Poster Boy

O n that fateful day, I sat where I always did on my lunch break, on a bench in the mall that offered me a perfect view of the poster. It was for “Moon Wars,” a sci fi movie. I was obsessed with the lead actor in the movie, Phillip Chow. Chow is the greatest Chinese action hero ever. His martial arts moves are off the hook, and I know a little bit about moves…unfortunately. Thinking about Chow, living in a fantasy world of perfectly choreographed fights were nobody really died and everything turned out okay in the end, was helping me to forget my unpleasant experience of the not-to-distant past. In the poster Chow stood bare-chested, golden skin glistening with sweat highlighting every exquisite line on his perfectly formed body. Long black hair woven with feathers framed his noble, intensely alive face, the slanted eyes on fire with passion, nostrils flared, mouth set in a determined line. The force of Chow’s energy leaped off the poster and grabbed hold of me as I sat there, pulling me in. I felt myself transported to a magical place, Chow by my side. We were fighting together, beating off an entire army of evil sorcerers and when the last of the enemy fell we turned to one another, sweat pouring from our bodies, clothes torn, locked eyes, drew close and…

“Excuse me, mind if I sit here?” I stared, unseeing, my eyes finally focusing on the timid, balding man leaning over me, a hint of impatience hiding behind his forced politeness.

I gathered up my trash and left. I’m obsessed with Chow but more obsessed with China and everything Chinese. Who would I be without Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon? I’d be nobody—just one more ordinary receptionist of European descent, working in a ridiculous Beverly Hills plastic surgeon’s office, living a dull, meaningless existence. I must have watched Crouching Tiger a hundred times. I wish I lived in that kind of magical world. I bet I was a warrior in another life. I love Bruce Lee. I’ve memorized all his karate moves. Fist of Fury is the best. I wish I was Chinese. I wish I knew Mandarin. I want to go to China so bad—and I’m going to, just as soon as I save enough money.

When I was thirteen, I got into trouble with a girl named Jessica and was thrown out of school. Jessica was one of the “good” girls, from a rich family, always wearing designer clothes, perfect make-up even at that age. She got straight “A’s” of course, was a cheerleader and volunteered once a week at a homeless shelter. But she was a weasel, I’m sorry. I used to go to school dressed as my favorite anime characters and she’d make fun of me. Not directly, she was too sly for that. She’d play the goody-two-shoes all day long and then, when nobody was around except her skanky posse, she’d pick my clothes apart, make fun of every single accessory and they’d all have a good laugh. She even got physical. When nobody was looking, bam! She’d brush up against me, elbow me out of the way, toss her long blond hair in my face—I hated that—and always she’d say things like, what’s that smell, or we’re praying for your sinful soul at church but it’s a lost cause. One day, after taunting me for weeks, she tripped me in the gym and I fell flat on my face. Next thing I knew I was standing over Jessica and she was on the ground howling with blood pouring from her nose.

I tried to explain to the principal that “she started it,” but of course he didn’t care—not when Jessica looked so awful, while I looked perfectly fine. My parents had to pay her medical bills. I have to say that whoever fixed her broken nose did a great job. It looked even better afterwards than it did before. I was put in continuation school and the day after the fight, my dad marched me down to the local martial arts gym, handed me over to the owner and said, “Do something with my daughter.” My dad was a wise man.

Suddenly I was channeling my pent-up energy into an activity that resulted in positive progress instead of endless trouble. By the time I was eighteen I was boxing and had competed in a slew of amateur fights and had won them all. I’d trained in every kind of weaponry imaginable. I’m especially good with knives. When I graduated from high school I got this job so I could continue my training. When I leave Dr. Franken’s office, I leave the world of the ordinary behind (if you can call plastic surgery ordinary) and walk into the gym, sweaty, smelly, vibrating with pounding fists and booming rap music. I love it. It’s my world, where I belong, what gives me purpose.

But that night, I had a special mission: the premiere of the Moon Wars film. I was going to stand along with all the little groupies in front of Groman’s Chinese Theater and watch Phillip Chow walk down the red carpet. Embarrassing, I know. My best friend Olivia agreed to come with me and I trusted her to keep her mouth shut. Olivia didn’t exactly understand my obsession but she loved the idea of it and she was down to be a groupie for the night.

After work, I picked her up and we headed across town. Luckily, a parking space was waiting for us just a few blocks up from the theater and we hurried to take our places amongst the crowd. With a few well-placed nudges, we managed to make it to the front by the ropes, close to the theater doors. A wave of anticipation swept the crowd, murmuring voices swelling to a higher pitch of excitement as on cue, necks craned in the same direction and we all looked down the red carpet.

The first limo arrived, followed by a train of others, the crowd showing good-natured enthusiasm for the occupants, while saving the big welcome for Chow. At last the moment came that everyone was waiting for. A silver cloud pulled to the curb and the door swung open, revealing, not Chow first, but a pair of long shapely legs followed by the body and head of a breathtakingly beautiful young woman wearing a shimmering cream colored gown so sheer it might as well have been see-through, the front cut so low her voluptuous breasts seemed ready to pop out but never quite did. Blond hair, shiny as satin, cascaded down to her shoulders like Lauren Bacall’s in The Maltese Falcon. She struck a pose and bulbs flashed but clearly the paparazzi were waiting for the person who exited next: Phillip Chow. And then, there he was, in the flesh, looking even better than all my dreams. He was tall and infinitely elegant in his Armani suit, yet emitting a magnetically animal charisma, as if at any moment he’d tear off the suit and prowl amongst the crowd, a panther surveying his prey. Which woman would he devour? Any one of us pushing against the ropes would have gladly submitted to a thorough ravishing right then and there.

As the glorious couple moved in unison down the carpet, insanely in those few moments when Chow was so close I could almost reach out and touch him, I had eyes only for his creamcolored companion. Who was this woman and how did she get so lucky? They came abreast to me, pausing for another camera moment and for an instant my eyes locked with those of the woman before she looked away again, flicking her hair back in an arrogant gesture. Something clicked in my brain. As she moved on by, her profile with its absolutely perfect nose was displayed and I thought, I’d know that nose anywhere, that thing she does with her hair…. Holy shit…it was Jessica, the girl I’d beaten up in Middle School, that perfect girl who had so infuriated me because she’d known exactly how to do it. And she was doing it still.

At the theater door, the couple turned to the crowd for a final smile and royal wave and then they were gone, followed like a swarm of killer bees by the paparazzi, the other cast members and all the hangers on who had somehow bamboozled their way into the premiere. It was uncanny how quickly the crowd dispersed after that. Olivia and I went across the street for a drink but my heart wasn’t in it. Deflated, depressed, completely out of sorts, I made some excuse saying I had to leave. Olivia pouted a bit but her friend Sarah was on her way and could take her home so we said good-bye. I walked in front of the now silent theater, all the beautiful people sealed inside, Phillip and Jessica chief amongst them.

As I passed the side of the theater a movement caught my eye and I saw that someone was smoking in the semi-darkness of the alley, just beyond a set of steps leading down from a theater side door. More importantly, close to the entrance of the alley three hooded figures all but blended into the shadows, crouching behind a large trash bin and watching the smoker. This was getting interesting and I pulled back, deciding to see what would happen next. A stealthy advance ensued, the flash of a knife appearing in one of their hands. The knife-wielder let the others move ahead and I calculated that their job was to loosen up the victim, then he’d move in to execute a little carving, the artist of the group. I couldn’t help myself, elation gripped me, every muscle taunt for combat, my world reduced to this alley and nothing beyond. I loved this world of combat where right and wrong, winning and losing, wasn’t distinguished by rationalization or theoretical conversation but by actions. And those actions brought immediate results. No waiting for years to find out whether or not you’d made the right choices. You knew instantly because either you ended up on the ground or they did.

