Friday, December 23, 2011

One kind deed after another. Yes, it's a sappy holiday post

I was bumming.
Big time.
The memorial ornament I had ordered for my aunt had finally arrived late last week, too late for me to make the hour’s drive to the mall to have it engraved. I would have to wait until Monday and then mail it Tuesday, risking that it would arrive after the holiday.
Then I remembered the local contractor who does engraving on the side.
I called him that evening and left a message, telling him how important this was to me.
I held out little hope.
Why should he care? He didn’t know me and it was almost Christmas. Most everyone is overwhelmed during the Christmas season and this guy had a contracting business to worry about as well.
So I was thrilled when he returned the call at 7 a.m. the next day, telling me to leave it in his drop box as soon as possible.
And I was stunned when the ornament was finished by 2 p.m.
But that's how this holiday season has gone.
It's been amazing really.
In this time of high unemployment, nationwide protests and political childishness and I would expect ... well ... depression. I would expect people to be less kind than usual, more bitter, less generous with their time, energy and good will.
Yet I look at my Facebook page and see links to articles about someone who paid off gifts people put on layaway. A friend posted that someone ahead of her in a drive-thru paid for her meal. She was so tickled that she planned to do the same for someone else.
Her story inspired others to follow suit.
The holiday basket drive in my kids' school raised so much money this year they were able to buy staples to fill voids in recipients' pantries. A woman ahead of me at the Post Office gave another woman the extra change she needed for postage, saving her a trip to her car.
It's just been one kind deed after another.
I first became aware of it -- really aware -- when I left a toy for my son on the bottom rack of my cart in the parking lot at Target. I didn’t remember until the next day when I was sorting gifts. I didn’t dare even dream I’d ever get it back.
Someone could easily have swiped it.
Even if it had been found, what were the chances Target employees would have held onto it for me? Why bother? It would have been easier to put it back on the shelf. Besides, I couldn't find the receipt. I wouldn't be able to prove anything without the receipt.
I called anyway.
It was waiting for me at customer service.
No hassles.
No suspicions.
Just smiles and holiday wishes.
A few days later, I finally came up with a decent gift idea for my father.
I'd been struggling for a while.
He is in a nursing home down south in the late stages of MS. His memory is failing him, especially his short-term memory. He loves literature, but novels are not easy for him these days because he can't remember what he read the day before, or even minutes before.
The editor of Short Story America had sent an email. He offered a reduced rate and free shipping to me and all other writers whose stories were part of the debut anthology. I replied, telling him I would like to get one for my father as a Christmas gift.
They are my father's kind of short stories, my kind.
The good, old traditional kind.
They are short enough that he might be able to get from beginning to end in one session, I explained.
The editor, Tim Johnson, wrote back quickly.
He told me he would mail the anthology out immediately to ensure it arrived before Christmas if I would just send him the address. He knew I was good for the money, he said.
Tim has a family -- a wife and twin girls. He was leaving soon to spend Christmas with even more family. He had other things to think about. Yet he took the time to do this favor for me, someone he knows only through a phone call, Facebook and a story.
It's affected me, all this good cheer.
I find myself leaving the packaging tape at the Post Office for others to use, being more gracious to other shoppers and drivers who seem to be in a hurry, dropping bills instead of coins into tip containers and charity boxes.
I'm itching to pay for a drive-thru meal, but there aren't many opportunities in the middle of Amish country.
It's not enough.
I know that.
I have not repaid the kindnesses that others have shown me this Christmas, not yet.
These kindnesses, this unexpected generosity, have helped me to put my writing aside, even my running aside, and most definitely my aspirations of a clean house aside as we prepare to celebrate this day of giving and sharing and loving.
This day of hope.
It has helped me to concentrate on what is important this season -- people.
The rest can wait.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Leslie Hoffman: Hollywood stuntwoman turned activist

