Killing America

Last week dropped over me like a black netted cage. I did not notice it until it began to tighten blocking out the light and air. I started to lose my equilibrium. My jaw hurt from clenching my teeth both during the day and in my sleep. I had a hang-over headache but wasn’t drinking. I turned inward and asked myself what is going on.

Another School Shooting in America plays out in vivid details. Seventeen high school students and adults lose their lives near the close of the school day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. A 19-year-old male walks through the doors of the secured school, a school where he had once been a student. He shoots students and adults multiple times with a semiautomatic AR-15 assault rifle while terrified students and staff hide in closets and in corners of hallways and rooms. The young man is an orphan. His father died years ago; his adoptive mother died in November. He suffers from depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism. He has few if any friends. The perpetrator’s host parents say that the young man is polite and seems normal although they did state that they were aware that he brought in a number of guns into the house when he moved in, ten of them obtained within the last year. When questioned why they allowed the guns, they responded that it was his property. Authorities report that the killer has a “disturbing” social media footprint all of which the host family knew nothing about. We see parents in anguish screaming at cameras and a few days after surviving the episode and during the burials of their friends, students yell through tear streaked faces, fighting for breath at legislators and a president about the availability of guns designed for warfare in this place called America.

And then there is Me Too in America. The ground for Me Too really began with the outing of Bill Cosby by 60 women. Accusations stretch over a period of time from 1965 through 2008. Most are actresses, singers and models who believed Cosby could mentor them in their careers. Two-thirds of the allegations involve drugging the women with pills and alcohol. In October 2017, the multiple stories of women sexually assaulted or harassed by movie mogul Harry Weinstein over decades moved other women to bring their stories to the public. The list of 100 men to date is a who’s who in American media, theater, and entertainment: Ben Vereen, Peter Martins, movie director Morgan Spurlock who admitted to a history of sexual misconduct dating back to his college days, Garrison Keillor, and Matt Lauer are just some of the more recognizable on the list. Add to the growing list the name of Donald Trump who has boasted about abusing women and has been recorded on tape by Access Hollywood describing his strategy. Victims provide disturbing details on dehumanizing, horrifying and shaming experiences women were forced to endure in the workplace doing their jobs; of men pushing their naked body parts toward them, disrobing in front of them, demanding sex as partial payment for hiring them ad nauseam and ad nauseam.

And if that is not enough, I read the just released A False Report A True Story of Rape in America by authors T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong. The book is a disturbing account of a serial rapist in Seattle, Washington and Lakewood and Golden, Colorado. And, it is the story of 18 year old Marie, alone in her first “home” that was not one of many foster homes, but still living on the margins. She is brutally raped and assaulted by an intruder who photographs her and threatens that he will put the photos on Facebook if she calls the authorities. She does call. The authorities and even a former foster mother do not believe her. Instead, she is charged with filing a false report and faces jail time. If the writing wasn’t good and the authors didn’t know what they were writing about, it would be just another poorly done crime story. The authors are reporters covering politics, war and crime and Pulitzer Prize winners for their article “An Unbelievable Story of Rape”. The book disturbs because the reader is able to connect the well laid dots among perpetrators who rape, assault, and kill and those perpetrators who publish hard core pornography that includes video and photographs of rape, assault and murder and perpetrators who deal in child and adult sex trafficking in America.

There is a black plague that is killing America.


Gardening Lesson 1 million and 1

Over the years, I have turned lawn into flower gardens. And, as I tell my friends, I have learned how to nurture various perennials and annuals from my many mistakes; in other words, what not to do. Today, in an effort to team with Mother Nature, I thought I would beat the rain that is supposed to be moving in tomorrow for most of the day and fertilize the lilies, phlox, roses, cone flowers, bee balm and annuals. I have used the Miracle Grow fertilizer feeder: you cut the plastic bag open and put in your feeder, attach the hose, turn on the water and you are set to go. Upon my last visit to my True Value Hardware store, where if they don’t see me every day do wellness checks via phone calls, the Miracle Grow came already loaded in a new feeder with a zillion adjustments one can make when using it. After grumbling a bit as I already had a perfectly good feeder dispenser and felt competent enough to place my own fertilizer in it, I paid for the new and improved fertilizer dispenser and away I went. I dropped my old dispenser at my daughter’s house to use there as I water her flowers as her job keeps her on the road.

