Saturday, September 27, 2014

Good News!

For those of you who feel I never have anything positive to say, I’m pleased to announce that I have GOOD NEWS! There is an organization – you may have already heard of it – called Debt Collective (DC). It was started by and for young Americans whose lives are colored straight out of the college gate by crippling levels of student loan debt.

Collectively (as it were), the amount of student debt in America is $1.2 trillion, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. An appalling figure. And as DC explains, “If you owe the bank thousands of dollars, then the bank owns you. But if you owe the bank millions, then you own the bank.” 

Which is to say, if you try to lessen the burden of your student loan as an individual, one person vs. a massive, uncaring, money-grubbing institution – a balance of power that suits the banks just fine – you’re not likely to get anywhere better than where you are right now: screwed. But if you get together with lots of other folks in the same situation, then you radically change the status quo and ergo the balance of power.

Not since the wholesome, effective, beginning of the American Labor Movement, which fought to get working people the 5-day week, the 8-hour day, improvements in workplace conditions, and the right to bargain collectively (through unions) for better wages and benefits, has such a bold, creative, non-violent yet we-ain’t-playin’ initiative been undertaken in the age-old war between The Little Guy and The System. Yes, this is a big step in the much-needed contemporary Class War I’ve written about previously – but if I had said so at the start, you probably wouldn’t still be reading this.

After its inception, DC broadened its fight against debt to include medical, housing, and credit card debt – debt that threatens millions of Americans in numerous, onerous ways, from losing their homes to having their wages garnished to not having enough money left for basic/essential living expenses (like food and utilities) once they’ve made their monthly debt payments. And as the photo above illustrates (getting back to the horrors of education debt), former students face special punishments even if they’ve been faithfully paying off their debt for years, because, thanks to usury-level interest rates, their debt never ends!

DC describes its mission this way: “What can a Debt Collective Do? – The goal of the Debt Collective is to create a platform by debtors and for debtors for organization, advocacy, and resistance. Organizing collectively offers many possibilities for building power against creditors: As we build membership, we can organize debtors into groups based on region, type of debt, or institution. These groups can bargain with creditors or even develop the power to threaten a debt strike. A debt collective can help create a positive vision for a sustainable economy in which credit would be used to benefit everyone and not to line the pockets of a few.” 

So, if you’re currently carrying more debt than you can handle, whether it be an underwater mortgage, a strangle-hold of credit cards, or a student loan that’s preventing you from creating your future, I strongly encourage you to click on this Debt Collective link and join Debt Collective. I did and I’m glad I did. I feel better and I’m looking forward to hearing from them about what the next steps will be.

To those who have little or no debt and sniff judgmentally at those who do, thinking (or outright saying), “Well, you knowingly incurred these debts, why are you crabbing about having to pay them back?,” let me say the following.

I started to write a detailed explanation about why so much of contemporary indebtedness can’t be dismissed as irresponsible and I had written a lot of it; it was running way too long. I also realized the main thought running through my head was “Fuck you, you don’t get it, go read another blog.” So I’m not going to “justify” anything I’ve written above to those who don’t understand this situation. Fuck you, you don’t get it, go read another blog.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Coming Out of the Pain Closet

I add my voice to the chorus of millions worldwide who mourn the loss of Robin Williams, a bright genius light we loved who, unbeknownst to us, spent much of his private time in an overwhelming darkness, a despair so strong that it trumped fame, fortune, and the true love of family and friends. He suffered – oh, man did he suffer – from severe, chronic, clinical Depression.

So it’s unfair and downright ignorant to think he was insane or selfish because he killed himself. He was neither of those things. He also wasn’t “taking the easy way out” of something we don’t know about. His death is a tragedy – not just because he was who he was: a greatly multi-talented man of only 63 – but because he died of a disease that we as a society don’t understand, don’t talk about, and for which there are a variety of often inadequate treatments and no cure.

Which is why I believe that the best way to honor Robin Williams is not with mourning or tributes or film festivals or posthumous awards. Our greatest tribute would be creating greater awareness and understanding of Depression, in the same way that Rock Hudson’s death set America on a path of greater awareness and understanding of AIDS. 

And that must begin with the millions of Americans who cope with this disease Coming Out of the Pain Closet, risking and fighting the stupid stigma attached to it, and talking about it. So here and now I’m going to walk my talk and Come Out. I have Depression. I’ve had it at least since I was a teenager. I’ve been taking different anti-depressants (with varying degrees of success) for decades.

My mother and my maternal grandfather had it. Other relatives on both sides of my family had it. Some of them, like me, spent some time on the psych wards of general hospitals. Some of them attempted suicide. Others, like me, just thought about it. A lot. It destroyed some of their lives.

It sure has fucked up mine. It led to a nervous breakdown in 2003 and my not functioning very well ( ! ) for the past ten years. I wasn’t functioning very well before the nervous breakdown. I had a thriving business as a freelance writer that I ran into the ground because, increasingly, I couldn’t meet deadlines or make it to meetings.

I became a compulsive TV shopper and was one day short of eviction from my apartment because I was shopping away the rent money. Addictive behavior is a common component of Depression. My privacy and independence were imposed upon by a NYC agency called APS – Adult Protective Services. That was how I avoided eviction.

After my breakdown I became a virtual hermit. I didn’t leave the house for months at a time. I didn’t bathe or dress for months at a time. (These two are also common components of Depression.) Thanks to a legal aid-type lawyer I ended up on permanent Social Security Disability in my early 50s – but I was on Welfare for a couple of months waiting for the Disability to kick in. That in itself was a shameful nightmare. Shame is a big element in Depression.

I had a home health care aide for eight years. I became agoraphobic (fear of going outdoors) and only made it to doctor visits because of the aide. I also developed an anxiety disorder, as well as a condition called “hyper vigilance,” which means I’m unhinged by loud, dangerous noises. To this day, if a fire engine screams down the avenue outside my window and at the same time the phone and the intercom from the lobby ring, I cover my head and duck.

I’m much better now than I used to be. But it’s not “over.” Depression still colors and limits my life. Mine became acute in 1995 when my mother died. I held on for my father’s sake (although I was starting to screw up). When he died in 1999, I really began to fall apart. When my aunt, my last surviving blood relative, died in 2001, my tether shortened and tightened. By the end of 2003 I was gone. I got to a point, pretty soon, where I could sort of function at home, but not a lot and not very well.

For a couple of years, I cooked dinner nearly every night for a frail, very elderly friend/neighbor. It helped her and it helped me. I could put on a good face for the occasional others who came here, largely thanks to my aide, but I couldn’t go down to the lobby to get my mail. I spent most of my time sleeping and watching TV. I became concerned about the state of the nation and started this blog. But I did very little else. The occasional writing assignment, however small, stressed me out. Why did all of this happen?

Because Depression is a brain disease – just as Alzheimer’s, autism, and dyslexia are brain diseases. Depression is also a mental illness. It’s not in the same class as schizophrenia, but it is a mental illness. That’s why people who have it are ashamed, and those who don’t, stigmatize it. And they don’t get it. There are different kinds of Depression and different levels of it. Mine was fairly serious and not everything is detailed in what I’ve just described. But I know it was less than Williams' nightmare because I'm still here. Can you imagine the intensity of what he went through?!

My depression was exacerbated by long-term grief and it stays with me, in part, because I’m pretty broke (financially), in debt, and very lonely. All but one of my local friends relocated, died or dumped me. And even some of those who hung in with me didn’t really get what was wrong with me. They thought I had gone from being an active, well-kempt, successful businesswoman to being a sad, lazy, slob because I was giving in to myself and just not trying.

Well, I’m trying now. And it’s a daily bitch. There are still things I can’t do, in part because I also have physical ailments. I still think about suicide a lot. But I don’t want to die, really, I want to get better, I want treatment for this disease that still impacts my life. Maybe now that sweet, sick Robin Williams has paved the way, my hopes will be realized.

Should you be Coming Out of the Pain Closet? Do you now realize that someone you know is in it? Do you understand a little better that it’s not just self-indulgent “feeling sorry for yourself”?

Do you appreciate that people with Depression who can function at all are brave warriors? Did you know that Depression is at epidemic levels in America? Do you realize that 22 returned US service people commit suicide each day – 22 a day! That’s largely because of PTSD, which is a complex brain disease that includes Depression and a whole lot more.

I sure hope you know more, and better, now – or I’ve just spilled my guts to you and all over the Internet for nothing. But no, not for nothing. For Robin. And for the too many like him. May awareness, understanding, and brain science increase really quickly. There are too many suffering in the closet.


Friday, August 01, 2014

“There’s Somethin’ Happenin’ Here…

…And what it is ain’t exactly clear,” but it’s getting less fuzzy with each passing day. I haven’t written a post in quite a while (sorry about that), partly because I’ve been busy with other things, but mostly because the events of the past three weeks or so have left me uncharacter-istically speechless. I’m angry, confused, sad, and feeling rather hopeless – more so than usual. And as one who chooses not to keep up with today’s exceedingly mediocre pop culture (particularly during the Stupid Summer Film season), it wasn’t until Thursday night’s Sharknado attack that I realized much of the country must feel the same way. A critical level of Mass Ennui, a sense that everything is coming apart at the seams. America is having a nervous breakdown.

For sure, there have been hints coming from my circle (more of a long extended zig-zag line, really) of friends. One is coming undone, losing her sense of personal identity due to the injuries of a super-concussion and a host of huge related stresses. Another is feeling totally empty, pointless, worthless, also no clear sense of self because of PTSD, aging, and depression. Yet another is at the end of her rope from a job she loathes and a year’s worth of aggressive but fruitless job-hunting. Others are feeling generally desperate; still others are keeping frantically busy; most are burdened with pressing responsibilities and an obstacle course of additional problems. We’re all dumbfounded by the state of the nation, world events, and a hazy, unpredictable future. We’re all soldiering on, but most of us are ready to plotz.

Here’s a list (in essentially random order) of the things about which I’ve felt I have nothing new or important to contribute in the ongoing social and media conversations:

1) The inexplicable behavior of a fantastically do-nothing, primarily absent Congress led by a man totally lacking in courage or conviction about anything.
2) The increasing power of a wildly extreme right-wing minority fringe that is swallowing the already-unrealistic, heartless, GOP.
3) The frantic, disjointed, disheartened Democrats who are spread thin across a vast spectrum of urgent issues about which they can do essentially nothing.
4) A smart, even-tempered, President who is being attacked, disrespected, and disregarded at every turn, while he cheerfully attempts to cope with an unprecedented number of domestic and foreign crises with zero cooperation.
5) The plight of traumatized foreign refugee children, as well as the uncertain fate of the “dreamers” – American adults who were brought here illegally as children and may well be expelled from the only country they have ever called home.
6) The global anti-Israel (in many cases anti-Semitic) response to admittedly horrific violence against a rogue government whose stated goal is the utter destruction/obliteration of the Jewish State.
7) Vladimir Putin’s apparent belief that he can re-create the Soviet Union and establish a perception of himself as a great and mighty world leader.
8) Numerous planes falling out of the sky – some by accident, some by attack, all to the mortal detriment of ordinary civilians just trying to get from point A to B.
9) The increasing general madness and particular mayhem against women by Islamic extremists in the Arab world and Africa.
10) The deliberate marginalization of numerous Americans through racism, poverty, misogyny, unwarranted imprisonment, and both corporate and political greed and chicanery.
11) The dangerous consolidation of media, among both delivery systems and content providers/creators.
12) Inflation, Frankenfood, gentrification, unaffordable housing, old-school police brutality, and extreme weather.

All of which is why a cultural phenomenon like Sharknado could grab the country’s attention. It also explains film’s and television’s solid diet of zombies, vampires, werewolves, suddenly powerless super-powered saviors, and an inordinate number of movies by Tyler Perry. When the horrors of reality surpass the terrors of imagination, we’re left with the poorly crafted ridiculous.

And I don’t know what to say about any of this.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Elephants On My Mind

When I was a little girl, children’s books were a big part of my life and I had definite favorites. I loved the Madeline stories about the perky French orphans, and the Dr. Zeus stories with their quirky characters and wonderful language, and (yes, I’ll admit it) the beautifully illustrated Disney books featuring Cinderella, Snow White, Pinocchio and others. But my very “bestest” favorite was Babar, the stately, even royal elephant, dressed in 3-piece suits (or cloaked like a king) with his beloved Celeste and their children by his side.

So it was natural enough that Babar came to mind today when I first heard a few scratchy details, then read the full story about Raju, an Indian street elephant, who was rescued by animal conservationists after 50 years of unrelenting abuse and shameful neglect by his owner/handler. This animal was so miserable that he literally wept when he realized he was being saved. The fact that he cried is what seemed to surprise people.

I don’t know anything about other mammals (mammals other than us), and I never gave their capacity for tears any thought, but I guess on some subconscious level I just assumed they could cry. What surprised (and horrified) me was that this animal had been so mistreated for so very, very long. Why do people do this to animals, the animals they supposedly love as pets, or value for their labor, or kill to market them for food – but not before making them live in the most horrible ways imaginable, then killing them in a fashion that is nothing less than Naziesque?!

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I’m not an “animal person.” I don’t go all mushy at the sight of a doe-eyed puppy, or feel all warm and bubbly watching a kitten play with a ball of wool. For the most part, I dislike and fear animals – probably because I was attacked by a German Shepherd as a toddler, grew up in an urban environment, and never had a pet. I just want to steer clear of all animals and wish they’d return the favor.

That said, I totally disapprove of people hurting animals, often very badly, apparently for the fun of it. What kind of ghouls are some of us that beating and torturing animals amuses instead of appalls, that we hunt for sport instead of survival, that we show no decency to the animals who nourish us? Back in the old days, many Native American nations performed rituals of honor and gratitude for every animal they killed (which they did as swiftly and painlessly as possible), then made sure they used every part of the animal in some useful way: food, clothing, shelter, tools, ornaments, whatever. Waste was dishonorable and cruelty a sin.

I’ve read that murderers, particularly sicko serial killers, often begin with killing small animals, then larger ones, working their way up to people. We know that humans have been savage throughout history and perhaps we’ve only been kidding ourselves that, as a race, we’ve evolved into less savage beings. Certainly spending 15 minutes with the News of the Day and learning – not about war, war is a more complicated thing – but about the individual, day-to-day cruelty that grown-up people impose on each other, on children, on animals, is enough to convince you that savagery is as contemporary as Silicon Valley. Violence, especially against those most physically vulnerable (women, children, domesticated animals) seems ever increasing and perpetrated by increasingly younger people, as well.

I’m not a vegetarian and seriously doubt I ever will be. And I don’t believe in animal rights in the sense that other animals have the same rights as human animals. Even though there are savages among us, I still believe people are special and that we have rights that animals (and corporations…) don’t have.

But I also believe that if people are to justifiably consider themselves superior to “lower forms” of life, then we have the highest form of responsibility to protect and respect all animal life, most especially those animals who work for us, are our companions, or who feed us. If we don’t do that, then Babar really is the one who belongs in the three-piece suit and we, as Raju was for 50 years, should be bound with chains, forced to perform tricks for mindless tourists and subsist on garbage. Have we really progressed so little? If so, maybe Raju’s tears were not for his freedom, but for our stunted souls.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

A Complicated Independence Day

I slept through much of the day – and evening – of July 4th. I had no plans and it had been an exhausting week of shocking events (the Hobby Lobby decision, the hateful demonstration against three busloads of frightened, stranded, children)  that made me question (hardly for the first time!) what it is that we continue to celebrate every Fourth of July. During the few hours I was awake, I asked myself if I loved my country, if I even liked my country, and I couldn’t respond with a clear yes or no. That freaked me out.

My mother’s parents were both Jews who, when they were still very young, emigrated from Eastern Europe in the years before World War I (that’s 1 not 2). They didn’t come together, they met here. They became citizens and my grandfather served in the First World War. My father, and his father before him, came here from the West Indies. They too became citizens. I don’t know what my grandfather did except work for the Chunky Candy factory in Brooklyn for all of his working life in the U.S. For the record, they all came here legally.

My father worked as a Merchant Marine from the time he was a teenager and during  part of that career he served for the U.S. in WWII and barely escaped from fires on two oil tankers. Later, he was a waiter and wine steward on several trans-Atlantic ocean liners, including the S.S. America and S.S. United States. During his many years at sea he saw a great deal of the world.

When my mother insisted he get a job on land and not be away from home for great lengths of time, he became a skycap for TWA. He schlepped luggage for 25 years, but the job gave my parents cheap-sometimes-free flying for a lot of international vacation travel. So when my father told me, several times from my teens into adulthood, that despite all its problems America was the greatest country in the world, I had to at least in part believe that, because I couldn’t deny his intelligence or experience. 

Studying history was one of my father's hobbies; he knew 150 million Native Americans had been killed in the process of creating America and he didn't negate that any more than Slavery. But he also knew that history was riddled with powerful nations taking over less powerful ones and killing or enslaving the indigenous people or anyone who objected. He grew up in the British West Indies. He understood the violent, dishonorable food chain of nation-building. Yet he still loved America as it was and all it had the capacity to become. 

But my parents didn’t live to see the 21st century. They didn’t live through the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and watch that experience make the country frightened, angry, and hostile ever since. They didn't see new communications and manufacturing technology change everything. They didn't see our environmental destruction and indifference start to come home to roost. They didn’t see the Republicans, a fraternity of stodgy businessmen, turn into a hateful Party committed to reversing civil, voting, and women’s rights.

They didn’t endure the Great Recession of 2008 that nearly tanked this country and has left us still sorely damaged. They didn’t see the national Legislature become deliberately obstructionist in response to the first Black US president, adding constant racist insult to political injury from Day One. They didn’t live through this country’s two longest, incredibly expensive, and ultimately pointless wars.

And my family of immigrants didn’t watch this nation of immigrants despise immigrants because they had sneaked in rather than wait their legal turn, the nation’s hatred even extending to those who came here as little kids or who now are escaping to here on their own as young children, because life in their countries has become too horrible and dangerous to endure.

My parents didn’t live to see us re-evaluate America’s Founding Fathers who, while undeniably brave, bold, revolutionaries, were also largely rich, slave-owning land-holders. They didn’t watch contemporary government screw over military veterans; see many politicians and a great many citizens become rabid fundamentalists and deniers of science in the name of religion; or witness Congress purposely declare War on the Poor instead of War on Poverty, not to mention being governmental leaders who don’t believe in government.

My mother, who had several serious ailments and skimped on her meds because they were so expensive, didn’t live to see something resembling universal coverage be denigrated and sabotaged by politicians who feared it more than disease.

To be honest, part of what saddened me yesterday was that I didn’t have a cookout to attend or anyone with whom I could go watch the fireworks (I love fireworks), even though I dislike and disapprove of the way we’ve turned every national holiday of social and historical importance into an occasion to party and shop.

But mostly, I was and still am preoccupied with how America has stepped back. I’m angry with the Supreme Court and Congress; I’m concerned that it took our smart, idealistic President six years to realize those shitheads in Washington are never going to work with him; and I’m very worried that this year’s elections will bring even more irresponsible nutjobs into national power and give “lame duck” terrible new meaning for the next two years. Papa, I wish you were here.