Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Stop Climbing Everest

Two months ago, four climbers died attempting to reach the summit of Mount Everest. They were caught in a sort-of traffic jam of 150 climbers. Each had spent approximately $25,000 on the trek.

Several years ago I read John Krakauer’s book, Into Thin Air, which chronicled the real-life, tragic journey the author made in 1996 to the top of Mount Everest. It was riveting and masterfully written, but also a journey through the selfish obsessions of well-healed, yet bored westerners who’ve lived lives of such detached comfort they’re desperate for an experience that will prove they’re still alive. Problem is, eight of them weren’t alive when Krakauer’s trip was over.
I finished the book puzzling over why anyone would want to risk death climbing Everest. Is it the same urge that makes a sheltered girl want to date the dangerous boy – the same giddy hunger that makes seemingly normal people bungee jump? Maybe. Truth is, there are lots of intoxicating, heart pounding thrills short of climbing Everest. But death defying roller coasters are for weekend warriors, Fight Club was just a movie, running with the bulls in Pamplona is an easy-in, easy-out tourist jaunt and parachuting is so routine now it’s safer than crossing Conner Street on foot during rush hour.

Climbing Everest is the ultimate high-risk experience. It requires weeks acclimating yourself to the altitude. There’s cool stuff like backpacks, mountain climbing gear and oxygen canisters. Add in life threatening weather, chances of a quarter mile vertical fall to your death and air so thin it acts on the brain much the same as a bottle of scotch and a handful of quaaludes, and you’ve got the makings of a real laugh-in-the-face-of-death experience.

For all the adventure, the people who die on Everest these days are still husbands, wives, fathers, sons and daughters. They risk their lives for the ultimate adventure. But leaving your child fatherless for the sake of a thrill baffles me. I understand completely why pioneers traveled into the western wilderness. Their survivors can proudly say, “They died looking for a better life.” I understand why astronauts go into space. The survivors of those who don’t make it home can proudly say, “They died trying to broaden man’s understanding of the universe.” But what do the survivors of those who died on Everest say about their deceased loved one who went searching to fill the unnamed void in their lives? “My Daddy died climbing Everest because he had an itch he couldn’t scratch?”

What’s the motivation? They’re not the first to climb the mountain. It won’t save mankind or Nepal from misery. If the cure for cancer were in a bottle at the summit, I’d understand. If the solution to world hunger were written on a piece of paper and trapped beneath a boulder at the mountain’s peak, I’d offer to go along, or at least help pay for the oxygen tanks. But those answers are not there, just as the explanations don’t exist for the widows and widowers whose spouses needed to climb Everest to prove themselves – test their metal. “Because it’s there,” doesn’t cut it for me.

If these folks feel the need to escape their mundane lives and accomplish a daunting task (an urge I understand completely) there are problems that desperately need the kind of time, money and energy that gets wasted on Everest every year. There are villages without clean water, drug-infested neighborhoods without hope, homeless people who need houses and children who can’t read. Imagine the difference that could be made in a community if the people who climbed Everest with John Krakauer focused all that time, money and energy on those types of problems. It would be an event worthy of planting a flag, raising a fist in the air, and triumphantly posing for a picture.

The fool-hardy adventure seeking doesn’t end on Everest. Every time millionaire Steve Fossett tried to fly his balloon around the world I wondered not only why he’s doing it, but also why the media paid any attention. I understand the value of Lindberg crossing the Atlantic – it helped push the boundaries of a revolutionary technology. But flying a balloon around the world in this new century will prove what? Why not circle the globe on a pogo stick? Would that be any less difficult or dangerous?

To Krakauer’s credit he routinely questioned the wisdom of dragging tourists, like himself, up Everest, and in fact actually regretted the journey. Still, he admits to having entertained the desire to climb the peak for years. Personally, I was left thinking that no matter where you live, there are far more rational mountains to climb, mountains that do not risk death, but are more likely to enrich life.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Teacher Bashing for Idiots

It’s been ten years since I drove to the school where I taught and handed in my resignation letter. I spent sixteen and a half years in the classroom of a school system forty miles and two counties away. It was an indescribable joy not to return that last fall, only the fourth autumn since 1965 when I hadn’t started a new school year as either a student or teacher.

For the first several months I had recurring dreams that I showed up for school weeks late. Students had been coming to my room and waiting all that time. The principal was mad. I would wake up to the relief that, no, I didn’t have to do that anymore.

Funny that in those dreams, somebody was always mad at me or I was behind schedule with something.

Why did I leave teaching? Aside from personally feeling that I didn’t fit the profession, I was tired of the top-down way schools are often managed. In my school system, big changes were ushered in from above, changes that would dictate what happened in the classroom. While you’d think that the farmers, insurance agents, and lawyers on the school board would ask the teachers, “How might this work in your classroom?” we got edicts instead: “Make this work in your classroom.” I gather from others in the profession that it’s much that way in other school systems.

I’d like to think it’s different in Noblesville schools. From a parent’s perspective I’ve been very happy with the schools my children have attended here. But the angry tone of the state-wide and national debates on education suggests that many are dissatisfied. And teachers are easy targets.

I friend of mine who teaches in Noblesville Schools has a reputation among students, parents, and fellow teachers as the best of the best. He comes in early, leaves late, and inspires kids during the hours inbetween. He confided over coffee one morning recently that when he goes for breakfast with his father’s retired cronies, they criticize and attack teachers as lazy, union troublemakers. To know how good he is, how hard he works – and that he takes that kind of abuse from men who haven’t been in a classroom since the Kennedy administration – well, it hurts your heart how stupid and opinionated some people can be, both at once.

We Americans have a contradictory relationship with teachers and education that is best expressed by the advice I got from my father. 1) Education is of the utmost importance, and 2) Don’t become a teacher – there’s no respect and little pay.

Though at very important times I didn’t take either piece of that advice, I know now both are true. And what a shame that is. We pay a terrible price in this country for giving lip service to the first part of that advice and perpetuating the second. Our apathy sometimes makes the first part a joke and the second part a reality.

How can this nation expect to have good schools if we refuse to give teachers the pay and respect they deserve? Why we gladly pay our home run hitters and field goal kickers millions while bickering over every tenth of a percent raise we give teachers is a mystery almost too embarrassing to contemplate. It’s not a compliment to our culture, but in its own tiny way, says something revealing about what we really value.

