Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Stars and Fire

By Claudia Ricci
It was just about a year ago when you vacated your old farmhouse, to live temporarily in DC. And now it’s time to move home, and it’s a little scary because that old farmhouse you left behind is in the middle of nowhere and it is so cold and so old and drafty and so empty of your children, who are grown up, and your husband, who will not be able to move back from DC until health care reform ACTUALLY PASSES, (please God, soon!)

Anyway, you drive up from JFK on a night that is so cold and clear that the stars seem to shine brighter. It’s after ten o’clock when you pull into the driveway and get out of the car and stare up at the splatter of stars overhead and think “ah, yes, this is why I live here.” Then you make your way in the dark around to the back door with three heavy bags and you fumble around until the key fits. When you’re inside you can still practically see your breath it’s so cold.

Suddenly, though, you remember what your friend Liza said in an email a few weeks back, after you wrote to say you were nervous about returning home. “You’ll get back there and light a fire in the wood stove and immediately you’ll feel at home.”

So before you take your coat or boots or gloves off, you hurry out the back door to the wood shed and under a crisp crescent moon in the western sky, you collect some twigs and small sticks and a couple of logs. Back indoors you’ve got a fire going in the stove more quickly than you have ever started one before.

You pull the rocking chair right up there to the arched window of the stove and you sit and stare inside the window of the stove. Your knees are inches from the fire. The wood crackles and sparks. The log sitting in the stove suddenly has a snout, like a dog. Your mind jumps back in time. There beside you is Bearsie, the big black Chow/Lab (Chowbrador) you had for more than ten years.

The rest of the house is dark. But no longer is it so scary. There are flames roaring inside, and outside the back window there are all those pinpoints of fire blinking in the black sky.

Such an old thing. Making a fire. Cozying up beside roaring flames.

Such an old thing. Sitting under stars.

After a while you unpack your digital camera and play with the shutter so that that flash doesn’t go on. You take some wild photos of the flames roaring up in the woodstove and you smile because one of the photos could be a close-up of one of those stars.

You smile.

Because you are home, and warm, because you feel just fine.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

So are we evil? Or just...human?

By Stephen Lewis

I believe that all people are capable of good, but they don’t always show it.

Recently I visited a friend for a weekend at his fraternity house at the University of Michigan, and my backpack was stolen. I later found it emptied on an upstairs balcony. My clothes were scattered, and my iPod was missing. I never found it nor did I find my culprit’s identity.

The students in Ann Arbor, like most University communities, come from affluent families, not unlike my own Jewish family. Their rooms are filled with electronics and expensive gadgets so I suspect most of them already own an iPod. Mine wasn’t taken because of desperation or need – probably more for the thrill (of course it could have been someone off campus who needed it).

Whoever it was, he --or she-- made me pretty angry. I felt helpless, violated and betrayed. And then I got to wondering about this individual who had ripped me off.

I like to think that I am a good person, but I am not perfect by any stretch. In the fourth grade, I hid another student’s drumsticks in the bushes hoping I wouldn’t have to sit next to him in band class anymore. A pair of detentions validated that I had done something wrong. I was in the fourth grade. The thief listening to my Beirut tracks is in college. Of course he knew what he was doing was wrong, but apparently he never had a Principal Jacobs to slap him on the wrist when he deserved it. Is this person also inherently good?

Even Bernie Madoff did some good. After all, he managed The Madoff Family Foundation, which supported many educational facilities, cultural programs, and health research funds – although I imagine many of those closed down without his financing.

Madoff's critics abound. One of them, the magazine City File: New York, labeled Madoff the “new face of evil.”

But is he?

Evil is the intrinsic absence of good; it is something absolutely immoral, and willfully malevolent. To me, the faces of evil through history are tyrants. They include Ivan the Terrible, Hirohito, Leopold II, Pol Pot, Stalin, and Hitler. I understand this magazine is fighting for readers in an industry hanging by its last thread, but they are wrong to call Madoff evil – Kim Jong Il, Robert Mugabe, and Omar Al-Bashir still walk freely on this Earth. They are in a category, clearly separate from Bernie Madoff.

Madoff shows me that people are not just capable of doing good, but also capable of doing wrong. I am capable of doing wrong as well. I have from time to time imagined what would happen if I released a box of hornets into my brother’s bedroom after a fight, but I’m glad I’ve never resorted to such measures

I wonder if my offender is listening to my iPod right now, enjoying the smooth rhythms of Thievery Corporation or the soothing beats of Bedouin Soundclash. While I may have demonized him when I discovered my backpack minus my stuff, I highly doubt that this person is evil. Maybe all he needs is some quality music to guide his intentions.

Writer Stephen Lewis is from Los Angeles. He is a sophomore at Georgetown University.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Carried By Six, a novel

By Allen Ballard

Chapter 1

OBIE BULLOCK PULLED HIS BATTERED OLD CHEVY SEDAN in front of the Joseph E. Hill projects, checked the sign, and double-parked. He got out of the car and mopped the sweat from his brow with a big red handkerchief. It was only eight in the morning, but the pavements in North Philly were already warming up, just like every other day this week. He began the short walk to his building, past the graffitied concrete tables. The old men were already out playing cards.

One looked up. "Just getting in from the job?"

"You know it. Any of you see Dora Lee yet this morning?"

"Heading towards the bus about fifteen minutes ago,” another player said. “Looking good, too, man. Go figure. Prettiest woman in the place and married to somebody ugly as you."

Obie laughed and aimed an air punch at him.

The older man stood and threw up his arms. "Come on if you dare. These the fists `destroyed Bucky Jackson."

"Man, I know I can't stand against the mighty Tyrone Waters."

With that, Obie took off at a run towards the building entrance. The entire table collapsed in laughter, the other men clapping their hands and encouraging Tyrone, a bent-over senior citizen.

"Go get him. You know Obie ain't nothing for you."

"Show him, Tyrone. Do your bad thing on him."

Tyrone stood and shouted after his disappearing foe. "Don't mess with me, man, thunderbolts in these fists."

Still laughing, something he hadn’t done a lot of lately, Obie entered the lobby. He looked up and down the corridor for Roy, who was away from his desk. Damn, the house committee had met with the police just three nights ago and agreed that two officers would be assigned to the building--and that one would always be on duty at the front desk, no matter what.

You’d think the rape and murder of little Shakeisha a month ago would be enough to make them keep their promise. And it wasn’t like Roy to leave the desk unattended. When he had to take a break, he'd go ask one of the men outside to take over for a few minutes. Obie sighed. This was no way to help make this place safe for the kids and the old folks, much less stop Son Teagle’s gang from taking over the building.

He walked to the desk. A copy of Ebony lay half opened on it, like Roy had been interrupted while he was reading. He pulled out the chair and sat down, ready to stay there until he came back. Probably had just gone into the recreation room to take a leak.

“Morning to you, Miss Taylor, that dress fits you just right, ought to knock them out in the office today.” Obie smiled up at a tall, graceful woman whose body was snugly wrapped in a yellow dress speckled with Yoruba symbols. “Yes, ma’am, you’ll surely be the queen of Chestnut Street this beautiful day the Lord has sent.”

She grinned and blew him a kiss on the way out the door. “Oughta be ’shamed of yourself, Obie, way you be sweet-talking us all the time.”

He had a snappy comeback ready, but just then four kids, followed by their twenty-six-year-old mother, burst out of the elevator and were all over him before he could even say hello.

“Where’s the candy?”

“When you going to ride me piggy-back again?”

“He promised me first, didn’t you, Obie?”

Their mother, Serena, quickly reined them in. “Obie, you spoil them rotten, one day I’m going to leave them with you for good.”

Obie laughed. “I wouldn’t mind, one bit.” He looked at the kids. “We’d have us a ball, wouldn’t we?” They nodded unanimously, thinking perhaps of the homemade oatmeal raisin cookies and fruit punch that always awaited them when they stopped in at the Bullocks’ apartment. Then they were off, propelled through the door by Serena.
Obie turned back to Ebony, where Roy had apparently been reading an article about the 50 leading eligible bachelors of the year. Maybe his good buddy, stationed in the Hill project for the past four years, had been hoping he’d make the list some day. Obie didn’t get a chance to look at much of the article, what with the elevator banks constantly disgorging folks. All of them had something to say to Obie, who by this point was hurting for sleep.

