Who Are You People, Anyway?

The first three times I saw her were at the Ajijic Writers Group. We sat at opposite ends of the patio. Fifty or so attendees separated us. But I noticed her. That woman has style, class, and dignity, I thought. It was reflected in her clothes, posture, and gait. I wonder who she is. She could have been a model.

Several meetings passed. She was not there. I didn’t see her again until PBS aired a report on Lake Chapala and how it had become a magnet to retirees from the US, Canada, and Great Britain. A number of émigrés were interviewed. She was one of them. That’s that classy lady. I know her, I thought, although the second part of the thought was an exaggeration. With a British accent, she made comments praising Ajijic and Lakeside life. Then the reporter, in a voice-over, explained that the woman had an unusual claim to fame; she had been, in 1964, Playboy Magazine’s first international centerfold. My jaw dropped. The photograph was shown. I recognized it immediately. I was familiar with it, not because I had obsessed on Playboy as a teen, but because it had been included in numerous documentaries about the publication and its founder Hugh Hefner. The reporter continued telling the woman’s story, her history and accomplishments. Rose Grayson, despite her appearance in Playboy, went on to become a presenter on British television, the equivalent of TV news reporter and interviewer in the US. After that, she became a judge.

Can you imagine that happening in the United States, a 1964 Playboy centerfold achieving those lofty, respected positions in the  conservative, narrow-minded, wholesome US of the pre-women’s, sexual, and gay liberation movements? In fact, nearly two decades later, in 1981, the US was still struggling with its priggish mindset when we saw Vanessa Williams stripped, no pun intended, of her Miss America title because nude photos from her college years had surfaced.

More recently, I befriended another woman through the Writers Group. We had talked on several occasions, even sitting next to each other at the gatherings. It wasn’t, however, until she read an autobiographical piece that I learned, as a younger woman, Lynne had been a California social worker working at San Quentin Prison and had in her caseload Charles Manson. She had interviewed, counseled, and probed the mind of one of America’s most evil criminals. Again I was slack-jaw stunned.

That revelation triggered several questions as I looked at the other attendees. Those questions followed me as I walked home through Ajijic’s streets. They echoed in my head days later as I studied other émigrés and ex-pats around me while I sipped coffee at the plaza, ate in restaurants, and sat in audiences at musical and theatrical performances.

Who are you people, anyway? Who were you before you came here? What are your secrets?

Most of the Americans, Canadians, Brits, and other foreigners residing here are older, most likely retired. We see one another as we look now, in our later years. We generally have no clue what the people around us looked like as young people. We generally have no idea what their lives were like then or what facts about them are yet to be uncovered.

I find myself wondering, as I look at friends, acquaintances, and merely familiar faces around town, which women were high school or college cheerleaders, which men were star athletes, and which, as students, held leadership roles in student government. And which were school bullies. I think which women, as young girls, shrieked for Elvis or The Beatles, and which of the men had posters in their bedroom of Raquel or Farrah. I am curious which of the people around me were elected to public office in their previous lives, or ran unsuccessfully. Is it possible, I wonder, if among the people I have met or see are children of celebrities whose names I would know? Or could any of these people be celebrities themselves—television, radio, sports, film, politics, or theater stars—and I am plain clueless.

I worry that some of these neighbors have had to bury children. Or have become estranged from their families. I think about who has siblings or children with special needs. Have any of the people around me been big lottery winners or filed bankruptcy? I wonder which of the people nearby have been incarcerated. Or should have been. And, on the flip side, I realize some may have been the victim of a crime, perhaps violent. I speculate which of my neighbors are gay, lesbian, bi, or transgender, either openly or secretly. Or which ones have children or grandchildren that live under the LGBTQ umbrella.

I reflect on which of my older fellow transplants served in Vietnam and which, as a result, suffer PTSD, which survived horrible automobile accidents or bounced back from near-fatal illness. I wonder which of the people I see in Ajijic have PhD’s or STDs. And I wonder which ones are members of the GOP.

Oftentimes, we discover long after meeting someone a surprising tidbit about their past or identity. It may be trivial, but it also may be germane to their personality or their private pains. It may be something about which they are proud, embarrassed, or ashamed. It may be something that is purposely kept secret. Or it may be something they no longer consider important or interesting.

We all have friends and acquaintances here in our retirement haven. But we all divulge our histories to them at our chosen pace for our own reasons. And often, so often, discovering those morsels of insignificant information, important facts, or long-held secrets about them shed surprising new light on the individuals or the relationships.

For example, did I ever tell you about the time I got caught naked at a political fund-raiser for…oh, I’m not ready to share that yet.

 

Trivial Pursuits

“I’ll buy a vowel, Pat.”

“Who wants to be a millionaire?”

“Good answer! Good answer!”

“Let’s make it a true daily double, Alex.”

Recognizable phrases from television game shows. We all watch or have watched them. But how many people can say they were on a game show? I can. “Which one?” you might ask. “Did you win?” you could add as an immediate afterthought. “Or did you embarrass yourself?” You decide.

