Tuesday, November 9, 2010

For the Quiet Girls



For the Quiet Girls 


     Elizabeth Smart was a quiet 14-year-old girl when she was abducted from
her bedroom in June of 2002. Now 23, she is testifying this week at the trial
of the man who abducted, raped, brainwashed, and terrified her for nearly 10
months.
     As I read through the transcript of the trial, I was horrified at the depravity
and cruelty she endured. But I was deeply moved by the grace and conviction
she displayed as she responded to questioning. A crime of insanity took her
from her family but, thankfully, the watchful eye of a passing motorist allowed
Smart to be reunited with her family.
      Antinette Keller, of Plainfield, will never be reunited with her family.
Keller is the 18-year-old art student at NIU in DeKalb, Illinois who made the
mistake of taking her art supplies to a park to work on a project. While there,
Keller ran into a 34-year-old man who sexually abused her, killed her, and
then set her body on fire. The newspapers are calling it a crime of opportunity.
     Keller, like Smart, was also a quiet girl.
     Andrea Faye Will, of Batavia, died in February of 1998. She was a
freshman at Eastern Illinois University when she was strangled to death with a
phone chord by Justin "Jay" Boulay, of St. Charles, Ill. Because of a crack in
Illinois' legal system, Boulay, Will's former boyfriend, is being released from
prison on November 16 after serving only 12 years of his 24 year sentence.
While incarcerated, Boulay married another girl from Batavia, Rachel Rivers.
The two are planning on living in Hawaii, where Rachel Boulay is a professor
at the University of Hawaii.
     It is Andrea's story that hits far too close to home for me.
     I will never forget that February evening. It was just after midnight when
my son, Graham, arrived home with his girlfriend, Stephanie. I remember her
as a sweet,  quiet girl. I know now that she is much like her best friend and
cousin: Andrea.
     I will never forget the look on Graham and Stephanie's faces that night as
they stood in the darkened hallway. He did not have to tell that something was
wrong. I had heard about Andrea's death on the news. But I didn't expect my
son, then in high school, to look at me and say, "Stephanie is staying here
tonight, Mom. Her cousin Andrea was just murdered."
     Tears welling in my eyes, I simply nodded.
     And so the rules were broken that night as their adolescent forms
disappeared up the stairs. I could not hear them, but I imagined them crying
and holding each other in my son's childhood bedroom down the hall. Trying
to get some sleep before Andrea's wake the following day.
     The majority of faces inside the funeral home at Andrea Will's wake were
young. A crowd of adolescent boys hung in the back of the room, white-faced
and somber. The adolescent girls openly wept and held each other.
     Sorority sisters. Classmates. Childhood friends.
     I came with two friends. Mothers. To offer my inadequate condolences to
another mother I'd never met. To stand in line. Look into the open coffin at
the front of the room. See the lovely, lifeless body of 19-year-old Andrea
Faye Will.
     A quiet girl, with visible red marks around her neck.  


Please visit the Voices for Andrea Faye Will Facebook page for more 
updates on the worldwide candlelight vigils held in Andrea's honor on 
Tuesday, November 16. . . the day Justin Boulay was released from 
prison and left with his new wife for Hawaii. As of this posting, 3400 
people from around the country and world have joined this site to 
remember Andrea and take a stand against domestic violence. Sign
up as a member today to take a stand against the victimization and 
suffering of quiet girls like Andrea Faye Will. 

Friday, November 5, 2010

Learning to Hum

  



                             Or How D'Atra Got Her Ring Back



     "It feels bad," said President Obama of the "shellacking" Democrats got
in the midterm elections.
     I feel bad, too.
     I feel bad seeing President Obama's former Senate seat being filled by a
member of the opposing party. I feel bad knowing President Obama is
going to have an uphill battle for the last two years of his presidency. I feel
bad that so little good news about what he has done so far ever made it to
the people who needed to hear it the most. I blame that in large part on
the industry I once turned to for guidance during elections. An industry
that,  in my opinion, has imploded and become as polarized and jaded as
the politics it claims to cover.
     To help ease my post-election pain, I sought out like-minded people
on Wednesday.  Over drinks, we groused and grumbled as the defeat
sunk in.
     But on Thursday, I found myself ready to move on and be cautiously
hopeful. Moreover, I needed to purge from my head the vilifying
verbiage from this year's midterm election campaigns. Figuring a workout
might help, I headed to the health club.
      Normally, I time my workouts at the end of the day so I can watch
Jeopardy while I sweat. Thursday morning, I changed it up and found
myself arriving at the club just as the midday news was beginning.
    It was the last thing I wanted to watch. So, after flipping through the
channels, I landed on Divorce Court. I'm embarrassed to admit that I
stayed there and became completed engrossed in an episode that oddly
resonated with me. Best of all, it made me laugh out loud for the first
time in days.
     Enter Dietra Hicks (also known as D'Atra Hicks) and Loren Harper.
Hicks began, telling the judge she needed to divorce her husband
because he was a "lyin', cheatin', deceitful, Internet whore." Harper
came to court seeking compensation for therapy sessions he said he
needed after years of physical abuse at the hands of his wife. Hicks did
not deny the abuse and argued that it was Harper's chronic lying that
drove her to it. Or, as she put it, "Every time he lies I just have to punch
him in the face."
    Then it was Harper's turn. But as he began, Hicks, who is a singer,
began to hum. Not just random humming but a low, Gospel-loaded,
plaintive moan that all but drowned out her husband's testimony. While
the courtroom erupted in laughter, the judge told Hicks she had to stop.

For a while, she did. But as her husband continued talking, Hicks soon
was humming again. Admitting she had anger issues, she explained to
the judge that humming was an anger management exercise she used
to calm herself whenever confronted by her husband's lies.
     Hicks was then told that Nortice, Harper's girlfriend, was on her
way into the courtroom wearing a ring Harper had given Hicks. Harper,
afraid of his wife's temper, had staged a burglary in his home to steal
back the ring and give it to his girlfriend. Seeing the other woman
wearing her ring threw Hicks into a string of warbling lamentations.
This time, the judge did not silence her.
      As the drama continued to unfold, I couldn't help but draw political
parallels. For several fleeting moments, I even convinced myself the
anger, deceit, and hurt of the midterm elections mirrored the bizarre
elements found in the dysfunctional American marriage of D'Atra Hicks
and Loren Harper.
      It didn't take me long to realize I was out in left field on this one.
Although there were moments of high drama, this was really just the
story of a woman scorned, a man caught in a web of lies, and the
questionable ownership of a ring.
      In the end, the girlfriend was shamed by the judge into giving the
ring back to Hicks. As the three involved individuals stood outside in
the hallway following the hearing, Hicks lapsed back into song, waving
her ring in the air, singing, "I got my ring back. I got my ring back."
     I, for one, am happy D'Atra Hicks got her ring back. It proves there is still
justice in the world. A ray of hope. And when that hope seems out of reach
I will think of Hicks.
     Maybe, I'll even hum.
  
     To watch the episode of Divorce Court mentioned above, cut and paste 
     the following link into your browser:
     http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZLod_6uuaaU

Monday, November 1, 2010

I Will Miss You, Mr. Sorensen








                                          I Will Miss You, Mr. Sorensen         


     “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” 
As any American knows, those famous words were spoken by President John F. 
Kennedy at his 1961 inauguration. What many people may not know is that those 
words were written by Ted Sorensen, President Kennedy’s Special Advisor and 
Counselor.
    Sorensen died on Halloween at the age of 82. 
    I find it both ironic and oddly fitting that the man whose eloquent, moving words 
still make me cry, died just two days before our country’s midterm elections. Elections 
whose campaigns have been more base, insulting, and hateful than any I can 
recall. Campaigns that have been completely devoid of the eloquence of  JFK's 
speechwriter. 
    Which is why I will miss Ted Sorensen.
    Growing up, it was Sorensen's words that blared from our blonde-wood television 
set. I may not have understood everything I heard, but I recognized that the words 
were thoughtful and inspirational. Words that held my parents' attention with rapt interest.
Important words that frequently caused them to shush me whenever President Kennedy 
spoke to the nation.                                                                                               
    Sorensen wasn’t even 25 yet when Kennedy hired him as an assistant in 1953. 
In his 2008 memoir, Sorensen says of Kennedy during the interview,  “I was struck by 
this unpretentious, even ordinary man with his extraordinary background, a wealthy 
family, a Harvard education, and a heroic war record. He did not try to impress me with 
his importance; he just seemed like a good guy."
     By comparison, Sorensen was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. A staunch pacifist, he 
registered for the draft as a conscientious objector. Although their backgrounds were 
very different, Sorensen and Kennedy shared the same passion for serving their country. 
Their intellects and turn of phrase were so in tune with each others that biographers are 
still arguing that Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize for “Profiles in Courage,” should have been 
given to Sorensen instead.
     Sorensen was also one of President Barack Obama's biggest fans and publicly 
endorsed his run for the presidency in 2007. Initially, he suggested Obama consider 
waiting to run for the presidency because he felt Obama would,” inherit a country in bad 
shape, a presidency and a federal government in bad shape after eight years of what I 
call 'shame and pain.' "
     He certainly did.                                                                                        
     But I still believe in President Barack Obama. I believe he is the best hope we have. 
And those who are hoping to dismantle his dreams at the polls tomorrow may be in for a 
shock. Because I think the younger generation that helped elect President Obama has 
been sitting back and listening. Watching, while this year's midterm campaigns escalated
 into the absurd. I think they are as sick of the mudslinging as any adult. 
      Maybe more so.       
      I think they want to hear words that inspire not insult. Words, like those of Sorensen, 
that offer a return to intelligent discussion, leadership, and guidance.   
       I just hope they haven’t been so nauseated by what they've seen and heard that
they stay away from the polls tomorrow.
       I hope they do what Sorensen would do.
       Vote.
           

