31 May 2016

Up on the Roof

Just don't sniff the sewer vent

On the roof it's peaceful as can be
And there the world below can't bother me

I probably shouldn’t have done it, but I did it. And I don't regret it.

One fine summer day, I decided to escape my bedroom fortress and sit on the roof. I didn’t know what it would be like and I didn’t know how my parents would think, but for once I decided to engage in, what was for me, risky behavior.

I left the window open and turned up the radio. I had WHK-AM tuned in back in the day when it was Cleveland’s only country music station. Now, I wasn’t a big country fan – I was listening because Gary Dee (a local redneck talk legend) was followed by this new guy named Don Imus.

And Imus was making me double over laughing. I didn’t know it then but later he described his time in Cleveland as being spent in a cocaine haze. But the interaction between Imus and the callers was golden. It was then I thought – ‘I’d like to do that someday.’ And someday, I would.

I carefully crawled out my bedroom window and edged myself slowly out a little further, where I took this photo. It was summer 1978. I figured, this was my fire escape anyway and I might as well do a dry run. If there was a fire on the second floor, I had nowhere else to run. I could jump from the other window and fall 20 feet or so and probably break my back or worse. 

This way, I could go out on the roof and make the 10-foot jump into the pool. And, if you’re on fire, jumping into a pool is not a bad thing.

But on this fine summer day, I wasn’t thinking about a fire. I was thinking – why hadn’t I done this before? Short answer – I’ve always been afraid of heights, my parents wouldn’t want me up here, and, I thought I might damage the roof.

I had climbed a tree once when I was much younger. You can see the trunk over the fence to the middle-left. I got up but when I looked down, I froze. It caused a neighborhood spectacle. Eventually it drew my father and a crowd giving me step-by-step advice on how to get down. It was humiliating as hell. I don’t recall how I got down. But I never went up again. 

But the roof? That was different. No climbing involved. 

I had a moment up there I’ll never forget. Laughing to the radio, soaking in the sunshine, enjoying the bucolic view of the neighborhood. A cold drink, a mat, and a pair of shades and a fella could get used to this. I had a huge maple tree behind me providing shade.

My bedroom was my fortress of solitude but this was something different. In a way, it was analogous to stepping out of my comfort zone and what could be gained by doing so.

Now I can go sit in the backyard and take in nature. But there’s something about being up there – up on the roof – looking out, above it all, feeling the breeze. You can think, relax, dream. It’s kind of a special place. Most of us can’t get up on the roofs of our homes. I can’t do it where I live now because – well, it’s one level and it would look silly and I’d roast in the heat. 

If I wasn’t hammering on the roof, neighbors would probably call the cops. People just don’t go on top of their roofs for no reason.

But that afternoon, I did. I always wish I had come out at night, but I never did. 

I think about it today and wonder where my ‘roof’ might be? Where can I go to get both up and away – where the world below won’t bother me? Perhaps we all need to find a ‘roof.’ No TV, no radio, no cell phone. Just you, the sky and your own thoughts. 

Carol King had it just about right.

29 May 2016

Falling off the table

It's Sunday morning - my favorite morning of the week.

Two newspapers, online news, Sunday Baroque on the radio. Coffee. Pie. An extended night's sleep.

Well, that's the way it starts. Nice and slow. No reason to feel bad at all, especially in the middle of five days off.

Sometimes it doesn't matter what is happening. I'll be on the couch in the middle of reading or thinking about something and feel the crash.

In an instant, I am despondent, depressed. I tell my wife my mood "just fell off the table."

That's the only way I can describe the phenomena.

I try to analyze it as best I can. Sometimes, it could be something or things I've just read. Sometimes, I think of something out of the blue that might do it. Other times it seems like some kind of weird chemical reaction (it happens very fast and hard). Sometimes it could be purely existential - there's a reason (perhaps a combination of the above) but I'll be damned if I know what it is.

