Thursday, July 30, 2009

Happiness is

... a capella shows.
... antique postcards.
... birds at a feeder.
... board game marathons.
... dairy-free ice cream.
... dogs in argyle sweaters.
... finding the right vintage postcard.
... a fireplace and a good book.
... fleece blankets.
... freshly-baked brownies with crunchy edges.
... fresh-blooming lilacs.
... fuzzy friends.
... gerbera daisies in full-bloom.
... getting a manicure.
... giving people presents.
... goofy office supplies.
... good jazz.
... having your birthday remembered.
... kicking butt at Texas Hold 'Em.
... making cupcakes.
... musicals.
... nachos for dinner.
... photo booths.
... the smell of leather baseball gloves.
... sourdough toast with butter.
... sunshine.
... Tchaikovsky.
... trivia games.
... used books and used bookstores.
... vacation time.
... warm summer rainstorms.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Maybe not Martha

I am not what you might call a "domestic goddess."

I'm hopelessly cluttered, I don't bake from scratch, I can't use my sewing machine for more than a day (and only after someone has threaded the machine for me), and I don't think I've ever washed a window in my life. My house is more shabby than it is shabby chic, and most of my appliances and furniture are hand-me-downs or relics found on Craigslist.

This, however, does not mean that I don't aspire to be at least somewhat domestic. (Or perhaps, more amusingly, somewhat of a goddess.) I have dreams of baking my own bread, owning a brand new sectional couch, sewing adorable curtains and bed skirts, and keeping everything in its place a la Clean Sweep.

I can see it now: It's the weekend and I'm in the kitchen happily baking fresh bread for the days ahead. While it's in the oven I'll sit on my comfy sofa reading a book. (Note: I am not covered in flour.) When the bread has finished baking I set it out to cool and I go downstairs to my craft space, which is not only perfectly organized and labeled, but displaying my artsy fortitude, with home-sewn pillows propped up on a nearby couch and crocheted scarves folded delicately into hand-painted gift packages. I then spend the afternoon hand-making all of this year's Christmas cards and embroidering gifts for my loved ones.

Then reality hits and I remember that attempting that very same weekend would result in my staining my blouse with smudges of butter on the sleeves. While trying to figure out how to clean the grease from my shirt, I'd forget about the bread in the oven, charring it to a dark black mess and forcing the opening of all kitchen windows and doors (regardless of the weather). In any downtime I'd be shuffling piles of shopping fliers and half-finished "to-do" lists so that I could sit on my hand-me-down couch with the uncomfortable springs and the ill-fitting slipcover. My craft table would be piled high with half-finished projects like the curtain I started to sew but had to stop since I ran out of thread and can't reset the bobbin without assistance. My Christmas cards would be from the Dollar Tree, and I would have written in them and addressed them, but run out of stamps, thereby not tossing them into a mailbox until February.

My lack of domestic dexterity isn't completely troubling. I'm grateful that I don't live in an era that requires me to be a perfectly-coiffed housewife with dinner on the table at five and homemade pies adorning the counter tops. And I don't mind trying and failing all that much. I'm happy to work on my sewing one bobbin at a time, buy my bread from the bakery in town, and make my cakes from a boxed mix. Sometimes I wish I had fabulously coordinated furniture with adorable curtains, but for now my eclectic mix will work (supplemented by occasional splurges on rugs that don't feel like sandpaper and tablecloths that make me feel like a grown up).

Besides, I have to keep busy. What would happen to the self-help and craft sections of the library if I stopped checking out books with titles like Messies Anonymous and Easy Sewing Projects? Who would support the local economy by buying bread from the mom and pop place? What would Duncan Hines do if I stopped buying its boxed cake mixes in bulk? And who the heck would come pick up my crappy couch if I got a new one?

Ahh... to be a domestic goddess. For now, I suppose I'll settle for something less... something more like domestic apprentice. I'll tinker with my sewing machine in an attempt to finish those curtains until I remember that I can buy a set for $6 at the Christmas Tree Shops and I'll try to make all my own Christmas presents until I realize that I have a big family and a half dozen friends and it would be easier to shop online. I'll keep buying storage bins and labels and will attempt to find all of my possessions a designated place in my home. I'll even try my hand at baking from scratch and force the trials on my colleagues at work. Wish me luck!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Teaching old dogs new tricks: inmates train service dogs

What makes people do the things they do? What makes some people commit crimes, while others walk a straight and narrow path? How can we reform former law-breakers into law-abiding members of society?

To find the answers to my questions, I studied criminal justice and psychology in college. I was interested in the "human condition" and I wanted to find out as much as I could about what makes people behave a certain way. I focused a great deal on juveniles as well, trying to figure out what it takes to keep young people out of the criminal justice system and what could be done to help them find a place back in the community if they had already been part of the system.

Fast forward to a few things that I've learned:
  1. Children do not misbehave, they make mistakes.
    When very young children act out they need something (such as attention) that they can't ask for outright. When adolescents act out, they're also seeking attention or gratification that they can't find elsewhere. Even if they "know better" they're still just kids without fully-formed brains; adolescents do not have very good impulse control and need to be taught how to deal with their feelings and needs in a productive way.

  2. Nothing good can come from locking folks up and "throwing away the key."
    Very few offenders in the grand scheme find themselves behind bars forever. Because of this, our communities need to find a way to rehabilitate inmates so that they can rejoin society and become functional members of their communities. Teaching inmates about self-esteem along with technical skills will produce people who are ready to become part of the outside world again. Without this support and rehabilitation, many former inmates fall back into old patterns and wind up within the prison system once again.

  3. People are inherently good.
    There are plenty of people in this world that don't get along with one another, but all of them have some good somewhere. Many inmates are poor and are dealing with mental illness or addiction. By bringing out the good in them, finding them the proper treatment for whatever illness or addiction they are battling, we can also showcase the good in people, allowing inmates to reintegrate into society after they've served their time.
It is obvious that I am a firm believer in a rehabilitative form of justice. I believe that inmates should have access to counseling services, education, and spiritual guidance. I also believe that there are many programs (or potential programs) that can benefit both inmate and society. One such program that I've been seeing more and more of lately is Puppies Behind Bars (and similar programs).

Puppies Behind Bars.
Photo courtesy of Radhika Chalasani/Redux.

Puppies Behind Bars is the brainchild of Gloria Gilbert Stoga. After adopting a Labrador Retriever who was trained as a guide dog but discharged from the program for medical reasons, Stoga began researching the process of training a guide dog. It commonly costs $25,000 to train one dog, who then goes on to be a service animal for a blind, deaf, or physically handicapped owner or assists law enforcement as a drug- or explosives-sniffing dog. When a friend of Stoga's commented that prisoners might make good dog trainers, and idea was born.

Puppies Behind Bars operates in a handful of prisons across the country. Dogs have been trained by both men and women inmates, and there are successful programs for juvenile offenders as well. Puppies live in cells with their trainers and receive weekend furloughs to outside homes to experience life outside prison walls (to get used to traffic, doorbells, telephones, elevators, and the like). Trainers attend weekly classes and train their dogs in obedience as well as the special skills required to be a guide dog or law enforcement dog.

I support the programming of Puppies Behind Bars one hundred percent. Research shows that dogs have a calming, positive affect on people (inmates included). It also shows that the inmate trainers who work with these dogs finish the program with higher self esteem, more compassion for other people, better impulse control, and a drop in selfishness. They've also learned valuable skills that can help them when they reintegrate into society. These inmates can find work with animals, or -- with their new-found patience -- can train for other types of work.

In addition to benefits for the inmates, training dogs behind bars has advantages for the dogs and the community as well. For starters, the dogs involved in the program find themselves with devoted care 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Prisoners do not have demands on their time the way those outside the system do. Even the most devoted dog trainers in the "outside" world have the distractions of spouses, cell phones, children, dentist appointments, and the like. In prison, dogs have access to their trainers -- and undivided attention -- 24 hours a day. The community benefits as well, since training a dog through a program like Puppies Behind Bars costs less than it does in the "real" world. More dogs can be trained less expensively, which means that more service animals are out in the community, assisting people who need them.

For more information on Puppies Behind Bars, you may visit them online at:

Thursday, July 09, 2009

A time to weep and a time to laugh

Today I had both the honor and misfortune to attend the wake of a good friend's grandmother. It was an honor because I love my friend dearly, and her Nana -- though I never met her -- sounded like a wonderful person. She sounded a lot like my Grandma Welcome, to be honest -- a woman I loved and respected more than anyone else I have had the privilege of knowing. It was my misfortune, of course, because death is never easy and it is harder still to find the right words, to say the right things.

For all of my wishing that I have the right words to say when necessary, my track record is pretty poor. At the memorial service for a high school friend's father I blurted out "I'm happy to be here!" when my friend's mother thanked me for coming. And when I heard on Monday that someone's beloved Nana had died all I could manage was a hollow-sounding "I'm so sorry."

Of course, the people dealing with loss don't know what to say either. The mother of my high school friend smiled and nodded, as though she was happy that I was happy. My friend today laughed nervously and smiled a lot to keep from crying. What does it say about our society that we can't just cry together and let the sadness out? From whom are we hiding our true feelings? For whom are we trying to be brave?

The facade of bravery always surfaces after a death, trying to shimmer its way past the sorrow. Sometimes it is self-inflicted, other times it is pushed on the grieving by uncomfortable -- if not well-meaning -- friends and family members. But the cascade of well-intentioned she's-in-a-better-place-nows, at-least-it-wasn't-unexpecteds, and cheer-ups that inevitably follow a loved one's passing, are inappropriate. Perhaps more so than even my nervous and foolish I'm glad to be here! These overly optimistic fronts of bravery do not allow the grieving to actually grieve.

I think finding a way to let people mourn is what perplexes people the most when attempting to comfort someone. Maybe it's a soothing nature of our own, since we don't want to see friends suffer, but I suspect that it's more likely our own vulnerabilities that make us nervous and uncomfortable. It’s hard to watch a person grieving, and it’s harder still to be the person who can come right out and say "If you need a place to cry until your mascara runs, come find me!" Or, conversely, "If you're tired of being miserable and need a giggling spell, come find me!" Or, finally, "If you want someone to simply listen to how great a person your lost loved-one was, come find me."

In the end, I want to say all those things. After all, how often do we hear the words of Ecclesiastes at a funeral? For everything there is a season... a time to weep and a time to laugh... I don't have all the answers, but I want my friends and family to know that I'm there when they need me. I'll bring the tissues or the Chris Rock DVD or the scrapbooking supplies and we can wade through the grief until it’s gone, or (at the very least) until it’s more manageable.

In the meantime, I'll try to keep my bumbling comments to myself. I'll make sure that my friends and family know that I love them and that I'm not so much happy to be there as I am happy to be there for them. If I have done my best I will count it as a success, because surely, it is not what we say so much as what we do, that makes a difference in comforting our loved ones during a time of loss.