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.

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.