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Thursday, December 16th, 2010

*Some of the names in this story have been changed to protect the anonymity of the individuals.

                It’s 9:00 AM on a Saturday morning. Typically, my dad would wake up at about 6:00 AM and put a pot of coffee on.  About an hour or so later, as my mom would arise, he’d make eggs and bacon. Together, they would eat their breakfast, read the paper, and talk, all while the sun’s rays gradually flood the kitchen through bay windows. But on this Saturday, neither has slept. My dad did not prepare a breakfast. Instead, my parents have been sitting here at the kitchen table for hours drinking coffee.

                Last night, at about 2 AM, they got a call from the Union County Sherriff’s Department, notifying them that my brother Brett had been arrested for a DUI (driving under the influence). It’s Brett’s third DUI, which is a Class F Felony not only in South Dakota, but across the nation. It’s punishable by up to two years in the state penitentiary. My parents were told that Brett would be released in the morning after he sobered up.

                My parents called me at about 8 this morning to tell me the news. I told them I’d come see them, to be with them, and see if I could talk to Brett. After I got off the phone, without showering, I left my apartment in Sioux City, Iowa and drove fifteen miles north to Elk Point, South Dakota.

                We’re all sitting at the kitchen table waiting for Brett to come home. My dad gets up to get another cup of coffee.

                “Would  you like some more, Carmen?” he asks.

                “No, thank you,” my mom says, her eyes staring into the wooden surface of the table.

                I want to say something that might comfort my mother. She closes her eyes. She tilts her head down and massages her temples with her fingertips. I can’t say that it’ll be all right. I don’t know that. Brett has a serious drinking problem. My mom brushes some of her thick brown hair behind her ears.

“What did we do wrong with him, Blake?” my mom asks me.

I shake my head. I say, “I don’t know. Nothing.”

And it’s true. My parents are wonderful people. Our whole lives, they have shown my brother and me unconditional love. My family is and always has been comfortably middle-class. My parents aren’t alcoholics or drug addicts. Yet somehow, Brett, at 24, is a raging alcoholic. And me, at 23, I’m both an addict and alcoholic. But I’m in recovery. I attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings at least twice a week. I’ve managed to stay clean and sober the last three years. Watching the current scene unfold before me gives me a pretty biting idea of what I put my parents through only a few short years ago. They are both about sixty years old, and I worry what kind of toll this level of stress might take on their health.

My dad sits back at the table with a fresh cup of coffee. He sighs. He scratches his well-groomed beard, which is almost completely gray. Then he lifts his glasses slightly to rub the insides of his eyes, which have dark circles under them. He yawns.

“I don’t know how much more of this I can take,” he says.

A pang of guilt knots in the pit of my stomach. Though I have changed, the wounds I caused my parents aren’t entirely healed. Chronic pain weakens a person. Chronic emotional pain aggravates your nervous system, so that any kind of trauma is doubled, even tripled in magnitude. When I was getting arrested, going in and out of jail, my parents had to cope with it. Brett managed to stay out of trouble while I was getting into it, but once I got clean, it was like I passed the self-destructive baton to Brett. He has run with it.

“I thought we were through with all this,” my dad says.

My mom says, “I thought Brett had his drinking under control.”

With all due respect to my mom, her outlook on Brett is grossly naïve. For the past four years, he has drunk at least a twelve pack of beer a day. His ex-girlfriend of two years, Molly, used to confide her worries over his drinking to me. She told me that it’s perfectly normal for him to drink a case of beer in one night. I’ve seen him drink in the morning before work. When I told him it wasn’t a good idea, he told me to back off, that he was hung over, and that a few beers would help his hangover. I’ve heard he drinks on his lunch break at work.

                “How did you do it?” my mom asks, looking at me.

“I had a lot of help,” I say. I try to smile.

                “What do we say to him?” my dad asks. “Do we chew him out?”

                I shake my head. I say, “That’ll only make it worse.”

                My mom places her fingers on her temples again and rubs them.

                “I have prayed for you boys for so long,” my mom says, “and the Lord has helped you, Blake. But why He can’t get through to Brett I don’t know.”

                “I don’t know either, Mom,” I say. “Maybe this is Brett’s rock-bottom. They say you hit rock-bottom when you stop digging.”

                My mom doesn’t say anything. Why am I here and Brett in jail? Why have I changed and he hasn’t? I don’t know if adoption has anything to do with it. But Brett has held fast to his being adopted as a form of victimization. I don’t buy it. He was adopted when he was five days old. He has never known his biological parents. His parents are my parents. But he feels what he feels, and I feel what I feel. Our parents aren’t alcoholics. Maybe his biological ones are. I couldn’t ask for more loving parents. Could Brett?

                Just then, I hear the door to the porch open. I look up and see Brett. He walks to the kitchen door. Before opening it, he looks in, sees me, my mom, my dad. He enters. His short brown hair is greasy. His blue eyes are bloodshot. The faint smell of stale alcohol permeates the kitchen.

                Brett stands in the doorway. We don’t say anything. My dad looks at him, opens his mouth to speak, but only sighs. My mom looks at Brett with watery, pleading eyes. I remember well the numerous times she looked at me in the same way.

                Brett looks at me but quickly looks away. I won’t be the first one to speak. Neither will Brett. It’ll be my parents.

 I want to see defeat on Brett’s face. I want him to feel devastated. I want him to collapse and cry, to surrender. For an addict or alcoholic to recover, addiction has to beat the shit out of you so bad you can’t go on. You must be destroyed before you can be rebuilt. You have to want change. The trick is to have this happen before addiction kills you. But I don’t see this on Brett. He puts his hands in his jean pockets, shifts his standing position, like this is all just a misunderstanding.

My mom says, “I don’t know what to say, Brett. I love you,” she says, “but I’m angry and sad. I’m hurt.”

Brett doesn’t say anything. I wish I knew what was going through his mind.

“I’m awful hurt, too,” my dad says. He looks at Brett. “You need help, son.”

Brett says, “Yeah.” But he just looks into the wood tile of the kitchen floor.

“What’d they tell you?” my dad says.

“My first court date is December 15th,” Brett says. “I’m going to have Phil Peterson as my attorney. I gotta call him on Monday.”

Phil Peterson is the public defender in Union County. He’s the attorney you get when you can’t afford one. He was my attorney.

“Okay,” my dad says. “Phil’s a good guy. He worked hard for your brother. We’ll get in touch with him Monday.”

I feel some hope for Brett through Phil Peterson. He is a good guy, and he stuck his neck out for me, even when I violated my probation with my second DUI. Partly because of him, I avoided going to prison.

“Are you hungry?” my mom asks Brett.

“No,” Brett says.

Moments pass in silence.  Eventually, Brett sits down at the kitchen table. As a family, we continue to sit in silence. Having us all here at the kitchen table reminds me of my childhood.

We grew up just like any other brothers. As kids, Brett and I fought together, wrestled together, played video games together, trick-or-treated together, spent summers at the pool together. I picture Brett as a kid, when he had his bleach-blonde hair and two big front teeth with a gap between them. And I know that Brett. That Brett is my brother. He’s the guy I spent almost every moment of my childhood with. But this other Brett, the one who just got his third DUI, I don’t know this Brett.

In high school, we drifted apart. Actually, that’s an understatement. We basically parted ways. He started drinking heavily, gradually becoming more withdrawn from his friends. I started using drugs and drinking heavily. I hung out with other kids who used drugs. I rarely saw Brett, let alone spent time with him. Now, I don’t know this Brett who is sitting across the table from me. This Brett has tattoos. This Brett has his ears pierced, his lip pierced, his eyebrow pierced, his tongue pierced. He even has his nipples pierced. Aside from that, I can’t tell you anything about him. I don’t know what he’s interested in. I have no idea what he’s passionate about, except getting tattoos and piercings.

“Where did we go wrong?” my mom asks, breaking the silence.

Her question holds our attention for only a few seconds. It dissolves into the air, like a gas dissipating throughout the room, becoming imperceptible. Questions like these don’t matter anymore. No one responds to my mom’s question. We just sit in silence. We are all in a state of mutual discomfort. Eventually, Brett says he is going to his house to go to sleep. My dad offers to give Brett a ride. Brett accepts. Without saying goodbye, the two of them leave. My mom shakes her head as the kitchen door shuts.


On Monday, Brett and my dad meet with Brett’s attorney, Phil Peterson. They are in Phil’s office at the Union County Courthouse. Phil is around my dad’s age. He is a short, stocky man with a horseshoe of hair around the bottom and sides of his head, and a mostly-gray beard on his face. His large, thick glasses might look silly on someone else, but they help to make Phil look distinguished, somehow giving him an appearance of lawyerly authority.

Phil sits at his desk, and my brother and my dad sit across from him.

Phil says, “You probably won’t go to prison. You don’t have any violent offenses. Thank God, you didn’t wreck your car or hurt anyone. You just seem to have a serious problem with alcohol.”

“So he probably won’t go to prison,” my dad says, “but he’ll have to do some time, won’t he?”

“Most likely,” Phil says, looking at Brett, “you’ll have to do three to six months in the county jail. Since you have a job, I’m very confident you’ll be granted work release.”

My dad nods approvingly. This is good news. Brett works at Thermo Bond in Elk Point. They build small power-generating buildings for various companies around the country. It’s a good blue-collar job, offering decent pay and benefits.

“The judge doesn’t want to see you locked up,” Phil says to Brett. “I know Judge Art Rush. He’d rather see a kid like you take care of your drinking problem. You’re not a bad person. You just need to make some serious changes in your lifestyle.”

Brett nods his head.

“However,” Phil says, “starting today, you’ll be placed on the 24-7 breathalyzer program.”

The 24-7 breathalyzer program is a new invention. It’s only a couple years old. A person who is placed on the program is required to report to the jail twice a day to blow in a breathalyzer. The breathalyzers must be twelve hours apart from each other. So if a person reports at 6 o’clock in the morning, they must return at 6 o’clock in the evening for their second breathalyzer. The person must pass the breathalyzer. Any detection of alcohol, however minute, is considered a failed breathalyzer and the person is then placed in a holding cell until a judge is contacted. If a person fails to show up for their breathalyzer, a warrant is issued for his or her arrest. If a person shows up more than fifteen minutes late for his or her breathalyzer, the judge is notified. Tardiness can lead to jail time. The 24-7 breathalyzer tries to ensure that a person doesn’t drink. It’s been pretty effective across the country in states that have implemented it. The Sioux City Journal ran an article in January 2010 about it, explaining how it has won national awards. I was on the 24-7 breathalyzer program for almost 8 months. Though it kept me out of trouble, it was a huge hassle, reporting to the jail twice a day, every day, for 8 months.

My brother says that he has to be at work at 6:00 in the morning, so Phil suggests Brett to schedule his breathalyzers at 5:00 AM and 5:00 PM.

“Blake had to do this for 8 months,” my dad says.

Phil says, “I remember.” Phil looks at Brett. “This should keep you out of trouble until your sentencing. This way, it can’t get any worse than it already is. Right now, you won’t be going to prison. So we’re going to try to keep it that way.”

Phil pauses for a moment, then says, “Trust me. You don’t want to end up in prison.”

My dad and Brett shake hands with Phil before leaving. From Phil’s office, they walk to the Sherriff’s department to enroll Brett in the 24-7 program. After that, they walk out of the courthouse and climb into my dad’s truck.

“I think this 24-7 thing was good for your brother,” my dad says.

“This is going to fucking suck,” Brett says.


In Elk Point, there are three meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous a week: Monday at 8:00 PM, Thursday at 8:00 PM, and Sunday morning at 9:00. The meetings are held above the drugstore on Main Street in an old room that is actually the Elk Point chapter of the International Order of Odd Fellows. The room is large and open, with a long table in the middle. There are paintings of old Odd Fellow Grandmasters hung on the walls. In my first year of recovery, I attended every single Monday and Thursday meeting. I was living at my parents’ house, and since I didn’t have a driver’s license, the Elk Point meeting was very convenient for me. These meetings are where my life changed.

After staying clean and sober for a year and getting my driver’s license back, my parents and I decided it was time to cut the umbilical cord. I moved to Sioux City and got an apartment. In Sioux City, I found myself going to more Narcotics Anonymous meetings rather than AA, primarily because of the greater number of young people in NA. In the last two years, I have attended almost exclusively NA meetings.

However, my dad tells me that for the last few months, Brett has been attending the Monday night AA meeting in Elk Point. At first, I was extremely excited. The help my brother needs is in the meetings. The people are wonderful. Of the twenty or so regular attendees, most of them are age forty or older, and they all have anywhere from ten to thirty-some years of sobriety. They have lots of recovery knowledge and experience.

When my dad told me Brett had been going, I decided that I would try to make it up to some of the Monday night meetings to support Brett. It would be a win-win situation for me because I would be helping Brett by showing support and helping myself by attending a meeting. So I got a hold of Brett over the weekend and agreed to meet him at the upcoming Monday night meeting.

On this Monday night, I arrive at the meeting about fifteen minutes early. As I walk in the door, I see the same familiar faces. They greet me warmly, ask me how I’ve been. I tell them I’ve been great – just going to school and working. I catch up with some of them, periodically checking the clock, hoping that Brett will arrive. I ask a few of the people if they have seen my brother Brett up here lately. They have to ask who Brett is. I describe them to him. They tell me that they have seen him a few times, but not on a regular basis.

The clock strikes 8 and the meeting starts. Brett is yet to show up. I text him, “Are you coming?” and wait for a response. The meeting proceeds in the typical fashion. We open by reciting the serenity prayer together. The twelve steps are read. The twelve traditions are read. The chairperson speaks for about five minutes on a topic of his or her choice. When he’s done, the meeting is opened up and everyone is offered a few minutes to speak their thoughts on the topic. The topic tonight is resentments.

It is 8:20 and Brett still hasn’t shown up or responded to my message. I text him again. After a few minutes, he responds with this message, “Sorry. I have a leak in my bathroom ceiling. I’m trying to do something about it. I probably won’t make the meeting.”

I don’t respond to his message. To me, this is bullshit. I would never miss a meeting I committed to because of a leak in my ceiling. My brother is a compulsive liar, and it is my opinion that he is lying to me now.

The meeting continues on. I share my less-than-heartfelt thoughts on resentments, leaving out the current resentment towards my brother that is boiling in me now. At 9:00 o’clock, the meeting adjourns. I chat a bit with people afterword, asking a few others if they have seen Brett at the meeting. Some say they have. Some say they haven’t.

I drive back to Sioux City.


It’s Easter morning. A week ago, Brett failed a breathalyzer. The judge decided to let him sit in jail for a week, releasing him on Easter morning. My oldest brother Gabe,33, and his wife and two kids have come from Omaha to spend Easter with us. My dad informed them of Brett’s situation. Gabe is hurt and angry, like the rest of us. Brett’s opportunity of avoiding prison has most likely been blown, pun intended.

Our family went to church in the morning, but Gabe and I left early to pick Brett up from jail. This is far from an ideal Easter. I try to remind myself that it could just as easily be me that has to be picked up from jail. After all, the last time I drank and used was St. Patrick’s Day of 2007, and my parents had to come pick me up from jail the next day.

Gabe and I arrive in the parking lot of the Union County Jail at about 10:00 AM. We see Brett standing outside. He is smoking a cigarette. We pull up along the curb and wait for him to take one last drag. He gets in the car.

“Before I say anything else,” I say, “I want you to know that I love you, Brett.”

