The Free-Book Shelf

Or hear me read it so you don’t have to:

As I sunk into my middle-seat prison, I watched my new kiwi friend add movies to her in-flight playlist the way I accumulate books which I “plan to read” from the free-book shelf at work.

Sleeping pills, and those Asahi’s were fading me as a little plane jerkily traversed a map across the screen in front of me.  I returned to the opulence of my seat mate.

Racking up a bill in my head, I started to have to carry ones.  Those movies had to be what, at least 4 bucks a piece?

I ordered the coke, which I hoped would be free, and was surprised when I received the entire can.  My seatmate ordered red wine. It struck me odd that the attendants refilled her glass, not even asking.

She turned and offered me her extra pair of deluxe headphones.  I had earbuds, but, not being one to refuse a request with a pleasant accent,  I accepted.

She said she was from New Zealand, and had flown from Auckland to LA, and now on to London.  I asked how long a flight that was.  We did some math, and while I don’t precisely remember, there was multiple blood clot potential.

She inquired as to my itinerary.  I explained my plan to spend two days in London and fly off to the Highlands.  She asked why for only two weeks.

“Two weeks a year.” She cringed.

She runs a software company, leading a team from wherever she wants, and is flying back for her twice a year London visit to spend time with her husband.

Contemplating the intricate mechanics of her story, I reclined, but I noticed her turn back.  She smiled. “You’ll be happier when you work for yourself.”

She fell asleep somewhere between the first two Harry Potter movies, her playlist chugging furiously in vain.

I thought about the kind of money my new friend must make to enjoy vacation time and bottomless airplane merlot. I began to reconsider public radio life.

Around the time we crossed into Canada, I discovered said movies were, in fact, free.  The screen informed me that the vino was gratis tambien.

I had free access to the same luxuries I’d been ogling for hours, and was now thrust into a moment of self awareness.

When had I been nickeled and dimed into submission?

Why am I conditioned to perpetually expect less for more?

What is this machine we feed, and why are we so convinced we can’t do any better?

Existential, I put on Frozen and repeatedly fell asleep trying to watch it.  I have no idea how many times my seatmates sat through “Let it Go”, but I believe I saw the vast majority of the movie, cumulatively speaking.

As an eleven hour blur drew to a close, my neighbor wished me a “Great Holiday,” and deplaned. A man to my left tapped my shoulder and stopped me before I could get up.

I hadn’t looked at him throughout the flight, but he was older, and he spoke in a thick Brogue.

“You’re headed to Inverness?  You must go to Culloden.”

“The battlefield?” I recalled, scouring the annals of half-asleep BBC documentaries I’d watched in preparation.

“Aye,” he replied, “The dream died there.  You must walk the ground.”

Amused, for reasons I didn’t quite yet understand, I hoisted my backpack from the overhead compartment.  Feeling its weight hit legs which may or may not have been suffering from deep vein thrombosis was startling, but I recovered quickly. Strapping all that I had around my chest, I lifted with my shoulders. I stood tall, fighting the weight of my baggage.

Pondering Culloden, it struck me that life is a lot like that free-book shelf at work.  I can take books, or be given them. I read them or they gather dust. I create exactly the experience I want. I just knew that I was glad I had not made plans, and I’d read whichever book grabbed me.

Departures

Wolfgang Puck Express burnt my $13.50 personal sized pizza.

I’m okay with that.

I’ve been throwing back Asahi’s on draft.  I have no idea how much they cost, but I’m sure it’s ridiculous.  I find solace in the fact that I haven’t had Asahi before–yet another new experience.  They’re starting to really accumulate.

There’s a box of Unisom sitting on my passport.  I bought it from a gift shop here at the International Terminal because there wasn’t a drug store between my work and the airport.

The active ingredient is Diphenhydramine HCl.

That’s Benadryl.

Give something a new name, a new color, and tack the word “Sleep” on the box, and you can create something new out of the otherwise mundane.

I winced forking over $8.65 for 8 pills, knowing that could likely buy me a dumpster of Benadryl from Walgreen’s.  Even the expensive Walgreen’s by my house in Echo Park.

I’m going to miss Echo Park.

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The view from my balcony

Los Angeles is a lot of things, but there’s no denying it’s beautiful, or at least it used to be.

My life here is wonderful.

A year ago today there is no way I could have said that.  What’s the point of all of this?  Why bother when human nature is destructive and the universe is dying a slow death to entropy?

Today I’ve found peace, acceptance, and meaning.  Yes it’s possible to imagine things being even more amazing than they are now, but when I look back just 4 years ago, sitting around my parents’ house in my underpants–underemployed, World of Warcraft obsessed, persistently drunk and high, and worst of all living in Toledo, it really gives one perspective.

The idea of taking a 17 day voyage across a foreign country would have terrified me a year ago.  If I’m being honest, it still does to an extent.

Day to day life is on autopilot for me.  I wake up, get to work 15 minutes late, leave work 15 minutes late, get home, waste my life away on the internet, and then walk down to the taco truck for dinner.

Even with the joy and frustration of being in a relationship, and as things change and minor crises unfold, I’m somehow both over and underwhelmed with  a perpetual feeling of serenity and control.

I sometimes feel like Krang from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Simply a brain pulling levers to control a robot body.

I suppose this sojourn into the unknown is a bit of a test for myself, and I’ve admittedly stacked the deck.

In 12 hours I’ll land in London.  I’ve planned to meet a friend in the city center when I arrive.  I’ll meet up with a different friend the next day.

I don’t have anywhere to stay.

Monday morning, I’m flying from Gatwick to Inverness in the Northern reaches of Scotland.

I have no place to stay there either, and no itinerary for the rest of my trip.

I made the joke a couple months ago that I thrive amidst chaos.  If my self assessment rings true, I’m throwing myself right into my wheelhouse.

I’ll see things I never imagined, run out of time and miss seeing the things I hoped, meet countless people, drink in dozens of pubs, and hopefully learn something that will change the way I think about the world.

I’ve got nothing with me but a backpack:  2 t shirts, a pair of jeans, 3 days of socks/underwear, and a rain jacket.

My tablet lets me travel even lighter than usual.  A bluetooth keyboard makes writing bearable.  My new Canon 7D means I can take some amazing photos along the way.

Chaos and disorder are calling my name, along with my third beer, which is slowly getting warm.  Perhaps I should get used to it as I head to a land rife with warm beer.

How long before my flight do I take these renamed Benadryl?

I’ve got to hit the ground running, and I can’t afford to be jet lagged.

A Eulogy for My Mom

I remember many nights sitting on the floor with my mother while she read the newspaper.  For whatever reason, she would always turn directly to the obituaries, which she’d then read out loud.  Every single day.

When we were preparing her obituary on Monday morning, my dad asked if we thought that we should include a picture of her.  My sisters and I laughed in unison, explaining that she would never have permitted such a thing, having not been proud of her appearance as of late, and having always complained “It says they’re 86, their picture looks like they’re 20!”

Buddha explains that unhappiness is merely the difference between reality and our expectations, and while it’s tempting to dwell on the past and wish things could have turned out differently, there is obviously no way to go back and change any of it.

Similarly, whitewashing the past serves no purpose, but to erase its lessons for us–especially when there is no longer face to be saved, nor pride to be maintained.  Like the teenaged pictures of deceased geriatrics, were I to stand here and describe a life of rainbows and unicorns, I know my mom would be rolling her eyes at me wherever she is today.

It’s easy to feel cheated by a life cut short.  I got to spend 30 years with my mother, but that time could have easily been twice as long.  For years I blamed her and wished I could change the choices she made, or somehow convince her with words to overcome her human faults, however the only true peace lies in understanding and acceptance.

While I’ve learned to accept my mom for exactly what she became, it’s certainly preferable to reflect on the early days.

I remember a mother who was intensely proud and loving.

I remember her sewing me a dinosaur costume for Halloween.

I remember a mom that until the day she died called me “Be-Bop” “Ray-Ray” or countless other nicknames.

I remember her close relationship with her parents, who had just as big of a hand in raising us as she and my dad did.

I remember her love for her brothers and their families, and the times we’d spend together and play together.  It seemed back then that our lives would be inseparable, we were a family that loved unconditionally.

I remember a mother who even in the darkest times never hung up the phone without saying I love you.  And meaning it.

I remember staying up late playing video games with her.  I wanted to follow in her footsteps so badly that at 3 years old I tried to play Dragon Warrior like she had been.  Every time I spoke to a character, I’d call her into the room to make her read me what they had said.

After about a day and a half of constant interruptions, she told me that if I wanted to keep playing the game, I’d have to learn to read.  So I did.

She held us all to the highest of standards.  An A- was failure.  A simple baking soda volcano was nowhere near an acceptable science fair project.  Instead, my mom would have us growing bacteria in petri dishes and seeing which antibiotic killed them best, or combining samples of each others’ blood to measure antibodies’ effects on coagulation.  This was Junior High.

I was never, under any circumstances, allowed to stay home from school.  Even if I vomited, she would tell me “It’s all out of you.  Go to school.  If you vomit again, they’ll send you home.”

I can count on one hand the days I’ve called off of work or school in the last 20 years, and whenever my dependability is noted, I speak highly about the influence my mother had on me.

I remember staying up late watching Quantum Leap together, and I remember coming home from church every Saturday night.  Each of us kids had to clean one of the bathrooms, and after, we’d all gather at 8 o’clock to watch her favorite show, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

By this past November, things started to look pretty dire.  I borrowed a reporter’s kit from work and flew home.  I sat down to record a final interview with my mother, to give her a chance to set the record straight, and to give me the chance to be able to hear her voice anytime I needed to for the rest of my life.  

I asked her what she liked most about herself.  She immediately replied “I don’t like anything about myself.” but after further prodding, she told me that she took pride in the fact that she would do absolutely anything within her power to help anyone who needed it.

I can’t begin to count the number of times that she went way out of her way to lend even the smallest hand to someone.

I also asked her what she hoped 15 years from now would remind me of her.  She said. “When your kid goes to shop class.”

