Clients & Excerpts
Excerpted from (book) Switched On: The Heart and Mind of a Special Agent
"Those who are switched on have a high-functioning internal compass and GPS system. They have emotional equilibrium and dexterity. They recognize nuances in their complex environments and are guided as to when to turn just a few degrees to the left or right, go forward full throttle, back up, or come to a dead stop.
Being switched on is a daily decision, a moment by moment choice, a constant awareness, and mindset. It is a coat of armor that protects you from all types of threats, in all aspects of life. Unless being switched on becomes a part of your very DNA, life itself will be very hard to pull off. Never mind needing to be switched on in a career in law enforcement or government agency work—just walking through our complex and difficult world is hard to safely and effectively navigate these days. We need to be able to read the people in front of us, behind us, on the phone and online. Being switched on could mean the difference between having your bank accounts hacked or not, and having your identity stolen or not. There could even be a time when being switched on could save your very life..."
The boys asked, “What’s going to happen to Mom? How long will it take?” I let out a big sigh and said, “It’s a terminal illness.” “How long does she have?” “Nobody knows. The progression of frontotemporal dementia averages between eight and fifteen years.” I tried my best to soft-peddle the news, but any way I framed Janie’s diagnosis, it carried with it a dire outlook for the future. All three of us had tears running down our faces by this point. Drew and I were openly crying and dabbing our eyes with napkins from the table. Scott had his head in his hands, crying quietly to himself. Nobody could have loved her children more than Janie. No two kids could have loved their mother more. And no two people could have loved each other more than Janie and me. We were a very tight family. That’s not to say there weren’t bumps in the road, of course. Nothing is ever perfect. After our lunch, Drew and Scott went to see their mother. I was glad I had decided to give the boys time to digest the news before seeing Janie. I wanted to soften the blow for them—something I wished someone had been able to do for me. It was 2004, Janie was fifty-nine, and I was sixty years old. The eight and a half years that followed were far and away the worst of my life. I would not wish that pain and devastation on anyone. To this day, I ask myself how I got through it. All I can say is that I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and staying laser focused on my priorities: caring for my wife, keeping the vows I made to her on our wedding day and on the day of her diagnosis, and cherishing every last minute we were given. I’m a paragraph. Drag me to add paragraph to your block, write your own text and edit me.
We never know where life is taking us. Sometimes life takes us far away like sheep to be slaughtered in the market, and we have little control over our own liberty and happiness. We must learn to live with whatever situation we are facing.
My first job here in the U.S. started at 5:00 a.m. and I worked until 2:30 p.m. Since I had no vehicle, I walked to work, about three miles roundtrip every day. The alarm that woke me up every morning traumatized me. I could hear it everywhere I went, even when I was busy shopping in the mall. It took many years, until long after I’d left my first American job, for my ears to clear out the sound that hunted me down.
I was working in a company that produced different types of fast-food chicken. I raced with machines that ran nonstop at every corner of the building. It was very cold and loud inside. Because we had to wear a helmet, protective glasses, gloves, and waterproof boots, it was hard to recognize each other as we walked by.
When my machine would break down, I found great relief and tried to rest while it was being fixed. Sometimes I was completely exhausted, and I went behind piled boxes of frozen chicken and fell asleep. At such times, I had to urge my friend to watch over me so that my supervisor would not find me sleeping and send me home for good. I knew what I was doing was risky, but I was tired. I slept very easily and never minded cold or freezing temperatures.
For one year, I worked for this company. In that job, my intellectual capacity and education were unnecessary. What mattered was my physical strength. I began to miss every piece of my life back home—even the parts of my life I never used to like! I suddenly realized that my new world had turned rough. My work environment destroyed my hope, along with the expectations of a better life that I’d held onto since I’d left Rwanda and started traveling around the world, believing that things could only go from good to great.
I have realized that sometimes life can be so misleading, as we become deeply absorbed in our present emotions and feelings. Whenever we have what we need, and are striving for a bigger future, we rarely think that we can lose what we already have. And, when we have lost everything that we had once held onto, we can completely forget that we ever had them in the first place.
