A Tortured Mind

bullseye center illustration round
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

My mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder by multiple doctors. There was no cure for her disease, but there were pharmaceutical treatments that worked for a time and then invariably had to be adjusted. She faced a lifetime of dealing with a chronic illness that required both patience and vigilance, which was not always easy because there were moments when she was not a pleasant person at all. In those instances she was unable to sleep, and lost track of time. She was filled with paranoid ideas and conspiracy theories that she felt compelled to share in the middle of the night. Her explosions of emotion and fear sometimes resulted in vile utterances that were difficult to hear. My brothers and I not only had to be forceful in providing her with the care that she needed, but had to worry about what she might do or say to get herself into a difficult situation with strangers who might be frightened by her aggressive and strange behavior. It was a battle that we fought for her for well over forty years.

I was thinking of my mom and the problems associated with her mental illness when the firestorm over Roseanne Barr erupted last week. The egregious and racist nature of Ms. Barr’s tweet about Valerie Jarret left me loathing her even more than I already did. I think I only watched her show one time back when it was the original series. I loved John Goodman, but I was unable to identify with the crudity of Roseanne. In other words I was not a fan. Still, I knew many people who loved the show and I had to admit that she had a certain talent even if I did not appreciate it. “To each his own” was my reaction to her fame and popularity while I generally ignored her and knew little about her.

When she and her former cast returned for a reboot of the sitcom I found myself wondering why we have so little originality these days that we keep returning to old ideas. Perhaps it is a longing for a quieter past, a time before 9/11, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the civil war of words and political ideas that is so prevalent today. I wasn’t sure what the rationale might be, but I saw no harm in giving a particular segment of the audience the kind of comedy that they wanted while I watched The Middle.

Then came the Roseanne firestorm after her rambling ugly tweets resulted in her firing by ABC. To be clear the First Amendment protects her from punishment by the government, but not from repercussions at work. In fact, all of us would do well to understand that our public statements can and often will be seen as a reflection on our employers who have every right to let us go if they feel that we have gone too far. I can’t imagine anyone believing that Ms. Barr did not go too far. As an educator I recall instances when we meted out severe punishments including expulsion to students who voiced similar racist comments. There are certain lines over which none of us should ever cross, and if we do we must expect to pay the consequences.

By her own admission Roseanne Barr suffers from bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. When she attempted to excuse her horrible tweets by noting that it was the middle of the night and she had taken Ambian I found myself wondering if she was in the throes of a manic episode. It was probably not her sleep aid that caused her rants, but rather her disease and the fact that it does not allow her to sleep the way she needs causes her to lose all caution with regard to what she says and does.

My mother once described bipolar disorder as an illness that caused her to say and do mean things when she didn’t want to do. She explained that she felt a compulsion to strike out at people that she was unable to control even when she tried. I know that I was the victim of her hurtful behavior many times over, but I understood what was causing the disturbances. People outside of the family simply found themselves wounded to the point of wanting to avoid her all all costs.

I in no way defend Rosanne Barr. I find her to be a foul mouthed and hateful person. Even if her tweet was indeed intended to be a joke it was far too ugly to be humorous. Her thoughts rarely change, so I believe that the essence of what she believes is contained in them, and that spirit is highly toxic. My mother was truly like two different people. When she was well everything about her was delightful and loving. It was only when she was sick that a kind of darkness prompted by fears came forth. On the whole she was a good person. I can’t say the same about Ms. Barr who seems to take delight in putdowns and shaming no matter what the situation.

An even more ridiculous argument in Roseanne’s favor is to point to others who are just as guilty of horrific comments and note that they have not been fired. That is akin to saying that just because someone else hasn’t been called to task for bad behavior, nobody should be. It is a circular defense that simply does not fly.

Our entire society is a bit sick right now. We need to be honest with ourselves and step back a bit before we find ourselves up against a wall from which there is no retreat. In many ways we have lost our national honor and are all too often guilty of perpetrating disgusting behaviors by our silence and even misguided support of acts and utterances that we know to be wrong. If we do not get a grip on this situation it will overtake us, for surely we are being manipulated by powerful forces whose only goal is to have power.

