an American in England, dreaming

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20130826_122711It’s very English out there in Grand Rapids today, cool, gray and drizzly. The kind of day that on the old island breeds chilblains, British reserve, cozy pubs and great writers.
It was this kind of day when my sister and I arrived in London two summers ago for a 10-day sojourn, sandwiched around a scholarly paper Maureen presented in seaside Brighton. I recorded in a journal our first morning in Hampstead, a delectable village north of London where you can easily kill hours on the wild natural expanse of Hampstead Heath.

A magical morning wandering around the heath. Runners, people w/ dogs everywhere. Huge old gnarled trees. Ponds, a man swimming the backstroke. Kites. Climbed Parliament Hill & saw the outline of the great city, slightly misty in the half-sun. Beautiful breeze up there. Felt perfect peace.

a park of perfect peace

a park of perfect peace

I’ve always felt perfect peace about England. Maybe it was falling in love with Petula Clark and the Beatles in my youth, followed by falling into the expansive worlds of Shakespeare and Dickens. I feel spiritually at home there. It is in fact my ancestral home, where in March 1807 a babe named Nimrod was born to single mother Catherine Honey in the Cornish coastal village of Tywardreath. The bastard Nimrod of Cornwall later came to Canada, where he fathered some children with wife Mariah and evidently mended shoes.
But back to England: They had elections there this week, with the Tories unexpectedly thrashing Labour, and the Scottish National Party proclaiming they aren’t done with that independence thing, not by a long shot. Reading about the elections, so short and cheap compared to our multimillion dollar marathons, took me back to that trip with my sister, and to my first trip there in 1976.
Way back then, I had literally dreamed about the green and pleasant land for months before going. When I flew in it still seemed like a dream, looking down at patchwork fields outlined by crooked stone fences. Much the same when I arrived with Maureen in summer 2013, whether sipping cider at the The Holly Bush Inn in Hampstead or gazing at the English Channel in Brighton, where young dudes played Ping Pong on the shore while massive, deep green waves sparkled like diamonds.

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In the Lion and Lobster pub we saw a dad dine with his young daughter while their dog lounged under the table, and a waitress hugged an old standby at the bar. There’s a basic decency there that is characteristically British, and which Maureen and I saw play out more dramatically on a London subway.
A girl of maybe 7 years old hopped on the train just as the doors slammed shut. She turned around in panic and banged on the door with her palm. “Momma! Momma!” Her mother stood helplessly outside on the platform, and the train took off.
A family sitting across from us brought the girl to their side. “Don’t worry, we’ll get off at the next stop with you, and wait for your mother there.” Which they did, to the relief of everyone in the car.
Their small act of kindness stuck with me as much as seeing Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and the glittering English Channel. Across the ocean and down through the centuries, it’s what connects me to the Brits, my own family and my spiritual home, be that here or abroad.

sister-by-the-sea

sister-by-the-sea

 

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from abuse to empowerment, dancing all the way

Alicia MonteithNote from me: For faithful readers who may have been wondering what I’ve been up to, when not writing for The Grand Rapids Press/MLive, here you go. I am one of five reporters for School News Network, which covers the students and teachers of Kent County public schools, and the magic they create in classrooms. Here is one of the more memorable students I’ve met. Like so many others, she inspires me with her courage and singularity of purpose. You might be surprised how many students like her are out there. I invite you to read about this remarkable young woman, and the many other students who give me great hope for the future. 

What a night it was. Cascades of glittering lights. Gorgeous gowns and snappy suits. Fine sculpted centerpieces on the tables. And two talented teens dancing elegantly as more than 200 guests watched.

