Saturday, March 17, 2018

A review of I, Tonya...

I remember exactly where I was on January 6, 1994.  I was in my parents' living room, watching figure skating on TV.  I was home from college for Christmas break.  It was my senior year and I was about to start my final semester before it was time for me to launch into adulthood (which would take me a few more years to successfully complete).

It was just weeks before the '94 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway.  Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan were competing at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, Michigan.  That night, Nancy Kerrigan was clubbed on the right thigh by a man named Shane Stant.  He had deliberately attacked her with a police baton to take her out of contention at the Olympics.

Shane Stant was hired by rival figure skater Tonya Harding's now ex husband, Jeff Gillooly (who later changed his name to Jeff Stone).  Harding claimed that she'd known nothing about the attack.  She was still later punished for her role in the crime.  Although she did compete in Lillehammer in 1994, as did Nancy Kerrigan, Harding's performances there were disastrous.  She was subsequently banned from competing in figure skating for the rest of her life.

Tonya Harding has been a pariah for years.  Many people still think she's "trash".  Some people are pissed off that a movie was made about her life.  The rather black comedy stars Margot Robbie as Tonya and Allison Janney as Tonya's abusive mother, LaVona "Sandy" Golden.  The film, entitled I, Tonya, sheds light on Tonya's side of the story.  Love her or hate her, it's a fact that in the early 1990s, Tonya Harding was an amazing athlete.  She was the first American woman to successfully perform a triple axel at an international event.  In 1991, she won the U.S. Figure Skating Championships after landing that amazing jump, which she went on to successfully complete again at 1991 World Championships.

Tonya Harding's breakthrough performance in 1991.  I think I saw this when it happened, too.

I always liked Tonya Harding.  She was different.  I loved watching the raw power of her performances and admired her guts.  I was truly disheartened about what happened in 1994.  Her story was one of a poor girl who made good and it was disappointing to me that she would be caught up in a scandal that would ruin her career.  That being said, back in '94, when this was going on, this was a story that wouldn't die.  It took a long time before Tonya and Nancy faded out of the press.  I was pretty sick of hearing about both of them by the time 1995 rolled around.

Some time ago, Tina Turner's life story was published.  The name of her bestselling book was I, Tina.  I don't know if Tina Turner's book had anything to do with the title of the film about Harding's life.  Nevertheless, I couldn't help but think of it when I heard about I, Tonya.  I sat down and watched the movie the other day and, I have to admit, I really enjoyed it.

According to the film, Tonya Harding grew up the daughter of one hellaciously abusive bitch.  LaVona drove her daughter to succeed from the age of 3 and a half.  Still, there was no mistaking Harding's talent and she was coached by Diane Rawlinson for many years, wearing ugly dresses her mother made for her.  Harding learned early that she had to go out and get what she wanted.  The film depicts that, although Harding has said there are a few embellishments in the film version of her story.

Harding also praises Allison Janney and Margot Robbie.  She's particularly full of praise for Janney, whom she says portrays her mother masterfully.  Tonya's mother had the opposite opinion.  She thinks the film is full of falsehoods and complains that Harding "hates" her.  Harding now has a son who has never met his grandmother.  While I can empathize with Tonya's mom on a human level, I also think that she sounds like a lot of abusers who make excuses and don't take any responsibility for their part in a bad relationship.  I'd have more regard for LaVona's protests if I heard her express some regret for Tonya's bad memories, even if she remembers them differently.

One thing I loved about I, Tonya, besides the sly black humor, is its fabulous soundtrack.  There are quite a few excellent classic rock tracks on it including songs by Heart, Cliff Richard, and ZZ Top.  I am about Tonya's age, so the songs featured in her life story bring back a lot of my own youthful memories.

This film includes a lot of cussing.  In fact, Harding has said that she doesn't cuss as much as the movie depicts.  I can empathize with her on that point, too.  People think I cuss more than I actually do.  On the other hand, I'm immature enough to think cussing is funny... especially when it's directed at anal retentive ice skating judges.  By the way, Harding claims that infamous scene in the film never actually happened... though she wishes it had.

Anyway, although a lot of people seem to think Tonya Harding should fade into obscurity, I, for one, enjoyed I, Tonya.  I am not one of those people who think that someone should necessarily pay for the rest of their lives for every crime they commit.  Tonya Harding has mostly stayed out of trouble and I think it's time she's able to redeem herself.  It seems to me that Harding had the misfortune of having bad people in her life.  Some of that was beyond her control.  So I think I can cut her some slack... and I hope this film helps her and her family enjoy better lives.  I recommend I, Tonya.

Even in her 40s, Harding can still skate.

A review of Tara Westover's Educated: A Memoir...

That Duggar group I joined may end up giving me more bang for the buck than I initially realized.  It was in that group that I first heard about the book Educated: A Memoir.  Released to the public on February 20, 2018, Educated was written by Tara Westover, a woman who spent the first sixteen years of her life growing up unschooled and very religious in rural Idaho.

Those who read this blog regularly may know that I generally take a pretty dim view of Mormonism. I have a lot of reasons for feeling the way I do about the religion-- reasons that are easily found within many of my blog posts.  Today, I want to go on record to say that I know very well that there are many fine Mormons out there.  Tara Westover was the beneficiary of Mormons who were just plain good people.  I believe Brigham Young University may have even saved her life.

