Sunday, September 21, 2014

Running...some suggestions for getting started and keeping it going

I started running maybe a year and a half ago.  For several months, I had been walking around my neighborhood each evening.  One day, I just started running instead.  I still do a combination of walking and running, as this has allowed me to keep going and gradually improve my endurance, distance, and speed.

The hardest thing most days is just getting out the door.  When I started walking regularly a couple of years ago, I was trying to interrupt my pattern of veg-ing out on the couch every evening, which almost always led to mindless snacking while I read my book or watched the Red Sox with my husband.

So, to get myself out the door, I'd promise myself I could have that snack when I returned from my walk.  And it's like magic.  Rarely do you even want it by the time you get back.

Other times, I'd tell myself, "You only have to go one time around the neighborhood."  But then, once you get out there, usually, you keep going.

Now that I run, I love the above meme (and many variations on it that I've seen), and it's often my mantra when I get going.  Just get through the first mile, and it generally gets a lot better as you go.

So, I guess that makes Rule 1--lie to yourself/trick yourself, and Rule 2--keep going/don't give up too soon.

Rule 3--listen to music. (Not a hard and fast rule, as every once in awhile, it's nice to just run with no accompaniment except your own breathing and the occasional bird flying by.  But most of the time, music makes it go by faster.)  One of these days, I'll share what I've been listening to...for awhile my favorite was the Weather Girls singing "It's Raining Men." Recently, I've been playing Old Crow Medicine Show and Paul Thorn tunes over and over again.  Don't ask.

Rule 4--you can zone out to some degree, but you've also got to stay alert, especially if you've got your ear buds in and the music turned way up.  People and dogs and cars and birds and lots of other things come out of nowhere.  So, keep your eyes open and be safe!

Rule 5--run no matter what.  No excuses.  It's been so hot this summer, but I've still gone out almost every evening, rain or shine.  Or go in the morning if that's your thing.  (Personally, I only drink coffee first thing in the morning, and it's just not something I'm ready to change.)  But get out there.  The beauty of having stuck with it all summer is now it's fall.  It's amazing how much faster and farther you can run when you start to feel a little coolness in the air. 

Rule 6--you don't have to kill yourself.  I take off every Tuesday because I have choir practice.  I usually go out most other days.  But every day doesn't have to be your fastest and your farthest.  I gauge this on how I feel, and it's worked well.  But there is all sorts of guidance out there if you want a running plan--couch to 5K or whatever.  It's about having fun and feeling good, so push yourself, but don't go crazy.

Rule 7--keep track.  I use the Map My Run app, and once I figured out a few of its quirks and got it synced up with my music, it worked great.  Now that I've been using it for awhile, it's great to look back at how far I've come.  A year ago this time, I was running a 36-minute 5K (3.1 miles).  Yesterday, I did it in 34 and a half minutes.  Progress.

If you're social, find a running buddy.  If you're more of an introvert like me, just get out there and let your mind wander.  It's heavenly, really.  Set some goals.  Early on, I signed up for a few 5Ks, and now I'm looking for a 10K to do.  Next year, a half marathon, for sure!  I'll never be super fast, but I'm a whole lot faster than the couch potato I used to be.  So, that's something.

I never thought I would be a runner.  Give it a try.  You might be as pleasantly surprised as I have been.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Puzzles...Waste of time or Way of Life?

About two weeks ago, Ben found this jigsaw puzzle in my closet.  I knew it was in there, but I was ignoring it.  I thought it might be fun to bring out around Thanksgiving.  You know, work on it during the holidays when family is visiting, and everyone can fit in a few pieces here and there until...voila...somewhere around the new year, it's magically finished.

Yeah, right.  This is my problem with puzzles.  I love them too much.  I become obsessed.  Like a good book you plan to put down right after you finish the next chapter...or as we used to say to our mom when we were kids..."just let me find a good stopping place!"

Once that puzzle was opened, I was a goner. Just one more piece, just one more piece.  Needless to say, it's cut into my reading time, my writing time, and my sleeping time.  And it's still sitting out there on the table taunting me.  Just a few more pieces to go, and the elusive grapes will be complete.

I realized, though, as I was sitting there, scanning the pieces for the correct shape with just the right color combination, that the puzzle is not the problem.  The problem is that never-ending quest to keep life in balance, to figure things out, to make good decisions.  I need the puzzle.

