Lonna Whiting

Crafty writer, strategic thinker, curious learner.

Violent murder of neighbor creates secondary victims

Like most people, I have a morning routine. The first thing I absolutely have to do is brush my teeth and check for text messages. I’m so used to this first step in my day that I can do them both at once, brushing with my left hand, scrolling with my right.

Generally, I’ve missed nothing overnight but a couple LOL texts from my best friend Ashley.

On a recent morning, however, an Inforum Alert came up: “Another suspicious death reported in north Fargo,” it said.

As a resident of north Fargo, I got curious about where the murder happened, thinking it was likely near the train tracks and a rundown liquor store — at least a mile away from us.

When I opened the link I found myself staring at the house directly across from our house. A pretty cream stucco early-century home with a beautiful red front door. My partner Kevin and I call it The Music School. Previous owners had a sign that said Music School on the front to advertise their tutoring business.

Murder in the Morning

The morning sun was just creeping into the neighborhood as I watched media collect on our front lawn to catch pictures and interview authorities. I took photos from behind our screen door because I just didn’t want to be “that” neighbor — nosy and in the way of people trying to do their jobs.

I wandered the main floor where I found Kevin sitting in the sunroom, the room farthest away from the scene unfolding outside.

“What’s going on out there?” I asked.

“I don’t know but I’ve been up since three. They’ve been out there since then,” he said. “Whatever it is, it’s not good.”

Later that day, I returned home from work to the same scene I witnessed nine hours earlier, only fewer police cars and no media.
Murder evening

I lingered at the window for a few moments and watched a young man talking to some officers. He was wearing rubber gloves and carrying some totes from the house to his car. He was the victim’s roommate. He’d been crying, his face and eyes red and puffy. I can’t imagine what he had to go through, entering his residence where his friend’s body still lay, investigators leaning over the scene taking pictures and sorting through private belongings.

We learned today that the murder was a random act, and that a previous one in an apartment complex farther south and west of us was also random and allegedly committed by the same man, Ashley Kennedy Parker. Apparently the apartment victim was overcharging for drugs.

My neighbor: He was fetching his murderer a glass of water.

His name was Samuel Traut. Sam to friends. He was a recent NDSU college graduate, Bible study leader and seminary student. Twenty-four years old forever.

Before I knew about what a fine young man Traut must have been, and before I learned the act was random, I assumed the crime was drug or gang-related. My assumptions were wrong, and maybe a little racist, too.

But the part that really bothers me the most? I slept right through all of it. I was oblivious to everything that went down that night. I slumbered away through the sounds of a brutal murder just a couple hundred feet from my front door. I heard not a peep of the subsequent police, ambulance and fire department mayhem that ensued shortly afterwards.

Parker may have tried to knock on our door and we just didn’t hear him.

Instead, Traut drew the short straw that night and now he’s dead. Bludgeoned with a hammer for being kind enough to offer a stranger a glass of water in the middle of the night.

Eerie, haunting, sad, our neighborhood won’t be the same. It makes us all secondary victims because now we look out our front doors or down the block only to be reminded about the random, violent act that happened in The Music House. And we’re also reminded that we got lucky, too, because we didn’t hear a knock.

 

Cramer staffer has wiped old butts and he cannot lie

 

 

 

During the 2015 Alzheimer’s Advocacy Forum in Washington DC last week, I had the pleasure of meeting with Andrew Nyhus, an ambitious young staffer to North Dakota Congressman Kevin Cramer.

As an advocate representing North Dakota at the forum, I had to ask our congressional leaders to stand by us with full support for the HOPE for Alzheimer’s Act, in addition to supporting an extra $300 million in NIH funding to support research efforts.

Nyhus, hardly out of his own pull-ups, said he understood the gravity of the disease and that he, too, has “wiped butts” in nursing homes and didn’t find the experience all too pleasing.

Instead of raising a stink, I opted not to poo-poo his disregard for the admirable job of caring for the elderly. I listened and watched carefully as he pulled out a sheet of paper and drew me a pie chart indicating the NIH is already overly-funded and that an additional $300 million just wouldn’t work.

I think it’s safe to say that Andy flushed our NIH funding dreams down the toilet.

