Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sebastian's Pal, Sam

Talking about Sebastian made me eager to talk about Sam. Sebastian, if you read the earlier post, was a feisty old donkey we adopted to keep our runaway horse, Sam, closer to home.

Sam's another story and he deserves his own space.

The picture above isn't Sam - I don't have a photo of him. But it's a pretty good likeness. Sam was the quarter horse my daughter rode in her lessons when she was in junior high school. Gentle, kind and patient, he was the perfect lesson horse. We fell in love with him.

We'd moved to a small town in northwest Connecticut with the hope of eventually buying a horse. I knew the amount of work involved; my dad, a Bronx boy with gentleman farmer dreams, had started breeding Arabian horses when I was about sixteen. I was past that age where most girls are madly in love with horses, but I loved animals and much as I hated the work, I loved the horses. I'll tell you their stories on another day.

So - the opportunity to buy Sam arrived.

"Don't do it," daughter's instructor, who had also become a good friend, advised. "He's headstrong. He's a pain in the butt under saddle. Get a horse that wants to be ridden."

Did we listen? No. We were in love.

So we put a check into the instructor's reluctant hand and began to prepare for Sam's arrival while my daughter joyously visited "her" horse at his stable every day.

I visited him, too, climbing on his back and going for a ride behind the lesson barn without asking permission or paying a lesson fee. It was just me and our horse. Sam was perfectly willing to walk through the woods. He didn't want to trot or canter; he didn't want to work. He just wanted to enjoy the day.

We walked right through a herd of deer together and they didn't pay attention to us. I was magically turned into part of a four legged creature; someone they didn't see as a threat. We paused and stood among them, Sam blowing and shaking his head, the deer contentedly munching grass around us. It was an amazing gift and Sam gave it to me.

But we couldn't leave him at that barn indefinitely.

The barn on our property wasn't in great shape; fencing in the field was non-existent. There was a good box stall on one side of the barn with a dutch door leading outside. Across the aisle was a long, narrow stall that seemed like the right size for a pony. We double checked the latches, cleaned out the stall and installed a thick layer of fresh bedding.

We installed electric fencing around the perimeter of the field. Scout, our sweet herding dog who got her own post here back in December, hit the fence at a dead run twice and fled, yipping, back to the house. She wouldn't be trying to herd the horse.

We were ready.

The big day arrived and we promised the instructor a fine dinner if he'd stay after delivering Sam to his new home. It was a trip of less than two miles, and he decided to make it a real event. Tying bright red ribbons on the bridle, he saddled Sam up and rode him to his new home. The vision of the two of them tripping down the driveway, red streamers flying, is one I doubt I ever forget.

My daughter, naturally, was transported. I was, too.

But reality was quickly established. Sam hated the new stall. He didn't want to go in. The instructor, accustomed to nervous horses, quickly got him in and shut the door.

"Give him time," he said. "It's all new."

But Sam was miserable. He was in a strange place and he was all alone. This gentle giant, who'd never done anything worse than refuse to canter when asked, began to bang on the dutch door through which he'd entered. As my daughter and I stood outside the door, petting his head, reassuring him that everything was okay, Sam continued to beat on the door.

"Make him stop!" my daughter cried.

He didn't.

Sam was determined to get out. I don't think he battered down the door the first day. First, he escaped from the field. He broke through the electric fence and trotted away.

We lived on a country road but the cars that came by were often speeding. He had to go up the road, turn left, follow a second quiet road, cross a county highway, then travel another three quarters of a mile with another left turn to get home.

He did it. Somehow, he was able to remember the route from his arrival, reverse it and find his way back to his barn.

As we were out desperately hunting for him, the phone rang.

"He's here," the instructor said. "He's safe."

We went back, picked him up and brought him home. But he broke out twice more...and I must tell you that I know what determination looks like: it's Sam's big old horse butt powering him back to his friends, to his home.

We left him there, knowing we had to not only improve the security of our barn and our field, but knowing that Sam wasn't going to be happy living all by himself. We needed to find him a friend.

My then-husband spent days measuring, sawing, nailing. He built an absolutely beautiful horse stall with a sliding interior door where there had been a sad little box.

We strengthened the fencing. We adopted Sebastian. We brought Sam home and his wandering days ended.

Sam became a happy couch. My daughter had nowhere to ride him and no one to ride him with (poor planning on our part, absolutely) but she delighted in going out to the field with a book, climbing on Sam's back and lying down on him to read while he grazed. He was a very happy boy and she was a very happy girl. Sebastian lumbered around with Sam and the idyllic scene was right out of a picture book.

But as I told you, the ending is bittersweet. My husband's contract wasn't renewed; we had to sell the house. I tried to hold on to Sam by boarding him at a local stable but the conditions there were awful and the other horses picked on him. He got sick. I nursed him back to health but the message was clear. For Sam's happiness, I had to let him go. My heart was breaking.

I found a rescue organization that promised to either find him a good home or keep him forever. My daughter's heart was broken. Sam climbed onto that trailer and I knew I'd done the right thing for him. A few weeks later, I heard that a girl about my daughter's age had adopted him. They had a farm. He had company. She loved him desperately.

She wrote to my daughter, wanting to make contact, to talk about Sam. My daughter couldn't write back. It's taken years; she'd finally like to talk to that girl, now that both of them are young women. Sam is most certainly gone; he wasn't young.

"I wanted to hear about him, I wanted to go see him. But I just couldn't," she says. And I understand.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Donkeys and Other Pets

I've been on my own for going on two weeks now - KB went to a gig and expected to be home this weekend. Instead, he's going to be snowed in in North Carolina - perhaps until spring if their reputation for snow removal there lives up to its billing.

I was about to go browse the pets for adoption page again to fantasize about adopting a puppy (timing is wrong but damn!) and found the picture above here. It reminded me of Sebastian.

I have no pictures of Sebastian. He was a small gray donkey we adopted as a companion for our horse, Sam. Yes, we had a horse, too. It was a rather insane time in my life.

I've lived the farm life, I've trudged through the snow to break the ice on water buckets, seen the horses' breath condensing in the cold winter air. And I've had a donkey.