Hmmm. I look out the window and realize I have nothing to do today if I don't want to. And I feel weird about that. I've worked my ass off the last two days to get to this point but now I feel guilty about it. I'm. . . having unproductive time. I know this must sound nutty and it is because I know how important rest and relaxation are but tell that to my brain.

When I was in the Army, and out in the field, there was no such thing as downtime. It was the same at my first job at McDonald's. There's an old saying which is true - your foxhole can always be improved. When I was in a foxhole and heard that I thought that eventually my squad would build a foxhole that would look like the Winchester House - with turrets and battlements and a moat perhaps. But it would never be finished.

At McDonald's God help you if you ever stood still. Everything could SEEM to be gleaming but you still had to grab a towel and wipe something down. In other words, you're getting paid $2.20 an hour - look busy.

And then there comes the realization that no matter how many days I have off, I have to go back to work at some point. Work is a place where it seems I'm either fighting off some adverse action directed at me, or I have nothing to do. For that I get paid an amount I'm to embarrassed to mention here because I like to feel like I earn it when often I really don't.

To me, it's always about proving -- through work -- that I deserve to be alive.

There's always an memory from my childhood. I'm sitting in my bedroom fortress watching cartoons on my black and white 11-inch TV. I can even remember the cartoon I'm watching when it happens. Suddenly, my mom bursts in to my room and starts yelling at me about what a mess my room is and how I need to turn off the cartoons and get to work.

This happened when I was 11, give or take a year either way. It's what I call an imprint. Like the oil bucket crisis I wrote about earlier, it's a memory that stays with you - a tiny snapshot in time - all your life no matter how much you try to forget it.

Without wandering too far afield of the subject - things we remember, not just in the middle of the night, but at any time, contribute to the floor giving way under us. Those that know what I mean, of course.

I think that it's a general fear I've had all my life that at any moment, I'll be judged for not being worthy to draw breath. So I find ways to 'be busy' with something, anything, that might make the judgment pass over me.

Another part of the feelings that come with the phenomenon is the sense that time is marching on and what are you doing about using what's left to maximize your potential? Sitting on your couch fucking around on the Internet. Why aren't you working out, creating art, indulging in a hobby, going to a community service meeting, volunteering, bicycling in the park, etc.

At one time or another, I've done all of those things. I'm still overweight, still working in a job I hate (but pays extremely well, so I'd be a fool to leave it), still depressed, still averse to social interaction and, frankly, tired of trying over and over to get life right.

But I do feel guilty about it, so that's good, right?

Existential fear. The worst kind - because there is no one right thing to banish it.

So I get up, take the meds and come back here to write it all out. Despite hating my own writing (and now it's your turn), it does help. There is something to be said about writing yourself through a depressive period. It just took me around 16 aborted blogs through the last 15 years to get one that feels right.

So do I feel better now? Yes, marginally. I have created! it may be shit, but there it is, right in front of you, dear reader.

So if you deal with a depressive disorder and fall off the table, maybe this will inspire you to over self-examination. Perhaps, like a light, the solution will be suddenly apparent. Or perhaps it's organic and your brain just decided to screw with you.

Because I'm ollllllld, I can say that it's like being ambushed by Allen Funt

"When it's least expected - you're elected. You're the loser today . .  Shit! You're on Morbid Camera!"

26 May 2016

A Month of Mental Health, An Eternity of Suicide

There seems to be a lot of chatter on the Interwebs today about suicide, quite possibly an offshoot of Mental Health Awareness Month or whatever they’re calling it this year. 

Have I written lately about how cynical I am about this subject? Read on.

First, understand that the vast majority of the chatter on suicide (the 10th leading killer of everyone in the US) is mostly lip service, in reality.

Recently, The Mighty highlighted a set of suicide stories from the website Refinery29

What I found most ironic about this is that the website describes itself as:

“Refinery29, the fastest growing independent fashion and style website in the United States, is a lifestyle platform that delivers nonstop inspiration to help women live a more stylish and creative life. It connects over 25 million monthly visitors and over 175 million users across all platforms with 24/7 programming covering everything from shopping and beauty to wellness and celebrities, giving readers all the tips, tricks, and tools they need to live a more beautiful life — and share it with the world.”