Just like when I go running, working on a puzzle gives me the time and solitude I crave.  Time to think, or not think.  How often do we just allow ourselves to be?  It reminds me of what my pastor says about prayer...don't forget to be quiet and listen.  Oh yeah.  That.

I always know progress is going to be slow when I'm actually thinking about the piece that I need...when I'm lining them up and methodically looking at each one to see if I can find the one that will fit.  This technique works, but it's slow going, boring, and frustrating.  When I find myself doing this, I know it's time to get up from the table and turn my attention to something else.

The beauty of the puzzle is that when you return to it in the right state of mind, after awhile, you slip into this zone.  The right pieces come into focus and start fitting in more and more easily.  And you feel like you aren't consciously doing anything at all.  You let go, and the puzzle almost puts itself together. 

I definitely need the puzzle.  It reminds me not to try so hard.  Take breaks sometimes.  Be quiet.  Listen.  Be.  How it all fits together will eventually become clear.  Yeah.  That.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Parenting (from one who usually just knows what NOT to do but occasionally gets it right): the ugly, the good, and the bad

Confession time...I let my youngest child eat too many chicken nuggets.  Don't judge me. Or do.  Just keep it to yourself.

The Ugly

So, we returned to McDonald's today. Last time was so unexpectedly heart-warming, I was willing to go back sooner than usual.  Sadly, this time was much more what you'd expect.  Worse actually.

After Ben and I sat down, I heard a very angry dad at the table behind us.  He was reading his kid the riot act, "I can't believe you are treating ME like this!  This was supposed to be a treat, but if YOU are going to behave this way, I will NEVER do this again."  And on and on.  You get the picture.

I finally turned around, expecting to see him yelling at some six- or seven-year-old boy, who I was picturing squirming around with ketchup on his head or something.  God knows, I've been there.

Instead, I see a little girl sitting very quietly in a high chair.  She's maybe three years old, and she is not uttering a peep.  Just staring wide-eyed as her dad berates her.  Mom is sitting there too, looking tired, also not moving and not saying a word.

Turns out, dad is mad because little girl is not eating her food.  So, he threatens her until she eats, and he's literally commanding her step-by-step, "You've got six minutes. Put it in your mouth.  Now chew. Now swallow." And on and on.

He finally bullied the poor kid through her meal, and they all left.  Thank God.

The guy was just too scary and out-of-control for me to confront.  I'm a wimp, I know.  But I so wanted to talk to him about children's developmental stages, reasonable expectations for toddlers, that sort of thing.  But I figured he'd kill me, and then Ben would've witnessed that in addition to the other hideous behavior that he was clearly baffled and troubled by.

That little girl was just tired and ready for her nap.  Many little ones that age might've been misbehaving, even melting down into a good old-fashioned tantrum.  But this tiny sweetie was too scared of her dad to engage in that sort of age-appropriate behavior.  I shudder to think what that home is like.

The Good

On a more positive note, I had a parenting win this week.  Ben was prescribed a really gross-tasting (and smelling) antibiotic, and he cried for 30 minutes after swallowing the first dose.  I'm thinking, we've got nineteen more doses to go over the next 9.5 days, we'd better figure this thing out.

So, after he calmed down, we talked about it and came up with a plan:

1. I squirt the medicine into his mouth with the little syringe thingy rather than him drinking it out of the little cup thingy (no idea why this is preferable, but not a problem, I can accommodate).

2. Ben then immediately drinks his cup of ice water (not plain must be ICE water...again, not a problem, I've got this).

3. Ben then grabs and consumes the popsicle of his choice (can do...those things have been sitting in the freezer untouched all's about time someone eats them).

That simply, the problem is solved, and the following doses have gone perfectly smoothly.  No tears.  I love it when a plan comes together.  I especially love it when my kid demonstrates such excellent problem solving skills.

The Bad

A friend of mine posted on Facebook this week about her recent struggles with her toddler at bedtime.  He stays in bed but cries and cries, and of course, it's driving her nuts.  He wants her to sit with him until he falls asleep, and she is afraid of creating a bad habit.  Sound familiar?!  I think it is mandatory that every parent go through some variation on this theme.

