Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Sue Klebold, A Mother's Reckoning -- A Book Review

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A Mother's Reckoning is a hard book to read. Not because the language is difficult or the structure hard to follow.  It is because it's about a subject none of us wants to think about. Mass murder. And more difficult yet is child-on-child mass murder.

Dylan Klebold aged 17 and Eric Harris age 18 shot and killed 12 students and a teacher and wounded 20 others before killing themselves at Columbine High School, April 20, 1999. They were seniors at the 2,000 student high school located in Littleton, Colorado, a suburb southwest of Denver.

In April of 1999 my son was 24, living in Texas with his beautiful wife and expecting their first child, my first grandchild. My husband and I were living in Southeast Arkansas, busy trying to keep our business afloat. My daughter was nine years old and dealing with the vagaries of elementary school.

Four years earlier, almost to the day of the Columbine tragedy, I was living in El Reno, Oklahoma, a suburb of Oklahoma City.

On April 19, 1995 Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. One hundred sixty-eight people died there and almost 700 were injured.

My credit union was in that building. I had been in the building less than two weeks before the bombing. Many of my friends worked there. I watched the extensive TV coverage looking for people I knew. Wanting to see them alive. Walking. Outside the devastated building. My son was just finishing EMT training. My tender-hearted son was somewhere down in that destruction, helping.

Nine years before that, a man opened fire in the post office of another Oklahoma City suburb where I lived. Edmond. He killed 15 people including himself.

Edmond was my hometown. I was driving past the area while it was going on. Police and fire department vehicles blocked my regular route to work. Helicopters circled the area. I didn't find out what was happening until I got to work.

My little town. My quiet, little college town. I graduated from high school there. My grandparents had lived there. I don't remember ever hearing about a murder there before that day.

Already tenuous at best, any sense of security that had survived into my adulthood was shattered.

The tragedy at Columbine took up only a minimal amount of news time in Southeast Arkansas. During the few days that followed, I read the articles that appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Arkansas's major state-wide newspaper. I did not see any television coverage of it.

It was far away from me and my life. I had my own mass murder events. 

Now I live in Colorado.

In January, my walking group walked around the lake in Clement Park. Columbine High School is located on the east side of the park. It's just over a rise so you can't see it from the lake, but my fellow walkers pointed out the memorial area and talked a little about the shooting.

And last week, as I listened to Colorado Public Radio I heard interviews with Sue Klebold about her recently released book A Mother's Reckoning. 

listen to the interview or read the transcript here

This mass murder became much more real to me. And it brought up my need to understand. A need that I'd felt especially strongly with the Edmond Post Office shootings. A need that I'd filed away somewhere in the back of my mind with the belief that they were irrational acts by irrational people and could never be understood.

In her interview, Klebold came across as a calm, rational, person who'd done research into the possible cause or causes of her son's rampage. I wanted to know what she'd learned. Was there a rational explanation? Could it apply to the inconceivable acts that have affected my life? Could these murderous episodes be prevented in the future?

Sue Klebold lost her son. She lost her son on so many levels. A son she had loved and been proud of. A son she had nurtured and watched grow from birth to a 6-foot-4 young man. A son she thought she knew.

But she didn't know the deeply disturbed young man who helped build bombs and planted them in his school intending to destroy the building and kill as many people as possible. She did not know the high school senior who used a gun to kill his fellow students. She did not know the architect of a murder-suicide living in her own house.

She does not discount the horrendous nature of the murders and maimings, but she has come to believe that his action was one primarily of suicide. He went to the school and did those horrible things planning to die.

Of suicide, she says,
         "Even after more than ten years as a suicide prevention activist, I still find the general
         public's ignorance about [suicide] staggering."
         "Almost everything I knew about suicide was wrong. [People who] tried to kill themselves
         were selfish or too cowardly to face their problems, or captive to a passing impulse."
         "According to the CDC, suicide is the third leading cause of death among people aged
         10-14, and the second among people aged 15-34."

What suicide actually is:
         "Suicidal thought is a symptom of illness, of something else gone wrong. A suicidal person
         is someone who is unable to tolerate their suffering any longer."

