Delayed gratification and Santa’s Advent calendar

December 7, 2016

Why wait? That was the question I got from a small group of teenage boys. I was leading my Thursday night discussion for a bunch of boys in a court-ordered residential facility in Northeast Portland. It was the late 1990s and these kids were on the verge of being locked up in juvie, but were the “at-risk” youth that still have a chance to not get sucked into the vortex of the criminal justice system. So a judge sent them to a group home and on Thursdays I was their counselor.

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I was trying to share with them the simple joy of Pez, something I cherished from my own youth. I was carefully loading the tiny candies into a Popeye Pez dispenser. Some were going sideways and others were falling back out.

“Why don’t you just eat the candy?” asked one kid.

“No, wait, it’s gonna be great. The candy comes out of Popeye’s larynx,” I said.

“Why wait?” asked another.

It was a valid question. I mean, it’s not the greatest payoff in the world. Why not just eat the damn candy without all the hassle? Suddenly the Pez dispenser became a metaphor for a fading American value – delayed gratification, symbolic of a grand cultural shift.  Sometimes the wait is part of the payoff, y’all. I know you want it now, but…

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I was reminded of this because I bought Advent calendar for my daughter for Christmas. I loved them as a kid and this is the year Cozy’s really getting into the holiday. (Although she freaked out a bit at meeting the Macy’s Santa.) I liked the day-to-day anticipation of the arrival of the big event. Each day you get to open a window and get little surprise, making it one day closer to Santa’s orgy of gifts. The initial Advent calendars were created by the German Lutherans in the 19th century but they’re probably now mass-produced in Chinese factories for the Western world. You can get them cheap pretty much anywhere. You don’t even have to be Lutheran.

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So I picked up a calendar called 24 Chocolate Days ’til Christmas (made in a gluten-free factory in Canada) to introduce Cozy to the tradition. When I pulled it out on December 1, she yelled, “Santa!” I explained to her that we open one door each day until Christmas and there’s a treat behind each flap. Day 1 was a little chocolate choo choo. She was thrilled. Then I told her we’d open the next door tomorrow. She was not thrilled about that. In fact she threw a screaming fit, laying on the floor, yelling, “No! No! No!” I mean, why wait?

I resisted the temptation to just give in. It would’ve been so easy. She’s a real heartbreaker when she’s sobbing. But I thought this would be a valuable lesson about delayed gratification. Now a week into it, she seems to be getting it. You’ve gotta pace yourself and spread the joy out.

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For years I assigned a book in my criminology class at Portland State called Crime and the American Dream by Stephen Messner and Richard Rosenfeld. It makes the case that the elevated crime rates in the U.S. are a product of our “by any means necessary” values. For example, it’s not how you got your wealth/car/college degree, it’s that you got it. So if you embezzled/car-jacked/cheated to get it, no big whoop. It’s having it that gets you the points. It reminded me of the unofficial American motto, “You can never be too rich or too thin,” (explaining a lot of white collar crime and eating disorders). Just think of Donald Trump ripping off the chumps at Trump University while Melania gulps the postpartum diet pills. Look where that got them!

We live in a culture of immediate gratification. I used to have to wait forever just to hear an album I wanted. Now I just pull anything and everything I might want up on Spotify. Remember taking your film to the drug store and waiting a week to see the pictures? How about waiting for a letter to come from your beloved? Please Mr. Postman! (When my grad school girlfriend was studying in Paris, I would torture my Atlanta letter carrier with that song.) Now if something takes more than 30 seconds to get we are convinced the wifi has been hacked by the Chinese.

If you celebrate Christmas, you know that by 3 pm on Christmas Day the letdown has arrived. Is that all there is? “Christmas” is the anticipation of Christmas, the build up. Much of life works that way. Sweet anticipation. Of Friday at 5 pm, or a first kiss, or Election Day. I want Cozy to enjoy the journey at least as much as the arrival. How you got there matters. One door, one piece of Canadian chocolate at a time.

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Why George Bailey (and I) didn’t jump off that bridge.

December 23, 2015

Who doesn’t love all the lights and spiked eggnog? The Fox News war on Hanukkah aside, there’s lots of smiles in this season of holidays. But for so many, Christmas is a time of deep sadness. Even the best seasonal songs are downers, like “Blue Christmas” and “ Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (“Next year our troubles will be miles away”). It’s a myth that suicide rates go up over the holidays but it makes sense to a lot of people that between the economic pressures to buy more crap, absent loved ones and your drunk uncle who won’t stop complaining about ISIS, the exit door has a strong appeal.

On top of this is the uplifting, then soul crushing, then uplifting again Christmas movie, It’s A Wonderful Life. The 1946 film was a sleeper hit thanks to UHF and late night movie showings in dozens of Decembers. It’s rightfully become a classic, brilliantly executed by director Frank Capra. That close-up shot of the face of George Bailey (completely inhabited by Jimmy Stewart) when he realizes he is experiencing something more than a lucid dream has surely inspired every little David Lynch to see that film has the potential to slam every human emotion into one brief scene.

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I’ve seen this film more than any other and it is burned into my consciousness. When I fell through the ice as a kid, I worried about losing my hearing. When I lectured about bank fraud to my criminology students, I talked about Mr. Potter’s savings & loan grab. And on the Christmas Eves that I was alone I just wanted to get drunk in a bar like Martini’s. Flaming rum punch! We assume everyone and their buffalo gal has seen it.

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Capra takes on the dark matter of suicide and puts a Christmas bow on it and then hits us over the head with the message that our lives really do matter. George Bailey decides not to kill himself, instead returning to his family and friends. Then Clarence gets his angel wings and Zuzu’s petals grow into a garden. “We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”

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The dark matter of suicide has been a theme in my own life, as anyone who has read The Mission of the Sacred Heart could guess. The first time I stood on the edge, I had just turned 16 and was overwhelmed by the chaos in my family (and probably too many viewings of Quadrophenia). I thought about throwing myself in a lake in Stone Mountain, Georgia that was probably three feet deep. Then there was Pont Neuf above the Seine River in Paris and the fantasy of the romantic death. The big one was in 1998, with a brief failed marriage and an assumption that “all you need is love” was a giant lie. (I still had a lot of self-reflection yet to do.)

I was pulled off a cliff in Ecola State Park by a cop from Seaside, Oregon who was very honest about his own rough patches. I agreed to go into therapy and it was the beginning of the journey to understanding what this suicidal impulse was. It’s something that runs in the family. There have been a bunch of attempts by others in my clan, but we all came out the other side better people. It seems silly or stupid to people who have never been encased inside an inescapable darkness, but I know there are plenty of people reading this who have been down in that pit.

The first part of therapy is the intervention. Stop doing dangerous things! So the immediate message is this – Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. So true. If I’ve learned one thing in my 51 years on earth is that, at some point, everything will be in the rearview mirror. You are going to get knocked down in life. You are measured by how you get back up. Survive and thrive. Some seriously great stuff is coming. The other quick mantra you get is that suicide is an inherently selfish act. You check out and leave the people who love you with a lifetime of pain. So don’t be a dick on your last day.

When you are in the grips of depression, sometimes it’s hard to see that. The psychiatrist immediately put me on Zoloft which made me feel like I was mainlining espresso. But it gave me a plan. I wanted to know why is it so hard to actually kill yourself. So I started writing the story of Mission and I promised myself I wouldn’t kill myself until it was done. And then when I finished, I had my answer and decided that life was worth sticking around for. The fact that others have told me that my story helped them with their suicidal issues means I must’ve found a valid answer.

Most of us depressives have our favorite way to imagine our grand finale. For some it’s the peaceful sleep of an overdose, or a violent but quick gunshot to the head. For me it was drowning, the idea of returning to the water. Then someone told me that drowning is actually the worst way to go. You just can’t win.

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While I was writing the book, I was having a lot of conversations about suicide with a friend of mine named Heather. I was so wrapped up in fixing myself, I didn’t see how deep her struggles were. In 2008 she jumped off a parking deck, leaving a wonderful husband and 5-year-old daughter behind. She was a PhD. and well revered in her field but completely consumed by her depressive thoughts. Mission is dedicated to her. If she had decided not to jump, she could’ve gotten to see how much her daughter now looks like her.  Instead she must be haunted because of her mother’s impulse to exit.

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These things have a tendency to stick around. By the Christmas 2008, I was in a similar spot. Christmas morning I watched Wonderful Life and balled my eyes out. Then a radio program about suicide came on. (Merry Christmas!) Someone had interviewed the handful of people who had survived jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and they all said the exact same thing. The second after they jumped, they all said to themselves this; I want to live. More sobbing but something that people like me need to hear.

Therapy has been a wonderful friend. Besides working out why this “feminist” kept having similar problems with the women in his life, I got a better picture of my suicidal ideations. It’s about escape and control, getting the last word and checking out on your own terms. It’s not that different from the guys that shoot up their workplaces or schools with the intention of dying in a hail of police bullets. But you don’t get the privilege of looking down from heaven and saying, “I really showed them!” You’re just dead. (This is why religions really have to make suicide a big No No. The fantasy of the afterlife might make watching the aftermath of your death pretty appealing. “Oh, that asshole’s sorry now!”)

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I think my suicidal impulses really started to disappear that day in 2014 when we first heard Cozy’s heartbeat. My whole world changed in that moment. It was no longer about me but this child, about protecting her and making the world a better place for her. When she was born, my very sense of self was transformed. There was only one priority, making her and her mom happy.

The blues still come back. I’ve got a whole legion of racist skinheads, psychotic bigots, neo-Nazis, and now Trump cultists that would like me to drink an arsenic smoothie and they occasionally make my life hell. The university witchhunt that culminated last winter had me back in that black hole and I re-upped my Zoloft. I was in similar place on Christmas Eve, on the verge of losing “everything.” But it was different this time. I had a mandate to stick around and fight for my child and her generation. Cozy cured me of thoughts of diving into the Willamette River. I want to be there for her to the last moment. And I don’t want to miss a second of her own wonderful life. I would never want her to suffer the way every single child of suicide has suffered. I might be living in a box under a bridge, but I’ll be there. In a box under a bridge. I’m sure Frances Bean Cobain would take that. (And the Zoloft sits unused in the medicine cabinet if you need some.)

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That moment when George Bailey is back on the bridge, praying to live, is a gift. It’s the moment that most folks have the second after they’ve jumped and it goes unanswered by anything but the last moment of pain. There is always joy ahead. As bad as things get, they always get so much better. If I had jumped at any of those points I would have missed all the bliss that was ahead for me. That incredible Sonny Rollins song KMHD Jazz Radio played in the middle of a rainstorm yesterday. The moment yesterday when Cozy rubbed her face in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And Andrea’s beautiful face when I dropped her off for work this morning as she said, “Take care of my baby today.” How could I even have imagined forfeiting that? There are surely some hard times ahead, but there are many more moments of bliss like that.

Social media reminds us of how many totally miserable people there are out there. Some are truly suffering from depression. Some are just sad, sad people who want everybody to hurt the way they do. They haven’t found the strength yet to see the root causes of the negative patterns in their lives. I’m sure they all have had moments on that bridge in Bedford Falls. I would say to all of them, there is great joy ahead that is worth sticking around for. One minute with Andrea and Cozy is the reward for not quitting this mortal coil, easily worth all the emo months of dwelling on my grand demise. And there’s a lot more of those beautiful minutes ahead. So stick around, okay? And dance by the light of the moon.

If you’ve never seen It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s streaming for free here: WONDERFUL

NOTE: As my friend Dave just pointed out, George does in fact jump off that bridge, but it is to save Clarence Oddbody, AS2.