Sam was the world's sweetest horse but he was having trouble adjusting to his new life as a pet. He'd come from a large lesson barn with lots of company. He kept breaking loose and running home - a rather dangerous occupation as he had to trot across a county road. He did it twice.

Up the road from us was a farm that was home to a traveling circus. They had elephants, camels, giraffes. And they had animals used in a petting zoo. I figured they might have a donkey that we could buy as a new buddy for Sam.

I'm not going to get into my opinion of circuses and petting zoos. This isn't a soapbox story. The owner seemed like a nice enough fellow who was fond of his animals and most of them were in good shape. But when I explained my mission he took me into a barn to look at a sad, droopy, emaciated old donkey.

"This is Sebastian," he told me. "He's the oldest donkey here. He's my favorite. But he's getting old and he's not happy. We can't take him with us anymore. He's lonely. He doesn't eat. If I could find him a good home, I'd give him away for free."

I scratched Sebastian's dirty ears and spoke to him softly. He didn't react.

"He's a good old fellow," the owner assured me. "He deserves a good retirement."

Always a sucker for a sad story, I agreed. The owner said he'd drop the donkey off later that afternoon.

By evening, we owned a donkey.

Sebastian had a small, donkey-sized stall across the aisle from Sam. The gate seemed secure, though it wasn't the Fort Knox-type contraption we'd rigged to keep Sam from breaking down the door when he'd been in Houdini mode.

The next morning at five ayem, I woke to an ungodly braying.


Nobody tells you the worst part of a donkey's song is the part where he keeps singing while he inhales for the next line. Yikes.

So I bundled up while the family slept and fed the two roommates. Sam was looking at Sebastian with a dubious expression. Sebastian was looking downright hungry.

The days turned into a routine. Sebastian screamed - I mean sang - every morning at five. He learned that there was no point continuing endlessly - I'd be there around seven. Everyone ate. I turned them out in the field and the two new roommates avoided each other. Once in a while, Sebastian would sidle over toward Sam, then Sam would try to kick him. Sometimes Sam got curious. Then Sebastian would kick him.

It wasn't exactly a lovefest, but they didn't try to kill each other, either.

Sebastian began to put on weight. The constant brushing from me, from the kids, began to make a difference. His coat started gleaming. He began to get a feisty look in his eye. Once in a while he trotted right underneath Sam's stomach as Sam was grazing. Sam's eyes would roll.

Then Sebastian figured out how to open his gate. I showed up one morning fearing something was wrong; I realized I hadn't woken to the usual Donkey Serenade. Was he dead?

When I opened the barn door, Sebastian greeted me with a friendly head butt. He's broken out of his stall, knocked over the can holding the feed, and binged.

I was terrified; if a horse does that, it can be fatal. Their digestion just can't handle overeating. Donkeys, apparently, are made of tougher stuff. Not only did it not bother Sebastian, he enjoyed it so much he began to make a habit of it.

No matter how we tried to rig his door so he couldn't get out, he did. He was getting positively fat. He was sassy. It was, in a very annoying way, totally delightful.

Then he started breaking out of the pasture. Sam's escapes had ended as soon as Sebastian arrived. Now he watched Sebastian go, apparently unable to squeeze through a donkey-sized space in the electric fence.

We didn't know he was gone til the phone rang. It was our neighbor.

"I think your donkey is in our backyard. My wife is in hysterics; she's convinced it's a coyote."

I've never figured out that one, but it was indeed Sebastian, happily munching on their perfectly manicured grass and leaving a large, steaming memento for them.

The story has a bittersweet ending. We were forced to give up the house, the horse. Sam went first to a rescue farm, then the home of a young girl who loved him. My daughter and I grieved - we still do.

I had to find a home for Sebastian. We found a kindly older couple who desperately wanted a donkey because he'd grown up with one. They put Sebastian in a car with them and drove away. She called me later to say that a tear fell from his eye as they left. I felt like the worst kind of traitor.

But I called and I checked on him from time to time.

Sebastian had found a wonderful home. He bonded with the family dog, trotted around their back door and learned a new trick.

"When he's lonely, when he's bored, he comes up on the deck and bangs his hoof against the patio door," she told me. "He's broken through the screen three times but we just love him to death."

Sebastian lived there for a couple of more years, fat, happy and very sassy, and died peacefully of old age.

I'm glad I was part of his life.

A Lie Is Violence Against The Mind

I don't know where that phrase came from, but I remember it struck me when I first read it. A lie creates a false reality, a papier mache world that the liar knows to be a fake. Liars creates the lie to protect themselves from discomfort; it's not that at all - it's this! We've all done it. But when we do it I don't think any of us understand what we do.

It's been on my mind; I've had to think about this while serving on a grand jury, listening to people tell what they swear is the truth. Sometimes two peoples' versions of the truth bear absolutely no resemblance to each other. Then I have to try to identify the lie.

As I've said before, I'm not good at it. I'm gullible in the extreme. I trust people. I don't consider that a virtue; it's a handicap. A certain healthy skepticism is required in this world, an understanding of human nature and our willingness to deceive others and even ourselves when the truth feels just too uncomfortable.

I wish gullibility wasn't a handicap. I wish there was no need for healthy skepticism. I have lied - white lies to spare someone else's feelings, lies of convenience (a mental health day called a sick day), "harmless" prevarications. But I have come to understand that even those venial sins are a form of violence, a breach of trust, an assault on someone else's ability to navigate in the world.

A lie messes with the mind's reality, it creates a false picture which the deceived believes. A lie is not kind. A lie is cruel. And a lie told in an effort of self-preservation is corrosive; it will destroy the liar by eating away at his or her sense of integrity. I believe that is a major part of the puzzle of gang violence; inner city crime. Lie after lie, rationale after rationale eventually eats away at a person's sense of value, sense of integrity.

It's true on the streets, it's true in relationships, it's true for parents, for children, for lovers, for friends. The truth hurts, but lies kill twice.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The State of the Union

I am gullible. I admit it. It's taken me years to realize that people often say things they don't mean. Sometimes they say things they mean at the moment and they change their minds. I honestly didn't get it. I thought when you make the effort to form words and put them out there, you meant it. But then my dad was the guy who thought if you dated a woman for more than six months you had to get engaged. I guess irrational connections are genetic. That disclaimer is necessary before I proceed.

