Thoughts At Large

Passionate thoughts on random topics

Month: October, 2015

Disappointing the Page

The blank page stares back at me, expectantly. My head aches from coughing, and my throat is on fire. My eyes and nose have sprung leaks and drip incessantly. I’m sitting here alone listening to music and trying to write something intelligent. The Benadryl is in full force, and my head spins, looking for a pillow with which to snuggle. The kids are back at school, and I am alone. The dog has pneumonia and pancreatitis and sits below me looking at me as if I might have some noble answers for him. I do not.

Shouldn’t I be up doing something? Don’t I have a honeydew list somewhere and if so, does it matter? I am lost in the music, searching for that perfect place in that perfect song when the guitarist goes away within himself on a live recording. He can no longer hear or see the crowd, but disappears within himself and the Fender extension of himself. If I could play like that on one song, I would be happy and never pick up the guitar again.

The rain has stopped, not that we had any flooding in my neighborhood. I understand that two people in Houston died during the storm. In other news, four people were beheaded by ISIS and all souls were lost aboard a Russian jet when it crashed in Egypt. Happy news from all around the globe.

It’s Halloween, the day when Lisa would answer the door full of excitement to see the costumes worn by the youngest children. It is the first holiday I have spent alone. I am not happy about it but resigned to the fact that I am now alone and forever shall be. I am not the bar hopping type and feel too old for that anyway. And I don’t think I’ll be going on Farmers Only anytime soon to set up an account. Can you imagine? I am constantly adding to my retirement account but have no idea why. I tinker with the assignments and track results meticulously. To what end? I guess I’ll have a nice nest egg for the kids to split when I’m gone. I honestly do not see a future for myself.

If this is the grieving process, I can’t wait to get my certificate of completion. I had the first dream I can remember about Lisa the other night. She was not sick, in fact, she was healthy and full of life. She told me she was getting married, that our marriage was over, and she was moving on without me. What a mix of emotions I had when I awoke. In the months preceding her death, I had only one other dream about her that I can remember. She was sick and knew she was dying. She told me to buy a condominium on the water in Newport. Not sure what to do with that.

I don’t’ know what to do anymore. The house is bereft of life, food, and interest. My heart aches all the time, and I cannot turn without feeling the knife plunge into my chest as I see another design accent Lisa created or how she took this dwelling and made it home. When does this end?

I hate to sound as if I’m complaining. I have it pretty good. But without anyone to share it, it is meaningless. I am hanging on to my children with eagle talons, unwilling to acknowledge that they are one year away from leaving me for good (as they should). I insinuate myself into their lives to belong. Without them, I am a shell. It is hard enough being a single parent without facing the fact that even that job will expire next year when they strike off on their own. Oh, sure, I’ll be here in case they have a problem, but the family unit will be broken permanently. My eyes are leaking again. But I don’t think it is the fault of the cold I have. No, this is from deep inside and beyond the reach of a virus. This is emotion and truth. My chest hurts and all I want to do is talk to Lisa about it. I want to feel better; I want to feel like I did when I had a future. But she is gone, and I am alone.

How long do I wear my wedding band? Is there a book somewhere that tells you what is acceptable? I am an atheist, I think. Therefore, there is no heaven or hell, only this life. So if it is until death do us part, I should be able to remove my wedding band without guilt. So why do I want to hold onto it? Is it in case there is an afterlife? Do I still have a chance to spend a future with Lisa beyond this realm? My head says no, but I continue to wear the ring as if it is some ticket to a future paradise. I cannot square that circle in my head.

I have written 1,000 words now and have said nothing, both disappointing my expectant page and myself. There is no passion in my soul right now. I am in search of something to do. Some small victory to achieve which will validate my existence. Any ideas? All I do is stare at Facebook, Twitter, and CNN. These are the tabs open on my browser. All I get from them is news and memes from friends on Facebook, trolls on Twitter, and bad news from CNN. Surely there is more to life. I am (only) fifty years old. Do I not have something else to contribute? The guitarist has gone away now. I am going with him. I cannot play it, but I can feel it. Do not come back to the band, play within yourself and without yourself and carry me along on your notes like a wave at the beach. I do not want to drown, but I do want to taste the life that sea water offers. I miss Lisa. I miss my life.

