Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Can good come from this? It already has.

After a weekend that was arguably the most tragic in the history of Johnston, you have to ask yourself: What have we learned? Can anything good come from the untimely, senseless deaths of two well-loved 15-year-old boys?

And the answer would have to be: It can. It already has.

Consider this:

  • A line the length of a gymnasium comprised of middle-school students waiting to hug their principal
  • A mother who says of her 14-year-old daughter: "I thought I was going to have to home-school her because she had had so much trouble adjusting, wasn't making friends, and didn't want to get up in the morning. Sunday, some girls she didn't even think knew her name invited her to a movie, and Monday, they made sure she had a ride to the basketball game."
  • Facebook posts such as this, from a 14-year-old boy: "We can only go up from here. Johnston, we will beat this. Love every one of you. Call/text if you need anything at all."
  • Another post from a 15-year-old boy to a friend who was having trouble coping with the tragedies: "All of Johnston loves you. The pain will go away but it takes time and talking. I am here for you and so is (another friend). Please call us, buddy."
  • And this post, from the mother of a sophomore: "I've been reaching out to the kids -- but I need to be reaching out to other parents, too. I'm here if you need me, Johnston parents!"

  • One could argue that the goodwill will be short-lived; that after the most acute pain of the two teen suicides passes, we'll all go back to our tunnel-vision lives. And to some degree, I'm sure that's true. But I can't help thinking about the questions the kids are asking, and the fact that they'll likely lead to some long-term concern for the people who sit next to them in class or on the bus or on the bench in the baseball dugout.

    Thanks to the events of this weekend, kids are talking about depression, perhaps for the first time. They're asking how someone can behave as if nothing is wrong while suffering on the inside. They're asking how they can tell if someone needs help, and what to do about the times they themselves need to talk to someone but don't feel comfortable.

    They're talking about looking out for one another, about taking it seriously when someone says, "I'm having a really hard time." They're talking about making sure they move over to make room for the kids who eat alone in the lunchroom, and about realizing that teachers have feelings, too; that principals' tears are as real as everyone else's, and that sometimes, even grown-ups need a hug.

    A John Mellencamp song from the '80s laments the fact that a man often "can't tell his best buddy that he loves him." Perhaps the most heartening change to come out of this ghastly weekend is that young men who previously might have expressed affection by punching someone in the arm are writing in droves on Facebook walls: "I love you, man. I don't know what I'd do without you." Perhaps boys who can say "I love you" will become men who can say it easily, too.

    Tonight in Johnston, there are two sets of parents who don't deserve for their children to have been the catalysts to create change. They don't need us to tell them how wonderful their children were, and how they impacted so many lives, so many households -- they already know.

    But they do need to hear that thanks to those two boys, there's a very real chance that a few other lives just may be saved down the road. That can't possibly make any of this better for them right now. But perhaps someday, it may bring them some comfort. That's the very least we all can offer them ... for all they've unknowingly, unwittingly given to us.

    Monday, January 23, 2012

    Joe Paterno, Charlie Lavia, and the principle of "hear no evil"

    Let me start this by saying that Penn State was absolutely appropriate in its decision to fire Joe Paterno. The football program was Paterno's, and even though he didn't abuse anyone, the buck stops with the person at the top of the pyramid. So as tragic as the removal was, the school had no choice.

    But since Paterno's death the other day, I've been thinking a lot about how that whole situation unfurled. And I have to say, with great certainty, that I understand why Paterno behaved the way he did through the Sandusky scandal.

    Although there was, thankfully, no abuse in my family, there was an old Italian man. And old Italian men rarely react to anything in a way that makes a whole lot of sense to the majority of people.

    My dad was 91 when he died last year, and one of the great consistencies of his life was that he did his best to avoid talking about anything unpleasant. He'd hear about something bad that had happened to someone, and his reaction was always the same: He'd hold his hands up in front of him as if he was physically pushing back the sad news. And he'd make a hissing sound, sort of like the one a person makes when something painful is happening to him. Removing surgical staples comes to mind. Or losing a toenail.

    The message was clear: "Don't tell me about that. I don't want to know." It's not that he wasn't compassionate; to the contrary, he could be, especially when the bad news involved children or dogs. But if he refused to listen to the information, he didn't have to process the sadness of it. So he chose to whistle past the graveyard, leaving the bad stuff for others to deal with.

    I'm not faulting my dad for this; he suffered some hard losses as a young person, and he no doubt learned to steel his heart against things that could cause him pain. His stoicism seemed to have been a family trait, and maybe even an ethnic one; southern Italians in my grandparents' day weren't destined to have great lives. They were peasants -- farmers, mostly -- and when their land dried up, they came to this country only to be shuttled into slums and treated with the utmost disrespect. Their children, my dad's generation, saw and reacted to that.

    Real life was hard enough; why not plug your ears and avoid more bad news?

    Clearly, I didn't know Joe Paterno. But I surmise that there may have been some similarities between my dad and the coach -- ones that could have caused Paterno to turn a deaf ear to something he truly did not want to face. If my dad had been in Paterno's shoes, I can imagine Dad saying, by way of explanation:

    "They told me Sandusky had messed with a boy. I didn't want the details. I turned around and reported it to my supervisor, and I was told it would be taken care of. What was I supposed to do -- not trust my boss?"

    And you can bet that until the whole sordid mess became public, Paterno had planned never to speak of it again -- not because he was trying to conceal anything, but because the whole thing was just so gross and unpleasant and wrong.

    That's why the news of Paterno's death makes me especially sad; chances are he died not knowing how he should have handled the situation. He admitted when the scandal first broke that he "should have done more." But I wonder, given another chance, how he would have altered his reaction and the steps he chose, or didn't choose, to take.

    In his day, horrible things were swept under the carpet. Thank goodness we no longer live in those times. But chances are Paterno, like my dad, couldn't make himself discuss something that, as Charlie Lavia often said, "should have been kept in the family." Clearly, the Penn State football family was dysfunctional as all hell, and how tragic that it took a parade of innocent young boys to shine a bright light on the mess.

    But how tragic, also, that the horrors of Sandusky's actions impacted the legacy of someone who was, by all accounts, a fine human being who did a whole lot of good for a whole lot of people. The real victims in this case are the boys, and the real villain is, of course, Sandusky. But that doesn't make the requiem for Paterno himself any less poignant, and any less heartbreaking.

    Monday, January 16, 2012

    I want a blizzard. Is that so wrong?

    I want a blizzard. The kind that Laura and Mary were stuck in in Little Town on the Prairie and had to find their way from the school to their house by bumping into buildings and holding on to people's clotheslines.

    Or the kind that I witnessed as a kid in the '70s -- the kind that forced grownups to ride snowmobiles down to the local Li'l Red Barn to purchase enough Spaghetti-Os and Hi-C to get their kids through the subsequent couple of days.

    What has happened to Des Moines? Whatever your thoughts on global warming happen to be, you have to admit winters here have changed.

    Now, rest assured I don't want to see a blizzard hurt or kill people or cause senior citizens to lose their heat; I'm taking for granted that everyone will be safe when I tell you that I sincerely want some weather drama.

    When I was in elementary school, winter began in October and ended in April. We trick-or-treated in snow boots, and sometimes the weather was too precarious for us to attend midnight Mass on Christmas. We walked from the school parking lot into the building on top of a snowpack that reached the middle of the front door.

    If Easter came early, we hunted eggs under a dusting of snow. KRNT weather bulletins were a seasonal staple -- I can still hear the ominous piano music that announced them -- and our school calendars typically extended far into June because we had to make up missed snow days.

    As my 14-year-old stepson pointed out the other day, school hasn't been called off even once this winter. That means this year's kindergarten students have no idea what it feels like to be given the gift of unexpected downtime -- to peel off their parkas and hunker down in front of the TV with a mug of cocoa, a blanket and all the cartoons they can handle.

    Snow days at my house meant endless games of Hi Ho Cherry-O, Hands Down or Sorry. Once the hard snowfall had ceased, we'd venture into the back yard or to a neighbor's house with our aluminum saucers; someone, usually one of the older boys, would bring a sheet of waxed paper to rub on the bottom of the sleds to encourage warp-speed travel. After a while, we'd grow tired of wet socks and wet mittens and head back in the house for more cocoa, and we'd dry off to the soothing tones of Paul Rhodes -- the TV anchor, not the football coach -- and Russ VanDyke telling us whether school likely would be canceled the next day as well.

    Granted, snow days often mean something different now; with most parents working full-time, kids aren't able to stay home, and employers aren't likely to close their doors because of a little inclement weather. But still, an unexpected day at daycare is something different and unexpected and probably generates a little excitement; after all, it means more playtime and less desk time, and no matter how old you are, that's got to be a good thing.

    Given today's technology, even the worst blizzard isn't as likely as it once was to shut down the whole city; road crews spread salt beforehand so everything melts quickly and people can head back downtown.

    But still, every predicted snowfall brings with it the promise that life as we know it might slow down for a while. Deep down, that's really what I'm wanting. I'm not much of a sledder these days, but I can find other ways to play; hanging out with the dog and watching bad TV in my bathrobe comes to mind.

    I'm watching CNN as I write this, and one of the anchors just said the entire top half of the United States will be blanketed by snow this week. Could we be so lucky? The most likely scenario is that the big stuff will miss us, skittering past as it heads to the Quad Cities or Chicago.

    But somewhere on the top shelf of my closet, I have some woolen mittens, and I know where my boots are. It may be mid-January, but the temperatures are cold and the ground is frozen. I may be about 40 years past saucers and cocoa, but it's not too late to dream.

    Wednesday, January 11, 2012

    Dear road-rage guy, you may be me someday.

    So I'm still using my cane. I'm six weeks out from my knee replacement, and things are humming along. I don't usually use the cane at home, but when I'm out and about, I'm always sort of scared I'm going to fall. And that brings me to the premise of this blog post: Some people are idiots. And really mean, too.

    This morning, I'm walking from my parking lot to my office. I have a temporary handicapped-parking tag that shaves about two blocks off my morning walk. For that, I'm grateful, because now I have to hobble only about a block and a half from car to building. Not that that's always easy, as my knee still hurts. But it's doable.

    So I wait until the "walk" sign flashes, and I start to cross. I'm about one-third of the way when a middle-aged guy in a black Lexus starts to turn the corner, then stops a few feet away from me and honks his horn. I kid you not. I not only had the right of way, but my stylin' gold walking stick should probably have indicated to the guy that I had something out of the ordinary going on.

    I give the guy an "are you kidding me?" look, and he -- wait for it -- flips me off. I am walking with a cane, and he flips me off. When I finally make it the rest of the way across, he honks again and drives off.

    All this happened in broad daylight, 8:30 a.m., in Des Moines, Iowa, a city where we wave happily at people we don't know, snow-blow other people's driveways just because we want to, and pick up litter in the street. I still can't believe the guy was so rude.

    To tell you the truth, though, I was also a little embarrassed -- which gives me some good insight, again, into how it must feel to have a long-term or permanent physical challenge. As I looked at the guy, I felt angry at myself, as stupid as it sounds, for being hobbled and slow. For being a person who for the time being, anyway, holds people up.

    I can't wait to lose the cane. After I do, though, I hope I am never a person who honks at anyone who is taking a little too long, no matter what the reason.

    Saturday, January 7, 2012

    How much "wisdom" is there in wisdom-tooth removal?

    When I was 4, I had my tonsils removed. When my son, now 23, was 4, he had his tonsils removed, too. And, for good measure, his adenoids.

    But when my daughter turned 4 three years later and was suffering bout after bout of strep throat, I found that tonsil removal no longer was common. "We've found the tonsils do more good than harm," the ENT doctor said, and continued to prescribe antibiotics. "Taking them out was kind of a fad for a while."

    Fast-forward 11 years, and another ENT finally agreed to remove Caroline's tonsils, which -- sorry to be gross -- were so diseased and decayed that they crumbled in his glove.

    On Friday, Caroline had all four wisdom teeth removed. And today, I'm wondering: When the heck did wisdom-teeth removal become as common as a tonsillectomy was in 1967? And why?

    I grew two wisdom teeth and still have one, having lost the other to a cavity only three years ago. My husband has all but one of his, and our siblings and most of my friends still sport intact wisdom teeth. My son, in fact, still has his; neither his dentist or orthodontist recommended that he have them removed, and they're not causing him any trouble. And honestly, Caroline's wisdom teeth hadn't caused her problems, either ... but the oral surgeon warned us that they could conceivably cause her teeth to move, so they'd be best yanked out.

    We went along with it, but today I'm left wondering: Did we do the right thing?

    Note: I'm not intending to criticize the oral surgeon; he's a nice guy who merely made a recommendation. We're the ones who chose to follow it. I'm second-guessing myself: Did we have them removed mostly because everyone else seems to be taking that route? Or was it, in fact, really necessary?

    According to MayoClinic.com, wisdom teeth can be left alone when they're fully erupted, positioned correctly and allowing the person to bite properly, and able to be cleaned as part of daily hygiene practices. Much of the time, though, that doesn't happen, apparently, and the owner of the teeth is left with all sorts of problems: pain, movement of other teeth, or wisdom teeth that become impacted, or trapped.

    So here's what I don't get. Were generations of people somehow immune to wisdom-tooth problems, or did they simply suffer through the issues -- and walk around with painful, gross teeth and jaws -- because removal wasn't as common?

    My husband put it this way: "It seems like you could compare it to removing a healthy body part because it could develop cancer later." But according, again, to MayoClinic.com, many oral surgeons advocate removal when patients are teenagers or young adults -- before problems erupt -- because young people heal faster than old folks.

    I've talked to a lot of parents whose teenagers have had their wisdom teeth removed, and the kids seem to bounce back well; chances are in a couple of days, Caroline will be fine and I won't be questioning why we made the choice we made.

    But for now, she's swollen and vomiting and in pain and I'm wondering -- as parents have since time began -- did I make the best decision I possibly could have for my child?