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Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Little Bit of Hell in my Handbasket

Still blogging away alongside three other talented bloggers.  Each week, one of us chooses a topic and we all post a blog entry on that topic, usually on Thursdays.  (Usually we are on time.  Usually.  Ok, sometimes.)

Here are the links to the other fabulous blogs:

Merryland Girl chose this week’s topic:  What FIVE places would be in your “basket of trips” [a basket containing pamphlets of places you want to visit].  Please say why for each and list at least one thing you’d do at each place.  Time and money are no object.

            My first thought when I read this week’s topic was, “Super fun!”  And then, about twenty minutes later, it switched to, “Gaaahhh!”

            I’d quickly begun thinking about where I’d want to go if neither time nor money were an object.  A fun exercise, right?  A few places immediately popped into mind.  I’d been reading a lot of memoirs about Paris lately, so that city came up, even though I’d already been there once (but only for like two days and with my ex, so that shouldn’t count).  Next came London – which I’ve also visited before, and also love.  The Yorkshire Dales in England, setting for James Herriots’ All Creatures Great and Small Series.  Italy.  Even a few cities in the U.S., like Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia (been there twice and love love love it).

            Yet, as I started writing out the wheres and the whys, I decided I didn’t like my answer.  I found myself struggling with the “list at least one thing you’d do at each place” section of the challenge.  I could easily pick a few museums (Picasso) and stores (Monoprix) in Paris and my favorite restaurant chain in London (Pizza Express – I’m low maintenance and they have garlic balls (stop giggling)).  This was easy, as I’d been to these places before. 

            But then I wondered whether my “basket” should include places I’d been before, or only places I hadn’t yet gotten.  Re-visiting familiar haunts seemed less interesting, no matter how much I love the cities.  So I focused on places I’d yet to explore. 

            Immediately, I froze, as my urge to “research” kicked into overdrive and stopped me in my tracks.

            I admit it:  I?  Am a planner.  I do not fly by the seat of my pants, here or in another city or town.  A trip where I just “wing it” fills me with angst and anxiety.  I want to know where I’m going and when and how and for how long so I can spend days researching the local attractions and stores and restaurants, etc.  I don’t think I have ever traveled anywhere without consulting a guidebook and/or the Internet.  And I’m not talking a quick perusal – I mean some full on studying.  I map things out.  I check the times places open and close and the days of operation.  I read reviews.  I look at photos.  I plan.

            The reason is simple, even more basic than my ever-present OCD:  I have to do research or else I might miss something!  How will I know what I need to do or see or eat if I don’t check it out in advance?  I don’t want to go all the way to wherever and come home and realize I missed the best place for breakfast or shopping or walking or people watching, etc., etc., because I didn’t bother to do a little recon.   Just the thought of that happening makes me itchy with angst.  Unacceptable.

            Before I went to Paris, I bought a few books:  a general one about the city and then one called Walking Tours in Hemingway’s Paris.  En route, I managed to forget the walking tour book.  I’m still aggravated I wasn’t able to see all of Hemingway’s haunts – and that trip was more than fourteen years ago.  (I did manage to find Shakespeare & Co., which took off some of the edge.)
            Lest you think I’m crazy (and unless you are wired this way, you do), let me tell you what happened the one time my family and I traveled somewhere without a real plan.  We’d gone down to Nashville (before our move) for a long weekend.  My husband did zero research.  None.  Not his thing.  Wouldn’t ever cross his mind.  The kids didn’t look around online at all.  I bought a guidebook about Nashville and then did some online searches, and I came up with a list of places I thought we would all like.  I tucked the list into the book, but didn’t say anything to the family because they tend to accuse me of over-planning (as if such a thing exists).  And – shock! – by day two, all eyes turned to me in a communal, “Now what??”  I pulled out my list and we saw the fake Parthenon and Centennial Park.  We had tacos at San Antonio Taco Company.  We explored nearby Franklin and had pizza at the Mellow Mushroom.  We walked through a Confederate cemetery and took a detour to Parnassus Books.  We hit Antique Archaeology and Nashville’s really good Farmers Market.  I even programmed the addresses into my phone’s GPS to plan the order of our stops for the least amount of driving.  We could not have seen nearly as many sites had I not bothered to do some “research” before leaving Illinois. 

