Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Find a Room to Welcome Him

It’s a miracle! My fourteenth annual Christmas carol is finished, and it’s not even midnight yet. I started this little tradition back in 1998, when I was directing a children’s choir and read about the composer Alfred S. Burt, whose lovely "Star Carol" was one of his annual Christmas compositions (in lieu of a card). I thought, “I want to try that!” So I wrote a simple carol for my choir about a stable, a manger, a star in the sky. My own children still love the song and sing it to me.

This year, I had planned to use Christina Rossetti’s lovely Thread of Life as my text—something about those telling lines, “Aloof, aloof, we stand aloof, so stand Thou too aloof,” seemed to match the mood of this dark season, haunted as we all are by theodicy, the enduring problem of evil in the world.

But I was struggling. The creative process is so mysterious to me. Sometimes music just pops out of my brain like Athena bursting from the head of Zeus. And sometimes I have to fight for every note, for every chord resolution. None of the chords in my Rosetti piece were going where I wanted them to.

Then on Christmas Eve morning, a dear friend posted these delightful words from Robert Herrick:
See him come, and know him ours
Who with his sunshine and his showers
Turns all the patient ground to flowers.
The Darling of the World is come,
And fit it is, we find a room to welcome him.

And there it was. THERE was this year’s Christmas carol. December to May. Winter’s chilling morn to verdant corn field. Showers to flowers. No, of course life is not that easy (believe me, I know!). But at Christmas, we celebrate peace. A baby. Family. I don’t want to sing the problem of evil in the world today. I want to sing the Darling of the World and find a room to welcome him (The amazing John Rutter has also set this text to music, so I am now in good company).

Critics will want to attack the curious transition from A major to G major in measure 6. I will freely admit that I was under the influence of sugar when I wrote that.  To make matters worse, I then got stuck in the relative F-sharp minor and “resolved” it all by sharping the tonic (A) to A-sharp in the last measure, ending in F-sharp major! I know, right? Like I said, sugar will do strange things to you. Or egg nog (oh, bite my tongue! Bite my tongue!).

A final note just in case someone happens to be actually reading this (apparently, my blog is not anonymous!). My ex is a good guy. He really loves his kids. So do I. It’s easy (and sometimes even a little bit fun) to judge people. But God or whatever mystery you sense in awe and apprehend wants us to love people instead. Try giving a little love this year, even to the people you don’t agree with.

Merry Christmas! 

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Joint Statement from Sarah and Liza

Many of you have seen Sarah's excellent blog in the past few days. I think she makes some important points about children's privacy. http://sarahkendzior.com/

We have been in contact, and I am truly impressed with her professionalism and her concern for children. We have written the following statement that we would like to share:

“We would like to release a public statement on the need for a respectful national conversation on mental health. Whatever our prior disagreements, we both believe that the stigma attached to mental illness needs to end. We need to provide affordable, quality mental health care for families. We need to provide support for families who have a relative who is struggling.

“We both agree that privacy for family members, especially children, is important. Neither of us anticipated the viral response to our posts. We love our children and hope you will respect their privacy.

“Our nation has suffered enough in the aftermath of Newtown. We are not interested in being part of a ‘mommy war’. We are interested in opening a serious conversation on what can be done for families in need. Let’s work together and make our country better.”

Thanks, all!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Thinking the Unthinkable

Michael holding a butterfly
In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.

Three days before 20 year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother, then opened fire on a classroom full of Connecticut kindergartners, my 13-year old son Michael (name changed) missed his bus because he was wearing the wrong color pants.

“I can wear these pants,” he said, his tone increasingly belligerent, the black-hole pupils of his eyes swallowing the blue irises.

“They are navy blue,” I told him. “Your school’s dress code says black or khaki pants only.”

“They told me I could wear these,” he insisted. “You’re a stupid bitch. I can wear whatever pants I want to. This is America. I have rights!”

“You can’t wear whatever pants you want to,” I said, my tone affable, reasonable. “And you definitely cannot call me a stupid bitch. You’re grounded from electronics for the rest of the day. Now get in the car, and I will take you to school.”

I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me.

A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7 and 9 year old siblings knew the safety plan—they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me. Through it all, he continued to scream insults at me and threaten to kill or hurt me.

That conflict ended with three burly police officers and a paramedic wrestling my son onto a gurney for an expensive ambulance ride to the local emergency room. The mental hospital didn’t have any beds that day, and Michael calmed down nicely in the ER, so they sent us home with a prescription for Zyprexa and a follow-up visit with a local pediatric psychiatrist.

We still don’t know what’s wrong with Michael. Autism spectrum, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant or Intermittent Explosive Disorder have all been tossed around at various meetings with probation officers and social workers and counselors and teachers and school administrators. He’s been on a slew of antipsychotic and mood altering pharmaceuticals, a Russian novel of behavioral plans. Nothing seems to work.

At the start of seventh grade, Michael was accepted to an accelerated program for highly gifted math and science students. His IQ is off the charts. When he’s in a good mood, he will gladly bend your ear on subjects ranging from Greek mythology to the differences between Einsteinian and Newtonian physics to Doctor Who. He’s in a good mood most of the time. But when he’s not, watch out. And it’s impossible to predict what will set him off.  

Several weeks into his new junior high school, Michael began exhibiting increasingly odd and threatening behaviors at school. We decided to transfer him to the district’s most restrictive behavioral program, a contained school environment where children who can’t function in normal classrooms can access their right to free public babysitting from 7:30-1:50 Monday through Friday until they turn 18.

The morning of the pants incident, Michael continued to argue with me on the drive. He would occasionally apologize and seem remorseful. Right before we turned into his school parking lot, he said, “Look, Mom, I’m really sorry. Can I have video games back today?”

“No way,” I told him. “You cannot act the way you acted this morning and think you can get your electronic privileges back that quickly.”

His face turned cold, and his eyes were full of calculated rage. “Then I’m going to kill myself,” he said. “I’m going to jump out of this car right now and kill myself.”

That was it. After the knife incident, I told him that if he ever said those words again, I would take him straight to the mental hospital, no ifs, ands, or buts. I did not respond, except to pull the car into the opposite lane, turning left instead of right.

“Where are you taking me?” he said, suddenly worried. “Where are we going?”

You know where we are going,” I replied.

“No! You can’t do that to me! You’re sending me to hell! You’re sending me straight to hell!”

I pulled up in front of the hospital, frantically waiving for one of the clinicians who happened to be standing outside. “Call the police,” I said. “Hurry.”

Michael was in a full-blown fit by then, screaming and hitting. I hugged him close so he couldn’t escape from the car. He bit me several times and repeatedly jabbed his elbows into my rib cage. I’m still stronger than he is, but I won’t be for much longer.

The police came quickly and carried my son screaming and kicking into the bowels of the hospital. I started to shake, and tears filled my eyes as I filled out the paperwork—“Were there any difficulties with....at what age did your child....were there any problems with...has your child ever experienced...does your child have....”  

At least we have health insurance now. I recently accepted a position with a local college, giving up my freelance career because when you have a kid like this, you need benefits. You’ll do anything for benefits. No individual insurance plan will cover this kind of thing.

For days, my son insisted that I was lying—that I made the whole thing up so that I could get rid of him. The first day, when I called to check up on him, he said, “I hate you. And I’m going to get my revenge as soon as I get out of here.”

By day three, he was my calm, sweet boy again, all apologies and promises to get better. I’ve heard those promises for years. I don’t believe them anymore.

On the intake form, under the question, “What are your expectations for treatment?” I wrote, “I need help.”

And I do. This problem is too big for me to handle on my own. Sometimes there are no good options. So you just pray for grace and trust that in hindsight, it will all make sense.

I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.

According to Mother Jones, since 1982, 61 mass murders involving firearms have occurred throughout the country. (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/07/mass-shootings-map). Of these, 43 of the killers were white males, and only one was a woman. Mother Jones focused on whether the killers obtained their guns legally (most did). But this highly visible sign of mental illness should lead us to consider how many people in the U.S. live in fear, like I do.

When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. “If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.”

I don’t believe my son belongs in jail. The chaotic environment exacerbates Michael’s sensitivity to sensory stimuli and doesn’t deal with the underlying pathology. But it seems like the United States is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of mentally ill inmates in U.S. prisons quadrupled from 2000 to 2006, and it continues to rise—in fact, the rate of inmate mental illness is five times greater (56 percent) than in the non-incarcerated population. (http://www.hrw.org/news/2006/09/05/us-number-mentally-ill-prisons-quadrupled)

With state-run treatment centers and hospitals shuttered, prison is now the last resort for the mentally ill—Rikers Island, the LA County Jail, and Cook County Jail in Illinois housed the nation’s largest treatment centers in 2011 (http://www.npr.org/2011/09/04/140167676/nations-jails-struggle-with-mentally-ill-prisoners)

 No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, “Something must be done.”

I agree that something must be done. It’s time for a meaningful, nation-wide conversation about mental health. That’s the only way our nation can ever truly heal.

God help me. God help Michael. God help us all. 

This story was first published online by the Blue Review. Read more on current events at www.thebluereview.org

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Semper Fi

What It Means to Be the Daughter of a Marine

I am the oldest daughter of a United States Marine. Born in the Pink Doctor Building during the final years of a Cold War conflict we did not win, I learned to walk on Honolulu’s sandy beaches, waving to the improbable sky hippopotamus that hovered over the sea behind my base house, its tandem rotors thumping rhythms I felt in my bones, its lights flashing red and green, port and starboard, my father’s way of signaling his love to my mother and me as we collected blue glass balls that washed up on our beach. The glass balls, my father said, once floated fishing nets in far-away Japan.

My father, USMC Captain Theodore Thomas Long, Jr., piloted CH-46 Sea Knights during the final gasps of the Vietnam War. He earned his nickname, “Machine Gun,” when he asked his CO to transfer him from an assault squadron to a unit that flew medical rescue missions. Anybody who knew my father knows he could not have flown a gunship. He was not that kind of guy—he was the kind of guy who wept every time he read the ending of A Tale of Two Cities, who sang “When You Walk through a Storm” so clear and sweet it gave you goose bumps.  

My father’s Vietnam was not Ken Rodger’s Vietnam, not the “confused alarms of struggle and flight” described so vividly in Ken’s documentary of the siege of Khe Sahn, Bravo: Common Men, Uncommon Valor. You see, my father was an officer. He joined the ROTC in college, where he majored in Political Science. Dad started his thesis with the intention of defending the Vietnam War and the United States’ role in it. Upon researching the subject, he concluded that the war was indefensible. Then he graduated and went to fly helicopters in Vietnam anyway, because that’s what you do when you love your country: you support it, right or wrong.  And my Dad, the fatherless liberal Democrat Mormon boy from Utah, loved America.

Here is what it means to be the daughter of a United States Marine who served in Vietnam. Your first word is “jet” (“No, helicopter! Helicopter!” my Dad would say).  You belt out “From the halls of Montezuma” while the other kids are singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” You are never, ever allowed to say the word “Army.” When you forget to do your chores, your Dad yells, “Drop and give me 20,” and you do. On Sundays, the only movies you can watch are the following: Patton, The Great Escape, Victory at Sea, and Chariots of Fire. But mostly Patton. You and your siblings can reenact the entire film.

In sixth grade, on your Dad’s advice, you read The Iliad, holding your breath: “Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles.” Your teacher is disappointed with you because you write an epic poem in dactylic hexameter about a war between ants and wasps instead of a pretty lyric about butterflies.  In high school, you have your first crush on Lawrence of Arabia and begin to contemplate the oxymoronic problem of Heroism in the Modern Age. You learn what the word ambiguous means. You learn that things are not black and white. You learn to love America anyway.

In 1991, when you are home on break from college, driving with your Dad, who has just been diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia (a war he will not win), you find your way blocked by barricades, a parade with tanks and ticker tape to honor heroes of the Gulf War. Your Dad starts to cry. “They spit on me,” he says. “When I came home, they spit on me.”

I thought of all these things when I saw Bravo for the first time. Author and 1968 Khe Sahn siege survivor Ken Rodgers has been a longtime friend and mentor. I wrote my first novel (probably for myself) under his tutelage. There is nothing like learning the power of strong verbs from a man who experienced them like Ken did. Seeing Bravo made me understand some things I’d always wondered about my own father, about the war that shaped him, and by extension, me.

What I learned  from watching Bravo is this: you are never more alive than when you are facing death. In that moment, you are the Ubermensch, hyper-alive, hyper-aware. You can see bullets pass you by. You can contemplate their curves, their hard, deadly tips, the lovely crimson clouds that they create when they impact something not protected by a flak jacket. Watching Bravo, I learned that war is hell. But I also finally understood why we keep waging it. At some level, war is fun. And nothing else in life quite lives up to that powerful chemical cocktail your body slams when you face death (except maybe childbirth, but that’s another story).

Here is what it means to be the daughter of a United States Marine who served in Vietnam. When your father dies at age 50, they bury him near Hill Air Force Base, in the shadow of mountains, beneath the flight path. A bugler plays Taps. The guns salute. They hand your mom a folded flag. You don’t know whether the cancer that killed him was part of a cluster that afflicted Vietnam pilots, or whether it was because he was born in Reno, Nevada in 1944, or whether it was just one of those things.

You love America anyway. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

Read more about Bravo at http://bravotheproject.com

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Pennies from Heaven

Unexpected gifts in unexpected change

The day my life changed forever started like most other days. It was the first day of a new term, and after an exhausting year of prepping new classes, I was looking forward to teaching four months of familiar and much-loved art history. For the first time in years, my personal life was stable, my finances seemed secure, my health was good. I was content and grateful in my roles as mother, teacher, friend.

One thing about that morning stands out in my mind: the gold Sacajawea dollar on the classroom lectern.

Random coins have special meaning to me. When a penny appears on the sidewalk at my feet, or a dime sits on the bus seat beside me, something in my lizard brain says, pay attention. I am fully aware that our minds see patterns where none exist. The fact that I attribute meaning to spare change amuses me—it’s my own personal form of augury, a less messy alternative to reading sheep entrails, less complicated than charting the movements of birds across the sky. I view this behavior as relatively harmless, a way to give false but comforting meaning to the otherwise random chaos of my life.

I picked up the coin, meaning to ask the other instructors if someone had left it there by accident. I never got the chance. Now as I remember, I think of Judas, of his 30 pieces of silver.

Even Jesus trusted bad guys.

At my cubicle, there was a brief email from our HR director, requesting a 2:00 meeting. I thought nothing of it. I chatted with colleagues, helped faculty members with minor course issues, answered questions for students, thinking how fortunate I was to have meaningful work that I enjoyed, that changed lives.

Two months later and twenty pounds lighter after a stress-induced diet of near constant vomiting and sleepless anxiety, I celebrated my fortieth birthday in a way I never could have imagined. After years of hard work, sacrifice, and a level of organizational commitment that in retrospect was definitely unwarranted and possibly insane, I was an out-of-work single mother of four children.

On my fortieth birthday, as I walked home from my yoga class, the early spring morning unwrapped itself like a gift before me. I was not surprised to spot a worn penny on the ground. I picked it up, turned it over, noted with satisfaction that the date, 1972, was the year I entered this world.

I started yoga just a week ago, after my doctor called as I was picking up some milk at Fred Meyer.

“The results weren’t good,” she said. “You need a biopsy, soon.”

The words washed over me as a sickening wave of memories: green antiseptic walls, sterile mask pressed against my mouth, my father, pale-faced, trembling, fighting for breath. This is what words like “biopsy” mean to me. At that nadir, I was ready to curse God and die.

Instead, I put back the milk, picked up a yoga mat, got $20 in change (to which I added a bright copper penny that mysteriously appeared beside the door to my car), and headed straight for Bikram Yoga to try out their “20 Days for $20.”

In that first week of heat and sweat and pain and postures my body argued were impossible (or at least very implausible, my instructor’s comments that I must have done yoga in a former life notwithstanding), I discovered that what I had viewed as purgatory was actually an unexpected and welcome gift: the gift of time.

I have always charged headlong through my life, sprinting a marathon of calculus and ballet and Bach and Chinese and Thucydides and behavioral economics and cloth diapers and peach canning and sewing baby clothes and learning family law and managing other people's problems and…The truth is: I am tired. Weary. Exhausted.

There has never been enough time for me.

Now, faced with days that should have been filled with work, instead I have time. Time to spend with my children, who are growing quickly and will soon be gone. Time to rest, to read, to write. Time to learn a Bach prelude and fugue that challenged me for 20 years. Time to complete a book design project for a friend who soon will die. And yes, time to try yoga.

Yoga. Those of you who know me are laughing out loud.

But the truth is that I have never felt better, not in my entire life, than I do today, at the age of 40. I am confident, smart, talented, strong, determined, beautiful. Sure, life has knocked me down more than once, and will doubtless knock me down again.

Bring it.

Strip all the externals—the relationships, the career, the false sense of security those provided—and what am I left with? Me. I am left with myself. A tautology, of course, but isn’t self what we spend our whole lives trying to define? In my unexpected gift of time, I have discovered that I am the sum of more than all my parts. My work, my children, my relationships—these are all good things. But they are not me.  In these painful months, I have focused inward, and I have found strength and yes, even joy far beyond that which anything extrinsic could ever provide.

Every day I survive, with a little more hope, a little more appreciation for grace. The coins I have found in the past two months have been harbingers of change. They have also been messages of hope.

Change is painful. Change is frightening. Change is often beyond our control. But if we embrace it, submit to it, learn from it, change is good. That is the message I have taken in my valley of shadows, from random coins found at random times and places in the inauspicious beginning of what will prove to be my best decade so far.

P.S. If the biopsy turns out badly, I am going to look damn good in my coffin! Oh wait, I want to be cremated…

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Truth about Love

Straight from a six year old’s mouth

Valentine’s Eve, 1982, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A girl, just six years old, with golden Shirley Temple  ringlets and dimples, sits at a kitchen table, pen held awkwardly in hand, frowning over a pile of homemade Valentine’s Day cards.

Her father, corporate attorney, Mormon Bishop, marathon runner, is in Denver trying a case. Her nine-months pregnant mother is busy wrangling three wailing boys under the age of four who are all in diapers and formula simultaneously. Her older sister (that’s me) is poking her, grinning, and running away.

(Of course, the older sister’s Valentines are already done, with perfect penmanship and delicate lace doily trim, composed in iambic pentameter. Of course, the older sister has been crowned Valentine’s Day queen of her classroom).

This is my favorite Valentine’s Day story of all time. It’s not a story about love. It’s a story about the truth.

My sister, six years old, does not know what to write on her Valentine’s Day cards. So she asks our mother. “Write something heartfelt, something you mean,” mom tells her in a distracted tone, balancing the baby on her swollen belly and comforting two whining toddlers tugging at her pant legs. My sister nods gravely and begins to write.

Fortunately for all involved, the annoying older sister (that's me) is unable to keep from meddling and proof-reading (some things never change). Here are just a few of the things my sister wrote on her classmates’ cards:

“Dear J, I think you are fat. Love A.” And “Dear K, you would have more friends if you weren't so mean. Love A.” And…you get the picture. Tell a precocious six-year old to write something she means, and you may get more than you bargained for.

My sister has grown into a lovely and successful woman. But she still has golden Shirley Temple curls. And she still has a disconcerting habit of saying exactly what she means sometimes.  She is single, like me. I think we have both discovered that our frank and literal natures may not be well-suited to the white lies that glue romantic relationships together.

With luck, I will manage to dodge the strange and ancient ritual of Valentine’s cards and decorated boxes this year—my children’s stepmother, not knowing (or not believing) my housewife history, does not think I am capable of anything involving the domestic arts, so she usually “helps” me by sending in the boxes and cards early.

But if I have to create Valentine’s Day cards with my own six-year old tonight, I will definitely pay attention to what she writes. Because the truth, like love, sometimes hurts. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Greater Good

On Teen-Age Drinking and Situational Ethics

It was 10:12 p.m., right in the middle of the brief thirty minutes I reserve for myself each day. My kids were tucked in their beds; their oldest brother was engrossed in Halo on the living room sofa. I was two minutes and a text message away. Sweat poured down my face as I worked my legs on the elliptical machine in my apartment complex’s small gym, devouring a trashy sci-fi novel to take my mind off my burning muscles.

Then with an icy blast, the door flew open, and a girl, naked from the waist up, staggered in and slumped against the wall, moaning, her amber hair spreading out to cover her breasts.

This wholly unexpected apparition was almost immediately followed by a slightly more coherent and more clothed young woman, who slurred, “Sammy, Sammy, are you okay? Come on, we have to get home.”

And two seconds later, a young man joined the party, with backwards baseball cap, low riding denim shorts, and a vocabulary laced with Marine Corps-style expletives. “Get Sammy in my car, Holly. Get in the goddamn motherfucking car. Jesus, I cannot fucking believe this. I have to drive you home now. My dad will go apeshit if he comes home to this.”

For about a second, which felt more like an hour, I really wanted the drama unfolding in front of me to be someone else’s problem. My precious half hour with the elliptical and some escapist fiction is about the only thing I have to look forward to in an otherwise frantic day of work and kids and studying for my Ed.D. program.

