Combating Evil – WWII Stories and Folk Tales from Veterans Long Dead

In the 1980s and 1990s, family members and friends of my parents, now long dead, told me tales of their service in 1940s, during the Great War, the War to End All Wars..or so they said at the time. World War II. But, by way of preface, these tales bubbled to the surface in part due to my collection of folk tales and ghost stories in the mountains and lowlands of Wales.  In the summer of 1987, Colorado College had granted me an award to collect Welsh Folktales, mainly ghost stories.  One such story sparked a chord of interest in my Great Uncle, Bud Gill, who listened with rapt attention when I related it and shortly thereafter astonished all around by relating one of his own. Before I tell you his and those that followed, I’ll tell you about Dickie Harris, the Welsh Farmer, who lent his land to the American Armed Forces during World War II.

In the Gwyn Valley, just before you reach St. Davids, on the western edge of Wales, Dickie Harris was plowing his fields with his grand-daughter, a beautiful little girl with sunshine hair, and bright eyes. img_0126

[This is a watercolor that I painted of Dickie Harris and his granddaughter plowing the field, the old style.]

Dickie stopped plowing and told  me that during the great war, American soldiers and British soldiers set up camp on his lands.  German fighter planes would fly low overhead, bombing the land. He told me about his friend, Ronald Stevens, who raised and trained hawks to fight the German carrier pigeons. Of the soldiers who camped on their land and of a big black dog that turned into a wicked hag, who vanished down a well.

As I related this story to my Uncle Bud , he interrupted me halfway through,  stating, “Oh, I was over there, I stayed on those lands in Wales in 1942.” I realized then that he was one of the soldiers that Dickie Harris had mentioned. Then we began to share tales of Wales, what it was like then and now, and I asked him if he crossed the Channel. Turns out he had, not only had he crossed it, he had fought at the Battle of the Bulge. “We were starving,” he said. “I remember the hunger the most.” It was hard for him; he spoke quietly and mumbled his words. Also at first, there were other conversations competing for attention. We were sitting in my Great Aunt Gwen’s dining room, all in a row. My family and me, conversing over lunch or tea.  Conversations overlapped each other, as they often do in a group gathering. But when he mentioned the Battle of the Bulge, the room grew quiet. And it was just him and me.

“What did you eat?” I asked him.

“We ate out of tins, although those became scarce. And it was cold. I remember that. Little more than a thin blanket to cover us.”

“Oh, where were you? In the bunkers?”

“No trenches. The Germans had the bunkers for the most part. We had trenches. And there were blasts around us. We couldn’t hear. I remember gathering warmth from the bodies.”

“Bodies? You mean the men around you?”

“No,  yes, but they weren’t alive. Some had their faces blown off, others limbs. But after awhile all you felt was the hunger and the cold, it seeped into you. I didn’t think I would survive that. But I remember Wales, danced with some pretty girls there, shhh, don’t tell Gwen.”

I wondered if he had forgotten that Gwen was sitting at the table with us. And decided it was a joke, the spark of laughter in his eyes. We tried to get him to tell us more about the Battle of the Bulge, but he talked more about Wales, the good times. Except, for how cold it was and how you never forget trying to obtain warmth from a corpse.

On the way home, my father related the story of his Uncle, his mother’s twin, who was amongst the first to reach Auschwitz. He was a sensitive soul my Great Uncle, whose name I have forgotten. I never met him. He committed suicide long before I was born. An alcoholic who never quite got past the War. My father said that he was an ambulance driver, they’d gone into the camps in the hopes of saving people. But all they found were the bodies. There’s a picture of him somewhere smoking a cigarette next to an ambulance, but I’ve never found it. Even though I vaguely remember seeing it. The ambulances became hearses, and the bodies were from a nightmare. Mass graves. They had saved no one, they were too late. The only ones they had saved were the ones who had not entered the camps. For the Germans, upon news of the Allied Troops arrival, had put the people in the camps in a mass grave and shot them all.

A few years later, I related this tale to a friend of my parents, who told her husband’s story, of how he too was amongst the first in the death camps in Germany. He was a Corporal, and in charge, they’d gone to free the prisoners, but only a scant few were freed. It was a rescue mission, right out of an old WWII film, or a new one…but very few were saved. He still can barely speak of it.

Combating evil leaves a mark, and if we aren’t careful can pull us under. Or so I’ve been told by these men and many others.  My Great Uncle Bud Gill, death in one ear, struggling to put the words together, painted a landscape of fear and suffering, with bombs in the air. He saw people get their feet blown off next to him. And he barely could open the tins with his fingers. But he stayed alive based on the love and comradeship he’d experienced in Wales. The pretty girls he danced with, the laughter, and music. He remembered Wales and clung to that memory, sleeping under the stars in the fields outside St. David’s head, while farmers plowed their fields, men trained hawks to fight German carrier pigeons, and shared ghost stories of witches, black dogs, and long-dead soldiers.


Remember, remember the 11th of September

[First published on September 11, 2006 – while I was still living in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. Ten years ago today. ].
This seems to be the chant that echoes in the back of my mind today. It began to echo in my head, as a whisper, “remember, remember” – this morning while I applied for jobs listening to the reading of the names on NY1 until I could listen no longer, CBS included photographs. The reading of the names lasted at least four hours, it was still going on when I switched off the computer, my shoulder sore from typing in application information, and I decided to take a long walk. My initial goal to see a movie, but I’d forgotten my watch and when I reached the theater – I discovered the film did not start until 2. So I passed and decided to enjoy the outdoors instead.

The chant became louder in my head, whispering in and out of my mind like one of those pop tunes you hear in the grocery store and can’t quite shake, as I walked, the day crisp and clear exactly like that day. We call it September 11th weather now. Pristine blue with few clouds, a crisp breeze, and a warm sun. That hint, just a hint mind you, of fall scenting the air – enough to make the nostrils twitch and tingle. A-choo. I’ve always loved this time of year. As a small child, I sat in anticipation of it. The beginning of new things whether it be the start of school, new tv shows, the renewal of old shows, films, arts, or just the change in seasons. The Broadway season starts this week. The new tv season starts this week. As do the fall films, the serious ones. We’ve finally made it past the August doldrums. People are back at work. Kids are in school. There’s a vibrant energy and excitement in the air as the last gust of summer slowly fades into autumn. I felt it even today, wandering amongst the streets and sidewalks and avenues in my neighborhood of brownstone Brooklyn, the buildings colored a rust stained red and brown, with fading green trees and pink flowers sitting at the front of each stoop in small square patches. These little gardens, no bigger than half a sidewalk, are why they call my neighborhood Carroll “Gardens”.

