Friday, April 25, 2014

Losing Our Democracy: A Short Story of Fiction

Topeka, KS

year 2084

The little girl hopped onto her Great Grandfather’s lap sporting a huge grin. She loved Great Grandpa Jack, also known as G-Jack to his grandkids.

He was in town for her older brother’s high school graduation. Even though he only lived a few hours away, they didn’t get to see him as often as she would like.

Jack adored little Milley. Of all the Great Grandchildren, she alone seemed to truly enjoy spending time with him. She was typically full of questions and today was no different.

“G-Jack, do you remember when you graduated from high school?” she started out.

“Sure Milley, but just remember it’s been almost seventy years ago. It was one of the most important events in my life and, to be honest, I still think about it sometimes” he responded, swallowing hard without realizing it.

“Tell me about it Grandpa!” she asked.

“Well, Milley, it was actually quite a big deal. You kids don’t know much about this, but over a hundred years ago black children couldn’t go to the same schools as white children. In fact, they couldn’t eat in the same restaurants or stay in the same hotels.”

“Stop lying Grandpa!!!” Milley giggled. “That’s crazy!”

“No, I’m serious honey. For many years, well after the Civil War of the 1800’s, our country remained mean and cruel to citizens who weren't white. But our government passed a law in 1954 making it legal for black children to attend the same schools as white children. It was a pretty big deal, as you can imagine.”

Milley sat quietly for a minute. Then, with a quizzical look on her face, she asked him “how could they tell who was black and who wasn’t?”

“Well, at that time not everyone’s skin was as similar as it is now. Black people were much darker and white people were pretty pale. Over the years, so many people of varied colors have fallen in love and married and had families that we look more alike, meaning we actually treat each other a little bit better now. It’s kind of hard to explain, but you’ve seen pictures in books haven’t you?” Jack said.

“Hmmm, yes, I guess I know what you mean” Milley pondered. “So why was your graduation such a big deal?”

“I graduated during the fifty year anniversary of that special law being passed. And do you know what? The fight for that law started right here in your city, Topeka! There used to be a museum downtown honoring it but once our President and public officials began being able to purchase their jobs the museum was shut down."

"When I graduated, though, we still had national elections and the majority of voters would choose our President and Governor and Senators…all of the people that big companies pay for today. You’ve learned about this in school, right Milley?” he asked.

“Sure, G-Jack, but I like hearing about it from someone old and who lived through it!”

It was one of the things he loved most about her; the fact that she was interested in his stories, in spite of the fact she forgot her manners at times and called him “old”.

“Okay little one, let me tell you some more then.”

“Because it was the 50th anniversary of this huge decision, and a major milestone in our country’s growth in terms of treating all human beings the same regardless of the color of their skin, our school district invited the First Lady of the United States to be the main speaker at our graduation ceremony. You learned about President Obama, right?” he asked her.

“Oh yes, Grandpa, he was the only black President ever in our country. Everyone knows who he was….just like we all know who the only lady President was and the only Latino President…my history teachers have taught us those things” she proudly reported. “And his wife was Michelle Obama, Grandpa. All of us know who she was!"

"That was the time when our country started fighting really badly, right?” she continued.

“Yes, sadly, it was. But at the time, well, understand that it was special when my classmates and I found out that Mrs. Obama had agreed to come speak at our graduation! It was so symbolic, because of that law I mentioned making it legal for black children to be able to go to any school they wanted, and also because it all started in Topeka and she was the first black First Lady of the United States. None of us had seen anyone quite that important in person. All of the adults I knew always joked about how they couldn’t remember who had spoken at their graduations or what was said. I know my friends and I were all pretty excited about it and we felt special.”

“Wow Grandpa, so you got to see Mrs. Obama in person?” Milley asked, eyes wide open.

“You know how I said it was a big deal? Well, it was a actually a nightmare because a group of parents became angry and started a petition to keep her from being able to speak to all of us” he continued.

“Why, Grandpa? That would be crazy! I mean, she was the First Lady and you said that was when our President was actually elected by the people, not purchased. I don’t understand. Why would people be mad over someone so famous and important coming to talk?”

