A Kaleidoscope Instead of a Career

Winter Fundraiser 2014, Day Five

Y’all may have noticed the increase in the number of the Baron’s posts the last day or so. That’s because the initial rush of the fundraiser has died down, and he no longer needs to stay at a dead run to keep up with acknowledgements and such. So he has more time to actually write or edit things.

Each fundraiser teaches me something about this oddest of jobs as proprietress of Gates of Vienna. At our wrap-up I’ll share the one I’m learning this time… if I remember it. One this is for sure: it was worth it to climb up here to take the long view back down to our beginnings before the beginning of the blog. While I can no longer imagine what we’d be doing if we weren’t here, I still find it hard to credit that we’re still here…

Tip jarOne of Anne Tyler’s books opens with an old lady lying in bed thinking over her life and her improbable children. She recalls an incident in which her grown daughter is looking at some photographs with her. The woman remarks that it’s a picture of herself and the daughter disagrees vehemently, repeatedly. Finally the old woman sighs and says, “All right then. It’s not me”…Sometimes I look back at the years I describe below (with so much left out) and think, “That’s not me”. Another part of me surrenders and sighs, “All right then. It’s not me…”

Turn the kaleidoscope, Harry.

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Where was I? Oh right, chasing those cows away from our bush peas.

Life in the Country

As I was to learn, an elderly neighbor’s cattle often escaped her pasture and made their way down the power line to our grass. And our herbs and vegetables, too. She was always apologetic, as were the owners of the escaped pigs who dug up the grass looking for grubs. What an unholy mess! I huffed righteously to the Baron that the owners should “pay for the damage those stupid pigs caused”. He looked at me patiently: “Those people are as poor as we are. Do you think they’d have pigs otherwise?” He had me there. I felt ashamed at first, and then as the season wore on and I saw the vast improvement in our “lawn” — it was green and lush — the lesson sunk in even more deeply.

After a period of rest and recuperation it was time to look for work. The first thing I learned was that there was no work, at least not locally. If I wanted a job it meant a commute into the university’s Human Resources Department. I was given an appointment for a typing test (never my strong suit) and spent some time practicing on the Baron’s manual typewriter. I figured it was an advantage to use the manual and then take the test on an IBM Selectric. I’d be in like Flynn for sure.

The day before the scheduled test, I spent some time mowing the yard. As a kid and then later living in the suburbs, I was always the designated mower of lawns; it was work I liked. Or rather, it was work I liked until that moment, when suddenly I was being stung repeatedly by bees. Oh the pain! I dropped the handle of the mower and ran for the house — and darned if those creatures didn’t follow me inside, continuing their attack. They found their way inside my clothes and their loud buzzy anger was every bit as bad as the repeated stings. I’d always thought bees only stung once.

The Baron knew what had happened so he helped me take off my clothing, bugs and all. He threw it outside and had me stand under a tepid shower while he methodically found each of those demons — many of them were jammed up against the windows since they’d lost scent of me. Having assured me those evil creatures were gone he coaxed me out of the shower; we dabbed each wound with dilute ammonia and then applied wet baking soda. Aspirin for the pain and inflammation and Benadryl to slow the emerging allergic reaction. If welts began to appear on my body or if my throat began to swell, I knew I’d be in trouble so far away from medical help…fortunately the swelling remained localized, though it made my fingers fat and stiff and feverish. How can you have a fever in your fingers? Or your toes? Those things pierced my canvas shoes easily.

Guess who didn’t pass her typing test? With nine wounds on my puffy hands, my speed on that Selectric was as lame as my gait walking on swollen feet stuffed into shoes that were now painfully small.

Those bees? It turned out they were yellow jackets; the underground colony I’d run over with the lawn mower was quite large. That day I was stung the Baron began what would remain a summer ritual right down to the present. When they came after me, he had no scent the disturbed insects could detect so that made it safe for him to move the lawn mower. As evening approached he sat in a chair near where it had been and watched the insects coming home. In increasing numbers they’d spiral down into the hole and disappear. The Baron carefully marked the spot and when night fell he returned to the spot with a can of gasoline. He poured its contents carefully and thoroughly through the area, letting it soak into the ground. The next step was to throw a lighted match as near to the hole as possible and then haul ass run like crazy to the safety of the house. The next morning there might be a few listless insects hovering over the remains of their home —perhaps they were stragglers who’d arrived back at the ranch after the conflagration. But except for them, that particular area was yellow jacket-free.