I sniff the air. And in my mind I hear once again, whispering in chorus to the breeze and chatter like a half-remembered pop single, “remember, remember the 11th of September..” much like that statement in the political satire “V for Vendetta” or the song in the Fantastiks that is being revived yet again on Broadway this season, the longest playing show in New York History. “I remember the kind of September when hearts were gay and oh so mellow…”

It’s silly I think. And attempt to push it aside, yet again. But unbidden, perhaps, I remember odd things.

Shrines with flowers and melted candles, stuck haphazardly along the promenade, which I call the Esplanade, that provided, no provides perhaps the best view of the Manhattan skyline. From the Esplanade in Brooklyn you can see the Statue of Liberty to the Brooklyn Bridge, and on the sidewalk are plaques, the last one installed on September 11, 2001 – commemorating each view of the skyline and showing how it has changed. I remember how people put up photos, teddy bears, plastic and real flowers against the wrought iron fence that protected people from falling into the highway below the walkway, or against the fences that separated the promenade from the residential gardens. Candles at different heights, their melted wax combining into a mix-match of colored wax. And for a while below the walkway, way below, close to the East River, there was a patch of land planted with daffodils donated from Holland to commemorate and honor the lives lost that day.

The candles’ colors merge in my memory with the bright colors of my work colleague’s, Borinquen’s, family home. The bright oranges, reds, and blues of her still-life paintings, reminding me Gauguin or a young Bonneville, the colors bright, the perspective deliberately skewed, that hang on the terra cotta walls, which in turn are an umber, the type of burnt yellow that makes one think of Italian villas or a Spanish terrace. Her family speaks in a mix of Italian and Puerto Rican, words slicing back and forth, a hint of English thrown in here and there. I get the gist through body language and that haphazard English words. Boringuen’s first name is a joke of sorts, being the literal one that native Puerto Ricans call their homeland. I remember sitting in her house that day, I barely knew her. We’d met just a few months before. Sat with one another at lunch. Talked about art. I never saw her outside of work, at least not until that day. (She’d driven two of us from our workplace to her home in the Bronx, far from the noise. Since the subways were not running. And it was physically impossible for me to walk home.)

I remember how she made lunch that day for me and her brother, who’d just walked home from 125 street and Harlem, over ten miles. He’d started at 10 am and it was now 1 pm. He was cheerful. Laughing and gave his sister a hug. Told me about how a cabbie gave him and three other people a free ride half-way, hence the early arrival. We had pasta. Salad. Wine. Wine for lunch. A rare treat. Cheese and fruit for desert and a few Italian cookies that I no longer remember the name of. I barely understood some of what they said. But I remember feeling warm like you do when you sit out in the sun with a gentle breeze playing with your hair and tickling your arms.

Remember, remember the 11th of September… That year was much like this one – a watershed year for me. And for that reason, the two years almost blur together, this one and that one. For some reason watershed years come in fives, I think. Reminded once again that things can change with out a moments notice. I remember the plans I made back then…to go to Thailand with the sailing group I’d met in Turkey, to build my career at the company, to..oh so many things, now half-forgotten, and how within two or three weeks each had been crushed by the wave of current events, my life altered without my permission. That’s how quickly it can happen. Worrying over what lies ahead, I remind myself, is, while understandable, somewhat foolish and a waste of time, when everything can change due to unforeseen factors beyond my control. I’d thought I’d be stuck in the company I was in – but I got laid-off and today, walking, I felt an odd sense of relief regarding that, especially today. And an odd sense of glee in being alive and no longer attached to a place I was not, if I’m honest with myself, really happy in.

Remember… What I remember when I think about that day, not deeply think about it, but in a drifting casual way, is love. The love of my co-worker who took me to her home and offered to let me stay the night if I wished. If not, she would attempt to drive me home if need be. I barely knew her or so I thought. After that day, for a year, we kept each other sane, taking off at lunch to McDonalds or assorted Pizza places. Driving together to another work colleague’s wedding. Supporting each other in our decision to leave the company that made us miserable. I’ve lost contact with her now, but I remember her. Like you might remember a warm ocean breeze or bathing in the sun.

I remember the phone calls from friends and family checking to see if I was okay. Out of nowhere.

I remember coming home and my downstairs neighbor greeting me with a smile.

And I remember that time never stands still, nothing stays the same, things like it or not change. Shift. People grow. Adapt. Evolve. And…somehow, if foggily, people remember.

On my walk back, I did not make it all the way to the promenade today – it was too windy and my calves ached, I stop and buy a few groceries, some chocolate macaroons (one of the many changes is I can no longer eat anything with wheat flour in it), buy a book (Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose that I previously flirted with) and drift homewards, where, in between daytime tv shows, there are blurbs about September 11. Almost as if the media is afraid we’ll forget if they don’t keep reminding us every few seconds – or perhaps it’s themselves they fear require reminding.

I think about how much or how little I’ve changed in the last five years. What has and has not happened. It feels at times that more has happened in the lives surrounding my own. And I wonder if I’ve lived the life “well lived” that was laid out so eloquently by Mayor Guiliani while the names were read. Unlike most of my friends and family : I’ve not fallen in love and I’ve not had children. It is more than possible I may never do so. Such things I have relatively little control over. But I’ve left a job, gotten and lost another one. Now applying for, hopefully, a better one. Taken courses. Read a great deal. Met new people. Heard new stories. I’ve finished one novel, set it aside, and am now over half way through another one. I wrote what amounts to a book of media essays on the internet, which I have mixed feelings about. I’ve made new friends, lost old ones – watching them drift around a revolving door onto paths that lie parallel but do not always intersect with my own.

I’m not sure life, anyone’s, can be evaluated or summed up neatly. Or for that matter planned. I don’t entirely trust memory, for it embellishes and lies, embroideries on what may or may not have happened. I think sometimes, we revise our own histories, to remember what is worth keeping and letting go of what is not. Trying not to dwell too much or too often on our mistakes and past hurts.