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Bullied into Silence

  





                            
                                    

    "Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made
a victim. Accept no one's definition of your life, but define yourself,"
said American industrialist Harvey S. Firestone (1868-1938).
     Brave words from a magnate of industry. Impossible words for a
twelve-year-old Florida girl with cerebral palsy who was repeatedly
taunted and humiliated by a group of bullies on her school bus. Tired
of seeing his daughter mistreated, the girl's father finally put an end to
the abuse by boarding the bus one morning and confronting the bullies
himself. His much publicized rage, caught on the bus security camera,
garnered the support of parents across the country. Most people are
calling him a hero for defending his daughter. I certainly think he is.
     Yet I know his daughter's ordeal is far from over. In the span of
a week her private pain has become so very public. It is no surprise
to me that she is in the hospital, suffering from stress. When she gets
better, more transitions await her. Her father may be spending time
in jail for his actions. She will be going to a new school, making new
friends. Wondering, I would guess, who she can trust. Hoping, if she
became the victim of bullying again, that her new friends would not
be afraid to stand up to the bullies.
      Like I was.
      It was a warm spring day, 1968. The tall. screen-free windows in
my high school Spanish class were flung open. The scent of lilacs filled
the room. A gentle breeze rustled our papers.
      Just before the class began our vivacious Cuban teacher was called
away. She was only a short time, but it was long enough.
     "Hey, your briefcase is open, nerd," I heard someone say.
     Turning, I saw it was Jeff, one of the most popular boys in school.
He was directing his observation at a quiet, awkward boy. Giggles
rippled across the room while the targeted boy squirmed. One by one,
Jeff's friends chimed in.
     "Yeah, and your shoe's untied, dweeb."
     "Your fly's open, spaaz."
      I wish I had told them to stop. But back then, I caved into peer
pressure, afraid of risking the wrath of the popular crowd. So I sat
in captive silence as the insults escalated. I am ashamed to admit that.
But I want to believe I would have said something if I'd known the
boy was going to jump up, scramble over several desks, and dive
through one of the open third floor windows.
      What I remember is seeing the sole of his brown Oxford shoe
oddly suspended in midair in the unobstructed opening. Just before it
slipped away a girl screamed. Then I saw a hand fly out and clamp
down on the boy's ankle. A crowd of boys rushed over to help. Among
them were theones who had been taunting him seconds before he tried
to take his life.
      He was not grateful. With all his might he kicked and wrestled to
free himself from their grasp. Girls started crying. I could only sit there,
frozen in shock, while the boy fought against his rescuers. His chilling
wail, more animal than human, rang in my ears.
      At last his body went limp from fatigue. Four boys were pulling his
dead weight back into the classroom just as the teacher reappeared.
      "Are you crazy!" she shouted, running over.
      Furious, she scanned our faces for an explanation. Not getting one,
she turned back to the trembling, sweat-soaked boy. Looking into his
glassy eyes, she tried to get him to talk but the only sound he emitted was
that strange moan. Gently, she coaxed him to his feet and led him out the
door.
      I never saw him again.
      To the best of my recollection, the bullies were never punished. Soon
they were telling wide-eyed admirers about the "nut case" in their Spanish
class. About how they were the ones who saved him from certain death,
leaving out the part about how they drove him to do it. It was a collective
lie that got better with each telling and became the official version of the
incident.
      But I've never forgotten what really happened. Or the feeling that I
failed my classmate by sitting idling by. Over the years, I have tried to
rationalize my actions. Or shall I say, inactions. I was young, I was
insecure, I was afraid. All of that is true. But I know I was also a witness
to cruelty that day and I did nothing to stop it. Each time I read another
story about bullying, I am reminded of that.
      Adolescence is such a tenuous journey. While so much of it is joyful,
there are moments of regret that haunt us forever.
      My moments can be found in 1968, in a third floor Spanish class, on
a warm spring day.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Plan for Redefining 9/11









