It’s likely to be a crazy 2020

In case you haven’t noticed it, were in the midst of Future Shock.

Fifty years ago, Alvin Toffler wrote the book of the same name warning us that a cavalcade of forces were coming together that were likely to make our future a confusing and frightening mess. Future shock is basically the effects if too much change coming at society too quickly.

It’s painfully clear from the last few decades that we are winging this future shock thing. No one has really figured out how to deal with what we’ve unleashed, but there it all is in all its chaos and messiness, so we have no choice but to figure out how best to deal with it somehow. In our new decade, it’s likelier to get worse and get messier.

You might say the Trump Administration started the year off with a bang, by killing Iran’s special forces commander Qasem Soleimani in Iraq with a drone strike near Baghdad’s airport. Presumably this was in retaliation for the attack on our embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone, which seems to have been helped by Iranian forces in Iraq.

As usual, Trump didn’t bother to inform Congress of his planned actions, even though the law requires it. If Trump were smart enough to be diabolical, one might envision a strategy behind this. Based on what the polls tell us so far, he’s unlikely to survive reelection, even with all the voter suppression and election hijinks going on. So wars can be convenient if you can rally a nation behind them.

Some of us with longer memories remember how this all began: when President Bush unwisely invaded Iraq in 2003. Hundreds of thousands of lives and about a trillion dollars later, our latest headstrong president seems to be willing to follow the script that got Bush reelected in 2004. Without that horrendously bad and unnecessary war, yesterday’s killing probably would never have happened. It’s not even clear if Iran would still be our enemy.

So expect a lot more tit-for-tat now, but whether it can be deescalated at some point is problematic. A lot of Americans really have no idea why we should hate Iran anyhow. There are plenty of reasons why Iranians should hate us. We overturned its system of government twice and led many embargoes and other actions against the country over the decades. It’s true that to some extent they sponsor international terrorism, but plenty of other countries do too and anyhow so far they haven’t directed it at us. Iran is not nearly as evil as North Korea, and yet Trump told us he “fell in love” with its dictator Kim Jong Un. In general, Trump seems to love dictators. But perhaps he doesn’t like Iran because it’s not dictatorial enough. They do have a real legislature, after all, although its decisions can be overruled by their Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Their legislature may be more fairly representative than ours.

Anyhow, this killing is not a good omen, so we may look back on 2019 with some nostalgia. Our 2020 election, no matter how you look at it, will be bad. If Trump wins reelection, that obviously will be bad: he’ll have four years to govern with impunity because Congress will refuse to check him. If he loses, Democrats win, and Democrats take Congress, Trump probably will say the election was rigged against him, will refuse to concede, barricade himself in the White House and bring on a constitutional crisis that way. His supporters are already threatening civil war if he is impeached and removed – how democratic of them! But Trump has never been about democracy, he’s about authoritarianism. In short, November 3 is likely to be the most momentous day in our history since the real Civil War began, and might spark a new one. Happy New Year!

Meanwhile, we’ll probably look back on Trump’s 2017-2019 presidency as the good old days. His tweets get more numerous, threatening and blacker every day. His lying increases at exponential levels. Trump is scared of accountability, so he will pull all stops to get reelected and it’s likely his party will aid and abet him. We probably can’t count on the courts to help us, certainly not after Citizens United. Trump’s inevitable Senate trial will result in a partisan exoneration which of course he will tout endlessly.

I can take some schadenfreude perhaps in Trump’s misery, except that we cannot escape his misery: he inflicts it on everyone. My hope, such as it is, is that Trump’s ungluing conveniently coincides with an illness that makes it impossible for him to govern. I am absolutely convinced that he won’t live to complete a second term, and his obvious physical and mental issues may not allow him to complete a campaign. If he is nominated by the Republicans and he dies or becomes incapacitated, could Republicans still nominate anyone in time to field in an election? Laws will vary by state but that in itself could become a huge constitutional crisis.

We know that Trump is quite ill. The mental illness should be obvious, but he is also physically ill. Trump has heart disease, which means he has a moderate risk of a heart attack in the next three to 5 years. His mother and sister died of Huntington’s Disease, whose earliest symptoms are often subtle problems with mood or mental abilities. He’s likely got dementia. His father died from the same thing that killed my mother: Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, but also frontotemporal dementia. His recent “lab work” at Walter Reed coincided with him taking the back stairs out of Air Force One and having a White House physician accompany him, not just on trips, but in the presidential limousine.

So buckle up, mates. 2020 is going to be crazy. Let’s just hope that 2021 will be less so.

Trump is literally losing his mind

I’ve been returning to the original theme of this blog lately: Occam’s Razor. So let’s cut to the chase today: Trump is literally losing his mind.

Let’s stop pretending that Trump is the “very stable genius” that he claims to be. It’s just laughable. Last week’s “summit” in Helsinki with Vladimir Putin should put that to bed. In a press conference after the “summit”, Trump said he could not see how Russia could be responsible for hacking the 2016 elections, despite conclusive evidence from our intelligence community that he was presented with before his inauguration. After all, Putin had told him so very forcefully. Obviously the word of a former KGB agent is much more reliable than the consensus of our entire intelligence community. Back in DC his advisers got him to read a statement saying just the opposite, but he added that it could have been anyone. Last night he was back at it again, so apparently it’s Obama and “Crooked Hillary’s” fault, not the Russians. He called out Obama for not taking action when Obama in fact did take action. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s obstruction though led to a watered down statement prior to the election on Russian meddling instead.

Does he look like a “very stable genius” to you? On this one issue alone, he vacillates back and forth. But of course he does this constantly, making him the most unstable person in the world at the moment. Geniuses of course rarely vacillate, but being very intelligent most are open to changing their minds if the weight of impartial evidence is against them. The only part of “very stable genius” that applies to Trump is the very part. He is very something. Occam’s Razor suggests he is very mentally ill.

Trump is hardly alone there. Mental illness is rife in this country. I noted ten years ago that many very intelligent people I have met struck me as mentally ill. This is in part because intelligence by itself does not mean you won’t suffer mental illness. In Trump’s case though it looks like he is suffering true cognitive decline. Watch videos of Trump from ten or twenty years ago. He was still insufferable, but he could put coherent thoughts together. His vocabulary was much richer. He could express complex thoughts. He could express nuance.

Now his vocabulary sounds like a fourth grader. It’s not news to his staff. They give him briefing books he won’t read. They try to summarize complex topics into a few bullet points, but he still doesn’t absorb them. Heck, he walked into a “summit” with Vladimir Putin without a formal agenda and without aides taking notes. This allowed Putin after the summit to claim that Trump agreed with policies (like Russia’s annexation of Crimea) that he may not have agreed to. Trump’s attention span is very short and he can’t seem to remember anything.

