Love You Mom!

Mother died today. Or it might have been yesterday. I only don’t know because right now I’m enjoying morning coffee with her while she receives therapy from one of her Hospice nurses. I’m preparing this blog ahead of time linking some of the blog posts I’ve made over the many months since her diagnosis of terminal liver cancer. Months we’ve managed, following her lead, to make the most of. Sharing her through my writing is likely to be my path through grief.

I’ll link them short to long. If you feel like reading any, please do. I’m grateful for your thoughts, your comments, and your time.

1. Compiling A Reading List I Hope not to get to soon

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2016/01/07/compiling-a-rereading-list-i-hope-not-to-get-to-soon/

2. Awakenings

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2015/11/19/awakenings/

3. Dreaming of A Living Funeral

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2015/01/08/dreaming-of-a-living-funeral/

4. Bulk Popcorn

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2014/12/13/bulk-popcorn/

5. Hearts Connected by String

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2014/12/01/hearts-connected-by-string/

7. Integrating Sadness and Joy:

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2016/01/29/integrating-sadness-and-joy/

8. Scan Day:

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2016/02/02/scan-day/

9. Keeping An Eye on Her Grandchildren

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/keeping-an-eye-on-grandchildren/

10. This post I wrote about my father four years after he died:

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2014/10/01/four-years-today-thank-you-for-reading/

11. My Mother’s Simons:

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2016/05/06/my-mothers-simons/

12. Yahtzee:

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2016/06/04/yahtzee/

Approaching the End

One of the nurses dropped off a pamphlet describing end of life. A succinct and informative, quick read, first published in the eighties, apparently widely circulated by hospice workers. “One’s” was used repeatedly as possessive, as in “one’s body.” I told my mom who has a knack for finding errors like that and enjoys pointing them out. She always says, “I don’t mind the mistake, I mind when the mistake isn’t corrected.”

“Shouldn’t it be ‘ones’ for the possessive?” I said. “‘One’s body’ would never be correct.”

She has that faraway look about her, that looking past you look the pamphlet describes and tells you not to take personally when someone you love looks at you like that. She made an oh sound that didn’t seem attached to anything I was saying, but I kept going. “Hard to believe as widely as this pamphlet must get distributed that no one’s caught that mistake.”

“There,” she said.

“What?”

“There, you just said it. That’s when ‘one’s’ would have an apostrophe.”

The one’s in ‘No one’s caught that mistake,’ she meant. That’s my mom.

Between a lifetime of love and guidance from a loved one and that person’s death there is a space of time where that person seems to be slipping. That sage guide is halfway out of your life, already. This can trigger pre-grief. Mom asked why my older sister took her sandwich and ate it. There was no sandwich. We just took it as her way of telling us she wanted to eat and got her ice cream.

We can choose to look sadly at each other about losing our smart, thoughtful, insightful, wonderful, kind mother, a little, already, or we can enjoy these last moments with her still here. What is pre-grief? It’s like the pre-release of a book. It makes no sense. We’ll grieve for her after she’s gone. These slips leading up we can focus on as signs of her inevitable departure or we can cherish as a part of our experience with her.

This morning I said good morning to her.
Good morning.
Anything you need, Mom?
I need a hug.
You got it, Mom.
Anything else?
Water.
You got it, Mom.
Anything else?
I still need that hug.
You got it, Mom.
Anything else?
I could do this all day long.

Story of the Story: Baby’s Breaths

Will this interest anyone? I don’t know. Writers get asked where the ideas for stories come from and seem not to like it, but we mostly hear from the writers who probably get asked that ten times a day. Hard for me to imagine getting annoyed fielding that question.

I was sorry not to hear what the story made other people think of but I realize people can like something and not know what to say or not like something and not want to say. I’m not that green. Also people see the link and intend to go back to it but don’t. Facebook makes returning to find anything rather difficult.

