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Eric Goes to the Movies

I have two best friends, one is an African-American woman who teaches at Harold Washington College, and the other is my friend Eric who has cerebral palsy and lives in a group living facility called TLF, for Temporary Living Facility through an organization called the Association for Individual Development. In Eric’s case, his placement at the group home is more of a permanent housing solution rather than something temporary.

Eric and I love the movies, and we try and catch a film at least once a week. Most recently, we saw the Disney Nature film Monkey Kingdom, and before that, we went to Woman In Gold, the story of how the Nazis coopted much of the fine art that belonged to Jews in Germany and Austria. Generally, Eric is a very gracious critic, and likes most anything we watch together. When asked what he thinks about a particular film, his two standard responses are, “It’s good,” or “It was okay.” I’ve never really heard him pan a film although I have on one or two occasions caught him checking his watch. His favorite film from last year was the critically acclaimed Whiplash, about a jazz drummer and his dysfunctional and abusive relationship with a teacher who pushes him beyond the bounds of what is acceptable in order to make him one of the “greats.”

The hard part about hanging out with Eric is that I never really know how much to help him. Cerebral palsy is a movement disorder and in Eric’s case he has stiff muscles and somewhat useless legs. For someone with cerebral palsy, he’s pretty independent and gets around with the assistance of two silver arm crutches with black handles that go around the back side of his forearms. When climbing stairs, he will put one crutch in front for balance and scissor-steps to the door. When he’s just walking down the street, however, he pushes both crutches ahead of him, and propels himself forward at a pretty good pace.

Still, I’m tall and have a long stride, and I never really know if he wants to me walk ahead and get the door, or slow my pace and keep him company. For some reason, it seems more awkward to ask him what he would prefer rather than guess. Half the time I walk ahead. The rest of the time, I slow my pace.

The really awkward moment, however, used to be when we would to the movies and Eric wanted to order nachos or onion rings and two hot dogs or something equally difficult to carry when I myself wanted popcorn and a Coke Zero as well. I found myself in line sending up a secret prayer that he would get Peanut M & M’s or something else that I could easily tuck into my back pocket. A guy named Alex who works at the Regal Cantera theater we usually go to made all the difference one time when he simply asked, “Do you need help carrying your food to your theater?”

Ever since then, I simply ask for help if we need it, and I no longer have to send skyward those foxhole prayers of desperation when I worry whether I’m inconveniencing someone else. The lesson I’ve learned is to ask for help when I need it, and not to be embarrassed about someone else’s disability when he’s the one living with cerebral palsy, not me.

My Irish Grandmother

I called my Irish grandmother, Ahme, perhaps an infant’s way of saying Mommy, but the appellation stuck, and everyone around me referred to her as my Ahme. When she died, I gave the eulogy, and although it’s impossible to summarize what another person’s life has truly meant to you, I did convey a few things: one, that there was no one quite like her, and two, that she had lived life on her terms. I quoted “The Little Prince,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery when the author writes, “What you see here is but a shell. What is most important is invisible.”

If I remember correctly, my grandmother died on January 27, 1999, and after giving the eulogy, I went back to work grief-stricken, and had my first nervous breakdown on February 28th of that same year. I simply couldn’t extricate myself from my depression, and in sadness plunged myself back into work with a sort of manic frenzy that came to a head about a month after her death.

The Irish mourn their dead at wakes, and though I didn’t raise a glass of Jamison in her honor because I didn’t and still don’t drink, I nevertheless felt a cultural loss, a loss of my connection with my Irish heritage that has been difficult to replace. My grandmother, Julia Kelley Donoghue, was Irish to her core, and there’s something about the scrappy Irish personality and the twinkle in our eyes that can’t be translated to other ethnicities. Ahme took up painting in her later years, and became quite accomplished at drawing landscapes of the Wisconsin wilderness, the forest and lakes of my childhood vacations. She was left-handed originally, but, in accordance with the times, was forced to write right-handed, something she seemed to resent. I think she associated left-handedness with creativity, and my mother and I are both left-handed while my sister, though right-handed and far more logical than either of us, is also an artist. My sister majored in art, and minored in business, what has worked out to be a great combination for her.

I associate my Irish heritage with a kind of superstitious Catholicism, and I joke that being Catholic, in my household, is almost like being Jewish. It’s more than a religion; it’s a veritable ethnicity. Until I visited Ireland this past year, I had not experienced that deep-rooted connection to my heritage since my grandmother died. I cannot tell you how many uniquely Irish phrases and ways of looking at the world are lost to me since both my Ahme and Boppie died, but I know that I’m a better person for having known both my grandparents, and I love the Irish for the way they have fought against and overcome stigma as they emigrated in large numbers to America during the Potato Famine and afterwords. The Irish stick together, and I’m proud of all the adversity I’ve overcome in becoming the man that I am today.

