Dancing with Emily Post

October 6, 2011 § 2 Comments

The State of American Manners

One evening last week we stopped in at Target to pick up laundry detergent and a birthday card. We were hardly in the door before a gaggle of teenage girls eclipsed us, shrieking with laughter.  I’d stopped to browse in a bin of inexpensive toys and they snatched and grabbed at things right in front of me, as if I were not even there.  They jammed “roast turkey” hats onto their heads and screamed with the hilarity of it all.

“It’s animal day tomorrow, we have to get these!” one shrieked. A blonde girl knocked into me reaching for something in a bin. She seemed not to notice.

“That would be freaking awesome,” another roared, doubling over with laughter.  They gobbled and cackled in their roast turkey hats, screaming with delight at how ridiculous they were, overcome with how amazing they would be at school tomorrow. The noise rolled over me in waves.

Then, like a whirlwind, they moved off towards the clearance racks in the women’s department, tossing and shrieking and laughing all the way.

I like kids. I even like teenaged kids. It hasn’t been so long that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be in the midst of laughing, silly, hysterical group of girls. No doubt I’ve irritated plenty of adults in my day.  (Though the presence of someone my mother’s age would have inhibited me a bit.) But these kids, these nice upper middle-class, well-fed, privileged girls were behaving like, well, savages.

No sooner had their whoops and wails faded from earshot,  they were replaced by something even worse.  The detergent aisle of this store is directly across from Girls Clothing. There, in a shopping cart, a little girl about five was screaming. Sobbing.  Her mother, trying to pretend that nothing was amiss, went on browsing like she was totally unaware of her daughter’s meltdown, examining the details on a sweater collar or holding up a pair of leggings for size.

It was everything I could do not to march over there and ask her what the hell she thought she was doing, and what on earth gave her the idea that it was okay to “teach her daughter a lesson” at the expense of everyone in the store.

I held on to the shelf of Tide, knuckles white.  The little girl continued to wail, hiccupping, sobbing some more.  That spot, just above my left eye, began to throb. Finally, the girl’s father came and wheeled the cart away, the child silent in their departure. I suppose she’ll grow up to think it’s okay to knock into other shoppers and shriek in public and throw merchandise around in stores.

My husband and I talked about the two sets of rude people as we drove home.  It seems we’re spending more time talking about rude people, lack of decorum, the inconsiderate among us. This is what happens all day long in public America—we’re running amok.

Drivers no longer merge onto highways, they barge. I’d point out that “yield” seems to mean nothing to people, but really stop signs don’t carry much importance either. Communities have had to install cameras at busy intersections because so many people blast through long after the light’s turned red.  (Apparently Dayton has $450,000 owed them in unpaid red-light tickets.) People speed up so that you can’t enter the roadway in front of them.

They either park so sloppily over the painted lines that they take up two spaces or they intentionally take up two spaces so their precious vehicle doesn’t get dinged by some ten year old flinging open the door of the mini-van. They tailgate.  On the interstate, they pull in front of you from the adjacent lane with inches to spare, just enough space provided you don’t speed up one more mile an hour. (Which of course they would do if you were trying to get in front of them.) They blow their horn if you don’t jackrabbit into the intersection the minute the light turns green, and God forbid you actually STOP before making a right on red. They pass on double yellow lines. They pass on city streets.  Taking to the public thoroughfare is more and more like something out of Death Race 2000.

The police promise and threaten to be more active in going after aggressive drivers. If they are, it’s not having much effect. A City of Kettering police officer once stopped my husband for driving too slowly. We were meandering home in our Saab on a Friday evening, doing about 25 mph on a quiet city street. No doubt he thought “sporty car going slow equals drinking.”  He was wrong. He said to my husband “Well, at least try to go the speed limit.”  Excuse me?

When another driver actually allows me to merge into the lane in front of them, I am always surprised, and respond with a wave,  “Hey, thanks!”

In Wim Wenders’ film,  Wings of Desire, Peter Handke wrote that our cars are our kingdoms and in them we are kings of our own tiny empires.  Tonight, a man in a minivan (arguably the worst category of drivers) pulled out from a gas station, crossing the road directly in front of us. He pushed past another car waiting for the traffic to clear and turned left across four lanes of traffic, in a cacophony of screeching brakes and blaring horns. He was on his cell phone and seemed not to notice. We may have constructed a cocoon, a paradise of “I,” but we are not islands unto ourselves. Everything we do in public affects someone else.

Not that the sanctuary of home life exists anymore.  My husband is a fan of political commentary and talking heads inundate our living room with a constant stream of lies, scandal and notoriety. I suggested once that we go on a diet from this kind of television, if perhaps that would help us feel less at odds with our fellow Americans, less despairing of their behavior.  There’s just no way that you can listen to a steady infusion of this stuff and not feel pissed-off. Just a week, I suggested, but we haven’t tried it yet.

Certainly there’s no haven from rudeness in cyberspace. It would be hard to imagine a playground where people are less courteous. The comments made on newspaper sites, forums for various hobbies and the ubiquitous Facebook go right past rude and often into the muck of verbal abuse.  And I’m guilty of the same. Without the nuance of gesture or inflection, we are quick to take offence.  Freed from inhibition by distance and a shell of anonymity, we post things that we would never in a million years say to someone’s face.

Sometimes this even happens between real life friends. A comment is made, a retort follows. Maybe the response was meant wryly or with a kind of nudge—but the recipient only sees the naked type on the screen, devoid of charm or affection, and the offense is laid bare.  Friendships, some long-standing, end over these exchanges.

