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Harper’s Index for Jill

Cover for Harper’s in May, 1971.

Continuing with Alice LaPlante’s book The Making of a Story, I have just finished the “Details, Details” chapter.  This next exercise was not really my favorite and I don’t think I did a particularly good job but I can see some minds coming up with some stellar responses, so I wanted to include it here.  The goal of this exercise is “to show how very specific, even quantifiable, details can add up to a ‘big picture,” in this case, a self-portrait. The exercise is modelled after the Harper’s Index, a monthly compilation of seemingly random statistics.

 Harper’s Index for Jill

Rank of the name Jill for girl babies in 1971: 59

Average number of months a driver gets their license after their 16th birthday: 0

Actual number of months after my 16th birthday that I got my license:  15

Number of diseases I’ve thought I had:  82

Number of diseases I’ve actually had: 2

Number of hours I’ve spent googling obscure facts: 7,581

Average number of hours per day cleaning house: 0.5

Number of times I’ve left my phone on my car bumper: 3

Number of times my phone made it home riding on my bumper: 2

Number of times I’ve told my husband I left my phone on my bumper: 0

Percent chance that my husband will say, “Sure, we can have sandwiches.”: 0%

Average American family size in 2012: 2.47

My family size 2012: 7

Percentage of friends who ask, “Are you done yet?”: 100%

Average number of days per month that a child will shout, “I can’t find my shoes!”: 30

Ratio of pairs of shoes to child: 7:1

Number of living things in my house that are not people, pets, or plants,  and that are grown for food: 5

Words Mean Things: Media, Kinsey, and the Sandusky Case

I use a phrase a lot around my house:  Words means things.  Obvious I know, but I think we easily forget that words really do carry meaning.  So say what you mean.

That’s why I found the following statement in a Fox News account rather disturbing : 

“In 2002, Paterno failed to alert the authorities to the claims of then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary, who said he saw Sandusky in the Penn State showers having sex with a young boy.” (italics mine,

I’m sorry, but when a grown man takes a 10-year-old boy into a deserted shower and rapes him, the two are not “having sex.”  It’s sexual assault, so let’s say it that way.  It is that simple. 

I decided to check other sources to see the phrases being used in the Sandusky child sex-abuse case.  A Detroit Free Press article uses the phrase “having sex with a boy in the school shower” but correctly describes it as assault a paragraph later.  Fox and the Detroit Free Press were not alone.   The phrase “having sex” appeared in several articles from different sources, usually connected to comments from the Penn State graduate assistant.   Maybe the journalists were simply paraphrasing, so I decided to check his words himself. 

The grand jury presentation,  found online, states that the assistant witnessed an approximately ten-year-old boy “being subjected to anal intercourse by a naked Sandusky.”  Those words are  objective but accurate.  Ugly, yes, but so is child abuse.

The term “having sex” implies a consensual act.  Two consenting people “have sex.”  In sexual assault, only one person is raped, or as the grand jury report states, one is “subjected” to a sexual act.  And let’s be clear.  Children do not consent.  They are intimidated,  tricked, or forced. 

So what is happening here?  Why are reporters using casual language such as “having sex” to describe the rape of a child?  Why aren’t editors catching this and changing the language to meet the crime?   Have the Kinsey reports influenced society to this degree?  Besides error and misrepresentations in his research, I still can’t believe credence is lent to a man who gathered “research” on infant and child orgasms, often from accounts from child molesters. (Who else?)  Consider the following quote from Kinsey:

“It is difficult to understand why a child, except for cultural conditioning, should be disturbed at having its genitalia touched, or disturbed at seeing the genitalia of other persons, or disturbed at even more specific sexual contacts.” (page 121, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female.)

Controversial ideas, even false ones, work best at a slow march.  And if a bad idea has even an element of truth (yes, all humans, even infants and children, are sexual beings) it has an even greater chance of lingering.  All bad ideas had a start, a moment where a few people could have made a stand, cried the alarm, before the idea became too big to defeat. And as slavery has proven,  once a bad idea becomes “accepted” for a time, it takes years and scores of victims before the idea can be corrected.  “Cultural conditioning” never convinced the victims of slavery that their bonds were just.

