Dead Is The New Black

March 11, 2009 § 3 Comments

John Berryman, poet, who jumped from a bridge in 1972, waving goodbye

John Berryman, poet, who jumped from a bridge in 1972, waving goodbye

A guy from Philip’s company jumped out the office window yesterday. Philip didn’t quite know how to talk about it. He’d never met the man. He seemed to both of us more of a casualty of war than an individual meeting his private fate, though the two can’t be separated.

I thought perhaps he was shorting financial stocks on the day of the big rally. It’s just as likely something in his personal life deteriorated over the weekend. But there are so many suicides lately. You can’t help thinking of the people who jumped from the twin towers. Maybe one of them woke up that beautiful Tuesday planning a dive, but you kind of doubt it.

The last person I knew who killed himself that way did have bad things happening in his personal life but was also a high-functioning paranoid schizophrenic (he worked for The New York Times). My mother is certain he thought hostile forces were coming for him and he was trying to escape. Of course all suicides think hostile forces are coming for them. The only difference is that some of us realize the forces are in our minds.

No, I’m not a suicide. I’m writing this, aren’t I? The dead don’t write. At least, they don’t write to me. I’ve never even come close except for the night of my first date with my husband—I was suicidal before he asked me out, not after—but I have suicidal ideation, as the shrinks call it.

“I’m going to jump out the window!” I said to my doctor several years ago.

“Go ahead,” he replied. “We’re on the first floor.” Smug little bastard…I forgot we were in the new office…

I like that phrase, though, suicidal ideation. It rolls off the tongue. You could use it to name a child. Suicidal Ideation Jones. Or Suicidal Ideation Napalm, if you want the correct initials.

My father used the car-in-the-closed-garage method, classic for the time and place (mid-60’s suburbia) and his character type (pain-avoidant, fastidious about his person). Two  teenage brothers I knew from Texas shot themselves while on LSD, my friend Susan’s father hung himself, and the others used pills.

You know all those life insurance policies that disallow benefits in the event of suicide within three years? I bet the ones past the three-year mark are all being yanked. Check the fine print. And keep in mind that your kids would probably prefer it if you pulled them out of their too-expensive schools and organized a family bank heist gang, or drove to Cleveland and squatted in an empty house.

Suicidal ideation isn’t meant to lead out the window. It’s like those sexual fantasies you have about…you know the ones I mean…you’d never really do that. In your mind, you’re allowed the most extravagant depravity. Keep it there.


John Berryman

Dream Song 127

Again, his friend’s death made the man sit still
and freeze inside—his daughter won first price—
his wife scowled over at him—
It seemed to be Hallowe’en.
His friend’s death had been adjudged suicide,
which dangles a trail

longer than Henry’s chill, longer than his loss
and longer than the letter that he wrote
that day to the widow
to find out what the hell had happened thus.
All souls converge upon a hopeless mote
tonight, as though

the throngs of souls in hopeless pain rise up
to say they cannot care, to say they abide
whatever is to come.
My air is flung with souls which will not stop
and among them hangs a soul that has not died
and refuses to come home.

Dream Song 29

There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
só heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry’s ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.

And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of.  Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late.  This is not for tears;
thinking.

But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing

Apocalypse Not

February 7, 2009 § 3 Comments

After a morning discussion with Philip about his fears for our future—I’m running of money and the publishers aren’t publishing; everyone in his company is getting a pay cut, plus no bonuses—he left to spend the day with Christine. I told him to have a good time and he muttered because he thought I didn’t mean it. But I did. After 8 ½ years my jealousy is like an old dog that sleeps all the time unless you kick it. It got kicked a few weeks ago and it’s keeping out of the way.

I worked on my novel for a couple of hours (7 pages!) and then went online. I decided to survey the fears of others, and sampled a dozen catastrophe blogs, the ones that insist we’re facing something far worse than the Great Depression: a meltdown of the whole system, capitalism kaput, riots, starvation—everything but a devolution into tree-living apes, though I’m sure there’s somebody talking about that.

Should I be more afraid? Should I make jokes? Would my building allow me to raise chickens in my bathtub? Will they allow it in six months?

I can’t sort through the welter of information to have any idea what’s coming. I don’t have the experience or education, not to mention that the future is notoriously surprising. I’m also better off than Philip, even though he has a job, because this great loss and uncertainty has unlocked my creativity in a way nothing has since I was a child and my brother and father died. But this time I know where grief leads and I’m not following. I can write from the bright side of change.

Of course it helps that I’ve lost money, not beloved people.

Philip was disparaging Facebook last night and I said that all this networking, connecting to friends and relatives who’d otherwise be far off the map, might be a great boon if we have a real Depression. More solidarity, more links to obtain help, barter, trade information and cheer. “It brings people together,” I said.

“So does war and plague.”

“I’m putting that in the blog.”

“It’s a good line, isn’t it?”

“Actually plague doesn’t bring people together. More the opposite.”

“It joins everyone in death.” He was scrolling through his blackberry to see if there were any responses to the memo he had to write at the last minute.

We were waiting for our chocolate soufflé in a French restaurant: his idea, his credit card. I had called him earlier to say—maybe we shouldn’t go out to eat, honey, I can cook—but couldn’t reach him because he was working so hard, now that his assistant has been laid off.

For the most part, it was a lovely evening. We talked politics and I reveled in his smarts—he has a kind of real-world intelligence I don’t, and most of my friends don’t. And when he jokes about death, it’s so unexpected (death’s my province, he loathes the place) that it lifts my spirits.

“What a pair we make,” he didn’t say, but he’s said it often before.

About the apocalypse blogs: this country suffers from a surfeit of imagination. Too many movies about a future dystopian America (road rage with zombies) too much excitement in the media about all things violent and strange. Too many guns and people who want to use them. Granted, we also have the experience of Katrina, and the stories of other countries’ collapses. Argentina on the one hand; Rwanda on the other.

In the current New Yorker, John Updike is quoted talking about the Great Depression. Where he grew up, in a small town in Pennsylvania, when hoboes came to the back door the custom was to give them a dollar. A dollar was a lot of money in the 1930’s. Are we so much worse now?

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