America Must Be Kept American

comment 1
Anna Olson

America must be kept American” is indeed a patriotic call for tighter immigration rules. But which president had this as a rallying call for immigration reform?

 

Southern and eastern Europeans, especially Italians and eastern European Jews were the “undesirables” back in 1924. When Coolidge signed the Immigration Act of 1924 there was a growing concern that the increase in immigration from these areas was much too high. The new law all but eliminated immigration from those parts of the world.

All the buzz back then was that too many of these people would dilute the American blood line. Which is code talk for a desire to keep America northern European white. These racist views on immigration were encouraged by the Eugenics movement which help mold public opinion in a major way. This is the same movement which encouraged institutionalizing and/or sterilizing mentally or physically handicapped people.

The 1924 Immigration Act is yet another example of why restricting immigration based on race or place of birth is ill conceived. I’m sure you recognize how this topic relates to our 2017 immigration debates. Sadly, history repeats itself.

FEAR

Leave a comment
Isolated In America

On November 9, 2016, I woke up for my usual two am bathroom call and a snack. What was unusual that morning was my curiosity regarding the election results.

I recall watching the TV the night before as talking heads and pundits grew pale and nearly speechless as the election results came in. I admit it was fun watching those who like to tell us what to think and believe being confronted with their limitations and biases. Trump was leading but I was sure the results would change when all was said and done.

I turned on my iPhone and in the bright glow there were two headlines. One was from USA Today, the other from Bloomberg and both announced Trump’s win. I stood in our dark kitchen thinking surely it wasn’t true. My disbelief very quickly turned into anxiety. I had a hot flash followed by a slight turn of my stomach. I felt a tightness in my chest  –the sensation was fear. Why fear? I hadn’t felt fear in years! Why would a presidential election elicit such a visceral response? Maybe the answer could be found in my past.

My first career was working with severely emotionally disturbed children. After obtaining my master’s, I worked with institutionalized developmentally and intellectually impaired children and adults. I often witnessed the detrimental effects institutions had on human beings. At that time, my passion was deinstitutionalizing residents which meant finding them community services.

Now, some thirty plus years later, my new passion is researching and writing about a time in American history when civil rights were denied to nearly every disabled American. They were denied services and opportunities that intellectually and/or physically impaired people take for granted today.

In the early to middle part of the 20th century, forced institutionalization, sterilization, isolation, and even lobotomies were commonplace for hundreds of thousands of Americans. How did these horrible things come to be? The answer was a domino effect. One small abuse of their rights expanded to even more significant abuses. Ultimately, impaired people were believed to be a threat to our society.

Looking back, I wonder if my fear was the same fear Carrie Buck felt when she learned she had lost her Supreme Court case (Buck v Bell). The decision led to her mandatory sterilization. She was labeled as “feebleminded” and incapable of producing offspring that would be fit for society. The date was May 2, 1927. The ruling ushered in a whole new era of compulsory sterilization.

Standing in the early morning darkness, I wondered. Was this the same fear parents of mentally handicapped Germans experienced in 1940? In the 1930s they accepted mandatory sterilization of the genetically “unfit.” Then they accepted forced institutionalization. However, they were horrified to find in 1939 little children were being euthanized. Soon to follow were the teenagers, and finally the adult handicapped. By January 1940 World War II had just broken out and the first mass gassing of adults deemed racially or genetically unfit began at the now infamous 4 Tiergartenstrasse in Berlin. The dominos fell hard.

Perhaps my fear was the same fear a teenage Minnesota girl felt in 1933 as she waited for a judge’s word on whether she would be allowed to stay with the foster parents she loved. The answer was no, instead she was forced to live in a large state institution. I met this woman after she had been institutionalized for over forty years and against all odds, I found her to be normal in every respect. The story of her life became the material for my two novels.

America eventually found its moral compass with the expansion of services and rights for the disabled. Federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and IDEA demonstrate how far we’ve come. Still, there’s much left to do to ensure a disabled person gets the same treatment as their able-bodied neighbors.

I’m still afraid today; writing this essay makes me anxious. I fear for the erosion of disability rights. Like America in the early 20th century and Nazi Germany in the 1930s, will we see a gradual worsening of the quality of life for those who are least able to fight for themselves?

The whole country watched a campaigning Mr. Trump mock a disabled reporter. I believed this was a sign that he thought the reporter was less than an equal. Then came an onslaught of actions that leave me no room for optimism when it comes to the rights of those who need the most help. In ways I don’t totally understand, I have a core belief that the current political climate signals the return of harsh times and fewer services for intellectually or physically impaired citizens. I fear for a return to putting people in institutions.

I pray for some sign I’m worrying about nothing. So far, no luck. I’m still afraid the first domino will soon start to fall.

 

No inspiration here

Leave a comment
Isolated In America

Once in awhile, a quote stands out that expresses the belief of a whole generation. 

On page 14 of his book Humans of New York Stories, Brandan Stanton, author of the wonderful website Humans of New York captured the essence of INCLUSION. On that page you will find the picture of a pretty young lady in a wheelchair. After growing up in an ISOLATED world she explains what INCLUSION means to her. Here is what she said:

“I want to make life easier for people in China who have disabilities. I know what it’s like, because I lived in a Chinese orphanage until the age of ten, and I wasn’t able to go to school because I couldn’t walk. But that’s just a small part of who I am. I want to be a diplomat, and travel, and do all sorts of things that have nothing to do with being disabled. I don’t want people to pity me. I don’t want to be another ‘poor her.’ I don’t want to inspire people. ‘Inspiration’ is a word that disabled people hear a lot. And it’s a positive word to you. But to us, it’s patronizing. I’m not living a wonderful life for a disabled person. I’m living a wonderful life, period. This morning I got accepted into the London School of Economics. Now hold on, let me put on some lip gloss before you take the photo.”

She said it all. Right!

 

 

 

Lest We Forget: From Isolation to Inclusion

Leave a comment
Background / Isolated In America

I’m a relic of sorts. A throwback to the time when words like retarded and disabled were used professionally. In the late 1960’s I was a direct care giver for seriously emotionally disturbed children. Later, I oversaw professional services in a state hospital unit for the mentally retarded. In the late 1970’s I directed two facilities for severely mentally and physically handicapped children. The labels I used above were accepted at the time.  I was a specialist in programs where the people I was responsible for were excludedisolated from society. Like I said, I’m a relic.

My peers and I knew isolation and exclusion were the wrong approach. We worked hard to change the status quo. We tried to move people from living in institutions to residing in the community. That was called it de-institutionalization. Regardless of where an impaired person lived, we fought to upgrade their living conditions. We called that normalization. In school settings, we pushed and pleaded and forced our children into traditional classroom. That was mainstreaming.

The same work continues today only it’s called inclusion, as in giving impaired people the same rights, opportunities, and choices as any other person. As I read about and study the current state of affairs for emotionally, intellectually, or physically impaired people I am thrilled with some of what I see. It seems like everything has changed for the better. Yet after the thrill wears off, I realize impaired people still live in institutions. This time in small group homes, or individual residences hidden away in towns and cities across America. I believe people are still isolated, some excluded from work or educational opportunities. It makes me realize nothing has changed.

Today, my job is to write about the old days, when society believed some people were deviant and genetically passed along undesirable traits. They feared for a country over-run with idiots, morons, imbeciles and cripples. Their fears were unfounded of course. Yet before their mantra of exclusion had run its course, they damaged hundreds of thousands of Americans. I want current day readers to get a sense of how harsh and demeaning it was to live in an institution with its lack of care and stark horror. Why? To remind us all to push forward, expand the boundaries of civil rights. It is my opinion that accepting the status quo is tantamount to sliding back to the bad old days of exclusion and isolation.

I am currently writing a book called Girl On the Edge. The book will explain the forces that led to people being isolated in institutions. The heroine, Anna Olson, is a pretty young lady -isolated and excluded, eventually institutionalized. I’ve already completed one book, an historical novel, Isolated in America, (any publishers out there?) which describes how bad life was in the large institutions of the past. Here, we follow Anna as she fights to survive in one of the largest institutions in America. Hopefully, these two books will help people understand why we can’t give up the progress we’ve made. We have to push forward for more inclusion, less isolation.

Would it be wise to forget about the holocaust? No one would say yes. The old expression is still true, if we don’t know our past, we are bound to repeat it. Hence I think the little phrase “lest we forget” is applicable when it comes to how we treat our fellow human being who just happens to have a limitation or two. We all need to keep working -don’t go back!

Eugenics

Leave a comment
Isolated In America

Eugenics: A combination of the Greek words for well and born.

If the word Eugenics is new to you, join the club, most people don’t recognize it. Today it is seldom if ever used. Still, you know what it means, you know what its end game is; you simply don’t pair the results with the word.

Eugenics is a pseudo-social science started in the late 19th and wildly popular up through the 1930’s. Its’ foundations were based on genetic research by an Englishman named Galton. Although Galton later disassociated himself from the movement, his work was touted as proof the way to improve society was through purifying the gene pool.

Eugenics champions were convinced something must be done to stop the rapid growth of “deficient” people. Their concern was that unless the psychologically, intellectually and physically impaired were dealt with, their offspring would outnumber the good, hard-working, taxpaying, citizens.

They believed they had some solutions, ways to save their society. Institutions were built to isolate people with bad genes. Sterilization was encouraged and sometimes forced on people who had epilepsy, were mentally ill, and the “feebleminded”, to name a few.

In Europe, one individual was paying close attention to this American movement, Adolph Hitler. He saw it as a way to build the master race. You now recognize what Eugenics is and what it ultimately led to.

In my novels, Girl on the Edge, and Isolated in America, I write about Eugenics and what it was like to live in the United States during a time when society deemed many of its own were not fit to enjoy the same freedom the normal, good, white, Northern Europeans enjoyed. Eugenics became a well-accepted norm and we should know about the harm it can cause. Why? So we will be able to recognize it when it reappears. Here we are in 2014 and it is starting to make a comeback.

I will discuss examples of the new Eugenics in future posts.

One Can Never….

Leave a comment
Slow Motion Poetry

The inaugural Slow Motion Poem is;

One Can Never

June

One can never read enough good books.

One can never hear enough good music.

One can never show too much compassion.

One can never have enough green in springtime.

 

July

One can never share enough  joy.

One can never show too much love to your family.

One can never replace the years in a child’s life.

One can never measure the true strength of a family.

 

August

One can never eat enough chocolate.

One can never walk too long in a park.

One can never get enough exercise.

One can never play too much.

 

September

One can never see too many mountains.

One can never soak in too much solitude.

One can never comprehend the vast Great Plains.

One can never hear too many babbling brooks.

 

 

SLOW MOTION POETRY

Leave a comment
Slow Motion Poetry

I know almost nothing about poetry.  I know it can take any number of forms.  Some are pretty darn interesting.  Take sonnets, haiku, rhyming, prose, and micro poetry for examples, although they may be interesting, their complexity scares me to death.  Yet I still wanted to write poetry.  Given my naiveté in this area, for me to write a poem, I need something simple and easy.  So I think I created another form, one I call Slow Motion Poetry, or SLOMOPOEMS.

Every time I tried to write a poem, things soon got awkward.  My mind froze up after a few lines and I would soon forget the whole thing.  Too bad, it sounded so wonderful in my mind.  As I mentioned above,  I think I found a solution for those of us with this problem.

I recently tweeted @kirbyvon “One can never read enough good books”.  I have no idea why I tweeted it.  Perhaps I was thinking I needed to start expounding something to my few, faithful followers.  A week later, I tweeted “One can never hear enough good music.”  The next week brought “One can never show too much compassion.”

The light-bulb flashed.  This might become a poem, one that avoided the pressure of immediately having to come up with another line, a rhyme, or something heady.  There is no need to hurry.  I could take a week to think about the next line.  Additionally, why not keep this type of poetry simple, start every line with the words “One can never”.  In this inaugural SLOMOPOEM the line would be finished by something that you can’t have too much of, something good.  No nasty crap, cheap hits on society and the like, the line has to be positive.

What do you think?

My next insight; why not invite writing friends and family, (sorry family, you are forced to put up with me, it’s an unwritten rule) to e-mail me a line?  I’ll add it to the poem when the time is right.  Would you join me in writing my new kind of poem?  Send me a few words to finish the phrase “One can never……”  I’ll add your line as time and space allow.

How long will this go on?  Why not try a year?  Symmetrical people would like 4 lines per month times 12 months.  This sounds good to me, so the inaugural poem will be 48 lines long.

The idea might be taken up by others who will start their own poems using a different theme and lasting for a different period of time.  Off the top of my head I can think of any number of them; rare things, two of a kind, emotional states, and the question why.  In my poem, there are only two rules; only one line per week, and the lines follow a theme.  Ok three rules, no cussing, or erotica, nothing hateful, nor personal.

I hope you enjoy writing your own SLOW MOTION POEM and if you write your own SLOMOPOEM, please share.  E-mail me at kirby.nielsen@gmail.com.

Update

Leave a comment
Anna Olson

After completing the first draft of the story of Anna Olson in December of 2012, I had a huge document, almost 200,000 words long!  I’m not sure how many pages that translated to but those were a lot of words.  It was cumbersome and wordy and need to be trimmed down.  For one thing, I included un-needed material on Anna’s parents growing up in Norway, how they met, and why they came to the US.  One person commented the story was nice, but what about Anna Olson, my protagonist?  When was I going to get to her?

I cut, pasted, reorganized, removed sections, and divided the story into three major topics.  One section, approximately 85,000 words, described her institutionalized life.  I recognized this as the novel I first set out to write.  Isolated in America was born.  This book has been read by several readers and their comments and suggestions incorporated where appropriate.  I believe I’ve edited and revised Isolated in America to the best of my ability.  Now I begin the search for a publisher.

Another topic (about 60,000 words) described how Anna grew up, the eugenics movement, how society marginalizes people who are different, and why she ended up in an institution. This manuscript is my second novel and called Girl on the Edge.  Currently I am re-reading and editing Girl on the Edge and I hope to be ready to send it out to anyone who would like to read the draft sometime around first of July.

The third topic (approximately 50,000 words) told the story of her life after her discharge.  Right now, this book is known as Breaking Bonds.  After the shackles of institutionalization were broken, Anna was free to realize a potential beyond even her wildest dreams.  I believe the major framework is completed but the first complete draft will likely need to wait until late this year or early next. Be sure to check out the Novel tab on my website www.kirbynielsen.com and get a synopsis for each book.

Writing ups and downs

Leave a comment
Anna Olson

It’s been a great adventure, the last three years of writing. Writing was and is sometimes smooth and easy, with the story just pouring out of my head for days and weeks at a time. Sometimes it was a struggle and a few pages a day seemed almost impossible. For example, the entire first chapter in Isolated in America has been very difficult and I am still not sure I have it right. I spent hours and hours and hours on just this, the first sentence in the book: “Sometimes; ordinary tests have extraordinary results and then comes a cascade of questions.”

I have one additional insight to share with you. In the process of writing I became emotionally attached to some of the characters. I knew them so well, that when bad things happened to them, I almost choked up even though I knew full well I was creating fiction. I was sorry to have to put them through the pain they suffered. However, if they were real people, they would feel pain, and suffer. On the flip side, I also cheered Anna’s accomplishments, and was proud of her when she fought back at the institutional “system” in her own way.

A Sack of Spuds

comment 1
The Grab Bag

Who knew I would be brought to my ethical knees by a bag of potatoes? It is true though, a measly sack of spuds prompted me to disregard my moral compass.

I have always thought I had a pretty good sense of right and wrong, never taking what wasn’t mine, never cheating anyone, never knowingly doing harm. I’m not perfect mind you; we all do things that aren’t quite right based on some religious or ethical standard. But I always, always, always tried my best to be honest. Well OK, maybe there was a bit of an overstatement on mileage on my tax return back in 1989. But that was the IRS – I am talking about regular life, you know what I mean?

I am proud of the fact that I never misrepresented something to a client nor lied to make a buck. There was one time when I was presented with a situation that took all my strength. A $10,000 commission was on the line and I had the better product, but the client mentioned the other agent was going to re-bate part of the commission. Bam, it hit me hard, this was early in my career, and $10,000 was almost an impossible dream for one sale. I said “No, that is illegal”. There is a happy ending to the story however, the client kept me on for other matters and referred me to all his friends. I am sure I made many multiples of $10,000 from him and his referrals over the next 25 years, so I can tell you for sure that doing the right thing is rewarded.

Ah, I digress; here was this sack of potatoes underneath a cart in the grocery store parking lot. “Finders keepers” I thought as I snatched up the bag of potatoes and quickly put them in the back of the car.

To show you where I am at in my life, I was really excited about my find; “Cheryl, look, I found these potatoes, good Idaho baking potatoes no less.” Very sad—-I know.

“You’re going to take them to the customer services desk aren’t you?”

“No, someone left them, I found them, they are mine now.”

“But maybe they will come back for them” she said.

Now we are getting into the right and wrong thing, and I really struggled with it. How often do you find something good, and are able to keep it free and clear? Not very often.

“You have to take them back” she reaffirmed.

“I don’t know-I still think it is finders keepers.” I replied.

I know however, that if I keep the potatoes there are the Cheryl consequences. That happens when I stray off the correct way to behave, and she gets very quiet. I know that spells trouble for me for quite some time to come. Most of you men know what I am talking about here-admit it.

Just then, the cart boy comes by so I reluctantly jerk the potatoes out of the back of the car and give them to him.

“Would you please take these in to customer services?” He took the potatoes and gave me a snide look. The kind of look that said-“You got nailed stealing a bag of potatoes didn’t you.”

I didn’t say much to Cheryl when I got in the car, I guess I had to admit I had a temporary lapse in my moral character, and yes, she was right-again. But I will tell you this; if I find a box of Starbuck’s Caffe Verona dark roast K-cups under a cart, I am keeping it. A man can only take the honesty thing so far before breaking down.