I used to listen to Bill Clinton's speeches with awe. I didn't dislike him as a president, thought he was bright and competent, but I didn't trust him. Yet every time he spoke he won me over all over again. I'd shake my head afterwards, trying to break the spell. This is THAT guy, I'd remind myself. He's skilled at saying the right thing.

George Bush Jr. was easy. He believed what he was saying. I always believed HE believed what he said. The problem was I seldom agreed with him. His VP was quite another story - I've never seen a more sinister person than Dick Cheney and I'm convinced he not only lied with conviction but with malice.

Where does that put our new president, on the scale of credibility to the gullible?
He scored well last night. I have never sensed mendacity with this president. I believe he is just as convinced of the truth of what he says as GW was. And I agree with him.

I hope his first year in office has taught him that he must lead, and not lead by consensus. This highly partisan Congress will not achieve consensus. His call to both sides to create a new atmosphere fell on deaf ears. If he didn't expect that, he should have.

I believe the issues he highlighted - the economy, jobs, financial reform, middle class tax breaks, clean energy - are the right ones.

I could not disagree more with his inclusion of nuclear energy and that myth, "clean coal", as part of the country's new energy plan. Nuclear energy has yet to be made practical. It is not practical to have a technology that creates a waste byproduct that cannot be safely destroyed. If we build more plants, we create more nuclear waste. Are we going to clean out a state and designate it a nuclear waste dump?
Until we solve the disposal issue, nuclear power is a non-starter.

Clean coal? There is no such thing. I've looked for it. There is no supporting, independent evidence that the technology exists.

Coal, gas, oil, they're short term answers and I wouldn't invest a dime in any of them. Why put money into your Edsel when the bullet train is available? Solar, wind, geothermal, hydropower...these technologies exist and can be made even more efficient. What if our roofing material was covered with solar cells? What if each home had its own wind turbine? What if each new drinking well for each new home had a companion geothermal well? What if landscaping included a geothermal field?

Education is an issue dear to my heart. My kids are struggling to get through college despite their 4.0 averages. I can't pay their tuition. I pay the interest on loans, I pay hundreds of dollars for books every semester. In a world where a college degree is now a minimum job requirement, this is wrong. The president's limits on loan payments and an imposition of a time limit makes sense. And colleges have to be held accountable; how can they justify tuition that equals the cost of a luxury car each year?

I'm glad the president admitted he's made mistakes. He has. I hope he's learned from them. And I hope he starts flexing the muscle needed to get his agenda passed.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Recession? What Recession?

This has been puzzling me for awhile. Did you know that Bloomberg's Business Week had a recession blog? Did you know it ended back in September of 2009?

I was shocked when I read the headline: Thanks For Your Readership. What - you're done? The copy goes on to say that the effects of the recession are still reverberating through the country, but the economy is "on the upswing" and other blogs would pick up the recession stories.

The recession in America, according to Bloomberg, was over.

Recession in America by Business Week

What America are they in?

It's almost February 2010 and there are certainly signs that the economy is trying to breathe without life support. But it's gravely ill and I don't think it's getting out of the hospital anytime soon. Particularly when we haven't yet addressed many of the issues that got us here in the first place.

Wall Street's feeling much better, thank you. They're celebrating with big bonuses.
That cracking sound you hear? The spines of the rest of us, upon whom they're reclining as they feast. The collapse hasn't slowed for us nor has any of the weight been removed. Hell, we can't even get a break on health care costs.

The state of the union should be interesting. It seems our new president is realizing that his centrist, keep the peace approach isn't going to fly. He can't make friends with the GOP, the legislature is in partisan lockdown, and he's not going to get any meaningful reform passed by trying to play nice.

I sympathize. I want everyone to like me, too. But they won't. And at some point you have to grow up, admit to yourself that you can't win everyone over and sometimes you just have to take a stand you believe in, even if it's unpopular.

So I'm not joining the ranks of the people who are throwing in the towel on this administration. I'm ready to get behind him if he's traveling in a direction I think turns us toward not only recovery but sustainability.

But it's comforting to know the recession's over. Bloomberg would know, wouldn't they?

Monday, January 25, 2010

An American Tragedy

This sylvan, romantic view of rural America may be your vision of a dairy farm. A far less pretty picture exists today and it was illustrated by the death of a New York dairy farmer.

Dean Pierson will be buried this week. Police say he was a troubled man. But people who knew him, fellow farmers, say his despondency was in no small part a result of the crisis that every small dairy farm has been living with for the past year.

Pierson left a note on the barn door, telling whoever found it not to come in, to call the police. Police say he killed his 51 milk cows, the cows that he milked every morning and every night. Then he turned the gun on himself.

He spared fifty others; heifers and calves who wouldn't suffer if he wasn't there to milk them every day.

It's not an isolated incident. Another dairy farmer in Maine, one who's desperately scrambling to market a new independent label, Moo Milk, after he and his neighbors were dumped by Hood, said there have been other farmer suicides in Maine. He says he's heard of similar stories in California. A New York hotline for farmers reports suicides are up.

The few milk distributors who control the market are showing a profit. Supply is down, gas prices are down, too. But dairy farmers are actually losing money - it costs them more to produce milk than they can sell it for.

I come from a farm family; my mom grew up on a farm. My cousin still farms, though it's become a very different world and he now plows hundreds of acres that he doesn't own.

I hate factory farms; they're inhumane, they unsafe, they're unsustainable. I do not believe that "milk does a body good". But I am so sorry for those few farmers who are trying to continue a lifestyle they've loved, that many of them have learned from their fathers, their grandfathers, for generations.

My condolences go out to Dean Pierson's family. His widow told the local paper she's hoping she can keep the farm going. I understand. It's the life she knows; it's the life her husband loved.