Never mind the fact that Medicaid payouts are plugging up our nation’s fiscal plumbing and will begin to overflow as Baby Boomers start needing their own butts wiped.

 

Nyhus just couldn’t spare a square. Not even half a ply. His response reeked of disinterest and boredom.

My face flushed with disappointment.

Not everyone raised such a stink. Instead of giving me a nickle-and-dime excuse as to why funding Alzheimer’s research is a bad idea, Senator John Hoeven actually gave me some of his time, explaining how his own family has been affected by the disease. His empathy and grace – and support – for more funding at a federal level, gave me hope that my efforts in DC were not wasted.

I hope that next year when I visit Nyhus on the Hill, he won’t skidmark the issue and make such an ass out of himself.

 

Going to the Funeral is the Easy Part

Going to the Funeral is the Easy Part.

From the writer of “My Demented Mom” blog, who writes about a fact that enrages me about victims of Alzheimer’s and related dementias: the mass abandonment of friends and family unwilling or too scared to see it through. Yes, perhaps the funeral is the easy part. Face it: dementia does and will happen to people you love, maybe even yourself. Fear will not prevent it from happening. Bravery will help you create a fulfilling experience despite the slow deterioration of one’s memory, faculties and personhood.

 

‘D’ Word x 100

  1. You will notice something just isn’t quite right years before a diagnosis.
  2. You will dismiss an inability to maintain finances as simply being bad with numbers.
  3. Your mother will lose sight of a daycare child while in her care, only to later find him down the street at a neighbor boy’s house once the authorities have been notified.
  4. You will make up excuses to Child Protective Services when they call and ask if you think your mother is a danger to the children in her care.
  5. You will take your mom out for dinners and have to order for her.
  6. It’s just depression.
  7. It’s because Dad left.
  8. It started when Grandpa died.
  9. Her thyroid could be off.
  10. There might be a vitamin deficiency.
  11. You will give her premium vitamin supplements.
  12. You will watch another year go by.
  13. You will take your mother out for a beer and she can’t follow a conversation.
  14. You will think she’s socially awkward.
  15. You will be embarrassed shopping with her when she thinks she recognizes a stranger as someone she knows from her past.
  16. You will have a difficult conversation with your sister-in-law that begins with the words: “We need to get your mom checked out.”
  17. You will set up an appointment with a neurologist.
  18. You will throw a digital clock in your mother’s face after it takes you two hours to show her how to set the alarm.
  19. You will notice your mother no longer wears her hair curled.
  20. You will wonder why your mother’s house isn’t as tidy as it used to be.
  21. You will watch her eyes fading to gray.
  22. You will know something isn’t right.
  23. But it can’t be.
  24. She’s overmedicated.
  25. Too much cholesterol medication.
  26. Sleep apnea.
  27. You will take her for a neurological exam that she fails miserably.
  28. Another year.
  29. You will admit your mom to a psych ward after she panics when she can’t make the babies their bottles.
  30. You will pray with every molecule of your being that it’s not that.
  31. You will see her on visitation day and watch the looks of pity from the suicidals.
  32. You will consult with the resident psychologist who says it can’t be that because she’s too young.
  33. Further observations are needed.
  34. More tests should be ordered.
  35. Time will tell.
  36. You will force your mother to retire and give up driving.
  37. You will tell her she can finally do everything she’s always wanted to do.
  38. You will lie. Over and over again.
  39. You will try to explain over the phone for 20 minutes how to microwave a burrito.
  40. You will visit and watch a children’s cartoon because your mother says that’s all she can find on TV.
  41. You will help your mother pack away 37 years of her life as a daycare provider.
  42. You will give your mom books to read because reading is good for her.
  43. You will realize she can’t get through a full page without forgetting what she just read.
  44. You will call Mayo Clinic.
  45. You will notice your mother is no longer wearing makeup.
  46. You will dust off her car parked in her garage.
  47. You will take her to a restaurant and have to order for her and explain how to cut her food.
  48. You will get 20 phone calls in one hour asking about a cable television bill.
  49. You will lose your cool.
  50. Over and over.
  51. After every test is performed.
  52. After your mother gets lost walking down a hallway to the bathroom on the 8th Floor of Mayo Clinic.
  53. After they say her brain has atrophied so much that they can’t tell what it is.
  54. After the neurologist says it’s statistically most likely to be Alzheimer’s.
  55. After the nurse educator calms your fears.
  56. It’s sporadic.
  57. It won’t happen to you or your brother.
  58. Have you gotten Power of Attorney.
  59. You need to talk about assisted living.
  60. After the ride home.
  61. After your mother says she doesn’t feel safe alone.
  62. After you try and try and try to hold off the inevitable.
  63. After the pleas to social workers for help.
  64. After the Medicaid denials.
  65. After the family tells you you’re not doing enough.
  66. After you started drinking a bottle of wine a night.
  67. After you throw dishes and punch the wall.
  68. After you cry and cry and cry.
  69. After your mother says Meals on Wheels is gross.
  70. After your boyfriend says one more breakdown and it’s over.
  71. After you say you’re a fierce advocate for Alzheimer’s research even though you feel like a weak coward.
  72. After you decide to sell your mother’s house.
  73. After the POA papers are signed.
  74. After your mother moves in with you.
  75. After the first time you have to help her in the shower and realize she’s not wiping her anus.
  76. After you call her a child.
  77. After you throw a baby doll at her and say she’s worthless.
  78. After you shame her.
  79. Over and over.
  80. And you cry and you cry.
  81. And rage and rage.
  82. After you watch your mother put a sock over her boot.
  83. After you help her curl her hair and put makeup on.
  84. After you read her horoscope to her and know whatever it says can’t be true.
  85. After you tell her she’s getting an “apartment.”
  86. After you sell the house and use all the money for assisted living.
  87. After you put your mom in a home with 90 year olds.
  88. After you decorate her room but you know it doesn’t matter to her what it looks like; it matters to you.
  89. After the first holidays she doesn’t know it was the holidays.
  90. After the nights and days worried every time you forget someone’s name.
  91. After you realize your mother is thriving in her new “apartment.”
  92. After it settles down you realize.
  93. More changes are coming.
  94. More questions and forgetting is inevitable.
  95. More grief and pain and rage.
  96. But before things change more.
  97. Before it gets worse you spend as much time with your mother as you can.
  98. Before she no longer recognizes you.
  99. Before the long, long goodbye is finally just goodbye.
  100. Right now this one word has changed your life forever: dementia.

