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Melissa Rivers is funny and affectionate in ‘Book of Joan’

Melissa Rivers wanted to laugh — and she wants her readers to do the same.

Consider it mission accomplished on both counts, thanks to her best-selling memoir, “The Book of Joan: Tales of Mirth, Mischief and Manipulation” (Crown Archetype). It’s a touching, revealing and above all funny paean to her mother, Joan Rivers, who died last September at 81 after complications from minor throat surgery.

The book is free of a daughter’s grief, or her undeniable anger. (Rivers has filed a malpractice lawsuit against the Manhattan clinic where her mother suffered what she has called “shocking and, frankly, almost incomprehensible” incompetence.) Instead, the approach is light-hearted, affectionate — and funny.

“Writing it gave me permission to laugh and joke, and a safe place to do so,” says Rivers, who, still reeling from her loss last fall, set to work with her writing partner, Larry Amoros, a long-time family friend and writer for Joan who could add his own rich store of recollections.

“We wanted to call the book ‘Cheaper Than Therapy,’” says Rivers, “but we were afraid it would get mixed up in the Self-Help Therapy section of the bookstore.”

In the first pages, Rivers attempts to summarize this pint-sized, outspoken force of nature: “My mother was a comedian, actress, writer, producer, jewelry monger, tchotchke maker, spokesperson, hand model, ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ winner and a self-appointed somewhat-goodwill-ambassador to 27 Third World countries that were unaware they had a goodwill ambassador.”

The book nods at an early concept offered the publisher: a collection of Lessons I Learned From My Mother. It was an idea Rivers balked at. “I don’t know if people would want to take THAT advice,” she laughs.

Yes, there was a method to Joan’s madness, but it formed the logical underpinnings of someone who didn’t always cater to logic.

Joan on marriage: “Your father didn’t care if I went to bed mad. He cared if I went to Bergdorf mad.”

Joan on cosmetic surgery: “Better to have a new you coming out of an old car than an old you coming out of a new car.”

Rivers, now 47, grew up close to both her parents.

“People always said I was much more like my father (film and TV producer Edgar Rosenberg) than her, and they had a successful marriage. Maybe that’s why she and I were so bonded.”

One thing that tied them together: “Our love of the ironic and the absurd. Nothing was better than looking at each other when we were out somewhere” with a wordless exchange conveying, “Oh, have we got something to talk about when we get in the car! Can you BELIEVE what just happened?!”

No wonder Joan and Melissa were also bonded professionally. Together they blazed a new frontier of style and snark on the glitziest red carpets, while Joan became a connoisseur of couture catastrophes as host of “Fashion Police,” which Melissa produced.

That show, minus queen bee Joan, returned on E! in January and promptly suffered a meltdown with cast strife and the abrupt departures of panelist Kelly Osbourne and new host Kathy Griffin. It is off the air again until fall.

“We came back too fast. None of us was ready,” says Rivers. “It was extremely painful. I spent way too much time crying about the show and what it represents to me. But we learned. No, I don’t know who is going to be in the cast. But now I’m actually excited to figure it out.”

The pain of loss is ever-present in Rivers’ life. Her mother’s death is all too recent while, even after three decades, she says she still misses her father, who committed suicide in 1987.

But in her book, death rears its head in wryly humorous terms.

“I don’t know, or pretend to know, what happens to us after we die,” writes Rivers as she builds to one of her many laugh-lines. “Nobody really does, except the dead, and they’re not talking (at least not to me, but I have AT&T: I can barely get living people on the phone).”

Whistling past the graveyard? Joan Rivers wasn’t afraid of death, her daughter insists.

“It was an obsession: ‘This is gonna happen.’ But we would discuss it as calmly as you’d ask for a glass of water. She was very much at peace with the idea.”

Maybe so, but she held her own at bay for 81 unbridled years. And as readers of “The Book of Joan” will surely realize between the laughs, it still came too soon.

Walking with my mother in her heart-breaking decline

All life cycles have watershed moments, times when another bridge has been irrevocably crossed. In the life of a child, that moment is often a joyful one. But for an elderly parent, life proceeds in reverse, leading often to sorrowful conclusions. 

