Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Story of my life these days

These pictures say a lot about growing old.

But better to be old than to not be here at all.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Never forget Tiffany Wright

Damn the police.

Damn social services.

Damn all the supposed do-gooders responsible for protecting the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society.

They didn't do their job to save Tiffany Wright.

The former student at Bessemer City High School in Gaston County, where she ran track, was murdered early one morning a few days ago while waiting to catch her school bus. Her last communication, sent via text message to a friend, at 5:51 a.m.: "Where's the bus?"

She had dreamed of becoming a lawyer.

It seemed like her entire life had been an uphill battle.

What did the police and social services do to protect her when she most needed their help? What did they do to protect her unborn baby, which came into the world under the worst of circumstances and lived for only one week. Let's never forget baby Aaliyah.

They made phone calls and left voice mails (unreturned) for her adoptive brother, now described as a "person of interest" in the ongoing investigation.

And that's about all they did, far as I can tell.

Maybe they gave up so easily because she was black, 15, poor and pregnant.

What if she had been the granddaughter of the governor of North Carolina? What if she had been John McCain's granddaughter or great granddaughter?

Would the "protective agencies" have been more quick to act forcefully?

Every American should be angry about what happened to Tiffany Wright.

Here, in case you missed it, is the front page story that ran today in The Charlotte Observer. It's long but well worth reading. Also here, after that front page story, is a followup story, which appeared in the Sept. 26, 2009, edition of The Charlotte Observer.

Failed by system, dead at 15

Agencies tried to help Tiffany Wright, but their actions were too little, too late

By Christopher D. Kirkpatrick
Posted: Thursday, Sep. 24, 2009

Tiffany Wright stood alone in the dark, waiting for her school bus.

It was just before 6 a.m., and her foster grandmother had walked back home to get Tiffany's water bottle.

Tiffany, 15, was eight months pregnant but determined to stay on track in school. She wanted to be a lawyer. And after just a few weeks at Hawthorne High, she had impressed teachers as smart and ambitious, despite a difficult childhood.

At 5:51, Tiffany sent a text.

"Wheres the bus?"

One stop away, replied her friend, already on the bus.

At 5:55, as the bus lumbered toward Tiffany's stop, people began calling police to report gunshots.

A school bus dispatcher radioed Tiffany's bus driver: Change course - something's happening ahead.

Tiffany lay dead in the road, shot in the head, that morning, Monday, Sept. 14. Her baby girl was delivered at the hospital and lived a week, but died Sunday.

Nobody's charged in the killings, but police call Tiffany's adoptive brother, Royce Mitchell, a "person of interest."

In the months before she died, local agencies took steps aimed at stabilizing her home life and keeping her safe. But her story exposes failures in the system that was supposed to protect her.

Among the missteps:

•In February, a Mecklenburg court clerk appointed Mitchell as Tiffany's temporary guardian - even though he was a felon who served time in federal prison. He was also tried in 2006 for murder, but found not guilty. And last year, he was accused of domestic violence, though the case was dismissed.

•In July, social workers told police that Mitchell, 36, might have committed statutory rape with Tiffany, but police didn't question him about it for seven weeks, and didn't charge him with the rape until after Tiffany was killed.

•This month, Mecklenburg social services failed to cut off communication between Tiffany, who was in foster care, and Mitchell, said a source close to the investigation.

On the day of Tiffany's killing, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police jailed Mitchell for statutory rape and indecent liberties with a child, naming Tiffany as the victim.

Police defend their work, saying they followed the industry's best practices - which takes time. Police didn't feel a need to rush, they say, because they believed Tiffany was secure, hidden in a foster home with no threat to her safety.

Police say it's hard to prove statutory rape: Of the 262 reports of statutory rape police received over three years, only 16 percent - 42 cases - were accepted by prosecutors.

Experts say statutory rape cases are complicated because they involve victims ages 13, 14 or 15 who often consider themselves voluntary participants in sex with someone at least six years older. So victims can be reluctant to help police.

But child advocates say in cases like Tiffany's, police should act more aggressively. An immediate arrest sends a signal to a suspect and can persuade them to stay away from victims.

"The cases may be difficult to win, but they're not difficult to charge," says Brett Loftis of Charlotte's Council for Children's Rights.

UNCC criminologist Paul Friday says: "Often, nothing is done in these kinds of cases because they're based on improper assumptions about the rationality of someone that age. But the minors are often unaware of disease, birth control and they can be exploited by someone."

Adopted by foster mother

Tiffany first entered the child welfare system as a toddler in Buffalo, N.Y., when her mother lost custody.

She was adopted at 4 by her foster mother, Alma Wright, an older woman with eight grown children, who was excited about raising another child.

One of Wright's grown sons was Royce Mitchell, a star quarterback in high school who'd gone on to play for a semi-pro team in Buffalo. But Mitchell also was indicted in 1999 as part of a drug trafficking ring and went to federal prison.

While he was in prison, authorities also charged Mitchell with an earlier murder, but a jury found him not guilty.

In 2004, Alma and Tiffany left Buffalo for North Carolina, settling near Kings Mountain. Tiffany made friends easily at school and church. She ran track at Bessemer City High School.

