A Death in the Family, Not Our Own

September 1, 2009 § 3 Comments

Observations on the Death of Edward M. Kennedy

My eyes are tired from crying. They feel tight around the edges, and gritty. I don’t know why I’ve been crying, really. I didn’t know the man. I’m sure I voted for him a time or two. But since Wednesday afternoon I’ve curled in my velvet armchair with a tissue in one hand and a cup of tea or a bit of toast in the other and I have watched television and I have wept.

My husband woke me early on Wednesday morning, touching my shoulder. He’s been downstairs to make coffee, watch the morning news. “Hi.”


“Senator Kennedy died,” he says quietly, setting a coffee mug on the table next to the bed.

“Oh no,” I mumble, still sleepy, trying to process. That’s right, he’d been ill. Cancer. Some pundits speculated that he might make it back to the hill for the health care vote. No wonder the President wanted to see a vote on the bill before the recess.  “I guess he didn’t have as much time as they thought,” I say to my husband.

Drifting back to sleep, I dream about my father. In the dream, I am sitting with him and with his wife and we are looking at a calendar for this October.  I am trying to work out a time to visit with them again before October comes, and I am asking if Dad will have enough time, if there will still be time then. When I wake up, the coffee is cold. My father has been dead for more than three years, from cancer.

We’d thought there would be a bit more time. I’d said goodbye to Dad just before Christmas, we’d rushed back to Montana so that our 11-year-old son could fulfill the obligations of his role in the school play. Why didn’t the school tell us that someone else could have filled in? Why did we even care?  It doesn’t matter now. There were plans to go back before New Year’s, but on the day after Christmas the call came. 

The dream has left me feeling unsteady.  It was the worst of times, in some ways, that parceling out of Saturdays and holidays and the weeks that may or may not be left. Dad had already been robbed of his speech by then, his larynx taken in an aggressive attempt to stave off a more aggressive cancer. It made the difficult discussions nearly impossible. Emails had gone misunderstood, or unanswered, or sent back too quickly in anger.

I am scattered, unable to work, or concentrate. I can’t get comfortable in my Aeron chair, I keep thinking about the 800 miles between here and Massachusetts. I don’t understand why I want to go.  On most television channels, nothing has changed; it is a normal Wednesday afternoon– soaps, Judge Judy, Ellen deGeneres.  But my husband is watching MSNBC, and there they have begun to bang the funeral drum.

In the kind of fortuitous timing that television producers only dream of, Chris Matthews (the host of Hardball, the man who never lets his guests finish a sentence) has just finished a documentary about the Kennedy brothers, and he has been promoting its debut for Thursday.  They’ve moved the first showing up to Wednesday night, and they will air it every night for the rest of the week. I carry the laptop into the living room to watch the talking heads talk about Ted.

I could catch a 3 a.m. train out of Toledo, Ohio that would get me to South Station at 9 p.m., with a return on Sunday that gets me into Toledo at 11 p.m. It’s a three hour drive from here to Toledo. I can catch a flight on Friday, out of Dayton. Do I really want to spend $350, though? I mean, why is it I want to go?  It’s an 800-mile drive, 13 hours no matter how you cut it. When I picture myself driving to Boston, I am not behind the wheel of my Saab, but rather in the driver’s seat of my 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit. The one I bought new in Brookline, Massachusetts 25 years ago.

Boston. My old town, a hodge podge of memories, pieced and crumpled; some things stand in sharp relief, much more is faded from an 18 year absence.  I might have met Ted Kennedy then, or not. Like Duvall Patrick says at the Memorial Service, “I knew him long before I ever met him.”  I worked campaigns for Mike Dukakis and Mel King and Walter Mondale.  I remember meeting John Kerry and Joe Kennedy. Perhaps I just saw him at a distance. It doesn’t matter.  He belonged to Massachusetts and Massachusetts belonged to him. His death is like that of a distant family member; we grieve regardless.

And there is that other thing, that Kennedy thing. Seeing those patrician faces drawn in sorrow, to hear their strong voices crack and tremble excavates memories, milestones of a childhood in turbulence.  I was not quite two when President Kennedy’s life came to an abrupt close. A Friday, around lunchtime, in Murray Kentucky. My father would have been teaching. Perhaps my mother had put me down for a nap. Though I think I have no memory of the assassination, I’m certain that memory resides within me: my parents bowed with sadness, that sense of order shattered forever.

The June morning after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy I jumped out of bed, six years old, braids flying, ready for another summer day and found the house silent, my parents stunned and weeping, the world turned topsy-turvy once again.

The melody of this death is different, but similar. He is the only brother to have lived anything like a natural life expectancy; a man who must have expected at any time that he might be gunned down by some lunatic. He’d cheated death twice before, in a plane crash that left his aide and the pilot dead; he was pulled from the wreckage with a broken back and negligible pulse.  And again in the notorious car crash that took the life of Mary Jo Kopechne, he was left physically unscathed. When they review his length of life, they compare and we remember, and we grieve again.

Now we are spying on his great barn of a house in Hyannisport. They tell us that last week Teddy was rolled down to his schooner, the Mya, in a wheelchair, and that, somehow miraculously shielded from the press, he was taken for one last sail.  We watch one young grandson (Teddy III, as it turns out) pull faces at the camera crews as he flops and flounces around the driveway, killing time. He’s 11. His hair is to his shoulders. Another grandson, young Max, a year older, comes out in a Navy blazer, khaki shorts and flip-flops. No wonder the world is going to hell in a handbasket, even the Kennedys can’t get their children to cooperate.

The casket comes to the hearse borne by the honor guard, who move precisely in that strange shuffling half-step that looks like they might break out into a Busby Berkeley routine at any minute, though of course they never do.  The family flows out from the house, cascading down the steps and out across the lawn. They stand together for a moment, in a brittle silence as the casket eases into the hearse, and then disperse again, like a spilled drink spreading out across the floor. A couple of the men pat the flank of the funeral coach as they pass by, the way you might pat the neck of a willing horse.

We watch the journey from Hyannisport to the Library, as people line the roads and the overpasses and stop their cars and getting out to stand as the hearse passes by. We watch thousands fill the sidewalk to the presidential library, waiting. They mop their brows in the August heat. I am glad that I decided not to drive out, putting pragmatism over sentiment: my father would have been proud. Later, we watch ordinary men and women, those constituents that Kennedy long championed, file past the flag-draped casket. A few dip in reverence, or make the sign of the cross, hand flashing brow to chest, shoulder to shoulder. Others simply stand and stare.  

Friday is punctuated with real life interspersed with television commentary. I don’t have much to say, though my husband is more and more responding to the unending parade of stories with remarks like “That’s so sad,” or “I had no idea he did that, wasn’t that wonderful.”  The rants of talk radio hosts outrage him. I am just too tired to feel rage, and besides, why would they change their stripes now? Occasionally I help him sort out one of the Kennedy clan from another. Joe. Carolyn. Rory. Patrick.

That evening we tune in to the Memorial Service at the Presidential Library, which MSNBC brings us without commercial interruption. I laugh long and hard at the stories told by John Culver, a former Senator from Iowa who had been Ted’s longtime friend and classmate at Harvard. His account of crewing (fifty years ago) for Kennedy on the Victura (now berthed outside the Library) could have been out of an old Shelley Berman routine. As someone who has been dragged out in heavy weather to sail with someone who promised there was “nothing to it,” I understood his tale very well.  As the stories unfold across the evening, the people who love Ted Kennedy breathe life back into the memory of the man.

We hear about how Kennedy loved to paint, and sing. The “history trips” on which he shepherded his children and his nieces and nephews, escaping from the last one (a camp out) and seeking refuge in the Ritz. We hear of his never-ending concern for the common man, his generosity, his astounding memory for names and faces, and his larger than life gestures. Duvall Patrick tells a story of inviting Senator and Mrs. Kennedy to dinner at their house in the Berkshires. By the time the event rolls around, the Senator has added six or seven more dinner guests, including musicians from nearby Tanglewood, amidst Mrs. Kennedy’s aghast apologies. There’s a familiar bell in that story.

We weep along with Orrin Hatch, and note the catch in Joe Biden’s voice when he talks about the comfort Kennedy brought him after the deaths of Biden’s wife and young daughter in a car accident. We argue gently about what race is Brian Stokes Mitchell. (Black, as it turns out.)  He is there to sing “The Impossible Dream,” but his rendition is so perfect that it doesn’t stir me the way I expected. Perhaps if Willie Nelson had sung it instead.  At the end I sing back to them an occasional snatched phrase of “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.”  The broadcast ends, but the song goes on.

I knew another man who lived like this, larger than life. A man who loved to paint and sing, one alternately adored and despised by those who knew him. The kind of man who invited people to someone else’s dinner party. My mother married him; he became my stepfather who was not quite my father, just as my father became somewhat not my father either. A British physician, he also sailed an enormous schooner (the 62 foot Charlotte Jean, as compared to Kennedy’s 50 foot Mya).

He made me believe I could do anything and he instilled in me a great deal of confidence. That is, when I wasn’t wishing I could crawl under some rug to escape his booming enthusiasm, his demanding standards and all the eyes upon us. He too had never-ending concern for the common man, often treating patients without charging them, should they not be able to pay. He took in the stray, the wounded, the faint at heart and he gave them jobs, a place to sleep (sometimes in the guest room, and if that was full, on the sofa) he challenged them and encouraged them, rode them hard at times to make them better.

The stories about him still are legion. How he drove through the worst snowstorm in 20 years to deliver a baby. How if you admired something he’d give it to you. The way he’d hand off twenty dollar bills to panhandlers in the street. I heard echoes of those stories in the Kennedy library. I know what a man like those men are like, and it makes for wonderful tales, but it’s also a very hard way to live, in the shadow of the Lion. And yet, I would not have been what I am today without him.