Leslie Hoffman
When I was a kid growing up in the small Adirondack village of Saranac Lake, I was enthralled by the story of Leslie Hoffman. The fact that her parents owned the local pharmacy already gave her elevated status in town, but she’d made it big.
Really big in my eyes.
Leslie was a Hollywood stuntwoman.
I first heard of her fame at about 11 years old when I was watching Charlie’s Angels, a favorite television series of my childhood. My oldest brother David commented that Leslie had done stunts for the series and the fascination began.
A year or two later, Leslie took a 78-foot leap off the Love Boat. Then she appeared in M*A*S*H, Fantasy Island, Remington Steele, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and dozens upon dozens of other movies and television shows, sparing other actors from the dangers involved in successfully suspending disbelief.
The latter part of her career was spent coordinating stunts in movies and television, including the Star Trek New Voyages series.
She was the first stuntwoman elected to the Board of Directors of Screen Actors Guild, the country's largest entertainment union. She was also the first woman in her line of work elected to the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists Los Angeles Local Board and AFTRA National Boards in the 1980s.
I had imagined her life and her future as one full of red carpets, celebrity dinners and hand prints impressed in famous sidewalks.
Not so.
Leslie's stint with SAG didn't go well.
She advocated for all kinds of members -- women, people of color, children -- and, she says, some colleagues didn't like that. Leslie says she became the victim of vicious rumors and bullying tactics in which SAG and certain stuntmen tried to have her removed from the board and blacklisted her from working stunt jobs. The blacklisting hit her hard, making it impossible for Leslie to find work in Hollywood.
She paid a price for her advocacy and, later, she paid a price for all those stunts.
Leslie suffers from post-concussion syndrome -- the result of a career full of hits, bashes and bangs to her head -- along with chronic back pain. The syndrome resulted in depression and other mental health issues and led to a devastating breakdown in 2003.
The federal government awarded her Social Security Disability Insurance in 2004, and included the previous two years. SAG gave Leslie her pension retroactive to 2002. But when she applied for its Disability Health Plan, a well-hidden clause in the Producer-SAG Health Pamphlet that stipulates that SAG members who suffer a career-ending injuries while working on the set are entitled to health benefits, she was denied.
Despite the federal ruling, the SAG board denied her again during a 2010 appeal, this time saying her injuries didn't happen on the sets. In the meantime, she has been paying for her own health, prescriptions and dental insurance, which we all know costs a bundle these days.
But that wasn't enough to bring Leslie down.
With so many troubles of her own, Leslie still found the energy to fight for others in similar situations, helping them win the benefits and reimbursements she has been denied. She also complained to the U.S. Department of Labor, claiming that SAG has a 30-year history of bullying and blacklisting for financial gain.
Leslie says she received word last week that the Department of Labor will take her complaints to the next level of investigation.
Her claims are not far-fetched. The Labor Department has been investigating allegations of embezzlement by SAG administrators for months, including charges that the CEO of the Producers Health and Pension Plan embezzled funds.
It has been a rough road for Leslie. She will never fully recover from her injuries and it pains her to see that stunt persons still perform without, in her opinion, the appropriate safety precautions. Her fears and her advocacy for head trauma victims have extended to other occupations, such as professional sports, and to other sufferers.
Leslie's head injuries make it difficult to communicate as fluidly as she would like. That sometimes drives away people who don't understand continuous head trauma and its permanent effects. It can be hard for her to tell her story in a way that makes sense -- hard for her to convince anyone to write about it, to get the word out and create change.
Something good has come out of this though.
For me anyway.
I am no longer a full-time journalist. My focus is fiction, so I won’t be digging into files, interviewing actors, producers, SAG members, investigators and doctors to verify the details of her story and get myself a page-one byline. I derive no financial or career benefit from getting to know Leslie or blogging about her battle.
I get something better.
Gone is my fascination for Leslie’s talent and her star-studded career.
Instead, her battle has helped me to become familiar with Leslie, the person, and the selfless advocate she has become. I am proud to know Leslie and I am sure that she has made our shared hometown even prouder.