One of the problems for teachers is that nearly every adult has spent more than a decade in the classroom as a student. We think we know what teaching is all about because we each watched it for so long. But what we all know deep inside, but don’t always give teachers credit for, is that watching and doing are two very different things. Being a bad teacher is easy – and we all knew a few. But being a good teacher is very, very hard – and most teachers I’ve known were good. And those good ones usually changed our lives in some way. Withholding appropriate pay and respect from a large number of good teachers because of a small number of bad ones is a near-criminal mistake.

And a look at what opportunistic political forces have done to teachers in this country in the aftermath of the economic collapse triggered on Wall Street truly terrifies me for the soul of our country. Rich, overpaid, well-placed bankers drove our economy to the brink. We bailed them out with billions in taxpayer dollars. You’d think we’d be focused on Wall Street reform, reregulation, and criminal charges, but no. In the years since, conservative forces have obstructed regulation of Wall Street, while instead launching a nation-wide, state-by-state campaign attacking the pay and benefits of teachers (not to mention firefighters and policemen). How underpaid and unappreciated teachers got to be the focus of political attack at a time like this is bemusing. Reminds me a little of a magician waving his hand with a broad flourish in front of your face to distract you from what he’s doing with the other hand behind his back.

It’s odd that I ever become a teacher, considering I hated school as a little kid. To this day the theme song to the Lassie TV series puts a knot in my stomach. Lassie ran on Sunday nights, and Sunday night was right before Monday morning – and school. The sadness of that melody perfectly matched how I felt about school as a kid. But though I was a slow learner, hard working teachers helped me learn to love education.

There’s a feeling of guilt about having left the teaching profession, as if I’m a cowardly soldier who fled the front lines, leaving my comrades to face battle alone. There are so many great teachers in the school system I left. Maybe another twinge of regret comes from feeling I didn’t have what it takes to stick it out in that sometimes beleaguered, yet admirable profession.

But at the very least I can stand up for them when I hear the foolish and uneducated use them as scapegoats for state budget overruns, lazy parenting, and those who say they value education but somehow think they’ll get there by blindly bashing those who provide it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Stuck In Indiana

In the past few years I’ve encountered a number of people in their 20s or 30s who feel stuck in Indiana.

They’ve lived in California or New York or a place that spoke to a personal interest – maybe a live-music Mecca like Austin or Nashville, or a culinary hot spot like New Orleans or San Francisco. They may work in a high tech industry and now feel isolated from Silicon Valley, or their hobbies revolve around water or hiking, but now they live far from the mountains or the beach.

Most of these folks came home to Indiana at a moment of life transition to be near family or to start a family. They took a job here, maybe got married or had a child - got dug in, and now they lament that Indiana isn’t really a hotbed of anything. The exciting environment they once enjoyed elsewhere feels out of reach.

I’ll admit to getting a little defensive when these folks go on about how fabulous life is somewhere else. Because it’s never just an appreciation of somewhere else, but also a criticism of here – my home.

Maybe I’m defensive because I too came home to Indiana from far away in my 20s and found my home state wanting. I felt stuck. But I got married, had children, and built a life for myself. When someone in the same situation finds it unbearable, maybe deep down inside it feels like an indictment of the choice I made.

But at the same time, I’m sympathetic with their frustration.

Last month I spent a few days in Asheville, North Carolina. It’s a beautiful place in the mountains (which we don’t have here), named by the New York Times as one of the 10 best American cities for quality restaurants (Indianapolis didn’t make the list), has more micro-breweries per capita than any other city in the U.S. (my town has just one), and is a lefty-liberal town filled with beautiful architecture (while we’ve got some nice architecture, it’s pretty red around here). Since returning home I’ve told about a dozen people that I could quite happily move to Asheville.

But I have to remind myself what I say to those 20 & 30-somethings: “If everybody who wants a more diverse and dynamic community moves somewhere else, this place – your hometown, is guaranteed to be less diverse and dynamic. We’ll never have mountains or the ocean a half hour drive away, but it’s at least conceivable we could have everything else.

But how much of your life are you willing to spend waiting for it, nurturing it, promoting it, when you could just move to one of those inspiring places and have it on day one?

And I don’t mean to make this a political thing, but it’s a glaring reality that most of the artistically & socially dynamic city’s around the country are “lefty-liberal” places (my term) – places where the artsy and left-of-center folks have clustered to share their interest with like-minded people, often nurtured by a nearby university.

Think Bloomington.

So if you’re feeling stuck among too many people who don’t share your world-view, you’re not alone. The residents of most compelling places are frustrated with what they’re surrounded by. A liberal friend considered moving to Athens, Georgia because it was such a cool place, never mind it’s smack dab in the heart of a very conservative state with a less than stellar civil rights history. Everyone raves about Austin, but it’s in the gun-toting/death-penalty capital of America – Texas. And Wisconsin’s former governor referred to the popular college town of Madison as, “30 square miles surrounded by reality.” Even in Asheville last month, they were lamenting their state’s recent passage of an anti-gay marriage referendum. Store fronts, sidewalk graffiti, and telephone pole placards wept with outrage.

Most dynamic communities in America amount to acreage surrounded by “reality.” In other words, they’re places that the residents make compelling by doing and supporting what others find unreasonable or unnecessary. They have the best farmers markets, the best restaurants, the best festivals, the best live music and art venues, the most livable, pedestrian-friendly communities. Yet, for some reason, creating it and supporting it at home doesn’t occur to lots of Hoosiers.

It’s here though, in bits and pieces. But if you don’t support it, what good is it? And if you don’t support it, how can it flourish?

I have a variety of friends who I seek to spend my time with because they seek out the compelling. A week ago I went to see Joseph Arthur – a nationally successful alternative rock musician, at Radio Radio in Fountain Square. That group of people go off to see great small shows like this all the time, shows that often don’t sell out because most Hoosiers don’t see going out to live music as a regular part of their lives (most instead attend big arena shows on rare occasions when their favorite band from high school or college comes through town). I went with the same group to the mid-west Brew Fest in February where we tasted beers from microbreweries from around the state.

Another group of friends are foodies who seek out independent restaurants and food producers doing interesting things. And they find it here in central Indiana. You may have to do a little driving, but it’s here.

Another friend started an outdoor climbing, hiking, and canoeing outfitters store to nurture like-minded folks. And yet another friend has established a growing group of women who see childrearing, healthcare, and female empowerment a little differently than the norm. With self-deprecating humor they insist they are not, “dirty hippies.”

All of these folks are creating their own unique world, expending energy, following their passion, drawing the world they want closer to them.

Sure, it’s a very American thing to just pull up roots and go replant yourself somewhere else. But I think there’s also something to be said for embracing where you are, blowing on the embers of what you like about it, and trying to make it grow.

