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Category: Death (page 1 of 2)

Enlightened Ancestor: Dr. Benjamin West

I can thank my migraines for Dr. Benjamin West.

When I am anxious or don’t feel well, I often do genealogy research to take my mind off things. I have always enjoyed learning about family history, but really got bitten hard by the bug the first time I had cancer, in 1994. I was at home recuperating, on painkillers and other drugs that made concentrating difficult, and I found message boards on AOL that were all about genealogy. And my ancestors were there! I connected with some very distant cousins and compared notes. I started learning more and more about my origins.

It occurs to me that we are all the products of our parents, who are the products of their parents, who were the products of theirs, and so on. Our parents don’t just pass genetics on to us. Even when we disagree about things like politics or religion or how to raise our children, the values of our parents are distilled into us, just like the values of their parents were distilled into them. We find that professions tend to run in families -a  certain branch of the family may tend to be lawyers, writers, preachers, doctors, architects, artists, military, etc.

An obituary notice in a newspaper from 1822 led me to him. He was named as the father of one of my 5th great-grandmothers, a woman whose origins were completely unknown to me before that moment.  The man was phenomenal, and I don’t understand why every generation after him hasn’t continued to hold him up as the pinnacle of the Enlightenment. This guy’s brain was so huge and active I don’t know how it managed to stay confined in his skull.

benj-west

Benjamin West, from the Brown University Portrait Collection

Benjamin West was born in Bristol, Massachusetts in March 1730. I think of him as the Stephen Hawking of his day. His accomplishments in math and science are truly remarkable because he was an autodidact – his formal schooling lasted a whopping three months of his childhood. He was poor and had to borrow every book he read until about 1758, when he managed to find some backers to open a dry goods store. A couple of years later, he opened the first bookstore ever to grace the commercial avenues of Providence, Rhode Island. He managed to pay for the books he so desperately wanted by selling them to other people.

He married Elizabeth Smith, daughter of Benjamin Smith, in 1753 when he was 23.  They were married for 53 years and had eight children, only three of whom survived Benjamin. The 1822 death notice for his daughter, Mary Smith West (wife of Oliver Pearce), in a Providence newspaper, alerted me to him. The death notice that mentioned her father was “Dr. Benjamin West of Providence.” Mary West Pearce died in Fayetteville, NC. Her daughter, Eliza West Pearce, married Dr. Benjamin Robinson, that guy from Vermont who tested out that newfangled smallpox vaccine on his little brother and his brother’s friends and basically got run out of Bennington for his efforts. The science is strong in my family!

Benjamin West was a brilliant mathematician and astronomer. His buddies were the founders of Rhode Island College, which later became Brown University. He loved mathematics and astronomy, and conferred with some truly fantastic minds of his day. He published annual almanacs for Halifax, Nova Scotia and Providence, Rhode Island for nearly 40 years. He didn’t have the formal schooling necessary for good academic chops, though, and before he opened that dry goods and book store, he failed at operating a school. He tutored students privately for all of his adult life.

Astronomical Genius

In 1766, something would happen that ultimately would reverse his fortunes and open some gilded doors for him. A comet appeared in the constellation of Taurus on the evening of April 9. Being a good astronomer, Benjamin took careful measurements. The next day wrote a letter to an astronomer named John Winthrop who was at Cambridge College (now known as Harvard University). He had never met or corresponded with Winthrop, but was so excited about his observation he simply had to share it.

Providence, April 10, 1766

Dear Sir:

For the improvement of science, I now acquaint you, that the last evening, I saw in the West, a comet, which I judged to be about the middle of the sign of Taurus; with about 7 degrees North latitude. It set half after 8 o’clock by my watch; and its amplitude was about 29 or 30 degrees. Nothing, Sir, could have induced me to this freedom of writing to you, but the love I have for the sciences; and I flatter myself that you will, on that account, the more readily overlook it.

I am, Sir, yours,

Benjamin West

He and Winthrop became great friends and continued to write each other. For the rest of their lives they would share observations about the night sky.

1769 Transit of the Planets

Johannes Kepler and Edmund Halley figured out how to apply the theory of parallax to determine the distances between astronomical bodies.  With both Mercury and Vanus predicted to pass between the Earth and the Sun in 1769, astronomers world-wide were anxious to test the theory . Since this was the first really good opportunity to view the transits of both inner planets since Kepler’s original accurate prediction in 1627 of the 1631 transit, everyone in the field of astronomy was excited. Captain Cook would famously observe the 1769 transit of Venus from Tahiti while on his ill-fated circumnavigation and while bringing European diseases and disharmony to the South Pacific. At the time of the last transit of Venus in 1761, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, who had just finished their survey of the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, had traveled to the Cape of Good Hope to observe it. All of these men used astronomy as an important part of their lives – navigating the oceans and surveying the land required precise measurements, and measurements started with the stars.

benjamin-wests-1769-telescope

Telescope used by Benjamin West, at Providence, Rhode Island, to observe the 1769 transit of Venus. Ladd Observatory, Brown University

There was no telescope in Providence in 1769. Benjamin West, Stephen Hopkins (the signer of the Declaration and great-grandson of the Mayflower passenger) and the Brown brothers – founders of Rhode Island College, later known as Brown University – were determined to see the phenomenon, though, so they managed to import a telescope from England at the incredible expense of 500 pounds.  They set up on the outskirts of Providence. Transit Street in Providence is named after the spot where they viewed the transit on June 3, 1769. There are photos of the telescope on the Brown University website – the school still has it.

benjamin-wests-diagram-of-the-1769-transit-of-venus

Benjamin West’s diagram of the transit of Venus, 1769, from the Ladd Observatory, Brown University

As was his habit, Benjamin West made careful measurements of the transit. He published a tract (and dedicated it to his friend Stephen Hopkins) about the event. A copy of the tract made its way to John Winthrop at Harvard, and on July 18, 1770, Benjamin West – the man with only three months of formal education – was awarded an honorary Master of Arts from Harvard. Here’s the text of the notification letter from John Winthrop:

Cambridge, July 19, 1770

Sir —

I have the pleasure to acquaint you that the government of this college were pleased, yesterday, to confer upon you the Honorary degree of Master of Arts; upon which I sincerely congratulate you. I acknowledge the receipt of your favour, and shall be glad to compare any observations of the satellites.

Yours, &c.

John Winthrop

 

American Academy of Arts and Sciences: the American Philosophical Society

That same year, Benjamin West was unanimously elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia – the American colonial version of Great Britain’s Royal Society. He would meet another author and publisher of almanacs there: a fellow named Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin West was still primarily a merchant at this time, and the Revolution was on its way. When full-blown war finally arrived, commerce dried up. He went to work manufacturing clothing for the American troops. He continued his studies and his correspondence with the other great minds, though.

Mathematics was Benjamin’s first love. In 1773 he wrote to a friend in Boston of a theorem he had developed to extract “the roots of odd powers” that was probably his greatest contribution to the field of mathematics. That’s right – he discovered a math formula that I can’t even begin to hope to understand, but other really smart people who could math really well understood it and lauded him for it. When he finally explained his theorem to other math geniuses in 1781, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences not only published it in one of their earliest journals, but unanimously elected him to membership and awarded him a diploma. It was his second honorary academic degree, and he still supported by only three months of formal education. The theorem caught the attention of the European mathematical geniuses, who, giddy with discovery, also published it. Benjamin West, already pretty cool, became seriously hot stuff.

He didn’t stop at math and astronomical observations, though. One of the biographies I found explained a physics problem he cogitated upon for more than two years in conjunction with John Winthrop and a Mr. Oliver. It had to do with the properties of air in a copper tube that was then put into an otherwise airless container. The qualities of invisible gases – basically, the scientific understanding of the very concept of the physical nature and properties of “air” – was in its infancy. Our ancestor speculated about the attractive and repulsive nature of the tiny particles that made up the matter of air – what we now call its molecules – and how they would behave under different conditions. Gravity, matter, magnetism, and ultimately the behavior of the tails of comets played into his understanding of the question. This is stuff my brain simply isn’t big enough to handle.

Benjamin West’s mind was at the peak of its illuminating brilliance as the world around him heaved. His most important discoveries and writings happened as the American Revolution was about to explode.  By the end of the Revolution he had returned to academic pursuits. He tutored students in math and astronomy. He still wasn’t rich; despite his prominence in academics he never became particularly wealthy. The well-endowed founders of what would become Brown University had not forgotten their friend, though. In 1786, he was elected to a full professorship there.

