Social Issues

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Penn State Program, Perfect for Pedophiles

“Anytime you hear the number of children who come forward in an abuse case with this much history, add a 0 to get the real number of victims.”

That’s what the district attorney told me in 1994 when I was a witness set to testify in a case much like this one.

If the formula holds true for former Penn State University football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, long-time friend and one-time heir apparent of fired coach and chief enabler Joe Paterno, we’re talking not about 8 victims, but 80.

Maybe more. Maybe many more.

Because in just 4 days since Sandusky’s arrest, the number of known victims has more than doubled, from 8 to 17. (Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly is urging other unidentified victims to come forward.)

You do the math.

Considering Sandusky began coaching at Penn State in 1969 and established his own “charitable” foundation 8 years later, he’s had more than 40 years of unfettered access to ‒ and unquestioned authority over ‒ 1,000s of young boys.

The Second Mile Foundation, whose ironic tag line is “providing children with help and hope,” is a state-wide organization serving 100,000 children.

It’s clear from the grand jury testimony that Sandusky used his foundation to meet and cultivate victims, who he then betrayed in the worst possible, permanently damaging way.

If you think reading the indictment is hard, imagine living through it.

Sandusky feels “terribly depressed, terribly distraught” by the situation in which he’s found himself, claims his attorney, who’s drinking the Kool-Aid already because the only thing child abusers are ever distraught about is getting caught.

Penn State president Graham Spanier, who’s just been fired (and frankly that seems insufficient punishment), called the allegations against Sandusky “troubling.”

Troubling.

It’s well documented that pedophiles choose careers that give them access to kids. It’s a bonus if those kids are disadvantaged and vulnerable, seeking love and approval from a father figure otherwise missing in their lives.

In 1977, Sandusky founded The Second Mile Foundation, first as a group foster home ‒ another favorite career choice of child molesters ‒ to help “troubled boys” from troubled families.

A cruel recipe for disaster.

Because being a “beneficiary” of The Second Mile Foundation’s “generosity” cost these boys their bodies and hearts and futures. And the best Penn State officials could do was to take away Sandusky’s locker room keys?

And report the crimes to…Sandusky’s own charity?

This timeline of events and cast of characters amply demonstrates how many missed opportunities there were over many years to put Sandusky behind bars. For preying on victims as young as 7 or 8.

2nd and 3rd graders. Foster children, who drew the short straw in life to begin with.

People who shield predators try to characterize ‒ in an attempt to minimize ‒ child molestation as just “bothering,” or “overly affectionate,” or in this case “horsing around,” which implies the child consented to “play.”

Probably ill advised, but not devastating. Kids are resilient. Prioritize the family man whose career and reputation I risk if I say anything.

It’ll probably get messy. I’d rather not get involved.

This all causes seriously psychological damage to the child. But add extreme violence and you add even more crimes, especially if the child is under 13 (in some states under 14, or 14-15).

An adult male pinning a child 1/3 of his weight, only 10 years old, against a shower wall and sodomizing him is brutal RAPE.

Here are the penalties in Pennsylvania for sexual assault. Jerry Sandusky should’ve faced these charges almost 10 years ago. Given the timeline, much longer ago than that.

Joe Paterno and his wife Sue have 5 children and 17 grandchildren. If any of them had been rape victims, every police officer and FBI agent in Pennsylvania would’ve descended on Happy Valley within minutes.

But this was somebody else’s child, a nobody who didn’t matter. And of course he would never tell on his idol, or if he ever did, wouldn’t be taken seriously.

Thus, Joe’s precious football program, precious corporate sponsorships, and precious coaching legacy were safe.

It’s telling that Paterno continues to talk about My Goals and “one of the greatest sorrows of My Life.” Me, Me, Me. Or, Me and Penn State.

“I will spend the rest of my life doing everything I can to help this University.” No sincere wish to help the children whose lives he knowingly let his protégé ruin by his selfish silence.

Maybe “we ought to say a prayer for them (the victims).” If I can take time away from worrying about what’s going to happen to Me, now that I’m no longer coach of Penn State’s illustrious football program that I built, and that made me untouchable.

As for the 2 Penn State officials, athletic director Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, senior VP for business and finance (and holding on to his $70 million plus annual revenue for dear life), who are now charged with failure to report a crime and committing perjury before the grand jury, you’re despicable. You should be charged with criminal conspiracy, along with Paterno and everyone else who knew about these crimes against children and did nothing.

And, worse than doing nothing, covered it up.

Sandusky, Curley, and Schultz will find out in prison exactly what it feels like to be the one pinned to the shower wall and brutalized, helpless and alone.

But the person I hold most in contempt, though, is Mike McQueary, the man on the scene in the Penn State locker room in 2002 ‒ an eyewitness, rare in rape cases involving children, according to this same district attorney ‒ who didn’t intervene to stop the crime in progress, didn’t call the police, didn’t even have the decency to get medical attention for the young boy afterwards.

According to his own grand jury testimony, McQueary walked in on the attack in the showers and both the victim and the rapist saw him clearly.

McQueary looked the 10-year-old boy right in the eye and, rather than help him, allowed the rape to continue and ran away in a panic…

…then, instead of 911, called Dad for advice?!

So what if McQueary was a graduate assistant with no power, terrified of Joe Paterno and the consequences of ratting out Joe’s friend Jerry. He was a 28-year-old man! He wasn’t a boy in elementary school, like the victim.

(Why is Penn State letting McQueary coach next Saturday against Nebraska? FIRE him already.)

Adults have rights in this world. They have money and resources. They are believed by the authorities.

They can drive!

Even if no-one calls 911 during the assault, adults at least have the chance to get away from their attackers and drive themselves to safety at a hospital or police station.

What happened to this young boy afterward? Did he have to wait outside the gym by himself for someone to come pick him up, while Sandusky walked by on his way to the parking lot and laughed at him?

Or did he, like another victim we’ve learned about, have to ride in the car while his abuser drove him home…

…acting like it was just another ordinary day?

Monsieur S-K Misses His Flight

Here’s what happens when you go off the grid for even 1 news day. Even if it’s the slowest news day of the week.

I was talking to a European friend in the UK who never misses a news hour. Who mentioned…casually, just in passing…what an unbelievable thing had happened to Dominique Strauss-Kahn the day before.

What unbelievable thing?

Other than he’s head of the IMF, a former French finance minister, and a front-runner in the upcoming French presidential elections? Who, according to the latest polls, is the Socialist Party Candidate With The Right Stuff: a fighting chance of ousting Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012?

Other than that and that and that, I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Where have you been, under a rock? (Under a rock, writing.)

OK, let me give you the news…lowlights: Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested in New York on Saturday for sexual assault and false imprisonment of a member of the Sofitel housekeeping staff.

You’ve got to be kidding me.

When Strauss-Kahn attempted to leave the country on an Air France flight just a few hours after the alleged crimes occurred, the Port Authority police removed him from the plane within minutes of takeoff.

How stupid he must feel (and how lucky for everyone else involved), to be so tantalizingly close to departure to a country with no extradition treaty with the USA, only to realize that he himself tipped off the hotel staff ‒ and thus the police ‒ that he was calling from JFK.

Because I’m the big man on campus, I absolutely demand that you drop everything and bring to me my cell phone (because when I’m freaked out, I lapse into French grammar), which I left in my hotel room after running out on 5-minutes’ notice for…oh, no particular reason.

