Inside the shadowy world of the Arkansas school-“choice” movement – PART 2

Need to catch up? Read part 1 by clicking here

After taking a job with the Arkansas Public School Resource Center in August 2016, I spent the next few months planning the annual statewide education conference that APSRC hosts each year at the Hot Springs Convention Center. 

This year’s event is set for October 23, 2019, should anyone feel a pressing need to publicly ask Governor Asa Hutchinson and Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner Johnny Key any questions about their actions regarding the Little Rock School District over the past five years.

They usually speak during the opening session. Can’t afford a ticket? No worries. You can greet Hutchinson and Key as they and other attendees enter via the Plaza Lobby, which is where the continental breakfast is served, just outside the Horner Hall Ballroom. 

There also will be an afternoon panel “discussion” during which a bevy of GOP-only lawmakers – most, if not all, of them non-educators – will be on hand to talk about the future of public education in Arkansas.) 

But I digress… 

It wasn’t until after the conference that I started focusing my attention on my other primary duty, which was to cover and report on State Board of Education meetings, interim joint-education committee meetings, ESSA meetings and so on…

This is when I learned that I was supposed to delicately spoon-feed our members when writing my news reports. 

APSRC uses Constant Contact to email its members. Recipients are divided into various groupings. Some emails are sent only to open-enrollment charter schools. Others only to traditional districts. And still others to anyone and everyone. 

This is where things get dicey. 

You see, APSRC Executive Director Scott Smith is but one of three Arkansas Walton stepchildren vying for the attention of wealthy absentee parents. 

You’ve got Smith representing APSRC, which purports to represent and serve both traditional public school districts and open-enrollment charters. 

Next up is Gary Newton of Arkansas Learns, who happens to be the nephew of Arkansas State Board of Education Chairman Diane Zook. 

And then we have The Reform Alliance, which currently uses a voucher program to “help” special-education students, foster kids, etc… attend private schools  – many of which are faith-based – and to give up any rights they have under the IDEA Act. (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act)

All three organizations lobby state lawmakers on behalf of the Waltons. All three are at all times pursuing often contradictory/opposing passages of legislation. All three are always, always at odds with one another. 

The 2017 General Assembly proved to be a challenge for me. If I wrote about private-school-voucher bills, Smith fretted. I found that interesting. I mean, if APSRC truly represents and supports public schools, you’d think he would be right up front testifying before lawmakers with other membership organizations – the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, for example. Or maybe the Arkansas School Board Association. 

And you would think that I would be able to freely report on such bills, testimony and reactions. 

Nope.  Because – horrors! – I might offend Arkansas Learns and/or The Reform Alliance. In other words, I might have angered the generous benefactor of all three competing nonprofits – the Walton Family Foundation. 

Smith and Newton appeared – to me, anyway – to have honed an ability to materialize out of thin air just in time to witness how things went down in the education committees while simultaneously avoiding the offering of any testimony. 

Bear in mind, they were being monitored at all times by Kathy Smith, senior program officer for the Walton Family Foundation. She and Newton also made it a practice to attend APSRC’s quarterly policy board meetings. 

During the 2017 session, I eventually stopped sending Smith my news reports before I emailed them to APSRC members. It was just easier and less confusing that way.

It was around that time when I started to question why Southern Arkansas University had been deemed the public entity that would provide  APSRC with HR services. SAU also kept track of our leave time and managed our benefits and retirement plans. 

I would later learn that the SAU Foundation is the recipient of Walton grant funds intended for APSRC. SAU is charged with disseminating the money and administering HR services for APSRC staff. 

When I started working for APSRC, I was given the same (presumably) packet handed to new university employees. 

So why funnel funding through state university foundations? Remember, from 2008 until 2012, the University of Central Arkansas served as APSRC’s Walton-funding dispensary.

Let’s take a look at APSRC’s staff positions to work through this one.

You’ve got Smith, the director, a former state employee (ADE). Then there’s the office manager and administrative assistant, one of whom also worked for several years at ADE.

Next up is the legal staff – chief counsel and at least one staff attorney, if not two. 

There’s also the finance staff, which is currently composed of a director (a former longtime public school superintendent) and two specialists, one of whom spent most of her career working for public schools in Arkansas.

You’ve got two tech guys, both of whom formerly worked in public schools in Arkansas. 

And then there’s the Teaching and Learning Department, where, currently, you’ll find two longtime public-school educators. Sometimes, there are more, depending on grants and funding. 

Now let’s look at the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System and who is eligible to participate. 

Click here

Back with me? OK, so there you go. Why, as a longtime Arkansas public-school employee or ADE employee, would you give up your ATRS or state retirement package to go and work for a controversial nonprofit? 

You probably wouldn’t.

 BUT … if you could hang onto what you’ve already invested in by working for an entity that would allow you to keep contributing and participating in your retirement plan – wouldn’t you find that nonprofit-employment offer a bit more palatable? 

I had no skin in the game where retirement was concerned. But I can tell you that I made more money at APSRC than I ever made working for newspapers or the Arkansas Department of Correction. And yeah, the benefits and leave time were pretty fabulous. 

Problem is, in order to enjoy all of this, you have to sell your soul.

Tomorrow – APSRC’s Walton grant application process and an explanation of its actual goals

 

Inside the shadowy world of the Arkansas school-“choice” movement

Simply put, I needed a job. 

