Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Guns: One More Time!

I am posting today an online submission I made to my Senator on April 16th, 2007. I will be resending it, with an update, to all my elected officials. I pray I do not have to do this again in 5 years:


Dear Senator Cardin,
As a 1988 graduate of Virginia Tech, I am overwhelmed and grieved beyond words by today's tragedy.  How many more of these must we experience before we have meaningful gun control legislation?  Please do everything in your power to make sure this never, never happens again.

Thank you for your attention to this most serious matter and may peace prevail.

p.s.
Below is a refresher courtesy of bbcnews.com:

April 2007: A gunman shoots dead at least 20 people at the campus of Virginia Tech university in Virginia.

October 2006: A 32-year-old gunman shoots dead at least five girls at an Amish school in Pennsylvania, before killing himself

September 2006: Gunman in Colorado shoots and fatally wounds a teenage schoolgirl, then kills himself; two days later a teenager kills the headteacher of a school in Cazenovia, Wisconsin

November 2005: Student in Tennessee shoots dead an assistant principal and wounds two other administrators

March 2005: Minnesota schoolboy kills nine, then shoots himself

May 2004: Four people injured in shooting at a school in Maryland

April 2003: Teenager shoots dead head-teacher at a Pennsylvania school, then kills himself

March 2001: Pupil opens fire at a school in California, killing two students

February 2000: Six-year-old girl shot dead by classmate in Michigan

November 1999: Thirteen-year-old girl shot dead by a classmate in New Mexico

May 1999: Student injures six pupils in shoot-out in Georgia

April 1999: Two teenagers shoot dead 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves at Columbine School in Colorado

June 1998: Two adults hurt in shooting by teenage student at high school in Virginia

May 1998: Fifteen-year-old boy shoots himself in the head after taking a girl hostage

May 1998: Fifteen-year-old shoots dead two students in school cafeteria in Oregon

April 1998: Fourteen-year-old shoots dead a teacher and wounds two students in Pennsylvania

March 1998: Two boys, 11 and 13, kill four girls and a teacher in Arkansas

December 1997: Fourteen-year-old boy kills three students in Kentucky

October 1997: Sixteen-year-old boy stabs mother, then shoots dead two students at school in Mississippi, injuring several others

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Y2K, Guns, God, and Love: Part II

Part II: God and Love (Part I is here)

The following words are inscribed in the stonework behind the pulpit at The Universalist National Memorial Church in Washington DC : “God is love and he who dwells in love dwells in God and God in him.” I attended that church in the late 1990s and it was the first time I really paid attention to that New Testament verse.

And I pondered it, back then: God is love and he who dwells in love dwells in God and God in him

I like that.

I don’t believe in God. At least, not in the God I grew up with. That God died for me some time before stumbling upon the Universalist National Memorial Church and its inscription from 1 John. That God was the causality of a difficult marriage and early divorce and perhaps my own intellectual pride and the convenience of seeing God as a crutch and excuse for choices in my life and what I saw as an excuse for others living hypocritically. If God was the Crusades and Inquisition and Slavery and Bigotry, I didn’t want him anyway. And I was moving towards a mystical sense of a god. God that was Nature or Mother Earth or The Force, like in Star Wars. And then I found myself at the Universalist National Memorial Church turning those words around and around: 

He who dwells in love dwells in God. He who dwells in love dwells in God. 

And God in him.

Fast forward a dozen years and my beloved, my wife, and mother of my boys dies. Killed crossing the street by some sorry soul who made a bad left turn into the crosswalk. In the anguish and despair that followed, something rose in me. A feeling of something. Not only did I still love Amy, I felt her love for me. I felt it strongly then and feel it still. It was, and remains, as real a feeling as the feeling of gravity right now pulling me into my chair. Somehow that love force between us remains. 

I’ve been pondering this for over two years. I thought about the attractive force between two humans that we call love and that once created, continues on and on, even after one person dies. According to Newton, gravity is related to the mass of two bodies and the distance between them. You need both bodies for gravity. If the Sun were to suddenly vanish, gravity between the Sun and Earth would also vanish. Einstein described gravity differently: a perturbation in space-time. But still requiring the existence of the body in question. Love, as I have experienced it, did not end when the object of that love disappeared. It remained. It remained real as ever and more enduring that the force of gravity.

And now I have fallen in love again. Yet the love I feel for Amy remains and is separate from that I feel with Lori. And I have two boys whom I love. Greatly. There was a time when they didn’t exist and I didn’t love them. Then my oldest was born and I immediately fell in love with him. Three years later my younger son was born and I fell in love with him too! This capacity of love seems boundless. I did not have to conserve love so that I can share it equally between these two young creatures. Each love was separate and full. With each new family member, or friend, or colleague, some new measure of love is created. It is truly magical to think about the expansiveness of this force! A force more enduring even than gravity. 

He who dwells in love dwells in god.  He who dwells in love dwells in god. 

And God in him.

And God in him.

And I can create love. I create love. I am a creator of love. And you create love too. We create Love. Together. Everyday.

We can create love. So then we create God. And God in us. You and me. Together. Everyday. And God will remain after we are gone. As Love. Not like gravity which will go away. But forever.

Love is endless.

God is endless.

But love isn’t everywhere. Not yet. And it was missing in Connecticut on Friday. Which means God was missing. But not in the way Mike Huckabee suggests. 

