Wednesday, December 16, 2015

My Relationship With Bookcrossing

Why I love airports

 I used to use this great site Bookcrossing. I asked an author if she wanted to hear my Bookcrossing story and she said sure. So this is what I wrote back to her. Sorry, ladies, no photos with this one.:)
Bookcrossing is a great concept but it requires people
to appreciate the value of books. Where I live, in
Hagerstown, Md., I'm often the only one in a
coffeehouse reading a book. So when I would leave a
book somewhere it would be thrown away. What a waste
of a good book, not to mention the time spent
registering the book, adding the bookcrossing label,

Gradually I figured out what would be better would be
to leave the book at a place where people are looking
for something to read. I had previously written about
how one reason I love airports and airplanes is it is
one of those places where you see a larger share of
the population reading.
So for a trip to visit family in Austin I packed extra
books with the plan to drop off books at each airport
I visited. What better way to get the books to travel
then to leave them in different city's airports?
On the way back from Texas, I had dropped a book on
some seats by a newspaper when I realized my behavior
might be viewed by security as suspicious. This was
during the summer when a pair of as yet unidentified
snipers were going around Washington D.C. killing
random people. Airport security had been becoming
increasingly tight.
Mere minutes after leaving this book I heard sirens
and other sounds and then it was announced that the
entire airport had to be cleared out. Implied was that
the airport security had found something suspicious.
Oh, god, I realized, my abandoned Kurt Vonnegut book
might cause everyone, including me, to spend the next
three hours filing out of an airport until it was
cleared and everyone had to rebook flights.
So not only was I a klutz but now I was a threat to
homeland security.
It was around then that I decided that if I was going
to continue to use bookcrossing I needed to be more
careful about where I left the books.
It was not long after that that the wife of our city's
mayor, who I covered as part of the city beat,
mentioned her curiousity at learning that I like to
read while in the bathtub. I tried to figure out how
she knew such a personal detail about me while I tried
to get out of my mind the image of the mayor's wife
and her daughter discussing, as they had apparently
done, my habit of reading each night, often in a

It was when she mentioned that they had found this
juicy detail about me when they happened to come
across my bookcrossing profile that I decided two
things: it was time to change my profile and it was
probably just time to stop doing the whole
bookcrossing thing before anything more embarrassing
taken place.

They say it's accepting you have a problem that is the
first step and at that point I realized I had a
problem and it was my relationship with Bookcrossing.

Friday, December 11, 2015

An Interview With Sarah Barnes About Her Memoir About Raising A Daughter With An Atypical Brain

Originally published at BookPeople here

Sarah Barnes has combined her storytelling skills learned as a newspaper reporter for various newspapers, most recently the Austin American-Statesman, with quite a story – about raising a daughter with an atypical brain – to produce a fascinating memoir.
I’m going to steal a quote from the back of the book. Sarah Barnes and her husband, Jim, were having a regular traditional life when something irregular happened: “When the daughter, Meredith, was seven months old, they received a devastating diagnosis about her brain, and happily-ever-after became differently-ever-after from that point on. Although they faced many obstacles, their determined daughter helped them find hope and humor in the face of unthinkable challenge.”
Sarah was a successful reporter at the Statesman but after that diagnosis she left the newspaper. She returned later to write a popular, regular column, “A Different Road.” With the column Sarah has been chronicling her life with Meredith , the challenges and successes and frustrations and everything in between. Her latest column ran just last Saturday. You can read some of the columns, as well as learn more about Meredith and Sarah, at Sarah’s blog here:
Barnes’ memoir is engaging, important and excellent.  I’m not just throwing out random adjectives instead I am going to explain them.The book is engaging because of Barnes writing style for this book, which is personal narrative with fun stories mixed with stories of frustration mixed in with education. A good memoir picks you up and takes you on a trip while you can easily identify with, or at least understand, the narrator. Sarah does that with ease.
The book is important because it gives a glimpse of what it is like to be the mother of a child who does not become the child you expect. What is it like to get that diagnosis that her brain is atypical, with the official diagnosis agenesis of the corpus callosum (ACC) .
What’s it like when she doesn’t reach milestones when others her age does? How does that affect the family? How about when Meredith gets a younger sister? Barnes answers all of those questions and more.
I think that’s important to know, what it’s like to go through these different experiences. I work in the special needs field, usually with families similar to Sarah’s, where the family is just moving along while adjusting to some hurdles and bumps due to a child or teenager where something is slightly atypical but while there are frustrations and problems there are also pleasant surprises and joyous accomplishments.
While this memoir is about one particular family I can attest that what Sarah describes are common in many of the families I work with, whether the child in question has autism or other types of intellectual disabilities.
That’s another reason why it’s important and excellent, actually: that it’s not all sad, nor all happy, nor pushing to educate. When I met Sarah and Meredith, Sarah told me that was one of her concerns while writing and editing this, not to make it too negative or sad, nor preachy, not educational.
This book is excellent because she manages the perfect mix of all of those things. And meeting Meredith, after finishing the memoir that same day,  she was just like I expected which told me that Sarah had done a perfect job describing her.
Reading the book I was at times cheering for Sarah and Meredith and other times tearing up for them and other times getting angry and glad Sarah was going to fight some of the many injustices done against students with special needs in public school systems. The latter are often unintended but that does not erase the pain and indignities.
I am consistently doing interviews with authors I know and love as well as some I’m new to. But not all interviews have the same level of importance or fascination. I jumped at the chance to do this interview with Sarah both because I work in the special needs field and I want people outside that field to learn more about what it’s really like versus all the stereotypes and myths and fictional stories that get some parts right and others completely wrong.
I also wanted to do this interview because I had read some of Sarah’s prior work and knew this memoir would be amazing. And I was right.
I’m honored to help promote the book. I hope it gets much media attention and coverage. Many can learn a lot from this book and Sarah’s story
I invite everyone reading this to come to the book signing, Friday, December 11 at 7PM, to meet Sarah and hear more about the book and Sarah’s experiences. I think you will like what she and her book have to say.

