Sunday, February 24, 2019

Friends and family

I used to think it was only me feeling alone
Not feeling free to be alive, to be a friend
Now I know we all have stormy weather.

It's a gray day here in North Carolina, but no complaints on that score, we haven't had any of the harsh winter storms that some of the rest of the country has faced.

The rain garden behind our house is full of water. It's not supposed to be full. It's meant to drain in a matter of hours after a hard rain. It does drain, but it can take a few days, and in the meantime, we have had a pair of Mallard ducks adopt it. Technically we're not sure if it's the same two ducks each time the pond fills, but it's not impossible, so we've named them. George and Gracie.

I like seeing them, I often check for them, and I'm disappointed when they depart.

Theoretically, the developer is going to address the drainage issue at some point, since the pond is one that failed inspection. In the meantime, the ducks compensate.

Neil is away until next week, visiting his dad and his mom in New Jersey. Last year, it took me a while to adjust to his time away, either visiting family or playing in softball tournaments, but eventually I figured out how to manage it, and even enjoy it.

The day he leaves is always the worst somehow. I suppose by the second day, the countdown clock to his return is well under way. This time I had some waves of anxiety on the first night. I did OK until it got dark. I had dinner and looked for something to distract me on TV. I started the Netflix show, An Innocent Man, a documentary of John Grisham's only non-fiction work, about a pair of murders in Oklahoma in the early 1980s.

The first episode was graphic and disturbing and not at all something to make me feel better, especially since I am watching a French crime drama, The Disappearance, as my treadmill series of the moment. Strangely, I almost decided to binge re-watch the first season of The Missing while Neil is away. I find it is better to re-watch something I know with engross me while Neil is away, something I doubt he'd like, rather than roll the dice on something new that might or might not draw me in.

After the first episode of the Grisham series, I decided to defer a decision on continuing to watch it, and go for something lighter. I chose an episode of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. I'd already watched a few episodes but found the show a bit boring and repetitive, so I had put it aside. And wouldn't you know, the next episode up was about a grieving widow who was dealing with all of her late husband's possessions, in the house they'd shared for 30 years. Another not-cheerful choice.

After that I spoke with my daughter on the phone. She has some of the same trouble as I do with having close friendships. She has a large social circle and a busy social life, on top of raising a child and working a full-time job. She's now planning her second wedding, the first for her fiance, who may be the one man on the planet who really wants a traditional wedding, and she's struggling with who to ask to be bridesmaids.

For her first wedding she had her college roommate and her sister, and Jason, her ex, had two friends. Now Chris has several friends who he wants to stand up with him, so Kandace must ask an equal number to complete the wedding party. I am sympathetic. I think one reason I never wanted that sort of wedding is that I wouldn't have known who to ask to be my bridesmaids. Luckily, my first husband was happy to keep it simple. We got married in New York, we each had a few friends attend, along with Jon's sister, some of my cousins, aunts and uncles, and some close friends of my parents, who I'd known all my life.

Neil and I eloped, partly because it would have been impossibly expensive and complicated to gather even our immediate families - our parents, siblings, children, nieces and nephews in once place, particularly since his mother won't travel and my parents were getting quite frail by then. The other germane reason is that I just don't like being the center of attention in that way. I have never had the desire to star in my own directorial debut.

I have never been a bridesmaid.

I think that is sad. But I also think, I'm over it. You can have a perfectly good life without being a bridesmaid.

Kandace has never been a bridesmaid either. She's still young, and it might still happen. And I'm not sure she has the same wisdom of years to be over it. I'm not saying it's a pervasive thorn in her side. I never gave it that much thought myself. It isn't something that I’ve ever grieved about, and believe me, I've grieved about some silly things.

I'm sure there are women who remain lifelong friends with all of their bridesmaids. And I'm sure some lost touch, or fall out, or grow in different directions.

Still, it troubles me a little that Kandace has my pattern of keeping friends at a certain distance, or frankly, not knowing how to bridge that distance, how to get close and stay close to friends.

I'm just happy to go walking with a woman I met in my knitting class, as I did this past week. I'm happy to go to lunch with the ladies in my ceramics class, as is our tradition on the last day of each session. And I'm happy to text with Robin, the lady in my community who likes arts and crafts and beads and yarn, and to get together once in a while. I'd still love have a best friend.

I also felt a little badly that I don't live closer to Kandace, close enough to have mother-daughter outings, to be real-life friends with my daughter. I did a lot of activities with my kids when they were young and I loved that. I've never had that since they grew up and left for college. Chelsea still lives in her college town, Austin, Kandace graduated and got engaged, and moved to Dallas, 300 miles from home, because her fiance had grown up there and had family and a job lined up there. And by the time they split up. almost six years later, she had a job and a house a support system of friends there, not to mention the desire for her son to have a relationship with his father.

