Lessons from a hummingbird

The male Anna’s hummingbird flitted about the delicate branches of the creosote bush outside my office window, eating all-but-invisible insects as it went. The iridescent purple of its chin and cap gave my eyes a target to follow as it darted this way and that, its movement reminding me of how eyewitnesses describe UFOs; hovering then taking off at an amazing rate of speed then stopping and starting at will in all three dimensions. The diminutive bird would occasionally light on a branch, sometimes grooming itself. At rest it’s possible to appreciate their beauty. In motion you appreciate their athleticism. It’s hard to believe that a bird whose weight is measured in grams is phylogenetically related to dinosaurs.

Contemplating the hummingbird reminded me that life is so much darting about, punctuated with periods of rest. Yet only at rest can we appreciate the beauty, even in ourselves, much less the world around us. We flit from one thing to another, often moving in three dimensions at concussive speeds. We live our lives on the interstate, occasionally stopping at a rest area to pee or at a fast food joint, because to relax and savor good food would take too much time.

In contrast, the ancients named the constellations and stars and developed elaborate myths surrounding them because, let’s face it, there wasn’t anything else to do. They had no place else to be. They couldn’t be in a hurry, there was no place to go and the only reason to rush was if something was chasing you. Like a sabretooth tiger, for instance. This gave them time to develop philosophy, religion, and mathematics, to name a few. When the ancients decided it was time to go someplace, odds were that someone was already there, which led them to develop weapons and war. The ancients weren’t perfect. We’ve only perfected what our ancestors began.

Modern life is best lived on the back roads, where rut, curve, and cliff require slow speed and attention to detail. It’s best lived holding the hand of the one riding shotgun. It’s best lived in the slow lane and enjoyed away from the freeway. Even in the city, walking is often the best mode of travel and, yet again, walking hand in hand with one’s love is the preferred method. At least for me.

Sometimes speed is a necessary evil. That’s a fact of modern life and I am not ready to trade Southwest Airlines for a Wells Fargo Stage. But life cannot be lived at speed. It cannot be savored, it can only be tolerated and then for only so long. If we don’t rest, we burn out. We die. That is true emotionally and physically. And also, I believe, spiritually.

The gospels tell us that Jesus regularly went away alone to “pray”. Sometimes all night. I’m not certain, but I doubt our Western mentality captures ancient Eastern “prayer” very well. It was likely a time of spiritual rest and meditation for Jesus and I think we should follow his example and make prayer a time of rest and restoration, not of making requests and trying to figure out how to manipulate God into changing His mind. I no longer believe that prayer changes God, but I fervently believe it changes us.

Living life to its fullest means taking the time to slow down. It means being able to rest on our own branch to appreciate and savor the time we are given, none of which is promised to us.  It means making time to stop and watch the hummingbird and listen to it speak.

 

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Death and Teens

A friend of mine asked me yesterday whether I worried about Lindsey being safe in her high school. I said, “no”. Truth be told, I am much more worried about her safety driving to and from school where several hundred hormone-impaired teens drive weapons of mass destruction. They also listen to some really shitty music. Loudly.

Not that a lot of our music was much better. I’m a big fan of Jimi Hendrix, but if you listen to his music through some good headphones (I have a pair of Bose), you’ll note that he flubs a pretty high percentage of his lyrics, mostly because he was high AF when he recorded them.

But back to teen safety.

Yesterday – Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day – occurred another mass shooting at a public school. By all accounts the shooter, a 19 year old male who had been expelled from the school, was a troubled young man. Both of his adopted parents were deceased. He had a history of violence against animals and people. In retrospect, acquaintances say they aren’t surprised he perpetrated this heinous act.

The post-shooting cacophony of partisan rhetoric was as predictable as it was loud. Progressives clamored for more gun control. Conservatives became very religious and offered thoughts and prayers for the victims and their families. Little was said about mental healthcare reform. If anything.

Let’s put this in perspective. According to the US Centers for Disease Control, the leading cause of teen death is motor vehicle collision, which accounts for more than 1/3 of all teen deaths. The next leading causes of death, however, are homicide (13%) and suicide (11%). Buried in the homicide statistics are startling racial disparities. Black teens are FIFTEEN TIMES as likely to be murdered than white teens; Hispanic teens more than six times. Factors such as gang violence and easy access to hand guns likely play a role in these statistics, but that’s not the main issue at hand.

To be clear, mass school shootings are a crazy small percentage of teen death. One is too many, but if we’re talking about resources to save lives then we should go where the bodies are: automobiles and, yes, guns, and finally mental healthcare.

Any kid can get a driver’s license and the required competence to gain it is quite minimal. All of our girls took a private driving course and the younger two an advanced defensive driving course. Half of new drivers will be involved in a collision within their first two years behind the wheel. Half. Graduates of the defensive driving course at Driving MBA in Scottsdale, AZ see that drop to 10%. Want to save lives? Strengthen the required competence to get a license to drive.

It’s indisputable that we have a problem with gun violence and the national convulsions we experience every time there’s a mass shooting merely reinforces that the run-of-the-mill shootings are so commonplace as to barely merit a mention on the six o’clock news.

Banning so-called assault style weapons is a start. So is limiting the number of rounds a gun can accommodate. As to whether such actions will help in any meaningful way, I remain skeptical, but I would be perfectly happy to see them implemented. They certainly won’t make matters worse.

The mental health piece, is probably the place where we can have the most impact. As someone who admins a 15,000 member mental health and support group, I can tell you that access to mental health treatment in the USA is limited at best and non-existent at worst. The level of care is variable and the type of care required for a given situation is non-obvious to most lay people.

How about we arm teachers, not with guns, but with mental health training so they can better distinguish between normal teen angst and real depression or mental illness. They need not all be PhDs or have the ability to make a diagnosis, in fact that would be quite inadvisable, but teachers shouldn’t feel overwhelmed and unprepared when their students exhibit signs consistent with depression or mental illness.

Could any of the above have prevented the Florida tragedy? We will never know. But common sense suggests they might prevent some tragedies, or even only one. And that would make these changes well worthwhile.

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Self Love

Given my sense of humor you are forgiven if you think this is about masturbation. I may indeed write about that someday; an illustrated guide. Maybe a desk calendar. It’s a worthy subject, to be sure, but not today.

I have struggled with loving myself as long as I can remember. I am not a psychologist, but I assume it has something to so with an unstable childhood. We know that in our early years we learn how to form bonds with family and friends. How others perceive and treat us helps form our self perception and this seems to stick with us, at least it has with me.

I was raised largely by a sometime single mother who was married three times. I have written about her depression and anxiety and whether my depression is the result of nature or a lack of nurture, I cannot say. My mom did the best she could using the tools at her disposal and while she loved me unconditionally, she was imprisoned by her own demons and unable to give me the attention every boy craves.

I therefore spent a lot of time with my maternal grandmother, who gave me plenty of attention but not the unconditional love part. She could be harsh and even mean, likely the result of being sexually abused as a child, a fact I did not learn until long after her death at age 100. One time I told my grandmother (I must have been nine or ten) that I thought it would be fun to learn how to drive a truck. She told me, “that’s right, David. Drive a truck. You’ll never amount to anything.” I have never forgotten that statement and it’s always been a paradox to me, as she believed in me and my academic ability and paid for my college. She had a lot of anger engendered from a tough life of her own. I don’t blame her. Like my mother, she did the best she could with what she had and I am alive and a doctor in large measure because of her. But there is no question in my mind at all that her anger and inability to love unconditionally contribute to my own lack of self love.

My father and mother divorced when I was five. My dad remarried a couple years later, but his second wife was ill for much of their marriage and ultimately passed away during my senior year of high school. While I saw my dad periodically and he was always on time with his child support payments, we did not have a close relationship. In some respects, I still worship my dad, even though I am well aware of his flaws. As we both got older we became adult friends and when he married his third wife, Connie, the woman I now call “mom”, he finally had a stable and normal home life.

Even so, the instability of my pre-teen years was great, as I shuttled back and forth between my mom’s and my grandmother’s. I had few close friends. I was painfully shy and often bullied. I was brainy, too tall, too thin, and having a haircut that looked like the Little Dutch Boy on the paint cans didn’t help a bit. I never wore the cool sneakers, Converse All Stars. My mom couldn’t afford them and my grandmother refused to buy them. When you’re a boy growing up in a working class neighborhood, if you don’t have the right shoes you’re fucked.

By the time I found my tiny parochial high school, I craved a place of safety and acceptance. While I found it there, making life-long friends and mentors in the process, much of the internal damage was done. The wounds healed, scarred over really, and my high school years were generally the most stable and enjoyable times of my childhood. I buried my early years, not knowing they would always affect me, running in the background like a computer program. They had affected my wiring or my DNA and I have spent the rest of my life looking for self acceptance in the acceptance of others, often inappropriately, even tragically.

Telling someone to love himself is great advice, not easily followed. To some extent, it’s well meaning, but silly. It’s like telling the depressed person “don’t be depressed”. Of course, I want to love myself. I want nothing more than to be well adjusted with a healthy self image and respect. But internally, I’m a Calvinist, believing in my own total depravity. I don’t want to be this way and I would do anything to be different. I minimize my successes and maximize my failures, believing I haven’t amounted to enough.

I don’t have any solid answers to the matter. This is a journey and, while I almost chose to end it prematurely, I have vowed to continue. There are no trite or easy answers. No magic prayer or incantation. No drink or drug. So far, the only thing that I have found that helps for any period of time is the loving and patient acceptance of those around me, near and far, who love me for me. Who know my secrets and love me anyway. Who know where the bodies are buried and who aren’t afraid to wrestle my demons with me. People who accept your flaws and still pronounce you “good” are as rare as hen’s teeth, but infinitely more useful.

The journey to self love continues.

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Shared Tears

Depression has many guises and, PT Barnam not withstanding, is the true greatest showman. Sometimes it allows us to dress up for Mardi Gras and appear to be someone totally different from whom we are on the inside. At others it pulls the mask away and strips us naked for all to see, usually when we least want it to. At work, for example. My youngest daughter deals with depression like her dad and is also very empathetic. She’s been helping me greatly, telling me to do whatever I need to be happy (even if it means moving for a job or a relationship), while at the same time taking on my own pain and internalizing it. Last night she had to leave work early because she just couldn’t keep it together. She was just sad about life and I am convinced she took on my depression like a contagion.

Unless you’re a televangelist caught in bed with a male prostitute or hoofed livestock, crying in front of a bunch of other people is often not advisable. For TV preachers, crying is beneficial because crocodile tears help hoodwink the gullible into believing that it was really just massage therapy and the goat wasn’t yours. But for the rest of us, real cleansing tears may be shed at any moment and the ability to stifle them is inversely proportional to the appropriateness of the venue.

None of this is to imply that real tears shed with others is counterproductive. Far from it. If I’ve learned anything it’s that shared tears make a good diluent. (Also, never order “medium” spicy from a Thai restaurant). Having a close friend with whom to cry is critical. He or she just needs to listen, maybe touch or hold you. Cleaning your kitchen is also nice.

The modern First World problem with which we need to deal, however, is isolation. We live increasingly isolated lives and often have no one with whom to cry in person. This is a huge issue and I believe (without any data whatsoever) contributes to depression and the need for medications. While I have, for example a very robust support network across the country and the globe, by virtue of my position in my veterinary peer-to-peer support group, Not One More VetTM; I have limited to non-existent local support, outside my daughters and my ex-wife. Crying with your ex, the divorce from whom is the source of many of the tears, seems somewhat counter-productive. We haven’t yet gotten to the place where we can share our grief. When we try, it dissolves into anger and a chorus of “leave me the fuck alones”, which leaves both of us feeling worse than before. Like everything, it takes time, I suppose.

I am therefore left to explore the boundaries of my sadness largely alone. Texts, instant messages, and phone calls help tremendously, especially from some of my more insightful friends who know how to ask questions and get me outside my own head. But I have no one with whom to simply sit and cry. I will go over to my ex’s house and play with the dogs sometimes. Puppy therapy is the best. And it’s free. They are good listeners and don’t care if I cry. They will lay with me and just “be”. Like a best friend should.

I have two upcoming veterinary conferences where I will see many friends and acquaintances. Depression doesn’t just disappear. It’s a loyal disease, so I don’t know how I will be feeling or whether I will be wearing a mask. But I’ll be there basking in the healing waters of friendship and hoping the demons are shouted down for at least a little while. And I’ll be able to share tears, if need be.

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One Million Squared

This begins my daily effort to write something worth reading.

<<<pauses while he thinks of something >>>.

I have been on meds for my depression for close to four years now. I never would have thought I needed them. Then I turned 50 and realized I probably needed them 30 years earlier. Life would have been so much different if I had realized I had depression. For one, I would still be married, because many of the events earlier in our marriage that contributed to its eventual demise would likely not have occurred. For another, I would have a much better (for you Spanish speakers that’s mucho bettero) relationship with my eldest offspring.

We tend to fuck up more with our first born. We should have temporary, trial sized children first, so we can make our mistakes on them. But we don’t get that opportunity, so we muddle along on the real ones and do the best we can, hoping we do no permanent damage. By the time we get to child number three we think we have them figured out. When #3 turned out to be my third daughter, I was quite pleased, as I had experience. Figured out? No.

Should I ever be blessed with another child, I would be ok with either sex and/or gender. A fourth girl would be awesome and hopefully look like her mother. My first son would be cool, as well, because, well, it would be a different experience. For one, I could teach him how to write his name in the snow, assuming I lived someplace that had it.

Lindsey, my current youngest, is already someone way too much like me. She’s quick witted, a total smart ass, somewhat shy, and has my emotional make up. She’s also tall and thin like I was at that age.

Raising children is the hardest thing I have ever done. I think it’s the hardest job there is. Puppies are much easier. Children have opinions and no filter. They’re like mini Donald Trumps, only smarter. The good news is, as my friend Abby told me today, “little people have little problems and big people have big problems”. Children’s problems generally don’t rise to the level of, say peace in the Middle East, even if they think they do. The exception to this rule is when your child is sick, especially seriously so. Then the world stops while you attend to that need. Courtney developed epilepsy at four and I still recall her first seizure and how at that moment my medical training kicked in. Once she was safely in the hospital and her status epilepticus finally stopped, it was then I fell completely apart. Until then I was Dr. Dad. Once she was someone else’s responsibility, I was just dad, a quivering mass of jello with a 70’s porn star mustache.

Whether I have more children isn’t exactly up to me. First, I’m not seeing anyone at this moment, much less recreating. Second, while I am not specifically fishing for a younger woman, I wouldn’t necessarily throw one back unless they were too small. Age is just a number and what matters more to me is maturity and compatibility. Companionship, intellectual stimulation, physical attraction, lots of laughter and tenderness. All of those are important, but intellectual stimulation and conversation are indispensable. She must be educated and erudite, even opinionated, so long as she is a good listener, too.

Such compatibility is rare. There are plenty of beautiful people, intelligent people, truly wonderful people. But finding one who is truly compatible with you is a needle in a haystack. When it happens, hold on as tightly or as loosely as appropriate for the personality, but don’t let go (with apologies to .38 Special and their hit song, Hold on Loosely).

I hope I find such a woman to be My Person. Maybe I already know her. I can’t say. I was married to one for two and a half decades until my own unhappiness did us in. If I have another shot at love, I will take it. Maybe that will include a child or step-children. Who knows? But, to quote Ann Lamott in Traveling Mercies, “even when we are most sure that love can’t conquer all, it seems to anyway”. Love alone isn’t sufficient, but with love you make the compromises and sacrifices to make a relationship work. You give. You take. The two are greater than the sum of 1+1. The odds of two 1-in-a-million people finding each other is 1,000,000 squared. When you do, you don’t let go.

 

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The Land of the Fucked

Emotional pain and creativity seem to be linked in some way. I have no idea why. I sucked in neuro. Be that as it may, when I am most depressed I am often compelled to write. When I am most in love, I am compelled to write. Yet I repeat myself.

Love and loss seem to be, to this observer, the number one causes of depression. Both Katie and Laura, my two veterinary friends who took their own lives, did so primarily- so far as we know- over relationships that ended painfully.

I ponder this on a cool Arizona evening as I listen to Coldplay and abuse my liver and lungs. I sit on my balcony in my tan barn coat. I prefer to write outdoors as my mind is most free there. I ponder why many of the Greats were truly tortured. I’m by no means great, but I reside in the place Ann Lamott calls “The Land of the Fucked”.

The Land of the Fucked is that address where we suffering souls live. I’m not sure that’s how she defined it, but I define it as those of us who feel especially deeply. We feel others’ pain and our own. We take on others’ burdens without regard to boundaries. We feel tremendous guilt when we fail. We flame out quickly. No one can long survive with the weight of the world on ones shoulders.

I’m not sure one can move from The Land of the Fucked. It’s like The Hotel California. In my case, I hold my mother responsible. She was the most empathetic person I ever knew. Because of her I was born here. I am a natural born citizen of The Land of the Fucked. I even have a birth certificate to prove it (Long Form).

Residents of the LOTF are a pretty decent bunch. We say “hello” on the street. We give a shit. We don’t always agree on the solutions, but we all recognize the problems and want to fix them. We don’t tweet, or grab women by their nether regions or stalk peri-pubescent girls at the mall. Some are R’s. Most are D’s. I used to be an R. I’m not sure what I am now.

In the LOTF we don’t ponder how Jesus would have voted. It’s an irrelevant question. He showed us how to LIVE not how to vote.

In the LOTF we welcome refugees, because we ourselves were aliens in a foreign land at one time.

In the LOTF we care about children not only before they are born, but also after.

In the LOTF we care about the environment, the poor, the disabled, the lonely.

All of this is why we are Fucked. There’s an awful lot to care about. We live in a broken world that we can’t possibly fix. We can only make our little piece of the LOTF better.

And that’s how I cope with living here. I do what I can, which sometimes means nothing. In my own weakness I often have little to give. But like the poor widow in Jesus’ parable, I give what I can.

Living here, drinking deeply from the well of sadness that is our World, is hard. But it’s what I know. I can’t live another way. I don’t want to. The Land of the Fucked is home.

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Clarity

You can’t count it love until you’ve lost
If you love someone this is what it costs.
-Switchfoot

I went camping the other day. It was right after a grueling four day trip to the east coast then on to Denver. I was physically run down and emotionally strung out. Defeated and drained in every way. I needed a recharge.

Now going out into the middle of effing nowhere, alone, when you’re depressed is the moral equivalent of saying “hold my beer and watch this.” You just know it won’t end well. I made two concessions to my friends. Leave the hand gun at home. No alcohol. I did leave the gun, but snuck in a flask. I didn’t drink any though.

Camping for me is therapy. Being in “the nature” clears my mind. Being alone in open spaces heightens the senses and forces you to be aware of things other than the demons in your own head. My demons have been quite busy lately. They’ve also been drinking a lot then accessing my phone to drunk post on Facebook in the middle of the night. (Bastards!)

While I love camping, I despise campgrounds. If I wanted to be around that many people I’d go to Disney. They have fun  rides and cleaner bathrooms. I prefer remote camping where I can take a whiz outside my tent in the middle of the night or go dig a hole if I need to do anything else. I realize this is not for everyone, but for me it’s liberating.

In the summer I’ll go to the Arizona high country on the Mogollon Rim. In the winter I’ll go the Aqua Fria and camp among the ruins and petroglyphs. The high country is amongst the Ponderosa Pines and I find a spot overlooking the rim. The Agua Fria is much lower in elevation and is high desert, but pre-Columbian cultures called it home for centuries. It’s a deeply spiritual place to me and I’ve never ever seen another soul where I camp, which might have something to do with being 17 miles off a paved road and needing 4 Lo in a couple spots to get there. More than once I’ve thought “if i break a tie rod out here I’m totally fucked.”

This particular trip I needed the clarity that only the nature and nature’s God can provide. It was a new moon so the stars were especially brilliant. I turned off the lantern, let the fire die and sat drinking coffee, smoking a Dominican cigar whilst listening to the silence and admiring the universe. Sadie the curvy cavalier was unimpressed so waddled into the tent and put herself to bed.

While the night was silent, the universe, scientists tell us, is far from it. With the right equipment the universe is noisier than a Nine Inch Nails concert, only more musical. Pulsars, quasars, various forms of radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum. The Voice of God. When you’re alone and the Voice of God speaks the best thing to do is shut the hell up and listen.

Life has been troublesome lately. The dissolution of our marriage has been especially painful to my whole family, although Sandy and I, even divorced, get along better than some married couples. I’m at a career crossroads and my newly single personal life (at 54) requires navigational skills I don’t possess. Apparently, I’m piloting the Exxon Valdez. So I went seeking calming clarity not to mention learning how to read navigational charts.

Life is made up of multiple moving parts, often moving so fast that it’s impossible to assign attribution to any one thing. Clarity can come when you slow the ride down enough to see life in single frames. Then you can get out of the ride and watch. Until that time, you best keep your hands and feet inside at all times.

What clarity did I find that night? Sometimes the specific resolution is that there is none. So much is outside our control. We can only steer our own vessel. No one else can steer ours.

Of course the ocean is full of vessels and sometimes you end up on a collision course with one. Such has happened to me and circumstances prevented the vessels of our lives from traveling in tandem. The clarity is I can’t change her course, although I dearly hope she chooses to. I’m willing to change mine to meet hers.

Until then I will live with the loss. For this is what Love costs. A night under a starry desert sky cleared that up for me.

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