Friday, July 27, 2012

3 little birds

I learned a new word yesterday:  filicide.  this is the act of a parent killing her child purposely.  there are apparently several possible reasons for someone to do this, from listening to the voice of god explaining that the child will be better off to a sense that the child himself is evil to an intent to have revenge on a spouse through the murder.

it's been 3 weeks since a local father here on the rim killed his 3 daughters and called his exwife, saying, "you can come home.  I've killed the kids," and we still aren't entirely sure why he did it.  beyond that cryptic telephone call he has remained steadfastly quiet on his reasons and his trial has only begun.  (I choose not to identify him, his children, or their mother; while their story is frontpage news here it's mercifully absent from most other news, and I'd like to continue that silence as much as possible, although it seems to say something unkind to me that such news happening anywhere shouldn't be frontpage everywhere.  perhaps in an age of susan smith and andrea yates we have become inured to the horror of such an action.) 

we do know this much:  the father, who has lived for a while in another state, came back to the area after having lost his job, made arrangements with his exwife to spend time alone with the 3 girls aged 11, 8, and 5 at their mother's house, and sometime between the children's babysitter leaving at 1:30 and 3:30 he slit their throats, strangling the youngest 1st, apparently because she woke and began to fight back.  then he called their mother and left the house, turning himself in without incident the next day at the local police station. 

one week ago another set of killings took place.  this one I'll identify by name as it has, through its oddity, broached yet again the questions about why automatic weapons are so easy to obtain in america.  on july 20 24 year old denver grad school student james holmes, dressed in ballistics gear, including bulletproof armor and a gasmask, and carrying a rifle and handgun, entered a theater in aurora, colorado, hosting a midnight opening of the newest batman movie, flung a gas canister and began firing indiscriminately into the crowded audience.  within minutes, a dozen people were dead or dying and another 50 were wounded.  holmes escaped but was arrested in the parking lot less than a halfhour later.  his youngest victim was 6 years old. 

this situation has become a a touchstone for people on both sides of the debate about gun control; amazingly, some argue that had audience members been armed--colorado is a conceal/carry state--they would have made short work of the threat, ignoring holmes' bulletproof armor, the darkness of the theater, the smoke of the grenade, and the chaos of the situation.  (even more incredibly, I'm aware of at least 1 person on facebook--a friend of a friend--who has argued that, had the mother in the local story above, had a weapon in her home, the 5 year old might have survived by shooting her father, as if a child woken by the sounds of her father killing her sisters and coming for her can easily shrug off her fear and waste the old man.  this is proof of the fantasy life many of the people for whom the answer to public shootings is more public weapons indulge in.)

finally, most recently, an acquaintance of mine, lee, a good friend of a good friend, shot himself this week and died yesterday.  while the other 2 incidents were horrible this hit me hardest.  it isn't the proximity or that I know him.  I've known many people who've died, of course--it seems sometimes I know almost no one except people who've died--and several who have committed suicide, but lee's suicide leaves my head spinning.  I won't publish his last name because I think he deserves that much privacy, but I suspect this will be the only public acknowledgement of his life and I want it to count.  lee was, not to put too fine a point on it, pretty fucked up by most criteria any of us would apply:  he was a drunk and an abuser of drugs, a manipulater of other people, a person to whom life happened rather than someone who tried to make something of his life.  for the past several years, he took advantage of a friend's property north of here to stay there rent-free, despite the building on the property having no electricity or running water.

but despite his many faults lee was not a bad man.  he probably committed any number of petty sins like most of the people I know have but so far as I'm aware lee never intentionally hurt anyone except himself.  if I had seen him more often we would have been friends.  when my friend, the owner of that building and property, came to visit us sometimes he and I would pick up a 6-pack and head up north to spend some time with lee and with my friend's brother, who lived about a mile further down the road than the property and who saw lee on a semi-regular basis.  lee was always sociable, in a friendly mood, and appreciated the beer and the company.  he'd joke and tell us what he'd been doing and how he was getting on.  he was a nice guy and I never heard him complain about what his life had become although he certainly had cause to (not all of it his own fault).  my friend on occasion told lee he had to leave the property, get on with his life, find his own way, but he always let him come back.  so far as I know, because we can't talk about it yet, lee killed himself on my friend's property. 

when I was thinking about the writing of this post the 3 little birds I mention in the title referred to the 3 little girls killed by their father.  but in the actual writing they have morphed into the 3 people who killed:  the father, james holmes, and lee.  like little birds their mental states were so frail they couldn't stand up to whatever it was that buffeted them, and instead of finding sanctuary on bob marley's doorstep and singing sweet songs of pure and true melodies, they released their craziness--because the actions of all 3 involve some sincere forms of crazy most of us can't even imagine--on the people nearest them:  for the father, on his daughters; for james holmes, on strangers; for lee, on himself.  and while the message we might be tempted to take away from these situations is "don't worry," because these situations are so removed from most of our experiences they can't ever touch us, the message we should take from them is we should worry, not for what people like these will do to us but for what we might be able to do for them and we simply aren't aware they're in need of it.

