book review: While the City Slept Eli Sanders

I just finished Eli Sanders’ While the City Slept, a book about the Seattle murder of Teresa Butz in 2009, by a young man whose mental illness fell through the cracks of the health care system until it was too late. Or so that’s how the story is approached.

Sanders organizes the story into chapters about the background of each involved person’s life. This includes the lives of the murderer, Isaiah Kalebu, his victims, Teresa Buts and Jeniffer Hopper, their respective parents, siblings, and others. These chapters are detailed, descriptive and often exhibit astounding similarities between the victims’ and killer’s life. But other than that, these descriptions are fairly long, unnecessary and beg for empathy where it already exists. It seemed unfitting also that I should care so deeply about a man capable of committing ruthless murder.

Sanders takes his time elaborating of Kalebu’s life long struggle of his parents’ difficult relationship, his father’s abuse and his sudden mental deterioration which leads him to commit the ultimate crime. Or was that it? There are certain stated doubts about Kalebu’s mental deterioration. Some doctors firmly believed he wasn’t even mentally ill. His diagnosis as bipolar never seems to have fit the bill and was hotly contested. Some medical professionals believed he was a manipulative narcissist who corroborated whatever situation to fit his own needs. For instance, more time was spent on figuring out whether he was fit to stand trial than the trial itself. The way it is told, this wasn’t just a legal defense strategy, but an actual concern: Kalebu would often pull tricks out of his hat right before having to appear before a judge. He’d be cool and collected before a judge, until he heard something that didn’t please his overestimated ego and intelligence. For this alone, it just didn’t seem fitting that this was the best example to use in order to demonstrate a failing mental health care system. The only evidence that could otherwise contest this is the fact that Kalebu was advised several times to get mental health help throughout his life. But to me, these are go-to strategies for any “too quiet,” “a little strange,” “private” person. He didn’t have a violent, crime ridden past. His run ins with the police and the state were about his parents’ fights and his mother’s accidentally burning him with a cigarette when he was a baby. Not exactly clear examples of how the state failed  him. Absolutely no one could’ve ever predicted he’d be violent. Is that one of the main points of the book? Maybe?

Sanders spends so much time elaborating on Kalebu, that I began to wonder what the story was really about. The details that took places of the night of the murder are not revealed until the very end, when the surviving victim, Hopper, testifies in court. The court scenes are so brief, that if this were a novel, I’d have thrown it away. Everything anyone really cared about is in the court scenes. WTF happened is the question you are asking yourself the entire time, and truthfully, I read the book primarily to find that out.

Initially, the reader is told that there was a murder and then 250+ pages later, the reader is told what happened, whether there was a motive, and how the killer and his victim were related. To that end, the story leaves an unforgettable chill. There was no relation, there was no motive, there was no preplan to find the women and rape and kill them. So, it seemed like the story was about an over indulgent individual who needed all the attention in the world and committed the crime of all crimes. Coming up with a story about how problematic mental health care is in the United States seemed just a way to pad up the overall hundreds of pages of unnecessary information in this book.

While the City Slept is a frustrating read.  Although some light is shed on the health care system in the state of Washington and nation wide, it seems to spend more time on the life of the killer whose pieces of life make no sense to his crime, or to his readers. The books’ primary success is a shallow exhibition of the complexity of mental health and a seemingly hopeless health care system that provides no adequate solutions.



talking to trump supporters: what you think as ‘giving up’ is our best strategy

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It has not been four full weeks since the 2016 election and November 7th couldn’t feel further away. On November 7th, I believed I understood my role as a naturalized citizen of the US. I believed I understood the country in which I lived and had a grasp of what my responsibilities towards this country were. November 8th changed that. The realization that I have decidedly been living in a naïve New York City bubble shocked and hurt me more than I could express. For me, and many of us who feel screwed over by the Trump win, the question going forward is what is our responsibility now? After the explosion of our liberal bubble, what role must we embody in the next four years? In the past 26 days, I’ve mourned, grieved and tapped into an inconceivable anger. I live in a racist, terrifying place, I said to myself. My friends all over are feeling similarly. But this resignation just won’t cut it. For myself and all of us, this election doesn’t just signal the overwhelming responsibility to get involved in our government, and reshape the democratic party but to woman up and hear out the other side.

The challenge to do this came quicker than I thought. A week after the election, my sister, our girlfriend and I went to a bar to watch my football team get dismantled by a divisional opponent. We were all looking forward to getting a few hours break from infusing our brains with articles and repeatedly seeing our worst political fears take shape.

As we headed towards a bar in the neighborhood I ran into one of the two people I defriended on Facebook during the presidential campaign. I couldn’t tolerate the Trump support and had no patience to talk myself into accepting different perspectives. The story about ex Facebook friend 1 is simple: we knew each other long ago. I always thought he was a misguided little jerk, so the defriending was a no brainer. The story about the guy I ran into at the bar runs deeper and hurts more.

My family and I immigrated to the US from Bosnia during the war that ravaged my homeland. The Serbian goal was to ethnically cleanse Bosnian Muslims who have had a home there for hundreds of years. Twenty years after the end of combat (do wars ever “end”?) mass graves are still being discovered. The entirety of my being is shaped by these events. So, I didn’t need a Trump win to vow that I’d try to be as educated and as tolerant as possible. I saw first hand what happens during a war. It’s disgusting and incomprehensible and worst or best of all, unforgettable.

When my family arrived to the US, my twin sister and I were enrolled in third grade. We were little and scared, and didn’t speak English. One afternoon in school, when I broke out into a rash, the teachers called down the one kid they knew would be able to translate directions. He was a Serbian kid two years older than us. He was polite and kind and although we were afraid to trust him, we had no choice. He spoke a common language and was perhaps the only kid who might really understand who we were.

Since we lived in the same neighborhood, we found each other not only in elementary school, but also middle and high school. On a few occasions, in high school, we attended his wild house parties. During college, when we’d come back home and go out, we’d see him hanging out at local bars. We were always pleasant. All of us. We found a friendship, mainly because of his humorous and infectiously charming demeanor. Unlike the rest of his family, he was born in the US, which made him somewhat removed from the war and all the terrible events we personally endured. But in all manners of trauma, we were never to forget that we were Muslim Bosnians and his people wanted to destroy us.

I hugged him and said hello. He did the same. We walked into the bar.

I said, “Listen, I defriended you from Facebook. I couldn’t deal with your Trump garbage anymore.”

He laughed and said, “Hey, I don’t blame you.” He offered to buy the three of us drinks. We accepted and cracked jokes. He avoided politics, as did we. Football was on, and for a while, we all wanted to keep it light.

An hour later, his friends joined him. I learned that including our friend, three of them were from Serbia. Then, it inevitably happened. Someone mentioned Trump, someone mentioned Hillary and we got into it. I can’t lie. I wanted to talk about it, too.

It turns out all of them voted for Trump. For me, the layer of differences in ethnicity and choice for president choked me. It’s like asking a Jew who lived in Germany to talk to a German her own age 20 years after WWII and the German had just voted for a fascist. For most people, this is an unimaginable situation.

I couldn’t defriend my way out of this. I started a conversation and they all willingly participated.

Why did you vote for Trump? I asked calmly.
My friend said, My paycheck will be higher. And that was the first and last real contribution he made to the discussion.
One said, Jobs.
Another, Lobbyists.
Then a voice said, We should get our industry back.
I did not understand how we could live in Queens and cry about how there isn’t enough jobs or industry. I said, What do you mean industry? We live in New York.

I was met with, Look at Detroit. Those people have nothing.

Anyone would’ve classified this as empathy. I honored it. Although I couldn’t comprehend this, because to me getting educated, seeking skilled labor and progress seemed like the natural direction, not this. But, admittedly, I wasn’t aware of this need or this desire. In all of my following of Clinton’s campaign, I don’t recall her truly addressing it.

I said, What if Clinton asked for our industry back as theatrically as Trump, Would you have voted for Clinton? They all said no. One of the guys said, She would be just the same as Obama and we need a change from that.

I couldn’t understand. Obama has been a great president.

At the bar, there were tons of responses. But nobody once mentioned Trump’s harsh comments on women, Muslims or immigrants.
Some guys got stuffy, and went for a smoke. My elementary school friend didn’t contribute much to the conversation. In fact, he kept trying to divert from it and tell me about his new job. I admired that he didn’t get involved, mostly because it was easier to talk to complete strangers than someone we knew well.
Then one of his friends approached me and said, We are Serbian. I don’t want Muslims coming here burning my American flag. And we can list a bunch of reasons why we don’t want Hillary in the House but mostly it’s because Bill Clinton ordered the attack on Serbia.