Skip the Insane Root

macbeth

Or have we eaten on the insane root

That takes the reason prisoner?

Shakespeare, Macbeth I, iii, 84

Gun violence prevention is a lofty goal. It is also a multi-faceted problem. To deny that is to fall into the simplistic reasoning so often used by gun rights proponents. However, the difficulty of the task before us is no excuse not to attempt to address it. To ignore it is to abdicate responsibility to our families, neighbors, children, and ourselves. President Kennedy, at Rice Stadium on September 12, 1962, one year before being assassinated by a gunman, spoke of the necessity of facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles for the right reasons when he said:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

In his inaugural address on January 20, 1961, he addressed the need to begin facing massive challenges to the republic. He said, “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.” Such determination is what is needed today. And we need not be a intimidated by the fear of not solving the entire problem. Indeed, President Obama, in his second inaugural address on January 21, 2013, said the following:

“For now decisions are upon us and we cannot afford delay.  We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.  We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect.  We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.”

We must begin to face the problem of gun violence in America. We stand apart from the rest of the developed world in the number of guns in circulation and the number of injuries, suicides, and homicides committed with a gun.

To accept the status quo is to relegate our children to a future where fear and paranoia trump participation and confidence. Compassion and empathy must triumph if we are to survive. Anything less would be to eat from Shakespeare’s insane root, surrendering reason. Our children and our country deserve better.

Scabs and Justice

CancerNothing heals the wounds of loss. As Rose Kennedy famously supposed, “It has been said, ‘time heals all wounds.’ I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.” As anyone who has lost someone close can attest, these words ring devastatingly true.

There is nothing to be gained by picking at the scab covering the wound. To willfully go back in time in your head to the horrible end is nothing but masochistic. There is nothing cathartic about it. No therapeutic healing is to be found. It involves only pain and prevents the wound from ever scabbing over.

However, it should be noted that not picking at the scab does not equate to compartmentalizing the loss and never dealing with it. Putting the loss aside and not addressing it emotionally is a recipe for future heartache compounded by the loss of time one could have used to help those around them feeling the loss cope better. In short, ignoring the problem won’t make it go away.

I’ve found that the emotions below the surface ooze out like so much pus and burn without warning, whether you are prepared for it or not. While the path to emotional health is anything but linear, it does afford me the knowledge that I’ve faced these various phases of loss before, usually many times before. If I am angry that my wife died, I know I’ve been angry at this before and at some point (and usually in spite of whatever actions I take), I get past it. The anger is real and immediate, consuming all other emotions, but it does ebb. It usually trades places with overwhelming sadness as bitter tasting as when the original loss took place. The anger I felt in my chest gives way to a burning I can taste. And again, all of these changes in emotion occur without my picking at the scab; they just occur without warning and are all consuming.

Sandy Phillips, the mother of one of the victims of the Aurora theater shooting in 2012, said in a television interview regarding the ultimate verdict of the then ongoing murder trial of the monster responsible that there could never be justice because justice would involve bringing back her daughter. How that resonates with me now. There can be no justice. And further, just as in Sandy’s case, there is neither justification nor rationality for the loss. Had my wife known she was going to die in order to provide a definitive cure for cancer she would have gladly given her life. However, in spite of her participation in countless clinical trials, none has proven to be the effective cure doctors had hoped for. Each waiver she signed contained language explaining that while it was hoped that there would be a medical breakthrough relating to the clinical trial, she should not expect to be the recipient of that breakthrough. She signed every time without hesitation. But that does not bring justice, justification, or rationality for her loss. The finality of death is non-negotiable and only leads to unsettling silence in the house occasionally drowned out by the din of me screaming in my head. There is no justice. There is no justification. There is no rationality. There is only loss, emotion and scars, barely scabbed over.

A Hero in Full

Sandy and LonnieGrowing up, Pete Rose was my idol. He played baseball like I thought the game should be played. All hustle, all the time. As I grew older, my idols came and went (so did my baseball skills!), and I learned that there is a difference between heroes and idols. I found that idolatry dehumanized the person and ascribed to them mythical attributes. A hero by definition (and by contrast) has done something heroic, but allows for human mistakes and misgivings, in a word imperfections or the right to be just a regular person who has done something extraordinary.

However, to meet a hero in person does give one pause. Not because you ascribe superhuman traits to them, but because you know they have been through something extraordinary, whether wonderful or horrific, and you don’t want to upset them or embarrass yourself by saying something stupid or insensitive.

It was against that backdrop that I met Sandy and Lonnie Phillips last night at an event in downtown Houston. Their beautiful daughter, Jessi, was murdered at the Aurora theater shooting on July 20, 2012. Sandy and Lonnie were in town for a call to action and fundraiser for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, the grassroots organization started in a kitchen in Indianapolis, IN following the murder of twenty schoolchildren and six educators on December 14, 2012, in Newtown, CT.

Proving that there is a difference between the mythology attributed to idols and the humanization of heroes, right off the bat, both Lonnie and Sandy made it aware to me that they were regular, genuine, gracious people. In fact, when Sandy hugged me at the restaurant where we were to have dinner, she told me she was sorry for my loss. Here I was, ready to give my condolences on the loss of her daughter and she was consoling me on the loss of my wife. And instantly we bonded over our losses. At dinner we talked gun violence prevention, her hope to speak with Senator Sanders regarding his position on the “Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act” (PLCAA) allowing gun manufacturers product liability protection afforded no other product in America, thanks to the lobbying efforts of the NRA and the power they wield over politicians. We also talked about how the upcoming holidays are always a difficult time and how she and Lonnie will be going away again this year to regroup and recharge. Of course, this came up after she asked me what I was doing with the kids and I told her we were going away because none of us wanted to deal with the holidays.

It is the true character of an individual when they can bond with you over something big or small placing you on equal footing. My apprehension over meeting Sandy and Lonnie was misplaced. Both of them are wonderful, ordinary people thrown into a situation they did not choose and who have dedicated their lives to work so that no other parent has to walk the path they have been forced to tread.

In front of a group of about 50 women from the greater Houston area, Sandy and Lonnie described the horror of July 20, 2012 in visceral terms leaving no dry eye in the room. She answered questions and followed it with an amazing statement about how while she is forced to walk this path, she is lifted emotionally by the efforts of those who have come to this movement of their own accord and desire to make America a safer place. This was her call to action and the response from the room was immediate. By the end of the night over $10,000 had been raised and people were encouraged to join Moms Demand Action to do whatever they were comfortable doing knowing that the combined efforts of the organization brought a 3.5 million member counterbalance to the powerful, but aging, NRA and a vocal juggernaut to the halls of Washington, D.C. and statehouses across the country. I am proud to now call her a friend and stand ready to do whatever I can to help make her path even slightly easier.

Jessi’s mom is a genuine, ordinary woman responsible for carrying her daughter’s legacy and message forward while working every day toward a future where no other mother has to endure what she has been forced to live with. That’s what makes her a hero and Jessi should be proud.

Meeting a Hero

Having lost my wife last month and my father in November of last year, I know the awkwardness caring people bring with them when they want to express their condolences. Both my wife and my father died of cancer, an insidious, destructive disease that kills from the inside out. But what do you say to someone who has had a loved one taken from them violently? We anthropomorphize cancer and speak of the “battle” waged against a nefarious foe. But what “battle” can we speak of having been waged against an instantaneous, violent death? It is simply chaos from the cosmos, dropped upon the heads of those who survive. In some cases, it is the Damocles sword of gun violence befalling someone dear to us without warning.

So it will be with my meeting Sandy and Lonnie Phillips tomorrow at a meeting of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. As none of you will remember, my very first blog post was simply a reposting of their daughter Jessi’s blog about having just missed a mass shooting at a mall in Toronto on June 2, 2012. She was murdered 48 days later at the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado on July 20, 2012.

In fact, despite continuing to write about it on my little blog, it wasn’t until the murder of twenty schoolchildren and 6 of their educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School that I was forced to act. It was while listening to a conference call of the Brady Campaign on January 7, 2013, that I heard Jessi’s heartbreaking story told by Sandy Phillips. The next week I was speaking out at Democratic clubs around Houston of the need for action to quell the violence guns were having on American society.

I consider my need to act an outpouring of love for my children. No longer could I look them in the eye and deplore gun violence without taking a stand and working to affect change. Whatever effect I might have (however small), had to be done for my children and their future. However, I attribute any courage I had to speak out publicly to Jessi, Sandy, and the parents and family members of those who were killed at Sandy Hook. But especially Sandy. Because while I had a hard time imagining me ever getting out of bed again should something so horrible befall my children, Sandy was out there speaking and acting, every day, despite the pain of her loss. And I know that change cannot be made without the efforts of those beyond the parents and family members of gun violence victims. People like you. People like me.

At a counter-rally outside the 2014 Annual NRA Paranoia Jamboree in Houston, I saw Erica Lafferty, daughter of Dawn Hockspung, murdered principal at Sandy Hook Elementary. I also saw the father of one of the murdered children. Despite their proximity and my desire to meet them, I was embarrassed to introduce myself. But was it the simple awkwardness attributed with expressing condolences or was it my guilt for not acting sooner to address gun violence? I don’t know the answer to that. I left them alone, content to stand alongside them that day in opposition to the more guns everywhere agenda of the NRA.

Tomorrow will be interesting. I am nervous, anxious and excited. I consider Sandy Phillips a hero. I don’t want to injure her or embarrass myself by saying something stupid or insensitive. It has been over three years now since I became active in this movement and I’ve seen it gather momentum despite roadblocks and disappointments. So, in spite of my nervousness tomorrow I will meet Sandy Phillips. I admire her too much not to attend.

MOMentum (or Thinking Big)

MDAWhen I started speaking out about gun violence prevention at local Democratic clubs around Houston in January of 2013, it was a hot topic because of the recent murder of twenty schoolchildren and 6 educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT a month earlier. Like many others, I had reached my breaking point knowing I could no longer look my children in the eye as a responsible adult if I did not act. So I spoke. I didn’t think big enough. Shannon Watts, a mother from Indiana, launched a Facebook site to show her anger at the Sandy Hook shooting, and it instantly resonated with other mothers. The group grew exponentially within months and soon, not only was I sharing the floor at Democratic clubs with equally impassioned moms, but there were branches of the movement in every state. Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America touched a nerve.

And then something incredible happened. Nothing. Congress failed to pass any gun laws. Not universal background checks, not reporting of large ammunition sales, not a ban on large magazines or clips, no revisitation of the assault weapons ban, no consideration of gun trafficking becoming a federal crime. Nothing. That was followed by a fickle public blinking to see what Justin Bieber did yesterday, and gun violence prevention faded from the public eye. Until the next mass shooting. And the next. And the next. Soon gun violence was never out of the public eye.

All the while, Moms Demand Action continued to grow as a social media movement. Focus shifted away from the national political stage to the corporate boardroom. Several high-profile companies asked their customers to leave their firearms at home before entering their stores. And then, with the focus still on corporate responsibility, legislative fights were started in statehouses across the country at the local level. A war was being waged between activist mothers and the NRA juggernaut, and moms began racking up victories in states like Washington, Connecticut, and New York.

And then Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns saw the symbiosis of effort and merged with Moms Demand Action to form Everytown for Gun Safety. Finally, two of the many gun violence prevention organizations had joined forces and brought their considerable resources and talents to bear. No longer was the movement hopelessly fractured or outspent. Everytown had the social media wherewithal to pressure politicians and corporations and the financing to compete with the heretofore untouchable NRA.

And now as the number of school shootings since Newtown eclipses 150, the number of mass shootings surpasses 1,000, and 33,000 Americans continue to die from gun violence each year, there is a more equitable fight for the conscience and accountability of America. The movement is still splintered, but economies of scale aside, politicians are listening, and the public is responding. There is momentum. The apoplectic vitriol from some gun rights enthusiasts is proof that their previously sacred ground is shifting beneath them. No longer do people resign themselves to the NRA’s stranglehold on politicians or the inevitability of another wave of gun-related deaths. No longer do they accept as uniquely American the deaths and injuries inflicted upon our families and neighborhoods. Momentum is building for change; the momentum that will wash the streets clean of our national bloodbath. Thank you, Shannon, for thinking big.

Today’s Tomorrow

Seneca

“People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”

Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote the above 2,000 years ago and yet his sentiment is as prescient today as it was when he was a tutor to Roman emperor Nero. In De brevitate vitae (On the shortness of life), he continues:

“Can anything be more idiotic than certain people who boast of their foresight? They keep themselves officiously preoccupied in order to improve their lives; they spend their lives in organizing their lives. They direct their purposes with an eye to a distant future. But putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining?”

As I look back on the life that might have been this advice seems obvious if cynical. The future plans I worked toward, only to see cancer obliterate, seem like wasted time. However, was it? Are we not supposed to make plans? How can one go from day to day, “living in the moment” with no care for tomorrow? The clue comes in another Seneca quote, “Life is long, if you know how to use it.” But how do we tease a life out of this kernel of truth?

We all seek to leave a mark on history as we careen through time at the speed of life. The uncertainty with which we live is like the cosmic dust trail left behind a comet, slowly sapping the comet of its size and us of our time. John Lennon, appropriating a sentiment from decades earlier wrote, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Drawn out to its ultimate conclusion, it is captured again by Seneca as, “Often a very old man has no other proof of his long life than his age.”

So how do we live a life full of todays, without sacrificing our wellbeing tomorrow? My wife and my future died a little over a month ago. Everything we worked toward is gone. I am fifty years old and alone. How do I start again? What am I working toward? How can I have any faith in a future I now build now knowing my recent future died with my wife? Where do I turn to begin? Neither time nor money seems important now. With whom will I share either? I do not want to travel alone, hell I don’t even want to eat dinner alone. Where I will live next year is based on no future plans with anyone, no school system for the kids, nothing. I am rootless, floating on the ocean of time with neither heading nor concern. Where I land means nothing.

Thankfully, I have my children. Without them I would not even carry an anchor. However, I know that they will settle someplace and I will want to be near them. But graduate school and careers stand like so many seasons and storms before I reach land. Perhaps it is a good thing that I am uprooted at this point. Perhaps the grieving process requires a certain amount of time and the kid’s blowing about like dandelion seeds will afford me the time to find myself and see a future alone. But that takes me back to Seneca. How do I live a life now without concern for the future and without sacrificing my sanity? Does living for today have to indicate a rudderless life? Seneca was a stoic and lived frugally. Without material goods, it is easier to ignore the requirements the future, but that is not how we are groomed. I would like a balance between Seneca’s today and propriety’s tomorrow. However, today I simply attempt to stay busy and tomorrow means nothing. Maybe in time it will change. I guess the question is, how many todays will be wasted? Seneca has no answer to that.

Obsequious

Five days after the horrific shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon and President Obama’s angry response, the governor of Texas tweeted the following message on his personal Twitter feed:

Abbott after Oregon

Isn’t he cool? Aren’t Texans just total badass? Or is he publicly pandering to his NRA overlords, keeping his A-rating and victim blaming? Let’s take these in order.

Abbott has a long history of currying favor from the gun-rights crowd, even going so far as to say that he would sign any gun right legislation passed by the legislature. I guess that makes him cool. Here is a copy of him on the cover of Texas Monthly. Cool.

Abbott Texas Monthly

Texans are badasses. Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily a good thing. Texas ranks in the middle for gun deaths per capita in America (10.4/100,000) and has seen its share of both horrific mass shootings and accidents involving children over the past year. When taken as a whole, the entire South suffers as some of the highest ranking members of the gun deaths per capita club. In fact, every state south of Virginia ranks higher than the national average (10.4/100,000). I wonder if the old phrase “southern hospitality” shouldn’t be replaced with “southern hostility.”

Gun deaths per 100,000

Abbott routinely tags his tweets with the NRA hashtag. As AG, Abbott played host to the annual NRA paranoia jamboree in Houston. He signed open carry and campus carry into law at a gun range (isn’t he cool?) on the same day as a gunman opened fire on the Dallas Police HQ leading to this ironic juxtaposition on a news website:

613

So it should come as no surprise that Abbott blames the victims for their injuries and deaths, conveniently ignoring the fact that there were students carrying concealed who chose to wait for the police to intervene rather than embrace the “good guy with a gun” myth.

Abbott and his views will be shown, in time, to be anachronistic and wrong. For now he is just obsequious and endangering his constituents. Keep cashing the checks, Governor.

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