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Thursday, August 09, 2018

What To Do About Twitter?


I've belonged to Twitter for years but I've seldom paid much attention to it. I think my blogs do appear on my Twitter account but I'm not really sure. When I checked in recently after quite a long time, I had forgotten my password and had to request a new one.

As a column writer, I'm used to editing to make a piece precise and compact but even with the increased characters Twitter now allows, small darting statements just aren't my cup of tea. I know you can link and click onto articles but then why is that any different than any other social media platform?

I've learned to dislike Twitter even more now that so many, including our president, have weaponized it.

Recently, some social media has taken at least a lukewarm stand against the malevolence of the flat out lies of Alex Jones and his InfoWars site. I consider Jones to be a source of slander and dishonesty, part of what is dividing Americans, stoking hate. and promoting violence. Twitter has basically decided that anything goes on its platform. It isn't up to them to monitor the information they deliver to so many believers. If is is untruthful, well, that's part of free speech. They say Jones doesn't violate their standards but how lax must those standards be if InfoWars' vileness fits within them?  What in the hell would you have to do or say to be rejected?

I have been an anti-censorship proponent all my life but even in our no-limits society there have to be some lines which are too far to cross. Even the First Amendment doesn't allow you to cry fire in a crowded theater and that's essentially what Jones does. Denying that the murder of 21 first-graders at Sandy Hook ever happened crosses that line. So does the declaration that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child trafficking ring in the basement of a pizza shop (which resulted into a Jones supporter taking a gun into that shop looking for a basement that doesn't exist). So does stating  that 911 was an inside job on the part of our government. Those are all simply untruths but it is amazing how many people follow and believe this loony conspiracy theorist.

So my question to myself is what to do? Should I simply write off Twitter and delete my account or should I engage and become more active  to use my, admittedly minuscule, voice to join the fray and pit my principles against Jones and Trump?

Retreat goes against my grain so I'll probably stand and fight with no hope of making much of an impact. 

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Conquer Your Fears


I have flown many times because of my writing. I flew to New York (from Indiana) twice to appear on television shows. I flew to Youngstown, Ohio to be a keynote speaker at a Writer’s Conference. I flew to Los Angeles to appear on a show. I flew to Washington D.C. to testify before Congress because I’d written about unemployment. I was terrified every time but I went because you can’t let your fears limit you.
I was told when I first started my job that I would be expected to attend a week-long conference some time during the year.
“Where?” I asked fearfully.
They didn’t know then but when it turned out to be Minneapolis, I relaxed. Driving distance!
I know 9/11 was the onset of a fear of flying on the part of many people but I was lucky as I had long ago reached my saturation point of terror about being in a plane, so 9/11 made my phobia no worse than it had ever been.
I am the appointed person among my friends and family to drop them off and pick them up at airports. It is a favor I’ve always enjoyed doing because I like to walk happily around airports thinking, “some of these people have to get on an airplane but I don’t – ha ha!”
            I’ve never let my fear of flying stop me from doing anything I wanted to do. For instance if our work conference was in Denver, I’d stiffen my spine and go. All things being equal though, if I could get there in approximately the same amount of time via high speed rail or a Star Trek-type atomizer, you can bet that’s the way I’d do it.
            I’ve gotten anti-anxiety pills from my doctor sometimes when I’ve flown. I took one the last time I went to California and I can’t say I noticed any difference.  Sweaty palms? Check. Clenched stomach? Check. Pounding heartbeat? Check. I thought about taking two pills but I was afraid they would knock me out, causing me to miss my disembarkation destination so that I’d be groggily coming to just as the plane landed in Paraguay.
            The take-off is the most terrorizing part for me. My body goes rigid as I chant under my breath, “please, please, please,” in a personal effort to lift the plane into the air by sheer force of will.  It never feels to me that it’s going to make it as it lugs its way upward.  When it levels off, I relax the tiniest bit, going from 100 to 99.2 on the stress-ometer.
            Once when I went to Las Vegas, my seat partner looked at me very calmly and said, “I’m a young mother and I don’t want to die.” I calmly replied back, “My son is raised and I guess I could die if I had to but I’d rather not do it by falling out of the sky.” We decided the airlines should make a greater effort not to assign high anxiety passengers seats next to one another.
            I’ve heard folks complain that since the new security measures have gone into effect at airports, everything takes longer now. Exactly! I figure anything that delays the actual boarding of the plane is fine with me.  You want to remove everything in my bag and analyze it piece by piece, up to and including the individual flakes of tobacco in my cigarettes?  Hey, no problem, take your time.
            I’ve never gotten out of my seat on a plane.  I’ve gone to California without going to the bathroom for fear the redistribution of my weight will cause an imbalance that will tip the plane over.  I sit stock still, trying not to even move (not that you can move in a plane seat).
            I’ve also heard passengers complain that airline services have deteriorated so badly that the great meals you used to get have turned into a bag of 5 honey-roasted peanuts. I don’t see how anyone can have an appetite while flying anyway.  I could eat dinner on a plane and when it was over, not be able to tell you whether I’d just had filet mignon or roast of steel-belted radial.
            And I stay awake no matter how tired I am because I’m convinced the pilot needs me to help navigate.  Taking the red-eye back from Las Vegas late at night, exhausted from three days of non-stop activity, I nevertheless remained starkly wide-eyed, staring into the darkness as everyone else on the plane (probably even the captain) snoozes.  Sometimes I sort of resent the others for not helping me with the responsibility of worrying.
            I take a book on the plane but I don’t waste one I actually expect to enjoy.  I can read an entire mystery on a long flight and not have the faintest idea who did the murder.  My mind might have appeared to be concentrating on reading but in reality, it was primarily focused on the thought, “oh, my God, there are CLOUDS outside my window!”  Every fiber of my being is convinced that humans have no business being at the same altitude as CLOUDS!
 I don’t mind landing simply because the relief of knowing the trip is almost over is so huge.  Whatever is going to happen, it will happen soon.  Once we’re on the ground, I heave a sigh so heartfelt, I realize I’ve been holding my breath for 2,000 miles.
Still, the next time I get an opportunity to do something exciting, I know I’ll do it again.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