I’m sure Mr Huckabee, like most of us, Christian or not, is familiar with Jesus’s answer when asked what is the greatest commandment of all. He replies in Matthew: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ . . . And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

And if we plug in the “God is Love” equation from 1 John into the above, a wonderful thing happens: We are commanded to “love Love with all our hearts and souls.” I like that. A lot. Love Love. Love, the verb, and Love, the object. To love Love. Perfect. Because sometimes we fear Love. Or, we ignore Love. Or we deny Love. But to love Love? That must be the greatest of all the commandments.

But then there is the 'Love your neighbor as yourself” commandment. That's more complicated, actually. Which, I believe, is why what happened on Friday happened. We may never have a complete understanding of what was going on in the troubled mind of Adam Lanza. It’s easy and convenient to assign blame to an individual. It's easy to just say, 'someone capable of unspeakable evil shot-up an elementary school. Someone sick and broken and only able to love himself such that he took his own life, stole the lives of others.' But, in fact, he did follow that commandment. He loved others as himself. Horribly so. Sadly, his damaged love did not uphold life but destroyed life. And with it the capacity for those young humans to fully create their own Love. But do any of us truly act alone? The debate is an old one, but certainly our culture and environment play a roll. 

The gun control and mental health debate is re-engaged. Perhaps this time, for real. Perhaps this time we will debate it motivated by love and compassion. But recent history leaves me concerned. The lack of love and compassion in the debates surrounding debt ceilings and fiscal cliffs are depressing. And since our elected officials are a reflection of the electorate, we seem to have replaced love and compassion with something else. It manifests in Congress, on talk shows, and in our social media. We have decided it is better to be right that happy. Fear and ignorance seem to motivate us to action more than love and compassion. So when Mr. Huckabee described the absence of God, he was right. And the farther we walk away from compassion for our fellow human being the farther from love and God we become. 

But we can change that. This morning at our church the undercurrent of sadness and grief was palpable and occasionally pushed through the surface. It also happened that today was a child dedication. In our church the new little people are brought forward to be named and blessed and welcomed. The counterpoint of new life and tragic death moved me to tears, both sad and empty tears, and happy and hopeful tears. 

With that, those happy and hopeful tears, I’d like to call us to stand up and say enough. Enough of a guiding philosophy whose highest moral purpose is to operate in our own cold self-interest at the expense of others. There is little accommodation for expansive love in such a philosophy, yet it drives much of what we do today in our culture, in our economy, in our politics. It’s time to make new choices. It’s not just mental health care and gun control policy that could use a massive infusion of compassion. It's time to design all our policies and programs around a philosophy of loving kindness rather than a hyper-individualism and distrust of help for others. I’m sure there is enough profit for all even as we set aside some to care for the least of us. 

The fear and hate and ignorance that have become our national debates on practically every issue need to end. It’s time to replace that fear and hate and ignorance with god.

By which, I mean, Love. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Y2K, Guns, God, and Love

Part I: Y2K and Guns
(See Part II here)


As a recovering IT professional, I have memories of the late 1990’s when everyone was panicking about Y2K. All these bad things were supposed to happen: planes falling from the sky and nuclear power plants going off line. You wouldn’t be able to get money from ATM machines so you better hoard cash and canned goods. The project I was working on, a fairly important health system, had some Y2K “bugs.” We knew about them, started working on them a year or so ahead of time, fixed them, and tested them. Then January 1st happened and, well, it all worked. Not just for our project, but for everyone. There were a few glitches here and there, but mostly it was a “non-event.“ And then the media started to get on the IT industry’s case about the fact that we were a bunch of “Chicken Littles.” Why were we panicking so much? Even today, when I casually mention Y2K to friends outside the IT industry many will shake their head about the whole “Y2K hoax.”

Except it wasn’t a hoax. And we (IT folks mostly) weren’t panicking. Not exactly. We were working hard. Very hard. And we were worried about getting done in time, certainly. But we were fixing the problem. And turns out, we did a pretty good job of analyzing the problem years before, saw it coming, planned for it, got the resources to fix it, and fixed it.  It actually worked!

And there are some lessons we can draw from that, for us here, on this empty day, as the facts of the truly horrific shootings in Connecticut trickle in. But before getting to those lessons, today, I am going to make a prediction: If we do nothing, I know with certainty this will happen again.  I am predicting another mass shooting just like the IT industry predicted Y2K.

But unlike Y2K, I don’t know when or where the next mass shooting will occur. It may happen later today or not until next year. That is part of the future that is regrettably unknowable. I’m not a criminologist or a sociologist or “expertologist.” But I am pretty smart, I know a little about human behavior and this country. I can look at the historical data and look our out policies and our ability to control evil acts and know, with certainty, in the United States, some day a bunch of innocent lives, and even young children, will be destroyed by a sad individual with a legally obtained assault weapon or semi-automatic hand gun.

With a random act, like what happened in Connecticut, it was just that, random. Well, perhaps random is an imprecise term. Rather, it was not predictable as to time and place. Y2K? We new exactly when and where it would happen.  It was precisely predictable.

Which finally leads me to my point – we don’t do so well with probability.  We really don’t know how to evaluate risks and properly assign actions to manage those risks. For big things like crime, and global warming, that fit in the realm of probability, we get so caught up in emotional biases and prejudices that we are actually unable to solve problems even after new data contradicts what we thought we knew. In fact we are often unable to prevent big problems at all. It is only after some predictable catastrophe actually occurs that we take action. Turns out, we are very reactive creatures (see also: 9/11, Katrina, the Housing Bubble, and 2012 Romney Campaign).

