Friday, April 18, 2014

That's One Mystery Cleared Up

I’m feeling sad, queasy and perplexed. 

Last summer I came home from vacation to find a message from the Judicial Process Department of the sheriff’s office on my door. A long account can be found here, but the short version is that I was supposed to be served with a subpoena for a Dr. Coleslaw in a murder case, and after they had made three tries to deliver it, it was sent back to the originator per protocol. I’m not Dr. Anybody, I knew nothing about a murder, so the process server and I concluded it was all a mistake.

It occurred to me a few days later that while I honestly didn’t know anything specific about a murder, I had known someone who became a murder (and child abuse) victim, a child client of the place where I used to work. I wasn’t the child’s regular therapist, but a nagging voice in the back of my head reminded me that I may have done the child’s intake evaluation. I honestly couldn’t see how that would shed any light on the death itself, though, so I let it go.

Then the day before yesterday I heard the doorbell ring. And ring, and ring, and ring, because it was my husband ringing it, and he wanted to get back to cutting the grass before the light failed, and his leaning on the doorbell would of course make me able to exceed the speed of sound while getting to the door. I was not in a good mood when I flung it open, but cut off what I was about to say when my husband pointed to a gentleman next to him and said, “This man wants to talk to you,” before going back to the lawnmower.

I have finally trained hubby to protect me from sales calls, on the phone or in person, so I figured that wasn’t it. No, the gentleman, let’s call him Gabe*, was an investigator needing to talk to me about a murder case, specifically the case of the child I had been thinking about.

I can’t really go into any details because it involves confidential information. Let’s just say that Gabe works for the defense attorney, and his questions led me to suspect what defense strategy may be employed and why my assessment of the child’s language abilities may be pertinent to it.


I get that everyone is entitled to a defense in court. I wouldn’t want to live in a country where this was not true. I get that in a case where it is clear who committed the crime, the defense can only take the form of extenuating circumstances, and that may involve blaming the victim in some way. (That, or the “I didn’t know the gun was loaded” defense, which doesn’t work too well if you punched someone.)

But I still just want to cry, and then take a shower with steel wool, and then cry some more.

The mystery was intriguing and kind of fun.

The reality is, a child is dead.

*Gabe de Gator was the safety mascot of a company that my ex worked for years ago, so Gabe seems like a good name for an investigator. Hey, whimsey is a good coping mechanism right now.

Monday, April 14, 2014

You've Got a Friend

Saturday the St. Anonymous UMW went to Oak Alley for a tour and lunch. My good friend D was able to come with me. As I mentioned the one other time it was relevant to whatever story I was telling, D is African American, whereas I am of European (mostly Italian, with a little Yugoslavian thrown in) descent.

We had a good time touring the old mansion. The tour guide was very well-versed in the home’s history and had an infectious personality. (At the end of the tour, she told us she had quit teaching to take on the job, because she enjoyed talking to people who actually listen.) The original owner of the home had selected the property, which had belonged to his sister, for the alley of oak trees leading to the river. The house was oriented to the trees to take advantage of the breezes coming off the river. Mr. Roman had built the home in order to entice his wife, a city girl from New Orleans, to live out in the country, but she rarely stayed there because she had family members she needed to take care of back in New Orleans. It wasn’t until her husband’s death from tuberculosis that she moved to Oak Alley for good to run the plantation.

After the tour, we had a buffet lunch in one of the restaurants. Then we had more time available for walking around until our car pool driver needed to leave. D wanted to see the reconstructed slave quarters and exhibit, and I wanted to see the gift shop. We did a quick turn around the gift shop and went off the the cabins, which were quite close. 

The first cabin had a list of first names of all the slaves that had worked on the plantation, plus one unknown. One of the slaves had figured out a way to grow pecans with shells thin enough to crack easily, an innovation initially credited to his owner. There were displays showing the clothing slaves wore, restraints used to capture runaway slaves, and other aspects of slave life you wouldn’t pick up watching Gone With the Wind. 

As we left and got ready to look for our ride, D turned to me and said, “Aren’t you glad we didn’t live back then?” Well, yeah, I have often said I am glad I didn’t live back in the good old days. But for me, the worst that could happen was that I would have grown up an illiterate Italian peasant, a life that could have had its good side. For D, the difference two hundred years would have made would be huge. She may, with her ancestory, have been a free woman of color, but more likely she would have been a slave, working back breaking labor, having the chance of her children being sold away from her, maybe being beaten. So yeah, I’m sure she was glad that she didn’t live -

“Because then we couldn’t even have been friends,” D went on.

