no word for what happened in the alps

The news that Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz might have crashed deliberately into the Alps, killing 150 people, has left officials and everyone else at a loss for words. One in particular: a word that can capture all those deaths and the madness behind them. “Suicide” doesn’t cut it. If Lubitz was driven principally by the urge to kill himself – and just happened to kill everyone else because they happened to be riding on his suicide method of choice – than that’s more than self-murder. That’s a chilling and catastrophic failure of empathy that no one phrase can capture.

Every suicide wreaks collateral damage. Every suicide has victims beyond the one who dies: just ask anyone who’s answered a phone or a doorbell to learn a beloved someone jumped, swallowed, pulled a trigger. One of the mysteries of suicide is the darkness of that final moment, the whys and how-could-they’s of it, the realization that we can never know. Was it some drug they went on or off? Was it crushed romance, lost job, lost sleep, some other trigger that worsened or prompted depression? And how could they do it to everyone they loved? My husband and sister were two of the most caring people I knew. And yet the darkness prevailed, wounding the rest of us as it killed them.

But Lubitz’ final act was something else. Assuming the reports and their implications are accurate, it was more than suicide. It was more than murder-suicide. It was mass-murder-suicide, a slaying of himself and everyone with him in a moment so black that he lost all light and reason — and a sudden plunge downward into lifelong grief for 150 families. If the Latin-derived word “suicide” means a killing of one’s self, what could we possibly call a killing of one’s self and far too many others? A praeterside, or a killing “beyond”? Suieoside, or a killing of “me” and “them”?

I don’t know. I can’t know, because this is beyond meaning: nothing to coin, nothing to parse. No sense anywhere, no way to define it. There is no decent word for it but horror.

household magic

Things keep breaking around the house. I want that to stop. I want the light sockets that blew out to start working again without being asked. I want the wet splotchy cluttered basement to stop being wet and splotchy and cluttered on its own. I want the rooms with scratched and stained walls to paint themselves. I want the attic to organize its crap into orderly stacks. I want the dust bunnies to vacuum themselves and the toilets to plunge themselves and the floors and stairs to sweep themselves with an army of magically autonomous mops and brooms (cue “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”!). I want all this to happen now. Yesterday. Two weeks ago. Last year.

A couple weeks back, on one of the milder Saturdays, my furnace decided to konk out. I didn’t much note its konking, being oblivious by nature. I just layered on fleece after fleece after fleece after fleece, like someone migrating across the Bering Strait, until my highly observant daughter noted that the thermostat was cranked way way way up and yet the temperature inside the house was still, like, 55 degrees. Nothing I did helped. Cranking it down and then up again did not help. Cranking it way way way upper did not help. Re-lighting the pilot did not help.

And so I left a message with the gas guy. When the gas guy called me back, he had some adorably screaming wee ones in the background, and I felt terrible to pull papa away from his babies, especially on a Saturday, but, you know, 55 degrees. He came. I took him into the wet splotchy cluttered basement and dragged a big old bin of Legos out of the way. He then proceeded to fix the furnace in about three minutes flat (fried copper coupling was the culprit), and in that flat three minutes we chatted about his kids. One of them was a 3-year-old boy.

Does your son like Legos? I asked, wiping down the box with a rag.

“Oh! He loves ’em!” said the gas guy, eyes on the furnace. “He has so many!”

Do you think he’d want these?

I popped the lid on the bin and showed him the contents: an explosion of little plastic nuggets of building nirvana. Fun to play with. Hell to step on.

The gas guy looked up. His eyes popped.

“Oh, wow. Yes. Wow. Really?”


“You sure?”

I’m sure. You’re doing me a favor. Seriously. Look at this place.

“Thank you!” he said, then finished fixing the furnace. I finished wiping down the box o’ Legos. Our jobs done, we talked a bit about payment and a bit about winter and spring and a bit more about kids. And then he picked up his tools, and I picked up the Legos, and we mounted the stairs, leaving the basement behind us. It was wet and splotchy  as ever, but a little (just a little) less cluttered. And it did that on its own. All it needed was a broken furnace and a little boy to make it happen. Magic.



in praise of chit-chat

man, this is one happy phone.

man, this is one happy phone.

The nicest thing happened to me last week. I got a fraud alert on one of my credit cards! Yup! Someone I don’t know apparently used it to buy $174 worth of crap at a Walgreen’s in Manhattan last Wednesday, and I was not there to supervise, OR dole out shopping advice, OR push the cart around the aisles, OR pocket any of the merchandise afterward! It’s true! Guy didn’t even save me a packet of Orbit!

But then the sweetest young man called me to let me know I’d been swindled and assist me in canceling my card. I thanked him. Oh! I’m so glad you caught that! I so appreciate your help! I hope you have a lovely weekend! I said, as though having some nimrod downstate swipe my number was an occasion for neighborly chit-chat. And why shouldn’t it be? If we can be just two everyday people talking for a few minutes, and not Irked Bamboozled Customer and Overworked Underpaid Representative, then that makes the whole exchange just a little less onerous and more, I dunno, normal.