Now look at the front page. Like most women’s magazines and websites, the implicit message is, as always: you’re not good enough. But don’t worry; we can help you to be socially acceptable. It will cost you a little though – not just money, but self-esteem. If you can’t measure up, kiss that great job or handsome husband goodbye.

It kind of seems like this.

Not just to pick on the ladies’ mags --the mens’ magazines do it too. Don’t have washboard abs or a hot girlfriend? Then you’re a loser.

Thankfully, The National Mental Health Awareness Month is one in which every media outlet, regardless of audience, can get in on the act by virtue signaling. It’s good for the bottom line. Next month it’ll be back to that trimmer, fitter, more glamorous you.

Advertising is designed to inculcate an ideal that no matter what you think of yourself, we’re here to tell you that you just don’t measure up in some way, but you can start improving yourself by buying this car/deodorant/cat food/shoe/diet plan, etc. etc. etc. It’s a game the vast majority can never win.
It’s a wonder suicide isn’t higher on the top ten list. If you, from the moment the flickering light of a TV (or nowadays the light from a laptop) comes through your crib slats, are told you will never be acceptable unless you spend your entire life chasing love through consumerism, what can be the logical result of that? Not everyone is mentally equipped to handle this message, especially when these principles are reinforced by the people and institutions that surround you.

There are those who jump headfirst into the game and swim happily upstream. These folks truly believe ‘he who dies with the most toys wins.’ In their defense, they keep the machine oiled with fresh victims. The truly believers who fail, betrayed by the system they thought would take care of them if they worked hard enough, end up like the fictitious Willy Loman.

Who killed himself.

Then there are those who figure out the game early in life and swim to survive. Some of the lucky ones are able to turn their inner demons into making others happy. They have a smile on their face even though their inner life is a torment as evidenced by their personal relationships. Like Robin Williams.

Who killed himself. 

Others are intelligent, sensitive people who write brilliantly, giving us a rare look into the minds of those with rich inner lives who are also tormented and try to help others by sharing what they’ve learned:

Like David Foster Wallace.

Who killed himself.

Some are like the woman who would have been in the primary target market for Refinery29, whose life in that world, and disillusionment with everything that went with it, would lead her to write the definitive semi-autobiographical novel on suicidal ideation. That would be Sylvia Plath.

Who killed herself.

The interesting thing about the above three (real) people is they were people of means who had access to state of the art mental health treatment (for their time) and still were lost.

There are ordinary people, of course, who do the deed. When they die, most of the time, it’s only their families who mourn. In many cases, the dead are hounded to their graves by a society who considers suicide the ultimate act of a loser and certain religions who believe the suicided go straight to Hell.

And we wonder where the stigma comes from. 

Growing up, Emilie Olsen had an infectious smile, a love for horses and a perfect attendance record. She was a straight-A student and an excellent volleyball player. Emilie “had an extremely sweet spirit about her,” a family friend recalled.

On Dec. 11, 2014, the 13-year-old shot and killed herself at home.

This occurred after years of bullying which the school district did little to stop. To add insult to injury, the grieving parents were themselves bullied by the local cops:

Five days after the suicide, the Olsens were in the throes of grief when they allegedly received a visit from Principal Butts and a group of police officers. According to the lawsuit, the officers coerced the Olsens to let them inside their home, then told Marc Olsen that he was “stirring the pot” and “entertaining rumors” by talking to the media about Emilie’s death.

Bullied children kill themselves almost every day across America. God forbid parents should stir the pot and bring shame and disgrace on the school district!

I have also read of cases where the tormentors took to social media even after their target killed themselves to gloat about it.

Where did they learn such behavior? Look around you.

There is a large subset of American culture who believes that bullying builds character. And that parents beating their children (‘spare the rod’) makes for an orderly society. I used to get calls from them when I hosted a radio talk show. Their stories all had a similar theme: ‘my father beat the shit out of me and look how well I turned out.’ Really?  How do you know that?

