Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The dog walker

Today Mike and I were at Stop & Shop, where we ran into a neighbor from the old apartment building we’d moved out of last October. He informed us that one of our neighbors from that building had died. I didn’t know her very well, but the news was especially disturbing because of the circumstances.

T resided few doors down from us, on the other side of the hallway. She was a middle-aged woman who lived with her boyfriend and was often seen walking her dogs. She would shuffle down the sidewalk in a long leather jacket, dyed red hair pulled back in a ponytail, clutching several dog leashes in one hand and a cigarette in the other. She’d hack and cough, looking lost in thought while she walked. When I said hi, she’d return the greeting with her eyes downcast. I think she was embarrassed because we knew what was going on at home. Everyone in the apartment complex knew.

Shortly after Mike and I moved to Bridgeport in September 2013, he heard a crash from behind her doorway. He thought T had fallen down. Then she shouted, “He’s choking me! Call 911!” So he did. The cops showed up for a domestic dispute. I was afraid her boyfriend would come after us if he knew Mike had called, but he didn't. Afterwards, T apologized to Mike. She said, “I’m sorry for being white trash.”

This was the first of many times. Some nights she’d scream, “Help me!” Sometimes she would stand outside her apartment door, pounding on it, shouting at her boyfriend to let her in. Other times her boyfriend was outside that same door, hollering at her to let him back inside. He’d go away for a while but was always back. They were both drunk a lot of the time. Occasionally Mike and I overheard fragments of arguments when we passed by their door. We weren’t trying to listen; it was just so loud. Once we were passing and randomly heard, “Because fuck you, that’s why!” Another time we heard her boyfriend say, “You’re a cunt.” And on another day she bellowed at him, “Just hit me, you pussy! Just punch me in the fucking face!” I couldn’t understand why she told him to punch her.

This would sometimes happen at 1 a.m. Then, locked out of her apartment, she’d bang on the door and start shouting. I’d come out to see if she needed help. She’d profusely apologize to me, and then go back to pummeling the door.

We called 911 so many times because we didn’t know what else to do. Her neighbor in the next apartment was a woman in her eighties. She told me, “I hear this all night long. I’ve had a heart attack because I was so scared. I had to go to the hospital.” She said that T and her boyfriend had been living there for years.

One night in late 2014, soon after my car accident, T came knocking on our door. She was slurring and stumbling. She wanted us to call 911 because her boyfriend had locked her out again and had threatened her. Mike asked, “Does he have any weapons?” She answered, “Just his fists.”

I had answered the door in my wheelchair, the one I was in for two weeks after breaking both feet in the crash. She asked what happened to my leg. I told her about the car accident and she let out a low whistle. “You are incredible,” she said.

I figured T said that because she was drunk. She barely knew me; I didn’t know why she called me incredible. But I always remembered T’s low raspy voice, offering a vote of confidence.

At some point during that visit, she also mentioned that she had cancer. A few days later, she came to our apartment with an armload of clothes to give away. She asked if I would take them, and I said sure. I thanked her. We didn’t end up keeping the clothes, but there was a cool red leather jacket in there. It was marked with a few cigarette burns and didn’t fit. Later, Mike and I both realized she might have been clearing out her possessions and didn’t know many people to give them to.

Sometimes when Mike or I called 911, her boyfriend got arrested. Other times they both did. But even when that happened, neither of them got angry with us. They thanked us for intervening.

The manager at the 7/11 knew who she was. He mentioned her once, saying that he watches me cross the street to make sure I’m safe. He said that T had recently gotten into an accident while drinking. Everyone in the neighborhood seemed to know who she was, and about the domestic abuse and alcoholism. She was a person they would mention while shaking their head as if to say it was sad, but they didn’t want to get too involved.

When we saw our old neighbor at the grocery store today, he told us that T’s boyfriend had finally left. She had been living on her own a few months and then, one day in April, people started to notice a smell in the hallway. He called maintenance, wondering if it was a sewage problem. They discovered she had been dead for three days. Her dogs were sitting next to her body. All three of the dogs have now found new homes. He said it was lucky they didn’t feed on her; otherwise they would have needed to be euthanized.

