Tag Archives: New York Times

Dying for Opiates in Omaha

October 11, 2016 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Kristen Hoffman

Getting high on injected heroin—or one of the several synthetic equivalents—does not feel like an orgasm or a dozen orgasms. That is a mythical description the average non-user appreciates, so it gets repeated. The truth is more sinister. Whether you spike a vein with melted oxy in a back alley or get your Dilaudid prescribed in-hospital, getting high on injected opiates feels like being 4 years old, falling asleep in your mother’s lap while watching your favorite movie. You feel safe, warm, satisfied, and content to do nothing. Your nervous system melts like butter with a warm tingling sensation. Emotional and physical pain dissipate. Trauma becomes meaningless. You nod off. Occasionally, you approach consciousness long enough to melt into it again. And on it goes over and over. The first time is always the best, and no matter how long you chase that first high, you will never see it again.

According to Nebraska’s Vital Statistics Department, at least 54 people died from overdosing on opiates in the state during 2015.

Anything above and beyond pain relief is experienced as a rush of dopamine to the pleasure center of the brain. Addicts will escalate the amount of opioids they consume until coming across a bad batch mixed with other drugs—such as large-animal tranquilizers—or they stumble onto an unusually pure source, take too much, and overdose. Some users accidentally consume a fatal cocktail of prescriptions with alcohol or other drugs. In recent years, overdoses involving opiates have claimed the lives of several celebrities: the musician Prince, actors Philip Seymour Hoffman, Heath Ledger, Cory Monteith, and the list goes on.

In the state of Nebraska, deaths from opiate overdoses are on the rise. According to Nebraska’s Vital Statistics Department, at least 54 people died from overdosing on opiates in the state during 2015. Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that six out of every 10 drug overdoses involve opiates of some kind. From 1999 to 2014, roughly 165,000 Americans died from opiate-related overdoses, quadrupling the numbers from previous years, according to the Center for Disease Control. The death toll is climbing. The most recent CDC estimates suggest 78 Americans overdose on opiates every day.

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The Local Frontline

Russell Janssen is a case manager at the Open Door Mission, located between Carter Lake and the Missouri River. At age 20, he was introduced to heroin and was an intravenous user until the age of 39. Off heroin now for nearly two decades, Janssen spends his days treating people with the very addiction problems he has faced and continues to battle.

“I’ve been clean for 19 and a half years and I’ll still have ‘using’ dreams,” Janssen says. “They don’t affect me the way they used to. When I first cleaned up, I would wake up in cold sweats. I’d try to go back to sleep and just couldn’t. I still wake up to this day, but now I can lay down and go back to sleep. The thought is always there, though, and never leaves us.”

Heroin addiction is powerful, Janssen says, too powerful for anyone to be completely beyond it, especially if they think they are “too smart to get hooked.” And while most drugs will provide some high with diminishing returns, heroin burns out the brain’s pleasure center and forces users to do more and more in order to “stay even” and barely functional. Serious daily side effects include nausea, abdominal pain, high agitation, muscle cramps and spasms, as well as depression and cravings leading to relapse.

“The problem with heroin is you have to have it just to maintain,” Janssen says. “It’s not just about getting high. I’d go through $150 a day just to maintain for the 12 to 14 hours that I was up. If I wanted to get high I had to go above that amount because you gotta have it.”

And “it,” per Janssen, is never the same twice. Prescription opioids are a known quality, but black market drugs are unregulated and full of pitfalls. Drugs are cut with useless fillers and other substances to increase profits for dealers: “People die because they’re doing so many weird things with it. People died in Cincinnati, Ohio, because they were mixing elephant tranquilizer in with the heroin. And even though heroin addicts know that it’s out there—and they know it’s killing people—they go looking, thinking ‘I’ve got to have it just to maintain,’ so they’re willing to take that chance.”

Janssen says the access to opioids through prescriptions has changed the face of heroin addiction, making it easier and less stigmatic to start, the biggest mistake anyone can make.

