Jimmy Santiago Baca is Visiting Artist

On December 29, 2011, in , by Jody Ewing

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Renowned poet, memoirist, Baca, is Fund for Inspiration Visiting Artist

By Jody Ewing
October 21, 2004

Jimmy Santiago BacaBorn in Santa Fe, N.M. in 1952 and of Chicano and Apache descent, Jimmy Santiago Baca was abandoned by his parents at age 2. He went to live with a grandparent for several years before being placed in an orphanage. Cast off by everyone he trusted and loved, he ended up living on the streets as a violent and bitter teen. At age 21, the illiterate young Baca was convicted on charges of drug possession and sent to spend six years in a federal prison in Florence, Arizona. He spent four of those years in solitary confinement.

During his years in prison Baca taught himself to read and write and began composing poetry. At the urge of another inmate, Baca submitted some of his poems to Denise Levertov, then poetry editor of Mother Jones magazine. Levertov not only printed the poems but also began corresponding with him, eventually finding a publisher for his first book. He emerged from prison with a passion for writing and literature.

Today, Baca is regarded as one of the nation’s top poets, counting among his prestigious prizes and awards the American Book Award, the Southwest Book Award, the Pushcart Prize and a National Endowments for the Arts Literary Fellowship. In addition to his writing, the self-styled “poet of the people” conducts writing workshops for children and adults at schools and universities, barrio community centers, white ghettos and housing projects, and correctional facilities and prisons — all across the U.S.

The Details

What: The 2004 Fund for Inspiration Visiting Artist: “A Conversation with Jimmy Santiago Baca”
When: 12-1 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 26
Where: WITCC Gymnasium, Bldg B
Free and open to the public

What: Reception for Jimmy Santiago Baca
When: 6-7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 26
Where: Castle on the Hill lobby
Free and open to the public

What: “Dreams for a Better Life,” special presentation by Jimmy Santiago Baca
When: 7-9 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 26
Where: Castle on the Hill Auditorium
Free and open to the public

For more information call 712-274-8733.

More online:
An interview with author, poet and memoirist Jimmy Santiago Baca

Baca will visit Western Iowa Tech Community College (WITCC) next week for a three-day residency as “Visiting Artist” for the College’s 2004 Fund for Inspiration program. From Oct. 26 – 28, Baca will give two public presentations in which he will read selections from his work and talk about the transforming power of literacy. He also will conduct several writing and poetry workshops for specific audiences within the community, including GED students, at-risk adolescents and East High School students.

“What an opportunity to see a poet of his stature, someone world renowned,” said Cyndy Scott from the New Iowan Center, one of WITCC’s partners co-hosting the event. “We’re very honored that he’s coming to Siouxland.”

Transforming lives through literacy

Baca begins his visit with a special convocation on Tuesday, “A Conversation with Jimmy Santiago Baca.” Dr. Robert Dunker, president of WITCC, will welcome Baca to campus and introduce him, followed by Eddie Dunn — WIT’s director of distance learning and global education — who will interview Baca about his life and work.

At 6 p.m., Baca will attend a special reception in the Castle on the Hill lobby, hosted by the New Iowan Center, a part of Workforce Development and a division of Siouxland’s Community Action Agency. From 7 to 9 p.m., Baca will give a special presentation “Dreams for a Better Life,” at the Castle on the Hill Auditorium where he’ll talk about the role literacy played in his journey from despair to hope.

“They’ll have tours at the Castle throughout the day at different times, because this will be the first presentation in the refurbished auditorium,” says Scott, who knew when she first saw the auditorium that it would fit perfectly with Baca’s message.

“On the back of the auditorium are the paintings that the kids did at the high school many years ago,” she says. “And we’re actually using that as the backdrop because it kind of looks like the barrio, kind of where Mr. Baca came from. It sort of reminds me of ‘West Side Story.'”

The auditorium will accommodate 800 people, and Scott hopes for family attendance where parents will bring their children. She believes high school students in particular will connect with his poetry and be able to reflect.

“When you’re a high-schooler, you are growing very much into the person that you’re becoming,” she says. “I guess that’s your stumbling block as you grow, and he talks a lot about stumbling and being able to go to a whole different point in his life.”

Education Director Marcy Hahn of Sioux City’s Boys & Girls Home has witnessed that stumbling firsthand in her work with inpatient students. Baca will conduct a writing workshop with at-risk adolescents aged 12-18 at the Boys and Girls Home on Wednesday afternoon. Hahn says Baca’s message is a great fit for her students because he not only has the empathy but has experienced exactly what they are all experiencing.

“And for those kids, that means a lot,” Hahn says. “It’s a tough thing, because others have to endure the pain that they’re enduring in order for them to make ‘the connect.’ But the level that he’s going to connect on with them is that he’s had the same experiences they’re going through right now and can speak to that.”

Hahn says Baca offers hope on the other side of that.

“I always try to bring in people who can do that kind of thing and say, ‘Look, there is light at the end of your tunnel, kids, and there’s a way out,'” she says. “And for me, of course, it’s important that he emphasize that education is part of that message. It’s because of his finally becoming literate and writing that he has found a whole new dimension to his life. It carries a double-whammy message to my kids.”

“It’s about that connect that you feel with somebody in life.”

Baca earned his bachelor’s degree in English in 1984, and in 2003 a doctorate in literature, both from the University of New Mexico. In 1987, his semi-autobiographical novel in verse, Martín and Meditations on the South Valley: Poems, received the American Book Award for poetry, bringing Baca international acclaim.

In addition to his books of poetry and novels, his 2001 memoir, A Place to Stand, chronicled his troubled youth and the five-year jail stint that brought about his personal transformation.

“The kids know he’s coming, and they are excited,” says Hahn. “All the kids know his bio and story and several kids have read his biography. The other kids will read it or they’ll get book reports from each other. Again, it’s about that connect that you feel with somebody in life.”

In addition to changing young lives, Scott says Baca’s visit will focus on cross-cultural diversity that is so important to changing societies. At the New Iowan Center, she says they try to always have that spirit of celebration of friendship by showcasing the rich culture and the traditions that are now the new wave in Siouxland.

“To be able to share some backgrounds from other cultures is very unique,” Scott says. “It’s kind of like being a rose; as you grow you hope the rose continues to open, so no mater what age we have a lot to learn in life and a lot to share. By continuing to open our rose as we grow, the gifts that come to us — there are just so many.”

For more information on Jimmy’s books visit www.jimmysantiagobaca.com.

Jimmy Santiago Baca

On December 29, 2011, in , by Jody Ewing










An interview with Jimmy Santiago Baca

By Jody Ewing
October 21, 2004

Jimmy Santiago Baca had a story to tell me.

“Just this morning, I finished editing two manuscripts for this kid who is considered one of the most violent creatures ever born,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “He came by to pick up his manuscripts, and later he called me on the phone, crying. He said, ‘I’m sitting here crying because I don’t know the words to tell you what you’ve done for me. You’ll never know what you’ve done for me.'”

He told me the story in response to a question I’d asked of him, “Why is it so important to you to open doors for others?”

Coming from Jimmy Baca, his answer hadn’t surprised me.

The Details

What: The 2004 Fund for Inspiration Visiting Artist: “A Conversation with Jimmy Santiago Baca”
When: 12-1 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 26
Where: WITCC Gymnasium, Bldg B
Free and open to the public

What: Reception for Jimmy Santiago Baca
When: 6-7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 26
Where: Castle on the Hill lobby
Free and open to the public

What: “Dreams for a Better Life,” special presentation by Jimmy Santiago Baca
When: 7-9 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 26
Where: Castle on the Hill Auditorium
Free and open to the public

For more information call 712-274-8733.

More online:
Read about Jimmy Santiago Baca’s visit to Siouxland and how he hopes to help troubled youth.

“I’ve always been of the frame of mind that you have to give back,” he said. “I’ve never been able to understand people who garner so much public prestige and then don’t go out and service other people. I take [giving back] in the same manner that I take getting up on any morning, and somehow don’t see myself as that important. It’s just a job I do.”

To the thousands of children and illiterate adults Baca helps each year, however, it isn’t just a job. It’s a second chance. Often, a last or only chance.