Something is very wrong. Farmers will tell you the problem is they're regulated while the market is flooded with milk from overseas that isn't regulated at all. Experts will tell you there's hardly anyone who understands milk pricing anymore.
Legislators call for an anti-trust investigation of the handful of companies that control the entire industry. Critics will say the government's subsidies have ruined the farmer.

I don't know the answer. But I do know that the problems led one farmer to such despair that he killed himself and his cows.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Broken Down By the Side of the Internet Highway

I am in mourning for my closest professional relationship. My friend, my companion who shares my days, the only other member of this small, home office team, has died.

My work computer, my link to the home office, my link to the working world, unexpectedly keeled over and croaked.

It was a shock. It had been slowing down, getting a little cranky, but I didn't think it was dying. I'd tried virus scans. I scanned for malware religiously. But I found no reason for its increasingly clumsy performance. Maneuvers it once managed with deft grace were now done with lurching desperation.

So I took it to the doctor. I shut it down, unplugged it and carried it gently to the car, promising that a good checkup would be all it needed and we'd be back to work the next day.

The phone rang.

"It's the motherboard," the PC doctor said. "It's fried. I can't even get it to boot up."

"But you can fix it, right?" I asked incredulously.

"Nope. I can save your data but this unit is toast. It's built to be obsolete within a couple of years and this one didn't even last that long."

It's toast? My little PC buddy won't be coming back? He was so young!

Without a computer, I cannot work. It's that simple. Everything I do depends upon a computer. So I'm spending this work day finding a replacement, picking up a loaner that will hopefully allow me to get my work done until my new co-worker arrives. But you can't build a relationship with a temp, and it's going to take awhile before the new PC settles in and we are comfortable together.

I anthropomorphize electronics and technology - I admit it. I don't name them like I name my car, but I certainly develop relationships with the things I use every day.

So my old co-worker is gone, his data retrieved and his little chip brain quiet. I'll spend the weekend trying to make a polite relationship with the temp, and I'll be waiting to see what my new co-worker will be like.

I hope he or she is friendly. It'd be just awful to have to spend all day with someone difficult to get along with.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Madam Foreperson Or Learning to Lead

I expected jury duty to be a learning experience. What I didn't expect was that it would force me to take a look at myself.

Why did I even agree to do it? I had a feeling that I owed it to society, that I'd been able to skip it all my life for legitimate reasons, but those reasons were gone. So I was being "good".

That immediately put me in conflict with my sense of obligation to my employer, knowing that missing two days of work every week for eight weeks was going to create some headaches for people already juggling as hard as they can. If I missed work, if I was "good", I was going to be "bad."

Uh oh. The conflict's already in full swing.

Fast forward to the day the jury is selected. I'm in. Now I'm stuck. And then the judge flips through the cards and selects the people who'll be "in charge" - quotes around those two words, please.

I hear my name. "Would you be willing to be the foreperson?" As my brain locks down in complete shock, I hear myself agree.

Foreperson? I'm going to be in charge?

I'm perfectly comfortable being in charge: I've raised two children, I've taught school, I've run committees. But give me half an opportunity and I'll gladly sit back and let someone else run the show. I'm perfectly okay with being part of the group.

But I've just agreed to be foreperson, which implies a responsibility for moving a discussion along, for making sure deliberations are efficient and complete, for making sure everyone who wants to speak, can.

That little inner show off who thinks she can do it better than everyone has just smacked the humble, self-effacing worker bee right out of the room.

It's been an interesting look at myself, this jury duty assignment. I've had to admit that my self-doubts were unfounded; all the jurors seem very happy with the way things are being done. We've had productive, efficient deliberations and it's been done in a respectful, open-minded atmosphere. That's due far more to the 22 other people on this jury than to anything the foreperson is doing.

I've had to confront my own lingering adolescent problems with authority, I've had to question that authority when it seemed to be overstepping its bounds. I've found myself questioning my reactions to witnesses, noticing when I was relating rather than listening, or simply listening when I should be trying to relate.

I've seen worlds within my world, cultures that I don't live in, environments that create problems that seem inescapable. And it's changing the way I see some of the stories I cover.

Jury duty - that little summons form is nuisance mail that most of us wish we'd never see. But after a couple of weeks, I am forced to admit that it's a fascinating experience on many, many levels. If you let it, it can give you insight into far more than just the criminal justice system.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Tainted Tylenol...Children's Aspirin...Pain Relievers

This got lost in the Haiti headlines and I just want to make sure everyone's aware and passes it on.

There's been a massive recall of Tylenol products...Tylenol, Motrin, Benadryl, St. Joseph's Aspirin for Children and Rolaids. Bottom line, if it smells funny, don't take it.

Seventy people got sick and the FDA's traced it back to a chemical that apparently leached into the products from the pallets they sat on.

Johnson and Johnson's getting slammed for not acting fast enough - it took the FDA to force the recall because the company said the number of complaints was "small".

The odor was first reported in 2008...and the FDA wasn't told about it until an entire year later. The FDA is not pleased and its told the company in no uncertain terms. The agency appears to be flexing muscles it hasn't used in a very long time.

An internet search shows that the United Arab Emirates, which got some of the drugs in question (along with the Americas and Fiji), still knew nothing of the recall this weekend.

Amazing that the company was so lax, as it brings back memories of another Tylenol scare - the 1982 cyanide contamination.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti Brings Out Our Best..and Worst

The public reaction to the Haiti earthquake confirms my belief in humanity's basic decency. Donations are pouring in to various charities. If you're still unsure of where to donate, I've heard Partners in Health is an excellent choice - they were already well established in Haiti with clinics and staff and were able to immediately respond. Doctors Without Borders, although also a fine organization, is said to have had just one clinic and it was destroyed in the I think for this situation PIH is a better choice.

You can donate to the Red Cross by texting 'Haiti' to 90999 to donate $10, through links on various sites, even through the White House. Text ‘Yele’ to 501501 to donate $5 to Yele Haiti, Wyclef Jean's foundation for Haiti. The donations are pouring in.

If you want a ground's eye view of what's happening, this man's entries on Twitter are compelling.

Frederick Dupoux on Twitter

Haiti was already a devastated country, a crisis we all knew about but managed to ignore. Margaret Trost, head of the What If Foundation, told me the people in the village where her foundation concentrates are so poor that they were eating dirt. Literally eating dirt for the few nutrients it contains.

Haiti was a country that did something amazing; its slaves threw off their shackles and won their independence. But it came at a high cost. France demanded a massive yearly payment or it threatened to come and reclaim its slaves. Haiti's been paying ever since. It's had a series of corrupt governments. Its lush farmland and forests have been decimated, leaving the land barren and forcing Haiti to rely on expensive food imported from other countries. The people cannot afford that food.

So this earthquake is just a massive hand slamming down a country already desperate and dying. The fact that the world's attention is now there, that global compassion is being directed at a people who may well end up losing as many as a hundred thousand people, is wonderful.

I'm less impressed with our media. It has sprung into action, as it always does, bringing hordes of reporters and camera crews to document the disaster for the folks back home. Does each network need a crew of a dozen? Aren't they using up precious commodities - gasoline, water, food? Their reports certainly contribute to our understanding of the depth of the crisis, but do we need ALL of them?

And worse, how about the reporter who brags, "I witnessed an amputation today, an amputation done with only a local anesthetic, while the person who was trapped under rubble was awake." There's something about the way it was reported that turned my stomach. She was caught up in the "I was there!" mentality and lost her humanity. It was her phrasing, not so much that she was there, a sense that she'd detached herself so far that these horrors were just "news".

And then there are Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh. I've seen the videos. Robertson has lost his mind. "They made a deal with the devil. True story." Really, Pat? True story? Pull the plug on this man. He's gone over the edge.

Limbaugh's hatred of everyone but Conservative White America was blatant. "We've already contributed to Haiti. It's called the Income Tax." Apparently we aren't supposed to reach out to suffering people if they're not us. He made other comments that were offensive, yet I could almost understand them if I attempted to view them from his fear-filled, hate-spewing viewpoint. But not that comment, not the one that makes it clear his initial reaction was that we have no business spending another dime to attempt to help a nation that is dying.

This is hate. This is what it looks like. It tries to turn a human tragedy into a political, ideological debate.

And meanwhile thousands of Haitians are digging through the rubble, hoping to find the people they love.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Dear Mr. President, Why Is NY Doing the Heavy Lifting on Bank Bonuses?

And here's his response. It's the right attitude, but I would far rather see massive bank regulation reform and finance industry reform. This smacks of just another fee/tax/fundraiser.

Petition to impose new fee on banks.

Dear Mr. President,

I live in New York, home of Wall Street. And my attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, has told the nation's biggest banks and financial firms that he wants an answer by February 8th about their plans for bonuses for fiscal year 2009. They're "considering his request."

According to the Wall Street Journal, "On a conference call with reporters, Mr. Cuomo said his office sent letters Monday to eight banks and Wall Street firms that received bailout funds in 2008 under the U.S. government's Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. The TARP money has since been repaid.

The attorney general said he is seeking details on the compensation paid by the banks for 2009, as well as information on how the compensation and bonus plans were determined and the scope and magnitude of lending by those firms."

Where are you?

Politico reports that Barney Frank's House Financial Services Committee is preparing to look into those bonuses and compensation packages.

What are you doing? You authorized the bailout, convinced that it was necessary to prevent a total economic collapse.

I'm not saying you were wrong. I just don't know. But what is clear now is that happy days are here again for the authors of this recession and they're using taxpayer money to pay themselves handsomely for their performance.

They're getting grilled by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, but meanwhile, those bonus checks are being cut.

The people whose money they're using are jobless or underemployed. They're retirees whose retirement savings are gone. They're people who are losing their homes.

We the People are paying those bonuses, Mr. President. Our grandchildren will be paying for them.

We elected you to represent us. Our only power, other than a mass protest, a citizens' shut down, a refusal to participate, to keep those wheels turning, is you.

We are angry. We are frustrated. And we are counting on you to represent us, to put a halt to this obscenity.

Do the job you swore to do. If your advisors tell you it's not politically wise, then choose not to be wise.

This is very simple. What they're doing is wrong. Stop them.

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Everyday People Truly Are Amazing

If you put 23 ordinary people in a room, told them that their decisions would have major impact on someone's life, then left them alone to talk, would you expect it to work?

That's our grand jury system and I must confess that I had my doubts. We've all sat at meetings where one person monopolized the agenda, either droning on and on or asking questions that clearly had nothing to do with the issue being discussed. I figured that's what a grand jury would be like.

I was wrong.

I'm sitting on a grand jury, having finally run out of reasons why I couldn't do it when that notice came in the mail. I tried, believe me. I went in carrying my daughter's copy of "Eating Animals", hoping I'd be considered a radical vegan liberal and rejected. They didn't care. (Read it, by the way. We should all know what's in the meat we feed our children and how it's created. It's not the way you picture it and it's only allowed because we're in denial.) Back to the grand jury.

After three days of work, I'm surprised at the consistently clear thinking, the intelligent questioning, the focus on the issue and the refusal to be sidetrack that I'm seeing from every member of this jury. We're a diverse group - all ages, all races, residents of small cities and people from the country.

We've heard cases so complex we've needed pages of notes to keep up. We've had to have the finer points of law explained to us. Let's just consider drunk driving. There are plenty of fine points - a law that applies if you refused to take a breathalizer test. Another set that applies if you take it, how badly you fail, a subset that applies to who's in the car with you, even a myriad of variations for all the various substances you might be taking.

I, for instance, didn't know that if you're taking a prescription medication with drowsiness cautions and you drive - and you're pulled over, you can be charged. It makes sense, I know, but somehow I never connected those dots. So even if your medication never bothered you before, you 'd better think twice about driving a car if the bottle warns you not to operate machinery while taking it.

That's just an example. Think of anything that's illegal and trust me: there are dozens of variations that apply to the basic charge. We're learning it all on the fly.

But I've watched 23 of us wade through all the distinctions on several different issues, discuss them briefly and intelligently, and come to conclusions that seem rational and measured. Maybe that doesn't surprise you but it honestly surprised me.

I've heard the same evidence as the other jurors and then been amazed by questions that indicated they'd zeroed in on something I didn't even notice. And it isn't one really smart juror - they're questions coming from every part of the room.