Staying connected via the cell phone has become a kind of hallmark of rudeness. Not just those texting or talking while they pull into oncoming traffic, what about the people who won’t get off the phone in the drive-thru of the fast food place, or the check-out line at the grocery store?  Of course the reverse is true also. How aggravating is it to deal with a cashier who won’t look at you or speak to you or is too busy chatting with a colleague or flirting with the bagger to exert the minimum amount of grace required for his or her job?

One afternoon at Kroger, even though I was in a hurry to be somewhere else, I stomped off to find the manager to complain about just such a cashier.

“Oh, that surprises me about her. She worked at Elder-Beerman’s for forty years, ” he said, not bothering with an actual apology.  I guess after 40 years in a pretentious department store, there’s no need to acknowledge the lowly grocery store customer.

Of course, there are still the garden variety bad manners: a cousin and his wife who have yet to thank us (by note, by email, in person or on Facebook) for the wedding gift we gave them. (A really nice stockpot, but maybe they were offended that we didn’t use their registry?) Of course, they haven’t thanked us for baby gifts either.  Or the kennel club meeting to which I brought a lemon-raspberry cheesecake and one person, one person said thank you.  It’s not that we do these things to be thanked, we make these gestures out of affection and goodwill, but you know it would have been nice to have the effort acknowledged.

I don’t want to give the impression that I think I’ve been perfect in this regard. I haven’t. Sometimes I have failed terribly at etiquette.  I know the thank you notes for our wedding gifts went out far too late.  I know I have been sharp when I didn’t need to be. Once I beeped my horn at a pick up truck about to back into our car in a parking lot and the driver jumped out, rushed back and spewed invective all over me. Not knowing then what I know now, I gave back as good as I got. He went back to his truck briefly and returned with a large handgun. Thankfully, passersby intervened before our lack of manners took a tragic turn.

Though I’ve never drawn a gun on anyone, I too have indulged in a few spectacularly public temper fits.  Years ago, a man took the last table at an outdoor café, racing in front of us (laden with a tray of food) and sitting down to read his newspaper. We argued about his right to the table when he had not yet purchased food. When he turned his back to me and sat down, I slapped him hard across back of his balding head.

On an evening more than a decade ago, a woman in grocery store line behind me started piling up my groceries on the belt, so she could take her groceries out of the cart sooner. She said something about not wanting her bread to get crushed.  It didn’t amount to more than some angry words and still today, there’s a part of me that wishes I’d come even more unglued—that I’d thrown her bread on the floor and stood on it.  If you’re going to have Bad Manners make it a real production number rather than just this day to day loss of civility that’s gnawing away at reasonable discourse.

But I didn’t. And these days I think I could handle it a bit more deftly. (A lesson learned from the gun-wielding nutcase in the parking lot.) That’s a large part of what makes manners—stifling one’s emotional impulses for the greater good.

The other part is making the effort to acknowledge the others whose lives intertwine with ours, no matter how slight the connection.  A wave to an acquaintance still serves to show that we are open-handed and unarmed. A smile begets a nod, even among strangers. Holding the door for other people is still generally appreciated, though there will occasionally be louts that sail through without a word as if you are a uniformed doorman.

Among my books are half a dozen navy blue volumes, each of them a different edition of the Emily Post Book of Etiquette, ranging from the 1920s through the 1950s. I have found them in thrift shops and book sales, each one cast off as something no longer necessary. It’s amusing to read about silverware arrangements or what sort of hat is appropriate to wear to tea, or the proper wording to decline an invitation to lunch.

People think these kinds of manners are archaic, and some of them are. Gentleman are no longer required to walk on the outside of the street to protect their feminine companions from harm. (Though it might not be a bad idea.) You will not be the scandalous talk of the town if you fail to use the correct fish service.

The essential elements of manners are still consideration and kindness, and they are still essential. Yet we are uncertain about them at time, reflected in the  popularity of Judith Martin’s charming “Miss Manners” character  (who has surely penned as many books as Miss Post by now) and the syndicated newspaper columns dealing with ethics. It’s as if we don’t remember quite how to behave—or we know how to behave but we want someone to share our outrage at the boors with whom we have to contend.

Living among others is a kind of dance. Sometimes it seems a series of missteps, other times we find ourselves gliding along gracefully with a minimum of effort.  You lead.

Show a little consideration. Say please when you ask your teenager to take out the trash. Turn off your cell phone and stow it while driving. Let another driver go in front of you. Count to ten. Slow down. Don’t tailgate. Stop and smell the roses. Turn off the television. Write the thank you note, or at the very least, the thank you email.  Don’t say something online that you wouldn’t say in person. Take your exhausted child home. Remember that you may be having an uproarious great time but the person next to you may be infirm or in pain.  Don’t interrupt your wife on the telephone to ask her something trifling. Give a little extra. Stop listening to angry people, especially those that are overpaid.  Smile at strangers. As our mothers instructed us when we were little more than babies, play nice.

I’m going to work at it too.

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Retrieving the Pink

October 19, 2010 § 5 Comments

The Marketing of Breast Cancer in America

One bright blue Saturday morning this October, on my way home from an assignment, I made a left turn into a throng of pink, and came to a stop. On the previous blocks I had seen a few groups of people, two or three or five, dressed in pink caps, or pink t-shirts. I hadn’t thought much of it.  It’s October after all, Breast Cancer Awareness month, there’s a lot of pink about.  But here on the long stretch of Monument Avenue, the pink undulates like a vast sea before me. Muttering to myself about how poorly the Dayton media alerts us to these things, I settle in to wait.

