The Hungry Games and Feather Jacket

How diversity makes us all richer

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Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

This morning, B. told me that an actor in “the hungry games” is also in one of the Jane Eyre movies (or mini-series’) we’re slated to watch. That made me smile, as all of his language tics do. Last week, he said, “We are nerve racks. All humans are nerve racks.” A couple of weeks ago, he said he was going to plant lollipop seeds in the side yard. It took a while, but I eventually figured out he meant poppy seeds. Or, one of my favorites: “fucking egg” when he means “fucking-A”. And let’s not forget “Feather Jacket.” Feather Jacket is actually “Frere Jacques” the eponymous character from the children’s song. They go on and on. Every day, he produces several. And they enrich my life.

To be fair, some of these can perhaps be chalked up to the fact that English is B.’s second language, but he has been in this country for 40-odd years. It’s not just the words though, but also the things he says and the way he constructs words, and the thoughts behind them as well. There’s an unusual emphasis on certain things. It’s hard to describe, but perhaps his infatuation with and relationship to the cat can shed a little light. He has grown very close to her, and she is happy to oblige. Finally, she has a lap that is always willing to have her. B. pets her and admires her and examines her. They’ve taken to eye-gazing of late. He’ll call me, “Mama, mama! Look!” (Yes, he calls me “mama.” But, that is another story.) I duly look and watch with humor and growing tenderness as he holds the cat’s gaze. He is so happy and pleased when Pebbles (for that is the feline’s name) deigns to cast her gaze upon him this way. He is tickled, amazed, moved.

I don’t mean to cast B. as a simpleton, however, for he is not that. Not at all. In fact, he seems to have his finger on the pulse of some kind of current of wisdom. Some well from which he draws. I’m not sure when he became connected to this channel. It was impossible to discern over the last twenty years, when B. was for fifteen solid years manic to the extreme, and for the past five has suffered several radical and severe breakdowns, swinging wildly between extreme mania and terrifying depression that lasts for months. He’s been hospitalized five times.

As I’ve written in these pages before, this recovery is different, however, for B. is dutifully taking his Lithium pills morning and night, and has been for 10 or 11 months now. Since we picked him up during California’s first shelter-in-place order in mid-March, he has been taking his medication, even though it makes him nauseous. And this, significantly, is a first. He was too afraid of it before, and presumably he also liked the feeling of mania too much. But, I think it finally became clear to even B. that he couldn’t go on the way he was, that each breakdown and recovery was worse than the prior, that it was getting truly scary. I also did my best to impress upon him that his housemates would not allow him to live there any longer if he didn’t commit to a medication regimen. They described untenable antics in each of the periods of wild mania leading up to each dramatic breakdown, and they said they would have it no longer. And that was final. Surprisingly, B. seemed to have heard what I said when I explained all this.

Perhaps he also knows that manic he cannot stay here with me. And he wants very much to stay here. He is terrified of his housemates in Berkeley and the associations he has there. And truth be told, it’s dawning on me and the kids that it’s quite possible B. can’t live alone. That he needs support and will need support for the rest of his life. Support that can’t be provided by anonymous, independent housemates.

And, the truth is, I feel we pushed it too far already. Returning him each time to that awful house where his housemates loathed and feared him. I am grateful to God in Heaven that we didn’t lose B. And I’m ashamed that we forced him to reckon with trying to live independently five times before we understood the situation. We are very fortunate we didn’t lost B. to suicide or some kind of accident.

On medication, B. is a different person, one we’ve never known, one the kids and I are coming to know, gradually. And he is very dear. A little odd, but very dear. Very dear. He has a kind of transparency to himself now. A man who was prone to sudden mood swings and rages, who could and would hurl crazy insults right and left has become docile, kind, gentle… and perceptive.

He is also a sensitive and talented cook. Who knew? The entire time we were together, B. only made two things: Venezuelan-style scrambled eggs and a vegetable stir-fry. After we split up, more than fifteen years ago, he literally only “cooked” the kids boxed macaroni and cheese. Now, here, on Lithium, he is really cooking. And he is not using recipes. He can’t see them (he hasn’t gotten new glasses yet after losing them a couple of years ago). He’s perfected this dynamite baked Indian chicken dish with onions and spices and saffron rice. The saffron thing is so interesting. He’s gotten really into finding the best sources for the best saffron. He stores the little tins that come in the mail on the top shelf of the refrigerator door.

He is so funny, this new B. We are brothers in arms when it comes to Netflix- and Amazon Prime-binge-ing during this pandemic. Just about every evening, we sit together on the couch and watch something. We mowed through all of The Crown and then Downton Abbey (which B. calls “Downtown Alley” and, seriously, I’m not kidding, he does not notice the difference). We watched every version of Pride and Prejudice and are now on Jane Eyre. We’ve seen two renditions so far of Jane Eyre, which is why B. was talking about “the hungry games.”

I’m afraid I’m taking a rather long time to get to my point.

My point is, B. is a VIP in my life, in our lives. Yes, he is my ex-, the father of my children. For my children, of course, he is their father. These things, obviously, make him a VIP.

But, I wish to posit that B. is a VIP for all of us, for society, for humanity, for culture. That he matters. That his life matters. That his perspective matters. That we need him. That humanity, and culture, and society, and community, need him, and those like him.

I didn’t always feel this way. I didn’t even notice that I had drunk the Kool-Aid and accepted the toxic notion that unless people are “contributing,” they are worthless. That “progress” is the be-all and end-all, something we should all “strive” for. That “revenue growth” and “GDP” and “the economy” reign supreme, and anything that threatens or slows its progress is suspect to the point of annihilation.

The truth is, it’s “progress” that’s gotten us into the perilous place we find ourselves now, with the permafrost melting, quivering on a knife edge to belch out massive amounts of methane which will prove to be highly destructive to all we hold dear. Like food, and breath, and life. Like civilization.

What if we’ve got it all wrong? What if it’s people like B. we need now more than anything? Sensitive souls with their finger on the pulse of the ineffable? People who can’t “produce” any more than I can. Productivity. What even is that? It’s become tarred with a brush that is suspect. Highly.

To prove my point, I want to leave you with a missive B. wrote to the parents of a young girl our community lost in an accident less than two weeks ago. B. wrote:

Dear Williams Family
Our deepest condolence does not compare with the pain in your hearts or the sadness when we heard about Lana’s departure but the love for her is greater than that. Please accept our words of courage, strength, and peace while you remember Lana’s unique soul, which has a special place in all our hearts and the universe.
Sincerely, (B.)

I am a writer. My letter to the family was longer… and less effective.

B. did something very interesting and important in his little condolence card. He did two things, actually. First, he focused on Aurora, and the family’s love for her. Second, he focused on Aurora’s contribution to the universe even if she was brutally cut down at 22. A third thing: the note is positive. It is not wallowing in the misery the family must be feeling. I read all of the Facebook posts… “I can’t imagine… a parent’s worst nightmare… we are so sorry… tragedy… tragic…”, etc.

B.’s note is positive. Affirming. And in hundreds of posts on Facebook, it was B.’s words that the mother responded to later. Because, B. had said, when I told him the news, “Oh no! I remember her! She was sparkly! So sparkly!”

I told the parents that on Facebook.

The mom wrote back, “Yes. She was. She was sparkly.”

B.’s comment got a response when no one else’s did.

That’s what I’m talking about.

What I’m trying to say is that B. will not “contribute” to anyone’s bottom line. He will not be a breadwinner. A producer. Etc., and all that garbage.

And yet, we need him, and those like him. For they have a special ear to the wall, a special conduit to what is ineffable in the universe, and what we need to be listening to now more than ever.

So, please, can we please remember that the folks you see on the street, the mentally ill (B. calls them “mentally nill”), are individuals? B. would be on the street for certain were it not for us. If I was a strict “Amurican” beholden of the “Amurican” values of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps work ethic and all the rest, B. would be on the street. Or dead. If still alive, he would be hurt and confused, bewildered. And unable to see his way out.

This is unacceptable.

B. has value, immense value in fact, even if he never adds a penny to your bottom line. Maybe especially if he never adds a penny to your bottom line.

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