“In the `70s, heroin addicts were the lowest of the low. Even other drug users didn’t want anything to do with heroin users. That’s changed a lot today because people get prescribed opiates, and they think that if a doctor prescribes it that it can’t be harmful for them. But that’s a way that people get addicted. We’re gonna see a lot more people out (in West Omaha) getting addicted.”

Chris Eynon is an eight-year recovering meth addict, a graduate of the Miracles Treatment Program at the Siena/Francis House, and, for the last two years, its treatment coordinator. He is seeing an increase in the number of people seeking help for heroin and opioid addiction.

“We are certainly seeing an increase in the amount of applicants wanting recovery here (in Omaha),” says Eynon, who has also witnessed the dire circumstances facing East Coast communities. He spent several weeks during March in Cumberland, Maryland, a town of roughly 20,000 where he was helping a friend to start a prayer service for heroin addicts. “Out on the East Coast, (heroin addiction) is really significant there. Just in the small community of Cumberland, they have been devastated. Last year in their county they experienced 14 deaths due to overdose, and as of this year already they have experienced over 30. Most of them are high school kids, and most of them are heroin overdoses.”

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From Vietnam Vets to Millennials

The current heroin/opioid epidemic is reminiscent of the Vietnam War era when access to plentiful and pure China White heroin combined with the stress of combat, and roughly 15 percent of all enlisted men had fallen into addiction. In 1971, Operation Golden Flow (the unofficial name of widespread military drug testing campaign) was designed by the Department of Defense to “clean up” American GIs before sending them home. While many came home and never used again because the circumstances of their drug use changed drastically, others relapsed at home as black market heroin followed the demand back from Vietnam to the U.S.

A New York Times article from May 1986 reported the number of U.S. addicts at roughly 500,000 (with 200,000 in New York alone). That heroin epidemic began subsiding as popularity for crack cocaine took over the streets. Studies from the Golden Flow era laid the groundwork for much of what we know about opioid addiction in 2016.

With the widespread prevalence of opiate prescriptions, a 2011 study by the Department of Veterans Affairs found that today’s veterans are at an even greater risk than their earlier counterparts for heroin addiction, as the VA was treating chronic pain with prescriptions for opioids “almost exclusively.” The 2011 study reported that veterans are twice as likely to suffer accidentally fatal opioid overdoses than non-veteran civilians. Since the 2012 height of the VA’s opioid prescriptions to veterans, the federal department has made an effort to decrease opiate prescriptions in favor of more comprehensive approaches to pain management.

Over the past 10 years, the CDC has observed that heroin use among 18-25 year olds has more than doubled in the general population. According to the CDC, 90 percent of people who try heroin have tried at least one other drug first, and, an astonishing 45 percent of heroin users were addicted to prescription opioid painkillers such as Vicodin, oxycodone, oxycontin, fentanyl, Dilaudid, and morphine before switching to heroin. In 2014, prescription opioids killed more than 28,000 of the 2,000,000 Americans dependent on them. From 1999 to 2013, the amount of prescription opioids dispensed in the U.S. nearly quadrupled.

With the widespread prevalence of opiate prescriptions, a 2011 study by the Department of Veterans Affairs found that today’s veterans are at an even greater risk than their earlier counterparts for heroin addiction, as the VA was treating chronic pain with prescriptions for opioids “almost exclusively.”

A May 2014 report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse explains: “It is estimated that between 26.4 million and 36 million people abuse opioids worldwide with an estimated 2.1 million people in the United States suffering from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers in 2012 and an estimated 467,000 addicted to heroin. The consequences of this abuse have been devastating and are on the rise.”

Across Socioeconomic Divisions

While the Midwest currently sees fewer opiate overdoses than the coasts, that danger is growing across all socioeconomic segments of the population.

Janssen, Eynon, and several recovering addicts who spoke with Omaha Magazine on the condition of anonymity agreed that teens, the affluent, insured and educated are at risk—because when experimenting with opioid pills, youths often hold the false assumption that nothing bad can happen with drugs prescribed by a doctor, even if those pills were obtained without permission.

