Monday, April 27, 2009

WINNING POEM: "Peace Be With You"

By Claire James

I remember little about going to church
Something my sister and I did often as children
We ate donuts, drank overly sweet tea
And invented a game with chairs.
Now, church is something that happens once
Maybe twice a year
Major holidays only.
We went recently
My sister back from college.
Just her, my dad and I,
Religion was never my mom’s thing.
I understand hardly anything
My sister is happy because she know the hymns
In the middle we break
And do one of the few things
I remember from my childhood.
“Peace be with you”
The person next to me shakes my hand
“Peace be with you”
A smile with the person across the aisle
We would probably disagree on so many things
And yet we truly do want
Peace to be with one another.
I didn’t understand it as a child
Why was my dad shaking strangers’ hands?
Why did it matter?
I wish we could use this good will
Expand it,
Use it to create some universal understanding.
End the conflict in Israel
End our conflict with every one.
Maybe, just maybe
We can dispel differences
With the shake of a hand
And “Peace be with you.”

Claire James, a high school senior in Washington, DC, won second place for this poem in the 2009 International Youth Arts Contest, sponsored by a group in San Francisco, California.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Big Tulips

So when the city
gets to be
too much
for me
I close my
and imagine
in my garden
at home.
I see the tulips
and they are

Saturday, April 25, 2009

City Living

OK, so I know life poses all kind of risks. And robberies happen everywhere, including in beautiful rural landscapes. But the last 24 hours has taken the nerve out of me.

Yesterday, grading papers at the Starbucks around the corner from me, somebody stole my checkbook and wallet out of my purse. WHILE I WAS SEATED. I know I had the wallet when I walked in because I took change out of it for a tip. And the checkbook was there too.

And then, when I got home, a two-block walk, neither was in my purse.

OK, so I was feeling rather violated by that, when this happened. The PNC bank -- right down the block from Starbucks -- got all its windows shot up and shattered early this morning. Apparently, it is the work of some dumb vandals. But it's left me feeling that my neighborhood is a tad more dangerous than I'd thought.

People told me when we moved into our trendy Logan Circle apartment that the surrounds had only recently become safe enough to inhabit. I didn't pay them much mind. After all, Whole Foods is right at the center of the block. And the sleek new gym is at the corner. Starbucks is there, and Logan Hardware, and a lovely print shop that does letter press work.

But all doesn't mean much I suppose. Those stores don't guarantee anybody's safety.

So, now what? I don't know. Time to go out to the plant store and buy a few flowers for the pots on the terrace. Time not to give in, to feeling like I want to run home to Spencertown, where I feel


Friday, April 24, 2009

Whistling Still

By Clai Lasher-Sommers

Sometimes I really believe it,
that I am going to
Save my life.
A little.

--Mary Oliver, What Do We Know

I sit here looking out of a massive post and beam room with windows and doors. This is one of the first warm days that we have had in nearly three weeks. The cold of this winter has sent the bravest of us to bed early. Ice build up on the metal roof is now dripping fast. For an instant I think it is raining. We thinned a grove of pine trees this week and I can see the adjoining field.

I look out at the clearing and realize that the animals will have to adjust to the new view, as I will. By thinning, some trees will grow stronger. More trees mean more protection for the birds, deer, and turkeys. Animals will have to learn that although we see a open field it does not mean there will be harm. Not on this watch.

I looked at the calendar today. It has been exactly five years, and two months since Alison Sommers died. He is my husband -- he is just not here. I wonder how long Al knew he was sick, or did he know? He was a man who at 68 still fought fires, running with an Indian tank that weighed over 100 pounds up ridges until hoses could be handed to him. Brush fires were fierce during that dry, thirsty year.

“How in the hell can Al be in better shape than we are?” a younger fire fighter would say.

He did not work at staying in shape. He just was. He built houses and had children that demanded running after. One of the things that we all loved about him is that he always whistled. Always. When did he stop whistling? I am hearing him now as I write and see him at work.

