Sunday, August 02, 2009

Saying Goodbye to Tom

I awoke this morning to a phone call I didn't want to take. Tom, the man I have considered my stepdad for more than 20 years, had died some time during the night.

Mom and Tom had been together 17 years when she died quite suddenly and completely unexpectedly in 2004. They'd never married; I didn't care. They were more "together" than I had ever known my mom and biological dad to be, despite the fact that they were married for 27 years. In my heart, if not on paper, Tom was my stepdad.

Today he is gone. All those stupid things people say to try to comfort those in mourning mean nothing. I don't care if he is with God or if he is in a better place or if his suffering is over...he is not here. And yet, what was here to Tom?

In all the years Mom and Tom were together, she encouraged Tom to be dependent on her. She cooked all the meals, did all the shopping, the see where this is going. Mom liked being needed; she liked playing the martyr. I'm not disrespecting her; Mom was a complicated woman. Her mental illness kept her from ever feeling she was good enough; in her own mind, she always fell short. Being needed gave her something to live for, something to make her feel worthy. And Tom seemed to enjoy being waited on, hand and foot.

But when Mom got a new job in her mid-60s, her responsibilities demanded she be away from the house, which meant Tom would be alone. Older than her by 5 years, he was not able--had not been trained or encouraged--to stay on his own for extended periods of time. And by this time, he had several health issues, though I can't tell you what they were because one manifestation of Mom's mental status was pathological lying. One week he had Parkinson's; the next it was Touretts syndrome. I couldn't keep up and I didn't know what to believe.

This new job of Mom's brought her a new circle of friends and gave her a renewed lease on life; she was happy and felt valued. But Tom's presence and neediness stood in her way. So she put him in a home. And she abandoned him. And of all the things my mom has ever done that hurt--and there have been more than I can tell you--this is the one I can't get past.

It hurts me to type that admission, that confession of one of her most mortifying acts. And yet as Tom's body is being prepared for cremation, I can't NOT say it. As these tears wash over my face and blur my vision, I see in my mind a picture of a healthier Tom. And while I'm grieving, I know it's not so much over his passing, but over his ending.

Because Tom worshiped the ground my mother walked on. She could do no wrong, even as she belittled him, chastised him, complained about him. In happier days, they would go dancing at the Fire Hall or the Legion. And people would back up to watch them, they were that spectacular. Mom loved to cook; Tom loved to eat. She was bossy; he didn't seem to mind being pushed around. It was a symbiotic relationship and one that brought both of them a form of happiness.

And so to know Mom just warehoused him because greener pastures were calling absolutely slays me. At the same time, I know she was not well herself. She never had been mentally stable, and her physical health was in rapid decline, though only she knew just how so at that point. Was this tossing away of Tom an act of love, done so that he would be taken care of when she suddenly dropped dead? I've wanted to--tried to--believe that, but I know better. She did this because she wanted something else. It causes me deep shame to admit that, and I know she would never have let me get away with doing something so morally corrupt.

But Mom didn't play by the same rules as those of us with all our faculties. And most of the time, I let her slide. But not this time. I told her I thought what she did was appalling. I reminded her of all the good times they'd had, how Tom loved her like no man ever had loved her. I beseeched her not to just lock him up and abandon him to a life she knew would be sheer torture for him. She did not listen.

And in fact, during the last phone conversation she and I had, she lied and told me she'd been to visit Tom at the nursing home. I, ridiculously enough, believed her. I thought maybe she'd had a change of heart. But no, I later found out that had been just one more in a very long list of lies. She wanted me to think better of her.

After Mom's death, I visited Tom whenever I went east, which was not often. And whenever I did visit him, he would be so drugged up he wasn't fully aware. He'd have lucid moments, but that was the most I could hope for. Still, I went because if there was even a remote chance my presence could bring him a moment of happiness, I wanted to give him that. He deserved much more than that, more than I was able to give.

The last time I saw him, this past October, he was bent over in his wheelchair so far that his nose almost touched his kneecaps. My aunt and I got him into his bed, propped him up, and made him as comfortable as possible. He remembered me and my kids; he didn't remember Mom. He had photos of my family on his bulletin board, and there were cards I had sent him on his nightstand. I tried to remain a part of his life, let him know he was still thought of and loved, even if I had to do it long distance.