In 2004 we let the Assault Weapon Ban expire. At the time no one could say, “ya know, since the Columbine killings in 1999, mass killings have been kind a low, as low as the early 80s, but starting in 2004 we will see a pretty significant increase starting with a massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007, followed by a whole string a unfortunate killings culminating in 2012 and a frightening body count including a bunch of little kids in Connecticut. And mostly these were done with legally obtained semiautomatic assault weapons and handguns.” (See this Mother Jone's article about mass killings.)

I wonder what we would have done in 2004 if we knew what yesterday looked like back then. If we had the same kind of knowledge and awareness we had with he Y2K bug? But we didn’t know. Not exactly. But we did know something would happen. And it will continue. It just will.  So it is for us to decide: Is the protection of a human created right to own a gun as or more sacred than the innocent lives that will be sacrificed for the right? How much longer can we really hang on to an amendment that was written in the context of fearing European Monarchical Tyranny? Written by men who lived in an agrarian nation of under 3 million people, not an urban nation of over 310 million.  Written by men with no concept of mental illness like we have in 2012. Written when you had to load a gun from the barrel side by pouring in black powder, packing it with wadding, and then dropping a lead ball in.

I’m not interested in parsing the poorly written 2nd amendment and whether the right is an individual right or a collective right or if the “well regulated militia clause” is an independent clause or modifying clause to the “right of the individual” clause. Those are all bullshit intellectual exercises requiring the Chicago Manual of Style and an intimate relationship with the placement of commas. Compare that to the non-theoretical reality of our modern world: A world where most anyone can purchase a military style rifle and where individuals with mental illness wander about because of our inferior patchwork of health care.

So let’s make a choice and be honest with ourselves. It’s a simple one. We can choose, as a society, that we are comfortable with the loss of some innocent lives in mass killing events. We can choose that the loss of life that comes with gun ownership, like the gun ownership we have today, is sad, but a necessary part of a freedom that we believe is superior. For us to all be able to purchase military-style assault weapons and semi-automatic handguns is so important a right that we will allow anyone who wants to, to buy one.  Even though that means, well, each year, some of us will sacrifice our lives to perpetuate that right.

That is the choice we have made, so far, as a nation. And we can decide it again. And each time we choose not to change our gun laws, that is the choice we make.  It’s simple really.  But I hope we make a different choice. One that acknowledges the archaic nature of the 2nd amendment and its lack of relevance in 2012 America. I’m not interested in banning all guns. If you want to go hunt squirrels or shoot targets for sport, I’m fine with that. If you want a gun to protect yourself and keep it safely locked in you home. Okay, fine. But why do you really need a Sig Sauer .223-Caliber Semi-Automatic Rifle?

It’s time for a change. And you know what? We’ve gutted so much of the rest of the Bill of Rights, why we hang on so desperately to those archaic gun rights says something about who we are as a people.

And that is a good segue to part two of this essay for tomorrow where I’ll get into what Mike Huckabee said that we've “systematically removed God” from the public schools. And guess what? I agree! Surprised? Here is a hint: Read 1 John 4 (7-21) .


Thursday, November 1, 2012

Jersey Shore



We moved to Margate, New Jersey, from Illinois, when I was 4. I attended kindergarten in Margate and could walk the one block to school. On weekends, or after school, Mom or Dad, or both, would walk us the couple blocks the other way to the beach near where Lucy the Margate Elephant stood. We’d run in the waves and dig in the sand and dare each other to touch the occasional horseshoe crab washed ashore. My Dad taught at the college in Glassboro, and the commute was a bit much, so after a year we moved to Richwood, which I consider my childhood home. As I grew up, I remember deep sea fishing trips with my dad, friends, and their dads. I remember a trip to Cape May. I had heard you could find diamonds on the beach, but I didn't find any. In sixth grade, my dad took me to Long Beach State Park as part of a science project – one of Mr. Combs’ "contract" projects, for those of you from Harrison Township. And there was a long weekend with a friend and his parents in Barnegat. I remember one trip when a another friend’s dad took us down to Atlantic City. We were, what, 15, maybe 16, years old. An older Eastern European couple set up their blankets right in front of us and decided to change, as is their custom, into their bathing suits right in front of us! For us adolescent boys, it was a show I know I can never forget. And as we got older, once someone had a driver's license, came more road trips to AC and Ocean City and Wildwood trying to sneak beer on to the beach in coolers. After the Junior Prom, we went down to Ocean City for the day. We walked the boardwalk in a driving rain. My date, already having had enough of me, chose to walk in the rain rather than under my umbrella. I can't say I blame her.

I remember a particularly great summer between junior and senior year in high school at Monmouth College – nearly every afternoon we’d walk to the beach at Long Branch. I’d work on my pathetic pink, freckled tan and my equally pathetic flirting of girls in bikinis. Then came senior year and during college breaks the occasional trip to the casinos, trying to get in, the legal age now being 21. Most of my friends could get in but my baby-face, and peach fuzz for a beard, betrayed me. One day, during summer break in college, a friend convinced me to ride our bikes to the shore. On the way, he decided we should swing by a camp ground where a friend, a "female" friend, and her family were camping. I was a bit surprised by this detour, but he was the trip leader and I agreed. We surprised, happily I think, his friend, lingered for a brief time, then continued to Ocean City where other friends met us. We spent the night at my biking friend's cousin's house. That girl at the campsite? He wound up marrying her.