“That’s right,” Gabe says. “We love you.”

“I love you guys, too,” Brett says.

I hope by telling Brett I love him first, I will be absolved from anything I may say that pisses him off. I drive out of the jail parking lot and onto the street.

“Do you think you’ll come to Uncle Brad’s for dinner?” Gabe asks Brett.

“Yeah, probably,” Brett says. “I wanna shower and get cleaned up first.”

Several moments pass in silence.

“Do you think you’ll still go to the meeting on Mondays?” I ask Brett.

“Maybe,” he says.

“I think you need to,” I say.

“Dude,” Brett says, “I know what the twelve steps are. It’s not like I’m going to learn anything there I don’t already know.”

Recovery is a spiritual process. But I can’t explain this to Brett. I have no idea how to get through to him.

“And I’m not going to fucking treatment,” Brett says. “I know they’re probably going to try and send me to treatment. I’ve already been down that road.”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Treatment would probably help you.”

“Fuck that,” Brett says. “It’s just a waste of time and money.”

Brett’s attitude doesn’t give me much hope for him.

“What about the guys you work with?” I ask Brett.

“What?” Brett says. “Are you going to tell me I shouldn’t hang out with them because they still drink?”

“I think you need to try to find some new friends,” I say.

Brett doesn’t respond. I say, “I just wish you would come to Sioux City and check out some of the meetings I go to. Or come to one of our dances or functions. There’s lots of young people. I know you’d find some friends.”

“I don’t need a fucking lecture, Blake,” Brett says.

This is the extent of influence I have over Brett. He will take nothing I say to heart. Gabe takes over trying to talk to Brett. I don’t say anything else, and I pay minimal attention to the words exchanged between Brett and Gabe. We reach Brett’s house.

“Just call us when you’re showered and ready to head over to Brad’s,” Gabe says.

Brett gets out of the car and walks up to his house.


The Easter dinner was strangely okay. Everyone knew about Brett. But no one said anything to him about it. He didn’t look ashamed. In fact, he was quite talkative. I didn’t say much to him.

Brett’s situation was worsened by his failed breathalyzer. Instead of six months in the county jail, he will have to do three months in the state penitentiary in Sioux Falls. It’s weird. The Union County Jail charges $25 a day for an inmate to be housed. Prison costs an inmate nothing. Instead, the taxpayers fund the prisoner’s room and board. Also, Brett has to do half the time. But he won’t get work release. And it’s prison. Bad things could happen to him. When I was facing prison time, I lost sleep over it. I would lie in bed worrying about what could happen to me. I don’t know what’s going through Brett’s head, but it doesn’t really matter. He has to go. There is no way out of it.

It is Wednesday, and Brett goes to prison on Friday. My parents wanted me to see Brett one last time before he left. I thought it sounded a bit dramatic. He’d only be gone for three months. But then again, it’s probably a good thing to see him. Who knows what will transpire in the next ninety days for Brett?

I would’ve seen Brett Thursday, the night before he left, but I have night class. So Wednesday night was it. My parents arranged for Brett and I and my grandmother to go out for dinner. We go to a local steakhouse in Elk Point.

My grandmother doesn’t fully understand the situation. She’s not very familiar with prison. She doesn’t know what questions to ask Brett. She avoids the subject altogether.

We are sitting at a table, the three of us. As usual, I struggle to converse with Brett. There is little we share in common, so it is hard for me to come up with something to talk to him about. My grandmother doesn’t hear well, so I decide to ask him about prison.

“Are you scared?”

“Kinda,” Brett says.

“I think you’ll be all right,” I say. “I’m pretty sure they separate the violent offenders from the nonviolent ones. You’ll probably be safe.”

“I think so, too,” Brett says. “But if any nigger or spic tries getting in my face, I’m not gonna back down.”

I shake my head. I say, “I wouldn’t go in there with that attitude.”

Brett doesn’t say anything. I say, “Don’t say shit like that, Brett. It’s stupid.”

“I’m just saying,” Brett says, “that I’m not afraid to fight if I have to.”

“Okay,” I say. “But don’t go in there all racist.”

“Well no,” Brett says.

I don’t get him. Brett is an enigma.

After our dinner, Brett and I drive my grandmother home. We give her a hug and a kiss. She tells Brett she’ll miss him. It feels like any other time we’ve said goodbye to her.

I drive Brett home. I pull behind his house into the dirt alley where his truck his parked. He’s telling me about some movie, but I’m not really paying attention. I just want to say what I have to say to him and leave.

When he’s done talking, I get out of the car. He follows. He walks around and stands in front of me.

“Maybe I can write to you,” I say.

“Yeah,” Brett says. “It just sucks you won’t be able to visit me.”

“Yeah, I know,” I say.

It’s because I’m a felon. Felons can’t visit inmates in prison.

“Mom and dad will come see me though,” Brett says.

I don’t say anything. My parents will go visit him every chance they get, just like they did for me when I was in jail.

“You’ll be out in time for my wedding, right?” I ask him.

“Yeah,” he says. He smiles.

Brett is going to be my best man. I asked him to do it because I thought it would make him feel good. I think he does feel good about it.

“I gotta go,” I say.

“I know,” Brett says.

The silence is awkward. I am uncomfortable.

I step towards Brett. “I love you,” I say.

I hug him.

He says, “I love you, too.”

I say goodbye to him. I get back in my car. I drive away. Brett is beyond my control. As much as they’d like to tell you AA and NA is a “WE” program, the truth is, it only works if the individual wants it to. That’s all there is to it. If you want to stay sober, you will. If you don’t, you won’t. I don’t know what Brett wants, but his miserable situation is more motivation for me to continue down the path I have chosen.

Review of “Under the Banner of Heaven”

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book, Under the Banner of Heaven, is about Mormonism in the United States. Krakauer tells the complete story of Mormonism’s birth and maturation, a feat made possible by the fact that the religion has only been in existence for less than two hundred years. Krakeur uses the particularly gruesome 1984 murders of a Mormon woman and her baby as a focal point for which the entire book spins on. Krakauer simultaneously tells the story of Ron and Dan Lafferty, the Mormon extremist murderers, and the birth and development of Mormonism, starting with the now legendary Joseph Smith. The two stories feed each other and overlap as the book progresses. Krakauer offers a detailed, yet fluid account of Mormonism’s history. Although those who aren’t interested in a history lesson might put the book down, it is well worth the read because just the story of Mormonism in and of itself is interesting and compelling. It is also a good read because Krakauer is a good writer and organizes the book in such a way to make the story of Mormonism’s progression suspenseful. Moreover, there are side-plots within the two big stories, and along the way, we meet several interesting characters who are either active Mormons, excommunicated Mormons, or ex-Mormons who managed to escape the confines of the Church.

Jon Krakauer, in addition to being a professional mountaineer, is the author of four bestselling nonfiction works, Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, Under the Banner of Heaven, and Where Men Win Glory: The Pat Tillman Odyssey. Under the Banner of Heaven, published in 2003, is Krakauer’s third book and signifies a marked departure from his first two books, Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, which focused largely on humans struggling in the face of some of nature’s more extreme forms.

Krakauer wrote the book for fairly obvious reasons: to expose some of the evils running rampant in fundamentalist Mormonism. It is important to note that the book is not an indictment of mainstream Mormonism. Instead, it focuses on the extremist Mormon communities tucked away in Utah, Arizona, Mexico, and Canada. The primary issue Krakauer focuses on is polygamy. Within fundamentalist Mormon sects, the practice of polygamy remains well intact. Now, Krakaeur doesn’t attack polygamy itself from a moral or ethical perspective. Instead, the specific way that fundamentalist Mormons go about practicing polygamy is the source for contention. Within these communities, young girls are chosen from a very young age – as young as thirteen and fourteen years old – and married off to men more than three or four times their age. These Mormon men then have sex with the girls, and their lives are tightly controlled. Basically, fundamentalist Mormon women have no freedom. However, despite the radical differences in mainstream culture and fundamentalist Mormon culture, the Mormon way of life would be okay if these women were freely choosing to be plural wives. However, this is not the case in many instances. Krakauer tells the story of several women who have managed to escape the fundamentalist communities they were once a part of, and their testimonies are disturbing, tragic, and enraging.