Around eight-thirty, the elevator traffic slowed down. The building had just about emptied itself out, leaving only the old, the unemployed, and three or four of Son’s gang members, embedded in the apartments of decent folk. They’d come back from prison—most of them—settled in with their mothers or grandmothers, and proceeded to sell drugs. That’s what the meeting the other night had been all about.

ROY STILL HADN’T COME BACK, and Obie was worried. Given all the problems with security lately, he hadn’t wanted to leave the desk unoccupied and go off looking for him. But freed now of the distraction caused by the comings and goings of the residents, he took a careful look at the recreation room door and saw that it was slightly ajar. And wait a minute--Roy's key ring was still in the lock. Yet the room was dark.
Something wrong here.

Writer Allen Ballard, who lives in Albany, New York, grew up in Philadelphia. His first novel, Where I’m Bound, won the First Novelist Prize of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was named a Notable Book of the Year by the Washington Post. Dr. Ballard, a professor of History and Africana Studies at the University at Albany, SUNY, has a website at

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Downsized, Downtown

By Camincha

She had become so lonely
in her self-imposed exile since
she lost her job to “down sizing.”

Imagined herself walking among
many, unleashing her desires,
wrapping them around the legs
of unsuspecting pedestrians.
She would do like a puppy
and give them little love bites.
She would do like a kitten
and give them little love scratches.

She thought of frolicking among
the crowds downtown.
Relished the idea of lunch in a
crowded restaurant.
She knew just where, The Royal Exchange,
at Front and Sacramento:
She licked her lips thinking not of food
but of the crowds there at lunch time.

The place was crowded.
Just what she had hoped for,
three hunks led by the hostess went by.
She readied her best smile.
Brushed them with knowing eyes.
Selected the best looking for
her company––eternal––of course.
He returned her smile, studied
her intensely.

A second later he was at her side.
As he leaned over, she watched his
chest hairs through the opened shirt,
smelled his cologne. Fantasized over
their impending date. She waited.

He said: May I take the catsup?

Camincha is a pen name for a writer living in the Bay Area.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Friendly Night in Vietnam? What the heck is THAT?

By Kelly Fitzgerald

It's times like these that I really wish I had my camera with me.

Yesterday in class, one of my Vietnamese students invited me to Friendly Night, which took place this evening at 6:00 p.m. in the auditorium. I obliged, and all were ecstatic.

When I got to the auditorium, I was, as usual, the only white person there. I was escorted by one of my smallest students to the front row where he asked me to "pliss be zeated" so the show could begin. I followed his orders, feeling 200 pairs of eyes on the back of my head as I sipped the complimentary bottle of Aquafina placed before me. Water never tasted so good.

At 6:15, the show had yet to begin. Typical Vietnam. I was still the only teacher in the front row.

Finally, five Vietnamese girls strolled through the side entrance and stood in a line side-by-side, about three feet apart from one another, with their hands on their hips and their heads hanging down. Then, the music began.

They looked...really uncomfortable. They were dancing like cheerleaders would, but instead of big toothy grins, their expressions read HORRIFIED, and their bodies weren't straight, but slumped. Then they did a pyramid...and every single girl looked so still and so scared to be up there that the pyramid dissembled as quickly as it was put together. Then they exited stage right.

Act 1, down. Act 2, even stranger.

First, one girl strolled in, walking very slowly from one side of the stage to the other, stopping at each side to pose (uncomfortably) for the audience. Each girl had a number pinned to her left shoulder. After the third contestant finished strutting her stuff, taking her place next to the previous two, I asked Stephen, the student seated next to me, what the hell was going on.

"Oh, this Vietnamese beauty contest," he said, opening his right hand to expose a crumpled piece of paper. "You see which number you like best, and you vote."

I ended up choosing number 5, a short girl with glasses and a messenger-style backpack hanging across her chest. She may not have been as pretty as taller-than-life number 7, but she was definitely the cutest.

Then, after the runway show went down, the singing started. One of my quietest boys who sits in the back of Pronunciation on Wednesday was the third performer. He was actually pretty good, and quite theatrical. I thought about pullin' a Kanye West and interrupting his number before it was over to inquire why he couldn't participate this much in class. Reluctantly, I held my breath.

But the absolute BEST part of this show was when two of my students were speaking in rapid Vietnamese on stage after the singers were done. Understanding not a word of what they were saying, my eyes drifted to the floor, and were only raised when I clearly heard my name.


I nervously looked up, seeing my student motion for me to come on stage. I'm sure my expression looked just as horrified as the dancing cheerleaders' did. I pointed to myself, as if there would actually be any other Kelly's in the room, and he kept motioning. I walked really slowly to where he stood and turned around to face the crowd. You'd think I would have gotten used to all eyes on me by now, but I haven't.

Two other Vietnamese teachers were called to stage as well. They shook hands with me and introduced themselves. I don't know why they were hiding amongst the crowd of students and left me dry to hang in the front row by myself, but they were too nice not to like.

Then, we were all presented with roses. I got roses simply for just coming to the show. That's how damn appreciative these kids are.

Due to earlier arranged dinner plans, I had to bounce after an hour into the show. But I got this text from Stephen around 9 p.m.:

"I'm sorry, the person you love - number 5 - isn't in top five of the most beautiful ones."

She wins in my book.

Kelly Fitzgerald graduated from the University at Albany, SUNY, in May 2009, and she is currently teaching English in Vietnam. The photo above is decidedly NOT one taken at Friendly night at Can Tho University. Fitzgerald's blog is fantastic, and can be found at

Monday, November 09, 2009

It's Not Over Till It's Over

By Dan E. Beauchamp

The historic vote Saturday night in the House of Representatives for health care reform is incredibly important. We should all celebrate and thank Speaker Pelosi for pulling it off. Yet, as most know, the 220 to 215 majority reminds us that the struggle between strong democracy, majoritarian democracy and weak, anti-majoritarian democracy within the Democratic Party is not over, and will likely continue for some years into the future.

If the Democrats succeed in the Senate and if they make the most of this victory next year by reminding the electorate, time and time over, how historic this shift is, then the future of a stronger, more progressive majority in the U.S. may be in the cards.

This vote will put pressure on the Senate. And while the narrowness of the victory will encourage some Blue Dog Democrats in the Senate to risk voting against their party, they also surely must know that the Republican Party is coming after all Democrats in 2010 no matter how they vote today to seek to bury this victory. And those in the House who voted against their own party know that reform when and if it comes will change the politics in their own districts.

A very substantial fraction of the Democratic Party is holding tight to the politics that brought them, sectional politics, "red" versus "blue" politics, and it may just be beginning to break up.

The next month and the next years will be crucial for all of us who hope for, who wait for, a democracy of days, a democracy that battles to make daily life for ordinary people more secure in the United States, and not just with health care reform.

Writer Dan E. Beauchamp, Ph.D., led health care reform efforts in the mid-1990s, and served in New York State government. He lives in Bisbee, Arizona, where he served for a time as mayor.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Don't Worry, Be Happy...or at least, Calm

I am less than two hours away from an appointment with a dental surgeon. He is scheduled to pull out a wisdom tooth, and doesn’t expect it to be any big deal.

So why do I feel as though I’m heading into open-heart surgery? I keep imagining the absolute worst possible scenarios: Dr. P slips with the pliers and puts a hole in my cheek. Or he causes bleeding that somehow won’t stop. Or I get an infection that snakes its way through my body. Or he finds that it isn’t just the wisdom tooth that’s cracked, but all the rest of the teeth are too, so he has to pull the whole set.

You get the picture.

So maybe my husband was right the other day when he came up with a new word to describe what I do, day in and day out.

I “negitate.”

He is clever, that husband of mine. He knows of what he speaks. He sees me get up every morning and head straight to my Native American blanket, outfitted with a candle and special crystals and stones and a few feathers and such. He watches while I spend 20 or 25 minutes sitting cross-legged on the mat, focusing on my breathing and generally, trying to realign my brain.

He also knows full well that when I get up off the mat, I will lapse back into my cataclysmic thinking.

I’ve been meditating now for maybe 13 years. So why am I still the queen of "negitation"? I’ve been through my share of hardships. But in the end, I’ve triumphed. And generally, I’ve been a very lucky person. I have blessings galore in my life, and even more reasons for optimism.

