Friday, June 17, 2016

The Only Thing We Have to Fear

On April 19, 2013, I wrote this blog about the Boston bombings. Three years later, nothing has changed but the names. News crews are in Orlando now. They’ll move on when the next killings happen. All I know for sure is that heroes walk among us.

Last year, I published a novel, The Arsonist’s Last Words, about a disaster in downtown Orlando, and the city’s response to the tragedy. This week, I meant to post a blog on the fictional anniversary of the fictional event, maybe sell a few books, right? On Monday Sunday, bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon, killing 3 and wounding 264 shots rang out at the Pulse nightclub, killing 49 and wounding 53. By the way, today is the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing Charleston shooting. I’m afraid that if we live long enough, we’ll have a massacre for every day of the year.

Candlelight Vigil in downtown Orlando
That’s what the terrorists want, though. They want us living in fear. In Boston Orlando, an official steps up to the podium and says, “Our hearts are broken, but our spirits are not.” We keep repeating it, over and over, but how many times can you witness the slaughter before you lose part of yourself?

In Boston Orlando, we feel the same knifing pain—the pain of knowing that someone, somewhere, plotted to kill or maim as many of his fellow humans as possible. His victims committed no crime, other than to stand on a crowded street dance floor at two in the afternoon morning. The randomness is what wrecks our sleep. How do we protect ourselves from such a fate? Where in the world are we safe?

Even as the heroes rushed in to help the wounded on Boylston Street Orange Avenue, those of us watching on TV or feverishly tapping with our thumbs demanded to know “Who?” and “Why?” As if knowing the “motive” would make any sense out of madness. Staring into the empty eyes of Adam Lanza Dylan Klebold Seung-Hui Cho Syed Farook made no sense of the shootings in Sandy Hook Columbine Virginia Tech San Bernadino. Hearing Timothy McVeigh’s “reasons” gave no peace to the survivors of Oklahoma City. I almost wish we didn’t know why the Al Qaeda hijackers wanted to kill us on 9/11. The simple answer is: Because we exist. There’s no arguing with that logic.

Having lived for half a century, I can look back on a long list of heartbreaking days, beginning with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy quickly followed. As a kid, I remember thinking it was safer not to dream. A crazy man with a gun could come along and blow your dreams away.

Fast-forward to September 11, a day that shattered every dream we had as a country. We grew up safe on these shores. No one had ever dared attack us, and if they did, we bombed them into oblivion. America was a beacon of freedom in the world, a shining city on a hill. Who didn’t love us?

How could we comprehend the level of hatred required to kill 3,000 people?

“Incomprehensible” is a word we often use at times like these. We can’t wrap our minds around the loss. Grief turns to anger. After 9/11, we sought to avenge the deaths of our brothers and sisters by fighting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Twelve Fifteen years later, 6,648 6,883 more American lives have been lost.

We like to say that the terrorists didn’t win, but now, we’re even at war with ourselves. Can you remember a more bitter political time? Name the subject—immigration, health care, gun control, gay rights—and we’re at each other’s throats. Bin Laden couldn’t have been happier. Since 9/11, we’ve lived with this ever-present fear, a gnawing anxiety that something bad is about to happen, and thanks to our 24-hour news cycle, something always does. Orange is our new normal on the terror scale. There isn’t a gun big enough to kill the bogeyman.

As a writer, I try to put myself in the bogeyman’s place. In Boston Orlando, I picture him sitting at a kitchen table, filling a pressure cooker magazine full of nails rifle shells. In his mind, he envisions the damage these little pieces of metal will do to flesh and bone. I can’t allow myself to believe that he pictured the faces of kids in the crowd. He didn’t have that much imagination. He was only thinking about somebody else feeling pain for a change, instead of him. This probably makes me a coward. I can’t deal with a monster. I have to make him human. The hardest part—the part that takes all my will—is remembering that he is my brother. And so was Timothy McVeigh. And so was Osama bin Laden.

If I believe in the God our politicians are so fond of quoting, I must believe that every man is my brother. Not just the ones who go to my church. Not just the ones with the same color skin. Not just the ones who wish me well. I have to love—and forgive—the ones who plot my death, and the ones who shoot my kids with a Bushmaster rifle.

This isn’t the American Way, I know. Turning the other cheek is not the way we roll. We’d rather blast the hell out of our enemies, and electrocute the ones we can reach with a plug. Please don’t get me wrong—I want justice for the victims. I just don’t want it at the expense of our own souls. We’ve grown too fond of hatred in this country, and that’s what the terrorists really want.