I Wish I'd Known You


This is an update to the family mystery I wrote about a few weeks ago when I discovered my mother had gotten pregnant when she was 16 and given the baby boy up for adoption. That was a secret she kept until her death.

This weekend, that boy’s two daughters came from Mississippi to see me (along with three of their daughters) .  We looked at pictures while they exclaimed over family resemblances. It had been their father’s hope to find out who his family was but he never did so my two nieces, Kristy and Kathy, took up the search after his death. They found me through DNA.

We exchanged stories about our respective parents and discovered points of reference in common. For instance, when their father was sick, the doctor told him he needed to quit smoking but he replied that he enjoyed smoking and wasn’t about to quit.

“Yes,” I said, “that settles it. He was my brother for sure!”

We think the connection to my Mom and his adoptive family was made through the church they all attended (which Mom always said was made up of “shoutin’ Baptists”. Both my grandmother and their grandparents had a particular animus for Catholics to the point that when Mom was young, she thought she’d recognize a Catholic if she saw one (horns and a tail?) She got over that, of course, in fact, my father was Catholic. Perhaps that was a common attitude back then but the virulence expressed against Catholics seemed exceptional.

We haven’t found out too much about their father’s real father. An obituary showed that he died in 1985 in the same small town in Illinois where they all lived at one time but we haven’t discovered what kind of work he did. I’d like to know if he was a prominent person in that town and thus could get away with impregnating a young girl with no repercussions when he was 17 years older and married.

Kristy and Kathy said their adoptive grandparents  never wanted anyone to know their father was adopted and never told him anything. I wonder if that’s why Mom never shared  her story? If they didn’t want her to disrupt his life and asked her to promise not to reveal it, she would have honored that promise.

This story stunned me at first, mainly because I simply could not picture my mother in that situation but we’ve found too many facts to deny it and I wouldn’t want to deny it. Kristy and Kathy, and their daughters are sweet and beautiful. We all got along great. Now I love the idea of having nieces and grand-nieces.

I gave them the portrait of Mom that was painted when she was 34. I wondered who would want it when I died. Now, it is wonderful to think it will be in a granddaughter’s  house. I gave them family pictures. My grandfather, my Uncle John, my son and their father all had exactly the same muscular build with wide shoulders and thick, strong arms.

I gave them each one of Mom’s favorite teapots so they’d have something sentimental of their grandmother’s. It give me a warm feeling to know things she loved will still be a special part of a family history.

I believe in my heart that Mom would be thrilled to know that her daughter and her granddaughter s have come together after all this time and that I finally know about her baby son.

Here’s to you, Kristy and Kathy, love you girls!

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Mom's Buried Secret


Recently, I wrote about how important it can be for writers to preserve their family history. Even events that seem mundane today will be fascinating for generations to come. Little did I know that a few short week's after I wrote that, one of my family's deepest secrets would be revealed.

When you are my age, you assume there are no more mysteries in your life. You are familiar with all the parts and pieces of your family and your history. Then something happens that leaves you shocked, excited, intrigued.

