Sunday, January 27, 2013

Father Knows Best

(Warning:  There is a graphic photo at the end of this post.  Seriously.  There really is.)

Like a lot of Americans, I've been listening intently to the debate over gun controls taking place over the last few weeks.  This is not a new debate, of course.  There have always been the pro-gun faction against those of us who simply cannot fathom why exactly anyone needs an Uzi, at least why anyone who plans on staying within the confines of the law needs one anyway.  Yet, I think the gun lobby was and is pretty strong and very organized, and most people were not motivated enough - probably myself included - to speak up too loudly or often against them.  After Newtown everything changed.  Sad that it took something as incomprehensibly horrific to wake us up, but here we all are.  Throughout the give and take between both sides of the hotly contested issue, I've tried to listen to it through the filter of what I think my father would believe.  I will never know for certain if I have it right, he passed away 21 years ago this coming Thursday, but I've thought long and hard on it, and I think I do.  I think I can honestly say I've respectfully considered his life and his experiences, and thought back honestly and objectively on what he tried to teach me and the values he worked to instill in me, and I therefore feel confident I know what he would say and where he would stand on the issue.

First, let me tell you a little bit about my dad.  If you've read this since the beginning, you know some of this already.  My father spent 21 years in what began as the Army Air Corps and became what we now know as the Air Force.  He was a bomber pilot in World War II and Korea, a test pilot after that, and did his part in service to the Cold War of the 50's and early 60's by finishing up his service in the Strategic Air Command.  I had a complicated relationship with my father, but one thing was always true:  I was always proud of his military service.  I never fully understood or appreciated the emotional toll it took on him, but I think I can say honestly I always knew how important his sacrifice was to the way of life we enjoy now.

My father was also a hunter.  An avid one.  We lived in Montana for that reason - that and the lack of traffic, but I think that was by far the lesser consideration.  He hunted deer, duck, elk, bear when he could get the license (although he never bagged one), grouse and so on.  Pretty much everything but coyotes, which were open season in the 70's.  I don't know if that was for my benefit or not, but the one time he came upon a coyote hunter when I was with him, they exchanged harsh words and he seemed to consider them bottom feeders.  And I did go with him occasionally.  Not all the time of course.  It's a long day, up way before dawn in the freezing cold to drive to a remote location, tramp around for hours in the snow and wind, only to have to drive back with whatever game you've gotten and deal with it at least so it's not just laying lashed to your truck until you can either butcher it or take it to one.  Plus, that's not really why he went, I know that now.  It's like me watching hockey.  It's a way to get outside your own head for a few hours. Can't really do that with a whiny, deer-loving girl tagging along.  And love them I did, even back then.  I wailed and cajoled my dad not to hunt Bambi, all the while eating, without complaint, deer steak, deer jerky, deer heart (particularly good, I'm ashamed to say), and deer burgers.  Elk, I'm also ashamed to say, is equally good.  Duck - well, there's nothing else like it.  You love it or you hate it.  I love it.  My protests amused my father I think, probably both due to the irony of my eating what I was crying over, but also because he saw it as an opportunity to educate me to the reasons why deer hunting was necessary (it was to thin the over-populated herds, in case you wondered).  He taught me to shoot a rifle, although I never did when hunting.  I don't hunt now and don't eat venison of any kind, although I admit to occasionally longing for a helping of deer heart or wishing I could chew on a piece of jerky, but I grew up so immersed in that culture that I get it.  The fact that there were multiple guns in the house was just a way of life.  None of them were assault rifles or had high capacity ammunition clips, however.  He would have thought it both unnecessary and unsporting.

