Between the Lines 52

March 18, 2014

Volunteering for the Rush

Filed under: Uncategorized — Professor Johansen's Blog @ 5:20 am

 

Volunteering For the Rush

The first time I stepped off the ambulance at a crash scene, I picked up a black leather boot lying in the road. The severed, shattered bone of a foot and ankle remained inside, giving the boot a heavy, leaden weight. I stared at it in fascination, a rush of endorphins surging through me. I had no training for anything like this. After all, I was only supposed to be the driver.

            “Wayne, what do I do with this?” I asked, holding it in my shaking hand toward the EMT in charge.

            “Find who it belongs to and stay by them,” Wayne said.

            That was my initiation into volunteering in a small town. My wife Julie and I had just moved back to the town of my youth, Narrowsburg, NY. A town of about a thousand souls, nestled far up the Delaware River from the urban sprawl of New York and New Jersey.  Many of the residents commuted to have good jobs. I was one of them, driving two hours each way for work. I didn’t care. It was great to be back where I called home.

            The local ambulance corps had put out a call for help. They were going to go out of business without new members, so my wife, my brother and I signed up. I was only going to drive a couple of nights a week, from eleven at night until seven in the morning whenever there was a call. It was a small town. I wanted to help. How many calls could there possibly be?

            That first night, I set clothes off to the side, checked my pager I had been given that afternoon, and went to bed, trying to fall asleep while waiting in anticipation. The pager went off in fourteen minutes, the suddenness shocking me out of bed. I was at the ambulance building in three minutes, it being a mile from my house. Shaking with expectation and excitement, I fumbled through my keys to find the one for the door, finally stepping into the building as a car and a truck came sliding into the parking lot; Wayne and another older member of the corps named John. I hit the button for the garage door and headed for the driver’s side, thinking that I would drive. That’s what I was here for, right?

            “Get the hell in the back,” old John growled. “I’m driving.”

            I looked at Wayne. He just said “C’mon. I need your help.”

            What the fuck? This isn’t what I want to do, and yet every range of emotion going from scared shitless to a morbid curiosity to see the horror up close coursed through my body. The call was for a double motorcycle accident, two couples on bikes running into the side of a tractor trailer as they blew a stop sign. A four minute drive down the main road heading downriver. Wayne was going through an equipment checklist, gathering bags of trauma gear and oxygen tanks on the gurney. My mind was trying to keep up. I imagined what we were heading for. He looked at me.

            “Hey, you all right?” he asked.

            “Just a bit freaked out, getting this for my first call.”

            “I need you to help me.” Wayne stared at me intently. I felt his eyes checking me out, wondering if I would crack, losing it once we got to the crash. “The second rig is on the way, but it’s only you and me first.”

            “I’ll try.” Best I could do.

            Looking through the door to the front cab and out the windshield I saw the bright high beams and the red and orange flashing lights of the rig reflecting upon a man waving a flashlight and red, smoking flares around a twisted bike and truck. I heard John call out.

            “Where are the hurt ones?” old John called. A muffled voice answered. John pulled the ambulance ahead for a few feet and stopped.

            “We’re here, let’s go,” he yelled.

            “Just follow me,” Wayne said.

            “Okay.” I stepped down behind him. Wayne headed toward a body lying in the road. He motioned me toward a girl that was being held down by someone who looked like the truck driver. She was screaming, a pool of blood soaking through a wad of towels wrapped around her leg. I looked down and saw a black leather boot lying in the road.

February 13, 2014

Some poetry

Filed under: Uncategorized — Professor Johansen's Blog @ 3:02 am

End Of Time (a villanelle this was for my Grandmother) 

A worn withered hand holds on tight
and fear surges forth. Life meets its end.
a spirit starts surrendering its long lonely fight.

He came to comfort, in the dark dead of night.
On another’s love you had come to depend.
A worn withered hand still holding on tight.

Voices from the past, call you to the light
of the spark of life. You strive to defend.
Your spirit is surrendering its long lonely fight.

Eyes stare blindly, lost in their sight
is the unknown. Now begin to descend.
A worn withered hand not holding so tight.

Time to let go. A whisper it’s alright,
are soft words for you, your soul to commend.
The spirit surrendering its long lonely fight.

Fear has finally fled, surrounded in white.
The arms of ancestors reach to help you ascend.
A worn withered hand stops holding tonight.
A spirit has surrendered its long lonely fight.

 

Scared of the C      (another villanelle)

The Fear engulfs, body and mind.
It’s a part of you, each dark day.
Scared for your life, it leaves you blind.

On life’s feast, in the past you dined.
Healthy and fit, you lived to play.
Now Fear engulfs, body and mind.

The hourglass does not rewind,
to stop the sand, there is no way.
Scared for your life, it leaves you blind.

A shot of poison, you declined.
A cure that leaves you with dismay.
The Fear engulfs, body and mind.

Life flies fast, nothing left behind.
Time to die, to start the decay.
Scared for your life, it leaves you blind.

The C has won, you are resigned.
The reaper comes, it’s time to pay.
The Fear engulfs, body and mind.
Scared for your life, it leaves you blind.

 

Paper and Pen

I sit and stare at a clean blank white page,
straining my brain to find just the right word.
What I want to say, within is a rage.
It’s hard to write poetry, I have heard.

Thoughts are a lawnmower inside my head.
Swirling like leaves in a tropical gale.
Never to come forth, that is my great dread.
The due date approaches, I must not fail.

Head in hands, I search for an expression.
What do I mean to say with my writing?
What is my rhyme, this is the big question.
My head’s full of syllabic infighting.

What can I do to break this mental block.
Inside my skull is an icy deep freeze.
Maybe I could use an electric shock,
to end this word jam with cerebral ease.

The pen lies idle in my limp right hand,
unable to scrawl its wisdom for you.
The papers unsoiled as if words are banned.
I wait for ideas to come that are new.

 

Fishing for Dreams   (first poem I ever wrote)

The brilliance of trees in their autumnal dress.
A warm afternoon, family gathered by the lake.
My Father and Uncles stand swapping stories.
Feeling bigger than my six years of life, I confess.

Out off the dock my bobber drifts on the pond.
Ripples slowly spreading, the circles finally fade.
My first time fishing with the men in my world.
With my Dad and Grandpa I begin the bond.

Sudden motion in the water breaks the reverie.
My bobber goes diving, then appears, then is gone.
The flash of the fish that surrenders itself.
I bring it to shore, Dad cheers happily.

The picture on the wall is my trophy of the day.
My Grandpa and Dad standing by my side.
I hold that fish as tightly as I can squeeze.
I am the champion, nothing can take that away.

Grandpa and Dad have long since passed.
The grief felt has faded, the weeping has ceased.
A young man left alone, to try to figure it out.
Hoping he can make the right choices at last.

In the front of our boat, my son lets out a shout.
It is my turn now to watch him and be proud.
His bobber disappears, and his time has come.
His first fish on the line, and he wins the bout.

Our picture now hangs by one from time past.
His smile is as wide as another young boy’s.
Family memories of love, like a ribbon of life.
Weave their way through, from the first to the last.

Someday soon will be this Son’s turn to beam.
Another Father’s proud moment as his boy shouts.
Another picture to hang on their wall of love.
Of his young son fishing, in their pond of dreams.

 

Never Enough

It heals all wounds and the third,
It’s a charm. We need to make it.
Many are doing. With this word,
a stitch saves nine, so we take it.

All in due, just in the nick, none
like the present, some want to kill.
It’s out and up and flies when fun.
Too much on your hands, if you will.

It’s said it’s money, and that it’s ripe.
Said once or a thousand, for no man,
it waits. With the cliché’s that I type,
some are as old as when it all began.

They are a changing, or the sands of.
In a bottle, or when it’s running out.
If it’s forever and all, you’re in love.
If a good was had by all, what’s it about?

 

Waking

I woke up dreaming of long
ago, a young man breathing in
the warm, moist air

of the morning. Thinking of
my latest love, how we came
together last night, breathless,

how it felt, her body
my first thought when
I opened my eyes,

and took the first breath
of a bright new day.
She flooded my senses

with her memory from the night
before, how she felt against my
skin, hot and electric, leaving

a wave of fire that didn’t
go out, the ecstatic burning
that invaded my mind,

smoldering below the surface
of my senses. She steals
thoughts of all else away.

She is just a dream, who fades
as I roll to my side
and try to sit up, the ache

of middle age working through
my back, my knees cracking as I
stand, trying to stretch my body

so that the pain of sleep
lessens, so that I can go
out and face the memory

of who I used to be.
I can still remember
her breath, her scent, her touch.

I am alive inside.
I am not dead yet.
Passion still dwells deep
within.

February 11, 2014

Shame

Filed under: Uncategorized — Professor Johansen's Blog @ 2:42 am

Jesse woke with a start, the sheets soaked with his sweat, TV still on, turned down low so he could barely make out what the young, gaunt, wide-eyed man was saying. The memory of his dream lingering in the back of his mind, Jesse reached for the remote, fumbling around the twisted covers, unable to find it. Exhausted, he stumbled out of bed and turned off the TV, stepping on the remote and crushing the black plastic case in the process. “Fuck,” he thought, cursing his way to the window of his bedroom and pulling back the curtains. The early morning was gray, erasing the color from everything else. A hard mist was falling, leaving the world slowly dripping from every flat surface in sight. “That sucks,” he muttered as he turned toward the blanketed mound that was his wife Catherine, still curled up under the layers of covers she crawled under every night. No response. Jesse pulled on an old pair of faded gray sweats and quietly closed the bedroom door behind him. Let her sleep, he thought. He had kept her up late. After all, neither one had to be up early for work. That was their routine. Friday night’s schedule was set aside for love. At forty five years old, everything was a routine, even love.

 

He shuffled into the kitchen across the cold tiled floor, pressing the button on the coffee maker Catherine had prepared the night before. Another routine. Collapsing into his recliner, he flipped on the TV to check out the morning news and weather. Nothing new, the same morning voices droning out the same news from the day before the day before the day before that. Jesse sighed, letting his mind wander back to his dream. It was a version of the same dream he had dreamed many times before. He was walking along a crowded sidewalk in New York City, straining his neck to keep the back of a head in sight, trying to keep pace with the vanishing person while at the same time looking back over his shoulder, anticipating the tap of a hand of someone from behind. He followed the disappearing person until just as he is about to reach them he wakes up. Jesse had dreamed a version of this dream for twenty of his forty two years. It hardly ever changed. It didn’t come every night; in fact he had not had the dream for three years after meeting and marrying Catherine. Life was very settled and ordered in those first few years. Jesse didn’t mind how his marriage was arranged back then. He didn’t care that Catherine took over and made all of the decisions for them; what they did outside of work, the house, the kids, in general everything about their lives. But the old Jesse was never far beneath the surface. After twenty years, he was bored with life, bored with everything he did. But he had no idea how to get out of it, how to change his existence. The dream had begun to creep back into his unconscious mind shortly after their first child Billy was born, named after the father that Jesse had known only through the stories his mother would tell. “I don’t ever want you to speak bad about him,” his mom would say. “He was a wanderer, but I loved him to death.”

In 1988, at the age of twenty, Jesse buried his mother.  A tractor trailer on the New Jersey Turnpike, traveling eighty miles an hour, had blown a front tire and swerved out of control into the car that Jesse’s mom and her current boyfriend were traveling in, killing both of them instantly. The accident and the ensuing fire were severe enough that it was a closed casket funeral. There was no getting to say goodbye, face to face. At the funeral, Jesse noticed an older man, dressed in a dark suit that was a size or two too big for him, standing by himself off to the side under the red oaks that covered the cemetery. Jesse didn’t think he knew him, having met most of his mother’s friends over the years. She had not been a private person. At one point their eyes met briefly, the older man’s gaze locking with Jesse’s, but he looked away quickly and left soon after. There were many old friends of Jesse’s mom there, so Jesse didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t until everyone was leaving the funeral home that he thought to ask his mom’s dearest friend who the older man was. I don’t remember exactly, she told him, but I think I remember your mom introducing him to me as Bill, she had said. Jesse didn’t show any outward emotion with this, muttering “oh thanks” to her, his head spinning on the inside. “Holy shit,” he thought. “The bastard had the nerve to come here. If I had only known.”

 

The radio clicked on right in the middle of Blake Shelton’s new single “Boys Round Here,” turned  up to volume ten, blasting Mollie upright and awake. “Motherfucker,” she swore, “who the fuck was listening to that shit last. Fucking bitch.”  Mollie glanced at her sleeping roommate Jen who was wrapped around her boyfriend, he having never crawled his sorry ass out of their room last night. “Jen, get the fuck up, we’re late for class,” Mollie croaked, her throat dry from the party they had worked last evening. Her head pounding, she stumbled into the shower, letting cold water rain on her foggy brain. She had a test, and needed to be somewhat awake for it.

Determined to fulfill her promise to her mother Maggie, named for her Irish heritage and fiery red hair, Mollie had done everything she could to stay in college. While Coastal Carolina’s cost was just what she could handle through loans, it also had other advantages that many universities did not. There were plenty of jobs available because of the tourists that flocked to Myrtle Beach year round for golf, vacations, the beach and sunshine. Mollie worked at night after she finished classes. She had done every job available to college girls. She had also been fired from most of them.

A year earlier, at the beginning of her junior year, Mollie was desperate. After tuition and books, she had enough cash left for rent for one month, but after that she was dead broke. I can’t deal with serving at another place for the same shit money, she thought. I need more money if I plan on eating. She had tried to find part time work at night, but the summer was over and businesses were cutting back on hiring. For a month she had tried selling timeshare, but she didn’t make enough to cover gas driving to work, so she quit without giving notice. Her phone rang for a day, her boss wondering if she was going to cover her shift. She knew she couldn’t go to another timeshare, they all knew each other and talked, so that door had closed. Mollie had worked for most of the restaurants in town, some for as little as one week. She had a problem with guys who acted like jerks and couldn’t keep to themselves. They all pissed her off, and her patience and temper matched her hair. Her employment options were few, and when her loan money hit its limit, she knew that she had to make some decisions.

That is how Mollie found herself on the stage of the DollHouse on amateur night. Her roommate Jen had talked her into going with her, just for support. Jen had tried to win the month before and came in second place. First prize was a thousand dollars. “C’mon Moll, come with me,” Jen said. “If I win I’ll give ya a hundred bucks.”  “Fine,” Mollie finally said. “I’ll go with you to at least make sure you come back home tonight.” As they entered the DollHouse that evening, Mollie felt the blood flush in her face, her pulse quicken as she caught her breath. She had never been in a men’s adult club. She watched, fascinated as girl after girl got up and danced, curling and bending around a shining silver pole. Some of the girls had friends in the audience, and they were playing up to them while twirling around the pole. Other girls seemed to go into their own world, unaware of the ring of young men kept at bay by strict house rules about touching, very large bouncers, and 4 feet of space between the bar and the stage, just enough for the girl to reach for a dollar bill, held out as an offering to her “abilities.”

Mollie had attracted attention as soon as she had entered the club. The floor manager, an older man named Sam, approached Mollie and encouraged her to get up and enter. “Listen Sweetie, you could make a lot of money dancing, just saying. But if you don’t need the money stay out of it. It’s a tough hustle. Maybe it’s too tough, not for you,” he said. Mollie looked at him hard, turned and walked toward the stage. The old man just watched her, the slightest curl of a smile betraying his thoughts. She climbed on stage, the music and lights began, and she felt a rush of blood flow through her body. For an instant she felt a twinge of shame. But only for an instant. As she began to dance, she looked out at the crowd. The eyes were on her, she was surrounded, and yet she was untouchable. She realized she had just gained power over all of them, all the young men who had come to howl and hoot like the dogs and pigs Mollie saw them as. They were no different than what she knew of her father, except now she had them under her spell, and she had never felt anything like it before. She imagined that she saw her father’s face in each one of them. She didn’t know what he looked like, but Mollie imagined that she felt his eyes on her. She also felt the power that she had over all of them. She could feel it; it was alive, coursing through her veins. She slowly stripped down to her bra and thong, the best Victoria’s had to offer. For the first time in her life she felt that she owned each and every man in the place. They all had their eyes solely upon her, each one of them fixated upon her gyrating body, slowly wrapping around the silver pole.  Flipping her long, flaming hair around, her hazel green eyes blazing from within, she grasped the pole and draped herself around it, lifting off the floor and spinning upside down, slowly lowering herself to a split on the dance floor. Looking out at the crowd, she saw every eye still fixed directly on her, following her every move. She felt as if she had been doing it forever. She was aware of every man watching herShe loved it, especially the fact that they couldn’t touch her, that they were hers without her having to do anything. Except dance. She was hooked.

She won the contest, a thousand dollars, and made another six hundred in tips dancing after the contest. “Fucking unbelievable, can you just believe it,” Mollie was screaming as she drove home with Jen. “Go fuck yourself, Moll. You were supposed to be helping me win, not steal the contest you bitch. I’m so pissed off at you right now.”  “Oh fuck you,” Mollie said. “I didn’t steal anything. I won it, and I loved it. Don’t sweat it, little bitch; I’ll give you a hundred for making me go. That was so much fun.”

 

In 1993, Jesse was twenty five years old, single, and bouncing from job to job, always searching for something new. It was summer, and he had been talked into returning to a job as a camp counselor in the Blue Ridge Mountains. One of those camps where every two weeks one group of kids went home and a new group showed up. It was Jesse’s third summer working the camp scene. He found it a great way to get paid, get room and board and meet a new set of girls every summer. He figured this would be more of the same. When he saw Maggie step off the bus, hair flaming in the bright, high-noon sun, he knew he was right.

Within an hour he knew her name, Maggie McAlarney. He knew she was on a month long college internship at the camp, and that she was single. He knew that this was her first time at camp, and that she liked to party. He knew everything he needed to know about her. By the third night she was in his bunk, wrapped around him like it was the last night on earth. For the next four weeks they had sex everywhere and every time they could. Maggie had never met a guy she had fallen for as hard as she fell for Jesse. She did everything she could to please him, in bed and out of it. She was hoping they could continue after the summer, and she was making plans to go with Jesse wherever he was headed, although they had not talked about leaving together.  On the final night of the summer, as they were packing the last few things and were kissing and fooling around a bit before it was time to go and head their separate ways, Maggie told Jesse she had fallen in love with him. “I’m sorry Maggie, but that just ain’t me. Just not ready to give up my freedom yet,” was all he could say. Jesse had walked out of her cabin that last night his head down, trying not to look her in the eye, Maggie crying softly behind him. He was scared. Family scared him. It just meant pain.

Jesse left early the next morning, wanting to get out before he saw Maggie again. He really liked her a lot, much more than he was comfortable with. That had him worried. He usually could say goodbye without any remorse, but this had been different. He felt he had to run away this time. If he didn’t he might not escape. As he drove away, feeling like he was leaving behind something of consequence, he just kept talking to himself, “It was just another summer thing, wasn’t it? She’ll be fine.” It was just a summer thing, kept repeating in his mind.

Jesse returned to his house in New Jersey, the house his mother had been living in with her boyfriend when they were killed. It had its own ghosts, or the imaginings of Jesse’s mind. Ghosts of his mother, who had loved everybody she met and was a true free-spirit from the sixties. Ghosts of shadowy figures with features of gray gauze, unfathomable within the shadow that encompassed their form. Ghosts of his imagination, childlike in their appearance. Jesse felt their presence and he did his best to chase them away. He turned on every TV in the house at same time, volume pushing toward that Spinal Tap number 11. He turned on every light, chasing the dark from every corner of every room. Music was always playing; classic rock from the 70’s and 80’s pounding away, pushing the bass levels so that window panes rattled in their casings. The ghosts remained.

He had been home for about two months when a handwritten letter, addressed to him, was delivered to the house. “Just so you know, I’m pregnant,” Maggie wrote. “Not looking for any help, so don’t concern yourself. Just thought you might care.” Maggie. The note ended with that, nothing else. There was no return address. A wave of fear swept over him. He did what he had always done before. Jesse moved out of his house, and took an apartment closer to the city.

He got a job through a friend as a district manager with a sales and marketing company. It was the best job offer he ever had as far as money. He was in charge of a team of seven merchandisers, and spent his days on the road, going from store to store, managing his crew. He was making money, and he settled into his work, pushing the letter to the back of his mind, sealing off that corner and forgetting about it. It wasn’t long before he met Catherine. She was a friend of an employee. Jesse met her at Friday’s, where his team would gather after the weekly meetings to toss back a few Corona’s and bullshit each other. They hit it off right away. She felt safe and comfortable to Jesse. Catherine had a calm, free manner about her. Jesse left with her phone number, and called her the next day. By the end of the first month they were discussing moving in together. They were married within six months. She was looking for a family, and wanted to get started before her clock ran out. She was upper middle class minded all the way. Catherine was elegant, refined, and polished in the ways of etiquette, and valued order above all else. She had organized their life with handwritten schedules and refrigerator notes, scribbled across whiteboards and post-its that were likely to pop up anywhere. Catherine was happy to settle into a routine. She was loving and attentive to Jesse, trying to be the best wife she could be. But she was predictable. Catherine felt that happiness was when one knew what one was to do and when to do it. She had grown up on a schedule, the daughter of an Adjunct Colonel in the Marine Corp. Jesse didn’t mind much.  He was okay with it. It was easy. Just follow the routine. That’s all. He had no worries. Just follow the routine.

When she was four years old, Mollie remembered sleeping in the back of the old dark green Jeep Cherokee her mom owned. It was only for a month, while her mom saved enough for a rent deposit. Mollie remembered her mom sneaking her into the restroom of a Hess gas station, the lime green walls of the ladies room littered with graffiti. They would lock the door and wash their hair in the sink, her mom scrubbing it as clean as she could. Mollie especially remembered their first night back in an apartment, both of them taking a long bath, crawling into sleeping bags spread across an old double bed with springs that protested loudly every time one of them moved. Mollie’s mother Maggie promising that they would never live in the car again. “You’ll never have to be ashamed again, I promise you honey. Never again,” Maggie had said. She wanted Mollie to believe it. Mollie hadn’t ever felt shame in her life that she could recall. She only knew the fear of being left alone, the way her mother had left her; the way her father had left them both.

It was the end of her senior year in high school that Mollie came home from school and found her mom crying in the kitchen of their two bedroom apartment. It took Maggie over an hour to tell Mollie that she had been diagnosed, she was terminal, and they had decisions to make. Maggie faced it with her usual smile, once they had the first good, hard, cry together. Maggie remained positive the whole time she was sick. The end came quickly. The cancer had spread from her breast to her lungs, and before two months passed, Maggie was gone.

Mollie was eighteen and alone. She was devastated, locking herself in the apartment and staying in her room, blinds drawn, for three weeks. She was bingeing, going through every bottle that was still in the house, drinking Cuervo Gold and Johnny Walker Black, a bottle a day before friends finally broke her door down and forced her to come out. They saved her life. It took her several months, but Mollie finally came out of her depression, and got pissed. She blamed men for not recognizing how beautiful her mother was, for not stepping up and looking past the fact that she had a daughter. Maggie had many boyfriends, but they all were temporary, not lingering long after finding out about Mollie. She blamed herself for not being a better daughter. She blamed the hospital for not taking her mother in sooner, even though Maggie had no insurance. Why hadn’t they treated her sooner? And she blamed the man whom she had never met. The week before Maggie died she sat Mollie down and told her about her father. “He was a beautiful young man,” Mollie. “I fell in love with him the minute I saw him. He was a good soul, and had a great heart. I loved him. But he was young and scared. I knew it. I loved him anyway. He took off, and I never heard from him again. I wrote him that you had been born. I don’t know if he ever received it. I always loved him. Even now, I still do,” Maggie told her daughter. Maggie told her his name.  Mollie didn’t care. She didn’t want anything to do with him or any other man.

 

Jesse and Catherine were married about six months when he received a second letter. Your daughter Mollie was born three months ago on May 23, 1992. She is fine. I just thought you would want to know. That was all it said. No return address. “How did she find me?” Jesse thought. “What am I gonna do?” He hid the letter from Catherine. She wouldn’t handle that news very well, he thought. Jesse didn’t say a word. He waited. He made sure he got the mail every day. He scrutinized every letter and package that had a handwritten address. After a month he began to relax. Maybe she isn’t coming after me, he thought. Jesse was scared. He had finally settled down. He wasn’t ready to have his new world come crashing down around him. Catherine just wouldn’t understand. It would break up her routine.

It had been easy with Catherine. He let her handle everything. She had been doing that all her life, it was easy for her. As long as she felt in charge, she was happy, and when she was happy she played the role of his wife like she was headlining on Broadway. Catherine loved Jesse, but she really loved her life and suburban middle class house and yard. She had always wanted that picture of a white picket fence around a house to be hers. When she became pregnant on their first anniversary, Catherine couldn’t have been happier. She chattered on and on about how she couldn’t wait to be a soccer mom, to be a member of the PTA, to have play dates. She would have to set up a new schedule so that they could all be on time. They would have to go to child-rearing classes, to birthing classes, to pediatrician meetings, and on and on. Jesse just nodded, surrendering what remained of his independence to his wife. After all, she was the house Mom; she took care of him, and he didn’t have to do anything except follow the schedule. By the time a year had passed since he received the second letter, he stopped worrying about it. The thought that his child was out there in the world never left his mind, but he succeeded in pushing it far back into a dark corner, sealing it off from his daily reality. Until the dreams started after his son was born.

 

Mollie was pissed. It was supposed to be her day off. She had a midterm in Economics to study for, and she needed all the time she could get. She had wanted to go for an early run. It was a beautiful spring morning, crisp and cool. She was just stepping out the door when Sam, the manager from the DollHouse, called to tell her that she had to come in that evening. Mollie started bitching Sam out right away, but Sam just let her carry on, waiting until she was done to tell her he didn’t care about her classes, she had to come in if she wanted to keep getting the best shifts and days off around her class schedule. “Fuck you,” Mollie kept repeating as she hung up on Sam. So much for running. She would have to study all day if she was going to be out working all night. “What the fuck,” she said out loud. She needed the cash anyway. She almost had enough to pay off all her college tuition and debts. She had been saving for over a year. When she was paid off she would be able to quit dancing. As exciting as she still found it to be, it was becoming a grind. Mollie still loved being in control. She hadn’t had a relationship with a guy last more than three weeks. She wouldn’t see anybody from the club. Other guys she met couldn’t get past the wall she surrounded herself with, a wall of anger and pain. She was finding it hard telling anyone she met what she did. She always found herself lying about her job. She was beginning to judge herself, a conflict rising within her over the clash between the money and the feeling of abuse and mistreatment she was experiencing. Mollie often wondered what her Mom would have said about her stripping, but she managed to always justify it with the knowledge that her Mom always did whatever she needed to do to survive, so Mollie knew Maggie would have supported her. It was the rest of the world that had the issue. Several months before, a fellow student came into the club she was performing in. He had recognized her immediately, and had hit on her right away. When she rejected him, he made sure everyone in her classes knew that she was a stripper, and he also made up some shit about how she was turning tricks. Mollie didn’t care about what others thought, but the whispers had grown to outright name calling, and she was being harassed daily. She just needed to hang on until the end of the semester and she could graduate. Her promise to Maggie would be fulfilled. She would have her education. Then she could go back to not caring what people said or thought. She would move out of the state, far away from everyone she knew. “Fuck them all,” she muttered to herself.