For some reason he did not begin teaching at Brown for a couple of years. Probably because of his honors and his friendship with Ben Franklin and the rest of the gang at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, Benjamin West was invited to teach at the illustrious Protestant Episcopal Academy there. The name of that school is familiar to members of my father’s family.  Although Benjamin West was the direct ancestor of my Arkansas-born mother, my dad, an Irish-Italian kid who grew up in the Philly suburb of Gladwyne, went to school at Philadelphia’s Episcopal Academy while his dad coached its sports teams. (Insert refrain from “Circle of Life” here.)

Brown University awarded Dr. West his first non-honorary degree, his Doctor of Laws, in 1792. He taught mathematics and astronomy there from 1788 until 1799. Then he opened a school of navigation and taught astronomy to seafaring men. Like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, this man loved to teach other people the wonders of the universe.

I’m proud of him for another reason, too: Benjamin West was a member of an active abolitionist group in Providence.

I’ve found several contemporary biographical accounts for Benjamin West. They are typical of their time: purple prose and flowery metaphors abound. They all reach one conclusion: Benjamin West was a genius. He was a determinedly self-educated man who contributed considerably to the arts of science and mathematics during his lifetime. He was truly a product of the Age of Enlightenment: a self-educated, self-made man whose gifts and prominence considerably exceeded his bank account.

This discovery of my ancestor Benjamin West is exactly why genealogy research is so rewarding. And given the anxiety-provoking events of November 8, I expect to be doing a lot more of it – in between my stepped-up schedule of political activities, that is.

______

Bibliography:

American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Book of Members  (2016 edition), p. 252. Entry for Benjamin West, elected 1781, Fellow. Residence and Affiliation at election: Providence, RI. Career description: Astronomer, Educator, Businessperson, Book of Members; American Academy of Arts & Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Leonard Bliss, The History of Rehoboth, Bristol County, Massachusetts:  Comprising a History of the Present Towns of Rehoboth, Seekonk, and Pawtucket, From Their Settlement to the Present Time (Boston:  Otis, Broaders, and Company, 1836). Google Books

Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of the American Enlightenment, Entry for Benjamin West (1730-1813), pp. 1096-1097. https://books.google.com/books?id=qZ2yBwAAQBAJ&lpg=PA1096&dq

Louise Hall, “Family Records: Newby Bible”, New England Historical and Genealogical Register 122 (Apr 1968):  125-128, 125.

Martha Mitchell, “Benjamin West”, Encyclopedia Brunoniana (1993). https://www.brown.edu/Administration/News_Bureau/Databases/Encyclopedia/search.php?serial=W0170

John Chauncey Pease, John Milton Niles, A Gazetteer of the States of Connecticut and Rhode-Island:   (Hartford:  William S. Marsh, 1819), 331-333. Biographical entry for Dr. Benjamin West.  Google Books.

Unattributed, “Biography of Benjamin West, L.L.D.  A.A.S.:  Professor of Mathematicks, Astronomy and Natural Philosophy, in Rhode Island College – and Fellow of the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, &c.”, The Rhode Island Literary Repository Vol I, No. 7 (October 1814):  137-160 (337-360), http://books.google.com/books?id=HLQRAAAAYAAJ.  Google Books.

Benjamin West Papers; Rhode Island Historical Society Library, 121 Hope Street
Providence, RI 02906. http://www.rihs.org/mssinv/Mss794.htm.

How Did You Arrive at Non-Belief?

Sometimes I am asked how I came to be atheist. The short answer is that I was born that way.

No one is born with a religious belief system – our parents and others have to tell us the stories and indoctrinate us with their religion. That’s why there are so many Hindus in India, so many Jews in Israel, so many Muslims in Arabia, and so many Christians in America. We are indoctrinated into the religion of our parents. No Buddhist kid surprises his Christian parents with his full-blown understanding of the sutras as soon as he can talk, just like no Christian preschooler tells his Hindu parents that the only way to heaven is to accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior. We all have to be taught religion.

I think some kids are born skeptical. I think I was, and I see those traits very strongly in my oldest and youngest nephews and in my oldest niece. My youngest niece and middle nephew are plenty smart, as is my son, but they don’t have the attitude of “Nuh-uh, you’ll have to prove that to me!” and the excitement inherent in “That’s so cool! How’d that happen?” that the other three do.

DA Presbyterian Church

Presbyterian Church, Des Arc, Arkansas (Source: Kevin Stewart)

My mom is Presbyterian and my dad was Catholic. There was no Catholic church in Des Arc, Arkansas, where I grew up. The Presbyterian Church had been founded by my mother’s ancestors when they first came to Prairie County in the 1800’s, so naturally, that’s where we were taken as kids. The ceiling was pressed tin, and I cannot begin to guess how many times I counted those decorative squares out of sheer boredom.

In Sunday school, we were taught all the usual stories. One of my earliest memories is of sitting in the Sunday school classroom coloring a picture of Daniel in the lion’s den and listening to the teacher explain that God had closed the mouths of the hungry lions so they wouldn’t eat Daniel. I remember thinking, “Nuh-uh. They just weren’t hungry, or there was some other reason.”

By that age (probably by about 6), I already knew the truth about Santa, and had ruined it for my sister and one of our friends. My sister and our friend Mischelle will say how mean I was – truthfully, I think I was just so delighted and excited to have my suspicions confirmed that I couldn’t wait to tell them. They were about 4 or 5 when I ruined Christmas for them forever, and neither one has ever, ever forgiven me.

When I was a little older, I realized that the weekly sermon was supposed to be based on the Bible readings that were part of each church service. I started opening the Bible and reading the verse along with the minister, then reading the passages that led up to it and beyond it. So many times I wanted to raise my hand and tell the minister that he was wrong – if he had read the verses that came just before or just after, he would realize how off-base he was. He was taking the verse out of context and building a brand new story around it, and assigning it meaning it didn’t have.

Then I started reading other parts of the Bible in church just so I didn’t have to listen to the inane ramblings from the pulpit. I came across Judges 19, and at that point I could not accept that there was anything good about these stories at all. A few years ago, I reinterpreted the atrocities of that chapter in a short story set in the modern era. It won a scary short story contest.

Concordant readings and the hymns were excruciating. Eventually, I decided I wouldn’t say or sing the words I thought were silly or that I didn’t agree with. I refused to say out loud that I was a worthless sinner (I didn’t think I was) or that I wanted divine intervention in anything (because I didn’t think it would happen). Then I realized that the whole thing was vapid and insipid. It was just another Santa Claus story.

Illustration by Dori Hartley

Illustration by Dori Hartley

When I was about 9 or 10, I threw a major hissy fit over church. It was a Sunday morning. We were ready to walk out the door for Sunday school and I had had enough. I remember screaming at my mom, telling her that the whole thing was stupid, that God wasn’t real, that God was really mean and horrible, and that going to church was pointless because praying was stupid and the words we were supposed to repeat every week were stupid and made no sense – hey, I was 9 or 10, so everything I didn’t like was “stupid,” right?

My Catholic dad stepped into the middle of my meltdown and suggested that Mom go ahead to church with my brother and sister. He said that he’d have me watch church on television while they were gone. After I calmed down, he started telling me about the Mover of the First Part. (It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized he was teaching me Aristotelian philosophy and basically regurgitating Thomas Aquinas’s apologetic Summa Theologica.) Of course, my question was, “Who made the Prime Mover, then?” Dad didn’t have an answer, but he said we had to watch church on TV since he had promised Mom.

Oral RobertsHe told me that there was a TV preacher named Oral Roberts who started every broadcast by saying, “Something GOOD is going to happen to you!” That’s who we would watch. Sure enough, he turned on Oral Roberts, and sure enough, those words came out of the preacher’s mouth the very first thing.   As soon as the words were said, Dad switched the channel over to a John Wayne movie.

John Wayne Maureen Ohara

Dad and I spent many Sundays watching John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda while mom and my siblings were at church. I developed a great appreciation for Westerns (including the spaghetti variety), and was introduced to all-time favorites like the Cheyenne Social Club and Paint Your Wagon, World War II standards like Mister Roberts and Donovan’s Reef, and straight-up classics like The Quiet Man.

fonda-kelly-stewart-social-club I still had to go to church fairly regularly, but after that I always sat next to my dad, and we always found something to giggle about during the hymns and whisper about during the rest of the service. We made an effort to twist things to the absurd. Having a secret, fun co-conspirator made me feel better about having to go in the first place.

