Volunteering in disaster relief: Not enough, but the best I could do

The Salvation Army distribution center in Baton Rouge, with bags of donated food on the table waiting to be packed into boxes for flood victims. On the floor behind the table are stacks of donated food sorted by food type. In the distant background are more stacks of donated clothes.

The Salvation Army distribution center in Baton Rouge, with bags of donated food on the table waiting to be packed into boxes for flood victims. On the floor behind the table are stacks of donated food sorted by food type. In the distant background are more stacks of donated clothes.

I left the house thinking I was running a quick errand.

I’d spent an hour ruthlessly going through my closet, pulling shirts, dresses and slacks from hangers. Dismissing the “I’ll lose weight” trope and the sentimental, “Oh, I wore this at such-and-such event,” if it had hung there unused for more than a year, out it went.

I live in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. If you’ve been out of the country, or too focused on the Olympics or the presidential race to see the news, Southern Louisiana experienced what they’re calling a “1,000-year flood” in mid-August. Parts of my city got two feet of rain in less than 48 hours. Thousands of people lost everything. I am one of the lucky ones. High ground is a very fine point out here on the Mississippi Delta, but apparently our house has the advantage of a tiny bit of elevation. It was enough to make all the difference. My husband and I are not among the suffering. Our house stayed dry. We are not pulling up carpets or tearing down drywall. We are not displaced.

I thought the least I could do was gather some clothes and drop them off at the Salvation Army’s distribution center. My husband announced he was interested in joining a group of journalists who were volunteering to help with cleaning out flooded homes, calling themselves The Muckrakers. But he’s having chemotherapy right now, and his doctor gave him a firm “No.” Too much bacteria in the air, too much mold, too high a chance of a scratch or a wound that could cause a nasty infection. So I told Steve while I was dropping off the clothes I’d check to see if there was a need for volunteers. There’d be no risk of mold or layers of swampy mud. I pictured us ironing or hanging donated clothes carefully on neat racks as flood victims searched out what they needed.

The permanent distribution center was also flooded and was relocated in an empty department store in a decaying mall. My first indication that I was in naïve la-la-land was the hour-long line of traffic I sat in, circling the entire mall and the street leading into it. When I finally drew close to the store, I put down my window and asked a police officer directing traffic where I should go for a drop off. He pointed to a parking lot on his right.

I pulled up at the curb, grabbed my garbage bags of clothes and hurried in, thinking I’d drop them off, find a sign-up for Saturday and head home. My husband and I would return ready to work bright and early the next morning. But then I walked inside and my jaw dropped.

To my right was a mountain of garbage bags, boxes and laundry baskets heaped with things sympathetic people like me had donated. In front of me, in the aisles ran – literally ran – volunteers from church youth groups, scout troops and people just off the street, with sheets of paper in their hands, lugging garbage bags and digging through hastily sorted items, some of which sat under hand-lettered signs with vague gender and sizing, others just bursting from bags hurriedly ripped open in frustration. Whoever owned the building had donated the use of the space. The electricity was on, but not the air conditioning. It was over 95 degrees outside. There were no windows.

A sweaty athletic-looking young man paused beside me. “Dropping that off, Ma’am?” I nodded. He thanked me, took the bags and added them to the mountain. Before he hurried off I found my voice. “Should I stay to help?” He grinned and didn’t bother to answer the ridiculous question. “Sign up is over there,” he pointed. “Just latch onto any of these people filling bags and they’ll show you what to do.”

It was at the sign-up table that I first caught sight of the line at what had once been the store’s front door. There were hundreds of people, three and four deep, each with a paper in their hands and standing in the broiling, Louisiana sun. I glanced around the store. There were maybe 30 volunteers. And my jaw dropped again.

Boxes of food (and toilet paper and paper towels) being stuffed and stacked on pallets for Louisiana flood victims.

Boxes of food (and toilet paper and paper towels) being stuffed and stacked on pallets for Louisiana flood victims.

The young woman I latched onto couldn’t have been more than five feet tall or older than 15. She explained that the sheets were request forms, turned in by families, telling how many lived in the household, what was needed and their sizes if they wanted clothing. The little dynamo moved at a fast clip, dragging two garbage bags and filling requests for two families at once. Scooting after her with my freshly acquired sheet, I began gathering things for two adults and a child. The dynamo didn’t take a moment to introduce herself, too busy with showing me where the toiletries were centered, the first-aid supplies, the diapers, the pet food, the clothes and the shoes. Bottled water, cleaning supplies, and boxes of food were set up in stations out in the parking lot.

As I leaned over a tall cardboard box labeled, “Men’s Shoes,” digging hopelessly for a pair of size 12s, I asked, “Wouldn’t it be better if someone took a moment to organize these?” She pushed her dripping hair back and asked, “Did you see those people out there? Some of them have been waiting before we opened.”

In half-an-hour I was just as sweaty as the rest of them. My second sheet was a conundrum. Scrawled across the top were the words “NO ENGLISH!” All it told me was that there were three adults and five children in the family. Everything on the list was checked. They needed clothes, shoes, diapers. But there were no sizes. The toiletries were easy enough, but when I stopped at what a few minutes ago had been a big bin of deodorant, it was empty. “What happened to it all?” I asked a passing gatherer. “It’s already gone,” was the quick, obvious answer. At the diaper station I showed the lady organizing the supplies my sheet, and she shrugged. “Well, with five kids, there might be more than one in diapers. Grab a package of each size and lots of wipes.” There were two dogs listed. I stopped at the pet station and was told, “No more dog food.” I threw in a big bag of cat kibble, hoping it would be enough to keep the pets from starving without hurting them. (The next day, a woman shouted in answer to a question, “The only dog food we have is if your dog will eat cat food.”) Shoes. Dear God, what should I do about shoes? Five kids. I grabbed random sizes in as gender-neutral styles as possible. Varying flip-flops in ladies sizes. A couple of men’s athletic shoes went in, as I wondered if the recipients would think I was crazy if there were no men in the family.

