You Are Not Safe

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the world wide web. It was 1995. I was in my rented townhome in Alameda, a small island on the east bank of the San Francisco Bay. I already had a dial-up modem plugged into my Mac LC that I used to send graphic files and documents to my lithographers and commercial printers through FTP (File Transfer Protocol).

I don’t know where I heard about Netscape, probably from a business associate. But I remember the afternoon I logged on for the first time. The interface was full color visual, the first I’d seen, since FTP was only black text on a white screen and no images. The Netscape logo—the uppercase N sinking into a black globe against a starry aquamarine sky, was…beautiful. Once I registered, the next screen had bright, colorful illustrations of a spacecraft, a construction site, a radio tower and more. Under each drawing white text against the black frames said, “Explore the Net. Company and Products. News and Reference. Community.” I was floored, drop-jawed. The interface gave me choices to go anywhere. Netscape was a portal to news sites, business with ‘websites,’ online communities, a virtual store, and reference libraries from around the world.

I called my roommate into my bedroom/office space to show her what I was seeing on my screen. “This changes everything,” I practically whispered, sure that this portal was the beginning of a connected world I only dreamt of as a kid.

As I sat there clicking on each navigation link, then exploring each site the Netscape browser delivered, I recalled when I was 8 or 9 years old, sitting in the back seat of my mother’s huge Chevy, while she drove me and my sister home from school. “One wish,” my mom asked us spontaneously. “One wish. Right now. If you could have anything you want, what would it be?” She often came up with non-sequitur like this to fill the void of silence after she’d asked about our day at school and got, “Fine,” back from both of us.

I answered instantly. “World peace,” and I meant it. My brother had come back from Vietnam a wreck. PTSD. Clinical depression. I’d watched war on TV nightly. And I’d felt war all around me, growing up in the late 60s, the anger of the Blacks, my working mother, and most all women suffocating under our servitude to men. “I wish that everyone would be nicer to each other, and take care of each other instead of fighting all the time.”

“That’s a stupid wish,” my sister said, sitting in the passenger seat. I cowered in the back seat, and shut up. “It’ll never happen. Violence is part of our nature. We wouldn’t be here today without it, since we have no other defenses like other animals on Earth.” She was 2 yrs older than me. Surely, she must be right. She wished for a new purse.

“This changes everything,” I’d said to my roommate as I browsed the internet that first time. And I believed it. A portal to the world would let us see how others lived, and let others see what what possible. In 1960s – 1990s U.S. most of us had a place to live in, and enough to eat every day. Most kids were vaccinated from horrific diseases, and didn’t die from the flu. We got a free education, through at least high school, and 20 – 30% of the population got a college education as well. And in California, college was cheap, making it accessible to most anyone.

My roommate stood over my shoulder staring at my screen as I went from site to site. She seemed unmoved by what we were seeing, and in short order went back to her room. I stayed online the rest of the night, into the early morning hours, amazed. I pursued news sites, read articles from all over the world. We could never again pretend that Holocausts weren’t happening. We’d find out about atrocities taking place anywhere, instantly, and the United Nations would have to stop them! The privileged would no longer be able to turn a blind eye on poverty or disease, even in the most remote places in Africa or the Middle East, seeing it daily on their computers. We could talk to people around the block or in other countries we’d never meet, but share ideas, and feelings. We’d see how similar we all are, how we all feel sad, or happy, or mad at times. We could connect 24/7, and never feel isolated or lonely again. The internet was a window to the world, and the view would surely motivate all of us to care for each other like never before.

This is the argument I gave to my dad at Saul’s, eating bagels and lox a few years later. As a lover of technology since childhood, he too was on the internet, one of the first adopters in his advanced age group. He shook his head and gave me his indulgent smile.

“The internet changes nothing. It is a tool, like a screwdriver. It won’t change human nature. And it won’t save us,” he said. “We’re going to have to do that. Until we learn to care for each other beyond ourselves, we are doomed.” He took a bite of his bagel and savored the mix of salmon, onions and bread, satisfied in the moment.

“You’re wrong, dad,” I exclaimed with certainty. “The internet is connecting the planet. For the first time in human history we are becoming one world.”

“One very small world, which everyone wants their piece of,” he said. “We’ve invented technology we can’t handle, from the Bomb to this internet. Getting bombarded with information isn’t going to change how we react to it. And the more technology we invent, the more likely we’ll implode with it.” He sighed, looked at me lovingly. “You can’t change the world, baby. Best just to focus on taking care of yourself, and your family.”

It was 1998. I had no idea what was coming, how the internet would evolve into the marketing platform it has become. But I left Saul’s that morning sure my father was wrong.

As it’s turned out, he wasn’t.

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On Suicide

I think about suicide constantly. It used to be my out— if life got too…much, I’d leave. Feeling nothing must be better than feeling bad all the time— my rejoinder.

My life hasn’t been very hard, not like the kids in Oakland hard. I grew up in a middle-class suburban neighborhood, when it was still safe to walk to elementary school. Never wanted for food, always had a bed, felt safe in the home of my parents. And, however abstracted, I got that they loved me.