Pink sneakers, pink wigs, pink bandanas, pink balloons. A number of women carry pink long-stemmed roses. One scowling ginger-haired boy is bedecked with a pink plastic lei. There are dogs wearing pink dresses, and men in pink sweatshirts proclaiming “Real Men Wear Pink.” (I also saw the somewhat crass “Don’t let cancer steal second base.”) Pink jackets, pink sweaters, pink feather boas.

“Pink, it’s my new obsession,” I thought, hearing the Aerosmith song in my head.  “Pink, it’s not even a question.”  But this army of pink from the blush of a petal to the violence of fuschia, this has nothing to do with that. This, this is all about one of the most successful sales campaigns of all time: the marketing of breast cancer.

Rare is the person who hasn’t contributed in at least some small way to raising money for breast cancer awareness. We’ve bought yogurt with pink lids. We’ve bought the t-shirt. We’ve bought a pink bucket of fried chicken. A few weeks ago I made my profile photo pink on a social networking site, because being one of the half a million people that did so would increase a Canadian telecommunications company’s donation to the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure to $200,000.

Breast cancer is such an easy cause to support. We think of breast cancer and we think of mothers, wives, grandmothers, sisters, daughters who might be (or are, or were) afflicted with this scourge. In truth men get breast cancer too. In 2005, 1700 men in America were diagnosed and given that the breast cancer survival rates are about equal among the sexes, more than 300 men died. Breast cancer is free of those pesky lifestyle questions that tend to dog causes like AIDS and lung cancer. People ask you and you give. The amount we’ve given collectively and as taxpayers is staggering.

One question nags at me as I thread my way through the pink. What about the other cancers?  My father died of laryngeal cancer. Is there a color for that? (The answer is: not really.) What about lung cancer victims? What about people suffering from colon cancer? Or leukemia? Or cancer of the pancreas? Where is their march, where are the yogurts and sneakers and blenders I can buy to support fundraising for them? When I got home I did some reading.

Cancer of all types accounts for about half a million deaths a year in the United States. That’s considerably less than the number of people who die from heart disease (616,067 the last time the Center for Disease Control counted.) The American Heart Association has seized their own month (February) and color (red) but it is has failed to saturate popular culture in quite the same way. When we see a red t-shirt or hat, we might be more apt to think “Red Sox” or “Ohio State;” but when we see pink garb, we see breast cancer.

Every year 205,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer and 40,000 will die.  That’s a mortality rate of about 19 percent.  And if someone you love, or you yourself is one of those people, well that’s at least one too many. Consider for a moment some of these other deaths: colon cancer will claim 48,000 (with a mortality rate of 45 percent). 57,000 women will die from genital system cancers, of which ovarian cancer is the most pernicious, claiming 76 percent of those diagnosed. 77 percent of the 17,000 people diagnosed with a brain tumor will leave us this year. The 30,000 people that die from pancreatic cancer represent 98 percent of those diagnosed. Even with a poster boy like Patrick Swayze, the most deadly cancer there is cannot get the traction that the breast cancer industry enjoys.

The cancer that claims the most Americans every year is, hands down, lung cancer.  Although there are fewer lung cancer diagnoses than breast cancer diagnoses, there are four times the number of dead; 160,000 people annually. A hundred and sixty thousand people! That’s the population of my fair city. Every year.

Among the interminable list of those we’ve lost to lung cancer are Walt Disney, Nat King Cole, Steve McQueen, Johnny Carson, Yul Brynner, Humphrey Bogart, Edward R. Murrow, Sammy Davis Jr., Duke Ellington, George Harrison, Louie Armstrong, Ed Sullivan, Lucille Ball, Count Basie , Spencer Tracy, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Harry Reasoner, Peter Jennings. And my old friend Bobby Block’s marvelous wife, Donna. And my dear friend Noelle’s beloved father, Dan Sullivan, who succumbed to lung cancer secondary to Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Noelle’s father (like Dana Reeve, 44 and Andy Kauffman, 35) was one of the 17,000 people who die from lung cancer every year in this country who never, ever smoked.  Where is their parade? Where can I buy a colored ribbon magnet for my car?

Other prominent causes of death in the U.S. include stroke (135,000) respiratory illnesses (like emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, 128,000) Alzheimer’s disease (75,000) diabetes (71,000) and the flu (53,000) none of which enjoys the kind of media attention and generous funding that breast cancer does.

The National Cancer Institute is one of the eleven agencies of the National Institutes for Health, a division of the US Department of Health and Human Services.  The N.I.H. allocates approximately 2.5 billion dollars a year towards research for the treatment of heart disease. The N.C.I. funds six billion dollars a year towards cancer research. So, even though twenty percent more Americans die of heart disease, it gets less than half the funding cancer does.

In a 2008 piece for the New York Times, Tamara Parker Pope delineated the amounts that NCI spent “per diagnosis” and “per death” in the most prevalent cancers. Prostate cancer got one of the smallest amounts per diagnosis, a mere $1318. But because the prognosis of prostate cancer is generally not fatal, the amount is a whopping $11,298 per death.  Colon cancer research gets $2361 per diagnosis, or $4,566 per death. Pancreatic cancer, reflecting its sad death-sentence nature, gets $2297 per diagnosis, which works out to $2200 per death. Lung cancer (remember 160,000 deaths a year) gets the worst funding of all– $1,518 per diagnosis, $1,630 per death.

And breast cancer? Breast cancer’s allocation is $2596 per diagnosis, or $13,452 per death.  The total amount of funding NCI provides to finding effective treatment of lung cancer is $261 million dollars a year. The total amount they provide for finding effective treatment of breast cancer is $538 million dollars.