I realize that the Second Amendment is not for and about hunters, however.   Not really.  I realize it was framed by a group of men who had just won their freedom from England by armed insurrection and were framing a constitution to protect that right in the event it was ever needed again in the future, as well as having individuals able to participate in law enforcement or to rebel invasion if needed (what I guess you could call the "Red Dawn" argument).  Some of the people on the far right, the people afraid of Black Helicopters coming for them in the night, have been quick to point this out.  And I've thought about my father in light of that as well.  He fought to defend the United States, our way of life and our Constitution.  All of it.  Yet, he served the Government, the very entity the far, far right feel they need to have the right to defend themselves against in case it runs amok.  I think my father would tell you that our own government, flawed though it may be, is no threat to the safety and well-being of its citizens.  I know, without a doubt, that he believed people have the right to bear arms for personal protection, but again, he owned a pistol, not an assault rifle.

My father was all about responsible gun ownership.  Gun safety was paramount for him.  He was all too aware the horrible things that guns do to other people.  Even though he spent his service as a pilot, he was not oblivious to the horror and human cost of ground war.  The military style guns he was familiar with in war time had no place in our home in peace time.

I think, therefore, I can comfortably say that my father would support measures to prohibit assault weapons.  I believe sincerely he would support background checks for all purchasers.  He would support registering his guns.  I think he would be in favor of all these things because he believed in being a responsible gun owner because he knew they were not toys and what they are capable of.  But I also believe it because I think the thing he fought most fervently for is the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and there are 26 souls who lost that right in Newtown.  And I think he would be appalled by that.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

It's a Great Day for Hockey
This is not a post about hockey.  Not really.  This is a post about using tools and perhaps abusing tools to move past trauma.  I've both advocated it and been cautious about it in here before, depending upon where I was in my head at the time.  Both are right, I think.  With the important caveat that whatever one chooses as a tool shouldn't be abusive, either to one's self or to others.  Yet, for my part, I've rationalized that I've done what I had to do, used what I had to use to get through the years since mid-2009 when my daughter died, but sometimes I think what I really did  was set myself up for a potential big fall if those props were ever taken away.  And I nearly found out.

Hockey ended up being a big part of the process.  As I've explained before, the pace of the game, the back and forth on the ice, the almost constant flow became hypnotic.  You just can't think about anything else when you watch hockey - if you're really watching.  Over the last two years my love affair with it has grown to where if you asked me whether I'm a bigger Steeler or Penguins fan, I'd have to think about that, and I'm not sure I could give you an honest answer.  Like one's children, they are different, but you love them equally.  So, when the lockout happened, I was devastated.  At one point early on, I wrote a letter to Commissioner Bettman practically begging him not to forget the fans in the process.  I copied Donald Fehr, head of the NHL Player's Association, and the Penguins organization.  I'll give Fehr credit; he answered the letter.  And I could tell that he actually read it.  I appreciate that, but the lockout continued.  And the other avenues for hockey in America, college and junior league, weren't the same, in part just because access to watch them was limited, but also because the talent level is uneven and the speed of the game is so different that it seems choppy and sloppy to me.  International hockey is great, but again, it's a chore to get access to it.  No worries, I tell myself, I'll throw myself into football.  Well, as the Steelers' season tanked, so did my hopes.  As I drove home with Marissa from the last game of the season, it occurred to me that I was about to find out exactly how together I really was in my post-grief life because I was totally exposed now.

Then a miracle happened.  The lockout ended!  The league threw together a shortened season that, in a way, for those of us who stuck around, is pretty exciting.  Forty-eight games in 99 days, it will be more like a football season in that your team can drop a game here or there, but if you have a streak of bad games, you're in trouble.  It'll test the players and will be a battle of attrition most likely.  This could indeed be a lot of fun to see what happens.  And Pittsburghers, unlike other markets, have embraced it fully and are just happy to have the team back.  As evidenced by the scrimmage the team put on this past Wednesday.  They allowed the public in for free.  Not only was it completely packed, they opened the luxury boxes, and still ended up turning people away.  I was one of the people who couldn't get there in time, so I had to come home and watch it on TV.  As the two sides took the ice, I started to cry, surprising Greg and myself actually.  I was so disappointed I couldn't get in to watch them live.  I explained to Greg when he asked me why I was crying (translation:  "What the hell is wrong with you?") that I realized hockey is like my Prozac, and I just really wanted to be present to welcome the team back onto the ice.  I will get my chance officially on Wednesday for our home opener.  Today the team is in Philly against the hated Flyers.  Marissa is here and we'll all watch together.  I am contented.

