Tag: random

Thursday Things: random facts about the history of mental hospitals

ThursdayThingsMy short story “Tim and Sara” takes place at Kirkbride, a state hospital. Although the story is fictional, the hospital isn’t.

My Kirkbride is based on the state hospital in Fergus Falls, Minnesota (which is also the building on the story’s cover). What makes this building different than other state hospitals is its design and purpose.

Pre-Civil War, people suffering from mental health issues in the US were treated like criminals: locked up in tiny cells, often shackled and abused.

In the 1840s, Dr. Thomas Kirkbride came to the now obvious conclusion that people suffering mental health issues would do better in airy, light-filled buildings with private rooms, so he designed a bunch of state hospitals that tried to respect patient dignity. The Fergus Falls building was one of these.

As the US has moved to community-based, out-patient treatment for people with mental health issues, many Kirkbride buildings have been torn down or sit empty, like the one in Minnesota.

Fergus Falls state hospital

Fergus Falls state hospital in 2013

I used to drive past it on the interstate, and although no one’s there now, it still makes for a cool story.

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Tim and SaraAbout “Tim and Sara:”

The victim of debilitating flashbacks, Tim is content to spend the rest of his life at Kirkbride, a state mental hospital. But his friend and fellow resident Sara is concerned that she has to save her soul before it’s too late, and so she devises a plan to break them out of the hospital. Can Tim help his friend while holding onto what’s left of his sanity?

Available for $.99 at Amazon or free through Kindle Unlimited

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Thursday Things is a weekly-ish feature highlighting little known facts, ideas, and stories behind my stories. Is there something you want to know more about? Let me know!

Why I get political on social media

protest picOne of the strongest suggestions for authors is to avoid politics on social media so you don’t offend your readers. If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll notice that I do not follow this advice. Here’s why, in no particular order (as well as why I won’t stop):

  1. Professional obligations. I’m currently in a social work PhD program. Although I’m not currently a licensed social worker (hopefully I’ll have time to take the test and get my LMSW this summer), I still follow the National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics, which calls on us to advocate on the behalf of our clients. When crappy things happen that adversely affect my clients, I’ll speak out about it.
  2. Personal impact. This goes along with #1. A lot of politics affects me personally – like when the Iowa House did away with collective bargaining for state employees (including graduate students), which means that there’s a good chance I’ll lose my tuition scholarship and healthcare for next year. Politicians listen to their constituents, at least at a local/state level. Speak out for me and I’ll speak out for you.
  3. Client, friends, and family impact. Here’s another anecdote – a Sudanese woman in my grad program went back to Sudan to visit her dying mom over Christmas break. She made it back to the States two days before the travel ban went into effect. Had she not been allowed into the country where she’d lived for the past ten years, she would’ve been separated from her husband and three kids. I share issues that effect the people in my life, because chances are they’re affecting the people in your life too.
  4. Setting an example. My son loves politics and history. By speaking out, I’m showing him that it’s possible to change the course of history through your actions.
  5. Lack of awareness. Lots of people aren’t aware of what policies are being enacted and repealed, as well as how those policies are being followed. By letting people know what the issues are, hopefully they can help find a solution.
  6. My book content. I write about a lot of social issues. The Futility of Loving a Soldier is about veterans’ issues. Yours to Keep or Throw Aside deals with domestic violence. “A Place to Die” focuses on end-of-life care. “Us, Together” touches on the impact of poverty on children. If you’re offended by my posts, chances are you wouldn’t like my books either.

These are just a few brief reasons I’m political. And until the bad hombres in charge get their acts together and stop taking away needed programs and infringing upon our rights, I’m going to keep posting. And writing about it too.

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What are your thoughts on authors getting political?

The importance of self-care – and how to do it

My cat's self-care involves sleeping on the floor all day.

My cat’s self-care involves sleeping on the floor all day.

It hasn’t been the best week. One of my former students was killed over the weekend in a horrific, preventable accident. She was 24 and one of the most genuinely nice people I’ve ever met.

Everywhere I look on the news, I see stories and videos about Terrence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott and Tyre King and Korryn Gaines and hundreds of other people who are also killed in horrible, preventable ways. And I see videos of their families and friends, and thousands of people supporting them (as well as thousands actively not supporting them). With each new death, I grow more fearful for the junior high and high school students I’ve taught, as well as their friends and families, because really, it seems to be only a matter of when, not if, that their names will be all over the media as well.

It makes me tired.

