Tag Archives: unprotected

My friends Luke, Leia, and Han

(I think it’s important to start by saying that I have never claimed to be cool.)

I am so geeked out about the upcoming Star Wars movie I can hardly stand it.     As I write this post, I am only 95 hours from watching Star Wars:  The Force Awakens.   Yes, I already have my tickets for first show this Thursday night. at 7:00pm.

I realize that I am not the target audience for this movie, since I’m neither an 11 year old boy, nor a Generation X guy who grew up making his own light saber with a cardboard wrapping paper tube and markers.

Yet, I can’t believe I’m the only middle aged mom I know who is curious about how Han and Leia are living their lives.   Are they married?   Did Leia hyphenate–Leia Organa-Solo, or even Leia Skywalker-Organa-Solo?    Do they have kids?   Do they spend every weekend in the bleachers at Pod Races, griping that the coaches only play Jedis’ kids?    What about Uncle Luke?  Does he come over for Sunday dinners of blue milk and those crunchy little nuggets?      Is Luke a fun uncle who melts stuff with his light saber to entertain the kids?  Or is he boring, talking politics of the federation until his brother-in-law Han tells him to lighten up.     I am way more interested in keeping up with the Skywalkers than the Kardashians.

My friends look at me in bewilderment.    “So…you’re into Star Wars?     Seriously?”   I have learned not to answer the question of how many times I have seen the original trilogy, because my peers gasp in shock when I say “at least 50.”      All they ever say at this point is, “I don’t get it.”

It’s not that I’m into science fiction.   OK… I guess I did see the original Star Trek series, and all the Star Trek movies, and I watched the Star Trek-Next Generation for a few years.   But that’s it.

Again, I never claimed to be cool.

To me, Star Wars is about friendship.    The kind of friendship that makes a guy risk the wrath of a reptilian gangster to shoot a couple of tie fighters so his buddy can blow up a space station.      Isn’t that what we all want in a friend?

Star Wars friends

My books are built on that kind of friendship.   While no one gets frozen in carbonite, I’d like to think that Amanda, Leah, and Zoe would challenge Darth Vader for each other.    “Unprotected” and “Unattached” are available at amazon, barnesandnoble.com and at some local bookstores, and they can still be ordered in time for Christmas.

And yeah, of course, I’m going to have to say it:

May the Force Be With You.

“I want an Easy Bake Oven!” (and other proof that holiday marketing works)

As a child of the 70s, there was no greater marketing tool than the thick, shiny JC Penney catalog.

JC Penney catalog

This book of joy was the source of most of my back to school shopping, but the real excitement came at Christmas time.   Starting in October, I circled, dog-earned, and initialed dozens of traditional and more unexpected gifts.   This catalog convinced me that I needed maracas, a snow cone maker, a tea set, a drum set, and a microscope.   Despite circling them violently in the catalog, I didn’t receive any of them.  Santa did read our lists, so I did get these three gems that were beautiful in the catalog, but a little less exciting in real life:

Baby Alive–I didn’t have a lot of dolls as a child, but after seeing a beautiful catalog girl lovingly feeding her Baby Alive, I wanted one.   When Christmas arrived, I was thrilled to have my own.   She came with powdered baby food packets that I mixed with water (just like a real mom!) to feed to my baby.  What followed was attempting to change her diaper.  The slimy food was supposed to pass through Baby Alive to the tiny diaper that came in the box.Baby Alive

Anatomically, Baby Alive had a tube that ran through her hard plastic body, and the expectation that gravity would be enough to take care of business.   Alas, the prepackaged sludge did not pass through easily.   Instead, my Baby Alive had a constant case of constipation that could only be remedied by turning her upside down and running water through her…uh…digestive system and shaking her  violently.     Not the tender moment I had envisioned.

Easy Bake Oven–I wanted this in the worst way.     I could bake and decorate tiny, perfect cakes by myself, just like the girls on the commercial!     I imagined serving my treats at tea parties with my friends wearing fancy dresses. What I learned the hard way was that a light bulb doesn’t cook like an oven, to say the least.