I had my DNA done. I didn’t pay much attention to it. I was hoping to find something exotic in my bloodlines – Arabic, African, Jewish, Native American. But nope, it turned out I was as white bread Caucasian as you could possibly get – mostly English, Irish, Scots and a little German. I put up the paperwork and never looked at it again.

Then a few weeks ago, a woman contacted me. She’d had her DNA done too and it came back that she and I were first cousins. Her father was adopted and had spent the last years of his life trying to discover who his parents were. He never did so she and her sister decided they would pursue the search for his sake.

She asked me if I knew of any boys in the family who’d been adopted out. I didn’t so I contacted my cousin in Illinois. She, in turn, talked to her mother, my mother’s sister, who is 90 now and the last of her generation.

My cousin came back and said, “according to Mom, Aunt Jane (MY MOTHER!) got pregnant when she was 16 and gave the little boy up for adoption in Joliet, Illinois in 1938. In the phrase favored on the internet, my first reaction was OMG! My mom! I almost couldn’t believe it but the facts indicated that it was true.

I was able to find out a little about the father of her child. He was 17 years older than her and married. That implies to me that there was some element of coercion involved. Either he totally seduced a naive young girl who’d just moved back from a homesteaded ranch in Arizona or it was assault. Either way, it was statutory rape. The town where they lived was very small. My assumption is that my mother and her family thought it would be harder on her and them to face the scandal confronting him would have stirred up than to bury it in secrecy. 

Mom died when she was 94 and she’d never mentioned this to me and neither had any other family member who probably knew. My mother’s generation was nothing if not closed-mouth about keeping their secrets. I guess my aunt figured it was all right to tell me now that Mom was gone.

The woman, Kristy, and I have stayed in touch. Her father would have been my half-brother. She and her sister are my nieces. Accepting that has required a startling reorganization in my thinking about my family and especially my mother.

Mostly this makes me wonder about my Mom. She came from a big sprawling family in a small town in Illinois I can’t see them giving a family baby to strangers so probably his adoptive parents were members of their church or someone they knew and trusted.

Did Mom ever keep tabs on him? Did she know she had two granddaughters? Why did she never tell? Was it because having an illegitimate child was so shameful to her generation? Or was it simply too painful to talk about?  She had to have known, me being the person I am, I wouldn't have been embarrassed or disappointed in her. 

In a way, I’m glad this wasn’t discovered until after Mom died. Obviously, it was extremely important to her to keep it secret. I think if it had come to light when she was alive, she’d have been totally demoralized. On the other hand, I would loved to have talked to her about it. As it is, the mystery will remain a mystery.

I have a feeling that in the future, DNA will effect many families in both positive and negative ways.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Motta Bread and Carottles

One of the valuable services writers perform is to preserve things. I'd guess at least a third of my writing students were in class because they wanted to preserve the history of their family or their church or a particular person or story.

Sometimes, what we save isn't very important in the scheme of things but nevertheless, it is worth keeping. I was reminded of that today. One of my Facebook friends told us about eating grilled peanut butter and sugar sandwiches. Most of us didn't think much of that recommendation but she said she learned to eat them from her grandfather. The family was poor and peanut butter and sugar sandwiches were cheap to make.

That reminded me of my Grammie and aunts and uncles. They ate bread with cottage cheese that they dipped in coffee. They called it Motta Bread. My God, I hadn't thought of Motta Bread in years. I don't believe it was a tradition that was carried on after the older generation passed on.

All this brought to mind Grammie's words. She practically had her own language. I think most of the words were originally German or Yiddish. It always tickled me that so many of them had to do with giving things a lick and a promise. For instance, if you swept out the kitchen but did a half-assed job, you swintzled it. Or if you ironed a blouse but didn't take many pains, you roshpeled it. A favorite faded old robe was a drunzel and a comfortable old pair of shoes were dopas.

That whole family called itself The Carottles and I think that was kind of a pidgen German version of hillbillies.

If Grammie left something, like beans cooking on the back of the stove, she let it brutzle, which was not a boil but slightly harder than a simmer.

If one of the men came home tipsy, she said the were pusufa. That was a generous term. You could be falling down but you were never drunk in Grammie's eyes but always pusufa.

I can remember crawling up in her lap. She'd pat her chest and say, "lay copesha (head)" It was the safest feeling in the world although normally she wasn't an very user-friendly grandmother. None of us kids would have dared go in her room without being invited.

They are just words, silly little words. I doubt if anyone in my family thinks of them anymore, like they don't eat Motta Bread. I'm still glad they are written down though. They are part of my family history even if no one knows them but me.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Four Goals


My editor at King Features always told me - "think about what you want to achieve with each column.