Krakauer put a monumental amount of research into the book. There are footnotes on at least half the pages of the book that cite other sources or provide further information on some of the things discussed. He did hundreds of interviews with a plethora of people – mainstream Mormons, fundamentalist Mormon males and females, former Mormons, excommunicated Mormons, media people, and many others. He also traveled to several of the fundamentalist Mormon communities and interviewed people there. Most importantly, Krakauer interviewed both Dan and Ron Lafferty, who are currently serving life sentences in prison for the murders described in the book.

Only in the brief prologue is Krakauer himself present in the narrative voice. Aside from that, the text is written in third-person perspective, in which Krakauer is not a character in the story. However, despite the non-presence of a personalized narrator, Krakauer’s narrative is not objective. Of course he chooses to focus his narrative on the negative aspects of Mormonism, its troubled past, and its history of and continuation of sexual violence. But it should be noted that Krakauer doesn’t have to try very hard to make an indictment of fundamentalist Mormonism sound convincing – the Mormons make it easy. Much of the book’s content is startlingly disturbing, and there is little room for defense of such heinous fundamentalist Mormon practices.

Your Friend, the RA

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Imagine you are eighteen years old. You’ve just moved out of your parents’ home for the first time, the place you’ve spent your entire life. It’s a warm day in late summer, and you’re now in Sioux City, Iowa, at Morningside College.

You notice the campus looks nice. There’s green grass and pretty deciduous trees and squirrels running around and friendly-looking people walking up and down the sidewalks. The buildings look old but somehow new at the same time. It’s all made out of brick. You see a fountain spouting water at the center of the campus. There’s a nice-looking couple holding hands in front of it. You’re watching them watch the fountain.

You look around and see other clusters of people, walking briskly, talking energetically to each other, laughing smiles on their faces. But you, you’re all alone. A sudden knot of dread tightens in your chest. You scan your field of vision frantically for perhaps a high-school classmate, perhaps a distant cousin, or maybe, just maybe, one face you’ve never seen in person, but seen once on Facebook. . .

Who could you possibly turn to in this situation? Well, chances are you’re going to live in the dorms, and lucky for you, your dorm hall will have what’s known as a Resident Assistant, and the Resident Assistant is required to be your friend.

Miriam Phfaler is a 21-year-old senior at Morningside College. She has been a Resident Assistant, or RA, since her sophomore year. In her own words, an RA is “someone you can go to for issues. An RA will help and listen and try to make the resident’s experience in the dorms better.” So in the case of the scared and lonely freshman, an RA such as Miriam is the perfect person to turn to for social anxiety, culture shock, homesickness, and dating prospects.

Broadly speaking, an RA is a student who, along with other RA’s, oversees the dorm halls on week nights and weekends. The RA’s work in shifts, doing their best to juggle their student responsibilities while trying to provide RA services. But an RA’s duties are not limited to just consoling the lost souls of freshman.

Imagine you’re in your dorm room. It’s midnight on Saturday night, the ideal time to study and do homework. Thus, you are diligently studying. All of a sudden, from down the hall comes a blood-curdling scream. It sounds like a female.


You freeze. An icy panic courses your veins. You’ve had this thought before, that if someone were in trouble, you’d like to be the brave person who courageously steps forward and helps, rather than be the bump-on-the-log-bystander who is later interviewed on television about the incident and then asked why you didn’t do anything to help and you don’t have a response and you stand there in embarrassed silence while everyone watching judges you for the coward you truly are.

So you get up from your desk and make your way to your door. The scream sounds again.


This time, the scream is louder. You open your door and step out into the dorm hall. You look in the direction of the scream and see a large man, dressed entirely in black with a strange ghost mask over his face. His arms are wrapped around a young woman. You recognize her. It’s Jennifer, the quiet girl in your composition class. The intruder’s hand is clasped over Jennifer’s mouth, and her muffled screams unnerve you.

But just then, seemingly out of nowhere, a tall, fair-skinned young woman leaps out of a neighboring dorm room and tackles the man. The three bodies fall to the ground, and Jennifer manages to escape the clutches of the intruder. The heroic young woman quickly climbs on top of the intruder, flattening him to the ground face-down, pinning his arms behind his back. She jerks her head in your direction, her thick red hair fluttering over her shoulder like it were blown by the wind.

You recognize her. It’s Miriam Pfhaler, your RA.

“Call the police,” she says to you.

You see, an RA is much more than the person in your hall who can write you up for drinking. In order to become an RA, one must go through three weeks of grueling training. Naturally, because of the dangers of our world, this training includes emergency response training, CPR, and role-playing, such as the scene just described.

An RA must also undergo career therapy counseling, so that when a student comes to them in tears and says, “I don’t know what to major in,” the RA will have a system by which to rehabilitate the distressed, hopeless student. It is possible that throughout the years, RA’s have helped to motivate many students from dropping out of college and becoming drug addicts, so remember to thank your RA when you get the chance.

Aside from being the rock on which the entire dorm hall relies for its strength, hope, and will to endure, and in addition to being the dorm hall’s last line of defense from total annihilation, an RA is also required to participate in community service. Throughout her years as an RA, Miriam has taken part in countless community service projects, including breast cancer awareness events and promotions geared towards becoming more environmentally friendly, like buying a reusable mug at the campus coffee shop and using that instead of being wasteful and using a different paper cup each time.

Besides just simply carrying out the tall orders already discussed, an RA at Morningside College must also be socially, culturally, and politically aware. Miriam has had to stay up on the latest fashion trends, for, in the case that a resident comes to her, holds up two different outfits and asks, “Which one should I wear?”, Miriam must be prepared to offer an informed recommendation that will be the most likely to lead the resident in the direction of social success.

Since almost all college students are at least eighteen and therefore eligible to vote, and since it is almost certain that a presidential election will take place during an RA’s tenure, it has been Miriam’s duty to stay politically informed. We all know how stressful it is to vote for the first time. Thinking back to that first time we voted, it is possible that it was the single most impacting thing that changed our lives. Thus, when a resident comes to Miriam, possibly in tears, and says, “Who should I vote for?”, Miriam must be prepared to offer a concise yet informative and unbiased summarization of the platforms of each candidate and where they stand on key issues such as gay rights, abortion, war, health care, and the legalization of marijuana.

Miriam has also had to stay culturally informed as an RA, for, the services she provides must not be second-rate for a student with a different cultural or ethnic background than her own. She has participated in activities that promote diversity, because she must be able transcend potential cultural barriers and provide the many difficult duties described thus far to students of all colors, cultures, and backgrounds.

As if everything discussed so far wasn’t enough, as an RA, Miriam has also been in charge of providing entertainment for her dorm hall. And mind you, this involves more than simply juggling in front of a small crowd of uninterested people or playing an unpolished cover of a Taylor Swift song that you’ve told the listeners prior to “still needs some work.” No. Miriam’s duties entail actually organizing real events such as a free movie night at the Carmike Cinemas in the Southern Hills Mall. Of course, the consumption of alcohol at these events is prohibited, for college students have a propensity to consume alcohol in excess and engage in belligerent behavior they wouldn’t otherwise exhibit. Of course, several students violated the prohibition order.

In her three years as an RA, Miriam has RA’d Roadman Hall, Dimmit Hall, and she is currently the Head Resident at the college apartments on campus. Although the events described in this article sound hyperbolized, they are not beyond the realm of possibility. But the truth is, in regard to responding to dorm hall emergencies, Miriam’s experiences have mostly dealt with residents being locked out of their dorm rooms. In these cases, Miriam, who has a key that opens everyone’s room, will promptly accompany the resident to their locked dorm room. Next, Miriam will insert the master key into the locked door. She will turn the key and unlock the door. The resident, depending on if she is a decent human being or not, will say, “Thank you.”

For Miriam, being an RA has involved sacrificing her social life. Over the years, she has had to give up many weekends and stay in the dorms and carry on her RA duties. Although the job has inhibited her socially, Miriam says that being an RA has been a good experience. “It has allowed me to find my authoritative voice,” she says. “I’ve become more assertive, and also more approachable.”

Some people have accused RA’s of being on a power trip, of abusing their authority, of “raining on the parade,” or being “party poopers.” However, no substantial evidence has ever been compiled to support this claim. Instead, the overwhelming amount of evidence, including that contained in this article, suggest that an RA is your friend – some might even say your guardian angel.


Thursday, November 4th, 2010

Right now I am sitting in the Morningside library listening to the sounds. I’m over in the corner, behind some tan metal bookshelves. There’s a librarian helping a student find a book. She’s telling the student something about the author’s last name. This reminds me of my mother. She just recently retired from the Elk Point-Jefferson School after serving as the school system’s librarian for thirty-five years. She taught library skills, which is essentially the process of acquainting students with the library and showing them how to locate things and utilize the services the library has to offer. I remember always feeling kind of awkward as a kid when my class went to the library to see my mom. None of my friends’ parents were teachers at the school, so I was the lone teacher’s kid. To my memory, my mom didn’t give me any preferential treatment or really embarrass me in any way. The only instances in which I would be singled out were in anecdotes my mom would tell that included her family, which naturally included me. It’s a common thing for teachers to do – tell stories about themselves that relate to what’s being discussed in class. Since I was included in many of the stories my mom would tell, several of the students would look at me when my mom said my name in the story. Then as the story progressed, on cue with any twists or turns it would take, my fellow students would again look at me to see my reaction.

My mom’s greatest contribution to the school, in my opinion, is the way she reads stories to early grade school students. The students would all gather around her and sit on the floor while she sat in front on a chair. Then she would read a book to them, holding it so that they could all see the pictures. My mom has a gift for storytelling, and she has this ability to change the tone and inflection of her voice. She adapts her voice to different characters’ dialogues, and her voice would grow in excitement along with the action of the story, or diminish, whichever the story called for. Virtually all young children love being read to, and my mom capitalized on this fact. The students loved her. Many of them often gave her hugs. When I was a bit older and in high school, I would on occasion be in the library while my mom was reading to the children. I observed the way my mom told a story, and I was able to realize just how good she is at what she does. The stories were always short, just children’s books, so I could stand there and watch my mom read the whole story. As the plot thickened, I watched the students lean forward from their positions on the floor. They would all lean closer to my mom, their ears perked, their nervous systems churning in anticipation. My mom literally held the children on the edge of their seats. This is how my mom sucked me into literature at a very young age. I was even more fortunate than the students, because I would get to view these types of performances on a nightly basis.

While watching my mom read to the children, I realized how lucky I was to have my mom as my mom. You can’t force someone to like something. And I realize that people are capable of learning to like something, but my love for stories came naturally. I don’t remember ever not liking something my mom read to me – and she read A LOT to my brother and I. For me, it was always enjoyable.

Strange Shapes, Dissident Colors: Nan Wilson’s It’s About Time

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

Currently on display in the Sioux City Art Center, following a three-story trek up a winding staircase, is the immediately startling, virtually indigestible art exhibition of Nan Wilson, a local artist who is presently a professor at Briar Cliff University. The massive paintings were created in the last 25 years, and the last exhibition she had at the Sioux City Art Center was over 30 years ago. With this in mind, it’s as if a creative viral outbreak was unleashed upon the gallery room, with strands of multicolored tentacles snaking across the walls, even dripping from the ceilings.

The paintings all consist of oil on canvas, in some cases oil and acrylic, and in a few of the works there are also attachments to the pieces. The paintings are massive, often 6 feet by 6 feet, in some cases 8 feet by 12 feet. It is hard not to be startled by their shear size. One peers into images larger than themselves. The images sometimes resemble a psychedelic rainbow vortex. One piece, titled “Absolution,” looks like a view in the eyepiece of a microscope. The viewer stares into a world of magnified globular cells and veins. The colors pulsate with an energy that reminds us our cells are in constant state of movement.

One recurring theme in at least 5 of the 11 works is the idea of being veiled or caged, or somehow restricted or enclosed. The theme is represented quite explicitly in the painting “Veiled Perfection.” In the painting, we see a patterned assortment of different colored squares. In front of the squares, attached to the painting, is a copper wire fence, patterned in squares similar to the squares in the painting. Another painting, titled “Captured,” shows tan-colored object similar to a piece from Stonehenge, blended together with an unidentified, plum-colored sphere. Both objects are wrapped in what appears to be metal wire. Yet another painting, titled “Primary Impulses,” depicts a pile of different colored circles. It looks like a pile of stones. Again, the entire pile is wrapped in wire, as if the pile were caged. What does it all mean?

I have my own theory. In the gallery, it says that the title of Nan Wilson’s exhibition refers to the fact that she hasn’t had her work on display in so long, that “it’s about time” she did so. However, I choose to view the gallery as if the paintings themselves were actually representations or meditations about the nature of time. For example, some forms of time, such as the past or what we call memories, are in fact captured and caged in our minds. These forms of time seem to be stagnant, changing only when we ourselves change and then revisit them with a different perspective. The recurrence of the barbed wire could be a metaphor for the way we encapsulate our memories, with the possible suggestion that we ought to revisit our memories, thus freeing them from their enclosure. In other paintings, a more free-flowing display of images spread across the canvas, perhaps suggesting the nature of present time, the way it moves with a tangible force, the way it expands and grows. For example, the piece “Interrupted Symmetry” features the blending of squares and triangles, creating the effect of optical irreducibility upon the objects of the painting. It is at once possible to isolate different shapes within the painting, but it is impossible to reduce the painting to it’s individual parts, and the painting thus has shape but no shape, no beginning and no end. This is suggestive of our experience with present time, the way it has already passed the second we are conscience of its passing, the way it dies and re-creates itself instantaneously, the way it has no true beginning and no true end.

Nan Wilson’s exhibition is a thought-provoking display of strangely colored images that escape easy interpretation. The reaction to her works are perhaps first experience viscerally. The eye is met with a combination of colors and images it is not accustomed to. However, once the sensory data has been half-digested, the mind takes over and creates the meaning that may or may not be inherent within the work. Regardless of the artist’s intent and anyone’s interpretation, Nan Wilson’s gallery offers us an excellent opportunity to exercise our minds, employ our critical thinking skills, and stretch our imaginations.

Robert Cole Currans den Hartog

Friday, October 15th, 2010

“My first choice is to be a political analyst on NPR, but I’ll probably end up going into the U.S. Marshals,” says Robert Cole Currans den Hartog, an eighteen-year-old freshman at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. “NPR is really hard to get into,” he says, “and the U.S. Marshals takes six weeks of training.”

            Currans den Hartog is majoring in mass communication. He has an interest in media and politics, but it seems his true passion and perhaps the purpose for which he was put on this earth is to apprehend dangerous fugitives.

            He tilts his head forward, exposing the black, beady eyes behind his large sunglasses. He gazes intently and says, “The U.S. Marshals are bad asses.”

            According to Currans den Hartog, the primary criteria for a bad ass are more than met by a U.S. Marshal. For example, no bad ass is without possession of a shotgun. Accordingly, a U.S. Marshal packs a 12-guage in the backseat of his black armored suburban, a vehicle Currans den Hartog, a lover of the Old West, dubs “the horse of the U.S. Marshal.” Because most bad asses have a susceptibility to being shot at by dangerous fugitives, they must also wear a bullet-proof vest. Naturally, a U.S. Marshal proudly, albeit covertly, sports a bullet-proof vest while on the job. Lastly, and probably most importantly, a true bad ass has immense power over the average, non-bad ass citizen. According to Currans den Hartog, a U.S. Marshal can arrest anyone.

            Currans den Hartog looks very much a teenager, pale-skinned and baby-faced. He’s about 5’9’’, a bit scrawny and lanky. He has shaggy black hair, moussed to appear wet, slightly parted at the middle. There are faint, blackish hints of a peach-fuzz moustache over the top of his lip, and even fainter traces of hair on the tip of his chin. He’s well-dressed: a white cotton button-up shirt tucked into black slacks. The only item that seems out of place is his large sunglasses, which he wears slightly lowered, resting over the middle of his nose, so that sometimes his black, beady eyes are visible.

            Currans den Hartog was born on Thanksgiving Day of 1992, which happened to be November 28 that year. He is his parents’ first child, and was to be followed six years later with a younger brother. He grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. His curious last name comes as a result of having an Irish mother and a Dutch father. When the two joined in marriage, they both kept their respective last names, but passed both names on to their children, hence the Irish name Currans and the Dutch name den Hartog.

            Not surprisingly, Currans den Hartog’s father sells insurance in Des Moines. His mother used to practice law, mostly in real estate, until complications evolved with their second child, David.

            “My brother’s autistic,” Currans den Hartog says. “He got diagnosed with Ausberger’s when he was two. Now he’s twelve. It’s severe, but he’s functional.”

            The amount of attention and care required by David forced Currans den Hartog’s mother to quit practicing law and tend to her youngest son. This began a ten-year workless stint that still continues today for her.

            “I love my brother,” says Currans den Hartog, “but I wish he wasn’t autistic. He’s very stubborn and throws several fits every day. He’s ruined lots of vacations.”

            The trouble at home as a result of an autistic younger brother was echoed at school as Currans den Hartog entered Des Moines Roosevelt High in 2006.

            “I didn’t like high school,” says Currans den Hartog. “The majority of people were mean and didn’t talk to me.”

            However, this volatile social climate did not stop him from becoming involved in various extracurricular functions.

            “I was on the debate team and competed against some of the top debaters in the state,” says Currans den Hartog.

            Charlie Bass, also a freshman at Morningside and one of Iowa’s top debaters a year ago, recalls seeing Currans den Hartog at a few of his high school debate meets.

            “He was pretty good,” says Bass. “I remember him have a very distinct vocal utterance and a commanding, emphatic tone of voice.”

            In addition to the debate team, Currans den Hartog also took part in student congress. Serving as an integral member of the Student Congressional Committee, Currans den Hartog was central in advancing some of the committee’s most important agendas. For example, in 2005, he drafted an essay on the eradication of the penny from the United States currency.

            “Pennies are useless,” says Currans den Hartog. “They literally are not worth the material they’re produced on. A lot of people don’t know this, but it costs 1.17 cents to make a single penny.”

            Currans den Hartog was also acute to some of the social problems that plagued his high school.

            He says, “Roughly speaking, Des Moines Roosevelt is about 70% white, 15% black, 10% Hispanic, and 5% everything else. It was probably my sophomore year when I first noticed that some of the teachers seemed to yell at black students much quicker than they would white students. I discussed this observation with some of the other students and they corroborated it. So I wrote an article for the school paper presenting this issue. Let’s just say it was not well-received by some of the teachers.”

            Unfortunately, no faculty of Des Moines Roosevelt High School could be reached for comment on this issue.

            Beyond just the issue of racism, Currans den Hartog also focused his attention on gender inequalities.

            “There was this girl who always wore a beret to school everyday,” he recalls. “Like most schools, Des Moines Roosevelt had a loosely enforced no-hat policy. But this girl was never ordered to take her hat off. Yet any male who wore a hat was promptly instructed to remove it from their head. So I wrote an article in the paper highlighting this observation.”

            Though it would seem sexist to allow the girl to continue to wear her beret while not allowing the males to wear hats of any kind, that’s exactly what happened.

            Despite Currans den Hartog’s numerous successes in Student Congress, his attitude towards his high school days is perhaps best expressed in the final article he wrote for the paper entitled “Goodbye. You Won’t Be Missed.” Currans den Hartog’s articles can be read at

            Fortunately for Currans den Hartog, the transition from high school to college has gone smooth.

            “I love it here at Morningside,” he says. “It’s a perfect fit for me. I fell in love with it right away. The teachers are really nice. I’m making friends. And I love the food. It reminds me of my grandmother’s cooking.”

            Currans den Hartog is currently a movie reviewer for Morningside College’s student newspaper, the Collegian Reporter. He plans on expanding his role into the area of opinion writing.

            “You see,” he says, “my perspective on society is different from most. I occupy the space of an outsider looking in. I’m more jaded and cynical than your average college student.”

            Politically, Currans den Hartog ambiguously describes himself as “very liberal,” though still identifies himself as a Catholic. However, his attendance at Mass has virtually stopped entirely upon attending college.

            “I have better things to do than be told how much of a sinner I am,” he says.

            As for the future, Currans den Hartog plans on completing a bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication at Morningside College. It is highly probable that he will end up serving in the U.S. Marshals. Ideally, he would like to be located in the Black Hills and be stationed out of Rapid City.

            “I see myself as a cowboy,” he says. “I love to wear Stetson.”

            After laughing, he goes on, “I’m a modern-day cowboy. I have that desire to be out on the open road.”

            He pauses, then sighs. “I’ve only ever felt at peace in the Badlands or in the Black Hills,” he says. “I just love the untamed West and its beautiful landscape.”

            For future reference, watch out for Currans den Hartog tearing down the interstate in a ’67 Shelby GT-500, his dream car.

            “It’s the car that got me in to cars,” he says. “Mark my words, I’m going to get one. I’ve wanted one since I was 12. I’m going to get it armored. I’m going to soup up the engine. And you better believe it’s going to be in mint condition.”

Review of Bill Buford’s “Among the Thugs”

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

Ross Wilcox

Review of Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs

Bill Buford’s 1990 investigative book Among the Thugs is a humorous and intelligent examination of English football hooliganism. The inspiration for Buford’s eight year immersion into the hooligan subculture came on a night in 1982 when he boarded a train on his way home from Cardiff, Whales. Buford sat idly in the train, awaiting its departure. All of a sudden, a mob of football supporters commandeered the train. They were loud; they were rude; they were drunk.

Buford, an American journalist living in London at the time, spent the next eight years hanging out with English football supporters. He spent the vast majority of his time with the most wild and crazy hooligans, the supporters of the famed club Manchester United. Buford tags alongside the supporters each Saturday as they march into pubs and consume copious amounts of lager. He observes their disgusting behavior with an honest and humorous eye. He bravely walks with them as they parade down the streets of various cities, stopping traffic and smashing car windows. He is right there on the front lines as the supporters engage in old-fashioned, hand-to-hand combat with rival supporters or innocent citizens. Amazingly, Buford is also present when the supporters defy police attempts to squelch crowd violence. Although the book focuses specifically on English football supporters, the overarching theme extends to crowd violence of all forms: the allure of it, the solidarity that overcomes the individuals, and some of the social factors that contribute to it and perpetuate it.

Bill Buford is an American journalist who has written, in addition to the very popular Among the Thugs, the book Heat: An Amateur’s Experiences as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany. He attended the University of California at Berkley before moving on to the University of Cambridge, where he studied at a Marshall Scholar. He lived in England for most of the 1980’s. He is the former fiction editor for The New Yorker, where he is still on staff.

Initially, Buford’s purpose for pursuing the study of English football hooliganism was purely out of curiosity. However, as he got to know some of the supporters, his interest grew as more of the details shaping these men’s lives came into focus. The book is very funny in the beginning, but it starts to take a more serious tone as Buford observes greater degrees of violence, disgusting instances of debauchery, and terrifying moments in which there is literally a war taking place in the streets between supporters and policemen. Though Buford never explicitly identifies a thesis, crowd violence emerges as the major theme of the book.

At the time of its publication, Among the Thugs was a timely and urgently relevant work. The media was having a heyday with English football supporters. Cities were vandalized beyond belief by the supporters. There were deaths due to crowd violence inside and outside of football stadiums. In short, football hooliganism was a societal problem. Buford sought to investigate this behavior, and on page 217 of his book lays perhaps the heart of what he is trying to get at. Here, he is discussing his experiences after being involved with hooligans for several years:

“I had not expected the violence to be so pleasurable….This is, if you like, the answer to the hundred-dollar question: why do young males riot every Saturday? They do it for the same reason that another generation drank too much, or smoked dope, or took hallucinogenic drugs, or behaved badly or rebelliously. Violence is their antisocial kick, their mind-altering experience, an adrenaline-induced euphoria that might be all the more powerful because it is generated by the body itself, with, I was convinced, many of the same addictive qualities that characterize synthetically-produced drugs.”

For Buford’s methods of observation, he completely immerses himself in the hooligan subculture. There is little to no attempt at achieving a objectivity. The book is written in first-person. We stand in Buford’s shoes. The book succeeds so well in drawing us in because in the beginning, we are in the same position as Buford: we have never seen or met real hooligans, let alone walked and talked and fought and drank and eaten with them. So, as Buford embarks on his journey, we feel as shocked and amazed as he does with each new experience. Buford makes no mistake about it: the reality of this story is filtered through his mind, his emotions, and his perceptions. It is a first-person account of one man’s immersion into a violent subculture, and it reads like good fiction.

Buford didn’t conduct formal interviews with the hooligans as much as he simply befriended them. He didn’t talk with them as much as he conversed with them. He more than observed their behavior – he participated in it. He drank with them. He smoked with them. He traveled with them. He ate with them. He, for the most part, became one of them. However, it should be stated that Buford did not engage in any violence. He was right there as it happened, but he didn’t attack anyone or vandalize anything (at least none that he admits). So in this sense, Buford probably doesn’t qualify as a true hooligan, for a true hooligan, as Buford states, engages in violence because it is a kind of drug for him.

Buford, in most cases, does not hesitate to give his opinion. This is a subjective book and all elements of reality are filtered through Bill Buford. This is why the book reads like good fiction. It doesn’t attempt to be objective. One of the advantages fiction has traditionally had over journalism is its ability to allow the reader to stand in a character’s shoes. Well, in Among the Thugs, Bill Buford is a character and we stand in his shoes. His book employs all the elements of fiction successfully. Is it all true? Who cares? It’s a great story by a talented writer and it is entertaining, engaging, funny, and insightful.

The Big Brother

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

Andy Milian’s wheelchair is the biggest I’ve ever seen. It’s almost more of a mobile bed than a mobile chair. His posture is contorted, a permanent condition as a result of his cerebral palsy. His mother, Lilly, crouches down to his level, puts her face close to his, and says, “Hey, big guy.”

Andy turns his head slightly to the right, so that his cheek lays flat against the cushion behind his buzzed head. For someone not accustomed to Andy’s mannerisms, any response he makes could be either misconstrued or go undetected. Lilly says, “Hey, big guy.” She smiles at her son and shakes his arm. Andy makes a gurgling noise. His eyes look like they’re rolled back in his head. Lilly shakes his arm again and he gurgles. She says this noise is compatible with a laugh.

Lilly’s other children, Bianca, 11, and Marco, 8, are also standing over their big brother. Bianca, a spitting-image of her mother with olive skin, black hair, and coffee-brown eyes, smiles at her brother and says, “Hi, Andy.” Marco is more standoffish. His arms rest behind his back, one of his palms gripping the forearm of his other arm. Lilly says Marco fully understands Andy’s condition, recognizes that Andy is different from other children in several fundamental ways. But she also says Marco has trouble interacting with his brother.

“I don’t like doing baby-talk,” Marco says. “Andy’s twelve.”

Lilly smiles at me uncomfortably. Then she turns to Marco. “It’s not baby-talk, son,” she says. “It’s just the way we have to talk with your brother.”

Marco crosses his arms. None of his friends have ever met Andy, and as far as he knows, none of them have a big brother like Andy.

“It’s weird because you can’t really talk to him,” Marco says.

Andy can’t talk. He has hypotonic cerebral palsy, the most sever and restricting kind of CB. He can only move his mouth, his eyes, and in very limited capacities, his neck and torso. He is also profoundly mentally retarded, having an IQ below 20. The crazy thing is, though three weeks premature, Andy was born seemingly healthy. For the first eighteen months of his life, he was a completely healthy baby boy. Lilly had no idea that the relationship she had to her first-born would change so drastically in a matter of months.

“At first, it was wonderful,” Lilly recalls. “He was so cute. He was so full of energy.”

But then, Andy started getting sick. And he lost control of his limbs. His tiny arms and legs would spasm violently, Lilly recalls.

“Then all of a sudden he couldn’t crawl or move hardly at all,” Lilly says. “We took him to the doctor and they ran tests and discovered he had cerebral palsy.”

Sadly, Andy’s cerebral palsy was a combination of being born 3 weeks prematurely and trauma suffered at birth.

“The doctors screwed up,” Lilly said. “When he was born, they said he had suffered some trauma, but they said he would be fine.”

Obviously, they were wrong. After eighteen months of life, Andy’s development would never become fully realized.

“It was the worst time of my life,” Lilly says of those first weeks and months following Andy’s diagnosis. “I was so angry and I cried at some point every single day for almost a year. I just couldn’t accept that my son could never be like other children. I resented doctors for a long time.”

Lilly and her then-husband, Ernesto, filed a lawsuit against the doctors who delivered Andy and were rewarded amply. Andy would receive all the free treatment he needed. An in-home nurse for Andy would be provided free of charge. The Milians even received a full-sized van complete with an electronic wheelchair ramp for transporting Andy.

“It’s been a blessing to have the care Andy needs,” Lilly says. “I love my son so much, and he is so important to me, and I know without winning that lawsuit I would never have been able to afford the level of care Andy needs.”

I ask Lilly a hypothetical question. “What would your relationship be like with Andy had you not have won the lawsuit?”

The question catches Lilly off-guard. Her eyebrows furrow, and a stern expression of thought spreads over her face.

“I don’t know,” she says. “It would be much more difficult.”

Lilly pauses, then says, “To be completely honest, the help we get makes my relationship with my son easier. It enables me to be a mother to him and still have my own life.”

“How is your relationship to Andy different from your relationship to your other children?” I ask Lilly.

Lilly smiles and sighs. “Well,” she says, “the easy answer is that Andy requires more attention than Bianca or Marco. But to go a little deeper, I guess the main difference is that my relationship with Andy is on a very basic level. Because of his disability, his understanding of things beyond his immediate needs and surroundings is very limited. I’ll never talk to him about what he wants to do with his life, what career he’ll pursue.  I’ll never talk to him about the birds and the bees.”

There is only a trace of sadness in Lilly’s eyes. Today, the often sad truth of her son’s future does not overwhelm her. Still, Andy’s condition is a hard situation for his mother to accept.

“Bianca and Marco can grow up to be anything they want,” Lilly says. “They are both smart and have the potential to do anything. Andy doesn’t have that opportunity. I guess my relationship to him is one of service. I just want to do everything I can to make Andy’s life the best it can be, whatever that might be.”

Today, Lilly is a 37-year-old single mother of three children. She divorced her husband a little over a year ago.

“With my ex-husband gone, Andy is the man of the house,” Lilly jokes.

She is currently unemployed because she is attending Western Iowa Tech full-time. She is pursuing psychology with the hopes of becoming a therapist someday.

“It’s really hard trying to balance it all out,” Lilly says. “I want to do really well in school, and that requires a lot of time, but my children are the most important thing in my life.”

Bianca smiles at this.

Bianca is eleven and is currently in sixth grade. She excels academically and has always gotten A’s. One of her main interests is in music, and she plays the trombone in band. I asked her what it was like to have Andy as a brother.

“It’s okay,” she says, not sure how to take my question.

“Do you love him?” I ask her.

“Yeah,” she says, nodding her head. “He’s my brother.”

Bianca glances at her brother Andy. He appears to be asleep.

“Do you help take care of him?” I ask Bianca.

“Yeah,” she says. “I talk to him and play with him and help with feeding him and stuff.”

“Do your friends know about Andy?” I ask her.

“Kind of,” she says. “Only two of my friends have ever met Andy in person. But my friend Jessica knows Andy really well.”

I want to ask Bianca what it means to know Andy really well, but I don’t. Instead, I listen to Lilly talk about Andy’s future.

“I don’t know how long he’ll live,” Lilly says. “The doctors didn’t think he’d live as long as he has. There were several times when he was a baby where we thought we’d lose him. But he’s made it this long.”

“We just don’t know how long he has,” Lilly goes on. “It could be really soon. It could be years from now. But however long it is, he’s being taken care of and I’m doing the best I can to make him feel loved.”

Marco has run off to his room to play video games. Lilly and Bianca remain by Andy’s side, quietly watching him sleep. I take a few steps forward and join them. Standing this close, I can hear Andy snoring softly.

“Can he dream?” I ask Lilly.

“I don’t know,” she says.

She puts her arm around her daughter. Bianca gratefully accepts it and leans her head against her mother’s side.

I look at Lilly.

“This is it,” Lilly says. “This is my life. It’s who I am.”

Gattaca Film Review

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

In the not-so-distant future, companies have adopted the practice of screening their employees based on their genetic makeup. A young man with a congenital heart condition attempts to assume the identity of a former athlete with perfect genes. The reason this young man goes to such risky lengths to attain a job may surprise you. . .

Gattaca is a 1997 sci-fi film written and directed by Andrew Niccol (screenwriter of 1998’s The Truman Show and director of 2005’s Lord of War). Starring Ethan Hawke, Jude Law, and Uma Thurman, Gattaca succeeds on virtually all levels as an intellectually provocative sci-fi drama. Featuring no aliens, no robots, and no epic intergalactic starfights, Gattaca’s attractions lie in its sleekly costumed casts, stylish sets, and absorbing story that raises interesting ethical questions about the nature of science.

Although the entire cast gives solid performances, Ethan Hawke’s is especially note-worthy as he embodies the character of the flawed Everyman with remarkable sympathy and conviction.

Perhaps most importantly, Gattaca succeeds in breaking the chains set on the science-fiction genre by Kubrick’s 2001. For too many years the genre has relied on technology and special effects, telling redundant tales of good versus evil on the intergalactic scale (Star Wars).

Although the film suffers from a final sequence that may be less than satisfying, it remains overall an indispensably fresh contribution to the sci-fie genre, with enough thought-provocation and beauty to make it a classic of modern science fiction.

A Creatively-Bent Paper Clip

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

I pulled into the gravel parking lot of my apartment complex. As always, the strange guy who’s perpetually taking apart lawn mowers and mopeds was hard at it. This summer, I have seen him on a daily basis in front of his rented garage, working diligiently, obsessively, perhaps insanely on a lawn mower or a moped or some other unidentified machine. I had never actually exchanged words with the man, and the only encounter I had with him involved him mistakenly saying hi to my wife and asking her how her baby was. We had gotten out of our car and were walking into our building when he had said this. We stopped and looked at him. He came walking towards us and stopped when he realized my wife was not who he thought she was. He held his hand out, open-palmed, and apologized.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought you were Holly. You look like her.”

Sarah laughed uncomfortably and said it was okay. The man walked away and returned to his work in front of his garage.

So as I got out of my car with a paper clip in my pocket, I thought this might be a good opportunity to talk to this man. I slowly walked toward the garage, my feet crunching on the gravel. I could hear his radio blaring. It was a song by Beyonce.

When I reached his little driveway, I saw that he was laying with his back to the pavement. He had an old push-lawn mower propped up and his head was buried underneath it, right below the blades. I could see the side of his face. Droplets of sweat were running down his cheeks. He was squinting harshly, as if he were straining to see something underneath the mower.

He didn’t notice me. I don’t think he could hear me over the radio. Inside his garage, there were three other push mowers. I don’t know if they worked or not. There were two large work benches, completely covered in old tools. There was also a riding lawn mower which I know was operable because I had seen him mowing the apartment lawns with it before. There was also his little moped. The moped had a wire basket attached to the back for transporting cargo. There was an orange flag jutting up from the back. I had seen him riding it before on the street. When riding, he wears a helmet and a bright neon vest. I had always held the opinion that his mental functions were not entirely normal.

I stood for several moments just watching him poke his head around the bottom of the mower. There were some tools lying next to him. He wore khaki shorts, running shoes, and a t-shirt, his usual attire. He was an average sized guy, about 5’9” and probably 170 pounds. He was always clean-shaven and his brown hair was medium length and a little wavy. If you just glanced at him for a second you’d think he’s normal. But if you stared longer than three seconds, he’d do something to indicate his mental state, whether it was by talking to himself, glancing unexpectedly at the sky, or suddenly grimacing, seemingly unprovoked.

Finally, he reached for one of the tools by his side. His hand felt out the pavement, but couldn’t find the particular tool he sought. He pulled his head out from underneath the mower. Then he noticed me, not five feet from him, staring at him.

We looked at each other for a few moments in silence. The sun was on his face, and he squinted.

“Hey,” I said, sounding friendly.

“Hi,” he said.

His voice was flat, perhaps even a bit suspicious.

“Can you help me with something?” I said.

He was still lying on his back. He brought his hand to his forehead, sheilding his eyes from the sun.

“What’s that?” he said. “You need something fixed?”

I shook my head. “No,” I said.

I reached in my pocket and pulled out the paper clip. I pinched it between my fingers and held it up so he could see.

I said, “Could you bend this paper clip in a creative way?”

He stared at the paper clip for a moment. “Huh?” he said.

I said, “I need someone to bend this paper clip in a creative way. A paper clip is a simple machine, and you’re good with machines.”

“Oh,” he said. His face seemed more comfortable after I’d told him he was good with machines.

He scooted out from under the mower and stood up.

“Let’s see it,” he said, holding out his hand.

I placed the paper clip in his hand. He pinched it between his fingers. He held it close to his face.

“Looks like a regular paper clip,” he said.

“It is,” I said. “Right now, it’s bent in the standard way that paper clips are bent. But you can un-bend it and bend it in a different way. That’s what I need someone to do.”

“Okay,” he said.

He pulled the paper clip apart until it was almost straight, save for the few bends and juts that always remain when you try to bend a paper clip straight.

“How should I bend it?” he said.

“However you want,” I said.

He nodded. Now a song by Lady Gaga came on the radio.

He bent the paper clip in two spots towards the opposite ends at ninety-degree angles, so that it looked like half of a square. He looked at it for a moment.

“What is it?” I said.

He shook his head. “I don’t know.”

We looked at the paper clip for a moment. He handed it back to me. I brought it close to my face.

“It looks creative,” I said.

I looked at him and he nodded his head.

“Is that it then?” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks a lot for your help.”

“You’re welcome,” he said.

He nodded his head again and got back on the ground. He grabbed a wrench and slid under the mower, returning to his work. I didn’t stay to watch him work. I could do that any day.