1977 Easy Bake Oven

In my cakes, batter bubbled over one side of the pan searing onto the  bulb, while the other side of the cake remained cold, gooey, and gross.  I used the three mini-mixes the first day, but all three landed in the garbage.   I tried a few Jiffy cake mixes, but these made an even bigger mess deep inside the blazing hot orange plastic that didn’t come apart and was impossible to clean.   Everyone I knew had an Easy Bake Oven, and no one I knew could make it work.    Yet the this useless hunk of plastic has endured, modernized, and is now sold for $44.95(!!).

I can’t explain this next gift by anything other than marketing, and the fact that I was a strange child.    Somehow JC Penney convinced me I wanted the creepiest gift I would ever beg for and eventually receive: a ventriloquist doll.

Emmet Kelly JuniorIf there was ever proof that marketing works, it is this horrifying gift.   Emmet Kelly Junior was at the top of my list, and I was thrilled to open him on Christmas morning.   I sat him on my lap and made a feeble attempt to throw my voice.    I soon realized that neither Emmet nor I had anything to say to each other.    I’m sure he was in the back of my closet, giving me nightmares, by January that year.

Without the luxury of the magical JC Penney catalog, we adults fall back on gift cards and detailed lists to finish our Christmas shopping.  This year, please consider giving my books, Unprotected and Unattached, as gifts!     Support small business by purchasing at Fair Trade Books in Red Wing, or take advantage of Cyber Monday and find them on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com.


Writing the leading man…from Tom Hanks to T.J. Hooker to Han Solo

As I started writing my second novel, Unattached, I was already well acquainted with the three main female characters–Amanda, Leah, and Zoe.    They are so alive in my head that I have sat in my real life social work staff meetings and wondered which new case should go Amanda.   I knew that my second book would continue with the same characters, but I needed new leads.    Leah, Amanda’s experienced, jaded, fellow social worker felt like an obvious choice for the main character, but the search for the male lead was harder.

My new leading man was going to be a cop, and I wanted him to be different from Jake, who was so Tom Hanks-esque in his sensitivity and support for Amanda that one reader told me, “I loved him, but he’s almost too nice.  Is any guy like that?”

Tom Hanks
Tom Hanks

While I think sensitive Jake was the right choice Amanda,  I decided that Leah’s love interest needed to be edgier, more of a mess.   I struggled with how attractive to let him be.   In early drafts, I strayed too far from the typical handsome leading man, instead describing a balding, pudgy jerk that my sister (and best editor) said reminded her of T.J. Hooker.   Um no.  Not what I was going for.

T.J. Hooker
T.J. Hooker

With a sense of urgency to save this Pete Kemper that smarmy fate, I took inspiration from my first movie star boyfriend: Han Solo.

Han Solo
Han Solo

I was first introduced to Captain Solo when I was six, sitting on the sticky floor of the Cinema Unique movie theater in my hometown where they sold way too many tickets to one of the first showings of Star Wars.    One of my earliest memories is looking up at his crooked smile with a happy sigh.

A little more Han Solo, and lot less T.J. Hooker, and Pete Kemper was starting to come to life as he is introduced here in Unattached:

Pete Kemper was blonde and slightly balding (“That’s my natural hairline!” he swore to anyone who would listen), wearing his uniform of a polo and worn-out khakis.   Kemp, already tan from many weekends spent on his boat, had permanent, deep laugh lines around his eyes casting doubt on whether he took anything too seriously.

But readers will find that not only does he take his job seriously, Kemp also has a serious interest in pursuing Leah, who would prefer to remain…unattached.

Unprotected and Unattached can be found on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and at local book stores.

The challenge of full disclosure in the Land of Nice

“I need to talk to you about your drinking.”

I am often asked what it takes to be a child protection social worker.      While there are so many necessary skills, none is more important than the ability to be unflinchingly honest and direct, while at the same time being kind and respectful.   As a lifelong Midwesterner, where so many would rather eat hairy soup than find the words to send it back, the challenge in this is great.

“I know you said that you haven’t been drinking today, but you are slurring your words and I can smell liquor.”

What usually follows at this point is shock that these words have been spoken aloud.    These straightforward conversations become part of the trauma of working with child protective services because being direct is so uncommon, and therefore painful.