Scott: What do you hope people will take away from reading this book?
Sarah Barnes: This is an eyes-wide-open memoir, it really is. After reading this book, you should come away with a sugar-free account of how a mother deals with the worst news of her life about her baby. The book shows how I tried to be a part of the world of perfect  “Gerber”  babies, the ones that looked like the illustration on the front of the Gerber food jar. The reality that I was not in that club gave me a palpable sense of anguish and fear, something everyone experiences at some point. I want the reader to see that I may have a little girl who needed a walker and cannot follow a map, but my narrative is universal in its themes of hope, fortitude and coping. I want readers to take away a better understanding of Meredith and other young people like her. She doesn’t walk perfectly and she can’t always use her speech, but she will absolutely make you laugh and if you spend a day with her, you will see the obstacles she faces are not nearly as important as how the people around her treat her.  It’s like if people understand her backstory, maybe they will understand what it is like to be different and my metamorphosis from teary-eyed mom to hellbent advocate will not be in vain. But, you know what? If people read this simply for pleasure, then I have accomplished something far more than any lesson I might impart.
S: Your book eloquently and movingly describes your challenges and adventures raising Meredith. What does Meredith think about you writing about her in columns and your blog and now in a book?
SB: Meredith cannot read, so I usually tell her what the content is about and if there is a picture of her, she loves that. She has a healthy ego and she doesn’t seem to mind sharing her achievements with the entire city of Austin. We do get recognized out on errands and though she is shy when a “fan” comes up to her, she understands what is going on. Guess what she wanted to name the book? “Meredith.”
S: I’m curious what it’s been like for her sister, younger in age but more advanced in other ways. It can be hard to be a sibling of someone with special needs. How does she feel about it and deal with it?
SB: I always say that her sister, Caroline, knows more about stereotypes  and prejudices than the majority of 14-year-olds out there. And it’s like she brings that into everything she does. I’m seeing a growing maturity in her in terms of issues she is learning about in school, and she always brings a sense of outrage and a push to resolve things she thinks are unfair. I’m enormously proud of her. She does spend a little time with Meredith, but honestly those two sisters are as different as they come. They have disagreements, different taste in music and all the kinds of typical conflicts you find between teenage siblings. I’m a strong believer in letting them find their own way in terms of their friendship; the love is already there.
S: The challenges your family faced are hard enough but you mention at least once that it can be frustrating that what Meredith has, an atypical brain, is not as well known. Do you think your guys journey would have been less hard at times if she had something more well known like autism or Down syndrome?
SB: Well, I used to dream of Meredith having a disability that was easier to pronounce and more well known because I wouldn’t get the blank stare when I said she had “agenesis of the corpus callosum.”  Sure, autism or Down syndrome would have had more instant recognition, but after several years I realized that every kid has a different level of disability and before long the label doesn’t even matter anymore.
S: One thing I’ve noticed is true of all folks with special needs, no matter the type or label, is that transitions are hard. Some use visual schedules or reminders. What have you found work best for transitions for Meredith?
SB: Yeah, I do know kids who need charts for their entire day to see what is next. Meredith likes that at school. I guess transitions for Meredith are only hard when they are new ones. Meredith seamlessly goes from the house to the bus to school to a field trip and back home again. But if you throw something new in there like a dentist appointment, then she will have a lot anxiety which means a lot of questions. It doesn’t seem to make a difference if we try to prepare her days before, she still finds it stressful. I guess we’re all like that just a little.
S: The book begins with an author’s note where you state you will refer to friends by their first names but others – administrators and doctors – by their full names. Was that a hard decision, to fully identify folks? How did you reach that decision?
SB: The most surprising thing about this book was how much more difficult it was to write than a newspaper story. Although we have sometimes used first names for someone under 18 in my columns, this was a much bigger story to report. If it was going to be a memoir and not a phone book, it only made sense to refer to most people by a first name. I was not trying to hide their identity, just the chunkiness of using the full name. Sometimes we would get five new people helping Meredith in one year, so lots of names.
Plus, beyond the small professional circuit of teachers, therapists and others, no one needs last names to understand the story. For doctors and other officials, it felt weird to use just first names. So, basically, it became “Sarah’s Naming Rules.”
S: Can you talk about your decision to write about what Meredith was going through in middle school in her Life Skills class. What were your objections? Was it scary writing about that not knowing if it would help or hinder things? What was the result?
SB: Yes, that was stunning, wasn’t it? Her experience in middle school was one of the lowest points in my relationship with a school – ever.  I questioned my motives over and over, but if school administration tells you your daughter cannot walk in the front door because her designated waiting area is behind a locked outside door in the back of a building, well, I ultimately decided the pen was coming out. The school administration basically fixed many of the problems before the story was published, but I went ahead with it because their policies were so heinous, that I wanted to make them part of the record so that people could see how Meredith was treated. I felt like pumping my fist in the air the morning the paper came out.  I knew Meredith would be fine because too many people were now being scrutinized for their contributions to a bad learning environment.
S: What has been the response from the columns? You talk about positive feedback but i’m curious if you have gotten any negative response and/or insulting questions?
SB: I don’t think I’ve ever really had any negative feedback except a cowardly anonymous letter to the Austin American-Statesman detailing every personal flaw of my daughter as if that justified her for being treated without basic dignity and respect. She was just 12. Also, I wouldn’t consider this negative or insulting, but I have heard from people of many different faiths and although sometimes I do not agree with their assessment of God’s role in my situation, I do find it moving that they share hope.
S: What’s the future look like? Are you going to keep writing columns about Meredith? Do you hope to use the book to educate people?
SB: Yes, I definitely want to use the book to educate people and make it available to people who are looking for either an empathetic read or real experiences they can share with others. I just love the column even though I don’t write it as often. It was the first thing that ever identified me as a mother writing about her child, so it’s very special. Things are changing almost daily in the world of newspapers, so I’m not sure I will be able to continue in that format forever. Plus, Meredith is getting weary of her mother following her around and asking for quotes.
S: And what’s the future look like for Meredith after she graduates this year from high school?
SB: Thankfully, she can stay in the district until she’s 22. So this is Meredith’s last academic year, but we hope she will be accepted into program in the school district where she can get job training and even try out some different jobs. We won’t discuss a new living situation for her yet, but things are going to get more complicated very soon.
S: Did you have any interesting surprises when you went back and read your notes and columns for this book?
SB: Yes. The worst place to be in August is the attic. And I am horribly unorganized. I literally had bits of paper falling out of drawers and computer files with names that would not suggest you will need this for you book. My best discovery was learning how much patience my family and friends had in waiting for me to get the book done, especially Jim Hemphill, my husband.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Reflection: Thinking About Car Crashes Covered As A Reporter