Yet, the ultimate question lingers:  am I masking something and not actually dealing with it?  Will that come back to bite me someday because I've read, and do truly believe, ignoring one's grief does not make it go away?  In reading the five stages of grief, nowhere in there does it say that finding something to take your mind off of it is one of the normal processes.  I'm not sure.  Today I don't care.  Today I'm watching Sid the Kid and Geno take on the Flyers on national TV, looking for revenge from last year's playoff loss.  Today is a Great Day for Hockey and that's good enough for me.  

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Wrapping up the Holidays

I am so ready for the holidays to be over!  They are, you say?  Try telling that to Pittsburgh.

You may recall how struck I was when I first moved here by how many of my neighbors still had their holiday decorations up.  Here I am two years later, having weathered the confusingly windy roads, the general culture shock, the challenges to learn how to buy beer and the multi-layered tax system, but that one still flummoxes me.  I actually get the outdoor decorations to an extent when it's snowy.  My Rudolph with the blinking red nose was nearly buried in white stuff the day after Christmas, and I can't really get a ladder up to take down some of the higher stuff without fear of falling on my butt, although with spring like temperatures following rain that literally washed away all but stubborn remnants of snow, I think that problem is all but solved.  But, even if you allow for that, it's the fact that a lot of people still have their tree up and are actually turning on their lights that kind of wows me still.  I was so sick of the holidays that I took my stuff down the Saturday after Christmas with gusto and determination, only to have my neighbor stop by to wish me Happy New Year and ask, sadly, why my tree was down already.  I think my cousin was on to something when she speculated that everyone is influenced by the Orthodox calendar, where Christmas was just this past Monday.  The Orthodox church still has a strong presence in the Rust Belt, so even though my whole neighborhood is Irish Catholic, I get it.  But, that's over, people.  Now, let's move on!

My sense of routine really needs the holidays to be packed away and all my regular stuff back out and my space returned to normal.  But, more than that, this was just a wild holiday, and I'm ready to move on.  It wasn't all bad, of course.  We have the newest member of our family, Ripley, thanks to the holiday, but it was dramatic.  With all the distractions, I have yet to tell the story of the holidays and Greg's mother's visit.

First, so there is some context, I have to tell the story of my mother-in-law so you know her a bit.  To start, it is key to note that she is a lovely and generous woman.  She of course carries flaws like we all do:  some born out of the generation from which she comes (a passive racism for instance or her lack of understanding about Kelsey and Marissa's eating disorders and sometimes saying the most damaging things), and some are born out of the fact that none of us are Mother Teresa.  Heck, behind closed doors, Mother Teresa probably didn't even always live up to her own reputation.  And she does indeed do some of the things that people tend to do when they are older that make us cringe.  I was commiserating with a friend whose mother thinks she is whispering when she utters offensive things about people in public, but in fact people across the aisle can hear her.  My mother-in-law has joined those ranks, which my mother proudly belonged to before her.  I think for my part I'll try to remember just not to say anything in public, but, Marissa, watch out, my guess is I'll be exactly the same way.  But for all of that, I have been very lucky to have such a nurturing mother-in-law, particularly being so far away always from any family of my own.  Her visit, originally scheduled to be a little over two weeks stretching across the Thanksgiving holiday, ended up being a month because she fell the night before she was due to fly home and was fairly seriously injured.  I detailed the whole story actually in the football blog I write because I was so struck by how wonderful total strangers were to us, but then contrasted it with how nasty Pittsburgher's were being about the Steelers.  I won't beat the horse here again, but suffice it to say she was now stuck here with us, away from her own things, her cat, and - most importantly - her own doctors and easy access to medication.  And she needed care, she was hurt pretty badly and very simply could not do things for herself.  But I had to work; it was our busiest time.  I had worked until midnight the night before Thanksgiving just to even get the bare minimum deadlines met, and things weren't showing signs of slowing down.  Greg had to sleep some time, so to say it was an easy couple of weeks on any of us would be an absolute lie.  And of course there was the guilt we all wrestled with.   Her because she felt like she was a burden, Greg and me because she fell on "our watch".

She was with us therefore when news came that Greg's brother had fallen himself for the second time in a matter of months and had been rushed back to the hospital unconscious.  That was at the end of November.  He remains there still, having undergone two surgeries, one to remove some of the skull to alleviate swelling in the brain, and the follow-up just last week to put the skull piece back.  He'll have a long road to recovery, probably facing many months in a rehab facility, and it's still unclear whether he'll regain full motion on one side of his body and how deeply his mental facilities will be impacted.  His girlfriend reports he can now stay awake for longer periods of time, so the news is encouraging, but to say this will not be life altering for my brother-in-law is also probably an absolute lie.  And here Greg is stuck.  This is his baby brother we're talking about.  I knew from the very first that Greg was very protective and fond of him.  The way he would talk about his then teenage brother was very paternal.  This is killing Greg, and understandably so.  But if he leaves, he loses his job.  So, he's withdrawn into himself, and I've learned not to talk to him about it.  Between us, the situation barely exists.  I just made him angry every time I mentioned anything about it - whether it was because I couldn't find the right words or because there just aren't any, I'm not sure.  On the surface he's okay on a daily basis, but we've been together a long time so trust me when I say that on the inside he's anything but.  He needs to be there with his brother.  We need the income.  How to reconcile the two situations, well, we don't know the answer to that.  Obviously.  But it was definitely the ten ton elephant in the room all during Christmas.  Of course, putting away the garland and the lights doesn't take that away, but all the holiday regalia just seemed sort of obscene at times in light of the circumstances.

So, as I finally get up on a ladder today to take the last of the exterior holiday crap down and finally shove that last box up into the attic with very good riddance, I wonder how exactly is it that we overcome the bad times and remain intact:  as couples, as families, as individuals within our own selves?  We've certainly had a lot of practice at it, but I'm not sure I really know the formula still.  You just do it.  One day at a time.  In my case, it helps to have the normal surroundings back.  Therefore, it is with great satisfaction that I say so long to the holidays.  Do not let the door hit you on the way out!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Goodbye to a Lost Friend

Bozeman, MT - From Moose FM (FM 95.1)
I put it down to the snow, which finally arrived in Pittsburgh the day after Christmas, but home and growing up has been on my mind a lot lately.  By home I mean Bozeman and the surrounding area.  As much as I love Pittsburgh and never plan on leaving, I do sometimes wonder what I've taken away from us by not pulling the trigger and going back to Montana, as was always the plan.  I'm not naive enough to think I can recapture some lost youth or anything, but I do miss the mountains, the wildlife, the smell of the air, the sound of running rivers.  Maybe I miss it more now because there is no football or hockey - or even a Presidential race - to distract me.   It's the place, not the people per se that call to me on these winter days, because almost everyone I know from my youth had to leave the area to make a decent living.  We're scattered to the four corners of the world and we're the pre-Facebook generation, so I've reconnected with some of my classmates, but others remain out of touch and therefore largely out of mind.  But, naturally, when I think of home, I think of the people I knew there, so I had also been reminiscing lately about the kids I went to school with - many of us knew one another from the time we were in kindergarten until we splintered off in different directions for college - and how that both seemed like a lifetime ago and only a brief moment ago.