Al was a builder of many types of houses but all had a trademark. Reconstructed barns, arts and crafts houses, renovated farmhouses, all were finished with the owner’s vision accomplished. They were homes lived in by people who also remember the whistling. He would run his crew and subcontractors with gentle kindness, but expected the best of them. I ran the finishing work crew and I demanded the same ethics but I did not whistle. I felt like a mother of grown men and I sang a lot of rock and roll with the men because that was the radio station they played. We always knew he was coming to the part of the house any of us might be working in because he would be whistling something.

He was a hero. He had his EMT Level 2, which meant he could administer IV lines when he would respond as a volunteer firefighter to a scene. He was written about in three magazines for his work. Al could barely stand the cold the last year he was a volunteer fire fighter because of the frostbite he had in his hands more than once. He had saved a hunter who had been shot deep in the woods and deep in the snow by another hunter. It was cold, windy, and three feet of snow had fallen in 24 hours. Al hiked in with only his med pack and a radio, found the man, and then got him out on a stretcher. One Christmas Eve he was called out three times in 35-below zero weather to fight chimney fires. The day before we got married, he tried to save a little girl who had been crushed by a tractor. He breathed air into the three-year-old's lungs until the ambulance came. It was too late.

He was the best father to my children. Every night he would come home with whatever child he had taken to work that day, and pick the other one up and say, “Hello, pumpkin, what are you up to?” There would be laughter and tickles. We were his second chance family -- “thank you Clai," he would say, "for this second chance.”

Now I know he was my first chance, and I miss him with the tearing red streams of grief that come flowing in. I think of the 23rd Psalm which if you have ever been to a funeral you might remember. It is a Psalm of poetry for the living.

Two children from our union, five children from his first marriage, and seven wonderful grandchildren that I inherited when I married him, and twins that were born 6 months after he died. I was the one blessed. Each of those children and grandchildren helped him go to the other side during some part of his illness. I held him while the lung cancer and pulmonary fibrosis took him quickly from us.

The poetry plays out so vividly in my mind:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
I shall not want because the Lord will provide, and I will even get to lie down in a green field, I can be near soothing water. Even when life is unbearable, it is OK, because God will be with me. Even when the darkest nights come, it will be fine, because God is with me.

Once you have the experience of helping a love one transition to death, you find yourself at the bedsides of friends or friends' parents who are dying. Someone usually starts crying or saying the Psalm. It gives such comfort to those who are grieving.

Many times, I have hated this Psalm. But today I remember why I also love it. I know the strength it gave me. What else did we have at the time? Chemotherapy, radiation, holding, feeding, loving, not only Al but his, our children who knew their father and grandfather was dying. Kali, Ali, Shaynah, Rebekah, Jo, Jesse, all of us gathered. And we rocked each other.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil: for you are with me
we will go hold your father, your grandfather because it is like our dreams of playing in fields with him--

…lie in green pastures; he leads me in right paths

"Let’s paint heaven and the fish and hang it on the wall where he can see it. Sean and I will give him the next dose of Roxinal and Phenobarbital and then we can snuggle with him and tell stories while he sleeps."

We shall anoint him with oils of lavender, rosemary, and rose with Tony helping us. Touch to touch, love to love. Are your hearts breaking? Let us feel our love for him overflow and every day he will be with us, and God will help us as he takes him -- your father, your grandfather, my husband, from the toil of this life to the next.

The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.

My children, do you feel the Celtic angels coming? They have taken him home.

It is as simple and as hard as that. The sparks fly away, the embers are hot. My children are on their own paths, which he helped make. They are in between the age of needing and not needing me. Will Kali my beautiful daughter be all I was not? Will Ali my beautiful son who is all I am, gain his balance?

I open my eyes and feel the gentle touch of spring flowers opening inside my mind. I imagine a writer getting close to art, pain entering our souls, fingers rubbing tears, and tapping on keys.