I don’t think Dad was atheist. He may have been agnostic, but I suspect he made Pascal’s Wager, because he always told us to get him a priest if we knew he was dying. Not a Presbyterian minister, even though he eventually joined the church and even became a deacon – he wanted a Catholic priest. As it turned out, my father died very suddenly, and there was no time to get a priest. Atheist me insisted that we call one, though, just to satisfy that need he had – because that’s what he had always said he wanted. It was a matter of respect.

When I was about 12, Mom insisted that I take Catechism classes – part of the training for joining the Presbyterian church, even though I insisted that there was no way I would do that. I dutifully memorized the Bible verses and the doctrinal responses. The Presbyterian Church in Des Arc had a tiny congregation, and I was the only student at that time. I spent more time questioning the sense of the verses and the responses to the doctrinal questions, asking “Why?”, and demanding answers to the unanswerable than anything else. The minister’s answers never satisfied me, mostly because things like “God’s ways are mysterious” and “We aren’t meant to know” are completely unsatisfactory answers to someone whose brain thrives on and revels in knowledge. When I was given an answer that rested on convoluted or circular reasoning, it drove me further away from belief, not closer. I never joined the church.

ASES Green Hall

Green Hall, All Saints Episcopal School, Vicksburg, MS

My sis and I were sent to an Episcopal boarding school for high school. During the course of the curriculum, and especially in our senior year, we had to take a class that entailed reading the Bible and being tested on it. I actually looked forward to having this class, because the priest who taught it, Father John Babcock, was very approachable, friendly, and related well with all of us kids.

Unfortunately, a different priest taught that class my senior year. He was more academic than Fr. Babcock, and had us write long, college-like essays on exams. For the midterm, he asked a question that started, “Why do you think…?” Silly me took the bait. I told him exactly what I thought about whatever the topic was. I got a C, which, if you know anything about perfectionist me, you will understand really upset me. When I went to talk with him about it, he told me that I was wrong, so he couldn’t give me a better grade. I was totally pissed – my opinion was only worth a C because it didn’t match his ridiculous opinion.

fearandtremblingAt Colgate, one of the first classes I took my freshman year was the Philosophy of Religion. Aristotle, Kant, Kierkegaard, Aquinas – this is the class where I read about the Prime Mover and remembered my dad’s explanation from a decade before. None of the explanations that any of the religious apologists offered were satisfactory. The reading selection in that class that hit me the hardest was Kierkegaard’s explanation of the Isaac story in Fear and Trembling. It seemed to me to be the stuff of tortured logic. If religion was the source of morality, then how could Isaac’s sacrifice be morally wrong but religiously right? There was no answer to this except the “leap of faith.” Nope – not only was that answer not good enough, it was ethically reprehensible.

If none of these religious stories and doctrines made sense to me, how could they make sense to other people? WHY did they make sense to other people? I decided to try to find out. I went to different religious services on campus, both Catholic and Protestant. I talked to a friend who went from Colgate to Harvard Divinity School to be a rabbi. (He told me a few years later that the rabbi thing didn’t work out, because anyone who pays attention in Divinity School ends up atheist. He’s a doctor now in Springfield, Massachusetts.) I spoke with a cousin who is a Presbyterian minister. I’ve spoken with friends who have strong faith.

When I ask people why they believe, they tend to get defensive instead of explaining their rationale. My asking them why they believe is not meant to be antagonistic – I really want to know, because to this day I don’t understand why normally rational, compassionate people would buy into this whole faith thing. “You’ve just got to believe,” they tell me. No. No, I do not.

My mother once remarked that because I went to Catholic and Episcopalian services, I must like the ceremonial flavor of the more ritualized  “high church” sects. I wasn’t going to church so I could get religion. I was going to try to figure out what other people got out of it. What I concluded was that the ritual seems to calm and comfort the people who attend these churches. Ritual is comforting. We know what to expect, we know what we are supposed to do. Ritual, like meditation, has a calming effect on the human psyche.

Rituals need a purpose, though, and I have never found purpose in a purely religious ritual. I see the point of the ritual in a wedding. I can see the point of ritual when it comes to memorial or funeral services. I see the point of other rituals that mark life transitions, like the naming of a baby or graduation or the passage to adulthood. I understand why human beings want these rituals to formalize life transitions. It doesn’t mean they are any less real if there is no ritual, but it does recognize the transition publicly, and we all want our major life changes to be recognized by others. Recognizing those life transitions is one of the main reasons I got ordained with the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and filed my credentials with the Pulaski County Clerk. Those rituals need to be recognized regardless of religious persuasion or non-belief.

When I got married, I agreed to a church wedding. Mostly that was because a church wedding was important to my beloved mother-in-law, who has a very strong faith. She knew this was the only wedding either of her children was likely to have, and it needed to be right for her. Skip and I would have been perfectly happy – and just as married – to have a judge say the words and sign the certificate on our front porch, followed, of course, by a kegger for our law school buddies. Instead, we were married in a giant church and had a reception at a country club.

We had our child baptized for the same reason – not because I wanted to do it, but because it was important to his grandparents. We took him to church when he was about 5 or 6 because we thought he needed to have had that experience. In retrospect, that was an exercise we didn’t need to put him through. I enjoyed the young adult Sunday school class that we went to there, though, and a few of those classmates I still call friends.

I’ll never forget the Sunday the minister of that church decided to teach our class. We were reading something attributed to Paul, and I was challenging at least half of what the blessed apostle wrote.

“Good! It’s good to question your faith!” the minister said to me, and the entire room erupted into laughter. My Sunday school classmates all knew I was atheist, but evidently word had not filtered up to the pulpit.

“I’m not questioning my faith,” I answered. “I’m questioning yours.”

So, I never “arrived” at non-belief. Truthfully, I didn’t have to. I never found a reason to leave non-belief in the first place.

Medical Malpractice and Tort “Reform”

I’m riding my white horse today.

As a lawyer, I know that people get harmed through no fault of their own by other’s people’s negligence and failure to pay attention to what is important. Whether it’s a car accident, a doctor who ignores symptoms, or a vicious dog who attacks a child, the person who is hurt should not have to pay the price for the injury. The court system cannot give back the things these people have lost: time away from work which leads to the loss of their careers, the pretty face that existed before the dog mauled the four year old girl, the mother who was killed by a drunk driver, living without constant pain caused by the injuries in the accident, the cheerful contributions to her family that the coma patient used to make before the doctor ignored the pulmonary thrombosis that led to her vegetative state.

When lawyers screw up a case, clients want to sue them and recover their losses. And they should. They should also be able to sue doctors, negligent drivers, and other people whose failure to pay attention has hurt them.

Unfortunately, “tort reform” usually means “medical malpractice lawsuit reform.” People think that lawyers are mean to doctors, who are just doing their best to heal people who probably can’t be healed in the first place.

That is not the case.

Look at the statistics in a recent Huffington Post article. Only 2-3% of ALL medical malpractice results in a lawsuit. That’s not 2-3% of medical care cases; that’s 2-3% of actual malpractice situations. Is such a number of lawsuits really excessive?

Caps on punitive damages is the issue Obama is expected to embrace, though. Punitive damages don’t reimburse someone for money they are out. Compensatory damages cover that. Punitive damages are intended as punishment – hence, the name “punitive.”

Why would someone require punishment for a screw-up? Think about how we decide how and whether to punish our children for negligence. Let’s say that Susie and Jenny are at a birthday party for one of their classmates and it’s cake and ice cream time. Susie gets excited explaining something and throws her arms wide, knocking over Jenny’s glass of punch, spilling it on her and ruining her party dress. Of course, Susie has to apologize to Jenny, and she has to get Jenny another glass of punch. She has to help clean up the mess, and if Jenny’s party dress is expensive Susie’s mom might offer to pay for it to be cleaned. These actions are compensatory in nature. They compensate Jenny for the loss of her glass of punch, her clean and dry dress, and her hurt feelings.

If Susie knocks the punch over because she was dancing on the table, though, Susie will be punished. Punitive action will be taken to ensure she doesn’t dance on the table and spill someone’s punch again.

Maybe we put Susie in time-out. Maybe Susie gets a spanking. Maybe Susie is grounded from her Barbies, or she is not allowed to go to any parties for the next month.

The point is not that Susie is being punished for doing something intentionally. She did not. She did spill the punch while being grossly negligent, though. She should have known that if she danced on the table where Jenny’s punch sat, the punch would spill.

Punitive damages in these cases are intended to stop gross negligence. They are not appropriate where there is no gross negligence – where the punch spills accidentally due to something unforeseen or where the negligence was minor. Punitive damages are for those egregious cases where the doctor ignored clear warning signs of his patient’s impending doom and did nothing.

