My article from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune
My guest column from the Sarasota-Herald Tribune
Zachary Holten, 22, of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, dons his Elvis costume, steps out of his bedroom, a shrine to Presley, and strums clumsily on his guitar strings, mumbling barely audible lyrics to “Hound Dog,” thinking he is The King himself. Holten has Down Syndrome, yet he is blissfully unaware that he is different from any other of the guests at his mom’s dinner party as they watch with uncertain smiles on their faces.
Down Syndrome is one of the most common genetic mutations. The scientific name for Down Syndrome is Trisomy 21; it is caused by the 21st chromosome being unable to separate properly. The disorder was once referred to as Mongoloids since the features of patients resembled the features of those from Mongolia, but the term was dropped in the 1960s after it was considered to be an ethnic insult. The most common effects are narrow eyes, a protruding tongue, an overall softer body shape, and mental retardation. Those with Down’s also struggle with hand-eye coordination.
Holten has never been able to ride a bike. He never had the thrill of getting his driver’s license on his sixteenth birthday, and he will never be able to live on his own. He will never get married. However, like many with Down Syndrome, he has found happiness through living vicariously through a famous figure.
“If I could have a second life in which I could choose to be anyone, I would be Zach,” said Kathy Holten, Zachary’s mother. “He is always so happy.”
It is not uncommon for Down Syndrome patients to take a liking for a character that is fictional, historical, or otherwise glorified in society. Zachary has grown full sideburns and dies his hair black and has an arsenal of Presley costumes, from huge belt buckles to glittery Vegas styles to Western wear. Danny, another patient of Down Syndrome, has developed an obsession for Dracula and speaks constantly of Transylvania, according to his uncle Edward Welsh. These intrigue in characters are not merely phases; they tend to stick with a person with Down’s for the majority of their life.
“Zach has always loved Elvis since he was a little boy, and I believe he always will,” said Kathy, who has taken her son on multiple trips to Graceland and plans on taking him to the Cirque de Soleil show “Viva Elvis!” in Las Vegas.
Kathy puts in a lot of time to ensure that Zach feels treasured. Besides from his genetic disorder, the Holten family has not been without hardship. In 2009, Kathy’s sister-in-law attempted to end her life by leaping from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in St. Petersburg, Florida. Fortunately, the night she jumped, the members of the Coast Guard where running drills nearby and where able to rescue her from the water in time. And last year, Zachary’s father died to a heart condition that he had been battling for years while waiting on a transplant, leaving 64-year-old Kathy to raise Zachary on her own.
Kathy has continued to remain strong, knowing that when she passes Zachary will have no choice but to live in a home.
“Raising a child with Down Syndrome takes a lot of energy,” she says. “But he is my world.”
Kathy saw Zachary graduate from a special education program at his local high school and attend all the events, including prom. She faithfully supplies Zachary with new Elvis memorabilia for his collection and takes him on frequent trips to the local theme park Dollywood.
“I didn’t want Zach’s life to be all about medical attention, doctor appointments, and medication. I also want to make sure he has the fullest life he can,” said Kathy.
Becoming a Disney cast member, especially a princess, can be quite a rigorous routine. This is Mongillo’s second time auditioning, but for many girls, it is their fifth or sixth.
“I want to be Belle,” said Mongillo to the women handing out the audition numbers and to a group she clicked with in the waiting area. “She is one of my favorites, and she has brown curly hair like me.” At Disney, looks is one of the key factors to bringing life to their characters.
“I feel like it is getting harder [to look like a princess],” said Kristan Legg, another Southeastern University students with dreams of working at Disney. “The newest princess Repunzel, for example, has huge eyes. Most girls do not have features like that.”
“Disney princesses are so pretty,” said Mongillo. “Everyone loves the movies; they have become classics. It is great to have an opportunity to bring them to life.”
Being pretty enough to be a princess is a concern for many hopefuls. Disney is so particular that they reserve each audition for certain height brackets. However, audition day is mainly about the talent portion. If hopefuls do not meet the full criteria to be a princess, they can still be called back for a role in the live shows and parade.
“Everyone has to learn a short dance routine and perform it,” said Mongillo. “The actual performance part is a little intimidating because it is in front of judges, but it is fun.”
