Sunday, August 24, 2008

Goodbye, Bear

(Note: This is an older story, but the one story which I continue to receive comments about. As there have been requests to see this story again, I decided to post it, here. I actually don't think it's one of my best written pieces, and out of the 1500 or so articles I've written over the past 10+ years, it's one of the very few first person stories I've told. Feel free to comment. Thank you - RY)

by Rachel Baruch Yackley
February 26, 2005
Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)

A couple of weeks ago we took our dog Bear to the vet for the last time.

This final appointment was made after months of watching our old friend's health rapidly decline, due to old age. Although it was a predictable end, it was a hard decision for my husband, our daughter, and myself to make.

Understood among pet owners is the sense that any creature which has lived with you for years becomes part of the family. The dog or cat, bird or hamster is incorporated into your daily lives.

Just as with humans, dogs who live long, healthy lives, as ours did, eventually start showing signs of old age.

During the last few months of Bear's life, his descent into old age became more noticeable, and more rapid. We gave him aspirin every day for his arthritis and he loved it when I massaged his hips. He began napping through most of the day, after his morning walk - sometimes not waking until 3 p.m.

My anxiety level perceptibly rose as I would check on him throughout the day to see if he was breathing.

His hearing was gone, a loss that was most obvious when we would approach him and he would startle. He'd even been getting gray hair. His thick black coat, that of a chow-huskie mix, was filling in with gray, all around his muzzle, and on his chest. Then he had problems with incontinence.

At this point, our veterinarian, Thomas Favale at the St. Charles Veterinary Clinic, counseled Mike that it was up to us to decide how long we wanted to continue with this. Obviously Bear was not going to get better, and at over 13 years old, he was not only old, but obviously in failing health.

"Each doctor has a different style. None would tell a client (that euthanasia) is what they have to do," said Marty Strauss, the office manager at the St. Charles Veterinary Clinic. "Each person has different thresholds. What could be comfortable with one person might be way too early for another. Everyone has their own definition of when enough is enough."

In an article, "The Hardest Decision a Pet Owner Has to Make," by Krista Mifflin (, the author directs pet owners to ask the hard questions, like is your pet still with you because it's best for it, or because you want to keep her here? If medical treatments are involved, are they "adding quantity of life without adding quality? Does the pleasure of living outweigh the pain?

Strauss, who has many pets of her own, is aware that this situation is evolving with her family's oldest dog.

Her own children, ages 17, 13, and 8, "asked me, when the dog urinated in the house, and struggles going up and down stairs, if we are going to do this. I personally feel if I'm keeping my dog alive for me and not for her, that's not right."

It was obvious to us, as time went on, that Bear was in pain, probably most of the time.

Part of what makes the decision to put a dog to sleep difficult is that they are very stoic animals, and do not show they are in pain. This is an inherent survival skill for these animals.

But, as Strauss said, "By the time you see the symptoms of discomfort, they've probably been in pain a long time," and so it is important to pay close attention to your dog, especially to any changes in his or her behavior.

Several years back, we had our cat put to sleep after months of giving him insulin shots for diabetes. Our daughter, Rebecca, was probably around 7 years old at the time, and had such a close relationship with this cat that he would snuggle under blankets with her, sit next to her when she read or watched TV, and even let her dress him up in doll clothes.

At her young age, we decided to keep the conversation to a minimum, making sure she knew the cat was very sick and that we were doing everything we could. When the time came for me to take the cat to the vet that last time, I didn't tell Rebecca ahead of time. She mourned the loss of the cat for months, crying at the drop of a hat, and was very angry with me for a long time.

So, this time, we decided that there would be a lot more discussion with her beforehand, about what was happening with Bear. For about two weeks, amid many tears, we talked about how the dog's body was failing, and how it was time to talk about letting him go. When the time came, the three of us talked about when we wanted to make the dog's final appointment with the vet, and who would go.

Strauss said that there are several great books available which are especially helpful for families with children, who are experiencing the loss of a pet. One which she recommends is "Dog Heaven," written by Cynthia Rylant, as well as "Cat Heaven," by the same author.