I went first for the one with the knife. It took less than ten seconds to break his arm, sending the blade clattering to the ground. I snatched the blade and turned my attention to the other two who had brought the smoker down. They were so busy kicking him, it took a few seconds for them to notice me. As they jumped up and turned, I kicked the closest thug in the kidney. His accomplice tensed, a look of stupid surprise on his face, and I punched him in the nose with the blunt end of the knife, sending him staggering backward, clutching his face, blood gushing between his fingers. Fear and confusion registered in both their eyes as I swung the knife, while behind me the other one scurried out of the alley, clutching his arm. In five seconds the other two had done the same, rats in the dark.

Helping the smoker up, I received a mind-numbing shock. The man staggering to his feet was none other than Phillip Chow.

“Where are they?” he gasped.

“Gone.”

He eyed the knife in my hand, moving slightly backward. “What do you want—money?”

“What?” I gasped.

This was not how I’d fantasized our meeting would be. Could this despicable, pathetic man be the glorious specimen in the poster? Carefully, I offered him the knife and he snatched it, grimacing with pain.

“I got a bad back or I would have killed those mother fuckers. Where’s Manson?” He glared at me petulantly, clearly expecting an answer.

 Before I could voice my anger, the stage door opened and a fat little man burst out, calling, “Phillip?”

Jessica was right on his heels.She looked back and forth between me and Chow, her big violet eyes narrowing. “What’s going on here,” she demanded, marching up to Chow, ready to lay into him. Her expression changed to one of horrified concern when she saw his face. She turned on me. “Did you do this?”

I hoped she’d lunge at me so I’d have the pleasure of breaking her nose again. No such luck. Before she could do anything, the fat man took her by the arm and steered her away, barking over his shoulder at Chow, “How many times have I told you not to sneak out to smoke?”

Jessica threw me a parting glance, recognition dawning. “Hey, aren’t you–?”

I didn’t hear the rest because chaos descended on the alley. Magically, people began to appear as if the universe had sent a message to all interested parties that this was the place to be. Cameras and microphones materialized in front of Chow’s face. “What happened?” everyone wanted to know.

Chow never even looked at me. Under the spotlight, his transformation was miraculous, becoming the star once more, nobler and more impressive than ever, if possible, thanks to his developing shiner. He told an incredible story and I must say his acting was superb. I listened in amazement as he recounted how he’d single- handedly fended off not just three but six attackers.

His Shakespearian voice slowly faded away as I allowed myself to be pushed to the back by the jostling crowd. As I walked away, an arm grabbed me and I tensed. It was the short fat man, his pale piggy eyes viewing me with small-minded distrust and cynicism.

“Name’s Manson, Terri Manson. You are?” He extended his hand to shake mine.

“Natasha Beil,” I said hesitantly.

He smiled, but the effect was blisteringly cold. “I’m going to make this fast, Ms. Beil, ‘cause I don’t have a lot of time. Nothing happened back there that you know anything about, if you understand my meaning. You do understand my meaning?”

My smile was no less frigid. Between the two of us, we could have stopped global warming. “I’m not sure that I do, Mr. Manson, can you explain?”

He put his face two inches from mine and said in a menacing voice meant to frighten, “Don’t mock me.”

I moved my face an inch closer. “Okay,” I said and walked away.

“I’ll be watching you!” he called.

I didn’t turn around, just flipped him off over my shoulder.

Back home I turned on the television, unsurprised to find that every station in LA showed Phillip Chow recounting the story of how he’d been attacked by six knife-wielding psychopathic gangbangers and how he’d disarmed them. It was a PR moment made in heaven and Chow’s celebrity status sky-rocketed. Not only did “Moon Wars” become the highest grossing movie of all time but over the next few weeks—and I know this is hard to believe but it’s absolutely true, the press went so far as to suggest Phillip Chow should run for president—and he wasn’t even an American citizen. And then, he did a public service ad for Homeland Security. It was enough to make a person gag.

I’d never been so disillusioned. I’d actually saved Phillip Chow, the most famous martial arts actor in history, who turned out to be a charlatan and a coward. I couldn’t shake the image of him lying on the ground in a fetal position begging for mercy and me reaching down to help him up. What should I do, tell the press? I laughed at the absurdity. No one would believe I’d saved Chow’s ass. And I’d been warned, oh yes, the piggy man had warned me big time.

Amazingly, after a few weeks I almost convinced myself that the whole thing had never happened. I was pretty good at telling myself lies—making believe that the real violence had never happened, covering it up with play-acting in the ring. It was spring, a busy season at Dr. Franken’s since the pressure was on for all the desperate LA women to look perfect for summer. Between work and training, I barely had time to think about anything else. In the evenings I pushed harder than ever and was rewarded with news of my first pro fight in the fall. But somehow, ever since I’d beat up the thugs, my heart hadn’t been in my fighting. At home one night brushing my teeth before bed, I allowed myself to voice a concern that had always been at the back of my mind—where is this leading me? Boxing and MMA are short-lived careers and then what? Like my dad had always told me, before he passed away, When you gonna develop longterm goals, not just live in the moment? I’d hated hearing that. But now it didn’t sound so stupid.

As if things weren’t bad enough, the next night in the gym I heard someone say the police had caught the knife guy. The minute I got home, I turned on the television and sure enough, it was all over the news. That’s when Terri Manson called, sweet as sugar, and invited me to lunch at Koi.

He was already seated when I got there and rose to greet me, his smile bright—too bright—piggy eyes still cold and cynical. After ordering a fortune in miniature helpings of artistically presented sushi, he said, “We got off on the wrong foot, Ms. Beil.”

“Call me Natasha,” I offered.

He nodded, encouraged. “Lovely Natasha, so young, your whole future ahead of you.” Deftly and at a stupefying rate, he popped food into his mouth with the chopsticks, never pausing in his conversation. “Five people know what happened that night. One’s an apprehended criminal who’s probably spilling the beans right now. Obviously, whatever he says is a lie. Isn’t that right, Natasha?”

“How would I know,” I said testily, trying to steal some food before he ate it all.

“Sarcasm isn’t flattering in a young woman. Let me spell it out for you: the police found one of the muggers before we did. No doubt he’s spouting off about some mysterious female superhero. Before long they’ll be knocking on your door and that’s not in our best interests—or yours. That’s why we’re offering you a little vacation— say for one year—to anywhere outside the United States. There must be someplace you want to go Natasha?”

The eel I’d finally managed to secure slipped from my chopsticks and slithered down to the plate. Manson immediately snapped it up.

“You must be crazy,” I said. “I have a job, a career.”

He winced. “Please. A pretty girl like you has no business fighting in the ring—or out of it. We checked up on the boyfriend incident. Lucky to get out of that one, Natasha—but who am I to judge?”

 The “incident” he called it. The little encounter I was trying to forget. Yes, the piggy man had done his homework and now here it was, playing back in my mind once again. My boyfriend, seven time world champion kick boxer Danny Lada, a living legend in the ring but useless at anything practical—like paying the rent—coming at me in a drunken craze, long, thin kitchen knife in hand, accusing me of cheating on him with his trainer, Mickey. Yeah, can you believe it, cross-eyed Mickey. Me, wrestling the knife away and Danny falling forward onto the blade. Always made sure those blades were sharp and so it went in clean and easy, flesh made of butter. Dead center in the heart. Dead all right, no chance for survival. Mickey bursting in, knowing nothing of what had happened, just seeing Danny convulsing on the floor, knife sticking straight up as if we were all in the middle of a horror movie, and Mickey thinking, and why wouldn’t he, that I’d killed Danny. Mickey, flashing the knife he always carried on his hip— too many knives around that night—and me pulling the blade out of Danny and killing Mickey for real, just like that, fast, hardly any effort, slitting his throat. No accident. Self-defense.

