January 30, 2012

Tales from the South

I've been blogging for a long time. And I haven't made mention of it, but I've been writing for a long time and not doing a darn thing with the writing that I've done.

A couple of years ago I made a writer friend who also turns out to also be a fabulous human being. To say he was encouraging would be an understatement. He's the kind of guy who, if he believes in you, will shove you out of a nest because he knows you can fly when you aren't certain of it yourself.  For your own good, of course. (At least, I THINK that's what he was doing, and not trying to kill me.)

And so, over the last couple of years I've been flapping my boney little wings trying to get some lift.  And finally, this month, I've caught an updraft and it's an exciting one.

I had a story accepted to a radio show called Tales from the South.  The show airs on NPR and anywhere else that it's syndicated. Tomorrow night I'll be doing the live reading for the show and while I'm there I'll be thinking of all of you who have been hanging out here with me, those of you have taken the time to comment and to be there for me when I was funny and, lately, not so funny.

If you want to hear the recorded version of the show you can listen to it when it airs Thursday at 7PM CST via KUAR.  It will also be archived at PRXUPDATE: The producer said the show won't air for two weeks.  I'll post a reminder here then.

And another writer friend, the lovely, talented and big-haired J.A. Zobair was kind enough to celebrate with me by doing an interview! I hope you will go say hello to both of us at her post: Scenes from the Making of an Interview.  Please go by and reassure her that I will never make her go fishing again. And also that I'm a nice person despite what she may think of me after this interview.  No, really.  REALLY. Go on. Go. GO!

January 26, 2012

Why I Changed My Mind about the Death Penalty

From the time I could understand the concept of right and wrong, good and bad, crime and punishment I have heard the "eye for an eye" argument. It's how I was raised. That sentiment of judgement was in the fabric of me and I gave the death penalty, frankly, less consideration than choosing what restaurant to eat at. It was a matter for others to worry about. It didn't concern me. Kill a man who murders another man?  Sure, why not?  An eye for an eye.  That seems fair enough.

In the first week of May, 2008, while I was alone in my office at work I got a call about my brother's only daughter. "Tanya has been murdered. Terry stabbed her. She's dead, Wendy. Tanya is dead."  As I was hanging up, some office mates arrived and were asking me some questions about work.  I remember answering them by repeating what I had just heard on the phone, then walked to a nearby office and started shuffling through papers to find what they were looking for.

From what seemed like a mile away I heard one person say, "I think she's in shock. Look at her.  She's shaking." And that's when my consciousness returned to my body and I realized I was quivering like I'd been pulled out of some distant, frozen sea.

The next months, even years were revealing. I was sad, raging, apathetic.  Exhausted, I'd forget for a moment anything was amiss, then would suddenly remember with a cold wave of shock and start the cycle over again. The burr under my saddle was that I wanted to settle in my mind on what I thought a fair punishment would be for him. An eye for an eye.  That must be the right thing.  He killed, he should die.

The angry person in me thought that was not nearly fair enough. He should suffer.  A lot.  He should stay in prison for his whole life.  And not just any prison -- the kind of prison you see in the movies where rampaging gangs of men beat and abuse and kill each other and there is peril at every turn.  Would that be fair, that he suffer for a lifetime?

I went through every scenario imaginable -- from the true-life realistic alternatives, to the outlandish never-gonna-happen fantasy. Nothing satisfied me.  I was a boiling stew of unresolve.  I despaired that there was no kind of justice for me.


These days I think our culture defines justice as "a fitting punishment for the crime."  That isn't what justice is, though. The icon for Justice is the lady with the scales who blindly balances truth and fairness.

Justice, in my mind, is the determination of what a person must pay back to the world to offset the damage he or she has done to it.

Killing the man who murdered my niece is not going to bring her back. It's not going to make me feel better because, frankly, I've run through every permutation of his suffering than I can possibly imagine and none of them feel like enough punishment. They seem brutal and pointless. There is nothing to be gained from any of it.

