Feeds:
Posts
Comments

In America, we tend to celebrate birthdays as a triumph over the sneaky, dark forces of mortality. One more year! I survived another year! As the saying goes, “Getting older is better than the alternative.”

When people die and stop getting older, often we keep celebrating their birthdays. Each year ceases to be a tick mark of longevity and becomes a tally of absence. So many years without a loved one. So many years since a celebrity departed. If you’re famous enough and dead long enough, eventually maybe we’ll turn your birthday into a national holiday. Later we’ll rearrange it to suit our schedule.

As you get older, the collection of ghost birthdays in your life grows larger and larger until you risk bumping into one at every turn. In October, I’ll observe my pop’s birthday for the first time without him, and my grandmother’s birthday after more than a decade without her. In November, my granddad’s birthday, two decades gone now, a thing unfathomable to me when that first ghost birthday came.

Rilya Wilson

The birthday girl

Today, the 29th of September, I observe the ghost birthday of Rilya Wilson. Today is her 18th birthday, the 14th since she went missing. I never met her, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about her, since I first read about her disappearance from a Florida foster home. At the time, I was working at a domestic violence shelter in Tampa, and my day-to-day interactions with victims of abuse gave me little hope that Rilya was alive. I’d seen how a flash of anger could break a child’s arm, or black her eye, or permanently damage his spine. I could imagine the ease with which an adult could purposefully or negligently kill a child. A kick, a punch, a “punishment” that went to far.

In some ways, it is this ghost birthday that clings to me more fiercely than any other. My grandparents are safely buried after long lives. My pop is still a fresh grief, but I keep part of him in a little jar on my kitchen window sill. Rilya is lost, her life cut short, and I want to be sure someone thinks about her on her birthday. Thanks for reading this and helping me do that.

The Skittle of Opportunity

The Skittle of Opportunity

As I came up the stairs to my office yesterday, I saw a red Skittle lying on the second step from the top. Sometimes, one finds a trail of candies on the stairs, Skittles, M&Ms, and on occasion, like a trap laid for an extraterrestrial, Reese’s Pieces. Usually, the majority of these lost candies have been smashed under the feet of hurried passersby. This is a university, after all, and its inhabitants live primarily on junk food, and they’re too busy on their phones to look at their feet.

Yesterday, however, the Skittle I found was alone. It had not yet met its fate against the worn sole of a Chuck Taylor, but at any moment, the last minute rush of students would scramble up the stairs to get to class on time. There was no time to hesitate.

I picked up the Skittle and checked it for signs of injury, but its candy shell was intact. Without bothering to look around for witnesses, I popped it in my mouth and chewed it.

Why?

Red Skittles aren’t even my favorite ones. I prefer the orange ones.

My current eating habits actually militated against consuming a stray candy. I have sworn off all added sugar for the month of September in a bid to kick my staggering sugar habit.

I don’t usually eat stray food. Free-range chicken, yes, but not free-range snack items. Although there was that one time in college, when I was working for the local zoo, and they had 20 lbs of frozen raptor meat that was past its expiration date. Not far past its expiration date, but the Association of Zoos and Aquariums has very strict rules about what food can be served to animals. I’d been instructed to throw it away, rather than feed it to the rehab owls and hawks that I took care of. I was a poor college student, and it was late in the month. I was staring down a week of eating beans and rice.

Reader, I took that 20 lbs of meat home and threw a barbecue for my friends. Or at least, the friends who weren’t afraid to eat slightly expired raptor food. It’s essentially ground beef (or possibly horse or mule) with extra nutrients and finely ground bone meal mixed in. Properly seasoned and formed into quarter-pound patties, it went down pretty well on a hamburger bun.

All of which to say, I have eaten some suspect food items over the years. Now that I’m a professional with a regular paycheck, however, I’m not inclined to scrounge up free food.

This Skittle, though, this one lone red Skittle, it wasn’t about sugar. It wasn’t about free food. It was about being open to possibilities, being receptive to opportunity. After I ate the Skittle, I went into my office and talked to my agent, who is all about opening up opportunities for me. Soon, I’ll have some news on that front.

I keep seeing people posting images in support of net neutrality, but beyond making people more aware that big money interests are trying to create fast and slow lanes on the internet, those images don’t do much to stop it from happening.

What can you, as a lone private citizen, do to protect net neutrality? The answer is surprisingly easy. You can tell the FCC that you want net neutrality. Courtesy of my friend Lucy Pick, here are the simple instructions for doing that.

1. Visit the FCC’s website here: http://fcc.gov/comments

2. Look for Proceeding 14-28

3. Enter your personal information. Yes, you will need to speak up as a citizen, and that means the FCC wants your name and address. Don’t be more scared than you are any other time you divulge this to the federal government.

4. In the comments section write, “I want internet service providers classified as common carriers.”

You can write other things as well, but the most important thing is to indicate that you want internet service providers to be considered common carriers. If that happens, internet service providers, like other companies which transport goods, would be prohibited from discriminating against customers based on what goods they want transported.