This is not the money from the pink sneakers or the walk-a-thons or “DVDs for the Cure.” This is money collected from taxpayers to be allocated by the federal government. Given that this is government funding, it might be reasonable to suppose that it be allocated in accordance with the number of people afflicted by type of cancer. It’s not. Perhaps it is allocated by the deadliness of the particular cancer?  Nope. It’s allocated on the basis of the strongest lobbying efforts. There’s something morally wrong with that.

Then there’s the money from all the other sources, the “pink” money. The money from the Canadian telephone company, from the sales of pink Snuggies, pink Barbies, pink golf clubs, pink m & ms, tickets on Delta’s pink Boeing 747.

The revenue stream for the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure in 2009 was $298,685,007.  (Or about $7,467 per death.) Since 1982 they have funneled tens of billions (that’s with a “b”) into breast cancer research and awareness. Do they have any answers yet? The sad truth is no. Though the Centers for Disease Control reports a one percent downturn in both cancer diagnosis and deaths across the board, there has not been any significant improvement made in the area of breast health.

Though many people know the name “Susan G. Komen,” (and have supported the organization, either intentionally or unwittingly), most couldn’t tell you who she is or was.

Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1977 at the age of 33, Susan Komen died three years later. Her younger sister, Nancy Goodman Brinker launched the foundation in her sister’s memory in 1982. On the 25th anniversary of the organization, the name was changed to “Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure,” and adopted the explicit (and utterly unattainable) mission to “end breast cancer forever.”  Such a pie-in-the-sky goal would seem to indicate a basic lack of understanding of the mechanism of any cancer.  They might as well express a desire to farm unicorns.

But their supposedly naïve expressed goal to “end breast cancer forever” is actually something far more cynical. They know that there will be no “ending breast cancer forever.” By hoisting such a lofty and impossible goal they can go on raising money forever, and they want to because as it turns out the commercialization of breast cancer research is very big business.

It used to be that October shopping meant autumnal colors, or orange and black for Halloween. Not any more. Take a look down the cosmetics aisle of any drugstore and what do you see? Pink. There are pink tennis balls (promising 15 cents per can donation to “a breast cancer research organization.”). There are Lean Cuisine boxes sporting a printed pink ribbon. (There’s actually no donation associated with these at all. But there’s a notice on the box directing you to the Lean Cuisine website, where you can buy a pink Lean Cuisine lunch tote, and five dollars of that price goes to Susan G. Komen.) There are pink treadmills, pink appliances, NFL players in pink cleats, pink stationery, even fishing guides on the Madison river in a pink driftboat. Pink pink pink pink.

“Don’t get me started about the “pink” money,” my friend Kelinda wrote. “I left the cancer center to work in mental health . . . night and day difference in funding.”

A woman commenting on a story in the Boston Globe about the pink phenomenon wrote: “The pink ribbon is one thing, but pink everything is way, way too much. My mother survived with breast cancer for 12 years and if I thought for one minute that a pink blender would have helped her cause I would have gone out in a heartbeat and bought one. But it doesn’t help the patient, only the corporation.”

There’s the rub. Corporations are making a lot of money off of breast cancer, and as a woman in a Toronto Globe and Mail said “It’s the commercialization of my disease.” Breast cancer research groups and activists have coined the term “pinkwashing” to apply to corporations that they feel are trying to boost their own image through breast cancer fundraising, even though they manufacture products that may (or may not) contribute to the incidence of breast cancer. Considered “pinkwashing” are BMW’s one-dollar-donation-per-test-drive  (because cars contribute to air pollution) the pink branding of many cosmetic companies (because wearing makeup can be harmful to your health) and Kentucky Fried Chicken’s pink bucket campaign, in which Yum! Brands donated fifty cents per pink bucket.

The chief objection to the KFC fundraising seemed to center on the concern that eating fried chicken isn’t healthy, and that given the location of many KFC restaurants in low-income areas that Yum! Brands was promoting unhealthy eating on the back of breast cancer awareness. (Gee, maybe they should have been raising money for heart disease. That seems like a more direct link.)

However, it is important to note that through this campaign Yum! Brands made a two million dollar donation to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. (And they sold about sixty million dollars worth of chicken in the process.) Talk of “pinkwashing” or not, Susan G. Komen Foundation lent their name to the promotion and they took the money, so they are as culpable as the businesses with whom they climb into bed.

Last Christmas I unwrapped a pink Cuisinart hand mixer, and my heart sank.  I wanted the mixer, it wasn’t that. (I have a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer, but sometimes (like whipping cream) that’s more mixer than you need.) The Cuisinart is an excellent mixer. I absolutely hated the fact that it was pink. Even before I’d looked into how much money is funneled into breast cancer research, even when I only suspected that companies were probably making an obscene amount of money on these special pink items, they felt exploitive to me. (Cuisinart gives three percent of the purchase price to Susan G. Komen, so about two bucks for my mixer.)

I looked at that mixer in my hands and I thought about how breast cancer gets so much attention and the other cancers so little. I wondered what it would feel like to have breast cancer and see so many people making so much money off of it, and I put the mixer away deep in the back of the cupboard.

Then one day I had cause to use it, and as I was fitting the beaters, I thought about how breast cancer activism and marketing has stolen pink from us. I’ve had some great pink things. A favorite pair of lace-up leather boots, pink-striped pajamas, pink lipstick, pink peonies, pink socks, a pink mohair sweater.