In Dylan's case depression and anger.

In 1999 she "did not know the difference between the sadness and lethargy I had always called depression and clinical depression which many sufferers describe as a feeling of nothingness." She notes a recent CDC report that close to 30% of teenagers experience a depressive episode.
As with many suicides, the people around Dylan had no idea what he was planning with Eric Harris. Klebold does not speak for the Harrises. Apparently, they knew their son was having trouble, but they were getting him help. He was in therapy. Again Klebold does not say, but I assume that Eric's therapist also did not see the danger.

From her first attendance at a suicide prevention conference Sue Klebold came away with three realizations:
"One: There is more to suicide prevention than loving someone and telling them so.
Two: Many of us [the loss-by-suicide survivors] believed there were no signs of trouble....we hadn't recognized indicators of potential risk....we hadn't even known there was cause to be on heightened alert.
Three: ...while there are effective interventions for depression and other risk factors for suicide, we cannot yet rely on their effectiveness."

She explains that symptoms of depression in adults can be sadness and low-energy. In teens (especially boys) "they may withdraw, show increased irritability, self-criticism, frustration, and anger." In younger children, depression may present as "unexplained pains, whininess,sleep disorders, and clinginess."

With teens and younger children it's too easy to chalk these things up to being in a phase.

She encourages us to listen to our children -- not just as interested and supportive parents, but be probing. Pay attention to their friends. Pay attention to their interactions with their friends. Be sensitive to changes in their behavior. If there are changes, be nosy. Check their rooms. Read their journals. Know their internet activities.

And, you know what, pay attention to your adult family members and your close friends. Certainly not all depressives end up committing suicide or murder, but don't we need to do what we can to help people close to us through those hard times?

Klebold talks about ramifications of this tragedy, both immediate and long-term. Things I never thought about.

Her close family and friends, and Dylan's friends who were not involved in the shooting were at risk from distressed people in the community.

She understands distraught families and friends of the victims holding her son's actions against the family, but they received death threats from people far and wide not involved in or directly affected by the tragedy. Even a distant relative who lives outside of Colorado and had never had contact with Dylan, received death threats because his name is Klebold.

Sue and her husband had to have Dylan cremated, because burying him would have subjected not only his grave to probable desecration but other graves in the cemetery.

She was terrified that her other son might commit suicide under the weight of this situation. There was the very real possibility that her husband could choose to die. That she could choose to die.

In addition to losing a beloved son in these horrific circumstances, they were sued by their son's victims' families. Those lawsuits took more than four years to settle and during that time, Sue Klebold could not attend a support group.

I'm a big proponent of support groups. People who have been through the same or a similar experience can be a great help. And unfortunately, many people have lost loved ones to suicide and murder-suicide. But she could not benefit from a support group because the other people attending the might be called to testify in the lawsuits.

Was there a rational explanation? I think the book helps me understand a little bit about Dylan.

Maybe even about Patrick Sherrill, the man who shot the people in the Edmond Post Office, then shot himself.

And now that I think about it, I must reconsider the man who murdered my friend Sue many years ago. He was her husband. He killed her, then himself leaving their infant son to grow up without them.

And can we prevent like events? I think we must try.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

It's Three-Damn-Thirty -- Flash Nonfiction

See that cute little kitty? As he ignores the fancy cat toy that tweets to play with an aluminum foil ball. (No, we did not buy the tweety cat toy. It was passed down to us from a friend whose cat didn't care for it. We passed it on to our daughter. None of her cats liked it either. And she passed it on to her friend whose cat ignored it, too. Just goes to show, designing toys for cats has more to do with attracting cat-owners than it does with entertaining felines.)

But that's not what this is about. This is about that itty-bitty kitty, so sweetly playing with his simple aluminum foil ball -- one of many toys that would end up under the  kitchen stove.

Our daughter found the very young kitten outside her townhouse on a hot July day. He was suffering from possible heat stroke. Sensible young woman that she is, she called to ask her veterinarian dad what to do. He recommended a cool water bath. And drinking water, free choice.

She couldn't find where the kitten belonged and she couldn't keep it. She already has three of her own. So she called me. I asked her dad what he would recommend. He said "Take it to a shelter."

Well. We were just then experiencing a pet drought. Probably the first time in my life that I had no pets at all. We were contemplating what kind of dog we wanted to get, but he was adamant that he did not want another cat. And the dog should be a smooth coated breed so we wouldn't have to deal with hair everywhere.

Yes, I'd heard that before.

Years ago, when our daughter was in Junior High School and we'd just lost our resident cat, he'd made the pronouncement, "No more cats!"

On that occasion, she waited until he left the room. She had the beginnings of tears in her eyes. "Momma?"

I reassured her that she shouldn't feel bad, we'd soon have another cat.

At that time my husband was working out-of-state. He soon called. "Claudia, I was running at the lake and I heard this noise. I thought it was some kind of bird, but it was a baby kitten. I tried to keep running, but it was trying to keep up with me and kept crying. It's really, really young. Do you think it'll be all right to bring it home?"

So back to this cat -- I told Grace to bring him by before she took him to a shelter.

She handed the raggedy, little gray kitten to her dad and now he's nearly grown. And hairy. Lots of long, gray fur and the biggest fluffiest tail you have ever seen.

We named him Kocka. Pronounced K-long o-ch-k-a. Czech for cat. (My mother's father's family was from Bohemia. (Immigrants! Yes, despite the current behavior of some Americans, we are a nation of immigrants.)

Humans have obviously not bred cats for anything other than appearance. And beyond show cats, non-breed-specific cats are the norm. Cats have not been bred for behaviors like dogs have. No hunting cats. Though they all do it to entertain themselves. No herding cats. Guard cats? Rescue cats? And obedience competitor cats? Are you kidding me?

So it would not be unusual for Kocka to be unusual. BUT this unusual?

To call this cat, the standard can opener or food-pouring sounds don't work. He comes when my husband whistles or when Celtic Woman is performing on our public television station during their fund raising drives. He loves television in general and my smart phone in particular. He's learned that he can touch the screen on my phone and make the lights come on. Which leads to him knocking it off whatever surface it's on and batting it around.

He climbs. He jumps. He disregards any prohibitions we set. The dining table, the kitchen counters, the shelves where my plants are, the shelves in the linen closet. No place is off-limits for him.

And the whole world is a cat toy. The pictures on my walls hang skewed this way and that. My visitors' tree of origami cranes has been dismantled and the cranes spend most of the time piled in a plate on the entry table. It's a pretty plate, made by my potter son, but it's not the same as seeing all the signed and dated cranes dancing in the breeze. Though they are too often scattered across the floor. He apparently likes to see them fly.

He knows he can get me up in the morning if he knocks over the lamp on my bedside table. Or plays with the Venetian blinds on the bedroom window. Or rattles the papers on my desk. Or walks on the dresser threatening to knock things off. Or gets behind the bed and reaching through the crack between the headboard and the mattress -- right where my head is.

We use water to correct his behavior. He reacts appropriately when he's being bad and sees or hears us grab the spray bottle. Otherwise he gives it kitty kisses. We have masking tape, sticky-side up, everywhere. It looks a little odd, but seems to work pretty well to keep him off surfaces we don't want him on.

Until this morning, I had never gone to bed armed. Usually he wakes me around 4:30 in the morning, which is okay with me. That gives me quiet time while my husband sleeps.

But this morning . . . . He would not leave me alone.

Three-damn-thirty?! Enough is enough and this morning it was too much.

From now on I will go to bed armed. So take care entering my bedroom while I sleep. You may just be shot. A spray bottle of corrective water will be within my reach at all times.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole Series -- A Review


A friend who knows that I like detective stories recommended I check out Jo Nesbo. 

Being a provincial American, I automatically thought since the name was spelled Jo that the author was a woman, which put her at the top of my to-read list. (I know. I know. I'm a sexist. My daughter has tried to cure me of that for years.) 

Well, Jo is Norwegian and male. And, being Norwegian, the 'J' is probably pronounced like a 'Y.'

I didn't bother to Wiki him until I finished a second reading of the first in his Harry Hole series The Bat. The first time I read it, I thought it was interesting. It takes place in Australia and as Harry learned more about the setting, so did I. Seemed odd for a cop from Oslo to be investigating a murder in Australia, but it works. 

The reason I read it a second time, was that I ran out of anything to read one night. I'd been reading mostly nonfiction and The Wheel of Time series for the umpteenth time. I bought and downloaded a science fiction novel, but it was badly formatted and I couldn't read it. (A trip to my local Barnes and Noble got that fixed for me. And I needed tea. That's one of the big differences between B&N and my local library. The library doesn't sell tea or chocolate mousse.)

Anyway, I needed something to read and I didn't want to spend any more money right then. Being a sci-fi/murder mystery writer myself (Murder on Ceres) I thought I should stay in my genre. So I read The Bat again. 

This time around, Nesbo's character Harry Hole was more interesting than the exotic setting. I went from there to Cockroaches, the second Harry Hole novel. It takes place in Thailand. Again, it seemed odd that Harry was trying to solve a murder in a country so far from his home. I got the feeling that the Oslo Police Department must have a much larger budget than my town's PD has. Or maybe Norwegian detectives get special discounts with the airlines.

After the second book, I was hooked on Harry. He does follow the rules, meaning the laws that defend the innocent and bring to justice the guilty. He does not, however, follow orders well at all. He's alcoholic. He's got baggage. He makes bad decisions. He takes unnecessary chances. I would not like to be his boss. But he connects with others and his intentions are good. He cares. I wouldn't hesitate to be his friend.

And he solves crimes. Crimes that involve people in sensitive, political situations. Lucky for him. Because his own foul-ups get glossed over while those above him in the political food chain are being protected.

Like I said, I was hooked. Next I read The Redbreast. Harry is at home in Norway. A love interest is introduced, Rakel. He has a partner, Ellen. She is an excellent detective and accepts Harry pretty much as he is. There is information about Norway in World War II, that I knew nothing about. Information that figures heavily in solving the crime.

In The Redbreast, another crime is introduced, one that is not solved, but carried me head-long into the next book, Nemesis.

In Nemesis, bank robberies and murder are the crimes to be solved. Another new character comes on the scene Beate. She works in forensics. Beate Lonn (spelled with a slash through the 'o') it seems has a super sensitive fusiform gyrus. What's that, you ask. It's that part of the brain related to facial recognition. She can remember every face she's ever seen.

Our Harry proves himself to be his own worst enemy. Thank goodness for his friends who love him anyway. Together, they figure out the robbery/murders, but do not solve the greater, ongoing problem within the police department.

I am so glad we can buy and download ebooks. As is not uncommon, I needed the next Harry Hole book after normal business hours.

And then The Devil's Star. An excellent end. After solving a series of ritual murders, the police department is saved from itself. And, just when I'm getting fed up with Harry's self-destructive ways, he somehow pulls through and I have hope for his future.

The first two Harry Hole novels are worth a read, but I would recommend you skip them and go right to The Redbreast, Nemesis, and The Devil's Star.

As for me? It's back to nonfiction -- Sue Klebold's A Mother's Reckoning.

Someone of interest to me is Don Bartlett, Nesbo's translator. Seeing as how even after reading Stieg Larsson, I still don't speak Norwegian. (Wait! No, you're right. Larsson was Swedish.) I did watch all the episodes of the TV show Rita, which I loved. (But that was Danish.) 

The work of translating fascinates me. Where is Bartlett from? What is his first language? Some of his word usage struck me as strange. He wrote "shone an apple on his sleeve" where we would have used "shined" and he uses the term "skip" which I figured out was a "dumpster." English is his first language and England is his home.

Ah, yes. Two nations divided by a common language.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Something Woke Her -- Flash Fiction

Something woke her.

Fear kept her eyes shut. Her chest, so tight it hurt.

A dream maybe. 

She moved her hand to his side of the bed. Empty. She hated it when he traveled.

She felt stupid. Of course there was nothing to be scared of. Her house. Her neighborhood. A safe neighborhood.

She opened her eyes. A shadow spread up the wall.  A strange, long-beaked bird across the ceiling.

Think. She had to think. The bathroom door stood open. The nightlight above the sink. Behind the soap dispenser. Nothing more. Just the almost empty soap dispenser which she should refill in the morning.

But something woke her. Was it a sound?

The cat? No. The cat stood rigid at the foot of the bed. Eyes wide in the gloom. He must have heard it, too. 

A cat. A scaredy-cat. She should have a dog. Her husband wanted a dog. A big dog, he said. For when she was alone. But she'd argued that you have to walk a dog. Every day, rain or shine. Or snow.

She pulled her arms close against her sides. She liked to sleep naked. There was just something about slipping into an empty bed. She could take up the whole bed when he was gone. Stretching as far as she could. Her skin, warm from the shower, against cool, smooth, freshly laundered sheets.

Not now, though. Being naked made her vulnerable. At risk. Defenseless. 

Quietly, she moved the duvet aside and sat up. The cold struck her bare skin like a slap and she reached for her robe. For her phone. 

Three, thirty-eight. She could have slept another hour and a half. Maybe longer. No need for an alarm. He was gone and she didn't have to work that morning. A day off. On her own. She could do anything she wanted. Or nothing.

Light seeped through the closed blinds. Moon bright light on snow. Something clattered across the deck outside her window. Should she look through the blinds? If she moved even a single slat, they would see her. If there were a 'they' out there.  

The wind. That's all it was. Chinook winds coming down out of the mountains. Snow eater winds bringing warm days to February. Sixty-seven degrees, the forecast high. She could walk to Starbucks. Then maybe around the lake. She didn't have to have a dog to walk.

She padded barefoot down the hall and through the kitchen. The floors were cozy warm. That was the nice thing about living in a house with a basement. The floors were always warm in the winter. She'd never lived in a house with a basement before.

The basement. Had she remembered to close the window in the basement bedroom? Yesterday was warm, too. She loved opening all the windows and letting the world in. It was a perfect day. Not as warm as today would be, but welcome sunshine and winter neighborhood sounds.  Children playing, taking advantage of the warmish weather. No lawnmowers, yet. And no snowblowers.

Was the window locked? It stood less than two feet above ground. No bars. She hated barred windows. Bars made a home look besieged. Susceptible to invasion. If there weren't real danger, why would a home need bars? What if there were a fire?

She hesitated with her hand on the basement door knob. She hated scary movies. They were either dumb or really scary. Screeching violins warning the hapless heroine not to go down those stairs. But she always went. The idiot.

The cat rubbed against her legs then sat waiting expectantly for her to open the door. He always wanted to be first down the stairs.

She held her breath and opened the door just a crack. The cat -- his ears and eyes focused on her -- waited for the door to open enough for him to run through. She knew he thought she was acting strange. She thought she was acting strange. 

She listened for a sound, any sound. The heat came on and the vent in the entryway across the hall rattled. Just as it always did. The familiar sound should have calmed her. Or irritated her. She'd asked him to try taping it open so it wouldn't rattle. He said he had duct tape in the garage. She'd do it herself in the morning.

She opened the door wide. At the base of the stairwell, the laundry room door stood ajar. A narrow beam of light sliced across the basement floor leaving the terracotta tiles beyond in deep gloom. Maybe she should have chosen light colored tiles. 

She didn't remember leaving the laundry room light on. Growing up in her father's house inculcated the mantra "waste not, want not." On leaving a room, she always turned the lights off. Sometimes to her embarrassment, if someone was still in the room.

The cat did not rush headlong down the stairs. Had he heard something? Sensed something? 

Should she call the police?

And tell them what? It's dark? Her husband is gone? The cat's afraid to go down into the basement?

Maybe she should just make a pot of coffee.

She closed the basement door. And locked it. She was glad he'd put the lock on the door to keep their youngest grandchild from tumbling down the stairs.

She'd wait and see.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Super Bowl -- Flash Nonfiction

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It's today. Will it be Peyton's last Super Bowl? Will it be mine?

When I was a kid, before there were Super Bowls, we didn't have professional football in Oklahoma, but we had college football. My big cousins (two high school boys whom I never saw play football, because they lived in different towns from us -- and the stories they would tell . . .) would take the train from Oklahoma City to Norman with their fathers for OU games. They were the only people I knew who rode the train anywhere and the games were the number one topic on the TV news and in the newspaper. (Not unlike Denver's Bronco football for the past two weeks.)

I didn't know who the President of Oklahoma University was, but I knew who Bud Wilkinson was. After they graduated high school, one cousin went off to OU and the other went off to the Marines, maintaining their hero status, at least as far as I was concerned. I loved football because they did.

Right next to Christmas and Thanksgiving, our fall holidays included the Oklahoma-Texas game held toward the end of the season -- football season, of course. (Again, not unlike San Francisco right now, Oklahoma football fans and Texas football fans would descend on Dallas whether they had tickets to The Game or not.)

My brother started playing football in junior high and he was pretty good. My parents didn't go to the games because Mother was agoraphobic, but I did. Matt played tackle. His mantra was "get the quarterback."

Mother and Daddy played basketball during their high school days. During family get-togethers, on Daddy's side, we, from grandparents down, played pick-up basketball. As you might guess, Matt had a tendency to play tackle basketball, but nobody got hurt.

Probably because Matt played defense, that was the part of the game I was interested in.

When I was a case worker for the welfare department, one of my clients had twin boys who played defense for their high school. I only went to one game that year, but I got to see them in action, and they were good. I didn't know she couldn't afford to go to the games until I did a home-visit very soon after that game.

The relationship between a caseworker and client is often adversarial. The worker is tasked with asking questions that would normally be none of her business. And the client, who would normally not be in the worker's social circle, much less a close enough friend to confide in, justifiably feels disrespected. Plus, her boys were attending a school in whose district they did not reside.

But a compliment from me about her boys' football excellence and the fact that I obviously did not care under what circumstances they were playing for that high school helped make our relationship friendly enough to exchange recipes and call greetings to each other when we were out and about.

I liked football.

I liked going fast in cars, but . . . .

I went to a drag race once. Some of the races that day involved stock cars. Cars just as they come off the assembly line. Some were modified which means exactly what it sounds like. And some involved an automobile called a rail.

image from

Rails were built for only one purpose to go as fast as possible as quickly as possible. They had to be push-started. On the track where I was, a push car started the dragster on a strip running along side the race track. The rail would go along that strip at a slow speed, make a U-turn onto the track, wait for the green light and go like hell.

That day the driver's wife was push starting the rail and something went wrong. The rail started and accelerated and kept accelerating. There was no way it could make the turn. His wife and all of us watched as he tore through the fence, through the trees, and into the sandy riverbed. He died.

In the only motorcycle race I've ever been to, a rider wiped out and died.

As I was growing up I watched football on TV with Daddy. Couldn't watch boxing with him even before Ali's battering by Joe Frazier in the Thriller in Manilla. Too violent. And baseball was too slow to hold my interest.

But football was something we could watch together. Now, he has mild dementia and doesn't enjoy watching by himself but he enjoys it when we watch together.

I encouraged my son to play soccer instead of football, because I didn't want to see him play.

I go to rodeos, but I leave when the bull riding starts.

"Mom, you don't watch boxing because it's too violent. How can you watch football?" my conscience/daughter is want to say.

How, indeed? And now with the onslaught of information about the long-term brain damage caused by the game -- how, indeed?

Peyton Manning is Denver's quarterback for today's game. A man who had two neck surgeries prior to coming to Denver. A man who sat out two games this season due to a torn plantar fascia. He's back now, but the speculation is that he will retire after today's game.

My heart hurts when I think of Peyton Manning playing in today's Super Bowl. I've said it will be the last football game I watch. But I don't know if I can watch.

I hope Manning does well and Denver wins. And he retires. Unharmed.