Clai Lasher-Sommers, who lives in New Hampshire, is writing a memoir. She is working in a small rural library, learning new life lessons about transitions and the craft of writing and living.

Monday, April 13, 2009

How the Republican Party Got its Mojo Back

By Dan Beauchamp

The other day a prominent Republican political operative called and asked to come and see me. He needed some advice about health care reform.

He said, "I'm desperate. My party is getting killed. We need to try something different. Stuff like making fun of Michele isn't working. We're dying because everyone knows what we are going to say next and only the nuts believe it."

I told him I line up with the other party all the time.

He said, "I don’t care. I'm told you know some things about health care. This recession stuff in turning everything upside down. We need to get in front of this somehow.”

He showed up the next day about noon, a rumpled, middle-aged man in a blue suit who looked like he didn't get much sleep. We went to lunch.

I said, "Look, what I have to say is not very complicated. The question is not whether we are going to change health care but who is going to change it and by how much. You have to decide if you want to be leading the parade or back behind the elephants picking up you know what."

"Your party is always going on about socialized medicine and the miracle of the free market but the public doesn't scare any more. They have heard it all for years. Nobody's afraid of France or England today."

"The recession has changed everything. You need to get out in front. And that's not going to be so hard because the Democrats are terrified they will screw things up. Your party is not so bothered about that. Start with something simple, like drugs and Medicare. Introduce a bill to get rid of all that private health insurance, all the forms and confusion, and just set up a simple program where people on Medicare get their drugs the regular way, by taking the script to the pharmacy or by having the doctor call it in."

The guy says, "Wait a minute. You're asking me to do what the other side want to do. That's crazy. The private insurance companies will go nuts."

I said, "No, the Democrats say they will negotiate with drug companies but actually they always chicken out. If your party gets behind change what are the insurance companies and the drug companies going to do? Someone needs to throw these guys under the bus and only you can do it. You tell the drug companies to take a deep breath and sit down with the federal government to negotiate drug prices.

"And don't stop there. Lower the age of eligibility for Medicare to 55 or even 50. That way business won't have to pay for all those patients who are having heart attacks and getting cancer. The employers will love it. They already all secretly think socialized medicine would be good for them anyway. And tell hospitals and doctors that government will negotiate fees on a per capita basis and will set up hospital budgets. Go whole hog."

The Republican operative was incredulous, "But why should we give the public all this stuff? Pretty soon they will want us to put it all in Medicare. All of it."

I said, "That's the point. The public will think that all this simplicity and ease of use and giving everyone a single Medicare card is a good thing and they will want more. People will start voting for the Republicans again because they like what you are doing. Let them."

"But that's capitulation, that's giving up on the free market," the Republican said.

I said, "No, it's not. You know the American people. They really do love the free enterprise system but they've just forgotten how much. You need to give them a dose of life under socialism. Sooner or later they will realize that they have lost their freedom and really have become like France or Germany.”

The guy looked at me for a long time and then he grinned. He said, "It may take a generation. Maybe two generations. All we have to do is wait until the public wakes up and then we will give them what they want again. Freedom. But until then we will be back."

"You get the picture," I said.

He left that evening and a few weeks later his boss had a big press conference with the top Senators in his party and the press went wild.

And the rest is history.

Dan Beauchamp, a health policy expert who now lives in Bisbee, Arizona, worked as a health official in the New York State Department of Health under the Cuomo administration. He led an effort to design a new health care reform proposal that attempted to create a de facto single payer system using clearinghouse technologies for checks much like the Federal Reserve system and using what we today call the Internet. This piece appeared first in Tales of Copper City, at

Monday, April 06, 2009

Dozer, what a dog!

By Andrew Davis

Meet Dozer.

He’s the prima donna pooch my girlfriend and I rescued 2 and ½ years ago. The first time I glimpsed him, he looked well, monstrous. I mean, he was incredibly huge standing up in his kennel. I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. The biggest pet I’d had ever owned until that point was 23 pounds, and that cat (yes, a cat CAN weigh 23 pounds) ruled my house. But here was a 90-pound dog that was used to hunting bears in the mountains of Japan.

