Voices From The Dead

Posted January 20, 2018 by Vanessa Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

David G. Russell, Jr., died in February 2017. He was 48 years old. Jamie A. Russell — whom I take to be David’s brother — died in January 2001. He was 29.

That’s all I know about them, except for their birthdates. David was born on August 29, 1968. Jamie was born on October 8, 1971.

They were born three years apart, with Jamie being the younger. But they died 16 years apart. That’s a big difference. They both died young, but Jamie died really young. And he died way before his older brother.

Older brothers are supposed to die first. That’s the law. Except there is no such law. But if there were ordinary justice in Nature, the older you are, the sooner you would die.

Young equals life. Old equals death.

But in the case of the Russell brothers, both were too young to die when they did. Neither was old enough by modern, industrial standards. Twenty-nine? Forty-eight? Way too young!

I can also tell you what they looked like, thanks to the obituary pages of today’s New Haven Register. In a fuzzy photo on the left, it’s Jamie, I assume, smiling directly at the camera. It’s a close-up of just his face and a tiny bit of clothing at the base of his neck. He could be wearing a shirt and dark jacket or a military uniform. You can’t really tell. He looks like a friendly fellow. Open-faced, warm, confident attitude.

David on the right, in a separate photo, seems to be wearing a tuxedo. His face is fuller than Jamie’s. His cheeks are puffier. His head is slightly tilted. He is smiling directly at us.

Both men have high foreheads. They don’t look like brothers, but that’s not unusual. My uncles Joe, George and Fred didn’t look like each other, either.

But here’s the thing. What I’ve just told you about David and Jamie Russell is all the information about them that’s in the newspaper. There’s nothing else. Just the two separate photos and the listing of their birth and death dates.

Except for this: the words, “Remember Us” printed at the bottom of the dates.

Just that: “Remember Us.”

Someone in their lives doesn’t want David and Jamie forgotten. But the words are written as if it’s the two brothers themselves speaking. “Remember Us,” they say. “Here we are in Death Number Two. Yes, we’re dead. But as long as you remember us, as long as someone remembers us, we are not completely dead. We’re still alive enough to inhabit your memories, your happiness and sadness.

“We wish we could be with you in person, in flesh and blood, in your time and your space. But death prevents this. All we ask is that you don’t let us go, don’t let us drift away into obscurity, into the Nothing that is forgetfulness.

“Just, every so often, Remember Us. That’ll be enough. That’ll help us still feel something that resembles what we used to call life, when we were together and death was just an idea.”

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Call It What It Is

Posted January 17, 2018 by Vanessa Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

Yes, they’re crazy. But they’re also evil. Their kind of craziness is no excuse. Sometimes you just have to call evil for what it is. And what David and Louise Turpin did to their 13 children is flat-out evil.

I don’t want to hear any mealy-mouthed excuses about the adults’ mental breakdown or their psychosis or their delusions. Hitler had delusions. Charlie Manson had delusions. But what those two historic murderers did — how they acted, the murders they caused to be inflicted on innocent people — were evil and should be and have been judged as such.

The same applies to the Turpins. The mother and father did not literally ‘murder’ their children. They did not shoot them or gas them or slit their throats. But they ‘murdered’ their children’s childhoods and tortured their minds and bodies into mental and emotional darkness.

The mother and father chained the children to the furniture . . . for years !! — and starved them so severely that the adults in their 20s look like little children. They keep their 13 children in darkened rooms away from the light and from potential friends.

The parents created a bogus home-schooling operation called the Sandcastle Day School and then proceeded to murder their children’s happiness, self-confidence, self-identity, emotional health, and mental development.

For that, the Turpins should be jailed forever. I am against capital punishment. But if I weren’t, I would argue that those two mild-mannered ‘neighbors’ should be executed.

There are some crimes for which mercy is inappropriate. This is one.

Actually, it is a multi-victim crime. Children as young as 2 and ‘adults’ as old as 29, have been tortured beyond the mind-body’s ability to think straight. It will take years for these children to ever be “normal.” Their lives have been so twisted by their evil parents and their horrendous childhood that what passes for normal is probably not an option.

As for the neighbors who lived just a few feet away on all sides of the Turpin’s house, how did they not sense that something was terribly wrong? All those children who almost never came outside?

One Christmas season, a couple of the children did come outside to hang some ornaments. When a neighbor from across the street spoke to them, the children froze and didn’t speak. Didn’t anyone take notice?