That would mean lowly bloggers have the right to expect the same service as big name companies. It’s essentially what we have now, and what we’re in danger of losing. Additionally, it would make it harder for disapproving providers to silence unpopular opinions. We never think about this until our opinion becomes unpopular.

So, if you’ve seen all these posts about net neutrality, but you weren’t sure what to do, now you do. It will take you less time than reading this post did.

 

These days, I spend my lunch hour visiting my elderly aunt in the hospital. I’m always pressed for time, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have time to be a good person. That bumper sticker on my car is the truth. I believe in Random Acts of Kindness. At the intersection of Tennessee and 20th, I saw a woman on a bicycle, waiting to cross the street. She looked hot and tired, and there were half a dozen cars behind me, so it would probably be a while before she could cross. I came to a stop and waved her on, even though I knew I was already going to be late getting back to work.

She gave me a blank look and then pointed toward the stop sign at her corner. I couldn’t hear her, but I think she mouthed the words, “I have a stop sign. You don’t.”

Seriously, who does that? Who refuses a polite offer like that? It made me so mad, I pulled up across from her and rolled down my window, even though there were cars behind me, waiting to go through the intersection.

“I was trying to be nice,” I yelled. “You don’t have to be such a bitch about it.”

“How does calling me a bitch count as nice?” she said. So superior. Like she never lost her temper. Then she shook her head and said, “You’re blocking up traffic. Just go.”

I did, because screw her if she couldn’t take a favor. Screw her! It made me so mad, letting her have the last word, so even though I was through the intersection, I slammed on my brakes and yelled, “You fucking bitch! Fuck you, you fucking bitch!”

She threw her hands up in the air and shouted, “What are you doing, you moron?”

I would have said something back, but then the car behind me honked. Jerk was right up on my bumper. Some people.

***

Similar to how I look riding my bike

Similar to how I look riding my bike

That’s all true. It all happened, except in reality, I was the woman on the bicycle. I was the person who declined a favor. Because in my experience, that kind of favor is dangerous. It changes traffic patterns in ways the average motorist doesn’t comprehend. For example, I have to later cross the street that all those cars were backing up to. Also, it’s fairly common for the very people who try to do something nice by stopping traffic and waving me on, to later try to kill me. They get distracted by their cell phone, someone behind them honks, and having already forgotten they waved me on, they surge forward, nearly clipping me as I cross the street. After all, it takes a cyclist a bit longer to get started from a dead stop. After the third time this happened, I stopped accepting these kinds of “favors.”

Of course, immediately after it happened, I was astounded and eager to tell people that I’d been called a fucking bitch for turning down an act of perceived kindness. I wondered what would have happened if the car behind my would-be Good Samaritan had rear-ended her. Later, I did what I always do: I imagined the whole incident from the other person’s point of view. Almost no one sets out to yell obscenities at strangers over a minor incident, and yet she had gone from generosity to vituperative hostility in a second. As much as I didn’t appreciate her attitude, I recognized it may have come from a completely understandable place.

This is how I always approach my writing, and why I so often end up with multiple narrators. It’s not that I want two characters to tell the same story, but that I want them to tell their own story. I’m interested in how the different POVs intersect and diverge.

I date some of it back to my early days of writing. The first creative writing class I took was with Ben Nyberg, and his tried and true method is to force people to tell stories from other points of view. He tricks beginning students a bit, first asking them to write a story in which they are the protagonist. Then, he makes them tell the same story, from the POV of the antagonist. That is the story they are made to edit and polish until the antagonist becomes the protagonist. After all, you may be the hero of your story, but you’re probably the villain of someone else’s story.

PS: Nyberg’s book, One Great Way to Write Short Stories, though out of print, is still a great way to write a short story. Used copies are available in all the usual places.

Back in May, I dropped off the radar everywhere. My new novel Lie Lay Lain had just released, and I was making various plans for what I would do to promote it. I was also considering which project I wanted to work on next: ghost trains that never stop, cougar sex in doomed bed & breakfasts, Romeo & Lolita meet Breaking Bad?

Then my pop* was diagnosed with leukemia. I abandoned every plan and project for the daily drive to the university med center, where I did what one does in such circumstances. I sat in hospital rooms and tried to ask smart questions of the doctors who were pumping my dad full of poison. I cried in bathrooms and cafeterias and elevators and parking garages so that I could put on a brave and hopeful face when I was in my pop’s room.

I don’t imagine I spent even a minute thinking about my writing career in May or June, but apparently someone else was thinking about it. An agent contacted me to ask if I had any new projects I was working on, and would I send her something. I shot off an email with a manuscript attached and put it out of my mind.

The week after I traveled by ambulance to take my pop home from the hospital, I spoke to that agent, who offered to represent me. Four years after I parted ways with my last agent, I had a new agent. Two days later, my pop died. Planning for the funeral and for the rest of my life without him ate up what would otherwise have been cause for celebration.