“That’s a good question. I seem to recall they said it was because there would only be a limited number of family members that could go to the actual graduation and there wouldn’t have been enough seats, but that didn’t seem to make a difference when the First Lady before her, Laura Bush, spoke at a much smaller graduation in Alabama several years before. Nobody had a problem with that. And there were large schools around the country that always had to limit the number of tickets for their graduates regardless of who spoke. I also remember some really mean things being said about her by people, like calling her names and saying that Brown versus Board of Education, the law I mentioned, wasn’t important."

"No, honey, allot of people simply didn’t like the President and because they didn’t vote for him they didn’t like the First Lady and they got kind of nasty about it. “

“Oh,” said Milley. “So, does that mean people got mad when that other First Lady spoke too? Did they cancel her?”

“Not exactly. She spoke in a part of the country that liked her husband, so folks were just fine with her speaking. I guess that’s what you might call a double standard. Many folks during that time liked to talk about patriotism and honoring our military men and women. Well, our military was one of the reasons our country was free and able to have national elections; it’s why we were able to freely pick our President. So many people began to badly disrespect the office of the President over the years when the guy they wanted didn’t get the majority of votes, though, that it became easy for the billionaires in the country to simply start purchasing the job. It got really bad during President Obama’s Presidency because many people still secretly hated black people. The disrespect and mockery towards the democratically elected President became so violent that the Supreme Court and Congress just changed our constitution and allowed the guys with the most money pay to be President. Also, the people with the most money were all white men at the time and after a woman and a Latino were elected President the country almost had a second Civil War. That’s why we no longer have elections.”

Milley looked intently at her grandfather, a frown on her face.

“So is that when our country changed from being a democracy to an oligarchy?” she asked. “We learned about that in school too.”

G-Jack quietly looked out the window, not realizing that a tear had slid down his face.

Milley reached up, gently wiping it away.

“So what happened Grandpa?”

“The First Lady didn’t speak at the graduation. She spoke on a different night, for those who still wanted to hear her speech and witness her honoring the graduates and the history of education in our country. I was there that night, honey, and it was so amazing. I’ll never forget it. She gave a powerful speech, reminding us that we were all special and that we could achieve anything we wanted if we worked hard and always remembered to respect ourselves and each other.”

By now, there were more tears rolling down his face.

Impulsively, Milley threw her arms around his neck and whispered in his ear “that’s when that man shot the First Lady, isn’t it.”

He could only nod, remembering.

Finally, after a few moments, he held her away from him, forcing her to look him in the eyes.

“Milley, that is what hate, anger, and irrational thinking can cause. And eventually, it was the downfall of what what was once an amazing democracy. “

Milley, still a child, didn’t know what to say so she simply reached out and held her grandfather’s hand.

“Thank you for sharing Grandpa. I hope someday our country can become nice so that I get to vote for a President. I think I’d like that” she said.

“You would like it, Milley. It always made me feel special and privileged…and free” he said, squeezing her hand tightly.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Tattoo for Humanity

Just a little over a week ago a lone gunman drove several hours from his southern Missouri home and murdered three people he thought were Jewish. When he was arrested, he could be heard yelling “Heil Hitler”.

The next day, I decided to get my second tattoo.

I commissioned the first tattoo in honor of my 30th birthday. It is a small Jayhawk, placed on my right hip. I knew that I would always love my alma mater because a college education represented growth, opportunity and choices for my future.

Even though I’ve thought about getting another one over the years, I had yet to find anything compelling enough to undergo the needle again. Although tattoos are a raging fad for the current generation (just ride down the Niangua River in southern Missouri on a hot summer afternoon….it looks like a Sons of Anarchy convention for Americans under 30), I’ve always felt that in order to permanently mark your skin it needs to be something deeply personal, something you will never regret, and something you are doing for yourself and not for attention or at the urging of someone else.

This is why it has taken almost fifteen years to decide on number two.

My new tattoo was designed by myself & Gary Barber (aka: Inkslinger). It is a Star of David. Inside the star is a blue peace sign and on top are the letters “M” and “B”. On the bottom is the initial “MJ”. The “M” represents my daughter, Marah. The “B” is in honor of my son, Brody. The “MJ” is a reminder of Mary Jean, the grandmother who raised me.

