By a Nose

Story of his life.

My younger brother Mike is in the hospital in Las Vegas and doctors are clueless as to what’s wrong with him. He’s incoherent, agitated and doesn’t recognize our sister (who drove from Scottsdale to be with him) or even his own eight-year-old daughter. So far, all tests have come back negative.

He had a massive heart attack a few years ago (at age 50), has rampant diabetes, suffers from depression and has pretty much been living on borrowed time. My sister Patti and I always joked about him being indestructible, but we’re not joking now.

I take that back. Actually, we are. At first, Patti thought he might be faking the whole thing. Mike is a compulsive gambler and has had his share of ups and downs and lately there haven’t been too many ups. And him pulling the old “Vincent ‘The Chin’ Gigante-feigning-mental-illness-routine” is not entirely out of the realm of possibility.

The only theory that makes any sense to us right now is that maybe his diabetes has gotten so bad that it’s affecting the nerve endings in his brain and causing dementia, and that’s coming from the esteemed experts on the WebMD message boards.

My expert guess is that he’s just had enough. He’s talked about suicide before and his method just may be letting his health go to shit like this. Patti told me that she heard he was at the track last week and was on the verge of winning $250,000 in one of his crazy five-race parlays. His horse, like almost all of his horses, lost by a nose.

That’s the story of his life and maybe soon his death.

I Believe That Angels Are Robots

monty python god

OMG!

I recently took a quiz on Beliefnet called “What’s Your Spiritual Type?” And surprise, surprise – my score makes me a Hardcore Skeptic. I just missed out on being a Spiritual Dabbler by incorrectly answering d) robots to the question “I believe angels are….” Oh well.

So what do you believe in? (I know, I know, nobody said that there was going to be a quiz today…)

1. I believe that God:

a) Exists and intervenes in daily events

b) Exists but does not intervene in daily events

c) Exists but only in the imagination of crazy people

d) Has a small penis

2. When I think about issues of faith or spirituality, my foremost concern is:

a) A sense of connection to something larger than myself

b) A rational understanding of whether religious claims are valid

c) How much money is this going to cost me?

d) I wish there was something good to watch on TV right now

3. I believe the scripture I know best is:

a) Mostly or entirely mythology

b) Divinely inspired and mostly true

c) Should be viewed mainly as storytelling or metaphor, except for the Koran

d) The Koran is sacred (let’s go to the next question already!)

4. Which of these statements comes closest to expressing your most basic view regarding faith?

a) Faith is important because it helps us cope with the struggles and hardships of life

b) Faith is important because it makes the world a better place, by encouraging love and moral behavior

c) Faith is George Michael’s best song

d) Faith is the most demure sounding of all of the hooker names

5. I think prayer is:

a) Heard by God or angels, and for many people God or angels respond

b) Best understood as a form of meditation or moral awareness

c) Convenient when something crappy happens to you

d) Not as much fun as sexting

6. I think that following life:

a) There is an afterlife for the virtuous but no hell; the evil simply cease to exist

b) There is reincarnation or some other condition

c) There is nothing

d) The evil rule

7. Evil is present in the world because:

a) Of human failings; evil has no supernatural component

b) God or a Higher Power wishes to test people

c) Otherwise horror movies would really suck

d) Not sure, but I blame it on the Jews

8. I believe that angels:

a) Exist and intervene to assist the pure-hearted

b) Exist but only watch us, taking no action

c) Will not make the playoffs

d) Are robots

9. I believe that the Devil:

a) Exists and is active on Earth, working to corrupt men and women

b) Exists in the form of temptation to sin, not as a specific being

c) Has a closet filled with blue dresses

d) Speak of the Devil! Ozzy rules!

10. Each day’s newspaper brings reports of crimes, natural disasters, and disease. My most basic reaction is:

a) My faith is tested because I cannot understand how a just God could tolerate the agony of the world

b) I feel sadness, but accept that both the good and the bad of life are somehow part of God’s plan

c) I feel sadness because I just cracked open a box of chocolate chip cookies and ran out of milk

d) Thank God, none of that horrible stuff is happening to me!

