Smoking

I kind of quit smoking when I was 33 after having incessant heart palpitations. I think the actual trigger had been the exhaust we breathed stuck in traffic the night before after watching fireworks at the mall. Plus I’d had a lot of dental work done which involved repeated doses of ephedrine. Whatever. The doc looked at my EKG and said I had to quit smoking. And drinking caffeine.

I loved smoking. Maybe I imprinted on my father’s lifelong relationship with Winstons. Maybe I was just a natural addict. Maybe the boost I got from nicotine helped me jumpstart the confidence I so badly needed.

Pretty much within the first several weeks of college, I bought Winstons and started smoking. I learned how to French inhale. I learned how to flip ashes and thump butts out of car windows. After a year or so, I gave it up temporarily because my soon-to-be husband didn’t like me to smoke and I wanted him more than I wanted cigarettes.

For a while.

I could write an entire story about my life with cigarettes, about the on again, off again drama while married to him. About the shift to Kools after I met a particular man who was my lover for three months. One spring night as a thunderstorm raged outside, I ran out of Winstons. He offered me a Kool and that was that.

Smoking felt even more exhilarating with Kools, the intense menthol burn on the inhale, the slightly sweet smoky exhale. I loved each new pack in its clean white and green colors, the ceremony of tapping the pack, of pulling the little cellophane thread that opened the top, the careful tearing off one side of the foil interior wrap and the skilled thump on the side of my finger to knock the first lovely white cylinder loose. These were gifts, objects of beauty. That first puff felt wonderful, but it was the second hit that filled my lungs and my body with the full tobacco experience.

If anyone ever wanted a hit of my cigarette, they did not get the second hit.

Cigarettes were my best friend. They were there for me when the rest of my world dissolved into runny shit. In lonely moments, in anger, in grief, I turned to my faithful companion. In the dark of night, I relied on the warm cheery glow of a cigarette’s lit end. In hunger, in drunkenness, in the hours of tripping my brains out, the cigarette was there, centering me, reminding me of myself. Being the lighthouse in the storm.

With my first pregnancy at age twenty-seven, I bravely stopped smoking. Time slowed to a crawl. I so wanted to do right by the future child growing inside me. Then one night my husband and I had a vicious fight. I leapt into the old Ford 150 and drove to the nearest gas station where I purchased a pack of Kools. Then I drove to a vacant parking lot and lit that old friend and sat there crying and smoking. I subsequently smoked through all three of my pregnancies.

I required a cigarette when on the telephone. Otherwise I might leap out of my skin in annoyance with yet another incessant nonsensical blathering about whatever, or another tale of romantic angst, or whatever the fuck it was someone else had to tell me and I thought I had to listen as the minutes of wasted life ticked by. Without cigarettes, I finally learned to just draw my line in the sand and make whatever excuse was necessary to end the call.

After the doc said I had to quit and pointed out that I risked having some other woman mother my young children because I could fucking die, I stumbled out of the building into the glare of July sunlight and sat in my blazing hot car with the windows down while I smoked my last cigarette. I cried. Deep body shaking sobs. Then I drove up North Street, finished the last drag on that luscious Kool then tossed the rest of the pack out the window. Yes, I looked back. The little green and white pack lay forlorn on the pavement.

That wasn’t the end of my smoking. I went through a period where I’d meet a friend for a beer and she smoked my brand and I’d luxuriate in the pleasure of ‘just one.’ Only I never could smoke just one. ‘Just one’ after weeks or even days of abstinence resulted in dizziness and nausea. I had to smoke more often if I wanted to tolerate the effects. And I did smoke more. I stopped and started smoking so many times I lost count. The craving would get so bad, I’d buy a pack, smoke one then throw the pack away. Then I’d buy a pack, smoke one, and keep the pack in my glove box until the next insurmountable craving forced my hand.

It took nearly ten years before I really quit. I’d have dreams of smoking, feel the pleasure of smoke curling over my tongue, drawing deep into my lungs, brushing past my lips as I exhaled. In the dream, I’d panic that I’d started smoking again, that I’d never be free of it, that I’d always be tortured by an addiction I couldn’t beat. Even now, nearly thirty years later, I sometimes have that dream. In recent years when the dream occurs, I know in my dream that it’s a dream. For years, though, I’d wake up not sure if I had started again.

Side note: Maybe I have this dream often. I don’t know because I mostly can’t remember my dreams anymore. Why is that? My life is crumbling away before my very eyes.

I understood my thing with cigarettes was a real addiction. To me, addiction is the ability of a chemical to make a place for itself in the recesses of a human brain and take up residence there. A more refined understanding is that it isn’t the chemical itself that takes up residence, but the effect that chemical has inside the body. The whole endorphin receptor thing. The euphoria that results from those effects will live forever inside me, always ready for that moment when I might finally lay down my guard and say ‘why not?’ and bring flame to the tip and inhale.

Knowing that, I sometimes lament my father’s last request for me to bring him a cigarette. Or, more accurately, I lament my response.

We all knew he was dying. Eighty-five years of life and Winstons finally came to collect its debt in atrophied heart muscle and congested lungs. He spent his days and nights those last weeks in a hospital bed in the family room, unable to walk and perhaps in pain. But he never said he hurt. He didn’t complain.

On one of my last visits before he died, he held my hand and asked if I’d get ‘the old man’ a cigarette. I said no, you know you can’t smoke, you’re on oxygen. But later I thought, what the hell was I thinking? I could have turned off the oxygen. I could have bought a pack and wheeled him to the porch and watched him enjoy the hell out of that damn thing.

It would have been the rational, kind thing for me to do. He hadn’t smoked in nearly a year at that point, so I’m not sure how dizzy it would have made him. Maybe it wouldn’t have been the joyous sensation he expected. Maybe he would have coughed or choked. But he was dying anyway.

I should have done it.

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I Met a Goat on the Road

A visiting guinea? A ‘possum in the dining room? What strange and wondrous occurrences can one expect while living on an Ozark mountaintop for over forty years?

These lyrical adventure stories feature chickens, raccoons, bugs, dogs, cats, and natural critters of this woodland home. Throw in a few neighbors who shoot copperheads or remodel the dirt road. Ponder the passage of time through a philosophical lens of wonder and delight. The seasons bring summer heat, winter snow, pouring rain, the power of fire. Lessons learned, questions posed–who has lived and died on this land? What is our responsibility to this place, its creatures, each other?

Come meet the goat on the road.

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The Old West

In the completion of my recent book, Murder in the County: 50 True Stories of the Old West, I discovered that three of the fifty murders profiled there were committed by members of the same family! Intrigued, I researched more about these folks and the result is now published under the title The Violent End of the Gilliland Boys. Fascinating and shocking, this story features more twists and turns than an Ozarks dirt road.

Christmas Day horse races 1872, Middle Fork Valley.  Young Bud Gilliland waits, eager for another chance at his neighbor Newton Jones. Only this time, after two years of sparring, Newton gallops up in a cloud of dust, aims his Spencer rifle, and sends Bud to a well-earned grave.

The death of Bud surely grieved his father. But before the curtains closed on these descendants of J. C. and Rebecca Gilliland in 1891, two other sons and a grandson would die a violent death while yet another grandson served hard time for murder.

What was it about the Gillilands?

This recounting of the family tracks their ancestry, their pioneer years on untamed land, and the hard work that made them one of the wealthiest families in Washington County, Arkansas. A fascinating tale of brash ego, brave gallantry, and plain old bad luck.

Paperback now available for only $9.95 at. Don’t miss it!

 

A Sword Cuts Both Ways

swordFor decades, the religious right has gained access to tax dollars by filling a niche in the education system. In addressing an ‘at risk’ population among children, these religious activists have made great strides toward the use of tax dollars for religious instruction.

It’s a clever end-run around the law. In Arkansas until 2012, a quietly growing swarm of such preschools illegally utilized millions of tax dollars for programs that began each day with prayer and Bible study. (Which they have never been required to pay back.) Classroom activities included coloring images of Biblical scenes, singing hymns, and the occasional time-out at the principal’s office where the recalcitrant child might be prayed over to cast out the demons causing his/her unruly behavior.

Tipped off by thoughtful journalists, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) threatened a lawsuit against the state. Specifically cited in the complaint was the Growing God’s Kingdom preschool at West Fork. The Arkansas Times, arguably the state’s only non-rightwing media, reported that “According to the school’s handbook, parents are assured that staff members will ‘strive too [sic] ensure that your child feels the love of Jesus Christ while preparing them for Kindergarten.’ The preschoolers, it continues, will be taught ‘the word of God’ so that they can ‘spread the word of God to others.’”

Outrageous not only because the preschool blatantly advertised its religious intent in its name and literature without the state blinking an eye before handing over tax dollars, its owner/operator Justin Harris also served as an elected representative in the state’s legislature. And he wasn’t the only elected official sworn to uphold the Constitution who grabbed illegal tax dollars hand over fist. Similar preschools operated under the leadership of Johnny Key, also a legislator and – incredibly – in 2015 designated by the Republican governor Asa Hutchinson as head of the Department of Education, even though Hutchinson had to massage the state’s rules about qualifications for the department head because Key didn’t meet them.

Specifically targeted by religious preschools in order to boost their standing for ever greater grant funding, potential ‘students’ are rounded up from problematic environments.

  • The ABC Program serves educationally deprived children, ages birth through 5 years, excluding a kindergarten program. The Arkansas Better Chance for School Success Program serves children ages 3 and 4 years from families with gross income not exceeding 200% of the federal poverty level.
  • Eligible children for the ABC program shall have at least one of the following characteristics: § Family with gross income not exceeding exceeding 200% of FPL  § Has a demonstrable developmental delay as identified through screening  § Parents without a high school diploma or GED  § Eligible for services under IDEA  § Low birth weight (below 5 pounds, 9 ounces)  § Income eligible for Title I programs  § Parent is under 18 years of age at child’s birth  § Limited English Proficiency  § Immediate family member has a history of substance abuse/addiction  § Parent has history of abuse of neglect Or is a victim of abuse or neglect
  • An age-eligible child who falls into one of the following categories shall be exempt from family income requirements: § Foster child § Child with an incarcerated parent § Child in the custody of/living with a family member other than mother or father § Child with immediate family member arrested for or convicted of drug-related offenses § Child with a parent activated for overseas military duty

Further enticement for struggling parents is that ABC funded programs provide free child care and pick-up/delivery services for children. What low income parent would not rush to place their child in such a program whether or not they want their child indoctrinated in fundamentalist Christian religion?

State employees at the Department of Human Services, which oversees this particular realm of education and tax dollars and in charge of the Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) program, could not account for how the money was spent by these schools, citing chaotic bookkeeping methods. The state did not require any particular accounting method. The state then or now does not know whether tax dollars granted to preschools and other educational programs serving ‘at risk’ children actually are used for that purpose, only requiring that grants be kept in a separate bank account.

Despite the wimpy crackdown in 2012, random yet infrequent inspections by state enforcement personnel lack the ability to determine whether prayers, hymn singing, and exorcising of demons might yet continue, stopping only the moment an inspector walks through the door.

In the aftermath of unwanted scrutiny by AU, the state allowed these powerful religious entities to fabricate an imaginary line between religious instruction and the so-called ‘ABC Day,’ a block of seven hours where secular education supposedly occurs without any religious indoctrination. While delineating these requirements in a new section of is program codes (see Section 23 at the DHS website), the restrictions on how tax dollars might be used fail to include rent, insurance, utilities, and other overhead expenses of the overall operation. Children bused to the school before the ABC day begins or who remain after are immersed in religious instruction, a convenient sleight of hand since parents’ work hours rarely coincide with ABC instruction hours.

As specifically stated in Section 23.04.4 of ABC Rules:

  • No religious activity may occur during any ABC day and no ABC funds may be used to support religious services, instruction or programming at any time.

Without a viability test by which religious preschools must prove their religious instruction could continue without tax dollars, there is no method to determine if ABC funds are used to support religion. Such a viability test would have to show that without tax dollar grants, these schools generate enough income from other sources to keep the rent paid and the lights on. The state has made no effort to devise such a test.

Now let’s take a sharp turn to a similar situation on the other side of the coin. As the newly installed majority Republican Congress rubs its hands in glee over its sudden ascension to total control over the nation’s lawmaking, no issue is more eagerly addressed than the longstanding thorn in the abortion debate—Planned Parenthood. Early calls for defunding this nonprofit organization cite exactly the same argument as those opposed to tax dollars for religious education.

Recently questioned by CNN’s reporter Jake Tapper, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan explained the need to stop tax dollars from supporting Planned Parenthood.

Well, there is a long-standing principle that we’ve all believed in. And—by the way, this is for pro-choice, pro-life people—that we don’t want to commit taxpayer funding for abortion. And, Planned Parenthood is the largest abortion provider.

