24 December 2017

The Makings of a Meltdown

I haven't blogged since August's total solar eclipse. To be honest, I forgot I'd even written that entry. I wasn't even sure I'd written anything this entire year. I've had less to say, and less belief that there is any value in anything I have to say. I'm told that there is, though, or at least that I don't get to decide that there isn't, so I thought I'd take a moment to share something from my current experience in case it may be of some use to you, Dear Reader.

In case you're new to my blog, first of all, welcome! Secondly, I want to emphasize that nothing I am about to share is anything I believe to be unique to me. On the contrary, I'm sharing precisely because I know so many others have their own version of my experience. It's that common thread that I wish to address. I hope maybe you'll find something helpful in hearing a different perspective on that shared experience, but if nothing else, maybe you'll take some small comfort just in knowing that someone else shares it with you. And if by chance none of this applies to you, I'm willing to bet it applies to someone you know, and again, I hope you might get something useful out of what I have to share.

Holidays used to be enjoyable for me. Halloween was sort of the prologue, with Thanksgiving the end of Act I, Christmas the end of Act II, and New Year's Eve the finale. My birthday is 1 December, so sometimes it's been lumped in with the Thanksgiving extravaganza and sometimes it's felt like a sort of interlude. There's a certain kind of energy and momentum throughout the months of November and December that I've always felt corresponded to this structure. I used to think it was just something I thought of as a kid because of the school calendar and looking forward to those breaks, but I've found it to be true all the way to the present day.

If anything, that energy and momentum have intensified as I've aged, to the point that I find these entire two months unbearable.

I recently discussed the matter with my therapist, who floated the notion that I may perhaps have Seasonal Affective Disorder ("SAD"). I allowed that maybe that's true, but that it was worth noting that the things about the holidays that weigh on me most have nothing to do with how much sunlight there is. I could live in Australia, where it's bright and warm this time of year, and still be left with the same things that overwhelm me here. The weather does get to me, certainly; after twelve years of steroids, the cold has become brutal for me, and of course all the airborne maladies that circulate that my worthless immune system can't handle are frustrating and isolating.

But none of that is what weighs heavily on my mind this time of year.
What's Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in 'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?
-Ebeneezer Scrooge, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol Stave One
I've had suicidal thoughts since I was 9, so clearly my mental illnesses predate having developed Crohn's disease. But it is certainly true that the effects of living with Crohn's have exacerbated my mental illnesses. They used to be there, but I at least felt I had a handle on them most of the time. I was moody, certainly; I'm not trying to downplay anything. But at least I felt more or less in command of myself. I was compelled to enter inpatient treatment for suicidal depression in 2011, and again in 2015. I've only narrowly avoided it again this year, though the year isn't yet over and as I write this, it feels all but certain that I will. At this rate, I'll be hospitalized again in 2018, twice in 2019, quarterly in 2020, and by 2022, I'll be a permanent resident.

That isn't much to look forward to, Dear Reader. It's also not going to happen because there is no way Medicare is going to pay for it, and I am sincerely sorry to you the taxpayer for the financial burden of keeping me alive. It's not an investment that has paid any worthwhile dividends. All I ask is that you be mindful that while this is true of me, it is not true of other benefits recipients, and the lust for cutting those programs and hurting those recipients must be curtailed and stopped because they don't deserve to suffer.

I had one New Year's resolution in 2017, the same that I've had for the last several years, which was to finally get divorced. I won't go into why that hadn't happened yet for a marriage that effectively ended in 2011, but the pertinent part is that it finally happened this November. Holding the paperwork in my hand was largely satisfying and relieving, but there was also a part of me that felt the weight of my failure having become complete. I failed as a husband in several areas, but the underlying problem was that I had become not a provider of security, but a burden and a liability. I couldn't fault her for wanting out of a life under these conditions.

She has since moved on and built a life free from these constraints. I'm sure there are difficulties in that relationship, just as there are in all relationships, but whatever they are, they don't include the things that were imposed on her by being stuck with me. I, however, remain fixed in place (if anything, deteriorating). My prospects for happily ever after require willful self-deception at this point.