The only possible solution is that he has to balance out the bad he has done with an equivalent amount of good.  If he can be redeemed, he must be.  And then his life should be forfeit to the service of others until he has paid back the amount of joy and usefulness that left the world when my niece was stabbed 27 times in her bedroom by her own husband.

And in the event that he cannot be redeemed, he must toil in some fashion for the good of others. He must knit sweaters for homeless children until his fingers bleed or he goes blind.  Or he must build homes for the homeless or he must grow gardens to feed the hungry. He must sell things he's made with his hands to put a poor kid through college.

Justice is not killing him, it's making him replace what he stole from me and from you.  Yes, you.

Because it's not about my niece. It's about violating all of us as humans.  Criminals hate and disrespect and so we lock them up like bad children because what else can we do with them?

What we can do with them is turn the system upside down and stop throwing up our hands in despair like confused and frustrated parents.  We can admit that our system is broken.  We can insist that balance be restored, that justice become about fairness, not about punishment.

I don't want Terrence Hill to die.  I want Terrence Hill to make the world a better place.  That's what would satisfy me.  That's what might give me a sliver of a chance to feel at peace and to find forgiveness within me.

January 1, 2012

Old Charley

The door swung inward and the bulk of a man filled the opening from edge to edge. He stood in the doorway and quickly surveyed the room as if to weigh his options before making a strategic placement of himself within my office.

“Charley Matheson,” he announced.

He unstoppered himself from the doorway and a gush of people entered along with him in his wake, the rest of the Matheson family who wanted to weigh in on “Pops buying a house.”

I stood in the middle of the room directing his entourage to various areas of engagement – one to the bulletin board, two to the bathrooms, one to get a drink of water. I waved papers in front of Mr. Matheson’s face, papers I thought might entice him to change his life, seduce him into moving north out of the mosquito-infested plains where “levees threatened to break and The Blacks are taking over.”

As the commotion whirled around me I sighed and rubbed my face, my eyes. I’ve lived my life in the South where racism is an ever-present part of the culture like owning a truck and a hound and how you grow enough yellow squash in the summer to supply all your neighbors and the food bank, too.

“It ain’t that I’m against The Blacks,” he continued, as if to reassure me he wasn’t actually a racist. “I got a good friend who’s black, so it ain’t that. But you know…”

He paused and looked at my face, waiting for me to agree that I understand the difference between Not Liking the Blacks and being A Racist. I do not understand it. And yet… having lived here for so long, I understand the difference as they see it.

“We have a nice selection of things to look at Mr. Matheson. I’m certain you’ll like our area.”

I opened the door for him, turned the OPEN sign to CLOSED and ushered them all out the door.

“The last time the levees threatened to break I packed up everything I owned – my tractors, my tools, all my machinery and equipment for the farm. I loaded it all up on a big trailer and took it to my friend's to wait out the flooding. And when I came back it had all been stolen. All of it. Gone.”

I nodded sympathetically. “That’s terrible,” I said and patted him on the arm.

“I just can’t live with it anymore. When I go shopping, I look around and I’m like a marshmallah in a bag full of chocolate chips and I don’t like it.”

“We should go,” I press firmly and point south in the direction we’d start driving.

* * *

Sometimes people are redeemable. Sometimes they are not.

And principles always matter in one’s heart, but sometimes don’t amount for much in real world applications.

As I headed south, an image swam up to the surface of my mind – me sitting at a cheap and grimy fake wood Formica kitchen table in a ramshackle house with the infuriating and grouchy Mr. Bonds.

“Now then,” he said with a heavy pause, the corners of his mouth twitching slightly as if he is making an effort not to smile about a joke he anticipates telling. “What I do NOT want is for you to show this house to any Black People.”

My eyebrows crunched together and I’m pretty certain my face might have started to fold in on itself in distaste. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Of course I’m not kidding, young lady. I wouldn’t do that to my neighbors, sell this house to Blacks.”

