We Must Do Better

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[I apologize if this seems a bit choppy. These thoughts have been rolling around in my head for a few days, and I decided to let them take a stroll.]

No one chooses to be “imbalanced” or “unstable”. It’s not a happy place to be.

We as a culture are failing the most vulnerable. Mental illness is a punch-line. “Whack job”, “nut job”, “weirdo”, “MR”, “nut case”, “off his rocker”. Or more delicately, “imbalanced”, “unstable”. All terms we apply to people who needs our love and compassion, no less than the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting.

Omar Mateen was Muslim, yes. Did you know his father seems a bit of an oddity? Check this out.

We cannot, at this juncture say for certain Omar Mateen was gay, unless and until someone comes forward to give some sort of evidence or witness, although apparently his first wife thought he was. And his father called him gay in front of said wife. But at the very least he was fascinated by the gay lifestyle, having visited the gay club Pulse, and using some gay dating apps. The guy was married. He was Muslim. Why would he stick his nose in that if it didn’t hold some fascination for him?

If you are a Christian who regularly attends church, you know that occasionally a pastor will invite a guest speaker. Usually this is someone with a special sort of message that he focuses on. Apparently Muslim imams do the same thing. Weeks before the shooting, this guy, who has been run out of Australia, spoke at the mosque the Mateens attended.

So, here we have a guy who was raised by a father who appears to have some sort of psychosis. (I prefer this to common derogatory terms.) Omar seems to have at least some gay tendencies. And he’s had them for a while. His first wife observed this in 2009. So…all his life he has been caught between two worlds. Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, he’s gay. BUT…he is also Muslim, he has been linked to several radical groups, including Hezbollah and Al-Qaida. He wants to fit in somewhere, but it’s not working. And the message about gays coming from the pulpit (do they have pulpits in mosques? I don’t know, but you get my meaning) the message he keeps hearing is that gays must die. He’s looking for some way out. He wants to be a good Muslim.

He’s gay.

He’s Muslim.

He must die.

But he’s Muslim.

He wants Paradise just like everyone else.

But he’s gay and must die.

Solution?

Kill gays. Swear allegiance to ISIS and wait for cops to send him to Paradise.

This isn’t about guns. He could have used a knife, a bomb, any number of other weapons. Maybe he wouldn’t have killed as many people, but that’s irrelevant. And the fact that his gun purchases were legal is meaningless. Do you think for a moment he couldn’t have obtained those weapons elsewhere?

It’s about mental illness and the way we avoid it, we make fun of it, we look the other way. We do everything but offer help. All the love and compassion everyone wants to heap on gays and lesbians right now, (and I’m all for that, that’s great and all) but where was that compassion when his ex-wife, friends, and co-workers observed him to be unstable, aggressive, and imbalanced? The FBI surveilled him, even interviewed him twice. Apparently the FBI has no protocol for identifying someone who may need professional psychiatric help.  No one seems to have said, “You know fella, you seem like you need a friend. Let’s talk. What’s on your mind?” I get that his ex-wife was afraid of him. But his co-workers surely could have held their own if he got out of hand. Maybe not. Maybe ‘unstable’ is too scary for everyone.

My point is, we as a culture avoid ‘unstable’, ‘imbalanced’ people. We marginalize them. We don’t see them. They’re not there. Maybe if we ignore them they’ll go away. Or maybe they’ll buy a gun and shoot up a nightclub.

Best. Job. Ever.

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I worked in a bookstore for a little over two years and only quit to take a job at twice the pay. Being a bookseller was hard work. I lost weight and kept it off because I was on my feet eight hours a day, carrying books. It was exhausting; my feet ached every night. But I left work smiling and couldn’t wait to go back to work in the morning. Why?

In his book, Chronicles of Narnia: The Magician’s Nephew, C.S. Lewis describes the “Wood Between the Worlds”, a quiet woodland with many small ponds. Nothing happens in this quiet wood. It just exists to give a place for the ponds to exist. By jumping into a pond, one is whisked to a different world, a different universe. A bookstore is like that wood-between-the worlds. Walk along the stacks, select a book and open it and suddenly you’re no longer standing in a bookstore. Like Harry Potter and the pensieve, you’re transported to another place and time, completely disconnected from this reality. Adventures are lined up on the shelf just waiting to overtake you. Going home means leaving all of that behind for the ordinary world.

