A Group Effort

Posted: May 10, 2017 in Uncategorized

I’m seeing lots of comments about Mother’s Day approaching, and it may inspire another blog post later this week, but for right now, I was inspired to share an older post about all the women who helped me become me, even when there was no Mom-of-a-sort left.

Urban Tidepool

The title of Hillary Clinton’s book, It Takes  a Village, has always appealed to me.   I imagined using a take-off on that title if I were ever to write a memoir. (Little did I know!) Given some of my Catholic school adventures after the parents crossed over while I was running around the world as a 17 year old on my own, I figured if I went with something along the lines of It Takes  a Village to Raise a Child, but It Only Takes One of Me to Raze an Entire Village, we’d be somewhere close to the truth.

It’s true…I come up a bit short handed in the parent arena. Handling that as a kid required some amount of creativity and resourcefulness and I got rather skilled at negotiating around that spot where a mom-of-a-sort was supposed to be. It was an early understanding of family…

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The Bonds We Forge

Posted: April 26, 2017 in Blog
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Ahem. Me-me-me-me-me. Ahem.
“People let me tell you ’bout my best friend…”
Yyyeaah, lemme tell you about my buddy Zach. He once ate an entire box of dry Cream of Wheat. I wouldn’t let him drink anything because I was afraid he’d blow up. During his awkward teenaged years, he got tangled in my feet on the stairs and knocked me down, breaking my tailbone. He thought it was great fun when we landed on the floor at the bottom of the steps in a heap and he jumped away and jumped back as if to say, “Hey, let’s do that again!” I had to sit on an orthopedic doughnut for about three months. (Ok, occasionally I did wear it on my head. There are photos. Don’t ask.) He once raided the luggage of a house guest and ate her Welbutrin. He slept for three days. I had to wake him up to take him out to pee. He once chased my pet rabbit around the basement in a circle, faster and faster, until the bunny went running up the ramp into his cage, and Zach followed, getting his head and shoulders stuffed through the door before coming to a screeching halt, nose to nose with said bunny and wedged so tightly that neither one of them could move. I was surprised Smudge didn’t have a heart attack.
This guy was smart like a box of rocks. Whenever I called the vet with his latest adventure, I had to wait for him to stop laughing before he could answer my question.
I thought I would lose my mind before he was two.
Then came the days following my brother’s death when I could barely get through a day without breaking down. Zach would climb up on the couch beside me and drape his giant orange head over mine and just breathe with me for hours and I listened to his heart beat until those days passed. Apparently dogs know how to hold space.
Good boy, Zacharoo. Good boy.
“People let me tell you ’bout my best friend…”
Zach was with me until two weeks shy of his 15th birthday, an impressive feat for a 100 lb Golden Retriever. On his last morning, we celebrated with Frosty Paws and a visit to his favorite fire hydrant and a nap on his blanket in the yard with the sun shining. When he took the shot, I held his head in my hands and breathed with him, wanting him to know I was right there, just as he had been for me. That was this morning, a warm April day in 2006.
Sometimes I think I can still hear his heartbeat.
Zach and me

“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”    ~Maya Angelou

I’ve done a lot of reading and attended some trainings over this winter on the topic of trauma and trauma informed care and here’s what I have learned so far. When someone is in the middle of a meltdown, the thinking part of their brain stops working. No lie. The science is there. Kids, teenagers, all of us. It just stops. Decision making skills? Out the window. Language? Gone. Nothing above the brain mid-line is in gear–only the parts that can feel and act—or react.

This new learning caused me to notice the questions that we ask of people at those times. I’ve done it in my job over the years. “How can I help you?” ‘What do you need?” The questions are innocent, an outpouring of our desire to support and assist people we care about. They can’t engage in those questions with us, though. Their brain has turned off. They can’t answer a question like “What do you need” when they can’t access the upper part of their brain where language lives. We are asking them to do something with us that they are literally unable to do.

I am reminded of a Ram Dass book one of my graduate school instructors shared with us that talked about the helplessness of the helping professional. That book was written before we even knew any of the neuroscience that is driving our understanding today. Back then, it just resonated with me that sometimes the most important thing you could do with someone in crisis was to honor them by witnessing their pain. Just be with them. I have carried that message throughout my career.

Working with LGBT youth, sometimes the most important thing we can do is to honor them by witnessing their pain. We, as the agency staff, have no access to their family home. We have limited access to their school, and then only by invitation. We meet kids in tremendous pain who are being verbally and physically harassed, assaulted, threatened…kids are dealing with trauma on a frequent basis.

Neuroscience is also telling us now that people who experience trauma in childhood (abuse, neglect, parental mental illness or addiction, sexual assault, witnessing domestic violence, natural disasters, and a few others) develop cognitively in a different way than do people who do not experience trauma. The more trauma, the more different the brain and the more likely for health and mental implications in adulthood. The science is fascinating. Take a look at a quick, easy and interesting overview by Dr. Nadine Harris Burke. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95ovIJ3dsNk&t=577s

I wouldn’t have to scan the brains of some of the LGBT kids we work with to know that there are some differences in development going on there. We know there’s been an uptick in harassment and assault in the last couple of years (https://www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/GLSEN%202015%20National%20School%20Climate%20Survey%20%28NSCS%29%20-%20Executive%20Summary.pdf). We know there’s been, at best, benign neglect of their needs, and, at worst, open hostility toward LGBT students, especially trans students.  We also already know that LGBT youth make up between 20% and 40% of the kids who are homeless and on the streets every year, particularly high on the T, most particularly on trans youth of color. Newer research tells us that LGBT kids also comprise about 20% of youth who are incarcerated.  (Should we place bets on how many of those kids were homeless before they were locked up?)

Those are some mindblowing stats when you take into account that we make up…what….maybe 10% of the general population? Conservative stats say 5%, but let’s be generous and say 10% for the hell of it.

Now let’s add one more twist. Where’s my bugle? This information should come with a bugle blaring to announce its arrival. According to Dr. Caitlin Ryan, researcher at The Family Acceptance Project, and Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, one of the leading trauma experts in the world, all is takes is one person.

You read that right. All it takes is ONE person who hears, one person who witnesses, one person who honors and believes to begin to relieve some of the effect of that trauma. That’s one school counselor. One school nurse. One social worker in individual session. One mom. One brother. One neighbor. One volunteer at Youth Outlook or Big Brother/Big Sister. One person who is safe and trustworthy and respectful can provide an opportunity for rewiring a brain that has been traumatized. One person can be the protective factor that stops a desperate kid from making an attempt on their own life.

Wow. Think about the power you have to affect a kid’s life. Not just their life right now, but if you listened to Dr. Burke’s TED talk, you know it’s the power to affect a kid’s life throughout the life span. It’s not about the question at that moment of crisis: “What do you need?”  or “How can I help?” Remember, in meltdown mode, none of us can actually process that question.

Thirty years into this, although I see what Ram Dass meant, I don’t know that I would limit my description of this as helplessness when we watch someone hurt. It has honor. It has meaning. True enough, we may not be able to stop it from happening, but being there with someone while he/she/they hurt, holding space for them to have their experience safely, has the potential to change cognitive wiring. We can get to those pesky questions later. First, we just have to be. We are amazing critters—both what we are as individuals and what we have the ability to do for one another.

Yes, Dr. Angelou. I agree. When we know better, we do better.

Childhood Trauma Family Courts - 2015

I met one of my favorite people when she was just finishing up chemo for breast cancer. She was interested in volunteering at the agency where I work, and we met to talk about the jobs that volunteers were doing and the time commitment that might be involved.

I’ve mentioned this before in other blog posts. Some people throw light. It’s a warm, peaceful feeling to be in the presence of that light. My new friend Lorrie threw light like that. She led with it. I noticed it the first time we sat together over coffee, talking about LGBT kids. She was magnetic.

When she asked if it would make a difference to the kids that she came to a drop-in center wearing a headscarf, I told her I thought the kids would place more value on the fact that she was showing up to be supportive of them—they were not likely to judge the fact that she’d lost her hair to chemo. She took her scarf off then and the fact that she’d lost her hair dimmed when compared to the animation and luminosity in her eyes.

Lorrie decided she would sit through our volunteer training, a process that requires 24 hours over three Saturdays. It’s a big time demand. While I hope that folks who attend will learn something from the staff or the youth leaders or me, it was during that training that I learned that ANY statement coming from Lorrie starting with, “Oh, Nancy!” meant that filters were off and there was no predicting what I was about to hear.

On the third day of training, I’d left a basket of fidget toys out for the attendees to hand around. It was the usual training fidget toys—stress balls, Play Doh, stuffed bears, Nerf balls, etc. Lorrie set the tone for the next several years of our friendship at that moment.

“Oh Nancy!”

I looked up from a pile of handouts I was organizing on the front table, as a stress ball made its way down the line of new recruits and landed at Lorrie’s seat. She had the ball in one hand and the most incredible twinkle in her eyes that I’d ever seen.

“Nancy!” she repeated.  “This feels just like my new boobs will feel!” She immediately turned to the man next to her and extended the stress ball, laughing. “Here! Feel this!”

I was momentarily speechless, then washed over with a wave of her light and an irresistible urge to giggle. The man who sat next to her looked surprised (although by Day 3, it’s hard to say why either of us would have been) and declined, but he started to giggle too. Then the person on the other side of her started. Then the rest of the attendees joined in.

It occurred to me that we were laughing, however briefly, in the face of cancer.

Maybe chemo should come with capes, not headscarves. I learned a lot about life force and joy from a superhero who kicked cancer’s ass twice in the time that I knew her. During the third bout, when chemo stole her hair again, she shaved her head and sent me a selfie, commenting that she thought it appropriate to share, since this was where she was when I met her, too. Like that years ago night over coffee, it is not her uncovered head that stands out in the photo. It is her eyes—bright and mischievous and daring. She was laughing, irrepressible.  It is truly Lorrie, open, vulnerable, ready for a challenge, unbeatable. Of all of the photos I keep of my friends, it’s probably the most beautiful photo I have.

She brought incomparable gifts to my job and to my life. I wrote about the impact she had on our youth group members when we honored her at the agency gala a few years ago. Over coffee at Caribou, over pizza at Lou Malnati’s, during staff meetings and retreats, from hammering out details of a grant that funded her position through me pestering her for program reports and curriculum details, to developing our pilot program for first- and second-graders, to a serendipitous vacation when we both ended up in Paris, she was a creative force. She was one of my go-to people at first, someone whose input I trusted and whose expertise in her field gave her unique perspective on our new projects. In time, she was simply my friend, one of very few people who knew how writing Urban Tidepool had affected me and with what I was struggling, including processing my pending divorce and the fall out of the people I thought of as my friends.

Lorrie Paris

We lost Lorrie just a little over a year ago. Today is her birthday. It has been an odd year of our Youth Outlook team grieving, of kids and former kids grieving, of our book group grieving, of individuals noting softly in non-sequitur, “I miss Lorrie…”  while we engaged in the day to day activities of which she used to be a part. It has been a year of making space for the folks who needed to say, “I miss Lorrie…” and then coming home and crying alone in my garden or on a walk with one of the dogs because I miss Lorrie too.

The program she developed is going strong. The “talking ball” that she would take home from time to time to wash and return is still in the fidget basket. The stress ball that started years of laughter may still be in the bottom of that basket, too. In staff meetings and trainings, we still refer to “Lorrie nights”. I can’t walk into Lou Malnati’s or pick up coffee from Caribou without thinking about her. Maybe she actually kicked cancer’s ass a third time, because she’s certainly still with us, throwing light and prompting giggles with irreverent comments.


If you work in social services, you know how it goes—if it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen.  This happened. So I’m documenting it. I met a superhero who was having chemo. She was irreverent and sarcastic and funny as hell. And bald. She was my friend. She was my person. I watched her change people’s lives. Sometimes I got to help. Other times, I just bugged her for paperwork about it. She kicked cancer’s ass twice and left a legend. She really should have had a cape.

I will tell you clearly and not as a non-sequitur. I miss Lorrie.

Happy birthday, my friend.


Finding Gratitude

Posted: March 30, 2017 in Uncategorized

On the 15th anniversary of my brother’s death, I find myself wishing the Major lots of love and laughter, less pain, and a better ticker next time, as well as another smart ass little gender neutral sibling who will paint his toenails pink when he dozes off in the living room.

I had a brother once. For that, I am, and always will be, grateful.

Urban Tidepool

A yahrzeit candle burns in the kitchen and throughout the day, I’ve pondered the intimacy of sharing the experience of someone’s death. Intimacy seems an odd word and yet nothing more suitable comes to mind. This sharing shapes me. It might shape any of us, I think…the piercing loss that dulls over time to add layers to who we are as people, to become, hopefully, a reason to be grateful.

I had a brother once. For that, I am grateful. He took me fishing when I was a kid and he taught me how to bait hooks and tie leaders. For that, I am grateful. He told me one day that my parents would be very proud of me and that they would have loved me, no matter the whole gay thing.  For that, I am grateful. At the end of his life, he asked me to be part of making the…

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A Facebook post from last spring:

Somewhere in a parallel universe, there’s a bug version of Criminal Minds playing out and investigators are standing over dismembered centipedes saying, “Given this level of overkill, this is clearly the work of a centipeda-cidal maniac.” Yes. Arrest me now.

I make no exoskeletons about my centipede phobia. I’ve written about it before. Unless you share this phobia, you may have no idea how difficult it is to maintain an image of being a bad ass while shrieking and coming all from-gether (the opposite of TOgether). It’s been a while since I worried about the Lesbian Association of the Midwest—fondly known as LAM in these parts– dispatching Spike the tow truck driver to show up at my house, run a big hook through my LAM membership card, and repossess it due to my bug related meltdowns.

It’s that time of year again. Centipede season. As a person who detests any critter with more than four legs and fewer than two, you can imagine how well this sits with me. I’m still dealing with last season.

Try to get a visual. I arrived home from a late meeting and Chip, my 100-pound Black Lab mix, was snoozing on the end of my bed. Channeling my inner bad ass, I melted as I always do when Chip is in sleepy-gentle mode instead of his typical bull-in-a-china-shop mode. I leaned on the bed, ruffling his ears and smoothing his fur speckles. He made a contented sound and stretched. I petted him for a minute or so, then I straightened up with the intention of prodding him off the bed so I could get into it, as he tends to take up most of it. Grabbing a handful of blanket and top sheet, I flipped the covers back.

An enormous centipede, maybe four inches long, ran out of the sheets and down the bed. It was not a regular centipede. Those are maybe an inch long and kind of grey. This was huge and sort of red and gold. It was bug royalty.

Grabbing for the first thing I could use a weapon, I realized quickly there wasn’t a lot I could do with Chip’s tail. On a good day, Chip’s tail is a marvel, sweeping table tops clear and leaving cylindrical bruises on my shinbones. At that moment, it did nothing for me. So I grabbed a sneaker. I knocked the dodgy little bastard off my bed and proceeded to beat him to a pile of extra legs and an occasional jerky kick. Here, I am referring to the centipede, not Chip. I’d be more likely to refer to Chip as a dodgy big bastard.

Okay. I handled it. Not well, but I did handle it. THAT was disgusting.

I paced the house, unsettled, entomophobia in full gear. I had no interest in going to get into THAT bed anymore, even as tired as I was and even though it gnawed at my bad ass-ness. Chip relocated to the living room, apparently unrattled by my prowling from window to window, peeking out to see if the LAM tow truck was slinking down my driveway. It took an hour or so, but I managed to clear the buggy energy from my room and was able to go to bed.

When I woke the next morning, I knew that the house was simply not big enough for me and any random entomo. They had to go. I suited up for buggy battle, armed with some fabulous Bug X. I swept the entire first floor, chuckling to myself. Take THAT, entomos!

But I wasn’t quite done. This situation required MORE. It required the ultimate in bad ass home ownership skills. The next morning, I suited up again, attaching a sprayer of outdoor Bug X to the hose and spraying the outside of the whole house, paying close attention to windows and doors.  I was careful to shoo the bees away so they were not in the direct path of Bug X. I like bees. They do not fall in the phobia category.

I felt quite proud of myself as I finished up the last side of the house. Bring on the adulting skills. I was ready. I turned the water off and started to unscrew the sprayer attachment.

It didn’t occur to me in all of my bad ass adulting that I should relieve some of the pressure in the hose before I unscrewed it. On the second twist, the remaining pressure forced water to erupt between the threads, spraying backwards according to some unknown (at least to me) rule of physics. Or maybe it was just Murphy’s law. He was a good Irishman. He would understand these things.

I was instantly drenched from head to legs. In pesticide.

The sprayer flew out of my hand and I bobbled the hose in surprise, soaking my jeans and sneakers with cold water. It was one of the moments where you stand there dripping (and don’t try to tell me that you NEVER stand around dripping) and you think, “That did NOT just happen.”

I blinked through the mist. As I watched droplets of pesticide drip off my shirt and I spit vehemently into the evergreen shrub, the next thing that crossed my mind was, “Somebody needs to clean this mess up.” Since I was doing this alleged adulting, that could only be me.

I figured I should go get out of my pesticide soggy clothes. But first I would clean up. Should I go to the ER? No, I should get this off my skin. Skin? I spit into the evergreen shrub again. Skin?!  I got it in my mouth! Oh!

The folks at Poison Control are very nice, just in case you’ve ever wondered.

“Have you noticed any twitching?”


“It’s a neurotoxin. If you start twitching, you should get to the ER right away.”

Oooookay. That’s helpful. Spraying oneself with a neurotoxin can take so much fun out of adulting!

It turned out that I didn’t twitch. A couple of weeks later, I received a letter of commendation from LAM citing me for courage and going above and beyond the call of duty for my efforts to create an entomo-free zone while actively engaging in bee-shoo-ing.

Out of curiosity, I looked up some info on an exterminator website. Do you know if you have a significant problem with centipedes, you can lay down glue traps to track their traffic and see where they are most active? It’s not considered a solution really, because the dodgy little bastards will simply leave a few legs behind on the glueboard and go about their business of scaring people senseless and grow new legs! When I read that, I stared at the laptop screen thinking, “And how does THIS help me? Now I KNOW there’s a centipede in here somewhere—probably running in circles because it has more legs on one side than on the other—but I don’t know where it is.”

Still I congratulated myself on successful adulting and bad ass-ness and a lack of twitching. Until I saw the next one. THAT made me twitch. By then, I was calling the LAM headquarters and requesting that Spike swing by and pick up my membership ‘cause I couldn’t take another drenching in entomo spray. Right after I called the exterminator company and requested a special home visit.

I knew my reputation was slipping when the exterminator company rep showed up and said, “I hear you got some nasties.”

And all I could think to say back was, “Hold me?”

Spike would be mortified.

It’s Dodgy Little Bastard season again. All you bad asses out there, be careful!


Written almost two years ago as we embarked on the Don’t Pee Here adventure. I’m sad to say that so little has changed and yes, people ARE still freaked out by seeing someone with short hair washing their hands in the women’s restroom. Two years is a long time to wait to pee. You should try it sometime.

Urban Tidepool

A couple of months ago, it was major news that a bill was proposed in Florida to prohibit transgender people from using public, single-sex restrooms that do not match the sex they were born as. I saw arguments for and against, and eventually the story disappeared into the cyber dust that gets stirred up as new stories are generated and we move on to the next thing vying for our attention.

In the Huffpost article I read most recently, the bill’s author talked about the loophole in the current ordinance that prompted him to write his proposal, speculating that “…but [the ordinance] creates a giant loophole for criminals, sexual deviants and sexual predators to walk into a shower, a woman’s locker room under the cover of law.”  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/09/florida-transgender-bathroom-law_n_6645910.html

Yeah? Hmmmm….

Last week, I offered training at the middle school of a neighboring town on the current trends in working with…

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