Monday, October 31, 2011

True Ghost Stories III -My Final Word (I Hope)

What are ghosts exactly and how do you know if you’ve got one?

As I mentioned last week—I have a collection of 101 letters from people describing ghosts they have encountered in their homes. These letters came to me 25 years ago when I was working for Country Living Magazine and we asked for reports on hauntings. But because the subject proved so controversial with readers of the magazine—especially Christian fundamentalists—the editors told me to write a brief and up-beat article and not go into any frightening detail.

But I’ve saved the letters all these years because I thought they were an invaluable source of information about: What is a ghost? And except for one letter, they all seemed to come from responsible and sane people, who included a police officer, a librarian, a minister, a psychiatrist and a host of other evidently reliable correspondents.

Last year-- on Halloween day-- my local paper (Worcester’s Telegram & Gazette) reported on a nearby haunted house, where the owners invited a team of “paranormal investigators” to study their home while the family was away. They set up cameras connected to DVD recorders and digital audio recordings to capture “electronic voice phenomena”. Aside from some mysterious voices and the unexplained turning off of the recorder, and film showing two paper lanterns that revolved in opposite directions, these ghost hunters found nothing much, but I was interested that they later said, there are two types of hauntings — “intelligent hauntings” in which purposeful actions are observed—like rearranging the china cabinet—and “residual hauntings,” which pick up and relay random events, such as a radio broadcast from the 1930’s.

I had already worked out for myself, from reading my 101 letters, that “hauntings”, “ghosts” or “paranormal activity” (as in the blockbuster film) can represent many different kinds of phenomena.

Instant Replay Traumas--I believe that one kind of “haunting” is the re-enactment of some traumatic event that happened in that place long ago. It’s periodically re-projected—like an instant replay in a football game. One example of this was the reader from Fogelsville, PA who reported that every now and then in the middle of the night, they hear a horse trotting up, the locked kitchen door flies open and woman screams “Oh no!” (This reader has seen five separate ghosts in her house including a Civil War soldier “hanging” in their barn.”) I believe that these ghosts all qualify as “residual hauntings” and that they represent no danger to the living. The woman from Pennsylvania ended her letter: “Holidays are the most active seasons. Whether the ghosts like it or not, we’re staying.”

Lost earthbound spirits-- On TV programs like Medium, the ghosts encountered are usually people who don’t realize that they’re dead and they have to be coached to go on to the next world, or move toward the light or whatever is the next stage. Among the ghosts described in my letters, most of these lost souls were children and a few were elderly people who remained in the room where they had spent their last years of life. These old people, who don’t know they should move on, tend to get very angry at newcomers who have invaded their space. They get most irritated when renovations, restoration or re-decorating happens. One woman in Virginia used to encounter the voice and tricks of an elderly lady who once lived in the attic—where the reader would hang her laundry on rainy days. The “ghost” could often be heard rocking in her rocking chair . She opened doors and took a door off its hinges and leaned it against the wall , One day, in exasperation, she cried “Oh, just get out of here!” In many cases, according to the letters, angry lost spirits were helped to move on by a helpful priest, minister, exorcist or psychic.

More pitiful were the ten child ghosts who truly seemed lost and confused and often interacted with the living children of a household. (I learned that animals and small children are almost always more likely to see and interact with ghosts than adults. Often the small children don’t realize the spirits are ghosts and ask “Why won’t the little girl come back and play with me?” and “Why is that little boy playing with my trains?”) One reader from Wilbraham MA, called on ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren who contacted a “9-year-old earthbound boy who apparently died in the farmhouse in 1898, named Alfie. He told them he was concerned over his dog Dodo, and when he died his father was away from home in the army. Every year on July 16—the day he died—there would be a flurry of ghostly activity.” Visitors have reported seeing the little boy looking out the window of a front bedroom and waving good-bye.

From the letters I’ve read, I believe these earthbound child ghosts are unlikely to cause any harm to the inhabitants of a house, although they sometimes smash china and play havoc with electrical appliances—they have also been known to cover sleeping children with blankets and to close windows in a sudden rainstorm. Lucy Ensworth of Louisburg, Kansas who died in 1863 at the age of 12, has done both the pranks and the helpful gestures, stealing things and putting them back, and causing a visiting granddaughter to say, “It’s hard to sleep with that lady walking around—she’s sort of a big girl.”

