Eric

I was the best marketing director the Boys & Girls Clubs ever had.  I had bill boards all over town.  We had positive stories about the accomplishments of our kids and I’d gotten great media coverage when we opened a new branch.  I’d received multiple awards from the Boys & Girls Clubs of America for my work.  

In 1991, I got a call from one of the major networks.  Aha!  I thought.  That’s how good I am.  Now they’re calling me.  They told me that they were working on a documentary on education in America and wanted to talk to some teens about their experiences.  They specified that they didn’t want any of the honor roll type kids.  No youth of the year.  Just average kids.  They further specified that they wanted to do brief phone interviews with them without me in the room.

That should have been a red flag but I was so delirious with my own power that I agreed.  And no one at the Clubs questioned me.  They trusted me.

So, I lined up about six kids but the producers of the show told me that none of them were going to work out.  I told them that the only kid I had left who would be willing to talk with them was Eric, our youth of the year.   He was also president of his senior class at North Division High School.

Eric was a gregarious kid and a great spokesperson for the Clubs.  He loved the media attention and always showed up for an interview well dressed with a fresh fade hair cut. I could rely on him to testify to the importance of the role the Boys & Girls Clubs played in his central city neighborhood.   He became kind of our own local celebrity. 

I didn’t hear anything more about it until Eric called to confide in me that he had been asked to carry a hidden camera in his back pack at North Division High School.  Now I was worried.  This felt like trouble.  Trying to keep my panic at bay, I tried to caution him but he was excited to do it.  Eric insisted that he needed to do this because otherwise it would always just be his or any student’s word against a teacher’s word.  He wanted to make a difference.  He didn’t need anyone’s permission.  He was 18 years old.  

I called the producers.  Left a message.  Then called again every hour of the day. They clearly stopped talking to me.  

A few months later, the footage Eric collected was featured on Expose’.  It showed things like a teacher sitting at the front of the class while kids played dice in the back.  Not the kind of documentary I thought it would be.  And it wasn’t just Expose’.  The story was national news.  

The shit hit the fan.  The school superintendent was calling the head of the boys & girls club.  My colleagues at the branch where Eric was a member made sure that I knew about the pain and suffering this was causing his family. 

I almost lost my job.  To this day, I don’t understand why I didn’t.  I was responsible and I didn’t tell anyone what was happening.  My own arrogance at the time astounds me now.  

The producers said that they wanted to see what kids see.  I get that.  It’s valid.  We need to let the people who are impacted speak.  Tell their truth.  Powerful stories can lead to change.  But all that this story did was cost some teachers their jobs and make Eric and his family the target of the backlash in their own community.   His younger sister had to change schools.  She wasn’t safe at North Division High School. Eric moved out of state to go to college. The staff at the Club branch where Eric had been a member no longer welcomed me.  

The media didn’t care what happened to Eric after Expose.  He struggled for several years with mental health issues. On a visit home he sought me out.  He wanted to make sure that I knew he was okay.   It meant the world to me to know that in spite of the trauma, he had finished college and was successfully climbing the career ladder in the insurance industry.  He said that what happened wasn’t my fault and that he would do it again.  He wanted to make a difference.  And that he was still grateful to the Boys & Girls Clubs. 

A few years later, he was dead.  I was told that he was shot while protecting a woman from a man somewhere in Georgia.  There was no news coverage of the event in Milwaukee.  I learned about it from a colleague at the Clubs who had remained close to the family.  

When I tried to google him to create this story, wanting to make sure I had my facts right, the only thing I could find was the news reports about Expose, his life reduced to this one story.

This is the hardest story I’ve ever told. It’s a story about the harm caused in the wake of doing good.  I used Eric to proclaim the virtues of the Boys & Girls Clubs.  The media used him to tell the story they wanted to tell.  I question whether I honor him by telling his story or am I further exploiting him for my own benefit.  