Black Box

Unfortunately, we don’t have a black box inside a person’s head, and it’s therefore impossible to know exactly what was going through the mind of the German co-pilot who apparently deliberately crashed Lufthansa’s Germanwings airplane, killing 149 people plus himself. I personally don’t believe this was an act of terrorism–we certainly don’t have all the facts yet–but you have to wonder, “Exactly how depressed do you have to be to commit this kind of atrocity?” Was the co-pilot showing signs of distress in the days leading up to the accident, and why is it that many airlines don’t do routine psychological testing?

The CEO of Lufthansa has said the co-pilot was 100% fit to fly, yet this seems obviously to contradict the facts, and I wish the CEO were less concerned with covering his company in terms of liability and more concerned with the extreme loss of life whereby 150 people died in a matter of minutes.

Although we certainly don’t have all the facts, and may never know exactly what Andreas Lubitz was thinking, I’m saddened at the apparent legacy of destruction he has left behind, sad that his family must live with the knowledge that this was in all likelihood a mass killing that he orchestrated when he seized the opportunity to lock the pilot out of the cockpit and send the plane on its path to destruction. How desperate and depressed do you have to be to take the life of 149 strangers? How could this possibly have been prevented?

The vast majority of airline flights are perfectly safe, yet it seems so random and horrific that these individuals get on a flight, fully anticipating that they will arrive without incident, and then their lives end in the French Alps, all because the co-pilot was obviously not fit to fly.

Micro-Aggressions

On my way to the north woods of Wisconsin for a much needed spring break, I heard a new term on the radio: micro-aggressions. The term refers to the many little ways that people, in particular white people, most often privileged white men, continue the legacy of racism with snide side comments and little asides thrown out carelessly, denigrating African-Americans and their accomplishments. It’s almost as though these insecure people seek to cement a privileged position and are afraid, on some level, that giving another race equal treatment under the law will somehow take away from their rights.

There’s that famous cigarette ad saying from Virginia Slims: “You’ve come a long way, baby,” and when it comes to civil rights we have indeed come a long way in the last fifty years, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t have much work to do. Racism is no longer socially acceptable so I find people making derogatory remarks under their breath, usually among peers who don’t dare confront them or disagree.

At the same time, we have the dilemma of the well-meaning heterosexual white man who has inherited a position of privilege, and may indeed feel guilty about having certain birth rights, but doesn’t know how to start or continue a conversation about race and racism. I’m thinking in particular about a friend named James, Gentle James of a previous post, who doesn’t feel comfortable making much of any comment on race and racism for fear of speaking out of turn, or God forbid, not being forward-thinking enough.

Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, recently tried something radical in having his baristas, also known as partners, write on random coffee cups the term, “Race together.” I think theoretically it’s a great idea to try and start a national conversation on race relations, and indeed the coffee community would seem like a great place to start, but I’m not certain that the average Starbucks customer wants to have any kind of meaningful interaction at 7am while waiting for that first cup of coffee. Perhaps if Starbucks had framed the conversation, saying that on Sunday afternoons, baristas will be approaching people to talk about racism, the whole project might have had better parameters. The way it played out, as I was driving out of town, one of the Starbucks employees who is a casual friend of mine named Dominique, waved at me through the drive-thru and asked about my weekend plans, while another employee, a black man named Marquise who I really don’t know all that well, rushed to the window, seemingly in the effort to raise the profile of the African-American community. Is it really fair to put the onus on all the minority employees to insure that they are noticed and appreciated? How does Howard Schultz contend that his employees respond to someone who might very well react in a racist fashion? Is it enough to say, “We don’t need the business of close-minded people?” So I guess my point is, I give Starbucks an A for effort in its attempt to redress the wrongs of recent racist flare-ups, but only a B minus for the way the company has executed its “race together” campaign.

Gravesite

There’s something about my recent trip to Ireland which has haunted me, namely the importance of marking one’s ancestors as part of one’s heritage, something about the continuity of time that I found reflected in the gravesite of William Butler Yeats. I had never been much of a grave site enthusiast, had never really made a point of visiting the graves of famous authors or personages, and I sometimes find some’s morbid fascination with the dead to be a bit bizarre, but in this case, I felt like I was visiting my literary heritage and literary legacy. I cannot possibly hope to accomplish as much with prose as Yeats did with poetry, but I nevertheless struggle on to leave my own little mark in the world.