In December 2014, I’d wrapped up a 21-year career as a newspaper reporter. I spent 15 of those years at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

After leaving the paper, I served as the public information officer and legislative liaison for the Arkansas Department of Correction. My office also responded to the phone calls, emails and letters we received daily from inmates’ families. 

One year in, I realized I just wasn’t cut out to work at a state agency. 

So my husband, kids and I briefly moved to Texas and I took a job as a SPED inclusion instructional aide in a Title I public school. I loved working with the kids, and I truly thought I’d found my calling. I hoped to get certified and become a teacher. Alas, all those California techies who have moved to the Austin area over the past couple of decades have driven up the cost of housing to a level that we could never afford on a teacher’s salary. 

So we returned to Arkansas, moved back into the home we’d bought in 2005, and I started the job hunt once again. 

In July 2016, I received a call from Scott Smith, the executive director of the Arkansas Public School Resource Center. He told me that an old friend who once worked with me at the D-G had recommended me for a position at APSRC. An interview revealed that Smith needed not only a communications director but also someone who could oversee the planning of the annual fall conference. Also, I would cover the Arkansas State Board of Education meetings, the Legislature and anything else involving education. 

Smith seemed quite pleased with my background as a “real” journalist.

“Do you have a problem with charter schools?” he asked during the interview. 

“No?” I replied, uncertain. 

“And you think you can organize a statewide education conference?”

“Yes,” I said, more declaratively this time, thinking of the many Girl Scout events I’d helped to plan and supervise as a troop leader and member of the North Hills Service Unit.

I didn’t know a whole lot about charters at that time. I did have some qualms based on the fact that the D-G’s publisher, Walter Hussman, was an avid supporter of the charter movement. Hussman’s children all attended out-of-state private schools. It seemed to me that he wasn’t really in a position to judge what qualifies as a “good” or “equitable” public education. Also, rich people are insanely out of touch when it comes to us “regular folks.”

On the other hand, I once signed up my kids for a charter lottery because one of them was struggling at school and I thought a new environment would help. Our 2016 move to Texas served as a reset button, however, so when we returned to Arkansas, my children also returned to the traditional public school district in which they had grown up. 

But like I said, I needed a job. I also figured that a position at APSRC would allow me to remain (somewhat) in the world of public education. I thought maybe I could work toward becoming a teacher here. (I can now say that if I ever decide to pursue a teaching career, I will not be doing so in Waltonsas.) 

My first day at APSRC was on August 3, 2016. I quit nearly three years later, on June 14, 2019. That night, I sent Smith an email in which I not only announced my resignation but also shared my many reasons for quitting so abruptly. I made sure to copy in all of the female staff members so that Smith couldn’t attempt to seize the narrative. Turnover at Walton-funded nonprofits and charters is rather, well … high. And at APSRC, turnover is especially high where women are concerned.

Immediately, I felt a burden lift.

No more working in an environment steeped in secrecy and paranoia. No more placating a male boss who acted more like an abusive stalker ex-boyfriend than an actual leader. No more weird workplace silos that left “team leaders” completely in the dark as to what other departments were doing. No more legislative education committee meetings that reeked of conspiracy, deception and stale men’s suits in dire need of dry-cleaning. 

I think the turning point for me was when, at the beginning of APSRC’s annual membership drive in the spring/summer of 2019, Smith said on three occasions – in my presence – that “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” 

“Them” refers to public school districts – as in APSRC’s current member districts and potential member districts.

As a journalist, this really bothered me. My old-school B.A. in print journalism represents – to me, anyway – an oath to be accurate, fair and credible. 

I spent decades looking for facts. I believe in transparent and ethical journalistic practices.

Baffle them with bullshit?

Um, that’s a hard no. 

We’re talking about the education of Arkansas’ children. We’re talking about the teachers who work long hours for pitiful pay. We’re talking about inadequate funding, inadequate facilities and the fact that the state has taken its largest school district hostage just so that it can take it apart and reinstate segregation in the Little Rock School District.

There will be no “baffle them with bullshit” from my little corner of the universe. 

Also, covering the 2019 legislative session left me disturbed and downright angry about what is happening in public education. The 2017 General Assembly gave me serious pause. The 2019 session revealed the seamiest side of the school-”choice” movement.

In this post and those that will follow, I’m going to share the details of my three years at APSRC. Since quitting, I’ve learned that most people – even those in education – don’t realize how APSRC is structured or how it operates. Yes, it’s a nonprofit primarily funded by the Waltons. But it’s also a powerful and influential force where the governor and state Legislature are concerned. 

Also, did you know that there is an Oklahoma Public School Resource Center? I ask you to take a moment to reflect on how public education is faring there. 

Based on what I witnessed during my three years at the organization, I feel comfortable saying that  APSRC’s purported mission – providing resources and services to public schools – is just a half-hearted cover for the agency’s true purpose – to serve as a lobbyist for the Waltons and their efforts to dismantle public education. That includes strong-arming the governor, GOP lawmakers and Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner Johnny Key. 

The fact that Smith has no scruples or shame is actually to the Waltons’ benefit. He may be a jerk who would be brought to heel by your average functioning HR department, but he’s also in it for the end game – the destruction of public schools. The fact that he belittles women and minorities is, to the Waltons, irrelevant. 

I recall one “team leader” meeting during which we discussed possible speakers for the annual fall conference and its breakout sessions. 

Smith told us about one prospect and then put our potential session leader on the speakerphone. 

After hanging up, Smith asked, “What do you think?”

One of the team leaders asked, “Is he black?”