Part of the issue: growing up, I probably earned the equivalent of a Ph.D. in worry by the time I was 10. My mom herself will admit that she’s the original nervous Nellie. One itty-bitty example: my freshman year in college, we walked into my dorm room and Mom headed straight for the window, which had a sill about 18 inches from the floor. Immediately, she began to fret that I would fall out of that window.

I love my mom, dearly, but I hate the fact that she – and I—worry the way we do. There is no reason, as my dad often points out, to open your umbrella before it rains. Or even, for that matter to carry the umbrella in the first place.

A year ago, when the whole nation (or at least the Democratic half of it) was reveling in the thrilling possibility of hope and change offered by the Obama candidacy, I was secretly dreading his election. Why? Because it meant that my husband and I would move to Washington, D.C. for his job.

I know I know, everyone and their cousin was telling me how silly I was. They were raving about how DC would be the most exciting place in the Universe to live. But for my own set of neurotic reasons, I was terrified of the move. And so, in my heart of hearts, even though I couldn’t stand John McCain or that silly running mate of his, part of me was hoping he would win.

I can hear the hissing and booing coming in through the screen. I am not proud of it, I'm just willing now to face up to how stupid I was. The moment we arrived, I realized, hey, this could be kind of ….fun!

Indeed, moving to DC has been quite a splendid thing, both personally and professionally. I really love Washington, and its monumental buildings (all the architecture is awe-inspiring.) I enjoy my teaching job. We have a cool apartment in the heart of downtown, a few blocks from the White House. And I really value all the people I’ve met.

And so I look back a year ago and think, what a waste of time all that worrying was.

Of course I’ve grown to love it so much that now I am tempted to worry about moving back.

But that’s where I am drawing the line.

In the best tradition of meditative practice, I am now asking the universe for help in my quest to stop negativating. I am telling myself every which way I can that there is no purpose in turning the future gloomy, and assuming that the worst will happen. I do not want to forecast rain and thunder or hurricanes or tsunamis when the sun is shining overhead and there’s nothing but a gentle breeze behind my head.

So I sit here. I take a breath in, and when I breathe out, I consciously think about letting go of any of those awful thoughts, as if I were flinging each one of them off the top of a mountain.

I breathe in and out several times. I take my hands from the keys momentarily...

And let them rest on my knees. I let my shoulders sag.

I focus on the breath filling my chest and

Now, I am not so concerned about what is going to happen with my tooth. I am ok in this moment.

I imagine myself smiling, leaving the dentists’ office. I imagine myself sitting on a warm sandy beach. (OK well, that part might be a bit of a stretch.)

The point is, I am setting my intention to give up the worry. I am asking the universe for help. I am, in effect, giving up my will, my fear, to some greater power (isn’t this how AA works? Isn’t this what recovering alcoholics do day in and day out, yield their will?)

Well, so, I am doing it in this moment, because that’s all I have. We can only exert our will, or yield it up, moment by moment.

I will go forward to the dentist’s office, without popping an Ativan – even though Dr. P’s instructions say I can.

I am calm. I think. For now.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Mother Nature: Still Better Than You Tube!!

Photo by Susan Prisant
By Alexander & Susan Prisant

Thank God. Real life is still better than You Tube. And we have the miracle to prove it, right in our own backyard.

It was a bright August morning when we opened the bedroom blinds and were stunned. Centered in our window pane, not 15 feet away, a larger-than-life land turtle was laying her eggs. A dozen perfect white ones plopped into the hole she’d made just under our bushes.

It was just like
Only better.

Like the difference between watching National Geographic and actually going to Botswana.

That August morning, we instantly became official Protectors of Animal Life, or PALs. It was only 7 a.m. on a Saturday, but Susan went into action. She phoned the fire department, animal shelter, humane society and three endangered turtle protection groups.

They all told her the same thing: turtle young cannot be moved. This had happened on our property and so it was our solemn duty to protect those eggs. At all costs.

A flurry of google searches ensued. It turned out that ours was a Peninsula Cooter, native to Florida. They’re huge -- up to a foot and a half in length. In a big, dusty book we found, we discovered the turtles' love-making ritual: “males court females by swimming backwards in front of them and gently stroking the sides of the females' faces with their long claws.” What more would you ever want to know?

That You Tube video looked like our kids’ Mom had posed for it. And there were others -- how to protect eggs from predators and disinterested chainsaw-bearing ex-felons, posing as “gardeners.’ We learned about clever uses for refrigerator shelves and red pepper. Dead leaves were reborn as camouflage.

Having laid precisely a dozen eggs -- just as the dusty book said she would -- Big Mama decided it was now our problem and slowly ambled down to the canal in back. We nervously approached and looked at how well she’d covered her young and her tracks. And then promptly proceeded to turn the site into a 4th rate Times Square, with red reflector and 3-foot full-color sign, to warn off the literate, and lots of that red pepper to warn off the illiterate

Our garden is like a jungle.
Photo by Susan Prisant

We have scores of seasonal births: microscopic frogs jumping 20 times their height or slipping under the two-mm gap below our terrace door, while baby geckos cling to the screens, halfway up.

A larger lizard once set up shop in the sun at our garage door -- dicing with death every time we rolled up and honked. He’d force us to get out and finally shoo him into the bushes. An absolutely wild cotton-tail, aka Mr. Bunny, is shrewd enough to come for his carrot, most evenings, precisely at cocktail hour, while blue jays and cardinals vie for the bird bath.

And all the while, the newborn of several Florida species scream for food from their nests in our trees. The whole place is like a four-legged, two-winged maternity ward.

But the really hard part about hatching turtles is that they run on a schedule even less dependable than the old Erie & Lackawanna Railroad. Those experts told us we
were looking at a two-to-seven month mission -- the babies could hatch at anytime in between.

As the weeks dragged on into months our anxiety grew. We spent half our lives staring stupidly down at the ground. Were they already dead? Was it our fault? All the usual, irrational concerns of the (self-appointed) Keepers of Life.

Then, at the very end of October, a miracle. My wife went out on patrol to discover a perfectly shaped hole in the soil, with our grate undisturbed still on top, meaning no predator had come in from above.

It had happened after all. In spite of everything, Mother Nature refuses to quit.

We missed the births, but in the face of some pretty ugly stuff in the world, it still made our week. If we were still in the scouts, I just know we’d have gotten the Tortoise Merit Badge, with Oak Leaf Cluster.

Writer Alexander Prisant and his wife, Susan, live in Florida.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Older Americans Arrested As They Protest Health Care Reform

Photo by Susan Prisant

By Alexander Prisant

Once upon a time in America, people would say: "Sometimes I have to stand up and be counted." That was in the past.

But a few days ago, I had a glimpse of the past. So did this woman in Florida. 70 and cuffed, Patty Bender was among a group of Floridians arrested outside the corporate offices of Humana in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Similar protests against large health insurers took place simultaenously at corporate insurer offices in nine U.S. cities, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Reno and Washington. This was a bold display of old-fashioned civil disobedience -- an orderly sit-in to protest the outrageous behavior of insurance giants like Humana.

The wild-eyed radicals who demonstrated across the country were mostly senior citizens and mostly middle class, except for some like Leslie Elder who lost all insurance when her cancer recurred twice. Elder now risks losing her home because of medical bills. (That''s the way a majority of Americans go bankrupt these days.)

In West Palm, protester Patti Bender was up against eight police cars, 20 sheriff's officers, plus two paramedics and one growling police dog. A lot of power to face down that 75-year old lady.

So what did she do that made police arrest her?

All she did was respectfully submit a letter at Humana's door. The letter asked merely one thing: allow treatment prescribed by a physician for life-threatened Humana patients. The company refused. So a few gentle people sat down at the door until they got a better answer.

The group Health Care Now, which praises the protesters' actions, says: "Nonviolent action is a worldwide tradition based on an understanding that in a society power flows not from guns or positions of authority but from the consent and cooperation of the people."

Martin Luther King said: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

The first sheriff's officer who moved toward and prepared to handcuff the gentle old folk sitting peacefully on the lobby floor glowered and said: "All criminals." Photo by Susan Prisant

"I"m doing this for my daughter," said James Elder. "She's 27 and if we don't fix health insurance now, it could ruin her life later."

As I write this, Mr. Elder, a simple man well into his 60's, sits in jail.