In 2007, Mitchell was released from prison and followed his mother to North Carolina.

But last fall, Alma Wright got sick. Friends at church helped out with Tiffany, inviting her for dinners and weekends. Tiffany spent time with Mitchell and his wife, too.

Alma Wright died Jan. 25, and Tiffany moved in with the Mitchells in Charlotte.

On Jan. 30, Royce Mitchell asked a Mecklenburg court to appoint him and his wife as Tiffany's guardians.

On his application, he wrote: "We are seeking guardianship because we were requested to do so by Mrs. Alma Wright before she died."

He wanted to transfer Tiffany to West Mecklenburg High School.

The court set a hearing for Feb. 5 and appointed a child advocate to study the situation and look after Tiffany's best interests in court.

There's no transcript of what happened in court, and the clerk who handled Tiffany's case declined to discuss his decision.

Frederick Benson, a Mecklenburg assistant clerk of superior court, appointed Mitchell the temporary guardian of Tiffany's welfare.

It's unclear if Benson, a lawyer, knew about Mitchell's criminal background. Court clerks are not required to perform background checks in guardianship cases, says Clerk of Superior Court Martha Curran. It's up to each clerk to decide what checks are necessary, and they often rely on court-appointed child advocates to advise them in such cases.

Tiffany's advocate, lawyer Martha Efird, declined to discuss her actions in the case.

It was in the weeks surrounding the Feb. 5 court hearing that Tiffany got pregnant, if hospital estimates are accurate.

But friends say Tiffany, who started at West Mecklenburg High in February, wouldn't realize for four or five months that she was pregnant.

On Feb. 27, clerk of court Benson ordered DSS to conduct a "home study" of the Mitchell household. Officials won't release their findings.

But Mitchell didn't keep custody long, according to several of Tiffany's friends in King's Mountain.

In late March, Mitchell left Tiffany at a group home called With Friends in Gastonia, according to Marlene Jefferies and Cruceta Jeffeirs, two adult family friends who watched Tiffany grow up.

The group home wouldn't confirm that. But the friends say the home reported to social services that Tiffany was abandoned. And she was soon back in foster care.

On March 31, Jeffeirs, a Shelby pastor, wrote a letter to Benson seeking custody of Tiffany: "My desire is to see Tiffany accomplish all the goals that she has set for herself and I believe she can do that in a stable environment with lots of guidance and love."

DSS officials in Gaston and Mecklenburg won't discuss Tiffany's case or answer questions about what steps they took to protect her.

But friends and family say Tiffany was eventually placed in the care of foster parent Susan Barber, in a townhome off Mallard Creek Road in Derita.

By July, it was clear Tiffany was pregnant, friends say.

Barber tried to shield Tiffany from talking to those she believed might be bad influences, according to Tiffany's cousin Brittany Page. But a source close to the investigation said Tiffany and Mitchell continued communicating.

Despite repeated attempts, Barber could not be reached.

As the school year approached, Tiffany prepared to change schools again, this time to Hawthorne High in Charlotte, which offers a special program for pregnant students.

Delayed investigation

On July 27, social workers reported to police that Royce Mitchell might have committed statutory rape with Tiffany.

It took eight days for a detective to look at the case, and three days more for it to be officially assigned to Teresa Johnson, a detective with CMPD's youth crime and domestic violence unit.

Another 12 days passed before Johnson interviewed Tiffany.

It's unclear when detective Johnson discovered Mitchell's background, but it wasn't enough to ramp up the investigation. Investigators say they believed Tiffany was safe in a foster home and faced no threats from Mitchell.

Police say their performance in the case followed procedure and met standards.

Police interview alleged victims immediately if the crime has occurred within the previous 72 hours, so they can gather evidence that may remain. But in cases like Tiffany's - where months had elapsed since the alleged offense - police try to arrange just one interview when children and teen victims of abuse are involved.

Police acknowledge that strategy takes time but minimizes trauma and reduces the chances that young victims might be led into inaccurate testimony by repeated questioning.

Police also let such victims decide when they want to be interviewed at the county's child-victim center called Pat's Place. There, specially trained interviewers talk to victims, while social workers, psychologists, police and others watch from another room.

Tiffany chose an Aug. 19 interview. She didn't say much during the formal interview. But later that day, Johnson won her trust and obtained enough information to move forward with the investigation.

No response from Mitchell

The next day, Aug. 20, the detective made her first call to Mitchell to ask him about the charge, she says. Johnson left a message and gave him a few days to call back.

When Mitchell didn't respond, she made calls over the next two weeks to social workers and a federal probation officer to ask Mitchell to come talk to police.

Police say they didn't immediately arrest him because they believed they could get better information if he talked voluntarily.

On Sept. 9, a federal probation official told Johnson that Mitchell was not coming in.

On Sept. 10, a team of social workers, police and other agencies held a standard follow-up meeting to discuss how to proceed in Tiffany's case.

On Friday, Sept. 11, detective Johnson phoned Mitchell's wife and left a message. She asked her to call back to discuss Tiffany, Johnson says, but didn't give details of the rape allegation.

That Monday, Tiffany was shot and killed.