My mother Liz, who is 93 years old, reached one of those watershed moments one night three years ago. 

We had moved my mother from Milwaukee to a senior housing complex near our Madison home five years earlier. My wife Jean and I had visited her twice that Sunday to address various issues. She seemed strange, but we weren’t yet seasoned enough to understand what was wrong.

After her third call, we returned to find Mom sitting in her nightgown on her bed, with three television and cable system remotes and three cordless telephones alongside her. We realized that something was happening.

Jean began to remove the clutter, which snapped Mother out of her stupor,

“Don’t touch those,” she said anxiously. “Those are my phones!”

Some were her phones, and some weren’t. Due to their similar shape and color, she could no longer tell the difference. We bundled her up and took her to the nearest emergency room.

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More than 10 million adult children over 50 care for aging parents, according to a 2011 study by the MetLife Mature Market Institute. Baby Boomers comprise the majority of caregivers. The number of parents cared for both physically and financially by their kids has more than tripled over the past 15 years.

Not surprisingly, daughters tend to provide more care than sons and suffer more financially because of it. On average, the amount of lost wages, pension dollars and Social Security benefits for women forced to leave the workforce early to provide care totals $324,044, according to the study. Men suffer less financially, but it still costs them an average of $283,716 in aggregate salary and benefit losses to care for elderly parents.

A disproportionate number of boomers caring for parents are gay and lesbian, according to John George, health care administrator for Saint John’s On The Lake, a retirement community of 330 residents on Milwaukee’s east side.

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Upon reaching the hospital that Sunday night, my mother was diagnosed with dehydration and a urinary tract infection, both of which accounted for her confusion. But we would soon discover she also suffered from transient ischemic attacks, often called TIAs or “mini-strokes.” Those would lead to more dire consequences. 

TIAs are caused by blood clots that come and go in the brain. Some are relatively harmless, while others can be precursors to larger, fatal strokes. A series of TIAs followed by a large stroke killed Mom’s older brother Harold decades earlier. We felt that a similar outcome was possible, if not imminent, for her.

While doctors worked to get her situation under control, we made arrangements to move Mom temporarily to a nursing home for rehabilitation. A former RN, my mother had worked at Sunrise Care Center on Milwaukee’s south side until she was almost 86. We thought she’d be comfortable with the transition.

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Transitions to some level of assisted living are often the most difficult things for families to cope with, according to Elaine Dyer, a registered nurse and administrator for the Jewish Home and Care Center, a 160-bed retirement community also on Milwaukee’s east side. Large families often have the hardest time agreeing on what should be done with an elderly parent.

“When there’s more than one child, there’s always more than one opinion,” Dyer says. “As caregivers, we need a point person whose guidance we can rely on, and that person needs to be the patient’s health care power of attorney in order to make the right decisions.”

Dyer’s own mother was a resident at the Jewish Home until she passed away from Alzheimer’s disease last October, and the administrator is acutely aware of how hard the “little losses” of cognitive decline can be on family members.

“Watching cognitive decline is harder than watching physical decline,” Dyer says. “The elderly begin to lose the abilities you gain as a child, including swallowing, talking, walking, bowl and bladder control.”

In terms of providing care, Wisconsin’s 323 nursing homes serve only about 5 percent of the state’s population over 65, Dyer says. The surprising statistic is mostly due to finances. Owing to the recent financial recession, admissions to skilled care facilities have declined over the past four to five years, because too many families need their parents’ Social Security checks to make ends meet.

And then there’s the cost of putting those parents in a skilled care facility.

“The cost for nursing home care is $8,000 to $10,000 a month, and even the wealthiest person who has saved for it could one day run out of money,” Dyer says.

But before that happens, adult children should make sure they understand what their aging parents want and then make those ultimate decisions based on that guidance, she adds.

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Mom spent two weeks in the nursing home, eventually returning to a variant of her former self. But we knew that bridges had been crossed and things would never be the same again.

During my mother’s nursing home stay, we found her an assisted living facility on Madison’s west side. We moved her out of her senior apartment, disposing of furniture and other things she no longer needed. During the grueling two-week process, we discovered clues to her cognitive failure that weren’t previously apparent.

Dozens of unopened bottles of generic acetaminophen and countless file cards and paper scraps with duplicate addresses and phone numbers she didn’t want to forget filled nooks and crannies. We discovered boxes of junk mail — her “bills” as she called them — including some stored in the unused dishwasher. We found cash in the refrigerator.

Mom appeared to be settling in nicely to her assisted living facility, making new friends and regularly eating a healthy diet, something she had also stopped doing in her apartment. There were even activities and outings, but over the course of two years we could see that she had started slowing down.

When construction began on the facility’s new addition, we saw her confusion and anxiety increase. A series of three UTIs in as many months seemed to send her to the moon and back again — not to mention the hospital — on a regular basis. 

George notes that a change in a senior’s environment can result in “transfer trauma” and a large percentage of sufferers are usually dead within a year. When her strange behavior continued, we began to wonder just how long her future would be.

My mother called me on the telephone last week. 

“Mike? This is Grandma,” she said. “If you are out can you stop by? I haven’t had a working phone all day.”

And so, once again, it begins. I don’t want to spend Mothers’ Day at the hospital this year, but maybe just having one more Mother’s Day anywhere is the best I can hope for.

Suit over sperm bank error sets off extraordinary discussion

An unusual lawsuit prompted by an insemination gone wrong has set off an extraordinary discussion touching on sensitive issues of race, motherhood, sexuality and justice, though the debate begins with one basic premise: You should get what you pay for.

Jennifer Cramblett and her wife, Amanda Zinkon, wanted a white baby. They went to the Midwest Sperm Bank near Chicago and chose blond, blue-eyed donor No. 380, who looked like he could have been related to Zinkon. When Cramblett was five months pregnant, they found out that she her donor was No. 330, a black man.

“The couple did not get what they asked for, which was a particular donor. The company made a mistake, and it should have to pay for that,” says Jessica Barrow, an information technology professional in suburban Detroit.

Barrow is black and lesbian, with a white partner. They considered insemination of the white partner before choosing to adopt. When looking at donors, they wanted sperm from a black donor, to create a biracial baby that would have shared some physical characteristics with both of them.

“They’re not saying anything racist, they’re not saying, `We don’t want a black baby,'” Barrow said of Cramblett and Zinkon, who profess their love for their now 2-year-old daughter. “They’re saying, `We asked for something, you gave us something different, and now we have to adjust to that.’”

That “adjustment” is a major justification for Cramblett’s lawsuit. It cites the stress and anxiety of raising a brown girl in predominantly white Uniontown, Ohio, which Cramblett describes as intolerant. Some of her own family members have unconscious racial biases, the lawsuit says.

That leads some to believe that Cramblett is asking to be paid for the difficulties that many black folks — and white parents of adopted black children — deal with without compensation.

“I don’t think I deserve anything more being the white parent of a black child than any parent of a black child does,” says Rory Mullen, who adopted her daughter.

Strangers have asked Mullen why she didn’t adopt a white baby. One remarked in front of her white then-husband that Mullen must have cheated with a black man. Too many white people to count have pawed her daughter’s hair.

“It’s hard, but being a parent is hard,” says Mullen, who lives in Southern California.

“Being a parent is going to throw things at you that you never expected, and we make a decision that we’re going to roll with it, because we love our kids and they deserve it,” she says.

Mullen agrees that a company should be held liable for promising one thing and doing another. But she thinks the fact Cramblett waited more than two years to sue indicates that the experience of raising a black child is her real problem.

“When you say this is too hard, I didn’t deserve this, this is too much for me to handle, then the child internalizes it and it affects their self-esteem,” she says. “It’s my job to pour self-esteem into my daughter, not tear it down.”

From the days of American slavery through the 1960s, white men fathering children with black women was commonplace and tacitly accepted — yet there were few things as scandalous as a white woman with a brown baby.

That history makes Denene Millner, author of the MyBrownBaby.com blog, say that the lawsuit is “rooted in fear … stuck in the muck and mire of racism and the purity of white lineage.”

“She simply cannot fathom dealing with what it means to, in essence, be a Black mom, having to navigate and negotiate a racist world on behalf of a human she bore, in an environment of which she is a product,” Millner wrote.