The teens were Alicia Monteith and her brother, Alex, who are accomplished ballroom dancers. Alicia had organized this benefit event, called the Inspire Ball, in a beautiful banquet hall last November. The reason was simple but powerful: to help others who had endured sexual assault, as she had.
The ball raised more than $9,000 for the Children’s Assessment Center, a nonprofit agency that helped Alicia recover from being assaulted when she was 11 and to prosecute her abuser. With the ball and her previous benefit efforts, the Northview High School senior has raised $55,000 for the center’s work in helping child victims of sexual assault.
From victim of a traumatic event, Alicia has grown into an articulate voice for other victims and an advocate for breaking the cycle of sexual abuse.
“I want to help as many kids as I can,” said Alicia, 17, her soft voice belying her steely determination. “God made me strong enough to be able to tell (of the assault) in the first place. I think he also had it happen to me so I could help other kids.”
Not Just Surviving, but Thriving
The Inspire Ball was just the latest of Alicia’s fundraising efforts for the Children’s Assessment Center. Starting in July 2013 she began running in 5k races and soliciting sponsors. She quickly eclipsed her original goal of raising $1,000, the approximate cost of serving one child at the agency. By year’s end she had raised close to $14,000.
Alicia has raised more funds for the CAC than any other individual, enabling it to provide a full range of services to 55 children, said Executive Directory Pam Doty-Nation.
“We at the CAC are her biggest fans, not only because she has such a giving spirit but also the joy she brings as she thrives and grows beyond simply surviving,” Doty-Nation said.
Alicia has appeared on Maranda’s TV show “Where You Live” and was interviewed for a Grand Rapids Press story. By speaking publicly about her assault, she encourages other young people to report theirs, said her former counselor at CAC.
“The fact Alicia is willing to stand up and say ‘I survived this and so can you,’ it makes other children she comes in contact with a lot more likely to come forward with what has happened to them,” said Powers, now a therapist with Jenison Psychological Services. “I’m just incredibly proud of her. She didn’t just survive, she thrived.”
About one in four girls, and one in six boys, is sexually assaulted before her or his 18th birthday, but only 15 to 20 percent of them ever tell anyone, Powers said. Alicia dispels stereotypes of who sexually abused children are, she added, showing “It can happen to any child.”
Northview High School Principal Mark Thomas said he admires Alicia’s forward-looking focus and her choice to be an advocate.
“I believe that Alicia grows and helps herself through her service and leadership efforts,” Thomas said. “She is wise beyond her years, and her attitude is always positive and optimistic.”
Inspiring Others to Tell Their Stories
Alicia’s attitude is bolstered by a strong faith and close family. Her parents, Kip and Jennifer, have supported her public advocacy. Jennifer told Alicia she was concerned about the risks of going public, but said her daughter insisted, “I don’t care. It’s not about me. It’s about the other kids.”
“My daughter’s my hero,” said Jennifer, who also has spoken on behalf of the CAC. “I’m proud of her for being so strong, not pulling back and not being afraid. It’s incredibly brave, what she’s doing.”
Alicia said she was willing to be open about her experience “to give other kids the courage and inspiration to know it’s OK to tell their story,” and so they could get the help they need. “It is such a hush-hush problem that many people don’t realize how big of a problem it is.”
Alicia has publicly told her story of being sexually abused one night by an adult family friend. She said she didn’t tell anyone for nearly a year because the man’s daughter was “practically my sister, and sisters don’t take each other’s dads away.”
But after confiding in another friend, Alicia was persuaded she needed to tell someone. After talking in vague terms to her mother, she was eventually referred to the Children’s Assessment Center. It was there she first told a detective the whole story.
“That was the first time I’d really seen her smile in over a year,” recalled her mother. “She just had the biggest smile on her face, like, ‘Finally, I’m free.’”
Added Alicia, “There’s no words to explain how good it felt to not have to hold that in anymore.”
Planning on a Life of Leadership
In nearly two years of counseling at the CAC, Alicia went from being a victim to a survivor. The center helped her the most simply by listening, she said.
“Having someone listen to you, trust and believe you, is the biggest thing to help a victim,” she said, quietly but firmly. “That’s exactly what they do there.”
As Alicia prepared to testify in her abuser’s trial, Powers recalled, “She looked at me and said, ‘Susan, this is just awful. I’ve got to bring something good out of this.’ I said, ‘Alicia, you’ll find a way.’ And she did.”
Alicia later forgave her abuser — a key step for victims, she said: “I was able to step away and say, ‘OK, that’s in the past now. I can move forward.’”
After graduating from the CAC program, she resolved to give something back for all it had done for her and her family. In July 2013 she sent out letters to more than 100 friends and family asking them to sponsor her in a run per month, hoping to raise $1,000 by December. She got more than twice that in two weeks. Further donations included an anonymous gift of $10,000, through a family friend who had been abused without telling for 40 years.
Since Alicia began speaking and raising funds, several other abuse victims have confided in her including students. On a recent morning at school, a girl who was having problems with bullying gave Alicia a hug for helping her. “You’ll get through it,” Alicia told her.
After graduating this spring, Alicia plans to study nonprofit leadership and psychology at Grand Valley State University. She wants to head an agency that provides “a safe haven” for abused children and adults.
At the Inspire Ball, she told her story to the finely dressed guests. Her testimony was laced with biblical quotations, as when Jesus tells his followers that faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains.
“My goal is to empower kids like me to become survivors,” she told the crowd. “Together we can save lives. Together we can change the world. And together we can move mountains.”
Then, to the sound of a standing ovation, she rushed off to change into her dancing clothes.

Alicia_Monteith_2

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words in the rubble, stories in the wind

GRP RIP, April 2015They dig like dinosaurs, chomping into the earth
These fearsome metal-jawed excavators
Hauling up mouthfuls of rocky dirt, cement block, rusty rebar
Kicking up the grimy, dusty detritus
Of the old word factory.

They tear and rend like T-Rexes
These mighty yellow machines
Chewing off bits of building
Spitting out hunks of wallboard and insulation
Bastions of brick and mortar
Leaving a skeletal shell
From which tendrils of light fixtures and electrical lines
Hang down like guts
From where we once worked day after day
Telling the stories
Of a busy, beautiful city.

How many people worked there?
How many stories did they tell? How many photos did they shoot?|
How many deadlines did they meet to tell what needed to be told
On the street that day?

We worked in a fortressGRP RIP 3
But we fanned out into the community
Going into homes with crumbling ceilings
Or magnificent lumber-baron mansions
All filled with daily dramas
Schools packed with breathless children
Sterile government offices busy with civil servants
Hospitals harboring the dying and the healing
Buildings being built
Buildings burning down
Cars racing cars crashing
Touchdowns being scored
Crowds cheering
Funerals weeping
Churches praising
Cemeteries sleeping
Bringing it all back to the green-topped fortress
Furiously typing the stories
Souping the photos
Pasting up the pages
Rolling the presses
Rumbling the fortress
As huge rolls of news print
Spin off the titanic tumbling cylinders
Like fresh bread from an oven
Then seeing that day’s paper
Full of faces and things that happened
Smiling or crying or shouting or singing from the page
A daily miracle of work
Caringly chronicled, carefully edited
Slight volume of one day’s history
Easily blown away by a strong wind.
We take a breather, share a laugh
Maybe have a drink
Then pick up our pen and pads
To tell stories of another day.

The stories surviveGRP RIP 2
The images live on
But the fortress is no more
Just a pile of dust and rubble
Torn apart by dinosaurs
Half a century of words and pictures
Now the object of cell phones
And gaping gasps
And stories to be told for years.