We’ve lost the concept of evil in our secular society. We see things as bizarre, crazy, fretful, scary, pathetic, psychotic, maniacal, weird, sick. But never evil. Every bad act is explained away as some bio-medical or psychological breakdown.

No one does anything evil anymore. All bad acts are just a “social disease” or a psychological pathology.

Well, count me out. I still see evil in the world.

And David and Louise Turpin have committed evil in the tiny world of their 13 children, and they should be put far away in cells without windows . . . and without confessionals.

I don’t want to ever hear them say that they’re “sorry.”

It’s way, way too late for that.

“Sorry” will never repair the awful crimes they’ve committed. Nor should “Sorry” ever be used to grant them a reprieve they will never deserve.

The Three Deaths

Posted January 10, 2018 by Vanessa Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

I suppose I could say, “What does it matter? When you’re dead, you’re dead. End of story.”

But it does matter to me. I will die. You will die. We all will die. That’s bad enough. But not to be remembered after we die: Somehow that’s like an extra death. A second oblivion.

To be dismissed without a second thought. To no longer be part of a family conversation or a friend’s musing. To never be referred to, recalled, remembered fondly or curiously or exasperatingly. To be forgotten for all time. To have no one ever say, “I remember when . . .” and then tell a little story about me or remember a comment I made or an anecdote in which I did something that someone noticed.

When I think of my upcoming death, I grow sad. It literally brings tears to my eyes. That’s because I find my life fascinating in big things and little things, in routines and in the freshness of discoveries and the texture of nuances. I live alone, and so I find life fascinating more or less by myself. I have no one in my daily life to share this fascination with. But that does not take away from the intensity and the intimacy with which I engage this little narrative called Me and My Life.

And when I finally do die — and at 80, I know it will happen sooner than ever before — I will weep with sadness. I will miss my life, even as it is leaving me, knowing that it will be gone forever.

Of course, if I am wracked with pain in my death days, then my regret at leaving life may be tempered a bit. I may feel, ‘Let’s get this over with !“ Or if I am in the depths of Alzheimer’s, I may not even notice that I’m dying.

But short of those two conditions, I will be sad at what’s happening and deeply sorry at what I am losing forever.

It took 13.8 billion years for me to get here. That’s how old scientists estimate the Universe to be. That’s a very long time. But still, buried deep within the unfolding contingencies of that enormous evolving mass of Everything was the tick-tocking inevitability of ME. No matter how long it took, I would eventually show up.

I know that, because here I am. Given enough time, a roomful of monkeys will type all of Shakespeare. Given enough time, even the Universe will find a way to produce ME. And it did. And here I am. But only for a short time.

But what is so existentially and metaphysically and every other way depressing for me is the reality that no matter how long it takes — even if it takes another 13.8 billion years — I will never again appear, never again be born, never again show up.

I was willing to wait those 13.8 billion years from when the Universe first exploded into existence. That was fine. If that’s how long it was gong to take, then I’d just drift through cosmic time until conditions were right. And then one day they were right. And one day I finally appeared.

But that will never happen again. Not in 13.8 billion years, not in 30 billion years. Not in the rest of Time and No-Time or in the Darkness of Non-Being.

No matter what: I will never, ever, ever exist again.

Except maybe under circumstances as portrayed in the current animated film, “Coco.” I have not yet seen the film. But today I heard an interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” with the two men who co-wrote and co-directed the film. (The film just won a Golden Globe as the Best Animated Film of the Year.)

In “Coco,” set in Mexico and using Mexican characters and Mexican myths, a person experiences three deaths. There’s the physical death, when the heart stops. There’s a second death, when the dead revisit the living through memory and celebration. And there’s a third death, when the dead person is no longer remembered. That’s the final and irretrievable death.

After that, it’s as if you never were.

One reason people write books and paint pictures and make sculptures and write music and photograph self-portraits and build pyramids and erect gravestones and fund universities and write and store essays on Internet blogs is to leave something of themselves behind that will trigger a remembrance.

Someone will remember us for a little while longer. We will still exist in our Second Death. Someone will recall what we said, what we did, how we looked, what we thought, how we performed, what we stood for.

And that will keep us alive for a little longer . . . sort of.

But not alive enough for us to actually sit under the black cherry tree at Lighthouse Point and watch the sun glance off the incoming tide.

