Sunday, December 13, 2009

Railing At Trains

I took a train to Connecticut this week to visit with family. It has been a while since I’ve traveled by train but the experience was educational, to say the least. While I recommend the interesting ride, there are definitely things that you need to know before succumbing to the romance of rail travel.

1. The train schedule is not really a schedule, it is more like a list of suggestions. Amtrak will get you there, but it’s anybody’s guess as to when that will happen.
2. Trains travel at 90mph on elevated rails with sharp corners. Trains travel at 10mph going through the woods. Maybe the driver is afraid of the deer, or gets train driving confused with roller coaster driving.
3. There is an underbelly to America that can only be seen from the train. We all need to look carefully at this view and remember to be grateful for everything we have, which includes not living in a tent on the side of the tracks.
4. Amtrak has no security. There are gangster kids and people speaking Arabic. And yes, that’s right, no one has checked to see what’s in their luggage. It’s better if you don’t think about it.
5. People walk for miles to dump things on the side of the tracks. I saw one sink in Maryland, one boat in Delaware and a 1940-something car in Connecticut. Wouldn’t it be easier to just go to the dump?
6. Yes, there is a dining car. The cost for one can of soda and one small bag of potato chips is $3.75. You would at least expect to get a ball game or something for those prices.

If you are a patient person, this can be a fun way to travel. And best of all, it can be very affordable. But remember, review the above list before boarding so that you will know what to expect. Happy travels!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Conversations With The Dead, Part I

Grief counselors suggest many exercises to help ease the pain of losing a loved one. Unfortunately, I have found that some of these activities do not always help. For example, a grief counselor told me it would ease my pain if I wrote a note, tied it to a balloon and released the balloon into the air. It’s supposed to be a sort of symbolic gesture, an imagining that the dead person reaches out with ghostly hands to grasp your words of love (or something like that). I can’t do it, though. All I can think of is that some bird is going to end up dead because they ate my balloon, then they will fall through the sky, get sucked into an airplane engine and cause a plane crash. Too much imagination can be very self defeating.

Instead, I tried to just write the note. I started with a letter to my mother because that seemed like the easiest thing to do. I wasn’t entirely sure what to say to her, but maybe that doesn’t matter too much. I believe that there are spirits in the wires, so I think that sending this out into the internet is a much more effective (and safer) means of communication. I just hope she checks her inbox.

Dear Mom,

As you probably know, I think of you every day. I think you know this because I talk to you and I swear there are times I can hear your answer (even when it’s not what I want to hear). Lately, however, your voice has been getting fainter. I have a feeling that’s because Dad is keeping you busy out there.

There is a woman who lives in a retirement home in Newport News that looks like you. She probably thinks I’m crazy, because as soon as I look at her I can’t stop staring and then my eyes tear up and then I look like an idiot. Hopefully she’s used to crazy people and doesn’t report me for excessive displays of emotion or anything (remember, we’re in the South now, and excessive displays of emotion are not well tolerated here. I suppose they would be more tolerated if one carried the label of ‘eccentric’, but let’s be honest, I just don’t have enough money for that. My income bracket falls squarely in the ‘just plain crazy’ category.). I have learned to avoid her, and not look directly at her. I think this works best for both of us.

Your grandson is getting bigger and still talks about you. I do everything I can to keep your memory alive for him, and he remembers the good times he got to share with you. Thank you for visiting him after you died, I know it was a great source of comfort to him, even though he still won’t tell me what you said because you told him not to tell me. That, of course, is how I knew you truly did visit him.

Your son is doing okay. He’s still not married, and I have recently explained to him the wisdom of finding a woman who already has children. At this point, it would be so much easier to just call and let me know I am an aunt to a ten year old. It would also be good for him to avoid the whole middle-of-the-night-feeding-thing, you know how grumpy he gets when he’s tired. I fear this may be a lost cause, however, so I may have to start answering personal ads for him.

Your friends are lost without you and miss you terribly. I think everyone still has a sense of bewilderment that you left as we continue to sort through our emotions. We had no idea you were going to die, and you never once let on that it was imminent. I’m still not sure how I feel about that, I suppose it was your choice and I have to respect it. I think you may have heard lots more interesting things if you had let us all in on the secret, though. Just imagine what people would have told you if they knew you were on your way out. It also would have made your last instructions much easier. I got most of what you were trying to tell me on the night you died, but there was that one little thing I could not understand… something about taking a pillow, or maybe swallowing a pill, or maybe cutting a willow… whatever it was, it never got done. I just hope it wasn’t too important.