Baca — one of the nation’s foremost Latino poets and authors — was illiterate at age 21 when incarcerated for a drug offense. By teaching himself to read and write in prison and under the tutelage of Mother Jones magazine’s former poetry editor Denise Levertov, Baca learned two of life’s biggest lessons: the power of personal forgiveness and “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

Baca also discovered the transforming power of literacy. He regularly tours throughout the U.S. conducting writing workshops for children and adults, helps illiterate prisoners write letters to loved ones, and works with inner city students and gang members in an effort to provide some direction to their lives and help them discover their voice.

He also continues to explore his own voice; through his poetry, his novels, his memoirs and screenplays, he writes of racial injustice, of drug addiction and murder, of poverty and the violence it breeds.

In The Importance of a Piece of Paper: Stories — his first collection of short stories published earlier this year — Baca maps the territory where Old World traditions contend with New World ambitions, and disenfranchised characters struggle to make something of themselves in the world while somehow keeping their souls intact.

In his book Working in the Dark: Reflections of a Poet of the Barrio, he writes of being immersed in drugs and petty crime, and discovering the power of language in prison after reading Neruda and Paz.

“I think what happens is that if you put enough effort into something, ultimately it will transform,” he said of literacy’s power. “Language has a beautiful way of working on you, in a way that you don’t notice. It works on your standards. It works on your values. It works on your ethics. It works on your life in a way that you don’t really notice.”

It is for all these reasons that Baca tries to break through during his visits with children or those ‘living in dark places’ in their lives.

“I try to break through all the despair and all the loneliness and all the hopelessness, and I give them examples and illustrate certain ideas from stories about wonderful things that are capable of happening to them,” he says. “I don’t take on the responsibility of trying to ‘heal’ anybody. Everybody has their secrets, but I do try to get across the act of forgiveness. We have to forgive other people because we’re not all that clean ourselves.”

Despite the many lives he’s touched, Baca balks at being called a hero. His hero, he says, is the open heart because it is such a hard place to get to.

“Anyone who has that open heart, I want to surround that person, because that person is fun, that person is compassionate, that person is real, that person is grounded,” he said.

Yet Jimmy Santiago Baca has his own way of getting through to people. When he talks, they listen.

“The funny thing about working with people from the Naval Academy to the Jesuit seminaries to kids in prison,” he says, “is that you never really know who you’re touching, and then suddenly you hear from somebody a month or year later, and they’ve decided to change their career or get off drugs.”

Unpretentious to the end, he adds, “I’m telling you, it humbles me. I feel like I don’t deserve this.”

For more information on Jimmy’s books visit www.jimmysantiagobaca.com.

Neil Miller

On December 19, 2011, in , by Jody Ewing

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‘Sex-Crime Panic’ Revisits Ugly Sioux City History

By Jody Ewing

March 21, 2002

Iowa’s 1955 Criminal Sexual Psychopath law lumped homosexuals together with child molesters and murderers.

Sioux City, Iowa – what better place to live in 1954? Communities of unlocked houses, children playing in the parks, church bazaars and friendly neighbors. And somewhere beneath it all-corruption, payoffs, prostitution, murder.

It began one hot August night when 8-year-old Jimmy Bremmers disappeared. After the discovery of his body, Ernest Triplett – a 50-year-old music salesman with Flood Music – was arrested for the crime. While under arrest, Triplett received large quantities of LSD and amphetamine in attempts to coax him into a confession. No confession, no motive, no evidence. Convicted of the brutal murder anyway, Triplett was confined to the state mental hospital.

By April 1955, Iowa had established a new Criminal Sexual Psychopath law, lumping together homosexuals, child molesters and murderers.

After the July 1955 murder of another child, Donna Sue Davis, the Mount Pleasant Hospital established the Mental Health Institute for the Insane and Inebriates. Nineteen other men quickly were rounded up and presented for admission to Ward 15 East:

“Do you know what your name is?”

“Do you know where you are?”

“Do you know what the date is?”

“Do you hear voices?”

Despite the answers, diagnoses were the same: “Sociopathic personality disturbance. Sexual deviation (Homosexuality).”

Thus begins Neil Miller’s chilling new book, “Sex-Crime Panic: A Journey to the Paranoid Heart of the 1950s.” It tells the harrowing story of 20 Siouxland homosexuals who were sentenced to mental institutions after the murders of two Sioux City children, though they had nothing to do with the crimes.

Miller, author of several books on the history of gays and lesbians, will do readings and signings on Wednesday, March 27, at Morningside College and Book People.

“It’s going to be sort of a half-talk, half-reading, where I lay out the whole story and talk about its relevance to today,” said Miller in a telephone interview. “It’s a lot of Sioux City history of the 1950s, and of the roundup of those men.”

A journalism and nonfiction instructor at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., Miller conducted interviews with formerly incarcerated men, law enforcement officials, lawyers, mental hospital staff and relatives of the murder victims.

Gail Dooley, associate professor of music at Morningside who coordinated Miller’s visit, says the book is thoroughly researched and does not portray the college or city in a negative way, as some had feared.

“That kind of thing was not necessarily unique to Sioux City, it just so happened it was Sioux City,” Dooley says.

It was a volatile time for Sioux City, says Vickie Hassenger, owner of Book People in Marketplace Mall.

“There were all kinds of things going on, and to calm people, that’s what the police felt they had to do,” Hassenger says. “At that point I didn’t know what ‘gay’ was, and we didn’t talk about sexual psychopaths.”

The Details

Who: Neil Miller, author of “Sex-Crime Panic”

What: Lecture, book signing and reading

Where/When: Morningside College, UPS Auditorium, Wed., March 27, 10 a.m.;
Book People, Marketplace Shopping Center, Wed., March 27, 4:30 – 6 p.m.

For More Info: Call Morningside at 712-274-5208 or Book People at 712-258-1471.

Yet the outcome and treatment of those confined to Ward 15 devastated many Sioux City families. Miller writes in his book: The walls were smeared with excrement. The smell was ghastly – a combination of urine and feces and disinfectant. It was the “untidy ward,” where psychotic men who had regressed to a near infantile state were housed.

“It was awful. People were treated like animals,” Hassenger says. “It’s like they were scapegoats because they couldn’t solve the crime.”

Dooley says Morningside has since taken an active role in educating students and the public on gay and lesbian issues.

“We have had what we call LGBT – lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender – awareness days for over 20 years,” says Dooley, who also serves as faculty advisor for Morningside’s Gay Straight Alliance. “We usually have outside speakers come in for awareness days and we often have panels, discussing things ranging from what it is like to be an openly gay or lesbian person in Sioux City, to panels discussing the implications of homosexuality and religion in our society.”

Morningside’s administrative position, Dooley says, is that they are an institution of higher learning, and if one is going to talk about any uncomfortable or controversial issue, it should be at an institution of higher education. The college also welcomes speakers with opposing views.

‘Fascinating Story’

Miller says he ran across the story while doing research on his gay history book “Out of the Past,” and that it stood out in his mind from the start.

“I was just kind of fascinated by the story, and whatever happened to them,” Miller says of the 20 men. “No one had ever heard of this thing. What was it all about, what happened to these people, and what was the real story here?”

Miller points out that the sexual psychopath law of 1955 (which wasn’t repealed until 1977) should be considered in light of more current legislation. For instance, all 50 states have adopted some version of Megan’s Law, which requires convicted sex offenders to register with local police departments, making their names and addresses available to the public.

With gay characters now on television and the subject more in the forefront, things are changing, he says, though stereotypes continue to exist.

“As long as gay people across the board are reluctant to come out of the closet, then those stereotypes continue to flourish,” he says. “I don’t think something like that would happen today, but I do think there are lessons. There are lessons about civil liberties and the ability of the majority to sort of persecute unpopular groups of people.”

This article first appeared in the Weekender on March 21, 2002.

Gwyn Hyman Rubio

On December 18, 2011, in , by Jody Ewing

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To the Beat of a Different Drummer:

Icy Sparks

By Jody Ewing
July 26, 2001

Gwyn Hyman RubioGwyn Hyman Rubio

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Tourette Syndrome

People often go to great lengths to keep secrets – they lie, become evasive, or masquerade a truth by outwardly displaying the opposite of what they feel. Secrets become more frightening when admitting they exist means risking being cast as peculiar.