I would say I have been using the new and improved fertilizer feeder for over a month. Today I took a close look at it as I could not tell if it the fertilizer supply was getting low due to the tint of the plastic feeder dispenser. The font on the dispenser was a minus ten in size so I proceeded to fertilize all of the gardens before hunting up a magnifying glass to take a closer look. Having finished with the gardens, I turned off the water, unscrewed the lid to the dispenser and took a peek.  A piece of plastic still tightly in place covered the top of the dispenser.  Not a grain of fertilizer had left the dispenser to mix with the water during my weekly fertilizing sessions.

By now you might be thinking that I did not need to fertilize the gardens if they are doing well. That is part of the answer but it also true that we have had a monsoon summer with hot temperatures and much rain. However, my annuals have struggled and the bee balm, cone flowers and dahlias have labored to gain height. These flowers thrive on applications of water infused fertilizer once a week.



I know there is a simple lesson or two behind my latest gardening fiasco. Read the fine print, stay with the old dispenser and run all over town to find refill packets, or call it a day and skip the fertilizing session altogether all of which I contemplated. But then the high humidity and cloudy skies reminded me of the rain to come. So, I tore the plastic seal from the dispenser cover, hooked up the hose and bestowed a long drink of fertilized-infused water to the gardens I had already watered.

I used to tell my students teachers that if what you are doing does not work, just try another way. I thought about that advice out there in my hot, humid gardens this morning.  Sometimes the answer is simply do it over again with a tweak like removing the plastic wrap.


Hooded Drive

I was driving on I-94 headed home to Eau Claire from Milwaukee Sunday morning when a man waved at me furiously from the right hand driving lane. Not sure of his intention, so I did my open hand in the air signal. He then very slowly mouthed the word hood. I looked at the hood of my car and it was moving up and down. I could not stop safely as traffic was heavy in both lanes so I slowed my vehicle and exited at the busiest exit in WI Dells; and in the direction that I thought was going to be a gas station but turned out to be the unlabeled exit back on the interstate going east. I endured a very dicey ten mile drive to the nearest exit all the while trying to find a good time to pull over with my fingers hovering over the emergency flash signal in the event the hood flew open. I made it to the exit and to a small gas station. Should I go right to see if someone could help or go left to a group of motorcycle riders taking a break? I chose the bikers. I got out of the car, said I figured someone here could help me when a tall biker guy stepped forward and walked to my car. Before I could get any kind of explanation out, he said, hey, your hood is a problem. He opened it up, slammed it shut. It took him two seconds, if that. I walked him back to his group when a tall, substantially-sized women dressed in leathers stepped forward and asked me if I was trying to steal her boyfriend. Then she laughed. I put both of my arms up in the you never know position, said nothing, smiled, and drove away.

What Remains of Downton Abbey


The Daily Beast noted that the last time a PBS show was at the center of national conversation was when Ken Burns’ The Civil War documentary aired in 1990. Masterpiece’s Downton Abbey has generated critical acclaim, audience enthusiasm, and enviable ratings. The final episode was both celebrated and mourned in England and the United States and across the globe.

I confess I was captivated after viewing the first episode. I have been an ardent reader and viewer of British novels and programs including the collection of Masterpiece classics. But I was not prepared for the immediate hold that Downton Abbey had on me. What was the glue that caught the eyes of curious viewers including me and addicted us like loyal soccer or football fans to PBS each Sunday evening for six years?

Enduring Themes

I have distilled the epic program down to three themes that resonate and stay with me as I walk through my ordinary days: the only certainty in life is change, democracy lifts women up but ever so slowly and life begets loss.

Oh my, how things changed from the opening of the first season with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 to the last episode on New Year’s Eve of 1925. The automobile had replaced the stable of horses, electricity lit up the estate and the telephone invaded the cloistered world of Downton Abbey. Music became a pleasure to be enjoyed at the touch of a radio dial regardless of class or wealth. Health care practices modernized and saved lives in contrast to the former archaic methods that hurt more than helped already sick patients.  Women cut their hair short and raised the hems on their skirts, discarded the layers of heavy fabrics for lighter, body skimming designs and adapted the male trouser to a woman’s body; all styles that remain with us today. The Downton downstairs team of servants grew smaller in number requiring them to become generalists rather than specialists; the cook had more of her own prep work to do. Housemaids, under butlers and footmen left the estate for jobs that paid more and provided free time on weekends and in the evening.