As I sat on the bed with him holding his bony hand, I knew I probably would never see Tom again. In fact, I wished for him an end to the indignity, the emptiness, the nothing-life my mom committed him to. Yes, now he was sick enough to require professional care around the clock. When Mom sent him away, he was nowhere near the shattered man who lay before me. Did her getting rid of him cause this rapid decline? I can't say for sure.

But here's what I do know: Tom Bellante loved my mom despite a mental illness that caused her do to unspeakable things to those she loved most. He cared for her and made her laugh. He rescued her from a life of loneliness and gave her something--and someone--to live for. He told her she was beautiful and believed the sun rose and set with her. He took her dancing and made her feel important. He was all the things a partner should be, even when she didn't deserve it.

Rest in peace, Tom. And know how much you meant to me.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

If They're Never Mad, You're Not Doing Your Job

I've been home alone with my 16-year-old, Max, since mid-week. Wes took the three younger kids to his annual family campout in Missouri. With just the two of us to care for, life has been much slower. Quieter. Yes, dare I say, easier?

Just yesterday as we were driving to get Max a burger, I asked if he was enjoying the solitude. "Yeah," he replied. "Just think Mom, this could be how life is ALL the time." I smiled at that...Max has always and forever believed he should be an only child. I ruined that, three times over.

I know Max believes in the truth of what he said, but I also know how much he loves his family, even as he denounces us as stupid and annoying. Tucker and Max are as close as any brothers I've ever known. When they're here at the house, they're usually together. They exchange insults on a regular basis, but separately, they admit to the love they feel for one another. It's how family is.

Last night, I had the good fortune to enjoy the company of some wonderful friends, people I respect. The topic turned to parenting and kids, and we pondered the idea that raising kids with strict discipline does not necessarily result in kids who regularly make good choices. Conversely, kids raised with looser discipline don't always head down the wrong path.

I do think there's one measurement for parenting that is consistent across the board, regardless of parenting style: If your kids are never mad at you, you better step back and think about what you're doing.

With four kids between the ages of 8 and 16, I can almost count on the fact that at any given moment, at least one of them thinks I know nothing, am out of it, am mean, abuse of my power...the list goes on. In short, I suck. Knowing that the people I love most in this world feel that way on a semi-regular basis used to make me crazy. It hurt my feelings, made me second-guess my decisions and choices, left me feeling inadequate. But as they got older and began to voice their dissent more often, I came to recognize the phenomenon as one that I was just going to have to live with or change how I parent. And that second option wasn't very realistic.

Not that I'm a perfect parent. God, no. I wish I were, but Mom always told me to wish in one hand and poop in the other and see which filled up fastest. But I listen to my gut, and that intuition is reliable. And, generally speaking, my kids are good people. As one friend put it, I "allow them to be individuals and still give 'em a kick in the ass when they need it." Well said, friend.

I'm not here to be my kids' friend; they have enough of those. I feed those friends. I let them sleep at my house. I counsel some of them when they ask for advice. In short, I live with those friends; I don't want to be one of them. Some days, I don't want to be a parent, either. I'm tired. Or just feel lazy. Or am on the edge of the abyss because I have said, "Would you (fill in the blank)" 821 times already and the request still hasn't been fulfilled. Maybe I have a work deadline I'm struggling to meet. I don't want to cook dinner for myself or anyone else. Really, I just don't wanna do it.


I signed up for this job willingly and without much understanding of what it entails. I took the risk, accepted the challenge. And so I will see it through. And if that means Max is mad because I won't allow him to sleep at a friend's house unless a parent is home and knows Max is supposed to sleep there, too bad. It's my job to know where my kid is, or at the very least, where he isn't.

If being a parent means explaining to Tucker for the 93rd time why I will not let him see that R-rated movie he so badly wants to see and which everyone else has seen, so be it. I'll do it. My teeth will be clenched, my eyebrow may twitch. Saying "yes" would require less effort, and I'd be the hero instead of the enemy. But I will still say "no."