I wanted to scream. I haven’t burned a single flag. And having endured what we did, Bosnians will tell you they wish that attack came sooner. The NATO bombing came towards the end of the conflict. It impeded the Bosnian’s army in their progress. It was an involvement that could’ve saved thousands upon thousands of lives had it come earlier. But there was no winning here. We were all victims of a tragedy.

I said, I understand how you feel. My family came here because of that war. We never burned a single flag and we’ve been living peacefully here for over two decades. He looked at me and my sister and nodded. He didn’t want to be hurtful or offensive and neither did we. After all, we were all children when the war began. And we all came to the US as children. We took the teachings of our parents seriously. We must’ve all experienced terrible things. At heart, there was nothing that could change who we were. These views were engrained in our DNA. So no one would try because here we were concerned over our new homeland. One that accepted all of us and gave us an opportunity for a peaceful life.

But that’s part of the insane conundrum. We carry our trauma everywhere we go. And how we decided to act on it in life always roots us back to whatever hurt us the most. Although we represent a minuscule fraction of the voters in the US, there isn’t a doubt that we vote out of our personal dissatisfactions, our hopes and traumas.

However, despite my brain shockingly entering in it’s 2.0 version, it is still my undoubted understanding that our traumas can live parallel with our hopes for a peaceful future.

I kept returning to these questions in my mind: What do we embody after the election? Who are we as a country?

 I asked their thoughts on Trump’s immigration policy and his view on women. What I learned is that these guys weren’t worried at all. They don’t believe Trump is a threat to women, regardless of his words and actions. They also believe strongly that undocumented people shouldn’t be here. We cannot begin a conversation on the depth of sexism and racism if these notions are entirely denied.

During our conversation, there were many words but there was almost an equal amount of silence.  And some, I’d hope was for consideration. But, the danger of Trump’s words and actions was consistently down played. Is turning a blind eye to this reality for the sake of personal comfort worth it? Yes. Obviously it is. If Hillary had won, I’d have stayed in my bubble without knowing of its inevitable, massive collapse at some coming point down the line.

So, what next? I don’t want to use the overused, unapproachable word “dialogue. “ But Dialogue. I am afraid of whatever will come next, but I know I can’t sit back and pretend like it’s not happening. If there is a moral to this story it’s this: living in a bubble is a dangerous way to live. Denying that massive mis-education exists is a dangerous way to live. Arguing with people who already have something against you is a dangerous way to live. I don’t know about you but I know I have to try to understand these folks. It’s the only realistic way we could begin to work to reshape the Democratic party so that it’s not as out of touch as this election has proven it to be. I know there are things I need to learn and others I have to admit forcefully:

For one, there is a clear us and them. I am suddenly sickened by all of the liberal arts school round table discussions we had as we sang Kumbaya and said we were all one people.
Secondly, we carry our trauma everywhere we go. The solution to that may not exist, but (thirdly,) we have to talk to each other like people. I thought that regardless of the fact that no one was swayed in opinion, our bar conversation was civil. We all kept our cool, which, given our set of differences was a MASSIVE success.

“They” won and that means “they” have to be heard. So, part of the answer to the question of what to do next is adding to our list of responsibilities. Paying attention to minority groups and women and fighting for our rights, and paying attention to the majority and figuring out how the hell to expose and educate them. This might feel like giving up to you, but I confidently believe this is our best strategy.

Now, the liberal bubble folk have to do what all women do daily in the workplace: Get Liked or Die Trying. Because there’s no way we’ll ever make our point across if we continue to live in our bubble and pretend like common sense is common for all.



What is Ramadan?

IMG_7281Many folks don’t know much about Ramadan, an important holy month for Muslims. It is more than just a holiday, it’s a month long exploration of self, strengthening of will power, and realization of faith.

Ramadan is the 9th month of the Islamic calendar. It is believed to be the month the holy book, Qur’an, was revealed. It is considered a blessed month where the gates of heaven are open, and the gates of hell closed.

This year, Ramadan began on the evening of June 5th which means Muslims all over the world began their fast on, or around June 6th. Because the Islamic calendar is based on the lunar cycle, Ramadan moves back about 10 or 11 days every year. Next year, Ramadan is most likely to begin on or around May 27th, and it lasts approximately 30 days.

To many people, fasting seems like an extreme practice. A fasting Muslim cannot eat, drink or engage in sexual activity from sunrise to sundown for these 30 days. This includes abstaining from chewing gum, using nasal spray or smoking.

Ramadan is intended as a month of depravation for the purpose of realigning priorities, giving to charity, empathizing with the millions of people around the globe who have nothing to eat, and enhancing a sense of spirituality.

There are many questions observing Muslims are asked during this time: how does this increase your sense of spirituality? Isn’t abstaining from all your needs dangerous and unhealthy? Do you lose a lot of weight?

Firstly, fasting is good for the body. It detoxes and cleanses the body. It helps people quit nasty habits like smoking or (believe it or not!) biting their nails.

Secondly, fasting makes you realize just how much you eat during the day—how your entire life somehow revolves around food. When will you eat? What will you eat? Where will you go to eat? When you’re bored, you’re generally snacking, or drinking something. Unless you’ve had the experience of a day long fast, it’s almost impossible to sum up just how much thinking about/working around food and eating we all do on a daily basis. Suddenly, there is all this time. To read, to walk, sleep, talk to people, and reflect.  Who are you without eating? Can you plan outings without surrounding them with food and drink? Can you socialize? And the most important question: can you be happy, calm and patient without snacking on something each time you’re bored, sad or nervous?

Believe it or not, one’s mood and overall emotional balance is the most challenging part of abstaining from digesting anything. But, people who fast must stay calm and positive.  It is worthless to fast and be a nasty jerk all month—that’s not exactly a spiritual experience. And secondly, one simply doesn’t want to spend the energy on anger and deep sadness when each calorie of energy should be spent on more important things like focusing at work, and entertaining yourself all day. Those who must be medicated for any serious illness and disease are excused from fasting.

In general, individuals who fast don’t lose weight during Ramadan. Some actually gain weight because the excitement of eating sugar at iftar, the “dinner” of Ramadan, is really great but the lack of activity ensures that this unburned fat will find a home in the body.

Many wonder whether going without water during a long day is difficult. But, without eating, the necessity for drink isn’t as great. No individual who is fasting is encouraged to exercise or engage in heavy activities during Ramadan. And importantly, fasting is not for the ill, elderly or very young. It is pardoned for those who travel, who have jobs that require a lot of physical activity and so on. These folks have to donate a certain amount to charity in order to fulfill this religious requirement.

Overall, Ramadan is a month of calmness and serenity. Keeping a balanced emotional state is really important. Fasting teaches  you patience because no matter what, you have to wait until the sun sets to eat. It also teaches you that there are so few things as important as your basic needs. For those of us living with the luxury of knowing we have a meal waiting for us at the end of the day, our daily troubles seem so insignificant. Boyfriend mad at you? Who cares! You’ll get to eat at sundown. Job stressing you out? Who cares! You’ll get to eat at sundown.
Life seems unpredictable and hectic? So what? You’ll get to eat at sundown!

There is a sweet and special tradition Muslims engage in during this month. Iftar isn’t the only time they get together to eat with their families. This also happens at suhur, the pre-dawn meal. Individuals who fast wake up before dawn, to drink water, perhaps take vitamins and eat a light meal. If it’s a practice done with a group or even on one’s own, it turns out to be a really intimate, and special time. If you’re wondering whether this disturbs the sleep cycle a little, the answer is yes. But hey, waking up to eat isn’t a sacrifice. It’s a privilege of those who have food to wake up to.

There are millions of people around the world who do not have the comfort of knowing when or if they will eat. Ramadan asks Muslims to put their best foot forward, give to the needy, exercise their own will and stay moderate and humble. Ramadan teaches us to accept that life is difficult, but that there are so few things to really worry about.






I need this letter rushed if something should happen
If a gust of wind should break all the windows of your favorite museum
If cells should secretly multiply in your body without you knowing
If your baby falls ill and dies without explanation
If an artery betrays you
If there is a tingle in your wrist and your diagnosis is to deflate
If you lose your sight and forget the faces of all you love
If your lover leaves you for a taller younger version of you
If a flood should wash your house of all its memories
If you forget the meanings of words and can no longer read
I hope this letter gets to you in time or before time or at the right time
Or any time you are before fear
I urge you do not spend your life preparing


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Two weeks ago, I posted a poem called to live, about a friend who was diagnosed with secondary liver cancer. Since, he has passed and his journey continues in a better place.