In the clothing section I joined other “shoppers” on the floor, scavenging in random bags, looking for anything that might serve as one-size-fits-all. Were they heavy? Bone thin? Tall? Short? How could I know? If I’d had a pen and paper I would have included a note that said, “I did the best I could.” Like a weird, bad-dream Santa, I lugged two bulging green garbage bags to the front door, turning them over with the now sweat-smeared sheet to the man who would bellow out the family’s name. As I grabbed another sheet I wondered what they’d think as they opened the bags.

The irony wasn’t lost on me, as I hurried along dragging my sacks, that this was all unfolding in an abandoned department store. It must have been a nice place, back in the day. The fading words “Donna Karan” looked down on the mountain of clothes-filled garbage bags. Under the “Cole Haan” sign was a scattering of baby shoes. Inactive escalators led to a dark upstairs, the wall-covering peeling along the sides. It wasn’t hard to imagine racks of things, crispy in their newness, and shoppers, serenely sliding hangers, taking their time, enjoying making the choice of, “This I will have. This I will not.” As I glanced at my fellow volunteers, the scene seemed almost Dante-esque. Figures lugging huge garbage bags over shoulders, a few wielding shopping carts which were reserved for the “really big families.”

It was so damn hot, it easily could have been a circle of hell. I laughed at myself, in my light-colored capris, now streaked with grime, as my feet swelled in my chi-chi espadrilles. Why hadn’t I at least worn my good, sturdy sneakers?

Once, when I opened a bag of clothing, still marked with hand-labled price stickers and covered with mildew and black spotty mold, I almost cried. Leftovers from a long-ago garage sale someone stored carelessly and now unloaded on the unfortunate. “Shame on you.” A young man nearby asked, “What?” and I was surprised to realize I’d actually said it out loud. I showed him the garbage in the bag. He told me unusable items were put into a box at the back of the store. When I got there I discovered “the box” was actually about six or eight boxes, all of them overflowing.

It wasn’t the only time I wondered about the donors.

A shopping cart was brought in from the parking lot, filled to the top with boxes of garishly colored women’s shoes, all of them with 8-inch heels. Maybe, at another time, someone shopping at the Salvation Army might want them. But now? Would any woman wearing a size 6 shoe, who had seen water come up to the rafters of her home, really think a blazing pink pair of platform heels helpful? I didn’t know. But I wasn’t passing them on to anybody on my lists. I stuck with athletic shoes, or a decent pair of leather flats if I could find them. In my searches I found mud-caked shoes, stained underwear and shirts with dried food still on them. More often I found bags of clean things, not new but some of them only gently worn, many of them with labels that would have belonged under the Eileen Fisher or Donna Karan signs.

In the time that I was there, only one person lost it. I was rejoicing at a recent donation of a whole box of deodorant when her screaming got my attention. She’d breached the tables separating the entrance from the crowd, and was brandishing what I think was a pair of child’s Uggs. I waited more than three hours, she wailed. Three hours, when I could have been trying to salvage things from my house. Three hours in this heat and this is what you give my kid?  Don’t you people know it’s summer time? It’s almost 100 degrees outside! Do you really think he can walk around with snow boots on his feet?

I was stunned at how torn I felt. I wanted to leap to the defense of whoever had filled her bag. Did she think this was McDonald’s and we’d failed to fill her order correctly? Did she think scavenging through this towering mess this was easy? It was an almost impossible task, finding a specific-sized pair of shoes, especially in boy’s sizes.  And yet, as I looked at her tight, despairing face, I also felt crawling shame at my good fortune. She was so hot, so exhausted. And she wanted to help her child. I also had the mad desire to throw myself at her feet and say, “I’m sorry. This is so inadequate. I’m so sorry.”

At some point they stopped accepting people in line. Those sent away were told to return tomorrow. By 4 o’clock there were dozens of people waiting, not hundreds. And finally, knowing my poor little dog was home and hadn’t been out since early morning, and that my husband, depleted from chemotherapy and a full day’s work would soon be home, I decided to leave. Tomorrow. Like the people who didn’t make it into line, I’d come back tomorrow.

End Note: Steve and I did return to the Salvation Army distribution center on Saturday. Those who stayed later than I did the day before worked hard, as we found more organization. There were more volunteers. The line of people moved faster, they arranged to consult with the folks turning in forms to get more specifics about their needs. We spent most of the day assembling the boxes of food items to be distributed in the parking lot. Those are the pictures the accompany this post.

Hundreds of box forms waiting to be assembled and packed with groceries for flood victims at the Salvation Army distribution center in Baton Rouge.

Hundreds of box forms waiting to be assembled and packed with groceries for flood victims at the Salvation Army distribution center in Baton Rouge.

Assembled boxes waiting to be packed with groceries for flood victims.

Assembled boxes waiting to be packed with groceries for flood victims.

Todd Akin’s cruelty adds to the burden and pain of rape

I hate writing this blog post. I hate that I feel it’s wrong to stay silent. I would like to shrug my shoulders and soothe my conscience with the thought that the issue has nothing to do with me. I am not involved. Or, as my country-bred mind would more likely insist, I have no dog in this fight.

But deliberate cruelty should never be ignored, even if it’s not directed at you.

That’s what Missouri Representative Todd Akin’s remarks on pregnancies resulting from rapes are: Cruel. And they were deliberate. Sadly, they are not new. Even worse, they are defended.

Why do I use the word cruel? It’s not hard to figure out. Mr. Akin needed to defend his view that abortion should not be allowed in cases of rape. But how to turn the sympathy most civilized people feel for victims aside? Simple. Make the victim not a victim. Make the rape not a rape.  Claim that in cases of “legitimate rape” women can’t get pregnant. Ergo, if a woman who claims to have been assaulted has a bun in the oven, she’s lying. And society can feel comfortable forcing her to carry the child of her rapist to term.

I know cruelty when I see it (or hear it) and I’m compelled to call it out. Not for myself, but for those who Mr. Akin would cause more suffering. Empathy is a pesky little emotion and for Mr. Akin’s purposes, it gets in the way. But to recognize cruelty, sometimes it’s necessary.