Could this be our moment?  Is the use of language in the media regarding Sandusky’s child molestation waving a flag of warning for us?  Let us not slide down the slope of believing a very bad idea.  Sandusky and the 10-year-old boy were not “having sex.”  The boy was being violated and raped, and still bears the wounds in his soul to this day. 

No amount of “cultural conditioning” could convince Sandusky’s victims that his actions were anything other than pure tragedy.

Here’s what I’ve been working on…

I spent time Monday with Stacey Roussel, organic farmer/owner of All We Need Farms in Needville, Texas.  I am a part of her CSA program, short for Community Supported Agriculture.  A little different from a co-op, a CSA is, as Stacey calls it, “a relationship between people and their food.”  We pay Stacey in advance of the harvest, taking the risks inherent with farming with her, and in turn receive food that we know is local, seasonal, and most importantly, honest.  I will be writing a few different articles from Monday’s interview, but below is a blog entry I wrote for Stacey’s website:

For my 40th birthday this year, I made the pledge to begin writing in earnest, and this time for money.   I had written earnestly all my life, but had written for pay only once.  I had always thought that I would raise babies, and then I would start my writing career.   I couldn’t imagine drumming up the strength to write late at night, knowing that I’d be awakened again in a few hours by a crying baby.  My “baby” had just turned three, so my excuses were over.

One of the first people I thought to write about was Stacey.  If you are reading this blog, you already love her, and probably love good food, too, so you can see the attraction.  Stacey graciously agreed to have me follow her around the farm from sun-up to noon, followed up by more detailed questioning.  She told me to dress ready for labor…hat, sunscreen, gloves, closed-toe shoes…this was going to be a real, dig-in, get your hands dirty kind of interview.  Frankly, I was nervous.  I’m the sort of air-conditioned, soft, urban housewife that sweats only at the sideline of soccer games.  Could I hack five hours in the heat?  I didn’t know, but I knew the experience would be worth risking possible embarrassment.

Clumsily dressed for the part in my husband’s oversized fishing shirt (Stacey always wears long-sleeves, so it must be cooler, right?), explorer hat cinched on, work gloves ready, I followed, and I watched, and I asked questions.  The hazy, cool, morning flirted with rain, but the clouds drifted away into a typical bright July Texas day.  It was hot, and I followed Stacey some more, planting a few seeds here, weeding a little bit there, and, um, accidentally pulling out two lovely celery plants in the process.  (Sorry Stacey!)  I mostly watched and took notes, but did enough work to witness the abundance of life teeming on the farm.  Yes, she does have chickens and goats, not to mention the growing plants, but I am talking about the tiny life that is only discovered by turning over soil.  Little bugs darting here and there, crawling for cover, smaller creatures so tiny you can’t see but you can smell…a rich, earthy smell only created when the ground is nurtured enough to be kept in a beautiful balance.  I was learning firsthand the difficult, but satisfying work that is needed to grow the nutritionally dense, taste-bud pleasing clean food that led me to Stacey in the first place.  By the end of the morning, I was gratefully in awe of her diligence and commitment to organic farming.  I hadn’t passed out from heat stroke either, but I was ready for rest under the shade tree.

Stacey handed me a cool coconut water drink and assured me that as her farm had grown, so had her body’s endurance.  As her story unfolded, I heard a tale of conviction; small steps counterpointed by big leaps, mistakes, and overcoming fear in order to move forward with turning a dream into reality. 

Far from my idea of an experienced farm girl turned farmer, I instead heard of a believing husband encouraging a disillusioned accountant, together buying a farm with a four-year-old and newborn in tow, reading and learning on-the-job.  A story of clearing four-plus acres with a weed whacker, losing chickens to a predator, hand planting squash seeds with a baby in a car seat nestled in the grass beside her.  The more I listened, the more I realized that Stacey was helping to weed the fear in my own heart.  I am in the middle of transitioning from writing to calling myself a writer, putting my words out there for people to judge and see my mistakes.  Ahead of me are long hours of (air-conditioned) work, research, queries, and rejections.   I was reminded that Stacey’s current physical strength wasn’t forged overnight, but was built one day at a time, over years. 

Fear of Texas heat might have kept me from getting my hands dirty, but it is only by getting dirty, be it from soil or ink, that we ever really accomplish anything.  I had to get my hands dirty that day by pulling farm weeds, weeds that represented far more for me than garden nuisances, weeds with names like fear and procrastination.  The image of Stacey bending over her garden, entertaining her young daughter with the watering hose, inspired me to write this blog entry in the day hours, in between stories, bike rides, and laundry, not waiting until later.   I giggle now, at the thought of Stacey waiting to farm by moonlight, after her girls were asleep.  You can’t see many weeds then.

Why I Want to Be More Like Juannie

I’m not sure what brought her to mind, but I nearly had to pull over driving.  Have you ever had a moment where the enormity of a gesture passes you by in the moment, only to surface years later?   Seven years later, in this case.

Juannie was recommended to me by my friend Nan, the local saint-in-residence of our Texas-Mexico border town.  Juannie, the sister of  Nan’s own housekeeper, needed a job and Nan thought she would be perfect for us.  At the time, I was a pregnant homeschooling mom, struggling, as usual,  to keep my house clean.  When Nan recommends a person to be in your life, you pretty much accept it as an assignment from on high, even though, at the time, I was unsure about the expense.  She told me Juannie was sweet and reliable.  She did not tell me that Juannie was mentally retarded.  So the first time I met Juannie, a U.S. citizen, I tried English.  Blank look.  Next, I tried out my very imperfect Spanish.  I saw a shy smile emerge, revealing a combination of gray and capped teeth, but still that blank look in her eyes remained.  While my Spanish was never perfect, I could usually communicate with native speakers on a basic level.  Maybe I was rusty.  Sticky notes, I decided, were my way around my shaky lengua de espanol, so little yellow squares dotted my appliances the next time she came.

It was after finding a favorite shirt ruined that I realized that Juannie was illiterate.  My sticky notes were for naught.  Juannie had attended high school in Michigan (I am guessing her parents were migrant workers), so I know she had an education, but other factors pointed to her simpleness, beyond illiteracy.  In her thirties, she still lived with her aging mother and father.  In fact, her little father always dropped her off and picked her up, so she had never learned to drive.  Juannie also walked and moved carefully, not from physical frailty, but as if she had to really think about it to make her body move.  She was fearful.  I learned that I needed to be home when she worked, or she was too afraid to work.  But Nan was right, she was sweet and reliable, which goes a long way with me, even if she did occasionally break things or do jobs wrong.  I adjusted, and took her permanently off of laundry, realizing that her mistakes were becoming expensive.  And no matter what her other shortcomings were, she could really clean my fridge, instantly making her my own Amelia Bedelia.

One day, I found a large cardboard box was sitting on my kitchen counter.  Twenty aseptic cartons of expired mango juice were packed inside.  Twenty.  My kids were ecstatic, as I rarely buy juice.  Yes, they drank it.  The juice had only expired by a month or two and was delicious.  I knew that Juannie loved my kids, so I was touched by the gesture.

Another evening, my doorbell rang and Juannie and her father carried in a huge, waxed box of cold, fresh broccoli.  Huge.  After giving some of it away, I stayed up late parboiling and vacsealing the rest of it to freeze, as there was no way I could have used it all before it spoiled.  As I was storing a bit of the reserved fresh broccoli in my vegetable keeper, I noticed that the deli tray lid of my fridge was broken.  Juannie had cleaned the fridge earlier in the day.  Thinking back to the juice box day, I remembered that Juannie had broken a pull string on a lamp. 

After that, whenever Juannie brought used stuffed animals,  kiddie sunglasses, or chocolate covered marshmallows, we knew to look for something broken or ruined.  You might wonder why I kept her on, but I develop a deep affection for anyone willing to clean up after me, so firing her would have been like firing my mother for burning my toast.  Besides, like I said, she could really clean a fridge, even a deli-tray lidless fridge.

At the time, I knew Juannie’s gifts were very touching, especially because I was aware of her poverty, but I also felt bad, as I didn’t want her to feel like she either had to “pay us back” or  lose her job.   But as I was driving I suddenly pictured her selecting her discount juice, or thinking of my little girls as she picked out a stuffed bunny.  I still can’t imagine how she got a hold of all that broccoli.   Juannie wasn’t afraid of losing her job, or interested in paying us back.  She was recognizing that she had broken something of value to us, and wanted to acknowledge that.  She was thanking us for accepting her, the way she was.    I grieved for all the ways I should be thanking the people in my life for bearing with me while I have said the wrong thing, hurt their feelings, or even broken their heart.

An (Early) Summer Experiment

For a night owl, setting an alarm for 2:40 in the morning is a somewhat surreal experience.  You know it is going to happen, but you just can’t make sense of it. That is bedtime after all (well, for me, a moderate night owl, at least a very late bedtime), not the hour for rising.  What happens from 3 to  6 a.m., in my knowledge bank, is just kids crying  to be fed, needing a pat back to sleep, or vomiting two feet from the toilet.  At that time of night, my whole goal is to get back to sleep, without ever the thought of starting the day.

But this morning I had to get my son to the airport; a summer camp had his name on a list to show up tomorrow.  When I set my alarm last night, my thoughts were all dreary-guilty ones…ugh, that is an entirely insane hour to be waking, I am going to HATE tomorrow, what a terrible mother, why can’t I sacrifice for my son without complaining.   Even my husband’s compliment, delivered from his hotel room across the country, only left me more guilty.  After all, he is an early bird pilot who regularly gets up at 3 a.m….why should I feel “heroic,” in his words?

Heroic is definitely not how I would have described this morning.  Euphoric is more accurate. Weird, I know.  It must have been the interference with my normal body rhythm which set off a chain reaction of abnormal chemicals, but euphoria is definitely the word.  Adrenaline must have played its part, too, as I didn’t even want coffee until two hours after I awoke.  Only my physical body seemed to be rebelling; I was cold and my eyes literally spat my contacts back out.   I’m pretty sure my youngest child’s newborn photograph was staring back at me from the mirror, but I felt too great to care.

The muggy, hot stillness warmed my chill as I took my son’s luggage to the car. No buzzing lawn mowers, barking dogs, or droning highway sounds.  When even birds are silent, the sense that you are only one awake in the world, however untrue it is, is convincing.  In my semi-chaotic house of seven, this was a rare and coveted moment of peace.

By the time my son walked down the ramp to his plane, I was positively embracing the hour.  Six o’clock?  This *is* insane!  What can I go conquer?  Driving home, I was filled with shame at how little I have been out at the early hour. Houston, as seen by the looping toll road,  is not known for its natural beauty, but the sun breaking on patches of misty fog hugging the low parts of the ground revealed hidden ravines and made even the cleared weedy lots look mysteriously beautiful.

Once home and waiting for my urchins to return from my parents, I attacked my fishy smelling fridge shelves with actual glee.  I usually strongly dislike (the substitute phrase for ‘hate’ that I urge my kids to use) any kitchen duty other than cooking, yet here I was whistling at 7 a.m., scrubbing away glass shelves, jubilant like the happy pig slop processor from Dirty Jobs. (Really, this man is my new inspiration!)  Job complete, beets for  a salad roasting away in the oven, still buzzing with energy, I had time to edit a few essays before 9 a.m. CST (Children Showing Up Time).    See what I mean about euphoria?

So, my real question…are early birds right?  I was certainly getting the worm this morning, but was it just an adrenaline filled fake out?  Certainly four hours of sleep is not enough, but could I possible manage to reverse my natural body rhythm permanently?  Without trying to overgeneralize,  I have noticed that the do-ers of this world tend to be early birds, but the world can’t all be do-ers, can it?   We still need the dreamers, idealists, and artists that tend to inhabit the night hours.  I don’t know yet, but I think I am going to experiment this summer, see if I can reign in my nature a little, do a little more, dream a little less, without changing me too much.