Pink used to make us think flamingos and bubble gum and cotton candy.  Pink should be ballet slippers and Peter Seller’s panther, pink ladies and strawberry ice cream.  That’s when I decided that my pink mixer would be the pink of pink cadillacs, of baby hats, a froth of tutu, Memphis’ Pink Palace.

We can be “tickled pink,” or “in the pink.” Let us all be pinkos and let none of us get pink slips. We can grow pinks and eat at Pink’s Hot Dog stand, listen to Pink Floyd and sleep on pink sheets. (Or get our stock quotes from them.) There is summertime, with pink watermelon, your dog’s pink tongue, her pink collar.  There are pink collar jobs, usually held by women.

And there’s the pink triangle. The Nazis made homosexual prisoners in concentration camps wear pink triangle badges. 15,000 pink-triangle wearing men were annihilated during the Holocaust. In the 1970s, the pink triangle was reclaimed by gay activists and re-invented as a symbol of gay pride. (As a side note, the Nazis had a wide variety of colored triangles: red for political prisoners and liberals, green for criminals, blue for foreigners, purple for Jehovah’s witnesses, black for gypsies, the mentally-ill, alcoholics, pacifists, and lesbians and yellow for Jews.)

The American Cancer Society has an official roster of colors for the various cancers, some are a little thoughtless: yellow for bladder cancer, black for melanoma, gray for brain cancer. Lung cancer doesn’t have a color, just “clear.” Clear t-shirts? No wonder they’re not marching. And pink for breast cancer.

Except that we don’t have to go along. Fight to reclaim pink, all the Crayola colors from Carnation  Pink (1949) to Ultra Pink and Shocking Pink (1972) Tickle Me Pink (1993) Pink Flamingo, Piggy Pink and Pink Sherbet (1998).  Don’t let your daughters grow up to think that pink means fear and fighting and chemotherapy. Sing of Little Pink Houses and dream of pink elephants.  Tell your kids to turn down the P!nk CD. You can be pink with embarrassment with talk of pink canoes and pink sausages.

Give directly to charities that are important to you. Donate to heart disease research. Make a gift to fight specific cancers. Give to your local animal shelter. Spend your money to end domestic violence. Breast cancer research has already had more than its fair share of our collective wealth.  We’ve been conditioned: we see pink, we think breast cancer. It doesn’t have to be so. Reclaim pink in your own life. Stop feeding the pink pig. Stop buying. Put an end to marketing of breast cancer “awareness,” end the exploitation. Cancer can’t be cured through shopping.

Sticks and Stones

March 20, 2009 § 3 Comments

on being the target of cyberstalkers

Back in the third grade, I had a real problem. Her name was Lavonda. I may have had three inches on her, but she had a good fifteen pounds, and a whole lot of rage, on me. Everyday when I was walking home from school, she would jump me. I would arrive home with blouse torn, hair pulled, nose bloodied. My parents complained.  They were sent away with all kinds of reassurances and the next day Lavonda pounded me again.

It didn’t matter if I walked home with friends or walked home alone. It didn’t seem to make a difference if I fought back or if I just lay there in the dirt praying for it to be over. It didn’t matter if I tried to be nice to her in the sun-dappled classroom. I remember the day I gave her a cookie she seemed extra vicious as she kicked and slapped at me. My father started picking me up at school. Lavonda got her licks in at recess.

Then one day she wasn’t there. She wasn’t there the next day either. At the end of the week, Miss Fischer rearranged the desks. I never saw Lavonda again. Looking at her in the class picture, I am struck at how unkempt she looked. This was 1971, when little girls and little boys were turned out in their next-best clothes for school pictures, their hair carefully combed. Not Lavonda, her hair stood straight up, a wild shock. Her dress, a little too small, had a stain on the front of it. Her socks didn’t quite match.

It was a baffling time, I never could quite figure it out. I never had a problem making friends. In high school I was editor of the newspaper, and floated easily between groups of kids. Mind you, it was a Canadian school, maybe we didn’t have bullies.

Has it been a charmed life? Maybe. Sure I’ve had disagreements with people. There are people who I used to consider friends whom I wouldn’t consider friends anymore. They’ll probably spit on my grave, and fine, have at it.  There are times I’ve behaved in a way that I later regretted.  But when you come right down to it, I have many close friends for whom I am deeply grateful and a wonderful family that cherishes me and now that I’m no longer publishing a newspaper, not too much trouble in my life.

So imagine my surprise when I became the target of a bully.

It started in a chat room, a forum for fanciers of a particular dog breed, the Chesapeake Bay Retriever.

We are hound people. We like hounds, their easy going, bucolic personalities. But we also have Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, and they while they are sometimes bucolic, they are unusually intense dogs, one might even say driven. They are protective, loyal, possessive, and occasionally quarrelsome.  There is no breed quite like them, and I hope that we will always have one in the family.

When I began to participate at the Chesapeake forum, cbrs4me, in 2003, it was rocky at first. It seemed like I was failing to communicate, that people couldn’t understand what I was trying to say. Since I’d been writing professionally for nearly 15 years by then, this was perplexing to me. In time, though, I realized that you write differently on a forum, couching your messages in little emoticons to further underline the tenor of your post. Still, I made friends there, real friendships that exist in the real world, not just in cyberspace.

One woman, though, was intent to make trouble. I couldn’t post anything on any subject without fomenting a caustic response from Julie R., a realtor in central Virginia. In another universe, one might have thought that we could have friends, sharing an abiding interest in this unusual dog breed, in horses, in foxhunting, in photography. On the other hand, she described her place as “Redneck Riviera” and her sentiments are stolidly Republican, so maybe not. Not to say that I don’t have Republican redneck friends, because I guess I have a few of those too.