Maybe it's all the police and courtroom dramas. Maybe television has trained us how to think like investigators. Or maybe a group of people can be a lot more effective than we sometimes give them credit for.

I expected sitting on a jury to be an interesting experience. I knew I'd learn something. What I didn't expect was to have my faith in humanity's intelligence and basic decency so strongly confirmed.

We'd all rather be doing something else. We'd all rather be somewhere else. And every single person among those twenty three everyday people is taking this responsibility very seriously; trying very hard to listen, to understand, to make judgements based on what the court expects of us.

None of us can talk about the cases we've heard; we'll never be able to explain what went on. But the process, despite some pretty obvious inefficiencies, works.

And in a world where it seems that so many of our systems are just not working, it's a real comfort.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Now That's Damned Challenging To My Ears

Do you remember the Walker Brothers? "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore"?

I was feeling pretty droopy and spent part of Saturday afternoon watching "30th Century Man", the Bowie-produced film about Scott Walker, the voice of the Walker Brothers.


First, take a listen to Walker's later stuff and tell me that's not the sound that Bowie became famous for. The film struck me as Bowie's apology - "Sorry, Scott. I stole your sound but you're still my hero."

But keep listening. And prepare to have your mind splintered. It was interesting watching with a musician, as Walker's later music doesn't bother him in the least.

"I like it," KB said.

I can't say my reaction was that simple. Walker's music is to your ears what Jackson Pollack's art is to your eyes. It doesn't follow the rules. It's got nothing to hang on to, no familiar rhythm or structure that lets you relax and listen.

It's the kind of music that takes a category I refer to as "music for the mentally disturbed" to a whole new level. It's uncomfortable. It's compelling. I don't even know if I like it, or if I can like it, but I sure as hell recognize that it's a remarkable leap, a real effort to be innovative, to turn tradition on its head and smack its ass.

KB has also introduced me to Peter Hammill - and why no one's made a movie about him we don't know. Van der Graaf Generator? Ring a bell?

Hammill is also challenging, but a little more accessible. What he shares with Walker is that full tilt, blood on the microphone, nothing held back level of performance and a remarkable voice.

We saw him live at an intimate little setting in our town and I must tell you that his encore, where he simply stood on the balcony above us and sang an a cappella lullabye was one of the most incredible musical performances I've ever experienced.

I'd be interested - how does this music hit people? And what determines who loves it and who hates it?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Year I Really Learn Another Language

I grew up knowing people who were multi-lingual. My father could speak English, read Latin, and could speak a bit of French and learned Serbo-Croation before he learned his native English. His mother spoke English, Serbo-Croation, French and Italian. After she retired, she went to breakfast every morning at a nearby diner where the staff was teaching her Greek.

I always wanted to speak another language. I had a great ear for it. Yet I was bored senseless in school; French was a drag, Spanish was stupid. The languages were great, but we were never really taught to converse. We learned isolated sentences, we learned to write. I wanted to speak.

But I must accept some of the blame as well. As soon as it got difficult, as soon as we got into the weird tenses and strange conjugations, I tuned out. So I never got anywhere.

It was different when I knew I was going to Italy. It was my son's eighteenth birthday. It was our big blowout, probably the last trip he'd take with his mother. We spent a week in Italy with one night in Paris. I didn't bother brushing up on my French; I figured I knew enough to get by and so did he.

But I borrowed Italian CDs from the library and I listened to them faithfully every day. I practiced. I learned the basics necessary for travel. And to my great surprise, it worked.

We arrived in Rome and were instantly plunged under a torrent of Italian. I heard no English at all. My son had even less Italian than I did, so it fell to me to make sense of the babble around us, to arrange the car rental, to read the signs on the highways. And I blessed those library tapes for a solid week.

I asked directions and understood what I was told. I went into a village grocery and managed to say, "I'm sorry, my Italian is terrible but I want to buy some eggs." Well, actually, I didn't know the word for "egg". But I mimed the size and shape and the lovely people in the grocery said, "Ah! Uovo!" "Si! Grazie! Uovo!"
I strolled down that beautiful little village's street with a sense of having conquered the world. I'd overcome my own self-consciousness, I'd attained a working knowledge of a language I'd known absolutely nothing about.

From there, it wasn't a big step to the purchase of train tickets to Rome ("biglietti di andata e ritorno") and shopping at the local supermarket. There were plenty of mistakes (including the midnight conversation on the security speaker at the Villa Borghese, when my Italian suddenly deserted me as I tried to explain that our car was locked in after hours) but overall, I did it!

So this year, I want to finally learn a language so well that I can even dream in it.
My first love is Italian. My second choice would be the language of my father's family; Serbo-Croation. But I am determined to learn this time and I know that the only way for me to learn is to have people I can speak with. I do not learn languages from books. I don't know anyone who speaks Italian. My few remaining relatives who speak Serbo-Croation acknowledge it's become a family dialect after all these years. They call it Nashki - ours - and they admit if they tried to teach me, there's a good chance I wouldn't be learning the language now spoken in the former Yugoslavia.

But I do know a lot of people who speak German. And that makes my choice simple: I'm going to learn to speak German.

My girlfriend, who learned it during a year she spent in Germany with her two young children, is very enthusiastic. She's even thinking of putting together a dinner with all her German speaking friends where I can just sit and soak it in.

KB's mother is a native German speaker. She's willing to help me when I get confused.

My brain's not firing on all cylinders right now, but that's no excuse not to begin.

I'll keep you posted.

(Just for fun, I may still try to pick up a little Nashki, too. What the heck. I still remember how to say "kiss me" thanks to my grandmother. Poljubi mej (spelling may be wrong but I'm certain of the pronunciation). And "this is a pencil." Ovo je lapis. I could do better, don't you think?)

Friday, January 8, 2010

My Inner Warzone - Drugs Vs. Lyme

I mentioned I've had an alien invasion going on in my body for the past six months. Lyme disease snuck in without me noticing (apparently it learns - I spotted it quickly the first time and squashed it flat). In six months, I'm sure it's managed to go anywhere it wants to, and I know that heart and brain are two of its favorite vacation resorts.

The battle has begun: I'm on a heavy duty antibiotics as well as a horse-sized weekly dose of vitamin D. And believe it or not, I feel worse than I have in six months. I'm assuming that means the soldiers I've just deployed against the Lyme hoardes have found the enemy and they're on the attack. I picture them, the tough looking Antibiotic Brigade, armed to the teeth and wiping out everything in their path (including all the natural flora that I'm going to have to replenish), clashing with the evil, parasitic Lyme spirochetes. The Lyme troops use me for their fuel, tapping into whatever I've got to recharge them when they get tired. Thus the need for a massive strike by the Antibiotic Brigade: their only hope it to consistently overwhelm the Lyme Hoardes. I expect I pay the price either way.

I sat through a full day of jury duty yesterday and during a short break, caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. My eyes were so glassy I'm surprised no one gave me a field sobriety test. I got home and moved from couch to chair and back to couch. KB, wonderful man that he is, waited on me hand and foot. I fell into bed, convinced I'd crash within moments. But that's the cruel part.

I laid there for better than an hour, wide awake. I closed my eyes, figuring at least I'd give them a break. But sleep eluded me as it has for the past several days. Why is that?

It happens to all of us. We're exhausted. We're drained. We're dead on our feet. We fall into bed and something says, "Nah. Stay awake a while longer." Try as we might, it takes hours sometimes to finally fall asleep.

I've read the books. Consciously relax your body. Let your mind drift. Focus your mind on something banal. Drink warm milk, herb tea. Get warmer. Get colder. Phooey.

But I finally slept, I feel slightly better (could that be because I can work from home today?) and it's the weekend. Hope springs eternal.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Civics 101

I've been called for jury duty before. I lived in another state and I had young children. I begged off with great happiness.

Those children voted in the last presidential election. So when I got the latest notice, I had a feeling I wasn't going to be able to justify begging off yet again.

Besides, I told myself, if I do happen to be selected, it'll be interesting. I don't know much about the legal system.

That may seem like a shocking admission from someone who is a professional journalist, but I only need to know as much as is necessary to understand a case. And lawyers are only too happy to explain when I don't quite understand the fine points.

So I showed up at the county courthouse this week with my invitation, Jonathan Safron Foer's "Eating Animals" for reading material (secretly hoping they'd reject me if they thought I was a vegan) and a notebook.

And what I discovered was how tremendously much I don't know.

My summons was for a grand jury. I've reported on grand jury indictments but I really didn't understand what it meant.

A trial jury, or petit jury, is the one you see on all the television shows. They sit, day after day, and listen to evidence and arguments in one case. Then they deliberate and come to a unanimous verdict. They have to.

A grand jury is a group of 23 people who meet a couple of days a week for a period of time - in my case, eight weeks. They'll hear as many as eight cases a day, listen to testimony and evidence and then vote whether that case should go to court. If 12 of them vote yes, the grand jury hands down an indictment and the case goes to trial.

Defense attorneys can't speak at these hearings. Attorneys from the District Attorney's office present all the evidence and question witnesses. But here's where it gets really different - grand jurors can ask questions, too.

So my learn-by-doing adventure in the American justice system is about to commence. Grand jurors cannot talk about any of the cases they hear. That would violate confidentiality.

But what I can do is discuss what I learn about our court system. I already know what I can tell you more about next time - drunk driving.

Until then, it's back to the courtroom for me.

Avast, Ye Scurvy Dogs...Or Why I Feel Like A Pirate

Forget Orlando Bloom. Forget Keira Knightly. Forget Johnny Depp (if you can). I now know more about the real pirate experience than I care to.

Let us back up. Three years ago I was diagnosed with Lyme Disease. Oh yeah, test came back positive on the first try. Swollen joints, flu symptoms, fatigue, everything but the bullseye. A month of antibiotics later, I guess I was cured.

This past summer was a tick nightmare here. A walk from the house to the car would result in a tick in my hair. Mowing the yard meant not only picking off a tick, but fighting off ground bees. It was just hideous. But nobody got past my screening system. Until I went to California.

After the plane trip of death, we had dinner, fell into bed and I got up the next morning to prepare for the workshop I was part of. In the shower, I found a tick. Dead, he was, but still hanging on to my hip.

"Ew! Ew, ew ew!!!" What was I to do? I was a very long way from home and wouldn't be back for three days. I decided to wait to see a doctor. I flushed the little bastard down the toilet.

Back at home, I went to the doctor.

"It won't show up immediately," they said. "But we can put you on a three day antibiotic regimen and that should head it off."

Sounded good to me. I did it. I was supposed to go back and get a blood test to be sure but I felt okay and I was BUSY!

Fast forward three months. I'm now a confirmed vegetarian instead of a part time one, I'm not feeling well at all and I'm thinking maybe I'm seriously anemic. I break down and get that long overdue blood test.

"You," the doctor informs me when she calls, "have Lyme. You've probably had it for six months. You've got seven out of ten indicators. Plus you're so low on vitamin D I'm going to put you on a prescription strength supplement."

"How'd I manage that?"

"You need dairy, meat and sunshine."

Check, check and check. None of the above in my life lately.

I looked it up. Guess what vitamin D deficiency results in? Rickets.

Bone softness, deformity, the kind of ailments the pirates suffered from after long months at sea.

So of course now that I know what's wrong, I feel worse than ever. I'm exhausted, cranky, stressed and a little worried about what six months of spirochetes in my system have done to me.

But it's kind of cool, too. I might have rickets. Argh!

One friend informed me that she thought I should have a peg leg. I'm going to try on an eye patch.

And just think - if I wanted to, I could probably develop scurvy next!

Move over, Capt Jack Sparrow. There's a new seadog in town. Avast!

Maybe I'll start being more faithful with those multivitamins.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Air Travel 2010 Style

Flying was an adventure when I was a kid. My mother kept the little TWA wings pin, just like the ones the stewardesses were wearing, which they gave me during a flight I can't remember. I was damned cute when I was little.

Flying is a total pain in the neck now. Why do we even do it?

The security is tighter than ever, thanks to terrorists. If you're heading to the US from overseas, good luck to you. Show up early.

You're finally on the plane, you contort yourself into a position a yogi would admire to hoist your bag into the overhead bin, and that's when the fun really begins.

KB and I flew to LA this past summer, so I'm speaking as one who's been there fairly recently. And it's probably worse on shorter flights.

It was awful. The seats are small, there's no leg room. A few lucky souls got a window and the rest of us sat, imprisoned, and hoped to god the trip didn't take longer than it's supposed to.

That can happen. We sat on the tarmac in NY for almost two hours.

"Washing the runways," the pilot explained.

"There's a wombat in the cargo hold," he said later.

"I'm just feeling kind of sad right now," he said a bit later.

Turns out Air Force One was landing shortly before we were due to take off. They couldn't tell us, of course. Who knows what madness we might have plotted from our strapped in position in the middle of a runway.

The President finally landed and we took off. My butt had already gone numb. And we had six more hours to go.

They've jammed more seats into planes than there used to be, the seats themselves are uncomfortable and sometimes don't work - it's really fun to fly for six hours in a seat locked in the upright position.

We bought our tickets at the same time, yet weren't assigned adjoining seats (in both directions!), so we had to negotiate with other passengers to be together. If you're going to be smooshed, it's nice to at least know one of the people who's crushing you.

Food? No. Sorry. Crackers. Peanuts. Soda, juice, coffee, water. They're still free.

Magazines? Just the one that the airline puts out itself. And those are probably so germ-infested you shouldn't touch them anyway.

Every time I get on a plane the person next to me has the plague. Or whooping cough. Or smallpox. Seriously. The woman on the flight out to LA was clearly going to die. I expected to see her left lung land in her lap at any moment.

There's a movie. We had to pay for the earphones to hear it. The earphones are painful. Half an hour was the most I could stand. Plus the movie is always the most insipid, harmless piece of fluff or worse, the movie that won the prize for stupidity at this year's Oscars.

Now you can't have a book or magazine out during the last hour of flight. Oh that's great.

When we landed, when at last they released us, I was so stiff I had to ask for some WD-40 for my spine.

"That's not included," I was told. "That'll be five dollars. We do not take cash."

We made the interminable walk through the terminal, the torsion in my spine increased by the weight of my carry on luggage. I have a prehistoric bag which has no wheels, so I dislocated my shoulder by the time we reached the street.

A lovely ride on a crowded airport shuttle and finally, finally we could escape.

I'd left our home looking like a perfectly normal woman. I dragged my leg behind me out of the terminal with the posture of Igor in "Young Frankenstein".

"And we have to do this again to get home?" I whined.

I always thought flying was like riding a glorified bus.

I've taken the bus to New York City several times. I can tell you the bus is FAR more comfortable.

You can keep your friendly skies. I'll budget out the extra time and drive. Or take the bus. The train. I'll walk. Anything but fly.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Delightful Discoveries - Part One

Part of relaxing and enjoying myself more this year is finding things that make me grin. There are a lot of them out there, and thanks to the Internet it's easy to find them. This is today's. I want to be in this band. Really. I do.

I spent today cleaning up, clearing out, organizing. Also highly satisfying.
But as I find things that make me laugh out loud, either with delight or just because they're funny, I'll share them.


Friday, January 1, 2010

There's Plenty - Greeting the New Year With Open Arms

I resolved to be less afraid, more confident of our survival, the generosity of the universe in 2010. Not in a woo-woo, let's sit down and chant an affirmation kind of way (though that's probably not a bad idea)but in a practical, confident, relaxed attitude that lets me recognize that things really DO work out.

This little sweetie spent almost twenty four hours curled up in the garden in front of our house this summer - I could have opened a window and reached out to pet her. And I spent the day worried. Where was her mom? Why did she leave her for so long? Did she get hit by a car? How could we help the poor little orphan? I peeked out that window at her every hour or more. She never looked worried - sometimes she got up and stretched, obviously bored with snoozing all day in the midst of the bee balm.

I went to bed a midnight with a heavy heart. Our baby was still there, still unclaimed. I read all the warnings that you must NEVER interfere, that a mother will reject her baby when she returns if it smells like humans. But what if she didn't return?

In the morning, baby was gone. No sign of trouble (believe me, I've heard trouble - that's another story and there's no missing it), no sign of injury. Mom just returned home good and late, baby hopped up and they moved on. All my worrying was for nothing.

That's my lesson for this year; things work out. Worrying changes nothing. I am not so smart that I can figure out how things will work, but they'll work just the same.

Will things change? Absolutely. That's the nature of this life. But it'll be okay. My job is to do what I do, stretch myself a little farther, try new things and enjoy the process. That's all any of us are supposed to do.

I'm going to practice acting "as if" and see if things don't fall into place a little easier than when I try to bull them into position.

First order of business - stop fretting about this book. Just write it. Stop worrying if I'm interesting enough, compelling enough, if the stories are strong enough, if I'm exposing my innards too much, if anyone will want to read it, if it'll get published, if it'll sell. All I can do right now is write it.

Second order of business - relax about money. I'm incredibly lucky to have a job and a steady income. It seems very ungrateful to not be willing to simply find a way to live within those limitations for now. There's no saying that standard of living can't improve dramatically, and if I relax and do my part it probably will. For now, I will appreciate that fact that there are ways for me to be comfortable within the present limits, giving me room to explore those possibilities for growth.

Final order of business - let go of the past. The past decade was so traumatic, so full of wrenching change and loss that I've spent most of that time trying to figure it all out, to admit my angers and resentments and feelings of guilt and remorse. Time to move into the letting go phase. I can look around and really see now, see the terrific guy I love, my two very different and amazing children who are now young adults, see the people from my past and the people I know now and appreciate them. I'm sick of being in my own way.

That includes all the problems in this world. They'll hit me, I know. I'll react. But I'm going to try to remember that things will, eventually, work out. I'll look for the positive things to help move that along.

The 2010 decade, for me, is about finally allowing myself to be happy, just as I am, just as things are. It all really IS okay.