November 30

Ordinary World: A Family Story


“What’cha doing?” Gracie asks me, catching me off guard.

I glance up at her quickly.  I’m sure I look guilty.  I’m supposed to be doing bookkeeping, not browsing the news.  I briefly consider closing my browser so she doesn’t know I’ve been goofing off, but I have five windows open with various news reports and financial analyses.  It’s obvious I haven’t been doing the books.

“The news says that California is about to go bankrupt, and that New York and Illinois aren’t far behind.”

She frowns. 

“That doesn’t sound good,” she says.

“No,” I agree.  “And there’s a report that says there are 32 states in all that are technically bankrupt.”

“Is Utah one of them?” she asks.

“No,” I say.  “Actually, we’re one of the 18 that isn’t.”

“That’s something,” she observes.  “But I suppose we ought to review our preparedness supplies.”

Ordinary World is about preparedness, but it’s much more than that.  From its initial conception as a series of blog entries, I envisioned it as not just a story about facing a possible future, but about a family like mine having to face that future together.  The characters are loosely based on my wife, my stepson, and me.  The life they lead going into the crisis is much like ours was when we were still making cheese.  I wanted the story to emphasize the family as much or more than the crisis itself.

[A]s we change our clothes together, we take advantage of a rare moment alone.  I’ve pulled off my hay-covered clothes when Gracie comes up behind me and puts her arms around me.  I turn and put mine around her.

“I love you so much,” I tell her.  “You are a remarkable woman.”

She laughs.  “I think you are a remarkable man,” she says.

Then she turns pale.

“What?” I ask, thinking that she may be afraid of the dangerous baggage I’ve unwittingly brought with me.

“I’m sorry,” she says.  She breaks her embrace and runs for the bathroom.  A moment later, I hear her retching, then the water running.

When she emerges, she still looks pale.

“Are you okay?” I ask her.

“I think so,” she says.  “This has been happening a lot lately.”

“Jeez,” I mutter.  I’ve been so busy doing other things that I didn’t even know my wife was sick. 

“Do we need to get you to a doctor?” I ask.

“I don’t think so,” she says.  “I’m pretty sure I know what it is.”

“It will pass, then?” I ask.

“It will,” she says.  “In about nine months.”

I stare at her, trying to grasp the meaning in her words.  Nine months?  What kind of a disease…

“Oh, holy hell,” I say, finally.  “Are you pregnant?”

“I think so,” she says, and smiles tentatively.  “Are you happy?”

“Happy?” I ask.  I’m still trying to process this.  Gracie is pregnant?  “Of course I’m happy,” I tell her.

To myself, I think: I’m going to be a father?  My God, that’s what I have hoped for so long… and feared… what if I can’t do it?  What if I’m a lousy father?  What if I fail Gracie?

“Are you sure you’re okay with this?” Gracie asks.  “You seem upset.”

I’m going to be a father?  With Gracie?

Finally the reality begins to get through.  I throw my arms around her and kiss her. 

“It’s taking a minute to sink in,” I whisper into her ear.  “But you are making me the happiest man on earth.”

“You’re afraid,” she observes.

“Of course I’m afraid,” I reply.  “I’ve never done this before.  I’m terrified I won’t be good at it!”

“You’ve been pretty good at everything so far,” she says. 

I’m not sure if it’s a double entendre or not, so I let it slide.

“I will do my best,” I tell her.

“I know you will,” she says.  “You already are.  You are a great dad to Joe, and I know you will be to your own child.”

It’s tough to write about characters that are so close to your heart.  It was tough reading it to my family, too.  As bad things happened, and at one point one of the family members got severely wounded, my wife warned me that if I let them die, she was going to kill me!  I have to admit that I cried as I reread what I wrote, and some days I still cry when I read it.  I hope that level of emotion comes through to readers outside my family.

Lack of protein and the lack of Vitamin C have combined to make us all feel weary and slow-witted.  I’m not confident of my ability to make good decisions.  And our family meetings suggest that no one else is, either.  There’s a lot of “I don’t know” being spoken.

So here I am, ten miles or more from home, determined not to come back empty-handed.  I’m carrying the 30-30, which is a bit big for rabbits, but which is the most flexible rifle I have.  I can shoot anything up to the size of a deer with it.  Including coyotes, should they decide to try to make a meal out of me. 

If I see a rabbit, I’m just going to have to hit him square in the head so there’s something left to bring home.

But I haven’t seen a rabbit, not even in the distance.

I’m not going back empty-handed.  In my pack, I have a down sleeping bag, a tent, and some supplies.  I’m prepared to spend the night out here if I have to.  Even two nights.

Gracie is pissed at me for that.  She doesn’t want me camping in cold weather.  I’ve done it before.  Heck, I grew up in cold weather, and winter camping was one of the things we learned.  But Gracie is scared.

“Why don’t you at least take the truck?” she pleaded.

“I’m not taking the truck,” I replied, sternly.  “If anything goes wrong here, if anything happens with Kendra, you’ll need the truck.  There’s no other way to get into town in a hurry.”

“This is crazy,” Gracie said.

“These are crazy times,” I said back.  “Weylan and I have been combing the valley for days, and we haven’t seen anything we can eat.  I’ve got to go to the hills.”

“And what if you don’t come back?” she asks, a note of panic in her voice.

“I’ll come back,” I insist.  “Everything has to be wintering somewhere.  I’m going to search the canyons until I find something, and I’m going to bring it home.”

“Look at you,” she said.  “You’re tired, you’re weak, and I don’t think you’re quite rational.”

“None of us are,” I replied.  “And it’s only going to get worse.  We’re starving.  If I don’t go now, I may not be able to go at all.”

There were harsh words spoken, words I now regret.  I closed the discussion with the words, “I’m going, so get over it,” and the slam of the front door.

If I don’t come back, that’s not the way I want her to remember me. 

But I’m going to come back.  Just not empty-handed.

When I wrote Ordinary World, I didn’t have a child of my own.  My wife and I lost a baby a year earlier, and we talked about trying again, but hadn’t yet been successful.  I wrote about the birth of Bill and Gracie’s child from my imagination.  Now, with a 17-month-old son of my own, I look back and think I did pretty well.  My son Sam was born in a hospital, which contrasts markedly with the home birth scene in the story, but from the birthing itself to the emotions I felt for my brand new child, I wasn’t far off.  One of Bill’s great loves is his daughter, Kendra.  He would do anything to protect her– and does.  Now I feel the same way about my own son.

[In the bottom of the freezer we find] a bag of rice, which is perhaps symbolic of our times.  I bought the twenty-five pound bag of high-quality Basmati rice down in Las Vegas a couple of years back at an Asian store.  When I got it home and opened it, I found that the rice had weevils in it.  Having traveled overseas, I know that almost any culture in the world would have washed away the weevils and eaten the rice.  But we’re not just any culture, we’re Americans, and we don’t eat food with bugs in it.  So I put the rice in the bottom of the freezer to kill the weevils and to keep until I decided what to do with it.

Now, a couple of years and an economic meltdown later, we have no problem washing the weevils out of the rice.  Throwing it away would be unconscionable.  Just like most other places in the world.

Is this desperation, or practicality?  Was the convenience-filled world we were so accustomed to the real world?  Or is this one? 

I’ve seen too much of how people live outside our sheltered boundaries to think of this as anything other than an ordinary world.  At least half the world’s population would look at our current circumstances with envy.  Even without phones and internet and gasoline and utilities, we own our own land and home and business.  And we have physical security.  That’s something many folks in the world can’t even dream of.

At night, our daughter Kendra sleeps between Gracie and me.  We don’t have a crib, but we do have cloth diapers and rubber pants.  Gracie feeds her a couple of times a night.  Neither of us sleeps as much as we used to.  And, as I look at the two of them lying next to me, I am overcome with love.  My wife and my daughter.  Family.

Of all the things I thought I wanted in life, I never knew that the most satisfying would be the simplest and most universal.

But the chemistry that makes the family work is Bill and Gracie.  He couldn’t survive without her, and she wouldn’t want to survive without him.  As Bill says,

I know Gracie as the hardest, softest, most naïve, most jaded, most practical dreamer I have ever met.  That may make her sound like an enigma, but she isn’t at all.  At least, not more than any other woman.  She’s just, well, Gracie.  She’s hard when she needs to be, and soft when she can afford to be.  She can be the most compassionate person I’ve ever known, and then she can shoot a deer or tell me it’s okay to steal wood.  This woman who will beg me not to kill a spider in the cheese room, but to put him outside instead, can kill and dress out a chicken, or point a rifle at the chest of a biker who might be threatening our family.  I’ve now seen her point a rifle at a man and pull the trigger.

And she is my wife.

Ordinary World was my first novel, but it seems to me to be the best writing I’ve ever done.  What makes it work is the family.  And I hope my readers feel the same.

November 27

A Poem for My Mom

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I don’t write much poetry.  Last week, I learned that my mother may have Alzheimer’s, and I was inspired to write this.

I felt the breath of winter
cold on my neck this afternoon.
In the mirror I saw you
who bore me,
the flowers faded now,
the leaves turned and falling,
a wondrous year
now dying to a close.
There is light in the future,
new life to replace the old,
but this year will have passed
and what springs anew
will have never known you.
How dare the cruelness of time
erase the reality I’ve known?
How can the face that defined a life
pass into forgotten mists
and leave that life behind?
We’ve loved and fought,
you and I,
but now that winter’s breath approaches
I fear to contemplate the emptiness
of spring.

November 24

Mental Health and Me, Part 1

Some 25% of Americans struggle with some variety of mental health issues.  Only a small handful are driven to pick up a gun and kill people. Yet the struggle remains, often misunderstood and stigmatized.  Too often, we struggle alone.

Here’s what I know about mental health: It’s better to have it than to not have it.  Ask me how I know.

Mental health and I have had an on-again, off-again relationship over the years.  As a child, I suffered from severe depression.  At 15, I thought of suicide and made practice cuts on my wrist.  I also snagged a quill pen from the art department and wrote a poem in blood.  Clearly, I was a well-balanced individual ready for adulthood.

Fortunately, I learned to manage my depression through medication.  Unfortunately, my meds were neither prescribed nor managed by a doctor.  I started with pot, speed, and LSD.  (The latter made things worse, but it was entertaining.)  I graduated to alcohol, then cocaine and heroin, supplemented with anything else I could get.  I figured I could live that way until I was about 20.  All my heroes were dead poets and dead musicians, and I didn’t mind the idea of joining them.

By 25, I’d exhausted my options and was afraid I wasn’t going to die.  Then I got sober, which is another story.

That’s where my struggles with mental health really began.  The initial exhilaration at getting off drugs faded.  Real life kicked in.  My depression returned with a vengeance.  Therapy didn’t seem to help.  I was 32 when a psychiatrist put me on Prozac.  The first week it didn’t do much.  Then came two weeks of ecstasy.  I realized that I hadn’t known how depressed I was because I had nothing to compare it to.  I’d never been not depressed.

Prozac seemed too good to be true.  And it was.  As my dose increased, I became more and more anxious.  One day I woke up paranoid, psychotic, and suicidal.  No one knew what to do with me.  The shrink wanted me to keep taking the Prozac.  My GP wanted me to take Valium.  My wife just wanted her husband back.

It took four months before someone decided I should be hospitalized.  During that time, I wore a winter parka in the summer, rarely went out without a teddy bear, and had a secret hand signal for my wife in case the anxiety of a social situation pushed me close to melt-down.  I don’t remember any of that; she told me about it years later.

I spent a month inpatient in a mental health facility.  But it took over a year for me to begin to really function again.  In the mean time, I lost my home, my marriage, and my business.

That’s how I learned that psych meds were not an option for me.  Instead, I had to manage my depression and anxiety by other means.  Meditation replaced medication.  Volunteer work gave me a sense of purpose I’d never had.

I continued to struggle from time to time, but that first experience of losing my mind to psychosis motivated me to try to live differently.

November 18

This Thing of Darkness – How I Dealt With Nightmares

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Richard showers first. I sit in a wooden chair by the window and enjoy a soft breeze that blows in off the sea a few blocks away. The mosquitoes aren’t bad tonight; the wind keeps them at bay. The smell of the ocean is mixed with night jasmine blooming somewhere nearby. This, I reflect, is a very pleasant moment. I’ve haven’t been noticing as many pleasant moments lately, and I resolve to enjoy this one for as long as it lasts.

Ten minutes later, Richard returns from the bathroom wearing a sarong, his hair wet.

“It’s all yours,” he says. “But I didn’t leave you any hot water.”

“Jerk,” I reply.

The joke is old and worn. We don’t have hot water. All our showers are cold. After a long day during the hot season, I love a cold shower. But on a cooler evening after the rain, I shiver at the thought.

I first arrived in Sri Lanka on December 6, 1993.  In honor of International Human Rights Day, Sarvodaya headquarters displayed a collection of children’s art .  The graphic images drawn by young children shocked me.  I had never before visited a place in which such gross human rights violations were a part of daily life.

My first stay took me through the uncertainty and fear of Chandrika’s death-defying election in 1994, the hope for peace that followed once the outgoing government agreed to step down without violence, the assassination by the LTTE of Chandrika’s opposing presidential candidate, and the collapse of the cease-fire in early 1995.  These events were dramatic, frightening, and impacting, but did not threaten me in any direct way.

In 1998, I returned to interview peace workers across the island.  On this trip, I traveled by bus to the eastern city of Batticaloa, which according to government sources was safely in government hands.  In reality, the government held most of the city, and they controlled the main roads in and out during daylight hours.  The rest was controlled by the LTTE rebels.  I saw things on that trip that would haunt me for years.  Soldiers herded Tamil travelers at gunpoint.  A pre-teen boy had lost both hands to a booby trap.  A woman showed me a medical report, in English, graphically detailing her husband’s torture at the hands of the government. A brave Sinhalese woman talked of risking her life in her efforts to support Tamil families who were caught between the two fighting forces.

I came back from that trip changed, acutely aware of the fragility of security.

The following year, I sat in the dark as a battle raged outside a compound near Padaviya in the northeast.  Artillery shells landed not far away, and I realized that people were dying out there and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

That’s when the nightmares started.  I returned home unable to work and afraid of social situations.  I exhibited all the classic symptoms of PTSD.

As the bus revs its engine and departs town, there’s a sinking feeling in my chest, an inexplicable sense of loss. Soon we are in the countryside, and I see why they keep the bus so well-maintained. There’s nothing out here. On either side of the one-lane paved highway, I see only empty grassland. Kebithigollewa really is the frontier. You wouldn’t want a bus to break down on this road.

Occasionally there are stretches of jungle, and even less occasionally abandoned homes. Each home has white Sinhalese letters hand-painted on its front.

“What do they say?” I ask Richard.

“Budu saranay,” he reads from the first one.

We’ve both been here long enough to know that it means “Blessings of the Buddha.”  I consider that for a moment, and realize, just as I see from his change of expression that Richard too has realized, that these are homes where someone has been killed.

I continued to work for peace in Sri Lanka for another eight years, and I sought help from therapists from time to time.

Ten years after the Padaviya trip, one therapist had me write about my experiences.  This helped so much, I wrote a story that sought to express what I saw and felt.  I showed it to a friend of mine, and he encouraged me to publish it.  He even designed the first cover for it.  That’s how This Thing of Darkness came into being.

Reader commentary of the first version convinced me that the story wasn’t finished.  It was a raw look at the emotional struggle of an unprepared man caught in a war, but the story and character development were weak.  Earlier this year, I rewrote the story and republished it.  It’s a much better story now.

This Thing of Darkness is a work of fiction based loosely on that 1999 trip to Padaviya.  Its goal is to convey the emotions I felt during my work there, from culture shock and fascination to horror and fear.  I hope it also conveys some understanding of what war looks like now that we no longer have two or more nations battling each other.  But above all, I sought to make this a good story, and I hope you enjoy it.

“I admire your courage, kid,” the priest says, as my tears begin to run dry. “You’ve got chutzpah, coming out to a place like this. You cry as much as you need to. Then we’ll go back to the others, and you can keep your dignity. You did okay.”

I nod. Then, in a shaky voice, I ask, “Chutzpah?”

McMurphy smiles.

“One of the hazards of working with a rabbi,” he says, “is that I’ve picked up a little Yiddish.”

November 16

ISIS and the Cycle of Violence

Following the ISIS attacks in Paris and around the world, there’s a great deal of talk about retaliation.  (N.B. The organization changed its name last year to IS, the Islamic State, though most of the world still calls it ISIS and this post will follow suit.)  Retaliations suggested include military force, cutting aid to Muslim countries, turning away Muslim refugees, and even declaring war on Islam itself.

These suggested retaliations suggest little knowledge of the structure and goals of ISIS.  We have never fought an enemy like this, and the closest we came (Vietnam) did not go well.  Above all, we have never directly encountered the Cycle of Violence, and too many of us don’t understand how it works.

I saw the Cycle of Violence first-hand in Sri Lanka, where the LTTE effectively used it to grow, prosper, and often triumph.  It began in 1983, when the LTTE was still a fringe group with minimal support among its intended constituency, the Sri Lankan Tamils.  The LTTE attacked an army patrol and killed several soldiers.  The response of the Sinhalese majority was brutal and misdirected: hundreds rioted in Colombo, killing as many as 3,000 Tamil civilians.  There is some evidence that the “rioters” were actually pro-government thugs, yet the response of the Sinhalese majority toward the brutality was not outrage but justification.  The effect was dramatic.  Suddenly, the LTTE had both credibility and support as Tamils, shocked by the killings, looked for someone else to represent their interests.

The cycle continued.  Whenever the LTTE seemed in danger of losing support or legitimacy, it staged a high-profile attack.  The government’s knee-jerk response was to punish Tamils in general with restrictions, random arrests and detention, and even (sanctioned or unsanctioned) massacres.  Their assumption, not entirely incorrect, was that any Tamil could be an LTTE member, even though the majority were not.  This had the effect of alienating the Tamils as a whole and increasing support for the LTTE.

The cycle continued for 23 years, until the Rajapakse government became willing to kill LTTE and Tamil civilians indiscriminately, a strategy that did eliminate the LTTE and brought a temporary end to the hostilities, yet virtually guaranteed another outbreak of violence in the future.

ISIS has learned the game.  I can’t say whether they studied LTTE tactics, but their structure is strikingly similar: cellular structures under an all-powerful leader and a single lieutenant.

ISIS’s success at using the Cycle of Violence is already well established.  The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs notes that one would expect conflict between home-grown ISIS personnel and foreign-recruited fighters, but that is not the case.

“[ISIS] has been so successful in creating an atmosphere of hatred against all ‘heretics’ and all that Western civilization represents that it has succeeded to attract thousands of foreign and Arab volunteers to abandon previous allegiances and apply to the ranks of the Islamic State. By one estimate, ‘perhaps 12,000 foreign fighters’ have joined the IS ranks.”

If 12,000 fighters sounds small compared to, say, the U.S. Army, consider that the LTTE held the Sri Lanka government at bay for more than two decades while outnumbered as much as 40 to one.

Now ISIS has attacked multiple targets around the world.  Everyone’s instinct is to attack, to fear all Muslims, to inflict damage on those we suspect could be ISIS supporters.  But that instinct plays into their hands.  To do so would alienate moderate Muslims, and to whom would they turn?  ISIS would gain yet more power, support, and legitimacy.

Responding to an organization like ISIS or the LTTE takes great restraint, or else the willingness to commit genocide.  Our instincts must be held in check, because they work against us.  If ISIS is to be controlled through military means, targets must be clearly identified as belonging to ISIS.  Collateral damage aids the enemy.

Unfortunately, we in the west have already abused force in the Middle East.  From giving them ridiculous national boundaries that ignored religious and cultural realities, to installing brutal dictators in order to protect our oil interests, to killing women and children with drone strikes, we have a long history of failing to care about the people of the Muslim world.  Against this background, a single error in targeting or strategy can give ISIS incredible opportunities for growth and advancement.

In Sri Lanka, I was part of a team that helped bring about a six-year cease fire.  During that cessation of hostilities, the LTTE began to moderate.  They even considered giving up violence and becoming a political rather than military institution.  The resumption of the war, driven by extremists on both sides, prevented any such transformation.  Yet the potential was there.

Whether such a transformation could happen with ISIS is unclear.  But it won’t happen while they are winning, and our current strategy is helping them grow and triumph.

November 10

Now on Twitter?

I’ve now linked my blog to Twitter.  I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t understand Twitter and I don’t know why it’s important for me.  But as an author, more and more people are asking for my Twitter info, so here goes…