The good, the bad, and the creepy

6:28 AM Edit This 0 Comments »
Many of the people reading this post are doing so out of sheer curiosity for what I saw at an infamous school that I interviewed at last week. Since I haven't secured employment yet, I decided to not name the school outright. To be quite honest, I probably wouldn't accept a job offer from them, but I don't want to burn any bridges in case my back ends up against a wall and the student loan folks are knocking on my door.

For those of you who aren't up-to-speed, the school in question is a private facility that serves a population ranging from the developmentally delayed to the criminal. Students end up at this school because of severe behavior problems. And for those of you who aren't in the field, severe behavior problems in the ABA world means life-threatening. Like, a kid hitting their head so hard with whatever they can get their hands on that they detach their own retinas. Like, a grown woman who can hardly speak, but has bitten off her therapist's ear. Like, a teenager with a defiance disorder that shattered someone's pelvis at his private boarding school. They all end up at this place as a last resort. Which, in my mind, helps to justify some of the procedures used.

This school uses contingent shock to suppress behavior in certain cases.

A lot of people have a hard time wrapping their head around that. I guess I've been completely desensitized to the idea, having read countless research articles while I was in school about contingent shock used in order to suppress self-injury. The thing is, most shock therapy was left in the last millennium. I always think about it in the context of stuffy, black-and-white research conducted at Johns Hopkins by people with really fashionable hairdos. The fact that it's happening on a daily basis within a reasonable commute from my house is pretty amazing. And apparently it's amazing to all of America. The school is constantly in the news for their use of shock, and never in a positive light. Recently, there was a big hullabaloo in the news about a student being shocked for an unethically long period of time. Now, I am certainly not trying to downplay inhumane treatment. However, with the sensationalism of the media, it's hard to know what's true and what is blown out of proportion. I believe that in certain rare cases, shock is not only ethical and humane, but the only thing that can save a person's life. However, I also know how uncertain that terrain is. How do you know?

Regardless, I chose to accept an interview at the school, half out of desperation and half out of curiosity. The school offers a ridiculously inflated salary due to their controversy and the difficulty they have in finding quality employees, much less getting them to be loyal to the company and continue their employment for any period of time. And with my contract at my current place of employment ending in less than a week, I really need to find the next step in my career path. So I'm not saying "no" to anyone. With an interview came the added perk of a peek into this bizarre world. Plus, I try not to pass judgement on anything unless I've examined it more carefully. Here's what I saw, broken down systematically:

The good:
-The school boasts a near-zero expulsion rate. They also claim to not turn away just about anyone. The woman who interviewed me told me about students who were in holding cells at Rikers Island. It's pretty wonderful that the individuals with no where else to go can find a placement. You have to wonder, though, who are the ones that are turned away? She mentioned that they aren't equipped to admit sex-offenders or murderers.
-The school and residences have amazing amenities. Students not only have a literal wonderland available to them at the school, but their homes have pools, swing sets, TVs, etc. That's better than my house...
-The students receive a high level of personal attention. They're staffed 2-to-1 or higher (2+ staff to each student,) and there are several layers of clinicians and case managers over them ensuring their safety.
-The school uses ABA and focuses on antecedent management and positive programming for their students. While I wasn't invited to see any classrooms, it was quite clear to me that students are almost entirely using contingency contracts with reinforcement systems that approach reinforcement that would be available in the real world.
-The variety of positive reinforcement opportunities is actually astounding. The literal wonderland that I mentioned? It mostly goes under "the creepy," but the rewards offered to students for good behavior appear to be highly, insanely, monumentally motivating. They have an entire room that is a gigantic ball pit. They have an arcade. They have a movie theater. All right there for students who can hold it together.
-According to my interviewer, students won't receive any contingent shock for roughly a year after they arrive at the school. If a student's behavior seems to warrant shock, she said, they try every single trick in the book before they resort to aversives. Plus, there is an extensive process that they have to go through to be granted permission to use aversives.
-The school has a systematic transition program in place to promote independence in students that are gearing up to leave. That's important, because even if someone isn't smashing cheekbones any more, being thrown out in the real world can be frustrating and confusing, and behaviors can re-emerge.
-There is some community involvement, and students in the more independent and transitional phases are able to have jobs on the outside.
-The school clearly has an insane amount of cash money. The facilities, the opportunities, the salaries...

