Inside the Walls: Bob Dylan, teen delinquency, and my own bad behavior

By Jeremiah Cahill

My wife and I differ in appreciation of Bob Dylan’s music. She first heard his songs during an overnight train trip while a young man at the back of the coach played early Dylan all night on a cheap cassette, keeping her from even a fitful sleep and spoiling any future appreciation for the music.

In contrast, I had an unexpected—and mesmerizing—first encounter.

August 1, 1964—six days before my 18th birthday—Bob Dylan played the Waikiki Shell in Honolulu. Billed as “America’s foremost poet and folksinger,” I had never heard of him. Friends said “We gotta go,” so that Saturday night we descended on the Shell.

aug-64-posterJust as it sounds, Waikiki Shell is a stage roofed over with a hemispherical shell, facing rows of reserved seats then open seating on the lawns beyond. At the time, the outer perimeter was ringed with shrubs and a seven-foot wire fence—not much of a challenge for barefoot teen barbarians who never even considered buying tickets.

At dusk, we circled outside the Shell, watched for security guards, then “Go, go!” Grab on, climb up and over the fence, make sure we’re all in, then run up the back slope and melt into the gathering crowds.

Since I knew nothing of this slim young folk singer from Minnesota, I had no expectations. After a brief introduction, out walks young Bob Dylan, jeans and a plaid shirt, plunks into the one chair center stage, and starts strumming. Acoustic guitar, harmonica and voice—that was it.

By then Dylan had released four albums, and that evening he did the classics—“Blowing in the Wind,” “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Funny, I don’t remember those. But one less-known song simply stunned me.

“Oh, the age of the inmates

I remember quite freely:

No younger than twelve,

No older ‘n seventeen.

Thrown in like bandits

And cast off like criminals,

Inside the walls,

The walls of Red Wing.”

“The Walls of Red Wing” describes the Minnesota Correctional Facility, built in 1889 to house juvenile male offenders. I’d never heard of it, but oh, boy did I relate!

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Minnesota Correctional Facility at Red Wing. Photo courtesy of Tom Jablonski

Within the last year, I had been stopped by the Honolulu police, pulled over around midnight—speeding, slightly drunk, and carrying an illegal switchblade-style knife. That was plenty to earn me a trip downtown and booking into what was then the Honolulu Juvenile Detention Center, otherwise known as the “detention home,” “DH,” or “juvie.”

The intake was simple: A cop behind the desk took what information he could get from me, slightly impaired. I surrendered all my belongings. I was told to strip down, given a pair of skimpy brown athletic shorts and a white T-shirt, then led to a dark dormitory. An officer walked me down rows of cots occupied by other young men and pointed his flashlight to an open bed.

I lay there trying to take it all in. In the dark, I had no idea who my dorm mates were but clearly the guy one cot over was masturbating energetically. I just hoped everyone kept to themselves, and I must have settled into something like sleep.

Morning wake-up came early. We trudged to the bleak cafeteria, where I sat alone, slightly hung over, forcing down a few bites of jailhouse breakfast.

“From the dirty old mess hall

You march to the brick wall,

Too weary to talk

And too tired to sing.

Oh, it’s all afternoon

You remember your home town,

Inside the walls,

The walls of Red Wing.”

Well, the Honolulu lockup wasn’t quite that grim for me. But it was sobering.

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Dormitory, former Honolulu Juvenile Detention Center. Photo courtesy of Richard Ross, juvenile-in-justice.com

From the mess hall, we mustered to an outdoor area enclosed by fifteen-foot high concrete walls topped with chain link and barbed wire fencing, bathed in bright Hawaiian sunshine. My jail mates were all brown-skinned local boys, many of them well-muscled, limber, athletic, and really into basketball. I was the only haole (white) boy, a skinny kid with no skill at shooting hoops. I sat there on the sidelines, arms across my knees, trying to disappear into the background.

Eleventh-grade inmate on recreational compound at former Honolulu Juvenile Detention Center. Photo courtesy of Richard Ross, juvenile-in-justice.com]

Eleventh-grade inmate on recreational compound at former Honolulu Juvenile Detention Center. Photo courtesy of Richard Ross, juvenile-in-justice.com

It was a relief of sorts when my father showed up mid-morning to sign me out. Oh, but I knew I was in for it. Serious home consequences. Juvenile court, probation. I had it all coming.