“They might steal them from a medicine cabinet or have their own prescription at some point,” Eynon says, echoing similar points made by the other counselors that middle-class white people with many relatives, each with several doctors, might find themselves practically surrounded by easily obtained and occasionally leftover prescriptions. “In my opinion, we will see a lot of West Omaha-type addicts. Prescription medication is usually attained through insurance coverage. In order to have insurance, you would need a job, which falls more into the ‘rich kid’ category.”

Sara B. comes from the less affluent segment of recovering addicts. A fast-talking 32-year-old with attention deficit disorder, also a mother of seven, she signed over the rights to her children to her counselor for their protection while she sought help. She is working hard in order to maintain a relationship with her children.

“I started because people around me, family members were doing it,” says Sara, who has been clean now for the better part of a decade. She still has to guard against relapse, maintaining sobriety for her children as well as her health. She is wary of family who are still actively using. “Which is hard because you have to stay away from users when you get clean if you want to stay clean,” she says. “It’s too easy to fall back.”

Justin Schwope is a 26-year-old recovering addict with four years of sobriety under Russell Janssen’s wing at Open Door. His habit of choice was a speedball, heroin and meth, though other stimulants can be substituted.

“I’d been messing with drugs since I was 16 and my grandparents died,” Schwope says. “I wasn’t able to get clean until I tried kill myself with Lipitor and woke up in Creighton three days later and then transferred to Lasting Hope.”

All sources interviewed by Omaha Magazine agreed that the transition from pure opiates to street junk is the greatest threat to the health and welfare of addicts. When the easy access to opiates runs out, addicts look elsewhere risking everything just to stay even, and even to get that high.

“In Maryland apparently, there was a mass supply of prescription drugs or ‘pill farms’ that were seized and, as a result, (users) turned to heroin, which is cheaper and easily available,” Eynon says. “They have an addiction to feed and, unfortunately, the heroin is not like prescription drugs which are regulated…and the pills are always consistent in strength and dose amounts. When they switch to heroin, they have no idea of the potency or what it might be laced with.”

Increased Regulatory Oversight

Tragic stories of opiate overdoses and abuse have become too commonplace.

After Omaha resident Carrie Howard suffered a severe car accident, she began taking prescription painkillers. The pills led to an addiction that culminated in a fatal overdose in 2009. The legacy of her untimely death made waves through Nebraska’s legislature. Carrie’s mother is former senator Gwen Howard; her sister is Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha.

The elder Howard championed legislation that created a prescription painkiller monitoring program in 2011. But the program fell short in many respects. Sara Howard continued the family’s fight for improved regulatory oversight of prescribed opiates when she introduced LB 471 to the state’s unicameral.

Upon receiving first-round approval in January 2016, several senators recounted their own families’ close encounters with opiate addiction. Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha revealed that one of his own relatives had suffered from a prescription painkiller addiction, an addiction sustained by shopping around different doctors and pharmacies. When the prescriptions dried up, Lindstrom’s relative turned to heroin.

The unicameral finally approved LB 471 in February 2016. It comes into effect in the new year. LB 471 will require pharmacies to report when prescriptions are filled, and would allow pharmacists to check records of past prescriptions to avoid abuse. There are two phases to this. Beginning January 1, 2017, all prescriptions of controlled substances will be reported to the prescription drug monitoring program. Beginning January 2018, all prescriptions will be reported.

A few weeks prior to Nebraska approving LB 471, President Barack Obama had announced that $1.1 billion would be made available for expanded opiate-related treatment opportunities across the country. According to a statement from the White House, “More Americans now die every year from drug overdoses than they do in motor vehicle crashes.”

Already in the previous year, Nebraska received two significant grants to combat statewide opioid-related abuse: one for more than $3 million over four years from the CDC for prescription drug overdose prevention, the other for $500,000 over two years from the Department of Justice.

The funding comes at a pivotal moment. America is experiencing a perfect storm for an opioid epidemic. War, health care in crisis, addiction, easy access, and low employment are among the many factors forcing opioids into the drug user’s spotlight. Once, only the lowest drug users shot junk. Today, if not tomorrow, someone you love might be the next junkie you meet.

To get help for substance abuse problems, call: 1-800-662-HELP.

Additional reporting contributed by Doug Meigs.

For more information about the epidemic, as told by a recovering addict from suburban West Omaha, read: http://omahamagazine.com/2016/10/my-battle-with-opiates/ 

Russell Janssen, case manager at Open Door Mission.

Russell Janssen, case manager at Open Door Mission.

Field & Dream

November 24, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The rhizosphere is defined as the top layer of the earth’s soil.

“It’s the living layer,” Terra Hall explains. “It’s where all the magic happens.”

Rhizosphere Farm, then, is a perfect moniker as Terra and her husband, Matthew, conjure Mother Nature’s magic on their 5.5-acre Loess Hills farm nurturing heirloom, organic vegetables, fruits, and herbs throughout the growing season.

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As the rhizosphere now sleeps through late fall and winter, the Halls plan and prep for 2016. If you’re the type to wistfully recall summer’s sweet bounty in the face of a fall chill and you’re already pining for the return of farmers markets, here’s a look back at Rhizosphere Farm at its seasonal summit.

“It’s the best time of year to eat,” says Terra of August’s abundant end. As lunch is served in the Halls’ log cabin, Coner, a Polish-breed rooster with a hair-metal crest of feathers obscuring his vision, crows intermittently outside. Summer, though not yet eclipsed by fall, can be felt leaning into its swan song.

The meal, shared with intern Patrick Laird and groundskeeper Ted Engles, comes from the field: a spicy tomato gazpacho with onions and herbs, baba ghanoush, carrots, salad, and a potato-leek dish. Farmhand and good friend Dakia Anheluk rounded out the 2015 Rhizosphere crew, helping considerably when health issues had earlier sidelined Terra.

Matthew is from Omaha and Terra is from Council Bluffs, but they actually met in Oregon when working at Horton Road Organics. Over lunch, the Halls explain how they became farmers.

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“I needed a job and lived up the road,” says Matthew in his characteristically succinct manner of speaking before elaborating that he enjoys working with his hands and deeply values “a hard-ass day of labor. What we do in our field is a form of art which tunes us into the true nature of the world as humans were meant to experience it,” he says.

Terra, whose name is fittingly Latin for “earth,” was a campaign organizer at the University of Oregon before realizing activism wasn’t her path to “change the world.” When she started at Horton, she immediately knew she’d found a calling in organic farming.

“I love the connections with nature and the people I grow food for,” she says. “We’re sometimes missing those connections in our culture.”

The Halls returned to the Midwest, dream of Rhizosphere in hand, and rented land in Waterloo, Nebraska, in 2009. A growing urge to put down permanent roots and perennials on a plot of their own culminated in the September 2013 purchase of their land.

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While Rhizosphere’s a scant 20-minute drive from downtown Omaha, visitors enjoy escaping the city’s hustle and bustle. But the Halls hustle plenty on this plentiful land, working seven days a week March through October. They supplement their income with off-season carpentry and retail jobs.

Rhizosphere grew 35 varieties of crops this past season and now counts such notables as  Dante and The Grey Plume as clients.

“We hit at the right time,” in the farm-to-table movement, says Terra.

“Boiler Room was our first [customer],” says Matthew. “And Nick (Strawhecker) at Dante got our number from them.”

“That’s one of the cool things about Omaha’s wonderful food community,” says Terra. “It’s very cooperative, sharing resources and information, which just makes everybody better.”

The Halls also enjoy a more public profile at farmers markets.

“A light goes on in people and it creates great conversations about the farm, how the food is grown, how it can be cooked,” says Terra. “That’s the best way to pass information about food. Those conversations are some of the most important work we do.”

Love of that educational aspect and a desire to create a more sustainable, all-season outlet for their passion has the Halls considering evolving Rhizosphere into an educational nonprofit, adding classes, workshops, events, and community-building to its mission.

