Monday, May 31, 2010

Lest We Forget

There is a local story getting a lot of chatter and some press, involving a young farmhand caught on video brutalizing the cows and calves at the dairy at which he works. He is being charged in a neighboring county with multiple counts of cruelty to animals; bond is currently set at $100,000.

I'm not about to defend or excuse the actions of the defendant, assuming the charges are proven. I am, however, going to call attention to an element to that story that no one is mentioning in all the loud calls for his punishment.

The defendant is a 25 year old Iraqi war veteran.

Our veterans are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with serious traumatic injuries - some of them physical, some of them mental. They are starting to fill up our courts as defendants, sometimes charged with crimes of violence. One speaker I have heard in recent months attributes this to the fact that today's soldiers are sent over multiple tours of duties and so have repeated exposure to the trauma of the war zone. Where the Viet Nam era veteran typically did one tour in Nam, today's military personnel may do five or six tours in the Middle East.

The problem of traumatized veterans has become so great that there is now a special program in the Veterans Administration, funded by Congress, called the Veterans Justice Outreach Initiative (VJO). VJO focuses on vets in the criminal justice system, linking them to mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, and other needed services. Nationwide, judges are establishing Veterans Treatment Courts, similar to mental health or drug courts, to help get our veterans back on track.

If we are going to send our soldiers to a war with no end, exposing them to the horrors of battle, and expect them to do their duty, then we owe it to them when they come back scarred and damaged to get them the help and services they need.

On Memorial Day, we watch parades, we decorate our family graves. I'm about to head out to watch Warren's daughter march in a Memorial Day parade myself. It is easy on Memorial Day to wave a flag and thank a vet.

It is harder to remember on all the other days of the year that all of our vets need our support and our help. Even when - especially when - something goes wrong.

Our veterans deserve better and so do we.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Time On My Side? Not This Week

My friend and colleague was at it again.

"You haven't been writing, April," he said during a recent phone conversation. "What's going on?"

I forget exactly what I said in response, but whatever phrase I used caused the concern in his voice to ratchet up several notches. I quickly backtracked: "I'm fine, really. It's just way busy around here right now."

We are experiencing very full days right now. Full weekends as well. Last weekend was so packed that I turned to Warren and said "I hate the weekends. I just want it to be Monday again."

My calendar is scribbled on day after day. I am still struggling with the tiredness that took a running headlong leap onto main stage when I got sick earlier this month. I have been so tired in recent weeks that it started to nag me. Was it "just" tiredness? Was it something else? ("Something else?" There is only one "something else" in my life.) It finally hit me yesterday that I am commuting two hours a day - an hour each way - taking Sam to and from work.

I shared my discovery with Warren over supper last night. I told him I thought my driving to and from Acorn Farms Monday through Friday was taking a bigger toll on my energy than I had realized and was tampering with my overall sense of good health.

Warren couldn't keep the broad smile off his face.

"What? What's that smug smile about?"

Warren protested. He wasn't being smug. He was, however, pleased to remind me that he had pointed out that very fact several weeks ago and had offered more than once to give me an occasional break by driving Sam himself.

I have nine weeks left of the daily commute, followed by a whirlwind driving trip to Montana and back. Between now and then are concerts, the garden, a quick trip south to pick up instruments, and a handful of holidays.

Right now I am missing too many things. I miss writing - this blog, letters to friends. I miss having pools of quiet time in my day. I miss taking the time to sit with friends and really listen, really share. I miss time with Warren that is not backed up against competing schedules or sandwiched in between four errands and three meetings.

I think I need to take a carving knife to my schedule.

As I have written more than once before, ultimately I'm the one filling in the blanks on my calendar. Oh, sure, there are some things - taking Sam to work, the upcoming concerts - that are fixed and must be worked around. But almost everything else is my doing.

No wonder my Muse has fled. She is probably out back, watching the garden grow.

