Wednesday, February 29, 2012


I’ve been volunteering at Katie’s school for several months now. I love it. I’m the reading helper. The kids take home a book each day to practice reading it. The next morning they read it to one of the reading helpers, who counts how many, if any, words the kids needed help reading and records it on a chart to determine if they’re ready to go up a level.

I’m astounded at how fast kids memorize words. The other day Katie brought home a book called “The Woodsy Band Jam.” The title alone is challenging for a five year old, but then one of the woodland creatures in the band plays a fife. A what? I know. I’m a forty-one year old librarian. A professional reader. And I had never seen the word before.

“I guess it’s called a \ˈfīf\,” I said. “If you take the ‘f’ off and replace it with a ‘w’ it would be ‘wife.’”

Katie’s face beamed as we looked at my computer screen to double check the pronunciation.

What a great program my daughter’s school has. I didn’t even begin to learn how to read until first grade. Now my five-year-old’s vocabulary is about to surpass mine.

If it weren’t for volunteers, this reading program would not run as smoothly as it does. In fact, being inside the classroom for an hour and a half each week shows me how incredibly busy the teacher is with her twenty-two young spongy minds. If the other four reading helpers and I weren’t able to take this small amount of time away from our daily lives to help, I bet the program would dissolve.

It sounds like I’m tooting my own fife, but really I mean to toot volunteerism’s fife. I can’t tell you how good it feels each week when I sit with those shining faces and listen to them sound out words like “woodsy”. I always leave my volunteer post, my own face beaming, my heart beating a little faster, my face flushed.

It gets me thinking: more people should volunteer. I’m new to the idea. I always worked full time and didn’t want to spend what little free time I had working somewhere without pay. But since last July when I was able to cut my hours from forty a week to twenty-four a week, I don’t feel so greedy with my free time.

I’ve had good role models. When I was a kid my mom volunteered for the YMCA teaching kids with special needs how to swim. Now, in her seventies, mom volunteers at a Catholic Charities thrift store. My brother volunteers for the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program. My sister visits lonely residents at nursing homes and volunteers for all kinds of duties through her church. My other sister organizes fund raisers for various local causes and is rarely caught on the street without a protein bar in her bag in case someone sparechanges her.

Most of the volunteers I come in contact with at the library are elderly folks. For a long time, other than the do-gooders in my immediate family, I associated volunteers with the Greatest Generation. Most of my younger friends didn’t volunteer. So I worried maybe volunteering would die out when the GG volunteers died out.

But then I read this report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that shows 26.8% of Americans, many of them middle-aged and not just the elderly, volunteered somewhere last year. That’s better than I expected. We can still do better. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could make volunteering cool?

What are some good ways to encourage more of our population to volunteer? Should we create a reality TV show called “Volunteers”? Follow church nursery volunteers and animal shelter volunteers and volunteer search parties as they perform their heroic duties each week on cable. That might pique people’s interest. But I’m not sure sitting on our behinds watching a TV show about volunteering is the same thing as getting off the couch and out there doing something to make this world a better place.

Should we encourage individuals and corporations to volunteer for a community organization if they receive government assistance? I don’t think it should be required, but it wouldn’t hurt to encourage it. Volunteerism should remain voluntary. The government should never become a slave master. Plus, there’s much more pride in the work done if it’s done by someone who wants to be doing it.

What ideas do you have to encourage more Americans to volunteer?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Money Can't Buy Me Love

Here’s a list of the world’s seven richest countries according to

The United States is number seven with a GDP (PPP) per capita of $46,860. Norway is number four with a GDP (PPP) per capita of $51,959. Qatar is number one with a GDP (PPP) per capita of $88,222.

But money can’t buy me love, right?

A very rich man, Sir Paul McCartney penned that song.

According to this article, Norway is the world’s happiest country. The U.N.’s Human Development Index which “measures happiness in different countries based on factors such as income, education, health, life expectancy, economy, gender equality and sustainability” places Norway at the top of the list, the United States at number four, and Qatar at number thirty-seven.

I’m not planning on learning Norwegian just yet. It sounds like a lovely country, but I understand that happiness is relative. I definitely think the Human Development Index is a better way to measure a country’s well being than simply looking at the GDP, but I don’t agree that you can conclude that measuring just income, education, health, life expectancy, economy, gender equality and sustainability gives you an assessment of a country’s happiness. Or that an entire country of people can ever be said to be happy. Happy is not a character trait. Happiness is an emotion that all humans experience periodically. Hopefully every day. If not, something needs to change. But does that change need to be spare change or can people still manage to experience happiness without a lot of money?

