Sunday, December 25, 2011

Honoring the Real Santa

He's round with rosy cheeks and John Lennon glasses. A full white beard rests on his chest and the slippers on his feet cover a toe he injured somewhere along the way.  Perhaps he stubbed it getting up for a cup of hot chocolate after falling asleep reading in front of a fire.

I don't believe in a lot, but I do believe in the spirit of Santa.  I knew the real Santa.  He looked nothing like the jolly elf you see in ads, shopping malls and movies.  Santa was crusty.  Kinda beat up.  Instead of rosy cheeks, his skin was weathered and pocked from years working on a farm and in the coal fields. His smile was off-kilter, perhaps the effects of a stroke.  He didn't smell the best.  Kinda smelled like old flesh.  He had one bad eye, and that one kinda oozed as time went on, but the good one twinkled from a goodness within.  

His name was Henry Krantz.  He's one of those jewels you rarely hear about because he and his kind are tucked away in nowhere. Henry was probably as poor as they come.   Instead of a fancy red suit, he dressed in worn overalls.  He lived in a simple house in the country and had a falling-down barn with an old horse in residence that was more beat up than Henry. Henry loved that horse, but Henry had a soft spot for those less fortunate.

Every week, Henry made the rounds of local businesses asking for donations and he'd collect a dollar or two, then he'd invest in a little sugary cheer.  He'd pop into the hospital and nursing home and pass out candy.  "I walk into a room and say 'you look like hell!'" he told me once.  "People are there because they are sick, they don't want someone telling them they look good.  Tell them they look as bad as they feel."  Henry may have been the only visitor people had all week.  

But, Henry's real calling was for the kids.  All year long, Henry collected toys - old broken toys that we lucky kids had no further use for.  Toy cars with broken doors,  fire engines missing wheels, plush dogs missing ears and stuffing, and dolls who's heads had fallen off and were missing eyes.

And, after collecting these hundreds of toys, Henry sat in his workshop and made them new.   He painted, fixed, stuffed.  He inserted eyes and reattached limbs.  He found a woman with a sewing machine who made sure that no doll went naked.

Then, every year on Christmas Eve, Henry donned a cheap red suit, boots and smelly white beard and made the drive to "The State Training Center", the area residence of so many mentally handicapped individuals.  Many of them were forgotten during the holidays, and Henry made sure those kids knew that they were special in the heart of Santa. 

Henry was the real deal……..  But the guy in the red suit?  He sits on my mantle this time of year.  A reminder of Henry and the real Santas of the world.  One of my Mother's best friends, Charlene Westling, knew the pain of having a child severely affected with Downs Syndrome.  Charlene was an angel.  She became a doll maker, and for her special Santa doll she used the face of her father who was also a farmer, or some such thing.Though tall and lanky, there is no mistaking that her Santa has the face of her Dad, and probably embodies his spirit as well.  There's real goodness in the man's face.

Charlene's Santa reminds me that, while I personally could do without this time of year, the true spirit of the season, the spirit of Henry Krantz, is something worth honoring.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I Hate This Time of Year

The frog that looks like my Mom
It starts in July.  The advertisements for things you can't live without.  Oh, PLEEEEASE!  By October the annoying carols are beating your ears senseless.  It is like listening to the opening and closing of a rusty door for hours.  When water-boarding doesn't work, terrorists probably resort to the constant onslaught of Christmas Carols to force prisoners to rat out their mothers.

If other people want to spend days putting up tinsel that will only murder their vacuums,  or killing trees to park in their living rooms so they can watch them slowly wither and die, that is fine. It just isn't for me.  We stopped allowing my Mom to put up a tree when we were in junior high.  She had to decorate a small live one.  My poor Mom.

But, then, I've never seen much of anything in the way that the mainstream human population sees things.  I used to irritate my family, pushing them to volunteer to cook at a shelter on Christmas Day rather than the usual big family meal with presents and such.  THAT suggestion wasn't entertained past the immediate response of "NO!"

And, I hate to admit it, but when my Mom died, the first things to go were the 8' Christmas wreath (which now hangs outside an area church that appreciates it), the plastic holiday 'greens' and the red table cloth.  Long ago, she used to put a red light bulb in the street light in front of our house, though.  She probably stopped it when someone mentioned that people traveling through town thought we ran a brothel.  I'd consider returning to that tradition, just for fun…….

Arayo at Mom's tree
Not being a hunter, I have a personal aversion to camo clothing (I understand you can now get  wedding dresses and baby wear in camouflage - in case you want to take your 3 month old or your new bride out to kill something for that truly special occasion).  In the same category, I don't get the holiday sweaters.  They aren't awful, but I just don't see the point in owning a sweater covered with Christmas lights, packages or wildlife with big red noses.

But, today I decorated for Christmas.  I found this frog - lovely thing with big red lips, wearing a bra and a tutu.  It looked like my Mom. So I bought it .  Off I went to the park and tied it to the tree which the city put up in Mom's honor.  Right now the tree is a baby and looks like Charlie Brown's Christmas tree, and you'd have to be walking right next to it to notice the frog, but since the frog reminded me so much of Mom, and since she DID like Christmas, it all seemed fitting.  A friend went along with me and attached an 8 or 9" gold ball to the tree as well.  THAT will get some attention.  Twiggy tree, with one extravagant big gold ball and, if you look closely, this kinda slutty looking frog.  I love it!

I considered decorating the tree at the park that was planted in my Dad's honor, but I'm trying to figure out how to string batteries and antennas together into a radio-guy kinda statement.  Maybe next year

I figure you can be a Scrooge to a point - then one needs their own quirky way to celebrate. Still, I'll be glad to see an end to this season.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

How About the Over Employment Rate?

It seemed Orwellian.  Unsmiling  women, similar age, shape, demeanor.  Pushing papers about identical gray desks in a huge room full of identical gray desks.  Through the big windows that opened into this space, I felt like I was watching a scene from "1984".  

I am here to pay taxes.  I stand at the window and look at the three women nearest me who are so fascinated with their paper-moving that they have yet to look up or acknowledge my presence.  The unhappiness emitting from these woman is oppressive.

Finally, a woman stands and approaches the counter.  I hand her my papers and check, made out for the entire amount due.   Then she utters the only words of this entire transaction; "Are you paying for the entire year or half?"

Perhaps she can't read?  I bite my tongue to keep from asking "does the total on the check equal half or all the payment?"

I tell her the obvious.

She processes the payment, hands me a receipt and, without cracking a smile, turns and goes back to the safety of her gray desk, resuming the unhappy paper-pushing demeanor.

It really is like something out of a sci-fi movie.  Robot-humans doing their jobs.  Part of me is sad for them -  content to lead such an existence.  Most of me is enraged.  I just paid this woman's salary for the month and she can't smile, act engaged and say "thank you?"

In a country where the official unemployment rate is 8.6%, and I'd guess that the unofficial rate, including people who are underemployed, is more like two to three times that, THESE WOMEN HAVE JOBS?

This encounter followed a conversation with a doctor's office that went like this:

Me -  "Did you get the CD I sent with the CAT scan?" 

Overpaid Person (OP) - "No, we didn't get it."

Me - "Really? It should be there."

OP - "Well, it isn't."

Me - "I sent it a week ago and it was just going 35 miles, I can't believe it didn't make it.

OP - "No, it isn't here.  Maybe it is in the back and they didn't give it to me."

Me - "sigh….."

LATER - OP - "It is here.  It is the same."

Me -  "The same? So you found the CD, the doctor looked at it and said it hasn't change? When someone called after receiving the report I was told it was better."

OP - "No, it hasn't changed."

Me - "But, after 3 weeks of antibiotics, when I saw the CAT scan, it looked better than before, and the report said it was better."

OP - "This is what the doctors said. 'The infection is clearing,' so nothing has changed."

Me - "You are telling me it is the same and you are telling me it is better.  Which is it?"

OP - "I'll let you talk to someone in the back."

Person Earning Her Salary - "The doctor looked at the CAT scan and the infection is much better than before.  You don't need to do anything else unless you begin to have problems down the road."

Sigh……….   I hung up the phone, not relieved that the sinus infection was better, but amazed that ding-dongs are still holding down jobs.  With the current unemployment rate, this physician could probably get someone with a  PhD in communications to answer the phone for him. Someone who can charm the public, or at least give a sensible response to a question.  But, no, he's still got Ding Dong dealing with his public.

Maybe its just me, but I tend to think you should treat people with respect and that people dealing with the public should have some common sense and a slice of personality. I'm running into too many people (ouch - mostly women) who seem so miserable or inept, I think the kindest thing would be to relieve them of their current jobs and hire someone who is happy to be working with the public.

Life is short.  Too short to either work in a job that makes you miserable or to have someone working for you that is unhappy or a ding-a-ling. And, with so many people actively looking for work I'm amazed with the people actually draw a paycheck!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Ghosts a Little Too Close to Home

Arayo visits family graves looking for ghosts

The conversation was genial, as discussions are when people are going about their early morning rituals.  Not an early riser, I fought through cobwebs which had crept in during the night, surrounding my brain, and blanketing my eyes and ears.  I slowly noted that it was morning, and listened to my parents quietly visiting in the hall as they began their day.

Then I realized………  My parents haven't begun a day together in nearly 10 years!  They are both dead!  

I remained calm and somehow realized I still had options, as we always do in life.  I could throw off my covers and chase the voices from the house, or I could lay still, allowing myself to drift back to a more innocent time, when my only concerns were getting to class (a block away) by the 8:30 bell, and dreading that my mom might serve peas again for lunch.

"Just relax and enjoy this," I thought, as the voices continued their low exchange.

Emotionally I laid back into the moment, when suddenly, the second big observation reached my awareness.  My dead parents are visiting today - and it is Halloween!   

And with that, they ceased to exist.

It is Halloween - the first one since both my parents have been gone.  Dad believed in an afterlife.  After all - the Bible promises you heaven and all that implies.  For Dad, that would be a blissful eternity of amazingly dull ham radio conversations, probably logging hours talking with the big guy himself…….   "GOD1 this is W0NLQ.   The skies are nice and bright today over here - - again.  How's it looking, from where you are? W0NLQ over….."

Mom, on the other hand, figured you're dead, you're dead.  "Besides," she would say, "Bob and I had an agreement.  If he died first he was going to report back if there is an afterlife, and he hasn't told me a thing!"  

Bob & Janet Carpenter markers
"Mom, you know Dad didn't talk to anyone except on his radio - and you removed the antennas and sold the radio before he was buried.  He's probably been reporting back, but talking to some guy named Gus in Toledo!""

Afterlife, ghosts, things that go bump in the night.  I want to believe in them.  Well, frankly, I do believe, but some people you EXPECT to stick around a while and resort to some playful - or mean spirited hauntings.  I would hope that I should do a bit of that when my days on earth or over…….  (I've got a few politicians I'd like to visit for a while…….)  But, Bob and Janet Carpenter?  Naw - they aren't really the type……

But after this morning, I'm beginning to wonder.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