Jesse finished booking his yearly trip with his fellow counterparts at the office. They had been talking about a long weekend golf trip for months, and had finally decided to go to the Dunes Resort and Golf Club in Myrtle Beach, SC. He had never been there before, and was looking forward to getting out of the house, away from Catherine and his eighteen year old son Billy. It wasn’t like he couldn’t stand being around them. He did love them. He just felt stifled, what with Catherine’s schedules and her keeping up appearances. He had willingly built a nice life with her, but the routine that she thrived upon had slowly removed every vestige of what remained of the old Jesse. He could feel his soul being buried. He found himself daydreaming, wondering where the free-spirited boy of his past had gone. It was a feeling that had been growing in him for a number of years, and the trips away from his tidy life and family were becoming more numerous each year. The golf trip was one of his favorites.

A torrential downpour greeted them when the plane landed in Myrtle Beach, the kind of wrath of God rain you get along the Carolina Coast. Jesse and the others on the trip checked into their rooms and decided to go their separate ways for dinner, with plans to meet up at one of the many clubs later that night. Jesse was tired from the early morning rush to get to the airport on time, so he decided to go back to his room and catch a quick nap before the evening’s festivities.

Awakening with a start, Jesse saw the head disappearing, his dream continuing as his brain clawed its way to consciousness. “Who the hell is it?” he wondered aloud. He thought he recognized it, but it just wouldn’t click in his mind. Who was he chasing, and who was chasing him? He still couldn’t make any sense of it, but the dreams had been coming much more regular than they had before. He couldn’t tell if they really meant something or if he was allowing his fears to get the best of him. He briefly thought of those letters long ago. “Wonder what has become of her?” he said to himself. “That can’t be it,” he said to the walls of his hotel room, “it’s not that. It’s not that.”

Jesse got up and quickly dressed. Still haunted by his dream, and what was going on with it, he decided to head for the club early, having no interest in dinner or socializing with his fellow golfers before getting a few drinks in him. As he was leaving his room, out of the corner of his eye he caught a movement, a shadow of something. Turning quickly toward it, he saw nothing but the room. “What the hell with the spooky shit,” he muttered out loud. Turning and stepping out the door, he hoped his imaginary demons would leave him be for the night. He had hoped they would have remained back with Catherine and Billy.

Driving to the club they had chosen to meet up in, Jesse knew he was going to be much earlier than the others. They would still be sitting around bullshitting over dinner. Nothing ever happened fast with this group. They often took hours just to decide where to go for dinner. Jesse figured it would be at least an hour before any of the group would show up. That would give him plenty of time to have a few drinks by himself and just chill. And check out the girls.

 

Mollie arrived at the DollHouse before the dinner crowd started showing up. It was going to be a long night, and she still had to study when she was done with work.  As she walked into the place, she glanced at the bar. Not too many here yet, she thought, but it would be overflowing later. It was golf season, and Mollie had been making a killing from the golfers who flocked to Myrtle Beach this time of year. They were here to golf and party, no thought to the ramifications of having a wife or girlfriend back home. The strip club scene was the part of the trip they didn’t talk about back home, but it was what many of them came for, at least as much as the golf. Mollie was always wary of them, knowing that far too many of them ignored the rules on touching. They all tried to grab and feel her up, something she would not tolerate, and she reacted angrily to it. She had no problem punching any man who touched her or showed her disrespect. Dancing for over a year had solidified that feeling in her. More than ever Mollie wasn’t going to take any shit from any of them. She could dance, she could strip, and she could grind and work each one of them into an overheated mess, but she would not allow anyone to touch her. Even when giving a lap dance, she insisted upon complete control. Sam had warned her about slapping customers who strayed from the rules, even if only slightly. She couldn’t afford to get fired from this place, so Mollie had to back off working the crowd hard for extra money. Now she just worked the bar, chatting up the clientele after she was done dancing each three song set. The tips were great, and she didn’t have to work as hard. “Just one more year of this and I will get out,” she told herself. She wasn’t sure that she believed herself, but she was sticking to her plan until she had to make a final decision.

Half way through her first set, Mollie noticed him; a middle-aged man sitting on the corner of the bar, focused on her every move. His face seemed to register with her, but she didn’t know him as a local. He seemed to be fixed on her, not even looking at the barmaid when she placed a fresh beer in front of him. She saw over a hundred men every night, so she figured he must have stopped in another time. He looked like a good prospect, and she made a mental note to stop by his barstool and see if he would pony up with a decent tip. If he is respectful enough, I might even give him a lap dance if he wants one, Mollie thought. As her third song finished and she stepped down from the raised dance platform that was up behind the bar, one of the bar regulars came up to her immediately. Mollie chatted with him, getting a healthy tip just for spending a few minutes talking with the guy, making him feel as if he was a friend and important to her. She turned to begin working the perimeter of the bar, noticing that the man still had not taken his eyes off of her or moved in his seat. She stopped and chatted with a few other customers, slowly working her way toward the man. He didn’t take his eyes off of her for a minute. She began to think that maybe she would just skip him, getting a creepy vibe as she got closer to him. He continued to stare at her, looking straight into her eyes whenever she glanced his way. Finally she was standing next to him. “Hey, how you doin tonight?” she asked, a hint of caution in her voice.

 

Jesse had been sitting at the bar, working on his second beer when he saw her. Her flaming red hair caught his attention first, snapping him back to reality. He felt he knew her, flashing back to a past day long ago. Thoughts of a summer camp flooded his brain, the past returning as if he was watching an old movie. He caught his breath, and stared. It couldn’t be her. She was way too young. Jesse could hear a faint roar growing in the far back recess of his brain, as if a waterfall was slowly getting closer. It had to be coincidence. It was the hair, it must just be the hair, he told himself. The hair is what it is. He couldn’t stop staring, and found himself flooded with memories he had long ago buried away. The shame that had been suppressed for many years exploded. Jesse was filled with guilt for what he had done, running from the beautiful redhead years ago. He hadn’t thought of Maggie for quite some time, choosing instead to keep that part of his life buried from sight. Now all he could think about was what a coward he had been, abandoning her and the responsibility of his child years ago. He took a long, deep breath and looked closer at the young, beautiful redhead stripped naked in front of him, slowly wrapping her lithe body around a pole and flashing a smile to the customers who were watching her intently. He didn’t believe it for a minute, it was purely coincidence that this girl looked like his memory come alive. She was working hard, dancing for her tips, the sweat glistening off of her taunt, full breasts. Jesse was transfixed, unable to take his eyes off of her. He couldn’t move from his chair, frozen in place and time as this vision from his past swayed and wrapped around the pole in the middle of the stage. The roaring in his head grew louder. Jesse watched as she finished dancing and slowly came down from the stage, slowly beginning to work the bar. There were several men between them, and he remained in his seat, staring at her as if there was nothing else in the world. Then she was in front of him.

 

“Hey, how you doing tonight,” she asked? He was staring at her, but he avoided her direct gaze, looking away with seeming embarrassment, or so she thought. Great, she thought, another guy who can stare from ten feet away, but sit down next to them and try to have a conversation and all they can do is stare at your tits or look away. This may not be an opportunity for some extra cash, she thought.

The words stuck in his throat. “I’m fine thanks,” was all he could manage at first.

“Are you from here,” she wanted to know.

“Golfing,” was all he could stutter.

“Are you interested in a lap dance”?

“Er, no thanks” was all he said, and looked at the floor.

Mollie looked at him. What was wrong with this guy? She wondered who he was. She didn’t recognize him as a local. He seemed familiar.

Jesse raised his eyes, and looked at her face, locking onto her eyes. He had to know, even if it was impossible. The roaring in his head was overpowering, blocking out everything around the two of them except her naked figure standing in front of him.

“I have to ask you, what’s your name,” he asked, his voice dropping down so he could hardly hear himself over the roar.

“Crystal,” Mollie replied.

“Really, c’mon. I’m serious. What’s your real name” he asked again. He held up both hands, palms up; “I mean no harm at all,” he said.

“It’s Mollie,” she replied. She saw his head snap back, eyes wide. What the fuck was with this guy. Mollie took a step back, giving herself room to get away from him if he reached out to touch her. She glanced over at Sam, who was busy talking to an old time regular. He would be no help to her.

“Mollie who” he asked again?

“Why do you want to know? Who the fuck are you” she said as she took another step back.

“Please, I need to know” he cried out, reaching out to grab her arm.

Mollie was scared. This guy was weirder than anyone she had dealt with before. The look on his face was petrifying, staring at her all wide eyed and crazy.

“Sam” she cried. Sam’s head popped up immediately and he headed for her.

Jesse was dumbfounded. He couldn’t believe what was happening. The roaring in his head was enormous, his mind spinning. It must be her. It could only be her.

“You’re my daughter” he cried out as Sam reached his side. “I’m your father.”

“What?” Mollie screamed at him. “Fuck you.”

By this time Sam had summoned help, and two large bouncers grabbed Jesse by his arms.

“I’m your father,” he shouted at her as they started dragging him out of the bar.

“Go fuck yourself, asshole. Get the fuck out of here. Get him away from me,” Mollie cried to Sam and the bouncers. Turning away, she headed to the back rooms that the girls used for changing.

She was just about to the door when she stopped in her tracks, his words hitting her like a sledgehammer.

“Your mother was Maggie,” Jesse shouted. “Maggie McAlarney.”

The bouncers tossed Jesse out the side door into the alley next to the club, and stepped out behind him to make sure that he didn’t try to return. He had fallen to the concrete when they pushed him, and it was still raining hard. Landing in a large puddle, he began to stand up when one of the bouncers kicked him in the ribs, sending him back to the hard, dirty pavement.

“Stop, she’s my daughter,” he screamed at them.

“Not according to her,” one of the bouncers said. “Now get the hell out of here.”

Jesse was sobbing, unable to understand why this was happening. He picked himself up gingerly, and staggered out of the alley. He couldn’t go back. He was sure that kick had broken some ribs. He couldn’t catch his breath, the pain shooting through his side like a branding iron burning his flesh. What could he do? He had willingly walked away once. He would have to do it again. Maybe it wasn’t her, he thought. It couldn’t be. He knew better. It would be easier if he could just fool himself again. Jesse had run away from his responsibility all his life. It was easy, just turn away and go. He turned to look back at the entrance, and took a step toward it. He stopped. Staring back at the club, he thought he saw movement in a window. A ghostly image floated in the glass. It was the person in his dream, a woman with flaming red hair. The rain started getting harder, and he finally turned and headed for his car.

As Jesse staggered toward his car, hazel green eyes watched his every step through a rain splattered window, tears flowing unchecked. She thought about going after him. But why?  He wasn’t who he was, or at least who he once was. He was just another sad old man. She didn’t need him, didn’t want him. She was just fine. She kept telling herself that, thinking of her mom and how she missed her, crying softly as she watched him slowly limp away. 

February 9, 2014

One Day We Were All Americans

Filed under: Uncategorized — Professor Johansen's Blog @ 11:34 pm

Bumper to bumper at seventy five miles an hour, the smell of coffee and two dozen fresh bagels, and the radio tuned to Imus in the Morning, it was another day like the past twenty years before. This Tuesday was like every other day that goes by unnoticed. Very pleasant weather, bright, sunny and clear as could be; a fine morning for a long cruise. I had been doing this commute once or twice a week for about nineteen years, and had long ago given up fighting it. Now I just settled into my routine; drive out the back roads to Monticello, past the old race track for trotters that had been one of the main attractions of the old Catskills borscht belt series of hotels that years before provided a living for the entertainers and comedians throughout the forties, fifties and sixties, get on Rt. 17 east and take it down to the New York State Thruway. From there it was a straight shot down to the Jersey Turnpike.

Tuesday mornings always kind of sucked. That was the day the grocery division for Pathmark Supermarkets had its weekly meeting in the headquarter building in Carteret, New Jersey. Exit 12 off the New Jersey Turnpike, bear right, take a left at the second light and make a fast right into the parking lot. If you were lucky and early you might find a parking spot up close, avoiding the long walk from the overflow lot. I was never lucky. My commute was three hours on those mornings, which meant that to make it for a 9am meeting I had to be out the door before 6am. We lived far up on the New York-Pennsylvania border along the Delaware River; God’s country the locals liked to call it. Barring any traffic issues (traffic on the NJ Turnpike?), if I left on time and drove like a bat out of hell, I might just make it. Like I said, Tuesdays kind of sucked.