On July 12th, 2004, I was fortunate to finally get free from my first job. I was hired by Avesta Housing Corporation. This was a dream coming true, and a blessing I had prayed for—but I had no idea what a heavy burden it would be, or how weary I would become trying to carry it. The system was totally different than any workplace I’d ever seen back home.
It was a demanding and detailed job, with many deadlines and regulations that I had to pay attention to. It required a lot of effort. I found everything puzzling, from day one when I walked into the company and was introduced to my future colleagues, whose names I could hardly retain. People were very nice, smiling, and shaking hands, but my heart was troubled. I wondered, How am I going to survive this whole new world in front of me?
When they brought me a brand new computer I thought, They have wasted their money. I thought that I could do everything manually.I had no idea that nothing is done in America without a computer. I had no way of knowing what lay before me. It frightened me, wondering how I was going to do everything with a computer, but what frightened me most was not being fluent in English. I needed more English than I had, because understanding is the beginning of knowledge. I knew deep in my mind that I needed to grow professionally, and Avesta Housing was the best place for me to be, but I went through such tremendous pressure that I almost quit.
Every day I went to work thinking, This may be my last day before I resign. The whole situation was very stressful for me. Some days, I felt so stupid and discouraged, I went home thinking that it was over. But, the following day, I found myself taking a shower and going to work again. It is so difficult to contemplate losing something you had once desperately wished to have. Quitting would have been a horrible mistake—one I would have carried for the rest of my life.
There is a saying in my language that says, “Utewe nigwe arayirinda,” meaning, “If you are attacked by a leopard, you have to resist it, and never give up, until it kills you or you kill it.”
On February 10th, 1991, I walked up to the house of a guy I’ll call Spanky. That date would be forever burned in my mind. It was the day that changed my life—the day when everything I had worked so hard for, strived for, planned for, and fought for was snatched from me in a flash. I thought that day would be my last.
Spanky was one of the guys in the hip-hop dance group I had joined. His house was a big hangout spot for those of us in the group, and friends from the neighborhood too. Once I was inside the house, I could hear that everyone was hanging out in the back room, so I headed in there.
The guys were joking around, and I joined in the fun. I was happy being with them and having a good time. All I remember is that everyone was giving each other a hard time—but all the teasing was done in good fun. I made a remark to Spanky in that same spirit of fun. It was meant to be funny. I felt comfortable joking with him because I was among friends.
When they heard the funny thing I’d said, everyone in the room busted out laughing—everyone but Spanky. In that very moment, he happened to be cleaning his Smith & Wesson .44, one of the most powerful handguns in the world. I knew that he carried a bag with a gun in it, just in case someone started trouble. Our group was often in neighborhoods that weren’t the best, and he thought he might one day need to use it in self-defense. I could see a bunch of bullets on the bed. I assumed that he had removed all the bullets from the gun. To this day, I still don’t know whether Spanky knew that one bullet was still in the chamber.
"What did you say, motherfu****?” He pointed the gun directly at me. His response to my teasing remark would be the last words I heard before becoming the miracle I am today.
As I went sliding down the mountain, I slid right past Carol. She had fallen off the ski lift, losing one shoe and boot as she tumbled down. She was calling out to me. I had gained such velocity going downhill on my backside, it was impossible for me to stop. I was headed down the mountain whether I liked it or not. When I reached the bottom, I turned around and, using my poles, hobbled back uphill to her. My tailbone was so sore, it was a miracle I could walk at all. As I reached her, she said, “You passed me right by!” She couldn’t believe I could have seen her there and not stopped. “What do you mean? I was flying by on my ass! I couldn’t stop.” We started laughing—but our laughter was cut short when we realized we had stayed out too long. Carol’s hands were really hurting. When she removed her gloves, we could see that they had turned bright red. We thought that she must have gotten frostbite. This was not the first time Carol’s hands had turned red and started hurting when she got cold. Back inside the lodge, we tried to warm up beside the fire. Carol’s hands were turning purple and then red again. Meanwhile, my tailbone was sore, but not too bad. I was more worried about Carol than myself. “I wonder why warming up by the fire isn’t helping your hands that much,” I said. She kept rubbing her hands together. Eventually she warmed up and her hands returned to their normal color. For the remainder of our three-day skiing trip, we stayed in the lodge. For obvious reasons, we were too afraid to get back on our skis. And we also thought we’d better stay where it was warm since Carol seemed to have frostbite. Once we got home from our trip, Carol’s hands were fine—until she found herself cold again. This time it was from the air conditioning at work. Once again, her hands turned red and purple and then they turned black. The black color was a brand-new development and it scared us both. At first, we thought it might have been a holdover from the frostbite. “Can frostbite stay in your system and come back?” we asked each other. This went on for a few months after our trip to the Catskills. Carol’s feet were reacting to the cold in the same way. They turned from white to blue, based upon the temperature. We realized that we had better make an appointment with the doctor. “It looks like Raynaud’s disease,” the doctor told Carol after the examination. “What’s that? We’ve never heard of it,” we said. “It’s a vascular disease that causes certain areas of your body, like your fingers and toes, to feel numb and cold in response to cold temperatures and stress. In Raynaud’s, smaller arteries that supply blood to your skin narrow, limiting blood supply to the affected areas. It mostly affects the extremities, even the ears.” That would turn out to be true. Later in life, Carol would end up having trouble with her toes and the tips of her ears. “How do we treat it?” we asked. “Well, the thing is, there are two types of Raynaud’s disease—primary and secondary. Secondary is the rarer of the two forms. It’s more serious because it is caused by an underlying problem. For now, we have no reason to believe there’s an underlying problem, so there is no treatment. It might help if you move to a warmer climate. And it will definitely help if you keep your feet covered and wear gloves on your hands when you’re cold…even indoors.” Carol had been promoted to operations manager at work. So, she now split her time between the air-conditioned office and the air-conditioned store. One winter evening, as she got into her car and began to make her way home, her car got stuck in the snow. While Carol was waiting for roadside assistance to arrive, she got out of her car to clear the snow off the windshield. When she got back in the car, she had to wait in the cold. As she sat there, she got more and more chilled. By the time the roadside assistance guy arrived, got the car unstuck, and got Carol back on the road, she was freezing. When she finally got home and walked in the door, she was shivering. She was frozen to the bone. Her hands were bluish-black and her feet too. I ran a very warm bath for her. Even in the bath, she kept shivering. It was very painful for her and frightening for us both. I sat on the side of the tub as she slowly thawed. Eventually she warmed up—but we were both shaken by the experience. We returned to the doctor a second time. He said, “Unless other symptoms develop to indicate that an underlying problem is causing the Raynaud’s, there is nothing that can be done in terms of treatment. It will always be this way. Frostbite may have triggered the Raynaud’s, but you’re stuck with it. There’s no way to reverse it. Warmer weather would certainly help.” As far as the doctor knew, I was a concerned cousin of Carol’s, and we were very close. That’s how it was done in our community. You never even told your doctor that you were lesbian or gay. You kept your mouth shut out of fear of being outed. Gays and lesbians always run the risk that a doctor might refuse to treat them. The one exception to this would be if a man went specifically to a gay clinic. Then, of course, the doctors working there would know that the patients were gay...
I have been in the business of site-work construction since I was a kid. Like a painting that starts with a blank canvas, we start with an unimproved piece of land. Unlike the creation of a painting, my work generally goes unnoticed. No one remembers what the land looked like before we started, so there is little appreciation of the hard work we did to mold and shape it. Nobody ever sees the pipes underground, or fully understands what it takes to shape the earth and make the parking lots.
Every working person wants to feel that the contribution they make in their particular line of work has an impact, and adds value in the greater scheme of life. The idea of becoming an expert witness began to appeal to me because I saw it as a way to truly make a difference—in a way that people could easily recognize and understand... Being an expert witness offers the opportunity to be of service to others in a very concrete and meaningful way. Expert work always leads to a tangible result. And, it all begins with your report. Your expert witness report is a critical part of the judicial process and is often a major factor in determining whether or not a case ever goes to trial..."
"In many ways, the landscape of our country bears so little resemblance to the America of the 1930’s that, had you tried to describe it then to the young George Clayton Johnson, it might have seemed the fantastical and wild imagining of a mind just a little bit mad. Like a tale distilled from the genius of our storyteller, himself…There’s no doubt about it: life in this digital age seems to have been drawn right from an episode of The Twilight Zone—an episode where media is king.
The first television sets over which shows like The Twilight Zone were broadcast were initially beheld with awe and a kind of humble reverence. But, we have since grown suspicious. Once seen as welcome guests in our homes, novel, mysterious and solicitous, TV and the much more complex and sophisticated devices which have followed, have permanently insinuated themselves into every corner of our lives.
Those early TV sets were charming, hand-crafted wood cabinets, pretending false modesty and ignorance. They stuck rabbit ears on their heads to give themselves the appearance of innocence, and us the illusion of control. As if we could adjust them. As if we could turn them off and on.
Now, our TV’s, iPads, iPods, Smart Phones, and other media delivery devices are everywhere. The media of today is not your father’s television set and it will not be ignored. And despite all our protests to the contrary, we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Our media devices have so long been like members of the family that it is easy to forget those days when inviting a TV over the threshold and into the living room was like opening the door to Martians. No one knew what to expect. And while these devices have far exceeded our expectations, it is easy to wonder why we ever answered the door in the first place..."
I ran in the direction opposite the levee, racing alongside the six-foot stalks of corn, looking down each row to see if I could catch a glimpse of my son.
“Drew! Drew!” I yelled into the nothingness.
It never even occurred to me that Drew could have gone in the direction of the canal until I saw his little footprints in the dirt. Seeing them, my heart sank and I felt dizzy and disoriented. I knew that something unusual had happened to take him in the direction of Mr. Crocodile.
Breathless, I reached the levee and looked down at the canal below me. That’s when I saw our dogs and noticed that two of the larger ones were wet. As I ran down toward the water, I could see Drew’s footprints in the dirt. I could also see where a large clump of dirt had given way and crumbled right at the top of the canal.
I put two and two together and realized that Drew must have come down to the canal and stepped on a soft patch of dirt which probably gave way beneath his feet. I figured that the dogs must have gotten wet trying to help my son.
I collapsed on the canal bank. I heard screaming coming from my mouth but it was as if it were coming from a great distance. “No, no, no, no! Please, God, NO!”
A border patrol agent slowly rolled past and asked, “Ma’am, do you need help?”
“Yes, sir, my son’s footprints led me to this canal! It looks like the dirt gave way and I’m afraid he’s fallen in…”
"I went into the bathroom where there was an itty-bitty frosted window, stood on top of the toilet, and pushed the window up so I could see outside. Up under the streetlight were three people. I saw my mother, Pete, and one of the wives-in-law named Sue. She was a tall, light-skinned lady.
Pete smacked my mother and she fell down. Sue stepped in and was holding my mother down while Pete beat her with a rubber hose. I was screaming out the window but no one paid me any attention. I yelled, “Leave my mother alone!”
Sue looked up, and saw the bathroom light on. She yelled, “Get your butt in there and shut the window!”
I yelled, “You leave my mom alone!”
Mom hollered up to me, saying, “It’s okay, honey, just shut the window.”
It was the first time I’d seen anything like this going down.
Mom kept a pistol in the apartment. She didn’t know I knew she had it. But, I was a curious kid and I’d seen her stuff the pistol up under the mattress. I went into her room and grabbed the gun. This time I was smart enough to check and make sure the gun was loaded. I didn’t want a replay of what had happened with Uncle Rich.
Like I said, Uncle Red had taught me how break down a gun, clean it, and put it back together. He also showed me how to pull back the hammer and spin the cylinder so I could see if the gun was loaded.
I went back into the bathroom and got up on the toilet. They were still beating on my mom. I could see she was bleeding across the forehead. I hollered, “You let my mom go or I’m gonna shoot y’all!”
I aimed the gun in their direction, and shot twice. Pete fell down and started cursing, calling me all kinds of names. Both Pete and Mom got up. Pete grabbed my mother and put her in front of him. I shot again but I didn’t hit anything. My goal wasn’t so much to hit anything or anyone, but to get Pete and Sue to stop beating my mom..."