Rebecca decided that she wanted to do a few special, favorite things with the dog during his last few days, so we took him to the forest preserve, and we took him for a long ride in the car. His energy seemed pretty high and he was obviously smiling, which all made the decision so much harder. But looking at all the factors, we knew we were making the right decision for Bear.

We all went to the final appointment, and Mike went in with Bear. The parking lot is as far as Rebecca could go. She was crying, and one thing she kept saying over and over, which I'll never forget, was how every time the dog went into the vet's, "he always came out." But not this time.

It felt like Mike was gone a long time, but he eventually came out alone, and got into the truck. Looking very pale, he said he decided not to stay while Bear was put to sleep.

When we got home from the vet that night, I saw something sticking out of our mailbox. Taking it out, I found it was a condolence card from one of our neighbors. It was such a thoughtful and touching thing to do and it still makes me cry.

Then the next morning, there was another condolence card stuck in our mailbox from another neighbor. The day after that, we got a condolence card from my sister, Lisa, in Chicago. And a few days later, we received a lovely condolence card with a personal note from vet Favale, who had taken care of Bear for all of his 13 years.

The St. Charles Veterinary Clinic also makes follow-up condolence telephone calls, when the doctor feels it is needed. These calls were initiated about nine years ago, and are made by a clinic employee who has a unique ability to understand and connect with the clients.

"Everybody around you, when you lose a human companion, recognizes the loss. But not everyone does when you lose a pet," Strauss said.

I feel like I should have sent the vet a condolence card, too.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Do-It-Yourself Bat Mitzvah

A Do-It-Yourself Bat Mitzvah
By Rachel Baruch Yackley
from, July 2008

About four months before our daughter Rebecca turned 13, she announced that she wanted to have a bat mitzvah. Music to my ears!

My response was actually something like this: "Well, that sounds like a great idea. Let me think about it for a while. Let me think about how and where we would do this."

You see, we were an interfaith, albeit practicing, Jewish family without a home. We had no current membership with any of the synagogues in the area, and Rebecca hadn't attended religious school, nor had she had any Hebrew education, in over two years. Her desire to celebrate becoming a bat mitzvah--an adult in the Jewish community--came about two years after we stopped attending Congregation Etz Chaim, a Reform synagogue in Lombard, Ill. Many a family talk took place the summer between fourth and fifth grade (when she became adamant about not attending religious school), including, "If you stop going now, you won't be able to have a bat mitzvah at this synagogue."

She said she didn't care. She said she didn't want to have a bat mitzvah.

I was a bit bummed out, but she was, and still is (at 15 years old) unwavering and very open about her identity as a Jew. That was good enough for me, especially as she was growing up with a Jewish mother and a Catholic father.

Then seemingly out of the blue she changed her mind. Tears came to my eyes. My heart trembled when I thought of how thrilled my mother was going to be when I gave her this wonderful news!

Even though we weren't part of Congregation Etz Chaim, Rebecca did feel she had a religious home--the one that we formed when she was about 10 years old. A small group of people in our community in Geneva, Ill. formed Fox Valley Jewish Neighbors. We have Jewish and interfaith participants of all ages, and host Sabbath services as well as religious, educational and fundraising events at least once a month. I lead most of our Shabbat and Havdalah services and am usually the song leader. Rebecca helps with services from time to time, too. Through this intimate community of Jewish and interfaith families, Rebecca' s interest in proclaiming her entrance into Jewish adulthood was ignited. It was this group with whom she wanted to share her special event.

It meant I had to organize a bat mitzvah with no congregation, no rabbi and no organizing committees. Everything was open, even what kind of service we would do and where we would hold it.

Rebecca determined that she wanted to stick with familiar prayers like those in our homemade prayer books we used on Friday nights at FVJN. She also wanted to include a Torah service, mostly because she wanted to honor close relatives by calling them up to the bima to recite the aliyot, the prayers said before and after each section of the Torah readings. From the Humanistic Jewish tradition, she chose to do a research project and she also wanted to do a mitzvah project--a social action effort, which is typically done when preparing to become a bat mitzvah.

The prayers in the service were mostly the same prayers we recite on Friday nights, which Rebecca already knew. We started meeting at the kitchen table once a week in March, five months before her bat mitzvah to go through the service prayer by prayer, page by page with me playing the guitar. By the time school got out the beginning of June, we upped that to twice a week, and by July, we were focusing on the more challenging parts, about three times a week. By the first week of August, she knew the service inside and out.

I have to admit that it wasn't all a bed of roses. I distinctly remember yelling something like, "If I were a rabbi, you wouldn't be struggling with me like this," when she didn't feel like practicing, or was getting frustrated and tired, then distracted or argumentative. But for the most part, we worked surprisingly well together.

The Torah portion for Rebecca's bat mitzvah was Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18 - 21:9). Rebecca' s Hebrew education was limited and I knew I couldn't teach her enough Hebrew to read the Torah. Instead we asked a favor of a family friend, Beth Kaplan, who had been studying Torah cantillation and could borrow a small Torah scroll from her synagogue, Congregation Sinai, in Wisconsin. For the service, Beth chanted the Torah portion, and Rebecca read the English. They alternated, providing the congregation with a coherent, cohesive translation of each section of the reading.

"I kind of wish I could have read the Torah," Rebecca recently said, "and I wish I hadn't had to read the transliterations in the prayer book."

Part of me feels badly that that piece was sacrificed, but when I responded with an offer to teach her to read Hebrew, she adamantly declined.

Along with sacrifices came the opportunity to do a significant piece we wouldn't have been able to do at our old synagogue: just before the Torah service, my husband Mike, who has always been involved with and supportive of Rebecca's Jewish education, got to participate in the handing down of the Torah. This was almost inexpressibly important to all three of us, and was one of the many emotional parts of the service.

For her research project, Rebecca researched and wrote a paper on the Girls' Orchestra of Auschwitz, which she shared with the congregation at the end of her service. For her mitzvah project, she volunteered at the Anderson Animal Shelter in South Elgin, Ill., where she helped take care of cats and dogs for several weeks. We also made centerpieces of cat treats and toys to decorate the tables at the afternoon's luncheon. These were later donated to the shelter.

All in all, the bat mitzvah was a success."I felt more accomplished for having done it," Rebecca said. "Now, after seeing other people's bar and bat mitzvahs, I led a lot more of the service. I really enjoyed doing it, and I really liked it that Grandma and Papa (my husband's father who died nine months later) were there."

For me, as her mother, her teacher and the service leader, there was a moment before the service which set the tone and carried us through the entire day. Just before we started the service, I took Rebecca aside and we sat on a couch in the hall behind the sanctuary. I held her hand and choking over my words, told her how very proud I was of her taking all this on, and working so hard to make it happen. She too got choked up, gave me a hug, and said, "I'm proud of you, too, mom."

Thursday, June 12, 2008

You can learn to avoid marrying a jerk

You can learn to avoid marrying a jerk

by Rachel Baruch Yackley
Posted Daily Herald, Monday, May 21, 2007

It’s not unusual to have a bad relationship. But the trick is to avoid having one the next time around.

You can learn how to better choose your mate at Betty Lou Barsley-Marra’s course “How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk (or Jerkette).”
This course is for everyone,  whether you are contemplating a first serious relationship or have been around the block a few times.

Barsley-Marra is an educator who specializes in human sexuality, human development, early-childhood education, secondary education, relationship enhancement and personal development and wellness. She has taught in early-childhood settings, in a public secondary school, and at the university level.

Barsley-Marra earned her bachelor’s degree in family and child development from Northern Illinois University, and her master’s from the University of Illinois at Chicago in instructional leadership with a specialization in human sexuality education and counseling. She is working on her doctorate in clinical psychology.

Q: Why do you teach this particular program?

A: I’ve done relationship education for about 30 years. I’ve worked with teens, and with couples, before. This program filled a niche. It’s not (a program) that I wrote. It was written by psychologist John van Epp. His approach is unique: Can we get people to explore their choices before jumping in? Most religious groups have their own method of exploring this with couples, but they do it too late ... after everyone’s in love.

Q: What’s the structure of the program; is it interactive?

A: It really is what I would call a combination of presentation and discussion. People don’t have to reveal anything they don’t want to. Participants do like some presentation, and we move into lots of issues to discuss. I try to create a sense of community where people feel free to discuss (these issues). Also, everyone gets a workbook which they can work on in the intervening weeks. It’s not required, its just to keep track of what they’re thinking.

Q: I’ve heard this is a very popular class. Where have you taught it before?

A: I’ve taught this class in McHenry, DuPage, and in Kane County last October. We have them planned through 2008, throughout the northeast part of the state. The first time I taught this was in January ’06. It’s done well since the get-go. We’re getting a lot more inquiries from people. I try to have at least one class going in this all the time; I do eight to nine per year. I also do parent education classes and human sexuality classes.

Q: Why do this in five sessions? Why isn’t one enough?

A: I suppose you could do this in a whole day. But we learned through research that it really helps if people can reflect during the intervening weeks. We meet for five weeks in a row, and six months later we have a reunion. Because we are a university, we’re always gathering research data. People share anecdotes, and we look for people who are choosing different behaviors than they were before the class.  We work with folks to recap, and that’s always very interesting. People in the class get to hear what each other thinks about it (the program).

I can think particularly of a woman a couple classes ago who said she found herself on the Internet, scanning (dating sites), like she used to before the class started. She would immediately fall for one guy or another, based on what she saw. After just the first few days of the class, she said, “I realized I was doing it again.” She was already changing her behavior.

It’s about finding how do you pace your heart to give your head time to get the information it needs. (After that) you’re really looking at people doing things differently.

Q: This sounds like behavior modification.

A: Yes. Getting people to be more mindful — more aware of what you do — and do what’s best for themselves outside of external influences.

Q: What kinds of responses have you gotten from previous people?

A: For some people, that it’s helpful to hear it’s OK not to settle; not to rush into things. We’re strongly controlled by our culture. People think they’re doing it wrong if they spend too much time thinking about it.
Single people, especially of a certain age, are always hearing that they’re too picky, too. You have to ask yourself, does this person (you like) consistently treat you well and respectfully? That’s not being picky. We all deserve respect and honesty.

I think that in many ways, the men who are brave enough to come to this class, when we crunch the numbers, turn out to be statistically as much if not more positive (than the women) about proceeding in a relationship in a way that makes it more satisfying and successful.

Q: What part of the population do you see more of at this class, people who are divorced? People who have been hurt?

A: We get people between the ages of 17 and 83 years old. Except for the very youngest, most of the people have had a real broken heart from being involved with a jerk. They all describe that person as, “What a jerk!” Sometimes the very young people who come, if they haven’t experienced it themselves, have seen it with others, and want to learn how to avoid getting involved with a jerk.

Q: Would you share a couple of tips to avoid partnering up with a jerk or jerkette?

A: I do think the first thing is if you don’t consciously try to pace your heart, it will get away from you. It’s a conscious effort. A lot of this has to do with not jumping in too fast.

Second, you have to expect that it takes time to get to know one another. It’s actually what you do while you spend time together that’s important. You really have to allow time to spend that time talking and really getting to know that person.

Any relationship can weather a wonderful life, when there’s no loss, no unemployment, no illness. You really need time to see how this person deals with life, the good stuff that happens and the bad stuff that happens.

Q: If we believe we’ve met Mr. or Mrs. Right, are there still steps you recommend to be sure?

A: You want to examine challenges in the relationship. How have they been weathered; how have they been dealt with?

When someone says to me that this is the right person, I say: So you like her better than any other person you’ve ever known? Do you really like her? How honest are you really being with yourself?

I really concentrate a lot on the liking.

As days go by, people get signals it isn’t the right person. You have to ask, does each day bring further confirmation that this person is the right person?

The 5-part series, “How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk (or Jerkette),” will be held on consecutive Wednesday evenings from May 23 through June 20 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the University of Illinois Extension Kane County office, 535 S. Randall Road, St. Charles.

The cost is $50 per person. Young adults age 18 are welcome at no charge if accompanied by a registered adult. To register, call (630) 584-6166, or visit
Betty Lou Barsley-Marra
Born: Chicago
Resides: Oak Lawn
Family: Single
Occupation: Family life educator for University of Illinois Extension.
Little-known fact: “I love anything to do with pop culture and traditional high culture. I enjoy going to the opera and to funky little clubs.”

