The Sum of Its Parts

A.V. Walters–

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We tend to be do-it-yourselfers. Both Rick and I come from families where you fixed it, before you replaced it. Sometimes, if whatever “it” was, was not within your field of expertise, you paid somebody to fix it. Sometimes, cost or convenience inspired you to do it yourself. There’s a little bit of a mantra to it, even if “it” is intimidating, “Well, how hard could it be, really?”

All the way to building a house.

That history, combined with an appreciation of older things, has led us, separately and together, to a good bit of investigative repair and reinvention. My home is filled with rescue-antiques. Rick is the mother of invention when it comes to building and repairing challenges. We have accumulated no small measure of experience in woodworking, refinishing, building, tool maintenance and repair, mechanical and electronics repair (mostly Rick), art restoration and the mending and making of things in fabrics (mostly me.) We have projects upon projects. Which brings us to the Paramount question.

In the midst of my mid-life upheaval, I decided I needed an intellectual challenge (because writing novels wasn’t enough?) I wanted to learn to play an instrument, and in so doing, to immerse myself in a participatory way, in the language that is music. I had to choose which instrument would be appropriate for a (then) solo, middle-aged woman. It had to be something I could play alone, and maybe with others. I envisioned myself playing and practicing on a big porch with a view. My first choice, violin, wasn’t a good fit—as a previous car accident had left me with neck issues. I thought about the sax—but even the idea of relearning the breathing for a wind instrument, left me winded. So, I decided on the banjo, mostly because I could not think of any banjo music that sounded sad. I picked up a cheapie banjo on craigslist and began learning and plinking. I have a long way to go.

But, as things work out, once you open the door in a particular area, opportunities step in. When my brother learned that I had an interest in the banjo, it turned out he had a contact for an old banjo with history. He sent it my way.

It is a Paramount, tenor banjo from the mid-twenties. It’s beat up and beautiful. For a number of years it’s been sitting, disassembled (thanks to a “well intentioned” friend) in its case. I’m coming very close to having that lovely long front porch, overlooking the valley, so I thought it was time to get the Paramount in shape. Rick, as is his way, raised an eyebrow.

The banjo needs a lot of work. First and foremost, it needs to be completely disassembled and cleaned. Then, a new “head”—the stretched skin that gives the banjo its distinctive sound. The choice was whether to use a synthetic head material, or the traditional calfskin head that was used when the Paramount was first manufactured. We also need to replace the tuning pegs—which raised the question,again, of new versus old. The Paramounts had ingenious Page, geared pegs, new back in the day, and no longer manufactured.

In the past, everyone had said that I need an expert to help with this banjo renovation. So, I asked around and received several referrals to a local guy, who was reputed to be both better, and less expensive, than the “ship it off to Lansing” guys used by local music stores. I called and made an appointment. First, he gave me his tour of successes—a line-up of string instruments, hanging awaiting pick up by his other customers. They were lovely—so we got to the Paramount. His eyes widened when he saw the disassembled banjo. A Paramount is an impressively machined instrument, sturdy and buttressed with all manor of hardware. The expert marveled that the parts were mostly there—you could see that he was positively itching to get to the task. He knew that I had contacted him mostly for assistance with the installation of the new head—but soon his enthusiasm overflowed to the rehabilitation of the wood and the nickel-plate parts. He pointed out the accumulated finger grime on the mother-of-pearl inlayed finger board. I hadn’t noticed how bad it was. He insisted that the entire instrument be disassembled, lovingly cleaned, then reassembled, before a new head could be stretched. He was adamant that only vintage parts should be used—and of course, a calfskin head. He explained the intricacy of the stretching of a banjo head, a process not unlike stretching the canvas for an oil painting. His enthusiasm was contagious, and I was completely on board. As he described the work necessary to restore the banjo to its former glory, the dollars were mounting. He looked up at me, but I didn’t blink. I’m a pushover for any argument favoring an antique’s original integrity. I was sucked in by his description of the painstaking task. With the vintage parts and laborious restoration, my “free” banjo was fast approaching a thousand dollar rehab.

“That grimy fret board,” I asked, “what would you use to clean it?” I expected to be drawn further into the secret and arcane world of instrument restoration.

“Oh, Windex will do it.” He said offhandedly.

My heart skipped a beat. “Windex?” I’ve done enough antique restoration to know that you minimize “wet” treatments, especially near inlay or marquetry. He noticed my alarm.

“Why, what would you use?”

“As mild a cleaner as possible. Probably Murphy’s Oil Soap, with very little water, a damp cloth to wipe it clear and then dry it immediately with a soft terry.”

He nodded, “Yeah, that’d work, too.”

But he’d now handed me the tail-end of the thread that would soon unravel the spell he’d woven.

“And the nickel-plated parts?” I asked.

“Ammonia soak—you know the Windex, and then, where needed, a little steel wool.” My eyes widened and he followed up, “Don’t worry, that steel wool wouldn’t hurt for the tough spots. Why, what would you use?”