Looking back, why were those local boys detained? Were they “bandits and criminals”? Turns out that few of them were in for violent crimes. Quoting a 2006 article in Honolulu Magazine, “Most of them were what the system calls status offenders—kids who’ve run away, cut class, or given their parents some other reason to call the cops on them.” Additionally, mentally ill kids were locked up because there was nowhere else to put them.

The detention center was the scene of judicial hearings for “… kids brought in the night before and their guardians—fed-up foster parents, tired grandfathers, and tearful mothers who don’t always want to bring the kids back home.”

At the time, I didn’t know this background, but I had questionable role models among my own friends.

My good buddy Bo had done time in the real juvenile lock-up, the Koolau Boys’ Home or “the reformatory.” His stories were boastful but harrowing—long months in lock up, escapes, fights, and violence. Looking back, I realize one of Bo’s problems was hyperactivity. At some point neither his family nor authorities knew how to control him, so away he went.

Bobby, on the other hand, was hardened by 17, a sneering crook, a car thief, and a hoodlum. Sadly, I think back on a young offender already living way out on the wrong side.

Then there was the kid we called Alley Oop, a runaway from the leeward side of the island and another graduate of the reformatory. Good guy, but stocky, quick with his fists, and not someone to taunt. We got along fine and he stayed with our family for several weeks, sharing a bedroom with my brother and me, while my dad negotiated his return home.

How did this happen? How were we able to run wild in so many ways?

“Too much freedom and too few controls,” says my brother. My dad had another take: “In Hawaii, there was no weather to force you indoors, as on the mainland.” Both true.

For contrast, watch a Wisconsin high school boys’ basketball game. Players, coaches, parents and families, cheerleaders—they’re all indoors rooting for the home team. The hours of practice, the talent and teamwork and camaraderie of teenage boys, electrifies the gym.

And it helps keep them out of trouble.

We missed that. Lackluster schools, few extracurricular activities to grab us, no extended family. It left me with energy to burn, acting out, seeking thrills, and looking for peer approval.

At the extremes, some of my friends suffered from emotional and behavioral disorders that called out for treatment. Instead, they were locked up.

The Honolulu Juvenile Detention Center closed in 2010 amid reports of mistreatment and crumbling facilities.

Dylan’s concert punctuated the summer of ’64—I was out of high school and facing—what? I had no plans.

At some point, my dad gave me the ultimatum: get a job and start paying rent, go to college if I could overcome my dismal academic record, or join the military. Unspoken, I think, was another option: I could simply leave home. Two months later I was gone, off—my parents hoped—to employment and stability near family and friends in southern California.

“Oh, some of us’ll end up

In St. Cloud Prison,

And some of us’ll wind up

To be lawyers and things,

And some of us’ll stand up

To meet you on your crossroads,

From inside the walls,

The walls of Red Wing.”

By spring of 1965 I was on the road to Selma, Alabama to join in civil rights activities. Then west to Berkeley, California hitchhiking, hopping a freight train, and heading into the emerging anti-war movement. It would be seven years before I’d return home to Honolulu. Lots of adventures, and plenty of meet-ups at various crossroads.

I’ve often asked, why has that little-known protest song, “The Walls of Redwing,” stuck with me all these years?

Perhaps it was my first exposure to hard-hitting, contemporary poetry—words that really spoke to me.

Or Dylan’s presence on stage. In the words of a reviewer who was also at that concert, “I knew I was in the presence of greatness that night.”

More than anything, it was the resonance of my own brief incarceration—and knowing other young men in trouble and in need—that kept the power of those words alive.

 

(c) 2016. Jeremiah Cahill lives in Madison Wisconsin. He somehow grew beyond his rowdy youth and now atones for his past through social activism and good works.

 Richard Ross, photographer and Distinguished Professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, documents the lives of thousands of American teenagers held in lockdown and solitary confinement. The Juvenile-in-Justice project includes photos, posters, books and exhibitions. Images are available to institutions and non-profits working to reform the youth justice system.

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Merry Solstice to All, and to All a Good (Longest) Night

Whatever you celebrate as the wheel of the year turns, may it be a safe and satisfying holiday for you.