Well, I don’t think I need to go into any details about what’s going on here, I have a feeling you already know most of that. We appreciate you looking in on us and appearing in our dreams now and then. I hope things are well on the other side for you, and you are enjoying your new form.

We love you and miss you,
Your daughter,

Saturday, October 10, 2009

You Gotta Test The Kool Aid

Most of my life has been spent seeking answers to life’s greater questions: who are we, where are we going, how will we get there? The eternal truths have always seemed to be embedded within various religions, and I have spent much time learning from the teachings of Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Jews. I even picked up a thing or two from various pagan friends, voodoo witch doctors and Native Americans.

I have chanted, meditated, prayed and sweat in sweat lodges. I have even traveled to far off destinations to engage in some of these activities.

In the midst of all this seeking, I learned something very quickly: before you throw yourself into the pool of sacrifice hoping for an answer, send the Kool Aid off to the lab for testing.

Here are a few ways to tell if the juice you’re drinking isn’t good for you.

1. How much money did you have to pay for this? Anything beyond helping share expenses for the rent or bringing a plate of food is unconscionable. Charging three digits is outrageous, and anything in the thousands is downright criminal. Spirit is free, no matter what cloak it wears.

2. If someone tells you that they know a secret they will share with you they are lying. The sad fact is that there may be guidelines for living right (don’t kill each other, be nice, we know them all by now) but there is no ultimate secret that will provide the keys to the kingdom. Each person has been given the task to unlock their own secret within. Yes, sorry to tell you, this is not a one size fits all sort of thing. Dig down deep and figure out your own secret.

3. As soon as a teacher says you must do something in order to grow, ask why. Because frankly, you do not have to do anything you do not want to do. Yes, there are all sorts of things we must do in order to facilitate our spiritual growth, but we usually know what these things are and they do not involve potential physical harm. I remember being in a workshop once where a teacher told us we all had to sob in order to release toxins or whatever was holding us back in life. We were not allowed to simply cry, that was not enough of a release. Well, I was never very good at following directions, so I guess those toxins are still floating around my system somewhere. Maybe I’ll dig them up, dust them off and ship them right out to the spiritual leaders who are poisoning people.

And finally, here is the most important thing I have to share with you. Because really, this is what it is all about.

4. DO NOT PARTICIPATE IN INDIGENOUS TRADITIONS WITH A NON INDIGENOUS LEADER. It is a violation of a culture for one to learn a tradition, teach it to others and make a profit by doing so. Would you attend a Catholic church if the priest leading the mass was a non-ordained Australian Aborigine? No, you would be offended that there was no priest. Would you allow yourself to be baptized by a Rabbi? So why would anyone attend a sweat lodge run by a non-Native, egotistical, self-proclaimed teacher who charges thousands of dollars? (Refer to #1 for a refresher on the money issue).

Seeking spiritual enlightenment is a way of life for many. But do not allow your questioning nature to open the door for scam artists. Beware of anything that appeals to the ego or is coming from the ego. It takes much patience to discern truth, but in the long run you may just be able to avoid drinking the Kool Aid.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Continuing Shame of Virginia’s Education System: Then and Now

It is very difficult for many of us today to fully understand the social impact that desegregation had on school systems in the 50s and 60s. Families were divided, people moved in order to change schools for their children, friends fought vociferously, and the political scene was, as usual, a mess. Massive resistance, the movement to prevent school desegregation after the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, was only one example of Virginia’s inability to place the needs of the students before the needs of the political parties.

From 1959 – 1964 Prince Edward County in Virginia closed their public school system, thereby sidestepping the issue of desegregation. With no schools they had no worries. Children of prominent, white families could be educated privately. The political arguments were pervasive and ridiculous, and it was the children who ultimately paid the price for the mistakes of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Today, schools are desegregated. However, politics still plays a powerful role in our education system. This is evident in the fact that the upcoming address by President Obama to school age children on Tuesday has been banned from many public schools here in Virginia.

Many people will state that the speech has not technically been banned. However, when I visited Yorktown Elementary School this morning to discuss the matter with the principal, I was told that the schools across the county have simply chosen not to allow students to view the speech. The reason given was that nobody knew exactly what the President was going to say.

Somehow, I doubt the President is going to tell school age children they should vote democrat. I really don’t believe he’s going to push health care reform on the third graders. He probably won’t even mention Iraq or Afghanistan.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that he might say something like, oh, I don’t know, study hard, stay in school, do your best… Dangerous words indeed.

York County is not the only school system in this state to put a stop to this inflammatory speech that will be given on Tuesday. For many of us, however, this type of idiocy is nothing more than a continuation of the arrogance of politics interfering with the necessity of education. And once again, it seems that arrogance and absurdity have won in the South.

Monday, August 31, 2009

What Comes Next?

All caregivers at some point in time face the question, “what next?” The question may pertain to quality of care, medical diagnoses, the hurdles of daily living, or end of life issues. Even after we get through all those questions with our loved ones, after the doctor’s appointments, after the meal preparations, after the constant care, the question exists, perhaps stronger than ever after death. What next?

I learned that for many caregivers that question is coupled with guilt. The guilt hides in the corners of your mind, waiting for the moments at night or early morning when your thoughts wander toward your loved one. It is a guilt born of denial, a guilt that says the doctors and nurses and medical knowledge were incorrect. There must have been, should have been, a way to save our loved one. But we let them die.

Never mind the fact that as caregivers we did everything humanly possible to... well, to care. Forget the sleepless nights or lack of a social life. Did we give them enough food? Did we give them the right kind of food? Did we help them get enough exercise? Did they get too much exercise? Were we just not strong enough to sustain their lives?

I know that my father had a disease with no known cure. I know that we did everything we could for him. Yet, somehow, when it came time to phone my relatives and tell them the end was in sight, I found myself apologizing. “I’m so sorry,” I said to my Uncle Sonny. “I tried, you know, but…”

“What are you talking about?” he shouted at me. “What else could you do? You did everything you could, this is just the way it is.”

I think that most caregivers are faced with the daunting challenge of accepting what Uncle Sonny called “the way it is”. Very rarely do we work so hard and sacrifice so much to be rewarded with loss. Yet that is the lesson most caregivers learn. Our loss is our reward.

I think the important part of this lesson is in remembering that our loss is our loved ones benefit. We gave what we could, we cared as best we knew how, but sometimes, despite our illogical belief in our powers, healing occurs only with death.

Once we are able to accept this idea we can begin to pick up the pieces. We can stop blaming ourselves for an event we could not control. After that, maybe, sometime in the not so distant future, we can begin to face what comes next.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


It really should not come as a surprise. After all, it happens every year. Regardless of the events in our lives, regardless of the happiness and pains, the dramas and the boredom, we move forward in time. Once again, summer is almost at an end.

It is different now than when I was a child. When I was young I remember spending a lifetime on summer mornings staring at the grass in our yard, listening to the buzz of the cicadas and watching the ants move onto the sidewalk. I was waiting for it to warm up a little more so I could drop myself into the pool in the backyard and float the day away.

As an adult I have moved further south and no longer wait for the summer day to warm. By nine in the morning the temperature is well into the eighties, and some days it is actually too hot to go outside for any reason. Instead of watching grass and ants I watch my six year old play with Legos or superheroes, waiting for the inevitable cry of boredom after all toys destroy each other.

The difference, I think, between now and then, is that my childhood summers were languid. Time moved in a circuitous route and staring at the grass was just as good as riding my bike. Now, however, if I dared to stare at the grass, I feel lazy. It is my son's turn to be unhurried, to enjoy the stretch of the season. For me, it seems there is too much to get done, too many time constraints on my day. There is laundry and meals, there is grocery shopping and work, there are any number of adult necessities to pull me away from the reality of summer time.

Maybe tonight I’ll go outside and look for ants. Or enjoy the night sky. After I make dinner.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


Anonymous has much to say these days. Anonymous posts in blogs and comments on newspaper articles. He is sometimes kind, sometimes intelligent, but more often rude, vulgar and just plain mean. Sometimes anonymous leaves it up to others, those who choose screen names such as "whodat" or "wtf".

Hiding behind a screen name has become synonymous with poor manners. For some reason our culture now finds it acceptable to use technology as a shield for rudeness. I am astounded at the insensitivity I have witnessed and wonder what it says about humanity. Are we at our hearts cold, insensitive and thoughtless? No, I think we have simply forgotten something our mothers told us long ago:

"If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all."

Words to live by.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


On Friday I bought a box of donuts at the grocery store. By the time I got home I was in tears. Yes, because of a box of donuts.

When my Dad was living with us I did everything I could to feed, feed, feed him. It was important to me that he gain, then later maintain, his weight. I would often buy donuts, cookies, ice cream, anything sweet to tempt him. Because, honestly, cholesterol and fat grams were not a concern.

After his passing I no longer had a need to buy that type of food. Although my son would probably dispute this in true six year old fashion, we do not need this kind of food so I do not buy it.

The process of grief is unexpected. On a startlingly calm day a memory can strike, rendering you mute. The closet door that I have stuffed emotions in for the past three years is starting to open a little at a time. This can be painful, but I know it is necessary.

And yes, the donuts are gone. My family ate them immediately. Maybe I need to buy some more.

Monday, June 8, 2009

And Justice For All...

Tomorrow begins jury selection for the trial of accused murderer, Kevin Campbell. Kevin is charged in the shooting that killed Roland Lagasse, 51 years old, in Torrington, CT. Roland and Kevin were friends. On the evening in question, they argued, Kevin pulled out a gun, screamed, “You’re a dead man!” and shot Roland directly in the heart.

If that’s what friends are like, who needs them, right? Hopefully retribution will be swift and the punishment just. There is no question of whodunit in this case, there is no ambiguity. What we do have is a large number of witnesses.

Accused murderer Kevin Campbell will try to glean some sympathy for having been a Vietnam veteran, as well as having a crippled leg. Hopefully the jury will see through that and deliver a verdict of guilty. After all, there is no doubt: Kevin Campbell murdered Roland Lagasse. Let justice prevail.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Greener Home

Although my license is currently inactive, I am still fascinated by all things pertaining to real estate. The rise and fall of the market, current activity, foreclosure rates, and helping people find what they need has all held a deep interest for me. I can spend hours comparing houses within a specific area to determine what the current pricing should be, and I can spend just as much time studying month to month statistics to analyze trends.

My focus as a real estate agent, however, was in being what is known as an EcoBroker®. By definition, an EcoBroker® receives additional training on energy and environmental issues that relate to real estate transactions. I would discuss energy efficient housing and how that could relate to your current transaction, or I would refer interested people to the appropriate vendors for further information. Whether it was something as big as installing solar panels for your energy needs or replacing your old windows, I would work with you to obtain the most reliable information available.

The response I received was tepid, at best. Although many were open to the idea of “greening” their home, there was some confusion as to how to accomplish this without extreme expense. There was also confusion related to whether or not solar was viable for this area, and whether that was the only option. In short, there were many questions related to the practicality of energy efficiency in this area.

The main idea I taught is that energy efficiency is viable at many levels. The first way to make this happen is to change just one thing in your life, one habit. Perhaps one of your habits is to always set the thermostat at 70° in the summer and 75° in the winter. To start small, change it to 72° in the summer and 73° in the winter, and use a programmable thermostat in your house. These thermostats can be purchased relatively inexpensively, and it has been proven they will save you money in the long run.

Starting small is the key to energy efficiency. Changing one habit at a time will help you not only to make more responsible energy choices, it will also save you money.

Did You Know...

...that one of the areas of highest poverty in the United States is the Pine Ridge Reservation? The average annual income is $4,000 per year. Although the American public has recently romanticized the Native American lifestyle, there are third world issues that are being overlooked. If you are interested in more information, check out the following websites:

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Yorktown, VA

Yorktown, where America won the fight for independence, is crowded with ghosts. Stand quietly on any of the battlefields and they (the ghosts, that is) will speak to you. Like many places in the South, the past flows into the present, creating a culture that lives comfortably within the borders of both.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Tough Times

My friends, Shelly and George (not their real names) are having some tough times right now. The three bedroom house they live in with their four children is being sold, forcing them to move. The irony in this is that the house is owned by Shelly’s father.

Apparently, twelve years ago Shelly’s father was in the throes of a deep depression caused by the death of his first wife. I can understand that, and I think anyone can understand the emotional baggage that accompanies a situation like this. Shelly’s mom died from multiple sclerosis, and since this was a while ago I have been told that without the medications that are currently available this was a very difficult and painful disease.

Shelly and George stepped in, traveling back from Washington State where they were living to move into the house her father had vacated. They took over paying the mortgage and settled quite nicely into the house that Shelly had grown up in.

About seven years ago, the furnace broke in the house. Shelly’s father told them if they wanted it fixed they would have to do it themselves. At this point, Shelly had already been diagnosed with having multiple sclerosis, just like her mom had. Shelly and George could not afford to have a new furnace installed so they settled for trying to have the old one fixed. After a good amount of money, they realized it was not fixable. They settled for space heaters and an open oven door during the winter.

Not long after that, the central air conditioning unit broke. Again, it was a matter of finances. With four children they were unable to come up with the money to put a new unit in, and Shelly’s dad refused to have the unit fixed. They have a window unit in their bedroom, since heat exacerbates the symptoms of MS.

Not too long after George’s father installed new replacement windows in the house, Shelly’s father announced he had had enough of being a landlord. He just wanted out of the whole deal. He sold the house and the closing is July 1st.