After graduating from college in 1991 I worked as a newspaper reporter in Southern California. Often the newspaper's sole reporter I covered a variety of beats. Looking back on the work, though, the stories I remember the best are the ones I covered as a police reporter. On that beat you see the best and worst of people - well, more often the latter - and are left with memories, some good and some bad. You can figure out which type this is.

It was a soccer ball. Lying about 10 feet away was one sole soccer cleat.

Officer Cryer came up behind me and explained, "It was a soccer team. They were on their way to a game." They were from Redlands, a town we didn't cover. By the time I got there they had removed the body, thank God. I heard crying behind me and I was dreading what I had to do next - talk to witnesses, which in this case were passenger in the van.

It was a simple story really: another car accident on a highway where there was at least one fatality a week.

It had become a scary pattern - I drive from Riverside to Hemet on Saturday and when I see the road blocked, I ignored the blocks and drive to the inevitable accident. Sometimes it was a fatal crash, sometimes not. We always wrote a story.

This time it bothered me because I had been thinking about my days on the youth soccer team as I was driving in.

I shocked myself later when I realized I hadn't lost my appetite so much that I missed lunch.

I was becoming desensitized and I didn't like that one bit.

Later in the day there was another accident. I went to check it out. It was only a few hundred yards from the other one. It didn't look too bad at first. A motorcyclist lost control but while he looked shook up there wasn't much blood. I was starting to wonder if the editor would even want a story on this one.

"Looks pretty bad, don't it," the police chief said.
I don't know,. I started to say.
"You don't see it, do you," he said.
He walked me closer and pointed.

The bottom of the man's leg.
It was sticking out of his pants.

The leg was at a 45 degree angle or so from the rest of the leg.
I gagged and turned gray.
The chief laughed.
There goes my appetite.
Not too desensitized, after all, I guess.

Thank God for that. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Fiction: Santa Threatens Legal Action, Scoop Intervenes

Originally published in 2007
Dear World,
This is Santa Claus.
You may have heard of me or my work. You know, those presents under your tree this year?
I'm writing this after seeing all the ads at stores for Father's Day. I'm still steaming over the Valentine's Day cards.
Anyway, I'm writing this year to negotiate.
Resolve two issues I have and I will continue to deliver presents each year.
Don't and there will be no more ho, ho, ho-ing — only oh, oh, oh-ing.
Issue 1. Pay
Recently the elves and reindeer began to unionize and demanded more pay.
And as we dealt with this labor problem and pondered whether to bring in scabs, I realized something — I'm not getting paid.
No wonder I'm having trouble paying my employees each year let alone bringing home enough bacon for Mrs. Claus. This operation is bleeding more money than the average
So I think someone owes me money. I don't care if I'm paid by the UN, Ted Turner or Bill Gates — and I'm still kicking myself for leaving him that home computer and not buying Microsoft options later — so much as someone shares of the Xmas joy back with me via currency.
Issue 2. Temp work.
I've noticed that some of my help only comes in during the winter. They take other jobs the rest of the year. It got me thinking. Why can't I work other jobs? Some say it's a gift economy. I know gifts.
Maybe I can set up and help pick people's presents — not just Xmas, birthdays and Valentine's Day.
On the latter, the greeting card industry owes me big bucks for stealing that idea, which I wrote while playing reindeer games with Rudolph.
Think about my questions, please.
And keep this is mind during the negotiation.
This time, I'll be the one counting the days.
— Santa

Dear Santa,
Hi. This is Scott.
Since your letter was sent, I've heard nothing about anyone helping. Because I've been a fan of your work for some time, I've tried to assist you.
Following is a proposal:
On issue 1, I have two options for you. One is a tentative agreement with malls across the world to charge a Santa tax. You would receive two percent sales tax from every Christmas-related purchase during the holidays.
Second, some scientists are fascinated with your historical residence in the North Pole and would gladly pay several million dollars for it. They have also offered to buy you a residence of even greater size somewhere else.
How about Florida?
On issue two, I may have devised a way for you to make enough money so you don't need a second job and can spend more time with your family. That Internet job might be a good hobby.
Try to remember the advice many dot.coms forgot — profit good, losses bad.
On your behalf, I've filed a class-action suit with the greeting card industry. They are unfairly making a profit off your work. It's time for them to pay. I have a tentative agreement. You get 20 percent of their profits.
Meanwhile, people who are not in relationships have filed a separate suit against the greeting card industry, arguing that Valentine's Day forces them to either have fake intimacy or to feel negative emotions such as shame or guilt for being alone.
These people have agreed to share 20 percent of the money won in the suit to thank you for not being as discriminating. As long as we leave you cookies and milk, you come, regardless of whether we're single or in a relationship.
Between those suits, I think we can solve your financial woes.

Merrily yours,
Your new secret, oversized elf,

Why I, Your Intrepid Reader, Love Airports and Airplanes

(originally written in 2007)

This piece is on my mind since every Christmas I fly to California to visit with my mom and brother in the city I grew up in, Riverside.

Related: My Bookcrossing experiment went bad


I'm starting to love airplanes and airports but not for the usual reasons.
I know I'm supposed to love them because of how quickly they get me from place A to place B.
But that's almost an afterthought to me sometimes.
Instead planes are a place to have an alternate life. I think of them as sort of fleets of communes or retreat homes.
And airports... well, most people seem to hate them but as a news junkie I love it. How often do you get free newspapers? Oh, you didn't know they were free?
Well, then, take a lesson from a newspaper-reading fiend like me.
When choosing where to sit, look for the person reading a stack of newspapers. Sit two or there seats away.
As the person finishes, he or she will inevitably look around as they decide whether to throw it away or be a litterbug and leave it there.
So solve the problem for them. Ask, "Excuse me, but would you mind if I borrow that?" Often they smile and sometimes they even thank you for taking the publications.
Tip: Try not to drool or stare while waiting. Read your own magazines until he's done. Doing this I was able to read copies of some good magazines.
On planes I'm exposed to different people and view relationships I would not normally see, such as a teenager daughter doing her AP Physics homework and then discussing/analyzing the results with her bright but pushy father. Or the men who call home on their cell phones as soon as the plane lands, one saying, "Come get me dear, I love you!" while a jerk calls his wife to say "Put the kids away I'll be home soon. I said, do it now!"
But what I most love is what the plane does to me - it lets my mind and body relax, because I know I don't need to be watching for phone calls or emails from friends and work and don't need to run errands immediately.
Instead it frees me to read and think. I end up always having lots of thoughts on planes and so I bring paper and a pen to scribble it all down in my famous handwriting, legible only to me.
And I usually go through four books and two magazines just between flying to California and back.
And sleeping. Wow, is there a more relaxing sound than that of a plane in the air? I've oft thought they should package that sound and sell it to those needing white noise at home.
You know when you get off the plane and the flight attendant says "Thank you!"? I always say, 'No, thank you." This is both polite and makes their frozen smiles falter temporarily, both of which are good things in my book.
One time I was so relaxed, reading the end of Word Freak, that they had to ask me to get off the plane. I was tempted to ask what their hurry was considering how many delays they generally cause us passengers. But I didn't want to cause any further delays for the next reader, er, passenger so I shut up.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Thinking About Shaming, Especially Online

I have been thinking a lot lately about shaming, especially shaming online.

This is partly sparked by reading a fascinating book by Jon Ronson called You Have Been Publicly Shamed. Ronson likes to explore odd things happening in the world. In The Psychopath Test he looks at how there's a test supposedly determining who is and isn't a psychopath and he interviews those tested who deny they are psychopaths. He's the guy that wrote the book The Men Who Stare At Goats, which sparked the movie.

In his new book he talks to those who have been shamed, looking into just how far some of the lives have been destroyed, as well as those who do the shaming and how they feel knowing how badly things got out of control.

But more than that shaming has been on my mind because there seems to be soooo much shaming going on right now, especially on the Internet.

Of course, there has always been shaming. What were the stockades back around the Revolutionary War but shaming? There are judges still, and Ronson talks to one, whose punishment for criminals is having them publicly holding signs detailing their crimes and standing up to ridicule, a public shaming of sorts. NPR has a good piece exploring this topic here:

But the shaming seems to be happening both more often, and to crazier depths, online. Rarely a week goes by without at least two Facebook trending stories where it seems as if everyone is piling on, shaming someone. They seem to be often about one of two things, both of which people object to. One is those hurting animals (and so we had the one in the last week about someone duct taping a dogs mouth shut) and the other is racist and/or questionable behavior by police. Both are wrong but just how far do you go to object to it?

I have three recent moments of shaming fresh in my mind and a fourth where I felt the pull and started to do some shaming myself.

One of the most memorable piece of shaming in the last year was probably when that dentist killed Cecil, the lion. There were petitions and memes and everyone went wild criticizing and shaming the guy. Did he do an awful thing? Yes. Does shaming someone like that accomplish much?

Part of what I see as the problem with shaming in the electronic age is that it's not just what you see on Facebook, the petitions, the calls on someone to take action against him. What often happens additionally, though, is groups like Anonymous and 4chan (where people can post anything they want anonymously) get into it and release private phone numbers and soon the person often loses their job, as if he must be a bad dentist since he was mean enough to kill poor Cecil. It's the piling on and going too far that bugs me.

But, damn, it's tempting and sooo easy to do. This is the yin and yang of online shaming - its so easy, just click share or sign your name and boom, you've done it. And you often feel good about it because you're thinking, "Yeah, I did something good today.!"

The Cecil piling on was shamed a bit in response. This is the part that gets a bit weird. This is where, in that instance, people fighting for important issues in America rightly note that there's more crucial problems to fight in America rather than everyone piling on a dentist. And so there was a response meme saying, essentially, do we need to put on a lion's mask to get your attention? Why do people care more about the death of a lion than the death of a black woman while in police custody?

As one tweet put it, "The Gospel teaches us that we should be more upset about the death of , than tragedy with Cecil the lion." You saw that explored a bit here.

Similarly, remember when the Paris attacks happened and it seemed like every American's Facebook page suddenly had posters and photos about how they are praying and caring for Paris. Then people pointed out, correctly, that it was odd everyone was praying for Paris when there were terrorist attacks that seem week in Lebanon and elsewhere. And so people amended their posters and photo to say "praying for Paris....and Lebanon and.."

If that oversight had been pointed out gently then cool. But the way the memes I saw most often went it said something along the lines "You are only praying for France because they, like you, are White." And THAT is shaming. And this time it wasn't a person being shamed,

No, this time it was like EVERY WHITE American was shamed. How did that feel? I've been asking people that question, about the implication that they were somehow racist if they paid more attention to Paris than other places. The most common response is to blame the news media which, of course, was going wall-to-wall and Page one with its coverage of Paris and minimal coverage of other places. It's a fair point, I think, because if you don't know about the other attacks than how are you going to know to pray for these places. Personally, I felt a bit ignorant.

Do these people feel bad that they didn't know about the other events? Mostly the response I've received has been more complicated, they they are upset the media isn't giving them more coverage of the other attacks. And they think, as I do, that to chalk it up as racism is too simplistic since there are other factors involved including the long history between the U.S. and France.

This is a good piece on the topic:  We Need to Put More Thought — and Less Shame — Into Our Conversations About Paris and Beirut on Social Media
So when we have situations like those two, Cecil and Paris, and just this week those folks shaming politicians who pray instead of taking actions, what is being accomplished? Well, I think those doing the shaming feel they are succeeding in making a point and some of those points are valid but is the way they are going about things accomplishing things in a gentle or a rude way? And does that matter?

That also brought up the matter of whether posting Facebook memes, in that case calling on people not to pray for the shootings in California but rather to take actions immediately. Mostly their focus was on the politicians, but that was unclear in many memes I saw. As someone whose response was to pray first and maybe take action, be it a rally or a vigil or whatever, later, I felt shamed.

And then my reaction shifted to "Wait, are those posting memes taking action themselves?" To me action means talking with your feet, standing up literally for what you believe in, not typing what you believe in or, in this case, cut-and-pasting or "sharing" what you believe in with a a few simple clicks. Standing up to power, not typing to power.

Time for a confession: I jumped onto this shaming train a few months ago. What drove me to do it was that guy, Martin Shkreli. He is the former hedge fund manager who bought the rights to a 62-year-old drug called Daraprim and immediately gouged the price from $13.50 a pill to an unbelievable $750! That was more than a 5000 percent jump overnight,

That made me sick. So I decided, I am going to shame this man. I started a series of Tweets and Facebook posts to shame this guy. Then I had two questions come up. Does my church, which is Unitarian Universalist, believe in shaming folks and, related question, what am I actually trying to do here? The answer to the second was embarrass the hell out of this guy. But do people change their behavior based on being shamed and embarrassed? Maybe but more likely they change when they see the benefit in changing and that's not really something happening during shaming.

And that's part of what I heard back. I tagged my Rev. Meg and Rev. Chris on Facebook and said, um, what's our stance on shaming? And Meg wrote, I'm paraphrasing here, we don't shame. We believe in rising up, showing people the positive instead of criticizing and putting down.

So that experience gave me more food for thought.

Ronson's book, as well as Ted Talks he has done like this one, points out another downside of shaming which is that it goes way further than most people involved in the shaming probably ever want or imagine.. Often the targets of shaming receive death threats and when it's a woman being shamed they are often threats of rape.

In one case Ronson writes about a man, being shamed for something he said that some considered inappropriate, who noted online he had lost his job and his life was in ruins because of this shaming campaign against him. That sparked a counter shaming campaign, against his will, in which the person doing the original shaming is then shamed.... she lost her job too,  and she was getting anonymous rape and death threats... and it all seems so extreme and ugly and, wow. .

I am still sorting out my own feelings about shaming. Is it ever right?

For example, when there's video of a cop in a school hurting a student, no matter the reason, people go ballistic and I sometimes join them. They campaign to get the person fired, there are sudden new Change.Org petitions, etc.

But at some point the campaign goes from demanding justice to shaming that person and often it soon extends to shaming the whole police department and, some times, that is followed by people shaming all police. And I have objections to that. One thing I say often, especially on Facebook, is that I object to all stereotyping and generalizations, be it about cops or about, say, those suggesting everyone who is Islam supports or helps Islam.  But people will stereotype and group and generalize because it's easy. I call it Lazy Thinking. And I think a lot of shaming is also Lazy Thinking.

Here's a tough question I'll ask you to think about and post your response. Do you have anyone in your family who is at least a little bit racist? When you see them over the holidays are you going to confront them about their prejudices and stereotypes?

Now when you hear about someone on Facebook or Twitter saying or doing something racist are you going to join an already ongoing campaign to both bring justice to that person and shame them?

I think what's happening is people are doing what's easy, which is shaming others for racism and other prejudices, while not doing the harder job of explaining, to their own friends and family, say, why All Lives Matters is NOT an adequate response to Black Lives Matter, why it's not acceptable for ones ignorance of Muslims to be an excuse for making jokes about Muslims having bombs, let alone excusing the idea that we only want refugees if they are Christian, that all Syrians are bad.

Anyway that's some of what I have been thinking about lately.

Now I can return to my usual thoughts like how best to prepare for the Zombie Apocalypse and the benefits and consequences of time travel and why fast food restaurants always give you six ketchup packets when you say no, you don't want ketchup but on those occasions when you DO ask for it, you get three. And is it hoarding to save said ketchup?

Enjoy the rest of your weekend

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Reflecting On A Funnier Police Story

So...I'm working in Lake Havasu, Arizona, the hottest place in the world on some summer days. How hot was it? It was so hot one day we actually did try to cook an egg on the sidewalk... and put a story on our attempt on the front page but the project went bad since my co-conspirators weren't sure how to best prepare or cook an egg. Yes, that really happened. Anyway...

We get a press release from the Sheriff's Department.
Seems they went looking for a fellow who skipped bond. They followed him to a hotel and thought they found him but he got away.

They were asking for the public's help in finding the scofflaw.

Could be a short police brief but something about the story sounded weird so I started digging.
And then things grew more fun.

Through an interview with an embarrassed deputy I gathered up some info and then I called the motel manager to see if she knew what happened.

"Course I do, sugar, I own the place," she said.

"And do you know the accused, a Mr. Smith?"

"He's my boyfriend."

"Do you know what happened?"
The resulting article was a bit something like this:

Man digs hole through hotel wall, evades police capture.

A Lake Havasu man avoided police capture Thursday by burrowing a hole through a hotel wall and walking unnoticed out a hotel room while Sheriff's deputies stood guarding the door next door.

Hotel manager Jean Smith said she called the deputies when her boyfriend, John Smith, showed up because she knew he wasn't supposed to be out yet.

She rented John a room and then told the cops what room he was in.

But she recognized some of the cops and grew worried they might do some harm, she said.So she called and warned him, she said.

Four police officers stood by the door after a fifth knocked on.They were standing there ready to apprehend the suspect, she said.

Meanwhile, he used a knife to cut through the hotel wall.He walked out, looked at the officers and kept on going, she said.

While she's glad he got away uninjured, she's not sure if she still considers him her boyfriend, she said.

That will depend on one condition, she said: Whether he will pay the $200 it is going to cost to replace the thin wall between rooms.

The Witness Stand: Memories

After graduating from college in 1991 I worked as a newspaper reporter in Southern California. Often the newspaper's sole reporter, I covered a variety of beats. Looking back on the work, though, the stories I remember the best are the ones I covered as a police reporter. On that beat you see the best and worst of people – well, more often the latter – and are left with memories, some good and some bad.

He was lying. It was obvious to everyone in the courtroom.

His mom, Kathy James of Aguanga, was smiling at him and he would look at her but couldn't look the prosecutor or anyone else in the eyes, even when they would bend down to be at the level of this child, who was seven. Or eight. Or nine.

He wasn't really sure what grade he would be in, or his age, because he couldn’t remember. It'd been a while, though, he said.

The question to him was simple: Where was his mom when the fire began?

The circumstances were less simple. His mom was accused of accidentally setting the fire as she cooked meth in her trailer. His two siblings, his younger brother and sister, died in the fire.
He looked like he wanted to cry but he also wanted so much to be tough and strong. He was, after all, now the man of the family.

The prosecutor, Michael Soccio, had worried this might happen so he had a tape of this boy telling the truth, telling him that his mom was sitting by the oven when a "ball of fire" flew out of it. The court called a recess and Soccio took the boy to Burger King and explained to him that he didn't want to show him to be a liar.

In tears, the boy later told at least snippets of the truth, enough that the jurors knew that he was lying to protect mommy. She looked pissed. If looks could kill… well, scratch that cliche. There’d been enough killing.

There was easily enough evidence to convict her. The courtroom was packed at times because this was the first time a district attorney in California was trying to charge someone with murder for a meth lab gone bad.

As a last ditch effort, her attorney agreed to put her on the stand.

She didn't do it, a defiant James told the court in what became one of the more remarkable things I ever saw on a witness stand.

"I didn't do it," she said.
"You mean you didn't cook drugs?"

"Well, yes, I did that."

"And you cooked drugs around your kids?"
"Oh, sure."

"But you didn't cook the drugs that resulted in a fire killing your kids?"


"And why not?"

"'Cause I'm too good," she said. Her "recipe" was failure-proof, she said.

She then went into a very detailed step-by-step description of exactly how she cooked meth. Jurors, reporters, everyone took detailed notes. Enough notes that I wondered if the notes would be collected and destroyed by the guards. It turned out later that the FBI was taping the trial and used her testimony for classes on the manufacture of meth.

She was one smooth, cocky, feisty meth-making woman.
What she was not was a sympathetic figure. And she forgot to mention that she had any sadness about the loss of her children. Juries notice those little details.

She was convicted and sentenced and her son is now with an aunt.

The whole matter was later voted story of the year by the readers of our newspaper but I just didn't feel like celebrating that news.

Memoir: Reflecting On One of the Worst Murder Cases I Ever Covered

While writing this memoir piece about reporting on fires, the memories came back on this case.

She almost got away with it. And my newspaper came close to acting as an accomplice of sorts, potentially leading to a libel trial.

It was one of the three darkest cases I ever covered, up there with the serial killer and the meth lab mom.

What made this one different was love, children and relationships, specifically how relationships gone bad can make people do things beyond understanding. The stereotypes of men being more violent than men also played a role.

It all began when a woman rushed into a small town (San Jacinto, CA.) police department office to announce that she feared her ex-husband was going to hurt her children. We'll come in a minute, they told her. No, you need to come right now, she insisted. They came and discovered two children dead, stabbed with a knife.

On Oct. 25, 1994 the woman, Dora Buenrostro, told the police she had feared the kids father had done something wrong because he was mad at her and she was right. A double murder is huge news in this region – almost unheard of. But there were more questions than answers: Where was the father? Where was her other child? Where was she when her kids were being killed?

The reporter on the story started writing a story with what we knew at the time, two kids dead and the father, ex-husband, Alex Buenrostro. appeared to be the killer. Nervous, an editor handed the story to me to cover (me having a few more years) experience. While I re-wrote the story to make it much more cautious and more clear that the father's exact involvement remained unknown the police dispatcher went crazy: They'd found the other child!

The child, dead from knife wounds, still strapped in a car safety seat, was found in an abandoned post office on a road connecting San Jacinto with Riverside. I drove to the scene to gather the scant information I could get. In the neck of Deidra, 4, they found a broken knife blade. She had also been stabbed with a pen.

I would never pass that post office again without thinking of that grisly scene and I passed by it daily for more than one year.

The location of the body raised questions. She suggested it was because her husband was headed back to his home in the Los Angeles area. But police realized it could also go the other way – it could also be her headed toward Los Angeles.

I forget some of the details and I don't want to guess at them so let's just say the next day's articles just stuck to the facts we knew – three children dead and the assailant unknown – and it's a damn good thing we did that. Because soon suspicion shifted from him to her.

Police, trailed by the media, found and questioned the children's father. But not only did he deny any crime, or being at the crime scene, he had an alibi.

She was soon charged with killing her kids, first the one in the car seat then the other two at home. There was a two day gap between the killings away from her house and the two at her home. I found that detail, that two days between killing her 4-year-old and then stabbing in the throat her sleeping children, Susana, 9, and Vicente, 8, more disturbing in a way than if she did all her killing at once.
Her mental competency was questioned, which seemed to be a pre-trial move made by all the murder suspects I'd covered. Soon came the inevitable battle of experts on whether she was sane.

I covered the preliminary hearings. I'll never forget one where she not only ignored the public defender's attempts to keep her silent but yelled at a judge to have the guards stop putting snakes and poisons in her cell and I had to wonder myself about her sanity. If she was putting on a show that woman deserved an Oscar.

I moved on to other stories and other cases.
In July 1998 she was found guilty of first degree murder.

In October 1998 Buenrostro, then 38, was sentenced to death and she remains on death row.

Friday, December 4, 2015

A Good Read Especially If You Want To Better Understand Families of Folks With Special Needs

Today I finished Sarah Barnes' book, A Different Road, and tonight I met both her and her daughter, Meredith, at Quacks. We all shared chocolate. Yum.
The book, by the former Austin Stateman reporter, is excellent and quite moving, I highly recommend it. I sent her tonight my interview questions and the finished product will be published on BookPeople's Internet site within a week as a way to promote both the book and a book signing by her. That book signing is at 7 pm Dec. 11.
Her book describes what it's been like to raise a daughter with an atypical brain, the challenges and frustrations, the victories and accomplishments, I was at times cheering for her and tearing up for her. I told my charge the tears were due to emoticon
I'm honored to help promote the book. I hope it gets much media attention and coverage. Many can learn a lot from this book and Barnes' story.

You know the expression, "Write what you know"?"How about an amendment: "Do interviews about what you know."
Details on the book and this story are here

Thinking About Beauty and Zombies

One of the things I find fascinating about working with people with autism, and that some probably find maddening, is trying to understand the jumps from one topic to another with seemingly no connection between them.

For example...

My middle school charge was mentioning today that the girls of a woman he meant the other day were "beautiful" (he looked at me as he said the word, probably since I recently got him to replace the adjective "hot" with "beautiful," since I'd prefer he tell some girl his age she's beautiful instead of "you're hot!")... Them without skipping a beat or taking a breath he asked me my plans for the Zombie Apocalypse, as if it was something on our agenda. Haircut, check. Lunch, check, Park, check. Zombie apocalypse?

Before answering I asked him to help me understand that leap of topics... Was it that he went from beautiful to the least beautiful things in the world, namely zombies? Or he wondered if he'd still like those girls if they were zombies? He wasn't sure and found my questions hilarious (he's a great audience).

Then I tried to think of something interesting to say about the Zombie Apocalypse that had not already been said.

What I came up with (I'm proud of my ability to think quick, what I call my improv skills) was this:
"Well, I'm not crazy about the idea of eating other people so I'd enter the apocalypse loaded with lots of crackers and chips so I'd eat that instead of other people."

And what are your plans? He told me he'd kill as many zombies as he could. Well, then.... I thought quickly of a way to end this topic and return to something more reality-based so I said... well, before we go to lunch how about we make a deal?

What kind of deal?

I heard myself saying, "I promise I won't eat you if you don't eat me."

He agreed and we moved on to other topics.


Tuesday, December 1, 2015

I'm interviewing Sarah Barnes, about life as a mom of a daughter with an imperfect brain

I'm interviewing Sarah Barnes!

I am consistently doing interviews with authors I know and love as well as some I'm new too. For example, today I received Austin thriller author Jeff Abbott's latest book and am excited to write about his latest action adventure.

But some interviews are more special than others. For example, I count the one I did with Michael Morton as extra special as he and his life (he spent almost 25 years in prison in Williamson County for killing his wife before being exonerated and released in 2011) demonstrated both how messed up our justice system is that an innocent man could spend decades behind bars for something he didnt do and that Morton had in himself to forgive all of the players involved.

Which brings me to a very special interview i'm going to do with Sarah Barnes of Austin, whose life changed when at
seven months a doctor told Sarah and her husband that their daughter, Meredith, has an imperfect brain. As the book
cover says,"happily-ever-after became differently-ever-after. Although they faced many obstacles, their determined
daughter helped them find hope and humor in the face of unthinkable challenge."

Sarah and I were both newspaper reporter but then we both veered in different directions yet we ended up now as interviewer and subject. While we met for the first time tonight I expect we're going to find some interesting intersections.

In columns for the Austin Statesman, Sarah has for years been chronicling her life with Meredith and challenges and successes and frustrations and
everything in between. This memoir is about those experiences and that journey.

I left journalism after 15 years when I didn't feel I was positively impacting the world in the way I wanted. I veered from education reporter to educator and quickly found my niche in special education and working with families with special needs.... some of them with families and children not unlike that of Sarah and Meredith.

There's also a nice small world moment here. The book has a nice plug on back from Sarah Bird (who i have heard great things of but have not yet read), who is the sister of a man, John Bird, who is part of the Austin Backgammon
Club I help run every week.

After seeing an article in the Statesman about Sarah writing this book all I had to do was mention her name to one of my employers, who I didn't even know knew her let alone was was friends with her... and then we connected.
Sarah has told her friend, and told me herself today when I picked up the book, how "honored" she is to be interviewed.

But I'm the one who feels honored, blessed that people let me enter their lives be it through interviews like this or through work I do and through other avenues. I just hope I honor them back with the resulting works.

Monday, November 30, 2015

My Four Favorite Holiday Songs.. What are yours? (Please post link to song and reasons why it's a favorite)

(List typed up a few years ago but timely each year)

I was listening today to the Pogues classic "Fairy Tale of New York" and decided it was definitely one of my five favorite holiday-related songs ever.

In no particular order:
1) – Pogues and Kirsty MacColl - "Fairy Tale of New York" – There are three things that make this song great: 1) The contrasting, overlapping voices as if to demonstrate lyrically and musically their chracters dysfunctional relationship: 2) The late great Kirsty McCall is always a delight; 3) The dark language and deep lyrics provide a good contrast to the usual happy banter of holiday songs and strike closer to home than most of those suggesting everyone is happy during the holidays.
2) The Waitresses –"Christmas Wrapping" – Where I grew up in Southern California KROQ played this song to death every Christmas season but I never got sick of it and actually looked forward to it. The same can't be said for most Christmas songs, many of which are cringe-worthy. I could also relate to being a single – but always looking for a partner - during the holidays.
3) Band Aid – "Do They Know It's Christmas?" Unlike We Are The World, this song actually has a beat and lyrics that are not insipid. Ok, so the idea beyond the song and the gesture – famine relief – was somewhat simplistic and failed to wipe out the famine (probably an impossibility). Bob Geldof, former leader of the Boomtown Rats, was one of my musical heroes for this effort. This song is also a staple on rock stations during the holiday seasons but one I don't mind hearing multiple times.
The story of the song is well explained at Wikipedia The project eventually led to Live Aid, of which there is a great oral history here.

4) David Bowie and Bing Crosby – Little Drummer Boy – Contrary to the thinking of many people I grew up with, just because something (be it music or technical gadgets) is newer doesn't make it better. Take this song, for example. It's a classic and has been song many times by many different artists. But this duet is great both as cultural symbolism (a passing of the baton from one generation to another with Crosby dying a month after the tv special in which they sang it), as a fun story (Bowie was said to have hated the song but saihe did it because his mom liked Crosby) was and, best of all, this stands up a great cover all on its own.

I'm sure I've forgotten a few so if I left out ones you think should be included leave me a note and I'll consider it.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Month Of Books With Unreliable Narrators (Warning: Spoilers)

(warning: herein spoilers of a sort) I read and enjoyed Girl on A Train today I consumed the whole thing in 24 hours. Which is saying something since I'm usually reading four books at once so this means I set the others aside for a day.:)

Without intending it this last month has become the month of Books With Unreliable Narrators.

It began with a book club book selection called A Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes. I won't say a lot about how it has an unreliable narrator beyond that because I hate spoilers except to say it's one of those books which, when you finish it, you need to read again to fully understand it. Which can be cool or frustrating... and depends if you really want to read it again. 

 Meanwhile, another book club picked Who Killed Roger Ackroyd, which is famous/infamous for being the first detective novel with an unreliable narrator, which some hated, calling it a "trick" by this lady you may have heard of called Agatha Christie. 

Unfortunately I knew more about this and was waiting for this "trick" which made the book a bit less surprising but it was still a fun twist. That brings us to Girl On A Train complete with its favorable comparisons to Gone Girl. While I tried to avoid the hype I knew going in that there was going to be unreliable narrator. 

 Sometimes I wish I could read book in an age without the Internet so I wouldnt have ideas of what to expect. But I do. This doesn't mean I predicted all the plot twists, some were great surprises in fact, but it meant I knew I couldn't trust what I was reading which made reading it at times, well, frustrating knowing part of whatever you are reading will turn out to be true.

 All of the books were enjoyable but in addition to sharing the fact had unreliable narrators they also had something else in common, something I heard from those who just couldn't get into Gone Girl or A Girl On a Train, namely none of the main characters are appealing.

With the exception of Hercule Poirot in the Ackroyd book I can't say I really liked any of the main characters in any of these books. Of course this then can spark the debate about the appeal of anti-heros and while I've enjoyed some anti-hero books let's just say I see both sides of this debate but I think, for a while, I'll try some books with characters I can trust and like for a while.

Like, say, Lisabeth in the latest Girl Who book (The Girl in The Spiders Web)... wait, don't tell me, I haven't read that one yet. Happy reading, folks.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Ink and toothpaste

Ink and toothpaste, two words you rarely hear together. Both had interesting effects in the last three days.

Monday night while playing backgammon I kept noticing my fingers were dark. First I thought I'd was newspaper ink but seemed like as soon as I washed my hands they d turn dark again. It was the oddest thing. I put it out of my head until it started happening again Tuesday and I googled "my fingers are turning blue and black" and saw what I feared namely that it's a system of blood circulation problems.

But it was cold at work and they were not using the heater and sure enough cold fingers could mean discolored fingers. So I opted for frostbite rather than blood circulation and was soon wearing a hat and jacket indoors. I know if I dwell on the uncertain and unexplained I can get anxious so I do I can do well, compartmentalize.

That night I resumed an annual tradition of getting from the library more dvds than I had time to watch so I had a plethora of options. The librarian noted my fingers in the flash and asked if I work around ink and I said no. She said her mom is a nurse and she's worried this meant insufficient circulation and flow to my fingers. I was now worrying and vowing if I wash my hands and they turn dark again I'm going to have consider medical attention.

I go home and wash my hands and this time hooray they stay white and I'm happy but confused. I check my steps and note that I took off my new blue jeans and put on sweats and the problem stopped. I looked suspiciously at my jeans, one of two pair which I bought on sale at the gap.... and haven't washed them yet. I know some say to wash new jeans because they may shrink but I surmised, staring at the jeans, now I wonder if the new jeans still had ink or c color on them. And today I'm not wearing jeans and my fingers have been fine and I feel silly.

I felt less silly when my teenage charge told me what he and his brother used to stop a lense from popping out of his frames... toothpaste! They are proud of themselves for finding an alternative to tape or glue and asked me not to tell their mom. I said ok on one condition.

The condition? They let me watch next time he washes his glasses.

Never a dull day

Trotting On Thanksgiving

I participated in my first Turkey Trot, an event put on annually by local sandwich show ThunderCloud Subs with all money going to Caritas, which drew more than 20,000 runners. Wow.
I decided on a whim last night to participate and briefly considered doing the run but it's 5 miles (not a 5k) and since I haven't been training I thought that might be too much... and my decision was made when it stated in the event FAQ that its an event for runners not those doing what i'd do namely walk some and run some.
Instead I did the one mile walk though I ran about half of it.
I think I have the racing fever now. I'd always wondered why my dad did so many races and triathalons. Maybe i'm starting to understand.
My goal is to run the 5 mile next year and in between make good on a vow to run a 5K one of these days (now sooner rather than later)
I am thankful for my health so I can do these things.
The rain began soon before the events.
I made some key mistakes - since it's been colder in Austin I wore sweats... which had a faulty draw string. And I made the rookie move of having my wallet with me. So there were times when I was running with my wallet in one hand so it wouldnt weigh down the sweats and there were times when I'd be running while holding up my sweats with one hand.
Working in the schools we'd have to watch for those with drooping pants and tell them to pull them up or put on zip ties to keep them up. Now suddenly I was one of those guys... but trying to run.
Next year - im wearing shorts and will keep the wallet in the car.