I went to her Facebook page tonight, which I had never seen before. I learned she had been a bartender in the area before she developed cancer and had to go on disability. I learned that at one point, she’d gone to the same cosmetology school as me. She was 51 years old. This was surprising; she had always appeared older.

T had tried to start a fundraiser two years ago. The description said she and her dog both had cancer and she was trying to raise money for her dog’s vet bills. T had part of her tongue removed. She explained that the surgeons had to cut into her jawbone to remove a tumor, leaving her with 200 stitches. She said she hated looking in the mirror every day, but wanted to beat the cancer and couldn’t do it alone. She wrote that she was afraid of losing her home if her disability check didn’t cover rent. One of her other dogs had been taken away, a dog she had bottle fed as a newborn. She didn’t want to lose the one with cancer. The goal was to raise $2,500, but she only ended up raising $70. I wished I had known about it and could have donated.

Comments people wrote on her page were often along the lines of, “I hope you’re feeling and doing better.” Her last status update was from February 28. It said, “Please call.”

T also posted thoughts on Facebook addressed to her deceased niece. She told her niece that she missed her, but thanked her for having a daughter. She said that even though it was a painful loss, it was a blessing that she’d left a child behind. T was excited to watch the baby grow up.

I’m sad she died alone in that apartment, and that it took days before anyone knew. I’m sad her dogs spent three days with her body. And it's awful that she struggled so terribly in the years beforehand. T seemed like a nice person, just one with so many problems that nobody knew how to help.

Strangely, I’d dreamed about her a few days ago. I dreamed I was in Stop & Shop and passed her in one of the aisles. She was walking her dogs through the store. I said hi but she shuffled away, looking down at the floor. Like she was embarrassed I’d seen her.

The grocery store in the dream was the same one I was in today, when we heard the news of her death.

It’s hard to share a story about the death of someone you only knew in passing. People will inevitably say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” It wasn’t my loss, though. It can feel odd to grieve someone I barely knew; almost as if I don’t have a right to that grief. I never had an extended conversation with her. I didn’t know her favorite music or movies, her opinions about life, or what she liked to do for fun. At the same time, I knew some of the most intimate details of her life.

It's not my loss to be sorry about. It's hers.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Three Ways to Be Naked

When I was six years old
I was so afraid of skeletons
that I wished I didn’t have one.
Living with death as the foundation of your body
is like
Sharing a fleshy home
with your mortality as a roommate.
Ten years later, I was a goth kid
wearing the skeletons in my closet.

Sometimes bones are too bare to bear.
I tell women,
“If some guy annoys you by asking for nudes,
tell him,
‘I’ve got something better. These are next level nudes.’
And then send him your X-Rays.”

I think stripping is the opposite of therapy.
Instead of laying out your insecurities as laundry to be ironed,
Dancers disrobe to put on
an invincible, cybernetic self
with a glitter aura,
Slick with Teflon-coated sweat.

In therapy, you pay someone else
to watch you undress.
Calling an analyst a “shrink”
is saying we’re diminished by therapy
When it’s more like dancing under a microscope.

People look at others
with the eyes of a hungry surgeon
and see themselves
through Photoshopped funhouse mirrors.

Instagramming our meals is just a next-level selfie.
A selfie is, “Look at my face.”
A food picture is, “…and look what goes into my face!”
We consume ourselves and each other
Jumping bones
Finding bones to pick
Picking bones clean.
We make fun of selfies, but
Every great work of art throughout history
has essentially been a selfie,
Creators calling out, “I am here!”
Graffiti tagging the walls of time.

It turns out
The emperor has never had clothes.
But he’s always had a damn good Snapchat filter.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Why does night feel supernatural?

The world feels supernatural at night, because nighttime opens up more possibilities for imagination. I think this is for three reasons.

You might be thinking less about work or daily practicalities. There’s more time for introspection. Even if you’re not tired, you’re also slipping more into a dreamlike state which allows for abstraction.

Another reason is that shadowy spaces naturally spark our imagination. Sometimes it’s in a fearful way, but fears can be creative.

Also, it’s because we can see the stars. This always feels like magic. Preexisting formations make us want to create; outer space absorbed into inner space. The galaxy reminds us of the seemingly endless expanse we can begin, bit by bit, to fill with ideas. 

Monday, June 26, 2017

Well-behaved doggos rarely make history.

This was Slinky, 1995-2010. She was the worst-behaved dog I ever had the pleasure to know.

In this photo, she’d been outside and had gotten her dog bed all wet from the rain. So, ever the problem solver, she stuffed herself into the cat bed to get that one soggy instead. She was sneaky, but not especially clever. One time somebody put a Milk Bone on her head. She just sat there, looking increasingly confused, until it fell off.

Slinky’s eyes looked like she was wearing smeared makeup reminiscent of Alice Cooper. Her ears were so long she used to trip over them as a puppy. Her first owner used to put them up on her head in a scrunchie.

My dad had explained our pets by saying, “Freckles is a good dog, but Slinky is a funny dog.” This was accurate. She must have been the inspiration behind the phrase, “And on that day, not a solitary fuck was given.”

This dog wouldn’t beg for treats or attention. She would demand it. Whenever somebody new came to visit, she’d “bork” at them incessantly, roll over, and frantically move her tiny legs in a “pet me” motion. Her immediate assumption was, “Well, you’re here for ME.”

Slinky didn't fear other animals, but was afraid of balloons because of the popping sound. She was even wary of bubblegum because of the balloon resemblance. She used to knock over the trash can and spread it all over the floor in a greasy, reeking treasure trail that looked like her art project. My brother once filled the garbage can with balloons to discourage this (and it worked).

Slinky was never picky about food. If somebody made chicken and then dumped the grease outside, she’d run out and start licking the grease off the leaves.

She devoured bags of chocolate and candy, but somehow never got sick. Our other dog, Freckles, was the tattletale. Freckles woke me up one morning because she urgently wanted to show me something. She led me up the stairs, stopping to check if I was following. She brought me to an ajar door and started scratching. Inside, Slinky was consuming Halloween candy with the fervor of someone binge-watching a Netflix show.

There are plenty of other “bad Slinky” stories, but these are the ones that immediately come to mind. Slinky, you were completely comfortable in the wrinkly Basset Hound skin that made you look like a melted candle. And whenever I hear PTAF’s song “Boss Ass Bitch,” I think of you.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Reaching new Hawthorne Heights

I went to Emo Night at Orange Ale House yesterday and fucking loved it.

I didn't consider myself an "emo kid" in the genre's heyday. I used to make fun of it, and pop punk, while rationalizing that the music I liked wasn't actually in that category. It was part of the whole "I'm into metal and emo is just flimsy tin foil" mentality. In hindsight, it was so silly to be elitist about. I love a variety of music, but there are three appeals of emo and pop punk (for me): the nostalgia, the surrounding community that bonds over it, and the fact that the lyrics are melodramatically angsty but the songs are upbeat and energetic.

I was happy to see the variety of ages. There were people in their thirties who remembered Good Charlotte and Death Cab for Cutie. There were the 22-year-olds screaming along to Paramore. There was music I remember from eighth grade. It spanned from the early to late 2000s. Some people dressed up. Others were people who used to wear fishnet shirts and Chuck Taylors, but still love the scene even if they don't sport the style anymore. It's more about the music and social bonds than the clothes. We came of age in the time when scene first reared its shaggy bleached head, and you had to drape your hair over one eye because the world was too sad to look at with both.

I saw so many people I knew. We were all bouncing in a continuous wave while skeletons and mummies danced over the projection screen. People wore glow necklaces as halos. We passed around a microphone and yelled into it together. Those unfamiliar with this subculture might think it's confusing how the lyrics "I can fall asleep tonight or die, because you kill me" could be sung with such joy.

Experiences like that are unique because you're in a crowded space with everyone talking, but you know what they're all saying. You're speaking the same words, but the lyrics mean something different to everyone. "There's a story at the bottom of this bottle" could remind someone of booze-fueled open mic nights, while reminding somebody else of soda bottles they stored money in as a child. Everyone has their own story at the bottom of a different bottle, and all of these bottles are floating in one wave, mixing their contents.

At some point during the night, a guy tried to pick me up by saying, "You look sad. What's the matter?" I bet that's his designated line to use at emo night. My sister told me, "That's not negging; it's therapisting."

One time the music stopped and a host yelled, "Here's something to dry these emo tears!" and then showered us with streamers and Silly String.

When I went into the room with all the music, Mike worried I'd been swallowed by the crowd. Then he saw that I loved it. Any night that ends with me jumping up and down and covered in Silly String is a good one.

Friday, April 21, 2017

When someone presses the "dislike" button

Lessons that, for most of us, can be very hard to swallow:

-The fact that a person dislikes you doesn’t always mean they don’t know you well enough.
-The fact that someone dislikes you doesn’t automatically mean they are an asshole. It also doesn’t mean that you’re an asshole.
-It’s okay to not be fond of somebody who likes you. The same goes for vice versa.

On the first point: We all want to believe that everybody would like us if they knew us better, and that any person’s aversion is based on misinformation. Unfortunately, this isn’t true. If a person looks at me and doesn’t like what they see, it doesn’t necessarily mean their lenses need a new prescription. They could be seeing real flaws that are deal breakers for them. They could be seeing personality traits that are objectively neither good nor bad, but are simply not compatible with themselves. They could be seeing qualities that remind them of bad memories or sometimes their own insecurities. I’m not for everyone, and neither are you. This is all right. It’s not okay for somebody to be nasty and hostile, but we’re all allowed our own feelings. If I do have a flaw that is consistently pointed out, then it’s my responsibility to work on it. However, I shouldn’t do it with the end goal of winning any specific person’s friendship. It also doesn’t help to bury oneself in shame. That can actually stop us from making improvements.

Regarding the second point: Sometimes a person will dislike you for a terrible reason. They may be bigoted or prejudiced. They may have a prior commitment to animosity because of malicious intentions, and that does reflect badly on their character. They might just feel unfavorable toward most people. But, in other circumstances, there could be valid reasons for an aversion. The most common reactions seem to be to vilify the person who doesn’t like you, or to internalize it and decide there must be something wrong with you. As I said, it doesn’t have to mean any personal failing for either party. It could just be incompatibility.

As for the third point: Although we’re much more apt to like people who appreciate us, the fact that someone is fond of you doesn’t mean you’re obligated to return that feeling. That doesn’t mean it’s justifiable to be a jerk, but you’re not an unkind person for not wanting to hang out with them or be close. Likewise, it’s not weird or pathetic to like somebody who doesn’t seem interested in you. In that case, it helps to not internalize their disinterest (although that’s easier said than done), and it’s important to respect their boundaries and not push a relationship.

There are complex reasons for why some people click with each other and others don’t, and it doesn’t always reflect on character. It’s easy to get hung up on the people who don’t like us, even if we get along well with most people. The helpful thing is to do the best we can, and find those who both understand and enjoy us. There are plenty who will.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

"Thirteen Reasons Why," and the problem with stories about young suicide

I’ve seen some posts about a new Netflix series based on a novel, “Thirteen Reasons Why.” It’s a young adult story, but it resonates with a lot of adults as well. I want to explain why the premise of this book troubles me. It’s not an isolated theme; I have seen multiple popular books follow this storyline. To be clear, I’m not criticizing anybody who enjoyed the book or the Netflix series. This story moved many people, and you have a right to enjoy whatever you do. Also, I’m not saying the author had no right to write this. I am very wary of artistic censorship and don’t want to discourage creativity. But I believe that in the interest of compassion and good taste, some topics ought to be approached more thoughtfully.

“Thirteen Reasons Why” is about the suicide of a 17-year-old girl named Hannah who was bullied. Shortly beforehand, she recorded a series of thirteen cassette tapes. They were sent to thirteen people, explaining why each of them were responsible for her death. A friend of hers had agreed to anonymously deliver them. The narrative is told through the perspective of Clay, a boy who Hannah addressed on one of the tapes. He has just received them and is listening to her story.

I spotted the book in a store a few months ago and was put off by the premise. Then I learned it was a bestseller and that it’s even on the summer reading list of some high school teachers, intended to help them understand teen bullying and suicide. They facilitate group discussions on this book. I recently watched the first episode of the series on Netflix. Not because I was drawn in, but because I wanted to see if my initial impression would hold up.

The introduction opens with a sketchy animated bicycle, drawn in the style of the animations from Juno. I like that style, but there was something a little jarring. It set the tone for something twee and cute. The first episode begins with a shot of the recently deceased Hannah’s locker, adorned with layers of adoring notes from her classmates. “I love you,” “I miss you,” “You were so beautiful.” There are hearts and paper flowers and a photo of her smiling and gorgeous. She narrates from the first scene, speaking from her cassette tape. This makes it seem like she’s watching and aware of how everyone reacts.

As the episode plays out, there are several issues made apparent. The first is that her suicide, while accurately portrayed as tragic, is romanticized. I get the impression that it’s supposed to be poetic. It sends the message that killing yourself in high school will immortalize you as young and beautiful. It will redeem your own transgressions and leave everyone in awe of you, talking about how wonderful you are. It’ll be a great form of revenge, leaving everyone sorry for any way they’ve done you wrong. You’ll be a high school celebrity preserved in a heart-shaped photograph behind rose tinted glass.

This is the last message that a high schooler struggling with mental health issues needs to absorb. I know because I was one of those kids. I still struggle a lot with depression. If this book had come out when I was fifteen, I would have eaten it up with a spoon. I already had that mentality. Throughout junior high and high school, I was heavily fixated on suicide and engaged in self-harm behaviors that once got me committed to a psychiatric ward. I used to look up autopsy photos, research different suicide methods, and practice writing goodbye notes until I had the perfect draft. This was partly because of life situations and partly because of innate morbid depression. A lot of people dismissed it as shallow attention seeking. While I did seek a lot of unhealthy attention in my mid-teens, the self destruction was not insincere. It stemmed from genuine distress and genuine crises in my environment. While “Thirteen Reasons Why” would not have influenced me to kill myself, it would have lured me into further obsession with that topic. I would have romanticized it to no end, believing the horrible cliché that suicidal people are “just angels who want to go home.”

Overwhelmingly, people don’t have helpful beliefs about suicide. Many vilify those who do it, saying they are selfish and cowardly. Others will almost canonize those who have made that choice. Although these responses are opposite, both come from the glorification of suffering. 

People who condemn victims of suicide feel that suffering is meaningful, and that you are cutting corners if you end your life to escape. That’s why they call it cowardly. (Some may have been traumatized by a loved one’s suicide and are angry, feeling abandoned. That’s understandable, but becomes harmful when used to condemn everyone who feels suicidal.) On the other hand, people who romanticize suicide victims seem to believe that suffering, in itself, makes you noble. It’s the idea that a person is a hero because they experienced terrible pain. It is true that many of us find meaning in our pain and can use that to develop more empathy. But framing suffering as heroic only encourages people to become stuck in such suffering, and can discourage others from offering help. This shows up in every societal level, from interpersonal relationships to political “bootstrap theory.”