Julie was a persistent as a horsefly and often as stinging. She had really ramped up into overdrive with her insinuations and insults at about the time that we learned that my father was not going to win his long battle with laryngeal cancer. I sent her a civil email and asked her to back off given the circumstances and she made fun of me for “dragging out my dead and dying relatives.”  My next email was not so civil, and Julie tried to twist that to have my membership in the American Chesapeake Club revoked. (It didn’t work.) 

The National Crime Prevention Council’s definition of cyber-bullying is “when the Internet, cell phones or other devices are used to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person.” We generally think of cyber bullying as it applies to children and teenagers: it came sharply into focus last May when jurors convicted Lori Drew, a suburban housewife who used MySpace to torment one of her daughter’s friends, Megan Meier, 13, to the point that the girl killed herself. 

But the problem is not limited to teens. Referred to as cyberstalking when involving adults, it is estimated that one in four American adults has been a victim of cyberstalkers who employ a variety of online means, particularly forums and chatrooms, to present their victim in a false and unflattering light. 

When it got to the point that I could no longer participate on cbrs4me without being harassed, I simply stopped. I’d been reading another board, the Retriever Training Forum. Most of the people who participate are interested in hunting or participating in field events with their dogs.

Over time, strange things started to happen. People I didn’t know started asking me pointed questions about my dogs. Soon it was clear that Julie was behind these posts. Not that she’d stopped posting of her own accord when she found me at RTF. She’d come after me hammer and tongs, and when I complained to the moderators, well she made fun of that too.

Once upon a time I thought I’d like to participate in field games with my dogs. I’m not enthusiastic about killing things. (Though frankly, I don’t mind that others are, you could never pin me as “anti-hunting”) That turned out to be my cardinal sin. It didn’t matter that I’d been on hunts. If I couldn’t point to my pile of mallards then clearly I was a poseur.

Julie started posting montages consisting of a photograph of me with my dog (pilfered from a dog show website) with the Clintons, Barack Obama and Kim-Jong-Il in a duck boat. In every sentence where I was mentioned she called me a liar.  She began using that photo as her “avatar” so that it appeared every time she posted. Then her friends started using the photo as their avatar as well. 

I posted a photograph of our dogs in the field (but no dead birds) to a thread of Chesapeake Bay Retriever photos. One of Julie’s friends took me to task. When I pointed out that more than sixty percent of the other photos didn’t have dead waterfowl in them either,  “Copiah Creek” went ballistic.  I wouldn’t have known this man if he’d turned up on my doorstep, but he’d challenged me on other occasions and I’d tried to have  a civil answer for him in every instance. (One time, he objected vigorously to me referring to a dog show in Louisiana as “dog games,” as he felt that phrase must be reserved for field events.)

Now he was saying he was going to quit the forum because he couldn’t stand all the trouble I was always making. I sat back and took a long hard look at how unpleasant this had become for me, and how little I was getting out of it. I realized that these people had killed any interest I’d ever have in field sports with the dogs. I could live without the drama. So I wrote the administrator and asked him to delete my profile, that I would no longer post there. I swear they probably all got up and sang “Ding Dong the witch is dead.”

Now I wasn’t posting anywhere. But still the cyber stalking continued. Julie took posts I’d made out of context and posted them on other dog forums. She attributed posts written by other people as being written by me. The whole group claimed they had emails from me. None of it was true. They started posting on a third forum, Team Chesapeake.

More “doctored” photographs of me appeared on Team Chesapeake. (Interestingly, the only photograph of Julie to be found on the internet is a very old and very tiny one on her website with a real estate firm. In it, her face is about the size of a pencil eraser.) I went to the website she’d taken my photos from and deleted each and every photograph of there and felt utterly defeated as I did it.

Lamber Royakkers, a professor of Ethics in Technology at the Dutch Eindhoven University of Technology has described cyberstalking as “a continuous process, consisting of a series of actions, each of which may be entirely legal in itself.” He defines the stalking as “a form of mental assault, in which the perpetrator repeatedly, unwantedly, and disruptively breaks into the life-world of the victim, with whom he has no relationship (or no longer has), with motives that are directly or indirectly traceable to the affective sphere. Moreover, the separated acts that make up the intrusion cannot by themselves cause the mental abuse, but do taken together (have a cumulative effect.)

On this third, unmonitored forum, one I read but had never contributed to, the nasty comments appreared daily.

“Why do you even look,” my husband asked.  But it’s like a car accident, you can’t look away. It wasn’t just Julie, but her friend Copiah Creek, some guy who called himself Drakeslayer, and one poor soul, “Dr. Charles A. Bortell, Ph.D.” I’ve never met any of these people, not even Julie. I did see her once, from a distance at a dog show in Philadelphia in 2004. As one woman pointed out, they wouldn’t know me if they fell on me.

This time the comments included sexual references, along with remarks alluding to my size, “thunder thighs” and “thick chick.” Ironically, someone told me a few weeks ago that they when they saw Julie at a dog show recently that she had gained so much weight that they didn’t even recognize her. One charming person said he didn’t mind having sex with fat girls but have you seen Larkin’s face? I guess this is sophomoric humor, people didn’t make cracks like that at my high school. But let me tell you, it wasn’t so funny when my14 year old son read it.

The following features or combination of features can be considered to characterize a true stalking situation: malice, premeditation, repetition, distress, obsession, vendetta, no legitimate purpose, personally directed, disregarded warnings to stop, harassment, and threats.