I knew why she was asking. Arkansas educators desperately need to hear from black teachers and school administrators. Arkansas educators also wish to hire black teachers and administrators.

But Smith took her question the wrong way, based on his own apparent prejudices. 

“Yes, he’s black,” Smith said. “But – *pause* he went to Yale.” 

*insert awkward silence here*

I’ve spent the past several weeks sending out FOIA requests in an effort to learn more about the nonprofit for which I worked. We weren’t privy to a lot of the details about the organization or even our job descriptions. I spent two years asking to see the most recent Walton grant application – submitted in 2017 with my and other team leaders’ input – to no avail. I never did find out whether it was actually funded. When you work for a nonprofit, you generally would like to know what your goals, measurements and outcomes are. I really don’t think my request was unreasonable.

I am still going through documents and emails, but given what is happening this week regarding the Little Rock School District, I feel compelled to start posting now. I will link to any documents I discuss. 

So – let’s talk about APSRC and its membership. Who, exactly, are APSRC’s members? 

All Arkansas charter schools are, of course, members, even though they really don’t have any choice in the matter. If you run an open-enrollment charter school and want Walton funding, you join APSRC for $3,500 a year. I’m told that several charter directors aren’t terribly … fond … of Smith. But again, if they want continued funding and support, they have to belong to APSRC. 

The majority of APSRC’s members, however, are traditional rural school districts. 

That said, even the state’s largest urban districts also can become members via  “technical-assistance” contracts with APSRC. The North Little Rock School District is one such example. 

Members of traditional districts – many of which operate conversion charters on their campuses – pay $2,500 a year. Those with technical-assistance contracts negotiate an MOU with the fees contingent on services and manpower provided by APSRC.

More than 85 percent of Arkansas’ public school districts are members of APSRC. 

The Arkansas Public School Resource Center was founded in December 2008, thanks to a $4.5 million donation from the Walton Family Foundation. At the time, APSRC was billed as an arm of the University of Central Arkansas, headed by then-interim President Tom Courtway. 

Walton funds were sent to the UCA Foundation, where they were then administered to support APSRC at UCA. At the same time, APSRC announced that Scott Smith –  who joined ADE in 2000 as a staff attorney and went on to become the chief counsel in 2002 – would be APSRC’s executive director.

Smith is an attorney whose bachelor’s degree is in business administration. He has absolutely no experience in education. 

Of course, neither does ADE Commissioner Johnny Key. 

Per a 2008 news release drafted by UCA: “The purpose of the APSRC is to provide comprehensive services to advance and support school-choice initiatives and the implementation of high-quality open-enrollment public charter schools in Arkansas, as well as providing a variety of  support services critical to the fiscal and academic success of rural public schools in Arkansas.”

For reasons I have not yet uncovered, APSRC and the UCA Foundation severed ties in 2012. Smith then approached the Southern Arkansas University Foundation with a proposal. 

At the bottom of this post is the MOU signed off by APSRC staff and the SAU Foundation. In my next post, I will share how this MOU translated into the actual operations of the two entities. I’ll also explain why the Waltons seek state university foundation partnerships to further their school-“choice” ideology.

Just know this – the school-choice movement doesn’t target only the wealthy or the GOP. I will share in later posts how charter proponents have lured Democrats and progressives into the movement. I’ll also give you a peek into the Walton Family Foundation/APSRC grant/funding process.

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Living with PTSD: How to (not-so-tactfully) tell your (now former) boss that he was one of your primary triggers

I quit my job this weekend. And now I am going to get my life back. But more on that in a minute…

In an effort to diminish the stigma surrounding PTSD, I’ve always been very open about my struggles. For those unfamiliar with my life story, however, here’s a snapshot:

At age 15, I unfortunately caught the eye of a 24-year-old man who had dropped out of college and moved in with his parents … who attended our very evangelical church. This “relationship” went on for five years. He abused me in every way that a man can possibly abuse a teenage girl/woman. Just before I turned 20, my mom saw fingerprint-shaped bruises on my upper arm. Within a few short months, she helped me transfer to a new college in another city. I moved into an all-girls dorm and broke up with my abuser by phone.

Next up – journalism. I wrote for various newspapers for 20-plus years. Reporters don’t like to admit it, but we do suffer from the trauma of what we’ve seen and experienced.

Finally – the desert. Turns out that the most primitive, reptilian part of your brain doesn’t just “get past” being lost in the desert for five days and four nights, especially when you damn nearly died alone. This happened on a vacation, when my photojournalist husband and I let down our guard. Just before we left on that trip, my children informed me that Big Bend sounded like a dangerous place. “Oh, don’t worry,” I told them. “We’re journalists. We’re used to danger. We know how to take care of ourselves.”

After I was discharged from the hospital, I stupidly went right back to work and spent the next year working on a series about what had happened to me. Some exposure therapy is good. Daily exposure therapy is not. Lesson learned.

Since leaving the newspaper in December 2014, I’ve cycled through three completely different jobs in an effort to find a place where I fit in. I didn’t tell anyone about the PTSD at the first two.

But at the third one, I finally felt a need to explain why I am the way I am. Admitting one’s vulnerabilities and subsequent odd behaviors is humiliating. But I thought that if I shared this part of me with just the women in the office, it would make me less self-conscious and them less skeptical of my quirks. And again, I truly believe it’s important to feel as though you can be your authentic self, even if that means that you like to keep your office door closed, socialize only with female employees and call in sick when you just can’t bear the thought of being around people.

Which brings me to why I quit my job last night via email.

My now-former boss was a major PTSD trigger. Why? Because he exhibited all of the traits that my abuser did – the possessiveness, the tracking of his female employees’ comings and goings via the front-office staff, questioning where you’d been or why you were there. He was satisfied only when all of his team members were confined in their offices with their doors open.

I told my mom at one point that I felt like I was back in high school, trying to constantly placate my jealous ex-boyfriend – only this time,  the damage was happening in the workplace.

Thanks to my psychologist and psychiatrist, I made it through the first part of 2019. In recent months, however, I knew I was beginning to crumble. I was becoming that same scared-shitless 15-year-old girl answering to some older white man who seemed to think I was company “property.”

And then I realized that I could not let this happen to me – not again. I’ve put myself back together twice now. I can’t do it a third time.

So I emailed him. Told him why I was quitting in very blunt language. And in doing so, I picked up one of those crumbled-away pieces and put it back in place. I’m cracked, yes, but NOT broken. I am not that teenage girl anymore.

Which is why I did not leave quietly or politely or nicely. Years of therapy taught me that we have to call out men for being misogynistic. Otherwise, the cycle continues and more women suffer.

I got a second chance at life when I was rescued in the desert. And ever since, I’ve just been … wallowing. No more. I was granted extra years and I want to enjoy life instead of just trying to survive it.

I already survived an abusive relationship. I survived the desert. Now it is time to thrive.

 

The power of shame.

In my early days of reporting, I learned a valuable lesson from an older colleague –

If ever a man won’t return your calls – just call his mother. Call his mother, tell her about the story that you’re working on and then explain that you can’t seem to get in touch with her son. You’ve left several messages, yes, but to no avail. Oh, and even if he just wants to offer a “no comment,” could he please just let you know? You would be ever so appreciative. Thank you.

It worked. I can’t tell you how many times I called mothers – who then called their sons and relayed my messages. Along, of course, with their own recriminations.

This my friends, is called “The Power of Shame.”

Unfortunately, all too many old, white, privileged men have lost the ability to feel shame. And their mothers died years ago.

Enter the next generation of men – who are married to women like me.

Today, we witnessed the power of shame when two women confronted U.S. Senator Jeff Flake in the elevator just moments after he announced that he would support Brett Kavanaugh – the latest example of disastrous lapse in GOP … er, judgement?

Enter two courageous women, who, in public and on camera, shared their own trauma and SHAMED Flake for his intent to give Kavanaugh a pass.

Also, this morning, Flake’s friend from across the aisle, Chris Coons, was clearly stunned and upset by Flake’s announcement that Flake would support Kavanaugh.

Informed of Flake’s decision by a CNN reporter – before today’s vote – Coons said: ““Oh fuck. We each make choices for our own reason. I’m struggling, sorry.”

Again, Flake was shamed, this time by a man he clearly respects and considers to be a friend.

How do we know this? Because after Coons’ emotional response and after the two women confronted Flake as he attempted an elevator get-away, Flake did something that GOP men just don’t do – he actually changed his mind.

He crossed the aisle. He met with Democrats. And then he said he could not support a full Senate floor vote if the FBI were not asked to investigate the allegations against Kavanaugh.

Why?

Because he, when confronted by real people – traumatized and angry women – and the disappointment of a man he considers to be a friend, Flake … felt shame.

It’s a pity – no, it’s infuriating – that so many white men – especially those in power – have lost the ability to feel shame.

But it’s apparent that they have.

Exhibit A: Mitch McConnell ensuring the public that the Senate would “plow through” with this confirmation.

Exhibit B: Chuck Grassley’s eagerness to just move on a vote and adjourn. His demeanor throughout the confirmation process can be described only as dismissive and harsh.

Exhibit C: Lindsey Graham’s abject horror over poor, poor Kavanaugh – as opposed to a woman who had, convincingly, just laid herself bare when describing how she was sexually assaulted at the age of 15. (If ever God decides to throw down a meaningful lightning bolt to remind us of who is boss, I’m pretty sure she’ll hurl it at Graham. OK, or Paul Ryan. Or Mitch McConnell.)

I could go on and on where senators of a certain age are concerned.

But the point is this – if only their mothers were still alive, I would totally encourage every victimized woman and every female journalist to call them.

Because apparently, these days, where too many members of Congress are concerned, there needs to be some sort of catalyst in order for them to actually feel … shame.

Of course, we know that some Republican men are simply incapable of feeling shame. And that should disturb us. Remember – Kavanaugh’s wife and mother were present yesterday when Kavanaugh decided to rant about how his (entitled, per him) path to a seat on the highest court in America had been made bumpy by a woman who came forward to accuse him of trying to rape her.

And there his wife sat – in stoic silence. And there sat his mother – in support of her son.

So we can conclude that white, affluent Republican women also have lost the ability to feel – let alone, prompt – shame.

Where does that leave us? Well, if we can no longer depend on mothers, then it’s up to those of us who relate to the “Elevator Women.”

We must use our voices. We must tell our stories. We most show ourselves to be relevant. We must remind them also of this – We. Are. Voters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I know what it’s like to be sexually assaulted

As many of you know – from my previous blog posts – I was an unlucky 15-year-old who caught the attention of a 24-year-old man who attended our church.

It was the summer of 1985. “Dick” had just dropped out of college and moved in with his parents. I was a high school sophomore. He was a loser. I was an idealist.

One Sunday, after church, I noticed him staring at me. Being a young and stupid and impressionable teenager, I was flattered. I was even more flattered when he and one of the guys in our teen group followed us home. Bear in mind, I was a passenger in my mom’s car, along with my two younger sisters.

In a matter of weeks, he had convinced me to start sneaking out of my parents’ house in the middle of the night. We would drive to Lake Travis and make out.

Thanksgiving 1985 – I finally broke down and confessed. Over Thanksgiving dinner. My parents were totally caught off guard. They’d had no idea that any of this was going on.

But hey – the CHURCH was OK with the whole thing. And so, with the church’s permission, I started “dating” Dick openly.

By December, I’d lost my virginity to him – after weeks of moaning and complaining and self-pity on his part. It wasn’t special. It wasn’t romantic. It wasn’t remotely pleasurable. It was simply an act in which I reluctantly participated to placate my “Christian” adult boyfriend.

Over the next five years, our “relationship” spiraled out of control. Dick was jealous and controlling and abusive.

Ever been held down and forced to have sex? I have. Repeatedly.

Ever spent weeks waiting anxiously for your period to arrive because your selfish boyfriend secretively slipped off a condom during one of your intimate encounters? I have.

Ever wondered what you would do if said horrible boyfriend got you pregnant? I have. (Abort. Abort. Abort.)

During the 5 1/2 years I spent with Dick, I was repeatedly held down, told to “shut up” and raped anytime that I refused sex. Note: I refused it for a variety of reasons, one of those being the fear of becoming a pregnant teenager.

In the fall of 1989, my mother noticed fingerprint-shaped bruises on my left arm. And I finally admitted what had been going on.

In short order, I transferred from my local college to the University of North Texas – 3 1/2 hours away from home. And from Dick.

Only then, did I summon the courage to break it off. I was safe. I lived in an all-girls dorm and he couldn’t get to me.

This week, I’ve read Christine Blasey Ford’s account of what Brett Kavanaugh – the GOP’s pick for the Supreme Court – did to her.

I believe her.

And so do the many women who have found themselves in situations in which they were vulnerable and a man – or men – felt ENTITLED to violate them.

It took me years to work up the nerve to describe all of the horrors that Dick put me through – even though I was the VICTIM.

No woman comes forward with a story like Ford’s unless she is telling the truth. Because not only do you fear that you won’t be believed – you fear the many judgements that will be passed on you, but NOT your attacker.

Because, of course, it’s always our fault.  We dressed the wrong way, acted the wrong way, said the wrong things….

… according, that is, to the patriarchy.

But here’s the truth. No one has the right to do what 24-year-old Dick did to 15-year-old me. And Brett Kavanaugh did not have the right to do what he did to a high school classmate.

My body. My choice. MY decision.

Ford’s body. Ford’s choice. Ford’s decision.

Not Dick’s. And not Brett Kavanaugh’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I. Am. Enough.

Growing up, we visited my maternal grandparents at least  twice a year – at Christmas and during summer vacation.

Ugh.

Mom? Dad? If you’re reading this, I’ve realized that Mt. Carmel did more damage to me than he-who-shall-not-be-named. I think that Mt. Carmel is the reason that I ended up being the perfect victim for someone like that man. I don’t mean this in an accusatory way. I’m trying to share an epiphany that, strangely, makes me feel better.

Anyway.

Mt. Carmel. Where to start? Mt. Carmel was a school. That also offered boarding. Its founders and builders make Baptists look like frat partiers. Seriously.

Anyway, Mt. Carmel is what people today would call a cult or a sect. Thankfully, once my mother left home for college, she never went back there. OK, she never went back there to live. Unfortunately, we went back umpteen times to visit.

And so, at the tender age of – wow, probably 3 or 4 – I learned that I wasn’t “enough.”

I wasn’t “good enough.”

I wasn’t “Christian enough.”

I wasn’t “well-behaved enough.”

I wasn’t dressed “appropriately enough.”

I just wasn’t – ever … enough.

I learned this from my grandparents – you know, the very people who are supposed to dote on you and spoil you.

I grew up in the Nazarene church. Again – ugh. Once I left home I didn’t go to church for decades. Because honestly? I really got tired of being – and feeling – that I wasn’t “enough.”

And then I joined the Presbyterian church.

Things went well until… I learned that I didn’t “attend church enough.”

I wasn’t “involved enough.”

I wasn’t an “active enough member.”

And so on.

Churches. You wonder why you are bleeding people. It’s because you constantly make them feel as though they “aren’t enough.”

The fact is, I AM enough. And I don’t need a church to affirm that. I’ve got a great psychologist and a support system that says that I am doing OK.

And I BELIEVE that I am doing OK. I’m not where I want to be yet. But I’m getting there.

Churches – until you start recognizing that, for some people, just making it to a pew is an accomplishment, you will continue to see a decline in your population.

I never wanted to go to church to prove that I was “enough.” I just wanted to go to church knowing that I would be accepted – regardless of what I was capable of giving.

I am enough. I always have been. It’s just taken me 40-plus years to realize that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So let’s talk abortion…

When I was in high school, two of my “church friends,” as I referred to them back then, had abortions.

Both had gotten pregnant by the same guy, a free-wheeling asshole who attended our evangelical church. Both girls had parents who – back then AND now – adamantly opposed abortion. And yet …

… When *THEIR* girls got pregnant, those same parents rushed their daughters to abortion clinics. The whole church knew. But it politely turned a blind eye.

And then there was me – the 15-year-old who unfortunately drew the eye of a 24-year-old man who had flunked out of college. “Would it be so bad if you got pregnant?” he whispered into my ear, as I lay crying after yet another episode of unwanted sex.

Yes. It would have. And I would have aborted that fertilized egg – or fetus or whatever the far right is now calling it – in a split second. I hated my “boyfriend.” I hated myself. If he had succeeded in implanting something in me, I probably would have contemplated running away or suicide. Please note: the evangelical “boyfriend” was physically and sexually and emotionally abusive. He did not deserve a child then. I’m told he and his future wife later adopted one. They did not deserve that child. I know what he put me through. He never, ever should have been allowed the privilege of raising a child – not ever.

In my 20s, when I was working as a reporter for the Odessa American, my friend Melanie and her brother introduced me to a friend of her brother’s. We had just arrived at Riley’s Roadhouse, just before closing. We had just enough time to order a bloody Mary for each of us.

I was date-raped that night. I’d only had one drink. But I later learned that at that time, a lot of young guys in the area had come into possession of Rohypnol, the date-rape drug.

The next day, I tried to make an appointment with my female primary care doctor. But she wasn’t in. Instead, I got some old white man.

“Would it really be so bad if you were pregnant?” he asked, before refusing to write a prescription for the morning-after pill.

Desperate and panicked, I tracked down my regular doctor at home. She immediately ordered a prescription not only for the morning-after pill but also an anti-nausea medication… just in case.

Do I feel guilty? Nope. I didn’t then. I don’t now. I’d just been victimized. And whatever was in my body was no more than a teensy mass of cells. I bled out those cells and I was not – and never have been – sorry.

I went on to have two beautiful children with my husband.

They were wanted and planned for. Their father wasn’t an abusive pedophile. Their father wasn’t someone who drugged a 26-year-old single woman. Their father is a wonderful man I met at age 30. When. I. Was. Ready. And. Able. To. Have. Children.

I’m sharing this story because I think that all too often, the so-called “pro-lifers” want to think that women who seek abortions are “slutty” or “loose” women who “asked for” what happened to them.

Instead, you should be asking – “Who are these men who drive women to seek to terminate their pregnancies?”

But, of course, you won’t do that. Because it’s never the guy’s fault.

Go ahead. Seek to criminalize abortion. Seek to make those who have had one appear to be “bad women.” In fact, most times, we were victims. We did what we had to do to survive.

And I ask you to ask yourself – what if your daughter came to your with stories similar to mine? What would you tell her? What would you do?

 

PTSD: The bad and the ugly

I suffer from PTSD.

Whoa. I actually said it. To someone other than my psychologist and primary care doctor. Kind of a big deal, y’all.

PTSD is really sucky in that it totally ruins the things many of us love most – like sleep. I don’t sleep. I stay up as late as I can, hoping that by the time I do fall asleep, I will actually stay asleep. Oh, and also that I’ll be too tired by that point to dream. OK, scratch “dream.” What I mean is – “have nightmares.”

Why am I sharing this? Well, because my psychologist says that it’s high time I start writing again. Also? She says I’m kind of hard to get to know – meaning that I hold people at arm’s length and laugh a lot – or make jokes – about really stupid, inconsequential shit while never really sharing much of myself.

I’ve argued that it doesn’t seem fair to the nice folks out there to subject them to the dark, cobwebby portions of my brain, but hey – if you’re up for the ride, then who I am to tell you that you aren’t tall enough to board the roller coaster?

Also, I’m kind of hoping that my fellow PTSD sufferers won’t feel so alone.

So here’s what I’m going to share tonight:

On average, my blood pressure hovers around 155-160 over 100-112. Even more disturbing? I’ve been on blood-pressure medication for about four years now. I’m 48. And up until a knee injury this past year, I’ve always worked out at least four times a week. We don’t eat out much, so I can’t blame the diet either.

Up until late 2013, my numbers were great. But then, it seems, my 20-plus years in newspapers – all spent covering all sorts of really horrible stuff – coupled with my near death in the Chihuahuan Desert – turned that innocuous little arm cuff into a harbinger of impending doom.

Since then, I’ve gone to therapy. Continued exercising. Revamped my diet multiple times. And still – nurses insist on checking my blood pressure two or three times per doctor’s visit, because – surely, the reading can’t be accurate? Maybe I’m stressed? Maybe it’s higher because I’m sick?

“Let’s just check this one more time, sweetie. Uncross your legs, please. Now just try to relax.”

The numbers, however, don’t budge. And, according to recent research, they don’t lie.

The results of medical studies released this year clearly state that PTSD actually can cause hypertension. Doctors may find this surprising. I don’t.

PTSD isn’t just a mental or emotional condition. It’s an adrenaline system gone completely awry. I describe it as living in a state of constant fight-or-flight syndrome. You’re primed – ready to do anything to ensure your survival – even when you’re tucked snugly into bed with the only apparent threat being the knowledge that your alarm will go off in six hours. And yet. Your body insists that something is about to go dreadfully wrong and, by God, you had better be ready to fight off whatever that something is.

It’s an exhausting way to live.

Luckily, this is the year I decided it was time to actually fully embrace and address the PTSD. Which is how, two weeks ago, I landed in the office of a psychologist who has spent most of her career working with veterans.

My first assignment? I was to start using Headspace. You can access it on your computer or install the app on your phone. I have to admit that I was skeptical.

But now – after two weeks? I love it. It’s becoming part of my routine.

Thus concludes tonight’s installment. In my next report, I’ll share the ugly details of what it’s like to be afraid to fall asleep and WHY the mere thought of sleep is such a source of stress for PTSD sufferers.

 

Life is for living – really. I promise.

This morning, I went to a church – at the members’ request – to talk about what happened to me in the desert.

As always – I stressed the following: On the one hand, my experience left me hyper-aware of my mortality. On the other, it blessed me with a “So-the-fuck-what” mentality.

Here’s the thing. I now know that we don’t necessarily get some sort of forewarning of our impending doom. In my case, I went from admiring pretty yellow, waist-high flowers to nearly dying alone in the wilderness. Just. Like. That.

For a long time after my rescue, I fixated on all the ways in which I could suddenly die. At the same time, I suddenly had this amazing focus on all of the ways in which I could LIVE.

What does it mean to live? It means being you, even when being you makes other people uncomfortable. It means finding humor not only in the ridiculous, but in the many ways in which we try to take ourselves so seriously. It means eliminating unnecessary worry and drama from your day-to-day existence so that you can actually enjoy the experience of living.

It also means figuring out what really actually matters. It means calling “bullshit” on people. It means doing what’s right for you – not what is expected of you. Why? Because ever since the desert, my expectations for myself far exceed what anyone else could come up with. At the same time, I have to counter those expectations with an understanding of what I am capable – or not capable – of doing. I spent a lot of quality time with myself during my time alone in the wilderness. I know me. I know what I can do. I also now recognize my limitations.

So I tell you what I told church members this morning – my perspective regarding how I live my life is forever changed. I don’t expect everyone to understand it. But I do expect myself to do whatever I need to do to be true to … me.

The most transformative moment of my life was the afternoon that I was forced to accept that I was likely going to die alone – in the wild – without being able to offer any “last words.”

I vowed then that if I lived, I would speak up. For myself. For my family. For friends. For strangers.

It was only when I was lost in the wilderness that I finally found my voice. And I intend to use it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Desert Love Story

It is April 28, 2017, the eve of our 16th wedding anniversary, and we have marked the occasion by returning to the place where we almost died together 3 ½ years ago.

Earlier this week, Rick and I also visited the place where we were married, just as we have each year since a justice of the peace pronounced us man and wife on a hiking trail.

This is a love story – no, a love triangle, really – involving an adventurous couple and a place dear to both parties.

First, however, I must introduce you to the Chihuahuan Desert, which is as ruggedly beautiful as it is hostile to human interlopers.

It is in this region of southwest Texas that the Rio Grande River makes a sharp turn – known around here as the “Big Bend.” There are two parks in the area: Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park. Both parks encompass the vast Chihuahuan Desert – the third partner in our marriage.

As a single, young newspaper reporter for the Odessa American, I covered Texas’ Big Bend region in the mid-1990s. I fell swiftly in love. Something about this desolate and inhospitable area spoke to my most private self, the part of me I don’t share with even my closest friends. What appealed most was the absolute silence. Here, I could put my brain – constantly steeped in chaos it seemed – and my life on hold for as long as I stayed.

Rick, meanwhile, often visited Big Bend National Park on his days off from the San Antonio newspapers at which he worked as a photographer. He was captivated by the area’s inapparent beauty. Photographing Big Bend requires a searching eye and curious mind. Rick always has loved a challenge.

When Rick and I met in 2000 at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, we quickly discovered that each of us had remained enamoured of the Big Bend region since leaving Texas. Six months after our first date, we exchanged vows at Big Bend National Park on April 29, 2001.

We return each year, sans children, to revisit old haunts, as well as to search for new ones. The desert is full of surprises – if you know where to look.

On those early trips, Rick and I made love and argued with equal passion. Over time, as we settled into a daily, domestic partnership, we whittled away at and polished all of those jagged edges that define young relationships.

What we forgot was that the Chihuahuan Desert was under no such obligation. It remained just as prickly and unpredictable as when we all first met. And honestly, that’s part of its enduring allure.

On Oct. 1, 2013, Rick and I were at the national park when the federal government closed down. We broke camp and headed to the neighboring Big Bend Ranch State Park, new and unfamiliar territory to us. We found a beautiful, albeit solitary, campsite and congratulated ourselves for our refusal to give up on our annual rendezvous with our beloved desert.

The next day, on Oct. 2, 2013, we set out on what was supposed to be a day hike. Instead, we embarked on what turned into a death march through every single circle of hell. By the end, we were bloodied and feral, desperate for water and oblivious to the hundreds of cactus needles embedded in our legs, feet, hands and lips.

What happened out there seemed to us at the time to be a betrayal. Why had our desert, a place we had long loved, suddenly turned on us?

April 25, 2017, Big Bend National Park

This year, we started our annual anniversary trip at the national park, a place where happy memories still reside, with plans to end it at the state park. It seemed fitting – a chronological journey from where – and who we were – to now.

Our first day at the national park, Rick and I hiked a new-to-us desert trail. All the while, I kept an anxious eye on the gauzy clouds that only barely masked the sun. Scanning the terrain on either side, I searched for anything – a mesquite tree, creosote bush, cactus, even – that would offer shade once the clouds dissipated.

Nothing.

It took an hour to hike the 2 ½ miles that led to a large rock decorated with Native American pictographs.

Rick shot photos. Then he poked around the jumbled clusters of rocks, hoping to spot something else that would hint at this area’s storied past.

