Friday, April 29, 2011

Can Anyone Resist the Royal Wedding?

It's been a big question the last few days: are you getting up for the wedding?

All week I kept saying. No. I wasn't going to get up. And I wasn't going to get swept up in the bizarre media frenzy.

And yet, in the last few days I started thinking about an old newspaper clipping.

What had I written on that hot summer day back in July of 1981 when I was a young reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and I got up at some ungodly hour to help cover Diana and Charles' wedding?

Yesterday, I found myself in the back of the garage, searching through a couple of boxes. Nothing turned up there. I came away thinking I must have thrown those old clippings out. They are after all three decades old.

And then this morning came. I woke up -- no alarm clock -- at 5:17 a.m.

The first thing on my mind was the wedding. I slipped out of bed and went downstairs to the den and turned on the TV. Silly me, I thought, but without any apology, I couldn't resist. I too joined the millions of wedding watchers.

As the service was coming to a close in Westminster Abbey, and Kate and William were coming down that long red-carpeted aisle, it hit me.

I remembered that other box I hadn't searched through, up in the third-floor attic. The box was a bit of a mess: mice had chewed through the corners of the clippings. And the box was filled with fragments of roofing tile (we got a new roof in 2007).

I watched the royal couple -- rather sweet and adorable -- while looking through dozens and dozens and dozens of clippings. Nothing.

I was about to give up. And then I found the "miscellaneous" file at the bottom. Inside was the Sun-Times clipping. The story of all those Chicago foks who got up in the middle of the night to watch what we called "the wedding of the century." As I wrote that day, "Here it will be remembered as the only marriage ceremony in memory to move so many people to give up a good night's sleep."

The woman I quoted -- one of many who sipped champagne while watching -- said the obvious: "I suppose you could just as easily watch the reruns at 8 o'clock in the morning...but it's not nearly as much fun."

Some 150 people gathered at the Episcopal church that day -- the wedding of Diana and Charles served in part to raise funds to restore the church's parish hall. Some of the attendees rented morning coats or tuxedos for the event.

But in the end, the pre-dawn TV party way back in Chicago on July 30, 1981, was much like the celebrations this morning, where millions (or is it billions?) are glued to television sets (and now, of course, computers and cell phones) all around the world, to watch another "wedding of the century."

We can't help reveling in the glamor of royalty. We can't help our collective fascination with fairy-tale weddings. (My very favorite moment this morning: a glowing William leaning over and whispering to his soon-to-be wife something on the order of, "you look incredible!" That smile and the look in his eyes brought me back to my own wedding day.)

Some moments are like that.

Some things -- human emotions for example -- never change.

Well that's not true exactly. Some things do change.

Thanks to Kate and William's wedding, I am cleaning out those old clippings from the attic.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Prayer Such

By Nicky Vegas

Note to readers: Nicky Vegas is a pseudonym for an Albany, New York-area man who plays in several bands. "Prayer Such" emerged as a dream. He woke up in the middle of the night and sat down and wrote it.

Accompanying Music: Dirge (minor key, simple, maybe a Gregorian chant, maybe a flat 5th, but with a hip-hop beat)
Characters: Marine Gunnery Sergeant and two marines
Setting: Urban, park-like, kind of desolate, on an incline overlooking a river

“Gunny, why are we here?” The sun is hot. I got this creepy feeling in my guts, like I might puke any second.

“I’m tellin’ ya, I got a feelin’. We’re near the river. I’m gettin’ the vibe. Shut up now, I’m goin’ to work. Here comes one.”

The gunnery sergeant puts on the gear. Gear -- it’s really more of a helmet and mask. Very high tech. Very powerful. Picks up everything. Almost no effort with the “gear.”

Here comes this ragged-looking guy, all disheveled, coming right towards us.

“That’s it buddy, take it easy. Look right into my eyes. You’ll pass quiet, now.”

They lock eyes. The guy drops. All right, that’s one. Two more for the Gunny and then it’s time for my duty. We all gotta’ get three today.

I hate this duty stateside. I still don’t get why we’re doing this over here. Military-civilian public relations, probably. Some congressman owes somebody something, I bet. I don’t know. Training. Keeps us sharp, that’s what they said. But can you believe them? I know one thing: this stuff was developed for combat. At least you know why you’re there.

“I got an uneasy feelin’ Gunny.”

“Pipe down, I told you I’m workin’ over here.” He points. “Hey, check out the kid runnin’ through the brush.”

“Come on Gunny, not the kid. He looks like he’s only ten years old.”

“This one’s tricky, he’s seen us and he’s scared, real scared. Hey kid - look at me!”

The Gunnery Sergeant has the gear on and the kid turns. They lock eyes for an instant and it’s done. The kid’s gone.

No shit, that kid was scared. The gear would frighten anybody. All white, all odd angles, kind of like the stealth bomber, but bright white, except for the eye lenses. They’re black and deep and dark – no reflection, no turning away. Once you’re locked, that’s it. Some of the guys in Fox Company painted theirs up to look like The Punisher. Man, that’s sick.

Me, I just want to get this over with so I can settle down. I’m still spooked today, I don’t know what’s going on, some kind of weird energy. Different from what I’m used to, maybe it’s the sun, that’s it, maybe the sun’s so hot, I don’t know, I just know somehow it’s different.

“O.K. Gunnery Sergeant, that’s two. Can we take a break? I don’t feel so good.”

“Not now, I’m hot. Look at that, will ya, she’s comin’ right toward me all peaceful like.”

I turn and try to see what he’s seeing with the gear. That new guy is coming up behind us -- he seems to be right on it. "All right, I’m getting close… I’m tuning into this one a little bit."

“Gunnery Sergeant, are you kiddin’ me? Are you sure? The nun?”

“That’s it now. Look right into my eyes and you’ll pass easily.”

“Jesus, Gunny - a nun? What’s with you today? And all three inside of an hour? What’s going on?”

“Take it easy. river’s a natural place. Go ahead - look for yourself. There’s the homeless guy in the bushes over there. There’s the commotion by the dock around the kid. And the nun? Real peaceful over there on the bench. Bad heart is my guess. She knew all about it. She was ready.”

Ready. On the battlefield nobody’s ever ready. Guys get it so fast, they don’t even know it. That’s where we come in. Gather them up, clear the area. Clean up.

It was developed for our guys, but when you’re out there, it doesn’t matter what side they’re on. Settlement is settlement. At least you know you’re doing the right thing. Combat is too quick. Soldiers need this. Civilians, I’m not so sure. All right, my turn. Concentrate. Think of the training. The Gunnery Sergeant hands me the gear. I keep it close, trying to get the vibe. I’m kind of lost today, I don’t really know where to go.

“Come on, let’s move out. You got any idea where to next?”

I don’t. I’m thinking of our training, trying to tap into the energy. Back in basic we all went through a profiling, a screening of sorts. I always could feel something more about certain people, all my life. The training helps you to “tune in.” Anybody who showed any “talent” got sent on to specialized training. The training was comforting to me. I never really understood why I could feel certain things and then, the training helped it all make sense to me. Gave it a purpose.

“Gunnery Sergeant, I gotta’ get into an area with a lot more people. I’m going to move around in a grid and try to pick up something. Stay with me, but not too close. I still have this nagging sense of bad. Stay on the horn with me.”

Some kind of strange melody -- “mum-mum-mm-mum” -- starts up in my head. Melody is too sweet a word - this is a dark riff, not fully formed yet. It keeps coming back. It won’t leave me alone.

