Abandoned World


aw spooky car

(Inspired by the Facebook page “Abandoned Wisconsin” that I stumbled upon earlier tonight. The photos I’ve attached are from that page and are so hauntingly beautiful that I had to share – they were taken by a number of gifted photographers (none of them me) – there are plenty more if  you go there.­­)

Back then, they didn’t tear things down. They’d let them stand until they couldn’t anymore, until they’d collapse broken-backed from under their own weight. These days, as soon as a building goes empty, there’s somebody there to tear down the “eyesore,” the safety hazard, the unsightly blemish to the antiseptic fantasy world we try to convince ourselves we live in. It’s a world where only the present exists. It’s a world where things don’t die and decay, and we strive to remove all traces of the past in the acknowledgement of the fear that time really exists, that what once was and what is to be matters. It’s the inability to see the beauty in decay. It’s the denial that others proceeded us and lived lives here, of the work they did, of the things they built with their hands, with their sweat, the work that kept their hearts pumping, that kept them alive.  And then one day, when the last of their flesh was loaded into an ambulance never to return, there was still a place for them to come back to, a place of heartbreaking beauty, a place as empty and silent as a grave. There they’d be visited by frightened children, ancestral descendants, historians and poets. They’d speak to these visitors in the clues they chose to leave behind, and if the visitors were willing and ready to listen, they’d hear everything they could ever want to know about not just their lives and times, but about everything.  All you could ever want to know about life, about death, about love, about the entire flipping universe, is within the reach of the sagging floor boards and peeling paint of an abandoned farm house or in the dry dust of a collapsing barn. Listen closely and you will hear the answers to questions you were unaware you’d asked, whispered in the cold midday breeze that flutters the torn and tattered shreds of curtains hung against pane-less windows.

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There’s the Rub


“TMI! TMI!”

Because I worked at a Nuclear Power Plant in the eighties, it took me a while to figure out that “TMI” didn’t stand for “Three Mile Island’ but instead is an abbreviation for “Too Much Information.” Which is exactly what this post borders on.  But, hey, I promised a long time ago to be open and honest about my experiences with Parkinson’s disease, so here’s the good, the bad,and the ugly of where I find myself these days.

First, the easy part – the good: Physically, I feel pretty good.  Still working out every day, still eating more good things than bad. Balance issues are much better than a year ago, as it’s been that long since I’ve had a significant fall, and I crash into walls and doors less frequently.  That’s the good news.

The bad: My eye to hand coordination is pretty bad, and I struggle to do simple things like tying my shoes. A couple of weeks ago while I was trying to help my wife hang new window shades, I had so much trouble lining up the bit on my cordless drill with the little Philips-headed screws that I soon gave up. Last fall, sighting in my deer hunting rifle was an exercise in waiting out the shakes until I was steady enough to hit the target a couple of times, just one of several factors that leave me about  95% convinced my deer hunting days are behind me now.

The worst part of my failing eye to hand coordination has been the impact it’s had on my ability to navigate a keyboard and write.  When I look up at the screen after every paragraph I write I see the red font of Windows error notifications splattered across my monitor as if someone took a machine gun to it. (For example, here’s how that last sentence looked after I first typed it, before I cleaned it up:

When I lok up at he screen after evey paragraph I write I see eh red ink ofWindow’s

Erro notificatioonsaplatttred as if someoentook amachine gun o it.)

But all of that, difficult though some of it might be, I can live with, and when one considers that we’re going on thirteen years since I was diagnosed, if that were all there was to it, I’d be ecstatic.

However, I think I’m entering the ugly stage, and this is where I might be sharing TMI:

I think I’m in the early stages of Parkinson’s dementia.

It’s a difficult conclusion to come to, and even more difficult to share with the whole friggin’ world, but here we are. Maybe my willingness to share TMI is just another sign that I’m going crazy.

What makes me suspect I’m losing my marbles?  Well, here’s my analysis of my current state compared with what the Alzheimer’s association (alz.org) has to say about Parkinson’s dementia:

What percentage of people with Parkinson’s develop dementia?    An estimated 50 to 80 percent of those with Parkinson’s eventually experience dementia as their disease progresses. The average time from onset of Parkinson’s to developing dementia is about 10 years.

So thirteen years in, this might be the right time frame, although I’m finding that a lot of these averages are skewed towards the typically older age at which PD is usually diagnosed, and there might be other contributing factors at those advanced ages that don’t apply to me, since I was diagnosed in my mid-40s. In other words, the ten year average is probably a bit longer for us early on-setters, so I’ll choose to ignore this as a likelihood.

Here are the symptoms of PD Dementia that they list:

Symptoms: (From https://www.alz.org/dementia/parkinsons-disease-symptoms.asp)

Changes in memory, concentration and judgment

Anybody who’s known me for a long time knows that I was always something of an absent-minded professor, prone to all too frequently forgetting where I left my car keys. This has continued and seemingly worsened over time, but I’m still reluctant to recognize it as anything other than the erosion of short term memory that is typical with aging (I recently turned 59).

Concentration is a different manner, however, as I now doze off and fall asleep within a half hour of cracking open a book.  This is new and frustrating as Hell. I had a pretty ambitious list of books on my autumn reading list, books by William Kennedy, Anne Lamott, Cormac McCarthy, and T.C. Boyle.  Now here we are in mid-winter, and although I’ve started reading them all, the only one I’ve finished is Kennedy’s Ironweed, (a great book, btw). I remain somewhere in the first couple of chapters into the others, not how I typically like to read (I’d rather finish one before starting another).

Trouble interpreting visual information

This has become a big one for me, as I am always seeing things wrong. For example, the silhouette of a basket of dirty laundry on my bedroom floor might look like one of my dogs sleeping peacefully. It’s normally that benign, and I almost always recognize when it happens and if I stare at it long enough, I’m able to process what the shape really is. Sometimes, though, it can be jarring. One time, while alone in my cabin in the woods, I looked up from the chair where I was reading and there under the end table on the other side of the room, for a moment, I saw the severed but still smiling head of my son.  It was only for a second, and I was quickly able to determine that it was, in fact, nothing but an old misplaced snowshoe that the lamplight hit at just the right angle, but it was long enough and vivid enough to scare the crap out of me.

 Muffled speech

This has been a major source of frustration for me for some time now. I often mumble and stutter. The reason this is a big deal to me is that for someone who fancies himself a writer, nothing is more frustrating than coming across as inarticulate and slow. Recently my internal reaction to people who complain “I can’t understand you” has changed to anger, irrationally directed more at the listener than P.D., and I have to bite holes in my tongue not to snap and lash out at them. As a result, more often than not, I find myself becoming quiet and not participating in conversations.

Visual hallucinations

Fortunately, I haven’t had any of these yet (that I’m aware of).

Delusions, especially paranoid ideas

Unlike the current President of the United States, I’m fine on these fronts.

 Depression

 I understand how serious and debilitating depression can be, and although I have the occasional down day or two, it’s nowhere even approaching anything clinical. More days are still good than bad, and most of the time I can easily distract myself away from dwelling on the negatives.

 Irritability and anxiety

 Although I am often irritable, and certainly anxious about things, I don’t think it’s anything out of the norm. (My wife might disagree.)

 Sleep disturbances, including excessive daytime drowsiness and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep disorder

Here’s my biggest and scariest symptom, especially if you add in “vivid dreams” and the “acting out” of them.

First, daytime drowsiness is just about constant.  I take an afternoon nap almost every day, and on many days, I take a late morning nap, too. It doesn’t seem to matter how much nighttime sleep I get, either. Most nights I get six to seven hours of good sleep. There have been nights where I get as many as eight hours in, only to want to go back to bed an hour after waking.

Within the past few months, though, I’ve started having, with greater regularity, vivid and violent dreams that I act out in my sleep.  In one dream, I was sitting at a bar with a friend and some unknown jerk who did something to piss me off. I reacted by grabbing him by the hair on his head and repeatedly slamming his face on the bar.  The only thing that stopped me was the sound of my wife’s voice yelling at me to stop it, as I had a hold of her forearm in bed and was trying to smash it on the surface of the bar in my dream.  She woke me up before I could really hurt her.

The worse was a dream I had this past Saturday.  In the dream, I was on a big boat of some sort being captained by a big, armed guy who for some reason I knew with certainty was going to crash the boat in some rocks that lay ahead. As he was bigger than me and armed, I knew my only hope to overtake him was to catch him by surprise. When he came out on the deck, I jumped him and got him down and started raining punches on him as fast as I could. I woke sitting straight up in bed, still throwing punches down on the pillow below, where my wife slept. Suddenly to my horror I realized where I was and I looked at the clock radio on the nightstand, and it said 8:12.  The room was lit by daylight, and I realized that my wife had already woken and was downstairs, and her side of the bed was empty.

The dream was scary enough but paled in comparison to the realization of what would have happened had she still been in bed. She assures me she isn’t worried, that so far when these dreams occur she is able to wake me up long before any real damage is done. Still, in the nights since last Saturday morning, I often find myself rolling over and putting my back to her, so if I wake up throwing punches, it isn’t at her.

. . .

So what does this all mean? In all likelihood, I guess it means that the disease is progressing. But that is certainly no surprise.  It’s what diseases, especially “progressive” diseases like PD, do. They progress.  Duh! I’ve known for a while that these things will eventually catch up with me.

The novella “Flowers for Algernon,” by Daniel Keyes, tells the story of a man with limited mental facilities who is given a serum by some scientists that transforms him into a genius. The problem is that the benefits of the serum are only temporary, and over time, he will transform back into an idiot, and he soon realizes, becomes aware of, his inevitable decline.  It always struck me, from the earliest days of my diagnosis to now, now that it appears I might be standing at the beginning of some really dark days, that Parkinson’s is all about the same awareness and inevitability.

But while awareness of the inevitable and its encroaching darkness might lessen the light of even the brightest of good days, there is also heightened awareness of all the amazing truth and beauty to be found in the every day.  Things like love and beauty, friends and family, food and drink, touch and taste, and wonder and awe, are all within our grasp in the everyday slant of the invisible ultraviolet rays that penetrate a window shade, and their memories are bright enough to give at least brief respite to the unending agony of the darkest night.

My job these days, then, is to capture as many memories as I can and put them in my pocket, so I can take them out and watch them illuminate the thick blackness of the coming night.

Scout’s Honor


It’s been a while since I’ve been around kids. The youngest of my three children, my daughter Hannah, graduated college a couple of years ago, and has started a career while seeking out her Master’s degree in Public Health.  My middle child, Nick, started a year-long contract to teach English in South Korea about three or four weeks ago.  My oldest, Jon, recently celebrated his 32nd birthday, and is working in the corporate world and living in downtown Chicago. I am immensely proud of each of them.

My wife and I have settled comfortably in to the roles of empty nesters. My daughter began college in 2012, so we are coming up on six years since any of our kids have lived at home. However long it has or hasn’t been, it’s been long enough for us to get used to the open spaces that now occupy so much of our house and the blissful peace and quiet that’s replaced the chaos and the sound and fury that once accompanied the presence of three teenagers living under the same roof at the same time. While many times we look back with fondness and affection to our days as younger parents, more common are the times we blissfully go about our lives as a late middle-aged couple (or is it as an early senior-aged couple?)

A couple of months ago, I received an e-mail from a woman named Kathy Whiteside, who was looking for a local writer to help her Girl Scouts troop achieve a “screenwriting” badge. Looking through the materials, it was clear that the intent was to introduce the girls to story-telling concepts and fundamentals than screenwriting specifically, so I was confident that I could help facilitate the session, even though I know nothing about screenwriting.

I was less confident in my ability to get across to kids concepts like character development, rising action, conflict, and protagonists and antagonists. It’d been so long since I coached Nick’s softball and basketball teams, so long since I’d been around kids in any capacity, that I wasn’t sure if I could reach them.  It didn’t help that some professional teacher acquaintances had painted a pretty bleak picture of today’s youth. Short attention spans, feelings of entitlement, and the lacking of rudimentary skills were more the norm than the exception.

So it was that I took my seat in the middle of nine 6th to 8th grade girls with a bit of apprehension. I started by telling them that I am a writer, and the thing I love most about writing is that there are no rules you have to obey; that when I write, I’m free to write whatever I  want to write about. At first, I wasn’t sure they were listening, but when I asked them questions about what their favorite books or movies were, about the difference between books and movies, they all had opinions and were thoughtful and engaged. They’d all read most if not all of the Harry Potter books.

Kathy and I took them through several exercises, with the goal of having a collaborative, group written outline of a story by the end of our two hours together.  We started out with each girl creating a character and assigning attributes like favorite foods (tacos are apparently very popular these days in this demographic), colors, etc. I was surprised when three of the girls wanted their characters to be animals (a couple of cats and a pig, although the girl who wanted her character to be a pig later changed her mind).

Then we had to create a villain, and they quickly decided upon a mean bully need Nate. Whether Nate is based on a real person or someone on television or in a popular movie I can only guess as I am so far out of touch with the mass culture of the pre-teen girl demographic.  They showed a surprising level of sophisticated thinking when they not only described the inciting moment that would kick the plot into gear, but they also came up with a reason for Nate to push poor Romeo into a locker after school. I was surprised that they weren’t just satisfied with Nate being bad; that they felt the need to explain why he was. They also set up a scene for the climax of the story, where the group of “good friends” would meet Nate and his ”bad” friends the following night after school. But that was only the beginning – after that, things got real interesting.

The girls had to explain why there were two cats among the friends who went to school together. It turns out, that, unknown to one another, they discover that night that they are “shape shifters,” and all have the ability to transform into animals.  They agree to arrive at the fight the next night all in their animal forms.

Imagine their surprise when they all show up the next night as animals only to be met by Nate and his friends, who have all also shape-shifted into animals. Stunned by the knowledge that the two groups have more things in common than they don’t, the fight is averted, and new friendships are forged.

It’s a pretty slick little story, if you ask me. Beyond that, for me, it was as much fun as I’ve had in a long time. Watching the different personalities and how they interacted brought back memories of my children at those ages, and of the softball and basketball teams I coached. The girls had all of the same pent up winter energy that my basketball teams used to have, and they laughed at the same in-jokes that only friendship can provide.

I was delighted to see that kids haven’t changed. We live in terrifying times, with ugly mean-spiritedness dominating our politics, and with a President that seems hell-bent on starting another war, whether in the Middle East or the Korean peninsula.  It’s difficult not to become overwhelmed with cynicism.  Being around these kids for just two hours was the antidote to what was ailing me, and restored my faith in humanity.  These kids were smart and well behaved. After only a few minutes, I could see them focusing, getting into the story and feeling the rush that only creativity can bring. They collaborated beautifully, they were respectful and considerate with each other. It was obvious to me that they came from good homes.

The night also shone a light on the fact that storytelling is at the core of being human. It’s what separates us and makes us the dominant species on earth. It’s how we make sense out of the cold randomness of existence, and in these times of divisiveness and fear, it’s our only hope for bridging the gaps between us. Like in the story the girls invented, at the end, all of the shape shifters discovered that the things they had in common were greater than the differences.  It’s a moral that their parents’ generation would do well to recognize.

As I drove home, it occurred to me that if we’re ever going to dig ourselves out of the mess we’ve made of this world, it’ll be by the grace of children and the art of storytelling.  And there, on a cold Wednesday night in a Girl Scout meeting room in Kenosha, Wisconsin, I witnessed the intersection of these two forces of nature, and I was humbled by the profundity of the truth it revealed.

 

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Jack’s Homecoming


(I’ve been working with a professional editor on polishing up the manuscript for my second novel, “I Don’t Know Why.”  One of the things she’s pointed out is opportunities to fill in some gaps in the narrative. I wrote this scene to describe what the main character, Jack, felt upon returning home from seven months in the psych ward)

Dad steered the boat-like Matador through the cold and unending sea of darkness that flooded the flat farm fields and wooded lanes of the countryside east of Orchard Depot. Our conversation had quickly faded into a familiar silence, all of the easy small talk having already been consumed. I sat alone in the back seat, peering over the dashboard through the front window at the narrow beams of headlights that illuminated the thin white and yellow lines painted on the fading gray asphalt. Then the big S curve that always announced the impending exit onto Vicksburg Avenue came into view. The sudden familiarity of where I found myself and the knowledge of, even in the darkness, the presence of the landmarks, both seen and unseen, that we passed, was jarring. I felt my chest tighten and I wondered if I was ready for what was to come in the next few minutes, when we’d pull into the driveway and I’d walk through the front door into our house for the first time since I was carried out if it on a stretcher more than six months before. This was the risk, the downside to keeping me at the Hanover for an extra four months after Kelly’s death. I finally understood what Dr. Rudolph and Gladys meant when they told me that the longer I was away, the more difficult coming home would be.

We pulled into the driveway. The outside light by the front door was on and cast a yellowish glow on the cement porch. I held the screen door open while Dad unlocked the door and he and Mom passed through, turning on living room lights as I closed the door behind me. The tightness in my chest gave way to a pounding sensation, and I thought my heart was going to explode as the sights and smells and the sounds of being back home overwhelmed me. Mom was talking, saying something about having to heat supper up, when I saw, on the dining room table, the cake she’d baked for me, with candles in the shape of the numbers two and one sticking out of its white frosting.

I walked down the hall to my bedroom. A new door had been installed, and I opened it and flicked on the light switch. The room was spotless, the bed was neatly made, and all of my things were put away. I stood in the center of the room, taking it all in, when I heard, from the doorway behind me, my mom say, “Good to be home, Jack?”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, it is.”  It was all I could do to stop myself from bawling like a baby.

The evening wore on, the three of us eating dinner and then, for dessert, cutting in to my birthday cake.  We talked, and laughed, sticking to safe topics, old stories and gossip about distant aunts and uncles and cousins. There was more we didn’t talk about than we did, avoiding topics like depression, suicide, Sam Richter, and Tom Musgrove. They remained unmentioned, the air heavy with their invisible and weighty presence. But for that evening, at least, none of that mattered. There’d be time for all of that later, and as I realized how much I was enjoying the company of my mom and dad and the familiarity of my surroundings, I felt the pounding in my chest subside, and I felt good, glad to be home.

 

First Snowfall


Last Saturday I completed my 59th year on this planet. Now, about a week into my 60th year, I know that I am no spring chicken. I’ve been an adult, chronologically at least, for forty or so ears now. So I really ought to know better.

I ought to know that the season’s first snowfall is nothing to get excited about. I ought to know better than to marvel at the sight of snowflakes parachuting down and invading streets and sidewalks. I ought to know that the thin white blanket that now covers the ground is just the beginning of back aching shoveling and scraping that will soon become tedious and tiring, and the white streaks on the roads will only become slippery and hazardous in the weeks and months to follow.  More than anything, the cold that I so enthusiastically bundle up for today is here to stay for what will soon feel like an eternity, and  daylight will diminish and fade as the days grow shorter and the cold bleak blackness of winter tightens its grip on the landscape. To quote William Butler Yeats and Cormac McCarthy (both out of context), winter is “No country for old men.”

Yet, here I am, in my office, looking out my window and watching the snow fall, feeling none of the cynicism that time and experience have informed my life with. Instead I watch the snow through the wide eyed lenses of my youth, and I see once again the full scope of infinite wonder that a young child views the world through. It’s hope and possibility. It all comes back to me, like warm air being pushed through furnace vents.

There will be plenty of time for the oppressive forces of winter to exert their gloom. Today I am content, for at least the eternity that exists in the time it takes for a snowflake to melt after hitting a city sidewalk, to rediscover just one of the unexplored worlds that were revealed every day when I was very young.

Twelve Confused Men


(Next week I’m scheduled for jury duty for the first time. Last night, I dreamed the following dream in black and white …) 

Scene:  an empty meeting room with a long table in the center with chairs around it.  12 men of different ages and nationalities file in and take a seat in chairs around the table.  One man, in a white dress shirt with a black tie, the foreman, remains standing.

Foreman:  Okay, that seemed pretty cut and dry.  I’d like to suggest we vote on a verdict right away. I’ll poll each of you. Jurist number one, how do you vote?

Me (raising my hand) I’m sorry, Mr. Foreman, but shouldn’t we vote by private ballot?

Foreman:  I don’t think that’ll be necessary.   We all saw what happened in there.

Me:  Still, I think, just in case, we should make sure we do this right, to the letter of the law.  So there’s no chance of reprisal, or getting the defendant off on a technicality.

Foreman: Of course, you’re correct, thank you, jurist number twelve. Please cast your vote on one of these little folded up pieces of paper.

(Everybody writes their vote down.)

Foreman:  Jurist number three, would you mind collecting the votes?

(Jurist three, a small, nerdy looking man, rises from his chair.

Jurist Number Three:  Not at all.  (He picks up a small wicker basket from the table and goes around the table.  One by one, the jurists all put their votes in the basket, I am the last to do so.  Jurist Number Three hands the basket to the foreman.

Foreman:  Thank you.  Jurist Two, would you mind keeping a tally of the number of guilty and not guilty votes as I read them off?

Jurist Two:  Got it.

Foreman (reaching his hand into the basket) Okay, here we go …

Me (raising my hand and interrupting): Excuse me, Mister Foreman, excuse me …

Foreman;  Yes, juror number twelve?

Me:  Don’t you think you should, you know, shake the basket up a little bit?

Foreman:  What? What do you mean, shake the basket?

Me:  You know, mix the votes up …

Foreman:  Huh?

Me:  Well, it’s just that I was the last to put my vote in …

Foreman:  So?

Me:  So my vote is on top.  If you don’t shake the basket, everybody will know that the first vote is mine. And the whole purpose of using the paper ballots are to protect the anonymity of each vote cast.

Foreman:  Okay, okay, I gotcha.  (With great exaggeration, he puts his hand in the basket and mixes up the contents.) Is that good enough?

Me: Yes, thank you.

Foreman (taking out and unfolding each piece of paper) Guilty …. Guilty … guilty … not guilty?  (He and all of the other jurors look at me)

Me:  What?

Foreman: (going through the remaining votes) Guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty.  That’s all the votes. Jurist Two, please read the final tally.

Jurist Two:  That’s eleven guilty, one not guilty.

Jurist Four:  Okay, Twelve, joke’s over.

Me:  Joke? What joke?

Jurist Four: Look, we get it, very funny.  Now can we get on with issuing a verdict and get the Hell out of here?

Me:  Why are you looking at me? You don’t know that I was the not guilty vote. In fact, I’ll bet that if you look closer at the not guilty ballot, you might find a clue as to who really cast it.

Foreman:  (holding up the vote) You mean, where it says here, “Voted by Jurist Number Nine, not Number Twelve.”

Jurist Nine: (jerking awake from nodding off) Hey!  What’s the big idea?

Foreman:  Okay, Twelve, would you like to explain your Not Guilty vote?

Me: But you don’t know that I …

Jurist Six (A large and muscular and intimidating man) Knock it off, Twelve, before I knock you off!