He took his leave over ten years ago, his heart exploding in his chest, dead before his body reached the floor, roaring out of this world and into the next. A scientist will tell you that energy is never destroyed, that it is merely transformed into some other sort of energy. His energy was prodigious and it spilled over into more than a year’s worth of strangely comforting if somewhat disturbing array of phenomena. He left quickly, but he did not go gently.

No wonder I weep now.

On the fourth day the cameras train their gaze on the familiar face of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The basilica where Kennedy is venerated is a block down the street from the house of an old friend. When you walked down the hill from his house, towards the college we both attended, it was as if we were walking to the church. Once we reached Tremont, we’d turn and continue down the hill. Online now, he complains bitterly about his freedoms being curtailed due the funeral. He is reminded that the entire government sits in the basilica on this rainy Saturday, all three branches. His inconvenience is a minor thing in light of that. He wonders aloud how the Kopechne family must feel about all this.

Around the corner, on St. Alphonsus, some jerk had come careening through a stop sign and wrecked my little Volkswagen. That was more than twenty years ago. Both my father and stepfather were very much alive then, would be with us another decade, longer. Ted Kennedy too. I didn’t realize how rich I was, back then, afforded the luxuries of sweet time.

Seeing the Bushes and the Carters and the Clintons and the Obamas gathered together in the pews, the rarest of fraternities, drives home again the way in which so many people felt connected to Edward Kennedy, and serves to underscore how they were the closest we ever had to a royal family.  There’s not another political family where we can name most of the siblings and who they married and how each one died and can name at least some of their children, and their accomplishments and their failures. It seems that Al Gore must not have cared much for Uncle Teddy; his absence among the pols is conspicuous.

The boys are deft at eulogizing their father; Teddy Jr. polished enough to set the pundits speculating that perhaps he could carry the Kennedy torch, even though it is Patrick who has a reasonable career in the political spectrum. It was the pundits that thought the older brothers were the brighter lights back when it was Jack and Bobby and Ted, too.  Grandson Teddy (III) is courting the press now that he intends to follow in Grandpa’s footsteps, he says. When, in the line of cousins, he steps forward to speak, he parrots his grandfather’s 1980 concession speech  “the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”  Without the thunder, it’s only words.

When we return to the television late in the afternoon, the body of the Senator has not yet arrived at the Capitol steps. As has been the case from the beginning, the schedule is awry.  Senator Robert Byrd, age 91, sits on the curb in his wheelchair, wiping his eyes, holding a small American flag.

Many of the Hill staffers have gathered here, for more than an hour in the muggy August afternoon. They are quiet and orderly, standing patiently as if for an enormous group portrait. On the Washington mall, more people wait. Along the boulevards of the District, they wait, along the bridge over the Potomac, in the Lincoln Memorial, lining the path to Arlington, they wait.

When at last the family does arrive, utterly exhausted, finally crumpling from the weight of their sadness and the endless duties of public mourning, the crowds erupt in a brilliant show of admiration. The only “off” note comes here in the form of an officious and awkward Congressional chaplain, who takes Vickie Reggie Kennedy firmly by the elbow and steers her away from the people she has come to meet so that she can stand at attention while he makes his fussy speech. As the motorcade drives away through the streets of Washington, people call out–  “Thank you!”  “We love you!”

At Arlington, the sun is beginning to set, just as it was for the burials of the two brothers. Cardinal Terrence McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, gently leads the last rites in the deepening gloam of evening. The images on the television become grainy and dim, until finally the cameramen give up and focus instead on the bugler playing taps, outlined in the light from Arlington House; lingering on the vibrant dance of the eternal flame.

Teddy’s granddaughter steps up to speak. Kiley Kennedy, just 15, begins, catches herself in a sob, and cries out “I can’t say anything!” But she pulls herself together and goes on to recount the happy hours spent sitting with her grandfather early on summer mornings on the porch of the Hyannisport house. But she is cloaked in darkness now; we can’t see her, even if we can hear the anguish in her voice.

When it is all over, I turn off the television before yet another replay of a Kennedy documentary. Enough is enough. I am exhausted, as if I too had waited in the line, as if I had sat in the pew under the soaring arches of Our Lady, as if I had stood on the steps of Congress waiting through the afternoon.

I carry my cup of tea outside and sit on the patio in the dark, looking up at the stars. I miss my father. I miss my stepfather.  Even though I won’t feel Ted Kennedy’s absence, I will miss his guiding hand and heart in the senate. I keep thinking about how the funeral ran late at every turn, and I wonder if that was perhaps by design. Surely it is more secure not to stick close to a well-publicized itinerary?

Most importantly, though, it gave the family an opportunity for a private ending to a very public life. In the end, in the dark they make their peace and say goodbye. They reclaim their own, and we release him.



August 22, 2009 § 7 Comments

When I open the door of the empty house, the dog rushes in ahead of me. He barks, shouts of joy, but they die to nothing. He looks back at me, quizzical. Where is everyone?  Perhaps they are out back, he must think, racing to the back door, begging to be let out. I unlock the door onto a patch chest high with weeds. He does not go out. Instead, he looks up at me, circles and sinks into a dejected heap.

We’ve come back to this house many times, Dog and I. Returning from journeys that crossed the country from border to border: family occasions, dog shows, girl journalist and her Dog in search of stories. Each time the door had opened on a cheerful cacophony of singing hounds, the television, the boy jubilant at our return. There was always someone there to embrace us, usually a meal on the stove, another dog or two rushing up to touch noses.

Not so this time. Now the house is silent, inhabited only by mice and memories. A fine layer of dust covers every surface. One door has blown open sometime over the winter. The Dog leaps to his feet to follow me as I move from room to room; not a chance that he’s going to let me out of his sight. He doesn’t know what’s become of the other dogs, but he is doing his best to avoid their fate.

Four days before we’d said goodbye to those dogs and husband and son, leaving Ohio for a few weeks in Montana to clean out the old house. He knew that. But dogs don’t think in abstract. (One of our dogs is very upset to hear a family member on the other end of a telephone; she’s very distressed that her person is locked up in that tiny box and how did they get in there anyway.) The dog knows only that they have always been here, and that they’re not here now.

I haven’t been in this house in a year. I haven’t lived here in two years, having taken our son in advance to start at a performing arts high school in Ohio. It’s a very complicated thing to move nearly two thousand miles across the country, leaving a pack of hounds, a coven of barn cats, a pair of crotchety ponies in your wake. My husband stayed on sorting out these conundrums: the ponies free to a family that found them delightful. The barn cats to a woman who’d just lost hers. One dog with cancer (Edward the Terrible) gently dispatched by our wonderful vet.

A few days before Christmas, on a morning when it should have been too cold to snow, but was snowing anyway, my husband loaded up the remaining three dogs in a minivan stuffed full of clothes, shoes, books, television, crockery and Christmas presents, and made his escape. The Dog and I have come to deal with what he left behind. Mail still on the kitchen table, a dozen chain link dog runs, letters from my late father, old toys, chipped coffee cups, books.

I did not choose this house. My husband’s ex-wife had insisted on it, a miner’s cabin with a singlewide trailer addition, creek side in the shadow of the Absaroka Mountains. Her twin sister still lives a mere quarter mile down the road. Then Merrilee decided to take their daughters and leave Elmer, and the proximity of her sister wasn’t so important anymore. We tried to sell the house 16 years ago but the market hadn’t boomed, and when we finally got an offer, we would have had to borrow money to accept it.

So I relented and moved in. First the trailer had to go. Then the green and tan shag carpet. The accordion door. In the end, we took the house down to the studs, moved the kitchen and the bathroom, put in a new stairwell. And then we stopped, leaving unfinished sheetrock on the walls, window moldings stacked in the barn. Elmer was working double shifts at the railroad; my newspaper work kept me away all hours. We were too damned tired when we got home to do anything other than the essential. And dry wall mud never reached the level of essential.

Montana was home for 17 years, longer than anywhere else. Two years ago when I set out behind the wheel of the Penske truck I didn’t look back. Our son had overstayed his welcome at the country school he attended. Elmer had retired from the railroad. I’d long finished my work as a journalist in this town. There was nothing keeping me in that little house in the shadow of the mountains.

Now it was very strange to be back.

In my return, I have fallen into the arms of friends, I have driven slowly up and down the streets of the town before going west to the house, a little panicked that I am touching the tar baby and will not be able to leave.

This is the house where my child was conceived. This is the house where he took his first steps. It is also where he fractured his leg badly in a freak accident. He was two; it was the day after Christmas, in the middle of a blizzard.  The ambulance wasn’t running, our tiny truck cab was too small, we had to call Jane and Roger to help us get him to Bozeman, and they struggled out to collect us and sat around all night in the hospital while the orthopedist saw to Julian’s leg.

This is the place where we welcomed foals on wobbly legs, watched them grow into promising yearlings. Watched in horror as one hung herself from one leg from a round pen panel, pressured there by a ranch hand who thought he could train horses. When we pulled the pins the filly kicked the panel free. It hit my mother square in the face, knocking her unconscious. Paramedics knelt in the muck to ease her onto a stretcher.

Horses are buried there and there and there; a young stallion that tried to jump a neighbor’s barbed-wire fence and bled out; an ancient mare down with colic, a foal crippled from birth— a Northern Dancer grandson. His mother had gotten into astragalus; it causes birth defects. When he was tiny he could outrun half the horses on the place.

Up on the ridge is a spot where I took off my coat on a winter day to wrap it around the a calf half-dead from hypothermia, rubbing him hard all over to bring back the circulation while someone else ran for the phone.  Just a day or so old, the little white-faced guy had fallen through the fence and rolled a bit down the hill. His mother, a first-timer, wandered away and left him.  When the neighbor drove out along the pasture edge in his pick-up the calf was starting to respond. We put him in the warm cab of the truck, and I retrieved my coat. I heard they nursed the calf a day or so and he was good as new. That next fall he went off to slaughter, because well that’s what becomes of calves.