Such phone-bank conversations are otherwise bland and depersonalized, about as chipper and community-building as the social interaction involved with taking a whizz in a public restroom. Less. At least, when you run out of paper and whimper pathetically, there’s that miracle of actual, meaningful human contact when an anonymous hand reaches under the stall to pass you a bunch. This simple action gives me faith in humanity! It does! I am not exaggerating! YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN!

Anyhow. So I was on the phone with this sweet young man (and while we’re on the subject, my daughters are giving me grief for calling every male under the age of 40 a sweet young man, as though I have somehow lately morphed into kindly-old-biddy-dom and must peer at the Youth of Today over my cat’s-eye glasses while sucking on a tube of Dentu Creme). At the end of our friendly, fraud-related chit-chat he gave me a number to call to order a new card during the week, and I called it, and so I found myself chatting with the sweetest young woman a few days ago. She had a subcontinental accent, which of course meant yet more chit-chat when she asked if there was “anything else” she could help me with, which of course I took as an invitation to inquire about about her location.

India, it turned out. I forgot to ask which city. (HOW many years have I worked as a journalist?). But I remembered to ask her about the weather, and the dear sweet thing went on and on about typical Indian weather patterns this time of year, which apparently amount to: Some days are chilly enough to require sweater-wearing, but most days aren’t. Most days are mild enough to go outside in shirtsleeves. “But not today,” she explained. “Today the weather isn’t very good. I had to wear a sweater!”

She laughed. I laughed, too. I would love to be able to walk outside in only a sweater, I said. We’re still bundling up in parkas here in Albany! And then I laughed again! Ha ha ha! And then she laughed again! Ha ha ha! Still laughing, we said goodbye and wished each other a lovely evening. I hope she had one. I know I did, ending the day neither Irked nor Bamboozled, not even caring about the Orbit.

i’m not a scientist, either

OK. I’m sick of politicians too wussy to come out and discuss climate change in real, reasonable, normal-person terms proclaiming “I’m not a scientist” as though this is some kind of rationale for stupidity. (Gail Collins has a fab column on this very subject righty here.)

This gambit gives the rest of us who aren’t scientists a bad name. And there are A LOT OF PEOPLE who aren’t scientists. In fact, MOST OF US AREN’T. The number of non-scientists in the world far outnumber the scientists, and here’s the thing: We are not all asshats. Most of us who aren’t scientists are actually pro-scientist and even (gasp) pro-science, and by “science” I mean such fun topics as: the planet; the cosmos; medicine; technology; all forces of nature, including the weather and plate tectonics; all life on earth, including plants, insects and animals; and human evolution.

Evolution is another one of those things that prompt certain people in the public eye to firmly state they aren’t scientists. I’m setting aside, for a moment, that specific demographic of biblical literalists who truly and devoutly believe homo sapiens sapiens was created in less time than it took me to download iOS 8, because A) I will never, ever convince them that evolution itself might have been God’s own brilliant and miraculous handiwork, a slow-cook process that bubbled with divine mutation; and B) THEY aren’t walking around saying “I’m not a scientist.” Because THEY DON’T CARE. They are so far removed from the conversation that we should ignore them entirely.

Politicians, on the other hand. They’re reachable, at least in theory. They’re motivated by what they THINK will get them elected, and if they think a significant number of non-scientists are, in fact, anti-science, then they will ape (yes! pun intended!) the anti-science stance until the rising oceans reach up and carry them away.

So this is would I would like to do. I would like to reclaim the phrase “I’m not a scientist” in the name of all who aren’t.

As in: I’m not a scientist, and I’m pro-science! Or: I’m not a scientist, and I believe the ice caps are melting!  And: I’m not a scientist, and I believe we should invest in alternative energies (go, windmills!). Or maybe: I’m not a scientist, and I believe Neanderthals had sex with early humans, probably at a rave!

And while we’re at it: I’m not a scientist, and I believe only selfish, shortsighted boobs don’t want to preserve and heal the environment!

Also: I’m not a scientist, and I want there to be a planet for my grandchildren!

And finally: I’m not a scientist, and I’M NOT STUPID!


just a mo


do you see it?

Here I am at a gate in BWI, slumped and zoning alongside dozens of other slumping, zoning travelers, awaiting news on a plane that’s SUPPOSED to be leaving for Albany in 18 minutes. SUPPOSED. But we sense it will not, for it is nowhere to be seen. Rumor has it the aircraft in question is somewhere in Baltimore, hopefully within taxiing distance of the tarmac, quite possibly rolling around the streets in search of a decent taco. It’s out there, or so I’m told by what looks to be either a pilot of someone impersonating a pilot. But the the plane is sadly nowhere near our gate.