In two cases ghosts have seemed to known and react to a sickness in the family: A reader in Sandston, VA wrote they have a woman ghost “seen only twice, both times in the fall when someone in the family had been hospitalized.” A man in New Berlin, Wisconsin wrote “As a pastor I’m not supposed to believe in ghosts, but I do.” He described the experiences of friends who live in a country barn house with a poltergeist. Ferns would spin and chairs would rearrange and a cousin who scoffed at reports of a ghost had a fork fly off the table and prick his cheek. “When Jennie’s mother fell down the stairs, her arm was held so that she didn’t plunge headlong, but slid down. On her arm were bruise marks of four fingers and a thumb.” They had a three-year-old daughter who had an allergic reaction to the anesthesia during an emergency appendix operation. The night Jenny died, her bedroom pictures on the wall—mattress, etc—were hurled all over her room. After that, there were no more messages from the ghost.

Animal ghosts—I believe that spirits often return to the place where they lived before moving on—this makes more sense than ghosts in a graveyard hanging around their remains. Many readers described animal ghosts, especially cats, walking on the bed—sometimes their own deceased pets or an unknown pet. I know when my own dog died at the age of 11 years (I was away at college), my mother, who had never liked the dog that well anyway, kept seeing it out of the corner of her eye in the kitchen. A reader in Willoughy, Ohio, described her terrier named Bonnie who would run up the stairs, her nails clicking. One night, several weeks after Bonnie was put to sleep, she was awakened by the familiar sound. “Bonnie just dropped in to let me know that, wherever she was, she hadn’t forgotten about me and our many cozy nights together.”

Evil and dangerous ghosts—Most of the writers said that they view their ghost as a kindly, rather than malevolent presence. Eleven of the 101 correspondents specifically said they consider the spirit a friend. But eight people said they felt their ghost was an evil presence, and a few described the kind of dangerous evil spirit of the type made famous in The Amityville Horror (a true story) —the kind of ghost that would make you immediately put the house on the market at any price.

In each case the spirit was specifically attacking a child in the family. A couple in Surprise, New York described a ghost named Sarah who started out being helpful—caught the woman when she fell down stairs, covered the babies with blankets, put old hand-stitched baby clothes in an empty trunk. But “She hates our oldest son Eric. She threw his bed around the room one night with my husband and myself on it. We have now moved him to a bedroom downstairs. One night she choked him as he was walking in the hallway. He had red handprints around his neck…whenever she comes, our room gets ice cold and a terrible wind comes up. There is a tin-lined closet in the hall where she lives. One night we locked her in with a chair propped up against the door and taped the entire door shut with masking tape. About three a.m. a crash woke us up. The chair was flung downstairs, and the tape wadded up in a ball.”

Instead of moving out the next day, “We were at our wits end and so finally we put a bottle of holy water in our bedroom. She has been back twice since then in the last two years, but both times comes and goes very quickly. We love the house and have now finished restoring it.”

Two more writers described some sort of “monster ghost” that would terrify and torment a child in the family, sometimes trying to bite him—and both used crucifixes and holy water to protect the child and keep the ghost out of the room (in one case it was still looking in through the window.)

I’m very tempted—now that these letters are 25 years old—to write back to the addresses of a few of the most interesting haunted houses to see if the ghosts still are active there. But that might be asking for trouble.

To sum it up—I think most of the paranormal activity described in the letters was NOT dangerous to the homeowners, nor was it directed at them. And in most cases I don’t think there was an actual ghost interacting with the living, but in some cases (of “intelligent response”) there was, sometimes from children or old people still haunting the place they lived. And these spirits (which are sometimes poltergeists) are particularly agitated by re-decorating, construction, moving furniture or illness in the family.

I was amazed at how many readers mentioned: odors and aromas (pipe tobacco, a horrible stench, perfume) and a pocket of freezing air when the ghost was near. And electrical appliances acting up! Clearly, whatever ghosts are, they embody some sort of electrical energy. Fourteen readers reported spirits that played havoc with electric lights and appliances, monkeying with water faucets and setting off doorbells, phones, stoves, radios, TVs—even after they were disconnected.

Here’s a reader from Brevard, North Carolina: “Constantly bizarre happenings: we would find all the lights ablaze, an empty dishwasher swishing away, doors opened or closed. The old turkey platter hanging on the wall was smashed in the center of the room, although the nail and wire hanger were intact. Shower water goes on and off, a vaporous form comes through the bathroom door. Smoke detectors go off constantly. As I write this the lights in the office have gone off and on twice.”