There are four main reasons, columnists write columns.

1) You want to persuade. You probably have delusions of grandeur if you think this is going to happen very often. You may actually give someone insight to a new way of thinking but if you want to change someone's political or moral philosophy, it's most like not going to happen. It's fun to debate these issues but it is rare that people can be induced to change long-held beliefs.

Perhaps you only want to persuade them to action - to vote, to adopt a pet, to support a charity. You might have more success here if they already have a positive leaning toward your suggestion.

2) You want to tell a story, hopefully, one readers haven't heard before. When I wrote about two boys who died in the Civil War, based on their letters home that had been loaned to me, I was thrilled with how those columns turned out. Those two boys had been completely forgotten in the intervening years. I was able to bring them back to life. I fell in love with them and so did my readers.

3) You simply want to provide what you believe is interesting information. After a 'possom began coming to my house, I did research on them and discovered they weren't the ugly vermin so many people think they are. They are actually rather fascinating creatures and I hoped more people would see them that way after I wrote my column. My 'possom, Cletus, still comes to visit quite often.

4) And this is probably your highest mission - you want to touch someone. When you can make a reader laugh or bring a tear to their eye, you've accomplished your goal. Sometimes, you make them cuss as they write a furious letter to you in response to what you wrote. Perhaps you bring back nostalgic memories that make them smile.

Sometimes you can accomplish two or three of your column-writing goals in one column and that is a great feeling.

When I sold real estate, my happiest moments as a writer were when I showed a house and saw one of my columns hanging on the refrigerator door. Making the effort to cut out a column and tape it to the door went beyond just enjoying them. I felt as if I had earned a trophy every time I saw one.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Memoirs: The Most Valuable Writing You Can Do.



Were you at Woodstock? Were you a soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan? Have you worked as a nurse in a trauma unit? Did you march for gay rights? Did you adopt a child? Are you a farmer?

A friend on Facebook told me today that he was bored. He has led an extremely interesting life so I tried to talk him into writing a book....not even for publication necessarily but to get the facts of his life down both for something interesting to do himself and to tell his tale to others.

In fact, I wish everyone would write a book, maybe not an actual book but a memoir of some kind detailing their memories. We think of autobiographies as being about famous people. We know a lot about the lives of our movers and shakers through history – kings and queens and presidents. But I think our lives, the lives of the ordinary people of their day, are even more fascinating.

I’ve been reading on the Wabash County Historical site about a family named Anderson who came first from Culpepper, Virginia and moved to Ohio from there. They traveled on horseback on the rough trails that passed for roads in that era, carrying their child with them. It was such a difficult trip that when they were within two miles of their destination, one of their horses died from exhaustion.

Their son then migrated to Grant County, Indiana. He arrived with a horse, saddle, bridle and thirty dollars to begin his new life. In 1847, he married and four weeks later, his log cabin was complete. He and his bride started housekeeping with a skillet, a tea kettle, one chair and a bed. The nearest town, which is now Somerset in Wabash County, had exactly two buildings at the time – a tavern and a blacksmith shop.

The Andersons prospered and eventually built a large house and raised fourteen children in it.

We know these fascinating tidbits, like what the Anderson’s took up housekeeping with, because someone bothered to write them down. Reading them now, we try to think what it would have been like to live surrounded by wilderness with only a few distant neighbors and under the roughest conditions? Who do you suppose got the one chair?  

You might say, the Andersons lived the American Dream. They started with almost nothing but they worked hard and became solid and well-to-do citizens. Do you think it is possible to do that today?  It was free land that allowed so many pioneers to succeed but we don’t have that stake now. Would many of endure that much hardship for the opportunity?  

I have a book myself, written by my mother’s cousin. It is a story of the family’s history homesteading a ranch in Arizona. She had it published and bound, making a copy for each family member. It is one of my most prized possessions.

Think how you would feel if you found papers, be they letters or a journal or a book, written to and/or by your great-grandmother or grandfather, describing the town (perhaps the one where you still live but 200 or more years ago). How did they farm then and how did they cook? What were they taught in school? Did great-grandpa fight in the Civil War? What made them happy and what did they worry about. What did they do for entertainment?

If you would be thrilled to find such a treasure, then your grandchildren and great-grandchildren would be equally as thrilled to find a trove like that from you. We take our lives for granted because they seem common but they really aren’t.....not to the generations that come after us.

I told my friend to make an outline of the natural divisions of his life – childhood, school, relationships, work, fun. Then just begin filling in the details. I told him to write down whatever he can remember. It doesn’t have to be professional, it just has to be real.

You could do the same.  Posterity will love you for it.