As for the Star of David? I’m not Jewish. This isn’t the symbol of a religion I was raised in. But to me, this doesn’t matter. This star represents two things I never want to forget.

The Star of David is thought to represent many things, but most commonly the twelve tribes of Israel. In Kabbalah, the origins of which are deeply Jewish, the two triangles represent the dichotomies inherent in man: good vs. evil, spiritual vs. physical, etc.

I like the Kabbalah definition. It is closer to the real reason I chose this symbol and wanted it to be etched permanently on my body.

The Star of David is tightly woven into the history of WWII and the Holocaust. Because of this, and because of how the history of the Holocaust affects me so deeply, it has come to represent two separate and very different things.

The yellow Star of David patch was a sign of man’s most base ugliness; of the propensity to perpetuate and act upon his or her most violent and cruelest desires. It also represents our willingness and desire to look the other way and even, in many cases, to partake in bringing harm to humanity; to be cowards when others are being hurt and to choose the easy path of least resistance. When I look at the tattoo I am compelled to remember that unless we take care of each other and unless we change the things that create this evil and hatred, we will simply continue to harm our fellow humans.

You see, the Star doesn’t remind me of racism towards Jews exclusively. It represents the German belief that anyone who wasn’t a white Aryan was trash. This encompassed all other humans who weren’t like them, including developmentally and physically disabled people; Romani; homosexuals; Slavs; Poles; Serbs; Russians; people of color; anyone considered “left”, such as communists/socialists/trade unionists; Freemasons; Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Spanish Republicans.

I never want to forget what human beings can do to each other. I never want to forget that average citizens are capable of turning a blind eye…and I never want to forget why I believe in humanity and equality for all. This tattoo helps me to remember that.

The down side is that when I look at the Star on my leg every morning, I feel sadness and anger. I feel disgust. I experience overwhelming feelings of demoralization in light of the things still happening around the world and, yes, even in our own country.

The Star does more, though. It also represents the very opposite of hatred.

This tattoo represents a culture that survived the most horrifically conceived and executed genocide imaginable. To me, because of the connection to the Holocaust, the Star represents all of the unique populations and people who were murdered and persecuted. They lived, they thrived, and they move among us today. The reason they have survived is a testament to the thousands of people who did not remain silent, who did not fear the consequences of taking action to save and protect their fellow man, and because, in the end, sacrifice, love and compassion were all stronger than hatred and violence.

The blue peace sign within the Star is also highly significant. It was placed there to fuel hope, optimism and action.

I chose blue because it is an important color within many different religions …most religions, in spite of their differences, are spiritual havens that tie us together and provide positive guidance.

But, quite simply, there is another reason I chose blue as the only color added to the tattoo. My Grandmother Mary Jean was the most compassionate and giving person I’ve ever known; she saved me, loved me unconditionally…and taught me to be, above all else, kind. Blue was the piercingly deep shade of her eyes and it was her favorite color; the same similar color of my husband Brian’s eyes.

When I look at the Star, I am reminded that good eventually wins out over evil. Adolf Hitler was defeated. Pol Pot is dead. Stalin’s violent and tyrannical Russia, although still in turmoil, no longer hosts Siberian death camps. Jim Crowe is no longer legal in the United States. And Frazier Glenn Cross, last weekend’s shooter, is sitting behind bars, never to walk the streets as a free man again. There is still so much evil in the world, though. It is like a weed…when one dies, another pops up to take its place.

So many murders…so much cruelty…so much pain and heartache…all at the hands of evil individuals who are now rotting in the ground and who are despised historically. And yet, somehow, murder and anger and racism and hatred continue.

We must learn from this hate. We must never stop fighting it. And we must never remain silent.

The tattoo is my own intimate reminder of this. And the initials are my own personal reasons for pledging to do the one singular and most important thing each of us can do to stop current atrocities, to attack the building blocks of hatred and violence that are currently underway within our own country and the rest of the world, and to teach our children to be better.