Of course, they also harbor the belief that those that don’t survive are the weak links that need (regrettably) to be culled from the herd. Remember that the Nazis learned the principles of eugenics by studying the movement in the Unites States

Even in the Refinery29 piece, one of the stories is about a histrionic mother with Borderline Personality Disorder whom, the author seems to indicate, might have been better served (along with her family) if her last suicide attempt had been successful.

Also, a recent xoJane piece by the ever self-indulgent Amanda Lauren, sees her wash her hands of a former ‘frenemy’ whose suicide freed everyone else from having to deal with this drama queen. Ms. Lauren would be an excellent spokesperson for the re-awakening of the Lebensunwertes Leben movement in the US. 

And don’t think that by honorably serving your country in the armed forces that will get you any special consideration. Ask Andi Nachman-Rhoads about her Veteran husband who took his life in a field in rural Pennsylvania due to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, no doubt brought on by the stress of a dozen deployments. This happens every day. Regrettable, yes, but, again, we have other priorities in this country. Perhaps Tom Rhoads would have had a better chance if he was standing in line at Disney World.

EDITED TO ADD: Or if he killed and dismembered his girlfriend in the jungles of Panama and lied about for two years. As the judge said at sentencing: No matter how heinous the crime, this is a man who has served his country for seven years, going on numerous tours including Iraq, Fallujah where he fought for his country,’ the judge said, according to the news station.

That spared the killer from a death sentence, Yes, we are a society with a pretty fucked up sense of justice. But if he wanted just to kill himself, well, he gets no consideration. 

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t write about those who reach the end of a long life and can’t go on for whatever reason. Many suffer from diseases and afflictions that provide nothing but misery (and since we’re not going to prescribe opiate painkillers unless a person is actively dying. . .). In many cases, seniors are alone and hurting and unwilling to be placed in the gulag of an ‘assisted care community.’ Our end-of-life care (and respect for our seniors) sucks for the most part. 

So we have sad cases like the elderly local couple who had a suicide pact. Only one died. I don’t know what service to society prosecuting the 80-year-old male survivor will accomplish other than to justify a prosecutor’s budget. This is how we honor the ‘culture of life’ in this country.

But as the police chief Resetar said:

“In Pennsylvania, there are no laws that support suicide committed with the aid of another person. It’s illegal. We have to work within the confines of the law as they exist.”

Westmoreland County District Attorney John W. Peck said Wednesday he is working closely with Rostraver police. He said he had twice prosecuted assisted suicide cases, winning guilty verdicts both times (yea! Two for two!). Will he follow suit in this case? “It’s too soon to speculate about how this will proceed,” he said.

Well, if it helps his chances of re-election, he’ll proceed. Drag the grieving man into court and sentence him to – what? Life in prison? He’s already there. 

So how do we help these people? 

We see that even if you are wealthy and connected, all the king’s horses and men marshalled by the mental health industry may not save you. 

From my viewpoint, the only reason there seems to be any mental health structure in the US at all is to make Big Pharma’s profits skyrocket. In most cases, psychiatrists don’t make enough money due to insurance restrictions to actually talk to their patients. They have to get them in and out if they want to make a living to justify years of expensive schooling. Therefore, they give them pills.
Lots of pills. If one doesn’t work, try another. And another. And another. 

IF (and that’s a big if) you have decent insurance you might be lucky enough to find a psychologist who actually will spend an hour doing talk therapy without depleting your savings. Of course, you still might be limited by your insurance company to a small group of psychologists and you may find one that does not click with you. In that case, you try another one. And another one. And another one. 

Once you run out of pills and shrinks, YOYO buddy.

