Monday, September 26, 2016

a Checklist Manifested

Earlier last week, I binge-read a fun book called A Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande.   Serendipitously,  this happened to be a great week for brushing up on the art of the checklist (although, really, isn't every week a good week for brushing up on checklists?)

It was a particularly good week for checklists -- at least in the MiserMom household -- because we've reached the point in the school year where N-son typically starts falling apart, and sure enough, this year he has started disintegrating right on schedule.  A quick on-line check of his grades gave  us most of the scrabble letters we'd need to write "FLAFF".  His squash/academic tutors wrote with descriptions of trying to organize his notebook, and then a subsequent home inspection showed the notebook had papers from all subjects interleaved, with a few left-over assignments from last year (a different school even) mixed in for good measure.  And his bedroom, which has always been a bit of a construction zone, was awful even for him.  (I know people make fun of teenage boys' bedrooms, but this round of mess was seriously bad.  As in, ants were crawling all over me while I was helping to clean it, and his drawers contained biohazards I won't even name here.  Really, really dirty room).

To compound all this, N-son has a real aversion to being criticized or corrected, so cleaning up with him puts him in a totally grumpy mood.  We call it the "hedgehog" -- very prickly.

Stage 1 of intervention is to clear out the mess and get things back to presentable.  We spent about two evenings going through his bedroom and then his school notebook.  Stage 2-through-whenever is trying to come up with a system that maintains some semblance of order for a while, to postpone as long as possible the next round of disaster.

Fortunately, N-son loves checklists and to-do lists.   These lists don't feel like criticism or correction to him; he sees them as a form of autonomy.  So it was lovely that I'd just read Gawande's book, because The Checklist Manifesto is more than just a love letter to how great checklists are, it also has some advice on what makes a good checklist (and what makes a bad one).

First of all, a checklist is different than a to-do list.  A to-do list is something we create with mostly one-time tasks, but a checklist is repeated every time a certain situation arises:  one example Gawande uses is a pilot's pre-flight checklist.  Another example he doesn't use, but which is probably more familiar to most people, is K-daughter's leaving-the-house mental checklist:  "keys, phone, wallet, baby".  She repeats this four-item list to herself every time she heads for a door (and yes, she sometimes would have forgotten the baby if she hadn't!)

What makes a good checklist?

  • It has to be short: he suggests no more than 9 items (and preferably, fewer than 9).  If you get longer than that, people tend to start skipping the checklist, and it becomes worthless.
  • Because of the need for brevity, the items on the checklist should be crucial items, ones that people are apt to overlook under stress.  He gives a lovely example of this:  a checklist that pilots use when an engine dies on a single-engine Cessna has only 6 items.  None of the items are "call the radio tower", because pilots always remember to do that.  But one of the items is "FLY THE PLANE" -- because if you're freaking about how to turn the engine back on, steering and maintaining altitude are easy to overlook.
  • The items on the checklist have to be precise and specific.  "Room clean?" is too vague, but "all empty hangars are downstairs" is specific.

Gawande notes that a checklist is more than an OCD way to maintain control over your tasks, it's also a great tool for ensuring communication between various parties.  N-son now has at least 5 different adults helping with his homework at various times; his  four-item notebook checklist will help not only N-son, but also all those adults helpers plus his teachers know what his system is.   (Okay, cross fingers that what I'm saying is true).

Already, N-son has managed to maintain a surprisingly clean room for a whole week, as confirmed by my husband.  (And note that the checklist means that N-son knows what to clean, and also that my husband knows what areas *I* think are important to check, so the room has stayed clean without any direct intervention on my part).  And even more, N-son seems to be really happy about having this direction about what "clean your room" actually means.

For what it's worth, here is N-son's bedroom checklist.  We'll continue testing how well this works.