But that doesn’t mean they didn’t lurk elsewhere. Oh so many elsewheres. Every summer there is at least one time when the yard surrounding our quiet cottage is punctuated with loud profanities and stomping feet as the Baron flees to the house throwing off his clothes along the way. Sometimes I can be of help since that particular batch o’ bugs is focused on his particular pheromones… Or fear-a-moans, as I’ve come to think of them. In that moment those little monsters want him and I don’t exist. Later, after the Baron’s adrenalin levels have dropped we’ll have the satisfying evening Fire Ritual, followed by the next morning’s Post-Mortem. Over the years, my (literally) far-sighted husband has often spotted incipient trouble. If he’s working in the yard and happens to notice a few of those characteristic spirals downward, he’ll quietly mark the spot. He returns at dusk to see if there’s an evening rush hour — the buggers’ homeward commute after a long business day.

The Baron doesn’t like to kill insects; he figures they all have their place in the order of things. But he makes exceptions for yellow jackets and house spiders. Besides, he’s a guy: for some reason a lot of guys enjoy setting things on fire. Huge house spiders merely give him the willies so he dispatches them. I prefer a vacuum cleaner for such jobs if he’s not around. If he’s home, the best spider removal is to yell, “Baron, eww! There’s a spider in the kitchen.”

Work in the Town

So I failed my typing test. Oops. Certainly my undergrad degree in philosophy wasn’t of much practical help. I quickly learned there were dozens of professors’ wives from which to choose. They possessed the same skill set but it came with a lot more connections.

If I had my druthers working in a plant nursery would have been just fine but after talking to a few managers I learned that the jobs were seasonal and my flimsy credentials — many years of creating my own home gardens — weren’t terribly impressive. I was simply part of a growing statistic: middle class women who’d signed the usual contract: stay home and raise the kids while husband goes out to make the money. At one time I even thought it was a good deal: while my children’s father was in school I’d written all the ‘humanities’ papers while he took the business courses. It was fun. I hadn’t seen the trap or read the fine print, though.

But that was in another life, one that was being trod underfoot by an urgent need to find paid work. Odd jobs? Even chances? Who would hire me when there were a dozen ahead of me?

Many years ago someone had told me I’d make a good geisha: I enjoyed listening to people and taking care of them. Besides, shining the silver was a task I loved…but now those skills were worse than useless: they pointed out quite painfully my unsuitability for a “career”, whatever that was. I always thought that fellow who called me a geisha didn’t mean it as a compliment, not in the world of work. Suddenly faced with what to do with my limited “marketability”, my hopes for a job — any job — began to fade. I was eager to be of use, to show up for work and to be paid by whomever thought I was worth the outlay for doing the task at hand. But the prize was proving elusive.

I began looking through the long listings of clerical jobs/no typing in the hive of that sprawling university and its various schools of medicine, education, dentistry, etc. After six weeks worth of trudging through the various halls, warrens, and offices — miracle of miracles, someone offered to hire me. To pay me to show up and work. What joy! Thus did I begin supervising and scheduling mini-bus drivers whose job it was to pick up medically indigent children in the afternoon at their different schools in the city and county and deliver them to the dental, medical and psychology interns who would learn their trade by treating these children. The treatments over, “my” drivers would then pick up the children at the clinics and take them home.

The drivers considered me a Yankee —which I was back then, having only been gone from New England for two years and having lived in their area for a few months. I didn’t know one neighborhood or school from another. I vaguely knew that some drivers preferred to take the county routes and some liked the city itinerary. One fellow said “I don’t do mountains” — meaning he didn’t ever drive to Nelson County. The one black driver, a retired city worker, preferred to stick to the urban area where he felt safer. This was never mentioned aloud but eventually I got it.

I ran into my first ‘racial tension’ in that job. I shared the office with two secretaries who scheduled the children’s appointments and a third woman who typed up all the notes for the psychology interns’ counseling of the children assigned to them. These were all local women, born and bred in that town, though in separate neighborhoods. The appointments women were white; the psychology typist was black. Being accustomed to the undercurrent, she knew well what the sub-topic was. Being an outsider, I was initially clueless until it became overt and inescapable. Because Joanne, the typist, often ran into problems with the arcane nature of psychology jargon, not to mention the vagaries of the graduate students’ handwriting she began to ask me for help in deciphering the content of those pages. An added complication was that what she asked of me, the other two couldn’t have done. As time went on I’d translate out loud and she’d type. Boy, she was a whiz at typing. Of course this was confidential information on these children so I’d have to whisper rather than dictate, adding to the sense of paranoia.

One day at lunch she offered me a proposition: if I’d teach her to “talk white” she’d tutor me in typing — she knew about my failure. The proposal sounded ideal. As we worked out the details, I began to see that if she approached her subject as though she were learning a foreign language (she said that wouldn’t be hard) it would provide enough distance from the subject to lessen her anxiety about crossing over into forbidden territory. We discussed “immersion” methods, and I gave her lists of library books she wouldn’t otherwise want to read. To her surprise, Jane Austen was both an education in mores and manners, but the stories themselves engaged her own sensibilities. Joanne was ambitious: her intended career was to become a department supervisor in one of the hundreds of warrens in the medical school. Without clear diction and a good vocabulary that wasn’t going to happen.

Our relationship was resented by our two peers. The nurses who worked with us and the psych interns were oblivious. The bus drivers were (mostly) amused. But the two appointments secretaries were openly, quietly hostile. Once they even sent me a poison pen to my home. Unsigned.

Thank God for Ronald Reagan. He was elected and he closed down the government-funded health care for the indigent. It was a shame, really. Those parents were unlikely to bring their children in for treatment on their own. But that was Reagan’s point, wasn’t it? If the parents didn’t care, it wasn’t the job of the state to step in. If only he had held to that principle.

So there I was without a job. I did a few things — like cooking in a neighborhood restaurant (in addition to having been a good gardener during my first marriage, I’d also developed into an excellent cook. Thank you, Julia Child). In the meantime I also did volunteer work. One of the graduate psychology students from my old job called and talked me into running a group at the local women’s shelter. I would teach the women alternatives to the methods they were currently using to “discipline” their children. I tried to talk my way out of it, pointing out my own children gone to stay with family members while I tried to “get on my feet”. But she kept insisting, so I showed up to talk to women who’d left home because of their husbands’ abuse. Given that I’d been in such a situation (though never able to leave), I didn’t judge these women for their lives. But I sure did run into a brick wall when it came to finding alternatives to “whippin’ that boy’s behind”.

I learned a lot from those women. My favorite of their rejoinders, when I’d explain the party program while they were residents at the shelter — i.e., no physical discipline — was “Heck, my momma hit on me and I turned out okay.” After a moment of what I thought was a sufficiently pregnant silence, I’d reply quietly, “Right. Oh, wait. You’re in a shelter for battered women, you have three children and no way to support them (no ‘marketable skills’, me girls), you’re essentially homeless and you ‘turned out okay’?” Another pregnant silence and I’d say, “So tell me why you’re okay…”

Eventually that volunteer work turned into a full-time job, one that I loved. I found I had a gift for talking women back down into reality, and a gift for defending them against their detractors, of whom there were many.

I remember one psychiatrist who was signing out a patient into my care so she could come to live at the shelter. He told me her situation and then he made it psychiatric (well, when all you have is a hammer…). After explaining that she’d had a series of abusive relationships with men — including her dad — it was his considered opinion that she created these situations, or that she was “drawn” to violent men. I looked at her discharge sheet and noted her address. Then I pointed out to the good doctor that she lived down in Sugar Hollow. He raised an eyebrow, an unspoken “SO?” and I asked him to consider how many men down there didn’t hit their women, or how many didn’t drink too much or how many had steady jobs that gave them a sense of pride in themselves. “To me, the problem isn’t that she’s ‘drawn’ to violent men. It’s more likely that she’d have a tough time finding a man in her ‘dating pool’ who doesn’t hit women.” The doctor called me a few weeks later and said I’d changed his view of the situation. Not that he could do anything about it, but he’d realized that women like his patient had a choice between violence or living alone, and practically speaking living alone was pretty near impossible for a woman who’d yet to let go of daddy.

See, that’s the thing about asking people to change very basic family behaviors. We’re really asking them to deny their own parents, to criticize those bigger-than-life parents and grandparents. A grown man who calls his parents “Momma and Daddy” has invested a great deal of his Self in those two. Age has little to do with it.