While some audition for fun, others hope that getting in the door will open opportunities for a career. Kelsey Marie Markert form Bradenton, Florida, hopes to make it past the audition for the Disney college program, in which participants take part in the parades and assist in the production of live shows.
“I would like to gain more knowledge of theater and theme park entertainment,” said Markert. “It could open doors for other jobs in theater and will look good on a resume.”
Markert also pointed out that auditioning allows hopefuls to “put themselves out there” and warm up to the stage.
From food service to the envious role as princesses, many theater majors see an opportunity with Disney has a golden ticket.
“Every little girl wants to be a princess,” said Mongillo. “I grew up watching those movies.”
As the door opens, a hush goes across the holding room as the first group of 50 is called to the dance room. There are about 200 people at the audition, and no one is sure how many people Disney is even recruiting.
“As part of the ABC Corporation, Disney World is required to host so many auditions per year. But just because they are auditioning does not mean they are actually casting,” said Mongillo.
While auditions are most commonly held in Orlando for the flagship theme park, auditions are held all over the nation, such as New York City and Honolulu, Hawaii, for performance opportunities at Disney resorts that are a part of the Disney Vacation Club and Disney Cruise Line. Disney also auditions overseas for roles in their Euro Disney park.
As the door to the dance stage opens again, the rejects flood out. Many are making tearful phone calls. Mongillo survives one more round until she is cut from the pool of contestants auditioning for Belle. However, her spirits are not broken.
“I would love to audition again, and I plan on it,” said Mongillo. “It is a really good experience a lot of fun, but for now I just want to go to Downtown Disney.”
The scene looked as though it was directed by Ralph Lauren. Young girls played croquet in Polo shirts and multi-colored leggings. Bright blue and red tents dotted the field. Tailgating meant fully set tables complete with glassware and wine bottles. A Rolls Royce drives across the field to signify the start of the game. On Sunday, January 29, hundreds of fans gathered for the SMR Cup put on by the Sarasota Polo Club in Lakewood Ranch, Florida.
The club hosts a match every Sunday. However, many of the attendees have formed a club of their own in which more come for social hour than for the love of the sport.
“Look around and you will not see anyone watching the game,” said Michael Smith, who was attending his second polo match.
Polo is essentially hockey on horseback. The game is divided into periods called chuckers, each lasting seven and a half minutes. There are five players to a team and an umpire. However, this means little to fans, even those in the VIP sections who have been members of the club for years.
“I don’t even know what a chucker is!” admitted one member.
“Ask me why I’m here, and it has nothing to do with polo!” said another.
Polo is a notably expensive sport. Although general admission tickets are available, many opt to have VIP pads. Each pad, which is a personalized plot and parking space, costs between $1200 and $1500 per year. It is even more costly to play. In addition to training, John Shelton, a fan and former polo player, explained that it is necessary for each player to own five to seven horses.
“You have to switch out because you run them to death,” said Shelton.
Many have jokingly dubbed the Polo Club teams “Sarasota’s Football.”
“Now I come to have fun, tailgate, and hang out. It’s a good excuse to get together with friends we haven’t seen in a few months,” said Shelton. “The sport is family-friendly and civilized.”
While there are several fans who attend matches every weekend, others were there for the first time to get a taste of something new.
“I had only watched it on television, and I figured it could be an exciting sport to watch. Plus I like the idea of tailgating,” said newcomer Jackie Galarza.
Polo coach Casey Haskins believes that the calming effect of the horses, no matter how fast-paced the game can get, keep fans and players returning to the field.
“Everyone from CEOs to doctors to teachers is involved both on the field and on horseback,” said Haskins.
When a lesson or a game comes to a close, Haskins likes to ask people what was on their mind.
“Usually, they pause and then say ‘Nothing. Nothing was on my mind,’” said Haskins. “It relieves stress and pressure no matter what your day job is. It’s the best drug out there.”
At half time, fans gathered around a team of Clydesdales and watched fashioned cars parade the outside of the field.
“I love to come because there is nothing quite like this up north,” said Gwen Mooney. “Even the polo matches near my town in Newport, Rhode Island, did not have the same spirit as these in Florida.”