I went on to have a long career in nonprofit organizations and storytelling.  I believe in giving a voice to the voiceless and that our stories of courage and resilience can inspire change and empathy.  But I’ve learned that my first loyalty must always be to the human being.  Not the story.  Not the organization. Not the media.  Not me.  

Thoughts About Spring

A time to forgive the cold bleak days

A time to burrow beneath the crust of frost 

A time to reconnect with the nourishing soil

A time to shake off the cobwebs and dance

A time to let soft winds unfurl your brow

A time to see new beginnings in flower buds and baby bunnies

A time to heal your heart with sunshine and laughter

The Coldness of Winter

The coldness of winter.  Bleak.  Barren.  Lifeless.  

I am dormant. 

Like the trees.  Like the grass. Like the frogs. 

Alive but not living.  

Waiting. 

Biding my time. 

Breathing shallowly.  

Hoping. 

That the troubled waters will pass. 

Praying that I can survive. 

Until the sun shines on my face again. 

And I will smile once more.  

This poem is more than just about the season, it’s about how we endure during times of great anguish.

Utopia

In August of 1996 a group of friends invited me to attend the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.  I’d heard them talk about it the year before and it sounded fabulous.  The idea of taking a 4 day break from the patriarchy was very appealing.  However, my husband, feeling a little insecure about me trapsing into the woods of Michigan with lesbian friends, asked for three promises—no nudity, no tattoos, and no sex with women.  “Why go?” I joked.  

It took me all but 30 minutes after setting up camp to relax into it.  It didn’t even seem weird to see a woman wearing a fancy garter belt contraption and stiletto heels high stepping through the woods.  Or to see a parade of semi clad red heads.  Or to see bare chested women with scars from mastectomies.   Everything was okay.  It was like girl scout camp only way better. 

The music was awesome.  I was introduced to bands like Dar Williams whose “When I Was a Boy” song brought me to tears; Tribe 8 who pretended to separate men from their penises with a chain saw;  and 7 Year  Bitch introduced me to the Riot Grrrl scene.   But my absolute favorite was the Murmurs, the lead singer tearing up as she sang about domestic violence in  “Children of the Garden.”  It was all so wild and yet gentle.  I saw a 70 year old woman float like an angel above the hands of the crowd in the mosh pit.  Her long gray hair draping down as she held her cane on her chest.  

And OMG the percussionist Ubaka Hill!  It felt like her drumming had summoned these tribes of women from around the world.  I danced with the masses like a cave woman wearing nothing but my blue skirt and body paint.  

There was respect for the land.  No beer cans and cigarette butts littering the woods.  There was cooperation.  Every attendee had to work at least three shifts.  You could be part of a stage crew, you could chop and stack fire wood, or work in the kitchen tent.  I chopped 250 pounds of cabbage and shucked corn into a kiddy pool with five women from around the world,.  

Everyone was cared for.  There was ASL at every stage.  There were quiet zones and rowdy zones. There were AA groups and NA groups.  For the first time in my life, I was in the minority as a heterosexual.  And there was a support group for that.  

For me, the festival was hyper stimulation paired with profound relaxation and spirituality.  But the overwhelming feeling was one of incredible safety.  It felt like a long luxurious exhale.  

I kept two of my promises to my husband.  I didn’t get a tattoo or have sex.  I attended the event for two more years.  

Wikipedia says that “Michfest” or some version of it spanned from 1976 to 2015—almost 40 years.  There were more than 5,000 women there each of the three years I attended on “the land” in Oceana County. There were years when 10,000 women attended.  There’s a lot of speculation about why it ended.  It might have had to do with the controversy of including trans women.  So even this utopia was flawed.  But maybe we can never achieve Utopia if we exclude anyone. Even people with penises.  Except people who are assholes.  Maybe exclude them.  

(I recently told this story at an Ex Fabula story slam. The theme was Utopia. I didn’t think I had a story and then I remembered my precious days at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. Ex Fabula is Milwaukee’s local story telling group.)

Update: And now you can hear my story as told on the Ex Fabula stage on Riverwest Radio. https://www.riverwestradio.com/episode/ex-fabula-0068-eutopia-stories-part-2/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michigan_Womyn%27s_Music_Festival

Loose Teeth

IMG_2589In the kitchen of my childhood home, Grandpa and Dad stand having a shot of brandy and a beer after working on their old Model T Ford.  Dreaded stinky liver dumpling soup simmers on the stove.  My Mother summons me away from playing with my dolls.  

“Show them your loose tooth,” she says.  And I oblige by wiggling my front tooth back and forth.  

Dad and Grandpa chuckle.  “Get some string,” Dad tells mom.  

I’m cajoled into one of our vinyl kitchen chairs.  Dad crams his big motor oily fingers into my mouth to tie the string around my loose tooth.  Grandpa measures out enough string to tie the other end to the open kitchen door.  I’m frightened.  

They count “One, two, three,” and Grandpa slams the door and I bolt out of the chair.  

I’m made to sit back down and they tie me to the chair with Dad’s bathrobe sash.  

They count again, “One, two, three,” and Grandpa slams the door and the string breaks. 

Dad rummages around in a drawer and pulls out some butchers twine, crams his oily hands in my mouth again and ties it around my tooth.  

They count for a third time, “One, two, three,” and Grandpa slams the door and my tooth flies out in a huge arc.  Dad retrieves it and holds the tooth out for me to examine.  I’m crying, there’s blood in my mouth, and the awful smell of liver dumpling soup is making me gag.  The quarter I receive from the tooth fairy the next morning helps to lessen my PTSD but in the future, I learn to keep my loose teeth a secret until I can pop them out myself.  

Seven years or so later, I’m babysitting for my younger sister and brother and use the opportunity to snoop in Mom and Dad’s bedroom while they’re watching TV.  I have a vague notion that I might find some mysterious adult “sex” things in their dressers.  But instead, I come upon a cache of teeth in an old watch box—tiny white baby teeth, molars and incisors, that Dad must have collected while on tooth fairy duty.  I use my findings to terrorize my sibs but because I don’t want them to know that dad and the tooth fairy are in cahoots I say, “Maybe dad is a witch doctor!”  Their mouths drop open in astonishment.  

Forty plus years later, I’m at my parents condo alone waiting for a repairman while they are in Texas, taking a break from Wisconsin winter.  Bored, I use the opportunity to do some snooping thinking I might find something amusing to poke fun at them with.  I find my Mothers’ collection of about 40 belts in a night stand drawer arranged by color.  A rainbow of belts.  In the closet are shelves lined with shoe boxes meticulously labeled with dates of purchase and the color and styles of the shoes within.  An assemblage that would make Imelda Marcos proud. Both finds are interesting but not notable.  And then I open Dad’s dresser drawer and spot an old watch box.  There they are!  That cache of teeth!  Dozens of them!  I had completely forgotten but Dad hadn’t.  He kept these artifacts of our childhood all this time.  And the memory smell of liver dumpling soup thickens my throat.  

Not Lost

“Let’s review,” I’d say. And grandma would say, “My husband is still alive and we have three children.  You gave me the picture on the wall. It belongs to me and not anyone else.” Every visit with Grandma at her assisted living community concluded with my correcting her revised life story and calming her fear that someone was angry that she’d stolen that cheap print of a sunset.  She’d lower her gaze in shame. I would cry on my way out the door. She had been my pal as a child. We shared a love of books and she encouraged me to write. Later, through the trials and tribulations of my teens and young adulthood, I could always depend on her sympathetic ear.  And now I felt like I lost her.

But it wasn’t true.  Keys, hats, and umbrellas get lost.  You might get lost in the woods, in an unfamiliar city, or lost in thought.  You might lose your hearing, your patience, or your sense of humor. People with memory loss aren’t lost.  They are who they always were.

If only I knew then what I know now.  I’ve learned that it’s on the play field of imagination where we find our loved ones.  All of the parts re-emerge—the mischievous child, the caring grandparent, the fun-loving friend.  We only need to put aside our own inhibitions and join them.

As a TimeSlips facilitator, I look forward to jumping into that play field of imagination with reckless abandon  At an adult day center, we talked about the tooth fairy and how she comes to collect baby teeth from under a child’s pillow. “That’s not what happens,” said Alice. “When you lose a tooth, the tooth fairy comes to get it and brings it to someone who really needs it.”  

I feel like the fairy.  I get to bring something that many thought was lost to people who really need it.  My heart is full of joy.

But it’s harder with people we know.  There’s a shared past and an established pattern of communication.  Before Grandma’s dementia, our conversations were about family history, the progression of my career and the antics of my children.  

My husband’s friend, Carmen, has early onset Alzheimers. Tom has lunch with her most Tuesdays.  They’ve known each other since they were teens, so their conversation typically migrates to the exploits of their youth.  Carmen increasingly fakes it. She stares off into space and says, “Oh sure, I remember that.” And Tom feels embarrassed for her.  But the day Tom brought her home and they discovered a dead raccoon in her backyard, everything changed. They called him Clarence and talked about how he might have ended up there.  He had a wife and a dozen children. Clarence was out getting some time for himself when he came upon his arch nemesis, a wild coyote named Silver. Silver bit him in the neck and Clarence climbed the fence into Carmen’s yard to try to escape. “His wife is really going to miss him.  How on earth will she support all of those children without him?” They laughed and laughed and the light in Carmen’s eyes shone bright.

I wish I could do my time with Grandma over again.  I wish that I had been able to make the shift either grilling her about her health or reminiscing to imagination.  I wish that when she told me that she was a widow and had seven children, I would have asked her to tell me about her deceased husband and their lives together.  I should have conspired with her to remove that print on the wall that worried her so and restore it to it’s sacred place at the Guggenheim museum. We could have created a story that would have delighted us both and strengthened our bond.  We would have been pals again.

(You can learn more about TimeSlips and making meaningful connections through imagination at timeslips.org)

 

 

 

Ode to a Stove

(I found this gem in a journal from January of 1998.)

The door fell off last week. Well, one hinge gave way twisting the other as gravity pullled it to the floor.  I couldn’t fix it.  Like I had before. With a part, $1.50 from the service story.

It is 23 years old.  I got it when I was only 18 along with a matching frig. To help us get a start in life.

I chose the trendy copper color.  Flat flower petals arranged in a 70s style next to the clock on the range.

“Continuous cleaning” was an enhancement not true to its name.  Black drips and petrified grit coat the oven cave.  The top was cracked, soiled, and dark.  Many years of frying and boiling left their indelible marks.

The pilot light no longer stayed lit.  The seal on the oven door cracked and blistered.  But the clock still worked and the timer too.

Alas, it’s time to go.  I bid my Kenmore adieu!

How many frozen pizzas?  How many roast hens?  How many bowls of popcorn?  The numbers boggle the mind.

To gently warm a baby bottle.  To make a pot of tea.  To quick fry a burger for Sam and Ben and me.

Our stove was always loyal.  It gave us everything it had.  Six kitchens it did live in beginning on Sheridan Ave.

Ben’s Face

The urgent care doctor said that my boys were having an allergic reaction to something and scribbled out a prescription for an antihistamine.  “Take them to your pediatrician on Monday if they don’t improve,” he said.  I grilled the kids about what they’d eaten and what they’d touched but couldn’t figure out what had made their faces so pink and puffy.  They’d never been allergic to anything before and it wasn’t chicken pox.

I was really worried about them but I was also really worried about something else.  Tomorrow was to be my first day at the decent full time job I’d finally landed.  “It’ll be better tomorrow,” I kept telling myself.  “It has to be.”

On Monday morning Ben’s eyes were tiny slits and his lips had blown up into raw bratwursts.  I could see every single pore in the skin on his face and each oozed with sticky yellow puss.  Even his ear lobes were seriously pink and inflamed.  Big brother Sam’s face looked like a slightly inflated pink balloon but was not anywhere near as distorted as Ben’s.