(And that was before computers—wonder if ghosts can type?)

So that’s my last word on what I learned in the Country Living letters--, although I’d love to hear anyone else’s theories on “What is a ghost?” I live in a house that dates back to (at least the oldest section) 1722. Daniel Rand, the first white child baptized in Shrewsbury, MA (in 1722) lived to be 80 years old and is buried nearby. We have his tombstone on our porch.

I’m happy to say that I personally have not encountered any paranormal happenings in this house—although others have—and I’d like to keep it that way. Hopefully the spirits of all the families who have lived here for the past three centuries (and I know all their names and stories) can continue to coexist peacefully, without any paranormal activity or things that go bump in the night.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

True Ghost Stories II and One Ghost Photo

(This is Part II of the three-part "True Ghost Stories" saga I posted on Halloween last year--brought back by popular demand.)

When I was writing a regular column for Country Living Magazine in the 1980’s, I asked, in November of 1983, “Tell us about the ghosts in your country house…Write us a letter describing any experiences with live-in ghosts, poltergeists and things that go bump in the night.”

I received 101 letters from all over the country and, to my delight, only one sounded like it was from a nut (she had also been kidnapped by aliens), but the rest all seemed very reasonable, from people who included a psychiatrist, a police officer and a librarian (with a haunted library.} I thought these letters were beyond price—a treasure trove that would help me learn a great deal about ghosts and haunting and what they really are.

But along with these letters came complaints to the editors saying that our question was opening us up to the work of Satan, that we were in grave danger, that ghosts were just Satan’s demons preying on vulnerable people who had lost loved ones, and that these readers wanted their subscription to the magazine canceled at once.

This naturally rattled the editors, and they asked me to keep the eventual article short and up-beat and as inoffensive as possible to the religious right who thought even a discussion of ghosts was inherently evil.

I made notes on each ghost story. While I couldn’t detail in the magazine the scarier stories I received, at least the summary I did of the letters allowed me to learn what people experience when they encounter a “ghost”. I was struck by how many described feeling a sudden patch of cold air, and many described an odor—perfume or pipe tobacco or flowers. The presence of ghosts in fourteen cases played havoc with electrical appliances –lights, toasters and washing machines that would go on and off even when they were unplugged from the wall. Then there were the flying objects.

After reading all these letters, I came to the conclusion that what people perceive as ghosts are probably several different kinds of phenomena which they grouped under that one word. But I’ll tell you in my next post about that. Right now I’m going to give you the highlights of the letters.

The article that I ultimately wrote in Country Living began:

Imagine what you’d do if this happened to you:

You see the image of a Civil War soldier hanging from the rafters in your barn.

You climb the stairs only to find the way blocked by a wall and to feel someone pushing you down.

Periodically at midnight you hear a horse gallop up to your kitchen door, the locked door flies open, and a woman’s voice screams, “Oh, no!”

The antique blanket chest in your living room erupts with such knocking that you have to grab the television set on top to keep it from falling off.

You go to bed leaving a crossword puzzle unfinished and awake to find it has been completed in the characteristic left-handed script of assassinated president James Garfield, who once lived in your home."

I did not go into detail about the few letters that described truly evil spirits that seemed determined to harm someone in the family—those I’ll tell about on Monday—but for the most part, people felt comfortable with the supernatural beings in their house and 24 people believed they know the real former identity of “their” ghost. Some who didn’t gave their live-in ghosts names.

Among the more than one hundred spirits mentioned, there were ten child ghosts, three Native American ghosts and four animal ghosts (two cats and two dogs) as well as haunted objects: a wicker wheelchair, a family portrait, an antique blanket chest, and a baby carriage.

Forty-one people out of 101 claimed they had actually seen their ghost —anything from vaporous shapes that would pass through a door to what seemed to be a flesh-and-blood person until it suddenly vanished. One reader saw her ghost in a mirror, two described ghosts complete except for having no face, and one reported only the top half of a man repeatedly seen crossing the dining room of her mother-in-law’s restaurant in Indiana.

In 22 cases, pets and small children reacted to the ghost first (like Ronald Reagan’s dog Rex in the Lincoln Bedroom), and children were much more likely to actually see the spirits while their parents saw nothing.