As part of that mental exercise, I was thinking back to the last time I spent any significant time around any of them, which was at my 20th high school reunion, and that got me thinking back to the memorial that the organizers had set up at the mixer we had.  They had posted photos and a little information about all the people from our graduating class who had died in the intervening years.  There were so many.  It went all around the room.  Some I knew about, but some hit me like a punch in the gut as I walked past the four walls, looking at faces of people I'd known as a child who were no more.  There was the lovely girl Lori, truly an awesome individual, who died tragically right before our graduation when she was struck by a car as she stood at the end of her own driveway.  There was my friend Todd whom I've written about before here, who died of AIDS.  And the kid who grew up right behind me as one of a whole houseful of boys who lived in a pink colored house (I always thought that was his mom's act of rebellion for having to live with so many men) who had died of an accidental gunshot wound.  There were several of those actually - it's Montana after all - so a lot of us grew up hunting.  There was, as I recall, some deaths related to skiing/snowmobiling too.  And the inevitable traffic fatalities.  Again, it's Montana.  The wildlife aren't the only ones who grew up a little wild.  So maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised, but I was - both surprised and saddened to see that there were so many of us already gone.  But, by and large, they were accidental deaths.  People plucked out of life in a blink of an eye, unexpectedly and tragically.  Dear Todd being one of the rare exceptions, although equally tragic.   Staring out at the snow in the backyard on New Year's Day, all of this was running through my mind randomly.  Maybe it was just the snow dressing up Western PA to look like my hometown, maybe it was because I had time for random thoughts during a rare quiet time, but maybe something deep within me knew something was about to happen....

I was purposefully away from the computer all day on New Year's, finally logging in before bed and checking Facebook.  I had a message waiting from one of the dear high school friends whom I have stayed connected with bringing me the news that one of our classmates, Helen, had cancer and had been moved to hospice care.  I hadn't thought of Helen in years, but we were in journalism together, which became a little clique onto itself since we all spent so much time together.  The group of us were a motley collection:  nerds like me who envisioned themselves as future writers mixed in with the popular crowd - the head cheerleader was the Yearbook Editor.  But we all managed to mesh and get along.  If you segregate the kids you liked in high school into three circles - your inner sanctum of closest friends in the smallest circle, people who are friends, but not besties in the secondary circle, and people you know casually and like well enough to talk to in the hall or at a party in the larger outer circle - Helen fell into that second circle.  I considered her a friend.  She was more popular than me generally (who wasn't?); one of the rare people who can easily move within all the social circles without being shunned by any one of them.  Much like Todd could actually.  She was always nice to me.  For that alone, she earned my affection.  Yet, I hadn't thought of her more than passively in years.  I had no idea what had become of her or what her life was like.  Apparently it had not been an easy one.  Our mutual friend, who is actually on a family vacation and trying to find all of this out and report back to me while he's supposed to be spending family time, was able to learn that Helen was treated for "breast cancer about 8 years ago and the chemo/radiation harmed her kidney (I am surmising she only had one) and she has been on dialysis for years... "  He got hold of an address the next day, messaged me with it, and just as I was thinking about what I wanted to say to her after all this time, he sent me another to say that she had passed late on New Year's Day.  Whatever I would have said, it is too late.

Do not mourn for me.  This is not my loss, but I am sad.  I ache for Helen.  I ache for her family.  No one should have to suffer as she surely must have, but certainly not her.  She was, as I told my friend, Good People.  And there are the feelings that I used to see so often in my mother's face when a contemporary died:  a little fear mixed in with the sadness when one contemplates that we've now moved into the time of our lives when the people we grew up with are dying of things other than tragic accidents.  But mostly I tell this tale because it has occurred to me in the last couple of days that the people who are your friends when you are young and dumb are perhaps the purest of friends.  They accept you even when you are so arrogant as to think you have it all figured out and are in fact too dumb to know that you don't have a damn thing figured out.  They accept that weird awkward person that you are at that age, and that's something to treasure.  My largest regret is I never got to tell her personally I thought she was Good People.  Don't make that same mistake.  Hold in your heart and memories the people who accept you for all your faults and pimples and, if you can, tell them that you do.  You just never know if you'll ever have another chance.

Rest in Peace, my long lost friend, Helen Rose Gutkoski Evans.