Think for a moment about rape. (Yes, it is a horrifying train of thought, but suck it up.) When it happens to a person, both men and women, some of the deepest and most destructive emotional results are shame and guilt. A man will feel he should have been stronger, more physically able to fight off his attacker. A woman feels that also. But added to the burden are the questions, some of them placed in her mind by a society that discounts the trauma of rape: Did I ask for it? Will anyone believe me? And of course: Am I pregnant?

Now, imagine how that woman rape victim feels after hearing Mr. Akin say, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Try to put yourself in her place. Maybe she’s still worried that she might be pregnant by her attacker. Maybe she was, and terminated that pregnancy. Now, she has the added burden of the Neanderthal suggestion that if she got pregnant, she wasn’t traumatized enough. That her rape was not “legitimate.” You got pregnant? Then obviously “the juices” were flowing. You must have enjoyed it, and your positive pregnancy test is the proof. The shame is yours. It is a way of blaming the victim that brings to my mind the stoning of raped women in Somalia.

Mr. Akin’s comments were cruelty at its deepest, darkest level. He has tried to backtrack from his comments, saying he has sympathy for women who are sexually assaulted. In my frank, country-bred mind, that dog doesn’t hunt. Mr. Akin is sorry. He’s sorry his comments have created a firestorm and jeopardized his election to the Senate. He wants to talk about the economy now. I want to hold his feet to the fire.

Why? Because what he said was cruel. It was so cruel that, even though I don’t live in Missouri I made a donation to his opponent. It was so cruel that I made a donation to Planned Parenthood in his name.

But like Mr. Akin, I’m sorry too. I’m sorry he said what he did. I’m sorry he even thought it. Most of all, I’m sorry for the women who feel even more guilty about their own assault than they already did.

P.S. If you want to Mr. Akin’s ludicrous theory eloquently broken down bit by bit, I suggest your read this piece on Jezebel.

To Ignore or Not to Ignore? That is the Question

I admit that I played a role in the rude comment I received. But did I invite it? I’m not sure. Here’s the story:

I like to swim for exercise. Since it’s July 4th, and a very warm day, I hustled out before noon, hoping to get in the pool before it became too crowded for lap swimming. In fact, I got there so early, the lifeguard was still running the little vacuum-type cleaner cross the bottom of the pool, so I, along with several other early birds, had to wait to get in the water.

With one exception, everyone there was female. One very loud, obnoxious, exception. The guy was at least 60, paunchy and gray. He arrived with a much younger woman. I might not have noticed him, but he kept up a running commentary, mostly to or about the young lifeguard. I didn’t pay much attention, but I did notice that she seemed to haphazardly clean the end of the pool where the loud guy had set up camp, and moved on quickly.

Once I started swimming, it became more difficult to ignore the boor. Every time I reached the end of the pool where he was, he was saying something about one, or several, of the women there. About the teenager near him, he opined that “It’s all about the tan. She’s uncovered as much as she can.” About the two Asian women who were also swimming, he noted that, “They have very little body hair.” On my next lap, as I reached his end of the pool, I could tell his companion was finally taking him to task for his loud and embarrassing statements, and I have to admit that instead of making the turn back to the other side, I paused to hear what he would say in response. I can’t deny that I was eavesdropping. He said, “Well, women just come to the pool to be seen, so of course I look.” Before I even thought about it, I looked right at him and snorted – rather loudly and with a shaming frown. With a grin at getting my attention, he added, “You’re ripe, but still firm.”

My response flew out of my mouth so fast I was surprised to hear it. “One more word and you drown. And everyone here will applaud.” Then in a huff I swam away. I got out of the pool, just so I wouldn’t have to be close to his end again. As I sunned on the deck, I couldn’t help eyeing him from under my ball cap. My comment hadn’t done a thing to discourage him. He had gotten in the water to cool off, and then harassed the teenage girl by dripping water on her back as he went back to his chair. She got up and left.

When I got back to my condo, my husband had an ice cold rum drink waiting for me. As I slurped it down I told him what the guy said to me, my face still flushing with anger. He frowned, waiting for the whole story. “OK,” I admitted, “I did stop swimming to listen and then I snorted at what he said. I suppose that’s what prompted him.”

My husband nodded. “You know,” he said, “I’ve found it’s really better to ignore assholes who are just trying to get attention.” I’ve been mulling that comment ever since.

It’s true, I did insert myself into the situation. Every other woman, with the exception of the one he came with, did not respond to his comments, choosing instead to ignore him. And certainly my husband’s advice is something I’ve heard from the time I was a little girl. I can still hear my mother saying, “Don’t give him the satisfaction of even acknowledging him.” And it’s true that my comment to the creep did nothing to stop his obnoxious behavior.

But here’s the deal – Why should every woman there, include two who undoubtedly heard him commenting on their racial background, have to try to rise above or block a continuing stream of rude behavior? Isn’t what this guy was doing in essence a form of bullying? He made every woman there uncomfortable. Were we supposed to endure, hoping that another man would come along to rescue us by telling the ass to stop? The thought that, years from now, an icky guy like him could be sneering at one or both of my beautiful granddaughters, making them feel like meat on display simply because they appeared poolside in swimming suits, still makes my blood boil.

Yet I also feel like I made a mistake by making my displeasure clear.

Maybe my husband, and through a many-year extension, my mother, are right. Maybe by engaging the creep I only rewarded him. It certainly didn’t stop him. God knows I didn’t want his attention. But through my own actions, I did put myself in his line of fire. So I find myself on the horns of this dilemma: I’m not sorry that I let him know I thought his comments were in appropriate. But I am embarrassed that I left myself open his insult.

So readers, I’m open to your thoughts  Ignore or don’t ignore? That’s the question. I’m interested in hearing what you think.

On Pesky “Women’s Problems”

It would be easy for me to ignore the issue. Should employers affiliated with religious institutions cover the birth control pill for females under their health care coverage? I am tempted to say that I don’t care. My children are grown. I am a grandmother. Even if I hadn’t had a hysterectomy nearly 10 years ago, it’s a safe bet that I’d be through menopause by now, anyway. My childbearing days are over.

So why, at this point, should I bother weighing in? It all goes back to an incident that just seemed wrong. Uncomfortable. Unworthy. Undignified. A time in my life when, in my late 30s, I was forced to explain something that, on a very personal level, I should never have had to explain to anyone, save my doctor.

