The Team Sport That Ended in Beheadings

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Diego de Landa destroyed dozens of Mayan books and thousands of their images and statues because he thought the natives of Mesoamerica were engaging in satanic behavior. But this got the 16th-century Spanish explorer in big trouble with the monarchy, and he was called home to answer for his actions. Part of his excuse? The Maya played a ball game that ended in human sacrifice. 

Considered by some to be the first team sport played by humans, pok-ta-pok is a game with ancient roots. It likely originated during the Olmec period between 2000 and 1500 B.C. At the very least, historians are certain that it was played between A.D. 200 and 900 — the peak of Mayan architecture and society, and when Chichén Itzá, site of the largest pok-ta-pok court in both size and significance on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, was built. 

“There’s not a pro athlete in the world who could play that game …” Any takers?

Joshua Mark, editor of Ancient History Encyclopedia

Sometimes a religious ceremony, sometimes a sporting event, the games were orchestrated battles between captured prisoners, pitting two teams of a few players against one another with the goal of getting a small rubber ball — ancient Mesoamericans were the first to invent rubber balls — through a 20-foot-high stone hoop. The game was extremely violent and fast; Landa himself likened it to watching lightning strike. Players couldn’t use their hands or feet, leaving the heavy lifting to their hips, shoulders, arms and heads. And the stakes were high: Sometimes they died from “bleeding bruises,” thanks to the hard ball, writes James A. Fox, a Stanford anthropologist who curated a former exhibit of Mayan ball games at the Stanford Museum of Art, in an email to OZY. Even worse, one side was beheaded as a sacrifice to the gods. 

Landa’s written justification for his actions to the Spanish regime provides us with much of our information about the sport, along with stone engravings and a handful of glyphs and books that survived his rampage. Plus, there’s the existence of nearly 1,200 courts identified by archaeologists. While most historians believe the losers were the ones to lose their heads, some argue it was the victors who died, pointing to certain engraved images and beliefs about the afterlife. But this is fiercely contested. We know there were “star players and star teams,” says Joshua Mark, editor of Ancient History Encyclopedia, so if they kept winning matches and continued performing in front of Mayan leaders, then it seems fair to assume the losers were the ones being decapitated. In their book The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples andTombs, Linda Schele and Peter Mathews call the idea that winners were sacrificed a “myth” with “no evidence … in any of the ancient historical sources.” 

Either way, it’s important to note that dying postmatch was like a fast pass to paradise for the Maya, who, according to their beliefs, faced an arduous trek to heaven. The journey included a stint in the “horrifying” underworld of Xibalba, where they had to find and climb the tree of life, explains Mark. The only way to bypass the darkness? Dying in childbirth, suicide or — you guessed it — pok-ta-pok. So whether it was death by success or by loss, it was a golden ticket to the big temple in the sky. 

Spaniards took inspiration from the “heavy and very elastic” ball that Fox describes as “essentially solid, made of rubber latex … boiled and treated with various other ingredients.” The Europeans, he writes, “combined their concept of inflated balls (usually leather-enclosed animal bladders) with the newly discovered rubber.” And, voilà, modern-day sports balls were born.

Though we might not know all of the details about the complex sport of pok-ta-pok, we do know that other versions were also played by other Mesoamerican peoples, like the Aztecs and the Tarascans. And Mark poses a challenge: “There’s not a pro athlete in the world who could play that game the way Landa described it.” Any takers?

When Battered Husbands Speak Out

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Liam describes himself as a big bloke. In the same breath, the 45-year-old Irishman can recite the assaults he says he suffered at the hands of his soon-to-be ex-wife, from the sting of stab wounds to the crack of a cup catapulted at his skull. 

Across the Emerald Isle, a growing number of male domestic-abuse victims are seeking succor and support, according to Amen Support Services, which is dedicated to male survivors of domestic violence. The organization, the only one in Ireland of its kind, received 6,600 “contacts” in 2014 — phone calls, emails, texts, posts, counseling and court accompaniment. That marks a 42 percent increase from 2010. Similar patterns are appearing in Commonwealth countries. Even as the U.K.’s overall rate of domestic violence has declined — by 27 percent over the past decade — more men are pointing the finger at their abusers: Convictions of female perpetrators more than quadrupled between 2004–05 and 2014–15. Meanwhile, in Australia, the rate of men reporting violence experienced at the hands of their partners since the age of 15 nearly doubled between 2005 and 2012.