The story is here, if you’d prefer to read it before I give anything away: http://tclj.toasted-cheese.com/2016/16-2/babys-breaths-by-greg-metcalf/

“Baby’s Breaths” was a case of found money. I came across it in an old notebook under an entry dated June 2010. I wrote it after work when I wasn’t in the middle of anything, which means I sat to write with no plan. Usually when I do this I meander for a page and end up with nothing but a writing lesson and the enjoyment of the time, because after you learn to stop fearing filling a blank page it really does become enjoyable.

I was preparing to start the “parents raising children novel” I recently finished. I had my dad character but not my mom, so that half explains why I spent that page exploring the mother infant bond. But only half because I’d written a few random lines and had probably been people watching as I went, and I saw a baby tug on her mom’s shirt and expose her bra strap.

So I wrote the opening line of the story and, except for minor changes, only added the story’s last line when I prepared it last spring to submit to Toasted Cheese.

What I would ask people who read it is Who is the narrator?

It’s fair to say me, but I slipped into a kind of character as I wrote it and by rereading it years later I was able to come close to experiencing it as a reader. So I guess I can give my answer. I think, or I like to think, of the narrator as some manifestation of the transcendent. An angel of death. This entity is curious about what this mother might be feeling, doesn’t quite “get” why the mother cares so much about the infant, but finds it sweet.

The title, “Baby’s Breaths,” was meant to land somewhere between the sweetness of a baby’s breath and the panic that would come from thinking about that next breath coming.

Make America Becoming Again

I have a Trump theory that’s weirdly optimistic. Trump’s function is that of the trickster. Joseph Campbell says, “No matter what system of thought you have it cannot possibly include boundless thought, so just when you think you have it all figured out, here comes the trickster to show you it’s not quite that way, and then you get the becoming thing again.”

In the story, a trickster god walks through a town wearing a hat with different colors on each side. He walks through one way and then turns the hat around and walks back. So the townspeople are all talking about the god who walked through town but they argue about what color his hat was. After a big row, the trickster god comes forward and says, “It’s my fault. Spreading strife is my greatest joy.”

“Spreading strife is my greatest joy” would work as Donald Trump’s tagline. Not only is it his greatest joy, it’s his only play. He’s not playing the role of the trickster but as a nation we can allow him to perform that function. “Make America Becoming Again” would fit neatly on posters.

“Baby’s Breaths” at Toasted Cheese

Toasted Cheese is a literary journal and forum for writers. Everything at the site is free and they accept no advertising, which means they get paid in gladness that comes through clicks to their site and activity. Here is their mission statement page: http://www.toasted-cheese.com/snarkers/

If you’re a writer interested in receiving feedback on your work, they have a forum where your work can be downloaded and other writers will offer feedback. This isn’t a public forum, because that might exclude your work from being considered for publication at some places, but it’s all free, you just have to make an account. I plan on getting involved there. They only request that you give as much as you receive in terms of feedback, which is only fair. Plus, in my experience, you learn as much by offering feedback on the work of others as you do receiving feedback on your own work, I would even say probably far more. A link to that forum is here: http://forums.toasted-cheese.com/

The June 2016 issue, which includes “Baby’s Breaths” can be found here: http://tclj.toasted-cheese.com/

I’ve submitted a few pieces to Toasted Cheese over the last few years. I like their system. Even though they don’t accept simultaneous submissions, they respond quickly if your work is eliminated from consideration on the first reading, which happened to me at least twice. Then if your work is “short-listed” you receive notice, which can be encouraging even if you end up with a rejection a month or so later, which happened to me twice, but “Baby’s Breaths” was my third time charm.

Toasted Cheese’s Submission Guidelines can be found here: http://tclj.toasted-cheese.com/submission-guidelines/

Pieces are accepted either as features or as an editor’s pick. An editor’s pick doesn’t mean your piece was an editor’s favorite; it means that piece didn’t get in by majority vote but got in on the strength of one editor rooting for it, which is pretty cool, too. “Baby’s Breaths” was Theryn “Beaver” Fleming’s pick.

If you feel like jumping ahead to “Baby’s Breaths,” this link should take you straight to it:

Baby’s Breaths

Thank you for reading and feel free to share a comment!

By the Discretion of the Judge

Apparently our judges get a great deal of discretion during sentencing. This went viral when a judge recently reduced the sentence of a convicted rapist to three months in jail. People were justifiably appalled, but according to the research Jon Krakauer did for his book Missoula, judges have this discretion in rapes where there is no accompanying physical injury to not require convicted rapists serve any jail time at all. This obscenely ignores the emotional trauma of being the victim of a rape. And is really just obscene enough to stand without comment.

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, also by Jon Krakauer, included an incident that occurred when Pat Tillman was nineteen. It turned out to be a regrettable moment in his life that he used to motivate himself to be a better person, which he successfully accomplished, so I don’t love describing it with him gone. Long story shortened from the book, he basically put a younger kid in the hospital and knocked teeth out and was still at it when cops dragged him off the kid. He was no bully. He mistakenly thought a friend of his was being bullied by a group, so he picked out the biggest guy from the group he could find and started fighting him. As happens with vigilante justice, he misread the situation completely and had actually picked out a guy who wasn’t even in the group. (Besides not realizing his friend had actually approached and antagonized the group first.) He could have been convicted of felony assault which would have cost him his scholarship to ASU but the judge reduced the charges to a misdemeanor.

A friend of the boy Pat Tillman beat up, Erin Clarke’s comments are worth copying out: “At the time I didn’t agree with the sentence at all. It seemed like the judge was more worried about Pat losing his scholarship than what happened to Darin.”

Later she heard on the radio Pat Tillman had been killed: “I remember the air being sucked out of my lungs. He was the first person I knew who had died in the war, and that morning the war suddenly became very real to me. What I take from Pat Tillman is that you are not who you are at your worst moment. After what Pat did to Darin, it seems like he really turned his life around and became quite an honorable person. That judge held Pat’s future in her hands. She had the power to send him down one path or another, and she decided to make what turned out to be a really good decision. She said ‘I’m going to believe in you—I’m going to believe you’re going to take this opportunity and do the best you possibly can with it.’ And you know what? It sounds like that’s what he did. I don’t think there are many people on this planet who would have done as well with that kind of second chance.”

I couldn’t agree with everything she said more because I know what a heroic and honorable life Pat Tillman lived. But the judge made what turned out to be a really good decision. The last sentence of her statement might be cynical but is probably accurate. How many people take these second chances and do good with them and how many shake off a close call but continue to live with huge entitlement issues? If the Stanford rapist turns out to do something wonderful and selfless with the rest of his life we might all say his judge made what turned out to be a good decision, but none of us think he’s a very likely candidate for living an especially honorable life.

So what are judges going by? Pat Tillman’s judge believed in him, but what’s her track record? Maybe she just believes in the good in everyone that comes before her and gets burned by most people on the planet. What did the judge see in the Stanford rapist? Maybe he felt pity for a young man who enjoyed cooking out and having prime rib, just like the judge does, but doesn’t anymore since what happened. Whereas a young man who cooks out and has hamburgers and hot dogs like most of the population of the country the judge wouldn’t relate to as well and therefore wouldn’t have his empathy invoked.

My two problems are we all like the idea of second chances for people. In fact, we’re rather obsessed with people making it on their second chance. But second chances after minimal or no consequences for the initial mistake probably don’t show improved behavior as often as we like to think. My second problem is I’ve lost a lot of faith in our judicial system. I grew up believing judges were impartial, which meant purely objective, above making decisions based on partisan leanings. I’m rather embarrassed that I held onto that as long as I did since learning it at age eight, probably. In the same book, I learned Bush’s 2000 election was helped along by a 5-4 ruling from the Supreme Court on a Florida recount decision. Sandra Day O’Connor, one of the five, had stated on several occasions she was eager to retire and didn’t want a Democrat to nominate her successor. That doesn’t prove she didn’t cast an impartial vote but, like I said, I’ve lost faith in the impartiality of our judicial system.

I suppose this blog would be better if I could end with an answer to it, but I don’t have one. Maybe one problem is the huge swings in sentencing. A person can get from no jail time to twenty years in jail for a conviction of rape. Maybe judges shouldn’t get that much discretion. Maybe we should be more clear that court TV isn’t court at all. Court TV is third-party arbitration. These TV personalities have all the discretion in the world and most kids and probably a lot of adults think that’s court, which it’s not. Maybe we should do close studies on how judge’s discretion correlates with race or gender. I know not everything is about race and gender but a lot still is about race and gender.

There might also be a sense that what happened to the victim of a rape or an assault can’t be undone. What’s about to happen to the person convicted of the crime can be done or undone, right then by the judge. Presumably judges get to be judges because they’re capable of handling that pressure moment fairly but maybe we’re terrible at deciding who gets to be our judges. Maybe there’s too much inconsistency. Maybe we don’t give enough consideration to how these instances of light sentencing leave victims feeling victimized again. And not just the specific victim but anyone who’s been victimized and people who worry about being victimized in a society where people convicted can receive such light sentences. That may explain why the Stanford rapist case went viral. People weren’t reacting to how that didn’t seem fair. They were reacting to how that wasn’t fair based on circumstances in their own lives, either traumas of their pasts or their biggest fears.

Where Men Win Glory: Reviewed

So many tragic missteps led up to the completely avoidable death of this great man. Not even so much the actual fratricide because that tragedy commonly befalls soldiers in wars and I can’t begin to fathom the mixture of confusion and fear and adrenaline that must go on during a fire fight. More upsetting and easily preventable were the decisions before combat took place: splitting the group, forcing them to make a destination for no tangible reason. Then all the misinformation about what happened intentionally spread by lies of omission. This seems to be the practice of this age. They know the truth is eventually going to get out, but they withhold it and let the lies and the misinformation do the work they need done. Then by the time the true story breaks, it’s too late to have the effect they worried about it having. (Which is partly the fault of the media and, let’s face it, us, which includes me, for sure.)

Somehow one of the slights that really bugged me that didn’t get much page time was his very clearly stating his final wishes weren’t to involve a chaplain or a military service. Those were his religious beliefs and they were ignored and not just ignored but openly disparaged by that one guy, whose name I don’t recall now after finishing the book.

But what’s cool is this story, as maddening as it was to read many details, is more than anything about an inspiring person in Pat Tillman. I only knew going in that he gave up his football career to join the Army, but there were so many additional little things you discover about him reading this book that you admire and can then emulate moving forward in your own life.

My Cavs Family

Cleveland will remember crowding into the Q to watch games played at Golden State on the big screen, drinking beer or pop and eating wings in packed sports bars, filling the streets to celebrate a game seven victory, RJ Smith with his shirt off. I watched every finals game at my mom’s house. For most I left at halftime and watched the second half at home. Once or twice I fell asleep in the third quarter with the game on the radio. After we went down 0-2, my mom texted that we’d be home the next two games: “Go Cavs!” After we went down 1-3, I showed up at her house for our pregame chat and she said she had a good feeling about game five. I did, too.

LeBron came back and the Cavs won a title. My Cavs I shared with my mom and many others, people I chatted with about games, who chatted with others about games, a network of conversations that spread throughout the region and the rest of the country.

I remember World B. Free, who never missed a jump shot, in my little kid memory. My earliest basketball memories were watching Ohio State with my mom on channel 67 that came in all fuzzy. Brad Sellers wore 00 as a freshman. He led the team as a senior with Dennis Hopkins a year behind. When Sellers left, I figured we wouldn’t win a game. Then Dennis Hopkins led them deep into the tournament as a senior. I couldn’t believe it when we came out ahead of Georgetown early. Were we going to the final four, whatever the hell that was? No, we lost but I knew we’d had a hell of a season. My favorite player, for a while, was Kip Lomax. “Kip Lomax from the top of the key!” I used to say, shooting after practice back in my CYO league days. Before that was a three-pointer.