If I ever wind up alone, the logical thing for me would be to move close to my daughter and my grandson. Hopefully I won't have to make that decision, hopefully I won't be left alone to tidy up Neil's things. I'd much rather leave him to tidy up mine.

In a way, those little panic waves I had were a good reminder of just how debilitating a neurotransmitter imbalance can be. It's astonishing how much I forget how it can feel and discount how other people might feel in the throes of clinical depression. You'd think someone who had been there would have compassion, but I seem to lack empathy, in particular with regard to Neil's nephew and the situation he is in.

Neil's sister has a hard row to hoe. It's a long story, all about a psychotic ex-spouse and years of bad decision-making that has left her, in her mid fifties, a truly single mother, with barely a bean to her name. Ellen works two jobs, one at a makeup counter at Macy's on Herald Square, the other as a teacher's aid, a low-paid position without benefits. For a very long time her three children showed lots of promise. They were nice kids who excelled academically, at least until they reached college age, when the wheels started falling off.

The eldest, despite a slew of AP credits, fell behind in college and ultimately did not finish his degree. He moved back home and his behavior got stranger and stranger, drugs were involved, and at one point he was homeless because Ellen couldn't tolerate him in her household. Perhaps he came by his psychosis naturally, perhaps it was drug-fueled, but for a while he was talking to himself, laughing inappropriately, spitting, and generally being crazy.

He didn't much like the streets, and after some run-ins with this police, he agreed to a treatment program, first residential, then outpatient. Right now he lives at home, delivers pizza at night, continues to be in treatment, and is under the influence of psycho-pharmaceuticals, complete with a range of side effects. He is seriously overweight, a chain smoker, and doesn't have much of a life. The future for him is murky but not hopeless.

The middle child fared better. She completed her undergraduate degree and is working for a domestic version of the Peace Corps, living across the country, and with luck, gaining maturity and life skills.

It is the youngest child, the one who had shown the brightest promise, who has just recently fallen apart. Things looked great on the outside just a couple of years ago, when he got a generous scholarship to a prestigious university. All went well for a while, he impressed his professors and won a coveted summer internship after his freshman year. But then things went downhill. He hadn't been able to make friends, despite being quite personable and presentable. He started seeing a therapist. Then a high school friend committed suicide. Robert became more and more depressed, then suicidal.

The upshot of it all was, he started his fourth semester of college, then dropped out, gave up his scholarship, and moved home.

I have to say that I was mystified and judgmental. How could he do that? He was the great hope for his family. He had a beautiful education and potential future career handed to him on a platter. Why couldn't he muscle through his emotional breakdown? If he was lonely and homesick, sure, take whatever steps you need to transfer to a school close to home. Or fix the problem in place, because I truly believe that wherever you go, there you are. You don't get well, by dropping out and going home. You get well while muddling through the life you already have while sorting out how to make the changes you need to make.

Easy for me to talk. Agreed that that is what I did, during my long dance with the black dog. I went to work, even when that was about all that I did. I did enough not to go under, one day, one hour at a time. I was lucky though. I had resources to help me. My company paid generously for my head care. I had the sort of job where I could shut the door and cry if I really needed to. I had a good friend to talk to, one who was able to give me unflagging support when I needed it most. I was incredibly lucky to have a therapist who was patient, understanding, steadfast, and had faith in my recovery when I wavered.

My recent flickers of anxiety reminded me of just how bad it can be. I remember that I used to think about how I needed to keep my job because if I lost it, I'd lose everything, and that I was in no shape to search for a new job, to sell myself to a new employer, while I was feeling so weak, so ill, so empty, so full of despair.

So now, I am making a stern resolve. I will judge less, I will listen more, I will give more benefit of doubt, I will try to feel empathy, and failing that, I will try to feel neutral, I will try to stay open to the knowledge that we don't really know how someone else might feel and that it could be much worse than we imagine. I will try to remember that I have forgotten how I felt when I was in the depths, the darkness visible. I can remember it intellectually, but I've forgotten the feelings.

For which I am grateful but also guilty. I didn't want to forget. I wrote about it endlessly so that I wouldn't forget.

I don't want to feel that way again, although I know it could happen, but I certainly don't want to be cavalier and holier than thou, or above and beyond it all. I want to be gentle, merciful, tolerant, generous, sensitive, and humane. Because I might need someone to feel like that about me again someday.

And because it is the kind thing, the right thing to do.