 

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the melting of ice, the passing of time

Spring ice 2I caught nature dying the other day. A sharp shard of ice hung from the gutter of my porch, the sun illuminating it like a Nordic pitch fork. Tiny beads of water dripped from its two tines. Out with the cell phone, click click click. Nice images on the first brilliant afternoon of spring on the way.
Fifteen minutes later I heard a thump. I looked out my window. The pitchfork of ice was gone. I was glad I’d captured it while it was in its brief glory.
Less than a week ago this world in West Michigan was like a meat locker. Walking to a luncheon on Wednesday, I hugged my coat against my chest and cursed the frigid wind. It seemed like we were encased in ice and this would go on indefinitely.
Come Sunday, though, the world began to thaw. The sun – ah yes, the long-forgotten sun, hello old friend! – bathed the deep snow covering yards like frozen whipped cream. Puddles began to form. Ice began to drip. People began coming out of their houses, blinking their eyes with wonder. Hello, old friends!
Earlier that day, driving down Breton Avenue, I passed a young couple walking. They were kind of dressed up, as if they were coming home from church. The sight of them warmed me, but I also felt a twinge of sadness. They were youth, filled with the promise of possibility, the joy of hope and the expectation of a long life ahead of them. I remembered how that felt, just exactly how that felt.
Recently, my Uncle Chuckie died. Chuckie was one who seemed too alive for death. He was always strumming the guitar, always picking and grinning, always cracking jokes. He was the cocksure young buck who never quite grew up despite a brood of children. And then there we were, playing the music he loved after his funeral, while his children and grandchildren sang and smaller children danced.Uncle Chuckie's funeral wake 2

My city is covered with fog this morning, but it will lift in time. The ice will continue to melt and the puddles will get bigger. Soon the sun will have its way as baseballs fly out of the park and birds greet the day. The spring will be quick and poignant, the summer broad and long, the fall swirling and dramatic. More loved ones will die and more beautiful babies will arrive, bawling with the good news of new life.
And the ice will come again and stay for a long while. But I will greet it gladly. Because I have the love of family and friends and a beautiful woman, and the promise of each new day. I will expect a wonderfully white winter, to be followed by the melting of ice and the flying of baseballs.

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I remember when food was fun

An An American family having Thanksgiving dinner in 1962

When I was a kid, Mom occasionally fixed us something for dinner called “city chicken legs.” We Honey kids thought this was a real treat. It was some kind of tasty meat on a stick, breaded and fried. They were like meat popsicles.
Come to find out city chicken was a low-cost alternative to real chicken, made from ground-up pork and/or veal. Also called mock chicken, it got popular among working-class homes during the Depression in urban areas like Pittsburgh, where apparently it’s undergone something of a revival, and Detroit, where no doubt Mom picked it up from Grandma, who pretty much lived in the kitchen.
These days city chicken may be making a comeback as a sort of alt-farm-to-table delicacy among urban foodies. But back in the late Fifties I didn’t care a whit about what it was made of, and certainly not whether it was any good for me. It just tasted great on a Friday night, right next to the margarine-drenched mashed potatoes and canned cream corn.

city chickenIf I were to consider buying city chicken today, I guarantee you I’d be in the grocery aisle for 10 minutes examining the list of ingredients, fat/sodium content and whether or not the responsible animal was humanely raised and killed. Then I’d probably put it back in the case because you just can’t be sure these days. Back home I’d search on “city chicken humane E. coli FDA” to see if it was medically and ethically OK to eat.
Which is all well and good. Recently I actually did do a search on an organic chicken brand to see if it was as humanely and safely raised/killed as it claimed. Advised otherwise by an organic food-business friend, I am now eating an Amish variety. Surely they wouldn’t lie to me.
But even though I feel slightly better about my chicken now, it’s a pitifully small gain. What about the 500 pounds of cereal I eat each year, based on not much more than a Seinfeldian preference for grains shaped like an “o”? What about that non-fat French vanilla creamer I dump into my coffee each morning? When I look at how it hardens on a spoon, I can hardly be confident in what it’s doing to my stomach.
And what about the salmon I fix Andrea for Sunday dinner? I always buy “wild-caught” because “farm-raised” sounds like it came from a swamp. But when they’re being wild-caught, how many innocent fish are being killed, and how many more salmon can spawn until they’re all gone? Wouldn’t it be more ecologically responsible to eat the swamp-raised ones?
And the eggs! Oh heavens, the eggs. Used to be they were the source of all heart attacks. Now supposedly you can eat all you want – just as long as they’re from free-range, uncaged, vegetarian-fed chickens who get nights off to meditate. And soybeans! Back when Adele Davis was pushing brown rice and tofu, soybeans would save the world along with rock ‘n’ roll and communal living. Now they’re just another baddy of the corporate-GMO complex, and could cause you to break out in acne.
I am not pro-GMO, mind you (that’s genetically modified organisms, which sounds much creepier than GMO). The government just approved a kind of genetically-modified apple that prevents browning when sliced or bruised. Really? I wonder how much money went into developing this apple, and then for government researchers to study it, when all I do is slice off the brown part. End of story.
And oh by the way, now a national dietary advisory panel reports that cholesterol-high food being bad for the heart is a myth, and that what we really need to worry about is too much sugar (i.e., the French vanilla creamer). Except that critics call their
recommendations “a farce” and that if we follow them we will die. Nice. I’m sure that with enough time online I can figure out who’s right.
But yes, I really am eating better now that Andrea has educated me to the virtues of organics and the evils of GMOs. Still. Eating was a lot more fun when I didn’t have to weigh the non-GMO, gluten-free, soy-free, really and truly organic factors against the other consideration: Does it taste good?
Ah well. City chicken sure tasted good while it lasted.

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1965: the best year in rock radio, ever

Taking us eight miles high: the Byrds

Taking us eight miles high: the Byrds

In the fall of 1965 I was an invalid. I injured my back playing football in the backyard and spent the next three months in a body cast, encased chest to knees in mummifying plaster. Don’t ask about the details. Suffice to say I was mostly immobilized, and spent long afternoons flat on my back, thinking about sports and girls and listening to the radio.

Thank God for that radio. Through that tinny little transistor I was helped through those tedious days by the Beatles, the Stones, the Supremes and my first sweetheart, Petula Clark.

From October through November, the top Billboard 100 singles were “Yesterday,” “Get Off My Cloud” and “I Hear a Symphony.” Phew. That’s just two months. The year began with “I Feel Fine” atop the charts – the first of five No. 1 Beatles hits that year – quickly followed by “Come See About Me” and “Downtown.” The year ended with “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by the Byrds and “Over and Over” by the Dave Clark Five.
In between you had “Help Me, Rhonda” by the Beach Boys, “This Diamond Ring” by Gary Lewis and the Playboys (a big favorite of mine at the time), “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher and that stick of Motown dynamite, “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch” by the Four Tops. I grooved to that thing all summer long while playing with my cousin Lance at my grandparents’ house in Detroit.
This is also the year that “Like a Rolling Stone” assaulted the airwaves with Dylan’s ragged growl, rising to No. 2 despite its unprecedented six-minute length. And of course Dylan’s transcendent “Mr. Tambourine Man” was taken eight miles high by the Byrds, tinted-glasses pioneers of folk-rock.

Holy cow. Seen through the lens of pop-culture history 50 years later, this bunch simply can’t be beat. I defy you to name another year in which such a broad and stunning cross-section of American popular music poured out of a single source – in this case, my trusty transistor radio.

The year 1965 was when the sub-genres of rock and roll, folk and soul came together to form the larger creature known as Rock. Pop music had yet to split off into sub-species each with their own dedicated stations and followings. It was all coming to us at once. Pretty much everything that was great you could hear on top 40 or even see on the Ed Sullivan Show, including Mick Jagger’s gleeful sex swagger.
This is not to mention the wonderful songs that didn’t quite make the top tier, such as the We Five’s “You Were on My Mind,” an exuberant rendition of folksinger Ian Tyson’s doleful lament, “I got troubles.” When I was in the hospital with my back, my roommate, like me perpetually plugged into his transistor, would alert me to the song’s onset by shouting, “’I got troubles’ is on!”
Oh, harbingers of future troubles were there, such as Barry McGuire’s apocalyptic “Eve of Destruction,” and cotton-candy novelties like “I’m Telling You Now” by Freddie and the Dreamers. But as I recall, nobody was trying to get our attention by sticking out their tongue and humping a foam finger.

