Category Archives: suicide

A Great Life and a Rainy Ghost

It was my turn to go into London and spend the day with Heidi.  I wanted to visit the Churchill War Rooms, which are an underground complex near Parliament that are operated by the Imperial War Museum.  Heidi had already been there, or wasn’t interested, I can’t remember—so we planned to meet at the Houses of Parliament for a tour at 2pm.

I bought tickets online for both places which enabled me to breeze past the block-long line of suckers hoping to get in to the Churchill rooms.  There’s a reason they control the number of people who enter.  These were the underground bunkers where Churchill and his team lead the war effort, and so they are dark and cramped.  I was only inside for a couple hours and I felt claustrophobic.  I can’t imagine spending days and nights down there—breathing in thick cigar smoke and hearing bombs falling overhead.

Winston Churchill was complicated.  He was born into wealth—at Blenheim Palace, near Oxford, where I had enjoyed many long walks on the pleasure grounds.  He joined the army, was captured in South Africa during the Second Boer War, and made a movie-script-like escape.  He was elected Prime Minister and indisputably led the nation through World War II with world-famous speeches with lines like:

“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

“… we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.”

World War II—and the US making England repay every penny we contributed to support them during the war—and lots of other factors, broke the Empire. The official end wouldn’t be until 1997, when they turned Hong Kong over to China, but many would argue that it really ended with decolonization/independence of India, Malaysia, Singapore, Jamaica, Sudan, Ghana, Kenya, Jordan/Israel/Palestine, and many, many others after the war and into the 60s.

Churchill opposed Indian independence on paternalistic grounds—the Indians needed the British to get them organized.  If Ghandi went on another hunger strike, he said, they should let him die.  When Churchill was elected PM a second time, he had a front-row seat for the Empire’s dismantling. He lived to be 90 despite being—famously—a chain cigar smoker and heavy drinker.

I feel so inadequate when I write these posts about which hundreds of books have been written and dozens of movies and TV shows made … go see the film that’s just out now, called Churchill.  All I can do is repeat my caveat that I am not a history professor, although sadly I think I could play one on TV.  I am just a curious person traveling around, learning a bit here and there, and forgetting most of it by dinner time.

One thing I can say with certainty: the War Rooms have a really good cafeteria and gift shop.  After spending time and money in both I emerged into the rainy street.

I had hours to kill before meeting Heidi.  I opened my souvenir Wimbledon umbrella and fought my way through the crowds to the Houses of Parliament bookstore, where I bought more stuff which forced me to carry more bags.

I made my way to Victoria Tower Gardens, a quiet park on the west side of Parliament, and gazed out over the Thames through the rain.

Suddenly I felt something like an electric zing.  I have few photos of my father.  Being here triggered a memory of a black and white photo of him standing in this exact place with his umbrella open, 50 years ago.


Sometimes I get a notification from WordPress: “Your stats are booming!”  I used to get excited, thinking it must be a publisher in New York reading every post I’d ever written and reaching for the phone to call me with a book deal which would come with a huge advance.

I went to the stats page to investigate and for some reason my last post had attracted the attention of three dozen Canadians.  Why?  I looked at the tags and categories. Were they drawn by the word “England?”  I’ve written loads of posts about England.  The only words that were different were “shopping” and “charity shops.”  Who knows?

Maybe I have a Canadian stalker.  Or three dozen.

Everyone I know is talking about the powerful men in media and politics who are being outed for sexually harassing or assaulting women.  All I can say is: it’s about time.  And I’m not surprised.  It’s happened to me at least a dozen times.  No one famous, but plenty of regular men who had some kind of power over me by virtue of age, title, or size.  It stopped when I hit my 40s—one advantage of getting older.

I never reported any of the incidents because first, I was very naïve and often unsure what was even happening.  Maybe I was misinterpreting things?  I mean, the social worker who was helping me get my act together after I spent two months in a psych unit after trying to off myself when I was 16—when he said he’d like to see me in a lace nightie, he was just trying to help me feel like a woman again.  That’s what he told me.  And that 30-something guy who stopped his car at the bus stop and asked if I wanted to go party—I was 18 and eight months pregnant—he didn’t really want to …?  No!  That’s gross!  I must have misunderstood.