I had moved to Portland in May 1985 perhaps two weeks prior to seeing the announcement on the Rose City’s NBC affiliate KGW. The station was launching the nation’s first locally produced big budget game show and was seeking contestants. Auditions would begin at 9 a.m. Saturday morning at the studio, the announcer said. The game, On the Spot, he added, would be trivia-based. Well, I, too, am trivia-based. Thus, it took me a nanosecond to decide what I would wear to the audition. It would be my pink polo shirt. It was, I assumed, bright enough to make me stand out, to be a memorable contestant hopeful. Well, at least among the men.

I underestimated how many Oregonians and southwest Washingtonians would be lured by this opportunity, so I arrived at KGW several minutes before 9. The line already seemed to stretch miles into the Columbia River Gorge. I hiked to the line’s end and crouched in the shade provided by Milepost 42. OK. OK! I exaggerated. It was 32. On the Spot producers also underestimated interest in this project and were somewhat rattled by the hundreds of applicants who showed up.

I looked around and realized that many of the people in line were wearing attention-grabbing bright colors, crazy hats, unusual jewelry, and bold humorous tee-shirts. I peeked down my chest at my pink polo as its brightness seemed to fade to pastel. An hour later, a team of befuddled producers inched its way along the queue handing out hurriedly marked pieces of paper with try-out times. “Rather than have all of you wait for hours in the hot sun,” a young man roared to the 50 or so hopefuls around me, “we are scheduling auditions.” He handed us scraps of paper with “3:45” on it and moved down the line.

I raced home. I don’t recall if I boned up on trivia. I don’t recall if I paced the floor in anticipation. I do recall, however, staring at myself in the mirror, second-guessing my pink choice, and then changing my clothes more times than a female host of a televised award show. I eventually decided on a simple but striking black and white combination. My slacks and dress shirt were black. But my tie…ah, my narrow leather piano keyboard tie, bold in its white and blackness, stylish by 1985 standards, jumped off that dark canvas. It stood out like Sammy Davis, Jr. and his pale, blonde, Swedish wife Mai Britt had when they attended Yom Kippur services at Seattle’s Temple de Hirsch-Sinai in the 1960s.

The audition, logically, was a trivia test which I found easy. I felt I had done well and that was confirmed several days later when a producer contacted me. “You,” he announced, “Piano Man, have been selected one of nine people to tape test shows to be shown to potential advertisers.”  The tapes, he said, would also be used by producers to evaluate what works and what is problematic in the structure of the game. I was thrilled and returned to the station for the taping. When I arrived, producers greeted me with, “Hey, it’s Piano Man.” My audition outfit had worked; my ebony and ivory tie had made me memorable.

I expected, however, to hear from producers again with a taping date for the On the Spot episode on which I would compete. I did not receive that call and games began airing in September.  I became concerned, disappointed, and angry. How could they use me for the tests, I thought, and not schedule me during the first weeks of the show’s airing?

I was called, however, many weeks later. It was mid-November. Taping would be the next night. Thanks for the warning, I grumbled to myself. I need a haircut, electric tan, and a mani-pedi. And I have to lose five pounds! I asked my roommate, who was a hospital employee, and my neighbors to come with me for support, but the former had to work and the neighbors had another commitment. Therefore, I went alone.  It was after a hellacious workday and I was frazzled and exhausted. I was not in a frame of mind to make my television debut. Nevertheless, I psyched myself up and entered the station lobby with a cocky attitude and met my two competitors. One was a four-time champ. I felt my confidence drain like sweat in a sauna shared with male supermodels.

We were marched onto the set for camera tests. I had dressed in a conservative, long-sleeved, button-down collar dress shirt and color-coordinated tie because, I thought, I no longer needed to stand out since I had already gotten the gig. My shirt, however, did not photograph well; its stripe apparently wasn’t as subtle as I thought and created a shimmering effect known as interline twitter, a phrase I stored away in the pocket of my brain marked “Trivial Technological Television Terms.” I probably had been instructed by a producer to avoid stripes, but as I was trying to retain the names of every US vice-president, Hollywood character actor, and left-handed, albino, Sagittarius pro-athlete, I apparently forgot the no-stripe request. Therefore, a producer brought me a sports jacket to minimize the shirt’s dancing lines. The coat, however, clashed with my shirt-tie combo. But worse, it was several sizes too large for me. I put it on and looked like Mickey Rooney wearing William Howard Taft’s inauguration suit.  Crap, I thought, I should have worn the pink polo.

I tried to think taller and broader than I actually am in an effort to fill out the jacket, but before I could grow four inches and gain 35 pounds, the program began. Theme music played. Introductions were made. I recall Larry Blackmar, the affable host, asking about my aloha shirt collection which I had mentioned on my application. “One of them,” I said, “is a Mexican Hawaiian shirt.” The smiley emcee’s eyebrows formed question marks and he asked why. Instead of describing the pattern of palm trees, Tequila bottles, and siesta-ing Mexican men in sombreros, I answered with impulsive sass, “Because it speaks Spanish?” The tone of my response implied “Duh!” If you look up the word “regret” in the dictionary, you will see my picture.

I defeated the four-time champ and won a trip for two to San Francisco, $200 worth of Nike clothes, $750 cash, and an On the Spot logo-emblazoned umbrella so large it could have covered the entire Amazon Rain Forest. But my win did not come without a potentially embarrassing moment that would have dwarfed the Mexican Hawaiian shirt gaffe.