“All right, me and the new guy will tail you and listen in on the clear channel. You call us right away if you get something and every once in a while even if you don’t. Relax, we got time. Everything takes its own time. Everything in its own time and its own place.”

I head for the hospital. Always a lot of energy there. Focus. Now I’m feeling something. I move through the wards. Nobody pays me much notice. I’ve got my fatigues on, regular duty. I keep the gear holstered, but close. It just looks like I’m here visiting.

I’m getting closer, at least I think I am. I move through the complex of buildings really hoping, following the faint energy. Now I’m in the E.R. I can feel it stronger, close by. Then I see him, all attached - tubes and wires everywhere. He’s up off the bed yelling, he sees me and starts pulling on the wires, scrambling toward me. I put on the gear, steady now, get it right - “Look directly into my eyes, you’ll pass easily.” This one’s really frantic, probably a car wreck, but he looks, they always look. A jolt of energy, the really bright light, and zap, he’s gone.

Better get out of here quick, one down, two to go. “Gunny, you guys there? First one’s done. I’m on my way to the amusement park - lots of people.”

“We got you. We’re a couple of blocks back. Go ahead.”

I have a lot of respect for the gunnery sergeant, he’s been on this detail longer than anyone. Me and him got teamed up about a year and a half ago. I wouldn’t know how to work with anybody else. The new guy? I don’t know him, maybe he’s with us today for training. It’s usually just me and the Gunny.

I’m entering the park now and the energy is just flipping me out, it’s so strong. This is a fresh one, all right, but where is it?

There’s a crowd converging around that big fast ride, the one with the high tower. That must be it, I move through the people all around gaping, straining for a look. I see somebody really charging around, all crazy like. There’s the energy, really going nuts, it must have happened real sudden. I put on the gear and turn my head.

Suddenly, there’s this guy in the crowd -- a soldier type wearing fatigues -- looking at me freaking way out, screaming at me at the top of his lungs. “Hey - I seen guys like you before, you’re one of them! A Prayer Such! No way, man. I ain’t goin’! You must be wrong. And don’t even think about looking at my wife and kid. Get out of here, you’re wrong! You’re wrong! Get out!”

Prayer Such. Yeah, that’s what the troops called us when we first arrived in the killing zones. You know, like - “Hope you said your prayers ’n such, cause you’re already gone!”

Soul Salvage. That’s what the brass calls our detail. If anybody mentions it at all. We are so top secret, it’s unreal. That’s why I can’t get over this stateside run, it’s just too risky. We belong back there, back in the action, we help out big time back there, with all the killin’ it makes it easier. Things happen so fast in combat, there’s so much loose energy. We get them. We help them pass. Their soul or whatever you want to call it, that energy, it leaves the dead body and dissipates. They can pass easily. I don’t like doing it over here, civilian stateside.

Anyway, I move past this soldier and his family. It ain’t him, it’s the one that got it on the ride.

Then I got her, she’s young, probably early twenties, a real looker, or at least she was. Man, that’s a lot of blood. What a mess.
Never mind. Focus. “Look directly into my eyes, you’ll pass easily, darling.” Man, she is so scared, but I got her attention, she turns and looks. Big flash. Big energy hit. She’s gone.

The Gunnery Sergeant’s voice cuts through the headset. “We’re covering your back, Jack, better cut out, better get out of there. Two down, one to go. Move.”

“All right, I’m going to head past downtown, toward the south end, I’m picking up on some energy, it’s different though, kind of weird.”

“Mum-mum-mm-mum” There’s that sound again, it’s stuck in my brain, over and over. “Mum-mum-mm-mum,” “Mum-mum-mm-mum.” I don’t like it at all.

I start moving through downtown, past the business district, into the gut. Urban decay. Abandoned, rundown buildings.
Almost like a battlefield, in a strange, removed way. It’s getting dark now and I see a couple of young guys in a car, cruisin’, probably some gang stuff going on. Looks like trouble. I’ll just duck into this doorway. The door gives way, and I’m in this empty store. The car’s coming and they’re getting out. They must have seen me. They’re gonna’ come in after me! It’s really dark in here. I find my way around a counter and stumble wildly and fall flat on my back with a loud crash, a lot of other noise, too much noise. O.K. I’m up. I’m all right. Jesus, the energy level is off the chart. This one’s real close. I put on the gear and look around. I can just make out a shape on the floor, a body. The gang members are running out the door. I turn, but I’m not connecting. Where is it? Damn it. Where is it? There’s that sound again, loud as ever... “Mum-mum-mm-mum” “Mum-mum-mm-mum”

What the hell? It’s the new guy. Wait, he’s got the gear on! Why’s he got the gear on? I look directly at his eyes. Flash! The light! The energy! Wait! “Mum-mum-mm-mum.” Hey, maybe it’s. . . me.

The gunnery sergeant turns to the new guy. “It’s harder with the guys on the inside. They can take a long time to get it. We gotta’ really build it up.”

“You did a good job today. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it as we go along.”

“He’s at rest now, let’s call it a night and get back. The black ops guys’ll straighten out everything in here.”

Monday, April 25, 2011

Why I'm Happy I Live With My Cat

By Lori Walker

There is nothing better than curling up with a good book; preferably a good thriller.

After a long day of work I like to kick off my shoes, put on my PJs and prepare for my own reading time. I go into the kitchen, grab my bottle of pinot noir, pour a hearty glass, feed the cat and plop down on my couch. I take a minute to let myself sink down into the multi-colored micro pillows, reach over and grab my fleece blanket and release a sigh of contentment. I open up my dog-eared copy of Hearts in Atlantis and enjoy the smell of library. It’s time to let Mr. King take me away to his version of Maine. But in this perfect moment, there is a distraction.


“…well I don’t know what to tell you. I’m 22!”

“And I’m ready to settle down...for god’s sake I’m almost 27!”

The next-door neighbors. I’ve never had a problem with them before, I mean the occasional tremble of their surround sound, sometimes a little smell of skunk from underneath their door, but they are usually good neighbors. Lately, the last couple days, have apparently been rough. Lots of yelling, screaming, I can hear the girl start sobbing sometimes.

“Maybe we are just in different states of our life, I’ve done my partying and going out and all that junk, and I’m over that I need stability.”

“I don’t understand how me going out with my friends isn’t stable enough for you?"

“Because, you will be out all the time. If you’re not together seeing your friends five times a week it’s the end of the world.”

“I'm not out all the time; I just want to know that if I get a phone call at 11 p.m. and I want to go out for drinks, it wouldn’t be a problem. There is no reason I can’t have friends.”

“I let you do whatever you want! So fuck you! I always say do whatever you want.”

Ugh, even Stephen King can’t drown out their arguing. I gulp my wine; maybe I should just go to bed.

“You SAY that I can do whatever I want, but if I actually did it you would be pissed when I got home.”

“Well why do you think that is, huh? You go out, but never let me know where you are or what the plan is. All I want is to know when you’re coming home, that’s it. You’re the most difficult person I’ve ever known.”

“You NEVER tell m- m-me…” the girl is crying now. Long whiney, high school, cries. “…how you feeeeel.”

“You want to know how I fucking feel? I don’t fucking trust you. Ya, sit on that for a while.”

Well that seems harsh I think. Though apparently the girl doesn’t have the common courtesy to say where she is going.