Part of the fun was finding books for people. Customers came in every day looking for a particular book, but might have only the vaguest clues about it. Perhaps they had no title, no author, maybe the general topic or subject. At first they did not even clarify fiction or non-fiction. For example, “a book about sailing” turned out to be Patrick O’Brien’s Master and Commander. It was like playing twenty questions for a living. One of my proudest moments was when a woman came in looking for “a book about math, it’s blue, dark blue.” I knew exactly what she wanted, I had picked up the same book many times, and I don’t even like math. I didn’t know the title either, but we went right to the book and I put it in her hands.

Generally speaking, working in retail is the pits. It’s thankless, grueling, and often demeaning. Customers are often disrespectful of both the clerks and the merchandise, rummaging through piles of clothing or what-have-you, making a mess and then leaving it.

Conversely, the best part about working in a bookstore was the customers: they’re literate, and that literacy brought with it a certain patience, and ‘gentleness’, if I may use that term in its archaic form. And somehow I didn’t mind the piles of books left on tables and carts, and even on the floor. Each night, for thirty minutes after closing, I had to ‘recover’ my section, collecting books that had been left out and placing them on a cart, then re-shelving as many as possible before pushing the cart to the back room to be taken care of the next day. And unlike a pile of unfolded clothing, un-shelved books are each still their own tidy self. A book lying on a table is even more visible to the casual shopper, even more appealing when the full cover is in view.

Bookstore customers are the best. I worked through three Christmas seasons. We had ten cash registers and the line sometimes stretched halfway around the store, there might be a hundred people in line. And on more than one occasion, the registers all ‘froze’ because of too much traffic on the system. No one got huffy and walked off. They may have left, but they did so discreetly. Despite the long wait standing in line, customers almost uniformly were polite and kind. At most, they might sound a bit fatigued, “You’re really busy…” No one was ever rude. Ever. Which is striking when you come to think about it. I never heard, “Oh my GOD why is this taking so long!?!” which I have heard on many occasions in other retail settings.

I left the business before the advent of the home computer and the cell phone. But when I visit big box bookstores, I find little has changed. Customers are still polite, and the store is full of the happy buzz of interesting people. Most bibliophiles still love the smell and heft of a good book. E-readers are fine for travel, but there’s nothing quite like having the actual book in hand.

Sadly, I think I’ve aged out of being able to work in a bookstore. My bad knees and fallen arches limit what I can carry and how long I can remain on my feet. But I’d go back in a heartbeat if I could.

Hi Mom! I’m Fine!

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I have three sons (and two daughters) and I’m always glad to hear from them. But when the conversation starts out with, “Hi Mom! I’m fine!” my blood pressure goes up. It’s nice to know they’re fine, it’s the stories that follow that make me cringe. My daughters’ greetings seldom evince the same level of anxiety. (With them, things always start out so reasonable. The anxiety builds throughout the conversation. I will cover their respective antics in another blog.)

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“Hi Mom! I’m fine,” it’s my youngest, age 14. “Scott took me to the emergency room, cuz I didn’t want to bother you and we’re already on our way home!”

How convenient.

He continues, “There’s no cast, just an ace bandage, you can’t even see anything, but my shoe won’t go on cuz it’s all swollen and I have to use crutches for a couple of days.”

“What’s swollen?”

“My ankle.”

“What happened to your ankle?”

Then comes this sort of stream-of-consciousness debrief. “Well, I tried to jump this half-pipe out by Julie’s house, behind the school there’s this big park and a drainage ditch and we were skateboarding down there. I was doing real good too, it was SO awesome! But I was getting tired cuz we were out there, like, all afternoon and it was getting dark, and I just wanted to make this one jump, but it was dark, and I’d been kind of working up to it. Julie said I couldn’t do it, I shouldn’t try, but Scott said he thought I could, and Brandon did too, so I got back really far and tried it and, Mom, I al-most MADE it! It was awesome, I was SO high! I just caught a tiny bit of the board on the edge…”

“Wait, Julie’s house? What happened to the movie? I thought you were going out to Folsom to the movies…”

“Oh…uh…well…Scott didn’t have the money, and Jules didn’t really care and Brandon was there so we decided to go skateboarding instead.”