The bad:
-Even with all of that cheddar in the school's bank account, my interviewer admitted rather sheepishly when I asked about transitioning students back to the real world that they periodically lose students due to funding running out. I mean, seriously? If you have all that money to build arcades with flashing lights and to pay those staggering salaries, shouldn't you have a fund in place for continued programming when students aren't ready to "graduate?" It just doesn't seem right to me that you would cut someone loose like that, after they have clearly demonstrated a serious need.
-Nothing about life at this school is real. I mean, when I go to work every day, regardless of how well-behaved I am, I don't get to then go play in an arcade on-site and watch a movie and skip down a yellow-brick road. More on that later, but it just isn't real. When I asked about that, about how reinforcement was just too different from real-life contingencies and that life isn't nearly as reinforcing as they make it, she said that they have levels of independence that they work students through, which correspond to more realistic contingencies. If I was already there, and someone was bankrolling me, I would flip out periodically just to get to stay in that warm, fuzzy, technicolor land of magic and marvel. I would never want to leave.
-Even with all the media attention they get, my interviewer still couldn't tell me what safeguards are in place to ensure ethical treatment of the students that receive contingent shock. Like, nothing. She gave me literally nothing. So, what do they do?
-She was also vague when I asked what assessment procedures were used to determine the function of these behaviors. She kind of waved her hand and said, "oh, we do functional assessments." Great, but you need to tell me exactly how you determine the function of a behavior before you're zapping someone. I need to feel pretty confident that that was the right choice for that human being.
-Work schedules are round-the-clock. I know that someone has to be there for crisis control, but the pointed to her own pager and phone and said, "everyone here gets a pager and phone, and you're on-call 24/7. I've gotten phone calls for run-aways at 3:30am and left my house to look for them." That does not sound conducive to job satisfaction, much less high-quality work. Shouldn't you be paying someone to be the night watchman?
-And no offense to her, but the interviewer looked absolutely haggard, like she hadn't slept in 10 years. Because she probably hadn't. I can't live that way.

The creepy:
-For some reason, the school has a penchant for life-sized dolls. Maybe I watch too many horror movies, but dolls creep me out in general. Especially realistic-looking dolls. Especially when they're life-sized. And everywhere. They were everywhere! In the special wonderland of reinforcement, they had dolls dressed up like all of the Wizard of Oz characters, hanging out on the yellow brick road under a magical apple tree. I'm sorry, but with a largely adolescent and adult population, that's just scary. And this is coming from me, who absolutely loves that movie. I'm not going to be able to watch it for quite a while now. Even the lobby has this doll of an old man in a tux sitting behind a piano, poised to play. Ew. Creepy. Creepy! It gave the whole place, which otherwise would have been cheery and welcoming, a repugnant aura.
-The school also had a set-up that felt a little bit like a secret society. For all that they showed me, there was a lot that I didn't see. And she talked about hiring BCBAs for the position I was interviewing for not because they do as much clinically, but they like to hire from within and keep it all in the family. So they start low-ranking positions as BCBAs so that when a clinician gets creeped out and quits, they can initiate a younger employee.
-The month-long training she alluded to and the very prevalent propaganda made me question how much of the employees' loyalty is earned, and how much is programmed into them. And I distrust any propaganda that tries to get my opinion through shock-value. I'm sorry, but I know how intense the students are. I don't want to see pre-op photographs of a bitten-off nose. I don't need to see someone's sinus cavity. I know what goes on.
-And like I mentioned, I saw everything shiny and glorious, but nothing real. I have no clue where they stash their classrooms or their cafeteria... it was a very odd "tour of the facility" to just see the corporate offices and wonderland. It makes you wonder, what are you hiding?

In conclusion: there are a lot of really good things about this place. There are a lot of really bad things about this place. There are a lot of downright creepy things about this place. Do I want a job there? No. The lifestyle would be horrible, and the controversy, upon examination, seems merited. But there was no blaring violation of human rights that I could see. There was nothing that made me sure that bad things were happening behind those walls. If it had come down to groceries or controvery and life-sized dolls, I might have had to get used to those dolls. Luckily, I have a job offer on the table and we're in salary negotiations...

Top ten: things happening to me lately

7:03 AM Edit This 1 Comment »
These are in no particular order of importance. I wrote this update as a list to make it quicker, and when I started to rank the items I realized that I would spend so much time agonizing over it that it would defeat the purpose.

1. I graduated for the third time in my life. In exchange for $55,000 in student loans and a few of my less vital internal organs, Northeastern University deigned to award me a diploma. I am now considered a Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis--my ego has inflated almost to the breaking point. After three years of full-time coursework on top of 60+ hour work-weeks (that culminated in a successful thesis and a lot of paperwork) I'm finally free.

2. Having the Master's degree in hand, I took the scariest test of my life: the Behavior Analyst Certification Board exam. First of all, the stupid thing cost me almost $500 in fees. Second of all, the pass rate last year was only 40%. Third of all, if I don't pass, I might not be able to get a job. There are a lot of things riding on the results, which I don't get until after a thorough psychometric analysis. It still keeps me up at night, and I took it a week ago. It's going to be a long month.

3. With all this free time, I'm reading a book for pleasure for the first time in a YEAR. Now, I love to read. But with all of the researching and thesis-writing and staring-at-a-computer-screen that I've been doing, I could probably count the books I've read for pleasure on one hand. Actually, I definitely could. It's a great feeling. I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning reading "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett. Yes, yes, I know I'm way behind on that one. And no, I've never seen the movie. But wow, what a great book! Not to mention, last summer I made my first big-girl purchase of an Ellen Granter painting, who did the cover art for the book. So I basically had to read it. I'll be done with it today, I'm practically salivating thinking about all of the books I can read next!

4. The next logical step after finishing school, aside from tearing through paperbacks, is to look for a new job. Newton Public Schools has served me well over the past three years, and I'm sad to leave, but it's time for me to move upward and onward. There are no jobs for me in-district, so off I go into the wild blue yonder to have more responsibility, a better wardrobe, an office of my own, and more money. I'll miss wearing yoga pants and hoodies to work every day, but I'm excited about trading them in for dressed and suits and business cards. Imagine, business cards! I'm applying for Behavior Analyst positions all over Boston, both in public and private schools, as well as in collaboratives and private consulting companies. So far, the most promising interview I had was at a private school in Waltham. In fact, they asked me back for a second interview on the spot and when I went in for said second interview, they were all smiles, asked me when I could start, and gave me a comprehensive lecture about benefits. I have a feeling I'll be getting a job offer some time early next week. I think I would take it. Today, I'm interviewing at a highly controversial private institution that still uses contingent shock for highly dangerous behaviors. I find it fascinating and I'm absolutely curious to see the place, but I think the commute would be prohibitively long.

5. I'm continuing on my streak of compulsive hair-dying. This time, I traded in the chocolate brown for vampire red. Literally, the jar of hair color says "Vampire Red" on it. Why not?

6. Little sis is getting married! The wedding is here in Boston on August 11th. I'm very excited for her.

7. Big bro is adding another chicklet to his coop. The new baby is due in mid-July, the same week as the old baby's third birthday. I'm very excited to meet my niece. I can't imagine having enough room in my heart to love her the way I love Quentin, but mom says it's amazing how elastic a person's heart can be.

8. My health has been generally quite good. I went to see my rheumatologist (the flamboyant Dr. Diaz) yesterday morning, and he was tickled at my progress. Picture this: a small, graying Mexican man with a thick accent and a penchant for flair in snug clothes, decked out from head to toe in Faconnable. The first time I met him, I was sitting in an exam room feeling gloomy and sorry for myself, and he swung open the door with one hand, strutted in like he was accepting an Oscar, and exclaimed, "this is Doctor Diaz." Well Dr. Diaz held my hands and examined my knuckles and gasped, "there is no swelling! How lovely." The old loon doesn't need to see me for four months, unless there's a problem. I'm hoping for an uneventful summer, as far as that goes.

9. One of my nearest and dearest got married last week. We took her to San Francisco for a bachelorette party weekend, which was obviously a whole lot of fun. Then I flew back to the Great American West a week later for the ceremony near Tucson, Arizona. The weather was perfect, the groom was handsome, and I've never seen the bride look as beautiful as she did that day. I think she may have actually been glowing. I am so happy for her, I actually did cry. During pictures with the photographer. Because I like to ruin pictures.

10. I've become unabashedly obsessed with food. Recipes, cooking, food blogs, etc. A few of my friends and I bought a CSA farm share from Red Fire Farm in Granby, Massachusetts (out by Amherst) and we got our first load of veggies last night! We got cilantro, green garlic, hakurei turnips, purple kohlrabi, kale, spinach, red leaf lettuce, braised greens, and spring mix. That list includes more than one thing I hadn't the faintest idea about, so we had a very fun adventure last night divvying everything up and cooking a colorful, flavorful feast. In fact, we decided to keep a log of what we were cooking and eating and obsessing over here. Last night's menu was: kale chips with green garlic and white bean dip, kohlrabi curry, and mini apple crisps. Can't wait to see what next week brings!