I was sitting at a desk in that corner of this little cedar shake house when the phone rang with the news that my mother in law had died. It was Elmer who answered when a call came from England that my stepfather was found dead in his apartment.  I was sitting there curled in an oak desk chair, waiting for the call that my father, my anchor, had taken his leave, and when it came the world tilted dangerously beneath my feet. 

This big mailbox used to be affixed to a large Poplar trunk we’d pulled out of the grove on the other side of the creek. In time, it rotted and broke off. We stuck the broken post in a galvanized trashcan full of river rocks and travertine. Every time it snowed the plow knocked it over, and it is lying on the ground now. 

That’s where I’d get the mail, get out of the car, open the gate. If there was something promising, I might open it walking to the gate. That’s where I opened a very ordinary looking envelope with my name scrawled across it. It was a letter telling me I’d won a prestigious fellowship. And that’s where I read the letter of acceptance welcoming Julian to a performing arts high school.  From there you could see the snow capped peaks of the tallest mountains in Montana.

The task before me is enormous. It is not just packing up a few books. It is room after room of dust and memories and objects that require my attention. Every day I take a load of stuff to the storage unit. Every day I take a load of stuff to the county dumpsters.  We’ve decided to seek a renter, and that means restoring water to the winterized house. Which means buying a new water heater and having it installed. And when the water is restored, I find a pipe, cracked, that had somehow missed the winterization process, and I have to find a plumber, and then find the money to pay him. 

Every day starts before seven, with McDonald’s breakfast for the Dog and me.  Without fat and protein, I won’t last half the day; the regular restaurants don’t open for another hour.  At that hour McDonald’s trade is tourists headed south to Yellowstone Park, no one to stop me and inquire, where had I been, what was I up to.

Work continues each day until I am filthy and exhausted, walking in circles because I am too tired to think straight. On the good nights, I go back to my friend’s house and stand in the shower, before we repair to Park Place, the only decent bar in town.

The very first evening my regular drink is set before me with precision. The bartender still knows me well enough he doesn’t have to ask, so he asks other questions instead. Where had I been, what was I up to. The Martini is perfect, silver in my mouth.  On the last evening there I will tell Glenn, the proprietor and bartender that other than seeing my friends, sitting at his bar was the absolute best thing about being back in Montana. I regret the qualifier now; sitting in Glenn’s bar was seeing my friends, my past, and comfort was in the company, and not just (as on that last chilly night) Irish whiskey in the glass.

On the other nights, it’s not so good. Once the water is restored, I stay at the house; in the brass bed I slept in from the time I was 15. The Dog sleeps across my feet so that I cannot escape in the night.  The work is taking so much longer than I thought it would. I had thought that there would be people to give me a hand, and there are.

Jane and Roger stop by every couple of days, hauling trash, washing down walls, helping me drag out decades worth of junk. Jane’s mother died last year; she and her sisters were charged with the task of cleaning out the family home, and Jane knows what I’m up against. Their teenage daughter Emily comes out one morning and runs the Bush hog to knock down the waist high grass around the house.

It’s a cliché almost, that when you really need them that people will help you. The truth is that people are busy. They are busting their asses all day running a restaurant. She is a writer, looking after three small children and an elderly, compromised mother in law. She is working in a law practice 60 hours a week and putting up hay in the few hours of daylight left before and after a grueling workday. She is the only vet tech at the county’s very busy animal shelter. This is part of why I love them anyway, because they’re interesting people with full lives. I am grateful for all they give me.

But what about the others? How many stories did I write to support the opening of new businesses? How much free advertising did I give away? What about those Community Thanksgiving dinners I started and ran that fed 700 people each year? We gave whatever we could to every charity auction, every event, every theater production, every time someone needed us . . . but this is Montana, a place where it’s unseemly to ask for help.

Unless you’re dying or something, then you get a spaghetti dinner and a silent auction. 

On the very worst night, hungry and dirty and tired and dispirited, I break down and cry, asking my husband these same questions, tears running down my face and spilling over the telephone. Where are they? Why won’t anyone help me? What about everything I gave to this community?  He is quiet. And then he says, “You didn’t do it to get anything in return.” That is absolutely right. I didn’t do it to get anything in return, and somehow that makes me feel even worse.

In truth, it is his friends that disappoint me the most. Men he worked side by side with for twenty years, every one of them has pretended that they don’t know that I’m in town. They don’t return calls. They don’t come out to the house to see what’s going on. It is a measure of them I did not expect, and it leaves an ugly stain.

My mother, ever the pragmatist, tells me I have to hire someone to help, and I do. The word goes out that I’ll hire as many people as show up for nine bucks an hour, just be at the farm at 2 p.m. One guy turns up, a transplanted east coast carpenter and musician that I’ve known for years.  He laughs at my duct tape belt. I’ve lost so much weight over the last few weeks that I had to fashion it to hold my pants up.

We take a load of furniture and boxes of books to storage. It pours rain, the kind that soaks you to the skin; we stand inside the open door of the storage unit watching it come down in sheets. After the rain abates, and after a few slices of pizza, Alex helps me load the Ohio bound U-Haul trailer with all the things I know I cannot possibly manage on my own: the washer, the antique filing cabinet, a heart pine dresser, Aunt Moe’s Persian carpet. He leaves with his little Saab full of stuff for the community thrift store, and he will come back a few days later to take another load to them. The money I pay him is money well-spent.

Many things leave the house bound for the landfill. The haymaking hard working attorney brings me her horse trailer one Saturday morning and we fill it with garbage and take it to the transfer station where they weigh it and charge me $12. The transfer station attendant pulls a sled out for her grandkids; my friend snags an air-conditioning recharge.  The broken Dogloo and the worn out mohair chair are dumped without ceremony into a giant dumpster, set in a pit at ground level, the roll-off box. I paid more than $100 for the Dogloo; I used to really love that chair. Now I could care less.

Using the volume and weight of the trash that day for comparison, I figure that the amount of garbage I’ve taken from the house must be around 3000 pounds.

Other things leave in an estate sale that runs all day Wednesday without pause. People come to buy dog kennels and crates, an old FIAT convertible half-eaten by mice, tools, trinkets, crockery, the desk where I sat when I learned my father was dead.  I am happy to take their money; there is nothing that they carry away that I am attached to anymore.  It disturbs me that one woman steals things from me; a chain saw, a silver bracelet, whatever else she slipped in her pockets. Walking out to the outbuildings, I’m shocked to see how people have literally thrown things around while going through them. So disrespectful, just to get to that set of socket wrenches or that half empty can of WD-40. It’s hard to fathom what might have been stolen out of the sheds, so I don’t even think about it.

Loading the last of the boxes, the flowerpots, the bathroom scales, the floor lamps onto the trailer as the light fades from the sky, I muse about what makes someplace home. Is it all this stuff I came back for, that I set aside and wrapped and have used to fill every last space in the trailer? It’s a good thing I don’t have a bowling ball left to go in, because there is no room for it. Had the house fallen down where it stood we would have missed a few things we lost, but it is different when you’re standing there with the teacup  (or the letter, or the painting or the spice rack) in your hand.

Is it your history in a place that makes it home? That you can’t go to the grocery without seeing someone you know? That your memories of that intersection or the post office steps or the sound that the doors to the county courthouse make is somehow embedded in your cells, is it that familiarity?  It used to be that I felt like I belonged to this place. I wrote about it, championed it, I knew most of the people in town, and most of the people knew me. Big fish, and all that. It’s not like that anymore. But I don’t think that was what made it home.

Filling the water bottles for the Dog for the long trip home, I am thinking how much I’ll miss the water. Always extra cold, it came from a well hand dug into a spring (with pick axes and shovels the records read) in 1923, and it never ran dry, not even that time we forgot and left it running all day in a horse trough while we went to the movies. It is good, sweet water, perhaps the best I’ve ever had.

I do not number the dogs I am leaving behind. Buried under poppies, under daffodils, under the aspens, under the apple tree. If I stop to think about them, their slender bones wrapped in quilts, and gently bundled into the earth, it will be harder to walk away. If I think about their wagging tails, and eyes, blue and brown, their muzzles cupped in my hand, this place may seize my heart again.

Instead I think about the other dogs, the ones waiting 2000 miles across the Great Plains, and the husband, and the boy. I am overdue there. The Dog settles into the truck. As the house has emptied, he seems to understand that we are not staying on there with the ghosts, that we have just come back to pick up a few things.  Gently, gently, pulling a fully laden trailer, I creep up the driveway, hopping out to close the gate behind me one last time. I do not look at the house, or the meadow, or the barns, or the poppies. I just look at the latch and make sure it catches on the ring.

I point the truck to the east and we head for home. A front is blowing in, and by the time we crest the hill out of the town, the sky behind us is black with rain.

The Peculiar Tale of Jimmy Dean Johnson

May 22, 2009 § 4 Comments

How a Boy Lay Nameless for 35 Years

This week, a new monument was laid at the grave of “Boy X.” It is a modest stone of red granite, matching the one that has marked this spot in the Dayton Memorial Park since May of 1974.

The old one reads “On Behalf of Those Who Cared Boy X Died May 20, 1974.” The new one has a name, and a date of birth and finally answers a mystery nearly three times as old as the boy whose bones lie below.

He was James “Jimmy” Dean Johnson, a handsome sandy-haired boy with a wide smile and big ears that stuck out just a bit. He was born on the 3rd of September 1960, to a woman named Cora Walls.

Jimmy must have been among the last of her eight children (six boys, two girls) as when he was just a baby, his mother is said to have stepped out a window during an epileptic seizure. She didn’t die. In fact, she remains alive today, though her mind is clouded with dementia.

