Sunday, June 18, 2017

My Father's Music

My father can play three songs on the piano. One is Debussey's Clare de Lune. The other two are also classical pieces. I have no idea which ones. But I would love when we would go to my Aunt Laurie's house-- immense and modern, with huge rooms and (to my eye) impossibly high ceilings, her baby grand sat in sharp relief against the white walls and white shag carpet of her white living room-- and my dad would play.

I sat next to him on the piano bench, almost too eager to breathe, barely containing myself for the length of his short repertoire. He didn't know the entirety of any of the three works, but he knew enough to keep us all transfixed. Before the last note died, I would burst out "Again, daddy! Play it again!"

And he would. He would bring his large hands-- so much more comfortable holding a golf club or a cup of coffee-- he would bring his hands up and  begin to play. And for those few minutes, I was mesmerized by his hands, fluid and graceful, saying everything that mattered, everything that he couldn't say: Of course I'll it play again. I love you.

Dad wasn't much for words. Used to make me crazy. Read this, Dad; can you believe what it says? Watch this, Dad; what'd'ya think? Listen to this, Dad-- what do you say?

That's nice.
I guess so.
I don't know.

I was like a puppy all during my childhood and adolescense, jumping and wagging and slightly desperate for his attention. Notice me, Dad. Engage. Talk. Debate. Argue. Something. Anything. And mostly, I would skid head first into the wall of his quiet.

But when I asked, he would lift his strong hands to the keyboard and play for me, one more time.

Years later, long after I had moved out of their house into my own, we would joke about it (well, "joke" in the very-few-words-but-still-shared-sentiment of my dad's world). After I had talked to my mother for however long she would grant me, after the obligatory how-are-you-what's-new-are-you-dating-anyone back and forth of our conversations, she would invariably end our call with "Here. Your father wants to talk to you," and she would hand the phone to my father.

"Hey Dad."


"Poor Morry," I would say, laughing. Morry was my grandfather, my mother's stepfather. Her mother would do the same thing, every time. Whenever she was done with her part of the conversation (always in some weirdly truncated shorthand, so worried was she about the toll charges that she was sure would bankrupt her or us), she would shove the phone in Morry's hand, insisting that he wanted to talk to us. After a painfully uncomfortable and mostly silent minute or so, peppered with pat questions and unheard answers ("How are you, Papa?" "Fine, fine.") that trailed off into gentle sighs that filled up the remaining space, until we could all (thankfully) hang up.

"How's it going, Morry?" I would tease my father.
"Fine, fine," he would say. I could hear his distracted smile loud and clear.
"You don't wanna talk, do you, Dad?"
"Not particularly. Everything ok?"
"All good, Dad. I release you-- you can hang up now. Love you."

And so it went. I understood the why of his reluctance at some point, finally. He made his living with his words. If he wasn't talking to a client, he was arguing their cases in court. He spent his days talking, so by the time we picked him up at the train station at 5:45 every night, Monday through Friday, week after week after month after year, he was done talking.

Dad lived in a world that merely shadowed our own, intersecting it in the background and the in-between times-- early morning just before leaving for the train or the golf course; dusk and dinner, sitting at the head of the table, inhaling whatever meat-and-potatoes dinner Mom had made. My brothers were lucky. They had Indian Guides and Little League, smaller and infinitely more tender points of intersection. I was always so jealous that they had found this private, boy-language that engaged our father in a way that I never could.

For me, almost always, he was a silent, bread-winning presence, a not-quite stranger who came and went according to his own rhythms. Every so often, I would find the bridge between our worlds and be filled with the music he coaxed from the piano, a language all our own.

We grew comfortable in our every-so-often conversations. They rarely veered from the gentle paths we had carved for them. "How's it going?" "Fine, dad. Go ahead, Morry-- you are released." What more needed to be said? Love was wrapped around every letter, every vowel in those short sentences.

My story would end here, in that gentle back and forth game of verbal shorthand at which we had become so adept. It would - it should - but doesn't. Apparently, those warnings they slap on the side of a pack of cigarettes are true: smoking is dangerous for your health. For Dad, it became true in spades: throat and tongue cancer. When he was diagnosed, we were told that if he had to get cancer, this was certainly the best one to get, since it was mostly curable and survival rates are quite high. Of course, an 89% survival rate is high until it's used in connection with your dad. Then it's impossibly small, while 11% looms larger than mountains and sky together.

After a year of chemo and radiation and hope and prayer (not necessarily in that order), the doctors found that while the tongue cancer had been eradicated, the throat cancer seemed to have snagged on his vocal chords, wrapping them in strands of ugly, deathly cells. There was no choice but to remove the voice box. And so, on September 10, 2012, dad underwent a trachyectomy.

I went to visit him, shortly after his surgery. He was still raw and tender, still a little lost and unsure.  Always a man of small conversations and few words-- he was wrapped in silence. We had gotten him a white board to write on. We wanted to get him an iPad or Tablet. He refused them all. He was too impatient, too used to the rhythms of talking and vocalizing. He would start to write, and then his fingers and thoughts would tangle, and he'd push the board to the side, waiting mutely for us to fill in the blanks.

And then he would bring up his large hands, swirling them through the air between us, fluid punctuation to whatever he was trying to say. Impassioned, expressive, swooping movement meant to be his voice:

Ferris wheel, ferris wheel, fireworks!

Or something to that effect. I read his hands about as well as I read his lips. I realized, though, that the words didn't matter. Or didn't matter much. I was transfixed, once again, by his hands, saying everything that ever needed to be said-- everything he had always said-- I love you.

Love you back, Dad. 
Happy father's day. 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

When is Enough Enough?

This was a post I wrote yesterday, on Facebook:

Dear God! We are a nation under siege. When is enough enough? How many more people must die or be maimed by gun violence?!
The answer is NOT to put more guns on the streets! Don't quote the 2nd amendment to me - it calls for a well regulated militia. These terrorists - the white men who believe they are acting for God or race or political bent - who carry semi-automatic rifles that can strafe a plaza - or a baseball field or a church or a business or (pick a place, any place) - and mow down human beings to show their might and power and hatred - these terrorists can pick up their guns and bullets without a care! It is more difficult to get a driver's license than a gun license.
Dear God - when will enough be enough?

Someone I don't know commented on it - "The criminals will get their guns one way or another," implying this was a good reason why gun control won't work and shouldn't be pursued.

Here's the thing - of *course* criminals will always get their guns! I'M NOT WORRIED ABOUT THE FUCKING CRIMINALS!

- I'm worried about the mentally ill person who can readily buy a gun.
- I'm worried about the white supremacist skinhead who can legally buy a gun.
- I'm worried about the nice parents down the block who buy a gun to protect their family whose child ends up dead because said child found the gun - or MY child getting killed by their gun because he was over playing at their house and someone found the gun
- I'm worried about the guy whose pissed off at his wife or his girlfriend or boss or co-worker or the world who decides to do something about it

Of course the criminals will get their guns. We have law enforcement to deal with that, and it's by no means perfect or even relatively effective. But gun control laws were never meant to deal with that issue!

Good God people! We created this battlefield all by ourselves. This blood is on our hands. Somehow, we deified the NRA and the 2nd amendment, and we build altars to their godhood daily. And you know - it's all of us. We are all culpable in this passion play.

We wring our hands and offer thoughts and prayers as if that were enough. We shake our heads in sorrow, in anger, in bewilderment - and then we go on with our lives, until the next time, and the next time, and the time after that. Because there will always be a next time. And we will be just as culpable and just as sad and bewildered and angry.

Here are some cold hard facts, gleaned from the Center for Disease Control
  • On an average day, 93 Americans will be killed with guns
  • Those 93 deaths daily? Seven of them will be kids or teens.
  • Nearly 12,000 people will die. victims of gun homicide, annually
  • For every one person killed by a gun, two more will be injured
  • Every month, 50 women will be shot by their intimate partner
  • When a gun is present in a situation of domestic violence, the risk of the woman being killed increases fivefold
  • The American gun homicide rate is 25 times higher, on average, than other high income countries. The US makes up 42% of the population of that group, but accounts for 82% of the gun deaths.
What will it take?

We thought Columbine would do it, didnt we. I could have sworn we did.So I went searching, to find out how many mass shootings there had been since that deadly, horrifying kick-you-in-the-gut-and-take-your-breath-away massacre at Columbine High School in April, 1999. Funny thing - my research took me back to 1984 (a prescient year, to be sure; I'm sure I could have gone further - I chose to stop there). That was the year a man walked into a McDonald's in San Ysidro, California and opened fire, killing 21 and wounding 19.

Between San Ysidro (1984) and Columbine (1999), there were nine other mass shootings - a total of 11 shootings in all at that time. The total number of dead iwas 112. One hundred twelve lives snuffed out, and one hundred fifty-nine wounded - physically. God only knows the countless others whose wounds are not visible to the eye. Angry men. Hurt and damaged boys. Empty people who wanted to punish, who wanted to hurt, who wanted to kill. Who wanted to die. They grabbed a gun - a rifle, a shotgun, a handgun, a semiautomatic rifle - and sprayed bullets and pain and death all around them.

Columbine hit us like a wave of frigid water. It shocked us all. It sickened us all. We wept with all of the families whose worlds were destroyed that day in April. And we swore it would never happen again. Didn't we? Of course we did! We had to have. I mean, this wasn't some gangland war on the mean streets of some city. This wasn't some pissed off guy with a chip on his shoulder who shot up his girlfriend's office in an effort to show her just how much he loved her and what lengths he'd go to make her stay.

This wasn't supposed to happen - not here! This was middle class suburbia, mostly white America. This was a couple of kids! White kids, who, seemingly out of nowhere, walked into their school and opened fire on classmates and teachers alike. It wasn't until later that we found out they had an arsenal of guns at their fingertips, all legally owned by their parents. It wasn't until later that we learned they were Outsiders, bullied and marginalized and unstable.

So we learned, We learned from the harshest teacher, this most brutal lesson. We learned, and so we declared it wouldn't happen again.

Until it did. Three months later, in Atlanta. Two months after that, in Fort Hood. And two more months. And then the next month. Again and again. Over and over. The killings never stopped. People who'd been fired, or passed over, or left - they took it out on the people they worked with or loved or hated or feared. Who the fuck knows?

From Columbine to Virginia Tech - the next of the "big" ones, the shootings that really shook us up. that seem to have a more permanent status in our heads (except, of course, if your world was rocked by one of the "minor" shootings, the ones that faded more quickly from public view) - from April, 1999 - April 2007: 13 mass shootings. Ninety-seven dead, seventy-four walking wounded.

We learned. We learned how to use social media to notify students and faculty that there was a potential madman on the loose. It would have been nice to learn how to keep guns out of the hands of the madmen. Almost a year later (with only one other mass shooting and eight dead along the way), Northern Illinois University was hit by its own disgruntled student. Again, we activated the notification system, keeping those kids not in the lecture hall on lockdown and safe. We lost only five souls that day. It could have been so much worse.

But we learned. And it won't happen again. We won't let it happen again.

Binghamton, NY: April 2009, 13 dead, 4 wounded
Fort Hood, TX: November 2009, 13 dead, 32 wounded
Huntsville, AL: February 2010, 3 dead, 3 wounded
Manchester, CT: August 2010, 8 dead, 2 wounded
Tucson, AZ: August 2011, 6 dead, 11 wounded
Seal Beach, CA: October 2011, 8 dead, 1 wounded
Oakland, CA: April 2012, 7 dead, 3 wounded

Aurora, CO: July 2012 - another one of the "big names" in mass killings. This was the madman who shot up the midnight showing of a Batman movie, killing 12 and wounding 58.

Oak Creak, WI: 6 killed, 3 wounded in a Sikh temple where people were at worship
Minneapolis, MN: September 2012, 6 killed, 2 wounded
Brookfield, WI: October 2012, 3 killed, 4 wounded

Newton, CT: December 2012, Sandy Hook Elementary School. This brought a nation to its knees. Stories of courage beyond what anyone could have imagined. The faces of those sweet, sweet kids, getting ready for the holidays. The teachers and administrators who did all that they could, and then did more. The parents whose children died. In all, 27 people - adults and kids - died. Were murdered.

And we declared we had had enough. We declared that this madness would end. We shouted "never again!" to anyone who would listen, and to many who wouldn't. We were done learning these lessons. We got it. Surely Congress would listen now! Surely Congress would no longer bow to the pressure of the NRA and other pro-gun lobbyists, not with all we had been through. Right?

Between Sandy Hook and the Charleston Church shooting almost exactly three years later, there were five gun mass murders, a mere 36 deaths. I mean, really - they should barely count, right?

Except they do count. As do the 13 other mass shootings that happened between then and yesterday, June 14, 2017. On that day, we saw two mass shootings, a continent apart. One in Virginia in, in the shadow of the capitol -where thank God no one was killed! - and San Francisco, where three were killed and two wounded.

In all, from what I thought would be five or six notorious cases of brutality and murder (because who can keep all of that death front and center? Life refuses to stop, or even slow down long enough to process these atrocities in their moments, and after a while, they seem to melt and fuse into one another, because how different are they, when it comes right down to it?) turned into 56 separate incidents of some guy (ok; there were two women who made it on the list; still...), some guy, some kid, some bruised and battered and broken person took out a gun and opened fire to assuage some inner demon.

From 1984 - 2017, 404 people have been killed in a mass shooting. I can't even start on those who've been killed individually. In Chicago alone, there were 762 homicides in 2016; 90% were a result of gun violence. Overall, there were 4,368 shootings here last year. We're almost at 1,000 this year, and we haven't even hit summer yet, which is when the temperature and the assault rates rise almost exponentially.

Let me remind you where all of this started: I don't give a flying fuck about criminals and their gins. In almost every single case of these mass shootings, the guns these mass murderers used were purchased legally, owned legally. Could very well have been concealed legally. In the blink of an eye, these sick individuals to their guns and ended the lives of so many.

The blink of an eye.

Do you really think that arming everybody would have stopped these murders? Even in those cases where the Authorities (whomever They may be) had an inkling that something might not be quite right in the head with these murderers, everyone was caught off guard. And no, I don't want to debate how many may have been saved in the seconds that someone on the battlefield may have had a gun, may have had the presence of mind to whip it out in the next blink of an eye, may have known how to use said gun, may have hit their target (the gunman) and not some other innocent who happened to be standing in the way (or close enough to it).

Arming everyone to the teeth is a recipe for disaster. 

We here in America seem to be the jumpy, hair-trigger gun-toting murder capital o the world. Remember that statistic, way up there? The American gun homicide rate is 25 times higher than other high income nations. Last year, the rate of death by gun violence in the US (per 100,000) was 10.2; in the UK, it was .2, 1.1 in Germany, 2.3 in Canada, 2.8 in France (according to a CBS news story).

It's the guns. It's the ease of access to the guns. It's the people who can get the guns, in all their angry, crazy, messed up lives. It's the inconsistencies from state to state. It's the loopholes and work-arounds that make what little control we have immaterial. It's the fucking NRA and their chokehold on Congress. It's the lobbyists and spineless politicians who put money before constituents. It's greed. It's short-sightedness and expediency. It's poverty and lack of education and gangs and ignorance and stupidity and arrogance.

It's death. Ugly, painful, nasty, brutish murder by bullet, and it knows no race, no socio-economic bracket, no gender, no religion, no political party. WE have created this battlefield. WE have condoned this culture. OUR hands are bloody. We cannot point a finger if we do not include ourselves, because we wring our hands and weep and keep these nameless, faceless victims and their families in our thoughts and prayers, and then we go on and live our lives, shifting a bit uncomfortably when we listen to the news, and we shake our heads when we hear about the latest atrocity, and we raise our voices, demanding change.

And nothing really seems to have changed.

And so we have 404 people gunned down, their blood soaking into the ground that rises up in horror. Have we had enough yet?

Every man's death diminishes me. I fear I have almost disappeared under the weight of all this death.