I actually feel sad for Roseanne Barr even though I find her to be despicable. I think that she is crying for help and nobody is really listening. I hope that those who love her will see the signs of her tortured mind and get her the relief that she needs. That will require a dose of kindness and medical attention. Hopefully her horrific pain won’t just be ignored, and I pray that we will not further divide ourselves by foolishly agreeing with the wanderings of her very sick and tortured mind.

Advertisements

The Car

pexels-photo-681335.jpeg

The stories on the television series This Is Us are so heartwarming and real that rarely a week goes by that I do not identify with some aspect of an episode. They have a universal appeal that reaches into the heart and soul of who we are as members of a family. I have duly noted the kinship that I have with the characters depicted on the show. As with my own situation there are three siblings, a girl and two boys, who continue to struggle with the impact of their beloved father’s death. I have known the pain of their loss of their father all too well, and like them I have never quite come to grips with the reality of the situation even years later. The writers of the series are certainly gifted to make each of us feel as though they have somehow tapped into our own personal memories. The title itself hints that we are all part of a great big family of mankind that endures the same types of struggles. The characters are us. Their history is ours.

A recent episode of This Is Us was titled The Car, a brilliant look at how an inanimate object becomes a symbol for a father’s love and all that is good about a family. The storyline was particularly touching for me because it was one car that devastated my family and another that brought us a new day of hope.

My father was a Pontiac man. He loved the sporty nature of that brand and insisted on getting a new one almost as soon as the last payment was made on the one he was driving. He had proudly purchased a brand new Pontiac with all of the bells and whistles for our move from Houston, Texas to San Jose California. It was an automobile boasting the kind of luxury that earned second glances as we drove down the road. It carried us in grand style and comfort thousands of miles to our new home. When things didn’t work out there it brought us back to Houston and the promise of a fresh start in familiar surroundings. We used it to visit friends and family whom we had missed while we were gone. We drove it to inspect houses that we might purchase to set up a household. We were planning to take it to the beach on Memorial Day to launch a summer on the Gulf Coast. We loved that car and the sight of our daddy sitting so happily behind the wheel. How could we have known that it would become the instrument of his death?

He died in that car on a lonely stretch of road when he accidentally drove into a deep ditch that was unmarked and laying in wait on a dark night. It had no seatbelt to protect him, no collapsable steering wheel, no exterior designed to take the brunt of the crash. Instead the car built as it was became a weapon that crushed his chest and stopped his heart. It would change our lives and create questions in our minds that haunt us even to this day.

We would later find evidence of our father’s loving nature in the gifts that he had already purchased in anticipation of his wedding anniversary and my mother’s birthday. A card would arrive in the mail from him with a postmark from the day before he died. He had used his car to plan for a future that would never come for him. He was dead and the car had become a heap of scrap.

My mother had to pull herself together somehow. She began the process of building a new kind of life for us, and for that she needed a car. The one that she purchased became the auto that would carry us through our youth and into our adulthood. It was a homely thing, almost ugly, but it was reliable. It was painted in a two tone pattern of white and a strange beige color. It had ordinary cloth seats and rubber mats on the floorboard. It was as basic as a car might be, not even possessing an automatic transmission or an air conditioner. It was so unlike anything our father might have purchased, but my mother was able to pay for it with the insurance money that she received from his accident. It was so stripped down that there was very little that might break, and best of all she owned it. It was a good car in spite of its appearance and it became the vehicle that drove us into our future.

Once we managed to move beyond our grief that car became a source of great fun. We used it to visit our grandparents in Arkansas, and piled inside on Friday nights to meet up with our aunts and uncles and cousins. We sat inside it at drive-in movie theaters enjoying grand epics on the big screen even as we batted the mosquitoes that buzzed about. We ran our weekend errands and drove to church in our ever faithful auto. We motored to Dallas and San Antonio for vacations, and went to Corpus Christi to enjoy the ocean that our dad had so loved. When we were sick we sat safely inside the car as we traveled to see the doctor. The car took us to ballgames and bowling alleys, pancake breakfasts and excursions at the mall.

From time to time one of our mechanically inclined uncles would change the oil, rotate the tires, or install a new battery. Year after year passed and it was that ugly old car that took us to the places where we celebrated the milestones of our youth. It was ever dependable, always waiting to help us enjoy a new adventure. It helped us to heal and to move on from the tragedy that had so changed us. It served us as well as anything might have, requiring little attention to keep faithfully working.