The field is a melting pot of both young and old and men and women. Members of the philanthropic women’s organization P.E.O. brought their friends and husbands to the match to help raise money to support women pursuing a higher education. Another group rented the field’s clubhouse for a Sweet Sixteen birthday party.
At the close of the match, many attendees turned to other members of their parties asking “Wait, who won?” Many had lingered away from the field to the vendors selling hats, Polo shirts, and cigars.
“What keeps this going is that everyone leaves feeling like they are part of a society or club, whether or not they know much about polo, “ said Haskins. “Some even actually enjoy watching the game.”
To find out more about the Sarasota Polo Club or to see about purchasing a ticket to the next match, visit www.sarasotapolo.com
What if there were multiple websites that promoted suicide that were accessed by hundreds of adolescents each day? Should they be banned in schools? Should there be some kind of government legislation over such sites? Many young women feel this way about pro-ana and “thinspiration” websites, undergrounds that promote anorexia and bulimia nervosa as lifestyle choices rather than psychological disorders.
These websites offer tips on keeping disordered behaviors a secret as well as photographs of women and men who are unrealistically underweight as “encouragement” to maintain an unhealthy diet regimen. These photos bear captions such as “If they can do it, why can’t you do it?”
“It makes the girl in my mirror look that much more disgusting in comparison,” said Olivia*, who is in recovery for anorexia. “It made me need to keep going.”
As shocking as it may sound, pro-ana websites often downplay the mental and health issues attached to eating disorders and make them out to be somewhat of a diet plan.
“These sites tend to make light of eating disorders and ignore the fact that they are actually very serious, thus the prevalence of eating disorders is perpetuated,” said Maisie*, a former user of pro-ana and thinspiration websites.
Many of the sites are set up as social networks similar to Facebook in which each user creates a profile. Information that users post include current height and weight, goal weight, and “thinspiration,” photos, song lyrics, and personal manifestations such as “starving hurts but hunger works,” and “nothing tastes as good as thin feels” to encourage users to continue on a path of extreme weight loss.
Other sites play videos, constant montages of skeletal women, including celebrities and models, set to an ironically chipper soundtrack. The women are often faceless, and common shots include the low waistline of blue jeans and protruding hipbones or a shot of a stick-legged girl in shorts with the notorious “thigh gap” that many viewers aspire to have.
“Like ballet and some forms of modern dance, thinspiration puts a premium on both agony and lightness,” said Virginia Heffernan in the New York Times. “It also carries a fierce ethic of self-sacrifice.”
Many who have seen these sites view them as both a health threat and a complete moral and ethical outrage.
In 2008, French legislators approved a law against web sites promoting anorexic or bulimic behaviors, which is impressive for a capital of high fashion. However, many have doubts that such a law would work in the United States.
“I definitely think there should be some kind of legislation over these sites, although it would be difficult to do much because of the First Amendment,” said Maisie. “Maybe pro-ana and similar sites could be required to include some kind of warning about the dangers of the site’s advice to health—the same idea as the warnings on cigarettes and alcohol bottles.”
Many pro-ana websites use the guise of being an online eating disorder support system for those trying to recover, and their operators argue in defense of that claim.
“We are here as a live-and-let-live community where people do not seek to judge, but seek to understand,” said James Watson, founder of the website Prettythin.com, in a letter in 2010. “PrettyThin is not pro- eating disorders; it is pro individual. We support those who have an eating disorder and wish to live lives without being treated like freaks.” He also said in his letter that he does not believe that eating disorders should be treated as a mental illness, although many health professionals would argue that that is exactly what they are.
Like most sites of this genre, posts on Prettythin personify eating disorders and give them names, the most common being “Ana” for anorexia and “Mia” for bulimia.
“It definitely is abnormal behavior; it is a sickness,” said Kara Caricato, who struggled with anorexia and bulimia for about 15 years. She is one of many that believes these sites are like a suicide aid. “That is basically what you are doing to your body, slowly killing yourself,” she said.
Both founders and those in opposition to these sites agree that they serve as a safe haven and familiar place to turn for both anorexics and bulimics, no matter how unhealthy that is. But some pro-ana sites take it to extremes.
One such example is the subgenre known as “bone thinspiration,” whose ideals represented are so severely emaciated that they look like they could be corpses. They go by names such as “Clavicle Envy” and “Skeleton Stories.” Other sites represent anorexia as a religious belief, set with a list of commandments and prayers.
The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) recognizes February as National Eating Disorder Awareness Month and will be hosting an awareness walk in Tampa, Florida, February 25th. NEDA also hosts the year-long Media Watchdog program, in which those who are anti-pro-ana can write letters of protest to the sites as well as to magazines and television networks.
While eating disorders do not discriminate, the target audience for pro-ana websites is middle class Caucasian women between the ages of 15 and 24. According to NEDA, eating disorders are most prevalent in female middle class college students.
Historically, college campuses have protected students from potentially harmful sites such as Juicy Campus. Should pro-ana sites join the banned list?
“At private schools, where there are a different set of standards, I think pro-ana sites should be blocked to protect students from this influence, at least while they’re on campus,” said Maisie.
Mental health professional Laura Praschan agrees that these sites should be blocked from most university campuses. Until then, she advises that those prone to emotional triggers should avoid pro-ana and similar websites.
“Even sites claiming to be a community for those in recovery can be dangerous grounds,” said Praschan.
For more information on the impacts of these sites or participating in any NEDA events, visit http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
*Interviewee did not wish to reveal last name.
A cape buffalo stares over the leather sofa. A baboon is perched in a tree by the desktop computer, his eyes fierce and wild. A zebra grins by the television, and a hyena lurks in the corner of the living room.
It was 2003 when, Al Lewis of Myakka, Florida, took his first hunting trip to Africa.
“It was always a dream of mine,” said Lewis, whose opportunity to hunt in Africa came when a friend who was getting married at Victoria Falls invited him to fly in two weeks early for the excursion. For 10 days, Al and his friend hunted in Namibia, a 50,000 acre private ranch.
“My wife said I had to do it,” said Lewis.
The trip to Africa was Lewis’ first time out of the country, but by no means his first time hunting.
“My first time hunting, I was about 12 years old,” said Lewis. “My dad used to take me out in his truck and would read the newspaper while I went out with a bb gun.”
Lewis’s first trip to Africa was also the first time he would mount his prize trophy animals. He built his detached “office” as a display room because his wife and daughter didn’t want to see the animals in the house because they loved animals and raised horses. They especially protested shooting zebras.
“Zebras are mean animals,” said Lewis about shooting the striped horses. “They will chase you down and bite you. They are violent and will kill babies of other zebra. They are not as cute as they seem.”
Lewis mentioned another animal that can be surprisingly fearsome.
“There was a whole pack of baboons on the side of a mountain, and they all started screaming,” said Lewis. “It scared me. They can be ugly.”
Lewis’ second and most recent hunting trip to Africa was in Tanzania, 300 miles from the nearest road. Instead of sleeping in a house, he and his friends found themselves sleeping in tents built on top of termite mounds.
“The first trip, we stayed in the home of the owners of the outfitter. They were German, and every time you shot an animal, they wanted to toast you, so by the time you came back after shooting two or three animals you were half-toasted,” said Lewis. “We lived comfortably that trip.”
There was a big difference in the second trip not only because Lewis and his friend were sleeping in tents in the wild under the wide African skies, but because they had both lost their wives. The two went together for a hunter’s adrenaline rush—hunting the Cape buffalo.
The cape buffalo travel in herds, and if a hunter wounds one, the group turns to attack.
“When you are in six feet tall grass, every sound you hear in the bush makes you wonder if it’s the buffalo coming back for you. You realize a wounded buffalo could be right behind you, ready to attack in the saw grass,” said Lewis. “But you do not think about that at first. You think that you don’t want a wounded animal to suffer, and that you don’t want to lose it. It’s an adrenaline rush.”
Lewis was well aware of the risk and had seen on television where a group of 10 men on a hunt walking in a line were attacked by a cape buffalo that came out of the bush. However, hunting the buffalo, which is one of the Dangerous Five, was one of Lewis’ dreams as a hunter. The Dangerous Five include lion, rhino, elephant, leopards, and the Cape buffalo. Lewis has had the chance to shoot lion and leopard, but has never acted on the opportunity, and he says he wouldn’t shoot a rhino.
“To me, I feel like there are not that many of these animals around, and we wouldn’t eat the meat from it,” said Lewis.
