autumn treat.

Serve it to those you love--

And those you unlove, if you can.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Having Faith

"Cooking a huge, complicated meal out of Mastering is also a terrific idea."

                                                    ~Karen Karbo      Julia Child Rules  

Last Thursday, I found two recipes in the Goodwill bins. Today, my grandaughter (great-granddaughter technically, but relationships aren't about technicalities) Faith is here for the week-end, and she always loves to cook. She's four, and doesn't quite read, so I read the directions to her while she studies the picture, then she follows the steps that she remembers. Sometimes she adds a few steps of her own.

Faith and I started out by watching a classic moment between Julia Child and David Letterman.

Faith laughed when Letterman asked Julia what she did if something didn't turn out.

"I give it to my husband," Julia said.

Apparently, even four-year-old Faith understood the humor in that.

One of the recipes I'd found at the bins sounded so awful that I thought it would be funny to prepare as part of my Live Like Julia challenge: the perfect example of terrible 70s food. It came from the 1975 General Mills Betty Crocker Step-by-Step Recipes card set, and is designated as an "In-Betweener" menu item, apparently meaning it would be a great option to serve between meals.

Or, in this case, it's a great thing to cook if you're skill set is somewhere between four years old and Julia Child.

The recipe is called "Snack Thins."

After Faith and I washed our hands, we assessed what she'd need to prepare this recipe. First, she needed a footstool so she could reach the counter top. "If you're too tall, you don't need a stool," Faith says.

Then we gathered the ingredients.

First, you measure the dry ingredients. Faith likes to use the finger leveling method.

Faith likes to pat all dry ingredients down to remove any air pockets. This is one of  her special techniques. Besides, it's fun to see the flour fluff up the first couple times you pat it.

Next, you add the liquid ingredients and the cheese, then stir until it forms a soft dough. "It gets hard to stir," Faith says, "so you have to hold the bowl."

Now you spread the dough onto a greased cookie sheet. The Betty Crocker recipe called for it to be patted flat onto the pan, but Faith decided she would rather roll it out with a junior-size rolling pin. Faith says, "Sprinkle a little flour on top before you roll or it gets all stuck."

It's always good to check the recipe once you've finished a step. This would be especially important for any of Julia Child's more complicated recipes, but it's even important for Faith when following Betty Crocker Step-by-Step Recipe cards.

The recipe calls for Vienna Sausage. Faith calls them "corndogs" but they are the small can of Libby's you can find near the sardines and tuna in your favorite grocery store. Dump the slimy juice out and put the "corndogs" on a cutting mat.

Cut half of the corndogs in circles and half of the corndogs the long way so they look like rectangles. If you are four years old, make sure a grown-up helps you.

Arrange the corndogs on top of the rolled out dough. Press them down into the dough so they are almost flush with the dough.

If you forget the pattern that you were trying to follow, look again at the recipe card. Study the photograph carefully.

When you've pressed all of the corndogs into the dough, set the tray near the recipe so you can compare how well you've done. If you're satisfied with the arrangement, "bake until golden brown, 8 to ten minutes." (That is from the official  Betty Crocker recipe.)

Carefully remove the hot pan from the oven, or, if four years old, have an adult help you. Put on the longest oven mitts you have to protect your forearms. Suck in your belly so it doesn't touch the hot pan. Use a pizza cutter to cut up the tasty-looking Snack Thins.

Feel proud of your culinary skills. Serve with a smile.

If you would like to hear the adapted recipe from Faith herself, click on
Faith's Directions for Making Snack Thins.

It's not beef bourguignon, but in Faith's words, "Actually, these are pretty good!"

Julia Child never seemed to feel dismayed if something turned out pretty good instead of excellent. She just kept after it, modifying the recipe.

Having Faith made everything right.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Page Was Loose Anyway

"Men have an easier time amusing themselves than women do. ... Women, when they aren't taking care of their families or working, spend their "free" time improving themselves. They go to the gym, shop, get their nails done, or rededicate themselves to eating clean or meditating often."
                                                    ~Karen Karbo      Julia Child Rules  

I've been thinking about this section of Karen's latest book, "Rule No. 3: Learn to Be Amused" and hadn't made much headway in figuring it all out. I'm not academically schooled in the theories and history of feminism or its antipodean points of view, and although I have leftist leanings compared to some women who remained in the isolated Pacific Northwest communities where I grew up, most of my muddled views of role and gender are about inclusion and good old-fashioned why-can't-everybody-just-get-along?

So imagine my phenomenological delight when I stumbled across a book discarded in a bin. But, first:

I started the morning at Annie Bloom's with  Cynthia Whitcomb where we perused the aisles for the nominees for the National Book Awards and the much-advertised banned books.

I purchased a couple books and we walked to a restaurant around the corner for lunch. Then, with our two-hour parking nearing expiration, we parted ways.

I got a little lost making my way out of Multnomah area, and managed to backtrack through neighborhoods toward the Sellwood Bridge.

I thought, 'I haven't been to the bins for a while. I should stop.'

I think it's actually called the Goodwill Outlet Store, but everyone I know calls it "the bins."  (You can read about the bin experience in Justin Wescoat Sander's Portland Mercury article  Junk's Last Chance.)

In case you haven't been there, and don't care to brave it yourself, here's what it looks like, only the room is about four times as large because I was standing in the middle of the store when I took this.

I'm not a frequent bin shopper so one of the problems is I'm not that great at bin etiquette. In particular, I forget to watch out for the employees who roll these large mobile bins into place. Today, one had to ask me to get out of the way while a gaggle of regulars grinned. "Sorry, sorry," I said, moving on to a bin without so many onlookers. (New bins  attract a group of regulars who quickly pick through for items of value.)

A typical bin looks about like this. There are clothing bins (My friend Dani recovers abandoned wool sweaters to repurpose into beautiful one-of-a-kind mittens.) and book bins, but many of the bins are a mixed up mess of what-have-yous that have been donated for resale. This is not everyone's idea of amusement, but it's one of the ways that I can quiet my mind because I become completely immersed in the task of looking at other people's cast-off crap. In particular, I like to look for teensy toys that I take when I go to visit my CASA kids. (It's like a bin except it's a cigar box full of cute, clean tiny toys.)

So today, I was pawing around though all the detritus that the bins had to offer when I came across an older book with a pure white cover. (Okay, it didn't look that pure.)

I should have known. But you'll recall that I mentioned I am not well educated in the opposing points of view related to a woman's place in society. (For the sake of honesty, I'll confess that I had a good idea this wouldn't shake out on Betty Friedan's end of the stick.)

I couldn't resist opening it.

Ewwww. Ick.

I felt like I wanted to take a shower, and it wasn't only the grime on my hands from the unknown origins of all the stuff I'd handled on my way to this relic. It's a relic, right? Nobody believes that shit anymore. Right?

You know how sometimes you happen across something and you just know you should turn away? A couple having a private moment in a public place? A horrible accident?  But you look anyway?

Yeah, like that.

I flipped to page 99, and there were SIX RULES FOR MAKING HIM FEEL LIKE THE SUPERIOR MALE.

I slapped the book shut, then lifted the cover, you know, to see if maybe the text had changed. Maybe it was my imagination that these counter-feminist books really exist to encourage women to act like little girls so men will find them attractive. (Attractive? I have been a foster mother and child advocate for too many real little girls that men violated to think it's cute to perpetuate this kind of shit.)

Inside the cover, the book was designated as a "loaning copy" and included the author's return address label.

The copyright was 1963. This was a first edition.

I like first editions.

I feel sad when people deface books, even books that have been cast off to the bins.

You know, sometimes pages are loose in those old books.

You know, at the bins you can buy one piece of Monopoly money or one checker or one page out of a book if you want.

You know, I bought page 99.

You know I did.

Any woman that bought this book would definitely not need to know these six rules.

The page was loose anyway.

It was just begging to be bought.

I'm not the kind of woman to make a page feel bad about itself.

I looked up the author. She passed away a few years ago which is sad for her family, but I was happy to imagine (for one glorious moment) that her ability to give bad advice to woman would have faded away.

Not so.

Bantam published a new edition in January 2007.

You know what I did when I saw that? The only thing a woman could do.

I looked for a recipe to cook for my husband. Because if I'm going to make like a woman, I want to cook something exactly right. Julia was a fabulous chef, and none of my posts have been about cooking even though I like to cook, and have cooked many meals for my many children and my mostly nice and polite and loyal and trustworthy husband who has never, ever once asked me to act like a little girl so that he could feel like a man. (Maybe that sentence should read who never, ever once has asked...  Does has need to be beside its verb asked?)

And, Reader, are you ever going to be pleased with me, because I have not one, but two, totally old-school recipes that I found in the bins. I'm going to rustle them up tomorrow.

I might even put on an apron.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Want to Stop the Mass Shootings?

Get rid of guns.

Or... get involved with a child in need.

Can you imagine the hopelessness a child feels to paint a picture like this?

You are a mother. Or a father. A sister, a brother, an uncle, an aunt. You have people you love. Imagine those people being stripped from you and placed in another family that none of you know.

Imagine being the child who is plucked from home: the bed (his covers, his sheets, his pillow), the refrigerator, the yard where he plays. She is placed in a new home where it looks and smells different. He doesn’t have his pet dog to hug. She’s not allowed to bring her kitten. He’s going to miss Outdoor School. She doesn't even have any of her own clothes. Tomorrow, she's going to go to a new school, meet new peers, wearing somebody else's underwear and socks. A borrowed backpack. 

You don’t need to be an expert to understand that foster children grieve. Their parents are hurting. These families need more than a bureaucracy has to offer and more than a court can order. They need someone to hear their story, help them imagine a new way of being, someone who can encourage the parents while advocating for the child. The child comes first but that doesn’t mean the parents don’t matter.

Imagine your mother with all her flaws. Imagine your father with all his failings. Imagine you are a child again.

Imagine you are plucked from your family and placed in a better home for your own good.

Imagine your spouse removed from your home and placed where he’d get more attention. More opportunities. Could your marriage sustain the separation of your husband or wife living with another partner while you learned to better meet their needs?

Can you feel your heart break?

We do this to children all the time. It’s called foster care.

Children need to be safe. No question about that. But children also need deeply rooted attachment to adults they love. They need stability of heart as much or more than they need stability of place.

Who needs your help?
  • The child with chronic medical issues whose mother has no health insurance and no transportation to get him to so many appointments.
  • The children whose mother is incarcerated.
  • The child whose parent has died and the other parent has never worked outside the home.
  • The children whose father who doesn’t qualify for public assistance because the money he earns picking up cans by the roadside is counted against him.
  • The child with a single parent who cannot walk away when they are angry because there is nobody else to watch the child. No other parent to step in when the temper is about to flare to dangerous levels. 
  • The child who needs medical treatment the parents don’t believe in or understand.
  • The child whose relative has a medical marijuana grow operation and is the only adult the child has ever lived with.
  • The child who has mental illness that the parent cannot manage their behavior.
  • The child born without organs whose parents cannot afford to care for him.
  • The child whose parent is suicidal.
  • The children who are living in a campground because they lost their home.
  • The child with learning disabilities for whom the school district refuses to provide services.
  • The child of an alcoholic.
  • The child of an impoverished mother.
  • The child we might, any one of us, have been.

Imagine that you are the  mother or father who is failing to measure up. You would fix it, right? You would solve the problem to keep your child.

Imagine you have no money.

Imagine you are unemployable because of low cognitive abilities, lack of training, mental illness, criminal record.

Imagine you are struggling with addiction. (Some of you are, we already know, because at least 10% of the adult population does.) Imagine you are not one of the lucky ones whose spouse, mother, father, sister, brother, helps babysit, caretake, or pick up the pieces when you fall apart.

Imagine that you are one of the lucky ones with adequate resources and skills to parent well. Imagine helping someone who is not so lucky.

Imagine that I asked you to help me out for a while because I was in a difficult patch. A dozen of you would reach out within minutes to do anything I asked, anything at all, because you know me.

Imagine helping someone you don’t know.  Imagine me asking you for that.

One child.

You can do it. Pick up the phone and call Child Advocates at 503-723-0521*.  Yes, you.
Say, “I’d like to become a CASA.”

It will change your life. More importantly, it will change the life of a child.

Two years later, maybe the same child will paint this picture.

Maybe there will be one less person in despair. One less mass killing on the evening news.

*If you live outside the Portland, Oregon area, you can go to MY LOCAL CASA PROGRAM to locate the CASA volunteer program nearest you. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

I Noodle Around

In Julia Child Rules, Karen Karbo writes, "Rather than resolving to get your act together or your ducks in a nothing. ...find things that give you pleasure."

But what?

I scan over the list of activities I used to do when I was chillaxin' and they included watching the clouds, climbing a tree to watch people from an unseen vantage point, driving aimlessly, skipping rocks, and hopping around the yard on a red rubber ball.

What these all have in common is that they give my head space to think about stuff that doesn't need to be done or solved or completed, just thoughts ambling along, forming and reforming themselves like clouds in the sky. Daydreaming. Musing. Conjuring. Although, it's more like having a million scraps of confetti in my head and I'm moving them around, making patterns, making scenarios or equations or images that amuse me. Like puzzles, but with no right answer.

About a decade ago, I was talking to a friend who mentioned that he didn't know much about his past. In conversation, he said that one grandfather came from England and settled in Iowa as a miner, a grandmother had come over by ship as a teenager to be married in the Mormon Church, and something (the detail escapes me now) about Wales.

Imagine what a brain that likes to shuffle bits of imaginary paper could do with such a wide open landscape.

I learned to research genealogy.

I located not only the kind of information one finds on family trees, but photographs and family stories. When I shared the information with him, he brought out his family album of unlabeled dead white guys. Based on my research, I was able to help him attach names to many of those photos.

Another friend asked me to locate information about her birth father and his relatives because her mother refused to talk about it. I was able to find several generations of her family tree.

Entering the world of genealogy buffs is like traveling to a new country where you meet acquaintances you'll never (virtually) see again, but who, for a moment, play a pivotal role in your moments together. They have a photograph of Great Uncle Syd that you didn't know existed. They know the name of the ship that grandfather Burtle came from Germany on. It is like a vast carpet of threads knotted in places, and with loose ends in all directions. You wander along one thread until you get stuck or you meet someone who can tell you what you need. Or you pick a different thread and wander that way for a while.

My family was fractured when I was a child. My mom and dad divorced, my siblings were separated, and after a time, I moved with my father, one brother, and my new mom. I never saw a picture of myself as a baby or toddler until I was an adult. I first saw my birth announcement when I was pushing forty. Gaps in your memory create gaps in your personal narrative. I can't bear to throw someone else's photographs away.
I dated a man for only a couple months in 1980. He had two darling little boys, and I carried that snapshot with me through over fifteen moves.

Finally, in 2012, I located the man on online, and asked if he would like the two photographs. His life circumstances were such that he had very few photographs and was happy to get them.

It wasn't the giving of the photo that was the part that kept me amused--although I was happy to get them to someone who would love them--but the niggling at the threads of a life to locate the man's address thirty years later.

Since then, I've made a hobby of buying family photographs or memorabilia that are marked with identifying information (the thread I will tease) so that I can find some family member who may treasure it. I buy these at antique stores or thrift stores and rarely spend over three dollars for the item. Because there is little information to go on, it often takes me a year or more to locate a relative.

One treasure that I couldn't pass up, even though it was $19.99 at the Goodwill, was a 12" round hand painted photograph of a little girl.

The photo was taken by Roye Studio and on the back, in ink from a fountain pen, it was labeled "Property of Mrs. Fred Guenther,  Spokane, WA."

The 1930 census for Portland, Oregon showed a Fred Guenther born in 1885, with a wife Orlia, and a daughter Betty, born in 1922. I surmised this might be Betty.

Through online genealogy communities, I located a woman in Colorado whose grandmother was a sister to Orlia Guenther. I mailed her the framed photograph and when she received it she was so excited. It was her great great aunt's child.

This diversion is something to do in the evenings when my mind is tired and I just want to dink around on the computer before I go to bed.  Some people do crossword puzzles or Suduko. Some grab virtual golden coins on video screens to earn extra lives. Some people knit; others crochet.

I noodle.

I finger the virtual threads of family tapestries to reconnect the place where they unraveled, so I can share some tangible token from their ancestor's past.

I have a few things I'm currently noodling for sheer amusement:
  • A letter from Dottie Noble from Elmore, Minn dated 12/28/1954.
  • A leather German Bible inscribed (in German) from my mother, Katharina Ruder 6 February 1914
  • A postcard to B H McSwiney  in Dayton, Ohio dated 2/8/1906
If any of them are related to you, give a shout. And if not, oh well. Take time to noodle in the way you love best. Find something to amuse yourself. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Rule No 3: Learn to Be Amused

I thought Karen Karbo's third chapter of Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life would be amusing. Instead, Karen takes us along Julia's path of early adulthood, including the death of Julia's mother, her failed first love, her failed attempts at employment. Along the way, we discover Karbo lost her own mother shortly after her eighteenth birthday. Despite the serious events in both women's lives, each found ways to wile away their time.

"You don't need to have the life you want to enjoy the life you have," Karbo writes. Her solution: Learn to be amused. By that, she means engaging in activities or tasks that "can make our otherwise unsatisfactory lives, satisfactory."

You notice, she didn't say, "Laugh your head off." She didn't say, "Have a great time!" She didn't even admonish us with the platitude, "Do what you love."

Let me quote Karen again: Learn to be amused.


She probably didn't mean for me to reach for a dictionary, but I did. The definition feels lacking so I search for the etymology of "amuse" online. offers this:

amuse (v.)late 15c., "to divert the attention, beguile, delude," from Middle French amuser "divert, cause to muse," from a "at, to" (but here probably a causal prefix) + muser "ponder, stare fixedly" (see muse (v.)). Sense of "divert from serious business, tickle the fancy of" is recorded from 1630s, but through 18c. the primary meaning was "deceive, cheat" by first occupying the attention. Bemuse retains more of the original meaning. Related: Amused; amusing.

Ohhhh! I get it.

UH-MUSED. Doing things that occupy my body with non-productive activity so my mind can swirl around like steam rising from a boiling pot. The steam has nothing to do with what I'm about to cook. It's a by-product of the process. We give it no attention whatsoever unless, for example, we inadvertently burn ourselves because we forget it's there.

What do I do to be amused? The short answer: nothing. Too many clothes to wash, floors to sweep, bills to pay. There are too many meals to cook, dishes to wash, rugs to Febreze. When I take time to relax, I do (as Karen points out) get a manicure, a pedicure, a massage. I shop for things I've been meaning to buy. Do lunch with friends I've been meaning to see. Read a book I've been meaning to read. Purposeless behavior? Moi?

Then I remember, amusing myself used to be my specialty. Only when I think back to it, I hear labels like Irresponsible. Reckless. Immature. (Whose voice is that, anyway?)

I bought fake ID and snuck into the Gorilla Room. Violated no trespassing signs. Climbed aboard a foreign ship in the dead of night. Smoked a few cigarettes and more than a few joints. Woke up in closets I didn't recognize. But I'm looking to go a little deeper. Past the easy distraction of being stoned or drunk. Past the amusement of the come-on, the pick-up, and the uh-oh-morning wave goodbye.

How did I used to amuse myself?

Reclined on the grass and watched the clouds.
Picked a bushy branch from a shrub, held it behind my butt, and cantered like a horse.
Climbed a tree and watched people from the V in the branches.
Turned up the radio/eight track tape/cassette/CD and drove. Where? Nowhere. Anywhere. Just drove.
I sat inside large truck tires on a playground, my finger tracing the line where the pool of water had dried up, leaving the mosquito larvae to die.
I whispered. I giggled. I twirled.
I learned to square dance.
I skipped rocks.
I imagined loving boys (and men) who would never love me.
I wrote long letters I would never mail. And some I did.
I hopped around on a red rubber ball.

Can I reclaim my ability to be amused?

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Masks We Sometimes Wear

I took this photograph the second time we traveled to Disneyland.

I thought it was a funny parallel to how Disney attempts to make every child believe they could be Cinderella or Prince Charming. The restaurant where we ate lunch gave these masks out as children's menus. After lunch, we stepped out in the bright light, and I snapped this shot.

Years later, when I came across the photograph, I saw it as a symbol for foster care. How one-size-fits-all social work and surrogate homes fail to see the individual child's needs. Behind each mask a child has his or her own story. How the child welfare system makes Pinocchio's of us all:

You're only staying for a little while.
You get to move home when school gets out.
Your mommy is learning how to be a better mom.

For many of the children caught up in foster care, the move home doesn't come soon enough, or at all. Children move from one foster home to another, then the next. The "little while" grows into months and years and in the child's mind, all those who told him to be patient are now untrustworthy adults.

I remember sitting in a hearing where a social worker told the judge that the mother had not made the necessary changes but the agency was going to give her another few months. Her children had been waiting three years to go home.

"We ask," I said to the judge when he finally called on me, "children to do what adults cannot. Who among us could sustain a marriage for three years while we lived in some other lover's home? Yet we ask children to settle down. Be a kid. Care about your foster parents while you wait for your "real" parents to get help."

All across America, children wait. Six months go by. A year. Two years.

The Blue Fairy said, "Now, remember, Pinocchio: be a good boy. And always let your conscience be your guide."

As if being good would make the difference.

I read a quote by a now-adult foster child that said, "Evaluating my head can't tell you what I'm feeling in my heart."

Or, I'd add, what's hiding behind the mask we all wear.

The judges who, in fifteen minute hearings, are required to make life and death decisions about whether children remain in care or go home.

The social workers who set out to protect children, yet must strive to reunite the family.

The family members, most of them wrestling poverty, addiction, or mental health issues, who give their best (even when their best will never be enough) to get treatment, counseling, a job, housing, parent training, and make it to visits using public transportation.

The foster parents (who believe what they are told by the caseworkers, the children, the counselors but rarely the birth parents) whose own stories are fraught with loss and fear and failings.

The long nose of child welfare grows despite everyone's best efforts.

"A fine conscience I turned out to be!" said Jiminy Cricket.

For nineteen years I have volunteered as a CASA because I've wanted to be part of the solution. But it's hard to immerse oneself in an environment and not begin to see oneself as part of the problem at least some of the time.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Stew In Your Own Passion

In her newest book Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life (available soon at local bookstores, including Broadway Books and Annie Bloom's) Karen Karbo writes, "'s life is enriched immeasurably if you're able to find an abiding passion. You don't have to be good at it, it just has to be something that would consume every waking hour if you let it."

Enter my years as a foster parent. In the decade 1992 through 2002, my husband and I fostered over thirty-two children.

Passion: It will fill your life if you let it.

Who knows the origin of such an urge? Maybe it was the motley crew of pets we had when I was a child: the assorted cats and dogs, both purebred and mongrel.

The cat I dressed in doll clothes and pushed around in a stroller.

Our dog Ginger, a Sheltie, my brother Jimmy and I loved but Mom hated because the dog yapped all the time.

Or the wild animal pets:
The raccoon cub that grew up and lived in our house for a couple years before it wandered off.

The river otter that my came as a pup after his mother was run over by a log truck.

As a teenager, I transitioned from caretaking family pets to horses and younger children. I spent a lot of time babysitting my little sister, affectionately known as Punky.

She just looks like a kid you'd call Punky, right? (I think the photo credit for this picture goes to my Uncle Jim, but I'm not certain.)

I trained a two-year-old filly to show at the county fair.

Surely, my entrance into the world of foster care must have been due, in part, to the Braack family who took me in when I was five.

I was a little girl who needed a family for a while. Doug, Pat, and their four daughters welcomed me
into their home.

As a young woman I became pregnant at twenty-two, a single parent at twenty-three. By the time I was twenty-six, Punky and another sister had come to live with me. I was eager to caretake others, so it was natural to open my home to them. I was bossy. I was opinionated. I was attentive.

You don't have to be good at it, it just has to be something that would consume every waking hour if you let it.

After my sisters seized hold of their own lives; after I married my husband; after his three grandchildren came to live with us, you might think I would settle down with my hubby and five children and think, "Well, now, I believe I'll just rest on my laurels."

But, no.

Some people are surprised to learn that over 58% of all Americans have personal experience with adoption: they, or someone they know, have adopted or relinquished a child for adoption. Nearly 2% of all American children live in adoptive homes. These numbers are a constant reminder that everywhere we turn, children need support.

I knew firsthand what it feels like to be a motherless child. All those years later, I opened my doors and said, "Come on in."

Twenty years later, I sat down to write what I had learned. Mother Up is the story of how I became the woman who says yes to children. "Yes," to foster children who needed a home. "Yes," to truant kids who needed support. "Yes," to students who required intervention to stay in school. Yes, yes, yes!

Mother Up is my newly completed memoir about my transformation from an uneducated, exhausted, single mother of twins to an expert foster mom sought after by child welfare agencies as a care giver for difficult-to-place children. It is the story of a child without a voice coming into her own as an advocate who speaks on behalf of a child.

Passion--the passion that Karbo recognizes in Julia Child--is what drives me to care about what happens to the children, and mothers, and fathers in this world. The competent ones. The incompetent ones. The hurt, discouraged,and frightened ones. The ones that nobody wants to stand beside because of the things they have said or done.

You don't have to be good at it, it just has to be something that would consume every waking hour if you let it.

It took Julia two hundred eighty-four pounds of white flour to perfect her recipe for Pain Francais.

It took 1600 pounds of laughing, squirming, bickering, impish children to help me better understand myself.

Here's one of them, learning to make pie.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Oyster Stew and White Flour

If I had to eat oyster stew, I'd be thin as a rail. Everything about oysters as a food choice disgusts me: the color, the consistency, the surface sheen, the ooiey-gooey-ishness of them that seems to cry, "HELP, I LOST MY SHELL." They approximate the nightmare version of the Wicked Witch of the West after she melted. So skip the oysters and pass the pain de mie. I am a woman after Julia's heart when it comes to eggs, butter, and flour.

But now, at my Best Middle-Aged _________ (fill in the blank) stage of my life, my medical chart includes hypertension and obese which is enough to send any middle-aged American woman's blood pressure through the roof.

(Fuck digital medical records that let you see what your doctors actually say about you. Okay, forgive the f-bomb. It slipped. But they don't use words like chubby or rotund or Rubenesque. They use the O word. And not the good O word.)

I've undertaken this Live Like Julia week with a fervor. Ironically, it means that I'm applying my passion and focus to making healthy choices (a euphemism that almost begs for another f-bomb) to improve my digital medical record--I mean, my health--instead of cooking the rich, delectable delights from Julia's cookbooks.

Like everybody (or maybe it's only the bodies I know) I like to have things the moment I want them.

Not so much how life works.

I've read "Rule #9: Make the World Your Oyster (Stew)" like, fifteen times in the last week. Since I've committed to stop overthinking things in my own head, I'm trying to get into Julia's, or at least Julia-as-channeled-by-Karen. Tonight I got fifteen pages in before I found the gold nugget.

Karbo writes, "This recipe (Pain Francais) is seventeen pages long." It took Julia and M. Paul Beck, two hundred and eighty-four pounds of white flour to develop the recipe.

The pearl for today?

Take your time.
Take as long as you need.
Take as long as it takes to get it right.

I didn't build this pasty white baguette of a body overnight and it's going to take some big-ass effort, some bad-ass attitude, and some serious-ass Julia Child's perseveration to improve conditions resulting from years of neglect.

My favorite position for my feet is shown above. This is why reading is such a delight. Feet up, brain engaged, dog snuggled.

Tomorrow morning I'm going to tuck those toes into a pair of New Balance tennies and walk the path I've decided to walk. I'm going to take as much time as it takes.

Thanks, Julia.

And thanks, Karen Karbo, for issuing an invitation to #LiveLikeJulia.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Rule 9, Subsection D: Hog the spotlight

"No one told Julia that middle-aged women weren't allowed to hog the spotlight..." writes Karen Karbo. Julia wasted no time whining that there were already too many cooks in the kitchen(s). She made space for herself.

I don't remember worrying about hogging the spotlight or being the center of attention when I was younger. As a toddler, I didn't seem to mind being center stage on       my grandfather's lap.

Later, when I was a single mother, I signed my three-year-old
 twin sons up for tap dancing and I got roped into joining an adult
jazz class.

I didn't dream we'd be asked to squeeze
into red sequin-spangled spandex dresses.
You can see that I wasn't built for tiny
tube dresses. My arms weren't made
for long sleek gloves. Still, I was more
like Julia then. I focused on the fact
that I had all the right (if not right-sized) equipment, the correct costume, and
I knew the dance steps. I lit a smile
and sashayed onstage to I Will Survive.

In the years that came next, when I prepared hundreds of sack lunches and mated millions of pairs of socks, I forgot what it was to be the center of attention unless it was focused on other people's needs, wants, and desires.

Julia's principle reminds me that it's not only sometimes necessary, or acceptable, to hog the spotlight,  getting attention can be fun. Take a new haircut, for example, which I happened to get today (I show a little lobe now!) or  getting a massage. My brain races like it's in NASCAR trial. Or when my brain slows down, words pop up one by one like the old "bouncing ball" reading filmstrips you may be too young to remember. Filmstrips? (They were a real treat when I was in fourth grade.)

I feel uncomfortable in the spotlight even when I'm supposed to be the center of attention. That's why Rule #9 is such a great chapter for me to tackle: I need to remember that the pearl doesn't worry if it's outshining the oyster. Like Julia, it just takes the space it needs to become what it is meant to be.