About the time that I was close to graduating from high school my mother decided that it was time to replace the car which was nearing its eighth or ninth year of service to our family. One of my cousins purchased it from her and our next car was a great deal fancier, but somehow not as comforting as the old one had been. I found myself missing our friend even as we toured the city in grander style more akin to the kind that our father had always enjoyed. We had carpet on the floorboards and air conditioning to keep us cool, but somehow it would never feel as secure as “The Car” had been. In fact, I have few memories attached to the new model. It would always be that ugly old stripped down Ford that I would remember with so much fondness.

It’s funny how a car can become such a vivid part of life, representing all of the things that are good about its owners. That’s the way it was with ours. The car was one of us and we loved it.

Some People Are Too Special For That

2016-09-28-1475071877-4911931-OprahI love, love, love Oprah Winfrey. I used to record her talk show every single day. It was one of my favorite programs, mostly because of Oprah. She introduced me to so many books that ultimately became treasures. I have subscribed to her magazine since its inauguration and garner many wonderful ideas for my blogs from its pages. I probably watch OWN as much as any other cable channel. Oprah understands me and what I like. I almost feel as though we are girlfriends even though we have never even met. I think so much like her that we might as well be sisters. I was certain that she would choose my school for her annual teacher giveaway the year that we took over four hundred kids from New Orleans under our care when their city was so destroyed by hurricane Katrina. The letter that I wrote to Oprah describing the wonderful sacrifices that our teachers had made was heartfelt, just the sort of thing that usually attracts her attention. I didn’t get angry when I didn’t even get an acknowledgement of my efforts. I understand that she is so busy and has the whole world asking her for attention and favors. I still loved her when we did not win and always will, and one of my most cherished dreams is to spend an afternoon talking with her over a cup of tea.

Oprah’s speech at the Golden Globes was wonderful, breathtaking. She definitely knows how to bring down the house. She has such a genuine way with words that few possess. I believe that she is a truly compassionate woman, a role model for all of us, especially young girls. I’m also enough of a realist to acknowledge that there will probably never be an end to the kind of behaviors that some men have forced on women for centuries. I suppose that I am a bit of a cynic when it comes to evil. I don’t see it evaporating any time soon, not even if we work hard to eradicate it. There was a time when I was a cockeyed optimist, but those days are long past. I’ve seen too much to honestly think that the tide has completely turned. We’ll no doubt see some improvement, and that is a good thing, but the beautiful picture that Oprah painted in her speech won’t materialize in totality. Still I suppose that there is nothing wrong with aiming high. After all who would ever have thought that a young girl from Oprah’s circumstances would have become one of the most powerful people on earth? She showed everyone what is possible, and has done it with so much grace that there is now great excitement over the prospect of an Oprah Winfree presidential bid.

I suppose that if a rather ignorant goofball who is little more than a very successful salesman can become president there is no reason why Oprah should feel any reluctance to run. Her  speech was stunning, and proved that she can command our attention. In truth that is part of the problem for me. Oprah provided us with a wonderful collection of words, but the job of president is much bigger than nice thoughts.  Even running a business doesn’t appear to be as important as we once may have thought. I’m frightened every single day by the lack of knowledge and experience of the man who now sits at the helm. Frankly I would prefer that we replace him with someone who has run a city or a state or at least served in Congress.

The problems that we face are way bigger than a personality. We need to tackle real issues and that is going to take a great deal of understanding of how things work in the government. Maybe Oprah is diplomatic and intelligent enough to deal with those who have a handle on things, but I have grown weary of watching an amateur attempt to learn on the job. Then there is also the selfish reason that I so love Oprah that I do not wish to see her torn apart, and that is almost a certainty if she tries out for the job. Every minor blip in her background will become fodder. The most popular woman in the country will gain enemies from among people who were once her fans. It will be a feast of scavengers attempting to dig up dirt on her or her family and friends. It will be ugly and heartbreaking. I so desperately need to have at least one unadulterated icon, and for me that is Oprah Winfree. I want her to be a beacon of hope in a world that is far too dark. I see her purpose as being everyone’s best friend, mentor, sister, inspiration. I don’t want her to have to focus on nitty gritty when she does so much good right now. She has found a beautiful niche that helps us to see the good in the world. I just don’t want to lose that by having her play a very difficult role. Instead perhaps she should stick to finding great candidates and endorsing them like she has done in the past. That is her real talent.