Writer Alesander Prisant, formerly a Vice President of a large Silicon Valley company, keeps a blog called Wordsmith Wars at

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Hedge Funds, Securities and My Ukulele

Ukulele virtuoso Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, on stage.

By Stephen Lewis

Here I sit, in my dorm at Georgetown University, not studying my finance texts, but instead, strumming my ukulele. I am staring at two graphics on my wall thinking that although my path may not be so clear-cut anymore, that’s fine with me.

Of course grades are important, and I do study plenty. I set high personal standards, but sometime last year, it hit me. Chasing a prestigious degree and a corner office were practical pursuits, but they weren’t things that would fire up my passion. Yet, I didn’t know anything else. So if not this pursuit, then what?

A close friend of mine once told me that she thought I had a ‘God complex’ in high school. She was right. At the time, I held a cut-throat mentality towards schoolwork and always kept the future strictly clear and in focus: I’d attend the best college possible, and then I’d land a cushy job on Wall Street. I didn’t have time for non-practical matters; I regarded artistic pursuits -- say, ceramics or jazz band – to be inferior or only time-permissible.

Once in college, everything changed. Freshmen year was not the work hard, play hard experience that I had anticipated it would be. Rather, days grew sterile. Waking up in the morning became a chore, because it meant more textbook chapters and term papers, even in classes I had once anticipated with pleasure. When I wasn’t sleeping or working, I was thinking about the tasks ahead. Suddenly I felt lost and couldn’t figure out why I had come to college, and where I had made a wrong turn.

Looking through some old photos one day, I found a shot of me laughing with two friends from high school, Maxx and Lee. Maxx hadn’t gone to a typical college. Rather, he was on his way to becoming one of the most successful talents in graphic design in the country. Lee is holding a little ukulele in the picture, and he has one of the best ears for music that I know, playing at least three instruments. Bells started ringing in my mind.

Most of my classes that spring semester happened to include texts from Immanuel Kant, several of which explored the danger of projecting a means to an end as the end itself. I had already fallen into that trap. I thought more about my high school friends. Mike plays soccer at Brown, Angad writes a column for the Daily Trojan at USC, Nick is programming video games at Penn, Jeff plays the flute at McGill, and Kayla has done so well on stage at Emerson that she has earned an understudy position for a Broadway show.

I found myself envying my artist friends. They wake up every morning excited to share their creative expressions with the world. While I knew the reality might not be as quite the romantic scene I envisioned, I began to recognize extraordinary value in their efforts, and slowly it dawned on me: art might help alleviate my stress.

That’s when I stumbled upon music. Music? At Georgetown? Most students here are aspiring politicians or diplomats. The number of visual and performing arts majors (and the portion of the University budget devoted to those pursuits) are minimal. Only a year ago, that wouldn’t have bothered me. Since then, though, I have become something of a musician.

Or at least, I play the ukulele – an instrument I bought for a song one day while browsing Amazon. Now, I play cover pieces by Zach Condon and Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. But I didn’t stop there. I have recently latched onto electronic dance music (when people hear it they sometimes call it “techno music,” or, “eurotrash.”) I’m now starting to learn to use live-mixing music software.

But what can a student in business do, practically speaking, with all of this music? Lots of things. Several friends and I are already engaged in building a social networking website for college bands and musicians. Moreover, coming from southern California, where the entertainment industry thrives in my backyard, I now see that my analytical skills as a finance major might one day land me a job in the music industry. While I may not possess the natural born talents of musicians, actors, impressionists or sculptors, there are still ways I might make a living in the world of the arts.

And the real point of all this is that I’m happy. Every free moment I get, I have those nylon strings beneath my fingertips and I’m strumming the work of my oversized ukulele hero, Israel Kamakawiwo'ole.

Stephen Lewis is a sophomore at Georgetown University, where he is majoring in business. This is his first published writing.

Monday, October 12, 2009

DC Students Watched While Police Removed Their Teachers from Classrooms

By Claudia Ricci

If you don't live in DC, chances are you don't know about the troubling things that have been happening in the schools.

Even if you live in DC, you might not know.

There have been local stories the teacher firings -- more than 200 teachers were purged on Friday, October 2nd -- just a few weeks into the school year. But most of the coverage has focused on whether DC Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee was justified in firing the teachers -- many of them veteran educators -- and replacing them with new teachers making smaller salaries.

But what is astonishing is how little media coverage there has been about HOW those firings came down. (I saw one mention in the Post.)

It's a horrible story that bears repeating. It's a story that deserves a giant front page headline that screams out:




My source on the story is a good friend who teaches in one of the DC schools affected and was there when colleagues were fired. This friend - who will remain anonymous, because God knows I don't want to see one more teacher fired - called me from a cell phone the Friday before last, frantic, and practically in tears.

"You won't believe what just happened here at school," my friend yelled into the phone. I was working in a crowded office where I couldn't talk, but I whispered back, "what?"

"It was like some kind of armed coup. Twenty minutes before the end of the school day, with all the kids sitting in the classroom, they walked in and fired a bunch of teachers."

I got up from my desk and went out into the hall where I could hear better.

My friend described the scene. It was just minutes before the bell rang. No one knew it was coming. The doors of certain classrooms opened. Armed policemen wearing bullet-proof vests appeared. Accompanying the cops were the new teachers who informed the existing teachers that they had been replaced. No warning at all.

"Teachers were given exactly five minutes to pack up their things and exit the building," my friend said.

Some of those teachers had worked in the schools for more than 20 years.

Some of those teachers left in tears.

And the students? God knows what they thought.

The teachers' union is suing, protesting the firings. At a rally in DC last Thursday -- it attracted thousands, according to the Post - the union accused School Chancellor Rhee of union busting, systematically removing more expensive, experienced teachers.

In their lawsuit, the union noted that more than 900 new teachers had been hired during the summer, about three times as many as normal. These new instructors, the union argues, will cost the system less in salary.

Rhee denies the union accusations, insisting that the teachers were relieved of their duties for legitimate reasons, including incompetence.

The controversy about why the teachers were removed will undoubtedly rage on.
But the story of how they were dismissed is crystal clear.

In my friend's words, "the teachers were treated like criminals."

Even if they deserved to be fired --and that is not at all clear-- "they deserved to be treated with dignity and respect."

Uh, yeah. If for no other reason, consider the kids.

Consider the lessons imparted that day. A person may devote him or herself to a job for two decades, but that matters not at all when it comes time for the budget ax to fall. An employer has no obligation to treat a loyal employee with respect.

So my question is this: who decided how these teacher firings were going to be executed in DC? And did those decisionmakers give even two minutes of thought to how their decisions would affect the kids who sat and watched the debacle unfold?

This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post at

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Want to Teach English In Vietnam? Prepare to SWEAT!

By Kelly Fitzgerald

Can Tho city. You probably think you’ve pronounced it correctly, right? CAN-TOE? Well, turns out, you probably didn’t. As is the case with so many other words in Vietnamese, nothing is pronounced the way your American mind thinks it should be.

Can Tho (pronounced CUN-TA) is my current place of residence. Located about 180km south of Ho Chi Minh city, it is the most commercial and profitable province in all of southern Vietnam. What am I doing here, you ask? What many other college graduates are doing this fall: teaching English abroad. In other words: hiding from the anticipated rejection letters of potential business employers in the States. And I couldn’t have picked a more interesting country in which to take cover.

Daily life for an English teacher in Can Tho: Wake up. Sweat. Wash my face. Put on my work clothes. Sweat. Flag a motorbike taxi to Campus Two of Can Tho University. Pay the man 10,000 VND (Vietnamese Dong), roughly equivalent to forty-five cents in the U.S. Sweat some more. Teach for three hours. SWEAT. Come home and go to dinner with my roommate (which costs only fifty cents, by the way.) Get eaten alive by mosquitoes. Repeat.

Although communism is way less apparent in the southern provinces of Vietnam, it is still evident in the country’s educational system. My students, though sweet and friendly, are very shy. They never raise their hand and look begrudged to come speak in front of the class when I call on them. They are not free-thinkers. They are taught how to think at an early age, and that means two things: acceptance and subordination.