That one thing is to speak out. It is to explore what we say and what we share with others that could, sometimes unbeknownst to ourselves, fuel anger and hatred toward our fellow man. It is to search deep within ourselves with the honest goal of identifying our own personal biases and anger towards others who are different, or who are unknown to us, or who live in far away unfamiliar places….to ask those tough questions of ourselves regarding true humanity and brotherhood towards all living beings.

Until we reach a point when we quit seeing color, race, religion, sexual orientation, political persuasion or disability when looking upon another person then there will still be ugliness, horror and violence perpetrated on each other.

The Star, peace sign, and initials are reminders every day to never forget, to always have hope, and to never be silent.

What will your reminders be?

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Urgent Care Stalkers (with a dose of puke, southern Alabama & dementia tossed in)

Four weeks of Shulda style sickness, diary style.

Sunday, March 16: Arrived in Destin, Florida, after a fun drive up with the Kempfs. Fun night taking Marah out for sushi to celebrate her 13th birthday but Brody opted for pizza instead. He hates sushi. I found myself wondering “pizza in a sushi joint? Meh, whatever, it’s what he wants”. Wake at 2:00 am to a crying Brody. Is that vomit I smell? Ack, ACk, ACK, that’s vomit. He’s on the top bunk bed above Jack, so I send him to the shower, crawl up the ladder, and feel something hot, wet, and, oh God, chunky. It feels like maybe moistened cat food? Ack, ACk, ACK (those are hurling noises coming from my throat in case you can’t catch on). I lean over the simulated cat food to pull up the fitted sheet. SHIT! My t-shirt dipped into the pile. Ack, ACk, ACK. Focus. This is war.

p.s. I forgot to add that Jack, Barb's 13 year old, had some, um, bathroom issues earlier tonight. I saw Barb walking into bathroom #1 (of two), wielding a plunger and a very determined look. She said Jack has stopped up the toilet. I had to pee, so headed to bathroom #2, which was locked. I knocked and hear Jack say “just a minute”. Like a tattling teen, I ran back to bathroom #1. “Barb, why is Jack in the master bathroom?” Her reply left me nervous. “He said he needed to finish!” This is our first night. Somehow I get the feeling it might be a long week.

Monday, March 17: Wake because my hands itch. It is from washing them too many times last night. I get up and see that Brody is comfortably resting on the sleeper couch. After spraying off the majority of chunks into the kitchen sink (sans the few pieces that flung up and hit me in the face) and using the disposal to discard whatever was left of pizza and ice cream birthday cake from the, of course, heavily stitched quilt, I successfully got it into the washer with his pajamas last night but the remaining sheets are still in a pile in front of the washing machine. Those fuckers are glaring at me, I can see it. I’m impressed with the Kempf clan, though. They slept through the festivities. Especially Jack, who was right underneath the carnage. I’m thinking it must’ve been the result of a peaceful colon.

Tuesday, March 18: Barb has been fighting the onset of a nasty head cold but she complains less than any person I’ve ever met. Is she even human? The woman has an extremely high pain tolerance and has dealt with more medical issues in her life than ten folks combined. She is my hero; even feeling crappy she’s on the beach. Brody has been coughing. Allot. But the sheets are clean and he’s not allowed to eat pizza. Or ice cream cake. Or, really, anything. He’s complaining a little of hunger but I told him unless he wants to sleep on the deck he must take one for the team. My Ack reflex can’t take another puking episode. We discovered it wasn’t just Jack; bathroom #1 has issues. Just ask the plunger.

Friday, March 21: Brody’s cough has gotten, um, kind of bad. He says ice cream helps. ACK. We leave for home tomorrow but are trying to get one last day on the beach. As he and I were walking in the surf a coughing fit seized him and the next thing I knew he was puking. I could see a family watching us in horror, so I turned him toward the ocean and tried to subtly kick the chunks away so they’d float out to sea. I mean, seriously, what are they going to do? Drain the pool??? Besides, just yesterday we witnessed choppers flying circles over the water in front of us and the Beach Chair Guy (we didn’t get his name) said it usually means sharks were spotted. Sharks like cat food, right?