It took a minute for this to sink in, and then I stopped in my tracks and reached to give her a hug. In the process I managed to bump into her and snag her sweater on my engagment ring. My spontaneous gestures have their downside.

“What,” she started, as I said, “Of all the awful things that could have happened if you had lived back then, the first one that comes to your mind is that we couldn’t have been friends? That means so much to me.”

We said a few other mushy things and then went to find B to get our ride back to church.

I know I have said before how privileged I am. I was born with an extra helping of smarts, I was born in the US because my ancestors were brave enough to come here, I was born at the right time to get practically a free ride to college and graduate school, and graduated at the beginning of the second wave of feminism, which benefitted women of my generation tremendously. As I have frequently told my husband, my life has been like an automatic door: it opens up in front of me and closes behind me and I hardly have to worry about it.

Now I see I have one more piece of privilege that I have never considered. I have a friend.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

I've Been Here Before

What with Monday, March 17th  being St. Patrick’s Day, Saturday the 15th was the day of our city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. The weather looked a little iffy, with dark clouds covering the sky, but my weather app assured us we were safe from actual rain until 1 PM at least, so John and I took our parade chairs and our chances and went to the parade. We left early, to find parking, which meant we were on the street for over an hour before the floats and bands got to where we were.

And as I have written before, the large crowds of people with little to do draw the people who hand out tracts. The first such gentleman I had seen before at the Spanish Town Mardi Gras parade. He was wearing camouflage cargo pants and a matching shirt, and carrying a bullhorn. Last time I saw him, he was preaching through the bullhorn, too, but whatever he was saying was drowned out by the traffic helicopter buzzing overhead. I’m sure that in keeping with the spirit of the day, it was “eat, drink, and be merry”. 

As he passed by, I told my husband I’m surprised that he wasn’t carrying a gun to go with the camo outfit. John pointed out that the man had a backpack and who knows what he had in there. Best we didn’t argue with him. John and I politely turned down all offers of “something to read while you’re waiting” from him and the other proselytizers passing by. 

One man that came by alone was a little harder to deflect. He had been chatting with the people next to us, seeming honestly interested in what they had to say. Then he finished up his conversation and turned to us. Predictably enough, he asked if we wanted one of the tracts he held in his hand, to have something to read while we waited for the parade. I told him that I had already read that one, having been given one the year before. He seemed a little taken aback, but asked what I thought of it.

“Here’s the thing,” I said. He wanted a conversation, I would give him a conversation. “The St. Patrick’s Day parade is mostly a Catholic celebration. The theology in those pamphlets is, as near as I can tell, Baptist. So to me, this is just a matter of tribal infighting, and I find it off-putting, to tell you the truth.” His face fell, but I could tell he wasn’t surprised by my response, and actually seemed to be giving it some thought. 

“I’m not a Baptist, “ he replied. He belonged to a non-denominational church.

“Well, I’m a Methodist,” I said.

Somehow we got from there into a discussion of Lent. I told him that rather than give up something for Lent, I decided to act in the spirit of Isaiah 58:6,
 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

and donate money every Wednesday in Lent to organizations that do just that. My upcoming donation was to go to the Rolling Jubilee, and I explained to him what that was and how it related to the idea of the Jubilee year in the Bible.

It suddenly occurred to me I was doing a pretty passable job of sounding like a street preacher myself. This was not how I had intended to spend the day. I told him that I didn’t want to keep him any longer and said it had been nice talking to him. He went on down the street no doubt believing that I was bound for hell.

It turns out that donations for the Rolling Jubilee are now closed, so I gave the money to Amnesty International instead. I made seven donations in all:

1) Trafficking Hope, a local organization that helps victims of human trafficking
2) The rehab center where I used to work, which helps loose the bonds of children who are limited by physical and mental disabilities
3) Amnesty International
4) World Vision, when they announced they were broadening their spousal benefits to include same sex spouses. They then reverted to their original policy, but I figured the money I gave will still help someone.
5) A fund to help a woman who needs money to fight a defamation lawsuit from a man who sexually harrassed her
6) A fund to help a family who lost three children in a car wreck pay for funerals (that one strictly speaking didn’t fit the theme, but they were friends of a friend and needed the money).
7) Emily’s List (I’m sure that one would have gone over well with my tract bearing friend)

So that’s $700 in all. I wish I could say that I learned some valuable spiritual lesson from this, but I am actually feeling pretty grumpy by now. Giving up sodas or chocolate would have saved me money, I reflect. Still, I have to acknowledge how privileged I am. Giving up that money did not mean going without groceries, or heat, or medicine. I enjoy the power to be able to aid those who are doing work that I think needs doing. 