Sometimes I remember the old days
When the world was filled with sorrow
You might have thought I was livin'
But I was all alone

In my heart the rain was fallin'
The wind blew and night was callin'
Come back, come back
I'm all you've ever known

Open the door and come on in
I'm so glad to see you my friend
You're like a rainbow comin' around the bend
And when I see you happy
Well, it sets my heart free
I'd like to be as good a friend to you
As you are to me

There were friends who could always see me
Through the haze their smiles would reach me
Saying okay, saying good-bye, saying hello

Soon I knew what I was after
Was life and love, tears and laughter
Hello, my good friend, hello my darlin'
What do you know

I used to think it was only me feeling alone
Not feeling free to be alive, to be a friend
Now I know we all have stormy weather
The sun shines through when we're together
I'll be your friend right through to the end

Open the door and come on in
I'm so glad to see you my friend
You're like a rainbow comin' around the bend
And when I see you happy
Well, it sets my heart free
I'd like to be as good a friend to you
As you are to me

(Judy Collins © Universal Music Publishing Group)

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Tigers and lions and elected officials

African sand on the trade winds
And the sun on the Amazon
As they push the reline buttons down
With dreamland coming on

While the national media and stand-up comedians obsess about whether or not Virginia governor Ralph Northam should resign, after a photo of a man (allegedly Northam) in blackface in his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook surfaced, I myself can't stop thinking about the death of Sumatran tiger Melati.

A week ago, the rare tiger was mauled to death in her London Zoo home by a male tiger, Asim, who'd been brought from Ree Park Safari in Denmark to be her potential mate. Melati had previously given birth to three litters of cubs with another Sumatran male tiger, and five of their cubs survive and thrive. Because of the need for genetic diversity in the very endangered population, her previous mate had been moved to Le Parc des FĂ©lins, a zoo southeast of Paris, to start a new family.

Melati and Asim were housed in adjacent enclosures with access to each other's sight and smell for ten days. The tigers reportedly made friendly noises and appeared to have a friendly interest in each other, leading experts to determine that the time was right for an introduction. Almost immediately the encounter became aggressive and Melati was dead, mauled by Asim, despite prepared measures by staff to distract them, including loud noises, flares, and alarms.

Ten days. I took more time than that to introduce Biscotti to Loki and Zamboni. I would have guessed that an appropriate amount of time for rare tigers to live side-by-side, safely separated, before being allowed physical access to one another would be closer to ten months than ten days.

All the other questions that sprung to my mind apparently sprung to the hive mind as well, and were addressed by the authorities. Tranquilizer darts would not act quickly enough, even assuming the correct animal could be accurately targeted. Any introduction of big cats is high risk regardless of how strategically planned. And we just don't know enough about species biology to make artificial insemination reliable or cost effective. While historically there have been some tiger pregnancies from artificial insemination, the success rate is low and the space, expertise, and funding are limited. Ten-year-old Melati was a proven breeder. Seven-year-old Asim had a history of being affectionate with his female species relatives.

But it happened, hindsight has 20/20 vision, and now animal lovers and wildlife conservationists worldwide must mourn the death of an innocent, beautiful creature and precious resource. There's not much more to say about it, and I'll stop thinking about it eventually.

The late Sumatran tiger Melati. Photo credit Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press

The story did prompt me to look up another story about a big cat in Denmark. Five years ago, the Copenhagen Zoo euthanized a healthy two-year-old male giraffe because of what it characterized as its duty to avoid inbreeding. Other possible prevention measures, such as sterilization, transfer, or release to the wild were dismissed. The giraffe's genetics were already well-represented in international breeding programs, the care and feeding of a sterile giraffe would displace a more genetically valuable animal, a release to the wild would have a high probability of failure, and zoo policy did not permit the sale of animals.

The zoo not only killed the healthy giraffe, they dismembered it in public ("outside, given the giraffe's size") and fed parts of it to the lions with children present. The public was up in arms, the zoo was matter-of-fact about it ("we would never throw away 200 kilograms of meat").

This controversy took place while I was in the midst of my online Colgate University class about World War II, particularly the development and deployment of the atom bomb. During the course of the course, some of my beliefs shifted.
I surprised myself, because I wouldn't have predicted I'd ever come around to condoning our nuclear attacks on Japan in 1945. But that's one of the purposes of education, to broaden your perspective, to explore alternative paradigms.
One of our weekly discussion prompts was to explore the reactions of the scientists and military personnel upon witnessing the Trinity test. I reflected on the story of the giraffe in my response. [Note: at the time it was my understanding that neither giraffes nor lions were considered endangered species. Those facts have subsequently changed.]

Here in part are the thoughts I posted
Reactions varied greatly, from elation, to depression, to just another day's work. ...

Different reactions can be chalked up to different personalities, values, world views, contexts, backgrounds and visions. During the Manhattan Project, I think all the Los Alamos scientists had a sort of tunnel vision, to get the gadget designed and engineered. Having spent years of six- and seven-day weeks driving toward that one goal, it makes sense that all the next steps, testing and deployment, were only logical. Why go through those years to create something and then, when it worked even better than their wildest dreams, just walk away.