Author Gwyn Hyman Rubio brings this issue to the fore with a child’s-eye look from the inside out on how it feels to be dissimilar in a uniform society.

Icy Sparks,” Rubio’s first novel and the March, 2001 Oprah Book Club pick, tells the story of 10-year-old Icy Sparks, a bright and curious child who begins to croak, pop her eyes, and experience other unexplained symptoms. Set in Eastern Kentucky in 1956, Icy’s behavior is the source of mystery, confusion and deep humiliation.

As an adult, Icy discovers she suffers from Tourette Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder characterized by tics – involuntary movements or vocalizations that occur repeatedly in the same way. Narrated by an adult, Icy looking back, the story captures not just the challenges of being an outcast but the struggles one goes through in a seemingly endless search for answers.

Rubio, who does not suffer from Tourette Syndrome (TS) herself, grew up with epilepsy, another neurological disorder. She says she wanted to write a book about a child who felt different.

“I grew up in south Georgia, and had epilepsy as a child,” Rubio said from her home in Kentucky, her home for the past 23 years. “People thought it was strange behavior for a child, but I was actually having small seizures. It wasn’t diagnosed until I was in my 30s.”

She wanted to write a story about a little girl who didn’t fit in, but wasn’t quite sure what problem to give the girl. Then she ran across the essay “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” written by the renowned Dr. Oliver Sacks.

“It was about a man with Tourette Syndrome,” Rubio said. “It talked about how creative art heals him, and I thought it was a good metaphor – the healing power of art. I thought at the time that I would use Tourette Syndrome as a metaphor for people who are different.”

Shortly after reading the essay, Rubio learned that the Tourette Syndrome Association (TSA) was holding a conference in Lexington, Ky., a mere hour from where she lived. She decided to attend. When a surgeon gave a speech about how his tics stopped when he entered the operating room and the healing power of creating, she knew it was a sign. She had to write the book.

Icy Sparks

Icy Sparks was chosen as an Oprah Book Club Pic for March 2001.

Still, the little girl didn’t have a name. Then one day, while walking through the cemetery with her husband, their eyes fell on a marker named “Icy.” A few markers down, they saw “Sparks,” and her heroine was born. She began writing the novel the very next day.

Published in July 1998, the book garnered modest sales until being chosen as an Oprah book club pick for March 2001. At that point, sales soured, bringing awareness to a disorder that, even in the 21st century, is as much still misunderstood as it is often stereotyped.

There is no “typical” case of TS, as symptoms cover a spectrum from mild to quite severe. They range from eye blinking, head jerking and throat clearing to yelping, self-injurious actions and uttering words or phrases out of context. The term “involuntary” used to describe tics also is confusing since most people with TS do have some control over their symptoms.

What others may not recognize, however, is that the control or stifling of tics, which can be exercised anywhere from seconds to hours at a time, often merely postpones more severe outbursts which eventually must be expressed.

The Oprah book club discussion explored this very factor. Rubio chatted with three others on a panel, including a teacher who’d kept her disorder a secret from everyone except her husband and doctor.

“She was a French teacher, yet kept all her tics under control while she taught,” Rubio said. “She said it was like tensing up all the muscles in her body, and by the end of the day she was exhausted.”

Other co-morbid syndromes, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, add additional elements to a disorder, which makes it more difficult for people to comprehend. Coprolalia (profanity), while the most spectacular of the symptoms, actually is seen in only a minority (15-30 percent) of those with TS, yet often is the hallmark TS stereotype.

For Rubio’s book discussion, Oprah formatted the first half hour of her show entirely to TS awareness, showing clips from interviews of others who lived with TS, including children and former professional baseball player Jim Eisenreich.

The ex-L.A. Dodgers hitter had symptoms of TS by age 6, but didn’t know there was a name for it until he was 23, then playing for the Minnesota Twins. Eisenreich founded the Jim Eisenreich Foundation in 1996 for children with Tourette’s and has played a significant role in educating the public about the disorder.

Rubio is no stranger to dealing with special children, having worked as a preschool program coordinator while serving in Costa Rica with the Peace Corps.

She’s no stranger to writing, either. Her father, Mac Hyman, wrote the bestselling “No Time for Sergeants” in 1954 when he was only 31 years old.

“Throughout my life, I flirted with writing but never really embraced it,” Rubio said. “Not until I graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, did I decide to get serious about it.”

Rubio says “Icy Sparks” is a book that can be read at different levels, whether as a person with Tourette’s or the parent of a child who has it. Still, there is one message she hopes will shine through.

“People should embrace the part of them that’s different,” Rubio says. “It’s not something to be ashamed of. We all have parts of us that are different that we would rather keep hidden, but often, those differences bring us together more than our likenesses.”


Edward Allen

On December 18, 2011, in , by Jody Ewing

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USD Prof’s “Mustang Sally” Headed to Sundance Festival

By Jody Ewing
November 28, 2002

Edward Allen Photo by Mike Northrup
Edward Allen


Allen’s novel was purchased, adapted, and filmed for submission to the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.

Copies of the book may be purchased at Amazon.com.

Getting a novel published – let alone having it made into a movie – can be somewhat of a crapshoot. Yet that gambling paid off for USD English Professor Edward Allen, whose novel “Mustang Sally,” was purchased, adapted, and filmed for submission to the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.

Picked up on a three-year option by independent filmmaker Chris Iovenko, the Jim Belushi movie is being produced by the Los Angeles film production company Panopticon Films for submission to January’s festival. The Sundance Film Festival programming staff views more than 3,000 submissions each year and selects approximately 125 feature-length documentary and dramatic films and 60 shorts for presentation to an audience of more than 20,000. Here, independent producers hope to spark enough enthusiasm to get films picked up by distributors.

First published in 1992, “Mustang Sally” tells the hilarious story of one man divided between two separate lives. When English professor Packard Schmidt takes a trip to Las Vegas, he succumbs to the prostitution services of a former student and begins his steady descent into chaos.

“What I tried to convey is the comic possibilities of somebody with his feet in two very disparate and different worlds,” says Allen, who continues to teach full-time at the University of South Dakota. “The protagonist – Pack Schmidt – is an academic. He’s a teacher and an intellectual, but he also has another part of his life in gambling in Las Vegas and in that kind of world.”

“I’ve worked hard on this stuff and I’ve had a lot of fun doing it,” he says. “I just hope that the joy that I’ve had in writing comes across when people read the book or see the movie.”

Pulled between intellectual propriety and his own sexual appetite, “he gets into trouble and all hell breaks loose,” says Allen. “Anybody who has been to Las Vegas or Reno or any place like that should enjoy the book, because it celebrates that life in the weird sort of beauty of Las Vegas.”

Mustang Sally

Allen says writing is “in his blood.”

Though the film inevitably took some liberties with the plot, Allen says his favorite scenes and the overall basic comedy remained intact. The title was changed to “Easy Six,” a crapshooting term in the glitzy world of gambling.

Founded by Robert Redford in 1981, the Sundance Institute in Sundance, Utah is dedicated to the development of artists of independent vision and the exhibition of their work. It supports and helps develop emerging screenwriters and directors of vision, and offers national and international exhibition of new, independent dramatic and documentary films.

While waiting for word from Sundance, Allen is busy putting final revisions on “Ate it Anyway,” a collection of short stories that garnered him the coveted Flannery O’Connor Award earlier this year. He flew to Atlanta last week to accept the award, which honors and publishes the work of two authors annually. He also is marketing a book of poetry that he hopes to eventually publish.

“Writing really is in my blood,” says Allen, who graduated from Goddard College in Vermont and then promptly took a 10-year hiatus. During that period he worked as a butcher, meat salesman and delivery truck driver.

“After a while I started to realize I was really uncomfortable with not having anything to do with writing,” Allen says. “I had some experiences with one job that just seemed so perfect for a novel, that I realized at that point that ‘hey, I better do this.'”

Allen returned to graduate school, earning his M.A. in 1986 and his Ph.D. in 1989 from Ohio University. That same year he published his first novel – “Straight Through the Night” – a beautiful, haunting story about working in the meat industry.

“It was really because of that experience – realizing that I’d seen a part of life that nobody had ever tried to articulate or celebrate – that I returned to graduate school,” says Allen. How does Allen find time for teaching and writing?

“As motivational speakers say, everybody has the same amount of time every day – 24 hours a day,” Allen says. “It’s my job to do both. There’s always going to be some sort of conflict, but just like I tell my students, having more time available doesn’t necessarily make one work better.”

The key, he says, is to actually enjoy the process.


Matthew Clayton

On December 17, 2011, in , by Jody Ewing

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Forty Days and Forty Nights

Navy Corpsman from Iowa scribes details of Iraqi War

By Jody Ewing
August 21, 2003
All photos courtesy Matt Clayton
Matt Clayton (center) and other Navy Corpsmen in Basra.

It was starting to get cold after the sun went down — not like a Midwest winter night, but chilly, even in our bulky MOPP gear issued for protection from biological and chemical attacks. My section of TOW missile-equipped Humvees had just been attached to an infantry company less than 20 minutes earlier. We were to follow them to an intersection a few klicks south of the only bridge over the river Basra, into the city of Basra, for many kilometers east and west. At this intersection, we were to set up a security for a blocking force of tanks to occupy until the Brits took it over the next day. My section never made it to the intersection that night.

In the first of many detailed journal entries — this one aptly titled “That First Night” — U.S. Navy Corpsman and Onawa, Iowa, native Matthew Clayton describes the series of events that took him completely around the world by plane, Humvee, on foot and by ship, going through every time zone on the planet.

matt-clayton-ship-basraMatt Clayton, a Navy hospital corpsman who served with the Marines on Iraq’s frontline, was a college senior and gifted mathematician who hoped to complete his education and teach algebra at the college level once he finished his tour in Iraq. He is shown here aboard the USS Boxer near Solomon Islands, returning from Iraq.

The bulk of his writing, however, focused on the 40 days and 40 nights he spent in Iraq, fighting side-by-side with soldiers on the frontline of the war.

As a Navy hospital corpsman who served with the Marines, Clayton joined the ranks of John Bradley, the young Navy corpsman who, along with five other soldiers, raised an American flag on Mount Suribachi after the Battle of Iwo Jima. Trained as specialists in combat medicine, Navy corpsman go into battle with Marines and provide life-saving aid to those wounded in combat — including the wounded enemy. Clayton’s TOW platoon served with the Marine Corps’ 1st Tank Battalion.

Stationed permanently in Twenty-Nine Palms, Calif., the 28-year-old returned to Iowa earlier this month to spend time with his family and friends.

The son of Kim Berens, a nurse, and retired Marine Lance Clayton, both of Onawa, he also is this writer’s nephew. We talked about the war and that first night, where a small barking dog, Iraqis with AK-47s, one little boy, and pitch-black conditions set off a chain reaction of gunfire and what Matt called “archetypal gut reactions.”

What set off the events that night?

We had halted to do reconnaissance on a junkyard-like complex of buildings and above-ground fuel tanks, and my vehicle was stopped in the driveway of a darkened residence with a chain link fence. A dog emerged from the fenced area and ran around our vehicle, barking, while over radio traffic in my helmet I heard there were four dismounts (Iraqis) carrying AK-47s about 300 meters to our northwest. They were moving quickly from berm to berm and coming towards us, using cover and concealment.

Line charges used to clear minefield near BaghdadPowerful line charges are used to clear a minefield on a road near Baghdad.

Then, I saw a faint outline of a person standing next to one of the smaller buildings, and, my hands on the trigger, yelled something like “Freeze!” but he disappeared with only a sidestep. I heard him call for the dog, and when a pickup passed by, the headlights showed a young boy — who couldn’t have been more than 10  holding that dog. We’d dropped millions of flyers telling [the civilians] to stay inside, and here I’d almost blasted a young boy the very first night of the war.

What happened then?

4 Alpha, a wingman, yelled that the dismounts had just gone prone, and that one was aiming his weapon right at me. He said, “Kill him! F— (expletive)  he’s firing!” And just as I heard 4 Alpha say that last, I saw two orange streaks zip through trees high and to my right. We jumped into our vehicle and floored it… we were bringing the heavy gun back to support the others.

Sgt. Miller, our section leader, screamed “4 Alpha, direct my fire!” and before I even pondered what was about to happen, a .50-cal machine gun started belching hot lead right above my head. We eventually exterminated them with extreme prejudice. The carnage and destruction resulting from their deliberate and accurate fire are burned into my memory forever.

Can you contrast growing up in Iowa to what you saw it was like for those growing up in Iraq?

US Navy Corpsman and Iraq War veteran Matthew ClaytonMatt Clayton hugs his mother, Kim Berens, during a visit home to Iowa after his return from Iraq.

It was actually really sad. The people of Iraq could and should be one of the wealthiest countries in the world because of their oil reserves. But almost 95 percent of the people lived in total poverty, just squalor, shacks, barefoot, rags for clothes, no electricity, hand-pumped water out of ground wells. That was virtually all the country that I saw except for in Baghdad.

How would you describe the pulse of the country in Baghdad?

There was just overwhelming joy everywhere we went. No Iraqi civilian ever had a bad word to say to any of us at any time. Parents would come out with tears in their eyes, carrying their babies, thanking us for giving their children a chance at a better life.

Baghdad is not like a third world at all. It’s industrialized, and all that was just taken away from them. They’d tell us which schools had caches of weapons and where people were selling guns. Kids would actually bring pens out and want us to autograph their hands or their soccer balls. You’d see 50 or 100 servicemen’s names on it already from other units that had been on patrol. It felt very strange.

Did you and other troops ever discuss why you thought you were there?

Iran-Iraq Memorial in BaghdadThe Iran-Iraq memorial in Baghdad where Clayton’s battalion set up a tactical operations base.

Oil, plain and simple. That was the general rumor amongst the troops before we left. We listened to Bush, and even when he did the you’ve-got-48-hours thing and gave that speech, we listened to it on the radio in Kuwait, and all the Marines in my unit were like “Bullshit.” He was talking about this “axis of evil,” and “terrorists” and “weapons of mass destruction,” and we’re like, whatever. We’re going over there for oil and we all know it. In fact, instead of “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” someone in my platoon made up a big sign that said Operation Iraqi Liberation with the first letters of each word in bold print and underlined so the sign clearly read O I L. Our platoon commander made him take it down.

Despite the reasons you felt you were there, did you feel most Americans supported your efforts or did it feel like Vietnam all over again?

U.S. Navy Corpsman Matt Clayton with his parentsMatt with his mother, Kim Berens, and father, Lance Clayton, during a visit home to Iowa after first returning from Iraq.

It felt like the people were behind us for sure, but we really had no contact. We got mail only twice while we were in Iraq. We never had a sense that we were going to come back and be called baby-killers or things like that. Everyone was extremely supportive.

What did you fear most while over there?

First and foremost, getting killed. When we first crossed over from Kuwait into Iraq, we didn’t want to get attacked by gas or slimed by chemical weapons. We had superiority as far as technology and equipment and numbers  and morale  so the chemical stuff was really on our minds at first, but then as we went more and more, about 80-90 percent of their entire armed forces just deserted the very first night we were there.

So the morale was good?

I don’t think morale was ever bad, but we were a bit anxious to get home. After we left Baghdad, we were camped out in southern Iraq waiting for these heavy equipment trucks to come and pick up the tanks. After our mission in the country was done, we were just waiting to get out and it was a little bit worse. We hadn’t had a shower for 40 days. We were ready to get out of there.

What are your plans for the future?

US Navy Corpsman Matthew Clayton

U.S. Navy Corpsman Matt Clayton

I have two years left in the Navy and I’ll probably be with the Marines those two years. Right now I don’t plan on reenlisting or extending. I really liked it except the war thing kind of turned me off. I’m a senior in college, and am going to finish my mathematics degree and use my money from the Navy and the GI Bill to get my masters. I want to teach math or algebra someday, most likely at a community college. I’m not sure where I’m going to go, but you can teach math anywhere in the world.

Excerpts of this article first appeared in the Weekender on August 21, 2003.

Copyright © Jody Ewing

* Author’s postscript to this story: Matt Clayton, like many others who spent time on Iraq’s frontline, has battled Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) since his tour in Iraq.

In May 2010, he was scheduled to sit down for a visit with U.S. Senate candidate (Ret.) Lt. Col. Bob Krause and Iraq veteran Maria Deike to discuss war vets’ ongoing needs and the difficulties they face recapturing former dreams and lives. Krause — former Iowa Democratic Veterans Caucus Chair — has worked tirelessly to bring to the forefront important veterans’ issues such as PTSD, substance abuse and homelessness.

Although the event was cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances, Krause went on to spearhead the Veterans’ National Recovery Center (VNRC), a 501(c)(3) corporation that brings awareness to the massive influx of PTSD veterans from the 911 Wars and works with other agencies to provide much-needed services to veterans struggling to reintegrate into society. 

Matt recently began working on a novel and shares other stories on his blog at MatthewEClayton.com/blog. He enjoys hearing from readers and other veterans and welcomes all feedback. He continues to explore ways in which he may be able to contribute to the Veterans National Recovery Center project.


Heroes of Siouxland with Shane Osborn

On December 16, 2011, in , by Jody Ewing

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‘Heroes of Siouxland’ fund-raiser urges donations as organization’s relief fund dwindles

Navy Lt. Shane Osborn to honor nominees and winners

By Jody Ewing
August 7, 2003

Tony Vasquez familyPhoto by Mike Northrup

When a tornado ripped off the roof of Tony Vasquez’ home in Jackson, Neb., in August 2001, the Red Cross helped his family get back on their feet.


Shane Osborn’s Schedule

Shane Osborn & Siouxland Heroes Schedule of Events

Sunday, Aug. 10
Noon to 2 p.m. – Book signing, Waldenbooks, Southern Hills Mall
2:15 p.m. – Enlistment & Reenlistment Navy/Naval Reserve Southern Hills Mall
4:30-5:30 p.m. – Pre-dinner social hour at the Marina Inn
4:30-5:30 p.m. – Pre-dinner reception with Shane at the Marina Inn; $125 per person includes dinner, beverages and hors d’oeuvres
5:30 p.m. – Dinner at the Marina Inn; $50 per person, Silent Auction, Hero Awards Banquet, Shane’s address and music

Monday, Aug. 11
12:30 p.m. – two-person alternating shot golf outing at Covington Links Golf Course in South Sioux City. Cost is $65 per person and includes 18 holes of golf, cart, steak dinner and prizes.
For more info: Online at
siouxlandredcross.org or contact Doc Zortman at 712-252-4081

Tony Vasquez quickly realized the importance of the American Red Cross when an F2 tornado slammed into his home on Aug. 17, 2001, as it cut a diagonal swath of destruction through Jackson, Neb.

Vasquez’s wife and four small children were home inside the house when the tornado struck around 5:45 p.m. that evening. “They took cover underneath the house inside the foundation area,” says Vasquez, who had not yet returned from work. “The house lifted up, then flew off the foundation.”

While the tornado caused no serious injuries, the twister demolished roofs and blew houses from their foundations, causing extensive damage to the historic public school, one commercial building, several homes and a local church. The Vasquez family was hit particularly hard, but the Red Cross’s intervention made their transition through the ordeal far less traumatic.

Vasquez’s wife, Anna, suffered a broken leg and spent time in the hospital, an expense the Red Cross helped cover. They also put the family up in a rental home and provided needed clothing.

“They are good people and were there to help,” says Vasquez, who has since replaced his home in Jackson. “They do what they have to do to help us start again.”

Now the Red Cross’s ability to help others is threatened as its relief fund budget dwindles nationally and in Siouxland, where the organization provides aid services to 10 Iowa counties and a county each in Nebraska and South Dakota. Known for providing assistance to more than 600,000 disaster victims each year, the organization now is in need of its own financial assistance as dollars from its Disaster Relief Fund have reached an epic low.

A “safe” amount in the organization’s national fund is $56 million, especially with disaster-prone seasons fast approaching. On June 30, however, the relief fund hit its lowest point in 11 years with a balance of only $1.5 million.

“If you think about the Disaster Relief Fund as a tank of gas, we are literally running on fumes,” said Marsha Evans, President and CEO of the American Red Cross. “Now, more than ever, we are relying on the American people to donate the funds that make it possible for us to help those in need.”

Richard (Doc) Zortman, public relations and financial development director of the Siouxland area chapter, says the Red Cross is facing a financial crisis that could threaten its ability to provide life-saving services upon which Americans have come to depend.

Richard Zortman

Richard “Doc” Zortman

“Imagine the American Red Cross not providing disaster services to individuals facing a future affected by a fire, tornado, hurricane or flood,” Zortman says. “Imagine the American Red Cross not providing Armed Forces Emergency Services assistance to families who are experiencing family crisis and have come to rely on the Red Cross for processing those messages.”

Calling on a ‘hero’

It was that type of concern that led Zortman, a former Navy journalist and photographer, to approach Navy Lt. Shane Osborn about the possibility of an area fund-raiser honoring local Siouxland ‘heroes.’ Osborn, a Norfolk, Neb., native born in South Dakota, commanded the downed EP-3 reconnaissance plane that Chinese fighters intercepted on April 1, 2001. Osborn and 23 crew members spent 11 days under intense interrogation before their release to the U.S. government.

“He said he’d love to help,” says Zortman, who then worked directly with Osborn to coordinate a two-day event that features a book signing, ArtSplash silent auction, a pre-dinner reception and Hero Awards banquet as well as a golf outing on Monday. Osborn is doing all events on his time and at his cost, including Sunday’s book signing, where profits will be donated to the local Red Cross chapter.

For Osborn, attending the event was a given.

“They do so much for people all over the world, here at home and abroad,” he says. “They’re a selfless organization that is dedicated to helping people out when they’re in their worst positions. No one ever hopes they have to use the Red Cross, but those that do are glad it’s there.”

Jackson residents agree wholeheartedly.

“They furnished families that needed it enough money for a place to stay and a couple hundred dollars for a clothing allowance, which was very generous,” says Jackson mayor Brian O’Neill, who has presided over his community for the past 14 years. “They brought all the water and pop and Gatorade and a food wagon. They also set up a drop-off point where people could donate clothing — just all the bare necessities that people need right away.”

Zortman says that despite the attention that large disasters receive, many people do not realize that it is the smaller, “silent disasters,” such as single house fires that steadily drain local Red Cross funds. Often unreported in the national media, the events go unnoticed and therefore do not generate financial contributions. And, because they are not a federal agency, the Red Cross receives no funding from the government.

The Siouxland area chapter is staffed by only seven people; the rest are volunteers, many of whom responded to the Sept. 11 disaster and spent several weeks in New York volunteering needed services.

Choosing between services

Though many people associate the Red Cross with blood, the Siouxland chapter is not involved with those services. Mobile units — such as the Siouxland Blood Bank — have fleets strategically placed to serve specific counties. Siouxland’s Red Cross, says Zortman, is more of a “disaster preparedness chapter.” And, on a local level, their lack of funds translates into having to choose some services over others.

“It becomes a question of distribution of funds,” Zortman says. “We provide health and safety classes — including the distribution of defibrillators and training for their use — and disaster services that include rent, clothing, food and even eyeglasses. And though there’s little warning about terrorism, the Red Cross should be prepared for terrorist acts; it becomes problematic when disaster funds are low.”

Osborn says many people don’t realize how badly the Red Cross is hurting or how low donations are, something he attributes to the lagging economy.

“I think it has more to do with the economy right now and the war causing the slowdown,” he says. “People are hurting all over the country.”

He hopes his visit to Sioux City will help jump-start interest in the Red Cross and appreciation for services they provide to surrounding areas.

“I grew up right near there — 60 to 70 miles from [Sioux City] — so you’re helping the people that are nearest and dearest to me,” Osborn says of the Siouxland chapter.

Jackson mayor O’Neill echoes that sentiment. “There couldn’t have been any better help,” he says of the local Red Cross. “They took care of us very well for a couple of weeks solid. They never left.”

Siouxland also is the area in which Osborn wants to return. With less than two years left in the Navy, he plans to move back to the Midwest where he can raise his family. “[The Red Cross] is an important organization and we need to keep it strong and going so if we do have something happen — Lord forbid — they are there for us.”

Read the interview with Lt. Shane Osborn


Shane Osborn

On December 15, 2011, in , by Jody Ewing

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A Talk With U.S. Navy Lt. Shane Osborn

By Jody Ewing
August 7, 2003

Shane OsbornCourtesy Photo
Navy Lt. Shane Osborn


The Details

Who: U.S. Navy Lt. Shane Osborn
What: Signing copies of “Born to Fly”
Where: Waldenbooks, Southern Hills Mall
When: Sunday, Aug. 10, noon-2 p.m.

It began as something simple: a son of America’s Heartland, a ride as a toddler in a war-surplus Piper Cub plane — a boy with a dream. It became an extraordinary story of courage, perseverance, overcoming impossible odds and the making of a hero.

On April 1, 2001, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Shane Osborn was piloting an EP-3 ARIES II reconnaissance plane in international airspace over the South China Sea when two Chinese F-8II fighters intercepted the slow-flying plane. One Chinese pilot — Wang Wei — began to harass the American plane, coming dangerously close twice before finally colliding with the EP-3’s outer propeller.

The collision split the Chinese plane in half and inflicted catastrophic damage on the U.S. EP-3, blowing debris from its nose, chewing up propeller blades, damaging the fuselage, and throwing it into a steep, near-inverted dive plummeting toward the ocean. By the time the plane has fallen nearly 8,000 feet, the superbly trained Osborn somehow regained control, landing the crippled plane on the Chinese Island of Hainan, where he and his 23 crewmembers immediately were taken into detention.

For the next 11 days, Osborn endured nearly round-the-clock interrogation while shielding his crew from the ordeal. Though he refused to meet Chinese demands, the Norfolk, Neb. native and his crew were freed when the US and Chinese governments reached an agreement for their release.

In Born to Fly: The Untold Story of the Downed American Reconnaissance Plane — published in both adult and young adult editions — Osborn recounts his life-long love of flying and the fateful events that led him to receive the Navy’s highest airmanship honor. Throughout both books, the University of Nebraska naval ROTC graduate speaks of faith, courage, and dedication to one’s country. Osborn will sign copies of the books at Southern Hills Mall’s Waldenbooks on Sunday as part of a Red Cross fundraiser.

In a telephone interview from Seattle, the newly married Osborn spoke about his commitment to country, service, and why he was ‘Born to Fly.’

What did you most hope to accomplish by writing this book?

The thing that was most significant to me was the opportunity to maybe open up some eyes, to not only adults but some younger people with the young adult version, and let them know the importance of having goals and working towards them and more importantly, serving your country. I looked at it as an opportunity to maybe plant a seed in a young person’s head about serving when they graduate high school. I believe it’s very important that we have good men and women serving to maintain this country’s freedom. We’re going to need more of them in the future, and, especially today, I think people realize it and appreciate it.

Can you describe for the Weekender the events leading up to the collision, and what thoughts were going through your mind after it happened?

It was pretty much a standard reconnaissance mission. It wasn’t rare for us to be intercepted, however; in recent weeks they’d become more aggressive in their intercepts. That day we knew right away that it was going to be a very aggressive intercept when they joined up on us the first time and they were inside of my wingspan. We’d never seen nor heard of that happening, where they are only inches away from my propellers.

That happened twice, and so we had a pretty bad feeling that third time when the jet came to rejoin up on us. There were a lot of people in the back looking out; I couldn’t even see him coming because he was coming from the left side and I was in the right seat. I could hear it in their voices that this was not going to be good. When he hit us, we kind of all had a feeling that this might happen at that point. We didn’t know what was going on, why he was being so aggressive and dangerous that day. You just kind of had a feeling in the back of your head that something was going to go wrong because he had already almost hit us twice. When he came back the third time, that’s when we had the collision.

How would you describe those 11 days where you were interrogated and held against your will, and how did you hold up despite the constant sleep deprivation?

All my life I’d wanted to serve and talked to everyone about the importance of serving our country and how proud I was to do it. Now, all the sudden I was put in a position where I was responsible not only for myself, but for 23 other lives. It’s a very intimidating situation, so you’re either going to step up and take it or not. There’s no real choice there but to do what you need to do to get those 23 people home to their families. So it was very intimidating; you don’t want to show them that you’re scared, but inside you’re scared the whole time. Long interrogations, no sleeping and things like that start to get to you but you just kind of have to re-cage yourself. It tests all your beliefs, and you just keep praying and hoping that it will be over soon.

What kind of impact did this have on your family?

(Laughing) A pretty heavy impact, I would say. I aged my parents significantly along with myself during that time. But we’ve always been a very close family, so you could say it brought us closer but we were already close. It wasn’t a change there, but they didn’t regret it at all, either. They knew that since I was a little boy that this is what I was going to do and that there were risks involved. My mom wasn’t too happy seven months later when I left to go to the war in Afghanistan. She understood, though, but wasn’t too happy with me heading off to war that same year. She asked me if I had got enough, and I told her, ‘well, I’ll let you know when I get enough.’

What type of response have you received from young readers?

Excellent. It’s been great. I love going out and talking to kids of all ages. I tell them my story and tie it in, hopefully with something they can relate to. I get e-mails, letters, all types of stuff and I answer them all. I already know of a few that are now in the naval academy and going to college in ROTC programs, and it’s good to hear because they kind of update me with what they’re doing. It’s pretty cool to have the opportunity to help someone out in that way.

How do you define a hero?

To me it’s a word that was used so much I didn’t even want to be associated with it just because of some of the other areas in our culture that we associate with the word hero. Nowadays, I think we’ve been reeducated as to what a hero is. To me, a hero is anyone who serves, not just in the military, but anyone that does a selfless act is a hero in my book.

Did you have a hero as a child?

My mother. I didn’t look up to sports, athletes. I enjoyed sports, but I never looked toward movie stars or athletes or singers as heroes. I was lucky enough that my mom worked at the veteran’s home as I was growing up, so I got to spend a lot of afternoons after school and weekends talking to veterans. So those are the people I looked up to most.

What was the best piece of advice your father or mother ever gave you?

(Laughing) It was pretty much my mom, and there was a lot of it. She just had a steady sense about her, and she taught me by example by how she worked and lived more so than anything. But it would probably be, ‘Do whatever your heart tells you.’

More on the Red Cross Fundraiser


Jeannette Angell

On December 15, 2011, in , by Jody Ewing

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From college lecturer to Callgirl and back

A talk with author Jeannette Angell

By Jody Ewing
October 7, 2004



People want to talk about it, and they ask the same questions over and over. How did you get startedWhat’s it really likeWhat kind of girls work for the service, and what kind of people use it? They can’t get enough information on what seems to them a semi-forbidden world.

The job is working as a callgirl for an escort service — a world caricatured by pornography and speculated about by almost everyone.

It’s also a world where Jeannette Angell — with a doctorate in social anthropology — spent three years working as a $200-an-hour Boston callgirl by night while working as a university lecturer by day.

The French-born Angell, who earned her master of divinity degree at Yale and her doctorate from Boston University, has written a studious, yet insightful account of those years in her memoir “Callgirl,” a behind-the-scenes look at one of America’s most mysterious and misunderstood professions.

Jeannette Angell

Jeannette Angell

Angell’s decision to work as a callgirl had more to do with rent than research. She’d just begun a new semester teaching a series of college lectures when a live-in boyfriend vanished, having first wiped out her bank account along with her prepaid salary. Boston’s rent didn’t come cheap and was also due. She needed lots of money, and she needed it fast.

The mid-level escort service, run by a woman whom Angell calls “Peach,” stood out among the ads in that it required a minimum of some college education. Angell imagined the worst, but found most clients an invisible, unremarkable group of men: lawyers, stockbrokers, those about to be married and even university faculty. There were others, however, who insisted on degradation. “You’re just a whore,” a man named ‘Barry’ tells her. “You do what I say.”

Angell kept her second job secret from those with whom she worked, and after confiding in a few close friends discovered the damage stereotyping breeds. She’d eventually give up her night job, but not before creating a new university course, “The History and Sociology of Prostitution,” which explores both the history of prostitution and how mainstream society interacts with it.

In an e-mail interview from her Boston home — where Angell lives with her husband and stepchildren — she talked about “Callgirl” and the most violent elements in society.

Imagine that a person who doesn’t know anything about you or your novels is about to pick up a copy of “Callgirl.” If you could tell them just one thing before they started reading it, what would you say?

One of my teachers in grammar school, a nun, used to say, “La vie, c’est bien compliqué.” I’m not sure what that meant to me at the time, but it’s become the guiding principle of my life, my writing, my interactions with others. Life is very complicated indeed, and that’s what makes it both difficult and interesting. Stereotypes, racism, xenophobia — most negativity in the world comes out of the natural human desire to oversimplify. Life isn’t simple, and that’s what “Callgirl,” “The Illusionist”…*all* my books are about. That life is more complicated than it appears, and that people really do their best, most of the time, to work through those complications.

What does “Callgirl” attempt to do, and for what kind of reader was it written?

Callgirl is a window, an opportunity for readers to see into a world they would otherwise never know and to experience it from the inside. That’s really all. I think that once one has read the book, it will be a lot less easy to make hooker jokes, for example. Most of our hatred comes from ignorance. Once one knows people from the excluded group (be they people of another race, religion, political party, or profession) it’s a lot harder to hate them. So “Callgirl” was written for all the people who dismiss sex workers as criminals, nymphomaniacs, people of loose morals. Just to have them read the book is a step in the right direction.

What provokes you to begin a book: an image, a character, a setting, a feeling?

Almost always a character, almost always that character or characters in a situation that puzzles me. “The Illusionist” began when I read a newspaper account of John Demjanjuk’s arrest for crimes against humanity; his son was quoted as hotly protesting his father’s innocence. Well, I remember thinking, of *course* he’d have to say that, how could anyone accept that a loving parent might also have been a torturer and murderer? “Wings” and “Flight” are both about a family’s choices during two world wars — again, I found myself wondering about how women were responding to and dealing with their families’ participation in various facets of the wars. I start with people and then examine how they think and feel and behave under pressure.

What types of characters interest you most? What sorts of stories?

The ones that we can’t figure out. The ones that haunt us, that we can’t get out of our minds. My upcoming novel, “In Dark Woods,” came out of another newspaper account. I read years ago of a woman whose child was murdered and who became subsequently obsessed with the killer throughout his trial, to the obvious delight of the media. What was going on in her head and her heart? Perhaps that’s why I’m fascinated by history, because it’s filled with people behaving in ways that I find inexplicable, and I spend far too much time wondering how they came to act as they did!

You were born and grew up in France at age 21 — can you describe any differences in culture as far as how they, vs. the U.S., view prostitution?

There’s a whole different take on sexuality in general, so naturally there’s trickle-down to the issue of prostitution. The United States has never shed its Puritan past. Just compare this country’s reaction to President Clinton’s well-publicized extra-marital affair with France’s reaction to that of President Mitterand – his wife and his mistress both attended his funeral. I think that sexuality in general and prostitution in particular are more accepted components of life than they are in the States. In the US, everybody knows it happens but nobody wants to talk about it, as though somehow the very articulation might make it real. In France, it’s discussed. French people don’t make a distinction between the intellect and that which is sensual; it’s all part of the human condition.

Your friendship with Sophie addresses “the addict’s gift of the silver tongue” — of making those who care about them believe they can help or cure the addiction. When does one say “enough,” and how does one know they are doing the right thing?

Well, my description in the book shows that I had no idea how to answer that question, back then. Sophie haunts me to this day. I’ve learned a lot since then about dealing with addicts, and know that one ought to say “enough” from the beginning. Help is not doing what that person wants you to do, or even what you want to do — help is getting them into rehab. Period. I didn’t know that at the time. In many ways, despite the sophisticated veneer I liked to assume, I was very naive.

In Chapter 11, while talking to a student, you say that parents want their children to be independent thinkers, yet don’t realize their children may make choices that are different from their own. In this Baby Boom parent era, when it comes to social issues (racism, sexism, etc.), is it possible for an educated child to really get through to an uneducated parent whose beliefs were firmly planted by their own uneducated parents? If so, how?

Given the issues in family dynamics, I don’t know if that’s possible. My father-in-law is racist. He’s also in his eighties and very ill. Am I going to change his mind? Doubtful. I’d rather invest my time trying to touch people who still have time and reason for change. We’re all to some extent the products of our environments and upbringing. I’ve not accepted much that my parents believed to be true, but I also realize that they gave me the tools with which to think critically, and that made all the difference. Perhaps we can teach everyone — parent, child, friend, acquaintance — best by example.

In today’s society, the “perfect woman and perfect sex” are as close as one’s computer and an Internet connection. “Callgirl” addresses this ‘perfect woman’ myth; she’s there to please the man and has no needs, no desires, no demands of her own. Since neither prostitution nor Internet-based sex will ever disappear, how does today’s intellectual woman compete with that “perfect woman” myth?

I think that the fantasies will always be part of being human, because we’re none of us exactly what others want us to be — and nor are they perfectly what we want, either. Women do the same thing, you know — look at the success of romance novels: those are women’s PenthousesPlayboysHustlers. Face it, we all have fantasies of what our perfect partner should be like. Ideally, we learn that those are in fact fantasies and that real life is — you knew this was coming back — more complicated. It’s when that line between fantasy and reality becomes blurred that there are problems. I think that the divorce rate has to do with that line being blurred, that people are disappointed when their partner isn’t a fantasy but a real person, and so they seek out someone whose very newness holds out the possibility of becoming the fantasy… until that person, too, becomes real, and the cycle repeats.

Your reference to Emma Goldman’s phrase — “The most violent element in society is ignorance” — is more critical today than ever, yet people continually base opinions on ads they see on TV or ethnocentric ideals. When it comes to ignorance, what is its biggest danger?

Its biggest danger, I believe, is that ignorance is blinding. We fall in love with what we believe, and become resistant to change, to seeing a different viewpoint, to the point of not even acknowledging that there may even be another valid viewpoint. When that happens, we’re blind — blind to ourselves, to others, to what matters. And if one of the goals of life is connection, then this has to be its opposite, because it disconnects us from the rest of humanity.

You recently appeared on Oprah. Can you tell me about that experience, and what you learned from it?

“Still naive after all these years” would sum it up nicely, I fear. I believed what I was told by the producers, and I should not have done. They indicated that I would be promoting my book, and instead I was presented in a sensationalist, tabloid format. Oprah herself surprised me by not reading the book and by the personal nature of her attacks (after the show, in the green room, she made a point of embracing all of the other participants — then looked straight at me and walked away). It’s unfortunate that the show chose to go down the sensationalist route, and ironic that I was essentially being accused of being immoral; I found what they did to be far more immoral.

If prostitution were to be legalized, how do you perceive things would change?

Women would be safer. There’s no question about that in my mind. Right now, sex workers are extremely vulnerable because they have few choices in finding safe employment and no recourse when something goes wrong. Sex workers would participate in their communities through taxation, as do other professions. Would the stigma disappear? That’s another issue, though it has been my experience that the people who voice their disgust with prostitution the most loudly are the ones who are the most titillated by it — so that is, indeed, a different question. I strongly believe that it should be legalized and regulated, which in essence has nothing to do with the morality issues: there are plenty of other things that are legal but, to my mind at least, not moral at all.

How has your own life changed since the book’s publication?

It’s interesting — it’s the first of my books to have changed anything in my personal life. Usually I write a novel, it gets published, people read it… life goes on. In one sense, it’s a job. But this time was different. It’s understandable, of course — it’s the first book I’ve written that is about me, per se, rather than about how I write or whether I can tell a good story. Many of the reactions I’ve received have been about me, personally; and I’m learning to deal with that.

Why do you write?

If I may borrow a phrase from Toni Morrison — “I’m just trying to look at something without blinking.” That really sums up my writing — I look at things and try and figure out why they are the way they are, and the way that I do that is by writing about it. I’ve always thought better with a pen (or PowerBook!) in hand.

Anything else?

Best questions of any interview I’ve done — and I’ve done a great many! Thank you for allowing me to think.

For more info on Callgirl and the author’s other novels visit: jeannetteangell.com.

Excerpts of this article first appeared in the Weekender on October 7, 2004.

Copyright © Jody Ewing, 2010


Debbie Bernstein LaCroix

On December 15, 2011, in , by Jody Ewing

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Book, education vital in treating Alzheimer’s

By Jody Ewing
October 3, 2002

10 Signs of Caregiver Stress

Too much stress can be damaging to both you and the person for whom you are caring. The following stress indicators, experienced frequently or simultaneously, can lead to more serious health problems. Learn to recognize signs of stress in yourself. Taking care of yourself will help you be a better caregiver.

1. Denial
2. Anger
3. Social withdrawal
4. Anxiety
5. Depression
6. Exhaustion
7. Sleeplessness
8. Irritability
9. Lack of concentration
10. Health problems


Ten Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease

Though a change in memory is normal as we grow older, people with Alzheimer’s have problems severe enough to have an impact on their work, social activities and family life. They include:

1. Memory loss
2. Difficulty performing familiar tasks
3. Problems with language
4. Disorientation to time and place
5. Poor or decreased judgment
6. Problems with abstract thinking
7. Misplacing things
8. Changes in mood or behavior
9. Changes in personality
10. Loss of initiative

It begins with something simple; one forgets the name of a daughter’s new husband or has trouble balancing the checkbook. Later, an everyday task may feel strange or the street coming home seems unfamiliar. Eventually there might be mood swings — from calm to tears to anger — for no apparent reason, and finally one seeks answers to the many unanswered questions.

The warning signs often add up to Alzheimer’s disease (AD), a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain and the most common form of dementia. Approximately 4.5 million Americans have AD and an estimated 16 million will have AD by the middle of this century — 2050 — unless a cure or prevention is found. First described in 1906 by German physician Dr. Alois Alzheimer, the disease once considered rare is now the leading cause of dementia.

Dementia — though often used synonymously with AD — is an umbrella term for several symptoms related to a decline in thinking skills. Common symptoms include a gradual loss of memory, problems with reasoning or judgment, disorientation, difficulty in learning, loss of language skills and a decline in the ability to perform routine tasks.

Tina Stroud, president of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Big Sioux Chapter in Sioux City, says their primary role is to provide education support and advocacy on behalf of caregivers and the community. They accomplish that through a wide range of services and lots of education.

“Our other role is really to help families,” says Stroud, who works with families to delay nursing home placement for as long as possible. “But we do realize that that’s also a reality for most people, so we also are there with them every step of the way through that transition.”

Transitions also include education, from the young child who doesn’t know what is happening with a grandparent to adult children faced with choices and learning to deal with caregiver stress. In addition to support groups and in-home respite care, the Big Sioux Chapter also has partnered with a local writer for an Alzheimer’s book written exclusively for children. It’s all part of an ongoing effort, says Stroud, to plan along the way for how AD will impact relationships and lives.

The Need for Education

AD has a very gradual onset, and that’s where the difficulty is, Stroud says, with the disease and actual point of diagnosis.

“Most of the time people will start to realize they’ll become a little bit more forgetful,” she says. “You and I kind of forget things, but this is starting to impact their lives. They realize something is not quite right.”

Debbie Bernstein LaCroix witnessed this progression as a teen-ager when her grandmother was diagnosed with AD. As an adult, Bernstein LaCroix struggled to remember things about her grandmother before the disease had taken hold. After the birth of her son, Bernstein LaCroix suddenly realized how she could make that happen — if not for herself, for others.

“I was just sitting there one day thinking what would I do, or how would I explain it to my son if one of my parents would get Alzheimer’s, because they say it’s hereditary,” says Bernstein LaCroix, whose grandmother has since died. “They have such a close relationship that I would want him to remember my parents as they are now rather than how they would be.”

The result was Bernstein LaCroix’s first book “My Grandma Can Do Anything,” an illustrated story for children that captures and explains the different stages of the disease. In conjunction with the Alzheimer’s Big Sioux Chapter, Bernstein LaCroix wrote the story while Terri Hecker of California penned the illustrations.

“The goal of the book is to not only explain to the child the different stages, but to also tell them when visiting grandma, what they can do to help their grandparents by remembering,” says Bernstein LaCroix. “For instance, going through a photo album, or sharing different memories they’ve enjoyed with their grandparents.”

The last page contains a journal that children can fill out to keep track of special memories.

“It’s a wonderful book,” says Stroud, “and we also have a brand new program where we’ve developed a children’s curriculum. The pilot program includes going into the school setting and educating elementary-age children about what’s going on with grandma and grandpa.”

In addition to their continuing education, the Alzheimer’s Association has a resource library, a 24-hour helpline, a family assistance program and works to address other disorders that also cause dementia.

Dementia’s Many Faces

“There are other dementias that can be sudden,” says Stroud. “For example, if they have multi-infarct dementia (MID).”

A common cause of dementia in the elderly, MID occurs when blood clots block small blood vessels in the brain and destroy brain tissue.

“That’s a vascular form of dementia so they have a stroke and it’s just immediate,” Stroud says. “Signs show up immediately, then they kind of plateau off and then they have another stroke and then they decline.”

Others include fronto-temporal dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies, Parkinson’s disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and Huntington’s disease. Similar to AD, all these disorders involve disease processes that eventually destroy brain cells.

Ellen Nichols of Dakota Dunes began noticing symptoms in her father a few years ago when he became more forgetful and asked the same questions over and over.

“We didn’t necessarily suspect Alzheimer’s at first, but he went in for testing because of his memory,” says Nichols. “He initially was diagnosed with dementia, and eventually with multi-infarct dementia.”

The difference, Nichols says, is that her father knows that he has it, he knows it is something you die from and he’s going to know during the process what is going on.

“The doctor said that in a way, it’s going to be more difficult than if he actually had Alzheimer’s because people with Alzheimer’s generally don’t know they have it,” she says. Nichols, who is married with two small children and is expecting her third child in January, is in the process of moving her father into the suite she and her husband built onto their home.

Nichols has spent the last two years preparing for the move and setting up a support system to manage caregiver stress. She hopes to keep her father in the family environment as long as his condition allows.

Learning to Ask for Help

“One thing that I always wanted to do was spend time with my dad, and it’s interesting that now I get to spend lots of time with him,” says Nichols, who credits her father with devoting his life to helping other people. “I’m also learning that this isn’t going to be like Dad moving in with us, it’s going to be like an Alzheimer’s patient moving in. It’s my dad, but it’s not the same as Dad. It’s just different.”

Nichols arranged for two girls to come to her home at scheduled times throughout the week, and also hired a cleaning woman so she could get her needed rest. But, she says, these things cost money.

“People say ‘I can’t afford to hire somebody,’ but I can’t either,” Nichols says. “So we’ve cut out cable, I don’t go for coffee as much as I’d like, and we just make cuts in other areas so we can afford to do these things.”

Nichols is not alone. More than seven of 10 people with AD live at home, and family and friends provide almost 75 percent of home care. The remainder is “paid” care costing an average of $12,500 per year, with families paying that almost entirely out-of- pocket. Neither Medicare nor most private health insurance covers the long-term care most patients need.

Nichols credits the Alzheimer’s Big Sioux Chapter for steering her to resources and directing her to other agencies.

“It used to be you just did it yourself, and we can’t afford to keep doing it all by ourselves,” says Nichols. “They [Alzheimers Association] know everything. I can just call and ask and they’ll direct me. Sometimes I just need to vent or whatever, and they’re awesome.”

They also help dispel the myths behind the disorders, which Nichols says is so important.

“Alzheimer’s is a disease, it’s not a character defect,” she often explains to others. “He’s not doing anything just to be malicious, it’s a disease and he’s the victim of it, not you.”

Stroud says another myth is that there’s no hope. “I’m here to tell you that there is a little bit of hope,” she says. “Research has come a long way. We may not be able to cure the disease today or stop it, but we can sure impact a person’s quality of life and make sure they have the best possible life for their remaining years.”

For More Information visit the National Alzheimer’s Association’s website at www.alz.org or the Big Sioux Chapter at www.alz-sioux.org or call 800-426-6512.