When I left my job at the Lincoln Journal Star more than a year ago, I figured I’d try my hand at something completely different from what I’ve done for two decades.
Maybe open a shabby chic store – Funky Junk, I’d call it – or do what most journalists do to make better money, go into public relations.
Maybe run for office – I certainly had learned the ropes after covering government and politicians for so long. How liberating would it be to be able to give my opinion for once?
For sure, I’d be a good mom who had warm brownies ready when the kids arrived home from school, and supper bubbling in the Crockpot every night.
Instead, I found that even when given a whole day to plan supper, I still usually started planning about 10 minutes before 6. I found myself spending most of the day reading and blogging and reporting and writing.
Just the other night I made tetrazzini, and nobody ate it.
I started a blog just for fun, mostly – I figured if I didn’t do it right away, in a year nobody would ever be able to find it. I quickly gravitated toward politics and government and one day my husband pointed out that I was basically doing my old job, except for free. In his mind, this did not make good economic sense, so I took freelance writing jobs to support my blogging habit.
I had to tear myself away from blogging to write a freelance story that paid two to three times per hour what I made at the paper. I found myself going to occasional budget meetings or public meetings on roundabouts — not because I was being paid to be there, but because I truly wanted to be there.
So after a year of contemplation and freedom and experimentation and rest, I am returning to what is clearly my passion: journalism. I have accepted a job writing for a nonprofit, online publication called Nebraska Watchdog. Nebraska Watchdog was the first of what has grown to be a national consortium of government watchdog websites funded by donations.
Its mission is to uncover and analyze the actions of state and local government and ensure good government with unbiased news reporting.
“We will investigate and inform the public about waste, fraud, abuse, ethical questions and safety concerns involving the use of taxpayer dollars,” the website says.
I will be stationed in Lincoln and write about about both local and statewide issues, and you can read my stories online.
As newspapers cut back statehouse bureaus and reporters in general, websites like this have stepped into the breach. They are the future.
Since I’ve long been a watchdog reporter who loves to dig, this is a perfect fit. I join longtime Omaha investigative reporter Joe Jordan, who has worked as a political and investigative reporter on TV and radio for 40 years in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Nebraska. He has been reporting for Nebraska Watchdog for two years now.
I appreciate all the support and encouragement you’ve given me during the past year, and I hope you will continue with me on this journey at Nebraskawatchdog.org.
The attorney general for the Navajo Nation has asked nationwide hipster clothing retailer Urban Outfitters to give up its obsession with all things “Navajo.”
In other words, cease and desist with slapping the name “Navajo” on T-shirts, earrings, dresses, scarves, bags, beanies, tank tops, bracelets, tunics, flasks (no I am not making this up), beaded necklace crop fringe tank tops, socks, sneakers, duffle bags, handkerchiefs and panties. Yes, even panties.
If you go to urbanoutfitters.com and search for Navajo, you will see that this chain is definitely trying to create the next big trend, which I’ll call Native American chic. Not only are they appropriating the word Navajo (although that definitely seems to be their favorite), but also Cherokee, Indian and Tribal.
You might think Native Americans would be flattered, and you might be wrong. At least one tribe is not amused: According to this blog, the attorney general for the Navajo Nation sent a cease-and-desist request to Urban Outfitters, saying the company’s use of the word will cause confusion in the marketplace and society because people will wrongly think the Navajo Nation authorized the use of the label — which, by the way, the nation actually has trademarked for many clothing items.They wrote:
This undermines the character and uniqueness of the Nation’s long-standing distinctive Navajo name and trademarks, which—because of its false connection with the Nation—dilutes and tarnishes the name and trademarks. … The Nation must maintain distinctiveness and clarity of valid association with its government, its institutions, its entities, its people, and their products in commerce.When an entity attempts to falsely associate its products with the Nation and its products, the Nation does not regard this as benign or trivial.
The blogger trying to bring this to light said the products — which are “loosely based on Navajo rug designs or Pendleton designs” — represent a stereotype of southwest Native cultures. “Associating a sovereign Nation of hundreds of thousands of people with a flask or women’s underwear isn’t exactly honoring,” she wrote.
“Additionally, it’s more than likely that Urban chose ‘Navajo’ for the international recognition — to most of the world, Navajo (and Cherokee) equals American Indian,” she wrote. “This conflation of Navajo with ‘generic Indian’ contributes to the further erasure of the distinct tribes and cultures in the U.S. and solidifies the idea that there is only one ‘Native’ culture, represented by plains feathers and southwest designs.”
Now, I like Urban Outfitters. Been shopping there since we discovered their Minneapolis store in the early 1990s. It has since become a popular chain that seems to lean left, based on the books and trinkets it sells. But a Navajo flask? Panties? They were definitely not being politically correct when they came up with those products.
I am out of the office this week working on a special report, but I will try to blog if possible, so let me know if anything blog-worthy happens this week in Lincoln. In the meantime, I’m out interviewing people like this woman:
As a young, intrepid reporter (aren’t they all?), one of the many beats I covered was the “cops and courts” beat in Bismarck, N.D.
That meant schlepping into the police station every morning for daily briefings on all the crimes that happened overnight, and checking the police logs at night. Back then, I wasn’t nearly as bold as I am now, and as I’d tiptoe into the police station, I always hoped the cop on duty was one of the nice ones.
There are those cops who acted like reporters were a menace to society, and those who were decent, and those who were downright fun.
I remember Sgt. Steve Kenner fondly. He was a bear of a man — had to have been more than 6 feet tall — but you could tell the minute he opened his mouth that he was just a darn nice guy.
He was shot and killed while responding to a domestic disturbance Friday night in Bismarck. He’d worked for the Bismarck Police Department for a whopping 32 years — and was surely nearing the end of his career, at age 56. He and his wife had three children.
This marks the first time a Bismarck police officer was killed in the line of duty.
I’ve ridden along with cops as they dodge pitbulls and track down prostitutes in the Near South, I’ve watched (cowered, is more like it) as they’ve knocked on the doors of drug suspects and stayed out the way as they dealt with drunks and drug addicts. I’ve sat (cowered) in an unmarked car with a sharpshooter while a SWAT team tried to talk down an armed man in an empty school bus.
Just another day on the job, for them — but a life-changing experience for the tag-along reporter. Every time a cop so much as pulls over a car, there’s always that tiny possibility something could go terribly awry. I cannot imagine what it’s like to go through that every day, every shift, every hour, every minute. I could not handle the strain.
Just this weekend, I was attending a dinner in Dallas where a reporter-in-training was regaling guests with stories about ride-alongs with cops.
“I’ve been on a high-speed chase, and a low-speed chase,” he said proudly.
I kind of chuckled inside, because he’s merely a reporter who wishes he were a cop — he’s not doing anything but tagging along and probably irritating the cops in the process.
The cops reporters often have the best stories to tell in a newsroom — but it’s the actual cops, like Kenner, who deserve our admiration, respect and gratitude.
They put their lives on the line every day, and we often forget that.
Or not. Whatever you want.
But we’ve got to beat Kyle Michaelis over there across town, that’s all I care…
You vote by commenting on this Washington Post story.
My nephew Daniel graduated high school recently back in my hometown of Bowman, N.D., and I decided to drive 12 hours to be there because it wasn’t just that my sister’s youngest was leaving the nest.
But we’re not just talking about empty nest syndrome: Over the course of a year, her whole nest has been upended and is precariously close to falling out of the tree.
Let me explain: My sister D’Ette has two children and up until last year, she was married. Then her husband left her for one of her best friends. He was No. 1 on D’Ette’s speed dial, she was No. 2.
But this is not your typical divorce: D’Ette is severely handicapped. When Jeff and D’Ette got married, she was still able to walk – although people thought she was drunk because she stumbled from one side of the hallway to the other as she made her way through Bowman High School – always with a big, contagious smile on her face. She couldn’t walk a straight line, but she went out for gymnastics anyway and eventually became the team manager – cheering me on from the stands.
They were love-drunk so they got married and Jeff didn’t worry about what the future might hold. They had two children who – as D’Ette’s friend likes to say – are made of pure gold. Blond-haired angels who make me sick, frankly, because they’re damn near perfect.
But D’Ette’s disease – the same disease two of my other siblings have/had – just gets worse. It does not get better. And so she went from walking when she married to using a wheelchair and her muscles – all of her muscles – just got weaker and weaker. And you know I understand it has to be hard to go from husband to husband/caretaker. I get that.
People probably thought Jeff was a martyr for sticking with her for more than 20 years; I think he just got tired.So anyway, she lost Jeff, and her oldest daughter, the appropriately named Hope, went to Guatemala on a mission trip last year and fell for a Guatemalan named Rudy. They will be married next month and she will graduate college in a year.
And then Daniel graduates and will leave home at summer’s end.
And suddenly the woman who has long prayed that she would live long enough to see her daughter marry or her son graduate high school (many people with this disease don’t) is about to see it all happen within the space of two months.
And then they’ll all be gone.
She lives in a gray ranch house in Bowman that bears the scars of a woman in a wheelchair: every door has been banged up and scratched by her wheelchair – some even have holes punched into them. Doorways were widened and sinks were lowered and equipment installed to make it a home she can live in – with help.
So I figured I’d at least come and help her for awhile as she goes through one of the toughest days of her life.
She pretty stoic about all of this and she’s determined to defy the degenerative nature of her disease, Friedreich’s Ataxia, by trying to do things she cannot do: Like sit up in bed.
Think about that: You and I, when we sleep at night we toss and turn to stay comfortable. She can’t really even do that. And when she wakes up and has to pee, she can’t jump up and run to the bathroom.
She’s been preparing to live alone in that house, so she bought a mechanical lift system that is attached to the ceiling in her bedroom and bathroom. A remote control lowers the lift, she hooks it under her legs, and it lifts her up in the air and carries her from her wheelchair to her bed or toilet.
Sounds pretty simple. Takes me about two minutes to get her in and out of it. Takes her about 20 minutes – and then there’s always the possibility she’ll fall out of it. She does that sometimes. I don’t even want to picture her home alone falling out of that contraption – but when you’re handicapped you get used to face plants and black and blue marks and many other indignities.
She’s got her house rigged up so that if she has to, she can try to live on her own. Ideally, she’d have help getting out of bed, going to the bathroom, bathing, cooking, cleaning and getting back in bed. And all those thousands of things we do in between.
She’s still got that steely resolve that propelled her to try out for gymnastics, but sometimes she crumbles, and when she cries, she doesn’t just cry, she bellows. Whereas you and I would be able to stifle an urge to cry and nobody would ever notice, she erupts into a full-throated wail. Which is why I didn’t really want to sit anywhere near her during Daniel’s graduation, but I did, and she only erupted like Mount Saint Helens a few times.
One of those times was the part of the ceremony where they’re just trying to make parents cry by having each graduate bring them a single rose.
Well, hello, I figure she’s going to fall out of her chair bawling when her Daniel comes walking over to her with a big grin on his face — he doesn’t look embarrassed at all of his mom, who is falling apart right there on the gymnasium floor.
But she makes it through the ceremony and during Daniel’s open house, she positions her wheelchair by the door and surveys the scene from there – smiling even though she’s on the verge of having another good cry.
One morning while I was staying with her, I awakened to the sound of D’Ette talking in her bedroom. So I went in to see if she was calling me or something, and found her lying in bed with the morning sun shining on her face (she refuses to put up drapes) and a big smile on her face.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Just talking to God – thanking him for this beautiful day,” she said, grinning.
There she lay, a 45-year-old woman wearing an adult diaper, unable to run to the bathroom and pee, unable to go for a morning run or type on a computer or bake a cake or drive a car or climb a molehill, much less a mountain. Unsure what the future might hold for her, unable to figure out what to do now that her nest was empty.
And yet, she was very able. Able to be happy anyway and say “Thank you God for this beautiful day.”
I suddenly felt very ashamed about all the times I complain about having arthritis or that annoying ringing in my ear or my foot injury or bills or jobs or who said this or that or the other thing.
I can go for a jog. My God, I can do a cartwheel.