11. What frustrates me most about faith is:

a) That it doesn’t prevent bad things from happening to me or my loved ones

b) That God allows so much suffering and evil

c) That there are way too many Jewish holidays

d) That those who have it never seem to shut the hell up about it

12. I believe there is a spirit world:

a) Made up of angels

b) Made up of the souls of people who lived before

c) Made up of rainbow cookies

d) Entirely made up

13. The spiritual quest for me is mostly about:

a) Finding a connection to God

b) Finding something greater than myself

c) Finding Nemo

d) Finding women

A Meditation on Meditation

crumb meditating

Feeling Crumby.

Since I started this blog, a number of my friends have suggested that I try meditation. And because I have such smart friends, I generally listen to what they have to say. So I asked my pal Charlie, who’s a former alter boy, current Buddhist and also the most Jewish-y person I know, to suggest a few books for beginners.

He recommended two titles: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki and Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I immediately downloaded them both to my iPad.

And felt so energized! This was going to be a piece of cosmic cake, I thought. I’ll plow through these books, they’ll instruct me on the art of Zen (“Nothing happens next. This is it.”) and I’ll be meditating my ass off in no time.

But first I played a few games on Words with Friends. And then got lost in Eyewitness, a great photography app. Oh look! I have mail! And that reminds me, I need to FaceTime with Zach and ask him about his first week at school.

After about an hour or so of iPadding (damn you to hell, Steve Jobs!), I finally did take a peek at one of the books and the passage below stopped me cold, which is appropriate because it’s about the concept of stopping:

Try stopping, sitting down, and becoming aware of your breathing once in a while throughout the day. It can be for five minutes, or even five seconds. Let go into full acceptance of the present moment, including how you are feeling and what you perceive to be happening. For these moments, don’t try to change anything at all, just breathe and let go. Give yourself permission to allow this moment to be exactly as it is, and allow yourself to be exactly as you are. Then, when you’re ready, move in the direction your heart tells you to go, mindfully with resolution.

So I tried it and WOW!

Just like the book said: Nothing happened.

Other than the serene and familiar sound of receiving a new email. From Charlie:

One caveat: you shouldn’t write about the actual practice of meditation until you do it for about a month. Not that anything magical happens after a month, it’s just that writing about the experience earlier would be like describing what it’s like to play basketball after you learn how to dribble. Of course, the thing about meditation is it’s all about the practice. There’s only so much you can say about it, and the whole point is to do it. Kinda like fucking, actually…

Okay, now we’re finally talking!

A Kind of Heartbreaking Sense

Rynn Booher

Rynn Booher, Age 47.

There have been two deaths of friends in recent years that have completely devastated me. The first was on 9/11 when Bob Speisman died on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. This story is about the second.

About a year ago, I was on a second date with a woman who I’d only go out on a handful more dates with, and after a romantic dinner in the Village, we went to a party that two of her friends were throwing nearby. It was a beautiful summer evening and her friends owned a penthouse apartment with a roof deck, and everybody there was very chill. Now I’m not usually all that comfortable in this type of social situation, but for whatever reason (read: lots of wine), I was feeling no pain and actually enjoying myself.

I drunkenly roamed from one group of people (they all worked for Microsoft) to another (the requisite magazine folks) when I overheard a woman say something about Shelter Island.

“I have a good friend who has a place on Shelter Island,” I said, interrupting her conversation. “Her name is Rynn Williams!”

“You knew Rynn?” she asked.

No sooner were those words out of her mouth than I felt sick to my stomach. She gently explained that Rynn had committed suicide about two years ago. And that she had left behind three young children. And that she had led a complicated and tumultuous life.

The troubled person this woman was describing was nothing like the person I had known. Rynn and I worked together at a trade magazine for the children’s apparel business almost 25 years ago and we became fast friends. She was young, beautiful, sarcastic, and a budding poet. Need I say more? We just clicked in that way that some people do, as if we had known each other from another lifetime.