I’m traveling this week, so invite you to reread a post from 2014 about a Christmas memory… that led to musing on the very nature of truth and memory.

A Child’s Christmas in Carmel (circa 1960s)

 

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Finding My Financial Footing

By Sarah White

This week my online workshop “Write Your Way to a Better Attitude About Money” concludes. This essay was written in response to a prompt exploring attitudes about money picked up in young adulthood. 

In 1979 I committed for the first time to being financially self-sufficient. I was 22 and working a string of temp jobs, recently arrived in Madison, and responsible for not just rent and food but also a car loan payment. It was only $90 a month, but still—my paychecks were hovering around $90 a week.

This was different from the college years when I was nominally self-supporting but able to ask my parents for help when needed, to buy textbooks for example, or to buy a bus ticket home.  They were reasonably supportive of my idea to move to Madison while I was living at home and saving up that winter; “Your Mary Tyler Moore move” my mother called it. I had saved about $600 by March ’79 and felt I had enough to make my escape to Madison.

After a week in the Kings Inn Motel reading apartment ads, I found a single room in a house on Butler Street facing James Madison Park. Here “penny wise but pound foolish” took on new meaning. The room came with the privilege of using a shared a kitchen down two flights of stairs in the basement. In my room was a vintage monitor-top refrigerator. I bought a hot plate, which I thought would be adequate given my lack of interest in cooking. But I quickly began eating in restaurants too much, because preparing my own food in that house was so inconvenient that, combined with my inexperience, I did it as little as possible. I had spent the last two years of college rooming with Colette, an excellent cook, and had thus avoided any practical education in feeding myself.

Me with Colette, prior to my Madison move

Me with Chef Colette, prior to my Madison move

The Upstairs-Downstairs Deli was just up Gorham Street a few blocks up and over the hill to State Street. That deli became my go-to as long as I had the money. But inevitably between one paycheck and the next I’d be down to coins. Then I’d switch to cooking rice on my hotplate and stirring in an egg, garnishing with a dash of hot sauce. Or I’d fry the egg and some bread. I don’t remember eating ramen noodles but I probably did.

I mostly remember sitting alone at a table at that deli, realizing that my new life was not working out all that well, financially or nutritionally speaking. But putting more effort into cooking for myself never even crossed my mind.

The sub-lease on that room on James Madison Park ended in August. I began reading the apartment ads again. I could have moved into one of the big coops on Langdon Street, where group meals were included in the modest rent, but I wanted to feel a more grown-up than that. I found Holly looking for a roommate a couple of miles east on Mifflin Street, and was impressed that she was a working artist, with a studio in the home.

Holly found me acceptable, and I moved in. Too my delight, I discovered she enjoyed cooking and didn’t mind sharing the bounty if I helped with the food budget and clean-up. Once again I had a roommate who cooked, and my financial and nutritional foundation became a little more secure.

I don’t recall needing that penny-pinching frugal mentality again. It had never been a comfortable fit.

(c) 2016 Sarah White

Curious about that “Money Attitudes”  workshop? Here’s the description:

Over five weeks we will meet for discussion and in-class writing exercises. You will have a short weekly writing assignment based on prompting questions. Each week participants will read what you have written for feedback and group discussion. Week by week, we examine– 1. Attitudes we picked up from our families about money, earning power, etc. 2. Past work experiences and what they show us about our attitudes toward money. 3. Current beliefs and attitudes that might be holding us back about money, worth, value, etc. 4. Goals for the future regarding earning, saving, and investing

The workshop has provided valuable insights for me, as well as the other participants. I look forward to offering it online again. Interested? Drop me a line at sarah.white@firstpersonprod.com. I’ll let you know when the next class is scheduled.

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The Reluctant Voyeur

By Doug Elwell

But first, this note: Doug has been writing his life story for some time. He has begun revising some of his  pieces, creating the lightly fictionalized story of his alter ego “Harry.” “The Reluctant Voyeur” takes place during Harry’s military service in Alaska. You can search this blog for “Harry, Elwell” and you will find other essays chronicling Harry’s adventures. At the conclusion of this post, Doug comments on this story’s place on the nonfiction-fiction continuum. – Sarah

alaska-scenic-day-drives-4

It was a few minutes after midnight when Tommy Blackmun didn’t see the moose amble onto the road. Then it was too late. He swerved to the right, ran off the road and skidded down an embankment. His motorcycle hit a glancing blow against a large boulder that knocked him off and into the stony bed of a mountain stream.