Punitive damages are not awarded lightly by any jury. If a jury awards an amount in the millions, it is because the defendant in those medical malpractice actions has the resources to pay such an amount, even if it hurts. Punishment is not intended to kill, and punitive damages that bankrupt a company or a doctor aren’t appropriate. Punitive damages are supposed to hurt, though – just like being grounded from birthday parties hurts. And just like Susie, the idea is that punitive damages will hurt for a little while, but the defendant will get over it – hopefully to go forth more carefully in the future.

Breast Cancer Awareness

Breast cancer has taken the lives of women we knew and loved, and has made the lived of other women we know and love very difficult. Has anyone’s life been unaffected by it?  Don’t we all know someone who has had breast cancer?

The Susan G. Komen Foundation is the beneficiary of a Three-Day Walk for a cure for breast cancer. The walk is a National Philanthropic Trust project, aimed at nationwide and even worldwide participation.

With money for cancer research, more women diagnosed with breast cancer can be like my friend Ellen, who miraculously survived with a spontaneous remission despite being given a death sentence by her doctor, and my aunt Jackie, who survived with successful treatment.  I can name others who have recovered and others who, sadly, have not.  My cousin Margaret, my neighbor Sassy, my old friend Faye…. all have been the unlucky victims of this insidious disease.

As many of you reading this blog know, I’ve had cancer twice. I’ve not had breast cancer, but my nightmares tell me to I expect to. None of us are safe.

Please donate to this worthy cause.

My friend Kathi, who happens to be my former husband’s girlfriend, is participating in the three day walk in October. If you don’t participate yourself, please donate to her effort to raise money for a cure.

Is it weird that I ask you to support Kathi?  She’s dating my ex-husband, after all.  If you don’t already know, Skip and I have a wonderful relationship – much better than when we were married – and it all revolves around a certain boy who is closing in on adulthood.  Our son Jack is sixteen, personable, creative, and reasonably well-adjusted despite  his parents’ divorce.  Skip and I have worked hard to make sure we work together for Jack’s sake.  He is the single most important thing in our lives.  Skip and I encourage each other constantly, talk almost daily, and support each other’s goals, hopes and dreams.  We call each other for support and to vent. We still like each other.  Thank the gods we divorced before we could develop hatred for one another!

I support Kathi not only because she is my friend and Jack’s possible future stepmom, but because she is actually doing something for a cause I believe in strongly.  If you don’t participate in the walk yourself, support someone who is.  Support Kathi!

The link will get you to the page where you can donate money to the cause.  Five dollars, ten, any amount you can contribute will help.  Please help!

Here is the message Kathi is sending out to her friends:

I just wanted to send an update on the Breast Cancer 3Day Walk that I am doing in October.

We are asked to raise $2200 per participant and I have already raised $400 toward my goal!How exciting!Some of those donations are from people forwarding my email to their friends and I want you to know how much I truly appreciate your support.I joined a team called the “Buttercups” and our team has already raised $5,672! We are all training and getting ready for the 60 mile journey.

If you have already donated I can’t thank you enough!If you are still interested in donating here is the link to my site.You can donate online or print a donation form and mail it in.Nothing is too small and it is all tax deductible.

http://08.the3day.org/goto/kathianne

Thank you again!

Kathi

Gun Control

In the last couple of years I’ve changed my stance on gun control.

I don’t like guns.  They scare the hell out of me, and I see nothing “sporting” about attacking unarmed animals with them in the woods. I don’t own one and I’ve never been comfortable with the notion of having one in my house, despite the fact that my ex-husband had a hunting rifle and a boyfriend had a pistol.

I’ve represented kids with criminal charges involving guns.  I’ve seen bullet holes in children’s bedroom walls from drive-by shootings. I’ve represented women who were threatened with guns by their husbands, boyfriends, and even their sons. I’ve been to funerals of people killed by guns.  I’ve held and hugged a weeping grandmother when a stray bullet in a gang shooting left her favorite grandson, a good boy with an “A” average and college-bound, dead on a dark street in a small town in southeast Arkansas.

I don’t like the attitude of the NRA. It comes across as arrogant, shrill, and combative – not the kind of attitude a responsible gun owner/handler should display, especially around guns.

This is going to sound stupid, probably, but one of the things that tipped the scales for me against gun control was a movie.  It wasn’t just any movie.  It was a movie based on a comic book. Bear with me.  I’ve watched V for Vendetta, a film by the incomparable Wachowski Brothers, multiple times, and I find no fault with its future history philosophy.

Perhaps the helium in my brain is showing, but the point that disarming a populace oppresses the citizens makes sense to me.

One of the very best quotes from the movie is, “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”  Why?  Because the power to change government, to oversee government, and to demand that government be accountable lies with the people.

There is a poignant scene in this movie in which thousands of unarmed citizens in Guy Fawkes masks confront the well-armed military. As they pour into the open areas on this auspicious night, the astonished military doesn’t open fire. Perhaps it is the sheer numbers of people; perhaps it is the eerie, surreal fact that they are costumed like that seditionist of the past, but for whatever reason, the armed forces of the government holds its fire and allows itself to be overrun. Perhaps it is because the members of the armed forces are citizens, too, and the whole point of the movie is that citizens must require and compel change in the government.

And then there’s this quote, the source of which I’m desperately seeking:

“An armed society is a polite society.
An unarmed society is a police state.
A disarmed society is a tyranny.”

Eye Cancer

One morning in 1999 I went to my optometrist for a routine eye exam. It was time to check the strength of my glasses and contacts. With my pupils uncomfortably dilated, Dr. Randall Teague peered into the depths of my right eye. He looked into my left eye for a quick moment, then looked into the right again. He looked for what seemed like a very long time, since he was shining a light directly through the pupil onto the retina.

“Has anyone ever told you that you have a freckle in your eye?” he asked.

I was a little startled. In fact, my neurologist had asked the same question when I was last in his office for a visit for my migraines. I told Dr. Teague this.

“You need to see a good ophthalmologist,” Dr. Teague said. He turned and reached for a phone book. “I’m going to call to make you an appointment.”

This was certainly an unusual thing to happen during an eye exam, I thought. As I sat in the darkened room, in the exam chair, I watched as Dr. Teague called the office of Bill Mabrey, a very respected Little Rock ophthalmologist, and asked to set an appointment. “She needs to be seen this afternoon,” he told the person on the other end of the conversation. I began to worry.

“Why this afternoon?” I asked. I had other plans for the day, but Dr. Teague exuded a sense of urgency.

That afternoon I went to see Dr. Mabrey, who, coincidentally, was the son of my in-laws’ neighbor and close friend. Over the past ten years I had heard of Bill Mabrey’s professional progress from his mother, who loved to talk about how well he was doing and the awards and recognition he received as an extraordinarily accomplished ophthalmologist. I knew that he was the best in Little Rock.

“You have a choroidal melanoma,” he told me that afternoon. He explained that the “freckle” in my eye was similar to a mole on the skin. It was essentially a growth of pigmented cells in the part of my eye just behind the retina. Some people have small “freckles” in their eyes, just like they have freckles on their skin, and there is no problem. When the freckle grows, though, it is considered to be a malignant tumor that has to be removed surgically.

Only 5 in a million people have choroidal melanoma. That means about 1200 people in the United States have this condition. It is rare. And it is scary as hell.

The choroidal melanoma can metastasize, or spread to other parts of the body, usually to the liver or the lungs. Aggressive action to eradicate the tumor is necessary to prevent the spread of the melanoma. Usually this means the patient loses the affected eye. It is removed to prevent the melanoma from spreading. “You will most likely have to have your eye removed,” Bill Mabrey told me. My world rocked.

I have always had a fear of blindness. When I was first given glasses at the age of 9 I was told that my eyesight would continue to decline. “How bad will it get?” I had asked the eye doctor. He replied, “Oh, eventually you’ll go blind.” He thought I understood he was kidding. I didn’t, and it wasn’t until several years later that I came to understand his remark to be flippant. But in the meantime, I was sure my eyes would soon fail me completely and I would be in a world without books, without sewing, without the fine details that I loved to give to things.

More than anything else, I use my eyes. I read. I write. I sew. I make miniatures. I cannot possibly imagine life without eyes. I can lose my hearing and be okay. Yes, I love music and movies, but losing hearing would only handicap me. Losing my sight would make life much less worth living.

