Reflections

Happy Tidings from the Death Card

It’s Been A Tough Year So Far

I’m not one much to talk about my personal issues on the internet, but since the events of the last six months have had a major impact on my (lack of) output for this blog, I think I owe you, and myself, an explanation.

There is a lot I can’t tell you, a lot of the details, to protect the privacy of the others involved.

Suffice to say, it involved a lot of death.

There was a brush with physical death, on Easter Monday, in a car accident.

There was a death of self, as this “adulthood” thing forced me to let go of old notions of who I am and who I want to be. This came about largely because of a death of faith, of faith in ideals and institutions that formed me.

There was the death of a friendship. I expected this one to be the worst of all, when I worried about it years ago, or in the last year as part of me, a part unacknowledged, suspected it was coming.

In all, it wasn’t so bad.

 

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XIII. Death. From the Rider-Waite Tarot, ca. 1909. Public domain.

You see, the death card almost never means death, at least not physical death.

I don’t believe we can foretell the future, but as a writer I am very interested in the symbolism of the Tarot deck.

The death card of the Major Arcana gets a bad rap for being No. XIII and for being, well, about death, strangely enough. The card shows death, but only because death is necessary for rebirth.

I walked away from the accident unscathed. After five hours in the ER, waiting for the final confirmation that I had not hurt my head, I went home. There I found Sassy, a little confused about why I was late, and very upset that dinner was delayed.

In letting go of what I thought I was and wanted, I have moved forward. Now that school has been out for a few weeks, I have been focused on my first few freelancing assignments. That is the logistical reason for my long silence on this blog. I am excited to be a “real” writer now and a “professional,” in fulfillment of a dream I’ve had since I was four years old.

As for the end of the childhood friendship, I wish it had not gone down the way it did. I know people grow and change. If things had tapered off between us naturally, it would have been much easier to accept.

One of the hardest lessons about growing up is that doing everything right won’t protect you. One of the other hardest lessons is that your effort can’t make up for what someone else won’t put in. It hurt a lot at the time, and it hurts from time to time, but I find myself looking forward to the future.

I get asked why I like my “frightening” and “morbid” crime shows. As trite as it may sound: while you have to be careful not to only see the darkness, you cannot look away from death without ignoring life.

The death card is change. Time is change. Time marches on, trampling over kings like Death’s horse does on the card. Who am I to resist? What point is there in fear?

That said, I’m glad to still be here with all of you.

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True Crime and I, Pt. 2: Shortbread Cookies and “Cold Case Files”

My paternal grandmother was born on Christmas Eve 1929 and, as such, always insisted on celebrating it as absolutely distinct from Christmas. She was always mindful of birthdays; gifts for the birthday girl were usually accompanied by something small for the other sister.

She loved flowers and cats and painting. All of her children grew up to be cat people, as have all of her six grandchildren. Baking was a passion of hers; cherry pies and shortbread were specialties. Christmas was incomplete without a tin or two of Grandma’s shortbread, sent through the mail from Kentucky.

After a long and often difficult illness, she passed away in early September. While sudden, it was not unexpected. Luckily, Parkinson’s had left her wits mostly intact to the end, so that she could appreciate what would turn out to be final visits with family in August.

On this, what would have been her eighty-eighth birthday, I would like to share with you to inadvertent and formative role my Grandma had on my interest in true crime.

*  *  *

I have written previously on how my childhood interest in Ancient Egypt, encouraged by my parents, likely sparked my early fascination with the morbid and macabre.

Completely unknown to my parents, I fanned this fascination by watching forbidden TV as soon as their backs were turned.

There was Discovery Channel’s “A Haunting in Connecticut,” which I watched while my mom was out shopping. I was nine. I didn’t sleep for days.

Of course, I went on to watch all of Discovery’s “A Haunting” series in secret.

There was the time I watched Stephen King’s “Rose Red” on-and-off for an afternoon at my dad’s house. Big mistake.

Best of all were those chances I had to watch Discovery’s “FBI Files.” Rediscovering the series as an adult, I laughed at how plastic science class skeletons had scared the ever-living **** out of me as a nine-year-old.

Then, there was that fateful trip to Grandma’s.

The moral of this story: if you really want to know what your kids are watching, make sure you can walk faster than they can change the channel.

*  *  *

I don’t think it was that long summer we spent with Grandma after my parents divorced. I think it was an earlier trip, maybe earlier that same year. I was about eleven.

As my younger sister had taken the big-screen TV downstairs, and I did not want to watch Disney with her, my Grandma offered me the little box TV on her vanity. She left to do laundry or read.

I turned it on to find it was on A&E, which was running a weekend marathon of Cold Case Files. 

The original Cold Case Files, which ran through the mid-2000s, featured Bill Kurtis’s chilling narration. It also featured plenty of gruesome postmortem photos. I couldn’t turn away, mostly out of horror. This was beyond anything I’d seen before. I couldn’t process. God knows I still can’t watch it before bed. Speaking of which…

At Grandma’s, I slept on a cot below a large first-floor window. Unfortunately for me, I had just learned who the LA Nightstalker was. The bug-eyed, hollow-cheeked composite sketch appeared every time I closed my eyes.

All the lights were on that night. All of them. 

*  *  *

I was hooked.  On a visit to my other set of grandparents, around the same time, I watched Dateline for the first time, again, surreptitiously. I still remember my first Dateline episode, on the murder of Molly Bish. Years later, moving to Boston, the details of the case would return to me. It haunts me–as a child, Molly had seemed like a grown-up. Barely an adult myself, looking at a picture of her now, I see a child, her life cut away from in front of her.

*  *  *

I flipped over the A&E website, where you can watch Cold Case Files episodes in whole with just a little advertising. I see now they have rebooted the series, beginning earlier this year, but without Bill Kurtis’s voice. Darn.

* * *

I asked my cousin, “Do you think Grandma knew I watched sixteen hours of Cold Case Files on her TV that time?”

My cousin thought. “I feel like she knew, and she couldn’t have approved, but she wasn’t going to really object to it.”

So, Grandma, thank you for spoiling your grandchildren, even if it was with questionable TV choices.

Happy birthday. I miss you. I love you.

How to Medicate Your Cat; or, 101 Ways to Need Antibiotics Yourself

Knives hit me in the stomach. I looked down at the shrieking cat, squirming around in my hands.

Et tu, kitté?

Trying to kick off and escape, she had punched her very sharp back claws into me.

Can’t say I didn’t deserve it. I told her as much the previous day, when she nearly gave me a mastectomy, attempting to launch over my shoulder from my collarbone.

It’s for her own good.

    *     *     *

At the start of the month, Sassy had her dental cleaning. As a kid I heard people make fun of Martha Stewart for brushing her cat’s teeth, but I do think it was for the best. Dental health is a good prevention against various infections, in people and felines. Sassy had rotten teeth, no bones about it.

She came from the shelter like that, I swear.

A thorough dental cleaning requires anesthetics, because–well, have you ever put your finger in an angry cat’s mouth? I’ve been doing it for the last two weeks and I would highly recommend against it. I had been nervous about putting Sassy under, but research and a discussion with my vet have assured me that while risks do exist, they are marginal for an otherwise healthy animal.

Sassy came through the surgery without any complications–and minus two rotten-through teeth.

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High as a kite after surgery.

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A rare opportunity to give her a belly-rub…and keep my hand

That left me with two weeks of liquid antibiotics to administer orally to a cat who hates being held. Wrapping her in a blanket as a “kitty kolache” only protects me so much. The only comfort she gets from it is hiding her face in the blanket so I can’t bring the syringe to her mouth.

This process, if done to a human, probably violates the Geneva Conventions. Sassy tells me as much.

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Between doses. “I’m calling my lawyer.”

She is a good girl and doesn’t scratch to hurt–it’s just that her claws are out when she tries to escape, and my skin happens to be a good place on which to latch. I’ve never seen this cat bite anyone, even when she’s been given good reason (for example, putting her in the crate).

Aside from some nasty scratches, I’ve also had antibiotic paste spit into my eyes, onto my sleeves, and into my hair. I also swear that she woke me up every two hours last night because she knew we were going to the vet for suture removal this morning.

*    *    *

“Can you tell I’m overly attached to this animal?” I asked the vet before her surgery.
“Yep.”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“I don’t think so.” He smiled.

*   *   *

It’s all worth it.

We had been concerned her weight loss was a sign that something very, very serious was wrong with her. In the last two weeks, since the tooth removal, she’s put on half a pound and is approaching her ideal weight again. Of course, this makes her even more difficult to wrangle at medicine time, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

She also seems a little less afraid of visitors. She only runs away when they approach her, not when she hears the doorbell ring.

Best of all, even immediately after I shoot two vials of antibiotics into her mouth, twice a day, she chirps at me and rubs up against my leg.

All is forgiven; all is well.

When Will It End? Vol. 1

I’ve seen the flag at half-mast too many times in my young life.

What happened in Vegas earlier this week is horrible. That goes without saying.

I hesitated to write anything in the immediate aftermath to allow events to develop, and not to rush to judgement about anything. I also hesitated because it’s getting way, way too routine to have to do this.

There’s a paradox here; I love the true crime genre, but I hate people getting hurt. I justify this to myself that reading and watching true crime brings us to a better understanding of justice, and to a better understanding of evil. As much as human beings can comprehend evil.

More about rushing to judgement…

Some have claimed it’s not the time to talk about gun violence in America. These same people never bring it up…except in the wake of a mass shooting. By now, I think, it is clear that this is a uniquely American problem. American gun laws are uniquely lax in the developed world.

Moreover, if the NRA supports the existing ban on federal funds for research on gun violence, I think we can all safely assume it’s because they think the findings would be unflattering.

That we don’t even enable research into this uniquely American problem is a disgrace.

If we don’t understand the causes of gun violence, we have no hope of preventing it in an effective way.

In another rush to judgement, mental illness has been suggested as the primary cause of the massacre in Las Vegas, and better mental health care proposed as an answer.

While I agree there is a desperate need for better access to mental health services, I point out that most mentally ill people are not a threat to others.

There is, so far, little evidence that the Vegas shooter had mental health issues. Moreover, the intensive planning we now know went into this crime indicates the perpetrator knew what he was doing and attempted to conceal it because he knew others would view it as wrong; even if some underlying suicidal impulses or anger issues come to light, his premeditation excludes him as “criminally insane” as recognized by most courts.

Perhaps it is a kind of benign, charming naiveté to believe that a “sane” person could not murder almost sixty of his fellow human beings and wound hundreds more for seemingly no reason.

Behind that charm, however, I fear there is an ongoing assumption that “crazy” and “evil” are synonymous. It is this assumption, along with others, that stigmatizes mental health issues and discourages access to mental health care.

Whatever complex web of motives and drives that led to the Las Vegas shooting emerges, I propose the following:

Evil is real.

Now, what are you doing to thwart it?

May I suggest calling your elected officials and telling them you oppose the Dickey Amendment? If you get the answering machine, keeping trying. That means it’s working. 

Stay safe,

-L

Ackerman’s “Trotsky” Enjoyable…Except for the Errors

Preface

It’s been a hard few weeks for me, hard for me to face the blank page and (in my own mind, at least) provide some wit or wisdom to anyone who might read this blog.

Me? I, myself, am fine. The news has been deplorable, even more than usual. People in my social circles, including close friends, have been suffering terribly.

But, I remember I promised reviews of my summer reading, and remember that writing for you always makes me feel better.

With that said, let’s talk about violence.

Since Monday was the anniversary of Trotsky’s death (by ice ax, not by ice pick, see Fig. 1) he gets to go to the front of the review backlog line.

The story of his murder is one for the ages. I should feature it some time.

Fig. 1–Know your weapons. This will be on the quiz.


Ice ax. Similar to weapon used to kill Trotsky. (Wikipedia)


Ice pick. Still deadly, but not used on Trotsky. (Wikipedia)

The Book

Trotsky in New York 1917: A Radical on the Eve of Revolution
Kenneth D. Ackerman
Counterpoint Press
2016

Even before the book begins, you can tell Ackerman is not a historian or political scientist.

And, for the most part, it works well.

Ackerman is a New York lawyer who has set his hand to retelling that great city’s history. Trotsky is his second work, chronicling the ten weeks the Russian radical, expelled from war-torn Europe for anti-war writings, lived in the Bronx with his common-law wife and their two children.

I sort this as relevant to true-crime fans because 90% of what Trotsky and his comrades had done in their lives up to this point was illegal. There is also plenty of spy intrigue and conspiracy going on separate from their plan to overthrow the capitalist order.

For “serious” historians of the Russian Revolution, (and trust me, I’ve read them) this period of time gets maybe two pages in a 900-page book. To see so much effort put into a generally-ignored period is like seeing your favorite canon characters in a spin-off movie of the best kind.

For anyone not familiar with Trotsky, Ackerman’s book is a gentle introduction in a novelistic tone.

For anyone not partial to Trotsky, the book is still enjoyable for its portrait of Gilded-Age New York, a time of optimism and social ferment. As the Russian Marxist exiles write and argue, separated from the horrors of WWI by an ocean, oblivious to the wars they will soon begin, even the most cynical reader has to admit there is at least a slight charm to their idealism.

Ackerman’s passion for the project shows even from the dedication, which is to his grandparents, who “fled Poland for America as a result of the 1920 Soviet Russian invasion…led by the then Soviet people’s commissar for military and naval affairs, Leon Trotsky.”

Yeah, spoiler alert: the Bolsheviks win. Next spoiler: Trotsky still ends up losing (see Fig. 1 above).

But passion does not save Ackerman from some egregious factual, or editing, mistakes. One of these, which still makes my eye twitch thinking about it, comes early in the book. Introducing Lenin to readers on page seventeen, Ackerman includes a quote from a contemporary…a quote about Trotsky.

A quote about Trotsky that is a fairly well-known quote about Trotsky.

(For clarity’s sake, this quote is the one that describes Trotsky as stalking around the speakers’ dais like “a bird of prey.”)

I forgive Ackerman these few…infuriating…slips because of his genuine commitment to the book, which shows forth in a novelistic, bubbly style.

3/5 stars: a nice popular history…the errors in which make this thesis survivor histrionic.
1/5 ‘fraidy cats: This is the
Downton Abbey of my summer reading.
1/5 ick-factor: I suppose it depends on your political leanings.

Update: Mr. Ackerman reached out to me in the comments to very graciously thank me for catching the error with the quote. He says it will be corrected in the next edition of the book. I thought his thoroughness deserved recognition immediately after my initial critique.

 

There Are No Coincidences–A Statement on Charlottesville

“If thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him”

In the wake of violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, on last Saturday, I think it is necessary to say something.

I am not a person of any notable influence, but I am a human being, and this is my responsibility to prevent.

I am also a white American. The ugly history of racism in this country, which inspired the “Unite the Right” rally last weekend and the murder of a peaceful counter-protester, is my responsibility to acknowledge and face.

I committed no crime on Saturday.

And the LORD said unto Cain “Where is Abel thy brother?” And he said “I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?”

But I abet that crime if I do not decry it. I admit my shame and guilt that it has taken me these last few days to find my words.

And the LORD said, “What hast thou done? Thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.”

It is no coincidence that actual Nazis had rallied to protect a public display of support for the Confederacy, which was formed to protect the rights of slave owners.

It is no coincidence that Klansmen showed up with the actual Nazis.

It is no coincidence that a rally in support of genocidal views ends in murder.

“And now thou art cursed from the ground, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand.”

It is no coincidence that an American president refuses to condemn Nazis and other white supremacists by name on the day of the attack, and instead blames many “sides”.

There is only one side at fault here.

It is no coincidence the aforementioned president only condemned the Nazis and the KKK on Monday after people of goodwill, including many elected officials of his own party, called on him to do so.

It is no coincidence that, Monday night, the Boston Holocaust Memorial was vandalized–for the second time in a season.

It is no coincidence that, today, unable to restrain even his basest and most politically self-destructive desires, the American president reverted to his previous statement, blaming the counter-protesters for being run over.

It is no coincidence that far-right groups are loving his response.

“Then shall they also answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?’

And if, after all this, you still think these are coincidences–

I invite you to take a long look in the mirror.

-L

 “Then shall He answer them, saying, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.'”

 

Verses adapted from the KJV translation