R.I.P. Steve Jobs

Apple Computer's Home Page, October 5 & 6, 2011

I'm not a hero worshiper.  I was disgusted with all the crying when Elvis died.  ("Oh, get over it….." I'd think when women walked around work in tears.) I grew up on the Beatles, but John Lennon's death was just a blip on my radar.  I felt sad with the loss of Mother Teresa, but at 87, she'd led a good life and was probably ready for a rest.
Though prepared for it, I was hit pretty hard to open my e-mail yesterday to the subject "Steve Jobs Dead!"
Of course, I didn't know the man, but he profoundly impacted my life with his inventions, with his company and through who he was.  He chose the path less taken, yet based his actions on a deep belief system.  
Had I had the opportunity to work with this man, I would have lasted about a week.  I don't do well with people who tromp on the feelings of others - no matter how basically right their convictions may be.  Steve was known as a tyrant to work for, someone you probably didn't want to get caught in an elevator with at the office.  But, for those stronger than I, they loved working for this man with such foresight and sense of purpose.
Jobs followed his own vision - not those of someone else.  In his simple Levi Jeans, tennis shoes and black turtleneck he introduced product after product to the world that has profoundly changed our lives.  Not one to have all the techie gadgets (though I am seriously married to my Mac Computers), I watched as he introduced the iPad and my head started spinning!  "This is REALLY going to change things in the world," I thought, as I picked up the phone to buy more stock.  Yes, Steve, I do believe!
Steve Jobs was our generation's icon for successful nonconformism.  As blogger Om Malik wrote, "Today, we are living in a world that’s about taking short-term decisions: CEOs who pray at the altar of the devil called quarterly earnings, companies that react to rivals, politicians who are only worried about the coming election cycle and leaders who are in for the near-term gain.
“And then there are Steve and Apple: a leader and a company not afraid to take the long view, patiently building the way to the future envisioned for the company. Not afraid to invent the future and to be wrong."
While he revolutionized our world, the soul of the man was what really drew me to him. A Buddhist, a vegetarian, a man of principle, he yanked Apple's membership in the National Chamber of Commerce over their opposition of regulating greenhouse gas emissions.  Bully, Steve!

In a 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, Steve talked about his life, his dance with cancer and encouraged students to keep their deaths clearly in focus.  "No one wants to die," he said.  "Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there."  But he talks about facing the mirror every day and asking himself if this was his last day on earth, if what he was doing was making him happy.  If the answer was "No" too many days in a row, he changed things.
"Your time is limited," he told the Standford audience, "so don't waste it living someone else's life.  Don't be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people's thinking.  Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice."
I'm glad I grew up in Steve Jobs' time and I morn his loss.  I encourage people to take a few minutes to watch his Stanford address at  and I add my thoughts to those of so many others.  Godspeed, Steve.  Thank you.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

My Aunt Marian: A Well Lived Life

Marian Hughes Shuff, PhD, Educator, Artist, beloved Aunt

The world lost another of its most priceless souls yesterday.  My aunt Marian passed away peacefully, ending an amazing 93 year life.

In a time when small town Kansan women didn't divorce, Marian did, and she did it with style  - or at least that was how it appeared in the eyes of a very naive niece.  With two young children to think of, she had the strength to pull them from a less than positive relationship and raise them in a supportive, loving environment.  Already armed with a degree in education, Marian earned her masters, then her PhD, and split her time between nurturing her children, and training and encouraging college students in how to be the best teachers they could possibly be.  I always thought those students were some of the luckiest on earth to have had her influence to take into the classroom.

Upon retiring, she and her new husband, Bob, moved to Arkansas where she began her second career as an artist - taking classes in various art technics for the next 18 years and specializing in etchings, screen prints and wood and lino cuts.  While our homes filled with the work she shared, it wasn't until her daughter published a one-of-a-kind book of her work that the depth of her talent really struck home.  She was amazing, and she was doing art shows even at 90 years of age!

As another cousin noted, we always felt loved by our parents, but we looked on in awe as Marian seemed to absolutely adore her children.  She nurtured all of us, though, as she was genuinely interested in our lives, our dreams.  All my life I've heard the call of a different drummer - never quite fitting in - and Marian, who I adored, let me know in glorious terms that it was not only okay, but a very good thing.  "We're just alike!"  she'd assure me, and it was always the greatest of compliments to me.

A stanch Democrat, Marian would tell of walking down the street with a friend and, in as loud a voice as possible state - "…..and the reason I'm voting for Bill Clinton (or Barack Obama, or...)  is…….."  She has been claiming for years that she couldn't die until "after the next election!"

One of my fondest memories of Marian was when my father was dying.  She'd driven the 6 hour trip from Arkansas to Kansas to support her little sister, my Mom.  The day my Father passed away, I'd gone into the Intensive Care Unit to tell him we were leaving for the night.  He shook his head "no".  To be clear, I asked if he was saying he wanted us to stay, and got a nod.  I went back to the ICU waiting room to tell Mom and Marian that Dad wanted us to stay.  At 84, Marian didn't bat an eye.  She pulled three of the most horrid uncomfortable chairs together, formed a recliner out of them and said "then, we're spending the night right here!"

With a slowly failing heart, Marian slowed down a bit the past couple years, but that didn't stop her involvement in life.  She kept up with friends and family, and started a blog, "Life In Our Nineties!"  Now, how cool is that?

Art by Marian Shuff, Port au Gard, 1987, intaglio
Knowing the end was near, her two children, her only grandchild and I descended on the small apartment she shared with her husband in Hot Springs, Arkansas two weeks ago.  We spent long hours laying on or sitting beside her bed, holding hands, and sharing stories.  "What are we going to talk about now?" she's ask. Or "what would you want to do more than anything else if money was not an option?"   We had a wonderful week, centered on what she loved best - good conversation with people she loved.  We all felt lucky to have had the time - time to cherish, to remember, to say goodbye.

It would easy to say her loss is great - but her loss reminds me that life really is eternal.  Whether you believe in an afterlife or not - the world is touched by people like my aunt, Marian.  She lives on in her friends, in her art, in her family, in the students she encouraged and those encouraged by them.  She lives on in my heart - as I was one of the really lucky ones to have known and loved her.

It is a shame to waste a life.  At 93 years of age, Marian didn't waste a day of hers.

Please visit Marian's art website. You can link to her blog, "Life In Our Nineties" from "the Artist" page.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Of Grandeur and Neglect

The Carpenter House, 2011
The stately old home is tired; fragile after years of neglect and abuse.   Once, one of the most beautiful structures in the state, she droops and sags more with each passing month. 

Originally a show-place, the home whispers of a glorious past.  Within her spacious rooms the ghosts of long-ago parties move across polished parquet floors.  Genteel men in dark suits escort women wearing flowing long dresses who's hems gently dust the ground.  Above the grand staircase, light filters through an enormous, exquisite stained glass window which features a delicate woman enjoying an exotic garden setting somewhere far from this small Kansas town.

Stately porches grace two sides of the home, wrapping around in gentle sweeps, offering shelter as one waits to capture an elusive breeze on a hot Kansas evening.  From the second floor, balconies reach out toward views of the lawns below.

A century ago, the home's gardens were known throughout the country for they featured species rarely found in the States.  The owner spared no expense - importing his precious  peonies and irises from Holland and Japan, paying as much as $150 per bulb, (plus shipping and import taxes) - a shocking sum even 100 years later.

Today, the expansive lawns sport a few willful plants which summon the strength to push through the weeds, refusing to surrender to the neglect which encourages their demise.  

The Carpenter House, Early 1900's
I pass the house often, recalling it in a happier time.  Built  a century ago by members of my family, The Carpenter House slowly falls victim to her very spender, for her stateliness, her grandeur, have been, in part, her undoing.  She's dying, not from being unloved, but from being held too closely by the wrong people.

Sold in the middle part of the 1930's to a local physician, it was inherited by his daughter who hadn't the will to sell, nor the funds to maintain her from where she lived 150 miles away. Unoccupied, the home began her steady decline.  Paint peeled from her walls, the porches began to sag.  Beautiful balusters fell off one by one and weeds took over where priceless gardens once stood.

Through neglect, she became known as "the big haunted house".  Kids looking to scare themselves, or show they were brave, broke in to take their own private tours under cover of night.

Today, the home only hints of her early magnificence. An old utility truck is parked at her side, as though to catch pieces as they fall from her.  A tractor sits along the other side.  Again, she rests in the hands of one who, through lack of interest, funds or energy, has failed to reconstruct her to her former beautify.  And yet, he can't quite seem to part with her and entrust her to one with the dedication to restore her to her original splendor.

Human nature is a funny thing.  The Carpenter House - its beauty, its demise - hurts my soul.  I pray for her saving, but fear that, within a few years, she will be beyond all help.  Seeing her is painful, but I keep driving by - perhaps in hopes of finding her back in her original state, with men in dark suits and women in long dresses, strolling the grounds, stopping occasionally to partake of the delicious fragrance of a graceful purple iris.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 Once Again

As the country observes the anniversary of the horrors that took place 10 years ago, I considered joining the many who listened to the radio or watched the tv coverage of memorial events. A quick 10 minutes of listening to Presidents, past and present, expound on those who murdered, those who died and those who continue to sacrifice to make sure this will never happen again - and I was finished. It was time to reflect in my own manner.

I vividly recall where I was the day the Twin Towers came down. It was early morning and I happened to get up and turn on the tv to watch the day's news. What I saw was the coverage of the events back east. The towers were still standing but it was obvious that what was taking place was an attack on this country. "Where will they strike next?" the country wondered, as reports continued to leak about planes striking the Pentagon, a field in Pennsylvania and rumors of more were bantered around.

Personally, this would be the day I knew that my 9 year marriage was over. I had been struggling to keep a relationship alive with a man who was fundamentally unhappy. As I sat with him and watched people jumping from windows and the towers eventually falling before our eyes, I realized that there was more broken than our marriage as he was totally unaffected to the day's horrors. If he could not hold compassion for the thousands of suffering people that day, then it was okay for me to stop trying to make this work. Major life events seem to do that to people. They re-evaluate. They work to draw family and friends to them or move to clean up what doesn't work in their lives.

So, today, rather than listen to Presidents tell me what I should think and feel about that September day so many years ago, I chose to look at old footage of the events. To watch interviews of people who's lives changed that day. To morn for the individuals lost, for their families and for the shift that took place in our country.

I contemplate the really amazing things that came out of 9/11. The individuals who came forward to offer shelter, food, clothing, friendship, and compassion to total strangers. I recall how the majority of the world reached out to America - how they joined with us in our pain. For those who saw the terrorists as heros, I ask "why?" and wonder what we as a nation may have done or are doing to produce such hate.

I contemplate the rights we Americans have lost in the past 10 years as our leaders scream messages of fear, and I morn for the wars we are now engaged in. For the innocent people and our youth who are dying for……. what?

There is no excuse for the events of 9/11 but as I watch the replaying of the towers falling, I realize that more than steel and the lives of 3,000 people were lost that day. With the crumbling of the towers and the crashing of the planes, the entire structure of America fell - or, perhaps was exposed - and we suffer our responses.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Insanity That is Rodeo

"Were they born mentally challenged or did the men's extreme psychological shortcomings take place as a result of this sport?" I wondered as I watched the cowboys prepare for, then suffer, abuse after abuse?

I'm not a big rodeo fan. Okay, I'll be honest - I'd never been to a rodeo before in my life - but I've always been drawn to cowboy images. You know the ones - whips, spurs, chaps, cute butts……. There's something seductive about the life of a cowboy; a man living and working so close to the land. A man in love with his horse, hanging with those cute cuddly looking cows all the time…….

So, I figured going to a rodeo was about as close as I was going to get to a cattle-drive on an open Montana range.

The local paper arranged a press pass so I could get behind the scenes, and I spent 3 hours watching men preparing for what was to come. They wrapped their arms in tape, they explained, to give their arms support and to keep their muscles from being ripped off their bones when they were on the horse. (Ouch!) They strapped on chaps, donned padded vests, and tied a donut-like device around their necks to try to avoid whiplash.

I could see this was going to get really ugly. A few of the men seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time in prayer, and one sad-looking young cowboy, glancing towards an angry bucking horse in a narrow metal pen, was getting a jump on the pain by digging into a prescription drug bottle.

And these guys were just riding ticked off ponies. The men taking rides on bulls (and these bulls had some real unaddressed childhood issues which was now coming out in major rage, I assure you) - were strapping metal cages to their heads!

So, this is the romance behind the rodeo cowboys….. behind the men who week after week crawl up on animals that take no delight in having 180 pounds of human on their backs in 110 degree temperatures. I can't say I blame the animals for being enraged and working like hell to toss the pests from their backs.

But I'd still love to see the IQ scores of the men before they took up this hobby and then again after they'd been doing it for a year.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Jail Time, Anyone?

"Say," I commented to the group of women seated around the tables, "let's go picket! Maybe we could throw ourselves in front of some big equipment. Since the police department is just next door, I bet they'd come over and take us off to the pokey! Lori, would you deliver pie to the jail if we all got tossed in the clink?"

Lori was up for making a jail-house delivery for a good cause, but still the mostly gray haired ladies at the table nodded with a bit of - well, reluctance. I wasn't sure if the nods signified an agreement to my comments or if it was a way of signaling each other "Karyn seems to have lost it. Don't antagonize her….."

"We've got the local newspaper editor here - she could get us coverage," I continued. "We'd really get some attention if the entire Thursday Pie Day group went to jail for the cause." (Besides, I'm thinking, most of us are well into our retirement years or getting close. Grandmothers, great-grandmothers - women with a mission! It would play well to the media. I was liking this idea better all the time.)

The cause, of course, was the destruction of the little 100 year old brick building that was being torn down to benefit one of the churches in town. Seemed that most everyone had a lump in their throat over the sacrificing of this little building, but the dismantling continued piece by piece.

My friend, Pat, was psychologically, if not physically, trying to move from my side to the other end of the table. As the only Methodist in the group, it was her church that was gaining a breezeway over the murder of the small defenseless building. While I didn't blame her - she didn't even know about the issue until walking into our Thursday noon Pie Day gathering - she still felt a bit on the spot over my rantings and the concerns being expressed by others at the table. But, I knew she could shoulder it. She was, after all, an open Democrat in an extremely Republican state.

In the end, the women headed for home; my attempts at organizing a vigilante picketing group having met the same fate as the small building. It was just me playing to a conservative audience, and truth be told, we probably couldn't have stopped the destruction of the little building anyway.

Though, had I gone out and laid down in front of the trucks and sledgehammers and managed to get a night or two in jail - I did have a couple women offer to bring me a home cooked meal. If only they could have snuck in Arayo, too.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Watching My Hometown Die

The little brick building is simple but has a special kind of character. Set on a corner at the edge of our downtown district, it has housed various small companies through the years. The smell of baking goodies has filtered through its cracks when it held bakeries. People insured their homes and families within its walls. Originally, it was the office for a lumber yard, and at one time, if memory serves, it may have been home to a phone company. Or maybe not. The walls hold tight some of the secrets of its past.

This town was once beautiful, with old brick buildings lining its main streets, and stately homes gracing her neighborhoods. It used to be a town that people were proud to call home.

But, slowly it has lost its charm. Sheet metal covers many of the downtown building facades, and when you start to look closely, you notice that the roofs of many of the stores have simply caved in from neglect. Business signs are tattered. If a town could speak, you would hear it whispering, "what happened? Why does no one care any more?"

"What is to become of this town?" I ask person after person in power and in the know. "In five more years, there will be no town left to preserve. What of the buildings that are falling in?"

"We'll probably wait a while, then knock 'em over," is the standard reply.

My heart skips a beat. While I haven't lived here for years, this is still home and every time I return to see a little bit more of it covered in metal or caving in - - every time I talk to someone who can't see beyond the end of a bulldozer, a piece of me dies.

We live in a throw-away society. I know that. Not being much of a consumer myself, I don't understand it, but I know that it is true. Everything Americans buy is made to quickly be outdated and no longer of use, or replaced by something bigger and better. So, the bulk of our society revolves around our need to consume, and consume some more.

But, when this town is gone, when its history is knocked over "just because it is easier than preserving it" - then what? People bemoan the fact that "things aren't like they used to be!" "No one wants to live in a small Kansas town anymore," people say. But, I have to ask, "What is the draw? A town is judged first by what people see when they drive into it. Who wants to stop and stay in a tin-can town? If what people see sends the message that no one cares anymore, then why would someone stop for a cup of coffee, a burger? Why would someone look at starting a business here, or buying a home for their family?"

My parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, all rest at the local cemetery. And, even there, what was once a charming place to rest for eternity is now marred by the erection of a metal building. The long history of Carpenters in this town ends with the passing of my mom, but for a while I thought I might take up the mantle, try to inject some life into the town. I think outside the box, perhaps I could make a contribution towards saving this place. But, these are foolish thoughts.

And today that spark died in me. As I photographed the charming little brick building in its last moments, a man saw me and asked how I was doing. I told him I was shocked and saddened because the little building was being destroyed. "Oh, that!" he chuckled, "we want the bricks for the church!" he said, and off he went - a happy look on his face. A piece of our history will be gone, but the church will have its new covered breezeway, or whatever…..

As I drive away from the senseless destruction of another piece of history, there is a catch in my throat. A tear slips down my face…………

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Of Delight and Terror

"Excuse me, ma'am. I'll have to ask you to keep out of this area. We've got explosives set up over here."

Oh, be still my heart! This has to be one of those phrases that just makes my heart skip a beat. Kind of like "A tornado was just spotted a mile away. Jump in my tank and let's go chase it!" Personally, I'm just living to hear someone whisper THOSE words to me.

For some people, its "Come on over - I just bought a cheesecake (or a puppy)." For others it might be "Hey, fella - I gotta hooker in the car and she is disease free!"

I wasn't looking for a charge when I approached the man at the park. I knew they were going to shoot fireworks off from the end of the bluff later in the evening, and I wanted to know how close I could get so I would have the best view for photographing them. I just had never considered the fact that they might be considered explosives.

Interesting the things that get some people all excited. Who'd a thought I'd go all gushy over tractors until I got to drive one? And this thing about storms….. I always wanted to ride out a hurricane until my mom and I were in hurricane Earl a few years ago in Texas. We slept right through it . Now that continues to be on my bucket list, with the stipulation that I stay wake through the thing! (And for those of you know know me - yes, I'm still terrified of freeways, tall bridges, setting foot on airplanes and snakes. There is no logic to one's list of thrills and terrors.)

So, last night, I took Arayo with me to a little campground that rests on the side of the Neosho river. As a child I recall seeing lots of water moccasins along this river, so you know I wanted to photograph the fireworks in the worst way! It was a straight shot over to the point where the "explosives" were set up so the view was sure to be spectacular. As we waited, Arayo and I sat under the stars and marveled at how there could be lightening flashes all around us and not a cloud in the sky. We relished the cool breezes playing on skin and fur. (It was still 90 degrees -- but after weeks of over 100, it felt cool at the time.)

As the fireworks display began, I put Arayo back in the car to protect her. I'd rather have held her, she is so terrified of loud noises any more, but I knew I couldn't photograph and hug her, too. At the end of the display, I opened the back of my Subaru to put tripod and cameras away, and noticed………. Nothing. No 100 pound black dog. I called to her. No movement or sound. I began to panic. I'd left the windows open about 8 inches each - was it possible she could have squeezed herself through one of them?

Finally, I found her. She'd moved to the front passenger seat and attempted to crawl under the car by way of the footwell. Poor Arayo. She does not understand why we have come to this place called Kansas. All spring it was thunderstorm after thunderstorm, and this July there have been 3 nights of fireworks. The world has simply gone mad.

Photos: A fireworks display marked the end of the 100th Annual Labette County fair.

(Note - For those of you who question why I took Arayo to watch the fireworks rather than leaving her home - it was a judgement call. The noise would be as loud at the house as at the park - I figured she would be alone much less time if I had her with me. Why did I put her in the car when the fireworks began? Outside the car she would have been tied to a picnic table - which she would have dragged through a corn field when the explosives began. The car is a place where she feels secure - like a big dog crate - and because I'd been running the air conditioner earlier, it was cooler in the car than out.)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Disaster Tour

"Here is where my classmate lived. She shot herself the night before our prom - but no one in our class believed it. There were always other theories, but suicide was the official story.

"On the left is a new bank. There was once a beautiful old two story building there that held a grocery store. One evening, just as the owner locked up and got in his car, the entire outer wall crumbled and fell. No one was killed, but that was the end of that building!"

Friends had called to say they were driving from Florida to Seattle and were planning to visit me in my home town in southeast Kansas. Now, anyone who has grown up on a small community knows that part of your heritage is knowing the ins and outs of what has gone before, and without realizing it - the tour my friends got was - well, perhaps, somewhat macabre.

"One day I was going to school and I heard a horrible sound on the highway a block away. I rushed over to the road and found friends there with shocked looks on their faces. They pointed to an 18-wheeler stopped half a block away and said 'our next door neighbor……. He came out of his house and jumped in front of that truck and it ran over him!' I walked to the truck and, sure enough, there were legs sticking out from under the tires. It happened right here, a block from my house!"

"When I was young, one night my mom came in it and woke me up. It was pouring down rain, but she insisted there was something I needed to see. She drove us the 3 blocks to downtown and, there was the town, all lit up! Lightening had struck one of the buildings and a third of a block in the downtown core was on fire. As firemen worked to control the blaze, half the town showed up in their pajamas to stand on the other side of the street to watch the town burn. I remember people praying the donut shop didn't catch on fire, and finally, the water stopped pumping. Someone had forgotten to turn the water on at the pump house to refill the water tower and they ran out of water. Fortunately, we only lost 3 buildings that night.

"That three story brown building was once the home of the largest mortgage company west of the Mississippi. I don't know what happened to the company, but the building has been kind of neglected in the past few years. Story goes that it sold at auction for $1,000 a few years ago. Someone put in a starting bid and when no-one bid against them, they found themselves owner of a prominent piece of main street. Rumor has it that they finally sold the building on eBay to someone from out of state for something like $8,000. Last year, the entire back of the building caved in. Now, it just sits there. Half rubble."

"Gee," said my friend. "This is a fascinating tour, I'm going to call it the Disaster Tour!"

Hum….. Sometimes you can know almost too much about a place.

Photo: The Deming Building sold for $1,000 to someone who bought it by "mistake". It later sold for $8,000 on the internet.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Reviewing the Ride

Can it really have been a year ago that Arayo and I set out on this journey together? This trip to see the country and meet new people? What an amazing experience it has been - and I'm still feeling like The Ride continues.

It began as a need to break cycles. Sometimes when you are in a rut, you don't even realize how deeply entrenched you are. You exist, but that existence is meaningless. How often do we sense we need a change, but find reasons not to? The house payments need to be made, the dog likes her yard, the doctor is nearby and, while not sick, who knows when he'll be needed…… You know the drill - I think we've all had these conversations with ourselves from time to time.

Years ago I recall someone talking about making change. How we so often stick with the norm for fear of the unknown. He likened it to flying on a trapeze. If you are going to grab the next trapeze and move forward, you have to let go of the one you are on and TRUST that another one will come your way.

So, Arayo and I packed up our lives (mine more than hers since her's just involved a brush, some nail clippers, a toy and a few cans of food), and we headed east. We let fate guide us. Strangers e-mailed and invited us to visit. The heat directed us north to Newfoundland and Newfoundland captured my soul and kept a piece there.

After six months of travel, fate brought me to Kansas where I was blessed to spend what turned out to be my Mom's final two months of life with her and to be at her side when she took her last breath.

How much of life we would have missed had we found more reasons to stay home than to go.

So, while Arayo and I sit in my mother's home in the town I was raised in - our Ride continues. With temperatures near 100 nearly every day for the past 6 weeks and no break in sight, we probably won't be jumping back into the tent again soon - but our adventures will continue, so please don't leave us yet!

Thank you for coming along on the Ride with us. Thank you for your support. To all of you who offered us shelter from the heat, the cold, the rain - who shared with us a piece of your world and a bite at your table - you remain in our hearts. Thank you, thank you all. To open your homes to a stranger and her Newf, was itself a great risk. You enriched our lives - thank you.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Janet Carpenter Memorial Review

Dark clouds threatened as my group drove to set up for my mother's memorial. As we reached the park entrance, the sight of multiple American flags flying from lamp posts greeted us and a lump raised to my throat. I knew they were flying to honor my mom - a woman who, in her quiet way, worked 60 years to better little pieces of this community. Her true passion was this park, sitting atop a bluff overlooking a river and the farmland below, where, today, we were going to pay final tribute to her life.

It was kind of a freaky idea - not something these traditional, conservative Kansan's were used to - but I wanted to hold off to say these public goodbyes to my mother. 4 months would give me time to plan something fitting and to get some distance from the pain of her loss. It also gave family and friends time to learn about her passing and to plan a trip home. Best of all, it gave the park time to rise from the dead of winter. For leaves to grace the trees and flowers to shine from their beds.

I planned the event for morning to beat the ghastly Kansas summer heat - the seating area dictated by the shade of trees. My crazy friend, Sondra Torchia, who does one-woman historical performances, mc'd the event and others joined to tell their stories of the woman I called Mom. Our family created the "Missing Janet Chorus" and sang one of Mom's favorite songs - made popular by the Muppets called "Something's Missing", and by the time the hour-long program was over, people were saying "when I die, I want a send-off just like Janet had!"

Because I've had people ask for some of the details of the event, I'm listing them below and later I'll add the stories I shared - more of the funny light-hearted stories about Mom that most people probably didn't know.

Today marks 4 months that Mom has been gone. It seems like yesterday and the hole in my life isn't getting smaller with time, but she died on her terms without pain and suffering. I have no regrets.

Janet Carpenter Memorial - June 22, 2011
Arrival music - Glenn Miller
Opening song - Gandhi/Buddha, by Cheryl Wheeler
Opening remarks - A Good Life, Sondra Torchia
Reading of Editorial - Heather Brown
Janet Gets a Chainsaw - Dan Turner
Something's Missing - The Missing Janet Family Chorus
Remembering My Mother - Karyn Carpenter
The Red Studebaker - Steve Christy
Janet Made you Feel Appreicated - Annie Stromquist (Janet's favorite niece)
Missing Janet - Megan Hughes (Janet's other favorite niece)
Closing Prayer - Pete Hughes
Closing Song - Over The Rainbow, by Isreal Kamakawiwo'ole
Photo presentation of Janet - to Hero, by Mariah Carey

Monday, May 30, 2011

A Great Spirit is at Work in Joplin

Her contented smile contradicted the story which her face told the world; the tale of a recent encounter with a chimney, a dump truck, a tree or a stranger's boot. Not only was her face many shades of purple and black, she had lost everything or she would not be here - sleeping in a gymnasium, surrounded by strangers. My friend reached out to her. "You were really hurt. How are you?" No complaints, no words of suffering. The woman's "I'm fine" said more. "I'll get through this. I'm alive," was the unspoken message.

The man on the radio - the one who made his living talking - was nearly speechless. His family home had sustained tornado damage. He must have mentioned how his boots were constantly wet from working on his house in the rain, so a listener drove from out of town, visited the station and handed the announcer cash, asking him to buy himself a new pair of boots.

When he found his voice he replied, "so many people need this more than I. Let me find a place where this can do more good. Thank you, so much."

More times than not, it seems we've become a country of whiners. A people interested more in taking than giving. Individuals who will climb the backs of our closest friends to advance our own interests and monetary goals.

It seems that the slightest inconvenience is met with a roar. When a windstorm knocks down trees, sending people into the dark for a few days the letters fly to the papers and airwaves fill with voices of woe. "I pay my taxes! How dare I be inconvenienced my morning latte, my big screen tv, my internet!" In the old days, rather than wait for someone else, citizens pulled together and canvased the town with chainsaws so power crews could more easily get their work done. The old days seem to be slipping away.

After Hurricane Earl the radio broadcasted hours of whining. Even though they had a week or more to prepare, the demands of people were immediate and many. "The government should be getting us water and ice to keep the steaks we bought yesterday from going bad." (Wondering to myself why they didn't actually put up water and buy provisions that weren't perishable, my mind screams in reply "you can't fix stupid.")

But something about Joplin is different. The shelters seem to be underutilized, which means hundreds of people have opened their homes and are sharing what they have with victims.

Strangers have come to search in the rain, humidity, heat, and cold for the missing. They climb under the ruins of homes, slosh through waste-deep water, turn over boards and pieces of junk in hopes of not finding a body. They tell stories of strangers coming along, handing out bags of sandwiches and bottles of water. The outlook is more of "together we'll pull through this," rather than "why me?" or other complaints.

It seems that every other corner in Joplin is host to a cookout. "If you are hungry, please, stop and have a hot meal on us."

The word goes out "you have been so generous. Today we have all the blood, all the clothing we can use. But, please, remember us next week."

People appear to be patient with each other and when an impractical move is imposed - like trying to protect people from looting by enacting a pass system - the city quickly sees they can't effectively manage such a program and cancels it, admitting the idea had merit but wasn't practical. (Government actually seeing and then admitting an error? That alone is astonishing.)

The EF5 tornado which ripped its way through this small Missouri town failed to take with it the soul of Joplin. Instead, it opened the hearts of millions around the world. Hundreds have arrived and thousands more are making their way to this little known part of the country. And, with the help of millions who've given their money, their time, their prayers - the community will rebuild.

If only there was a way to bottle this spirit; to pull it out once a year. To inflict a booster shot to everyone in the world, we'd be a peaceful and much more powerful force in the universe.

Photos: Flag flies at half-mast at the Missouri Southern State University campus which has become the central location for volunteer opportunities, a Red Cross Shelter, and Humane Society local in Joplin. The clean up and rebuilding following the devastating EF5 tornado which ripped through Joplin a week ago will continue for months.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Out of the Ruins

The man before me was like any other - middle-aged, graying hair, a little thick around the middle. There was a tiredness about him from a day of searching for what he prayed not to find - someone's loved one, buried under mounds of rubble or floating in a creek.

"I drove in from Montana. I just had to help. Figured I'd sleep in my car, but I'd sure appreciate a shower if you know of a place I can clean up."

He was not alone. Hundreds of people have arrived in Joplin, touched by the destruction that an EF5 tornado had brought to this town, and offering to play a small part in helping total strangers rebuild their lives.

A nurse called the day after the tornado struck and was told they no longer needed medical personnel. She drove down anyway and once in Joplin was asked to set up and run a small clinic in one of the shelters. When her patients were attended to, she was joined by her daughter from Texas and teamed with others who were spending long hours combing sections of the town in search of survivors.

"My father lost his home so I drove in from central Nebraska to help," a gentleman said. "I have 15 people joining me this weekend. What can we do?"

Arayo and I met a Newfoundland friend and spent the day in Joplin. I hoped to track down an old buddy I'd been unable to reach to insure his safety, then we planned to take the Newfs to offer a little dog therapy to victims and responders. Spotting the volunteer registration center, we asked how else we could help and were assigned to the front desk where we registered new volunteers, visited with search and rescue crews returning from the rubble, and directed others to showers and shelter.

As we heard story after story, I was truly touched by the outpouring of love and care which was expressed. I was amazed at the willingness of people to leave their lives behind and to drive into a disaster area to help others with whom they had no connection. The uncertainty of "Where will I eat? Where will I sleep? What will I be asked to endure?" paled as they focused on the bigger question, "How can I make a difference?"

The flood of compassion is astounding. Housewives, military men, bankers, fugitives, teachers, blue collar workers, families with children, teens with tattoos, bikers and clergy; all work side by side. The common need meets uncommon compassion. At the end of the day, the outer trappings are peeled away and each knows that where it matters, they are all the same. They've experienced the good in each other.

As the world's eyes and ears turn to the horrors and destruction wrought on Joplin last Sunday, we can choose to look at the atrocity or we can join together in a common goal of support and regrowth. Sometimes I just stand in awe of the good in our fellow man.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Lure and the Tragedy of Tornados

They say it is mostly gone, the devastation indescribable. Joplin. The "city" near us. Its shopping malls, theaters and restaurants lure people from the surrounding area. Its hospitals care for our most critically ill.

Tonight the photos show a city in bits and splinters. People walk among the ruins like zombies, in a state of shock. The backdrop - one of the major hospitals which took a direct hit.

The silence of my small town some 40 miles away is broken by ambulances and police vehicles which rush by my house to help in the rescue efforts.


I suppose you have to be from the mid-west to understand, but there is a lure to the weather that creates these murderous phenomena.

This evening I got a call; "We're under a tornado warning. Take cover." I'm not one for watching tv or listening to the radio, so I depend on friends to let me know what is happening sometimes. I looked down the street. The skies above me were bright, but to the north it was black as night. People along the street were standing in their yards, looking towards the skies.

I grabbed Arayo and my camera and headed to the park which sits on a bluff overlooking the Neosho River and the farmlands beyond. The thought crossed my mind that the winds could blow down a tree or power line, trapping me alone, away from shelter.

But, the winds, the boiling black clouds and changing temperatures were luring me for a better look.

The scene on the bluff was a surprise. Cars jockeyed for a place to park, the elevated overlook was jammed. Parents, kids, dogs. Everyone's eyes were scanning the clouds, searching for the dip that signaled the beginning of a twister.

After a bit, the crowd began to clear. We Americans look for immediate gratification and watching the skies for hours was wearing thin. Three of us and a little white dog remained to watch the clouds which seemed angrier, and who's movement was making radical shifts.

As I returned home, the excitement seemed to have passed, though the radio announcer was interviewing the Joplin area Emergency Prepardness Director who was warning the people to take cover. A tornado had been sighted near there and was coming their way………

Usually, such warnings are fairly meaningless. "Conditions are right……. " "A funnel cloud was sighted……." "Go into a basement or interior room in your home….."

I've lived in the mid-west more than half my life and I've yet to see a tornado. My mother died at 86. Never saw a twister.

I love tornado season. There's a charge in the air, an energy and power that seduces you….. Until you live through one, that is.

Tonight Joplin lies in ruins. I worry for a nephew and friend who live there. I feel for all those dealing with loss, and worried for their loved ones. At least 30 are confirmed dead. The actual number may be much higher. Hundreds are homeless. Pleas are out for anyone with a medical background to respond……….