“We need to go,” I insisted. “Once those clouds disappear, we’ll be hiking all the way back without any shade.”

“Hang on,” he replied. “Just a few more minutes.”

I continued to watch the strip of gauze in the sky as it stretched into a thinner and ever more transparent film over the sun.

Rick,” I said again, this time in a trembling voice. “We have to go. Now!”

I took off at a near run, my Camelbak backpack – still heavy with water – riding on my shoulders. A satellite tracking device with an SOS button remained securely tucked inside. One push of that button would summon the nearest law enforcement agencies and search-and-rescue teams.

Still, I maintained a frantic pace, ignoring burning legs and lungs.

“Hey, slow down,” Rick called from behind. “You’re using too much energy too fast.”

Above us, the clouds shredded and separated. I felt it then, that searing desert heat I had feared.

There’s got to be a tree, a bush, something.

Ahead of me, I could see the road and cars that were mere specks. Our truck was parked there, at the trailhead. But to get to it, I would have to cross a tortured landscape that shimmered with heat.

You are fine. This is the national park, not the state park. You have plenty of water. You have an SOS button. Get it together.

Abruptly, I sat down. I dropped my head and tried to slow my breathing. Rick stopped and stood over me, leaning on his hiking stick.

“Are you OK?” he asked.

“I’m sorry,” I sobbed. “I feel so stupid.”

“We need to keep going,” he said.

“Just give me a minute.”

And with that exchange, eerily similar to one we shared 3 ½ years ago in this same desert, I fell back in time.

12:30 p.m., Oct. 4, 2013: Big Bend Ranch State Park

“Babe, we’ve got to keep going,” Rick said. Stooped over his hiking stick, he spoke in gasps as he struggled to catch his breath.

We’d been stopping and starting and stopping all morning. Each time, I begged for just a few minutes’ rest.

“Are you ready?” Rick asked again.

“I can’t,” I told him. “I’m done. I’m just holding you back. You have to leave me. You have to go.”

For 2 ½ days, we had been lost in the Chihuahuan Desert after setting out on what was meant to be a day hike at the unfamiliar state park.

We spent the first night on a cliff overlooking a steep canyon. The second day, out of water and worried about heat stroke, we hiked only during the morning and then spent the afternoon plastered against a large rock, moving in sync with the rotating shade it offered. Desperate for liquid, we cut open the pads of prickly pear cactus and lapped at juice from the pulp.

That evening, Rick spotted a cottonwood grove in yet another canyon. We used our last reserves of energy to scramble and skid down to it. Just as the sun began its slow slide behind the mountains, we staggered into the grove. There, we found a tiny spring.

The next morning, we refilled our aluminum containers with water and set out yet again.

Around 12:30 p.m., I spotted a low-lying mesquite tree that offered more shade than most. That’s when I stopped, sat down and told Rick to leave me.

I didn’t cry. If I had, he wouldn’t have gone. My voice wavered only when I asked him to tell our children, Ethan, then 8, and Amanda, 10, that I loved them dearly and had done my damndest to get back to them.

That evening, Rick finally made it back to the trailhead.

Forty-eight hours later, search-and-rescue teams found me sprawled – naked and incoherent  – underneath the mesquite tree.

April 25, 2017, Big Bend National Park

Rick waited patiently while I tried to pull myself together.

“Look,” he said. “You can see the road and cars from right here. We have plenty of water. We’re fine.”

“I know,” I said. “It’s just that there’s no shade and I’m scared.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “We shouldn’t have tried this hike.”

“It’s OK,” I said.

This is not that time. This is not that place. We are not the same people.

Shakily, I stood up. “Let’s go.”

As we trudged toward the trailhead, a thick layer of clouds scudded across the sky and hid the sun. My panic ebbed away.

It was then I recalled a conversation with a state park employee. I met her about six weeks after my rescue, when Rick and I returned to the area to hike out to the mesquite tree that had sheltered me.

“You’re the woman who was lost,” she said, inviting me to sit down over iced tea.

“It must feel really special, to know that you survived something like that,” she continued. “In its own way, the desert protected you. It gave you its cactus. It gave you the spring. And then it gave you the tree. You see that don’t you?

“It took care of you.”

Anniversary Eve, April 28, 2017, Big Bend Ranch State Park

After driving out to the trailhead where we began our ill-fated hike in 2013, we fill two glasses of wine and watch the sinking sun paint the sky various shades of pink and red.

For years, Rick and I were an intrepid team of journalists, out to conquer any assignment we were given. And for years, we came to Big Bend determined to conquer the desert by choosing hikes that would challenge us physically and mentally. We claimed a victory each time we hobbled back into camp – sore, sweaty and hungry.

I’m more cautious now. Even so, I still have panic attacks when hiking. What I’ve learned is that while I can face my fears, I will never conquer them. When I was lost out here, my brain reprogrammed the most primitive, reptilian part of itself to ensure that – if I survived – I would never find myself in such a dire situation ever again.

As the shadows deepen, I look toward the mountain cut where I was found. My wedding ring is still out there, somewhere. It fell off of my withered finger while I was alone under the tree.

After my rescue, I considered the loss to be a sacrifice to the desert – my ring for my life.

Now I’m inclined to think of it as a pledge to do right by the mistress in our marriage. She was never meant to be tamed. She was never meant to be conquered. Rather, she was meant to be loved – not in spite of her needles and thorns and scabrous edges – but because of them.

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Sunset on April 28, 2017, at the trailhead. Photo by Rick McFarland