“Don’t worry,” I said, doing my best to stop the terror in my chest from exploding on my own face.  “We’re going to see the doctor right away.”

I left a shaky message for my new boss and waited until Dr. Patel’s office opened at eight.  I dialed the phone and in my most powerful voice declared that we were on the way.

Clearly not wanting Ben’s face to frighten the other patients, the receptionist showed us right into an examination room.  “What happened?!” asked Doctor Patel.  I explained the progression of the boys’ condition.

“You take this one to the hospital right now,” she said, pointing at Ben.  The three of us were ushered out the back door.

I had to figure out what to do with Sam.  I couldn’t bring him along to the hospital and he needed to be looked after too.  My Grandma Miller!  We found her in her back yard hanging mint green sheets on the line.

She parted the laundry and gasped.  “Who is that?” she said pointing at Ben.  “Was there a car accident?  Don’t worry, honey, plastic surgeons can do wonderful things.”  I pried Sam from my leg and dragged Benny by the hand back to the car.

At the hospital, brisk nurses wearing masks quickly ushered us into a quarantined room.  “Bring my school picture here so they know what I’m supposed to look like,” pleaded Ben.  I promised that I would and sat by his bed until he was comfortable and fed and almost asleep.  I got in the elevator to leave along with a two young nurses.  One said to the other, “Did you see that kid in 515?” My heart was breaking in big fat sobs.

Later that night, over a bed time peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Sam was full of questions.  “Can the doctor make Ben better?”  “Will he have to have plastic surgery?” “Will we ever see him again?”

Sam worked his mouth a little like he was chewing invisible gum and then it all spilled out.  “It’s my fault,” he blurted through a storm of tears.  “We were playing army by the railroad tracks and I told Ben to eat the berries!  Poison berries!”  Of course!  In spite of the ceaseless sibling fighting, Benny will do whatever Sam asks him to do– like jump off the top bunk or ride his bike into a wall or eat suspicious berries by the railroad tracks where they are forbidden to play.

On Tuesday, at the first light of day, I climbed the hill to the tracks and found the source of the misery–raspberry bushes growing in the midst of a dense patch of poison ivy.  I could just see them, crawling on their bellies through the vines like GI Joes.

I took Sam to the sitter and went to my new job and explained the situation to my sympathetic boss.  At lunch time, I went to the hospital to be with Ben leaving his school picture on the table beside his bed.  His eyes were open again and he was starting to improve but the doctor warned that a case of poison ivy this bad could take many more days of treatments.  I had to be careful with Sam too–smearing a battery of ointments on his face and changing his sheets every time he lay down so he wouldn’t get re-infected.

Later that night, I was washing another load of sheets  in the basement, a good place to cry in private, and wondering what I was going to do when Ben was released from the hospital, when my other grandmother, Grandma Maly, called.  She ordered me to bring the boys to her house in a nearby town and said that she would look after them until the weekend.  She didn’t want me to jeopardize my new job.

I finished my first week at the job as kind of an embarrassed celebrity (the poor new girl with the really sick kids—“probably cancer,” they whispered) and headed out to get the boys on Saturday morning.  Sam flew out the door to greet me.  Almost normal looking Ben was right behind him.  Grandma Maly watched as we all three embraced and tears of relief flowed from our eyes.

Note:  Ben was 7 when this story happened.  He’s 40 now and happens to have a horrible case of poison ivy on his legs right now.  Thank you Wendy W. for coming to the rescue and caring for him.Ben's leg

Cranky

Feeling generally cranky.  Not about anything big.  It’s the miniature annoyances that get me.  The greasy butter knife he left on the counter.  His underwear on the bedroom door knob. His hair in the bathroom sink.  His beer taking up too much room in the frig.  The nonstop pinging sound of cowboys shooting at each other on his favorite old TV shows.