“Up until very recently, everything around domestic abuse — the narrative around domestic abuse — was that it’s a crime carried out by men on women, and that narrative has now changed,” says Mark Brooks, chairman of the ManKind Initiative, a British charity that supports male victims of domestic violence. Brooks asserts that British police and local authorities are taking male victims more seriously than before.

The conversation surrounding intimate-partner violence is also changing shape. In late 2011, Ireland’s National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (Cosc) partnered with Amen to establish a national committee on violence against men. Amen also contributed to Cosc’s second national strategy, launched this January. Advocates for abused men strive not only to abolish the binary of male as predator and woman as prey, but also to expand the idea of what a victim looks like — which could be a driver behind the surge in men speaking up. “Our line is that domestic abuse can happen to any man, anywhere, from any background,” Brooks says. “We get calls from builders, from tradesmen, from manual workers as much as we get calls from doctors or bankers, solicitors, even police officers.”

I would say the police and the legal shift is far more advanced than it is for society in general.

Mark Brooks, chairman, ManKind Initiative

A cursory glance at the history of civil or LGBT rights confirms that legal or policy gains can far outpace large-scale societal acceptance. And in fact, even as male victims are gaining policy support, they face a kind of social skepticism about their claims. Within the walls of advocacy organizations, men are believed, “but when they go out into the big, broad world, not always, no,” says Niamh Farrell, Amen’s manager. “Which obviously is another barrier that’s frustrating.”

Take Liam, who is haunted by a 2009 incident in which he alleges his wife, from whom he has since separated, stabbed him 15 times. According to Liam, she’s countered that he’s injured himself. “My children haven’t wanted to know me,” Liam says. “They told me, ‘Mommies don’t tell lies, only daddies tell lies.’” Adds Brooks: “I would say the police and the legal shift is far more advanced than it is for society in general.” 

How to support male victims of domestic abuse is another question. Given that the vast majority of domestic-abuse victims are women, some consider the push for gender-neutral domestic violence policies problematic. Domestic abuse is inherently gendered, argued Polly Neate, the head of Women’s Aid, a U.K. federation of more than 220 organizations advocating for female and child abuse victims, in a 2014 op-ed. In light of 2015 research indicating that official British crime figures grossly underestimated violent and sexual offenses against women, Neate argued for tailored responses for men — which should not be “at the expense of services for women and children, who make up the vast majority of high-risk cases and are the most likely to be killed.”

The figures we do have paint a wrenching picture. A 2014 European Union–wide survey revealed that 13 million women experienced physical violence in the year before the survey — equaling 7 percent of European women ages 18–74 — and 3.7 million experienced sexual violence in that time frame. These sorts of numbers illuminate why most initiatives and resources target women, notes Louise Crowley, a senior lecturer at Ireland’s University College Cork School of Law who organized a November 2015 domestic violence conference at UCC. The event centered on female victims and explored perpetrator programs — already fixtures in Australia and New Zealand — that help abusive men adjust their attitudes and behaviors. “I think it’s very unfair to say that less men are victims and so it’s less of an issue,” Crowley says. “I think we need to recognize the reality of both, but also the fact that women as victims are hugely more prevalent.”

That type of numbers-based thinking deeply troubles Liam. He references Ireland’s social worker booklet, which heavily emphasizes how many more women are victimized than men. “This is what the social worker learns from, this is her bible,” he says. “So what chance has a father got? What chance has a man got?” 

The Most Violent Prisoner in Britain

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This is first in a series on the world’s most violent prisoners.

He has lived more lives in the stony lonesome of a British prison than most of us do while free.

Meet Mr. Charles Salvador, formerly Michael Gordon Peterson, all 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds of him. He has also gone by Charles Bronson, a change prompted by his boxing manager. Or simply Bronson, after a haunting, somewhat fictionalized 2008 biopic of that name. Today Salvador is a recipient of British government largesse via Wakefield prison, one of the largest and highest-security prisons in the U.K. Wakefield, too, has other names: People call it Monster Mansion because of the vast profusion of hard cases it houses — and it’s where Salvador is serving a life sentence for a kidnapping while behind bars.

Apparently murder is completely unnecessary — Salvador has never actually killed anyone — to earn the utterly charming sobriquet “the most violent prisoner in Britain.” Unnecessary when you consider Salvador’s rap sheet, which is replete with impulse crimes, assaults, kidnappings and a steady diet of punch-ups with prison authorities — punch-ups that got him classified as a Category A prisoner, “highly dangerous to the public or national security.”