And surely that Greek Orthodox minister hadn’t meant to press his hard-on against my derriere in that crowd of people at the Justice for All rally, right?  Wrong.  When I turned around in shock, he smiled as if to dare me, “What are you going to do about it?”  It must have been my fault.  I had thought how handsome he was and maybe he had sensed that and thought I would like what he did.

Surely my boss’s boss had been fiddling with the coins in his pants pockets when he stood next to my desk talking about nothing and staring at my boobs, right?  I had just started that job and really needed it.  It was 1986 and I had never heard the term “sexual harassment.” It never occurred to me to report him.

A friend described how she tried to get her husband to understand what it’s like.

“Imagine there’s a third kind of human out there.  They’re a foot taller than you and 50 pounds heavier.  They own everything and run everything.  And they want to fuck you in the ass.  Every time you go for a job interview, you know they’re imagining you naked.  They walk past your cube and look at you sideways, and you know they would like to bend you over, pull down your pants, and fuck you in the ass.  They brush up against you and act like it was an accident, but you know they just wanted to cop a feel.  If you say anything, you’ll probably be out of a job and nothing will be done anyway because HR works for them.”           

Back to England, and a more uplifting note.  There are things about the UK with which I have a visceral association.  One is the little teaspoons.  Below are my American teaspoon and a British one, which is larger than many.  Every British home has loads of these.  Something to do with tea, I think. I bought a couple at the £ Store to remind me of the UK.

Then there are the wood pigeons.  When I asked Lynn’s husband, Richard, What’s that bird?” he replied, “What bird?”  He didn’t hear them anymore; their call is so ubiquitous.

It’s this call and these spoons that made me smile every morning.

Toxic Clouds, Toxic Smoke

I had been asked to say a few words of greeting from Center for Victims of Torture headquarters to a counseling group of 12-14-year-old Eritrean refugee boys.  This was daunting, not only because I had laryngitis but because, well, what could I say that could possibly be of interest to them?  I stood up and rasped out a few words about how we in Minnesota do our best to tell their stories to the world, and thanked for allowing me to sit in on their group because it would help me raise more funding so we can work with more refugees.  I hoped that last part would actually be true.

The boys watched me with curiosity as I spoke, probably wondering why I sounded like a chain-smoking man.  My words were translated into Tigrinya, then they nodded and smiled at me and turned their attention to the young counselor who would facilitate the group.  I had expected them to maybe feel self-conscious with me there, but I think they forgot all about me.

I love kids of all ages.  Each age has its adorable and unpleasant aspects, but I couldn’t find anything unpleasant about these kids.  Like boys this age anywhere, they were awkward and gangly.  Some were tall for their age and had deep voices while others were puny and squeaky voiced.  Some had peach fuzz on their upper lips.  They slouched, hunched over, spread their legs wide, and tipped their chairs back until I wanted to lunge forward and say, “Don’t do that—you’ll fall over!”  I thought how difficult it must be go through puberty in their situation.  Many if not all of these boys were on their own, without any family members.  They lived in groups with an adult caregiver in very small houses with no privacy.

When my son was 12, if anyone asked him how he was feeling he would have rolled his eyes, made a joke, and changed the subject.  These boys showed no reluctance to talk about feelings and how to manage them.  In fact, they took the group very seriously.  As I wrote in a previous post, this was the third of three groups designed as a kind of “coping bootcamp” for young Eritreans who were at risk of suicide or of leaving the camps in a futile search for a better life.

None of what was said was translated, but it didn’t have to be.  There were visual aids (complete with misspellings) and I was pretty familiar with the concepts being taught by now.

For instance: it’s normal to feel angry or hopeless considering what they’ve been through; feelings come and go, like clouds, so usually if you wait they will change; emotions can be managed by talking, exercise, meditation, etc.  The facilitator had already taught these concepts in the first two meetings and was drilling the boys about them.  They were totally engaged, almost all raised their hands enthusiastically to answer, spoke gravely, and discussed points of clarity with each other seriously and respectfully.  I may have imagined it or may be exaggerating, but it seemed to me as if they treated the information as if it was a matter of life and death.

I was a bit relieved when the group ended and the boys spilled outside to share some ambasha, a traditional bread.  You could say that branding is literally baked into everything CVT does.