We watched the girls and women who lived upstairs at Downton Abbey in awe of their transformation and we sympathized with the downstairs girls and women who kept the Abbey going. We cheered for the young housemaid who aspired to be a secretary and secretly completed a correspondence course in typing and shorthand. But we were equally satisfied by watching the 18 year old Lady Sybil’s efforts at advocating for the housemaid’s aspirations and success. We watched Lady Sybil become actively involved in canvassing for the labor movement against her father’s wishes and applauded her interest in securing a larger role for women in society.  We watched Sybil defy convention and her father by choosing a man she loved (one of the downstairs contingent) for a husband as opposed to a man of wealth and rank. We wondered how Lady Mary stayed on her horse riding sidesaddle on hunts in seasons two and five. We were relieved when we saw her riding full seat in season six, but we did not take seriously her father’s advice when he noted that it might be unladylike. We didn’t need Julian Fellowes, the writer of Downton, to include a line for Lady Mary to ask for anyone’s permission; we had watched the “Blessed Lady Mary”, what Mrs. Hughes the housekeeper called her, long enough to know she was her own person and we delighted in her strength of mind. Lady’s maid, Anna, taught us that violence against women was something to be ashamed of for the victim and should be hidden. Unfortunately, that notion remains with us today. We watched one season run one into the next as the legal system ground out slowly to bring Anna justice and some semblance of healing and acceptance although we remained convinced that she still believed that she was “spoiled” by her experience. The law and rights by which English girls and women lived were improving but at a snail’s pace.

Then, there was “Matthew, Matthew, Matthew”! The relationship between Lady Mary, the eldest daughter of Lord Grantham and Matthew Crawley, her cousin many times removed and heir to the estate, captivated Downton viewers. At the height of their happiness, Matthew was killed and we watched Mary slide into a long depression. Grand wealth and privilege cannot insure against loss and unexpected death. But Lady Mary was lucky. Her family and her wealth provided a cocoon that enabled her to retreat and grieve in style for months. Many others with similar losses that lived and worked in the great house or in the village were not so lucky. They needed to limp through their lives and just get on with it. It was certainly common practice that for people in the working class, the death of a wage earner or a mother was followed by the placement of children to others. Without any safety net in place, families lost their homesteads and men abandoned their children to distant relatives. Children were farmed out to work on farms or at estates as pot scrubbers or stable boys for room and board. In subsequent episodes, we watched as Lord Grantham loses his health, a pregnant maid loses her job with no reference, and another young widowed maid nearly loses her head by encouraging the inappropriate sexual advances of Lord Grantham. We watched the young Lady Sybil die during childbirth. Life begets loss. Some are better equipped than others to ride out darkness when it appears at their doorstep.

Most Popular Character



“It’s the job of grandmothers to interfere!”

Undeniably, the most popular character in Downton Abbey was The Dowager Countess of Grantham, Lady Violet Crawley, played by British actor Dame Maggie Smith. The mother of the current master of Downton and grandmother to Mary, Edith and Sybil, Violet pushed the envelope of what was then considered to be a conventional life for women. We admired and relied upon her strength to speak her mind though delivered in a frail voice diminished by age. While outwardly she pushed back against change, when it came to family life she moved the family forward and together. She shielded Mary rather than banished her for what was then considered scandalous behavior (letting a man into her bedroom and into her bed where he died). She sent steamer tickets for granddaughter Sybil and her Irish husband so they could attend Mary’s wedding knowing that Lord Robert Grantham, her son, still resented having a liberal Irish chauffeur in the family and preferred them both to remain in Ireland. She nudged Mary out of her depression by quietly challenging her; “You must chose life or death.” And later, in an attempt to rein Lady Mary in following the untimely death of her young, handsome Matthew, she advised Mary to “get control of your emotions before they get control of you” and “to make peace with yourself.”