Curried Split Pea Soup

7:20 PM Edit This 3 Comments »
Tonight I had my darling Amanda over for dinner, and she brought her sister who just got home from college (and is already bored of the suburbs.) Since the weather has been gross, I decided it was high time to make a curried split pea soup that I had dreamed up back when the weather was warm. For some reason we had a faux-été in March and now we're getting drearsville in May. Anyway, I love using Golden Curry to make a nice Japanese stir-fry that my mom taught me, and the last time I used it I thought it would make an impeccable addition to split pea soup. As with any out-of-the-blue recipe, I was nervous that it was going to be absolutely terrible. Luckily for Amanda and Brittany, the soup actually turned out quite nicely. It is a hearty soup perfect for cold weather, with the nice kick of curry to make it interesting. Here we go!


As you can see, I forgot to photograph it until after I had started devouring it. And obviously split pea soup isn't meant to look like much. But what is a blog post without an illustration?

Recipe:

2 cups dried split green peas
8 cups water
1 onion
3 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 carrots
4 stalks celery
4 small potatoes
1 box Golden Curry
Sea salt to taste, but at least a few teaspoons

Instructions:

Have your friends chop the onions and garlic for you, then sauté them in the oil. When the onions look translucent, add the split peas and water. Bring to a boil and then reduce head and simmer for 45 minutes. Leave the room and watch a chick flick to pass the time, since the weather sucks and you just want to cry to a Nicholas Sparks plot line.

After 45 minutes, put in the celery, carrots, and potatoes that your friends also chopped for you. After all, you're providing the food, they should at least do the chopping. Don't forget the curry! Throw in a whole box of medium-hot to hot Golden Curry mix and salt. Give it a good stir, cover the pot, and let simmer for another hour while you finish your movie.

After an hour, your soup is ready to eat and piping hot! Serve it with crusty bread and enjoy. This recipe makes a lot of soup, so you'll have plenty to send off with your dinner guests and to freeze for later when you're too lazy or too sick to make a meal. If you use the medium-hot curry mix, the soup will be nicely spiced, but not spicy. If you like things with more kick, definitely go for the hot box.

I finished off with these vegan pear cakes, because I'm obsessed with them. I put them in a muffin tin so that they're in nice little individual servings. Not only do they pass for dessert, but you can keep them in the fridge and serve them cold for breakfast. Careful, they disappear quickly!


Vegetarian Gourmet: Marinated Mushrooms

12:56 PM Posted In , , Edit This 1 Comment »
One of my sister-in-law's friends has been on me to post some recipes and pictures of meals I make that are vegan/vegetarian. I haven't blogged in about two years because my life has been absolutely insane, but now things are calming down and I have a little more discretionary time to sit on the internet. (Read: I need something to do while I'm avoiding studying for the BCBA exam.) So here's blog post #1 of my post-grad school life: MUSHROOMS! Also known as my brother's personal hell.

I love marinated mushrooms from the antipasto bar at Whole Foods. Every week I do the majority of my grocery shopping at Russo's because the majority of what I eat is produce, but then I always need a few staples from the grocery store too. My biggest downfall and the arch-nemesis to grocery thrift? Olives and antipasto. I have a problem. So, today I decided I would try my hand at my own marinated mushrooms for about a third of the cost. The result? Incredible. I ate a few that wouldn't fit in the jars and I actually said "well, excuse me!" out loud. Yes, I know that's embarrassing.


Recipe:

1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1/3 cup olive oil
a few dashes of balsamic vinegar
1 10-oz. package of regular, boring, run-of-the-mill white mushrooms. Cut the big ones in half or thirds.
5 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon dried or 1 teaspoon fresh minced oregano
ditto with the basil
1 shallot, minced
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
some pepperoncinis (optional)

Instructions:


Throw everything except for the mushrooms in a pot and bring it to a boil. Since it's about half oil, it more looks like you're frying than you're boiling. Anyway, cool, bubbles. Reduce heat and simmer for 6 minutes. Throw those mushrooms in, stir, cover the pot, cook for a minute, remove from heat and let cool uncovered. Once it's all cooled, give it another couple of good stirs and then pack it into some jars and throw it into the fridge.

Apparently these can be kept for 3 or 4 weeks in the fridge, but mine would never last that long. I like to throw them on salads or in vegetable wraps for some zesty flavor, and then you really don't need any salad dressing. They would be really nice served warm on a cold day over a baked potato, too...

Proof

6:46 AM Edit This 3 Comments »

Pictures of Maple Sugaring--okay, let's be honest. Pictures of Quentin.

3:40 PM Posted In , Edit This 1 Comment »

Now we're having fun!

Hey dad, bottoms up?

Listen, son, you gotta cool it with the tap water.

Look at Vanessa's juicy mouth! I know I should turn and smile, but I can't...

Heeeey it's been two months.

7:57 PM Posted In Edit This 5 Comments »
HELLO. My life is crazy. In a given week, I work three jobs, work on my Master's degree, go to Rugby practice and Rugby games, socialize, teeter on the edge of insanity, and occasionally find time to sleep a few winksters. So now I'm done excusing myself for not blogging, and will deliver some details about rugby, as I think that's in the highest demand at the moment.
I joined the Boston Women's Rugby Football Club (BWRFC) about two months ago. Winter conditioning was just starting and so it was the natural time for rookies to start. There are probably 5 or 6 new girls on the team that have never played before, myself and my friend-turned-roommate Jamie being one of them. Jamie coaches soccer at Newton North High School, and someone that she works with there suggested that she give BWRFC a try. She didn't want to do it alone, and I'm well-built for rugby, so she asked if I would join with her. We decided that it would be a good way to stay in shape, give us the opportunity to meet a whole new group of people, and push us out of our comfort zones a little bit. So we showed up to the gym at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, where practice occurs until the weather dries out a little bit, and dived right in.
It was definitely scary for me at first. I haven't run sprints and done big drills like this since high school soccer, and while I've lost 40 pounds since college I'm not in the best shape of my life. I had worked up to running for 30-45 minutes without stopping to walk, but sprints is a whole different matter. The first practice I literally thought that I was going to pass out, and my head got all fuzzy towards 9pm. Luckily I made it through without passing out, and it's just been steady improvements since then. I'm still one of the slowest goobers on the team when we're doing those sprints, but I hold my own. It isn't embarrassing. What is embarrassing, however, is going to the gym and trying to run for distance again, and failing miserably. I need to start doing both more often, and then maybe I'll turn into some albino Flo-Jo.
Onto the action bit. We had our first game yesterday! We went down to Providence to play the Brown University club team, and it was rough. It was POURING rain (Belmont High is closed tomorrow because the school flooded) and barely 40 degrees. The ref decided to cut our game short to only 55 minutes, down from 80, because the conditions were so bad. The visibility was terrible, and it was really tough to hold onto the ball because it got so slippery. Jamie has developed some sort whooping cough, and I have an ear ache. Either way. While the Brown team is supposed to be a little beneath us, they beat us 25 or 30 to 0. Not only are they BIG girls, and the inclement weather severely handicapped both teams, but their game was sloppy, which made our game sloppy. But I'm sure what you care about is how I did. Since it was my first game- and I still don't know all the rules, let alone where the HECK I am supposed to be on the field when I'm not in the scrum- I was truly terrified to play. For some reason our roster wasn't very big for the game, so they told me to be prepared to play, and I went in for the last five minutes of the game. I'm a forward since I can throw some weight around, and they had me flanking. That means I'm on the outside of the scrum pushing the girl on the outside of the front row (my shoulder against her butt cheek) to help the scrum hold our ground and hopefully push the opposing team's scrum backwards. Other than that, I'm not so clear on my duties. So in the three or four scrums that formed while I was on the field, I felt great! But once that scrum broke, I was basically running around like a chicken with my head cut off. Thankfully it was only five minutes, or I might have been tempted to cry on the field. I was glad when it was over, but I was also totally exhilarated and warmed up considerably from running around on the field.
The second the game was over we practically sprinted to my car and stripped most of our wet clothes off, shoved them in the trunk, and blared the heat. It took a good long time to get warm after that. Then, while driving home and fielding all of the excited calls and text messages from people wanting to know how the game went, I went the wrong way on 95 and didn't realize until we saw a sign that said "Welcome to Connecticut." I guess it gave us a little extra time to warm up?
***
Here is my first official rugby portrait. This is Jamie and I in our warm-up shirts, rugby shorts, and rugby socks. I was tempted to cut myself out of it or airbrush Sienna Miller over myself, because I think I look pretty scary, but isn't that what Rugby is all about?