Thursday, April 19, 2007

33 Funerals and a Birthday

Tomorrow is Cade's birthday. It is also the 8-year anniversary of the shootings at Columbine high school. Earlier this week, at Virginia Tech, a young man--who made numerous references to the Columbine shooters in a recording he sent to the media--killed 32 others before turning the gun on himself in the middle of what everyone describes as a peaceful and blissfully serene campus.

I tried to write about this on Monday afternoon, but couldn't. It's just so awful and I haven't felt up to commenting upon, let alone analyzing what happened in Blacksburg. I know the head of the counseling center at Tech--he is the significant other of my former supervisor at Trinity, the former head of the counseling center at Loyola--and my thoughts have been largely consumed by imagining the scope of the pain and despair he and my friend are witnessing and enduring. While the whys of the tragedy don't plague me--ours is a violent society, always has been, always will, and until we get some better weapons legislation and put some more goddamned money in our mental healthcare system things like this will continue to happen--the whats most certainly do: what next, what else, what more will we have to collectively endure before we can get back to the business of living meaningful lives.

I was feeling pretty down today but on the way home was gifted with an unexpected song. Gladys Knight sang 'Midnight Train to Georgia' over three decades ago, I've never been on a train, and I don't think I know anyone who lives in the Peach State, but the song has always spoken to me on a visceral level. The tumbling chord progression, Knight's thunderous, soulful performance--everything, everything about the song makes me want to weep with appreciation. Today, the lyrics spoke to me:

He's leaving
on that midnight train to Georgia
Said he's going back to find a simpler place and time
I'll be with him on that midnight train to Georgia
I'd rather live in his world than live without him in mine.

I used to think of the sentiment expressed in the song's lyrics as slightly pathetic: I could not come close to imagining a scenario in which I would follow a man across the country in because I could not tolerate the idea of living without him. I mean, here's this dude who moves to L.A. to "make it big," can't hack it, and runs for the nearest train to slump back to his hometown with his tail between his legs and this woman, this glorious woman, would rather "live in his world," instead of the assuredly kick-ass world she has created for herself? Huh? It never made sense. But now, as I consider all the reasons why I am where I am, why I stay in this town despite the sorrows we encounter every single day, why I squelch my impulses to travel, to roam, to explore, I know it is in large part because of Cade's ties to this place. While I have come to feel at home here, it is truly his world that I live in, and I would most assuredly live with Cade in this world than in any other world I might create for myself. And it is this knowledge, this commitment, that gives solace in times when the world feels like utter chaos.

Happy birthday, baby. I'd take a midnight train with you to anywhere.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

RIP Kurt Vonnegut

A sad, sad day: Kurt Vonnegut dies at the age of 84. He has been one of my personal heroes since I became aware of his existence, and now the world feels a lonelier place without him.

At the beginning of Bagombo Snuff Box, a collection of short fiction put out in 1999, Vonnegut wrote that "All persons living and dead are purely coincidental, and should not be construed. No names have been changed in order to protect the innocent. Angels protect the innocent as a matter of Heavenly routine."

I don't know what I believe about angels, but if they're out there somewhere I hope they're extending the comfort and relief that was absent for so much of this great man's life.

I'll miss him.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Risk Management

I generally eschew theoretical approaches to psychotherapy, believing, as Yalom does, that "a different therapy must be constructed for each patient because each has a unique story," and I am highly suspicious of therapists who claim allegiance to any one approach, but if I had to pick one I would most likely tend towards the existential. The existential approach to mental health treatment understands most human problems as stemming from death anxiety, obliteration, and we often see people who've had some sort of experience--what is sometimes referred to as a "boundary experience"--that serves as a reminder of their own vulnerability.

Katrina was, for so many of us, a boundary experience. Time after time I have sat in session and heard people express, in a myriad of ways, their shock and horror at having been so devastated. Clients often ask me how I can stand to listen to such stories, over and over, every day, such misery and suffering and despair; the answer I always give, the only one that makes sense, is that I know people suffer and I'd rather try to help than to pretend it's not happening. We live in a society that is completely enthralled by the idea of invulnerability--the mental health profession itself is wrapped in a protective layer of jargon about the wonders of "risk management"--and so many of us have come to believe that with enough insurance and a strong federal government and good pharmaceuticals and science, science, science we can beat or evade every potential disaster, personal or public or natural or otherwise. This is patently untrue, of course, but we persist in our beliefs, our dreams of perpetual existence. We do not like to admit that sometimes, when bad things happen, there's nothing we can do about it.

I was struck by some of the sentiments expressed in the Commentary section of the recent Gambit (and who writes that column, anyway? Is it a DuBos, or the managing editor, or what? Does anybody know?). The commentary argues in favor of an independent 8/29 commission to investigate the failure of the flood protection system to protect NOLA's more vulnerable neighborhoods. I agree with the folks at, and I agree with whoever wrote the piece for the Gambit, but the argument smacks of denial. "There are many reasons in support of such an investigation," it goes, "but the most compelling is the need to prevent similar catastrophes in the future." It's nice to think we can accomplish such an enormous task, but who are we kidding? Do we really believe that if we think hard enough and plan for every possible nightmare scenario, that we might avoid loss, destruction, death?

The Corps was wrong: they fucked up. They should have built better levees. And it's fine to hold them accountable, it's necessary to do so, but it seems that the conversation surrounding accountability has replaced an equally necessary conversation--about vulnerability, risk, the loss of familiar assumptions many of us have held since childhood. We all live here with the knowledge that it could happen again, no matter how hard we work to prevent "similar catastrophes." When we concentrate solely oupon protecting ourselves from every kind of suffering, life becomes nothing more than a never-ending fire drill. And I just don't see the point of that.