Part of the mission of Teachers for Vietnam ( is to bring native, American speakers, usually recent college graduates like myself, to the English department of Can Tho University. We are supposed to share our culture, customs and linguistic knowledge with our students. They love English class – are surprisingly but refreshingly enthusiastic about it here, even though they are reluctant to actually speak it! I even have students who aren’t enrolled in the course who come sit down just to watch me teach.

“Okay, class,” I say, preparing to teach them how to pronounce "sheep."

“Repeat after me: ship-sheep.”

Class: “Ship-ship.”

Me: “Err…bet-but.”

Class: “Bess-buss.”

Me: “Put-pitt.”

Class: “Puss-piss.”

Evidently, we have a way to go, but we’re getting there. And it’s impossible to get frustrated with my students for long, as the ear-to-ear grin I get from every single one of them upon entering class every day is so humbling that I almost feel I’m not worth it. They invite me to dinner with their families, they offer me rides home on their motorbikes when it’s raining and they always tell me that I’m pretty, no matter how awful I might be looking that day. They are undoubtedly the best pupils that a first-year teacher could ever ask for.

There are touristy things to do in Can Tho, of course. The floating markets are the most popular attraction. To see them at their busiest, be prepared to rise at 4 a.m. I have yet to get there myself, but according to my roommate and co-worker, it is quite the site to see: little Vietnamese women in their conical hats, squatting on their long canoes, trying to sell you fresh fish, vegetables and fruit in the heart of the Mekong delta. (I still have yet to develop a taste for seafood that early, though!)

I’ve also grown accustomed to my noisy yet invisible neighbors. The sounds of the frogs and the geckoes (yes, they make noises) are rhythms that I’ve grown quite accustomed to. It’s never a dull night in my front or backyard – I’m just never invited to the party.

Besides its surplus of amphibian life, southern Vietnam is also well-known for its food. Specifically, their sweet-n-sour soup and their “pancakes.” In the traditional American frame of mind, pancakes are thick, lovely slices of carbohydrate heaven. In Can Tho, they are very thin, very crispy flakes of fried rice noodle, jam-packed with a plethora of goodies in between: bean sprouts, carrots, string beans, shrimp, chicken, beef, pineapple, peas, etc. Anything you want in there (except maple syrup) you got it.

All these fabulous things aside, it’s important to note that Vietnam was not my first choice. I originally intended on teaching English in Europe after graduating in May. Preferably Italy, as I had studied the language for seven years. Those plans, however, fell through. Now I can’t imagine having lived in a place where the cost of living would have exceeded my salary almost two to one.

Here, I live like royalty. The food is incredible and the people, so hospitable. Everyone is always smiling at me. And the only reason for that is just my appearance: there are few if any “foreigners” in Can Tho, so I stick out like a sore thumb. Nonetheless, it’s strange but exhilarating to be looking from the outside in, and this country has certainly taken my breath away.

Writer Kelly Fitzgerald is a May, 2009 graduate of the University at Albany, State University of New York. Her blog capturing her adventures in Vietnam appears at

Sunday, October 04, 2009

"You Are Protesting My Health, M'am!"

By Lisa Gillespie

I am reading on the subway as we pull up to L’Enfant Plaza in Washington DC, when a yellow-shirted, middle-aged, slightly over-weight woman with a sparkly home-made visor files in with her husband. She is holding a sign that says, “Hitler gave great speeches, too,” with a picture of Obama and a mustache. Her husband holds a sign comparing the proposed health care reform to socialism. She starts asking the woman next to her, an overweight woman in a similar visor and a wheelchair, where she is from. As I hear they are both from North Carolina, I cringe. They get excited. My home state is represented by the conservative protestors marching on the Capitol.

The woman looks at me, I imagine she sees a young woman, just out of college, white and blond hair, reading. She smiles warmly. I imagine being pulled into this woman’s bosom, just like one of my aunts would do after her niece arrives from the big city. But I cannot smile back at this woman. My mouth twists and my eyes narrow. How can she smile at me.

I do not have health insurance.

I work three part-time jobs.

I do not know when and if I will get a full-time job, which would provide the insurance so that I could go to the doctor.

Last week I had a toothache. It lasted for a week. I called my mother crying one night because of the pain, but, more because of worry caused by that pain. My mind was spinning with the thoughts of the potential decay, my gums and teeth would eventually rot out of my head. Usually, I just do not think about what if something were to happen to me. But I could not avoid it on this evening.

I know I am not alone.

I would like to be taken care of.

But, because I cannot find a full-time job, I am not.

There are logistics to health care, money involved. But the idea that giving care to people is protestable, it angers me. I am one of these people. And so many people at my part-time restaurant job. And so many people I interview.

I do not know if universal health care will go through; it is not within my frame of reference right now to think so, or to even hope so. Because I wake up every day with the hope that I do not get sick, because the small sickness might lead to something bigger. I know I would have resources. I could move home. My parents and the aunts with the bosoms would help. But some people do not have family.

I feel a little guilty for not smiling back at the lady on the train. But, I do not think she feels guilty. So I will try not to either.

Lisa Gillespie is interim editor of Street Sense, a newspaper about homelessness and poverty published in Washington, D.C. Proceeds from the sales of Street Sense support the homeless vendors who sell the paper on the streets. This piece ran in the September 18th issue of the paper. Donations to Street Sense are always welcome, go to

Saturday, September 26, 2009

In Pain

By Olivia Morrissey

One, two, sometimes three times a month, if I’m lucky, I go through an entire day without my ankle hampering my activities. Almost every other day of the month, though, I am crippled physically and mentally by my left ankle. Over the past three years, I have fielded so many questions about it that I can reply now almost without thinking.

“It’s a long story…” I begin, starting with the way I misjudged a landing on a trampoline, then summing up the surgeries and injections and medicines that I've endured in a sentence or two. I always accompany the explanation with a smile. I can dole out these sound bytes with ease, but sometimes people will still press me: they want to know what exactly is wrong with it: a sprain, a break, a tearing of ligaments?

Here, I, and medical experts in numerous fields in numerous countries, are stumped as to how to respond.

Originally the diagnosis was simple enough: a slight sprain. Then it became sinus tarsi syndrome, which the experts thought would be fixed with a cortisone injection; instead, the injection thinned the skin and turned my foot a nasty bruised colour which is only just now starting to disappear. Then I had an operation. My ankle got better, then worse, then much worse.

A doctor in Boston predicted that I would never be able to walk even close to normally again. A doctor in Amsterdam was slightly more optimistic, and I had an operation to snap the adhesions in my foot. That worked, for a while, but the pain returned. More doctors. More medicine. I had to choose whether I wanted my mind to be clouded by pain or by the stupor brought on by the pain-control drugs that I was prescribed. The doctors attempted to reboot my nervous system with an operation on my back. Nothing was working.

And, I admit, I began to despair that I would never be cured.

No one could name what was wrong with me, and therefore no one seemed able to fix it. I was tired of being experimented on, fed up with being shuttled from one specialist to the next. My ankle was deemed "hypersensitive," as if my intense pain was an exaggeration on my behalf. Eventually, most doctors began to give up and decided I probably had chronic pain syndrome, a condition that affects as many as one in ten Americans. It costs the U.S. economy more than $90 billion each year in medical fees, disability payments and lost productivity, and yet there are very few treatments for it. Chronic pain syndrome is not only difficult physically, but emotionally – many with chronic pain suffer from depression as well.

It’s not hard to understand why. My ankle pain meant I couldn’t go out to parties, couldn’t go shopping, couldn’t even walk my dog. My parents funded taxis to help me get places, and my friends would come over when I couldn’t go out, but it was a difficult adjustment from the life I had lived before. I had always been athletic – now I couldn’t even walk to the end of the street without being in pain.

Then, just over a year ago, I found a doctor who did not give up on me, and I had my final operation to remove further scar tissue and shave off a bone. I was told that if this did not work, there would be no more operations; my foot simply wouldn’t be able to take it.

Now, a year of physical therapy and chiropractic and osteopathic treatments later, I can function almost normally. I no longer have to judge whether I can afford to walk downstairs to get some water, or whether I can go back to the dorm for books in between classes without having to rest my ankle for hours afterward.

I do not think that my ankle injury ruined my high school experience – rather, it shaped it in such a way that I believe has made me a different and better person. I no longer resent my ankle injury as much as appreciate the skills it taught me: durability, courage, and the knowledge of how far I can go before breaking (which is much further than I would’ve thought possible). It made me turn away from sports and instead turn to writing, which is now central to my existence, and it meant that I surrounded myself not with people who went out clubbing every night, but rather those who were perfectly happy to lounge around discussing anything at all.