Patton Oswalt very eloquently told the Boston bombers, “The good outnumber you and they always will.” His words gave me comfort, and so did those of Bruce Schneier of The Atlantic, who said, “There’s one thing we can do to render terrorism ineffective: Refuse to be terrorized.”

I refuse to live in fear. I will not hate my enemies. I’ll pretend this crack in my heart isn’t there. So help me God.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

To Be or Not to Be

If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather.
                     —STEPHEN FRY

Last night, we watched “World’s Greatest Dad,” a dark comedy starring Robin Williams. In it, he plays a high school teacher whose teen-aged son accidentally hangs himself. Stunned, Dad stages the death to look like a suicide, and he types a note that makes the kid’s classmates feel guilty for the way they treated him, even if he was awful to everyone. In death, the jerk becomes a saint. As the story grows, Williams “finds” his son’s journal, which a publisher says will be “the biggest thing since The Diary of Anne Frank.” Williams, now a talk-show celebrity, tells his audience, “Remember, suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

Robin Williams
(July 21, 1951 – August 11, 2014)
You can’t laugh for crying. In the most painful scene, when Williams finds his dead son hanged on a doorknob, the actor’s grief and horror is all too real. It’s almost like a dress rehearsal. He would have had to shoot several different takes: shock, screaming, collapsing to the floor in tears. Cut.

I can only imagine how alone he must have felt at the end.

Reaction to his death this week ranged from the eloquent to the heartless: “Cowardly.” “Selfish.” “Not a disease, a choice.” Is it any wonder that those of us who struggle with depression are afraid to speak up?

If you’ve never known the feeling, well, God bless you. I don’t mean a sad mood that lasts for a week or two and goes away. We’re talking months or even years. (I lost part of the ’90s.) The dark cloud descends. The music stops. You can’t remember the point of getting up in the morning.

Here’s the thing: I have an amazing life. Wonderful family and friends—people who love me. Surely Robin Williams must have said the same. The worst part about depression is that you know you have no right to feel that way, hence the shame and isolation. Nobody likes a whiner. Cheer up! Quit feeling sorry for yourself! Happiness is a choice. Plenty of people are a lot worse off than you. Think of all the things you have to be grateful for!

It’s a little like yelling at a diabetic for having low blood sugar.

If you’re like me, you yell at yourself all the time. Hopelessness doesn’t begin to describe the feeling as time wears on, and the pep talks aren’t working. Especially if you’ve been there before. You can work hard, get healthy again, be strong for ages, and boom—you’re back to square one. Pushing a boulder up a hill.

In time, you get really good at keeping up a front. You become a pro at seeming “normal.” Happy, even. God forbid you let anyone see how lost you are. People might worry. A glass of wine always helps to get you talking. Otherwise, you’d sit there like a stone. After a visit with friends, you’re wrung out for days. The effort is exhausting.

The tragedy of depression is that it feels like forever, but it isn’t. With help—therapy, medication, whatever it takes—the darkness lifts. You find out there’s joy and laughter on the other side, more life to be lived. Sadly, some sufferers don’t last that long. They make a desperate decision, borne out of fear or pain or loneliness (often compounded by drugs or alcohol), and at the funeral, friends say, “We had no idea he was that bad off...”

We often think of suicides as planned, with warning signs that can’t be missed. Research shows that as many as 80% are impulsive, a reaction to short-term crisis. In the Houston study, 153 survivors of nearly-lethal suicide attempts were asked, “How much time passed between the time you decided to commit suicide and actually attempted it?” For one in four responders, the answer was less than five minutes. Fully three-quarters of the group said it was under an hour. Change the scenario a bit—say there wasn’t a gun in the house or a bottle of pills in the medicine cabinet—and they might wake up on the couch with nothing but a nasty hangover.

Here’s a list of people who attempted suicide and went on to great things, including Halle Berry, Greg Louganis, Mike Wallace, Billy Joel, Elton John, Clark Gable and Walt Disney. They thought the world would be a better place without them. Imagine what we would have missed.

Lest you worry that I’m preoccupied with self-destruction, well, you’re probably right, but in a way that keeps me from doing it. Years ago, my dear friend Brian put a bullet through his brain. He was bright, funny, gifted—had his whole life in front of him. All who knew him were shattered. To this day, I still wonder what might have happened if I’d called him that night. The arrogance, to think I could have talked him out of it, but still...

Regret is a thing you live with. I couldn’t do that to the people I love.

Which tells you how much Robin Williams must have been suffering. There isn’t a doubt in anyone’s mind about the size of his heart. He loved his family, maybe more than life itself. We’ll never know the demons he wrestled with, but we have no right to judge him. None.