Rosie and I arrived in Sligo coincidentally on Yeats birthday, June 13th, and the whole town was up to its nipples in Guinness in celebration of the big day. The sky was azure blue and nearly cloudless, yet his statue in town wore an impertinent rain slicker and held aloft an umbrella, I suppose as a way of recognizing that the weather in Ireland fairly often fails to cooperate.

We met a true Irish lass, Kerry Cunningham, who oversaw the Yeats museum and who took us on a tour before inviting us to go out back to the patio courtyard for refreshments. A more perfect day there has never been. After listening to youthful Irish bands sing out their plaintive tunes, we headed to Drumcliffe Church, the proper burial site for W.B. Yeats.

His tombstone is emblazoned with one of his most famous poems”

“Cast a cold eye
On life, on death
Horseman, pass by”

To me, the gravestone wasn’t the most remarkable thing about Yeats, though it was certainly memorable. To me, what stood out was the lifelong passion Yeats maintained for the Irish Nationalist Revolutionary Maud Gonne. He proposed to her four times before her marriage to someone else, and proposed yet once again, a final time, after her divorce. She must certainly have been one of the most independent-minded women of all time to turn down the man who had immortalized her in his poetry, but she lives on as an example of yearning and passion and unrequited love (though there are many rumors that Maud Gonne and Yeats did finally, one time, consummate their relationship).

To me, it serves as an example that we don’t always know what in life is best for us, and is a study in missed opportunities. Yeats, near the end of his life, married a woman named Georgie Hyde-Lees, and it is Georgie who rests at the foot of his grave, with a small marker of her own.

Yeats died at age 74, but he couldn’t have had a fuller life if he had lived to 100, and I myself was grateful to come away with a greater appreciation of the man beyond the legend.

Creative Hack

I didn’t have all that much interest in seeing the new movie, The Interview, before the latest controversial threat, seemingly coming from North Korea, that anyone is goes to see the film faces consequences similar to what happened on September 11th, 2001. The film comedically explores the idea that two US citizens traveling abroad could assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, and in the fallout controversy, Sony Pictures’ computer system itself was attacked and hacked, and private emails and information was leaked to the press.

The Sony company is based in Japan, and the studio portion of the company have decided not to release the film anywhere in Japan, citing Japanese citizens who are currently being held in North Korea, and Seth Grogan, one of the films stars, has cancelled his press promotional tour for the next few days.

This whole fiasco reminds me of the controversy over the freedom of creative expression. Books such as Ulysses, by James Joyce, and To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, have been banned in the past in an attempt to keep people from being exposed to ideas or expressions of ideas that challenge the norm. This is, in all likelihood, a forgettable spoof that would have otherwise disappeared shortly after its release, but it’s now garnering more attention than it would have otherwise, simply because the North Koreans take even a comedic attack on their leader as a serious provocation. My mind casts back to the time when Salmon Rushdie’s life from the Ayatollah of Iran for writing a book called, Satanic Verses.

I think we must work to retain the right to artistic freedom as one of the most fundamental, basic, and important freedoms we have.

Til Death Do Us Part

As someone with manic-depression, I find myself wondering, at times, whether part of my illness stems from an inability to accept death. Certainly, mental illness is inherited genetically, but I also believe it is, in part, a maladaptive response to life stress. I feel I have to be careful not to blame myself for my illness, and I work hard to take care of myself by avoiding alcohol for the last seven years, get enough sleep, try to workout on a regular basis, eat right, and continually challenge myself intellectually. That last bit is an important, often overlooked element of mental well-being.

Nevertheless, I find the basic human condition painful in that it inevitably involves loss, at the very end that loss including the loss of self. As I drove on vacation to northern Wisconsin yesterday, I heard on the Wisconsin Public Radio a program talking about the new phenomenon of lasting tributes to Facebook users who have died. That number now includes over one million people with Facebook pages who have died.

People have long communed with the dead in ways as varied as going to the cemetery, praying, even, for some, holding seances, but Facebook offers a new way for people to communicate with those who are no longer able to respond directly. More than just in memoriam, this is an active way for people to grieve and continue to celebrate the presence of those who have passed on. I like to think that people who continue after me will still celebrate my life. I like to think that my life has mattered, both to me personally and to others around me.

It’s nice to think that the world is a better place for my having been here. With that, I wish you a happy holiday season.

Michael

Black Lives Don’t Count

My best friend in the world is an African-American woman who teaches at a city college in Chicago, and when I asked her what she thought of the verdict in the indictment of Officer Darren Wilson, charging that he used an unlawful amount of lethal force against Michael Brown, a boy who stole cigars from a convenience store, she said with some bitterness, “Black lives don’t count.” She later called back, and tempered her response, still not negating what she had previously said, but acknowledging that we need to find a peaceable way to protest injustice.

The fury driving minority communities seems to be the recognition that they are not seen as fully human, deserving of the recognition afforded any white citizen in the community. Shortly after the verdict, President Obama spoke to our citizens, saying, “We are a nation built on the rule of law, so we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make.”

Indeed, we have come a long way since the 1960’s, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have miles to go still, seeking equality for all in terms of how we are treated. St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch, in his lengthy statement, never once mentioned that Michael Brown was unarmed, and his whole presentation style came across as belligerent, self-serving, and inflammatory. While any decision of this kind doesn’t justify a violent response, it’s pretty clear that people who are not so privileged as to be born white are frustrated with their second-class citizenship status.

The jury of nine whites and three blacks met on twenty-five occasions over the period of three months, but it seems to me that the system is still fundamentally broken. Watching the tear gas canisters spread through the crowds made me feel that I was in a different time or even in a different country. I don’t know how many people reading this remember the black and white images from the sixties of black men and women being sprayed with firehouses or having German Shepard dogs sicced on them, but suffice it to say that things got out of control, and fast. There were 61 arrests in Ferguson for burglary and trespassing, and again, I in no way condone that response, but I understand the feeling that we are simply not all equal under the law.

Officer Darren Wilson made an impulsive decision in the flurry of the moment, and no doubt, given the public outcry, he probably regrets the degree of force he used. He will have to live with his decision to take a life over a couple of stolen cigars, but I personally believe in the Maya Angelou dictum: “We do the best we can, and when we know better, we do better.”

Let’s hope that Michael Brown’s death wasn’t completely in vain because I fear it was.

The measure of success

About a month ago, I celebrated my forty-fifth birthday, vastly different from my twenty-fifth. I remember I ushered in my mid-twenties with a drunken night that started out at my house, but migrated to the bars so as to be seen by as many people as possible. I used to count my level of success based on how many people I knew, and how many people I could cajole into coming to my birthday celebration, but the times, they have changed. In April I celebrated seven years sober, and though I threw myself a birthday party this year, it was more about the quality of friends I had in attendance, not the quantity.

There’s a great little independent bookstore near me that hands out bookmarks with your purchases, and on that slip of paper is a saying by someone named A. Cowley, “May I have a few friends and many books, both true.”

I’ve also been reading a book by the Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones about the history of Chicago theater, titled, “Bigger, Brighter, Louder, and it said, “We make a great stir upon our individual ant-hills, and try to convince ourselves and our fellow ants struggling along with their burdens that there never was such an ant as we, but somehow, when some bright day we go out of sight under the hill we have piled up, the other ants don’t mind it much, but go trudging along over us just as usual.”

I think one of the very hardest things we have to reconcile ourselves to is the inevitability of our own mortality. For me, I believe we are only truly dead when no one no longer remembers us. It’s important that we make our time matter in ways that are individually meaningful. And if we can live our lives with a sense of style in the process, all the better.

All right, I admit it. I started listening to Christmas carols in the car, shortly after Ellen DeGeneres advertised her new Christmas cd, available only at Target, aptly titled, The Only Christmas Album You’ll Ever Need, Volume One. After listening to Stevie Wonder’s rendition of One Little Christmas Tree a number of times, I branched out and bought the new Motown Christmas cd as well as the Mary J. Blige Christmas cd, featuring a great rendition of Mary Did You Know?

I have friends who consider me a bit of a simpleton to still believe in God. To them, the concept of God is similar to Santa Claus, something you outgrow as you mature. It’s kind of frowned upon by some intellectuals who seek an answer within rational determinism. One acquaintance considers people who put their faith in a power greater than themselves weak for their lack of self sufficiency.

I find, however, that what matters in the grand scheme of things is my interconnectedness and interdependence on others, and I still find myself startled into silence by a starry night. I feel blessed to have been given the gift of life, and blessed to have others with whom I can share my joy.

It may be a little early to crank up the Christmas tunes. It’s even possible, according to some individuals, that Jesus was born in April, not December, and that what has been co-opted is a pagan mid-winter festival holiday, adopted by Christians to better mark the season leading up to Lent, and to better differentiate Christ’s birth from His resurrection.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter too much to me whether we have the exact day correct on our calendar. What matters most to me is that we enter the winter season with a spirit of generosity in our hearts, and that we are open to receiving the grace of God, and the many blessings of the Christmas season.

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