Still, like my chocolate and soda pop deprived friends, I think Easter can’t come soon enough. The end of Lent is taking just a little longer than the end of my career as a street preacher.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Story Time

I am the best grandmother in the whole wide world.

Okay, if you want to be picky, I am not really a grandmother. My son’s intended has a four year old son from a previous marriage, whom my son refers to as his “steppish” son. Little Ace calls me Nonna (and sometimes Nonnie) and seems to have accepted me, and my husband, and my son’s dad and stepmother, into his life without fuss. A few days ago I even got a package in the mail: artwork from his daycare that I could put on my refrigerator.

Okay, that’s what other grandmothers do, perfectly nice, loving grandmothers who bake cookies, and read bedtime stories and may even be raising their grandchildren for all I know. The world is filled with wonderful grandmothers.

But how many of them scan their grandkids artwork onto the computer and then use Hyperstudio to turn it into an interactive ebook with sound and animation? Probably more than I think, given that there are a lot of former and current teachers and therapists out there who are grandmas, but I digress. 

Since one of the pieces of art was a painted and cut-out boot, I made the storyline about a lonely boot who can’t find his other boot. A traced circle became the sun, a flower became a lot of flowers, and a painting of tall plants became a jungle that was home to a tiger who decided that the protagonist “tastes like an old boot”. The story has a happy ending of course.

I emailed it to my son and hoped for the best. 

Ace loves it! I got a call on FaceTime to thank me, and he insisted on reading it with me (my son reading while Ace described the pictures and made comments). Then he wanted to read it again. It’s becoming a bit of a problem because my son needs the computer to work on. So maybe I am not the best grandmother in the world after all.

The page first shows without the eyes and frown showing.
They pop up on a timer. They weren't on the original boot.

Ace had drawn an outline of a flower and the rough circle that became the sun.
I made multiples and added the colors.
There's an animated boot that crosses the page to the tune of "Boot Scoot Boogie"

The tiger says, "This tastes like an old boot" in a voice that sounds a lot like mine.

I don’t know where I get this compulsion to tinker with technology. Back when we first got a video camera where I worked, I set out to do a project called the WHY-ME TV News with all my little clients. Only 6 or 7 of them appeared in the video, but others got to help make backdrops while we all discussed the questions words “who, what, where, when, why, how” in lessons designed to improve grammar, practice target sounds, elicit expressive and receptive language, and for one child, practice using an augmentative device. The weather girl (whose segment was a description of what makes up weather) had a dad who had just returned from the first Gulf War, and he agreed to be interviewed for the news segment by a young man who was working on speech fluency. Other segments included a video game review, a health segment on the four food groups (which tells you how long ago this was), a sports report by a child who played baseball, and an “ad” for the center by our spokesmodel, who needed to practice her /s/ sounds.

I was prescient in choosing the call letters WHY-ME. But they all had fun, and to wrap up the project, my husband and I made everyone copies of the video and then took them out for pizza. A local motocross group had donated some old trophies, so everyone got one of those, too.

All those children are at least in their mid-twenties by now. I think of them often and hope they are doing well. I hope they learned something from the video project, not just how to roll their r’s and speak in correct sentences and speak fluently, but also how to elicit fun from the mundane tasks of everyday life.

As for me, I probably learned the most of all. Now my steppish grandbaby is getting some of the benefit.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

New TV

I just needed a place to park this picture for a second:

The starburst effect is from the flash.

It was my intention just to park the picture for a bit to get an address to use to post it on a message board, but I never got around to taking it down from here.

This is our new 55" Smart TV. It is sitting on a new TV console, since our old TV armoire, purchased in 1999, was too narrow to hold more than a 37" screen. I am amazed that I was finally able to convince my husband to buy a larger TV, which means needing to let go of the old armoire. At the moment, the old armoire is sitting in a corner of the room, waiting for my husband to ask around at work to see if anyone needs it. It's in excellent shape and could probably be converted to other kinds of storage if someone had the interest, but we have two other armoires and a chifforobe scattered around the house already, and it needs to go.

