Birding is a bit like hitting the lottery

As folks in 42 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands scramble for a piece of tonight’s record $550 million Powerball jackpot — that’s a half-billion dollars — I can’t help but consider the odds: 1 in 175 million.

Kinda like bird-watching, amiright?

Honestly, what are the odds, on any given day, in any given instant, I might glance out my window to spy a bluebird on the wing? What odds would you give me on spotting three? AND YET …

I had never seen a live bluebird outside of aviaries or protected conservation areas in my life, and even then only glimpses, like a distant flip of a sparkling SOS signal.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a sophomore participant in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch program is that timing and luck are everything. A bird might grace your yard for just 5 to 11 seconds in its lifetime, because, especially in winter, it may be only passing through. The planets must be aligned just right — first, the rare bird has to wander into the exact global coordinates of your bit of earth, then you have to be near a window, have enough clarity to notice it, enough knowledge to recognize what you’re seeing and BAM! Your life is instantly richer.

Like the other day, Nov. 14 at 11:18:27 EST (all good Powerball picks), when I absentmindedly walked downstairs and opened the front door to see how cold it was, thinking I might get the mail or take a walk, and saw something new perched on the curved iron pole holding the feeders. It sat a little cocky, like a house finch, but it was bigger, rounder and an odd shade of … gray? It bobbed delicately, vogued this way and that, just to show me it was something I’d never ever seen, not in a million years. Not gray, no! Blue! Oh!!! It darted down to our semi-circle of sod destined to be a future English garden, joining two others like it, one bluer than anything I’d known in nature. That one, the obvious male, hopped to the corner near the stoop, showed off its orange and white breast while I tried not to blink or breathe, before I squealed, that high-pitched, teeth-gritted-in-the-dentist-chair kind: “CAMERA!” Whirrrrrrrrrrrr.

By the time I had the camera raised and was switching it on, the three Eastern bluebirds wove a Disney dance, loop-de-loop in the air, sayonara, chica, harp glissando … and they’d vanished, magic.

Not quite that way, it was a little more dramatic. I floated on air the rest of the day, feeling touched by angels. A zip-a-dee-doo-dah day!

When I mentioned to workmate Tom how birding was like the lottery, with probably 1 in 175 million odds of seeing the birds I’ve seen, he begged to differ. “No — 1 in 175 million odds would be when you look out the window and see a 14-karat-gold ostrich wearing a diamond-studded bra crocheting on your lawn.”

Party pooper.

Well, I know money can’t buy happiness. I’ll take a bluebird … or a yellow-bellied sapsucker … any day.

“The bluebird carries the sky on his back.”

– Henry David Thoreau

I should get out more

WhIMG_0991ile blogging, I missed the future.

For the past year or so, I’d avoided Merrifield, what neighbors have termed “the armpit” of Fairfax, NoVA, because of all the construction and congestion between Dunn Loring metro and the Beltway entrance at Route 50. Not to mention the old Lee Highway cineplex known for random shootings and zero cup holders. So when Hubba-Hubby suggested we check out the Angelika Film Center & Cafe, which opened Sept. 21, for our traditional Thanksgiving-holiday release, I was skeptical. Reserved seating? And if I want to move away from annoying people who narrate previews? What then?

IMG_0993Turning down Strawberry Lane, which used to be just “the stoplight at the Silver Diner,” a four-story Target sprung up like a rose-tinted Emerald City, anchoring the new Mosaic District.

So many upscale shops — Artisan Confections, which I used to have to GPS to Clarendon for its sculpted-painted non-preservative chocolates; Dawn Price Baby (if you have to ask, you can’t afford it, but it specializes in items for those under age 6); Anthropologie (no apology for the prices or raping of the Earth); Paper Source (stiffer than Papyrus and billed as a “Launch Pad for Creativity”); Freshbikes; fresher MOM’s Organic Market; South Moon Under; Ginger; sweetgreen; Amethyst; Ah Love Oil & Vinegar — it all sparkled and smelled like Christmas. Even the FREE parking garage hinted of potpourri.

IMG_0985We knew we couldn’t afford either the Sea Pearl seafood restaurant — murky from the outside, it was the kind of place that served museum-ready morsels — and I wasn’t up for the Vietnamese Four Sisters deal recommended by our hair stylist, even if it does advertise gluten-free and MSG-free dishes (translation: TRENDY, TRENDY, TRENDY!). So we went back to the old Merrifield oasis of Sweetwater, Chevy’s and Chicago UNO, knowing we’d be splurging on the space-age theater experience later.

What I didn’t know was Chicago UNO had also blasted into the future, possibly fueled by neighboring competition. At each table was a mini-iPad-looking device called a Ziosk, which not only offered free USA TODAY headlines (I could peruse the stories I’d edited the night before and check for typos, a fun-enough game). But for just 99 cents, we could dabble in games like Scrabble and Clever Frog. I thought that was all REALLY cool until I realized news and games are available for free on our smartphones.The bonus of the Ziosk is you can communicate with the wait staff — order drinks, side dishes and dessert on the touchscreen — and, niftiest of all, it is a swipe machine where you can PAY YOUR BILL and get a receipt without having to wait. I have been waiting all my life for such an opportunity, because it seems the wait staff always scoots right when you want to.

But on to Angelika. I don’t care how much people rave about this place … at $13, my reserved chair had better be clean at least (foreshadowing … suspense).

We arrived an hour early, just like at an airport, and it’s a good thing or we would have missed our flight.

Greeting us at the door. Somehow saw a contradiction between the winged-helmet logo and the hellish lines of lethargy.

The layout was counterintuitive — the DMV has a more pleasant reception area. We waited in this mass of people pressed up against the front doors only to learn there were just two clerks at the end of it, sandwiched like bank tellers between high-ceilinged artwork and chandeliers. (There was wood paneling even on the sidewalk OUTDOORS.) Directed to the electronic seating chart, we saw there were only six seats remaining for the 7:30 p.m. showing of “Lincoln.” Three in the front row, far-left aisle, two in the front row far-right aisle, and one lone spot somewhere in the middle. We chose and pointed to two in the front-row left side, because we figured at least then we’d an empty space on either side where we wouldn’t have to wrestle for the arm rest or do the cup holder pas de deux with a stranger. (This is why we rarely leave our 60-inch LED TV home-screening room with the Wall-E double-wide recliners.)

Not only was the trash pit in the narrow gangway to the theater overflowing, there were popcorn crumbs, a half-empty supergulp cup, a bag of kernels and crinkled-up napkins invading our reserved seats, plus trash strewn on the floor directing us there. It was disgusting. After we cleaned up, we realized the mammoth screen in front of us was gonna kill our necks, the chair-backs being so low they didn’t provide neck support. But we figured, what the heck, it was a new experience, and we wanted to see the movie.

Then two people came along and said we were in their seats. WHAT? These are reserved seats! They had to bring a psuedo-usher in to contest it. We checked our stubs, and sure enough the clerk had sold us the wrong side — not what we’d requested. But the young couple, seeing we were settled in (and unaware we had done custodial work to claim custody), agreed to take the seats on the right-hand side, seeing as how the view was equally bad. They went over, sat down and within a minute got up and left. I guess they’d already had enough. Ten minutes later, a different couple took their resold seats.

The clerk had told us it’s “50-50” in terms of folks buying tickets online vs. at the door. But what a silly system. If you buy online, you have to visit the second-floor concierge to trade in your printed receipts for real tickets — I guess that’s to eliminate no-shows and resell unclaimed seats. Who does that? Anyway, the second floor is also where you get into a snaking line for concessions (strangely diagonal and a waste of space, of which there is little to spare; the couple in front of us spent their ample time redesigning the flow). At the top of the escalator, we were confused. One tiny usher whom we could barely see through the crowd was calling for people to come to her line, so we moved, only to learn we had just left the concession line in favor of the concierge and had to begin again from the escalator.

The huddle of masses waiting for concessions, the concierge and the slim gangway to the theaters. Upper deck is the lounge. I felt we were on a cruise ship with not enough life rafts.

Waiting in that concession line, where, again, only two surly clerks were working (did the management give everyone the holiday weekend off, forgetting that Thanksgiving weekend at the movies is busier than Black Friday at Walmart?), seemed endless, especially looking at the mouth-watering menu that included something called “The Junk” — basically every kind of junk food you can imagine drizzled in chocolate, like what giggly girls at a slumber party dream up. The $10 price tag, though, dissuaded me. There was also a $44 bottle of wine we declined, and a four-bottle bucket of beer, which was a better price than $8 gourmet-draft singles. I wanted just water, but they had no normal bottled water — just “smart” water and flavored junk. So I purchased a cup and was directed to the space-station dispensers, which were also out of soda.

Took me a minute to figure out the touch-sensitive machines, but at least there were free refills.