Shelly, George and the four kids are trying to find a new place to live, but times are tough. Rentals in this part of the country are not cheap, and George just got a new job after being laid off for over a month. Hopefully they will find something soon that is affordable and large enough. Although I can pretty much guarantee it will be better. At least their next home will have a working furnace.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

When It's Time to Move A Parent

There comes a point in time when many of us get the phone call. Sometimes it comes in the middle of the night, sometimes during the day while you are at work. In most cases, the message is the same: your parent needs help, they are sick, they cannot be left alone. If you are lucky, this is a temporary situation, perhaps a broken bone that mends easily or a cold that heals quickly. But it’s not always that simple, and sometimes we are faced with the daunting challenge: what are we going to do with our parents?

For those unfamiliar with the landscape of elder care the challenge can seem daunting. If you start your research in the area you live in, you may find a number of independent living, assisted living, and senior care facilities. Each of them is equipped to meet the unique needs of individuals and offer a variety of specific services. Perhaps the best advice I can offer is this: when it comes to relocating your parent, your best resource is yourself. Visit the facility. Don’t make an appointment, show up unexpectedly (if there’s something they’re trying to hide, they won’t have time to sweep it away before you get there). Be sure you are armed with a list of questions, and take notes. Usually these places are fairly expensive, so you want to be certain of the services, rules and regulations.

For example, if you move your parent to an independent living facility that offers cooked meals in a dining room, transportation and laundry service, you may assume that mom and dad are all set. But does the facility have a rule if your parents get sick? Will they have to leave if they need more care? Will they (or you) be able to afford a home health aide along with the cost of the facility?

Unfortunately, due to the rising number of seniors, many facilities now have a waiting list. If you visit on a Wednesday, odds are you won’t be able to move mom in on Friday. You will want to be prepared for this and have a backup plan for in-home care.

One of the most difficult challenges can be caring for our parents. Sometimes they don't want care, sometimes they don't understand that we are trying to help. Those of us in the sandwich generation are facing caregiving tasks that are sometimes thrown at us unexpectedly. With the right amount of research and a good amount of support (from family or support groups) you will be able to make a decision on what is best for your parents and your family. Remember, we can only do the best we can do, and each decision, although it may be heartbreaking, is the right one for whatever your situation may be.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Who Is Annie Smith?

Born in 1853, Annie Smith lived in Virginia her entire life. She was orphaned at an early age and sent to live with her grandparents on their farm in Chesterfield, VA. How do I know Annie? I know her because I have her memoirs that she wrote when she was 70 years old in 1923.

Tucked away in my father's house in Connecticut was a scuffed old brown binder, filled with pages of writing that was poorly typed, single spaced and fading. This was the story of Annie's life.

At first, I put the binder away in a closet. I did not have time to read it and I wasn't certain what to do with it. Recently I took the binder out to look at it. I decided the best thing to do would be to transcribe the document, making it easier to read and preserving it from further deterioration.

As I typed Annie's words into my computer, I wasn't certain I even liked this woman. Initially she seemed to be writing simply as a tool for preaching her faith. But as I continued, I discovered a woman who was more than one dimensional, a woman who had a number of obstacles to overcome and portrayed the truth in a stark and sometimes uncomfortable manner.

Annie was beaten as a child, she was against slavery, she was poor, she loved her family, she talked about medicines and farming and life in the 19th century. Annie has given me a valuable insight into not just my family history, but also our nation's history.

Thanks, Annie.

Suburban Destiny

If you are interested in reading one of my short stories, please visit the following website:

Click on "winners" to read the entries.

"Suburban Destiny" is a suspense story that takes place in a middle class suburb in Virginia. Although we allegedly write what we know, I can honestly say that the main character is not me and the husband in this story bears no resemblance to mine.


It's Been Over A Month...

It has been over a month since my father died. We knew he was going to die, we simply did not know the exact moment. He had a disease called Lewy Body Dementia which is a sister to Alzheimer's. I used to explain to people that it was a cross between Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, with the best of both (yes, that was sarcasm).

I think I am extremely lucky. I had the good fortune to be able to tell my father that I loved him before he died, and he was able to say goodbye to me. His good bye actually occurred the week before Thanksgiving while we were having a new washer/dryer delivered. The deliverymen were just hauling our new appliances off the truck when my father approached me.
"I don't think I'm going to be able to hang on much longer," he said, "It's just getting harder and harder, you know? Anyway, I want you to know that I love you, okay?" With that, he leaned down and kissed me.

Knowing that you are lucky does not dispel grief. I would very much like to say that I have been able to check off "grief" on my to-do list, but that would not honor my father or my family. So I am simply trying to allow the grief to happen and quietly move forward.