            And so, to really answer Melissa’s question this week would have required days or even weeks of research – hell, I hadn’t even narrowed down a city in Italy!  Should it even be a city – or the coast?  A small town or a big one?  Should I visit Naples, alleged home of some of my ancestors, or should I hit Venice and the canals?  I can’t just throw a dart at a map; I mean, c’mon.  What if it landed in a so-so town right next to the most awesomest town ever – and I missed it??  (I know:  is there such a thing as a “bad” town in Italy?)  I’d literally lose sleep.

There is one place I am able to include in my “basket of trips.”  This trip wouldn’t take much research, as I’ve been planning it for decades.  That place is Sayreville, New Jersey.  From the day my friend Michelle and I fell head over heels for Bon Jovi, we have sworn we would make a pilgrimage to the town that claims Jon Bon Jovi as its own.  He no longer lives there, but the landmarks remain:  his childhood home, his high school, some of the clubs he played in nearby Asbury Park.  We would visit them all.  And maybe we’d take a jaunt to stalk – I mean “look for” – Jon where he currently lives, the area of which is known to us and would be a must-visit.  So that trip for sure holds a place in my “basket of trips.”

Yes, Paris may have the shopping, Italy may have the food, Savannah may have the charm, but only New Jersey really has my heart.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Take a Picture (It Lasts Longer)

Still blogging away alongside three other talented bloggers.  Each week, one of us chooses a topic and we all post a blog entry on that topic, usually on Thursdays.  (Usually we are on time.  Usually.  Ok, sometimes.)

Here are the links to the other fabulous blogs:

Moma Rock  

Moma Rock chose this week’s topic, and she suggested :  Selfies.

            Surprisingly, I don’t have a strong opinion on selfies – odd, since I seem to have a strong opinion on just about everything else.  I’m guessing it’s because I’m not too firmly entrenched in social media (and because I’m old).  I am a regular Facebook user, but I haven’t ventured into photo-driven Instagram and only rarely dabble in Twitter (and mostly because Bill Murray’s tweets are hilarious).  Of my 384 Facebook friends, a small subset really ever posts selfies; of that group, a mere handful does it to an extent where I actually take notice.  Further dividing that group, most are of the age where I expect selfies – which I consider to be somewhat generational and thus belonging to the world of ‘tweens and teens and twentysomethings – while a couple are closer to my age.  It’s funny:  when the youngsters post their self-images, I don’t think much of it.  But when my peers regularly post selfies, they kind of bug me.  Not every selfie by every peer at every time, of course, just the ones from the friends who seem to post more than a few.  They strike me as a bit narcisstic.  They make me think, Hmmm, someone likes herself a whole lot of herself.  To me, regularly posting selfies screams, Look at me!!  I’m pretty, goddamn it!!  Because don’t you have to think you look good – or at least want to hear that other people think you look good – in order to voluntarily share a photo of yourself with the sole goal of having people look at you? 
            This is the exact reason I don’t take selfies.  And because I don’t take them, I obviously don’t post them.  Have I ever shared a photo of me over social media?  Of course.  But I tend to limit those to pictures in which others are present, or simply to using certain ones for my profile pic.  I’ve taken selfies in limited situations, like when I want a not-currently-in-the-same-room-with-me friend’s opinion on a shirt or a new haircut, but I don’t share those.  And I always put my hand over my face before I take the photo.
            I have noticed that the subject of selfies has been in the news of late, thanks to some bizarre-sounding study that found men who post a lot of selfies may or may not be psychopaths.  Seems like a stretch to me, but I am a terrible judge of character, particularly of men, so what do I know.  Narcissists, sure.  That makes sense.  Psychopaths?  Maybe not.  But, then again . . .
            When I was looking around online for the psychopathic-selfie-taker article (which I read and found lame, so I won’t link to it), I stumbled upon a piece written about selfies at funerals.  Apparently, there is an entire website dedicated to this phenomenon.  I?  Had no idea.  I have been to many, many funerals and I can honestly say that the thought of taking a photograph at the funeral has rarely crossed my mind.  At first, the idea appalled me.  It made me want to slap the phones out of the hands of the young photographers.  But I read on, and the article raised some interesting points.
            First, the Selfie Generation has a view of technology, privacy, and sharing that differs a bit from the one held by my age group.  For that reason, events someone my age might never think to document with a photo and share might seem totally ok to photograph and send around by someone of the Selfie Generation.  That generation regularly captures significant events on film – and a funeral is significant.  Makes some sense, right?  This is no longer the day in which we had to go to Walgreens to buy a roll of film, take ten minutes to load the camera, remember to carry it with us, take the photos, re-take the photos because they were blurry or someone blinked, take the film back to Walgreens, and wait a week for the photos, which turned out blurry anyway.  These days, we always carry our phones; as such, our cameras sit constantly at the ready – and we get instant results, which we can share just as quickly.
            Next, we all grieve differently.  You’ve seen it, I’m sure:  you attend a wake or funeral and someone is bawling, someone else is laughing, another person is awkward and quiet, another won’t approach the coffin, and someone else is hugging the deceased.  All of these reactions are normal, because there is no one “typical” reaction to death.  Taking a selfie may just be a way of coping with grief, a means of shifting attention away from the uncomfortable feelings.  It’s not my way, but that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong way.
            Then, too, funeral photography was not uncommon back in the days of black and white.  While combing through antique stores, I’ve seen many photos taken at funerals – and not of the grieving, but of the deceased!  I know people today who take a photo of their loved one in the coffin.  If I really think about it, think about the life cycle from beginning to end, it isn’t so jarring.  It actually makes sense.  We photograph (and often videotape) newborn babies, even when they are covered in goo.  We take photos of major and minor life events:  graduations and first steps, lost teeth, broken legs, school assemblies.  Sometimes we take photos of people heading into the end of life, perhaps at a chemo session.  Is it really such a stretch to take a picture of someone who has passed?  It’s full circle:  the entire life cycle preserved on film.
            Having said that, I struggle with the thought of selfies taken with the deceased in the background.  From my glance around Selfies at Funerals, there was only one photo like that, and it was allegedly inadvertent.  It seems disrespectful to me, someone not of the Selfie Generation.  But, then, I also think it’s disrespectful to wear jeans and short skirts to a funeral (and there were many photos like that), so I guess my age is showing.