I remember the 11th of September for the lessons I learned that day. That people can surprise if you let them. The ones you expect to give you comfort, often can’t. The one’s you don’t notice or think will, often do. You can surprise yourself as well, doing and handling things that seem incredible in retrospect. And that no matter how horrendous things seem, it will get better. It will not last. Everything is temporary. Everything changes. People do want to help one another. They just don’t always know how, but when given the opportunity, are capable of simple yet wonderful kindness. And I draw a great deal of comfort from that.

Sometimes I think it’s not the event itself that is important, but what comes after, how we choose to remember it. What we take, if anything from it.

If I were to wish anyone anything at this point in time it would be this: Love. A simple word. Often over-used and misunderstood. But quite powerful I think in its simplicity. More things can be accomplished with it than, I think, anything else.

Nine-Eleven Weather

This is from my recently published novel, “Doing Time on Planet Earth”, which was written in 2005 and takes place in late 2004. In 2005, I was working for Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, which had lost over a hundred people in 9/11. They had a huge plaque in the office building memorializing the names of the victims. Everyone had a story. Some worse than others. My boss and my co-workers had barely escaped the second tower with their lives. And had spent months recapturing lost records. And of course I had my own story.  The below is fiction, but conveys to a degree how we felt years later.

It was hard not to think about the robbery on her way to Essex Temporaries on Friday morning. The weather didn’t aid her mood, brisk and beautiful with a hint of dried leaves – it felt like nine-eleven weather, even though it was late October. Her skin prickled with it, reminding her of how she’d felt after nine-eleven, a number that still held the taint of the lives lost that day. But it was more than just lives, although that in and of itself was pretty major, she thought, just as the robbery was more than just a laptop. It was her sense of security, a shift in perspective, having what she believed to be secure, to be true, be messed with, and to an extent, unraveled. Everyone, she thought, went a little bit numb after nine-eleven. It was either that or become consumed by fear and rage; in some cases, she supposed, numbness was better.

On nine-eleven the earth, or rather Americans’ perception of it, shifted to the right. She wondered if that was how her grandparents and parents felt when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1942. That sudden shift in perspective. That innate sense that all was not right with the world no matter where you were or who, that there was no place that felt safe — and you’d give anything to change that.   Fear ruled you whether or not you wished it to. Everyone had a story about where they were during nine-eleven and what they lost. At first it seemed as if everyone had lost a cousin or a friend of a cousin, or a cousin’s cousins’ friend. Six degrees of separation was the term like that old nineties film of the same name with Will Smith and Stockard Channing that her mother took her to years ago. No matter who you were or what nationality, the events of nine-eleven affected you – to the extent that the number itself entered the international lexicon as shorthand for the events of that day. You didn’t have to elaborate further. Everyone knew. 9/11. Nine-Eleven. Just that week a local business man who’d rung her up on his register had gotten the amount $9.11 and it jolted them both – like a spark of static electricity. He erased the amount and made it eight dollars even. He’d rather lose the dollar and eleven cents than keep that number in his records.

After nine-eleven she became obsessed with shows like Spywitch. She watched it every day, joined internet fan forums on it. Sans laptop she couldn’t do that now.   She couldn’t escape to that other world any longer, a world made up of letters printed on a screen and where the bullies, albeit nameless, could be avoided.   She’d felt secure in that bubble. And wondered if today was the day Fiske would give her that loaner laptop he kept promising. If she hurried through the interview she might have time, after their lunch with Hope, to jog back to his office and play on the computer there. Fiske had told her to call him after the interview. So had Hope. This was the day for their ambush. Everything scheduled for Monday morning had merely been pushed to Friday. Fitting, Caddy thought, the days bookending each other as they did.

She looked up at the sky one last time before entering the building. It was one of those days… beautiful, shiny, yet Caddy felt as if storm clouds were hovering above her head. Nine-eleven weather with a scent of dead leaves drifting in the air.

It’s funny, now, fourteen years later, I find myself looking back on different things. Remembering how folks came together on that day to help one another. A co-worker took me home with her, we had lunch at her place, and she allowed me to call family members to inform them that I was okay. One of my aunts had called me at work that day to ensure that I was okay, and not anywhere near the towers. We huddled together on the subway, comforting each other as it came to a complete halt under the east river, shivering in fear and uncertainty. I remember getting off two stops later and watching the papers fall like snow from a a sky the color of red dust. It had been a crystal blue sky that morning. The dust was man-made.

I remember the firemen and police officers, many who sacrificed their lives, climbing the steps of the skyscrapers to save lives. Or the various volunteers hunting through the wreckage for survivors or the dead. The out-pouring of support and love from various countries.

The man responsible for it is long gone. Dead and buried, along with most of his organization. Not that it matters, since other similar organizations have sprouted up in his place. The US entered into two wars after 9/11, and more people were killed in those wars than were killed on that day. I wonder sometimes what the world would be like if we’d made different choices? Ironically, the men responsible for 9/11 were not in either country that the US entered into WAR with, but rather hiding out in Pakistan. And the wars just created more terrorists and more hate.  There’s a lesson hidden somewhere in there, I think.

When I think of 9/11, I remember being happy that morning, the sky a pristine blue. I’d planned on getting tickets to a Peter Gaberial Concert – which was to occur near the Twin Towers. They were having a big festival down there in two weeks. I’d planned on doing it that morning just before work, but for some reason or other, had chosen to do it later – after work. Then the world shifted, and nothing was the same. For years after, a bright sunny fall morning would send a shiver up my spine. 9/11 weather, I’d think. Not so much anymore though. Now, I find I can let go of it. The fear and anger are long gone, leaving behind them wistful memories and an overwhelming sense of gratitude for those who sacrificed their lives on that day to save mine.

It was a dark and stormy day at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary…

In the summer of 1992, eastern Kansas was a swamp. Rains soaked the land. Roads were washed out. Frequent thunderstorms plagued us. Lightening stroked the sky as thunder cracked and rumbled in the distance. The sky darkening to the color of charcoal, it might as well as have been night. A dark and stormy night at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary — just where I wanted to be, as opposed to still tucked in my warm comfy bed, asleep.