Everything he and his friend shot, they ate, and it supplied food for the camp.
“We had a cook. He was a short African guy wearing a white chef hat like you would see in a restaurant, cooking on a wood-burning stove,” said Lewis.
Lewis sampled food items and meats that he will never get a chance to eat again.
“Sometimes I am thankful for that,” said Lewis.
For meat storage, natives hang the meat from strings from tree to tree and let nature dry it.
“If you and I ate it the way they eat it, we would probably get sick and die,” said Lewis. He said the same of the water, a murky brown creek riddled with hippos that ran behind the camp. Malaria and typhoid run rampant, so it was pivotal that Lewis had the proper shots and pills.
Some aspects of Africa were just as Lewis imagined it to be, while others were misleading.
“When I had watched T.V., I always saw the plains of Africa, with the heat rising off the plains,” said Lewis. However, parts of Africa are mountainous country. As they hiked up the mountains, the air was so thin they could hardly breathe, plus they were carrying rifles. And when Lewis woke up in Tanzania the first morning, there was frost on the ground.
“So much for the plains,” said Lewis.
He and his friend stayed on government-owned land with a government hunter to make sure they follow the rules and regulations and shared the camp with 13 other natives who served as trackers, skinners, cooks, and waiters. These people live in these camps in tents nine months out of a year in a fenced enclosure. The camp was also equipped with two guards from the Watusi tribes, tall with red sheets wrapped around them. They walked around the camp armed with a bow and arrows to stop poachers from coming in. If anyone is caught in the property poaching, the guards or the government hunter will shoot them. Poachers are people who kill animals on private hunts and steal the meat. He may also try to steal the lumber to take back on bicycles to sell in their village. In Africa, the government has the legal right to shoot these people.
“I don’t think they should have this right, but they do it. We were told that if we were ever approached by someone out there who showed aggression, we could shoot them,” said Lewis. “I would never want to be in that situation. They are just trying to feed families”
The game from the hunts is the primary food supply for natives who live in the camps, as there is no way to get in and out. The planes that bring in touring hunters also bring in bottled water and canned goods.
“If you get hurt or bit by a snake out in Tanzania, you are probably going to die because it takes so long to get to civilization,” said Lewis.
However, Lewis says that a hunt can be safe if you go with a professional guide and a good outfitter who knows the land and the language. Lewis said that it is a matter of knowing where to go and where not to go.
“A lot of times, I felt safer there than walking down streets in Tampa at night,” said Lewis.
The most harrowing situation that Lewis found himself in was admittedly his own fault. Africa is home to a wide variety of snakes, and one day when the group stopped for lunch, Lewis caught a glimpse of a cobra in the hole of a tree.
“I wanted a photograph, and I was trying to get it to flare up,” said Lewis. The snake got away, but he soon found out that it was a spitting cobra, a breed that spits venom. “If he would have gotten me in the eye, I would have been gone. That and the Cape buffalo were the two scariest moments for me. With the thick vegetation, you always have to be on guard,” said Lewis.
While in Africa, Lewis said that he gained a whole new perspective on his life in comparison to how the people in Africa live. Outfitting is one of the only sources of income for most African countries, other than diamonds, which is a dangerous line of work. Lewis regularly donates to an organization where he buys animals such as chickens, cows, and goats to be shipped over in order for people to get eggs and milk and raise the animals for food. This helps ensure they have sufficient livestock to provide for families to help feed villages.
Lewis hopes to return to Africa to shoot more wildlife, but this time not with a rifle. Another dream of his to go back for a photo shoot expedition.
“Even just for taking pictures, I love it over there,” said Lewis.
For the photo shoot, Lewis says he is planning on visiting Kruger National Park or the Serengeti for a guided photography tour, as thousands of tourists do annually.
“The dream is to see the great migration,” said Lewis. “Every animal in Africa is there at certain times of the year.”
Lewis recalled a moment in which people were sitting in a truck and a cheetah came and jumped right on top of it and urinated on the vehicle.
“You never know what you are going to run into,” said Lewis.
But for the natives of Africa, it is the only way of life they know; they were born and raised among the animals.
“If you love wildlife, there is no better place on earth to go. Everywhere you look there are animals,” said Lewis. “Anything you want to see is there.”