As a social work PhD student, my focus right now is on trauma-informed care, which is a perspective that emphasizes a gentle approach to clients because there’s a good chance they’ve experienced a traumatic event in their lives or vicariously experienced it through someone they know, and that exposure manifests itself in a stressful physiological fight-or-flight response that wears you down. Social workers aren’t immune to this either; we experience our clients’ traumas every day, and it can take its toll.

Fortunately, part of a TIC approach involves self-care. I attended a workshop on the topic today and thought now would be a good time to share what I learned, because I’m guessing there are a lot of other soul-tired people out there right now too.


  1. Identify your patterns by thinking about what your triggers are – situations that will negatively increase your stress.
  2. Identify as well what your reactions to those triggers are – do you shut down? Cry? Lash out?

During/after trauma:

  1. Remember that you have choices – this situation is different from the past, and you can choose to respond differently than you did to pass situations where you may have felt helpless.
  2. Use comfort objects – something small and manageable, like a wedding ring, that can ground you in the present and help you focus.
  3. If possible, go to a previously-identified safe spot: your couch, a friend’s couch, somewhere where it’s okay to let your emotions out.
  4. Focus on the senses – listen to soothing sounds, try deep breathing, maybe splash cool water on your face or hands.
  5. Have a Plan B for your job situation – is it okay if you go home for the rest of the day or take a couple days off?
  6. Rely on peer support. Reach out to your friends and family. Let them know your self-care preferences so they can better support you.
  7. Understand that what you’re feeling is normal, but that everyone has their own reaction to their own stimuli. What you’re feeling, and how you go about caring for yourself, is normal for you, and that’s what matters – YOU.

What approaches do you take for self-care?

Postmodernists, postpositivists, and truth vs Truth


Found this on a Galveston beach. Is it an alien lifeform? Inflated plastic? Postmodernist storyteller me says both are plausible!

I’m on a quest to take as many research methodology classes as I can while getting my PhD, and this semester one that I’m taking is qualitative. I’m a quantitative person, so this is a major thinking shift.

Qualitative is case studies and interviews and ethnographies and telling the story one person or group at a time, while quantitative is surveys and statistics and applying your findings to larger groups.

One of our first assignments is a position paper, in which we explain which paradigm we follow, relate our history that brought us to that paradigm, and then explore our biases that will affect our qualitative research. I’m stuck between two: postpositivism and postmodernism.

Postpositivists think that the objective Truth is out there, but our methods of seeking it are flawed by our biases.

Postmodernists think everyone has a truth, and your truth isn’t any more valid than mine because it’s all relative.

Basically, the two are on opposite ends of a spectrum (well, positivism and postmodernism are).

(Fun story: I went to a Catholic high school, and my junior year we had to take Apologetics, which we defined as apologizing for your faith but is actually defending it. I routinely argued with our teacher, a poor priest right out of the seminary, that all religions were seeking the same end goal – peace and love and happiness in whatever comes next – but just had different ways of reaching that goal. Kinda like a bunch of people climbing a mountain, but from different sides – they all want to get to the top but are each taking a different route. The teacher strongly encouraged me to sleep or read in class so that I wouldn’t constantly pull apart the course material.)

As a researcher, I want to find Answers. As a social worker and social justice warrior, I want underrepresented voices to be heard so that we can bring about change to unequal systems. As an author, I want to tell my character’s story and make it just as valid as anyone else’s.

My question tonight: If I have my perception of the truth, and you have your perception of the truth, and everyone reading this and in the world has their perceptions of the truth, how do we as researchers decide whose truth is most valid? Applying a postmodern perspective, can we even decide that someone’s truth is invalid, and how does this fit into our role in “mitigating against epistemic injustice in educational research?” When is it okay to judge a culture or individual as “wrong” or “bad” when its members are doing their best according to their beliefs?

Why I had dinner with a homeless guy

I had a late class tonight and didn’t feel like cooking, so we had a late dinner at one of the only pizza places that was still open after 9 (yeah, living in a mid-size metropolitan area sucks sometimes). We were just biting into our pizza when Alonzo came by our table, asking for dollar bills in exchange for quarters.

During his spiel, he mentioned he was homeless, and as we didn’t really have cash on us, I asked him to join us and have a piece of pizza.

Alonzo was clearly taken aback, but he agreed. We gave him a slice of pizza, bought him a beer, and then had a very frank conversation about what leads to homelessness, how to overcome a problematic past, and how to react when your girlfriend just wants to have sex when you’re high.

There are several takeaways from tonight’s discussion.

1. Homeless people are still people.

They have pasts and futures and a desire for human contact, just like anyone else. So treat them like people. And if you don’t learn anything else from this post, let this be it.

2. You can always learn from the people around you.

Whether they’re homeless or housed, rich or poor, black or white or any shade in between – no matter who it is, they can teach you something. Tonight it was that for even a brief moment, you can overcome your past and still succeed in the future.

3. Most people wouldn’t agree with my actions.

Oh, the looks we got from the waiter! I could tell the staff wanted to kick Alonzo out of the building, so I ordered him a beer. On my tab. As he put it, “I ain’t trying to cause no trouble.” He wasn’t. He was a person who needed a meal. And even if he didn’t need a meal, was it really even that much of an inconvenience to share a pizza with him?

4. Everyone has a story.

Alonzo had a past and it was fascinating to hear him reflect on his mistakes and his hopes for his future. As a writer, and as a social worker (that’s what my master’s is in and my PhD will be in), all I could see were his “what-if’s.” There’s a good chance that I’ll write a story based on him in the near future, so I can give this man a voice.

I’m sharing this not so you’ll congratulate me for doing a public service, but so maybe you’ll consider doing something similar. Homeless people, and everyone else, have a story to tell. Are you willing to listen?

Roadtripping 2016 trip #2: culinary excursion


Gunflint Lake, on the MN/ON border, full of yummy fish

Last year I made a roadtrip wishlist. I only made it to one place – the Southeast (although we went to Mackinaw, Michigan, instead of Duluth or Door County – similar latitude). Fortunately, I’ve been able to hit a couple more places so far this year: we went to Tulsa and then on to San Antonio and Galveston, Texas, over spring break, and this weekend I returned from a weeklong trip that included Thunder Bay. My son and I are headed west along Route 6 to California in July, and then we’re taking it east to Nova Scotia in August. Not bad, as far as trips go.

About this last trip, though. I found a great deal for a little lodge in the woods of northern Minnesota, the perfect reward for graduating with my master’s in May. I’m not working this summer – just a few projects, most of which can be done from home – so I decided to take advantage of my free time by heading to Thunder Bay, Ontario, and then over to Winnipeg before coming back.


Kakabeka Falls, Thunder Bay – also full of yummy fish

One of my favorite reasons to head north (other than the cooler temps, especially in summer, and the beautiful scenery) is the food. Specifically along the Great Lakes, just about every local place specializes in fresh whitefish, like perch or walleye. I don’t scrimp when it comes to restaurants on vacation – I head to the cheapest 5-star places I can find.

This trip, we ate delicious walleye sandwiches from the Border Waters, the countless lakes that dot the border between Minnesota and Ontario. We changed it up in Thunder Bay at a Canajun (Cajun done Canadian style) restaurant, that offered yummy walleye po’ boys.

We changed it up, however, when we headed inland to Winnipeg. I love eating ethnic foods, especially ones I can’t get back home, and Winnipeg had plenty to offer. We settled on Ethiopian; we’d eaten it in San Antonio and it wasn’t something we could find locally.

Ethiopian food

Homemade misr wat (red lentils), atakilt wat (potatoes, cabbage, and carrots), and goman wat (collards) on injera (bread)

Hot damn, that was good. We split a veggie combo and a meat combo, and the woman who runs the place gave us lots of extra injera, the traditional flat bread. She also sold me a huge bag of the berbere spice mix so I could make my own stuff at home. Which I did, for dinner tonight, and it was wonderful.

We also hit up the Forks Market, where we ate awesome Indian and Greek and pastries. Lots of pastries. It’s probably best I don’t live in a place like Winnipeg, because I’d have a hard time not eating constantly.

Where’s your favorite foodie destination?

Inserting yourself into history, gangster style

While waiting for a classmate at the library today, I picked up a fascinating pamphlet about my town’s most notorious resident, early 20th century gangster John Looney who was a “playwright, journalist, champion of the downtrodden, lord of illegal liquor and murderer.” He was the inspiration for the graphic novel and movie, The Road to Perdition, and also my neighbor – his house is only about 7 blocks from me.

I watched the movie tonight. Although it doesn’t portray his history accurately at all, it’s pretty accurate for the 1930s, with all the mobsters running around killing people for looking at them wrong. My town had more than its share of murders, thanks to Looney and his gang, and it made me wonder – was my family in on that too?


My great-grandma at her bar, maybe in the early 40s?

My great-great-uncle Theophiel immigrated to the US in 1909, eventually settling here in the Quad Cities, and at some point he started a beer company. My great-grandma (his sister) joined him over here and sometime in the 30’s (after Prohibition) opened a bar with her husband, who was a bootlegger in Detroit for awhile during the Depression.

Putting all this together, I definitely wonder if Theophiel was a bootlegger too. I’m sure he didn’t work for Looney, but they may have crossed paths a time or two. I’m going to assume so unless it’s proven otherwise.

I’m working on a historical fantasy middle grade series for my son, and the first book involves gangsters and Moses. I initially was going to write about Al Capone, but now I think John Looney’s going to be my villain. And my great-great-uncle may just play a role too.

What a (mediocre) burger

whataburgerThe stars aligned this year; my university, my son’s school, my boyfriend’s university, and the school where I’m interning all had spring break this week, so we jumped in the car and are currently wandering around Texas: Dallas/Ft. Worth, Austin, San Antonio, then over to Galveston before winding our way back home.

I lived in Houston for awhile about a decade ago, which didn’t give me the best impression of Texas. It was very hot and humid, I didn’t have transportation at the time, and the program I was in required 18-20 hour days.

One day while I was in there towards the end, a couple people forgot a textbook or something and needed someone to run back and get it. They gave me their keys because I had a free period to run back, and someone else in the program offered to drive. I think he was from Houston, possibly Texas, because he suggested we stop for a burger on the way back.

We stopped at Whataburger. All I remember is that it was a burger – not the best burger I’d ever had, but not the worst. Just a burger.

coverI’ve run into people from Texas since then, and many of them swear by Whataburger. I still don’t understand what’s so special about it, but I realize its role in Texas culture (for some, at least), and so it factors into two stories I’ve written that are set in Texas: “Burger Run” and “A Wedding.”

Both are included in my short story collection, The Futility of Loving a Soldier. Those two stories focus on best friends at two points in their lives, the summer after high school graduation and then ten years later. Both, as I mentioned, involve Whataburger.

Readers, do you agree with Texans’ assessment of Whataburger as a great place to eat? What’s your favorite burger place?

Bathrooms, zombies, and second grade semantics

beware bathroomsToday I chaperoned a trip for an after school program. We took about 60 elementary school kids to a local art museum. My duties basically consisted of making sure 10 K-2 graders quietly paid attention to the docent and had adequate bathroom breaks.

I’m pretty sure most of the kids didn’t actually need to use the bathroom; they just wanted to go because they weren’t interested in art, and because they couldn’t let their friends use the bathrooms and not them.

(Side note for people not familiar with children: M = N3, where M = chaotic mess and N = the number of kids. In order to keep the mess to a minimum, you make them do things one at a time, even if it takes longer.)

The bathrooms at the museum were “weird,” as several kids told me. You walked through a door with a man/woman sign on it, which led the kids to think they were using the wrong sex’s bathroom. This door led to a room with drinking fountains and two more doors, one for the men’s room and one for the women’s. Through these doors was another room with sinks and another door. Through this door, finally, were the actual toilets.

One little girl told me, as we walked through each door, that she was scared. While washing her hands, she told a woman in the room (not part of our group) that the bathrooms reminded her of The Walking Dead. She then described the plot, but reassured the woman that she prayed, so it was okay that she watched the show. The woman agreed that prayer was powerful – although if I’m ever confronted with zombies, I’m not relying on prayer for survival. Double tap.

Zombies are a pretty popular topic with kids, so I wasn’t surprised when this little girl brought them up later. Several other kids chimed in with their views on zombies, which led to the question, “Would you rather be dead alive or alive dead?”


Dead alive, as they explained, is when you’re dead but still alive. Alive dead is when you’re alive but you’re dead.

Before I could answer, I had to calm down a kid who was crying because a classmate had rolled her eyes at her (“Next time, just close your eyes and don’t look at her.” “But I’ll still know!!”).

Either way – dead alive or alive dead – I can see a great horror movie coming from this:

Night at the Museum 4 – Ben Stiller trapped in a museum with two dozen 1st graders who can’t be left alone, can’t use the bathroom together, and they all think they have to pee. Zombies optional.

I’m thankful for…

This year I get to have four Thanksgivings. Three are with family, and those are nice and all, but the best one was at one of the schools where I’m doing a social work internship this year. Every year for Thanksgiving, the teachers show the students how thankful they are for their students by providing the kids a big meal.

These aren’t average kids; it’s an alternative high school, and many of the students are there by court order, or because they’ve been sent from a regular high school. Most of the students are dealing with multiple other problems, too: addiction (either theirs or a parent’s), incarceration (again, theirs or a parent’s), poverty, violence…. the list goes on, and it’s heartbreaking.

But these kids, despite their problems, are wonderful. I’ve only been working with them a few months, and already I can see how thankful they are for their caring teachers – even if they don’t express it.

It’s a wonderful experience when the teachers can turn that around and show how thankful they are for their kids. It takes a village, after all, and I’m thankful to be part of that village this year.

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