In the 1960s epilepsy was considered a non-remitting, progressive disease. Treatments were rudimentary and often not effective. By the time her baby boy was two years old, Mrs. Walls’ children had been placed in foster care.

For a period in the early seventies, three of the siblings, Rosie, Wayne and Jimmy, were reunited in the care of their mother’s sister Sarah in Cincinnati. But in 1973, Sarah Zuern left her husband, took her children and moved to Dayton. Her niece and nephews returned to foster care.

This week, little Jimmy’s cousin, Esther Zuern told the Dayton Daily News that she remembered the boy as “sweet; not rowdy or mean like most kids in foster care.” More than one relative recalled that he was small for his age. Nonetheless, Jimmy apparently became something of a “behavior problem” and in a matter of months found himself a resident of the gothic campus at Longview State Hospital. He was just 13.

In March 1974, all hell was breaking loose over Watergate. We were in the clutches of an oil embargo. Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun” was the number one song. And little Jimmy Dean Johnson walked away from the Longview State Hospital and disappeared into the Ohio streets. His absence was not reported to any authority, and apparently no one ever looked for him.


The incidents of Monday, May 20, 1974 are not precisely recounted anymore. The coroner’s report is reported as stating that the body of a male child was found at 1853 Stanley St, on a railroad embankment, behind a warehouse.

The news media has alternatively reported the body found on the banks of the Great Miami River near Leo and Stanley Streets, at 1383 Stanley; still others say the body lay up against the railroad tracks. Whoever had the unhappy discovery is long forgotten (though no doubt it is etched irrevocably in their own memory.) Perhaps it was a dockworker clocking in on Monday morning. Perhaps it was a brakeman on a passing train, or a beat cop patrolling the area late at night. It doesn’t matter anymore.

What was found was the body of a male child, somewhere between 11 and 14 years old. With sandy hair and ears that stuck out a bit. He had a homemade tattoo on his arm depicting a cross with three teardrops. His skinny little broken body was naked to the elements. He had been beaten and strangled; he was still bound when they found him.

There were no active missing persons cases matching the boy’s description. Ken Betz, the director of the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office told reporters during a February 2009 press conference that records show five different families came to see if the child belonged to them, but none of them could positively identify him. For their sakes, one hopes that some were able to positively say that he was not theirs.

Among those families was Sarah Zuern, who is said to have arrived with a photograph of her nephew, missing from the state hospital in Cincinnati. Sarah’s family claimed she never heard back from the Coroner’s office. Even in the seventies a forensic anthropologist could have made a positive identification, a reasonably good medical examiner could have made an almost certain one. Of course, none of the Coroner’s office personnel are the same now as they were thirty-five years ago.

These cases weigh on the men and women that work them. The death of a child is not something easily forgotten, and an unidentified child even more so. No one would have carelessly lost a photograph of a potential match, or overlooked calling the presumed next of kin. But the boy remained nameless, and finally, through the generosity of the community, his small body was buried in Dayton Memorial Gardens under a red granite stone that read “Boy X.”


Rosie Johnson, Jimmy’s older sister, lives in Alabama now. Last year she saw Jim DeBrosse’s retrospective story in the Dayton Daily News about the mysterious “Boy X” and she wondered, again, if that boy could be her long lost brother. This time she contacted the Montgomery County Coroner’s office.

Jim DeBrosse is owed a great debt in the work he did to help Boy X regain his identity, his history, his belonging. In remembering Boy X and making his readers remember Boy X, he helped to nudge Rosie Johnson to find the answer for her decades-long question about her little brother. His thorough research into who that child was in life is very touching, and his coverage of the family’s memorial to that boy has been remarkable. Every community should have someone like DeBrosse who so eloquently keeps the unidentified lost from being forgotten.

The Coroner’s office took the photograph that Rosie Johnson supplied them, and they took a DNA sample from her. They visited Cora Walls in a nursing home and took a DNA sample there too. They exhumed the body of Boy X, and on January 28, 2009, they had a match.

Ruby Simpkins is the daughter of Sarah Zuern, and the cousin to little Jimmy. She became the focus of media attention during the memorial held in Dayton this week, as it seems she is the most readily approachable family member for sound bites and quotes.

She told Jim DeBrosse that the family had held out hope that they’d run into Jimmy somewhere, all grown up, a handsome young man.

“But,” she said brightly, “We’ll see him again in heaven.” The television media coverage was upbeat, the anchor pursing her mouth in a little moue at the bittersweet nature of this resolution. A child is murdered, and yet he is at long last returned to his family. Comments to online print stories and websites devoted to missing persons were equally simple-minded. Even the biddies at websleuths.com didn’t seem to get it.

But the Dayton Police Department certainly seems to get it, and Detective Patty Tackett made a statement to the press that the investigation into James Dean Johnson’s murder has been reopened. She urged the public to get in touch if they have any information that may be useful. She added that they are particularly interested in “a situation of sexual assault that may have occurred on a boy of 13—we’d like to have them come forward.” The original autopsy showed no evidence of sexual assault per se, but when a body is found nude, it certainly isn’t ruled out.

The local NBC affiliate carried an interview with Ruby Simpkins in which she offered up a graphic vision of her cousin’s death. She imagines him “lying there crying as they beat him,” but “as his spirit slipped away he saw Jesus coming toward him with arms outstretched. Finally, he found the love he’d searched for so long. At last Jimmy’s home!”

Rosie Johnson didn’t make it to Ohio for her brother’s memorial. Sarah Zuern was planning to read a poem at the service, but she slipped away on April 26th.

Her obituary lists her age as 73, and notes among her survivors her daughters Esther and Ruby, her sister Cora. It quotes the words spoken with her last breath: “Before she passed on, she said ‘I hope to see you all again someday, in Heaven. I’ll be waiting.’”

There is a list of those she expected to find waiting for her in heaven, having been pre-deceased by her ex-husband, three of her special friends, Jesus Christ, (way predeceased by him) and her three sons, James, Johnny and William. Her recently identified, long dead nephew does not merit a mention. Something about the names in Sarah Zuern’s obituary stands out though, something no one seems to have noticed.


It is the name of her son, William Zuern. William Zuern who was executed by the State of Ohio on June 8, 2004 for the murder of a Hamilton County Sheriff’s deputy, Philip Pence.

The deputy was killed while Zuern was incarcerated awaiting trial for the murder of Gregory Earls, an informant who had testified against Zuern’s father. Zuern was angry with prison officials because he didn’t get his full five minutes of telephone time.

Authorities had been tipped off that he had a weapon and three of them had gone to search his cell. Zuern got off his bunk naked, and lunged at Deputy Pence, stabbing the officer to death with a 7” shank he’d fashioned from a bucket handle.

William Zuern’s life of crime officially began when he was 13, with the “malicious destruction of property.” He’d gone on a tire-slashing spree in Cincinnati. His 2004  request for clemency details his many brushes with the law, including his juvenile record: burglary, drugs, delinquency, and as adult: theft, felonious assault, murder, murder, murder. On the cover of the Request for Clemency Report, a notation is written neatly, by hand, in the upper right hand corner: EXECUTED 6/8/04

In December of 1973 William Zuern had been released to the care of his mother in Dayton, Ohio. In September 1975, he was remanded to Ohio Youth Services. A photograph displayed by Ken Betz at a press conference shows Jimmy Dean Johnson among the Zuerns: a slight blond boy surrounded by enormous people. William Zuern, at 15, had a significant height and weight advantage over his younger cousin.

Real life homicide is not so much like fictional murder mysteries. Rarely found are those clever twists, those surprising endings where the villain turns out to be the last person you’d suspect. Most of the time the answer to the mystery is the most depressingly obvious one.

Rosie Johnson speculated that perhaps her little brother had headed for Dayton looking for his aunt and cousins.

It appears that he may have found them.

A Small Planet, Out of Orbit

May 20, 2009 § 3 Comments

Monday was Camille’s birthday, she turned 23. She was five when I met her, an extraordinarily beautiful little girl with hair sticking out in all directions and falling down socks. She is my husband’s younger daughter, but neither of us have had any contact with her for over three years, and then that was just a note of condolence on the death of my father. June will mark four years since we’ve seen her.

As a little girl she was easily amused, and when lifted out of the shadow of her older sister, shone brightly. One birthday brought the requisite Breyer horse, a battery-powered Japanese “pet,” picture books, and a long long rainbow colored ribbon on a short wooden stick. Camille carried the ribbon stick into the yard and spun with it, the ribbon rippling and floating around her. She spun and dance and rippled through the yard, the rainbow leaping and curling. When she finally stopped, she wobbled drunkenly before collapsing in a dizzy giggling heap.

I knew when I started seeing Elmer that there were children in the picture. I’d first met him when he brought his young daughters to the Public Library where I worked. In one of those strange bits of irony, their mother had worked there before me. Three years before she had taken the two girls, then age four and two-and-a-half, and moved out.

Both of the girls were adopted from Korea, but they are not biological siblings. They’d each been about 6 months old when they’d arrived; first Tai and a little less than two years later, Camille. In a newsletter for the inter-country adoption agency, their mother (who is a twin) wrote unabashedly that they’d sought a second baby because she thought her daughter deserved a sister.

Twenty years ago there was still considerable stigma in Korea to having a baby out of wedlock. Most infants, like Tai, were relinquished at birth. Not Camille. Her biological mother struggled stubbornly to keep her, and lasted four months before delivering tiny Jun Ok to an orphanage. In 1992 while combing the agate type section of the results from the Barcelona Olympics, Elmer found listed a South Korean runner, the same unusual name, the same age; further testimony to the tenacity and grit she passed on to her daughter.

Both girls were lovely children, but in terms of temperament they could not have been more different. Camille was stoic and shy and thoughtful, Tai was impulsive and outgoing and dramatic. Camille was content to amuse herself; Tai sought the spotlight.
Tai needed the attention and she demanded it, further casting Camille in the role of someone’s sister. It’s not much of a life, always riding in the backseat.

After Elmer and I married the girls became the subject of an enormous tug of war with his former wife. She wanted more child support. She wanted total control, she wanted me gone, she wanted, she wanted. I’d been a stepchild myself, but never in the midst of anything like that.

Once when the kids had been with us, I’d gone to get my hair cut. The older one got her hair trimmed, and Camille got her first “professional” haircut—nothing extreme, a long pixie cut that didn’t stick out all over. When we returned the girls to their mother for her four days you think we’d had them tattooed or something. It didn’t matter that the girls were thrilled with their new “hair-dos.” We got a letter from the lawyer, proscribing any further haircuts.

Camille’s first grade teacher wanted to hold her back a year. The argument for retaining a child working happily at or above grade level was unclear. The teacher had made a play for Elmer when he was single, maybe that had something to do with it. Elmer insisted that Camille be moved forward and she was.

At the end of the second grade, the issue of retention came up again, and this time it got so ugly we just gave in. The principal seemed to be mystified by the decision, murmuring cryptically that “still waters run deep.” One of the reasons for retention cited by her teacher and mother was Camille’s “small stature.”

Tai had been identified in kindergarten as “talented and gifted.” We worried what kind of message this would send, to be “red-shirted” for the second grade when your sister was regarded as some kind of wunderkind.

Their mother barred me from any input into educational decisions; never mind that three days each and every week I helped them with homework, fed them dinner, gave them baths, tucked them in, read them stories.

Of course, now no one repeats a grade in grammar school. Experts are in nearly unanimous agreement that the experience is more damaging than it is helpful. If Camille hated repeating the second grade, she never showed it. But then, there was so much she never showed.

It wasn’t all Sturm und Drang. There were ballet lessons, swimming lessons, riding lessons. Family photos show the girls happily hiking in the mountains, in front of waterfalls in Yellowstone Park, in the rodeo parade. There are snapshots of raven-haired children hunting for Easter eggs, visiting ghost towns, crying to be let off of the tiny roller coaster at the fair.

There were trips to Disneyland, weekends in Forest Service cabins, crossing Lake Michigan on the ferry, toasting marshmallows on the beach at Spider Lake. Pictures show them at the Field Museum in the shadow of a dinosaur; or at the Shedd Aquarium, noses pressed to the glass. Here they are at the San Diego zoo; in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. This one’s Seattle, where they’re peering up at the Space Needle.

Leafing through photo albums reveals a veritable parade of kids and dogs: here is Camille hanging around the neck of our gentle giant, Chumley; there’s Tai holding cute little Sadie in their arms, both of them lying on the couch draped over Delia the Foxhound.

There are scores of photos of them with their baby brother.

And Christmas, always too much Christmas. One of my closest friends was with us one Christmas morning and she still recounts how overwhelmed the girls were wading through the packages, so much so that they hardly responded at all to the stacks of gifts.

There are the photos of Camille doing the Macarena in a local production of Aladdin. Here’s one of Camille with a gaggle of girls at her swimming birthday party at Chico Hot Springs. This is Camille lacing on ice skates. And Halloween! Here’s Camille as a black kitty cat, a ladybug, a horse with an enormous papier-mache head.

Camille’s love of horses was legendary. From My Little Pony to My Friend Flicka, she adored them all. If there was a pony ride, she was on it. Breyer model horses lined her bookshelves, interspersed with horse books of every size and shape. She had a horse themed birthday party with a horse-shaped cake, horse-y favors, and many little girls clambering up on our old patient palomino for a walk around the pasture.

One autumn I won a fellowship from the Montana Arts Council, a considerable sum of money. I used most of it to buy what I thought (having been horse-mad once myself) would be the most perfect Christmas present ever for Camille: a Welsh pony. She was very pretty, white with a perfect little Arab-style head, tiny ears, big brown eyes; and she was 11 years old, exactly the same as Camille. She was delivered on Christmas Eve and we hid her away in a box stall in the barn.

On Christmas morning Camille unwrapped a tiny lavender and turquoise halter that wouldn’t have fit anything on the place. She looked baffled.

“Maybe you should see if you can find something it will fit,” I suggested. We all put on coats and hats and tramped through the snow to the barn. I think she was thrilled, but who knows. I had visions of her spending hours brushing and combing the pony, taking long idyllic rides, braiding the pony’s hair.

But those were my memories from my life and it didn’t work out that way. The next day Camille took the pony for a ride. About 100 yards from the barn she fell off when the pony startled and she never rode her again. In the end, she didn’t even look at her.

I’d made a mistake. As a child I had loved horse books, and toy horses and horse pictures as a fill-in for the real thing. Camille just loved toy horses; she wasn’t really interested in having a living, breathing pony of her own.

By this time Camille was coming by herself to spend time with her father. We had come to an impasse with her older sister and insisted that she get therapy. Her mother had not agreed. We said Tai couldn’t come to stay with us until she got the help she needed. That was a mistake, too. We’ve could have done an end-run on the therapy thing, but we were tired of fighting.

In the sixth grade, Camille grew absolutely silent. I’d pick her up from school on Thursday afternoons and the ten-mile ride to the farm often passed without much comment. It went like this:

“How are you?”


“How’s school going?”


“Anything interesting happen today?”

“Not really.”

Maybe it was puberty. Maybe it was some permutation of the attachment disorder that affects so many foreign adoptees. Whatever it was, eventually I just gave up, and we rode in silence.

The many friends she’d had as a child had dropped away one by one. She would still talk with her little brother, but most of the time she withdrew to some other place. One Friday night, her father went into town to pick her up at a middle school dance. She had begged us to let her go. Elmer asked her if she’d had a good time. She was silent. When he asked again, thinking perhaps she hadn’t heard him, she burst into tears.

“It was awful,” she sobbed. Not only had no one asked her to dance, not a single person had spoken to her all night long.

She was still crying when they got home and when I asked what was wrong, Elmer filled me in. But Camille had something to say too, now that she was allowing herself to vent.

“I don’t know why I have to come here every week,” she screamed. “I don’t know why I can’t just live with my mother.” Elmer and I looked at each other.

“Go get your stuff, honey,” I said, “your father will take you home.” And he did. And she never lived with us again. That was probably a mistake too. We probably should have said “Because we love you and because we think it is good for you to have your father in your life.” We should have hung on; instead we let her go because that’s what we thought she wanted.

After she moved out, my mother and I were cleaning out under the bed. We found the usual stuff you might expect under the bed of a 14-year old girl. There were 7-up cans, a book ruined where something got spilled on it, panties stained with menstrual blood, all manner of paper, including some pages that looked like they’d been ripped from a journal. One of them was full of rage and fury, mostly directed at me, and the worst invective she could come up with was “stupid lesbian dyke bitch.” The other entry was how thrilled she was that we were going to Disneyland again.

Through High School we didn’t see much of Camille. We all made a trip to Missoula and I suggested she choose the restaurant for dinner. She chose a Japanese place and although her father and her brother and her sister had to tiptoe around the menu, she and I had a good time.

Her sister knew how to work the system. We could go for months without hearing from either of them, but just before Tai’s birthday, or Christmas, contact would be suddenly renewed. Tai lobbied for a car for her 18th birthday, and she lobbied hard. When the birthday arrived we all went to dinner to celebrate. We gave her a Matchbox car. The next little package she unwrapped contained a key to a 16-year-old Mercedes sitting in the parking lot. I’d snuck out (“Just have to get something out of the car!”) to stick the balloons to the antenna.

We figured we’d give Camille a car too, when she turned 18, but she never learned to drive. She did well in high school, her grades were excellent, she spent a lot of time drawing and painting. One of her pieces was in a show at a local gallery; I used it to accompany a story on the exhibit opening. If she was pleased with that, she never said.

Elmer and I went to Lethbridge, Alberta one weekend. The University there was said to have a strong arts program and it was good value given the difference between the Canadian and American dollars. At 350 miles away it was closer than some in-state schools. Lethbridge has a large Asian community and we thought Camille might feel some sense of connection there, instead of one of just a handful of Asians. Her mother wanted her to go to a Junior College in Powell, Wyoming (180 miles away) and it was to Powell she went.

Graduation came and went without notice or invitation. Father’s Day came and went without a word. Elmer met with her to fill out some paperwork that would allow her to collect a thousand dollar scholarship, a benefit offered by his employer. He took her to dinner at a Mexican restaurant (her choice) and as she did every time she went out to eat from the time she was a little girl, Camille ordered the most expensive thing on the menu.

We didn’t really see her again until her older sister got married in Iowa. Tai had asked her father to walk her down the aisle, so Tai’s mother had declined to attend, and Camille came out to Iowa alone. It was June and hotter than, well, it was hot. The wedding was set for late in the afternoon, (when the day is at its hottest, naturally) and when we drove up from Des Moines, we found the bride fuming in the church kitchen and that the number one bridesmaid (that would be Camille) locked in a tiny bathroom in the church basement. We could hear her sobbing from outside the door.

Tai’s soon-to-be mother-in-law was tapping on the door, talking through it, negotiating.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“We’ve got it under control,” is what she said, but what she meant was “Butt out.”

I almost did. But then I remembered that little girl and her rainbow ribbon. I remembered reading themThe Animal Family, remembered them listening raptly. I remembered them laughing together at Disneyland. I remembered their tenderness with their baby brother.

“Could you move out of the way, please,” I said to the mother-in-law. I wasn’t asking. “Camille, it’s Larkin. Would you let me in please, I just want to talk to you.” She unlocked the door; I stepped in and we locked the door again. She had tossed her John Deere green and yellow satin dress on the floor and was sitting on the john in the most amazing bustier I’d seen.

“Wow,” I said. “That’s a great, um, whatever that is.” Camille grinned through her tears. So we sat there in a bathroom the size of a closet in the stifling heat talking about what a butthead her sister could be.

In the end, she put on her dress, washed her face, put her makeup back on, went and stood next to her sister, actually smiled and had fun for the rest of the weekend. Before we left, I gave Camille a little pendant, a circle of diamond chips and sapphires set in sterling. I told her when I gave it to her that I hoped that she would remember every time she saw it of the continuity of the family circle. I wonder if she still has it.

At Junior College, Camille met a guy who convinced her to drop out and marry him. We weren’t invited or even informed. Tai told us that Camille is angry with us because we didn’t buy her a car (though she never learned to drive) and she is angry with us because we didn’t give her money for her wedding (which we knew nothing about at the time.) Sometimes you can’t win for losing.

Once I had a little money, I thought maybe we should give her some, even up the score with her sister. (Of course I had forgotten about the pony, and the scholarship money and the orthodontia . . . ) But she didn’t return her father’s phone call. And then the money went, as money will, for something else.

Camille doesn’t talk to her sister anymore either. They had a falling out after Camille told Tai that her children will burn in hell because they weren’t baptized in the Baptist church, merely christened in the Methodist church. I guess her fellow is of the speaking-in-tongues, serpent-handling, holy-rolling variety of Baptists.

I don’t understand people who elect to leave their families. My own stepsister had a very fractious relationship with her father, and she would take long sabbaticals, but she always came back, even the one last time to speak at his funeral. I remember my stepfather dancing with Elmer’s little girls at my wedding. He was miserably sick with shingles, but there he was out on the dance floor, one little girl on each hand. Our family stories are interwoven, we become are our own little universe.

Last summer, a birthday card from Camille addressed to her mother’s sister was mis-delivered to our house in Montana. Elmer was furious. It has been years since Camille acknowledged his birthday or mine or her brother’s. But here she was sending a card to her aunt. He was ready to turn his back for good. But you can’t do that to your youngest daughter, I told him, not to the twirler of rainbows, the girl who could write in perfect mirror-writing cursive, the most expensive dinner date ever. You have to hang in there.

So every Christmas and every birthday that come we send her something. Sometimes it isn’t much; there have been some lean years. A little cash, a trinket or watercolor block or a scarf, and a card that says we love her. We don’t know where she is. We heard that she works in a pet store in Billings, Montana. Maybe that’s true. I hope she’s happy wherever she is. We just send it to her in care of her mother.

We did our best. Was it good enough? I don’t know. Did we make mistakes? Of course. People make mistakes. I hope that one day she will choose to come back into the fold. I hope that when that day comes that it won’t be too late.

That little girl, I still keep her in my heart. Twirling in the late afternoon sun, a small planet all her own, spinning, slightly wobbly, out of orbit.

The Thinking Man

May 19, 2009 § 8 Comments

an endorsement


Often, when an endorsement is written, there’s a little disclaimer at the end of it – in fine print– revealing that the writer has some other, additional relationship with the subject of the piece.

Given the manner in which David Esrati approaches the hail of ideas, people, conundrums and opportunities that come flying at him each and every day, it is more appropriate to put that disclaimer right here at the beginning, right up front where everyone can see it:  I know the man.  And the “how” of that says much about the extraordinary person that he is.

A year ago this spring I wrote an essay about the discovery of the body of a young woman, Heather Walker, in a trashcan on Dayton’s east side.  I found that David Esrati had also made mention of the murder on his own website www.esrati.com, and referenced a long ago controversial Esquire magazine cover by George Lois of a woman in a trashcan. There are plenty of websites that feature crime; it remains a compelling subject for many readers. Fewer are those that mention an erudite magazine in the same breath.  I left a comment on Esrati’s site and included a link to my own piece.

It wasn’t long before I heard back. David Esrati suggested lunch, but I was literally leaving town the next day for the whole summer and had to put him off until the fall.

I had been back in Dayton just a few days when he got in touch again: he had not forgotten.  After agreeing to lunch, I did a little research. I found a photograph of David Esrati in a black ninja-style hood at a City Commission meeting, and an account of his arrest. I dug further in court records and found an opinion by the Second Appellate Court. It made for fascinating reading.

Esrati had appeared in the hood at a Commission meeting in February 1997 to protest secret closed meetings the Commission had been holding to discuss eliminating public comment at Commission meetings. 

Federal and state “sunshine” laws require that all meetings and records of public regulatory bodies be announced, and open to the public. There are a few well-delineated exceptions to this, generally in instances where a person’s right to privacy is at stake – the performance review of a city employee, for instance. Removing the public’s right to comment would not have fallen under the very narrow strictures that allow for closed meetings.

David Esrati donned the hood at that meeting in silent protest, and was ordered arrested by then Dayton Mayor (and current US Republican Congressman) Mike Turner and was charged with four misdemeanors, all of which were later dismissed by the Municipal Court.

At great expense to taxpayers, the City of Dayton appealed to the Second Appellate District Court of Appeals, who affirmed the lower court’s decision and dismissed the case with prejudice. The City of Dayton again appealed, this time to the Ohio State Supreme Court, who declined to hear the case. The opinion stood affirming David Esrati’s constitutional right to freedom of expression and asserting that Mayor Mike Turner had lied under oath about the incidents of the meeting.

As a journalist, Esrati’s protest interested me. Not just because it made for good copy, and not just because it allowed one overblown politician to be hoisted by his own petard, caught on the hook of his own lies. Not just because  the sunshine laws are near and dear to my heart. But rather because open meetings are of essential importance to ensure fair governance. Still, I’m not sure I would have gone to jail for them.

I was late for our lunch meeting (the garage door wouldn’t close) and arrived flustered. Everyone in the room seemed to know Esrati. He pointed out various people and their respective roles in Dayton as movers and shakers. Some waved, others looked away frostily. Over the course of lunch we talked about Dayton, and how I’d managed to land there. I’d much rather be the interviewer than the interviewed and I was ill prepared.

Still, regardless of what David Esrati thought he saw before him (a somewhat rumpled middle-aged woman who wrote well and talked too fast, perhaps) I know that he saw this: a potential resource for his own business (a remarkably sophisticated marketing firm The Next Wave) and two “problems” to solve.

How much money is there to be made in writing about crime? he asked.

Not much, I admitted.

Had I met many people here yet?

No, not really I said.

He thought he might be able to find me some job-writing gigs. He also had some ideas as to how I might meet kindred souls in Dayton.

This is how David Esrati works. He wants to fix things. In ad agency parlance, he’d be The Idea Man. He has a keen sense for what might not be working quite as well as it could, and he has ideas, not just for better widgets, but for better schools, better economies, better government. But we are getting ahead of ourselves here. First to address the matter at hand:

David Esrati is running for City Commission.

Dayton, a city of 160,000, is governed by a four-member City Commission, with Mayor Rhine McLin at the helm and a largely invisible city manager in the works. Only one commissioner, Dean Lovelace, survives from the 1997 lawsuit debacle. The two commissioners who vie with Esrati for the two open seats are Joey Williams and Nan Whaley. 

Williams is a black man, a senior Vice President for Chase Bank and a second term member of the Commission who has been somewhat decried as “spineless” for abstaining from the vote on contentious topics.

Nan Whaley, freshman commissioner, is as whitebread as her Indiana upbringing. Lacking much in the way of real world experience, she is a fervent proponent of “landbanking” which many rightfully fear paves the way to seizure of property by eminent domain. She is a student at Wright State University.

The Commission’s Mission is stated as follows : “As stewards of the public trust, our mission is to provide leadership, excellent services, and participatory government to enhance the quality of community for all who live, work, raise families, play, or conduct business in Dayton.”

While the mission statement is fairly standard boilerplate adopted by commissioners in many American cities, it is the Commission’s “Vision” statement that is frighteningly rudderless and confused: “Dayton is a community where people choose to live, work, play, and raise families.  We serve as a regional leader and resource in offering cutting-edge services to our many customers.”

While Dayton is certainly a community where people live, work and play (would there be a community without that?)  this struggling city can’t be considered a “regional leader,” given it’s locale less than 70 miles from Columbus and Cincinnati, cities that really do “lead” the region.

The precise definition of a “resource in offering cutting-edge services to our many customers” is a mystery. One wonders who are the customers of this city, and what “cutting-edge services” are they being offered. This is Dayton’s official “vision.” No wonder we’re in trouble.

“I’m running to make Dayton a better place,” Esrati says  “where we can have an intelligent conversation out in the open about how to solve our problems.” He has a pretty firm grip on what ails Dayton and its government.

When asked what he thought are the three biggest problems facing Dayton, he went not to the nut and bolt answers that most would: jobs, economy, development. Those are issues that every city faces. Instead, his answers went to the heart of Dayton’s problem. The city, he says, is plagued by its poor self-image.

“It’s our perception of ourselves,” he explains. “No one is going to believe in Dayton until we do.”  He points out that the public’s perception of Dayton Public Schools is largely misinformed, and that the local media does tremendous damage by playing up every crime story, even those as penny ante as stolen holiday decorations or a convenience store break-in.

David Esrati believes that the problems in city government hinge largely on a climate of reactive politics instead of pro-active decision-making. He is unhappy with Priority Boards, which he believes disenfranchises the voter and adds another layer of bureaucracy with which the public contends. He would like to see better delivery of basic services and a feedback mechanism through which the public could effectively communicate their concerns with their elected representatives.

“I believe we need to re-task the City Commission as a board of directors who must keep the City Manager focused and on mission, with clear goals and objectives. However, that which you don’t measure, you can’t improve and without some kind of tracking system for complaints and requests, we can’t even start making the kind of changes we need to see if we want to make Dayton great again,” he explains.

A long time champion of Dayton, Esrati’s platform is plainly available through his website where he comments daily (sometimes more often) on issues confronting our community. Through the forum, he has already engaged the community in an often-lively debate about the challenges the city faces, but it is a far cry from doom and gloom. Indeed, some of the nicest things ever said about Dayton, and the people that call this city home, and the businesses, fledgling and otherwise that take root here are among the entries on Esrati’s blog.

He gets some ribbing for his ego, but nothing of worth was ever achieved by sad sacks. David Esrati’s Achilles’ heel is not his arrogance so much as that he sometimes forgets to sell himself, playing up his struggles more than his considerable achievements.

The Next Wave is where Esrati spends most of his waking hours and the work he does there is exceptionally fine; he has a knack for making stuff look good. His philosophy as a businessman carries over well into political currency.

~From the Next Wave website:

We had a different vision: The Next Wave is here to help people stay ahead of the competition, not abreast of it. We actually study marketplaces and people and buying habits, and we create a brand experience that is bigger than just advertising. We do it by finding honest positions that our clients can own and that set them apart from the standard price-and-product, dog-eat-dog world of mediocre advertising that tries to sell something rather than build value in the consumer’s mind and the client’s balance sheet.

David Esrati can do a lot for Dayton with those same skills. He understands what appeals to people, and how to create desire for a particular kind of experience. Those talents and his experience would be invaluable assets to helping Dayton pull itself up by the bootstraps.

Unlike many of Dayton’s critics, Esrati is quick with a list of what makes Dayton vibrant. He grins as he recounts them: “We’ve got a lot of water, a temperate climate, a great location. We aren’t in an area known for devastating natural disasters.  We have a reasonable cost of living, a decent cultural scene, something for almost everybody. We’re a diverse city, with great post-secondary educational opportunities and a tech-driven work force.”  He pauses for a minute and then adds. “And people are nice here. Not fake nice, but genuinely nice.”

There’s probably nothing on which David Esrati doesn’t have an opinion. I don’t agree with his philosophy on the Death Penalty, for instance, but it seems unlikely that he’d have the opportunity to implement it from the City Commission. He is passionate for education, and for the arts, for economic development, and historic preservation and for justice. Oh, and ice hockey. 

 The son of a journalist, he has been schooled from birth on the importance of education, information and rights, both civil and human. David Esrati has a tendency to call people out on their bad decisions. Maybe that’s not popular, but it is essential. There’s already too much laissez-faire in the city government.He sees clearly through the Oz-like machinations that so many politicians engage in.

Yes, he can be abrasive. But you know that under the bluster is a rock solid support, a dependable man, a thinking man who will put Dayton’s best interests first. It will take vision and creativity and ingenuity to help get Dayton back on the right path. In a place that prides itself on being a city of originals, no one could be better suited to serve than David Esrati.

Writer’s Block

May 18, 2009 § 5 Comments

I haven’t written anything in weeks. For awhile there, the writing was a daily ritual, and missing a day left me feeling like I’d done something dreadful: forgotten the baby in the shopping cart, or neglected to feed the dog, or change my undies. It was as regular as breathing.

Then I missed a day. Or two. Or three. Nothing awful happened. Occasionally kind people rang up and said, “Where are your stories?” It was nice to know they cared. I wrote some more. Then I went on a trip most of the way across the country. I packed the laptop, thought I’d carve out time for myself to scratch out a few thousand words each day. Who was I kidding? I wrote not a thing.

One of the worst fights I ever had with my father was ostensibly about writer’s block. We were sitting in a wonderful restaurant (now gone) in Livingston, Montana. It was the former Bucket of Blood Saloon that had been carefully and lovingly made over into an establishment of the highest order by the esteemed writer and painter Russell Chatham.

It was my favorite restaurant ever, anywhere. It was a folded linen napkin sort of place, but not stuffy. This piece is not about the restaurant, though. I am wandering. My father, an English professor, was in town for a visit, and we’d gone to the Bar and Grille and had a wonderful dinner: carpaccio, salad caprese, roast duck and a really good Cabernet, or two. 

He is telling us that he thinks my 6-year-old son should take lessons in the martial arts. My husband and I look at each other and smile a bit. This is a topic we’ve discussed.

“Well,” say I, “we’ve talked about it but we think it would just give Julian an excuse to kick people.”  My father, out of the blue, quietly explodes in front of us.

“Well, it would give him some self-discipline,” he hisses. “Something you never had.”

It wouldn’t have surprised me more if he’d reached across the table and slapped me. In those days I wrote copiously for a local weekly, turning out all manner of stuff from investigative reports on murders to groundbreaking ceremonies for new bank branches, a survey of Thanksgiving traditions to the nitty gritty of the police blotter, with book reviews and a personal column thrown in for good measure.

“I write more than 5000 words a week for publication,” I tell my father, tears welling in my eyes. “That takes a little self-discipline.”

“I want some respect!” he roars back. And so I get up and walk out, trying to get out the door before I start sobbing.

It was my mother who unraveled the mystery for me. She understood that I was defending myself with my declaration of  weekly achievement. She also saw that my father, from whom she was long divorced, saw my statement as a dig. “He has a hard time finishing anything—articles, essays, the Berryman book,” she said. “He thought you were throwing that in his face.”

My father is gone now. We never really discussed what happened in the Livingston Bar and Grille that night, though I did address it once in an email in the last months of his life. I told him that I was just trying to defend myself and that there was no insult, subtle or otherwise, intended for him. He didn’t respond to that, perhaps he didn’t even remember the incident.

But when I was sorting through his office at the University, I saw why he had never finished the book on John Berryman. He began in 1970. Berryman leapt to his death from a Minneapolis bridge in January of 1972; it would have been an ideal time to publish a book about the poet. In Dad’s office there were two filing cabinet drawers filled with material about Berryman: poems analyzed down to their last syllable. I asked Dad, then speechless from laryngeal cancer, what to do with the files. “Pitch them,” he scribbled on a legal pad. I did pitch some of them, but I packed up just as many and carried them home.

They stand in their boxes, not just in homage, but also as a cautionary tale. I, too, fall so easily into the research trap.  The research is fun, the quest for the unknown, the thrill of discovery. I have my own 20-year-old book project in file folders. At some point you have to stop researching and start writing, but by then, you’re so deep into the research that you don’t even know where to start.

But that’s not exactly the kind of block I’ve had lately. You know how it is when you wake up in the morning after strenuous activity the day before and you don’t even really want to move, because you know its going to hurt? It’s more like that. That famous scene in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining where Jack Nicholson has typed the same sentence thousands of times onto reams of manuscript paper, that made my heart ache. Not because it was showing that he was losing his mind, or that he was about to become a murderous killer, but because I understood. It is the ultimate spinning of wheels: All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy.

It isn’t that I don’t have anything to write about. I have a list of stuff I want to write about, plan to write about. I interviewed a local figure here a few weeks ago—no, it’s at least a month. He’s running for City Council. He’s a fan of my work and I know he’s been wondering where the hell the piece is. But I couldn’t write it. Not in these last weeks, it would have read like it was written with a stubby crayon. I was like a literary drunk, couldn’t put one word in front of the other.

Opening lines come to me in dreams. And closing lines. But I never even open up the word processing application on the printer—the modern equivalent to rolling the paper under the platen of a typewriter. I’ve had no blank sheet to stare at, because I have simply looked away. I’ve played hours of Snood (one of Dad’s favorite pastimes too, as it happened) I list stuff on eBay and track it from hour to hour, minute to minute. I read the news from many different major papers from different corners of the globe. I participate in forums. I wander around the kitchen looking for something to nosh on and then I come back, sit down and log on to Facebook.

Today, a good friend of mine, a writer, a woman with three young daughters who gets up at five in the morning (so she has time to write) told me that she had signed up to Facebook just to keep up with me. I was so ashamed. I know she didn’t mean for me to feel ashamed, but I did. I felt like a fraud. Writer! Feh! Who am I kidding? I am a dabbler, a dilettante, a pretender.

And yet….

When the words come they are like cool water on a tear stained face. The pages fill with word after word that not only march along together in formation, sometimes they dance like Alvin Ailey across the page. Sometimes they lift off like herons rising from the wood. And sometimes they plod along like little tired children, but at least they move. Those are the good hours. Those are the times that I feel light, energetic, even, dare I say it, immortal. This is not to say that the writing is easy. It isn’t. Sometimes you have to wrangle sentences as unruly as broncs and just as dangerous. Sometimes more dangerous. It’s nearly impossible to stop until I’m finished and sometimes the sun has gone down and come up again before the last bit of punctuation hits the page. It’s a weird combination of exhilaration and exhaustion to finish. My poor husband: I’ve woken him up many nights to have him talk me down so that I can sleep.

I don’t think it’s like this for everyone.

It isn’t like this for me every time. The more pedantic pieces don’t consume me so much, but they don’t give so much in return either. Yes, its fun to write about weird McDonald’s commercials, but it’s kind of like eating McDonald’s food, it doesn’t really sustain me. On the other hand, I can no more write every essay from the core of my very being any more than I could survive while bleeding all over the pages, and honestly, who would want to read a steady diet of that?

There’s a funny story about William Faulkner, who before he became a literary lion worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood. He too suffered from Writer’s Block—spending too many interesting evenings at cocktail parties, screenings, the Brown Derby.  Finally, after a particularly frustrating day trying to write at the studio, he told Howard Hawks that he was having a hard time concentrating and that he was going to go home to write. Hawks said fine, and a few days later he checked in at the hotel to see how Faulkner was coming with the script. “Oh, Mr. Hawks,” the desk clerk said, “Mr. Faulkner checked out on Monday.” He had returned home- to Mississippi- to write.

Maybe that’s my problem. I don’t have a door on my study (a soon to be remedied situation) – and I am more productive late at night when the dogs and cats and child and husband have curled in their respective beds.  The television is silent. But on the other hand I am used to writing in a newspaper office with phones ringing and an offset press running in the next room. I have had private offices, solitude galore, where I did not write a lick.

My friend Rose (not a writer) says I should relax and let it flow and she’s more right than she knows. But it’s easier said than done. On the Internet (oh the wonderful, horrible, fantastic and terrible Internet, waster of time, master of research tools) there are all kinds of helpful people wanting to cure my writer’s block.

Drink coffee. Exercise. Dance. Listen to music. Eat healthy snacks. Yadda yadda yadda. We know all those things, don’t we? I’ve got my coffee cup. I’m listening to the Afro Cuban All Stars, music that can be incredibly conducive to writing, and yet. (Wait, you say, you’re writing this, aren’t you? And yes, but this isn’t really writing. This is like a pianist playing scales or a skater warming up, a painter cleaning brushes. This is the writing you do when you are getting ready to do some writing.) It’s a damn good thing I’m not Scheherazade… a thousand stories indeed, I’d have been dead a month ago.

I know what I have to do, and this is a start. I have to make deadlines for myself and I have to Honor Those Deadlines.  Oh, yes, and that other thing.







And make them dance.

Give Me That Fish

April 22, 2009 § 1 Comment

Sometimes you just have to write about the mundane. You find you just don’t have the wherewithal to write about sadness or faith or even the last thing left in Pandora’s box: hope. What is left then is either a blank canvas and hours wasted noodling around because you know you need to write, but you’re not strong enough for writing your heart. That’s when you write about McDonald’s instead.

Unless you’ve been in a cave since sometime-before-Mardi-Gras, you’ve seen the ad. If you’re like most Americans, you probably know every word to the jingle. Love it or hate it, McDonald’s Lenten season commercial for their Filet-o-Fish sandwich has achieved a kind of pop culture status that the Super Bowl spots only dream of.

Easter has come and gone, Lent’s been over for weeks and McDonald’s has ended the promotion, yet people still crave the singing fish. Views of the multiple listings for the spot on Youtube topped two million last week and continue to climb; the first one posted garnered 10,000 views in the first hours it was available.

Since it appeared, Freddy the Fish’s 15 seconds of fame has been parlayed into mashups and remixes by DJs , it’s being played in clubs, there are parodies, children sing it, cats sing it, hell, I even sing it. (Not on Youtube, though, you’ll be glad to know.) You can get the jingle as a ringtone for your cell phone.


Give me  back that Filet-o-Fish

Give me that fish

Give me back that Filet-o-Fish

Give me that fish

What if it were you hanging

up on this wall?

If it were you in that sandwich

you wouldn’t be laughing at all….


When they were looking for a way to promote the fish sandwich during this year’s Lenten season, McDonald’s turned to Arnold, a Boston ad agency. (You can blame them for the Carnival Cruise beach ball ads, along with “Powered by Tyson” and spots for Ocean Spray.) The catch? (Sorry.) The same spot had to work for both English and Spanish-speaking markets.

Pete Harvey, senior ad man at the agency, gave them “Freddy the Fish.” (For the Spanish markets, the piscine star was presented as “Pepe de Pescado.”) Brainstorming in the aptly named “Fish Bowl” conference room, one staffer recalled a decade-old hit novelty item “Billy the Big-Mouthed Bass,” an animatronic rubber fish that sang “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and “Take Me to the River” when passersby set off the motion sensor.

Though Freddy bears more than a passing resemblance to Billy, he is actually a real fish, a pollack, prepared by a Los Angeles taxidermist. (Both pollack and cod are used in the Filet-o-Fish, but the crew decided that the cod was “too scary looking.”) Freddy’s head and tail are activated by remote control. Nonetheless, Gemmy Industries, the manufacturers of the original Billy, were flattered by the imitation. One of their veeps sent a thank you note to McDonalds, and they are introducing a recordable Billy Bass that will be sold through Cabela’s, and a Billy Bass app for your iPhone.

The agency supplied the lyrics to the New York music production company, Pulse Music and composer Josh Peck sent back seven different interpretations of Freddy’s song.  Just before presenting the last variation Peck told the firm “We don’t think you’ll go with this one, it’s the most weird.”  That techno-meets-garage-band sound (“the most weird”) was the unanimous favorite.

“It was the one everyone wanted to hear over and over again,” Pete Harvey told USA Today. “There’s more risk with jingles, but also more reward.”  In scouting out a location, a garage was found that had a Billy Bass already mounted on the wall: they had found the right spot. Ray Conchado, the actor who plays the head-bobbing man eating the sandwich, said he started out eating the whole sandwich with each take. After a few takes, he learned to just take a bite.  J.R. Reed, who portrays the dumbstruck friend returning a borrowed drill, gets the most comment at our house. “The look on that guy’s face is just great,” my husband has said each and every time we’ve seen the spot.  Or even just when talking about it.

Give me that fish.

Every year McDonald’s sells 300 million Filet-o-Fish sandwiches, and twenty-five percent of those are sold during Lent, the forty-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter during which many devout Roman Catholics give up eating meat.  McDonald’s isn’t the only fast food giant to cash in on this fish-selling opportunity; every chain from Burger King (BK Big Fish replaced the long standing “Whaler” a few years ago) to Rally (Deep Sea Double) to Arby’s (and their touted “fish shaped” sandwich) is in on the act.  As you might expect, the regular fishmongers like Long John Silver and Captain D.’s really step up their ad campaigns too.

We’re not Catholic; we give up nothing for Lent. (I’d be happy to give up housekeeping and overcooked vegetables, but I guess that’s not really in the proper spirit of the thing.) But we do eat more fish in March, and that is due in some small part to the McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish promotions.  Though my husband was pretty upbeat about Rally’s Deep Sea Double, I wasn’t impressed. The fish squares were dry and had a kind of bitter aftertaste. They were too crunchy, and the cheese, well, I don’t know. I just didn’t care for it.

In fact, I generally can’t abide fast food fish. (Yes, I confess, I’m one of those peculiar people that peel the batter off the shrimp.) But that particular combination of the Filet-o-Fish: a tender square of fish, a bit of tartar sauce, a little cheese assembled tidily on (and this is the important part) a steamed bun.  A remarkable number of consumers complain that McDonald’s only puts half a slice of cheese on the Filet-o-Fish. Hello? They’ve only put half a slice of cheese on the sandwich since 1982, when most of the malcontents hadn’t even been born yet.

It’s less a cost-cutting measure than a means to reduce the calorie and fat content in a sandwich that some people might choose as a healthier option to the Big Mac. You could do worse in that respect, the sandwich weighs in (sorry) at 350 calories, 16 grams of protein and 16 grams of fat. An odd side notes here is that two diet websites list the calorie/fat count of the Filet-o-Fish at 450cal/26g and 380cal/18g but those are anomalies, most independent sites agree with McDonald’s own nutritional analysis.

The phenomenon of Freddy the singing fish’s popularity generated a considerable amount of press, not just in trade journals like Brandweek, but also in the “generalist” newspapers, like USA Today and in all manner of websites. Many of them include comment sections, and the comments have run the gamut from “I can’t stand this commercial, I turn the channel every time it comes on” to “I love this! It’s my ringtone.”  (And complaints about the half slice of cheese.)

The real puzzle in the comment section is the invective that pops up fairly regularly. They’re not just critical of McDonald’s, they are screeds: apoplectic rants about the American institution, and its sandwiches. Do vegetarians write them? Sometimes. Are they written by animal rights activists? Probably. Are they written by former employees—some of them, without a doubt. Why do these people even read articles about singing fish commercials if they are going to make their blood pressure go through the roof? It would be less deleterious to their health if they just had a couple of Big Macs and chilled.

It made me think of the Internet rumour a good friend sent me a few months ago, urging me to boycott McDonald’s in a show of support for American cattlemen. The rumour purported that McDonald’s was going to be buying uninspected South American beef, raised on pastures that used to be rainforest, cutting into the livelihoods of ranchers across this fair land. Most of the other big burger chains (Burger King and Wendy’s predominantly) do use South American beef. (And all beef, imported and domestic, in this country is inspected, so that part was just a bugaboo.)

McDonald’s is the single largest buyer of U.S. beef, its not surprising that American cattle producers would be worried that the chain was looking elsewhere for their patties. The problem, according to McDonald’s, is not that there isn’t enough beef produced in the U.S. but because most of the beef here is grain-fed, there is not enough lean beef available here. Therefore, McDonald’s began importing grass-fed beef from Australia and New Zealand; those imports account for about ten percent of the beef they use in this country.

Unlike most other fast food chains, McDonalds has become the standard bearer in environmental conservation. (When they gave up Styrofoam use, it cut Styrofoam demand in this country in half and rainforest conservation via their refusal to use South American beef.) They were among the first to provide better nutritional choices and full disclosure of nutritional analysis.  In philanthropic endeavors, they provide 6,000 bedrooms every night for families of ill children through nearly 300 Ronald McDonald houses (serving more than a million families every year) and through Ronald McDonald House charities, providing hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and program services to benefit children worldwide. 

Because they are so ubiquitous and because every McDonald’s in America can be mapped on their website, they have also become a cog in the vast network that compromises dog rescue and the transport system that makes it work, not just for pure breed rescues, but for shelters across the country in their efforts to place dogs. You’d think people could find something more worthwhile to be enraged about.

We stop at McDonald’s pretty routinely. My father made McDonald’s his regular stop for pee breaks, and when we’re traveling we do the same. When my son was little he and I used to go through the local Drive-thru after school for an order of French fries to share. When I was little you used to be able to go to McDonald’s, get a hamburger, fries and a coke and still get change back for your dollar. I even remember the commercial for it. “Sir? You forgot your change.”  The greatest food? No, probably not. Maybe the most reliable fast food, though, and always, always, the comfort of the familiar.  My Mom usually ordered the Filet-o-Fish.