Midwesterners are often afraid of words.  We struggle with accepting compliments, expressing an opinion, asking for what we need.   Instead we have perfected the art of heavy sighs, eye rolling and stony silence.   But non-verbals, which can be quite effective in communicating messages to those who recognize them, aren’t enough when a child’s safety is at risk.

Don't Speak

“I’m concerned about the impact your drinking has had on your family.   Your kids keep missing school because you are not awake in the morning to help them get on the bus, and they are frequently going to bed hungry because there’s no food in the house.    Let’s ask your sister to stay with you for a few weeks while we get you an assessment.”

When a family becomes involved with Child Protective Services, fears abound.     Families assume that CPS will put their kids in foster care forever.    In actuality, foster care placement is rare, but the possibility of losing their kids looms.

The remedy is supposed to be full disclosure.      We are expected to tell families in clear, upfront language what needs to change, and be just as clear and upfront when we tell them what will happen if they don’t make those changes.

I understand that you don’t like this idea.   But if we can’t agree on a plan to get you help, I may have to ask the court to have your kids formally placed with your sister. 

As difficult as they are, these conversations pave the way for change.     Families understand what is expected, and even though they may not agree at first, most family members do what they need to do.

The conversations don’t have to be limited to child protection workers.    Anyone who is worried about a child’s safety needs to find the words to talk about the concerns and get help.

My novels, Unprotected and Unattached tell the stories of Minnesota social workers who struggle through these uncomfortable conversations.     My books can be found on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and in local book stores.

An Announcement

The first time around it took twelve years.

I wrote paragraph by paragraph with only the vaguest sense of where it as all going. I was eighty percent done without realizing it, and forced myself to finish because I actually thought I could.

And so my first novel, unprotected was released in September, 2012. I have never forgotten the great privilege and honor it is to have my novel published, and to have people actually buy it and read it. unprotected can be found on Goodreads and Amazon, and at select local book stores. When it was released, I had an incredible book launch, held book signings at half a dozen book stores, attended scores of book clubs, talked at libraries, and gave a few newspaper interviews. While book promotion has been a crazy ride, the part I really enjoy is the writing.

So I got to work on my Next Book.

I was attached to the social workers at Terrance County, but I wasn’t sure how much more I could add to Amanda’s story. She had her happy ending, and I wanted it to stay that way. So I turned my attention to another worker at Terrance County–Leah.

Leah is a little older than Amanda, but I’m not sure I could say that she’s wiser. She’s only been at Terrance County for about 5 years after spending her early 20s in a drunken haze. She sobered up by attending AA meetings with her anxious, needy mom, and then got her social work degree and found herself a place at Terrance County Social Services as a child protection investigator. Leah is edgier than Amanda, cynical and lonely, but also a fiercely loyal friend. Leah is also a gifted, intuitive interviewer who helps kids feel safe enough to tell their stories, and can coax an admission out of the most reluctant abuser.

But outside of work, Leah is a hot mess. She doesn’t trust anyone but her closest friends, and sometimes not even them. She insists on being alone, refusing to get to close or trust anyone. She is desperate to remain unattached, despite the best efforts of her friends, family, and a certain police investigator named Pete Kemper.

Unattached….not a great approach to life, but it makes a pretty cool book title.

I am thrilled to announce that my second novel, unattached, will be released by North Star Press in September, 2015.

How Rewarding to be Rewarded

I received my very first writing award at the tender age of 10 when I won a second place ribbon for my essay, “What is beer and how can it hurt me?” I believe I received a $10 check from the American Legion or some such organization, but I’ll admit the details are fuzzy.

The writing accolades continued when a poem I wrote in 8th grade English was published in a South Dakota journal for elementary and middle school aged students. The poem was about a chair and it didn’t rhyme, so my very literal husband would call it a “descriptive paragraph” instead of an actual poem. But since only one of us has published poetry, he can keep his opinions to himself.

I was skipped over for the award of “All State Journalist” in high school, which was rather painful since I was the editor of the high school newspaper, and several of my fellow journalists and best friends were called to accept their awards one by one while I stayed at the banquet table and pretended not to care.