I was feeling the severest impact of that finality going into Thanksgiving. I declined all of the invitations that had been graciously extended to me by my friends. I should take a moment to emphasize that "friend" is the only f-word I use sparingly. I have strictly delineated tiers of "acquaintances", "pals", and "friends". And in truth, the friends that I refer to throughout this blog post aren't even friends anymore; they've become my family, dearer to me than most people with whom I share DNA. I make no secret about that.

I canceled on plans to get together with them that weekend. I canceled my birthday plans, which would also have included them. I deactivated my Twitter account. I deleted the Facebook page I'd set up for myself as a "writer". I took sleeping pills as soon as I woke up to knock myself right back out. This went on for about a week. I am told, Dear Reader, that this is not healthy and I advise against it.

My friends, of course, know how unstable I've become, and they became concerned--alarmed, even, and justifiably so, I'm afraid. I didn't reach the point where I no longer trusted myself not to act on the thoughts and impulses to harm myself, but I stayed on that borderline for weeks on end. If you've been there yourself, you know how draining that is. If you haven't, I must ask that you take my word on it that it is exhausting in every sense.

The night of my birthday, one friend texted me to ask if I was up for some company. I thought it would be okay and said so. I knew I needed to finally open up to someone about all this, and she has become one of my closest confidantes. It became immediately apparent, though, that she was not alone. There were four friends in all, bearing no less than two boxes of doughnuts, and a gift (in direct violation of my no-gifts policy). I was touched.

I was also entirely incapable of enjoying the visit.

Seeing them all there so unexpectedly provoked the fear that they were there to stage some kind of depression intervention. It set off the defense mechanism I developed ages ago that I call The Entertainer. I have absolutely no idea whatsoever what we talked about for the two hours that they were here. I'm vaguely aware that I did a lot of the talking and that there was a lot of laughing, which is, of course, the entire purpose of The Entertainer. Mentally, though, I wasn't there with them. I wasn't anywhere. I had shut down, and I didn't have conscious thoughts until well after they'd all left. I feel awful that I was so fake with them that night. They certainly deserved better.

There comes a point in every struggle where we reevaluate what we're doing and why we're doing it, and ask whether what we're doing it for is worth what we're having to do for it. I've had to ask myself often whether surviving the latest depressive episode just to return to a status quo existence that I've come to resent is any kind of victory at all. Even on my best days, I am acutely aware that my body may very well turn against me without warning at any moment. I can never feel entirely comfortable or even safe; I live in genuine fear over every bite of food I take, wondering if that will be the one that causes a blockage and sends me into surgery.

Hanging over all of this is the socio-political climate in which Republicans now control both houses of Congress and the executive branch (and effectively, the Supreme Court). One of the central tenets of their entire ideology is the gutting of the very programs that sustain me, and millions like me. To hear Republicans tell it, people like me are living high off the hog at the expense of decent people. There is nothing luxurious about poverty, Dear Reader. Again, you may well know this yourself from your own experiences. How can I believe anyone who tries to disabuse me of my perception of myself as a burden when an entire political party has committed itself to culling our great society of the leeching that I perpetrate on all of you?

So there I am two nights ago at my friends' annual Christmas party. I hadn't given any gifts for Christmas in several years, but I did bring some this time. They were things of my own that I hoped they might like. I struggled with the embarrassment that these were not new gifts. Intellectually, I knew it would not offend anyone, but inwardly I was certain they would all be underwhelmed and disappointed. I grew more self-conscious by the minute, to the point that I sincerely contemplated putting them all back into my backpack since no one had seen me put them under the tree in the first place, so no one knew that I'd even brought most of them. (There were two that did not fit into my backpack; I couldn't do anything to hide or deny those.)

Conversation quickly turned to a string of topics that I knew nothing about. I wasn't going to hijack anyone's discussion because poor little Travis felt left out; that was stupid. I was doing okay for awhile, though, certain that an opening would present itself. It didn't.

Instead, a couple of acquaintances showed up. One of them, I am embarrassed to admit, makes me feel especially inferior and inadequate. It's not his fault; he's never said or done anything to make me feel this way, and I know in the back of my mind that if he knew that I felt this way around him, he would feel terrible about it and want to make me feel better.

