Saturday, December 27, 2014

Heroes to Me: Ferguson Public Library

I got a kick out of the advertisements this week for the TNT show The Librarians,  featuring young librarians as super heroes.  While not as dramatic and absent the explosions, real life librarians are often truly the super heroes of our society. Case in point: the Ferguson, Missouri Municipal Public Library.

The racial tensions that began in Ferguson, Missouri last August with the shooting death of 18 year old Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer actually go back to the very beginnings of our nation. Racism is one of the disheartening aspects of American society that weighs on us as a nation. But this story isn’t about racism. It is about the role of libraries in supporting and healing our national psyche.  And the role that the Ferguson library is playing in the healing of that community is a perfect example of how important libraries are, and why their funding should go up in times of economic strife, rather than be cut.

I first heard about the Ferguson library in November on the show of my favorite MSNBC news pundit, Rachel Maddow. Steve Kornacki did the reporting in this 3 ½ minute bit.

Basically, in the midst of all the upheaval and strife that was going on in that community in August of 2014 and again in November, so much so that public schools and many businesses were forced to close, the Ferguson Municipal Public Library announced that they would remain open offering “Wi-fi, water, rest and knowledge” to anyone in need. Children, especially, were invited to spend the day in a setting supervised by over 50 volunteers comprised of parents, teachers, and retirees. Free lunches were provided, along with story times. In November, the library also made space available to businesses looking for a way to preserve records and file insurance claims for damage done during the violence of that month’s protests.

As Steve Kornacki said, “Just by being open this week, by doing pretty much what they do every day, by doing it amidst incredible upheaval in the larger community, by doing that the Ferguson library made a difference…”

A short Weekends with Alex Witt piece (also on MSNBC)  focused on the national response to the story of the Ferguson library. 

That alone is heartening: that all over our nation people will reach out to one small community library to offer support in words and in donations of books and money.  As of this reporting, more than $400,000 was contributed through the donate button on the library’s website, most of it in small amounts from people who care. 

Rachel herself, on December 23rd, featured the Ferguson library in her “Best New Thing in the World Today” segment.  But what she focused on was the fact that the library received so many donated books that they did not have enough personnel to catalogue them all for use by their patrons.  

The best new thing in the world, according the Rachel Maddow, are the librarians from communities as far away as the East Coast who went to Ferguson over the Christmas holidays and volunteered their time to help catalogue the books.

The story of the Ferguson Municipal Public Library, the donations that flooded in during a time of need, and the people who stepped up—both locally and from far away—to volunteer, points out one of the wonderful things about America amidst so much that is disheartening and disturbing.  The soul of our nation can be found in many places at many different times, but it can be found any day of the week in any of our local public libraries.  

Sunday, June 29, 2014

An Interview with Ben Perreth of Making Lemonade with Ben Fame

Ben Perreth is an incredibly amazing young man. At age seven he survived a brain hemmorage, as chronicled by his mother Katherine Perreth in the must-read book, Making Lemonade with Ben: The Audacity to Cope.  That singular event launched him and his family on a journey that reads more like fiction, but is every bit reality. I can't say enough about the book. It is a page turner from beginning to end, a roller coaster of emotions, but a story told with incredible humor and perspective. 

In a previous post I interviewed Katherine by email. You'll want to take a look at that conversation. Of course, Katherine is articulate and expressive. But I think you'll be blown away by Ben's own voice. He is an individual with much to say about his life and life in general.  It's no wonder he was elected to travel to Washington D.C. to accept a national award on behalf of the Children's Museum of Madison where he works. I suspect we'll be hearing a lot more from this young man in the future.

A Conversation with Ben Perreth

MCW:  Ben, how old are you now?

Ben:  In months, 310, but in years, 25. Since I started working at the children’s museum I noticed that when I ask how old their babies or toddlers are, parents answer in months. So when they question me, “How old are you?” I answer the same way.

MCW: Tell me about what it was like during the time your mom was writing the book. Were you aware of what she was doing? Did you have any input into it or any influence over what she wrote?
Katherine and Ben Perreth at a local award ceremony
Ben:  I was always thinking that this book would be too much for her, and I was trying to stay out of her way and my dad kept on reminding me until I got it. It was during the last summer when my mom was writing the book, I think when I saw her she was exactly like a statue, always in one place, in the back yard under the lilacs writing very fervently.

Yes, I did have influence. My mom would always come and ask me, “Hey, Ben, I was thinking of taking this out,” or “I think you won’t like this,” and I said to her, “Mom, slow down, go to yoga, remember my words: this book is the only book you’re going to write and you have my stamp of approval for putting in all of it, the ups and downs, depressions, psych ward twice, and going to Disney to enjoy it before the radiation.”

I wrote three sections, from myself. And I have the last word, in the whole book, which I think is very uplifting, especially when people read it.

After I read the final draft of the book I said to my mom, “It’s flawless sprinkled with awesomeness!” And ain’t that the truth!

MCW:  When you look back on the years from when you were seven and into your teens, what memories stick out most in your mind?

Ben: I thought about that and it’s still to this day that the sharpest memories that really stick out are the ones that I am peaceful. Like, five minutes before I drift off to dreamless sleep, knowing that I don’t have to be so resilient at the moment. Hearing my mom’s voice, singing, “I love you, Benjamin.”

Running with my favorite cousins and my brother and sister, running around the red-leaved burning bush and into the garden while my mom took a picture. I felt so alive and the weight of all the bad stuff, the medical, and hospitals and stresses of my life were gone in those moments. 

When I got the news from my drama director, telling me that I got the part of Grandpa Joe, knowing that I made the cast as one of the main parts in the play.

When I went into a new cave, a sense of wonder, astonishment and a deeper sense of longing to find the end of the cave. In Arizona, in my junior year of high school when I was having depression, we went into the biggest cave I’ve ever been in, and I had my body leaning against it, and the guide said, “Ben don’t lean on it more than what you are, because we don’t know how far it goes down.”

I said, “Maybe a mile?”

And she said, “Well, it’s deeper than that.”

I felt, and I made an illustration, that this cave was my life. That there is no end until I finally pass away. It was taking the weight off my chest again, the not knowing what’s in store for my life. It was very moving.

Whenever I’m in an airplane, I’m above the clouds and letting my spirit fly. I’m looking down at night seeing the lights, and seeing the images and shapes in my mind. I saw a baseball player hitting a ball with his bat and the white rabbit in Frosty the Snowman.

When Sam, Sarah, Mom and Dad and I climbed up the very steep hills of the Black Hills, and I saw tens of thousands of grasshoppers. And my mom started singing, “The hills are alive, with the sound of music,” and I started to move like my mom, bringing my arms out, up and floaty, and I felt the increase of my contentment and joy of being wild.

When me and Pilot Neal, it was just us in the Morey Airport taking off, and I was telling him my story. We flew and I navigated the coordinates of Tyrol Basin and finally found my Grandpa Syrup’s house in the country. We saw three turkeys fanned out, grazing on his hill. Flying back, I saw my mom’s house that she’s been living in for many years of her life. The neon bright, sun-golden flowers in my grandmother’s rock wall at mom’s house, and feeling the love emitting from them, drilling into my soul.

MCW: What are you doing now with your life and work?

Ben:  I’m being very vigilant and proactive, putting first things first, keeping the end of the goal in my mind from day to day, thinking win-win, because most of my life has been down. I feel most of those principles guiding my heart in the right direction.

For work, there are two places. The Yahara House, where I hone in my skills weekly, cooking for whoever is going to eat lunch that day or the next day. We occasionally make a pie or have a discussion of what’s going to happen the next week. There’s a weekly menu. With the help of a staff worker at Yahara House, Janet, who I’m so grateful towards telling me, “Get yourself up again, Ben, and shine!”
Ben and Katherine Perreth
I work at the Madison Children’s Museum. I like to rephrase my work into, “I get paid to have fun at the children’s museum!” From the time I started working there, I have said that. Being the Discovery Guide for kids and people of all ages brings more than money into my life.

Hobbies are very crucial to my life. Being an actor from an early age, I have been in an Acting Techniques class, for four years now. Mind you, I have to pay for each session, and I’ve been in for 19 sessions.

I also go to a free thought group, AHA! That stands for agnostic, humanist and atheist. We have philosophy discussions. And afterwards we go to the Rathskellar.

For my solitude, I like to walk in nature.

All those three things, my life, work and hobbies cannot function without the other two. Like a stool.

Thank you, Ben, for such awesome thoughts and insights!  

Making Lemonade with Ben: The Audacity to Cope won the Readers' Favorite 2013 International Book Award in the "non-fiction, inspirational" category.  You can find it on Amazon, at Barnes & Noble, or request it through your public library.

And be sure to check out my interview with author (and Ben's Mom) Katherine Perreth

Monday, June 23, 2014

A Conversation with Katherine Perreth, Author of Making Lemonade with Ben

Earlier this spring I had the opportunity to meet an incredible woman, Katherine Perreth, and her even more incredible son Ben, at a writers conference. I can’t begin to describe what happened to Ben in just a few paragraphs, except to say that at age seven he had a massive brain hemorrhage and that event launched him and his family on an incredible life’s journey.  That journey was recorded in amazing, emotional detail by Katherine in her book, Making Lemonade with Ben: TheAudacity to Cope.

I have to tell you, Katherine’s book kept me on the edge of my seat. Even though I knew from the outset that Ben had survived—he is, after all, a very real, very active young man in his twenties today—the way she crafted her story made it a page turner.  I felt like she was narrating it to me personally, and I rode the roller coaster of her and her family’s ups and down as if I’d known them from the get go. But the thing that is most amazing about Katherine's telling of Ben's story is her wry sense of humor. While told with heart-wrenching candor, the story was never maudlin; Katherine's ability to turn some pretty devastating lemons into lemonade makes this story a great read on so many levels.

Of course I wanted to know more about Katherine and what it took for her to write this book, and what it meant to Ben, so I emailed them a few questions.  They were both kind enough to reply. While I became intimately familiar with Katherine’s voice over the course of the book, I was surprised by Ben’s answers. He is every bit as articulate and eloquent as his mother, but he has his own unique and delightful voice and sense of humor. Katherine’s replies are below. My interview with Ben was posted separately.  

A Conversation with Katherine Perreth
MCW: Katherine, you write with such voice and passion in Making Lemonade with Ben, but you mention early on in the book that you once gave up on writing it. What did it take to actually get the book written?
Katherine: A phone call from the Madison Children’s Museum in early September, 2011. MCM asked if I would be willing to write a letter of nomination on behalf of my son, Ben. The museum was slated to receive a national award in Washington D.C. and needed to send a community representative. At the same time, the museum hired Ben – he had been volunteering for over a year as a one-handed juggler. I figured if they actually did select Ben as their representative, then I would have the sweet framework I needed to write his traumatic, yet often hilarious, childhood.
For three months I chronicled everything, how the trip to D.C. unfolded. I was so obnoxious with my accuracy that my sixteen-year-old daughter commented snarkily, “Oooh, look, Mom. It’s another conversation. Better write that down!” She will also tell you that for 18 months, as I buckled down writing and re-writing for what seemed like ad infinitum, I wore four outfits. And that included my p.j.s.
MCW: What do you hope people take away from your book?
Katherine: One reviewer said I succeeded in removing the stigma that comes with mental illness. I’m not sure that’s true, but I’m gonna take it. If Making Lemonade With Ben can hammer a dent in stigma, I’m thrilled. The sooner we all understand that mental illness is like physical illness, the better. Mental illness is nothing new, nothing to be ashamed about, is a global concern, and can be a killer – just like physical illness. We need to fund what works, for example Yahara House, Madison’s clubhouse model of mental illness treatment, support and recovery. Yahara House is all about “What I can!”

Making Lemonade With Ben is primarily a love story with multiple threads. In the 21st century, it’s way past time for stigma. We’re a nation of can-do fixers, but sometimes we can’t be fixed. Then empathy, understanding, and love are required.
Powerful good can happen when a community values all of her citizens through intentional employers and proper mental illness treatment and support. Ben’s life bears witness to that.

MCW: What kind of reactions have you gotten from readers?

Katherine: “Wow!” has frequently been the first word in feedback I’ve received from readers. People have been overwhelmingly appreciative, positive, and expressive – writing online reviews, tossing me stars on Amazon and Goodreads, and contacting me via my website and email. I am so delighted, because I didn’t know how the book would be received and now I don’t have to move to Canada. Although, this past winter, I thought I had.
People are shocked at how much they laugh while reading Making Lemonade With Ben. They expect to cry, given my subject matter, but are taken by surprise at my use of black, gray, and white humor. As one of my main coping strategies, I’ll use all the humor available in order to survive and thrive.
Many people struggling themselves with mental illness, chronic disability, or as a special needs family have contacted me to thank me for writing. As have those who love someone with those challenges. Because I am so vulnerable in the book, leaving myself feeling like Lady Godiva minus the hair, these words of thanks mean the world to me. One woman wrote that my words helped her clarify her own experiences so she could better explain herself to her therapist and family. It doesn’t get any better than that.
MCW:  What are you doing with your life and work now that Ben is an independent adult?
Katherine: I have been delighted to get back into the paid workforce. As a reporter for the Middleton Times Tribune, I revel in tooting the horns of my hometown folks. I also continue to lead a reminiscence writing class for women of a certain age, helping them write their life stories. Really, their stories should be high school required reading. And recently, I’ve upped my hours at WESLI, an English as a second language school on the square. As the behind-the-scenes administrative assistant, I deal in chalk and paper, oodles of paper, but these days I’ve added culling through thousands of international student files. Thirty-four years of students. Every time I finish reorganizing part of the alphabet, I do a jig and drag my co-workers to the cabinets to, “Behold the files!” (I work with a team of super women who always humor me.) Sometimes, as with the popular Korean last name, “Kim,” I take the liberty of dancing early. Took me days to get out of the “Kim”s.  
MCW:  Do you have another book project of any sort in the works?

Katherine: I still consider myself in AA – Authors Anonymous – in book recovery. But that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped writing. Mostly, I’ve been speechwriting. Recently, I keynoted the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Dane County’s annual award dinner. It was a glorious evening. Libraries, faith communities, service organizations, bookstores, and medical and educational institutions have also invited me to speak. At the end of July, the UW Department of Psychiatry is hosting me as a guest lecturer. It is open to the public, I have been told. This year, Ben has committed to accompanying me, joining me in speaking. People find our presentation informative, inspirational, and humorous – of course, humorous.

I am also happy to visit book clubs. Although it’s always a bit disconcerting when I show up and introduce myself, “Hi, I’m Katherine,” and someone replies with feeling, “We knoooowww!” To contact me, people can email:

Katherine Perreth's book, Making Lemonade with Ben: The Audacity to Cope won the Readers’ Favorite International Book Award for 2013 in the “Non-Fiction, Inspirational” category. The book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your public library.

Please check out my interview with Ben next!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Yoopers Get Recognition, eh...!

Whoohoo! We made it into the dictionary—the Miriam Webster Dictionary to be specific. Who are we? We are Da Yoopers! Natives and expats of the U.P., Michigan’s glorious Upper Peninsula.

It turns out the Urban Dictionary has recognized us since 2005.  
Yooper is a common term for residents of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It is derived from the initials U.P. which is pronounced you-pee. U.P. stands for Upper Peninsula, as opposed to the lower peninsula of Michigan.”