New concert work memorializes teen’s bright spirit

New concert work memorializes teen’s bright spirit

Rachel Baruch Yackley
Posted Daily Herald, Monday, May 21, 2007
It’s a piece that’s based on her life. And, in a way, on her name.

“Angels With Dirty Faces,” a new concert piece commissioned for the St. Charles East High School Wind Ensemble, will be performed Tuesday during a memorial concert for Nicole Alaniz.

“Angels” was written by composer Jim Bonney in memory of Alaniz, a student at East, who died in a car accident last June. Alaniz would have been a senior this year.

This composition will be one of two songs performed by the wind ensemble, directed by Jim Kull, during the concert. All the East bands will perform in the 8 p.m. show at the school.

Alaniz, who played flute in the wind ensemble,  was also a member of the National Honor Society and captain of the debate team.

At a recent band rehearsal, three flutists who knew Alaniz, both through school bands and through years of studying flute with the same teacher — Lynne Green in St. Charles — spoke about playing this piece in memory of their friend and classmate.

Senior Sarah Whiting said, “I think she would have liked this song, because it’s different than what we usually play.”

“This is definitely her personality,” said Kirsten Benjamin, another senior in the wind ensemble. “It’s minimalistic, with layers of rhythm on top of each other.”

“It’s definitely a concert-band-meets-Nicole-Alaniz piece,” said sophomore Kim Kessler.

Playing this piece is unquestionably challenging emotionally, as well as musically.

“It’s a really strange feeling,” Benjamin said.

Eyes welling up, Whiting said, “I think we’d all rather she were sitting here playing with us.”

Music was definitely one of Alaniz’s passions.

After Alaniz died, fellow East band members met and decided to hire composer Bonney to write an upbeat song in remembrance of Alaniz’s bright personality.

The Chicago composer was chosen because the students have worked with him in the past.

“Very soon after Nicole’s accident, Jim Kull wanted to do something to memorialize her,” Bonney said.

“The thing Jim told me was, ‘We really want it to be your piece; and we want a celebration of life, not a dirge.’ I read her obituary and talked with some of her friends. I got some e-mails from students (who knew Alaniz). I heard the wind ensemble this past winter, in 2006. I talked with her dad, which was so moving. But you really can’t get to know someone after they’re gone.”

It was hard to write an uplifting piece, Bonney said.

“It’s a thoughtful piece,” he said. “It’s not a dirge, but it’s not vapid, either.”

In addition to her musical pursuits, Alaniz also loved to write, and Bonney said that the title of this composition actually came from something she wrote.

“Originally, I wanted to do a piece using what she’d written, but I couldn’t get enough material,” he said.

Bonney composed this piece for concert band. His process of composing is multi-dimensional.

“The first thing is I took the alphabet and assigned a note, A through G, to each letter of Nicole’s name. So the tune is based on her name,” he said. “It really struck me that she was just 17 years old. I used the number 17 a lot in the music ... groupings of 17. It’s those kind of limitations that make composing possible. Then, it was just about capturing her spirit.”

Instrumentation came through next, as Bonney added an electric guitar and percussion to the ensemble.

“I also feature flute pretty predominantly. That’s another part of Nicole I wanted to feature. The flute starts the piece, and the rest (of the band) follows,” he said.

Bonney incorporated rock and other music genres into the piece.

“This particular piece was inspired musically by John Adams, Steve Reich — both minimalists — and My Chemical Romance, The Clash, Panic! at the Disco, and other visceral musicians,” he said.

A versatile contemporary musician and composer, Bonney has written avant-garde symphonic orchestral scores; traditional jazz big-band charts; pop; rock; world-beat; and contemporary electronica.

Kull said that this is the second time East has commissioned a song for a student who died at a young age. The first was “The Echo Never Fades,” a piece written by David Gillingham and commissioned in memory of 17-year-old East student and saxophonist Tyler Caruso, who died in 2002.

Memorial concerts

•The Nicole Alaniz Memorial Concert is at 8 p.m. Tuesday in the auditorium at the Norris Cultural Arts Center, 1040 Dunham Road,  St. Charles. This band concert is open to the public, and tickets are $3 for adults and $2 for seniors and students.

•The annual concert dedicated to the memory of Tyler Caruso will be at 7 p.m. May 31 in Lincoln Park. “The Echo Never Fades,” a piece written by David Gillingham and commissioned by the St. Charles East Wind Ensemble, is always a centerpiece for the concert. This concert is sponsored by the St. Charles Park District and the Downtown St. Charles Partnership. Lincoln Park is located along Main Street between Fourth and Fifth streets.

Supremes’ legend to sing at Arcada Friday (from 2005)

Supremes’ legend to sing at Arcada Friday

Rachel Baruch Yackley
Posted Daily Herald Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Mary Wilson keeps the voice of the Supremes alive, and has a lot of fun doing it.

“Some things are just the way they are, and you can’t change them,” Wilson said. “I had a great time performing with the Supremes, but when we broke up, I had to go on, on my own, and I’m doing extremely well.

“I get to make my own choices and pick my own gowns. It has its wonderful side to it. I’m 61 years old, and you get to where you want to do what you want.”

Wilson, who has performed solo since the group broke up in 1977, will appear in concert at 8 p.m. Friday at the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles.

The group is known for its 33 Top 40 hits, including “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name Of Love,” “Baby Love.” and so many more. The group, which appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show 17 times, is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Wilson said she offers a family-oriented musical show. Audiences typically include ages ranging from grandparents to grandkids. Wilson said she likes it when everyone in the audience “gets up and dances. Be a part of the show. It’s a celebration.”

“I do Supremes’ songs; perhaps half my show is Supremes.”

Wilson’s backup band includes members who have been with her throughout her solo career.

The opening act will be a Four Tops tribute band called The Reflections, which is from the Chicago area.

Wilson was born in Greenville, Miss., but grew up in the Brewster Projects in Detroit. She began her singing career in choir and glee clubs when in second grade. She met Diana Ross, Florence Ballard, and Betty McGlown at a school talent show.

The four friends formed the Primettes in 1959, which was the sister group to the Primes, a male group which later became the Temptations. Barbara Martin replaced McGlown early on. By 1960, the Primettes released their first record, “Tears of Joy”/“Pretty Baby,” on LuPine, a local Detroit label. In 1961, the Primettes signed with Motown, and changed their name to the Supremes.

So many across the generations are familiar with Supremes songs that Wilson said, “People meet me and say they feel like they know me. I was just speaking with Donna Summer the other night about how people (who listen to your music) feel like they know you; like they’re your cousins.”

Since going solo, Wilson has released these albums: “Mary Wilson” (1979); “Red Hot” (1979); and “Walk the Line” (1992).

She has also written two books: her autobiography, “Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme” (1986), and the sequel, “Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together.”

Wilson has also acted, and starred in several musicals and plays.

Doors open at 7 p.m. at the Arcada, 105 E. Main St. Ticket prices are $25, $35, and $45. Tickets can be purchased at the Arcada box office the evening of the performance, or the night before. Advance tickets are available by calling (312) 733-7469, or by going to, or

St. Charles native details effort to rebuild a nation

St. Charles native details effort to rebuild a nation

Rachel Baruch Yackley
Posted Daily Herald, Saturday, August 13, 2005

During a trip from Thailand to the United States last winter, Michael Newbill’s job duties dramatically changed.

The St. Charles native had been working on the Thai-U.S. Free Trade Agreement negotiations. However, his attentions were redirected toward tsunami recovery after the disaster hit Thailand in late December.

“My job was to coordinate relief and reconstruction efforts,” he said during a recent visit to the states. “I would either go out and see what needed to be done, or people brought problems to me. I’d then go and compare this information with other organizations and the military, and contact the Army Corps of Engineers.”

Newbill already knew the territory and spoke the language, and was the ideal officer to connect people with problems to the people with solutions.

He worked with American tourists trying to get home, nonprofit groups, U.S. Marines and even two former U.S. presidents.

Throughout these initial days and weeks after the tsunami, Newbill’s wife, Angeline, also worked fervently and gathered donations from family and friends. She linked up with an ad hoc group of people who were providing supplies to victims affected by the disaster.