The old TV, really only three years old, is now in our bedroom, and the old picture tube TV that had belonged to my late MIL has gone to a better place (Goodwill). We used to call it the haunted TV because every 24 hours it would click on for about two minutes, and then click off again. It would have cost a couple of hundred dollars to get it fixed, so we just lived with it as was. That TV sat on top of a small but very sturdy solid wood TV stand that had also belonged to MIL, and which is now a perfect stand for the newer style TV's.

The new one is perfect for watching the NCAA playoffs. I had really hoped to get a new one in time for the Superbowl or maybe the winter Olympics, but John is not the sort to make hasty decisions about big purchases. He carefully researched televisions with Consumer Reports and then we went to view them at several locations before making a choice. We also went shopping for consoles.

And that is when my very deliberate, thoughtful, careful husband shocked me. He saw the console pictured above, fell in love with it, and wanted to buy it the same day. Not since he proposed to me eight weeks after our first date has he done anything that hasty. I had my reservations about how well the console was going to fit with our motley collection of living room furniture, but I kept them to myself. He liked it. I don't have any real objections to it. We bought it.

As it turns out, the new console has fixed another problem that has vexed me for years. We have an old encyclopedia set that is outdated and that takes up some 4 or 5 feet of bookshelf space. John refuses to get rid of them because sometimes (once a year or so) he wants to look up some information that hasn't gone out of date and he prefers a real book to an online version. The encyclopedia has been living in the room that I use as my office while other books I wanted to put on that space sat in a box on the floor or stacked on the top of the shelf.

We have a built-in bookshelf in the living room, but it, too, is filled with books. It has some storage space behind doors at the bottom that was filled with boxes and albums of pictures (the ones I vowed to go through once I retired).

There was just enough space in that console to stash the albums and boxes from that area, meaning that the encyclopedia could be moved to the doored shelf instead. Now all my books are on the bookshelf, I have clear floor space, and I even have room on my bookshelf for storing printer paper and DVD's for my computer. Oh joy, oh bliss, oh happy day.

Now if someone will just take the old TV armoire off my hands, life will be perfect.

Old TV armoire, with a picture tube TV that we replaced three years ago. That's Truffle watching the 2010 Winter Olympics. When TV's were square, you could fit a 42" screen (measured on the diagonal) in that armoire. Now that they are rectangular, you can't. Oh, and that fake plant to the left? It was there to block the view of a tangle of wires. The tangle is now out of sight behind the console and the plant has been eaten by the trash truck.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Why Yesterday's Sermon Bothered Me

Let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

If I seem to have overreacted to the sermon Dr. J preached yesterday, as discussed in my last post, there is a reason. One of the blogs I follow is Libby Anne's blog, Love, Joy, Feminism at Patheos and just two days before the sermon, she posted Bill Gothard has resigned . . . but is that enough? That post contains a graphic used by Gothard’s Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP) in counseling victims of sexual abuse.

Major, major content warnings. Think about someone doing a bad parody of how not to counsel victims of abuse, double it, and then raise it to the third power. This graphic is worse. It has nothing to do with real counseling, as practiced by people who care for victims of abuse, and everything to do with preserving power and privilege. Unfortunately, real victims have been dealt with, not just at IBLP but at some colleges as well, using the guidelines summarized on the graphic. (It follows the "read more" link, if you are reading this on the main page.)

So Yesterday In Church

Yesterday was United Methodist Women’s Sunday at St. Anonymous. Usually UMW Sunday is in January, but this year it wasn’t possible to work out a mutually agreeable Sunday with the pastor until March 9, which was the day after International Women’s Day, so it seemed appropriate. UMW Sunday requires a lot of volunteers to take over as greeters, ushers, readers, and a speaker. We started out having members give the sermon, but few people liked doing that, so we moved onto having women guest speakers, often pastors from surrounding churches, but lay speakers as well. This year, we weren’t able to get our choice for speaker, so Dr. J spoke as she does every Sunday. 

I had volunteered to be an usher for the new and sparsely attended 9:45 service, and figured I had better get there early. I got there so early that the sermon from 8:30 church was still going on. I was able to hear it, too, because we have a flat screen monitor and sound in the narthex.

And I got there just as Dr. J was illustrating her point with a story told to her by a friend. The friend has been dating a man who has been divorced for many years. I’m not sure what constitutes “many” in this situation: five, ten, twenty? At any rate, it sounds as though Dr. J’s friend, let’s call her Sue, came along after the divorce and wasn’t a factor. Sue’s boyfriend’s first grandchild was born, and of course, he and Sue went to visit the child.

