Heroin in the heartland

A story about drug abuse and overdoses in the heartland appeared in The New York Times on a day when I was visiting my parents in Illinois. Our family–and our family’s farm–has been affected for decades by my brother’s addiction to alcohol and drugs, so the story resonated with me:  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/12/us/opioid-epidemic-rural-farm.html?emc=edit_th_20170313&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=44005038&_r=0

In the small farming community where I grew up, drugs were everywhere. And my brother, Joe, found them, at age 13.

I still remember the first time I saw my brother high. My parents were out of town and my grandmother was staying with us. We drove to town on a Friday night to pick up Joe from a movie with friends. Instead, Joe had spent the evening with other friends a few blocks away and was standing on the corner waiting for us when we pulled up. He was weaving back and forth, bending over, shaking his head of long 70s hair back and forth, I assume in an attempt to shake off the fuzzy feeling in his head. It was the beginning of a very long relationship between my brother and the drugs of choice that would continue to tempt him over the years.

Like most farmers’ sons, Joe was the assumed heir to the farming life. Dad, who’s a fourth-generation farmer, always figured that Joe would follow in his footsteps and I would work alongside my brother–likely from afar. But one mistake followed another–arrests for drugs and theft, foggy judgments that resulted in fights and plenty of embarrassment in our small town, increasingly clouded thinking and a habit of lying–until my dad, like Roger Winemiller, the Midwestern farmer featured in the NYT piece, lost trust in my brother to do the right thing. When something as precious as your life’s work is at stake, you can’t risk entrusting it to an addict. Even if he’s your son.

“Am I gonna believe all them bad things?”

Last night, I re-watched The Help, one of my favorite movies about the treatment of Black maids in Jackson, Mississippi during the early 1960s–and the fiery truth-telling words some of those maids with the help of a brave journalist hurled back into the white community.

My movie selection was the right one for the moment. Call it Kairos. For two reasons.

First, I’m at a point in Unlikely Sisters, my memoir about my friendship with fellow breast cancer survivor Edwina Sanders, where I’m trying–somewhat artificially–to capture the baggage of growing up African American in Birmingham, Alabama. Edwina has a talent for describing her life in vivid language, but the fact is that I’m an educated white girl with little firsthand experience with prejudice–at least, of the racial kind. While Edwina’s life was just beginning in the early 60s, the same time period reflected in The Help, her momma and daddy (and their mommas and daddies) endured the kind of ridicule and humiliation that the characters in the film brought to life. And in 2016, I see the remnants of that history, when Edwina accompanies me to a place that caters to a middle class, predominantly white clientele. Edwina told me once that a store I’d taken her into would normally stop her at the door to check her bags or keep a watchful eye on her as she walked around inside.

But the scene from the film that really captivated me was an exchange between the main character, Skeeter, a white woman who ultimately captures the stories of the help in writing, and the maid who raised her, Constantine. We see Skeeter as a teenager sitting outside of her house crying, telling Constantine that she hadn’t been invited to the high school dance, that the boys in her school think she’s ugly. It’s an insult that stings given Skeeter’s mom’s legacy as a beauty queen and all-around popular girl in her hometown.

Listening intently, Constantine reminds Skeeter to ask a key question Constantine has taught her to rely on when hurtful words are sent her way: “Am I gonna believe all them bad things them fools say about me today?” The answer, of course, is no.

Lately, I’ve needed a bit of Constantine’s wisdom. I’m one of five rhetoric scholars in a department of literature folks and I’m frequently reminded of the need to justify the work that I do. I’m all about doing the rhetorical footwork to find an audience for my words and to craft those words (and occasionally, images) in a way that resonates with my readers.

Sometimes, though, I’m confronted by those who don’t understand the power of effectively placed public prose, or the painstaking research that goes into such pieces. Too often, I think, many of my colleagues look at my journalistic work and see fluff–not the hours of interviews; reading of scientific research reports, health data and policy statements; stacks of correspondence with key sources; and most importantly, the continuous refining of language (i.e., multiple drafts) to present my work in the most digestible and credible way.

So, am I gonna believe all them bad (assumptions) them fools throw my way?

I think not.

A new life in Bangalore

One of my favorite destinations in India is the city of Bangalore. It’s a bustling place, and the streets are filled with young people, many of them the company representatives on the other end of the line when we Americans call Dell or another U.S.-based corporation.

Today’s New York Times features a story about how some of those working in industries in Bangalore make their way there and some of the difficulties they face: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/25/world/asia/bangalore-india-women-factories.html?emc=edit_th_20160925&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=44005038&_r=0

The article tells the story of Prabhati and Shashi Das, among others, who travel from their small village in the Northeast portion of India to Bangalore, a southern city some 33 hours away by train, to work. Life in Bangalore is, unsurprisingly, quite different than life in a small Indian village, where young women are protected by their families from men so that they may remain chaste (and just as importantly, be perceived as chaste) until an arranged marriage to an eligible bachelor who agrees to the family’s dowry. In the city, village girls like the Das sisters are often vulnerable to temptations with which they have no prior experience.

I learned about women in Prabhati and Shashi’s shoes when I interviewed the publisher and editor of Woman’s Era, a women’s magazine published in New Delhi. The target audience includes women who often find themselves in temporary working environments in a city like Bangalore, women who might be exposed to modern ways, modern fashion, and modern relationships.

An underlying message conveyed to readers of Woman’s Era is to remember that their reputations must remain intact for the time when they return to their villages to marry.





Today, I underwent a brain MRI.

During the past several weeks, I’ve been experiencing a pulsating sound in my left ear. At first, the sound reminded me of ocean waves, a kind of swooshing. But the noise gradually turned to pounding in beat to my heart. I’ve been losing sleep and have become gradually more concerned that what I’m experiencing might amount to more than tinnitus.

Both my oncologist and ENT recommended that I have a brain scan to rule out one of three more dangerous underlying causes: cancer metastasis to the brain, a brain tumor, or a restricted blood vessel. While I feel pretty normal aside from the pounding, I learned a long time ago–when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 29–not to dismiss the possibility of an unexpected, and statistically unlikely, health crisis.

A less frightening possibility, my doctors tell me, is that I am having a physical reaction to extreme stress. The past few months have been difficult, between issues with my brother and my parents’ medical challenges. Plus, my oldest is leaving for college next year, and though she’ll be attending the same university where my husband and I teach, her high school graduation marks a major milestone that’s filled with equal amounts of joy and sadness.

As I lay motionless in the MRI machine for 40 minutes today, being careful not to shift my head, my mind drifted in two directions.

I murmured several Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s, and just talked to God about bringing me to this point. At 29, following my cancer diagnosis, I wasn’t sure I would live a full life. I was petrified and felt completely isolated from those my age who were living healthy, normal lives. A lot has changed since then, and I’ve come to understand cancer as just one aspect of who I am and what I was meant to do with my time on earth: to write about the experience of facing a serious illness and to do all I can to help others facing the disease.

I also thought about Woody Allen’s movie Hannah and Her Sisters. In the film, Woody plays a character who experiences a sudden hearing loss in one ear. His doctors send him for one test after another, and Woody leaps to the conclusion that he must have a brain tumor. He panics.

Even when the doctor reports that he’s absolutely fine, that nothing serious has caused the hearing loss, Woody’s character suffers an identity crisis. Who is he, and what will happen to him when, one day, his life does end? I’ll leave the outcome of his search for meaning to readers who want to watch the film. As the noise surrounded me inside the MRI tube, though, I thought back to the questions posed in the movie–and the humor that came out of the experience. Hey, 40 minutes is a long time to hang out in a noisy receptacle!

Every unknown is a little bit scary. There’s something different about the possibility of the unknown affecting your brain, though. Maybe it’s just that I think and write for a living–I’m an academic through and through–but I feel as though I might lose my soul if something were to happen to my brain.


It’s Father’s Day, a great time to honor the man who’s had a huge influence on how I live my life.

Dad is a fourth-generation Illinois farmer who has spent his days tending to fields of corn, soybeans, and occasionally wheat. Over the years, he also tried his hand at raising livestock. At one time or another, my parents owned cows and sheep. An array of other animals have also lived on the Ryan farm, including a duck, goats, and plenty of dogs and cats.

Though he’s retired now, Dad still loves the land. Every time I head home for a visit, we hop in the pickup and drive by the fields. Last summer, we took photos of the two of us standing in one of his corn fields, the stalks rising above our heads.

As he’s grown older, Dad has also taken the time to teach me some vital lessons about how farms operate since one day, I’ll step into his shoes. They will be big shoes to fill.

If I had to choose just one word to describe my dad, it would be “integrity.” The most important thing I’ve learned from my dad is to stand your ground, even if others disagree with you.

When farmers were borrowing large sums of money in the 70’s to purchase land, Dad didn’t follow suit. He believed that the economy would shift, as it always has, and those who borrowed too much might not be in a position to pay it all back. He was right. Our family kept our farm while many friends and neighbors lost theirs during the 80’s Farm Crisis.

There are so many examples of my dad’s unwavering commitment to what he thinks is right. His Catholic faith. His insistence that spending money to appear rich and important isn’t worth the anxiety you’ll feel at night when your head hits the pillow. His conviction that good leaders are those who recognize disparities in how people around our country live and attempt to do something about it.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad!

The plight of farmers in Romania

One of the best things about traveling to Amsterdam was the opportunity to work with two very bright, energetic women from Sustainable Amsterdam: Cornelia Dinca and Anna Hajdu. Both are from Romania, and they have discovered a home in the Netherlands and an outlet for their passions:  http://sustainableamsterdam.com/

Anna works as a Research Assistant, and shared with me some of the research that she is currently conducting back in her home country. While I’ll avoid going into the details of Anna’s research–since the work is, after all, hers to tell–she did offer an interesting perspective on farming in Romania when we sat down to dinner at Cornelia’s home Sunday evening.

Like small farmers in the Midwest, where I lived the first 17 years of my life and my dad continues to live on the land as a fourth generation farmer, farm families in Romania are steadily losing their ground to corporations. Commercial stakeholders interested in acquiring land and turning over a quick investment–by working the soil aggressively until it can no longer produce anything of value–are strategically tricking older farmers into selling their property cheaply while corporate profits remain high.

Anna told me that corporations set up shop in an area and post signs indicating that farmers should show up on a certain day and time to find out what their land is worth. To a generation raised on Communist dictates, these notifications, Anna said, appear mandatory. Farmers come to the meetings, and before you know it, their property has been sold to a corporate representative for far less than the land is worth.

In addition to the backdrop of Communism influencing how Romanian farmers perceive their right to refuse to sell, or at the very least, to negotiate a fair price for their land, Anna noted that most of these farmers lack a sense of pride in what they have accomplished as caretakers of the soil.

“In Romania,” Anna said, “the young people are leaving to get an education and to find other kinds of work. Once they leave the farm. they are no longer interested in it.”

There is a sense that what these younger generations are leaving for is a step up to a better life.

While my cousins and I have all gone to college and entered careers away from the farm, I wouldn’t say that any of us think of these choices as necessarily “better.” In some ways, leaving the farming life is a necessity, as land prices and equipment costs continue to soar making the continuation of another generation of family farmers increasingly difficult.

But we all maintain a sense of pride in what our parents have accomplished on the land and intend to remain involved in the workings of our family farms wherever our lives may lead us–Chicago, Kansas City, Birmingham.

It made me sad to think of an older generation of Romanian farmers being forced from their land, at the same time they doubt the worth of their labor.