As cool as cool could be: Diana Ross and the Supremes

As cool as cool could be: Diana Ross and the Supremes

No, we had Diana Ross seductively cooing “Come on boy, see about me” and Petula demurely purring, “The lights are much brighter there, you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares.”
Sigh. Petula made me forget mine, for three minutes at a time anyway.

So did all the other marvelous music-makers of 1965. It was just one year, but it heralded a lifetime of sonic joy.

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betrayed by my body, again

sneezing guyI always forget how much I hate being sick. It makes an otherwise normal life into an unpleasant chore, all the day and night long. The fact almost everyone does it at this time of year is little consolation. I believe I brought on this apparent case of “the common cold” by briefly reflecting on how glad I was to not be sick. This thought came to me just the other day while driving around, in the form of something like, “Well, at least I’m not sick.” So much for counting that particular blessing. As I write I am sitting in my big Marty Crane-style recliner, with my cat Abbey on my lap. Little wads of Kleenex litter the floor around me, each one of them nasty evidence of a nose-blow. I am like Meg Ryan in that scene in “You’ve Got Mail” where Tom Hanks comes to visit her with flowers, and she is miserable with what she calls a “tempachur.” A cold makes any hardship ever so much worse. Occasionally I also hack up mysterious gunk with a cough, as my body seeks to expel whatever crud has come to infest it these past few days. My sneezes are as violent as Bruce Willis slamming a bad guy against a wall. Andrea says I sneeze so loud to get attention. I do admit it makes me feel a little better. What is this “common cold” anyway, and why is it so frickin’ common? The Mayo Clinic says more than 100 viruses can cause a cold, the most common being the rhinovirus. (Did this actually originate with rhinos?) One can catch a cold, says Mayo, simply by being with another person who coughs, sneezes or talks. “Talks”? I got this cold just by talking with someone else who had one? If that’s true we’re all doomed. Might as well just come over and shake my hand, pal, because the rhinovirus is going to get you sooner or later. But truth be told this little rhino is but a mouse compared to the backache/flu/life disabler I recently endured. This began on New Year’s Eve day with a strange ache in my lower back. Although I danced the eve away with Andrea to the Lazy Blue Tunas, the ache grew and grew. Then came a hard, dry cough as if I’d been working in a coal mine. Then, no doubt aggravated by the cough, the back ache quite suddenly became medieval torture. It happened as I was trying to pull on my socks: a sharp, stabbing pain that made me exclaim something I choose not to print here. And from then on, the pain got way worse. The next morning I couldn’t get out of bed because every slight movement of a knee or toe caused a back spasm that felt like — well, again we will not be printing that. All because of pulling on my socks. It is both humbling and depressing when the body betrays you. Suddenly you go from this confident, productive being to a pathetic, griping slug. Everything you do takes effort and nothing you do feels good. You stand at the drug store counter with an arsenal of drugs and the cashier looks at you with pity. “Man, it must suck to be you,” she thinks. “Just you wait your turn,” you think back. What is the upside of being sick? Why did God create the rhinovirus? Is it just a random ingredient in the evolutionary soup, like a bad onion? Am I supposed to learn something from this? Wouldn’t life simply be better without the rhinovirus? Guess I’ll have to store this with my other Questions to Ask God, like “Why are there mosquitoes?” and “Who invented jokes?” For now, you’ll have to excuse me. I need to blow my nose, drink plenty of fluids and watch another episode of “Mad Men.”

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