Who hasn’t thought about suicide?

Every time someone famous kills themselves, editorials and blog posts spring up cautioning us all to keep an eye out for our friends’ mental health. I read one post that I thought was particularly interesting because it discussed the difference between everyday depression, with a small d, the kind we all experience when things aren’t going our way, and clinical Depression, with a big D, where no amount of good fortune will make the person feel better because their brain doesn’t act like (dare I say) a normal one. Unfortunately, as the writer pointed out, we only have the one word for all that, depressed.

I hate to pile on with a me too (not the kind with the hash tag, thank you Michelle Wolf), but I’m depressed, too. Not the big D kind, as far as I know, but that’s the problem with depression, how do you know? Years ago I was diagnosed with anxiety, which we all know is a kissing cousin to the big D, and I often wonder, if I tipped over into Depression, how would I know?

I’ve had years of therapy (and as you know, I’m a big booster). I learned an awful lot about myself and was a good enough student to put into practice what I was learning. Once upon a time, the only emotional response readily accessible to me was anger. You can imagine how difficult that was for family and other intimates. Now I have a full range of emotions at my fingertips and can tell the difference between them. The only one I continue to scratch my head over is depression (if you’ll grant me the latitude to call depression an emotion.)

I know people who suffer from the big D, so if I slip and say, “I’m depressed,” I’ll usually add, “not depressed depressed, just, you know, depressed,” so I don’t worry anyone, and then I feel guilty, because after all, I’m not Depressed so what do I have to complain about?

Occasionally, I’ve gone as far as to indulge in suicidal ideation. Don’t panic or jump to conclusions, here. It’s a fact that people who indulge in suicidal ideation (suicidal thoughts for those less inclined to show off their vocabularies) are not necessarily going to kill themselves. Most, I’d hazard a guess, do not, which is to say, lots of people think about it, but if they haven’t gotten as far as a plan there’s probably nothing to worry about. Probably. So how do you know when to worry? That’s a real question; I have no idea.

The point I’m trying to make is that I’d like to be able to reclaim the word depressed. I don’t want to feel guilty when I use it, because, dammit, I’m depressed! My father died last November, I broke my shoulder in January, I work out of my home and need to actively create reasons to leave. I worry about my mother who is now on her own and everyone else in my meshuggeneh family. I’d be crazy not to be depressed.

Unless I’m just unhappy.

In which case, as Emily Litella used to say on Saturday Night Live, never mind.

emily litella

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A world of contrasts

It took me years to talk myself into paying someone to come into my home to clean upholstered chairs; it seemed like such a first-world problem. But after donating to a charity to help buy a water pump for a school for girls in Tanzania, I decided I could forgive myself for finally succumbing to the urge.

You see, once upon a time, we bought a dark brown sofa from Crate and Barrel. Then we let the salesperson talk us into getting light-colored side chairs for contrast. She was right, they looked great together, but there’s a reason she had to sell us on them; they don’t age well.

One day, when I couldn’t stand it anymore, I sprayed some fabric cleaner on a spot on one of the chairs. It worked. The spot disappeared and there was a clean patch in its place screaming, “What were you thinking buying light-colored furniture?”

Why not spray the whole chair, you ask? Don’t be ridiculous.

Then the rug in the family room acquired a stain. I have no idea what caused it and no one ever confessed. I suppose I could blame the cats, we have two, but honestly, it doesn’t look like their work. Besides, cats are meticulous groomers, if they’re not sleeping they’re cleaning themselves. Of course, whatever loose fur isn’t ingested, to be thrown up as a hairball at a later date, is going to end up flying around the house. And you know where it’s going to be easy to spot? On those light-colored chairs.

cats on sofa

The constant shedding isn’t their fault, they’re actually relatively well-behaved. They use the scratching posts instead of the furniture for the most part, which is important, because the boy cat is skittish and we can’t cut his nails. Nonetheless, they are cats and when they sit down their you-know-whats are planted flat on the ground. Gross, right? It’s not something you want to dwell on, but once you get it into your head it’s hard to shake. It also makes a good argument for having your rugs cleaned once in a while. And if you’re going to have the rugs cleaned, why not the chairs?