Which is where I need to be. Just as soon as I get back from court. Well, and get the dishes done too. And make the bed. And figure out what we are taking to the cookout on Monday. And finish a memo for the judges. And...

Where's that carving knife?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


How then to capture
the wonder? Water beading
the day lily fronds.

A Graduation

Late last month, I attended a very special graduation - the first from our municipal court's mental health docket program.

My day job, when I am not hauling plants or percussion instruments, is working on special projects for the Delaware Municipal Court. One of the very special projects that I have been involved in since starting there four years ago was the creation and establishment of the mental health docket.

A mental health docket is what is known as a "specialized docket." Specialized dockets are court programs designed to target a particular population in the criminal justice system and offer alternatives to incarceration and further criminal sanctions. Our docket takes individuals who have a serious mental illness and have been charged with a non-violent misdemeanor and provides them with direction, supervision, and links to other services, including (and especially) regular mental health counseling and treatment. If the individual completes all phases of the program successfully, the original charges are dismissed.

What the mental health docket is, in real terms, is a chance for a participant to get treatment and other services to help them better manage their illness and break a cycle of repeated offenses.

Tiffany came into the docket two years ago, withdrawn, anxious. For the first several weeks, she would sit in court hunched over, not looking at anyone. She always wore a small knit cap pulled all the way down to her eyebrows, with her hair tucked underneath.

Time went by. I do not administer the mental health docket, so I am not in that court regularly. After several months, I dropped in to watch a docket session, noticing all the new faces. I didn't recognize the young woman with the flowing hair until the judge called out, "Tiffany."

I gawked. Gone was the knit cap, the hunched over look. She still anxiously twisted her hands, but she stood up straight and addressed the court.

Shortly before her graduation, Tiffany came to the courthouse to go over details with the docket coordinator. I was assisting at the check-in table that day. I did not recognize her at all until she gave her name. She was older, quieter, more mature looking and acting. Since she started the docket, she has had one child and another is on the way. Her boyfriend, soon to be her husband, was with her this day.

She looked like any other young woman juggling life's responsibilities.

As I walked her back to the coordinator's office, she commented on the weather. The Tiffany I first saw two years earlier would not have looked at me, let alone said anything. The Tiffany of today bravely carried out small talk with only a giggle or two to show her anxiety.

At her graduation a week later, Tiffany stood up proud and happy, her giggles intermixed with her tears. The press release I wrote about that day is at the end of this post.

People with mental illnesses often live on the fringes of society, unable to bridge the gap between their lives and the wider world. Anxiety and suspicion are on both sides and the barriers to fuller participation are very real. One of the hopes and goals of our mental health docket is that the participants gain the tools - of all kinds - to come in from the fringes.

At graduation, you could see that promise in Tiffany's face.


No cap and gown. No "Pomp and Circumstance." No commencement speaker, unless you counted the judge on the bench.

Yet the graduation ceremony that took place in Courtroom A of the Delaware Municipal Court Wednesday afternoon was every bit as meaningful and joyous as the ones that will take place at colleges and high schools later this spring.

On Wednesday, April 21, Tiffany *** became the first graduate of the court's mental health docket after entering it 24 months earlier. Municipal Court Judge David Sunderman, who established the specialized program, spoke of her accomplishments at graduation.

"This is a happy and tremendous day for all of us, but especially for Tiffany. She has consistently followed her treatment plan and exhibited a desire to improve her life. We hope that this experience will enable her to continue to grow as a person and continue to be a valuable member of our community."

The Delaware Municipal Court established its mental health docket in December 2007. The docket, which Sunderman characterizes as a "problem-solving court program," was created to offer certain mentally ill offenders charged with misdemeanors a program of intense supervision and treatment rather than jail or further criminal sanctions. Judge W. Duncan Whitney operates a similar program at the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas and the two courts share key personnel. Funding for those shared positions is provided in part by grants and in part by the Delaware-Morrow Mental Health & Recovery Services Board.

