Sunday, April 29, 2007

Does violent writing mean a student will end up like Cho Seung-Hui?

If a student writes a story of death and destruction, is it reasonable to assume he or she is capable of the type of violence Cho Seung-Hui committed at Virginia Tech?

I don’t think so. I’ve worked with hundreds of students in different writing situations. Teens are particularly moved to write stories filled with victims losing limbs and over-done descriptions of mayhem and murder. Perhaps because the teen years are filled with challenges of learning to control emotions and learning to handle a less than perfect world, it’s natural that these young writers will over-do almost any scenario. They do the same thing if they write about love. Emotion pours forth like milk spilling from an overturned carton.

The writing alone doesn’t suggest a problem. But such stories coming from a student who’s troubled, one who’s stalked other students or set a fire, are a different matter.

My daughter Jennifer Day is a Mental Health Case Coordinator working on her master’s degree in criminal justice. “For some people,” she says, "writing is a form of therapy. Some kids may express anger, but if they’re not demonstrating social issues and they have no other problems, a violent fictional story isn’t enough to indicate violent social problems. Writing exercises are used in therapy, for instance, if a child isn’t benefiting from conversational therapy.”

Cho was a different matter. For one thing, his writing wasn’t that of an angst-filled teen. Cho was 23. Cho's play, "Richard McBeef," is posted at the Web site The Smoking Gun ( As I read through the play, I realized Cho harbored a great deal of anger towards male figures. The mother figure is a sympathetic character for the teen boy in the play. The stepfather, however, is a target for ridicule, hostility and hatred—he is figuratively emasculated. The play ends with the stepfather killing the teen boy.

The Virginia Tech massacre might have been prevented, or lessened, had various people followed up on warning signs. News reports indicate Cho’s professors did everything in their power to get help for him. After stalking two female students in 2005, Cho was evaluated at a psychiatric facility. Judge Paul Barnett ruled that Cho "presents an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness.”

So what did the judge do? He recommended outpatient treatment.

The BBC and other media reported Cho once started a fire in his dormitory. Isn’t this arson? Should charges have been filed? Would such charges on Cho’s record have prohibited him from buying a gun?

I believe it is also unreasonable to assume Cho’s family members were unaware the young man was troubled.

The perplexing question is what might have actually been done? Would hospitalizing him have helped?

A close friend of mine, a man I was close to for over 20 years, suffered from bi-polar disorder. When he’d get off his medications, he could be completely delusional. One day he came to my house and begged me to type a letter for him. The recipient: Prince Charles. My friend purported to have valuable information for the British prince, information that could be a matter of life and death. I had a very hard time with him on occasions like this. I ended up typing the letter and assuring him I’d mail it for him. Of course, I didn’t.

My friend committed suicide several years later. I still think it was by the grace of God he never harmed another person. What those of us who loved him might have done to stop him is a question we still can't answer.

And I think it’s the same for a murderer like Cho. Amidst all those warning signs, what can family or society do to intervene? Would forced extended hospitalization have helped? Should charges have been filed when Cho stalked the students and when he reportedly set a fire in his room? Would any of these actions have stopped the violence Cho inflicted on others?

Students who simply write fantastic stories are not necessarily future murderers. It all has to do with the context of the student’s life in a wholistic sense.

The whole picture of Cho’s life shows many warning flags were raised. The best we can do is learn as much as possible from those who suffer as he surely did, in hopes we may avert untold suffering for innocent victims.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Four days in New York: sights, sounds, streets & writers

(From left to right) The flutist at the World Trade Center played hymns as tourists milled around. Tour guide Stan O'Connor drives a pedicab in New York.


It’s been years since I visited New York. I used to travel there monthly, when I was on the staff of a magazine with a New York consultant.

One thing I quickly remembered: a Southern accent draws comments, mostly benign, along the lines of “Is that a Southern accent?” The lovely thing about New York is that regardless of your accent or language, you don’t feel intrusive. When we visited the Empire State Building, we heard German, Chinese, and French. The loveliest accent I heard came from a woman whose Irish brogue was music to my ear.

I spent some time talking to a pedicab driver in front of our hotel. Stan O’Connor made me laugh with his first remark reminding me of Catholic jokes I heard from my Northern friends when I was in college. After introducing himself, he grinned slyly. “Bishop O’Connor was my father.”

Stan told me he meets so many different kinds of people he’s thought about writing a book. He majored in broadcast journalism in college. He’s an official New York tour guide, and he has an official “tourguideStan” video on You Tube ( I could tell he loves his work; he’s a fountain of knowledge about the city.

We visited the World Trade Center site. I’m working on a poem about it. I have to say I wasn’t prepared for the emotional reaction—maybe because I witnessed the attack by way of my TV screen—I felt someone had slapped me hard across the face. There was a flutist playing hymns like “Amazing Grace.” People of all nationalities milled around. It was a quiet place. Most everyone seemed to respond the same way you’d respond to a holy place. I’ll never forget it. If America has a Mecca, the WTC site is it.

The American Society of Journalists and Authors conference took up most of my time. If there’s one writing conference you can make it to, this is the one. I met editors and agents in person; I had appointments with two publishers and one agent about my new nonfiction book. We’ll see what comes of that.

New York is still the grand dame of cities. The cab drivers are more brutal—there was one moment I just knew our driver was going to kill a young Asian man as he rode his bike into our path (the cyclist actually had right of way). That was the only negative: having to ride in those cabs a couple of times. We walked as much as we could. We did, however, have a lovely cab driver for our ride to Kennedy airport to catch the flight back to Jax. This driver had an environmentally friendly cab that was brand new and actually clean. He was pleasant. I said prayers of thanks.

The cab drivers aren’t the only aggressive people in motion. Pedestrians scurry down the street like ants in a line. You will, if you stand for a moment, be mowed down. There’s no eye contact or saying hello as there is for passersby in the South. New York is a city where people, by necessity I suppose, focus on the interior rather than the exterior.

When we approached Jacksonville on our return flight, the sight of the green landscape was so welcoming. New York is fun to visit, but I’m too used to wide open spaces and lots of green to ever live in a concrete jungle, no matter how exciting that jungle may be. As for Florida, what's not to like?

Monday, April 23, 2007

New York City: Salute! not just a meal, it’s an experience

I took this shot when we visited the Empire State Building. You can see the form of the Statue of Liberty in the distance.

(First in a series about visiting New York for the American Society of Journalists and Authors Conference)

If you could pick one word to describe New York City, that word would be adrenalin. The cabbies run on it, pedestrians walk at an adrenalin-filled pace, and the combined noise of horns blowing, motors revving and voices speaking in diverse languages fill the air.

I was in New York last week for the ASJA conference. Those four days were packed with activity, but we managed to fit in a few hours of down time as well. The night we discovered Salute! on Madison Avenue was balm for two weary travelers.

We were looking for a place to eat, and the concierge at The Grand Hyatt recommended the Italian restaurant Salute!. We walked half a dozen blocks or so, and as soon as we were in the door, the ambience alone relaxed our tense muscles. We arrived starving. I’d had a small salad for lunch and that was the sum total of what I’d eaten all day.

The white décor, mosaic tile floor and soft lighting, with windows offering a view of Madison Avenue, set a tone that seemed in keeping with an Italian villa. Artwork hanging on the walls is curated by Leah Poller of the Art Alliance of Soho. The décor is classy, simple but elegant.

We ordered the Arneis Blange 2003 Ceretto. Our server brought out bread with a tray holding eggplant, olive oil and an anchovy spread.

We both had the Salute insalate—watercress, endive, gorgonzola, spicy pecans and pears in a champagne vinaigrette.

For my entrée, I chose the filetto di manzo—a roast filet mignon with porcini potato puree, green and yellow wax beans, and gremolata butter. My husband chose di manzo con panna—braised beef ravioli with prosciutto, wild mushrooms and cream.

After our meal, we had coffee with biscotti and a fruit plate that was presented like a work of art—fresh raspberries, strawberries and blueberries encircled in thin strips of fresh pineapple. Actually, every item brought to us was presented like a work of art.

If taste buds could dance, mine would’ve been doing a jitterbug.

All this was served by a series of experts who knew how to make us feel welcome, but were never intrusive. As we dined, the owner himself strolled throughout the restaurant, checking everything, making certain all was in order. We lingered over coffee, savoring a break in a hectic schedule. For two years, we couldn't coordinate a celebration of our wedding anniversary. We were in two different cities on that date for two years running. This evening made the wait worthwhile--we celebrated anniversary 30 and 31.

On the Web site, owner Gennaro Sbarro says, “I invite you to dine at Salute! as I would in my own home.”

That’s exactly how our evening felt. And the next time I’m in New York, I’ll head back to this fine restaurant. That evening wasn’t just a meal. It was an experience I will long remember. After our meal, we walked off some calories, taking in the sights, sounds and adrenalin that define New York City.

If you’re looking for a place to eat in Manhattan, I highly recommend Salute! I’m not a food critic, but I’ve had many meals in various parts of the world in restaurants ranked as top tier. None are better than the dining experience two weary travelers had that evening in Salute!.
Visit Salute! on the Web:

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Poet Nikki Giovanni offers Virginia Tech an embrace

I haven’t read a lot of poet Nikki Giovanni’s work. But yesterday, she read a monologue at the memorial service at Virginia Tech.

I listened as she moved through her lines with typically strong delivery—lines that addressed, in a way, tragedy as a democracy for all species. Baby elephants, African children who die of AIDS, Mexican children who lack clean water, Appalachian children who die in their cribs. Her message, basically: no one deserves tragedy.

She ended her presentation with declaratives—the final “We are Virginia Tech” eliciting chants from the crowd.

This reminded me of Billy Collins’s poem, The Names, honoring those who died on September 11:
Names written in the pale sky.
Names rising in the updraft amid buildings.
Names silent in stone
Or cried out behind a door.

You will rarely find poetry in a newspaper. You will almost never find poetry in the media that so loved verse in the 1950s, women’s magazines. If you see poetry on television, it is usually personal poetry, all feeling and very little craft.

I don’t think Giovanni’s work yesterday was so much poetry as poetic rhetoric. Ironically, that seemed to help the people as they began the grieving process. Media talked about healing. You can’t heal until you grieve. But in this instance as in thousands of others, America turned to a poet for comfort of sorts.

Why so little attention is given to poetry by the media is a puzzle I cannot solve. I just wish media covered it on joyous occasions and even routine occasions, rather than solely in times of great tragedy.

````For text and video of Giovanni's presentation, visit the blog Wilderside.
Because of a challenging schedule and travel, it’ll be hit or miss for my posts for the next 10 days. I’ll be back up to speed with blogging by May 1.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Prayer for our Troops: National Poetry Month

Prayer for Our Troops

With the setting of a hostile sun
most of us will never see,
when you might welcome dreams
if you could safely drift away,

Know your perils slip into our prayers
like footsteps behind us on a lonely street.
We may not bring our palms together;
we may pray from our kitchen or our car.

But even if we do not know your name,
in your darkest corridor we wrap
our prayers around you, like armor
shielding you with grace.
--Kay B. Day

This poem was first published at The Tank, National Review Online, in a post by W. Thomas Smith, Jr., April 6, 2007. Smith, a distinguished journalist and author, had traveled to Iraq to cover the war for a number of media, and since he's a friend, I was pretty concerned about him. He's inspired poetry before and I'm sure he will again. You can read some of Smith's words about the war in an article published at National Review and CBS News, The Emotional Roller Coaster of Combat.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Get your poems on: National Poetry Month is here

Judy Sheklin, secretary for Jacksonville’s chapter of the National Organization for Women, was my contact for the March 28 Women’s History Month reading.

One reason National Poetry Month makes me so happy is it’s something I look forward to in a month that also brings a date I dread: April 15. I despise all the paperwork that goes into filing taxes. Small comfort came this year because the filing deadline was extended due to the fact April 15 falls on a Sunday and the following day, Monday, April 16, is Emancipation Day, a legal holiday in the District of Columbia.

All I can say is FAIR TAX, PLEASE!

Anyway, poetry is a great comfort in good times and bad, so I’m always happy to see my favorite genre have a birthday. I did a column on South Carolina poet Jayne Jaudon Ferrer this week for The Writer; Jayne sends out a favorite poem to her many fans every single day in April. Check my Poetry Beat discussion thread at the Forum at The Writer; events in different states are listed there.

I did a reading last week for the Jacksonville chapter of the National Organization for Women at The Book Mark in Atlantic Beach. I had a wonderful time with these very accomplished women (and men). They served a stellar array of refreshments and wine, and we had a ball with poetry. More on that organization and their support for the Equal Rights Amendment in a future column.

Meanwhile, go read a poem. It’ll do your body and your spirit good.
To learn about the FairTax Book, visit Neal Boortz's site.
To learn more about Jax Now, visit their official site.
To learn more about my column Poetry Beat at The Writer, visit the magazine's site.
To learn more about South Carolina Poet Jayne Jaudon Ferrer, visit her site.