Category Archives: death

Happy Christmas, Ten Years On

In keeping with my gradual transition to writing about unconventional travel and living abroad adventures, I’m looking back on the first Christmas I spent in the UK, 10 years ago.

I had learned a lot since arriving in October. Searching for housing, I had finally figured out that address numbers sometimes went up one side of a block and down the other. Also, many buildings just had names instead of numbers. The Oxfam head office was called John Smith House.

“House” was a misnomer because it was a modern, three-storey building in an industrial park across the motorway from the Mini Cooper factory, and 750 people worked there.

John Smith Houseatriumlobby

I could usually remember that the first floor was the “ground floor” and the second floor was the first floor. I had figured out that when my coworkers asked, “You awl right?” they weren’t concerned about my health; it was the same as someone in Minnesota asking, “How ya doin?” I was avoiding “creeping Americanisms” in my writing, as cautioned in the Oxfam writing manual, so was careful to write “storey” and “tonne” instead of “story” and “ton.” I was no longer taken aback when introduced to a 20-something coworker named Harriet, Richard, or Jane.

Most important, I had learned to avoid any references to my pants, as in, “I got my pants wet biking to work in the rain.” Trousers were pants, and pants were underwear. I loved the expression, “That’s just pants!” which meant something like “that’s insane!”

Everyone spoke in a low murmur. This was partly due to the open plan office, where six people shared one big desk, but I think it was also the culture. A few weeks after my arrival, a new Canadian employee came through for her induction (orientation), and her braying, Minnesota-like accent filled the whole building. One of those moments when I realized, “Ah, that’s what we sound like.”

At Oxfam, everyone walked fast. It was as if, by striding vigorously, they would personally Save the World.  My tall, ginger-haired colleague, Adele, was selling Palestinian olive oil out of her desk drawer. I enjoyed a daily fair-trade, organic chocolate bar from the cafeteria.  Oxfam had a Christmas bazaar in the atrium featuring beaded jewelry made by Masai woman who used the proceeds to buy goats.  Everyone was very earnest.

To be fair, the “Boxing Day”, or Indian Ocean, Earthquake and Tsunami (caution: upsetting video) had happened one year before, killing 230,000 people and leaving millions more without homes or livelihoods. Then, suicide bombers had struck the London transport system in July, killing 56 people and injuring over 700. The week I arrived in Oxford, an earthquake took 80,000 lives in Pakistan. People were reeling, but responding generously. Oxfam had received a tsunami of donations, internally referred to as the “Cat Fund”—for Catastrophe Fund—and rumour had it that they were struggling to do enough, fast enough, to respond.

But for now, Oxfam was abuzz with Christmas cheer. I look in my diary (date book) from that time, and I was busy meeting colleagues after work at pubs named The Marsh Harrier, the Eagle and Child, The Bear, Angel and Greyhound, and Jude the Obscure.

They called Christmas Crimbo, and presents pressies. There were crimbo crackers for sale, too, which are not a crunchy, salty snack, but shiny cardboard tubs “cracked” open at the festive table and containing a Christmas crown and trinkets.

C&CCrackers and CrownsC&C2

There was a panto in the Oxfam atrium, so to use all my new words in a sentence: “Are you going to the crimbo panto or shopping for pressies and crackers after work?”

And what is a panto? It’s slang for pantomime, an extravaganza that takes weeks of planning and involves elaborate costumes, jokes, dancing and singing, skits, and slapstick. Apparently it’s also done by families and in theatres but the only one I’ve ever seen was in the Oxfam atrium. Our usually-serious employees were dressed up as fairytale characters and making fun of themselves, our bosses, and our work. Very healthy, I thought. Take life seriously most of the time, then go all-out silly for a week.

The Queen’s Christmas Message that year was beautiful, in my opinion, and more relevant than ever.

queen

Crazy Eyes, Evil Eyes

The massacre in San Bernardino is really weighing on me.

Right after it happened, I wrote a post in which I suggested that mental illness could have been a factor, just as it is in many other cases.  Why do we assume that white guys are deranged, but Muslims are evil?  In this case, there was an additional question mark for me about possible post-partum depression, since the wife had given birth six months earlier.

But then we learned that both of the shooters in San Bernardino had been radicalized and had been planning some kind of attack for years.  I’ve spent more time than is probably healthy staring at photos of Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik.

They don’t look like these guys:

imagesimages (4)images (3)download (1)

They don’t look crazy.  They look dead.  Cold.

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What kind of woman leaves her six-month-old infant behind, knowing she’ll never see her again—knowing her baby will be removed from the family, that her life will be tainted by a legacy of death?

What kind of son leaves his mother behind, knowing she’ll be interrogated by law enforcement?  Maybe the mother was involved, too.  In which case, what kind of son would leave his mother to face life in prison?  But these are silly questions.  This couple murdered 14 people and injured many more.  Why would they care about an old woman and a baby?

If they weren’t mentally ill, were they evil?  And what does that mean?  We can sometimes catch mental illness early and intervene.  But how would we spot evil?  Who would we call to report it?

There have been so many mass shootings in the U.S.  Until now I have reacted the same as anyone else—shaking my head, feeling bad for the victims, wondering when we will finally enact some reasonable gun reforms.  Then I’m over it.  Until now.

Where I work, at the Center for Victims of Torture, many of our clients come to us after suffering unimaginable torture during ethnic or religious conflicts in their home countries.  There is always the possibility that someone from the enemy side could enter the U.S. and come looking for them, just when they thought they were safe.  If someone would shoot up a center for developmentally disabled people, like the one in San Bernardino, why wouldn’t they shoot up a torture rehabilitation center?  There have been so many mass shootings, but this was the first one I could really imagine myself being involved in.  I imagine myself hiding in a bathroom stall or coat closet.  Of course I always—miraculously—am one of the survivors.

A father whose six-year old daughter was killed in the Newtown shooting was interviewed on public radio last week.   He and his wife are both scientists and they have started a research foundation to look into the connections between mental illness and violence.

The father said, “We have to recognize that, of course, all of our behavior comes from our brain. So just like any organ can be healthy or unhealthy, when there’s risk factors that lead to malfunction of certain circuits or regions of the brain, that’ll lead to bad behavior.  And yes, it is preventable. It’s a matter of chemistry and not character.”

I hope he’s right.  I hope someday we’ll discover that evil is a biochemical imbalance that can be fixed with a pill.  Maybe some day we’ll routinely test kids’ DNA and put them on medication if they’ve got the gene that could turn them into the next mass shooter.

Jailbird Rock

Wow!  I got another enthusiastic email from JPay, whose slogan is, “Making it Easier.”  I feel my blood pressure rise as I read that.  Nothing—nothing—makes having a loved in in prison easier.  And to the contrary, being ripped off in order to communicate with them adds financial strain on top of the shame, worry, anger, disappointment, and all the other negative emotions.

I will just repeat here what I wrote early on in this blog.  When people said, “At least you know where he is, and that he’s got a roof over his head and three meals so you don’t have to worry about him,” my response was, “That’s true.  There have been months and years when I didn’t know where Vince was and I worried myself sick imagining he was dead in a cornfield.

It was always that cornfield.  Maybe, as a city person, it was my worst-case scenario.  If I were going to be found dead, I would hope it was in my own home, fully dressed with my makeup on, after I had taken the empty wine bottles out to the recycling bins.  I shudder at the image of being found dead in a cornfield, where in my imagination it is always winter and crows are circling overhead.  Ugh.

All you have to do is watch the Prison Rape Elimination Act video to know that there is still plenty to worry about if your kid is in prison.

Back to JPay.  Here’s what they say about video visits:

There’s nothing quite like seeing your loved one in person. Visiting them at their correctional facility, however, can often be difficult; the prison or jail may be far away, and the security procedures can be invasive. Sometimes there’s just no way to be there in person.

“When physical visits are impossible or inconvenient, JPay’s Video Visitation lets you talk face-to face with your incarcerated friend or relative from the comfort of your own home. When you can’t be there, this is the next best thing.”

Wow, it almost brings a tear to my eye, how compassionate they are and how they want to help!  It’s almost like they know I was ejected from Moose Lake and banned from visiting my son for six months.

So, even though Vince is no longer incarcerated, I’ll share with you all the marvelous ways that JPay helps families stay in touch with incarcerated loved ones.

You could send them money so they can buy ramen and instant coffee—that’s only $9.95 per $100.  You could buy one short email for $2.00.  Or how about a first-class stamp?  JPay charges 40 cents to buy a 49-cent stamp.  That’s not a 9-cent discount, that’s 89 cents total for one stamp.

Finally, you could pay $9.95 for a 30-minute video visit.

This is new information to me; when I visited Vince the last time before he was released they were just rolling out this option and the rumor was that it would cost $99—not $9.95.  So, my apologies to JPay—$9.95 is actually a bargain compared to taking the day off work and driving for four hours to make a physical visit.

But on this day, JPay was emailing me to say I could fund a media account with no fees for this one day.  I could not figure out what a media account was; maybe it’s not available at the facility from which Vince was released.  Again, they show hip, attractive, young people having a great time … listening to tunes, I guess.

And at the very bottom are Apple AppStore and Google Play buttons—are these corporate giants getting in on the easy cash to made off of prison families?

Jpay

Jpay2

A Crazy Idea?

I woke up in the dark at 5:40 am and wished I still believed in God.  Fourteen people dead at a center for developmentally disabled people in California.  I wished there was a higher power to whom I could appeal for help.  Help for us all.  For a moment, I thought I could feel something, then … nah … wishful thinking.

It’s up to us, people.  What “it” involves is a matter of dispute.

Someone asked on Facebook, “will this turn out to be a mentally-ill person?  Someone with extreme ideology?  A workplace grudge?”

There’s still a lot unknown, but it looks like it could be all three.  And I’m curious to learn if post-partum depression played a role in this latest incident, where a young mother dropped off her baby then went on a shooting rampage which she knew would result in her death or life in prison.

Here’s the liberal argument I hear: “Why do we label the white attackers mentally ill but the Muslim ones terrorists?”  I think what is really being expressed, by the conservative “side”, is that white attackers are deranged while Muslims are evil.

I’d like to flip that around and suggest that instead of considering every horrendous act an act of murder terrorism, we consider it an act of mental illness.  Hear me out.

I’m not a mental health clinician, but I have worked at two mental health clinics, where I have observed that mentally ill people often have religious fixations.  They think they are Jesus, they hallucinate angels, they hear demons telling them to do bad things.

A number of members of my family have suffered from Bipolar Disorder.  One was convinced that the Catholic Church had a conspiracy that had something to do with the numbers on the clock.

Anne, haven’t you noticed?  The numbers on the clock—there are 12 of them!  It’s so obvious that the Catholic Church is behind it.”

“Behind what?” I would ask.

He could never explain to my satisfaction what the numbers on the clock had to do with the Pope and the Catholic Church, but I would hear him out, hoping he wouldn’t call his parents next and burden them with his ranting.

If mentally ill people can have wacko Catholic theories, why wouldn’t they have wacko Muslim theories?

I was in the Middle East for work in February.  We were in Bethlehem on a long lunch break between meetings.  My two Palestinian colleagues and I were smoking shishas while my colleague from Minnesota gagged.

I had arrived in Amman the day ISIS released a video of them burning to death the Jordanian pilot they had captured.  The streets were packed with people waving the Jordanian flag and shouting.  They were angry, and I didn’t blame them.  I wish Americans got angry about wrong doing and demonstrated more often.

Omar turned to me.  “Tell us, what do you think about ISIS—these people who do such things?  We really want to know what Americans think.”

I had been thinking about this a lot.  “I think there’s an element of mental illness involved.  Who is it that most often gets schizophrenia and other serious mental illnesses?  Young men.  Who is it that is almost always behind violence?  I’m sorry, but it’s men.  And then you get them in a group—call it group think or herd mentality or whatever—and fire them up with ideological rhetoric, and put an AK47 in their hands…”

My Minnesota colleague disagreed.  She asserted that poverty and hopelessness were to blame.

Of course those are factors.  But I’ve been poor and hopeless, and I’ve never even shoplifted.  Millions of people around the world are desperately poor and they don’t kill people.  Many members of ISIS and Al Queda are not poor—they’ve got engineering degrees and come from middle class families.

If we do assume that mental illness is behind sadistic killings by ISIS or mass shootings in California and Connecticut, this does not mean the murderers are not responsible for their actions.  It does mean we can have hope, at least in the US, because there are effective means to identify and manage mental illness.

Alone in the City of Dreaming Spires

I spent Thanksgiving in Wisconsin with my cousins, which is what I do every year. Vince couldn’t come because he is not allowed to leave Minnesota.

After eating way too much food, I made the mistake of checking Facebook right before I turned out the light. There were a couple posts from Vince. He sounded so lonely.