            My father, a veteran of WWII, was a Knickerbocker. A proud New Yorker who grew up on Long Island Sound, he reminded me a little bit of Frank Sinatra and even more of James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Dad died in September of 1999, two years before the morning of September 11, 2001. I am glad he was not here then. It would have broken his heart to see New York attacked. There is no doubt in my mind he would have demanded we retaliate by invading Iraq. No doubt he would have fully supported President Bush when he did just that, in March of 2003. Back then, frightened and horrified by the events of the day, I may have even agreed with him. One of the few times I would.
But as the ninth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, as reports of a pastor in Florida wanting to burn copies of the Koran fills the news, I find myself longing for a new way to acknowledge and honor what happened on that bright, clear September morning.  A way of remembering the victims that is more representative of the principles I believe this country was founded upon. A way that gives me hope and confidence in the future. A way that supports my belief that there are more tolerant people in the world than the extremists of the world would have us believe.
I am, of course, just one woman, in one small town in America. I have no influence or position in the world. But I know what I would do if I had the power.
I would redefine 9/11.
From this day forward I would declare it a day of world tolerance. I would then invite two representatives from every country in the world to come to New York City. They would gather at Ground Zero and offer, in their native language, their simple wish for tolerance. The two representatives would be one adult and one child. The adult would be there simply as an escort for the child who would say, for example, “I come to you from my home in North Korea to stand beside you in tolerance and peace on this day of your national mourning.” Or something to that effect.
            Imagine the power this would have. Imagine the good will it would foster, even if just for one day. No politics, no religion, just small emissaries from across the globe speaking words of hope. Promise, for a world they will one day inherit.
           My plan would be to have the children read these messages aloud each year following the traditional four minutes of silence at Ground Zero. Our country’s television stations and radio stations would air the children’s message for everyone to hear.
            It’s a large dream, I know. And though I dream big, I am not na├»ve. I am well aware that there are countries that would decline our invitation. I also know there are many people in this country who would vehemently oppose such a plan, preferring instead to hold on to their anger and hatred.
            This day would not be for them. It would be for the majority of Americans, like me, who are ready to turn the tragedy of 9/11 into something very different. Something the terrorists never envisioned when they flew those planes into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the field in Pennsylvania. Something bigger and more powerful than their message of hate and revenge. Something that is inclusive and enduring.
Something I’d like to believe my father would embrace.
Tolerance. 

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Lesson in Humility









"Life is a long lesson in humility," wrote James Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan.

I think what Barrie was really talking about was writing. There is nothing more thrilling than seeing your words in print. Nothing more satisfying than having someone applaud your turn of phrase. Nothing more humbling than putting your inner most thoughts and feelings on paper, showing them to the world, and having them dismissed.

I am speaking from experience.

In October of 2000, an essay I submitted to Newsweek was accepted for publication consideration. After I sent back the contract, Newsweek arranged for a photo shoot. The shoot took place on a beautiful fall afternoon in my backyard.

"You know what this means, don't you?" said the photographer.

I shook my head.

"You're going places."

For the next five years, I waited for his prophesy to unfold. Every few months I checked in with Newsweek only to be told about the backlog of essays on file and that, if I liked, I could have mine back. Naturally, I declined. Thereafter, I  limited my calls to once a year, determined not to jinx my success with amateurish impatience.   

In September 2005, I received an e-mail from the magazine's My Turn editor saying that since a considerable amount of time had passed, Newsweek was no longer considering running my essay. Devastated, I shoved the essay in a filing cabinet. From time to time I tried to re-market it, without success.

Today, it seems fitting to publish it here, as my first blog entry. A reminder that this life I've chosen has the power to bring me equal doses of success and disappointment. But for the life of me, I can't imagine doing anything else.                                                        
                                                        

                                            
   Them Finches

It was early May, late morning, in Appleton, Wisconsin. Along the river, paper factories burped steam into the crisp air. The drive-up line at Dairy Queen was already jammed. Across the street, at a no-name gas station near the 441 entrance ramp, bleary-eyed travelers stood in a slow moving line. 

I was one of them.

Brazenly, she walked to the head of the line. A dingy, nubby woolen cap was pulled tight overher stringy, slate-colored hair. On her pallid face she wore a child's I-got-something-to-tell-you expression. But the fine lines circling her tired brown eyes suggested experience. Time-earned.

She slapped a pack of Camels down on the counter. Reaching into her stained, misshapen sweat pants, she pulled out a crumpled dollar bill and mixture of coins. Smiling, she thrust the money toward the gas station's pressed-shirt manager. The young man recoiled then grabbed the money and shoved it in the cash register's drawer.

"Have a nice day," he said.

She didn't move.
    
"Is there something else?" he asked.

She nodded. Leaned over the counter. "Me and Michael don't know what to do about them finches," she whispered.

"What?"

"Them finches," she repeated, louder. "Me and Michael don't know what to do about them finches."

Moans of frustration rose in the station air as those of us in the long line grew more impatient.  Uneasy, the attendant searched the crowd for guidance with a look that said, "What do you want ME to do about it?" We answered him with our indifferent sighs. Do something. Anything. We, the mentally sound, don't have time for this.

No one ever does. Mental disability is embarrassing and inconvenient. Yet odds are many of us will turn to a stranger one day and say something as equally absurd as the finch lady had that day.        

My father did.

A design engineer and photographer, Dad spent his life creating and building things. But a year before his death, my father forgot how to answer the phone or make a cup of coffee. He repeatedly misplaced his keys, hearing aid, dentures, and wallet. He couldn't remember the word, ketchup.

Slowly, in crept the paranoia. 

"You know the police?" he whispered one day.

 I nodded.

"Bunch of goddamn crooks," he shouted.

Opinionated, stubborn, Dad hated authority figures. Assuming this was just another lecture, I tried tuning him out. But there was something different about this rant.

"I know what they're up to. And I'll blow off their goddamn heads if they try," he yelled, raising a weathered fist.

Now I was listening.

Dad insisted the police were after his 50-year-old gun, issued to him by the Navy during WWII. It was the one he kept loaded, in a dishwasher, until my brother found it and removed it.

My father was also suspicious of the neighbors. He claimed they'd stolen his scissors, magnifying glasses, light bulbs, and flashlights. Their motive? To scare Dad out of his house, buy it at a reduced price, resell it, and make a killing.
      
I laughed. Told him that was ridiculous. In response, he grit his teeth, growled like an animal, and stomped into the house. Although his reaction was a bit odd, I still didn't fully understand what was happening to my father.

Soon afterwards, at a family picnic, I did. Taking his youngest grandson aside, Dad described his new job; government spy for the FBI. Pulling up his shirt, he showed the wide-eyed boy where he'd been wired to record top secret conversations. Bits of tape still remained. . . remnants of a recent EKG test.

Not long after this, Dad's physical health began to decline. Frequent blood transfusions and medication helped manage his geriatric leukemia. His dementia, however, was another story. The result was a game of human ping-pong. When Dad's physical condition deteriorated, he went to the hospital. When it improved, he had to leave and be sent to a behavioral health facility. During his final months, he bounced between two hospitals, two nursing homes, and the behavioral health facility.
  
One thing remained constant. Whenever I called to check in on Dad, no matter where he was, I heard the same thing, "Your father is very agitated."

Agitated meant my 100 pound, 85-year-old father was slinging coarse insults to everyone in earshot. Convinced people were trying to kill him, he pulled out IVs, hid his medication, and refused to eat. Confused and frightened, he screamed his nights away, slept all day. He tried to escape. Once, he succeeded. Making it to the railroad tracks running behind his building, Dad told a stunned work crew he was being poisoned. After that he had to be sedated and restrained.

Sometimes, I saw sparks of rational thought flash in Dad's beautiful grey eyes. Each time, I grew hopeful. But each time, the sparks faded into a dull stare.

Toward the end, I became skilled at reading the faces of my father’s nurses. Faces that met me with frustrated, plaintive expressions. Like the crowd at the no-name gas station, their expressions conveyed what they couldn't, "Well, what are YOU going to do now?"

I didn't have a clue.

I also had no clue, as I stood in that slow-moving gas station line, that before year's end I would find myself dealing with the embarrassment and frustration of my father's dementia. The only thing on my mind that day was how I wished I'd gassed up somewhere else.

"Let's go! C'mon!" someone in line moaned.

The station manager grew pale. Sweat beaded on his brow. On and on, the finch lady chattered until the young man snapped. Leaning across the counter, he stared into her eyes, clenched his teeth, and said."Shoot 'em."

Confused, she shook her head. "What did you say?"

"The finches," he said, giving me a wink. "I said shoot 'em."