And you’d better get here before my flight leaves at 4:40pm, or I’ll take my business elsewhere.

The NYPD probably couldn’t believe it: a felony suspect who volunteers his schedule and current whereabouts! This is just too easy.

French voters, better to find out now: this isn’t a member of the A-Team you were thinking about electing Président de la République française.

For Strauss-Kahn to say “What is this about?” to the cops who unceremoniously removed him from first class shows just how sure he was that he’d gotten away with something.

Because who does that?

Strauss-Kahn’s many fans, who claim the injured party here is France, are correct: there are probably numerous people who’d greatly benefit from unseating him at the IMF a little early.

But having worked in the hospitality industry, I ask you: what luxury hotel would risk its reputation by being an unwitting party to such a payback-turned-felony? Especially a 5-star property catering to the rich and famous?

None. This is a nightmare for Sofitel, and its parent company Accor, and the worst possible reason to be the lead story on every major news network everywhere the IMF does business.

Which is everywhere.

While hotel housekeeping staff who interact with VIPs are trained accordingly, “meet the guest’s every need” NEVER includes sexual harassment or assault. Sofitel New York did the right thing by calling 911, and quickly.

Otherwise, we’d be looking at a Roman Polanski sequel.

Also, any politician on high alert for a career-ending setup, which Strauss-Kahn claimed was imminent, calls the front desk in outrage and demands the woman, the “opposition spy,” leave immediately. Then he calls the New York Times to say, “Nice try, Sarkozy.”

He doesn’t lock the door to prevent the woman from leaving.

Because he allegedly committed these crimes in the USA, Strauss-Kahn is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Imagine if he’d done such a thing in Saudi Arabia or China. He’d be facing the death penalty.

Or in any number of other countries, where he’d be considered guilty until proven innocent, had a 1-day trial in a language he didn’t understand, and be “lost” in prison for decades.

Members of his own political party are telling France TV5 that Strauss-Kahn is in the safe hands of the venerated American justice system. French politician Ségolène Royal, who lost to Sarkozy in 2007, added, simply: only Monsieur Strauss-Kahn can say whether or not he did it.

He’ll have a chance to do just that before a jury of his peers in New York. Meanwhile, he’s cooling his heels at Rikers, regretting that he never watched even 1 episode of Law & Order.

Can you say, “Remand, Your Honor”?

(Let’s see: international finance guru and potential future president of France, with virtually unlimited financial resources and residences in multiple countries, who tried to flee the jurisdiction once already and is facing at least 25 years in prison on 7 different criminal counts. No bail is high enough for this guy.)

The thing about sexual predators, if he’s convicted of being one: they don’t stop unless they’re stopped. Period.

And every time they get away with something, it just makes them more confident, more brazen, more sure they’ll get away with it again.

Or get away with something more serious next time…to a stranger who unknowingly walks into a dangerous situation.

(Michel Debres of the opposition party now says Strauss-Kahn previously attempted to assault other maids on previous stays at the same hotel. “Everyone knew it in the hotel.” If you were one of those “everyones,” Monsieur Debres, did you not think it was your moral responsibility to speak up?)

We’ve seen this over and over and over again.

So, shame on people who pressure, coerce, and “strongly encourage” sexual assault victims not to file charges, especially members of the victim’s own family, like Anne Mansouret, the Socialist politician mother of French novelist Tristane Banon.

Banon claims Strauss-Kahn assaulted her in 2002 and says she’s now filing charges against him because she’ll “be taken seriously.” Her mother should be arrested alongside Strauss-Kahn for witness intimidation.

In New York, that’s a Class E felony and carries a 4-year prison sentence.

If you’ve been a victim of sexual violence, or know someone who needs help, contact RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

Congressional Lobbying for Good Guys 102

Picking up where we left off yesterday in Congressional Lobbying for Good Guys 101, this is day 2 of 2 of my grassroots lobbying cheat sheet, helping you call your elected officials’ attention to an issue you care deeply about:

Know the official name and number of your bill
If there’s already a bill on your issue in committee, know its number. Federal bills are either HRnnnn – numeric variables in italics – for a House of Representatives bill or Snnnn for a Senate bill.

In state legislatures, this syntax is roughly the same. In the California Legislature, for example, SBnnnn is a state Senate bill and ABnnnn is a state Assembly bill.

Next, find out the official name of your bill. What’s commonly known as the Farm Bill is in fact the Farm, Nutrition, and Bioenergy Act, in which farm subsidies and anti-hunger/nutrition funding are multiple line items. (These issues appeal to very different groups of voters, but they’re interconnected…which is exactly why they’re together in the same bill.)

Another example: our recent health care reform law had 12 different informal names as the bill made its way through the legislative process.

Senators and Representatives whose votes might be crucial might not have perfect recall of either, if it’s not a high-profile bill. Don’t make their offices hunt around, or guess.

Learn to love pretzels and hot dogs
Anybody who’s hung around Capitol Hill for awhile knows the few restaurants very nearby are crowded and bad. So, if legislators or their aides have 5 minutes between meetings, in reasonable weather they might just hit the food stand down the street from the Hart Building. Do likewise.

When you make a request over instant cocoa and spicy mustard, it’s amazing how generous people can be. Ask me how I know this.

Know your guy (or girl) on sight
You’ve seen Law & Order: SVU. Think about it: would Detectives Benson and Stabler ever leave the station house without a current photo of the perp?

Make sure you introduce yourself to the right person. Look at constituent Web sites for photos and office addresses. No need to be a stalker; just use this information to plan your visits effectively.

Construct and deliver a 3-sentence pitch
If you had less than 15 seconds ‒ I timed my example below ‒ to get an elected official on board with your issue, what would you say?

Your 3 brief sentences: introduce yourself, make your case, ask for action.

The Farm Bill pitch is a good template (again, variables in italics): “Hello, Representative or Senator, I’m your name. Did you know that 50 million Americans, 1 in 6 adults and 1 in 4 kids, go to bed hungry: number or % of kids and/or number of % of seniors in your district or state? Can I count on your support for food security and nutrition funding in the Farm Bill?”

That’s right: 15% of American adults and 25% of American kids today are “food insecure.” Meaning, they aren’t positive where their next meal is coming from.

Rarely you get an on-the-spot yes, but don’t expect it…and would you really want your elected officials to commit to voting for a bill they knew that little about? This brief contact tells the lawmaker you’re serious and knowledgeable and simply opens the door for further contact. Suggest a meeting to provide more details. Offer to send more information to their staff, then follow up. Give your sincere thanks, right then and afterwards in writing.

Sometimes advocacy groups have already articulated these “calls to action” for you. Plagiarize them; they’ll love you for it. From your blog, include links to these organizations and invite your Facebook friends to become Fans, too.

Be sincerely extra super nice to the staffers
Some staffers are paid career people, but some are interns getting zip to be barged in on and yelled at all day by self-absorbed whoevers demanding their stuff yesterday. It’s cool to intern in the nation’s Capitol, but not that cool.

In many political situations, being calm and considerate helps you really stand out. Wait in line. Offer to stay on hold for awhile. Be timely and organized in all your requests. Come to meetings impeccable prepared. Take responsibility yourself for any follow-ups required.