As for emergency services, well, let’s put it this way: where I live there is exactly one psychiatric emergency room which, on most days, looks like the train station scene from Gone with the Wind. The room is lined with dozens of cots where suffering souls under blankets lay waiting to see one intake nurse and one psychiatrist. They will be there all day. They will get very little help.
Call the suicide hotline? From a comment at the end of the Refinery29 story:

donemmal • 6 days ago
I wouldn't recommend calling a hotline. When I did the authorities came and took me to a "crisis unit" where they were concerned about my insurance most of all (emphasis mine) then put me in dark room with a stranger despite me telling them about my PTSD. Really the system is counterproductive and since suicides are increasing the system is not very good except for the "workers" in it. If you have a gun and are an hour away from pulling the trigger-call a hotline. If not....; anyway: I pray for peace in Heaven for all the suicides; today and every day.

And God help you if a loved one calls the police. You might as well pull the trigger because, if you’re armed (or not), when the cops come they stand a good chance of helping you complete the deed anyway. After all, you have a gun (or a knife or a wallet or a stick) and you’re a nutcase so who knows what you might do? The cop has a right to go home to his family. Your life is expendable due to your actions. Just read the comments. Stories like this happen with sickening regularity.

So here in the month of Mental Health Awareness, let’s be honest: society as a whole really doesn’t give a shit about the mentally ill/suicidal. Of course there are heroes who work in the field every day against long odds – understaffed, underpaid, underappreciated. For any meaningful change to occur, we need to change our society’s priorities, our budget priorities and our sense of empathy. I believe a former President mentioned something about ‘A Thousand Points of Light.’ What happened?

To be crass about it, how many institutions really want to expend time and energy in a person who may just go ahead and kill themselves anyway? Any way you look at it, from a cost-benefit standpoint, it’s a bad long-term investment. And besides, there’s far more money to make in cardiology or bariatrics – it’s a growth industry!

So pardon my cynicism because, perhaps, I have seen and experienced too much of it. Either we are our brother’s keeper – all of our brothers and sister – or we are not. But please stop the hypocrisy.

22 May 2016

The Touching Story of a Child and His Shotgun

A month after I turned 13, my father gave me a shotgun as a Christmas present.

It was, and remains, a youth model Winchester single-shot 20-gauge.

Perfect home defense weapon if you use it like a club

It was not greeted with the same childlike glee Ralphie exhibited on finding his Daisy Red Rider BB gun in the movie “A Christmas Story.”
Ralphie attains neighborhood weapons superiority.
I remember sitting on the living room floor, eyes wide, wondering how to fake a happy reaction. It’s not that I have anything against guns (properly maintained and safely used). It’s just that I knew what this present meant.

It meant I was going hunting. And I did not want to do that.

The backstory is the leitmotif of my childhood: dad was a consummate outdoorsman and he wanted a ‘mini-him’ to hunt, fish, camp and whatever else he wanted to do.
With those pants, you can't be a serious outdoorsman
The problems with that were many. First, dad, to his credit, ate everything he shot or caught. And when I say everything, I mean it – squirrel, woodchuck, grouse, deer, rabbit, Christ Jesus even a stinking snapping turtle he gigged one time. I will never forget the smell as it hung from the porch in the summer sunshine. I never wanted to eat game or fish of any kind. I still don’t.
Dad's actual slaughter of squirrel. Yummy!

Second, being a bookworm and a lazy, nerdy kid, I did not treasure donning my dad’s old hunting jacket (from the 1950s) and tromping around in foot-deep snow trying to blow the head off a bunny. 

The shotgun itself seems ridiculously small to me now. I still have it in all its rusting glory. If so inclined, a trained majorette could probably twirl the thing. But at 13, it felt like I was shouldering a cannon from the Civil War. And the damn kick gave me scarlet bruises all over my shoulder.

I had a wry remembrance of that experience on the firing line at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina. We grow up and develop an appreciation for some of the things we hated as a kid. Busting caps from an M-16 was fun to me in 1987. Having my shoulder violently jerked back from a shotgun in 1975 was not. 

We went hunting in the backyard. Once.

We were on the prowl for small game. There was a foot of snow on the ground and it was cold as hell. If you didn’t watch your footing, it was easy to twist an ankle and land up in a painful heap on the ground. Our neighbor brought his prize beagle hunting dog. I was mortally afraid I would land up shooting it. 