If you have ever driven in any direction on the New Jersey Turnpike, nerves of steel are required to keep up with the left lanes of traffic. Cars are lined up ten to fifteen feet apart, traveling at well over seventy miles an hour, and drivers are talking on phones, eating, yelling at those around them, cutting each other off, changing lanes at will without looking, and generally doing anything else except paying attention to driving. It is not for the faint of heart, or those who aren’t Jerseyites. As you drive south and approach Newark Airport you can see the planes stacked up in the sky waiting to land. I always enjoyed seeing them. If the planes were landing from north to south, they would be over my right shoulder, appearing in my peripheral vision just before they touched down. If they were landing from south to north you could see their headlights stacked up in the sky, five to six planes at once, each about one minute behind the other. To me that seemed almost as crowded as the Turnpike.

The New York City skyline was just across the Hudson River to my left. It was the skyline I had grown up with, the Empire State Building and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center dominating the landscape. I had always loved the Twin Towers, ever since my Dad had taken me to the top of Tower 1 and we looked down at Tower 2 as it was being built. It had been a special day between a father and a young son. As the Turnpike bends closer to the river, the Towers seem to grow in height, clearly the most dominating sight in the sky. This morning they stood out tall and strong against the crystal blue sky. The sharp lines of the Towers always cut a powerful figure, rising from the south end of Manhattan. The crystal blue of the morning sky provided a sharp contrast to them. To any New Yorker, the Towers were the signature of the NYC skyline.

I had just glanced down at the time on the radio, and looked up just in time to see a huge fireball explode out of the side of one of the Towers, bursting out well over a hundred feet from the side of the Tower, the fireball growing in size as it spread out over the streets below. I remember looking at it for a moment, not really understanding what I was seeing until the fireball began is dissipate, the smoke taking over and beginning to wrap around the Tower itself. Immediately it began to trail off to the south, the wind at the top of the Tower taking it away. I could see the fire continue to burn from the side of the building near the top floors. Other cars could also see what was happening, and traffic began to slow down, quickly becoming a crawl. As I watched, the fire from the Tower seemed to grow in size, clearly burning bright even though I was watching from the other side of the river. The smoke was now billowing out from the floors just below the top of the building, creating a long trail in the sky, floating over Staten Island south of Manhattan. By this time cars had begun stopping, pulling over in the left lanes and off the road wherever they could find a spot. I quickly pulled over and found a place on the shoulder, sitting in my Jeep and twirling the dial of the radio, looking for WCBS News Radio 880 to see if they had any information. They were still in the middle of commercials, so I dialed back to Imus just in time to hear one of the regulars on the show, the well-known New York sportscaster Warner Wolf, call in to Imus and tell him that a plane had flown into one of the Twin Towers. He didn’t know anything else, but Warner Wolf lived down on the south end of Manhattan and could see the fire from his apartment building. The radio show went into full info mode, with calls beginning to come in from all over. I turned up the volume so I could hear from outside the car, got out and stood watching with many others from the side of the Turnpike just across the Hudson from the Towers.

Speculation was rampant among the people standing around with me. Some thought a jet had gone out of control, some thought it must have been an internal explosion, but many just stood transfixed, looking at the burning building. We had been standing watching for about fifteen to twenty minutes, and people were beginning to go back to their cars and leave, continuing their commute. I was just about to join them when I saw another jet. It wasn’t where jets belonged, being between where I was standing and the city. It appeared to be following the Hudson River south, and should have been behind me on the airport side of the road. This jet wasn’t. As I watched it flew past the burning Tower, and my first thought was the pilot wanted to get a better view of what was going on, but then the plane made a wide turn back toward the Towers. As I stood watching it flew directly into the other Tower, hitting it lower than the first Tower had been hit, an enormous ball of fire blasting all the way through the building and coming out the other side. It wasn’t until that moment that those of us that were still watching realized that this was a terrorist attack. I watched for another minute and turned and jumped into my car, wanting to get to Pathmark Headquarters and find out what was happening.

It took me about fifteen minutes to get there. By this time I was very late for the meeting, and I came charging into the room, not realizing that everyone gathered there still had no idea what was going on. Mark Clark, the Pathmark grocery supervisor began to give me some shit about being on time, but I quickly filled them in on what had taken place, and we turned on the TV that was in the meeting room. We spent the next several hours watching, first as the building burned and people jumped to their deaths, and later as the buildings collapsed and we knew that thousands had just died. We learned about the Pentagon attack and the plane crashing in Pennsylvania. New York was in total lock-down, all major roads and bridges closed, airports across the nation closed, fighter jets scrambled and flying over New York City, and the entire country in shock. Nobody had any thoughts of doing any business, and I began to wonder how I would get back home that night, and even if it would be possible. I thought about how I might be able to take back roads out away from the city where I might be able to patch a route together to get back, and around two o’clock in the afternoon I decided to try. Getting in my car, I decided to go by the Turnpike entrance and see if it was still blocked by police. To my astonishment, it was open (I found out later that the police had opened it up about thirty seconds before I drove by). Pulling through the EZ-Pass lane and turning north, I found myself all alone on the busiest highway in the New York area. There was not another car in sight, going either north or south.

Never have I found myself in such a surreal situation. I’ve driven the Turnpike most of my life, and it was always packed with cars going in both directions. Now I was alone on six lanes of road, with another six northbound lanes and six southbound lanes just as empty as mine. Fear washed over me. I was sure I wasn’t supposed to be on the road, that the exit had been left unattended by mistake. I was going about thirty-five miles an hour, waiting for someone to stop me and order me off the highway. I could still see fighter jets in the sky over New York, and the thought ran through my mind that they may come after me. As I came up across from the city, I looked at the empty skyline, a huge billowing cloud of smoke rising up from the hole left by the fallen buildings.

I began to cry, tears flowing freely at what had been lost. The radio was filled with speculation, all wondering who had done these attacks. Most of the chatter was about Islamic groups, but nobody could be sure. At last I could see cars coming up behind me from the south, and I later learned that the exits from twelve on south had been opened up first, with the rest to follow later in the day. Relief washed over me, and I picked up speed, just wanting to get home as fast as I could to my wife and kids.

I was about an hour from home when I began to see groups of people, gathered in areas along the highway where they could stand and be seen by the cars going by, holding candles as a vigil to those who had been lost earlier in the day. As I went further, the groups became larger, some holding signs saying U.S.A. and burning candles as a show of support. The announcer on the news radio was reporting that this seemed to be happening all over, and he asked drivers who witnessed any of these demonstrations to call in and let him know where and what they saw, so I called in and was put on the air, letting him know about a large group of people in Goshen, NY who had been out with signs and candles. They were of a wide range of ages, from little kids to grandparents. Apparently this was happening across the country, not just in the New York area. The feeling of national pride and anger at those who had attacked the country was bringing people together. It was also making them respond irrationally.

Dialing around the radio, I tuned in the Howard Stern program. Video of Palestinians dancing and celebrating in the streets of Gaza and the West Bank had been shown on the network news stations. They were celebrating the destruction of the Towers and the attacks on America. Stern and his associates were proclaiming that we should go and bomb them out of existence for their reactions, that we needed to kill their children so that those same children could not grow up to be terrorists. His call in listeners were agreeing with him unanimously, each wanting retribution for what had been perpetrated upon us. This unified feeling of animosity was repeated across the journalistic and political spectrum. It seemed to bring all Americans together under the same feelings of emotion and thirst for revenge, even though there wasn’t a clear enemy that had been identified as of yet. There were only assumptions.

People joined together that had been political and spiritual adversaries, all in the name of unity. On September 13, there was a candlelight vigil held at the Reflecting Pool in front of the Capital Building that was attended by thousands, including many politicians who days before had been locked in petty political fights over issues that were no longer significant to anybody. The gathering received national coverage on NBC News, with Brian Williams reporting on it and interviewing some of the participants. Two days later there was a memorial service held at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. that was bi-partisan, including four past presidents, both Bushes, Clinton, and Carter, along with the Rev. Billy Graham, a Rabbi, an Imam, and an Episcopalian pastor. The feeling of national unity that was encompassing the nation wasn’t like anything I had witnessed in my lifetime, having grown up in the Vietnam War protest era.

It lasted throughout the following weeks. I noticed that road rage had almost disappeared, that people seemed to be treating each other with more respect. The political pundits on TV weren’t arguing with each other, even those of diametrically opposed viewpoints. The country was in a state of moral shock, and emotions were at a fever pitch, causing the entire nation to come together in outrage and condemnation of whomever had been behind the attacks. The media outlets across the country immediately went into what they do best, finding those victims who had lost relatives or been affected in some way, and building the nation’s emotions into a rage that was comparable only to the attack on Pearl Harbor that precipitated the Second World War. The stage was being set for the ending of life as we knew it before September 11.

In the ensuing weeks and months that followed the attacks, legislative action replaced words. On September 14, 2001, just three days after the attacks, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, with only one dissenting vote in both the Senate and House of Representatives. There was little if any debate, and many Congressmen admitted they had never read the authorization act itself. It was passed on the sheer emotion of the moment, and it gave the then President Bush far ranging power to go after those who were responsible, or thought to be responsible, without very much oversight or debate. It wasn’t fact driven legislation but emotional driven legislation. Many more acts of Congress were soon to follow. The War on Terror had been declared.

In the year following the attacks, the Congress, with the full encouragement and support of the Executive branch, passed the Patriot Act, meant to protect Americans. It stripped away many civil liberties that had been taken for granted since the founding of the nation. Rights against illegal search and seizure were struck down. The FISA court (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) powers were expanded, without any oversight from any branch of government. This court has total decision making power over any individual, including government officials, to empower wiretapping and electronic eavesdropping without any discussion. It is a secret court, with all of its hearings closed to the public. Records of court proceedings are also secret, unable to be obtained even under the Freedom of Information Act which covers all other government dealings that are not classified. Since 2001, the FISA court has had 20,663 requests for wiretapping from the FBI, CIA, the NSA and other government agencies tasked with securing our safety and rights. Only 11 requests have been denied.[1] These requests are unreviewable by the parties being investigated.

The FISA courts authority was greatly expanded by the Bush Administration in 2008. “After September 11, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to ignore FISA and to engage in warrantless electronic surveillance inside the United States without seeking surveillance orders from the FISA Court. When the program became public, the Bush administration pressured Congress to amend FISA. The FISA Amendments Act is the result.”[2]

The war is Afghanistan was an immediate result of the 9/11 attacks, but the war in Iraq was decidedly a choice, growing out of the neo-conservative movement’s belief’s that Saddam Hussein was a direct threat to U.S. security and control of strategic oil reserves. President Bush was a willing participant, his hatred toward Iraq growing out of an attempt by Hussein years before to kill his father after the former President went to war against him over Kuwait. While President George W. Bush can be thought of as the main force behind the war in Iraq, he is more likely to have been a pawn in the hands of his associates, from his Vice President Dick Cheney to his Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to his National Security Advisor Paul Wolfowitz. The lies that the war was founded upon, which are now indisputable, resulted in the deaths of over 5000 American soldiers and the wounding of over 25,000 others. The cost of the war is still in dispute, due to the fact that it was never included in any budget. It went to the country’s deficit spending, supported by both political parties through their silence. Whatever the case, the stage was set for the rollback of many of the individual freedoms Americans had always enjoyed and been the envy of the world for. In the name of national security, we are no longer a democratic nation.  In his article titled It Has Happened Here: The Police State Is Real, Paul Craig Roberts states that “The Bush regime’s response to 9/11 and the Obama regime’s validation of this response have destroyed accountable democratic government in the United States. So much unaccountable power has been concentrated in the executive branch that the US Constitution is no longer an operable document.” This has been the root cause of the division that we now find ourselves living in. Our political system is fractured, unable to find any compromise even on the smallest of issues. The extreme elements in both major political parties react to the current state with protest and revulsion, but for very different reasons. Political parties are unable to form a consensus within their ranks, freezing legislation before it can get started. The country is divided on how we should go about spying on foreign and domestic individuals. The War on Terror has been the excuse for enacting legislation and building a vast security apparatus that has grown outside of the laws of the country, in many cases having little if any oversight. Time honored American values, such as the right to privacy, freedom of expression, freedom of the press and most of the Bill of Rights have been subjugated by this War on Terror. This brings us to the question of what does it mean to be an American these days?

If you ask either of the extremes in today’s political spectrum, you will likely get wildly different answers. The right refers to anyone opposed to their extreme conservative principles as a terrorist sympathizer or un-American. The left refers to the right as fascist ideologues. We haven’t had a civil discussion between the political parties in the country for a decade. Each side pushes its social agenda. The right wishes a return to the 1950’s mentality, where white America was the dominant force and minorities were kept in their place. The left sees a rainbow America where the government is the father figure, doling out the child’s inheritance from the public register. The right pushes its rigid Christian philosophy, declaring if you don’t believe then you don’t belong. The left pushes back, saying keep God in the home and don’t let him or her out. Where does that leave the middle of the country? It leaves us tired, weary of the mindless debate that has little if nothing to do our everyday lives.

The irony of it all is that the events of September 11, 2001 were the catalyst for both bringing us together as we had not been united since World War Two, and for enabling those with personal and social agenda’s on both sides of political and social equation to divide the country to a level not experienced since the Civil War. The fact that we labeled the struggle the War on Terror may tell us something about ourselves. War seems to be a common theme. We seem to be at war with Islam, China, Russia, atheism, religion, each other and humanity at large. We wage an ideological war over the condition of the planet, of how we treat the environment, and how we regard our dominion over the planet itself. We fight over whether we have the right to use the earth’s resources any way we choose, over whether we are our brother’s keeper and should be responsible for the welfare of people around the globe. There doesn’t seem to be an issue raised these days that we don’t fight over. Anything to do with our imagined security seems to get top priority, even if it is done without our knowledge and in complete secrecy. Democrat or Republican, it no longer matters.