I remember going out for long lunches with her and sharing the gory details of our lives over Chinese food. I had just recovered from a bout of testicular cancer and she relentlessly made “ball” jokes that made me love her even more. And then she’d talk about how much she loved Stephen, who she would soon marry. We had our entire lives completely mapped out in front of us.

So much so that we wound up losing touch a few years afterward, and to be honest, I can’t even recall how or why, other than the usual way things like this seem to go. But I always assumed she was happy and doing well.

When I got home from the party that evening, I immediately googled Rynn to see if I could find more information about her death and clicked on a link to her obituary on the Times web site. The first thing that struck me was that she was 47 years old when she died. I also learned that she had become a fairly prominent poet and wrote a book that was well received. That was pretty much it.

Which led me to email Stephen, who (I had read in the obit), had since remarried and had taken their children to live with him and his wife. Stephen is a writer and it was easy to track him down. I knew I’d be intruding on his life and yet felt compelled to ask the obvious question: what happened?

The next day, I received the following email:

Hi Larry,

I felt a shock to get your letter. I’m on vacation in Vermont, a short weekend with my wife away from our kids. Woke up and read this and started crying.

Rynn committed suicide two years ago. She took a variety of pills in the bathtub of her home in Windsor Terrace. I have puzzled over her death ever since. All I know is that Rynn was deeply troubled. She had various demons eating at her — addictions, primarily and an eating disorder that had subsided when we married but returned and plagued her all these years.

She and I had three children together, Bolivia, Violet and Beckett, and when Beck was two she fell in love with someone and we divorced (of course, there was more to the divorce than just another person in the relationship — we weren’t getting along). After that we split custody of the kids, week by week, and both moved to Bklyn. She had a succession of partners, and apartments, and in the end was in a nice house her mother bought for her, with two dogs.

Her body was found July 15, 2009. The kids live with me and my wife and my stepdaughter in Carroll Gardens. We have a good home for them (the dogs came too), but of course, this has been a devastating experience for all of us. We are close with Rynn’s parents.

Anyway, I hope this helps.

My best,

Stephen

I thanked Stephen for his quick and thoughtful reply and suggested that maybe we could get together for a beer sometime, and the beer turned into coffee and sometime became almost a year later – this morning.

Even though it had been decades since we last met, we both instantly recognized each other and fell into an easygoing conversation. Stephen is far more eloquent than I will ever be, and he graciously launched into the details of Rynn’s death. In fact, he said that I was the second person this week he had gotten together with to talk about it.

I told him how much I had loved and adored Rynn and he remembered us being good friends. “You knew her at her best,” he said, while sipping coffee. But just like the woman at the party, he went on to describe her eventual unraveling.

The thing that I couldn’t get my head around about Rynn’s suicide – and the thing that made me seek out Stephen in the first place – was that she had left behind three young children. No matter how bad things were, I just couldn’t imagine how she could do that to them. But after hearing Stephen talk about her years of struggle with various forms of mental illness, I got my answer. It all made a kind of heartbreaking sense.

After catching up on the rest of our lives (read: our respective divorces) and sharing photos of our children, we somehow got onto the subject of faith. He told me that he has been meditating for years and that that has helped him find some spiritual peace. I told him that’s exactly what I’m looking for.

“All you have to do is look,” he said, “and you’ll find it.”

Missed Connection

missed connections

Waiting on a friend.

I work at a web site that helps old farts like me figure out what they should be doing with the second part of their lives, and wrote the following story a few months ago in the hopes of reuniting with my ex-sister-in-law, who I haven’t seen since the first part of my life.

I’ve been trying to get in touch with Caren, my ex-sister-in-law. We haven’t seen or spoken to each other for more than 25 years. I’ve Googled the hell out of her and sent emails through friends of friends — I’m not on Facebook (yes, I’m the one) and couldn’t think of any other way to track her down. And still, nothing.

Which led me to write this story. I’m hoping someone she knows reads and forwards it to her, and that our reunion will be like a scene out of some crappy Hollywood movie. (I see Bill Murray playing me.)

Most of all, I just want to say one thing to her: I’m sorry.

The last time I saw Caren was in my apartment in Forest Hills, Queens. She was heartbroken because Stephen, who was then her husband, had decided to end their marriage of three years. I was recently married to my own Caryn — Stephen’s younger sister — and the two of us tried to console Caren as best we could. What we said that afternoon is a little fuzzy in my memory. Caren cried uncontrollably, asking us why her husband no longer wanted to be with her, how could he not love her, was there somebody else, why was this happening, and I remember being unable to answer any of those questions.

At the same time, I realized that this situation was forcing us to choose sides — and that we had already chosen Caryn’s brother (although I have absolutely no recollection of ever making this decision.) Caren looked stricken, beautiful and delicate in a flowy white summer dress, and I remember thinking she would be swallowed up by our big red couch, Maurice Sendak-style, and never be heard from again.

And that’s pretty much what happened.

And that’s what I’m most sorry about.

Caren and I were good friends. Before we were all married, a bunch of us partied together every Friday night at the Manhattan apartment she shared with Stephen. Caren often had panic attacks (drugs and Perrier-Jouët were involved) and would barricade herself in the bedroom, not emerging for the rest of the night. She wouldn’t let anyone in. Except for me. I’d sit with her for hours, talking her down, cracking her up and making her feel safe, and we wound up having our own little party within the party. I loved her.

We also shared a beach house with the same group of partygoers for a few summers at the Jersey Shore before it became the Jersey Shore, and I remember one time we went for a long walk at dusk, talking about the hopeful things you talk about when you’re in your twenties, and as it was getting dark, the wind kicked up and we ran behind a large sand dune, huddled together with our eyes closed, holding each other close. Neither of us said a word.

Caren and I just clicked. We were both sarcastic (defensive) loners, who felt comfortable revealing our true selves only to each other. She used to teasingly call me “Lawwy” and repeat it three times fast like Betelgeuse, and as silly and annoying as that now sounds, I break out into a giant smile just thinking about it.

Now that I’m divorced from my Caryn, and it’s 25 years later, I can’t believe that I just gave up on someone I loved. What the hell was I thinking? Sure, I had been Stephen’s friend first and I was married to his little sister, but why did I accept not having Caren in my life? Why did I have to choose?

Over the years, I heard snippets (mainly through Stephen) about Caren’s life. I know she moved to Minneapolis and got remarried, to a jazz musician. I think they may have adopted a child. Or maybe I made that up. I know her second marriage didn’t work out and she moved back to New Jersey and lived with her mother for a while. Not long ago, Stephen mentioned to me that he’d seen a recent photo of her. He said she looked more beautiful than ever.

Just last week, I had dinner with my ex-brother-in-law. He’s still one of my best friends and really closer to a brother. We talked about his ex, and I started bitching about Caren not wanting to reconnect with me.

“You guys were such good friends,” he said.

“I know!” I said. “For the life of me, I can’t understand it.”

Stephen bit into a quesadilla. “She always had a lot of rules,” he said. “That was one of the reasons I couldn’t deal with her anymore.”

“I never knew she had any rules,” I said. “That was one of things that I loved about her most.”

Of course, people are complicated, and Stephen certainly knew her best. So Caren, if you’re out there — I’m sorry, and hope one day you’ll let me in again.

So here’s the update: I was again out to dinner with Stephen last week and again bitching about his ex not wanting to reconnect with me, even after I wrote the story you just read.

“I’m so glad you reminded me of that!” he said, this time biting into a slice of goat cheese pizza. He had spoken to his friends, Joe and Lily, who are friends with Caren and had sent her the story. They told him that Caren had absolutely no recollection of any of it.

“As a matter of fact,” he said, “Lily told me that her exact words were: ‘IS HE FUCKING OUT OF HIS MIND!?’”

%d bloggers like this: