Suicide as clickbait is stigma in action, starring XO Jane & Amanda Lauren Kass

So many other things I’d rather be writing about today (eg: my new puppy or Argo, the coolest road-worthy amphibious Canadian export ever). Instead, I’m writing a cautionary tale about the hazards of being good at other peoples’ lives.

There’s hardly anything easier. After all, who doesn’t know better than someone who hasn’t dealt directly with an issue exactly how best to deal with it, right?

Outside Experts, an Inside View

Back in 1990, when my ex and I split, the good news was that I had a full-time job. The bad news was that my title was “Mom” and the highest-level full-time job I’d had (and left years before) was in a bookstore.

Nonetheless, I waived child support and, after 18 months of receiving the maintenance I’d been promised for three years, took a tiny buyout. I had no job and little in the way of prospects. From my family’s point of view, I’d lost the lone coconut-flake sized-shred of sense I’d ever possessed.

This is about as sensible as I get.

Decades later, after I’d lost track of how many times my mother, sister, aunts and bossy cousin (the men of the one-up generation were all dead by the mid-1980s) had leaned on me to “take that bastard to court,” Mom was still harping about what an idiot I’d been.

There were several reasons I opted out of chasing my ex around for money that I knew he’d never give me. There are tons of ways to shelter assets when you have your own business. He knew all the ones that existed (and several that probably didn’t). That was a big one.

My biggest and realest, though, to was become someone who didn’t have to. I had three daughters looking at me. I had to show them that you could make what you wanted to happen happen in life. Even when things get scary, as long as you don’t give up. Chasing my ex through the court system for what those women thought I was “owed” would have meant squandering the time and energy required to reach my goal.

Why giving up was not an option.

What I didn’t know back then was this: That time and energy also consumed the awareness that it even needed explaining. Only now, as I write this, do I realize that some important friends along the way – who still mean the world to me – understood without any explanations. Their faith, belief and support made it possible for me to keep going in those moments when I wasn’t sure I could.

Gratitude aside, my main point here is how easy, when looking from the outside, it is for someone to judge another person’s life, choices and outcomes.


When Honesty is the Cruelest Policy

Which brings me to Amanda Lauren Kass, whose essay “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing,” was published May 19th by XOJane. It’s a division of Time, Inc. that pays $50 for personal essays. (Writers get more when a post goes viral. The lack of a link is intentional.)

This is in memory of Leah and her sister.

“Leah,” Kass’ former friend, died by suicide a few years after being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. Leah’s sister, a high school classmate of Kass, died of cancer at 19. You can read Kass’ account of Leah’s spiral here if you’d like. (XOjane took the piece down and put an apology in its place after a few days of leaving it up (you know, hits = $). (The hyperlink in this blog is to an archived page on the wayback machine.)

Or I can save you the trouble by riffing off another Time, Inc. publication, specifically “People,” for which I used to review books. At one point, we had to write “Bottom Lines,” one-sentence summations of our reviews. Here’s my Bottom Line-inspired summary of Kass’ essay.

“’Leah’s’ life looked hard and inconvenient so I fired her, made fun of her, judged her parents for not doing more – and her decision to die by suicide was totally the right one!”

Wiser and better heads than mine have written responses addressing Ms. Kass’ character and possible motivations for writing what she did, and the multiple ways of living a full and meaningful life with or without a mental health diagnosis.


Families suffer when the Ignorantatti go unchallenged

What I haven’t seen anyone write about is where Leah’s parents were in all this and why they weren’t more involved or helpful as their daughter spiraled deeper and deeper into what appears – based on Ms. Kass’s description – to have been depression and psychosis.

Ms. Kass calls them out in the story, and is (unsurprisingly) cruel and judgmental.

As a Family Educator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness since 2006, I have spent countless hours with family members who are terrified for their children, siblings, parents and friends. They’re also just plain terrified. Which is why they sign up for NAMI’s Family-to-Family class.

In three hour increments over 12 weeks, F2F provides information on what I have come to refer to as “the Big 7” (schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, major depression, anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder). It also touches on post-traumatic stress disorder and how it and the other mental health conditions affect the daily lives of people living with them.

F2F also gives family members the information they need to take care of themselves,  ways they can effectively advocate for their ill family member or friend and a safe space. It’s powerful to see what happens to people when they get to tell their stories in a setting where the responses are nods of understanding instead of horrified stares. My favorite thing about teaching that course is watching people come in singly or in pairs and leave in groups.

The NAMI Walk at our lakefront. Nationally, these happen all over the country. Every year there are more people and more dogs. (That’s me & Matey on the right. The lump in my pocket is a container of dog treats)

Ms. Kass’ bald cruelty is not unusual. That she wrote and published it might be, but for anyone wondering about stigma and mental illness, that essay is Exhibits A-F. It’s also a textbook example of the reason we in NAMI describe these illnesses as “no casserole.”