I posted this blog when LeBron came back to Cleveland:

https://myfreesentences.wordpress.com/2014/07/13/lebrons-back-and-my-cavs-are-gone/

I reread it, this morning, and nothing that happened changes my mind, but I did enjoy watching my Cavs win a championship, after all those great Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, Hot Rod Williams teams came up just short. (Yes, just short. A few of those years we gave the Bulls their toughest competition.) I enjoyed it with my mom and with fellow fans. I’m not grateful to LeBron, though his performance was the most impactful among all the players. The Cavs are a team. He came back to the team. Every time LeBron was interviewed, practically, he commented about “his guys,” and my mom would pop halfway out of her chair, “They’re not ‘your guys,’ you’re part of a team!”

This is how I managed to get my Cavs back. I don’t have to have an opinion about individual players to enjoy watching my team and to enjoy rooting for them with my friends and family and random people like the woman who came into the store where I work the morning after the Cavs won and just wanted to chat sports. We want to admire people who we watch excel at sports but we’re asking for a big coincidence if we expect people put on that stage almost solely for their athletic performance to then also be people we admire. Which leaves us to luck or to forge goodness out of them. I noticed people praised LeBron for an interview when the Cavs were down 1-3 and some of the Warriors players made snide remarks. LeBron took the high road. We know because he said it three times during the interview. LeBron, it’s not still the high road when you say you’re taking it.

Anderson Verajao is a great example. A beloved player in Cleveland, traded away through no fault of his own, but we saw him in a different light as a Golden State Warrior. Still have to love his hustle, but he’s a flopper. He purposely entangles himself with opposing players and then when the opposing player moves to get free, Anderson launches himself across the court and looks up at the refs like he just got shoved for no reason. We might call it gamesmanship, if we felt a need to like him, but rooting against him he looked obnoxious.

I forgot how freshly annoyed I still was with Richard Sherman when I posted about LeBron returning. Sherman was the player who made a spectacular defensive play to send Seattle to the Superbowl they won a couple of years ago. He was aggressively defended by fans for the poor act of sportsmanship he displayed in a postgame interview, after the NFC championship game against San Francisco, that took attention away from his team and the city he played for to put it squarely on him, where he parlayed it into endorsement deals. Since, I’ve seen him turn to visiting fans and taunt them. Some of the fans had likely taunted him first, but they’re taunting an adult. A player taunting a stadium is taunting children. In those stands is an eight-year-old who loves his team and hasn’t developed ill feeling for the opposing team but feels a little kid desperation to win. And you’re taunting him. If you forget to think of it that way, use your millions of dollars as a reminder.

But he posts thank yous to his fans and Christmas pics of his family wishing everyone happy holidays, he does charity work for the city, so of course his fans excuse his behavior. LeBron buys bikes for kids at events, which is great. Although how generous is it when it’s also a necessary part of being a superstar and nabbing endorsement deals? An NBA star with no charitable contributions to show would risk getting dropped from deals with Nike, McDonald’s, whoever else, that net them far more than they give away.

LeBron’s not my favorite Cavs player. I like Kyrie. I always called Kyrie the leader of this year’s Cavs team and LeBron joined. Winning it all was more fun for me because while we couldn’t have done it without LeBron, we also couldn’t have done it without Kyrie. But really we couldn’t have done it without contributions from all the players and coaches and trainers and all the fans who showed up and gave them an advantage in their home games.

What I really learned by easing my way back into rooting for my Cavs is that the players are ephemeral magnets for our focus and attention that really belongs to the team. The players come and go but the team is what we put our love in. And what is the team? It’s not something owned by Dan Gilbert. It’s a transcendent entity that encompasses our discrete loves joined together, through our chats about games, our texts and facebook posts, the thousands of fans high-fiving each other in the streets of Cleveland after gave seven, the million-plus who gathered for the parade. The players made an appearance at the parade, but people didn’t go to that parade to catch a glimpse of the players. They went to have a parade in Northeast Ohio celebrating together a first major championship in fifty-plus years. The players were ephemeral catalysts for that joy transcendent of them, transcendent of the team. That’s why we call it team spirit. My team was me and my mom watching every game without ever giving up hope. And we did it!

Anomalisa: Achingly Beautiful, at times Dull: Such is Life

Review/Analysis includes spoilers but no ending spoilers.

On a business trip from LA, Michael Stone arrives at the airport in Cincinnati, a city with a zoo, featured as being zoo-sized, and chili one has to try, it only takes an hour to have chili.

Everyone has the same voice. Everyone has the same face, except these aren’t faces, quite, they’re masks. Everyone wears the same mask. Michael checks into the Fregoli hotel before a convention where he will lecture on his book: How May I Help You Help Them? About genuine interaction with people and how it can boost sales.

After a call home to his wife and son, whose voices are the same, he calls up an old girlfriend in town, also with the same voice. (The voice of Tom Noonan, who played “Sammy” in Charlie Kaufman’s last movie, and my personal favorite movie of all time, Synecdoche, New York.) They meet in the hotel bar. He left her inexplicably eleven years ago, she wants to know why, but his answers are vague about psychological problems, of his, which quickly turn to accusations of how she changed. She storms off. Back in his room, he catches a unique voice in the hall and chases down Lisa, a woman in town with a friend to hear him speak. The three have drinks. Lisa stands aside on the way back up to the room and it’s Emily, the woman with the same face, same voice, who is on Michael’s arm, but he invites Lisa into his room for a night cap.

Lisa goes but argues that everyone usually likes her friend, Emily. Why does he like her? He thinks she’s extraordinary. Why? “I don’t know, yet. It’s just obvious to me that you are.”

During a long intimate talk the word “anomaly” comes up, a word she learned when she read his book. “I feel like an anomaly,” she says. “Before I knew there was a word for it, it made me feel bad to be different, but now I kind of like it. Sometimes.”

They spend the night together, which includes some of the most graphic sex you’ve ever seen in a movie. Something about the intimacy between two animated puppets making love is flat shocking. But in the morning, Michael finds fault in how Lisa eats, her fork taps her teeth, she talks with her mouth open. Her unique voice starts to morph into that other voice that is everyone else’s but his.

Unless you have handy knowledge of the catalogue of psychological ailments or did a google search on your phone you probably missed, as I did, that the name of the hotel, Fregoli, is also the name of the actual condition Michael Stone has, where he can’t differentiate people. The clever set up of the movie, though, is that we identify with the world Michael Stone sees, in the beginning. The cab driver going on and on about how much there is to see in Cincinatti. The bell hop’s rehearsed chat on the elevator ride up to his room. But really it’s Michael Stone who’s missing the sincerity in these exchanges. The cab driver does know about his city’s unique charm, the chili is cinnamon and chocolate flavored and served over pasta. The bell hop’s body language demonstrates real care in how Michael’s flight went. “You’re safe now,” he tells him.

Everything in the movie is there for a reason. When Michael orders room service he gets the salmon and a salad, but the same voice he always hears reads back to him the dish with all its flourishes and sauces. There is a depth to the world Michael is missing. But this is the world we’re also missing. Michael hears a fresh voice and meets Lisa and we’re as glad as he is for something unique. In the morning, after their night of intimate connection, we learn what isn’t a surprise, Lisa’s voice morphs into that everyone but him voice because this wasn’t a surreal world where everyone has the same face and voice, this was a character failing to maintain connections with people’s unique selves, with the depth present in the world.

Why is Lisa so surprised Michael shows interest in her? Everyone usually likes Emily, she says, because Emily appears to be like everyone else. We look for that conformity, for people wearing those familiar masks, and then want to peer past them and find individuality. When this stops working, when we fail to find individuality, we see nothing but masks and blame the world for not containing the individuality we’re failing to find. The failure is ours, as it clearly is Michael Stone’s.

The difference between humans and sheep is sheep don’t go around accusing the other sheep of being sheep. We are all unique snowflakes. You are but so is everyone else, but like snowflakes we have to look awfully close to find out we’re different because we’re mostly all the same. What we tend to forget, what Michael Stone forgot, is that our sameness is as much a part of the beauty of being human as our individuality is.

In the line I quoted above Lisa says it made her feel bad to be different until she found out there was a word for it. Her individuality needed to relate to the community outside of it. Then she could like being different, but only sometimes. Because she still had that desire to fit in.