Halloween in the 21st century

Halloween really hasn’t changed much from when I was a kid.  Trick-or-treating still takes precedence over dinner that night, and candy is still strewn all over the living room floor for kids to gloat over, and the tradition of  t-ping is still going strong.  But one thing that I have noticed that is different, is that less kids are going to door-to-door.

I thought maybe the weather had something to do with in past years, but even the nice nights bring fewer trick-or-treaters. I suppose it has something to do with the trunk-or-treats and other alternatives for trick-or-treaters that various groups hold each year.  The local malls also host a similar event.

I remember taking my kids to the mall one year when it was raining.  It was very disappointing.  It seemed like all the stores doled out were mini tootsie rolls.  There was an occasional candy bar, but they were few and far between.  How disappointing.  After some growling and whining on the way home, I promised my children it would never happen again. After all, trick-or-treating was supposed to be fun.  What fun is it to walk around a mall for tootsie rolls?

One year my middle daughter, Caryn, had pneumonia and spent Halloween in the hospital. She was so disappointed that she couldn’t go trick-or-treating but the nurses surprised them by letting them go trick-or-treating around to all the nurses stations.  They went for just a short while and only those kids who weren’t contagious could go.

Though Caryn didn’t feel very well, she wanted to go trick-or-treating and actually did better than her sisters did that night.  It snowed, forcing many of us to cut the trip short.  “Just one more house,” I remember them pleading,  while my hands went numb from the cold.

My mom told me that they didn’t have Halloween in the ’30s and ’40’s like they do now. They dressed up in costumes and played tricks, but they didn’t have trick-or-treating until 1952.  Walt Disney portrayed it in the cartoon Trick or Treat, and Ozzie and Harriet were besieged by trick-or-treaters on an episode of their television show.  Since then it’s become an American tradition.

Some religions don’t allow their children to celebrate Halloween, which is sad, but it’s their prerogative.  This takes us to a deeper level of discussion about whether it’s right or wrong to expose our children to traditions  that make retailers millions of dollars each year.  But that’s another blog.

Happy Halloween! 🙂

Reflections of my city

I attended my first city council meeting last night. 

 It turned out to be pretty much what I expected; a lot of public comments about a heated issue, one or two people who are upset at the city, and even one who just wanted to be heard on an issue that wasn’t even related to anything.

My attendance to the meeting was mandatory for my news reporting class but I was glad I went. I’m sure I will be going to more in the future, especially if I plan to write for a city newspaper.  The note taking part was easy but deciphering always takes time. The class was dismissed after three hours, and we went to our respective homes to write a news story by 10:30 p.m.

It was an interesting assignment and a good one.  I’m used to writing on deadline.  As a journalist, there’s nothing more challenging as interviewing, drafting, editing and submitting in the course of an hour.  I love it.  It shows me that if I can do this, I can do pretty much anything that is thrown at me.  I pride myself on that.

But it was on my way home that I began to think about what our city council represents.  Yes, I was at the meeting to write a story but I was also witness to something that is happening to our city.  A medical district is being planned in the middle of our city and many people were upset by it. The city voted to close part of a street that goes through downtown.  There were many good sides to the argument but in the end, the vote was 6-3 in favor of the closure.

I have lived in Cedar Rapids for 47 years, my whole life.  I have seen the changes that have occurred but these changes have come to a stand-still in recent years. The Flood of 2008  hasn’t helped those matters, but the city wasn’t doing much to build itself up even before that happened. 

Some people want to keep Cedar Rapids’ small-town charm but in doing so, they are keeping us from moving forward.  People were upset when the interstate forged a path through town.  Now they probably couldn’t live without it. A new convention center is being built.  I think that’s great.  Cedar Rapids has lay dormant for too long.  It’s time to start doing something to give it character, to bring people into the city and create new jobs for Cedar Rapids’ citizens.

While I was driving toward downtown on the interstate last night, I looked at the bringt and luminiscent lights of Cedar Rapids.  They were beautiful.  Small in number, but still beautiful.  I don’t want Cedar Rapids to become so big that we get lost in it but I do think that Cedar Rapids needs to keep moving forward.

When good jobs go bad

My job is not as easy as it may seem.  I work with mentally-challenged adults and help them cook, clean, take them places and make sure they take their medications.  I have to admit that it’s a pretty cushy job and will sometimes compare it to babysitting.

Maybe that’s why I take it for granted sometimes.  I get paid just under $9 an hour and though I get paid for sleeping, it’s on a couch that leans to one side and I wake up feeling like I just got hit by a bus.  I don’t work that hard physically, but the mental and emotional stress can take its toll.

It isn’t very often that I have to confront a consumer (as we call them) in a situation that I’m not prepared for.  But, unfortunately, it does happen.

Most of the time, the ladies I work with are gentle.  Though there is an occasional, “I don’t wanna,” I can usually get them to see things my way, while thinking that it was all their idea, the whole time reminding myself it’s for their own good.  But in the end, and because I care, I find myself acting more like a mother than a support person.

All four of them have different levels of mental capacity, with disabilities ranging from autism to bi-polar disorder to personality disorders to brain injury.  The lady who has the lowest mental capacity and who needs the most help, is one that I have been the closest to.

Angie (not her real name) has an anxiety disorder, which makes her nervous and ask a lot of questions.  She has the IQ of a 5-year-old and when her medicine is working, she is the sweetest person. She has spent that last two months in the hospital because the doctors can’t seem to get her medicine right. 

She came home last week because the doctors thought they had done all they could for her.  She was all for most of the night but when it was time to go to bed, she freaked out.  She tried to run away in her nightgown and I told her that I would have to call the police if she did.  She saw that I was on the phone and thinking that it was the cops, she lunged at me and grabbed hold of my hair with both hands.

I was in shock and didn’t react right away.  Once I realized that she was actually pulling, I screamed and tried to push her away, something they tell us never to do if someone has your hair in their hands.  However in that situation, who’s thinking about that? 

I pushed anyway and heard my hair being pulled from my scalp. Things happened so fast, but I managed to free myself.  I saw clumps of hair fall from her hands as she stepped away, but as soon as she started coming after me again, I ran next door to get help.

Scenes like this don’t happen very often and my job isn’t really that bad.  It works great with my school schedule and I have learned a lot about life because of it.  But when things like this happen, it just reminds me why I went back to school; so I can start a career and not just a job.

It has been a great experience but I think it’s time to move on.

Playing God

Teresa Lewis died by lethal injection Set. 23, 2010 in Virginia.

When is it OK to play God?  Who decides who dies and who gets to live the rest of their lives in prison? Who gets to choose what crimes are deemed worthy of execution?

 These are questions that are on many people’s minds after a woman was executed last month for her role in conspiring and hiring two men to kill her husband and stepson for a $250,000 insurance policy. 

Teresa Lewis, 41, was the first woman to die by lethal injection  in Virginia since 1912.  But did she deserve to die?   There are many holes in the theory that she deserved to die for her crimes.

Let’s forget for a minute that the men she hired to pull the triggers got life in prison instead of the death penalty or that she had the IQ of an adolescent child.  But after all these years, why did Virginia decide to executer Lewis?

Because I haven’t had the opportunity to interview anyone involved with the execution, I may never know that.  The research I have done for the story doesn’t tell me much.  But I’m sure it’s a question that’s been on everyone’s mind.

Did Lewis even know that what she was doing was wrong?  It was argued during her defense that she didn’t have the mental capacity to fully comprehend the consequences of her actions. 

And why is it okay for the men she hired to kill her husband and step-son to be sentenced to life in prison?  (One of the hired killers committed suicide while he was in prison.)  Why did they get life and she got death, even though they are the ones who actually did the killing?

Who gets to play God in these circumstances?  A power-drunk judge who decides he will show his authority by deciding it’s a good day for someone to die?  This is one of those sticky situations where people have a hard time explaining why they do the things they do.

I believe in the death penalty, if it fits the crime.  But I don’t think it did in this case.  The defense showed that she could have been rehabilitated; isn’t that one of the criteria?  If it’s not, it should be.

Each of the states within the United States has their own stand on capital punishment, but I believe that it should be a federal issue.  For one thing, justice could be better served if every state had the death penalty.  There would be less crime, (especially of criminals knew the consequences) and the money saved from incarceration would be astronomical.  But it would also allow cases like Lewis’s to be reviewed and re-reviewed.

 I don’t think she should have died if she didn’t pull the trigger, especially if she didn’t really understand the crime.


Service (with a smile :)

Waiting tables is not usually a profession that people clamor for.  Those who take the jobs are usually desperate for any kind of work that pays. The nice thing about being a server is that you have the money in your pocket at the end of the day.

But being on your feet for eight hours or more, lifting heavy trays, putting up with customers’ attitudes, and painting on a smile when you want to scream, are all things that servers have to endure in the course of a day.