She received a lot of good comments in response to her post, so I never weighed in.  But it did make me think about the special challenges presented by little kids--especially when it's your first kid and you're just learning all the many difficult things they do, which drive you far crazier than you could have ever imagined possible.

I couldn't stand all the crying and getting out of bed when Jack was little, and I definitely went through a too-long phase of lying down with him until he fell asleep.  Eventually, I successfully bribed him with a gift--he stayed in his bed and fell asleep on his own for a whole week, and I rewarded him with some toy or other. Magic.

I don't remember going through anything similar with either Sam or Ben.  Maybe I got better at it, or maybe things just don't bother you as much by the time you get to your second and third kiddo.  Who knows.  I often say that it's worth it to have three children because by the time you get to the third one, you finally feel relatively competent.

Bottom Line

Kids are challenging. Parenting is tough. But how we do it matters. I've just shared examples of the Ugly, the Good, and the Bad (screwed up the order, but what are you gonna do?).

For the Ugly--I pray that guy was just having a really bad day and doesn't routinely behave like a douchebag, terrorizing his wife and kiddo in ways that are going to cause irreparable harm.  Get some help, dude, you'll all feel better.

For the Good--Share what works and those special little victories when you have them.  I've discovered that the calmer I remain, the more simply I focus, and the more I engage with and empower my kids, the better off we all are.  Oh, and we laugh a lot too.  That helps.

For the Bad--Hang in there, take deep breaths.  It doesn't feel like it, but whatever tough phase you are going through truly is temporary.  A new one will come along before you know it, and you will be the old hat giving advice to the new parents in your life.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A busy couple of weeks, and my tribute to English classes past...

Life has been a little crazy by my standards in recent days.  I was in Denver three days last week, and I'm spending most of this week in Orlando.  Apparently, this is the time of year for big child welfare conferences, and I feel privileged to have the opportunity to attend, to learn, and to share.

Last week was a group of kids in foster care, kids who've aged out of foster care, and professionals who work with this population of youth.  This week is the big statewide dependency summit that we have in Florida every year.

Yesterday, I was part of a small team who presented some information to a large group of Florida judges--talk about an intimidating crowd!  But they were attentive and had thoughtful comments and questions--not a heckler in the bunch--and I was fortunate to be presenting alongside some wonderful people, including my colleague and friend, Jen Behnam, who gave a TED talk on the value of permanency, which nearly knocked my socks off.  Jen and people like her are why I get up every day and head to the office with a positive attitude.

So, because I have been out of my beloved routine, I've struggled to find time for my blog.  I've got a bunch of ideas floating around in my head and notes scribbled on paper, but I don't know when I'll have time to develop them into something worth reading.  Therefore, I will go to my fall back position and share with you a piece that I wrote a few years ago after reading a book that continues to resonate with me today...

Jeanette Walls’ memoir, “The Glass Castle,” is a study in contrasts.  The writing is both raw and beautiful, and Walls pulls no punches as she describes her childhood—one of grinding poverty and unbelievable neglect, as well as undeniable examples of an at times almost magical existence with truly unique parents, who although limited by their personal struggles with alcoholism and mental illness, also encouraged in their children incredible spirit, intelligence, strength, and love.

            “The Glass Castle” contains a valuable message for the child welfare world:  We should never become so committed to our particular system of care that it causes us to overlook the individuality of each child and family and the importance of sibling and family bonds.  Even when a child’s experience includes terrible neglect, those experiences belong to the child, contribute to her individuality and strength, and often exist side by side with other experiences that can be quite lovely.

            Jeannette Walls grew up with her brother and two sisters, the children of an artistic mother struggling with mental illness and a brilliant father struggling with alcoholism.  Walls’ earliest memory is from when she was just three years old.  She suffered severe burns as the result of her clothes catching on fire while she was going through her usual routine of preparing hotdogs for herself:

I’d put a chair next to the sink, climb up and fill a glass, then stand on a chair by the stove and pour the water into the pan.  I did that over and over again until the pan held enough water.  Then I’d turn on the stove and when the water was boiling, I’d drop in the hot dogs. ‘Mom says I’m mature for my age,’ I told [the doctors and nurses at the hospital], ‘and she lets me cook for myself a lot.’

            This type of extreme inadequate supervision, while shocking, does not tell the whole story of this family.  Although Walls’ parents had some questionable ideas about child rearing, they loved their children and sometimes showed that love in startlingly beautiful ways.  One Christmas, although the family had no money for presents, their father “took each of us kids out into the desert night one by one” and allowed each child to pick out a star as a present.  When it was Walls’ turn, the “star” she chose turned out to be a planet, and her father responded, “It’s Christmas.  You can have a planet if you want.”  Walls marveled, “And he gave me Venus.”  Later, the children “laughed about all the kids who believed in the Santa myth and got nothing for Christmas but a bunch of cheap plastic toys.  ‘Years from now, when all the junk they got is broken and long forgotten,’ Dad said, ‘you’ll still have your stars.’”

            Later in the book, as her parents struggle to support their family, Walls draws a stark contrast between the hardships in her house and those of a troubled boy in the neighborhood.  Billy is emotionally disturbed and in many ways is much worse off than Walls and her siblings:

The funny thing Billy wanted to show me was in his house, which was dark inside and smelled like pee, and was even messier than our house, although in a different way.  Our house was filled with stuff:  papers, books, tools, lumber, paintings, art supplies, and statues of Venus de Milo painted in different colors.  There was hardly anything in Billy’s house.  No furniture…It had only one room with two mattresses on the floor next to a TV. There was nothing on the walls, not a single painting or drawing.  A naked lightbulb hung from the ceiling, right next to three or four dangling spiral strips of flypaper so thick with flies that you couldn’t see the sticky yellow surface underneath.  Empty beer cans and whiskey bottles and a few half-eaten tins of Vienna sausages littered the floor.  On one of the mattresses, Billy’s father was snoring unevenly.  His mouth hung open, and flies were gathered in the stubble of his beard.  A wet stain had darkened his pants nearly to his knees.

When Walls shares this with her family, her mother takes the opportunity to talk to her daughter about compassion: “She told me I should try to be nice to Billy.  ‘He doesn’t have all the advantages you kids do.’”

            Like many people, Walls’ mother taught her children to be wary of the government.  When Walls approached her after having had nothing to eat for three days but popcorn, her mother refused any suggestion of signing up for benefits such as food stamps:
Mom wouldn’t hear of it.  Welfare, she said, would cause irreparable psychological damage to us kids.  ‘You can be hungry every now and then, but once you eat, you’re okay,’ she said.  ‘And you can get cold for awhile, but you always warm up.  Once you go on welfare, it changes you.  Even if you get off welfare, you never escape the stigma that you were a charity case.  You’re scarred for life.

            At only one point in Walls’ childhood does a child welfare worker show up to check on the family, and Walls, although living in deplorable conditions in a decrepit house without heat, running water, or indoor plumbing, has nothing but fear for what this might mean:

If the child-welfare man got it into his head that we were an unfit family, we’d have no way to drive him off.  He’d launch an investigation and end up sending me and Brian and Lori and Maureen off to live with different families, even though we all got good grades and knew Morse code.  I couldn’t let that happen.  No way was I going to lose Brian and Lori and Maureen.

            As they grow up, Walls and her siblings help each other find ways out of the unstable life of poverty and neglect they have led.  Their parents taught them to think for themselves, and ironically this ultimately leads them to leave their parents and their unstable lifestyle behind.  Sadly, their parents continued to live in the same manner they always had—ending up virtually homeless in New York City, rejecting all offers of assistance by their children.

            “The Glass Castle” is an excellent book that everyone should read just because it is so good.  However, for those of us in the child welfare arena, there are important messages that should inform the work we do every day.  All families are not alike, and we must approach each with respect and compassion.  One size does not fit all, and determining what will work best for a particular family requires true collaboration, creativity, and open-mindedness.  Additionally, just like the Walls family, many are distrustful of the child welfare system and have strong views about what it means to accept help.  A strength-based and family-centered approach is a must.  Of course, this is not always easy and rarely happens overnight.  Finally, we need to really see our kids and hear what they are telling us.  The bonds they have with their brothers and sisters often represent the most important thing in their lives and absent significant evidence to the contrary should be treated as sacred.  We cannot just say these things, we have to recommit ourselves to these principles and find creative ways to fundamentally change our system to embody them.