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“The Universe gave me a little time off this year,” says Terra, “which provided perspective. I’m passionate about designing the space and creating a permaculture foodscape, and I love teaching people that. I was so inspired by the people who taught me, and I want to pass that on.”

After lunch, Engles gives a tour of the land. It’s ordered, yet still wonderfully wild. A flock of ducks waddle by as he points out the greenhouses, barn, and an old stable, which Matthew has partially converted into additional sleeping quarters. Various fruits, herbs, and veggies flourish in the field alongside towering, yellow-flowered, now-dormant sunchokes—which Terra discussed in a May 2015 New York Times feature on Omaha’s farm-to-table prowess. The diverse, young “food forest” concept uses companion planting—a common permaculture concept ensuring a healthier ecosystem requiring less work through intelligent design. Yellow, heirloom cherry tomatoes are sampled right off the vine before the tour returns to its genesis, now swarmed by a wandering peep of clucking chickens.

There are no rabbits pulled from hats or “abracadabras” uttered here, but Rhizosphere’s magic is palpable.

Visit rhizopherefarm.org to learn more.

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13 Hours in Benghazi

July 17, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article was featured in July/August 2015 Omaha Magazine.

The chaotic scene in Benghazi, Libya, the night of Sept. 11, 2012, looked like something out of a Michael Bay movie.

Just after 9 p.m., more than 100 Islamic militants flooded the U.S. embassy compound there, forcing a small group of American diplomats and security personnel into a frantic retreat to a safe room hidden within the compound.

One mile away, Omahan Kris Paronto, a former Army Ranger, sat watching a movie with fellow members of the secretive CIA security force known as the Global Response Staff. Then came the distress call from the compound: An urgent cry to “Get in here—NOW!” amid explosions and Jihadist cries of “Allahu Akbar.”

The ensuing rolling battle placed Paronto not only in the crosshairs of Libyan extremists, but, back in the United States, in the crosshairs of one of the most politicized events of the 21st Century. Benghazi.

Benghazi. The death of two American diplomats, including American ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, who died of smoke inhalation in that safe room. The fact that Paronto and his team—two of whom died in the skirmishes that followed—were told to stand down by the region’s CIA chief (orders that Paronto and his team soon disobeyed).

How could this all happen? Who was responsible for the intelligence and security lapses? Liberal conspiracy, or conspiracy theory of conservatives? Politicos in the 24-hour news cycle droned overtime.

This firestorm in which Kris Paronto found himself not only looked like something out of a Michael Bay movie, it will actually be a Michael Bay movie. And in that movie, and the book that inspired that movie, will be a character named Kris Paronto.

Paronto is now back in Omaha living what may be called a normal life with his wife, a son he calls “Bubba,” and a daughter he calls “Princess.” He takes long runs and rides his bike to clear his mind of the ghosts that haunt him. He resumed his insurance-adjusting business.

In the months following September 2012, the hourly barrage of news about this horrific ordeal died down, but what trickled out to the public was, in Paronto’s mind, grossly twisted into a political nightmare.

The surviving members of the team met in Langley, Virginia, that May to honor their fallen comrades. Following the formal service, they gathered at a bar, where they toasted the deceased. As the nearly unavoidable subject of politics arose, Paronto discovered he was not the only team member disgusted with the media’s portrayal of Benghazi.

“What the hell?” Paronto says, shaking his head.

The only way to tell the correct story would be to tell it themselves. It was then they determined they needed to write the story—as a team effort.

They had to stick together, as they were not supposed to mention the attack to anyone, let alone write a book.

“We kept getting treated badly by the CIA,” Paronto said. “We had to sign a bunch of non-disclosure agreements.”

But Paronto maintains this is the truth, and he tired of biting his tongue and clenching his fists when he heard inaccuracies on the news.

“It really bothers me when whatever side you’re on goes too far to further their cause,” Paronto says. “Battles aren’t political. You’re trying to live and they’re trying to live. We did not speculate what was going on in the head shed.”

Paronto is political in his own right. He’s a conservative-minded patriot with several tattoos, including one that looks as though his skin is being ripped open to reveal an American flag in his core.

