Thursday, April 17, 2008

Old Favorite From November 2007

Mother won’t let epilepsy take over her son’s life
by Amy L. Cornell Community columnist |
November 8, 2007

My My son, before an epileptic seizure, receives an aura. An aura is a feeling or a premonition that a seizure is about to begin. My son’s auras take many forms: Usually a sensation washes over him, but he has also talked of a taste or a smell.

Once when I pressed him to describe what was happening in his head when he had a seizure, he said, “Sometimes, I hear them coming.” I want to know what sound he hears, but he cannot describe it to me.

If only I could share his experience and hear the seizure coming myself, I could help him by describing it for him. Naming the aura might help him master these charges which take over his whole mind and body. I read somewhere that an aura is simply the brain creating a hallucination. People with epilepsy learn to heed these warnings as if they were smoke alarms alerting them to fire in an unseen place.

When a seizure begins, his left arm bends at the elbow and he makes a kind of half backwards fist with his left hand, which stays at about shoulder level. His head and eyeballs twitch and slowly turn left as well. He often loses muscle tone and falls to the floor. The seizures last 10, 20, 30 eternal seconds. Sometimes it feels as if I am watching them in slow motion on a television screen.

Auras have brought a message of imminent seizure to my son as many as five times a day. He’s had them in school, in his sleep, at summer camp, at the dinner table, on the playground. I often think they frighten those of us around him more than they frighten him. My son has no memory of them when they are over. He often needs to take a nap.

If I am lucky enough to be near him while he is having a seizure, I talk to him. He can sometimes respond with a word or two, but he cannot control the leftward twitching. I tell him I love him, and I hold his hand through his seizures. I want him to be aware of me even though he has entered this other world. If his young misfiring brain is filled with nightmares and demons, I want him to hear one friendly voice. If he is scared in there, I want him to know I am out here holding his hand and waiting for him to come back. I am the trail of breadcrumbs.

Once upon a time, people were put in asylums or colonies when they had epilepsy. At another point in time, seizures were thought to exist in the minds of the prophet, the one who could predict the future.

Medieval churches believed people with epilepsy were possessed by demons. Napoleon, Van Gogh, Socrates: Artists, thinkers, leaders all had auras and went into this other realm.

Epilepsy is a peculiar malady, one which stops my heart every time my boy rides a bike or gets in a swimming pool. I am determined though, to allow him to live as normal a boy’s life as possible. One doctor told me, “You can’t let the disease rule your life.”

My son wears a helmet when he rides. He is always closely guarded while he is in the pool. When he turns 16, he may have trouble getting a driver’s license, if he is able to get one at all.

I am happy to report that with advances in pharmaceutical science and the diligence of an excellent pediatric neurologist, my son has been seizure-free for five months. In honor of Epilepsy Awareness Month, November, I wanted to share this small miracle.

Amy Cornell’s column appears every other Thursday in The Herald-Times. You can reach her at

Monday, April 14, 2008

Last Column April 10, 2008

Collecting unwanted items better than finding them on roadside

Amy L. Cornell Community columnist |
April 10, 2008

I spent last Saturday at the Monroe County Fairgrounds volunteering for the Monroe County Solid Waste Management District’s bulky item drop off day. In addition to enjoying the sun and answering questions as people arrived with trucks and cars loaded down, I got an excellent education on what goes into our landfills besides household trash. The district encourages people to donate items to organizations that reuse and resell them, but also offers this means of getting rid of unwanted large items.

Of all the thousands of items I saw brought into the dump site on Saturday, what amazed me most was the quantity of mattresses. I tried to figure out if there was a sensible way to reuse or recycle mattresses and could not.

A friend who volunteered thought he might have been able to start a couple of laundromats and lawn mowing services with the number of washing machines and lawn cutting devices he saw tossed. Another friend said that what struck him was the number of grills and toilets being thrown away.

No matter what, it was a humbling experience to watch so many consumer items get thrown into the dump and know that scenes like this are replicated everywhere in the U.S. Big items that with a little repair work or reupholstering could be used by someone else are thrown away every day and in every city. I threw away a broken dehumidifier.

My husband, who is knowledgeable about solid waste management issues, told me that if the district did not offer this bulky item drop off day, these items would end up thrown out of trucks on the side of the road or piling up in people’s yards.

It is better for the county to offer a safe and effective means of disposal even if it means the sad reality of watching hundreds of dumpsters full of furniture and construction waste and appliances being hauled off to the landfill.

Many people with trucks full of items turned around when they saw the long line to get to the dumpsters. A few people were stopped at 4:05 p.m. when they shut the gate and would not accept any more items.

As I drove home down my familiar stretch of Ind. 45, I could not help but notice a huge mattress, discarded by the side of the road, that had not been there that morning.

A personal note

Because this is my last community column, I wanted to say a few words of thanks to Bob Zaltsberg and The Herald-Times for giving me this unique forum. Thanks also to the many members of this community who wrote me, commented on-line, met with me or stopped me on the street to talk about a column. This bi-weekly essay has afforded me a unique opportunity to participate in a conversation with neighbors and fellow citizens that has been invaluable.

Special notes of thanks to my circle of friends: Alice, John, Nicole, Dimitri, Kim, Keith, Ellie, Vance and Mary, all of whom let me take over many dinner conversations while mining for ideas for this article. They all offered valuable editing and community expertise.

Many thanks also go to Beth and fellow writers from Women Writing for (a) Change-Bloomington. I have also written much in the company of the incarcerated women of the Monroe County Corrections Center who may one day be telling their unique stories in this forum.

Thanks to my co-workers in the Department of Communication and Culture who encouraged me and to the teachers at University Elementary School who said kind words and invited me into their classrooms.

Above all, thanks to my parents, Richard and Janet, and my sister-in-law Anoopa who read this column without fail every two weeks, and my son, who will hopefully not rebel when he grows up and begins to understand that I have been writing about him.

Last, but never least, nothing ever went to the H-T without a conversation with Geoff, my husband and best friend in this crazy life.

You can reach Amy Cornell at

Thursday, March 27, 2008

March 27, 2008

Dedicated multitasker vows to hang up while driving

by Amy L. Cornell Community columnist |
March 27, 2008

A carmaker recently ran an advertisement that touted the benefits of single-tasking. I read the ad twice. I had to think about it: single-tasking. What is single-tasking?

The car maker was encouraging consumers to once again enjoy the pleasure of driving with two hands on the steering wheel and a foot on the floor. A subtle reminder to stop doing all the extra things we do while driving, notably talking on the phone. I, like many of us, am guilty of multi-tasking while driving around town.

No one single-tasks too much any more: We drive; we talk; we e-mail; we watch TV; we cook; we talk on the phone. I often return e-mails while waiting for someone to pick up the phone. I try to squeeze as much meaningful activity into my waking hours as I can. I use drive-through services whenever possible. I avoid lines in grocery stores at all costs, and yes, I use my cell phone while driving.

I remember when we brought our new baby home from the hospital 10 years ago. We installed a car seat and strapped him in carefully; he seemed so new and fragile.

My husband and I took a vow to protect this lovely human at all costs. My husband made a proclamation that we would never use cell phones while driving. I readily agreed.

Then we got used to him. We felt comfortable loading him in and out of the car. Our baby gained strength, and the proclamation faded away. Using a cell phone while driving a car became a habit that for busy mothers and fathers is difficult to break.

The other day, as I was driving somewhere in town and using my phone, a man drove across my path, and as he was driving, turned to face me and was obviously yelling at me.

The windows were closed, but by the look on his face, he was angry and yelling obscenities. There was no mistaking that I was the object of his wrath, and in the five seconds that we shared together, about the only thing I could decide that I had done wrong was use my phone.

That sort of vitriolic anger while driving is probably not the safest way to drive either by the way, but I took his emotion to heart.

According to the Web site Drive and Stay Alive (, the Harvard University Center for Risk Analysis estimates that there are as many as 1.5 million crashes annually in the United States leading to 560,000 injuries and 2,600 deaths because of phone use in moving vehicles.

I am like many of you. I am a working parent who has much to do. One of the easiest ways for me to multitask is to pull out my cell phone on my way home from work and order dinner, return a friend’s phone call or call a repair service. I have confused appropriate times for multitasking and single-tasking. Driving should be a single-task.

So, to the angry man in the roundabout outside Renwick, and to my son who is now 10 years old and needs a better example set, and to my fellow community members who must drive on the roads with me every day, I am going to challenge myself to hang up my cell phone and focus on the task at hand — driving.

If you are a cell-phone user who has already made this decision and stuck to it, I applaud you.

If you are a cell-phone user, and like me, you routinely multitask by using your phone while driving, I would like to encourage you to join me in this project of learning how to single-task while driving.

Let’s try to make the roads in Monroe County safer without having to pass legislation to do it.

Amy Cornell’s column appears every other Thursday in The Herald-Times. You can reach her at

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Old Favorite From April 2007

Birthdays come and go, and so, sadly, do some friendships

by Amy L. Cornell Community columnist |
April 12, 2007

In college, my roommate and I shared the same birth month. Every year, as the calendar flipped from March to April, we began to plan the events that marked our collective birthday. We had parties for each other. We took out ads in the college daily, made banners to hang on the main campus sidewalk, arranged special dates for each other and made gifts. We went into the city for improv and out to dance clubs. We invited everyone we knew into our dorm room for gin and tonics. We reveled in our celebratory month. No birthday celebration before or after those giddy days in college would ever be the same.

Though I still celebrate birthdays, I no longer celebrate them with the intensity I did back then. The remembrance is bittersweet because my roommate and I — who sustained each other through exams and breakups and crushes and hangovers — ended our friendship several years after college. Like a bad marriage where every day ends in fighting, we also seemed to spend a lot of time being unhappy with each other.

Years after the ink was dry on the divorce decree of our friendship, I still don’t really understand what happened. It occurred to me as I flipped the calendar this month that I have not been friends with this person for longer than we were actually friends; yet because we were friends at a critical time, my memories of our coming of age together influence much of what I say and do, even 20 years later.

I recently read a novel where the main character ended a lifelong friendship because the friend did something truly despicable to her. Books nowadays have linked Web sites so you can interact with the author, and when you log on to the Web site for this novel, there is space to write about the true friend you made and lost. I read these stories for hours one afternoon. I discovered losing deep friendship is a universal experience.

Of course my college roommate is not the only friendship I have lost. There are dozens more people that I have known for brief periods of time that have left my life; most of those fall under the heading of “losing touch.” As everyone eventually discovers, there is not enough time in our lives to nurture every friendship, remember every birthday and still cook a nice dinner for our family. Losing touch and ending relationships is something that we all must do again and again.

Dear Abby used to write about an annual “mending fences day” in which she urged readers to pick up the phone and try to make amends with estranged friends and family. I have tried to do that once or twice with my old roommate, but the friendship has gone so long in need of maintenance that it is beyond repair. I gracefully accept that this relationship is over.

I am grateful, of course, for my many friends in Bloomington and beyond. I have a rich array of witty, caring, talented friends I am lucky to know and count as part of my extended family. I still have college mates I see now and again and with whom I exchange e-mails and phone calls. Birthdays are usually happy days spent in the company of my family and friends. The weather is generally good by April, and I can enjoy a bike ride or a tea party, but there is always this loose thread of longing running through the month. As much as I needed to end that friendship, I still miss her very much.

So join me, will you? Pull up a chair and have a gin and tonic and toast to friendships gone by. And wherever you are in this world, old roommate, know that I am thinking of you as our birthday month drifts by.

Amy Cornell’s column appears every other Thursday in The Herald-Times. You can reach her at

Thursday, March 13, 2008

March 13, 2008

Anniversary of war recalls reason not to celebrate

by Amy L. Cornell Community columnist |
March 13, 2008

March of 2003. I am in my hometown in Ohio for spring vacation, and I am in a loud neighborhood pub where I sit at the bar and become riveted by the five televisions blaring Fox News for the world to see. It is a big news day. You see, the USA is about to invade the sovereign nation of Iraq.

The bar celebrates the occasion. A handwritten sign behind the bar says free beer for anyone wearing a military uniform. The crowd is drawn to the televisions full of live action and up-to-the minute reporting. It’s hard to decide just which iteration of Fox News to watch. The garish graphics help promote the circus-like atmosphere in this bar. As Fox News announces that it is one more hour until the invasion, the crowd lifts their glasses for a cheer. Is it my imagination or did someone just brag about going and getting some “towel heads”? My head swivels back and forth between old friends in the bar and all the television screens. I am sure what I am witnessing is somehow an optical illusion. If I could just look at it properly, it would seem not so much like the carnival that it is.

I suddenly feel ill. I look backwards over my shoulder at the door wishing I could leave. I keep my anti-war opinions to myself here in this hometown of mine.

I overhear someone say, “He can’t wait until his unit is called up and he can go over there and get started.”

“Thirty minutes till invasion,” the news announcer says, “and the tanks are starting to roll.” I feel like they are rolling down the street outside this bar.

My eyes are fixated on the screens. Like a bad traffic accident, I can’t look away. The words and images are becoming jumbled in my head. Are we really sending people to war while a bar cheers? If news in this format had been around after the invasion of Pearl Harbor would this scene have happened?

I have broken into a cold sweat. I can think of absolutely nothing to say to my friends who I once knew so well. I can only look at them and then watch the alert banner which says “20 minutes till invasion” reflect in their eyeglasses.

I excuse myself and go into the bathroom and throw up. I look at myself in the mirror for a long time. This is my home I say to myself, and these are my friends. I am still somehow a part of the sour beer and the drums beating on Fox News and the buzz of patrons cheering and whispering about victory. I shudder a bit as I rinse off my face.

Back at the bar, I watch the embedded journalists describe every thought and feeling as the guns and bombs begin to fly. I debate whether to bolt and run — back to the safety of my car and my new hometown in the hills of southern Indiana. I realize sadly that this is not the only bar in the U.S. where this exact scene is playing.

Like we all remember where we were when those planes hit the World Trade Center, I will always remember where I was the night the U.S. invaded Iraq.

March 19, 2008, will mark the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion. May we all be mindful of our neighbors, friends and family serving the USA in the armed forces and of their families who wait for them at home. May this war and the occupation come to a swift conclusion, and may the Iraqi people know peace as well.

Amy Cornell’s column appears every other Thursday in The Herald-Times. You can reach her at

Monday, March 10, 2008

OLD FAVORITE From March 2007

Homeland insecurities rise like a kite on National Mall

by Amy L. CornellCommunity columnist |
March 29, 2007

Last spring break, my family took a trip to Washington, D.C. The post 9-11 ethos of our nation’s capitol alarmed us a bit. Park police, capitol police, armed guards with big shiny badges and holsters make up the new population of D.C.

If you enter a building anywhere on the National Mall, you are searched, wanded, metal-detected and patted down. Nail-clippers, keys, loose change and in one case a Yu-Gi-Oh key chain were checked at the door. Tour guides issued long lists of forbidden actions followed by stern warnings of imprisonment and fines for the disobedient. Our nation has a meaner, nastier capital city. All of us T-shirt-clad, camera-wielding, snack-carrying, kid-herding visitors constantly balanced coats and backpacks and cell phones to make sure we weren’t acting like terrorists in the city.

One sunny, windy day, I carried a kite with us to the National Mall. I hoped flying a kite on the most famous stretch of green space in the country would be something the kids would always remember. I led them out onto the grass and they gathered around me to break the wind and watch as I assembled the kite.

“This can’t be legal.” My husband Geoff’s voice is stern. “This can’t be allowed. Look around you. Don’t even try this.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “How can kite flying be illegal?”

“You know it will pose some kind of threat to someone,” he said. “This isn’t the beach. This is Washington, D.C. We shouldn’t take any chances. Especially not with kids around.”

Could this be true? Could we be the evening’s headline on CNN? Hoosier woman sent to Guantanamo for flying a kite on the nation’s mall.

I teased him, “You really think that flying a kite on the mall of the nation’s capital is illegal? I’d like to see someone stop me.”

Our son spoke, “Mom, we want to fly the kite.”

“Of course, we are going to fly the kite, honey. It’s not illegal to fly a kite,” I said, as a mother says to children. But in the back of my mind I think, “Or is it?”

The kids and I took the kite out to a grassy patch of mall, and Geoff endured some minutes of me showing the kids how to launch a kite.