Leah’s parents can probably speak to this way more eloquently than I can, but I bet that when her sister had cancer, the community rallied around the family. I bet they brought meals, provided emotional support and anything else needed. Doctors were forthcoming with information about what was happening and kept the family in the loop regarding their daughter’s progress and disease course, even after she was 18.

Leah’s disease course was very different, and I’d lay money that the same people who helped when it was cancer scattered like vampires at dawn when Leah got sick. Because of HIPA (Health Information Privacy Act), her parents probably got no information about what was happening with her. Because they didn’t know, they weren’t able to find out about a diagnosis, what it meant, what medication she might need and whether or not she was taking it. They had no power to do anything other than watch her spiral. The only thing that would have made a difference was Leah signing a release form authorizing her parents to receive information. Which, based on my experience with other F2F parents, is extremely rare. Most people with psychotic illness tend to act out against the people closest to them and who know them best. It also tends to onset in early adulthood, just as people are striking out on their own and striving to be independent. Call it tragic, call it a confluence of clusterfuckery. It’s that and then some.

When I read Ms. Kass’ essay, it was Leah’s parents I thought of; Leah’s parents for whom I ached. I’m sure that piece pulled the scab right off the open wound that is their daughters’ deaths.

Ms. Kass recently got married. One day, she may hold a newborn in her arms. She and her husband will look into their baby’s face and imagine the firsts. They will want to give their child everything. They will wonder who and what this little person will grow to be.

On that day, I hope Amanda Kass remembers Leah, and her sister, and their parents.

The baby grew up to be me. My dad, a rabbi who was beloved by his family and his congregation , died by suicide when I was 14. Its likely he had undiagnosed bi-polar disorder.   Stigma prevented him from getting the help that might have saved him. It also prevented my mother from feeling that she could be honest with my sister and me about what happened, and about our own family medical history. I was 25 & married with a child when I went hunting for the truth, because my daughter deserved a better answer than “I don’t know,” or “It was an accident,” when she got old enough to notice she was down a grandpa.

Goodbye, Tuki, and thank you for 15 amazing years.

I’m writing this with a view.


Tuki is lying with her head on my outstretched leg. In two hours, she will be gone and I will be bereft. I’ve never had to put a dog down before.

In between writing, I put my hand on her head and stroke the space from just above her nose and between her eyes with my thumb.

We’ve had nearly 15 years together. Our 15th Doggiversary would have been November 30th. That was the night I found her, a three-month-old stray puppy gamboling in the grass with a friend’s dog.

“Who’s the other dog?” I said, as we watched the two of them frolic from a porch above the patch of lawn where they were having a grand old time giving chase.

“No idea,” she said.

I ventured out into the dark for a closer look. Lucas, Ann’s dog, was a seven-year-old Schnauzer/Yorkshire Terrier mix. He weighed about 10 pounds. The other dog was bigger but, as I got closer, I could see how young it was.

She spent one night with us, and those of us not crazy in love with her from the jump (my then-husband) were moving in that direction. Animal Control picked her up in the morning so she could be reunited with her owners. We filled out a “first dibs on adopting” form if no one claimed her.

Fast forward three weeks.

The Humane Society says we can adopt her. But, they say, she has kennel cough and they want to keep an eye on her for a couple of days. The next day, they call and tell us to pick her up. We bring her home.

A week later, we’re at the vet for the second time. The first vet said it was bronchitis and threw pills at us. The second vet says, “I don’t know if this dog is going to live through the night.”

I ask how what it will cost to see if we can save her. Money is short, but I decide I can handle giving up three months of cell phone service.

As we leave, I can hear her shrill puppy cries as the vet tech and vet insert an IV.

The next morning, the vet calls.

“Good news,” he said. “The antibiotics did the job. She popped up this morning and gobbled her food. We want to keep her another night.”

Fast forward to now.

There are not enough or the right kind of words to express the universe of love, kindness and joy this dog has brought me. She was the valedictorian of her manners class. You could leave a plate of food in reach and she wouldn’t touch it if it wasn’t offered. She caught two squirrels, and tried to be a good friend to all her feline housemates, some of whom were more receptive to her overtures than others.

So, I am going to get dressed now and the three of us – that 13-year-old, who is now 28, and Sweetheart, who’s been my best human partner for 10 years – are going to do the last, best right thing we can for someone we love.


A vote for harmony and service: Skipping the Republican Debate to sing and tie a shoelace

I spent Tuesday night with some old white men here in Milwaukee, and they weren’t Republican presidential wannabes.

Not only did we get to see Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey on stage, but after the show, we got to go backstage and hang out with them. Well, mostly we hung with Peter. And we did get to thank Noel for co-hosting a great evening, and especially for the terrific story about how his song “Cue the Moon” came to be. They also talked about singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” at the March on Washington in 1963, and how their late partner Mary Travers (z”l) called it a song with nine questions.

Most of the audience was “of a certain age” and white. But there were a few whippersnappers in the house, among them Niece and Nephew (who survived my childhood) and a sweet young writer named Ben, his mother Wendy and their friend. Ben, Wendy and Friend had driven into town for a protest at City Hall in advance of the Republican Presidential Debate, which was occurring in a theater down the street at the same time Peter and Paul were performing.

My sister (she of the 1,400-mile road trip) and brother-in-law, Dr. Brilliant Scientist Guy are visiting Mom this week and sprung for the tickets. I am currently between paying jobs (read: unemployed and looking for work), so Sweetheart and I have stricken the live show line item from our household budget.

Peter Yarrow, however, occupies a special place in Debby and Dave’s lives. Twenty-five years ago, D&D, along with a friend, headed straight from his successful dissertation defense to a pizza joint in New Haven to celebrate. There, they ran into Peter, who was dining with his daughter. Debby had had occasion to go to Peter’s apartment after a concert he’d performed with our cousin, and he’d been lovely to Debby, plying her with cranberry juice and engaging her in pleasant conversation. She wasn’t sure he’d remember her, but he did, or at least pretended to. They chatted, he congratulated Dave and they parted ways.

“Who was that again?” Dave said as they sat down at their own table.

Peter Yarrow,” Debby said, “You know, from ‘Peter, Paul & Mary.’ ”

Dave and his friend gawped.

“WHAT?” he said, when he’d finally recovered enough to say something. “That was PETER???”

Debby then answered a raft of questions about how it had come to pass that an original Puff Daddy and Debby were well enough acquainted to exchange friendly greetings during a chance restaurant encounter.

The story has become part of family lore. So when I realized Debby had a chance to take Niece & Nephew to see one of the featured players in their parents’ lives, I let her know. She asked if we’d like to come, and I told her that Sweetheart gets up very early for work and probably wouldn’t but that I’d be up for it.

Debby bought five tickets and then got in touch with the person she remembered as Peter’s manager. After a few bouncing e-mails, she eventually connected with someone who hooked her up with backstage passes. She was very excited, and asked me to keep it a surprise from the N’s, which I did.

Things got confusing when the guy working the Will-Call window handed her an envelope containing four tickets and four passes.

“I bought five,” she said. Then she looked at the tickets. They weren’t the ones she’d bought. By the time it was straightened out, we were holding five backstage passes and nine tickets. The five she’d bought (in the second balcony) and the four she hadn’t (near the front of the house).

She sent the family inside and we hung out on the street until we’d given the tickets away to our new protester friends and a kid on a skateboard who ended up not using it. I know, because those were my people. I sat up in the bought seats for the first half of the show, and Debby hooked me up with an unused front-of-the-house seat for the second half.

Our backstage visit with Peter was lovely, I met a local writer who is a friend of his, and doubled the items on my “Things I Have Done for Folk Singers” list, which consisted of “making coffee for Arlo Guthrie” and now includes “tying Peter Yarrow’s shoe.”

Peter Yarrow with my sister and her family.  My brother-in-law was a mere boyfriend 25 years ago when Peter was the first to congratulate him on his successful dissertation defense.
Your correspondent (left) with Peter Yarrow and my sister.
Your correspondent (left) with Peter Yarrow and my sister. Maybe we should invite him to come along on our next road trip. (Or not.)

Blogging my way to a bigger family, and a road trip with Richard-Thompson-Who-Loves-Me

I’m going to veer off the straight-up Revolution track a bit and talk about the second of a pair of recent family-related road trips.

There was the Revolution Reunion Road Trip (3RT) from July 29th to August 4th. That was the two-sister, 1,500 mile run in a rental car. More on that in a future post.

Then, there was was the solo (unless you count my traveling companions, who included Mem Shannon, Dr. Didg, Medeski, Martin & Wood, Mouth Music and (see caption below) Richard-Thompson-who-loves-me) voyage to Green Lake to meet a whole bunch of relatives I hadn’t known existed until two weeks ago. I drove my own sweet ride, my mother’s former car.

Richard Thompson and Debby Waldman
My sister Debby saw Richard Thompson at the Edmonton Folk Festival four days after our Revolution Reunion Road Trip , and got backstage. When she told him that I love him (I love his music, but wasn’t sure about him – now I am) and that we’d listened to “1,000 years of Popular Music” on our 3RT, he said he loved me too. So from now on, I will be referring to him as Richard-Thompson-Who-Loves-Me.)

You can draw a straight line between this blog and that trip.