Yet I know, that if he leaves the scene before I do, it will be the absence of these annoyances that will bring me to my knees with grief.  me and Tom 2017

What Could Go Wrong?

It was Labor Day weekend, the last weekend in a summer full of outdoor adventures with my grandsons.  Twelve-year-old Noah and I headed up north to go white water rafting.  It was my idea.  I’d gone rafting dozens of times.  Who cares that the last time was almost 30 years ago?  What could go wrong?

We arrive at the meet-up spot near Pembine.  Our guide, Derek, fits us with life jackets and helmets.  Along with the other 6 rafters, two women and four men, we board the bus with our driver Bill who takes us to the launch spot on the Menomonie River.  We rafters chat a bit on the bus and I learn that only two of them had ever been rafting before and it was a long time ago.

The first section of the trip is just flat water and Derek uses the time to review the safety instructions and practice paddling in unison.  We all listen carefully.

The next section is class 2 rapids which I now know means “some rough water and rocks, some maneuvering.”  Only a basic skill level required.  Yahoo!  We got wet.  Everyone was laughing.  We give a high five salute with our paddles.

The next section is class 4 rapids which I now know are waves, rocks, sharp maneuvers, a considerable drop; “exceptional” skill level required.

Off we go.  Derek is calling out paddling instructions.  But the people paddling on the left are paddling way harder than the people on the right and we smash straight into a giant face of rock.  The force bounces us into a ricochet which catapults me into a backward summersault out of the raft.

My helmet pops off and I’m trapped underneath the raft.  “Gurgle, gurgle, gurgle.”  Oh dear, this is bad.  I was really, really scared.  After a death defying amount of time, the raft and I drift  apart.  But now I’m going down the “considerable drop” all by myself.  Whitewater crashes over my face.  It feels like what I imagine waterboarding would feel like.  I thought I was going to drown.

Noah is screaming, “Grandma!  Grandma! Grandma!”  When you are over 60, you think about death now and then and you think, yeah, I’ve had a good life.  I’m okay with death.  But not today!  Not fucking today!  Not like this.  This would really suck for Noah.  I can’t have Noah’s last memory of me be this!

Derek is shouting “nose up, toes up” at me. He’s yelling at the rafters to paddle hard and they finally get close to me.  Derek reaches over and grabs me by the shoulders of my life jacket.  “One, two, three,” and he hauls me into the back of the raft. The bottom of my suit falls down to my knees. I’m face down, bare ass up.  As I wriggle around to pull my suit up and find a more comfortable postion, Derek says, “Sorry ma’am.”

We get through the rest of the rapids and glide to the river bank.  No one is laughing.  “Grandma, are you okay?” says a wide-eyed Noah.  I say, “I’m fine,” even though my heart is pounding out of my chest and my hands are shaking.  Derek is wild-eyed and wants to know if I hit my head anywhere.

We hike a little way to rendezvous with the bus driver.  Bill greets us with. “Wait until you see the video!  Some of you are really going to want a copy.”

Video?  What video?  I forgot about the video.  Bill had been perched above the falls recording.

I rationalize it away.   How close could he possibly have been?  Plus, the mishap was in the back of the boat.  Only Derek saw it.  I tell Noah about it just in case and he thinks it’s funny but he’s not concerned.  “They would probably fuzz it out anyway,” he says.

Back at the meet-up spot, everyone gathers around a small flat screen to view our exciting journey.  Sure enough, there it is.  My big white ass for the whole world to see.  Noah nods his head and says, “Oh Grandma.”

The two other women in the group realize how awkward this is and yank the men away.  I threaten to stalk anyone who buys the video.  Noah consoles me, “It’s okay Grandma.  It’s not that bad.  Everyone has a butt.”

I give Noah a big hug.  I’m so very grateful that our memory of this trip will be this really funny embarrassing thing that happened and not something horrible.  He tells me that rafting was the most fun he had all summer.

(The live recorded version of this piece aired on WUWM on 1/6/17.  http://wuwm.com/post/ex-fabula-adventures-children)