Archive for December, 2012

2012 in review
December 31, 2012

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 3,800 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 6 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

Life and death in God’s Little Waiting Room
December 26, 2012

My neighbor, who I’ll call Trudy, has a plan for what she will do in the event she ever gets diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

‘I’ve told Rick,’ (which I will call her husband here), she told me poolside, last summer. ‘You can still train people who have it.’ (She bases this on what she has seen; she has worked as a nurse’s aide). ‘So just put the gun on the bed table, and train me, when you hear the door shut, pick up the gun,’ (she gestures putting it up to her temple), ‘and go bang. When the door shuts, pick up the gun and go bang.’

She repeated this with a laughing exasperation through which she makes it clear she believes she, with Alzheimer’s, some day, will be easier to train than Rick right now. Rick was lying on his back, next to the pool, next to her, splayed in an unconscious manner, the sun bathing his bald head and his broad belly, that protrudes even when he is lying down, and is lined down the middle with a foot-and-a-half-long scar he wears, evidently as a badge of honor (shirtless unless a frost alert has the oranges covered and the homeless shelters open) of having survived open-heart surgery. He also has diabetes, and at the last community get-together piled his plate so defiantly high with a mountain of colorful desserts to give the impression that he has his own plan for dodging any long-term wages of old age.

But barring the central flaw in Trudy’s plan that it is dependent on his attention and survival, I liked it, although it also probably will fall short of her two major goals: that nobody go to jail, and that she not be dependent on anyone. (If I think about it, I’m picturing an easy case for negligent homicide, or attempted homicide, for leaving the gun at the bedside of an Alzheimer patient, and also the consequences of the patient missing just enough to produce injuries that would make Alzheimer’s look like golden years in contrast.)

For all its shortfalls, it is a plan, and I reminded her of it last night, when she was saying that she can’t imagine anyone wanting to take his or her own life. The conversation was careening around, as it does here, at the annual Christmas party in God’s Little Waiting Room, like a pinball bouncing off walls of hope, philosophy and reality.

Two of our neighbors had lost their husbands before last year’s Christmas party and were adjusting to the idea that their widowhood wasn’t new anymore, that this is the way it will be from now on, until they, too, die.

Another, who I’ll call Doris here, had just finished telling me that she, having been widowed twice, has no interest in sharing her life again; she is at peace — enjoys, even, her solitude. She was married to the first for more than 30 years, the second for a dozen years. The second was an old friend, and by the time they were in a position to join in matrimony, had this in common: they had been, but no longer were, parents.

She had lost her only son to a virus that made its way brushfire-like through San Francisco during the 1980s. You figure it out — apparently she eventually did. Her second husband had had two daughers who, she said, asphyxiated. Doris has never finished a sentence in front of me since I’ve known her — about 15 years — so you have to listen over several tellings to put the parts interrupted by left parentheses together before you understand what happened. This was the first telling, so all I can offer is that it had something to do with  Japan, no central heating, and they were both dead in the morning.

The part I could follow is that while she keeps pictures of her deceased son prominently displayed, and greets him when she comes home, her second husband had taken the opposite tack, and hidden all traces of his girls. And that during their marriage she had put out pictures of the girls, and she believes, although it was never discussed in so many words, that he appreciated that.

So now Trudy was telling me that she, too, can deal with loss, because it is part of life.The one loss she can’t understand is the death of her grandson, who killed himself last summer. But she believes in an afterlife, and looks forward to getting a chance to ask him why he did what he did someday.

Because, she said, it is the one desire she can’t understand at all — wanting to take your own life.

So I reminded her of my friend, for whom this blog is named, who got a vicious degenerative disease, and said that once it got bad enough that she didn’t want to live that way anymore, she wouldn’t. A friend who owned a nursing home had told her that she probably wouldn’t — that the will to live would assert itself. Before she could find out if that was true, she had a stroke, and it was too late after that to make any decisions anymore.

Yes, Trudy said, then there’s Alzheimer’s . . . So we talked about her solution, and laughed, while her husband walked past us looking vacant, as usual, and everyone around laughed and talked while the ice tinkled in our glasses. It was, after all, a Christmas Eve party, here in God’s Little Waiting Room.

A rant
December 19, 2012

It starts with an Important Man

In the interests of full disclosure, I should start by saying the one time I met this particular Important Man, he mistook me for another grey-haired woman he had met that same morning, who had nothing in common with me physically otherwise besides being human and living on earth. He was slightly embarrassed when he realized what he had done. He tried to make up for it by saying we were both “hot.” Before that, he had said “umm” more than once, in literally, and I do mean literally , in every sentence in the talk he had given to our group, which had lasted an hour and a half. He also had used the term “wet dream” in the same talk once for a reason that didn’t justify the imagery.

He had been the editor of a very big newspaper, before it was bought by someone who was more into business than journalism (by that, you should know, not the biggest paper, but one that continues to be influential for all its anachronistic leanings). He had then been hired to run another journalistic enterprise that had been bestowed with a generous starting sum by a private entity, who, apparently, expected nothing in return.

I mention all of this because two things happened today that made me think of him. The first was an obvious link — I saw an announcement that the guy has a new title — was either promoted, kicked upstairs, or given a golden parachute with benefits. Any of those is much more than any of the people who worked for him, as that newspaper cut costs, or any other newspaper during that time has gotten for being kicked to the curb.

The second reason I thought of him today is a talk a group of people who had never worked in journalism had over lunch earlier, in which they wondered with genuine curiosity, why newspapers with all they have going against them right now, do such a shitty job. They were talking about stories they had seen that seemed to duplicate other stories, the prize-quest direction of journalism, and finally, humiliatingly, the bizarre number of errors that established publications allowed on their Web sites in the hours after last Friday’s tragedy in Newtown.

One of the reasons newspaper have so much going against them I said, is that they already were doing a shitty job. Sometime before the great newspaper apocalypse of halfway through the first decade of this century, I met a woman who told me apologetically (in that way you know that someone is apologizing for a total diss) that she just didn’t like to read actual newspapers (the kind you pay for, and the kind that paid me, at the time) because the ink made her hands dirty.

What does that tell you? It told me, since we weren’t talking about rooting through the dumpster, or mucking out the pig sty, that we, collectively, were not turning out something that was enough worth reading to get a little ink on your hands.

The reasons? Yes, you can blame it on the Internet. But you can also blame it on Clinton and all the peace and prosperity he brought for eight years. That’s when the economy boomed so, that good help was hard to find. And newspapers, like other institutions — think Wall Street, think Detroit, could not do enough wrong to learn a lesson, and get better. Good enough to risk getting a little ink on your hands.

The important man, who had run one of the biggest newspapers in the country, who couldn’t tell one grey-haired woman from another, and slightly more symptomatically couldn’t talk without a spasmodic interruptions of “ummm”s and a few oddly placed vulgarisms was but one symptom of how prosperity wreaks havoc on itself by promoting mediocrity.

Humanity inches forward after each defeat, and sometimes gains as much as it catches up. And I hope journalism, when it comes fully too life again, learns something from its past selection of important men.

The moment everything changed
December 17, 2012

For several years after May 2000, after the day Nathaniel Brazill killed Barry Grunow, I couldn’t pass the Lake Worth water tower without thinking about one part of that day, one of the parts I didn’t see: a 13-year-old boy, both scared and angry, as I picture it, with being misunderstood, rejected, punished, who had been suspended from school two hours or so before the end of the whole school year anyway, riding his bicycle back to the place he had just been sent home from, with a gun in his pocket.

Only something about how tragedy imprints itself on the mind made the water tower part of this; it had nothing to do at all with what happened that day, but it says Lake Worth on it, in big letters that you can see from far away, I noticed it that day on my way, and  what happened in Lake Worth that day made it one of the saddest days I have lived.

But then, I had only been covering the night cops beat for just short of three months. I had learned about the moment that changes everything — the drug dealer lured from his house to meet some people who shot him dead in front of his house, the five-year-old boy trying out his new skateboard on the street in front of his house when a teenage neighbor trying out his new driver license drove down the street too fast and killed him, the brute speed of I-95 — I had already stopped keeping track of how many signal 5s, signal 7s — murders, dead people — I had gone out to write about by the day Nathaniel Brazill shot Barry Grunow in the face, killing him on the last day of school.

That day had begun festively, the way last days of school do, from what was put together later. Mr. Grunow had come with a movie to show his kids, Nathaniel Brazil had come with balloons for a water-balloon fight in the hallway. By the time the kids got out of the school that day, many of them were sobbing, many of them stumbling into the arms of trembling parents who had surrounded the building screaming for answers, and for their children, for the previous half hour. By then most of them knew that the easy-going English teacher, who made school fun, was dead.

Some kids who were on their own told me what they thought happened. Nathaniel Brazil had gotten into trouble for throwing water balloons, they said, so he had gone home, gotten his gun and come back and shot Mr. Grunow. I phoned that in to the newsroom, a little afraid I would be reprimanded for taking the time to report such a preposterous story. Soon, though, police confirmed that was exactly what had happened. A few blocks from the school Nathaniel Brazill had already flagged down a police car and turned himself in.

I started running into other reporters from my own paper — the whole office, and some from a south bureau, people I didn’t think had ever left the building — so I went to police station where a press conference was scheduled. I saw a lieutenant I knew leading a heavy set woman in, guiding her in a way that seemed like she was afraid the woman would fall over if she didn’t have her arm around her. It was Nathaniel Brazill’s mother.

A school assistant principal had called her a couple of hours earlier, after plucking her son out of the hall where he had been the straggler of a group throwing water balloons at each other who had been ordered back to their classrooms. So he was suspended, the administrator had told Polly Powell, the mother. Did she want to come pick him up, or should they just go ahead and send him on down the road home by himself? Send him home, she said, from her job as a cook at a nursing home. That will teach him a lesson.

It was brutally hot that day. Even in late afternoon, those of us who followed his footsteps by car — from school to his grandmother’s house where he got the key to his house, to his house where he got  his bike and what was now his gun, back to school — were sweating, moving through a fog of heat.

He had already told classmates he was going to be on the news, so how much was fog and how much was determination, he might not know himself.

He had found the gun some weeks earlier, visiting an older relative, a godfather figure in his life, who for some reason kept a handgun in the cookie jar. Nathaniel Brazill, whose birth dad had opted largely out of his life, had been watching his mother recover from breast cancer surgery, her incision bleeding in front of him at least once, his stepfather beating his mother in front of him more that that, apparently. As this story came together in the days that followed, I pictured Nathaniel Brazill in his room, posing with the gun, like Clint Eastwood saying “Make. My. Day,” like Robert Deniro saying “You talkin’ to Me?”

He said later he only wanted to say goodbye to some friends in Mr. Grunow’s classroom, and after Mr. Grunow said no, he pulled out the gun, because he thought that would persuade him to say yes. Then he shot him in the face and killed him. He said later there was something wrong with the gun. I have always assumed that there was something wrong with him, and something very very wrong with him having a loaded gun in his hand.

Mr. Grunow, had he lived, would probably have taught another 12 years of middle-school students by now, leaving all the kids, or those who could be reached, the better for it, in having found the joy and the power in reading and writing that he shared,  in having a teacher who loved what he was doing, and who was kind to them. The loss to all of those students is one of the overwhelming sadnesses  that reverberates still from that day.

Barry Grunow’s death also left a widow and two half-orphaned children, one of whom will never remember her father, the other of whom will never forget his loss. His larger family, including one brother who seemed to serve as a spokesman, remained vocal in their desire that Nathaniel Brazill be punished to the greatest extent possible. In the several succeeding years that the aftermaths played out in the court system — Brazill’s criminal trial, a civil lawsuit against the gunmaker — Barry Grunow’s family remained stolid in their agony.

“There was something about the experience of knowing that man,” my lieutenant friend ventured, several years later, “that seems to have left the people who did frozen in time.”

That was the case for Nathaniel Brazill as well. He has been prison for 11 years now, since his trial ended in 2001. He won’t get out until he is 42 years old, and he will be on parole until he is nearly 50. The boy who wanted to say goodbye to a girl he liked that day has not been alone with a girl since. He  has paralegal training now, and had a deeper voice, a taller frame in the television interview he gave last year, but he still seemed to have the simple righteous logic of a self-centered adolescent. He is sorry, and thinks about it every day, he said in that interview, but he said it in a way that suggested he has continued to view what happened that day as an accident, in which he was only one of the parties involved. Whether prison has made him better or worse than he would have turned out otherwise is impossible to tell. When you think about what happened that day, you can think of yourself at 13 — the stupid, silly, rash things you did. It’s impossible though, when I do it, to picture pointing a gun at someone’s face, let alone with a finger on the trigger, let alone pulling the trigger.

Of course he was only one of the parties involved in what happened that day, though. There was the godfather who bought a handgun, kept it in the cookie jar. There were the school officials who decided to send a 13-year-old child out alone, a couple of hours before the last bell, a policy, they said they later changed. Then there were, and are still, all the people who did nothing, in all the years before, and all the years since, to make it harder for someone who couldn’t think straight to get a gun, and in a moment, change everything.

When I see the water tower that says Lake Worth on it, that I noticed as I drove past it that day, I remember I saw it on my way into work that day, as well as on my way back to what was then a crime scene, and I always wonder what could have happened in the time between to make everything turn out differently — Barry Grunow enjoying summer vacation, and holidays, graduations, life, with his wife and two children, Nathaniel Brazill getting the help he needed, 12 years of seventh-graders learning to love reading and writing.

Good to meet you
December 9, 2012

“Good to meet you,” the husband of the doctor said, extending his hand, with an alert and eager smile.

“I’ve met you three times already,” I said, in what may have been a tone of jocular reproof, if that mitigates my rudeness, as well as my inaccuracy, at all. Actually I had met him once, and had ended up talking to him twice for five minute intervals at the same event. Having paid the price of our brief acquaintance with unforgettable boredom, it seemed fair to add on another time. “At the newseum event in July. Your piano had just arrived.”

The doctor’s husband is a person of limited repertoire stocked with cliches, so his jaw dropped.

“Our piano did arrive in July,” he said, and after a moment realized that meant we had met before. “Of course. I remembered your face,” he said,  smiling warmly, and nonsensically for someone who had just evinced never having met me before, “I just couldn’t remember your name.”

I remembered about the piano because it was the last thing he had mentioned before I had started daydreaming, which had happened when I realized I was never going to figure out why he was talking about it at all.

His husband, a stout middle-aged man with an egg-shaped face and what was left of his hair smoothed conservatively back from his forehead had just introduced him, sort of pulling him out from behind him as if they were standing on line, and saying “I’d like you to meet my husband.”

I am pretty  sure I did an obvious doubletake. The kind of people who introduce their mates as my husband, or my wife, instead of saying I’d like you to meet Joe, or Jane, usually are the kind of people who follow other outdated conventions, like only having spouses of opposite genders. I was instantly abashed, and that prompted me to stick out the ensuing conversation even as it immediately became clear it was steered toward no common ground.

It went:

“Have you lived in DC long?”

“No,” I said, “I just moved up last month. From Florida.”

“Oh. We moved here in April. My piano just arrived.”

“Oh how nice. I guess now it really feels like home, then?”

“I don’t play,” he said. “We have a very big house. We had a big house in San Francisco, and this one’s bigger but a different layout . . .”

The waiter passed, a few clusters of people away, with the little cones filled with tuna tartar and caviar. I fought the urge to follow him.

“We entertain a lot. We’re throwing a big party this weekend with about 100 people,” the doctor’s husband went on.

“Good that the piano arrived then?” I guessed.

“Not really. We hired a band,” he said, and I don’t remember anything after that.

Towards the end of the evening I had run into him again, and he had started describing all of the different food they would serve at their party, and that time I did go follow the waiter with the tuna tartar cones.

So now he said, “I can’t believe you remember about the piano. You’re like Rainman.”

Which is true. We all have our odd traits and a randomly focused memory is one of mine, so I decided to give him another chance.

“That was good,” I said.

He smiled happily, and I thought of all the ways the conversation could now go — memories? movies? how he himself is perhaps a bit like Forrest Gump?

“We’ve been so busy,” he said. “We’re having a big party next weekend, and he’s from Tennessee originally and I’m from Arkansas, so it’s going to have a southern theme . . .  drumsticks . . . greenbeans and scallions . . . macaroni and cheese . . . and 72 deviled eggs!”

“My, a lot of work . . .”

“Oh, we’ll get them at Whole Foods . . .”

“72 deviled eggs?” the woman sitting next to me said. She had been chatting brightly with a cluster of people standing before her, but now was cornered and cutoff, the doctor’s husband having squatted on the floor in front of us when he drifted into his reverie.

“Yes!” the doctor’s husband said. “He’s from Tennessee, and I’m from Arkansas, so all the food we’re going to serve will have a Southern theme . . .”

I tapped my empty glass, and sidled away. I turned from the doorway to the kitchen. The woman’s smile had faded, her face slack.

“Say,” he drifted up to me a while later. He lowered his voice confidentially, “What’s the name of the woman I was just talking to?”