Back in February, I wrote about our Superbowl Sunday furnace repair. That post included a copy of a letter Debby (of 3RT renown) had found on an ancestry website. Our great-grandfather wrote it in December of 1920, after a pogrom the previous summer had decimated the shtetl where he and the rest of our family lived. The translated letter became part of my grandfather and uncles’ passport application packets. They needed them in order to travel back to Europe and fetch their parents and sister.

Two weeks before the Green Lake trip, I got a comment notification from the Blog Fairy. I figured it would be tied to whatever my latest post had been, but I was wrong. It was about the Superbowl post, from someone named Susan. It read, in part, “We are relatives. My great grandfather was Simon, brother of your great grandfather. Fascinating letter. Would love to connect.”

Cousins! Thanks to Susan for finding me on the Internet, and thanks to library school for my knowing to tag the post I wrote in a way that Susan would enter those terms into a search box and find me!
Cousins! Thanks to Susan for finding me on the Internet so we could yak like a pair of birds on a telephone wire, if you substitute a restaurant table for the telephone wire.

My first reaction was the emotional equivalent of a fireworks display. Excitement. Thrills.

My second was to step back and consider the possible ramifications of letting this new relative into my life. What if Susan was a serial killer? Or a crazy cat lady, not the good kind.

Upon doing an internet search, I learned she was neither. She was about my age – a plus as I have always wanted a girl cousin my age, and lived on the East Coast. We also turned out to have a couple of Facebook friends in common. The rest was as easy as 1-2-3 (“Request,” “Accept,” “Connected”).

When she found out where I lived, she wrote that she was coming out to Green Lake for a family wedding – as in “my” (and her, of course) family. So I took advantage of my current laid-off status and, after completing my daily job application (I’m trying to apply for at least one a day, and was doing that even before discovering that it’s an Unemployment requirement), drove up to the Heidel House Resort.

Turned out I’d been there before – for a State-Called Meeting of the Displaced Homemaker program. (Note on link: I built this site, but the program doesn’t exist anymore. Years before that happened and after a server migration, I lost my ability to update or delete it. So it’s still out there.)

But this was a whole different experience. In addition to meeting Susan, who turned out to be entirely fabulous, I also met a few other very cool relatives. Barry and Ellie, the parents of the groom, treated me to breakfast, and Barry showed me the enormous database of relatives he’s amassed (my branch was in there). Many others came over to introduce themselves and say hello. I don’t remember all their names, but to a one, they were lovely and welcoming.

Simon’s descendants weren’t as religiously observant as Moses Mordechai’s, so, unlike my branch, there weren’t any kashrut-obsessed rabbinic offspring. There are bankers, lawyers, insurance executives, and some truly amazing nonprofit tikkun olam types.

That includes Susan, who spends a day each week volunteering at the cancer unit of her local hospital, doing her best to help fellow breast cancer survivors navigate their post-diagnosis lives. Then there’s Seth, who started and runs a school for 300 students in Tanzania. He and his partner, a Tanzanian woman, have two children. Barak owns Essay Mentors, which helps college-bound students – at all socioeconomic levels – shine through the words on their college entrance essays. He was there, and I got to spend time getting to know him, too.

As for Susan, you could easily have imagined us as a pair of birds on a telephone wire, chirping our heads off at each other as we watched the world go by.

One of the first things she told me was that she’d found me by entering my last name (which was also Simon’s) and the name of the family’s shtetl into a search engine. Which means yet another round of thanks – this one to my library school professors, who taught me everything I know about tagging.

It was more like catching up with someone you haven’t seen in a long time (unless you count the parts where we were telling each other about our parents and siblings, etc – or just chalk that up to a pair of viral amnesia episodes at some point prior) than it was being with someone for the first time. We yakked and visited until it was time for her to start the hour-long trek to the airport.

An Open letter to United Airlines, with a Postscript to Southwest: The skies were friendly, the ground – not so much.

July 12, 2015

Dear United:

It’s a beautiful day here at Buffalo Niagara International Airport. Your white planes, with their gray/green logo-festooned tails look particularly striking against the blue-wash sky and gray tarmac. I’m sitting here at Gate 10, surrounded by what is rapidly becoming a small community of marooned souls, and in that group I am including Jessica, the gate agent.

The magic gate to home, which I did not cross.
The magic gate to home, which I did not cross.
Gate 10 Buffalo people
Nonexistent passengers watching Jessica the Gate Agent trying to convince United’s computer system that we are real.

I had not planned on being in Buffalo today, United Airlines. But on Tuesday, my oldest daughter sent me a text.

Liza: Mom, it looks like (Cousin BC) died, yikes, so sad.
Me: What!?
Liza: I saw on Facebook.

I called up BC’s Facebook feed. It was filled with variations on “RIP.”

You don’t need to know the particulars, United, but suffice it to say that this was one of those situations where the only thing you can do to make it better is nothing. BC’s parents are one of my favorite cousin sets. In my last blog post I wrote that I learned how to parent from the books I read in my childhood. (Feel free to read it if you’re curious, but that’s as much as you need for purposes of this letter.)

While those books gave me a window onto a world in which parents supported and respected their kids, BC’s parents – who are 10 years older than I am – showed me how to live in it. Nearly 40 years ago, they gave me a ride from Boston to Utica. I don’t remember the particulars of that ride. The feelings associated with it? They’re still with me.

Which is the reason that even though the only thing I could do to make it better was nothing, I had to get myself from Milwaukee to Syracuse for a 1 p.m. Friday funeral.

I take my job pretty seriously, United. And unlike Jessica the Gate Agent, whose superiors seem to have no problem letting her get squashed under the metaphorical bus – or maybe I should say plane in this case? – I have a supervisor who is fair, consistent and leads by example. I guess I should thank you for reminding me once again how lucky I am.

Point being, my supervisor had assigned me a rather large and important deadline-critical project. So I needed to make the trip with as little time off as possible. When I went looking for flights, it turned out that it was actually faster to get to Uruguay or London. Direct flights between small cities? Fuggehdabout it. The best I could do was Chicago-Buffalo, rent a car and drive the nearly three hours to Syracuse.

You had two morning flights and a 9 p.m. one. I booked the late flight and took work home the night before so I could get the project finished in time to leave work an hour early, then go home and throw a few things into a carry-on bag.

In addition to black attire, I packed a bag of fresh green beans and the newest Apocalyptica release. That no liquids rule eliminated the possibility of an energy drink, and I knew I was going to need help staying awake.

Working a near-full day followed by a 90 minute bus trip to catch a flight that leaves at 9 pm and arrives at midnight, then renting a car and driving another hour-and-change to somewhere you’ve never been before (another cousin’s couch) is, as long as we’re being honest, kind of a dumb thing to do if you’re not 20. I figured headbanging music and crispy eats would help me stay awake.

When I got to O’Hare, I printed my boarding pass at the check-in terminal. There was a gate number, and a “See Agent” note where my seat number should have been. I asked the woman taking luggage what it meant.

“It means see the agent at your boarding gate,” said the concierge-type guy standing near her.

This was not reassuring, United. I had to use the facilities in a big way and had planned to do so before going through Security. Now, though, I felt as if I needed to get to my gate as soon as possible. So I waited until I had gone through screening (at which point I was a much nicer person), and when I got to the gate, the agent, Tyler, was busily trying to deal with a raft of passengers between making an announcement that went roughly thus:

“Welcome to (Flight to Buffalo). We are currently oversold. We would like to offer you a $350 voucher and a seat on another flight. Please see me if you are interested in giving up your seat.”

There was a line and Tyler was working it as quickly as he could, but I had no idea whether I’d be on the plane or not. The man in front of me in line responded to my query as to whether I knew what was up by telling me in a snotty tone, “I’m in line.”

Not reassuring. But before long, I’d bonded with a 20-something who was traveling with her mother and stepfather. They’d all bought their seats together, but a hack of United earlier that day had somehow resulted in her reservation disappearing.

As Tyler was working the counter by the gate, the gate agent was calling passenger names at irregular intervals. “Passenger Smith! Come to the gate.”

Passenger Smith, waving a boarding pass, would rush to the gate, jumping up and down like a game show contestant who’d just won $1 million, then cartwheel down the jetway while juggling carry-on bags.

Okay. I’m lying about game show, cartwheels and juggling. But after awhile, I did start thinking the whole thing looked like some demented mashup of “The Price is Right” and “Survivor.”

Long story short, I was the last passenger whose name was called to board the plane. There was no room for my carry-on at that point, so I left it at the end of the jetway after yanking my book out of it. (Props for reuniting us at the end of the flight, but that’s as it should be.)

We got to Buffalo at midnight. I headed over to Budget where I’d rented a car. (The rental agents had been dealing with frustrated passengers for hours, and because I wasn’t a total cow, the agent upgraded me from a compact to a gorgeous SUV.) Two hours later, I was on the far side of Rochester, where I crashed on a cousin’s couch.

(In case you’re wondering, United, the green beans and Apocalyptica worked as well as I’d hoped they would on the “Keep Me Alert!” front.)

I did what I came to do in Skaeneateles (with one unscheduled stop at the Harriet Tubman House in Auburn – highly recommended if you ever find yourself in those parts), and headed back to Buffalo on Saturday to catch my flight home.

Harriet Tubman House
This is the best $5 you will spend anywhere. Go and see this place – the museum, the houses, the tour. So worth it.
Harriet Tubman's house
This is the house where Harriet lived. It was recently acquired by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which already owned the 25 acres adjacent because Harriet left it to the AME Church. It isn’t yet open to the public, but is expected to be by this time next year. Oh, and that’s me, standing by the root cellar entrance.
This is the infirmary/community-based residential facility Harriet opened for older African-American veterans. Four people lived there at a time. We did get to tour inside of it. Don’t do what I did and forget you’re not supposed to take photos or touch anything. (I was 100 percent on the no pictures, but because I used to give tours at other jobs and in my neighborhood when we have our home tours, I forgot myself when standing in front of something our tour guide was pointing out, and lifted it. Nearly gave our poor tour guide a heart attack. Luckily for all concerned, I managed to set it down intact.)

When I got to my gate – with a seat number on my boarding pass this time – Jessica was making the same announcement Tyler had been making. I figured I’d balance my karma and give up my seat. There ended up being eight of us – a woman who said she could drive back to Rochester, a father and son from Canada, and me who’d volunteered. Then there were the people who hadn’t. One was a tall man with a deep voice, German accent and commanding bearing. Picture a younger, handsomer Arnold Schwartzenegger having a righteous fit. His wife, a lovely caramel-colored woman with short braids, didn’t speak English.

We all empathized with Arnold, but none of us were thrilled with the way he was taking he was taking Jessica apart. The kid was a gate agent. He was yelling at her as if she were the the company CEO.

Eventually, the rest of us trying to be kind to Jessica and, possibly, the time and energy that it took to keep ranting got to him, and Arnold turned out to be reasonably okay.

But none of us – including Jessica – were okay with what happened when she started trying to get us onto other flights. All eight of us disappeared as if we had never existed. A single supervisor buzzed by occasionally, pushing buttons and telling Jessica things that didn’t seem to help when she tried them, and then disappeared again. Jessica was on the phone, trying to get us reinstated, but whoever she was calling seemed to know even less than the supervisor. She was doing everything she could, but it was like aiming a squirtgun at a house fire.

All of us – and I include myself and Jessica in this – had moments of not being our best selves. But in poor Jessica’s case, it meant a couple of intervals where she simply couldn’t hide the toll her inability to resolve a simple matter was taking.

Which is why, United, in addition to the $500 voucher I got at the end of this ordeal, you owe me a travel pack of tissues. Which I will forego if you would kindly supply your gate agents with a stock of them, because if you’re going to hang your employees out to dry in these kinds of situations, they’re going to need them.

She finally presented us with boarding passes and vouchers. The other passengers got hotel and meal vouchers which I didn’t need, United, because my best friend from middle school picked me up four hours after she otherwise would have and brought me home to her house. You owe her for saving you a hotel room bill and another tantrum.


Nancy's spare room
Why I didn’t have to throw a tantrum. I got to sleep here.

That’s because, United, one $7 meal voucher is NOT enough to buy dinner. It was also the point at which the mild-mannered Canadian had finally had enough. I told Jessica to give him mine.

Then, I looked at my boarding pass.

“Geez,” I said, “I was kind of hoping for an upgrade to first class.”

Her instantaneous response came straight from her heart, United, and left no doubt in any of our minds that this woman is way too good for the likes of you.

“If I could,” Jessica said, “I would give you ALL upgrades to first class. And I would take you out for pizza and buy you beers.”


July 20, 2015

I started this post in Buffalo in the midst of a United Airlines debacle. I am finishing it at Laguardia Airport in the midst of a Southwest Airlines debacle. Clearly my flying karma is impaired. So far, I’ve arrived everywhere I planned to go (for which I am grateful), but the getting there has been, to put it frankly, a shitshow.

This past Saturday, Sweetheart and I got up at 3 a.m. to catch a 5:20 a.m. flight to New York. This was a planned trip, for something good – a dear friend’s surprise 60th birthday party. Our flight was supposed to arrive at 8:40, and we were going to meet another friend at Penn Station at noon. As we circled above the airport at 8 and change, the pilot announcing that we were third in line to land, he suddenly realized that we needed gas. Off to Albany we went, on a refueling mission.

When we landed in Albany, the pilot announced that LaGuardia was closed due to storms and we’d be there for an hour. They let us off the plane. Sweetheart hit up McDonald’s, and I got us some caffeine at Starbucks. An hour later, we were taxiing out to the runway and the pilot was announcing our arrival time at LaGuardia. Moments later, he was announcing that LaGuardia was closed and we were going to hang out on the runway for another hour. Five minutes later, he was telling us it would be two hours.

“That’s unacceptable,” he said, “so we’re going back to the terminal.”

There’s a Meditation Room at Albany International Airport. I laid myself down on a rug and sacked out for awhile. Then I read until it was time to reboard.