While they were there, the story continues, the ex-wife (let’s call her Barb, and the ex-husband Mack, just to simplify my typing) also came to visit the child. At this point, as Sue told Dr. J, she was prepared for some discomfort, but what she wasn’t prepared for was the “wall of hate” she felt coming from Barb’s direction.

What a familiar sounding story, I think, and knowing I’m going to have to hear it all over again at the next service, I head outside where the coffee is, while scratching “talk to the pastor about it” off my list of potential solutions to my ex-husband problem. Because I know what I am going to hear next. After all, the sermon is one of a series built around the Lenten Study book, Final Words by Adam Hamilton, and deals with the words, “Father forgive them”. 

When I do hear the sermon, an hour or so later, the Sue and Barb story is as bad as I think. Sue, in later talking to Dr. J, says something to the effect of not knowing the whole history of the divorce, only having heard one side of the story, but then asks something like “Can you imagine what an effect it must have on a person to hold that much hatred in their heart for so long?” 

I am happy to report that I did not stand up at that moment (or any other) and scream what I was thinking, namely, “WTF makes you think that just because Barb seemed hateful that one time, that she has been feeling hatred in her heart 24/7 since the divorce?”

And I will get back to that thought, but first, the rest of the sermon. In a nutshell, hatred, bitterness and judgement fill your heart and don’t leave room for God’s love and grace, and one way to get rid of hatred and bitterness is to pray for the people that have wronged you. Dr. J herself has a few people she is still working at forgiving, through prayer, and it is helping.

Back to Barb. Having been in her shoes (hi, Barb, my sister), I can easily think of several things that could have been going on with her, other than “bitter woman eating herself up with hatred 24/7”. There is a bias in human thought called the Fundamental Attribution Error, the attribution of our own behavior to external, situational forces and other people’s behavior to their intrinsic character.  I think it’s more likely that Barb has made her peace with the divorce, and has been living her life since then, sometimes happily and sometimes not, like all the rest of us, but something about that visit sparked an anger that may have surprised her as much as it did anyone else. She was visiting her first grandchild. At some point, she and Mack had been the new parents, bringing their firstborn home, in all likelihood thinking the love that created that baby would last forever. Why wouldn’t seeing the new baby bring up powerful feelings about how all that had gone wrong?

Maybe it was something even more mundane than that. Maybe Barb had told Mack when she would be visiting so he could plan his visit at another time, and he forgot or didn’t care. Maybe she had simply asked that at the first visit to the grandbaby, Mack not bring Sue. Maybe it was some thoughtlessness of Mack’s in the present that got to her, not the past at all. 

Maybe she really is a hateful, bitter woman who can’t let go of the past. I’m not ruling that out, I’m just saying that in the absence of other evidence, the charitable thing to do would be to assume that she isn’t like this all the time, and that at that moment she was hurting badly.

My first reaction was to want to tell Dr. J that I thought it was her friend who was being judgemental, but a few moments reflection led me to realize I don’t know that, either. Maybe the next words out of Sue’s mouth were, “Well, I don’t know that she feels that way all the time”, and Dr. J didn’t include them because they didn’t fit the theme of the sermon. Even if she didn’t come to that realization, I can empathize with Sue as well as Barb. It must have been scary feeling what seems to you like a “wall of hate”. Most of us don’t do our best thinking under those circumstances. Sue was doing her best to show what empathy she could in recounting the story to Dr. J. I wasn’t there, I can’t judge her, either.

What I can do is reflect that there is an obvious, Christian solution to the problem of forgiveness, and that is, to extend love and support to the person who is struggling to forgive, or doesn’t even want to forgive. Why is it that our first impulse in these situations is to preach forgiveness instead of to extend love? I didn’t stand up and yell that, either. Can I have a cookie?

What I did is reflect on the many times Juliet has told us that when she preaches a sermon, she is preaching to herself as much as to the congragation. She holds herself up to these high standards of love and forgiveness when she has been wronged, unlike me, who figures that if the people who wronged me are still walking around free with their pieces and parts intact, that’s forgiveness enough.

So I decided to take my own advice for once. When the service was over, I found her and give her a big hug, and told her, “I don’t know what those people did who wronged you, but I know you have my love and support.”

It may not have been what she needed, but it’s what I’ve got.

There's more to this story.