What’s been so damn hard, always in my way, is…me. Born 2, or 200 yrs too early, I don’t seem to fit here. I’ve been on the outside looking in at this world for as long as I can remember. First hit me when I was around 5 yrs old. My mom would often laud accolades of my father in the store or the car on the way home from school—what a good artist he was, or how “smart,” and “passionate.” But at home, I saw him put his fist through the wood cabinet an inch from her face in a heated argument over politics. I’d seen him make her cower multiple times, listened to him demean her time and again with statements proclaiming her ignorance, or jumping down her throat when she dared disagree with him. The cognitive dissonance between what she said and what I saw put a glass wall between us, instilled mistrust. Perhaps I was delusional, or she was, but either way it took away my ground.

My mother came to visit many years after I’m moved from my parents’ home, and told me she wanted to divorce my dad. Though she never followed through, I know she was unhappy with him. After our divorce discussion, she never again professed her admiration of him, though they were together for another 10+ years before her death. She spewed hateful word at me about her husband of 47 years on her deathbed. What I observed at 5, and forward, gave me the real picture of my parents’ relationship, regardless of what my mother said. A glass brick in the wall of my emerging psyche. I’ve plugged into the difference between what people say and what we do ever since, much to my chagrin.

No, it’s not my parents’ fault I’ve spent a lifetime on the outside looking in. They tried to instill in me religion, be a part of the grand delusions the rest of the world apparently slavishly subscribes. But I’ve never been able to believe in a vengeful, rather ugly solipsist telling me what is right and wrong, acceptable and not, whom I’m supposed to believe in without question, or even speculation. Never been any good at blind faith. Suicide is not a sin. But it is all too often the indifferent choice.

It’s true, I still think about suicide often. I hear about Robin Williams, or Aaron Swartz, now Chester Bennington, and cycle on what they felt like right before killing themselves. Black, I imagine. And I practically live there. Have, as long as I can remember. But both Williams and Bennington had kids. And Aaron Swartz had thousand of followers who believed in and supported his fight for net-neutrality, me among them. And I feel mad at them, that they left. Then I imagine how it feels for their kids, how much they must miss their dads, and I’m overwhelmed almost to tears missing my mom. I imagine Aaron’s parents, having to live the rest of their lives with the death of their 26 year old son. And, as a parent of two teens, I stop breathing with the image and feel like I might throw up.

I brought life into physicality to experience living. And the experience of living— is feeling. The full range— happy, sad, mad, glad…whatever. No matter how hard things feel, no matter how black, if I take my own life I will invalidate the very reason I gave life. To feel. Dead, I will be robbing my children my love, the most intense, fantastic, and cherished of all feelings. And as much as I want to check out sometimes, there’s that cognitive dissonance again, followed by anger, and unfathomable loss. With, or even without kids, most people have family and friends who love them.

Feelings are dynamic. They change with time. Black morphs to gray, then violet, then sky blue some sunny days. I wish I could go back in time to the moment of choice for the aforementioned suicides, and the 40,000 annually across the U.S. alone, and remind each of the sunny days that will surely come again, especially when embracing and sharing love.

On Being Human

Angy-Birds-for-PCTalked to an old friend yesterday. We hadn’t spoken for almost 2 yrs. No particular reason. Life took over and we lost touch. The last time we spoke he told me his wife had quit her job as a restaurant manager and was very happy to be home, fixing up their house, shopping, cooking, doing things she never had time to do when working. Two years later, she is still at home. The house is now fixed up. There are no children, and she has no other responsibilities. When I asked my friend what his wife does with her days, he told me she enjoys working out, watching TV, and she plays a lot of Angry Birds.

My mother-in-law lost her husband of 53 yrs a couple years back, a year after they closed the small business they had together for almost as long. With no business to maintain, no kids to care for, and only sparse time with grown grandchildren, I assumed she’d would find her niche in volunteering, perhaps invest time into her community, teach literacy at her local library or maybe the hospice her husband spent most of his last days in. I don’t like sick people, she told me upon inquiry. And she has no interest in teaching, anyone, anything, she insisted, clearly annoyed at my suggestions. I’ve worked my whole life. It’s my turn to do what I want. What does she do all day? Plays Solitaire, or goes to plays and movies with friends and family, when they’re available, which isn’t often. Most elderly folks she knows are helping their kids with the grandkids, or volunteering.

On the phone with my old friend, I intimated his wife was wasting her life. A talented professional, she has too much to give to waste time with Angry Birds, I insisted. But my friend disagreed. She enjoys her days now, no longer under constant pressure to preform, he informed me. She’s allowed to relax, after working most of her life. She’s 45 yrs old, I countered. And has been relaxing for almost 4 yrs now. So? He was perturbed by my observation. They don’t need her income. He makes enough to support them both, so no harm, right?

Wrong…

Read more: http://jcafesin.blogspot.com/2012/05/on-being-human.html

Parental ADD

ADDsmMy cousin has two children. Her oldest, 15, was diagnosed with ADD when he was nine and has been on Ritalin since. He’s failing out of the private high school he attends in Manhattan. He lies, cheats, and steals when it suits him. He is volatile (way beyond normal teenage angst), and often violent with his mom and sister.