How did I know this? Because he’s an Akita and that’s what Akitas were bred to do, hunt bears in the mountains of Japan.
The first time we were allowed to take Dozer for a walk was a wonderful experience. Kristin and I held hands, but soon Dozer practically had knocked us down and dragged us right into traffic. We took him home anyway. We looked forward to a new life with our cat, Rascal, and our darling new pup, Dozer.

The honeymoon lasted 12 hours.

While at work the next day, I checked in on Kris who was sitting with Dozer in the living room. Rascal was in the bedroom. They were slowly getting acclimated to each other. Or so I thought.

Here’s how the conversation with Kris went:

“Hey, baby. How’s Dozer?”

“He’s – Oh S***.”

Long story short; apparently, cats can run on walls.

We decided to send Rascal to live with Kris’s mom for a bit, so it was just us two and The Doze in our small apartment. Now an Akita in anything smaller than a house is less than optimal, but luckily we’re across the street from Albany’s beautiful Washington Park.

Lucky for him, I should say.

Have you ever run after a dog in a giant park? Maybe? OK. Now imagine running after a dog who’s chasing squirrels in this giant park. Here’s the thought process of a dog running just for the fun of it: Yay! I’m free. Pee here. Pee there. Pee Evvverywhere. HaHaHa – catch me if you can! Weeeee!!

And here’s the thought process of an Akita chasing a squirrel:I’m gonna eat you! Come here. Stay still! Don’t you run away from me. YOU’RE DEAD!

Dozer clearly thinks the latter when he runs off after squirrels. He’s almost all-white running through brown trees and over green grass – so, of course, he never catches anything. Actually, he doesn't even come close to the squirrels.

“Oh boy, here comes The Great White Hopeless again.”

“I say we act surprised and head up this tree when he gets within 50 feet.”

“Good idea. Only 200 more to go.”

Poor Dozer. I feel sorry for him sometimes because he actually thinks he could get ‘em. He really does. And on the day I felt my worst, he’d thought he would get lucky.

One morning, my loving girlfriend made me walk Dozer when I was dying of the flu. So I took him out for his normal walk and happened to see a few of his friends at the dog park. “OK,” I thought. “He could run around for a bit then I can get right back into the bed and next to my spit cup.” And so, it started off well. He was playing with his harem of girlfriends, nudging them on the butt and running away. You know, doggie tag. Then P-Zoom! He was off.

I looked out into the trees he was running toward but didn’t see any squirrels. That’s because there weren’t any. Whatever he saw had to be at least 1000 feet away. Too far for him to simply have fun and come right back. So I started jogging after him, with my wad of Puffs Plus with Aloe in my hand, thinking he’d come running back when he saw me. Well soon after, he saw me, stopped, gave me the middle finger, and kept on running.

Then I did what all dog owners have done at one point or another. I forgot he didn’t speak English. “Dozer. DOZER! You get back over here. Right Now! Don’t you ignore me. Ohhh, you’re in big trouble, young man. BIG Trouble!” Meanwhile, he’s flying up and down hills and I’m struggling after him breathing out of one nostril while snot’s pouring from the other. At this point he’s at least 100 yards away. People are looking at me like I’m insane, and I can’t blame them. It’s August. Sweat is dripping from all over because I’m wearing a fleece and a jacket. I’m so winded, I’m now running like I’m drunk. I’m blowing my doggie whistle while screaming for something named Doh-Zaaaa with a wad of tissues in my hand.

Anyway, I finally catch up to him eight minutes later on the front lawn of somebody’s house. He tried to run behind it, but there wasn’t any way to the back. The only way out was past me and he was just as tired. We faced off. I squatted and spread out my arms like a soccer goalie.