Do you know how to KISS?

For those of you who know me personally or if you follow me at deskchef, you know that I like cooking vegetarian and vegan food. One of my biggest inspirations happens to be the gals at The Post-Punk Kitchen. In their print cookbook, “Veganomicon,” they write about the KISS method of cooking. If you haven’t heard of it, KISS stands for “Keep it Simple, Stupid,” which is a technique they largely embrace in many of their recipes.

The KISS method is not a new one, however, nor is it exclusive to cooking technique. A quick Google search for KISS brings back several results, including a historical account that claims it originated as a concept in the 1960s for Navy officers who felt keeping flight plans simple would ultimately produce the best results. Much like a simple yet robust marinara requires less than five ingredients, apparently smart Naval strategy is also simple yet well-planned. I think that’s pretty smart.

As a copywriter for a large health care entity, I often receive elaborate, overly complicated brand strategies that outline key messages in a way that is about as useful as a map without cardinal directions. It’s a case of clients and stakeholders wanting to do too much with very little. Have you ever seen a movie preview that’s so detailed it left you feeling like you already saw the movie? Or what about “that girl” who wears so much makeup she probably has to chisel her foundation off with a mallet and ice pick?

These are unfortunate cases that likely would benefit from simplification. As a cardinal rule when it comes to branding and messaging, KISS is also an invaluable method. Good, effective ad copywriting, whether it’s print, radio, television or digital, is always simple, with even the most unnavigable strategy stripped down to the fundamentals. For new and veteran writers, knowing how to KISS is part of the challenge – and fun – of writing for advertising. But how does it work, and what can you do to get better at simplifying complex messaging?

1. Cook up different ways to present complicated strategy with simple messaging. Write down the recipe. Cook it. Chew on the meat. Spit out the fat. You’ll be left with a leaner message that’s simple, clean and effective.

