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 now, 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, right? 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 brilliant. 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 all night, never missing a beat. Now, every conversation is tense. There’s this wall between us. We ignore the elephant in the room, or we fight 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
(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 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 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 whose blood sugar drops too low.

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.

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.

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 kitten 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.