He reminds me a lot of what I used to be. He's interesting, he's fun, he's upbeat. I used to be the life of the party, regaling everyone with anecdotes and jokes, trying to direct or redirect the energy of the night, while also making a point to seek out the introverts and make them feel comfortable away from that energy. I'm an amivert, so I can shift between the two extremes of leading the conga line and hiding in a corner. I've done both at the same party.

Having this guy around is like looking at a sort of alternate reality. I still have anecdotes and jokes, but they're ones everyone has heard a thousand times. They don't even need me there to tell them anymore; I'm sure they can hear them all in their heads by rote. When I talk about things, they're things that I used to do. When he talks about things, they're things he's either just done or is about to do. In short, he exposes me for the has-been I've become. (And again, this is not at all his fault!)

I retreated to another room, to try to calm myself with meditation. I can do that in crowded, noisy settings, so it wasn't the fool's errand that it may seem. I couldn't do it this time, though, and instead devolved into a mild meltdown. I tried to text some other friends, hoping that could bring me some focus and help ground myself. Nope. I felt increasingly worse as time passed. According to the time stamps on those messages, I spent more than an hour of the two that I was at the party sitting alone. If anyone took notice of my absence, it didn't prompt them to look for me. And in truth, I don't know that they weren't aware of me and hadn't decided to just give me some space to myself.

I should take a moment to emphasize here for anyone who was present that night that I don't begrudge any of you for enjoying yourselves! I know no one there wanted me to feel the way I did, and I know that this is all on me. I'm the one with the screwed up filter and I'm the one who reacted by hiding instead of making an effort to engage. I haven't shared any of this for the purpose of making anyone feel any kind of guilt.

I have, however, shared all of this for the purpose of illustrating what can go into a meltdown. All of this has swirled around inside me even in the company of people whose devotion to me is beyond reproach. These are people whom I love, and who I know love me; people with whom I feel the safest and most comfortable. And even in their midst, these are the kinds of thoughts and feelings I've had to endure for the last month and a half.

I don't know what you experience in the way of meltdowns, Dear Reader. Maybe you've never had one in your life to this point. Maybe you can scarcely recall a time when you weren't trying to get through one. You're probably somewhere between those two extremes, though. And so, I suspect, are the people around you. People you love, as my friends love me.

This brings us to the Moral of the Story wrap-up. If you identify with what I've shared here, my message to you is to try to be patient with yourself, and to try to trust the relationships that you've built with the people around you. Despite what depression may tell you, they do value you. You're not a holdover from days gone by they've been too polite to ditch.

If, however, you identify less with me and more with my friends, I suppose all I can hope for is that maybe this gives you a little better understanding of what may be going on beneath the surface. They may at times react in ways that look like they don't value your relationship, whether by being superficial or withdrawing entirely. Please try to be patient with them, and trust the relationship that you've built with them. Despite what their outward behavior may tell you, they do value you. You're not trivial to them.

24 August 2017

Total Eclipse of the Hope

I thought I had already written a post that addressed this subject, but it turns out I'd only touched on it in various other pieces. Since it's fresh on my mind (it's still ongoing right this moment), and since I have been encouraged to resume writing, here we are, Dear Reader.

This Monday (21 August 2017) brought a total solar eclipse to Hopkinsville, Kentucky. One of my friends (a brother, truthfully) was so gung ho about it that he booked a cabin months ago for the occasion and invited pretty much everyone he'd ever been in an elevator with to come share the experience. I'll be candid; I had no interest in the eclipse. Those few minutes were kinda neat, but if my guts had conspired against me and kept me from witnessing it, I would not have been fazed or disappointed.

No, I went for the opportunity to spend time in the company of loved ones I've not gotten to see much of in 2017. I fell into a months-long depression after the election in November. I may elaborate on that in a future post, but at the moment it's sufficient merely to establish the continuity of this post. Beginning in April, my physical health joined my mental health in misery. My useless immune system could not fend off some kind of bug. This went on for the better part of three months, during which I was frequently bedridden, living off Pedialyte, Jell-O, and sporadic mashed potatoes. Any spoonie can attest that this physical state will exacerbate any existing depression. That was certainly true for me this go round.

I arrived in Hopkinsville in good spirits. A little queasy, but mentally upbeat. I attended a screening of Eclipses and the Phases of the Moon, at the end of which we were treated to some bonus content, including a laser show set to Pink Floyd's "One of These Days" (which we were told was not included in the full Pink Floyd laser show program, so that was neat). I struggled to stave off dehydration, but lots of Pedialyte helped (thanks again for that suggestion, Dallas!). We played a round of mini-golf at Maggie's Jungle Golf, a whimsical place populated by statues of critters indigenous to the jungle, including African elephants and lions. Mini-golf is one of my all-time favorite activities, and that was 100% an indulgence on the part of my friends, who otherwise would not have even thought to bother looking for a place to play.

I even got to spend some one-on-one time with one particular friend who has an uncanny ability to make me feel good regardless of what state I'm in when we begin. I treasure every minute I get to spend in her company, and I was fortunate to get to spend quite a few such minutes. I was inspired to sketch a tree where she and I holed up for about half an hour, just talking. I used a set of brush pens another friend generously send me awhile ago. I was pleased with how the sketch turned out. It's curious, but for once I feel too protective of a piece I've done to share it publicly. I dunno why that is, but I feel too protective of it right now. Maybe at a later date, I'll upload it here.

Anyway, all of this brings me to the point at hand, which is that many, if not most, people seem to believe that depressive episodes are brought on by unpleasant experiences. That can be true for me, but so too is what I have experienced since I returned home. A great experience can also activate the depression that remains dormant just under the surface for me.

I remember two years ago, when I was on a fantastic Johnny Cash-themed road trip with a friend. By pure happenstance, a Crohnie pal of mine was visiting Memphis at the same time we were rolling into town to tour Sun Records. We rendezvoused for lunch. My pal was picking my brain about suicidal ideation. I told her that good experiences do not nullify those thoughts. In fact, I was having them while we were eating. I suppose it's the showman in me, mindful of the value of "going out on top". I struggle with this whenever I feel good about things just as I struggle with it when things are awful.

The last few days have resurrected the worries that harangued me throughout my Year of Hell (October 2010-October 2011). I withdrew from just about everyone then. I had become convinced that they only still included me in anything at all out of a sense of obligatory politeness. I feel I'm merely riding the coattails of the loyalty established between us long ago when I was still healthy and a meaningful contributor. That hasn't been true of me for a decade now. I can't keep up with my friends. Not financially, and not even physically. I used to be the one who had to slow down to remain in pace while walking with others. Now I'm the holdup.

I have been consumed these last few days with self-loathing. I'm a burden to my friends who are too polite to just tell me so directly. They would have a more enjoyable time without having to accommodate me. They want to avoid even inviting me to outings, and they hope when they do let slip that something is going on that I won't impose myself on them. And, of course, there's the ubiquitous certainty that they'll all be better off without me. I should withdraw from them and spare them the hassle.

Intellectually, I know none of this is as I see it right now. I do not question for a moment that these are people who genuinely love me (a love I hope they know is sincerely reciprocated). I'm not sharing these thoughts to try to bait anyone into trying to convince me how wrong I am to think this way. I am, however, sharing these thoughts so that those of you who are still trying to learn about depression might take away from my experience some new insight. Perhaps you, too, experience this phenomenon. In that event, I hope maybe it helps to know it isn't unique to you, that there are others like you whose brains aren't content with organic upsetting experiences and have to manufacture them out of the good ones, too.

02 August 2017

The Unforgivable Pete Rose

During the summer of 1989, Arby's and WDRB, the Louisville Fox TV affiliate, ran a promotion to win tickets to a Cincinnati Reds game. The visiting team was the Atlanta Braves. I was a Reds fan, my baby brother was (is) a Braves fan. We and our mom all signed up for the raffle. Amazingly, my name was drawn and we all got to go!

[I am not allowed to tell this anecdote without mentioning that the morning of the game, my mother had a horrible migraine and wanted nothing more than to stay home in dark silence and puke her guts up, but endured sheer agony on our behalf.]

We convened with all the other raffle winners at Mall St. Matthews to board two Greyhound buses. I was, to put it mildly, stoked. A guy in charge of the whole operation took notice of my enthusiasm. He came over and started chatting, and then asked me if I would like to go down on the field before the game. I have no idea how I responded, other than to say that it was in the affirmative. When we got to the ballpark, we made a mad dash to the nearest souvenir shop so I could buy a baseball to take with me to get signed. My mom even had the presence of mind to buy a ball holder to keep it safe and clean.

There were two other boys who had been selected for this once in a lifetime experience. It was a bit like getting a golden ticket to tour Willy Wonka's factory. We went into parts of the stadium otherwise off-limits to fans. We took an elevator down to the clubhouse and quickly walked through to the field. The Reds were still taking batting practice. We were introduced to a few players, all of whom indulged us and chatted for a moment or two and signed our baseballs. Dave Collins. Chris Sabo. Even Eric Davis, whose swing was by far my favorite to try to emulate.

Then we were led to the dugout to meet the Reds manager, the Hit King himself: Peter Edward Rose. No one in my lifetime has loomed as large in the world of baseball as him. He could have blown us off. He could have even been polite about it and said something like, "I'd love to chat, but I'm trying to get ready for this game." We would certainly have understood that. Instead, he invited us to come over and took questions. He asked us questions. He signed all our baseballs, shook our hands, made us feel like true VIP's.

Shortly thereafter, Rose was banned from baseball for having violated the game's policy against gambling. Like others of my region and generation, I've always defended Rose. No one has yet presented any evidence that he bet against the Reds. There have been insinuations that maybe he did, but nothing has been demonstrated to affirm it. So far as I've ever been concerned, the integrity of the games in which he had the ability to affect the outcome was not compromised and that's been good enough for me.

Last year, the Reds inducted him into their team's Hall of Fame and retired his #14 jersey number. I went to the final game of that weekend, the day they retired his number. I went with two of my oldest friends. In fact, we were all teammates in 1990, the only season of Little League I ever played. That's how far back we go, and baseball was what brought us together in the first place. It was as much a celebration of our friendships as it was of Rose. My physical health was cooperative for most of that day, though it was unbearably hot and I had to retreat to the cooler indoors part of Great American Ball Park for the final two innings. Still, a glorious day!

I've just finished reading a New York Times article, though, that has truly gutted me. In it, I have learned that during Rose's time as a player, he had a sexual relationship with a girl who at the time was under the age of consent--which was just 16 then. He has readily admitted that he did have this relationship, though he maintains she had turned 16 already.

Suppose for a moment that I believed his version (which I don't). This sexual relationship took place during the 1970's. Let's be as generous as possible and say it was 1970. He's telling us he was 29 years old and thought it appropriate to have sex with a 16 year old girl? No. No, I can't go along with that. The NYT piece goes on to mention that this was not Rose's only such transgression:
Monday's filing also included an excerpt from the 1991 book "Collision at Home Plate: The Lives of Pete Rose and Bart Giamatti," in which James Reston Jr. wrote about Rose having a 14-year-old girlfriend, and allegations from the former USA Today reporter Jill Lieber Steeg in a 2000 SportsCenter documentary that Rose had a sexual relationship with a high schooler.
How the hell I managed to miss both the 1991 book and the SportsCenter doc, I have no idea, but I did. By 1991 I'd lost most of my interest in baseball, so I may well have seen the book for sale, but I would have walked right past it to the Star Trek paperbacks. I was certainly following SportsCenter in 2000, though, so it's genuinely surprising to me that I would have missed that.

I can't explain how I missed it, but I can understand how I managed to not hear about it after it was broadcast. It's true that we collectively do have some kind of fixation on tearing down public figures, but it's also true that we have collectively protected the sexual predators among us. Look no further than Bill Cosby, whose predatory acts had attracted some attention ages ago and then been promptly dismissed out of hand and covered up so thoroughly that many of us had even forgotten we had, in fact, once been warned about what he was doing.

You may recall, Dear Reader, that two years ago, I shared in this blog that I had experienced what I euphemistically refer to as "an incident" in my childhood. Rose must surely have benefited from that same protectionism as Cosby, because there is no conceivable way I would ever have heard such a thing and ever forgotten it. Hearing about it today is upsetting enough; hearing about it before I'd finally begun to address and work through my trauma in the last few years would have been overwhelming for me.

It gets worse, though. The NYT piece continues:
Years later, during a 2015 radio interview, [John] Dowd [the special prosecutor whose investigation exposed Rose's gambling in 1989] said that a memorabilia dealer, Michael Bertolini, had stated that Rose had girls as young as 12 brought to him during spring training. Bertolini denied telling Dowd this, and last year Rose sued for defamation.
I haven't had TV service in a few years, so I've not kept active with the Reds or anything else to do with baseball. But this was recent enough that again, I'm at a loss to explain how this failed to come to my attention. There was no social media to be sure that the SportsCenter revelation was passed around, but in 2015 this radio interview aired and nothing ever came across my Facebook or Twitter feeds?

Had I been aware of any of this, there is no way I would have ever agreed to have gone to his jersey retirement ceremony last year. And yes, it does sour me on the experience that I had in my youth that I shared at the opening of this post. This is where it would be fashionable for me to claim that Pete Rose has now ruined my childhood. Except, he didn't ruin mine. He ruined the childhood and teenhood of his victims.

There will surely be defenders who will want to argue that I don't know definitively what happened; that without a conviction, it's just hearsay; that even if he was convicted, that it would still be separate from what he accomplished as a player. I wrote a few years ago another piece, Rape Is More Than Legalese. I would encourage you to take a look at that in its entirety, Dear Reader, but I will leave you here with the final thought from it:
We can accept at face value those who come forward and say that something happened to them. We can offer compassion to them. We can try to help them to feel safe. We can listen. We can trust. We can do all of these things independent of whatever may (or may not) take place in a court room - and we must, because living with the experience and aftermath of rape exists outside of a court room.
I hope that the woman who has come forward recently, any of the survivors implied in the other things reported by the New York Times piece, and anyone we don't know about, are all able to find some peace and to heal. They're the ones who matter in this; not the preservation of hero worship from those of us who grew up admiring the guy who set the all-time Major League Baseball record with 4192 career hits, and certainly not Rose. He didn't deserve to be our hero, and the survivors damn sure did not deserve for him to be their villain.

04 April 2017

Princess Josephine, 10/16/2006 - 3/30/2017

Four years ago, I wrote about how my cat Josephine came into my life. It breaks my heart to now have to write about how she left it last Thursday (30 March). I wrote this originally in a Facebook post that evening, primarily as a means of informing as many of my family and friends all at once as I could, sparing me from having to type it out repeatedly. I haven't been able, however, to bring myself to write a blog post about her. I don't know why I should distinguish between the two, as though somehow whatever I write on Facebook is inferior to what I would write here. That curiosity is for another time, though. For now, I've just chosen to copy and paste because there really isn't much for me to add.

My favorite picture of Josephine.
Josephine had exhibited nothing whatsoever to indicate anything was wrong, so her passing was entirely unexpected. Her behavior up to the time I went to bed was completely typical. She was energetic, had an appetite, was affectionate as ever.... I need to believe that whatever happened, happened suddenly and that she was spared any suffering.

Almost every night for the last decade, Jos has purred me to sleep. When I haven't felt well and was whiny, I'd beg her to come to bed just so I could fall asleep. Time and again, she would dutifully come tend to me, even when I could tell she just wanted to get back up and go do whatever it was she wanted to do. When I've been inpatient, whether for Crohn's or mental issues, I've relied on the muscle memory of snuggling with her to coax myself into sleep.

She really was a soulmate, and I mean that in its truest sense. We just belonged together. She made me feel accepted and loved in ways that no one else has; no other pet, and not even any human. I don't mean to slight anyone when I say this.

She was amazingly patient with me. I would pick out her eye crusties. Sometimes I would muss with her head, as I did on our final night together, just to see how much she would tolerate. I always gave up before she did. She could not have been more docile (unless you ask Muffin, whom she unfortunately and surprisingly did take to bullying over the last year and a half).

Jos was so close to me that my absence was a source of separation anxiety for her. Even just going upstairs set off a timer for her, and when it expired, she would mew until I finally returned. She didn't really need me to do anything to make her feel better except just to have me back in her field of vision. That was enough to content her.

I'm still too stunned to feel much of anything else. I feel an expected emptiness which I know the passage of time will help alleviate. I can't imagine, though, that going to bed will ever not feel empty after this loss.

My imagination was entirely right about that last point. Going to bed has been truly painful. That first night, I tried clutching a throw pillow. I threw it after maybe a full minute, rejecting the unacceptable substitute for my princess. I can get through being awake okay-ish, but even the act of physically getting into bed is agonizing. I haven't been able to fall or stay asleep for days now.

Jos indulging my by wearing an elf hat, Christmas, 2011.
Note: I have no idea when Josephine was actually born. 16 October is her "birthday (observed)", as that is the day that the incident involving Josephine Baker, for whom she was named, took place. This is recounted in the piece I mentioned in my opening remarks that I wrote about her a few years ago. I'll spare you having to scroll back up for the link in case you're interested. It's right here.

08 February 2017

Senator Rand Paul on the Confirmation of Betsy DeVos

I wrote recently in this blog about my concerns of the nomination of Betsy DeVos to the cabinet position of Secretary of Education. I included the content of the letter I sent to Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul in that post. I was unable to get through to Senator McConnell's offices, but I was able to get through to Senator Paul's. I recited the content of my letter to the receptionist. I knew that was unnecessary, but I hoped it might be cathartic to know someone in that office had to actually listen to my words. I received no such catharses. Both Senators voted to confirm DeVos, over the objections of so many protests that phone lines were either overwhelmed or shut down entirely. Senator Paul sent the following email:

February 7, 2017

Dear Mr. McClain,

Thank you for taking the time to contact me regarding the nomination and confirmation of Elisabeth "Betsy" DeVos to become Secretary of Education. I appreciate hearing your thoughts on her nomination. 
Providing advice and consent on personnel appointments and nominations is one of the most important duties of the United States Senate. As I have in the past, I carefully evaluate each nominee on the basis of their record, qualifications and their demonstrated commitment to upholding and defending the U.S. Constitution. Like you, I believe it is critically important to place only the most qualified individuals in positions of such importance.
Mrs. Betsy DeVos was nominated by President Donald Trump on November 23, 2016. Following a nomination hearing on January 17, 2017, the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee reported the nominee favorably by a vote of 12-11. Mrs. DeVos is a school-choice advocate, philanthropist, and pillar in the education reform community. Mrs. DeVos and I share the belief that when it comes to education, the federal government has been more of a hindrance than a help. Her emphasis on the provision of choice to administrators, teachers, and parents refocuses us as a nation towards the children we are educating. Therefore, I voted to confirm Mrs. DeVos as the Secretary of Education in the HELP Committee and on the Senate floor. On February 7, 2017, Secretary DeVos' nomination was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 51-50.
Again, thank you for contacting my office. It is an honor and a privilege to represent the Commonwealth of Kentucky in the United States Senate. For more information on these topics as well as my many other legislative initiatives, feel free to visit my website at www.paul.senate.gov.


          Rand Paul, MD
          United States Senator 

26 January 2017

On Kentucky Senate Bill 48

Senate Bill 48 was introduced three weeks ago, but I only just learned about it. Here's the official summary (emphasis mine):
     Amend KRS 173.480, relating to public library districts' initial board appointments, to allow a county judge/executive with the approval of the fiscal court to appoint the first members of the newly created library board when any of the prospective appointees presented to the judge, in the judge's opinion, are not suitable; amend KRS 173.490, relating to public library districts, to allow a county judge/executive with the approval of the fiscal court to appoint members or fill vacancies of the library board when any of the prospective appointees presented to the judge, in the judge's opinion, are not suitable; amend KRS 173.725, relating to petition-created library districts' initial board appointments, to allow a county judge/executive with the approval of the fiscal court to appoint the first members of the newly created library board when any of the prospective appointees presented to the judge, in the judge's opinion, are not suitable; amend KRS 173.730, relating to library districts created by petition, to allow a county judge/executive with the approval of the fiscal court to appoint members or fill vacancies of the library board when any of the prospective appointees presented to the judge, in the judge's opinion, are not suitable.
Maybe I've been made skittish by the pushes by Republicans in other states, like North Carolina and North Dakota, and maybe it's a residual effect of having read Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, but when I read a bill placing library boards at the mercy of a county judge/executive's "opinion" about who is "suitable", I become apprehensive. To that end, I've written a letter to my state senator, which I've seen fit to republish here.

Senator Harris,

I am a constituent of yours and I am writing you concerning Senate Bill 48, pertaining to library boards. Specifically, the bill would allow county judges/executives to replace board members when, "in the judge's opinion, are not suitable" (directly quoted from several passages in said bill).

This smacks of partisan efforts to exert control over our public libraries, not to support our librarians, but to micromanage them to suit the ideological whims of county executives. The danger of implicit censorship could not be clearer.

In Oldham County, we have been blessed with a fantastic library system. To a person, the staff has been consistently insightful and helpful for as long as I've been going, which dates back to my childhood in the early 80's. Our librarians work hard to understand and meet the needs of our community. SB48, by its very existence, denies that and threatens to remove from them the autonomy under which they have operated to date.

I ask that you stand with our librarians and oppose SB48. Let your colleagues know that their efforts need to be put to work securing reliable, affordable health care and bringing quality jobs to the state, and not in trying to micromanage a community system that has flourished without their intervention.

Travis McClain

I would encourage all Kentuckians to take a few moments to dash off a message to their state senators and ask them to reject SB48. You can find your senator here.

19 January 2017

On the Confirmation of Betty DeVos as Education Secretary

There is a call to action from citizens to urge their Senators to vote not to confirm President-Elect Trump's nominee for Education Secretary, Betty DeVos. You can join the effort here. I wrote a letter to my Senators, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul. I've decided to make it an open letter by also publishing it here.

More effective than writing letters, though, is to actually call your Senators' offices. Letters can be ignored, but phones have to be answered! You can find your state's Senators' contact numbers on the official Senate website's directory here. As of this update, only three more Senators are needed to commit to rejecting DeVos's confirmation. It's doable, but the clock is ticking!

I am a constituent who grew up in Oldham County. Our schools have been fantastic, to the point of leading numerous families to defect from Louisville to see that their children had the best possible education opportunity they could provide.

I went on to complete my bachelor's studies at the University of Louisville, where I was one of only nine students in my graduating class to major in history and graduate cum laude or better. I saw time and again while I was in those classrooms that my education in Oldham County had brilliantly prepared me for college.

At times, I have certainly felt sorry for my fellow Kentuckians who didn't have the same opportunity I enjoyed. There is no question whatsoever that our education system has room for improvement.

To that end, like several of my closest friends, I intended to go into teaching myself. As I was preparing for my senior year at UofL, though, I developed Crohn's disease. I quickly learned that it isn't compatible with the classroom even as a student, and I was dissuaded from even trying to earn my Master's, let alone becoming a teacher myself. That breaks my heart every day, I can assure you.

But I know the character and caliber of my friends and their colleagues. They *are* making a difference in their various schools, from preschool to high school, teaching math, language arts, music, social studies, science, art, and special needs. They are singularly devoted to their students, and in seeing to it that every child they teach is engaged, inspired, supported, and aided in his or her journey. It is difficult work, to be sure, which is why they need the support of a Secretary of Education who understands and appreciates the demands, responsibilities, and ambitions of that work.

I am writing you now regarding the nomination of Betty DeVos to become our next Education Secretary.

I recognize that Mrs. DeVos has taken a keen interest in our education system, but that interest is insufficient qualification for such an instrumental posting. Like millions of other concerned citizens, I followed her confirmation hearing closely. I was dismayed by her refusal to commit to protecting the rights of disabled and LGBTQ students.

I am similarly bothered by her conspicuous avoidance when asked whether she would continue to uphold Title IX, particularly in regard to its application to address the very serious matter of campus sexual violence.

Our students deserve better than the glib "vision" that Mrs. DeVos has put forth. They deserve to attend schools that are given clear leadership and necessary support from the Education Secretary. Their teachers deserve that same leadership and support. Mrs. DeVos has demonstrated that she does not understand or value those needs, and as your constituent, I respectfully urge you to use your vote to tell the incoming President to find another nominee for the post who deserves to occupy it.

With respect,

Travis S. McClain