After that first year in Margate, my dad always wanted to be at the shore, and years later, my parents found a house in Brigantine. That house became the default destination during breaks and vacations. We could walk to the beach and to the ice cream store, and the fish store, and to Ernest's Meat Market to get jerk chicken subs on AC roles with gigantic barrel pickles. It was at that house that an old girlfriend and I realized we were not meant to be. And it was at that same house, a little later, that my late wife, Amy, then my girlfriend, met much of my family, cousins, and an Aunt. Later, married, and with kids, it became our family destination of choice during breaks and holidays. I sent Amy and our first son there for a week when I (nearly) remodeled our kitchen. We'd go for a week or so and the boys would get to know Grandma and Papa and play with their cousins and the uncles would show them how to body surf and the proper technique for building sand castles. I remember a windy Thanksgiving, a hot as hell Fourth of July, and our oldest's first dip in a too chilly Atlantic. It was a funky little house, not one of the big tear-downs you see, but it had a front porch perfect for sipping scotch, playing poker with brothers, and listening to waves off in the distance. They sold that house a few years ago. We children were bummed, of course, but we understood their rationale and the economics of that decision. Two summers ago, now with a new love in my life, we spent a wonderful weekend in Cape May at a B&B.  And this past summer my parents rented a house back in Brigantine and our whole family, now numbering 2 parents, 5 kids and partners/spouses, and 9 nieces and nephews, spent parts of July there. It was nice to be back. And it was at this most recent trip that I realized, really realized, that I would marry Lori.

I talked to my dad today and it sounds like their old house, the one that is not their house anymore, was likely spared, but much of the island, particularly the northern side, was not. I've found myself searching for new news and pictures but none of it is satisfying. Everything is sad and depressing. I've had the fortune over my 40-some years to visit a number of beaches on the east coast from Maine to Florida. Some beach areas are mostly for tourists. They are clustered with big houses on stilts and condos and hotels. Florida has plenty of these. The Outer Banks has a few hardy year-round souls but it's mostly rentals. And the Jersey Shore has its share of touristy spots but it has a lot of rgular houses. Where regular people live. Year-round residents who work at the casinos or the air force base or some other regular place. I feel especially sad for them. It's one thing to loose a vacation house. It's quite another to loose your home. I expect the shore will be rebuilt, much of it. But not all of it. Some is now lost forever and that makes me sad. I feel I should do something, but what?

A couple weeks ago we got an email from the B&B in Cape May where we stayed two summers ago. They are offering special off-season rates this winter. It's cold then, but I like the shore in the winter. It’s not crowded and it feels like I am in on a secret that only a few others and I know. I imagine walking along the beach and can see no one else and imagine what it was like to be the first human to stand on this beach. Cold wind tears my eyes and fills my. With an audible sigh it will be one of those moments when I know I am truly alive. I think I'll call the B&B tomorrow and see if they'll be open, maybe in January. Yes, we will be going back to the shore very soon.  Plus the ferry crossing from Lewes is always fun.

I never really knew it 'til now, but I love the Jersey Shore. I sure hope someone will answer their phone.

Friday, September 21, 2012

You have time for what you make time

This is part 3 of a 10-part series on a small book of sayings from Amy's grandparents: "Wise Words from Eleanor and Eugene Becker."


In my early 30’s I decided to take piano lessons. My piano teacher was a young guy, about my age. He was good. Really good. I once complimented him on his ability to sight read anything and to improvise on the spot. "I wish I could play like that," I remarked.

He then told this story:
“When I’m playing a wedding, or some event, and I’m just there playing whatever songs people want, someone usually comes up to me and says, ‘I’d give anything to be able to play the piano like you. ’Then I say, ‘Would you give 8 hours a day for the rest of your life?’”

Ouch.

Though it stung, I love that story. I love that story because of the way it puts into context something I struggle with all the time. Something so basic. I tell myself that family is most important. I tell myself I want to be a writer. I tell myself I should finish reading one of the half dozen books I have started.  I tell myself these things as I mindlessly scroll through pages of Facebook updates, clicking into an "intriguing" article on Huffington Post then to video postings of the Colbert Report that lead me to to someone’s Amazon review of a book, and then to a NY Times blog, and then to videos of sledding mishaps on YouTube. Before I know it I’m trapped inside some Internet pit looking for a rope.  In fact, one of you, reading this right now, may be similarly afflicted!

Wondering what Gene Becker would have made of all this, I asked Bonnie:

One effect of living by the maxim "you have time for what you make time" is that it forces us to be honest, particularly to ourselves.  Often when we say "I don't have time for ‘something’" the true feeling is "I don't want to do that ‘something’ but I don't have the courage to say so and thus will use lack of time as an excuse." Of course, always saying "I don't want to do ‘something’" sometimes sounds selfish, blunt, uncooperative, etc.  I prefer to think that when Gene Becker reminded us of this credo, he was trying to encourage internal honesty rather than rough relations with other people.   Perhaps we were supposed to say it to ourselves first, and then adjust the public pronouncement as necessary!

Hmm.  Internal honesty? Be honest with ourselves first? Sorry, Bonnie, I just don’t have time for that.

But to expand on her words and recollections of her father, I’d like to add, in addition to the lack of interest or desire, the power of fear in all this. If I commit the time to something and I fail at it or it breaks, what then? Not having enough time for something is a convenient way to avoid failing. Or at least avoid that fear.