He is placing our country in unique peril. Which means that it’s time for a 25th Amendment remedy. Section 4 of the amendment applies here. It basically puts the onus on Vice President Mike Pence to get a majority of the cabinet members to tell the Senate that Trump is unable to discharge his duties, in this case because of likely mental illness.

Pence of course is his sycophant so this doesn’t look likely, at least in the short term. But that doesn’t mean the conversation should not start in earnest. Yet it seems to be something even Democrats don’t want to say aloud. Certainly they and many Republicans in Congress are already thinking it. Republicans lack the political courage to bring up the topic. Democrats should not.

Americans need to know their president is not mentally ill. The White House tried to dodge this issue with Trump’s last physical. The White House physician Ronnie Jackson gave him the simplest of cognitive tests, which he passed. Jackson has since stepped down as his physician, given his failed nomination as Secretary of Veterans Affairs and allegations of the abusive environment he created within the White House medical staff.

Occam’s Razor is not always right, but it does suggest that the simplest explanation is most likely to be correct. So Democrats should openly express serious concern about Trump’s mental health. This way it at least becomes a legitimate topic of conversation. Ideally those speaking should be key Democrats like Minority Leaders Pelosi and Schumer. They could suggest perhaps three impartial leading psychiatrists give him a battery of evaluative tests and submit a report to Congress. It’s possible but unlikely that Trump will ace them all. In which case the question will be answered: Trump’s increasingly dangerous and bizarre behavior is due to some factors other than mental illness, in which case impeachment and removal is appropriate.

Our operating assumption has always been that our president would be a sane person. This is seriously under question now, particularly when you get tweets from Trump like this latest tirade against Iran:

We can’t start this process soon enough.

Rampages and beatifying the beautiful

Another disgusting rampage. Another white male (well, actually half white, half Asian, but obsessed enough with looking white to the point of dyeing his hair) decides he has been persecuted enough and goes on a murder spree. Of course I am talking about 22-year-old Elliott Rodger, who killed six people and injured thirteen others in a rampage on May 23, 2014 and then did what these cowardly murderers usually do: take his own life with a handgun. For a young man who railed against pretty women who he believes unfairly gave him the cold shoulder, four of his murders were against men, three of who were apparent roommates. The women were likely complete strangers, but were coeds at the local University of Santa Barbara he attended and likely reflected the archetype he expounded upon in his rantings and final video, of course uploaded to YouTube.

A few details of this incident did not fit the rampage stereotype. Three of the murders, of his roommates, were apparently carried out with knives and may have included a machete and hammer. I’m not sure what his beef with them was. Perhaps they were white and/or jocks. The others, of course, were shot expeditiously with our ubiquitous symbol of power for the powerless: a gun, specifically a Glock 34 pistol, acquired quite legally in California by a man with well established mental illnesses. Isla Vista police had earlier checked up on him, after his parents reported his disturbing videos on YouTube. Police found a mouse of a man and gave him no further thought.

Rodger says he did all this simply because he wanted to get laid and kept getting spurned from even getting a date. Of course it was more than this. Getting laid is not hard, even for a virgin. Anyone who can afford $5000 in guns can afford a street prostitute, or even an expensive blonde-haired escort like he lusted after. What Rodger really wanted was to be validated in the warped way that he thought he should be validated. He had to lay the right kind of stereotype. In his mind she had to be white, she had to be blonde, she had to find him attractive and apparently she had to be submissive and show respect by swooning over the fact that he was a man.

It’s the latter issue that is the primary subject of today’s essay. Rodger apparently saw himself as flawed. First, he was half Asian and to fit the archetype he believed blondes were looking for, he had to be all white. He thought that by dyeing his hair white he could join the white guys’ club, but it just made him look unnatural. This contributed to his rage. There were doubtless other things. Perhaps penis envy was also part of his perceived imperfections. Whatever, his doubtlessly clumsy attempts to win female attention did not work. He likely projected an aura of a messed up person, which is not hard if you are mentally ill. This is likely why women were spurning him, but it sounds like he set his bar unacceptably high anyhow. Chances are if he had actually laid one of these beautiful blonde goddesses, he would have been brought down to earth. Any subsequent relationship, if he could see past the confusion of his own mental illness, would reveal just another human being with flaws and foibles, just like him.

In some ways, Rodger was waiting for Godot. As we all know if you wait for Godot, it’s going to be a very long wait. No wonder his expectations were unfulfilled and his virginity remained intact. He was seeing women as he wanted them to be, not as they are. Women had become objects, not real people. He could only imagine validation through a woman so flawed that she had to be a stereotype. Naturally, his unsuccessful attempts piled onto themselves and turned into the perceived feeling that all women were against him because he himself was not the perfect male archetype he was convinced that they demanded. This anger fed his rage. Guns made it easy to kill half of his victims, but those living with him were in his intimate space, and on them he could unleash a more personal rage by killing them with knives and possibly a hammer. It is likely that his female victims would have suffered a similar fate if he could have gotten close enough to them, but of course he perceived them as spurning him, so he had to kill them remotely, hence the gun.

Rodger had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and had been seeing shrinks since he was eight years old. You would think this mental illness alone would make someone unqualified to own a gun, but of course you would be wrong. “Joe the Plumber” (a.k.a. Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher) got some attention recently by asserting that if his gun rights cause people to be unnecessarily murdered, that’s just too bad, the former being much more important than some goddam human lives. While I don’t agree with his thesis, I do reluctantly agree with his conclusion. If the Sandy Hook murders weren’t enough to restrict access to firearms, even if just to the mentally ill schizophrenic like Rodger, then he is clearly right. Mentally ill schizophrenics cause almost all these rampages, and they are generally also young men about Rodger’s age. Simply taking away gun rights from them would save the lives of many people every year. It’s obviously not something politicians are willing to do, since few are anxious to take on the crazily obsessed NRA.

Rodger’s larger issue though was a fundamental misunderstanding of who women actually are. It’s not hard to see how he picked this up, as our culture glorifies the beautiful and Hollywood prefers white actors. Hollywood is in the business of selling entertainment, and selling movies with actors who look like average Joes or Janes is generally not very marketable. We beatify the beautiful. With the beautiful and the talented grabbing most of our screen time, it’s not surprising that Rodger picked up this value and assumed he was unfairly and permanently discriminated against.

How to see past the cultural and Hollywood smokescreen? Part of the solution is to tune this stuff out, obviously not an easy thing to do in our increasingly interconnected world, as attested by the volume of Netflix downloads constantly streaming across the Internet. It might help if we could substitute books for visual mediums. In a book, unless its illustrated, the attractiveness or otherwise of its characters is not an issue. Schools and religious institutions can also do more to project the values that worth is not contingent upon your genetic makeup or your rating on

It would be helpful for everyone, but particularly our youth, to be less cliquish. We should put people of different ethnicities, life experiences and perceived beauty together more often. By interacting with others outside our normal class, it becomes obvious that we are all basically the same and that beauty and genetics say nothing about worth or character. These values become real only when they are experienced. People of different types have to work through issues together over a long period of time to get this understanding.

For students, it might mean lots of group projects where people in a group are picked specifically because they are different, instead of the same. Leveraging our diversity on all levels is actually a great strength. The more we all understand the multi-dimensional aspects of all of us, and feel it in our core, the more empathetic we become and the better we become at solving problems that affect everyone. This takes a lot of practice, and it often takes trained facilitators to help people see the strength in our diversity and our essential humanity. We have to see each other as real, not surreal.

And of course where there are signs of obvious danger, like Rodger’s mental illness, we must take logical steps to protect society. The NRA says that owning guns is a right. That is the current Supreme Court’s interpretation. The truth is that gun ownership, like driving a car, should be a privilege. It can and should be restricted to those sane and sober enough to use guns responsibly. By making it a right, it’s like giving a teenager a hotrod, a full tank of gas, a set of keys and a fifth of Tequila and telling them to enjoy their drive. That’s is the message we send to people like Rodger. Until we finally figure that out, Joe the Plumber will, unfortunately, continue to be right.

When you live by the gun, don’t be surprised if you die by the gun

I am trying to think what else I can add to the billions of words posted on blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media about Friday’s tragic and senseless mass murder of twenty children and seven adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School and in Newtown, Connecticut. It was, of course, horrific and the sort of event that gives even those of us with strong stomachs a persistently queasy feeling. I could write another blog post about my revulsion of guns, or why we need to do more help to help the mentally ill, but of course I have written many of these in response to other sad events like this one. This one is especially egregious not just for the number of fatalities but that our most young children were the primary victims.

So yes, this is more tragic evidence that we need to do more to control guns in our society, and need to make special efforts to keep them away from mentally disturbed people. There are currently no laws that would have kept Adam Lanza from getting the guns he used to kill so many people including him. In particular, there are no laws prohibiting people without criminal records from possessing semi-automatic weapons. But it appears that it didn’t matter in his case. The guns came courtesy of dear old mom, 52-year-old Nancy Lanza, who also turned out to be Adam Lanza’s first victim.

According to various press articles, Nancy Lanza was one of these citizens who liked to pack a lot of heat at home. If paranoid schizophrenia runs in the Lanza family, perhaps Nancy had it first, because her house was not only her castle but also apparently her armory as well. She is one of probably millions of Americans who truly believe that the government (in this case Obama in general, but also the United Nations) was out to take away her freedoms. Just in case, she was prepared. Josh Marshall on Talking Points Memo writes:

There’s been some level of mystery about just why Adam Lanza’s first victim, Nancy Lanza, had such a stock of weapons, particularly military style weapons like the .223 Bushmaster, the weapon we now know was actually used in the killings. She wasn’t just into guns. She was apparently stocked up for when the economy collapses and when everyone’s on their own with their guns.

It’s not hard to infer that Adam had some issues with his mother; otherwise presumably she would not be dead. Perhaps he was beyond typical mentally illnesses and was psychotic or on drugs or something. Perhaps after an extensive forensics investigation we will eventually understand the puzzle of Adam Lanza.

In some ways though it does not matter. If you want to commit mass murder, it’s obviously not too hard in America. But even if there were laws that were enforced to keep psychos like Adam Lanza away from lethal weapons, there are always trusty, law-abiding citizens like mom, paranoid about their own government and probably convinced via various right wing media that they needed to arm up now, with their lethal stash easily accessible that can be put to the wrong use.

I remarked before that the most likely person to kill you is someone you know personally, most likely someone you are related to through blood, marriage or a close relationship. Maybe keeping a handgun under your mattress will save your life, but chances are whoever is planning to kill you knows you have a gun, has a good idea where it is and plans to take you unaware. That’s most likely what happened to Nancy Lanza. All that lethal armature meant nothing because she was caught off guard. And that’s generally how these homicides happen. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, that’s where it would end. Nancy would be dead, Adam would hopefully be convicted, and the incident would have been buried near the back of Newtown’s newspaper. But Adam found some reason to keep murdering after killing mother. And thanks to mom, her .223 Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle and of course her large supply of ammunition he had the ready means to unleash mayhem.

The price of paranoia is ever more paranoia and it seems that little can be done to temper paranoid tendencies. When your mindset is survival, even when your life is not really in danger from vapid external forces, instead of living a normal life you live a life that is fear based. And it likely carries an emotional impact. It’s speculation of course, but if I grew up with parents that believed the government was close to imposing totalitarianism and kept closets of weapons and bullets handy, I’d likely pick that up as a value too, and carry it into adult life. Perhaps despite the fact that Adam clearly had issues with Mom, he picked up that value from her, much like so many of us chooses our parents’ religion in adult life.

I believe the murders of Nancy Lanza and twenty-six other people in Newtown, Connecticut is to some extent due to a culture of mistrust and paranoia that pervades so many Americans. This paranoia causes people to give money to the NRA, which petitions for ever-looser gun control laws and gives rare but sizable opportunities to the psychos of the world like Adam Lanza to conduct egregious and murderous rampages.

Those of us who are for gun control are not for it just because we think that guns are dangerous, which they are. We are for it because we realize we need to set values for our society that we can and should all live together peacefully, and that we can trust each other and our government. When you pack a lot of heat at home and keep your closet flush with ammunition, your values are saying that you don’t trust your government or your neighbors, at least not enough to give up your weapons and let the police department deter and prosecute crimes. You are spreading a toxic culture of paranoia that murders.

The tragic irony in this case is that the paranoia Nancy Lanza felt in her heart came back to kill her. Those who live by the gun should be prepared to die by the gun. I feel safer knowing that I am contributing to a safer society because there are no guns in my house, and never will be.

Most mass murders are preventable. For God’s sake, let’s prevent them.

Yesterday, another pointless mass slaughtering of innocents occurred. Six people were murdered this time, plus the gunman who was shot by police, at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The assassin (no point calling him alleged, as he is dead) is Michael Page, a forty-year-old Army veteran, a member of an Army psychological unit that was never deployed. Some news sources are suggesting that Page was a white supremacist. Most likely he wasn’t a very bright white supremacist for choosing Sikhs as victims. Most white supremacists are far more concerned about allegedly radical Muslims than Sikhs, who are a largely peaceful religion primarily from India that believes in one immortal being and the ten gurus. But they wear towels on their head, so that probably looked Muslim enough for Page. We’ll probably never know for sure why he targeted Sikhs, but their main crime seems to be they were not Caucasians like him.

About three weeks earlier, the white Caucasian pulling the trigger was allegedly James Eagan Holmes, 26, a recent dropout from the University of Colorado’s PhD neuroscience program. He killed twelve people and injured 58 others at a cinema in Aurora, Colorado with semiautomatic weapons and bullets purchased in part over the Internet. Shortly before he dropped out he was apparently receiving counseling from a psychiatrist at the university, who was so alarmed she brought his case to the attention of campus authorities. However, the campus lost interest as he had dropped out. Holmes acquired a huge lethal arsenal and over three thousand rounds of ammunition, all without a background investigation. He would have killed many more had not police discovered that he had booby-trapped his apartment.

And so it goes. On January 8, 2011 it was Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) who took a bullet to the brain at the hands of alleged assassin Jared Lee Loughner, 23, also a Caucasian white guy. Giffords was fortunate to survive, but her injury eventually meant resigning her seat in Congress and years of rehabilitation therapy that is still underway. Loughner shot 18 people, six of whom died at a Tucson Safeway. While he did not kill Giffords, he did manage to kill a federal judge. Like Holmes, Loughner had a traumatic incident in his personal life. He underwent a personality change after he was fired from a job at a local Quiznos. He was known to abuse alcohol and took hallucinogens. His firearm was purchased legally at a local Sportsman’s Warehouse in Tucson. Loughner is expected to plead guilty tomorrow to these shootings. He is considered mentally ill and is required to take an anti-psychotic medication.

Of course who could possibly forget the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, a shooting that killed 32 and injured 17 others? It stands as the worst mass murder by an individual in the United States. While the incident occurred in Blacksburg, Seung-Hui Cho grew up close to where I live in Northern Virginia. He attended Poplar Tree Elementary School down the street in Chantilly, and Westfield High School, also in Chantilly, where my daughter graduated the year of the incident. Cho had seen many mental health experts, had been on antidepressants and creeped out more than a few of his professors.

The United States is lucky to go a year without a mass murder episode. Some of them get little press. Four days before the Aurora shooting, twelve to 18 people were injured by gunman Nathan Van Wilkins, 44, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. If the incident made the paper, it was buried deep in the back somewhere. Maybe that no one actually died made it un-newsworthy. To pick a few recent mass shootings: 4 dead and 7 injured by Eduardo Sencion in Carson City, Nevada on September 6, 2011 and 13 killed and 4 injured in Binghamton, New York, my home town, by Jiverly Antares Wong on April 3, 2009. Wikipedia keeps a current list if you are curious. By my count the grisly total is: thirty murdered since 2010 and 82 from 2000-2009, and these are just the rampage killers. School massacres like Virginia Tech, workplace killings and hate crimes are not included.

Certain themes show up in these murderers. For the ones that tend to be most newsworthy, the perpetrators tends to be white, male, in their prime testosterone years and mentally ill. Mass murder though seems to be almost exclusively a guy thing, principally a white guy thing. Maybe women lack the crazy gene. Most of these mass murders probably were preventable. I will grant you that our loose, albeit almost nonexistent gun laws, make it difficult to impossible to keep these crazies from acquiring weapons. In the Aurora, Colorado shooting, had semi-automatic weapons been controlled, the death rate would have been markedly lower. Even I belatedly agreed that strict gun control is impossible in this country, but I would like to think that even the NRA would agree that people with severe mental illnesses should not be allowed to acquire weapons. Yes, perhaps they could get them from illicit sources, but we should not make it easy for them to get. These people should be in known databases. To alleviate the concern that regular citizens would be put in the database, perhaps getting added to the database would require the signatures of three psychiatrists.

But guns don’t kill people (unless they smash their heads in with a rifle’s butt), but bullets sure do. James Holmes acquired 300 rounds of ammunition and no one blinked an eye. More importantly, no one was tracking the fact that one dude in a short period of time acquired this much ammunition, or that there was something unusual about the semi-automatic weapons he acquired so quickly too. If all gun sales were in a database, it would be easy enough to search it for unusual cases, and if it were cross-indexed with a list of people with mental psychoses then the Holmes case should have stood out like a red flag. Exactly how are gun rights diminished if we were to enact laws like this? Are we really agreeing that every psychotic should have unlimited access to firearms and rounds of ammunition?

While guns and bullets allow these murders to occur easily, in most cases the catalyst is mental illness. Mental illness is at least required to be treated by health insurance plans but we still have fifty million people uninsured. There are fewer stigmas to treating mental illness these days, but we should press for even less of them. Even if you can be treated, as was true in Seung-Hui Cho’s case, mentally ill adults can refuse treatment. Cho’s case was truly extreme: red flags were everywhere. Particularly with cases this severe, it is reasonable for society to require these individuals stay in treatment, both for their own safety and for society’s safety as well, unless a board of psychiatrists clears the person.

Our world is growing more crowded and complex. Our highly industrialized, information-centric world does affect us in ways that are hard for us to understand. Denser communities raise the number of human interactions, making trouble more likely. The Internet, while it has lots of advantages, also allows mentally ill people license to feed their psychoses. Sociologists need to study the effects of Future Shock, well underway, and it needs to be come part of a public policy discussion. Ignoring these realities simply means that more of us will die needlessly from future and preventable acts of mass violence. It also means those with these mental illnesses are less likely to keep their conditions under control.

George Santayana said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. It’s one thing to forget lessons from events that happened generations ago. It is another thing to forget events that happened last week or last month and not learn from them. It is the height of public policy stupidity.

Review: Next to Normal at the Kennedy Center

There were dueling musicals playing Saturday night at the Kennedy Center. We found ourselves in the Eisenhower Theater watching the rock musical Next to Normal, the story of a woman caught in bipolar disorder. Right next-door in the Opera House was the musical Wicked, which we had caught in Chicago way back in 2005, is still going strong and based on people hanging outside the theater, is still attracting its share of devoted groupies.

It would be hard to put two stranger musicals side by side. Wicked is a glitzy but largely empty-headed musical fantasy on the world of Oz with a mixture of pretty good to great music, a so-so story, lots of costumes and numerous scene changes. On the other hand, Next to Normal is a modest musical with just one set (on three levels), a small cast, zero special effects and is anchored in the present day. Wicked is a fun musical; Next to Normal is a downer of a musical and, if you have dealt with mental illness in your family, it will also feel uncomfortably familiar. Yet surprisingly, Next to Normal emerged from off Broadway, made a previous appearance here in Washington at Arena Stage, went on Broadway, won a number of Tony Awards and is now on tour. Its success may be due in part to the crushing number of people and families struggling with mental illness.

No question about it, Diana Goodman is a mess of a woman. Life for her is largely dysfunctional. Some part of her seems like a normal housewife until she does strange or harmful things like making sandwiches on the floor or deciding to slice her wrists. Such as it is, her life involves taking pills and talking to psychiatrists. “Success” is achieved when she is so medicated she feels almost nothing. Yet she realizes that her medicated world is a false world, and sings as much in one of the songs, I Miss the Mountains. Her mental illness is so consuming that it squeezes all other life out of her small family’s existence.

Her dutiful husband Dan (Asa Somers) spends his life closely monitoring his psychotic wife, and hopes for days or weeks of something resembling normal (It’s Gonna Be Good). Only there is no normal in this house. Diana is like a bull in a china shop, and has no idea of the emotional devastation she is inflicting on her husband or her estranged daughter Natalie (Emma Hunton). Natalie, an overachieving high school student, is devastated by her mother’s emotional absence from her life. Her father cannot do much to fill the gap. He is too busy playing the role of dutiful caregiver to Diana. It’s a role that leaves him emotionally devastated too, as well as exhausted and suffering from something akin to post traumatic stress disorder. He is always on edge, always trying to keep his family from imploding, and always wondering when his wife’s next crazy episode will arrive. It is hard not to sympathize with Dan, a truly nice guy who must live life keeping a stiff upper lip.

As the musical unfolds it is easy to see that Diana’s mental illness is catching. Natalie is pursued by Henry, who enjoys listening to her music and grows to love her, but not in a healthy way. Rather, Henry senses she is emotionally vulnerable, and like her father wants to play the role of catching her when she falls. Meanwhile, Natalie starts channeling her mother. An episode that puts her mother in the hospital pushes her over the edge, and she begins taking some of her mother’s medicines to try to escape her less than ideal reality. Overseeing everything is Gabe, the cause of Diana’s psychosis. Gabe was her son. The real Gabe died at eight months of an unseen intestinal blockage, but he lives on as a creature from the Id in Diana’s mind. It is the powerful image of Gabe, as a rebellious teenager (played by Curt Hansen), that symbolizes Diana’s desire to live life on her own terms. She wants to break free from the world of medications and psychiatrists, as long as she can feel again. Gabe is really something of the central character of the musical, usually onstage and providing commentary and temptation. The baby Gabe may have died long ago, but his projection lives on and pulls the whole family into his massive gravity well of pain and hurt.

Shrinks also play an important counterweight in the musical, as they fruitlessly try to move Diana into a place of healing. Even the best shrink in town, Dr. Madden (Jeremy Kushnier) finds he has his hands full with her, and eventually recommends electroconvulsive therapy, which has the effects of making her forget most of her past.

In our performance, Alice Ripley played Diana, who originated the part and won a Tony for her role. Presumably Ripley could sing better on stage than she does, because her raspy alto voice mirrors the pain within her character. Her voice was the only off note (but presumably a deliberate one) to a fast flowing, depressing yet riveting musical. While allegedly a rock musical, it doesn’t particularly sound like one. The music has songs that are definitely come out of rock, but others that sound more like pop or easy listening than rock. As with Rent (and this was directed by the same man who directed Rent, Michael Greif), the orchestra, such as it is can be found on the stage, almost characters themselves.

Looking around at the audience I got the sense that many were dealing with mental illness in their own lives. We know today that mental illness is a huge problem, so it would not surprise me if many of the mentally ill and/or their families found some identity and therapy in the musical.

It would be nice if the musical had a happy ending, and it does sort of resolve things, just not in a neat and tidy package. At least for a brief time the characters find a breathing space of sorts, and as the show’s title suggests, a place next to normal where something close to normality can be sampled.

This is obviously an adult themed show and not appropriate for small children. It is one of the few musicals to explore inner rather than outer worlds and in my mind a lot more meaningful than the fun but vapid production of Wicked next door.

(P.S. Also watch Garden State, a terrific movie, much more lighthearted but with a similar theme.)

Republicans are a party of sadists

If Democrats are a bunch of bleeding heart, do-good tree huggers (which sadly, we are not), it is clear that modern Republicans are pretty much the opposite. They may put on great smiles, but underneath that plastic veneer are a whole lot of seriously hurting and angry people who basically are sadists.

In case you are not familiar with the term, sadists take pleasure in the infliction of mental and physical pain on others. Being sadistic is not considered a virtue; it is considered a mental illness. Strangely, particularly in our bizarre modern times, Republicans do consider sadism virtuous. It is witnessed by the preponderance of Republicans and conservatives who were all for waterboarding and other forms of torture in our War on Terror.

In fact, some of the leading sadists come out of the conservative Christian community. Have you noticed? Yeah, it puzzles me too. I always thought Christians were for the poor and oppressed and wanted to relieve misery. Just a few of the Christian dominated conservative organizations that are opposed to health care reform include the Southern Baptist Convention, the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, the Freedom Federation and American Values. The consequences of no health care reform are inescapable: health care will become more and more unaffordable, putting more people into misery, poverty and early death, and principally those near the bottom of the income scale. When you advocate policies that hurt and make miserable people you do not know or like, you are being sadistic.

The thing is most sadists enjoy inflicting pain and misery only on people they know personally. Republicans are taking it national, to people they don’t really know and in many cases just imagine. Take ultra-conservative TV show host Glenn Beck. Before he joined Fox “News” he worked for a radio station, B104 in Baltimore. What is more, Beck admits he was a sadist.

Today, when Beck wants to illustrate the jerk he used to be, he tells the story of the time he fired an employee for bringing him the wrong pen during a promotional event. According to former colleagues in Baltimore, Beck didn’t just fire people in fits of rage — he fired them slowly and publicly. “He used to take people to a bar and sit them down and just humiliate them in public. He was a sadist, the kind of guy who rips wings off of flies,” remembers a colleague.

Now that his audience is national, he appears to be in remission. In case you missed it, among Beck’s latest sadistic antics was this one where at first he appeared to boil a live frog.

As I noted back in 2007, Fox “News” commentator Bill O’Reilly is a bully with sadistic tendencies. He also has an explosive temper, both on and off the air. Yet in conservative circles, sadistic tendencies are now a virtue which might get you into their Hall of Fame. Sadistic tendencies show you are serious, just like Hitler was dead serious about ridding the world of the Jews. Indeed, Beck is rising in the public spotlight based on his sadistic notoriety. It’s like conservatives on TV and radio are holding a contest to see who can be the most sadistic and outrageous.

Fueling the sadism of course is anger, anger that must be expressed. When it is expressed in creative ways, such as pretending to boil a live frog, it gets publicity and weird interviews with Katie Couric. Even people who are not sadistic by nature might be drawn to watch Bill O’Reilly or Glenn Beck just to see what crazy sadistic antics they try on a particular day. (I am betting most of these people also watch TV reality shows.) While they are watching, of course, they will get plenty of propaganda. Their hope is that these viewers will make a regular habit watching them and, perhaps in time, enter the black and white world of the Dittoheads.

Perhaps it was Ronald Reagan who most recently started the whole mess, although clearly the underpinnings of this movement go back well before the rise of the John Birch Society. When Reagan first ran for president in 1976, he railed against welfare queens who he was sure were living the high life on the public dole. There was virtually no basis in fact for these allegations, but it made for an easy piñata that conservatives could bash. Given how miserable the economy was doing at the time, alleged welfare queens also made an easy target to advance a larger power agenda.

What was really needed in 1976, and is needed today in our sour economy, was some perspective. In 1976, anger against welfare queens was not the real issue; it was our rampant inflation instead. Our country was rapidly changing for the worse in a new global economy that we were not ready for. Today, the welfare queen may have been replaced with illegal immigrants clogging our emergency rooms, or illusory death panels of government bureaucrats, but their anger is real enough. When you feel angry inside, at some point you have to express the anger, at least you do if you have a short fuse. Naturally, the last place you will look for the source are some defects inside yourself. I am sure this anger has nothing to do with the way their Dads were so liberal with the use of the belt on their backsides.

So just why are conservatives so angry with Democrats in general and Barack Obama in particular? Is it just racist feelings that explain their hatred of all things Obama? That is certainly part of the unstated animus, but only a small part of it. What really gets conservatives riled up is the unacknowledged fear that we have an administration and Congress that just might actually solve a couple of these chronic problems that people really care about. (As I pointed out in my last post, I am not particularly hopeful that Democrats will succeed.) After all, should Americans choose a government run plan over private insurance, and should it be fashioned like Medicare, they might like minor conveniences like not having to hassle with paperwork and knowing that they might be able to afford to be sick. Moreover, that might mean they would want more policies like these, and more Democrats voted into office. Eventually Republicans might devolve into a wholly inchoate bunch.

The truth is, Republicans today pretty much are an inchoate bunch but they are making a hell of a lot of noise. Hurricanes are very loud too and leave a lot of devastation in their wake. When you go from welfare queens, who just might possibly exist in some weird and exceptional case, to government sanctioned death panels trying to kill grandma, it is clear that people like Sarah Palin are not playing with a full deck. The best you can say for them is that their sense of rage has temporarily overtaken their ability to reason based on the known facts. The worst you can say is that they are loose cannons. The last thing you want to do is put one of these impulsive people on the deck of the ship of state. The next thing you know they will be worrying their next-door neighbors are Martians because their next-door neighbor looks like Uncle Martin Martin from My Favorite Martian. This would mean, of course, given their tortured logic, that America is covertly up to its armpits in Martians, and, by the way, Martians look upon us the same way we look upon a juicy steak.

Seriously, if anyone needs health care reform, Republicans need it, and make sure it includes mental health benefits. Many of these folks can no longer discern reality from fantasy. Their world is apparently one full of endless subterfuge where someone is always out to get them or some member of their clan. Perhaps if there is some intelligence behind their hatred of health care reform, it is their hope that by maintaining the status quo we will end up with a nation of paranoid village idiots, just like them. When everyone is pointlessly paranoid, just like them, then perhaps they can relax a bit. Somehow, I doubt that will calm their restless souls.

I know that if I were Glenn Beck’s physician, I would be writing him a prescription for Valium and when he is calm enough send him to a good head shrinker. Chances are he will in there a long time.

Our stressed out nation

Didn’t you suspect this all along?

Scientists reported yesterday that they have uncovered a biological switch by which stress can promote obesity, a discovery that could help explain the world’s growing weight problem and lead to new ways to melt flab and manipulate fat for cosmetic purposes.


Moreover, the stressed-out junk-food eaters put on the worst kind of fat — deposited around the abdomen and laced with hormones and other chemical signals that promote illness. After three months, the animals became obese and developed the constellation of health problems that obese humans often get — high blood pressure, early diabetes, high cholesterol — an increasingly common condition known as metabolic syndrome.

I find a direct correlation between my weight and the amount of stress in my life. I bet the same is true with you. So the conclusion in this article was no surprise. When you are under stress, your body is in an abnormal state. Yet for many of us Americans, modern life is little but stress. Our employment often feels tenuous. Our marriages feel rocky. Our kids are difficult to manage. We work two or three jobs to pay the bills.

Therefore, we look for balms to relieve our stress. These are typically smoking, drinking, drugs and food. Of the four of these, the one that society frowns on the least is food. Unlike drugs, cigarettes and booze, food is both extremely convenient and inexpensive. You will not be carded for being underage and buying a box of Ding Dongs. Solutions to our stresses often involve more stress. If our marriage is under stress, to solve it we either have to endure months of painful and expensive marital therapy with high likelihood of failure or go through the trauma of divorce. If our children are grossly misbehaving, timeouts and a spanking are unlikely to solve the problem. Instead, they likely need to talk to social workers and psychiatrists. Often they will end up on antidepressants. Since their behavior affects Mom and Dad, they often end up on antidepressants too. However, since most stress is situational, treating stress by pill is no cure. At best, it offers only modest and temporary relief.

For many of us the best and cheapest therapy is a pet. Like Prozac, even the most devoted dog can only do so much. Therefore, it is easy to succumb to the temptation to buy that box of Krispy Kremes. A sugar high is easy to achieve and it feels so satisfying. Except of course, it is as successful at solving our stress as a bottle of booze. At best, it helps the stressful feelings recede for a few hours.

Maybe it is coincidence but as I travel America, I feel like I can accurately measure the stress level of a community by the average girth of its citizenry. Throughout much of the South and Midwest, Americans are noticeably more obese than elsewhere. Perhaps poverty in the South contributes toward its problem. Its culture probably contributes as well, which seems to emphasize a diet rich in empty carbohydrates. The filmmaker Michael Moore is quite obese and was raised in Flint, Michigan. Since my wife is also from Flint and we have relatives in the state, we visit Flint periodically. I note no lack of an obesity crisis in Northern Virginia where I live. Even so, when I go to Flint I feel appalled. With the auto industry in permanent decline, the city slipping more and more into stagnation with the passage of each year, it seems Flint’s biggest surplus is in obese people. The residents of Flint seem to have an unhealthy attraction to greasy spoons and donut shops.

As I noted in 2005, there are no lack of greasy spoons and donut shops in Canada either. You can hardly drive a mile without passing a Tim Horton’s donut shop, for which residents of Ontario seem to have an almost unnatural affection. (There is sound reason for their affection; we dined there twice.) I have seen Tim Hortons crowded even during off hours. Yet, at least around the Toronto area, I saw markedly fewer obese people than just a hundred miles away in Buffalo.

Last summer when we visited Paris I was struck by the absence of obese and overweight people. In America the typical person is more likely to be overweight than not. In Paris, you have to look for them. My belief is that because the French in general live less stress-filled lives than Americans do, they have less need to use food to cope with stress. With their nationalized health care system, they never have to worry about whether they can afford to see a doctor. Their law requires a minimum of five weeks of vacation per year. Their national holidays are also more plentiful than ours are. Downtime and safety from many of life’s worst shocks are built into their culture. As a result, the French seem to have institutionalized a form of living that minimizes stress. So, like the mice who were not subjected to stress in the study, I am not surprised that the French look so good. (As I noted then, I think this is partly because Parisians get more exercise than we do. They burn off plenty of calories just walking to and from mass transit. They are less likely to commute by car than we are.)

Our American values emphasize self-reliance. It is practically a religion. We see living by our wits as a competitive advantage. While it may have its benefits, I think it is clear that this form of living also has a dark side. We can see it manifested in our exploding girths. Just the comfort of knowing that we have universal health insurance may do more to combat our obesity crisis than a stack of surgeon general reports.

While I think self-reliance is a terrific virtue, I also note that Europeans with their nationalized health care systems and more socialized governments live longer and have less stress-filled lives than Americans have. You have to look hard for a Western European country with life expectancy rates comparable to the United States (Denmark and Portugal). In France, you are likely to live two years longer than in the United States, despite the fact that most of the French smoke. In Germany, one year longer. In Spain, two years longer. In Switzerland, two and a half years longer. In Canada, with its socialized medicine and rampant numbers of frequently patronized Tim Horton’s donut shops, Canadians live nearly two years and a half years longer than we do.

The common denominator in these countries is that they have institutionalized methods that reduce unnecessary stress on its population. Living by your wits, which is what humans did for most of their existence, reduces lifespan.

For a country that claims to value life, perhaps we can demonstrate it by inculcating a culture that supports it. Perhaps it is time to change our values.

Inheriting the baggage too

For those who are wondering, my mother’s funeral was quite lovely. While it would not be accurate to say everyone had a good time, it went about as good as a funeral could go. The music was lovely and touching. The priest gave a simple but heartfelt sermon that hit all the right notes. After the funeral mass, many stayed for the eulogies. Most of us children had words to say publicly; you may have read mine already. Tears were shed, but the tears were as much from laughter as of sorrow. When we remembered my mother’s little eccentricities, we could not help but laugh. Afterwards we repaired to one of the restaurants in Riderwood for a nice luncheon reception. My Mom must have been disappointed that she had not prepared the food.

My friend Courtney attended and saw my family at its full size for the first time. She remarked how much my family looks alike. She is right. You would be hard pressed to find any family where the siblings looked so much the same. Perhaps it was her remark that had me watching my own family, small though it may be. Before the service, my wife and daughter largely sat by themselves on a bench. There were plenty of people to talk to, but they preferred to stay quiet and silent rather than seek out conversation. I found myself greeting arrivals at the door to the chapel. I am learning to be gregarious, but it does not come naturally. Part of me wanted to be sitting on the bench with them.

The patter continued during the luncheon after the service. My nieces were at a table together laughing and sharing memories. And there was my wife and daughter, at a table by themselves. I joined them, but eventually mingled. This was, after all, family. Many I had not seen in years. The time I have with them is precious because we are so geographically separated. Why would I want to distance myself from them, particularly at such a turning point in our lives? Why would my wife and daughter? It is not as if they have not had plenty of time over the years with my side of the family and feel comfortable with everyone.

One thing is for sure: neither my wife nor I are extraverts. We tend to prefer the pleasure of a good book to a social gathering. If I must engage socially, I prefer small groups of people that I know. Still, there was a time when my daughter was popular. From ages 6-9, she was definitely the popular girl on the block. She was our amazing social butterfly. Girls were constantly knocking on our door, streaming into her bedroom or wanting them to come to their house. She was the nexus of a complex social, preteen network. It seemed more normal to send her to a sleepover on a weekend then not. She changed, but I do not know why. Now my daughter seems more like a cloistered nun than a social butterfly. Yes, she does have her friends, principally the “losers” (social outcasts) at school. Mostly they share her ambiguous sexual feelings and aversion to all things trendy. However, it is a small group of genuinely good teens. They meet irregularly in person. Most of their conversations are on IM, not in person.

Having twenty family members in the house for the wake was a bit much for her. She said a few polite words and then scurried out of sight into her room. The door remained closed until they were gone. Like her mother and I she likes to write. Still, it seemed more than a bit odd that she would disappear like this. She does this quite often. This girl, once so popular and the block extrovert, has morphed into the block introvert.

What happened? I am sure there were many factors. She had friends who got weird on her. They experimented tragically with drugs and sex, things that were not her scene. Yet on another level, I think she was also just modeling her parents. It is unfair to say we never host parties, but the last real party in our house was in 1999. My wife and I do attend parties once or twice a year. Yet invariably we don’t stay too long. Usually an hour or so before anyone else is even thinking of leaving my wife is tugging at my sleeve: let’s go. It usually does not take much persuading for me to leave either. Especially if it is a large group of people I do not know I find myself fumble mouthed and fumble footed. Somehow, I missed the class on successful social navigation. Few things terrify me more than having to go to a party full of strangers then have to make casual conversation. Therefore, I generally avoid it. Give me home. Give me peace and quiet.

Nevertheless, I am starting to come out. It may be a modest midlife renaissance, but it is a start. My new job has its social aspects. I have learned to swim in it. I do this a lot on business trips. I am usually with a group of 8-12 people. We spend the day in meetings and the evenings at restaurants. Most of these people I now know a bit more than casually. I do not find it too burdensome. In fact, I am finding it kind of fun. It used to be that as soon as business was over I was anxious to run to my hotel room. Now half the time I find I want the conversation to linger. Perhaps that is a good sign.

However, most likely my engrained habit toward introversion will never wholly recede. It is too comfortable. Likely one of the reasons I fell in love with my wife was that she was a shy introvert like me. There would be no need to worry about having to fend for myself in big parties if I married her! Now I am starting to understand that my daughter has modeled our behavior. I do not think that she intended to model us, but she did nonetheless. Just like Mom and Dad, her most comfortable times seem to be in her room, alone.

If it were just her introversion, perhaps this would be no more than coincidence. She is currently half way through her teenage years. What I am now seeing is more like a perfect meld of my wife and myself, rather than the free and independent spirit I had hoped to raise. I find it spooky sometimes. Neither my wife nor I were first in line in the dating business. Maybe we had self-image problems, or we carried from childhood a latent shyness. While I wanted to be dating but seemed to lack the courage, my daughter explicitly chooses to shy away from intimate relationships. Perhaps it comes from witnessing some of her friends self-destruct in these relationships. In addition, I think that she picked up that this was an area of tenderness in her parents, so she was supposed to model it.

I am beginning to perceive something that should have been blazingly obvious. While children are not intellectually sophisticated, they are excellent readers of other people. Perhaps since they learn to talk through learning to read emotions, they become very adept at understanding people’s body languages and the complex subtext to daily living. Most of this emotional intelligence I think is buried in their subconscious, so they are not explicitly aware of it. Since we parents are a constant presence in their lives, we model a version of reality that for them, after a while, seems entirely natural. It is more than religion that our children pick up from us parents. It seems to be pretty much everything. Even in areas where our children seem to be a contrast to their parents, it appears that (in my daughter’s case) it is picked to deliberately highlight the contrast.

My shyness is her shyness. My self-image problems are also hers. My feelings of toxic shame she also seems to carry forward in her life. And it goes on and on.

Perhaps all this comes from genetics. I am skeptical about this line of reasoning. Had foster parents raised her, I suspect she would have modeled them, instead of us. I do not know whether to be flattered or to be upset. Overall, I probably lean more toward the upset side. I raised her to be an independent thinker: so why is she as a liberal as I am? If she has to inherit attributes of me, why could she not pick just my good attributes and not the bad ones? Why would I want traits like my feelings of guilt to be carried over to another generation?

In retrospect, what could I have done differently to change any of it? I really do not know. Perhaps if I had been less a presence in her life, she might have turned into someone quite different. Instead, I played the dutiful and loving father role. I am sure it has many positive aspects. Somehow, my lesser aspects came along for the ride, as did my wife’s.

On the plus side, my daughter inherits our creative instincts and strong intelligence. These characteristics will serve her well in the future. She will have to work through a few issues though. I suspect my self-esteem is higher than my wife’s is. Which will she carry into adulthood? My wife is much more the bookworm than I am. Will she pick up my wife’s love of literature and always have a book in her hands? On the other hand, will she be like dear old Dad, read newspapers, and skim the media for content? Does it matter?

Time will tell. She is rapidly moving toward adulthood. Nevertheless, I do not think what my daughter went through is at all unique. I strongly suspect her friends are engaging in similar and mostly largely unconscious behavior emulation of their parents too. As I ponder my own mother’s death and try to understand the gifts she left me, I also realize some baggage came with her gifts. I hope that when my turn comes to leave this planet I will have left her with more gifts than baggage.


Business travel has its ups and downs. The location may change but the script does not change much. In my case, I spend my days in meeting rooms. My lunches and evenings are spent hanging out with the same people with whom I am meeting. Not surprisingly over time, I learn much more about the people I am traveling with than I expected. Familiarity and much conversation yield intimate insights into someone you would never otherwise have. Perhaps the mere fact that we see each other so rarely yields a safe space where we feel freer to disclose intimate facts about ourselves.

Because I have not done a great job of it, I tend to admire people who overcome great adversity. Hearing how they surmounted their problems puts my own personal challenges in perspective. I have occasionally written an intimate entry or two about other people’s personal hells that I have stumbled across during my life’s journey. This story involves a woman with two daughters. Her husband was an alcoholic, deeply depressed and very suicidal. As you might expect his behavior was deeply toxic. Her two daughters were deeply affected by their father’s behaviors. I was not surprised to learn that as a result both her girls developed suicidal feelings too. The job of straightening out this situation fell squarely on her lap because no one else would deal with it.

As a result, she and her husband are now separated, likely forever. Her husband as well as her daughters are now in a much better space. Her husband is no longer suicidal but because his behavior was so toxic, she will not allow him to live with the girls again. Both girls have been in therapy. They are currently enmeshed in their chaotic and hormone laden teenage years. However, they both still have suicidal impulses from time to time. To cope she has spent years working part time to make sure she was around for her daughters when she was needed. Much of her free time is involved not just in making sure they successfully navigate through middle and high schools, but tending to their complex physical, emotional and mental needs. In short, she is a mother in the best sense of the world dealing adroitly with a complex situation for which she had no training.

I can relate. Mental health issues are out of the closet these days. I have had to deal with mental health issues in my family too, and I was often clueless about what to do in these circumstances too. I felt like I was probably the least capable person on the planet to deal with them. Fortunately, no one in my family has ever seriously considered suicide, let alone tried to act on them. This was fortunate for all of us because dealing with their issues I found extremely challenging. The effort largely consumed me. I was barely keeping up with their issues as they came forward.

Perhaps, like this woman, had my family had suicidal issues I too would have risen to the occasion. I like to think so. The reality for me was that hanging in there during challenging years exacted a heavy personal toll. At one point, I became depressed too. I had many days when I felt like I could just not deal with it for yet another day. Thoughts of escape became omnipresent. It no longer sounded so bad to be married to a Stepford wife. Humans tend to be such complex and multifaceted creatures. Moreover, each person that I knew intimately seemed to be a Pandora’s box of complex problems. I coped with by projecting a calm demeanor and a lot of bravado. On the inside, I was eaten up by these problems. Underlying it all was a heaping dose of guilt. I had promised in my marriage vows to support my wife. As a father, I was legally and morally bound to care for my daughter too.

The reality is that those with mental illnesses rarely recover completely. Fortunately, my family and I are in a better mental and emotional state now. I take some pride in hanging in there for them when they needed me. I hope my doggedness resulted in their recoveries. Seeing your intimates in a better space becomes the only reward. No one comes by to award medals for personal valor or to place a gold star on your forehead.

Therefore, I coped, as did the woman with whom I am traveling. There is one crucial difference between us though. She is resilient. While I hung in there because I had to, my life flirted with mental and physical exhaustion. She hung in there too but like a thoroughbred, she seems not quite so winded or exhausted by her experiences as I was by mine. And this makes me wonder where this inner strength comes from. It also makes me one of her secret admirers.

If you have seen pictures of the Dalia Lama, the spiritual head of Buddhism, you can get some idea of what it is like to see someone wholly at peace with themselves. The cares and concerns of the world buffet them too. Yet, the Dalia Lama is filled with a sense of peace, happiness and inner serenity that is unmistakable. The same is true with this woman. Her fundamental nature has not changed. She radiates an inner contentment and a serene joy in simply being alive. Life has both changed her yet somehow left her fundamentally the same. She exudes serenity, an inner personal happiness and a joy of living that is intoxicating. Being around her you cannot help but feel in the presence of a wholly positive spirit. Her smiles are genuinely beatific.

I wonder about the wellspring for this uncorrupted joy of life. Wherever it comes from, I need to drink from that well.