One thing I’ll say for Angelika: They don’t bow to showing ads or those stupid TV-show preview reels before the actual previews, but that’s probably because they don’t need the money given the exorbitant cost of everything else. They were showing some kind of public-interest documentary, though, with the sound practically on mute — the giant 40-foot-tall heads were whispering. My husband’s understatement: “Gee, I hope the sound improves.”

I dashed to the bathroom, and though spiffily decorated, it was another trash pit, so I snapped a photo. In general, I apologize for the bad quality of photos, because I hadn’t intended to write a review — I was motivated only by the sour experience.

What a waste of potential.

The narrow door into theater No. 1 had room only for one-way traffic of typical obese-American width.

Just as the old Lincoln-assassination punch line goes: “Yes, but Mrs. Lincoln, what did you think of the play?” … I will say I loved the movie. Still, at one point, given its subject matter and knowing how it would end, I realized we were sitting in the seats that would have been closest to the emergency exit used by the Joker assassin in the Aurora, Colo., Batman movie massacre. Looking in the direction he might have emerged, I realized there was no emergency exit. I felt a vague panic, recalling there had been no on-screen instructions on finding emergency exits, and I could see none — just that narrow, claustrophobic gangway entrance, which couldn’t accommodate two-way traffic, let alone a one-way panic.

No doubt our visit was a fluke, considering all the positive comments I’ve heard about this place (although one friend said on an attempt to see “Argo” there were “projector issues” and they gave up and left). Before declaring “never again,” I will probably go back and see a non-popular movie at a non-peak price … find the emergency exits, maybe indulge in a before-noon brew (coffee, not beer) and taste-test The Junk. Comfort food, surely, is the best way to survive the stress of a hellish Angelika adventure and lure me from the comforts of my home.

Or from Cinema Arts — how we love you.

There is an afterlife, after all

In college, my medical-student boyfriend’s idea of a good time was to get me liquored up and sneak into the dissection laboratory. Not where they kept the frogs, cats or pigs — where they kept human shells.

I remember ogling one cadaver, an elderly man, somebody’s dearly departed grandfather who was completely naked. His spotted skin — age spots — had a faint yellow-blue haze, likely from chemicals replacing his bodily fluids. His mouth was propped open, possibly wired. I half-expected to hear him snore or cough up phlegm, he seemed that real. That is, “recent.” His hair was stubble — maybe former military, because other than being dead he looked in decent shape — and age spots showed through on his scalp, too. His toes were bulbous. His wrinkles stood starched, like peaks of bakery meringue.

The shock came when I walked around the table and saw he was sawed in half. Everything from his brain to his penis was bisected like a magician’s trick turned sour. I peered through a diorama of tissue that brought back the cellophane leaflets of childhood encyclopedias. Dead nerves, numbed senses — the halved eyeball a particular eye-opener.

University-affiliated programs supply an estimated 10,000-15,000 cadavers a year to nearly 140 medical schools in the USA. Of those, a portion are rejected because of weight and height limits. Embalming adds at least 40% of deader weight to what the scale read for the animated organism, making an obese person all the more difficult for morticians or technicians to manipulate. Cutting through so much fat would likely frustrate students who are going after just the basics of anatomy, the rationale goes. Grim fact: If we don’t take care of our bodies while alive, we make disgusting death specimens, facing eternal rejection.

That old man on the lab table made an everlasting impression on me. I didn’t know his name or handshake, his laugh or hobbies, but I might carry our encounter, now three decades old, to my own grave. His family couldn’t know him as I did. I saw his core and admired him for working the afterlife so hard — unwittingly teaching those whose business would be saving and prolonging lives of others.

So when my father recently circulated an e-mail to me and my siblings announcing his decision, along with my mom’s, to donate their bodies to science, I felt no squeamishness. I was proud and comforted that their end — not if but whenever those horrible days would come — could be extended, like an extended warranty on their service to the world.

“We can see no advantage of our bodies decomposing in a casket,” Dad bluntly wrote. “What is your opinion of this? Does it give you a problem or does it distress you?” And he provided this link to answer any questions we had about the process in our state.

Burying a body, by comparison, seems a stingy way to go. Even the worms have their work cut out for them, forced to drill through shellacked cherrywood, then layers of satin bunting to get the goods. While taking my aerobics through a nearby cemetery, I’ve often wondered where we get all the space to bury people. Certainly, if we all ended up with headstones marking off forever turf we’d run out of room on this planet — saving any macabre form of timeshare/rotation on plots performed centuries after generations have turned over.

A Tibetan sky burial site

Good thing then that some people choose cremation, burial at sea and other forms of disposal that seem, on the surface, less space-hogging. My Buddhist daughter no doubt wants the greenest burial she can conjure, and her bird-loving sister has toyed with the notion of a Tibetan sky burial — in which a body is stripped, filleted and placed on a mountaintop to “feed the birds.” An attractive, if unattractive, way to quickly return some of the Earth’s supply of nutrients while lifting one’s essence closer to the purported heavens.

In the end, humans’ melancholic nature may demand a mourning site. There’s nothing quite as poignant as an empty chair at the holiday table, whether Tiny Tim’s or Uncle Jim’s. Since Neanderthal days, beings like us have set up monuments to missing relatives — rows of voided lives, buried artifacts, out of sight but not out of mind.

Our collective minds are what make the deceased larger than life.

Meanwhile, my dad, of sound mind, already has expressed his dying wish to me: “I just want to discover all that there is to know, like a cognitive blinding light.”

FOREVER AT OUR FINGERTIPS

In the ethereal online world, we also reserve empty spaces for pouring out our souls over the loss of a loved one. Rather than pull the plug, Facebook enshrines profiles long after statuses stop updating; a bereaved community can continue posting live thoughts to the wall, like a virtual Wailing Wall or granite “Wall” on the Mall, breaking down the wall between now and then, here and thereafter.

Facebook even asked me recently if I wanted to friend someone who died three years ago. That gave me pause.

Bob Twigg was a colleague at USA TODAY who won the lottery two decades ago and quit. He died in 2009. Was the Facebook friendship suggestion really him reaching out from beyond the grave to give me good lottery numbers?

Yet so many — from Abe Lincoln, now enjoying box-office success and possible Oscar buzz with Lincoln, to Freddie Mercury of Queen, who still gets air time at countless sporting events — never witnessed their full impact on the world. Here’s a short list of creative souls who had more success posthumously than while breathing:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — He composed over 600 timeless works, ever struggling for a stable income or a court appointment, and famously died a pauper. Cause of death remains circumspect. Even after rave reviews for The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, according to Bio, the range of his full genius was lost on his contemporaries — he was more like a “child star.”

In [Mozart’s later years in] December 1787, Emperor Joseph II appointed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as his “chamber composer,” a post that had opened up with the death of Gluck. … It was a part-time appointment with low pay, but it required Mozart only to compose dances for the annual balls. The modest income was a welcome windfall for Mozart, who was struggling with debt.”

Vincent Van Gogh’s “Vase With Fifteen Sunflowers”

Vincent Van Gogh — His art career lasted only 10 years and coincided with frequent bouts of depression and what others termed madness. He sold only one painting in his lifetime. Meanwhile, in 1987, his Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers introduced a new era of stellar art trades when it sold for $81 million, tripling the previous auction record. His most fetching work to date: Portrait of Dr. Gachet, valued in today’s dollars at $147.8 million, marks the fifth-most expensive painting ever purchased at auction. His death was called a suicide, but reports have surfaced indicating he took responsibility for the fatal gunshot to cover up the role of some neighborhood bullies he considered among his few friends.

John Kennedy Toole — Eleven years after the author committed suicide, his A Confederacy of Dunces, considered a canonical work of Southern literature, was published, winning him the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981, posthumously.

Stieg Larsson — The Swedish journalist behind The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest was the second-best-selling author in the world for 2008 (behind Khaled Hosseini), four years after he had died suddenly of a heart attack. His novels were published posthumously, which is why, I’m thinking, they’re so poorly written. By December 2011, his “Millennium series” had sold 65 million copies. Once you factor in the film adaptations, there was untapped fame and fortune the creator never knew.

A PUZZLE FOR POSTERITY

Just over a month ago, after a “missing” poster circulated on Facebook of a young man whom I did not know but who was enrolled at my children’s former high school, I joined a community of thousands, mostly strangers, in an offline search.

It was announced there would be a vigil after the homecoming game: Bryan Glenn was a football player who was supposed to be playing that day, maybe going to the dance that night. What better homecoming than to get this boy home to his parents, and soon. I went, camera in hand, in case the family wanted it recorded for Bryan to see later. He’d be overwhelmed to see how many people, mostly strangers, cared.

The fence beyond the football field was decorated with soda cups spelling out a directive, a prayer.

I arrived at the field at the tail end of the game (we won) and recognized virtually no one among those gathered. Several women got busy setting up for the vigil. One came over to the fence near me who didn’t seem as occupied, so I asked her whether she thought the family might want me to videotape. There were two local news crews, but I figured they wouldn’t capture every moment.