Help needs to be delivered in more than one form. You need friends and social relationships, but friends are not therapists and shouldn’t be placed in that role. Emotional support is distinct from depending on one or several people to solve all our problems. I have made that mistake in the past, and have been on the receiving end as well. It’s a huge weight to hear somebody say, “You’re the only one I can count on” or “You’re the only reason I can get up in the morning.” If you have mental health problems yourself, they can be triggered by that type of emotional drain. At the same time, many people with those problems are afraid to reach out because they think that talking about it at all will be a burden. This is why balance needs to be sought, and more than one type of help is needed. Friendship and therapy can’t replace one another.

In stories like “Thirteen Reasons Why,” the message is that suicide could have been prevented if others reached out, and that unkind treatment drives people to suicide. It’s true that many people have said they decided to continue living because others were helpful. It’s true that social isolation and bullying contribute a great deal to suicide, especially for teenagers. It’s hard to envision a world outside of high school when you’re that young. But in “Thirteen Reasons Why,” Hannah explicitly blames the people on her tapes. Some of the acts committed against her were horrific, while others were petty. The author wanted to communicate that even seemingly trivial things can add up. That’s true, but the kids in the story who committed the less aggressive acts will now spend the rest of their lives shackled to the idea that they made her kill herself, all for getting jealous or gossiping or making a hurtful comment. They did all of these things as kids. This doesn’t mean they weren’t responsible for their behavior, but I don’t think a person should be damned for life because of a shitty thing they once did in high school. The author, Jay Asher, may not have condoned her behavior. But the overall story conveys the idea that these kids were responsible for her death and that suicide is an appropriate act of revenge.

Hannah sends the tapes to Clay and, in the beginning, states that he is one of the reasons she is dead. But then later, in the ninth tape, she apologizes for implicating him in this. She tells him he is the nicest person she ever met and that he didn’t make her feel suicidal. She says she had actually fallen in love with him and wished they had more time together.

I know the audience had to wait to hear Clay’s tape in order to create suspense, and to offer a cliffhanger. But in the context of the story, it was cruel. It came across as manipulation. She knew he had feelings for her and had been a good friend. Hannah initially blamed Clay—knowing full well that he had never harmed her—and then strung him along to make him listen, only to basically say, “Just kidding; it wasn’t your fault.” All of this sounds terrible. And adding that she would have been his girlfriend if she had chosen to live will haunt him for the rest of his life. He will always wonder if he could have prevented this.

It’s relevant to the plot that Hannah is beautiful, which the other characters respond to with jealousy and frustrated attraction. I can see how that would play into the story, but it implies that her death was even more of a loss because she was pretty. I have never found a story about an unattractive girl who died tragically. This isn’t only an issue with “Thirteen Reasons”; it’s an ever-pervasive theme. As it adds up, it drives home the message that pretty girls’ lives are more valuable. Specifically waifish, doe-eyed, white, artsy, indie, middle class or wealthy girls. They are the source of endless fascination, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose life came to a tragic end. This is a trope I call “Manic Pixie Dead Girl.”

It’s notable that much of the bullying was slut-shaming. The author may have intended to show that slut-shaming causes damage, but that message was diluted by the fact that Hannah had never done the sexual things she was accused of. It was repeatedly stated that she was “innocent,” that she had never done more with Justin than kiss him. Not only that, but it was her first kiss. The rumors were presented as even worse because they were lies. But why should it matter whether or not it was true? Isn’t it wrong for people to bully others about their sex lives to begin with? How was it anybody’s business if Hannah had hooked up with Justin, or whether it was her first kiss or her fiftieth? The gossip wasn’t bad because it was untrue; it was bad because it was judgment in the first place.

I’ve heard a lot of people say they liked this story, including some who have been bullied and have been suicidal. Jay Asher has said that numerous teens have reached out to him to thank him for writing the book. I’m glad it has been helpful for so many. I’m happy this book exists for them. Maybe my reaction is unusual, but some of these implications worry me. Suicide shouldn’t be portrayed as a cute, quirky hipster trend; as a way to make others sorry; or as a way to gain permanent love.