The category was “Nicknames.” Emcee Blackmar began reading the clue. “Marlene Dietrich…” and I buzzed in. I was ready to answer “The World’s Most Beautiful Grandmother” because that was a nickname she had been given decades earlier. Blackmar should have stopped reading the clue when I buzzed in, but he didn’t. “…gave this nickname to Ernest Hemingway.” he continued. Hemingway’s nickname was “Papa.” I didn’t know Ms. Dietrich was responsible for that, but switched my response to the correct one. Imagine the audience reaction had I said Ernest Hemingway’s nickname was “The World’s Most Beautiful Grandmother.” Imagine my picture in the dictionary next to the definition of “televidiot.”

That episode of On the Spot did not air until New Year’s Eve. I watched myself with pride as I won and then went off to a private New Year’s Eve party. I knew some of the guests, but many were strangers. I didn’t mention my TV appearance earlier that evening, nor did any of the guests. But when a late arrival, a stranger, arrived, my secret was exposed. He looked at me and shrieked, “Oh, my God! I just saw you on TV!”

I became the talk of the party. Everyone had questions. “What is Larry Blackmar like?” “Were the lights hot?” “Were you nervous?” and “How do you remember so much useless shit?” The stranger who had seen me on television asked, “Why the hell did you pick that god-awful sports coat? It made you look like Kate Smith.” That triggered the trivia-challenged guests to ask, in unison, “Who?” But the most awkward question asked was, “How many games did you win?”

I could not bring myself to tell them what happened in the next game. While I did lead at halftime, I could feel my adrenaline flow drop from surge to trickle during the commercial break. When the game resumed, I could not, regardless how hard I tried, buzz in first. But worse than that, I couldn’t remember basic trivial information. All the names, dates, titles, and facts in my head became a tossed green salad tumbling in a rickety clothes dryer. I thought the ‘80s pop singer Tiffany was named Tabitha. Or Thorazine. Or triskaidekaphobia. I confused the Kenyan city Mombasa with former Congressman Mo Udall. I couldn’t recall the difference between Yogi Berra and Yogi Bear. I mixed up yogurt and yurt. And I had no idea what a yurt even was! It is no surprise, then, that I lost the next game. My reign as a game show champ ended with a thud.

So, we return to the earlier question: Did I win or did I embarrass myself? Isn’t it obvious? The answer is clearly “Marlene Dietrich.”

Nissim Nachtgeist is My Father

I recently received an email from a woman I do not know. But her out-of-the-blue communication connected me to the past and my family history with a jolt. A positive jolt. But a jolt nonetheless.

Christiana’s introductory words included two names, Lotte Schwarz and Hotel Comi in Zurich, Switzerland. I recognized both immediately. I thought, “OMG!” so loud I probably roused my father from his 19 year permanent nap and my mother from her four year one. Hotel Comi was where my father lived after he escaped Nazi Germany in 1937. Lotte Schwarz, a friend of my father, also resided there.

Lotte, according to Christiana, had begun writing a novel based on those times. She, however, hadn’t completed the book before her death decades ago, so Christiana, a historian, did what research she could and recently finished and published it.  The book is Die Brille des Nissim Nachtgeist which means The Glasses of Nissim Nachtgeist. That oddly named character is my father. Nissim Nachtgeist was, I learned, a nickname, a pen name, and an alias of Dad’s during those years. “Nissim” is Hebrew for “miracle;” Dad may have known that and that may have played a part in the selection of that name. But I assume Dad picked it because it is a twisted version of Nussbaum. “Nachtgeist” roughly means night spirit, which could be a ghost or phantom. Christiana also informed me that my mother, too, is a character in the book.

Dad did not talk about his past a lot and I sensed as a young child not to ask more than he was willing to share; I understood, even then, there was pain and trauma involved in the life he left in Germany.  What I did know was that he was born a few years prior to World War I and grew up in a small mountain town, Ellrich, in which the Nussbaums were one of two Jewish families. My grandfather was a businessman with connections to local politicians and this had been advantageous as Dad, as a young man, had gotten in trouble with the law on several occasions. His crime?  Challenging the growing Nazi presence between the world wars. The local politicians interceded and dad got a pass.

I also knew Dad had attended several universities in Germany —that was the norm then, to attend more than one school to be exposed to different viewpoints and philosophies — on his way to acquiring a degree in German corporate law. But while a student, Dad wrote letters to cousins in Sweden condemning Hitler and the Nazis. The letters were confiscated at the border and Dad was arrested and jailed. This time the connections with Ellrich powerbrokers, it seemed, were of no use. He spent October through December 1933 in an early form of concentration camp. Surprisingly, he and many other political prisoners or dissidents—very few were Jews— were released in a Christmas Eve propaganda ploy. At first Dad thought all the prisoners had been released, but later learned only some had and wondered why he was one. Once home, Dad was informed he was to pack and leave town immediately. This caused him to suspect a deal had been made. Perhaps my grandfather had begged the local politicians to pay off the Nazis, buying Dad’s freedom, and they agreed provided he would leave the mountain village and cease his embarrassing, problematic activism. He fled to Hanover and relatives, and he never went back to Ellrich. He continued his studies, moving from college town to college town and in early 1937, as conditions in Nazi Germany worsened, Dad fled to allegedly neutral, safe, and welcoming Switzerland. He continued his education in Zurich where he studied Swiss corporate law and earned a PhD comparing it to the German system. My father technically then was Dr. Nussbaum.

