Life, Death, Robin Williams and Henry Rollins

I haven’t posted on some of the big, obvious topics that have been shooting down the rapids with such astonishing velocity and mass over the past few weeks. Ferguson, Missouri and ISIS, the leveling of Palestine, the Ebola outbreak. I could take the easy way out, as I had intended, by telling myself–and you–that I simply have nothing to add to these broadly covered subjects, but the truth of the matter is a little more subtle: I’m so unsurprised by all of it that I lack the energy, the outrage, or even the whimsy to address any of those topics.

morkI’ve been particularly reluctant to talk–or even think–about Robin Williams’ suicide, not just because I feel like I’d be just another whisper beneath the cacophony of commentary, but because I’ve suspected that my thoughts won’t win me a lot of admirers. I’m good with that–l like to be liked, and I don’t mind being disliked. It’s disinterest that smites me, but a lot of folks are hurt by this loss. Why provoke?

I probably would have stayed quiet had I not encountered this compelling commentary by Henry Rollins, another icon of my youth, whose mindset seems to mirror my own.

When Rollins writes, ” How in the hell could you possibly do that to your children? I don’t care how well adjusted your kid might be — choosing to kill yourself, rather than to be there for that child, is every shade of awful, traumatic and confusing. I think as soon as you have children, you waive your right to take your own life. No matter what mistakes you make in life, it should be your utmost goal not to traumatize your kids. So, you don’t kill yourself.”  it is as if he’s channeling my own, brewing thoughts.

The thought of Williams’ children was the first thing that roared through my mind when I heard, several days late, of his demise. How old were his kids?  I’ve never had a vocational calling, never really found anything productive through which I could define myself, except for being a father. My own dad was an asshole–not really his fault, but it sucked and my childhood was blighted by his, um, shortcomings.  I feel sad thinking of that kid I see in pictures, but everything turned out okay, especially in the relationships I’ve built with my own kids. I was determined that I would give them all the love and attention and guidance and parenting I never got.

Ironically enough, my own father re-entered my life after two decades of estrangement, having finally found whatever peace or perspective he needed to find in order to be a good and decent man. We would never have a storybook father/son relationship, but he became a person whose company I enjoyed, and even anticipated. He was an excellent grandfather, but too briefly,  When he died, at age 67, from a secondary infection contracted during a common surgery, it seemed particularly unfair.

I read about depression, how we can’t possibly understand what its victims experience. I get it, and the sympathetic human buried somewhere beneath my cold, black heart wants to accept this, but perhaps I’m too selfish because–here it comes–my second thought about Williams was concise and telling. I looked at my wife as said, “That asshole son-of-a-bitch.”  I know, I know–I’ll never understand, but here’s some things from where I’m sitting.

1) My brother-in-law got 9 months with his 4 daughters, aged 10-16, after his diagnosis with inoperable cancer. My sister, at 40, became a widow. My nieces are fatherless.

2) My best friend from childhood, at 43, wakes up one morning with a singular symptom. Six weeks later his friends gathered in the woods he loved, the land where his grandmother had been born, to celebrate his memory.

3) A year ago next week, another good friend, my daughters’ swimming coach, an iconic and beloved local teacher, and father of four teenaged boys falls dead in his bathroom after an evening run.  He was 56 years old and one of the best people I know–a person of such character that his friendship inspired me to be a better person, in hopes of feeling more deserving of it.

And how many lives aren’t filled with those losses, those friends and parents, uncles and teachers, coaches and teachers?  How many lives aren’t littered with the memories of love snared and snatched and stolen from us, of loved ones dragged bitterly, prematurely from our embrace?

I don’t disdain Robin Williams, or any sufferer of depression, but I can’t get past his throwing his life away, hurting those who loved him, depriving all of us of his existence, his creativity–I’m angry about that, and I’m prepared to accept the ultimate selfishness of that anger. I miss what Williams had yet to offer, just as I mourn for the music Kurt Cobain never lived to make, or David Foster Wallace, or Spalding Gray. So much–everything, ultimately–is taken from us by death.

I begrudge any fragment of life that is freely given–or love that is freely withdrawn–and I worry that our fixation on this death and those like it, our sympathy, our loss-driven compassion and grasping for understanding will be collectively interpreted as acceptance. I won’t invoke cowardice, as some unfeeling jerks have, but I do believe that suicide is unacceptable except in the face of certain, harshly painful death (yes, I recognize the brutality of emotional and mental anguish as well–but it’s not the equal of searing physical agony). There is always a way up and out. Always.

Commentary Journal

Reflections Of An Asshole

I can be an asshole sometimes. (“Sometimes?” My wife calls from the other room)  I know it.  I don’t want to smell your cigarette smoke, for example, and if I catch you stopping on your morning walk to let your dog shit in my yard you sure as hell better have a plastic bag in your hand.  I’ll try to be funny about it, at first, but things irk me–and it’s getting worse.

I used to be a pretty laid back guy.  I’ve only been in a few fights in my life because I’ve been not only easy going, but bigger than most people I meet.  And size matters, in bars, except when it doesn’t.

When I was younger, I noticed (how could I not?) a trend: when out and about, late at night, little guys would get a drunk on and pick me out of the crowd.  It happened half a dozen times over several years, especially in the west.  Tiny Cowboys, for some reason they found difficult to articulate, wanted to kick my ass.

I’d be minding my own business, feel a poke in the rib, and find some miniature “dude” in a pearl-snap shirt and ridiculous hat, swaying on his western bootheels and muttering “ya ain’t swo fuckin’ big ya ain’t I’wo kicks ywo ass muth-fucka.”  I distinctly remember the first time it happened, in a place called Spirits of The West in Jackson, Wyoming.

Aside: (Hey, Slim–remember that night: Shep fell of his bar stool and all those guys patted him on the back and bought him beers, even though he was wearing his manskirt?)

Normally, these guys stay in the background, in small groups, stony-faced and silent, nursing Coors Lites, obsessively clean-cut–they don’t just shave their beards, but the top layer of skin, it seems, favoring the requisite big hats and pressed, probably starched, dark blue jeans. They don’t speak to each other.  They don’t look at each other, until one of them reaches a certain level of inebriation (a challenge, drinking that lite beer) in which they’re compelled to complicate my evening.

It was a difficult situation. I didn’t want to fight because. 1). Fights hurt, win or lose. 2.) I might lose, and be embarrassed–who wants to be bested by a pint-sized pony boy?  3.) I might win, and still lose face as the 260 (then) pound guy who beat up a munchkin in a cute hat. 4) I just wanted to drink beer and talk to pseudo-hippie chicks and gawk dreamily at that bartender (with the Buddy Holly glasses and converse all-stars–if you were in JH in the early 90s you know who I mean). By necessity, I developed a strategy that served me well for the next few years in Wyoming, in Oregon, even back in Pittsburgh–I’d look past the mighty mite slobbering on my flannel shirt and lock eyes imploringly–but with utter (feigned) confidence–with his buddies, who every time looked awfully uncertain about the whole thing.  “Is this really how you want things to do down?”

In retrospect, I don’t quite believe that I summoned the wisdom to adopt that approach, because it worked.  Each time, the friends intervened and hustled the guy away.  Six times in about 4 years, this happened.

I worry that it might not be so pretty now.  It seems the older I get, the less indulgent I’ve become, and the quicker to anger.  It’s a little disconcerting.  My friend Perry once said to me, after confiding the joy he took in being arrested for brawling in Alaska, “Chuck, there comes a time in a man’s life–it happened to me in my 40’s–when he just wants to kick some ass.”  Perry, a PhD., had walked away from a career as a psychologist to work as a professional fishing guide, and on the scale of cowboys he leaned heavily to the side of Willie Nelson, rather than John Wayne.

It was not until the past few years that I felt anger so sudden and blinding that I trembled and stumbled over my words–dealing with a corporate client who refused to pay a debt, for example, I could barely express myself on the phone.  The aforementioned cigarette smoking–in line at the movies?  C’mon man.  The woman who stops to let her dog squat in my front yard.  I won’t even talk about road rage.  It is the inconsideration that gets to me most.  I legitimately worry that I’m going to snap. This young lady knows what I’m talking about:

This applies to athletic events even more than it does to concerts.

Last year, at a big swim meet, I came the closest to full-scale meltdown.  We were surrounded by parents from Sunbury, PA (no need not to call them out, they’re the worst parents I’ve encountered on the swimming circuit) who sat down after we did–Sunbury is a huge team, with lots of resources, and lots of nose in the air attitude.  At least a dozen of them, in matching t-shirts, were compulsively filming events with iPads–you’ve seen this maneuver, I bet, (look above) in which the idiot holds their techno-toy just above forehead level, to capture the images over the heads of the people sitting in front of them, while blithely blocking the view of the folks sitting behind them.  It is one of the ultimate demonstrations of communal indifference and disregard, and a supreme demonstration of self-absorption.

I held my tongue, leaning the the right and the left when I could.  Oh, I muttered a few, over-loud snarky comments to my wife, but I ignored the impulse to reach out in front of me and push the devices down in front of their owner’s own eyes.  Then, I hear my wife, “Oh, shit.”  She lifts her purse from the floor and it’s dripping something my nose quickly tells me is coffee–but not just coffee, we later discover, but thick, sticky Starbucks cappuccino.  We both sort of stand and squat to look under the bleachers.

“Sit down, would you?” The guy behind us commands.  No please, no smile.

I feel bad, for just a moment, until I see the Starbucks cup on it’s side, between his feet, and the trail of sugary goo.  “Is that yours?” I ask.

He shrugs, and tilts his shoulder to look around me, so I stand to my full height–there’s no looking around me without taking a short stroll.  “Is…that…yours?”

“What do you want me to do about it?” Oh, the derision in his eyes–all he’s thinking about is his view.

The red curtain drops over my eyes.  I can hear my pulse.

“How about you apologize, then clean up your fucking mess….”

There was a moment when I could see him consider the gauntlet, and then he backed down.  His wife found some napkins in her purse and he cleaned up around his feet.  My wife, holding my right wrist, pulled me back down to the bleachers and I didn’t turn around again.  Later on, left to reflect, I was confused.  I’ve always avoided fights, but I realized that I was aching for him to give me an excuse.  I wanted badly to hit the guy, to feel his nose break, to smell his blood and break that smirk against my knuckles.  Over a $50 suede handbag that we actually were able to clean.  Where does that come from?

I think about that asshole who shot a guy at point blank range in Florida theater for texting during the previews and one thing comes to mind: I will never carry a weapon in public, nor should anyone else, although in the end it’s just another test of our resolve and our adherence to our professed values.  Do  some aggressive people, like those lilliputian rodeo wannabes, carry that through their lives every day, just one emotional trigger away from a catastrophe?  Is this hormonal–something to do with my age.  I don’t have any answers, but the questions are interesting.