Sucking Out The Poison

Something different happened this past weekend. I knocked over a glass of milk, but I didn’t shriek and I didn’t call myself a moron. I got a sponge and I cleaned it up. It took about a minute. It was a nice feeling.

I don’t know how I got this way. Wait, that’s not true. I do know how I got this way; I just don’t remember getting this way. I can only imagine that many decades ago, when I did something that small children do, like knocking over milk, my father screamed at me. It created what someone explained to me as a highly developed startle response.

I don’t remember being yelled at. But I do know that somewhere along the way, I developed a deep, instinctual sense of shame and fear for doing something clumsy. For doing something that kids can’t help. And now, decades later, after years of therapy and recovery, I’m trying to fix it, to finally suck out the poison that my father injected into me day after day.

I did take one positive step many years ago. I decided not to have kids. My gift to the succeeding generation was not to rain upon them the terror of the previous generation, and the easiest way to deliver that gift was not to have a succeeding generation. I’ve never regretted that.

I have regretted that I’ve carried the poison of the previous generation in my blood, as sure as I carried its DNA and hereditary traits. It wasn’t even that I heard their voices in my head, although I do remember that my father would frequently rail about us kids “taking stupid pills.” No, this had to have happened earlier, before I was good at forming memory.

All I know is how it manifested itself, turning me into a neurotic, people-pleasing goody two-shoes (and when I wasn’t that, I was the exact opposite: a manipulative, cruel asshole). My years of therapy taught me to love and nurture that little boy – because his parents were so bad at it – but like Soviet agents launching a cyberattack, they got into his basic operating system, and did such a fantastic job of it that all the subsequent apps in the world couldn’t erase what they programmed in at the very beginning. It’s a frustrating state of affairs: to want to reboot and not knowing which buttons to press on the keyboard.

In the realm of recovery, people say it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. I don’t agree with that. I’ll never be able to go back and change an unhappy childhood. But more than sixty years in, I’m just trying to be patient. As with any twelve-step issue, admitting the problem is the first step. Hearing that the startle response had a name was wonderfully empowering. Short-circuiting it is challenging, but I’m trying. I’m trying to be patient with myself. I’m trying to be patient with that little boy. I’m trying to act, rather than to react.



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The End of Complacency

About this time next year, Republicans will be cursing the name of Newt Gingrich. Gingrich is widely credited for eliminating the concept of bipartisanship in Congress. In lambasting the idea of compromise, he managed to rile up the right-wing Republican base to such an extent that they rabidly went to the polls and voted. They may have been single-issue voters, but they voted.

Meanwhile, according to this PBS report, voter turnout has been falling. The articles cites a study from the United States Election Project noting that “only 36 percent of registered voters cast ballots during the 2014 election cycle, the lowest turnout in a general election since 1942.” Conventional wisdom suggests that voters just don’t care. Everyone in Washington is corrupt so what’s the point of voting?

I have a different theory. It’s not that they don’t care as much as the fact that what Washington did didn’t have much effect on people’s lives. We kind of wafted through a middle course without doing too much to screw up employment or the economy (2008 notwithstanding), so unlike the right-wing Republicans, no one else really had the motivation to go to the polls.

Enter Donald Trump.

With his slash-and-burn tactics, aided by Republican control of the House and Senate, he’s got people paying attention. I suspect that a lot of people didn’t like Hillary Clinton. Seeing polls that said she would easily win, people could not vote for her and still enjoy her presidency. Oops.

Now, seeing the United States slip further into a plutocracy, headed by plutocrat-in-chief Trump, I suspect that complacency in the American voter is on life support. Increased turnout in the off-year election last month in Virginia indicate change may be afoot (New Jersey did not have a commensurate increase, however). Voters now understand what can go awry when they don’t exercise their right to vote.

The result, I predict: the House and Senate both flip next year, turning Trump into a lame-duck president, if not a sitting duck for impeachment charges. But it doesn’t stop there, and that’s why I’m predicting the call for Gingrich’s head. The pendulum is going to swing back, and hard. It’s going to reverse course with enough force to topple some of the horrific changes we’ve seen in America the last eighteen months.

We’re going to see more laws favoring abortion rights, but not gun rights. We’re going to see immigration regulations relax. We’re going to see taxes go up on the rich, and maybe even the Pentagon budget go down. And the Republicans, back to their minority status, will be powerless to do anything about it. The right-wing that brought this on will be absolutely apoplectic.