But maybe that kind of rap sheet is what follows, given the sheer amount of time Salvador has logged in prison, more than 40 of his 62 years alive. About 36 of those, by press reckoning, have been in solitary confinement because of his inability to play well with others. If you’re doing the math, that’s more than 120 prisons, at least 11 hostages, more than half a million pounds in damages and only about four months and nine days out of prison since 1974, when he was arrested for stealing 26 pounds (about $38). That incident set in motion a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies, since being near other people, if he’s not fighting with them, is an anxiety-ridden affair, according to Salvador, who recoils at being breathed on by other humans, at their smells and at, in total, a lot of what makes humans, well, human.

His artwork, though, and his writing — and a propensity for the kind of physical fitness that keeps him in fighting shape even in solitary — seem to serve as a salve for a soul unsettled. And largely because of the spot-on cinematic take on Salvador by Tom Hardy (you might know him as Batman’s nemesis Bane in The Dark Knight Rises) — up to and including the then-Bronson shaving off his mustache and sending it to Hardy because he wanted him to have the real thing — Salvador’s art, featured heavily in the film, has been pulling in noteworthy interest.

The possibility that he’s really his own worst enemy becomes much more probable.

Very specifically to the tune of 11 Koestler Trust Awards, which honor art by prisoners, as well as 11 books and a mix of painted and illustrated artwork that disappeared from the London Underground just as quickly as it had appeared during a controversial two-week show back in 2010. In fact, it’s Salvador’s love of art that precipitated his last name change, in 2014 — it’s an homage to Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí. Maybe there’s something to that old saw about finer artistic pursuits soothing the savage beast.

However, Hannah Elliott, a self-declared criminal justice revolutionary/visionary from Florida International University, supports the general idea that there’s nothing at odds with a propensity for anti-social activities and the creation of good, even great, art. “The fact that Picasso was never arrested for being an A-1 prick, among other things, surprises me much more than the fact that Salvador has,” she says. “His raising 30,000 pounds [about $44,000] from selling his stuff is pleasantly surprising though.”

Victims’ rights issues aside — Salvador liberally donates monies made from the sale of his art to children’s hospices — his otherworldly strangeness doesn’t begin and end with the fist. He had a son during his first marriage, converted to Islam on the occasion of his second, renounced Islam and has just seen the business end of a decision to renounce violence. A renunciation that probably has very little to do with the periodic campaigns for his release, the last of which got a 10,000-signature petition to the government, where it was subsequently ignored.

“I fear no one,” Salvador, who could not be reached in prison for comment, once said and later emblazoned in one of his books. “Violence just makes me madder and stronger.” But there are all kinds of madness and other kinds of strength, and when you realize that Salvador drew the life sentence for taking hostage a prison educator who critiqued his art, the possibility that he’s really his own worst enemy becomes much more probable.

Or as David Gussak, a professor in Florida State University’s art education department and clinical coordinator for its graduate art therapy program, said, after analyzing Salvador’s paintings for Psychology Today, “They do not appear to be completed by someone overly aggressive and out of control, let alone a reflection of emotional turmoil. The very act of completing these images may in a sense provide him a semblance of control and mastery over the very environment he feels forces him to lose control.”

A Special Edition on Cruelty

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Not gonna lie, some of our best-performing stories on OZY have to do with human cruelty: sadistic serial killers, violent prisoners, mass murderers and the like. What is it about evil that so moves us? Perhaps it’s fear. Or it might be the recognition, deep down, that we all harbor the capacity for inhumanity. 

Most people abhor cruelty, of course, but they don’t necessarily agree on what constitutes it. The American Constitution’s Eighth Amendment forbids “cruel and unusual punishment,” but what counts is subject to litigation. That led Meghan Walsh to an interesting proposal: Many of us might consider a flogging less cruel than a long prison sentence — so why not allow prisoners to choose how they’re punished?  

Alexandria Washburn’s story on a teenage Mexican cockfighter, meanwhile, elicited some tsk-tsks — why didn’t we call cockfighting “animal abuse”? Steve Butler looked at a 19th-century massacre whose history is being revised, with the massacre coming out rather well. Anna Nordberg argued that Game of Thrones, possibly the most sadistic television show ever, actually had a soft heart at one point. And, speaking of gamifying cruelty, we hope you’ll check out Taylor Mayol’s piece on the team sport that ended in … beheadings. 