Her daughter, 11, also has trouble in her private school. According to her mother, she too has learning disabilities. She has very few friends, and is often cutting and cruel. She also lies constantly to get what she wants, and does whatever she wants regardless of opposition from authority.

The three of them live on the 10th floor of a posh apartment complex, in a huge flat overlooking the Hudson River in Battery Park. The Statue of Liberty, holding the torch of truth stands boldly in the bay and can be seen from almost every room of their home. My cousin and her ex-husband are very successful in their careers. She broke the glass ceiling only a few years out of graduate school and is now a top executive at the New York Stock Exchange. He is an architect. His style is distinct, and sought after, and can be seen all around Manhattan. Since both claim to be busy professionals, the maid of the month raises their kids during the long work week.

Every time we get together they virtually drop off their kids to my care. Dad, before and after the divorce, has always been a marginal part of the scene, off to work, or squash, or rollerblading along the waterfront. Mom stays with us, but she’s not really with us. She’s on her Blackberry texting her secretary, or on her cell phone chatting it up with some high powered executive about market trends, or on her laptop writing reports. She goes out for a two hour run, or off to the store for diet soda. The entire time we’re together she has little to no contact with her children.

My sister also has kids, a boy and a girl, a couple of years apart. During their formative years she was a stay-at-home mom, sort of. Her husband, a successful real estate broker who used his limited free time for cycling, skiing, rock climbing, provided his family a McMansion with all the trimmings in a desirable suburb north of L.A. He hired a live-in maid to clean house and handle the mundane aspects of child care so my sister could pursue her many muses. And pursue them she did. She played tennis several hours a day. She went out with friends; shopped, and shopped; redecorated her house every year. She took classes in cooking, massage, religion, exercise, went to music camps back east for the summers, and left the kids with grandparents, or the revolving housekeepers. She was one of those soccer moms who sat in the stands and gossiped, or read People or Jane, or was on her cell phone every other minute, attending the game but not really there.

Unable to manage her son’s disruptive behavior, my sister took him for counseling when he was ten. He was diagnosed with ADD. He took Ritalin from 12 until he was 20. Now 27, he smokes pot every day, pays his rent and bills with poker winnings and a small stipend from an inheritance trust fund, has not gone to college and has little prospects for the future. Her daughter, 24, is still only a junior after six years in college. She’s had few friends over the years, even fewer dates, and only recently her first [very] short term relationship. She lives on the money her parents provide without a clue how to make it on her own.

These two sets of kids struggle in life because their parents consistently catered to their own needs over those of their children. In doing so, they abandoned their kids to their own device, and left them to strangers, relatives, and society at large to raise them. Restrictions on behavior came from teachers, religious leaders and caretakers as commands—discipline imposed without love. Their parents didn’t bother to invest the staggering amount of time or thought required to help their kids decipher feelings, or examine abstractions like morality or values, or why they are important, or impart to them the seemingly endless list of rules we all must follow to get along.

The other day I was at the neighborhood pool watching my kids swim and play. All went well until a well-known rowdy kid arrived with his mom. She stood with her back to the pool and chatted on about her job, the upcoming hundred mile extreme run she was training 20 miles a day for, and the third Bruce Springsteen concert she and her husband had been to that week. She did not notice her nine year old son shoving kids into the pool, holding them underwater, pouncing, splashing and causing general havoc. Most everyone agrees her son, and six year old daughter, have severe ‘discipline’ problems. Though their mom labeled them ‘passionate,’ she admitted she was seriously considering her colleague’s suggestion to have her kids examined for ADD, or the latest variant: ADHD.

Even Wikipedia, can not state without dispute what ADD actually is, though a wide cross section of sources seem to agree it’s a behavioral disorder. Symptoms include Hyperactivity—like working all day, everyday, never putting your cell phone or Blackberry away; Inattention, the lack of ability to focus for an extended period of time—like creating multiple distractions such as tennis, classes and vacations for your entertainment instead of following through with any one thing. Impulsiveness is also an indicator, like going to see Bruce multiple nights in a row instead of doing the responsible thing and being at home with your kids.

Though they possess the symptoms, these parents do not have ADD, have never been diagnosed or even suspected of the disorder, even though most have had at least some experience in counseling. Their kids did not inherit their lack of focus. The Attention Deficit Disorder they ostensibly suffer from by and large comes from parental neglect, adults who haven’t figured out that once they produce children, most of their own priorities must become secondary to the needs of their kids.

Rich or not, working—having to or not, parenting is about paying attention, being attentive and present— being there when you’re with your kids. Certainly, rules need to be continually taught and enforced, but also discussed at length, not handed down as edicts from on high. Kids need detailed explanations, reasons to partake in our code of ethics, and out of desire, not disdain. Society is not sustainable filled with resentful children who grow into parents that never mature beyond self-interest. Children can not raise themselves above solipsism without example from those who have.