“I don’t trust you, you never tell me shit. You say you will be home in an hour and roll in the door three hours later. No text, nothing! You could have been in a car crash! And I would never have known! I would have gotten a phone call in the morning saying you were dead! I don’t want that phone call!”

The girl is crying still, and doesn’t respond; but the boy makes a good argument. She seems kind of like a bitch. I go to take a sip of my wine and notice it’s empty, so I go into the kitchen to pour some more.

“What do I have to do?” the girl wails now. “I’ve spent three years making it up to you! Three years! I let you keep me on a short leash, I never go out with my friends, I call you and update you about my where abouts all the time. All I want is some freedom! I don’t want to feel guilty about having friends!”

“You can have friends! I just want to know where you are and who you are with, and when I don’t hear back from you I get worried!”

“No, you yell, if I don’t text you back right away you yell and scream at me!”

Wow, the acoustics are much better in the kitchen. I pull out a kitchen chair and sip my wine. My book is lying abandoned on the couch and now I see Jasmine playing with the book. So cute, my kitty.

But the argument pulls me back.

I move closer to the wall.

“Oh no, I do not get angry. This isn’t angry. Do you want to see angry? I’ll show you angry!”

Hmmm, Now I feel bad for the girl, I wonder what she did to make him so mad, but if it’s been years since that maybe he needs to let it go.

“I don’t want to fight," she says, "I want to just talk, I just want you to tell me how you feel.”

“You don’t want that, you don’t want me to tell you every time I think about how you betrayed me, and how you hurt me and how much it still hurts. I would lose it, I would blow up. I tried that once with my ex. She locked herself in the bathroom for a half an hour and I screamed at her through the door. I don’t want to do that to you.”

Can we say anger issues? I guess at least he doesn’t displace it on the girl, if she is crying now…

“Well then what do you want to do?” she whispers.

“I don’t know, maybe we just shouldn’t be together until you grow up. I need stability and you want to be free and have no responsibility or report to anyone.”

“I shouldn’t have to report to anyone! I’m 22 not 45! I should be able to go out and not worry about my angry boyfriend being pissed for no reason!”

Wow, what a bitch! He can be an asshole it seems, but if they live together she should at least let him know if she is coming home. I’m suddenly glad I just live with my cat. I look over at Jasmine on the couch. She looks up at me and yawns. Her fat ripples as she flops over to lay on her other side. Yup, a cat is a good roommate. I wrap my blanket round me tighter and put my ear back to the wall.

“I know what I want in life, I want stability, I want someone who is happy with me and satisfied with me, and you just aren’t happy with just me.”

“No, I am, but I need my friends as well. That shouldn’t be unreasonable. I love you! I love my friends! I don’t understand why I can’t have both!”

“You can, in moderation. I’m done with the partying and staying out all night, I did that when I was young.”

“I AM YOUNG! You got to be 22 and you have to let me be 22 also!”

Wow, they both make really good points, at first I was on the boy’s side, but then the girl had me convinced, but now I don’t know if there are sides.

“I just want to be with you and be happy.”

“That’s all I want too.”

And then silence. I guess they are done for the night. It must be hard to be a couple like this, where there is such a big age difference.

They clearly care and love each other, but man that’s rough.

I look at the clock, and it’s almost midnight. My wine is gone, my neighbors are silent. I guess it’s time for bed.

Lori Walker, a junior at the University at Albany, State University of New York majoring in psychology, wrote this piece for the "Flip the Script" assignment in the Happiness class.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

One More Raindrop Shot

After I posted Dawn Tejam Diaz' amazing raindrop shot to celebrate Earth Day, she sent me her very favorite photo. It's so beautiful that I just have to show you.

A lovely flower to honor Easter, if you celebrate that holiday, or just a great way to say


Friday, April 22, 2011

The World In a Raindrop! Celebrate EARTH DAY!!

Photographer Dawn Tejam Diaz, who lives in the Philipines, took this amazing photograph in a park after a rain storm, on March 7, 2011. (The photo appeared first on

Dawn has been taking photos since 1994, and says that raindrops are one of the many "small things" that fascinate her. "If we open our eyes and dare to listen with our hearts," she says, then "we appreciate the small things and the blessings in life."

Dawn always has her camera with her. "My photos are often times reflections of my ideas, yearnings, deep feelings and thoughts."

Photography, she says, "opened up a new world" to her and showed her how to see color and light. "I see and read the world in photography." Her favorite subjects to photograph are leaves, people and lights.

"Anything that has light I capture it."

To access Dawn's other work, go to Blipfoto and look for her photo gallery, which is called "My.Joys.In.Life." One of the magnificent things about Blipfoto is that you instantly "meet" other photographers from around the world.

Thank you Dawn for your photograph -- it really is such a great way to celebrate EARTH DAY!!

Thursday, April 21, 2011


By Lindsay Kirsch

Chris Brown, Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson. Oh my. Their combined net worth exceeds $600 million dollars, while their combined list of recent charges range from felony assault to misdemeanor and spousal battery.

Sheen has been quite open about his relationships with prostitutes and porn stars, while both Sheen and Gibson have both struggled with drug and alcohol use. All three men have been arrested for abusing their partners. But no matter. Their names keep popping up in the news and their fame continues to skyrocket.

Regardless of how abominably they conduct themselves, they are still asked to appear or perform on national TV shows including Good Morning America, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and Saturday Night Live. If the law does not condemn these men harshly enough for their actions, we can’t expect the media to do that either.

I boycott these men in any and all ways that I can: as soon as a Chris Brown song comes on the radio, I change the channel. If an episode of “Two and a Half Men” is on TV, I change the channel. And the same goes for any Mel Gibson movies, I turn off even my one-time favorite, “Braveheart.”

I am a 24-year-old woman, and at one point, all three of these celebrities were my idea of what constitutes an attractive man. Now, plain and simply, I am thoroughly disgusted by them. If we all stop paying attention to their despicable behavior, their music and their public displays on the media, maybe then they will go away.

Lindsay Kirsch is a candidate for the Master of Public Health degree at Boston University, where she is concentrating in Maternal and Child Health. She is particularly interested in the problem of intimate partner violence.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Should We All be Taking Adderall to Improve our Focus?

It was one of those revelations that leaves you saying to yourself, "duhhhhh, where have I been?"

And when the classroom discussion was all over, I was asking myself, "where are we headed?"

In retrospect, the revelation really should have come as no surprise. Students have been using illegal drugs for a long time.

But still, I was clueless nonetheless to the fact that so many college students routinely pop Adderall -- a prescription drug used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder -- and use it to amp up their ability to study for tests.

The revelation emerged during a student presentation in the happiness class I am teaching this spring.

Students been doing class presentations for the last couple of weeks. We've heard some terrific presentations -- one student discussed NBA coach Phil Jackson's book, Sacred Hoops, in which he describes his Buddhist approach to training his professional basketball players. Another student described laughter therapy, and described how Norman Cousins (author of Anatomy of an Illness) laughed his way back to health. We heard an astonishing presentation on Jill Bolte Taylor's new book, My Stroke of Insight, in which Taylor, trained as a brain scientist, wrote about the massive stroke she suffered at age 37. (If you haven't read the book, or seen the video about Taylor, you should, as Bolte Taylor witnessed her own stroke, blow by blow, and then experienced a deeply mystical "right brain" experience that changed her profoundly.)

We also have heard terrific presentations on Thich Nhat Hanh's Peace is Every Step, Jon Kabat-Zinn's Wherever You Go, There You Are and Sharon Salzberg's Lovingkindness, all fabulous texts.

One student led us through some remarkably relaxing art therapy exercises.

But it was last Friday's presentation, on how the prescription drug Adderall can dramatically increase a person's ability to focus, that really has me shaking my head.

The student who did the presentation has been taking Adderall for ADHD -- a disorder characterized by hyperactivity and the inability to pay attention -- for several years. But the discussion quickly diverged into a discussion of how effective the drug can be for people who have NOT been diagnosed with the disease.

Suddenly, I wasn't the teacher in the classroom anymore.

Instead, I was sitting there learning from my students, many of whom volunteered to talk about how they have bought the drug Adderall in the library -- paying maybe $10 a pill -- so that they could use the drug to study for tests.

I was, to say the least, a little bit shocked.

In retrospect, I shouldn't have been. In a Google search later on, I found numerous reports going back several years that describe the way college students pop Adderall. Estimates vary, but as many as one in five college students admits to using the drug to help them focus.

In my classroom, I was shocked by how many students had used it, or know students who do. The students agreed that the drug can help them focus, but there are downsides too. Beware what happens if your attention gets locked on the wrong thing. One student described taking the pill and then getting distracted cleaning her dorm room. She never did get to the studying.

I think perhaps the most distressing part of the class was the discussion that focused on whether people should take Adderall to help them in the quest to become more mindful. A central focus of our happiness class has been the practice of mindfulness -- the class has included a once-weekly lab in a program called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (Jon Kabat-Zinn developed MBSR some three decades ago to help treat patients with chronic pain and anxiety. It has been a very effective program.)

Anyway, the question arose at the end of the class: if Adderall increases the ability to focus, and the ability to focus helps us learn how to become more mindful, then wouldn't it make sense for everyone to take a small dose of Adderall? Wouldn't the drug help increase our ability to develop mindfulness? Wouldn't we have a leg up when we attempt to learn meditation?

The student who was making the presentation -- the one who has been taking Adderall for attention deficit disorder -- has done a lot of reading on this drug, and admitted that he thought the drug had helped him learn to meditate. He said that he thought the drug had helped him as he attended a week-long silent meditation retreat last year.

To the question, should everybody take Adderall, this student answered: "I think I'd say that if we [as a society] put it [Adderall] in the water supply, the harm that would come from it would be much less than the benefit."

Now that's one heck of a provocative -- and perhaps a totally preposterous -- idea. By the time the student made that statement, we had already run over class time, as we were all so wrapped up and fascinated by the discussion that we hadn't been looking at the clock.

This idea -- that we could all boost our natural ability to focus by taking this drug -- is disturbing (later the student himself acknowledged that putting it in the water supply "would be atrociously unethical.")

And yet, when you stop and think about it, it's not like we don't use all kinds of drugs in this society -- including lots and lots of alcohol -- to improve our performance, or alleviate our pain, stress and distress.

Later, I asked Lenore Flynn, the nurse who taught our Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction class this semester (she's been teaching MBSR classes for years), what she thought about using a drug to increase the ability to focus. She responded with a question of her own. Adderall, like many drugs, "changes the brain," she said. "But does it change the heart?"

"Back in the 60s," she said, "many people thought that LSD and mescaline could transport them to higher levels of consciousness but soon found that these were transient states dependent on the drugs to sustain them. Actually, they found the crash took them farther down then they were before."

In some cases LSD users turned to meditation to find a true spiritual path.

I've decided that we'd better find time to revisit this issue before we conclude our class on May 2nd!

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Dream Machine

By David Seth Michaels

I'm sure I am dreaming. There are telltale signs. I’m sitting at a sidewalk café. I’m not sure who the gray bearded, rumpled, bespeckled guy sitting with me is. That is a sign. The table is right on the street. People are placing small packages of Kleenex on its edge as they do in Buenos Aires and then collecting them, but this café seems to be in Brooklyn. Maybe Williamsburg. That is a sign. The waiter, who is smoking and ogling two young women across the street, is ignoring us even though our glasses have been empty for a while. My companion strums his fingers on the table top, makes a noise of impatience, excuses himself, walks up to the waiter, places his arm around his shoulder and walks him back to our table. The waiter is smiling, passive. That is a sign.

We order more red wine. I want an empanada. They don’t have that. Do I want to see the menu? I don’t. What do you have that is like an empanada? I ask. Insouciance, says my companion. Be nice, says the waiter. I can’t eat that, I say. How, I wonder, can there be no empanadas? I’ll bring your wine and the menu, the waiter says, as he escapes. I have the thought that he will never come back. My companion shakes his head wearily.

“As I was saying,” my companion continues, ”people just don’t share and participate in the big dreams now the way the used to. Yeah, they can quote from The Big Lebowski or Seinfeld or other artifacts of pop culture, but they don’t know the books. They don’t know the ideas, the concepts. The canon. The history. The foundation. And if they don’t know the foundation, how can they possibly share the dreams? Their dreams are untethered, confused, ill formed because they’re not properly educated to participate in these big dreams.” He stares across the street at passers by. “Their dreams are about things, not inspiration. Know what I mean?”

I have no idea what he’s talking about. I look at him. He really is a wild man. He needs a shave. His hair is mussed. His clothing is out of date. No, I don’t want a cigarette. He fires one up. “I don’t know,” I say softly. “Oh,” he raises an eyebrow. “Sure you do,” he whispers Silence.

I begin. “You mean we don’t share dreams and ideals because we’re not educated about them? We don't know the history?” I ask him. He nods. “Maybe we think about consumer goods instead of ideology because we’re trained to do that. Maybe people just care about themselves and their things because we’re in a deep trance, we’re totally drugged, we’re sound asleep.” He nods and pulls his beard a little. "Maybe we've lost our souls," I say.

“Listen,” he says. “There’s something I want to show you. It’s in the basement. It will remind you of what it was like before the trance.”

We walk through the café. The waiter passes us carrying our two glasses of wine. He has no menu. We walk to the back, and my companion opens the door to the basement stairway that says, “No Entrance,” in two languages.

He flips on a light, we descend a wooden stariway. In the middle of the room, under a clear plastic sheet, is a black and silver machine. He pulls the plastic off of it. He points at it.

“What is it?”

“It’s a mimeograph machine. It’s like a printing press. Or a copy machine. It’s what we used to make copies of papers about fifty years ago. And this is a very special one. It ran all day and all night long putting out broadsides calling for the overthrow of the military government. And for solidarity with the workers. And in opposition to the police. It poured out inspiration, and news, and organization, and ideas, and of course, dreams.”

“We don’t have this any more. We don’t have people to carry the papers and pass them out and put them under doors and paste them on the walls and put them under windshield wipers. We don’t have people passing out poems and arguments in cafes. We don’t have physical communities and discussions with strangers. Now we have blogging. Instead. This is gone. Isn’t that sad?”

I put my nose up against the machine to see whether any of that distinctive alcohol smell from decades ago, the intoxicating smell that used to be on school test papers, remained. It was all gone.

Writer David Seth Michaels is an attorney in Columbia County, New York. This post appeared first on his blog, Dream Antilles.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

When Your Real Father is a Multi-Millionaire Who Refused to Acknowledge You!!!

Many times over the years I've known her, I've told my wonderful friend Nina Montepagani that her life story was deserving of at least one novel.

Now, her life story is spread across the front page of the Metro section of tomorrow's New York Times.