The woman, holding a small box of Kleenex, bubbled, “Oh, yes! I think that would be wonderful. Especially for his grandparents, and other friends and family overseas. Thank you!” I went on to explain I had only seen the flier on Facebook and felt compelled to come out and help if I could, because it affects us all, aren’t we all family? Plus, it was almost exactly a year ago that a dear friend’s son had gone missing.

“Oh?” she asked. “Was he found?”

I regaled her with the miraculous story of how that young man, about the same age as Bryan, left a note and was gone a few nights just before Halloween, that a cold spell had blown in — like the one forecast that weekend — but enough fliers had been circulated and a stranger in the next town over had recognized him from his photo, somehow persuaded him to get into her car and drove him back home. He had walked in the house when I was on the phone with his mother, and I overheard her heart skip a beat before her cries of relief and jubilation.

The woman loved the story, and we chatted about three minutes about heartbreak and frustration, until she said, “Yeah, but we don’t know anything, we have not a single clue.

“I am his mother, by the way.”

There would be no miraculous ending for her, her husband and Bryan’s little brother, who had been the last one to see him that balmy fall day, when Bryan dropped him off at school.

Searchers check a drain near Thaiss Park in Fairfax on Oct. 8, a few hours before Bryan Glenn’s body was found.

Or was there? More than 100 neighbors turned out the next Monday, a week after he’d gone missing, at the park where Bryan’s car had been found. Perhaps that in itself was a miracle — that determined volunteers, covering the same ground that police had in vain the week before, discovered his body, slumped against a tree, still standing, head bowed, looking like just another figure searching in the woods.

I considered taking down the YouTube videos afterward, thinking it in bad taste to retain public images of a family filled with such hope — a family that had grown into a countless crowd of well-wishers tossing wishes down a dark, cavernous well whose pingbacks rang hollow. Yet the video views literally doubled the next day. I realized those clips offered some comfort to mourners — something material to grab hold of when the immaterial overwhelms us.

A missing poster remained on the window of the Dunkin’ Donuts at Fairfax Circle where Bryan Glenn was last seen alive, on surveillance camera.

His “missing” posters also stayed up awhile — because missing him was the message, after all.

The mystery of what happened to Bryan may never be solved, no matter what toxicology and autopsy reports eventually reveal. UPDATE ON FEB. 25, 2013: Bryan’s death has been ruled a suicide by the medical examiner. See The Washington Post’s coverage, here.

Maybe something he scribbled somewhere or posted on the Internet may shed some light someday on what sent him into the woods, alone, lost. Maybe not a great work of art but something we can all relate to, something universal that will make us love him more. But his memory — a memory of someone I never knew — has become part of my daily life. Whenever I pass that park, so close to my home it’s hard to avoid, I think of him. I thought of him on Thanksgiving, and of his empty chair at the table, though I’ve never shadowed the threshold of the Glenn home, nor do I even know their real-world address.

Bryan still exists for each of us, for the hundreds of students and faculty at W.T. Woodson High School who didn’t have a chance to meet the new kid or who might have passed him in the hall or spoken words now elevated to epitaph — for the 3,443 people in his group on Facebook, who check frequently for news that doesn’t come.

Whether Bryan was out there under his own power or someone else’s, did he give any thought as he faded as to how he might be found? When he might be found, or by whom? Did he wonder about the reaction of friends or strangers — those three people who came face to face with his remains and could be haunted for life by the frightful sight. The searchers who needed grief counseling for weeks afterward.

Lucy, Turkana Boy or any of the fascinating paleontological discoveries made in our lifetimes have helped fill in missing puzzle pieces of human history. No matter their features or insights, one thing they had in common: They managed to die in a fortuitious, happenstance way as to become historic and represent an entire race or era of people. We speculate what they were doing on those fateful days of their deaths. What their lives were like. So, too, Bryan Glenn might have become a fossil and spoken volumes in some impossibly distant future, far more than our myopic tear-filled vision could ever realize. A truly teachable moment.

“Legacy” is a hard concept to live down. The jury remains out, uncontested. Any summary of our individual lives is beyond our control; it lies in the joined hands of the grief-stricken or historians or the otherwise insatiably curious.

The way society comes together when someone dies, though, is as natural and as strong a force as any dissected by physics. It is like filling in the displacement of water disturbed by a pebble. Water ripples outward and molecules immediately try to restore equilibrium, just as the inconsolable seek their uneasy peace — way different than before, with a new arrangement, new permanent and permeable connections made along the way.

It reminds us we are all a part of something bigger than ourselves, whether Internet or safety net. It’s a web with a backbone that carries on long after we’ve departed.

Bryan’s dad shared this photo on Facebook and wrote: “At Bryan’s graveside service yesterday a gathering of family and friends were blessed with this amazing sight…a visual message from Bryan telling us he is OK and with our Father. — at Arlington National Cemetery, Section 64.”

(After I posted this, I drove off to do some errands, and as I approached the park where Bryan died, there was this formation in the sky overhead — a doughnut, with the hole encircling the search area.)

We each carry the burden of sexual abuse calamities

Cassy outside the Free Library of Philadelphia, where the eBook containing her essay — and those of other contributors — were celebrated.

When we checked our daughter Cassy into a four-story hotel next to Philadelphia’s airport last night, the petite clerk asked whether she had a floor preference. Cassy shrugged. I shuddered. Beads of separation anxiety dribbled, as I recalled the high fence outside and the sketchy terrain, as if I were placing my daughter in the path of an oncoming train.

“Well, I don’t like putting a single woman on too low a floor …” the woman petered out.

We all knew what that meant. The hoteliers couldn’t guarantee her safety from random brutalities, but they’d do their best. As Cassy nodded in relief and appreciation for an unexpected kindness, we three women joined in solidarity, a coven, skipping in a circle of hair and howls, silhouetted against the moon, standing our ground. “Thank you,” in unison.

And that’s the way it is for a parent. We cannot protect our children from the world’s random brutalities, but we do our best.

It has been three months since Cassy “came out” to us and the world as a sexual abuse survivor. Somehow it seems longer. My husband and I escorted her to the Free Library of Philadelphia. There, we would celebrate, along with more than 100 other survivors, survivor advocates, survivor support systems, the release of The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse, a 360-degree anthology of more than 50 first-person essays compiled by the editors of Philadelphia Weekly. They’re tackling the biggest, most pervasive stories of our day that no one is talking about. (Purchase a copy at amazon.com here.)

A group hug among Cassy, Joel and Nina Hoffmann — and the in-utero Hoffmann, benefiting by proxy.

Nina and Joel Hoffmann conceived of the idea shortly after Joel’s own revelation of the abuse he suffered as a child and his long-fought struggle to heal — a fight that nearly decimated their marriage. Their stories are at the heart of the book, and as much as you might imagine reading the entire work to be like slogging through the muck of jungle combat during monsoon season, this diverse and courageous chorus of voices promises to lift you up — as a languid swimmer remembers suddenly to surface for air or a newborn gasps hopefully at its first breath, in a waul declaring, “I’m here.” See me. Hear me. Keep me safe.

Cassy meets fellow contributor Ari Benjamin Bank

Listening to the essays read aloud — one in particular, by Ari Benjamin Bank, a survivor as well as that swimmer, whose story had each of us lapping up tears — strengthened the group conviction that these accounts, these truths, beg a wider audience. One in four women, one in six men, a sexual assault every two minutes … grim statistics that became flesh and blood, my own flesh and blood, when I first awoke to the full weight of my daughter’s experiences last August.

And yet, as each writer who dares to draw on firsthand experience must, she first had to weigh how breaking the silence would affect not only her personal safety, vulnerability and validity, but also the impact on those who know and love her. Would they be disappointed in her? Would they see her differently? Would she be stigmatized? Could WE survive her pain?

The fact that a survivor wrestles not only with the physical injury and emotional hollowing out but adopts the burden of managing others’ reactions to their injurious news is part of the injustice. The burden of proof gets placed on the one who has suffered the crime of sexual abuse, then a dispassionate, blinders-on society inflicts more misplaced punishment. A gag order by way of our gag reflex. We do not want to know. We don’t want to hear. We don’t listen. We don’t wanna talk. Well, maybe just the gory parts, and then we turn away.

Learning Elmo, the new Muppet monster, does not tickle my fancy.

Several of the event’s speakers invoked the Sandusky case. Sure, we were in Pennsylvania, but, as a Philly native, I realize Philadelphia is as safely removed from Penn State as it is from Pittsburgh (random sports rivalry reference). Still, that case resonated worldwide not because of its prurient interest, but because of personal, statistical investment. One in four, one in six … sexual abuse has no doubt touched your life in some personal way. (As I write this, my phone wiggled and jangled with the news that even Elmo is a pedophile. Sigh.)

My eyes were opened to what each of us can do to keep from revictimizing those who have experienced sexual abuse. It could be as simple as me, a headline writer, not buying into the label of “Victim 1” in describing the 19-year-old who brought down the monolithic Lions with his bravery. Despite how the court documents refer to him, he had protested the use of “Victim 1” — and yet the news media took the easy (or non-objective?) way out. As a copy editor, the burden is on me to do no harm with the language we choose, to eradicate bias, including the bias heaped upon so-called victims.