The weird thing was, when it was all over and they were both lying on the floor, I didn’t feel remorse, just satisfaction, exultation in fact, victorious, a rush like no other; my world, my element, the only “right” being to get them before they got me. Not fantasy, a real fight, where you really know whether you’ve won or not. Because someone ends up dead.

I was acquitted, thank God, thanks to my neighbor who heard the noise, walked in and saw it all, only I didn’t see her standing there because I was too busy at the time. And then when it was over, she started to scream, and that was the scary part, her screaming out of control. She’s never been quite the same since. She avoids me. I guess I can understand that.  

For a few days, I was a bit of a celebrity, splashed everywhere in the news until, finally, the hype died down. But it left its mark on me—killing people does that, you know. Leaves a mark. Even if it’s in self-defense. Especially when you realize that the act of taking a life comes with a rush of power like no other and you have to push it down, deny it or it’ll consume you. And now here it was tormenting me again, thanks to the sly and sleazy Mr. Manson.  

“You listening to me?” The little creep was jabbing at my arm with his chopsticks. I cut my eyes to him so sharp and cold just like those knives, he actually stopped his jabbing, slightly subdued for a second. Of course, his recovery was quick and he continued, “You must know that given the circumstances of your past, this is a very good offer. You see Natasha, you can go this way,” he pointed left with a chopstick, “or you can go that way,” he pointed with the other one. “Make the right choice and your future is wide-open. Make the wrong one and you’ll end up… well, let’s just leave it at that, shall we?”

“Why do I get the feeling I don’t really have a choice?”

He sighed. “What will it be, Natasha?”

“China.” The word popped out of my mouth, just like that, before I could stop it. Surely now he’d laugh, a camera would appear and someone would yell I’d been punked.

But none of that happened. He simply shrugged. “Not my first choice but never mind, I’m not the one going. You leave late tonight. We’ve gathered some things for you and taken them to a hotel. Can’t risk you going back to your apartment. The police might be there already.”

“I can’t get a visa to China just like that!”

He rolled his eyes. “You wait in Mexico while we arrange your papers.” He motioned for the waiter, who hurried over, and Manson signed the tab and got up. “Everything’s been arranged. We won’t meet again.”

He trotted out of the restaurant, me following like a meek little lamb. Before I could say anything else he was gone in a black convertible VW Bug—who would have guessed—that had already been brought to the curb by the valet. 

I was left to ruminate as I was taken by taxi to the hotel. I was screwed. I knew enough about powerful people to realize that the whole “you have a choice” speech was bogus. It was useless to fight someone like Manson. No matter that I could put him on the ground in two seconds. People like him, or probably it was people above Manson, people whose names and faces I would never know, controlled the media, the money, the masses—everything. Maintaining Chow’s image was worth a fortune to them and they weren’t going to let a little nobody like me ruin it all.

And then it hit me: so what? Wasn’t this what I’d been dreaming of? And here it was falling into my lap. Not exactly how I’d planned it, but hell, this was better than scrimping and saving for years and maybe never getting what I wanted. Thank God I hadn’t signed a contract for the fight yet. To hell with the fight, it was all a stack of cards ready to fall anyway. And women got no respect in the ring, Manson was right about that. It was time to stop fooling myself.

That night as I exited the hotel, a car pulled up and the darkened window rolled down just enough to reveal a pair of violet eyes. Jessica.

“Get in. I’m taking you to the airport,” she said.

I got in.

“You were a real asshole in school,” she said.

“So were you.”

She smiled. Even in her sweats, no make-up and hair pulled back in a ponytail, she looked gorgeous. “What the hell were you doing at the premiere?”

I flushed. “I had a crush on Chow, but no more.”

“Ditto that, though, much as he’s a prick I don’t want him dead. I’m going to be the love interest in his next movie, so, thanks for saving the mother fucker.” I gave a mock bow, as best I could in the car. She looked at me thoughtfully. “After you beat me up in school, nothing was ever the same. I hated you, was scared of you, too. Everybody made fun of my nose job and I couldn’t do anything about it. I’m pretty good at kicking ass now, though.”

“You were always good, Jessica, much better than me.”

“No, I claw my way up just like women always have, with sex. But you…” she moved closer, wide eyes filling my vision, hunger on her face. “I heard you killed two men. I’d give anything to know what that feels like.” Her face had turned to me so I now saw her left side. I realized that she was, indeed, wearing skillfully applied make-up, covering a black and blue mark by her left eye.

“Does he hit you, Jessica?” I asked bluntly.

Her body recoiled and she laughed, bitter. “I know what I’m doing. I’m using Chow and when I’m done, I’m going to crush him.”

“Ouch,” I said. “What if it doesn’t turn out like that? Where’s your pride?”

She was no longer feeling chummy. Naked hate twisted her fine features into a clownish, repulsive caricature of herself. “You fucking hypocrite! I hope you enjoy your exile because you’re more in a cage as I am. You talk tough but you obeyed Manson and did what you were told, just like everybody does. You punch someone and maybe get a few thousand bucks—so what? I sleep with the right guy, take a few punches–okay, I admit it–and end up with money and influence beyond your wildest dreams. I’ll go for that any day. Now get the fuck out of my car.”

I got out and boarded my plane for Mexico. Two weeks later, on my way to China I still hadn’t shaken the encounter. I’d never felt what Jessica felt when my fists were in her face. I’d never covered my wounds with make-up. I wore them with pride. I’d never cowered on the ground, begging for mercy like Chow. I was the one who made others cower, even killed if necessary. Did it have to be like that, one who controlled and one who submitted?

“You are so deep in thought,” said a voice in my ear.

Startled, I turned to look into the face of the Chinese man sitting next to me on the plane; a beautiful, serene face with deeply intelligent, inquiring eyes and a finely chiseled mouth, slightly upturned in an inscrutable smile. I blinked as if to clear my vision. “I guess I am.”

He nodded sympathetically. “Long flight ahead. How about a drink?” He called the flight attendant over, then said with a hint of playfulness, “You have a secret. Secrets cannot resist a good champagne.”

Great line, I thought cynically. Then, I shook my head as if to empty it of negativity. For once in my life, I was going to enjoy the ride. At thirty thousand feet, suspended between heaven and hell and hurtling towards the unknown, a giddy rush of anticipation ran through me. The champagne came and I toasted Chow and Manson. Hell, I even toasted Jessica.

“And who are they?” the man asked. 

“My benefactors,” I said, reaching for more champagne, our glasses clinking merrily.

“Then they must be very good people, indeed,” he remarked.

I laughed. “Oh, yes…indeed.”

I gulped down my second glass. I was feeling great, really great. Life had a crazy way of turning on its head and in a split-second shift, becoming something altered and unexpected. Case in point, who’d have thought that a creep like Manson, my old nemesis Jessica and that pathetic poster boy Chow would have helped to make my dreams come true. Here I was, heading towards China and adventure, seated next to a gorgeous man who was surely a million times more interesting and sexy than Chow could ever be. Or at least, that’s how it seemed with two glasses of champagne in me.

“Let’s drink to poster boys, cheerleaders and the powerful little pigs who own them,” I said.

“Whatever you wish,” said my companion, smiling knowingly. And to that, we toasted again.

CONFESSIONS OF A ONE-TIME MURDERER

Why do we humans torture and kill? Oh, it’s one thing to kill in a moment of passion or for survival. But to concoct a simple or an elaborate plan, analyzing and calculating with cold-blood precision the best and most efficient ways in which to take the life of a single individual or of a million. Where does that urge come from? Why do we like to watch it endlessly and pretend we are doing it ourselves in games? And then, what makes us turn the idea of killing–the tantalizing fantasy of it in our minds–into reality?  

I have felt that detached curiosity, that heady grip of power over another. I have taken that leap and experimented through actions. I have tortured and murdered. I did it once. And then I stopped. But why did I stop–because some people don’t. Some people keep on going.   

In the two-storied house my family had animals. I was five when we moved there and I hardly remember the house before that one. It had been in the country, near Merced, and there had been a big field in the back with cows. When we moved to the two-storied house in Los Angeles, Dad wanted to bring the country with him. He loved animals. Mom didn’t. Actually, she liked them well enough as long as they were in the wild where they belonged and not in our house. Although, now that I think about it, Mom would have loved to have a lamb if it would have stayed little and cute and never grown up. Or maybe a goat because they eat anything and they might have eaten some of the other animals, which would have made Mom happy.

But we didn’t have a goat or a baby lamb. We had geese and ducks, chickens and roosters, a guinea pig, a cat and a German Shepherd named General. The geese and ducks were ill-tempered and made big splats all over the backyard, which I hated as much as Mom did. They lived in a pen at the way back of the yard but Dad liked to let them out so they could run around and flap their wings. At the end of the day it was nearly impossible to catch them. They were almost as big as me and would bite if I came near. When I waved my arms and stomped my feet, trying to herd them towards the cage, they backed up for a second, but then they’d realize my plan and hiss and spit and come at me worse than ever, like zombies from a horror movie. I always ended up running away, crying.

Dad was the only one with authority over the animals. He’d shake his head at our feeble attempts, give a command and a whistle and somehow or other, amazingly, they obeyed. Much as Janna and I tried to imitate exactly what he did, it never worked for us.

None of the animals belonged to me. I thought when we got the guinea pig that maybe it could be mine but the first time I touched it I found out I was allergic. My sinuses closed up and I couldn’t breathe. My skin became covered in itchy bumps and my eyes swelled shut. It was horrific. After that, I used to stare at the guinea pig in its cage and wonder what it had against me. Whereas before it had looked sweet and cuddly, it now looked sinister and monstrous, beady little eyes staring back at me with malicious intent.

One day, my older sister Janna came home with a mouse. I don’t know how she got so lucky but she did, and I didn’t, which seemed to be the story of my life. The mouse was adorable. It was brown with a twitching nose and whiskers and bright, lively eyes. Janna named it Jasper. She kept it in a cage by the back porch and she loved to take it out and play with it.

I asked if I could, too, but Janna refused.

“Baby!” she said. “If you touch Jasper I’ll kill you!”

I hated being called a baby. I didn’t mind being threatened with death. Of course my sister would never actually kill me.

One afternoon when Janna wasn’t home, I took Jasper out of its cage and went into the family room with it. I sat on a chair and looked at the mouse. It was wriggly and nervous. It wouldn’t stay still. I hadn’t realized how wriggly and nervous a mouse could be and I worried, on no, what if it does get away, Janna really will kill me.

The mouse climbed up my arm and tickled my chin. I put it back on my lap. It climbed up again and I put it back again. It wouldn’t stay still. I held it a little tighter. It wriggled furiously, right out of my grasp and onto the floor, immediately trying to scurry off. I grabbed it and the little creature twisted like a contortionist, back-flipping out of my hands and down to the floor. I quickly grabbed it again.

“Bad Jasper,” I said, squeezing tighter.

It wouldn’t stop wriggling, so I decided to punish the mouse and teach it a lesson. I dropped it on the ground and then picked it up before it could get away.

I continued to do this, dropping the mouse and picking it up again. As I did, I became acutely aware of how delicate the mouse was, how tiny and vulnerable. I marveled at how perfectly it fit inside my hand, which was small because I was small.

But the mouse was much smaller and more vulnerable than me. Before holding the mouse, I’d felt like the most vulnerable person in the world. But here was something much more vulnerable. It had a little heart that beat in such a frantic way, I was sure it would burst right out of the mouse’s chest. It had bones that could crack; teeny, tiny bones thinner than twigs, maybe even as thin as straight pins. It had flesh that could be cut and blood that could flow from the inside out. When I squeezed the mouse, I felt how the little body yielded to my strength and power.

Once again, I dropped the mouse on the ground and watched as it tried to run away. Then I grabbed it, squeezed a little harder… and dropped it again. I kept doing this, watching dispassionately, and after a while the mouse didn’t try to get away so quickly anymore and then, it hardly moved at all, just feebly fell on its side, its legs not working and splayed at odd angles.

Eventually, it didn’t move at all.

At that point, the mouse felt different in my hands. No more twitching whiskers, no more beating heart, no more squirming body, just a limp and lifeless ball of fur. The body now felt terribly heavy, an unnatural heaviness that was out of proportion to its little size. Its eyes darted no more, just stared, empty black holes with the light forever gone.

How was it possible that a few minutes before the mouse had been filled with life, absolutely filled with it, and now, the life was gone? What had happened?

I had a sudden realization. I had done this! I had taken the life away.

In that moment, a sort of evil came to me. I might have only been five, but I understood that I had the power of a god and it was a heady, delightfully sinister feeling, that feeling of power, the power to inflict pain and even death on another.

It wasn’t that I, myself, was evil. It’s impossible to know exactly what evil is. You can’t say, “Here is evil,” in the same way you say, “Here is a cat.”

Evil isn’t a thing. It’s not like you can find evil at a certain location, as if someone could say, “Okay, just drive down this street, up that hill and around the bend and there it will be, you can’t miss it—a cloud of evil by the side of the road.”

You can’t order a cup of evil. You can’t rub it on your body like lotion or eat it like bread.

Evil isn’t a person, either. People think of Satan as evil, and yes, Satan is evil—if you believe in Satan, that is. But, still, Satan isn’t EVIL.

Evil’s a word, just like truth, justice, love, and hate. And who knows exactly what they are, either?

Nobody knows, not really. Nobody knows if any of those words actually exist apart from we who have created them.

So, that afternoon, holding the dead mouse in my hand, I felt surrounded by evil and the desire to let it enter me, fueled by the heady feelings of power and control that killing the mouse had aroused.

At the same time, I felt horror and guilt—not that I’d taken a life, because that reality hadn’t yet sunk in, but that I might be found out by my sister.

And then, the most terrorizing realization of all made my insides churn uncontrollably. My parents would find out!

And this was where the real horror of my actions began to sink in. First, with fear for myself because of the consequences I would surely suffer when my crime was discovered. I hadn’t known it was a crime until I’d realized there were consequences that went with it. Consequences beyond myself, because what I’d done affected not only the mouse (it was undeniably dead and had probably suffered pain) but also my sister, since she would be mad at me and heart-broken to have lost her mouse.

Then, there were my parents who would be disappointed that I’d not only killed the mouse but that I’d hurt my sister. Most importantly, I had disobeyed a command not to take the mouse out of its cage. Because of my disobedience, disaster had fallen upon me and my family.

That was about when I looked at the limp form of the mouse and was hit with a sudden epiphany and I thought, with a whole new understanding, “I killed Jasper!”

The mouse was dead, the life gone, and I could never repair the wrong. Or maybe I could?

I shook the mouse, talked to it, pleaded with it to wake up, come back to life. But it just lay there.

I didn’t actually know why it was so terrible that the mouse was dead. During the act of killing it, I couldn’t deny that I’d felt some kind of pleasure, the pleasure of power.

About ten years ago I founded a creative writing program for incarcerated youth. The kids in the program made all kinds of interesting confessions in the course of their writing. One teenage boy talked about how as a child he’d enjoyed chopping worms with a Swiss Army knife.

When I asked him why, he simply said, “Power.”

He liked the feeling it gave him.

Eventually, though, he stopped doing it. When I asked him why, he couldn’t articulate a reason.