As emergency vehicles rolled to the scene, Tiffany's school bus was diverted from its normal route. But the students could see flashing lights. Tiffany's friends on the bus, Cimone Black and Tamia Corpening, began to worry.

"I kept texting her phone...," Cimone said. Then she started calling, but all she got was voice mail.

The bus continued on to Hawthorne. For Tamia, the hourlong ride was excruciating.

Nobody said a word.

Staff writers Liz Chandler and Ely Portillo and researcher Maria David contributed.

Bond set, suspect held in rape case

Man charged with statutory rape of Tiffany Wright remains a "person of interest" in her killing.

By Gary L. Wright
Posted: Saturday, Sep. 26, 2009

A $175,000 bond was set Friday for the man charged with committing statutory rape with Tiffany Wright, a pregnant teen who was fatally shot at a school bus stop last week.

But Royce Mitchell isn't likely to get out of jail, even if he makes bond. Federal authorities have placed a hold on Mitchell, who remains under federal supervision since his 2007 release from prison.

Mitchell, 36, is Tiffany's adoptive brother. He also has been charged with taking indecent liberties with a child, and police describe him as a "person of interest" in Tiffany's killing.

At Friday's bond hearing in Charlotte, Mitchell's lawyer questioned the sex charges against her client, telling the judge that Tiffany had denied having sex with Mitchell and denied that he was the father of her baby.

The lawyer, Susan Weigand, also said Tiffany, 15, had been sexually active and that she told boys at school that they had fathered her child.

Tiffany's grandmother, Shirley Boston, gasped in the courtroom as Weigand spoke.

"She's dead...She's a victim that has no voice," Boston said of her granddaughter after the hearing.

She was angry that the defense lawyer "beat up" on Tiffany. "That's outrageous," she said.

Tiffany's adoptive mother died in January and a Mecklenburg court clerk appointed Mitchell her temporary guardian - even though he had spent time in federal prison. He also was once indicted in a killing but acquitted.

But Tiffany was later placed in a foster home.

During Friday's hearing, prosecutor Kelly Miller said Tiffany told her foster mother that Mitchell had had sex with her. The foster mother then called the Department of Social Services.

Tiffany initially refused to talk about the allegations, then denied them, Miller said. But she later told a detective that Mitchell had sex with her twice and was the father of her baby, the prosecutor said.

"We would ask for a high bond - whatever your honor thinks is appropriate," Miller told Mecklenburg District Judge Hugh Lewis.

Mitchell was arrested in 1999 in New York as part of a drug trafficking operation and was later sent to federal prison. He was released in 2007 and placed on four years' supervision.

The sex charges involving Tiffany constitute probation violations, said federal authorities, who last week were preparing a warrant that would keep him in jail. Mitchell will be turned over to U.S. marshals if he's able to post bond on the sex charges.

Tiffany was shot in the head Sept. 14. Her baby, Aaliyah, was delivered and lived for a week in critical condition but died Sunday.

No one has been charged in Tiffany's killing.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Youngest daughter doing well

My youngest daughter, Elizabeth, 23, is working for "World Relief," an organization in Nashville, Tenn., that's helping refugees adapt and get settled in the U.S.

She's especially involved lately in helping pregnant refugees, by giving them a baby shower.

Click on the boldface headline link above to see the Fox News TV clip of Elizabeth and her co-workers at World Relief.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Generation NeXt

Here's a column I wrote that The (Rock Hill, S.C.) Herald published today (Sept. 19, 2009):

The challenges of working with NeXters

By Larry Timbs - Special to The Herald

If you have a Generation NeXter on your work force, managing that person can be quite challenging, even at times vexing.

Why do I say that?

It's because Generation NeXters — people born no earlier than 1983 — sometimes can seem like they're from another planet.

Take my word for it. I come into contact with Generation NeXters every day in the university classes I teach in print and Web journalism. My challenges: Engage NeXters in learning; keep them focused and in the knowledge acquisition loop; get the windmills in their minds churning so that they can grasp new or meaningful ideas; run with those ideas and concepts, and make our community or world a better place.

What I try to do in all my classes at Winthrop University is to connect with Generation NeXters, or at least meet them (figuratively speaking) in their minds and hearts, and prepare them for professional work in the real world.

Not an easy task.

Generation NeXters, according to Dr. Mark Taylor, a nationally recognized educator and expert on this group of young people, definitely bring to the table a set of personal characteristics that would tax even the most skilled professor, let alone one from the baby boomer generation who can seem galaxies apart from his students' world.

Taylor, who has worked as a college professor, medical administrator and clinical psychotherapist, writes in “Generation NeXt Goes to Work: Issues in Workplace Readiness and Performance,” (www.taylorprograms.org/drtaylorarticles.html) that NeXters:

• Have minimal respect for authority and or for social rules of conduct, instead asserting their own personal privileges;

• React defensively to constructive criticism;

• Don't know the difference between civil exchange and reasoned ideas and shouting personal beliefs;

• Have a na├»ve sense of the future;

• Feel a sense of entitlement;

• Expect immediate gratification;

• Have high self-importance. (They've been told by their parents that they're precious, and they believe this!);

• Are often devastated by expectations of the workplace;

• Ask not what they can do for the organization but what the organization can do for them; and

• Expect high salaries, quick promotions, and moderate hours in a friendly, supportive work environment that makes the most of their talents.

That's the downside or bleak side of Generation NeXters.

Dr. Taylor also notes (in “Generation NeXt Goes to Work…”) the upside or strengths of this generation — again composed of persons 26 years old or younger.

He observes that NeXters:

• Tend to be positive and feel good about themselves;

• Exhibit resourcefulness in problem solving and needs meeting;

• Are accustomed to multitasking in high-stimulation environments; and

• Are technology oriented and tech talented, making them rapid digital learners.

So what might this mean if you're an employer or manager determined to get the most out of your new-hire NeXters? Well, for one thing, recognize that NeXters are definitely a different breed. Know that there's likely going to be a gap between what you believe in and how you act, as a manager, business owner or employer, and what the NeXters value, believe in and how they behave.

Recognize and accept that gap, but don't let it become a total disconnect.

And let's be fair, folks. Not all NeXters expect immediate gratification, and not all of them are slackers or feel a sense of entitlement or expect high salaries. (Dr. Taylor himself acknowledges as much in his excellent paper, pointing out that the characteristics of NeXters he writes about, while useful descriptors, don't necessarily apply to all members of Generation NeXt.)

Work with the NeXters. Be patient, and try to at least meet them halfway in their world. You don't have to stay there indefinitely, but meet them there, and see what they have to offer.

And yes, you can even learn from them.

In my classes at Winthrop, for example, NeXters have taught me a ton about technology. Each semester, I get a bit more Web and computer software savvy, thanks to them.

They've also inspired me to become more community service oriented. NeXters at our university donate a good chunk of their time and energy to nonprofit causes (Red Cross, United Way, Salvation Army, Homeless Shelter…). Yes, the university sometimes rewards their community service with course credit, but many NeXters stay on the job at the nonprofit long after a course has ended.

What I'm saying is this: NeXters have their talents, and many of them have a streak of humanity. (And did I mention that some are exceptionally bright? The top journalism graduate from our program in May 2009, employed as a reporter at the newspaper you are now reading, is a NeXter; I would put her up against any journalism graduate from any program in the U.S. She brought excellence to our newspaper at Winthrop when she was editor-in-chief last year. She can do the same for The Herald.)

Got a NeXter on your work force? Don't give up. See the gap (between you and the NeXter) for what it is, keep your mind open, try to get into their world — at least for a while — and keep the faith.

NeXters might just surprise you at what they have to offer — in a good way.

Larry Timbs is an associate professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, where Generation NeXters fill his journalism classes.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Adventures at Wal-Mart

Dorothy, my oldest daughter, sent me these photos, which capture folks doing their thing at Wal-Mart.

Nuf said.

The pictures tell a sort of visual story.

Some of you might say: "Been there; done that."

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Being a college professor in 2009

Lisa Black has recently written an article about rudeness in college classrooms.

Thankfully, things in my classes at Winthrop aren't as bad as some of the scenarios she describes.

Students who say yes sir and no sir and who abide by the rules and decorum of the class are always appreciated by their professors.

One challenge, for example, in teaching in a Mac computer lab is keeping students off the "toys" (computers) when you want them to focus on something important that you (the professor) have to say.

So here's my plea, students, (and I hope you're reading this): When the old guy is talking, get off the toys and give him eye contact and your full attention.

After all, you do want your tuition's worth, correct?

Here, in case you're interested, is Lisa Black's story on classroom rudeness. It appeared in today's edition of The (Rock Hill) Herald:

Lee Shumow doesn't want to text her students, or be their friend on Facebook, but to their chagrin prefers an old-fashioned way to communicate: e-mail.

The educational psychology professor at Northern Illinois University appreciates when students take the time to reply. It's an extra treat when they don't begin their message with, "Hey, Lee."

She and many of her colleagues believe such informality has seeped into the college classroom environment, citing student behavior that's best described as rude or oblivious. As students begin a new semester this month, instructors bracing for yet another onslaught blame technology for creating a disengaged generation whose attention is constantly diverted by laptops, phones and iPods.

Others point to the unruly classroom as a reflection of an increasingly ill-mannered society. Nearly 70 percent of Americans polled in 2005 said they believe people are more rude than they were 20 to 30 years ago.

"I literally cannot imagine having addressed any teacher I had in my career as 'Hey' and then their first name,' " said Shumow, who has a doctoral degree and has taught 15 years at NIU. "I love them. I won an award for undergraduate teaching in 2005. But man, the world has really changed from when I was a student."

To their credit, most students are respectful and more inquisitive than ever, faculty members say.

Yet professors also find they must devote space in the syllabus to ask students to refrain from surfing the Web, texting or answering cell phones during a lecture. Some have to remind students that, when making a presentation, they should remove the backward baseball cap and save the bare midriff for a beach party. Others complain that students randomly leave and enter the classroom during class.

For their part, students are irked by others who slurp and chew food, doze off or dominate discussion.

Some blame high schools for lowering the bar on classroom conduct, while others say the problems begin at home, when families fail to instill in children basic skills such as how to say "please" or "thank you."

In some cases, parents are more obnoxious than their offspring. One professor reported hearing from an irate father whose child had failed a class. The father insisted he had paid enough tuition for "at least a D."

Yet experts believe there is more to collegiate rudeness than perhaps a feeling of entitlement.

The attitude often is: "I don't need you, I have the Net," said P.M. Forni, director of the Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University and a professor of Italian literature.

"These are students for whom the computers are the training wheels of their knowledge since early childhood. Many of them will think nothing of starting to text as you convey a commentary on Dante's 'Divine Comedy.' "

Although the decline in classroom manners has not been documented in evidence-backed research, Forni said, the "anecdotal evidence is so massive it becomes rather reliable."

There is a sense, he said, that the relationship between student and teacher is now likened to one between a client and service provider.

"The prestige of the teacher and the professors as providers of knowledge and wisdom has decreased as the importance of the information technology has increased," he said.

Professors should set a tone of relaxed formality and define boundaries from day one, Forni said.

For instance, he begins his classes by explaining that he grew up in Italy during a different generation, where wearing caps in a classroom was considered rude. He considers it a distraction.

"I say, 'Listen, I cannot enforce this. I am just asking you as a favor not to wear a cap in class for this reason,' " Forni said. "Nobody from that moment on wears his cap in class."

Students usually respond well, teachers say, when they understand what is expected of them and what they can expect from the professor -- including respect.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Talk at VAMC at Mountain Home, Tenn.

Here's a speech I presented, as part of Suicide Prevention Awareness Week, at Mountain Home Veterans Administration Medical Center in Johnson City, Tenn., on Sept. 11, 2009.

Out of the Depths and Shadows of Depression and Into the Sunlight: Reconnecting with Life"

By Larry Timbs
Associate Professor
Department of Mass Communication
Winthrop University
Rock Hill, S.C. 29733

Good morning.

I’m honored to be here as part of your Suicide Prevention Awareness Week.

Disclaimer: I’ve never been a suicide speaker, so bear with me. I’m anything but an expert on suicide.

I teach courses in print and Web journalism at a university in South Carolina. I’m a former newspaper editor turned academic who’s a journalist at heart. I occasionally write for newspapers and magazines, and I train people to work in the media. I do all I can to help them become better writers, editors, print page and Web page designers and photographers.

Most of the people in my classes are Generation NeXters—folks born after 1983.

So I’m a bit out of my comfort zone here—speaking on a topic I know little about and to a new kind of audience.

The only thing I know about suicide is that I’ve had close encounters with it, and but for this VA Medical Center, and for caring, skilled professionals like your very own Doris Call, I wouldn’t be here today.

More about Doris and others who helped me at the VA in a few minutes…

I’d like to start by saying something about Sept. 11, 2001. And don’t worry, I’ll quickly connect nine eleven to my assigned topic today, depression and suicide.

We should not forget our fellow Americans who found themselves in harm’s way—at the mercy of Islamic terrorists--just eight years ago.

Most of us here today probably had never heard of Osama Bin Laden or Al-Qaeda before Sept. 11, 2001.

But Al-Qaeda definitely reared its ugly head on that fateful morning eight years ago, when two commercial hijacked jetliners crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City.

The American-hating hijackers also crashed a jetliner later that morning, on September 11th, into the Pentagon.

And let’s not forget the Al-Qaeda hijacked jetliner that exploded in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

All total, 2,993 people died in those attacks. Some of the bodies were burned beyond recognition. Many people were incinerated when the jet fuel exploded. Not even a fingernail could be found from some of the missing or dead.

Even news professionals—hardened anchors like Dan Rather—broke down on the air when they brought us the wrenching story of so many valiant firefighters, volunteers and police officers who died trying to rescue the victims of Nine Eleven.

And America would never, ever be the same again.

Never again would we take our freedom and peace for granted.

In 2004, on the three-year anniversary of the jetliners crashing into the Twin Towers in New York City, I happened to be in New York.

One afternoon I took the subway to Ground Zero.

The Towers were gone.

In their place, where they once proudly reached to the heavens, was a huge vacant lot--a rubble-filled construction pit the size of several football fields. A tall chain linked fence barricaded anyone from entering the 17-acre site where the Twin Towers had pierced the air.

On the fence were pictures and names of hundreds of those who died or whose bodies were never found.

Firefighters, police officers and others--on that three-year anniversary of the terrorists’ attacks on America—were at Ground Zero to pay their respects.

There, too, at Ground Zero that day, were grieving friends and relatives of the dead or missing.

A group of about 75 people, forming a circle, listened as a person in the center read aloud the names of those who had died three years earlier.

Scottish bagpipes played “Amazing Grace.”

Little children tried to make sense of it all.

Street preachers warned that the end-times were near.

Dignitaries made speeches.

A woman with a blanket wrapped around her walked along the fence. On her blanket she had written the names of her friends who had died on September 11 in the Twin Towers.

I asked her what she intended to do with the blanket.

“I’m going to take it out West,” she said, “ and bury it in the red rock sand of a canyon. I think the West is spiritual, just like this place, and I want my friends to rest in peace—forever.”

A Port Authority officer with a cadaver dog, a German shepherd, talked to visitors. The dog had scoured the ruins of the World Trade Center three years earlier in a search for body parts.

I lingered at Ground Zero several hours that day. It felt like I was standing on Holy Ground—like I was at a special place akin to the battleground at Gettysburg or the Little Bighorn in South Dakota or even Iwo Jima.

Here, the blood of Americans had been shed. Here, thousands of our innocent brothers and sisters had lost their lives—secretaries, office workers, cooks, stockbrokers, custodians, bankers, police officers, firefighters, teachers, lawyers, window washers.

They had gone to work the morning of September 11, never dreaming in a million years that Al Qaeda terrorist hijackers would make that day their last one on this earth.

That’s the way it can happen with depression.

Depression can come at you totally unexpected. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve accomplished or where you’ve come from or where you live.

Depression is like a surprise curve ball. Suddenly it’s on you, and you better be able to deal with it. Because it comes fast and hard and can be deadly.

But what is depression?

Medical experts tell us it’s a common but serious illness that interferes with daily life and normal functioning.

A depressed person, according to the experts, feels so blue or sad that the person has trouble working, eating, sleeping, studying or even having a good time.

Other symptoms include feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, restlessness, helplessness, irritability and fatigue.

You as a depressed person can feel so bad, so down, so bleak, so low that all you want to do is isolate.

Where depression comes from seems to be an open question, but some experts think it’s triggered by genetic, biochemical, environmental, social and psychological factors.

Depression can get you at the most unexpected time and change your life—for the worse.

You can be financially comfortable or smart. You can be gifted or talented. You can have a supportive family. You can have it together. Your life can be on cruise control, cool, calm, collected and comfortable….

….and then suddenly, you can find yourself, like so many others, in the jaws of crippling depression.

I say like so many others, because consider the well known personalities who’ve suffered from major depression.

The list includes: Marlon Brando, former First Lady Barbara Bush, Truman Capote, actor and comedian Drew Carey, Ray Charles, Winston Churchill, John Denver, Princess Diana, Harrison Ford, Ernest Hemingway, Michael Jackson, Kitty Dukakis (former First Lady of Massachusetts), Thomas Jefferson, Larry King, John Lennon, Elton John, Marilyn Monroe, Ralph Nader, Abraham Lincoln.

And the list of depressed persons goes on:

Edgar Allan Poe, Dolly Parton, Mark Twain, Mike Wallace, Robin Williams, Mike Tyson, Ted Turner…

And Larry C. Timbs Jr.

That’s me.

Not rich or famous or infamous.

Not a celebrity or well-known artist, scientist or public official.

Not anyone of particular note or fame. Not very smart.

I’m just depressed.

Or, more accurately, thank God, WAS depressed.

For a long time, after my depression lifted, after I became healthy and strong and “normal” again, I couldn’t talk about it.

I was ashamed and embarrassed that I had been so weak and hopeless, so DOWN. So isolated. So down in the dumps that I turned to Mountain Home VA Medical Center for help.

But that’s what happened to me about 10 years ago.
You know, folks, we can be strong and healthy and happy one day and the next thing you know, out of left field comes one of life’s curve balls, and we can find ourselves helplessly depressed. So depressed or paralyzed in the spirit that we can’t work or play or sleep or do anything that makes life worthwhile.

That’s at least the way it was with me.

Ten years ago, I wanted to separate myself from everyone I knew or loved. I isolated. I couldn’t stand to be around anyone—even my family. I stayed in bed in a dark room with the window shades pulled down. I hated sounds. Birds chirping or ringing phones drove me crazy. I wished people would just leave me alone. I dreaded being around anyone. Thoughts of the ultimate escape permeated my thinking—almost 24 hours a day. I had no energy. No desire to do anything or go anywhere. I was in a black, dark, deep abyss, a forsaken canyon. I hated the way I was, but it was as if everything I had done in my life or wanted to do didn’t matter anymore. I felt anxious, panicky, hopeless.

I was hurting—depressed, miserable, in a funk.

After fifteen years on the job and never missing a day at work, never being late, I couldn’t work, couldn’t function, had trouble interacting. The simplest little task seemed overwhelming.

So it came down to taking medical leave and coming home.

That’s what we do when we’re hurting—mentally or physically. We come home.

Thankfully, I had a loving mother and father and brother and sister and two daughters and a son who didn’t give up on me.

Who kept telling me that they loved me. That I would get better. That I needed help. That it wasn’t my fault. That some people, for whatever reason, get this way.

Finally, one day, probably at my lowest moment, I found myself fighting for life in critical care at this VA Medical Center.

I survived that and ended up a patient for several weeks here at Mountain Home on a unit for depressed or otherwise mentally ill people.

Lord, I thought, how in the world had it come to this point?

How would I ever deal with this stigma?

How could I have ever, in God’s name, sunk this low?

I had done lots of things in life right. I had worked and studied hard, colored within the lines and followed the rules—survived four years of the United States Air Force during the Vietnam era and come out of it with an honorable discharge, had made it through college and graduate school, seemed to flourish as a newspaper journalist and was in a successful career as a college professor.

Plus, I had been blessed with good, vigorous health and with three wonderful, smart, trouble-free children.

But it had all come down to my being a patient in a unit at Mountain Home where hurting people come to try to get their lives back on track.

As it turned out, this was exactly where I needed to be. The doctors and nurses and social workers here—people like Doris Call—wrapped their arms around me and said: “Larry, it’s not your fault. You’re sick, but you can get better. You’re not alone at battling to overcome this. We can help you.”

There’s a lot you forget in 10 years, but one particular conversation I had with a doctor here stands out clearly:

Me: “Why do I feel so bad, so down, so damned depressed? Why can’t I get out of this hole?”

The doctor: “It’s because you’re ill, Larry. Sometimes the brain gets sick. It’s not your fault. It’s nothing you did or didn’t do. It’s like having heart disease or diabetes. You can’t help it.”

This, Mountain Home VA Medical Center is where I came to get healed—to defeat depression.

And for me, at least, what I learned here and did here helped me tremendously, making me stronger and getting me back in the swing of things.

Clinical, crippling depression—the kind of condition that seemed to paralyze me mentally and physically—truly sucks.

It can make you turn against yourself and the world. You think dark, bleak thoughts.

I know this: You can’t defeat depression yourself. Thanks to lots of individual and group therapy sessions, to medications and to some of the best nurses, social workers and medical staff you’ll find anywhere, I got better. I also have to credit some of my fellow depressed veterans who were in that unit here at Mountain Home with me, and who reminded me that I wasn’t the only person battling this disease.

People tell me, even today: “Larry, I can’t believe you were ever so depressed that you couldn’t work and that you had to be hospitalized.

“What was it like?”

Well, for me, while I was here, it was a little like what happened to Princeton University Professor John Forbes Nash Jr.

You might remember Professor Nash, a mathematical genius who won the Nobel Prize in Economics, from the movie made a few years ago about him—titled “A Beautiful Mind.”

Professor Nash, played in the movie by Russell Crowe, suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and delusions. He behaved so erratically and so weirdly that he had to be forcefully sedated in a hospital and put on anti-psychotic medications. He had imagined—and he truly believed (if the movie about his life is accurate)--that the CIA had given him a special assignment to decipher a Soviet plot. He became so mentally ill that he could no longer function at his university, but in the end, thanks to medication and tender loving care from his doctors and family, Professor Nash survived and returned to work. He still had hallucinations, but he knew they were not real, and he didn’t let them ruin his life.

I, like Professor Nash, still have my demons. For me, they are mood swings. (My wife reminds me of that from time to time.) I still have my down times, but I’ve learned how to keep going, to not let my occasional sad tendencies get the best of me.

So how to contain the demons and maintain living a healthy life?

I think for every person it’s probably different.

I know for me, I don’t think I’ve ever been totally or completely “healed” from depression. I suspect depression is always lurking in some deep recess of my mind. I know that I have to beat it down, defeat it, control it.

How do I cope with a condition that once almost destroyed me?

What advice do I have for others who might be suffering from depression?

Three tips:

First, for me, it’s about not ever isolating again. It’s about being sure that if I do start to feel low or sad, that I’m not alone. That I have someone with me who cares about me or knows what I’m going through. Because when you’re alone and you’re depressed, you think bad things. You think the worst. You begin to feel sorry for yourself and even to turn against yourself. That funk gets deeper.

In the best-case scenario, you surround yourself, as much as possible, with happy, upbeat, positive, nurturing people. You attach yourself to them, especially when you’re going through a tough time. When you’re hurting, these are the kinds of people you can talk to, whom you can lean on for advice.

You also find a life partner—in my case it was Patsy, a good as gold mountain woman (obsessed with Conway Twitty) from Johnson County, Tennessee, just a few miles up the road from here—who pledged to be there for me, whom I could share my deepest feelings with. Patsy, my wife, has seen me at my worst and she still loves me. She’s there for me when life gets mean. She’s been there herself after having lost her first husband at age 52 to a fatal heart attack. So Patsy has taught me a thing or two about dealing with sadness.

We all need a supportive, loving wife or husband or partner, folks. Someone to laugh with or cry with. Someone to celebrate with or mourn with. Someone to hug or hold in the good times and bad times. For me, that person is Patsy.

Life just isn’t as good or fulfilling or happy if we try to go it alone. So find yourself, if you haven’t already done so, that special someone, who can be there with you in the toughest and in the best times.

Secondly, exercise is good. It can help put depression on the back burner. It boosts the blood flow and helps bring nutrients to the brain.

It’s known, for example, that when Einstein seemed to get blocked mentally in his writing or research, he would ride his bicycle.

He knew that the brain is a webbed site. Every part of our body—from our tippy toes to our fingers to our skin to our muscles and bones—is connected to our brain. We can help keep our brain healthy and vital and the blood pumping to it by exercise.

Exercise is therapeutic and seems to make me stronger physically and mentally. I wouldn’t exactly call it fun, but it’s just something that I have to do to stay healthy—again, mentally and physically. Problems, concerns and irritations seem to diminish when I’m on the elliptical or in the weight room. I still have to force myself to exercise. I dread going to the fitness center and getting hot and sweaty, but once I’m there, I like it and feel better about myself.