If you’re experiencing depression, be brave and ask for help. Don’t try to go it alone. Talk to a doctor, a minister, a therapist, a friend—someone who can walk you through it. Depression isn’t a moral failure. It’s a complex product of genes, environment and neurotransmitters in the brain, a condition reported by one in ten Americans. If you know someone who’s struggling, Stephen Fry said it best:

“Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.”

And trust me, we will love you for it, always.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

No matter where you go, there you are.

When I started this blog three years ago, The Arsonist’s Last Words was almost done. My dreams as a writer were about to come true. Looking back, I remember thinking that everything would change—all the way down to me being a better dresser. How was that supposed to happen, exactly? Did publishing come with a fairy godmother?

I wasn’t alone in this magical thinking, mind you. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott faced the myth in every new class of writing students that “if they themselves were to get something published, their lives would change instantly, dramatically, and for the better. Their self-esteem would flourish; all self-doubt would be erased like a typo.”

Joyce Carol Oates, speaking of first-time authors in A Widow’s Story, scoffs at “their naiveté that any publication of theirs, any achievement, will make the slightest difference in their lives, or in the lives of others.” I read that line—even highlighted it—and quickly shrugged it off. You mean other people, right? Of course my life would be different. How could it not?

A few weeks before publication, I heard a TED Talk by Harvard psychology professor Dan Gilbert on “The Surprising Science of Happiness.” He said studies showed that people who’d experienced a major life event—winning the lottery, losing a job, buying a house, getting divorced—returned to their previous level of happiness within three months. Ninety days is all it took. I did the math. My book was coming out in September. By Christmas, I’d be back to wearing the same old ratty T-shirts and doubting myself? No way.

Well, it turns out that Dr. Gilbert was absolutely right. Don’t get me wrong—seeing my book in print was the thrill of a lifetime. But the next day? Same headaches, same worries, same pile of laundry on the floor. My fear of malls and public speaking didn’t go away. Joyce Carol Oates didn’t call me for lunch. The only thing that changed, aside from the marketing chores, was that people started asking, “When is your next book coming out?”

I get it now. The writing—the work—is the fun part. The part about people knowing your name is kind of embarrassing. I stand a little taller having set a goal and achieved it, but it doesn’t mean a hill of beans in my daily life. Thank God for patient friends, a loving husband, a family that likes me no matter how many books I sell. (But if they say, “Fame has changed you,” I’m cutting them out.)

Seriously, though, why am I stuck on this point? I guess we’ve all imagined the speech we’ll give at the Oscars, or how it’ll feel to win “American Idol.” Who cares if we can’t act or sing? It’s the Sally Field moment: “You like me! You really like me!” What we never imagine is going home that night and waking up with a hangover. Having to pose for pictures despite the fact that we look like death warmed over. Then the publicist calls, and our agent, and the accountant, and a million Twitter followers are waiting for us to say something funny.

We never imagine getting up the next day and going back to work. (Although, if you’ve had the lottery fantasy, you’ve practiced exactly what to tell your boss, and exactly where to stick it.) Dreaming of the moment that changes your life is an easy way of avoiding the very real changes you have the power to make.

Dorothy always had the ruby slippers on her feet, remember? We knew it as kids and forgot. Life’s no different on the other side of the rainbow, except for the flying monkeys.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Life Goes On

While the rest of the country freezes, we’ve had some of the nicest days of the year. Last week, I got great news about my book. Meanwhile, my brother-in-law buried his mother. Lately, I’ve been puzzling over this “guilt vs. gratitude” conundrum. When blessed with the rarest of gifts—sunshine, laughter, health, love—are we allowed to feel good?

My last post dealt with putting a cherished pet to sleep. A few days later, my uncle died of bone cancer. His death was not unexpected, but it wrecked us, just the same. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, the same day as my father’s 85th birthday, we didn’t have the heart to make a big fuss. Dad’s only brother wouldn’t be there to celebrate with him. I remember thinking it would be a hard day.

And yet. We put 85 candles on a pumpkin pie, which, if you didn’t know, creates a vortex of flame, resulting in a lake of green wax, and we laughed ourselves silly.

The next morning, someone called to say that our long-time friend and neighbor, Andy, had passed away.

That weekend, Graeme and I went to the animal shelter, “just to look,” and came home with a sad-eyed kitten named Ripley. A few weeks later, realizing he needed a buddy, we adopted his brother, Cato. Christmas, with family around the tree and a pair of kittens playing in the wrapping paper, was a good, good day.

By the next night, we were talking to an emergency vet about Ripley’s chance of survival. It didn’t seem real—how were we back in that same awful place again? Hadn’t we learned our lesson? But what was that lesson, exactly? Not to get too attached? Never to love things too much? As the hours ticked by, I tried to reason with a kitten-killing God. If He was trying to teach us some great lesson about loss, we’d already been there, done that.

Around 5 a.m., out of nowhere, this thought: You’ll lose everything you love if you live long enough. It shook me out of my self-absorbed rant. Maybe Ripley would only be ours for a month, but what a great cat he’d been.

And yet. Seventy-two hours and a second mortgage later, the Mighty Rip came home, no worse for wear. As I type this, he’s tearing around the living room, chasing after his brother. Cato fell off the second-floor banister the other day, but he landed on his feet. Eight lives to go. We probably won’t have any glassware left. (There must be a Buddhist lesson here about not getting too attached to material things.)

Between work and cats and everything else, I haven’t had time to write. The constant refrain: “When life gets back to normal.” Who am I kidding? This is normal. The ups and downs, the highs and lows—what we call “drama” is nothing but life going on. It's shameful, really, the time I’ve wasted, waiting for the perfect moment. There isn’t any other kind.

If I’m lucky, I’ll have time to finish this sentence.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Rest in Peace, Little Buddy

We lost a member of the family on Monday, but the only people who saw us cry were there when he died. We didn’t tell friends or clients. Graeme went to a meeting that afternoon. I cleaned out the garage. The fact that our hearts were broken, we kept to ourselves. We didn’t want to look silly. It’s not as if we lost a child or something. Leo was only a cat.

He was a handsome boy, an athlete, a trickster. He was the one who broke Aunt Ruby’s lamp, though he tried to blame it on his sister. He liked lasers and hide-and-seek. Hated thunder. He was shy around strangers, but deeply affectionate with those he loved. He often woke us at three in the morning, looking for comfort. We called him “Buzzer” for the noise he made in the dark. He was allergic to everything, needed prescription food. We justified the expense by saying, “At least we don’t have to send him to college.” Later, he developed asthma, which required monthly shots. He even submitted to acupuncture. My dad shook his head and said, “How many new cats could you have bought?”

We just wanted to keep him with us a little longer. Eight years wasn’t enough. We knew the day would come when he was too sick to fix, and we’d have to make a gut-wrenching decision, and drive to the vet, and sign some papers, and watch him take his last breaths on a metal table.

It was as awful as I imagined.

I’ve been walking around for a couple of days, reminding myself not to look for him. It was my afternoon ritual to find his sleeping spot, lay down in the sun beside him and listen to him purr. It gave me such peace. Try and put a price on that. His sister, Lily, is still with us, but she doesn’t need us as much. I’m glad she’s still here, but God, I miss her brother.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Across the Pond and Back Again

(My Last Blog for a While)

We’re back from London, an exhilarating trip from which we’re still recovering. As an OCD travel planner, my daily itinerary was what you might call “ambitious.” We didn’t have time for jet lag, thanks to a go-go schedule: two bus tours, a bike tour, four walking tours, a boat ride and a train excursion, among other adventures. London lived up to its title as one of the greatest cities in the world. Every day was an overload to the senses.

We stayed with my cousin Laurie and her husband, Wallace, whose job moved him to Europe last year. Laurie told me she decided, living abroad, that she would take advantage of every chance to do and see and explore. A fellow transplant had spent the first few months in London fixing up the house and getting settled, only to be transferred back to the States without seeing much at all. “Who knows how long we’ll be here?” Laurie said. “I don’t want to waste a day.”

That struck me as the perfect way to live life. My intrepid cousin, who used to be afraid of heights, has so far climbed the Monument to the Great Fire of London (200 feet tall) and Big Ben’s clock tower (16 stories high). She rode the London Eye, the giant Ferris wheel with glass-enclosed cars, a couple of times. Laurie has visited just about every museum you can name, and she traveled to Paris on her own. She expertly guided us onto the Tube and flagged down buses from Notting Hill to Piccadilly Circus. She’s my hero.

When we landed, Laurie handed us a cell phone for emergencies, which meant we could turn off our own and actually be on vacation. I didn’t touch a computer all week. Graeme had to check email now and then, but guess what? The world didn’t fall apart while we were gone.

Back at home, it’s hard to plug in again. This afternoon, my husband said, “I don’t feel like working.” (Sunday off—what a novel concept!) The thought of checking Facebook or Twitter makes me tired. Trivia questions, once so easily Googled, are going unanswered. I realize now that this blog has become a distraction from writing, so it’s going on hiatus for a while.