I was only brave enough to see him once during his short illness. I can’t say the experience didn’t shake me. I haven’t written or posted anything in weeks because I’ve been left without many words. This gentleman was a father of three and a grandfather of three. He was always vibrant and happy when he saw me. When I close my eyes, and think of the last time I saw him, my mind immediately switches that image to the man sitting on his front porch, happily receiving my visits with open arms. I’ve done my best to remember him in this light, and not the stranger I saw when he was ill.

I’ve wanted this blog to be a sophisticated one, full of articles and thoughts, mostly on current events, along with some poetry and free prose. I break that today because I feel the idea has confined me. I’ve done enough confining of myself, adapting to standards, adjusting and conforming like all of us, out of necessity. Today, I decided, at least here, I shouldn’t do that. I’d rather be honest and free than read widely.


to live

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To live

I take breaks from writing.
Usually, more time than I’d like
I think about how someone said to me
you need to live.
I still don’t know what to think of that.
Almost everything I live becomes a kind of story
I convince myself
that I am storing for old age
For an extraordinary memoir that will change lives
and keep me in the memory of many people
as a hero
who ate cereal in the morning
and never soaked the bowl.
The hero who, when washing the bowl said,
tomorrow, I will soak the damn bowl.
Tomorrow had to come.

Last week, I visited an old friend
frail, thin, cancer having swallowed his body,
he didn’t have enough energy to move his eyes.
In my mind, I described the scene;
the gatorade waiting for him, the Ensure shakes,
the rosary above his bed and the way his pajama pants
exposed his old, dry, white legs.

When I got home, I wrote about
how he sat on his porch, greeted me with a hug,
and told me about how he’s replaced the front steps,
and how they’re now made of marble instead of concrete.



A Body Image Story: Stepping into the light

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What haven’t you already read about nutrition, weight gain, weight loss and the ensuing side effects of all of these changes?

The hard truth is, every one of us has something to say about his or her body. What we’re all particularly excellent at doing is pointing out whatever we feel is “wrong.” There is nothing more verbally abused than the human body. And what a damn shame that is.

Since I was a child, I’ve struggled with my body image. At the very least, I wish I had the satisfaction of knowing that this is a rarity in our western culture; That I am somehow the exception. I also wish that bodies stories were simpler. That I could say I grew up, and grew wiser and that with that wisdom came some peace about my image. Well, I grew up and wiser but that peace never came.

Take this with no grain of salt: a healthy body is the kind of body everyone should aspire to have. Instead of asking you to be kinder to your body, I am going to ask you to be kinder to your head.

I have believed for so long that if I lost weight, if I had more muscular arms and legs and a firmer abdomen, I would somehow crawl out of my negative-body-image-space and into the light. That I would feel good about myself, feel worthy.

How disappointed I was, then, that during a period of my life where I lost 50 pounds, I felt better in the clothes I was wearing but the authentic peace for which I searched didn’t come. I lived in agony and insecurity over potentially gaining the weight back. I lived in such a controlled state that I had turned my brain into the Mr. Hyde of confidence.

The story goes on. There’s always more to a weight loss story and a weight gain story and whatever other story there is. But the point is, if you’re someone who needs a serious turn around in your body image, you already know exactly what you have to do. You know about getting yourself on the move slowly. You know that you should be eating less processed foods, more whole grains, less saturated fat and less sugar. This isn’t news to you. But my advice is to

  1. Think of it as a journey that continues through the good, the bad and the ugly. There is no Mondays/New Years/Next Months. There is only MINUTES. If you screw up in your journey one hour, think of the next one more positively.
  2. Realize that your health is the most important thing in your life. That without your health you won’t be able to fit into any clothes, let alone your own life.
  3. Get disciplined physically and MOST IMPORTANTLY
  4. Whenever you feel yourself sinking into the negative sink-hole-hell of negativity, bring your head out of it as soon as possible. Breathe, meditate, or force yourself to think of a positive thought. NEVER stray into self hate. It is a disgusting cycle that won’t allow you to step into the light.


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