I am just about to get up and ask whassup when a chipper young announcer lays it all out for us. “The aircraft came from international waters and has to go through extra security,” she explains. “So you’ll just have to wait a few more moments, and then we’ll get you on your way.”

I think, Yippee! I’ll be heading home soon! Hurray! It’ll only be a few moments! And then I think: Wait. What? Moments? What are these “moments” of which she speaks? Aren’t they rather vague in duration? How long IS a “moment”? Potentially longer than a minute, I’m thinking. Why, moments can last hours, days, years, even! And that’s when you DON’T throw in extra airport security! Some moments have been known to go on forever, baby, and not merely in French existentialist masterworks. Moments can last and last and last.

Of course, sometimes you want them to. Certain moments I hang onto for dear life: my first memories of holding my blessed kids, my last memories of holding all who’ve died. Other moments I wish I could dump with a jab in the ribs and a flip of the bird: any and all mistakes I’ve made, fits I’ve thrown, pain I’ve felt. But as hard as I work to delete those moments, they last, too, fouling up my otherwise-empty mental spaces with a lingering fog of regret.

Occasionally, in the throes of what I know will be an absolute stinker, sometimes but not always involving air travel, I gird myself for the inevitable, thinking: Ohhhhh, crap. This here will never, ever end. I’ll be 97 with dentures rattling around my gums, and I’ll still be stuck in this one giant butthole of a moment, scrambling to get out.

On the flip side, I often try to freeze-frame a happy moment as it’s unfolding before me, trying to trap and frame some joyous blip of time before it passes. There was a moment, at a slumber party long ago, when my younger daughter popped a cd into the stereo and cranked up the volume. I remember wading through that scrum of dancing, laughing, pizza-snarfing, cola-swigging middle schoolers as Vanessa Carlton sang wistfully of summer love in her cute little pop-pixie soprano. And I remember thinking — verbally, in just about exactly these words, as though the voice of my future self had taken possession to warn me — I have to hang on to this moment! I have to make it last! Because soon it’ll be over, and she’ll grow up, and this present will be a past that I wish I’d savored. So I need to savor it NOW!

I did. I trapped and framed and savored it. And now, whenever I hear a snatch of “White Houses” on the radio, I zap myself whole through the warp of space-time to that giggling crush of overcaffeinated girls at a sleepover — and I’m there, in that living room, in that moment, re-upping my will to make it last forever.

As for the plane, it took off about 40 minutes late. If you’re counting in airport moments, that’s not even a few. A couple, maybe. One and a half. Tops.

the mysteries of winter

Please join me as I ponder a few imponderables in the midst of this late-winter mush we now call March.

1) Why do people Park Stupid? You know what I mean: I mean pulling up parallel on snowy streets, leaving two feet between their car and massive frozen dirty snowbanks — DIRECTLY OPPOSITE another parked car. Leaving an approximate width of, oh, six to eight inches for the passage of other vehicles. WHY do people do this?

2) Is this the reason for all the people driving backwards on one-way streets?

3)  Why do we in the snow belt take such pride in being miserable for five months out of the year?

4) Why do we keep saying spring begins in March, WHEN WE KNOW IT DOESN’T?

5) This from my childhood on a lake; I was reminded of it while driving through New Hampshire a couple weeks back. How do ice-fishermen fish on ice too to thin for everyone else and not fall in? Do they weigh less than normal people? Do they eat only the fish they catch?

6) Why DO people Park Stupid? Do they not like their side mirrors?

7) This from Washington, D.C., last week, where I observed two separate drivers who, trying to liberate their cars from ice, cluelessly and repeatedly gunned their engines and spun their wheels in an effort to get out, a futile effort that yielded nothing but that familiar frictional RRRWEEEEEEEEEEEEE of desperation. My question: Why, in an effort to help, did I embarrass my offspring by yelling: STOP! I’M FROM ALBANY, NEW YORK! PUT DOWN A BOARD! OR KITTY LITTER! OR SAND OR SOMETHING! If I had hailed from some town in Norway, would I have said STOP! I’M FROM LONGYEARBYEN!

8) Why do people cut me off in crappy snowy slushy icy weather, behaving as though I have the ability to, like, brake?

9) Why does winter insist on being so beautiful?

10) Why does the moon insist on shining so brightly?

11) What is it about shoveling after a snowstorm make us so damned cheerful?

12) Are we all on drugs?

13) Why were the birds singing so gloriously that morning last week when the temperature was around 80 below? Were they on drugs, too? My friend Steve Barnes called their tweeting “chirps of death.” Is he right?

14) Can I stop complaining, now?

15) Can I please stop being cold?

16) Can I please stop wearing long underwear?

17) Will spring ever come?

18) Really?

19) When?