Measuring Life Dollar by Dollar

I saw the young man sitting on the bench. He looked scruffy, with uncut hair, tattoos and piercings. He looked like hadn’t slept well in a while.

To get where I was heading, I had to walk down the narrow passage between the two buildings and past the bench. It was unavoidable.

“Can you spare a dollar so I can get something to eat,” he said to me.

I made eye contact, so I had to stop. I briefly hesitated, then pulled out my wallet. The moment where I could have made a graceful exit had passed.

My wallet had no ones. The smallest bill was a five. I pulled it out and handed it to him. “You’re in luck,” was all I could think of saying.

“Thanks man. I really appreciate it,” he said.

Giving away money is uncomfortable.

I do it often enough–last year I claimed over $1,000 in tax-deductible contributions to charities–but these face-to-face encounters still leave me with a weird feeling: I have money and you don’t; you are asking me to give you money, perhaps embarrassed for doing so. I have the power to decide to hand over some cash and whether to ask for something in return, perhaps wondering how it would be if roles were reversed. It is a transaction, and not really a person talking with another person at all.

We give large sums of money unconditionally to family. We give small sums of money unconditionally to strangers. Everything in between is weighted with social awkwardness. How much are you asking for? What do you want the money for, and why do you think I can give it to you? Are you a blood relative? How well do I really know you? Is this a grant or do I expect repayment? If I give you this money, do I expect you to do something  in return?

Money talks, as the saying goes, and it can say both good things and bad. My mother has told me more than once that she gave “a large amount” of money to my sister, and that she expects it to be paid back. My guess is that it is in the several thousands of dollars. My sister’s past history warrants a cautious approach to money lending. She defaulted on a loan for which my dad was a co-signer, for instance, something he still feels stung by. She accepted gifts of money and stuff over the years that is now gone: spent, lost, stolen, sold for cash, or just destroyed.

So my mother has some justification. But we give large sums of money unconditionally to family, right? Perhaps not, after family has burned you once too often. I may still be naïve about such things; I hope I am never in the position to have to make that choice.

My mother doesn’t really need the money–it is on principle that she is asking for repayment. My sister doesn’t have it to repay.

It is a stalemate.

Meanwhile, I go to my job and give of my time; my company pays me in return. I give to charity, I give to panhandlers. I intend to ensure my children’s college is paid for. I worry about having enough money for retirement. Life is measured by a series of transactions.

Wanting to Be Seen

There’s a TV commercial for Nationwide Insurance featuring Mindy Kaling. In the commercial, she does all kinds of goofy stuff, until right at the end she says “Can you see me?”

The gist is something about how you are not invisible to the insurance company.

It’s memorable and funny. Sadly, however, this situation is, in many ways, all too true.

In modern societies, a vast majority of people are essentially invisible to each other, passing through their daily lives in buildings and on the streets, anonymously. Never speaking, never touching.

Our lives are empty because of this.

In his new book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger says “A person living in a modern or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day–or an entire life–mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.”

He goes on to say that, in a style of living that is most ideal to the human mental state, “day after day, month after month, you are close enough to speak to, if not touch, a dozen or more people.”

This is something that has been on my mind in recent years. In a desperate attempt to feel closer to one another, we turn to so-called social media. And a lack of privacy is not always a bad thing. In fact, privacy has an ugly twin. It’s called loneliness, which can be deadly for some vulnerable people.

Wanting to be seen, to be understood, to be truly known is a very human feeling to have. Without it, we find ourselves, according to Junger, in a civilization “deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.”


I can’t recommend Tribe highly enough. It is a short, easy read, and Junger presents his well-considered thoughts in an engaging fashion. It should be required reading for anyone living in a modern, westernized society.

To Be Read, and To Be Understood

Recently, I noticed a flurry of views on a post I wrote in January. The post was my reaction to an article in the Washington Post Magazine, an article about a writer, Cynthia McCabe, who was e-mailed by a man, a complete stranger, announcing his intention to commit suicide. The reasons this man gave were that he, as a writer, had “said everything I wanted to say and consider my work finished.”

It was an article to which I had a visceral reaction, and I don’t mean a positive one.

I won’t summarize my reaction–you can read it for yourself–except to say that I felt McCabe, as the writer of the article, was missing the bigger picture. I also figured that she had said what she needed to on the subject and that the story would be laid to rest.

Not so.

I was curious about what was behind the uptick in views of my post, so I decided to find out. The recent increase in views, evidently, was provoked by the story reappearing on the radio program Snap Judgement. Don’t get me wrong, I like the program and have listened to it on several occasions. But I question the resurrection of the story in a new format, the motives behind it, and the approach taken by the producer of the piece, Julia DeWitt.

Julia DeWitt, exercising questionable judgement.

Julia DeWitt, exercising questionable judgement.

The story, in my opinion, should have been that a person named Dennis Williams (aka Katry Rain) had dedicated a lifetime’s worth of energy and effort into a body of work that has been essentially ignored, and that this emptiness led him to end his life.

I’m not alone in this. One commenter on the NPR website had this to say about the handling of the story:

I found this story very troubling. Not because the writer committed suicide, but because the producer, Julia DeWitt, seemed to so completely fail to respect or understand his decision…. It doesn’t sound like Ms. DeWitt read a single thing he wrote beyond the letter. How is what he died for not the story here?

And a commenter on my January post said this:

My uneasiness with reading The Washington Post article…was [from] the writers’ callous tone (listing her course of options rather than expressing genuine sympathies, or her semi meta-judgmental of the publishing world, yet failing to recognize her part in it).