I stayed with that job for many years and there was never a day I didn’t enjoy going to work, finding new ways to think about family strife and how one defined the decision a woman made to return home — perhaps for the fifth time. I experienced the deaths of some former residents, and sometimes the equally violent deaths of their abusers instead. I learned to identify the truly dangerous from the chronically rageful. I drew up a list of questions regarding the abuser’s behaviors that allowed me to assess how safe a new resident would be in our shelter, or whether her presence could endanger other women. We developed a group of safe homes and an association of other shelters. I learned to talk to groups about the “cycle” of abuse and about the negotiating strengths women developed under the chronic stress of protecting their children.

I hope I changed some stereotypes. In the process of my job I was qualified as an “expert witness” in court cases of domestic abuse. Once I was threatened with jail and contempt of court for refusing to testify in a follow-up case to a horrific situation. In pursuit of his wife, a mentally disturbed abusive man, a huge muscled-up dude, went all over the courtroom, chasing after her. He tore off her dress and heaved a heavy microphone, just missing her head. At one point she was hysterically screaming and literally climbing up the heavy curtains out of his reach. By then the crazed fellow was on his way up the dais, headed toward the judge, murder in his eye. A few policemen and deputies, along with only ONE man sitting in the court, finally brought him down so he could be handcuffed and brought to the holding cell out of sight.

When we got back to the judge’s chambers he was yelling for charges of attempted murder, and whipping out statute numbers at a rapid clip. The day before I’d called and asked the sheriff to handcuff the man and use leg irons because the word was out that he planned to “get” his wife. He was up on charges this time for beating her and throwing her into a dumpster. He wasn’t on his medications and he was out of control. I got one of those condescending “Don’t tell us how to do our jobs, Missy. We can handle him without herding him in like cattle”. I didn’t tell my client what the sheriff had said since I knew she’d be too terrified to show up and then they’d hold her in contempt.

So once back in the judge’s chambers I carefully avoided “told you so” and merely asked that they put leg irons on the fellow before they took him out of the cell to return him to jail. Maybe they were too scared to get that close to him? Whatever the reason, they didn’t put on leg irons before leading him to the wagon. You can guess what happened: he was off like a shot once they got outside. It took a half dozen policemen about five hours to track him down and bring him back to jail. Fortunately, his wife and I were in the Emergency Room so she didn’t know he was loose.

There I was, months later, in a higher court where the charges stemming from the man’s behavior were being heard. I peeked into the room and saw him seated at a table with a microphone in front of him. No handcuffs and no leg irons. The fellow had already said he was going to “get that white witch” (me) so I handed the subpoena back to the Commonwealth’s Attorney and told him I wasn’t going into the court room. A kindly policeman waiting with me in the witness room reached over and patted my knee reassuringly. “Don’t you worry, honey. We’ll protect ya.” I stared at him for a moment and sniped, “I was a virgin in that other court. I’m not in this one. Then I repeated more firmly to the C.A. that unless the crazy guy was secured I wasn’t testifying. It was at that point he threatened me with contempt and jail time. I said I’d rather spend the time in jail than in ICU after the fellow finished with me, using the microphone placed so conveniently in front of him. I did ask to make a phone call so the Baron could bring in some books to the jail.

That Commonwealth Attorney was a friend, but not one for whom I was willing to suffer brain damage. The case went on without me, the fellow was sentenced to a minimum of five years, and I went home. Every time he would be up for parole, they’d let me know — just in case he was let out.

In a circle of irony, remember that woman’s group at the shelter when I’d first volunteered? Later on one of the women in that group called me to say she’d seen the story in the newspaper about the court scene. She admitted that when she first met me in the group, it was that very same crazy fellow who’d been her boyfriend then and had scared enough to send her to the shelter. We discussed the sad fact that he belonged in hospital treatment, but such an outcome was unlikely to happen.

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Over time the organization I’d worked so hard to improve became more bureaucratic, accepting government funding and finding itself ever more burdened with government paperwork. It also began to drift into the more politically correct and stultifying lesbian partner violence. Right. In all my years there, I’d dealt with two such situations. But the lesbians fomenters said that our hetero bias kept lesbians away. Eye roll.

The domestic violence movement began in England as a grassroots ad hoc solution to a serious and systemic problem. When it was transplanted over here, the origins stayed much the same. However, as “domestic violence” solutions began to move away from those roots and into the cookie-cutter fem-lib jargon and mindset of the academic world, much of the life drained away. As they say, I didn’t leave the job, the job left me.

Just about the time I’d reached the end of my rope, a former shelter co-worker called me to ask if I’d consider applying to the county Social Services agency where she had moved to. I would be working with foster children. It sounded ideal — instead of the mothers, I’d be dealing with the children and with their caring foster families.

Wrong. My “caseload” turned out to be seriously emotionally disturbed teens who were often violent. All of them, without exception, rejected the idea that any adult had moral authority over them. The paperwork was horrendous and all of it federally-mandated. It would have taken four full-time workers to adequately cover the job description I was given. Often I felt the poor parents ought to be in custodial care, safe from their predatory progeny.

I managed to stay on for two years. The head of Foster Care Services in Richmond called after I’d turned in my two weeks’ notice. She told me, sadly, that my position at the agency was the highest burn-out job across the state. I told her I’d done everything: quit taking lunch hours so I could “get caught up”, came in on my off days to “catch up”, etc. She commiserated and told me she was glad I was leaving before I became cynical. I don’t think she ever told the director of my agency she’d talked to me.

And I won’t even get into Child Protective Services, another part of my job description. That nightmare has cost as many lives as it has saved.

I spent a bit more than a decade in social services. It cured me of believing in government “help”. It may have contributed to the steep decline in health I experienced later on. Lord knows I still wake up with nightmares from those “agency” jobs. As I began to fall asleep while driving, and as my body refused to do even the most mundane tasks, it still took me several years to find a diagnosis. Don’t sneer that “it’s just a name.” Being able to name the dragon is the first step in putting the garden hose full blast up his nose.

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And now to name the places from which yesterday’s donors came:

Stateside: California, Florida, Montana, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Virginia

Near Abroad: Canada

Far Abroad: Australia, British Virgin Islands, Denmark, Israel, Slovakia, and Sweden

May the Lord’s blessings be heaped upon all of you!

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7 thoughts on “A Kaleidoscope Instead of a Career

  1. Have you ever seen a dew spangled spiderweb caressed by the rising sun? It is a thing of the most heavenly ethereal beauty.

    Think of it the next time you kill a spider.

    • Are you serious?

      You slogged through my 4,500 words in which I variously described racial cruelty, a deranged husband ripping off his wife’s clothing and trying to get near enough to strangle her, plus the predatory behavior of cynical ‘children’ who’ve learned how to game a corrupt welfare system and your take-away message is that we should lie back and think about the spiders?

      Oh my. I fear you may indeed be serious…

      Personally, I never put myself in a position so as to actually see the rising sun, never mind the dew it spangles.Fibromyalgia has long since stomped my mornings into smithereens. It has also removed any possibility that I might wander through dewy grass, thereby causing my feet to cramp bec of that cold damp…such experiences must be left now to the poets fortunate enough to happen upon an amorous sunrise.

      I will make do with waving goodbye to the sunset instead, thanking it for drying off that &^%$ dew and allowing me to be in contact with the dry lawn without suffering for it.

      Those outdoor golden orb garden spiders are not only fascinating, they’re useful in keeping down the population of insect pests. They set up house around the periphery and eat their weight in pesky insects. Their cousins, tunnel spiders, build complicated homes near each of our storm doors, gathering in any insect foolish enough to wander by. It’s fun to peer down those tunnels and see their progressively larger girth – no doubt due to the aforementioned insects who fly too near. Sometimes their webs extend all the way to the door handle, at which point I negotiate with them regarding a less disruptive anchor point for their domiciles.

      However, if you’re concerned about the fate of those huge ‘lone wolf’ house spiders why don’t we start a “Save the Spiders” project. Just send us your address and sufficient postage – I’ll be glad to trap them and send them on to you for safe-keeping.

      You may also take the ticks, the cute bunny rabbits who eat the garden, the tomato worms that denude the plants overnight, and the wood roaches who crawl out of the drain…I want to share Nature’s bounty.