The world suddenly feels a lot more peaceful.

Epilogue: Two weeks after this post, Wallace learned that his job was moving him to Atlanta. Laurie had three weeks to pack. In the meantime, she bought tickets to Wimbledon and took her sons on a bike trip to Paris. You go, girl.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

A poem, a case of Scotch and a sledgehammer

What will you leave behind when you’re gone? A loving family? A life of good works? Don’t forget your dirty socks. Cranky letters to the phone company. Pens that don’t work. I’ve spent a week cleaning out an old man’s closets, so I've had time to think about this stuff.

As you may remember, we became the unofficial caretakers for our neighbor Andy, who has Alzheimer’s Disease and finally had to move to an assisted-living facility. His house, sitting empty for months, needs to be sold. The gentleman who holds Andy’s power of attorney is elderly and has his own troubles, so Graeme and I are tasked with putting the house on the market. First, we have to clean it out.

The place is only 15 years old, but Andy’s life as a bachelor, compounded by his mental decline, took its toll—stained carpet, grimy walls, long-term leaks. He was a tinkerer, so when his memory started to go, and something started to beep, he took it apart. The smoke alarms and dimmer switches are in pieces. There’s nothing left of the security panel but a hole in the wall.

As with any man who wasn’t a monk, Andy’s house is full of stuff. Every scrap meant something to him once, but nobody else sees much of any value here. How should we dispose of his worldly goods? A garage sale? Goodwill? The dump? A family member ought to be here, making these decisions. I shouldn’t be the one going through his underwear drawer.

God help me.

Andy was an intensely private man. He never invited us into his home (or his life) until he got sick. From the bottles in his medicine cabinet, I learn about his aches and pains. From his books, I find that he struggled with depression, same as me. Also like me, he started many a journal, only to lose interest after a couple of days. The notebooks are perfectly good, once you rip out the first few pages. I hope someone does the same for me one day.

If Andy’s thoughtful side surprised me, so does his fondness for the poem “Desiderata.” He kept copies in every room of the house. For someone who couldn’t resist an argument, Andy must have needed a reminder to “go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.”

Along with this poem, I also found multiple copies of Andy’s favorite cartoon, a man in an office, peeing on a desk. The caption: “I quit!” That’s more like the man I knew.

If we were family, I’d sit and go through his photo albums. We’d set up the slide carousels and watch a show. But we don’t know any of these faces. Neither does Andy. In the end, he forgot his own wife, the love of his life, who died in 1988. I found her picture in a drawer. Andy’s sister, who is still alive, told me over the phone that she’ll take any family photos without Andy in them. She and her brother weren’t close, as you can surmise.

The other night, my sister and her kids helped me empty out Andy’ office. My niece, a budding photographer, found a dusty 35mm camera. (You know, “the old kind, with film.”) I loved the idea of passing on a piece of Andy’s history—his passion—to the next generation, so Callie took it home, the start of her antique camera collection.

My nephew unearthed a strongbox. It was heavy, and it rattled when we shook it. What treasures did Andy keep locked inside? (FYI, if you don’t have a key, try the little ones that came with your luggage.) Inside the box were home movies. Reels and reels. Maybe they’re X-rated. Maybe they’re better angles on the Zapruder film. We’ll never know, because the movie projector is lost, and so is the director.

We also discovered a locked suitcase and a bolted three-drawer filing cabinet. I understand how Geraldo must have felt, opening Al Capone’s safe—Andy’s secrets were a Playboy collection and dusty bottles of booze. I thought he only drank beer, so why did he keep cases of Seagram’s in his closet? We’ll never know.

So many mysteries in this house. What’s the giant pot of dirt doing in the middle of the bathroom rug? When did the rack of clothes fall off the wall? (And how long did Andy keep hanging his shirts on the floor?) How did he sleep with so many weapons under his pillow? In the sheets, I found a hunting knife, a hammer, a monkey wrench and a crowbar. Under the bed were three more knives, an axe, a sledgehammer and a set of hedge clippers. (We took away the rifles after Andy shot the mattress.)

It breaks my heart to think of a tough guy like Andy, huddled in the dark with his wrench. “Do not distress yourself with imaginings,” his favorite poem said. “Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.”

Andy always told me he only wanted to be left alone. He got his wish.

Thanks to him, I’ve gone back and reread “Desiderata” several times. This is the part I want to remember:

Whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be careful. Strive to be happy.