So, we don’t want to effectively commit taxpayer money to an organization providing abortions. But, we want to make sure that people get their coverage. That’s why there’s no conflict by making sure that these dollars go to federal community health centers, which provide these services and have a vast larger network than these Planned Parenthood clinics, which—which are surrounded by a lot of controversy.

And, we don’t want to commit people’s taxpayer dollars to effectively funding something that they believe is morally unconscionable. Not everybody believes that and I understand that. But, that’s a long-standing principle that we’ve had in this country that we want to maintain.

Tapper countered Ryan’s remarks by citing the Hyde Amendment which ensures that federal funding isn’t paying for abortion, Tapper asked “of course, taxpayers don’t fund abortions, right now, right?”

“Right,” Ryan fumbled. “But, they get a lot of money and—and you know, money is fungible and it effectively floats these organizations which then use other money. You know, money is fungible.”

Ah. Money is fungible.

Of course it’s beyond Ryan’s comprehension that anyone would consider early childhood religious indoctrination to be “morally unconscionable.”

If Ryan and his cabal of rightwing religionists pursue their effort to kill Planned Parenthood (and thereby leave millions of women without reproductive health care), their argument goes against them in the wholesale religious perversion of our nation’s youth.

Religionists cite the helpless condition of a fetus and the ruthless medical procedures which may be used to terminate its life all while they discount the agonized decision-making women engage in before choosing such a path. Yet what is more helpless than a barely verbal child relinquished to a daily dose of brainwashing?

More to the point central to any federal legislation, what has longer and more consequential ramifications for the nation? While those terminated in the womb are removed from the overall population, the clear agenda for youthful brainwashing is to “Grow God’s Kingdom.”

Let’s not kid ourselves. The Religious Right will not stop until they have forced the United States of America to fit their definition of a Christian nation.

Compare the two programs: one provides financial assistance for medical care to women old enough to bear children and therefore old enough for reasoned decision-making. The other takes children not old enough to reason or speak for themselves and forces them to undergo religious indoctrination.