We got to LaGuardia at 1:45. But I have to say, Southwest, I didn’t feel violated in the way I did the week before, because you let us know exactly what was happening.

You didn’t do so well on the trip home.

We got to the airport in plenty of time for our 6:55 flight – enough time to catch this announcement about the Denver flight leaving before ours.

“We are in an oversold situation, and need eight people to give up their seats.”

When that didn’t happen, Southwest, you pulled a 10-year-old off the plane. He was flying with a single chaperone and nine other 10-year-olds, who were heading toward a baseball camp. The chaperone had a choice to stay with the left behind kid and abandon the other nine, or to leave him in an airport on his own and stay with the ones who were flying.

There was some drama and haggling, since you weren’t offering a hotel voucher, but once you did that, someone volunteered to give up her seat so the kid could fly with the rest of his team.

Gate B7
Gate 7, where we had a front row seat to watching a ten-year-old on his way to camp get bumped off his flight, unlike his chaperone and the other eight campers with whom he was traveling.

We were lining up to board our flight when things began to go bad. The plane we were boarding was suddenly ‘too small.’ (This set off some alarm bells for Sweetheart and me, because we’d learned on the Albany leg – where there were 43 of us on a 145-seat aircraft – that your entire fleet is comprised of 145-seat planes. Which made us wonder about the eight-seat overage too, as long as I’m sort of on the topic.)

“We have another plane for you. We’re moving you to Gate 5.”

Gate 5
Gate 5, where we spent three hours until we got moved back to Gate 7. At least there wasn’t water dripping into garbage cans from ceiling tiles at Gate 5. (If I were Fiorello LaGuardia’s ghost, I’d be haunting whoever is responsible for facilities management.)
The counter at Gate 5
The gate agent station, where Sweetheart and I told the gate agents what was going on with musical planes.

Off the lot of us schlepped, down the hallway to Gate 5, where we watched a group of passengers trooping off the plane parked there. I made eye contact with one, and she spoke.

“They’re moving us. There’s a gas leak on this plane.”

As the Gate 5 people were getting on the plane parked at Gate 7, I watched a ground crew member shuttling a flight crew down a flight of stairs to some unnamed destination. Their expressions ranged from bewilderment to disgust.

Turned out it was the flight crew who’d been hustled off “our” plane. The Gate 5 passengers and their flight crew got on and took off.

Meanwhile, Sweetheart and I were asking the agent at the counter just around from Gate 5 what had just happened.

“I have no idea,” she said. “You know more than I do.”

Which is kind of how it went. There was a lot of mystery, no straight answers and eventually – hours later – a plane arriving from somewhere. We were all herded back to Gate 7. A group of passengers got off, our flight crew boarded, and at midnight, we were home.

Props to Southwest for giving us all $14 vouchers for dinner at Au Bon Pain on the concourse (United: Take Note) and $100 coupons toward our next trip (should we be courageous enough to try this again).

For now, I’m breathing a sign of relief that next week’s scheduled departure – to the  Revolution Reunion – is a road trip.

Boot tracks across her winter coat and my severed finger: An Application for Entry to the Sister Fight Hall of Fame

When it came to fighting styles, my sister and I were not well-matched.

When we were very young, (I remember the baby gate in front of her bedroom door and other places in the house) and she upset me, I’d complain to my mother about whatever it was Debby was doing.

“Tell her not to,” Mom would advise.

So I would march my wee self over to wherever she was.

“NOT TO!” I’d shout.

It never worked.

As we got older, it became clear that Debby had inherited my mother’s short fuse and sharp tongue. I was older, but slower-witted. And like Dad, it took me a long time to get really angry, but when I did, I put on a show.

So most of our fights went this way: She’d get mad and start yelling. I’d try yelling back, but she was faster with the barbed words and better at shouting over me. It was easier to give up and stalk off to my room to sulk. And read.

My sister and me, between one of our many fights. Photo credit goes to our uncle, a professional photographer. I don't remember if this was a scheduled photo session or one of those "Stand over there!" shoots.
My sister and me, between one of our many fights. Photo credit goes to our uncle, a professional photographer. I don’t remember if this was a scheduled photo session or one of those “Stand over there and smile, Goddammit!!!” shoots.

There are two notable exceptions to this pattern. One has become the stuff of family legend, mostly because it ended with a severed finger. Sweetheart and I were having dinner at a local ethnic restaurant with one of my then college-age daughters when I casually mentioned the other.

Alex was as shocked as I’ve ever seen her.

She went completely quiet, staring at this stranger who looked like her mother, but no longer sounded like her.

“You what?”

“I knocked her down and walked on her,” I said.

“You knocked her down and walked on her,” Alex repeated. She repeated it a couple more times, turning the words over in her mouth as she attempted to assimilate this information into her previously-formed mother matrix. Sweetheart and I, sitting across from her at the restaurant table, watched and waited.

Her next move was to ask a question.

“What did she do?”

“I don’t remember,” I said. “What I can tell you is that she was making me really mad and I warned her that if she didn’t stop I was going to knock her down and walk on her. She wouldn’t stop, so I did.”

It was many winters on, but even from that cozy restaurant booth I could still conjure up the salient parts of the event.

We were walking home from school. The argument had commenced several blocks back, and now we were five houses away from home, at the steep part of our hilly street. It was midwinter, cold. Snow was mounded on either side of the shoveled sidewalk.

She wouldn’t stop, and I pushed her. I remember her shocked look as she went down, remember the ambiguity I felt about doing it even as I was making the choice to follow through on the threat I’d made. Even if I didn’t fully want to, even though I didn’t fully want to. I had to. Because I had said I would and if I didn’t, she’d just do whatever it was that had made me mad again and I couldn’t take that. So I walked across her, but just once. Then I kept going. She trailed behind me, crying, howling, screaming.

I walked ahead, silent. I knew I was going to be in big trouble when we got home.

I was right. The evidence was all over Debby’s back – the prints were an exact match with my boots. Mom & Dad mopped her up and comforted her while I waited for my punishment, which I don’t remember. I was sorrier about having to do it than I was about having done it, though. Or, to put it another way, my belief that she’d brought it on herself left me feeling okay about whatever punishment I got.

Across the table from me, my daughter was still scouring my face and the inside of her brain for her own answers, which were clearly not forthcoming.

We sat, silently. Sweetheart and I, waiting. At last, Alex spoke.

“I have to reassess everything I ever knew about you,” she said.

“It’s nice to know I can still surprise you after all these years,” I told her.

Then, we moved on to other topics.

One we did not discuss that night was the great finger-severing of 1965. My children have never not known that one, and as a very wee child, my niece was fascinated by the story.

I’ll share in a future post.

Memories of a futureless present in Urban Bucolica: a yahrzeit post about last words

It’s been 41 years since the day my father dropped my sister and me at school. Neither of us knew that would be the last time we saw him. Debby was in eighth grade and got dropped first. I was a freshman in high school, so got an extra six minutes of one-on-one time.

What would I have done differently if I had known what my dad was going to do after he deposited me at that corner? Any number of things, probably. None of which really matters.

What I did was walk right, one short block to school. He turned the car left and left again, drove past the synagogue where he was the rabbi, and headed north, out of town.

Dad, at work

Five minutes in any direction past the city limits puts you square into the middle of a postcard view of bucolica (if that wasn’t a word before, it is now, says I). That’s where my father headed. He went to North Bucolica.

It’s where the police found his car the next day, parked on a country road. On a bridge. Over a lovely little lake. When I’d gotten out the day before, I’d managed to grab my backpack, my lunch and my cello. I’d left a paper bag, though, which the police brought to my mother and about which I’d totally forgotten, understandable given what was going on. The police brought the bag to Mom and asked her if she had any idea about why it had been in the car. Maybe it would provide information they could use to lead them to Dad.

The bag did contain information. The Utica Police Department now knew that the missing rabbi’s oldest daughter a) had her period and b) didn’t wear tampons. Mom called me into the living room and handed me the paper bag. The look on her face was pure disgust. I tried to make myself invisible as I rushed upstairs to take refuge in my room.

Debby was in her room, reading “The Boys of Summer,” by Roger Kahn, a book Dad had given her for Hanukkah the year before. I lay down on my bed and tried to read, but I was too unsettled.

I went over to the record player, rifled my collection and put on “James Taylor and the Original Flying Machine.” Then, I picked up my guitar and played along.

“What good is that happy life/when all you wanted from the start was to cry….”

I didn’t think about the lyrics. I just played along, from tune to tune. Over the course of the next seven weeks, I did a lot of playing along to records, a lot of reading, a lot of talking to people and wrote in my journal. I went to school, to rehearsals for the school musical and to synagogue for services and youth group meetings.

I knew my father wasn’t coming back, that he was probably dead. But I had no sense of what that would mean, or how it would play out. I lived in a futureless present.

I kept flashing back though, to that moment at the corner. The moment of getting out of the car, juggling my backpack, cello and lunch, knowing Dad needed to get somewhere and not wanting to hold him up even as I wanted to hold on. He was the person I loved most and because of that, he was the person I most wanted to spend time with and the one I most wanted to please.

So I got out as quickly as I could, but not before I kissed him. I held the car door open while I organized myself. Before shutting it, I stuck my head inside, looked at him, and said what I didn’t know at the time would be the last words he’d ever hear another person say.

“I love you.”