Nina -- whose real name is Sebastiana --is in the midst of a legal battle to establish that Dr. Sebastiano Raeli, an Italian physician who died a few years ago leaving behind an estate worth $100 million -- was her biological father. One of the photos that is part of the paternity lawsuit shows Nina's mother, Anna, with Raeli, who is holding Nina as a baby.

In 2006, Dr. Raeli and his wife donated his entire estate to Tor Vergata University in Rome -- "the largest gift ever to an Italian college," according to the Times. "The announcement quoted Dr. Raeli as saying they had done the good deed 'because we don’t have children.'"

Well, so, not according to Nina. She has a very convincing tale to tell, along with photos and some incredible letters that Nina's mother, Anna, wrote to the doctor. According to the Times, "They were anguished, emotional, miserable. And they were written to a prosperous young Italian doctor named Sebastiano Raeli. 'If I would ever tell this story to someone, it would seem impossible to believe. It seems something out of a novel,' Anna Viola wrote to Sebastiano in 1957, when Nina (“beautiful child,” Anna wrote) was 5."

In another letter, Anna wrote: "How much pain I carry in my heart! How much humiliation."

Anna died of cervical cancer at the age of 35, just a couple of months after writing these letters.

Dr. Raeli was a gynecologist.

It isn't just the possibility that she stands to inherit some of Raeli's extraordinary estate that is prompting Nina to fight her long legal battle (the suit in New York City is an attempt to have her birth certificate changed; it currently shows her father to be Giuseppe Viola, the man who was married to her mother and who raised her.)

For Nina, this is a fight for her own validation, for her own legitimacy. As the article notes, it's Nina's right to say publicly, “I exist. I am.”

Nina -- whose daughter Julia grew up as a close friend with my daughter Jocelyn -- helped inspire my book, Sister Mysteries. It is in part because of Nina, and her triumph over breast cancer, that I started writing the book.

My dear Nina, may you triumph in your lawsuit, but meanwhile, you have already triumphed -- here, today, in having the world know your incredible story!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

How Do Fiction Writers Fool Readers?

The question of what's "true" and what's "fake" -- and how fiction writers make readers believe what they write -- is very much on my mind today.
That's because a reader of my new novel wrote a few days ago to ask if I would answer a few questions about the book for her travel blog, The Mindful Tourist. One of her questions in particular started me thinking. Shadia Garrison, who loves to travel and is fascinated by foreign cultures, asked this question:

"To capture Spain the way you did, with the intricate descriptions of places and people, you must have traveled there multiple times. Can you tell us about those travels?"

I have indeed traveled to Spain several times, but the truth of the matter is that I wrote Seeing Red -- a story in which a character named Ronda Cari crisscrosses Andalucía in search of her guitarist lover -- using a Fodor's guide.

Here is how I answered the question:

"You know, Shadia, I am flattered that you find my descriptions so real. And I have traveled to Spain multiple times. But the truth of the matter is, I am trained as a reporter. That training, plus my imagination, helped me create the sense of reality that you feel in the book. The honest story behind the novel is this: I had been to Spain in 1998 visiting Sevilla and Granada. I did not get to Ronda on that trip. I actually wrote Ronda's journey consulting travel guides. AFTERWARD, Rich and I followed Ronda's trip in the book exactly and most everything I had written was absolutely on target. Fiction writers have a knack for creating reality that very much conforms to REALITY, even when they haven't experienced it themselves."

That last part is what got me thinking. It is indeed a mystery and a marvel that fiction writers can fool their readers into believing in what they write. And it isn't only geography that we novelists can "fake." When I wrote my first novel, Dreaming Maples, I had about 50 pages in which my young character, Candace, rode on a motorcycle behind her boyfriend, Mark. Candace was nine months pregnant, and indeed, she was about to deliver her baby (very exciting set of scenes.)

I wrote those first 50 motorcycle pages for a fiction workshop and later, presented them for review to an editor at a large publishing house in NYC. He praised the writing, and added: "I can tell two things are true about you: one, is that you've had a baby, and second, you've ridden a motorcycle."

I laughed. I'd had three babies. But I had never even sat on a motorcycle.

How is it that I convinced this reader -- and thousands of others -- that I had? How did I "know" what it felt like?

The answer is, I'm not sure. I just imagined it. I felt as though I was riding the motorcycle and wrote those sensations.

More complicated is the fact that I "imagined" what it was like for my character, Candace, to suffer intense post-partum depression after her baby was born. My sister Karen, who worked for a long time as a nurse in labor and delivery, read my book in hours.

She called me. "How did you know what it was like to suffer post-partum depression?" she said. I had never had a moment of blues after my three babies were born.

Again, I don't have any idea how I knew. I just imagined it. I also imagined my characters living in North Adams, Massachusetts. I imagine a bakery where Candace's boyfriend Mark worked. I imagined his apartment upstairs from the bakery. I imagined all kinds of things and wrote them and then, one day, I drove to North Adams to see how far from reality my writing was.

I was astonished to find that the descriptions felt real.

Some readers might be irked to find that they are reading novels by writers who in some cases "fake it" as they write. But then again, isn't that the point?

I read somewhere that a fiction writer can glance into a room and in a split second, absorb a "feeling" and a set of impressions that can then be transformed into a whole book.

A mystery, for sure. And a gift.

Read the entire Q and A at The Mindful Tourist.

This post appeared first at the Huff Post, where "Seeing Red" is serialized once weekly on Tuesdays. Previous installments can be read at

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

And Now, How it Felt to Flip the Script, "Resurrecting Red Roses"

Note to readers: Jamie Gibbons, a sophomore at the University at Albany, SUNY, wrote a set of very moving "Flip the Script" narratives that involve her grandfather. The first is called "Dead Flowers." The "flipped" story is "Red Roses." Here, Jamie writes about what it felt like to write those stories, and how the writing helped her to accept his passing.

By Jamie Gibbons

The "flip the script" assignment was a very difficult one for me to write. My grandfather and I were extremely close, especially during my teenage years. My grandparents were the two people that I could always count on, and get along with, all of the time. They were my favorite people to visit. My grandfather had been in and out of the hospital for a while. But when he went in during my senior year, I knew things were different, and worse, this time around. The day that I found out that he had passed away was the worst day of my life. My heart was broken into a million little pieces, and my entire life was changed forever.

I hardly talk about that day, or the months that led up to it. It becomes too difficult for me to speak about it, and it only brings back all of the horrible emotions I felt then. But when we received this assignment, something made me want to share my story. As I was writing the first draft, from my point of view, I cried at almost every paragraph. Tears of happiness, from the good memories, and tears of sadness, from the bad moments. It was hard for me to relive that bad of a time in my life.

When I finished that draft, I sent it to my grandmother. I talked to her on the phone every couple of days, and I thought she would like to read this story. After she read it, she called me immediately. She said that she had cried because of how touching the story was to her. I then proceeded to tell her that the other part of the assignment was that I could re-write the story, from my grandfather’s point of view. I told her that I did not know if I could do that. Not only would it be hard, but my grandfather was never one to share his emotions, or make it publicly known how he was feeling about something or someone. She told me that she wanted me to write it, and that I would not have to make up how he felt.

For the next hour, my grandmother told me how my grandfather had always felt about me. She explained how he felt before he went into the hospital, while he was in there, and on his final day. In a way, it was hard for me to hear, because it only made me miss him more than I already did. But, it was also good for me to hear, because it made me realize how much our relationship meant to him as well.

While I wrote down what my grandmother said, and made it into the second story, I cried again. I miss him more and more every day, and these stories made it more difficult. But they also helped me. They made me realize that what I had with him was something great, and that I was so lucky to have had this relationship. The flip the script assignment made me come to terms with my feelings about that event in my life. I realize now that although it will never be a happy memory, the moments I spent during my life with him will always be with me and remain as happy moments.

I would recommend this experience to others to try. I found that this writing helped me release built up emotions that I continued to hold in. Releasing these emotions made remembering that time, and other good memories, easier to talk about. This experience will help others come to terms with how they felt, and how they should continue to feel about the situation they have written about.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"Resurrecting Roses," Part 2

Note to readers: Students writing "Flip the Script" stories have found ways to turn their original narratives into more redemptive tales by telling the story from another point of view. Jamie Gibbons' first story, "Dead Flowers," which appeared in MyStoryLives on April 9, tells her version of her grandfather's death. Here is the way she flipped it around.

By Jamie Gibbons

"Red Roses"

My wife and I had our first child in 1957. By 1971, we had nine children running around our house. Things were different then. It was acceptable to spank my kids for acting out, and I was not the only father back then who never directly said “I love you.” I just assumed that my kids already knew. Sometimes though, thinking back, I wish I could have been able to say it, before it was too late.

My son Danny’s personality is most similar to my own. I think that’s why we always got along so well. It also helps that he is one hell of a golfer, since I loved to play so much. He could win any tournament that he entered, no matter who he played. I felt so honored when he chose an old man like me to be his partner. Danny’s got a lot to be proud of besides golf. He has two beautiful daughters, a wonderful wife, and a very nice job and house. Because of the time period, I never said it, but I was always extremely proud of him. Both his daughters are special girls, but his oldest daughter, Megan, showed me more and more as she grew up that she had our personality as well. The first day that she made a sarcastic joke towards me, I knew I would have a strong connection with her.

I love my granddaughter very much. Parents these days tell their children every day how much they love them, right to their face. I still was not that comfortable doing that, but I found myself wanting to let people know, as I got older, without exactly saying it. When Megan turned eighteen, I wanted to show her how important she was to me. I think I surprised everyone when I had a dozen red roses delivered to her house that day. I knew that she liked them because the next day she made one of her usual surprise visits where she makes my wife and me lunch and spends the day with us.

I used to love watching Megan play sports. Every time she had a game near my house I always made it a point to go watch. She was one of the best volleyball players I had ever seen and the passion that she played with made me so proud to think a part of me was in her.

I had been sick for a while, but what usually happened was that I have would surgery and everything would be good again, for a while. But during Megan’s senior year, it got worse. My biggest regret is that I missed her games that year.

I went into the hospital around Christmas time. The doctors informed me that my next surgery was the biggest one I would have, and that when it was finished, they would need to keep me “under” to make sure that the infection did not come back. Before the surgery, every day at five o’clock, when sports got out, Megan would be there to visit me. She would also come on weekends, even though I told her that she should just stay home and hang out with her friends. She would always smile and say the same thing though, “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but here right now.”

I woke up from my surgery and was shocked when I realized that three weeks had gone by. I had missed Christmas and New Years Day. That took me a little bit of time to get used to. But the first thing I saw when I woke up was Megan. My wife told me that even when I was “under,” Megan continued to come every day and on weekends to sit with her and talk to me. I think I realized at that moment that there was a God, and he knew exactly what he was doing by giving me a granddaughter like Megan.

I had to stay in the hospital for months, and there never seemed to be a day in the future that I was going to be able to go home. I wanted to go home so badly, but it seemed as if every day brought a new problem. The doctors had to work their magic, and keep me OK for the moment. Finally the month of June came around. Megan was very excited about her senior prom and graduation. Every day that she came, she kept me updated on her plans for the prom and the graduation party she was going to have. She said she had a seat saved for me right next to her, at her table, at the party. She told me that I better get healthy soon so that she didn’t have to sit at the table by herself.

One day that she was visiting, Megan stayed later than she usually did. She just talked to me for hours and hours on end. When she left that night, even though she knew how uncomfortable I was showing emotion, she hugged me tight, kissed my forehead, and told me that she loved me. I wanted to say it back, but I got too choked up to speak. I know she knew what I wanted to say to her because when she saw the tear in my eye, she smiled and simply said “I know.”

After she left that night, it was just my wife and me watching television, and I started to feel a little weird. I could not tell what it was, but I knew something wasn’t right. After a nurse checked me out and said that nothing was wrong, I knew what was happening. This was it, I was dying. My wife knew it too, and we said that we loved each other while she held my hand. I was angry that God was really going to take me away during such an important time in Megan’s life. But then I remembered the moment I had with her earlier. She knew I wanted to be there, and how I felt. I didn’t want to go, but I had to. I knew I didn’t have any unfinished business now. With one last breath, I closed my eyes.

Jamie Gibbons, a sophomore at the University at Albany, SUNY, is majoring in English and minoring in psychology.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

How a Visual Artist Dreams Up her Art!!

“I came out as a brook from a river,
and as a conduit into a garden.
I said, I will water my best garden,
and will water abundantly my garden bed:
and lo, my brook became a river,
and my river became a sea.
I will make doctrine to shine as the morning,
and will send forth her light afar off.
I will yet pour out doctrine as prophecy,
and leave it to all ages for ever.
Behold that I have not laboured for myself only,
but for all them that seek wisdom.”

The words of Sophia, the Book of ben-Sirach, 1st century B.C.

By Kellie Meisl

I was astonished to come across this passage recently while doing some research on goddesses for a new series of art projects. I was astonished to read the words "I came out as a brook from a river," and "as a conduit into a garden" because I had not long before created a mermaid sculpture I had called “Awareness,” whose goddess name is Venus.

MyStoryLives last October presented the story of “Awareness” -- in that story, I explain that this piece of goddess art literally came from a brook! Moreover, she is part of another dream where she was rescued and lived in a garden.

So to find these words by Sophia -- the goddess of wisdom -- while preparing to do my next piece, was an amazing synchronicity. For me, it confirms that I am on the right path, aligned with my soul’s purpose, and connected to the divine creative energy source.

The title of my new art piece is "Flow," and it shows the goddess Sophia. Like all of my art, this work is a composite of several of my dreams.

It was 2009 when I had the first dream.

In it there was a huge amount of turbulence. I dreamed that the walls of a disturbingly oppressive classroom were being blown over and the floor was opening up to reveal a gaping river of fermenting apples flowing along beneath it.

The second dream came a little over a year ago in March of 2010. In this dream, I was in my neglected gardens and had been given a helper, an older woman with white hair. She helped me remove a thorny, dried up rosebush that had not received enough nutrients. She plucked it out with her bare hands, and cast it in the flowing brook behind my home.As we stood from above watching the water move by, a large tree stripped of its bark, its roots and branches neatly severed off, came rushing by. Its wood was light and twisted, I saw it as a work of art, but it was so big and moving so quickly I did not know how to retrieve it alone. I was panicked. In the dream, the wise woman somehow reassured me, without words, as dream guides do, that I need not panic, but should instead let the tree go. I was relieved to be relinquished of this huge task and grateful for the support I received from the wise woman. I have returned to her advice often in the past year. I am reminded again and again to let go, to be mindful of the process and be aware, but not to panic.

And so, it is with messages of my dreams that I created “Sophia.” I asked for a dream on the night I completed her and this is what I was sent:

I am vacationing on the ocean with my family. There is a chain of resorts along the ocean where others are staying. I am standing by a picture window and the glass breaks from the pressure of a wave...I realize there is a storm and I must act now, it is up to me to move us...I look out the window and see that others along the chain may be trapped by the waves, I feel fortunate that we can get away from the rushing water. I look back and see a woman who appears to be trapped by the water, but she is not worried, she knows she will be okay…

I created my first piece of goddess art in 2009 for the Think Pink Breast Cancer Awareness Art Exhibit in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It has two names. I call it “Shattered Cups,” referring to the fact that it contains pieces of my great grandmother's heirloom china set. I also call the piece "Artemis," referring to the hunter goddess who is a protector of the feminine spirit.

 Artemis was well received by many, and went on to live in a very happy home full of marvelous art with a woman named Jo Ann, who has a keen eye for all things beautiful.

My piece "Awareness" was purchased by Pittsfield Mayor James Ruberto, for his vacation home in Florida.

As with Venus, Artemis has a larger story. She has received a fair amount of attention donning the cover of the book Seeing Red.

Artist Kellie Meisl's work can be seen at her website, Dream Art. She also keeps a blog called "Walk."

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Resurrecting Red Roses -- Another set of "Flip the Script" stories!!

Note to readers: Students in both my spring semester classes at the University at Albany, SUNY, are writing stories for an exercise called "Flip the Script." The exercise involves writing a painful life story, and then "flipping the script" -- taking a new and more redemptive approach or point of view in the narrative. In the story that follows, sophomore Jamie Gibbons, who is majoring in English and minoring in psychology, writes very poignantly about losing her grandfather. Part two of her story, "Red Roses,"
will follow shortly.

By Jamie Gibbons

"Dead Flowers"

He was never much for talking. A story to him had to be only five minutes long. If you could not tell it all to him in then, he did not see the point. The most talking he did was with jokes. If you do not have a thick skin, or cannot take sarcasm, then talking to him probably was not the best move. If she said something that was noticeably unintelligent, she could always count on him to point it out. He never really showed emotion either. You could never tell how he was feeling. He never said I love you to her, but when he sent her roses on her eighteenth birthday, she knew what he wanted to say. She just wished she could have actually heard the words.

He had gone into the hospital around Christmas time. Some major surgery needed to be done to his heart, if he wanted to stand a chance at all. After the first one, they had to leave him in a coma, for the wounds to heal themselves. At one point, while she was alone in the room with him, Megan told him that she wasn’t done with him yet, and that he needed to fight just a little bit longer. When he woke up, she thought that had worked. But days, then months went by, and he still wasn’t going home.

Megan pulled into the driveway that summer afternoon, after a long, hot day of school. Her senior year was ending so even though she usually didn’t see the point in going this time of year still, she kind of liked to be able to see her friends for a few last moments there. Megan`s dad was in the car business. He hardly ever had days off, unless they were a specific day that the dealership gave to all of the managers for their work. But, even on those days, he usually still had to go in. So when she saw his car in the driveway that afternoon, she knew something was wrong. “He`s dead.” is what her gut instantly said. Her mind was racing. “O.K., you need to calm down. That can`t be it. Maybe he just needed the day off.” Megan kept saying to herself. She wanted to believe it more than anything, but couldn’t make her body get out of the car, and walk inside to find the answer.

She walked into the house slowly. He parents were sitting there watching television, and her dad was soaking wet from just getting out of the pool. Everything looked normal. Maybe it was all just a weird mind game. She breathed a sigh of relief and said hello to her parents. They both turned to her and she saw the reds of their eyes masked behind their fake smiles. She asked what was wrong, and when her mom opened her mouth, she could already sense the words that were coming. “Grandpa died today honey.”

Megan`s books hit the floor as she ran upstairs to her room. How could this happen? The one person that she could always count on, one of the ones she loved the most, gone forever at one of the most important times in her life. There is no way she could have done something to God so horrible that she deserved this kind of karma. Her mom came knocking at the door to come and sit with her. She didn’t want to let her in but she knew she had to. All her mother could say was it will be alright, but even she knew that was a lie.

Days of just laying in bed followed that moment. How could the world keep moving on when such a giant part of it was missing? Finally it was time to face the music. The calling hours were the worst. People you don’t even know trying to hug you and tell you how sorry they are for your loss. All Megan could think as she listened to them was that they have no idea how she feels. Has their entire world ever been torn away from them in an instant? She didn’t think so. At the funeral she had to listen to people tell all the funny stories about him, to try to make the outsiders feel connected. But she knew it was all an act. The best parts of him were the ones that couldn’t be described in a story. Just the way he was, made him the perfect man.

Graduation came and went, so did the senior prom. None of it was as exciting for Megan because she knew that the one person that should be there, wasn’t. She sometimes still cries at night when she thinks about him, or talks to him to tell her about her day. But, every time she looks at the dried out, dead roses that he gave her, hanging from her wall, she feels him there. She feels his connection and knows that no matter what, he will always he next to her. Those dead flowers are the life of him still inside of her.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Dreaming Up Dreaming Maples

Like all dreams, it’s hard to know exactly when this one started. Maybe it was the day way way back in April of 1985 when I walked away from a plum job as a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal in New York, pushing my infant daughter Jocelyn in her carriage. Smitten with motherhood, I knew my workaholic days in corporate America were over. My family and I picked up and moved to a peaceful farmhouse in the country.

Or maybe the dream really took hold on that cold February afternoon in 1991, when a good friend and I were sipping tea in her living room. By then, I had three children. My third was Noah, a toddler bouncing on my lap. At one point in the afternoon, my friend got up to go to the kitchen.

I sat, staring out the window into the grey maples. Suddenly, without a bit of warning, I saw someone. An old woman. She was walking in between the stark grey winter trees. She wore a long grey coat and carried two magnificent pails that seemed to be hammered out of gleaming silver.

The vision was so real that I felt like I could touch the soft grey wool of her coat. I could see the light sparkling off those pails and the silver hair cascading over the woman’s shoulders. Like all the visions I’ve had since, this one was more real than a movie. It was a world coming alive inside me. Or better yet, I was coming alive inside this other world.

The woman never looked at me directly. Nor did she speak a single word. But I heard something. She called to me. It was a calling that reached deep into my heart. I knew, without question, that I would follow the woman. Wherever she led.

I had no idea how far we would go. That she -- Audrey X -- would lead me deep into the maple tree forest. And into a landscape that I would come to know so well that I could draw maps. Name roads. See fences and grass, shadows playing on trees and snowy pastures. I would come to know the old woman, too, and all her relatives and friends. I would go so far as to invite them to my fortieth birthday party. And to the party I threw when I passed my doctoral exams.

You see, the old woman was responsible for me getting a Ph.D.

For six months after she first appeared in the woods that cold February afternoon, though, she led me absolutely nowhere. Busy with my children and a part-time job, I stopped thinking about her. Figured she had disappeared for good.

Until. That hot July Saturday. 1991. My children were playing in the yard. All of a sudden, I glanced out to the road. There, flying by, was a motorcycle. A young man drove and on the back was a young woman. Her belly was a dense sack jammed up against her boyfriend’s jacket. The young woman, I realized in horror, was nine months pregnant and just about to give birth.

I gasped. Pointed. What was that?