Red Richardson was driving in the opposite direction about a half mile away—saw the headlight flash left then right then disappear. He never saw the moose. At first, he thought it was someone on foot swinging a lantern—A hell of a place to be out walking this time of night, must be car trouble. When Red drew near where he last saw the lantern gleam he eased onto the shoulder. There in his headlights was a tire mark in the gravel that ran for about fifty feet then vanished into the dark. He grabbed his flashlight and ran down to a stream. He saw a Honda tangled in a thicket—panned the light slowly—spotted Tommy twenty feet away splayed over rocks lying face up in a few inches of water. He was unconscious but breathing. Red picked him up, climbed up the embankment to his truck, wrapped him in a blanket he kept behind the seat and laid him as carefully as he could in the back. Ten minutes later he pulled up to the emergency room entrance at Elmendorf Air Force Base Hospital in Anchorage. Tommy was still breathing—still unconscious.

Doc Mitchell found a depression in the back of Tommy’s skull, about the size of a golf ball and rushed him into surgery. X-rays showed the fractured skull with several loose bone fragments. Doc drilled holes at the site to relieve the pressure from the swelling. He removed bone fragments and closed the wound. A corpsman pushed Tommy’s gurney to the intensive care unit. Harry Edwards—off duty at the time was hanging out chatting up night nurse Lieutenant Clay when Tommy arrived. He helped pull the sheet Tommy was lying on from the gurney to the bed. Clay noted the date and time and vital signs on his chart. Later in the morning Tommy would be connected to a respirator to help him breathe when it appeared he could no longer manage it on his own.

 

At six forty-five a.m. Harry got off the elevator on the third floor for the start of his twelve-hour shift in Intensive Care. The familiar sound of a compressor running in 36A was driving a respirator. He passed the room—stopped at the corpsman’s station. ‘I don’t have a good feeling about 36A.’

‘I don’t blame you, Harry,’ The duty sergeant pushed away from the desk, tilted back in the squeaky office chair, re-lit the stub of a cigar and looked up, ‘Got an airman in there what went out last night and got hisself all fucked up—motorcycle accident. He’s all yours at least for today—maybe longer—depends.’

‘Lovely. I was here last night—helped get him into bed.’

Harry put his lunch bag in the fridge in the nurse’s station, checked his watch then took the back stairs to the courtyard for a smoke before he went on duty at seven. Major Guffy was there with two airmen.

He gave a half-assed salute, ‘Mornin’ Major’ and nodded at the guys—a brief flutter of grunts and nods.

The airmen stubbed their smokes and went in. Guffy waited for Harry at the door—pulled her blue Air Force issue cardigan across her front—folded her arms against the morning chill—the firmness of her breasts. ‘Still on for tonight?’—she asked as he tossed his cigarette into the can by the door.

‘Sure.’

When he went on shift at seven he checked the dressing on Tommy’s head. He was rubbing lotion onto Tommy’s elbows and heels when Bethany came in. She took the chair at the bedside—sat straight—hands in her lap—motionless except for her eyes that darted about the room like a frightened rabbit about to flush. He thought her pretty in a plain sort of way—maybe a small town girl. That was it. She looked like a small town girl. She stared at her husband’s long body lying under the sheet in front of her and dabbed a single tear. She wondered—Was the girl worth it?—then—What difference does it make now? Harry measured Tommy’s fluid output and noted his eight o’clock vital signs on the chart at the foot of his bed. They were unchanged from the previous hour. Tommy’s brain function had fallen during the night but was still fluttering across the scope. Harry thought—Maybe.

Room 36A was small—barely large enough for the bed, a Mayo stand and chair. The metronomic kushhh of the respirator filled the room then seeped under the closed door into the hall. Morning sunlight poured through a window onto linoleum floor tiles. So close to her in that small room knowing neither of them wanted to be there he felt trapped. Thinking their shared vigil might go on for some time he thought to engage her in some way—open a connection based on something other than her husband. ‘When’s the baby due?’ He knew it was the wrong thing to ask but the words seemed to fly out on their own and he couldn’t pull them back.

Her hand moved to her abdomen, ‘December.’

‘Oh.’ Harry was right back where he started—ill at ease and thinking he ought to be doing something. But there wasn’t anything to do for the next hour except lean against the wall and watch the shadows of Bethany’s chair legs inch over the floor as sunlight arced across.

They held their places—inanimate as if frozen in place. Harry in his corpsman’s whites against the white wall—hands in his pockets, eyes cast downward—waiting for the hour to pass. Then take vital signs again and note them in the chart at the foot of the bed. Bethany erect—staring at the white sunlit sheet shrouding her husband. He thought the three could have been models posing for an Edward Hopper still life. Still life—the irony pleased him. A soft knock at the door. Guffy led Mr. and Mrs. Blackmun into their son’s room. They fake smiled then averted their eyes from Harry the way people do at such times—went to Tommy. Bethany sat unmoved. Harry sidled into a corner as far away as possible—watched—wished he could disappear into the sound of the compressor. But he had to stay so he watched them wish their son back to life. He hadn’t seen that before.

They wept silently—the moments of their grief marked by the thumping of the compressor and the measured kushhh of air into Tommy’s cold lungs. Mr. Blackmun took Bethany’s hand and pulled her up between him and Tommy’s mother. They wrapped her in a desperate embrace. Mrs. Blackmun kissed her son’s forehead. Harry saw them start to draw away from the bedside. He noticed Bethany held back for no more than a second or two—rested her hand as if it were a feather on Tommy’s right hand—lightly as an artist’s brush stroke on a canvas. In that thin, precise gesture Harry saw an intimate moment between them that he should not have seen but he was there and it was there and it loomed large in his mind. He wished he hadn’t seen it but he did and the image burned and became a part of him—nagged at him like a sliver in his thumb and he wanted to dig it out. He felt like an interloper and he didn’t want to be that. He saw in that small gesture—that final intimacy her release from their story—a farewell to something they perhaps once had—a last fragment of their coupleness. He didn’t want to witness it. He resented the intrusion. It crossed a line that wasn’t supposed to be crossed. Such things were the ken of the padre.

They left.

He stood staring at Tommy’s right hand she had almost caressed.

 

Late in the afternoon Mr. and Mrs. Blackmun and Bethany sat in front of Doc Mitchell’s desk. Mr. Blackmun stared at his hands clasped together in his lap. He worked his thumbs back and forth against each other in a soft—slow way—the way one might while waiting in a station for a late night train. Mrs. Blackmun sat at his right—alternately dabbed tears from her cheeks and worried a handkerchief through trembling fingers. Bethany sat a little apart and stared—clear-eyed—past Doc Mitchell—at a bird that appeared to be building a nest in the tree beyond the window behind him. Her face looked flat as if drawn by a child who hadn’t yet discovered the magic of perspective.

Doc Mitchell shifted in his seat— busily thumbed through Tommy’s paperwork. He looked at the Blackmuns, ‘I’m afraid there is no possibility that Tommy will regain consciousness. I am very sorry. We did as much as possible but his injury was too severe. He’s been slipping into a deeper and deeper coma since we admitted him last night. When I saw him a few minutes ago his brain function had finally ceased altogether.’

‘No hope?’ pleaded Mrs. Blackmun.

‘I’m afraid not. The injury was just too much.’

Mrs. Blackmun toppled onto her husband’s shoulder and sobbed deeply. He put his arm around her. Bethany watched the bird discard a tiny twig she couldn’t seem to fit into her new nest. Doc Mitchell told them they could stay in his office as long as they needed then left. A few minutes later when Mrs. Blackmun was able they returned to Tommy’s room.

 

Having thought their silent goodbyes, they walked out of Tommy’s room for the last time. Evening nurse Lieutenant Klein and Doc Mitchell went in minutes later. He put his stethoscope to Tommy’s chest—listened. He asked Harry to turn off the respirator, ‘—can’t hear with that thing running.’ Harry flipped the switch—stepped to the foot of the bed—stood next to Nurse Klein. While he listened to Tommy’s heartbeat in the silence of the room Harry watched it pulse through his abdomen. In a few moments, it was gone. He looked at Harry, ‘Get him downstairs.’

Nurse Klein and Harry disconnected Tommy from the tubes he was tethered to that failed to bring him back from wherever he had gone. They had only been aerating his heart while the rest of him slipped away. Harry removed the IV from his arm and the respirator mouthpiece—wiped adhesive tape marks from around his arm and mouth with a swab soaked in acetone. Nurse Klein started to wipe Tommy’s arms and hands with a wash cloth.

‘Don’t wash his right hand, Lieutenant.’

‘Why?’

‘Just don’t.’

She looked at him and saw something in his eyes—something she wasn’t afraid of, but knew to obey. ‘Okay, Harry I won’t.’

She went into the hall and wheeled in a gurney. They pulled Tommy’s sheet with him on it to the gurney then covered him with another. She handed Harry a manila envelope with his records. He stuck it under Tommy’s heel and wheeled him out of the room, took the freight elevator to the basement then wheeled the gurney to the morgue. He handed the envelope to the sergeant in charge who made an entry in a log book. They wheeled Tommy to the cooler and lowered him onto the steel tray—rolled it shut.

 

At the same time Mr. Blackmun was driving through the last of the Anchorage rush hour traffic to their hotel. Mrs. Blackmun sobbed—railed at her God the unfairness of it all. Bethany sat in the back seat—passed her hands gently over the growing presence in her—Least he’ll never know you aren’t his.

 

Harry waited for the freight elevator—looked at his watch—wondered what they were serving in the mess hall.

 

© 2016 Doug Elwell

About this piece of creative nonfiction, Doug tells me:

“I confess to stretching the limits of creative non-fiction with the narrator’s pov in this piece. But other than the omniscience of the narrator, the piece is about a 99% true story. The names are made up of course, but there was a real Tommy and Bethany. Of course the doctor and nurses Harry worked with were real people. Even the back story of Tommy’s infidelity with his wife was based on some things his buddies said when they came to see him. I have no doubt it was true. Harry resented having to be in the room with the wife and family because he was forced to play a part in a bit of Kabuki theater for the benefit of the lad’s parents and wife. Tommy was kept artificially ‘alive’ until his parents could arrive. He was essentially brain dead almost from the beginning. Only the respirator kept his heart aerated. Finally, although the wife was noticeably pregnant, I have no idea if the child was or was not Tommy’s. Her last thought on the way to the hotel was a bit of an O-Henry twist I threw in because it fit.”

 

Doug writes short stories and memoir that feature characters, lore, and culture of the rural Midwest. His work has occasionally appeared in his hometown newspaper, The Oakland Independent, two editions of Ignite Your Passion: Kindle Your Inner Spark, True Stories Well Told, Every Writer’s Resource and Midwestern Gothic. He can be contacted via email at: djelwell@mchsi.com.

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Join me in January at Pinney Library for 4 weeks of “Share the Life Lessons Write-In”

Last summer I saw an article in the New York Times titled, “The Money Letter That Every Parent Should Write.” It got me thinking about how we pass on lessons from one generation to the next. When do we take the time to put life lessons on paper? Not often enough. This prompted me to develop my upcoming workshop, “Share the Life Lessons” Write-In at Pinney Library starting January 4. Sharpen your pencils and your intentions to start the year off right/write, and join us! Details follow at the end of this post.

life-lessons

The ethical will is an ancient Judeo-Christian tradition, one practiced mainly by Jewish rabbis and laypeople, but now being used more widely by people of all faiths who want to think through what is really important and pass those personal values and beliefs along. Legacy letter is another term used for these written documents. In a blog post written as the anniversary of 9/11 approached, Rachel Freed said,

…none of us know when our time is up. I am writing to remind you of your love for the people in your life: your spouse or partner, your children and grandchildren, your extended families, your work colleagues, and your friends. I am writing to urge you to take time now to express that love. Tomorrow may be too late! While you have time, awareness, and access to your mind and heart, write a legacy letter telling your people of your love for them, what matters in your relationship with them, and what matters most to you in this world.

She suggests that you start by choosing the person or persons who will receive your letter, then imagine you are leaving for a time and you’ve not told them everything you want them to know. She then suggests you structure the letter:

  • Context
  • Story
  • Learning
  • Blessing

You can choose to share the letter now, or  keep it in a safe place in an addressed envelope or digital file. (But don’t forget to tell loved ones of its existence, so they can find it if/when they need to.)

In the Times article, Ron Lieber profiles Kimberly Palmer, author of Smart Mom, Rich Mom: How to Build Wealth While Raising a Family. Kimberly’s mom wrote her and her sisters a money letter 13 years ago. In her book, she offers a template for passing on money wisdom as her mother did. “A good letter, according to Ms. Palmer, should include at least one story about a large financial challenge and another one about a big money triumph. Then, include a list of crucial habits and the tangible things they have helped the family achieve,” wrote Lieber.

Upcoming workshop: “Share the Life Lessons” Write-In at Pinney Library

Stimulated by thoughts like these, I offered a “write-in” at Pinney Library last fall. I’m bringing it back in an expanded format this January. Each week for three weeks, we’ll   spend time together writing personal and family stories that share values and life lessons. Then we’ll give each other feedback. The final session will be an open mic to share our work with others.

Each hour-long session starts with  about 20 minutes discussing writing prompts on a theme, followed by 20 minutes of quiet time writing together, with a final 20 minutes for sharing and feedback.

Themes: What I wish someone had told me about…

  • Week 1: Money and Working
  • Week 2: Getting an Education
  • Week 3: Finding Love, Keeping Love Alive

The details–

  • Where: Pinney Library, 204 Cottage Grove Rd
  • When: 4 Wednesdays, 1/4, 1/11, 1/18, and 1/25, 6:30 pm. Three 1-hour “write-in” sessions will be followed by a 2-hour Open Mic where we share our writing.
  • Cost: free
  • To register: follow this link
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Have a happy Thanksgiving, one and all!

1960-ish-thanksgiving-flosh-betsy

That’s me circa 1960, being served by my Aunt Flosh (Florence) White. My godmother and honorary “other aunt” Ruth Chin is in the background at the stove–she was the gourmet chef whose culinary successes informed and inspired us. She grew up under the tablecloths of her parents’ Chinese restaurant in Muncie, Indiana, and excelled at preparing Chinese dishes, but I’m inclined to think that here, she was involved in the preparation of a traditional Thanksgiving feast. My mother no doubt was behind the camera lens. We’re located at 107 Audubon Drive, Carmel, Indiana, and in the background you can see that rough redwood paneling in the living room that stabbed splinters into anyone who ventured too near.

A picture is worth a thousand words–IF you know the story.

Tomorrow is StoryCorps’ #TheGreatListen 2016, which competes with Black Friday shopping to remind us of the real point of life–not to collect stuff, but to share wisdom. Visit the site, download the app, record a loved one’s story, share with the world! You’ll be glad you did.

–Sarah White

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Auto Loyalty

By Paul Ketterer

Just yesterday I had an Ove (pronounced Oooo veh) moment.  For those not getting the reference, I refer you to the recent movie A Man Called Ove,  a gourmet meal or better, the book a weeklong feast of tears and laughter.

The moment occurred as I was driving down Femrite Avenue in front of our residence.  A car pulled out from a side street in front of me, barely slowing down at a stop sign.  It sped away up the hill far above the limit.  Stopped by cross traffic, I was able to pull up behind and note that it was a Volvo.  I couldn’t hold my laughter.  Ove would have gotten out to harangue the driver about rules and respect.  As he would have said, the fact that the man was an idiot was already proven by his choice to own a Volvo in the first place.  Ove had a passionate loyalty to SAAB. Though this is not a story about Ove, I highly recommend the book as one of the finest I have ever read.

Auto-loyalty is a strange phenomenon.  My birth family owned in my memory: a 1949 Chev, 1954 Chev, 1956 Chev, 1959 Chev, then switch to 1964 AMC, 1965 AMC and 1968 AMC.  I remember, as a ten-year-old, crying when we traded the 1954.  The old psych classic GAMES PEOPLE PLAY described a relational game “General Motors” where men (not women) compare models at length.  It is disturbingly common to have such emotional attachment to a hunk of metal.

This is a story about automotive loyalty, if not as over-the-top as Ove (I will consider drivers of other brands as friends).  Exactly half of the vehicles I have owned have been Volkswagons, including the last seven purchased.  The last five have been from Zimbrick here in Madison, where we have developed friendships with everyone from sales to maintenance.  We swap personal as well as motorized information, and we look forward to the happy hello when we arrive.  The two vehicles we currently own have been the best.  They are comfortable, high-performing, giving excellent mileage, and having low impact on the environment.  Riiight.

This love affair came to a crashing halt in July 2015.  Our automotive-studying son sent us an article about a scam the VW had been running since 2009.  They had been marketing “clean diesel” cars that met the strictest of emission requirements while maintaining mileage and performance.  Care for the environment is central to  our value system from thermostat setting to food choices.  They had us, especially after owning and liking three other not-so-clean diesels.  The Jetta was bought in 2009 and has carried us to weekly visits to Sparta while Kaye’s mother needed us, multiple visits to New Orleans and Washington, DC, and a long trip west.  It has been a truck carrying lumber for home remodeling and a shuttle to pick us up at O’Hare.  We have listened to books, carried on deep conversations, and included it in some of the great enjoyments of our life.

When our 1999 diesel hit 190,000 miles and developed needs, we sold it and bought a 2013 Golf, reminding us of fun days in our two Rabbit models.  The performance and mileage are over the top.  It is maybe the most fun car ever.

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The promise of “clean diesel” was a lie.  The vehicles are far from conforming to emission standards, spewing out as much as 40 times the limit on some materials.  Engineers had rigged the computer system so the car could detect when it was undergoing an emissions test and feed inaccurate information to the testers.  In other words, VW is a cheat.

Early days, there was speculation that the problem would be solved with a computer modification and treated as a recall.  All would be well in a few months.  Our contacts at Zimbrick were equally optimistic.  They felt as betrayed as we did.  One employee is a descendant of the original VW dealers in Madison, Bruns, with over 60 years of ethical heritage.  He was almost tearful.

The news got worse and worse, as executives resigned, with very golden parachutes.  To date, only one lower-level engineer has been prosecuted, accepting a plea-bargain.  We are left to wonder how many knew of the scam, who ordered it, and how could profit be put ahead of the well-being of the world?  (Isn’t that a naive question?)  Class-action lawsuits proliferated, and several states joined in a common action adjudicated in California courts.  Where is the justice.

The most cynical move was a gift from VW of $1,000 to the owners of each car.  Half of it could only be spent at VW, and had to be used within a year.  It didn’t do much to make us like the situation any better.  And we keep violating our values and hurting the world.

It also became clearer and clearer that there was no easy fix, and no hard fix either.  Clean diesel will not be achieved.  A half-million cars go on and puking into our air.

In June 2016, a year into the process, a tentative agreement was reached with the courts in California.  VW will pay the state many millions in fines for violating emissions laws.  Other states are still negotiating penalties.  VW will give each owner $3,000 plus a percentage of the value of their vehicle.  If they want to keep their car, VW will additionally fix the emissions WHEN A FIX IS APPROVED. For those not wishing to wait, VW will buy their car back, at the book value at the time the scam was revealed, plus the penalty and percentage.  This turns out to be a generous amount.

So, ready to go?  Not so fast.  The agreement has to be commented on by owners for a month.  Send thoughts by email.  Then the court has to think about it some more, but allows owners to go online to get their cars in the queue for buyback.  So, wait to hear from VW later.  October 18 the agreement is finalized and last steps in registering documents can move ahead.  A week later, we have received six copies of a letter inviting us to go on the website to register.  What amazing inefficiency!  We have done the paperwork, bought a car to replace the two, pay insurance on all of them, and wait some more.  VW in some future time will offer an appointment to return our cars and receive a check.

It has been a surprise to experience this great depth of emotion.  Loyalty betrayed feels very hurtful.  Very hurtful.  Grief has emerged as we took our last trip in the Jetta, and parked it till the buyback.  There could have been more enjoyable journeys.  The Golf has less than 25,000 miles.  What a waste to turn into junk.  We now just want it to be over.

We did not buy a gas VW.  But many have.  Eventually, 480,000 vehicles will have to be replaced, and people have been anticipating and accepting deals offered in advance by VW.  Zimbrick ran out of 2016 models in August, and can’t keep up with demand for 2017s.  Irony, VW has record sales in 2016.

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This is a story a long way from the end.

(c) 2016 Paul Ketterer.

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