If your nonprofit doesn’t provide business cards to volunteers, or you’re on your own, print your own cards, using the title “Community Activist, Your Cause.” Besides your email address, cell phone number, and links to your new blog, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn if appropriate, include your street address so your legislator can confirm that you are indeed a constituent. (Yes, they check.)

It goes without saying that you need to be a registered voter with a solid voting track record. Take time to read those pesky local initiatives and obscure judge bios in off-year elections. People who can’t be bothered to vote have no business asking for anything in their state or nation’s Capitol.

Blatantly ask for the sale
Marketing 101: never leaving a meeting without asking for exactly what you want the person to do for you! “Can I count on your support for my bill?”

Position your request a way that resonates with the legislator politically. Give them a sound bite they can give in an interview later. How does this bill benefit their constituency specifically? Does an egregious example of injustice that this bill would fix come from their district? Does this bill further other causes they endorse?

While you’re at it, ask for a referral to one of his/her colleagues who you’ve had a hard time reaching. In my experience, if you’ve been convincing, he/she may even proactively offer to do that.

Close with “Thank you very much. I greatly appreciate your time and interest in my issue. I’ll follow up tomorrow with answers to the specific questions you raised today.”

You get one shot at these people. Make it count by committing to the advance research it will take to customize your request.

Bottom line: Democracy works! Try it!
If you have a specific issue in mind, contact me. Who knows? Maybe I can connect you with somebody helpful.

For more information about hunger in America and what you can do about it in your community, contact Feeding America, formerly called America’s Second Harvest. I sometimes donate my public speaking fees to this nonprofit organization.

Congressional Lobbying for Good Guys 101

People often ask me how I got into Congressional activism. First, I got my Ph.D. in Getting People to Do Stuff for Me for Free, an essential skill both in private industry and in volunteering for nonprofits with big charters and tiny budgets.

I’ve lobbied on a variety of issues, from health care reform to child nutrition and food education to medical research funding. Not to mention cyber security, disability legislation, and international human rights.

Some issues I’ve chosen due to personal interest or history; others I’ve taken on as favors because I had a little useful knowledge. I’ve gotten involved in a couple simply by sitting next to somebody on a flight to Washington, DC who was on his/her way to testify on Capitol Hill.

I found out that I liked lobbying and was pretty good at it.

In his memorial tribute in Arizona, President Obama strongly reminded us of the important privilege and responsibility of participating in the democratic process. That means me, and you, and you.

With the long slog of mid-term elections behind us and the 112th Congress in session (and we hope with a tenor of civility we haven’t heard in awhile), we citizens now know ‒ for better or worse ‒ who we’ll be dealing with. Now we need the what, where, when, and how.

So, here’s a 2-day Congressional Lobbying Cheat Sheet, based on my personal experience, to help you with that. Tips on how you, one of us regular people, can move your cause forward ‒ no matter what it is ‒ in 2011.

Know your issue inside, outside, and sideways
The more stake you have in the issue, the more persuasive you’ll be. Most people lobby Congress not because they thought it would be fun to hang out with Senator So-And-So, but because something happened to them or a loved one – often terribly wrong, but perfectly legal − that they never want to happen to anyone else.

Ever wonder how we got Amber Alerts for missing children? Sex offender registries? Internet safety and stalking laws?

Job protection during maternity leave? Child support payment enforcement? Consumer product safety, including product labeling, recalls, and prohibition of toxic chemicals?

Who closed blatant loopholes for drunk drivers? Who held companies accountable for environmental cleanups in residential areas? Who fought for respite care for Alzheimer’s patient’s families?

Just a handful out of hundreds of examples over the last 30 years.

These laws came to be in part thanks to ordinary people with no legislative experience, no law degrees, and no initial funding, who believed in their cause and gathered support for it ‒ the hard way.

You’ve likely got a steep learning curve, so get going. Start with Web research on the general topic. Once you identify what blanks you need to fill in, start assembling your personal “advisory board.”

You can get 15 minutes on the calendars of even the busiest subject matter experts – scientists, law enforcement officials, business executives, physicians, community leaders − once their staff understands exactly what you need to know, and why.

First, sell any gatekeepers on your idea. State your motivation, or briefly recap your personal story. Confirm you’re an uncompensated volunteer. Appeal to his/her sense of community responsibility.

Once you do get an appointment (face-to-face, by phone, on Skype), be prepared to make every minute of those 15 count and commit to reporting back in writing on your issue’s progress, either on the new blog you just set up on wordpress.com, which hosts the free blog you’re reading right now, or as a column on the Web site of the nonprofit you’ve partnered with (keep reading).

Don’t neglect university professors who’ve published papers on your subject, and graduate students willing to get involved in your issue as field work, or for a thesis. Simply call up the graduate school and say, “Who’s your resident expert on my issue?”

Keep an online document archive of “Everything I Know About My Issue” that you can share out as needed. Politics can still be old school, so be prepared with appropriate paper copies to leave behind.

Arm yourself only with data you fully understand and can explain because the people you’ll be talking to, while maybe having an interest in an issue’s outcome, may not have much background.

Find like-minded community partners, allies, and fans
Whatever your issue, there are potentially lots of other people who care about it and have done leg work you can leverage rather than repeat.

I use the word ”community” loosely. Seek out local chapters of national organizations, online communities (especially of people who’ve personally experienced whatever your issue addresses), and support groups, on the Web or in your city.

Every person you talk to, ask him/her to recommend the one person or organization you should talk to next. Ask for a referral or introduction, and reciprocate liberally.

Many causes have annual conventions where you can network. Attending one might be the best $250 you ever spent. If you’re volunteering for a 501(c)3 nonprofit ‒ carefully select one that’s both respected in the community and financially transparent ‒ your travel and other expenses may be tax deductible. Check with your accountant.

There are grassroots lobbying laws ‒ or bills in process ‒ in more than 35 states that call for financial accountability, to ensure grassroots organizations are truly community-based and not simply fronts for professional lobbying organizations. If you’re working independently and not through a 501(c)3 nonprofit with a tax ID, this can mean some paperwork, but ultimately it’s to your benefit. You’re a volunteer activist with no financial interest in any legislation’s outcome and you can prove it. Especially if you raise money, you may need to register with your state. Please don’t mistakenly go to jail over a $1,000 backyard barbeque fundraiser.

Find out if there’s a state or national day or week of the year devoted to your issue. Look for celebrations, awareness events, media coverage, etc. Don’t underestimate the power of a homemade video testimonial, or a longer podcast. Let kindred lobbyists find you on YouTube.

Lobbying can be even more effective if you and other activists organize yourselves by state or region. If you approach your elected official(s) together, that’s power.

As you secure partners, endorsements, and perhaps donors, give these people and organizations verbal and online credit ‒ with their permission. If you’re being interviewed, mention your “generous friends at…” who’ve been so helpful.

Start with your own elected officials
The magic words are, “I’m a registered voter in your district (or state).” Doesn’t matter if you voted for the person or not; he/she now represents you and your viewpoints.

If your issue is local or regional, start with those lawmakers first; if your issue is national, Washington, DC is your town and your own Senators and Representatives are your first stops.

Find out what committees your elected officials sit on, then look horizontally. Who else sits on those committees? What other committees do those people sit on? Who have your guys allied with on other issues in the past? Look up their voting records and see who sponsored the bills they’ve voted for. Are these related to your issue in any way? Add this intel to your dossier.

Next, make appointments to see the appropriate people. Take advantage of any group lobbying opportunities you found earlier.