I also knew that while in Zurich Dad was a man without a country; he could not return to Germany and he could not become a Swiss citizen. He lived a life in limbo, needing permission from the Swiss government for any work he did or pay he received. I also knew that Dad dabbled on the edges of show business as a film critic, comedy and political satire writer, and event emcee. He may have also performed on stage. Dad, I recall, often told tales of actors, artists, and writers with whom he shared life at the Hotel Comi and others with whom he socialized. Christiane has reminded of these names and taught me details I did not know. For example, I have learned the Swiss government did not regard my father fondly; because he was intelligent, articulate, and a law student and writer, they feared he would expose its questionable treatment of émigrés like himself. As a result, deportation back to Germany was a constant possibility. This may explain the creation of an alter-ego; as Nissim Nachtgeist Dad could hide in plain sight. Dad was, in fact, involved in a pending hearing as an opportunity for my parents to emigrate to America arose. It was resolved just before they left. Whether this was a legitimate resolution or “coincidence” will remain unanswered.

I look forward to learning more about my father as I read about Nissim Nachtgeist. The book is in German, which is problematic, and I will have to rely on my meager knowledge of the language, translation apps, and the kindness of German speaking friends and locals. But, bottom line, I will discover who Dad was before history, life, fate, and my complicated mother changed him.

Jocks, Jerks, and Jokes

It is probably illegal, but many Americans and Canadians living in Mexico utilize Canada’s Shaw Cable Service for their television viewing. This is achieved via satellites and dishes and, while its legality is questionable, it is done on a large scale with all parties looking the other way. As a result of Shaw’s Canadian origin, viewers receive both US and Canadian programming. That includes network sports coverage from ESPN and Canada’s TSN.

24/7

Watching a sports network at night during the week makes sense; that is when most sporting events take place. Weekend games or matches are more likely to be played in the daytime. But have you ever watched a sports network’s daytime weekday programming? I have. Well, I’ve tried.

In order to fill air time, the networks create fluff and filler and then repeat them ad nauseam. The most common example of this programming is Top 10, 50, 100 or 2,437 Lists of various sports related plays, people, or moments. Most last an hour, some days, and a few an entire football, baseball, rugby, or tiddly-winks season. Some lists make sense; they warrant attention. But others don’t. No sports-related topic is too mundane to merit a list. I have partially watched many. Here is my Top 10:

Worst Plays of the Year

Best Plays of the Year

Weirdest Names in Hockey

Wildest Temper Tantrums of Coaches and Managers

Best Beards

Hottest Cheerleaders Named Megan

Hottest Cheerleaders Named Matthew

Best Plays in Curling Championships Taking Place in a Canadian City With a Population Less Than 200,000

Worst Sportscaster Gaffs That Have to be F***** Censored

Most Likely Middle School Athletes to be Drafted by the Pros

Top 1000 Pro Athletes Who Have Been Arrested for Domestic Violence

You will note there are 11 entries in my Top 10. That is because we are talking sports and jocks here. Being able to count to 10 is not required.

Another common program-type used to fill airtime is unimportant games, matches, or tournaments of any sport with players so unknown their own families don’t recognize them and channel surf away when they stumble upon them. Examples are the Shell Oil Golf Tourney from Nome, Alaska…in January, Oral Roberts University vs. Trinity College Outdoor Ice Hockey from Dubai, Curling Live From Miss Sharyse’s African-Canadian Gaspé Bay Hair Salon, and The Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman Tennis Tournament from Ferndale, Ohio, in which all participants, male or female, must wear braided pigtails and gingham frocks with Peter Pan collars. I once stumbled upon a British Premier League soccer match between Tottenham and Bournemouth and wondered where the hell these two cities were and then retracted my thought with a quick channel-surfing snap and a booming, “Who the hell cares?” I suppose men named Nigel, Clive, Giles, Piers, Reginald, Rhys, and Percy do.

Of course these networks do air sporting events live. But then they replay them the following day for those viewers unable to watch the event live because their wives insisted they watch The Bachelor. Naturally, the results are available online for those weak, wife-obeying men who, in a hypnotized stupor, watch the event the next day although they know the outcome. Even I have spent much of an afternoon watching an entire tightly played, close-scored University of Southeast West Virginia vs East Dakota State Lacrosse match before I realized it had actually been played the day before and the outcome was known to the seven people who cared. As it turned out, I had wasted time I could have spent watching porn rooting for the wrong team. Apparently, the team with the cuter players is not necessarily the better squad.

While most of the on-air personalities on these networks are male, there are many female hosts and anchors. Some actually know sports. However, there are many who don’t. They look more like Ivanka Trump, Miss Universe, and Stormy Daniels than Martina Navratilova, Brittney Griner, and Abby Wambach, who look like and are actual athletes. This hiring practice puzzles me. I can’t for the life of me understand why network big-shots and producers select such sexy, long-haired, buxom beauties to host or participate in their programming. Why would a predominately male audience want that? It makes no sense to me. In fact, I’ve spent better than 200 hours in gay bars, alleged gay sports bars, asking patrons who were watching figure skating and critiquing outfits why the networks had hired these women. No one knew for certain. Two onlookers insisted the female sportscasters were drag queens. Eight others blamed Trump.