“I like Never-Dull. It doesn’t scratch and can clean most any metal finish.”

“Never heard of that.” He pulled out a polishing compound he sometimes uses.

I had to press further. “What about the areas on the neck, and the other wood surfaces, where the finish is worn?”

He looked at me seriously. “There’s a temptation to refinish that—but it’d be a mistake. As long as the wood integrity isn’t threatened, you keep the value of a vintage instrument by maintaining the original finish. You can do that with a little Pledge.”

The bubble didn’t just burst, it imploded.

Pledge?”

“Yeah, you know, or any polish and wax finish.” I had visions of 60s era homemaking commercials and gingham aprons. I needed an exit strategy.

“This is adding up. We really just need help with the calfskin head—the cleaning part is grunt work that we can really do ourselves.” His face fell. It wasn’t just that the fish had slipped the hook—you could tell that he had really wanted to get his hands on the banjo. There’s genuine satisfaction in the restoration of a beautiful old item. He nodded. And helped me repack the banjo parts back into the case. He was really a nice and genuine fellow. He was, after all, the person most recommended in the area.

I took the banjo home and told Rick the tale.

So, really, how hard could it be?

We went online, researched and ordered the replacement tuning machines, and the calfskin replacement head material. We even broke down and bought an original Paramount wrench to stretch the new head. (They look kind of look an old skate key.) There are You Tube videos that show the many phases of banjo restoration, including stretching a calfskin head.

Rick helped disassemble the rest of the banjo, and I started the painstaking cleaning process, starting with the inlaid fret board, using the materials of my choice. The expert was absolutely right (in part)—cleaned up, it is beautiful. The nickel plated, metal parts have been gently restored to their former gleaming glory. We have some wood repair still to do, but I’ve ordered all the replacement parts and look forward to the challenge of finishing the job.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Follow the Money–

A.V. Walters–

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That’s my rule of thumb, whenever there is a whiff of scandal. I remember California’s Energy Crisis—the one that ushered in billions in debt as the state struggled to meet energy needs. Why the sudden scarcity of electricity? I believed then, that the crisis was manipulated. California couldn’t get any traction with FERC—the federal agency charged with regulating the energy exchanges. After all, George W. was the new Sheriff in town, and California didn’t vote for him. Years later, litigation in Washington State revealed the graft and market manipulation that gave us the “crisis.” By then, George W.’s friend, Enron was already gone, and California spent the next decade digging out from the debt of that fraud. Follow the Money.

What if there doesn’t seem to be any money? Then, look to who benefits.

And that brings us to Flint. We are told that the poisoning of 100,000 Flint residents was the unfortunate result of managerial ineptitude. Clearly, at least that is true. But, we need to look a little harder. Following the money doesn’t help, because the very fact that the parties in question were already under Michigan’s draconian and, unconstitutional, Emergency Manager Act, means that the lack of money had already been established. However, we’ve seen enough of the results of Michigan’s Emergency Managers to know that the appointment of a Manager, combined with the stripping of democratic representation, generally means that the troubled, usually minority, community in question, has something, some asset, that the Governor’s cronies want.

It’s too early to know whether the Flint crisis was steeped in some other, darker motivation. But there are early, and troubling, indications that saving money for Flint wasn’t the primary objective. Follow the money—look to who gains. As always, governmental transparency is essential to maintaining the integrity and trust of the citizens. Recently, the State of Michigan dropped to last place in the fifty states, in its score for government ethics. We have a long way to go to rebuilding citizen trust, so I suggest the Governor step forward with ALL the relevant records.

Governor Snyder did release two year’s worth of “relevant” emails on the issue. Unfortunately, those records were not complete, were heavily redacted and did not go back nearly far enough. When someone makes the effort to hide their actions—they are hiding their motives. Then, we need to look even harder at the facts. Let’s face it, it is unlikely that the citizens of Flint voted for this administration—they are not his constituency.

I don’t have the answers. I only have a healthy sense of curiosity and a deep sense of outrage at what has happened to the citizens of Flint, and especially to the children, whose futures have been diminished. To say the least, I have questions.

Emails released by Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) reveal that Flint was offered a very sweet deal for continuing with Detroit water. The price offered was lower than any savings offered by switching to the new Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline, both in the short and long term. Why then, the rush to change Flint’s water supply?

This is not Michigan’s first Emergency Manager water crisis. Long before Flint, the City of Detroit (and DWSD) were placed under the Governor’s Emergency Manager’s powers. Go back a couple of years, to the days when, under the Emergency Manager, DWSD was cutting off water service to delinquent homeowners—while carrying delinquent corporations with far more egregious non-payment histories. It was an international embarrassment. DWSD was caught failing to accurately credit payments made and returning individual customer’s checks—because payments had to be in cash. In short, under the Emergency Manager’s powers, DWSD was making customer payments and accounting more difficult and then, based on the very problems they were creating, suggesting that the only solution was to split up and privatize Detroit’s water assets. Nestle, everyone’s favorite purveyor of necessities, was discussed as the “obvious” choice for privatizing Detroit’s significant water assets. You know, the same company that denies that water is a human right, and advocates that municipal water supplies be turned over to for-profit corporations. What connections did the Governor or the Emergency Manager have with Nestle, or any other private water interests? (Besides the fact that Deb Muchmore, the wife of the Governor’s then-Chief of Staff, is a Nestle spokesperson.)

I question whether the seeds of the Flint crisis don’t start with the Emergency Manager’s efforts, in Detroit, to ‘starve the beast’ of DWSD. After all, the long-term viability of DWSD was enhanced by Flint’s water supply contracts. Only a full release of all documents will tell. Why the rush to a new water source if DWSD was offering a good deal? Why sign on to a new, as yet un-built, pipeline, if it wasn’t the best economic deal? Who was paying for the new pipeline? Whose interests, other than the City of Flint, were to be served by the new pipeline? (It’s been suggested that the pipeline was also to serve Eastern Michigan’s fracking industry.) Is there any truth to this? Even if the new, Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline was a viable water solution for Flint, why the rush to use the Flint River in the interim, especially since it had previously been determined to be unsafe? Experts had warned that the Flint River was badly contaminated. Experts also advised that the Flint River water was corrosive and would damage the city’s water infrastructure unless properly treated. Why wasn’t this done? Surely, minor savings couldn’t justify trashing the existing water system, and risking the release of toxic lead into the city’s drinking water. Whose interests were served by starving DWSD? I have questions, and the citizens of Michigan and the City of Flint deserve answers.

We have a right to know. Those in charge—all the way to the Governor’s office—have to account for what has been done. It needs to go on their permanent record. The legacy of this Governor’s administration, and its appointments, is a generation of poisoned children. If this is mere negligence, those responsible must be identified and removed from any decision-making authority or power. There may be cause to seek criminal prosecutions for decisions that were, at best, reckless. I’m not so sure they were even well-meaning. But answers to these questions may reveal something even more hideous.

If there’s any connection between the crony-capitalist friends of this administration and the results in Flint, we owe it to the children to leave no stone unturned in our investigation. If reckless decisions were made, in order to provide profit opportunities for friends of the administration, then these actions go well beyond negligence. We need to determine whether there was a criminal conspiracy to benefit private interests at the expense of public obligations. We’ll need to look to any and all documents related to Emergency Manager control of or involvement with ANY water assets in Michigan. We’ll need to look to any campaign contributions, or other “considerations,” from companies that could have benefitted.

This isn’t just a question of integrity. (Michigan’s current government is already at the bottom of that list.) It’s a question of intent. If it turns out that this imbroglio was the result of a conspiracy to funnel public assets into private coffers—then ALL conspirators are liable for the damage resulting from the furtherance of the conspiracy. In Michigan we have wondered, how will we afford to remedy this situation—care for the poisoned populace and fix the damaged infrastructure. If this was done for profit, then all those who participated in the scheme will share the culpability and liability. And if individuals knowingly participated in a scheme that poisoned Flint, they must be charged and tried. People have died because of this. This goes beyond reckless disregard, if this was done for profit, it is a crime against humanity.

Like I said, we have to follow the money. We have questions and we need the answers, for the sake of the children.

 

 

 

 

Getting Mike: Part Three

A.V. Walters

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We are all, each of us, a bundle of talents and deficits. My sweet Rick would be the first to agree; he is continually amazed that a highly functional, over-educated adult, like me, cannot tell left from right, or measure anything with accuracy. The trick is, that for most of us, we focus on the talents we possess.

We completely fail at this when the object of our attention becomes a diagnosis, and not a person. A diagnosis can be an opportunity, or an excuse, depending upon how one wields it. In essence, a diagnosis regarding mental capacity gives us information about the nature (and maybe cause) of a deficit. It’s what we do with that information that matters.

A couple of decades ago, I worked as a coordinator for an Adult Literacy Program. We banged our heads against this very phenomenon, repeatedly. Students and tutors would blame their failures on learning disabilities diagnosed when the students were children, instead of looking for the work-around. Despite the educational failures of the past, we found that many of our students were highly motivated and, with individualized instructions, were able progress beyond everyone’s expectations. All too often, the diagnosis of a learning disability had quickly become the operative reality—an excuse for failure instead of a challenge for success.

I have mentioned in this series that my Uncle Mike was shortchanged by the educational system. He had speech impediments that, unrecognized and unaddressed, led teachers to believe that he was language impaired and uneducable. A second chance in his late teens gave him speech therapy—and language. Not that Mike doesn’t have deficits but, armed with language, he presented a whole new package. Mike moved away before I was an adult, so I didn’t have much opportunity to get to know the “new” Mike, the one who could talk, until many years later.

Mike is highly literate. (His keen vision and ability to quickly read signs from a distance were a godsend while traveling with him, across the country.) He reads newspapers and follows current events. He is just as opinionated and informed as the rest of the family—which is saying a lot. He is funny and, in particular, gets situational humor. He has a great memory. But, because his speech is not perfect, many expect him to exhibit lower levels of performance. Mike hides behind these low expectations and, even if it means that he’s misjudged, never puts himself in a position where he will disappoint. Surely, sometimes he fails to “connect the dots,” but I never know if it’s capacity, or training. Mike has spent a lifetime fulfilling his diagnoses.

Not that there aren’t deficits. He has great difficulty measuring the motivations of others. Perhaps an early life without language meant that he could hide behind my grandmother’s skirts, and let her do the coping for him. This is especially true when, all too often, in his human interactions he was the victim of bullying and abuse. He doesn’t get arithmetic at all—and is at a total loss with budgeting and money. Beyond that, I’ve decided to judge Mike’s skills by first-hand experience, rather than by maligned expectations.

A decade ago Mike and I worked together to set him up in his first apartment. He was thrilled with it, with its humble furnishings and independence. We bought him a modular desk, (IKEA style) that required assembly. I took the lead—never pausing to read the directions. Mike and I chatted as I worked. About half way through, Mike expressed his reservations, “Alta, I don’t think that will work.” I was tempted to press on, but Mike got up off the couch and showed me that part of my assembly was backwards! (Did I mention that spatial skills are not my strong suit?) We both laughed so hard, we cried, and then finished the project, together.

Similarly, as we approached the end of our travels, I took a back road shortcut, up a steep hill in Hancock. It’s a winding road—I know it well and I took it at a good clip. We were nearly to the top when Mike cautiously inquired, “Is this a one-way street?” It was, and he was right to question what would have been reckless in two-way traffic. Mike gets it. We have to do a better job of “getting” Mike.

The point is, Mike has a far greater understanding about what goes on around him than we give him credit for. His homecoming can be a new beginning, for all of us. We can plan for successes, instead of failures, while providing safe opportunities for success. There are many wonderful possibilities here. Mike is a little intimidated by his return to real winters—but once his health is recovered, I think he will enjoy snow and season. Already, he is recounting childhood memories of winter in a favorable light.

There are decided advantages to small town living. My hometown, Copper Harbor, has about one hundred, year-round residents. Already, I am impressed with the welcome. Family members and friends are pulling together to outfit Mike with clothing and necessities for winter living. All of us are making plans for fun and community engagement as soon as Mike is on his feet. This is a seasonal town, if he wants, there are opportunities for work in the summer. My sister told the owners of a local resort that Mike was coming, and when we rolled into town, he was welcomed home, on their marquis! It brought tears to my eyes, and a ready smile to Mike’s face. Finally, we know that he is safe and loved. Finally, Mike has come home.

 

 

 

 

Getting Mike: Part Two–

A.V. Walters–

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It was the Christmas storm, in New Mexico, that triggered our actions. That, and the fact we finally got Mike to give us an address.

Squalor is such an ugly word. So is elder-abuse. I try not to be judgmental. I know that every person has their own reasons for what they do, and that it doesn’t help if I overlay my own perspective. I think the facts should speak for themselves. You’re free to draw your own conclusions.

I had coordinated with Adult Protective Services before my arrival in New Mexico. I wanted to document conditions—and I wanted company out to the site—just in case. APS was concerned, too—they wanted me to coordinate with local law enforcement for “civil standby,” which would cover police presence, not only for the initial status check, but for the time it took to pack Mike’s belongings, and go. The county sheriff’s department had jurisdiction, but they reached out for additional back-up from the local police department that had previously been to the location. We were quite the parade. Mike was living in a remote trailer out in the high desert. We, (me and my entourage of law enforcement, totaling four vehicles), met down the road, and then pulled up to the trailer, together. To my shock, the police flanked the entry, hands on holsters, while the deputy pounded on the door. She, Mike’s “friend,” answered—of course, Mike was home.

She presented as a good-looking, if overly made-up, middle-aged woman. She wore one of those “stylish” track suits. You wouldn’t look twice if you passed her on the street. She called Mike to the door. He peered out at the collected entourage—slack-jawed and stunned. His clothing hung on him, his pants held up by a belt with a long tail that spoke to the enormous weight loss since I’d last seen him. He sported a Hard Rock Café t-shirt, several sizes too large, and stained with the kind of deep grime that screams poverty. His hair was clean, but long, and matted. His feet were wrapped in pressure bandages. Even that prelude didn’t prepare me for the inside of the trailer.

Mike’s eyes found me in the crowd and he relaxed, but just a little. I handed him the kitty carrier and told him these people had to come inside to see where he lived. I instructed him to put the kitty in the carrier, so that we wouldn’t scare her off. Unfortunately, the cat was already outside—Mike went out to try to find her, but we never saw her.

We took advantage of his search for Penny, to go into the trailer where Mike had been living for ten months. I knew that he mostly lived there alone. We knew from conversations with Mike that She “lived” there, in address only—mostly she spent the nights at her boyfriend’s apartment. Mike was proud that he “held down the fort” at the trailer. Every couple of weeks, he’d be taken to the boyfriend’s house, to clean up—and to do laundry. Sometimes, if weather was really severe, he’d spend the night at the boyfriend’s.

Getting a good look, inside the trailer, brought tears to my eyes. There was NO water, NO sanitation, NO power, and NO heat. An outdoor, propane, “patio heater” stood in the center of the main room, an empty propane tank, on its side, next to it. No matter, at least today was a warm day. Plastic gallon-jugs of water circled the heater—so they wouldn’t freeze at night. I knew, from Mike, that there was a generator outside that gave light, and access to a microwave oven, when there was fuel. Too often, there wasn’t any. The only significant furnishings were two “easy” chairs, one heavily worn and shabby, and the other in reasonable condition. It was no challenge to guess where Mike had been sleeping for the last 10 months.

The trailer was filthy, covered in the reddish grit that comes from the wind-blown desert of New Mexico. It was strewn with rags, or so I thought, until She told me they were Mike’s clothes. There was a plastic trash bag with his clean laundry—he had no dresser, not even boxes for his clothing. There was a short, folding shelf unit for his personal effects—his razor, miscellaneous papers and junk he’d collected. I had to step outside for a moment, overwhelmed. We’d clearly waited too long, and though he denied it, Mike had paid the price. I went and found Mike, wandering in the field, looking for the cat. “Mike, you have to come with me, now. You cannot stay here, any longer. It’s not safe or healthy.” He dropped his head. I hated to do it—Mike believed I was dashing his dreams.

You see, Mike saw this as his opportunity for homesteading. Apparently, She owned the property. She relieved him of his Social Security money each month, and fed him the fantasy that soon, they’d own the trailer, together, outright. Then, they could see about real “improvements.” Mike had spent the previous summer clearing the mesquite and tumbleweeds from the “yard.” He showed me the tree he’d planted, that he watered diligently from those plastic jugs. He was nothing if not patient, and proud.

By law, most livestock is treated better.

I’d brought plastic trash bags, to pack. I was concerned about the possibility of gathering up pests, and bringing them to my mother’s, where Mike would be living. I was optimistic on that front—even insects couldn’t thrive in these conditions. As I headed back in, to pack, one of the officers offered me gloves—those blue, nitrile gloves they wear at crime scenes to avoid contamination. I gratefully accepted them. Mostly, I just wanted to pack Mike into the car, and escape with just him. After all, anticipating the worst, I’d brought him new clothing. But, I know that there’s a danger in that kind of uprooting; you dismiss and abandon the person’s past—good and bad. Though the officers were quietly conversing amongst themselves—appalled at the conditions, I had to be mindful that this had been Mike’s home, and that he was proud of it. I packed what I could—sorting out the clothing that was too grimy, or threadbare, deciding what was worth hauling across the country.

The officers and APS admitted that this was a clear-cut case of abuse. But, they didn’t seem in favor of prosecution. Mike certainly would be unable, or unwilling, to cooperate—he believed this woman was his friend and, in any event, he was safely leaving the state. At the time, I had no interest in going down that road—I just wanted Mike healthy, safe, and away. One of the officers mentioned that this was not her first time doing this. She was outraged at any suggestion of abuse—after all, how could it be abusive if Mike agreed to it. And, she told the officers, She lived there, too! (Yeah, right. We all knew better.) Mike and I stopped in Roswell, on our way out of town, for a haircut and to close his bank account—he had almost nothing to show for his 44 years in New Mexico.

At last, we headed home. It’s a long trip, over 1,600 miles, to the UP. Mike was quiet at first, but finally, he began to chat—about the problems with his feet, about his cat, about the burritos she’d brought him to eat, from the convenience store where her current “boyfriend” works. Other than a feral cat, lost to him now, nothing he said about his life in the desert made me feel any better. It will take some time for Mike to adjust.

My niece, Jessica, who is a saint, arranged a medical appointment for the day after we arrived home. On the trip, Mike wouldn’t undo the bandages on his feet—he said the doctor (whom he hadn’t seen in a month, because She didn’t get him to his appointments) told him that only a doctor should wrap or re-wrap them. My mother and I were in the exam room when they removed the wrappings. We didn’t know what to say. His feet were grossly swollen and crusted—skin split from the swelling. There was evidence of frost-bite—a testament to his living conditions. His feet did not look human. The doctor took one look, and sent us to Emergency.

No thanks to his “friend” in New Mexico, Mike will be okay. His feet and legs will recover, if slowly. He now has loving caretakers who will see to it he eats properly, exercises, and gets needed medical care. They tell us he came very close to losing his feet—and maybe his life. We’ll deal with the blood clots for several months, yet—with blood thinners and proper pressure wraps. I arrived, apparently, just in time.

I’m still fuming. In front of Mike, I’m careful not to criticize his “friend.” I understand Stockholm Syndrome, and how a victim can attach to his oppressor, or worse, when the victim believes it’s his friend. I take a deep breath, and think of what he’s been through. Given what we now know about his physical condition, I wonder if I made the right decision not to prosecute.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting Mike: Part One–

A.V. Walters–

It was inevitable that sooner or later we’d have to step up to the plate to resolve this. The only real resolution was to bring Mike home.

Mike is my uncle. He is congenitally disabled–starting with a birth condition that caused brain damage, which (very common in the day) was left untreated. He did not get the kind of early intervention and treatment mandated now, that would likely have left him far more capable. My grandmother shielded him–to protect him from the bullies that taunted and repeatedly injured him. He clearly has deficits–but sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s damage, what’s training and–well, when Mike is manipulating for his own ends. The very fact that he knows when he can gain advantage, hedging with the truth, means there’s more capacity there than is generally acknowledged.

Mike’s childhood in Michigan was pretty harsh. Bullying is widely recognized today as an insidious and twisted problem–one that damages both the victim and the perpetrator. Schools have special programs. Teacher and students alike are encouraged to step forward to set things to rights. Not so in Mike’s day. School was a veritable gauntlet of hazards. My grandmother would rail, and the administration would shrug. They made it very clear that they would have preferred that he be institutionalized early on. They made it Mike’s fault.

My grandmother refused to give up. She researched high and low and found a special program to maximize the potential for kids like Mike. She wanted him to have the satisfaction and autonomy that comes with work. Like most parents on mentally challenged children, she didn’t want him to be a burden–and worried what would happen when she and my grandfather died. She found a great program in New Mexico–run by a dynamic and wonderful young man–who saw potential in all “his kids.” And the program was wonderful. First and foremost they were the ones to identify Mike’s speech impediment. (When I was little I could never understand him–most couldn’t, and soon, Mike talked less and less.) As a late teen, Mike received intensive speech therapy. It worked. Mike could suddenly communicate–and he was funny–even theatrical. My grandparents were vindicated. Not that Mike doesn’t have deficits, but, in the absence of communication, everyone assumed that he was far less functional than he really was. Shame on the rest of us.

The relocation was a big step, but my grandparents uprooted themselves from generations of family and history in Michigan, to give Mike a chance. It was a tough move, loaded with sacrifices. Being from Michigan gives one a love of season and lakes and snow. New Mexico, especially the high Eastern Desert, takes a special kind of appreciation. Mike bloomed. The employment training offered wasn’t wonderful–hospital orderly, bus boy, laundry worker–but they were jobs, steady jobs, for kids who were never expected to have any prospects.

After a while, the program, and its continuing support fizzled. State administrations changed, budgets were cut. Finally there were really no special programs for Mike, just a handful of advocates–family and friends who’d come to know him. Still, he lived with his parents and had a regular job. My grandparents missed Michigan. Some people have only one great leap of faith in them–that leap brought them to New Mexico. There was no going back.

Mike’s biggest problem is his inability to discern the motivations of others. He’s a genial guy. Not many people will take the time to befriend a mentally disabled person. When they do, they are either saints, or, unfortunately, predators. It’s been a problem all of his life. The “friend” who got him into stereo equipment–soaked up his savings and, after he’d cashed his commission check, vanished from Mike’s life. There was a similar scenario with camera equipment. It’s a recurring theme, and so we’re leery.

When my grandparents passed, nobody knew what to do about Mike. Mike made it abundantly clear that he wanted to stay where he was. It was his community and he had a job. My parents would have taken him to Michigan, but Mike’s memories of Michigan are full of abuse and bullies. I would have taken him to Two Rock, but California was an unknown. Mike wanted to stay. We cut a deal. If Mike could stay and take care of business–work, pay bills, take care of himself, he could stay. Long distance monitoring isn’t great. My grandmother’s friend, Mary-Jo has helped. She would call and drop in on him. Mike calls my mother every week, on Sundays. There have been slips, but mostly Mike has kept up his end of the deal. Or so we thought.

A couple of years ago, Mike had a friend who suggested that they share an apartment, to save money. We were immediately suspicious. The “friend” wasn’t interested in communicating with us–more suspicions. But, Mike jumped the gun and moved anyway. We had no evidence of trouble, so we opted for a wait and watch plan. Things seemed to be fine. Mike continued to report to work. My grandmother’s friend watched like a hawk (the woman is a blessing). At one point, when Mike didn’t call, we called the local cops–for a “welfare” visit. He was fine. He was angry with us–he’d just missed a couple of calls because of problems with his phone. Still, we worried.

Last spring Mike was going in for cataract surgery. His roommate didn’t pick him up, so Mike gave the medicos Mary-Jo’s name and number. She retrieved him from the clinic. While he was there, the doctor noted a nasty infection in his leg. These have plagued him, off and on, all his life. He started up with regular treatments at a wound clinic. His legs were too bad to continue working. My mother offered to pick him up and take him to Michigan where he could have better care. Mary-Jo reported that Mike was unshaven and disheveled. We were alarmed that the roommate hadn’t followed through, and that he wasn’t taking care of himself.

Then, our mail was returned as “not at this address.” Again, we requested that the police visit. Too late. Mike was gone. For a while we lost contact, but still, we had no evidence of actual trouble. We had nothing to report and nowhere to report it to. We’d dropped the ball.

After a bit, Mike’s calls to my mother resumed. Yes, he’d been out of communication, but there were reasons. He’d moved to a place in the country–and there wasn’t great cell reception. He was clearing part of the property and planting trees. He had a kitten. He was so excited, it was hard to be angry. But, he had no address. The trailer where he was living was new, and there was no address yet. We’d have to be patient, there was so much to do. No address meant that we couldn’t send him cards and treats and care packages. These goodies had long sustained him–the occasional box of cookies, a needed winter coat, cards–with a little cash tucked in. These outreaches meant the world to Mike. How could he not give us an address? Well, the post office had to put it on the route and they’d have to install a mailbox, out on the highway. He confided that his friend was still angry that we’d called the police previously. Soon, soon, he’d have an address.

He sounded great. He sounded happier than he’d been in years. He was working outdoors, enjoying it and proud of the results of his labors. He was so thrilled that he had a kitten–all his own. We worried. He was also keeping in telephone contact with Mary-Jo, she didn’t like the situation, one bit, and she told him so. We talked about it and we decided to let the tenor of Mike’s voice be our guide. His voice was strong and he was happy.

His birthday rolled around. My mum called for his birthday. He was missing the goodies. What could she say? Well, Mike, when you give us your address and we’ll resume the packages and cards. Tough love. Over Christmas, Mike called my mother, elated that they’d put up the mail box. He gave her his new address! Before she’d send him any goodies my mother told Mike she would send him something and he’d have to send it back, a test of the new postal address. She did, and he did. So, she sent him belated birthday and Christmas packages.

Then, after Christmas, New Mexico had a storm. We read about it but we’re from Michigan. What’s the big deal about a little snow? It was a big deal. Mary-Jo called, frantic. Was Mike going to be okay? My mother gave her the address–explained that things were fine now according to Mike. Things weren’t fine. Mike likes it there, but we’ve learned that he lives in a trailer with no heat, no water, no sanitation. There’s power, but only when there’s fuel for a generator. Winter is a big deal under these conditions. Mary-Jo, determined detective that she is, advocate for this vulnerable son of her best friend–she found out just how grim. He told her he keeps warm under a thermal blanket, he and his kitty. The “roommate” doesn’t live there, she drops off groceries. He visits at her place every couple of weeks–to do laundry and have a shower. She cashes and keeps his Social Security checks.

I am on a mission. I have contacted and coordinated with Adult Protective Services. Mike’s going to have a visit.The police will escort us. If conditions are as Mary-Jo reports, Mike and his kitty are coming home to Michigan. He’s not going to like it, but he’s not getting a choice this time. I won’t post this until he is safe with me–I don’t want to jinx it this time. I just finished a two day, 1,600 mile drive to New Mexico. I thank all those who have coordinated to make Mike’s rescue possible, especially Mary-Jo. Tomorrow is the big day.

Snow Cats, Hot Cocoa and GMOs

-A.V. Walters-

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It’s snowing again. We’re expecting seven inches by tomorrow and then it will really feel like winter.

Yesterday we were out clearing. Snow shoveling leads to play—at least for those of us with snow history. The snow on the ground was a little too dry for a decent snowman. Though I managed a couple of good snowballs, I couldn’t get anything good going (Rick, shoveling, didn’t want to play along) so, I had to settle for making a snow cat. Yes, a snow cat—nice and fat like my favorite cat—who is unfortunately named Kilo, making a permanent joke of his girth.

On the way up to the house site, we noticed tracks—large, feline tracks. They were much too large, and the spread of the step is too long, to be a house cat. This summer, I noticed similar tracks in the sand and wondered if we had bobcats or a lynx. But tracks in sand are difficult to identify, so I let it go. Now, in snow, it is absolutely clear that we have a regular visitor who is something larger than Kilo or Bob. I followed them (the tracks, that is) in a meandering trail that ended across the way because my quarry walked up the neighbor’s driveway—which had been plowed after the tracks were made.

I’m not surprised; there are plenty of bunnies here to keep a wild cat well fed. We see their tracks, too, along with those of the mice and squirrels and their veritable freeways of tracks. I came home, determined (after a cup of hot chocolate) to identify our feline visitor. I believe it’s a bobcat. The size is right, the length of the stride, and even the meandering path. It’s unlikely we’ll ever see him, because they are nocturnal, but it’s nice to know he’s there.

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“And now, a word from our sponsor…”

Hot chocolate is always nice after my own meanderings in the snow. I’m going to put in a plug for Hershey’s here—as they have recently announced that they’ve nearly completed their transition to non-GMO sugar in all their products. They made their statement in a benign way, declaring that they are responding to clear customer demand. No company wants to support such a change on environmental grounds—and risk the wrath of the larger food industry. Still, I admire Hershey for making the shift. The company also has a nice website which identifies which of their products are gluten-free. That’s good for me. They’re not perfect, but for today, they can bask in their non-GMO glory.

The Hershey announcement has the Minnesota sugar-beet farmers in a tizzy. Minnesota leads all other states in sugar production—all from sugar beets, all of them GMO modified and drenched in Round-Up. Previously, Hershey bought sugar made from sugar beets. Sugar-beet spokespersons are circumspect about the Hershey announcement—hoping that it’s not a trend. Surely, Americans won’t abandon conventional, chemically saturated, agriculture. Will they?

Here’s the rub. The sugar-beet farmers and cooperatives couldn’t change gears to go back to non-GMO seeds if they wanted to. There aren’t any non-GMO seeds available. Monsanto has so flooded the market with their poisonous seed-and-Round-Up combo, that the farmers have no fallback position. This, despite the evidence that GMO yields are no better than organic, or conventional fields. (Listen up organic farmers, here’s a window of opportunity to grow conventional sugar beets for seed!)

Consumers can make a difference. It will be fun to watch conventional agriculture scramble as more and more of us vote with our dollars for healthier products that don’t contaminate our soils and water. In the meantime, I’m warming up with a hot chocolate and anticipating a few more days of heavy snows.

 

Perfect Hot Chocolate—one heaping teaspoon of unsweetened cocoa powder, one teaspoon honey and one cup of whole milk or, for a special treat, almond milk.

 

 

New Year’s Values

A.V. Walters–

I’m not one much for the celebration of artificial holidays. Generally, if the way in which a holiday is celebrated suggests that one should shop, I’m not interested. I make exceptions for food (especially if it’s fresh, organic and local! I think that holidays should be about great food shared with loved ones and the appropriate celebration of season.) It’s no mistake that breaking bread with others—the root of the word communion, is also the root of community. It’s probably fair to say that I’m a Grinch about Christmas.

Not that I don’t shop. (Good Lord, I’m building—sometimes it feels that all I do is shop!) But shopping, in the retail sense, has become a recreation activity in our culture. North Americans have more stuff than we can house—I know this because my day job is about self-storage, an industry that has burgeoned over the past few decades. We have too much stuff.

What we don’t do, is shop wisely. Americans shop for values in the dollar sense, not for values in the real sense. Everybody likes a bargain—but at what cost? I note that Costco (a company I like because they have decent labor policies and are responsive to members’ environmental concerns) is having a sale on Georgia Pacific paper (a company that I despise for its political culture and rampant environmental abuses.) Will other Costco consumers stop and think about the impact of each individual selection? I doubt it. I have to pause, and recognize that the very economies of scale that make Costco successful, work against local economies—and encourage the very unbridled consumerism that decouples our relationship with the planet. It’s a matter of degree. It’s about taking the time to look below the surface—on any individual purchase—as well as with any particular company. Even though limited individually, our dollars collectively, are the second most powerful political and policy tool we have at our disposal. The first is our vote.

I also know that the very economic policies supported by our corporate economy have squeezed consumers in ways that make globally-unwise shopping the average consumer’s primary option. Think about Walmart and its devastation on small town economies— the fact is that their pay is so low as to force employees onto food stamps and public programs. There is an implicit trap in the Walmart cycle—they prey on the poor. By the time a community realizes that Walmart is not a good deal—it’s too late. All of the local businesses have closed. There are no other shopping options. Behind the scenes, the profits go to the Walton family, the production jobs go offshore, and consumers are left with shoddy products that will not endure. Go ahead, buy it, and then buy it again when it breaks. Adding insult to injury, our tax dollars help to support their full-time workers who cannot live on what Walmart pays. Where’s the value in that?

Is it too much to ask North Americans to look deeper into where their dollars go? I hope not. Buy local. Buy from your farmer’s market or co-op. Support local tradespeople and service companies—before you head to the chain store with your coupons. Fix it, instead of buying a new one, and tossing the old into the trash. Research your larger purchases on the internet—and make sure that your dollars support your real values. Buy used goods, or surplus goods—you’ll save money, reduce waste and decrease our reliance on the retail culture. Make, or build, things yourself, when you can. This is the strength of the American dream. Since when did self-sufficiency become passé? Let your dollars support your ideals.

Oh yeah, and Happy New Year.

 

 

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