ON CULTS, COURAGE, AND PERSONAL BLIND SPOTS

Something in me loves a TV show about cults.

You name the group, I’ve watched the documentary — Scientology, NXIVM, The Family, Heaven’s Gate, the Rajneeshees, Branch Davidians, the Moonies, The People’s Temple.

Why am I interested?

On the one hand, I guess it’s like any genre; it’s fun to look at similarities and differences within a category. And it’s interesting to learn the various archetypes — the charismatic leader; the scary lieutenant; the miserable, brainwashed member; the courageous, but persecuted apostate.

I also like to imagine myself in the position of those who got sucked in. Would the same have happened to me?

When watching these shows, I’m often struck by how intelligent, spiritually-oriented, and impressive some of these former cult members are. I’m sure there are dumb, obnoxious ones, too. I guess they don’t make it into the documentary.

I won’t bother listing my favorite TV shows, podcasts, and books about cults. The genre is getting too big for me to do it justice. Instead I’ll start with an excerpt from something I wrote last year.

In a recent interview, the journalist Richard Behar described how his life was taken over by harassment, abuse, and litigation after writing about the Church of Scientology for Time magazine in 1991.

A libel lawsuit dragged on for years. Even though Behar and Time ultimately “won” the case, the personal toll on Behar was significant.

“Here’s the thing,” he said, “when you’re sued for libel, and it goes on like that, it affects your career because you become a half-time defendant, so you can only be a half-time journalist. … That’s how you defeat a reporter, in a sense.”

The whole interview is worth listening to, but Behar describes one particular moment roughly 20 days into his deposition by Scientology lawyers. The lawyers began asking whether he knew L. Ron Hubbard’s theories about the developmental importance of events which take place in the immediate environment of a fetus, newborn, or young child.

Even in his exhaustion, Behar realized where the questions were going. Scientology investigators had uncovered painful facts about his childhood. Many years earlier, he had been removed from his home and declared a ward of New York State, due to child abuse.

Regarding the deposition — at that point 20 days long! — Behar said: “I was tired. Sometimes I had my head on the table, and they’re asking questions — nasty, nasty, nasty stuff sometimes. At a certain point, I just felt, ‘Come on, is that the best you can do? The more you are awful, the more I realize I’m so glad I did that piece. So keep coming. What else ya got?’

“I don’t know if they realized who they were dealing with because, again, going back to my childhood, and going back to who I am, you know, I’m not a snowflake, and if you’re gonna come after me like that … it just shows who you are.”

The courtroom moment reveals to Behar exactly how shitty and cruel his adversary is willing to be, but it also reveals to him — and us — his own strength and his rightness in having taken a hard, critical look at Scientology.

The Behar interview was from a podcast hosted by actress Leah Remini and former Scientology executive Mike Rinder, both of whom I put in the category of impressive people who joined cults.

You watch these shows about NXIVM or Scientology, and you see the whole arc of how cults evolve, how sinister and destructive they become. It’s easy to say, What moron would join that group? But I think that misses the point. When a person joins a cult, the arc hasn’t happened yet, at least not for the individual. She doesn’t have the advantage, in the moment, of the same comprehensive, journalistic understanding which we get as TV viewers.

A good example is Mark Vicente, a South African who rose to leadership in NXIVM. (The group is famous for having burned brands onto some members’ bodies.) In an HBO documentary, Vicente describes an early encounter with the organization and how it helped him solve a longstanding fear — highway driving.

Presto! The fear was gone. Vicente, an aspiring filmmaker, could now drive carefree on Los Angeles freeways.

If an organization had told me as a 20-year-old how I could solve my fear of public speaking — still a powerful fear, by the way — and if the group not only made the claim, but then delivered? Sure, I’d move to Oregon.

Or Albany.

Or whatever god-forsaken place the cult called home.

You don’t even need a deep-seated anxiety to be vulnerable. On an A&E show about Scientology (also hosted by Remini and Rinder), we meet a former Moonie who describes getting broken up with in college. Around the same time he met three attractive young women in the cafeteria who began to flirt with him.

Moonies, all three of them.

That’s all it took. Three cute chicks, and the open, impressionable nature of the young man in question, Steven Hassan (who today writes and speaks about mind-control and deprogramming).

I’m not any smarter than Steve Hassan. I would’ve been just as vulnerable to the appeal of an all-knowing, all-explaining ideology. (Well, and to three young women paying attention to me.)

But cult stories do more than make me wonder whether I would have joined. They make me ask, What cult am I in right now?

That is, what belief system — official or unofficial, spoken or unspoken — am I following so rigidly and automatically that I don’t even realize it? This is the so-called ‘prison of belief,’ to borrow a phrase from journalist Lawrence Wright. This is why, for instance, sheriff’s deputies who are occasionally sent for ‘welfare checks’ on individual Scientologists in Hemet, Calif., are generally met by some version of, No problem here. I’m fine. Totally voluntary resident of this church facility which, sure, looks like a prison, but … I want to be here. I’m good. Tell my family not to worry.

Here are a few of my current cult memberships.

The cult of career. I serve this one mainly in the negative — that is, by not having a career but feeling shame or guilt about it. So although I serve the cult in the negative, I still serve it. The beliefs take up brain space. They shape decisions and my sense of self. They sap energy and joy.

The cult of veganism. I’m currently happy to serve this one, since it lines up with my interest in animals and their welfare. But I can at least imagine a day when my no-meat, no-dairy vows could turn into rigid, limiting, humorless rule-following. I hope not, but who knows? We’ll see.

The cult of caregiving. My 14-year-old dog died recently. And my two kids are about to leave for college. These two events challenge my sense of self. If I’m not taking care of kids or a dog, who am I? Sure, I can find other humans or animals to take care of. And yes, caregiving is a beautiful activity, fundamental to happiness and fulfillment. But it probably ought to be balanced with other activities. I tend to go overboard. And then I get cranky and resentful, especially toward the people I’m supposedly caring for. So yes, I’m a follower of this cult.

The cult of caring what others think. Lifetime, dues-paying member. I won’t be escaping this one anytime soon.

I’m sure there are other cults I belong to. What about the cult of being American? Or, in my case, the cult of being a white American male, or a Democrat, or a father or husband? Each of these identities has its own set of rules, many of which I probably don’t even agree with or believe in. But I follow them anyway, unconsciously. These rules are part of my identity. People generally don’t shed long-held identities willingly. (Unless there’s a warrant out for their arrest, of course.)

Sure, there’s a difference between being a helicopter parent and living on a farm with Ma Anand Sheela and her weaponized salmonella. I’m not saying my analogy is perfect. I’m just saying, if you shake your head at the suckers who signed up for cults, you’re missing out. There’s a valuable opportunity to look at yourself, too.

In the end, I come back to the bravery of those who joined cults, then left, and now tell their stories publicly. Scientology, in particular, makes life extraordinarily difficult not just for ex-members and journalists, but for their children, parents, and siblings. That is fucked up.

Yes, I can imagine joining a cult. Yes, I can imagine eventually breaking away. But I can’t imagine having the courage of Remini, Rinder, Hassan, Behar, and Vicente. They tell their stories — as painful or embarrassing as the stories may be — and they do so at great cost to themselves, in an effort to help others. That’s brave.

Posted in CHILD REARING, COURAGE, HEROES, SELF HELP, SPIRIT, UNIQUELY AMERICAN BULLSHIT | 15 Comments

SLOW-MOTION MIDLIFE CRISIS

In an interview before he died, songwriter John Prine described his old age, his daily life, his relationships with others.

“I’m good at hiding,” he said, laughing.

He meant hiding from loved ones, from professional obligations. He meant slipping away for chunks of the day to do nothing much at all.

I liked the breezy, self-effacing way Prine copped to an activity I myself often feel guilty about.

Of course it helps to be a world-famous songwriter. Who in the world is going to object to more free time for the man who wrote “Angel from Montgomery?”

I guess the people who might have objected were some of the people Prine loved the most — family, friends, fellow musicians. But there’s a time when the needs of self take precedence over responsibilities to others.

Joseph Campbell, the expert on mythology, was a big advocate of ‘wandering around,’ bumping into the stuff of life, following one’s internal guide toward people, places, or ideas which might bring happiness or fulfillment.

There’s a limit, of course. If you are taking care of young children or an elderly parent, if you are trying to feed a family, it seems less winning and actualized to go Full Vagabond.

When I was in college, I had a meal with a family friend who was in business school at the same university. He was asking about my long-range plans. Where did I see myself in 10 years? Were there people I could start networking with in college to guide me toward my goals?

The guy meant well. But I was slippery and uncooperative in the goal-setting project. At a certain point he just smiled.

“Wow, you’re really not ambitious,” he said, “like at all.”

A few years later, the grandfather of another friend was quizzing me along similar lines. He wanted to know what I was up to, what kind of work I was doing. I was a newspaper reporter, but he could sense a lack of enthusiasm.

He tried to help me brainstorm about other careers. He did his best, but landed on public relations.

Which seemed less appealing than news reporting.

More recently, a friend generously suggested ways I could expand my online readership. But that’s really the last thing I want. It took me long enough to find my voice. A bunch of new readers would chase the voice away.

Way, way back, I had my voice. One day when I was a toddler, my mom slathered butter onto a dinner roll for me.

Apparently a buttered roll wasn’t something I was interested in. (Sounds pretty awesome to me right now.) Without yelling — just in an exasperated, matter-of-fact objection — my 3-year-old self said, ‘Oh goddamn, Mom.’

So I had my voice then anyway. But from early adolescence onward, I gradually lost the plot. I didn’t know what was important to me, what I believed in, what lit me up inside, whether for good (music, art, idleness) or for bad (buttered dinner rolls). More and more, I was in the business of doing what others wanted or expected. I was an inveterate people-pleaser.

As an adult, I wrote and self-published three novels. These books were fine, they had snippets of good writing. But there was a reason they were self-published, not regular-published. I wasn’t on fire with something to say. My heart wasn’t open. I didn’t know myself very well.

Things started to change when I got married, and we had kids. That broke my heart open and helped me start to find my way again.

Two parts of the Bible resonate for me: Ecclesiastes and the Sermon on the Mount. As a model for behavior, the Sermon on the Mount seems like the mark to aim for. But it’s a mark which we humans usually miss, by a lot.

Plus, to be honest, I’m pretty lazy.

Which is where Ecclesiastes comes in. There’s nothing new under the sun. All is vanity.

Not only do I agree with this depressing bit of wisdom, but it also gives a rock-solid alibi for that part of me which prefers wandering, hiding, not being ambitious — the part which mostly just wants to be left alone.

An astrologer once told me about a past life I supposedly lived. She said I was wrongfully convicted and exiled to an island. She said I suffered years of abuse, even torture. She claimed there was a rupture in my God-consciousness which sort of leaked out and colored the other lifetimes going forward.

I thought with past-life readings you get to be someone important or famous — Alexander the Great, da Vinci, maybe Pocahontas. Oh well.

So maybe this alleged past-life happened. Who knows? More to the point, who cares? I’m not in exile today. I’m not being beaten mercilessly right now. That’s not nothing. Not everyone can say that. Certainly many thousands of Uighurs can’t. Hell, people in many countries — mine included — can’t.

Before the American writer William Alexander Percy died unexpectedly at 56, he recalled walking one evening through a graveyard in his hometown.

As he enjoyed the twilight and reflected on the lives of the dead, he also reflected on his own life.

One by one I count the failures — at law undistinguished, at teaching unprepared, at soldiering average, at love second-best, at poetry forgotten before remembered — and I acknowledge the deficit. I am not proud, but I am not ashamed. What have defeats and failures to do with the good life? But closer lacks, more troubling doubts assail me. Of all the people I have loved, wisely and unwisely, deeply and passingly, I have loved no one so much as myself. Of all the hours of happiness granted me, none has been so keen and holy as a few unpredictable moments alone.

I recognize myself in those words.

I’ve certainly been selfish enough. I’ve been insensitive to people I care about. In a few key moments, I didn’t offer the basic consideration, sympathy, or honesty which might have eased another’s pain.

It’s okay. I’m not beating myself up. I say it more as a neutral observation, one of the “jackdaw pickings of a secret and curious heart,” to borrow another Percy line.

I was walking with a friend in Los Angeles. We passed a makeshift community bulletin-board. A colony of bees lived at the base of a nearby tree. Apparently, the presence of so many bees had bothered someone enough that he (or she) tried twice to kill the colony, once by stuffing gasoline-soaked rags into the hole, later by packing dirt into it.

These attempts killed some bees, but didn’t eradicate the colony. Handwritten notes, drawings, and poems sprung up. The messages asked the bee killer to knock it off, in light of declining bee populations across the U.S.

As we passed this bulletin board, my friend made a comment about first-world problems in a rich, white neighborhood.

Sure, but also — the pro-bees board seems like a nice example of starting small, starting local.

When I’m feeling down or I don’t particularly know what to do with myself, I stop and try to make the space right around me clean and orderly, even beautiful. To me, the concern for bees comes from the same place. Start small. Make a small place beautiful.

I realized a couple years ago that I was a good candidate for a midlife crisis. My beloved dog Boomer was getting older. My kids would soon leave for college. And with their departure, sayonara to my ready excuse for idleness, hiding, wandering, having no ambition.

Stay-at-home parenting, not public relations, was the right job for me. I mean, I worked hard at it, but I also got plenty of free time, I didn’t have a boss. I didn’t have to go to the office. Plus, it gave me an easy answer when someone asked, “So what do you do?”

Good question!

Actually, horrible question, but yeah — what do I do?

I’m like John Prine, I hide. I also nap. And I listen to an unholy number of podcasts. (The back-to-work résumé practically writes itself.)

A midlife crisis seemed so likely that I didn’t bother trying to avoid it. I just decided to try to do mine on a small scale, in slow motion. Whatever nonsense I got up to, I wanted it to unfold gradually, step by step. To minimize the damage to loved ones, I guess.

When I explained the slow-motion idea to my friend Russell, he said, “Sounds good! Just don’t go to jail!”

I considered this.

“Wait, why not?” I said.

Russell — and this made me happy — said, “Eh. Go to jail. Someone will bail you out.”

Weirdly, going to jail is on my bucket list. As long as I’m locked up for a good reason —protesting against animal cruelty maybe, or U.S. drone strikes, or school shootings, or whatever new type of bullshit our country comes up with next — then sure, I’ll go to jail.

I’m not excited for inmate-on-inmate violence, of course. But at least I would have time on my hands. And no one would ask me what I do. In jail I’m guessing they’d ask what I did.

Maybe the past-life lady was right. Maybe there is a wrongful conviction in my ancient past. People are said to revisit and re-enact past traumas in search of meaning and healing. Maybe I want to be in jail again, but this time on my own terms. (Less torture, shorter stay.)

My midlife-crisis fantasies aren’t the usual ones, like adultery or a fancy car. The main recurring wish — apart from doing time, of course — is to walk into the wilderness and never return. Extreme solitude for the rest of my life.

Fun! Inexpensive! Reduced life expectancy!

I mean, I think my wife and kids would be bummed. But also maybe I’m projecting?

In closing, I forget what the point of this essay was. But at least you got a nice random sprinkling of John Prine, Joseph Campbell, William Alexander Percy, and whoever wrote Ecclesiastes.

Posted in CHILD REARING, COURAGE, LITERATURE, MOVIES, MUSIC, MY CHILDHOOD, SPIRIT, UNIQUELY AMERICAN BULLSHIT | 26 Comments

OH BOY

Apparently the college where my kids are headed next month will attempt to enforce a 1-hour limit on parent help during move-in day.

I say ‘attempt’ because I have a hard time imagining anyone limiting my Armenian-American spouse to just 60 minutes of feathering the nest for her kids.

I mean, I suppose the Chinese Communist Party could make a solid run at stopping her.

But also? They would fail.

And certainly a university — without advanced weapons or at least campus-wide security deployments — will fail too.

I worry that Aleen’s shenanigans will be stressful for me as a bystander.

Who am I kidding? Chances are astronomically low that I won’t be dragged into the mess as a miserable and ineffective co-conspirator.

As a general rule, our most successful operations are ones which start with Aleen saying, “Keep your mouth shut. You know nothing. Keep your eyes on me.”

I actually prefer those instructions. I’m a bad liar and tend to collapse like a house of cards under the first, weakest whisper of official scrutiny.

Disguises seem like an obvious tactic Aleen may explore.

And by ‘Aleen,’ I mean ‘Aleen and me.’

I really don’t want to wear a costume. But if she puts a gun to my head — which isn’t out of the question — I just hope the fabrics are breathable.

I’m alarmed that my old college roommate, Bob Baxter, has a child moving in on the same day. I made the mistake of sharing with him my anxiety over Aleen’s antics.

“Looking forward to the show,” he texted back.

So now there’s the double embarrassment of not only wearing a clumsy, sweaty disguise on a sweltering August day, but also being heckled by Baxter along the way.

“HEY BUDDY, CAN’T YOU READ?? THERE’S A ONE-HOUR LIMIT!”

When I was growing up in Maryland, my older brothers were outdoor types. They would exit their bedroom windows on the third floor and practice rope climbing. They’d move easily up and down the exterior of our home with ropes and carabiners.

Okay, their real motive was less to practice climbing and more to avoid my mother’s panther-like pounce at 2am if they tried to re-enter the house through more traditional means, i.e. doors.

“BOBBY, YOU SMELL LIKE A BREWERY,” was a nighttime exclamation which my slumbering 4th-grade self was not unfamiliar with.

I tell you all this because, like an idiot, I have told my wife these same stories. I worry she’ll see rope-climbing as a possible strategy.

Not that she or I could scale any walls. But it’s not beyond imagining that she’ll pay for one or both my brothers to fly in. She’s aggressive like that. And my brothers are annoyingly fit, even at 59 and 61. They’d be game for the challenge.

Scheming wise, Aleen subscribes to the kitchen-sink method. So we’ll likely be doing all of it that day — the costumes, and my brothers scaling walls, and security guards being bribed, and a couple of absurd, easily disprovable medical conditions which supposedly make the 1-hour rule ‘dangerous and unreasonable’ for Aleen and me to follow.

Odds are roughly 2-to-1 I’ll be walking with a cane that day.

You may say, ‘Kit, just put your foot down.’

Oh reader.

I haven’t put my foot down in 25 years.

I did remind her that I arrived at college all by myself back in 1986. No parents! Just me and a duffel bag!

But here’s the thing about my beloved spouse. She gives zero fucks what I did back in 1986.

My son tried to allay my fears. ‘Dad, I think maybe it’s a two-hour limit, not one.’

Won’t matter. The number is beside the point. That there is a limit at all is the point. The college could set the limit at 56 hours. Aleen’s brain would still shift into overdrive.

We need 57!

You may also say, ‘But Kit, you named her in this essay. You have blown her cover.’

Hahahahaha. If only it were that easy.

I wish I were blowing her cover.

Even if I did — and I’m starting to feel like you’re not fully grasping this part — it would. Not. Matter. A blown cover would be just one more thing for her to work around on D-day.

I suppose I could post a picture of her here.

At least that would give campus security a fighting chance.

Looks harmless enough, right?

Do not be deceived. If you are campus security and you see this woman on Aug. 27, don’t wait for costumes, rope-climbing, any of it. ARREST HER IMMEDIATELY. Don’t wait for back-up. And — super important — do not honor her request to ‘speak with a supervisor.’

Once the whole Russian-doll supervisor nonsense begins, you are toast, and my brothers are in the background making one successful ascent after another.

You know what? Better yet, arrest me.

Hold me indefinitely.

Because that’s how long my wife’s move-in process will take.

Posted in CHILD REARING, MY CHILDHOOD, THE ARMENIAN IN-LAWS | 32 Comments

GOOD-BYE, SWEET BOOM

I woke up around 4:30am today to the sight of an owl swooping into the branches above me and taking away a rat, which protested loudly as it departed.

The owl, huge and gray, vanished as quickly as it arrived. It cleared the lemon tree and the oleander, and flew into the darkness with its prey.

I have spent the last 10 weeks sleeping outdoors with my dog Boomer.

People would ask, ‘You’re not in a tent? You’re just out in the open?’

No tent, just a mattress, pillow, and blanket. And Boomer beside me.

How was it?

In a word, glorious. Once Boomer realized that I was in it for the long haul, that I wasn’t sneaking away after he fell asleep like I used to with my kids, he relaxed and took it as his due that in these final weeks of his life, he would be kept company around the clock. Never mind the mosquitoes, the rats, the police helicopters. It was just the two of us. It was sort of like Huck and Jim on the river, but with the aching, underlying awareness that our adventure would soon end.

One of my favorite songs is “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac.

Can I sail through the changing ocean tides,
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
Well I’ve been afraid of changin’
‘Cause I’ve built by life around you.

The season of my life is changing. I am saying good-bye on Monday to this beautiful, loyal, majestic-looking dog who has been my best friend for 14 years. Lately, more and more, I did build my life around him. I put off visiting my parents back east. I begged off from every social invitation. I cooked for him. I slept outdoors at night. I told my wife she might have to take the kids to college by herself. My daily schedule was shaped by when Boomer woke up, when he ate, when it was cool enough outside for us to walk around the block.

These last 10 weeks were some of the sweetest, most lovely weeks of my life. What a privilege. Not just to spend so much time with him at the very end, but to have him in my life, in my family for 14 years.

A passage from Sharon Lebell’s translation of the ancient philosopher Epictetus:

Nothing can truly be taken from us. There is nothing to lose. Inner peace begins when we stop saying, “I have lost it,” and instead say, “It has been returned to where it came from.” …. The important thing is to take great care with what you have while the world lets you have it.

I’ve tried to do that. I’ve tried to take care with my dog — and with my children — while the world let me have them.

The departure of the kids for college next month will hit me even harder than Boomer dying, I think. I was an all-in, stay-at-home parent. I definitely built my life around that project.

Again, this was a privilege. And it was a privilege granted to me by my wife. She went to work every day for 20 years to pay the bills and buy the house, while I kept an eye on Lulu and Jesse, read books to them, watched Disney movies with them, drove them back and forth to school, to ice hockey.

There wasn’t much moderation in my parenting. I disregarded lots of good advice about letting kids fail, letting kids have their own lives, leaving the kids with others occasionally so that I could take a vacation with just my wife.

Fuck that. I wanted to squeeze every last second out of parenting. Same with taking care of Boomer.

In the last few days my wife and I realized that we were keeping Boomer alive partly out of fear and avoidance. We didn’t want to face the chasm of sadness which his passing would open up.

Boomer was my wife’s first dog. This will be her first time saying good-bye.

For my part, I grew up with dogs. That was a gift my parents gave to my siblings and me — the opportunity to live with dogs, learn about them, and yes, one day mourn their passing. I had amazing human friends growing up, but dogs may have been the best friends of all. Just the quiet keeping of each other’s company across the years. I was fully myself with dogs, whatever that means.

Boomer has kept me company in this particular season of my life — the child-raising season. He went wherever I did, even the ice hockey rink. He always sat in the middle-right seat of my minivan. I opened the window for him. We were partners.

The truth is, he’s in pain now. Even just walking a few blocks, we have to stop in the shade of a tree for him to lie down, panting, exhausted. The recent heatwave has made matters worse. He is trying to hang on as long as possible; he knows how important he is to me.

My wife had a dream recently. Boomer was above our house, huge, his four legs bracing the four corners of the house. His gigantic frame was supporting the house, enclosing it, protecting it. In the dream, I was a tiny figure in the backyard looking up at the rat nest (where the owl struck this morning).

Another song lyric, from Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain:”

Friends will arrive,
Friends will disappear

Now we’re at the ‘disappear’ part. I know that Epictetus was right — take care of it while you have it, but then let it go. Don’t cling to it or wail over its passing. With time and practice, I think I might get the hang of that.

Friends of mine have lost so much more in recent years. Friends have lost spouses, parents, even children to untimely deaths.

I don’t think I could apply the Stoic principle to the death of a child. I think that would break me. Hell, Boomer’s death might break me.

As far as I can tell, Boomer has appreciated these nights outdoors together. The air cools off, I stop looking at my phone, working in the garden. He and I lie down. Sometimes I talk to him, but mostly we just listen to the night around us.

We listen to raccoons and opossums moving along the back fence, police helicopters passing overhead. We still hear fireworks too, even a week after the holiday. We don’t mind. We sleep well knowing that we’re together, which is the main thing.

I don’t know whether I will be able to sleep on Sunday night. I’m kind of expecting to be up all night replaying the last 14 years in my mind. That’s okay. We’re at the finish line now. I’ve tried to care for him while the world let me have him.

In the song “Graceland,” Paul Simon sings,

Losing love is like a window in your heart,
Everybody sees you’re blown apart,
Everybody sees the wind blow

If you see me next week, you’ll see the wind blowing. It’s okay. I’ll find my balance again. Maybe it’s a good run-through for saying good-bye to the kids. Anyway now I can finally go visit my parents back in Maryland. They are 87 and 88 years old. Dog lovers themselves, they were understanding and supportive about me staying by Boomer’s side to the very end. So was my wife.

In the song “Love Has No Pride,” Bonnie Raitt sings:

And if I could pray, my prayer would never end.
If you want me to beg, I’ll fall down on my knees,
Asking for you to come back,
I’d be pleading for you to come back,
Begging for you to come back
To me

In a day or two, that’s how I’ll be feeling about Boomer, wishing I could have just one more hour, one more minute. Another favorite artist of mine, Dolly Parton, sings with the same anguish in “I Will Always Love You.”

Yeah, these are sad songs; that’s where I am this evening. But mainly I am grateful. The world let me have Boomer for so long! For 14 years! I did nothing to deserve him. But I tried to take care while I had him.


UPDATE … Boomer died peacefully on July 12, 2021. He relaxed completely within seconds of the first painkiller shot, in obvious contrast with the labored breathing moments earlier. He really had been suffering.

My wife and I were crying a lot during these final moments. I worried we were sending the wrong message to his departing spirit, making him think we still needed him, wanted him to stay. So in my mind, I threw a tennis ball as far into the sky as I could. I looked up and said silently, ‘Get out of here! Go get the ball! Go see your Mom and Dad, and your siblings. Play! Feel what it’s like to be running again, without pain finally.’

I’m going to miss the hell out of Boomer, but it was time. His work was done.

Posted in CHILD REARING, COURAGE, DOGS, HEROES, SPIRIT | 71 Comments

RAT NEST

I am taking a break today from my one-man war against the unholy fortress of bougainvillea in my backyard. It has recently been colonized by a populous young rat family.

I became aware of the rats because I’ve been sleeping outdoors for two months now, which is a separate story.

As I fall asleep each night, I hear all sorts of animals in the ivy, bushes, and trees around our property.

Honestly I had no idea. You could do a NatGeo show on the absolute circus which begins every night around 10pm.

Once I got over the startlement of seeing rats nearby, I became curious. How old were the babies? What did they eat? Did their dad help care for them? What time was bedtime?

Rats get bad PR, I think. The plague and so forth. In fact, trained rats save lives in Africa by sniffing out landmines and tuberculosis. Those rats are super cute in their little leash-and-harness apparel.

Up close, rats seem industrious and clever. Plus the babies make cute noises at night. Kind of a helpless, squirmy squeaking, like maybe quarters are cramped and they have to jostle with siblings for space, food, or parental attention.

Unexpectedly my germophobe wife has accepted my refusal to call an exterminator or put out poison or traps.

Here’s why I refuse. I remember reading a few years ago about the mountain lion named P-22 in Griffith Park. Scientists once had to tranquilize him and treat him for mange. They said he was likely sickened by eating animals which had either ingested rat poison themselves or eaten other animals who had.

Rat poison. The word is right there. I’d never really thought about it. Seemed like a shame that a majestic mountain lion was reduced to a sad, hungry, bedraggled mess due to man-made poison in the food chain.

I thought of the mountain lion as I contemplated the rats rustling in the bougainvillea above me.

I wondered when the baby rats would be old enough to survive moving to a new home. While I have new appreciation for the species, I’m also not trying to run a bed-and-breakfast. I have no particular need to see what an ‘infestation’ consists of.

There are plenty of places in our neighborhood — hell, I’ll settle for more distant parts of my backyard — where the rodents could settle in fine.

So I have adopted ‘habitat reduction’ as my strategy. I’m cutting away bougainvillea bit by bit, day by day. Eventually the rats will get the message. They’ll start looking for their next home, packing up, forwarding the mail, whatever.

Which brings me back to the bougainvillea.

Anyone who has spent time with the bush has respect for its thorns. It’s a plant which exacts its pound of flesh. One time, all scraped up, I did the obvious Google search — bougainvillea Jesus crown thorns. The answer was, No dude, that was a different plant.

Still, you get my point.

So how is the war against bougainvillea going?

I would call it a draw so far, or possibly a slight advantage to my foe. My arms look like I tried to break up a cat fight. But it’s a small price, I guess, for the eco-friendly relocation of rats.

You may wonder how on god’s green earth my wife puts up with all this — the sleeping outside, the peace talks with rats, the increasingly shaggy beard, the scraped-up arms. (Well, and the being unemployed for 20 years.)

You would have to ask my wife, obviously. But one good thing about being with the same person for 30 years — at a certain point they realize you’re insane, and they just … kind of roll with it. They trust you’ll find your way back eventually, like you always do, like an old dog.

Next week I will tell you about the praying mantis. He has a totally different vibe from the rats. His name is Kris.

Posted in DOGS, DUMB SHIT I'VE DONE | 11 Comments

BOOMER THE INCONTINENT

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But I’m learning that an old dog can teach an old man new tricks.

My 14-year-old goldendoodle Boomer has deployed three strategies simultaneously to retrain me — senile barking, separation anxiety, and what can only be described as, um, sleepytime fecal incontinence (SFI).

Once he started pooping while asleep, I announced to him that he was thenceforth an Outdoor Dog.

I didn’t realize I myself would become an Outdoor Man.

Because Boomer is banished to the backyard and because he has only one eye, and that eye is blind, and because he is also deaf, and because he gets scared or disoriented if he wakes up from a nap and I’m not within 10 feet of him, and because his disorientation manifests as loud, nonstop barking … well, you get the idea.

In military terms, I believe he has deployed against me a pincer movement — attacking from multiple sides.

After 14 years he has me where he wants me — next to him, 24/7, outdoors.

Mind you, I would not put up with this behavior from my wife or kids. I would let them bark all night long.

But Boomer has the imminent-death argument on his side. Look I won’t even be alive much longer. Is it such a big deal to camp outside for a few weeks?

There is always the chance that he is pulling a Royal Tenenbaum, faking his terminal condition to win love and attention.

I could examine the Ring footage to see whether he is noticeably more spry and able during the few moments each day when I slip into the house.

Unfortunately I don’t think that’s the case. He’s not long for this world. To quote Warren Zevon, the wheels keep turning, but they’re running out of steam. Until then, I’m operating a one-dog hospice.

My sister suggested doggie diapers to combat the SFI. But clean-up would still be a hot mess. And diapers would be demeaning for a dog of his size and majesty. I’d rather just hose down the area and then give him his customary sponge bath. It’s one of the services we provide, here at hospice.

Yes, there is some intense co-dependence between Boomer and me, no question. For instance, a friend invited me to her family home in Corsica this summer. That seems like the kind of activity one might possibly enjoy, if one weren’t in the hospice field.

And at the end of August both my kids will depart for college. Conceivably they might want me to accompany them on the cross-country trip.

Sorry, guys. The hospice center doesn’t run itself.

How is my wife putting up with all this?

Surprisingly well.

She doesn’t seem to be beating the drum super loudly for my return to the marital bed.

But that could be related to my habit, even before canine hospice, of working barefoot in the garden all day and then sneaking into bed without a shower or even a cursory scrubbing of feet.

Or maybe it’s the snoring she doesn’t miss.

Unlike my dog, my wife is not deaf, at least not yet.

She loves Boomer as much as I do, and serves as assistant hospice manager when called upon.

Before you say ‘take him to the vet,’ or give him such-and-such medication, let me just say that Boomer has a long list of ailments and conditions. These limitations, when combined with his size, make a vet visit not only stressful for all parties, but also somewhat pointless. He’s in Make Him Comfortable stage of medical care.

There are really only two phone calls left to be made, as far as outside help — the woman who administers euthanasia drugs, and the gardener who digs a hole big enough for us to plant Boomer right here on the property. The city probably doesn’t allow it, but fuck it. It’ll be a nighttime operation.

Will Boomer die before the kids leave for college?

We’ll find out!

Gives me something to look forward to anyway — the finding out.

It’s sort of like waiting to see whether your favorite sports team makes the playoffs.

My own view is that 18-year-old kids can take themselves to college. That’s how I did it 35 years ago. But my wife sees it differently. She arrived at college with two parents and two cars packed full of boxes, clothes, and furniture. I know this because that was the day I first met her. I hauled a lot of those boxes up four flights of stairs.

I have told my wife, Maybe that’s how our kids will meet their future spouses — operating solo on college move-in day!

She doesn’t buy it.

The truth is, the only one in this household who has always been on my team — who has always understood me to my core — is the smelly-ass, 100-pound goldendoodle I now spend my nights outdoors with.

He’s high maintenance, but I will miss him.

the good old days, when we were allowed indoors
where we sleep now
Posted in CHILD REARING, DOGS, DUMB SHIT I'VE DONE, SPIRIT | 26 Comments

SOMETIMES IT TAKES A GHOST

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is considered one of the greatest plays ever written. But it’s also a ghost story.

The king is killed by his brother, who then marries the widow and takes the crown. The dead king re-appears as a ghost, tells his son Hamlet who the killer was, and demands revenge.

I thought of Hamlet recently while hearing the story of private investigator Sheila Wysocki.

In 1984, Wysocki’s freshman-year roommate at Southern Methodist University, Angie Samota, was raped and murdered at an apartment in Dallas.

The case went unsolved for years. But one night Wysocki — who had since married, moved to Tennessee, and begun raising kids — was visited by the ghost of her dead roommate.

The ghost did not identify the murderer. But it communicated its desire for Wysocki to revisit the case, to do what she could to seek justice.

The ghost could not have picked a better person to ask.

Wysocki was initially brushed off by police in Dallas and was soon known at the station as ‘Pita,’ short for ‘pain in the ass.’ She phoned hundreds of times asking the status of the case, the whereabouts of evidence, the names of detectives past and present, and so on.

She was consumed by the case and frustrated by the lack of respect which she, as a stay-at-home mom in Tennessee, received from police back in Texas. So she put in hours of work, took the Tennessee licensing test, and became a private investigator.

Finally, in 2008, thanks to reassignment of the Samota case to female detective Linda Crum, and thanks to DNA testing, the killer was identified, tried, and convicted.

Samota’s killing should not have taken 24 years to solve. It could have been solved earlier with proper initial investigation and sustained attention. But at least Samota’s ghost finally got its justice.

The same cannot be said for Lauren Agee, a Tennessee woman whose death Wysocki has investigated for five years.

Agee, 21, died in the summer of 2015 while camping with friends on a cliff above Center Hill Lake, about an hour east of Nashville. The group was at the lake to attend WakeFest, an annual wakeboarding event.

The term ‘friends’ should probably be used loosely. Agee didn’t really know the three men at the campsite — Aaron Lilly, Christopher Stout, and Brixner Gambrell. And none of them — nor her actual friend Hannah Palmer, also at the campsite — attended Agee’s subsequent funeral, according to Agee’s family.

The campers told authorities that Agee must have woken up at night to pee and accidentally fallen off the cliff. Her body was found by a fisherman the next day in a cove which was not particularly near the cliff, with injuries not particularly consistent with either a fall or drowning.

As with the case of the old college roommate, the initial police investigation into Agee’s death was cursory and flawed. Investigators were persuaded by the accidental-fall theory. They applied little meaningful pressure, if any, to witnesses Lilly, Stout, Gambrell, and Palmer.

Agee’s family tried to apply pressure themselves by hiring the mom-turned-P.I. Wysocki and by filing a wrongful death suit against the other campers. But the death remains a mystery, six years later.

WakeFest will be held again this July, same as always. Thousands of young adults will flock to the shores, drink a lot of beer, and spend nights on houseboats or in the woods.

Witnesses Lilly, Stout, Palmer, and Gambrell have moved on with their lives and have stuck, for the most part, to their original story. But Wysocki, the private investigator, knows from experience that the truth will emerge, or to borrow a phrase from another long-dead writer, Chaucer — “murder will out.”

Whether it’s a talkative ghost, an attack of conscience, a desire for reward money, or a new forensic test, the truth will eventually come out. The late Lauren Agee will get justice, and her family, a measure of peace.

Readers who want to know more about the case can listen here, or here.

And if one wants to hear a particularly good job of questioning by an investigator, then listen to the first 15 minutes of this. It’s a recording of off-duty police officer Chris Yarchuck, who worked security at WakeFest and who interviewed Hannah Palmer the day Agee’s body was discovered.

It’s a shame Yarchuck himself never got to investigate the case. He was already making tremendous headway that day. His interview technique and especially his question to Palmer around the 7:45 mark — Why (do) you say that? — ought to be taught to young people training for law enforcement. The tone is casual, patient, non-confrontational. Yarchuck allows room in the conversation for Palmer to get lost and begin contradicting herself. It’s an open-listening technique, and is extraordinarily effective.

People with information about the death of Lauren Agee are asked to contact Sheila Wysocki through her website.

Lauren Agee

Posted in COURAGE, HEROES, LITERATURE, SAYINGS, UNIQUELY AMERICAN BULLSHIT | 5 Comments

WE’VE BEEN GIVEN HEARTS TO KNOW THE INCREDIBLE

I thought of Ray Bradbury today while reading about the NASA helicopter on Mars.

I thought of him not because of his first book, The Martian Chronicles, which he published in 1950.

Instead I recalled the day 30 years ago I got a chance to sit down and talk with him.

I was a young newspaper reporter just out of college. My job allowed me to meet all sorts of interesting people, including occasional famous ones such as Roy Rogers, President George H.W. Bush, Pat Sajak, and Bradbury.

In 1991 Bradbury had recently published Zen in the Art of Writing, a collection of essays about creativity. So I figured that’s what we would talk about.

Instead our conversation kept detouring to his disappointment and somewhat intense anger that the U.S. government was not devoting more resources and brain power to space exploration. He thought it was a massive missed opportunity.

I understood the argument on an intellectual level. But I was only 21 years old. I didn’t have the life experience yet to perceive what he was really saying.

I started to put together the full picture in 2012 when Bradbury died and tributes flooded in from around the world.

The man who’d written so vividly and memorably about the future was revered not only by high school English teachers and science-fiction fans, but also by scientists, engineers, and astronauts.

Andrew Chaikin, who commissioned an article by Bradbury for Space Illustrated magazine in 2000, discussed Bradbury’s enduring appeal on National Public Radio.

He said Bradbury’s writing remains “the best expression of the why of space exploration that I’ve ever heard.”

Chaikin quoted a favorite passage:

We have been given eyes to see what the light-year worlds cannot see of themselves. We have been given hands to touch the miraculous. We’ve been given hearts to know the incredible. Can we shrink back to bed in our funeral clothes? Mars says we cannot.

I’m older now. I have since married and raised children. They will soon go to college.

My daughter — nearly the same age I was when talking to Bradbury — told me just today about some of the astronomy courses and clubs at the college she’ll attend.

For a moment I was confused. She has never been a particularly eager student of math or science.

But as I listened to her excitement, I recalled Bradbury and his insight about space exploration.

Voyaging into the cosmos is about so much more than science or math. There is room for all disciplines — literature, ethics, visual art, history, mythology. In fact, done properly, space exploration not only has room for young people from these areas, it desperately needs them.

Another artist I once got to meet was the actor Alan Alda. He too surprised me by wanting to talk almost entirely about science.

He said his passion was to get the most advanced theoretical scientists to communicate effectively with the rest of us. In a world of increasing specialization and technology, Alda said the gulf between scientists and the general public had grown too large.

Incredible discoveries were being made every day, Alda said. But scientists were losing the ability to explain the significance of these discoveries to the rest of us.

A communicator by training, Alda was spending his own time, money, and energy encouraging scientists to begin bridging that gap. He believed that both groups — scientists and the general public — needed each other desperately. (The current pandemic and the surprising strength of vaccine skepticism may illustrate the same point.)

I have no idea what my daughter will study in college. I always figured she would wind up making art or writing poems. But at 52, I’m finally starting to grasp what Bradbury was trying to tell me that day.

Our nation should not be spending trillions of dollars stockpiling weapons and fighting forever wars. We should be exploring the universe. It’s in our DNA. Our imagination demands it. Our survival as a species may depend on it. We need everyone’s help, including artists, philosophers, and poets.

NASA illustration of the Mars helicopter Ingenuity
Posted in CHILD REARING, COURAGE, HEROES, LITERATURE, SPIRIT, UNIQUELY AMERICAN BULLSHIT | 6 Comments

BEST DAYS OF MY LIFE

Adam Braseel was wrongfully convicted of murder 14 years ago. Though he hasn’t been officially exonerated, he is out of prison now and beginning to put his life back together.

The wrongful imprisonment was caused by sloppy police work, prosecutors bent on victory, and the unhappy coincidence of the actual murderer looking like Braseel and driving the same color car. You can read about the case here, or listen to an excellent podcast here. What caught my attention was something Braseel said in an interview.

As nightmarish as the years in prison were, as much time as he lost, Braseel said his life right now is, well, almost blissful.

“I’m having the best days of my life out here,” he said.

He wasn’t talking about going fishing or taking a vacation or eating non-prison food. He was talking about things which go wrong.

“I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to get stuck in a traffic jam,” he said.

“I’m so thankful for the opportunity to have a car. And to have the opportunity to lose my keys. It’s just a unique perspective on life now that I have.”

Here’s an audio clip, so that you can hear his voice:

What I like about Braseel’s story is that it makes me feel shame. Not the crappy, useless, everyday shame which many of us feel already, but the best kind of shame, the type you feel when contemplating someone who has really been screwed over, but who is not defeated or consumed by it.

When I see the grace and courage of that person, I think, Damn, if he can do that, I can definitely do better with whatever bullshit I’m worried about.

I had a similar feeling watching Love on the Spectrum, a reality TV show about autistic adults dating. I don’t know how the show was received by people with autism (or by those who love them or live with them). But from the outside, I felt awe and, yes, shame. The patience, courage, and good humor of the show’s participants floored me. The compounding awkwardness of dating and being filmed and trying diligently to learn the social cues and customs which may come naturally to others … it was a lot to ask. But the show’s participants kept showing up, kept giving their best effort, kept winning my heart over and over. Watching them, I thought, What the fuck do I have to complain about?

Maybe shame isn’t really the right word. Maybe it’s a mixture of wonder, admiration, and — when you boil it down — love. I feel all those things watching Love on the Spectrum, or listening to Braseel discuss his wrongful imprisonment.

I feel hope, too, because the courage of others reminds me that whatever may happen to me, I still have a choice. I can respond with anger, grievance, isolation, sadness — my favorite responses! — or I can aim higher. I can choose, as Adam Braseel does, radical gratitude.

The Tennessee Parole Board has voted unanimously to recommend exoneration for Braseel, which would remove the felony from his record. The final decision is up to Gov. Bill Lee.

Braseel is now 38. He was imprisoned at age 24.

The audio clip above is from the Criminal podcast, hosted by Phoebe Judge. The episode “Red Hair, Gold Car” aired on Feb. 7, 2020.

Braseel, left, at the time of his arrest, and the late Kermit Bryson, right, who is believed to bave been the actual murderer
Posted in COURAGE, HEROES, SELF HELP, SPIRIT, UNIQUELY AMERICAN BULLSHIT | 6 Comments

A VERY GOOD DOG

People ask me all the time, ‘Is your dog friendly?’

My dog is a lot of things — old, lazy, mostly blind and deaf, senile.

Friendly?

Sure, if you lie down next to him and pet him for 45 minutes.

What people really mean is, ‘Will your dog try to bite mine?’

Sometimes I think people might be less offended if Boomer did try to bite their dog, as opposed to what he usually does, which is to walk right past and show zero interest. Some people are put off by this, I can tell.

In the old days I would make Boomer go through the motions of being polite. I’d stop and give attention to the stranger’s dog, thereby bringing Boomer himself back to the site of proposed friendliness. But now he’s old, and I’m getting on myself. There’s less concern over niceties.

He was always more interested in humans than other dogs, at least as long as I’ve known him. He arrived in our home at six months old, a stunningly beautiful gift from our friend June, who rescued him from a shelter. He grew larger than expected and wound up an enormous shaggy wheat-colored goldendoodle weighing more than 100 lbs.

When he was young, I would walk him to the stores near our house. The public reception was not unlike what I imagine the Beatles encountered in 1964 – frenzy, crowds, amazement, a fair amount of swooning. He was a show stopper.

He had idiosyncrasies. He destroyed nearly every football my family ever purchased. The way he tried to sit on your lap suggested that he understood himself to be a 10-lb. Yorkie, not a dead ringer for a polar bear.

He had so much energy and pulled so hard on his leash that I eventually hooked him up to the front of my son’s little yellow electric Jeep. With Boomer pulling, the car went twice as fast. My son was in heaven.

As Boomer got older, he underwent surgery twice for cancer, the second operation costing him his right eye. For the last few years he has had a lung issue which causes him to wheeze a few times in quick succession and then make the most alarming, human-sounding gagging noise. If we are on a walk, this noise keeps others from asking whether he’s friendly.

The newest challenge is senile barking. Apparently this is a thing in older dogs. Barking can be caused by disorientation, anxiety, boredom, loneliness, physical pain. With Boomer, deterioration of his senses and brain function seem the culprit. He still wants to defend the perimeter (in our placid, totally not-scary neighborhood). But he no longer has sufficient sight or hearing to feel he is carrying out the job correctly.

Sometimes I find him in the middle of the backyard in the posture of sentinel, crouching slightly, sending off a volley of crisp warning barks. Never mind that only butterflies and bees are nearby, and that it’s only five minutes since our last 45-minute petting session, or five minutes till our next walk together. He is on guard. Against the butterflies.

Maybe he is seeing ghosts, I don’t know. Maybe as he gets closer to the end, he has access to the spirit world. Sometimes I talk to him about the other side. I tell him that his mother and siblings will be waiting to greet him and play with him. And I ask him to make sure that he’s waiting for me, when my own time comes. I always thank him for being my dog these last 14 years. He was the only dog I ever had who wouldn’t beg for food or dash out the front door if you gave him half a chance.

One time we accidentally left him out front and when we finally noticed his absence a couple hours later, we opened the door and found him curled up on the welcome mat, sleeping soundly. Right from the start he knew he had a good thing going in our house.

Nowadays he can no longer go up or down stairs. And with the senile barking in the middle of the night, I finally just hauled a mattress to the living room downstairs. Now I spend most nights down there. He won’t bark if I sleep next to him. It’s kind of like having a newborn baby again.

Is he friendly?

He was friendly enough a few years ago when a prowler hopped our fence in the middle of the night and walked a stolen bike across our backyard.

Our security footage showed Boomer amble up to the guy, wag his tail a bit, and then wait for the thief to pet him.

When the man showed no inclination to stop and pet a massive dog, Boomer shuffled back to the porch and was asleep again in 90 seconds. His perimeter-protection instinct was less acute back then.

I will be devastated one day when he finally shoves off. It’s the only bad thing about dogs — having to say goodbye to them.

Until then, I take each day as a gift. I appreciate him more now than when the kids were young, when I was always scrambling to meet their needs.

In especially chaotic moments, Boomer would pop up right in front of me, tennis ball in mouth, tail wagging, as if to say, ‘Would this be a good time?’

It was always the exact worst time. But in hindsight, I think I misunderstood him. He didn’t want anything from me, he wanted to help me. He was saying, ‘Forget the kids, forget the wife. They’ll be fine. You don’t have to fix everything, do everything, be on time for everything. Just … pet me. Hang out for a second.’

He knew that my petting and talking to him would calm me down, and this in turn would make everyone else happier, including my wife and kids.

So now, years later, it’s the least I can do to sleep on a mattress or spend 45 minutes petting him. It’s my turn to calm him.

Posted in CHILD REARING, DOGS, SPIRIT | 21 Comments