The fear of blindness that had permeated my childhood and adolescence came roaring back into my life. It arrived with a powerful blow and knocked me senseless. I didn’t hear the rest of what Dr. Mabrey said, but as I left I was told to make an appointment to have an MRI done on my eye.

The only place in the state that had the equipment to do an MRI on my eye to determine the size of the tumor was the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), which is located in Little Rock. Pursuant to instructions from Dr. Mabrey’s office, I called for an appointment. It would be six weeks before they could fit me in. I made the appointment.

The next few weeks were hell. This was the second time I had been diagnosed with a cancerous condition. Jack was three years old the first time. Now he was eight. The notion of this cancer metastasizing terrified me, not so much for me but for my son. My dad had lost his mother to leukemia when he was a teenager and never recovered from the blow. I didn’t want this to happen to Jack. I was 36 years old. My grandmother died at the age of 39.

I walked around in a daze. Depression hit me hard. I spent a lot of time just going through the motions of life. Going to my law office, going home, making dinner, sitting in a daze waiting for the next blow to fall. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I spent a lot of time just staring into space. Blindness, a cancer metastasizing, the possibility of my child growing up without his mother. I couldn’t even cry. I was numb.

It’s hard for me to write about those months of my life. Even now, nearly a decade later, I can’t think of them without tears. That time was easily the lowest I have ever been, and I’ve had plenty of lows.

My sister, Susan, recognized the fact that I couldn’t function. My husband didn’t – I think maybe he was too close to the situation himself to take action. My sister, though, didn’t hesitate.

Susan researched the diagnosis. She started making phone calls. She found that there were five clinics in the US that treated choroidal melanoma. One of them was at the University of Tennessee in Memphis, just a two hour drive away. When she told me she had found the clinic, she joked that she had hoped we’d have to go to New York, where the shopping was better. I managed a smile. I was so numb I really didn’t care.

Susan got me an appointment at the clinic in Memphis for two weeks later. She cancelled the appointment at UAMS and got the records from Dr. Mabrey’s office. She was ready to drive me to Memphis when a few days before the appointment my husband said he would take me.

Ophthalmic oncology is a tiny subspecialty within ophthalmology. There are approximately 147 ophthalmic oncologists in the world. Getting a second opinion would be virtually impossible, and would most likely be done at my own expense. It wasn’t practical. If the ophthalmic oncologists at the University of Tennessee, which was also associated with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis couldn’t save my eye, it wouldn’t be saved. (Remember the plugs actor Danny Thomas used to make for St. Jude’s on television? He founded the hospital.)

That day I waited in the crowded reception room with about 40 other patients. Not everyone had the same problem I did. There were some who were blind, some who were obviously frail and feeble, and others who appeared just as healthy as I did. After what felt like a lifetime my name was called and I began a series of tests.

After an ultrasound of my eye, photographs of my retina, and two doctors peering through the enlarged pupil of my right eye, Dr. Barrett Haik told me that the spot was most likely malignant and that there were just a couple of options for treatment. One was that my eye would be removed and I would get a glass replacement. If the second option didn’t work, that’s what would ultimately happen anyway.

The second option was a radical new procedure. A tiny laser beam would be aimed through the clear pupil of my paralyzed eye and the melanoma would be burned to a pile of ash. The blood vessels feeding it and helping it to grow would be cauterized by the laser, too. The procedure had rarely been done before, and never by Dr. Haik. However, Dr. Matthew Wilson, his associate, had seen it done. It was experimental. If I did it, I might still need to have radiation treatments on the eye. Despite the laser and radiation, I might still lose my eye. Was I willing to try it? I shrugged. Sure.

It could not be done that day. The doctors would have to get the necessary equipment from St. Jude’s. I should come back in a month. New measurements could be taken by ultrasound and by photograph at that time to confirm that the spot was malignantly growing inside my eye.

I was still numb. When Skip and I explained the options to our families, the consensus was to go for the laser surgery. I was still in such a state of shock and denial that I couldn’t pick up the phone to call for the appointment. My sister came to my rescue again. She called the office in Memphis. I had an appointment to have the surgery.

This time the reception area at Dr. Haik’s office wasn’t as crowded and I was ushered in almost immediately. The pupil of my right eye was dilated with drops. Measurements were again taken with the ultrasound and the photographs. I was seated in an examination chair and given a painkiller.

The team knew what they were about to do to me would hurt and they warned me it would be uncomfortable. Still, I was unprepared for the excruciating agony of a paralytic agent being administered to the muscles around my eye by a hypodermic needle. The shot and the searing agony seemed to go on forever. When it was finally over I asked if it was a boy or a girl. I hoped, for that much pain, I had a baby girl to show for it. Jack was, alas, still sibling-less.

While they waited for the paralytic drug to take effect, Doctors Wilson and Haik talked and joked with me. I have never met a doctor whose bedside manner was better than Dr. Haik’s. He was constantly patting my hand and arm in a fatherly manner, soothing me with his soft voice, and putting me at ease with every word. He explained each step thoroughly.

He was also honest about the fact that he had never attempted the procedure he was about to perform on me. Dr. Wilson had done it, and would be supervising him. The two medical men readied the laser and talked with me and each other about what was happening. Dr. Haik bent over me and aimed the light through my pupil onto the part of the retina where the melanoma was bulging through the choroidal layer of my eye. As soon as he was confident of his aim, he activated the laser. I felt nothing.

For several minutes he directed the laser into my eye. He explained that he was burning not only the melanoma itself, but the blood vessels that were feeding it. Cauterizing those vessels was paramount: if they could still deliver nourishment to that tumor, the spot would continue to grow. All the cancerous cells had to be eradicated.

At last he was finished. He moved aside and Dr. Wilson took a look. He readied the laser and burned a little more of the area. Still, I felt nothing. Dr. Wilson backed away and removed his mask. “I think we got it all,” he grinned. I smiled with relief. It was probably the first time I had smiled in over two months.

Four weeks later I returned to the clinic for a checkup. The tumor wasn’t growing. There was just a mountain of ash where it used to be. I had a blind spot in my vision where the laser had seared the retina and damaged it permanently. A small black spot in one corner of my vision is such a small price to pay to keep my eye. Nine years later, I don’t even see it. In fact, even when I look for the blind spot I can’t find it. (I guess I’m blind to it – right?) My brain has compensated for the small gap in my vision.

I now go to Memphis once a year for a follow up exam. Last year Dr. Haik was on sabbatical and I really missed seeing him. Dr. Wilson was there, though. I adore these two men who saved my eye.

When I came across a story of a small boy who had eye cancer, and who has a gift for something else special, I decided to share this story with you. I hope you find inspiration in it. I did. I found the courage to tell you about one of the darkest periods of my life.


SWEET!

You’re at a cocktail party and the conversation around you has waned. People standing around you are your shoulder hoping they see someone more interesting to talk to.

You’re on a date – the first you’ve had in months – and suddenly you’re tongue-tied. You can’t think of a single thing to say.

The debate around your in-laws’ dinner table has become heated as your wife’s younger brother defends displaying his latest nipple piercing (the one on his girlfriend) and you desperately want to change the subject to something more innocuous, yet interesting enough to distract the rest of the family, thereby making you the in-laws’ favorite hero and guaranteeing you some action with the spousal unit later.

You’re wishing you had a fun fact to know and tell.

Wish no more. If you lean closer, refill your glass of wine, and settle in for a bit, I’ll share one with you.

You’ve heard of Death by Chocolate.


You’ve heard of Death by Hari Kiri, or Seppuku.
Most of us have even heard of Absynthe Death.

There is another manner of death by which we never think we might die. It is, however, a sweet death, even sweeter than the Hiram College Band performance of J.S. Bach’s Komm süsser Tod.

I speak of Death by……


Molasses.


“Death by molasses? You’ve got to be kidding,” I hear you say. And you’d have a point. To a point, anyway.

Molasses is really kind of healthy. It’s made when the juice of sugar cane is boiled, similar to the boiling of maple sap to make maple syrup. After boiling, the sugar crystals we are familiar with are removed from the resulting syrup with centrifugal force.

Sugar cane is grown mostly in the West Indies (in the Caribbean, for those of you who don’t know), and was exported to the American colonies and then to the US, where it was the primary sweetener until the late 19th century.

The cane juice is boiled three times. Light molasses comes from the first two boils, and can be the color of homey to a medium amber shade. The third boiling of the juice yields blackstrap molasses, which is the dark stuff that traditionally sweetens ginger cookies and baked beans.

A Sugar Cane Refinery with

Holding Tanks for Molasses



In addition to the benefit of being a natural sweetener, blackstrap molasses is just chock full of minerals and vitamins. In fact, several tests have shown that the more blackstrap is boiled, the higher the concentration of iron. This is something every anemic ought to know. Depending on the brand and the quality, up to 25% of the RDA of iron can be found in blackstrap. How about using it instead of an artificial sweetener in your coffee or tea? The 16 calories per teaspoon is counterbalanced by the other health benefits, in my opinion.


And while no self-respecting blogger such as myself would hold herself out as a doctor, I am always looking for herbal remedies and cures. The Earth Clinic website excitedly claims to “have emails from our readers about blackstrap molasses curing cancerous tumors, fibroid tumors, anxiety, constipation, edema, heart palpitations, anemia, arthritic pain, joint pain, and acne, just to name a few. It has also been reported that molasses turns gray hair back to its original color and is a wonderful skin softener!”

I shall be washing my hair in molasses this evening, just to see if the gray fades as Earth Clinic’s readership claims. I hope the disappearance of the gray isn’t due to the blackstrap sticking to the hair and gumming it up. (Actually, it’s the copper in the molasses that does the trick. A copper deficiency is usually to blame for prematurely gray hair.)

Molasses has been credited with curing tumors, cycts and other benign growths, cancerous growths; arthritis; ulcers, dermatitis, eczema and psoriasis; high blood pressure, angina pectoris and other conditions related to the circulatory system; constipation, colitis and other digestive disorders, including gallstones and bladder problems; various types of anemia; nervous conditions; and even the effects of menopause. It is said to strengthen nails and hair, and, like I said before, reverse premature graying of hair. It speeds healing after surgery. Yeah, this molasses is some healthy stuff.

It even makes certain herbs more potent. For example, certain growers of marijuana claim that molasses binds the nutrients to the soil more efficiently than other agents, so they use it to grow better weed. Far out. (Anybody got that guy’s number?)

And speaking of mind-altering substances, no story about molasses would be complete without a reference to all that makes being a pirate worth being a pirate (in addition to the booty, or course): Rum!

You didn’t think all that sugar cane was grown just to sweeten some colonist’s tea, now did you?

“That’s all well and good,” you object, “And all this rot about molasses is fascinating. But, you promised us a story of death by molasses.”

And so I did.

When Molasses is stored, it’s is kept in great round tanks, similar to those that store oil.

Molasses Tank

I’m going to tell you a story of one such tank, which once sat on a pier in Boston Harbor. It was noonish on a weekday, January 15, 1919. The temperature rose that day from a frigid 2 degrees Fahrenheit to about 43 degrees. As it did, the air inside a tank holding 2.3 million gallons of molasses expanded. Because of the speed with which the air temperature rose, the air expanded faster than the poorly constructed tank could let it off. The tank exploded.

A wave of molasses 15-40 feet high soared and sloshed its way across two city blocks near the pier at about 35 miles per hour. A housewife was crushed to death in the debris of her house, which was demolished by the wave of molasses. The molasses ripped apart nearby elevated train tracks, nearly taking out a train. Gluey death captured people, horses, and dogs in its sticky ooze, finally settling two to four feet deep in the streets near the north Boston pier.

In his book Dark Tide, Stephen Puleo wrote,“Anthony di Stasio, walking homeward with his sisters from the Michelangelo School, was picked up by the wave and carried, tumbling on its crest, almost as though he were surfing. Then he grounded and the molasses rolled him like a pebble as the wave diminished. He heard his mother call his name and couldn’t answer, his throat was so clogged with the smothering goo. He passed out, then opened his eyes to find three of his sisters staring at him.” A fourth sister died, and Anthony himself was found among those thought to be dead.

The Boston Globe reported that people “were picked up by a rush of air and hurled many feet.” That rush of air tossed people, animals and debris in every direction outward from the exploded tank. A truck was picked up by the sticky deluge and thrown into Boston Harbor. A gathering of municipal employees on their lunch break in one of the buildings were caught in the flow as the building shattered around them and pieces of it hurled as far as fifty yards. A fire station was destroyed by the force of the blast and one of the four firefighters was killed. Three others were injured. Carts, wagons, and trucks were overturned and a number of horses were killed, unable to regain their footing in the sticky flood.

Approximately 150 were injured, and twenty-one people died.Some were crushed by debris and others became mired in the molasses and asphyxiated. At least two of the dead were not found for several days, and were so bruised by the pummelling they had taken in the molasses wave that they were unrecognizable.

The cleanup took months. As volunteers traveled to and from the site of the disaster, molasses stuck to their shoes, clothes, tools, and skin. It was transferred with them through the trains and transports of the city, and soon all of Boston, from the waterfront where the horror had taken place, to the suburbs where helpful volunteers lived, was covered in a sticky verneer.

On a warm day, the smell of molasses still permeates Boston.

I found this recipe while researching this blog, and I thought it would be a fitting start to our healthier new diet, which shall, I know, henceforth be sweetened with molasses. It’s written the way recipes from the time of the disaster would have been written: by hand, on scrap paper, in somebody’s grandmother’s handwriting.


And if anyone ever says you’re moving as slow as molasses in January, you can smartly respond, “So this is what 35 miles per hour feels like!”

See more of these drawings from Recipe for Disaster: The Great Molasses Flood by Andrew Einspruch and Scott Fraser (published by EPS as part of the Making Connections series) on Scott Fraser’s Live Journal blog.

Fear of Addiction

Recently a friend of mine wrote a blog about addiction that touched my heart. A friend of her children’s died as a result of his use of mind-altering substances.

I have a cousin.  He’s 66.  He’s a medical doctor.  He is currently serving six concurrent one year terms in jail for six DUIs he had in the last 14 months.  Two of the incidents where he was arrested involved accidents.  In one accident someone was hurt, although I’m not sure how badly. It’s amazing to everyone in the family that he hasn’t killed himself yet.  He lives alone when he’s not in jail. He drinks alone.

I had an aunt.  She was an Olympic class equestrian.  She and her horse fell in the early 1970’s  at a practice for the Olympic trials. Her horse had to be put down and she never rode competitively again. She took solace in a bottle and in the prescriptions she was given. For more than 30 years, alone and angry because her dreams were dashed, she drank and medicated herself.  She was hospitalized at least 20 times for detox, overdoses, and various problems with her health due to her alcoholism. When she died her blood alcohol content was .430. Yes, she drank herself to death. She probably didn’t mean to, at least not that day.

Alcoholism runs hard in the genes of my family. I can point to almost any member of my grandparents generation and say, “He was an alcoholic” or “She was an alcoholic.” The alcoholics are fewer in my parents’ generation, but they’re there. I remember swearing to myself growing up that I would never drink alcohol. I hated what it did to the people I loved.

But I did drink.  In college I realized that I drank too much and too often.  I thought about the alcoholics in my family. I slowed down. I slowed further in law school, and then when I married and had a baby I realized how hard it was to change a smelly diaper with a raging hangover.  I slowed drinking even more.

In 1997 I was in a serious car accident. As a result of that accident the migraine headaches I have had all my life became worse. Ten years later I have a condition called “Chronic Daily Headache” or “Intractable Migraine.”  I have to take drugs to combat it.  Most of the drugs don’t alter my mind, but occasionally I have to take muscle relaxers and painkillers.

Because of my headaches I have stopped drinking alcohol almost completely.  Two drinks and I can guarantee myself a migraine.  The margaritas aren’t worth it.  I may go out with friends and sip one drink for three hours.  I may drink it faster then switch to soda water. I almost never have more than one drink any more.

But there’s another problem. You see, addictive behavior runs in my family, and I have prescriptions for addictive medications for the pain I have almost daily.

I am afraid of these drugs.  I hoard them; I use them sparingly.  I don’t want them to control my life.

Yesterday and today have been a bad days. My headache started early yesterday, but I was focused on something I was doing and didn’t take a break to get my Imitrex. By the time I was through with my project, I could barely sit at my desk.  I wanted to curl up under it in a fetal position. Unbidden, tears fell down my cheeks.  I staggered downstairs. The movement exacerbated the pain.  I could barely think.

I fumbled for the device that contains the most powerful dose of Imitrex. It’s an injection, and thankfully it works quickly. I can use the injection no more than twice a month. I use it only when I can’t bear the pain.  By the time I reached for the device, I was unable to form a coherent sentence.  My thoughts were disjointed, and overlying it all was a little girl crying plaintively in my mind, “It hurts!  Make it stop!”

I gave myself the shot.  I took a muscle relaxer.  I went to bed.  I slept for three hours.  When I woke, I still had a horrible headache. I took a painkiller.  My head still hurt. Yet I still had to function.

I am a mother; I run a business. I have to take care of myself so I can take care of my child and my office.

I worry that I will become addicted to the painkillers.  I worry that I take too many prescription drugs. I take three pills every morning in a futile attempt to control the neurological aspects of my migraines.  They have helped.  I shouldn’t say it’s futile.  The headaches would be worse if I didn’t take them.  Then there are the triptans – the drugs that actually stop the migraines. I can’t take them more than three days in a row, or I risk rebound headaches.

On days like today, when my head feels like it is split in two and one side is three times the size of the other, when a throbbing pain goes from above my left eye over the crown of my head and down into my left shoulder blade, when the pain is so bad I can’t sleep even with the soporific effect of the drugs, I despair of ever feeling good again.

The drugs don’t make me feel good.  They just mask the pain.  It’s still there; I just  don’t care as much.  I can laugh and joke and carry on a conversation with the drugs.  I hate them.

I am terrified of addiction.

Happy Birthday, Daddy

Today is my Dad’s birthday. He would have been 71. He died five years ago and I miss him more than ever.

My Dad was my champion. His confidence in me never flagged, even when I was an angry, incorrigible teenager bent on self-destruction. He always told me, without any qualifying adjectives, phrases, or conditions whatsoever, that I could be and do anything I wanted in life. I’m 45 years old and I still believe him.

Daddy wasn’t perfect. He drank too much. You know the kind of drunk I’m talking about. He was perfectly functional during the day – had a pretty high-profile position in the little community where he lived, in fact – but evenings were a different story. He was a melancholy drunk, the kind who wanted to sing “Danny Boy” and worry about the re-institution of the draft.

No kidding: when I was a teenager the draft was one of his favorite drunken topics. He was on the county draft board during Vietnam and the experience scarred him, I think. He objected strongly to the war and did all he could to keep kids from our area from going. He had a cousin who was on the ground in Vietnam, a brother who spent his tour with the Navy just off the coast of Vietnam, and a brother in law who was about to be shipped out when his luck changed and he was sent home instead. Wars that were nothing but someone’s political agenda pissed Dad off. You can imagine what he’d think about Iraq Redux.

Dad made Christmas magical. His birthday, coming on the Twelfth Day of Christmas, meant that the whole season was special. We had a tradition when I was young, that he and my sister continued after her divorce: Christmas Eve meant a trip to the closest Wal-Mart, 40 miles away in the town of Searcy. Dad wasn’t looking for significant gifts on that trip. If he saw something perfect for someone, he’d pick it up, of course, but the purpose of the trip was really to grab silly gifts, stocking stuffers, and prepare for Pre-Christmas, a tradition our family held dear.

My family inherited Pre-Christmas from Dad’s family. The legend goes that on Christmas Eve the kids were allowed to open one gift, and the adults, being who they were, didn’t want to get left out. They started exchanging gag gifts on Christmas Eve, accompanied by really bad poetry. There was a $10 limit on any Pre-Christmas gift when I was growing up. This encouraged creativity in gift giving. A rubber chicken was always the booby prize, and one lucky person a year got it. It was a badge of honor to receive the chicken, which was always dressed up a little differently and presented with new panache.

I cooked my first Thanksgiving turkey at the age of 22 and had to call my mother to find out, halfway through cooking, that the giblets were in a package in the turkey’s neck. That Pre-Christmas I got the chicken with feathers stuck in its butt, intended to resemble the turkey. The chicken’s head had been cut off and, um, things were inserted in it. I don’t remember the poem (who can remember those horrible poems?) but I assure you it was appropriately insulting. A new chicken was purchased the next year to replace the poor decapitated capon.

It is still a badge of honor to receive the chicken. Jack and his cousins would be devastated every year when they’d open their pre-Christmas gift and it wouldn’t be the chicken. We had to contrive chicken gifts for them three years in a row just to get it out of the way. It’s hard to come up with a rubber chicken idea and poem for a ten year old!

But this isn’t a blog about Pre-Christmas. Dad made Christmas special in several other ways, but I should have written about that at Christmas. At least I have blog fodder for next Christmas. No, this is a blog about my Daddy, whose birthday is today.

I was Daddy’s Girl. Dad had two daughters, but I was It. Every girl, even my sister, should be a Daddy’s Girl. Sis got double billing with me as an adult, but as children we were very definitely divided. She was Mama’s and I was Daddy’s. We sort of shared our little brother, who came along half a decade later and was the only boy.

As Daddy’s Girl I had the seat of honor. I considered it the seat of honor, anyway. I think I more or less took the seat, but I had it nonetheless. I sat on the floor at his feet when we had company. I sat to his right at the dinner table. On weekends I snuggled with him on the couch and watched John Wayne and Henry Fonda and James Stewart. If he went somewhere I was the child who accompanied him.

When I was about eleven years old I rebelled completely against going to church, which I thought was stupid and pointless. I just didn’t buy the whole “god” concept, which was no more believable than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny in my mind. The story of Jesus and the ultimate sacrifice he made seemed ridiculous, and I said so rather vehemently. Martyrdom was foolish, no matter whether it was Jesus or Galileo. The choice between burning at the stake and telling a bunch of threatening men that I lied would have been easy for me. I’d be Galileo’s twin.

But at the tender age of eleven, too young even for confirmation in the church, it was Dad who told me that before I declared myself an atheist (I had no idea there was a name for it) I needed to consider whether there was a “Mover of the First Part.” There may not be a benevolent intelligence watching us now, but at some point, something, or someone, set the thing in motion. This was my first real theology lesson. It intrigued me a lot more than any Bible story ever could.

Because of this conversation with my Dad I was agnostic for years. I had to come to intellectual grips with the concept of infinity before I could put agnosticism away completely. Thanks to my dad, I actually studied theology, philosophy and religion instead of just saying, “This whole ‘Jesus and God’ thing is nonsense, and I want no part of it.” I still study religions. Maybe I’m still agnostic in some ways. Nah….

I have my Dad’s sense of humor. All three of his children do. The three of us have all remarked on multiple occasions how glad we are that we have Dad’s quickness to laugh, that we inherited the song that was in his heart. We are all basically happy people. We are happy on the outside and we are happy inside. My brother and I both struggle with depression, a genetic problem that comes from Mom’s side of the family. Believe it or not, though, even when we are depressed and at our worst, we are still optimists with a sense of fun. We are quick-witted. We see the irony in situations that make us sad.

Like Dad, all three of his children often laugh inappropriately. At the funeral of a family friend not too long ago, my brother and I walked in together a little late. Mom and Sis sat on the other side of the church. Jay and I opened the hymnal and the book that had the funeral service in it. We read the paper program. Then I noticed what I thought was a theme to the funeral.

“Jay!” I whispered, nudging him. “Do you notice that all these hymns have something to do with being submissive to God?”

He looked. Sure enough, each hymn had something about bondage or submission. He nodded. “Do you think the deceased and his wife were into BDSM?” I asked.

He moved a step away from me and turned red, trying to keep the laughter in. The widow was and is a woman of a very strong, dominant nature, and we were on the receiving end of her dominance many times growing up. The notion of her dominating her kind, soft-spoken, wheelchair-bound husband wasn’t far-fetched at all, but the idea that she’d do it in leather and with a flogger was making us snort.

Then came the concordant reading. More submission stuff. More bondage. Both of us were trying hard to keep a straight face, and we were not doing a good job. The homily was just as bad. Accepting death as God’s will, submitting whether we want to or not…

Yes, we laugh inappropriately. We should not have read anything naughty into the chosen hymns and texts of the funeral service. We were very bad. We will now submit to be punished, but only by the widow dressed in leather. (giggle) Dad would have found that to be hilariously, and inappropriately, funny as well. Too bad he missed it.

I was Daddy’s Girl. I didn’t care one thing about disappointing my mother or doing what she wanted me to do. If I thought I had disappointed Daddy, though, it was worse than being spanked, grounded, or otherwise punished. I never wanted to let my Daddy down. When Dad got angry at me, I knew I had truly screwed up. I knew I had to fix it.

When I was in my early 20’s and living 1500 miles away from him, I had a decision to make. It was a major decision, and I wanted him to tell me I was doing the right thing. I laid out the paths I could possibly take and I asked his advice. He said, “Why are you asking me? You’re just going to do what you want to anyway.” He said it gently. I realized that he was pointing out a flaw in my nature. I wanted him to reassure me that a decision I had already made was the right one. I didn’t really want his input.

Years later, when my husband said essentially the same thing to me, I understood that even though I had tried to be more conscientious about heeding the advice I was given, I wasn’t asking for it in the right way. I still have this flaw. Thanks to my dad, I am aware of it and it gives me a really guilty feeling whenever I realize that I’ve done it again. Gee, thanks, Dad.

Dad died very suddenly, either because of an aneurysm in his aorta or more probably from a deep vein thrombosis – a blood clot. He had been having problems with numbness in his left foot for several years and no doctor had been able to determine what was wrong. It’s likely that he had a clot in that numb area that finally made it to his heart and stopped it for good. His death devastated all of us.

Jack was ten years old when Dad died. We were talking about Dad one day not long after the memorial service, and Jack put his finger on what really made my Dad special. “You know what was great about Papa? He listened.”

That was really and truly what was great about my Dad. He did listen, and he listened well. He didn’t interrupt with advice. He didn’t change the subject because he was uncomfortable. He listened, he asked relevant questions, and he led us to the answer. He wasn’t afraid of feelings. If we needed to vent, he understood that and he let us vent. He only tried to solve problems when we asked him to. He helped us see solutions and he did it with humor, diplomacy, and quiet support.

My Dad was a great man because he listened.

I hope that when I die someone can say something that good about me.

I went to college where I did, then went to law school because of my dad. I accomplished what I have because of my dad’s support and encouragement. I look at life the way I do because I am my father’s daughter. I am who I am because I was Daddy’s Girl.

I love you, Daddy. Thank you for making me me. And Happy Birthday, you old fart.

Why I Haunt Them

 

In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite, residing in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, took to himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah.  But his concubine became angry with him and she went away to her father’s house at Bethlehem in Judah, and was there some four months. Then her husband set out after her, to speak tenderly to her and bring her back. – Judges 19:1-3

“It’s Bobby Wayne!”

The shock at hearing my husband’s name was only slightly less than the shock of hearing it spoken with such pleasure by my father.  Exchanging a look with Mama, I moved to the kitchen window. The familiar F-150 was indeed in the driveway, and Daddy, who had been working on his old Camaro under the shade of the live oak, was stuffing a shop rag in his hip pocket and walking toward the truck with a grin on his face.

I couldn’t believe it.  Daddy knew why I had left.  The meth had led Bobby to more and more erratic behavior, and by the time I was able to get the money together to get back home I was practically unable to use my left arm any more.  I think Bobby had broken it at least twice, and the second time he didn’t let me go to the hospital for two weeks.  They said they’d have to break it again and do surgery, and he said he didn’t have the money to pay for it, so it never did heal right. Finally it seemed like the muscles just seemed to quit working in it.

But Daddy was greeting him like a long lost son, not the abuser of his only daughter.

Bobby stayed three days. By Monday morning, Daddy had loaded my things into the bed of the pickup and told me my place was with my husband. Mama didn’t argue about it any more after Daddy popped her in the mouth Saturday afternoon. I had no choice. Bobby had been making sweet promises about how good things were going to be. I thought that if things got bad I’d just walk out again.

We were on the outskirts of the city, about an hour and a half from home, when Bobby told me he had to go see a man there for business.  Since the only business Bobby ever did involved things like guns and drugs, I knew we weren’t likely to go to a good neighborhood.  I was right.

We were in an area that had clearly seen better days. “Urban blight” is the euphemism for it. Porches sagged without anyone standing on them.  Graffiti covered everything from the walls of the homes to the fire hydrants to the sidewalks, and I could understand none of the writing. No one ever taught me this other language or the script in which it was written.

Bobby parked on the street in front of what looked like a store front that had been converted to living quarters. Before getting out of the truck he reached under his seat and removed his pistol. He checked it to be sure it was loaded, then stuck it into his pants at the waist, covering it with his t-shirt. “Stay in the truck,” he said.

As I waited, tough looking men drove by.  I saw no women.  No children played outside. Finally I lay down on the seat and slept.

Bobby had been inside almost three hours when a group of men approached the truck. When they tapped on the window I sat up, confused for a moment. An ugly scar bisected the cheek of the tall man who demanded Bobby’s whereabouts through the slightly lowered window. Wordlessly, I pointed at the building. The tall man stomped off, his followers behind them. There were about ten of them.

They pounded on the door, and although they apparently talked with whomever was on the other side, I could hear nothing.  I saw the angry looks on the men’s faces, though.  I saw two unsheath knives. Another’s gun was poorly concealed in the waistband of his jeans. A man on the edge of that crowd leaned down and picked up a piece of pipe.

While they were enjoying themselves, the men of the city, a perverse lot, surrounded the house, and started pounding on the door. They said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house that we may have intercourse with him.” And the man, master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Since this man is my guest, do not do this vile thing. Here are my virgin daughter and his concubine; let me bring them out now. Ravish them and do whatever you want to them; but against this man do not do such a vile thing.”  – Judges 19:22-24

The door opened then, and I saw an older man holding a young girl by the arm.  She couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen years old and she looked terrified. He shoved the child toward the crowd of men, but the tall one with the scar pushed her back inside.  There was more discussion.  Gesturing, and then loud voices told me that they wanted my husband, they wanted him now, and they wanted him dead.

Bobby had taken the keys with him when he went inside. I locked the doors of the truck and sat in the middle of the seat.  I was afraid, but I didn’t panic until I heard the thundering demand from the tall, scarred man: “If he won’t come out here and answer us like a man, he’s a pussy.  We want the pussy. If you don’t give us that pussy, we’ll take his other pussy!” He was pointing at the truck.  He was pointing at me.

The men surrounded the truck.  Terrified, I refused to open the doors.  The man with the pipe struck the window on the passenger side.  It took him several tries, but finally it shattered and he reached inside and unlocked the door.  They pulled me out of the truck.  At first I screamed my husband’s name. Then I simply screamed.

They more than raped me.

Every man in that crowd had his turn, and several of them had more than one turn in more than one place on my horrified body. I lost track of the number of times each took me, and the way each took me. My abdomen felt near to exploding, then was numb. Two at once, three at once, there were more than I could count. I knew I was bleeding because they pulled away from me drenched in my blood.

Apparently their access was not easy enough, because they pulled my legs apart to more easily get at me from front and back at the same time. My hips and thighs cracked audibly, and I knew I would not be walking again any time soon.

When they forced my mouth open to defile me there, too, I bit down. Mercifully I felt only the first few of their blows to my head.  After that, I lost consciousness.

As morning appeared the woman came and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, until it was light. In the morning her master got up, opened the doors of the house, and when he went out to go on his way there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold. – Judges 19:26-27


“Get up. We are going.”

I lay on the pavement at the door to the house. I couldn’t answer.  My jaw was probably broken, and the teeth on the left side of my mouth were gone. Painfully I lifted my head slightly and dropped it again. I could only see out of my right eye, and Bobby looked blurry even out of it.

He reached down and yanked on my arm. I screamed wordlessly.  It was obviously broken and the shoulder was probably dislocated as well. My legs had no feeling in them.  I couldn’t walk.  Bobby dragged me whimpering to the truck and threw me in the passenger side, ignoring the fact that I was naked and the broken glass was ripping my skin to shreds.

I died on the way home.

When he had entered his house, he took a knife, and grasping his concubine he cut her into twelve pieces, limb by limb and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel.  – Judges 19:29

What I found to be humorous about the whole affair was that he packaged up the parts of my body and mailed them to the men in that crowd.  He also mailed a piece of me to the man in whose house he had hid.  He sent my head to my parents. Daddy opened the package and vomited. I laughed.

I haunt them all. The pieces of my flesh that were sent to each man allow me to stay with him.  The fact that their flesh is part of me because of that awful night allows me to stay as long as I wish. I have learned to give them boils, to call lice and fleas to their hairiest regions, to drench them in a stench so powerful none can stand near them, to afflict them with breath so fetid even their vicious dogs turn away from them. They don’t sleep at night, these twelve men who wronged me.  The man whose seed created me, the man whose seed claimed me as his wife, and the ten men whose seed defiled me against my will do not sleep because of the wrongs done to me.

The thirteenth man, the one whose seed never became a part of me, is haunted by his own daughter, whose reproachful eyes remind him of the woman he sacrificed, and remind him that he nearly sacrificed her.

She prays to the bit of finger she saved from the rotting flesh that was delivered to their door by an unsuspecting postman.  She prays to me to help her escape the madman she calls her father.

She will kill him soon.

I will help her.

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