The men who host sports network programs are generally more qualified. They are, however, also opinionated, loud, testosterone-driven, and argumentative. And while physical attractiveness plays a definite role in the hiring of female sportscasters, it is not considered when hiring men. Neither is tact, civility, or reason.

Take the case of an unnamed network’s daily afternoon program that is typical of many. It is called Asses Talk Athletics and features a panel of sports aficionados who pontificate opinions and speculations as if they are fact. Asses Talk Athletics’ panel consists of Tex Wasserman, Kellieyee Lee Lindley, Ché Gomez-Schwartz, and Bailey Skipmore. I would describe the three men as blowhards; Kellieyee isn’t a blowhard. She’s too vacuous to form opinions. Even though she does participate in conversations and has some —OK, minimal—knowledge of sports, she serves more as window-dressing.  The male trio also makes The Three Stooges appear refined and classy.

Conversations go like this (Well, not exactly like this, but close. Close like a 275 – 273½ NBA score between the Boston Red Sox and Phil Mickelson.):

Stooge #1: “I’m sure Pruxyio Brexinskivo will go 7th in the NBA draft. No doubt about it.”

Stooge #2: “Seventh? You’re nuts. He’s not gonna go any higher than eighth. Eighth, you moron. He’s never made a free throw.”

Stooge #1: “Well, of course, he hasn’t. He played in Lithuanistan where they don’t realize free throws are part of the game. Besides he’s ¾ of an inch taller than anyone else expected to go in the first round. So he’ll go high.”

Stooge #3: “Are you both high? He’s going 17th. I’ve talked to two San Antonio Spurs ball boys and they say the NBA coaches all think he’s problematic because of his temper.”

Kellieyee starts giggling. “You said San Antonio Sperms!”

The Three Stooges look at her for a moment in disbelief.

Stooge #1: “His temper? Murder is not illegal in Lithuanistan. Especially when you kill both your dads.”

Stooge #3: “Seventeenth. He’s going 17th.” Stooge #3 stands, raises his voice, and points at Stooge #1: “You’re an idiot. He’s not going 7th. Everyone knows that. Even Kellieyee!”

Kellieyee: “What?” She tosses her tresses seductively and asks, “Does my hair look sexy this way?”

Stooge #2: “OK. Put your money where your mouth is. If Brexinskivo goes 7th, I’ll buy you dinner at Oscar Robertson’s Steak House. If he goes lower than that, you buy me Kellieyee.”

Kellieyee: “Kellieyee who?” She pouts her lips and then licks them. “Hey guys, do you think these cute dangly earrings make my butt look big?”

That brings us to the biggest ass in sportscasts, Canada’s own Don Cherry. Oh, I know he is a legend and he probably really does know ice hockey. But this politically conservative clown, who is in his 80s, is way past his expiration date.  It is time someone removes him from the sportscaster booth and throws him under a Zamboni. And then, for God sakes, burn his clothes.

Cherry’s colorful, flamboyant, garish suits and sports jackets are his trademark. They are a combination Phyllis Diller, Liberace, and Ronald McDonald. They are bright, brighter, in fact, than Kellieyee.  But he and his wardrobe have to go.

As for commercials on these sports networks, they are aimed at a predominately male audience and tout beer, trucks, and — oh, never mind. I have to leave. ESPNTSNCASTV is repeating the Hottest Cheerleaders Named Matthew List. I have to watch again. I really like the one who cheers for the San Antonio Sperms.

Getting Rear-Ended

I don’t have a car. I gave mine up when I moved to Mexico. I, in fact, have only driven once here at Lakeside, that being a two-mile jaunt helping a neighbor. There are several reasons why I don’t drive here. Mexican traffic laws are one of them. They are puzzling, contradictory, and quite different from those North of the Border (NOB).

To begin with, if one has an accident, it is possible that (s)he will be taken directly to jail until police determine who is at fault. If one doesn’t have insurance, and it is not mandatory in most of Mexico, (s)he will have to pay for the damages out of pocket at that time or remain in jail. That in itself would discourage me from driving here. But there are other reasons.

It is not uncommon for police to stop cars for minor or made-up infractions in order to finagle a mordida, or bribe, out of the driver. This occurs more regularly if one has US or Canadian license plates, is driving a rental car, or the driver appears to be non-Mexican. It isn’t the amount of the bribe that is the problem. It is, from what I hear, rarely more than $25 USD. For me, the stress and time wasted by the intimidation tactic is what is offensive.

But situations involving police are not the only issues one has to deal with while driving. Other drivers present problems, too. People frequently pass on the shoulder, often racing past numerous cars, and then crowd in to the stream of traffic. They also pass on the left, in the oncoming lane, in clearly risky situations. This is often unnecessary because many slow drivers, particularly big-rig truckers will signal with their left blinkers when it is safe to pass. They then will move slightly to the right to give the passing vehicle extra room.

It is also commonplace when you are waiting at an intersection with a left-turn blinker flashing and a chain of cars backed-up behind you, to have an on-coming driver stop and let you make a left turn  even though his lane is moving at a normal rate of speed. While the intent is kind, it can be a surprise, confusing, and unsafe because of the aforementioned passers. If you do not react quickly, the driver allowing the left turn will shrug and make a gesture as if he were saying, “What are you waiting for, Moron?!”