There was another coughing/puking incident later that day right by the couch. On the throw rug, that, thanks to some genius, is taped to the floor. That means I can’t get UNDER IT to get the rest of the puke out. So I McGyver a knife and paper towel and do the best I can while scrubbing the side of the couch, chair, and anything close to the blast zone. This is a condo, remember, and we pay for stains. Thanks to the bathroom #1 plunger incidents we have plenty of air freshener so I douse the entire area and fabric with it. I forgot to mention. Barb may be a she woman but she does have one kryptonite: vomit. I’m still on my own, which is appropriate. It’s my kid. Can I swap for the plunger????

Saturday, March 22: I finally succumbed to my odd fascination with boiled peanut signs (they must be good, right, because the Florida pan handle is teeming with signs) and purchased some at a gas station in Cullman, AL. Ack, ACk, ACK!!!!! The only thing that makes it tolerable is remembering our lunch stop. We had stopped at a cool diner in the old Cloverfield district in Montgomery, AL. Brody ordered the children’s fruit plate (wtf??? He’s NEVER ordered that) and doubled down on the order after I said “you do know it’s ONLY fruit, right?” As soon as they set it in front him he said “um, mom, I don’t really want this.” Gabrielle, Barb’s 17 year old (one of the funniest little chicka’s in the world!) took the prize, though. Jack ordered a sandwich but requested they leave off the mushrooms. Gabrielle, in turn, ordered the portabella sandwich and asked for extra mushrooms, then retracted the extra mushroom request after seeing our confused looks. When the sandwich arrived she was appalled. “Where’s the meat mom?” She couldn’t bring herself to eat the disgusting sandwich, having believed it was a burger with some portabellas on it. Life lesson are so fun sometimes!

We arrived in Nashville that night to our dear friend Terri’s home, where she offered up comfort, food, drinks, a huge dose of love and medicine that could get Brody home.

Sunday, March 23: Had to face the loss of KU in the NCAA tournament. Is this sickness related, you ask? Seriously?? Is the Pope Catholic???? Have you SEEN the “Marlys Crying Games?”

Monday, March 24: First thing this morning I take Brody to Urgent Care. The doctor takes one listen and says “Oh, I think he has pneumonia!” I’m the world’s worst mother. Ever. But I just wanted to get him home!!! Maybe we should’ve stopped off at one of the millions of Assembly of God or Southern Baptist Churches we drove by in southern Alabama for some snake healing on the way home. The signs were so welcoming, like Salem Baptist Church (everyone loves a good witch burning), Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church (those poor tired Pilgrims!), Red Oak/Good Hope/ Buck Creek,/Bela/ Pleasant Home & River Falls Baptist Churches…then there were the Assembly of God churches, kind of like the whole Walgreens/CVS corner feud? Where you see a Walgreens you will see a CVS. Same with the Southern Baptists and the Assembly of God folks; they’ve got a real Hatfield & McCoy thing going on down there. My favorite was the Primitive Baptist Church, written on a crude wooden sign with an arrow pointing down a narrow country road. I couldn’t quit laughing until Barb finally got fed up with me. I think her hand got tired because I was making her write down the name of every church we passed. She hadn’t quit writing in an hour.

Friday, March 28: I take Brody to our regular doctor because he’s still a little puny (seriously, how long does this pneumonia stuff take to get over???) and because he vomits once every morning. I think it’s a gift he brought back from Florida for me. I’ve become quite the pro at cleaning it up. She takes another chest x-ray and it looks clear but he may have some acid reflux issues going on (maybe caused by the antibiotic irritating something?). We return to the pharmacy for the second time this week for another scrip to heal his tummy and prepare for Monday.

Monday, March31: Brody puked again this morning. No school. Again.

Tuesday, April 1: I’m ready today!!!! In touch with school, they know about the stomach issue, and I make him go. Phone call ten minutes after school starts from Nurse Erin: “um, Brody puked but he made it out of line to the bathroom and seems to be doing fine now?” I tell her to let him rest and if it happens again I’ll come get him. No further incidents and he stays the entire day. Maybe it’s over!

Wednesday, April 2: He wakes up and says his stomach hurts. I decide to keep him home, but text the neighbors we carpool with to let them know. I add in a note saying I hope the District Attorney doesn’t send me a notice to appear in court in jest. Immediately, my phone rings and Dave is in a panic: “Did they DA send you notice????” I’m like “no, but if my kid misses anymore school they sure as hell might!”

Monday, April 7: Brody is officially better, with no further incidents. However....wait for it....just wait...Marah is home from school. Her throat hurts and looks red with a few white patches. As we walk in the door of Urgent Care the lady at the desk says “oh, hi, weren’t you here last week?” I explain that I was, and that Brody is better. Marah has a strep test done and it’s negative. They think it might be allergies so we head to CVS (third time in a week) for some Allegra. I'm finally starting to understand the CVS/Walgreens & Baptist/Assembly of God strategies. Sometimes you need a change of scenery.

Tuesday, April 8: I’m starting to feel pretty damn poorly myself. While watching Grandpa Ed today, I left him alone at the kitchen table in his wheel chair (locked up tight) and actually laid down on the living room floor because I felt so bad. After accidentally falling asleep, I woke to him rocking back and forth in the process of pulling the table cloth off the table. I also found that he had poured his coffee into the bowl of grapes, stuck a pencil in the bowl, and also put one of the v-tech battery operated toddler toys I got him right in the middle of the coffee. When I said “Grandpa, what are you doing?” he just blew me a kiss. I’m slipping badly.

Not to be outdone, I receive a text from Barb. They had sewage backup in the basement, poop water mixed with laundry water and the plumber can't come until tomorrow. They just said to hell with it and went to a hotel. Maybe Destin has cursed us. Grrrrrr.

Wednesday, April 9: Last night I had a fever of 101.4. I went to Urgent Care today and the lady looked even more confused to see me than she had Monday. I have bronchitis. Back to CVS for an antibiotic and inhaler (Brody's & mine are matching, isn’t that cute?). After returning home, I find that the fever is back up again and I’m miserable, shivering down to my bones. I put on my favorite KU stocking hat, sweatshirt and sweatpants, turn up the heated blanket to High, and set my phone alarm for 2pm. When it goes off, I weakly reach over and turn on the radio to hear Joel Embiid’s NCAA announcement, then shut it off and crawl back into my cave. Don’t anyone EVER accuse me of not loving the Jayhawks.

Thursday, April 10: Marah is still complaining of throat pain and after looking at her monstrosity of a throat I’m convinced she has strep and the doctor on Monday is crazy. For the (yes, I’m capitalizing this!) FOURTH time in 11 days, I walk back into Urgent Care. By now they are laughing at me, albeit under their breath. Who the hell is THIS doctor?? Where is my regular Urgent Care doctor??? Ugh. This guy says “no, she doesn’t have strep, we did the quick test on Monday and sent it off for a culture and those are 99.9% correct…blah blah blah….just give me a freaking scrip!!!”. Oops, did I say that out loud? He was so flippin’ condescending. It’s a virus…she doesn’t have the other symptoms….has to ride itself out…can go to school and do what’s comfortable.” Sigh. But he gives her a prescription for Lidocaine to numb it. You know the routine by now: CVS.

Friday: April 11: Sigh. I think we are all on the right track, finally. Marah was convinced that she has strep until her neurotic internet searches resulted in photos under “tonsillitis” that looked like hers. Eh, hum, it said just what the, eh, hum, condescending doctor said. As for me? Even though I no longer have any fever I’m still coughing and feeling a little puny. Regardless, we leave tonight for Tulsa because the throat queen has a soccer tournament and the doctor SAID she can participate in activities if she feels like it. Brody is 100% (it only took 8 or 9 days longer than I had originally thought), Marah is convinced she’s not dying, and I’ve suffered, sniffle, quietly with my own puny-ness.

What’s the lesson? If you find yourself cleaning up vomit on the first night of a Florida vacation, walk…no, RUN, to Urgent Care. If I had it to do over again? I’d stop in southern Alabama. I’m sure the Golan Assembly of God could’ve provided one HELLUVA blog story and even healed us prematurely in the process. ACK!!