At some point or another, I did manage to flush a rabbit. Thankfully it was 30 yards ahead of the neighbor’s dog. I heaved the shotgun to my shoulder, drew a bead as best I could (leading the critter a few feet as dad had taught) and pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened. 

I had the safety on. 

“Jeezus Christ, what the hell kid,” dad yelled.

“I had the safety on. . . .like you taught me,” I blurted out.

The neighbor gladly shot Peter Rabbit and his dog retrieved it. It was a bloody mess like everything else I’d ever seen shot. Dad once field dressed a woodchuck he shot with a Colt .45 (yes, a model 1911) and I swore you couldn’t pack all the intestines into that thing that I saw.

My consolation prize was firing my one shell at an abandoned car before we came in.
I could feel the disapproval. I had fucked up in front of dad’s hunting buddies. 

So when the weather warmed up, dad took me to the skeet and trap shooting range. We also went with another of his buddies, a mountain of a man who bore a striking resemblance to Alex Karras.
Dad didn’t bother with skeet for me. He knew I couldn’t do it. So it was trap shooting – clay ‘pigeons’ shot from a small dugout into the air, laterally, in front of you rather than up above you, which was skeet.

Like this, just not as fun for me at the time
Somewhere along the tenth clay pigeon or so (I was batting in Bob Uecker territory here – about .200), I yelled out “pull” and the clay disc shot out. I pulled the damn trigger and the shotgun went ‘click’ and nothing happened.

“Jeezus Christ, what the hell kid,” dad yelled. 

I FELT like saying “it didn’t go ‘boom’ dad,” but I wasn’t keen on getting cuffed in public.

“I pulled the trigger but it didn’t fire,” I plaintively whined.

“Lemme see that,” dad said as he took the shotgun from me.

“Pull” dad barked and the shotgun roared to life.

He handed it back to me.

“I don’t know what you did,” dad said, “but it’s working.”

What I did. . . 

So the next target, it fires. The one after that – ‘click.’

This time, thankfully, when my father took the shotgun it ‘clicked’ for him too.

“What the Sam Hell is going on here,” my father said, obviously puzzled this time.

Removing the shell, he worked the trigger a few times before the problem became evident – the firing pin was only working some of the time. Why? It was a cheap piece of shit shotgun, that’s why.
It needed a gunsmith’s skill to fix. 

It never got it.

It only recently dawned on me, after almost 40 years, that this was the moment when my dad gave up on his dream of me being his understudy.

After this incident, we never hunted, fished, or camped again. He left me to my room and my books and began sullenly casting aspersions on my chances in life.

He said a lot of things over the next several years before he died when I was 20, but the one I remember him saying most of all was “kid, this world is gonna chew you up and spit you out.”
My mom completed the one-two punch by often by sweetly saying, “no matter how good you do something, someone out there will do it better.”

Hey, so you knew my dad, right?
Imagine being a kid who hears this over and over growing up.

There are many men who sit in easy chairs sipping bourbon later in life, rubbing their chins and wistfully saying “I suppose I was a great disappointment to my father.”

But that’s wrong. You don’t have to say it; you just know.

I suppose I could have gone all Robert Bly and fixed the shotgun myself in adulthood and ran to the range hollering “PULL” through hot angry tears of memory.
Our hero. OK, stop laughing

Instead, four years after my father died, I was burning through targets on a rifle range, wearing Army green. Eventually, I earned an expert marksmanship badge (at right).

I didn’t do it for him. I did to challenge myself and serve my country in a way I wasn’t doing in the Federal civil service. I felt the need to prove something to myself, by myself, as my own choice.

The funny thing was when the drill sergeants yelled at me, I didn’t hear my father - at least not then. In the intervening years as age and doubt has crept up on me, I’ve heard him in my head too often.

Now, I’ve been carrying that beat up, broken, rusting shotgun for the last 40 years. Even the cops wouldn’t take it.

I think it’s time to break it into pieces and bury it.
Rest in pieces.