He considers himself a warrior not just for the U.S., but for God, though personally, he’s more of a C&E’r, as in Christmas and Easter churchgoer. He sometimes attends Gethsemane Lutheran Church outside of the holidays and is a member of Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

A plan of counter-political attack made, Paronto contacted his friend Richard Abate, literary agent for author Mitchell Zuckhoff. Paronto previously read Zuckhoff’s book Lost in Shangri-La, and knew that the seasoned journalist and Boston University College of Communication professor could write the story well.

“This was the first book that came to me quite this way,” Zuckhoff says. “Normally I got out and found an idea and wrote a book. I felt honored that Kris and the guys went out and found me.”

“Like a lot of Americans, I thought I knew a decent amount,” Zuckhoff says. “The incident happened about nine or 10 months earlier, and I kept on top of it…Once I started talking to the guys, I realized I, like most Americans, had no idea what happened over there.”

One part Zuckhoff had no idea about was the lack of involvement from a film titled Innocence of Muslims, which both conservatives and liberals blamed as being part of the reason for the attack.

“What? I got up the next day and saw something about a video,” Paronto says. “Gosh, I don’t know where they got that video thing. It hadn’t filtered to Benghazi yet.”

As Zuckhoff discovered the story being told in the mainstream media differed vastly from the story the guys told him, he unraveled the story like a cat tearing into a knot of yarn.

“We got it done in about three months,” Paronto said. “We did three different revisions to make it apolitical. Even though we knew it would eventually become political, we wanted it to be nonpartisan.”

Also helping to keep the story apolitical were the GRS operators’ unassuming demeanors. “These are extraordinary guys, and what I loved about working with them was they got it,” Zuckhoff says. “They didn’t focus on ‘does this make me look good?’ They didn’t ask ‘does this make me look bad because I was joking around in a serious moment.’”

One member of the unit that Paronto had a hard time keeping apolitical about was the chief, known as Bob. Bob wasn’t Paronto’s favorite person. He was a veteran of what Paronto calls the “Alphabet Soup Company,” since he oversees so many things without really being a part of any of them.

“You can be in a combat zone and not be in combat,” Paronto said. “But that’s Bob.”

He sets his jaw more squarely and straightens his back when talking about the large Libyan militia unit known as the “17 February Martyrs Brigade.” Bob told the team one reason his team did not respond quickly was that they were waiting for help from the militia’s fighters. Paronto, specifically, did not trust that militia, which was formed during the revolution that toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Paronto’s instincts were proved correct when the only members of the militia in the area were a group of boys who turned back following the sight of actual combat.

“Failure to prep the 17 February unit.” “The GRS operated as mercenaries.” Accusations flew in all directions. Zuckoff had myriad divergent narratives to rectify.

“There were so many political interests around, but once I started talking to Kris, I discovered it was really straightforward,” Zuckoff says. “These are truly honorable, decent men who didn’t have any agenda outside of how they lost four brave men, and how they had been left to fend for themselves.”

Zuckhoff himself had no problem remaining neutral, although his own political tendencies sway opposite Paronto’s. The Boston University professor admits that previous to his contact with the GRS team, he was not likely to be friends with military contractors.

“My professor friends are more likely to have a glass of wine and call it a night,” Zuckhoff says. “When I go out with these guys, there’s a lot of storytelling. They are funny and profane, and there’s no guile.”

For example: Paronto, as serious as he can be, is well-known by his compatriots as an unrepentant prankster. He particularly enjoys heisting the odds-and-ends of friends (such as hats, Xbox games, and magazines), immersing them in containers of water, and then freezing them.

“I wanted to show a human side,” Paronto says. “I think the book did a good job of that.”

The book, 13 Hours in Benghazi, came out in September 2014—exactly two years after the attack.

“This was the fastest I’ve ever written a book,” Zuckoff says. “I literally only took one day off during that entire time. The only real pressure I had was that we wanted the book to come out on the second anniversary of the attack.”

The tome, bearing a book jacket covered in the yellow and green colors of a fading bruise, came out at the perfect time to engage the media. The first organization to report on the book? Fox News.

“People were saying we chose Fox because it is Republican or whatever,” Paronto says. “No, we didn’t choose them for that reason.”

The reason, Paronto said, was because Fox gave them the best deal.

Publishing the book means potential civil forfeiture of royalties and movie life rights, along with possible fines of $250,000 and prison. The team has experienced accusations of slander from both the government and the media.

But Paronto and his teammates succeeded in telling people their story. Partially boosted by good reviews in the The New York Times and the Washington Post, United States and Canadian bookstores sold 200,000 copies by the end of 2014.

Paronto sits back in his chair. “If I was in a military setting, we’d have gotten the medal of honor,” he says. “The things those guys did that night…those things that happen in combat, they don’t happen anywhere else.”

There is one other place that happens…the big screen. Paronto and the team will be able to watch the horror unfold again through the magic of Hollywood. Chuck Hogan, writer for The Town, starring Ben Affleck, wrote a screenplay based on the book. Shooting for the movie has just begun, with Pablo Schreiber portraying Paronto. No release date has been set, but Paronto has visited the set and describes Schreiber as “outstanding” in the role of, well, him.

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Express Your Creative Self

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Jim Scholz

This is my third of a series of advice articles for women 60+ who want to style themselves fashionably and age-appropriately. In my first article, I gave women guidelines and a must-have list of fashions and separates that work in any wardrobe and could be personalized with accessories. In the second article, I talked about the fact that there are no rules in fashion, just relationships…meaning you can make almost everything work if you know how to properly coordinate and accessorize.

Now, it’s time to address the women over 60 who are not comfortable dressing like their counterparts…the ones who have a want and need to express their unique selves through fashion. These are the women who don’t care what their friends are wearing because they dress for themselves. Women who have advanced style, which is also the title of a blog and recently released book by Ari Seth Cohen.

Advanced style has stunning photos of older women—some into their 90s—all dressed to express and entertain themselves. They don’t all look good because there’s a fine line between fabulous and foolish. In New York, many creatives of all ages dress on the wild side every day! They keep Bill Cunningham of The New York Times dashing from one corner and event to the next so that he can photograph them for his New York Times stories and videos. The harmony of exceptional clothes, attitude, and flair makes them interesting and attractive.

I love being creative with pieces I know are exceptional. If you have the flair, the right pieces, and the courage to dress as a work of art, do it! But it’s not easy to do it right. Most people spend years collecting before they have enough to work with. You don’t just go out shopping one day and find amazing, one-of-a kind designs in Omaha, or anywhere, and internet finds worth having can be costly and not guaranteed to fit. Another very important thing is that if the pieces you play with are not quality, you end up looking like a clown rather than a woman of advanced style.

It was fun styling me for my picture (above). The hat is one I bought in 1981. I designed and made the silk taffeta jacket in 1983. I had the gloves custom made in New York in 1985. The skirt is the bottom half of a dress I designed and made in 1997. Each piece individually looks proper in my everyday wardrobe. Together, they become artistic expression!

Think about the following quotes from the book. They’re all true.

“It always pays to invest in quality. It never goes out of style.”

“Style is about the right clothes, the right jewelry, the right know-how, and the right attitude.” “Fashion says ‘me too,’ style says ‘only me.’”

If this is what you’re about, go for it at any age!

I welcome your feedback and invite you to send questions to sixtyplus@omahapublications.com.

Mary Anne Vaccaro lives in Omaha. She designed and made couture clothing for an international clientele of professionals and socialites of all ages. She created ready-to-wear collections that were sold from her New York showroom, and she designed for the bridal industry. She designed for three Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation Balls and ran a fashion advertising business in five states for a number of years. Invisible Apron® is one of several products that she has designed and developed. She still designs for select clients and works as an image consultant, stylist, personal shopper, and speaker on the subjects of fashion, art, and style. For more information, visit maryannevaccaro.com or call 402-398-1234.