      However we’ll keep the snakes; they eat the rabbits, and it’s probably not legal to mail the bats. But then I need those anyway since they eat the mosquitoes. And I get dibs on every praying mantis I find on the well house. I would offer to go halvsies on the mounds of stink bugs but I hear the extreme cold has decimated their ranks.

      I will to you all the bag worms, tent caterpillars, and house spiders large enough to go bump in the night. You also get the mice who shredded my favorite sweater to make their cute nest, along with their even cuter progeny. You may take the voles who eat all the tulip bulbs and gnaw to the ground my nandina bushes.

      Want some slugs? They deserve to live too. Or do you discriminate?

      • My (bigger & more macho) brother kills large spiders indoors; I try to capture them alive & expel them, but won’t touch them!

        Sympathise with your allergy to yellowjackets (wasps over here); if I’m stung, I have to stab myself with an adrenalin pen and call the ambulance. If they’re part of God’s plan, he needs a new plan!

        • Ps The substance of this, & earlier posts needs more time for consideration, and I look forward to your reply to Guest, below.

      • What a tirade my innocuous one line has provoked! So much vituperation precipitating an unprecedented avalanche of unfortunate, unsuspecting wild creatures crashing down on my unprotected head.

        I am sorry you have taken umbrage. It was not my intention, but that is what I seem to have done, so I apologize

        I am sorry about your painful illness and I pray that your days may be pain free.

        This is a tropical island so wild life abounds.

        I am not squeamish about bugs, stink bugs included, and worms, maggots, ticks, fleas, scorpions, centipedes, rats, mice, slugs and snails large and small. If you thought you would have me retching, I am not. Caterpillars do turn into beautiful butterflies.

        I have snakes too. Harmless snakes and poisonous snakes, cobras and vipers. Once upon a time, a young python paid me a visit. With mutual respect, we got along fine. He, or maybe it was a she stayed for awhile, and then after a refreshing drink of cool water went on its way, sadly never to return.

        I am an eighty one year old pensioner: I worked throughout the best years of my life, so I have earned my pension; even so, even with the best will in the world, I am unfortunately unable to participate in philanthropic adventures.

        The best of everything to you.

  2. What an interesting story you’ve had, Dymphna, and surely you know that you’ve helped a lot of women and children, those who wanted to be helped?

    I found this almost funny: “But the lesbians fomenters said that our hetero bias kept lesbians away.” When I was young feminisim was about equal opportunities for good careers etc, not about matching male violence (no offence, all you wonderful, strong and good men out there)!!

    Dymphna, what is your opinion: if government agencies can’t be trusted to help people who really need help, who can? Or do the agencies just need to work much more efficiently re paperwork and rules?

  3. Dymphna, you and I have some things in common, like court rooms, domestic violence, out of control teenagers, over the top judges and occupations that offer no tangible employment skills or assets, that go toward improving one’s position in life.

    But, from what you have written it sure sounds like you had a whole lot of empathy and compassion for those people trapped in a system of life that no government or agency can rectify. The once deemed societal taboos that were never openly admitted to, and seldom addressed, will never be fully extirpated while ever self respect and humility remain frowned upon or out of reach for those who really need it.

    No government can teach these essential requirements that every human needs.

    I grew up in one of those dysfunctional families you have written of. I made a point in my late teens that I would avoid being like my father and to a large extent have succeeded in my endeavour. It hasn’t been easy, and in the past his ghost was always there to haunt me, but I managed to shun what ailed him and to plot my own life away from what haunted him.

    Now, I can look back on what made him do what he did and while I can’t understand why he couldn’t see what I was seeing about him, I have forgiven him for what he was and reflect on what he could have been if only he could have exorcised his own personal demons.

    The court room drama you have written of now plays out in many Western court rooms because those who are now charged with societies protection pretend that the criminal or criminal behaviour, is a product of the very same society that they are sworn to protect. How long that kind of silliness will go on for is anyone’s guess, but I can assure you that the magistrate or the judge who becomes victim to those who can play the system and plot retaliation against them soon recognize the benefit of having all prisoners led into court handcuffed at the very least.

    The prisoners I led into court were always handcuffed!

    You have given community service in areas not many venture into. The memories from those times should last you for some time to come. The nightmares you speak of will dissipate the more you exorcise them with your writing or telling.

    From my own experience, both forms of expression have a general calming effect on the mind. Keep at it!

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