Tuesday, July 9, 2013

My Uncle Died Today, July 8, 2013

He was a son, a brother, a cousin, a friend, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and my Uncle.  He was  the third of my maternal grandparents' five children, although they never spoke of the first child, Agnes, the one who was born, and then died, on January 1, 1932.  My Uncle was their only, their "favorite" son.  They moved into that sturdy brick house in Queens in 1936, the same year he was born.   He moved back into that house in 1989 when he was fifty-three, after his mother had to go into the nursing home.  My Uncle was living in that house until last night, Sunday night, the end of the 4th of July weekend.  As he was driving home the short distance from his life-long best friend's home at around 8:30 pm, my Uncle's car was broad-sided by a car driven by a teenager.  My Uncle was unconscious when the FDNY pried what was left of the car and rescued him from wreck.  He was taken to the ER of a nearby hospital.  His best friend Mac heard about the accident from my eldest Aunt, who resides 67 miles north of Queens.  She had received the call from my Uncle's youngest son, whose home is 207 miles away.  Mac was at the hospital by 10:30 pm.  My Uncle was alive, but he was having trouble breathing, so they moved him to the ICU, sedated him, and put him on a ventilator.  The son, the Aunt, and Mac were with him when he died at 6:30 am.

It's so strange that when someone you loved dies, you're never far enough away to be spared the pain of his loss.  And, even if you are so close to them that you may be holding his hand while his body ceases to function, you are never close enough to pull him back from death.

Ever since my own mother, my Uncle's younger sister, phoned  and told tell me that he is dead, my mind has been going over my memories of him again and again.  They play randomly, not chronologically.  He always was a part of my life as a child.  He made sure he attended every one of my music recitals, my theater productions, and both my high school and college graduations.  We loved one another, and that was a fact.   When you are a child, and you are loved, you believe that love is unalterable. But love can be impermanent when exposed to Life and Loss.  Our family suffered many losses, for which family does not?  Family members, in their grief and the attendant rage to that grief, may lash out, may say words that cannot be rescinded, may act in a ways which cause irreparable harm.  They lose control because, ultimately, in the face of death, we have no control.  We are lost, and so bewildered by death that we are at a loss.

Losses can be borne by the family tree, but this requires that the tree is pruned properly.  That is essential to the structure of the tree.  Fortunately, trees possess a natural defense to pruning cuts and other wounds. Then there are the roots to consider.  What if rot sets in?  Can the tree survive severed roots?  Yes, the tree can survive if the tree if the tree's history was strong, and the previous growing conditions were healthy and sound.

* * * * * *

"Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord; and may perpetual light shine upon him.  May he rest in peace.  Amen."

Ar dheis lámh Dé go raibh a Anam dílis

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Book Review: THE LAST POLICEMAN by Ben H. Winters

Quirk Books July 10, 2012 ISBN 978-1-59474-576-8 (trade paperback)

There is no empirical proof that, after I read THE LAST POLICEMAN in the summer of 2012, I thought, “Ben H. Winters has done something exceptional here!  He’s taken the detective story and blended it with dystopian science fiction to create a new genre!”  Yes, it’s easy for me to write that now, two months after Mr. Winters was presented with the 2013 Edgar Award for “Best Paperback Original” by the Mystery Writers of  America. And, on July 3, 2013, Mr. Winter’ book was nominated for the 2013 Macavity Awards for “Best Mystery Novel” by Mystery Readers International.  So while I may have been prescient about how extraordinarily unique this novel is, I sound like yesterday’s news.  This disruption of time and space is suitable for the review of a metaphysical police procedural.

Detective Henry “Hank” Palace works for the Criminal Investigations Division of the Concord (New Hampshire) Police Department.  He’s been called to the local McDonald's because some guy hanged himself with his belt in the fast-food joint’s bathroom.  The dead guy is Peter Anthony Zell.  Hank had only been a patrolman for sixteen months before he was promoted to detective three months ago.  His instincts tell him this is not a simple case of suicide.  But then, nothing is “simple” any more.  In August of last year Hank was promoted because four of the eight detectives from the squad left after the news hit.  It’s now March 20th, seven months since scientists announced “the date.”

“The date that everybody knows is October 3, six months and eleven days from today, when a 6.5-kilometer-diameter ball of carbon and silicates will collide with Earth...Maia, the massive asteroid formally known as 2011GV1—“

People have processed the news of the end of the world in all different ways.  Some are ticking off items on their bucket lists, some are self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, and some are sticking to their own agendas.  And Hank has wanted to be a policeman since he was a boy.  So Hank is going to pursue Zell’s suspicious death.  The first interview is with Zell’s boss, Theodore Gompers, at the insurance agency, Merrimack Life and Fire.  Zell was an actuary, the kind of man who kept to himself, focused on his work.  He was a quiet man, although Zell briefly flipped out on Halloween and took a “leave of absence” for a few weeks before returning to work.  Hank also interviews Gomper’s secretary, a beautiful woman with a shaved head whose name is Naomi Eddes—a beautiful woman whom Hank happened to see around the crime scene early that morning.  Then he makes the notification of death by phone to Zell’s sister Sophia Littlejohn.  The next day he goes to her home, but Sophia is a midwife, and has gone to assist a woman in labor.  Her husband, Erik Littlejohn, speaks with Hank.  Littlejohn is the Director of Spiritual Services at Concord Hospital.  He tells Hank that Peter Zell and Sophia were never close, and they saw Zell only occasionally.  After the official EOT had been revealed on television on January 3rd, Zell has been “in a bad place” and “disturbed” by news of 2011GV1. 

Next Hank meets with the medical examiner, Dr. Alice Fenton, who is unconcerned about a bruise on Zell’s ankle.  When Hank asks if a tox screen will be done on Zell’s blood, Dr. Fenton explains that there are very limited resources with the state forensic lab.  She’s ruling it a suicide.  Hank pockets one of the vials of Zell’s blood before leaving the morgue.  Hank then manages to convince the assistant attorney general, Denny Dotseth, to allow him to pursue a homicide investigation.

Hank’s pursuit of the case is sidelined by his own sister Nico, the only family he has left.  Nico is upset because her husband Derek Skeve, is now “a guest of the military-industrial complex,” a prisoner at the New Hampshire National Guard headquarters. He’s been charged with operating an ATV on the military base.  Derek's idiotic act has cost him his freedom when the most precious commodity is (and it always is) time.  The Zell case leads Hank deep into this wretched new world.  There is more violence, more death, a femme fatale, drugs, secret government operations, and, ultimately, the identity of Zell’s murderer. 

The plot is of THE LAST POLICEMAN is constructed with masterful, adept precision, a striking contrast to the instability of the society which Hank inhabits.  Mr. Winters has created a very believable world on its way out, with failing technology, few resources, and many desperate people with motives. Hank’s durability makes him both a natural patsy at times.  Hank Palace is no hard-boiled Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, although Mr. Winters’ prose easily bears comparison to Hammett and Chandler.  But Hank’s level of integrity and dedication makes him an incredibly good detective and an incredibly compelling hero.   Mr. Winters adroit control of the story and the characters, as well as his virtuoso skill as a storyteller, make the first book in this trilogy an instant classic.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776: A Brief History

On July 4, 1776, two hundred thirty-seven years ago, delegates from the thirteen colonies met in Philadelphia at a convention called The Second Continental Congress.  The Revolutionary War with Britain had begun one year prior on April 19, 1775 when British troops and American colonial partisan militia ("Minutemen") engaged in battle in the Massachusetts towns of Lexington and Concord.  The thirteen colonies viewed themselves as independent states, no longer subjects of the British Empire, so the delegates came to draft a formal declaration of independence.   This decision was not made overnight, and there was strong dissension among the thirteen colonies.  

Thomas Paine's pamphlet "Common Sense" had been circulating since January 1776, and gave rise to a great deal of public debate about "how declaring independence would affect the war effort" [Wikipedia].  Paine presented a reasonable argument that republicanism was a better form of governance than monarchism (which he deemed barbaric and absurd).  Yet, not all of the colonies were enthusiastic about making a formal declaration of independence.  Five middle colonies were very much in opposition of independence:  New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware.  But then the proponents of independence won the Pennsylvania Assembly vote on the issue on May 1, 1776.   John Adams, attorney, delegate from Massachusetts, and very much an advocate for independence, wrote the preamble (the introduction to the document explaining its intent) on May 15, 1776.  For the next seven weeks, there was much political maneuvering.  Some delegates thought that it was too early to declare independence from Britain, hoping that securing aid from other foreign countries might prevent such a permanent separation.  Other delegates reasoned that procuring foreign aid for the war effort would be impossible unless a formal declaration of independence were made. While these political shifts, against and for independence played out, on June 11, 1776 the Congress appointed a committee of five delegates to draft the declaration of independence:  John Adams, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut.  

Originally it was thought that John Adams would write the document, but he insisted that Thomas Jefferson be the author.  Adams definitely was consulted, and offered his opinion, on the wording over the seventeen days they had to complete the document.  The committee presented the document to the Congress on June 28, 1776.  For the next two days, Congress edited and altered the declaration.

On July 1st the delegates from each colony debated and discussed the final draft and the key issue of independence from Britain (this process is called "Committee of the Whole").  While each colony had several delegates, each colony was allowed to cast just one vote. New York abstained because their delegation had not been granted permission to vote for independence.  The Delaware delegates could not reach a consensus.  South Carolina and Pennsylvania voted "Nay," against independence.  Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia all cast votes of "Yay," for independence.  With nine colonies voting for independence, resolution for independence had been adopted by the Committee of the Whole.  Now Congress had to vote on the resolution for independence. 

On July 2nd, New York still lacked authority on how to vote, and so abstained.  Two Pennsylvania delegates, giving the delegates for independence the majority, so Pennsylvania voted "Yay"  The Delaware tie was broken also by the arrival of a delegate who was for independence , and they voted "Yay."  South Carolina reversed its vote to "Yay" -- but only after the "anti-slavery" clause was removed.  The clause is as follows.  "He" refers to King George III of Britain.

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold. he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce; and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people for whom he also obtruded them:  thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

With twelve colonies voting for approval of the Declaration of Independence, and only one in abstention, Congress adopted the resolution.  Congress continued editing the document, and so the Declaration of Independence's wording was adopted, and the document sent to the printer, on July 4, 1776.  The Declaration of Independence was not signed, however, until a ceremony on August 2, 1776.  The American War for Independence was fought for another seven years, until the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 1, 1783.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Her Yellow Wallpaper, My Lavender Paint

Today, July 3rd, marks the birthday of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (July 3, 1860 – August 17, 1935). Like many of us of a "certain age," I read her short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" as part of my own personal Women's Studies program in the early 1980's. At age eighteen I had watched my mother suffer a "nervous breakdown" after the death of her father. Mental illness was not a subject one discussed at home, not in my home. The power of denial is tremendous when a family member has a mental illness. You wouldn't want the neighbors to know what is going on behind the curtains. You wouldn't want them to hear the weeping from the upstairs bedroom window.

Miss Perkins Gilman wrote this story a few weeks before she turned thirty in 1890. It's six thousand words, and is written from the first person point-of-view of a woman (whose name might "Jane," though that is not conclusive) who is suffering from, as her physician husband John says, "a temporary nervous depression -- a slight hysterical tendency." The woman writes journal entries which she keeps from her husband because he, like her brother, another physician, does not believe she is sick. John has prescribed phosphates, tonics, air, exercise and absolutely no work for his wife. They are staying in a rented house for three months She spends most of her time in an upstairs bedroom which may once have been a nursery. John has placed bars on the windows. John also has put a gate at the top of the stairs. He has confined this woman because this is how husbands dealt with wives who were "not sick." As the story progresses, the woman descends into psychosis, bit by bit. While her real adversary is her husband, the woman focuses her rage on the yellow wallpaper. The denial about her illness instills life in the wallpaper. Is that a figure of a woman moving behind the wallpaper? The woman imagines that there is a terrible odor coming from the wallpaper, and has pyromaniac impulses. Finally, the woman tears strip after strip of the wallpaper off the wall. Ironically, if her husband John had only admitted that his wife was ill, she would not have descended into madness.

Miss Perkins Gilman definitely writing from what she knew. She married Charles Walter Stetson, an artist, in 1884, and, in 1885, she gave birth to her own only child, Katharine. Miss Perkins Gilman proceeded to have post-partum depression. She left her husband in 1888. She spent her life as a sociologist, as a writer, and, above all, as a feminist. Miss Perkins Gilman knew how damaging to women it was to lack freedom and liberty, to not have any real control over their lives.

I do not think she meant for her story to be purely symbolic, i.e. that a lack of autonomy could drive women mad. Men long have had the power to decide whether or not their wives are mentally ill, and to use that judgment to imprison their wives. I know that she suffered from severe depression, not because history tells us that she did. I know because I was misdiagnosed with a mental illness I did not have by a man, a psychiatrist. I know I have been battling depression for over twenty years. I know because there have been too many times when I have stared at the lavender paint on the walls of my bedroom and wondered how I came to be imprisoned in this room.  Thank goodness, I am well now, and, with my health, I am free to tell everyone just how sick I was.