The Weird News That We’ve yet to Hear

Every once in awhile we’ll hear a story about someone, or some group, that has been locked away for years. The latest is a group of six adult children, ages 18-25, who have been locked away in a farmhouse in Ruinerwold, Netherlands for 9 years. Some of the children have been so isolated that they cannot speak. It’s coming to light that their father was the head of some weird doomsday cult, and there is footage from his Facebook page, such as his raggedy self working out on this handmade exercise machine, below, that makes me think that he’s a bit unhinged.

The neighbors didn’t even know the family was there. In fairness, this is a rural community and the houses are not close to each other. But it must take some doing to hide and feed that many full-grown humans without raising a few eyebrows at your grocery cart contents. It beggars belief.

I remember the story of Colleen Stan, who was locked in a box under her kidnapper’s bed, 23 hours a day, for years on end. Another bizarre story is that of the Wolfpack Brothers, who, along with their sister, were kept in a Manhattan apartment, for 14 years. Then there’s the Turpin family, the parents of whom kept their 12 children locked away, on the brink of starvation, and even often shackled to beds. And who can forget Jaycee Dugard, who was kidnapped at age 11, and kept in a backyard compound for 19 years while she raised two children in captivity?

In my opinion, the most disturbing part of these stories is what they imply. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that even as I type this, there are other captives, heaven only knows where, who are suffering in secret, desperately in need of our help. And yet we don’t know where they are. That’s going on right this very minute.

It makes you appreciate your freedom, doesn’t it? But it’s also a sickening thought, and a helpless feeling. If you see something strange, please don’t look the other way. Speak up.

Kidnapper in Chief

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Not Cut Out for Grit Labor

When I was 19 years old, my eldest sister was in the Air Force, stationed in Holland. Between my freshman and sophomore years in college, she invited me to go there for the summer. What, are you kidding? Of course I said yes, with visions of jet setting around Europe dancing in my head.

Upon arrival, she mentioned that, oh, by the way, she had gotten me a job on the Air Force base. I was to mop floors and stock soda machines all summer long. I could hardly complain, could I? She had brought me to Europe, after all.

So, after pretty much zero training, I was sent off to fend for myself. And the verbal directions I was given as to the locations of the various vending machines was sketchy at best. To say I got lost is putting it mildly. That base was huge. A job that should only have taken a couple hours took me all night.

The next night, I was to mop the floors, using one of those metal industrial rolling buckets and a heavy stringy mop. I was a skinny little thing back then. At one point, I knocked the full bucket over in a hallway and flooded the place. I spent the whole night desperately trying to sop up the gigantic puddle. When my boss came in the morning he was furious.

I’ll never forget this. He called my sister and told her that I was “not cut out for grit labor”, and that was the end of that summer job. In retrospect I should have been a lot more insulted. At age 19, he was writing me off for life. And it turns out that the bulk of my career has been all about grit labor, so poo poo on you, bossman.

There were no other civilian jobs that I qualified for on base, and I had no work visa to work in country, so guess what? I traveled around Europe for the rest of the summer. It was great.

I swear to God, I didn’t do it on purpose.

Mop Bucket

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“De kleine tafel!”

I was living in Holland one glorious summer (I call it my summer of love), and one day I was helping a friend move from one apartment to another. The car was nearly packed and I was standing beside it while my friend was inside looking for anything that may have been left behind.

Suddenly, this young man came running up to the car, acting hysterical, and saying, “De kleine tafel! De kleine tafel!” Unfortunately I don’t speak dutch, and I had no idea what he was on about. Whatever it was, it seemed to be the end of the world for him.

When my friend came out a conversation ensued, and finally she gave him what he was asking for: the little table. It seems that he was the landlord’s son, and in spite of the fact that the landlord had told my friend that she could have the little table, apparently her son was not of like mind, and he got very upset. My friend decided that keeping the table was not worth the risk of this kid not forwarding her mail, so she handed it over.

It never ceases to amaze me what some people consider to be a big deal. At that moment in time, that beat up, flea market table, or rather the loss thereof, was a crisis of epic proportions for that boy. That seemed like drastically skewed priorities to me, but what can I say?

Ever since then, whenever someone is overreacting and I cannot understand why, I think, “De kleine tafel!”

For example, just the other day I was asked to wash some windows that are 20 feet off the ground and under a deep overhang. The only way anyone will ever look out of or into these windows is if they employ a cherry picker, but suddenly it was urgent that they be washed.

It took me a couple hours to wash all of them, and much of that time, rather than allow myself to get worked up by the stupidity of it all, I simply sang to myself. “De kleine tafel! De kleine tafel!” And somehow the world continued to revolve around the sun.


Start a gratitude practice today. Read my book.

Exploring Vancouver: Fireworks without the Patriotism

I absolutely love fireworks. I think of it as art, writ large. Light is the paint and the sky is the canvas. It’s the purest form of joyously explosive creativity. That’s why the 4th of July is one of my favorite holidays here in the US.

So when I heard of the annual Celebration of Light in Vancouver, an international fireworks competition, I thought it was the perfect time to visit my friend Martin, who lives there. The celebration is on three separate days in July, and I was only able to catch one of them, but it was very much worth it.

On the night I attended, it was Australia putting on the show from the middle of English Bay, and they did a fantastic job. I couldn’t help but compare it to the dozens of American Independence Day fireworks that I’d seen throughout the years, but there was something different here. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first.

Eventually I figured it out. This event had not one whiff of patriotism. No flags. No “Proud to Be an American” blaring out of the loudspeakers. No drunken political rants. No us vs. them. No “we are better than you are”. It was refreshing.

Don’t get me wrong. I do love my country, and I consider myself lucky for having been born here. But I’m not always proud of everything it does. I couldn’t bring myself to watch the Republican National Convention, for example. Every time I thought of doing so, my stomach would ache.

And perhaps because I am an American, I believe strongly in freedom of speech and expression, so it rankles when patriotism is forced down my throat, even when I already feel it. I don’t like to be pressured by society. I can already imagine the negative responses I’m going to get just for writing this.

At the Celebration of Light on the night in question, it was estimated that 300,000 people attended. 300,000 people who were not trying to be or think a certain way. 300,000 people who had nothing to prove. They were just out to enjoy some fireworks and revel in the mild summer breezes. It was really, really good to be there, spending time with a dear friend in a relaxed atmosphere.

Incidentally, on July 3oth, it will be the USA competing in this event. I wish I could go. I’d be curious to see if they try to inject any patriotism into it. The Netherlands competed on the first night. I wonder who will win?

What follows are a few of the pictures I took at the celebration. But in case I didn’t say this while you were my gracious host, thanks, Canada. Thanks very much.

The Betrayer of Anne Frank

I “discovered” Anne Frank and her famous diary at the age of 12, so for me she felt like a contemporary. It seemed as if we went through puberty together. We discovered boys together. We were age-appropriately bratty and self-absorbed together. We had issues with our mothers together. (The fact that she was actually born just two years after my mother added another whole layer of complexity for me.)

Because of this, for a long time I was obsessed with the Holocaust. I read everything I could on the subject, and watched every movie. I educated myself into a deep dark depression about it. I wanted to save Anne, but of course I couldn’t. And it frustrated me even more because she came so close to making it—just a few more weeks and she’d have been liberated.

When I was 19 I lived in the Netherlands for a few months and had the opportunity to visit the secret annex. I walked where she walked. But it was a disappointing experience because it was so jam packed with tourists that you really couldn’t get the sense of what it had been like. I couldn’t feel Anne there.

I have also spent a great deal of time wondering about Anne’s betrayer. Who sent 7 out of 8 of them to their deaths? How did that person live with himself? When Anne’s diary was published and became the second most read book in the world, did the person in question feel more guilty?

We will most likely never know for sure who the betrayer was. But there are several theories. You can read more about them on Miep Gies’ website. The one I tend to believe most was further detailed in an article in The Guardian back in 2002. The man they put forth as the likely culprit is Tonny Ahlers. By all accounts he was a despicable human being who was a violent anti-semite, and a member of the NSB (the Dutch National Socialists, allied to the Nazis). There is also proof that he hated Otto Frank, Anne’s father, even to the extent of bribing him.

If it was Ahlers, I’m even more disappointed, because those who knew him say that even after the war he was violent, criminal, and unrepentant. He didn’t feel guilty then, so he certainly didn’t feel “more guilty” afterwards. In other words, he learned nothing. He went to his death a hateful man.

So my desire for some form of redemption coming from this tragedy is thwarted yet again. My inner 12-year-old is bitterly disappointed. My jaded adult whispers, “Figures. People suck.”


Language Barriers

When I was around 14 I rode the bus to school every day with a bunch of kids from migrant worker families. I was the only one on the bus who didn’t speak Spanish. It drove me crazy and they knew it. They’d say something, look over at me, and laugh. I hated being left out of the conversation. I despised the idea that I might be missing something important, which is part of the reason I majored in Spanish and Latin American Studies the first time I went to college, thus inadvertently starting down my lifelong path of pursuing useless degrees. But hey, at least now I can listen in on the conversations of a much larger portion of the population of the world, so that’s good, right?

I spent the summer after my freshman year in college in the Netherlands with my sister, who was stationed there in the Air Force. We’d go to restaurants and people would of course be speaking Dutch all around us, and once again I was completely at a loss. I spent that three months highly frustrated. But when I came home and went to restaurants, I discovered something quite interesting while eaves dropping on people’s dinner conversations: Most people have absolutely nothing interesting to say. In fact, my hyper-focus on the conversations of total strangers in subsequent weeks made me realize that I was actually better off when I didn’t understand what people were saying.

After that, during my many trips to other countries I relaxed a little and actually enjoyed the challenge of getting my point across without being fluent in the native tongue. Inability to speak makes the connections that you do manage to form all that more poignant. (Except, maybe, in France, where they take that stuff very seriously. I was once cursed out in French when I accidentally broke something at a bed and breakfast. When I asked a woman what the lady had said, she said, “You don’t want to know.”)

During my trips to the western United States, I delight in tuning my radio to KTNN, the Navajo radio station. Much to the irritation of my fellow passengers, when not playing music, the announcers on this station can ramble on for hours in Navajo, punctuating every few phrases with something that sounds like “Aye-doo-di-Ah-Jay” to me. I find that listening to a conversation in which I don’t really have to pay attention to be a massive relief. I can just be hypnotized by the sounds and the emotions I perceive behind them and let my thoughts wander.

But I also learned another very good lesson while studying abroad in Mexico. I walked up to an American friend of mine who was talking to one of the most gorgeous men I’d ever seen in my life, and I said to her, in English, something to the effect of, “My God, but he’s hot. If he were looking at me right now the way he’s looking at you, I’d probably melt into a big old greasy puddle.” He turned to me and said, “Oh, you would, would you?” The 18 year old me wanted to die right on the spot. Turns out he grew up in California. To my chagrin, he didn’t ever take a liking to me.

You never know when barriers are going to be breached, but when they aren’t, you never know if you might not just be better off.


[Image credit:]

The Black Sheep in the Family

Every family has one. A relative who refuses to play by the rules. Someone who causes unbelievable heartache, unspeakable scandal, and enormous amounts of frustration. Someone who generates really, really interesting family stories. In my family that was Uncle Dave, my mother’s little brother.

When my mom was young, she was bedridden with whooping cough, and she looked out the window to see her little brother picking up her kittens by the tail, one by one, and dipping them in a can of green paint. When she got better she got back at him by shaving the tail hair off his favorite pony.

A story Uncle Dave always liked to tell about himself was the time he had a pet skunk with no scent glands, and it got loose. A few days later he was walking in the woods behind his house and there’s the skunk. It came running toward him, and he was really happy. Then it occurred to him that it might not be his skunk. So he ran away, and never saw the skunk again. That always struck me as kind of selfish. He left a skunk with no defenses and no knowledge of how to fend for itself alone in the wilderness. But selfishness was a recurring theme in Uncle Dave’s life.

I tell you those two stories to illustrate that he was a hell raiser even before he discovered alcohol. Alcohol only made him that much worse. I never knew him to be sober a day of my life. To me, he was the man who delighted in humiliating me throughout my childhood. During my awkward adolescence, he delighted in pointing out my agonizingly slow growing chest in front of large groups of people. He thought my embarrassment was very funny.

Throughout the years he got into several traffic accidents, and as is the case with alcoholics, he’d walk away unscathed. One time he got pissed off at a drinking buddy and shot out all 4 tires in his car. How he managed to stay out of jail was beyond me.

Uncle Dave actually seemed to have amazing luck. Somehow he managed to navigate through his alcoholic haze and be a success in business. And one time he was sitting in his recliner watching TV when a bolt of lightning came down the hall behind him, bounced off the mirror, crossed in front of him, took out the TV, and exploded all the bottles in his wet bar, but missed him entirely. You’d think that would be enough to get him to reevaluate his life, but no. Me, I’d have taken that as a sign.

For my oldest sister’s wedding, it’s a good thing that we confirmed the church the day before, because he had called to cancel the reservation several days prior. We’d have shown up to a locked church with no preacher. Ha, ha, ha, right? At my other sister’s wedding reception, he called my 3 year old niece over to him, and then took his cigarette and popped all her balloons. Of course she howled. I had to leave the room to keep from lunging at his throat.

The final straw for me, though, was when I was home from college and I had a fellow student with me. She was from Holland. The phone rings and it’s a man with a funny accent, and he’s asks to speak to his daughter. I assumed it was my friend’s father so I called her to the phone. She instantly went into a panic because it was the middle of the night in the Netherlands, and the only reason they would call at that hour was if it was an emergency. She gets on the phone, and gets this strange look on her face. She didn’t know this person. It was my uncle, using a fake accent. My friend was really shaken by this. Later he came by to try to meet her, three sheets to the wind as per usual, and I kicked him out of the house.  Believe me when I say he did not go quietly.

I only saw him one more time, and that was at my mother’s funeral, 7 years later. He tried to comfort me, but as far as I was concerned, it was too little, too late.

Fast forward 20 years, and imagine my mixed emotions when I heard he had blown his brains out in his garage. He was upset because at age 80 they had finally declared him to be unfit to drive. The only thing he left for his long-suffering wife was a garage that looked like an abattoir, and a note that included his name, the cost of a cremation, and the company who could do it.

I didn’t feel sad. He never allowed himself to be a part of my life in any positive way. I sure could have used a positive male role model but he was definitely not one of those. What I felt, instead, was anger. Anger at all the pain and humiliation he caused everyone within his reach. Anger at the waste of a life. Anger that he chose to go out in a way that was as selfish and over the top as every single thing he had chosen to do his entire life.

uncle bob

Views from my Windows—Part Two

For the beginning of this story, check out part one.

No matter our circumstances, my mother never let it be a question in my mind that I’d be pursuing higher education. She wanted more for me than she ever had herself. I got scholarships and loans and grants and she helped me as much as she could, and off I went to Warren Wilson College in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where I learned what true beauty was. I made sure that there would be several state lines between me and my stepfather. As long as I draw breath, I will never know such a beautiful sight as those rolling hills in every shade of azure, and every shade of orange in the fall. I have been trying to get back there ever since. My soul resides in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is where I feel at home. It is where I am as safe as I could ever be. I should have never left.

WWC Barn

But I was young and stupid, so when my college did away with my major (only 3 of us had chosen it–it was a very small school), I transferred to Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. I wanted to be closer to a boyfriend with whom I broke up a few months later, and I liked the architecture, too. What stupid choices we make when we’re young, not realizing they will change the direction of our entire lives. But for the next year I looked through Tiffany stained glass windows over the beautiful tourist choked streets of St. Augustine. But I never felt at home there. I was the only liberal poor kid amongst mostly rich kids who breezed through school as if it were a 4 year baby-sitting service. For them it was a way to avoid work. For me it was my life. I just didn’t fit in.


But I was focused on much bigger things, because that summer my sister, now stationed in the Netherlands, sent for me to keep her company. From there I traveled throughout Europe, and my views were varied, and each more spectacular than the last. All this was enhanced by the fact that I fell in love for the first time. My eyes were opened, and the world seemed full of possibilities. What an amazing world we live in! That was the happiest summer of my entire life, without a doubt. But the recurring theme in my life is that all good things must come to an end, and so this miraculous summer did. I left Europe while feasting upon a bitter smorgasbord of rejection.

After 10 days at home, I started my Junior year studying abroad in Guanajuato, Mexico. This was an adventure as well, but a scary one, because it was my first time living without some member of my family within a half day of me. I was walking this tightrope without a net, and with a completely broken heart, and temptation was all around me. Suddenly I was exotic, with my light blue eyes and my pale skin, my taller than average height (for Mexico, anyway), and my entirely undeserved “American” reputation, and because of that I was popular for the first time in my life, and for all the wrong reasons. I had adventures and misadventures in this beautiful little city, and I had a sweeping view of it from my window, along with a stone wall topped with broken glass, and a sloping cobblestone lane.


I learned a great deal about myself and about others during this amazing sojourn, but I was glad to get back to the familiar halls of Flagler College. Even though I didn’t fit in there, at least I understood the game. Going from being the exotic center of attention to fading once again into the background was a bit of a culture shock, so I’m afraid I copped a bit of an attitude as I gazed through the Tiffany glass this time. When the opportunity to graduate a semester early came up, I leaped at it.

For the next two years I remained in St. Augustine, trying to get used to the fact that a college degree didn’t automatically bring me the success I was always led to believe that it would. That took some getting used to. So I sort of drifted rudderless through my life. I’ve got to say, though, that I had an AMAZING view yet again. I was in this horrible disintegrating house on the waterfront. It was built in 1888 and I’m convinced that it had the original plumbing. It was a big apartment, but there were entire rooms I could not enter because the floors were so soft that I would surely have fallen through. But I could sit on my balcony and watch the sailboats on Matanzas Bay, and if I stood on tip toes, I could see the Bridge of Lions from my kitchen window. I loved that place, but it should have been condemned. Instead, long after I left, someone bought it and must have poured millions into renovations to make it a bed and breakfast. People pay more in one night to sleep in my bedroom now than I paid in an entire month. That makes me smile.


This was actually MY balcony. Sure wish it looked this good when I lived there!

But again, all good things come to an end. I lost my job, and spent a miserable, awkward and uncomfortable 6 months under the same roof with my stepfather while I searched for gainful employment. Just when I was about to lose all hope, I got a job with the State of Florida, and relocated to Jacksonville. And for 3 ½ years I had yet another spectacular view. I lived in a little studio apartment on the Cedar Creek. I could sit on my patio and watch the Muscovy ducks on the banks of the creek, and see the occasional manatee breaking the surface. At night the stars would reflect in the water and I felt like I was floating in outer space. All I had was a mattress and some lawn furniture, but I was young and didn’t care.

And then my mother got cancer.

To be continued……