Maybe Oprah can guide us to the person that she views as our saving grace. Perhaps it will be another run by Bernie Sanders, or maybe she thinks that it is Corey Booker’s turn. This may be the moment for Joe Biden. He’s a good man with a great deal of experience and a phenomenal sense of humor. I sometimes think that we need to find our sense of humor again and he’d be great at that. We may instead be more ready for a woman or an Hispanic, but please don’t take Oprah from the things that she does so well. We need her just the way she is right now.

I’ve already heard the rumblings of the kind of critiques that will be hurled at Oprah. There are mentions of some of the pseudo scientific ideas that she has supported. Those will become even bigger issues if she decides to run and we frankly don’t need the distractions. Furthermore I just don’t think that I will be able to handle the insults that will fly out of Donald Trump’s mouth, not the ones aimed at Oprah anyway.

We have had a tendency in the last many decades to choose our leaders based more on a cult of personality than the real issues. We lean toward charisma and dynamic speaking ability rather than a sound resume. We tend to forget or ignore how complex the world has become in the search for easy answers, quick fixes. If the last year has taught us nothing, it should be that we need a president who is utterly familiar with the national government and the issues that are most in need of repair. Let’s keep Oprah as our counselor in chief, the person who cares for our social needs and leads us to knowledge. That’s where her strength lies. I want to know that her lovable reputation will remain intact. I don’t want her to feel anything but the love we have for her. She has provided us with so much pleasure and that’s the way that I want it to stay.

The last years of my professional life were particularly rewarding. Had it not been for Oprah Winfrey they never would have happened. I watched her interviewing Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin the founders of the KIPP Charter Schools and I became intrigued. When I had an opportunity to get a job at one of their campuses I was already onboard based on what I had heard on Oprah’s program. I have her to thank for bringing such great pleasure in my life, and I want her to be free to continue in that direction for as long as possible. We need Oprah Winfrey, but not for President of the United States. Some people are more special than that.

Hard Choices

winston_churchill

On New Year’s Eve my husband Mike and I went to see the movie The Darkest Hour which is a presentation of the early days of Winston Churchill’s tenure as Prime Minister of Great Britain. It was May of 1940, and Adolf Hitler was marching across Europe seemingly with ease. One country after another had fallen under his conquest and it appeared as though he was unstoppable. Many in Great Britain were certain that the only logical choice for the empire was to broker a peace deal that would allow them to maintain independence while acceding to German influence. There was much talk that Britain had neither the manpower nor the stomach to endure a war with the superior German forces. It almost seemed inevitable that the country would fall just as so many European nations had already done. It was indeed one of the darkest hours in the history of the country.

Winston Churchill had only recently replaced Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister. The government had lost confidence in Chamberlain and his efforts to maintain peace with the Germans appeared to be appeasement rather than diplomacy. He was being blamed by some for the fall of so many of Britain’s allies and Churchill was reluctantly chosen to replace him as head of the government even though many believed that his tenure would be short-lived. He had not particularly distinguished himself in either World War I or his other forays into governing. Many thought that he would soon be replaced by Lord Halifax who was viewed as a more reasoned leader. Furthermore there was great concern about Churchill’s unwillingness to consider a peace accord with Hitler, whom he considered to be a despicable despot unworthy of deference of any kind. 

At the time the entire British army of 300,000 troops was hopelessly trapped by German troops in Dunkirk and seemingly on the verge of total destruction leaving Britain completely unprotected. In a desperate move Churchill commanded one of his admirals to distract the Germans so that civilian sailors might employ their crafts to rescue the stranded troops. It was a daring plan that many thought was dangerously foolhardy. Churchill understood that it was instead the country’s last hope, and he was joined by the King in believing that any peace deal with the Germans was unacceptable. He did not believe that Britain would really be allowed to be independent of Nazi rule, and he could not imagine being able to accept the sight of Nazi flags flying over Buckingham Palace. He remained firm in his resolve to fight off the invading German army one way or another.

Churchill ultimately garnered the support of the government as well as the people of Great Britain when he delivered a stirring speech in which he insisted that Britain would fight to the last man, and if that was not successful then they would rely on being rescued by the other nations of the commonwealth and the people of the new world. His unflinching challenge captured the imagination of his countrymen, and as Lord Halifax noted Churchill had commandeered the English language into the battle.

We know of course what the rest of history was. The United States entered the fray a year and half later, and Hitler split his forces and resources by embarking on a new front of war with Russia. Ultimately he was defeated and Britain never came under his rule. But for the courage of Winston Churchill many historians argue that Europe may have been dominated by Germany and been changed in ways that would have had even more horrific consequences for mankind than they did.

The Darkest Hour was a captivating movie and Gary Oldman did a yeoman’s job of portraying Winston Churchill. More importantly was its story which made clear the dire situation of the world in 1940. I learned many things that I had never before known and they gave me a better perspective of what it must have been like to live during that era, particularly in Europe. This truly is a movie that everyone should take the time to see, but sadly the audience on the day that I went was almost totally comprised of individuals either my age or older. I only saw three young men in the entire crowd which is truly a shame because I doubt that most of today’s millennials have any idea of how dangerous the world situation was back then. I hear so many people today complaining that this is the most menacing time in history, and while there is certainly a grain of merit in such pronouncements I also have to wonder if our present situation even compares to what was happening in the spring of 1940 when the very face of Europe and Asia was changing so rapidly that it appeared that there would be no way to stop the autocratic land grabs. It chills me to even consider what the world might have become without the courage and determination of Great Britain and its eventual allies in the fight against fascism and fanaticism.

There is a popular series on Amazon called The Man In High Castle that considers what the world would be like if Hitler had succeeded in his goal of world domination. It is a dark look at the possibilities that were actually closer to fruition than most of us ever thought. The United States was still little more than a second rate nation at the beginning of that war, totally ill prepared for the battles to come. In the first weeks of the conflict they were utterly befuddled and defeated, but somehow just as with the citizens of Great Britain the American people maintained their resolve to defeat the evil of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party. With the combined efforts of some brilliant military men, the bravery of the troops, and the luck of bad decisions by Adolf Hitler good ultimately triumphed over evil, but it is horrifying nonetheless to even imagine how things might have been had the Germans actually won.

If you have not yet gone to see The Darkest Hour or have yet to even consider viewing it, I highly recommend that you do so. Be sure to take your middle school and high school age children with you as well as the young adults in your family. We learn from our history and the story outlined in the film is one that is probably not familiar to most of us when it should be. We face our own tyrants in today’s world and we need to consider the lessons learned in the past as we make important decisions. We also must ask ourselves just how willing we will be to look the other way when we see monsters denying people the human rights that we all deserve. When do we compromise with them and when is it time to draw a line. We need to know these things because the time may come when such hard choices will have to be made. 

Stayin Alive

article-2708593-04EAC45700000514-459_634x652-optimisedForty years ago the iconic movie Saturday Night Fever debuted and became not just a an instant hit, but a film classic. I was a twenty nine year old mom with two little girls and a sense that a lifetime of adventures lay ahead of me. I had matured beyond my years not just due to my parental responsibilities, but also because I had helped my mother through two difficult mental breakdowns and had watched helplessly as my husband endured chemotherapy to combat a life threatening disease. Still I was young at heart and ecstatic when my mother suggested that we go see the movie together. I knew that it was not the kind of fare that my husband would enjoy, so I was happy to have a companion with whom to share the enjoyment of escaping into a world of music and dance for a few hours.

Back then there were still several drive in movie venues in the Houston area and Mama thought that it would be fun to watch the flick in the comfort of her car. Just as she had done so many times when my brothers and I were children she created a bed for my girls in the back seat of her automobile and brought sandwiches, cold drinks and a huge bag of homemade popcorn for our dining pleasure. I loved that she was feeling so healthy that she was her old self, and I laugh now that it never occurred to either of us to consider that perhaps the content of the film might be a bit inappropriate for my underage children. We headed off with great anticipation, glad to be a group of girls out on the town.

As it happened we were all stunned by the movie. John Travolta amazed us with his dancing and the music from the Bee Gees and other disco groups of the era was incredible. We were even surprised by the actual quality of the story and the acting. My daughters who were then three and six years old never fell asleep, because they were as taken by the film as my mother and I were. I assumed that they were unable to understand the adult nuances of the plot and simply enjoyed the characters, the soundtrack and the display of talent. As for my mom and I, we were smitten and felt like a couple of giggly teenagers as we gushed about the film on our way home. Both of us had fallen for John Travolta in his white suit, and my mom who was a stunning dancer in her own right gave him a high grade for his artistry.

I suppose that I reverted to the silliness of a high school groupie when I recounted our evening to my husband. He sensed my excitement and because he has always been quite sensitive to my every need purchased several items related to the movie as Christmas gifts for me that year. Among them was the soundtrack album which I wore out with repeated playings. The girls and I danced our hearts out on many a day, pretending that we were boogying on a disco dance floor in a contest that we would surely win.

In addition to the music my man gave me the iconic poster of John Travolta dazzling the world in that gorgeous white suit in a dance pose that seemed to represent the disco era in all of its glory. I mounted the image inside my closet door and there it stood for decades making me smile every single time that I caught a glimpse of it. It made me love my husband even more because it was symbolic of his efforts to make me happy as much as possible. While I knew that he thought that my giddiness was silly, he enjoyed seeing me smile, and so he never once suggested that maybe it was time that I finally remove my remembrance of a movie that I truly loved.

When my man and I celebrated our anniversary the following year he even went so far as to present me with a lovely dress and a pair of shoes most suitable for a night at a discotheque, as well as a promise that he to take me dancing. This was the ultimate sacrifice on his part and a sign of his undying devotion to me, because everyone who has ever known him understands that he does not like to dance. I have often joked that he is almost perfect save for that one little glitch. The very idea that he was going to subject himself to a night of twirling me in rhythm to the music was stunning, but he indeed spent an entire evening making me incredibly happy as I imagined that he and I were the most striking couple on the floor. My purple dress and and new hairstyle were virtual clones of the outfit that Travolta’s partner wore in the film and my spouse was stunningly handsome. It was a night that I shall never forget.

Somehow the next forty years flew by. Drive in movies became as difficult to find as dinosaurs. My mom continued to endure peaks and valleys in her fight with mental illness. She and I and my daughters continued to dance to whatever the latest tunes happened to be. My husband reverted to his old ways and rarely tapped his feet again unless he heard the strains of a Michael Jackson tune. My children grew into lovely young women and there came a day when that old poster that still hung inside the closet had begun to dry rot. When I finally took it down it tore in so many places that I threw it away rather than attempting to salvage it. Nonetheless, I always remembered how much I had enjoyed Saturday Night Fever.

My youngest daughter laughs to think that my mother and I actually took her to see the movie when she was only three years old. It seems that she understood a great deal more than we had imagined, but it doesn’t appear to have harmed her in any way. Like me she recalls the dancing and the music so fondly and eventually she and I sat down with her daughter to relive the moment when we became so enchanted with the film long ago. We laughed at how we had missed the scene when John Travolta was preparing for his evening on the town. There he was in all of his glory blowing his hair dry while wearing nothing but a pair of black briefs. With the beauty of modern technology we were able to rewind the scene any time that we wished, and like adolescents we took full advantage of that feature while we laughed at our silliness and my granddaughter rolled her eyes.

Back in 1977, I had barely begun my lifetime of teaching. I had not even met so many of the people who would become my dear friends. I was exiting a dark and difficult time and had become far stronger than I had ever imagined I might be. My optimism was full blown in spite of the stops and starts that had changed the trajectory of my life. Saturday Night Fever gave me a moment when I did not need to feel so serious. It provided me with a memory of just how fun my mother actually was. It blunted that pain that I had so recently endured and helped me to realize that with a balance of work and play in my life I would be able to handle any challenge that came my way.

So much has changed in forty years but the essence of the human heart and its longings that the film portrayed so well is virtually the same. Each of us have dreams and experience love and joy along with tragedy. We find ways to heal and to move ever forward. If we can do so with a lilt in our steps and a little song inside our heads, we are all the better. It’s how we stay alive.