We loved the fact that Lady Violet Crawley had a past. No corset no matter how tightly tied could have kept Violet from enjoying the passions of life when they crossed her doorstep. And like exquisite chocolate, she did not have to confess how many she had tasted to savor the experience. We respected that she had her own independent life separate from being a mother and grandmother. She wisely laid down her outsider attitude toward Mrs. Crawley, Matthew’s mother, and developed a close relationship with her former adversary. When Violet could not contain her anger toward her daughter-in-law Cora for replacing her on the hospital board, she packed herself up and sailed away to Paris until she could control her tongue so as not to cause further disharmony with her son Lord Grantham and his family. She cleverly advised and admonished her son but she did not replace him or his wife in their important roles as parents and grandparents. We admired her wit, her determination and her strength.

Characters that Taught Deep Lessons


“I’m going upstairs to take my hat off.”

Lady Mary Grantham was born to position and wealth but she was confined to the restrictions placed on women during the Victorian era. Her job in 1912 was to wait for a suitable husband while she changed her clothes three to five times a day. We admired Mary for her beauty and designer haute couture but we may not have been as comfortable with her directness of manner. She communicated her feelings and opinions and pushed back with haughty comebacks; behavior we came to expect and admire in her grandmother, Violet but found ourselves wincing when Lady Mary dished out the same treatment. Lady Mary knew what she did not want more than she knew what she wanted. She held people accountable including herself. She sought out both comfort and advice from her loyal admirer, Head Butler Carson, even though he was a servant and not part of the proper inner circle. She was generous to herself by trying out a variety of potential husbands and not caving into pressures by them or her family to select a husband sooner than later after a proper mourning period. She was adaptable and grew through a new decade, one that seemed to match the force by which she propelled herself forward. Her father, an increasingly fragile Lord Grantham, stipulated that he could see that Downton would be secure if left in her hands; that indeed the whole county would be. Her father eventually saw in Mary what the viewers came to admire: a woman in possession of a strong sense of self including her foibles.


“I’m not foul, Mr. Carson.”

The prime antagonist of Downton Abbey was Thomas Barrow, the under butler we loved to hate. In the beginning we saw him as a fox smart conniving man with a slippery false front. He used others with less power than he and gamed them at every corner. His need for power within the archaic structure of the servant hierarchy was palpable and he was successful at playing all the main characters. Bright, literate and looking to the next day, he was quick to see that the outbreak of war was his ticket out. Thinking he was volunteering to be a doctor’s assistant, he joined the war effort only to be assigned at the front in the trenches where he bumped into Matthew Crawley, now an officer, and served him tea in much the same way he had back at Downton Abbey.  Thomas knew his odds at surviving in the trenches were slim so he closed his eyes and raised his hand with a lighted cigarette at night and was quickly shot by enemy fire. He was returned home to recuperate and then was reassigned to his preferred plan as an orderly at a military convalescent hospital.

We see Thomas open up by befriending a seriously depressed soldier who eventually takes his life and then befriending the handsome young butler, James, even when he had been set up to make a move on him believing he preferred men to women as Thomas did. The more Thomas opened up and set aside his bully behaviors the more the Downton principals rejected him. Carson encouraged him to move on and look for other employment while the shrinking roster of servants excluded him from their activities. Mrs. Hughes encouraged him to see a change in employment as a new beginning, a chance to meet new possibilities for friendship and love as a homosexual. Thomas was finally able to open up and confessed to her and to the viewers that he had a need to be needed, to be liked and to remain part of the Downton family where he was rooted.

In the end, Thomas’ redemption comes by opening up and by setting his anger aside. He learns to love in friendship and connection and to accept himself. Thomas’ story is without the glitter and romance of Lady Mary or the Chauffeur Branson who married up to a great lady upstairs. But in the end we recognized Thomas’ struggle as being like our own. While we may not have outwardly cheered for Thomas when he remained against all odds at Downton and replaced Carson as head Butler, we recognized his internal struggle and profound personal growth. We are contented that he will remain where he is safe and needed.

As the lights dim on Downton Abbey, the lesson that remains may be that we come into the world alone and that is how we all will leave. It is what one chooses to do with the time in between that matters most.

NBC Today Show in Shades of Tacky Grey

NBC Today Show in Shades of Tacky Grey

NBC’s Today Show is giving the star treatment everyday all week long to the soon to be released movie, 50 Shades of Grey. The film is based on the fiction book of the same name written by British author E.L. James.

Originally self-published, the demographic that bought the book in thousands to boost it to a number one best seller is young women between the ages of twenty and thirty. The writing itself has been critiqued by many to be unskilled violating all the principles of good writing. Jessica Reeves writing for the Chicago Tribune warns a would-be buyer and reader that the “dialogue is stilted, the descriptions of place overwrought, and the characters and plot so predictable that a reader could theoretically skip over several dozen pages of text and still be utterly unsurprised by new developments. (Hey, what do you know? They’re having violent sex again. And both appear to feel vaguely conflicted about the violence aspect, but apparently not conflicted enough to actually stop doing it).”

And that was one of the better reviews I found.

I bought the book and read to page 50 before giving it to a favorite college-aged waitress. I told her I hoped she would find it more appealing than I did as I found it trite, boring and swimming in sexual stereotypes and female abuse. I asked her to tell me what she thinks of the book. She is still trying to find the time to read it.

This week I turned on the Today Show and found that it was doing a host of activities to help launch the film including previewing short segments from the film and interviewing the author. Having made millions of dollars for its author, it no longer matters what the quality of writing is or that the message to women is one that hopefully Today Show’s starring host Savannah Guthrie along with most US women clearly reject.

To be clear, I do not advocate censoring this book or any other. What I cannot fathom is why the Today Show is investing prime time air waves for five consecutive days promoting a movie that centers on the sexual exploitation, domination and abuse of a young woman. How does 50 Shades of Grey fit into the Today Show’s corporate “brand”?

So I wrote the show and asked them. Twice. So far, no response. But the social media campaign with the hashtag #50dollarsnot50shades has responded. It asks people to donate $50 to a domestic violence shelter rather than spending it on the movie.

“People are really upset about this movie and its potential for glamorizing stalking and abusive behavior, so they’re happy to have the chance to do something positive to help offset the damage,” the organizers of the movement told the Washington Times. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation warns that “real women don’t end up like Anastasia; they often end up in a women’s shelter, on the run for years or dead.”

Savannah Guthrie, if you are listening to any of this blow-back, tell your viewers to skip the show on Valentine’s Day and write out a check to their local women’s shelter. Buy a box of chocolate and drop one piece at your local theater instead of buying a ticket for 50 Shades of Grey. Eat the rest yourself or even better with a friend who has done the same thing.

Giving Up? Don’t You Dare!


Claire Shipman and Katty Kay

Giving Up?  Don’t You Dare!

Claire Shipman, a reporter for ABC News, and Katty Kay, the anchor of BBC World News, made a case in the May 2014 magazine, The Atlantic, that women are still their own worst enemy. Their message received a lot of play on morning news and talk shows and in the newspapers around the country. At the risk of over simplifying their argument, what I took from their well documented essay is that women are more intent at minding their manners, stepping aside from their own dreams when challenged, working hard without taking credit and hoping that someone will notice and reward them for their efforts. One could easily extrapolate that the majority of girls show the same behavioral patterns. Shipman and Kay are correct in their beliefs that women today have as good of an education, maybe better, than the majority of men do and that women hold more undergraduate and graduate degrees than do men.

All for naught. The average man still gets farther with less stellar credentials and with the same or less work experience as a woman may have when it comes to salaries, benefits and promotions. So what is the problem?

I covered much of the same ground in my book Finding Center: Strategies to Build Strong Girls and Women (2007). I provided a quiz for readers to take to measure the agentic characteristics of independent girls and young women with the hope that if more young women and their mothers and fathers were aware of them, they would be in a better position of practicing the very behaviors which lead to confidence. In another chapter that speaks to women as assets, I asked that adults tell the truth to girls and young women: that education counts, that full-time work counts more than part-time work, that women can balance full-time work and children without ruining their children, that girls/women must become financially savvy around the basics of making and handling their own money and retirement investments, and that women must simply get comfortable with and skilled in the art of negotiation.

In graduate classes of professional men and women and in workshops for women of all ages, I have found that girls and women are uncomfortable and ill-equipped to negotiate for their own needs, wants and desires to build their own lives. They are easily backed away and down when confronted with the age-old accusations that they are selfish, unrealistic, or could not possibly accomplish what they want. They are easily swayed to give up their ambitions, stay close to home if not in the home or to stay away from a path that involves the direct competition with other boys and men. What brings blood to my face when I contemplate this pattern of control is that too many girls and women throw their dreams away before they have  given themselves a chance to explore how they might build those very dreams.

I maintained then as I do now that girls and women are of equal value as human capital. The society that both men and women live in today is light years away from the world of their parents and grandparents. Yet, much of the mindset and most of the policies have not changed to address the nature of today’s work place, the needs of families, and obligations tied to the care and nurturing of our young children and to the largest generation of aging adults in American history.


Confidence is grown from trying, failing, trying again and succeeding. Confidence comes from increasing one’s capacity to negotiate by understanding that negotiation does not mean getting everything you want all of the time or by getting all of the new deal without giving up some of the old ways. One cannot retreat into the past when it is comfortable when what may be necessary is to acquire new behaviors and responsibilities. A girl cannot learn to become a skilled soccer player by quitting when her knees or ego get bloodied or by choosing to sit in the stands and watch. Staying in the game is what confidence requires. Negotiation does not mean destroying another to get what you may want but rather skilled negotiation involves compromise, building new skills and patterns of behaviors to get things done whether what needs to be done is taking care of children or for competing for a coveted job opportunity.

“In studies, men overestimate their abilities and performance, and women underestimate both. Their performances do not differ in quality.”

“What doomed the women was not their actual ability to do well on the tests. They were as able as the men were. What held them back was the choice not to try.”

Claire Shipman & Katty Kay
Closing the Confidence Gap

Shipman and Kay are on the mark when they say boys and men do not hold themselves up to a perfect standard before they try: they just “do” and learn from doing. They are not more skilled or more capable than girls and women.  What they do is to try, fall down, talk it through with a boy pack, get back up and get out there again. And, they are able to talk about what they learned from the process of trial and error and success.

If you are a girl or a woman thinking about giving up on your dream, I challenge you with this. Don’t you dare! Get out there. Form a team. Find a mentor. And if you don’t know where or how to start, then find a girl or woman who has done what you want to do and ask her to help you begin. And until you are able to do that, get on your computer and enter these words: how to build confidence in girls and women. Hit enter.

A Mother’s Birthday ~ Mine




Today, June 4th, would have been my mother’s 94th birthday. Her name was Helen Lorraine Windt Mack.  I did not have many birthday celebrations with her, mine or hers, as she died at the age of 35. I have written extensively about her in a published essay that garnered a Pushcart Prize nomination so won’t detail in this post. She was born in Mellen, Wisconsin but moved to Ashland when her parents relocated at some point in her elementary school years. She attended and graduated from DePadua Catholic High School in Ashland. I have her school report cards, high school yearbooks with friend’s signatures and wishes and her address book with entries in her cursive handwriting that documents her interests, friends and families. My father gave me her black and white photo album that she created of photographs that she took. Years ago, I traced her path back to Madeline Island where she worked as a bookkeeper with the Russell Ferry Business and where many of the pictures were taken. She was one of many who roomed at Gram’s Johnson’s boarding house although I did not find that out until two years ago after I saw her name included in the on line census of La Pointe,WI.

Many of the artifacts and most of her story came to me by others during a ten year active process of finding out who my mother had been, how she came to be on Madeline Island, what her favorite colors were and what had caused such an early death. When I began the search, I had no idea of the people who would step up to fill in part of her story or who would send a letter, photographs, and original records to my house. But the jewel I obtained from the process I could have never predicted: I got back a mother. And I got back a major part of myself.

I find it so sad when someone tells me that their life story is too painful to investigate and who refuse to revisit the places of their childhood or family so they do not have to confront the pain that discovering part of their story may require. We have all seen the stories on television of people finding their roots back through the generations and how significantly their lives are impacted by such discovery. But what I have found to be the richest reward is the connection to others who were also on the same stage at a particular point in time, in history and who connect back to the loved one whose story is being searched.

Maybe that is why our mother’s birthdays tug at us so strongly even when we try our hardest to ignore them. The beginning of each of our stories begins with a mother.