2. Study billboards. A major rule to billboard writing, of course, is that you  have less than three seconds to get your message across to passing vehicles. I suggest studying billboards because of this. They’re the leanest messaging medium when they are executed smartly. Before you stick your knife into it, remember that your call to action will likely take up half your allotted messaging space. It’s like the starch portion of your meal: filling yet nutritionally important.

3. Read poetry. I may have a particular affinity for this creative medium since I have a master’s in poetry, but working in this genre taught me to choose the best, most refined words for expression and effect. In particular, I’d suggest Emily Dickinson for her crafty simplicity. Metaphor at its chewiest.

4. Ask for the recipe. Brand managers know the clients likely more than you will as the writer on a campaign, especially if you’re not part of important strategic planning. Of course it’s always valuable to have the ad writer at certain planning meetings with clients, it’s not always possible and is often an unfortunate oversight. If you ask for the key message “recipe,” whether it’s notes from a meeting or a quick huddle with the brand strategist, knowing the ingredients that became part of the overall recipe will provide you with great context as you begin to cook down the messaging.

5. Let it simmer. But don’t overcook. There’s a reason the Italians cook their pasta al dente. Al dente pasta is always firmer, tastier and chewier than overcooked noodles. Knowing when your message is ready for consumption comes with practice. Simply by working in different media will teach you when your writing has reached the right consistency.

Of course, a lot of the rules seem a little obvious once you chew on them for a while. But isn’t that the goal of learning how to KISS? Just like kissing in real life: the first one is always awkward and you’re not sure you’re doing it right. But after a little practice, it begins to feel natural and oh so tasty!

Sleepiphanies and Writemares

Last night around two in the morning, I woke up with a gazillion writing ideas funneling through my semi-conscious mind. Creative ideas. The kind that I hadn’t had in a long time. I thought up several blog post topics, fodder for a short story and even a few lines for a new mediocre poem.

Unfortunately, I didn’t write these amazing ideas down, a fatal detail that would leave my well-meaning, practical-minded writing mentors very disappointed.

I didn’t write my ideas down, everyone. Do you know what that means? I fell back asleep, and when I woke up, my Man Booker Prize-winning novel was  like a distant dream. Mere dust in the attic of my mind.

Because a large part of my job requires me to be creative all the time, I don’t always have enough energy left over at the end of the day to work on other projects that are near and dear to my heart. So when – what I call sleepiphanies – hit me in the dead of the night, I intend to jot my ideas down and comb through them when I’m more awake in the morning.

Emphasis on intend to jot down.

There’s something about sleepiphanies that don’t seem to incite enough wakefulness in me to seek out pen and paper. I leave a notepad and a pen on the bedside table for those times when I am awake enough to scribble down my thoughts. Probably a good third of my MFA thesis was written this way, half awake in the darkness of my bedroom. But the real world happened, and along with it the job that slowly started eating up the kind of creative time I carved out for myself during graduate school.

My once-coveted sleepiphanies are beginning to feel more like writemares because I’m just not listening to them. And I’ve had it. So I’ve developed a series of steps that will hopefully encourage me (and you) to not just roll over and go back to sleep, but to listen to those sleepiphanies and write them down in a fully awake state. I’m calling it: The Lonna Whiting Method to Conquering Writemares and Embracing the (Un)Common Sleepiphany.

Here we go.

The Lonna Whiting Method to Conquering Writemares and Embracing the (Un)Common Sleepiphany

NOTE: All exercises must be performed at the moment you are awake enough to think to yourself: “Oooh, that’s a good idea, I should write that down.”

1.  Sit upright in bed and bite tongue. Grab sheet of paper – first thought, best thought. Find Kleenex. Dab bleeding tongue.

2. Roll over onto sleeping partner. Awaken and anger him/her. Use guilt as fuel for wakefulness. Grab pillow to defend self from angry elbows. Locate paper and pen. Write.

3. Roll off bed. Hit floor. Use pain as creative motivation.

And …

4. Sleep one less hour a night. Use time to write more. Understand there’s only so much time. Conquer time to make time. To think, create and write.

Which technique will you try the next time a sleepiphany hits you?

Existential Influenza

Today I stayed home from work because I’m sick.

I don’t have the flu, a stomach bug, a sore throat, a headache, or even a hangnail for that matter. In fact, I’m feeling pretty physically sound. But when I woke up around 7:15 to the dull gray curtain of winter creeping open to reveal an overcast daylight, I took one turn in the sheets and said, “Today, this ain’t gonna happen.”

About five minutes later, I got on the email train and alerted my colleagues at the office that I was “not feeling well and wouldn’t be in today.” I wasn’t lying. I didn’t feel well in a way that most people would call “A case of the Mondays.” Most people would have enough gumption to get themselves out of the damn sheets and face the day like only consumerist, capitalist middle Americans can. But the last thing on my mind this morning was how I could work harder so I could spend more. What was on my mind, however, is how I could do less and feel less guilt. Because of course, the minute I emailed my boss, a cloud of guilt moved its way over my soul, similar to that feeling you get when you have to say no to your mother when she asks you to go shopping with her.

Kevin was up making his morning smoothie when I came downstairs and told him: “I’m not doing today. I’m going back to bed.” He turned around silently and threw an empty bag of frozen peaches in the garbage, which I noticed was nearing full. In a futile attempt to make myself useful (because isn’t that all we ever want in life – to feel useful?), I began to pull the swelling garbage out of the bin. Just at that moment, however, Kevin approached me in a halting yet gentle manner, grabbed the garbage and said, “If you’re going to take the day off, you’re going to take the day off.” Was he being sarcastic? Ironic? Or was he just being insensitive?

“Fine then, I won’t bother you,” I stammered away in my UGG slippers and made my way up the stairs and back to bed.

Surely it’s a coincidence that my existential flu hit on a dreary Monday morning. I’m no less prone to feeling this way on a rather insignificant day of the week, say Tuesday, but one thing’s for sure: I gave into my need to stay away from people. From work. I didn’t get out of my pajamas. I read “The Subtle Knife,” the second book in Philip Pullman’s fantastical His Dark Materials trilogy. I made toast and spread it lavishly with real butter, then ate it. I took a nap. I knit the second in a set of legwarmers for my niece. I read three issues of The New Yorker that I’d been neglecting for weeks. I balanced my checkbook. Snuggled with the cats. Pondered my existence.

It was healing.

Later today, I realized that when Kevin refused my assistance at the garbage can earlier in the day, he wasn’t being sarcastic, ironic or insensitive. He was merely stating the obvious: If I’m going to go through the effort of essentially paying myself to stay home (salary. PTO.) then I might as well do absolutely nothing I would normally do on a Monday, which is work, stress out, work some more, go to the gym, come home and prepare to do it all again the next day. I broke the pattern of my work life, and it feels great.

Am I super excited to get back to work tomorrow? Not really. Am I glad I just said no to today? Yes. Am I still feeling guilty on the meetings I missed and the assistance I could have given had I been present in the office? Of course. Once a consumerist capitalist, always a consumerist capitalist.

Today and the days like this I am surely to experience in the future, they are a dilemma of existence. They remind me that I am wholeheartedly a contradiction in character and action. I work hard like I have since I was 11 years old. But I want you to stay away from me every once in a while. I love writing as a job, but don’t tell me it’s wrong to just hate it sometimes, too.

Tomorrow will be my Monday on a Tuesday. People at work will ask me if I’m feeling better, and I promise myself not to lie. Instead of feigning a cough or hoarse voice, I’m just going to tell them the truth. That I hated even the idea of facing them, but now I’m over it. I’m ready for the work week. I’m ready to work more so I can spend more. So I can do it all over again next Monday. And so I can do it all over again on the hundreds of other work Mondays I’m certain to face in the future.

Are you a Non-Writer Writer?

Here’s what I know.

I know how to use a calculator to balance my checkbook, but that doesn’t make me an accountant.

I know I’m pretty handy with the mirror and a flashlight when examining moles for discoloration or suspicious changes, but I’m no dermatologist.

I also know there’s very little else that irks a writer more than when non-writers think they know how to write.

What’s a non-writer writer, you ask? Non-writer writers are a specific type of person, and they are often colleagues and even close friends to people like me, a writer writer. Non-writers have these funny little character traits in common with one another. They think they are writers even if they aren’t, which of course is like me calling myself a sports medicine doctor because I wrapped my boyfriend’s sprained ankle once.

Who is a Non-Writer Writer?

A non-writer writer has a writing need and follows up a meeting with a ten-page pdf email attachment outlining the project with “suggested copy.”

A non-writer writer is known to say: “I’m no writer, but …” and then continue to talk about what they would have done.

A non-writer writer will spend a whole week on one draft of a project proposal, the approximate time it would take an actual writer to draft five proposals and still have time for lunch and a nap.

A non-writer writer has never faced 40 hours a week navigating Microsoft Word exclusively.

A non-writer writer can’t make farm equipment, rectal exams or taxes seem exciting and compelling.

Now that I’ve briefly outlined who a non-writer writer is, perhaps you’ve identified with this personality a little more than you thought you would. Please don’t be offended. I’m not offended when people tell me I’m not an accountant or dermatologist! It’s perfectly fine to be a non-writer writer; the cure is simple: Next time you’re itching to say: “I’m no writer, but …” don’t say it at all, and let the writer writer in the room do what she does best: write.

Perched on the corner of a blank page

Here’s what I’m staring at right now.

Screen Shot 2013-01-17 at 11.03.01 AMYep, a blank page. It’s been like that for about ten minutes now. The cursor blinks at me like a Do Not Walk sign on an empty street. I’m standing at the corner of that street and obeying the signal, even though there’s not a chance in hell that anything bad could happen if I just go for it. Make my move. Cross the street. Cross it already! Write that first goddamn sentence, even if it’s the shittiest thing ever to be typed on a computer in the history of all computer typing!

But I just won’t budge. Eventually this page needs to be filled with inspiring copy that’s suppose to encourage moms-to-be to choose Dr. X over Dr. Y because Dr. X has a better team …

Screen Shot 2013-01-17 at 11.28.44 AM

Get the cliches out of the way … and a little inappropriateness. Chuckle. Delete.

Repeat.

There’s not much I can do when I have writer’s block. Others have told me to get up and go for a walk, but when I do that I just find myself loitering by the break room in the off-chance that there will be free food. I try listening to relaxing music but then I start falling asleep. Music with vocals are out of the picture because then I start writing copy that sounds like the song I’m listening to at the moment. I’ve tried free writing. Foot tapping. Self-massage. Pinterest. Facebook. Googling mysterious illnesses. I’ve tried calling other writer friends for inspiration and encouragement. I’ve tried just staring at the white void of the blank page in front of me as the minutes make me older.

Time. Is there any worse enemy?

Actually, time isn’t all that bad. Eventually I’ll get somewhere. I’ll imagine Dr. X is this heroic OB/GYN character who is so awesome at delivering babies he can do it drunk using only his left foot. I’ll pretend the delivery room is a magical palace where moms and dads get to sip on mimosas and when the nurse calls out “PUSH,” all the mom has to do is toot and out pops baby.

Yep, time is my good buddy. Time gives me free reign to imagine whole new worlds, make up people who can do anything I will them to do. Time makes me work harder – or not hard at all – depending on the deadline, which in this case is tight. But it doesn’t matter, really. I’m going to cross the street. I’ll get to the other side eventually. I’m no chicken. All I need is a little time.

Don’t come here if you’re looking for advice

Hi there. This is my first post on my second blog ever. It’s going to be entirely devoted to all things writing, editing, creative and inspiring. I hope you visit and visit often because I’m going to rock your universe with poetry, prose and performance.

The first order of business is to tell you that I’m not going to offer you writing advice. So if you’re looking for advice or if you’re asking yourself at this very moment “What would Lonna do?” it’s going to be a while until you hear back from me.

The second order of business is to tell you that I’m going to show you good writing. And I’m going to tell you why it’s good writing, because in showing you this you will no longer need to ask “What would Lonna do?” Likely if I’ve posted something, I find it of value as a learning tool that we can discuss together. I think we can learn a lot from each other, don’t you?

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