Four readers described being repeatedly pushed down a flight of stairs and two others started to fall down stairs, then were suddenly caught by an unseen hand that left a red handprint on their body. A woman who rented a house in East Kentucky wrote “My first trip downstairs after moving in was on my backside…tearing the muscles in my shoulder. Every time I was on the stairway, I had to hang onto the wall or I’d slip or stumble.’ After three weeks, she and her husband had their pastor come and command the evil spirits to leave, and they did.

Five readers described ghosts who showed concern for their children, covering up babies with blankets, putting toys in the crib, sitting by a bedside and rubbing a feverish brow. Lucy Ensworth, a 12-year-old girl who died in 1863 in Kansas, haunts her Victorian home (she’s buried in the small cemetery on the property).

Lucy has been known to tuck in the baby and to close all the attic windows—propped open with sawed off broomsticks—during a sudden downpour, but she also has emptied a glass of water on a napping adult, smashed dishes all over the kitchen floor, pulled the pegs out of a gun rack before the eyes of its owner, kept the four-year-old granddaughter awake by walking around and rapping on the walls, “just the sort of things a bored, restless pre-teen would do,” according to the woman who wrote the letter.

Ten people said their ghosts make small objects disappear and then reappear in the strangest places—like a flyswatter stuffed into a radio. People described watching flying teapots, mugs, candle snuffers and crystal vases that leaped off a table, rocking chairs that rock by themselves, a wicker wheelchair and a baby carriage that move their position every day. One told about a fork that rose from the table and pricked the cheek of a visitor who scoffed at hearing the house was haunted.

Ten readers told about being repeatedly startled out of sleep by a deafening crash; sometimes to find a scene of chaos, but more often to find nothing broken. (One woman and her daughter would leap out of bed at hearing the din and meet in the hall every night, while her husband slept quietly, never hearing a thing.)

A California woman woke up and found her bed shaking from side to side, while she could see that the prisms on the chandelier weren’t moving. Three people described having their bed shaken, and not by an earthquake.

I have lots more ghost stories from the letters which I’ll tell you about on Monday—including the scary ones that resemble the “Amityville Horror”, but I’ll stop now.

The photo above was sent in by a woman from New Jersey who wrote:
“While vacationing in sunny California this summer (1983) my husband and I came across an interesting small town in Northern California called Los Alamos. [She actually wrote "Los Alimos" but I couldn't find a town of that name.] …We came across this Victorian house...I snapped a photo. We certainly were surprised when we got our pictures developed. The image of a girl dressed in clothing not of this era was clearly visible…. I would really like to find out more about the history of the house.”

To her it looks like a girl in old-fashioned clothes—to me it looks more like the Grim Reaper. What do you think? And have you had any encounters with the other world?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

True Ghost Stories 1: Reagan's White House Ghost

(I’m planning a three-part Halloween series of investigative blogging this weekend on the question of Ghosts—Are they real? Are they dangerous? And what are they exactly? My answers are based on the fascinating stories from 101 letters I received many years ago from readers of Country Living Magazine who answered the question “Is your house haunted? Tell us about it.” Most of the contents of these letters have never been published, because the magazine toned down the piece after discovering how controversial the subject was, so you’ll hear it here first.. But I wanted to start off my Halloween ghost extravaganza with my favorite haunted house story because it was told to me by the President in the White House.)

Ever since the White House was first occupied in 1800, there have been rumors of hauntings, but I got this story direct from the President’s mouth. No, not President Obama. I first heard about the White House ghosts directly from the lips of Ronald Reagan.

It was March 18, 1986, and my husband Nick and I had been invited to a state dinner in honor of Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. The State Dining room was filled with gold candlesticks, gold vermeil flatware and vermeil bowls filled with red and white tulips. I had the great privilege of being seated at the President’s table along with Chicago Bears’ running back Walter Payton; the Canadian Prime Minister’s wife Mila Mulroney; the president of the Mobil Corporation; Donna Marella Agnelli, wife of the chairman of Fiat; Burl Osborne, the editor of the Dallas Morning News, and Pat Buckley, wife of William Buckley.

The President, a brilliant storyteller, entertained the table throughout the meal and the story I remember best was about his encounters with the White House ghostly spirits. Here is how I wrote it later in an article about the dinner for the Ladies’ Home Journal: “According to the President, Rex, the King Charles Cavalier spaniel who had recently replaced Lucky as First Dog, had twice barked frantically in the Lincoln Bedroom and then backed out and refused to set foot over the threshold. And another evening, while the Reagans were watching TV in their room, Rex stood up on his hind legs, pointed his nose at the ceiling and began barking at something invisible overhead. To their amazement, the dog walked around the room, barking at the ceiling.

“I started thinking about it,” the President continued, “And I began to wonder if the dog was responding to an electric signal too high-pitched for human ears, perhaps beamed toward the White House by a foreign embassy. I asked my staff to look into it.”

The President laughed and said, “I might as well tell you the rest. A member of our family [he meant his daughter Maureen] and her husband always stay in the Lincoln Bedroom when they visit the White House. Some time ago the husband woke up and saw a transparent figure standing at the bedroom window looking out. Then it turned and disappeared. His wife teased him mercilessly about it for a month. Then, when they were here recently, she woke up one morning and saw the same figure standing at the window looking out. She could see the trees right through it. Again it turned and disappeared.”

After that White House dinner, I did some research and discovered that half a dozen presidents and as many first ladies have reported ghostly happenings in the White House. It’s not just the ghost of Lincoln that they see, although he tops the hit parade. He caused Winston Churchill, who was coming out of the bathroom naked but for a cigar when he encountered Lincoln, to refuse to sleep there again. And Abe so startled Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands that she fell into a dead faint when she heard a knock on the door and opened it to find Lincoln standing there.

I also learned that the Lincoln bedroom was not a bedroom when Lincoln was President—it was his Cabinet Room where he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

It’s well known that Abraham Lincoln and his wife held séances in the White House, attempting to contact the spirit of their son Willie, who died there and who has been seen walking the halls.

The ghost of Dolley Madison, wife of James Madison, appeared often in the Rose Garden, which she planted. There is even reportedly a Demon Cat in the White House basement that is rarely seen. When it does appear, it is foretelling a national disaster. While the Demon Cat may at fist look like a harmless kitten, it grows in size and evil the closer one gets. A White House guard saw it a week before the stock market crash of 1929 and it was also reportedly seen before Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.

Abigail Adams’ ghost has been seen hanging laundry in the East Room—she appeared frequently during the Taft administration and as late as 2002 and is often accompanied by the smell of laundry soap.

Lincoln himself told his wife he dreamt of his own assassination three days before it actually happened. Calvin Coolidge’s wife reported seeing Lincoln’s ghost standing at a window of the Oval Office, hands clasped behind his back gazing out the window (just as Reagan’s daughter saw a figure in a similar pose.) Franklin Roosevelt’s valet ran screaming from the White House after seeing Lincoln’s ghost . Eleanor Roosevelt, Ladybird Johnson and Gerald Ford’s daughter Susan all sensed Lincoln’s presence near the fireplace in the Lincoln Bedroom.

I’d love to find out if the Obamas have encountered any ghostly knockings, or if their dog Beau has suffered the same alarming anxiety attacks as Reagan’s dog Rex. This weekend, as the portals between this world and the other world swing open, I suspect the White House will be hosting a ghostly gala of the illustrious dead.

(Note: Two years ago I wrote three blog posts on true ghost stories--culled from my own findings as a journalist. Those posts continue to draw more readers than any other subject, so I thought I'd  turn them into a Halloween tradition and run them again this year.  I'm going over these old ghost stories to see if any would work for a  new "paranormal reality" show.  So if you have any  personal paranormal experiences to report, let me know about them at: )

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Ten Things you didn’t Know About the Smiley Face

     1. Smiley was created in Dec. 1963, in Worcester, MA by Harvey Ball, a commercial artist and decorated WWII veteran for an insurance company that wanted a button to improve company morale and customer service.

2. Harvey never made more than the $45 he was paid for the original design.  Others made millions selling Smiley merchandise, but U.S. courts have repeatedly ruled that  Smiley could not be copyrighted—he was in the public domain.
3. By the late 1970’s (and again in the U.K. in 1988) Smiley became the symbol of the drug culture, especially LSD and (later) ecstasy.
4. A blood-stained Smiley became the symbol (and cover image) of “Watchmen” which was first  a landmark comic book series, then the first graphic novel, and in March 2009, a blockbuster film
5.  Smiley became a movie star (or important symbol) not just in “Watchmen” but also in “Forrest Gump”, “My Own Private Idaho”, and a film called  “Smiley Face” (2007)  about a woman who accidently eats cupcakes laced with cannabis.
6  In “Watchmen” some characters  fly to Mars, landing in a crater that looks like a Smiley Face.  There really is such a crater on Mars. It’s called the  Galle crater. 
7.  John Bon Jovi, in 2005, released a very successful album called “Have a Nice Day.”  In the video to the title song, is Bon Jovi’s  version of Smiley which is red, square and has threatening eyebrows and is taking over the world.
 8. The Smiley Face Murder Theory is a theory advanced by two New York detectives. They think that  a large number of young men found dead in bodies of water from the 1990’s to 2008 were victims of a serial killer or killers.  They think this because the detectives discovered Smiley Face graffiti on walls near locations where they think the killer dumped the bodies.

9.  Last Sunday an article in the New York Times Styles section said that the Smiley Face emoticon in e-mail  is becoming universal, spreading from teenagers and their texts to  serious business correspondence..

10. In December of 2013 the Worcester Historical Museum will celebrate Smiley’s 50th birthday with lots of festivities.  They also  hope to publish a book on the history of Smiley.  Maybe written by me.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Reporting the death of Whatshisname

As a (retired) journalist, I spent much of Thursday watching internet news with fascination as reports of the violent death of Moamar Gaddafi leaked out.  I watched the national news at six thirty and kept checking on line, and by the time I went to bed I still didn’t know exactly who killed him.  Still don't.

This kind of story is a nightmare for a working journalist who has to report from the middle of a violent, hysterical and dangerous crowd and has no way of checking the facts he is told.  Everyone has his own version of what happened.  And imagine how much more complicated things are today, when every terrorist, tourist, rebel, protester and cop has his or her own cell phone recording what’s happening.  (This is both a good thing and a bad thing for the general populace, because we get the news immediately as it’s happening, thanks to Steve Jobs and the internet, but we  may very well get a slanted or staged version of the event.)

Another difficult aspect of this story—for journalists and especially editors—is what to do about the gruesome images of Gaddafi both before and after he was dead.  All the TV reports warned viewers that they were about to view graphic images.

I was eager to see yesterday (Friday) how the story would be handled by the three papers I read every day:  the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, the New York Times and the New York Post.

Not surprisingly, the Worcester T&G headlined, in the biggest typeface they could find, “Libya’s new era”.  Under that in smaller type was “Joyous celebration, giddy disbelief over death of Gadhafi”.  The main photo was of euphoric fighters, all smiles.  There was no bloody corpse in sight.  And that made sense, because the T&G readers in Worcester, MA are quick to write angry letters every time the paper shows something like a fatal auto crash or any image that would be too hard to take over breakfast.        

The New York Times also handled the news with restraint, but a little grimmer tone:  “QADDAFI, SEIZED BY FOES, MEETS A VIOLENT END”—was the main headline stretched across the entire width of the front page. The subhead was: “Fighters Mob the Fallen Dictator After His Failed Effort to Flee”.  The main photo on the front page showed euphoric fighters waving their guns and shouting in victory. Much smaller and lower on the page was a blurry image with the caption “This still image from a video apparently shows a bloodied Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi after his capture by government fighters.

I knew the NYTimes would be restrained in coverage—she is after all the “Great Gray Lady”  with “all the news that’s fit to print.”  When I attended Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1963-64, to get my master’s degree, we eighty students, sitting behind our massive manual typewriters in the news room, were taught New York Times style.  There were many rules.  A man, for instance, was always referred to as “Mr.” until he was convicted of a crime.  Women were “Mrs.” or “Miss” (“Ms.” wasn’t yet born.)  The word “rape” never appeared—it was “sexually assaulted.”  Everything in the Times had to be restrained, calm, factual and backed up by at least two independent sources.

The New York Post, as I expected, on Friday ran full page the goriest bloody corpse photo it could find, along with an inset of a young man brandishing a gold pistol that he claimed belonged to the dead “mad dog of the Middle East” as Reagan called him.  The boy was wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap which inspired the New York Post ‘s headlines to trumpet in giant letters 1.5 inches high: “ KHADAFY KILLED BY YANKEE FAN”.

If there was a prize awarded for the best headline of the day, I’m sure the Post’s chauvinist take on the story would win hands down.  Oh, and the Post’s subhead read:  “Gunman had more hits than A-Rod.”  The Post’s story may not have been accurate, but you have to admit it made you smile, unlike all the other front-page reports.