But none of this would have come to pass if Gingrich hadn’t goaded the Republicans to play unfair in the first place. So for all those rabid right-wingers who believe so fervently in the Bible, look up Galatians 6:7: as ye sow, so shall ye reap.


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The Cat That Slipped Away

Zack in Dining Room DoorwayThis is a story about failure. It is about two people who didn’t fail very much during the course of their life facing up to that very fact. That’s the problem with success: as wonderful as it is, when something, even a small thing, goes catastrophically awry, its importance becomes magnified. (The use of the word catastrophically is only a partial pun.)

This is also the story of Zachary (pictured). Of all of our rescue cats, he was the most willful – he never allowed us to pet him, and he was the one who was most interested in scampering outdoors, and the one least likely to return. I’ve written about his disappearances before, but he always came back. He would eventually appear in the front yard, plaintively mewing, his desire for adventure losing to his desire for regular meals.

He disappeared five months ago when we opened the door to let the cats enjoy the summer weather. Zachary went out, and then came back in. He went out, and then came back in. But then something happened that we never reckoned on: the territorial neighbor cat came in and scared everybody out. Rose came back. Max came back. Zachary never did – at least, not in the way that we wanted.

We were sitting in a lecture sponsored by the University of California at Berkeley about free speech when my phone buzzed. “Zachary Has Been Found!” the subject line read. The message – sent by the company whose chip he’d had implanted – told us to call the number of a local vet. But even in that short time, by the time I got through, the veterinarian told me that Zachary had been brought in by a family that found him in their yard. But he was too far gone – from some internal malady, the doctor surmised – and he’d had to euthanize him.

From the highest high to the lowest low in a matter of minutes.

We left the lecture and raced to the clinic. It had a room set aside for mourning, and one of the technicians brought Zachary’s lifeless body into us to say good-bye. It was one of the first and last times we had been able to pet him. We’d never even been able to hold him on our laps when he was a kitten. His fur was still lustrous. He was thinner than when he’d left, but he’d obviously found nourishment somewhere. As with any pet, even one that didn’t love us, it was hard to say goodbye.

And the fact that he didn’t love us was the toughest part about saying goodbye to Zachary. Thankfully, we got the closure of holding him one last time. We’d never have to peer in to the bushes, wondering if he was lurking there. We’d never have to wonder if he’d died alone and in pain. Nevertheless, the sad fact was that we’d failed him. We’d fostered feral cats before, and seen them become remarkably affectionate. Our most loving kitty, Billy, wandered into our yard two Decembers ago and never left. He goes out, but he always comes back. Why wouldn’t Zachary come back? We couldn’t have loved him any more than we did. Why did he choose the noise and the unfamiliarity and the uncertainty of the world over a house full of cat toys and Fresh Catch? For two people used to succeeding at most of the efforts they’ve put their mind to, the failure to nurture Zachary stings.

Our friend Barbarah is more easygoing about these things. She texted that Zachary was still wild at heart and was following his spirit. Indeed, he did live the last months of his life on his own terms. That’s somewhat inspirational, but no less sad in the end.

The day after Zachary passed away, I drove to the gym. When I opened the car door, there on the pavement, right where I couldn’t possibly miss it, was a penny, the legendary symbol that a loved one is sending a message from beyond. That rascal. Even though he’d slipped away from us, he made sure we knew he was still waiting for us at the Rainbow Bridge.

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The Dish Best Served Cold

My friend Amy’s mother has a saying: everything works out for the best. But sometimes when you’re in the middle of a really aggravating situation, it’s hard to see how that’s anywhere on the horizon.

I was reminded of this when I got an e-mail recently with the noncommittal subject line “Hi.” E-mails with that subject line are either from really close friends or really complete strangers.

When I opened it, I found myself reading a solicitation to refinance our house from a guy whose name was strangely familiar (I’ll exclude it here to save him even more embarrassment). It took me only a moment to realize who it was and where I knew him from.

Nine years ago, in the midst of the last recession, we were attempting to refinance our house with the Bank of America, an institution that I’d patronized for 35 years. That’s 35 years, not 3.5 years. Unlike so many other properties around that time, our house was not underwater; it had lost much of its appreciation, certainly, but we were in search of a lower interest rate. Unfortunately, my freelance income had also dropped, as it tended to do during recessions, and even though my spouse was still gainfully employed, the bank kept stalling and stalling, asking for more and more documentation. The guy who’d e-mailed me was the loan officer we had been working with, a guy who seemed absolutely powerless to intervene on our behalf and get the bank to either refinance or just flat out turn us down.

Finally, asked for one insane piece of documentation, I just said no. We ended up refinancing with another institution, and in high dudgeon, I closed all my Bank of America accounts: checking, savings, credit cards, and brokerage.

When I closed the Merrill Lynch brokerage account, I was surprised to see that almost half of my money was invested in Bank of America stock. I was surprised that that was even legal, but it turned out that it’s not illegal, because Merrill Lynch was a division (or subsidiary, or something) of Bank of America. It may have been unethical, but it was not illegal. That was in 2008.

As this wonderful transcript from NPR recalls, Bank of America had bought a mortgage-lending company called Countrywide Financial the same year. NPR called this “quite simply the worst deal in the history of the financial services industry.” The following year, 2009, as the recession deepened, it turned out that a lot of Countrywide’s mortgages were not just bad, but black, mushy, squirting rotten banana bad. Bank of America lost $40 billion on the Countrywide deal, and its stock dropped 90 percent.

Which didn’t bother me anymore, because I no longer owned any.

It’s for situations like this that the Germans coined the word schadenfreude.

As I disclosed in 2013, we jettisoned the financial institution we moved our accounts to and went back to the Bank of America. I did not open another Merrill Lynch account, though.

I thought about just deleting the e-mail from the mortgage broker (who is now with still another financial institution), but I replied and told him that because of this reverse windfall, I really should thank him. But no, I wasn’t interested in his help in any sort of refinancing.

And Amy’s mother is still right after all these years.

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Flirting With Disaster

My sister-in-law is a firefighter in Contra Costa County, what we call the East Bay. Her unit, like most others across California, was called in to fight the Wine Country fires to the west of her and the north of us. She texted that she’d spent two days in Santa Rosa “watching the world come to an end.” She is not prone to hyperbole.

San Francisco Skyline

Alcatraz and San Francisco from Angel Island, Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The sky this week looked and smelled downright apocalyptic. The sun cast strange apricot shadows even at midday. The San Francisco skyline was mired in haze that wasn’t fog. It looked like one of those really hideous pictures of Los Angeles shrouded in smog.

Just as someone’s passing reminds us of previous deaths, current disasters bring memories of past tragedies. For me, it’s mostly how I’ve skirted them. I remember walking out to my car in Seattle one day in 1980 and running my finger through a grimy layer of ash from Mt. St. Helens. (Coincidentally, I was on a weekend jaunt with a high school friend in southwestern Washington, not far from the volcano, the morning of the eruption; to my eternal annoyance, I didn’t hear the boom because I was in the shower.)

In 1989, I worked for a magazine whose publisher had season tickets to San Francisco Giants baseball games. In one of the sweetest gestures he ever made, he distributed his playoff and World Series tickets to the staff. That was how I happened to be at Candlestick Park the evening of the Loma Prieta earthquake. When I returned to my Palo Alto apartment, the extent of the damage was a toppled lamp.

Now out of the Wine Country comes phrases like “cluster fires” and “zero containment,” phrases we are not used to hearing. The air here in the South Bay, just 90 miles away, intermittently smells as though our next door neighbors have a fire roaring in the fireplace. Despite the cancellation of weekend hikes we’d planned, and the potential postponement of this weekend’s football games, our lives continue unabated. Yet the smell is a constant reminder of others’ lives disrupted and discombobulated – and not just this week, but for years to come, given how much the Wine Country relies on tourism. Though much of it is untouched, who wants to drive through a moonscape on vacation?

It’s not that we’re immune where we are, I know. The foothills, full of dry brush and trees, are only a few miles away. So is the San Andreas Fault, for that matter. Our time may yet come. We sit here wondering how much time we might have, what we would save, and how the heck to corral feral cats that won’t even let us pick them up into carriers. (We’ve done it before, so I’m confident we’ll figure out how to do it again.) I wrote earlier this year about my brushes with death, and wonder if others are yet to come. I sniff the acrid air, and wonder.

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The Upside of Obsessions and Compulsions

PassportObsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) doesn’t run in my family; it sprints. I once lived in an apartment with a back door leading out of the kitchen. There was a light switch both at the back door and at the doorway that lead into the living room. If I was at the door to the living room and I needed to turn out the lights, I would use the switch that would ensure that the lights were off and both toggles were down, because that was the appropriate position for off … even if it meant crossing to the back door to do it. That, my friends, is OCD at its best.

You would have thought that retirement would have relaxed me a bit. Oh, so not true. Ever since the moment two years ago when a United ticket agent at the Buenos Aires Airport regretfully informed me that my reservations were for the following evening’s flight, I’ve tried to be very careful. I appreciate airlines and hotels pinging me 24 hours before my travels, notifying me that it’s time to check-in, but it doesn’t help. Even knowing that my boarding pass is on my phone doesn’t calm me down.

I don’t know why travel puts in me in such a tizzy. It may date back to the time I landed in the Cayman Islands as a wholly dysfunctional travel editor, only to find that the tourist office had forgotten I was coming. No one was there to pick me up, and I had no idea where I was supposed to be staying. If not for the Cayman Airways employee who was far calmer than I was, I’m not sure what I would have done. Several years ago, preparing to fly to Vancouver for an Alaska cruise, I dutifully put our chosen flight into my calendar but neglected to call the airline to make reservations. That was fun when I realized my mistake (but we did get to fly to Vancouver first class, since those were the only seats available).

So until I have my butt in the seat of the aircraft, I worry. I worry about having an accident on the way to the airport. I worry about other people having an accident on the way to the airport, and creating a traffic tie-up. I worry about security lines, even though, as a TSA Pre member, I rarely see one. I worry about my seat being double-booked.

As we began on our recent jaunt to England, the car service was taking us to San Francisco International Airport, with plenty of time to catch our flight, even though we were leaving on the front edge of rush hour. First I dug my phone out of my carry-on to make sure that the flight was really departing at the time when I thought it was. It was, and I put the phone back.

Then I checked to see if the passports and our Global Entry cards were still in my carry-on, even though I’d shown them to my wife before we left the house. This is a condition of actually leaving the house, the confirmation by two parties that we have our documentation. (In database technology and distributed systems, this is known as a two-phase commit; I don’t know what it’s called in the real world, but it’s really, really important.)

Then I dug my phone out of my carry-on again to make sure the flight was really departing that day, and not the following day (or worse, the previous day). It was, and I put the phone back.

Each time I chastised myself for being such a worry-wart … right up until the moment we got to the check-in counter in the international terminal at the airport, where I was vindicated. In front of us was a couple frantically arguing in a foreign language. As near as I could tell, based on what the husband said to the ticket agent, his wife had left her passport at home. Given the rush hour traffic, there was no way she could get home and back without missing their flight to Taipei. Who the hell leaves home for a flight to China without making sure they have their passport? Clearly, these two had never heard of a two-phase commit.

Call it karma, call it kismet, call it whatever you want … I felt better about my OCD right then and there.

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Welcome To Code Blue

It’s time for the change of seasons, but instead of moving from summer to fall, when the leaves shift from green to amber, we’re shifting from scandal fatigue to disaster fatigue. For those of you keeping track at home, there are record-high temperatures and fires in the west; hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean; and earthquakes in Mexico. Fox News is reporting that locusts are on direct approach to the Midwest, but that may be more appropriately be spelled Faux News (still pronounced the same way).

What this brings to mind is nothing more than Patient Earth approaching terminal status. It started with increasing temperatures (fever) and is manifesting itself in sweats (flooding), shivers (earthquakes), and severe burning sensations (fires). If I didn’t know better, I would think that the earth is doing its level best to divest itself of these parasites it calls humans. Like any body under attack from overdevelopment and undernourishment, it’s fighting back the only way it knows how.

Like an aging smoker and overeater, the Earth is no doubt feeling its arteries clogged with plastic and its lungs clogged with pollutants. Does it sense that specific parasites – identified by scientists as Trumpium and Pruitticium – are working to exacerbate these maladies? The patient has been feeling so good for so many decades – less pollution, no more lakes catching on fire, more recycling – that it’s probably wondering why things are suddenly taking a turn for the worse. It’s not age-related, because the earth has been around too long for that. No, these are external maladies. No wonder the patient is working so hard to eradicate the cause of its discomfort.

The only question that remains is whether we’ll come up with ways to minimize the symptoms (oh, say, like not paving over a city built on a bayou so that it actually has some drainage capabilities when a hurricane hits, or not warming the oceans so much that melting polar ice caps start drowning people). If we’re not part of the cure, we’re surely doomed to be the disease.


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