Should we be surprised when our younger citizens don’t seem interested in voting or participating in our national elections? It should be clear that the previous generations, including the current one in power, have done what they can to prove that it is no longer a noble pursuit, that being public service. The only pursuit it refers to these days is one of power and economic gain. These have become the foundation upon which many of the young people see our nation turning to. Does the end justify the means? Is it okay to put self ahead of country? Some may wish to stop and ask a wounded veteran, returning from one of the current wars, if his efforts and sacrifice was worth the price for the nation we are becoming. People around the globe used to want to come to America for the freedoms it offered. Now they come strictly for economic concerns. Freedom is no longer the leading reason. It has become a questionable concept. Most of the citizens still go about their lives paying little to no attention to what is going on around them, to what is happening to how they can go about their business. They reside in the middle of the theological and political fights that are perpetuated by those on the extremes. The root cause of the disintegration of America is their lack of participation, their refusal to voice their opinion, whether by voice or ballot box opportunities.

I have never feared terrorism. There are so many other ways to die in this country, that being a victim of terrorism is about the same odds as hitting the lottery. I would rather have my individual rights and freedom returned, and please keep your beliefs to yourself. That is what makes them yours. Security is nice, but at what price? Have we added that to our deficit also? It would seem to me we have. I guess we can just leave that bill for our children and grandchildren. This return to the Cold War mentality of the fifties and sixties is even more insidious than it was back then. At least then we had a clearly defined enemy in the Soviet Union. Now the enemy is from within; looking back from a national mirror the reflection is our own.


February 2, 2014

A Historical Perspective on the Effect of Gender upon Composition Study

Filed under: Uncategorized — Professor Johansen's Blog @ 7:47 am

A Historical Perspective on the Effect of Gender upon Composition Study

in Secondary and College English Studies

This paper will examine the scholarly history of gender research concerning composition studies and how past research has impacted and changed the pedagogy of secondary education teachers and college professors. The topic has been widely researched over the past forty years, but the approaches taken by secondary education teachers and college professors to composition pedagogy have often failed to recognize the differences, whether inherent or socially constructed, that exist in the male and female students that populate the classroom. The most insurmountable hurdle educators are faced with is the cultural gender-identity that begins to be instilled in newborn infants from the minute they leave their mother’s womb.  Research, conducted by leading educators in the field of composition such as Elizabeth Flynn, Susan Jones, Debra Myhill, Elaine Millard and others has clearly shown that male students have a substantially different perspective toward writing and composition than their female counterparts. These differing perspectives are influenced by cultural gender roles that have been in place before gender studies have existed. With the rise of the cultural revolution that swept the United States during the 1960’s and 1970’s, including the growing acceptance of feminist attitudes and awareness, the attitude toward gender-related studies gained wider recognition and reception. This led to the growing field of research examining differing theories of how the gender roles of masculinity and femininity were being confronted in the classroom. What attention was given to gender-based research by the secondary education teachers and college professors responsible for educating their male and female students? Do male and female students compose differently? What pedagogical strategies have been developed by educators to address the differences?  This paper will explore these questions regarding the topic of gender and composition. By examining two leading journals, The English Journal and College English, from a historical perspective, and what each of these journals have published over the last forty years concerning gender and composition, this paper will examine where the field of composition studies is regarding the impact of gender studies upon the discipline and where the tipping point occurred concerning how the academic world responded to the call for changes.

In November of 1971, the president of the National Council of Teachers of English, Robert A. Bennett called for a conscious effort to elevate the status of women writers. Robert A. Bennett was the President of the National Council of Teachers of English during the 1971 annual convention, and “The Undiscovered” was his address before the entire audience of educators.  Bennett laid out a challenge to all of the educators gathered there to continue to be as inclusive of all individuals and ethnic groups as possible, including a direct mention of gender inequality among students and the mainstream curriculum found in most secondary schools. Bennett stated that “Women are not a minority in the teaching of English or in NCTE. Yet, they play a less influential role in Council leadership positions than their numbers would suggest” (Bennett 353). He continues his exhortation by saying that “We must examine policies related to such areas as promotion, wages, and tenure….We must examine both our curriculum and our teaching methods to see where it is we create ideas about the comparative worth and roles of men and women in our society” (353). Bennett then sets his sights upon the gender inequality of the classroom, and how the varying expectations that teachers and society place upon boys and girls affects the way they develop in school and in the classroom. Bennett  discusses how the literature that is taught is placed in two different categories, one for girls and one for boys, and how the boys’ stories are masculine, action, and courageous oriented while girls’ stories are more aligned with feminine, devotion, and the “quiet acceptance of passive subjectivity” (353). He warns that this must change, and even though many were afraid of the loss of their gender identities, of the curriculum becoming a unisex movement, that “the qualities of compassion and understanding should not be limited to women and the qualities that make a hero should not be the exclusive right of men” (353). This was echoed by the journal College English, publishing two special issues in 1972 that were directed toward exposing and posing solutions to the various issues that female students faced in the academic world. Many of these issues related back to cultural stereotypes and assumptions by teachers that affected the methods and ways they perceived the writing styles of their male and female students.

One of the articles was written by Elaine Hedges, an English Professor at Towson State College in Maryland and the chairperson of the Modern Language Association Commission on the Status of Women in the Profession (Hedges 1). Elaine Hedges was writing in response to an issue of College English that had been published the year before. The issue [May 1971] had concerned itself wholly with the topic of women as teachers and students. The article discussed a wide range of issues, one of which was women writers. The article was an analysis of papers that were presented at the annual MLA gathering in 1971. The meeting included a Forum and Workshops session that was subsequently published by College English. In reviewing the material presented, Hedges remarked how the papers that discussed women as writers all seemed to come together on several important points: “how can a woman be a writer; what has she had to sacrifice in the past in order to become one; what price has she had to pay, which no man … have had to pay; how has the dominant male culture and its official attitudes towards the woman writer influenced and possibly distorted her conception of herself” (Hedges 2).

Hedges also discusses a review of textbooks for English composition classes, and how the percentage of women writers in the standard textbooks is extremely low, and it is the same for anthologies used in literature classes. The percentage of women writers in textbooks is between 2% up to 8%, which according the Hedges “scarcely does justice to the literary achievements of women. Yet these are the distorted perceptions which help shape our student’s perspectives and attitudes” (3). In bringing up the subject, Hedges keeps the issue alive and under consideration. The remainder of the article concerns itself with pushing the idea of Women’s Studies, which was a fledgling idea across campuses in 1971 but by 1972 had seen an increase of over 600% in courses being offered throughout the United States. Elaine Hedges substantiates the idea that while the call for action on gender inequality had gone out, the response toward composition studies in secondary English classes was nonexistent, whereas the energy of the movement was being funneled into new courses outside the English department. Hedges article is one of only a few found to bring up the topic of gender in the journal College English in the early 1970’s. While the recognition that gender was an issue that needed to be addressed was expanding among educators, there was little movement within the standard core curriculum of secondary schools and colleges to respond to this recognition. This was further substantiated by the position statement by the NCTE Commission on Composition in 1974.

The position statement by the NCTE Commission on Composition, which was published in October of 1974, states the following: “The following are general principles which members of the NCTE Commission on Composition believe should guide teachers in planning curricula and teaching writing. They are issued as an official position statement of the Commission” (Teaching Composition: A Position Statement, 219). The most interesting part of this document is the fact that in not one sentence does the issue of gender appear anywhere. The document lists eighteen different principles, and not one of them mentions gender in any part of its text. The document does include one principle about composing, which states that “since there is adequate subject matter for direct study of writing, courses or units of English courses dedicated to composition should not be converted to courses in literature or social problems, with compositions to be written on the side” (220).

While the article discusses language usage as an aspect of rhetoric, and how students need to learn a standard written English, and even how they should have an opportunity to compose in the classroom, and other arbitrary topics, the discussion never gets to the issue of gender and composition. Concerning composing, the article does state that incorporating different kinds of activities may help the student’s ability with composing, these activities “should not be allowed to supersede instruction in writing” (220). This short position paper supports the claim that even though the issue of gender was deemed to be a priority in 1971, very little movement had occurred to alleviate the issue by the mid seventies. Considering that this was the official document meant to set guidelines for English teachers, by the national organization, the fact that the issue was not even given a cursory mention tells of the situation that teachers and students faced. Even though the president of the organization, Robert Bennett, had called for the inclusion of gender related issues in his speech to the organization three years before (Bennett), the issue of gender was not to be found on the document intended to guide teachers and school officials. The issue of gender and its relationship to composition and English studies remained generally dormant over the next ten to twelve years.

 

Elizabeth Flynn can be credited with reviving the debate with her groundbreaking article “Composing As a Woman” in 1988. This is a large leap forward in time, but very little was happening with gender issues regarding composition throughout the 1970’s and most of the 1980’s. It wasn’t until Flynn published “Composing as a Woman” that the issue was brought to the forefront of the conversation that was taking place within the educational community in the latter part of the 1980’s. Flynn jumped right into the conversation, beginning her paper with the statement, “The emerging field of composition studies could be described as a feminization of our previous conceptions of how writers write and how writing should be taught” (Flynn 423). Flynn goes on to state the importance of recognizing that the composition of texts is an extremely frustrating process that involves hard work and experience before creativity will result, and that it is not a “mysterious gift reserved for a select few. In a sense, composition specialists replace the figure of the authoritative father with an image of a nurturing mother” (423). Flynn didn’t find a strong connection to feminist studies and composition studies. The connection between the two was weak, and Flynn writes that “The major journals in the field of composition studies do not often include articles addressing feminist issues, and panels on feminism are infrequent at the Conference on College Composition and Communication” (425). Feminist theory and studies were going strong in the 1980’s but they had very little impact upon composition studies.

Flynn goes on to list a number of questions that a feminist approach to composition studies might ask, questions that were concerned with the differences between the two genders and how the male gender was dominant within the written language. These questions were: “Do males and females compose differently? Do they acquire language in different ways? Do research methods and research samples in composition studies reflect a male bias?” (425). Flynn’s intention is not to address all of these questions, as that would take up several volumes, but to reflect upon the feminist research already completed, research that was targeted toward gender differences, and then to “suggest directions that a feminist investigation of composition might take” (425). This paper, while not from either of the journals College English or The English Journal, is important in the sense that it was groundbreaking for the time, and it brought the discussion of gender and composition back into the educational community. Flynn discusses three major books: The Reproduction of Mothering by Nancy Chodorow, In a Different Voice by Carol Gilligan, and Women’s Ways of Knowing by Mary Belenky et al., as all having insight into how “men and women have different conceptions of self and different modes of interaction with others as a result of their different experiences” (426). Flynn continues her discussion focusing on student writing, and how if we reflect upon the real differences between males and female students, and how they differ when it comes to relationships, morality, and intellectual maturity, then we should expect some differences in the papers that these students write for the beginning composition classes. Flynn relates that “The narratives of female students are stories of interaction, of connection, or of frustrated connection. The narratives of the male students are stories of achievement, of separation, or of frustrated achievement” (428). The article continues to explore issues of gender role identification and its impact on writing and composition.

Flynn uses real world examples to support her claims, and she gives a background of what female attitudes toward the concept of self were and how this impacted the narratives the women wrote. This paper is important to note, being that it quickly became very influential and Elizabeth Flynn well known in composition circles. It will establish a firm timeline as to when an increasing number of educators began to recognize the importance of gender issues concerning composition. Flynn’s article seemed to be the impetus that opened the gates for a growing awareness of gender and composition related issues that would continue to grow throughout the 1990’s. After Flynn, articles began to be published at an increasing rate, mirroring the growing awareness that the time had come to address the gender issue.

In 1989, Laura Jane Roop published an article in The English Journal titled “Research in the Classroom: The English Teacher as Midwife: Gender Sensitivity in Teaching Methods.”

Roop’s short article wastes no time in defining some of the obvious ways that male and female students differ. From the classes they take, the boys seem wired for the science and math classes. Roop point out that “English enrollments, by contrast, reflect no such obvious gender gap because English is required of all students, and a majority of high school English teachers are women. Thus, gender issues in English classrooms may seem subtle to the point of near invisibility” (Roop 90). Roop goes on to discuss what may be surprising for many English teachers to discover, that “discussions, teaching behaviors, and writing and reading assignments subtly, though inadvertently, reinforce sex-role stereotype” (90). Roop refers a study done by Mary Belenky and colleagues in 1986, where they found that “Women …valued intimacy and connectedness, but school settings frequently seemed  to require they ignore intuition and connection, privileging rationality and objectivity instead” (90). The article goes on to discuss the style of writing being taught in the classroom currently [1989] and how women are still forced to work with assignments and a curriculum that is designed by primarily men with an entirely different perspective on learning. It concludes with recommendations about gender sensitivity and how teachers need to understand it, and allow males and females the opportunity to write in the style they are comfortable with about whatever they are compelled to write about.