I reported some months back a mini-awakening to how I spent time, or rather, avoiding spending time with my boys. I was there with them, but not really. Within this context I was avoiding them. Avoiding being a dad. Being a dad is hard work. Sipping scotch and surfing the internet? Not as hard. I like to think I am doing better, some days, but it is and I imagine, will be, a constant struggle. How much of that was avoiding being a parent because, well, it’s really hard some days? Or maybe it was because, as a newly made single parent, I was afraid of failing at it? Failing, as a father, is terrifying, yet avoiding it was leading to that failure I was avoiding.

Few things come to us humans instinctively. Unlike other animals we have to be taught and take the time to practice everything. When my boys were younger and one just beginning toilet training, I joked with a fellow parent that it is amazing that humans, as a species, have been so successful. “Because we have to be taught everything. Even the basics that all other animals know instinctively,” I said. “We don’t know how to sleep, eat, shit, or make love until someone teaches us. It’s a good thing we know how to breathe or we’d be dead.”

He replied, “Well, in eastern medicine they believe that many of our chronic ailments are related to how we breathe.”

Well, there it is. We even need to make time to breathe. That might be a good place to start. That, and piano lessons.

+++

For others in the series please see:
Wise Words from Eleanor and Eugene Becker.
Nothing is Ever Simple
A Littlelunchalong



Thursday, September 20, 2012

Fare thee well, digital shadow


Funny thing, our post-modern lives. All that is now attached to us: financial records, credit ratings, email, facebook, iTunes accounts, and the many databases containing our names. In the weeks after Amy died I scrambled to get some of these databases updated. Ones that are used by life insurance companies, the Social Security Administration, and the state Motor Vehicle Administration, to name a few.

Re-titling a car.  How emotional is that? Very, it turns out. There it was, a piece of paper with her name on it. Testimonial to her existence. Or her existence in an electronic file somewhere. And I had to exchange that piece of paper for another piece of paper that showed her name removed. I was now an active player in her administrative and electronic disappearance.

Yes. For real.
I still get mail with her name on it. Items addressed to her, or to both of us. A reminder that she is gone, but that she was here. That she was real and still remains a digital memory. Many years ago we joined the Sierra Club, separately, before we knew each other. After we moved in together and married we were getting two of everything from them. I called them and went through the machinations to get us consolidated into one account. One record in their mailing database. Thus today I receive email and magazines and petitions addressed to John Robinette and Amy Polk from the Sierra Club. I imagine someday I’ll call them up and tell them … Tell them what? Tell them Amy is dead? Please take off her name of our database record?

The electric bill, water bill, catalogs, still come in her name. Just the other day Amy received mail offering to refinance her mortgage. Hmmm.

And phone calls. Occasionally I get calls asking for Amy. Two and a half years later it’s certainly a solicitation; old-school spam. But now that we are in the high drama of an election cycle the frequency has ticked up. Amy was an active member of the electorate. She volunteered for the League of Women Voter’s as a polling monitor and donated to several causes.  I’m sure she is in more than a few of their databases. I try to be polite when they call but I’m mostly just curt when I ask them to remove Amy from their call list. Why? Well, because she’s been dead for over two years, I say. I can hear the wincing on the other end as I hang-up. But they must get this from time to time, so I don’t worry about it too much anymore. But I'm also aware that her name is removed from one more list.

Email. I still get email for her. Right after she died, to manage her affairs and deal with a few things, it was easiest to start with her email. Credit cards, a bank account, paypal. Simple things like the credit card she used to auto-fund the kids' school lunch account, and the credit card attached to our EZPass. That was a while ago. The accounts are long closed, the kids' school lunches are paid for by a different card. Bnd she was on a number of listservs. And there is always some spam. So still email to Amy comes. Or at least it did. I had no reason to keep her account. Well, there was a reason. Somehow getting Amy’s junk email kept her alive in some strange way. She was still known in a few corners of the digital world. She was still known to a few social and political causes she supported.  She was still eligible for large sums of money from West Africans who died with no heirs. I actually would read some of that spam. It offered a strange comfort. But that was a while ago and no longer did I read them and every so often I’d just delete them all.

A few months ago I went to the email provider's website to see how to delete her account.  All I could find was info on how to add an account, so I gave up.  Then the other day something got out of synch. I had to re-enter her password. Not a big deal but I thought again, maybe I should just delete her account.  I looked at the online help again and found no help so I sent an email to customer service asking “how to delete an email account.”

I received this:

Hello John,

Thank you for contacting RCN's Email Support Team.

I have deleted the email address for you. If you have any questions, please call us at 1-800-RING-RCN (746-4726). An agent will be glad to help you. Agents are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Thank you for being a valued RCN Customer.

Sincerely,
George

First, let me say that I really like RCN. Really. This prompt attention to a problem from their customer service was typically. But that was too prompt! Though I told them I wanted to delete the account I really only wanted to know how. So I could do it. Later. When I was ready. I wanted to take a baby step. Slowly pull the Band-Aid. But they ripped it off for me. And after the initial shock and sting, well, I saw that it was okay.

It’s a curious thing about when someone dies these days: how long it really takes. How much lingers in the digital world. A friend of mine told me there is saying that when we die, we die three deaths: Once when our body dies, once when we are lowered into the ground, and once when our name is last spoken. As the jagged edge of heavy grief is gradually replaced by subtler emotions I’m aware of all the ways I, and others, keep Amy alive. Pictures, a scholarship in her name at her alma mater, University of Michigan, stories we tell, honoring her birthday by letting go of balloons, and so on. But to think she also lives on in facebook, spam, catalogs for women’s clothes, and political donation solicitations is an odd thought. But this is how it is now with each of our post-modern, digital, social-media personae. When we are alive, it's a way for people to know we are, in fact, alive. Participating in this world and that we matter. And perhaps it's also an opportunity to remind others, after we die, that we were here in the first place. That we were here. Even if it is through a piece of third class bulk mail.