Thirdly, I’d recommend, if you don’t already have one, get a dog. I have a loveable sheltie, Roadie, who’s been with me now for about eight years. My dad, a World War II veteran by the way, asked me the other day: “Can he hunt? Can he tree? What the hell can he do?”

Well, Roadie can’t do very much, but I know that he loves me—unconditionally.

A dog is a man’s very best friend.

Folks, there’s a good reason for that old saying. Dogs are faithful to the end. They travel light. They go with the flow and they’re laid back. Long as you feed them and water them and love them, they’re happy. Just like us, dogs like to be petted and loved and wanted. There’s something about having a dog. They don’t talk back. They don’t argue or complain. They’re great listeners. They can help us get outside of ourselves and connect with another living thing. That can’t help but be a good way to ward off depression.

I’m happier and more together when I’m around Roadie.

I’ll close today, in talking about depression, with a short TRUE story about the Chestoa Overlook.

The Chestoa Overlook, about 40 or 50 miles from here, is a place where you can pull your car off on the Blue Ridge Parkway and view the magnificent mountain skyline.

Maybe some of you have been there. This particular overlook is at milepost 320 on the Parkway. At the pullover sign, you encounter a parking area, but no real spectacular view—yet. To access the unbelievable view, get out of your car and walk about a third of mile on a trail that cuts through azaleas, mountain laurel and rhododendron.

At the end of that trail, seemingly jutting out into the clouds, is a small rock walled viewing area (about half the size of a living room.). The wall framing the viewing area is two feet high. Beyond that wall is a drop-off of several hundred feet. You don’t want to go over that wall, folks, because it’s a long way down. If you ever go to the Chestoa Overlook, from that small rock-walled viewing area you’ll be treated to some of the most gorgeous mountain scenery in America.

So what I’m saying is this: The Chestoa Overlook is a great place to take pictures, breathe in deeply the cool clean mountain air and just take in the general ambience of the Blue Ridge.

That said, something bizarre happened at the Chestoa Overlook in the late 1980s. It continues to intrigue-even to this day.

This is what we know: A tire salesman from Fayetteville, N.C., along with his wife and his wife’s best friend visited the Chestoa Overlook on October 17, 1988.

The tire salesman said that as he was setting up his camera on the small rocked terrace that juts out from the side of the mountain, his wife and her friend stepped up on the two-foot high wall, suddenly lost their balance, and slipped and fell from the wall to their deaths more than 100 feet below.

Now remember, only three persons were on that rocked terrace that afternoon at the Chestoa Overlook—the tire salesman, his wife and his wife’s best friend.

Authorities didn’t believe the husband’s story that his wife and her friend slipped and died in an accident. So they indicted him and tried him on two counts of murder.

Prosecutors sought the death penalty, especially after they learned that the man and his wife had been having marital problems and that he had taken out a $100,000 life insurance policy on her about a year preceding the deaths at Chestoa.

The man professed his innocence, swearing repeatedly that the women had died in an accidental fall.

In the end, the befuddled jury couldn’t make up its mind one way or the other…couldn’t arrive at a verdict.

So we had a hung jury, and the accused murderer remained in jail, for, as I recall, several months, before the onset of his second trial.

Guess what happened with the second trial? The jury, a completely different jury this time, also couldn’t come to a decision—one way or the other.

So authorities decided they had held the accused long enough. They reluctantly let him go free, and he returned to his home and children.

That’s where the story of the Chestoa Overlook gets personal with me.

Because a few years later, after the second double murder trial, I was working part-time at a plant nursery in Charlotte, North Carolina.

It was during the holiday season in December. On the grounds of that plant nursery, a grizzled, elderly farmer from Pineola, North Carolina, had set up a camper trailer with his family. He and his sons and grandsons were selling Fraser fir Christmas trees.

There the old farmer was, presiding over his trees in his work boots, John Deer cap and faded bib overalls. Occasionally he’d spit from a chew of tobacco.

When I learned that he was from Pineola, I said to him: “Hey, isn’t that near the Chestoa Overlook.”

“Eee-Yep, it sure is,” he said in a deliberate, slow mountain drawl.

“Well, did you keep up with what happened there a few years ago, with that guy from Fayetteville and those two women that were with him that day at the overlook?”

“Eee-Yep,” he replied.

“Well, what do YOU think actually happened. Did he kill those women? Or did they slip off that wall and fall by accident?”

Between chews of his tobacco and with his thumbs in his overalls, he paused, looked me in the eye and then said this:

“Either way, buddy, it was a BOOGERISH THING.”

That’s my take on depression.

It’s definitely a BOOGERISH THING, but we can learn to live with it and not let it overtake us.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Diane Sawyer to become anchor

Did you know that in four months Diane Sawyer will replace Charles Gibson as anchor of ABC's World News?

It's going to happen and people in the know are scratching their collective heads over why Ms. Sawyer, 63, is leaving morning journalism to anchor an evening network newscast.

Some say it's because she's gotten tired of getting up so early to do "Good Morning America."

Whadda think?

Good professional move on Sawyer's part?

By the way, at least 15 years ago (where does time go??) Sawyer was making $7 million a year as an investigative journalist for ABC. Wonder what she's making today?