After comparing the approach of my three regular papers, and then scanning other front pages from around the world (collected on Yahoo under the title  “Has the media gone too far?…” I suddenly realized  that EVERY PAPER WAS SPELLING THE MAN’S NAME A DIFFERENT WAY!  You’d think, since the New York Times owns the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, that those two papers would both spell it “Qaddafi”—Times’ style-- but no, the T&G calls him Gadhafi.  If you go to Google, as I did, you’ll find there are more than 100 ways to spell this colorful madman’s name and there are a lot of newspaper editors on line defending their own version of the spelling. 

The problem is--you’re starting with a name in a different alphabet (Arabic) and trying to spell it phonetically with our Latin alphabet.  There’s a similar problem with spelling our last name--Gage-- to a Greek in a language that has a different alphabet and no hard “G”.  (It’s “Gamma, kappa, alpha, iota, tau, zita.”  Which comes out GKAITZ.  This is why a Greek TV reporter interviewing daughter Eleni in Greek reported that she was the daughter of Bill Gates.)

Anyway, I’m glad I didn’t have to cover a slippery story like the death of the Colonel, especially in an era when every man in the crowd is reporting it too.  And I say "kudos!" to the young journalists who did it at the risk of their lives.  (Now if they’d just learn the correct usages of  “lie” and “lay” and  “its” & “it’s).

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Grandmother Kvelling

I belonged for many years to a woman’s group in Worcester that met once a month to discuss a pre-selected topic.  There were a few topics that were verboten, however:  politics, pets and grandchildren.

I can see why.  Nothing empties a room faster than an approaching Grandma clutching a brag book of grandchildren photos.  The clever antics of another person’s grandchild are just about as interesting a conversational topic as the  details of one’s recent operation.

That said, permit me to rhapsodize a bit about my granddaughter Amalía.  No, she did not get into an Ivy League school, nor did she play Moonlight Sonata in a piano recital.    She did not learn to ride a bike or even become toilet-trained.  She can’t even sit up.  Her latest achievement is managing (sometimes) to get her thumb into her mouth.

Amalia is eight weeks old today. (But officially two months old on Oct. 26, when she’ll go to the pediatrician for a check-up.)

Even though she can’t even sit up by herself, it’s a wonder and a delight to me to watch her discovering the world around her (including her hands and her reflection in a mirror.)  I think I was too tired to savor this stage of development in my own children. 

She sits (or lies) there, wearing one of her pre-Halloween outfits and with great seriousness watches the fascinating and puzzling world around her, looking to me as if she has some memory of where she was before and is now trying to learn the secrets of this new place. 

This thought led me to look up some of William Wordsworth’s lines in “Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood”:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:  
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

 That's how Amalía seems to me as she studies her new world--she came to us trailing clouds of glory.

She also reminds me of “New Soul” by the Israeli singer Yael Naim, a song that Amalia’s parents, Eleni and Emilio, included in her birth mix— to be played  during  labor and delivery:
I'm a new soul
I came to this strange world
Hoping I could learn a bit 'bout how to give and take
 On Sunday October 9, daughter Eleni and her husband Emilio took Amalia to the Greek Orthodox church in Miami, Saint Sophia, for the ritual that marks her 40th day of life and introduces her to the church.  The priest says a blessing both for the mother and for the baby.

As Eleni pointed out in “Fabulous at Forty (Days)” –posted on her blog,  “The Liminal Stage”, many societies believe that the 40 days after birth are a special time when mother and baby should stay together indoors until the child is taken out on the 40th day. She mentions Judaism, Chinese culture, and Yogis among others.  As Eleni writes on her blog,

“Like all rituals, there’s the liturgical explanation for the 40-day churching (we bring our babies to be presented at the Church the way Mary brought Jesus to the Temple), and then there’s all the folklore that rises up around it. …As with so many folk customs, this one crosses boundaries and spans multiple cultures.”

Amalia wore a beautiful dress for her first visit to church, and the brief ritual and blessing seemed a perfect way to mark her passage from the first 40 days of infancy to an individual ready to take her place in the church and the world.