Oh, yeah…our favorite refrain back in the—ahem—when I was in college was: “You pee, I pee, we all pee on the L.P.!” L.P., of course, meaning the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. If you are not familiar with Midwest geography, you might not have ever realized that Michigan is divided into two large peninsulas, connected by the five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge.
Photo: Justin Billau

The Urban Dictionary goes on to say, “It is not a derogortory term. It is used mainly by residents of lower Michigan and Wisconsin.”  I don't know about that.  Personally, I’ve only ever heard native and expat Yoopers use the term to refer to ourselves. It’s a source of pride to find another Yooper anywhere in the world and be identified as such.

As for those that live below the Bridge? Well, they’re “trolls,” of course. No insult intended.

A few interesting fact about Michigan’s U.P.

  • Size: 16,542 square miles, more than a quarter of of the land area of the entire state

  • Bordered: on the north by Lake Superior, on the southeast by Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, and on the southwest by Wisconsin, which isn’t a lake except during flood season (1,700 miles of Great Lakes shoreline)

  • Climate: cold

  • Cuisine: pasties

  • Dialect: eh?

  • State Bird: the mosquito

  • Home to one of the world's largest living organisms, Armillaria gallica, better known as the Humongous Fungus, roughly 37 acres in size 

Say ya to da U.P., Eh!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Hero in My Eyes: Shannon Watts, Founder of Moms Demand Action

I remember where I was when I first saw the “Breaking News” on my iPhone: there had been a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  I was sitting in an elementary school classroom with a cadre of teachers—we were there to learn new strategies for teaching reading. 

I remember how my heart sank. I remember what it felt like to be a mom wondering how those moms—and dads—of the fallen Sandy Hook children could possibly cope with such broken hearts. I wondered how I could live in a country that lets massacres like the one at Sandy Hook happen, and Columbine, and the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and all the countless other tragic places that shootings have happened.

Apparently another mom, in another city, had the same reaction.  But she turned her shock and horror into action. That mom is Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Shannon, who lives in the Indianapolis area, is a mother of five. A former communications executive for high powered companies, she was at the time of the Sandy Hook shootings a stay at home mom.

In a recent interview on the Katie Couric show, Shannon described how she started what would become a national grassroots movement by simply posting a page on Facebook.  I remember seeing that page when it had only several hundred likes. Now it has over 152,000 likes, and the non-profit organization Moms Demand Action has a webpage and chapters in every state of our nation.

And it turns out that determined Moms can have a very powerful voice.  When visiting the nation’s capitol building in Washington D.C. Shannon and her fellow Moms realized that when they had diaper bags and strollers in the hallways, legislators couldn’t get by without talking with them and listening to their concerns. “Stroller Jams” are now a strategic tool to get lawmakers and other stakeholders to listen.

When they learned that Starbucks had banned smoking outside their restaurants, but were allowing people to carry guns inside, the Moms mounted a successful campaign to pressure Starbucks to change their gun policy.

And more recently, the Moms’ voices were heard by Facebook, which agreed to block postings of gun sales that don’t require a background check and to block minors from seeing postings of gun sales. 

Shannon says she isn't out to take guns away from people; she supports the Second Amendment. But she is adamant that “with rights come responsibilities.”  There is an “epidemic of gun violence in this country,” she says. The stark statistic is that eight children and teens are shot and killed every single day. With this in mind, her goal is to change easy and unregulated access to guns with common sense laws.

But it’s not just Shannon’s fervor and organizational skills that make her a hero in my eyes. This woman and others in the organization have faced physical intimidation by armed bullies at rallies and when meeting in restaurants.  I guess you know you are making waves when the opposition turns out toting AK47s and rifles to face you down—you with your strollers and diaper bags.

For one minute after the Sandy Hook tragedy I thought that maybe this country was doomed. But now I know different.  Shannon Watts and more than a hundred and fifty thousand Moms have decided they will not live in a country filled with gun violence. And they do not plan to leave.  They plan to make change.

Check out Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. If you are a Mom, you might want to add your voice to theirs. And if you are not a Mom, but want common sense gun laws and an end to the epidemic of gun violence in America, I’m guessing they won’t turn you away.