The Right Comforts

Thursday is the apex of my work week stress curve. I sit in court all day and represent children in abuse and neglect proceedings. The subject matter, even after twenty years in the business, is stressful—for me and for the parties, certainly, but also for the other attorneys, the courtroom staff, the social workers, and most especially for the judge.

This week we had a blue light special on Upset Teenagers. Seems every time I picked up the phone it was another, “Miss Grace, you have to get me outta here…” Sometimes, the clients are upset because their mom and dad won’t Parent Up, sometimes they’re upset because the social worker has dropped the ball (one of at least twenty he or she is expected to juggle) and sometimes—these are the most upset kids—they’re upset because they’ve screwed up again, and they figure if they pitch a loud enough tantrum, somebody will focus on placating the tantrum rather than holding the kid accountable for bad choices and worse behavior.

My clients are not dumb, nor do they lack for determination. Even in a tough week, I admire my clients immensely.

Part of what makes child welfare law so difficult is that often, all of the options before the judge have significant risks and downsides, and nobody hands out crystal balls with those black judicial robes. My clients have run off and come to bad ends, they’ve been sent home (where they begged to go) only to see Mom or Dad come to a bad end.

Probably more than you wanted to know, and not the point of this diatribe.

The point is, when I get home on Thursday nights, I want to be the baby. I do not want my dial set to “give,” I want it set to “regain my balance.” To this end, I try to arrange matters so I never have to stop for groceries on Thursday evening, never have to put gas in the tank, never have to socialize. I come straight home, where I proceed to…

Make a big pot of decaf Constant Comment or Lemon Lift tea.

Divest myself of all courtroom attire and slip in to my play clothes.

(Play clothes includes fuzzy socks. Must have thick, warm fuzzy socks. Must.)

Light my Midnight Jasmine candle, burn a couple sticks of cedar incense.

Make a PBJ for dinner, or whatever I want for dinner, but I can promise you, it won’t involve cooking or cleaning up.

Develop a case of temporary blindness about dust bunnies, sticky counters, or gritty floors. All that stuff will be there tomorrow—nobody will steal my housework.

Fuss around on the computer but without any assigned task, not even re-reading whatever I might have written that morning before heading off to work.

In short, I get absolutely unstructured time for a few hours each week. I’ll take a keeper read to bed with me—an old friend guaranteed not to disappoint—and for Friday morning I generally don’t set the alarm.

I need this ritual to decompress, and it has taken me years to stumble on what works for me in terms of processing the week and regaining my balance. Some of what I do to cope has symbolic significance (changing my clothes), and some is just for animal comfort.

But I am not the only person with a job that sometimes gets to me. We’ve all come across small comforts, little gestures and routines that take us in the direction of self-nurture and comfort.

Care to share some of yours?

The Right Tunes

My daughter is an accomplished equestrian, her particular skill being in the discipline called dressage. When the Dressage World Cup was to be held in Las Vegas, we gassed up the truck and headed west. The best of the best of the best—horses and riders—were gathered in one place, and for once that place wasn’t Europe.

Suffice it to say, Las Vegas took this aging country girl aback. There’s the next thing to pornography for sale at the bus stops and slot machines abound in the Laundromats. The casinos are designed with an obscene genius for parting customers from their money. You cannot walk from your room to your car without passing every eatery, gambling den, and ticket master in the building. I’m told in the casinos proper, they pipe in extra oxygen to keep you energized and feeling fine while you drop your cash.

This is not the whole of the town, of course. Like any city, Las Vegas has its charm, I’m sure. On this trip, though, staying in a hotel on The Strip. I saw no charm. I saw throngs of people who’d come great distances to very likely lose money gambling while they spent money to stay where they could gamble. Internet access was exorbitant, room service was worse, and if you so much as touched the goodies in the fridge, your credit card was charged (I’m not kidding).

The time spent watching the horses go was wonderful, but I kept thinking, “All these international athletes are going to think this is the sum total of America. My kid is going think this is what a city is like. If ever there was a place I where I do not fit in, and do not want to fit in, THIS IS IT.”

I was in a swivet. Beloved Offspring, however, was just taking it all in. When she asked if we could walk The Strip around 10 pm one night, I could not refuse—lest she go on her own.

More crowds, more lights, more crawling traffic, more conspicuous consumption. Not my scene, my scene, not my scene at all… and then the blighted mooin’ crowd came to a halt. Bother. Bother and a half. We were outside some casino was a fake lake in front of it, all lit up with fake lights.

Bah, humbug. I was about to tell the child we were going back to the blasted hotel when I heard a few notes of quiet piano music.

Huh? I love the piano. I loved that piece…. Fountains appeared in the middle of the lake. The lights changed colors, and the orchestra came in to twine around the piano. All thoughts of leaving, of being able to leave that spot, flew from my head as a full orchestra version of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini wafted up into the night. The crowd went silent, mesmerized by the play of water and lights through the entire piece.

If you ever have a chance to see the fountains at the Bellagio do their thing, don’t miss it. In the space of one short piece of music, I went from being a grouchy, resentful tourist, to a woman enraptured. Somebody had done something beautiful with one of my keeper tunes, and I was helpless to resist its magic.

Our music, our personal playlist, is that powerful. It becomes an anthem for our identity, a refuge and a consolation. Whether it’s “our song,” the national anthem, your kid’s first recital piece, or your favorite hymn, there are pieces of music that form a soundtrack for who you are.

Some of my others: “My Funny Valentine,” the Chopin Nocturnes, Blondie’s “The Tide Is High,” Dave Brubeck’s Time Out Album, Wham’s “Wake Me Up,” and on and on and on…

So what are yours?

The Elegant Question

My dear old dad, who has ninety-one years to his name, chose to spend at least seventy of those years as a bench scientist. This term does not refer to people who study benches, but rather, to people who make their contribution at the laboratory bench. Dad studied things like how a milk fat globule is made. You shrug, but the question takes on significance when you consider the fat globule ends up being larger than the mammary cell that produces it—and without these processes, we would not have whipped cream.

I am quite fond of whipped cream, myself, also butter, ice cream, and mousse, which depend upon the same little miracle.

Dad also looked at how light alters flavor compounds in milk (which is why we have opaque milk jugs unless they’re made of thick glass), and he studied flavors and fragrances from a chemical standpoint.

Dad earned a reputation for coming up with excellent experimental designs. If you had a great hypothesis, an earthshaking insight you wanted to test, but couldn’t figure out exactly how to isolate your variables or measure results, Dad was the guy you bounced your problem off of.

He loved a failed experiment. The failed experiments were the equivalent of the locked room for him. When you discover you’re in a locked room, you try the door knob. You jiggle it hard, then harder. You back off, and wait for somebody to come by, but at some point, alone in that room, hungry and cranky, you Get Creative. You fashion lock picks out of paper clips, you build ladders out of modular furniture, you slide messages under the door written in Pepsi on your T-shirt. You bust out windows, you drop paper airplanes down the ventilator shaft, and so on.

And that process, that wracking-your-brain process, enthralled him as a scientist. I expect it enthralled him as a little boy, too, and still occupies much of his mental day.

Authors find themselves in locked rooms all the time, though my creative space feels more like a broom closet. I can usually envision my characters, I have some idea of their personalities, strengths and weaknesses, but to craft a story for them, I need tension, conflict, problems. I need ways my hero and heroine reveal themselves to themselves, and to each other. I need the right problems and the right solutions to those problems to structure a 400 page book.

In this struggle, because by God, it is a struggle, I’ve come across some wonderful tools. Each tool is in the form of a question, and one of the most powerful is: What is the one thing my hero/heroine would never, ever, no matter what, be caught dead doing? How can I make them do it? (And thanks to Michael Hague for developing that one.)

What is the worst, most terrifying development that can befall my hero/heroine? How can I inflict it upon them?

What does my reader expect at this moment in the story? How can I surprise the reader without losing my credibility?

My dad had ultracentrifuges, microtome slicers, electron microscopes, and a relentless curiosity, and with those, he found his way out of many locked rooms. I have tools too—elegant, incisive, illuminating questions, and with them, I can also get out of locked rooms.

What question has helped you escape a dead end situation?

Only the Lonely Can Play?

There is research abounding lately telling us social media make some of us feel crummier, not better. The data suggests that the more time you spend on social media, and the more distant your associations on that media are (four thousand friends you’ve never met), and the more you resemble a Young Person, then the more likely you are to believe all the happy photos and OMG!!! blathering are the sum total of your “friends’” lives, and that, by comparison, your bleak, boring little asteroid is a sucky place to be.

A significant part of me wants to hoot, “How many tax dollars did some think tank spend to prove that staring at a screen isn’t a substitute for being with your mates?!”

Except I think what’s at work, in part, is nothing more sophisticated than guilt by association. In another blog, I point out that overweight people drink more diet soda than skinny people, and viewed in the wrong light, one can use this “data” to conclude that “Diet Soda Makes You Fat!!!”

Association is not the same thing as a casual relationship (after doesn’t mean because of, to bastardize the Latin). We need to reserve judgment about the power of social media to “make” us lonely. The young folks who are friending the known world and spending hours and hours with social media are likely lonely to begin with. When some of their peers are learning how to go on in relationships, the social square pegs are hanging out in Farmville by the week. When they might instead be playing a game of pick up rugby, they’re up till all hours lurking in the chat rooms until the girl from Dubai gets online.

Lonely people find things to do. We all know, we’ve been among their number at some point. In a former age, they could read Trollope or Hardy, write letters, take long walks around the city (Dickens’ habit was twelve miles a day), or sit at the bar and drink. Did hanging out at the bar make them lonely? Did reading make them lonely?

Maybe in a sense, but I suspect what it might have done was made them more aware that by comparison with those fictional characters, with the bustling city of London, with all the people who had friends to meet at the bar, their lives were lonely.

The question remains unanswered though: Are the lonely people on Facebook more lonely than they’d be without it? That’s another experiment, and not one anybody has figured out how to design yet.

What are your thoughts? What–if anything–has the power to make you lonely?

Romance Is Not Enough

My web banner says I write love beautiful stories; it does not say I write beautiful romances. Why is that?

In part because love is a shorter word and I thought it looked better, but also because I’m not sure how a book would read when for 400 pages somebody is only in the grip of a powerful romance. I equate romance with a highly hormonal, infatuated, lusty and not very realistic stage of a relationship between adults, though my parents, married for more than sixty years, still have an element of romance in their relationship.

One can also be passionately entangled with a job, a pursuit, an identity, as in, “I adore my job,” or “I was born to serve on the town council.”

Love in a romance novel is a different beasty. Love as one preacher told me, “has wheels under it. It moves, it does things.” His observation applies often in child welfare proceedings. Never in twenty years of participating in child abuse and neglect cases have I come across a parent or care provider who did not profess to love their children.

I question their word choice, though. If you love your kid, love them the way a hero or heroine has learned how to love at the end of a good book, then you show up to visits with that kid, you attend your drug treatment sessions, you give up the nasty relationships that lead you away from what it takes to parent the child you love. You walk the talk.

I am not judging here. After five generations of crappy parenting, mental illness, addictions, poverty, and social and institutional prejudice, any family that can turn itself around in less than a generation is pulling off a miracle. I am, however, pointing out that love has to be more than just a yearning in the breast, more than a sentiment if it’s going find its way into a book worth reading. Children need to know that sentiment is there, but they need its application to life as well.

The amazing, remarkable, wonderful thing is that I see that kind of love too, and I see it, of all places, in a courtroom. I see parents who disappeared into the bottle ten years ago claw their way back out. I see women who’ve dated more Bad Choices than you can imagine stop that pattern. I see guys learn to fight fair who’ve been busting on people with their fists since they were in grade school.

They transform themselves not because jail is the alternative—most parents in child welfare court are not facing criminal charges (moreover, punishment as a deterrent only works when it’s immediate and certain, and our legal system ensures it’s neither). They do this because they love their children, and it’s the kind of love that motivates startling, unbelievable change, much of the time.

Love is serious business. It transforms, it heals, it compels honesty and compassion when dissembling and indifference would be more convenient. Romance is all well and good—much fun and big pyrotechnics—but if I’m going to write an entire book about the progress of two people in a relationship, they had better be in it for the love.