Yesterday afternoon I had the first truly nasty comments on this blog. They were outrageously vulgar, racist remarks. (I have the option to approve comments and of course, I deleted those.) I can also see from what websites people access this page. There, among the usual sites that direct traffic to A Thousand Days was a surprise: Retriever Training Forum.

Why is this woman so obsessed with me? It’s hard to just stumble upon A Thousand Days, she had to look for it. She’s like that little black kid lying in wait for me everyday. Why has she invested so much time and energy in trying to make my life miserable? Why is she so intent on turning others, complete strangers, against me? (Surely at some point, they’ll start to wonder why.) 

Yes, there are times when I was furious. There were times when I felt sad. It was truly terrible trying to help my son make sense of the rage he felt at seeing his mother portrayed like that.

But in the end, I am a happy person, and I have a happy life. My husband adores me. We’ve been enjoying puttering in the yard on these glorious spring days. The daffodils are up, the dogs frolic around us. We’ve got a great kid. Lots of friends, a wonderful extended family. There’s plenty to eat. We sleep well at night.

Then I remember Lavonda and her mismatched socks, and with that memory, a realization.  

It’s all right, Julie, I forgive you.

(And you Alan, and you Dr. CAB and you Kathy Miller and all the rest of you goobers, you’re all forgiven.)

And you too, Lavonda, wherever you are. I hope each of you finds someone to make you feel loved.  I hope that in time you find peace in your heart, the kind that frees you from wanting to hurt other people. It doesn’t matter that your socks don’t match. 

Walking Somehow from the Sun

March 10, 2009 § 10 Comments

 

 

 

a requiem

If I had awakened in Montana last Thursday, as I have for most Thursdays for the last two decades I know the feeling that would have washed over me as soon as my eyes fluttered open: disgust. More snow, in March, for God’s sake. Would the winter ever end? It wasn’t just a dusting, but a significant snowfall. The kind that makes people linger in bed, or if they brave the weather, they stamp their boots going into coffee shops, the windows wet with condensation, shaking the snow from their hair.

The news reached me within an hour of its occurrence. There had been an explosion on Bozeman’s historic Main Street. My husband, at our home in Ohio, called me at my mother’s to tell me. It was enough of an explosion to catch the attention of CNN. We didn’t live in Bozeman, but it had been the closest large town, and it was the place we went for shopping, special dinners, baby gifts, art galleries, ballet lessons.  We’d walked Main Street for the Christmas stroll, the Sweet Pea Festival, Crazy Days.

Elmer called me back when he found out where the explosion actually was. We knew the block well. It was thought that the explosion was centered around Boodles, an upscale restaurant. We’d eaten there a few times. The food had failed to live up to the hype or the price tag, but still the restaurant’s sudden and complete disappearance into a pile of broken debris saddened me. Some people must have enjoyed the restaurant, they’d been in business for at least a decade. The front of Boodles was painted a glorious green, somewhere between sea glass and geranium leaves. 

The color was shared by the bar next door; the Rocking R. It was enough of a cowboy bar to be packed during Rodeo week, but mostly the clientele ran to MSU students. When I first moved to Montana, a hundred years ago, I went there with my old friend Sheryl Dahl. Since then, I think we’d been in once or twice to get a sandwich, a Bobcat or a Ken’s Special at the Pickel Barrel counter inside.

There was a gallery of Western Art next door, and next to that, a charming and luxurious children’s shop, Lilly Lu’s, a place that would have fit in as well in SoHo as it did in this Rocky Mountain town. Maybe better in SoHo, actually. Upstairs from that, was a place where we’d spent a lot of time: the studios of Montana Ballet, where all three of our kids had taken lessons. Julian had stuck with it the longest, thumping out the rhythm of plies and grand jetes in both Ballet and Jazz classes. A little wave of nausea rippled over me as I thought of those polished floors and high windows, all those kids in their leotards and soft leather slippers. 

I learned later that the Ballet had moved, that the space I remembered was now an architect’s office. It had been early in Bozeman when the second block of East Main blew up. Just after 8 a.m. and officials thought the early hour and the new snowfall had kept injuries to a minimum.  Initially eleven were feared missing. One by one their whereabouts were identified until only a solitary soul remain unaccounted for and officials were tight-lipped with details.

The story trailed after me, like the scent of smoke in my clothes. I thought perhaps I’d write about it, how we felt connected to some of those places. I made a few notes, penciled the word “Ka-boom” in the margin.

In the comment sections of online newspaper editions, people – some long gone from the Montana scene- wrote of their sorrow. Others made snarky remarks about cowtowns and militia, revealing the ignorance of those who penned them.  There are other towns in America like Bozeman. Asheville, North Carolina. Boulder. Madison. It is a deep blue pocket in a mostly red state, a town full of young mothers with jogging strollers, bookstores, coffee houses, oriental rug galleries, wine bars. The women in Bozeman choose Dansko clogs over Manolo Blahniks. And so do the men. 

The Rocking R stirs memories for many. One writer hopes the bar’s sign, an iconic red enameled holdover from the “R’s” good old days (that is, before the remodel) can be saved. Someone else says no, it’s lying crumpled in the street. It isn’t though. Photographs of the scene show it hanging on the fragile façade that still stands. The Bozeman daily features the scene in their online photo section, Montana 360, [ http://bozemandailychronicle.com/montana360 ]providing a navigable view up and down the street. Windows are said to be boarded up as distant as city hall, four blocks away.