Another frequent situation drivers face here are traffic speed bumps, or topes (pronounced toe-pays). They are everywhere and are as common as stop signs or traffic lights NOB. Driving too fast over them certainly is hard on cars. And on human spines and stomachs, too. But they are an effective method of curtailing reckless speeding.

As a regular walker, I am aware how customary driving practices impact pedestrians, especially when walking on roadway shoulders or unfinished sidewalks. Cars speed by close enough to pedestrians for the walker to smell perfume or cigarette breath emanating from the passenger seat. Side-view mirrors have brushed pedestrians. Sleeves have been ripped. Forearm tattoos have been removed from arms. Wristwatches have been reset. Liposuction has been performed.

Mexican law in general, and that includes traffic laws, are based on the Napoleonic Code, meaning one is guilty until proven innocent. It also means one is not guaranteed a trial by any jury, let alone a jury of one’s peers. These conditions are contrary to laws in the US and lead me to be very cautious when dealing with legalities.

A prime example of a law contradicting what American and Canadian drivers expect involves rear-ending—ah, now you understand the title of this post. What? You thought it was about…Well, shame on you, you dirty-minded perv! Rear-end accidents are a common occurrence here. In the event a driver rear-ends another vehicle, it is not the fault of the driver following. It is the fault of the lead vehicle; apparently slamming on your brakes to avoid hitting another car, a human being, dog, or hallucination is not an excuse. The concept of safe following distances is not a part of traffic law in Mexico.

I also have observed that many laws or traffic rules— one-way streets or “No Left Turn” signs, for example—are not rigorously enforced. They seem to be mere suggestions. That, and the above-mentioned situations, makes driving in Mexico risky, dangerous, unpredictable, and more heart-stopping than a Disneyland E ticket ride. Therefore, I suggest if Americans or Canadians wish to drive in Mexico they become well-versed in local customs, expectations, and laws. And then, I suggest, they walk, take a bus, hire a cab or Uber, or never EVER leave the house.

Kevin and Randall and Kate, Oh My

East Side/West Side was a CBS TV drama that aired for one season, 1963-1964. It starred George C. Scott, Elizabeth Wilson (who later portrayed the mother of Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin in The Graduate), and a young Cicely Tyson. It dealt with tough inner-city problems and controversial issues like prostitution and drugs. It was ahead of its time and it paid a price. Potential sponsors shied away from the program. Numerous local CBS affiliates refused to air it. As a result, it failed to attract a substantial audience and was cancelled after one season. Yet East Side/West Side garnered eight Emmy nominations.

I loved the program. It made me aware of things my 15-year-old brain had never thought about. It touched my heart, exposing me to troubled lives and painful situations foreign to me. When it was cancelled, I wrote letters of complaint to KIRO, Seattle’s CBS affiliate, and “The Seattle Times.” The letter was published in The Times’ TV section. That may have been my first serious, and apparently successful, attempt at writing.

But why am I writing about that now?

The Nussbaum Family did not watch hour-long TV dramas. We watched variety shows, comedies, and news/political programming. That was because most hour-long dramas of that era were Westerns or cop/private-eye/lawyer programs with crimes at their core and guns as the primary prop. My parents did not find those things entertaining. But we watched East Side/West Side because it was courageous, honest, and challenging. That was the first network hour-long drama on TV I loved.

There have been others over the decades: The Waltons, Family, Hill Street Blues, thirtysomething, St. Elsewhere, and My So-Called Life are among those that come to mind. I watched these character-driven programs regularly because the writers’ words and the casts’ gifted portrayals of complex, nuanced characters made me think and feel. But none impacted me like Lost.

The airing of the pilot episode of Lost on September 22, 2007 affected me like no other TV drama episode ever had. The concept, the relatable characters, the writing, the production values, and the mysteries had me hooked from the first scenes. With each new episode, I became more obsessed with trying to interpret the littlest detail, the dialogue, and the symbolism. I became emotionally involved with every character. I found others who felt as I did and spent hours with them trying to decipher each episode. When the first season of Lost was rerun during the summer, I watched with a legal pad on my lap so I could take notes, make connections, see patterns, and find answers. Lost ended six years later. Its conclusion was controversial and unsatisfying for many, but I loved it; I interpreted it my way and found answers and satisfaction.

My experience with Lost, however, had a negative effect on me. I promised myself I would never again allow myself to become so involved, so invested in a TV program, its storyline or its characters. When new dramas aired, first with great pre-season buzz, then stellar reviews, and finally numerous awards, and friends told me, “You just have to watch this show.” I just shrugged and said, “No.” I couldn’t put myself through that again.

Therefore, I did not watch popular, successful, quality programs like The Sopranos, Six-Feet Under, Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones. I knew one viewing would get me hooked.

But then came This is Us.

NBC’s promotion made the program sound interesting. I was intrigued. And I broke that promise I had made to myself. I watched the premiere of This is Us.  Several minutes into it, however, I found myself confused by the alternating timeline; one scene took place in the 1980s followed by one in the present followed by another somewhere in-between. I didn’t get it and channel-surfed until I found something I could understand like a rerun of a decades old sit-com with a laugh track that told me when to be amused.

Several weeks later, perhaps five or six, I stumbled onto This is Us again. I’m not sure why, but I gave it a second chance. And am I glad I did. I did not understand the context of the scene I had intruded on, but I could feel its realness, power, and heart. I was hooked.

This is Us is told in an originally structured manner, gradually uncovering why and how the members of The Pearson Family became the people they are today. It explores how both large life-changing events and seemingly insignificant moments in the past influence who we become. It reminds us that people are complex, have painful baggage, and that we should not judge others too soon.

For those unaware of the show or its unusual premise, This is Us follows siblings Kevin, Kate, and Randall and their parents Jack and Rebecca Pearson. Kevin and Kate are the two surviving members of a triplet pregnancy, conceived after Super Bowl XIV. While their due date was October 12, 1980, they were born early on Jack’s birthday, August 31; their biological brother was stillborn. Naturally, Jack and Rebecca are devastated by the loss. On that day, a black child is born and his biological father abandons him at a fire station and the boy is brought to the hospital where Kevin and Kate had just been born. When Rebecca’s doctor suggests The Pearsons adopt the baby, to help fill the emptiness of their loss, they at first reject the idea—their grief is too great and it is too soon— but eventually they agree.

The scripts are touching, insightful, and painfully human. The performances by the “generations” of cast members are flawless; the Screen Actors’ Guild recently named it the Best Ensemble Cast – Drama on television. But the structure, how the back and forth time-traveling reveals more and more about the psychology of individuals and families, is at the core of this dynamic drama.

If I don’t cry during an episode of This is Us, I come pretty damn close. Countless other fans have made the same statement. If I sleep well after watching This is Us, it is rare. The Pearsons’ plights and pain echo in my head through the night. If I spend the day following a This is Us episode without it constantly haunting my thoughts, it is…well, that hasn’t happened yet.

Needless to say, I love This is Us. I am thankful I gave it a second chance. But I am even more thankful I broke that promise to myself.

What They Don’t Say

The TV monitor glared at me from its ceiling-high perch in the corner of the empty middle school cafeteria. On the screen, people were running from a building. A muted “Breaking News” screamed from the television. A news headline crawling below it read, “13 Dead in Colorado High School Shooting.” My eyes, brain, and heart stumbled in startled unison. I had never read a headline like that before. The people running, I realized, were students.

It already had been my year from hell. I had left my comfort zone as a high school special education assistant working with disabled students, individuals whose learning and socialization skills were very limited, and had taken a middle school position in an EBD classroom of six or eight.

EBD stands for Emotional Behavior Disorder or Extreme Behavior Disorder. Students with this classification are not necessarily developmentally delayed intellectually or have learning disabilities, per se. They have, instead, mental or emotional issues that make learning a challenge and/or integrating them into regular classes difficult. EBD students can be angry, violent, oppositional, disrespectful, disruptive, lacking a sense of right from wrong, criminal, and uninterested in school or learning. But not all are. These students, however, were. Two already had court-ordered probation officers.

I was on an errand with one of the boys when I saw the CNN report from Columbine High School. I looked away from the television and pointed at something in the distance to distract him from seeing the monitor. It worked. While anger was at the core of his issues, Martell was different from the other students. He wanted to learn and was generally a reasonable, pleasant 11-year-old with a winning smile. The certified teacher in the classroom and I had determined that we needed to keep Martell away from the other EBD students as much as possible to minimize their influence on him. Therefore, unlike the others, he attended several regular classes with me accompanying him. I would work one-on-one with him after these classes doing assignments or reviewing what had been covered in class. The EBD teacher would valiantly attempt to teach the other students anything. As a rule, these attempts were chaotic and unsuccessful.

On this day, I had promised Martell if he stayed focused on his schoolwork, he could accompany me on an errand before lunch. He completed his work, without complaints or causing any problems. We were, therefore, on that errand when I spotted that shocking televised image.

We returned to the class and I pulled the teacher aside and told her what I had seen. We expected our students would learn of the events at Columbine High school during lunch and we prepared ourselves for a challenging afternoon with some of these students finding the events funny and being supportive of the shooters.

To be honest, though, I have no recollection of their post-lunch reaction or behavior.

That day, however, was a watershed moment in the history of the American education system. For all school staff members across the US, that day was dividing line; dates and events were thought of as BC or AC, before or after Columbine. The concept that schools were safe from gun violence and mass murders died that day.

Since then, numerous similar incidents have occurred. Many more students and teachers have died from bullet-terror in American schools. When the most recent of these massacres occurred in Parkland, Florida on February 14, I found myself buried in anger.  Not shock as I had been by Columbine. Not surprise as I had been when incidents had occurred in my home state. Not sadness as I felt after Sandy Hook. But anger. How many times does this have to happen before a serious attempt is made to stop mass shootings, whether they are in schools, concerts, theaters, or malls, in the United States? How many people have to die because crazed, disgruntled, angry, misanthropes were able to purchase automatic rifles? Or steal them? Why have these unnecessary weapons been allowed in the public domain lo these many decades in the first place?

You might think, from those questions, I’m going to begin an anti-Second Amendment tirade. But I’m not. Been there, done that. Over and over again. It is a waste of time and energy because gun lovers have become deaf from the constant near-ear explosions of their pistols, rifles, and automatic weapons. I am saddened they have lost their hearing and suffer. I send my thoughts and fucking prayers.

Instead, I am going to focus on the other chief cause for these killings, mental health. But I’m going to aim at a specific aspect of the mental health picture news reporters, networks, and politicians seem to be avoiding discussing and exploring. That issue was alluded to earlier.

With each incident that has occurred, from Columbine to Parkland’s Stoneman Douglas High, my first question has always been, “Is (or was) the shooter an EBD student?” I watch and read reports hoping for a coded clue of some sort that would answer that question. But it is never stated in that succinct term. Instead, words like, disturbed, angry, uncontrollable, violent, etc. are used, words that paint a picture, but do not put a frame on the image. Therefore, I have no proof any or all of the gunmen involved in mass-murder in schools was an EBD student, let alone even in a special ed program. But I suspect most were. The evidence is there. If they weren’t, they probably should have been.

But why, you might ask, don’t journalists or school personnel report after an incident that the murderer had a history in EBD programs? Why is that possibility never explored? If it turns out that the common link between these boys is their being in EBD programs, or perhaps abutting the edge of one, then we—school personnel, private mental health workers, police, parents, reporters, and lawmakers—could prevent future violence and killings. In the case of the Parkland high school, had authorities acted when they should have, the January report to the FBI, which was unforgivably ignored, would not have been necessary. Therefore, I repeat, why is the possible EBD connection not investigated?

The answer is laws.

The creation of special education in the public schools and the laws governing it occurred in 1975 with the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) and evolved into 1990’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). These laws were to provide an education that meets each child’s unique needs and prepares the child for the future, i.e. further education, employment, or independence and to protect the rights of equality for both the children and their parents. The law was complex, detailed, and challenging. For example, the law included a provision that limited punishment, discipline, or suspensions of special needs students if their school rule-breaking, inappropriate actions were the result of their condition or diagnosis. But an even more problematic provision of the law was that special needs students be placed in the least restrictive environment, one allowing interaction with non-impaired students. This worked fine with some populations. But, with time, it created a logistics nightmare; a growing number of classifications were created and each group needed its own classroom and/or staff. Oftentimes, no space was available making inclusion the only option, even inclusion of students who put other students in harm’s way, i.e. EBD students. That did not raise eyebrows, though, because in America, one is innocent until proven guilty. That did not raise red flags, though, because our policies on anything have always been reactive, not proactive.

Another issue the law addresses may play a major part in how the story is reported and how the people involved may be identified is privacy. One can’t, as I understand it, carelessly state in public forums that an individual is or was in a special education program without permission from the individual or his/her family. I cite an example from my first year as an assistant working with teenagers whose mental and social development was in the approximately 4-7 years of age.

We undertook an enormous art project, one to cover much of a massive cafeteria wall. When completed, we posted a sign that read, “Created by the Special Education Students in Room 107” and we named them. Our students were very proud of their project. The sign was taken down by administrators who reminded us the sign could say “Created by Special Education Students” or “Created by” and then name the students. The two pieces of information could not be linked. We went with the latter so each child could see his name on the wall. The painting remained there for years.

Certainly the laws were well-intentioned and fair. But, I wonder if the lawmakers and courts truly understood in 1975 the myriad of classifications of special education that would arise. Did they think special education was limited to sweet, benign “retarded” students, as they were called then, and physically challenged children whose mental development was normal? Did they understand it would include those “spacey” children we would later understand were autistic or had Asperger’s Syndrome? Did they consider those students so low-functioning their physical and communication skills were that of infants and would remain so for life?

But most important, did they realize that those students described as “disciplinary problems” in the past would now become special needs students and would not only be protected by the law but put other students at risk? Did they consider that when dealing with these students as disciplinary problems, school administrators would be hampered by the law stating special needs students cannot be punished for incidents that were the result of their diagnosis?

Like EBD students.

But there is another set of laws that protect the allegedly “mentally ill” perpetrators of mass murder with automatic rifles, another set of laws that block reporters and others from getting at the cause of the perpetrators’ behavior. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 protects the medical privacy of all Americans. Therefore, any documented information, current or from the past, regarding special needs classifications, psychiatric care, anger management, or medicinal prescriptions cannot be shared or released.

Again, while those laws are well-intentioned and protect the vast majority of Americans, there might be some times or some places which, and some people who might warrant exceptions to that law. There might be some occasions when the public’s right-to-know might supersede the individual’s right–to-privacy.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018 might have been one of those times. Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida might have been one of those places. And Nikolas Cruz surely would have been one of those people. The system allowed Cruz to remain in school for longer than he should have, longer than growing evidence indicated. The system, created by laws, well-intentioned, but perhaps too broad, stymied school administrators and other knowledgeable professionals from forcing their hand and insisting he be placed in the proper environment and treated as a mentally ill person, not simply as a troubled, difficult student from a bad home or a painful past.

Seventeen people died needlessly because of the delusional, hateful, and violent acts of an individual who, neither should have been near them nor had any weapon, let alone an AR-15 assault rifle.

 

Attached is an important and inciteful article that supports, adds to, but also contradicts what I have said. It points out how difficult it is dealing with students who are “disciplinary problems.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/teachers-say-florida-shooters-problems-started-in-middle-school-and-the-system-tried-to-help-him/2018/02/18/cdff7aa6-1413-11e8-9065-e55346f6de81_story.html?hpid=hp_hp-top-table-main_floridaschools-8pm%3Ahomepage%2Fstory&utm_term=.d872cf9a181d