“Just you and me, big boy.” But, by the look in his eye, I knew he was going to go for it. With my last ounce of energy, and way past being out of breath, I spoke again. I didn’t care what language he spoke. “All----you have---- to do------- is surrender. Don’t------ do anything------ stupid,” I huffed, barely able to string my words together. He was unfazed.

Looking left then looking right, he went for it. It all happened in slow motion. I dropped my tissues, faked one way to send him the other. It worked. While diving, I amazingly I grabbed his collar. It was like catching the final out in the World Series – just a lot sweatier. He didn’t even put up a fight – just collapsed on the grass with me.

After 10 minutes, I finally mustered up enough energy to reach into my pocket, take out my cell, and call Kris.

“Get-------the car.”

Woken from the sleep I should’ve been having, she sounded annoyed. “Why? What happened?”

“Dozer--------ran. --------- Too tired--------to explain. ---------Get car.”


“Lying-------front lawn---------houses -----in park. --------Don’t -------ask.---- Pick me----- up.”

That Sunday morning, as Dozer and I laid there on some person’s lawn, panting uncontrollably, with fluid pouring from our faces, we were the same. Both defeated, but victorious. He had the time of his life terrorizing the neighborhood squirrel contingent, and I got my dog back.

Andrew Davis, a public school teacher, lives and works in Schenectady, New York.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Hunting cherry blossoms, we see the Commander-in-Chief

By Claudia Ricci

Cherry blossom season has hit its glorious peak in DC this week, so on Monday, my husband and I decided to head downtown after work to see the pink majesty of the trees.

We saw some wonderful trees, all of which reminded us of the soft fluffy skirts of ballet dancers. The sun was setting, and we were strolling along Pennsylvania Avenue, beside the National Gallery, when suddenly the police sirens started squawking (there is a lot of that here in DC, but that's another story.) Suddenly, there were cops everywhere. They all wore fluorescent green vests and they were directing traffic out of the intersections. Instantly, it seemed, all the cars vanished, as if some giant wind had swept through the street and whisked them all away.

"What the heck is going on?" I asked my husband.

"I think we are about to see Obama," he replied.

Within minutes, it started. About a dozen cops riding motorcycles buzzed by us. And then came the phalanx of black shiny cars that constitutes the President's motorcade. I had my camera hanging around my neck, because I'd been shooting photos of the cherry blossoms, but honestly, the cars came on so quickly, and roared by us so fast, that it never even occurred to me to raise the lens to my eyes and shoot. Of course, one of my friends later pointed out that if I had taken a photo, a cop might have confiscated my camera.

There must have been a dozen cars in all. There were two or three stretch limos, and in the back of one, my husband says he saw the slim dark man sitting alone in the back seat. (But was that him? Or was that a decoy? Apparently, there is the MAN, and then there is the second car, with the decoy man.) Then there were all those big black bulky SUVs, filled with men looking intense and straight ahead. In one of those SUVs, I swear I saw a man holding what looked to be a bazooka gun. My mouth dropped. My heart hammered. In that second it hit me: the security detail provided for our President provides for the worst case scenario: some kind of a rocket directed at his car? A bomb embedded in a vehicle that blasts through the streets and hits the motorcade?

It was over in a matter of seconds. The cars were gone, and the streets were opened once again. But both my husband and I couldn't stop thinking about it. Or talking about it. There was something so... sinister in that motorcade, something so powerful and dark and mesmerizing.

Both of us realized too that it must be a total drag for Obama to have to leave the safe confines of the White House. Imagine having to ride in that kind of a formation every time you went somewhere? Whoosh.

As a DC native pointed out to me a few days later, my reactions to seeing the President's motorcade were typical of a "first timer."

"Yes," said Maria Ochoa, a student in my grad seminar at Georgetown. "The first time you see it you are amazed and thrilled. But then, it starts to happen when you need to get somewhere, and the streets are closed off, and you can't get where you need to go, and then, it's like, 'oh what a pain this is.'"

I guess so. But honestly, I am dying to see the motorcade come whizzing by again. And when it does, I promise I will run the risk and shoot a photo.