At seven am, I drove my baby blue Honda civic along the twisting roads, trees whipping their branches around me in the wind. Stopping twice, map in hand, to ask for directions, since my typical route had been washed out by the flooding. In 1992, we didn’t have cell phones or GPS, just a flimsy paper map and a dim memory of the route, which I’d traveled mostly with others in the driver’s seat. I dreaded going to the Penitentiary. Besides the fact that I always got lost on the twisting and twining roads, I felt like a mouse in a cage. A barbed wire encased monstrosity made out of concrete and steel with tiny cells, no windows, and what amounted to a cheap airport lounge to visit with clients. Granted it could have been worse – at least there were couches and cushioned chairs, with little wooden coffee tables. On television prisons had black tables and steel gray chairs, with a bulletproof glass between you and your client. Here? There was no glass and vending machines lined the walls. If purgatory had a waiting room, it most likely resembled an airport lounge in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.

I was on my way to a parole hearing. We’d spent the last month and a half preparing. And to say I was nervous was an understatement. There was a lot on the line. For one thing the hearing was long over due. My client, a tall African-American man in his late forties, with salt and pepper hair and a quiet gentlemanlike demeanor, had petitioned the Kansas Defender Project, for which I worked, to represent him at his parole hearing. He should have been up for parole five-ten years ago, but due to a bureaucratic clerical error, his parole had been pushed back another ten years.

At least, he’d been productive with his time. Couldn’t say the same thing about the rest of my clients. During that period, he had written a pamphlet about the consequences of drug abuse for teens, and ran a drug rehab support group in the prison for the other inmates. He was in prison for robbing banks, which he had done mainly to feed his cocaine habit. It probably is important to note that my client was what we liked to call a career criminal. This was his third offense, hence the lengthy sentence. He’d been in prison at least once before – also for robbing banks.

That summer, I had three clients who were in prison partially due to their drug habits. Of the three, Joe Williams (his real name I’ve long forgotten and I wouldn’t share it anyhow) was by far my favorite. The other two were respectively, a hit man for a major east coast drug cartel operating out of the Carolinas, and a man who was caught with possession of crack cocaine. The hit man wasn’t anything like what you saw in the movies. For one thing – his eyes had a dull yellow cast to them, and he had track marks running up and down his arms, a lifetime of doing heroine would do that to you. Even his skin had a yellow tint to it. He had no remorse. He never claimed he wasn’t a killer. He claimed that he hadn’t had effective representation of council and wasn’t necessarily guilty of these particular crimes or that anyone, in his opinion, had successfully proved otherwise. My job was to obtain his records from his counsel, review them and determine if there were any grounds for an appeal. So far, I hadn’t found any, but at least I’d obtained the records, the last two student lawyers who’d represented him hadn’t gotten that far. The other client, I couldn’t do anything for – the Federal Sentencing Guidelines made it clear that if you were caught with possession of crack cocaine and suspected of dealing – you spent five to ten years in a Federal Penitentiary. His family lived in New York City, but he was stuck in Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas.

As an aside, I’d known people in college and much later, who not only used recreational narcotics, but dealt them. Dated a guy once who had dealt LSD, and knew another guy who got suspended for doing the same thing. And I had friends who used cocaine recreationally. [I never had – I have enough issues with caffeine and sugar, cocaine and LSD would drive me insane.] The difference between the folks I knew in college and my friends and the men I was representing in prison were two things: 1) they were white, the guys in prison were black, and 2) they had money, education, and opportunity, while the men in prison did not. Didn’t excuse the men’s crimes, but…well, as my Criminal Procedure Professor and Defender Project supervisor told us on more than one occasion, “There but for the Grace of God, Go I.”

Anyhow, Joe the Bank Robber’s parole hearing had been rescheduled twice due to a prison wide lock-down. There had been a brutal knife fight just two days before and a guard had been injured. As a result, everyone was locked in their cells and visiting hours were suspended. When we arrived, we sat for two hours in a waiting room, with family members and attorneys. If the prison visiting room felt like an airport lounge, this resembled a doctor’s waiting room, complete with elevator music. No wait that was the Guard’s radio playing quietly in the background. If I listened closely enough, I could almost make out the twine of Patsy Cline.

Thunder continued to crack in the distance. The woman who sat next to me, stared at my colleagues and I in disdain. “You don’t care about us,” she said. “ You’re just here for what? To get paid? To get a good grade? You don’t care what happens here. We’re nothing to you.”

I was twenty-five years old, filled to the brim with my own self-importance, and a heartfelt desire to save the world, one prisoner at a time. “No, you’re wrong, I do care. Everyone has the right to fair representation no matter their crime or status. I care what happens to these people.” If anything, I thought, and no doubt my world-weary supervisor who sat next to me agreed, I cared too much.

After two hours, we were ushered through the massive gates and up a spiral staircase to the rotunda. Circling it were various small offices where the individual parole hearings would take place. Outside each door were two metal folding chairs, one for the lawyer and one for their client. Joe was already there. The lawyer, my supervisor, who accompanied me, walked into the room behind us to supervise the other young wet-behind the ears student intern, Christy and her client, a huge Cuban, who had been convicted of rape. I sat there in my knee length skirt, nicely pressed shirt, hose, heels, and suit jacket, sweating beside my client who wore an orange jumpsuit. On the way, I remember asking the guards what would happen if we had a power outage. Would we be stuck inside? No, they assured me, there was a back-up generator. Still, I found myself checking the walls and ceiling for escape hatches.

At one point, I looked up at the rotunda, a dull concrete dome encircling a bit of charcoal sky. Lightening lit it every few minutes. My client followed my gaze.

“Sort of freaky isn’t it?” Joe asked. “Probably dates back to the 1800s when this place was part of the military prison.”

“Actually, I was trying to figure out if you could use it to escape. The window has no grating or bars on it. Which is surprising in of itself..”

“Don’t really need bars, do you? There’s no way you can get up to it.”

“Oh, I don’t know, maybe you could scale the wall and out you go-”

“No, wouldn’t work – for one thing, you’d have to get past the guards. This place is pretty secure. And then there’s all that barbed wire outside…assuming you got that far.“

“I don’t know, you could maybe use a wire cutter.”

“Where would you get it?”

“The shop?”

“A lot more difficult than you’d think to sneak that out. Also they are careful just who they give that stuff to.” He studied it a moment. “Besides, how’d you even get up there? That window is what at least 50 feet.”

