Still Standing

Iris Chang was a young woman who wrote a famous book (The Rape of Nanking).  She became a symbol for many Asian-Americans, and blurred the lines between journalist and historian.  She was to all eyes a very confident, competent, attractive woman who “had everything”.  Yet her internal life went into free fall and she committed suicide at the age of 36 in 2004.  I just finished reading an inquiry into her life and death (Finding Iris Chang) written by her good friend, Paula Kamen.  Suicide seems to be a theme this week, with several young celebrities going that route.  I had been wondering about Ms. Chang for several days when I woke up at 3 a.m. completely at peace with an understanding.

Depression and degrees of sanity are part of the human condition.  When we slip into such degrees that it becomes clinically diagnostic is a question artists, philosophers, and most recently psychologists have been wrestling with for a long time.  Anyone can fall.  Just as anyone can slip and fall in their own house, anyone can slip, and start a decline that even they lose the ability to understand or stop.  That may be one of the reasons depression and insanity are so scary to us, because we know it could happen to us as well.

 I think supremely competent people are as susceptible, even if we don’t want to believe they are.  We all develop habits, and when those habits of mind and action are all we have to fall back on to block any pain or anxiety we have, they can stop working for us and begin to work against us.  Yet we keep dong them, because they are safe.  Those habits are knowns.  Ms. Chang worked.  She followed her habits of work because it was what she knew best.  She had responsibilities to her husband, son, and extended family.  She knew how to be forceful; she had learned how to perform.  But perhaps there came a time when she, like many of us, just did not want to do it anymore.  I’ll call it “pulling a J.D. Salinger”.  When people just say STOP.  They change their lives, and quit doing what they had been- no matter how successful it seems to people around them.  Many times, these people get happy.  Sometimes after long stretches they go back to what ever they had been doing (for better or worse).  I woke up at 3 am and I just knew that Ms. Chang had not been able to say STOP, when she may have really wanted to.

 The consummate achiever and self described geek with rough social skills may have just not known she had that option, or felt too ashamed to take it.  It’s a cliché to say Asian people commit suicide more frequently than any others, and often do it out of a sense of shame that is difficult for Westerners to understand.  Ms. Chang was second generation Chinese-American, and while that may have played a role, I think it was complicated.  What was not, it seems, was the clear inability for her to feel any differently than she did.  She fell, and could not get up.

I read recently about a forest in Japan that has been around a long time, but is a taboo subject for the Japanese.  It is a place where people go to die.  To commit suicide.  There were gruesome photographs of bodies everywhere in various states of decay, like some over populated CSI training lab (the likes of which they have in this country, using donated corpses).  Is it part of our world now that especially in first-world countries, suicide is just a fact?  I sympathized with Dr. Kevorkian when he lobbied to be able to help terminally ill people end their lives sooner rather than later.  That is an agonizing thing, to be sure, but an option I believe ought to be available for people who have terminal illnesses.  I know with complete certainty that if I develop Alzheimer’s and treatments have been useless, I want that option.  But this forest of lost souls, this is something different, I think.

 I talked with Husband about the value of real friends, and strong friendship-based marriages.  He agreed that we need those few folks in the center of our dartboard, the bulls-eye, who know us well enough to help us when we don’t even know we need it.   Those most intimate with us, not the rings and degrees of less intimacy that spiral out from our cores.  We need those central stabilizers, those perspectives.  Especially those of us with strong minds and hearts, whom others rely upon and seem to “have it all”.

 Developing such friends is not easy, and not overtly rewarded in our culture.  It takes a tremendous amount of work, and willingness to shunt some folks off to more superficial levels of friendship or eliminate them from our lives all together.  It also takes time.  We live in such geographically fragmented, fast-paced, demanding realities that the very idea of slow anything- slow food, slow friends, slow entertainment, slow work- seems impossible.  But the lesson I take from Ms. Chang is that anyone can fall, and fall fast.  Three things may have helped- I do not know, but I feel it to be true for myself.  1- knowing that anyone can fall, and letting oneself ask for help, and say STOP.  Change it up, let the ego go.  Pull a Salinger. 2- Teach my children the value of intimacy, real friends, and laughing at oneself in joy as much as self-deprecation; and living it as an example.  3- Live slower and let go any anxiety about what is let go as the compromise.  One last addition to this list is the “don’t put it in your head” rule.  There is so much suffering in the world, and we can read about it, see it.  We must, I believe, be a form of witness.  But also, we have limits to how much we can stuff into our head and try to balance.  So I choose not to watch violent fiction, or read it.  There is too much fact I have to carry around, and I don’t need the added images, ideas, or darkness.

 I have known depression, more than once.  I can’t say for sure what pulled me back from the edge, from falling over an edge I could not come back from.  But I know I have a very few good friends who helped.  I also know that I felt shame, I made huge mistakes- and I still suffer regret, but I am letting it go and trying to stop beating myself up about it.  I also know I am now middle aged, and I probably won’t be the high achiever I wanted to be.  I have to say, “oh well”, I pulled a Salinger of sorts in the past and now I am slower for it.  Oh well.

 Life goes on for me.  For many of us.  Sometimes it is enough not to know why, but just to be glad it does.

Fly on the wall

There are two old guys I would like to know have met: Stephen King and Garrison Keillor.  They are almost the same age, and are talented, funny, grounded writers.  Someone buy these two lunch! Seriously, what a broadcast that would make: have them go to lunch together, record the whole thing, and let them edit it as they please.  Sort of “Dinner with Andre” for the audio set.  Then do it again with other folks. Instead of celebrity death match entertainment (remember the claymation series?),  a series for those of us who would love to be flies on the wall when specific famous folks meet.  

 Fill in the blanks:  Madeleine Albright and ___.    Buddy Guy and ____.   The interest is generated by an overlap of some similarities, some differences, but generally two people who in meeting would generate some interesting conversation.  Steve Jobs and  ______ (Say, somebody get that guy on tape in a non-Apple environment before it’s too late).  Brad Bird and ______.   Isn’t this a project for NPR?  It would certainly generate revenue for the cash strapped radio company.  Who would you like to hear talk about life, themselves, all that rot and face the challenge of being introduced to someone new?   

I’m no celebrity, but I happened to meet a woman my age with two daughters my sons age yesterday at a local auto repair/dealership.  She came into the “crying room” as I think of it (like the sound proofed room in my childhood church, where parents with unruly or bored kids could go to the back of the church and peer out, ostensibly still participating in mass), while my son and I sat on the floor watching PBS kids on the ceiling mounted TV monitor.   When the repair clerk came in to give me the standard lies (I was only there for a state inspection, a yearly scam I have written about before) and tell me what the routine tax was this year (wiper blades and a rear light bulb I KNOW was not out), and try to manipulate me into more charges (an alternator belt, when only 5 weeks ago they went over the whole car and we dropped a bundle getting anything that needed fixing done- but the auto industry being what it is, there is a push on to make cash from claiming things need to be done that don’t, especially when they pick a mark they see as a “stupid woman”).  I was instantaneously furious, and firmly told the man I expected the usual petty “taxes”– items for getting an inspection done, but NOT egregious inflation with other items.  He asked me to come see the belt.  When I got out to the repair bays, the tech was a very young man that I told right away I resented being manipulated and I did NOT think the car needed the new belt, and if it had they should have caught it five weeks ago.  He backed off, and told me it didn’t really need it, it was just a recommended thing.  Sure, for $100 extra bucks you make your quota and I get skinned, I thought.  No thanks.  So I said do the blades and bulb.  Fine.  But do not touch that belt and if I have any problems with it in the next month, I will assume you deliberately monkeyed with it.  The belt is not part of the inspection either, I have lived here long enough to know that- so I better get the sticker on this only 30,000 miles two and a half year old van.  I did not know what to expect, but boy was I pissed.  

When I went back to the play room, the other mom whispered, “How did it go?”  I told her what I said and vented about how much I hate the bureaucracy and corruption at all levels in this state.  I also laughed.  She was sympathetic, having brought her Prius in that day for a repair and having just moved from Washington State.  We talked for a long time, and we found a wonderful set over overlapping interests.  I gave her my email and phone number as I left, thinking I wish I had recorded that conversation.  

I thought about meeting new people as I drove away.  Making new friends is always difficult, no matter what your age and I find it useful to have many friends at many degrees of intimacy.  The model I have been shown is a bulls-eye, as in playing darts.  A very few people in the center with which we have extreme intimacy, the more people and less intimacy as the circles fan out.  Since moving here, I have felt a profound loss of some good friends, and have not made many new ones.  Randomly meeting someone and feeling camaraderie is a rare and good thing.  It’s a lot like dating.  I tell this to my father, who has always been awkward about trying to meet people, especially since mom died.  Try and try again I suppose, and those wonderful conversations will happen.  I hope.  No one else may want to listen to them, but they make life better none the less.  And it sure would be nice to know those intellectually gifted celebrities go through much the same thing too.