Westover was sixteen when she left home for college at Brigham Young University.  It was there that she entered a classroom for the first time in her life.  It was also there that she was identified as a scholar.  She has since gone on to earn a doctorate in history at Cambridge University in England, stopping at Harvard University along the way to be a visiting fellow.  Her story is incredible and miraculous.  I found it impossible to put down, and it's not very often that I can say that anymore about books I read.

Tara Westover, youngest of seven kids raised by an extremely neglectful and somewhat "crazy" father and a very busy midwife mother, now has a doctorate, as do two of her brothers.  The other children in the family remain largely unschooled, save for the eldest, who did earn a GED (high school general equivalency diploma).  At the end of Educated, Westover notes that her family is divided by an educational chasm.  Half stayed in the survivalist world of rural Idaho.  The other half went on to academic glory against all odds.

Westover's family lived in Buck's Peak, a mountain that changed with the seasons.  Her father's mother lived at the bottom of the hill.  She is described as kind of cranky, but relatively normal.  She had a phone, and when people would call for Tara's mother to deliver their babies, "Grandma from down the hill" would relay the message... at least until Tara's mother had a phone line put in, against her husband's wishes.

Tara's mother's mother was known as "Grandma out in town".  She lived in a pretty house with a white picket fence.  Westover writes that her maternal grandmother had come from "the wrong side of the tracks" and was treated badly by her peers.  Consequently, she wanted her children to look like they came from a good family.  Westover's mother grew up wearing beautifully tailored clothes that her mother had made by hand.  "Grandma out in town" would obsess over the outfits her daughter wore to church, which seemed to be a bone of contention that drove Tara's mother to marry the crazy guy with jet black hair who lived on Buck's Peak.

Tara Westover's father was an extremely devout Mormon.  He didn't trust the government and only had his first two children's births recorded.  According to Westover, he wouldn't take his children to doctors and relied on his wife to prepare herbal tinctures to cure them of their ailments.  He regularly drove his children in vehicles that lacked seatbelts.  Twice, they were in serious accidents and were injured badly enough that they probably should have visited an emergency room.  In fact, Tara's father didn't even teach his kids to wash their hands after using the bathroom.  When he was confronted by Tara's maternal grandmother, he replied "I teach my kids not to piss on their hands."

Westover's father made money by scrapping metal and building hay sheds.  He talked his wife into learning how to be a midwife, even though she hated the work and was reluctant to do it.  Every time she protested being a midwife, he would tell her it was what God wanted her to do.  Indeed, once she was trained by her predecessor, Tara's mother was the only midwife in the area and was kept very busy delivering babies from cash strapped locals who couldn't afford to go to a hospital.  From a very early age, Tara Westover witnessed babies being born.  She was also exposed to many other elements of life that most youngsters never encounter.  Tara's father was a survivalist and likely very mentally ill.  One of her oldest brothers was violent and Tara often took the brunt of his propensity toward physical abuse.

Had it not been for Tara's more normal mother and another brother, who had decided to venture out of Buck's Peak and get an education, Tara Westover might still be living on that mountain rounding up feral horses and selling them for slaughter.  Yes, wild horses were yet another source of income for Westover's family.  They lived as far off the grid as possible... as wild as the feral horses on the hill.  Tara's father relied on his family members to help him make a living.  According to Tara, he tried to force them to work for him on multiple occasions.  She had to be careful about the help she accepted from him.

The story of how Westover arrived at BYU is pretty amazing, especially when you consider that Westover didn't even have a birth certificate until she was in her teens.  Because her parents did not register five of their seven children at birth, the children ran into problems as they came of age.  They had no school records or medical records, so doing things like getting a driver's license or entering college was a real challenge.  In fact, they weren't even completely sure when their birthdays were.  Westover writes that she'd pick a day every year during her birth month-- never on Sunday, because it's not fun to celebrate a birthday at church.

Tara's brother told her about the ACT exam, which many youngsters prepare for years.  Tara took it the first time and got a respectable score, even though she had never been to school.  She took it the second time and got a high enough score to get into Brigham Young University, known in LDS circles as a "tough" school.  She achieved admittance when she was sixteen.  Most kids at that age are in their junior years of high school.

When she arrived at BYU, Westover knew pretty much nothing.  She hadn't even heard of the Holocaust.  When she told a professor she didn't know the word "Holocaust", he thought she was joking.  She had no concept of how to do algebra and worried that her grades in college algebra would cause her to lose her scholarship.

Even her living situation was strange.  BYU students are known for being very religious and clean cut.  Tara took the religious standards to extremes, becoming distinctly uncomfortable when she'd see her roommates in tank tops or drinking Diet Cokes.  When she got a very bad headache, she suffered with it until her boyfriend introduced her to the miracle of ibuprofen.  The same boyfriend insisted that Tara learn to wear seatbelts and would not drive the car until she put one on.