“You could use some rope, maybe climb the sides…”

“There’s nothing to dig your hands or feet into. Look at it,” he gestured at the wall of the dome, “those walls are smooth. And there’s a huge drop, fifty feet at least, You fall, you break your back. And assuming you could even get a hold of the rope…nope, wouldn’t work. You still have to fit through that window, figure out a way of getting off the dome, scale the barbed wire and get past the guards. Not worth the trouble. Too many things could go wrong. ”

It struck me at that point that this was probably not the most appropriate topic of conversation.

“I don’t know how you stand it – I’d get claustrophobic and start looking for exits within a week.”

“It’s not so bad. We’re barely in our cells, anyhow.“

Which was true enough – on my tour of the prison a few weeks ago, I’d noticed a movie theater and a television lounge, along with various other activities such as a library, a classroom, arts and crafts, etc. Several of my colleagues commented on how nice the prison seemed, a city run with military precision, plus food, shelter, and no fear of going hungry. Not such a bad deal.

“Well except for now – with the lock-down.”

“What happened?”

“Two of the Cubans decided to attack two of the white guys and a guard got stabbed trying to stop it.”

“Does that happen often?”

He shrugged. “Often enough. Only results in a lock down if a guard is involved.” He paused, glancing up at the rotunda as thunder rumbled above us and lightening quickly followed, briefly lighting the room. “ You know that it’s not prison itself that’s the problem. Pretty monotonous actually, and they keep us busy – with forty hour a week schedules. No, it’s the people that you are stuck in here with that make it a prison.”

“Really? I’d think it would be the lack of control over your environment. Being stuck and unable to do what you want when you want to do it. Not to mention locked in a small room each night, with no windows.”

“Oh, that’s not so bad. You get used to it after a while. Like being in the army. Besides, it’s true outside as well…to a degree. You have to go to work. You have to follow rules.” He shrugged. “No, it’s the people. You can’t get away from them. And some of them can be really nasty. You learn over time who to avoid. But you don’t always have a choice. They don’t let you pick who you room with or exercise with, generally. And there are some people in here that…” He trailed off. “Let’s just say that there are people that have done things that make the worst of us cringe.”

“Like who?”

“For me? The child killers and rapists are by far the worst. We all hate them. Some real nasty dudes. Had to room with one once, not pretty. ”

“I’d think it would be the murderers and serial killers.”

“Oh they aren’t that bad. Murderers don’t tend to bug you much as long as you don’t tee them off. And there aren’t any serial killers or if there are they aren’t locked up with us. No, it’s the ones who get off on hurting kids that bother me. Something wrong with their heads.”

We both fell silent for a bit. Listening to the dull echo of the rain pinging against the dome and cringing at the cracks of thunder. Lights were dim, so the flashes of lightening were more intense than they may have been if the rotunda was well lit.

“Guess they don’t have bright lights in here as rule,” I said, breaking the awkward silence.

“Nope. Saving money. Also don’t really need it.” He paused for a long moment, chewing the inside of his mouth.

“So, you think I can make it on the outside? Without robbing banks and all? Your honest opinion.”

“After you get paroled?”

“Yeah. Not fall into the old habits, get a job, start over?”

I looked into his eyes, dark brown, coffee brown, reminding me a bit of my brother’s without the hint of mischief. Old eyes. Tired eyes. With just a glimmer of hope hidden in their depths.

“I think you can. You’ve written a pamphlet. I mean it would be hard…but I think you could, if you tried. You’re resourceful. ”

“Assuming I even get paroled.”

“Can’t see why not. You’ve rehabilitated yourself and it’s long past due. It’s in your favor.”

“But prison isn’t about rehabilitation,” he said. “It’s about punishment. That’s all. Punishing people for what they did. They don’t really rehabilitate you.”

“I think it’s both, along with deterrence.”

“No. Just punishment. You know that right?”

“Then why have parole? Or all the activities? The workshops? The law states -”

“Oh that may be their intent. But really they just want to punish you. The old eye for an eye, like in the Bible. They don’t push you to rehabilitate. You have to do that yourself. Fight for it. No, they don’t really care just as long as you pay and do your time. Deterrence maybe. Not that it works.” He looked at me again. “So you think I can make it out there, assuming I make parole that is?”

“I …I don’t know. I really don’t…I’m not sure I can even judge you or imagine what you’re dealing with. I don’t know what it is like to support a family, to be addicted to cocaine. And I don’t know what I would have done if I were in your place, in your shoes. I’d like to think I’d have handled things differently, but I really have no idea. And I don’t know what you’ll run into when you get out. But look what you’ve done in here – not everyone does this. Not everyone writes a pamphlet to tell kids why it’s a bad idea to do drugs, or sets up a class/rehab group for fellow inmates to help them get off drugs. Maybe you could go into counseling or work with addicts? “

“Maybe.” He looked across the room at the other prisoners sitting with their counselors. “Maybe. Would like to see my son again, at any rate. Been a while.” Then after a moment, in a quiet voice, barely audible, “Thank you.”

“I really should have worn slacks for this. Not comfortable in the hose. Besides I just found a run in them.” I had, while he was talking, it was running down my right leg. “You didn’t notice it, did you?”

“No. But then, I’m trying not to pay too much attention to your legs or look too closely. We don’t see many women in here, you know.”

Okay, awkward. Really need to work on not saying whatever comes into my head.

As luck would have it, at that moment, my supervisor stepped out of the room behind us. They were ready for us now. The other student attorney, Christy, and her client had just finished. She didn’t indicate if he had gotten parole. Nor did he. Considering he was a rapist, I was sort of hoping that he didn’t.

The room was sparse. Small desk. Six fold out metal chairs. Three officers behind the desk, and three chairs in front – where we were supposed to sit. Nothing else, except for a stack of files. They pulled out my client’s and the Q and A began. It only lasted thirty minutes, but it felt longer.

I answered most of the questions. My client barely said a word, and my supervisor, a young guy in his thirties, looked bored. Flipping through the documents in my lap, I found and handed the officers the pamphlet that Joe wrote, along with his certification as a drug abuse counselor. Hoping my hands didn’t shake too much – the bane of my existence was my trembling fingers. Whenever I got nervous – the trembling increased. In college, when I read poetry at coffee houses, they labeled me the trembling poet, because my hands shook so badly. Other people could hide their nervousness, swallow it, but for me – my hands gave me away every time. Sort of put a halt to any dreams I’d had of becoming a professional actress, a public speaker, or a stand-up comedian. My client, on the other hand, was the picture of calm waters. Not a ripple showed. Not a tremor. Stoic to a fault. As was my supervisor for that matter. I, however, was a trembling, emotional mess. This did not bode well for my future law career.

The questions weren’t all that complicated. But over twenty years later, I find I can barely remember them. Staccato. Rapid fire. Providing about five minutes in between for answers. I had no time to check my paper-work. The officers were stoic as well. They flipped through their paperwork the way a banker would flip through his books, except with less passion. If anything, they looked bored and saw this as matter of routine.

“What has he done to rehabilitate himself?”
“You say here that he wrote a pamphlet? Explain that.”
“What was his record in prison? Did he conduct himself favorably, any incidents?”
“How do we know he won’t do this again?”
“What job could he get?”
“How many years has he served?”

Stuff like that. I remember telling them about his work on the pamphlet, and with the drug rehab group, and in shop. Explaining that his parole was long overdue and under the law, he should have been released at least five years ago. The officers didn’t blink. He had served the maximum sentence for the crime. That he had a flawless record in prison, no incidents. That his past should not be held against him and he should be granted a second chance as dictated by such and such statute. I worked hard to stick to the facts. No emotion. Facts. Nothing but the facts, sir, nothing but the facts – dry cold facts.

After a few minutes of shuffling through their papers, they told me that they agreed. He would be released from Federal custody to the state of Ohio. Apparently there was a detainer – so once he was released on parole from Leavenworth Penitentiary, he went back to Ohio, to either be released on parole or serve additional time there. I asked if they could release him from his detainer.

“Not within our jurisdiction.”

Afterwards, my supervisor, who co-run the Defender Project with the aforementioned Criminal Procedural Professor, advised that while I’d accomplished my goal – I had come across as too “emotional” and “nervous”. Stupid hands. He decided to do this in front of my client for some reason.

“I completely disagree,” Joe told him, defending my performance. “She did a great job. The emotion worked. It showed she cared and I think that made a major difference. I really hope you go on and become a lawyer – we need more people like you.”

Well, at least Joe the Bank Robber appreciated my abilities.

We parted ways on the rotunda steps, our clients went in one direction, while we were went in the opposite. Following the guards through the long barely lit hallways. It wasn’t until I passed through the iron clad reinforced steel doors that I breathed a sigh of relief. It wouldn’t be my last visit inside the prison. I had to teach a class the following week with a fellow law student on effectiveness of counsel.

Three pm in the afternoon. We’d been there all day. I was starving. At least the rain had stopped. The clouds had cleared a bit. The sky was now the color of wet socks, as opposed to charcoal. No lightening flashed. No thunder rumbled. I drove home, with Leavenworth Penitentiary rapidly fading in my rear-view mirror. The countryside was absurdly pretty, green rolling hills, lush trees, flowers, it was odd to think a maximum security penitentiary lay within its boundaries.

A week later, my client sent me a note thanking me again for getting him his parole and asking if I could help with the Ohio Detainer. Apparently he wasn’t paroled yet, just released from Federal custody into State custody.

I remember marching into my supervisor’s office, which resembled a professor’s office more than a lawyer’s. He was older than the attorney who had accompanied me to the parole hearing, with a receding hairline. He played the violin and the year before had managed to get me an internship with the Olathe Public Defender’s Office. “What can I do to get him released from the Detainer?”

“Sorry not within our jurisdiction.”

“There must be something.”

“You aren’t licensed in the state of Ohio, neither am I. We can’t do anything. Not our jurisdiction.”

I burst into tears, which was humiliating to say the least. “But…there must be something I can do … that we can do.”

“You can’t save them,” he advised me. “You do what you can. That’s all we can do. Any of us. You helped this man. You got him his parole, which was long overdue. That’s no small thing. And you acted as his advocate. You defended his right to a fair hearing. It’s not your fault that you can’t do anything else. The rest is up to him and to others.”

Twenty-three years later, I still remember that prison. See it vividly. It’s concrete and stone walls. The barbed wire. The towers. The dimly lit gray stone rotunda. The small waiting rooms. And the thunderstorm that raged outside as my client and I talked, killing time before the hearing. It’s odd what we remember, isn’t it? So much blurs together over time, I find myself forgetting little things here and there, but forever ingrained in my memory is that parole hearing on a long dark and stormy day in Leavenworth Penitentiary – or rather the conversation I’d had with a career bank robber within its depths.

To this day, I wonder what happened him. Joe had been forty-five years of age. Now, well, I’m past that age. So he’d have to be pushing seventy. Did he get released on parole? Did he change his life? Did he even live to reach seventy? I’ll never know.

A Mediative Walk Amongst The Graves…in Greenwood Cemetary

Twenty years ago or thereabouts, when I was living in Kansas City, I’d drive up on the weekends to visit my Granny. We’d do laundry, watch movies, chat, and have French Silk Pie from Tippins. I believe it was Tippins, it was over 20 years ago. And back then I could actually eat French Silk Pie without sitting on the stool for 24 hours.


At any rate, every Memorial Day, we’d visit the graves. She’d bring an assortment of flowers, cut fresh from her garden, and chilled overnight in the fridge. Usually roses, which my Granny cross-bred, but a lily or a perennial would occasionally make it into the arrangement. There were two grave yards, one older one that was surrounded by trees and wildflowers on a country lane, and another new one with manicured lawns and places to hold urns. My Granny, who died in 2009, was laid to rest in the newer one – with the urns. For some reason, I always preferred the older one, it was more peaceful somehow…and had a sense of history to it. Some of its graves dated back to the Civil War, if not earlier.


Green Wood Cemetery in NYC is three times as big as those graveyards were, and a bit of a combination of the two. It’s well manicured – from what I saw on my walk, at least ten riding lawn mowers traverse it’s grounds on a weekly basis. Trimming and hedging the vast lawns. There are trees that are more than a century old. One white tree was covered with carvings, various hearts and names embedded in it’s trunk.


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At the gate, they provide maps, which are sort of required due to its vastness and the rambling paths that can lead you, if you aren’t careful, in circles. On weekends it closes at 4 pm in my neck of the woods, but the main entrance, more than 30 blocks away, is open until 7pm.


The Cemetery was established in 1838. Henry Ward Beecher, Jean-Michael Basquiate, Samuel Morse, Susan Smith McKinney-Steward, Henry Chadwick, Lola Montez reside there, along with Leonard Berstein, and various other notables. Including, I believe Al Capone.

But for me, it’s just a quiet place to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon in a frenetic city that never appears to ground to a stop. No jogging, dogs, picnics, bikes, sunbathing, or motorcycles are permitted. On my multiple visits, I’ve seen joggers, bikers and dog walkers politely turned away by the guards. You can drive through it – but only at 20 miles per hour. After ten minutes of walking, you can make it to a section of the cemetery that is dead silent, with only the birds tweeting overhead. No human noises. Just the breeze pushing past the leaves or the soft tweet of a sparrow.

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Walking through it, my head clears, my spine straightens, and I feel the earth beneath the pavement. Lost inside the silence. Alone but not alone with my thoughts. The dead are quiet. Lone gone. Their bodies ground to dust. Their grave stones markers for the living, to remember them. And occasionally visit, until they too are laid to rest. The older plots are rather simple, the big stone denoting the family name, with a host of smaller stones, providing markers for the individuals.

One, “BABY”, I paused beside for more than a few moments. Struck by the tragic simplicity of it. No name, no dates. Just “BABY” in big bold letters carved on the stone. I felt the pain of the parents staring at it. A loud unending pain of losing a child before the child is known. BABY rests by itself below a tree, the other family members buried staccato behind it. Another plot, had the separate headstones, FATHER, MOTHER, and then the first names of each child on headstones just below them.


It’s the oddest thing, walking through a cemetery surrounded by the living and the dead, on a glorious spring day, you feel grateful to be alive. Happy to bask beneath the sun. Free. And aware of how temporary everything is. Here today and gone tomorrow. Cemeteries, I think, are more for the living than the dead. A way of remembering those who have passed us by, and knowing that we too, one day will be remembered likewise.

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I sit for a bit on a hill beneath a tree, on a stone bench. Surrounding me are headstones and trees, below my feet graves. And its so quiet. As quiet as I think you can get in a city of this magnitude. There is the occasional murmur of a passing car on the road below or muffled chatter of walkers, but other than that all I hear are birds and the breeze whistling through the leaves. No insects that I can see. It is a well-manicured cemetery.

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Closing time is four pm. And my feet are weary. The guard waves at me as I pass him. We’re almost on a first name basis by now – this is the third time I’ve been here. I wander home through the maze of streets, and Sunday traffic. Stopping by a Foodtown to pick up groceries, and then wandering past various Indian restaurants and shops, with the signs in Indian and English announcing their wares.


My mind and heart clear once more, stress free, and filled with gratitude. I’m alive and I’m free to walk pain free through a quiet cemetery on a beautiful and sunny Sunday.

Doing Time on Planet Earth

The Little Novel That Could

When I was a child, I’d heard the story, a parable really, of The Little Engine That Could. Back then, in the dark ages before the technological boom and the internet, it was just a children’s story with bright colorful pictures in a children’s book. Now, it feels endemic to our culture – there’s a television series, toy sets, and songs not to mention various politicians including President Obama that reference it. The original story, in case you’ve never heard it, is about a little switch engine that is asked to pull a long line of trains up a hill. Various freight trains, much larger than it, had been asked but refused – either stating it was too difficult a task or they just couldn’t do it. So in desperation they ask the little blue switch train, who does it – all the while stating , “I think I can, I think I can…” Finally, as he chugs up that last bit of hill, his words become: “yes, I can, yes I can.”

In 2004, I had come off of twenty-three months of unemployment. I’d written a book several years prior that I could not seem to let go of. At one point, I even had an agent who was interested in it, but only if I could turn it into a cozy mystery novel. The novel I’d written was an occult horror tale, taking place in a publishing house and referencing the Celtic mythology that I’d studied in college.   It had been sent to various people, publishers, online friends, who in various ways rejected it. One agent actually called me on the phone – to tell me that she admired my writing, that I clearly wrote beautifully, and did I have anything else in the hopper? Because this story clearly wasn’t the right one and shouldn’t be published.

I gave up finally. And in 2005, began to tinker with a new story idea. I posted a snippet of it online, only to have it be either ignored or ripped apart. The internet had made me feel self-conscious – to the point that I questioned my own ability to write a story. One online critic told me that some people are just better at writing essays than fiction. I had written a lot of weirdly popular media essays at the time and posted them on fan boards. But, at heart, I was not a media essayist nor did I care all that much about it, and this new story would not be ignored. It was in my head constantly. I felt better when I wrote the words down. The characters spoke to me at night and during the day. They lived inside my head. At the time, I’d won a free consultation from a Life Coach, who told me after I explained all of this to her, write for yourself no one else. Ignore the internet.

And into that story I poured everything I was going through at the time. In a way writing that novel, which I called Doing Time on Planet Earth, was a sort of therapy – and the words that I chose, precisely, came from my heart. At one point, my laptop was stolen, and I lost over a hundred pages of the book that I’d been writing. I was devastated and unable to pull them back again. So, I wrote the robbery into the book. Just as I wrote the merger that my company was going through at the time into the book. And those crazy interviews that I’d experienced the year before. I changed the characters and details, of course, the book is not a memoir, it is a work of fiction.

When people state that the hardest part is writing the book…I laugh. Not to someone who is driven to write, it’s not. No, the hardest part is sharing it. Finding a way to put it out there. If you a writer or any type of artist, really, from a belly dancer to a professional blogger or actor, rejection is part of the game. No one gets used to it. Most actors don’t read their reviews. Bob Fosse famously told his dancers never to read their own reviews. But it is really hard to ignore them if you are a writer. And, trust me, you will get negative reviews – if you throw it out there and promote it heavily enough.

I wanted to be traditionally published. All writers do. But in this increasingly marketing driven age – it’s almost impossible. When I sent my novel to publishers – I was not told to work on my writing or style. They actually thought I wrote very well. No, I was told to change my story into something they could sell. Write a murder mystery. Why don’t you write a book about your experiences hunting a job? I remember discussing this with a writer friend, who was struggling himself, and he told me – don’t listen to them. Stay true to your story. If you attempt to twist it to please someone else – it will no longer be your story.

Over time, people began to encourage me to self-publish my novel. My first editor, Robin Smith of Robin Smith, Ink, told me that I was better off self-publishing, since it would be difficult to sell it to a publisher. The book defied genre classification. Self-publishing was hardly new to me. Over the years, I’d watched my father self-publish six books. He had been interviewed in his local paper and public access television station, also got a positive review in the paper. But his books rarely sold, and because he was “self-published”, people felt the need to tell him that there were grammatical errors or typos in his work, or that it was just a vanity project. One traditionally published writer, John Maxium, who writes thrillers, stated in an interview with the local paper – that they shouldn’t waste their time reviewing or interviewing self-published novelists, because if the novelist was any good, they’d obviously be “professionally” published.

So I had my reasons for being afraid. I knew from watching my family members and friends self-publish – that self-publishing was a bit like paying someone to take off your clothes in the middle of Times Square. But after a bit, after watching various little blue engines chug up that steep hill with their own books, I thought if they can do it – so can I. This is my little novel that could. I can get this published. I can make this work. If there is a will, there’s a way. I had watched a six foot tall woman put on a show about her journey to greater health through the art of belly dancing – entitled Blood on the Veil. [It’s marvelous, everyone should go see it.] In the film The Diving Bell and The Butterfly – a paralyzed man dictates a novel to his assistant by blinking one eye. And I read The Most Dangerous Book: The Fight Over James Joyce’s Ulysses – which was about Joyce’s struggle to get his own truth out there. What he’d gone through to get that book published made my own struggles seem relatively minor in comparison. At the time, very few people loved it. He had to fight not just his own government but the government of the United States as well. They not only told him that he couldn’t write but that his writing was obscene and he was evil for writing it.

The year before, I’d managed to find an affordable apartment in an almost impossible market, and prior to that, I’d managed to stop eating sugar, caffeine, all grains, dairy, and soy. My health had improved by about ninety percent as a result. I’d also, for the first time in over twenty years, got up on the stage and performed in a production of The Vagina Monologues. So, I could do this. I could put my little novel out there – I could share it with the world and I could handle whatever the world threw back at me.

I researched the independent publishing platforms, and chose CreateSpace, which of the various platforms was the least Do it Yourself.   It cost a pretty penny, of course. I told them exactly what I wanted for a cover. Chose the paper, the cover, the interior formatting, and fought with them until they got it right. Spending many a lunch hour haggling over the phone. I went through the line edit with fine-tooth comb, three to four times. Often arguing with the line editor in my head. Should suit really be suite? It looks wrong somehow, but okay. (Turns out it depends on which usage book you are referencing.) And how is blond spelled, with an e on the end? (Depends on if you are using the British or American spelling.) Regan or Reagan? It was tedious work – a million and one questions, and the fear of picking the wrong answer at every turn.

When it happened, it happened fast. I expected to have more time – at least six months. My goal was August or early fall, a good time to publish a book, or so I thought. But no, CreateSpace finished their line edit, cover design, formatting, etc. within the space of two months. Oh, we had a few snafus here and there. Sometimes they uploaded the wrong content , but they fixed it quickly and at their own expense. The book was ready by the first week of May. All I had to do was press a button and it would go live. For a moment or two, okay maybe a bit longer than that, I hesitated. My finger hovered above the keys. Do I really want to do this? Do I want to put my baby out there? Both editors, the Create Space editor, Christopher, and Robin Smith loved the book as did a few of my readers and I’d spent all this money. It had to go live. No turning back now. So I pressed that button with my finger and up it went.

I wish I could say it was all downhill from there – but you sort of have to promote it. No one is going to do it for you. I took it on a virtual book tour. Touted it on every social media site I was currently on, and joined two new ones. Touting it on the internet – Live Journal and Good Reads – meant outing myself to the community – letting them know my real name, who I was, and what I did. No longer could I hide behind the identity I’d chosen, in communities where ninety percent of the people did just that. I had in a sense ripped off my clothes and walked naked down Main Street.

I told my co-workers, who surprised me by being wildly supportive. One male coworker , an accomplished writer and wordsmith, read it in a weekend and loved it. I also shared it with the members of my church, with my family, and everyone in my life. And I did two promotions – one a free Kindle giveaway, and the other on Good Reads. Within a month over 100 people had either purchased it or gotten it for free. Most for free on the Kindle. I also made it available on a book reviewing site entitled Story Cartel – which touts itself as being a supportive community for writers. “Readers who form a supportive relationship with Writers is our Goal.” (The fact that they charge $15 per story launch, should have given me pause. You live, you learn, as that old Alainis Morrison ditty goes.)

I was warned that throwing my book out there – would result in a variety of reactions. And for every positive reaction, there would be a negative one waiting in the wings. For life is yin and yang, negative and positive, high and low. You can’t have one without the other. It’s not possible. And sure enough by the second month, that dreaded bad review came. It was everything I feared. It ripped my writing style apart, my story, my characters, it had nothing positive to say and it was by someone who went by a made-up name, with a cartoonish icon, and who had read the book for free via Story Cartel in exchange for an honest review. Although as a friend noted, and a lot of folks on social media do not appear to understand, nasty doesn’t necessarily equal honest. I, in effect, paid them for writing a nasty review and they did it under a fake name.

It hurt. But it’s over. And as my father stated, it’s subjective. James Joyce received similar reviews. As did various controversial best sellers from Donna Tartt’s  The Goldfinch to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight. As too did various independent publishers, one of which advised that bad reviews are as useful as good ones, because they bring more eyes to your book. Anything is better than dead silence. It should be noted that besides that review, I received not one, but two glowing ones, 4-5 star ratings, from people who I know are real, that I know are well-read and professional writers themselves. [Why is it that we always seem to obsess over the negative ones? Fearful that they will turn away readers?] And I sold five more books last night, three to a book club. And my little novel that could continues to chug up that darn hill.

James Joyce once stated that he didn’t care if everyone liked his book or read it, as long as just one person did, one person got it. And that has already happened to me, and like Joyce it has been more than one person. Joyce started with six readers, then one hundred, and it is now over one hundred and fifty thousand a year. Long dead, he is still to this day connecting with people. And he still has his detractors.

As various friends and family have stated, success is not measured in sales or accolades despite what we are told by the crazed media drenched society in which we live. The mere fact that you wrote a book and then found the courage to publish it , to put it out there to the world – is a feat in of itself. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Success is risking failure. Being willing to be laughed at and heckled, and still keep chugging along, up that hill, saying yes, I can, yes, I can…until you reach the top and see that next bigger hill to chug up and no matter what, keep on going.