I worked for a Catholic university. It was, by far, the best professional experience of my adult life. I was given as much as I gave. And there aren’t many employers you can say that about. Except for one experience.

I had been told by several doctors that I would eventually need to have a hysterectomy. I was living with symptoms that went beyond unpleasant. Yet I just wasn’t ready. I dreaded major surgery and I had often read that hysterectomies were one of the most unnecessary procedures performed. My doctor at the time was understanding. She suggested I go on, and stay on, the birth control pill. It would curb the worst of the symptoms and give me more time to reconcile myself to the inevitable. I agreed.

My employer, unfortunately, did not.

When I went to pick up the prescription, I was told the University’s health insurance did not cover birth control. But it wasn’t prescribed for birth control, I explained. (The same condition, doctors had told my husband and me, made it dangerous to add to our family of three children, and we had long before opted for a permanent birth control measure.) The pharmacist suggested I talk to the University’s Human Resources department.

I didn’t want to make the call. But we honestly couldn’t afford the medication unless it was covered. I had to try to make it affordable. I called Human Resources over the lunch hour, while my officemates were out, but the woman I needed to talk to was also at lunch. I tried again in the afternoon, when the office was quiet, but she was away from her desk. I had no choice but to leave a message. Of course she called when, not only were others present, one of them was my boss. I had to excuse myself, asking if I could borrow her private office. She agreed, with a curious, concerned frown.

As soon as I said I’d tried to fill a prescription for the pill, the woman from Human Resources interrupted with a calm, condescending voice. Mimi, she said, you work for a Catholic institution. The Church does not condone birth control.

I felt the heat rise up my neck. I was really going to have to explain, to a total stranger, my very personal, very intimate problem, and wait passively while others decided if it was morally acceptable to get help for it. It didn’t matter what my doctor recommended. It didn’t matter that it was a treatment I had decided was proper. It didn’t matter that I was 39 years old, living by my own moral code and raising children to be productive members of society. I was a supplicant. I had to ask permission. And suddenly I felt like a first-grader, raising my hand to be excused to use the restroom. Was it a number 1 problem? Or was it a number 2?

I felt my eyes fill with tears as I set my jaw and launched into a detailed (and graphic) explanation of why I needed the medication. But even then, it wasn’t enough. Call your doctor, she told me. The doctor could submit, in writing, a verification that the pill was being used as a medical therapy and not for birth control. I wasn’t to be believed. I had to offer this higher authority an equally high authority.

When I talked to the doctor, she apologized. She knew of the University’s requirement, but forgot I worked there. She would submit the paperwork to the insurance company. I do it all the time, she told me. Even for women who really are using it to prevent pregnancy, she said, explaining that she did so because most of her patients couldn’t afford the full price.

But her words didn’t take away the sting. I was a grown woman. I shouldn’t have had to explain why my doctor and I had settled on this treatment. I shouldn’t have had to wait for that treatment, while the insurance company decided if that explanation met a moral criteria set up by people I did not know and who didn’t know me.

I remember hanging up, wondering why we had to play such games. At what point did the Church’s right of freedom of religion circumvent my freedom of religion? I didn’t then, nor do I now, think birth control is wrong. Moreover, when had this ceased to be a matter between my doctor and me? When did the Church’s moral high ground become more important than my privacy? When did it override what was best for my health?

I’m sure some people will wonder why, if I felt so strongly, I opted to work for a Catholic institution. That’s a valid question. My only response is that then, as now, finding work wasn’t that easy. And there were many, many good reasons to stay in the University’s employ with only a few reasons to fault it as an employer. At heart, I suppose, this is the only fault that still hurts on a very personal level.

In the end, the University’s insurance covered the prescription. The medication was put into my reach, and it did help. And it only cost me my privacy, my dignity and my copay.

My Iowa Dad’s advice to Stephen Bloom: Find the common ground

I’m just going to admit it. Stephen Bloom is on my bad side.

It’s true that I don’t know the guy. Even though my husband did some work for the University of Iowa’s journalism school a few years ago, I never met Bloom and Steve can’t recall whether he did. I’ve seen Bloom’s picture, but I doubt I could pick him out of a crowd.

So what’s the deal? Well, first he dissed Iowa, my home state, in the Atlantic. Then, when Iowans became upset about it, he just went on and on. Good people have rebutted what Bloom wrote, including my friend Ken Fuson and my spouse, Steve Buttry. But since Bloom just keeps adding fuel to the fire, I figure why not strike my own match?

I’m willing to give Bloom a small bit of due. He is probably right that the majority of the 30,007 Republicans who voted for Rick Santorum in the Iowa caucus have deeply held, strict, Christian convictions. But consider this: The population of Iowa is 3,046,355. Even if each and every one of the Santorum voters had conservative Christian ties, that’s not quite 1% of a population that Bloom insists, “views the world through the prism of religion.”

The fact is, while most Iowans declare themselves Christian, like the rest of the nation, church attendance is dropping. In a 2009 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Iowa ranked in the bottom half of states in three of four measures of religious attitudes and practices. In worship attendance, Iowa ranked 21st at 40 percent, just one point above the national average. But in three other measures, Iowa ranked below the national average: 28th in the percentage who say they believe in God with absolute certainty (70 percent), 32nd in the percentage who say religion is very important in their lives (51 percent), 34th in the percentage who say they pray daily (53 percent).

Why Bloom thinks, “All of the networking is done in church,” when fewer and fewer are attending services of any stripe is a mystery.

It wasn’t until I read the Washington Post story on Bloom that I realized the heart of his animosity lay in his Jewish religion versus what he perceives as Iowa’s “in your face” Christianity. He told writer Sally Quinn, “You constantly feel like an outsider. If you’re different you are viewed askance, as an alien.” And oddly, that is where we have some common ground. My family was also viewed as different.

My father, the son of a Southwest Iowa farmer, served in the Navy during World War II. Getting Wesley back down on the farm wasn’t really a problem when the conflict ended, but when he returned to the Swedish Lutheran community of his birth, he brought a first-generation, Italian Catholic girl from Bayonne, New Jersey, back as his wife.