People have asked me how the food was in Ethiopia.  It was really good.  CVT has a staff canteen where two cooks serve breakfast, lunch and dinner.  I paid about $11 for an entire week of meals.  There was just enough—no seconds, no gorging—you wouldn’t gain weight if you lived there for a long time.

Here is one of the cooks, heavily pregnant, baking ambasha over an open fire on the roof because the power was out (I always asked my coworkers if it was okay for me to take and use their photos).  She had used plastic bags to get the fire started, over my protests.  Note the can of paint nearby, probably highly flammable.  Employee health and safety have a long way to go in Ethiopia.

Cool Scotland

I am sitting on a big bed in a big bedroom in a big house in Scotland.  It’s so quiet, so clean, so cold.  It’s August 6 and there’s frost on the windows.  But the view out my window in the greenest green you can imagine.  Well, you don’t have to imagine it, here’s a photo from yesterday afternoon, when the high reached 60F.

I’m at Lynn’s house; I’ve written about our travels together many times.  I have sunk into a routine of working, eating, reading, walking, more work, more eating, and watching Dickensian, a brilliant BBC TV series that jumbles together all the Dickens characters into one murder mystery.  I don’t know why it never made it to the states.

Europe, Ethiopia, and England seem like dreams.  The episode I wrote about in my last post has already morphed from panic-stricken flurry of drama into something that will make a good story some day.

After returning from Lalibela, I put in a week of work in the refugee camps in northern Ethiopia near the Eritrean border and in our offices in Shire.  I’ve written about the “sensitizations” we carry out to tell people about the effects of torture and trauma on mental health and what we can do to help them heal.

I also sat in on a two-day training in which all of our counsellors were trained in on a new group manual for adolescents.  That probably sounds like a lot of gobbledegook.  There are a lot of adolescents who have fled from Eritrea.  They’re there without their families.  They don’t know when they’ll ever see their families again.  They attend school in the camps and there are recreational facilities where they can play football and so on but in general they feel hopeless and like most teenagers, they’re restless.  So they leave the camps and try to get to Europe.  These are those people you see in the news who are being fleeced by human traffickers, only to drown in rubber rafts in the Mediterranean Sea.  The lucky ones make it to Europe or Israel, where they again live in camps.

So there have been spates of suicides and suicide attempts and the groups for adolescents aim to prevent that and teach kids how to cope with the uncertain situations they live in.

I’ve written about the content already.  This staff training was really good, despite the fact that it all had to be translated, which made it twice as long as if our Kenyan psychotherapist could have just said it once, in English.  It was also despairingly hot and stuffy in the room, and why oh why did they keep one of the Landcruisers running right outside the window, so the exhaust fumes wafted into our room?

We had a break mid morning during which we were served the strongest coffee known to mankind and popcorn.  Yes, popcorn, which happens to be my favourite snack.  (“Counsellors,” “favourite,”—I am working on two grant proposals to British funders right now so my documents are set to UK English.)

This was also my chance to catch the cleaning lady and stop her from spraying poison and air freshener all over my room.  She smiled and gestured as if to say how this was her job, how important the poison was to control the rats, how wonderful the Country Peach air freshener would smell.  I smiled back, trying to convey that under no circumstances did I want this shit in my room.  The toxic-smelling floor cleaner she mopped around was bad enough, thank you.  I would take my chances with the rat sans poison.  She smiled in return and I’m pretty sure she went ahead and did what she’d been trained to do once I was back in the training room.

There were 25 counsellors in the training, and almost all of them were millennials.  They dressed like American millennials, in skinny jeans and Converse and T-shirts.  But unlike their American counterparts would have done, there were no cell phones in sight.  They all had cell phones.  Was it out of respect for Sandra, the trainer?  Or was it because they couldn’t get a signal or wifi anyway?

Elder, Kickin’ It

This is a series of posts about Belize that starts here.

In the real world, there is more bad news in addition to all the shenanigans in Washington.  Every day there are reports about all the people overdosing on Carfentanil, a synthetic opioid 10,000 times more potent than morphine.  The anniversary of Prince’s death just passed; he overdosed on a similar drug, Fentanyl.  Carfentanil was developed as a large animal anesthetic.  Really?  Who takes drugs like that?

Sadly, my dad did.  It was his birthday recently; he would have been 81 if he hadn’t overdosed in a Wisconsin motel room nearly 50 years ago, aged 32.  He died of a lethal combination of alcohol and Paraldehyde, which used to be prescribed to treat alcoholism.  Paraldehyde is classified as a “hypnotic” and has mostly been replaced by safer drugs. Was it an accident or intentional?  I’ll never know.  What I do notice is how little emotion I feel about it anymore.  That’s taken a long time and a lot of work.  He loved to travel, so I like to think he would be happy about my adventures.

After our snorkeling day, we were herded onto the van by Mark to attend a Garifuna drumming performance at the Hopkins Cultural Center.  It took an hour for us to drive the mile distance as the crow flies.  It was a very dark night. Thank goodness there were potholes the size of bathtubs full of water, which reflected the light from the three streetlights in town.

Eventually we were ushered into a large thatched-roof hut where we waited for our supper.  A woman about my age was the cook, and she was obviously working her ass off. She had been summoned on five minutes notice to produce food for 20 people, and after an hour her young adult children served up bowls of hudutu and fry bread.  Again, it was full of bones, but we were so hungry we had no complaints.

A 30-something man in a dashiki jumped up on the stage and started shouting into the mic.  “Let’s give a hand to Elder Elspeth for the wonderful meal!”

Elder?  If she was an elder, that made me one too.

The guy, whose name was Myron, launched into a long, disconnected rant about Garifuna culture.  I had read about it in the guide books, and he seemed to be making stuff up.  Garifuna is a language and a culture brought by mixed-race slaves from the Caribbean to Honduras, Nicaragua, and British Honduras—as Belize was then called—in the early 19th Century.  I asked a question; I don’t recall what it was because he angrily yelled, “No!” at me and resumed his animated monologue.  He seemed to have a chip on his shoulder.  He was very muscular—maybe he had ‘roid rage.

Myron went on for half an hour, then two other men joined him and they began drumming and singing manically in the Garifuna language.  It reminded me of a pow wow, where the first song is really cool, the second one is good, and then they all sound alike.

Despite it being ear-splittingly loud, I was trying hard not to nod off, as were the other snorkelers. Mercifully the trio only played five songs.  Then they jumped off the stage and started selling CDs and passing a hat for tips.  It was clear they couldn’t wait for us to get out of there.

Midnight.  One hundred Fahrenheit with 99% humidity.  I lay in my bed in the middle of the room, between Trudy and Emily.  Our table and chairs had disappeared while we were gone but we were beyond curious about why things came and went.

My Restless Legs Syndrome is always worse when it’s humid.  It sounds like a silly condition, but it’s ruined more nights of sleep than any worry or noise or excess of caffeine or alcohol.  Just as I’m falling asleep, I get a creeping feeling around my knees and have an overpowering urge to Move My Legs.

Then music started up in the distance, a low throbbing beat.  This would last for hours, I thought, as I kick, kick, kicked to the beat.

Long Ago in a Land of Spandex

Greetings from St. Louis.  One more day of the road trip, and one more guest post from Vince.

Long Ago, In a Land of Spandex

It’s Friday again, my favorite day of the week. I like my job, but I like weekends more, and at this very moment it’s the longest possible time before more work.  This will be the seventh post now on the topic of my career.  Or careers.  Or lack thereof, uh, yeah.  I have no career; I have held many jobs over the years.

At this moment, I’m taking a break from packing my few belongings for the big move. I finally threw away all of my stuff from prison and boot camp. I was never going to use any of it, so I’m happy to toss it out.  Alright then, on with it.

After leaving Rochester and finding temporary shelter with a friend of a friend in Fountain, Minnesota, I was given a job as a line cook at Pedal Pusher’s Café in nearby Lanesboro.  The owners were a couple with three kids and they all lived upstairs of the restaurant. Looking back, it really sucks to see how things went down.  They were kind, generous people who went out of their way to help me when I was down.  They even let me sleep in their camper for a while after things went sour in Fountain, and while I waited to find an apartment of my own which they also loaned me the money for.


Lanesboro is a bustling little city full of B&B’s, bike trails, trout fishing, tourists, and spandex,  It has a few restaurants too, and they were very busy in the summer. I hadn’t been on a line in some years when I started there, but I picked things back up pretty quickly. Time flew by, I worked hard, and started drinking hard.  I also met a new friend that would play a major role in my life for many years to come: gambling.

In the form of pull tabs, I whittled away my pay checks one dollar at a time for months. Eventually, I started taking advances on my pay checks, and very shortly after I started doing that, I started taking advances without their knowledge. This may come as a shock to some people with whom I have not been entirely honest over the years, but I’m letting it all out now.  I felt like a lowlife piece of shit, but unfortunately, I just did not care.  It didn’t take them long to catch on to me and I was eventually fired for stealing.

Unable to get unemployment benefits, I became withdrawn and moved in with an unenthusiastic friend and his soon to be wife.  I sat in that room for a month, maybe two.  I wore the same clothes, I ate ramen out of the package, and I cried every day.  I was too proud to ask for help.  I couldn’t take care of myself, I couldn’t find a job (because I absolutely was not looking), and I was about as close to having a suicidal urge as I’ve ever come.  Auspiciously, a very good friend of mine got me out of that trance and back into Fountain where I held a few more jobs.

About two weeks ago, I sent a letter to the owners of Pedal Pusher’s. I told them a lot of what has been going on with me, but more importantly, what was going on with me back then. I asked them to give me a chance to repair the damage I have created, and I included a small token of my sincerity in the form of money. I haven’t heard back from them and I don’t know that I ever will.  But I have done my part.  At the very least, I have tried to open an avenue of communication with them so that I may fix what has been broken for so long.  It was the first of many letters to many people, and with each one, I hope to feel a little more human again.

In Pig’s Eye

I’ve been writing about a road trip to South Dakota that I took for work last week. I can’t say a lot more about it. There were some eyebrow-raising moments which have to remain confidential.

But one of my intentions in blogging is to demonstrate how you can experience adventure close to home—and even in your head. You don’t have to spend thousands on a trip abroad. Your own neighborhood can hold surprises.

I’ve lived in St. Paul almost all my life. It’s not that big of a city—about 300,000 people. I went for a long walk on a Sunday afternoon and found the following things that were new to me.

I crossed the Smith Avenue Bridge, which everyone calls the High Bridge, because it’s, well, high. The High Bridge was new to me. What a view.  I know, my photos are not the best, but they’ll give you the general idea.

Bridgeview 2

Sadly, because it’s high, the High Bridge is one of the preferred bridges in the Twin Cities for people to jump from. There was this tender note from a stranger to a stranger.

Bridge Memorial

There was this makeshift shrine to someone named Teagan. I don’t know if she was the same person to whom the note in the previous photo was written, or a second jumper.

Suicide Shrine

Someone has been thinking about how to prevent suicides from the High Bridge. I don’t know. Would you have the presence of mind to call the number, or would you even see it if you were intent on jumping off a bridge?

Suicide Hotline

Ah, the sun came out, very welcome after being reminded of suicide at every footstep. This is a view from the Wabasha Bridge toward the train bridge.  I don’t know the name of the train bridge; everyone just calls it The Train Bridge.

Bridge View

Now I was in Kellogg Mall, a long strip of greenery between downtown and the river.  I don’t normally read plaques. Because I travel so much, if I read every plaque (and spent time on every portrait of the Madonna and Child, for that matter), I would never do anything else.  But this one said something about Fr. Lucian Galtier, who gave St. Paul its name.

SP Walk Rock

At the base of the rock there was a bag containing a hat, scarf, and mittens with a note that said, “I’m not lost! Please use to keep warm!” Presumably this is for some homeless person who has a preference for pink.

Scarf in a Bag

If it hadn’t been for Fr. Galtier, St. Paul might still be called Pig’s Eye. Pig’s Eye Parrant was a blind-in-one-eye French Canadian fur trader who squatted outside Fort Snelling, near present-day St. Paul.  He made hootch and sold it to the soldiers, then eventually built a shack on the river landing below what would become St. Paul, becoming our first civilian resident. The details are sketchy, but it makes a good myth and we have a pretty good beer named Pig’s Eye as a result.

Pigs Eye Close UP

So go for a walk!  Think how you would tell the story of what you see to a good friend, or to a stranger.  Get out of your rut. Take a different route than the one you’re used to. Take a left turn instead of a right. Follow that path into the woods you’ve always wondered about. Notice things. Snap some pics, or not.  Adventure is all around you if you hold the right attitude of inquisitiveness.