Find out which other legislators care (hint: maybe not in your political party)Take the issue of hunger, which I care a lot about. (Read my post The Outer Perimeter of Normal).

I’ve volunteered at emergency food distribution centers and food banks in several countries over lots of years. Never once have I heard a volunteer ask a recipient his/her political affiliation.

Because it’s a non-issue. If you’re hungry, for whatever reason, let us help you.

Here’s why hunger in America is a bipartisan issue today:

In traditionally liberal states with high unemployment and high home foreclosure rates, working families are suddenly finding themselves in untypical, desperate situations. In traditionally conservative states with high populations of seniors on fixed incomes, severe cutbacks in community services are resulting in risk of malnutrition. (I’ve seen seniors at food banks pushing other seniors in wheelchairs. That’s just wrong.)

Kids from families below the poverty line, or homeless, and kids in foster care, who’ve all relied on free or subsidized school lunches during the year as their one square meal of the day, start going hungry as soon as seasonal school vacations begin.

(While we’re here, one particularly worrying public health statistic: the huge increase in numbers of obese children and teens with diabetes and hypertension. More and more, younger and younger. This is partly genetic, partly habit, and partly this economy, in which nutrition goes by the wayside in favor of plain old calories, wherever they come from.)

Adding to this, people across the country whose budgets have been devastated by serious illness or injury, or by pre-existing conditions, who’ve been uninsurable up until health care reform and still may not be able to obtain or afford insurance coverage until 2014. Some of them may need temporary help, too.

Notice I say temporary. For the vast majority, it’s not a lifestyle choice. People who tell you these are all lazy opportunists (or, in some states in this country, illegal immigrants) who would rather be standing in line at a food bank every week for the next decade, rather than working to buy their own food, have never set foot in a food bank, nor met anyone who had to go to one, nor ever missed a meal except on purpose…nor ever had their homes destroyed by a natural, industrial, or criminal disaster and barely escaped with their lives.

When one of these situations happens to you, you can get back to me on whether you still think emergency food distribution is a “crutch.”

Two members of Congress in particular are known as longtime champions on issues of global hunger and food policy: Representative Jo Ann Emerson (R-Missouri) and Representative Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts). I met them both in Washington, DC several years ago and was impressed.

Get my point? Talking only to “your guys” limits your reach, which limits your effectiveness as a lobbyist.

Continuing tomorrow with Congressional Lobbying for Good Guys 102!

Photo Ops in Sarah-ville

The American public recently realized in a most terrible way just how using gun terminology in a political context can contribute to terrible tragedy, but the fact is Sarah Palin has been endangering the public with guns for a much longer time, in a much more practical way:

She sights her rifle, when somebody reminds her to do it, with the safety off.

This is just one of many things that drive bush Alaskans, even the loyal Republicans, crazy when they see her, a woman who claims to hunt to feed her family, posing for a photo op ‒ of which her recently-cancelled reality TV show is merely a series ‒ handling a rifle in ways that guarantee her family will go hungry forever.

Gun tip #1 from Sarah’s former constituents, besides never again depicting a voting district as a hunting target: get some use out of your NRA membership, why don’t-cha?

First, get a rifle your own size; don’t just borrow Todd’s. Then dry-fire it. A lot. Unloaded.

And why oh why do you have your thumb wrapped all the way around the wrist of the stock? That’s why you’re jerking the trigger all the time.

Geez.

To be absolutely clear, I absolutely believe in gun control. I just can’t think of a pressing reason why any civilian needs to own even 1 assault rifle, let alone a half dozen.

Plus how many ever handguns. Plus how many ever 30-round clips!

We pay law enforcement to protect us against dangerous elements. We’ve agreed as a society that guns are necessary in that case. Let’s leave guns to the professionals and hope they rarely have to use them.

I probably won’t ever get my wish for comprehensive gun control legislation, nor even detailed background checks, longer waiting periods for gun purchases, and serious jail time to people who sell or provide weapons to people who turn right around and commit crimes…

…and even those measures wouldn’t prevent a certain percentage of seriously disturbed people to purchase guns legally anyway, as we all too often discover after the fact.

I truly hope psychologists and social workers can help us with that.

Folks so well-versed in 2nd amendment rights really might find it helpful to our nation’s discourse about gun control to read up on those other pesky amendments, too, including my 1st amendment right to write about how guns do seriously injure and kill people, people, and not infrequently. President Obama spoke last week at a memorial service for innocent Arizona citizens who happened to be participating in our democracy in front of the wrong Tucson grocery store.

So, with your Constitutional right to own a gun, plus your chalkboard-scratch-worthy defense of anyone and everyone else to own guns, comes an awesome responsibility: once that bullet leaves that chamber, you can never, ever take it back.

As much as I abhor gun violence and hunting for sport and as much as I never again want to accidentally walk into a kitchen just as an Arctic hare is being unattached from its fur ‒ happy to cook it à la moutarde afterwards, sir, but the head absolutely must be gone first ‒ I have no problem with people hunting for food.

In Alaska, there are 3 ways to avoid eating $20 a pound chicken air-freighted from Costco year-round. One, have your own TV show. Two, live in Anchorage. Three, subsistence hunt and fish.

“Subsistence” means “for family consumption” (not for resale) and applies to Alaska residents only.

Now, as many delectable salmon recipes as I can conjure up at a moment’s notice, I need to disclose that if you’re calculating pounds of protein per percentage of effort, you might try for a moose instead.

Non-Alaskans tend to think hunters hunt moose solely for their antlers. Actually, the opposite is true. Moose with antlers are the only ones legal to hunt.

You can only hunt males and you can only hunt males with the antlers ‒ called the rack ‒ still attached. Antlers drop off each year and you cannot hunt a moose without antlers even if you’re stupid enough to get close enough to verify your moose is male…remembering that a moose is bigger than a Clydesdale and far more territorial.

So, say the land management guys, show us your rack. (Note that phrase has a completely different meaning, and consequences for saying it, outside of Alaska.)

Most annoying to hunters with other-than-culinary intentions, legally the rack must be flown out last, even if that means you leave one of your hunting partners behind overnight, guarding whatever made your plane overweight the first or second trip home.

Keep in mind a bull moose can net 800 pounds. That’s at least 8 hours worth of carrying.

Thus, it’s advisable to locate a moose within ½ mile, but no more than 1 mile (and definitely not well over 5, Sarah), from your landing site.

Legally you can’t hunt the same day as you fly in, either, so be prepared to spend at least 1 night in the wilderness. Prove your gear beforehand because moose season is fall and early winter and you’re likely in a snow camping situation.

While you’re out hunting, people keep track of you with a spot device. Their laptops or smart phones tell them you got up at sunrise (in winter, 10-10:30am), wandered around the NE part of the lake for several miles, and finally at sundown returned to your camp in time to send them a text:

Despite those promising look-see flights earlier in the week, no joy.

Another soup dinner over the propane stove, followed by another chapter of your tropical adventure novel, followed by a blissful night’s sleep ‒ blissful relative to how much effort you put into proving your gear earlier ‒ in your sub-zero sleeping bag.

Repeat daily until either you get too discouraged, the weather deteriorates, your supplies run out, or the moose hunting season ends.

Too bad moose don’t have GPS, which brings me to…

…shooting game from an airplane, Sarah? Don’t even joke about that. Ask some real subsistence hunters how fast Alaska’s finest would be in the air chasing you down if they caught doing that, even if they wished they could be doing the same thing…because, no kidding, it would be easier.

Which doesn’t necessarily lead us to fishing.

Sarah’s in-laws are from Dillingham, one of the biggest cities in western Alaska ‒ where, ironically, your bionic eyes might actually have a chance of seeing Russia ‒ so it probably follows that her husband and members of her extended family still fish for salmon in Bristol Bay every summer.

But Sarah personally? Fishing to feed her family, which she said she was doing anytime last summer she said something politically ridiculous?

Even on TV, not so much.

Clue: fishing is really messy. Does she have a grimy layer of fish guts on her chest waders late June straight through early August? Does she have fish scales all up in her manicure?

Those aren’t really questions.

Means she’s not gutting the salmon she just caught, maybe on a makeshift table right on the beach, the part of the beach that has a sign with your name and registration number on it, saying it’s yours and nobody else better be fishing there…

…not even bears, who might be attracted to your headlights, since you’re going out during the only dark hours of the day to check your set nets. Something like 2:00am.

To look that good on TV, let’s be honest: you’re getting more sleep than that.

Although there is a per-family subsistence fishing limit, it’s not easy to catch over 200 salmon in a season. Some families fish cooperatively (and maybe barter part of their proceeds for halibut).

Back on Wasilla’s Lake Lucille ‒ which, to give Seattle residents some context, is about as remote (and expensive) as Lake Sammamish ‒ with her freezer full of somebody’s salmon, Sarah says she’s looking at a 2012 presidential run with “prayerful consideration.”

Meanwhile, back in Houston, Barbara Bush is praying, too…that Sarah stays on the TLC Network and out of Iowa.

Back in King Salmon, we’re braving +2F/-17C: on a silent road in the silent tundra, plane rides away from light pollution, mesmerized by the lunar eclipse.

A deep orange moon, easing into deep red, surrounded by a filigree of brilliant stars. A trillion million stars. At the very least.

It was magical.

Playing space adventure video games indoors, the only magic my nephew cares about is made of chocolate and comes out of a 375F/190C-degree oven.

He’ll also tell you that when neither halibut quiche nor salmon chowder nor even moose stroganoff will do, it’s best to put your special order in writing.

“Dear Mom: Large pancakes x 3. Please deliver tomorrow morning. Thanks.”

Dancing With Widows, Act 2

Before the intermission yesterday, we wrapped up Dancing With Widows, Act 1. Welcome back to the Kenyan Public Health Theatre today for Act 2.

OK, let’s say you manage to avoid being sexually assaulted by a stranger – or, worse yet, by someone in your circle, someone you know well − and you also choose to avoid engaging in voluntary unprotected sex. What if you’re married and faithful but your husband isn’t?

Abstinence obviously isn’t a realistic option. Condom use is rare (and strongly resisted by men, not surprisingly). So, at best, even if you’re successful at everything we’ve talked about so far, you’ve addressed only 2/3 of the HIV infection picture.

In some villages I’ve been, the HIV infection rate among adults is 30-40%. Not to mention children born HIV+ who develop AIDS by pre-school (“baby school,” as it’s called there).

I remember one sweet little child, Charity. (Many Kenyan children have Biblical names.) Her mother told me she was 4 years old, but she looked much younger. While I was sitting on the ground, she climbed into my lap, arms around my neck.

I wondered whether it was a blessing that she and her mother, Constance, also with full-blown AIDS, might pass away together.

After dancing with the widows, we ate the delicious lunch they prepared. They got a huge laugh at our expense as we cringed during the chicken butchering, which erased any residual doubts about chicken originating from Safeway.

(It doesn’t take long to get so used to the local cuisine that even when visitors “treat” you to outrageously expensive meals in Nairobi, you look at the menu and everything sounds way too rich, so you say to the stunned waiter, “Excuse me, do you have sukuma wiki (a traditional Kenyan dish made with kale, tomatoes, and shallots)?” I once walked away from a restaurant salad bar at an exact replica of California Pizza Kitchen, not because I was afraid of eating the fresh produce there, but because the number of choices was overwhelming and most of them weren’t even salad.)

Then, after even more singing (for which, thankfully, I have some minor talent) and dancing (and realizing my dancing skills were so sadly deficient that years − even decades − of public health work in Africa were never going to fix that), we drove away to the next village. Charity ran alongside the car, slowly, for as long as she could, waving.

I know by now she’s long gone, as is her mother, as are many other women and children I met that day.

All over the countryside, I saw what I thought were ruins, common in Europe. Buildings in their prime 1,000 or more years ago that have been taken by time and weather, but remind us of the golden years. I came to understand that in Kenya these are not ruins; they’re modern family homes begun but never finished because the father died of AIDS first.

I’m convinced that if African women formally organized, they’d take over the world. They’re that tenacious, street smart, and able to work miracles with nothing. These attributes have been borne out of necessity. That’s why some of these “ruins” in Kenya are being finished. In the style of an Amish barn-raising, these widows pool their meager finances and sweat equity and are finishing these houses, one brick at a time.

These HIV+ widows know that, since treatment is too far away and too expensive to contemplate, they might never see the completion of their own homes. However, they labor willingly on the homes of the other widows, knowing that these women may very well take in their children when they pass away, because their deceased husbands’ extended families will be interested only in the healthy ones.

Violet’s home was first, because it was the closest to completion and she’d managed to keep a tiny savings hidden from her in-laws, who’d arrived on the day of her husband’s funeral to carry away all of her household goods: furniture, dishes, animals, and everything else of value. They weren’t successful in taking “his” children as well only because Violet physically resisted, which must have taken them so by surprise that they backed off.

I went to Violet’s home for tea and biscuits. In the sitting room was a lone chair, which she offered to me. The dirt floor was immaculately swept. There were lace curtains over the window openings.

Violet has only 3 children of her own because her husband had several wives before her and passed away before they had any more children. By some miracle, she’s HIV- thus far and is stepmother and “auntie” – in the loosely-defined African sense − to 22 children among her circle of friends and relatives.

22 orphans or soon-to-be orphans, in just one group of widows, in just one small district in Kenya.

Violet, for all her weighty responsibilities, thinks people who try to give their children away to foreigners “to give them a better life” are wrong and misguided. Kenyan children, in her view, should be raised at home, in their own villages, with their own people. (If there’s opportunity for higher education abroad, that’s a separate issue.)

With regard to HIV/AIDS and everything those acronyms imply, it just can’t be true that the only way things get fixed around here is for foreigners to do it for us.

I find her views both sadly atypical and downright encouraging.

My theatre critique: all the condoms in the world and all the vaccines in the world will ultimately be ineffective against HIV/AIDS in Kenya until and unless there’s a change in thinking, followed by a change in behavior. By everyone.

Violet is a seamstress and she’s sitting on that chair now, measuring me for a dress. (I still have it.) She’s making it from bright yellow fabric.

The same fabric as the dresses the dancing widows wear.

Dancing With Widows, Act 1

Why doesn’t somebody offer a dual Masters of Public Health/Theatre Arts degree?

Kenya has taken HIV/AIDS education to the stage and it has the potential to make more of a life-saving difference than all the condom distribution programs to date, and all the immunization programs in the future.

In a country in which not knowing how to sing and dance is a serious disability, musical community theatre might be a more effective health education platform than any public service announcement, any sermon from the pulpit, or any lecture by a Western doctor who’s passing through for a week and knows nothing about Kenya…or about Africa, for that matter.

The message from one Kenyan woman to another, in particular one HIV+ Kenyan widow with infected children to a younger HIV- woman who still has a chance, is crystal clear: unprotected sex causes HIV, which causes AIDS. Either you get it by having unprotected sex yourself, voluntarily or involuntarily, or you get it from your husband who has had unprotected sex. Either way, you die, and probably give it to your child, who also dies.

Harsh, but at this point Kenya desperately needs harsh.

Here’s how things play out today, says the play, and here’s how they need to play out tomorrow so that you and your children live. Dance, sing, and learn.

The most striking thing about these HIV/AIDS theatre works is how the women portray the arc of seduction. Nothing like dancing with widowers, I’m sure, although the story starts out exactly as predicted and you don’t need to understand a word of the local language to follow this plot.

First, “I think you’re beautiful and I’m going to follow you around everywhere.” OK, fine. Next it’s, “I’m begging you and touching you any chance I get. You’re reluctant, but you’ll come around.” We get the picture so far.

At this point, the female actors in this play come to the predictable fork in the road. Option #1: keep running away, keep saying no, and eventually he’ll give up and go bother somebody else. She hopes. Option #2: say yes, but insist on protection. Right. Even in the play, these lines are spoken with irony.

But the fact that they’re spoken AT ALL speaks volumes for the urgency of HIV/AIDS education in Kenya and the acknowledgement that exceedingly blunt, normally taboo messages are sometimes the last hope of turning around a caravan of a country speeding headlong towards a public health disaster.

The play continues at the point Option #1 goes bad. She’s in danger and if it were any of us, we’d be calling the police, calling CNN, calling somebody.

The humiliation. The threats. In the USA, we have legal terms for these behaviors: “sexual harassment” and “stalking.” Also, “criminal complaint” and “restraining order.”

(Amidst policy discussions about instances of unfair and unequal treatment of women in America − some absolutely legitimate, others just plain whining − never forget: we’re the luckiest women on the planet.)

Or maybe we’re in criminal territory immediately because this is an ambush. I’m going to take you anyway, so you might as well go willingly, or at least pretend like you are. I’ll do everything I can to get you alone, where nobody can hear your screams.

(This is a favorite tactic used against young girls during typically very long walks − several miles − to and from school. I know 4 girls to whom this happened: three 6th graders and a 5th grader. One girl is an exceptional athlete who outran their attackers to get help. Unfortunately, help arrived too late for the other girls. Heartbreaking, and heartbreakingly common…and a sure way to end a girl’s education much too early because the parents understandably take their daughter out of school rather than risk her safety again.)

Afterwards, if you have the money to go to a clinic, which is unlikely, you’ll never have the courage to tell anyone there what happened to you, although they’d figure it out anyway and not be surprised. As a bonus, I’ll make sure your extended family hears rumors of all the gory details, so they’ll shun you.

Even better if I get you pregnant, so you’ll have a reminder of me for the rest of your life. It’s my goal to make you unmarriageable − or divorceable − and to turn the wonderful experience of motherhood into something you’d do anything to forget.

While rape is on the books as a crime, in real life it’s not a punishable offense in Kenya. Any man accused of sexual assault can walk in the front door of the police station with a few hundred shillings – 80 shillings is $1 USD − and walk right out the back door. Everybody knows this, the rapists most of all.

Imagine, too, the retribution on the woman or young girl and her family after a “false arrest.”

There are people to whom this reality doesn’t apply. I know some of them. Without exception, they’re prosperous people who can afford a higher quality of life, a more protected lifestyle. There would be serious repercussions in a community if somebody assaulted a government minister’s daughter, or the wife of an important businessman providing jobs and foreign investment.

That perpetrator wouldn’t even make it to police station.

Jacob, our driver on theatre day, was a biology undergrad driving a makeshift taxi to pay his tuition and hoping to meet some future mentors in the field of public health, which he did. Although he knew we needed some freedom to do the work we were in Kenya to do, he remained militantly militant about our safety.

Even if you’re well-traveled in the developing world (we were) and can handle yourself (we could), you’re always a juicy target – and your mere presence paints targets on your local friends, too − if your supplies and equipment have significant street value. Even in a city of 200,000 people, it takes less than 5 minutes for everyone in town to know you’ve arrived.

If it makes you feel any better, it’s rarely cold-blooded murder. It’s usually an armed robbery gone awry, in the context of – once again – ineffectual, corrupt law enforcement.

But trust Jacob on this: you’re just as dead either way.

Can we stop here? No. Can we walk over there by ourselves? No. Can we meet our (local) colleagues across town for dinner? After dark? Are you crazy?

Absolutely not.

Sometimes, when he had to step out of the car for a moment, he’d say, “Do not get out of the car, keep the doors locked, and do not roll down the windows.” (Fine advice, except that many of the windows didn’t actually roll up.)

At first, some of my foreign colleagues who were new to the country thought this was unreasonable, bordering on extreme. Come on. The whole world isn’t out to get us. They shortly came to realize what the rest of us already knew: they should obey Jacob unquestioningly.

I also came to realize that he’d put his life on the line if it meant protecting mine. It was truly humbling.

After a short (1-day) intermission, we’ll be back with Act 2 of Dancing With Widows.

Friends of Bill Are Friends of Mine

(…and no, I’m not talking about Bill Gates).

Please tell us a story, they said, about people who surprise us in a GOOD way.

Anyone who’s been reading my blog lately knows about our friends who weren’t friends, but instead were Islamic terrorists masquerading as friends, breaking our hearts.

I received responses from readers all over the world, who’d never met those people, but were heartbroken anyway, mostly for me for needing to write posts like that at all, but for themselves, too: for somehow never seeing these things coming, but dreading them all the same, or for being constantly under suspicion, no matter what good you do in this world.

It’s just as heartbreaking to realize that none of us can see an end to the number of people willing to lay waste to their lives in adoration of a jihadist killer from the backwater of the Middle East, who wouldn’t even recognize them if he saw them on the street.

Over and over, I read the words “you just never know,” and not in a good way. See what happens to us, the ultimate dim-wits, when we trust people?

Yet we go on trusting, because our national motto is “Think Positive” and we aren’t allowed to go off to kindergarten until we learn that there’s some good in everyone, if we just look hard enough. As adults, every time we’re at the end of our rope with that naïve line of reasoning, we get surprised…in a good way, in a way we never expect.

I believe more than ever that those words “you just never know” are true. I also believe that there are an equal number of people out there who turn out to be better, kinder, wiser, more loyal, and truly more wonderful than we ever could’ve imagined and who we would’ve missed out on entirely had somebody not taken that chance on what you can never know about people.

It was a long-ago colleague, and his friend of friends, who showed me that beautiful truth of trust.

Among our employer’s business associates was the general manager of a professional sports team. Our employer bought a block of tickets every year, for performance rewards; people who preferred cash bonuses but loved sports never complained. After the games, this GM would then invite these employees to meet the players.

I was lucky enough to be in that city on game night and tagged along for the field trip.

My colleague was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and when I met him had just celebrated 1 year of sobriety. Although AA is by definition anonymous, he talked openly about his alcoholism and the damage it had done to his career and his family, which he was trying to repair, but knew deep down that, despite fulfilling Step 9 (making amends) of the 12-Step Program, some things lost were going to stay lost.