It’s High Noon for Ted Cruz in Indiana

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Sure, Ted Cruz’s stirrups have been shaken lately, humbled in places like Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York. But rather than licking his wounds, he’s staging a final stand of sorts as he firmly gazes toward the farm-and-car country of Indiana.

So far, internal polls reportedly show the Senate’s rogue cowboy neck-in-neck with his Manhattan rival, Donald Trump. And while he’s brokered a peace deal here with his other opponent, John Kasich, who agreed to pull out and cede Indiana to Cruz in order to hurt the Donald, certain supporters may come to the rescue — anti-Trump forces like the Club for Growth, for one, are committing millions in ad dollars. What are some of the other tactics Cruz might use to roadblock Trump on what’s become his seemingly inevitable march to the GOP nomination? Glad you asked.

A Polling Advantage?

The Texan’s campaign bus seems to have racked up more rust than miles of late, ever since Cruz left the daily campaigning of states like Iowa and New Hampshire for less highway-heavy stays in places like New York and Pennsylvania. Cruz has “basically moved” to Indiana, notes state politico Abdul-Hakim Shabazz. More important, around a third of Indiana’s 92 counties have “voting centers,” central hubs where all the voters in a county can vote, regardless of neighborhood. That creates somewhat of an advantage for better-organized candidates like Cruz, who can organize shuttles of volunteers to pick up would-be voters and drop them off at the same location — a feat not so simple in other states.

Trump, despite plans from campaign strategist Paul Manafort to “balloon his in-state operation” to 40 staffers, appears to have had virtually no “ground game” so far, Shabazz says. Perhaps it’s fitting then that the pastor’s son stands to benefit most from a souls-to-the-polls strategy. Don’t be surprised if you see buses full of “Crusading Cruzers” coming to a Hoosier neighborhood near you.

Courting the Airwaves 

Much has been made of Cruz’s win in nearby Wisconsin, driven, in part, by a significant #NeverTrump contingent of radio hosts who backed his upset bid. In Indiana, too, there are a few power brokers of political talk radio. Shabazz — an attorney by trade, blogger at and radio show host in Indianapolis — is among them. So is his colleague Tony Katz, as well as WOWO radio’s Pat Miller, who greets afternoon traffickers in Fort Wayne, the state’s second-largest city, and who tells OZY that he’s backed Cruz, even emceeing a campaign event this week. “They have a certain amount of influence here,” says Andy Downs, a political scientist at Indiana University—Purdue University Fort Wayne.

Take the Obama Playbook — and Flip It

The last time Indiana mattered in a presidential race, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were duking it out for the Democratic nomination in 2008. But these are different times, and this race “seems a lot more dark, a lot more negative,” Shabazz says. Which is why, for Cruz, he might do better channeling his inner Emperor Palpatine (“Let the hate flow through you”) than the light. After all, faith in politicians, the party system and the media are all at historic lows — and conservatives are among the most dour. More than half of Republicans said the United States “stood above all other countries” in 2011, but that number fell to 37 percent in 2014, the steepest drop of any demographic group, according to Gallup polls.

The point: Being too optimistic can seem disingenuous, à la Marco Rubio. And with more than a few rank-and-file conservatives thinking that Cruz comes across as “too slick,” it wouldn’t hurt to throw some self-righteous shade at the Donald. Which might explain the scare tactics filling donors’ inboxes: “Death threats,” one recent Cruz fundraising email was titled. Another followed, just a few hours later, promising to start a hotline to “keep delegates safe” from mean old Trumpeters. Its subject line? “SERIOUS death threats.”

Remember Your Enemy’s Enemy

Another quirk of elections in Indiana: It’s a closed affair that acts like an open one. How so? Well, by law, only Republicans are supposed to vote in the GOP primary, which would favor Cruz, who does better with die-hard party folks. But, practically speaking, the state has no way to enforce those rules, says Downs, so independents or so-called Reagan Democrats could rally behind Trump.

Yet here too Cruz could build an advantage. First, his alliance with Kasich means moderates and  liberals could rally around Cruz as a middle-finger vote against Trump. The key? Taking his plea for strategic voting to where the people are — cities and suburbs, where at least 40 percent of all Indiana voters are within the reach of major media markets, including Chicago to the northwest, Indianapolis in the center and, to a lesser extent, Louisville and Cincinnati to the southeast. To win Indiana, it might just be time to turn out “Big City” Ted.