Writing this I thought about the story in the news about the Copenhagen zoo that has been so roundly criticized for euthanizing a healthy young giraffe (and feeding its body to the lions - in public) and then euthanizing four lions, including two cubs. Harsh as that sounds, neither giraffes nor lions are endangered species. In the wild they'd be culled by natural predators. We think nothing of thinning out wildlife such as deer when they get too prolific and disruptive. We eat poultry and meat raised to be butchered as expeditiously as they can be brought to market.

Perhaps the zoo could have been more discreet about its actions, less unapologetic in its attitude But as I thought it through, my initial reaction of outrage changed to reluctant acceptance.

So much in life is a matter of context.
All things considered, I still find it hard to rationalize the gratuitous death of Melati. But we accept, we grieve, we move on. There are no alternative choices.

And now I want to circle back and talk about the implications of donning blackface.

Note that Northam now denies that he was either of the costumed fellows.

I’m not sure how the editors of the Eastern Virginia Medical School thought that this was an appropriate photo to publish in 1985. My daughter was born that year and I’m quite certain it wasn’t in the dark ages. Racism was not acceptable. Well it was never acceptable, but by 1985 it was long out of the closet, with bright light shining upon it, and no one should have been so oblivious or indifferent to it.

Now I’ve never so much as been to a costume party where anyone wore blackface, or known anyone that did to my knowledge. I have no clue why anyone would think it amusing, but I confess I wasn’t tuned in to just how offensive it is. Clearly a Ku Klux Klan costume crosses a line. But where exactly is that line?

I grew up with parents who listened to Al Jolson records and thought nothing of the fact that he performed in blackface. They just liked the music, and America was still culturally unenlightened about demeaning black stereotypes. But then Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and the sixties happened and there were no more excuses for insensibility.

Blackface is something I’ve never pondered deeply before. At first I thought it might go to intent. Was harm meant? But after seeing the photo and on reflection, I’ve concluded that it’s intrinsically derogatory. I can't think of any instance where it would be socially acceptable.

Should Northham resign? That’s a slightly different question, and one I can’t answer. I probably would, if I were him, but then I wouldn’t have been in blackface to begin with. My mistakes have been different. But I’ve made them, and I’d like to think that people can grow, change, evolve.

The issue is more clouded because it might not even be Northham in the photo, although at first he said it was him, then he back-peddled. For me it would be simpler if he’d just said, I was an idiot, and I’m sorry. His denial is more troubling, and after all, it was on his yearbook page. And he does admit to having worn blackface, just not that time.

Bottom line, blackface has nothing on sexually assaulting an underage girl. You won’t go to jail for it. It’s not a perfect world , and we can’t fix every lapse of judgment retroactively. I wouldn’t vote for a candidate if I knew he’d ever worn blackface, but if I found out that I inadvertently had, I’d forgive myself.

And I’d move on.

So many things, so much to move on from.


It's a long, long way from Canada
A long way from snow chains
Donkey vendors slicing coconut
No parkas to their name
Black babies covered in baking flour
The cook's got a carnival song
We're going to lay down someplace shady
With dreamland coming on
Dreamland, dreamland
Dreamland, dreamland

Walter Raleigh and Chris Columbus
Come marching out of the waves
And claim the beach and all concessions
In the name of the suntan slave
I wrapped that flag around me
Like a Dorothy Lamour sarong
And I lay down thinking national
With dreamland coming on
Dreamland, dreamland
Dreamland, dreamland

Good time Mary and a fortune hunter
All dressed up to follow the drums
Mary in a feather hula-hoop
Miss Fortune with a rose on her big game gun
All saints, all sinners shining
Heed those trumpets all night long
Propped up on a samba beat
With dreamland coming on
Dreamland, dreamland
Dreamland, dreamland

Tar baby and the Great White Wonder
Talking over a glass of rum
Burning on the inside
With the knowledge of things to come
There's gambling out on the terrace
And midnight ramblin' on the lawn
As they lead toward temptation
With dreamland coming on
Dreamland, dreamland
Dreamland, dreamland

In a plane flying back to winter
In shoes full of tropic sand
A lady in a foreign flag
On the arm of her Marlboro Man
The hawk howls in New York City
Six foot drifts on Myrtle's lawn
As they push the recline buttons down
With dreamland coming on
Dreamland, dreamland
Dreamland, dreamland

African sand on the trade winds
And the sun on the Amazon
As they push the reline buttons down
With dreamland coming on
Dreamland, dreamland
Dreamland, dreamland

(Joni Mitchell © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group, Crazy Crow Music / Siquomb Music Publishing)