            If you’ve read this post carefully, you may have noticed I said the idea of taking a photograph at a funeral has rarely crossed my mind.  But it has, and I have.  It wasn’t a selfie – it was of my cousin B. and his young daughter.  We were burying my B’s father that day.  It was a somewhat relaxed funeral – just family at a small service at the cemetery chapel and then a walk across the road to the gravesite for the burial of the ashes.  Graveside, B. crouched down with his young daughter and whispered in her ear.  I don’t know what he said.  They stayed that way for a while.  I was so struck by the moment, I took my phone from my purse and discretely snapped a few photos.  It was just so sweet. 
            Months later, B. and I were messaging and I told him about the photos.  I truly had no idea whether he’d want to see them (or whether he’d freak out and unfriend me), but he did, so I sent them over.  I don’t know his reaction, other than to thank me.  Maybe he deleted them, perhaps he kept them.  I don’t know.  I never shared the photos beyond that (and I won’t share them here), nor have I again looked at them, the image already so clearly burned into my memory.
            I suppose I don’t have to “get” selfies any more than I have to like today’s pop music or anything else the generation du jour loves and understands.  I can try to pass along my sense of propriety to my own children and hope for the best, hope they don’t become the kind of girls who take selfies at my funeral and post them on Instagram or Twitter, hashtag:  #thewickedwitchisdead.

BONUS:  If you’ve read all the way to here (all five of you!), you’ve earned a reward!  I want to give you the opportunity to suggest future blog post subjects.  I choose the topic every fourth week, and I’d love to write about something you’d love to read about.  Is there a question you’d like answered, or a topic you’d like me and my co-bloggers to discuss?  Just post a comment containing your suggestion, either here or directly on my FB page, and I’ll choose one (or maybe more).  Offer not open to my co-bloggers!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Excuse Me, Is This Seat Taken?

Still blogging away alongside three other talented bloggers.  Each week, one of us chooses a topic and we all post a blog entry on that topic, usually on Thursdays.  (Usually we are on time.  Usually.  Ok, sometimes.)

Here are the links to the other fabulous blogs:

            This week, I chose the topic, and I asked:  Write about the most interesting or unusual or amusing way you’ve made a friend.

            I’ve chosen to share two stories.  I will begin with amusing.

            In January of 2012, I flew to Florida for a three-day break from the dead of winter.  I flew alone, my husband realizing the familial value of allowing me time to myself to re-fuel my depleted natural Vitamin D supply, then manifesting itself in a pronounced lack of patience and ridiculously pale skin.  I spent three wonderful days on Sanibel Island writing and re-charging.  Relaxing.  The trip was uneventful and too short, the plane home crowded and small.  I walked the narrow aisle to the back of the plane and found my seat on the aisle – ever the choice of those of us barely over five feet tall and thus fearful of being crushed in the other two seats.  The only other occupied seat on my half of the row was the one next to the window.  Its occupant was a tall middle aged-man who smiled as I sat down and shoved my carry-on bag under the seat in front of me. 