Then I asked him, “What would have happened if you’d decided to keep cutting up worms, maybe moved on to bigger things?”

He grinned knowingly. “Then I’d be a psychopathic killer!”

Most people decide to curb those feelings of pleasure and power that they get from killing. I don’t know if it’s because of that process of thinking—the fear of retribution or of being an outcast, because really you can’t have a society where everyone is going around wantonly killing each other. There have to be rules to the killing game.

Or perhaps it’s because we know, even from a very young age, that this is the path of madness, the path towards the center of evil and once we let evil in so completely, it controls us and we lose control of ourselves.

The thing is, we do kill and it is a part of us. In fact, on this planet, every species kills. Humans think up ways to kill that we can justify. People don’t dare say they’re killing for pleasure. They have to say it’s for necessity.

How twisted it is to commit murderous acts and then justify them to ourselves because we know that what we’ve done is depraved and yet we do it anyway. We can watch death and torture in a movie or act it out in a virtual world and feel the pleasure and the power because it isn’t “real,” it isn’t us doing it, even though we are feeling it and living it vicariously. So we justify these terrible acts to ourselves and get rid of the urge by watching it or by waging wars in far away countries that we can feel righteous in supporting because they are “necessary” and we are on the “right side.”

As soon as I realized I’d killed the mouse, I started rationalizing what I’d done inside my head. I started telling myself I hadn’t known what I was doing. It wasn’t my fault. The mouse had kept trying to get away. I had merely been doing my best to keep it safe. It was the mouse’s own fault for being so disobedient. It hadn’t paid any attention to me. I had tried to warn it by squeezing it just a little bit and telling it not to run away and it had still kept running.

There, in front of me, lay the evidence. Staring at the dead mouse, I thought, “What will I do with the body?”

Could I hide it, say it had run away? If I did, how would I explain that it was out of the cage? No one would ever believe it had escaped on its own without me having taken it out.

Okay, then, I would put it back in the cage and just leave it there. Then, when Janna discovered it she would assume it had died of natural causes. It would be sad, but no one would blame me and no one would ever have to know the truth.

So, I put the mouse back in the cage, relieved that no one had seen me take it out and no one saw me put it back. I was safe.

Janna came home and the first thing she did was go to the cage, eager to take out her new mouse and play with it. Her scream traveled all the way upstairs to our room where I was acting innocent and unconcerned, playing with dolls. I didn’t really like playing with dolls very much, but I was playing industriously that afternoon. The next thing I knew, Janna had burst through the door and was demanding that I tell her what had happened.

I tried to self-righteously deny that I’d had anything to do with the death of the mouse. I lied, putting on my very best lying face and using my very best lying voice. She believed none of it. I began to feel offended. How dare she accuse me in such a mean fashion? In my self-righteous indignation, I almost began to believe my own lie.

But then, Dad came home from work and what was always my greatest fear happened: he looked me in the eyes and told me to tell the truth.

None of us children, when looked in the eyes like that by our dad and told to tell the truth, could ever look back and tell a lie. My cheeks grew red with shame and before I could stop myself, I was crying uncontrollably and blurting it all out and the relief of the confession was like a wave of cool water washing over a fevered body.

I pleaded for Janna to forgive me and my parents insisted that she did. And eventually, when we began to plan the funeral of the mouse and Janna took charge, imagining the drama of the ceremony, she really did forgive me and we became friends again. We made a coffin out of a shoe box and my mom sewed a little blanket for the mouse to lie on. We picked flowers and placed them inside and put the mouse in the center of the box. We invited all the neighborhood children and they arrived with condolences, solemn and sympathetic. We set the coffin up on some bricks, like an altar, in the backyard and everyone viewed the body. We gave speeches about the mouse and how we’d loved it and what a good mouse it had been, noble and well-behaved.

This, I knew, had not been the case since the mouse would still have been alive if it had just obeyed and not tried to run away, however, it wasn’t right to speak ill of the dead and so I agreed that it had, indeed, been an exceptionally well-behaved mouse. Then we cried and wailed and rang our hands. We said a prayer for the mouse, put it into the earth and Janna threw a handful of dirt on the coffin. We filled up the hole, put a cross made of two twigs tied together at the head of the mound and that was it.

I never killed again.

Well, except for bugs. Anytime I see a fly I kill it. And I’ve eaten my fair share of dead animals—cows, chickens, pigs, baby lambs, goats, all the acceptable ones. That is until I realized that our modern society murders animals in far more tortuous ways than what I did to the mouse.

But apparently, it’s not evil to torture and kill animals if it’s done inside government sanctioned facilities.

Because anything that is accepted as normal by the majority of society isn’t evil, it’s good.

Right?

For eight years I was married to a Slovenian “rock star” and lived back and forth between London and a small village in Slovenia (but that’s a whole other story). Life in the village was very different from how I’d grown up in Los Angeles. People kept chickens in their backyards, for eggs and for food. Only no one really liked having to ring the chickens necks. Except for one feisty old lady who lived a few houses down from us. Whenever a neighbor wanted to kill a chicken they called Urska and she did it quite happily, for free. The creepy thing was that years earlier, Urska’s husband had hung himself in the attic. He was the only person in the village that anyone could remember ever committing suicide.

I used to think about that–Urska’s husband hanging by his neck, neck broken, just how Urska liked to break the necks of the chickens. Did she get the irony of the situation? It didn’t seem like it. She wasn’t self conscious at all. She didn’t apologize or act embarrassed. She was proud of her ability. Really enjoyed it.

Had Urska perhaps driven her husband to suicide? Or had she rung his neck herself, and then made it look like suicide? I would never know.

But it was like Urska had found her calling, killing those chickens. I couldn’t have done it. Nobody else in the village wanted to. But they sure were relieved that she did. They found her strange, thought of her as a bit crazy. But they appreciated using her services.

In kindergarten, I encountered kids who loved nothing more than to knock stuff down. I would no sooner finish building a tower out of blocks, carefully and with great pride placing the last block on the tip top, and a kid would come along and smash it, just swing his or her arm with total delight, or kick it down and sometimes even stomp on the blocks to ensure irreparable destruction. I didn’t dare try to stop them. If I did, they would most likely turn from stomping on the blocks to stomping on me. It was always the same kids. The Destroyers.

In this world, there are Builders and Destroyers. What would happen if the Builders just kept on building without anyone ever tearing the towers down? Eventually, the entire universe would be filled with towers of blocks, until we ran out of them. If you look at it that way, then the Destroyers are very necessary. They just need to be polite about it. Say and do it in a manner that is acceptable by society. Destroyers come along and tear things down, bring things back to neutral. They take great satisfaction in doing this, just as much as the Builders take in creating.

What would happen if nobody ever died? As far as I can see, that would be a disaster. The necessity of death and destruction is a terrible lesson for a child to learn. Good and evil relentlessly balancing each other out. I’m not even sure if we choose which way we’re going to go—left or right, up or down; to Build or to Destroy.

That day, I think I made a choice, although it was probably inevitable. I had tasted evil and while I found it intoxicating, I also found it to be terribly wrong. And since acceptance in my family and in society is determined by me making the right choices, I turned away from evil, resolving to follow the path of good.

I even made a sort of restitution as an adult by publishing a series of books about cute little mice titled The Rumpoles and The Barleys, which I wrote and illustrated.

            But I still wonder why I ever did such a thing in the first place. Why do we humans feel pleasure from cruel acts?

Continue the discussion on redroom.com

ALL THOSE WHO WANDER ARE NOT LOST

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“All those who wander are not lost.”  J RR Tolkien

Probably being a “wanderer” is not the first word that comes to mind when looking out at a sea of scholarship students who have stayed the course and not wavered in their goals to graduate with honors. And yet today I would like to encourage you to wander.