If parenting this particular set of children the way I think they should be parented means Tavia is going to shoot me the 56th dirty look--really, Mom, are you serious?--of the day, then I will be the recipient of the 56th dirty look of the day. She will stomp up the stairs, slam her door, and be mad...until she isn't, which is probably not too long because she wants me to paint her nails, draw with her, toss her the volleyball so she can practice her bumps.

Bella, at 8, is young enough that she still wants to always do the right thing. My requests and restrictions may impose upon her happiness; they may be met with pouts and slumped shoulders to show me she's carrying the weight of the world. But by the day's end, I'm getting kisses and being told she loves me.

I can live with all of this. What I couldn't live with are kids who don't talk to me. Who never share the good and bad of their day, who can't be bothered to hug me goodbye or kiss me goodnight. I can live with the unpleasantness, but not without the good stuff. And I don't think the good stuff is a given; I earn that. How? By caring about where they are and who they're with. I love them with words and actions. The limits I impose act in the same way hugs do; they say "I love you," "you are worth caring about," "I know you're smart, but I'm one step ahead of you."

I'd rather my kids are always happy with me; that would be a slice of heaven. Who needs angels and clouds and everlasting life if you've got kids who understand you're just doing the best you can by them, even if that means not letting them do what they want? But I'm no fool. I know being a parent sometimes means they see me with horns and beady, red pig eyes.

That's cool. I look good in red.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Blizzards, Tornadoes: Just Another Day in Windsor

One year ago this day--a day that was, like today, the last day of school--a tornado took a surprising turn north and vacuumed our town of 19,000. Some folks suffered more serious devastation and damages than others, but no one was left untouched by that mighty twister.

A drive through the Cornerstone neighborhoods reminds me how far we've come in terms of rebuilding. But the wood frames of houses yet unfinished indicates we've still a ways to go. Those centuries-old trees that once lined the cemetery on the way out of town no longer stand. I miss them. They're trees, I know. Some would say they're just trees. But I love trees and the idea of all the comfort they provide not only us humans, but the animals as well. Trees tell stories if you listen close enough. But those trees? Their stories? Gone forever.

The tornado is still talked about in town--we chat about it in the coffee shops, in line at the post office, in the hallways at school. It has become part of Windsor's folklore, and there's no need to exaggerate what happened that day. Those of us who were here when it hit will never forget it: not the sound, the eerie color of the sky, the outrageous hailstones, the vibration of fear that pulsated through the streets.

Talking about it has been therapeutic. We share experiences--Where were you when it hit? Is your house repaired/rebuilt? Did insurance come through for you? Do you need anything? The very beast that tore us apart within a matter of moments is also responsible for forging bonds that will hold us closer together, possibly forever.

And today, the one-year anniversary, we celebrate. Schoolchildren are letting go of balloons, a color explosion to signal that we're still here. Neighborhoods will enjoy block parties, a traditional gathering that nurtures fellowship and camaraderie. The Town is hosting a party this evening for anyone who wants to attend. Hundreds of new trees have been planted throughout Windsor, and our baseball field has been renovated. Life goes on.

When I think of this time last year, my thoughts immediately turn to my children. Max, who was at lunch when the tornado hit. Tucker, a sixth-grader at the middle school right next door to the high school. Tavia and Bella, huddled in darkened rooms within their elementary school. My most vivid memories of that day play through my mind like a slide show...and still my hands begin to sweat when I allow my thoughts to go there.

What else do I remember? I remember the utter, raw terror in the facial expressions of my daughters, their visible relief when they saw me, the amazing Skyview staff who remained calm in the face of the unknown.

I remember Gene, our neighbor and friend who worked as maintenance man at the middle school. When he saw me there, he knew I was in search of Tucker and instructed me to stay where I was. He would find Tuck and bring him to me. And he did. I will love Gene until the day I die for that.

I remember going into the high school, where I went to a table, gave my student's name, and was told to wait while someone brought him to me. Only he never came; the school went into lockdown again before I could get Max out. It was one of the most helpless feelings I've ever had. Even as I write this, I cry. I had to make a choice: Stay inside the school with one of my children, or retreat back into the storm to where my other three were waiting in the van. I left Max behind in the safety of the brick building. But still. I left him behind.

I remember Tucker, 12 years old at the time, calmly putting his arms around me and saying, "Tell me what you need me to do, Mom. Just tell me." This quiet gift of his, as I was trying to comfort 2 hysterical little girls and maneuver 3 frightened dogs into the basement.

I remember thinking that Wes must be about out of his mind with worry because cell phones were dead and he was working on a job in a nearby town. So he knew what was going on, but not what was going on.

365 days later, I look back on that day with a sense of awe. The kids have their own perspectives of that day. My 3 younger ones volunteered their time at the emergency center for days. They folded clothes, unpacked boxes, did whatever they were told to do. For them, the tornado presented an opportunity to go beyond their own comfort zones, to give of themselves with no expectation of getting anything in return. For Max, that disaster meant no classes. The year before, an unexpected blizzard cancelled the last day of school. He woke up this morning hoping this closing of the last day of school was a pattern. Alas, today is alternately cloudy and sunny, with a breeze and warm temperatures. It is a perfect last day of school.

Then again, with our recent history, what wouldn't be?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Decriminalizing Drugs: Should America Consider It?

Portugal decriminalized the personal possession of drugs--pot, coke, heroin and meth--in 2001. Prior to that, the country had one of the highest rates of hard drug use in Europe. Faced with a problem they could not control, Portugal chose instead to try a new approach. Instead of jail time, those found with small amounts of the drugs were offered therapy--which they could refuse with no repercussions.

What do you think happened? The answer might surprise you. According to a Cato Institute report published this month, drug use among teens in Portugal has declined, as did the rate of new HIV infections due to dirty needles. The number of folks seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled. (To read the Time magazine article in its entirety, visit,8599,1893946,00.html.)

This is impressive news no matter how you look at it. Portugal has proven that government can manage the drug problem if it can let go of the need to punish. We're big on punishment here in America. Maybe it goes back to our Puritan roots. I'm not sure we'll ever be able to evolve beyond that need.

But clearly, we are failing miserably--over and over again--in our approach to dealing with drug use. America has the highest rate of marijuana and cocaine use, yet we have the most stringent laws. We fear liberalism so much that we are unwilling to pay attention to the success other parts of the world--mainly the EU--is experiencing with their policies.

Like so many of our national policies, the ones we enforce regarding drugs are based on fear and speculation. We ignore empirical evidence in favor of wild imagination and "what if" scenarios.

Let me be clear: I am not a fan of drugs. I've never smoked pot, popped pills, tripped on acid, or taken anything stronger than an alcoholic drink. Drugs do not interest or fascinate me. My brother's drug use informed my childhood, and I believe it played a large role in the breakup of my parents' already dysfunctional marriage, and hence, our family. If anyone could be the Anita Bryant of the drug issue, it's me.

But I'm not in the majority. Most people experiment with one drug or another at some point in their lives. Many continue to use if not regularly, at least sporadically. Recreational drug use is an integral part of modern society, and like it or not, we must find a way to deal with it so that it ceases to be a major health and safety concern. Portugal seems to have stumbled on to something that works.

There is a segment of the American population that holds the attitude that drugs are bad and must be gotten rid of, and anything less is unacceptable. We've tried this; it isn't working. I agree they're a health hazard, but I'm a realist and know they will never be gotten rid of. Our punitive response to drug use has at least proven that: Regardless of how we view any and all drug use, it is never going to disappear. Drugs are here to stay, and we can either seek effective methods of management and semi-control, or we can continue to let the problem spiral downward, taking more and more of our friends and family with it. Portugal understands this; why can't America?

When the taboo of something has been lifted, common sense says more people will participate. The taboo of drug use is not what it once was. More people are more open about their use. The world has changed. We must find a way to work with the change because society will never revert to what it once was. Conditions and attitudes will never regress. We are where we are, and we have to work with that and stop trying to move backward.

Yet here we are, banging our heads against the wall because we can't seem to get a handle on things. But we keep trudging along the same path. Don't know who said it, but the quotation "When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail" comes to mind. We have hammered away at the drug problem long enough, with pathetic results. It's time to take a new approach, come up with a strategy based on the desire for true impact, not punishment of the "wicked."

More than one million nonviolent drug users are behind bars. I don't call this progress. I hope you don't either.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Of Snow, Naked Women, and the Definition of Art

Our Spring Break is nearing its close, and I'd have to say it's been a memorable one not because of any unusual events or magic moments, but because of its remarkable calm.

We began the week with a short trek to Denver. If you have children of a wide age range, you know how difficult it is to find activities they'll all enjoy. Max is 16; Bella just turned 8. Tuck and Tavia fall somewhere in the middle. Inevitably, someone complains or doesn't want to participate in any organized activity.

This wasn't the case for us this time. We began our adventure with a (free) tour of Hammond's candy factory. Watching how candy canes and ribbon candy were made was fun. What I didn't expect was the kids to notice that every factory worker we saw was some ethnicity other than white. That opened up a discussion on wages, hiring practices, and workplace conditions. Who knew a free tour to a candy factory could be an educational experience? I'm thinking maybe the younger kids were expecting Oompa Loompas, but the reality was a far cry from Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Don't misunderstand--I have no idea what Hammond's pays their employees, and the factory seemed in fine shape. But I was totally loving that my kids' minds were thinking past what they were seeing to what it meant.

Next stop was the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, where we attended a free interactive exhibition: Nature Unleashed. It featured four types of natural disasters: earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes and tornadoes. Windsor was included in that last segment, so we had a vested interest in what was being presented. And it was fabulous. Bella kept excitedly sharing with me new information and facts she was learning along the way, and she was mightily impressed with what she was finding out. For Tavi, knowledge is power. And after living through the tornado last May, she's struggled along the way to get past her newfound fear of any weather other than sunshine. This exhibition helped a great deal. Again--entertainment proved highly educational, and we talked about history (the volcano that leveled Pompeii, the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906) and devastation (Hurricane Katrina, our own F3 tornado) all the way to the hotel.

We spent our second day at the Denver Art Museum. It features a new exhibition called "The Psychedelic Experience," which chronicles the hand-designed venue and rock concert posters from Haight Ashbury (San Francisco) from 1965 to 1971. Think Ken Kesey's acid tests, Beat poetry, the early days of Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, and other history-making musicians. This exhibition was admittedly less interesting to Tavi and Bella than it was to the rest of us; they have scant knowledge of that era and no understanding whatsoever of the drug/psychedelic culture. Bella was curious as to why there were so many "naked ladies" in the posters and artwork. I asked if she was uncomfortable, and she said no, she just wanted to know why there were 17 women in various states of undress adorning the walls. So I explained the history of that era using age-appropriate language and descriptions, and she was quite satisfied with what she learned. And she left that temporary exhibition with the knowledge that many folks consider the naked human body a work of art, something to celebrate and honor. In that spirit, she informed me she'd found two more.

All in all, we spent 4 1/2 hours in the art museum. As we visited various floors, we took in art from around the world. Some of it was fantastic; some not so much. Max and I got into a great debate on the definition of art. Specifically, he asked if something is functional, is it art (he says it isn't, I say most certainly can be). The younger kids were amazed that some art pieces were created centuries ago, and they gained a solid understanding that art can be an enlightening representation of a culture. We discussed the purpose of art, what it's "supposed" to do, why it's valuable or not. I was thrilled that each of the kids was able to appreciate what s/he was seeing on an individual level. Mostly, I like that even Bella can now go beyond saying "I like that" to explaining what it is about something that moves her.

The hotel we stayed at--a Sleep Inn on 120th Ave--was a nightmare. Exposed electrical boxes in the pool room, a hot tub guard rail that wobbled and came out of the ground, peeling paint (lead, anyone?), crumbled wall tiles, a plastic chair with a broken leg that someone propped back up and which Max quickly discovered was not stable, a headboard that pulled out of the wall if you so much as leaned against it to watch TV, bathroom doors that refused to lock or even close all the way...the list is endless. But we got a lot of laughs out of it anyway and felt like we were livin' on the edge, wondering what would fall apart next.

And then yesterday, we enjoyed a major snowstorm. The entire family spent the day inside, watching Indiana Jones movies and playing the game Life. We made a huge breakfast and ate too much junk food as we hung out. Wes had a roaring fire going all day, and throughout it all, snow continued to steadily fall and blow with a beauty only nature can pull off. It was just perfect.

Too often, there's conflict of one kind or another when you put a large family together and try to please everyone. This Spring Break has been a gift to me and my family. We all deserve that once in a while.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

What Makes for a "Good" Father?

While this may not come as a shock to anyone who really knows me--and I mean knows me--it bears being clearly stated: I am not the easiest significant other to be with.

Yes, I am extremely low maintenance. Nope, I'm not needy in any sense of the word. In fact, any guy whose been with me for a substantial amount of time very likely has wondered at times if I even like him, I need so little. I'm an eternal optimist, even as the world comes crashing down. Just today, Wes called from work to inform me that he's losing his job for at least a month, if not longer. My first thought was, Wow! We can finally finish painting the family room. It's been half done for 3 years!


I have high expectations when it comes to parenting. Only, I didn't know they were high. To me, they seem reasonable and obvious. I believe in being involved in the lives of my kids. Not when it's convenient or easy. Not when I feel like it. Not when I don't have something else I'd rather be doing. I believe in it at all times. Both parents.

And by involved, I don't mean overbearing or hovering or coddling. I don't tell my kids they're awesome when they're not. I don't heap praise on them for behaving as they should. If they're acting like brats, I tell them they're being bratty. I'm not politically correct. I use the words "shit" and "hell" and "damn" because sometimes they're the only words that express what I mean. I yell when I'm mad and don't act any differently around other people's kids than I do my own. What you see of me in public is what you'd see of me at home.

What I'm trying to say is, I am far from perfect. I make mistakes. But I don't let a day go by without telling every one of my kids I love them. I try to have a few uninterrupted moments with each of them every day. I don't hesitate to tell them I'm proud of them if the situation calls for it, and I am available to them when they need me. I advise, listen, discuss, debate. Together we learn, butt heads, compromise, concede. We are a family. A messy, loving, loud family.

Recently, one of my kids' friends' dad told me he's a good father to his school-age children. I asked him why he thinks that, and he said he drives them places, cooks for them, helps with their homework when he can. He puts food on the table.

This same dad thinks it's okay to drink himself into unconsciousness every couple of weeks because he used to do it every night. He thinks it's okay to smoke a joint or bowl and then try (and fail) to be responsible and attentive (he and his wife are divorced, so he has his kids on his own 3-4 days/nights a week). He leaves the house without tellings his kids while they're out playing, then doesn't answer his cell phone when they call, worried and wondering where he is. He doesn't pay his bills, doesn't work much, doesn't give them any sense of security.

His house is not a home; the kids have very little of their things there. He commits to attending and participating in school functions and then backs out last minute. His kids say they're used to it. I hate him when I hear them say that.

I understand that perhaps this father is an exception to the vast majority of dads out there. But I'm not sure he is. Why do so many men who have kids believe they should get gold stars for doing the bare minimum? Why do they think putting food on the table is all that's required of them? Why do they think they can drink and party and set a horrible example and then smack their kids around when they fall out of line? Why are so many dads assholes?

I know there are some fabulous, dedicated, loving fathers out there. I know some. I read about others. Some of them, I see at school when I'm picking up my kids. Some are reading this column right now. I know they exist.

And I know there are some frighteningly awful mothers. I see them too. Even know a couple. But there seems to be some sort of internal mechanism that tells a lot of guys that this parenting thing is like a hobby: Do it when you feel like it, but don't let it take over your life.

Being a volunteer in the schools, teaching classes and making presentations, I see a lot of wounded kids. A lot. More than I ever thought there could be. They're hurt, angry, distant. I know some second grade kids whose defenses are already in place; their lives will not be easy.

Life's hard. I get that. But when we have kids, we must put them first. All the time. That doesn't mean we need to be perfect, or with them at all times. It doesn't mean we never allow them to struggle or fall, fail or fear. It means we love them. And when loving them isn't enough--and most days, it isn't--we must put our weaknesses and desires aside and step up to the plate.

Being good enough should be the exception, not the rule.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Autism & Vaccinations: Where the Personal IS Political

The federal court ruled last week that there is insufficient evidence to prove the link between autism and childhood vaccinations. Specifically, the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. A victory for some, a crippling defeat for others, it is a ruling that, to me, is moot. Courts must rely solely on physical evidence to make their decisions; proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that the MMR causes autism in some children is impossible. There are too many underlying and individual factors.

But that doesn't mean I believe there's no link between the MMR and autism. I do.

And before I go any further, let me be clear that I have no medical background or vested interest in taking one side or the other. I don't have an autistic child. Nor do I have a vaccinated child. I have healthy children who have never been vaccinated. And I researched the hell out of vaccinations before making the decision to forego that particular childhood tradition. This was back in 1992. I haven't stopped studying the topic since.

I think the decision to vaccinate one's children is personal. Parents have the right to choose either way, and then they must live with the consequences of that choice. What irritates me to no end is when a parent accepts vaccinations as mandatory and doesn't question their efficacy, safety, or logic. I mean, we're talking a child's life here...this decision is not along the lines of piercing ears or even circumcision; this is a decision which may involve injecting toxins directly into a healthy human body in an unnatural way. If a parent has thought this through, weighed the circumstances, and then makes the decision in favor of or against, she has done so (presumably) out of love for her child and the desire to keep that child healthy and safe. If, on the other hand, she allows her child to be vaccinated simply because it's what she's told to do, then I have no respect for that. I'm a firm believer in questioning authority when authority needs to be questioned.

I'm not writing this column because I think children shouldn't be vaccinated. I'm writing it because I think the time has come (is overdue, actually) to re-evaluate the role of vaccines. They were definitely a blessing when first introduced, as were labor unions and public schools. But times change and our social constructs and institutions must change if they are to remain valuable and effective.

The first cases of autism were diagnosed in 1943; all eleven diagnoses were among children who were born in the months after thimerosal, a form of mercury, was first added to infant vaccinations in 1931. Today, autism has reached epidemic proportions, and parents are advised to give their children more vaccines than ever before. Is it mere coincidence that the number of cases of diagnosed autism has drastically increased as the number of "required" childhood vaccines has risen? I can't imagine it is.

I made the choice not vaccinate based on research and instinct. As parents, we must trust that inner voice that alternately screams and whispers to us. I have been chastised by medical personnel (but not all of them) and scorned by other parents for my decision. Yet I have never regretted it. That doesn't mean I think it's the right choice for everyone. But it was right for me and my children.

I just want people to think. Think about their choices, their actions, their behavior. Too many folks seem to just go along with the norm and never stop to consider why it's the norm. I don't necessarily want you to agree with me. I just want you to know why you disagree.

For a thought-provoking expose on autism and vaccinations, check out this Rolling Stone article: . The level of integrity and investigative journalism is noteworthy, and regardless of which side of the fence you sit on for this issue, it will give you pause to ponder.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A New Day Dawns

As I write on this glorious, sunny day, I'm watching the Inaugural ceremonies. I've been watching since earlier this morning, and as the day unfolds, I find myself feeling a stronger sense of national pride than I've felt in years. It's not that I ever did not want to be an American; no mere mortal could ever wield that magnitude of power over me. But in recent years, I've come to feel misrepresented as an individual American on virtually every front. Respect for the presidential office aside, Bush simply was never my president.

Today I feel hope--unlimited, bottomless surges of hope. The idea of hope is a welcome one regardless of circumstances. But the climate of our nation has been one of fear, frustration, disappointment, anger, and dissent for so long that hope had become little more than a four-letter word. It was distant, unattainable, fading into the horizon.

Many things about today contribute to my feeling of hope: the fact that the man who now leads us is young and vital, a loving father and husband who seems in touch with the reality most of us accept as our own; that this one man had the courage to step up and speak out at a time when our nation most needed a clear, intelligent voice; that he sacrificed his private life for a cause much bigger--and more difficult--than any one person's endeavors. I think Barack Obama chose to seek the presidency not because he could, but because he felt he should.

But more than this, I am hopeful because we as a nation banded together and said Enough. We've had enough. And we did what we had to do to bring about the change necessary to right ourselves.

I believe most hatred and ugliness is born of fear, and the fear stems from ignorance. Racism has long divided our country, and to an extent, perhaps, it always will. But for this one brief moment, we robbed racism of its power and banished it. We chose hope and a belief in the power of the people over hatred and fear. We made an active decision to break through a long-standing paradigm of limitation based on tradition and an unwillingness to take a chance.

There is but a one-letter difference between "chance" and "change," and I think one relies on the other for existence. I truly believe we have the leader we need to guide us out of the mire we find ourselves trudging through. He is no savior, not a messiah. He is probably scared to death and will undoubtedly make mistakes. But my gut tells me his mistakes will have come from an attempt to do the right thing for the most people, to make the best of difficult choices and decisions. I see an integrity in this man I never was able to detect in his predecessor.

I will forever be proud to be able to tell my children that I helped bring Barack Obama to the White House. When he stumbles and falls--as we know he will--the fallout will be tempered by the spirit which permeates this day. We will remember the elation, the sheer relief, the unabashed triumph. We will remember why we put him in office.

This day belongs to us all, regardless of creed, political party, race, or any other factor that leads to division. Today is our day.

Today is a good day. And for me, it's doubly wonderful; my baby--the last of the tribe--turns 8 today. One look into Bella's dear face and I am reminded of the goodness and delight this life has to offer.

Life is good.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Front Porch Returns

Happy New Year! I hope this column finds you in good spirits and even better health. It's been more than 6 months since I've posted a new column, and that's just not okay. Many of you have asked if I stopped writing The Front Porch. The answer is a resounding NO! I just got swamped with writing gigs that pay, so something had to go.

But we're back on the porch, and I hope you'll join us there. I'll publish my column bi-weekly, more if there's something I just can't let pass. I think 2 columns/month is doable, and I'm looking forward to getting back into the good and the bad of writing an opinion column.

There is one major change: I will no longer email you when I've posted a new column. Instead, you can sign up to be automatically alerted to new columns. It's easy.

To your immediate left is a "Subscribe" button. There is also a Subscribe link at the very bottom of this page. I don't know the difference between the two, but I figure one of them will suit your fancy. Click on the button/link, and you're done. That's all there is to it!

If you don't want to read The Front Porch any more, don't do a thing. You won't receive alerts. But if you do, be sure to subscribe, and forward the column to folks you think might find it interesting.

Now...enough with the technical stuff. My brain has been mulling over a few morsels:

I turn 44 this Thursday! Yes, absolutely I'll have a drink with you. A big one, the kind that smells so good you want to take a bath in it. You think I'm're funny.

Someone told me last week that I am only the second Democrat he's ever liked. Does that say more about me or him?

2008 clarified a few things for me:

1. I'm no fan of tornadoes.
2. I voted for Vazquez for mayor, but only because I thought he was less wrong for the job than the other guys. I have since changed my mind about him. As far as I'm concerned, the guy has proven his ability to lead effectively even under dire circumstances. He has my full support unless he starts to act like an idiot, and I don't see that happening.
3. I live in a town where folks sometimes over-react (I'm thinking about the MySpace "scandal" at the high school...could we have made a bigger deal of that if we tried?), but also where, when disaster strikes, residents pull together and reach out to help those in need. I spent the weeks immediately following the tornado with an overwhelming sense of pride in my community. Even now, that whole surreal event chokes me up and brings tears to my eyes.
4. Bruce Springsteen really IS the Boss.
5. The dark years for this country are fading into the shadows (for now...history does tend to repeat itself). Though we have a lot of clean-up to do, I believe we've proven we're up to the challenge. We placed more value on hope and the chance of better tomorrows than we did on experience and old-white-guyness in this last election, and I think that was the right call. Again, there's that sense of pride in my fellow man.

And finally...