Another vision. But why? Why would a young woman decide to ride a motorcycle on the day she was having a baby? And was she related to the old woman in the woods? It seemed impossible. It seemed like the two visions had nothing to do with each other.

Except. A few weeks later, the third vision linked the first two. I saw the same young woman from the motorcycle lay her baby in the woods. In the same maple tree forest where the old woman had walked, carrying the pails.

I wasn’t sure what it all meant. I had no idea why I was being selected to have these vivid, very vivid, visions.

But I knew one thing. I was compelled to start writing.

Something. Something that I would soon begin calling “The Long Thing I’m Writing.”

It would take me nearly a year to work up the courage to call my literary zygote “my first novel."

It would take five years to write, and three more years to revise and revise.

All in all, it would be a decade before the book was ready to appear in the world. By the time the book was published, my three kids were getting mighty big. Indeed, my two daughters, Jocelyn and Lindsay, both read the book and gave me great feedback.

I saved the three-page typed letter that Lindsay, then 15 years old, wrote to me on Mother's Day in 2002, reflecting on the book. What she wrote brought me to tears:

"I am honored to be the daughter of an author with such an amazing talent. Reading your book, I feel that I know you, my mother, better than I ever have. I feel that I understand you, I feel more love for you than ever."

There has never been a reader reaction that I valued more.

This is birthday week for my first novel, Dreaming Maples. April 6, 2002. I invite you to read the Prologue and Chapter One. To meet the wonderful character, Audrey X, who led me through the forest of my first book! I want to thank my cousin, Pat Rotondo, for the extraordinary piece of art that she painted just for the book. The story of that painting, and its connection to 9/11, is one for another day!

Thursday, April 07, 2011

How to Eviscerate Government Programs, Courtesy of Republican Congressman Paul Ryan and his Budget Plan

By Richard Kirsch

Paul Ryan’s budget recklessly slashes health programs and ignores our responsibility to care for each other.

USAction President William McNary, one of the most powerful voices of my generation, often reminds us that budgets are not about numbers; budgets are moral documents, a statement of our values and priorities. Paul Ryan, the Republican Budget Committee Chair, agrees with McNary’s attention to values, saying that the goal of his proposed budget plan is to “… leave our children and our grandchildren with a debt-free nation. It is a moral imperative.”

Philosophers have written volumes on whether morality can be absolute or is always relative — one man’s morality is another man’s offense — so I’d take Ryan’s statement of his concerns about the moral transcendence of the national debt at face value except for one thing: his budget includes $4 trillion in tax cuts, including $1.5 trillion to corporations and higher-income individuals. If avoiding the saddling of our children with debt were Ryan’s true moral compass, then lowering tax rates would be off his map. Despite Ryan’s boy scout earnestness, he is really driven by an ideology of eviscerating government and denying our responsibility to care for each other.

As progressives, we should welcome a values debate with Ryan and his supporters. The centerpiece of Ryan’s vision for the future, his dismantling of the nation’s public health insurance programs and repealing of the Affordable Care Act , is in sharp contrast with our own vision. Ryan’s health proposals would reduce federal debt by making families destitute and would result in tens of thousands of Americans dying each year because they do not have health coverage. His proposals would enrich the private insurance industry and protect the interests that are most responsible for high health care costs.

Ryan’s budget would replace Medicare, the nation’s national health insurance program for seniors and people with serious disabilities, with vouchers to buy private insurance. The Ryan voucher plan is not about controlling health care costs; instead, it is intended to shift costs from the federal government to the seniors and the disabled who are covered by Medicare.

We have decades of evidence that Medicare does a better job of controlling health care costs than private insurance. Health care costs have increased at a significantly lower rat under Medicare than in private insurance plans, chiefly because Medicare is much better able to limit how much it pays to doctors and hospitals. The private insurance plans that now cover about one out of five Medicare patients do so at a cost that is 13% greater than Medicare pays for the same benefits (cost overruns that will be significantly reduced by the Affordable Care Act). Insurers reap substantial profits from these private Medicare plans, profits that would soar if the entire Medicare population were handed over to the health insurance industry. And because private insurance has failed to rein in doctor and hospital costs as effectively as Medicare, health care providers would be enriched too.

Ryan’s plan does cut health care costs in one macabre way: When people can’t afford the care they need — and the CBO reports that the Ryan plan will double the already high cost of health care to seniors — they die sooner. From a dollar-driven point of view, a cynical person might argue that a retired senior who is not being a productive worker and has no savings left to be a productive consumer is really a drain on society.

Which leads us to the Ryan plan to ruin Medicaid by replacing a program that now entitles low-income people to health coverage with a block grant to states to spend however they want on health care for the poor. In this instance, the federal government saves money by decreasing what it pays to state governments and states get to do the dirty work of cutting people’s health care.

Ryan and the Republicans are betting on the notion that people think Medicaid is for “those people,” the undeserving poor (a tautology for Republicans). Putting aside the fact that the low-income people who qualify for Medicaid are women, children and the working poor, what a great many Americans actually experience is that Medicaid is a program for their parents and grandparents. Seventy percent of Americans in nursing homes are on Medicaid and two-thirds of Medicaid expenditures are on the elderly and disabled. So after the Medicaid voucher program bankrupts seniors so that they would qualify for Medicaid, Ryan would pull that rug out from them too, as states would be forced to cut the biggest cost in the Medicaid program, long-term care.

The other way states could make up for the lost federal revenue is by cutting health coverage entirely, or providing skimpy coverage with high out-of-pocket costs, to women and children and other low-income people who are covered by Medicaid. By increasing the number of uninsured, Ryan’s plan would result in the death of even more people, since for every one million people that are uninsured, about 1,000 people die a year due to the lack of health coverage.

The Ryan budget also eliminates the state children’s health insurance program, which covers millions of children in moderate-income working families who earn too much for Medicaid. And it eliminates the coverage provisions of the Affordable Care Act, which, by expanding Medicaid to 133% of the federal poverty level and providing income-based subsidies to buy coverage for millions of families who don’t get coverage at work, would cover 32 million uninsured. That’s not all: Ryan would also raise the age to qualify for Medicare from 65 to 67, adding that age group to the uninsured for the first time since Medicare began in 1965.

I’ve lost track at this point of the number of people who such changes to the nation’s health care coverage system would kill each year — certainly upwards of 40,000. Who knows? And millions more would be saddled with personal debt or driven into bankruptcy .

Progressives have moral alternatives to Ryan’s dark vision. The Affordable Care Act is a good start, as it reduces the federal debt while covering 32 million people a year, relieves millions more of medical debt and begins to control costs at their root: over-payments and wrong incentives to health care providers. Much more can be done in this last area to move from a health care system that relies on a failed free market to control health care costs. The successful route to controlling costs is that which was taken in many other nations: a national health care plan that controls the methods and amounts that health care providers are paid.

For example, we can set the prices we pay for prescription drugs, which other nations do, cutting drug prices in half. We can provide hospitals with global budgets, giving them an incentive to reduce the amount of disease in a community and not duplicate services provided by other hospitals. And if we really want to follow Ryan’s example of politically difficult policy approaches that are visionary, we could move to a national health care plan that covers everyone as a matter of right, with comprehensive coverage and low out-of-pocket costs, financed through taxes. That’s the vision that would lower health care costs and lead to a prosperous, healthy future for all Americans.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and is writing a book on the progressive campaign to enact health reform. This post appeared first in the Roosevelt blog, New Deal 2.0.