Monday, July 23, 2012

dead finch

last night a few miles from home I killed a finch.  it was slow in taking off from the center of the road and I didn't see it until the last moment; and then it hit the grill of my car and sailed up the hood and across the edge of my window like a crumpled piece of paper.  I know it was dead because the 1st chance I had I turned around and returned.  3 other finches were investigating its body and I said, "sorry" out loud as they took off, meaning to take in both them and the dead finch and the universe itself.  I picked it up.  its neck was broken and sagged like a sock but its body was still warm.  this had been alive and vital just minutes before.  now it was meat in the weeds.

I reflected, on the rest of my drive, on how I live my life in such a way that, when I do things like this, I try to make certain the consequences are final.  that if I hit an animal it's either dead or I help it (if I can--there have been few of those).  I do the same if I'm driving along and find an animal someone else has struck.  I think of myself as keeping some sort of balance to life by doing this, not in a mystical sense, but in the sense of karma.  I have a responsibility to do what I can about bad situations, especially if I'm responsible for them.

I came home and mentioned the above to my wife and then followed it with, "and I'm thinking, my life is really busy if I'm only doing this for situations I'm involved in accidentally.  I've got to wonder about the karma of people who do this sort of thing purposefully, who hurt other animals and people on purpose."  she said, "they don't care."  I said, "whether they care or not, they've got the burden of somehow paying a price for having done it."

she stopped what she was doing and gave me 1 of Those Looks.  she said, "that's a really xian statement."  I said, "well, it's not just xian, there's a lot of faiths that believe you have to balance the bad you do in life with good.  the buddhists, the jews, muslims, hindus--they've all got this balancing act you're supposed to do."  she repeated, "that's still a really xian statement."

she's right.  it's 1 of the best elements of religions, that there is a sense that what you do to others you have to  accept on yourself, like colin powell's definition of the pottery barn rule.  it's this sense of responsibility that keeps us honest as human beings, or that should keep us honest.  I don't know that there's an afterlife, and while all evidence I've seen convinces me there isn't, I think it's a part of right living to clean up after our own messes whether there's a goalkeeper or not.

Friday, July 20, 2012

taken to dinner by strangers

call it a vacation.  I'd intended to write blogposts while I was out in the thick this summer but I ended up doing nothing of the kind.  I had a laptop with a wifi connection available to me so I could have done so.  but I didn't.  and I also had a manuscript I'd worked on through june that I thought I'd do some addition to and some editing.  but I didn't do that either. 

what I did was read.  a lot.  I completed charles bock's beautiful children while out there, and took a sizable chunk out of james patrick kelly's science fiction novel wildlife, and began the memoir pagan time by micah perks.  I also read the sunday new york times for july 7, cover to cover, and the may 10 issue of the new york review of books.  and innumerable websites and blogs.  but no writing.

my trip was pretty uneventful or at least uneventful to most everyone except me.  I visited my dad, which I do each year now at this time, and my sister and friends out near new paltz, new york, where I put in my undergrad time (which were 10 of the best years of my life).  the drive out and back was enjoyable but pretty uneventful too.

except for the final afternoon and evening on the road, which is what I am writing about.  I had made a deal with myself that I wouldn't stop for the afternoon until I'd made indiana--I was driving west along 224 through ohio--and when I came out around fort wayne I checked online for the nearest library that was easily accessible, which turned out to be in auburn, a little town a few miles to the north.  I pulled in there and found the eckhart library, a large, imposing but airy and lightfilled place that I mistook for having once been a church, and settled in for the afternoon.  I read local papers and some magazines and checked into facebook and some of the blogs and newsfeeds I pay attention to and napped a little curled up in a cosy chair (the one just below the window in the above photo).  then I wandered around there looking for the graphic novels because I like reading comic books.

I had just begun to glance at the titles when a voice behind me said, "can I ask what interests you about these?"  the voice turned out to belong to the director of the library, janelle, a woman just a little older than me, who had worked hard to get the library board to okay the addition of graphic novels to their holdings (and most of the books were actually housed in the young adult library, which is a separate building down the street--eckhart library has 3 buildings, the other being a genealogy center), and was always interested in adults who were interested in graphic novels.  when she found that I'd incorporated graphic novels into some of my classes--creative writing and british and world literatures--she wanted to hear all about it. 

we ended up sitting there chatting for about 45 minutes.  several times janelle apologized for having kept me from reading but I assured her I'd rather talk than read.  finally, she returned to her office and I chose a novel--joe the barbarian by grant morrison--to read.  I'd gotten about half through when she came out again, saying, "I've just talked with my husband and we'd like to take you to dinner tonight."

I almost said "thanks, but no" but then remembered that this sort of thing used to happen to me a lot when I lived in my car--people just up and being nice to me, and while people are still usually nice to me, I've missed the way they were nice when there's no need for them to be--and so I said, "I'd like that, yes, thank you."  we drove separately downtown to a brewery called mad anthony's where we met janelle's husband, steve, a man who works with asphalt by day and studies st. paul by night, and their daughter, melissa, who is a senior at calvin college in michigan with an intent to write the great american technical manual.  it was a wonderful evening:  we talked and drank and ate and laughed.  they asked me, as a seminarian, to say grace and I did (comfortably).  they are members of a disciples of christ congregation and knew of the unitarian universatlists, knew more than most people do.  steve had been raised a conservative mennonite--his dad had grown up, he said, a mixture of mennonite and buggy amish--and he had attended a liberal quaker college in his youth.  he'd considered seminary and ministry but said all that was behind him.  I said it shouldn't be, that there were many people like me at sem, older people for whom ministry is a 2nd, 3rd, even 4th career after many years living in the world (and that, as a congregant, I preferred someone older to someone younger).  janelle made reference several times to god bringing people together for a reason and if this was the case then I like to think god did it so I could steer steve back for another go. 

after about 3 hours I took my leave and drove off into the evening sky.  it was about 8 and I called my wife to tell her I would be heading home that night, having had the experience I'd like to close the trip on.  she said, "that's the beer talking."  but I made it home by 9 the next morning.

Sunday, July 1, 2012


my wife would doubtless argue the point--and there's some validity to her argument--but I like to think of myself as the neal cassady of my generation, both in my ability to drive just about anything I put my mind to (herein lies where she would argue) and my assertion that I was born to drive.  I am on my now-annual visit to my dad out in the thick of things, where the thickness has actually lessened it seems.  there is no one burning garbage nearby, and while the humidity is high and the heat the consistency of taffy, it is bearable.

my drive was good, having decided to put off my leaving until evening to take advantage of the coolness of night driving, and because there would be nothing to see at night, deciding to take the interstate system the full length of the way.  normally, I tick off in my head the pros and cons of each roadtrip I make, and on this one I jotted them down on a slip of paper in the final hours.

as usual, I have a number of pros and a single con, so I will get that out of the way.  the one minus is the abominable sweet potato frenchfries I "treated" myself to at a burger king at the commodore perry service station east of toledo, ohio.  they were a greasy, sublungate, shoestring-thin mass of unctousness that sat in my belly like a hot, hairy dog for hours.  I will not bother with them ever again.

the best part of my trip also involved food, and that was eating fistfuls of blackberries and raspberries that I had picked from the thorny vines around the house and garage in the days before leaving.  they were small but fat with juice and each squirt was deliriously delicious and my fingers looked bloody by the time I got here.  I drove leisurely although I also arrived a day earlier than I'd expected:  even using the interstate I planned to stop at a mall or library to nap and rest and so avoid using my air conditioning (I have an inbred dislike of using a/c, as it seems a rich man's thing), but midafternoon yesterday I decided it was too hot to stand on principle, and besides I saw a fellow whose car had a sign advertising his "rent a rambling naturalist" business who was using his, and decided it was elitist of me to refuse if he was doing it, and so I pushed on and arrived in pennsylvania a little under 25 hours after I'd left the rim.  I love the opportunity while driving to smoke and ruminate and listen to the radio, and while I've always had a soft spot for elton john's song "tiny dancer" (with which I have always associated ohio), hearing it no fewer than 4 times in less than 14 hours can try a man's soul.