Now I find myself on the backside of July, about to turn in revisions to my agent. It seems like April was a million years ago, and I don’t even remember what I was supposed to do. Honestly, after four years without an agent, and having sold two books to a small press, I’d given up on traditional publishing.

Most days, I feel like I’m dragging a boat down the beach. In a perfect world, the goal is to put the boat in the water at high tide, but it’s too late for that. I’m putting the boat in at low tide and hoping for the best.

 

*To clarify, and it seems that even in this age of blended families, I must clarify: 
my pop was legally my stepfather, my mother's second husband. He was a command 
sergeant major in the Army, a 3-decade employee of the natural gas industry, 
and the man who managed to raise 5 daughters. 
My biological father is the former drug dealer and all-around scoundrel. 
My pop was my father for 36 years, and as such, has earned the right not to be 
relegated to such halfway titles as "stepfather."

After allegations of neglect, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families started monitoring Jeremiah Oliver’s family, with monthly visits to check on the welfare of Jeremiah and his two siblings. Or at any rate, they were supposed to be monthly visits. When Jeremiah was finally reported missing in December, the visits from DCF had been irregular for more than eight months. In fact, in June of 2013, the last case worker to visit with the family was told that Jeremiah had gone to live with his grandmother in Florida.

You might think that such a change in the life of a young child being monitored by the state’s child welfare agency would spark some sort of follow up. It didn’t. No one from DCF investigated the claim that Jeremiah had moved to Florida, and they didn’t return to the Oliver family until November, for what they said would be their last visit. In December, Jeremiah’s 7-year-old sister confided in someone at school that she was being abused at home, and her little brother had been missing for a long time.

Jeremiah, lost and found

Jeremiah, lost and found

He isn’t missing anymore. On Friday, his body was found next to a highway, wrapped in a blanket, stuffed in a duffel bag. The police are proceeding on the assumption that he was murdered, and charges have been filed against his mother and her boyfriend. This would all be horrible enough, but to my way of thinking, it is rendered more monstrous by the failure of a system that should have protected Jeremiah. The DCF was aware that he was at risk of abuse and neglect. They were supposed to be checking on his welfare, but didn’t. They were supposed to be alert to signs of danger, and yet they accepted a threadbare excuse for his absence. As though the fire department had received a report of someone playing with matches and gasoline on the front porch of a house, and then failed to respond appropriately until the house burned to the ground.

This news torments, and I find myself unable to stop imagining the series of events that brought Jeremiah to that strip of grass by a road, the horrible choices of the adults in his life that acquainted him with that duffel bag. They are the same thoughts that tormented me, when I first heard about Rilya Wilson.

Rilya was born to a homeless drug addict who could not care for her. As a result, she was removed from her mother’s care and put into a foster home. In 2002, a newly assigned case worker with Florida’s Department of Children and Families arrived at Rilya’s foster home for a monthly visit. It was the first visit from DCF in fifteen months, because the previous case worker had been falsifying paperwork instead of actually visiting Rilya. Confronted with Rilya’s absence, the foster mother claimed that a different case worker had taken Rilya away for a medical examination, nearly two years before.

Twelve years later, Rilya is still in the wind. I know that many people who read Lie Lay Lain are frustrated by the lack of resolution for Shanti, the little girl missing out of foster care in the novel. I feel for them, because it’s a terrible thing, not knowing. We may never know exactly what became of Rilya, and if nothing else, I wanted to be true to that pain and emptiness in Lie Lay Lain. I wanted to acknowledge that she is lost and may never be found.

The case worker who failed to visit Rilya for those two years was given 5 years of probation. It seems like a slim sort of justice for someone who was supposed to be checking on Rilya’s safety and well-being. The case workers overseeing Jeremiah Oliver’s family have already been fired, and they are likely to face criminal charges. In Florida, Rilya’s disappearance caused a massive shift in how children are monitored by DCF. Case workers now have to document their visits through photographs and using GPS monitors. This is all a good thing for foster children in Florida, but for at-risk children in other states, there has been no great shift.

In Massachusetts, there are possibly hundreds of children missing out of foster care. And that’s just in one state, and it doesn’t take into consideration the children who remain with their families, but are being monitored by child welfare agencies.

As a nation, I marvel that we will expend vast sums of money to imprison non-violent offenders, but the care of children ranks so lowly that we think nothing of overworking and underpaying case workers. We can implement facial recognition software in hopes of catching criminals, but we can’t bring that same technology to bear to help identify and locate children. We can compile and sift through massive quantities of internet traffic and phone records, in the name of the war on terrorism, but we’re willing to let thousands of children slip through the cracks to their deaths, because it’s just too hard to keep track of them.

Actually, two people have officially already won copies of Lie Lay Lain. Judy and Sharon, check your email for your official notice.

The rest of you, there’s still time to enter to win a copy over on Goodreads. That contest is running until April 27th.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,700 other followers