Some friends of mine were recently poking fun of Appalachian folks during a discussion about what policies we’d support to counter the crisis of Mountain Dew Mouth hitting that region. Making comments about how they should quit their mining jobs, get a CDL and a truck and get the hell outta there.

I've never been to Appalachia, although I would love to visit. My ex-girlfriend’s mom is from West Virginia. From what I hear, Appalachia is a beautiful area. Snooty folks I hang with make fun of mountain people, but really, are they so stupid to stay put in such a beautiful environment? Yes, there's the abject poverty and the environmental degradation from mining. But who are we to judge that our lives are so much better? Because we have a bigger house and drink coffee instead of Mountain Dew? When I step outside here in the Midwest, I don't see beautiful scenery, just pavement and flat lands. I think poverty of nature is something affluent suburbanites and urbanites should consider before they start passing judgment on so-called hillbillies.

A few years ago my dad and I were having lunch together at our favorite Chinese restaurant. He was telling me about how his stepson at the time had just built a million dollar house in New Mexico. I joked that I had just been bragging about renting my first apartment that had a washer and dryer hookup.

“You’re probably happier than he is.”

I choked on my crab rangoon. I was dumbfounded. What happened to my dad? When did he shrug off his materialism for this new philosophical outlook? My dad, the retired accountant who called me stupid for taking a job at the library in my early twenties since it would mean I’d never make any money. My dad, the newlywed who freely admitted to me that he loved my step-mother’s money and all the traveling and swanky retirement living they could do. My dad, who years later would call asking for help packing to get the hell out of my step-mother’s house when he came to the realization that no amount of money was worth putting up with such an unkind, self-centered, ignorant person.

Of course, if someone in one of the lowest-raking countries on these two lists read my blog post they’d surely think only a person who doesn’t have to worry about where her next meal is coming from is capable of believing such nonsense.

As with most things in life, balance is the key. Having too much money robs the soul, but having too little money stresses the body. I get anxious when my car breaks down and we don’t have enough money in our checking account to fix it. But I try to keep my thinking in perspective while walking the ten blocks to work. It’s our family’s second car, not our sole mode of transportation. And walking is healthy for my body anyway. Sure, I can’t sit on my ass all morning blogging, then hop in the shower and drive to work in two minutes like normal. I have to actually plan ahead, check the weather to see if I need a coat or an umbrella, give myself fifteen minutes to walk to work. Someone call the wambulance. My life is so hard.

I don’t know how much we can learn from lists of rich and happy countries. All I know is the birds’ chirps have been quite enjoyable on my walk to work this week. But I also know as soon as we get the extra money to fix my car, I’ll be back to listening to Cee-lo singing from my car stereo, feeling confident that extra fifteen minutes spent revising my blog post before heading to work was worth it. Not discombobulated and rough like this post.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Pollyanna or Radical Pacifist?

My conservative friends have been attacking my radical pacifism again. Saying I’m naïve. Calling me a Pollyanna. Who’da thunk I’d have to fight so hard to prove pacifism is a valid way of life.

This time it’s over the fact that I choose not to carry a gun. A gun-loving friend commented in our online political discussion group that liberals often get taken advantage of because they allow their fears to motivate them into turning their lives over to government regulation. A fellow liberal friend of mine countered that it’s fear that motivates our gun-loving friend into carrying a glock on his hip during most of his daily life. Here’s my response to this discussion.

Gun-Loving Friend, regarding your comment "And fear does not motivate me, simply the realization that the world is bad and unarmed citizens are sitting ducks for criminals. Choosing to remain unarmed is purely proof of a Pollyanna-ish outlook." I feel sorry for anyone who thinks "the world is bad". Don't get me wrong. The world if full of horrible, hellish things...war, murder, rape, child sex slavery, American politics, drug stores on every corner but weed dealers in prison, kids having babies because they want someone to love them...You and I both know this list is depressingly long.

But because bad things happen in this world does not make this world bad. I'm currently reading the book Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean. I saw the movie years ago and it brought me to tears. One of the most emotionally intense movies I've ever seen. It's about this nun who befriends a death row inmate which leads to the evolution of her various views on the death penalty, socioeconomic inequities, and our criminal justice system.

She tells him she wants to be there during his execution.

"He says, 'No, I don't want you to see it.'

I say, 'I can't bear the thought that you would die without seeing one loving face. I will be the face of Christ for you. Just look at me.'

He says, 'It's terrible to see. I don't want to put you through that. It could break you. It could scar you for life.'

I know that it will terrify me. How could it not terrify me? But I feel strength and determination. I tell him it won't break me, that I have plenty of love and support in my life.

'God will give me the grace,' I tell him.

He consents. He nods his head. It is decided. I will be there with him if he dies."

This is a convicted rapist and murderer Sister Helen is showing such love and kindness.

That is strength.

That is what human beings are capable of if we're surrounded by a foundation of "plenty of love and support in [our] lives." Helping the least of these among us. I have tremendous admiration for a person who faces such horror and refuses to succumb to the belief that the world is done for, the world is bad.

Shrugging off the world as "bad" indicates a doubt that it's possible to improve. A doubt that it's worth improving.

The world is not perfect. People are not perfect. Life is messy and tragic and unkind. Sometimes. And sometimes it's sublime. Babies are born. People fall in love. Friends share a laugh. Trespassers are forgiven.

I don't carry a gun because I don't want to shoot someone. I know, I think I'm sweet and ignorant and someone who criminals will take advantage of. Think what you will. But I have seen examples of peace and love overcoming violence and hate far more often than I have witnessed violence stopping violence. I know. If my loved ones, my daughter, my sweet baby, were being harmed I would react violently. But I don't want to live my daily life as if at any moment I'll have to use violence to protect my daughter. I choose peace because I want to live peacefully.

Another real-world hero of mine is Julio Diaz. This man lives among us. He practices peace.

That is strength.

Yes, I acknowledge that some people are sociopaths, incapable of rehabilitation. But the vast majority of people who do bad things, including you, including me, are not bad people. Just sometimes lazy, sometimes stupid, sometimes confused, sometimes desperate, sometimes emotionally unwound. Whatever reason, people do bad things to each other. Yes. But that doesn't mean we have to live our lives at that level. Human beings are capable of amazing things. Including loving our enemies as ourselves. This "Golden Rule" or "Ethic of Reciprocity" has been taught in many great religions and philosophies throughout human history. By our ancestors. Who went on living their daily lives choosing peace. And survived long enough to pass it on.

I'm sorry if someone thinks it's naive to choose to live peacefully. That shows me someone who has given up on the goodness in this world. Someone who chooses to focus on fear and hatred rather than love and peace.

Don’t get me wrong. I'm a civil libertarian. I don't want to shoot people, but I also don't want to take away your guns. I just ask that you please remove your weapons when you enter my house. And please remove your preconceived notions of just how strong radical pacifism can be.

Friday, February 24, 2012


My sister-in-law has cancer and a subsequent spinal cord injury. She was recently moved from inpatient rehab at the hospital to a skilled nursing facility. She writes a scathing blog post about the transition here.

And rightfully so.

This is what having to rely on an employer-paid health insurnce system gets you. COBRA. Which runs out in 18 months. When you have cancer of the spine. And you can't walk or move anything from the waist down because of the tumors pressing on your spine.

Not that it's your former employer's fault at all. They very generously paid your health insurance premiums for ten years, but when they had to let you go when you go too sick to come to work, you have to start paying the premium yourself through COBRA. Which is better than nothing, but terribly expensive. Especially if you're too sick to work and therefore don't have an income.

If we had a non-profit health insurance system in place, something like a Medicare for All program, employers would save tons of money not having to pay their employee's health insurance premiums. And employees wouldn't have to worry about paying for them when they lose their job due to illness.

My sister-in-law's blog illustrates what a for-profit insurance industry looks like. When decisions are made that might influence a person's ability to ever walk again based on profit margins and not people's needs. This is disgusting. We need to figure out a way to make health care in this country non-profit.

This is my sister-in-law. The wife and mother of an 8 year old boy and two 4 year olds girls.

She deserves better than this. We all deserve better than this. Our for-profit health care industry has got to change.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Rah! Rah! Rah!: Girls Play Football Too

Katie got her first piece of junk mail today. It's a flier from something called "Football & Cheerleading Club, Inc" advertising upcoming classes. It's addressed to Katherine Carleton specifically. Not even "To the Parents of" or "Occupant". So this is a targeted piece of advertising.

The flier has a hot pink background with white and green lettering. Even though the club mentions the word "football" in its name, none of the information is about how to sign up for football, just cheerleading. There are seven different locations spread throughout the county and four different dates for registrants to participate in these cheerleading classes. But no mention of how to register to play football. From the Football & Cheerleading Club, Inc.

Not that I want Katie to play football.

Unless I could wrap her little body in bubble wrap to keep from getting injured. But that's me and has nothing to do with her being a girl. I'd try to bubble-wrap my boy too if I had one. I try to bubble-wrap Katie before she climbs the playground equipment at the neighborhood park. I'd try to bubble-wrap her if she took a cheerleading class.

Not that Katie has ever asked to join a football team. But perhaps that's because she has never been offered.

Once at a family gathering Katie came crying to me from the back yard. Some boys told her she couldn't play with them.

"Why not?!" When anyone shows the slightest bit of animosity toward my child I overreact like I'm the manifestation of U.S. foreign policy.

"Because I'm a girl," she replied, looking down at her glittery, sparkly tennis shoe.


I assured her that it must be some misunderstanding. "Maybe they think you're too young to play with them. They're older boys, right?"

"No! There's a boy out there who is the same age as me!"

I went to investigate. "Hey, what's up, guys? Can Katie play with you?" I asked the group of about five or six 5-12 year old boys.

Everyone froze and was silent like I had just accused someone of something. The tallest boy finally spoke up, "Uh. We're playing football." He tossed the football a foot into the air and snatched it back quickly.

"Yeah? So what? Can Katie play with you too?" I had my hand on Katie's back.

"Well. Uh. We don't want her to get hurt." Tall boy said.

"Yeah, I don't want her to get hurt either. I don't want any of you to get hurt. So can she play with you?" I could feel my face turning red.

"Well, uh." Tall boy looked at his teammates for help.

"Let her play." I pressed on.

The littlest boy, the kid the same age as Katie, shouted from behind the taller boys, "She's a girl! Girls don't play football!" He laughed so hard he fell down.

"Yes they do!" I shoved Katie toward the group of boys. She ran with her arms outstretched, her coat unzipped and flapping in the breeze. She turned slightly to run around the tall boy to take her position toward the back with the smaller kids and I could see her face, beaming.

I stayed out and watched them all play until the game petered out. Katie never even handled the ball or acted like she wanted to. She mostly just ran around in cirles, laughing and tripping over her own two feet, then laughing even more. The littlest boy, the one who just a few minutes earlier argued that girls don't play football ran around with her, falling down and laughing.

After about ten minutes the bigger kids started complaining that their hands were cold and they wanted to go inside and get some hot cocoa. The litter kids followed, and soon it was just Katie and me in the back yard, tossing the football back and forth to each other, falling down and laughing.

Our breathless giggle fits reminded me of when I was Katie's age and my sister Kit would teach me dance routines she learned as a Pom-pon girl in high school. She wore these really neat black and white saddle oxfords with her squad uniform. She let me hold her pom-pons and I shook them and cheered, pretending I had on my own pair of black and white saddle oxfords.

If Katie wants to cheer, that's fine with me if we have the money for classes. If she wants to play football on a team, that's fine with me if we have the money to participate. We couldn't really afford either so it's a moot point. This flier will end up in the recycle bin.

Instead of cheering or playing football this summer I suspect Katie will spend most of her time like she did last summer, kicking around a soccer ball, riding her Disney Princess scooter, and making mud sculptures in our back yard. Her Buzz Lightyear costume worn underneath her dress-up bridal gown, grass and dirt stains on her sparkly shoes.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Yesterday I got an email from someone I didn't recognize. I came *this* close to deleting it, assuming it was spam.

I'm glad I opened it. It's from a literary agent. She thought the query I sent her for my novel is "interesting" and she'd be "very happy to take a look at [my] proposal."

My first reaction to this first positive response to the queries I sent out was “woooooooooooo hoooooooo”.

Now that I’ve had time to think of what such a request means, it’s more like “uh oh”.

Deep breaths.

I love to write but I hate to try to sell what I’ve written. Especially something I finished almost a year ago and have nearly forgotten about by now. Part of my dialectical behavior therapy training taught me that living in the moment helps keep anxiety away. According to the email trail at the bottom of her response, I sent a query to this literary agent last October. It took her four months to respond. Glad I’ve been living in the moment and therefore forgot I’d even queried her or I would have felt impatient by now.

I tell myself I’m living in the moment, but really I’m just procrastinating. Instead of working on a book proposal to send her, I finished reading Kurt Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle this morning. Outstanding. How dare I even attempt to call myself a writer when great people like Vonnegut have lead the way down this crooked path?

Those of you who have played Scattergories with me know I'm super competitive. I blame this on my siblings because it is easier than taking ownership of the problem. If I weren't the youngest sibling in a group of the funniest, smartest, kindest, most creative bunch of people on the planet, I might not feel the need to compare myself to others so much.

But I do. It bogs me down. It makes me want to give up. Why bother? I’ll never be as good as so and so.

When I feel this way, on the verge of going back to bed and pulling the covers over my head, I know it’s time to write.

Maybe not to sell. But to write.

And so, I turn to my blog, where I can ramble and not follow directions and say whatever I like because I’m basically giving it away for free. No one can criticize my words if they don’t have to pay to read them.

But when I quit my full time job last summer to spend more time trying to get my professional writing career off the ground, I don’t think my husband agreed to my using this extra time on this flightless bird of a blog, burying my head in the sand like an ostrich, avoiding the work it takes to sell my writing.

But Will’s an understanding husband and he wants me to be happy. Blogging makes me happy. So I blog…

Evidently the literary agent who asked me to send her a book proposal also blogs.

I like her already. She’s into stats:

"Because I think it’s interesting and fun, here are the stats: From June through December, 2011 I received a whopping 2,433 queries. Of those, I have requested more material for 136, or about .06%. Of those, I have requested a full manuscript for 29, or about 0.01%. Of those, I have made an offer-of-representation to 4, or roughly 0.002%. Of those, I sold half to publishers with the others still in waiting. Number of clients I signed through referral or scouted myself: 3. Number of books I sold for them: 3. Number of 2011 queries waiting to be read: 800, give or take. What does this mean? I have no idea, it’s just fun."

At first when I read this I thought it meant that, deep breath, I am one of the .06% of authors whose query interested her enough to ask for a book proposal.

Shit! Shit! Shit!

But when I look at it again, I realize since she wrote this blog in January and didn’t reply to my query until yesterday that my query was actually part of the 800 unread ones at that time.

But still. If she only asks for more material from about .06% of the queries she receives, I feel honored to be included in such a group. At the same time, I feel like a five year old again, sitting on the sofa watching my siblings crack jokes and tell stories, play music and sing, be brilliant and creative and BIG while I feel so small. I really just want to go crawl inside my closet right now and take a nap.

Being chosen as a member of a small, elite group means I have to take this seriously. Deep breath. "Seriously" makes me worry I'm not good enough. Deep breath. But I must remind myself it’s not so serious. Just because she asked for a book proposal doesn't mean she'll ask for the manuscript. And even if she does ask for the manuscript that doesn't mean she'll ask for revisions or other things I need to do to sell my novel. And even if she does ask for those things and goes on to try to sell my novel, that doesn't mean it will sell. And even if it does sell, that doesn't mean people will read it.

So, deep breath, quit worrying. Focus on the moment. In the whole scheme of things, even this serious thing will probably just amount to dust. If my novel sells, the buyer will most likely just be one quiet public library where it sits acquiring dust on a bookshelf, unread.

My hope is that some awkward girl who is feeling small one day bumps into the dusty bookshelf, knocks my book to the floor, picks it up where it has opened, and starts reading, finding comfort knowing she’s not the only one who feels like a fraud with nothing important to say.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

This Ambiguous Life: Violent Kids

I threw up this morning after I read this news report about the murder of 9-year-old Elizabeth Olten by then 15-year old Alyssa Bustamante. I tend to throw up when I don't know what to do with my emotions. When this ambiguous life throws me a sucker punch.

First, I cry. Then I throw up. Then I write about it.

It's a pattern I developed as a troubled teenager searching for something to help ease my pain. It's worked for me far better than any medication or cognative therapy ever has. I don't like to throw up, or cry, or write about the bottomless pit of despair. But I find, in the end, calmness comes more easily than it would if I had just gone about my business ignoring my emotions. Plus, I often rationalize, what kind of person would I be if such a horrible story didn't affect me so? Numb, that's what.


Throw up.


See, I already feel better. Even off my meds. I gave them up a couple months ago after reading in Dr. Andrew Weil's book Spontaneous Happiness that studies have shown placebo might work just as effectively as SSRIs do in treating depression.

Once I gave up my multivitamin with iron after reading Dr. Weil's advice that most Americans don't need added iron in their diet. Forgetting that I'm not most Americans--for example, I don't eat red meat--I soon developed severe anemia an had to start supplementing with iron once again. We'll see if the same is true with the psychotropic drugs from which I've weaned myself.

I doubt I'll ever make the bestsellers' list with my three-step self-help program. But for those of you willing to undergo some pretty intense emotions, let me share with you this example.

Last night the headline to this MSNBC report caught my attention, "Mo. teen describes killing as amazing, enjoyable." It suckered me into clicking on it.

I almost stopped reading after the first line, "A Missouri teenager who admitted stabbing, strangling and slitting the throat of a young neighbor girl wrote in her journal on the night of the killing that it was an 'ahmazing' and 'pretty enjoyable' experience — then headed off to church with a laugh."

Even someone like me who routinely wallows in depressing news can barely stand to think of such a thing. But I continued reading the story, hoping to find a reason, a why. The answer given in this article was the usual suspect: evil.

"'So much has been lost at the hands of this evil monster,' Preiss [the murder victim's mother] tearfully said, with Bustamante sitting several feet away."

I can only imagine how this mother feels. Nothing could be worse. But I knew there had more to the story.

So I went digging for it this morning after a nightmarish sleep, no doubt made worse by my accidentally stumbling upon an image on my Facebook wall just before logging off for the night of a dog whose face had been blown off by kids who purposefully stuck a lit firecracker in its mouth and duct taped it closed. It's such a horrible image I immediately "hid" it from my wall. It's the first time I've ever chosen this option on Facebook. Even I could not stare into the blasted face of an innocent dog tortured to death by drunken thugs.

Or are they? Who's to say those kids who inflicted such pain on this innoncent dog weren't seeking retribution for their own painful lives? I'm not saying they're excused from such atrocious behavior, but perhaps there is a reason behind such seemingly meaningless cruety. I hope so. Because if we can figure it out, we can figure out a way to stop it.

I shut off the computer, ran upstairs, and loved on my two dogs til I finally fell asleep.

So how can I stand to face the same type of cruelty when a human is the victim? My rational mind knows my sweet, cuddly fury kids can be viscious killers themselves. They instinctually chase after baby squirrels and rabbits, shaking them til their necks break. They run into the middle of the street to tear to shreads in ecstatic bliss random roadkill we encounter on our walks. They're dogs. That's what dogs do. They get a pass because they have not learned to overcome their biological drives. But humans have, haven't we?

Please. Say we have. My stomach is empty. There's nothing left to throw up.

Searching for answers this morning, I found the article that made me throw up, but ultimately made me feel better too. Bustamante's not evil. She's a troubled teenager suffering from neglect and mental illness. She carved the word "hate" into her own arm, wrote her innermost, darkest thoughts in her diary, and made stupid, horrible decisions. That was me when I was fifteen.

Once, when I was her age, my dad and I had a huge fight and I ended up locking myself in the bathroom, holding a phone in one hand and a kitchen knife in the other. I called my mom at work. Desperate, as usual.

"Come home now or I might kill dad," I sobbed into the phone.

I don't even know what happened after that. I just remember sitting in our stuffy bathroom, sweaty and crying, begging my mom to come rescue me from myself. Did she come home? Did she call my bluff and stay at work, forcing me to eventually sneak out into the hallway and slip into my bedroom, falling asleep in the wet spot on my pillow as I cried myself to sleep? I don't remember. But my dad's alive, and so am I, and we haven't fought since we lived together. Things improved once I got kicked out of the house at age eighteen and started living my own life, and as we've both mellowed with age.

After reading Alyssa Bustamante's story in the Chicago Sun-Times article about the mom who abandoned her, her imprisioned father, her suicide attempts and her treatment with Prozac, a medication that carries a warning on it about using caution when prescribing it to teenagers, I think, what would have happened if I had acted on my own feelings of rage? Could I have murdered my dad? Or killed myself? What sets some people off and not others? How was I able to deal with my homicidal feelings without acting upon them?


Throw up.


It's the only explaination I can come up with. It's not as easy as dividing human emotion into good and evil. Maybe Nietzsche was right. Or maybe he was a callous philosopher who died insane.

If writing hasn't saved my life, if there really is just good and evil in the world and it's as simple as that, I find myself wondering why bother fighting to make life better?

I think I'll write a letter to this girl, Alyssa Bustamante. It seems odd. I should write a letter to the murder victim's mother. She's the one most hurt by this horrendous event, right?

Maybe. Or maybe it's not that simple. Maybe everyone involved deserves our sympathy and at least an attempt at understanding. If not, my nauseous fights to make things right are futile because life really is meaningless.

As a mother, I feel the pain of this victim's mother's loss. But as a once-troubled teen, I also feel the pain of this murderous girl.

If I do write to her, here's what I'll say:

"Look to my life as an inspiration for what you can overcome. I was once you. Keep writing."



I found two videos on Youtube related to this case. The first one shows Alyssa and her brothers being stupid kids:

The second one is a tribue to Elizabeth. Rest in peace, little girl.

I found this report that goes into much more detail about Bustamante's sentencing hearing, allowing us to see both the defense and prosecutor's sides of the case.

Today Alyssa Bustamante was sentenced to life with the possibility for parole.

Her apology gives me hope she really is not a monster: "I know words," she said, pausing to take a deep breath and struggling to compose herself, "can never be enough and they can never adequately describe how horribly I feel for all of this. If I could give my life to get her back I would. I'm sorry."


Sunday, February 5, 2012

Education for All (Who Want It); or, Skipping School Pays in the Long Run

I love that moment at dawn when Katie's not quite awake. Between dreams and the real world. She says the best things, funny and often insightful. Things that come to people in their dreams but quickly fade upon awakening.

My favorite was when she was three: "I like blue popsicles. Dey taste like the sky."

Just the other day she said, "If I had a world of my own the babies would drink chocolate milk."

Other days she says things that make me sad. Like when she asks, "Mama, why can't I be an All-Day Kid?"

Good question. Hard to answer.

Similarly, a friend in my political discussion group asked what we think about Kansas Governor Brownback’s recent decision to cut food aid to the children of illegal immigrants. I was expecting to be one of only a high school shop teacher’s handful of people to respond sympathetically to the kids. Instead, everyone responding agreed this is a horrible decision. Even conservative Libertarians can see that such a miniscule amount of money saved is not worth letting kids go hungry.

My friend Janel, a big Ron Paul fan who usually rants about the wasteful ways of our federal government, instead went off about how Brownback also recently cut the budget at her local mental health clinic. Patients who aren’t on Medicaid and yet can’t afford to pay for services are now sent away without their meds. "I'm all for budget cuts, but why these areas first?" she asked.

She's right. Balancing the budget on the backs of the disenfranchised while refusing to ask his wealthy friends to carry any of the burden is flat out wrong.

Our dear governor also refused to accept a $31M federal health exchange grant that would help people who aren’t poor enough to quality for Medicaid but who can’t afford to pay for their own health insurance. Why would he do that? Spite, it seems to me. How immature. His party lost a playground dodgeball game they call Obamacare so Brownback refuses to slap the winning team’s hand at the end and say, “Good game, good game” even though doing so would help his constituents.

Even more than showing poor sportsmanship, Brownback’s dismissal of these important social services shows that his foremost concern is for people in the upper echelons of society. Who cares about kids and sick people, right? They don't make money. In Brownback's eyes only the most wealthy—campaign contributors and lobbyists—are worthy of his concern. Everyone else has to fend for themselves.

People like Katie and her fellow Half-Day Kids. And really the All-Day Kids too. The wedge the current system has created between the kids who go home early and the kids who stay all day is damaging to both teams. Katie admitted when I asked her how the All-Day Kids feel that some of them cry "I wanna go home too" when the Half-Day Kids are escorted to their moms and dads.

Katie's school lost government funding for all-day kindergarten. They didn’t do away with the program. But now parents have to pay $300 per month for their child to be an All-Day Kid. We can't afford that. If we were eligible for the free or reduced price lunch program, we'd have to pay just $90 or nothing for all-day kindergarten, depending on our income. We're not quite poor enough to qualify for that. We're stuck in the middle.

So our kid was forced to join the Half-Day Kids team. At first I didn’t think it was a big deal. Will and I were both Half-Day Kids, only back then everyone was. They also didn’t start teaching us how to read until first grade. Now Katie’s teacher sends home a booklet and a worksheet every day to practice reading and writing. Homework in kindergarten. Every day. It's a good thing she gets booted out of school early so she has time to do it.

I asked her teacher if she thought Katie would miss out academically by only going a half day when most of her peers got to go all day. She assured me most of what they do in the afternoon is review, so I shouldn’t worry. Katie’s a bright kid. She’ll do fine.

But I never thought to ask Katie how she felt about it. We didn’t send Katie to preschool until seven months before she started kindergarten, and then it was just a one-hour-a-week “school skills” class at Gymboree. So I was concerned that Katie might have trouble handling school for even three hours a day let alone seven. I imagined her not being able to sit still, wanting to do her own thing, not listening or responding to directions. You know, basically acting like she acts at home. Like a normal five year old. I was afraid we had been too lenient with her, let her do as she pleased too much and she wouldn’t be able to handle formal education.

She proved me wrong again. Katie loves school. Perhaps because we gave her so little structure, she eats it up now. Every day when I pick her up from school it’s, “Mama, why can’t I be an All-Day Kid?” Like she's losing a prize.

The decision to cut funds for all-day kindergarten has caused a chasm to develop in Katie's mind. On one side, the good side, are the All-Day Kids. On the other side, the bad side, are the Half-Day Kids.

"Why does So-And-So get to be an All-Day Kid but I have to be a Half-Day Kid?" Katie whines.

"I don't know, Sweetie. Maybe So-And-So's parents have to go away to their jobs during the day and they need to keep So-And-So in school because they won't be home to take care of him."

"You should go back to work full time." Pow! The verbal punches of a five year old who knows not the strength of them.

But I won't. I can barely manage to stay sane working part time while trying to also be a writer and a good mom. I've had a cold more on than off for a month now. I have a gigantic seemingly volcanic eruption growing on my chin that looks like the acne I had when I was a stressed out teenager. I do a load of dishes and yet still there's another load of dirty ones waiting in the sink. I get a load of laundry put away and turn around to find another load on the floor. I feel like I can't keep up.

“It’s not fair!” Katie complains. And she’s right. For both of us. If she was in school all-day, I'd have more alone time to write, and writing is the number one thing that helps me stay sane. It's true. I have a doctor's note to prove it.

The crazy thing is, if I quit my job at the library, we'd be poor enough to qualify for the reduced tuition. That's a broken system when working people can afford less education for their children than unemployed people can. Any kid should have the opportunity to have a quality education if he or she wants it. It shouldn't matter how much money that kid's parents make.

But just because the system's broken doesn't mean it can't be fixed. We just need Governor Brownback to add funding to our public schools rather than take it away.

The solution to the complaint that it's not fair to give children of illegal immigrant parents food when other people who are here legally work hard for their food is not to take away food from kids. It's to make sure everyone, no matter what income, is satisfied. No one should envy someone else's supply of food.

The solution to the complaint that it's not fair to give children whose parents are poor all-day kindergarten isn't to take away all-day kindergarten from poor kids. It's to make sure everyone, no matter what income, has adequate opportunities for education.

With the emphasis on opportunities. We should allow kindergartners to decide if they want to go to school all-day or not. We should also allow older kids to decide how they want their education to be. I don't agree with President Obama that we should force kids to stay in school until they're eighteen. Some kids learn better on their own. Some kids view school as confining. Even the same kids who love it so much they want to go all day.

This morning's awakening aphorism from Katie made me smile:

"Mama, is jail kinda like school?"

"What do you mean?"

"Like you have to do what they say and follow the rules and learn from your mistakes?"

She had been watching "Robin Hood" before bed. I imagine the movie had been replaying in her head all night, making her wonder about the poor people in jail.

I was enrolled in school until I was eighteen but I can't really say I "stayed" in school. I skipped so much school, administration didn't know what to do with me. My mom mostly just shrugged her shoulders. What could she do? I aced my tests. I was on the honor roll. So what if I didn't show up to class? That was my attitude. How could she change it?

Taking opportunities away from a child hinders learning, but so does forcing a student to take the opportunity. Especially students between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, a time when everyone undergoes tremendous hormonal fluctuations. Not to mention the sad fact that many teens have unhealthy home lives. Teens in crisis should be forgiven for the poor life decisions they make during a time when they can't comprehend life will ever get better.

Some kids need extra time to work on coping skills before they're ready to prepare for a career. Perhaps if we're honestly concerned about high school kids who want to drop out, we should allow them to quit school so they can begin their alternative journey to self-discovery instead of wasting everyone's time and money in public school. Maybe we could offer a life skills class when a student decides to drop out of school.

I wish I had a class like that when I was struggling just physically being at school. Part of the reason I think I was surprised by how much Katie loves going to school is because I didn't want to go.

I was an emotional wreck. My home life was unhealthy. I had mental illness issues. It was hard just to get out of bed some days. Often after showing up to take a test, I'd have to leave school because I couldn't stop crying. Not because I bombed the test. I felt like life was bombing me. Middle school through high school was by far the worst time of my life.

When I got out on my own, I discovered I'm reasonably smart and I figured out how to make a life for myself. Every decade, things get better. But I didn't know that when I was a dumb kid skipping school.

Kids should have options. All-day school, half-day school, or homeschool. I'm glad the homeschooling option has become popular today. I had never heard of such a thing when I was in school. I would have done well as a homeschooler I think. Although maybe not. I probably would have just done the same thing I did when I skipped school: sat in my room all day listening to The Smiths, smudging the ink on the pages of my diary with my tears, dreaming of the day I'd be a professional writer.



I began writing this blog post a few days ago. I got too sick to finish it, so it sat in my draft folder as I slept for days.

When I awoke two amazing things happened.

We filed our taxes and discovered we are getting a bigger refund than we had expected. Just enough to pay for the last three months' tuition for Katie to be an All-Day Kid.

She's thrilled. She drew this picture when she heard the news:

"Katie's Last Day Being A Half-Day Kindergartner"

Here's the second amazing thing. It's official: I am a professional writer.

While I slept, Google, owner of Blogger, deposited $1.00 into my checking account for my share of the ad revenue for this blog. I've been posting essays to This Ambiguous Life for six months. At this rate I might make two whole bucks this year.

See kids. Skipping school pays in the long run.