So now the rugs look new again and the chairs have no spots. If you want to spruce up your home, and you live near Arlington, MA, give Marcello at Capone Carpets a call. But first make a donation to your favorite charity. You’ll enjoy your clean space that much more. And if someone suggests that contrasting colors would look nice in your family room, pick up some pillows from Target.

Eulogy for my dad

Unedited – as spoken at his funeral

When I was a little girl, I sometimes went with my dad when he did rounds at the hospital on Sundays. He’d park me with the receptionist and go off to see his patients. When someone from the hospital staff came by, the receptionist would say, “This is Dr. Mintz’s little girl,” and they would reply along the lines of, “Dr. Mintz? How wonderful. We love your dad.” I remember feeling so proud to be his daughter, as if he must be someone very special for everyone to be so happy to meet me.

dad on 80th

When he was short-staffed at his office one summer, I filled in. I was probably 15 or 16. I loved watching him with his patients. They were so genuinely fond of him. When we met, they were surprised that I was so grown-up; they thought the doctor had little girls because the only picture he had of his daughters in his office was from when we were quite young. In many ways, for him, we remained frozen in time as his little girls.

Despite his ability to charm patients, he still had to chase me around the house and pull me out from under the sofa to administer a vaccine. Then he’d give himself a shot to demonstrate how simple it was going to be. I always wondered how he could do that.

But I had the utmost faith in my dad. I had to have some blood taken at the hospital once for reasons I no longer recall. He dropped me off at the lab and went to do something else. The person charged with taking my blood was having a hard time. They were on their third or fourth try and I was in tears when Dad returned. He immediately took over and in one try drew a vial of blood. At that moment I decided he could probably do anything.

My dad was a very smart man, with a great love of silliness. Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in was a favorite of ours and as he got sicker I’d tease him that he sounded like Artie Johnson growling at Ruth Buzzi, “Want a walnetto?” Monty Python’s Flying Circus also provided a lifetime of references guaranteed to produce an appreciative chuckle. I loved his sense of humor, the way he would groan with pleasure at a bad pun.

He loved the animated show, Rocky and Bullwinkle. At the least provocation he’d say, “Nothing up my sleeve.” And every birthday I’d get him a copy of Mad Magazine. Alfred E. Newman was another favorite of his and “What, Me Worry?” his watchword. He shared with us his great affection for Winnie-the-Pooh, Pogo, and Charlie Brown. No holiday season was complete without a family rendition of Deck the Halls with Boston Charlie. And he and I could do a mean chorus of “When the buzzards come back to Hinckley,” a song we learned from a comedy hour on the old WCRB radio station.

Making my dad laugh was one of the great joys of my life, particularly in the last couple of years.

There’s a picture of my parents as a young couple, mom’s pregnant, and they’re holding matching stuffed animals, dogs with long noses and floppy ears. I played with those dogs when I was a child and they were well-loved. They’re still in my childhood room, waiting patiently for attention. I can’t bring my dad back, but, with my mother’s permission, I’ll take those stuffed animals home where my husband will indulge my playful side, just like my dad always did.

You may not know

The apartment was a studio, with an alcove just big enough for a queen-sized bed. The main living space was taken up by a large leather sofa and an equally large Doberman Pinscher named Freda. There was a desk catty-cornered to the sofa and behind that, a mattress on the floor. The name on the lease was Ronnie D. He lived there with his girlfriend, Judy, Freda, and his brother, Larry, my boyfriend.

During my late teens and early twenties, I spent a lot of time visiting that crowded apartment. Ronnie was older than Larry by enough years that he went to Vietnam and Larry stayed home. I was eight years younger than Larry. Since there was already a Judy at 525 Beacon Street, I became Little Judy. Big Judy worked in reservations for Delta Airlines. She gave me an over-sized coffee mug imprinted with the Delta logo and my nickname.

little judy

I was exceedingly fond of both Ronnie and Judy, in spite of the fact (or perhaps because of it) that they had personal histories of which I was only vaguely aware. For instance, I knew Judy had children that lived with her mother, but not why. And while Ronnie never spoke about Vietnam, his circle of friends seemed to be mainly veterans.

Eventually, Larry and I broke up. He married someone else and started a family. Time marched on and I lost touch with Ronnie and Judy. Many years later, in 2011, married, with a daughter of my own, I stumbled across Ronnie on Facebook. I messaged him and asked after Judy. He responded, “Sadly, Judy lost her 10 year-long battle with cancer in 2004.” She’d been gone for seven years and I hadn’t known. How was that possible? And why hadn’t Larry contacted me when she died? I was bereft.

When I thought about my time at 525, I’d picture all of us as we were then: everyone on the leather sofa, Freda with her head on Ronnie’s knee, Big Judy with her legs curled up under her as she drank tea. It was a shock to realize that I had been remembering happy times, ignorant of the pain Judy had suffered and the loss I had yet to experience.

I always check the obituaries in the Boston Globe. I look to see who passed away in the town I live in, and the one I grew up in. If I have time, I’ll scan the photos, stopping to read about someone who looks too young to have died. Sometimes a name I recognize will pop out. That was how I found out, at the tail end of 2012, that Ron had passed away, too.

There was a memorial for him at a funeral home, but he wasn’t there. It was winter and his remains were to be buried in the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne. I scolded Larry for not calling me and reminded him that I wanted to know when people from our shared past died. He shrugged and allowed as how he just wasn’t very good at that sort of thing. I hope his wife will prove better at it when the time comes.

Every couple of weeks, I use my Little Judy mug for my morning coffee and think about Ronnie and Judy. I wonder how many people from my past are gone, and if there’s any way to prepare for the inevitable feelings of loss. I hope Big Judy remembered me fondly from time to time, even without a mug to remind her.

delta mug

Fear vs. awe

When the lights went out, we watched Bozo the Clown shrink to a tiny dot on the television before he disappeared entirely. It was early November, 1965, and a power glitch in Canada had thrown much of the Northeast off the grid.bozo

I was seven, home alone with my four-year-old sister. It was early evening and we could see perfectly well by the light that came in from outside. Nonetheless, perhaps knowing that the sun was setting and fearing worse to come, I was frozen to my spot on the sofa.

I sent my sister out to the kitchen to find a flashlight and she dutifully trotted off. Soothed by its presence, however unnecessary, I was able to follow her back to the kitchen where we stood at the open door to wait for my mother to return.

While my initial response to the power outage was debilitating, I have a warm, visceral memory of the sky that night. It was beautiful; dusky pink and vast. I imagine the scene as a filmmaker might: two little girls holding hands, staring at the sky, as the camera pulls back and frames them in the doorway.

The upset I experienced that night was real, but I recall it in an abstract way. When I tell the story, I don’t relive the feeling.

There was another time, as an adult, that I responded to fear by freezing.

My husband grew up reading Babar the elephant books and always envisioned flying off in a hot air balloon with his own Celeste. It was never a fantasy of mine, but when I gave him a hot air balloon ride as a birthday present it was understood that I would play the part of Celeste.

Hot air balloons typically fly at dawn or dusk. I booked our outing for an early morning, in Rhode Island. I was a bit nervous, but nothing unusual given that anxiety precedes me everywhere. And my husband’s excitement was so palpable that it distracted me from my own misgivings.

We watched the crew lay the balloon out on the ground, attach it to the basket, and inflate it with air. When it was suitably robust, they turned the burner on to heat the air and slowly it rose, pulling the basket upright. We clambered in, the pilot shot more flame into the balloon, and up we went.

I immediately regretted agreeing to participate. The further away the ground got, the whiter my knuckles. My husband tried to put his arm around me and I hissed, “Don’t touch me,” convinced that any movement, however slight, would send me hurtling to my death.

After a while, when the cars were as small as they were going to get and we had floated along without incident, I began to breathe. I even relaxed enough to turn my head to marvel at the beauty of the scenery.

hot air balloon

We have lots of photographic evidence of that outing, and in many of the pictures I’m smiling. I also remember that after we landed and scrambled out of our wicker conveyance, I was giddy with exhilaration. But for all that, my strongest emotional memory of that day is not my awe at the wonder of it all, but how terrified I was as the balloon lifted into the air.

So why do some emotions live on in memory while others don’t? Perhaps when I was a child, even though I was scared, I knew I wasn’t in mortal danger from the power failure. There have, however, been deadly hot air balloon accidents, so that particular fear was not, in fact, entirely unfounded.

Today, if I want to remember what the world looks like from a hot air balloon, I pull out the photo album. If I want to remember the beauty of the sky the night the lights went out in ‘65, all I have to do is close my eyes.

Put your phone down

At our house, the dinner table is a device-free zone. There are, however, occasional challenges to our equanimity. For instance, my husband and I might debate something that could easily be resolved with a quick fact-check. He will offer to ask Siri, with just enough wistfulness in his voice to let me know that he wants me to say, “Yes, please do.” But I don’t.

My daughter’s phone, always within reach, may buzz with a text. She’ll reach reflexively, but after stealing a look at me will murmur, “Probably not important,” and pull her hand back.

Growing up, there was a television on the kitchen counter. It was there, ostensibly, so my mother could watch the news while she made dinner, or keep an eye on developing weather patterns. But when there’s a television in the kitchen, it insidiously displaces family members as the focus of attention. In my own home, there is no television in the kitchen.

My husband uses his iPhone to hide in plain sight, an ostrich-like behavior that works nonetheless. My daughter, who was given her first phone when she began to walk alone to middle school, learned quickly that it could replace her parents for virtually everything, even as her teachers were explaining that Wikipedia wasn’t valid source material for homework.

My phone is invariably in some other room when I hear it ring, beep, or chirp, which is not to say that I don’t depend on it as much as anyone. I use it to send texts that say I’m on my way and spoken directions that let me keep my eyes on the road while I get there. I check the weather and play the occasional game of Cribbage, but there’s not much that it can offer that outweighs my desire to engage with my husband and child.

Families found ways to make themselves unavailable to each other long before smart phones arrived. They buried themselves in work; hid behind newspapers; shushed each other when the TV was on. Smart phones, however, create the most effective barriers. They should come with warnings, like cigarettes. Beware, this object may impair your ability to appreciate your family.

It’s time to put down your phone—and talk.

A raccoon with a jar on its head

One Sunday afternoon, I came home to find a neighbor in our backyard.

“There’s a raccoon with a plastic jar on its head,” he said. “I called the police. Animal control doesn’t work on the weekend.”

Indeed, there was a small raccoon in our garden with its head stuck inside the kind of jar that might once have held peanut butter. It was young, with long skinny legs, like a gangling teenager. We watched each other intently until the policeman showed up.

baby raccoon

Not our visitor, I was too busy fretting to take pictures. This is another raccoon in the same predicament that I found on the web. 

“I don’t really want to touch him,” the policeman said. “They carry so many diseases.” Nonetheless, he pulled a pair of thin, black gloves out of his pocket and put them on. “Okay, let’s see if we can get this thing off him.”

He stepped forward and the raccoon backed away, its ears flattening against the top of the jar. Aren’t raccoons supposed to be good with their hands? Would an older animal have known what to do? And where was its mother? I was distressed, although probably not as much as the raccoon.

We spent the next few minutes trying to corral the poor thing while it skittered up and down the length of our back fence. The neighbor had a flash of inspiration and ran home to get a hockey stick. That almost worked. For a heartbeat, he had the raccoon pinned down with the short end of the stick, but before the policeman could grab the jar, it wriggled out from under—and went up a tree. The plastic jar went tump, tump, tump. I thought my heart would break.

The policeman sighed. “There’s nothing else we can do for now. Try to ignore it and I’ll let Animal Control know in the morning.”

Ignore a raccoon with its head stuck in a plastic jar, in a tree in my back yard? Not likely.

It sat, with its plastic-covered head resting in a convenient fork, for a long time. Every few minutes, distracted and worried, I’d check to see if it was still there. Just as the sun started to set, I heard, tump, tump, tump, as the youngster climbed down the tree. It wobbled off across the lawn and I followed. When it disappeared behind a house down the street, I had to finally admit that there was nothing I could do and went home.

As it happens, on the town website, there is a page of other resources we could have contacted. One is for North East Wildlife Animal Rehabilitation Coalition, an organization of volunteers who work out of their homes (including one in our town, Arlington, MA) to help with situations like the one our little visitor had experienced the night before. While I hope not to need them again, I’m determined not to forget that they’re there should the need arise.

In case you, too, are feeling anxious now, there’s no need. I called Animal Control the next day and was told that someone else had also reported the raccoon and another police officer had been able to free it from its plastic prison.