I’m thinking, “Movies, skateboarding, hey, it’s almost the same thing, isn’t it?”

“Hi Mom! I’m fine!” This report is in person, and I can see that he’s fine, but I can tell there’s a story coming because his eyes are wide open and he’s grinning so wide his ears are going to touch at the back of his head. “I killed a rattlesnake!”

This is the oldest, and he’s been working at a miniature golf course. Doesn’t that seem like a nice, safe place for a son to be working? Six weeks into his stint there I find that as part of his job, the first thing he does every day is to go through the whole course banging on everything with a golf club to scare the snakes out of the holes. I try to sound proud of my adventurer as I am regaled with the details of how this particular six-foot snake was not just slithering away like they usually do, and how they took a shovel to it and…I ignore the gruesome details and admire the two-inch set of rattles he brought home. Yaaaay.

“Hi Mom! I’m fine!” This is very good news this time, but the adrenaline in the voice tells me I’m in for another adventure in long distance parenting. My oldest again, only four months out of high school now, decided to travel instead of jumping right into college. Seemed like a good idea at the time. He was going to visit a missionary friend-of-a-friend in Thailand. Come to find out, this particular missionary is also an ex-Army Ranger who regularly crosses the boarder into Burma/Myanmar, backpacking medical supplies to villagers who are the victims of ongoing genocide there.

“Yeah, we just got back to Chiang Mai…the Army chased us out of Burma! It was so cool! They were following us…but we’re fine! Chuck is awesome! I’m really thinking about a military career…Mom you should meet this guy, he’s amazing! He’s so smart! We went in [to Burma] about two weeks ago, we took a bunch of supplies to the Karin. We saw this one village that had been destroyed a couple weeks before, and met these other guys in the jungle, Chuck found them, I don’t know how, he is just so amazing! And we slept in this hut, they build their huts up on stilts to get away from the bugs, and I realized, I’m here with this guy with a price on his head, and some bad guy, just for the money, could just roll a grenade under this hut and we would never know what happened, and he’s sound asleep! He is SLEEPING! And I’m thinking, ‘What the hell am I DOING here?’ but it was cool and we had to really run, it was hard keeping up, but we weren’t scared, not really, we just had to keep moving. We’re fine, I’m fine! How’s Dad?” Dad’s fine. I, on the other hand…

I’ve always tried to encourage my children in their various interests, letting them know it’s okay to take chances, and be adventurous. At the same time, I also drilled into them, “Safety first”. No doubt this is what has led to the greeting that I’m sure is intended to be reassuring. It has also led to a certain amount of subterfuge, I think. They have come to believe it’s best if mother doesn’t hear about certain plans until they can report a fait accomplii. I’m sure this is wise. I’m also sure this is why I didn’t find out about the skydiving until two years after the fact and then only because somebody let something slip.

“Hi Mom! I’m fine!” The middle son. He’s in Iraq, at the front end of ‘the surge’. We’re using a computer chat room. He typed quickly because the connection was tenuous, but he needed the debrief. “Weh-heh-eellll, I just had the scariest 72 hours of my life! Stupid 45 minute out-and-back to pick up a downed pilot turned into a three day FUBAR. We ran out of gas, and we were surrounded! It was a freakin’ trap and only one truck had coms, and there were snipers, which meant we could only communicate between trucks after dark, and we ran out of water and no food, but Abdul can’t shoot for shit so we were okay, but MAN it sucked being out there! They finally managed to drop some supplies to us, water and food & stuff, and two guys, two Marines got killed by an IED trying to help and then finally we got outta there…it was SUCH a mess!” Due to op-sec he was unable to give me more details, but we had heard about the two Marines on the news. He continued to assure me he was fine.

