When I woke up in the middle of the night there was so much light in the room I thought it had to be 6 or 7 AM, not the 3:30 AM that showed on my clock. I looked out the window and saw a brilliant full moon, just sliding behind a bank of clouds. The world outside was still, no cars or machinery rumbling, not even any deer or raccoons to be seen ravaging our foundation plantings. I felt suspended in time and space. We are all suspended in time and space, waiting, waiting for some miracle to happen—rapid result virus testing for all, testing for antibodies to see who has already had the disease, a vaccine.
Like many writers, I’ve been filling notebook pages with thoughts, feelings, worries, etc. about our current condition. Recently I learned about an effort called Mass Observation: COVID-19, or #MOC19. This group is asking people to keep a diary of how they are experiencing the pandemic, whether it is the experience of sheltering in place or that of being in a service role, such as a health care worker. The information will be gathered up and saved for researchers in the future. I decided to drop in my two cents worth.
I live in a suburb of New York City, in the hardest-hit state, New York. I am 72 years old and so considered vulnerable, so I am following the rules for staying home and being very careful when I venture out to the grocery store or pharmacy. We haven’t seen our kids or grandkids in ages. I serve on a bank board and that is still meeting virtually, but my exercise club is closed. My volunteer organizations, such as the League of Women Voters and the Katonah Poetry Society are trying to maintain a virtual presence in the community, but a zoom meeting here and there is just not the same. And following a workout video via my laptop perched on an end table in my living room is also less than optimum. I take walks whenever it is nice out and I try to keep busy, but I’ve been having trouble focusing on anything. I fall asleep pretty easily in the evening, but I often wake up at three or four in the morning—shuddering with feelings of dread or having anxiety dreams of needing to place thousands of objects in order or to fill out indecipherable forms—and I can’t get back to sleep. Still, I consider myself lucky; I have a comfortable home and enough money in the bank to ride this out. And there’s still plenty of coffee and toilet paper in the cupboards.
I intend to post at least once a week but will aim for twice. I am including today one of my entries from mid-March. I’ll post again in a few days with entries to begin to catch up with the present. Please join me at #MOC19.
Mid-March on the cul de sac.
Notified this AM that my gym has closed; a patron tested positive hours after visiting. I was there last Friday, wearing too-large surgical gloves that kept sliding off during Zumba class.
Walking my dog, I stand six feet away to chat with a neighbor, each of us solo walkers. Back home, I do sit-ups and leg raises on my bedroom floor.
Next-door neighbors—a dad and twin girls in lavender parkas—march down their driveway with their curly-brown-furred dog. Mom hurries to catch up, phone at her ear.
Our road is a parade ground of walkers—families with strollers, children on scooters, dozens of dogs. I’ve met more neighbors in three days than I had met in the past five years.
Thanks for reading,
I saw a bluebird at my suet feeder this morning.
The yard is winter-bare, and there sits this tiny,
bright-blue being, going about its delightful little life.
The wildlife at my birdfeeders seem ignorant
of social distancing. A blue jay scares off a titmouse
then touches down on the just-vacated perch.
I’m notified that my gym has closed; a patron tested positive
hours after visiting. I was there last week, wearing too-large
surgical gloves that kept sliding off during Zumba.
I do sit-ups on my bedroom floor,
then walk my dog. I stand six feet away to chat
with a neighbor, each of us solo walkers.
Next-door neighbors—a dad and twin girls in lavender parkas—
march down their driveway with their curly,
brown-furred dog. Mom hurries to catch up, phone at her ear.
The governor closed the schools.
Back home, seeds spill as a woodpecker stirs them
with its beak, looking for just the right morsel.
Chipmunks scurry in for the spillage, then two
gray squirrels sift through sunflower seed hulls,
checking for forgotten kernels.
I’ve forgotten what I worried about two weeks ago,
and I hope for new deliveries of toilet paper.
About five months after my family moved to Switzerland in 1959, my mother went into labor early, with what we thought would be her eighth child. After three weeks of complete bed rest, the surprise twin babies – eighth and ninth – were born Christmas Day.
How auspicious! Paul was so beautiful, with his blond curls and long, lanky body! Even his fingers were long and elegant. Ilene, two pounds smaller than Paul, was tiny and had straight dark hair and intense dark eyes set into a little round face. She looked like the Japanese dolls friends had sent us from Japan in the early ’50’s.
The twins were baptized a few weeks later in a tiny, Medieval stone church in the nearby town of Versoix, each of them dressed in a piece of the Christening gown my father and the older seven children had been baptized in. My older sister Sheila and I (first and second of the brood) held them for the service, filling in for the official godparents, who were back in the States.
On Christmas mornings, for all the years that the twins were growing up, the ten of us kids (our tenth – and last – child, Julia, was born two years after the twins) woke before dawn. We waited at the top of the stairs in our pajamas, our dog Charlie whining and whimpering in the excitement, until Mother and Dad went downstairs and turned on the tree lights. Once they gave us the go-ahead, we all rushed down to the living room, big kids looking out for little kids, and opened our presents in a frenzy of ripping paper and squeals and barking and the beeping and clanking of new toys.
Someone put Christmas music on the record player.
O little town of Bethlehem/How still we see thee lie./Above thy deep and dreamless sleep/The silent stars go by.
… Our one perfect day of the year.
After presents had been opened, we older girls helped Mother fix a big breakfast of bacon and eggs that we ate in the dining room. The candles on the Advent wreath, changed out from their pink and lavender to red in honor of the day, blazed all morning. There were too many of us to go to church together, so those who hadn’t been to Midnight Mass drifted off to Mass in twos and threes.
From noon on, Christmas changed over to the twins’ birthday. Following family birthday tradition, Ilene didn’t have to help with dishes or set the table, the usual girl chores. Both she and Paul got to laze around in the living room and ask other people to bring them a soda or a glass of juice while they played with their new toys or watched some old movie on TV, which they got to choose. At dinner, while Dad read the gospel from the Christmas Mass, Paul and Ilene got to relight the red candles on the Advent Wreath. Mother carried in the roast beef with great ceremony and placed it in front of Dad, and the twins got their pick of the roast – they usually chose the ends, valuable mostly because there were only two of them – and they were served first. Our ten sequined, red felt Christmas stockings hung from the dining room fireplace mantle. Above them, the little brass angels of the Swedish chimes, pushed by the rising heat of little candles, clanged against bells as they swung by.
Dessert was always the same – two layer-cakes in the shape of a Christmas tree, one white, one chocolate, both of them made from Betty Crocker mixes and decorated with green frosting and little globs of red, blue and yellow frosting made to look like Christmas tree ornaments. After the dinner plates were cleared away, Sheila, Mary Grace or I would go out to the kitchen to light the candles on the cakes. The twins would squirm and grin kitty-corner from each other at the long table. When we gave the signal, Johnny or Patrick would turn off the lights and start the singing and we’d deliver the cakes and birthday presents by the light of all the candles.
Fast forward to today
The above is an excerpt from Shot in the Head, A Sister’s Memoir, a Brother’s Struggle, my memoir about my family, and more specifically about taking care of my brother, Paul.
Little did we know back in 1970 when the ten of us posed for this picture – that’s Paul petting our dog, Charlie – how it would all turn out. Our beautiful baby Paul grew into a handsome teenager, full of promise…
…until he succumbed to a psychotic episode at age 16. Christmas was never the same again for our family. Despite frantic efforts to get him psychiatric care, Schizophrenia killed the brother we knew and left in his place a confused, delusional man, who had no more than a few scattered minutes of sanity ever again. And his situation worsened over the years, as most of our psychiatric facilities were closed and fewer and fewer facilities were available for the care of those most seriously ill.
Our system of care for people with serious mental illnesses in our country is simply not working. 4% of our population suffers from a serious mental illness, and many of them, like my brother Paul, never really recover, even if they stay on medication. Only about one-third of people diagnosed with schizophrenia recover, a third cycle in and out, and a third never achieve any appreciable recovery. Many of these are homeless or in jail, due to the lack of appropriate care facilities and supportive housing.
Ilene’s Christmas Birthday Wish
Over the past few years, the families of people like Paul came together and let our congressmen and senators know that we wanted them to end the IMD exclusion, a provision of Medicaid that prohibits providing benefits – i.e. funding – to people being cared for in an “institution of mental disease.” So far, even when the 20th Century Cures Act was passed, it did not address this issue. But although the provision has still not been repealed, Alex M. Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services has recently released instructions allowing the States to apply for a waiver to the provision, which will allow them to care for seriously mentally ill people in the hospital, if that is what their illness requires. This is a step forward, but not enough. The most seriously ill, like my brother, however, need supportive housing. It is as important a component of their care as their medications. But because of the IMD, long term housing for mentally ill people still cannot include supervisory and medical staff.
A psychiatric nurse who works in a county upstate told me once that they saw the same mentally ill patients cycle onto their ward over and over again. “It’s David again,” they’d say to each other when the call came in that a psychotic man had been brought into the ER. Or Cheryl, or John… They knew what drugs worked the last time, so they’d get him or her stabilized in four or five days, then release them to a taxi with a paper prescription, $25 and one night prepaid in a local motel. They would be back in a month or two.
Hospitalization, stabilization, release, decline,
psychosis, fights, rehospitalization or jail.
No day clinic, no pretense of psychiatric care.
You’re in charge of yourself.
Let someone know if you’re feeling bad.
Nothing to do and no supervision.
300 men and women living in one building,
Delusions, mania, confusion, despair.
Somebody crashes, now there’s another
Police car stops. They’re off with my brother.
Hospitalization, stabilization, release, decline,
psychosis, fights, rehospitalization or jail.
My best wishes to all for a happy and healthy holiday season.
To learn more about possible supportive housing options, see my blog with that title on this WordPress address. Let’s make 2020 the year we help the mentally ill homeless off the street and out of hell-hole “adult homes.”
Books saved my life.
Just before I started third grade, my family moved to our first one family house. After many years living on the ground floor of a duplex, we kids were thrilled to discover that there would no longer be any other family living upstairs. My older sister and I now shared the luxury of a third-floor bedroom all to ourselves. We even had our own bathroom. The previous occupants had left us blue wall to wall carpeting and pirate-themed wallpaper. Jolly Roger flagged galleons were manned by a collection of peg-legged and eye-patched old sailors. Some of the pirates, for some reason as large as their ships, floated mysteriously against the azure sky, brandishing curved scabbards and smoking muskets.
For several years around this time, Dad attended law school four nights a week, in addition to working all day. Weekends, he crashed. In our busy household, it seemed that Mother was always engrossed with our many younger siblings. (Sheila was the oldest, and I was number two of the eventual ten children in our Irish Catholic family.) Above all the hubbub, Sheila and I lived in our own little world. Most of the time, that meant parents and the little kids did not ascend the third-floor staircase. We could have Monopoly games going for days, and no babies would mess up the board. In exchange for this privilege, we were required to do our chores and to GO TO BED when told.
We hated turning off the lights at night. That third floor was dark. As a compromise, we negotiated to keep the bathroom light on and leave the door ajar just a crack, which allowed a thin sliver of light to pierce the shadows. Unfortunately, the light also hit against the wallpaper and lit up the pirates’ eyeballs, which glared out, menacingly. In preparation for this problem, I would put my Jesus, Blessed Virgin, and Holy Family fluorescent glow-in-the-dark statues directly next to the light bulb of our bedside lamp for several minutes before lights went out. Once darkness fell and the eyeballs glistened, I could line up my glowing Catholic talismans to defend me.
Then Peter Pan came to television, and Sheila and I were overjoyed to discover a world where little kids beat the pirates! Our game theme was set for the next few years. Like Peter Pan and Wendy, we felt in command and unafraid of the wallpaper menace. Unfortunately, though, we now faced an even worse peril: crocodiles. Crocodiles under the bed, ready to snap at your bare ankles. Crocodiles everywhere on the blue wall-to-wall sea. A trip to the bathroom became a mad dash on tiptoes. Sharp teeth loomed everywhere.
Sheila and I were avid readers, and books became our saviors. We kept stacks of them at the foot of our beds and spread them, like rose petals, beneath our feet as we moved about the room. They became our little islands on the ocean floor, and a nighttime trip to the bathroom was now accomplished by crossing our literary archipelago. Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, the C.S. Lewis books about Narnia, the Enid Blyton Adventure series… even babyish storybooks were used indiscriminately for protection. But heaven help you if you slipped off! A crocodile could crush your ankle in his powerful jaws in less than a second!
In bed, waiting for sleep to come, I would fantasize that Peter came for ME! He and I would fly off to Never Never Land, and live there forever. For months I even left our dormer window open a crack for him. If Dad felt the draft, he would tramp upstairs, huffing and swearing, “Jeez, waddya trying to do up here, heat up the whole town? Close the winda!” He’d slam the window shut with a bang, and I would scoot down under the covers, giving up on Peter for that night. “Maybe tomorrow,” I’d think, as I drifted off to sleep. The two fantasies coexisted peacefully; my fear of the crocodiles in our daily play was somehow detached from the dream to fly away and be free in a land where crocodiles roamed. I could picture myself swimming in paradise lagoons, perching in tree houses, and floating over exciting new scenery, like a cloud. No dishes, no homework, no diapers to fold and stack! I wanted to live in Never Never Land, have adventures, and never, ever grow up.
For Sheila and me, adults were just legs who wandered through our scenery, like in the Peanuts comic strip. And we were almost as independent of each other as we were of adults. We often shared helpful advice for each other, such as, “You don’t have enough books in your arms to make it all the way to the closet. Take more.” Or Sheila told me to try using old National Geographics; they worked just as well as hardcover books, and they weighed less. I shared with her my discovery that large, flat storybooks were the easiest to balance on – they provided a wide, solid foothold. But when it came right down to it, it was every kid for herself. No whining to parents to rescue us. Whether it was in real life or in the books we read, we believed that children could function almost totally without adults. And as we moved into the sixties, we continued to think that we could get along without adult help and never have to grow up.
Throughout it all, I generally felt quite capable of making sure I had enough books with me to get where I needed to go without ankle injury. Don’t get me wrong. Mother was a rock, and I depended on her for far more than I knew at the time. But, understandably perhaps in our large household, she was Mrs. No Nonsense, Mrs. No Time for Sentiment. “Time to get up. Peel these potatoes for dinner. Did you do your homework? Fold that basket of diapers, would you?” And as I mentioned, my father was just sort of not there, except to yell if we broke the rules. Never feeling particularly nurtured, not fearing the absence of warm bosomy embraces, I wasn’t afraid of leaving home.
I really couldn’t figure out what all that fuss was about the Lost Boys and Peter wanting a mother. I had a mother, and I didn’t feel any qualms at all about leaving her. Becoming part of a gang of lost children sounded like fun. In choosing a college and after, my siblings and I seemed to have a contest to see who could move away the farthest and stay away the longest. California, Wisconsin, Montana, Massachusetts, Louisiana, North Carolina… As each child graduated from high school, we received two suitcases as our graduation present, and off we went. For a while, we even had representatives in Zaire, Egypt, and Venezuela! And we took care of ourselves quite nicely, thank you, at least in all the practical things. We learned to make a living, and we saved dutifully for retirement, although none of us actually believed that retirement would ever come.
But time did pass. We Boomers couldn’t ignore it anymore. We began to diet and exercise.
And now both of my parents are gone. And since I’m in the famous first wave of Baby Boomers, I know that I’m not alone. We Boomers, who were never going to trust anyone over thirty; who, into our forties were still asking each other what we wanted to be when we grew up; and who have been fighting against the signs of age hitting us, have never really faced the ultimate impact of the passage of time on our parents, much less ourselves. While my sisters and I were nervously whispering about what we would do if Mother needed nursing home care, she slipped away. No nonsense, no fuss, a massive heart attack while we were sleeping, and we were cut adrift.
Suddenly I feel alone and exposed, surrounded by crocodiles. Funerals, estate attorneys, where to have Thanksgiving dinner this year, who to call for sympathy on that missed promotion. Do I take Social Security at 62 or wait it out to 67? Unexpectedly, I feel empathy for the Lost Boys. Sheila and I never felt like we had anyone to save us if we fell off our islands, but she and I, and our other brothers and sisters and friends have subtly, now, become each other’s islands. Like the Lost Boys, we are creating a new family structure for ourselves, hopefully one which will allow, even encourage, more closeness than before.
The pirates and crocodiles are out there, but just as we did up in our room on the third floor, we’ve discovered that we can create a new island refuge. And as each of us struggles to carry enough books to make it to where we need to go, we try to remember to look out for each other. The next few years will be tough ones, and we lost boys and girls will have to stick together.
For more stories like this one, I’ve published a memoir about growing up in this large family and caring for my youngest brother, who suffered from schizophrenia.
Where does the urge by young men to strap on powerful guns and shoot up a bunch of strangers even come from? Why do young men keep doing it? Why are they so angry?
For a possible answer, we might take a look at our society’s major myths. In the Western world, the familiar myths that help us make sense of the people and events around us glorify male archetypes, heroes who tamed wild, unknown lands. I’m thinking of the notation at the edge of old maps that say things like “Beyond here, there be dragons.” Often the myth that fuels our perception of events is that of the redeemer— the young man who journeys far from his home to fight unknown foes and come back to his home as a hero: Odysseus/Ulysses and Perseus in classical times; the Lone Ranger, Luke Skywalker and Spiderman in ours. This kind of hero uses his superior strength, intelligence, skill with weapons, and the favor of the gods to tame evil giants, one-eyed monsters, and greedy evil-doers.
The problem is that today, most of our worlds have been conquered. And so our continuing reverence for this kind of myth creates a tension that cannot be resolved without making trouble for society. It no longer serves our tamed and heavily populated world. Yet, to the extent the brave warrior archetype is the one which fills young peoples’ imaginations, men will want to be the warrior and women will want to be with the warrior. All young people want approval, and hopefully admiration, of their peers and parents. But allowing this kind of myth to fuel their approach to the world only gets us all in trouble. this kind of thinking helps young men up so they face setbacks as if they have just drunk ten cups of coffee. They want to DO SOMETHING NOW!! They don’t set themselves to studying and planning and working with others. They come to believe that strapping on a semi-automatic weapon and shooting the people at the church or synagogue down the road or their high school will somehow vanquish society’s enemies. Yet the real evil we must face is more likely to be a pervert in the apartment in the next building or a greedy corporate raider–not to mention climate change woes–not a one-eyed giant in a strange, far-away land.
Now, before you start, YES, we have way too many guns floating around in the U.S.A.—an estimated 400,000,000 of them, including 10,000,000 – that’s millions – assault-style rifles, capable of shooting over 40 bullets in one minute. We thoughtful people can’t seem to get our lawmakers to hear our demands for sensible gun control legislation. And YES, some of these shootings are committed by people who are mentally ill. But it is a very low percentage, less than the occurrence of serious mental illness in the population. (And, by the way, we are doing almost nothing to help these people before a tragedy occurs. See my blog Following up on Parkland) And YES, violent video games might give people ideas. But women play video games, too, and they almost never commit mass shootings. 60% of Japanese people play these video games—more than in the U.S.A., but they hardly commit any gun violence at all. Men in European countries and Canada face problems with their jobs and anger over perceived unfairness in the workplace, but they hardly ever engage in shooting sprees. So how do we make sense of this?
In the U.S. we are seeing the convergence of three problems: the availability of firearms, the build-up of these economic and social provocations and stressors and a third factor—a lifetime of hearing and seeing this conquering hero archetype projected around them over and over again. The combination is deadly.
We need new myths.
There are still new worlds to explore and conquer. It’s just that they will not be discovered or explored by superheroes, cowboys and adventurers. The new worlds we face as a society will be explored by teams of people working cooperatively, depending on their intelligence, reasoning ability, and support teams—like astronauts, who depend on an extraordinary team of scientists and technicians to make their giant leaps for mankind. It will not be by loners, acting on their intuition, innate skill, and big guns. There are no one-eyed cyclops out there for us to shoot and save the world in an instant. We need great stories that give praise to intelligence and reasoning ability, skills that will fuel the ambitions of young men and women going forward. Our new heroes will be scientists and people who can lead people to work together to solve such problems as infrastructure needs and mitigating the impact of climate change.
How much happier the young men of our society—and the people around them—would be if they were raised to praise and wish to emulate the good father, rather than the man who abandons his family to have adventures. how much happier and better off if our young men held as their idea not Odysseus, but more like the Jimmy Stuart character in It’s a Wonderful Life. Or if they were raised to emulate the idealism and self-sacrifice of Jimmy Stuart again in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, making a difference without a gun anywhere in sight. Those movies were very popular in the past, but more recently have been replaced by comic-book strong, independent men or X-men who have no family responsibilities and who chase evil-doers with guns blazing. They’re not even pretending to try to get back to Penelope.
I think our society recognizes that the lone hero archetype isn’t quite right, but it doesn’t quite know how to fix it. Let’s all try.
And where shall women find heroines to emulate in the old myths? There’s certainly no place for a lady in any of them, at least not as an actor having the adventures. another reason for some new myths. But my thoughts on that will have to wait for another day. Coming soon.
There is something that often gets overlooked in our conversations about #metoo, priestly pedophilia, Christine Blasi Ford, beer-swilling Kavanaugh, disgusting child rapists, and the range of sexual abuses that were simply not talked about for generations. That “something” is that two trends tend to play out in concert with one another in the issue.
On the one hand, claims that a man has raped a woman or child are often not believed. Our society has declared that rape and child sexual abuse are heinous crimes, yet for some reason, most police, judges, jurors, etc., have tended to believe that the women and girls who report these assaults are likely lying. In their eyes, the very fact that the woman has had sexual relations—even if it was against her will—somehow defines her as a wanton woman. “Do you want to believe a prostitute?” someone inevitably says. Well, I say, “Do you want to believe the guy who frequents prostitutes? …A man who lures 15-year-olds into his mansion to give him ‘“massages?’ …A man who cannot sustain a consenting sexual relationship with anyone? Yet the woman’s claim is often not believed, she is verbally abused for making any claim, and the man goes free.
But there is something else that occurs — the man IS believed. That is, the fallback position if there is any doubt—do we believe him or her?— is that the man likely did not commit a crime; men in power believe the accused’s protestations of innocence. It’s not 50-50. So despite the fact that 19 (or more) women have accused Donald Trump of sexual assault, our legal system has done nothing to prosecute him. So a rich movie mogul can rape, abuse and torment young actresses for decades. So a known child predator and pornographer—Epstein—can operate in plain sight because he is rich and has a huge cadre of lawyers who pay people off or blackmail his customers or whatever they do so that their client does not end up in prison for life. Police, prosecutors, etc. don’t believe the women. They believe the men
This goes far beyond the innocent until proven guilty claim. Compare it to a claim of robbery. If I claim that I saw someone steal my car, and if I pick the guy out of a lineup, he will likely be convicted of that crime, no matter how much he protests his innocence. The jurors and judges will likely believe me. Yet men will repeatedly say about a rape that the intercourse either didn’t take place, or that it was consensual.
In cases like this, unless the woman can show huge bruises and scrapes from being dragged through an alley, the claim that it was consensual, or that the woman is making it all up—the usual contentions of the man—is, more often than not, believed. It is as if the car thief claimed that I told him it was ok for him to take my car for a joy ride and the jury believed him.
The D.A., judge, and jury would not believe that. They do, however, apparently believe that a fourteen-year-old girl wanted to become the sexual plaything of a bunch of rich perverts.
I am so disgusted.
Why do so many men believe that women make this stuff up?
When will this change? When will sexual predators be locked up?
We need more women in authority. We need a woman president.