When I met the players – great guys, all – it turned out that my colleague already knew one of them very well…from AA. This player was also a recovering alcoholic and was equally open about his struggles with addiction and sobriety. These two introduced each other to me as follows: this athlete was my colleague’s AA sponsor.

This was a guy who made untold millions and was part of one of the most successful sports teams of the decade. During the season, he was interviewed constantly. His young fans mimicked everything he did (and didn’t). He went to events he didn’t like and pitched foods he didn’t like, either. (Too much sugar, fat, something. We big guys have to watch our weight, too.)

Yet somehow, hidden for years, was a terrible secret that his teammates, his agent, the franchise management, even his extended family, never guessed: he went home and got drunk, every night. I think nobody guessed because it seemingly never affected his sports performance. I don’t know how. But imagine what kind of player he would’ve been had he been sober, given that he was a phenomenal player as a full-on alcoholic.

Another reason nobody guessed was because he was subjected only to drug testing for illegal and performance-enhancing drugs, never for alcohol, and he was (obviously) functioning just fine at work. At home, though, where his immediate family knew perfectly well what was going on − but you can’t make people do things they don’t want to do, especially somebody his size − things slowly but surely fell apart.

This athlete got sober after wrecking his something like $200,000 car, while driving when he wasn’t drunk. He could’ve replaced it the next day, in cash.

But he didn’t.

Instead of to the car dealership, he went to AA. Not to a celebrity detox clinic; to his local chapter down the road. At AA, he was just a regular guy, another new friend of Bill W. (who co-founded AA in 1934 and remained sober for the rest of his life), who stood up in front of everybody and admitted that his family had been right all along, and they’d been right to leave him when he’d gotten dangerously out of control, as opposed to just annoyingly out of control, like he’d been for years and no amount of nagging, cajoling, threatening, and pleading ever made a dent in that thick head of his.

Fast-forward some years, when my colleague went to his first AA meeting. For the first couple of weeks, he said nothing and just cried. His alcoholism had caused him a brush with the law and on the judge’s orders he was required to attend one AA meeting a day − for a long number of days, I can’t remember now how many − or he’d be in real trouble, I mean it, and I don’t want to see you back in my courtroom ever again unless it’s about something good.

That’s how the larger-than-life pro athlete met the ever-shy middle manager not much more than half his weight. Nowhere on this planet, one would think, would these two people ever meet, let alone become fast friends.

So, this famous man became my colleague’s AA sponsor. He accompanied him to those first AA meetings, which he still attended for his own sake, and when the next season began, he took my colleague’s frantic calls in the middle of the night, sometimes every night, wherever he was.

He was extremely careful about anyone finding out about this. Not for his own sake, since he led a very public life; for the sake of his friend, who didn’t. He didn’t want any “credit” for what he was doing because somebody else had been his sponsor back in the day, when he was off the wagon more than he was on and didn’t think he could make it, even one day at a time.

We didn’t talk about the score (they won), the game highlights, or even the latest gossip about his team (and that could’ve easily occupied most of the evening). We talked about addiction, getting sober, and making it stick.

I’m not really a sports fan and told him, my apologies, but I’d never seen you play before today (and might not again afterwards, either). He wasn’t the least bit offended.

Underneath that infamous “game face” and the bravado for which he was paid more than handsomely, he was a modest, old-fashioned guy, really…from a modest upbringing in the modest suburbs, who to even his surprise had made it big. In that vein, he’d had an XXXXL letterman’s jacket custom-made for himself, very like the one he’d worn in high school. I kind of like thinking back on those days, he said, when I played with my friends for fun, before I got into booze and lost some of the best years of my life.

On the front of his jacket, in place of his own name, he’d had embroidered, “Friend of Bill W.”

If you’re an alcoholic who’s seeking help and would like to find an AA meeting near you, or for more information about alcoholism and recovery, please visit Alcoholics Anonymous. If you’re a family member or a friend of an alcoholic, please visit Al-Anon/Ala-Teen.

Michel, Rhymes With Pickle

Michel works in deli food industry sales in the USA Mid-Atlantic, so he’s a genuine pickle expert. But just when I thought I’d heard everything, here’s a guy with a perfectly good French name who prefers to be named after his PRODUCT?

I know this because I pronounced his name the French way, which I mistakenly thought was the only way, and he quickly corrected me, after which I didn’t know whether to feel silly, surprised, or…frustrated to realize that my expensive French education was void (and could even offend a culinary colleague) mere moments after I exited baggage claim at Dulles!

I paid for part of my expensive French education not covered by scholarship by teaching English to French elementary school students. They’d been learning English at an international school from well-intentioned but non-native speakers and thus, per their alarmed parents, required rapid “retraining.”

One great way to teach kids a foreign language is to use food as a context. Food being my favorite subject, just ask me for my top 1,000 ways to justify this curriculum. It worked so well for me at Le Cordon Bleu that I was eager to replicate it with 5-8 year olds, who quickly mimicked my American accent, driving some of their parents crazy. (One mother said she loved my teaching style, but could I please teach her child British English? Sorry. British English is a foreign language to me, too.)

My students and I went to farmers markets and bought produce. We chatted with cheese vendors (and talked ourselves into free tastings). We looked in bakery windows and checked out the selections, then discussed how “cette tarte au citron” (that lemon tart) really cost maybe 50 centimes to make, yet sells for 3 Euros. “What do they do with all the extra money?” Even more mystifying were the macaroons, which are just egg whites, sugar, and air. You put them on a tray (and, unless you’re working at Fauchon, you don’t even bother making them into the “macaron” shape), turn the ovens off, and leave them there overnight. Dust them with sliced almonds “perdues” (literally, “lost,” but in cooking, “leftover”) the next morning and sell them for a Euro apiece. Now, that’s free money.

We cooked and baked and experimented with different flavors. We had a good mixture of cultures, so we solicited recipe suggestions from the class, as well as recommended sources for said ingredients. Since we were ideally located in 12ème, Place de la République, a largely immigrant neighborhood, we had plentiful marketing choices that kids who lived 3 Metro stops away remarked they’d never seen before. That opened up pint-sized political discussions about how some people who lived in Paris came from somewhere else far away, but loved France so much they wanted to stay and can anybody find these countries on the globe that I just happened to have brought along to class?

Cooking is also great for language acquisition because it’s structured just like a story. OK, we start with this and then we do that and after that we add something else. Then do that again until the other thing happens. Cooking also comes with its own vocabulary that kids from food-centric cultures can relate to right away. France is the only country in which 1st graders can correctly identify an endive. The older kids know their way around cuts of meat, too. “La carré d’agneau” (rack of lamb) we eat “au moutarde et herbes” at grandma’s house for Christmas. Didn’t you know that?

We learned all kinds of ways to say this is delicious, incredible, divine, and awesome in every way, not to mention can I have more of that and can we please please please make that again next week? Even the parents who were underwhelmed by my American accent didn’t mind at all the edible “proceeds” their kids brought home every Tuesday night.

Of course, stories are good for learning languages, too. That’s how we American kids learned English, insisting our parents read to us, endlessly, the same 4 or 5 books until everyone in the household, whether they wanted to or not, knew every line forwards, backwards, by heart, and in our sleep.

Since I couldn’t fathom a kid growing up normally knowing nothing about Dr. Seuss, I started there. One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. Green Eggs and Ham (ideal for practicing the conditional and conditional perfect verb tenses). “Now, the Star-belly Sneetches had bellies with stars/The Plain-Bellied Sneetches had none upon thars,” about which even my youngest students immediately, without any prompting from me, got the moral of the story, which is, as they put it, “you have to be the same nice to everybody.” (If you speak French, this grammatical error makes perfect sense.) We have think tanks full of Ph.D.s who can’t get their heads around that dead-simple concept.

But one story they just couldn’t fathom: Mrs. McCave, who had 23 sons and named them all Dave. I tried to localize it: “Madame Martin, who had 23 sons and named them all Pierre.” They said, in unison, “That’s not possible.”

When I told them my full name, they had no trouble with Jeanette, since it’s very French. Herting they couldn’t figure out. “What kind of name is that?” When I told them it was German, they sighed deeply, as if that explained everything that was wrong with the world.

Two of my former students, a girl “à l’école maternelle” (in kindergarten) and a boy in 3rd grade at the time, are siblings. Their mother is from Champagne – she paid the student fees “in kind,” which was fine with us – and has a typical French surname. Their father has one of those “What kind of name is that?” surnames − suspiciously Middle Eastern, we’re not sure, but in any case it can’t be good. (It shouldn’t matter that they’re Moroccan Catholics who immigrated 3 generations ago, but it does.)

Before they became parents, this couple had many serious discussions about which surname to give their children. The mother is a professor at an academy of art and she’s seen how blatantly the applications of some very talented students are dismissed by the admissions board, despite stellar portfolios, simply because they had “foreign-sounding” names. It’s the unspoken reality (and not illegal): these kids “aren’t really French,” despite having been born in France to French parents, and sometimes grandparents, and thus some less gifted, less accomplished, but more “genuinely French” students with “better” street addresses – often such an obvious clue about your “pays d’origine” that students and job applicants try to lie about it – are given preference.

So, this couple thought it over throughout her first pregnancy. Their conclusion: “liberté, égalité, fraternité” is never going to mean what it’s supposed to mean in the French Republic until we stop this racism and discrimination nonsense. Not only are we going to give our kids their father’s surname, but also we’re going to tell everybody why. We’re also going to teach our kids early on how to respond to people who tell them their family name will hold them back. (Anybody who tries to hold these kids back will be run right over. I guarantee it.)

All important historical firsts begin small, with somebody or two, they say, and this one is going to begin with us.

Where the Clouds Are Far Behind Me

This is the story of Robbie and other children just like him, who are thrown away.

Frequently, there’s a media character who grew up in a dysfunctional-is-a-tragic-understatement family, maybe in and out of foster care, and overcame it by becoming a cop who saves other people from what he or she could’ve been, or these biographical details explain the plotline of someone on death row who never had a chance.

Robbie falls somewhere in between, lost, which describes his whole life.

Robbie was one of several children born to an overwhelmed mother with a pattern of mental illness in her family and an aggressive and unapologetic bisexual pedophile father. You can imagine what that household was like.

Over the course of time, the parents divorced, but the court inexplicably gave the father unsupervised visitation and you can imagine, too, how he and his pervert friends used those opportunities.

When the mother was no longer able to care for her children, they were “farmed out.” The visitations continued and, because they were court-ordered by a judge who favored fathers’ rights over children’s safety, the foster parents – even the police – were powerless to stop them, even though every time the father came to pick up the children for a visit, he taunted the foster parents about what he planned to do.

No matter how messed up the biological family is, nor how much damage they’ve done to a child, people involved in this line of work will tell you what a lengthy and arduous process it is to terminate parental rights unless the parent volunteers, even when the parent has a criminal history. Laws favor biological families. Messed up biological parents typically don’t want to surrender their rights, not because they care anything about the child, but the child is an asset that they can use to manipulate other people and situations. It gives them something, someone, to control: they’re my blood and they’re mine to do with as I choose.

This reality leaves troubled kids in this terrifying limbo, bouncing back and forth between not-perfect-but-we’ll-keep-‘em-anyway families where people go to work and school, pay their bills, and try their best to be good citizens and the crazy, dangerous, and/or neglectful families who I have absolutely the worst luck in the whole world being related to. Just when I thought I had a good thing going…

Some people automatically say kids like this are “damaged.” That’s an overly broad statement. But when you have a child who doesn’t understand boundaries, who has been sexualized very young, who has witnessed things that would give adults nightmares for a long time, and the only authority figures he’s ever known have either been molesting him or beating him half to death, that’s a lot to overcome.

Forget learning to read properly. Forget learning any real life skills. The people who should be teaching you those things are off on other trips and as a result your mental and physical energy needs to go into “managing” your life situation…and likely also defending your siblings as best you can.

Something that seems so basic to most of us: dinner. If you live in a house where the grownups are either too dysfunctional or too distracted to cook and there’s rarely any food in the house (or money to buy it, because it’s all going up somebody’s arm, for example), you eat as much as you can, whenever you can. You don’t know where the next meal is coming from. You don’t know where the next meal is coming from for your siblings, either. Some kids hoard food in the sock drawer, under the bed… Anywhere nobody might find it and take it away.

Then imagine that same child in a home where dinner is served at 6:30pm. Every night without fail. You can count on it. Not only that, but you’re expected to be there, on time. If you don’t show up, somebody’s going to come looking for you. You’re expected to say please and thank you, have nice table manners, talk about dinner table-appropriate subjects, and ask to be excused. Not only that, but – within reason – you can eat until you’re full and expect the whole process to repeat itself the next morning and the next night and the day after that, too.

Imagine you’re 7 years old and this is basically your first experience with the family meal concept. Your first thought: “This is a trick.”

It’s impossible to pick out the saddest part of a story like this, but here’s one: Robbie is a bona fide genius. Given what he was able to accomplish naturally, with sporadic schooling and uneducated parents, there’s no limit to what he could’ve become, growing up in a different family, a different situation, a different time, in which a strong and stable influence could’ve stayed in his life permanently and directed his genius away from a life of crime.

What prompted me to write this post was the news story about the American adoptive mother who sent her 7-year-old son back to Russia on a plane by himself, with a note pinned to his shirt saying she didn’t want him anymore. That broke my heart. Another little boy thrown away, by 2 different families on 2 different continents in 7 short years, and somebody’s blaming him for acting out? To have flown thousands of miles thinking somebody wanted you, only to fly thousands of miles back to where you started after you failed your 6-month “performance review,” is unfair and unspeakably cruel.

Today, Robbie is in prison for attempted murder. Thankfully, for all his God-given talent, in that one instance he was unsuccessful.

I love Robbie, and although Robbie isn’t his real name, there are people reading this who know him and love him, too. But he’s where he needs to be. If he gets out of prison anytime soon, I want to know about it because, frankly, he’s a dangerous guy.

I’d like to have hope for Robbie, but I’m not sure, given what I know about his life experience – and that doesn’t even count the horrors I’m sure he’s endured in prison, having been sentenced to an adult facility so young − that if at this point he really could re-integrate and become a productive member of society, with a job, maybe a family, and a regular life.

Because he’s only ever had brief glimpses of a regular life and that was a long time ago.

The title of this post is a line from (Somewhere) Over the Rainbow by Arlen & Harburg, sung by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz.