A few weeks ago, an elections official —- I believe he was a County Clerk —- asked me a really great question: “What are you doing as a writer to offset the naysayers and the people who believe that elections are rigged and don’t count?”
There is an empty chair at my family’s table. My mother will be gone 21 years in March. She died at the age of 56 after struggling to breathe with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) for about five years and, in the last year or so, often felt like she was suffocating. We believe her COPD was the result of being a lifelong smoker and working in a factory where she was exposed to asbestos. These are the facts.
I often write about my personal life in my newspaper columns, and I do not do so willy nilly. If I tell you I met my birth father last February, that I sat with him at his kitchen table and had a fairly uncomfortable, hour and half conversation, it is because that is what happened. Likewise, if I tell you my mother died at age 56 from COPD and that, from that day forward, I often sat at her table and stared at her empty chair as her husband fried sausage for breakfast and wondered what it would feel like to sit in her chair (I never did), that is also what happened.
So let me tell you how completely enraged I was when I saw GOP gubernatorial candidate Kelly Craft playing egregiously loose with the facts when she tried to defend her latest ad, in which she says, “All across Kentucky, an empty chair. A place missing at the table. Families suffering because fentanyl and other dangerous drugs have stolen our loved ones away. As a mother, this is personal to me, because I have experienced that empty chair at my table. This has to stop. We need leadership. And as your governor, I’ll back up our police and stop drugs at our border. So there’s no spot missing at the family table.”
If you tell me — if you tell anyone — there is an empty chair at your table, every human being on the planet knows what you mean. You mean someone important to you died. You mean that person is gone forever. You mean they are never coming back and that you will live with the emptiness of their absence for the rest of your life.
Craft’s campaign told Kentucky Health News that the person she is referring to is ““a close family member” who lived in her household, “battled addiction and went to rehab. By the grace of God, that family member was able to overcome the addiction and move on with their life, but we all know the struggle never ends for a family and remains ongoing.””
No, Ms. Craft. Just no. No matter how you spin it, this is not what it means to have an empty chair at your table, and you know it.
And yet, as appalling as it is to watch Craft’s ad in its entirety and to hear her and her campaign try to explain it, this was the line that really got me: “As a mother, this is personal to me, because I’ve experienced that empty chair at my table.”
As a mother, she said.
As a mother.
Every human being on the planet knows what this means, too. It means you have experienced the loss of your child, one of the most — if not THE most — devastating experiences a person can have. And I would argue that Craft, who is a mother, knows this, which makes her ad and her attempts at defending the ad all the more revolting.
The year after my mother died, my best friend’s son died. He was 16 years old. Two decades later, when she meets someone new and they ask her how many children she has, she still makes a split second decision. Should she say two (as two are living) so she can leave it at that? Or should she say three, the truth, which will likely require her to explain the death of her child to a stranger? But if she says two, if she leaves him out, she will spend the rest of the evening feeling guilty. And so on and so on …
My friend is a mother with an empty chair.
Craft is a politician who made a mistake with her ad and refuses to admit the mistake. Like too many Republican politicians following the example of the former president, she and her team have decided that doubling down on the mistake — and this one turns the stomach — will make the controversy go away.
It has always felt strange to say Happy New Year right after Christmas, the bunching up of celebratory holidays. Besides, I live on the school calendar. Every new year, no matter my age, begins in September.
When I took the dogs out this morning, it felt 81 degrees warmer than a week ago this time, so I found myself walking around my yard barefoot and wearing a t-shirt. The dogs played and did their business and tromped fresh mud into the house. The lake is melting. There is a warm breeze. It feels like September. It feels like a beginning.
And what I am thinking about are not new year’s resolutions — aw hell no, never those — but the new ways I might start thinking about my choices. How do I want to spend my time, my days?
About a month ago, I deactivated my Twitter account. You non-Twitter people are no doubt rolling your eyes, and God knows I do not blame you. I remember writing once, long, long ago with complete puzzlement about why any adult person would “scroll” or think about “following” a stranger or write something so silly that it’s called a “tweet.”
And then I became one of those adults.
The first week or so, sans Twitter, I felt like I was missing out. I wanted to sign back in! A month later, not so much.
About a year and a half ago I stopped watching cable news like CNN and MSNBC, which I had become completely addicted to during the Trump years —- It’s 6:00, turn on Morning Joe! It’s 4:00, time for Nicholle Wallace! —- and what surprised me is that I did not really miss it. My Twitter exodus feels about the same.
As I was standing barefoot in my yard this morning, not scrolling, I thought about the big yard: the place where 4 wild dogs run and play, a teak wood bench to sit on if you want to just stare at the lake, the fire pit surrounded by gliding chairs (the next best thing to a porch swing), the stone steps next to the iron railing where I often sit in the dark, with my coffee, waiting for the sun to rise.
It is just one big yard, and yet there are so many choices, aren’t there.
Do magistrates make $600 an hour? Of course not. Unfortunately that’s what it often looks like to the public. Here’s why.
Four months ago, I proposed that Anderson County Fiscal Court begin livestreaming their twice-per-month meetings as many Fiscal Courts around Kentucky have been doing for some time.
Magistrates Lewis, Montgomery, and Riley voted yes, but Durr recused and the proposal did not pass. Some court members stated they needed more information, that upgraded internet and equipment was too expensive, and that they had not heard from citizens who want livestreaming.
Within the 2 minutes citizens are allowed to speak, I then provided the Court with information showing upgraded internet and equipment are not that expensive, as well as a list of 133 citizens requesting that meetings be video recorded and made public. There was no response and no discussion.
Two more months went by.
On December 10th — ten days in advance of their last meeting for 2022 — I sent a detailed email to the Court requesting the following be added to the Dec. 20 agenda:
1. New vote on live-streaming.
2. Elimination of the 2 minute speaking limit.
3. Decrease the cost for copies of Fiscal Court minutes from 50 cents to 10 cents per page. Or, better yet, eliminate this cost altogether by simply posting the minutes on their website (as other courts do) or emailing the minutes which have already been bundled into a packet for the magistrates.
None of these items appeared on the Dec. 20 agenda*.
The meeting lasted about 30 minutes.
For the last year and a half, I have attended many Fiscal Court meetings. These meetings typically last less than an hour.
This means we pay our six magistrates $1,200 each, per month, to meet publicly for about two hours. With the exception of Magistrate Lewis, whose term has ended, the public very rarely hears them start or hold a discussion, so it appears they make about $600 an hour — plus $150/month expense account, plus access to healthcare — and yet they can’t afford to video record meetings or more-reasonably provide copies of the minutes?
Meanwhile you, the taxpaying citizen, are only allowed to speak to them for 2 minutes.
That is one heck of a gig.
* The December 20 meeting was deemed “Special Called.” At Special Called meetings, only items officially on the agenda can be discussed. Which is why I emailed the Court 10 days in advance, asking that these items be added to the official agenda.
First, please subscribe to the Kentucky Lantern, a non-profit news outlet (no ads! no subscription! no paywalls!) here in Kentucky. The commentary leans progressive, but the news is just news.
Looking back, none of this was a coincidence. The American appetite for religious outrage in our politics mirrors our addiction to fevered political rallies. Issues that whip voters into a frenzy and drive them to the polls — Does “They’re coming for your way of life!” sound familiar? — are the same issues that fill certain churches today.
What would you give, or give up, to have an extra month in your year?
I woke up this morning a year and a half sober. And the feeling I had was not excited, like you might feel waking up on Christmas or during a vacation. There were no fireworks or sparkling lights, and I did not feel celebratory or even proud of myself. I felt like I’d found time.
Last year I was interviewing a recovering addict named Andrew for a story. Andrew works with my local police department to get folks in trouble into treatment instead of taking them to jail. We were sitting in the center of a large, brightly lit conference room, and I shyly mentioned that I was five months wine-free — which I admit felt silly as I’d been listening to Andrew detail the terrors of addiction to Oxycontin 80s, methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin — but my comment stopped Andrew mid-sentence.
I was what is called a gray area drinker, described in a 2019 Colorado Public Radio segment by nutritionist and health coach Jolene Park. “Moderate drinking is defined as one, five-ounce glass of wine for a woman every day,” Park said, and “once it’s more than seven drinks a week, that starts to become heavy drinking. It doesn’t take much to get there, and that’s that gray area where it’s ‘oh, I’m going to have a drink, oh I’ll have another,’ and often easily can become the bottle.”
It seems like there is always a good reason to drink. It’s been a long day or it’s someone’s birthday, annual girls’ trip, family reunion, book club, awards dinner, the holidays! I would often think, I’ll just have one glass of wine tonight, which would turn into four and I would wake up with a hangover. I excused this because I felt like I was a responsible drinker. I didn’t drive after drinking, I could work, work out, and throw a great party. But I also lied to my doctor, and sometimes myself, about how much I drank.
Alcohol is the worst, Andrew had explained in our interview, because it is the acceptable addiction. Unlike meth, coke, heroin, or opioids, drinking is public, it’s how we socialize. Someone might joke to me, “Oh come on, just have one drink! It’s fine!” but as Andrew told me, no would every say to him in a million years, “Oh come on, man, just do a little heroin or meth with us, it will be fine.”
I started noticing the benefits of sobriety right off. Two weeks after I quit drinking, I went home to Missouri to see my dad for the first time after being fully vaccinated for Covid, and he showed up at dinner with several unvaccinated family members, which I wrote about for The Washington Post. I got through that dinner without being sucked into arguments about Covid, Dr. Fauci, or Trump for one reason: I drank Diet Coke and was not fueled by a glass (or three) of wine.
As fellow gray-area drinker, Dr. Gabriel Bosslet, recently wrote for MedPage Today, “I am a better person since I quit drinking. I sleep better. I am more available for my family. I have more productive hours in the day. Do I miss alcohol? Sure, occasionally. My wife and I went to dinner the other night, and while a glass of cabernet with my steak would have been nice, for me the downsides just aren’t worth it.”
At a year and a half sober, I am thankful for all of the expected things. I sleep through the night. I’ve lost 30 pounds. I’m a better listener, can stay awake later, and can always drive home. The most surprising benefit is that I used to think drinking relaxed me and tamped down my anxiety, and now realize alcohol was the match that lit my anxiety.
But the biggest benefit is the extra four or so hours I’ve added to my days because I am no longer checked out — what I used to think of as “taking the edge off” — from five p.m. to bedtime. I figure this equals about a day week, and for me that adds up to about one month in a year.
We often say the thing we want most in our lives is more time and that we would give anything to get it. I gave up wine, and I found time.
Imagine you need to see your doctor. It goes like this: You wait 2 weeks for an appointment, and your only choices are Tuesdays at 10 am (so you’ll have to leave work) or 7 pm (during dinnertime with your family), but it’s really, really important, so you make the appointment and you go.
You sit quietly in the waiting room with a crowd. When your name is called — Finally! Yay!!! — you stand up and the nurse sets a timer for 2 minutes. You start talking, explaining why you’re there, but then suddenly your 2 minutes is up, the alarm goes off — yes, an actual alarm — and that’s it. Time’s up! They call the next patient.
If what’s ailing you continues to ail you, you’ll need to come back in 2 weeks for another 2 minute appointment, ad infinitum.
This is what it’s like for Anderson County citizens in Fiscal Court. And it is absurd.
Over the last 2 months, I have presented information at 3 different meetings to encourage livestreaming of these meetings. My presentations are by necessity fast, rehearsed, and frankly dull, because there is no time for personality or nuance.
But I am not going to use this space to repeat the details of my presentations, or the fact that 133 citizens signed on to a petition asking for livestreaming. I have reported previously on both. I want to talk about the 2 minutes.
A month or so ago, I believe it was Magistrate Lewis who asked the Judge and her fellow magistrates when and why the 2 minute speaking rule was established. Nobody seemed to have an answer, so they moved on to other business.
I have an answer.
It is my understanding that the 2 minute limit was instituted when a group commonly known as “Johnson Road” started coming to meetings regularly in Spring or Summer 2021 and signing up to speak. In a way, I get this. When I attended the 2nd Amendment Sanctuary meeting in Fiscal Court in January 2020, it was standing room only, and I recall the Court giving all of us something like 4 minutes each to speak. With the number of people present at that meeting, this seemed perfectly reasonable.
The 2 minute speaking limit we now have as common practice is not only unreasonable, it makes it appear that the Court is disinterested in hearing from the public they serve. An issue that was on full display at the October 18 meeting.
The meeting began at 7 pm. There were three of us bringing information before the Court: Me, attorney David Nutgrass, and a citizen with a request for a zoning change. I’d like to focus on what happened with Mr. Nutgrass.
As he began to speak, County Attorney Wiedo set his phone alarm, as he always does. When Mr. Nutgrass got to about the one minute mark, Judge Gritton interrupted to remind him that he only had one minute left, which was clearly a surprise to Mr. Nutgrass, who then began shuffling his papers, trying to make sure he delivered the most information for his client before Mr. Wiedo’s alarm went off.
The alarm went off. Mr. Nutgrass had to sit down.
If this sounds ridiculous to read in print, I promise you it was worse in person.
I am focusing on Mr. Nutgrass because I have seen this happen time and time again, particularly with attorneys but also for citizens (myself included) who are there to provide enough information for the Court to make a fully informed decision, and they are given …. 2 minutes. No exceptions.
How can our Court make the best decisions in this manner? It is the same as the scene I painted earlier of going to a doctor’s office where you can only present your ailments every 2 weeks, in 2 minute increments. Who would have the time for this? Eventually you would give up. You would just stop going.
You might argue that giving citizens (or their lawyers) a 2 minute time limit keeps the meetings moving and gets everyone out of there before midnight, but this would be a laughable argument. The entire October 18 meeting lasted about 19 minutes. I spoke. Mr. Nutgrass spoke. A citizen spoke. Add the opening prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance to both the U.S. Flag and Kentucky’s flag, and the core of this meeting lasted about 11 minutes.
And you — Anderson County’s citizens — would never know this unless you went to the County Clerk’s office and filed an Open Records Request for the audiotape of the meeting (which you’ll need to pay for and come back to pick up in a few days) because the paper version of the minutes (which you will also need to pay for at 50 cents per page and come back to pick up) does not indicate that citizens spoke or what they spoke about.
There was also no newspaper reporter at the October 18 meeting, nor at the meeting 2 weeks before it, so it is like none of this ever happened.
Why do we need live-streaming and/or video recording of our Fiscal Court meetings?
ALL of this is why.
And I would gladly present this information in person, in good faith, in Fiscal Court tomorrow at 10 am, but I would not have time. This is 5 and 1/2 minutes long.
Please note that this is not a personal comment on any one person. If you’ve ever talked to me, you know that I like the judge and some of the magistrates a great deal. And yet this has gone on too long and, sadly, has become both a silly distraction and a disservice to the public.
I stopped by the County Clerk’s office today to pick up the Minutes from the September 20 meeting — per my Open Records Request — which is when the livestream vote occurred. The document is 17 pages long at a cost of 50 cents per page, or $8.50. I decided to purchase just the first page, to see who attended the meeting, and the last page, where the livestream vote is recorded.
When I was in school, I had a professor who would say in his gentle, lilting, Middle Eastern accent, “But I love you, how can I help?” It was a summer class, we did not want to be in a classroom, and he always said this in exasperation, when we were talking over each other all at once or not following directions, his way of bringing us back around and lightening the mood.
At first his words felt jarring to me, out of place in a classroom, and I dismissed them as an English language translation he’d taken too literally and that no one had had the heart to correct.
I was wrong. My teacher was a devout Muslim who had once been a young journalist stationed in a war zone. He’d been shot in the neck and barely survived. He radiated kindness. And what I eventually realized was that he was just a gracious, genuine, giving teacher who loved his job and loved us, his students.
I have been thinking about my teacher a lot over the ten days, since I first heard about Anderson County public school teacher and pastor Randy Adams’s refusal to abide by Kentucky state guidelines regarding pronoun usage. I won’t rehash the details, because God knows if you live here in Lawrenceburg you’ve heard about it, read about it, or unfortunately watched it swatted maliciously about in the worst-ever place for thoughtful, civilized debate: Facebook. And soon there will be the dreaded circus that will overtake our October 17 School Board meeting, covered by TV news outlets, much like the Sand Spring Baptist Church meeting, giving Anderson County negative, but deserved, press that does nothing to help our community.
It should go without saying that if you are a public school teacher (like Mr. Adams) or a school board member (like Vice Chair Peggy Peach), you should, at a minimum, serve the public through public education and keep it at that.
And yet, here we are.
Like many of you, I have been trying to figure out what I think, what to say, and how how to say it with grace, but the casual cruelty of those with power, in power, using their power to further marginalize an already marginalized and vulnerable group of people — children, no less — has overwhelmed me.
I recall the Sunday morning I ran into a friend in the Kroger parking lot and said jokingly, “Why aren’t you at church?!” and he replied, not joking one bit, “I never go to church around election time. I don’t want to hear it.”
As someone who often watches local pastors’ Sunday sermons online, I knew exactly what he meant. The blatant politics in the sermons. I have witnessed several sermons over the last year or so where pastors’ hyper-focus on homosexuality, transgender, and LGBTQ has felt like a concerted effort to call out and define fellow human beings as “evil.”
I do not understand this. I find the belittling and the dismissiveness alarming. And I do not see the Christianity in it.
I think of my Muslim teacher and the sweetness in his voice amid chaos — But I love you, how can I help?
As to Mr. Adams and his Facebook manifesto about his God-given rights, free speech, “pronouns,” and his righteous refusal to call a child what that child wants/needs to be called, I am both angry and speechless. So I leave you with this:
I have been stepmother for three decades. Over these years have often found myself dismissed outright in rooms of parents who, sometimes mockingly, refused to accept me or acknowledge me as one of them. Whether it was standing in a crowded hallway on parent-teacher night or in someone’s back yard taking pictures of our kids before a homecoming dance, I have spent a lot of energy smiling outwardly through the hurt of it.
But you know what? I can tell you the exact day, the time of day, and where I was standing when my (step)son walked into the kitchen, handed me a greeting card, and said out loud for the first time, “Here you go, mother.”
Was I a “real” mom, his “real” mother? No.
But I can tell you that I felt a surge run through me in hearing that word for the first time.
What it felt like to finally be seen.
What it felt like to be acknowledged, out loud.
What it felt like to be called exactly who I so desperately wanted to be, and knew I was.
** This piece ran in both the Herald-Leader and the Courier Journal.
Shortly after my 16th birthday, a man sexually abused me. I was starting my junior year of high school. I knew the man. I liked the man. I trusted the man. He was a pillar of my small town, beloved by all. He was handsome, young, married with two little babies. And what he did was criminal.
This is where I am supposed to tell you if I got pregnant and had an abortion, but I am not going to tell you. I am not going to tell you because it is none of your business.
A woman recently published a letter in The Anderson News falsely claiming that women are having abortions “just because,” including up until it is time to give birth. This is a lie, and it is time we start calling it a lie. Please do not tell me you think so little of women that we will nurture a fetus for six, seven, eight, nine months and decide on a whim we are done. This is ludicrous.
The same letter writer claimed there is a state trying to “pass a law that allows the taking of that baby’s life up to 28 DAYS AFTER birth.” That state is Maryland, and this statement is false.
On September 8, the Courier-Journal reported, “In Kentucky, the two youngest patients to receive an abortion over the past two years were age 9. Under Kentucky law, sexual intercourse with a 9-year-old is considered first-degree rape,” and that “34 girls ages 15 or younger received abortions in 2021, according to state statistics.”
New laws would force these children — babies themselves — to carry a fetus to term.
On August 30, the South Carolina House attempted to pass a total abortion ban with no exceptions for rape or incest. It failed by only eight votes. A lawmaker argued that if a child was raped by her father, she had choices. All she needed to do, he said, was get her father — her rapist — to give her a ride to Walmart the next day to get the morning-after pill. If he would not take her, she could call an ambulance, he said.
I want you to pause and think about the logistics of this, such an absurd level of insanity I cannot believe I had to write the paragraph.
The other day I ran into a woman at Kroger who asked me a question I had not yet considered. Who, she wanted to know, is going to raise all of the offspring of women addicted to drugs who will be forced to carry a pregnancy to term? And what will it cost taxpayers to pay for their potentially lifelong mental and medical care?
I never told a soul about my sexual abuse when it happened. I was ashamed and somehow thought it was my fault, that I’d asked for it. I finally told my childhood girlfriends 34 years later, the weekend of my 50th birthday. You know what their response was? It was a good thing I’d never told because no one would have believed me. It would have ruined my life, they told me, certain I would have had to leave school, maybe even leave town.
Being a poor kid with a single mom, I wonder how we would have survived.
There seems to be a fantasy today about the number of newborns soon to be available for adoption. This will not happen, and it is childish to think otherwise. People keep babies they do not want for any number of reasons: pressure from family who insist they will help, shame at being seen as someone who would give away a baby, the inability to give away a baby you’ve carried for nine months, and more.
With the overturning of Roe v. Wade, we talk mostly about the effects on girls and women, but I often wonder if men have considered the impact these strict, new anti-abortion laws will have on their own lives.
What will happen to young boys in high school and college who impregnate the girls they are dating? More babies will mean more child support, for one thing, for the next two decades of their lives. And is our court system prepared for the massive influx of cases to ensure mothers get the support they need from reluctant fathers?
An extensive study published in AARP magazine found that 46 percent of men reported cheating on their partners. Again, reality. What if these men impregnate the women they are having affairs with? How will this affect their wives, their children?
Do you believe men are suddenly going to stop having affairs because there is a new anti-abortion law?
I told you my abuser was young and married with two little babies. Imagine his wife, a young mother herself, having to deal not only with her cheating husband, but the publicity in a small town that he had abused a 16 year old child who might now be pregnant and having his baby. How might this have destroyed her life and her children’s lives?
Now multiply this over and over and over and over again, and think about your own 16 year old daughters, your little girls ages 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 …
Our constitutional rights are on the ballot this November. If passed, Kentucky’s Amendment 2 would block the right to abortion, no matter the reason, including rape, incest, and life of the mother. Do we want judges and politicians making the most difficult, life-changing, sometimes shame-filled medical decisions for us and our loved ones? The answer is no.
You have the right to privacy and the right to make your own choices, which are hard enough without government interference.
Their choices — your choices — are nobody’s business. I beg you to vote NO on Kentucky’s Amendment 2 in November.