This story explains why I saw three skateboarders rolling along a highway while I was driving from South Dakota to Lincoln last week. Then again, I’d seen buffalo, a falcon, pheasants and damn near hit a half dozen wild turkeys, too, so nothing surprised me at that point (sorry the photo is blurry: I was driving and taking a picture at the same time!) Although it looks like this kid is walking, he is actually skateboarding. Uphill. On a long, lonely highway:
A couple of years ago, an old friend from high school finished construction of a $1.7 million house that is literally in the middle of nowhere – in the rugged, oil-soaked Badlands of southwest North Dakota.
I had to see this place – but rarely get back home. I cannot remember the last time I was in my hometown. Last week, I went home for my nephew’s graduation, and was determined to see The Big House.
My friend has a Smaller House in my hometown of Bowman (population: about 1,500), but The Big House is south of the hamlet of Marmarth. On Thursday, she decided to pack up her five kids and go to the Big House, so I went along. It was raining – as it had been since I left Alliance, Neb.
We crossed the Little Missouri – which looked more like the Big Missouri.
As we drove her big black Expedition on gravel roads south of Marmarth, we met a couple in another SUV, who were on their way into town to call my friend, Heidi, and tell her all the roads to her house were impassable. A second SUV stopped, and the man inside said he’d just been to the creek near Heidi’s house, and the water was almost touching the bridge.
What once was a lazy little Beaver Creek was now a raging river. Even before the downpour, the bridge had been in such bad shape that normally they crossed the creek on a ridge they built in the creek bed, near the bridge. That path was now under several feet of water.
We parked near the bridge and debated whether to drive across or walk across and then another half-mile or so to the house. Now, Heidi is no wimp: She once played “chicken” with her sister on horseback, and their horses collided. One horse died, one sister broke her arm.
There’s little tolerance for fear out here.
We decided to leave the two twin babies in the SUV with the teenager and walk to the house. And then it occurred to us: If we got across and then the bridge went out, we’d have no way to get back to the SUV. No cell phone service, either. So we drove back to Bowman.
Two days later, the father of those five kids, Brad, returned home from the oil patch and was determined to go to the Big House. He walked his five kids across the bridge to safety, and then drove that black SUV across the bridge while they all bawled, fearing he’d drown.
Heidi and I came later – but we walked across and then got a ride from Brad. The Big House on the Prairie was worth it. As nice as any resort or hotel I’ve stayed at, it had five fireplaces, 20,000 square feet, a theater, a pool, whirlpool tubs and walk-in showers with ceramic tile. Brad has worked in the oil industry almost his whole life – following in his father’s footsteps.
And even though there are 16 oil wells pumping on his 1,500 acres, he doesn’t own the mineral rights to any of them. Neighbors are making hundreds of thousands of dollars off the oil every month – but Brad works for his oil money. He lays the pipe that transports that oil – and he has traveled the nation, following the oil.
Right now, the big play is in North Dakota — with more than 5,000 oil wells statewide, on the way to what one state official estimates will be 28,000 wells eventually. Each of those wells produces an average of 575,000 barrels of oil, he said, and each of the owners of the mineral rights gets paid an average of $6.9 million over the lifespan of the well.
Which gives you an idea how life on the prairie has changed — for some people.
Even before I hit the city limits, the frontier spirit was evident: As rain poured down and Highway 85 hard to find in front of me, I noticed hardly anybody had their headlights on.
Just me — with my Nebraska plates, apparently a wuss in a sea of dual-wheeled pickups bearing down on my hometown of Bowman, N.D.
Not only did they refuse to turn on their lights in this foggy rainstorm, they also continued to pass each other as they went up hills on this two-lane road. I’d forgotten this rural tradition of throwing caution to the wind and going for it, without knowing whether another vehicle would bridge the horizon at any moment and be the second half of a head-on collision.
So there I was driving home, wedged between semi trucks and pickups whose drivers apparently were all on a suicide mission. It was only the beginning of my re-initiation into life on the hardscrabble plains and Badlands — where just getting home in your SUV can be a gamble with life and death, when you’re traversing a flooding creek.
The buffalo literally roam in the pasture next to where my family once had a barn and some farmland north of Bowman: