More Alert

My day-to-day life doesn’t always involve a lot of in-person, meaningful interactions with other people. Neither work project requires that I talk to anyone but the project heads and that often happens via email. Two days a week I work from home. The other three I’m in an office that I share with one other person, with whom I exchange pleasantries and not much else. I do have various online outlets that provide a level of conversation that’s deep enough to keep me from going completely batty. Nonetheless, some weeks the world starts to take on an unreal sort of cast.

This is one of those weeks. Brad is working on a project that had him out of the house until late three nights this week. I had dinner with an old college friend Monday night, but other than that I’ve had minimal contact with real live people. Meanwhile I’ve had my head buried in data, trying to sort out inconsistencies and finalize some things. This involves an iterative process running a piece of code that takes a little while, staring at some results, tweaking some piece of the code, rinse, repeat. While I wait for things to run I typically read a bit, or maybe I write something. This week those moments of down time have been filled with poetry. I sit in my office surrounded by piles of reports I’m trying to make sense of, listening to music on headphones, jotting down lines of poetry, while I watch new numbers tumble across the screen in front of me. And the day stretches forward in a way that is pleasant but feels somehow disconnected from time and space (that my office has no windows makes it even easier for my to disconnect and just move into the cave of my brain). It probably doesn’t help matters that the plant life on the westside is apparently conspiring to kill me, so my ears are a bit swimmy and the inside of my skull itches (along with my eyes and nose). This is after the Sudafed, too.

One of the things I’ve been reading is Rachel McKibbens’ Pink Elephant. Holy shit does that woman manage to take some seriously brutal subject matter and make it … beautiful is the wrong word, but moving. Her treatment of a childhood full of abusive alcoholic horror is honest and raw. And chilling.

So let’s recap the state of things by the time was driving to work this morning. My sinuses are a mess. I’m on the edge of what may very well be an ear infection. I’ve been on close to the max daily psuedophedrine dose for two or three days. I’ve had actual conversation with exactly two people so far this week. I’ve spent the better part of yesterday reading poems about child abuse. And my brain is tethered to the real world by only a shiny ribbon.

Then I see the amber alert: child abduction, suspect driving a silver dodge van with a dent on the right side. Or something to that effect. On the one hand I suppose that is a more useful description to post a freeway sign than the normal alert that includes a license plate number. I mean what are you supposed to do with that as you’re hurtling down the freeway? I know some people have better short-term memory than I do but I have a hard time believing that most people can actually process a sign like that and remember enough of the plate number for it to be useful. I know I can’t. As an experiment I’ve tried memorizing those while driving. Inevitably, even when I’m trying to pay attention to it, I’ve forgotten most of it by the time I even get to the next sign. On the other hand, aren’t there a whole lot of silver dodge vans around? Is that really enough information to be anywhere close to useful? (As it turns out there are apparently fewer than I thought given that I didn’t actually see any silver dodge vans during the rest of my drive to campus; and I saw a whole lot of cars). Given that one of the big California news stories this week has been about the guy in Sacramento who actually managed to apprehend a child abductor based on info from a newscast, I would tend to suspect that people right now might be a bit more inclined toward acts of attempted heroism than usual. So that really vague electronic freeway sign worried me.

The truth is that I’m not entirely sure how I feel about acts of citizen vigilantism being declared heroism. Sure it worked out this time but do we really want to encourage people to go after potential criminals themselves, with no more evidence than a resemblance to a grainy black and white photo? I feel bad for even asking the question because, after all, he saved a child. But I’ll admit I’m conflicted.

Aside from all of that, though, I found myself thinking, not for the first time, about the resources that get put forth to rescue kids whose horrors start when they’re abducted. Don’t get me wrong, I think finding kids who’ve been taken (whether by a family member or a stranger) are important. My concern, though, is that there seems to be a lot of societal fear around the relatively rare stranger (or even acquaintance) abduction and we just simply don’t talk much about the other horrible things that happen to kids.

Today’s LA Times includes an article that begins “An Orange County mother pleaded guilty Friday to beating, starving and tying up her two young sons so she could sleep better at night.” She was sentenced to 270 days in jail and three years probation. So sometimes the system does go after parents who torture their children. More often, though, it doesn’t. And even when the kids get pulled out of homes like that, where do they go? It’s not like the foster care system is universally known for providing safe spaces for children. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Or out of the fire into the frying pan. There was a week last year when two days in a row the LA Times had stories about children killed by parents who’d previously come into contact with child protective services but had the kids left in their custody. But there have also been stories about the horrible things that happen in foster homes.

Either place, we don’t have an alert for those kids. The little girl being raped by her father probably will never have a stranger run his truck off the road with the hope of returning her to safety. There isn’t necessarily even safety to return her to. There aren’t easy solutions. I know that. And I think the focus on strangers happens in part because parents feel like they can control their children’s immediate environment but strangers are out of their control. All too often, of course, parents are also wrong about their ability to control what happens to kids in the presence of family, friends, and other supposedly trustworthy adults but I can understand to an extent where the fear comes from. Still, the relative silence breaks my heart. I want us to raise our voices in the same outrage when a parent harms a child as when a stranger does.

Meanwhile. A poem.


Two days in a row
the paper tells the tales
of dead children,
left in the hands of parents
declared fit by a system
seemingly doomed to fail–
whether it acts or not–
those it is meant to protect.
I know if I cried
all day, every day
until the last of my days,
fewer tears would fall
than blows on innocent flesh.
And it is strange
for me to think of you as lucky
for simply having survived
those years that darkened your eyes.
Because, you know,
through those deep nights,
I wished you luckier.


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