And now, 25 years later, my first novel, unprotected, has been chosen as a finalist in the Midwest Independent Publishers Association’s Midwest Book Awards in the category of Contemporary Fiction. I’m honored, to be sure, and excited for the opportunity to get buy a new pair of shoes and eat a fancy dinner. I’m also surprised since it’s the first nomination for anything that I have received since my high school journalism days.

As I was contemplating college majors, I vacillated between psychology and journalism. I had been writing stories in spiral notebooks in my bedroom as long as I could remember, so writing was familiar while psychology just seemed cool. I settled on psychology, which was the career that brought me to social work, and I left writing behind until much later.

Social work was the right choice for me, but while journalism and writing are full of opportunities for awards, social work goes largely unrecognized. Other than one organization that presents a Social Worker of the Year award, what could the accolades be? Best Court Testimony? Outstanding Ability to Remain Calm When Barraged with Verbal Insults? First Place in Safe and Successful Reunifications?

Most people never get any visible recognition in their careers, but some professions are more revered than others. Surgeons and fire fighters are respected, teachers and nurses are applauded, and lawyers are the butt of endless (and often hilarious) jokes. But how about factory workers and dishwashers? How about the dads who work for decades in miserable jobs because that’s what it takes to support a family? I would love to give some recognition to the people who stand for 10 hour shifts in checkout lines dealing with inpatient jerks. I wish I could give a medal to every phlebotomist who can do a painless blood draw, and to all the aides who never lose the energy to nod and smile at their nursing home residents.

But if there were rewards for everything, then there may as well be rewards for nothing. Appreciation is great, but most of us don’t do our jobs for the praise. If we did, most of us would have quit a long time ago.

I wrote unprotected because I love to write, and over the course of 12 years a novel spilled out. The affirmation for that story and for my writing is such an honor, but I holding my published book in my hand would has been reward enough. Win or lose, I will continue to enjoy the ride my book has provided, and I will remember all people, much more deserving than I, who never get the chance to be nominated for anything.

I am truly, exceptionally, very much fond of adverbs

Adverbs are not your friend admonishes Stephen King, author extraordinaire.

I’m sure he’s right. The rule is that instead of using adverbs, writers are supposed to find a better verb: He walked silently. vs. He crept.

The problem with the rule is that it shuts down my writing. The feedback I usually receive about my first novel, “unprotected”, is that people love the characters, and they were so excited about the story that they couldn’t put down. I am incredibly flattered and grateful for their kind feedback. But I have never, ever had anyone compliment my writing itself.

My writing is adequate. It tells the story, it keeps people engaged, and I’m reasonably certain that it isn’t terrible. But I will never be accused of writing lyrical prose. I’m not even sure what that is.

In college I was an English minor for two quarters, until I could barely muster a B in a basic, required Intro to Poetry class. We had to write weekly papers analyzing poems, and I’ll be damned if I could ever find the point. It was an eight o’clock class, so the forces of nature were against me from the start. But when I got a D on a paper with the professor commenting that I had completely missed the theme, I knew I was in trouble and stuck with my Psychology major.

For me, writing is not about which words I put on the page. It is about the characters and telling their stories. As a child protection social worker, there is so much in my job that is unresolved, or if resolutions come, they may be much different than I had hoped. So I wanted to tell a painfully real story with compelling characters, and I wanted to demonstrate that even if Bad Things happen, people can survive.

While I am deeply grateful to be published, and especially to my supporters who read my book and shared it with others, I wonder if this is really what I was working toward. Did I really need people to read what I wrote? If a book’s only home is on my laptop, does it really exist at all?

During the 12 years it took to write my novel, I gave very little thought to whether anyone would ever read it. I’m sure that many writers want to be the next J.K. Rowling, and yep, making gazillions doing what I love to do would be awfully nice. But I can honestly say that I didn’t write this book for anyone but me. There was a story in my head that spilled out onto paper, and that could have been the end of the story.

I am halfway through the sequel to “unprotected”, and I’m having a blast figuring out what comes next. Getting the story on paper out of my head and onto the page is where the satisfaction comes, and knowing that has given me permission to just write. I don’t need to worry about being a bit too cliche, or about how I should be finding the better verb. The critic in my head doesn’t care about those things. What I want is to let the words find their way to the page and develop my story. Adverbs and all.

