Sunday, July 28, 2013

What Writers Do


Considering all the seriousness of my recent posts, I thought it was time for a short bit of levity....

Not long after I moved into my new place in the flatlands, I began to suspect that my neighbor was spying on me.  He smokes, so I would be in the back yard busily working and the scent of cigarette smoke would waft over the block wall that separates our yards.  At first I thought it was coincidence; he seemed to be taking a cigarette break every time I chose to work in the yard.  And then there was the day when I heard someone start to ask him what he was doing--and he shushed her.

Hmmm, I thought, as I dug out shovelful after shovelful of sod for the garden.  Why is he sitting on the other side of the fence eavesdropping on what's going on over here?  I mean, it's got to be boring.  All I'm doing is digging, day after day, trying to get the garden--oh holy moley, that's when it hit me.  From his side of the fence, all he could hear was the shovel going into the ground over and over.  He had to be wondering what the heck his strange new neighbor was up to.

That's when I started talking to Sugar Plum while we were out there.  Now, I could have given my curious neighbor some honest exposition, said things like, "Yep, we've gotta get this sod out of here soon, Sug, so we can get the garden planted by spring."  But my mind went in a different direction.  I'm going to say it's because I'm a writer, and, well, it's what we do.  So the next time I was out there digging and I caught the scent of cigarette smoke, this is what I said (with dramatic pauses, of course, in between shovelfuls):

"Yeah, Sug, Mama has a lot of work to do... but it's like Sheriff Tate said....  There's just some kind of men... you have to shoot... before you can say hello to them... and even then... they're not worth... the bullet it takes to shoot them... Don't you worry... I'll get this all... taken care of...."

Heh heh.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Truth about Bertha Gifford

I am Bertha Gifford's great-granddaughter.

She was my mother's grandmother, and my mother lived with her on a farm in Catawissa, Missouri on and off for a period of several years.  Since Mom--in her later years, when I was working on Tainted Legacy--told me everything she could possibly remember about Bertha, I feel I am uniquely qualified as an expert on Bertha.  The only person in the world who knows more about her than I do is historian Marc Houseman with the Washington Historical Society in Washington, Missouri--and he only "knows" more because his brain is a virtual file cabinet.  He remembers dates and names.  I remember nuances and impressions.  We've been great collaborators in our search for the truth about Bertha Gifford.

For the record:

Bertha was not convicted of 17 or 18 or 19 or 20 murders, nor was any evidence produced to substantiate that number.  Seventeen people, at a grand jury hearing, gave testimony regarding loved ones she had cared for who died.  Bertha was a "volunteer nurse" over a period of close to twenty years.  We have no record of how many people she cared for who didn't die.

After the grand jury hearing, two bodies were exhumed.  Both were found to contain arsenic.  Enough arsenic was present in the body of Ed Brinley to "kill seven men."  Keep in mind:

If your own body were tested today, arsenic would be detected.
There is arsenic in the water you drink--even if it comes through a filtering system.
Arsenic is present in ground water and well water.
Ed Brinley was a heavy drinker... during prohibition... when the alcohol consumed came from neighborhood stills.
Bertha Gifford was in the habit of ingesting arsenic as it was thought to be "good" for the circulation. This was a common practice in the 1920's.
As a volunteer nurse, Bertha admitted giving arsenic to people.  Her motivation, as she declared in a signed statement, was to help them.  Ain't nothing crazy about that.  Misguided, perhaps.  Arrogant.  But not crazy.  No more crazy than Dr. Conrad Murray was in giving propofol to Michael Jackson to "help him go to sleep."

Bertha Gifford was brought to trial in 1928 when most folks in small towns got their news from a weekly newspaper and/or their neighbors. A scandalous story such as Bertha's would keep folks buying papers for weeks.  After all, other forms of entertainment were limited compared to what we experience today.  Sensationalism in journalism was an accepted practice.  After all, editors were desirous of giving their readers a good story.  Courts, not newspapers, were responsible for presenting only factual evidence.

Forensics, in 1928, was a nascent art.

The doctor who continued to supervise Bertha as she cared for ill family members and neighbors was never called into question for any suspicious deaths--or for allowing her to continue nursing after patients died in her care.

My point in all this?  Too much time has elapsed for us to know the real truth about what happened with Bertha Gifford.  If I were to make the claim that she was not a homicidal maniac, my opinion would immediately be attributed to bias, and understandably so.  She was, after all, the beloved grandmother of my mother.  But as I mentioned, I do feel that relationship uniquely qualifies me to draw certain conclusions.

Monday, July 15, 2013

“For the record, prejudices can kill.” ~ Rod Serling

Maple Street, U.S.A. Late summer. A tree-lined little world of front porch gliders, barbecues, the laughter of children and the bell of an ice cream vendor.  This is Maple Street on a late Saturday afternoon. Maple the last calm and reflective moment...before the monsters came.

If you have been politically polarized by the tragic misunderstanding between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, please stop reading here and carry the opinion you are entitled to away with you.  If you are open to considering a slightly less one-sided view, read on.

First:  How did the jury acquit George Zimmerman?  The answer is simple; the judge told the jury this:  If a “reasonable” person would have feared for his life in George Zimmerman’s situation, you must vote to acquit him.  And they did.

If I learned anything in law school (and I learned a great deal in a short amount of time, let me tell you), I learned that cases are not decided on passion.  Cases must be decided based on the law at hand.  In Florida, this is the law at hand—like it, love it, hate it, shake a fist at it, it is the law, and a jury—whether it’s made up of primarily white women or primarily green men—has a duty to base a judgment on the law as it stands.

But as I see it, the problem in this whole controversy should not center on whether or not Zimmerman was determined by the law in his state to be culpable.  The problem is much, much deeper than that.  And it stems from the fact that poor George Zimmerman did fear for his life.  But so did Trayvon Martin.