Imagine, if you will, religious tax-funded preschools which teach Islam.

~~~

Note: The red herring in Ryan’s argument centers on his theory that community clinics could provide adequate replacement services for those now available through Planned Parenthood. It would take significant expansion and investment for such clinics to equal the services offered by PP to over five million people per year.

A Gathering of the Tribe

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The Family of Sylvia and Tom. Left to right, front: Una, Sylvia, Thurston, Tom, and Sula. Back: Joy, Carmyn, Graydon, Tomazine, Douglas, and Durward.

Great strength comes from family tradition. I’ve seen it once again for myself, a gathering of elders I’ve known all my life. In the days and hours leading up to this October reunion, trepidation warred with exhilaration in the prospect of seeing my kin again. Three days past my last contact, I am only now able to let the anxiety fall away.

toma

Tomazine, oldest of the girls and third oldest of Sylvia’s children. Mother of seven who adopted four more orphaned children. Gardener, artist, advocate for common sense and women’s liberation.

Why anxiety? The clan was the community, at least for many of us older ones, and gathered each summer for a week of Rook tournaments, debates on myriad subjects, talent shows, and general mayhem. These people were my judges as well as my mentors, the audience for baby pranks and elementary accomplishments. Like my forty first cousins, of which I was the fifth oldest, I was subjected to quizzes and scrutiny on everything from the ruffles in my skirt to the cleverness of my retort.

A person would think that by the age of sixty-seven, I would have grown past the traumas and dramas of childhood. But no, like the genes we share, interactions with the pantheon of my mother’s family remain a strong influence. I should be glad of the genes—of my Grandmother Sylvia’s nine children, six remain among the living. The oldest recently celebrated her 96th birthday. The youngest, feted at this recent gathering for his 80th, remains—like all of them—in remarkably good health.

carm

My mother Carmyn, mother of five, gardener extraordinaire. College graduate, family historian. Early advocate for environmental protection and organic food.

Matriarch to her own tribe of five offspring, my mother was the middle child of nine born to an even sterner matriarch in Sylvia. Herself the oldest of nine, Sylvia followed a lineage of strong women who simultaneously chafed at the yoke of traditional wifedom while, at least in theory, subscribed to the religious role of subservient ‘helpmate.’ Sylvia’s mother Zeulia raised nine in a marriage with a man never far from his Bible but nonetheless willing to watch his aging wife wade out into mid-winter snow to gather firewood. Zeulia’s mother Armina enjoyed a few years of happy marriage to Jeptha Futrell and the arrival of two sons (one of whom, Junius Marion Futrell, became a governor of Arkansas) before losing Jeptha to pneumonia and remarrying during Arkansas’ devastating aftermath of the Civil War. Armina’s mother Frances Massey, as the fabled family account goes, grew up in the lap of southern luxury at her father’s plantation only to elope at age thirteen with the property’s caretaker Jimmy Eubanks. Their first child, born when she was fourteen, was said to have a head the size of a teacup and yet grew to robust male adulthood.

joy

Joy, fourth youngest, mother of four. College graduate, school teacher, gardener, comforting presence.

By the mid-1840s, Jimmy and Frances crossed the Mississippi River on a barge and set up housekeeping in the northeast wilds of the new state of Arkansas. Subsequent generations married and lived in similar barebones circumstances in the farmlands near Crowley’s Ridge. After the Civil War, some of the family settled in Texas, and by the time my mother was born in 1923, entire households pulled up stakes each season to pick cotton in Texas before returning to “God’s Country” for the winter.

At the time Sylvia gave birth to her first child, her mother Zeulia was still producing children of her own. Both generations lived together at times in dog-trot houses on Ozark dirt farms, scraping up a livelihood from gardens, milk cows, and free range chickens and hogs. Despite their often desperate economic conditions, the families pursued education. Of my cousins, several hold graduate degrees and many more undergraduate degrees, while others have become successful entrepreneurs, engineers, and educators.

una

Una, mother of eight and third youngest of Sylvia’s children. College graduate, world traveler, genealogical researcher, firecracker in general.

We are told that our genes carry not only the codes for our biology, but also the encoded experiences of our ancestors. I’m left to wonder if my tendencies toward worry derive at least in part from the epigenetic traces of the Civil War and the Great Depression. Is my desire for solitude and rural landscapes the result not only of my own life but even more from the generations of ancestry that found safety and sustenance in the land?

As far back as genealogical research has taken us, efforts largely spearheaded by one of my aunts, the family follows a long tradition of yeoman farmers. Perhaps we were serfs not too many centuries ago, tuned to the change of seasons and the requirement to please a rich master. Our histories find sparse mention of cities and their trappings. We care more about the weather than women’s clubs, more for landscapes than local politics. Yet we do care, passionately, about our freedoms and the direction of the nation despite the fact that we divide fairly evenly between conservative and liberal.

sula

Sula, second youngest and mother of four. Avid Razorback fan, gardener, loving wife. Current holder of the Rook championship trophy.

Of the forty cousins, only fourteen made an appearance at this gathering. Only six or seven lingered for more than one evening. My oldest, now turning forty, waded in and was welcomed as were a few other grandchildren. My mother and two of her five siblings live in this area. Three others, two from Texas and one from New Mexico, stayed for six days, variously taking naps, visiting graves and old homesteads, and arguing over Rook scores. Wrenched to see them come and equally wrenched to see them go, I have since stared out my office window to contemplate the emotions set in play by the event.

The cousins who did attend agreed not to let our next meetings occur only at funerals. Inevitably, the funerals will come, not just for our aunts and uncle, but for us. There’s the strange comfort of time and conversation with those we’ve known all our lives, even though as adults we have little in common, hardly know each other at all. There are our children, grandchildren, even great grandchildren of which we are barely cognizant, yet each of them remain connected in these threads that grow ever thinner as the generations expand.

Thus is the history of all man’s tribes.

thurston

Thurston, youngest of the clan. Father of five, loving husband, modern day farmer and Razorback fan.

As children, my cousins and I not only played together at the annual family reunions but also at reunions of Sylvia’s siblings. We learned the names and faces of great aunts and second cousins, many of them still firmly entrenched in the lands of northeast Arkansas. The rest of us have remained as near as northwest Arkansas or as far as Georgia, California, and all points in between. There’s a mathematical impossibility to any attempt to acquaint the offspring of the forty cousins, or even to gather the forty cousins in one place.

Whether knowledge of one’s ancestry holds any relevance may be debated from various points of view. Whether I want to have these ties or not, I can’t imagine life without them. The huge array of people linked to me through family offers an oddly reassuring backdrop to any of my peculiar interests and life patterns. I’m no longer a child intimidated by their observation or awed by their arguments. They care about me as I care about them, not because we’ve done anything in particular to earn the caring, but simply because we are connected by inheritance.

We’re still a tribe.