For better or worse, when the news broke in our family, a decision was made not to let my octogenarian father know what had happened to his beloved granddaughter at college. Possibly he couldn’t take the grief, his heart wouldn’t hold out. He is legally blind, so he doesn’t read my blog. Things must be read to him, so it’s easy to filter out the bad news. When I phone my parents, I am instantly put on speakerphone, so I, too, must filter out what is inadvisable — such as my pride over Cassy’s profound, surefooted steps toward recovery; how she has decided to commit her life to helping other survivors emerge from darkness and make the public see the light; how the inclusion of her 28,000-word essay in The Survivors Project was something even the editors felt needed to be digested wholly, not in digest form.

As a wider audience embraces her voice, my wonderful mother frets over how she’ll continue to maintain my father’s news blackout, protect him from it, if this explodes.

Cassy with her cockatiel, Baby

If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past few months, though, thanks to Cassy, is that hiding the truth can prove toxic. And we ought never pre-judge another’s capacity — whether that gauge is for pain, resilience or love.

It’s what drew me to journalism: Present the facts. We know objectivity is a lie — we are humans, after all. Still, our directive is to not sugarcoat it, not demonize it, be thorough, be accurate and let the readers/listeners discover their own truths.

We certainly can’t protect those we love from random brutalities. But armed with knowledge — and a full capacitor for feeling — we can surely do our best.

Or, at least, better than we’re doing.

50 Shades of Rage and Gray: The messy aftermath of a mother’s discovery

A ‘salute’ to women’s power over men?

The secret’s out, ladies.

A barrage of “Betrayus” news has blown our cover. Now everyone will know that if you want to bring even a good, powerful man down, just show him a little whoopee-ass.

It’s an age-old ploy. You see it in every spy movie. Only a sexy Russian agent can get the goods on the hunky, slippery, non-communicative leading man.

Women know deep-down that every man has his weakness, deep down. And the armor always comes off by wielding that same weapon: sex.

Indeed, it is a sad state of affairs.

I was an “other woman.” Never intended to be, but I was. I was raised better, but I did that, overstepped boundaries of decency. It was a time in my life when I felt powerless, rejected by a man I loved, so I transformed into a cha-chink-whirrrr-beep-beep-hacha-mama with one secret mission (secret even to myself): to exact revenge upon the male race.

It seems there are basically two seriously damaging sexual scenarios. The first, which I’ve spent a lot of time this year thinking about, is rape — in which one twisted, sadistic monster abuses someone perceived as less powerful. A survivor of rape can spend a lifetime recovering, reclaiming lost power.

A goliath goddess slew the mighty David Petraeus.

But here’s this other scenario, the flip side of toxic sex, in which someone perceived as an underling sidles up to a powerful figure and, with one glimpse of her underthings, ratchets him down a notch, adding notches in her headboard. The victims are usually the target’s spouse, family … in Gen. Petraeus’ case, generally anyone who trusted him to serve in a classified-level, clear-headed capacity. Sometimes, even the perp becomes a victim — it’s a slow boil, though.

I liked David Petraeus. Considered him basically a good man, also handsome. Good men are hard to come by; some women on the prowl justify taking “someone else’s” man based on that theory. OR on the premise that the liberties they take (on another’s premises) are actually gifts to the warrior with a sad chink in his armor.

Why is it we find being defenseless so sexy?

It’s complicated. And a damned shame.

Home, James (A short story)

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is pretty much a transcription of a dream I had recently.)

She could have taken the train.

Her friends all told her so, those snoopy friends who dared advise her. How ghastly, though, the thought of huddling with smelly strangers or suffering children, their damp, foreign flesh pressing in. No, she would drive, she had the Bentley wagon and needed the extra space for Aunt Martha’s balloon bouquet, besides.

Onboard navigation, check. Sparkling water, check. A wealth of creature comforts to seal out the city’s din and offending fumes. She’d show Robert and Chase, her loafing chauffeur, just how foolish they were to worry about her driving herself.

The first few hours she ran on pure giddiness and Richard Marx’s discology. Cruise control and heated seats, toasty buns, goodness, she could use a nap. It wasn’t until she picked up the Kennedy Expressway, under assault by tractor-trailer brigades and dizzying signage, that panic set in. Her GPS android hiccupped its garbled orders: “Take right lane toward two-hundred-ninety and — continue, on left, in 300 feet – recalculating …” until the display summarily blanked.

Bollocks. Now what? Where? Zip, zing, whoosh! Boxed-in and claustrophobic, she hurtled a battle cry. “Ro-bert! YOU!!!! Bought! The! Wrong! Stupid! OWWW, THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING TO ME!” She was hyperventilating. Like a pack animal, she moved where they moved, but aimlessly, blinded by those menacing balloons, falling behind, weak, disoriented, doomed.

Pushed by the undulating tide of traffic, she couldn’t recover from a misguided exit, landing her squarely in the filthy, fetid unknowns of Chicago’s South Side. Her luxury-car bubble instantly transformed into a space capsule. Every hair out of place after wrestling with the steering wheel, she gripped it now like a life preserver, peering out the windshield for any recognizable life forms. She knew she would have to get out and fish out her ancient road atlas retired to the trunk.

She notched open the door, looked to position non-sensible spiky shoes into the craggy Earth’s surface, but then, there, out the window to her left, drew the comforting sight of neon-yellow-orange reflective vests on men – not rescue workers as she first hoped, but two construction workers, helmeted and strong, shovels in hand, approaching the car.

She looked upward, and saw too late the glint of lust in two bloodshot, watery, yellow-tinged eyes set deep in leathery skin, then spastically tried to shut the door and engage all power locks. But a shovel’s rusted blade had made contact with her ivory-beige interior, prying it open, almost as wide as the mercenary’s toothless grin.

“There now, purdy thing, lost?” his gravelly voice mocked. “Naw. You ain’ from ’round here.” He whipped off the helmet with an upswing of his hand. “Jethro. Help da little lady out her vehicle, wit’ some of dat fine valet service, haw …”

The one called Jethro obliged. She flinched at his touch, sniffled, mewed. “Aw, she be scared?” the ringleader chimed. “We don’t wan’ nuthin’, sweets. Jus ’dose balloons. Is for my babe’s birfday. Das all. We be takin’ your balloons and you be on our way, everybod’ happy.”

As Jethro positioned the shriveling socialite beside the car’s rear door and jettisoned it open, she glanced back at the construction site and saw nothing being built. Other shadowy forms huddled under the overpass, punctured by flickers of light. They’re smoking something. Trash, brown paper, bottles pitched about, a shopping cart short one wheel. These vests are stolen. Trappings. A trap set.

Jethro wrenched out the balloons, handed them to his senior officer, who grinned with tongue dangling. Then, he dramatically let loose the powder-blue party ribbons. “Ooops.” A slow, demonic “oooo” through furrowed lips formed a fish-mouth “O” as the balloons sailed up into the traffic stream above. She felt her breath escape, chest tighten, fists and thighs clench.

With the back seat now empty, Jethro pushed her head down into the roomy ride as one might a police suspect, his other hand gripped tight around her bony arm as the fearsome leader took the driver’s seat. Doors pinched shut with a sick sucking sound, like coffin closing.

“Dis is nice. Our best catch today, Jethro,” the crazed chauffeur said with his winningest smile. He reversed the Bentley too fast making the tires squeal on the embankment, then set off on a route lined with houses whose plywood windows and prison yards of chain-link forced shudders. She spied a gang draped in cotton, T-shirts on their heads. She sat stiffly, as if already dead, trying hard to contain any reaction. The sweat beaded in the small of her back, at her neck, under her pearls.

“I’m Keneval,” he said. “And we gonna give you a chance. Not that your kind eveh give us no chances. But we’re better dan youse. Hear? Better dan youse! We gonna play cash cab. Heh. Das righ’. Giveya chance to win sumpin’ back.”

He tuned the radio to a thumping stream of grunts and curses and bobbed his brillo head to the beat. The car’s nine speakers shook and gasped like a chimney sweep’s soot snifter. Her precious car careened as Keneval drove too fast and too close to the jagged edges of this tortured terrain. Dogs barked, an occasional kid hurled rocks, finger gestures were exchanged. He opened the windows to let the air roar in and the noise belch out.

“First question. Ready?” Keneval paused. “When I say ‘Ready?’ You say, ‘Yessir! Yesmassuh.’ ” She managed a squeak, parroting him.

“Gooooood. ’K. First one. Name a liquor that ends in a ‘H.’ ”

Name a –?

“V-v-vermouth?” she pleaded. She’d never seen Cash Cab, but guessed this was not a typical line of questioning.

Keneval emitted a loud buzz sound, forcing her undainty convulsion.

She glanced at Jethro. He shrugged, gazed out the window without loosening his vice grip on her. She pictured hard the array in Robert’s study. “Glenfiddich!” Too frantic.

“Unh-huh, no names, LICK-er,” sighed the twisted Trebek. Confirmed. They didn’t speak the same language. Aware it ended with an “e,” she tried, anyway, praying he wouldn’t know the difference: “Absinthe.”

“Whatchoo talking at, lady!?” Keneval cackled while rocking back and forth. “Hawh, I shouldn’t be giving you so many guesses, dat’s not in my rulebook.” He leered. “But go’on, one more, see who’s so smart.”

“Syrah?” she heaved, overachieving.

“NO, no, no, and more nnnno,” Keneval scolded. “The answer … is ‘Dry mouth.’ ”

A wheezy laugh. “Or we would have accepted, ‘Truth … serum.’ ” That’s when she saw it. A gun in his belt. A gun. His ratcheting giggle, in any other situation, might have come off as benign.

“Tell me,” Keneval finally crooned. “Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?” He was drumming on the dashboard.

He was a madman, she glumly dawned, and she had no hope of surviving this. Still, activating her brain was helping her keep her wits about her. In a start, she remembered she had her phone with her in the back seat, in her Gucci handbag, not far from the Manolo stilettos. Killer shoes.

“OK, second round,” the evil Keneval announced, clearing a fresh buildup of phlegm. “In Russia. You know, Russia?” she nodded, though he wasn’t watching. This was her chance to slip the heel into the purse, twitch and release the magnetic clasp. Jethro was still gazing out the window, a dopey, disinterested sentry. With every bump, though, his grip tightened.

She focused on keeping the left side of her body statue-still as she finagled her right foot … oh! She jerked. Jethro darted his eyes her way. She meekly smiled, then reached down to remove her shoe, indicating discomfort. He allowed this much, reached out his other hand to accept the shoe. She reluctantly surrendered it, and then the other, but in the tussle managed to nab the phone that fit sweetly in her palm, awash with relief she had not traded in her compact Samsung for a cumbersome iPhone.

“…In Russia, they got a Mickey D’s,” had been Keneval’s droning, drunken soundtrack. “Putin, he likes him some burgers, man. Putin. You know Putin? … Pootang … ” Here he had glanced her way, salaciously “… naw, not now, precious, not now.”

She shifted uncomfortably. Amid the distraction of the quiz, she hadn’t noticed they were back on a freeway, although the Chicago skyline was growing distant. A weapon plus cell signal could = a lifeline.

“Well, now, those commies, they line up in bad-ass-long lines, like we here for Mickey Mouse, ’cept it’s for a goddamned burger! … JETHRO. Pay her mind, we ain’t doin’ no Mickey Mouse today. … So. There are people dere in Russia low on the food chain, like me and Jethro heyah. They get paid to STAND IN LINE,” he attacked each word. “30, 50 by the hour. Dey live off dis desire of others. Gotta have deh burger, hooo, yeah.”

By now, she had her phone ensconced under her thigh and was fingering it, daring not to glance down. She visualized the touch screen, cursing the techno-whizzes who’d dispensed with a more sensible raised keypad, testing to be sure she had the phone in the right orientation. Marking off sectors of the screen, guessing at the “9” and “1,” praying it was muted, she made her choice: punched three times. Then came its queer beep-beep-beep tones that tolled her fatal error.

Keneval snapped his head around and, emitting a low roar, slapped her skull with such force it jettisoned not only her phone but both earrings and a thin line of drool. Jethro instinctively and obediently reached over her legs, picked up the device and handed it to his boss.

Flipping and shuffling the phone one-handed, his tongue tsk-clucking, Keneval slowly shook his head, then paused, performing his best gunslinger’s stare. He flung the phone out the window, jerkily pulled the car over and stopped. She heard the chew of gravel. The buzz of passing traffic. The black jackal whipped open his door, then the driver’s side back door and ordered Jethro out. “You drive, thug.”

King Keneval sidled in next to his prey. “The question. Shug.” He locked his eyes on hers, then traced her face with grimy fingers. “What, fair lady, is the best value on Mickey D’s dollar menu?” He sneered that gaping grin. “Answer!”

The absurdity of this script and the fear in her heart combined to produce not a word but a snort. How could she hope to get this right, anything right? Any answer would inflame this animal. All she could think was “latte.” The lady or the tiger? This lady was lost. Her eyes teared up. She was at wit’s end, yet newly callous to caring.

Jethro groaned, wearily. Was that sympathy? He took to swerving in and out of traffic at an unbearably high speed. It momentarily distracted her captor, who put his hands on Jethro’s shoulders and spoke some gibberish she couldn’t make out over the resumed radio racket and wind. With nothing to lose, she pressed her face against her window, the only one sealed, and mouthed “help” to passing motorists, all selfishly impervious. How could she be so close to normal people, people on errands, people on their way home from work, ugly stupid people who maybe could do something to help a fellow human on her last day? She reached her hand behind her head and waved it hysterically to anyone behind her.

This caught Keneval’s eye and with one hand he fused together her arms and tumbled her to the floor, placing his boot on her shoulder blades like a footrest. “Bust your motherfucking cantaloupe!’ he bellowed. “Oh lord, you steal my fun, woman.”

In a flash, she remembered her tweezers. Thank god for menopausal chin hair. Now who was the animal? Conveniently hunched near her purse, she ripped into the side pocket, extracted the fine silver weapon and burst up like an explosion, sending Keneval to the corner of the leather-pinched seat, wide-eyed in surprise.

She jack-knifed and pierced the carjacker’s eyeball with superwoman force. An inhuman shriek pierced her eardrum, but she attacked again, locking limbs with him. They were a tangle of grit and grime, as she pierced him again, and again. He reached for his Glock, but she reached deeper within and kneed him. With his elbow, he found the door latch, loaded her onto his thighs with the intent to eject her from the car, “This is where you gettin’ off, doll!” but he miscalculated the thrust of the door as well as her resolve. He fell back, out the escape hatch, chocolate-brown form folded like a newborn’s, then torpedoed like a turd onto pavement.

Jethro’s desperate attempt to right the vehicle during the scuffle instead cinched a queasy crunch, as the back tire hiccupped over muscle and bone, a final disservice. She glanced out the rear window to watch a rag-doll twirl then get swallowed in a horn-blaring parade of traffic.

Jethro had slowed a notch, which had given her an opportunity to shut the door, though she’d considered jumping. The ensuing commotion sparked his fuse. She saw blanched fear in the cutout of his eyes in the rear-view mirror. He hightailed, the Bentley’s speedometer needle soon straining into red, as they plunged past unsuspecting vehicles.

Neither spoke. Her breathing gradually calmed. Now what? What hell awaits me in this hard-won afterlife? The sun was setting. Her sweat, dripping. Normal people hovered on all sides. Normal, ignorant, blissful, boring people. Jethro chose an exit ramp. His hunched shoulders slowly relaxed as he navigated familiar mean streets.

Still no words formed. Nothing could sum up what she had just been through, was still going through. She’d been carjacked, a simple thing, truly, must happen every day. Yet she still had her life and, technically, her car. She rode. Waited. Hoped.

Darkness enveloped them now. The Bentley plowed on, through pockmarked alleyways and grimy cityscape. Fear was her ally — her sidekick. Where? How much farther?

First, she saw the child, as Jethro shimmied her car into an impossibly tight trough beside a mournful tract house in an ghetto wasteland. The boy’s pudgy hand tugged at a merle-mottled pit bull pup; in the other he held something like a bottle cap to his mouth. His vacant gaze latched onto the driver, his mouth yawning a silent cry. Then the others popped into focus, slowly swarming, nothing but stick figures in multicolored but faded rags: a scrawny, barefooted girl clutching a decapitated doll bigger than herself; a partly diapered toddler with glaze dried down one leg; a long-faced adolescent with pasty-gray skin, tear-streaked cheeks, mussed hair, doe eyes studying the ground as two more siblings clung to her brambly legs.

Jethro turned to his passenger and guiltily shrugged. “Home.” He tapped the onboard GPS. “Where you be headed now, miss?”

A question she had a ready answer for. She recited an address. With a golden touch, he resurrected the device, punched in the data. It lit up like a spaceship, a beacon for Home. He exited the vehicle into the circle of brightened children, now attaching like barnacles. Opening her door for her, he offered his hand as she scooped up her purse and cautiously emerged, her clothing ruffled but with some dignity intact. “Jethro,” she throated. “Thank you.”

“It’s James,” he nodded, bowed.

“James.” She dug into her purse to find the mad money she always had squirreled away, two Benjamins and 135 singles, those intended for hospital and rest-stop vending machines. “For your trouble,” she said, placing the bundle, secured by colorful rubber bands, into a chocolate-macaroon hand. Keep the change.

His smile blazed. An exchange of electricity.

Shaken but sure, she undocked the Bentley, watched the family’s huddle fade in her rear-view, then navigated back to a world of Panera Breads and Party Citys — somehow changed.

Decoding the political color scheme (or conspiracy?!!)

New Yorkers watch the election returns via color-coding. Simple enough for a kindergartner. On election night, the Empire State Building served as a gauge, taking the nation’s pulse, er, temperature in surreal time.

My grandmother, who was born in 1896 and is now deceased, once told me and my sister that the baby-boy blue and the baby-girl pink we associate with stork gender, right down to their distinguishing bow ties and bonnets, was reversed “when she was a girl.”

Not that “she was ever a boy” and had a sex change. I mean that the pastel palette you expectant parents are using to decorate your nursery is nothing but a fickle form of color brainwashing.

Before the Internet, I could never confirm Grandmommy’s little color yarn, but now:

From The New York Times in a 2006 article titled “Gender Troubles,” Daphne Merkin writes as a parenthetical:

(Although until the ’40s, blue was deemed the more “delicate” and hence more feminine color, while pink was seen as more “decided” and more suitable for boys.)

Then from The New York Times Magazine, also in 2006, an article titled “What’s Wrong With Cinderella?” by Peggy Ornstein states:

“When colors were first introduced to the nursery in the early part of the 20th century, pink was considered the more masculine hue, a pastel version of red. Blue, with its intimations of the Virgin Mary, constancy and faithfulness, was thought to be dainty. Why or when that switched is not clear, but as late as the 1930s a significant percentage of adults in one national survey held to that split.”

There’s also this from 2009 and the U.K. The Guardian, in an article about growing pink fatigue among foot soldiers in the fight against breast cancer, reports:

Towards the end of the great war, in June 1918, America’s most authoritative women’s magazine, the Ladies’ Home Journal (it still exists), had a few wise words of advice for fretting mothers. “There has been a great diversity of debate on the subject,” it wrote, “but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger colour, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”
A few years earlier, the Sunday Sentinel had been of the same opinion: “use pink for the boy and blue for the girl,” it said in March 1914, “if you are a follower of convention.” So accepted, in fact, was this convention that as late as 1927 Time magazine was observing, on the obviously disappointing birth to Princess Astrid of Belgium of a daughter rather than the infinitely preferable son, that the cradle had been “optimistically decorated in pink, the colour for boys.”

A 1901 rendering of Little Boy Blue, before his naptime.

What a relief that my grandmother was neither lying nor suffering from early-onset dementia.

But if pink was in fashion for boys in the 1930s and 1940s, why did things change? It couldn’t have had anything to do with the nursery rhyme “Little Boy Blue,” because, according to my RE-search (Google) that ditty dates to 1744. (I’ve often wondered about that little boy’s emotional range. Is  he supposed to be boo-hoo blue? Because he seems rather jubilant, with the horn and all.)

Barack Obama is definitely a triumphant “Blue” herald today, embarking on a hopeful second term. As arbitrary as the pink-blue booties scheme has proven, though, there’s equally little rhyme or reason to the political color key — why blue designates a Democratic-leaning state and red, Republican-ish.

We musn’t forget that the party labels themselves once got switched around. (It was the partisan Federalists and Republicans in1796, and I think the Republicans turned into Democrats —hoping my seventh-grade civics teacher isn’t reading.)

As a journalist, I find it hard in the days after a general election to stop seeing conservative and liberal in everything red and blue. They’re primary colors, after all —geddit? (aka political primaries) Oh, you got it. We were missing the primary color yellow until Big Bird got into the mix this year.

Back to sorting out the political color scheme. (Or is it a conspiracy?!) Red = Republican is alliterative. But blue = Democrats … no poetry there. Unless it’s the hue and cry of the Blue Dog Democrats. Definitely artistic symbolism in Blue Dog.  But is that fiscally conservative caucus bluer than regular Dems? No. Redder. Dead endsville.

Obviously, red and blue stand for U.S. flag colors. (It would feel racist to paint any swath of voters “white” — but, gee, maybe red’s a tinge racist, too.) The terms “red-blooded” and “true blue” are loaded with patriotism, yet they’re pretty parallel — not enough distinction across the aisle. Shades of meaning erupt when one considers a “red-blooded male” — randiness is implied — while the faithfulness of someone “true blue” hints of a reserved manner … are these conservative-liberal stereotypes somehow backwards? OK, NOW I’m overthinking it. (Only now?)

Rednecks and blue hairs also pop to mind … but I daren’t go there.

Meanwhile, Florida is still counting: One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish, absentee fish, provisional fish …

One could see blues clues in the polar-opposite notion of temperature — red for hot and blue for cold. Most of the states in the Deep South, where it’s balmy, do lean conservative, and the Northeast area of the Electoral College map is awash in blue and gets more snow. But the changeable USA TODAY weather map is proof that theory can’t hold water.

Ideology-wise, it seems silly, as red tends to be associated with Communism/socialism worldwide — why not give the leftists that color? Same is true for fascists, or police states — our police are the men in blue, so shouldn’t conservatives be navy hued?

A red tie with tiny blue stripes … did Tim Russert lean Republican?

Another quick Googling turns up that our red-blue colors came into use not very long ago (ugh, seems forever), during the tense 2000 presidential election. According to AlterNet and The Washington Post, the color key was devised by journalist Tim “Gotcha” Russert, R.I.P. Before his commanding, calming influence (how I miss him), blue and red were used by media types to broad-swipe the Electoral College map, but they were applied randomly, often reversed. After a particular appearance on the Today show, his red-blue voting scheme proved color-fast.

I guess Russert took the reason why to his grave in 2008; it makes me blue he missed out on the whole breaking-the-color-barrier-in-the-White-House part.

Convenient, though, that blue and red make purple. As the color commentary of politics evolves and the markers of American attitudes blur, we’ll have the positive “rainbow” color, purple — signifying tolerance — to color outside the lines with.

The future of politics

Unsure what is happening here.

Divided nation? I’ve got this.

I’m thinking Mitt Romney could use a drink about now.

And if only we the people could yank back the $1.6 billion the two campaigns spent on their drawn-out duel and use it for something a bit more pressing. Not to mention the $556.5 billion spent by super PACs to needle and wheedle.

Wait. I am gonna mention that. That’s a freakin’ lot of dough. Together, it’s about $558 billion.

Ways I could spend it:

  1. Sewing up last year’s U.S. trade deficit. The tab for 2011 was exactly $558 billion.*
    (*My husband clarifies this is not something you can throw money at, rather you need to increase exports/labor. Couldn’t resist the $558 billion symmetry. But yeah, it could make a dent in any of our debts or deficits. Thanks, Mr. Know-It-All, Dear.)
  2. Caring for the needs of the nation’s preemies for 21 years. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “prematurity rates have increased by almost 35 percent since 1981, and cost the United States $26 billion annually, $51,600 for every infant born preterm. Additional research can help drive down these rates, saving dollars and lives.”
  3. Reducing incarceration rates while increasing public safety. The Justice Policy Institute notes that a broken criminal justice system costs federal, state and local governments $68 billion a year, but there’s not enough available to fulfill each American’s Sixth Amendment right to a public defender or to thoroughly investigate crimes or to properly police streets. It also suggests that more money spent in impoverished areas to thwart young people from crime in the first place would be, in a word, amazing.
  4. Adding something useful to each of the 98,817 public schools in the U.S.
    I dunno, be creative. That’s about $5.6 million per school. Get tons more teachers? Pay the teachers tons more? Hire some therapists, sex-education/sexuality counselors? Anti-bullying coaches? Upgrade technology? Fund more arts programs?

A peace offering: Cup of Joe (not Biden)

If you break down $558 billion and spread it out evenly among the 313,232,044 people living in this country, it comes to, approximately, cancel the 9 and carry the 2 … $1,781 a person. Some stimulus. That could buy a lot coffee.

Maybe, today, those who feel like winners should buy lattes — or something stronger — for those who feel they lost ground in last night’s election results. Have a friendly chat, get to know each other. Let’s patch up our country’s divisiveness person to person, one on one. No disrespect to Mormons: Make it any drink you allow yourself.

Better yet, travel. $1,781 would pay for every American to take a little trip to an opposite-color state … or county … or neighborhood, seeing as how we’re splitting hairs.

Examining the Electoral College red-blue map, it seems our political persuasions are all so bunched up. (I’d be curious to see a map also showing the non-voters, the black holes of engagement.)

In short: We need to SPREAD OUT. Mingle a little.

Better yet: Move. The answer here? Leave your comfort zone. Or expand it.

That’s how we can finally break down our divisions, among urban-suburban-rural peoples. Location, location, location. It’s outlandishly simple. Stop being so provincial and suspicious of the other side, peoples.

We’re all in this together. Happy Interdependence Day!

Only in America: You can order coffee tables in whatever color. Imagine, a red California! This is from the latest Uncommon Goods catalog, uncommongoods.com

Sticker shock: Block the vote vs. rock the vote

So here’s a political stumper. I’m driving behind this guy, befuddled by his bumper sticker. It’s in Romney blue, using the serif font I associate with the GOP presidential ticket, only it says “Obama for CHANGE.” I get a little closer to examine. Whoa, too close, sorry. … Yep. That’s exactly what it says. But it’s creating some left-lobe dissonance. There’s something not quite right about the “C” and the “G.”

Not quite right because it’s left, As in Communist left. The “G” is a hammer and sickle and the “C” has a menacing star tucked in.

Ah, I get what’s happening, a little reverse psychology attempt. Clever.

More and more I’m seeing bumper stickers with blurry messages, and I doubt it’s just my vision.

Not sure I totally get the thinking behind co-opting an opponent’s slogan and twisting it — aside from the pure capitalist gain of selling more bumper stickers. We Americans definitely do buy into a joke like nobody’s business. Exhibit A: the T-shirt industry. We will pay $22.95 to rent a jokey T-shirt that we can, basically, wear once, because after that, everyone’s heard that one.

What was in this particular motorist’s mind? Maybe he’s not a committed voter, still making up his mind, and wants to engage in some dialectics, have it both ways. Doubtful. No undecideds buy bumper stickers. Bumper stickers take commitment, because they don’t always scrub off.

It could be an attempt to cut down on road rage while getting one’s point across in election season. The blood pressure doesn’t go up as high when you see a “friend” vs. “foe” jettisoning past illegally on the right.

Supposing it’s just the old bait-and-switch game: You lure people in, then spring a trap, like a jack-in-the-box – gotcha! A little political playfulness, no harm, no foul.

’Cept sometimes the messages are definitely out of line. A few that stopped me:

 It seems to be saying: “We’re all Americans first.” A nice positive message. Yet I dunno, somehow seems racist. Are the “birthers” putting this one out?

That one is DEFINITELY the birthers, but who’s the idiot? The bumper sticker writer. At least they got the “its” correct.

Does this mean Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are a couple of squares? Or mathematicians?

Again, I can’t tell if that’s a positive or negative thing, like “He’s bad, unh, so bad, unh, you know it.”

Along the same lines, I’m fairly certain this is an anti-Obama sticker, but it could also mean, yay, stimulus, job creation! 

This is old, but nonetheless confusing. Is Obama supposed to be God? The was a campaign button, so it’s not as if someone could be mad he won and wear this, after the fact. The “GD” could be used in the sense of, “Wow! You go girl, America.” That would require a comma, though, so beats me.

You get the drift. No doubt you’re familiar with the hope-change/forward-backward stuff. Not gonna post that because I don’t want to come down on either side. And there’s SO much of it being shoveled.

Increasingly, only tricky, defensive politics is at play, and not just among politicians and their clever messengers. How long have you been hearing neighbors say, “I’m just gonna pick the lesser [or better] of two evils” or “Well, I don’t like my guy, but I gotta vote against the other guy.” Forever, right? When’s the last time you felt honestly good about voting?

Everyone says do your duty, vote, vote your conscience. But I get why people sit it out: A negative vote, intended just to cancel out someone else’s, nurses negative feelings. Doesn’t feel so good. Hurts your pride.

People say: “We need a third party. They’re both corrupt.” Yet voting your conscience to boost a third-party candidate or even just to mix it up a little for the majors can be a losing strategy if you later feel your vote was wasted, or you helped the team you didn’t want to win.

Then, if the game goes into overtime, as it did in 2000, you are less likely to vote your conscience next time up. It happened to my husband; he writes about his Nader eclipse here. (Views expressed in his blog are not necessarily views shared by me. He just really needs the page views.)

So, non-voters: I hear ya. Still, you oughta rally. This here is your locker-room pep talk. The guilt of gumming things up because you voted your conscience can’t be any worse than the guilt you feel sitting on the bench all season and still collecting a “participant” trophy. You gotta play to win.

The gummed-up bumper stickers, though, just add to the confusion. They may score points for cleverness, but not votes; no one following you in traffic is gonna follow your lead at the polls.

They’re only gonna laugh.

THE BEST STICKER OF ALL. I WIN.

Best story yet of hope and change (metamorphosis)

SUCH JOY! Photo courtesy of Maraleen Manos-Jones via Albany Times-Union

Had to share this uplifting story of a dilly-dallying butterfly and her guardian angel.

Emerging from its cocoon too late for the migration south, a New York monarch got an assist today from a commercial airline and a one-in-a-million escort, Maraleen Manos-Jones — wonder whether she’ll be collecting butterfly frequent-flier miles.

According to the story by Albany Times-Union reporter Kristen V. Brown:

One late-blooming monarch butterfly will get the royal treatment on Monday, when Southwest Airlines airlifts the lone arthropod from Albany to San Antonio …

‘I knew if I just let her go, she’d die,’ Manos-Jones said. ‘But she’s so fabulous she deserves to be in Mexico with all of her millions of brothers and sisters.’ …

Said Brooks Thomas, a Southwest spokesman, citing the airline’s concerns for climate change: ‘Even one butterfly makes a difference.’ ”

Read more: http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Southwest-Airlines-offers-butterfly-a-lift-4006307.php#ixzz2BP7l54Jq

Fellow women, represent: Make the pro-voting choice

Photo courtesy of Kentuckians Against the War on Women

We’re clearly soldiers in petticoats

Dauntless crusaders for women’s votes

Though we adore men individually

We agree that as a group, they’re rather stupid …

Cast off the shackles of yesterday

Shoulder to shoulder into the fray

Our daughters’ daughters will adore us

And they’ll sing in grateful chorus

Well done, Sister Suffragettes!”

With Election Day nearly upon us — the ninth presidential election of my adult life — I woke with those lyrics from Mary Poppins’ Sister Suffragette ringing like the Liberty Bell in my head.

Hard to imagine a world where I might have been barred from the polls, in which I might have been allowed only to pass out leaflets or make bake-sale goods while being denied that manly work of pulling the lever connected to my brain.

Who were these suffragettes who suffered heroically to win our right not only to vote but to have a strong voice in the democratic process? It’s because they trod the rough, subversive path that women a century later matter more than ever to today’s pollsters. In the women’s movement, we have moved from politically fallow to fearsomely powerful. Talking heads say the onus is on women to choose the nation’s course Tuesday. And many consider our choice clear: forward or backward.

Back in 1964, most kids my age – or older, ’cause I was 3-ish — got all caught up in the whimsy, magic and razzmatazz of the Mary Poppins movie – the diving into 3-D chalk paintings, the dirty, dancing chimney sweeps, the word starting with an “S” no one could spell and fewer could define: suffragette.

OK, maybe that wasn’t the word. Yet, without benefit of YouTube or metrolyrics.com or even a VCR, yet, I memorized Sister Suffragette and was known to march around the house imagining myself in a sash and carrying signs.

Blissfully unaware I was, at the time, that the sashes popularized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by militant feminists had morphed into the burdensome mantles of beauty pageant queens — women not parading but being paraded and adored for their surface assets and not their mettle.

Some of the 2012 Miss America contestants

Another accidental feminist

I was cluelessly indoctrinated by what another blogger has labeled “accidental feminism.” Sister Suffragette, while certainly not the most ubiquitous of Disney songs by brothers Richard and Robert Sherman — It’s a Small World (After All) seems a more likely candidate — is a front-runner as the most educational. What did its lyrics mean to an impressionable young girl of the Sixties?

From Kensington to Billingsgate,

One hears the restless cries

From every corner of the land:

“Womankind, arise!”

Political equality

And equal rights with men

Take heart for Mrs. Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again …”

Even if I didn’t know where “Billingsgate” was or who “Mrs. Pankhurst” was then — stuffy Britishisms that nursed a budding inner Anglophile — that ball-busting Glynis Johns got my attention as Mrs. Banks, an uppity wife who wasn’t paying enough attention to the children or household because she was out rabble-rousing. I didn’t know any women like that. Or even that that was a thing to do.

Emmeline Pankhurst. She liked books.

Emmeline Pankhurst, it turns out, also was schooled early in feminism, at the tender age of 8, but it wasn’t until after she bore and raised five children and her husband died that she founded the Women’s Social and Political Union. Remember: Lives were much shorter back then, but she lived to the ripe age of 69.

Her group dedicated itself to “deeds, not words” — if women didn’t have a voice, what good were words? They resorted to vandalism, smashing windows, and minor assault, attacking police officers, making jail cells their cozy homes away from home. They staged hunger strikes to protest cruel conditions in Manchester, England, workhouses. They not only fought for a woman’s right to vote, but a woman’s right to work — OUTSIDE the home — and work hard for the money, even to join men on the battlefield, in combat.

Not mentioned in the song was another suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison, who famously stepped onto the Epsom Derby track and died after a collision with the king’s racehorse. People at the time mused she must have been suicidal, because what woman in her right mind would stand up thus for a cause? Herbert Jones, the jockey on that horse, was said to be “haunted by that woman’s face” and, in 1928, at the funeral of Emmeline Pankhurst, he laid a wreath “to do honour to the memory of Mrs Pankhurst and Miss Emily Davison.” In 1951, Jones’ son found him dead in a gas-filled kitchen. The horse, Anmer, by the way, got up and finished the race, rider-less.

Which all sounds like a pretty good Disney story, after all (from the horse’s perspective).

Emily Davison lies fatally injured next to the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913. Hmm, epsom salts. Gotta look that up.

Those suffering fools

That sly fox Walt Disney. Disney didn’t write the Mary Poppins script. It was based on a 1930s series of novels by P.L. Travers — she the J.K. Rowling of her time. (So, what’s the deal with successful female authors disguising their gender using initials?) She didn’t want to sell him the rights, but he bulldozed over her and started producing the film before she grudgingly agreed.

Would you like some sugar with that political prescription, or maybe just some red meat?

Disney’s bully-pulpit politics aside (he was a founding member of the anti-communist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals who in 1947 testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, ratting out fellow animators and labor union organizers — no Mickey Mouse stuff), the message of sugar-coating one’s medicine is not lost on Hollywood types. Dosing the public with propaganda masked as entertainment is an old trick; this season’s political ads have borrowed from Hollywood and proven as fictional and visceral as any Disney fable.

Just as in Mary Poppins, this election seems to be coming down to women’s rights vs. Wall Street, Mrs. Banks vs. Mr. Banks, participants in an unhappy marriage, heads of an unhappy, dysfunctional family.

Call in the Supernanny — like the reality TV show. The woman as superhero, who, by the way, was way, way ahead of her time. But always on schedule and looking smart and so put together.

Mary Poppins was everything I wanted to be. Dripping in wit, she had all the answers. She could communicate with the animals, the birds, especially. She handled the housework with a snap of her fingers and had plenty of time left over for fun — and not just ordinary fun, but surreal fun, with a boyfriend who would dote on her, declare any day a national “jolly” holiday in her honor and serve her tea and crumpets with dancing penguins as waiters. OMG fun. Men in service to women. What a concept. And still, Poppins is 110% woman, practically perfect in every way.

No more the meek and mild subservients we

We’re fighting for our rights militantly

Never you fear!”

This is the “accidental feminism” part, when you learn the song was added to the movie only to appease an actress’ ego. As Gregg Sherman, son of Richard, revealed recently on the “Disney Insider” blog:

“Walt and the boys were having lunch in the commissary with actress Glynis Johns, venerable star of stage and screen. Midway through the meal, Glynis was suddenly confused and a tad hurt, as she believed she was up for the lead role. Walt, always thinking on his feet, assured Glynis that she’d be ideal as Mrs. Banks. ‘And just wait ’til you hear the big number the boys wrote for you,’ Walt boasted. There was no number. The boys quickly excused themselves and scrambled back to their office to create a cause for Mrs. Banks’s character by researching women’s movements in 1900’s England. They fashioned new lyrics into a tune they were writing called, ‘Practically Perfect.’ The result was Glynis’ (cast as Mrs. Banks) big number, ‘Sister Suffragette.’ “

[The astute theatergoer will notice a song called “Practically Perfect,” penned by George Stiles and Anthony Drew, was added to the 2004 stage production, and “Sister Suffragette” was cut.]

Even without Mrs. Banks’ cause tossed in, though, Mary Poppins had the feminist drill down-pat. And talk about diplomacy. She could heal the rift in any household, and still make its inhabitants think it was their idea when truth finally dawned, regaining control of their senses and getting their houses in order, or going off their rockers to just go fly a kite.

Vote Mary Poppins in 2016

2016? Not happening!

The other night I was out drinking with a couple of gal pals, talking men and politics. Of course, the election and their husbands’, er, positions came up. One despaired to me: “What we need in there is a woman. Someone who knows how to compromise and get things done. [Someone like Mary Poppins, perhaps?] Will Hillary ever run again?”

I told her I would take Hillary at her word. She says she’s done, she’s probably done. Unlike the Chris Christies of the world who tease and train for 2016.

Then I start thinking: Who else, if not Hillary, to take one for the team? The nation seems ready for a female politician to go all the way. But political leading ladies tend to be Annie Oakley types, on both sides, oddball characters — whether no-nonsense Kay Bailey Hutchison or maverick loony Sarah Palin; lightning rod Nancy Pelosi or brassy Louise Slaughter.

Is there really a war on women? If so, where are the front lines, exactly? There could be arguments either for the male-dominated legislative chambers or the male-dominated media, obstructing their path.

Anyone knows political tides are strongest at the poles: the polar opposites of wealthy vs. welfare classes. I know “extremists” in both parties, and each argues that the other is brainwashed, or focusing on just one issue, not educating themselves holistically. “The dumb voters — maybe we shouldn’t encourage them to vote, if they vote the wrong way, anyway.”

Ann Romney passes out whoopie pies to the press corps.

The way I see it: One issue that you care about deeply is enough. Just vote. If you’re rich, maybe that issue is taxes, and you want to preserve your wealth. If you’re a woman, maybe that issue is reproductive rights, to preserve how far we’ve come. But vote. Maybe you don’t like or trust either guy, so the power behind the man — the woman — is swaying you. Is it a choice between whoopie pies or vegetable gardens? Macy’s vs. Ross Dress for Less? I’m not judging anyone’s fashion tastes, values or lifestyles.

Simply: Vote. With your gut. With your noodle. Because you can.

Has Michelle Obama’s time come — again?

Stand up for something, as Emily Davison did. Just steer clear of all the horse stuff.

Even if you feel choosing one of the guys at the top makes no difference because it’s the meddling of the middle-man Congress that muddies our system, then especially vote. Forget the top-down, down-ballot party platform approach. Maybe it’s time for women to go bottom-up. Examine the local races, vote closer to home.

Man up, women

According to the Women in Congress website, since 1917, when Rep. Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first elected U.S. lawmaker, a total 277 women have served in either the House or Senate.

Currently, of the 17 female senators in office (17%), five are Republicans and 12 Democrats, representing 13 different states. Only four states have more than one female senator (two each): California, Maine, New Hampshire and Washington. Offhand, I know at least one, Maine’s Olympia Snowe, is not seeking a fourth term. And in the three-way race to fill her seat, the only woman, Democrat Cynthia Dill, has not received even an endorsement from the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee. And Texas’ legendary Kay Bailey Hutchison is also retiring. Note to swing voters: Connie Mack in the Florida race is NOT a girl’s name.

In the House, 73 of the 435 seats are occupied by women from 27 states: 24 Republicans and 49 Democrats. That’s also about 17% of the House. California has the most with 19, followed by New York with nine; Florida with six; Ohio with four; North Carolina and Texas with three each; two each in Alabama, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Tennessee, Washington and Wisconsin; and lone she-wolves representing the states of Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming. I haven’t had time to sort out where else the female representation is bound to slip in Congress, but I’m sure someone must be monitoring it.

Of governorships, there are six sitting women (12% of the whole, four Republicans and two Democrats) but, according to the National Organization for Women, when you include all statewide leadership (lieutenant governors, attorneys general, secretaries of State and legislators) the percentage is more like 23%. Better than Congress but sad when you consider women are the U.S. majority.

We women suffer from representation without representation.

And the National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 6,030 of a total 7,383 legislative seats in 44 states are on the line Tuesday. (It’s an off-cycle election for Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey and Virginia.)

In short — not — we haven’t come such a long way, baby. We still have far to go.

The best thing any woman can do for the woman’s movement, no matter where she stands, is to move herself to the polls tomorrow. Maybe even stop by a nursing home, where women far outnumber men, and help mobilize a few elderly ladies there, too. Some of them may remember what it was like to feel voiceless and powerless.

Let them have their say. Say, say, say, 90 million says — the estimated number of Americans who will sit out Tuesday.

I’m just saying. Don’t get discouraged because you feel the choices aren’t good enough. Did the suffragettes get discouraged, when they had a right to be discouraged?

Make a choice, sister. Represent, and be represented.

Our daughters’ daughters will adore us and sing in grateful chorus: Well done!

No power? More power to ‘The New York Times’

Some good news to come out of Superstorm Sandy’s rampage on New York City: Newspapers are selling again. Selling out.

According to USA TODAY breaking news reporter and colleague Melanie Eversley:

… The mood was not so festive at the Pinaz newspaper-magazine shop on Sixth Avenue, where lights remained out and the atmosphere inside was dark and claustrophobic.

Cashier Shakeel Khan, 38, said Wednesday afternoon [Oct. 31] that the owner asked him to open up in the late morning, but so far, he’d had only eight customers. He said he planned to close early.

Newspapers were delivered that day, though, and he did sell out, he said.”

With no cell service, TV or Internet, people can’t get enough of the news that’s fit to print — even in the dark. In a post-apocalyptic world, we’ll be scratching out messages on papyrus leaves and burning them for heat. Usher in a modern media Dark Age.

GET ME REWRITE.

What’s wrong with this picture? … Yep, no distaff journos on staff.