But it was not somebody else’s problem. It was my problem. I leapt off the elliptical, parked myself with hands on hips, and gave the three teens my best “don’t fuck with me because I have gone through childbirth four times and am way meaner than you are” stare. “Nobody. Is. Driving. Anyone. Anywhere. Except. Me,” I declared.

The two teens who were still capable of some cognitive processing stared at me in confusion. “Are you gonna call the cops on us, lady?” the boy asked.

The thought had definitely crossed my mind. “No, I am not,” I replied. “And I am also going to spare you the lecture on underage drinking that you all desperately need. You are going to get some clothes on that girl,” I pointed to the bare-breasted one who was so out of it she couldn’t tell what was going on. “And I am going to drive you girls home.”

A million thoughts were racing through my head. Was Sammy too sick to transport? Should I call an ambulance instead? Her breathing seemed okay, and her pulse felt normal, but I am not a trained medic. What if she’d had more than alcohol? Clearly I had an underage drinking situation on my hands, at best. That the girls had been up to other underage things was also fairly obvious, given Sammy’s state of undress.

In the moment, I decided to deal with the immediate need—to keep that drunk kid out of his car and off the road. And to get those girls home.

“Get your things together,” I told them. “I’ll run home and grab my car.”

I jogged to my apartment and started to say to my 14 year old, “If you EVER get so drunk at a party that you’re almost ready to pass out, so help me I will…” Then I stopped.

“You will what, mom?” my kid asked.

“I will drive you home,” I said slowly. “Anytime, anywhere. No questions asked. Please don’t drink, because you’re too young. But if you do, just know that I will come and get you.”

“You’re weird, Mom,” he shrugged, turning back to his Halo game.

I took the car back to the gym, where we managed to get Sammy into the backseat and strapped her in. She was still moaning, but seemed a little more lucid. Holly sat in the front seat and gave me directions.

“Do you think my Mom is going to know I’ve been drinking?” she asked.

“I’m pretty sure she will,” I replied.

“What should I tell her?”

“I guess if it were me, I would tell her the truth.”

As we drove, Holly told me a little about her life. She said she wanted to stop partying, but she just didn’t know how. She felt really bad about letting her mom down.

“You should find something that makes you happy and do that instead,” I told her, adding, “Those boys you were with tonight, they’re total losers.”

“You think so?”

“I know so,” I said grimly.

By the time I dropped Holly off, Sammy was sober enough to give me directions to her house as well. I walked her up to the door and knocked, hoping desperately someone would be home. Someone was. I briefly explained the situation, deposited the girl in her mother’s arms, and left.

When I got home, my son and I did some research about teen drinking and driving. The statistics are a little frightening. According to the Mothers Against Drunk Driving website (http://www.madd.org/statistics/): 
  • One in five teenagers binge drink, while only one in 100 parents believe their teens binge drink. 
  • Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens, with one in three fatal accidents involving alcohol.
  • High school students who drink or do drugs are five times more likely to drop out of school or feel that grades aren’t important.

Clearly the situation I faced is an all too common one, and parents are in total avoidance mode. So what can we do? First, I think we have to have some uncomfortable conversations with our teenagers. And secondly, in moments like the one I encountered, I think we have to climb down from the moral high ground and embrace the reality of the situation. We have to keep drunk kids from driving.

The “SafeRides” program is one way that communities are saving lives by preventing teens from driving drunk. The program uses volunteers to provide rides for intoxicated teens, with no questions asked. We don’t have a program like this in Idaho, but I would definitely consider working with other teen parents to start one.

Similarly, parents and teens involved in Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD) sign a “Contract for Life,” in which the teen promises to call the parent if he or she is too drunk to drive, and the parent promises, like I did with my son, to give the child a ride, no questions asked. Local SADD coordinators can be reached at this website: http://www.sadd.org/scoordinators.htm

I teach ethics at my college, and while I know that we have to address the morality and legality of teen drinking, I also believe that I have a duty, in a crisis situation, to set aside morality in the abstract, and to act in a way that provides the greatest good to the greatest number of people. Which means that no matter how I happen to feel personally about underage drinking, in the moment, I had to keep the underage drinkers from driving.

Should I have called the police? First responders? Maybe so. I chose in the moment to look at a bigger picture. Holly and Sammy will have some hard conversations to face with their parents. I hope they can have the courage to confront their problems, and to turn their lives around. But because of the sober choice I made, one thing is sure: they lived to tell about it.