So you 20 & 30-somethings who are feeling stuck in Indiana, I understand, and I don’t really blame you if you leave, but think long and hard before you start packing. It’s possible that the assumption that what you want isn’t here is the main reason you can’t find it.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Two Parents & Two Children

The second trip to the neurologist was at the end of a journey that started with anguished visits to our family doctor, trips to a psychologist, John Rosemond parenting lectures, and reading just about every book about parenting on the shelves in Noblesville’s library. Why, after years of persistent discipline, why couldn’t we control our son’s impulsive behavior? And why did he bite his lip nervously for days until it bled? When we trained that away, why did he begin twirling his hair between a finger and thumb until there was a bald spot? When we trained that away, why did the next odd thing begin?

When the neurologist told us our son had Tourette Syndrome, I was stunned.

Driving home with that sullen boy in the back seat, tears ran down my cheeks as I thought of the times I’d angrily disciplined a child who often, apparently couldn’t control his behavior. The diagnosis explained a lot – like why punishment worked with our other two kids, but too often not with this one.

When we asked what the future held, the doctor casually said, “Well, sometimes it just disappears when they’re teenagers.” That sounded like the cheapest consolation lie I’d ever heard.

That was more than a dozen years ago. Last Monday I drove to a Japanese grocery/restaurant in Castleton with that boy. He is 23 how, just graduated from college with a degree in Japanese. Cal is six foot-two, handsome, well-spoken, well-read, and has a freakishly broad taste in music. That day he was seeking the ingredients to make authentic ramen noodles as good as those he came to love while studying in Japan last year.

In that oddball grocery, a place filled with shrimp-flavored chips, fish sausage, quail eggs and frozen squid, I got a text from a friend, Alison, asking if I was coming to the cookout she and her husband were having that evening. She hoped I’d bring my son by to meet her son.

I first met Alison and her husband Christian in a bar last winter. After a long talk about hybrid ethnic music acts like Balkan Beat Box, we talked about our kids and realized we both had a child with Tourette’s; theirs - 10 years old, and mine - all grown up. Alison asked if I'd bring my son over sometime. Perhaps present a roll model? Proof of what was possible?

As Cal and I sat down to eel sushi and noodles in a little diner corner of the grocery, I asked if he’d like to stop by Alison and Christian’s house later. He offered a quick, “Sure.” On the ride home we talked about Cal’s sometimes difficult childhood and tried to imagine what Alison’s son was experiencing. I recalled that most of Cal’s elementary teachers probably hated him by the end of the school year. He remembered the stuttering, the nervous ticks, and the impulsive behavior that so often got him into trouble.

A few hours later we grab a large bottle of Belgian Ale from the fridge and go to Alison’s house. We find her in the kitchen making humus, preparing for her cookout. Her little boy, Seth appears and listens quietly to our chitchat as I open the beer and pour three glasses. He has a bright and eager face, like he knows something he needs desperately to share. Cal towers over us all with a tanned face and his happy, confident manner. His hands are in his pockets and a small backpack is slung over his shoulder.

The neurologist had been right. During his teens the Tourette’s simply evaporated.

Seth reaches out to Cal holding a small Star Wars figure and asks with an urgent, almost breathless challenge, “Do you know who this is?” Cal smiles and quickly answers, “Mace Windu.” He takes the light saber-wielding figure and examines it. In moments they disappear to Seth’s room to see his other toys.

Though an adult now, Cal will know the name of every toy and can sit cross-legged on the floor and play with them quite happily. It is his way. And in this century-old house in Old Town he is at home. He grew up in places like this. He understands Seth’s life more than a little.

Alison loads the food processor with garbanzo beans and roasted red peppers and we begin to unload about our boys. I am reminiscing about desperate, worrisome matters from the past, but this woman in her early 30s is right in the thick of it. She runs her fingers back through her dark hair and speaks with the firm resolve of a mother who’s cried her tears, done her homework, and intends to find the best path. She reminds me of Cal’s mother, and me a little, all those years ago. I lean back against the stove, sip my beer and respond with the names of drugs he took, the side affects, discipline techniques, positive vs. negative reinforcement – and details of life with a child who, try as he may, just wasn’t entirely like other children.

In the living room, Cal and Seth have set up an old-school video gaming system and are killing bad guys. A 10 year old and a 23 year old, having a brief play date.

Alison and I are dipping pita bread and carrots into the fresh humus, sharing stories of the nurturing successes with our children and struggles with those who don’t or won’t understand. I recall a middle school counselor who said that Cal’s mother and I needed to, “stop coddling our child and teach him the meaning of consequences.” Good thing for him it isn’t socially unacceptable to choke a school administrator.

An elegant, vine-like tattoo winds down Alison’s right shoulder and a swan is tattooed on the other. She is a “hand-talker,” gesturing broadly as she speaks, as if drawing a map in the air of the emotional and tactical places she and Christian and Seth have been on their journey. It is clear how much she loves her son.

I suppose raising any child requires the drawing of a one-of-a-kind map – a sometimes make-it-up-as-you-go map. Plotting the route for a child with Tourette’s is harder, fraught with special heartaches and frustrations. There is the fear of drawing a failed map, regrets over the wrong roads taken to dead-ends or dark places, and a desperate hope of eventually getting to an acceptable destination.

I tell Alison, “As a child Cal got so used to disappointing and irritating people, but it always amazed me that he didn’t withdraw. Instead he kept coming back and trying to connect.”

Alison smiles broadly and nods, “Seth is the exact same way.”

The visit was too short. Alison had a cookout to host and Cal and I had a family dinner to get to. I really have no idea if Cal or Seth got a thing out of it, but I know I did.

When you work so hard to understand and provide what your child needs, it breaks your heart when the world you send them into is thoughtless or impatient and needlessly hurtful. And when you’re a struggling parent there is a feeling that no one understands, that your child’s problems reflect a failing in you, a weakness in your parenting.

Those worries are in the past for me. It all turned out just fine. Still, there’s something healing in being reminded of that, and knowing that you have something to share with a parent and a child who have much of the journey still ahead of them.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Measuring The Distance From Home

Back in the mid-‘90s my mother asked me to go to an auction. It was at a house in Warren, Indiana where she lived as a girl. “When we cleaned the place out back in the ‘60s, the only thing the family didn’t take was a big oak wardrobe,” she said over the phone. “It’s in the sale. Thought you might like to have it.”

I don’t turn down free stuff. I went.

We arrived to find the cabinet in the back yard crowded with other furniture. There was a tent set up in the yard filled with tables of what auctioneers call “items too numerous to mention.” While the auctioneer started on linens, we went through the house.
Scattered memories flooded my mind. The house was Italianate, a style popular in the Midwest in the 1870’s & ‘80s. My great-great grandfather built it. I remember running my hands along the curved hallway wall when I was a child and a Christmas visit when I tormented my great aunt’s cat and it turned on me, leaving me bleeding and crying.
My mother stopped and stared at the ceiling. “When I was a girl, the ceiling collapsed,” she said, looking up. “Bees got in under the clapboards and built a hive between the floor joists. The honey got so heavy and the plaster so gooey . . . bees and honey everywhere.”
We bought hot dogs at the Kiwanis booth and sat on the front porch steps. The auctioneer started on glassware.

“My father - your grandfather, lived here when he was a boy,” she said wistfully. “He told me once about the first car they got,” she smiled, looking at the gingerbread woodwork overhead. “His father told them he was going to buy a car before he came home that night, so they waited here on this porch before dinner. Finally they heard the Model-T come ‘round the corner, and there was my father’s father behind the wheel.

“My father, only about 8 years old, ran out to the street, but his dad didn’t stop, he went on around the block. A moment later he came ‘round the corner once more and again, didn’t stop. On the third go ‘round, he yelled, ‘I can’t stop this thing!’

“On the fourth go ‘round my father ran alongside the car and jumped in, worked the peddles for his dad and got it stopped. My grandfather never drove that Model-T again. My dad used it though. He was just a kid, but he got a job delivering pies for a bakery. He’d sit on his mother’s lap in the front seat. She’d work the peddles and he steered and they delivered pies.”

The auctioneer was working his way toward the backyard. My mother stood and stepped back to look at the house. “I remember coming home from a party when I was a girl and sitting on this porch and telling my mother about all the fun I’d had. She just shook her head and said, ‘You kids don’t know how to have fun.’”
“Your mother was born in 1907 and she said you didn’t know how to have fun?” I asked, incredulous. “When was this?”
“Oh, I don’t know . . . 1940s.”
We went back to bid on the cabinet and paid more than it was worth in dollars. A young couple was bidding against us. Made me feel bad. There was no way they were going to get it.

The cabinet broke down into 4 pieces. Three sections made up the big clothes-hanging body on top. This sat on a low base cabinet with 2 drawers. When I dismantled it and loaded it in my truck, I found a wooden ruler in the bottom drawer – the kind with imprinted black numerals and a metal spine. I studied it for a moment. In a child’s handwriting, the name “Jack” had been scrawled across it. I handed it to my mother. Her mouth dropped open.
“My brother Jack kept his things in that drawer when we were kids, during the depression,” she said.
While I finished moving the cabinet, my mother walked about the crowded yard, clutching the ruler in her hand.
At home, in my house, there was a new baby named Jack. Since my uncle Jack had recently died, it seemed right somehow.
We pulled away from the house and drove down the streets my mother had known so well in her youth, past the theater where she once worked, making her a trivia expert on movies and actors from the 1940s. She brought me here often when I was small. I remember the hat shop and the drug store soda fountain.
“I remember you cleaning out the house after your aunt and uncle were killed in that car accident,” I told my mother as we crossed over the bridge at the edge of town and drove past the grain silos. “You yelled at me for sliding down the banister. Remember?”
“No, I don’t remember. I was in a daze,” she said. “Trying to accept that my aunt and uncle were gone . . . and I wanted the piano, but your father didn’t want to move it.”        

“Thanks for the cabinet, Mom,” I said, patting her hand. She smiled, then looked back out the window, clutching the ruler in her hand.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Segregation On The Beach

Making my way across the soft sand, headed for the water’s edge for a few mile walk, I’m immediately greeted by the sun-drenched spring-breakers between the age of 16 and 22. They are everywhere, lounging, tanning, drinking, and gathered in massive clusters of 50-100 shouting and singing and screaming to one another.

As I walk between the waves and the high rises, I also notice that most of the black folks are in their groups and most of the whites are in theirs. Not a lot of mixed groups.

Next door to our unit I’ve seen a group of black college boys taking out their trash and icing down their beer. A couple doors further on there’s a room filled with white college boys doing the same. I assume what I see here is a reflection of their circle of friends and family at home. The segregation started way before we all got to the beach.

With the Trayvon Martin case so much in the news it’s hard not to ponder this segregation; the where and the why of it, and what it does to our perceptions of one another.

Reading the New York Times yesterday, clicking through CNN, FOX, MSNBC once I got here, and listening to NPR thru headphones on the drive down from Indiana, the punditry is in full bloom, like this early spring, the opinions are as predictable as the progress of foliage on the roadside. FOX News of course defends the shooter, George Zimmerman. MSNBC of course defends Trayvon. And everybody else does what the news media generally does – brings both side together for a “debate” made up of angry accusations. As usual, NPR is the most balanced and thoughtful.

Like the segregation on the beach, we bring our biases with us wherever we go.

Around me, I note the sides people take in this debate are generally informed by what they believed long before Zimmerman shot Trayvon on that dark and confusing night in Sanford, Florida. On Facebook, a loose-cannon former student of mine whose status updates mostly offer irrational hatred for the president, suggested last week that Jesse Jackson and Alan Sharpton should be shot for inciting racial hatred. Endless others assume that Zimmerman and the Sanford police are racists.

On an NPR call-in show, a listener says, “I can pretty clearly imagine what happened.” The man, whose name and accent tags him as white, explains a scenario in which Zimmerman felt threatened, unfortunately panicked, and shot Trayvon. The host asks if the man has inside information about the event. “No,” he says, “I can just imagine how it happened.”

No doubt black folks can imagine something quite different.

A week before heading to the beach I showed a house to the owner of a Noblesville pizza restaurant. During the showing a young black employee called to say he would be late to work. Heading to work after classes at Ivy Tech he’d been pulled over by Carmel police. They made him step out and then searched his car, dug under the seats, ransacked the trunk, scoured the glove box. They found his insurance had lapsed and impounded his car.

Within the Indianapolis African American community, Carmel police a reputation for pulling blacks over for DWB: Driving While Black.

Standing in the kitchen of the house, the pizza shop owner (who is white and young) anxiously questioned his employee, “Did you ask them why they pulled you over in the first place? And they didn’t answer? That’s bullshit! You’re down there, right? You walk right downtown to the police station and insist that they tell you why they pulled you over in the first place. Do you have somebody that can pick you up and bring you to work?”

He hangs up his cell phone, purses his lips, and shakes his head at me. “I’m sick and tired of my black drivers being pulled over in Hamilton County,” he says. “The cops always find a reason after the fact, but never have a reason in the first place. Doesn’t happen to my white drivers. Explain that.”

Frustrated, he turns back to the issues at hand – the house, and we silently move on to examine a first floor bedroom. No sooner have we passed the threshold he turns to me and asks rhetorically, “Why, why, why? I just don’t understand why it has to be this way.” He’s not talking about the house. He’s talking about what his black delivery drivers face everyday.

Yes, blacks experience a different world than we white folk do. And it’s usually subtle and gentle and easy to deny.

A fellow Realtor shared an unsettling story about a client of his – a black doctor who bought a $700,000+ home in an upscale area around Geist Reservoir. The agent called his client a month after closing to ask how his family was enjoying the new house. “Love the house,” the doctor said, “but not the commute.”

“The commute’s not so far,” the agent replied.

The doctor, who drives a new Jaguar said, “I’m pulled over by the police at least once a week as I enter the area of gated and exclusive communities near my home. The cops never seem to have a real reason. They look at my driver’s license, my registration, proof of insurance, say something about driving too fast or sliding threw a stop sign. But considering I’m pulled over once a week, I don’t speed and don’t slide threw stop signs. And they never write me a ticket.”

Whites who don’t participate in this kind of behavior have nothing to feel guilty about or apologize for. But we sure as hell ought to sympathize rather than dismiss what African Americans face in our communities.

What do I believe about the Trayvon story? I’m waiting for the full story to come out. I neither automatically accept what Zimmerman says nor what Trayvon’s family says. If I was either of them, with the international media spotlight crammed in my face and so many angry people taking sides without all the facts, I’d be saying what they’re saying. I’d be playing defense.

As I walk the beach headed back to the condo I notice a scrum of perhaps 75 kids along the water in the blazing sunshine and heat. In the crowd I see a couple Noblesville kids – been seeing them everywhere. I scan the crowd for my daughter and her friends. This group is mixed. About 75% white – 25% black. That’s encouraging. And I consider our progress. There is no beach with a sign that says, Whites Only. And as I’ve already said, the hotel is a colorful mix of people. That’s way different than the world I was born into back in 1960.

And I try to imagine myself on that sidewalk in that gated community in this southern state. If I was walking at night and someone parked a car near me and began following me, I would be afraid and would prepare to defend myself – no matter their color. And if I saw a suspicious person walking in my neighborhood – as I often do at home, I would not grab a gun and start following them. In fact I don’t know anyone who would do that. That amounts to begging for trouble. This wasn’t a war zone for Gods sake, it was a gated community! And if hoodies make kids look suspicious, then every single kid in Noblesville High School and in every high school in America is suspicious . . . and a hellova lot of adults, too. The only thing that’s certain: some tragic decisions were made that night, perhaps by both Zimmerman and Martin.

We all bring our pre-disposed biases to this issue. And to the beach.

I leave the water’s edge and trudge the soft white powder toward the scrub-grass and the condo high-rise complex beyond. Approaching the wooden ramp I see a white woman, perhaps 70 years old, sitting with a book in her lap and a sun visor pulled over her gray hair. She could be any woman in my mostly white community back in Indiana, at a Tri-Kappa meeting, or in the church fellowship hall after church, or at a coffee shop book club group. Nearby, a black man about the same age with salt and pepper receding hair has taken off his flower print shirt and shakes the sand from it. As I approach he puts his shirt back on, walks toward the women and sits in the empty beach chair beside her. Without taking her eyes from the book she reaches out and takes his hand gently, lovingly.

They are a couple, perhaps married, enjoying the beach.

Being the kind of man who constantly looks for common threads and connected meaning, and having thought hard and felt sad about all these things during my walk on the beach, I pass them with a smile and take the ramp to the foot wash with a tingle running up the back of my neck. It’s a wash of emotion not just in recognition of the distance we push between ourselves and other human beings who are different from us, but also for those who reach out to bridge that distance. As I rinse my feet I think of the Tracy Chapman song, Across The Lines:

“Across the lines,
Who would dare to go?
Under the bridge,
Over the tracks,
That separates whites from blacks”

Monday, March 12, 2012

My Virtual Office

A couple weeks ago my company sent a sales award for last year’s production. I looked at the big envelope, bemused. I couldn’t decide whether to throw it away or save it. I’ve got a box of these things in the garage somewhere. But the idea of having an office wall to hang such stuff on just seems, well . . . dated.

The reality is, I don’t have an office and an increasing number of professionals don’t, at least not outside of the home. My office is my car or whatever restaurant or coffee shop I choose to work in. My office furniture is a backpack with a laptop in it and a smart phone in my pocket. I work often in the evening on the couch at home, but I rarely, rarely sit at a real desk to work.

A decade ago I built my real estate career as a “mobile agent,” hauling around a fat briefcase on wheels, looking forever like I was headed to the airport. I carried active files and blank documents. Eventually I got so busy, had so many files I had to take an office at Tucker’s location here just to keep everything in one place. But technology has evolved enough in just the past few years that I gave up that office in December, took all those sales awards off the wall, boxed them up and stored them away.

Truth is I spent less and less time in that office in the past couple years.

Now all the files are on my computer and I access the blank documents via the cloud where my files get backed up whenever I’m connected to a wifi network. The sales awards are noted on my web site. Just as the smart phone led me to shed my suddenly redundant wristwatch and alarm clock, increasingly efficient technology has led me to shed my office.

Yes, I know, it’s important to be connected to people. But which people? As nice as my fellow agents are, I never, ever sold a house in my real estate office. Everybody there has a Realtor (themselves). I only sell houses out and about in the community around the people who actually buy them.

Watching TV and drinking a beer with a friend recently, my cell phone

chirped several times around 10:00. It was a client – a buyer eager to decide which house to buy. That a client would share home-buying ideas with me a solid hour past the time my mother always insisted was the latest possible for a polite phone call was just a measure of how the notion of an office – and having office hours for that matter, has collapsed.

And I’m learning to be pretty much fine with that. I didn’t respond to the texts until morning, but at least I knew what my client was thinking. Last Saturday morning, as I sat with friends at the coffee shop, a Realtor sent me a counter offer on that buyer’s home of choice. Using my phone I emailed the document to my client. No fax machine needed. Besides who uses fax machines anymore? Later that afternoon, on my way to the gym to workout, I got a call saying our counter offer was accepted. Before I got on the exercise bike I sent my buyer a text, “Congratulations, you just bought a house!” I ended up texting business details back and forth with him while I peddled.

My company still has a conference room I occasionally use, secretaries direct calls to my cell phone, and they maintain a room of computers, printers and scanners for my use. I pop in once a day, check my mail, make copies. At the corporate office there are techno-nerds tweaking the web site, marketing people promoting my listings, and attorneys on call if something goes wrong. So they’re still, kinda the sun around which I rotate, but I don’t need a physical office with them.

Jeremy is a 30-something salesman for a big printer and a member of my morning coffee shop gang. He recently left his Indianapolis employer where he had an office and took a new job with an out of state company with no local office. “Will you move?” I asked. “Nope,” he replied, “will just work from home.”

What about the synergy of being in the same room with co-workers?

I sold a house to a friend a little over a year ago and seeing how she conducted her work life from that new place helped me realize that my office was a waste of money and space. One Saturday evening last summer I cooked dinner in her kitchen while she worked directing an international team of specialists who were dismantling a company’s mainframe database and reassembling it in the cloud. With white, Apple ear buds in place, the mouthpiece hanging along her cheek, she stared into the laptop screen on a desk in her living room, watching distant activity and talking with an international assortment of distant co-workers. Twice during dinner she scurried back to the computer for a moment to check on progress. She doesn’t have an office at a company headquarters. Besides, that’s a couple thousand miles away in California.

Yes, the world is changing, and it doesn’t seem like something to fear.

I remember a PBS program in the late ‘80s in which a historian explained the operation of a Roman-era water-driven mill and followed the connected step-by-step advancements in technology through the centuries until he’d gotten to the computer. He ended with predictions for the future, one of which was that computers would allow people to work from home and commuting would become less necessary. Back then, pre-Internet and smart phone it seemed hard to imagine. But here it is.

My bosses worry about my choice to be a mobile agent. From the perspective of the past, it’s hard for them to imagine not having the office with the awards on the wall. But even now I look at the big, over-stuffed office chairs, the wood-grained credenzas filled with paper files, the back-up hard drives, the fat, white, big clunky computer monitors and the ancient landline phones and think it all just looks like an unnecessary burden.

Is that the same thing an early 20th Century car repairman felt when he looked at the old blacksmith’s shop? Maybe.

I know it can’t work for every professional, but being mobile seems to fit the nature of my sales career. That’s because I have no guaranteed paycheck. The paychecks are all out there, somewhere. I have to go get them.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Science of Fear

Few recent reads have amazed me as much as Daniel Gardner’s The Science of Fear. Using scientific studies Gardner examines in detail how fear works in the human psyche and then often gets misapplied in our lives.

As a regular consumer of news and information, I’ve long been convinced we often fear the wrong things while ignoring real dangers. Gardner confirmed a lot of my suspicions.

His first best example is fear of flying after 9/11. In the year after the terrorists attacks Americans avoided flying. Airlines struggled to stay afloat. When we could, we drove rather than flew. Yet, flying, even when factoring in terrorism is safer than driving. A study compared flying and driving statistics and increases traffic deaths in 2002. It estimated that 1,595 people needlessly died on America’s roads because they drove rather than flew in the year after 9/11.

Why do we make such bad choices about danger?

When a plane filled with 200 people crashes, our gut reacts and the event is indelibly imprinted in our memory. But when traffic deaths mount in a slow dribble – 1 at the edge of town, 3 a hundred miles away, and so on, we hardly notice. Yet, at the end of the year, for every 10,000 people who flew vs. those who drove, more will die in their cars than in a plane crash. Fear of flying in the year after 9/11 actually made travelers less safe.

How about silicon breast implants? They can leak and make women sick, right? We all know it to be true. Yet, Gardner goes looking for proof and finds that not one single medical study has been able to prove it. You’d never know it by following the issue. There were endless, emotional news stories of women, with tears in their eyes and agony in their faces relating how a ruptured implant led to a connective tissue disorder. It must be true, right? Lawyers saw an opportunity and filed lawsuits. As newspaper, television and magazine stories of ruptured implants and sick women mounted, public perception was universal; they’re dangerous! Manufacturers were forced to establish a $4.25 billion fund to settle suits ($1billion went to attorneys).

Gardner’s conclusion: “Humans are good with stories and bad with numbers.”

What numbers got lost in all the emotional stories of suffering women? The rate of connective tissue disorder in women who’ve never had implants is exactly the same as it is in those who did. That’s why the FDA has once again approved implants.

Gardner explains (with the help of volumes of social science studies) how dramatic, emotional media stories create a recognizable narrative. When future stories appear that create the impression of a trend, they’re reported no matter how meaningless the related story might be, giving us an impression of a trend much bigger than it is. After Timothy McVey blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the media dramatically increased their coverage of militia groups filled with angry white men with guns, no matter how unimportant the story or minimal the threat. It was part of the ongoing narrative. 9/11 broke that narrative and replaced angry white men with militant Muslims. Now actual terrorism committed by angry white men gets far less media attention than simple charges or suspicions of Muslim extremists.

Needless fear also gets stoked when danger is presented without context showing how dangerous it actually is. Fears of both child abduction and West Nile virus are great examples of dangers presented without context.

In 1999 West Nile virus became an exotic new threat and spread through eastern states. Media outlets tallied the death count daily. Public health official issued daily updates. Public fear spread. Yet, only 1 in 150 people who contract West Nile actually suffer any serious symptoms, and far, far fewer die. But news reports rarely gave that context. They instead said things like, “West Nile claimed it’s 18th victim today.” And 18 was the grand total of deaths from the virus in all of 2002. They didn’t offer any context, like 875 Americans die in a typical year choking on food – that’s over 48 times the threat of West Nile.

Where’s our daily report on choking?

Still, a 2002 Pew survey found that 70% of American were closely following the West Nile story even though the chances of getting it were tiny, chances of suffering symptoms were rarer still, and the chances of dying from it were statistically miniscule. Only 7% more (77%) were following the build-up to war with Iraq.

Few things scare a parent more than the threat of child abduction. We have Amber alerts, we have Anderson Cooper specials about bizarre abductions, we finger print children and train them in self-defense. Yet, the odds of a child being abducted by a stranger and never returned are freakishly rare.

Gardner documents routine claims by law enforcement officials, child advocacy groups, and the media claiming “50,000- 75,000 children were stolen from their parent’s arms each year.” He goes looking for the original source of these numbers and can’t find it. The phantom numbers were caught in a feedback loop. One group used them, another group sited the first group’s use of the numbers, and on and on until newspapers and TV anchors are reporting, “Child advocacy groups claim that 50,000-75,000 . . .”

Gardner instead found a 1999 study that finally laid out the actual numbers. That year 797,500 people under the age of 18 were reported missing. If you take that number, subtract the runaways and the family abductions (one parent or other family member taking a child in a custody dispute), and then subtract the 18 year old boyfriends who drove their 16 year old girlfriends across state lines, and concentrate on just stereotypical kidnappings of children under the age of 14, you’re left with only 90 cases.

But then the personal stories of those 90 kidnappings get reported over and over along with unfounded numbers, “50,000-70,000” thrown in for effect. Without the context we’re left thinking our children are in terrible danger. What are the real odds your child will be kidnapped? 1 in 608,696. But an American child is 2.5 times more likely to drown in a swimming pool and 26 times more likely to die in a car crash.

So why is there so much fear in our world and why do we spend so much energy fearing the wrong things and ignoring real dangers? Gardner states it pretty well; “We are safer and healthier than ever and yet we are more worried about injury, disease, and death than ever. Why? In part, it’s because there are few opportunities to make money from convincing people they are, in fact, safer and healthier than ever – but there are huge profits to be made promoting fear.”

Friday, February 10, 2012

Moving and Changing

We so often avoid change. Yet, it almost always does us good.

On my first day of kindergarten I avoided change I with a vengeance.

I was the youngest of four children, separated from the nearest sibling by three years, so I’d had my mother’s undivided attention a lot. The idea of going off to school like the big kids didn’t sound at all appealing.

To put it simply, I was not going.

Kindergarten was held in the basement of the Methodist Church four blocks from our house in the tiny Indiana town where we lived. On the appointed day my mother drug me out the door.

We progressed awkwardly down the sidewalk like a push-pull toy - her pushing, me trying to pull away. And finally I did. Halfway there I tore loose and ran home. Inside the living room, I slammed the front door and watched out the window. When my mother came onto the porch I turned the lock, then sat on the stairs listening to her angrily pound on the door and call my name.

I saw her shadow pass the side windows as she headed for the back door. I beat her there, locked it, then ran upstairs and sat on the top step, listening.

If you’ve ever done something impulsive, out of shear desire, or fear, knowing every step of the way that all hell would break loose, you know how I felt. I could hear my mother calling out, trying to reason with the five-year-old that I was. She laid out a simple case: Of course this couldn’t go on forever. My brother and sisters would come home from school, followed by my father from work. And he had a key. I imagined all five of them pounding on the door.

Reluctantly, I unlocked the door and was pulled, not doubt with tears and snot and dirt on my face all the way to the basement of the Methodist Church.

Once I got done crying and shrieking and pleading not to be left there, I had an absolutely wonderful time. It turns out I loved kindergarten. Who knew it was so much fun?

When my mother came for me at noon, I cried because I didn’t want to go home.

Three years later as I reached third grade my parents announced we were moving. A nicer, bigger house had been bought in the nearby nicer, bigger town without us children being told. There was work to do to get the new house ready, so we would live in our old house while work was being done on the new one. I don’t recall how I felt about it at first, but I clearly remember the first day of school.

On that first day my mother drove us to the new town. As we drove the streets of the only neighborhood I had ever known, our car passed my friends walking to school – my old school, without me. I was going off to the unknown.

Our new house was a block from the new elementary school. I arrived to a classroom full of strange children who studied me, the new kids, like I was an alien.

I had never felt so alone.

At lunch the principal, Mr. Tresch, a little banty-rooster of a man with a stern voice and a face like a clenched fist came to every table and made each child take a bite of each item on their plate. I was forced, in a horrific moment of terror to eat a brussel sprout.

If you’ve never eaten a steamed brussel sprout – and I hope to God you never have, don’t do it. It is as vile and repulsive as any vegetable that ever passed my lips. There was more red-faced gagging involved than I dare describe, lest I trigger the involuntary vomiting reflex in the reader, as it was quite nearly triggered in me.

My mother had told me to walk the block to our new house when school was out and wait for her. When school let out, children gathered at the street in front of the old brick school building. Four older kids with orange sashes laid across their chests stood on either side of the street holding long polls with bright read flags hanging from the ends. I walked on down the sidewalk away from the group, figuring I would cross at the next corner alone.

But halfway down the block I noticed the principal, Mr. Tresch (the brussel sprout Nazi), coming after me, calling my name. He grabbed me tightly by the back of the neck with one hand and pushed me, unnecessarily hard I might add, back to the crossing point with the crossing guards, forcing me to cross with the other children.

Other kids laughed and pointed as Mr. Tresch explained the proper, safe way to cross the street. I did as I was told and walked the block to the new house, my face hot with shame and wet with tears.

Once at the big brick house I climbed the porch steps of that strange place and let myself in through the big oak door. The massive, gloomy living room felt like a cavern. There was a gaping brick fireplace at one end, an endless expanse of oak floors that squealed and moaned when you walked across them, and a staircase at the opposite end. Feeling lonely, I called out for my mother, but she wasn’t there yet. I sat on the stairway, put my face in my hands, and cried.

For such a terrible start, things went better than I had any right to expect. In that neighborhood I made wonderful friends. I played Army in Dwight’s yard and home run derby in the street with Tom and Bill. Third and then fourth grade faded into middle school, which, whether you want it to or not fades into high school. In that town I would kiss my first girl, flip burgers at McDonalds, sing the lead in the school musical, and be student body president my senior year. I learned to love that old house that had seemed so lonely on that first day of school – learned to love the oak woodwork, the French doors, the wide, long, front porch that looked out over parades that marched down the street each summer.

And in my teens, when I passed the newly retired Mr. Tresch wearing Burmuda shorts and pulling weeds in his front yard, he didn’t look so menacing anymore.

After I got married and had children of my own, my children came to love that place as well. They spent weekends and holidays sleeping in the beds where I slept as a child, being spoiled by their grandparents, the same parents that I once thought so hard on me by making me move to this new house.

As the years passed there would be other moves; dorms, apartments and houses. Most came with eager anticipation. They weren’t forced, but chosen.

Sixteen years ago, when our oldest son, Cal was 7, my wife and I decided to move a block down the street from the first little house we restored in Noblesville. Now I was the one forcing a move. Though just a block away, it was a hard move for Cal.

Our house at 1242 Cherry Street was the only house Cal had ever known and when we moved to the new house he never mentioned being bothered. But a few weeks later the people who had bought our old home told us they often saw Cal in the alley behind their house. One day they saw him sitting on his bicycle, looking up at his old bedroom window with tears in his eyes. Being dear people, they invited him in and let him play video games on a computer in his old bedroom.

My wife and I have been separated for almost a year now. And we recently began moving back and forth between our houses so that our teenage daughter could stay in her familiar place – the only home she’s ever known. Twice so far, my wife and I have each loaded clothes and a few random personal items in our cars and traded houses. Our daughter goes about her life in one place. It’s the parent’s that move back and forth.

This business of moving and changing can be hard when you’re not ready for it, or when it’s forced, or a surprise, or when you simply can’t stay anymore. But we have a way of adapting, and remaking our lives, and things somehow take care of themselves. And we become something else, something we could not have guessed at. And that is usually a good thing.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Update on Lives in a Basket

Update on yesterday's post:

A friend who is an even bigger history nerd than I am did a little research on the Alexander family.

-The 1880 census shows Harry, aged 10 and his brother Alfred (Fred) living with their mother Lucetta (Lou), their grandmother, and two aunts. No address is given.

-The 1900 census shows Harry and Clara living at 148 S. 10 Street (their home, I believe was demolished by the City of Noblesville for their City Hall parking lot) with two children, Trent, listed as a 2-year-old son, and Ruth, a 1-month-old daughter. They had a live-in housekeeper. Harry is noted as an attorney.

-The 1910 census confuses things a bit. It shows Harry and Clara living at 154 S. 10th (also now demolished, I think) with 3 children. Harry's career is still law. This time their oldest child Trent is listed as a daughter, aged 12, Ruth was 9 and a third child, Joseph is aged 3. A fourth child that had died is also referenced. Strangely - a family with the exact same names are listed as living with Harry's mother Lou, and his brother Fred at 201 S. 10th.

-The 1920 census shows a Harry, Clara, Trent, Ruth, and Joseph Alexander living in Dane County, Wisconsin. It notes Harry as a traveling salesman.

-From 1920 to 1930, Lou lived alone on S. 10th St. She was 85 years old in 1930.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Lives In A Baseket

The best tings about being known as a local history nerd is that people bring me old stuff.

One day in the winter 2003 I got a call from the secretary at my office. She was confused and concerned. Someone I’d never met had presented themselves at the front desk and left a soot-covered bushel basket, asking that she give it to me, saying they thought I’d enjoy it.

I love getting calls like that.

The contents of that filthy basket were found in the attic of a home being renovated on South 10th Street. It was crammed with letters, programs, invitations, and wallpaper samples. They provided a glimpse into the life of the Alexander family of Noblesville, brothers Harry and Fred, and their mother, Lou, between 1888 and 1900.

Fred Alexander wrote the earliest letters home from California. In those days young men dreamed of testing themselves in the untamed West, to “grow up with the land,” as they called it. Fred wrote home to the local paper describing his 1888 train trip across the plains and through the mountains. He then often wrote home from Pasadena where he struggled to make something of himself, working in a shoe store.

Throughout that winter I read those letters in the evening after work. I’d spread a towel across my lap and open a few of the filthy, blackened envelopes and carefully read. I’m sentimental enough to get a pang of heartache to think that the careful thoughts and feelings of an entire family, a record of 15 years of their lives could be left strewn in an attic and forgotten, covered with the dry-rot of old wood shingles and filtered debris from a reroofing job.

Time and again I thought, “I’m going to stop with this and give it all to a proper historian like Dave Heighway.” But then, greedily, each night, I’d open a few more letters and read. It was like reading someone’s diary - a guilty pleasure.

Summers in the early 1890s, Fred’s brother Harry wrote to his girlfriend, a young schoolteacher named Clara. During the school year she rented a room in the Alexanders’ 10th Street house, but spent each summer with her family in Clinton, Indiana. Harry’s letters to Clara give tiny glimpses into life in Noblesville in the 1890s. He describes the flowers planted in the yard, vegetables tended in the garden, the town’s gossip, the newfangled concrete paving of a sidewalk in front of his law office downtown, and the political goings-on in the Methodist Church choir. The letters mention once significant figures in Noblesville – Meade Vestal, leader of the town’s brass band, and Thomas Boyd, then Noblesville’s big man on campus, a state senator who would stand trial in a scandalous paternity suit in 1893.

In these letters Harry Alexander can been seen carefully cultivating a relationship with Clara. Delicate hints of affection – but not too much affection, suggest Harry was uncertain if his interest was returned. In each letter, he calls the Alexanders’ home, “The Rest Cottage.”

In 1892 Fred Alexander returned from California to the little house on 10th Street, called Anderson Street in those days. He falls in love with a girl from Frankton, named Gertrude. Letters over the next year tell a tragic story.

In spring of1893 Fred finds work in Chicago during the opening of the World’s Fair, writing faithfully to Gertrude, expressing his undying love. He finds an apartment for them and describes the people and the places in Chicago that he dreams will make up their world after they marry. He writes home before the wedding giving instructions to his brother Harry to, “rent a horse and carriage,” and “buy me a new shirt.” In autumn he comes home to ride in that carriage, wear that new shirt, and get married. But Gertrude is sick from a disease the letters never define. After the wedding they stay with her family in Frankton.

Then, in early 1894, Harry, who had gone to Frankton to help Fred through the impending tragedy, writes to Clara, boarding again at the Alexanders’ house in Noblesville, opening his letter with the stark phrase, “Gertrude is gone.” Just months after the wedding, Fred’s wife had died. Amid the jumbled debris in the bushel basket I found a stack of printed flyers, announcing Gertrude’s death. In his misery, Fred returned to California, then wandered to Florida.

But there were many happy things in that bushel basket – hand made invitations to the club parties that filled peoples lives before radio and television, like Shakespeare Club meetings in which members took turns reading the works of the bard. There were colorful, intricately printed invitations to recitals where local children would sing, play piano, or recite famous speeches. There was a program from the dedication of the First Presbyterian Church, a ribbon from “Bromo-Seltzer Day” at the World’s Fair in 1893, a program from a play at famed English’s Opera House in Indianapolis, graduation announcements, and calling cards left at New Year’s Day receptions.

As my winter wore on I followed Harry’s Alexander’s summer letters to Clara. By 1896 his affections were out in the open, and I followed letter by letter their wedding plans and his work to make the “Rest Cottage” just right for her. That summer he traveled regularly by train between Noblesville and Clinton, staying with her family there, missing her terribly when back home.

The last letters come from Fred, fighting in the Spanish-American war, still trying to make something of himself – this time in the military. From a small island near the Philippines, he tells of deprivations, military ineptitude, and personal disappointments.

I don’t know what became of the Alexander family. Don’t know how many children Harry and Clara had, whether Fred ever married again, or when they all said their last goodbye to the “Rest Cottage.” But I think of them every time I pass that little house on 10th Street.