“Let some string out,” I yelled over the rushing wind and laughter.

As the kids got the hang of it and the kite climbed higher into the sky Geoff admonished, “Not too high. Not too much string.” The kids listened and kept the kite low. Consequently, the kite crashed to the ground again and again.

Geoff paced and frowned. The sun and the playful kids and the fact the armed guards had not gunned us down did not warm his heart. “Pull it in, pull it in,” he said, again and again. “You’ll hit someone.”

Finally, my husband could endure no more, and dragged the kids away to see the Declaration of Independence at the National Archive. I was alone at last with the kite, which I allowed to sail as high as it would go. My purple kite against the blue sky and the Capitol building made a lifetime memory for me.

Tourists pointed. A father with a baby said to me as I passed his way, “My baby loves your kite.” Two young men stopped to watch and take pictures of me.

Finally, the wind changed direction and yanked my beautiful kite out of the sky. She fell hard and quick, and like a balloon losing its air, picked a man walking on the path around the mall and hit him on the head. I am happy to report to you that I did not get arrested that day.

Amy Cornell’s column appears every other Thursday in The Herald-Times. You can reach her at

Thursday, February 28, 2008

February 28, 2008

Professor extended learning from lecture hall to dining hall
Amy L. CornellCommunity columnist |
February 28, 2008

I received the news a few weeks ago of the death of an old friend and a favorite IU professor, Irving Katz. I am sad that generations of IU students will not get the pleasure of learning from this amazing man.

I met him because he sat on a search committee for a position that brought me back to IU after a few years away. I started my new job, and we agreed to have lunch every Friday in the residence dining halls where I worked.

Every week, we talked history, politics, current events and family. He loved to tell me stories of his class and how he taught freshmen to behave in a large lecture. He made them put newspapers and earphones away. He made fun of the kids who fell asleep by whispering and pointing them out to the other students. He talked often of his young life growing up on the lower east side of Manhattan, a poor Jewish kid whose parents left Poland before the Nazis rounded them up. Irving often reflected sadly that the rest of his family was killed in concentration camps in Europe during the war.

Irving appreciated undergraduate students in a way many professors at a research institution do not. At every lunch, Irving loved holding court with his students. He used the question, “Do you know what your last name means?” as an ice breaker with the residents who gathered around us, and it worked every time. He understood a lot of languages so he could often guess at the derivation of a surname.

The most amazing part of this name game was that if he did not know where a student’s name came from, he would remember to look it up in the Dictionary of Surnames in his office. The following week, when he came to lunch, he would have the meaning of that name scribbled on a piece of paper. He never forgot to follow up with a student to whom he made a promise.

In addition to his weekly meals with me, he dined regularly with the women of Forest Quad. He was known around Forest as a “Forest Friend,” a faculty member who allied himself with a floor in a residence hall. During meals, he showed students the side of a professor that wasn’t all about research and teaching. Professor Katz enjoyed the cafeteria cuisine and loved schmoozing with students. He gave students advice and offered opinions on everything from politics to fashion.

He took the women from Forest to the IU Opera. He was a donor to the IU School of Music, and as such, was allowed to sit for free in the third balcony of the Musical Arts Center during opera dress rehearsals.

According to the rules of the MAC, he was allowed to attend for free with family members. He dutifully showed up at the door to the balcony of the MAC for every dress rehearsal with as many as 20 freshman women in tow. He stated to the ushers, “these are all my nieces.”

Irving probably introduced more freshmen to IU Opera than anyone else. He loved the opera, and was happy to share his passion with students who had never seen it before.

I believe Irving is sitting at the Great Dining Hall now. He is enjoying his cafeteria roast chicken and mashed potatoes and green beans.

I can see the twinkle in his eye as he admonishes a student for answering his question with another question. He tells another student about the greatest paper in the world, the New York Times. As he was a lifelong Democrat, I hear him predicting who he thinks will win the Democratic nomination. He is telling one wide-eyed freshman about the story of “The Marriage of Figaro” in anticipation of an evening trip to the opera.

Wherever you are in the cosmos dear Irving, I hope we can dine again together someday. I miss you.

Amy Cornell’s column app ears every other Thursday in The Herald-Times. You can reach her at