Monday, February 11, 2019


I should state at the start: I do no woo.  I have no religion other than kindness and believe in no magic other than that wrought by human action.  I do not believe "all things happen for a reason;" rather I believe that all things happen because action B ordinarily follows action A, etc.  I do no woo but sometimes I observe something like karma.

I had a cat named Karma once.  I adopted it from the campus of a local college where it was feral and hunted by animal control.  The cat was no end of trouble for me.  I do believe she hated me.  I kept thinking that I deserved better for saving her, but I never got it from her.  Karma would hold that my kindness went toward the sum total of my actions and would ultimately play a role in what the future would return to me. 


I have long said that I have the best bad luck of anyone I know.  It happened again this week.  I answered the call from yet another geezer in need and spent a week with my brother's ill widow, 15 years my senior.  She lives 400 miles away, and as I get older, my desire to drive on busy interstates under construction lessens and my anxiety at doing so rises.  Also, such travels cost me and I can ill afford extra costs.  But I went.

While there, my tire indicator switched on. The sidewall on one tire was failing.  I needed a new tire.  The good news in that was that against all odds, a mechanic neighbor checked out the situation, recommended a good shop, and told me that only one tire would be needed if I rotated all the tires.  So, while it still cost almost $200, the shop found a matching tire in less than 24-hours and did not delay my return home.  More importantly, this did not happen on the road.

Then I get home, unload my car, and sleep in my own wonderful bed.  In the morning I go out to buy some groceries, finding those I left inedible.  Dead battery.  On the drive home I stopped only once, though I usually stop twice.  I almost made the extra stop but I was so anxious to get home, I just pushed through.  Had I made that extra stop, I would have been stuck.  My dead battery would have likely have required a tow and more money had I needed to replace it along the way. 

See? Good bad luck. My tire could have blown while driving in heavy traffic at 70 miles an hour. My battery could have stranded me at some Podunk hamburger joint. Instead, I made it home OK.

Karma, like beauty, may be in the eye of the beholder. My old cat hated me, but any number of other rescued animals have paid me in love far beyond my karma account's plus column. I have taken care of all my elderly relatives at one time or another, some for years, one or two at great expense.  I cannot say I was paid back, tit for tat.  I can say that after a long marriage and difficult divorce, and giving up entirely on finding love and an equal life partner, that is exactly what happened and for 20+ years my significant other has supported me in all I have wanted to do - from building a pottery studio for me, to helping me keep my house when the recession threatened. My children grew up and are decent, smart, loving people who want me in their lives.  My grandchildren give me much love and enjoyment.

Karma, if it exists, does not give cash payouts or pop up and change one's dead battery.  However, if one lives by the rule of love and kindness to all, one draws into one's own circle the same love and kindness and when the inevitable happens, it may be mitigated by the return of this love and kindness we call Karma.

I don't believe in luck, either, but by saying I have the best bad luck, I can express this mitigation I am grateful to have experienced time and time again.  If we are what we eat, perhaps we have what we do.  This week, I feel like I have everything I need.  Some people say Karma's a bitch.  I say she is a gracious lady.

Friday, January 4, 2019

No Wall - More Facts

I have spent my professional life devoted to discovering facts and reporting them to the public.  I was a journalist and then a science writer. Facts matter.  The truth matters. 

This is why a wall should not be built

The effort to limit drugs with a wall would be ineffective. The heroin that comes across our border is mostly coming in vehicles that come through our checkpoints. This has been reported in USA Today (June, 2014): Most is hidden in vehicles crossing through ports of entry like the bustling Nogales gate. Smaller amounts are carried in on foot by men dubbed "mules," hiking established desert smuggling routes. Some is ferried in by plane or boat.” Also, Politifact, (February, 2018) reports: “Trump’s opioid commission says many users are ordering the pill-form of fentanyl online and having it shipped discreetly. The commission’s report references a Carnegie Mellon University study which found that revenues from online illicit drug sales increased from between $15-17 million in 2012 to $150-$180 million in 2015.

As reported on DELPHI (a behavioral health group) website: “Based on the reports from the 2017 NDTA (National Drug Threat Assessment), there are eight primary Mexican cartels controlling production and distribution through hubs in major U.S. cities. While these illicit opioids are still frequently smuggled across the southwest border of the U.S. in regular cars as well as tractor trailers, it is becoming more common for heroin to be trafficked into the country by air and sea, specifically in the northeast New England area. This is a significant factor in why heroin overdose deaths are clustered in that region since states like New Jersey, Maryland, and New Hampshire are all along major trafficking routes.

The Economist (Nov. 2018) concluded that, “the available evidence suggests that a wall would have no effect on heroin supplies.”

Another myth often touted as a reason for a wall is that thousands of kids are sex trafficked.  Once again, facts matter.  Sex trafficking must be distinguished from human smuggling. The former occurs all over the US with young people tricked or forced into the sex trade.  The latter is the term that implies the transport of people against their will for nefarious purposes, including the sex trade, forced labor, etc.  Conflating the two does a disserve to both groups. Also, people are generally smuggled into the US as forced labor, though trafficking does sometimes involve smuggling. As reported by CNN, June 2017: The National Human Trafficking Hotline shows most reports of human trafficking are from the border states of California (1,323 in 2016) and Texas (670 in 2016) But when you divide the number of reports by the total population, the District of Columbia actually has the most reported cases of human trafficking per capita, according to data from the NHTH.

Next to address the question of what illegal immigration costs the US.  As a reporter I had a love/hate relationship with numbers because, like statistics, they could be twisted.  However, one cannot simply pluck a number out of thin air, as our current president often does.  This is the best I could quickly establish: In Politifact, a 2013 report from Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group seeking reduced immigration came up with the $113 billion figure based on a pool of 13 million people in the country illegally. It includes at least 3.4 million children who are U.S. citizens born to undocumented parents. That total estimate is higher than figures estimated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, about 11.4 million by January 2012. Pew Research Center estimated there were 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants in 2014. Even The Heritage Foundation, famously conservative, reported that there are approximately 3.7 million unlawful immigrant households in the U.S. These households impose a net fiscal burden of around $54.5 billion per year. This also includes 4 million children – US citizens – born to illegals in their calculation.

 Also, a report from the Center for Migration Studies estimated that about two-thirds of those who join the undocumented population each year are people overstaying their visa, a situation a wall cannot remedy.

Some conclude that illegal immigration is a serious threat to our country, that a wall is the answer, and our government should be shut down until funding for it is authorized. In light of these facts, I hesitate to draw the same conclusion.  

About 60 percent of the unauthorized population has been here for at least a decade, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. A third of undocumented immigrants 15 and older lives with at least one child who is a United States citizen by birth. Slightly more than 30 percent own homes. Only a tiny fraction has been convicted of felonies or serious misdemeanors. This is not to minimize the danger but to put it in perspective.  

Also, a wall would present a serious ecological issue. In Scientific American: KierĂ¡n Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said even the existing barriers along the border have led to erosion and flooding in border communities as well as a roadblock for the natural movement of wildlife across the border. Environmental groups say that migration corridors are crucial for the recovery and survival of wildlife along the border. As a science writer for the University of Georgia, our scientists often reported on exactly this issue, though usually on a smaller scale. 

My conclusion (opinion) is that this is a complicated, multi-faceted issue and a wall of any description is no panacea. Obviously, more border security in the form of agents trained to find drugs is needed. We should address the cartels, step up air and water protections, and develop a policy that is not “America-First” but multi-national, because the problem is multi-national.  We live in a technological world and need to address online drug sales. We need to consider both human life and our environment because the former is dependent on the latter. 

Ultimately, facts matter.  Science matters.  We cannot afford to throw money at ineffective non-solutions that may even make matters worse.  We have to be smart, not just partisan. 

Monday, September 3, 2018

Thoughts on Retirement

(Not me)
At age 55, I was laid off from the job I had intended to keep until I retired.  My plan was in place: I had two IRAs and a fixed-benefit retirement plan.  Enter the Great Recession and five years of unemployment and I had to spend my retirement savings to just live. So now that I am in my late 60s and actually retired, it is a much more constrained retirement than that for which I planned.

Still, every morning I can get up as I please.  I dress as I like.  I set my own daily goals.  My grandchildren will have many memories of me because I am with them a lot.  It is not what I planned but it is not bad.  My home is paid for, so all I must worry about are the taxes and maintenance.  Ditto for my car.  I get by.

What's more is that I finally have the time to do the things I have wanted to do all my life.  Last year I published a book.  This year I finished the genealogy of my father's family. I am teaching my grandkids how to think, how to write, and hopefully, how to put one foot in front of the other and just live. I have my own pottery studio and though a health problem interferes with my ability to use it often, I have kept it, and sometimes just sit there because it makes me happy to know that I finally mastered this craft I have loved all my life.

Retirement to me isn't traveling around, staying in hotels, or seeking adventure.  It is feeling my own life deeply, being at no one's beck and call, and accomplishing things I value.  Retirement is a kind of freedom - with an expiration date, I know, but still. So I do a little yoga, tend to my dogs, write a bit, maybe throw a pot or teach my granddaughter how to throw.  I shop when the stores are not busy and read at my leisure.  Life is good.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Breathe in

What does it take to be happy?  A new car? A new job? A new life?  I think most people go through life chasing happiness much the way a dog chases its own tail. That pursuit, in and of itself, runs contrary to actually achieving a state of happiness.

I think we err, not by wanting to be happy, but by not understanding what happiness really is. We mistake the high we experience when in certain circumstances, such as when we get a raise or a new toy, for happiness.  I would submit that indeed, those things make us happy, at least temporarily, but that feeling resides more in the object of our enhanced mood, rather than in ourselves.

Happiness is not so much a high as it is an intrinsic sense that all is well. I prefer to call this state contentment.  For it is the sense of dis-ease that disrupts us.  It is our own striving to always have more, to have better, to do more, to experience more that undercuts what we already have.  When one understands one's own riches now, that striving ceases, and one marvels at the world as it is, rather than as we would make it.

It is easy to be distracted from this contentment when the car breaks down, the child is ill, the house needs repair, or any such thing.  It is understandable that these things yank the comfy rug out from under us and leave us discontent.  However, when we address the situation and look around, we most often see that not all is lost and that indeed, the ground on which we stand is still firm. This attitude adjustment does not ignore what needs our attention.  It simply puts things in their place and gives us perspective.

It is easy to think that with enough money to fix your car, house, life, etc., you could easily be happy, and indeed, financial stress is a chief cause of unhappiness.  Studies have shown that a moderate income overcomes this, but a large income brings additional stress.  The trick, if there is one, is to understand what one actually has.  Focus on that, rather than on what is missing, and contentment grows.

We can chase our tails seeking happiness or we can simply be content with who we are, what we have and the opportunities that are ours.  Every life is filled with good and bad, loss and gain, meetings and leavings.  As we breathe, we have life.  As we live, we have much.  Keep breathing.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Curiosity killed the cat but satisfaction brought him back

About 25 years ago, I made a concerted effort to find out more about my family’s genealogy.  It was a frustrating search.  Not only was I up against old and far-flung records, but many in my family were ill informed at best, or downright devious. At the time, I thought I might find the ship that carried my maternal grandmother here around the turn of the last century but all I uncovered were more questions.

Me, with the next generation.  
Enter DNA testing and in a matter of weeks, I have filled in many blanks. I now know my father’s line goes back to colonial days in this country and originates in either Ireland or Scotland, not Germany as I was told as a child.  While a noted Civil War general I had been told was my great-grandfather, is not, I have many soldiers in my father’s line going back to the American Revolution. 

My mother’s line is still mysterious, due less to deflection than to distance and language.  Her parents immigrated here separately from Ukraine and no family lore or records exist – at least in this country.  I never did find the ship my grandmother took to come here.  According to my mother, she arrived in Baltimore, but according to immigration records she had to have come in through Ellis Island.  Such “mistakes” can derail a search and make one wonder why this simple fact was gotten wrong.

I have found hundreds of records about my father’s paternal and maternal lines and I have found dozens of distant cousins through my DNA test.  What I will probably never know is the why of all the misdirection.  So, I am doing my best to make it end with me.  I am compiling the records I have found and will make them available to any and all in my family. 

We all do things about which we are not proud.  But those things should not define our lives nor should they color our history with shame.  And they certainly should not confuse our children or their children into future generations.  Whether our beginnings are humble, like mine, with farmers, laborers, and soldiers, or illustrious, we should claim them so that we can see, not just from whence we came, but also how far we have come.

Some sites can track one’s DNA back to ancient civilizations.  Perhaps the most satisfying thing in my search so far has been that my DNA links me to two civilizations known for their pottery.  I have always believed that I had a genetic link to clay because even as a young child, I felt the pull to handle the earth and make vessels.  Long before I could define the word, “potter,” I identified as one and can still recall my excitement at seeing a short documentary on primitive pottery on our newly acquired TV in the mid-1950s. Other girls wanted ponies.  I wanted a potter’s wheel.

Sometime this fall, the sole relative I have discovered on my mother’s side will travel from his home in Russia to Ukraine to do genealogy research into his family.  He will take with him the little I know of my grandparents and try to find out more for me.  I hope he can find something but I suspect my grandparents were of so little importance, and the time was so chaotic, that few records will remain.  While I would love to know more, I feel quite satisfied with where my search has led me. 

The next time I travel to Florida to visit my sister-in-law, I will also meet a third cousin who lives nearby. My parents and siblings are all dead and I am unlikely to live to see another generation beyond my five grandchildren, but I am content knowing that I have finally found the facts – if not the full truth – about my father’s line.  My search led me to answers concerning the likely cause for the lack of reproductive success in my mother’s line.  I carry two mutations, one responsible for my grandson’s defect, and one responsible for neural tube defects, a common cause of spina bifida, and miscarriages.  Knowing this may cause my grandchildren to avoid the pitfalls to which their parents and grandparents were blind.

Some people have asked me why I wanted to know about “all this stuff.”  It doesn’t change anything for me, but it might have, had I known about it sooner.  I might have followed my earliest instincts to create pottery and become accomplished while still young.  I might have avoided giving one daughter spina bifida with the simple addition of the right supplement during my pregnancy.  I might have avoided my several miscarriages.  I might have gotten to know aunts and uncles and first cousins.  Who knows where it might have led? 

The bottom line is that I was curious and now I know.  And I’m glad I know. 

Sunday, April 8, 2018

DNA - What does it matter?

Growing up I got used to hearing, "What does it matter?" from my mother when I would ask about my father's family.  He had used an alias for much of his adult life and I wanted to know why.  I wanted to know when they got married and why my brothers had a different last name.  I wanted to know but Dad died young and Mom wouldn't talk about it at all.

Dad with either my brother Jim or
Floyd. Why was this photo cut?
Was someone intentionally cut out?
In January, I spit into a tube and found out.

DNA has played a pivotal role in my life in the last three years, ever since a grandson was born with an extraordinarily rare genetic defect.  That led me to research the topic and write a book about it.  Things got a lot more personal when I turned the search toward my own DNA.

Through simple records searches, I and a few family members found some answers.  But Dad had intentionally obscured his family line, and when real names and dates are unavailable, it is much more difficult to search documents.  DNA changed all that.

After nearly seven decades of knowing next to nothing about my father's family, I have unearthed his line back into the 1700s, at least.  I have located a few not-so-distant cousins, but unfortunately, most of my aunts, uncles, and first cousins have all died.  I still have a few to track down, but I don't hold out much hope of finding them alive.

In the last year, this took on new urgency for me as I lost both my remaining brothers, my only siblings. I felt the press of time and have devoted more effort to this than may seem necessary to some.  At one point in recent years, I decided to just make up a narrative about my family as the truth was so elusive, but this is so much more satisfying.

I only knew my dad for seven years.  I knew him to be gentle but a stern taskmaster.  I knew he expected me and my brothers to toe the line, do things right, to not cut corners, to be honest, and live right. I now know that stemmed from his own early life of crime and deception, a fact he left out of his narratives. For while he tried to instill in us these virtues, he did so with lies and with subterfuge. Whether he did so out of shame or fear that telling us the truth would burden us with his sins, I will never know.  What I do know is that this cost me and my brothers a family we might have had.

Most of the death dates I have found on close relatives are within the last 30 years.  I might have met them.  I might have liked them.  They might have had stories to tell.  But it is too late now. I believe I may be the only person left who knew my dad, who cares.  And it still matters to me.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

When the impossible happens

Over the years, I have adopted any number of strays, some for days, some weeks, and some, forever. These usually come with problems related to why they are strays in the first place.

Which brings me to Clark.  Clark is a 15-year-old lab/pit mix who arrived in my neighborhood full of spit and vinegar about 13-14 years ago.  He was so fast!  And so destructive.  He would tear up and down the street, rampaging through carefully tended gardens and delighting in finding newspapers on anyone’s front lawn.  These he would toss high into the air, shredding them into black and white confetti, before loping off to the next yard. That is when I named him Clark, after the newspaperman, Clark Kent. Animal control was hot on his heels and he didn’t care.  He was the fastest thing on the street. 

I knew he would eventually be captured and probably killed so I trapped him myself thinking surely, he would warm up to me, to my airconditioned home, to my other dogs, and settle into being a pet.  I was wrong.

Clark had and has a deep distrust of humans. It took me months just to pet him.  In all that time he never came inside. Instead, he claimed my large backyard as his domain, carved out a home for himself under my pottery studio, and made it his mission in life to keep the yard free of all vermin.  I picked up countless dead racoons, squirrels, rats, moles, even hapless cats.  I did not enjoy this carnage, but I did appreciate his work ethic. He also kept my yard free of human interlopers as he is a big dog, black as night, with an intimidating pitty head and a ferocious bark.

Over the years I have tried to tame him, to get him inside on blisteringly hot days, away from the flies, and on bitter cold days.  He would often come to the door, but would never walk through.  I always thought he wanted to but just could not bring himself to take the first step. All efforts to collar him and drag him inside only proved his superior strength and served to frighten him.

As age crept up on both of us, he could no longer make his hips cooperate to go under my studio and he took to sleeping exposed under the overhang of my studio.  He eschewed the magnificent dog house I got for him but would deign to lie upon a dog bed on the ground.  My worry for him finally grew so great I resorted to creativity to keep him warm.  Last winter, I cut the side out of the pack-n-play my grandchild no longer needed.  I padded it well on all sides and put his dog bed in it.  I stuffed insulation under it so no cold wind would find him that way.  He was highly suspicious of this device and dragged his bed out a time or two, but eventually wound up using it.  This winter I added a heavy blanket over the top to try to conserve his body heat.

Since then I have been going out each night with my mother’s old fur coat to cover him up and tuck him in.  I know he has liked that but still, I worried.  This bomb cyclone was sure to kill my aged dog.  As he stood, flummoxed at his frozen water bowl trying to drink, I nabbed him!  I pulled him into my back porch then forced him up the three steps into the house proper.  Though confused, he wandered around and finally lay down heaving a deep sigh by the fire.  That was four days ago, and finally, after all these years, I have gotten him to walk into the house on his own, sleep in my room (still on my mother’s coat) and let me tend to his cancerous leg. 

Yes, he is old, half blind, more or less deft, a little lame, incontinent, and probably in some pain from his leg but this is a happy dog.  He’s decided he loves hanging around with my other black lab, Elvis, even though Elvis can be a bit of a pill at times.  Yesterday when I let him out with Elvis and Sweetie, he raced with joy to the back fence, leaping a little and looking around. After a spin around his domain, he trooped back in like he’d been doing it for years.

Who says old dogs can’t learn new tricks?