Darron Smith, co-author of “White Parents, Black Children: Experiencing Transracial Adoption,” says that the lawsuit reflects America’s unexamined racist attitudes and Cramblett’s angst over having a biracial child.

He notes that due to supply and demand, it costs about half as much to adopt a black child as a white one, and many black boys in foster care are never adopted.

“This lawsuit demonstrates quite nicely the value of skin color,” says Smith, a professor at Wichita State University.

Yet Cramblett’s defenders say she should not be held responsible for being unprepared.

“White people who aren’t affiliated with black people don’t necessarily understand the challenges that black people face in all facets of their life. This couple wasn’t expecting that, and now they have to deal with it,” says Rachel Dube, who owns a youth sports business in New York.

“She didn’t ask for a biracial baby. She was given one, she loves it, she adores it, now she’s facing challenges and admits it. That doesn’t make her a racist,” Dube says.

“You can’t fault her for what she was not exposed to,” she says. “Her only obligation is to love and raise her child in the best environment possible. And if the money will help her do that, then good for her.”

Boy Scouts leader resigns over lesbian mom’s ouster

A board member with the Ohio River Valley Council of the Boy Scouts of America has resigned to protest the ouster of a lesbian mom as the leader of a tiger scout den.

The Boy Scouts of America, from the national level down, bans gays from serving as leaders and joining as members. The ban has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Ohio this spring, the BSA removed mom Jennifer Tyrrell from her post because of her sexual orientation.

More than 250,000 people have signed a Change.org petition protesting Tyrell’s ouster. The Bridgeport, Ohio, woman also has received widespread support in the LGBT political community, including at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

On April 27, David J. Sims, a member of the BSA’s Ohio River Valley Council, resigned to protest Tyrrell’s ouster and the ban.

He wrote in his resignation letter:

“It is with great sadness and a heavy heart that I write to you today to inform you that I am resigning as a member of the Board of Directors of the Ohio River Valley Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

“Yesterday, after receiving the email from Paul Tucker, I first learned the story of Jennifer Tyrrell, the den leader for Pack 109’s Tiger Scouts in Bridgeport, Ohio, who was removed as leader solely due to her sexual orientation. I understand that this action was taken as a result of a standing policy of the Boy Scouts of America and that said action is legal. However, Ms. Tyrrell’s removal goes against my fundamental beliefs of how we should treat our fellow human beings and is, in my opinion, wholly discriminatory. I understand that the Boys Scouts of America is free to run its organization as it sees fit, however, I can not formally be a part of it based upon this policy.

“My grandfather was an Eagle scout, my father was an Eagle scout and I am an Eagle Scout. Other than his family and his Christian faith, the most important thing in my father’s life was the Boy Scouts. The lived and breathed scouting. That is what makes this decision so exceedingly difficult and emotional.

“However, I know that my father would support my decision.

“Best wishes to you, Ohio River Valley Council and the Boy Scouts of America in future endeavors. I hope that the powers that be will look into their hearts and find the wisdom and courage to re-examine the policies of the Boy Scouts of America.”

Tyrrell, in a statement released by GLAAD, said, “I’ve been touched by the long list of supporters who, like me, believe that discrimination should not be a part of the Boy Scouts of America’s policies. The scouts are losing board members, good volunteers and scouting families, and the time is now to join organizations like the Girl Scouts of America and the 4H Club in welcoming all.”

Find Tyrrell’s petition, which calls on the BSA to change its anti-gay policy, at Change.org.

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Lesbian den leader forced out of Boy Scouts

LGBT civil rights advocates are rallying to the defense of Ohio mom Jennifer Tyrrell, who recently was ousted from her role as den leader of a Cubs Scout pack.

The Boy Scouts of America enforces a policy of banning gay leaders and members from the organization, as well as atheists.

Tyrrell, of Bridgeport, Ohio, learned on April 10 that she could no longer lead the pack because she’s gay. She had served as den leader for more than a year.

Ohio River Valley BSA executive Bob Drury told WTOV-TV on April 17, “We do not grant membership to individuals who are open or avow homosexuals.”

“The mission of the Boy Scouts of America is to develop a character and leadership skills and (for) the youth of today to become the leaders of tomorrow. And anything that distracts from that mission, distracts from what our program is.”

Parents and scouts responded with a protest outside the local BSA chapter on April 17.

Tyrrell has responded with a petition demanding the BSA lift its discriminatory ban.

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has joined in her campaign.

“The Boy Scouts of America is one of the last cultural institutions to categorically discriminate against LGBT Americans,” said GLAAD president Herndon Graddick. “Sending the message to America’s youth that they or their parents are somehow less than everyone else is dangerous, inaccurate and should be changed immediately.”

Tyrrell, in encouraging support for her campaign, released the following statement through GLAAD:

“My name is Jennifer Tyrrell. I am a devoted partner, mother, friend and community leader in Bridgeport, Ohio.  I’m also a former Tiger Cub den leader with the Boy Scouts of America.  I was recently removed from this volunteer position, and my membership was revoked after nearly a year of service – just because I happen to be gay. Shortly after registering my son for Cub Scouts, I was asked to assume the role of den leader and was persuaded by a platform of tolerance, acceptance and support. Throughout the year, my cubs performed volunteer service at a local soup kitchen, collected canned goods for area churches to distribute in food baskets, participated in bell-ringing for the Salvation Army, and, at the time of my removal, were working on a conservation project for a state park. My Tiger Cubs earned multiple Scout badges for service and skills, while learning and exercising the 12 Core Values of Scouting: citizenship, compassion, cooperation, courage, faith, health and fitness, honesty, perseverance, positive attitude, resourcefulness, respect and responsibility.  The revocation of my membership came shortly after I was elected treasurer of my pack and uncovered some inconsistencies in the pack’s finances. Within a week of reporting these findings to the council, I received notice that my membership had been revoked, based on my sexual orientation, citing that due to being gay, I did “not meet the high standards of membership that the BSA seeks.

There was an outcry of support for me by the parents of my Tiger Scouts, many of whom waited for hours to voice their concerns to members of the council and the pack’s charter organization, but were turned away without the opportunity to do so.

It is time for the Boy Scouts of America to reconsider their policy of exclusivity against gay youth and leaders.  Please sign this petition to call for an end of discrimination in an organization that is shaping the future.

As more individuals become aware of the discrimination I’ve been dealing with, it is my hope that these incidents will happen less frequently – if at all.”

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Human rights court faults Chile for stripping lesbian mom of custody

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has condemned the government of Chile for its 2003 Supreme Court ruling which stripped ç, a lesbian mother and judge, of custody of her three daughters on the basis of her sexual orientation.

The 2003 ruling determined that if her daughters remained in her custody, they would be in a “situation of risk” due to their “unique family.”

This is the first time the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ever heard a case specifically regarding sexual orientation or gender identity.

The court’s landmark ruling found that Chile not only violated Atala’s right to equality and non-discrimination but affirms for the first time in its history that sexual orientation and gender identity are protected categories and such discrimination violates international law. It represents a historic victory for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in Chile and around the world.

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, MADRE and the City University of New York School of Law co-authored a brief for the court, arguing that sexual orientation and gender identity should be found to be a protected class under the American Convention on Human Rights as held under international law.

Attorneys from Morrison and Foerster argued that sexual orientation and gender identity not be a factor in custody determinations. The brief was joined by 13 other organizations. The ruling upholds their arguments.

“Though Karen Atala and her daughters can never regain the time they have lost together because of the destructive impact of homophobia, today the Inter-American Court has vindicated the legitimacy of their family,” said Jessica Stern, director of Programs at IGLHRC. “The court has set a transformative precedent to which every signatory to the Inter-American Convention – 24 countries throughout the Americas – is bound. Based on both American regional standards and international jurisprudence, the Court has ruled that LGBT people must live free from discrimination, whether as parents or in any other aspect of their lives.”

Lisa Davis of MADRE said, “The court’s ruling is a milestone victory for human rights advocates the world over. It sets a precedent in international law that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a human rights violation—one that we hope will help defend the rights of LGBT persons wherever these rights are under attack.”

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