Each student sitting here can be extremely proud of what you have achieved. I am sure that each of you, looking back at the path that led you to this point, has a story to tell of ups and downs, defeats, missed opportunities and successes. Sometimes you were discouraged. Sometimes you were encouraged. It wasn’t always easy. There were times when you wanted to give up. Seemingly insurmountable challenges came your way. Yet, somehow, each of you found your own path. Through it all you refused to be swayed. You kept on going. Each of you found the method that worked for you, each of you found the strength and determination to take that extra step, that step that most people aren’t willing to take. And that is why you are all sitting here today, feeling, with good cause, proud of yourselves.

So I am not worried that you have focus. I am not worried that you do not understand or value your education and the doors that it will open for you in the future. I applaud you for setting high standards and for taking the initiative to achieve your goals.

What I would like to encourage you to do is to wander a bit. Step outside of your comfort zone and try new things, be creative, take a leap of faith every once in a while. You have been cocooned for these past years in a safe environment—in the really exceptional school that is East Los Angeles Skills Center. You have had people who have influenced your lives in the best possible way: Teachers, counselors, a great principal and staff. Now, you are being thrust out into the world. Many of you already come from challenging environments so you know what it’s like to go against the norm, stay in school and succeed where many around you have not. But your home environment is still a very small world and not at all indicative of what is out there beyond its borders.

And it is a BIG world out there filled temptations and distractions on the one hand and amazing opportunities on the other. It is a world with many mysterious doors waiting to be opened, leading in all kinds of fascinating directions. If you have your sights set on a certain career or a particular type of college studies, take the initiative on your own to do something that will enhance your learning experience. For example, work with a nonprofit during the summer building houses in another country. Go someplace that will take you completely outside of your familiar environment. Take a skill that you are good at—carpentry, art, writing, athletics, organizational skills—anything—or choose something that you’re not yet proficient at but have always wanted to learn, and use it to benefit others. Start now by making this type of mentality a priority in your life. These types of experiences lead us in unexpected directions, opening doors that we would never have found if we had simply followed an easier, more traditional path.

Don’t be surprised if you spend years studying one thing and end up working at something completely different. That’s okay. Your studies are never a waste of time. Every pursuit in your life that teaches you self-discipline and that opens your mind to learning is going to benefit you in the long run—no matter if it is traditional education or an unexpected experience.

My father study mathematics and business at UCLA. He became a successful businessman but he wasn’t happy. He wanted to be a writer so at the age of forty he did a bold thing—he stopped being a businessman and started to write. As a result he carted our family off on an amazing journey traveling the world so he could gain inspiration for his books. If he hadn’t had the courage to take that leap of faith and completely change his life, my life would not have been as rich. What he did greatly influenced me. It opened the world to me and helped me to realize that I, too, could do anything I wanted; I could follow my dreams no matter how fool-hardy some people might say they were.

It’s important to remember that we are all connected. What I do affects you and what you do affects me. What my dad did changed my life. What I choose to do affects the lives of my children. What you do affects the lives of those around you. Here’s an example:

A few years ago I was in Boston attending the Reebok Human Rights Awards. This was an inspiring event. Awards were given to a small, select group of individuals from around the world who were working to bring change in their communities, facing adversity and often danger. I remember one man from an African country with a repressive government received an award for a newspaper he was producing. It was quite likely that this man would be put in prison when he returned home for having had the nerve to travel to America and receive this award, bringing international recognition to the plight of his countrymen and women. So these weren’t some kind Hollywood awards where people were patting each other on the backs. No. These people meant business—they were standing up for basic human rights, such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, proper health care and the like. They were doing this in spite of facing severe persecution for their actions.

After attending the ceremony, a group of us went to lunch at a very nice restaurant across the street from where we were staying. We were all aglow, greatly inspired by what we had witnessed over the course of the conference. After lunch we exited the restaurant, well-fed and content. It was a freezing cold day in early spring. The Boston air was misty. You could almost see the moisture turning to ice before your eyes. Immediately we realized that there was a commotion on the other side of the street. We looked, barely able to believe what was happening. A few yards from us stood a man who was completely naked. Never before that day had I seen anyone who was literally blue with cold, but that man was. I cannot describe to you how surreal and horrific it was to see him in that cultured setting, right when I was feeling so inspired and, I have to say, a bit smug for having attended this award ceremony and being in the company of such inspiring people. That man was an assault to my senses. That man was a harsh reality that could not be denied, could not be hidden or somehow shuffled away. He was the essence of what the ceremony had been all about. And now, what was I going to do about him?

We all just stood there for a moment, shocked. People were passing by the man, making a wide path around him. Some people were smirking, looking back at him in distaste as they hurried by. Others looked afraid, others horrified.

I felt a growing sense of urgency over the course of those few moments of standing indecisively, wondering what to do. Something had to be done. This poor man couldn’t keep walking like that completely naked, freezing to death. But what could I do? I mean, really, what could anyone do? What possible difference could any action of mine make? And I noticed that no one else was doing anything. I told myself that this wasn’t my city. I was just a visitor passing through. But on the other hand, I had just come from this inspiring ceremony where, coincidentally, one of the recipients was a woman who worked with the mentally ill street-people of New York. I thought to myself, what would she do? I knew the answer.

There were about six of us in our lunch party. I started to walk towards the man and the others followed behind me, questioningly. I had on a warm new coat that I had bought especially for this trip because in Los Angeles I didn’t really need such a big coat. But I was not a well-to-do person. I was a struggling single mother with my own money worries. In fact, I was by far the poorest person in our group. Yet I could not stand there and do nothing. So, I did the only thing that I could. I took my coat off and approached the man, holding it out to him. He became very emotional. He told me not to come near him—he said it as if he was some kind of lower form of creature and he was not worthy to have anyone approach him. He told me to put the coat down, walk a few paces away, and he would take it. He blessed me for my kindness. Other people had now stopped to watch the encounter. I put the coat down, then stepped back a few paces. He tip-toed up, shivering badly, and took the coat and put it on his body, thanking me profusely. At that moment, a police car arrived to take the man away. The officer asked if I wanted my coat back. I said no, I’d given it to him and it now belonged to him. The officer asked me again, shaking her head as if I was a fool. I faltered a bit, but still said no, it belonged to the man.

The man was taken away, the crowd disbursed, some people looking at me and smiling and shaking their heads—and I thought to myself, wow, they think I’m an idiot. We walked back to our hotel. I was deep in thought. What was the point of what I’d done? The man would probably lose the coat or it would be stolen from him in jail. Or maybe he was just so crazy, he did the same scenario over and over, walking around naked until some bleeding heart like me gave him a coat. Who knew what he did with the coats, threw them away? I mean, he was a crazy man! And I couldn’t afford to lose that coat. Boy, was I naïve!

So I was talking to myself in my head like this when a young woman came up to me with tears in her eyes and said, “Excuse me, I just want you to know that I saw what you did and I will never forget it. It made a huge impression on me. I mean, to do that for someone else, it took a lot of courage…thank you so much!”

She was a college student. I don’t remember her name. I’ve never seen her since and probably never will again. But I realized something extremely important that day: I realized that I should never be afraid to follow my instincts—never be afraid to break away from the crowd and take a stand for what I believed to be right. None of us is responsible for anyone’s actions but our own. I was not responsible for any of the other people on that street. Only myself.

It can be lonely, I assure you. People can ridicule you for it. But really, for most of us, life isn’t about making a big statement on a stage. Most of us aren’t going to receive the Reebok Human Rights Award—although I wouldn’t put it past any one of you to receive such an honor. But our lives are about the little choices that we make every day. Sometimes those choices can seem insignificant, even absurd and surreal—like giving a naked man a coat on a freezing cold day in Boston. But we never know who might be watching or listening—who we might be influencing. Because everything that we do has an impact on someone around us.

Taking a chance, moving outside of our comfort zones, being courageous…this is what will make our lives exceptional. This is what will lead us towards life-changing encounters with other people. Each of us has a limited amount of time on this planet. And all of you are at an important crossroads, really at the point where you begin to take control of your own lives. We must ask ourselves: what are we going to do to make the time that we have on this planet meaningful and extraordinary? If we live within the confines of what is easy and comfortable, chances are we will have a decent life, but if we choose to wander a little, take a leap of faith here and there, we will have an exceptional life.

That is my hope for each of you here.

All who wander are not lost.

Take it to heart. Take a trip to an unknown destination and see what awaits you. If you have built a firm foundation, which each of you has, of self-discipline, a love of learning and a desire to do your best in all things, you will never be disappointed. You might be discouraged, your courage might be tested, but with each step you take you will become stronger and you life will be filled with exceptional and meaningful experiences. This is a golden opportunity, sitting here right now, to make a resolution to wander.
Teaching WORDPOWER to probation youth at East LA Skills Center

  Teaching WORDPOWER to probation youth at East LA Skills Center

Trouble In Paradise

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TROUBLE IN PARADISE

One single mother’s account of raising teenage boys on the “mean” streets of LA Suburbia


Karen Hunt

 

 

            A few months ago I walked out of my house to find a razor sharp javelin stuck in the middle of my front door. It was at eye level, right where my forehead would have been if I’d opened the small window in the door and looked out when I heard the screams and squeals of tires around 1:30 am. I guess if I’d looked, I wouldn’t be here right now. I’d probably be dead.

            Fifteen years ago, my husband and I had moved to Calabasas, the new Beverly Hills of LA, thinking there couldn’t be a safer suburb in which to raise our children. We were the perfect family—really looked the part, private school, church on Sundays, big house on a hill overlooking everybody else on the flats. Seven years later I was divorced, expelled from paradise and living just across the border in Woodland Hills. The perfect façade was gone but I was happy in my modest home, making the best of my situation, believing it to be a peaceful neighborhood and close enough to Calabasas so we could smell the clean air wafting our way and my kids could stay in the preppy schools.

I now find myself, a single mother of two teenage sons, one sixteen and one fourteen, fighting for their safety and my own. Their sister made it through the terrifying teens and is in her third year at UCLA Law School, so I know there’s hope. I believe in my boys, I am proud of them and love them fiercely. They are exceptional human beings. More than anything else in this illusory era, where the concept of standing by your word is virtually unknown, they need to hear me say “I believe in you,” “I am proud of you,” “I love you,” and know that I mean it, so that they can grow into believing it about themselves.

Unfortunately, like so many single mothers, I’ve had to play the role of father as well as mother, doing my best to teach strength, honor, defense of the weak, respect and how to be seekers of truth. As a second degree black belt and amateur boxer, I’m not a light-weight, but every day is still a battle for my voice to be heard by young men who are finding their way into manhood without a father to guide them.

            While many parents tell me they fear for their children and are at a loss how to protect them, others stick their heads in the sand, preferring ignorance to the reality of the tight-wire lives their children lead. Not having the hard evidence of javelins in their front doors, it’s easier to pretend that everything’s fine when their children, pockets flush with cash, roam the Calabasas streets and hang out at the Commons, the pristine Caruso-designed mall where even smoking in public is now illegal. Is it possible that the adults strolling along the charming winding pathways don’t know what goes on behind the Commons, where children make drug deals (often selling their parents’ prescription drugs or their own psychiatrist prescribed and government sanctioned uppers and downers), girls lie passed out drunk and fights erupt over small disagreements growing bigger over time until the boys have formed gangs that do violence to one another over stolen drugs and girlfriends?

            I didn’t know at first, didn’t want to know. But ignorance is not bliss, it is foolishness.

            When I heard the screams and screeching tires, and then a few seconds later, two ominous bangs, I didn’t dare go outside to investigate, just checked the interior of the house, our dogs barking frantically, my younger son following after me like a frightened puppy and then making a bed on the floor next to mine for the remainder of the night.

After discovering the javelins the next morning, I called 911 and the police arrived about one hour later. A nasty, creative piece of work, they said. Could’ve killed somebody. Prison style, homemade, with a six inch nail attached to a steel rod. Shot from some kind of weapon, imbedded at least an inch into the hard wood of the little window in the door.

            The police took a report. No, I had no idea what it could be about. There’d been a young man, recently graduated from Calabasas High, who’d stayed with us for a few nights but I hadn’t seen him in the past couple of weeks. From what I understood, his father had passed away when he was young and he and his stepmother didn’t get along. He’d needed a place to stay and I’d let him use the garage.

When the young man found out about the javelin, he volunteered to talk to the police, taking responsibility on himself for what had happened. He could have easily denied the javelin incident had anything to do with him but underneath the scars that had accumulated from growing up in paradise he was a decent young man.

He explained to the police that he was in fear for his life, on the run from a gang of skinheads.

A gang of skinheads—in my neighborhood?

Oh yes, said the two police officers, heads nodding in unison. It seemed the gang was well-known to them with older men and serious murderers in their ranks. When the police pressed the young man about why the gang was after him he finally admitted that besides being Jewish—cause enough for a conflict—he’d bought weed off someone from the gang and they claimed he owed them money. The police admonished him to make better choices in the future and the young man agreed, explaining that he had to try and stay alive for the next three weeks, at which point he could join the army. Then, he’d be safe.

Safe? I thought.

But to this young man, fighting in Iraq was safer than living in or near Calabasas.

Once the police were gone, I was left with the problem of what to do with the young man. I couldn’t just let him loose on the streets so I called another single mother who lived in an exclusive gated Calabasas community and often took in troubled kids. No problem, she said, she’d make sure he stayed safe until he could join the army.    

            A few months before the javelin incident, my older son, who was fifteen at the time, had been attacked by a seventeen year old on the Calabasas High School wrestling team. My son had gotten into a verbal argument with the wrestler’s younger brother, who was my son’s age. That, added to the fact that we no longer lived in Calabasas but in Woodland Hills, “the wrong side of the railroad tracks,” was enough justification for the wrestler to want to do serious damage to my son and make it clear that he should stay out of the wrestler’s “hood.” Within a few seconds the wrestler, supported by back-up of about thirty of his “homies,” had my son in a head lock and threw him to the ground. The wrestler bashed my son’s head twice into the concrete and then yelled that he was going to “curb stomp” him, just like he must have seen in “American X,” and started to drag him towards the curb. Someone else yelled “shank him.”

All of this was filmed on a cell phone and immediately put up on Youtube by the perpetrators.

As the wrestler was dragging my son to the curb, someone cried that the police were coming and the gang dispersed in their BMW’s and SUV’s. My son and his four friends, who were all too young to drive, were left to make their way home on foot. My son’s forehead was the size of a grapefruit. It looked like his nose was broken. Long, angry scrapes ran down his chin, shoulder and arm. He and his friends were angry and I worried that this would escalate. My son hadn’t made the best choice by arguing with the younger brother and continuing the argument with the older one, to the point where a confrontation had occurred. Still, such experiences were part of growing up and learning the right way to behave. I knew it was natural for boys to get into tussles. But curb stomping and videos on Youtube were taking the common fistfight to a whole new level. The desensitization and disassociation from reality that those kids must have felt in order to premeditate filming the violence and then posting it online was chilling.

            I knew what my son needed in those angry moments when he felt obligated to seek revenge in order to prove his manhood and a hasty decision could affect a lifetime, wasn’t me, but a man to talk to. I called a mentor of my son, a retired boxer, and he came right over. He’s a Godly man and talked straight, about how he grew up without a father, becoming an angry teenager who thought he needed to prove himself through violence. As a result he’d been shot, knifed and spent time in prison. He said it was only by the grace of God that he was alive. He told my son that you never start a fight but if someone is determined to hurt you, you do what you have to do to survive. He said, learn right now how to keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut, and always, if possible, walk away. In fact, if you can run away, do it, never think you have to prove your manhood to a punk. He spoke with authority and compassion. He talked of honor and respect and doing the right thing. My son listened.

Twelve years ago, as a writer and illustrator of children’s books, I’d created a writing program in juvenile hall called InsideOUT Writers. I’m now in the process of creating WORDPOWER, a critical thinking and literacy skills curriculum to help young people learn how to think and reach independent conclusions. In juvenile hall I’d heard every story imaginable of how hurt, angry, abused kids had fallen into violence and couldn’t get out of it. Honestly, for all the gang-bangers I’d met in juvenile hall I’d never run across one who I’d felt was evil, just misguided. And now, here I was, struggling to communicate to my own son the dangers that he and his friends would face if they took justice into their own hands by choosing violence over reason. The humiliation of having to suck it up, knowing that every kid in Calabasas was watching the fight on Youtube, was almost too much for my son to bear and I suffered with him.

I’m proud to say that my son and his friends decided not to escalate the violence. Convincing them to go down to the police station to file a report was something they were not willing to do and I understood why.  They did, however, agree to speak to the police if they came to our house.

Anyway, nothing will ever happen, my son and his friends said.

Why, I asked.

Because, the wrestler’s Marsha Clark’s son, they said.

It took a moment for the name to register. The Marcia Clark, the prosecutor in the O. J. Simpson trial? Yes, they said.

            I was dumbfounded. My first instinct was to forget about the advice I’d just given the kids and make a visit to Marcia Clark myself. But then, I realized I had to set the right example and so I went to the Calabasas sheriff’s station to file a report. I told the police everything that had happened and explained that if they came to my house, my son and his friends would give statements. I gave all the proof the officer who interviewed me needed to back up my statements and he promised to follow up immediately. He never contacted me. No one came to interview my son.

            I reached out to Marsha Clark by writing her a letter, requesting that we meet in order to get to the bottom of what had happened and bring reconciliation. I did not hear back but ever the optimist, I wanted to believe my correspondence got thrown out with the junk mail. I have found that when I am able to communicate with parents who seem on the surface to be uncaring and disconnected, in almost every instance they are people who love their kids but are overwhelmed by the commitment that it takes to raise them.

            But what, I wondered, was this teaching our youth? What was it showing my children? That justice is a sham? That bullies prosper?

The fact is that while the words “equality,” “justice,” “honor” and “truth” are flimsy platitudes slung from pulpits and podiums by hypocritical, marketing-branded leaders, on America’s streets there is an ever-widening gap between the rights and privileges of the wealthy and the lack thereof amongst the poor….to be continued.

           

 

 

 

 

PART II:

After my older son was beaten up by the Calabasas wrestler, I took both my sons out of the Calabasas school system and put them in a Charter school, where they are now home-schooled and meet with their teacher twice a week, one on one. Both of them are thriving in this program. They love their teacher and are proud of their achievements. These types of independent study programs are becoming ever more popular and many of my kids’ friends are joining them, consequently doing better academically and socially. Gone are the drama and distractions of a huge, impersonal high school campus where I’d been appalled to find teachers and staff just as dispirited and angry as the kids they were supposed to be teaching. How can teachers respect and honor their students when they are not respected and honored by those above them for the importance of their job? As a result, teachers have little patience for students who don’t fit the cookie cutter mold that all children are now required to squeeze into—or else be penalized for being “special,” which is a sure fire ticket to stifling a creative child’s brilliance.

            When my oldest son, who is a talented artist and writer and has been tested as “gifted” and “highly gifted” in verbal skills, was only eleven years old he already had it all figured out. Mom, he told me one day as we were driving through idyllic Old Calabasas, you don’t understand, in Calabasas, kids have no conscience. They’ll lie, steal and cheat you. And the grown-ups aren’t any better. It’s just the way life is. My son says that one day he’ll write about this Calabasas life and I hope he does because the truth needs to be told by those who have experienced it if anything is ever to change.

            Not long ago he and his best friend were stopped by the police because it was past curfew. They weren’t far from home, it was just past ten o’clock and they were hurrying on skateboards to get back. The result of this heinous “crime” was that my son and his friend were given tickets and had to go to court so that the judge could pass a sentence. The judge commended my son for being a straight “A” student and he and his friend were each fined $495 and ordered to attend a class, similar to traffic school, and told to come back in a couple of months with a certificate of completion. If they did this, the fine of $495 would be reduced to $135. Both boys attended the class and the reduced fine was paid.

            I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t been able to afford to pay the ticket? How do single mothers in more dire circumstances than mine, perhaps who don’t speak English or have no transportation, deal with these minor run-ins with the law, having an angry teen in the house, or maybe two or three? I have personally seen parents and kids in this situation, where the “crime” started with something insignificant but because the child failed to comply with the court order and the parent couldn’t pay, the problem escalated until the parent and child became so angry, frustrated and overwhelmed by worry that their already fragile relationship was ruined and the child ended up being sent away to camp or juvenile hall—where he then became the angry, violent young man that he had never been before the court intervened.  

            If I, in my “peaceful” neighborhood, face so many challenges, I cannot even imagine what it must it be like for single mothers in the poorer, more violent neighborhoods of Los Angeles and other big cities. Thanks to the powerful industries that feed our children’s minds on a daily dose of violence and disrespect (and don’t tell me that a daily dose of violence and disrespect doesn’t influence young minds) children think that by forming “gangs,” wearing colors, fighting over a piece of concrete, they are expressing their independence, when they are only doing what they have been taught to do by the opportunistic media giants who crave to eat their souls and bleed them dry.

I’m not interested in hearing results from another government study costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to determine whether or not violence in the media affects our children. Nor does it take a great intellect to figure out that it’s unhealthy to manipulate children into believing that they must have “things” in order to be happy and fulfilled, triggering them to demand those “things” at any cost. As adults, as a community, we are responsible to uphold to our children a standard of behavior that they can respect and feel proud to emulate. They are trying to grow up and learn how to be decent human beings. Who is teaching them? The voices of parents are all but drowned out by a society that doesn’t like and even fears teenagers, and yet caters to their impressionability, telling them how to think, feel, look, act cool—and exerting pressure on them and their parents to spend huge amounts of money in order to do so.

            I am only one of many single mothers. I also happen to be a writer. As such, I believe that words, spoken with true conviction, have power. So, I am using my voice, not only for myself and my children, but for the many single mothers with whom I identify. Whatever it takes, I will be there for my boys, all the way through to manhood. They’ll be amazing, strong, good men because of what they’ve survived and because they are being taught how to make independent choices based on their own power to reason, not passively absorbing what they are being fed by market-savvy mega-corporations.

            In the meantime, I’ve recently heard that the kid who started the trouble with the javelin incident is now “safely” in the army—if that isn’t an oxymoron—and thankfully, our house has been peaceful since. I’ve started MMA classes in my garage for these scrappy teenage boys with a tough MMA fighter who mentors them and teaches them the true spirit of a warrior, not the fake bravado of a street punk. And, I must admit, I join in the classes, too.

            I defend my home the best way I can, setting a high standard for myself so that my kids will carry that example with them into adulthood. I stand on my own two feet, with my eyes wide open and my head out of the sand. Because in the neighborhood where I live, in every neighborhood, it’s better to be educated to the reality of the life our kids face on the streets, than to be ignorant and foolish.

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