“Immediately after the disaster, Thais from all walks of life donated clothing, toiletries, food, water and blood to help all people affected by the tsunami, Thai or foreign,” he said. “Hundreds of volunteers from universities, vocational schools and other civic associations came down to care for the injured, clear wreckage and recover bodies.”

Newbill said he also learned the U.S. Marine Corps is an amazingly effective and efficient organization.

Once the tsunami relief efforts were under way, Newbill coordinated a visit for former presidents Bush and Clinton, who came to Thailand to tour the tsunami effected areas, “so they could see how far along things were.

“The military and the government were rebuilding houses. A U.S. project with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) was providing boats or helped repair boats so people could return to their livelihood,” said Newbill. “The former presidents spent about 40 minutes talking with the army and the villagers. We took them on a tour of the boats and we explained what was going on. We set up a plan for their visit, right down to the minute,”

In an e-mail interview after he went back to Thailand, Newbill conveyed the bleak picture of destruction he observed.

“In some places, the Thai government had cleared the debris from the beaches, and around the hardest-hit resort areas. These areas, such as ground zero in Khao Lak, now look like a 1,000-acre strip mine, devoid of trees and vegetation, access roads, and any other reminders of its former beauty. The skeletons of some five-star hotels are still standing, many with the paint and mortar blown off by the force of the water. Dozens of dead bodies were still coming in to the main mortuary on the grounds of a Buddhist temple; lacking space and refrigeration for the thousands of victims, many of these bodies — now beyond recognition — were being interred for later processing.

“At the newly opened Anantara Spa and Resort, little had changed since the tsunami hit. We forged a path through grounds strewn with deck chairs, pizza delivery containers, bathtubs, room safes, up-ended pickup trucks, clothes, and appliances. Several roofless concrete bungalows had tipped on their sides into a pond, giving a dollhouse view of its contents. At the end of the trail, we found a debris-filled beach and a powerful sight reminiscent of apocalyptic ending of Planet of the Apes; an upside down car, back end up, buried half way up in the surf.

“In the coastal fishing village of Baan Nam Khem, I met with the stunned village headman who, by sheer luck, had left the village to visit his son in another town on that morning. He showed me where his house once stood — now only a small pile of rocks — calmly noting that he had lost his wife and two other children. He told me that of the town’s 1500 residences, 900 were destroyed in the tsunami (the town’s population was 5,000).”

Rebuilding will take a long time, Newbill said, especially in areas where entire coastlines were destroyed and the flora and fauna were heavily damaged.

Tourism, a large part of Thailand’s economy, has still not recovered, partly due to areas like the formerly popular island of Phi Phi, where almost 1,000 people were killed.

“Surprisingly, some international tourists have come back, but domestic tourism hasn’t returned because (Asian) people are still scared,” Newbill said.

Newbill, a 1990 St. Charles High School graduate, received his master’s degree in South Asian history from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and spent a year at Jawarharlal Nehru University on a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship. He was a Research Associate at The Henry L. Stimson Center, a think-tank in Washington, D.C., where he worked on a project on confidence-building measures in South Asia.

He worked in the Philippines from 2000 to 2002, and then in Thailand from 2003 to recently.

Newbill’s next job will be back in Washington, managing U.S.-India relations, from an economic standpoint.

“In the State Department they have regional bureaus. Within the bureaus are different countries,” Newbill said. “I’ll be in charge of the India desk (from Washington), specifically economic relations between India and the U.S.”

This change in jobs was something Newbill both applied for and was then assigned.

“I wanted this job because I wanted to work on economic relations with India. Because it’s been underdeveloped so long, it shows the greatest potential. India has decided to make so many economic reforms, it’s a good time to be involved in it,” said Newbill, who also views this job as a way of returning to his area of expertise.

“Generally speaking, the foreign service protects economic growth, globally. We are the eyes and ears of the U.S. government on the ground, globally. We look for ways we can promote global prosperity and security,” Newbill explained.

“We make sure foreign markets are open to the U.S., and safe for U.S. investors. And we ensure foreign markets are open to our services and products.

“The tsunami was just a really strange break from what we normally do. So many different countries were affected by it. In terms of providing tremendous resources at a rapid pace, I believe (America’s) involvement was unprecedented,” Newbill said.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sites where I've landed

Here are just a few links to other websites where you can see my work: