Sunday, June 28, 2015

My own mess: my favorite self-help books

My new boss at the library is awesome. During our weekly staff training, she played this video about vulnerability from Brené Brown's viral TED Talk:

The video left me wanting more, as all good stories do. It inspired me to check out Brown's book, Daring Greatly. I'm just at the introduction, and I've already found a part that resonates with me. I had to stop and write it down. Oh, this is good:

"Social work is all about leaning into the discomfort of ambiguity and uncertainty, and holding open an empathic space so people can find their own way. In a word, messy." --Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

When I first started going to Johnson County Community College in 1989, my plan was to transfer to KU and major in Social Welfare so I could get a job working with sexually abused children. I ended up dropping out and working at the library, later going back to get my AA degree so I could become a paraprofessional librarian.

I ditched my plan to become a social worker for a few reasons. I needed to get a job to pay my rent and buy groceries and put gas in my car, and I couldn't figure out how to do those things and go to school at the same time. I also needed time to get my own shit together before I could attempt to help other people get their shit together. My teens and early twenties were the most emotionally unstable parts of my life. It was too draining to spend my days pretending to know how to help others when I spent my nights sobbing in bed at home.

I also knew, deep down, that I'd be a terrible social worker. I'm too passionate and hot-tempered. Our social welfare agencies are chronically underfunded and too wrapped up in bureaucratic bullshit to be able to fully help people change their lives for the better. There's no way I could work in such a broken system. Seeing hurt people hurts me. I'm sure I'd freak out some day and try to "rescue" as many kids as I could, holding them hostage at my house until I realized I'd have to feed them. Then I wouldn't have a clue what to do. I'm about as far from a domestic goddess as you can get and my financial planning skills are about as good as you'd expect from a social worker type. We'd run out of boxed macaroni and cheese and canned peas and I'd have to call the agency I'd kidnapped the kids from for assistance.

I'd boss the parents around and try to tell them what to do with their lives instead of sitting back patiently and letting them figure it out for themselves. I can barely stand to listen to my friends complain about their lives without wanting to slap them, shake them, and scream at them for not listening to my advice the last time we talked. I'd be a terrible social worker.

I went to work at the library because I believe in the healing power of books and ideas. So many books have changed my life that I feel compelled to share my discoveries. I want to help other people find books that can change their lives for the better too.

As a librarian, I get to recommend books that enrich people's lives. But I'm not a social worker. I'm not actively involved in the daily lives of the people I help. I have no idea if they actually read the books I recommend. I have no proof that the books I recommend change anyone's attitudes and behaviors. I have no guarantee that the ideas I'm slinging will fix anyone's problems. And that's good. For an emotionally damaged control freak like me, it's good that my job is not to fix other people. If I were busy all day trying to fix other people, I'd have no time to work on myself, the one person who needs my attention the most. If I've learned anything from the many books I've read over the years it's that the only person's behavior I can control is my own.

By being a librarian instead of a social worker I get to step out of other people's messes, other people's crazy, and the dysfunction of other people's daily lives. My job is to provide resources for people who wish to learn how to empower themselves. The best way I know how to test those resources is to try them out myself.

Here are a few of my favorite "self-help" books. I expect to add a Brené  Brown book to it in a bit. I couldn't even get past the introduction without being inspired to write this blog post.


The Dance of Anger: A Woman's Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships by Harriet Lerner

Unconditional Parenting: Moving From Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason by Alfie Kohn

Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth Behind Your Weight by Linda Bacon

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Living with Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability, and Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents, and Adults by by Michael M. Piechowski and Susan Daniels


The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Laminated quarter

When I was sixteen, my dad gave me a laminated quarter and told me to keep it in my wallet. This was back in the dark ages before cell phones. There were payphones all over the city. Drop in a quarter and make a call.

When dad gave me the laminated quarter he said, "My buddies and I used to do stupid things when I was your age. Here's a quarter. Call home if you're ever stranded somewhere drunk and you don't have a ride home."

My dad and I have the weirdest relationship. When I was growing up, Dad was both incredibly controlling and surprisingly lenient. I had no curfew. I had no restrictions on what movies I could watch or what books I could check out from the library. I could talk openly about sex if I wanted to around my dad, although I never wanted to. Yuck. I reserved sex talks for my mom.

When I was a little kid I could leave my toys all over the place and Dad never yelled at me to clean up my mess. My friends would come over to our house to play Barbies because we could leave our doll furniture out in our living room all summer long, without having to tear it down and pack it up at the end of the day, only to have to unpack it and set it all up again the next day.

These were the ways Dad was surprisingly lenient. Surprisingly because, by nature, Dad's default mood is controlling. Before he retired, Dad's title at work was "controller". I asked what that means, and Mom explained it means he bossed the other accountants around in the office and made sure everyone showed up to work on time. Yep, that sounds like the perfect job for Dad.

It wasn't just at work. At home, Dad wasn't just a boss, but the king. Dad's the kind of guy who has a temper tantrum if he doesn't get his way. Everything in our daily lives centered around keeping Dad calm. We lived where he wanted to live in a house to his liking, regardless of whether or not it was good for anyone else in the family. We ate at restaurants he picked and saw movies he wanted to see. The first vacation we took was when I was nine and we drove to St. Louis. Dad wouldn't pay for us to go up in the arch. I once asked Dad why we didn't go on many family vacations. I knew he'd been to Europe after the war and that he'd traveled all over the country on road trips with his first wife and daughter. "Why don't we ever go anywhere, Dad?" I asked. "Eh, my traveling days are behind me," is all he'd say.

There were other, sillier, but still controlling things. I wasn't allowed to drink the canned pop we kept in the fridge. That was reserved for Dad's sack lunch. I wasn't allowed to sit in the comfy chair in the living room. That was reserved for Dad's hard working ass. But it was also important, philosophical things. I wasn't supposed to disagree with Dad on anything--politics, religion, how often I should mow the lawn, although by the time I was sixteen I discovered that I could actually hold my own in a shouting match. I stopped running off to my room and crying every time Dad raised his voice. I fought back.

It felt great. Letting my voice be heard improved my self-esteem. I felt courageous and strong. Not like Mom, who avoided confrontation at all costs. Even, in my opinion, at the cost of herself.

Arguing with him did nothing for my relationship with Dad, though. It did worse than nothing. I couldn't wait to get out of the house and away from him.

I used to hate Father's Day. I remember once, in my twenties, I had to leave the store because I was starting to cry. I had spent thirty minutes in the Father's Day card aisle and found absolutely nothing I could relate to, nothing I could buy for my own dad. This one was too sappy. This one too funny. This one made our relationship sound better off than it was. This blank one, even. No. What would I write it in? "Happy Father's Day, Dad. Thanks for waiting until I was eighteen before kicking me out of the house!"

Then time happened, as it does. I grew up. I learned to stop shouting and start voicing my opinion in a calm, rational and empathetic way. Dad and I both went on anti-anxiety medication. The wonder drug that works wonders on our father-daughter relationship. I no longer feel distraught when I visit the Father's Day card aisle.

Today my eight-year-old daughter Katie sat at the table and asked me a question that was important for me to answer, not just for her, but for myself. She was drawing a picture of herself on a card she was making to give to my dad for Father's Day. She asked, "Mom, why do you think your dad was mean when you were a kid, but he's not mean anymore?"

"Oh, Punk. It's a lot of reasons. He had a hard life when he was growing up. And he's experienced a lot of sad things in his life that made him mad. And he didn't know how to not take out his anger on his family. But now we don't see him much, and he's old and he's calmed down. And he takes meds that help him stay calm. And so do I. And I've grown up. And we're just, you know, OK now."

"Yeah," Katie said without looking up from the picture.

We visited my dad and, you know, it was OK. He said some things that annoyed me, but so what? I see my dad a few times a year. Big deal. I can ignore his annoying bits for that short amount of time.

It's just funny to me that my daughter is growing up with this idea in her head that my dad is a pretty OK guy. She didn't know him when he and I would shout at each other in high school. She wasn't there to see him call my mom "stupid" and to kick me and my siblings out of the house. She only knows this calm old man who likes to dance and play bridge and eat pie. He's just some mellow old man who's not so hard to love.

And it's good for me to be reminded of it too. Dad was never all bad. He once offered to come pick me up if I ever needed him. I still have the laminated quarter to prove it.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The light little big girl

The world is so full of hate and injustice. People shouting. No one listening.

In despair. I'm stuck in this chair. Helpless and sad.

What do I tell my lily white girl? So cute and spunky.

So full of light and life. The little girl who rolls her eyes when I call her a little girl.

What do I tell the light little big girl who looks up at me and asks, "What's wrong, Mom?"

And all I can think of to say is

The world.


Monday, June 1, 2015

Preschool-K storytime activity: Is it a tool or is it not a tool?

I'm the storyteller at GCPC VBS for the preschoolers/kindergartners. Tomorrow's story is about Solomon building a temple. For our after-story-activity we're going to play a game of "Is it a tool or is it not a tool?" It goes like this:

Despite appearances, my daughter Katie is not a tool.

What you'll need:

1 shopping bag
12 or so kid-friendly tools (small plastic "play" tools, plastic measuring cups, wooden spoons)
12 or so kid-friendly objects (a small ball, "play" money, random toys from fast-food restaurants)
a bunch of kids, ages 3-6

What you'll do:

Have each kid take a turn pulling one object from the bag, without peeking. Have the kid show the others what it is, and everyone calls out whether or not they think it's a tool or not a tool. The kid decides whether or not they think it's a tool or not a tool. If it's a tool, ask the kid to explain what it helps us do. Have the others help come up with answers. If it's a tool, the kid places it in the laundry basket marked "tool". If it's not a tool, the kid places it in the laundry basket marked "not tool".

Katie let me borrow some of her toys. I also grabbed some kid-friendly kitchen tools.

Katie displays some objects you could use for the game,
"Is it a tool, or is it not a tool?"

This would also be a fun activity for library storytimes, or for parents and caregivers to do with kids at home after reading books about buildings and tools. Here are some of my favorite:

img via Goodreads

Tap Tap Bang Bang by Emma Garcia
img via Goodreads

Who Uses This? by Margaret Miller
img via Goodreads


I tried out the "Is it a tool or is it not a tool" activity today (6-2-15) with the three to six year olds at VBS. It was a major hit. I noticed some of the kids who were holding back yesterday wanted to participate today. One boy in particular--I had him last year at VBS too, but I'd never seen him smile until today, and he wanted to do it "again! again!" I'm definitely going to try this game at some library storytimes. Remember, what might seem like a lame game to you might be loads of fun for younger kids.