They say that the American Legion is badly damaged by fire. Next door, Artcraft Printers, where they printed Julian’s baby announcements; they are closed indefinitely. Starky’s, a deli where we used to stop in for Reubens and chicken soup has sustained heavy damage.  Then there’s the Great Rocky Mountain Toy Store on the other side of them. When you live somewhere that long, some things become as familiar as the back of your hand. The Governor, Brian Schweitzer, arrives in the snow. The owner of the rug gallery on the corner is inconsolable. He had just stepped out for coffee when the explosion occurred. The next day volunteers will help him carry out scores of wet and sooty carpets, most weighing more than a hundred pounds each.

Days go by. I check the news online. CNN has long since dropped the story, moving on to other catastrophes in other places. I am nagged by the mystery of the missing person. Officials are not forthcoming about anything in that regard. When I read that the missing person is a woman, I wonder who let that slip to the media and if they thought “Oh shit” when they realized what they did. 

The general consensus is that the explosion was caused by a leak in a 12 inch natural gas pipe. Northwestern Energy has been on the scene, shutting down gas lines. Owners of the businesses on that block are allowed to visit, escorted in silence. The woman from Lilly Lu’s reports that she stood sobbing, looking at where her shop, where the last ten years of her life, used to be. They allow her to carry away a brick of the historic storefront. It’s all that’s left.

It is a Riverdale, Utah paper that spells out what everyone fears. The Boodles chef, Scottie Burton is a Riverdale native. His girlfriend, Kate Ludwig works next door at the Montana Trails Gallery.  They are usually at work by eight o’clock in the morning, but with the snow, they’ve overslept.  Burton says they are quite certain that the Gallery manager was there, though. He wonders if perhaps she triggered the explosion by turning on the lights. Montana Trails. I’d been to a couple of receptions there, I’d admired pieces in the gallery window as I’d passed by on the sidewalk. Bears, horses, calves, bison, trout rendered with skill and sensitivity, not couch art. A collection of beautiful knives handmade by the charming son of a famous writer.  Bronzes, fluid with motion. No Conestoga wagon scenes.

The Dickinson, North Dakota newspaper is initially alone in reporting that “Search Turns Up No Victims”  in the Bozeman explosion, as if therefore, there are not any. A handful of other papers searching for news will also miss the unspoken, unwritten “yet.” No victims found yet. Seeing the strangely upbeat tilt of the story makes me impatient and agitated. Are they stupid? Well, maybe. Maybe they’re just hopeful. Maybe you have to be that way to stand  living in Dickinson, North Dakota. Maybe you have to hope against hope.

This morning, the news: a body has been found. Searchers found that one last person shortly after noon on Sunday. One of the British poet laureates, Philip Larkin, wrote a poem in 1969 after an explosion in a mine. He describes the miners walking to work, “Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke/ 
Shouldering off the freshened silence.”

He describes them with a certain tenderness, playfully chasing a rabbit, returning with a nest of lark’s eggs, which they admire and leave undisturbed in the grass, before they passed “ Fathers brothers nicknames laughter/ Through the tall gates standing open.” 



This afternoon, there is identification by dental records. It is an unnecessary and cruel detail, but every news story carries it, and I am guilty of it as well. The woman is Tara Reistad Bowman, the manager of the gallery. She was the wife of Chris Bowman, whose family owns Owenhouse Ace Hardware up the street– where we’ve bought string and canvas, horse buckets and Christmas lights, French rolling pins and cans of paint, extension cords and shop vacs, ice cream sandwiches. I don’t know Tara, but my heart breaks for the people who loved her. 

The photograph accompanying the news story shows a young woman with long pale hair, a face that is all angles and planes, strikingly beautiful, but not conventionally pretty. A family friend describes her as “the most genuine, positive person, the nucleus of her family.”  A couple of artists’ blogs note her death, heavy with sadness. Many photograph of the scene has shown  her vehicle parked behind the gallery. 

She is the youngest of four children, the only daughter. One of her brothers describes her as “gentle, but tough.”  In February 2004, Tara’s father was murdered by a disturbed man, the paranoid-schizophrenic son of his lady friend. The man had forced his mother to write him a $10,000 check before killing first her and then Chester Reistad. It was a brutal crime, and one that captured the attention of the Bozeman community.  It was Tara’s strength, her brothers say, that supported the family during that terrible time. Tara is quoted in a newspaper story as saying that the defendant “killed the only two people who would have been willing to go to bat for him.” 

I am reminded of a comment written before her body was discovered. Someone who knew her wrote that the only comfort to be found was in “knowing that she is safe in the arms of both her fathers.”

“The dead go on before us,” wrote Philip Larkin “they/ 
Are sitting in God’s house in comfort 
/ We shall see them face to face– 

/plain as lettering in the chapels. 


The morning of the explosion Tara Bowman had been exchanging emails with her mother, Skip, planning together an upcoming party. Her mother said to a local television station that her “daughter’s beauty was just a mirror of what was inside.”  It is exactly what a bereaved mother might say upon losing a beloved child, which makes it no less true. Still, she gives us perhaps a more telling glimpse of Tara when she describes her as a “prankster who liked to laugh.”

It was said and for a second

Wives saw men of the explosion

Larger than in life they managed–

Gold as on a coin, or walking

Somehow from the sun towards them.

That morning, Tara was on the telephone with one of her best friends. The friend recounted to a local television station that they were talking about an upcoming trip to Hawaii, Tara was laughing. At 8:14 the line went dead.  Ash and snow falling from the sky.

Today,  Monday, the day after they pulled her from the bricks and rubble, she would have been 37 years old. It was her birthday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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