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Guilty

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

Yesterday, a jury found former Chicago police commander Jon Burge guilty.  Not of the torture which it’s alleged he committed and/or oversaw in his years as a detective and commander in Chicago Police Area 2, but of lying about the torture under oath.

Jon Burge at the Federal Building on June 8 this year

Many hundreds of people were (allegedly) tortured, some into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit.  Others were never charged with a crime.  Despite notifying the Cook County State’s Attorney of at least fifty incidents of torture, and despite an array of lawuits against Burge, his cohorts, and the city, Burge continued as a detective, and a torturer, for over a decade.  Burge was finally forced to retire in 1993.  He moved to Florida, where he’s been living ever since on a full pension.

John Conroy covered the story for the Chicago Reader, going back to 1990.  I followed the story for years.  When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, I believed one could draw a line from the south side of Chicago to the prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan where American service people tortured people in custody.  I chose to turn it into fiction, in Hardball, where V I Warshawski has to come face to face with the torture of suspects in custody, and find out what role her beloved father played in that police district.

Several brave people brought the original story to light.  You can read about them in full in the Chicago Reader files.  Some of the torture victims were what prosecutors like to call “the worst of the worst–” a title they gave the hundreds of men scooped up and sent to Guantanamo.  Some were innocent.  None deserved to have a current run through electrodes on their genitals and ears.

I sat through part of Burge’s trial.  It was impossible to know how the jury was reacting.  Burge himself seemed not only confident but cocky, smirking with his lawyers, leaning back in his chair at ease.  I didn’t know what to expect, but I feel a certain relief that the jury found him guilty.

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Call of the Wild

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

Kathy Lyndes, a friend of mine, and her partner are drawn to the lives of wolves.  They just came back from eight days on Isle Royale, assisting in a project to track wolf habits and habitats.  The whole trip seemed so fascinating, and yet so physically challenging, that I asked her to share the adventure with you.  So what follows is my first guest blog.

In June, 2010, my partner, Louis, and I were two of seventeen volunteers to collect moose bones as part of the fifty year Isle Royale wolf-moose research project, the longest running predator-prey study in the world. The experience was an 8-day backpacking and hiking trip in areas of Isle Royale rarely seen by the average visitor.

On the fourth day of our trip, we walked through a quarter inch carpet of moose hair, the area about the size of a small bedroom. This was the only kill sight we saw where parts of the skeleton were still intact, including one set of leg bones from the femur to the hoof. It was amazing to see, especially since all other moose bones we found were scattered; a wolf may carry the pelvis to the den for the cubs to play with, and scavengers may move bones as far apart as 70 or more yards. Apparently moose hooves rank on wolves’ good eats scale almost as highly as moose’s internal organs and noses. This was better than any science course I ever took and a backpacker’s paradise. That’s right: sanctioned off trail hiking, and I felt like an early prospector finding gold. Problem was, this was the trip where my beloved thirty year old hiking boots decided to call it quits, and, as a result, I had two feet with festering blisters and a mouth of choice swear words that I don’t use even in Chicago traffic.

On the last day of the trip, we had to hike 8 miles with our 40+ pound packs to get back to base camp. Greenstone Trail, a 40 mile path that runs the middle ridge of Isle Royale reaching heights of close to 1400 feet, is one of the most scenic footpaths I’ve ever seen, sometimes overlooking Isle Royale interior lakes and Lake Superior at the same time. Tears rolled down my cheeks, though, not from the beauty of my surroundings but from the pain. In between my alternating crying and swearing fits, I tried to sing, “Put one foot in front of the other” (remember that song from the old stop-motion flick Santa Claus Is Coming to Town?), but if it weren’t for Louis making sure I wasn’t alone should I break a leg, I’m not sure how I would have made it back to camp. His company and his jokes fortified me.

Moose Pelvis photographed in situ

As several of the other volunteers admitted, this was the most physically and emotionally challenging hiking and backpacking they had ever done. We had tramped through a cedar bog only to find ourselves slipping up to our knees in water in an old beaver dam, the habitat changing as rapidly as it does in Chicago, from the mansions in the Kenwood neighborhood where President Obama owns a home to the poverty-stricken projects on the south side of the Loop only a few blocks away.

We had been warned that the trip would be arduous, but, after 12 weeks of intensive training, I hadn’t banked on my stamina not being sufficient. I’ve consistently exercised for years, run marathons, backpacked in the Boundary Waters and Sylvania Wilderness, and written a dissertation, which has nothing whatsoever to do with Isle Royale backpacking except that it, too, was a challenging process that involved impressive strings of swear words. Still, I hadn’t expected to be the slowest trekker in my group. Worst of all, I wasn’t prepared to feel cautious of the wilderness; I’ve hiked and camped off trail before, and here on Isle Royale, we didn’t have to worry about poison ivy, poison oak, ticks, or poisonous snakes (there are only two non-poisonous snakes on Isle Royale). Still, at age 47, I was surprised to experience dread – both realistic and unrealistic – about being left alone or getting lost, about twisting my ankle or worse, about being uncomfortable from the combination of rain, sweat, smelly latrines, and pine needles down my neck. Maybe, I thought to myself, I just don’t like being outdoors after all, and, out of spite, I swore to the nature gods that I would buy a gas guzzling Hummer H3 Alpha and never again would I “Recycle, Reuse, Reduce.”

I met one backpacker, Will, who, at age twenty had wisdom that has stayed with me. He took it for granted that when he camped, he’d wake up every two hours. Why is that some folk, like Will, accept that poor sleep is just part of the wilderness experience and is worth it for the sheer pleasure of being outdoors, while others, even if we don’t whine (much), add to our wretchedness with our LFT (what I teach in my psych courses as Low Frustration Tolerance)?

My father said that this Isle Royale trip was for the young, but there was a 57 year old volunteer as well as the legendary 72 year old who had returned nearly every year for 19 years. So I concluded that this trip is for those who have attitudes like Will’s, and I aspire to accept that discomfort, even pain, is part of living, not in some romanticized way, but in a realistic acknowledgement of limits. I also know that I managed to cope because of my team’s patience and good-natured spirits:  Rob gave me high fives after particularly difficult terrain; Ben, our leader whose speed rivals that of cheetahs, helped me through a rough beaver pond when I was dehydrated; and Velda told stories, including those of army training jingles (“If you don’t mind, it don’t matter!”), that kept us in stitches. Any time I found myself thinking, “I can’t…” or “I don’t know how…” I was inspired by them to soldier on, not that I ever gave up on my fantasy of being air-lifted off Isle Royale.

In my better moments on and off trail, I took comfort in my skills as a slower, more methodical researcher, but finding a moose bone was often the luck of location and light. One time, I was only two feet away from Rob who found a bone just after I had walked near it. Yet bones are amazing story tellers despite who finds them, with every set of bones chronicling a unique narrative about its life, death, and relationships with wolves. Sometimes the moose died from starvation. We novices could tell because the bones weren’t gnawed, and experts could tell because the bone marrow was so low in fat content.

When the moose did die from wolf attacks, we’d check the pelvis, if we could find it, for signs of arthritis; if a moose was arthritic, its lower hip socket had fused shut or become misshapen. Ben showed us an older bull moose whose teeth were so worn and full of gingivitis that he (the moose, not Ben) had serious need of national dental health care coverage. We also learned a bit about how lesions on the skull demonstrate the presence of osteoporosis. 12 years is old for a moose

In a recent Wall Street Journal article (May 29-30, 2010), I read how some decent, caring folk in Wisconsin are afraid that their kids are going to be attacked by gray wolves. I can understand their frustration when wolves eat one of their pets or steers (one person who said she lost her hound to a wolf, reportedly led the resolution calling on the state of Wisconsin to cut the wolf population from 700 to 350), but why do we turn to fear instead of to facts when making choices about hunting and trapping wolves? We’ve taken away their habitat and then wonder why they attack our livestock. There are no documented reports of healthy wolves harming humans; they aren’t the senseless killers they’re sometimes still portrayed to be. Wolves are selective hunters, typically picking the weakest and most ill. On Isle Royale, they have to be selective to avoid getting thrown against a tree or receiving a broken rib from the stronger, more agile moose’s front hooves (no wonder wolves find moose hooves delectable). It takes as many as ten attempts for wolves to find a moose weak enough to bring down. One of the head researchers on the project, Rolf Peterson, in his book, “The Wolves of Isle Royale,” recounts his witness of a blind moose who kept off a pack of wolves for three days until they got tired and went to look for food elsewhere. 4 years is old for a wolf.

The other common thoughts about wolves, that they kill just for pleasure and are wasteful hunters, are also myths. In fact, wolves kill because they’re hungry, and rarely do they leave a kill uneaten, facts which make them genetically unrelated to me who often buys food in wasteful packaging and sometimes eats not from necessity but for comfort. If moose are plentiful and relatively easy to kill, wolves sometimes do leave a moose carcass less than ravaged, however, this bounty then leaves more food for scavengers such as ravens, eagles, and foxes. There has to be solutions to the problem of wolves killing livestock that benefit both humans and wolves.

It was oddly disconcerting to be swearing off camping ever again, only to find myself taking detailed notes on my team’s gear for my next trip. The whole experience was profoundly humbling, both in terms of all there is to learn about nature and its unpredictability, and in terms of learning from those who graciously accepted challenges. If nothing else, this trip may have helped me to finally accept that I am, indeed, aging. One of my favorite psychologists, Heinz Kohut, calls this acceptance of limits a transformation of narcissism, and I feel just a bit less easily ruffled about growing older as a result of this trip. Though the verdict is still out whether I’ll ask to participate in this most amazing study again, I hope to live to a ripe old age, and I wonder if someday a researcher will be able to tell what I’ve learned – and how I’ve lived – by studying my bones. 110 years is old for a human.

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In Flanders Fields

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

I bought StreetWise today from Roarke E Moody, the vendor I know best.  Moody is a Vietnam vet, and a poet, and for the Memorial Day issue of the paper he wrote,

Naked-eyed toy soldiers take few shortcuts through hell.  We all had our own piece of hell.  In this mess of a war, in this distant land, it does not matter what you are fighting for…a patch of dirt, a piece of tail, war whores trapped in hell.

We were all there through the monsoons, through the doom and gloom–one and all, and all in one–we were there.

Pressing on, past the limit of human behavior.  We took no short cuts through hell.  War, what is it good for?!

On any night in America, there are 150,000 homeless veterans, mostly from the Vietnam war.  People I know who work with the homeless guess we are about to start seeing the first big wave of Iraqi veterans land in our streets.  They say there’s a five-year spiral from the end of deployment to when a vet suffering from PTSD exhausts family and personal resources and ends up homeless.

I am not a blanket pacifist, but there are few occasions in five millennia of recorded history that seem to merit the slaughter of our youth, the concomitant rape of women, the destruction of homes and families.

I buy a poppy every May.  One of my brothers is a Vietnam vet, a Marine, my husband served in the Second World War, my uncles in Korea and in the Second World War, my great uncles in World War I, my great-grandfather in the Civil War, and on back to King Philip’s War.  Until this current useless tragedy in the Middle East, my family, out of duty, out of adventure, out of necessity, has served in every war our country has fought.

My upcoming novel, Body Work, deals in part with an Iraqi vet suffering from PTSD.  I can’t bear the thought that we sent all these young people to war, for no reason other than the egos of the Halliburton-Cheney-Rumsfeld Neocon crowd, and that we bring them home terribly damaged in body and mind and pay no heed to them.  I can’t fix it, I can’t end it, I can only bear witness to it.

I sometimes march with the Sisters from the Eighth Day Center for Justice, who hold a peace vigil every Tuesday morning at the Federal Building on Jackson and Dearborn in Chicago.  We prayed that Barack’s election would bring a swift end to our fighting in Iraq and Vietnam, and it is another heartbreak that it hasn’t.

Meanwhile, in Flanders Fields the poppies continue to grow.

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Aging Gracefully

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

When I was a child, I was ballet mad, like many little girls.  We lived in a small town in eastern Kansas, and now and again famous troups would come to Kansas City and my dad would take me on the train to watch them.  Of all the dancers I saw, the one who most enraptured me was Alicia Alonso.  I never would have guessed when I saw her move so weightlessly across the stage that she was nearly blind, that she had spent a year in bed unable to move in hopes of correcting her vision–dancing only in her mind, as she put it, while her husband, also a dancer, sat next to her, showing her the steps by tracing them with his fingers on her body.

This past week, the New York Times ran a story on Madame Alonso, who is turning 90 this year and has for many decades directed the Ballet Nacional de Cuba.  She was in New York for a special American Ballet Theater tribute to her.  “If a person keeps thinking, ‘How old am I going to be?; and thinking about the age, that’s the worst thing you can do.  You don’t have to think about how old you are. You have to think about how many things you want to do and how to do it and keep on doing it.”

The words came just before my own 63rd birthday, and offered a great incentive to keep alive the many projects I have in mind.  I wish I wrote faster, wish I could figure out how to manage my time better–I want to visit more places, learn French, reconnect with my singing voice–but Alonso’s advice to just keep doing it means, don’t stop to feel sorry for yourself or to upbraid yourself for time misspent.  Just keep on keeping on!

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Eleanor Taylor Bland

Saturday, June 5th, 2010

Eleanor Taylor Bland, 1944-2010.

Eleanor Taylor Bland, 1944-2010, died on June 1, and our world of writers, readers, humans, is diminished.

I first met Eleanor in 1992, when she published Dead Time. We bonded over concerns about depictions of women and African-Americans in crime fiction, and the fact that we both had full-time corporate jobs while trying to write and raise a family.

I later learned that Eleanor had been diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer in the 1970’s, which she took  as a signal to live each day to its fullest. Eleanor was awe-inspiring in her gallant and tireless spirit, her commitment to helping other writers, her dedication to her beloved grandson, Antony, and her ability to keep all these balls in the air while writing some of the country’s finest mysteries.

She was the among the first, if not the first, to create a hero who challenged the “mammy-whore” stereotypes of African-American women. She believed the crime novel was a perfect vehicle for pushing the boundaries of America’s class/race/sex consciousness because you can tell a story and explore issues at the same time. With Marti Macallister, she said, she could “comment on slices of life within black culture….This is the one genre where you can talk about it and have a little fun with it.”

Her passionate commitment to the lives of children and those damaged families who get swept under our social-judicial rugs showed up time and again in her fiction.

Eleanor’s support of the written word was legendary. She served on the board of the Waukegan Public Library and chaired their friends of the library. She also mentored writers like Libby Fischer Hellman and Michael Dymmoch, and served as president of Sisters in Crime.
Grace under pressure, gallantry, these are the images that come to mind, and, always, a smile that warmed us to the core of our souls. May your memory be a blessing to those of us you’ve left behind.

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Air and Rice

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

I took a week away from the computer and it was very restful.  I’m trying to work out ways to focus more on my writing, less on anxiety and the quotidian, and staying offline was a definite help.  During my week away I read several books, including Anchee Min’s Pearl of China.  The book is Min’s tribute to Pearl Buck, about whom I personally knew very little–I didn’t know, for instance, that she grew up in China and spoke several Chinese dialects with native fluency.  Min’s tribute is part reverence and part remorse–she was forced by Madame Mao to help lead the denunciations of Buck inside China.

In Pearl of China, Min describes a love affair between Buck and the Chinese romantic poet Hsu Chih-mo.  Min’s narrator is a writer, but she says for Buck and Hsu Chih-mo, writing was “air and rice:” they needed to write in order to live, as much as they need air and food.

I feel that I have moved too far away from my writing in the last few years, that I’m too filled with anxieties, “getting and spending,” laying waste my powers.  Air and rice.  I hope to become more interior, return to the written word as a source of joy.  I’ll keep you posted on the journey.

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