“Hi Mom! I’m fine!” A couple months later I got an actual call from the same son, now stationed in Karmah, a charming little bedroom community just outside of Fallujah. “It was like something out of Band of Brothers!” But this time the edge is off his voice, the adrenaline is not pumping. Whether he’s calm because combat is now an everyday affair, or because of simple fatigue, I can’t tell. But he’s fine. He is. I can tell. He’s fine. “This was about the only coordinated attack we’ve seen. Snipers, mortars, and these truck bombs, Mom, it was just amazing.” This is not the boy talking, but the man. “These guys, two of them, drove trucks right up to the compound, but Connelly saw them and pumped several rounds into the first one and he hit the driver, I guess, cuz the truck detonated just outside the wall, and the second one…see the first one was supposed to breach the wall so the second one could get in, but the first one never made it, he just blew up outside, but the second guy, he just keeps coming!” The rate of speech picks up now, and the boy is back. “And by now we’ve got mortars coming in and snipers and all kinda automatic fire going off all around, it was crazy, everybody’s shooting everywhere, but then somehow, I don’t know if he got shot or what happened, but the second truck goes off right at the same spot. Heh heh! You should see the size of the crater! It’s like seventy-five feet across! It’s just amazing…so sad though,” more quietly, “you know? Cuz those guys are so fucking stupid…to just blow themselves up for nothing. Craziness. Anyway, only one of our guys got hurt, took some minor shrapnel, a little first aid and he’s fine.” He’s fine. We’re all fine. Thank you.

“Hi Mom, we’re all fine! The baby is fine, Karissa is doing great!” Middle son again, reporting on the birth of his first child. “It took hours and at first they were like, ‘we don’t do water birth here, no one is qualified to assist’ but we knew they had the tub cuz we had done the tour. We had to sign a waiver so they would let us use it. Karissa had done all this research and we had this ginormous birth plan, like 20 pages, and so they had to let us in. It was just amazing, Karissa is amazing. I got to be in the tub WITH her! All the while she was in labor, and she had to get out once so they could check her, and she was about 6 cm., but then things seemed to pick up, and then she was pushing and I got to sit behind her in the tub and hold her legs for her while she pushed! And she caught the baby, she just, like PULLED him out, it was freakin’ awesome. So amazing. He’s fine, she’s fine, we’re all fine! How are you, ‘Grandma’, heh heh?”

“I’m fine.” Now it’s your turn.

You Are a Cyclist

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On the Death of a Parent

While thinking of things to post to the Facebook page of a friend whose father died quite suddenly, this metaphor presented itself. It is just a metaphor and not a world philosophy.

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Having two parents alive in this world may be compared to riding a tricycle. There we are, pedaling and steering, and there are two wheels of support behind us. Now, it may be that one of the wheels is bigger than the other, or flatter, or badly shaped, or missing altogether, i.e., still alive but not a part of our lives. Because we none of us have two perfect parents, we all have to work at finding the balance point that allows us to move forward, and most of us do a pretty good job one way or another.

When a parent dies, they are completely gone from this world and our lives, and they will never come back. (I speak as to adults, not to young children whose remaining parent may find a loving spouse that can SOMETIMES replace the deceased parent.) I say, when a parent dies, we lose our balance. Even if we have not had daily or even regular contact with that parent, just knowing that they exist, somewhere on the planet, changes things in a way we do not guess until they are gone. And the older we are, the longer we have lived in the world with two parents, the more difficult and startling the transition when one of them dies.

Then, when the second parent dies, we are really on our own, and finding the balance point is a lot trickier, just as riding a unicycle is very different from riding a bicycle. This is why family is so important.

Siblings are not parents. Even when they sometimes get sucked into a parenting role due to the vacuum created by a missing, ailing, or deceased parent. No, our siblings are on their own tricycles, as are our friends. They may come along side and, with an outstretched arm, help hold us up for a while, help keep us balanced, and we may do the same for them, but they are not our wheels.

However, there are other wheels in our lives: children. As we become the support wheels for our children, we are pulled along by their energy, and steered in the direction of their dreams.

We can do little when it comes to our parents: they are who they are, and we’d like to think they did the best they could. Maybe they did and maybe they didn’t. I’m sure we could all wish they were other than what they were, somehow, or had done things differently. But, as I say, we cannot change them. That’s another reason I like this metaphor. The back wheels are behind and beneath us. We cannot simultaneously pedal and steer and make significant progress on our way while trying to “fix” one of those tires. This is not to say we should not care for them, but we must accept them as they are. We cannot change them.

What we can change is ourselves, at least to some degree, to be thoughtful, useful wheels to our children, matching to some degree the shape and pace of the other parent. It may be that we ourselves are lacking in strength or ability and so find ourselves the weaker, lesser wheel. That’s as may be, and so we must strive to bring all of what we do have to the struggle. Let us hold up our share of the weight in whatever way we may, creating as little drag as possible, though perhaps stopping flat when we see fire on the tracks.

If we still have one or two of our own parents, while we have children of our own we may be doubly blessed. Though seemingly pulled in many directions, we have a marvelous balance, for there are many upon whom we can bear for support. Or it may be that our parents are distant, physically or emotionally, unavailable, so that we gain little support from them, or are hindered by their malfunction. Still, if they are in the world, there is hope. We are far more balanced than we realize. Once they are gone, the universe shifts in strange ways.

Those who, through no fault of their own, must perforce pedal along with seriously defective or missing wheels, while simultaneously finding themselves the support wheel for the next generation should have our compassion and support.

No Rabbit Holes Today

Sometimes life overtakes us, even when we are paddling as fast as we can. Such has been my life for quite some time and this page may seem neglected.

FEAR NOT!!! This blog will continue! For there are many, many more things to say and write about my wonderful family, and even the occasional fictional lick. And just to keep the tone light, let’s have some fun!

One of my admitted oddities is my absentmindedness. I get busy doing other things and I forget stuff. That t-shirt pictured above? Yeah, that’s me. “I like cake. There’s a tree. Hi!”

When I do housework, I’ll start dusting, find a magazine I should throw away, but there’s that article I wanted to read, so I’ll just take a minute to read that, sitting down I notice a pair of earrings I left in the living room, so once I’m done reading I take the earrings upstairs and put them away along with the other pairs I left on my reading table and nightstand. The nightstand is messy, and covered with tissues and cracker crumbs. There’s also a wine glass and two coffee mugs. I take the trash and the dishes back downstairs, making a mental note to come back and make the bed. Downstairs I find the dishwasher has clean dishes in it, so I put the mugs and wine glass on the counter and start putting dishes away. Then the phone rings. I put on headphones and chat with one of my children while I put dishes away. But part of the conversation is a reminder I am supposed to watch grandchildren this afternoon, which sinks my plans for sewing, reading, shopping, housework…but that’s okay, cuz I love being with the grands! I finish putting the dishes away and start loading the dishwasher. I clear a few things from the kitchen counter and decide it’s time for a cup of coffee. This is how I dust. This is how I run my life (or my life runs me!) And this is how I discovered one of my pregnancies.

It was late September, the ragged tail end of a worn out, used up old summer. I don’t think we could have fit one more thing in it.

We had

moved,

painted,

wallpapered,

planted,

weeded and

partied.

We camped

and fished

and picked berries.

Then one day your father asked when was my period due? I checked the calendar, “Three months ago.”

Fambly

Everybody thinks their family is a bit odd, or has a couple of odd people in it. Perhaps oddity is in the nature of family. I’m talking blood family here. Don’t get me wrong, the family that grows out of being in the same time and space with an unchosen group of people, as when co-workers have been together doing the same job for years, is very special, very valuable, but it’s a bit different. I’m talking blood. Co-workers come and go. Roommates come and go. Family, blood family, you’re stuck with. It’s in your DNA and there’s not a thing you can do about it.

Since this is an inaugural blog, and since it will generally reference my family, I will simply start off with the obvious.

I’m not saying my family is any more odd than yours, I’m just saying…it’s got its characters, most notably, my husband. He would take issue with this statement. As far as he’s concerned HE’s perfectly normal. It’s the rest of the world that has the problem.

Mixing metaphors is normal, right? When a question is closed, my husband will remark, “You’re barking up a dead tree.” When he has admittedly overfilled his plate and he must concede to doing too much, he’s been “pushing the candle.”

Conversation is generally a one-way process. He monologues, I listen. I’ve learned it’s best to just stay out of the way. As daughter Katie once remarked, he has no inner dialogue, it all just comes tumbling out. But hearing someone’s ‘inner voice’ is scary. Even when the thoughts themselves aren’t scary, it’s hard to imagine how someone gets along in this world when their thoughts are such a jumble.

He’s sitting at the kitchen table, working on his laptop, as he often does, muttering to himself.

Hubby: “How do I send it? I just sent it! HOW DO I SEND IT!?!!”

Daughter and I exchange glances.

Katie, imitating his mutter, “Idon’tunderstandyou. I DON’T UNDERSTAND YOU!!!” We laugh.

And he repeats, “How do I send it? I just sent it! How do I send it!?!”

His frustration and anxiety chase each other around the room. I have no idea what he was talking about, and I refuse to get sucked into the whirlwind he lives in. But the absurdity of his confusion, and how he expresses it is a constant source of amusement for us.

In his world, it’s perfectly normal to turn off a computer or light switch several times in a row, or to click the car alarm three times, just to be sure it’s on. Now, computers, light switches, car alarms, yeah I get it, lots of people sort of obsess about these things and will double and triple check them. But with hubby, this double and triple checking extends to conversation.

“So where is this new job, Katie?”

She’s been searching and interviewing exclusively in San Francisco for the last four months. She moved back from Manhattan in order to get a job in San Francisco. She’s an executive assistant with most of her experience in the finance and banking fields.

“In San Francisco, Dad.”

“Oh really, so you’re going to work in San Francisco?” followed by a pregnant pause. He really needs this question answered, because he’s not sure he understood. This is not dementia or Alzheimer’s, it’s just that data has a hard time sticking in his brain because it’s running so fast.

“Yep.”

“Where in San Francisco? North or south of Market?”

If you know anything at all about San Francisco you know there’s a very specific and well-defined ‘financial district’ there. He knows that too, but it’s the sort of information that he doesn’t trust.

“North.”

“North of Market…where is that?”

She and I just look at one another.

“North of Market. I don’t know how else to say it.”

“In the 800 block?” He references the 800 block of Market because that is where he goes every couple of months to participate in board meetings for the music teachers’ association he belongs to.

“Near the Montgomery stop.” She takes BART into the City, so the stops are her point of reference.

“Mont…gomery…” He says it like it’s a foreign word. He’s heard of the street, knows he’s probably driven on it, but has no idea where it is relative to anything else.

“Um…it’s 101 Post, actually.”

“OH! Way down THERE. Hmm.” In point of fact, her new office is not above 4 blocks from his music teachers meeting.

Katie, quietly to the side, in an exaggerated imitation of her father’s tone. “I guess…technically that’s still ‘San Francisco’.”

“Did you mention in the interview that I am a member, a State Board Member of a prestigious state wide organization, that we meet there in San Francisco?”

“No.”

“Oh. Well, I guess it probably didn’t come up.”

“Not really, no.”

“So exactly where will you be working? You got a job in San Francisco?”

And it starts again.

He’s also known for a really admirable ability to talk about something without actually mentioning it. My favorite example:

We lived in a house had a curious little hallway, it was just wide enough for one doorway, and long enough for two doorways, it connected the dining room and living room on one side, a bedroom on another, a bathroom on another, and the fourth wall was blank. On that last wall I had placed a tall bookcase filled with books. It was handy and out of the way, but tended to cramp an already small space.

When our family size changed and a bedroom opened up for me to move my things into, the bookcase found a new home and our little passage way opened up. It felt positively luxurious. He described the hallway this way.

“That bookcase looks a lot better not here.” Notice he didn’t actually mention the hallway, but that is in fact what he’s talking about.

I just wanted to make this first post kind of fun. I’m not sure what the rest will be about.