Responsible parenting and leadership are a start. In between reaching for the sky (Toy Story rocks).

Screw the darkness. I prefer the lightness of Pop.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Assuming Otherwise

The smell was horrible. I knew immediately it was the two men shopping near us, one in a wheelchair, the other with a small dog on a leash. No matter where we stood, anywhere within a few feet radius of them and their pungent body odor smell hit us. By the looks of them, I assumed they were homeless, maybe part of the nearby encampment.

I had been grocery shopping at Trader Joe's with the girls in tow. My wife Amy was away doing a Kidpower training for the day. The girls and I were finishing up the shopping when our oldest, Beatrice, frowned and wrinkled her nose.

"What's that smell?" she said, a little loudly. Our youngest, Bryce, seemed oblivious and ready to be done with shopping.

"Shhh," I said. "I know it smells. Let's just finish up and get going."

"I know what it is. It's those poor people," she said, looking at the two men.

I didn't think they heard her, and I knew Beatrice was just saying what popped into her head without adult bias and judgement. We'd been talking about our local homeless situation with our girls since last fall, so she was equating homelessness with being poor, which wasn't wrong, but not all people who struggle to make ends meet are homeless. And we'd been there during the great recession, struggling and almost becoming homeless ourselves.

Later, when we were home and Amy was back from her Kidpower training, I brought up what happened to discuss as a family.

"What you said wasn't wrong, Beatrice. But the words weren't exactly right; not all poor people are homeless," I said.

Beatrice listened, but I could tell she thought she'd done something wrong.

Amy spoke up. "It's not about right, Beatrice. It's just about being respectful of how we address people we don't know and what's going on with them. You were just saying what you thought without trying to be mean, and that's okay."

"Okay," she said and nodded slightly.

"Right," I said. "And we don't want to say those things too loud so they can hear and make them feel bad. You were just making an observation to me."

"Yes, there are too many people without a home or shelter or running water, so they do smell because they can't take baths or showers like we can everyday," said Amy.

"This is why there are really important organizations in town that are doing there best to help homeless people," I said.

We went on with the rest of our day, but we didn't lose sight of the greater lesson. We talked about it again during our weekly family meeting to ensure that we respond appropriately and with respect in situations like the one at the grocery store and the homeless men, when we don't know them or assume to know their story based on what we see or smell.

And because the girls are getting older and more aware, we then expanded the conversation to include if they were with a friend who was talking badly about another person they knew, and trying to sway them into talking badly about the person. Amy role played with the girls on how they should respond and not to participate in the belittling of others just because we don't like them (when we may not even know them), or because someone else doesn't like them (when he or she may not even know them), or because we assume something about them when we really know nothing about them, only basing it on something we heard.

It's about time we start assuming otherwise.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Safety Mantra Mumble

"I see the world
And I'm looking from a high place
Way above it all
Standing on higher ground..."

-The Alan Parsons Project, Standing on Higher Ground


I cried at K-mart. I had found the front counter and the blue-light special desk (I remember that vividly), and cried to one of the cashiers that I had lost my mother and sister. I was either seven or eight years old, I don't remember exactly. The fear and the crying I do remember vividly. No matter how many times she told us to stay with her, to not wander, I didn't stay with her and did wander. At what point exactly I got lost I don't remember, although I have a vague recollection of being by the televisions when my mother and sister had vanished.

I was filled with fear and panic. It practically bled from my pores, it was that palatable. One minute her and my sister were right there, and then the next they were nowhere to be seen. Just lots of strangers milling around me oblivious to my frantic searching for them.

Besides her telling my sister and I to stay with her, the other safety rule was, if we did get lost, to find someone who worked there and ask for help.

But I panicked and wandered quickly from aisle to aisle looking for my mother and sister, afraid to ask for help, and then I stopped in my tracks at the front counter. That's when I burst into tears.

I don't remember if they called for her over the PA system, I just remember an eternity had passed until she held me tightly in her arms, telling me everything would be okay.

Decades later, our safety rule is a little different with our girls. If they get separated from us, wherever we are, they need to stay where they're at, to stand tall and be aware, even if they're scared and even if they cry. To stay exactly where they're at once they realize they're lost, because when we go looking for them, if they're moving around too, we may never find each other. It's like the getting lost in the woods survival scenario. Even if it's a police officer who tries to help them, because the police officer can call us, as noted below.

"Then what?" we ask them when we're reviewing safety plans.

"We look for an adult who's walking by and tell them we're lost and we need help," they answer, reluctantly mumbling our safety mantra.

"And if they say, 'Please come with me and I'll get you help,' what do you say?"

Sigh. "We tell them we cannot go with them; please find someone who works here to help us."

"Or, what else can you have them do?"

Sigh. "We can ask the them to call you."

"Correct! And what's our number?"

Sigh.

Recently my wife Amy had taken our girls to Costco, a place we frequent at least monthly throughout the year. I was traveling for work this time and wasn't with them. The girls both know Costco pretty well, but no matter what, the safety plan is the same if they get separated from either of us.

Well, our oldest Beatrice got separated, but instead of staying in one place, she went looking for her mother. She felt she knew Costco well enough and that she'd find her quickly. Luckily, when Amy realized Beatrice wasn't with her, she turned around and backtracked with Bryce and found Beatrice within moments.

Of course, the safety lesson was repeated during our next family meeting during the safety plan part of our regular agenda (yes, there's a regular agenda).

Sigh. Yes, I get it; I will stay in one place.

Never going anywhere with strangers is so important if they're lost, which is why staying in one place is safer for our family, where we can backtrack and find them. Or get a call telling us where they're at. And even if they had their own phones, which they're years from having, they still need to stay in one place for us to find them. Staying safe is the higher ground we walk on, even if the safety mantras are mumbled reluctantly.

We'll take the mumbles for safety any day of the week. These kids today...

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Underbelly of Us

"Arrows in her eyes
Fear where her heart should be
War in her mind
Shame in her cries..."

-Foo Fighters, Arrows


I saw her in my periphery. She must've come from the 7-11 on the corner of Mission St. and Swift. At first, she stayed a few steps behind me on the sidewalk. I had been walking from home to my business mailbox to check for mail, just enjoying the walk with my AirPods pumping the Foo Fighters into my ears.

Then I sensed her coming up on my left. She reached me, step for step, and looked at me as we walked. At first I wouldn't look at her, not exactly sure if she was just passing me. When she didn't, I turned to see her, a white women in her late 50's or early 60's, blonde-gray hair, some makeup, fairly clean clothes. She smoked a cigarette and through the smoke was saying something to me.

With my Kidpower tingling, and not sure if this was a safety problem or not, I paused my music, but kept walking.

"Hey," she said. "Can you call me a taxi or an Uber?"

Without hesitation, I said, "No."

She mumbled something under her smoky breath and trekked on ahead. I watched her go, but waited to play my music again. She could've been homeless, I wasn't sure, and/or she could've been mentally ill or an addict. Or, she could've been none of those things, just someone who need a ride somewhere and didn't have the means to get there. She didn't seem agitated, just mad that I didn't help her with a ride.

I empathized, and yet I didn't do anything. The war inside me of "staying safe" and "it's not my problem" and "I'm just going to check my mail" and "she seems fine" and "someone else will help her" swirled inside my head, so I started up my music again and kept walking.

On the way back home, I struggled with the guilt of not helping the woman. Only a little guilt, but guilt nonetheless. I thought about the work I do with the Commission for the Prevention of Violence Against Women, and the fact that, if this woman was homeless, the chances of her being harassed or sexually assaulted or worse climb exponentially.

California's homeless population is about 25 percent of the nation's in total -- 130,000+ people on any given night. Because of the high cost of living and lack of affordable housing in California, nearly 70 percent of the state's homeless are unsheltered. Meaning, living on the streets, or in parks, or in motorhomes and campers in and around town, like in Santa Cruz where we live. At any given time, low-income families are one paycheck away from being homeless; any of us could be them. In fact, California comprises 12 percent of the nation’s population of homeless families with children. From 2016 to 2017, the state experienced one of the largest increases of homeless families in the nation, leaving 1,000 more families on the streets.

Some communities do a better job of cobbling together resources that result in more shelters, mental health services and addiction medical services. The City of Santa Cruz right now is doing its best to provide services to well over 150 homeless tent campers behind a shopping center right as you come into Santa Cruz. You can't miss it because it's a major intersection in and out of downtown Santa Cruz, when Highways 1 and 17 meet.

This unsanctioned homeless encampment had been tucked away from major traffic and out of view, near one of the main family homeless shelters in town. But just like it always goes, the homeless campers were told to vacate to other shelters, shelters that get full quickly, especially during a winter with record cold and rain in our area. Plus, some of the shelters don't allow anyone using drugs or alcohol. Then the unsheltered homeless are shuffled to another location, like the one behind the shopping center. And now, the over 150 homeless are to vacate and find shelter elsewhere by the middle of March. Forty-two percent of homeless families with children in Santa Cruz are unsheltered (as of 2017).

Which brings me back to safety. I can't imagine being homeless with children, whether a woman or a man, but especially a woman -- according to multiple studies examining the causes of homelessness, among mothers with children experiencing homelessness, more than 80% had previously experienced domestic violence. And 38 percent of all domestic violence victims become homeless at some point in their lives.

And yet, we have a family like many other families in Santa Cruz that we want to keep safe as well, and with 39 percent of Santa Cruz homeless having psychiatric and emotional health issues, 38 percent suffering from drug and alcohol abuse, and nearly 30 percent being incarcerated for a night in the past year (again, as of 2017 local stats). Many of us struggle with "not in my backyard" syndrome. Because they are literally in our neighborhood backyards.

Besides the local shelter and homeless service programs doing their best, there are other programs like Downtown Streets Team in Santa Cruz and other California communities helping homeless people get back to work and eventually into more stable housing (one of my good friends who's also on the commission with me helps run the Downtown Streets Team in Santa Cruz).

We can't just look the other way and hope it goes away, because it's only getting worse. And again, some of us might struggle with mental health issues, addiction issues and could become homeless at any given time after being laid off, with no means of mobility and having limited housing options. I can't imagine being a family on the street today, but too many don't have to imagine.

This eyesore is the underbelly of us, and it's all our responsibility as empathic local communities to help each other, whether that's volunteering or donating money. Whatever it takes to help augment the already strained resources of local nonprofits, churches and government.

I should've called her a taxi, because nobody else was going to do it.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Well-Adjusted Humans

"Yet.
I get upset or happy I go to sleep.
Nothing hurts when I go to sleep.
But I'm not tired, I'm not tired."

-Ben Folds Five, Narcolepsy


"I have to go up again in 15 minutes to check on her."

I sighed and said, "No, just tell her to go to sleep."

"You know that's not how it works. She's got herself all stressed out again."

"I know," I said. "Love you."

And I did know. The fact that the mind of our oldest daughter sometimes races with a myriad of worries, at least those of a well-adjusted 10-year-old girl. Worries that swirl into a frothy mess of wide-awakeness.

Usually when we put both girls to bed, Beatrice falls asleep first. Most of the time she's out like a light by 8:00 pm. But our youngest Bryce can take a little longer to fall asleep, usually by 8:30 pm. While Bryce can still sometimes wake up and need some comfort to go back to sleep, Bea has been having more periodic stress sessions preventing her from going to sleep, sometimes for hours.

My wife, or the Mama as I lovingly call her, is usually the one to go comfort Bea, sometimes having to lay upstairs until Bea goes to sleep. The Mama will watch a show on her iPad with headphones, while I watch the same show downstairs, cutting into the Mama-Dad snuggle time.

The good news is that we've had a regular bedtime routine for a few years now. No more iPad after 6:00 pm, then TV goes off downstairs around 7:30 pm, then we go upstairs to brush teeth and change into pajamas, then we read with the girls, and/or sometimes they read to us, and then the fan in their room goes on, as it does in our room when we sleep. White noise is a special family sleep friend!

Then they go to sleep. Usually. Unless they're not feeling well, or Bea starts worrying about something -- school and homework, a song stuck in her head, friends she had played with earlier in the day, and probably many other pre-tween angst-ridden thoughts she can't or won't articulate. We've also had Bea listen to meditations and even take a little melatonin if she needs it. And we tell her to turn her bed lamp on and read a little if that helps.

Sleep science recommends adults get at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night, and for children 7-12 years old it should be upwards of 10-11 hours of sleep each night. And when our girls go to sleep on time, they're usually getting 9-10 hours each night. The Mama and I get at least 7 hours each night, and we're thankful for that, unless we're having a rough night, or one of the girls are.

We've had our own sleep deprived wake-mares in the past, especially with Bryce. Up every hour, all night, until we went nearly went friggin' crazy. But that was years ago, and today it's just if one of the girls don't feel week, or the occasional stressed out wakefulness of Bea.

Usually it's the Mama who gets up and tries to get her back to sleep, but sometimes it's me. That's because the Mama has already fallen into deep sleep, and I'm restless. And when I'm restless I'm skittish and hear every creak and groan of the house, even with the fan on and the ear plugs in (yes, we've worn ear plugs for years at night).

And if one of the girls comes in our room because they're scared and/or don't feel well and/or can't sleep for whatever reason, it can scare the crap out of me. Sometimes I'll be laying on my side, eyes closed, and then someone touches my leg and I jump. Then I hear:

"Dad." If it's Beatrice.

Or, "Daddy." If it's Bryce.

Every single time I jump. Sometimes Bea tells us that she gets up and comes in our room and watches us, but doesn't wake us up. Super creepy, but we love her!

One night recently Bea came in our room, and then left, and then came in again. The Mama was sleeping away (if was after 10 and we go to bed between 9-9:30), but this time I wasn't scared, already not sleeping well and more than half awake. I got up with her and got her back into bed. I tried to get her to relax and rubbed her back.

"Dad, if I don't sleep, will I die?"

"No, sweetie. You won't die. Just try to relax."

"But I can't sleep; I don't want to die."

"You're not going to die."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. Now, try to relax, and read again if you need to."

"Okay."

"Love you."

"Love you."

As parents, we sometimes have to sacrifice the sanctity of our own sweet sleep for the sake of our children. We're their guardian angels, no matter how strung out and tired we get. And strung out and tired we definitely get. God bless those who have children with much more going on than just occasional sleep issues. Whatever the issues are, it comes with the job and our reward (and the world's) is raising mentally healthy, well-adjusted humans. Amen.