Friday, March 30, 2018

Changing Hearts and Minds

Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.
                     —MARK TWAIN

The first argument my husband and I ever had was over voting. He wasn’t registered. Didn’t see the point. It was kind of a deal-breaker for me. Long story short, he joined the electoral rolls and canceled out my vote for the next 20 years. Be careful what you wish for.

Russell Means at Wounded Knee, 1973
Lately, I wish I didn’t take politics so seriously. Sleep and conversations at parties would be a lot easier. I blame my mother, who indoctrinated me into activism at an early age. She wouldn’t remember it that way—we lived a peaceful life in a quiet Midwestern town—but she believed in exposing her children to alternative points of view. She often took us to lectures at local colleges, which sounds boring, but changed my way of looking at the world.

The first speaker I remember was Russell Means, an Oglala Sioux activist who championed the American Indian Movement. Among many protests, he led the 71-day occupation at Wounded Knee. He was a tall, impressive man with long, black braids—like the Indians I’d seen on TV, only much, much angrier. When he talked about poverty and despair on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and his vow to “get in the white man’s face until he gives me and my people our just due,” I was right there with him, shaking my fist. It didn’t occur to me that my face was white.

Dick Gregory and Muhammad Ali, 1968
Then there was Dick Gregory, a stand-up comedian who used his fame to fight for civil rights. He’d just finished a hunger strike and was gaunt, weak on his feet, but there he stood in front of an audience of middle-class Ohioans, making us understand that the American Dream was not the same for all people. This will sound trite, but as a kid who never missed a meal, I remember being awed that someone could believe in a cause so much, he’d be willing to starve for it.

That’s how you inspire change—by changing the minds of people who don’t know any different.

Kent State University, May 4, 1970
Growing up in the Sixties, protest was a way of life. Civil rights, women’s rights—someone was always burning something. I thought going to college meant demonstrating against the war, because that’s what I saw students doing on the nightly news. My mom was in grad school at Kent State when four students were shot and killed by the National Guard. Speaking truth to power could have deadly consequences. I remember hearing an adult say, “They got what they asked for,” and it terrified me. These kids, not much older than I was, were asking the government not to send any more of their friends to die in Vietnam. Why were they traitors? In solidarity, I dressed up as a hippie for Halloween, with a big peace sign on my shirt. A few years later, the Nixon Administration went down in flames, and there was nothing left to burn.

Senators Baker and Ervin, Watergate Hearings, 1973
Watergate was a different kind of war. Senate hearings, indictments, talk of impeachment—it’s hard to imagine the chaos of those years. We wondered if the country would survive. I was too young to vote, so it was easy to blame the people in charge, who seemed to be in denial. In the summer of 1973, we all sat down to watch the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, a reality show on PBS that had record-breaking ratings. Senators Sam Ervin and Howard Baker were my personal heroes. They stood up to a lying, corrupt president and brought him down, not with a coup, but with legislative procedures and the rule of law. These fine men, who took an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” were true to their word.

Atty. Gen. Kimberlé Williams & her staff with
Ohio Atty. Gen. William J. Brown, Girls State, 1976
So that’s how I became a political nerd. It wasn’t until my high school sent me to Girls State that I really understood how the system worked. Imagine hundreds of 17-year-old girls on a college campus, setting up their own government—running for office, forming coalitions, passing laws and enforcing them. Crazy, right? But there we were, from school board to governor, doing our jobs. Government wasn’t just some nameless, faceless entity—it was people like us, trying to make a difference. Many of the young women I met that week went on to careers in public service. My friend in the dorm, who ran for Attorney General, invited me to join her staff. We got to meet her real counterpart at the Ohio Statehouse. Today, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw is a civil rights advocate and law professor at UCLA and Columbia Law School. She’s out there fighting every day to make the world a better place.

25,00 people at the March for Our Lives in Orlando
That’s what we all want, right? To build a better world for ourselves and our families? It’s just the definitions we argue about. Your definition of safety may be different from mine. That doesn’t mean one of us is wrong—it just means we have to find a compromise. To do that, we have to listen to each other, as painful as that may be. Here’s what I learned in a made-up legislative session at 17 years old: No matter how good your intentions, or how great your cause, if you can’t persuade others to join you, you’re dead in the water.

A friend recently said, “Politics isn’t my thing,” as if he didn’t care whether the police come when he calls 911, or how much he’ll pay in property taxes, or whether his son and daughter will be drafted into war. Every one of those decisions will be made by an elected official. We take our government for granted, except to bitch about it. One of the silver linings of the 2016 election is that a record number of women—nearly 34,000—have filed to run for office across the country. Maybe we’ll finally get something done.

Protest, register to vote, call or write your representative, contact Emily’s List to start your own campaign—these are all rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Be a patriot and get involved. Research the issues yourself—don’t let a web site or TV station tell you what to believe. If I sound too strident, well, that ship has already sailed. As my husband will tell you, I’m not kidding around.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Thoughts and Prayers and Hollow-Point Bullets

After my grandma died, her old cat hung on for a while. He was ratty and sick. Threw up in the corners. My mom, tired of cleaning on her annual trips, finally yelled at Grandpa to “take care of it.” One weekend while I was visiting, my uncle came up for breakfast. Over my pancakes, I noticed the two men talking in the kitchen. A few minutes later, one of Grandma’s quilts went out the back door. Weird, I thought, and then, Man, this syrup is delicious. Suddenly, FOOM! The sound echoed across the mountains. Uncle Hal came back through the house, put the rifle in the cabinet, and left. Grandpa leaned inside and said, “Tell your mother I took care of the cat.”

Growing up on a farm, you learn what guns are for: quick and efficient death. Lame horses, old dogs—they’re taken out back and shot. Vets are too expensive, and anyway, farmers take care of their own. An animal dies in the place that it lived, with relatively little stress.

That said, people in my family only ever owned hunting rifles. The opening of deer season was a state holiday. My cousin, on his first trip into the woods, wounded a doe and tracked her for miles but never found her. He said he felt sick for days. Even so, he became an avid hunter and a lover of guns, as most of my northern kin are. One of my cousins had a camouflage wedding. You can’t see him in the pictures.

Battle of Townsend Plantation
© 2018 Alison Lockwood
Once, Grandpa shot a turkey hen by accident. (Only toms are legal.) He hid the bird in his freezer for months, even asked my advice on the matter. You can’t bring it back to life, I said, so you might as well eat it. Make its life worth something. He donated it to church for a potluck dinner.

This is a long way of explaining that when I talk about guns, they’re part of my culture. My people fought in every American war, starting in 1776. My ancestors were part of that “well-regulated militia” that everyone talks about. My dad never owned a gun, but he grew up in town, a gentleman farmer. He trained as a sharpshooter at Camp Breckenridge during the Korean War, but never after. I was secretly glad. As a tender-hearted kid, I couldn’t understand how people took pleasure in killing animals. When my friend checked his muskrat traps, I didn’t tag along. He carried a gun because sometimes, the critter wasn’t dead yet. I got sick to my stomach just thinking about it.

Still, I knew the name of every cow that put a steak on our table. Helped load that cow on a truck, said my goodbyes, and watched it come back in neat little packages, wrapped in white paper. Death was a necessary part of life. There were people who volunteered to kill as part of their jobs—butchers, soldiers, cops—and I was grateful for their service. Thanks to them, I didn’t have to think about guns.

And then one night, my 19-year-old friend put a pistol to his head and blew his brains out. The description is harsh, but literal. He’d been depressed. There was a gun in the house. End of story. That was the first time I’d ever heard of someone keeping a gun not for hunting, but for protection. Not long after, a relative died the same way. Then, a neighbor shot his wife. Suddenly, it seemed, everyone had a gun, and no one was safe. After we moved to Orlando, I started hearing the term “gun hobbyist.” One of our friends bought a small arsenal. He drilled his family on home invasions. When we met for drinks, we had to sit outside, because he couldn’t carry a concealed weapon into a bar. So, we sweated to death.

Once, he actually had me convinced that I needed a “lady gun” for my purse. After a few drinks, it started to make sense. Yes, I’d feel safer at night. Yes, I needed to protect myself. After I sobered up, I realized: If I bought a gun, I’d be making the choice to kill someone. Not that I ever would, but if push came to shove—if that gun was used for its designed purpose—someone could die. I wasn’t willing to make that bargain for the safety of my wallet. And before you start suggesting all the other awful things a bad guy might do, don’t worry, I have an active imagination. The worst might happen, but I refuse to live my life in fear.
Flower Power, Bernie Boston © 1967

Once you start carrying a gun, you have to make that constant calculation: bad guy or good? It’s like the old saying: If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. What if you hit the wrong target? What if your shootout at OK Corral kills innocent people? Frankly, we watch too much TV. Trained police officers have an 18% hit rate during gunfights. God help us with trigger-happy civilians.

Living in a house with a gun doubles your risk of death by homicide, suicide or accident. In all my years, I’ve never known a friend or acquaintance who fended off an armed assailant. On the other hand, I know three people who died by their own guns. You may remember my elderly neighbor, who accidentally shot his bed while trying to prove that his gun wasn’t loaded. It’s funny until it’s not. At least 2,500 kids are killed by guns each year, and another 13,500 wounded.
 
If you have kids or teens in the house, or family members with depression, dementia, or mental-health issues, I believe you’re being personally irresponsible to keep a gun within reach. You can argue with me if you like, or you can ask yourself what you’re trying to do. Keep your family safe? Here’s a statistic: More than 75 percent of first and second graders know where their parents keep their guns and 36 percent admitted handling the weapons. Here’s another: More than 80 percent of guns used by youth in suicide attempts were kept in the home of the victim, a relative, or a friend.

Jim Rassol, Sun Sentinel © 2018
After the Parkland shooting, we can’t keep saying we love our kids while using the Second Amendment as excuse not to change. Here is that text in its entirety: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

I support the right of every able-bodied American to own a musket, and even a pair of dueling pistols. But we have no constitutional right to weapons of war, or cannons, or nuclear arms. To me, the most important words here are “well regulated.” The founding fathers believed in gun control as much as we do.

The Port Arthur massacre in Australia prompted sweeping reforms in that country in 1996. There hasn’t been a mass shooting since. Please, take a minute and read about a gun-control program that actually worked. We’re not powerless. We don’t have to rehearse our deaths every time we walk into a movie theater, or a church, or a club, or a concert hall, or a school.

Here are some commonsense reforms:

Ban semiautomatic assault weapons and accessories. If you want to shoot a weapon of war, join the military. No civilian should have the ability to fire 150 rounds per minute. As for the argument that there are already too many weapons on the street, fine. They’ll become more valuable, more expensive. Harder for the average crazy person to buy. For those of you who already own one, congratulations. It’ll become a collectible. Maybe one day, your kids will turn it in to law enforcement or have it destroyed. Here’s one gun owner making that choice. As he says, “Is the right to own this weapon more important than someone’s life?”

Minimum Age to Purchase & Possess. We set legal ages for activities that require maturity, such as voting, driving, and drinking alcohol. Owning a gun is arguably a bigger responsibility. As a parent, if you want to buy a gun for your kid, you should be held responsible if that kid later kills someone. You provided the murder weapon. You’re an accomplice.

Tighten background checks. It’s harder to buy Sudafed than a gun, and loopholes have made the U.S. system even leakier. All sales at all venues—gun shows, Walmart, online sites, private dealers—should be held to the same scrutiny. The following should disqualify a person from buying or owning a gun: 1) felony or drug conviction, 2) being on the no-fly list, 3) a restraining order or conviction for domestic violence or stalking, 4) “adjudicated as a mental defective” or “committed to a mental institution” (an existing law recently repealed by the Trump administration), 5) disciplinary action during military service or dishonorable discharge, 6) deemed unfit to own a gun by a doctor or mental-health professional. A doctor can tell the DMV that you’re not fit to drive. The same should be true of weapons.

Enforce a 10-day waiting period. This provides enough time for a thorough background check, along with a “cooling off” period for impulsive acts of violence—especially suicide.

Repeal the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA). Signed in 2005 by President Bush and lauded by NRA President Wayne LaPierre, this law protects gun manufacturers from being held liable for crimes committed with their products. We can sue McDonald’s for hot coffee, but we can’t sue the maker of a product that kills 93 people a day. If manufacturers and dealers were held responsible for their guns getting into the wrong hands, the industry might begin policing itself. It worked for car and tobacco companies.

Vote for candidates who aren’t owned by the NRA. The National Rifle Association used to represent the interests of recreational gun owners and sportsmen. Now, the bulk of its money comes from gun manufacturers. Many companies donate a portion of their sales directly to the NRA. Think of it. The proposal to arm millions of teachers with guns purchased by state or federal funds would mean a windfall for the NRA. They work hard every day to make you feel less safe, so you’ll buy more guns.

Spend money on gun buyback programs, not putting more guns in schools. After Australia instituted a mandatory buyback program for firearms banned by the 1996 law, a study found that buying back 3,500 guns per 100,000 people correlated with up to a 50 percent drop in firearm homicides and a 74 percent drop in gun suicides.

For years, we’ve been held hostage by the gun lobby. An entire generation of kids grew up in the shadow of Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook. Orlando’s distinction as site of the largest mass shooting in U.S. history only held true for 16 months, until 58 died in Las Vegas. We’ve become numb to it all. No more. The NRA only represents 5 million people. That's 2 percent of our population. We have the votes, and the power to change. We’re the only civilized nation that allows its citizens to be slaughtered this way. Why do we accept it as normal?

Pray for the Parkland victims, but even more important, make the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School matter. These brave kids weren’t a statistic. Don’t let them die in vain.

For more information, explore the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Giffords: Courage to Prevent Gun Violence.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

A Man's World

Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.
                     —MARGARET ATWOOD

I wonder how many men saw the #MeToo hashtag and thought, What are they whining about now? That’s the joke, right? Women—we’re never satisfied. Always complaining. No matter how much you give us, we ask for more. Unreasonable things, like equal pay. Control over our own bodies. The freedom to walk down the street without being raped. Who do we think we are?

If the women in your life seem a bit touchy lately, it isn’t PMS. (Haha. Yeah, guys, that joke is still funny, a million times later.) No, they may be suffering from something closer to PTSD. The Harvey Weinstein story brought up memories many of us would’ve gladly left buried. Painful, embarrassing stuff. The sad part is, we always thought it was our fault. Something we did. The way we walked or acted or dressed. There’s a shame attached to these experiences that’s hard to shake. It wrecks your confidence. Makes you second-guess yourself. Maybe that’s why men do it. To keep us in our place.

This week, these memories floated up for me like smelly bits of trash:

First ride on a subway, packed in like sardines. Suddenly, a hand between my legs. “Groped” would be the word. I couldn’t move. Couldn’t even turn to look. Later, a friend explained, “It was just some guy copping a feel.”

Working as a waitress at Howard Johnson’s. Men older than my dad patted my butt, eyed the fit of my uniform, asked when I got off work. I was 16. They expected me to be flattered. The boss was always after us to smile, be nice. All part of the friendly service. One of the other waitresses made the mistake of being too nice to a customer, and then, he came in every day and stared at her from the corner booth. The cook had to walk her out to her car at night. On the bright side, he tipped well, her stalker.

A few weeks into my new job at HBJ Publishing, meeting with the VP. I was nervous. He’d been with the company for 25 years. If he liked you, you were going places. “Want to hear a good joke?” he asked. “Sure,” I said, feeling like a grown-up. He waved me closer. “What’s the difference between a gang-bang and a clusterf*ck?”

To this day, I can’t remember the punchline.

But what was the big deal? Nobody got hurt. There was no rape, no assault. It was just locker-room talk. As someone in HR once said, “If you want to work in a man’s world, you’d better learn to speak the language.” Over the years, I toughened up. There wasn’t much that could shock me. I learned never to be alone in a room with certain people. Like the VP. So many women complained about him, he was sent to “sensitivity training,” not once but twice. He learned to lower his voice when he asked my boss and me for a threesome. I think he was joking. Anyway, we laughed. That’s what we did in those days—laughed when it wasn’t even remotely funny. And then, we went home to our husbands and took a long, hot shower.

We just wanted to do our jobs. Was that too much to ask? We wanted to be judged by our work, and not our boobs or the length of our skirt. (Once, the VP actually told us where we ranked in the departmental order of breast size.) Later on, I discovered there was something worse than a boss who wanted to sleep with you, and that was the one who thought women were too stupid to vote. You know the type: always interrupting, always shooting you down, until a guy made the same suggestion, and then it was genius. That boss finally drove me into therapy. My hands would shake before a meeting. You never knew when he might take you apart in public. The company sent him to anger management, also twice. He’s been promoted three times.

In all the places I ever worked, there was never any serious consequence for a man who bullied, harassed or intimidated female employees. He rose through the ranks. It was the women who left. If they mentioned his name in an exit interview, nothing ever happened. The rest of us learned to keep our mouths shut.

I hope those days are gone. Millions of women have responded to the #MeToo campaign. The secret’s out. We used to talk about assertiveness training for girls. Now, let’s focus on teaching boys to be decent human beings. Here’s a tip: When you whistle at a woman on the street, she has to make a quick mental calculation: harmless jerk or potential rapist? Try wearing a sign.

Fortunately, I’ve known many fine, decent men in my life—I’m lucky enough to be married to one—so I guess I’m asking for their help. Teach your brothers how to be men. Don’t put up with their bad-boy behavior. Show them that every person deserves respect, regardless of race, creed, or gender. Maybe one day, a woman can feel safe leaving her drink on a table, or walking down the street, or maybe, just maybe, applying for a job. A girl can dream, can’t she?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

A Stick, a Club, an Olive Branch

I’ve written and deleted this post a dozen times in the past year. Hard to believe it’s taken that long. Feels like a century. All these different versions, different stages of grief. It finally dawned on me—there will never be the right words. All I can do is speak from my heart and hope you’ll listen.

I miss our friendship. I miss being able to talk to you about life and TV and travel. We used to laugh and drink together, never missing a beat. Now, every conversation is tense. There’s this wall between us. We ignore the elephant in the room, or we argue about it. Those are the only options. “Agreeing to disagree” just means we stop speaking to each other. For God’s sake, we even argue about the weather. It’s no way to live. My stomach is in knots. I can’t sleep at night. I lie awake, trying to figure out what went wrong. In a million years, I never imagined us here, treating each other like strangers.

© 2017 Alison R. Lockwood
We used to be better than friends. We had each other’s backs—would have died for each other, right? If opposites attract, that’s what made us good together, our differences. You were the strong, silent type. I was the talker. You made me feel safe. I made you laugh. Together, we could take on the world. What happened to us? When did we start hating each other? It’s the same fight, over and over. I’m too trusting. You’re not trusting enough. Round and round we go, as if one of us will finally cave, given the right argument. After all this time, shouldn’t we know better? This is who we are. Neither one of us is wrong. We’re just different.

I’m tired of fighting. Aren’t you? This is the part where I say, “Let’s shake and leave our hurts in the past,” except that our fingers would be crossed behind our backs. Too much damage has been done. Lord knows, I can carry a grudge like a sherpa. To be honest, I’m still so mad at you sometimes, I can’t see straight. The choices you made—I’ll never understand. I thought I knew who you were. But that’s just me, getting up on my high horse again. It’s a bad habit. We both did what we thought was right at the time. What’s done is done. If I stay angry over something that happened months ago, it only hurts me. It’s wasted energy. Solves no problems. There are a million ways to help in the world, and being bitter isn’t one of them.

You and I, we’ve had so many good years together. All the hard times, the struggles, the tears—they made us stronger, not weaker. I refuse to believe our best days are behind us. Sure, we’re going through a rough patch now, but that’s no reason to throw in the towel. We have never been cowards. That was never our problem. We’re stubborn, yes, and we’d rather die than admit a mistake. “Go to hell” is a lot easier to say than “Stay and help me fix this.” With everything else going on in the world, we should be holding on tight to each other. Friendship like ours is rare. We’re fools if we throw it away.

At some point, we’ll have to put down our phones and talk. Really talk. No more of this distant, polite chitchat. I can’t take it anymore. Be honest with me. What are your goals and dreams for the future, and how do I help you get there? It’s that simple, and that hard. We both want the same things in life: to be loved, respected, safe. Free to be ourselves. I love you, no matter who you voted for. Let’s move on.

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 rifle full of nails 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 fry 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. He plays a high-school English teacher whose son accidentally hangs himself. The mourning father types a suicide note that makes everyone feel guilty for the way they treated the kid—even if he was awful. Then, Dad “finds” his son’s journal, which lands on the bestseller list. Appearing on a talk show, Williams tells the audience, “Remember, suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

Robin Williams
ROBIN WILLIAMS
(July 21, 1951 – August 11, 2014)
You can’t laugh for crying. In the most painful scene, when father finds son hanged by a belt, the actor’s grief and horror are 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.” “A choice, not a disease.” Is it any wonder 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 black 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 would 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 sort of like yelling at a diabetic for having low blood sugar.

And 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. New research shows that as many as 80% of suicides are impulsive, a reaction to short-term crisis. In a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, 153 survivors of near-lethal suicide attempts were asked, “How much time passed between the time you decided to commit suicide and actually attempted it?” For 1 in 4 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 the next morning with nothing worse than a 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 head. He was gifted, funny, bright—had his whole life to live. All who knew him were shattered. To this day, I still wonder what might have happened if I’d called him that night, like I meant to. How arrogant, 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 medical illness with multiple factors, including genetics, environment, and imbalances of neurotransmitters in the brain. One in ten Americans report depression at some point in their lives. 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.
                                                          —CONFUCIUS

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 everything would change—all the way down to the way I dressed. How was that supposed to happen, exactly? Did publishing come with a fairy godmother?

Mind you, I wasn’t alone in this magical thinking. In Bird by Bird, writer Anne Lamott described the myth she faced in every new class of 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, talking about first-time authors in A Widow’s Story, scoffed 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!” We never think about going home that night and waking up with a hangover. Having to pose for pictures despite the fact that you look like death warmed over. Then the publicist calls, and your agent, and the accountant, and a million Twitter followers are waiting for you to say something witty.

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 you’ll say to your boss, and exactly where he can 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.