When children are asked what they want to be when they grow up, you don’t often hear serving as a top contender.  But over 2 million men and women choose that profession every year.

“They must also be able to think fast and work in a fast-paced environment while tending to the various needs of their customers. Waiters and waitresses should also be in decent physical shape due to the amount of food and beverages they continually bring to their customers and the demands of walking and standing for long periods of time,” according to the occupations manual for becoming a professional server.

I had to laugh at that. Not because it’s funny, but because it’s ironic.  As hard as servers have to work, as much as they have to put up with, they are still considered at the bottom of the work pool. My darling daughter, who enjoyed playing waitress as a little girl, told her step-mother that she wanted to be a waitress when she grew up.  Her reply?  “A waitress is someone who can’t get a real job.” (Two out of three of my daughters are now servers and they make more than she does.)

While that remark stung a little, it also came from someone who had never even tried being a server.  And just like a teacher or a nurse, it takes a special person to be a server.  But one thing is certain; you have to really, really like it. Otherwise you hate it.  There is no in between. 

I have observed many people in my 25-plus years of being a server.  For one thing, customers know when you’re being phony.  They like servers who are genuine.  They also like servers who can take a joke and act like they really enjoy their job.  Most people  like servers who are fairly intelligent, who can add up a simple bill. 

But sadly,  not all customers tip, even if they are the nicest people on the planet.  Some people forget, some don’t believe in it, but most just think servers are paid better than they are and don’t understand that servers mostly rely on their tips to  live on.

There are two sides to everything and I know that some people are against tipping. Most restaurants expect customers to tip, unless it’s a buffet.  Even then, most places have a sign on the wall that says, “Gratuity accepted.”  Employers thinks it’s OK to pay their servers lower wages because they expect that customers will tip well. That is, unless the economy is in the pits, then they’re on their on.

Which is why I decided that I wanted something better. The economy was going downhill and I couldn’t pay my bills. I enjoyed being a server and all the challenges that came with it, but I really wanted  a career. I wanted to be more than just a waitress.  In society’s eyes, that’s all I was.

Becoming a journalist is something that I had dreamed about since I was in the third grade.  But, like many people’s dreams, I took a detour but finally ended up where I wanted to be.

My experience as a waitress is something I am proud of because I learned so much about people. I believe everyone should have to work as a server at least one day in their lives in order to learn some of the more important things in life..  Things like, how to get along with people, patience, tolerance, and understanding.  These things I’ve learned has helped in other aspects of my life. I’m also a better person because of it.

Debate? What debate?

Gov. Chet Culver and former governor Terry Branstad at Coe College

I recently had the opportunity to cover my first debate as a journalist.  It was to be held at Coe College in Cedar Rapids and involved Chet Culver, the current governor of Iowa, and Terry Branstad, former governor of Iowa.   I was excited and a little nervous, not really knowing what to expect, how I should act, or even how I should dress.

My managing editor, Ryan, was going with me to photograph the event, so I felt better about it.  If we screwed up, as least we would screw up together.  But we didn’t, and we sailed through the crowd with confidence and poise.  We situated ourselves in the third row so we could get as close to the candidates as we could.  Lyle Muller, editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette had sent an e-mail indicating that photographers shouldn’t move around too much to avoid distraction, so Ryan scoped out various areas he could access easily.

So there we sat, waiting for the candidates to come in.  Me, not sure at this point who I was supporting, Ryan, looking a bit out of place in his khaki shorts and tennis shoes. We discussed the use of the manual setting on the camera, talked about the local celebrities we saw filtering through the crowd, both of us commenting on the impending debate.

The auditorium was clearly divided in two;  Terry Branstad’s supporters on the right side of Sinclair Auditorium, Chet Culver’s supporters on the left. The audience stood, cheering and applauding, as their respective candidates were announced. The mediators sat on stage, facing the candidates, with television screens situated at each end of the stage so the audience had a view of everything that was going on.  To me it was an exciting moment.

Until the candidates began talking.

From the onset, Culver accused Branstad’s of broken promises, Branstad telling the audience about all the good things he did as a governor and how the state was fine when he left the office, as he drove Culver’s character into the ground.

But it wasn’t one-sided. Culver was sweating buckets as he retaliated,  intensely repeated (repeatedly!!) how Branstad “cooked the books” and kept two books for the budget.

But this is how most politic races are run, by chastising the other, calling each other crooks and back-stabbers.

I have avoided politics in the past, not because I didn’t care about the state of our country, but because I didn’t trust anybody. They all make great promises, but once they are in office, they are often forgotten.  Most of them are two-faced, whose agendas don’t always fit those of the people they are representing.

I know that I have to be somewhat interested in politics if I’m going to be a journalist.  I have to be fair and show both sides of the story. Even if I don’t agree with it.

But I was almost embarrassed at some of the things that our two candidates were saying last night.  Who cares what you did when you were governor, Terry? That was years ago.  Should we believe all the nasty things Culver was saying that you did while you were governor? Did the rebuttals you threw back at him even do you justice? You didn’t even try to defend youself.  All you did was try to come back with nasty comments of your own.

And what about you Chet?  Do you feel that you have to resort to mudslinging to make your point, that you are the “better” man for the job? Do you think that people are going to want to vote for you after publicly trying to humiliate your opponent?

I guess I don’t know much about politics but I do know how to treat others.  Politics changes people. It makes them mean and nasty.  I don’t want to vote for anyone who feels like they have to resort to the kind of junior high-immaturity that I witnessed last night.  It makes me sad that our politics have come to this.  It makes me want to start my own political party.  How about something like, “We the People” party? It sounds almost as good as the Tea Party.

Better late than never

Oh, how I wished someone would have given me instructions on how to raise children. My children are grown now but I had a difficult time as a single mother. I’m very proud of my kids but I sometimes wonder if there was something I could have done different. 

Being a single parent was a challenge.  Just getting through the grocery store without anyone having a meltdown was a miracle.  I became an expert at finding anything, from lost shoes to library books. I learned how to fix anything, just because I had to.  I became creative in the kitchen and could make a meal out of whatever I happened to have in the kitchen (and it was good!)   

But I had a tough time disciplining my children. I sought advice from my mother and my sisters on how to be a better parent. Though I knew they were trying to help, it all sounded very contradictory.

“Give time outs, just say no, don’t let them control you, give them more freedom, don’t give them more freedom, spankings are necessary, never spank a child…”

Ok, I can handle one at a time, but what do I do when they all gang up on me? I could handle their insistent whines and demands, but I became overwhelmed when they all joined in.  I think they planned it that way because my youngest daughter recently told me, “Yeah, we knew if we bugged you long enough, you’d give in.” If I would have known then what I know now … In the end, I just did what I thought was right.

 Some days I wanted to pull my hair out. Some days I wanted to run away.  But most days, I just prayed that they would hurry and grow up. The teenage years were the worst, having to deal with boyfriends and broken hearts, sneaking out and staying out past curfew. But I did survive and can breathe a sigh of relief.

My grandchildren are so much more fun.  The time I spend with them brings me so much joy.  We play together and it makes me feel like a kid again.  I had forgotten how much fun blowing bubbles is or how good it feels to hold a child while they fall asleep. I had forgotten how important it is to take the time to enjoy the little lives we have created.

My three daughters don’t ask for too much advice and I try not to butt in. If I see something going on that I think they need help with, I will tell them how I handled the situation and how I learned from it.  My 2-year-old granddaughter was giving her mother problems one day and Lori called me, clearly going out of her mind with Lily’s stubbornness.  “She won’t listen, she wants to fight about everything!” 

 I couldn’t help but smile, remembering how I went though the same thing with her. But this time I knew what to do.  “Lori, she’s 2. That’s what 2-year-olds do. Pick your battles. Learn which ones are important and which ones don’t matter much. Let her pick out her own clothes if that is what she wants to do. So what if they don’t match; what will it matter in a week or a month or a year?”  I could tell she was thinking about it, but all she could say was, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Did I act that way when someone gave me sound advice?  Maybe I didn’t think it was worth listening to.  I kind of wish I listened more when someone told me how fast time flies, and that someday I’ll find myself wishing I could do it over.

I hear people say all the time how grandchildren are parent’s reward for not killing their kids.  It’s meant to be a joke, and it’s a bit drastic, but it’s true.  Grandchildren are our reward for enduring all the pain and heartache of being a parent. We didn’t have a set of instructions we could refer to when we had doubts about raising our children.  We had to pretty much ‘wing it’.  If we had more than one, we were lucky, because that meant we had another chance.

I have learned so much from my children, not just about being a parent but about life, too. With my grandchildren, I’m not learning anymore, I’m rediscovering; they help me remember what I felt when my children were little and I had the time to enjoy them.  Too bad life gets so hectic and we forget how important that is.