1. Trash cans emptied; trash bags removed. 
2. Newspapers, school papers, and all other papers in recycling or put away. 
3. Picked up. 
4. Swept and/or vacuumed. 
5. Empty hangars downstairs (not on doorknobs or on the floor, but hanging on a rod downstairs) 
6. All shoes in the closet, on the floor 
7. Clothes in correct drawers (shorts in shorts drawer, etc) 
8. Clothes are all clean. 
9. Clothes are neatly folded.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Fall chores keep falling on my head, la la la

Here are some random autumn thoughts, to go with the random autumn chores that come along with the thoughts.

 The apple tree in front of our house is heavy with apples.  It's calling to me, reminding me to set aside a weekend for canning applesauce.  That weekend ain't gonna be real soon (we've got a birthday coming up this weekend), but the tree is reminding me I can't wait too long.  Gotta clear out space in the calendar, not to mention the kitchen.

A second sign of fall: the leaf tarps and the rakes have come out of the garage.  Huzzah for dirty old tarps that we can rake leaves onto, and then drag to where we dump the leaves for pick-up!  It's much easier raking a few leaves onto a nearby tarp, which we can slide across the grass, than raking a lawn-full of leaves all the way across the yard!

And the tomato plants in the back garden are starting to wither up, with the last few tomatoes trying valiantly (and mostly unsuccessfully) to turn red.  Time for green tomato chutney, I think!

But I realized as I was pulling my tomato cages out of the ground, that other people might be doing the same, so that now would be a perfect time to go "shopping" for additional tomato cages.  I shot a quick query out to Freecycle, and sure enough, I snagged a half-dozen cages from a neighbor about 2 miles from my home. I biked on over there and brought them home, and they'll be ready and waiting for me and my canning-jar-started tomato seedlings next May.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Putting my life on auto-pirate

Ahoy there, mateys! And happy international Talk Like a Pirate Day!

I'm not very good at talking like a pirate (tarnation!), but I do love to celebrate this day anyway.  So last Friday, I got out my Pirate Dinner Box for an early celebration, and began decorating the house.  (More on the box later -- actually, the box is the point of this post).  

Jolly Roger flag, pirate table cloth with a parrot and a wooden sword.
Just getting started with decorating.
The Pirate Dinner has become an annual tradition -- much beloved -- in my family. This year's scallywags included a wee pirate and a landlubber friend, in addition to the usual motley crew.  

As usual, we feasted on giant turkey legs, pickles, limes (to prevent scurvy), and oyster crackers, and we glugged down bottles o' root beer in lieu of rum.  We sang rousing choruses of "What'll Ye do with a Drunken Sailor?", and we had the much-anticipated treasure hunt, with separate color-coded sets of clues for each treasure hunter.  We listened to a hearty rendition of "For I am a Pirate King" (because:  Gilbert and Sullivan, that's why!).

All of these festivities are per usual.  But we had a few innovations this year.  We added in a round of Pirate Jokes that I'd printed out and distributed at the table (everyone got three jokes to tell).  My favorite is, "What does a Pirate say on her 80th birthday?  Aye, matey!"  (Say it aloud to let it sink in -- Aye, matey!  Hilarious).  We were also joined this year by a scurvy dog, who very much enjoyed the attention but wouldn't hold still for a photo.
A fuzzy scurvy dog

All of this was fabulously fun, as it is every year.  But this all comes in the midst of my jumping feet-first back into full-time teaching while swimming through oceans of committee work.  How do I find time to pull off something so convoluted as a Pirate Dinner?

The answer is, I put as much of the Pirate Dinner as I can on auto-pirate.  (Er, I mean "auto-pilot".)  Enter, the Pirate Box.  

In the same way that organizational gurus will tell you to pre-pack your toiletries kit right as you return from your last trip, I believe the easiest time for me to do something is right after I've done it.  I have a running bag, for example, that contains a complete running outfit.  When I wake up at 5:30, I grab the bag, take it into the living room, and get dressed there where I won't disturb my sleeping husband.   I refill the bag as soon as I get back from that day's run, and then forget it until a few days later when I run again.  

And so, with the Pirate Dinner Box.  As soon as the Pirate dinner was over, I made notes to myself about what to change for next year (the turkey jerky was a failed experiment), printed out a new set of treasure hunt clues, pirate jokes (rewriting a bit for more gender inclusiveness), washed tablecloths etc, and then re-packed it all.  I hadn't realized until I started writing this post just how much we've accumulated to go into the Pirate Box:

  • treasure bags
  • treasure hunt clues, sorted by location for hiding them
  • pirate jokes
  • Jolly Rancher flag
  • pirate table cloth and 8 pirate napkins
  • pirate bandanas (use as extra napkins?)
  • bling (cocktail swords, eye patches, pirate shot glasses)
  • a pair of stuffed parrots
  • assorted costumery
  • poster with words to "What'll Ye do with a Drunken Sailor?"
  • wooden sword and plastic dagger

The box is now stowed away down in the basement (or in Davey Jone's Locker?), buried pirate treasure that I'll dig out next September. We've got our next year's fun on auto-pirate, ready for the next round of swashbuckling, booty-hunting, grog-swigging adventures.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Where is X-son?

Back in December 2011, my husband and I visited Haiti to meet, among the many people there, one young boy.  A friend had met him on a missions trip and fallen in love with him; she thought he might be a great fit for our family; and so we took the trip ourselves to see if we agreed.

This kid (whom we call "X-son" in this blog) was . . . well, charming.  He had a presence.  He was a leader among the kids in his orphanage; he was respectful; he cuddled up to us.  We, too, fell in love and started a long, convoluted adoption process that eventually went nowhere.  (A fuller explanation of what happened to the failed adoption is in this old post).  

Since then, what's happened?  Well, we "supported him" at school in Haiti.  It's hard to feel like that's really support, because a whopping $300 paid for all of his schooling and uniforms and transportation for the year -- but even though it doesn't seem like enough, we sent our $300 and occasional notes down to Haiti along with another missionary friend.

The updates were sometimes sweet, but a lot of the times, they were hard to hear.  A year ago the missionary wrote,
He is doing well. He goes to Mario's school. It is a Haitian school. A poor school. I cannot promise the quality of education but he is happy. He lives with his mom. Life is hard. There is no running water or electric in their area. All water must be carried a long distance. There supposedly is a truck that brings water but if you do not have money to pay, you do not get water.
When we asked about helping pay for water, the missionary cautioned us:  
The one thing I think I would be careful of would be to create a dependency for him and his family. Giving is really tricky. Let me talk with my Haitian advisor on that one. See what we can do.I so not think it will tempt him into trouble, it would create him to ask you for everything. 
 We ended up not sending down money for water.  Contact got increasingly infrequent. I suppose that's to be expected from both ends. X-son at one point asked for money for a computer; instead we arranged for him to share a computer with the son of a local Haitian minister.  And that was the last we heard for a while, except for brief "thinking of you" posts on Facebook.

So when my missionary friend was heading down to Haiti again, I asked her to look up X-son.  Does he need money for school this year?  What's he up to?

She wrote:
I have not seen [X-son] for over a year. Last time I saw him was right before the start of the 2015-2016 school year. I was under the impression that was his last year of school. I do see one of his friends, and he told me that [X-son] was making poor choices. Other than that, I do not have any other information regarding him. I am leaving for Haiti tomorrow and will inquire about him and see what I can find out for you.

He called me a few months ago talking real ghetto-like. Calling me “baby”. He wanted money. It was not the same boy I knew in the past. It really makes me sad for him.
And then, after her trip down, she wrote 
I just got back from Haiti on Saturday and was in Montrouis. I asked several people about [X-son]. No one had information on him. I am under the impression he is making poor decisions in his life. He broke contact with his prior friends that I know and am sorry to say they do not know where he is. I am sorry.
So, we've lost him.  In multiple senses of that word.

Part of me thinks, if we'd managed to get him out of Haiti right when we'd met him, we could have made a real difference.  He was still young enough that we could have taught him English, given him reasonable hope for a decent future, yadda yadda.

Part of me thinks, this is just one kid.  There are so many kids in Haiti in the same situation as X-son: scrambling to find some way to survive in a country that's torn by corruption, deficient in basic needs like food, water, shelter, trash removal -- as well as in bigger social needs, like a functioning government and a stable community infrastructure.

Part of me thinks, Haiti is such a miserable place.  If I were X-son -- buffeted by poverty, typhoid, and natural disasters, steeped in a misogynist, corrupt culture where the people who figure out how to game the system are the ones who survive and thrive -- well, who's to say I wouldn't make similar choices?  Get in with the powerful people. Take what I need.  Stop being a "victim", and get myself up on top.

What X-son has done for me is to make all these abstract, foreign issues personal.  It's not just hungry children somewhere far away; it's my hungry X-son.  It's not just corruption and questions of the best kind of international aid; it's my X-son getting typhoid, running away from the orphanage that beats him, making "poor choices" that might enable him to survive.  

I'm very sorry to have lost him.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

"My Mom ate my homework"

Here we are, barely two weeks into school, and I get a call from N-son's new high school guidance counsellor.  Oh, no . . . not already in trouble! I worry. And in fact, I am right -- he's not in trouble!  Whoop!  Even better, the counsellor tells me that the reason for this call is that a spot has opened up in the culinary internship program.

So from now on, N-son is going to spend the first half of each school day at our County's career training center (CTC), learning about things like how to sharpen knives and how to become OSHA certified (two things that probably have some bearing on each other, you think?), and the second half of each day back in the high school muscling his way through things like chemistry and algebra and communication arts.

Yesterday, he brought home his science homework:  a list of vocabulary words at the top ("theory", "model", "hypothesis", "independent variable"), with a bunch of definitions at the bottom.   He was supposed to match them up:  he got exactly one of the thirteen definitions right. Ooog.  Well, at least we caught this early and can re-do his work before he turns it in.

But he also brings home schoolwork from CTC.  Here's a picture of him holding his schoolwork.
I'm bummed that I didn't get him with his puffy black chef's hat that
comes with his uniform, because that's adorable.
I'll have to take that picture of him soon.

Here's a closer glimpse of the schoolwork:  cherry tomatoes and mozzarella balls with basil, in an Italian sauce.  The container isn't as full as when he brought it home because, well . . . yeah.

I get the feeling homework time is going to be a lot more fun this year!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Surprising watermelon run

Something strange happened in my yard this last month. The something strange looks like this: a weird green rock rose up out of the earth.  A sort of stripe-y rock.

Looking closer, it seems that the green rock might actually be a watermelon.  

How could that have happened?  Every year, I bury a bunch of watermelon seeds in the ground where they can return to the dust from which they came, and where they provide useful nutrients for the various nearby weeds that I end up growing.  But this year, instead of decomposing gracefully beneath the ground, the seeds shot up curly leaves that took over their patch of the yard, and then a watermelon-like object  appeared.

But was it actually  a watermelon?  And if so, was it ready to eat?  I had no idea, but I decided to find out, and I enlisted the help of my running buddies.  After our weekly Saturday 10K run -- this week a stunningly hot week at 90 degrees -- we gathered to cut this rock open and see what it looked like on the inside. 

Lo-and-behold, it was delicious!  And there was enough to go around for runners and grandchildren and passers by, too.  Yes, the weather has gotten hot again . . . but after the run, we rocked it with watermelon!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Seven Essays of a Highly Inefficient Procrastinator

It's September, and school has started up again.  My boys have left the Quaker Local School behind them and returned to public school for their last two years of secondary education.

And here's a story about that transition.

Where J-son has been our child of many spectacular stories because of his impulse control issues, N-son tends to err more on the side of procrastination.  J-son has excelled in sins of commission (if you will), while N-son has taken on the sins of omission.  So we sort of have to watch him and nag him about getting out there, doing things, instead of just sitting around at home playing on his phone.

Last spring, we got an email near the end of the school year from N-son's Bible teacher. Each of the kids in the class was supposed to do a project:  J-son chose to attempt 2-day fast (he lasted 15 hours, but he tried).  N-son, the teacher told us, had promised he would volunteer at the soup kitchen in the homeless shelter that I volunteer at.

Did I mention that this was near the end of the school year?  In fact, there were exactly four school days left at that point, and we hadn't heard a peep out of N-son about any volunteer project.  We quickly got him signed up for a 2-hour volunteer shift on Tuesday afternoon, right after school. He and I biked there together and did the shift together, with me taking on the new-to-me role of washing dishes, and with N-son helping to bus tables and hand out doughnuts.

When we got home, I asked him, "Do you need to write some kind of essay about this?"  After all, I'm a teacher; I know that doing isn't enough for learning; reflection is part of the process, too.  N-son admitted that yes, he was supposed to write an essay and that he'd do it and turn it in the next day.

So Wednesday after school, I double-checked:  Did you write the essay?  Did you turn it in?  Yes and yes, he assured me.

But my husband was dubious.  So Thursday he asked N-son yet again:  Did you do the essay?  Did you give it to your teacher?  Did you actually put the essay into his hands?  N-son repeatedly assured us the essay had been done, adding details:  he did it with Ms. C, his learning support teacher.  He gave it to Mr. S, his bible teacher, in person.

And then Friday, we got another note from Mr. S:  N-son hasn't turned in his volunteer essay.  What should I do?   We called Ms. C, who told us, We asked N-son about the essay, and he said he did it at home.

We told Mr. S he should just fail the kid.  Not only didn't he do the work, but he repeatedly, deliberately lied about it.  We also told N-son that this was the end of the Quaker Local School -- we had made it clear that we were working hard to pay for them to go there, but we weren't willing to do that if they weren't going to work hard also.  So the school was over.

But that's not the end of the story.  Mr. S told us he'd like to give N-son one more chance to do the project late, albeit for reduced credit.  He gave us the complete assignment: it turns out, N-son was supposed to do four hours of service, and to interview at least one person, and to relate the service to specific bible topics.

At this point, because N-son's work-avoidance had created so much more work for all the adults around him, I decided it ought to create more work for him, too.  So I told him that not only was he going to write this essay for Mr. S, but he was going to write essays seven times this summer, one for each time he'd lied to us or his teachers.  You said you did the work, so you'll actually do it.

N-son passed the class with a D-, which was super-generous on the part of Mr. S.   (Or was it?  Mr. S had at one point confided to my husband, "I really like N-son, but I really don't want him in my class again next year.")

But even more, N-son started volunteering regularly -- about 20 hours a week -- at the soup kitchen.  One of the cooks -- a big dude named Calvin with skin darker than N-son's and a lot of experience with wayward youth -- took N-son under his wing.  And N-son, in return, glommed onto Calvin.  He came home talking about making mac-n-cheese from scratch, learning to cut fruit quickly, the importance of no-skid shoes, the proper technique for mopping (or "moping", as he spelled it).  He interviewed the cooks about what it had been like to be homeless, and he heard story after story of wanting to make amends, to give back, to make the most of their second chances.

When it was time to start signing up for classes at the public school, N-son had to make choices about which "Small Learning Communities" to join, and he asked for the "Public Service" community.  When the school talked about sending kids out on internships in the future, N-son put himself on the waiting list for "Culinary Arts".  And he promised Calvin and the other cooks that, even though his essays are done (so he doesn't have to volunteer anymore), and even though school has started (so he has much less available time), he still plans to go back on weekends to chop food, wash dishes, and mope the floors.

I collected up all the essays and made two additional copies.  One copy, I gave to the soup kitchen for their records; the staff there seemed to love seeing themselves through this young kid's eyes.  The other copy, I attached to a cover note that had a large helping of thank yous, along with a "we never know what effect we'll have on our students" message, and sent it off to Mr. S.   He's beginning another round of his own school year, with another set of students who will take on projects in his class.  I wish them all -- and all the students and teachers who are starting this new year -- the very best.  And if these students or their teachers get second chances, I hope they learn to make the most of that spectacular, wonderful gift.