Regardless, for me, it's an opportunity to speak her name.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Spring Cleaning


I’ve been doing some Spring Cleaning. It started with my office, which had gotten out of control, then moved to culling clothes and clearing out the laundry room. Spring Cleaning feels good. The feeling of motivation that turns that inner voice from “I really need to,” to “I will.” Then the satisfaction of getting it done. I really love Spring Cleaning.

I imagine some of you are thinking to yourselves, “John, it’s September. It’s turning to Autumn, not Spring. At least not in the hemisphere you are in.”

And I guess you’d be right. But, what I say is true, for me at least. I’ve been doing my Spring Cleaning the past couple weeks. I can’t explain it, and it’s not that I don’t clean or cull in the actual Spring. But there is just something about Autumn. With Autumn comes the right feeling for spring cleaning.

I like Autumn. It is my favorite season. Autumn begins, this year, on September 22nd, but here, in the mid-Atlantic, it started last week. The skies were clear and blue, with a chill each morning when I woke up. I noticed the first suggestion of red on the top of a maple tree.

I like the holidays. I really do. And this year, I’m looking forward to them again. I confess, I do like to dress up on Halloween. And watching the boys with their sacks full of sugary loot is, I hate to say it, kind of cool. Christmas? Well, it is overdone and now signifies all that is wrong with our unsustainable consumerist culture. But I like the story of Christmas: New birth and new hope in the darkest part of the year. I like the songs, and the Grinch, and Charlie Brown, and the smell of a freshly cut pine tree in my house. And between Halloween and Christmas is my favorite: Thanksgiving. I like Thanksgiving the most. For me, still the purest of the holidays. It still means what its name is. Giving thanks, and the love expressed through the sharing of harvest with family and friends. And I like that it is always on a Thursday and we tend to also take off Friday. Our only nearly sanctioned 4-day break.

I like weather. I really like the way the weather changes. Summer’s heat and humidity start relaxing their grip while the faint smell of cooling air and drying leaves fill the air. And those first nervous and exciting days of school. How will it go? Will I like my teachers? Will that girl I flirted with last Spring, that last week of the semester, be in any of my classes this semester? The excitement of football games and parties. And the initial motivation that I’m going to do really well this semester. For real! I’m going to really study and buckle down, not like in the Spring. And I like the new feeling that accompanies all this. An uneasy confidence. Optimism. Starting over.

Strangely this Autumn-feeling ought to belong to Spring, shouldn’t it? That feeling of renewal and newness. Shouldn’t Autumn be a time for finishing, for preparing for that harvest, for shutting down for the cold and dark of winter? But it doesn’t work that way.  Not for me, at least. I imagine it is something socialized over the years with how we’ve set up our school calendar. A calendar, by design, to allow for the needs of the land and the farm to operate by its seasons.

Perhaps had I lived on a farm, and now lived in real connection with Earth would my emotional seasons match better her real seasons. But modern society with school and work through the colder months, and vacation in the summer, has reversed this.  I’m not saying this is wrong or bad; it’s just an observation. But for those of us in the developed world the need to align the academic calendar opposite the agricultural calendar is no longer so relevant.  We could shift all this if we wanted to. I wonder what that would be like? I wonder what life would be like the other way around: Working and learning though the warm and bright part of the year and sleeping and relaxing in the cold and dark part of the year. How would that change things? For sure some wouldn’t like it, like those relying on beach tourism to survive. But I wonder what it would be like to live in closer synchrony with Mother Nature? What it would feel like to approach Spring with the feeling of newness and excitement like I do now with Autumn? I wonder what Spring Cleaning feels like in the Spring?

Friday, August 17, 2012

All Ahead Full


“Tell me more about these feelings you are having.”
“Well, I can’t quite find the words. It’s scary, you know? Just even giving it any attention.”
“Try to find the words.”

“It’s complicated, you know? I still love my wife. And I still feel her love for me. I mean, I still feel her love. How can I even think of it? What does that say about me? About what we had? We had something really great. Really great. And now she is gone and I can never get that back. But even so, there's this, well, I, would, um, I dunno. You know?”
“Go on.”
“You know. I, I, just want . . .”
“Yes. What is it you want?”
“I just want a, you know, um, well, a companion. Sort of. A friend. A woman. A woman friend. A, well, someone to be with.”
“You want a woman to be with.”
“Well, yes, I guess.”
“Is that hard to say?”
"No. Yes. Ah, no. Shit . . . Well, I don’t know. It’s confusing. I mean, look at me. I’m 44 years old. Widowed. A single dad and looking for a date. What is that all about? How do I even do that? And anyone I find they are going to be, you know, widowed or divorced or whatever. And they’ll have baggage and I’ll have to deal with all their shit and their kids and I’m just too old and I barely even have the time to take a crap and I’m thinking of wanting, of having a woman friend? Woman friend. What is that? Woman friend. What does that mean? But what’s my choice? Girlfriend? I don’t even like that word. Girlfriend. I’m not 19. I’m forty-fucking-four years old! This is NOT how it was supposed to go. I’ll do what – go to a bar? Online? And find what? Someone with all sorts of baggage . . .”

“John,” she said unusually abruptly, cutting me off as she tilted her head to the side, “Baggage? Don’t you think perhaps you have a little baggage, and I hate that word, too?”

