Archives for category: Family

“When a disease image is used by Machiavelli, the presumption is that the disease can be cured. ‘Consumption,’ he wrote, in the commencement is easy to cure, and difficult to understand; but when it has neither been discovered in due time, nor treated upon a proper principle, it becomes easy to understand, and difficult to cure.” (from “Illness as Metaphor” by Susan Sontag)

This is sort of an obvious idea, that if you are looking out clearly before everyone else is, what might eventually be a problem, isn’t hard to solve. And when it’s obvious to everyone, it’s very difficult to solve. This is where we are now. I’ve read the same articles everyone else has about PPE and stay at home measures and masks.

And what the hell happened in Michigan this week? Armed people stormed the capital and got in? And were not stopped? (As one friend noted: Is it time to be scared yet?) Everyone apparently went home at the end of the day and no one was hurt or shot. (As another friend noted: This is how you know they were white.)

The problem is obvious if there’s compassion, but how can we show compassion to those who behave in ways that we despise? Those Michigan protesters are frightened, possibly already out of work, financially and domestically at risk, and desperately wanting a return to normal. Because I want doctors and nurses not to be at risk and nursing homes and meat packing plants not to continue to be outbreak vectors, I see this thing one way. But those folks storming the Lansing statehouse? They want to be able to work and get the kids out of the house and fight battles against things they can see, like legislators rather than things they can’t.

Years ago, a woman I respect pointed me to The Five Love Languages, a bit of relationship self-help which I read and found things applicable to my own relationship. (I’m a fiction guy – this is way out of my usual reading, so bear with me.) The writer is a marriage counselor with a heavy Christian leaning and I took from it what spoke to me and let the rest go. The thesis is that each person feels best loved when that love is expressed in one or two of five different ways. And he illustrates this with a couple dozen case studies from his own practice. One such case has stuck with me: A woman comes in for counseling whose husband has been emotionally abusive to her since not long after their wedding. Her attempts to communicate and love in her husband’s language started to bridge the divide between them and they were able to build their relationship together again.

In America’s political divide, from which we find armed men from one side invading the capital where a governor from the other party is trying to keep people safe from our current pandemic, we have to find ways to make the whole thing work. I’m not suggesting that those of us on the left simply need to learn the love languages of those on the right and that will make everything better. In the summer of 2016, I spent some time with some very politically active and astute members of my family. A cousin predicted that we would lose the election because democrats still weren’t speaking to the needs of those in the so-called heartland. I’m not sure if that’s the (only) reason we lost, but I’m not seeing the language coming from Joe Biden that’s going to cross the divide either. Note: I’m also an armchair policy wonk. I want to hear from Biden specifically what he’s going to do to ease the crisis. How he’s going to get PPE and ventilators to all the places that need it, how he’s going to make people the focus of the crisis and not big business, how how how. I’m not getting it yet, but I’m probably not listening in the right places. (And being an ocean away from the US part of this crisis, means I’m not seeing the headlines on a daily basis either.) In politics, policy might be my love language.

And getting back to the opening salvo: the illness and its associated crises are very easy to see now. And as such, very easy to suggest how to attack each portion of the problem. One thing I see that we need is a kind of national compassion that is beyond the skills of the current administration. What I hear is the stoking of division and the coddling of big business at the expense of the working class. This has been what I’ve heard and seen as long as this administration has been in power. The current moment demands unity and unification if we’re going to solve it and most of us live through it.

Last week, my partner and I went to the movies in Telford. Having booked tickets for about £34 on nearly a whim and driven 40 minutes on a wet night to get to the theatre, I can suggest that we're not hurting. The same cannot be said for a woman we passed between the parking lot and the entrance to the multiplex. She was underdressed for the weather, was missing a front tooth, and sat under an umbrella with a cup. She told us she was trying to raise £18 to get a bed for the night. We could have covered that amount without thinking twice. Partner gave her two or three pounds as she had change which I did not. I bought her a sandwich and a cup of coffee from the Starbucks inside, because I could feel good about buying her some sustenance.
There's a subconscious mental juggling act in which I think I'm supposing she should work harder to get a roof over her head for one December night rather than just having it.
I've equivocated that sentence because I'm afraid of articulating just what goes on in my head when I give a homeless person less than what they need to get to the next step. The personal calculus is that as an individual, I don't have the ability to adopt every person on the street. And I extend that to 'or even one person on the street'. And in the family that consists of my partner and me, the calculus is that we don't want children of our own or even to adopt or foster. There's a selfishness to it, to be certain. And an unwillingness to examine just what it would take to abandon our plans to pay off our house and have the retirement plan that we want. We both know how very lucky/blessed we are to live the way we do, but not to the extent that we extend that luck too far from ourselves.
I vote and I donate to campaigns of politicians who seem to think the way I do about how the future should look, but in the end, they're politicians and they vote in favour of much larger sums of money than I represent. And in the US and the UK the ones who profess support for the underclasses are in the minority. Again. (Note: When the left holds the majority, they're only slightly less mendacious. I'm not blind in this regard.)
My job is still fish. (And your job as well, I trust.) The problem is still how to get fish to people. I give irregularly to charities that seem to be doing this work and every year I say to myself that I'll make this more regular. Every December a local food bank does a drive at my local supermarket for one day – my guess is that they go for one day to each of the big supermarkets – and on that day I buy 30 or 40 euros worth of stuff off of the bank's want list. While that's definitely regular, it's not enough. (Note: I'm in England at the moment and spending pounds, I grew up in the US, and I live in the Netherlands.)
In between, I send some money to this charity or that charity as the whim hits me and pledge each January to make it a more regular. So I write down some random thoughts on the matte and make a note to make a note to do something about it. As soon as I finish writing this, I'll create a calendar entry that will repeat on the first of each month to give some group or other some money or fulfil something on that group's amazon wish list. (One group I support sometimes is London's Breakfast In A Bag who have an ongoing list of things they provide to those sleeping rough.) As noted, this kind of thing is really easy. There's much harder work to do and I don't have the slightest where to begin.
I visited Oakland, California where my sister and her family live (and where I lived about twenty years ago) and the homelessness has gone off the charts. People who have spent decades in public service probably have some ideas about the solutions needed, but as noted above, there is no political will to help people who don't vote with deep pocketbooks. These are the folks with no pocketbooks at all left.
Our jobs are not judgement. The jobs are fish. Some of us have fewer fish than others, but I have a feeling that everyone reading this has more fish than they need. Give more fish.

Often you hear people say that suicide is never the answer – that there are always other ways out, that no problem is so huge that it can’t be talked out, that solutions are available. I’ve had periods of black depression, but what I call black depression is some people’s brightest day. And otherwise it hasn’t come that close to me – friends and colleagues of people I know, primarily. That’s not entirely true: My first wife’s father committed suicide a couple of months before she was born. This had many effects on her life and on our relationship. 

For some, death is the only logical move forward. Oliver Sacks wrote recently for the New Yorker about writer and actor Spalding Gray’s last couple of years. Being in Gray’s head must have been harrowing, and having read Sacks’ account, I don’t at all begrudge Gray that release. (In short, an auto accident left him with some brain damage that severely affected his ability to write and concentrate.) Is Gray’s case extreme? No way to tell. Every such death is different. 

Knowing of Ian Curtis’ epilepsy makes his suicide a little easier to understand, but I can also guess that a 60s/70s upbringing in working-class Manchester didn’t offer a person much respect for that kind of inner torment. (Curtis was the main writer and lead singer of Joy Division. in 1980, he committed suicide on the eve of the band’s first US tour.)
I just offer two possible examples. 

Most Western societies, it seems, condemn and stigmatise suicide in a number of ways – the term ‘cowardly’ comes up a lot. On the other hand, communities in general don’t seem to offer a lot of support. 

I hate the place I have to go to to write about this, so I’m not going to write much more, but I just want to say that if you have suicidal thoughts because of a relationship, or money issues, or because many of the facts of existence just weigh on you, or any other reason, please find some people to talk to. There is help, even if it seems too far away or too little or too late. Please try again. There’s more hope than you may think. 

UK: http://www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help-you 

US: http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org 

Netherlands: https://www.113online.nl/113online-english-version

Not necessarily in that order. On August 5, 1986, my father turned 48 years old. On that date, I was 19 years, 4 months and 8 days old. I took him to a club in Santa Monica to see two comedians. The first was a juggler and the more interesting of the two, at least from dad’s perspective. I think he juggled bowling balls and apples at the same time, though I might be mistaken. The second was the guy who did the sound effects with his voice in the Police Academy movies. I was quite taken with his use of a digital sampler. Dad, an engineer and patent attorney, told me after the show that the technology in the sampler was similar to or derived from that used in radar. I’ve never verified this. I wore a silk necktie given to me by my ex-girlfriend for the previous Hanukkah on which I managed to spill sour cream from my nachos.

heartA couple of weeks later, the night before I returned to San Francisco for my sophomore year at SF State University, we had an argument about what I was going to do with my life. I was having a hard enough time just being in school and trying to pass my general ed without figuring out my future, though I had some idea that I wanted to teach.

It was the last time I saw him, not counting the day before he was cremated.

We argued about my future at least once more on the phone, though probably two or three times in the seven weeks before I returned to LA for the funeral. He probably died of a heart attack. There was no autopsy. Though he had a family history of heart disease, he hadn’t been to a doctor in ages. His mother died of cancer less than a year before he died, though she, too, had had a heart attack at 48. (She was single-handedly running an ice cream parlour in DC and, from the stories I heard, living on coffee and possibly milk shakes.) His father had died about ten years before, though I don’t recall the cause. I want to say it was coronary artery disease, but I’d need to verify.

So, in case you haven’t done the math, in about four weeks, I will also turn 48. For a long time I had this division of my life into three parts: The first 19 years, the last 19 years, and the 10 in between (which didn’t quite conclude with my separation from my first wife – life’s not quite that poetic). I figured when I was much younger that if I got beyond 48 myself, then everything else would be whipped cream on top.

My wife is aware of my obsession with the upcoming birthday, and tries very hard to keep me from overdoing my workouts. She had an uncle who died relatively young whilst on the treadmill at his gym. He was also under doctor’s orders to exercise for health.

I eat relatively well, am a little overweight, run for fitness, and see my doctor at least once a year. The most recent labs were all within normal limits. Blood pressure still slightly low as it has been since I was 22. My plan is to stick around for a great deal longer – 10 weeks or so after my next birthday, Rachel and I will celebrate our 5th anniversary (and almost 11 years together). I look more and more at my other family members. My father’s sister is still kicking ass and taking names at 74 or so and my mother just celebrated her 75th. And my maternal grandparents both lasted well past 80, including 53 years together. My mother didn’t think she’d see an anniversary like that, but has been with my stepdad for 39. Well on the way, really.

I miss my father most when I dream about him. In dreams, I often try to make him happy with what I’ve made of my life. He was brilliant (Engineering Princeton, JD from Georgetown) and astoundingly clever, though sometimes not very smart. Only in his last few years (and with his third wife) was he on his way to being happy. For my part, my life overflows with happiness most of the time, and as long as I’ve brought a fraction of that to other people, I can go when it’s my time without regret.