She always was in her element with a tool in hand, creating something out of wood, in fact she spent many years as the only female cub scout den leader that I ever knew.  My fellow scouts would come over to our house to hear my mom explain how to build bird houses or carve soap.  

She was her happiest interacting with children.  Over the past few days I’ve constantly heard my dad say “She really loved babies.”  During the 4 hours we talked on tape last month, we tackled heavy hitting issues, ranging from being abused to addiction to whether she still had the will to live, to what she would tell her kids were they listening back to the recording 15 years in the future.

While it was certainly very emotional from time to time, the only point at which she lost her composure was when I asked what she’d tell her grandchildren that she’d never get to meet.

She broke down sobbing and immediately blurted out “Are they coming?”  The rest of the discussion, she continued to tell me how desperately she wanted to hang on, so she would be able to hold her grandchildren and tell them she loved them.

We grew up just a few houses down from my grandparents, and my mom considered them her best friends.  After they both passed away in 1997, she was a changed woman.  Withdrawn, missing so much of the joy and exuberance I’d grown to know  in my youth.

During our interview, I asked her why it was she took her parents’ deaths so hard.  She replied that she had never really felt like she had many friends, she had never really felt like she belonged, and that her parents were the closest friends she’d ever had.

While I was in town, I interviewed several other friends who turned to substance abuse to deal with their problems, but were able to recover. I heard echoes of my mom’s story everywhere.

Depression, isolation, feeling like an outsider, feeling like she didn’t belong to something bigger than herself.

Depression amidst isolation is easily understandable from an Evolutionary Psychology standpoint.  Our brains are wired to thrive in a tribal setting.  Roughly 30 people we know intimately and are invested in.

 

There are many ways we fill this natural psychological void, from extended family, to church to sports teams, to clubs, even work, where it is that I find my “tribe.”

While there are numerous solutions, the result of not finding one is almost always identical: a gradual descent into depression.

In hindsight, I can easily see my mother was depressed.  She stopped wanting to leave the house.  It was hard for her to get out of bed in the morning.  She retreated inward socially. Her personality and thoughts started to drift toward the negative.

I recently wrestled with depression myself, and through acknowledging the problem, seeing a therapist weekly, yoga, meditation, and a lot of effort, I have been able to fight it, although the fight still continues each and every day.

My mother’s advice for anyone in her position was very clear.  “If you feel depressed, find a doctor.  Talk to someone, take medicine if you have to, but don’t make the same mistakes I did.”

She also felt desperate anguish for the pain she caused others.  Listening back to her voice last night, I found comfort in hearing her say, “I’m sorry.  I thought I was only hurting myself,” and knowing that beneath the facade of rationalization and face saving was the woman who unconditionally loved me and loved her family, just out of control, unable to be the mother, wife, and sister she honestly wanted to be.

Addiction robbed me of my mom far too soon.  It broke down my faith in humanity, shattered my concept of unconditional love, and at times completely broke my spirit.

It destroyed my home as sanctuary, pushing me to find support and peace of mind in the kindness of a cadre of surrogate parents who helped me try to piece my life back together.

It left a path of destruction in its wake I can’t even begin to fully describe, and left much of my family depressed, watching our lives turn into mere echoes of what might have been.

It took a lot of thought, acceptance, and appreciation of the beauty of life to build it all back up again.

I eventually fled.  Distancing myself from the situation finally gave me the objectivity to come to terms with all of what transpired.

Now, when I drive around this town, I see ghosts everywhere.  The people that showed me the world, taught me to be human, loved me for no other reason than that we were family and that’s what families do–they’re mostly gone now, by death or by choice.

I still remember them.  I could never escape them.  And while it’s sad and it points to the ephemeral and transitory nature of this whole strange consciousness experience that’s slowly playing out, it also elucidates what after years and years of deliberation I have come to accept as the entire point of all of this.

Immortality lies in the imprint we leave on those we love.  My mom, grandparents, aunts, uncles–there is no “me.”  There never was.  I’m merely the amalgamation of those who came before me, a product of their love.   

My family has been tempered by fire.  We’ve seen what happens when someone is ostracized and we realize that even when we really, really do not like each other, or find it hard to understand one another, we will always love each other.

I will desperately miss my mom.  I accept her and love her unconditionally, and not a day will ever go by that I don’t think of her.  Not a thought will cross my mind that wasn’t shaped from her love and instruction.

This is a day I’ve contemplated for years.  And a day that is bittersweet to say the least.

I hope that this is a day of rebirth.  

I hope my dad can find peace and happiness, and find a way to rebuild his life now that she is at peace.

I hope my brother, sisters and I can forge ahead, with each others’ unconditional love as a scaffold on which to construct our own futures.

I hope her brothers can forgive her and can find peace with what she did, and can someday remember her fondly.

But most of all, I hope it’s a day of rebirth for her.  Free from the prison of her human condition, her spirit, wherever it may be, can simply be the silly, loving, nurturing being I know.  

I love you mom, and I hope that someday, somewhere, our paths may cross again.

Rest in Peace