I now revel in every step that I take, every mile that I manage to go. I walk slower, yes, but, at the risk of sounding clich├ęd, my leisurely pace makes me stop and actually enjoy the things around me. I enjoy the world. I wonder at my movements. I count my blessings.

Writer Olivia Morrissey, a freshman attending Georgetown University, grew up in London. This essay acknowledges Joan Didion's famous piece, "In Bed," after which it was modeled.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Giving Birth to Our Dreams

By Kellie Meisl

In a new book called "Dream Stories, Recovering the Inner Mystic," writers Kellie Meisl and Connie Caldes, both of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, explore the ways in which dreams give meaning to life events. The book is available through What follows is an excerpt from Chapter 25.

"You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star." -- Friedrich Nietzsche

"The Birthing Dream"

I observe a large, dark gray, plump-looking airplane with a

long red chute that curves upward on the sides. The chute

extends from the plane’s door to the ground. I am about to enter this

plane with a group of women, one, my friend Connie. I am

afraid to climb the chute. There is a ladder beside it, but it is

rickety. A young, athletic woman climbs the chute and makes

it up before me. On the ground a man assists women as they climb.

He offers to help me ascend. I climb, then turn to observe the chute from above. A

section in the middle has become detached. I watch in fear as two

young women hang from the detached part of the chute by their knees, upside down.

The women are struggling to fix the chute. However, they are carefree and relaxed.

I am now in the very spacious plane; many women are

with me. I realize we were all supposed to bring our babies

aboard, but no one did. I see a stack of empty cradles. My eyes

become fixed upon an older woman who is walking around

continuously. Her hair is fluffy, grayish white, and she wears

pajamas, a robe and slippers. I realize we were all supposed to

be wearing our pajamas but only the older woman is doing so.

Yet I get the sense that not wearing pajamas is right, what

has been agreed upon.

On the same night, my friend Connie dreams she is one of many

women on a maternity ward, wearing a robe and slippers. She

is shuffling around the maternity ward; she has just given birth

to her son. I am there with her.

There are many aspects of this dream that still elude me,

though I dreamed it a decade ago and have pondered it ever

since. I am not certain why the women in my dream agree

not to wear pajamas or why this is the “right” choice. And

where are the babies? Why is there a bunch of empty cradles? I

do know two things. One, the dream was a shared dream.

Connie and I both shared a dreamscape that night, a maternity

ward full of women, some wearing robes and slippers. And two,

my dream was a reflection on giving birth. The blimp-like plane

with the long red chute is a symbol of the birthing process. I

believe the fact that the chute became detached and that the

women hang upon it, suspended, reflects my placental

abruption and subsequent Caesarean section. Perhaps the empty

cradles are symbols of the babies being whisked away from their

mothers after surgery, as mine was.

Recently, I have come to understand that dreams of giving

birth are life metaphors. They signal us, reminding us to give birth

to our dreams, to create and bring forth the labors of our creation.

The dreams will continue to recur until we take notice. And

what if we do not heed the message of our birth dreams? Then

the message is presented in the circumstances we face in the

waking world where again we have the opportunity to take

notice and create the dream we have been incubating.

Because I had given birth to my son not long before my

birthing dream, I understood the dream first on a more literal

level. Of course that was one layer of meaning to my dream.

Then I had another more potent dream that caused me to take

notice and look at things from a different angle.

"Hospital Bed"

I am lying in a hospital bed hooked up to many tubes, as I

was after my Caesarean section. I feel weak, like I am fading

away. My doctor comes into the room. He is kind and gentle.

He shares with me that I have something growing in my

abdomen. I fear it is uterine cancer. I know it is serious and

that it will require great effort to recover, but I have hope that

I can heal.

I awoke from this dream quite shaken and concerned. I

knew it was important, and I knew on some level the growth in

my abdomen signified something that was growing inside

me and needed to come out. At the time of the dream, I was just

beginning to dabble in creating art. I understood that the

uterus is located in the second chakra, the area of one’s

creativity. I saw the dream as a reminder to create and I

continued with my art. I have created pieces for annual art

shows held locally every year since; I have also created pieces for family,

friends and for myself. I knew too the book I had wanted to write

needed to manifest, and I began writing stories. Now that book, a labor of love,

has been published! I also brought to fruition

a book for children that I wrote and illustrated for my son. This

is a project I dreamed of doing as an elementary teacher when I

read and observed meaningfully written and beautifully

illustrated works by others. And, I continue to work with

dreams both formally in the classes I teach and privately as I

work with my own dreams. I have never forgotten my Hospital

Bed dream, and I realize how important it is for me to create on

a regular basis.

Not long ago, I heard a story of a woman I knew as an

acquaintance who died from cancer. Her cancer had originally

grown in her abdomen but had healed. Then it returned in her

uterus. The story I heard was astonishing. It led me to wonder

if perhaps she did not have the chance to live the dream she

held for herself. The story came from her employer, a

friend of mine. We were having tea, talking about dreams

and she told me this story:

Prior to her death, Angela had been appointed to a new

position within the company where she was working. This was

one of several new assignments she had received in a period of

a few short years. She liked this latest job and was ready

to stay with it for a while. She was finally feeling

comfortable. Not too long after Angela settled into her job, a

woman with whom she worked closely, who was slated to move to

another position within the company, had a miscarriage. The

woman, Susan, had not been keen on changing her position in

the first place. One day, Angela sat in the office of her boss in

tears, a meeting she had called to say, “I cannot allow Susan

to be involuntarily moved to this new position after the

devastation she has suffered. Though I do not want to, I will

take the new job.” Very soon after, Angela became ill with

uterine cancer. She wound up leaving her job shortly after

taking it and never returned before her death.

This story stands as a powerful reminder to me that we

cannot sell ourselves out; we must take care to create and

follow the paths that feel right to us, even if we feel pressure

from others around us. Perhaps the older woman with white

hair in my birthing dream stood out because she was

enlightened; she chose to wear her pajamas and slippers

though the younger women agreed it was right to conform.

As I peruse my dream journal, I note many metaphors of birth,

some more direct than others. I notice that I often dream of

eggs, Easter eggs, cartons of eggs and jeweled eggs.

I feel fortunate that I have these dreams documented. I

remind myself it is important to reread them now and then.

When I read the dreams, I can see that as I was having them,

they were little seeds growing into the life I now have. Many

aspects of the dreams have played out. I realize now that the

dreaming mind is a vessel where the offspring of our soul’s

aspirations may nest. All we need to do is allow ourselves to

slumber, then remember and honor our dreams; that alone will

help us fulfill a more conscious role in how our lives unfold. So

I will do my personal best to bring my dreams into existence.

And, if I can do anything to honor Angela’s dream, it will be to

remember to exercise extreme caution, looking out for myself when making

important decisions about my life’s path. I will take on the roles

I love and create what is meaningful to me, even if I feel

pressured to do otherwise.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

My Not-So-Separate Lives

By Talia Roth

At the beginning of my internship I struggled to balance my two lives. One here at Street Sense, the newspaper for the homeless in D.C., meeting and talking to vendors, working my butt off and becoming close with people so much more mature than I. My other life took place in McLean, Virginia. I was a lifeguard at my community pool,
went to fancy dinners with my friends and acted like the fact that we still hadn’t signed each other’s yearbooks was the biggest travesty in the world. I took a twenty-minute metro ride each day to transport me between these two lives, these two people, but they seemed to be so much farther apart.

It did not take much time before I realized how wrong I was. I began talking with one vendor about how when he sells less papers certain days he gets low self-esteem, he feels worthless. I explained to him about how my stay-at-home mother confessed to me suffering from a similar feeling from being out of work for 10 years. I began recognizing great similarities in my two lives. I watched as one vendor didn’t make the street soccer team he was hoping to make, it seemed like he felt just like I felt after getting cut from my high school varsity team. We both worked so hard, only to be faced with disappointment.

We are all one in the same. We hurt, we love, we win and we lose. You can easily look at your feet or cross the street in the other direction thinking that you are better than the person behind the vest. I know I’ve done it, Starbucks in hand. But it’s cowardly. The difficult thing to do is look them in the eye, and consider the possibility that they might not be exactly who you judge them to be. Next time you see that green vest take the time to talk to a vendor, learn from them. It could change your life, I know it changed mine.