Yes, she was different. She “tawked” funny. She smoked. She knew how to make all kinds of cocktails. She used colorful language, and chanted Hail Mary’s aloud on her thick black rosary, while she streaked down the rutted country roads in her green Chevy. And when she cooked up a storm, which was often, most everything she made looked odd and had strange Eye-talian names.

By extension, her five children were also different. When we vacationed, we went to visit my mother’s people “out East.” I was the first in my tiny class of 40 to see the Empire State Building and visit Washington, D.C. My Uncle Sonny (yes, that’s really what we called him) took us to see the World Trade Center as it was being built. He’d drive us around Manhattan and taught us how to spot the hookers on the streets. (Thanks to him, I was also the first in my class to know what a hooker is.)

And while Catholics are not uncommon in Iowa, in my little town of Essex, they were rare. I was one of two in my graduating class. Yes, my young Protestant friends asked about my Catholicism. “Does that mean you can’t dance?” I’d answer no, but, sadly, had to admit I couldn’t pin that on the Church. I remember explaining to my friend Paulette what a bagel is, and laughed till I cried when my friend Melanie asked me what country my mother was from because of her Jersey accent. As a young adult, I’ve stood in an Iowa grocery store and tried to explain the Italian voodoo that is eggplant Parmesan to a curious, elderly farm woman who seriously asked, “Now what are you going to do with that?”

Sometimes, how we stood out in our little community was bothersome, especially when I was a teen-ager and all I wanted was to fit in. But I got lucky there. My mother, the very source of our differences, would have none of my self-pity. You have friends, she’d tell me, true friends. When they ask questions that means they’re interested in you. They care. They want to understand you better. That’s a compliment. And Mom always reminded me that if I stood out, I still belonged. Be glad, she’d insist, that you are unique among the many.

Turning to my father didn’t get me any sympathy either. One night, in full teen-drama-queen mode, I cried, “Why do I have to be the different one?” That Iowa farm boy, whom Bloom would have you believe saw no further than the east pasture, lowered his paper and fixed me with his deep blue, Swedish eyes. “Mimi,” he said, “it’s been my experience people are pretty much the same everywhere. Don’t blame others if you’re uncomfortable. You have to find the common ground.”

Keep in mind this was all in the 1960s and 70s. I’m well into my 50s now. The last time I lived in Iowa was for 2 years, beginning in 2008. Much had changed, including a population that was more worldly. But some things were the same. The culture is still based in agriculture. There was still a lot of discussion of the weather (Cedar Rapids suffered the worst flood in its history) and crop prices. But religion? No. I met and became friends with many people. I couldn’t tell you the religion (if any) of a single one. It just never came up.

So, when Bloom puts himself in the position of a native Iowan and says to the Washington Post, “When you look at someone in the local grocery store you’re thinking, ‘What religion is that person?’ ” I can only put it down as a very quirky paranoia. Why does he think, “Religion is right at the forefront of every discussion,” when fewer than half the population say they attend church regularly?

I understand that Stephen Bloom’s Judaism, both by faith and culture, is outside the Iowa norm. And, in spite of his obvious hyperbole, he probably has been approached by an evangelical or two. Just as I have – in Nebraska, Kansas, Virginia, New York City and Washington, D.C. In fact, in my experience, the person who most strongly challenged my Catholic upbringing and proselytized me to the point of tears was my own mother-in-law. And she would have told you up front that she was no Iowan. Proudly born and bred in the diverse city of Chicago, she was a military wife who traveled the world. She would also be the first to take offense at her son using the phrase, “Come-to-Jesus meeting,” that Bloom holds up as evidence of Iowans’ pervasive Bible-thumping. FYI, Mr. Bloom, the deeply devout find that a use of the Lord’s name in vain. If you really hear it that often, it’s being said by us unrepentant sinners.

If, after 20 years living in Iowa, Bloom still feels like an outsider, maybe the time has come for him to look inward. My mother was just as different. But she embraced her neighbors. She generously answered their questions. And if one or two were put awkwardly, well, she reminded herself that they forgave her inborn bluntness and city-bred impatience. Sure, there were times when she felt uncomfortable. But she knew clods are not unique to Iowa, and if she let a few make her feel bad, that had more to do with herself than them. She found her own, special way to be part of the community, a gem among them, loved for the very differences that could have been so divisive. When she died she was sincerely mourned and deeply missed.

Mr. Bloom, my family was different by Iowa standards. Just as different as yours. And yet somehow, no matter where I live now (and being married to a journalist, I seem to always be on the move), I still consider Iowa home. I still love it, with a gut-level sense of belonging that can only be described as a family tie.

I suggest, Mr. Bloom, you follow an Iowa farm boy’s advice. Don’t blame others for your discomfort. Oh, and by the way, that farm boy owned many dogs but never took one of them hunting. They were family pets. Just like yours.

The Heart of a Stranger

We were in New Haven, Connecticut. My husband was working with the editors of the Register and I set up camp in our “studio suite” at an extended stay hotel just down the block. A few weeks earlier a writing coach had agreed to look at some of my fiction and I spent the early part of the week happily deep in the writing cave, updating the work before I sent it off to him.

By Wednesday night I was done, although Steve and I were still in the process of reading it out loud to one another, something I’ve found invaluable when it comes to catching flow and tone and rhythm. At dinner, when Steve asked about my day, I laughed and reminded him I’d spent three solid days at the desk, not even bothering to clear out while the staff came in to empty the trash and bring fresh towels., And I wondered what I’d do with myself now that I’d finished.

Take the car, he suggested, noting he could easily walk to the Register. You could go to one of the beaches, or drive up along the Sound to see the fall colors. Mystic was only about an hour away, he said, and it’s a pretty town. He’d been there before, but I had not. I remembered the movie, “Mystic Pizza” but thought it was a long drive just to pick up a slice for lunch. I wasn’t sure it could be much fun, going alone. But, after a few rainy days, the sun was out the next morning, and the prospect of being out and about after days of solitary work made me glad he’d left the car.

The drive up was just as pretty as you’d expect New England to be in the fall, and I enjoyed it as I sipped my coffee and sang with the music on my iPhone piped through the stereo speakers. I was in a good mood as I followed the well-marked signs, and found easy parking outside Mystic Seaport, a collection of museums meant to give visitors a peek of what life used to be like in the days of tall-masted sailing ships and whaling vessels.

I had a nice chat with the woman at the information desk and two other lady visitors from New York. The discussion wandered from the exhibits in 19th century village ranged along the waterfront to shopping options and the quality of the local pizza. As I stepped away to buy my ticket, one of the New Yorkers told me they were opting for downtown shopping. Did I really think the museum was worth the price of admission? I shrugged. It was a pretty day for walking the grounds and I was intrigued at the idea of exploring a genuine whaling ship and watching the people who are restoring her.

As I walked the decks of the Charles W. Morgan, I immediately began thinking of my father. He was a man with undying curiosity about how things were made and the way they worked. And as helpful docents answered my questions and pointed out interesting things I would have missed, I said to myself again and again, “He would have loved this.” But if Pop’s curiosity was endless he, sadly, was not. He died quite some time ago. Walking along the docks I smiled a little to myself over the fact that I could still so deeply miss a man who’s been in the grave for 18 years.

I almost walked past the little Shipsmith Shop. When I did glance back over my shoulder at the sign I almost didn’t go in. I had seen blacksmiths’ shops before. But then, I recalled, that several people in the little town where I grew up in Iowa, called my father a blacksmith. He was an expert welder and a craftsman when it came to working wrought iron. As long as he was haunting me, I figured I should step inside.The smell of the place alone was like a step back in time. Hot iron, dust and smoke, it’s a unique scent that met us at the door of my father’s shop and clung to his clothes and hands when he came home at night.

A man named Bill Scheer was at the fire, talking to observers as he worked. The really important thing is the temperature, he explained as he pumped the bellows. Too high and the metal burns, too low and you can’t work the iron. And he asked, how do you suppose they judged the heat?
“The color of the fire.” I was surprised when the words came out of my mouth. Bill shot an appreciative grin at me. That’s right, he said. What I’m looking for here is a nice cherry color.


With a pair of iron tongs he pulled a glowing red heart out of the fire. As he worked with it, he went step-by-step through a process he clearly not only understood, but loved, the way only a true craftsman loves his work.

And suddenly I was verbally incontinent. I don’t even remember how I hijacked the demonstration, I just knew I was talking. I told Bill about how, when I was in first grade and my class was studying the wild West and cowboys, my father took me to his shop one night. He explained step-by-step, just as Bill was now, using many of the same words, the process as he heated thick black iron until it glowed red and bent it with a precision I still don’t understand into my initials: MJ. He made me a branding iron that night, to take to school for our history unit. It was just me and him that night. He was still a young man then, and I can see him clearly as he reheated the metal when he was finished, telling me how important it was that thetemperature be just right, so that he didn’t ruin the work he’d done. When the iron was a light, glowing red, he turned and pressed it into a block of wood that sizzled. He smiled as he drew it away, and watched my mouth become a round O to see the initial letters of my first and last name burned there.

I came back to the present with a jolt as I said the words, “I still grieve that I let that branding iron get away from me. I sure wish I had it.” Bill nodded, still working, and I glanced around nervously to see that the others who had been watching him had left. The kind man had listened patiently to the sentimental ravings of nostalgic, middle-aged fool and I began to stammer, trying to form an apology even as I shuffled to the door. But Bill held up a finger and turned to dip something into the water trough. It sizzled.

He came to me then, and held out his hand. His heart was in it.

I’m sure he had no idea that I would burst into tears. I mumbled something like, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly,” but with a wink he pressed his heart into my hand. “You paint this now,” he said, kindly ignoring that I couldn’t speak, “or it will rust.”

Isn’t that what a craftsman always does? Put a bit of his or her heart into what they make, and then offer it up to another? And if the lucky recipient is smart enough, or old enough, they recognize the trueness of the gift.

I painted the heart, Bill. And this time, I’ll hang on to it.


From cigar to cigar, 2,061 miles

The trip started with cigars.

The night before we launched on our 2,061-mile trip, my sister Carol and I sat out by her pool in the moist dark with crisp glasses of white wine. We each sparked up a skinny, cherry-flavored cigar with a filtered end. A girlie smoke. As a general rule, neither of us smokes. But it seemed that we needed something a little bold, a little silly, to bond over before we climbed into the car for the long, long trip. Carol’s kept going out. I, on the other hand, had no problem rhythmically puffing streams of smoke out over the glassy still water in front of us. We talked about many things; husbands, kids, grandchildren, our work, even my little dog. I began to worry if we covered all those topics now, there would be little left to keep us going on a trip that would span roughly 40 hours. I shouldn’t have bothered.

I intended to blog as we traveled, posting an update when we reached each day’s destination and I did manage a short, rather dull post the first night. But after that it didn’t get done. In fact, several of our expectations were unrealized. The little bottles of wine we stashed in a small cooler went unopened, the remaining cigars unsmoked.

Here’s the thing about spending hours on end in a car. Even when the forward motion mercifully stops, every nerve in your body keeps going. There is a ghostly sensation of the rumbling road, your ears continue to strain for the humming of the engine, and your brain … well, your brain impulses seem to be struggling through a thick bowl of guacamole. Every thought, every word you endeavor to speak, is a slow go. So, we tended to just flop into bed, feeling fortunate if our synapses coordinated enough to allow for face washing and teeth brushing.

That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy ourselves. As Carol noted on our way out of Jacksonville, “We may have to make our own fun.” That’s where sisters Mary and Donna came in. In the tradition of Flat Stanley, we carried a picture of each of them. Posing them became one our chief amusements. They appeared on every “Welcome to …” sign we found as we entered each of the seven states. They were propped up amongst bottles of locally brewed beer. They were posed with two separate police officers and a couple of friendly bikers. For all our time in Texas (and believe me, we spent a lo-o-ng time in Texas) a picture of Rick Perry was taped to Donna’s shoulder. When we left the state we took a picture of the crumpled Rick and posted it to the family, announcing he was “crushed” to be left behind. We taped our sisters up in a sheriff’s office window like wanted posters, and hung them on cacti. They were photographed on the bank of the Rio Grande and on an ordinary bus bench. As we shared the photos by email, family members joined in, spinning tales of their naughty behavior or protesting their innocence, even as they marked the progress of the trip. As long as the pictures kept coming, they knew we were just fine.
You can see some of the flat sisters pictures at the end of this post.

We bought funky Western shirts in New Mexico and microbrew and po’ boys in Louisiana. We ate boudin sausages with cracklin’ as we streaked down the interstate. In San Antonio, where we spent a day off the road with Carol’s college roommate, we lounged by the pool, were treated to much-needed massages and talked religious philosophies (with a dash of politics) into the night.

It was a ghastly hot summer all over the country, but with the drought poor Texas is nearly burned up. In San Antonio our friend drove us around the end of an extinguished wild fire, the acrid, smoky smell still permeating into the car. Foraging deer with their fawns were out in the middle of the day, starving and looking for water. Even the humans couldn’t not feel it. The air seemed to suck any moisture right out of our skin. Lip chap was indispensable and we swilled bottles of water as we traveled.

Everyone warned us about the drive through West Texas, but even though we were prepared, the sand and mesquite was so vast, so seemingly endless, that we had the sensation of running in place, the engine grinding monotonously but the view never changing. Both of us had a shocking moment behind the wheel to find the speedometer hovering at 100. And still it felt we were getting nowhere. Any break in the monotonous landscape was cause for comment, and we had an entire conversion about an ordinary freight train we could see miles in the distance. When we finally met it we spotted a small grass fire that must have been kicked up by a spark from its wheels. I called 911 and the dispatcher seemed grateful for the heads-up, saying they’d send someone right out.

A small rainstorm did come up that day, dropping the temperature to a merciful 65. Less than 20 miles later, the sun was out again and the car’s outside thermometer was pushing 90. Yes, it is a land of extremes.

At one point we had to drive 13 miles off the interstate to find gas. You’d think that would have made a lasting impression on us, but somehow when we left El Paso both of us flat-out forgot that the tank was low again. Somewhere in the New Mexico badlands Carol was behind the wheel and gasped, “My God, we’re out of gas!” She had no idea how long the low fuel light had been on and the needle was on empty. The next 15 miles were mighty quiet. Happily a gas station hove into view in the nick of time. They commanded a premium price for their gas, but we felt lucky to get it. We figured there was only 2/10ths of a gallon left in the tank.

At a temporary border patrol stop, we fished in our bags for our IDs, both profoundly uncomfortable first at having to “show” our papers, and secondly when we were waved on through with barely a glance, presumably because middle-aged, very white women didn’t fit the profile. We talked about that through many of the following miles.

When we finally rolled into Scottsdale, five days from when we started, we looked at each other in wonder, as if the city had snuck up on us. It felt like we’d gone down Alice’s rabbit hole and come out the other side. For a split second after Carol killed the engine we were silent. And then I said, “We did it.” And she sighed, “We sure did.”

That night, on the patio of her temporary home, we lit cigars and looked out on another, very different pool. Were there any new insights gained? Any wisdom about our country or the people in it? All I can say is that everyone likes to have fun. A surprising number of people joined into the game with our flat sisters. At the James Avery Jewelry showroom we visited, nearly the whole staff laughed over hanging pieces all over sister Mary’s picture. And, to my surprise, off-duty cops have a better sense of humor than I would have guessed.

For me, the meaning of the trip lay in reconnecting with my sister. We’ve always shared the bond of growing up in the same house, with common parents and siblings. But we’ve been adults for a very long time, with different homes, spouses, children and experiences. For five days, we shared a one-on-one experience, arguing a little, laughing a lot and making memories that are special and unique to only us. Bottom line, it was fun. My sister and I spent time together and it was fun.

And we both like the occasional girlie cigar.




Day One: 605 Miles


It was a good day, in the way a goal accomplished is a good day. Nine and 1/2 hours, 603 miles and four states: We said we’d make it from Jacksonville to Baton Rouge and by golly, we did! Right now we’re stumbling around our hotel room, muzzy and travel worn, fighting that odd sensation that we can still feel the road rumbling under us.

Sisters Mary and Donna couldn’t take the trip with us, so we brought their pictures. Much of our day’s entertainment was finding places to pose them and then emailing out the resulting pictures with cutlines Carol and I thought were funny. Or, maybe they just seemed funny after an hour or so of humming road noise. My favorite is above. (No, the officer did not stop us. He was just a nice guy who was filling up his cruiser at a gas station where we stopped.)

As evening drew on, and it became clear that Baton Rouge wasn’t appearing over the horizon any time soon, we hopped off the interstate to have a look around rural Louisiana. Men who spoke softly, with liquidy vowels, directed us to the little town of Abita. Carol, who had been there before, remembered a good restaurant there. The town was pretty, and with the sun going down it was nice to walk around, chatting with a few people who were out on the street. But the restaurant was closed on Mondays, so we went on to find a funky bar with great brass rail and a Louisiana-cool mural on the wall.

The shrimp po’ boy was great, and Carol enjoyed her red beans and rice. Our only disappointment was that they ran out of fried green tomatoes before we got there.

Tomorrow it’s on to San Antonio. It’s 455 miles. That’ll be a piece of cake.

And away we go!

About six weeks ago I got a call from my sister Carol. Her husband, Mike, works for the Mayo Clinic branch in Jacksonville, FL. I already knew that Mike had accepted a temporary six month assignment for the Clinic at the Scottsdale location, and I knew that Carol was considering joining him there. It would mean taking a sabbatical from her work tutoring dyslexic children; a vocation she loves. I hadn’t heard what she’d decided to do.

We chatted for a moment about our kids and grandkids, and then she told me she felt she was ready for a change. The time in Scottsdale was a chance to experiment a bit, try a few new things, maybe do some volunteer work. The only problem was transportation. The Clinic provided a company car for Mike, but if Carol wanted to be free to roam, she’d need to drive her car out. How would I feel about coming along with her?

The first thing that hit me was that Jacksonville to Scottsdale was roughly 80% of the country. And a good chunk of it was that vast, almighty empty known as West Texas. I drew a breath to say, ” No, I couldn’t possibly.” Instead I heard my rather cheerful voice respond, “Sure. Why not?” It was Carol’s turn to gasp.

Why did I say yes? Honestly, I’m not really sure. Maybe it just felt too stuck-in-the-mud to decline. Maybe, as I age, I’m getting more like my grandmother who was always up for a car ride, be it to the Grand Canyon or just a few blocks down to the liquor store. As quick as she could grab her “pocketbook” she was in the shotgun seat. Whatever, I was in. Carol was so shocked at my easy agreement she called back several days later, just to make sure I understood; 2,061 miles. She impressed it on me firmly. Got it? 2,061 miles. Yep, I got it. I was still in.

So, the bags are packed, the car is loaded. We have pictures of our sisters who couldn’t make the trip, Donna and Mary, strapped firmly into the backseat. The plan is to prop them up at various locations so they can vicariously join in the fun (or tedium.) I have practiced driving Carol’s six speed, and only killed the engine once. The husbands have been kissed goodbye. At 9 a.m. we launch ourselves toward Baton Rouge, the first stop on our journey.

I have my pocketbook, and I’m ready to travel.

I envied my son embarking on his Washington adventure, and then …

Everyone has their 9/11 story, and each is important. Mine is one of the milder ones, a quiet one. A lucky one. I was over 1,000 miles away from the cities where terror rained down, in Omaha, NE, sitting in my calm, peaceful office at Creighton University. I believe when a coworker stuck her head in to tell me the news, I even had my feet up on my desk.

A year before, my oldest son, Michael, graduated from Creighton with a degree in Political Science. More than one friend sniffed at his choice of major, asking “Well, what’s he going to do with that?” What Mike did was go to work as a communication aide for a United States senator. In Washington, D.C.

If I was a little envious of the boy, it was because of the city. It was where my parents met during WWII and the stage for the great romance that launched our family. We’d visited in my youth, and later in Mike’s youth, and I loved the city for its beauty and mystique. I was (and still am) proud of my son. My husband worked for the World-Herald newspaper at the time, and a colleague at the paper’s Washington bureau told me Mike’s senator was a tough guy, saying he went through aides quickly because “he chews them up and spits them out.” More than a year in, my kid had proved resilient, learning how to navigate a huge city and a demanding boss.

As I walked out of my office on that pretty fall morning, to a meeting at the Student Center that would last until noon, I heard that the second plane hit. And any small hope that the country wasn’t under attack was gone. It was a painfully quiet, distracted group that met, and it was clear that a few of us near the door were trying to hear what the giant TV that hung over the atrium outside was saying. When we took a break, the group moderator told us before we walked out that another plane had struck the Pentagon. It was unclear if there were any more to come. All I could think was Washington, DC.

I ignored the video of the burning towers on the huge TV monitor and went to the nearest office. I commandeered a phone without even asking the woman who sat at the desk and called my husband’s number at the World-Herald. When he answered the first thing I said was, “Where’s Mike?” He told me everyone on Capitol Hill had been evacuated. “Was Mike with them?” He couldn’t tell me. “Evacuated where?” He didn’t know. He interrupted me to say the towers had come down and I turned to look out the office windows to see film of the first tower falling. A young student worker behind me gasped, “Cool.” I don’t think she understood she wasn’t watching a movie special effect. Then my husband started to say he had a story to write and my temper broke. “Find him,” I snapped. He started to stammer, groping for words, but I didn’t want to hear them. “You know how to find things out, Steve. Find him!” And I hung up the phone.

Somehow we went back to the meeting, although I didn’t pay a bit of attention and to this day couldn’t tell you what was discussed. Shortly before we finished, a woman from my office came in. I watched her cross the room, her face blank, and I knew she was coming for me. It was something about Mike. She leaned down as I turned toward her and she whispered, “Your husband called. Someone from the DC bureau found Mike. Mike asked him to call his dad. He’s fine.” When I looked up with a shaky smile the whole room sighed in relief. Mike and I finally talked later that night. He told me it took him hours to drive from the Hill back to his Alexandria apartment, the gray haze from the Pentagon fire hanging in the air. The next morning he drove past it in the pre-dawn and saw the flag that had been draped there. It was, he still says, a watershed moment.

The Friday after the attack Mike flew into Omaha. The plane he took was one of the first ones out of Dulles. The Nebraska senator he worked for had planned the trip earlier, and they were trying their best to pick up their work. His father and I met him at the airport. Intellectually I knew my son had changed. He had told me so himself. But I didn’t expect to see it so plainly in his face. When he saw us coming toward him, he stopped and leaned a little on the wall, exhaustion in every line of his face. But something else was different, something about his eyes, that made me start running. But I was too late. Much too late. His eyes had changed days earlier, when he stood in the Lower Senate Park and watch the smoke rise over the Potomac.

It’s hard to describe what had gone from my son’s eyes. If there’s a word for it, I don’t know it. The closest I can come is lightheartedness. It’s a spark of assurance that nothing can be so bad, so serious, so dark that it cannot be overcome. It is a look that all the young have and some lucky few of us never have to outgrow. I had seen it in my son’s eyes from the time he was a little boy. That night I realized it was gone forever. Here was a man who was left with no choice but to accept the unacceptable, who understood that there is no way to understand a day where people jumped from skyscrapers, rather than endure the horror within. As he hugged me close and whispered, “Mom,” it seemed in that instant that he was suddenly older than me.

I know that my story is a lucky one. Mike went on to fall in love and marry. He and Susie gave us our darling grandchild Julia a year and a half ago, and now there is another baby on the way. But when I watch Mike with his daughter, see him hold her close, or rock her with a gentleness I never suspected, I sense there are memories that haunt him. Every parent needs to believe they will always stand between their child and disaster. But Mike and I both know it’s all a matter of fate. Insisting down a phone line, “find him,” didn’t help. Watching the smoke across the river didn’t change anything. The only thing we could do was ride it out.

Our light hearts were broken that day, when my son and I both grew up.