Murder in the Backyard

Posted January 4, 2018 by Vanessa Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

Less than an hour ago, I watched a hawk in the backyard tear apart a small animal. It was probably a squirrel. The flesh was tough and stringy. Too tough for it to be a bird. And the hawk took a good half-hour to rip it apart. A bird or a mouse would have taken half that time.

It was clearly a murder. That the hawk ate the animal for food is no excuse, no extenuating circumstance.

We’ve had three and sometimes four squirrels in our backyard for the last year. They work hard, always on the go, always laying food away for later.

Sometimes they chase each other. Sometimes they steal some of the caged suet hung out for the birds. But by and large, they keep to themselves. They climb the blue spruce near the neighbor’s fence. They scale the old, dying crab apple tree in the middle of the yard. They scamper across the lawn, stop, dig a shallow hole, and deposit a nut or some other tidbit.

They are not troublemakers. They do not kill other animals. When I lay out a big spread of food — hulled sunflower seeds and peanut pieces on the ground under the blue spruce — the squirrels sit quietly and feast on the peanuts, alongside the sparrows and blue jays and grackles and cardinals. It is one hungry and peaceful family. Everyone tends to their own business.

And then the fucking predator shows up and kills a member of the family.

He rips its guts out and swallows the warm flesh. He needs food to stay alive. He is an Angel of Death feasting on the innocent and the vulnerable so that he can live to kill again.

That is his whole life: Living to kill again.

People make all kinds of excuses for predators. Predators are beautiful, they say. Look how they soar, how they glide. Look how strong and independent they are. Look how they clean up Nature’s surplus.

There were no surplus squirrels in our backyard, no extra birds. There was just the right amount. No one needed to come in and rip the shreds out of the body of one of the innocent. No one needed to be dispensed with.

This is the side of Nature that says, “In the end, you die. No matter how good you are, how much you keep to yourself, how peacefully you live with your neighbors: In the end, you die and I’m the one who kills you. The hawk is just an extension of my reach. He sucks the blood out of your last goodbye. He deposits you into Nothingness.”

That’s why I hate predators. They’re not on the side of life. They are the harbingers of death. They rip our guts out and pulverize our heart. They shred our remains across the landscape. They devour our innocence, our simple desire to live quietly, modestly, without fear.

But then suddenly, they drop out of the sky like helicopters — ‘Black Hawk Down!” — and bring death to the community.

They propagate like squads of killers searching for their next victim. They savor the blood of innocence. They justify their existence by destroying the families they cannot join.

They are the outsiders taking vengeance on the animals who have rejected them.

America’s symbolic animal is a predator: the American Eagle. Many say that is history’s indictment.

Ben Franklin was against the eagle as the new country’s symbol. He much preferred the Wild Turkey.

But in the world where power is everything, Ben, unhappily, would prove to be naïve.

Plus, and this would undermine a whole industry, the Wild Turkey is a vegetarian.

Taking Down the Tree

Posted January 1, 2018 by Vanessa Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

My brother Bill and I have just exchanged text messages on our cell phones. He and his wife, Mary Alice, and their dog Lucy, are huddled in their condo in Kansas City. I am huddled, two thousand miles away, in my apartment here in New Haven.

We and everyone else across the middle and northern third of the country are all huddled against the continuing blanket of Arctic air that has kept us marooned, in one form or another, for the past week. I have not gone on my daily morning two-mile walk for seven straight days.

I feel fat and sluggish.

I drove on my route for four of those days to feed the pigeons and sparrows. But I couldn’t hack it for the other three days.

I am old and don’t want to risk falling on ice.

Instead, I’ve been feeding the sparrows and grackles and blue jays and doves gathered in my backyard. I feed them three and four times a day and put out a water bowl each time filled with warm water. The birds not only drink heartily; they actually jump in the bowl to take a bath. Even with the surrounding temperature at 7 degrees.

I feel as if I’m under house arrest. All I lack is the ankle bracelet. It’s true that I have driven to the post office and to food stores during the past week. But it’s been slow going and very-cold going. The two to three inches of snow that fell four days ago are still with us.

In his text message, my brother said he spent today taking down his Christmas tree and listening to the music of Aaron Copland. “Always a bit melancholy,” he wrote.

He struck a chord. I wrote back:

“Tomorrow is my take-down-tree day. There is so much creative anticipation before Christmas. So much freshness and uniqueness about what is to come. It feels both brand new and part of a larger whole. Putting up the tree is like resurrecting everything good and sacred about childhood. But taking down the tree after a week and a half is like saying goodbye to our dreams. Like admitting that our dreams lack the stamina to change our lives and so need to be put away so we can return to a more mundane reality.”

When I was about 7 years old, my reality was anything but mundane. My mother and I were living with my grandparents, and it snowed one Christmas Eve. It was a light snow, no more than a couple of inches.

During the night, while I was asleep, my uncles Joe and George tied a long piece of rope to one of our sleds, threw the rope over my grandparents’ two-storey house, and then pulled the sled up the side of the house and then down across the roof next to the chimney.

When I woke up on Christmas morning, my uncles said, “Come, come outside. Quick. There’s something you should see.”

The three of us went outside and they pointed up at the roof.

“Look,” they said. “There’s where Santa parked his sleigh last night, when he came down the chimney.”

It was conclusive proof to me that, despite what some people might say, Santa not only existed, but that he actually visited our house that night.

Sled tracks in the snow on the roof. Who could argue with that?

My life has never again been as magical as it was that morning.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I learned — and had to accept — that tracks in the snow don’t always mean what you want them to mean.

And as I grew even older I learned the more adult message that nothing — nothing at all — is guaranteed to mean what I want it to mean.

And yet, next year, I will once again put up my tree — my “Magic Tree” — even though I know that I will never again see sled marks on a roof.

A fat man in a sleigh no longer rides through the night sky behind reindeer who soar without wings.

Today, we no longer dream such believable dreams.

And Then Came a New Year

Posted December 30, 2017 by Vanessa Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

Another New Year’s Eve approaches. Father Time hands off the hourglass to the little 2018 Baby.

Egg timers are upended. New calendars are hung on walls. New pocket diaries replace last year’s edition in our shoulder bags. New At-A-Glance Monthly Planners take up residence on our desks.

We drink champagne or wine to seal the deal. We kill millions of animals to eat at our celebrations. We add yet another year to our total in the human bank.

I learned on a PBS Nova special the other night that human beings have existed on Earth for 300,000 years.

That’s a long time from the human point of view. Imagine that: 300,000 years.

In all that time, we have managed to really screw things up. All those wars, all those massacres, all that hatred, all that waste, all those weapons, all those religions, all those sectarian blood-lettings, all those worries about who is using what bathroom and who is baking what wedding cake.

When it comes to angry confrontations, there’s never been a species quite like ours.

Yes, I know. We have built soaring cathedrals to our gods. We have invented the umbrella and the hydrogen bomb. We have painted great paintings in our Bronze Age caves and museums of modern art.

We have composed music to our kings and queens, to our generals and battlefields, to our lovers and landscapes.

We have written odes to nightingales and novels to war and peace. We have learned to fly in metal machines. We have learned to talk to each other over thousands of miles.

We have invented robots to replace us and diseases to destroy our enemies.

But most of all, we have taken endless turns embracing ourselves and denouncing those we don’t like. We love to denounce others. It gives us great satisfaction to pour insult and injury upon other humans.

We celebrate ourselves as the greatest creation in the history of the Earth and perhaps in the history of the cosmos. We boldly declare ourselves the Favorite Children of the Creator of the Universe.

But here’s the thing: We’ve only been around for 300,000 years. The dinosaurs, by contrast, ruled the Earth for 170 million years.

That’s 300,000 versus 170 million. It doesn’t take a math genius to see that we are outnumbered by many millions of years.

As a species, we haven’t even reached the one million mark, yet.

Yes, I hear you saying: “But we’re here now and the dinosaurs are long gone. So who’s the winner? It’s all about winning. And we’re here now and dinosaurs aren’t. So we won!”

But if you think about that Nova TV program, the dinosaurs could still be ruling the Earth. They could still be here and us not here. But suddenly this asteroid appeared.

It hurdled out of the sky one day and plunged with horrendous force into the sea near Mexico sixty-six million years ago.

That asteroid, traveling at 40,000 mph, hit the Earth with the force of 10 billion Hiroshima-type nuclear bombs. It left a hole under the sea seven-and-a-half miles wide and 20 miles deep.

It caused such havoc with the Earth’s atmosphere, throwing water and dust high into the air, which then surrounded the Earth and blocked the sun and, very shortly, wiped out forever 75 percent of all the species living on Earth at that time.

That included all the dinosaurs. No dinosaur was ever born again after that asteroid plunged into the Earth.

They were champions of the Earth for 170 million years. And then one day, they were all gone. Just like that.

We humans, meanwhile, who have only been around for 300,000 years — not even half-a-million, let alone 170 million — think we are such Big Shots that we will rule this Earthly kingdom until Time itself stops. Or until our Sun runs out of nuclear fuel, collapses into a White Dwarf or expands into a Red Giant and explodes with such force that it destroys our measly solar system.

But we don’t think about that. We’re too busy living day to day.

We treat Nature like a slave here to do our bidding. We wreck the Earth because we can. We spoil the waters because we can. We poison the air because we can. We slaughter animals because we can. Asteroids and dinosaurs are not in our line of sight.

Whatever we choose to do is ours to do. We are Lords of the Earth. (That’s what the dinosaurs thought about themselves. And they didn’t even invent the umbrella.)

And on New Year’s Eve, we treat the occasion as just another opportunity to proclaim our continued greatness. And on New Year’s Day, we put that greatness into action by watching football on television or, if we’re refugees, trying to find a clean, dry place to lie down and a bowl of soup to feed to our children.

The fact that there may be an asteroid way out there in the distant cosmos, headed our way, doesn’t even occur to us. Anymore than it did to the dinosaurs. When you fancy yourself in charge of the planet, thoughts about extinction are bad for morale.

The Myths of Christmas

Posted December 24, 2017 by Vanessa Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

It wasn’t his fault. He didn’t start out being tall and fat. A couple of centuries ago, he was tall, that’s true, but he was thin. A tall thin man in a long coat who showed up at Christmas time in Russia and East European countries to bring some toys and fruit and perhaps coal for the stove.

He may have been a priest at one time. Maybe he still was a priest.

Father Christmas, they called him. He may also have had a sack over his back filled with little treasures for the children. Nothing really big. Modest things for modest times. And he walked around. People saw him. He didn’t go up and down chimneys. He didn’t fly through the air with reindeer.

But times change, and myths change. There was Father Christmas and then Santa Claus. And long before either one of them, there was the myth of the baby in the manger.

The baby arrived without sex having produced him. His mother got pregnant, much to her husband’s surprise and perhaps distress. She got pregnant through the extra-terrestrial intervention of a god, so the story goes.

They were young and poor. They couldn’t afford a child, another mouth to feed. This pregnancy was not only unplanned and mysterious, but probably unwanted.

They couldn’t even find a hotel room for the night or a tent or a room-to-rent. So they slept in the back of some farmer’s house where he kept a few sheep and goats and perhaps a cow and a donkey.

A strong smell of hay and manure. Nothing like Buckingham Palace or Trump Tower.

It was a lousy way to bring a child into the world. Poor, cold, homeless, hungry, lonely.

Like many of today’s Syrian refugees.

But Syrian refugees are too real. They lack the right myth or any myth. Many of them believe in the wrong god. So to hell with them. Who wants them? Build a wall. Reject their passports.

Meanwhile, there’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” by Clement Moore. In the very old days, St. Nicholas was Father Christmas. Now he’s Santa Claus.

Whereas Father Christmas was a man of above average height, the St. Nicholas in Moore’s endearing poem is a midget. He drove, writes Moore, “a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.”

And the man directing them was “a little old driver.”

So you’ve got a miniature sleigh, miniature reindeer and a miniature man. And presumably, on the sleigh were miniature gifts. Nothing like a 40-inch high-definition TV or a modern grill or a big box of tools from Home Depot or a desk-top computer.

In those old days, gifts were modest. Children and adults were happy to get one or two small gifts.

In fact, the St. Nicholas in Moore’s poem didn’t put a single present under the tree. Not one. Those were the days when you were lucky to get a gift that fit in your sock that was hanging by the fireplace.

“He spoke not a word,” writes Moore, “but went straight to his work, And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk; and laying his finger aside of his nose, and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.”

As a midget, he found it easy to go up and down chimneys.

But modern times have changed all that. Today’s Santa is tall and fat. Really fat. Most Americans today are really fat. There’s no way he could go up and down a chimney, even if there were chimneys to go up and down in.

And now Americans expect tons of gifts under the tree. Tons and tons of gifts.

That’s how we measure happiness: by giving and receiving tons and tons of things. The more we give, the more we love. The more we get, the more we’re loved.

In the old days, some fruit, a small game or a little toy and maybe some candy or a piece of cake made children happy.

Nowadays, we dump carloads of things on our children, and they feel empty.

We need a new myth . . . something that involves . . . dogs !