Empty Garden

241166771_864e6e0d38_b

Today was the day I finally remembered to buy a digital copy of “Empty Garden” by Elton John. He and lyricist Bernie Taupin wrote it in tribute to John Lennon. I’ve seldom heard this song on the radio, and when I do, it tends to happen in scenarios plagued by poor radio reception, like waiting for a stop light to change between two semi trucks. I’m surprised that I haven’t had a dream that I’ve been airdropped in wilds of Alaska with a transistor radio tuned a station a thousand miles distant, and I can barely pick out that song through the fuzz. In the dream, I’d have the volume turned all the way up just to hear Elton John, but some moldly oldy like “Precious and Few” by Climax would break in from a closer station and temporarily deafen me with its sweetness.

I didn’t pick “Precious and Few” at random. Something like that did happen to me about 30 years ago when I was travelling across Wyoming. I was thrilled to hear “Sometimes When We Touch” by Dan Hill, another song that used to elude me on the radio, and I had the sudden, impossibly loud interruption of “Precious and Few”. Since my ears were too shocked to listen to much, I talked one of my travel companions into singing “Precious and Few” with me for the next 20 miles, an annoying feat which we repeated in the absence of radio reception several times over that cross-country trip. How we knew the lyrics and key change is a mystery to me. Perhaps we knit this knowledge from various K-Tel album commercials.

I’ve lingered too long on the foregoing tangent, so I will return to the Elton John’s song that I remembered to buy today. Hearing the song more clearly has lessened a bit of its mystique for me. It kind of reminds me of when I was a student at Duke and first saw Christian Laettner in person. Since writing and mailing letters was still common in those days, I wrote a letter to a friend letting her know that Laettner wasn’t as attractive in person as he appeared on television. Her reply to my claim was memorable: “Don’t f*ck with the fantasy.”

Thus in buying the song I’ve accidentally diminished the production quality of a daydream I harbored in the early 80s. In that waking dream of my eight-year-old self, I wondered how the world might be different had the fates of two famous victims of gun violence been reversed. What if Lennon survived and Reagan perished? Their shootings happened very close in time, less than four months apart, and these stories loomed large in my grade-school world.

Now that I listened to “Empty Garden” several times today, I realize that question still intrigues me. How would the world be different if the fates of Lennon and Reagan had been reversed? Would George Bush the Elder have continued Reagan’s agenda so early in the regime? Would Lennon have gracefully landed in the realm of Has-Beens? Would labor unions be in such decline in the U.S. had Reagan not been around to quash the air traffic controller’s strike that happened later in 1981?

I suppose there’s not much point to exploring such veins of alternate history. The best scenario of all would be if neither shooting had happened. It’s possible John Lennon could have created his best work in protest of the Reagan era.

Being Mortal

246807462_e4b23e88fe_b

I doubt it is possible to have access to the internet and be unaware that suicide has once again floated to the top of the news. If you were online and missed the fact that two famous and deeply gifted people took their lives this week, I’d like to know which filters you’re using in your various news feeds. You could sell it as a formula for downer-proof digital life.

In the several of the news reports about the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, there were references to a CDC study which indicated a couple startling trends. First, the suicide rate has risen 30 percent or more in half of the United States. Second, the CDC found that about half of the people who committed suicide did not have a history of mental health diagnosis or treatment. This bit of information startled me.

Before hearing about this study I assumed that two things are true about suicide: that the person is indeed deceased, and that he or she had an untreated or undertreated mental illness. I even went so far as to consider that 40,000+ yearly suicides in the U.S. could indicate that we are still living in a stone age of sorts in mental health treatment, that for some people mental illness can indeed be a terminal condition.

Sadly enough, it is true that some people suffer from mental illness so resistant to available treatments that they face a real and persistent threat of death due to suicide. One of my friends committed suicide in 2016 for just such a reason. Combine a deeply disabling mental illness like bipolar or schizoaffective disorder with substance abuse (which can sometimes involve escalating dependence on prescribed, controlled substances like Xanax), and suicide is a definite risk. For individuals with a clinical picture like that, mental illness can become a terminal condition.

Now is the point where I realize that I am taking entirely too long to develop the notion that arose in my mind from reading references to the CDC study that indicated about half of people who commit suicide have no mental health treatment history. Long story short, I believe that we are living in an age where it is becoming harder to conceal serious mental illness. You don’t have to crack open very wide to intersect with a mental health diagnosis. In the case of my friend who took her life, she had an 18-year-long treatment history before her suicide. She lived in small, conservative communities for her entire life. She was a born and bred Rustbelt Republican, and she grew up knowing that mental illnesses are just as valid as physical ones.

If half of U.S. suicides involve people with no mental health diagnoses, I cannot escape the notion that a rising number of people are deciding that their lives aren’t worth living. It is possible that some people are making a rational choice to stop living for trivial reasons. Why? Because they do not value human life enough to preserve their own.

I believe that everyone does a fairly complex yet intuitive cost/benefit analysis of human life and that this analysis informs the value we place on our own lives. For example, if you believe that a blind person is worthy of a dignified, happy life, you would eventually adapt to life as a blind person if you happened to lose your vision. If in your heart of hearts, you believe that such a disability leads to a useless life, you could very well choose to end your life due to loss of vision and have no mental illness at all.

While it is vital to continue the battle of easing stigma and increasing access to mental health treatment, I also believe that is time to start a cultural discussion of the value of human life. As this value declines in our culture, it becomes more rational to think that one should stay alive only as long as one is healthy, young, wealthy, famous, or some combination of all that is prized in the here and now.

Both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain were well into middle age. I can’t help but think that whatever their personal reasons for suicide, their passing is symptomatic of our culture’s discomfort with aging. At 45, I am well into the long, rude awakening that aging is hard work. Have I broken some unspoken rule in advertising that I am already getting old? I’ve written several posts about my struggle with lumbar degeneration. In reality, my problem is just advanced aging of the spine. If you get old enough, there’s a good likelihood that your back will be just as bad as mine is.

I can’t be the only one who was so ill-prepared for getting older. I grew up in an era when looking young was paramount, with little regard for one’s insides– if you can be mistaken for a 30-year-old, then your insides must be that healthy, too. I am going to transgress once again in revealing that we start falling apart by degrees from the moment we are born. Ask anyone who’s had their wisdom teeth extracted after age 30, and you will hear that 30 is not so young.

In thinking of the rising suicide rate, I must remind myself that I decided long ago that life is worth living until its natural or accidental end, however hard one’s circumstances may be. Life is worth living even one is severely disabled, profoundly poor, or impossibly old.

Turn this thinking inside out. Consider a weather-beaten man wandering about downtown who looks like he has nothing but where the day may take him. No matter how he landed in such a life, his survival shows that he values his life against all odds. How much do you value yours?

Garden, June 3

40732597370_b785150468_z

The petunias above have quickly earned my favor in this year’s garden. A garden full of petunias and its petite cousin calibrachoa is a somewhat lazy choice, but they can provide reliable color and joy for nearly half the year.

Since I am apt to think in tangents during most of my waking hours, I present a photo which reminds of a Stevie Nicks’ album title, The Other Side of the Mirror:

40732655220_820e7ca498_z

Once upon a time, such a title could evoke all sorts of feminine mystery. In my teen years, I’d imagine that the other side of the mirror held a land full of light-hearted witchcraft and Adonis-like suitors who’d ignore the perfectly preserved plush animals of one’s youth that would punctuate the decor of your lair.

Nowadays the notion of the other side of the mirror seems entirely different. In an age of cell phone photography and video, the other side of the mirror can mean a couple different things. At best, it is all the visuals of one’s life we’d rather not share, from the double chin that emerges while one is reading or writing to evidence of clutter and projects undone. At worst, the other side of the mirror is just that: a two-way mirror through which persons unknown may see anything or everything about your life. As the late Steven Jesse Berstein proclaimed in “This Clouded Heart“: “You feel like you are watched when you are private, and even when you are not private, you cannot choose your audience.”

In the picture above, you see the things lined up against the back of the house, a hose imperfectly wound along with spare propane tanks and a grill in need of a new cover. Then there’s the trash can, which I suppose is the terminal expression of that other side of the mirror, the footage left on the cutting room floor of daily living.

As for the pinwheels that have appeared in the garden, they are part of a small bounty of items my husband bought at an antique tractor show a couple years ago. It seems that most gatherings related to old but useful things have vendors selling all sorts of items. In the sweltering heat, he found a booth selling all sorts of pinwheels, and it wasn’t until this year that we got around to placing them in the garden. Unfortunately, we’ve had some wicked wind lately that dismantled a couple of them.

I will close this post with a few more images from the garden:

42541054681_5c02b97e9b_z40732644140_a70d3331b3_z42488996592_b806346944_z40732666260_3a928f320e_z27670474257_ac5223c23e_z41818148534_ac3fcb99bc_z

Cold Pop

242479371_209e12cb6f_b

Today I spotted a man who looked like a cross between Sammy Hagar and Gallagher the watermelon-splitting comedian. Really, he had Sammy’s crinkled “I Can’t Drive 55” hairdo and Gallagher’s mustache. His face equally resembled both of these 80’s icons. Oddly enough, he looked young enough to have been born after they peaked in popularity.

This corner pop machine looks to have the vintage of a time when almost everyone would have known who Gallagher was, yet no man would have wanted to hear that he looked like him.

I admit that some of my mental math that determines resemblance is a little faulty. Last year I saw a long-haired young man with a Van Dyke beard, and I privately called him Flemish Jesus. From the shoulders up, he really looked like what I’d imagine a Little Dutch Masters portrait of Jesus might look like.

Corner

Chunk in a Meme

My daughter wishes we could make a cat “internet famous.” I really wish I could write a good meme. Perhaps my meme aspirations are bandwagonesque. Memes may be lowly and sometimes crass, but there’s an economy of language revealed in them that impresses me.

I merged her cat dream and my meme hopes in one image:

19095441_320280335074888_672895339400175150_o

That’s our late, great cat Chunk. She reminded me of the “Famous Tough Guy” who was an old woman who inspected underwear in a Fruit of the Loom commercial back in the 80’s.