Monday, December 19, 2016

Be Careful What You Wish For

When my sister-in-law called to tell me my big brother had died, I was--well, surprised isn't a strong enough word. Thunderstruck, maybe. He was 68, but as far as I knew, he had no health problems other than arthritis, which was sometimes pretty bad but manageable. She didn't offer a cause of death and I felt like I couldn't ask. She'd just lost her husband of nearly five decades, and she had a lot more calls she wanted to make herself.

A few weeks after he died, I learned the sad and ugly details. Through careful planning and some good luck, my brother had been able to retire quite young, about fifteen years earlier than most. He and his wife had the financial security and the time to renovate their home, to travel, to exercise regularly, to seek live entertainment, and they did.

My brother, an engineer with a PhD and extensive management experience, volunteered at the California Railroad Museum, the Computer History Museum, and the Society of Industrial Archaeology. He treated them like jobs until they either phased him out or he burned out, losing his original enthusiasm. Sometimes he grew bitter at the direction in which the enterprise was going and thought he'd have run it better. Maybe he was right, maybe not.

He had little sense of purpose and knew he was depressed but refused to tell his doctor. No mental health professional need apply, either. He self-medicated with alcohol, usually an unassuming California wine from a winery he'd visited. On the infrequent occasions my sister or I spent time with him, it was usually brief and over a restaurant meal, where all of us enjoyed our wine. He'd get a little tipsy, but so did I, and since neither of us was driving, where's the harm in a little family celebration? It was so good to see him.

His arthritis worsened and he couldn't take the prescription-level pain medication and drink, too. He opted for the physical pain and being able to drink for the depression. His alcohol purchases were now by the case and with increasing frequency. He developed peripheral neuropathy, possibly due to alcohol abuse, which had two negative consequences, a loss of balance making even the mildest exercise unsafe, and memory loss issues. He was aware of both and the latter infuriated and further depressed him.

That meant heavier drinking. Still, he was able to stop drinking through an in-hospital rehabilitation program in order to be healthy enough for surgery to remove a kidney tumor. The operation was a success. Post-op treatment was a course of drugs that did not mix with alcohol, so he was sober for about three months. As soon as the doctor said he could safely stop the medication, he returned to drinking.

There was another crisis, a fall at home, another hospitalization and rehab, this time revealing a seriously inflamed liver. He entered an outpatient dependency recovery program, but on the trip home from his third session, he bought a case of wine. He did not return.

I can only imagine the pleas, the arguments, the utter frustration of his wife, his adult daughter and her husband, all to no avail. What they said and how he reacted are none of my business, but it had to be maddening that this smart guy would choose alcohol, which made him less unhappy, over treatment for depression and people he loved and who loved him.

My guess is that like a lot of men of my generation, needing help was a sign of weakness, of not being man enough. It's the thinking behind many men's refusal to see the doctor for obvious symptoms, and it's worse for mental health issues. Manly men suck it up, tough it out, play through the pain.

It worsened the loss for me to understand he'd deliberately chosen to hide all this from me and my sister, pretending during phone calls that he was happy, busy, and everything was fine. Only his immediate and local family knew how deeply he'd entered the downward spiral.

In a fairly short period of time, his wife explained, he was sleeping way too much and drinking while awake, often watching TV without changing the channel, or just staring off into space. When his wife noticed jaundice and edema, she called 911. The hospital treated his acute alcoholic hepatitis in multiple ways, with no improvement. He went from there to the hospice, where he died.

So is there a lesson here, besides "Don't drink too much"? Yup. Whether we admit it to ourselves or don't, all of us need to feel valuable or needed. For some people, a loving relationship or a circle of friends is sufficient. Others invest themselves in a hobby or interest which keeps them busy, happy, and often benefits someone else. But for my brother and those like him, it's the challenges we face at work, no matter what we do for a living, that give us purpose, and to a degree the paycheck that proves we are valuable, even if we don't need the money.

When my brother retired early, to the envy of family and colleagues, he effectively cut himself off from the feeling of accomplishment that comes with working for a living, the camaraderie and sometimes admiration of colleagues who came together to meet the goal, the knowledge that he was an integral part of a process. His sense of self-worth took a hard hit, and whatever level of depression he might have suffered as an adult increased to a level which was no longer manageable without help.

Like too many men (and not a few women) his age, he refused to seek treatment until his problems were so serious health professionals recognized he was well along the path that led to his death. Like every addict, he wanted what made the depression better more than he wanted anything else, including the love and respect of his family, his health, or a future in which his young grandchildren would even remember their grandpa.

There's the lesson. You may not like working, but be careful what you wish for.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Death Comes to the Archbishop--and Everybody Else

My brother died this week.

We weren't terribly close, as children or adults. We saw one another infrequently and phoned irregularly, although when we were together we had a lot in common. I didn't just love him; I also liked him.

While it's sad in and of itself, my sorrow is compounded by the realization that the people I care about who are near my age do not still have plenty of time left. Our earnest efforts to eat healthy, take our medications as ordered, get some exercise, keep our minds active, the endless denial of our slothful candy-crunching, steak-chewing urges doesn't stave off death for long.

I suppose in a way my brother was luckier than most. He was born to a white couple who valued education. They were able to live where it was safe, where the schools were good, where everyone seemed to have everything they needed and much of what they wanted.

Because he was both driven and smart as well as lucky, my brother was able to get a good education, marry a fine woman much like himself, have a series of good jobs that paid well, buy a nice home in Silicon Valley before it got so crazy-expensive, have a child, pay for her education, see her enter the Peace Corps, meet a good man, marry, and have children of her own.

This is so very much more than many people get, yet it seems unfair. He was 68. He took care of himself. And he's gone.

All of us accept on some level that we'll lose our parents. They're old. Then one day, you lose a brother. You realize that it could have been your long-time friend. Your sister. Your spouse. Yourself.

And with the new understanding of how great loss can be, you realize how deeply each of those losses will slice. Your tears aren't just for the brother who's gone, the sister-in-law who is alone now, the daughter who's lost her dad, the grandchildren who won't even remember Grandpa, but for your own connections who will one day feel this way when you yourself are gone. This is going to isolate my husband, devastate my daughters...

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Celebrities, Politics, and Fat Shaming

I went on my first diet in sixth grade, using the Seventeen magazine's diet book, where I dutifully recorded my height, weight, measurements, and everything I ate for a period of literally days. I was not especially fat, I realized many years later; I had physically matured into a classic hourglass shape. Tipping the scales at 121 pounds was just fine.

It didn't seem fine at the time, not when the popular girls were slender waifs fretting over how fat they were at 102.

That was long ago, of course, but I have battled my notion of being Fatty McFatpants ever since. There have been periods when the adult me was nearly as slender as the sixth-grader, and there have been times of pregnancy and personal crisis when I approached twice that size. Most of my life, when I lose weight has been the carrot on the end of a rigged stick. I'm overweight but healthy, reasonably active, and if I don't care for the way I look in a bathing suit, show me anybody my age who does.

So I was surprised at the sting of a recent Twitter comment I saw from a celebrity of my vintage. I'd been a low-key fangirl since he was 21, playing teenagers on TV, and I was a college sophomore of 18 with a good eye for pretty boy-men. (Since I prefer not to direct any backlash at him, I'll just call him Alan, which isn't his name.)

Ordinarily I like Alan's tweets. He's politically aligned with my opinions, doesn't self-promote all that much, and has a lot of flashback tweets to his career. I imagine I might like Alan if he was just a guy rather than a celebrity.

Or not, since Alan noted that it was not possible to vote for anyone who wasn't a fat head--and body, too.

Oh, Alan! Are you so stupid and shallow to think appearance matters? I mean, you and I were both kids when Kennedy was elected, but I already knew the mother of a friend who voted for him because he was handsome was an idiot. You don't elect people to lead your nation because they meet Hollywood's standards.

And are you so mean-spirited that you think it's okay to mock people for their weight? I know in your line of work, that's the kiss of death to a career, whether you're Val Kilmer or Marlon Brando. But politics has nothing to do with looks and everything to do with mind and character. And I'm sorry to see that yours isn't up to my standards.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Two Families

We went to an air show, and while I enjoyed it, the people-watching very nearly eclipsed the Blue Angels. (Sorry, guys.)

In front of us was an extended family group, two parents, two small children, and two grandparents. They spoke Spanish, so I understood only a word here and there. But one didn't need to comprehend to see how they worked as a unit to make the experience good for everyone, including little children. They'd brought water and hats, snacks, chairs and a blanket spread out to play on, and toys from home including planes. They purchased souvenir toys (although why an inflatable hammer larger than the child is sold at an air show, I can't guess) and snacks the group shared. Most of all, the children had frequent adult attention keeping them happy and engaged while some of the adults went off and did their own thing, like checking out the helicopter or viewing the show from a different vantage point. The little ones played until the planes were about to fly by, then one of the four adults directed their focus to the reason they were there. The whole family seemed to enjoy the air show, and the pride in Dad and Grandpa was a pleasure to see; it was obvious they'd served.

To the left was another extended family group of two parents, five children under six, and two grandparents. While the men strolled off, bought beer, and made the experience good for themselves, no one did the same for the children listless in the heat. There were not enough chairs for everyone to sit, and when the baby slept in her carrier and a sibling dared to sit in the stroller, there was scolding and threatened swats. The family may have eaten before we arrived, but there were no snacks and no water for the kids, although the adults had beer. No one had brought toys or pastimes; the older children kept busy playing in the dirt with a bottle cap and a stick which had missed the nearby trash can. No one attempted to engage them in the air show or anything else. The boy was threatened with physical violence twice, and it was obvious that he recognized the risk of a beating as genuine.

At one point, Grandma mentioned she was 36, which suggests two generations of women having a child at 15. I'm sure that's not easy, but I didn't see anything suggesting the parents or grandparents were doing everything they could to make these children feel valued or happy to see the planes. The kids were young, but the older three had good mastery of being half-invisible, shoulders hunched, heads bowed.

We were not perfect parents--who is?--but I wanted to grab those adults and force upon them a crash course in parenting. I can't get the hopeless eyes of those kids out of my thoughts. It's way too easy to imagine all four girls seeking attention and approval from others any way they can get it, thereby repeating the cycle of early parenthood, while their abused brother eases his misery with drugs or alcohol. I'd really like to be wrong on that, but I don't think I am.

And what does this have to do with writing? I'm getting there. The bottom line is that good writing isn't going to do itself, any more than those neglected kids are going to raise themselves to be fine adults. Like those parents to my left, the writer faces many, many days when other things are more important, when writing is too damned hard, when you want to have some fun for once like everybody else, when it seems pointless to try, when you're so exhausted or despondent the energy to do your very best just isn't there.

The result won't be as tragic as those kids' futures, but the point is, you have to try, hard and consistently, to have a genuine shot at success. Be the family in front of me at the air show.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A Wig and a Shoe

Ah, Buffalo, the butt of dying-city and blue collar jokes! While it does have its problems, much of it isn't a bad place to spend an afternoon. Passing through or going there as a destination, I've enjoyed Buffalo's zoo, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Erie County Botanical Gardens, and sports and rock concerts at the First Niagara Center and Shea's Theater.

So I didn't hesitate to visit the Convention Center recently. The immediate area was parked up, although I couldn't say if it was because of the event we were attending or just the usual parking of people working in the area. We had to walk a half dozen blocks through a neighborhood short of seedy but not especially appealing. It was broad daylight, with nothing to fear.

But the night before, it had been cold and dark and someone had plenty to fear: in the gutter I saw a dark wig with long curls and a high-heeled shoe with its size visible inside the heel, a 12.

There's a story in that debris, and I fear I know what it is. Who wears a wig and a mighty large shoe? Trans women. I watched the news for reports of an assault, but there was nothing. That saddened me further. If a trans woman was walking along minding her own business and was assaulted, or a trans prostitute attacked by either her competition or a (potential) customer, wouldn't that have been on the news?

No. The trans community in Buffalo may have learned the ugly truth of so many cities: trans women need not apply for equal protection under the law. Especially trans women of color.

It made me sad, not just for the person it happened to, but for all the women who are attacked and feel there's nothing to be gained by calling the police.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Yet Another First

In a long life with most of my firsts behind me, it's both refreshing and disconcerting to chalk up another one--someone has blocked me on Twitter.

It would be petty to name names, and I won't. I certainly understand people have bad days, or bad things going on in their lives about which I know nothing, which make them irritable. But my crime seemed worthy of a scowl at most, or a shot across my figurative bow, something like "Not appreciated."

Someone complained about a health problem which is most annoying to endure. I'm not a medical professional, but I know this problem is common and temporary. I’ve had it myself. You probably have, too. I'd liken its seriousness to that of pink eye or a sprained wrist--inconvenient, uncomfortable, maybe worthy of medical attention, yet not a major concern. It passes in less than a week.

The tweet with the complaint ended with the person not wanting unsolicited medical advice. Good call. Who wants medical advice from strangers online, anyway? I replied, "My unsolicited advice is to smile at yourself in the mirror and be glad this is your biggest physical malady. There, better!"


Okay, not my problem. I don't rely on this person's tweets for anything I need to know. But I'm somewhat bothered s/he's been selfless there, which is how I came to follow them, and is now so self-involved s/he must block those who remind them to see the positives.

Life's nasty. There will come times when this person feels so unwell s/he cannot function, has a disturbing symptom pointing to a dire illness, or has received a dreaded diagnosis which makes today's health complaint seem the merest shadow when compared. I can only hope s/he can smile in the mirror then and be grateful to be alive.

My master plan is to be aware there's still life in me, that I can stand before a mirror, that I can see, that I can smile, that I have a mirror. 

There, better!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Back Road Boogie

My husband and I have been taking some short trips--an overnight, a two-day, like that. Even though it's brief, we feel as if we've been away, and that's what we're after.

We already knew that highway hypnosis, becoming drowsy after driving a while no matter how much sleep you got the night before, is worse with every passing year. We laugh that it now begins within an hour of our departure, which is funny only because it's true.

After a half hour of increasingly large yawns, my husband the driver revitalizes himself by pulling over to some quiet and shaded spot, sleeping for fifteen or twenty minutes, then driving onward. We favor parks and college campuses, but too often settle for rest stops where it's hot--or freezing--and noisy, our sleep fitful.

Recently we agree getting off the limited access highway and taking routes which pass through towns and farm fields may take longer but is much less tiresome. Would we rather be in the car five hours, yawning for four of them, talking silly nonsense or blasting music to stay wakeful enough to drive, or slowing down for towns and trucks loaded with hay and logs you can smell? Would we rather risk being detoured for a small town's bicycle race (as we were one weekend), discuss the architecture, poverty, charm, or farm crops we pass, or drive the same highway a the same speed until our minds are gone?

The interstate highway system remains the best way to travel by car when time is of the essence, but you miss the heart of the country.