Foreman:  Do you really vote Not Guilty?

Me:  I do. (The entire room erupts in unison at me)

Foreman (gaining control of the room) Okay, okay, everybody calm down. That’s better.  Now, Twelve, could you please explain your vote?  I mean, the defendant admitted to being at the scene of the crime.  And we have the bank transactions that prove he was laundering money.

Me:  That’s just it!  Where’s the detergent?

Foreman:   Huh? What detergent?

Me:  My point exactly! If he was laundering that much money, there had to be some detergent somewhere! But the prosecution never produced a single sud!

Jurist Eight:  He makes a good point.

Jurist Seven:  You’re an idiot, Eight.

Foreman: But he was caught at the scene of the crime with the weapon in his hand.  How do you explain that?

Me:  By the Handyman’s testimony.

Foreman:  What’s that got to do with anything?

Me: Remember when he described the contents of the refrigerator? When he got to listing the condiments?

Foreman: Yeah?

Me:  Remember he said, “Mayonnaise?”

Foreman: Yeah.  So?

Me:  So when we examined exhibit B-1, there was no mayonnaise, just …

Jurist Eight:  Miracle Whip!

Foreman: So?

Me:  Miracle Whip is not mayonnaise! (Pulling a packet of Miracle Whip out of my back pocket) See, it says right here, Miracle Whip is salad dressing.

Juror Seven:  Why did you have a packet in your pocket?

Me: Never mind that! If you want to find the real criminal, I suggest you look no further than right here! (I move over by juror eleven and dramatically lift the mask off his head, revealing JIM PAYNE.) You’ll find a trail of victims that lead to his doorstep. He is none other than ….

Foreman: You mean …

Me: That’s right. He’s the notorious Mayonnaise Madman that’s been terrorizing our community for years! Once he found out there was no mayonnaise in the fridge, he went mad!

Jim Payne: How does that make you feel?

Foreman: And I thought you were a complete idiot, Twelve! Now I know the real idiot is whoever wrote this drivel!

Me: Guilty as charged!

 

Numbers Game


I made the mistake tonight of reading some Facebook comments on the Las Vegas shooting. They all kind of bleed together, so I can’t remember the name of the one troll whose comments stuck with me or the article he was reacting to (I’m pretty sure it was a Washington Post article, but damned if I could find it again). The general gist of his arguments is that the 59 dead and more than 500 injured, let alone the 948 total victims of mass shootings over the past fifty years, represents a “statistically insignificant” percentage of the total population and therefore is not deserving of legislative attention.

So to Mr. Troll, whoever you are, from a fellow numbers guy, here are my immediate reactions:

  • 948 is equal to or greater than the population of thousands of U.S. towns.  I gave up trying to get  a number, but look at this list from Wisconsin to get an idea of how many towns this small there are just in my home state   http://www.city-data.com/city/Wisconsin3.html  Ask any resident of any of these towns if their entire population was murdered or injured if they’d consider that to be ”insignificant.”
  • The number of dead and injured in Las Vegas is greater than the total number of players in the NBA. Imagine if the entire National Basketball Association was wiped out in one event.  It’d be quite an impact on local economies – stadiums and restaurants and television. I’m sure its economic impact would rise into the statistically relevant range. But economics isn’t even the most important impact ….
  • Looking at the wrong numbers. To me, the most heart breaking of all mass shootings remains the twenty first graders killed in the Sandy Hook massacre. I still have trouble wrapping my head around this one, let alone the horrible treatment of the victims’ families by those sub-human “conspiracy” morons. But let’s play Mr. Troll’s numbers game for a moment – the number of victims, twenty children (not to mention the seven teachers who were also murdered), is microscopically low against any national number.  But when we count the years lost, by subtracting the victim’s average age of six years from the average lifetime (75), you end up with 69 years lost for each of the twenty victims, and you get a total of 1,380 years lost, and about 20 spouses and 40 children and 80 grandchildren and 160 great grandchildren and so on.  In just three generations, that comes to 21,000 years of life lost. And who knows what contributions those unborn children with their unrealized potential may have made to our society.  We may have lost a cure for cancer, or the next Einstein or Martin Luther King, or who knows who.

 I think it’s time we look at all shootings in this context. How many years of life are we losing, how much potential is being lost, and how much damage is being done to our psyche? How many concert or dinner or movie dates are being cancelled from the fear these incidents plant in us, how deadly is the distrust they instill in our hearts and minds? How many family members and friends are waking up every day for the rest of their lives without someone they loved? How do we calculate the damage to our souls, the value of the innocence lost?

I don’t profess to have any answers or solutions.  I have no idea where to even start. Maybe a good place to start would be to reject terms like “statistically insignificant” and agree that not everything needs to be politicized, and condemn the horror we all recognize the loss of innocent lives to be.

Proof Through the Night


I still remember a dream I had when I was about five years old. In the dream, I was floating in the sky, and I came upon a cloud, white and fluffy, with an American Flag somehow planted in it.  Seeing the flag confirmed in my mind that I was in fact in Heaven.

That was about fifty five years ago now and I’m struck by how powerful, even at that early age, the image of the stars and stripes was.  These days the flag and its meaning are being debated, as links between sports and politics have blurred, and the right to protest the flag is being questioned.

To those who say politics don’t have any place on a football or baseball field or basketball court, answer this one question:  why does every sporting event, from high school on up, start with saluting the flag and singing the anthem, if politics have no place there? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to these things. It’s just that the flag is a symbol, a very powerful symbol that evokes strong, politically charged responses in everyone in attendance. But why are they even a part of the event?  We don’t play the anthem and salute the flag in a movie theatre, for example.

Inserting the flag into an event instantly politicizes that event. Taking a knee or clenching arms or raising a fist to the flag does not disrespect the flag, rather, it strengthens what the flag really stands for.

One of the things that always set us apart from extremists in other cultures was that in America, we hold principals in higher regard than symbols. No one is supposed to suffer punishment in America for drawing a cartoon, for example.  Or for, no matter how repellent the sight might be, burning an American flag.  It’s our constitutional right to free speech that we obey, as well as it’s the right of others to decry such activities. But we don’t have the right to discriminate against those we disagree with.

In America, we are allowed, even encouraged, to think for ourselves.  So when we see our flag, it’s only natural, and downright patriotic, for different people to think different things. Imagine if we were all forced to think the same way –imagine the ramifications of that.  Who would decide what we have to conform to? Or what the punishment would be if our thoughts strayed?

There’s no denying the strength of the flag as a symbol. I understand the power of the meaning it has, especially to our military.  But to truly appreciate the complexity as well as the power of the symbol is a bit more difficult. If you want an idea of how, even among the military, the flag can have different symbolic meanings, all you need do is google Ira Hayes.

Hayes’ experiences after returning home from World War II, where he was one of the marines who famously rose the flag at Iwo Jima, add a level of complexity to the simplistic symbol of the flag. This is inevitable with symbols – the more they are universally embraced, the simpler their meaning becomes, despite the fact that symbols are by nature inherently complex.

What makes the flag such a complex thing is part of the very foundation our country was built upon: liberty, freedom and justice for all. It’s the great American experiment, and it’s what sets us apart from every other country in history:  that we are guaranteed the right to say what we want, think what we want, worship whatever god we choose. All men are created equal and self-evident truths and inalienable rights. It was all incredibly audacious and radical and idealistic, and the flag came to symbolize every bit of it – all of the purity and sincerity of those ideals, as well as all the times we fell short – because only if we recognize battles lost and not just celebrate those won will we ever rise up to the lofty heights our founding fathers envisioned us one day approaching.  I think they probably knew we’d never reach them all, that that would be impossible, but hoped that we’d fight with every breath in our resolve to at least try.

That’s the fight and the struggle that the flag is symbolic of.  It flies as high as the surface of the moon, but we still have a way to go before we reach the unreachable, until we plant it in the fluffy clouds of a child’s dream of Heaven.

The Green Blood of Death


(From a dream I had after eating a bag of pistachios after nine o’clock …)

My wife and I still live, alone and happy, in the same big two story house we raised our three children in. It’s really too big for just the two of us, and at some point, when we’re further into our later years, we’ll downsize and move into something smaller. People shrink as they age, as they diminish, making things like houses and cars seem even bigger and more imposing. But for now, our home is the same house we’ve occupied for the past 34 years.

The two of us were asleep in our bed in the master bedroom on the far side of the upper level, when I was awakened by our dog, a Gordon setter named Max, thirteen years old but still fit and vital. It was just a single distant yelp, probably directed at a squirrel or one of the great horned owls that have taken up residency in the hollowed-out cedar tree in our side yard. I was surprised I could even hear Max, given that it was just a single yelp from the other end of the lower level of the house. But then I could smell the presence of another, my long-time nemesis, through the furnace vents, and I knew it was him, that he’d transformed himself into a vapor and that within a minute or so he’d be in our room, standing over our bed, ready to take us.

I quickly shook my wife by her shoulders.  “Deb,” I said, low enough so only she could hear me. “Wake up.”

“Arfglub,” she murmured, still sleeping.

“Deb,” I said, “he’s here.”

“Oh, shit,” she said, ripping the blankets off of her and getting out of bed on her side at the same time I got out on mine. We both kicked into gear and quickly and quietly executed what we’d been practicing for the past four weeks, since the last time.   We both grabbed the stuffed pillows we kept stashed under the bed and used them to replace us in bed, pulling the blankets over them. Then we ducked into the bathroom that was attached to the master bedroom.  I turned off the overhead light we always used as a night light so I could find my way without stumbling over anything on my way to one of my several nightly trips to relieve myself, and we hid in the walk-in shower stall, behind the tiled walls, still in our night clothes, me in my boxer briefs and a t-shirt, Deb in her panties and t-shirt.

Sure enough, about only thirty seconds after getting in the shower, we heard the door of our bedroom creak open, and we could hear the soft shuffle of his feet across our hardwood floor. Then we could hear him, from the side of our bed, reciting some poem, I couldn’t understand it because it was all in Latin, over what he thought was the form of our sleeping beings. Then, the poem apparently over, he started laughing that diabolical laugh of his. I wanted to see this so I crept behind the half-opened bathroom door and through the crack between the hinges, I watched as his torch ignited.  In the light from the torch, I could see him clearly, his face wrinkled and green, with dark cavities where his eyes were supposed to be, his black robe over his head and falling to the floor.  A long and wrinkled arm reached out from under his robe, and I could see his bony fingers reach down and grab the corner of the blankets.  Grinning that maniacal grin of his, he pulled back the blankets to reveal nothing but the inert and lifeless pillows.

He gasped, making an audible hissing sound, and clenched his bony fingers into a green fist.  “Curse you, Gourdoux!” he said, shaking his fist down towards the pillows.

I couldn’t help but laugh from my vantage point behind the bathroom wall.  He spun and turned towards me, hissing loudly.

“So, Gourdoux,” he said, “you have outwitted me again. I must pay you my dues.”

“Never mind that,” I said, unable to control the laughter erupting from deep down inside of me. “For something as scary as Death is supposed to be, you are just ridiculous.  Oh, and by the way, just a friendly fashion tip:  lose the robe. They haven’t worn those since the Spanish Inquisition.”

“Ah, enjoy yourself, Gourdoux.  For well you know, you may have won this round, but I most certainly will triumph when the match is over.”

“That’s what you think,” I said, adding as I reached into my boxer briefs and pulled out my Smith and Wesson. “It seems that you’re forgetting, Wisconsin is now a Castle state.”

“A gun!” he gasped. “I thought you were just happy to see me.”

“I am,” I said. “I’m happy to see you dead. Now I lay you down to sleep.” I raised the sites of my .45 and fired three times.

There, by my bedside, Death lay in a pool of green blood.

I cracked open a pistachio as I dialed the police on my cell phone.

 

Review of “And These Are the Good Times”


In my Amazon review of Patricia Ann McNair’s collection of connected short stories, The Temple of Air, one of the things I think I got right was the following:

“ McNair has a knack for bringing to life details that are achingly familiar – the slamming screen doors, the headlights illuminating the dotted line asphalt of the highways on the outskirts, the high school gymnasiums, the murmur and glow of distant televisions, the late afternoon shadows of an empty house – but her real gift is the creation of the deceptively familiar and complex characters who inhabit this fever dream of a landscape.”

What I think rings even truer in her second book, a collection of essays, And These Are the Good Tand these are the good timesimes, is the “fever dream” bit. What struck me reading this collection, which is mostly memoir, is the intimacy she establishes with the reader. She has a way of breaking down the distance between herself and the reader. It’s as if she’s whispering her fever dream into our ear as it’s occurring.  It is intimacy and immediacy, it has the urgency of gossip and the musicality of art. On first reading, you get the sense that she is discovering the truths she reveals at the same time you are; it’s only on subsequent readings when you realize and appreciate how well the pieces are crafted and structured.  McNair teaches writing at the university level, and while it’s clear that she practices what she teaches, it’s also clear that she has a gift that cannot be taught, that transcends craft.

I hold The Temple of Air in such high esteem that a part of me was reluctant to dive into And These Are the Good Times.  There was no way I thought her non-fiction could approach her fiction. Boy, did I get that wrong! Turns out that the same things that make her fiction so compelling also apply to her non-fiction. Things like just the right and right amount of detail, her sense of place and time, and awareness of the connective tissue that tethers us to one another, and what happens when that tissue is severed, the free-fall we all tumble into at different times in our lives. This is the goal of any storyteller, fiction or non, to share something personal and remarkable, and ignite a flash of recognition in the reader’s awareness. In doing so, the storyteller is bestowing upon the reader the greatest gift of all:  the awareness that, at least for that moment, he or she is not alone. The depths and the frequency of the truths McNair shares in And These Are the Good Times are evidence of more than artistry, it’s testament to a generosity of soul.