“Well, Mr. Bonds. I will tell you that the Federal Fair Housing Act prohibits the discrimination against persons based on race or color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status or disability.”

“I don’t need the Gub’ment to tell me who I can and can’t sell my house to.”

“The Government isn’t telling you who you can and can’t sell your house to, they’re telling ME who I can and can’t sell your house to.  And besides, Mr. Bonds, you know you’re attitude is just plain wrong.”

He blinked and sat back looking at me as if I was delivering the surprising news that his virgin wife would be giving birth to the baby Jesus.  “No it ain’t.”

I pushed my papers into a tidy pile, carefully lining up the edges. “It IS wrong, Mr. Bonds. I’m afraid you’ll need to find someone else to help you with your house.”

* * *

The Matheson House must have a fireplace. It must have 40 acres or more. It also must have a basement in case there are storms. They must be able to live off the land, must be self-sufficient in case Obama is elected again and the world goes to hell.

The first house was “too rustic” according to Mrs. Matheson who breezed through it in less than two minutes.

“The deer heads don’t convey,” I call after her, half-joking. Nobody but me thought it was funny.

Mr. Matheson wanted to look in the garage but his wife insisted they leave as there was no point wasting time in a house she couldn’t live in.  She fled the house leaving Mr. Matheson and I standing in the living room looking at one another.

“She won’t like the next one if she doesn’t like this one, Mr. Matheson.”

“Call me Charley.”

“Okay, Charley, but she won’t.”

And indeed, the road was too long and all dirt. Yet, it was perfect for Charley. “It’s everything I’ve ever wanted,” he whispered to me as we huddled together next to the huge stone fireplace in the round lodge-style living room.

He leaned his ear down toward my mouth as I whispered back, “Don’t worry, we’ll find it for you. We’ll make it work.”

The third house was too far out of town, but I knew as I turned into the fourth house that it was bound to be perfect.  It bordered a highway and had a long, sweeping curved driveway that was paved. It sat sedate and solidly-bricked on a hill overlooking a cattle pasture with a pond. It had two fireplaces, his and hers.

“This would be my room, Charley,” I teased, pointing to the sun room that had its own fireplace. “And no men allowed.”

“Who’d load yer wood up and start the fire?”

We stood next to each other looking through the sunroom glass. I crossed my arms and said, “I reckon I’d let a fella bring me some firewood now and again.”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Old Charley grin before he wandered off to find his missus.

We drove to the back of the property to find the fourth corner of the land. I got out of my car and Charley got out of his. We stood at the corner and leaned on the fence post and looked out at the field where the cows were grazing.

“Like it?”

“Yes I do, missy.”

“Think Mama will like it?”

He stood straight and wiggled the fence to test its sturdiness. “Hard to say. But we won't take it if she don’t like it. Me, I’d be happy most anywhere, but she’s more particular.”

“Ain’t that just like a woman to be fussy about her house?”

“Ain’t it,” he agreed.

“Well, you must be doing something right since you’ve been married all these years.”

He clapped his big hand on my shoulder where it sat for a minute like a hot sack of grain. “Truth be known, she’s my second. I was married to the boy’s mama for 38 years and you know what she done?”


“I was working two jobs and she wasn’t doing nothing. And I wanted to get rid of my old trailer and get a new one so I could get some bigger jobs and she threw a big ole fit and told me absolutely not was I gonna spend the money I earned on a new goose-neck trailer. Well how’s a man sposta make a living if he don’t got the right equipment?”

A white cow brayed its opinion in the distance.

“I still got that goose-neck trailer, but I ain’t got the wife no more.”

I laughed and we walked back to his truck where I waited for him to get in and I said my goodbyes to Mrs. Matheson and the rest of the family, then watched them drive away, back to their house with the dangerous levees and their one black friend and Those Other Blacks.

And I gazed out again at the pastures and wondered how the weather was in Portland this time of year.