There are some days when I wonder why I pay my shrink what I do. Then there are days like this one. Like the day about two years ago where she verbally smacked me in the side of the head and I wonder why I don’t just go ahead and sign over my paycheck.

“Yeah, I guess maybe I have a little baggage, or whatever you call it.”
“Yeah, I guess maybe you do. But let’s just say, instead, that your life has become, well, complicated. And a lot of people have complicated lives, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t also find happiness. They can, and many do. And so can you. But I’d like us to go back to what you were saying earlier. About what it is you want for yourself.”

And that’s when I started pulling the threads together. I was tired. I was lonely. I was sad. I just wanted someone to hang out with. A reliable date of sorts. Nothing serious, but someone I could call up and say, “hey, what are you doing Friday? Wanna come over and do take out and watch a movie with me and the boys?” How hard would that be to find? And besides, it was September or October and the holidays were already starting to loom just over the edge of the horizon.

“The holidays are the worst. The absolute WORST!” someone told me. “What are your plans for the holidays?” And another: “Have a plan. You DO have a plan, don’t you?”

Holidays? I had never given it much thought. The holidays were always kind of fun and just sort of worked out. Thanksgiving was my favorite. I like Christmas songs. The shopping? Feh, not so much, but I like the songs and Charlie Brown and the Grinch and lights on the tree and cookies. It’s good. All good. But now I was seeing the coming storm of enduring the “holiday season” without my life mate. I swallowed hard and thought how I would make it through? And maybe it would be nice to have a companion. Someone to go to a holiday party with. Someone to come over and have dinner with. Someone to talk to. Someone to flirt with. Someone to hold and, who knows, be intimate with. But someone to get me through the holidays and someone I could say goodbye to afterwards so I could get on with my life.

And that was it: A dependable Friday date and someone to keep me company through the holidays. Simple. That was my plan and that is what I shared with my shrink.

“I see,” she said, nodding as she scratched her chin and jotted a couple notes down on her pad. At the time I was sure she was writing down how thoughtful I was. How well I was adjusting to my new life. I’m sure of it!

Really!

Well, a funny thing happened. Not funny, “ha ha,“ but the other “funny.” It was the end of October and I met someone. Someone online, of all places. We exchanged emails. Went on a date. And she was beautiful and funny and we laughed. Then there was another date and another. Exchanged more emails and called each other on the phone after my boys were asleep and talked for hours. Then another date. And I got to know her better. This single women, my age, and no kids, runs her own business, and is not even that crazy. Wonderful, in fact. Then she met my boys. And they started to like her too. And then more dates, and then she met my Mother-in-Law. That is, my late wife’s mom. And they hit it off! For real! And she fell in love with me and I fell in love with her and time started moving again. Time’s flapping sails filled full with wind and pushed us forward across this ocean to some shore we can’t yet see. And on we went, night and day, then weeks turned into months and still we sailed.

And then one day a couple weeks ago, we sat there on the back porch and the days that had turned to weeks and months came to rest and paused for just a moment as we looked at each other, balancing on this present moment, atop a complicated past and unknowable future and decided to commit to the rest of if, together. Neither one of us expected to be here, not now, and not with each other. But the fates conspired otherwise. And you know what? I like the adventure. And I’m pretty sure she does too. It’s a little scary, but no good journey isn’t. And so we’ve committed to see it through. Made a promise to each other. A promise from each to the other to make a promise to spend what is left of our lives together, sailing these seas.

Engaged.

Calls and visits to parents and in-laws and to various elements of my complicated life followed. Then lively and loving conversations of life and love to two boys who are quickly becoming men. A ring! We need the ring, then on to alert more more friends and family.

And, dear reader, that is where the story is, for now, as we sail to that unseen shore, its next chapters yet to be written.

Wish us well.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Time to Scatter Stones

The first part: Goodbye again

You are gone, yet not, and I hold on. How can I let you go? Time and space contort as I reach through the veil to caress your cheek. My arm drops down your side and I take your hand in mine and, for a moment, you squeeze back. Then I look down and am holding only whisper.

A lover says goodbye many times.

The second part: A prayer

My Dear Beloved,

During our earthly communion we briefly wandered a path. But along the way you were called to return to the Infinity. I now stand at a place where we once wandered. I hold this place in my heart in remembrance of a shared dream of a life together; a dream from which we awoke suddenly. And today, at this appointed time, I declare this place sacred.

I take holy waters from this lake to purify my mind that it may be clear and quiet; an empty vessel for wisdom that will never be full.

I take holy waters from this lake to purify my body that it may be strong and firm yet gentle and yielding.

I take holy waters to purify my soul that I may be willing as the Infinite leads it towards the unknowable truth.

I do this to prepare myself to return you to the waters, the winds, and the earth.

Oh Infinite and Unknowable,
I now command to You ashes from my beloved Amy whose life-force You so swiftly reclaimed to rejoin. I do this to honor Amy and her memory of this place of still waters and rolling hills, peaceful meadows and quiet woods. I do this to honor Amy and her memory of a time we held together and our memory of a time that never came. That she is in union with You in spirit and now in union with You in body, I ask of You, for her, eternal peace.

Amen.

The third part: You become the lake

You become the lake and in time the fish and the yellow lilies that break through the water’s surface to embrace the sun. I gaze into the still waters at twilight and see your smile and a tear in your eye. How was it we became this? A gentle breeze answers in the trees.

Stillness.

Sparrows flitter home, branch-by-branch, chirping to each other about their day. A lonely frog calls out to an unknown lover.

Stillness.

In the fading light the lily pads arrange themselves in geometric patterns like magic carpets floating on mercury. I see you resting on one. We embrace, I join you, and we make love one last time.

Silence.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Deciding to Spread Out


For me, some decisions take a while. I hold them up to the light, turn them around, set them back down. Then pick them back up, shake them, sniff them, lick them.  Some decisions take no thought at all.  Snap. It is so. Then there are others that, well, are some of both.

What to do with Amy’s remains? Her ashes. This is one of those deep breath, audible sigh kind of decisions. Heavy. The heaviness required me to set it down for a long time.  About two years in fact. And then, earlier this week, as I was packing for a weekend workshop at a retreat center in upstate New York, it all hit me all at once:
1. We were to attend a couples retreat at that same place two years ago this week.
2. It was four years ago (Four? Only four? Really?) we attended a weekend retreat about this same time of the year.
3. It was a most meaningful place where we were together and that she never got to return to. I get to return by myself. 
4. I’m taking her along.

The time it takes you to read those four thoughts above is infinitely longer than the actual time they took sparking through my synapses. It was one of those moments. After a couple years of not knowing, not even pondering lately, really. All of a sudden I knew. Clarity.

Then the heaviness returned. I started to think. Thinking. Thinking it through. And this started the internal conversation:

I can’t take all her ashes, just some. It’s too important to my boys, and her mom and others to have her near. And there may be other places they'd want her to be. I have no time to really talk this through with them. I just have to do it. It feels right, doesn’t it? Don’t get all wussy now, you have GOT to do this and you know it. But what about the logistics? I have to open up the box she is in, unwrap the plastic bag that they put her in and remove some of her. What if I drop the bag, or spill some? How do I clean it up? No way I’m vacuuming. What if I get some on me? Maybe that would be good, actually. What do I put her in, I mean, I’m not taking all of her, am I? I need to put her in some other container. I wonder what part of Amy will be in there? Just shut up, would you? Now you’re getting weird. Just take the whole box and a plastic container from the kitchen. You don’t have time to deal with this now while you are packing but you’ll figure it out when you get there. Sigh. Yeah, yeah. Okay. Just shut the fuck up.


And that’s what I did. I brought the whole box with me and last night, on my bed, in a single dorm room at this retreat center, I carefully and reverently scooped out about ¼ cup of Amy’s remains in to a plastic container. After breakfast I walked, in a steady rain, to the edge of a pond we had canoed on five years ago, said a prayer, and tossed her ashes onto the water. I cried, a little, but it felt right. And now I see how important it is to have a place I can think of, besides a shelf in our living room, where she is. Free to float and melt back into the waters. To rejoin the fish and the frogs and the lily pads. Which is how I think of it. A returning. Rejoining The Essential. The Interconnected. Someday we’ll all return to there.

Which is better than a box.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Ennui Cafe is Closed

It was a lovely evening and I was out for a stroll. On the Internet. I forget what I was originally looking for but as often happens something caught my eye. I took a turn down a back alley, which led to a marketplace. And that is when I discovered The Ennui Café is closed.

Screen capture from yelp.com June 11, 2012
Imagine my surprise! Well, I wasn’t really that surprised. In fact, the more I thought of it, the less I even cared. I had never been to this café and yet here it was, no more.

Whatever.

Ennui.

I’ve been experiencing it lately. In larger and larger doses. It’s been gradually moving in over the past six months or so. On the surface it’s easy to explain. It’s been just over two years since Amy died. Year 1 was about standing back up and dusting myself off. Year 2 was about recreating our nest including a non-trivial home remodeling project, having Lori move in, and (re) kick-starting family counseling. And now here we are in Year 3, which is about, well, about just living. Or maybe something else. Who knows.

And I’m 45. Widowed or not, I’m due for my mid-life crises. But I have no interest. Plus an affair or a convertible just seems like too much effort or expense. Besides its just too cliché.

My shrink says I’m holding in my anger.  Well, she doesn’t exactly say that, but leads me to it. Or at least doesn’t stop me when I suggest it. Regardless, the past several weeks, at least, we seem to come back to some discussion of emotional flatness and a deep, buried rage. My acupuncturist agrees, of sorts. Apparently I have an abundance of yin. Or my yin is over-compensating. Yin is cold and damp. Yang is hot and dry. Anger, and with it passion and enthusiasm, are yang-ish. Perhaps to protect myself I have developed an excess yin to keep cool and protect myself (and others?) from whatever hot yang stuff, like anger and rage, lurks.  But with the anger and rage, enthusiasm and passion are doused. Suppressed emotions or over-active yin, I just can't get too excited about it.

The Chinese developed this understanding over many, many years. The French did us the favor of simplifying our understanding of this common malady with a single, perfect word: ennui.

I really like the word. Ennui. I like the way it sounds. An-we. I like saying it with a slightly nasally, snobby, French accent: Ahn-wee. And I love the fact that it was the French that created the word. Who else? And I especially love that The Ennui Café is closed. But of course it is!

Screen capture from Dictionary.com June 11, 2012
And so from that marketplace on the Internet with its closed Ennui Café, I sighed, turned back and wandered a bit more until I stumbled across this wonderful advertisement è

What ever concerns lingered from The Ennui Café’s closure disappeared. There are, it turns out, plenty of Ennuis and at Great Prices too!

Of course! American capitalism will solve the existential problem of the The Ennui Café's closure. We'll just buy more!

Whatever.