Eleni summed it up in her blog post:

My favorite part of the entire experience was when the priest said, “Bless also this child which has been born of her; increase her, sanctify her, give her understanding and a prudent and virtuous mind.” I felt a thrill at that moment thinking of the little baby in front of me as a person with a developing mind, one which, God willing, will be prudent and virtuous and joyous and expansive, and all the things that mothers in all cultures wish for their baby.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Holocaust Memorial that Pulls You Into the Story

Last month in Miami Beach I was riding in a taxi when I saw out of the window a remarkable sight—a forty-two-foot-tall sculpture of a hand reaching skyward out of a reflecting pond.  And scrambling up the wrist were what seemed to be life-sized human figures.

One of the things I collect is images of hands—everything from a door knocker to anti-evil eye talismans to a wooden “Hand of God” with a saint perched atop each finger and a gash in the palm.  I have patterns for the henna designs painted on the hands of an Indian bride, for example, before her wedding, in the mehndi ritual.  So I knew I had to learn more about the gigantic hand I had come across while riding on Meridian Avenue near Dade Boulevard in South Beach.

I learned that it is a memorial, dedicated to the six million Jewish victims of the holocaust. After four years of construction, it was dedicated by Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel on February 4, 1990.
 Entrance is free. As I walked through the sculpture garden, like everyone else who has seen it, I was deeply moved by a history that I had heard many times before, but never in such a personal way.  As I followed the trail through the sunlit sculpture park, I was walking from the beginning to the end of the  holocaust years and retracing the journey of so many victims—beginning with  fear and foreboding and ending in despair and death. 

Because I found myself walking through a tunnel that becomes narrower, and then emerging into a scene of desperate agony, surrounded by life-sized naked figures in bronze, the experience seemed terrifyingly real, despite the towering  palm trees and the water lilies in the serene reflecting pool-- an ironic contrast to the hysterical grief and fear portrayed within.
The huge bronze hand (which has an Auschwitz camp number carved on the wrist) and the one hundred figures were designed by Kenneth Treister and cast in Mexico City by Fundicion Artistica. 

While walking through the exhibition, I felt as though I was interacting with the statues—sharing their fear and agony.  And after the visit, I felt changed, certainly in my understanding of the holocaust.  I think  that is the definition of successful art—you interact with it and it leaves you changed.
At the beginning of the journey is this statue of a mother and two children beneath a quotation from Ann Frank: “…that in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

Then you walk along a black granite wall that summarizes in words and photographs the history of the holocaust from 1939 to 1945.  At the end of the wall is engraved a poem and a hymn from the ghetto. 

Next you enter a tunnel, starting with a dome that has a stained glass Star of David overhead with the word “Jude”.  As the memorial’s historian Helen Feigen writes, it’s “the patch of ignominy”.

You’re now in the square tunnel, carved with names of the death camps, that becomes smaller as you continue.  You hear the sound of children’s voices singing songs from the concentration camps.  All you can see at the end of the tunnel is a small, seated child, wailing and reaching out for help.  As you walk toward the light, the voices of the children get louder and louder.  Then you emerge from the tunnel to find yourself staring up at the immense hand, crawling with people in agony.  You walk among free-standing figures who are all reaching for help.
According to Helen Feigen, the historian, “A giant outstretched arm, tattooed with a number from Auschwitz, rises from the earth, the last reach of a dying person. Each visitor has his own interpretation ... some see despair ... some hope ... some the last grasp for life . . . and for some it asks a question to God... ‘Why?’”
At this point, you walk around the giant hand, examining the family groups, young people trying to comfort their elders, children trying to soothe their younger siblings, mothers trying to hand their babies to safety.  But no one is safe and there is no way out.  And the visitor is a part of the scene.

Then you notice the black granite walls engraved with names of the victims.
Finally, when you’ve had enough of this scene of despair, you continue on to the final piece of sculpture, which is the same mother and two children seen at the beginning, but now they’re lying dead underneath another quotation from Ann Frank: "ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us only to meet the horrible truths and be shattered:"
Then you are free to contemplate the peace and beauty of the reflecting pool and the sunny sky, and eventually to return to the tropical scenery of Miami Beach. But you can’t shake the feelings that you had standing below that giant hand, imagining the stories of all those victims who were still trying to help each other in the hour of their death.

Maybe this is why I’ve always been fascinated by representations of hands—because they can be so indicative of the creativity and strength  of the human being, and yet so vulnerable—think of the hands of a baby.  And in almost every culture, the image of the human hand seems to be a symbol, an invocation, a magical talisman, or the seal on a pledge.  Or a cry for help.