 

Roop describes the current state of what is valued, claiming that “traits genderized in favor of males—objectivity, rationality, competitiveness—are valued more highly in schools than traits genderized in favor of females—nurturance, acceptance, and intuition” (91). This article is representative of what was being discussed in the academic world and within student bodies. The teachers and the students understood that something needed to change, but the issues were recurring issues and recognition was building slowly. The issue of gender roles intertwined within the English curriculum that worked to the detriment of students had been the topic of much discussion in the past, and it continued to be into the 1990’s as the call for changes grew within the academic community.

In 1991, Emily Nye was one of the first to explore gender and the rising use of technology, especially computers, in an article published in The English Journal in 1991 titled “Computers and Gender: Noticing What Perpetuates Inequality.” This short article examined the inequality demonstrated in the classrooms when it came to how males and females assimilate to technology, and how teachers need to be aware of the differences to keep all students computer literate and computers accessible. The expanding use of computers and the internet is changing the educational environment. The article discussed different learning styles that males and females display, which have an impact on how each gender responds to computers, generally putting the female students at a disadvantage. The article “reviews research on gender differences in learning styles, software, curriculum, and classroom layout, and gives suggestions as to how we may equalize disparity through teacher training” (Nye 94). Nye walks the reader through several points of concern, notably that educational software often is designed in a manner that reinforces differences. Software is designed for “hard learners” who are generally the male students in the class. The advertising that software companies typically design depicts males “twice as often as females. The advertisers portrayed men as managers, technicians, and experts, while showing females as sex objects and clerical workers” (Nye 95). Nye also discusses computer curricula and how the physical layout of the classroom has an effect upon the students. She ends with a discussion about teacher training that could have an effect on the gender disparity. Nye believes that it begins with teacher behavior; making sure that the curriculum and the teachers own response to the students is not helping to continue the gender imbalance. This continued to build the chronology of how the issue of gender continued to grow in awareness over the 1980’s and into the 1990’s.

In 1992, the American Association of University Women commissioned a report to determine the status of girls within the educational system. The report, titled “The AAUW Report: How Schools Shortchange Girls” was published in Women’s International Network News in the spring of 1992. The AAUW report was a “study of major findings on girls and education” (1). It had been researched by the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, who were commissioned to produce the report by the AAUW. They state that “This report is a synthesis of all the available research on the subject of girls in school. It presents compelling evidence that girls are not receiving the same quality, or even quantity, of education as their brothers” (1). It goes on to describe “the bias the girls face in the classroom, from preschool through high school, in their textbooks, tests, and teachers. Gender bias undermines girls’ self-esteem and discourages girls from courses of study…the shortchanging of girls is not even mentioned in the current educational restructuring debate” (1). The report observes that “Neither the National Education Goals issued by the National Governors Association in 1990 nor America 2000…makes any mention of providing girls equitable opportunities in the nation’s public schools” (2). Even though it has been almost twenty years since Robert Bennett challenged the NCTE to recognize the contributions of women and to examine the curriculum and teaching methods that impact them in a detrimental way, change had yet to take hold in secondary education. The AAUW report makes this case by stating that “Girls continue to be left out of the debate – despite the fact that for more than two decades researchers have identified gender bias as a major problem at all levels of schooling” (2).

The report calls for a fresh and progressive education policy that takes gender into account and provides the best possible education to all students. It states in no uncertain terms that a gender bias has existed for decades in every level of schooling, and it has had a negative impact upon girls and the opportunities and education they receive from public schooling. This supports the argument that gender bias exists in every classroom, and it is up to the educators designing curriculum to find methods to incorporate those changes that will give each student an equal chance to acquire the knowledge and skills they need to be successful. If it means that different educational methods are used to educate students of the opposite gender then those methods need to be developed. The report concludes that “The formal school curriculum must include the experiences of women and men from all walks of life. Girls and boys must see women and girls reflected and valued in the materials they study” (3). This is in line with all of the research done and conclusions formed that had been produced over the years about gender and how it affects students and their writing.

An article was published in 1993 by BGP and others, reflecting upon the AAUW report and the gender bias that still existed in schools long after Bennett’s call for action back in 1971. The authors of this article reflect on the AAUW report How Schools Shortchange Girls (1992, NEA) and the articles description of how girls are impacted by the gender bias that still exists in schools long after Robert Bennett’s call for change (Presidential address to NCTE 1971 conference). This article agrees with and supports the AAUW report, and claims that the AAUW report concludes that “gender bias robs young women of self-esteem and keeps them from pursuing careers that offer economic independence … Furthermore, gender is not a priority—or even a consideration—in most of the school-restructuring literature currently being published” (BGP 87). The intent and purpose of the article is to offer some publications and materials that may have an impact upon the ways and methods that teachers use to choose curriculum and run their classrooms.

Two of the choices that the authors recommend are, a seven page essay titled “Who’s in Charge of the English Language” by Casey Miller and Kate Swift, published by Norton, and the book The Gender Reader by Evelyn Ashton-Jones and Gary A. Olson, published by Allyn. The first is a seven page essay that describes our language “male-centered” and examines the “polarization of the sexes….this easy has been effective in establishing the need to be aware of, and to deal with, gender bias in writing, not as a political controversy, but as a fact” (88). The second choice, The Gender Reader, is described as “an essay anthology designed to help composition students explore male and female roles” (89).

This article related what was happening during the early nineties regarding the challenge to educators to recognize the gender bias that existed in the schools and to respond to the need to eliminate the gender prejudice that was prevalent in the educational system. This showed the continuing and slow-growing recognition that a gender bias existed, and there was a need to address it to allow the female students to participate on an equal level with their male counterparts. While there was a growing awareness of the gender divide, there was very little response from the educational community besides paying lip service to the issue. There were very few, if any, changes being made within the core curriculum and composition classes. The introduction of reading material designed to address the issue was slowly finding its way into the hands of educators. They were beginning to take notice on a growing scale.

In 1995, The English Journal published an article by Ted Hipple titled “Beyond ‘He/She’ or ‘They’: An Exploration of Gender Considerations in English Classrooms.” The article is a review of the book Gender Issues in the Teaching of English, edited by Nancy Mellin McCracken and Bruce C. Appleby. Besides wholeheartedly endorsing by book, the reviewer, Ted Hipple, breaks the book down into its various sections, and provides an analysis of each section and how it relates to gender inside the classroom. The review is written in 1995, concerning the book that was published in 1992. The authors of the review claim that progress is being made in the recognition of gender bias, but the progress has been marginal. He demonstrates progress by stating that “We say ‘he or she’ or ‘they’ where we formerly said only ‘he’” and that “we have insisted that publishers provide us gender-balanced textbooks” (105).

The book Gender Issues in the Teaching of English is a collection of essays which explore gender. The first essay discusses how the “journals of male students may differ from those of female students (the latter write almost twice as much), but…the journals written for male teachers may differ in length, subject, and substance, from those written for female teachers” (105).  The concern is if these issues are ignored teachers will use less effective classroom methods. Other essays focus on the gender and the teaching of language, how language usage shapes the students thoughts, on literature and a discussion of “gendered reading” (105), and on composition and to gender affects upon student writing (106).

This is the first article that speaks directly to some of the individual issues within the overall subject of gender. The article discusses avenues to pursue that would have positive effects upon student learning and composition studies. It also makes the point that there is a real disparity between the roles that most middle and secondary school English teachers, the vast majority who are women, and middle and secondary school administrators, who are mostly men, have to or are expected to play. The article calls for teachers to “explore our teaching about gender, our direct teaching, and what might be called our subliminal teaching” (106). It also calls for teachers to demand that “at least some language study consider gender-based usage, that literature be representative, that composition classes take note of the sex of writer and reader” (106). This book and subsequent review demonstrates the fact that the pendulum is swinging toward a more enlightened understanding of how gender and the roles that each male and female assume have a significant effect upon classroom performance and composition studies. It is the realization, by a growing audience, of how gender is impacting classrooms and concrete proposals to begin to remedy the effects. The growing awareness was reaching a tipping point where schools will be forced to respond and make necessary changes.

Linda Miller Cleary’s article “’I Think I Know What My Teachers Want Now’: Gender and Writing Motivation,” published in The English Journal in 1996, reported movement toward a wider recognition of the effects of gender upon writing composition. The article was a discussion of a study of eleventh graders that examined the writing experience and the social circumstances that led to the decrease in motivation and diminished amount of concentration shown by the students (50). The article discusses the differing motivations that the male and female writers had and the varying ways they viewed their writing. Most of the students in the study had been told they were poor writers in the past, and so many of them, the males especially, had little interest in attempting to improve.  The female students still exhibited the desire to improve, but only as far as pleasing the teacher and meeting those expectations. The article focused on writing and composition, and discussed the student responses to positive feedback. “Males who received verbal reinforcements displayed significantly more intrinsic motivation than males who received no positive feedback. Males are prone to assume that positive feedback is indicative of their own competence” (51). The conclusion about females was that positive response seemed to work in the opposite direction, where females showed a lower level of motivation and “they tend to experience praise as controlling of future efforts. Females tend to focus on whether their work is pleasing to others” (51).

The young writers overall were “less enthusiastic about the content of their writing when that writing became less of a relationship between themselves and their topic and when it became a balancing act between their sense of what they wanted to say (an internal reference) and what they thought the teacher wanted them to say (an external reference)” (51). This article spoke directly to the idea that males and females need different curriculum and assignments if teachers are to fully engage the students in their own writing. The males in the study “Often felt the assigned format to be stricture instead of structure” (51). It was the females who “voiced more awareness of limiting themselves by what they perceived teachers would or wouldn’t like” (51). The article goes on to be very specific about what motivates students, and how “Young male writers were more prone to be analytical about the balance between what they wanted to do in their writing and what the teacher wanted from them. It became sort of a competitive ‘game’” (52). Unlike their male counterparts, the young women “deferred to their sense of what their teacher (who was in all observed cases their audience) wanted” (52). In reviewing the research, it showed that “males need more competition and ego challenge to sustain motivation than do females” (52). The article continued on to discuss the limited choice that females have concerning curriculum choices that favor males, the differences between male rhetoric and female rhetoric, implications for teachers and how it is their job to change and adjust to the differing needs of students, and the different choices that students should have the opportunity of being exposed to. Cleary showed how specific and targeted gender based recommendations have become, and how the growing awareness has become a discussion for mainstream educators. It supports the claim that gender based research and study was reaching a boiling point within the academic community. The ongoing discussion between educators and school administrators was climbing toward the tipping point. The slow recognition that built up through the 1970’s and 1980’s was expanding to reach all who were teaching English and composition. The article showed how this time period was the point of action for those involved in the education process and their need to respond to the growing voices calling for reform.

Beth Benjamin and Linda Irwin-DeVitis’ article “Censoring Girls’ Choices: Continued Gender Bias in English Language Arts Classrooms,” published in The English Journal in 1998 disputes the argument that was proposed by Millard. It argues that the classroom is firmly slanted toward a male advantage, and that females are still secondary in nature when it comes to English studies. This article is another step in reforming the English classroom to change the gender bias that has existed for decades, slanted in favor of a male dominated curriculum and classroom conduct that allows the male students to grow and excel while encouraging female students to assume the stereotypical gender roles that society assigns to them. The article is a combination of research including surveys of female and male students and their responses to some of the readings that had been assigned. Benjamin and Irwin-DeVitis affirm that:

Considerable evidence remains that American classrooms convey the weighty expectation that girls accept as their preeminent destiny, their first and foremost role in life, the mantle of nurturer and caregiver. Girls are expected to sacrifice their interests, their fair share of teacher attention, and their right to a curriculum that awards their interests and talent on parity with those of boys. Moreover, girls are expected to do so quietly and without protest (64).

This is one of the factors that encourage girls to silence, the cultural expectations that are also present in the classroom. Indeed, Benjamin and Irwin-Devitis report from their research that “As adolescence progresses, many young girls become increasingly confused and conflicted about their role as young women and frequently censor themselves to fit into what they perceive as a cultural expectation of womanhood in the interest of relationships” (67). Girls voices are rendered ineffective in the face of the societal expectations and girls own desires and interests are at odds with the role that their gender has assigned to them. It is due to this that pressures to institute changes are felt among the rising chorus of educators, especially those female teachers who have a better understanding of the issues.

Some of the research that the authors have done shows the differing characteristics of women’s and men’s speech within the classroom. These differing speech patterns give us insight into how males and females approach the classroom environment and how they navigate it. The researchers focused as much of their attention and data to include classroom communication patterns. The girl’s speech patterns characteristics exhibited the flowing traits:

Women’s speech is softer, more indirect, and more deferential then men’s. Women use qualifiers and hedges of all kinds more than men: (I think, I guess). Women use intonation patterns that resemble questions and are interpreted as indicating uncertainty or need for approval. Women are more likely to be interrupted than men. Women tend to apologize much more often than men (68).

In looking at the data compiled from the research, they found that males had the following characteristics in the classroom: “Males capture significantly more time and attention from teachers. Males are more likely to be praised, corrected, helped, and criticized—all of which foster student development. The only area where girls are recognized more than boys is in appearance. Teachers wait longer for males to answer a question that they do for females (68).

While this shows that there is still an enormous amount of progress that needs to be made, gender issues in the classroom are being researched and considered and are being widely recognized as the next important step in achieving academic equality between all students.

One of the changes that have been considered to improve the gender divide is examining the topics that are being assigned and to allow students to focus on topics that they are more comfortable with. This may have the opposite result than was hoped for. Boys immediately chose topics that allowed them to show a more aggressive side, while girls chose topics that had domestic themes and stories of relationships. While classroom choice is encouraged in many classrooms it also goes to reinforce many of the gender stereotypes that have been defined for women, encouraging a cultural role bias. The article goes on to create a long list of those things a teacher can do to promote equality between the genders. Research was finally being put into action in the classroom throughout secondary schools and colleges. It had taken twenty-six years since Bennett had called for action, but the educational community was beginning to respond.

In 1999, a watershed moment came when The English Journal published its January issue, in which a majority of the articles focused on gender, and how education and writing in particular was affected by how classrooms and curriculum reflected cultural gender stereotypes. The January issue had twelve different articles on gender and it impact on student learning, beginning with Elizabeth A. St. Pierre’s article titled “A Historical Perspective on Gender,” and ending with Vicky Greenbaum’s article “Seeing Through the Lenses of Gender: Beyond Male/Female Polarization.” This special issue was published because of the mounting pressure to encourage change within the literary canon, the standard curriculum, and the classroom. Elizabeth A. St. Pierre gave a diversely pessimistic view toward what had been occurring up to 1999. St. Pierre stated that “despite our best efforts, gender discrimination has not been ‘fixed’—we haven’t yet ‘got it right’” (29). St. Pierre discussed what she called three waves of feminism, with the first wave beginning in 1848, the second wave beginning in the early 1960’s, and the third wave happening at the present time [1999] of the article (29). St. Pierre believed that “we are still experiencing the second wave; though some feminists felt the entire movement was in abeyance during the Reagan-Bush years” (29). The problem that St. Pierre uncovers is that gender alone cannot account for all of the issues facing women in education, nor can gender differences explain all of the issues that boys face in the classroom. One of the biggest issues came to light with the split in feminists during the 1980’s, where white middle class women, who had been the leaders of the feminist movement, were challenged by women of color, who claimed that their voices were not being heard. They said that women were also many other things besides just women; they were people of color, poor people, sick people, lesbians, and a myriad of other identities. These feminists “pointed out that women exist at the intersection of several identity categories and therefore experience discrimination in more complex ways the white feminists had taken into account” (30). Because these women live at the crossroads of several different identities, it meant that sometimes gender took second place to one of the other categories.

St. Pierre noted that little had changed in the literary canon, and the issue of gender reached far beyond the literary canon to the cultural gender-identity that is historically part of male/female roles. This issue itself was cause for some debate, with some educators stating that research showed that fundamental, essential differences existed between males and females, and others who challenged them and believed that sex differences were culturally determined and were not inherent (31). This debate continues today.

In one of the other articles that appeared in the January 1999 issue of The English Journal, Denise L. Croker tells how she took on the issue of gender in an attempt to see what differences were present in her school and classroom. She began a new class in gender exploration, and demonstrated that the topic of gender was under the microscope in many different school settings. She began her inquiry to examine gender after reading John Gray’s book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Within the context of the class she began with several other teachers, Croker looked at gender and schooling, gender roles in society, and images that the media portrays (67-8). Overall, Croker came to a similar conclusion that many others had begun to recognize. The issue of gender could not be isolated from the other cultural identity categories that exist in our society. Even as Croker strived to change the environment in the classroom, the cultural gender identities that each boy or girl assumed as they were growing up remained intact. It would take more than changing the canon, or just one class, to impact or change how students react to gender differences.

In her article titled “Seeing through the Lenses of Gender: Beyond Male/Female Polarization,” Vicky Greenbaum uses the metaphor of lenses, allowing one to see through the eyes of another and enable them to come to an understanding of another’s experiences. Using the idea of putting on different lenses, or glasses, to break down the fear of seeing through someone else’s eyes is how Greenbaum encourages a class discussion on the “possibility that accepting a lens, a viewpoint vastly different for one’s own, is not the same thing as becoming another person” (96). Greenbaum poses the question to her class for consideration: “what does it take for someone of one gender to appreciate, understand, or see life through the lenses of the other gender?” (96). Greenbaum is proactive in her classroom, effectively challenging her students to don the other gender’s perspective and to gain an understanding of a different point of view. Greenbaum makes sure that her curriculum is balanced with literature from both genders equally, and at the end of the year asks her students to respond to the question “To what extent does a writer impose or seduce with a lens of gender through which a character or a voice within the literary work might see?” (96). Greenbaum is the first to claim that she has seen “a slow shift within our classrooms as students, exposed to more varied reading in grades 1-8, express greater awareness of and, at best, a sensitivity about people whose gender and other features differ from their own” (96). This was the first time any of the authors showed that they see an improving climate of gender awareness, recognition, and acceptance of other viewpoints by students.

Beginning with Robert Bennett’s challenge to the academic community in 1971, the slow progression of a growing awareness of the complex issues surrounding gender identity and the effect it has on the classroom and English studies continues to task teachers into the 21st century. Much of the discussion has encompassed the literary canon, which the majority of teachers find to be a male dominated compilation of readings that has been the standard for years. While girls in middle and secondary schools have endured this list, they have seen the marginal benefits that have been offered to them while the boys have remained the dominant force in the student body. This has been recognized for many years, but what to do to change it and offer an equal level of curricular support to both genders remains an elusive goal. The issue struggled to gain traction within the framework of the feminism of the 1970’s and 1980’s and finally in the 1990’s was able to sustain a growing chorus of voices arguing for a response from the academic community. The roadblock that all who called for a change keep running into was that of the overall cultural gender identity that young boys and girls are brought up with from birth. While some from academia argue that these identities are inherent in students and cannot be changed, others argue that it is a function of the culture that one is born into. They would argue that boys and girls are taught their gender roles from the day they are born, being confronted with pink and blue, GI Joe and Barbie, Lincoln Logs and Easy Bake Ovens, and a thousand other toys and books that mirror the gender expectations that each child is expected to assume. English teachers are not only faced with the prospect of changing the literary canon to accommodate all students, especially female students who have been marginalized, but they are also trying to overcome years of indoctrination of gender specific roles that the wide majority of people in today’s society still ascribe to. It is this hurdle that has stymied the development of a gender neutral, or at least a gender balanced curriculum. While some educators have applied the best practices that they know about to the classroom, others have just succumbed to the current standard and have given up the move to create an environment that doesn’t push to the margin anything that may upset the status quo. This then is the next challenge for the academic world to take on. How can teachers change the attitude of the culture from the classroom outward, so that as generations evolve the typical gender roles are able to be re-written and re-defined? We need to affect a greater audience than just the students in our classes. Students will need to carry on the lessons learned in classrooms to how they function later on in life, and then subsequently pass those re-defined cultural gender roles on to their children. Change will need to be more than what any individual curriculum will be.

 

  Works Cited

“The AAUW Report: How Schools Shortchange Girls.” Women’s International Network News 18.2 (Spring 1992): 1-5. Academic Search Premiere. Web.  1 April 2013.

Benjamin, Beth and Linda Irwin-DeVitis. “Censoring Girls’ Choices: Continued Gender Bias in English Language Arts Classrooms.” The English Journal 87.2 (Feb. 1998): 64-71. JSTOR. Web. 28 March 2013.

Bennett, Robert A. “The Undiscovered.” College English 33.7 (April 1972): 737-43.  JSTOR. Web. 30 March 2013.

BGP, Alyce Hunter, Deborah Regan Howe, Gary Kerley, Dorothy Chegwidden, Kathleen L. New, Carol P. Harrell, and Todd W. Taylor. “Booksearch: Considering Gender Issues in the Teaching of English.” The English Journal 82.3 (March 1993): 87-89. JSTOR. Web. 3 March 2013.

Cleary, Linda Miller. “’I Think I Know What My Teachers Want Now’: Gender and Writing Motivation.” The English Journal 85.1 (Jan. 1996): 50-57. JSTOR. Web. 30 March 2013.

Croker, Denise L. “Putting It on the Table: A Mini-Course on Gender Differences.” The English Journal 88.3 (Jan 1999): 65-70. JSTOR. Web. 26 March 2013.

Flynn, Elizabeth A. “Composing as a Woman.” College of Composition and Communication 39.4 (1988): 423-35. JSTOR. Web. 22 February 2013.

Greenbaum, Vicky. “Seeing Through the Lenses of Gender: Beyond Male/Female Polarization” The English Journal 88.3 (Jan 1999): 96-99. JSTOR. Web. 28 March 2013.

Hedges, Elaine. “Women in the Colleges: One Year Later.” College English 34.1 (Oct. 1972): 1- 5. JSTOR. Web. 30 March 2013.

Hipple, Ted. “Beyond ‘He/She’ or ‘They’: An Exploration of Gender Considerations in English Classrooms.” The English Journal. 84.1 (Jan. 1995): 105-06. JSTOR. Web. 27 March 2013.

Nye, Emily F. “Computers and Gender: Noticing What Perpetuates Inequality.” The English Journal 80.3 (Mar. 1991): 94-5. JSTOR. Web. 28 March 2013.

Roop, Laura Jane. “Research in the Classroom: The English Teacher as Midwife: Gender Sensitivity in Teaching Methods.” The English Journal 78.6 (Oct. 1989): 90-1. JSTOR. Web. 28 March 2013.

St. Pierre, Elizabeth A. “A Historical Perspective on Gender.” The English Journal 88.3 (Jan 1999): 29-34. JSTOR. Web. 28 March 2013.

“Teaching Composition: A Position Statement.” College English 36.2 (Oct. 1974): 219-20. JSTOR. Web. 30 March 2013.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Faith – Full or Less

Filed under: Uncategorized — Professor Johansen's Blog @ 7:39 am

Faith – Full or Less

My Grandmother was lying in her bed, her converted first floor bedroom warm and homey despite the cold November wind blowing outside. The sunshine was beaming through her windows, falling on her frail, wrinkled face. A cross hung on the wall just to the side of her bed, so she had only to look up for inspiration. She was dying. Our Lutheran Pastor was coming over to give us all communion together one last time. I didn’t know it at the time, but she had one week left. Until then my family and I kept watch. She was still teaching us how to live, and now teaching us how to die.

Bail was a cool old bird, tough as nails. She had been given the name Bail after her first granddaughter began calling her Grandma Behling (her last name), shortened it to Grandma Bail, and finally dropped the Grandma altogether. From that time on my Grandmother became known to all as Bail. It seemed to work well, because my Grandfather was known as Bop, which in my family lore is somehow a derivative of the German name for Grandfather. Together they were Bop and Bail. They were prolific, having 4 daughters and eventually 22 grandchildren. They also had faith: faith in God, faith in their fellow man, and faith that they could get through any hard times that came their way.

Bop and Bail had built a hotel, aptly named Peggy Runway Lodge, about two hours from New York City on the Delaware River during the Great Depression in 1929. They dug the foundation out with a team of horses and a steel and wooden scraper. They worked hard to stay alive, being as creative as they could be to entice guests to come stay with them. The work ethic they developed during these times was passed along to their daughters, and eventually to their grandchildren. It was faith that kept them going through the hard times over the years.

 

That was a long time ago. Bail died in 1991. Being that this was an election year, and politicians from both sides of the fence were plastering the airways with ads proclaiming their extreme levels of faith, I started thinking about my Grandparent’s faith and how it compared to people’s faith today. I don’t just mean religious faith, although that is what comes to most people’s minds when they hear the word faith. I believe that religious “faith,” and the use of the word in those terms, is one of the most overused and misused words in our society today, especially within the political spectrum. We only need to examine how the word has been used during any recent political campaign to see that both sides of the political divide use it to try and further their own political agenda. On the right-wing Republican side of politics, the proponents of that agenda use faith as a line in the sand that anyone dare not cross if they do not wish to invoke the wrath of the conservative Christian movement. On the left-wing Democratic side of politics, the proponents of that agenda view the word faith with suspicion, thinking that their right wing adversaries are trying to force unwanted beliefs down the throats of Democrats. Either side has become unreliable when it comes to a rational discussion about faith. Instead of the word faith, each side should use the word agenda when describing their individual beliefs.

I needed to talk to someone about faith, but whom? I was looking for demonstrations of people’s faith through their actions. After an election season filled with political advertisements that screamed at the other side, decrying the other side’s use of the word faith, I needed to try to make some sense of all of it. Since I work for Coastal Carolina University, I decided to talk to the resident head of the University’s career planning services, who is also a Reverend in the Episcopal Church. Dr. Tom Woodle, while being from the right of center side of politics, is also an intelligent, serious, committed servant of his congregation and the University. He is also very well read and thoughtful. I was sure he would provide insight into some of my questions, and give me some examples of how people he knows practice their faith. I asked Dr. Woodle to tell me his definition of faith.

“Faith is an action that comes from a chosen belief” he said.

I thought about this. If faith comes from a chosen belief, how does this relate to the way our politicians throw the word around?  The only action I see from either side of politics is that they want to use faith as a way to get votes. I asked Dr. Woodle what he thought about this.

“This seems to be a greed-based faith. It is shallow. If that is the motivation for their faith, an attitude of ‘What’s in it for me,’ then it is not faith,” Dr. Woodle said.

“Is faith in decline?” I asked.

“When you talk about the practice of one’s faith, what is changing is what we choose to practice,” Dr. Woodle said. “It seems to depend on what God you believe in, which flavor, so to speak” he said.

I still wished to see how people demonstrated their faith. The reason I was curious was what my Pastor had shown me during the last communion with my Grandmother. His was an act of faith that I found incomparable.

 

As my Grandmother lay in her bed, I joined my mother, two of my sisters, and one of my brothers for communion. Our Pastor, Russell Haab, came in carrying his black communion case. It was the same type of case that I used as a salesman. I chuckled quietly to myself, thinking that if he ever needed a second case I would be happy to give him mine. Pastor Haab was a very funny, sweet man who was without a doubt the best pastor I had ever known. He was not your ordinary pastor. He had been sent to our little town, called Narrowsburg, several years before, and had settled into a relatively quiet life with his wife and daughters. Pastor Haab had a sense of humor that was rather unique for most pastors I had known in the past. The first year he was the pastor of the church, he came to the Halloween party that the town held every year in the basement of the town hall. The town hall was the gathering place for every function any organization held in the town. From Halloween parties, penny socials, pancake breakfasts, and roast beef dinners, the townspeople had always gathered in the town hall for over fifty years. The first year Pastor Haab was in town, he came to the Halloween party dressed as Pee Wee Herman. He looked like a Pee Wee Herman twin, and could imitate Pee Wee’s voice perfectly. He did the Pee Wee dance, the walk, the laugh, and had many of Pee Wee’s characteristics down pat. He absolutely had all of us cracking up. This was our introduction to the new Pastor. However, we found out very shortly after his arrival that when it came to his job and his faith he took it completely seriously, and it was no laughing matter.

 

Still, faith can be an odd thing. If it is strong enough it can get a person through the toughest times. Or it can enable a person to do things that would normally seem out of reach. If faith is weak, it can leave someone empty and without a firm foundation to build their belief system upon. Faith can be demonstrated in many different ways, from going about your daily life doing all of the small things that make us worthy of other’s admiration and love, like Dr. Woodle described. Or it can be hollow and used to try to influence others in ways that become greedy and without merit. One thing is clear. We could all use as much faith as we can get. It doesn’t hurt. It should help. Whether faith is of a religious nature, or faith is within us as people who work within our communities to make it a better place, faith is a wonderful thing to behold. There are few things that we can possess that are as powerful as faith. As far as the faith Pastor Haab would show me that day, I think I will let him have that one all to himself.

 

As Pastor Haab unpacked his black bag, he greeted all of us by our first names, even my sisters who lived two hours away. They had come up to stay with my Mom and help with my Grandmother. Pastor Haab was the type of pastor who made it a point to get to know all of a congregation member’s family, whether they lived in Narrowsburg or not. Pastor Haab had presided over the wedding of one of my sisters, and had come to several of my family’s parties. He was always a welcome sight when he showed up.

After getting his communion bag unpacked and his effects set up, Pastor Haab turned to my Grandmother and sat down beside her bed and took her hand. He spoke to her quietly. “How are you feeling today, Bail?”

“I’m a little tired, Pastor” she replied.

“I’m sure you are. How else are you doing? Are you holding up? How’s your spirit?

“I’m ready” she said. We all knew what she meant.

“Well, let me help you with that,” Pastor Haab replied. With that, he rose and went to his communion bag. He had set out his robe and vestments that were the official garments that he wore whenever he performed a communion. He slowly put them on over his street clothes. When he was ready he turned back to my Grandmother and smiled.

 

When I was interviewing Dr. Tom Woodle, I asked him what he thought about faith in America today. Dr. Woodle had responded by stating that he thought of faith as a sort of spiritual giftedness. When I asked him to explain, he said that people showed their convictions in different ways through what they did. He explained that a teacher may demonstrate faith by teaching and educating students, by presenting an ethical role model, by going the extra mile to help struggling students. Others may demonstrate their faith by giving to charity, by volunteering to help people in need, or any other way. Dr. Woodle said that some people demonstrate faith in only one or two ways like this, but some demonstrate faith in more than only one or two ways. He said that it wasn’t only by going to church and giving, but that many people showed faith throughout their daily lives. He had started me thinking about faith in new ways, and I decided to do a bit more exploring to see what other people might say about it all. I was still bothered about how cavalierly people used the word faith and how our political leaders used the word for their own gain. I was also still looking for examples of how people demonstrated their own faith. I decided to do what my students would do. I googled it.

One of the first websites I found that brought me to a screeching halt was called Country Club Christian Church. I figured with a name like that they must have something to say. The church is led by Dr. R Glen Miles. He didn’t have much to say about how people demonstrate faith, but he had plenty to say about faith itself. His blog site described faith as hard work. Dr. Miles stated that “Americans like us live in a fast food society and sometimes we want our faith and our beliefs to come as easy as an order of fries at the drive up window . . . We have become an instant gratification society.” This seemed to ring true to me, considering the way the word faith is used in an attempt to motivate people into thinking one way or the other. It is used in sound bites by our political leaders and pundits, and rarely do you hear a reasonable, rational conversation about our different attitudes and opinions on how to best practice one’s own faith.

 

Pastor Haab called to my mother, sisters, and brother to join us in the room with my Grandmother. We were lined up, my mother next to Bail, then my two sisters, my brother, and finally me. The somber enormity of the moment began to build in all of us, along with the realization that this would be the final time we had communion with Bail. We had never been a very religious family, going to church on holidays and one or two Sundays each month, but we were all of a spiritual nature, and believed in the Christian faith. The heavy emotion that had begun as an undercurrent, slowly rising up through the souls of our feet, now was becoming an overwhelming sentiment that engulfed all of us. I could tell that my sisters were already beginning to cry. All of my family members were known weepers, myself included, crying effortlessly at happy times as well as sad times. I was the worst of all, crying at happy television commercials as much as sad movies, or anything else that involved any sort of emotion. This was shaping up to be a major event for turning on the family waterworks.

Pastor Haab bowed his head. “Let us pray,” he said.

He began reciting a well-known prayer, my mom falling right in with him and reciting it out loud. Her voice was filled with emotion, raw and deep, and her voice caught as she spoke. That was all it took for my sisters and brother and me. Glancing sideways, I could see all of their eyes welling up and beginning to overflow. My mother was also softly crying, but she continued to pray right in time with the Pastor. It was heavy. As we finished the prayer, Pastor Haab turned to my Grandmother and made the sign of the cross over her bed. Bail was the only one of the family not crying. She was just lying there, looking up at the Pastor and smiling. The rest of us were all softly sobbing, trying not to let it out too much, but unable to restrain the emotion in our hearts. All of our faces were beginning to run, tears streaming down and a heavy case of sniffling taking hold of all.

The Pastor turned back to his black communion case, reaching into it and bringing out an ornate, silver tray and a white satin cloth with an embroidered gold cross on it. Then he turned back to his case and removed seven wafers and placed them on the cloth, which he had folded over the silver tray. He carefully lined them up on the tray and placed the tray on the table next to my Grandmother’s bed. He said a short blessing over the wafers and picked up the tray and turned to my Grandmother.

I often wondered; as I have knelt at the railing of the church alter to take communion, where these wafers come from. I understood the symbolic representation they have, but they have to come from somewhere. Do they come from a large factory, filled with workers going about their business dressed in nun-like habits or long monk robes, busily churning out wafers for churches all over the world? Was there just one factory that provided wafers for all denominations, or did each church have its own little factory? I thought about how we were said to live in a fast food society and how we want our faith the same way. Were the wafers made just like a fast food production line? I pictured a large vat of flour and water and other secret ingredients, depending on the recipe of each religion, the synchronized whisks mixing it all together into a pale white paste. The mix was then sent through a long tube, where small round lumps got dropped onto a long conveyor belt. Another bright metal armature in the shape of a cross came down and pressed the lumps into round, flat little discs with crosses imprinted on them, which then rode the conveyor belt until they disappeared into a large, stainless steel oven. The wafers emerged from the oven, baked to perfection, where they are then prepared to be shipped to their final destination. I wondered if they rode the conveyor belt to the end, where they fell into loosely packed large plastic bags, which were then placed in sturdy cardboard boxes with the religious symbols of the organization they were heading to stamped on the side. Or maybe the finished wafers were packed individually in small plastic wrappers by people who had to go through an interview and background check to make sure they were worthy to be handling them. Was there a middleman, a wholesale distribution center for the wafers, or did they go to straight to each church? Considering how much our faith was intertwined with these small round wafers, how they represented the body of Christ, I just hoped they didn’t come from a big, grey industrial factory with tall smokestacks and large diesel trucks spewing smoke, coming and going in a frantic pace for greater profits. I thought that would disturb my Pastor.

 

Paster Haab stepped to the side of my Grandmother’s bed and carefully placed one of the wafers on her tongue. She slowly swallowed the wafer and gently collapsed back unto the pillows that supported her. She smiled blissfully, not noticing how everyone else was crying quietly to themselves. As Pastor Haab moved over in front of my mother, I glanced down the line of my brother and sisters. Everyone was overcome from the moment. I noticed my brother next to me had his head bowed, and he was crying softly like the rest of us. His tears were streaming down his face and his nose was beginning to run. As I watched, a small drip of clear, glycerin-like mucus began to form and hang down. Pastor Haab continued down the line, placing a wafer in each of our hands. When he had given me a wafer, he took the last one for himself and said a brief prayer and then swallowed it quickly. Then he turned back to his black communion case. He reached in and removed a beautiful, brightly polished silver chalice, intricately engraved with religious symbolism. He placed it upon the silver tray that had held the wafers and turned back to his case. Bringing out a crystal carafe filled with the communion wine, he slowly poured the wine into the silver chalice. I wondered about the wine, thinking to myself that I hoped it wasn’t alcoholic, because my family had several alcoholics in it, but I didn’t have the nerve to ask him. A sip wouldn’t matter anyway. I figured.

The Pastor picked up the chalice and went to my Grandmother’s side. My mother helped lift her up enough so that she could take a sip from the chalice, and then she gently eased her back down. My Grandmother was beaming, obviously loving the fact that her family was sharing this moment with her. The rest of us were looking at her, smiling through our tears. My mother stepped back in line and the Pastor moved over in front of her. I noticed that my brother’s nose was running even harder, the mucus running out of each nostril combining to form a large booger-snot that was now hanging down over an inch. As the Pastor made his way to each of my sisters, my brother kept his head bowed, unaware that his nose was taking on a life of its own. I was fascinated, and had stopped my own crying while I continued to stare sideways at my brother. The Pastor was taking his time with each of us. The booger-snot was now hanging down at least three inches, and my brother was still unaware of its presence. It was continuing to grow.

As Pastor Haab stepped in front of my brother, he saw for the first time my brother’s face. My mother and sisters all had their heads bowed in prayer, so that the only ones who saw what was happening were the Pastor and me. I had decided that I was not going to say a word about it, and was beginning to laugh inside myself at the situation that had developed. I was carefully watching the Pastor’s face to see what he would do. By now the booger-snot was four inches long, quivering and oscillating, shining like an icicle in the afternoon sun. The Pastor stared at it for a brief moment, and then without saying a word, lifted the chalice to my brother’s face. I was horrified, believing that Pastor Haab would tell my brother about it and let him wipe his nose. Instead, I figured the Pastor didn’t want to embarrass him, so he didn’t say anything. As my brother opened his lips to receive the wine, I could see the long booger-snot disappear into the wine. As my brother finished, and the Pastor drew the chalice from his lips, the booger-snot had a faint purple sheen, the communion wine coating it completely. There was no way I was going to drink any of it.

 

Pastor Haab stepped in front of me, and our eyes locked onto each other. I had one eyebrow cocked, and was giving him a look that said if he even tried to get me to drink I was going to bolt out of there. The unspoken words passing between us were all that was needed. By this time we could read each other’s minds, and he knew that I had no intention of taking any wine. My eyes were wide open, and the look on my face said it all. I had a smirk on my face, and I took the chalice and faked it totally. The silver never touched my lips, but I made it look as real as I possibly could in case my Grandmother or other family members were watching. As I brought it away from my face, I began to smile even wider. I knew that in our church’s doctrine, the pastor must always finish the communion wine that was left over. You couldn’t just flush it or toss it down the sink. After all, the symbolic representation being the blood of Christ would not allow that to happen. Our eyes locked on each other again as I handed the silver chalice, filled with wine and my brother’s booger-snot, back to Pastor Haab. I was smiling what must have looked like an evil little grin, because he stared back at me like a deer in the headlights, his eyes wide, going between the chalice and me. As he took the chalice back I almost laughed out loud, but I managed to restrain myself. I was sure he would do just what I had done, and find a way to get rid of the wine. Sometimes even religious rules are meant to be broken.

I will quote one of my favorite Grateful Dead verses here. “Sometimes you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” I had no idea I was about to get a lesson in faith that was unimaginable. To this day I live in awe of what this humble pastor did next. Pastor Haab stared back at me, and I smiled broadly this time, certain that he would never drink the remaining wine. He looked back at the wine, looked back at me, stared skyward for a brief second, took a deep breath, and then he raised the shining silver chalice to his lips and drank every drop of the wine that was in it. I was filled with awe and revulsion all at the same time. How he could do it I will never know, but in that moment he showed me a deeper faith in his beliefs than anyone I have ever known. He hadn’t missed a beat, and the rest of my family was completely unaware of what had just transpired, including my brother. I must have let out a gasp when Pastor Haab drank it down, because my mother, my two sisters, and brother looked at me as if I was screwing up our little ceremony. I saw my mother frown at me and then look away. My oldest sister was shaking her head. I quickly bowed my head and pretended to pray.

Read Between the Lines

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