P.S. If you are keeping track, dear reader, you will find 17 adverbs in this post alone. And that makes me immeasurably happy, Mr. King.

So you wanna be a social worker?

Recently someone commented on my website asking for information on what it is like to be a social worker. I have been asked this many times, so here are some things to ask yourself if you are considering a career in social work:
*How will I handle dealing with people’s tragedy, trauma, and pain on a daily basis? It’s the hardest part of the job, by far, and people need to be prepared to witness pain and not get knocked over by it.  I have had clients who were in neonatal or pediatric intensive care, and I was so overwhelmed by the sadness of that could barely concentrate on what I was supposed to be doing. Babies with wires connected all over their bodies, parents who looked like zombies, bald toddlers… But the social workers on those units were relaxed and professional. I said to a NICU social worker, “I don’t know how you do your job!” She said the same thing to me, and we both realized we were just used to the pain.
*Do I want to make a decent, but limited, income that will increase in small fixed increments and will likely max out?     Many social workers are employed by non-profit agencies or the government. While the income is usually adequate, social workers don’t get rich from being social workers.
*Can I think on my feet? It’s 5:00pm and you are doing an assessment with a dad who spanked his son with a belt. It’s getting ugly. His son says he’s not putting up with his dad’s BS anymore. Dad says he’s not putting up with his son’s disrespect anymore. They are both agitated and you wonder what’s going to happen when you walk out the door. Can you problem-solve with dad and son so that he will be safe when you leave? Can you figure out what to do if you can’t assure the boy’s safety at home? Do you want to be the one in the hot seat?
*Am I comfortable being honest and direct? Sometimes I have to ask a mom if she has been drinking, or tell a girl that she is never going home again. Can I look someone in the face and tell them that I am going to file a petition to terminate their parental rights, and I can I do it with compassion, firmness and respect?
*Can I handle an unpredictable schedule? I can plan that my day will be spent at my desk writing a report that is due by 4:00, and then a crisis happens with a family on my caseload and I have to drop everything and go. The variety keeps the job interesting, but the lack of control can make a person crazy.
*How do I manage my own stress? Part of my job is taking care of myself so that the sad days don’t burn me out. It’s my job to tell my co-workers if I need help, or if I’m overwhelmed with the workload.
And if you need any more insight on being a social worker, how about reading a novel that is based in a child protection agency? unprotected can be found on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com and in select local books stores.

Biology, Chemistry, History…Family

Unprotected ultimately about family, and a young woman’s discovery that there are all kinds of family and many places that can be called home.

–from the back cover of unprotected

I wrote unprotected for many reasons–to vent about my job, to explain child protection, to do something creative–but above all I wanted to explore the meaning of family.

Family is biology–similar hair texture, body types, and tendency toward shyness or humor.  That familiar feeling that comes from looking into someone’s face and seeing your own.

Family is more than biology…it is history and chemistry too.

Family is shared experiences…eating Grandma Sabby’s molasses cookies with lemon frosting for breakfast…Grandma knew that her breakfast table was for anyone who might stop by, not just the relatives.

Family is that intangible connection, the feeling that comes in friendship when we think the same way, laugh at the same jokes, shop for the same boots just a half a size apart.    It is sharing a dorm floor and waiting for each other for dinner every day, even though guys don’t really do that.

Family is green bean hot dish, sunset pontoon rides, traveling across the state just to share the drive.

Family is shared pain, or joy, or grief.  It is lasagnas in the freezer, whoops of glee in the hallways, and tears at the funeral.

Family is caramel sundaes, Mahjongg with home health aides, flying in from New York because it’s important to be there.

Family is covering at work, praying every night, finding a way to bring out a smile.

Family is choice, effort, commitment, and promise.   It is pain, tension, and forgiveness.  It is security, safety, and relief.

Family is the reason that anything else on this earth counts at all.

And on this holiday when I am acutely aware of what I have lost, I am grateful that I have a family that is bigger and stronger than I ever knew.