            After I settled in, the man nodded toward the empty middle seat and said, “Think we’ll get lucky and no one will sit here?”  I glanced around the packed plane and said, “I don’t know.  It’s looking iffy.”  And then, almost as if on a cue heard only by us, we began listing worst-case scenario seat mates we feared would soon join us:

            “I’m sure he will be very large, like 6’9”,” one of us said.  “Maybe a football player.”

            “And he’ll be eating McDonald’s,” the other added.

            “And carrying a screaming baby,” said the first.

            “And he will smell like Ben Gay and sweat,” the other responded.

So much did we enjoy casting our verbal parade of horribles that we almost didn’t notice that the plane door had closed – and no one had claimed the seat between us.  We gave a small victory cheer and then we proceeded to talk for the entire trip to Atlanta, where, it turned out, we were both connecting to other flights.

            It turned out that my new friend – we will call him R – also lives in Chicago.  This was Similarity Number One of what would soon seem like an almost-endless list.  R hailed from Michigan, not far from where I lived for three years when I attended law school.  R was a bit older than he appeared, more than a decade older than I’d initially guessed (he made me), a fact in which he took great delight and more than little amusement.  R worked in the same industry as my husband; indeed, they knew someone in common.  And R shared a birth date with my eldest daughter.

            Early into the flight, R confessed that flying jangled his nerves, so he’d made a stop at an airport bar before boarding.  He ordered another drink from the flight attendant and seemed disappointed when I declined his offer to join him, sticking instead to Sprite Zero.

            By the time we landed in Georgia, I knew quite a bit about R’s life – his numerous siblings, the fact his parents met when his dad crashed a wedding, his house in Lincoln Park, his recent break-up – and he knew a lot about mine.  He commented loudly that everyone seated in the rear of the plane probably hated us, as we had not stopped talking or laughing the entire one-hour flight.  Before we deplaned, he gave me his business card, and a few days later I friended him on Facebook.  We remain Facebook friends today, three years later, two strangers on a plane who clicked.  It was just one of those things.  Serendipity.  The luck of geography.

            I will finish with interesting – and a different kind of lucky.

            I graduated law school in May of 2000.  I took (and somehow passed) the bar in July, and began working in September, two full months before I was officially sworn in as a member of the Illinois bar (this is common practice, particularly at big firms like the one where I was employed).

            In January of 2001, two months after I took my oath, a partner pulled me in on a pro bono case, also not uncommon.  The client’s name was Obadyay Ben-Yisrayl, and at that time he sat on Indiana’s Death Row.

            As one might imagine, I was less than comfortable working on a death penalty case with exactly no experience under my belt.  I was tasked with drafting a writ of habeas corpus, which is a fancy way of saying that I would be helping Obadyah begin his appeals process with the U.S. court system, as Indiana had upheld all of his convictions.  Writs of habeas corpus are long and involved.  They take a lot of time, particularly where the underlying litigation has spanned years and numerous trials, four in this case.  The task was daunting and I didn’t know whether I was up for it, given the potential penalty should we fail.

            I’d of course learned about the death penalty in law school, and I’d graduated on the fence.  I was neither pro nor con.  And, really, it didn’t matter; it wasn’t my job to care.  An attorney is tasked with making sure only that her client had a fair trial and petitioning the court on the client’s behalf when – as here – he had not.  And so I dug in.  I read thousands of pages of trial transcripts, spoke repeatedly to the public defender who had handled the case before my firm agreed to sign on.  I looked at police reports and witness statements and photos and news coverage.  And then I met Obadyah.

            The assigning partner took a few summer associates and me on a “field trip” to the prison in Michigan City, Indiana, to meet Obadyah.  To say the experience was eye opening would be a major understatement.  The whole process of a prison visit – particularly to Death Row – is interesting and could fill a whole blog post, if not more.  There are guards and gates and pat downs and rules and cages and noise and smells.  And those struck me.  I noticed.  But what stayed with me was meeting Obadyah, this man accused of a series of brutal shotgun murders, a man written off by the state of Indiana and sentenced to die just a few years hence.

            I certainly wasn’t afraid of Obadyah when I met him – by that time, I knew enough to know he was wrongly convicted, and we were surrounded by armed guards – but I hadn’t known what to expect.  And I hadn’t expected the person I encountered.  Obadyah was nice.  He was friendly and smart.  Well read, well spoken, thoughtful.  Calm.  And gracious.  He was so grateful for our help.  He quoted philosophers and spoke knowingly of the facts of his case – a tremendous help to overwhelmed, uninformed me.

            I don’t know whether I said it that day or at a later visit (and there would be many), but I told Obadyah my hesitation at representing him, given my level of green.  He listened patiently and then said, “I am glad you are green.  You aren’t coming in with preconceived notions.  You are open to this case and to me and what I know and what I think.”  He told me he trusted me and that he knew I’d do a good job for him.  And so I trusted him, and I did the best job I could.

            With much help from the younger associates and from Obadyah, I drafted a lengthy writ, which we eventually presented to the court.  And through the many-months-long process, through my visits and phone calls and letters, Obadyah and I became friends.  Because he was such a good prisoner (what an awful clause!), Obadyah possessed privileges including a craft card, meaning he could keep a small blade in his cell.  He used that knife to make me a beautiful two-dimensional card, and one for my eldest daughter, too.  I still cherish those cards; Obadyah is a gifted artist.

            After I left the firm, Obadyah and I continued to send letters, until that eventually petered out for a while.  I kept track of his case online, joyously cheering when I read his death sentences had all been tossed out, so happy my friend would live.  We now keep in touch, somewhat spottily, through Facebook, which Obadyah is allowed to use at times since he is in the General Population.  I owe him a letter (I owe him about 100 letters), and I’d love to make another visit, as well.  I hate that Obadyah isn’t free from prison, but I am so glad he is alive.  And I will forever treasure the photo he sent me a few years ago.  On the back, he thanked me for helping start the process that eventually saved his life, the same process that deeply changed mine.  Maybe I should be thanking him.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Dear Mr. Gacy . . .

Still blogging away alongside three other talented bloggers.  Each week, one of us chooses a topic and we all post a blog entry on that topic, usually on Thursdays.  (Usually we are on time.  Usually.  Ok, sometimes.)

Here are the links to the other fabulous blogs:

Moma Rock  

            Froggie chose this week’s topic.  She said:  Set an intention for 2015 and write about it.

            Funny story:  I told the blog group this post would be late because I had a crappy day, which finished out a series of a row of other crappy days.  I try not to wallow, but that’s where I was heading, and I didn’t feel like dragging everyone else through the muck.

            And while I was venting to my Sisters in Writing, one of them, Merryland Girl (also known as Melissa), generously offered to send me a care package of books in hopes of cheering me up, or at least distracting me.  I of course accepted.  (It seemed better than continuing to read books about serial killers, which I’ve been doing all month.  Ask me anything about Ted Bundy.  Go ahead, ask me.)

            And what’s funny about Melissa’s sweet offer is that I’d been mulling over my assigned intention throughout my funk (and my deadly reading binge).  And I kept coming back to two intentions for the year:  (1)  Do a better job staying in touch with friends and family I don’t get to see often; and (2) tell people what they mean to me.

            And didn’t Melissa just tackle both of my intentions with a few typed words?  By simply offering to send me some books – and by following through and sending those books (which she will – she’s done it before) – she’s keeping in touch with me in a way that erases the hundreds of miles that separate us.  I don’t think Melissa even gave her offer a lot of thought, just a simple:  Hmmm, Denise is struggling – what can I do to help?” and boom!  That gesture also tells me that I mean something to her.  Otherwise, why would she bother?

            After Melissa made her offer, I sent a message thanking her, and in my message I told her that I think she is thoughtful.  She, in turn, told me I’ve been a good friend.  We both nailed my second intention.  It was so easy.  And it meant a lot to me.

            I want to pass along that feeling I got when Melissa reached out, that feeling of knowing she cares and she’s thinking about me, that I matter to her.  I want to tell my family and friends I love them and I care about them and I value them, more than they know and certainly more than I’ve ever said. 

            So this year, I will do my best to stay in better touch with those of you I can’t see very often – and not just through Facebook.  I intend to reach out more.  Maybe it will be a phone call.  Or maybe it will be a greeting card or a letter.  Or maybe it will even be a book

            I sure hope you like reading about John Wayne Gacy.