A friend had to take Tara to a clinic to be treated for strep throat and mono because she had no idea of how to access medical care; she'd never been to a doctor for any reason.  When her mother found out Tara was taking antibiotics, her mom sent her herbals, not to cure the strep, but to "flush" the toxic antibiotics out of her system.

When Tara finally applied for a federal grant to help her squeak by in school, she panicked when she was awarded $4000.  She had only wanted $1400 so she could get a tooth fixed.  Her friends and a kindly bishop had to explain to her that she could use that money to make herself a little more comfortable.  Grant money does not have to be repaid.  And... it did not go unnoticed by Tara's roommates that she didn't wash her hands after she used the bathroom.

Another kind professor had noticed how fine Tara Westover's mind is and encouraged her to apply for a program at Cambridge University.  Despite the steep learning curve Tara faced as she entered 21st century living, Tara was a success in school.  But she still had to be convinced that she belonged there and deserved to use her academic gifts.  And that is what I believe is the main idea of this fantastic story.

Years ago, I read The Glass Castle, a famous book written by Jeannette Walls.  Walls similarly grew up in a very unconventional way with parents who were both abusive and neglectful.  Walls' parents believed in their children learning from their own mistakes.  If you've read The Glass Castle, and a lot of people have, Educated will probably remind you of it somewhat.  I'm pretty sure I read The Glass Castle when we were in Germany the first time, so it's been about ten years for me.  I'm glad it's been that long.  Otherwise, I might have been tempted to compare the two books.

Westover's story is complicated, yet fascinating.  The book is divided into three parts.  The last part seemed somewhat less compelling to me than the first two, possibly because Westover had grown up and was now realizing that she couldn't go back home again.  Tara Westover's decision to go to college caused a rift in her family.  She no longer has contact with some family members.  Not surprisingly, the reviews of this book are interesting-- especially the one star reviews, a couple of which were apparently written by siblings.  Some reviews are also left by people who claim to know the Westovers and are offended by Tara Westover's account of growing up in that family.

As I was finishing the book, it occurred to me that Bill's daughter might be experiencing something similar.  In fact, my perspective of Mormonism has shifted somewhat as I've heard more about her story.  I still don't like Mormonism, but I do think it can be a lifesaver for some people... Bill's daughter included.  As for Westover, I have a feeling that she's figured out the truth about the church, but may remain in it because of what it's given her.

Anyway... I highly recommend Educated.  It's a great read and an excellent example of what one can accomplish even when the odds are stacked against them.  It wouldn't surprise me if this book doesn't turn into a movie someday.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Roof family is in the news again...

Remember Dylann Roof?  On June 17, 2015, he invaded a prayer meeting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and shot nine black people, including senior pastor and state senator Clementa C. Pinckney.  Dylann Roof is a notorious white supremacist and he's now facing the death penalty for his crimes.  As of last year, he's sitting in Terre Haute, Indiana, awaiting his fate to be carried out by the feds.

A few weeks after Dylann Roof's crime, his older sister, Amber, was in the news.  Why?  Because she had a GoFundMe account to recoup money she lost when she decided to postpone her wedding in the wake of her brother's crimes.  I remember being kind of shocked by the campaign, although I had some empathy for the woman.  After all, weddings are expensive and she wasn't the one who had actually committed the crimes.  In time, I forgot about her and her younger brother.

Yesterday, the world became aware of yet another member of Dylann Roof's notorious family.  18 year old Morgan Roof apparently had issues with the National School Walkout Day that was held on Wednesday to protest gun violence.  She posted a disturbing racist comment on Snapchat:

“Your walking out for the allowed time of 17min, they are letting you do this, nothing is gonna change what tf you think it’s gonna do?” the caption reads. “I hope it’s a trap and y’all get shot we know it’s fixing to be nothing but black people walkin out anyway.”

Some students at her high school, A.C. Flora in Columbia, South Carolina (same school actress Kristin Davis attended), were concerned about the post.  Evidently, someone reported Ms. Roof and an administrator contacted a school resource officer.  Roof was eventually arrested and charged with bringing drugs and weapons on school property.  She was found with marijuana, a knife, and pepper spray.

After Ms. Roof was transported to the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center in Columbia, a judge set her bond at $5000.  She is barred from returning to campus.

I look at her picture and think she's an attractive, normal looking young woman.  Why are she and her brother so racist?  As tacky as I thought Amber Roof was for trying to crowdfund her wedding expenses, I now think that like most oldest children, Amber is the pick of the litter.  

I lived in Columbia, South Carolina for three years when I was attending graduate school.  I know there are a lot of racists in South Carolina, although I did enjoy my stay there.  Still, to be so egregiously racist, especially when one's brother is a notorious white supremacist and sitting on death row, makes me wonder what in the hell went on in that family.  But then, I can see that even South Carolina's governor, Henry McMaster, was disgusted by the student protests.  McMaster is about to run for re-election and his challenger, Catherine Templeton, was also accusing liberals of using teenagers as "political pawns" to forward a gun control agenda.

Governor McMaster's thoughts on the protest...

Well...  I don't have any kids of my own, so I have no dog in this fight, really.  To me, it seems simple enough that teenagers are fed up with kids being killed while they are at school.  Moreover, while teens are young and inexperienced, one does not have to be politically savvy to be against kids being shot at public schools.  These shootings have been going on for years and it just keeps getting worse! Do these politicians really believe that students should simply bow their heads and pray and hope the problem magically gets solved?

I am not against people owning guns for sport or personal protection.  I am against guns that can kill dozens of people in a short period of time.  I am against people showing up at public venues, randomly picking off innocents who are simply trying to watch a movie, enjoy a concert, or finish their education.  Something desperately has to be done.  

Now... I am not exactly certain what will come of the National School Walkout Day.  I'm not sure what ultimate effect the millions of young people who left school for seventeen minutes will have on our laws.  But at least it's something.  It's peaceful.  And teenagers aren't stupid.  They are on the brink of adulthood and it won't be long before they are among the decision makers in our country.  They can certainly speak out against gun violence in schools, and they should!  

As for Morgan Roof, I hope she gets the help she so obviously needs.  At the rate she's going, she's going to end up in prison herself.


Thursday, March 15, 2018

Reposted review of USAA circa 2003

Don't mind me.  I'm just saving this old USAA review I wrote 15 years ago.

  • Very disappointed...

    Review by knotheadusc
     in Books, Music, Hotels & Travel 
      September, 08 2003
  • Pros: Usually inexpensive. Most agents are friendly if you don't have a claim.
    Cons: What on earth has happened to their customer service?
    First of all, let me say that I've been a USAA policyholder since 1991 and my parents have been policyholders for years. My husband has been a policyholder since 1984. Up until recently, I had a lot of respect for USAA auto insurance. Why? Because I never had to make a serious claim. Unfortunately, as some of you who have been reading my editorials know, I have recently been the victim of a crime. My car was broken into and the driver's side window was smashed. My dashboard was torn up and the CD player was ripped out, though not completely stolen (the guts of it are still hanging by a wire in my car). Ever since that unfortunate event, I've been dealing with USAA and hating every minute of it.

    The saga of my crappy experience started on August 28th, when I called USAA after discovering my car had been violated. I got an agent on the phone right after I called the police. The police were busy dealing with another break in that had occurred at the apartment complex next door, so I could only give the agent some preliminary information. I had to make an appointment to get the glass taken care of because my husband and I were going to be taking a trip to Tennessee the next day. However, there was a big pile of glass on the driver's seat, so I couldn't exactly sit down and check to see if the engine had been damaged or the heating or air conditioning had been ruined when the CD player was unceremoniously yanked from the dash. The glass repair service had no mobile service appointments available until the following week, so I set one up for then. But then my husband told me to change the appointment for the next day, which meant I'd have to drive to the Safelite office to have the work done. That meant I'd have to clean the glass up myself.

    After the police left, I called USAA again to give them the police report number and more information about the damage to my car. I told the woman I spoke to that I was worried that my heating and air conditioning might be damaged. The reason I worried about this was because in the past when I'd had CD players installed in my car, the climate control had been adversely affected. The woman I spoke to got very snippy with me and acted as though I were trying to get more money out of USAA by expressing this concern. She asked me to go check this out for sure. I told her that there was a big pile of glass on my seat, so I couldn't very well start the car with ease. So she suggested that I start the car from the passenger's seat! However, there was also glass on that seat and half my console is hanging from the dash! Plus, the knobs from the air conditioning and heating unit have been torn off. I explained this to the woman, but then I said "I'm going to have to remove most of the glass anyway because I have to drive the car to the Safelite office to have the window fixed tomorrow." Then, her tone suddenly changed. She was worried about me cutting my hands! She proceeded to tell me about the Safelite mobile service, which I would have gladly used had a timely appointment been available. Safelite's mobile service had fixed a couple of small cracks in my windshield a couple of weeks before anyway.

    Luckily, I had some gloves available, so I was able to clean up most of the glass without cutting myself. I found out that my air conditioning and heating weren't damaged. I called USAA again and told them so, and wanted to find out what came next. I was told that my claim would further be handled by a company called "First Choice", which would issue me a new stereo and send me to a body shop to have the dash fixed. Great... I thought to myself, the ball is rolling. I was told I'd be called within 24 hours. But we were going to be leaving town the next day, so I covered the window the best I could and the next morning, got it replaced.

    Meanwhile, I decided I might want to find out more about renter's insurance. Actually, I had wanted to get it a year ago, but my husband kept saying it was too expensive. This time, I decided to buy it whether he liked it or not. I called USAA to ask questions about the application and the next thing I knew, I was talking to a woman about quotes. She was practically salivating to sell me a policy and I was ready to buy one. But then she noticed that I had a claim. She suddenly said, "You know what, we're going to have to send your application to our underwriters and get back to you. Are these phone numbers still good?" She listed the ones we had provided. I affirmed that they were. She led me to believe that she or the underwriters would call me right back. I did just hear from them today and they agreed to cover us. However, I felt like I had been dropped like a hot potato when I spoke to her before because she spoke as though we'd hear back right away and then we didn't. Moreover, she had been really nice to me, but then when she noticed I had an auto insurance claim in, suddenly we weren't such sterling candidates and her attitude seemed to change noticeably. USAA did come through in the end, but for ten days I felt really second class and let down.

    On August 29th, I called First Choice myself and told them I'd be out of town. I was told I'd be contacted when my husband and I got back on September 4th. We went to Tennessee, had a stressful trip, came back and on the 4th, I was all set to get down to the business of getting my car fixed. I called First Choice again and was given the name of the man who would be handling my account. I was told he'd get ahold of me right away. Of course he didn't, but I had to go to my husband's office, so I had my husband call and see if he could get the guy on the phone. My husband called and it turned out the man I was supposed to talk to was on vacation. So another fellow took over my case, sort of on the fly... except he didn't seem to know what he was doing.

    This guy said that he couldn't ascertain how bad the damage to my car was. He said he could send me to one body shop, but they might not be able to handle the repairs and so it might be better if we went to another shop further away, but then that might be inconvenient for us. He hemmed and hawed about it, seeming very incompetent until my husband offered to take pictures with his digital camera and email them to the man at First Choice so he'd have a better idea of where to send me. The guy agreed that might be a good solution to his dilemma. My husband wouldn't have minded taking the pictures, but why should he have to do that? And why did he have to come up with that idea? The fact that he did made First Choice, a company that deals with USAA, look incompetent and amateurish. But then it turned out that when we came home that evening, there was a message telling us to call USAA because now they were going to handle the situation with my dashboard... or were they? Sheesh!

    So I called USAA and got an agent on the phone who didn't know what to do and hadn't heard anything about this new plan for them to handle my claim. She got a supervisor on the phone who put me on hold. While I was on hold, I listened to the same Muzak song over and over again. I cannot express in words how much I loathe Muzak. Finally, the supervisor said that she would set me up with a body shop near my home. Great... I thought to myself... now we're nearing a solution! Yeah, right. After about 30 minutes, First Choice agreed to send me a new stereo and told me where to have it installed once my dashboard and console are fixed. The USAA supervisor told me she'd set up an appointment with the body shop and they'd call within 24 hours.

    Friday morning, the 5th of September, I hadn't heard from the body shop. I gave them a call and they said they hadn't heard from USAA. I figured USAA was just unusually slow on the uptake, so I decided to give them more time. But I never heard from the body shop all day on Friday. I called the body shop Saturday, but got an answering machine.

    This morning, September 8th, I called USAA again and asked if they had sent the body shop my information. They assured me that they had. I called the body shop again and they said they still hadn't received the information from USAA yet. So I called USAA back, entered their phone maze, and was disconnected. I called again and spoke to another agent who told me that the information had been sent. I told her that the people at the body shop had told me otherwise. So the agent said she'd fax the information again while I was on the phone with her. I just got a call from the body shop and set up at long last, an initial appointment, thank God. Dare I think it? What the hell... Great... now we're FINALLY nearing a solution! Or are we? Stay tuned, because I'm sure this tale isn't finished yet.

    By the way, I've already sent a nice hate letter to the CEO. It may do no good at all, but I feel better.


    Got a stereo on Friday, September 12, 2003 and the people at the body shop agreed to install it next week when they get around to fixing my car...

    Update #2

    I just received a very nice call from a local USAA rep about the letter I wrote. The customer service rep assured me they were looking into what had happened and I updated her on what was going on with my case. I do have faith that USAA has good intentions and at least my letter didn't go ignored.

    Update #3 (Oct. 4, 2003)

    Today I received letters (not form letters) from both Robert G. Davis, CEO of USAA and Henry Viccellio, Jr., President of the Property and Casualty Insurance Group. The phone call I received from the USAA rep was referenced, so I have faith that this unfortunate incident will be an isolated one. In my mind, USAA has redeemed themselves, and I'm happy to report that after a month, my car is finally completely fixed.

    Update #4 (Dec. 9, 2003)

    My poor husband is having to deal with a billing nightmare stemming from the fact that we added renter's insurance. Remember, we had to pay for the whole premium upfront? Well, we did pay, but some ding-a-ling at USAA didn't credit us for paying that premium. Instead, they applied that money toward our car insurance premiums and started underbilling us. For the past two months, we've been paying for the renter's insurance and not paying enough on our car insurance. My husband did call after each weird bill to confirm that the amounts were correct and he was told that they were. This month, he was billed $70 more than what he was expecting to have to pay. When he called USAA for an explanation, he was told that (so sorry) they had screwed up. They said that in order to fix the problem, he could either make a huge payment in January, or pay a little more each month to make up the difference for the amount that we hadn't been paying. My husband was, of course, LIVID. We wondered why we should have to pay for USAA's mistakes. My husband looked over the bills again and found two more errors on the bill.

    Taking a cue from his feisty wife, my husband has also sent a letter to the CEO. He has gotten placating calls from customer service reps at USAA... none have offered to do what is right, however, that is, eat the amount that they botched on our bill. We're looking into changing auto insurance companies unless USAA can make this right in short order and to our satisfaction.

    Since I originally wrote this review, I have gotten a couple of requests for the CEO's address. We've also been talking to my husband's co-workers at the Pentagon and more than a few of them have had bad experiences with USAA lately. My husband warned USAA of these developments in his letter to the CEO. USAA also recently sent me a survey regarding my customer service experience with them that I had to complete truthfully. Unfortunately, I couldn't rate my experience with them very highly. This is pretty sad news for what was once a great company.

A fiery death...

A few days ago, someone I knew in college shared a news article about an elderly couple who were robbed, kidnapped, bound, and left to die in their house after the robbers set it on fire.  I was horrified by the story of how Dr. Nancy Alford, a much beloved psychologist in Littleton, North Carolina, and her husband, the Reverend John Alford, pastor of Sanford Baptist Church in Broadnax, Virginia, were victimized in their home.

The Alfords had lived in their home for about forty years, but Dr. Alford is now dead and the home she shared with her husband is now nothing but ashes.  John Alford is currently recovering from smoke inhalation and second degrees burns on his arms and face.

I generally feel outraged when I read stories about punks who victimize others.  For some reason, this story was particularly upsetting to me.  Thankfully, two men, Kevin Munn and Lester Kearney, have been captured and charged with first degree murder, among other things.  While I'm generally not a fan of the death penalty, I do think this pair is evil enough to spend the rest of their lives in prison.

According to the most recent news about this case, last Friday morning, the Alfords came home to find their house being burglarized by two masked intruders.  One of the intruders forced Nancy Alford to drive to a credit union and withdraw money from an ATM.  The other intruder stayed with John Alford.  Next, Nancy Alford was driven back to her home.  The intruders beat her husband, then bound the couple and set the house on fire.  John Alford was able to escape the flames, but his wife was not.  The thieves also made off with the Alfords' car, a 2011 silver Mercedes.  The car was later found.

I read up on Nancy Alford and learned that she earned a doctorate of psychology in 1985.  She was a very accomplished therapist who helped many people.  She dedicated her life to making other people's lives better.  Her husband has dedicated his life to serving God.  I only pray that he has a lot of love and support in the coming months.  I can't fathom how devastating his recovery will be on so many levels.

I have never been a gun enthusiast, but when I read about stories like this one, I can see why so many people in America want to own a weapon.  It's absolutely infuriating that this loving, respectable couple should have been victimized by two criminals.  I don't support violence, but I can see how satisfying it would be to not have to submit to thugs who break into a house.  At the same time, I would guess that in order to stop these creeps, one would have to be packing heat at all times.  I'm sure the Alfords were not the kind of people to carry a weapon.  Maybe that's why they were targeted, along with the fact that they were elderly.

My heart goes out to John Alford, who not only has to live with the fact that his wife was killed and he was powerless to save her, but also the terror he must have experienced when this happened.  Just one week ago, he had his wife by his side and they were getting through life together.  Now he's in the hospital and she's gone... and the home they shared for so many years is nothing but a fiery memory.

As a man of Christian faith, I'm sure John Alford takes some comfort in knowing that his wife is with Jesus now.  But as a human being, I'm sure that the horror of her death will linger until he's able to join her. I am appalled and infuriated by this story.  I pray justice is done.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A review of Kidnapped for Christ...

Yesterday, after watching the most recent episode of Counting On, I decided to watch a documentary called Kidnapped for Christ.  This film, which was released in 2014, was produced and directed by Kate S. Logan.  The film was mostly shot during a seven week period in 2006, when Logan was in the Dominican Republic visiting Escuela Caribe, a school run by New Horizons Youth Ministries out of Marion, Indiana.

Official trailer...

At the time she began shooting the film and interviewing staff and students there, Kate Logan was unaware of the school's controversial nature.  Logan was herself a student at an evangelical Christian university and did not intend to create an expose of Escuela Caribe.  But then she got to know a seventeen year old named David whose parents had used a teen transport company to have him escorted from their home in the middle of the night.  Although David was a model student with excellent grades, a talent for drama, and a promising future, he was gay.  That was unacceptable to David's parents.

Logan also interviewed two girls who were at the facility.  Beth was sent to the school because of a "debilitating anxiety disorder".  Tai was sent there because of behavioral problems that were brought on by childhood abuse.

After she'd spent some time at the school, which by 2006 had been operating in the Dominican Republic for several decades, Logan started to realize that some of the methods employed there were abusive.  For instance, participants who misbehaved were required to do push ups, squat thrusts, or run "Casitas".  Sometimes, they would be forced to do intense physical labor or get "swats", basically a spanking with a wooden paddle.  Logan also noticed that the participants were subjected to emotional abuse.

David sent a letter back with Kate Logan.  He asked her to give it to one of his best friends, who would then share it with her parents.  When Logan shared the letter with the friend, who happened to be attending the same university where Logan was a student, things started happened.  A small cadre of David's friends and adult supporters banded together to try to get him out of Escuela Caribe.  Although David was about to turn 18, he was concerned that school officials would try to hold him there beyond his 18th birthday.

I decided to watch this movie after it was mentioned in the Duggar group I joined.  I had not heard of Kidnapped for Christ before yesterday, but I have a lot of time on my hands and I'm fascinated by documentaries, especially about cults.  "Teen help" programs are also a pet interest of mine.  About fifteen years ago, I went through an intense research phase of these kinds of programs desperate parents employ to "help" their teens.  Many of them, now mercifully shut down, were abusive in nature.

Escuela Caribe, which closed in 2012, did not sound like the worst of some of the programs I've researched.  Yes, there was a lot of physical punishment and humiliation involved with their "approach", but some of the programs run by the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASPS) and fundamentalist Christian schools such as Mountain Park Baptist Boarding Academy seemed much worse.  One reason why they seemed worse is that there's no way someone like Kate Logan could have had access to those schools.  Escuela Caribe apparently initially welcomed Logan to talk to students and film them.  That would not have happened at the other schools.

However, even though Escuela Caribe was evidently not among the "worst" of the teen help schools, it still did significant damage to a number of former participants.  Some people who had been at the school ended up with symptoms of PTSD.  And, of course, there's also the disturbing idea that a school can "cure" someone of being homosexual.  On the other hand, there are some former participants who feel that school saved their lives.  One of the people Logan interviewed for this film left the program with a positive impression.

Kidnapped for Christ is very well produced and informative.  It's well worth watching if you have interesting in the topic of "teen help" boarding schools or even evangelical Christianity.  Although I can understand that many parents are frustrated by teenagers who act out or get into trouble, I think that for the most part, these kinds of programs cause more problems then they solve.  They're also very expensive and usually run by people with no actual qualifications.  At one point, Logan pointed out that the tuition for Escuela Caribe was more than what one would pay for a year at Harvard University.

Anyway... if you can watch this film and it sounds interesting, I think you should.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

A review of A River in Darkness: One Man's Escape from North Korea

I am fascinated by true stories, especially ones that involve survival against all odds.  I just finished A River in Darkness: One Man's Escape from North Korea, a book written by Masaji Ishikawa and beautifully translated by Risa Kobayashi and Martin Brown.  This book was published on January 1, 2018 and already has a couple thousand reviews, most of which are very positive.  I am about to add my own very positive review of this very harrowing tale of survival.

Born in 1947 in Kawasaki, Japan, Masaji Ishikawa had a Japanese mother and a South Korean father, along with two sisters.  Ishikawa's father was a violent alcoholic who brutalized his family and his enemies.  Because of his tendency to get into fights, Ishikawa's father was known as "Tiger".  He was belligerent and had few friends in Japan, which is likely why he was lured to repatriate to North Korea when his son, Masaji, was only thirteen years old.

Although the senior Ishikawa was not from the north, he was attracted by the claims that North Korea was a worker's paradise.  And though his wife and children were not that enthusiastic about the move, it was settled and the Ishikawas were soon on their way.  It wasn't long before they realized what a mistake it was to go back to Korea.  They left a life of relative comfort for one of abject poverty.  Very soon, "Tiger" found out that he couldn't fight his way out of sticky situations anymore.  The government took everything from them.  Very soon, what little they brought with them from Japan was gone and they had to struggle hard every day just to survive.

Making matters worse was the fact that the Koreans looked down on the Japanese people who were there and the "returners"; that is, Koreans who repatriated to North Korea from Japan.  They were relegated to worse jobs and not educated as well.  Ishikawa's family was given a "nice" house-- nice, only because it had a tiled roof.  One day, a friend of the family's came over, got drunk, and smoked a cigarette in bed.  He passed out and his cigarette caused a fire.  The house went down in flames and the family was forced to build a new one completely by themselves, right down to cutting down the trees used for the walls and roof.

Ishikawa writes of the trouble he had finding love.  He fell in love with one woman, but her family wouldn't accept him because he was Japanese.  Later, he was paired up with a woman whom he described as "not beautiful".  Their union lasted a year, long enough for her to present him a son.  Then she begged for a divorce and left him with the boy to raise on his own.

He did manage to find a second wife, one with whom he was more compatible.  She could not live with him for some time, though, because she was caring for her grandmother.  They eventually had two more children.  Meanwhile, one of his sisters came home, having been cast out by her husband.  She was pregnant and had his two sons from a prior relationship with her.

I'm not sure how much input the translators had in how this book was written, but I found Ishikawa's writing very compelling.  The book is written in the first person and is in a conversational tone, as if he's sitting next to you talking to you about his experiences.  He seems like a very likable person, even when he becomes so desperately unhappy that he contemplates suicide.  Indeed, he was in the middle of his attempt when a co-worker-- a guy who had the same job burning coal-- came upon the author and saved his life.

That was only the first of several times when Ishikawa avoided what should have been certain death.  The story leads up to his dramatic and unlikely escape from North Korea in 1996.  Originally, he'd planned to try to save his family.  They were all starving to death.  Since Ishikawa was actually Japanese, he got help from unlikely sources... and ultimately, he lived to tell the tale.

Honestly, what really got to me was his description of what it was like to slowly starve.  He explains the desperate lengths people went to simply to subsist in a place where there simply wasn't any food at all.  He writes of boiling pine bark for as long as possible to prevent the toxins from poisoning him.  Then, once he choked down the pine bark, which had been fashioned into something roughly resembling a rice cake, he suffered through gut pain and constipation so severed that he had to manually dislodge his fecal matter from his anus.  He explains how frustrating it is to read posters made by the government, instructing people on how to make their meager rations last longer so they could keep working.  And, of course, all of the posters included multiple exclamation points.  They were probably made by people who had relatively plenty to eat.

Ishikawa describes the physical changes that occur when a person starves.  For example, the fat on the lips and nose go away when starvation is extreme.  When the lips are gone, the teeth are plainly visible in a macabre fashion.  Ishikawa had to see his children looking like that.  He escaped because he wanted to rescue them.  Alas, escape to Japan was not all it was cracked up to be, either.  Now he's left wondering what has become of his two surviving sons; he learned that his wife and daughter died, but lost contact with the son who had informed him.  He also has grandchildren languishing in North Korea.

I have read a lot of books about life in North Korea.  This book is one that will probably stay with me for a long time.  It's not a story about being in a concentration camp, though those are compelling enough.  This is a story about a group that we don't often hear about.  This was a man who, unlike most North Koreans, had knowledge of what it was like to be outside of the country.  He remembered a good life in Japan, even if his father was a brute.  He spent 36 years behind the fortified borders in North Korea, living the life of someone less than the average joe, yet not truly incarcerated.  

Needless to say, I heartily recommend A River in Darkness, if you can stand to reach such material.  It's a very blunt look at what people in North Korea are living with under their current regime.  Perhaps it's also a cautionary tale of what could happen to any of us if we allow tyrants to maintain power.  Five stars from me.

Pictures that made me guffaw...

Oh yeah... he's a real hero, alright.

Last night, I saw an old friend tag her nephew in a picture she shared.  This old friend and I met when we were teenagers.  She and her two older sisters were accomplished horsewomen.  That's how I came to know them.  I was good friends with the youngest and eldest sister; the middle sister didn't like me.  That's the story of my life.

When I was about seventeen, my old friend's eldest sister, then in her thirties, got pregnant.  She had a son.  I left for college not long after his birth, so I never met him or his younger brother.  When I saw that my old friend had tagged him, I got really curious.  He's now in his late 20s. 

From what I can tell, he's doing okay for himself.  Looks like he's involved in a very manly occupation.  Then I noticed he posted the above meme.

Granted, this meme was floating around about a year ago, before Trump was able to show everyone what kind of person he really is.  Actually, a lot of us who were around in the 80s already knew what kind of man he is.  I could give my friend's nephew a pass, perhaps, because he didn't exist in the late 80s and was a child in the 1990s.  And I know what kind of town he grew up in because I also grew up there.

I still think it's astonishing that so many people who otherwise have normal intelligence are posting this kind of shit on social media and agreeing with it.  Let's face it.  Donald Trump hasn't given up a fucking thing to "serve" the American people.  He still golfs at his own resorts any chance he gets.  And any "hope" he gave to Americans has mostly turned out to be a bunch of lies.

This morning, I saw yet another picture that made me guffaw for a different reason...

Damn right! 

The above picture was shared on God's page.  The very first comment came from a guy who tried to set God straight...

 IF it's a military parade, it's obviously NOT for people that dodged being in the military (and therefore NOT for Trump himself). Memo to "God": make sure that your thinking is right- before you're thinking "smite". (Geez, no wonder fewer people believe in you these days.)


Wow...  I am astonished by this person's lack of vision.  First off, if Trump truly wants to honor the military, he won't force them to be in a stupid parade on Veteran's Day.  Most veterans I know would much rather have that day off to spend with their families.  Seriously...  does this guy even know what goes into making a successful parade involving thousands of people and loads of equipment?  It will take military personnel away from more important work they're doing and waste a lot of money, mainly so Trump's ego can be stroked.  Not surprisingly, lots of people responded to this hopelessly naive fellow, who stubbornly responded to every rebuttal.  

Further down, someone posted this comment.

Stop shaming people who dodged the draft. If you refuse to fight in ridiculous wars you aren’t deserving of criticism, you are deserving of praise. There are 5,000 things to hit Trump on but being a draft dodger isn’t one of them. Not saying that he dodged for the right reasons either, but this kind of rhetoric just supports blind militaristic nationalism and we already have too much of that in America.


Uh... the military was probably better off without Trump in it.  However, if Trump insists on having a parade so he can show other world leaders America's massive military weapons cock, and he himself was never in the military, then yes, it's appropriate to shame him.  Trump would never lower himself to serve anyone anything... certainly not the American people.  He didn't dodge the draft because of an ideological difference; he dodged it because he's a selfish, cowardly man who couldn't be bothered to do his part.  And then, after he didn't go into harm's way to fight in a war, he had the audacity to make fun of prisoners of war and insult Gold Star families.  So no, he doesn't deserve a military parade, nor anyone's respect or praise.

The more I read of this, the sadder I started to feel that people in the United States fell for this man's promises and now we're all paying the price.  That being said, I'm not so sure the Democratic Party is a whole lot better.  The whole system is corrupt, but some leaders are more corrupt than others.  Trump happens to be a Republican, but he could have just as easily been a Democrat.  Too many Americans vote blindly-- a party over a person.  Trump is simply a vile person.  It has nothing to do with his politics and everything to do with who he is.  I just think it's troubling that more people don't recognize that they're being shafted.