Mental Health Docket Coordinator Ed Klages, who has been with the program since December 2008, reflected on the success of the program, which currently has 35 participants, 20 of whom are in the municipal court docket.

"The docket is a win-win situation for both the participants and the community," Klages said. "Delaware County is fortunate to have people in the judicial system and social agencies who understand the importance of this kind of collaborative initiative, and are committed to its success."

In the end, the courtroom graduation ceremony felt like any other graduation one has ever attended. There were congratulations from staff and friends. There were flowers and some tears. And there was the optimism on the face and in the words of the new graduate.

"Being in the docket helped me to grow up. I learned to start trusting people. Thank you, everybody, for helping me."

Sunday, May 16, 2010

In the Nursery

I thought we were done with the nursery.

No, not that kind of nursery. Until and unless there are grandchildren, Warren and I are both done on the baby front.

No, I mean the plant nursery. Ever since March 21, a large folding table has dominated the space in front on the patio door. To get to the back deck, you had to go through the percussion room, into the garage, then out to the patio and up to the deck.

All that was coming to an end this weekend. We spent part of Mother's Day tilling the two gardens. They and I were ready to go this weekend.

The table would finally, blessedly, be empty.

Yesterday I put in peppers, eggplants, and broccoli. We took some tomato plants out to dad. Today, I heeled in our tomatoes, planted onions, and seeded cilantro, basil, greasy beans, pumpkins, and zucchini.

In addition to being the weekend I planted the garden, this weekend is the Delaware Arts Festival, a two-day downtown street fair. The Symphony always has a booth there, which Warren and I helped set up early Saturday. I wanted to buy Ben and Alise's wedding present at the fair, so later on (before the first round of gardening), we spent a good hour or more wandering up and down the blocks looking at the wares.

One of the booths was a gourd artist, the kind who paint and carve gourds into decorative art - penguins, jolly Santas, dogs (no, Ben and Alise, I did not buy you gourd art). Warren is always interested in gourds - not to decorate our house with, but to turn into percussion instruments such as shakeres or g├╝iros.

While he eyed the gourds, judging size and dimensions, I realized there were trays of brown paper packets underneath the lowest shelf.

Seed packets.

Gourd seed packets.

Warren and I engaged the proprietor in some gourd talk. What's this gourd here? How about this one?

Gourds have descriptive names: kettle, pear, apple, basketball. That's a big pear. That one? A penguin (painted like, you guessed it, a penguin).

I treated my husband: one pack of kettle seeds, one pack of large pear seeds. The seed owner and I talked planting and germination. He suggested starting them inside, under heat. They have a tough coating, so they'll take awhile to germinate. Just stay at it.

If I started now, I asked, would I still have enough growing season to get gourds this year?

Oh heavens, yes.

I spent all morning today gardening. The kitchen garden is fluffy and easy to work. The sod garden, even after last week's compost and roto-tilling, is still rough and still has a long ways to go. Pa Ingalls flashed across my mind.

The broccoli is down in the sod garden this year, where it can grow to the size of fifth graders if so desires. I have two rows of pie pumpkins and two rows of zucchini seeded. A fifth row will hold the gourds when their time comes. The kitchen garden will have eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, basil, cilantro, and pole beans this year. It is not as crowded as last year and this year I know where every single tomato is planted. I also planted six containers: two with artichokes (trying yet once again) and four with sugar lump cherry tomatoes.

By the time I finished, I was tired. But not too tired to make ten newspaper seed pots, fill them with wet potting soil, and poke a gourd seed down into each one. The big table came down as planned, but one of the small deck tables holds a tray of seeds and a lamp just fine. The babes-in-waiting spent a hour or two in the sun before I carried them inside and tucked them in for a nap.

The nursery is humming one last time this garden season.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Work of Writing

A friend and regular reader of this blog commented yesterday that I have posted only a couple of times in May.

He insisted he was going through withdrawal pangs. "Write something!"

"My Muse has deserted me," I said in response, both of us laughing.

My comment stuck in my head the rest of the evening and even touched my dreams, as I was cutting up and rearranging lines of poetry (someone else's, not mine) on oversized index cards. I woke with the feel of the scissors still in my hands.

Recently I was reminded that writing (indeed, any artistic endeavor) takes place not in the ethereal reaches of Art but instead in the very real daily world. During our recent Chasing Light… week, one of the events was a joint talk between Joseph Schwantner, the composer, and Robert Flanagan, a local writer and poet. Joe and Bob hit it off from the outset, and we were treated to two hours of free flowing talk about writing, composition, rhythm, music, poetry, and anything else that came to either of their minds.

Members of the audience occasionally asked questions and one attendee, a well-meaning individual who sometimes seems to stalk Culture with a baseball bat and a grim expression, asked Joe, "what inspires you to write music?"

"A signed contract and a check for one half of my commission," he quickly replied.

A frown crossed the woman's face, and she reframed the question.

"Well, what is the first step in the composition process for you?"

Joe said, "I have a deadline. And I sit at my desk every day and compose music in order to meet that deadline. It is the work I do."

There was a small sigh of disappointment from the questioner. I think she was hoping for a revelation from an Artist and instead got a working class response.

Composing is work. Writing is work.

Art is work.

Monday of this week, I ran into Bob on a downtown sidewalk. He showed me his latest draft of a short story he had mentioned that night. It had his penciled notations on every page.

"It's work, you see," he said, fanning through the pages. "People think you just sit down and the words fall out of the sky. But it's writing and rewriting and rewriting. It took me three drafts of this story to realize that one character was not who I thought it was at all."

That reminded me of the question from the session and Joe's comment that he was inspired to compose when a signed contract and check arrived. I alluded to it.

"Exactly!" Bob shouted. "That was a true answer."

Bob and I talked for awhile longer about writing - his, mine - before he went one direction with his drafts and I went another with my thoughts.

Those thoughts started to swing full circle before yesterday's jest about my Muse. One of the things Bob and I talked about in our encounter was the practice of capturing images and ideas in a notebook or folder for later use in writing. He reminded me that sometimes you go back and realize something that moved you so at the time has shriveled and should be discarded, and other times the most fleeting of notes takes on a glow of potential when you read it over later.

It is a habit I used to cultivate assiduously and one that I have found myself taking up again in recent months. Bob's comments encourage me to continue with my observations and my notes, and with my work of writing.

If I indeed have a Muse, She is Me.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Parallel Play

"I'd rather it be the chicken soup," said Warren.

He was referring to the chicken soup he made me Thursday for supper at the height of my recent bad cold. It was delicious soup and Warren somehow found noodles so close to those my Grandmother Skatzes used to make that I was as awash in nostalgia as I was in the pleasure of a good meal. I am convinced that it was the chicken soup - richly flavored with Warren's love and concern - that caused my fever to break later that night.

But this post is not about the chicken soup, although it is about Warren and me. It is about parallel play.

"Parallel play" is a term from the child development world. It refers to a stage children go through when they will play alongside, often with the very same toys, but not interact with one another. It is more prevalent in preschoolers than older children; I saw it often in my son Ben and his playmates (parallel playmates?) when they were 4 and 5.

This morning we went out to Price Organics for my birthday present: a cubic yard of compost. We are borrowing a friend's rototiller tomorrow and wanted the compost on the gardens before we till. Once we got back home, we both went to work with shovel, pitchfork, and wheelbarrow. Together we unloaded the compost from truck and trailer, me preparing more for loading while Warren wheeled the barrow back to the gardens for dumping.

About two wheelbarrow loads into the task, I was smiling radiantly as Warren came back around the side of the house.


"Nothing. I'm just really happy."

Warren looked at the load of compost to be moved, then at the gray, chill sky. Not the lightest of tasks, not the warmest or most welcoming of days. He looked back at me. I was still beaming goofily.

Warren shrugged and we loaded the next load.

I was still smiling when he came back around the front again.

"I figured something out," I announced.

Warren raised his eyebrows in a question.

"This is the first thing we have done together in weeks. Everything else has been parallel play."

I don't know if Warren bought into my thinking at all, but I knew I was onto something. Ever since midwinter, we have both been engrossed in major projects of our own: United Way, grant writing, the whole Chasing Light… project, to name a few. Yes, we knew what the other was doing; yes, we talked over our days and our stumbling blocks and our progress every night; yes, I attended as many of Warren's events and programs as possible, but we lacked the textured interweaving of our lives that has is the hallmark of our relationship.

Instead, it was parallel play. Each with our own toys - our calendars, our engagements, our deadlines - playing alongside and not with one another. Informative, interesting, intense, educational, engaging, to be sure. But also alone and somewhat remote from what the other was doing.

During the last two plus months, each of us had mentioned, sometimes as we collapsed into bed after a particularly grueling day, that we were feeling a slight disconnect. We'd talk about making sure there was time for our relationship, and maybe carving out some "us" moments tomorrow. Then tomorrow would become today, then yesterday, and we were still talking about maybe.

I don't regret the involvement or the events of the last couple of months. I am proud of my United Way work; I am proud of my court work. I am prouder yet of Warren's work on behalf of the Symphony and the community in bringing the Chasing Light… project to fruition.

All the same, I think I got more pleasure from the compost than almost anything else we have done recently. We were working on a joint project, we were working together instead of in our own spheres, and I was in sync with my dear husband once again.

There will be more projects for both of us. I know that and I can't imagine either of our lives without them. Close as we are, Warren and I are not Tweedledum and Tweedledee. I am sure there will be other times of parallel play, although I hope not quite as prolonged as this one.

And besides, if we find ourselves getting a little too remote, we can always unload a truck full of compost.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

What Does Your Jar Hold?

I recently started reading Kyran Pittman's blog, Notes to Self (later changed to Planting Dandelions), after finding a reference to her in a magazine story. Her post yesterday intrigued me.

It was on an age-old topic, at least among women bloggers. With what do we fill our days, given that any single day in our lives tend to be stuffed way too full? If it's not the preschooler throwing a tantrum on the floor, it is the teen needing a ride to school. If it is not the grant deadline ticking away, it is the house lights being dimmed and the concert about to begin.

It's always something. And boy, do we know it.

Kyran used the example of filling a jar: first you put in rocks and think the jar is full. Then you put in pebbles and fill up some more space. I have seen that analogy carried out even longer: next comes sand, filling in the cracks between the pebbles and the rocks. Then you add water and fill up the remaining space. Then and only then can one say the jar is full. Many of us persist in making sure every last drop of water goes in every single day.

One of her readers wisely noted that the jar changes from day to day: from graceful to clunky, as the day goes. I can relate to that.

Kyran ended her post with this challenge: Bring out your jar of days. Show me how it's filled.

I love that imagery. I love the notion of each of us lifting jars out of our bags or the backseats of our cars, and passing them around a circle. Some of us are holding ours behind our backs, waiting for the right moment to proffer them.

Today my jar, which is almost always a canning jar, not for utilitarian purposes alone, but because I love them, is empty.

The cold I noted in passing on Tuesday gained strength, not unlike a hurricane, and like a hurricane it is presently bearing down on me with its full force and weight. I went to bed last night thinking "well, if I cancel that and that, I should still be able to do this and this." When I woke up this morning, I took my bearings, canceled the remainder of my schedule, and battened down the hatches.

I am headed to bed shortly, hoping it will blow itself out to sea.

So my jar today is empty.

It is casting blue shadows as the sun strikes through it.

It is holding the promise of new things to put in it another day.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

It's That Kind of Day

We are both recuperating from last weekend's concert, the events of the week leading up to the concert, and the weeks and weeks of preparation that lead up to last week's events and concert. We are both tired, we are both a little worn and edgy, we are both painfully aware of how many tasks and chores went by the wayside during April (and even March) as the concert (and United Way and the grant writing) ate up our time.

The concert - which was the season finale as well as the Ford Made in America concert - was absolutely stunning. Stunning? Amazing! Incredible! I had tears in my eyes watching Warren play Chasing Light…, the signature piece. At several points in the work, his hands were moving so fast over the vibraphone that the mallets in them were blurs. All of the musicians, along with Jaime, our conductor, played their hearts out, not just on the Big piece, but on every piece. At the end of the night, the audience rose in waves to acknowledge the beauty and power of what we had just heard. I raised a bruise on my right palm from clapping so hard.

[Note: the performance is archived and available online. It's the May 1 event. That's Warren speaking at the start of the concert. He is in the percussion section on the right side of the shot during the first half.]

The concert and the composer residency held in conjunction with it were probably the biggest event of the Symphony's 31 years, probably the greatest accomplishment of Warren's in almost 20 years of managing the Symphony, and probably the largest, sustained community-building event by an arts organization ever in Delaware.

Small wonder we are exhausted. Small wonder that by Sunday night I felt my throat start to go scratchy, that by yesterday I was snuffling and coughing, and that today I feel as if my head is full of wadded up plastic grocery bags. I want to put my head down on my desk, like we used to do in grade school, and close my eyes.

It's that kind of day. Kind of a "I wish I felt better" day.

After taking Sam to work this morning, I came back home, did something or other - I don't even remember what now - before walking slowly to a meeting downtown, following by dropping in at United Way offices to sign allocation letters.

It's that kind of day. Kind of a slow-moving, slow-thinking day.

It's Primary Day in Ohio and Warren picked me up after my United Way stint to go vote. He is an R and I am a D. In this county, that means he gets a full ballot, because there are Republicans running for office every time you turn around and almost every race this primary was contested. The Democrat ballot is anorexic by comparison. So I was through voting long before Warren was. I stood out in the hallway at the polling place and greeted friends going in to vote.

It's that kind of day. Kind of a community-gathering, friend-greeting day.

Afterwards we swung by my parents' house so I could pick up an empty planter and replant it for Mother's Day. I saw that my dad already has his garden tilled and some of it planted. I was so jealous! The garden is one of the tasks that went by the wayside last month, other than I have a worktable full of plants begging to be let outside. (And while writing this, I shot an email to the friend around the corner who has the "dirt-eating machine" I used last year in my sod garden, asking to get on the list to borrow it.) I plan on spending much of this weekend making up for lost time.

It's that kind of day. Kind of a look at the garden and look at the plants and think about introducing them to each other day.

My older son Ben just got back to Montana from Portland, Oregon, where last Thursday he and my almost daughter-in-law Alise went through a commitment ceremony at Reed College. When I saw his note on Facebook that he was back, I asked "pictures," and he sent me a link. I have not seen Ben and Alise for two years. I got teary right away, but then realized I have not seen Ben with hair that short in more than a decade, so that distracted me from crying. Seeing these made me realize that in all the concert preparations of recent weeks, we haven't even discussed the upcoming wedding this summer in Montana.

These are three of my favorites. The photography is by Molly Gingras (a Reedie). I suspect the stuff being thrown is glitter.

It's that kind of day. Kind of a look-see at their first big event and looking forward to seeing them at their second later this summer day.

Tomorrow are the 4th Grade concerts, here and in Marion, and Warren and others will be arriving shortly to load the timpani. There are dishes calling, there is a meeting tomorrow for which I need to prepare. Tonight Warren has a rehearsal, so supper will be bumped up against that and anything else going on. Life goes on. The cold I have will pass, there's always another concert in the wings, and the garden will get tilled and planted.

It's that kind of day. Kind of a small moments day.

My kind of day.