Thursday, September 24, 2020

What is the extent of our obligation to know?

 I've always been a bit of a Cassandra.  At times, if there's a silver lining, I'll find the dark cloud. How much of this is just my nature, how much of it is garden variety Jewish pessimism born of inherited Holocaust-related PTSD that at least one study has shown is an actual thing, and how much is born of the experience of having always been short, fatter than others, and always marching to a different drummer, I cannot say. But I've never had the sense that "everything will work out fine."  

Everything DOESN'T work out fine. That's not to say that the worst possible scenario always occurs, because it doesn't.  And once we get into the habit of worrying about things, that habit is hard to break.  A very good therapist once told me that "Worry doesn't change any outcome.  It keeps your mind busy so you think you have control when you really don't." I have had to remind myself of this over and over again, especially since early 2013.

There is a kind of pessimism I've noticed in life that seems to be uniquely Jewish. It is informed by a long heritage of "You're not paranoid if they really ARE out to get you." For thousands of years, there have been attempts to eradicate the Jews, and yet we persevere.  It's something of which we are proud, but that pride always comes with a sense of unease.  

I used to get irritated with my mother, who saw anti-Semites around every corner.  There were very few gentiles that she ever really trusted.  This was not because she was so religious, because she wasn't. What she WAS, was a very damaged woman whose own mother had seen her parents and three sisters come to the US, become homesick, and return home to Poland, just in time for Hitler. Home movies from my mother's early childhood show a happy child with a smiling mother.  Yet somewhere along the line, that changed. I suspect that when my grandmother found out what had happened to her family, her grief and guilt destroyed her.  With no therapists or support groups available in those days, she took it out on her husband and children. Certainly the dour grandmother I knew bore no relation to the woman in these videos. And the mother I had bore little resemblance to the happy child in the videos.

But when I look around me today; when the name "George Soros" is used as a dogwhistle that means "Jews", when I see a president who calls people who march in the streets chanting "Jews will not replace us" some "very fine people," I have to both rethink whether my mother was really wrong, and also give thanks that she is not here to a) see this; and b) gloat and say "I told you so." Because it often DOES feel unsafe to be even a lapsed secular Jew in this country today.

Whatever the reason, the feeling of being besieged is something that exists so deeply in my soul that all that therapy has been able to do is give me the tools to cope with it.  And my way of coping has been not to worry, but just be cognizant of the dangers and then kind of shrug my shoulders and say "What is going to happen will happen." 

Before going on, I want to make one thing clear:  The many words spilled above on Jewish fear do not mean that Jews, American or otherwise, have some kind of a patent on suffering.  I am writing this on the day after a grand jury in Louisville, Kentucky has refused to issue any charges against police officers who pumped six bullets into a young woman named Breonna Taylor while she slept, and months after the summary execution in the street of a man named George Floyd.  This has been a summer of systematic and institutional eliminationism of Black Americans; one that has forced many of us whose skin is white, even those of us who are Jews, to examine the ways that we take for granted the benefit of the doubt that is given to us by virtue of our skin color. My view is that as people who have benefitted from white privilege while simultaneously dealing with the generations of reality of bigotry and eliminationism, we have a special obligation to fight alongside our Black Lives Matter kin. 

We are suffering right now from grief overload, from outrage overload, from terror overload, and all this is combined with the isolation many of us are enduring from the coronavirus pandemic. I'm weathering this better on the surface than many people are, because most of the time I seem able to "compartmentalize" it all.  I am steeped in news much of the time, whether it's having news on as background sound to help minimize my sense of aloneness, or because I've been a news junkie since I was twelve. 

People have asked me, "How can you stay so calm?" I tell them it's because I can compartmentalize. I know where my burnout point is, and then I tune into TinyKittens or Kitten Academy or I watch reaction videos on YouTube or something else to quiet my brain down a bit. My blood pressure is still normal. I sleep well. So to some degree it's working.  But not completely, because my hair loss in the last six months has been alarming.  My old hair stylist in New Jersey used to say he could always tell when I was under stress because my hair was thinner on top.  I think back to 2013, when I was dealing with Mr. B's illness and death and the loss of Maggie and Jenny, all while working an extremely high-stress job. Or 2015, when my father died before I could get to Florida to visit one more time. Or when I moved.  Or when I was still working 14 hours a day from home and was so tired that I would look at my work and it might as well have been written in Aramaic. Yes, my hair would thin out, but not now, when not even the "old lady combover" I've been doing for the last five years, pulling everything to the front, covers what is happening.

Back in 2004, I started writing at the old place just after the 2004 Democratic National Convention because poor Mr. B. needed a break from my incessant ranting.  These days, most of my ranting takes place over on Facebook, where some of even my closest friends and relatives have unfollowed me because they just can't deal with the things I'm sharing.  It gets them too upset. Some of the people who have unfollowed me are just "not political" and don't want to read about the things I write about.  As long as they have their jobs, and their spouses and kids are all right, and everyone's healthy, it's all good. Others just aren't able to stop the runaway train of anxiety that comes from being steeped all the time in the hellscape that is life in the Trump era.  I get that; I really do.  It must be sort of like those times when I was a kid when the certainty of eventual death would wake me up in the middle of the night. It's the terror of things we can't do anything about.

Here's the problem though:  At what point do we have an obligation to stop looking away? Does looking away mean pretending that everything is OK? How do we find a way to be hyper-aware without it taking us down a psychological path that leads to emotional paralysis, or worse? How do we look away when our fellow citizens are being summarily murdered by those who job it is to protect them as well as us?  How do we look away when the very institutions we profess to revere every time we hang a flag or celebrate a holiday are in very real and imminent danger of collapsing completely? How do we look at the hurricanes and wildfires and think that pulling the cellophane windows out of junk mail envelopes before recycling is going to make one iota of difference? Is there even hope?  What does hope even mean today?  What's the difference between hope and delusion? And what kinds of action are even effective at a time when demonstrable facts are given the same weight as utter horsepuckey?

Yes, it infuriates me when I see people who have children and grandchildren who either don't care about what's happening or else have embraced the GOP worldview because it looks more like what they're accustomed to.  "DON'T YOU CARE ABOUT THE WORLD YOUR CHILDREN ARE GOING TO LIVE IN???" I want to scream. Yes, I care what's happening but does anything I do even mean anything? Will my money change a single vote? My Senators' staffs most of the time don't even answer the phone. I am one of those hyper-aware people. I KNOW.  But does it even matter?  Do we have an obligation to know when far too many of our fellow citizens choose not to? Or should we just join those who look away, live out our lives and let it all shake out the way it seems destined to?

Friday, September 18, 2020

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Is Dead And I Don't Feel So Good Myself

 Seven years ago today, Mr. Brilliant had started a regimen of chemoradiation for his bladder cancer. He was three weeks out of the first of two planned surgeries for moyamoya disease, and though he was starting to have some side effects from the radiation, he was doing pretty well.  Three days later, about mid-day, his speech would start to slur, his hands would be shaking, and he would outright refuse to go to the hospital or even call his neurosurgeon.  By the next morning, he would have had a full-blown stroke. By the morning after that he would be no longer conscious, and two weeks later he would be gone.

Seven years.  Seven years has gone so fast, wake me up when September ends.

Mr. B. never understood why I loved Green Day. It was just 3-chord punk, too poppy to be real punk.  I couldn't have known then that hearing Billie Joe Armstrong's ode to his father's death would resonate so much with me in the years to come.

I am 65 now, and Mr. B. is forever 58.  I'm too old for him now.  I've let my hair go gray, it's starting to thin out now, and I can no longer pass for 45 in the dark with the light behind me.

This time of year is always difficult for me ever since then.  In good years it's a vague sense of unease, and it lets up after October 5. This year it's been far worse than usual.  Maybe it's because it's the seven years in that song. Or maybe it's the hellscape that we've been living in. Every day it seems like I wake up, look at the news to see what fresh horror has happened overnight, and every morning 2020 says "Hold my beer."

People think grief is something that happens and then you're done.  But grief is an insidious little bastard.  It's like that tough little cancer cell that stays behind, untouched by whatever you've bombarded it with, only to roar back later.  And with it, when you're the one who had to make The Decision, comes the guilt, the recriminations, the late night second guessing that never really stops. And the sense that you'll never be whole again.

I went into a tailspin when Chadwick Boseman died, and I still don't understand why. But tonight, when the news came through that Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died, that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that I remembered from seven years ago hit me. 

I'm not a drinker and I don't take drugs.  But there I was, rummaging around the bottom of the pantry closet, looking for that little bottle of Wray and Nephew Overproof Rum Cream that I'd bought in Jamaica two years ago when I took Mr. B's ashes to be buried amidst the Mid-Shoals Reef off of the beach in Negril, Jamaica. I opened it up and just started swigging the sweet, fiery yet creamy room-temperature stuff right out of the bottle. And yeah, it did help my stomach relax.

I'm alone right now. The cats are asleep. It's cool enough that I don't have any fans running and the air conditioning isn't on. The only sound is the refrigerator running and the tapping of my fingers on the keyboard.  I feel very alone, and very frightened. Because if the death of Chadwick Boseman felt like the death of hope because of a fictional character he portrayed, the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg feels like the final nail in the coffin of any chance that the country we were living in can ever be made even into what it used to be, never mind something better. During the Bush years, Mr. B. and I would talk endlessly about it.  But he's not here now and the cats don't care.

I think back to those terrible days in September 2013.  Yes, they were terrible for me; I had a husband in the ICU and didn't know if he was even still in there. I had a manager who, once I'd declined taking family leave because I had no idea what was in store for me in Mr. B's illness, refused to cut me any slack at all, and I was dealing with a fuckup of a religious fanatic data manager who was bitching about me to my manager all the time. But outside of my hellish little corner, things were pretty good.  It was the first year of Obama's second term. The economy was in good recovery. The weather was nice that fall. The worst thing I would talk to Mr. B. about as he lay there unconscious with four anti-seizure drugs being pumped into him, was about how awful the finale of Dexter was.

I've been saying for the last four years that he was the smart one.  He saw his opportunity to exit painlessly and he took it.

After he died, when people wanted to go to something and I wasn't planning anything because he hated funerals more than anything else to the point that during our last dinner together, he talked with still-raw anger about having to sit for five days at his mother's wake when he was twelve, I threw a memorial party at the local dive bar. He'd always said that the Irish do it right because they throw a party, and the Jews do it right because they get it all done quickly.   So I decided that was what he would have wanted. I don't even know why that's relevant.

Most of the time in the intervening years, I've been pretty satisfied with my life. It's not the one I had wanted, but it's very good in its own way, with a good circle of women friends, two cats that keep me entertained, and no real financial worries. I'm fortunate, and I know it. But I've been thoughtful lately; taking stock of my life -- what I've learned and the person I've become.  But sometimes the sheer breadth of the years hits home in a way that it can't on an ongoing basis because I don't have children to be that barometer of the passage of time. And I'd give anything to have them back. So many years I took for granted, both before I met Mr. B. and during the 30 years we were together.  Despite our ups and downs, we had a marriage, and if it was at times like an old, reliable toaster -- dependable and functional  -- there was a lot of comfort in that, and in having a like-minded soul RIGHT THERE.

I no longer have that comfort, or any other kind either. There's a scene in I, Claudius where Claudius' mother Antonia is saying goodbye to him before opening her veins:

Antonia: My mind is made up. I don't want to stay here anymore. I was born into a world of people. It's become a kennel of mad dogs. I've seen my splendid son Germanicus murdered, and my grandsons, Drusus, Nero, Gemellus. My granddaughters are degenerate beyond redemption, and your sister Livilla died by my own hand. That was the worst. I should have died then myself. 
Claudius: Wait a while! Caligula's sick in his mind. Sooner or later... 
Antonia: No, Rome is sick, sick to its heart. He's just the rash it's come out in.

That's kind of how I feel. I look at what my country has become, and I look at the continued pile-up of atrocities right out of Hitler's playbook, and I envy Mr. B. sometimes that he was able to exit what he called this "God-forsaken level of reality" before the shit really hit the fan.

I had little hope even before Ginsburg's death that we had any chance of stopping this relentless authoritarian goose-step, but with Mitch McConnell already stating that the Merrick Garland rule no longer applies when the president is of Mitch McConnell's party, it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that whatever Federalist Society nutjob Trump puts on the Court (and it looks like it's going to be the Make Gilead Great Again theocratic lunatic Amy Coney Barrett) will be the one who will definitively turn this country into a permanent Trump Family Dictatorship, with carte blanche for that grifter family to plunder as much money out of the federal coffers as they can before climate change mercifully for our planet wipes our miserable species off the map.

In case anyone is concerned that I might be suicidal (and I can't for the life of me imagine why anyone would give a shit; my existence is pretty insignificant in the larger picture, and I'm OK with that), don't worry, I'm not.  But I guess I'm thankful that I don't fear death the way I did when I was a kid, when I'd sit bolt upright in bed in the middle of the night with my heart pounding and think I AM GOING TO DIE AND THERE IS NOTHING I CAN DO ABOUT IT. I've had a good run; better than I ever thought I would.  I'd like to have more of it, even if it's just to cook and eat some good food, pet my cats, listen to some good music. 

But oh, how I wish I could have some of those years back, hold them in my hand, and treasure them for the miracle they were; those years that I thought would just go on forever.

As it is, I just hope that when the Trumpazoid brownshirts come to round people like me up, they have the decency to just do a good clean shot in the head that I don't see coming.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Chadwick Boseman and the Death of Hope

When Indian actor Irrfan Khan died earlier this year, I felt an uncharacteristic sadness.  Khan was the kind of actor who even when he played a villian, there was an underlying kindness to him; a nobility; a preternatural and paternal calm that could make you feel that no matter what happened, things would be OK as long as he was in the world.

But that sadness was nothing compared to the gut-punch that has been the news of the death of Chadwick Boseman.

I am not one to grieve over celebrities. My cynical grounding in the real world taught me long ago that famous people are not our friends and that we really don't know them.  The hand you shake, the autograph you get, the TV show you watch, these are not genuine connections.  But sometimes an actor comes along, and a role comes along, and a concept comes along, and it all comes together at the exact right time in the zeitgeist, and something magical and transcendent and yes, important, happens.

Such was the case with Chadwick Boseman.

I first saw Chadwick Boseman in 2013 in "42."  As a longtime baseball fan, I love a good baseball movie.  Watching this one, I was blown away by this guy I'd never heard of who so inhabited Jackie Robinson that it was as if he were channelling the real one.  The stoicism. The pent-up rage. The quiet strength. 

It was the kind of performance that makes you sit up, take notice, and write down the name.  I thought about that movie for days.

I have to admit that I didn't rush out to see "Black Panther."  I knew it starred the guy who had impressed me so much five years earlier.  But I'd grown tired of comic book movies years earlier after sitting through "Iron Man" with Mr. Brilliant.  At that time, I figured that if Robert Downey, Jr. wasn't enough to offset the stunts and CGI and noise of which I'd grown weary, nothing was.  So I didn't see it until enough people assured me that it wasn't going to be just another Marvel movie with a superhero and a Big Bad and a lot of Things Blowing Up Real Good.

There have been so many keystrokes spent on how this movie, with its fully fleshed-out, decidedly African universe that is more technologically advanced than anything that white people have ever come up with, and its nearly all-black cast, landed like an earthquake, that there's nothing more I can add.  But if the kings of myth are, if not superheroes, certainly a touch above us mere mortals, then the minute Chadwick Boseman appears on screen, there's a sense that you are not just in the presence of an actor portraying a king, you are in the presence of a real one. And at the end, when King T'Challa addresses the United Nations, sounding for all the world not much different from Nelson Mandela in tone and cadence, that view is cemented in your mind.

It was late Friday night, August 28 when I made the mistake of one last Twitter check before going to bed.  I was seeing a bunch of tweets from black journalists and activists I follow about how this is too much, about how 2020 just got that much worse, and I wondered what it was about.  And then I saw.

After Mr. Brilliant died seven years ago, I felt for days as if my chest had been crushed.  I would fear going to sleep because I feared I wouldn't wake up.  Whoever coined the term "heartbroken" knew what s/he was talking about. This news felt like that, and I simply could not stop crying.  This lasted all weekend, and I had no idea why.  I'm not one to cry over celebrity deaths, no matter how cruel and premature they are or however much I may have enjoyed their work.

This was different somehow.  This IS different somehow.

It's different because of the knowledge that this man, with his quiet strength, made this and six other films all the while knowing that time was going to run out for him sooner rather than later.  He did this grueling movie while undergoing cancer treatments, which knock most people out flat. He visited kids with cancer knowing of his own diagnosis.  He spoke at Howard University's graduation just months ago.

Somehow in the last two years, he BECAME T'Challa.  And every time you'd see a photo of a kid crossing his arms across his (or her) chest, you knew that the strength, the dignity, the quiet, and the determination of this man had reached well out into the universe.  Wakanda, with its sweeping vistas and beautiful waterfalls and ability to heal pretty much everything, seemed possible, and we weirdly thought he would be instrumental somehow in getting us there, even if only in a blockbuster sequel.  Hey, no one said it was rational, but  we WANTED Wakanda and its king to be real. And in that wanting there was hope that it COULD be real.

It's become harder every day in this annus horribilis to sustain that hope.  I've been able during this pandemic to largely hold it together. I've been living day by day, forgiving myself for those days (like this one) when I'm online all day and get little accomplished. My blood pressure is normal despite all the news and social media I feed into my head every day. I have a limited, but still-active-for-social-isolation social life.  I've described myself as "pretty zen about the whole thing."  But we are now two months away from an election the results of which I do not think will be pretty.  I'm quite honestly frightened.  The barbarians are at the gate.  Killmonger is in charge and will take power by any means necessary. And King T'Challa is not here to persevere and to light the way.

Of course that's absurd. And it's a terrible burden to place on ANY actor, never mind one battling cancer. But I think for a lot of people, that's what it felt like.  All I know is that since I read the news on Friday night, I can't shake the feeling that all hope I may have had that we might get out of this mess has died too.