Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Halloween is for bullies too

My brother said the Wilnut kids had head lice and I believed him.

Scab-crusted and grubby, they patrolled my neighborhood like a pack of wolves.

If it wasn't nailed down, the Wilnuts stole it.

If you had pride in something, they destroyed it.

In summer they took bikes, scooters and roller skates off our front porches.  They broke into our garages and set our pinewood derby chugs on fire.

In winter they urinated on our snow forts and trashed our front yard snowmen.

It was Dickie Wilnuts who threw Cathy Fletcher's kitten under the wheels of Mr. Mannering's Edsel on a cold, October morning.

And Diane Wilnuts who cut down the apple trees in Mr. Key's back yard.

None of us ever knew how many Wilnuts lived in the beat-up mansion on Lexington Avenue.  Mrs. Wilnuts was always pregnant, and every Wilnut kid looked like the last - redheaded and covered in bruises.

My mom called them "ragamuffins and hoodlums."

Today she'd call them "bullies."

Halloween hell. 

On Halloween the Wilnuts made the neighborhood into a hot slice of hell.

They didn't trick-or-treat like the rest of us.  The Wilnuts didn't bother with costumes, knocking on doors.  They didn't need to.

When darkness fell on Halloween night, they hid under the shrubbery of dead lilacs, lurked behind elm trees.  The smaller Wilnuts flattened themselves deep in the street gutters. 

And when we passed by in our mother-made fairy suits and Superman capes, they jumped us like bandits on The Lone Ranger - grabbed our candy and disappeared into the night.

My father missed his Snickers.

Every Halloween, we'd come home empty handed and helpless.

"Those damn Wilnuts," my dad said. "I got half a mind to call their old man and give him what-for."

But he never did.  My father knew the real evil behind the doors of the angry house on Lexington Avenue.

Today, the Wilnut family would be under the watchful eye of county child protective services.

But I grew up in "the good old days," when a man's home was his castle and domestic abuse was as ordinary as candy corn.

Imagine a world where a slapped, beaten, battered wife is ignored; where men who belt their kids might be called "cowards," but never "criminals."

Imagine a society where police only arrested violent parents, battering spouses when the victim turned up dead.

Welcome to "the greatest generation" of World War II survivors where men were breadwinners - women were housewives.  And no one messed with the system.

We know better today.

Bullies are made - not born. 

This year, when the Halloween doorbell rings,  I open it to a new generation of ragamuffins and bullies.

But new studies exploring the roots of bullying teach us new things about our children.  The lesson is simple -  when we treat them with respect, when we educate them and nourish them well, they grow into productive citizens.

Bullies are not freaks of nature. They spawn from the behaviors taught in families.  They grow in in the fertile filth of neglect and abuse.

Our bullies are ourselves - only more so.

The ragamuffins at my door.

The Wilnut family sold their home and moved away when I was still in grade school.

I don't know how many of them survived their tortured childhood.

I think of them on Halloween when I open my door to one of the strange, scruffy little bullies who push their way to my treat bowl.  I remember the pain that trapped my playmates; the cruelty that framed their days and nights.

Many of the children who trick or treat in my neighborhood are strangers to me.

Few remember to say "thank you."

Even so - each child who comes to my door goes home with a full-sized Hershey bar.

I consider it pay-back for what I learned from the Wilnut kids.

First - it's not always easy to be a child.

And second - the bully is not to blame.

Especially on Halloween.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Top five reasons to enjoy being an old, invisible woman

I wasn't always invisible.

Once upon a time I was a  show-stopping "looker,"  a major babe.

Young, lovely, blonde and adorable,  people (especially men)  paid close attention to how I looked, what I said,  how I moved.

Then - I grew old and became invisible.

I wish I could tell you it happened in stages.  It didn't.  It happened on my fiftieth birthday

The day before I was young, interesting, important.  The next -  I was invisible.

Overnight - I became someone people overlooked, ignored.  I spoke, and no one responded.  I entered a room and no one (especially men) noticed.

I  turned fifty - and joined the community of invisible women.

Being old is not a curse.  It's a blessing. 

The transition took some adjusting.  For the past fifteen years I've been managing my new status.  And now, I don't mind aging at all.  In fact, I think I'm doing well at the entire endeavor.

I don't mind living in the shadows either.  I welcome them and learned there are advantages to being invisible.

And so - with great humility - I offer the top five reasons to enjoy being an old, invisible woman.

#5 - The freedom to stare. 

When you're old and invisible, no one cares if you stare. 

When I was young, people (especially men)  noticed what I noticed; paid attention to the things that caught my attention.   

No more.  Being old and invisible gives me the license to leer.

This is a good thing.

The more I leer, the more I learn.  

Invisible, I am free.  I sit in coffee shops and watch parents struggle with irritable toddlers, young lovers squabble. 

All of this becomes fodder for my playwriting, my essays.

#4 - The freedom to interfere.

When you're a young woman your opinions are discarded if your hair is dirty or your shoes out of date.

If you don't agree, consider what the media did to young Hillary when she wore a headband, or what it does today to Brittany when she gains weight.

Consider how we love the post-partum Princess of Wales because of her beauty.

Younger women are held to high standards of physical attraction.

Not so when women age.  Overnight we fade into the wallpaper.  We're invisible.

You don't see us coming when we drop-kick our compassion all over you.

Example:  When I was a a young mother, a trip to WalMart at 4:00 PM meant watching children throw ugly toddler tantrums and listening to their mothers scream.  Many times the  mothers behaved worse than their children.

Even so - I never interfered.  I was young - lovely - but I wasn't stupid.  My opinions would be rejected - and I knew it. 

Now, as an old, invisible woman, I interfere all the time.

"It's hard to be a little girl," I say to the child as I help her to her feet and pass her a peeled banana.

"I think both you and your little kiddo  could use a nutritious snack and a nice, long nap," I offer the mother.

Interrupting bad behavior is an old woman's secret approach to making the world a better place for younger women. 

And so far my meddling has never, ever been rejected.

Every time I interfere - every single time - someone thanks me.

#3 -  The freedom to fight back. 

When we are young, the well-being of our families is directly dependent upon our ability to get-along with others (mostly men).

Women are trained from early childhood to yield to forces that control our lives.

And so - at work -  we are seldom brave; we seldom break rank or challenge the  people  (mostly men) who treat us poorly.

At home we cooperate with our husbands to keep our families harmonious.  We ask little - expect less.  We build up everyone around us - and hope that our families become stronger because of our hard work.

And so it happens that most of our young lives are devoted to pleasing people (mostly men). 

Then - we grown old. 

In a heartbeat, dependency is over.  We inherited our money, draw down our pensions, secure our Social Security. 

And - we are no longer for sale.

Invisible, old women with strong opinions and independent means have little to lose. 

Invite us to your rallies.  Include us in your demonstrations.

We can be dangerous. 

#2 The freedom to love. 

No one forgives, understands, opens her heart like an old woman.  

We know your struggle.  If we haven't lived through it, we know others who have.

Being old bestows a perception of reality that youth and beauty envy.  Our only care is for peace and contentment.  

If you have an old woman in your life, count on her to settle any dispute that threatens to divide your family.

Lean on her.

Her first gift is the gift of her undivided attention.

Her best gift is love.

#1 The freedom to pass it on. 

Your world was first made habitable by the hard work of women who are old and invisible.

Without the leadership of the old women around you,  your sweet life would be a little more bitter.

You don't believe me? 

Consider this - if you are a woman and have done any of the following - you did so because an old woman first made it possible. 
  1. Opened a checking account, secured a credit card, mortgage, auto loan or lease without the co-signature of a man. 
  2. Demanded you be paid the same wage as men doing your job. 
  3. Asked and received a prescription for  birth control - without your husband's approval or father's consent. 
  4. Played hockey, football, basketball or soccer in high school,  college or as a profession.
So - put that in your pipe and smoke it. 

And then, take a moment to  thank an old woman for her sacrifice.

Believe me - the women who opened these doors for you did so by limiting their own professional, personal futures.

We spoke out nonetheless - because we wanted a better world for you and your children.

So - tell an old woman you appreciate her sacrifice, her hard work, her good nature.   Tell her she inspires you to be  better person.  Promise her you'll work to advance your generation. 

But don't make it into a big deal.

She's old.  She doesn't need the attention.

She loves being invisible.  

Monday, October 13, 2014

The honey wind - remembrance of Grand Marais, Minnesota

"Somehow my world and I have grown just a little bit older."
"The honey wind blows and the days grow colder. Somehow my world and I have grown just a little bit older. I sit alone and the fire glows. The fire glows- and the honey wind blows. I sit alone - and the good Lord knows - I miss you so when the honey wind blows."
-Lyrics by Glenn Yarbrough

The full moon surprised me.  It always does when I visit Lake Superior's North Shore in autumn. 

I never think of the moon when I'm in the city.  But here,  on the rocks in Grand Marais, it cannot be ignored.

I spread a blanket and sit.  

I brought my husband to these shores.
When I was young and married, my husband and I spent every summer here.  

We made mistakes in those days   - I'm certain. But on these rocks with October wind in my face, I can't remember a single one.

One of the joys of aging is this; bitterness, emptiness and anger fade with the advance of every winter. 

Growing old, not bitter

He grew tired of me, it's true.  Living in a family did not suit him.

I know for certain, however, that he never grew tired of the lessons he learned from the lake.

He was born in Texas, a land far different from this place.  He followed me here - and it was in this north country, where black soil converges with glacial rocks and forest that he learned to love the wilderness.

Along the Gunflint, where birches meet evergreen and death blends with seamless eternity, he learned to love the seasons as I love them.

I hope he learned to forgive.

I know I did. 

Those days, however,  are gone.

Summer is gone as well. 

The worn blanket I sit  upon cannot protect me from the chill that grows around me.  I feel foolish and a little silly - and I hope no one from town sees me.

I should have brought my heavy Hudson Bay wool.  I should have worn my down jacket.  I should have buttoned my flannel shirt and slipped into my long underwear before making this trek. 

The full moon is stark and near.  The night air presses through my coat and I chuckle as I realize that, once again, I underestimated the cold of the harbor, the force of the powerful wind that blows against this part of the world.

The honey wind blows

When folk singers were popular, we called it the "honey wind." This time of year it surprises the lake with the creation of deep, sea-worthy white caps.

I hear the water crash below me and my memory awakens. 

Once upon a time, before easy roads invited the new, beautiful, young tourists to this little town, Grand Marais was our far-away adventure; a secret the two of us shared with only those we trusted and loved. 

And this, I think, will be my last visit.

So it shall always be

Behind me, in the dark,  my camp fire dies.

I pick up the thin, useless blanket and return to my tent.  

The moon burns cold into the water.  I extinguish the Coleman and accept what the moon provides.

It is foolish to ask for more.

Somewhere in the night, I hear the rustle of a large, careless animal - but a single woman cannot live in fear and I am not afraid of the dark. 

I pull the sleeping bag tight around my neck and give thanks for moonlight, for rising stars, for the coming winter - and all the things I will accomplish before the new year.

So it is, so it has been and so it will always be.

Autumn follows summer follows spring.

And I sleep alone.  

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Why I no longer trust the St. Paul Police

My dogs awoke me,  barking,  at 3:00 AM -  and I knew something was wrong.

I grabbed my under-the-bed baseball bat and stormed into my backyard.

The car next door had been burglarized; a neighbor's garage broken into.

And the woman who lives in the house behind mine was robbed in the middle of the night.

And so as the flood lights slapped across my empty back yard and my dogs growled, I determined to apprehend the culprit.

I searched the yard for the wretched, evil doer who would dare take advantage of the decent folks who live in Como Park.

Behind me, in my living room, someone walked out the front door with my MacBook and other electronics. Because I didn't check inside the house - I didn't discover the crime until the next morning.

"This ain't CSI, lady." 

I phoned the police at 7:30 A.M.

It took him almost an hour to get to my home - and when he finally knocked -  I opened my door to an overweigh, winded officer.

By then I was frantic. Where had he been?

"Don't  ever call the St. Paul cops between shifts," he said.  "We don't have our act together."

He yawned and rubbed his eyes as he walked through my ransacked living room.

"If I were you," he said, "I'd put bars on these windows."

Then he suggested I move out of the city.

"I grew up in this neighborhood," he said,. "I'm in the suburbs now. I wouldn't come back to the city on a bet. Too much crime."

I led him to the finger smudges on my coffee table,  window and bookcase.

Finger prints, I asked?

"This ain't CSI, lady," he snorted.

And thus began the hard truth I learned about St. Paul's finest.

"Get in line."

The folks at Hartford Insurance calculated my loss to be over $10 thousand. They asked for my assurance I would work to recover as much of my loss as possible.

I phoned the investigator's office, seeking the name of the person assigned.  For three days I reached voice mail - and no one returned my call.

Escalating, I phoned the Chief of Police.

My call was returned by a sergeant. Yes -  my case had been assigned.

No - the investigator would not be in touch.

The investigator was on vacation.

Yes - they knew she was out of town when they made the assignment.

And no - they would not ask another investigator to get involved.

My measly little home invasion was "not a priority" to the St. Paul Police.
"We got 60 people ahead of you,"  he said. "Each of our investigators works 30 to 50 open cases.  So - get in line, lady.  You're not that special - and you're sure not a priority."
Our busy, busy, busy civil servants.
"Oh, and get used to this idea," he said. "You'll never see your stuff again."
I called the East District Office where another sergeant confirmed this bad news. Property crimes, he said,  are the most frequent  in St. Paul -  but not a priority to our boys in blue.

Our cops are burdened, he said,  by the "many, many instances of violent crime" assailing our vulnerable citizens.

I checked the statistics - available to all of us online.

During the month of August, St. Paul citizens suffered:

  •  984 incidences of robbery, burglary and theft.  
  • 85 assaults.

"You're the kind of woman 

I can never make happy." 

If the majority of crimes in St. Paul are crimes against property, why not focus on property crime?

I asked the sergeant. 
"I know women like you," he answered. "You're the kind of woman I can never make happy." 
But I don't want to be "happy."

I only want my property returned.

And if that can't happen, I want to know that my police department is doing everything it can to make certain something like this never happens to anyone in my neighborhood, ever again.

The return visit

But criminals are not as stupid as our gallant officers believe. 

My thief knows his crimes will not be persecuted - his misdeeds will be overlooked. 

Two weeks later, my crook returned. 

Once again - my dogs awoke with vicious alarm in the middle of the night - and  I heard fumbling at bedroom window. 

Once again -  I stormed into the yard - bat in hand.  

This time I watched the lean, nimble form of a short, hooded man scamper through my garden gate and off my property. 

As he disappeared into the night I heard my dogs pant in relief.  

I checked my locked window - closed my doors - and returned to bed. 

I did not call the St. Paul Police. 

They were between shifts.