It appears that McCabe has not given any further thought on the matter.

In the radio show, however, Dara Horn–the one who called the incident an “emotional mugging”–says this:

You know, I’ve been very fortunate to have had a fair amount of success as a writer. And so perhaps it’s not fair for me to say this because perhaps I would feel differently if I weren’t as successful as I’ve been, but it would never occur to me that my writing was the most important thing that I had contributed to this world.

Interestingly, many writers–successful ones–have felt exactly what Williams felt, that their writing was vitally important to their lives. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “On the other hand, for a shy man it was nice to be somebody except oneself again: to be ‘the Author’….”

John Updike observed that the embodiment of the New Yorker, Eustace Tilley, “was like a god to me, the guardian of excellence; he weighed my mailed-in words and paid a grand or so for tales he liked. A thousand dollars then meant we could eat for months. A poem might buy a pair of shoes. My life, my life with children, was a sluice that channeled gravelly water to my pan; by tilting it, and swirling lightly, I at the end of day might find a fleck of gold.”

Here’s the thing: why did DeWitt feel the need to re-warm this story for the radio? Was it because it really needed to be told again, that radio would provide something that print could not? I doubt it.

Yes, Dennis Williams has received a boost of attention from these events. But DeWitt seems to have no interest in Williams, and she admits that the people interviewed for the story don’t either. I rather think it was because it was a nifty story to tell, and DeWitt would get some feathers in her cap for doing it.

Williams was not looking for fame per se. He just wanted to be read, and also to be understood. DeWitt and McCabe and Horn clearly don’t understand.

[updated Jan. 31, 2017]

Just Have to Say

Yesterday, I finished reading an article in the Washington Post that has really stuck with me, and not in a good way.**

The article, written by Cynthia McCabe, is about man who e-mailed a dozen or so writers–all strangers to him–of his intention to commit suicide. The reasons he gave were that he, as a writer, had “said everything I wanted to say and consider my work finished.” He goes on: “I believe I have an immense amount to give, not only from my mind but from my heart, and there are just no takers.”

It was a suicide note from a writer who had failed to find an audience.

Sadly, I found that McCabe’s reaction, and that of some of the other writers, showed an appalling lack of compassion.

Writers, in my experience and from anecdotal evidence, are all too happy to sacrifice their own as they claw their  way to the top. McCabe has the privilege of being allowed to write and publish about this failed writer. Instead of saying how she may have felt similar feelings at one time or another, she voiced her disdain and that of the other writers for this failed writer and his tactics to bring his work to the world.

The suicidal writer, a man named Dennis Williams (or his pen name, Katry Rain), is described by his ex-wife, who perhaps knew him best, as a philosopher, a thinker, a writer of both prose and music, and a popular teacher.

But in McCabe’s article, he is called narcissistic and selfish. One writer who received Williams’ e-mail said she felt emotionally mugged. A Washington Post reporter basically said that Williams should have called someone who cared, implying that he didn’t.

McCabe herself calls Williams’ writing clunky and not particularly noteworthy. If whether your prose is impressive or not is the benchmark against which we should measure success as a writer, then “Fifty Shades of Grey” and countless other commercially successful but otherwise unremarkable works would be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Williams is in no position to defend himself. McCabe’s article, written from the point of view of an author who has tasted some success, feels like bullying.

This is exactly why he took his life.


**NOTE: For an update on this topic, see here.

The Ghosts of Loneliness

The month after the September 11th terrorist attacks, my wife and I decided to visit the harvest festival at Cox Farms in Virginia. She’d heard about it from our neighbors so we took a Saturday to see what it was all about.

It was a windy fall day with clear skies, and the festival area was already busy when we arrived. From the parking lot, we walked through the entry gates into an open, gently sloping area bordered by corn fields. Pumpkins, straw bales and gathered cornstalks decorated everything.

Our two-year-old daughter, bundled in layers, ran to the first activity area. It was a small stage with percussion instruments for the kids to play. Some music was coming through a sound system and my daughter picked two drum sticks and banged along on a log. My wife and I sat on some hay bales and watched the somewhat chaotic “music.”

My wife and daughter at Cox Farms in 2001.

My wife and daughter at Cox Farms in 2001.

I carried our younger child, not quite one year, in the carrier backpack. He was bundled too and hunkered down against the wind. He peered out at the activity around him but seemed content to stay in his nest.

Our daughter next wanted to try the long slide. Built into the side of a slope, I thought it would be daunting to a small child but she was game. At the bottom we waited and as she slid to a stop in the soft straw, she looked as if it were a bit much.

“Would you like to go again?” I asked.

“No,” she said. So we moved on to the next thing.

My wife and I had come to Cox Farms that day looking for something. It had been a rough year for us. Our son had been born through an emergency caesarian section when my wife had suffered a ruptured aneurysm while pregnant. The subsequent brain surgery, while saving her life, caused trauma that required months of rehab and supervised care. And all while we tried to raise two small children.

The aneurysm was an event that divided our lives into “before” and “after,” a clear marker that separated what we wished for our future from what was now actually achievable. The brain trauma also created a separation between “us” and “them”—those who understood what brain injury was all about and those who could not.

These twin difficulties worked in tandem to create a feeling of isolation for us. And the September 11th attacks only added to our desire to find connection with others and with a normal flow of life.

But we didn’t find it that day, nor for several years to come. The loss and the resulting loneliness were with us constantly, a formless presence that acted out when least appropriate, seeping into our daily routines and interactions. It seemed to live in our bones.