Everything You Need to Know About What It Means to Be Alive

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Press the “share” button if you were required to read Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir in high school or college. Great! Here’s a way for you to go back again.

The recently published At the Existentialist Café, by Sarah Bakewell, tells the history of existentialist ideas and the people behind them. Amusing and enlightening, it goes beyond what you might have picked up in high school English, particularly if you were asleep. A strong point is that “she is reading the existentialists from the perspective of 2016 and from her own perspective,” says professor Robert Bernasconi, an expert in existentialism and Bakewell’s former professor. In the mid-1900s, existentialism shot up, asking questions about human existence. These, folks, were the basic questions: What does it mean to be alive? What is an authentic life? Can we exercise free will, and what responsibility do we have if we do indeed choose our own actions?

Existentialist Café does not provide all the answers, unfortunately, but it does dig into the lives of the existentialists asking all those existential questions. These thinkers were celebrities, and they had personality. Jean-Paul Sartre was an inveterate flirt who, probably apocryphally, lured women up to his suite with the promise that they could sniff his good Camembert. (Why did that work?) Martin Heidegger was a Nazi sympathizer not known for good deeds (although he apparently occasionally did some). These philosophers walked their talk — by speaking out against pro-wealthy laws, participating in strikes and having a lot of sex with a lot of partners (free will’s great, isn’t it?). Also: Their parties were not filled with sophisticates in black, puffing on cigarettes. Turns out existentialists liked plaid.

Bakewell recommends three works: The Second Sex (Beauvoir), The Rebel (Camus) and Nausea (Sartre). In Sartre’s No Exit, the only way to exist in the living world after death is when others think of you. So, perhaps, Sartre and his fellow existentialists are still “alive” today. Their ideas sure are.

Sex Wars, Fluid Fun + Bad Vibes

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You have sexy questions? Eugene has sexy answers. Write. Now:

My Happiness, Your Happenis

EUGENE, SIR: Great Q&A in “Totally Unsexy Death of Sex.” Men need more articles like this. More often than not, we get blamed for affairs, but never is it mentioned that women have given up on sex. Even after men sit down and talk to their partners, explaining their need for intimacy, women, especially those who are married, have no incentive to change. They have men painted in a corner and the cards stacked in their favor. If men leave, they are threatened with losing half or more of their net worth, with making huge child support payments and seeing little of their kids. It’s not totally the men’s fault, but we get the blame for being unfaithful. Most men would gladly remain faithful, but when you are told your partner isn’t interested, that it’s not worth her time to be intimate, you’re going to look elsewhere for intimacy. Never will a woman tell her friends, “I stopped being intimate with him, that drove him away.” Then women are angry that their man had an affair. I once told a woman if she didn’t want to have sex that was fine, but that I did need intimacy and if she couldn’t provide it, then I would look elsewhere. It made no impression on her. If a woman loses interest, it is her fault, not the man’s. Write more stories like this. — Ed

Dear Mr. Ed: Thanks for the love, Eddie, baby. But you know, the interesting thing about doing advice column stuff is the seeming futility of it all. Sort of like being a longtime U.N. employee. Job security? One hundred percent guaranteed. The sense that you’re having any impact at all given people’s propensity for doing the same damaging things again and again? Zero percent guaranteed. Letters come in from both sides of this spectrum, and the reality of it is, sex is sold short all the time, and so longtime couples find themselves in places just like you’re describing, both throwing in the towel and both not copping to the fact that realistically speaking, sex is sophisticated and complicated as all get-out. 

After all, is it even possible to have FUN as often as sex requires us to have fun to have it and report enjoying having it?

Probably not. So what are we gunning for? Something so idiosyncratically unique that more often than not, it at least pleases us. What does this say about fidelity, monogamy, sex clubs, threesomes, role-playing, bondage or a half-dozen other philias unmentioned here? Everything. And if that doesn’t work, scoot, scoot on. In the end, the blame game helps no one. What helps everyone? Seduction, 360-degree-style. Because, realistically speaking, very few are sick of having sex. Many get sick of having it with those they’ve had it with again and again, though. Putting you at a disadvantage with, well, the mailman, for example. So make it all new again by believing that it actually can be made new again, since it clearly can. Or clear out. But sticking in limbo? Who is that helping?


Getting Near the Golden Showers Hour

EUGENE, SIR: Jessica — let’s call her Jessica — just let me know that she thinks it would be sexy if she peed in my mouth. I don’t find this sexy and said so. She said this was no different from me ejaculating in her mouth. I think there’s a big difference. She asked me what the difference was and then said I was a prude. I stormed out. There is a difference, right? — KS

Dear Kansas: Let us turn to our go-to Hippocratic oath–taker Steve Ballinger for an answer on this one: “Semen is a combination of secretions from the prostate that is like a cross between mucus and saliva, and spermatozoa, which are little living cells. So semen is like a protein drink. Urine is water, salt, bilirubin, urea and other waste products that are end products of metabolism, filtered out of the blood by the kidneys for disposal.

“A human could conceivably subsist on semen in terms of caloric and protein macros; urine might extend the time from dying of dehydration from five to 10 days. But along with the water, you would be taking in a bunch of waste material that your body doesn’t want, and eventually you would get renal failure and die. So: Semen is healthy; urine is disgusting. 

“I’d say an equal exchange would be semen for vaginal secretion, which men have historically ingested plenty of, and to my knowledge no man has ever tried to get any credit or retribution for swallowing vaginal juice, hair, and plenty of other stuff.” Now storm back in there!

Bad Vibrations 

EUGENE, SIR:  I love using a vibrator when I have sex, but guys feel threatened by it. Stupid. — Steph

Dear Step H: If a guy was to pull out a porn mag when you were having sex, explaining it as something he did when he pleasured himself, would you feel threatened by it? I’m not saying you should, I’m just saying you might. Why might you? Well, it’s like if someone starts humming a song that’s different from the song playing on the radio. WE are listening to music, YOU’D be humming a tune. We’ve gone from something we’re doing together to something you’re doing alone. So in my mind? Not so stupid for guys to be put out by this. If you want to make it part of playtime, involve them. “I want you to grab what you find in that drawer and use it on me” is much cooler than “Gimme a minute.” Of course, if they use it badly/poorly, you have another problem on your hands, and if that’s the case, well, write back and we’ll handle it.

The Worst Kind of Waiting

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Louise Nayer is the author of four books, most recently Burned: A Memoir, an Oprah Great Read. She has been interviewed on NPR and is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.

These are the waiting rooms I’ve been spared: 37 operations over five years for my mother and more than 10 operations for my father. They had been burned in an explosion. I was just 4 years old in the 1950s, and children were not allowed in hospital waiting rooms. My sister believed our parents were dead.

I remember playing Monopoly at a farm in upstate New York, where I lived for nine months with my uncle and aunt when my mother almost died from the anesthesia while “on the table” at Beth Israel Hospital in New York City. 

My waiting room as a child was my face pressed against a second-story window, watching through all the seasons for my mother to return down the serpentine road through Peter Cooper Village, where we lived. When she got her “final face,” I strained to see it from the window. It was not the face the plastic surgeons had promised. It was “presentable.” People stared.


Many, many years later, my husband and I enter the Kaiser Ambulatory Unit waiting room in San Francisco. Jim registers at the desk and I see a board covered with numbers and strips of color. “It’s like at the horse races,” Jim says. He’s nervous, about to be called in for surgery. I gaze at the colored strips on the board, pick out his long number and scrunch closer to him until he’s called in by a nurse.

I rejoin the others who wait. Cellphones go off with generic rings, soul music and Latin rhythms. No one gets annoyed. No official says, “No cellphones, please.” I’ve talked to both my daughters, texted my stepdaughter and a close friend, and talked to my sister. There is no one else to talk to right now. I try to read. I can’t. I try to get work done. I can’t concentrate. The room feels warm. People text, stare into space, put their hands to their heads, rest their heads in their palms, get up to go to the cafeteria holding the pagers they give you at busy restaurants to alert you when your table is ready. The pagers look like spaceships. Our loved ones might as well be in outer space. Cellphones don’t work well in this room. I take the elevator down to the cafeteria to get some eggs, but I don’t like being so far from the waiting room, so far from Jim. We have been married 32 years.

People stare at pagers, whisper ‘I love you’ into cellphones and fidget while trying to be brave as they wait for their loved ones to emerge whole.

As I eat my scrambled eggs, I put my hand in my purse several times to make sure my spaceship pager is with me.


Back in the waiting room, I look at the board. Jim started in the pre-op room (light green) and is now in the OR procedure room (dark blue). When a patient moves to recovery, the color morphs to lavender. Who chooses the colors? I look too often and even go up to the board to study the “key,” which doesn’t explain everything. Some colors are ambiguous.

One woman has her finger in her mouth. I remember hearing that some Wall Street stockbrokers would suck their thumbs behind The Wall Street Journal on the train from the suburbs to New York City. I clasp my hands.

“Any family member for Ms. Lise?” A woman walks through the waiting room. I’m not sure why family members are being called back there. I wish one of my daughters was with me, but they live far away. It’s only hernia surgery, not open-heart surgery, I tell myself. It could have been cancer. Jim saw the lump when he took a shower.

I was told I’d get a call or a page when it’s “over.”


Jim is still in the dark blue zone. He’s almost 72. He’s always been in phenomenal shape. Last year he climbed Half Dome in Yosemite with our grandson. He backpacked 50 miles with one of our daughters two years ago. But he’s slowing down. He had respiratory problems for six months this year. “Harder to kick,” the doctor said, “when you’re older.”

He still runs in Golden Gate Park three times a week, rain or shine. “Keep moving,” he says, something he’s learned while working with seniors for most of his professional life.

The hernia was earned over many years of lifting: moving our daughters to and from Ohio, Brooklyn, San Francisco and Los Angeles and lifting children, grandchildren, suitcases, groceries and even a toilet recently to put in our downstairs room.

Still dark blue. It’s taking longer than I remember from the brochure I have in my bag. I pull it out: 25 to 40 minutes. Jim has been in there close to an hour. I go to the receptionist. “He’s still in the operating room,” she says. I return 15 minutes later. “I’ll check on him at 12:45,” she says. I take my seat and find my leg is twitching. When 12:45 rolls around, the receptionist makes a call. “Still in the OR,” she says. I’m getting worried now. I’m hoping the pager will go off and the doctor will say, “All fine, you can relax,” but nothing.

I sigh with relief as I look at the board. Jim’s color has changed from dark blue to green. Green means “closing” on the key, but what, I wonder, is being closed? The wound, the operating room, the door? I think about texting the kids but decide to wait until I see Jim in the flesh and not as a number on the board.

A man walks by with a cart offering coffee and tea. I want some coffee, but he has no milk or cream. We’re in the waiting room, as fragile as spiderwebs that could break at any moment. A cup of warm coffee or tea is such a nice gesture, but no milk?

“I’m sorry,” is all he says. The man and his cart push on until they recede out of view.

Ten minutes pass. Jim is still in “closing” — in green — and I stop looking for a few minutes. When I look again, he’s lavender — “recovery” — a spiritual color, a creative color, many adolescent girls’ favorite color. I breathe deeply and relax. I stare at the walls. There are photographs of waterfalls and one of San Francisco in the fog. A focus group probably picked the pictures, I think, and laugh. I want to tell Jim. Why hasn’t my pager gone off? Why hasn’t the doctor called? I go up to the receptionist, a bit sheepishly. Maybe I’ve become a pest, a bother. “They usually call,” she says, which doesn’t make me feel better. She calls again.

“A nurse will come out and get you soon,” she says. Five minutes later, a nurse says, “Family for Mr. Patten.” I’m escorted to my husband’s bed, where he’s sitting up, alive and well. He has mesh in his body, but he can go camping, backpacking even.

The nurse takes his blood pressure and talks to us about “discharge” and what to expect. I text my daughters and stepdaughter and attach a photo of their father sitting up in bed.

“He did great,” the nurse says. “He even peed already.” The system is working. I help him get dressed, help him with his socks and shoes. He doesn’t want a wheelchair. He wants to walk, to keep moving. I put my arm around him to steady him.

We walk out together through the crowded waiting room, where people stare at pagers, whisper “I love you” into cellphones and fidget while trying to be brave as they wait for their loved ones to emerge whole.

All over the world, people are in waiting rooms, in hospitals, in makeshift tents, in homes or perhaps looking out windows as I did as a little girl, hoping my mother would return. Some never even get to the waiting room.

Some are lucky, some not so lucky. I steady Jim as we cross the street in blinding sunlight to our car, leaving behind, for now, that room with the pictures of waterfalls, colors morphing toward recovery, cellphones beeping and voices saying “I love you.”

The Underdog Mexican Mom in Office


Who would vote for a Spanish-speaking mom, an amateur politician who “don’t speak English” fluently and needs a translator’s help to legislate? 

More than 22,000 people, apparently. Who would vote for her again? That remains to be seen. 

The mom in question is 43-year-old Patty López, a California state assemblywoman representing San Fernando whose election story is the stuff of grassroots dreams. Two years ago, López ousted establishment Democrat Raul Bocanegra with some $16,000 against the million-plus dollars he reportedly spent. Some of those thousands came from fellow moms selling pupusas and tamales.  López was “the consummate outsider,” says Assemblywoman Susan Eggman from Stockton. But now it’s 2016, and the election looms once more. In a familiar reprisal of so much at play in American politics, the question is for how long a story, a name and a narrative can power electoral victory. 

Over the past two years, Mexican-born López has introduced 37 bills, five of which landed on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk. She has passed four bills into law, including one that focuses on keeping foster families together and another on securing child care for working families. Among her hot-button issues are affordable housing, homelessness and adult education in a budget-strapped district — issues, she says, that affect her working-class constituents. López isn’t interested in playing nice with lobbies or Hollywood, an industry she says her predecessor was cozy with, and calls heavily on her identity as the anti-establishment candidate. (Bocanegra did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) But flouting the party has caused something unusual to happen: In the upcoming race, the Democratic Party is endorsing Bocanegra. “She can survive the struggle,” says Edwin Ramirez, a 59-year-old community activist.

López’s district, on the outskirts of LA, is nearly 70 percent Hispanic. San Fernando struggles with employment for its many workers who lack college degrees and need jobs accessible by the limited public transit route. The town is tinged with irony: The planned route of the state’s high-speed rail project will pass right by San Fernando, but it won’t stop there. López is emphatically against it. 

Originally from Michoacán, Mexico, López came to the U.S. when she was 12. She received next to no formal education because her mom didn’t trust the U.S. government to educate her child; instead, López stayed at home while her mom worked. In her 20s, López decided to get her GED and signed up for English classes. Even now, her English is broken, but some say that’s what makes her a good representative. “While Patty may not be as articulate as others, that’s one of the beauties of her speaking up — she represents people who have been afraid to speak up in the past,” says Lydia Grant, an education advocate from López’s district. López worked on a factory assembly line for six years — her husband still works there — before getting a job with the Los Angeles Unified School District. Today, her house is paid off and she owns a car. “When people say it’s a dream in America, I feel like I am one of those dreams,” she says. 

Over the course of 14 years, that LAUSD job taught López, who became a vocal attendee at public education forums, the inner workings of the school system. Then, a few years ago, looming budget cuts threatened to roll back the district’s adult education programs — the very programs that allowed López and many fellow immigrants to get GEDs and learn English. López felt Bocanegra wasn’t acting. “Nobody was really listening,” says Ramirez. 

López sat at home with family, bottled water and cookies, watching the votes roll in. When she won, by fewer than 500 votes, she couldn’t believe it.

Her record so far looks, to some, amateurish. Paul Luna, a self-described concerned citizen from the San Fernando area, wishes López would focus on “heavier” issues rather than ones that have “felt irrelevant.” “With all the stuff we’ve got going on, [she] wants to talk about butterflies?” Luna asks, referencing a piece of legislation López introduced pushing for monarch conservation. And her inexperience has gotten López into trouble. In March, she settled with the California Fair Political Practices Commission after three constituents filed more than 200 pages worth of complaints alleging that López improperly followed campaign finance laws by failing to file statements on time or into a single bank account, and by dealing in unreported cash when it came to those tamales, among other things. Max Kanin, López’s attorney, says that she “made mistakes as a first-time candidate and someone who is unfamiliar with a complicated finance system.” López paid a $7,500 fine.

“In a funny way, it plays to her strengths,” says Eric C. Bauman, vice chair of the California Democratic Party. “She ran as an outsider and … has continued philosophically to do that.” López has beaten the odds once or twice before. And this time around, she’s backed by the California Nurses Association and labor union SEIU.

When I ask about the butterflies displayed in a glass case on the chair next to me, López tells me they’re a gift from a friend. “Butterflies are like immigrants,” she says. “Many die, but I made it. I’m a testimonial.”