This past summer, Talia Roth worked as an intern at Street Sense, the newspaper about poverty and homelessness in Washington, D.C. She is now a freshman at Syracuse University, studying journalism. This piece first appeared in the September 2009 issue of Street Sense, which began publication in August, 2003. The newspaper is sold on the street by homeless individuals. It is a source of income for those people who sell it. Street Sense recently launched A a website presence for its content at Donations to the organization are always welcome!

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Skunks in the Yard

By Camincha

About five summers ago, Alba and Lloyd’s cat, Domino, suddenly changed her ways.

Domino's food had always been kept in the house. Otherwise the skunks, opossums, coyotes and other wild creatures that were known to visit the backyard from time to time would be tempted to help themselves.

But one night, for no reason that Alba could see, Domino started to demand her food dish be brought to the steps outside. She no longer wanted to come in.

Alba kept an eye on the dish. She was ready to bring it in the minute Domino finished eating. Curiously, Alba noticed that the cat didn’t touch her food. Instead, the minute the dish was on the step Domino ran to it, sniffed it and just went back to sitting on her chair. Or so Alba thought.

What was going on? What was this lovely, chubby, black cat that so much resembled a skunk with the wide, white stripe snaking through her from her head to the tip of her tail, what was she up to?

The answer came one evening, when the sun, in a glorious combination of bright reds and oranges, had already set. There was no moon. It was very dark, and so Alba had to strain to see the cat. Was that Domino on the step? Or was that a skunk? Or...were there two of them?

Suddenly in amazement Alba realized that, yes, it was her cat and a skunk. A fat, big one. Domino was showing the skunk where her food dish was. The two creatures stood there, Domino and the skunk side by side. They sniffed each other. Then they kissed each other!

Domino asked for food for the skunk every evening in the same way. The days passed.

Another summer evening with lots of daylight, Alba was at the computer next to the glass sliding doors that open to the backyard with its hill and ample open space. Lloyd came in to talk. He was facing the backyard. All of a sudden he exclaimed: Look! Look!

Alba turned. There was Domino coming down the hill followed closely by a fluffy wobbling black fur ball with white specks. A baby skunk! There was purpose in Domino’s steps. She brought the baby skunk to her food dish on the steps.

Alas, the fluffy ball couldn’t make it up the steps. Inside the room, Alba and Lloyd just watched. They didn’t move. Didn’t want to intrude. What to do? Just watch.

Domino overturned the dish! The food spilled down the steps and all over the ground. The fluffy ball ate voraciously.

From that evening on, Alba fed that baby skunk, its mother, the father that appeared from nowhere, and their four other babies.

That Domino, what a cat. Alba and Lloyd were so proud: Domino knew that skunk was pregnant. And that’s why she wanted to feed her!

Then the raccoons came.

Camincha is a pen name for a Pacifica, California-based writer. She is a frequent contributor to MyStoryLives.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Audacity of Obama

By Claudia Ricci

Let’s hope the rumors aren’t true. Let’s hope the insiders have it wrong, and that Wednesday night’s health care speech is not what some here in DC fear most: that Obama is ready to cave on health care, abandoning or backing off on the public option.

But if they are right, and if the President does step back, instead of stepping up, then my reading of The Audacity of Hope two years ago will have proven to be right on target.

I read the book after the very bright woman who was then acting as president of my university (part of the SUNY system) convened a discussion about it. That was still in the days when Hillary Clinton (our own U.S. Senator in New York) seemed a shoe-in for the nomination. Obama was a curiosity. Not a terribly seriously option.

Reading the first few chapters of the book, I was wowed. I remember telling my husband I thought the guy was incredible. A great writer, a refreshingly honest politician, a man with an extraordinarily ambitious vision. As the product of a multi-racial partnership, he could see a way to bridge the many gaping divisions between and among Americans of all ages and races and classes and geographic and economic positions.

By the time I’d finished the book, however, I’d shifted my position. Maybe I was getting tired of what started to feel like his slick rhetorical gift. Maybe I was just overwhelmed by skepticism. In the end, it seemed to me that anybody who could so fully embrace opposing points of view might not be willing to do what was necessary as President: stand up and show true leadership by taking a strong position and running with it.

Well, so, I wasn’t an Obama man, at least for a while. I was too suspicious. I didn’t think when the going got tough, that he would be the President willing to do what he should do. As his candidacy grew more and more popular, I had to let go. I finally saw the inevitability of the Obama movement, and like others, wanted to believe that in him, we had a brand new kind of leader. A President like Lincoln, FDR or Johnson who could remake America. A President to carve a way into the 21st century. Like so many Americans, I became excited that this man had a mission. And a bold vision. And real guts and honest determination to seize a historical moment and make a real difference in the lives of ordinary people.

But now, what? Now I fear that he might actually be the waffler I thought he was when I read the book. The man who wants to please everybody, but in the end, pleases no one. He appears at this moment to be losing support, and instead of standing up and saying, we are going to stay the course, because it’s the right thing to do, he backs down. Retreats and gives in to right-wing fear-mongering and finagling.

Tragically, it’s almost as though he and his handlers don’t get it. They don’t see what we saw as he was swept into office on a groundswell of grass roots support in January 2009. They don’t truly understand why everybody was so wildly enthusiastic about his up-from-nowhere candidacy.

Over and over again this year, we have heard him say “we need the public option because it’s the only way to keep the insurance industry honest.” Exactly. Without that option, then what are we left with? What kind of health care reform do we have? To many of us, the reform ends up looking like another corporate giveaway. Sure, millions more Americans will be insured. And who stands to profit from those millions of new premium payers?

WellPoint and United Health and Cigna and Aetna.

Mr. President, you will lose so many of your staunchest supporters with a speech that backs away from the public option. You think your polls are slipping now? Just wait. Apparently, you think you can cave on health care, and still hold onto your base. I respectfully suggest that might be a dangerous miscalculation. There are millions of us out here who will be enraged if you have the audacity to take us, and our support, and our votes, for granted.

Please, Mr. Obama. Please don’t.

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Meet Sammy

If you were really really lucky, you would know the little boy sitting in this tunnel.

His name is Sammy and he may seriously be the cutest and most wonderful and fun-loving little boy in the entire universe.

OK, so I am a little biased.

No, I am not his grandmother. But there are so many days that I wish I were!

I am, informally, his "auntie." And so is my sister. And so are both my daughters.

We Aunties all met Sammy pretty shortly after he was born, on January 7, 2006. (My daughter, Jocelyn, an amazingly talented neonatal intensive care nurse, took care of Sammy in the Boston hospital where he was born. She later came to be good friends with his parents, Nikki and Daryn.)

Anyway, Sammy had a bit of a rough entry into the world, but when he finally got through the tough period, it was clear he was ... completely and utterly amazing and wonderful.

I offer you this photo to show how much he loves to play.

Recently, I spent a day with Sammy in Boston. We spent a good hour opening and closing the door of a closet, in which there was piled a stack of chairs.

Sammy shrieked with delight every time we closed the door. He squealed over and over again, "Bye Bye Mr. Chair."

And I laughed over and over again, every time he shrieked.

Well, so, what can I say? Sammy is pure joy. He sings on numerous videos. His favorite number these days is "Itsy Bitsy Spider," and I dare anyone to show me anyone who does a better job!

Well, so, Sammy, this blog post is devoted to you, because no matter how bad a day I might be having, when your mom sends me photos of you, I instantly smile. And sometimes, I even laugh. Out loud. I shake my head, because I think I've seen you at your cutest, and then, there is something else that you do that is over the top, even cuter.

To say that you make my day is well, putting it mildly indeed.

Sammy, the world NEEDS you. And your extraordinary humor. And your daily (hourly) performances.

You need your own website. Your own TV show. The world would indeed be a happier and better place if your face appeared daily on the evening news, in place of so many TV people that I could list here but won't. :)


I could go on and on,

but I won't, I'll just post another photo, to show your ham-it-up-Sam-in-the-back-of-Mom's car!

See, Sammy, you even make DRIVING fun!

So, keep us laughing, please. Keep showing the rest of us the way fun is done!

Big hugs,

Auntie Claudia xoxoxo

P.S. I can hardly wait to see you dressed up in your tiny suit, acting as ring bearer at Jocelyn and Evan's wedding this November. Here are my favorite photos of you and Evan and Jocelyn, soon to be MARRIED!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

No, I Don't Want You to Pray for Me!

By Meredith LaFrance

All I wanted was a day to myself—undisturbed and relaxed. But this is reality and in reality we hardly ever manage to get exactly what we want. Life is chaotic, unfair and insensitive to our feelings.

Saturdays and Sundays are my days off. Saturday I awoke with a headache, a queasy feeling in my stomach and way too many thoughts—not really a prerequisite to a laid-back day. Thus, I was delighted to wake up this morning (Sunday) headache-less and feeling refreshed. I stayed in bed until 11 or so, writing and zoning out, until I finally decided to detangle myself from my covers, shower, get dressed, and meander down to the bus station.

Now, when I want to shut everything out and not think about my life, I jam my sound-blocking ear buds into my ears, blast the volume and just go where I need to go. I can listen to music from most genres. Except country. Aside from The Dixie Chicks and Johnny Cash, I can’t say I’m a fan. Today I decided to disappear into the world of The Cranberries, DJ Sammy and The Postal Service. When I’m plugged in, I can ignore just about anything—drunk bums in need of some spare change, middle schoolers milling around outside the public library and, most importantly, the unnecessarily rude stares at my arm and the subsequent whispering and pointing.

Well, I took the number 12 to the Gateway Mall, bought a ticket to see “Angels and Demons” at the dollar-fifty and then proceeded to Target to pass the time. Then I moseyed over to Ross Dress For Less. I was milling in the housewares section, intently reading the label on some sort of cheese grating/lemon juicing/egg separating contraption that I briefly considered buying when I found myself face-to-face with two teenaged males and a small boy. I stared at them for a moment, confused and slightly annoyed about having been pulled out of “Meredith World.”

“Yes?” I queried nicely.

“Hello,” said one of the teenaged boys.


“We were wondering if we could pray for your arm.”

That was it. No preamble, no nice inquiry about how my day was going, nothing.

“Um, excuse me?” I was still holding the grater thing and I suddenly had a burning urge to throw it at his face. But I’m a good-hearted, tolerant person.

“Can we pray for your arm?” he repeated. “Because we’ve seen stranger things than that and seen them heal and it’s been a miracle.”

I’m floored. I am far from religious—not an atheist per se, but I certainly don’t believe there is any one god up there intent on fixing people’s problems and making the world a better place. We all have issues and we should be the ones working to fix them. I believe in myself and I believe in others. That’s all the faith I need.

The only other time anyone has prayed for me, to my knowledge, was back in high school. My friend said a prayer for me before a trumpet audition. I bombed the audition. If there is a god, the last thing he/she cares about is my nonsensical life.

Anyway, I stood there for a few seconds, stupefied and offended. Firstly, I was not in the mood to speak with anyone. Secondly, I make a point to avoid people who try to shove their religious faith in my face. For instance, I used to hide behind the couch with my siblings when Jehovah’s witnesses came around. Case in point.

I wanted to ask these boys why they thought my arm was so appalling. And why, exactly, did they think it need healing? And um, hello, I was BORN this way, and while you can pray until the cows come home, I am not miraculously going to grow three more fingers and a “normal-looking” arm simply because a few people decide to add me as an afterthought to their evening prayers.

But I’m not an angry person. So I simply smiled and said “No thank you.” After a few moments of hesitation, as if they thought I might change my mind and suddenly become enlightened, they left me alone. I wanted to walk around the store a bit more and check out the rugs and tables, but each person I passed looked at me sadly, and I knew they all pitied me. I hate being pitied. I couldn’t handle it so I exited the store and escaped once again into my musical world.

Is there a God? Who knows. Nobody knows. But I do know that if there is one, He/She doesn’t give a flying f**k about my arm. I’ve lived with it for 20 years and when I wake up each morning, it’s still there. Not a day goes by when I wish I could hack it off and replace it with an arm that looks like the next person’s. But hey, this is who I am so I might as well just deal.

Sure, I’m insecure about my deformity, but only because inconsiderate people like those three boys walk this earth. I’ve been laughed at and felt loneliness and sadness that many people will never understand. I’ve been called names like T-Rex and Stick Woman and I’ve spent a good amount of time explaining to a few kids that I’m not actually a monster. Almost always I am able to smile and sometimes laugh a little and then move on, just like I did in Ross today. I’ve given up being bitter towards others because it’s the world that is messed up, not me. It’s just slightly bothersome that while I am wholeheartedly able to accept other people for who they are and not how they appear, people are so unwilling to accept me.

I do not love my arm; it is simply "there." However, it does not define me. I am so much more and yet so many people can’t see past the surface. I am a competent, strong, intelligent, happy, loving person. All I’m asking is to be a part of this society and for people to stop trying to fix me. Because I’m not broken.

And please, keep your prayers to yourself. I do not need them.

Thank you for reading.

Writer Meredith LaFrance is a student at the University of Oregon.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Hey, Dude, What Do I Have to Do to Get You Off My Front Porch?

By Michelle Lirazan

It was a sunny and breezy Thursday morning in July. I was ready to go to my friend's house and spend the day there. But as I opened the front door, I saw a man on the front porch sitting quietly. I asked him to leave but he didn't. He was dressed in old clothes that looked unwashed. He was also wearing a weird blue hat on his head. I asked him why he was there, but he didn't answer. I thought he just needed food, and that was all it would take to get him to leave.

I rushed into the house and into the kitchen, and grabbed a P.B. and J. sandwich lying on the dining room table, and a Capri Sun from the refrigerator. Then I rushed back out and handed it to the man. He ate the sandwich and drank the juice but didn't leave.

Maybe money would get him to leave, I thought to myself. I reached into my wallet and took out $50. He accepted it but wouldn't leave.

"Hey, I want that back," I said.

Maybe the police could get him to leave, I thought.

"Um, sir, Dude, whoever you are," I began. "You need to leave my porch before I call the police."

"Go ahead," he replied. "I don't care."

Wow, I thought, this guy's crazy. Normally, a person would have left if you threatened to call the cops. But that threat didn't scare this dude.

"Hey, why don't you go over to the neighbor's house?" I said. "It's bigger and comfier."

"I like this one better," he said.


"This is the only place were I haven't gotten yelled at, and this is where I got served food. I think I'm gonna stay here for a while."

I was about to curse the dude. But then I decided to leave for my friend's house. When I got home at 10 p.m., he was still there.

"Man, you need to leave or else," I yelled.

"Or else what?"

"Or else I'll throw my furniture at you!" I said.

"When you do that," he replied, "could you throw the TV at me first? I wanna watch wrestling!"

"Unbelievable," I said.

"Could you throw the microwave at me, and popcorn too?"

I couldn't believe this guy. But I had a plan. I sneaked into my older brother's room, and grabbed some clothes from his closet. The next day, I gave it to the man, and told him to clean up and get dressed quickly. I showed him to the bathroom and he showered and changed.

"Thanks for the clothes," he said.

"No problem. Come on. I want to take you somewhere."

We got into my silver Mercedes convertible and I headed to the mall. I showed him to a store for men. I told him to look for clothes he wanted. I told him I'd be back for him in half an hour.

I lied. I headed out of the mall and went to the movie with my friends.

At 9 p.m., I arrived home. I had had a long day, and it was enjoyable. I was so happy thinking I'd gotten rid of the man on my porch. But as I got out of my car, I saw him. The man was STILL on my porch!

How had he known the way back to my house?

"Hey," he said, "thanks for taking me to the mall. I had a good day."

I didn't say anything. I went inside the house.

The next day I ordered my Golden Retriever to chase the man off my porch. At first i heard her barking, but then everythign was quiet. I went out to the porch.

My dog was sitting with the man. He was petting the dog.

I give up!

High school student Michelle Lirazan lives in Washington, DC. This is her first published writing. The photo to the right shows Michelle (in pink, smiling) working on a painting at A.R.I.S.I.N.G., a multi-media arts program for high school students supported by the Neighborhood Investment Fund of the Deputy Mayor's Office of Washington, D.C. The program is being hosted by the Fourth Street Friendship Seventh Day Adventist Church.