Both men were frightened.  Both reacted as they did out of fear.  For Trayvon Martin, acting on his fear of George Zimmerman cost him his life.  And, if we are compassionate… and I know we are, in our hearts… acting on his fear of Trayvon Martin cost George Zimmerman the life he knew.  Because he can never go back to the privacy of anonymity, never feel safe again while others threaten his life, and if a civil suit is brought against him, he will most assuredly be found culpable there… and will spend the good part of the rest of his life paying for his stubborn decision to follow a boy he deemed suspicious.

Why?  Because we live in a culture of fear.  And yes, that fear is race-based.  OK, calm down, I’m not calling anyone a racist.  I know how we hate that word.

But can we just be perfectly honest?  We have been living with this build-up of racial tension for a long time.  It’s not my imagination.  It’s not me “pulling the race card” to point the blame one way or another.  It is the truth that I know because I have seen and experienced it.

I grew up during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.  I saw the March on Washington… and the Watts Rebellion.  I was encouraged by the signing of the Civil Rights Act… and defeated by the race riot that occurred at my own high school in 1969. In my adulthood, I have had the unique experience of living life as a white woman while raising black children. If you are a white person who believes “racism” at its core no longer exists in this country, forgive me, but you are simply na├»ve.

Racism is still pervasive in this land of diversity.  It just wears a different set of clothes.  Gone are the white robes, the placards held high with racial epithets boldly emblazoned.  White people tend to think of “racists” as white supremacists who spew hate and refer to non-whites in derogatory terms.  The truth is, whenever a person makes a judgment about a set of people, predicting a specific action or behavior based on race, that person is guilty of race-ism.  Thus, the young black man who calls a radio talk show to say, ‘I could have told you Zimmerman would be acquitted—as soon as I heard the jury was all white women, I knew it’ is just as guilty of race-ism as the middle-aged white man who says, ‘If they don’t want to be treated like criminals, they shouldn’t dress like criminals,’ a reference to the hip-hop music inspired fashion of wearing hooded shirts.

None of us want to be thought of as racist.  Racists aren’t nice people.  And we all want to be thought of as nice people—proper, appropriate, good people.  And “good” I think most of us are.  Just… frightened.

The social climate we’ve been living in for some time now has been much like that depicted in the old Twilight Zone episode, “TheMonsters Are Due on Maple Street,” named by Time magazine as one of the top ten best Twilight Zone episodes, by the way.  If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend a quick viewing via YouTube or Netflix.  (It’s episode 22 of the first season of the original TZ.)  Because… there we all are.  An incident occurs which is somewhat frightening to the folks on Maple Street because they don’t know what really happened, don’t understand what’s going on.  Their fear leads them to arm themselves… and the next thing you know, one man kills his neighbor… which of course, only adds to the escalating hysteria.

And that escalating hysteria is what I see on the news right now.  People are terrified of vigilante justice—on both sides.  Trayvon Martin’s family is entreating the country to move forward peacefully… just as Rodney King once did.

The thing is, we can’t do that as long as we fear each other.  As Rod Serling said, “There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices—to be found only in the minds of men.”

The truth is, we will never have peace until we see each other as individuals, not black or white or privileged or poor.  Just… people who share the same needs, who just want to make it to our next destination unscathed.  

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Dusting off the rusty super powers

Today’s blog post is brought to you by my dear friends Lynn Miller and Catherine Higgins.

No, they’re not paying for advertising.  They just had the proper incantation to get me writing again.

I haven’t been writing.  (Did you notice?)  Haven’t done a blog post in weeks.  Haven’t worked on the YA novel that is really, for all intents and purposes, finished, just needs some typos corrected and it can go to print.  Haven’t started that memoir I intended to write this summer, the one about my six years on the mountain.  Haven’t even done much journaling, despite having a good deal to write about after my recent trip to Missouri.


Not that it matters, really, and I take a great risk in being entirely honest here, but….  I’ve just been sad.  That’s it.  Just sad.  Just… unable to cast off a shadow that’s been following me around since February.  Some things happened back then… then some more things.  Then the Boston Marathon bombings.  Then some things in May and June related to my day job and my other job (this one) and people who are unkind, ungracious, uncouth, unscrupulous.  Next thing you know, I’m going to bed and waking up angry every day.  Not a good thing for a depressive personality.

A few things have happened to bring some sunshine into my life.  I spent a week in Missouri with my dearest friends in the world.  I celebrated my birthday and my daughter’s (same day) with the people I love most in the world, and My Daughter the Poet wrote me a fabulous love-drenched poem for my birthday.  To top that all off, I saw some friends yesterday I hadn’t seen in quite a while—and they asked, “What are you writing?” in such a way that made me believe they really did want to read something I’d written.  

That’s all I need, you see—just an audience.  It’s when I begin to ask myself, What’s the point? and I begin to doubt that anyone really ever reads my work that I start to think… it might be easier just to sit in front of the TV or Facebook for hours, using those ever-present opiates to numb the sadness for a while.  But Lynn and Catherine asked.  And I had to be honest and say my sadness was the culprit… which made me realize how defeated I’d become… which made me angry—in the right way.  

So there, take that, Sadness!  I have buckled on my Super Sadness Deflector Shield.  I have drawn forth my Sword of Dynamic Power (also known as The Pen).  I have danced my eager fingertips across the Almighty Symbols used to combat sadness and create peace and harmony.  I have produced a document.  I HAVE HEREBY BEEN A VICTOR, NOT A VICTIM.

OK, sorry for the shouting.  Got a bit carried away there.  Thanks for reading my words. I’m going to saunter off and do a small victory dance… then get to work on that YA novel.