I couldn’t fall asleep. I laid there thinking about the time I learned to be alone. I think this is one of the most important skills we have to master in life.

I had moved to Oxford, England four months before my birthday. I rented a house with a three-legged cat named McCartney and housemate who went home to Scotland every weekend. I had a great job. I had joined a posh gym. I had made some acquaintances through work and Alanon meetings.

Red Door

This was before Skype or Facebook or What’sApp. My family and friends used email to communicate with me, but there was no internet at the house.

I don’t normally even care about my birthday. I hadn’t told my housemate or acquaintances it was my birthday because I didn’t want to seem like I was fishing for a fuss.

I walked into town to see a movie. February in England is dreary and drizzly. Well, most months are. In comparison to November, the sun was setting later (almost 5pm!) but the sky really only went from murky black to dark grey and back to murk again.

I got some popcorn and found a seat. Someone behind me said, “Pssst!” Hurrah! It was a friendly woman from my Alanon meeting named Rebecca. I wouldn’t spend my birthday alone after all! But she just said, “Nice to see you,” and that was that. I thought, unreasonably, “Why couldn’t she have invited me to sit with her and her friend?” I felt really put out.

The movie was Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash biopic. There’s a scene where Johnny is drying out and his family confronts a drug dealer with shot guns. The theater exploded in laughter. “Typical Americans!” I could hear around me.

I had picked a bad time to move to England. George W. Bush was using their air bases to transport terrorists and political prisoners in black helicopters, and most Brits were not happy about it. Most people were nice enough—if reserved—but I had been confronted by several very angry people who took me to task for everything my country had ever done wrong.

It really hit me that I was not only lonely but alone. I was on an island with 64 million people and I didn’t know a single one of them beyond asking the time of day. It was piercing.

I went home and had a few beers while I stared out the front window like some tragic heroine in a period movie. People strode past with their hands deep in their pockets and their heads down. I wallowed in self-pity. But somehow I knew I would get through it, that I wasn’t going to die of loneliness, that everything would change eventually—if not the next day then next week or next month. Everything did change. I’ve had a lot of great adventures on my own and with other people.

Now we can feel like we’re never alone by floating along on endless social media streams of cutsie platitudes and cat videos and political rants and “breaking news.”

Did Vince know that nothing stays the same forever? I finally fell into a worried, fragmented sleep. I dreamed that Vince fell into a river and was swept away into a big pipe. I ran along the river bank until I came to an opening in the top of the pipe. I could see his face underwater, looking up at me. The iron bars over the opening were wide enough for my hand to slip through so I could touch him, but too narrow for me to pull him through. Ugh. I woke up crying. I don’t need a psychiatrist to analyze that dream.

Have a Little Kidney with that Turkey

Happy Thanksgiving, to those of you in the U.S.  I’ve been kind of mired in negativity lately.  Here’s a little story that jolted me back into an appreciation of how good I’ve got it.

A woman approached Vince on the train platform to ask if he would sign a petition.  For those of you who started reading this blog in the last month or so, Vince is my son who was released from prison a few months ago and who is living with me.  He blogs here.

Anyway, on his way home from work, this woman approached and asked if he knew about … wait for it … organ harvesting in China.

Organ Harvesting

I work at a place called the Center for Victims of Torture and had a son in prison.  I thought I had heard everything.

Apparently, back in the 90s, the Chinese government gave the stamp of approval to a Buddhism-derived religion called Falun Gong (also called Falun Dafa), which promotes truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.  I guess the government approved of it because it represented traditional Chinese ways, including meditation.

Falun Gong became wildly popular, and soon people were meditating in public parks by the thousands.  The government saw this as a threat and began to crack down.  Adherents are now routinely thrown into labor camps and tortured.  According to the brochure, captive Falun Gong practitioners are blood-typed and used as a large, live organ donor bank, killed on demand for “transplant tourists”—people who travel from other countries and pay for an organ transplant.  Do they know that someone will be killed to save their lives?  How can they not?  Again, according to this brochure, the wait for a kidney in the U.S. is five years.  In China, it’s 15 days.  Well that is slightly suspicious, don’t you think?

So why isn’t the west up in arms about this, like they are about the Palestinians or the Syrians?  Maybe it’s because China doesn’t have freedom of the press?  We know about the plight of the Palestinians because, ironically, Israel has a free press.  We know about the horrors Syrians have endured because they’ve managed to escape to other countries where reporters can talk to them and we see them in our Facebook feeds and on Yahoo News every day.

I don’t know who this young woman was who approached Vince on the train platform, but he thought she was Chinese.  So apparently Chinese in the U.S. are getting organized.  The brochure and their website are pretty basic.  If the Chinese can hack into the CIA’s websites, why haven’t they taken down the Falun Gong one?  I am very skeptical on a lot of issues, but this woman cared enough to stand on a train platform on a very cold Minnesota day and approach strangers with brochures.  If it’s not true, why would there be an organized effort against it?

I’m sorry if I ruined your appetite for turkey and mashed potatoes.  This story makes me feel grateful to not be in a gulag waiting to be murdered so my organs can be sold to wealthy transplant tourists.  No, wait…that’s kind of extreme.  I’m grateful that I can write about this, share the story, spread the word, and maybe contribute in some way to ending it.  Here’s a petition you can sign and share with others if you want.  Thank you.

Beautiful France

ANNE

I am writing this the day after the latest terrorist attacks in Paris. There were multiple terrorist attacks in Lebanon the previous day which are getting a lot less attention in the west. I don’t think this is callous disregard for people in the Middle East. I think it’s about what Paris stands for.

I’ve been to Paris and it’s wonderful but the trip that helped me appreciate joie de vivre was to Provence in 2012. I went for a Mini Cooper festival. Yeah, it’s a thing. Specifically, Iggy Pop was the festival headliner, and seeing Iggy Pop in concert was on my bucket list. So off I went.

I had taken a heavy-duty meditation class for three months prior to this trip, so I was as chill as I will ever be. I missed my flight from Paris to Marseilles because I was too absorbed in watching planes come and go through the cavernous windows at Charles de Gaulle airport. I got to Marseilles after dark and chose to drive the two-hours to my hotel in the dark instead of spending the night in a hotel. So part of my perception that France is “so laid back” was my own state of mind, and the fact that I was on vacation. If I actually lived in the south of France, had to get up and go to work every day, pay bills … well, I’d be willing to try it to see if it was as stressful as daily life in the U.S.

I turned the corner out of the rental car company into the enormous tunnel under the port of Marseilles and ran smack into a thousand-car traffic jam. Here’s where I first noticed something different. In the U.S., people would have been laying on the horn, screaming the F bomb, and abandoning their vehicles to “go get someone to straighten this out.” I witnessed something like this when I was in a 25-car pileup on the freeway in St. Paul during a blizzard a few years ago.

But not in the south of France. People were honking, but only in a half-hearted, “I’m bored so I’ll toot a tune on my horn” sort of way. We all had our windows rolled down because it was a hot evening and there were diesel fumes and of course most of the people were smoking. My fellow travelers were listening to a comedy show on the radio. It was in French so I didn’t know it was a comedy show until the people around me started laughing and it echoed throughout the tunnel. Some of them looked over at me and I fake-laughed. Not one of the thousands of us got out to “go find someone and get this fixed.” Eventually we started moving and were on our way.

My friend Heidi flew over from London for 24 hours for the festival, but after that I was on my own for however long I was there. A week? 10 days? I can’t even remember. Time seemed to slowed down.

I went for a hike along the Mediterranean:

The Med

Yes, there were vineyards, and sections of the trail smelled like pizza because they were planted with rosemary and oregano.

Vinyard

I drove around the mountains in my rental Peugot, which was smaller than my Mini Cooper. I stopped at a farmer’s market and bought some fresh produce, Roquefort cheese, a small bottle of champagne.

French Farmers mkt

I ate at a seaside restaurant. I was there for hours—no one came to whisk my plate away and deposit my bill the moment I’d taken my last bite.

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France, in my mind, stands for beauty and enjoyment of all life’s moments and pleasures. Food that tastes like food, drinking (and—gasp!—even smoking) in moderation. Seeing and appreciating beauty, not just rushing blindly through life checking off items on a to-do list. I know France has got plenty of ills, but I believe these are some of the reasons she is targeted—because fundamentalists (of any faith) hate beauty and pleasure. Not to mention topless sun bathers.

Sun bathers

Today, I will be French.  I will appreciate the sunrise from my front window.  No terrorist can take that away from me.

Sunrise