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  • Legacy: Ailes and Cornell

    Roger Ailes' legacy with Fox News will be both derided and celebrated in our polarized nation, but I hope the death of Chris Cornell is not overlooked in our discussions.

    Yes, Cornell was a musician who met an early and tragic end. But he also was a husband and dad who suffered from a terrible inner turmoil. He was found after an acclaimed concert; police are investigating it as a death by suicide.

    Depression sucks, folks. The collateral damage is awful, too. #RIP #AFSP #suicidepreventionhotline

  • A Hometown Tragedy

    Last week, while taking a break from photographing a conference in Las Vegas, a news story from my hometown caught my attention: A high school senior had committed suicide in front of her parents. She had been the victim of relentless cyberbullying over her weight and her appearance.

    Immediately, I flashed back to Blocker Middle School and the late 1970s. When you've been bullied, your emotions are on constant standby for time travel.

    ••••••

    I was bullied as a child. What people thought were innocent pranks about my appearance, lack of style, poor social graces, and general athletic ineptitude left scars that have taken decades to heal.

    Then, when you see something like this, something that happened in the hometown you left long ago, those scars are exposed again. You time travel back to the days when you were that fat child, that pimply, awkward, uncoordinated teenager who liked books, movies, drama, and writing. It comes back like it was yesterday.

    You are thankful for your loving parents, who were dealing with boatloads of crap of their own. You are thankful for your few close friends who accepted you for who you were. You are thankful for teachers like John C. Martin, for neighbors who became your extended family. You are thankful for those who, even if they didn't understand you, didn't judge. You are thankful that, no matter how bad things got at times, you had the inner strength to go on.

    You hope that your children did not have to endure the same things you did, knowing that bullies now hide behind their thumbs and their glare-free screens. You try to treat people with kindness, holding on to the manners you were taught. You try to look at issues and events from both sides — and there are two sides to every story — and respect others' right to their opinions, no matter how different they may be from yours.

    I appreciate the steps Texas City ISD took (making counselors available, sending a letter home to parents with other resources) in the wake of the girl’s suicide and pray that no copycat incidents — always a risk with this age group — occur.

    But don’t bury your head in the sand. The temptation some have to prey on others because of their own insecurity and inadequacy has never gone away. It's part of our history that, despite twists like social media, repeats itself again and again.

    When something like this happens, we feel the need to take action, but it always seems to be too little, too late. In Texas, two state legislators filed a bill last month that would require school districts to have cyberbullying policies. The law would require schools to notify parents when children are bullied. Anyone who electronically harasses or bullies another person under the age of 18 would face misdemeanor charges.

    Why these types of policies are not already in place in every school district in America boggles my mind. Why bullying is tolerated, by adults and children alike, simply makes no sense. And yet it is.

    The wounds heal. But the scars remain. #SuicideAwareness — 1-800-273-8255. 

    ••••••

    The essay above, posted to Facebook on Friday, generated a series of heartfelt, thoughtful, and affirming responses. A number of friends shared it, more than 70 (and counting) took the time to comment publicly, and a few sent private messages. (Read the thread here.)

    Here are some of my thoughts, based on what others had to say:

    • 2016, more than any other, has been the "Year of the Trolls." I spend a lot of time on the Internet and try my best to keep things positive, but I've noticed repeatedly that people pick up on a single word you say and use it as an excuse to rip. That is terrible for us as a society.

    • School districts and state legislators have hesitated to push policies and laws through on this topic out of fear of liability. I understand why, but a policy that requires schools to notify parents when they receive a report of bullying should be a responsibility that districts are willing to take on. In the grand scheme, doing everything you can to keep parents in the loop and invested in the well-being of their children is a baby step.

    • We’ve got to stop looking for simple, knee jerk answers (zero tolerance policies, banning all cellphones) to these types of problems. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this type of behavior, which has been perpetuated for generations.

    • No place is immune from bullying, whether you’re in an industrial town in Texas, a rural community in North Carolina, or the hallowed suburbs of Washington, D.C. It won’t go away without a concentrated effort on everyone’s part, and that means support from schools, parents, classmates, community leaders, and politicians who have the chutzpah to stand up for changes. The problem sits in all our laps.

    • For many young people, compassion is not innate; if anything, the exact opposite is, especially when you're trying to find your way. It truly is heartbreaking to see a kid who's obviously struggling socially, because you know how others have the capacity to be so cruel in those types of situations.

    • Late elementary school and middle school is where so much of this damaging behavior begins. (Middle school was my personal “American Horror Story.”) Like many kids, I thought I could handle it myself, not knowing the damage I was doing to my psyche. I wish I had felt comfortable enough to talk to someone; I would have been much better off.

    • As an average, run-of-the-mill teenage boy who was a barking seal when it came to girls, the power they had was fierce. For the most part, I saw it for what it was and didn't let it bother me. But there were a couple of cruel heartbreaks along the way, where I thought, hoped and prayed that someone was different and was severely disappointed. That's why so much of this cuts so deep and so hard. I realize how much of my life I wasted trying to get the approval of people who didn't give a shit.

    • At times, I feel like we’ve thrown bullying into the same category as poverty — “Can’t do anything about it. Those people just need to step up.” We all need to step up.

  • Random Acts of Kindness #2: Fire Away

    I recoiled the first time I saw the video of Chris Stapleton’s “Fire Away.”

    One of the best songs off of one of the best albums I’ve heard in years, the video tells the story of a couple who becomes entangled in the throes of the woman’s mental illness. It ends, as do too many of these stories, tragically, leaving the survivors to cope with unspeakable grief.

    “The song is about loving someone unconditionally through not so easy times. The concept of the video came to me as that would be the hardest possible space in which to love somebody,” Stapleton says in an interview on the Campaign to Change Direction website.

    Stapleton’s debut album, “Traveller,” has sold more than 1.5 million copies in the U.S. It won two Grammys and drew attention for its mix of old-school country and Southern rock. The video for “Fire Away” has been viewed almost 15 million times, creating awareness around an issue — mental illness — that is too rarely mentioned or not seen at all.

    Until it’s too late.

    ••••••

    I’m a lucky man.

    I’ve known two people — one a close friend; the other the daughter of family friends — who have died by suicide. I have a daughter who is ADHD/bipolar and struggles to maintain her equilibrium at times. An uncle and an aunt also have suffered from severe mental illness.

    Their experiences have helped shape me as a person and as a father. I feel fortunate to have known these people, and lucky to have a daughter as kind at heart as Kate is. And I’m committed to sharing our family’s struggles in an effort to draw some attention to mental health issues. 

    Hearing that Stapleton would be performing in D.C., I noted the show was scheduled during an intense period of travel and was unsure if I could make it on a Sunday night after returning from a second trip to Pittsburgh in two weeks. Then, when I went to buy a ticket, all that was left was a single seat in the upper nosebleed section.

    Jill had a dinner to attend that night, so she told me to go ahead. The cause is the right one, and that’s what’s most important.

    The Campaign to Change Direction is a national initiative designed “change the culture of mental health in America.” Its goal is to get people to learn and share the five signs of emotional suffering — change in personality; agitation; withdrawal; decline in personal care; and hopelessness — so that we can prevent tragedies and help others to heal.

    When Stapleton had the idea for the video, he didn’t work with a specific charity on mental health issues. Actor Ben Foster, who is in the video, suggested the campaign, which has received the support of Prince William, First Lady Michelle Obama, and actor Richard Gere, among others.

    Stapleton agreed to work with the organization, although he had no idea about the video’s potential impact on his audience. He also had to get his record company to buy into the project, noting that label executives “looked at me like I had three heads” when he told them the idea.

    “I didn’t want to be in the video. I wanted to make it with these actors because it felt more artful and meaningful,” Stapleton says. “It was just a notion, but then we made it and it became real and useful and something that hopefully can make the world a better place. … That notion became a good thing.”

    ••••••

    The DAR Constitution Hall is a great place to hear a show, but a tough venue to maneuver. The lines are long. The bathrooms are in inconvenient places. The seats, especially in the upper reaches, have extremely limited legroom.

    Having driven more than 500 miles over the previous two days, I had to get up midway through the show and walk around a bit, so I went down to the restroom and saw an usher I had talked to while waiting in line earlier. Listening to the music, we made momentary small talk about the show and I mentioned my connections to the cause, then told him I had to go back up. I didn’t want to miss “Fire Away.”

    At that point, the usher opened the door and said, “Go on in,” pointing me to an empty seat in the orchestra section. “Wait a few minutes,” this random stranger said, “and I’ll take you up a little further if I can.”

    After standing in the back of the orchestra for a few minutes — by this point no one was sitting — the usher tapped me on the arm and escorted me up toward the front, just five rows from the stage. “Stand here,” he said. “You won’t have a problem.”

    And then he left without a trace. Two minutes later, Stapleton started playing “Fire Away,” just in time for me to pull out my phone and record it. At the end, he asked the boisterous crowd to repeat the last chorus, holding up their phones to shine a light on issues that are underreported and often unseen.

    The audience complied. Here is the video I took of the performance.

    Last month marked the 12th anniversary of Brian’s suicide. Next Monday marks the sixth anniversary of Lindsay’s. That time has passed so quickly is sobering in and of itself.

    On Saturday, Lindsay’s family will participate — as they do every year — in one of the Out of the Darkness walks sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. If you would like to help, go to the team page here.

    Pay it forward. It's the least we can do.

  • No Answers

    Sometimes you ask “Why” and there are no answers. Sometimes you say it with a question mark, or an exclamation point, or both, and still the answers don’t come.

    Sometimes there is just no answer.

    Four days ago, a 29-year-old woman who apparently had everything committed suicide. I didn’t know her well, hadn’t seen her since she graduated from high school, only mentioned her occasionally in conversation. Her parents, for different reasons, had a great impact on our lives and, ultimately, on the places where we are today.

    Why does this affect me so? Why has it had such an impact on Jill?

    Because this was not supposed to happen. It was the last thing anyone would have — could have — anticipated. No one would have thought, or could have imagined, why someone with so much would end everything.

    No one ever can.

    ••••••

    I grew up in a small town, or at least I thought it was small. Compared to Houston, 35 miles to the north, Texas City was — and is — a small town.

    And with around 40,000 residents, it is 2½ times larger than Reidsville, N.C.

    From 1993 to 2001, I lived in Reidsville, moving there as the managing editor of a small newspaper and leaving there to be the managing editor of a national education magazine. I’ve said often that leaving the Houston area to move to a small community where tobacco and textiles were the prime industry felt like going from fifth to first without hitting the clutch.

    And yet, during those eight-plus years, my life changed in ways I can’t imagine. Looking back now, it’s hard to believe I didn’t leave with a permanent case of whiplash.

    To sum up, while living in Reidsville, I:

    • Turned 30.

    • Got a divorce, rediscovered my love for theater, remarried, changed careers, bought a house, and had Kate, all within an 18-month period.

    • Discovered shortly after Kate was born that we were having twins.

    • Found a series of surrogate families — and my children at least one additional grandma — that we’ve stayed in touch with over the years.

    When we left to move to Northern Virginia, it was time. The many things that Reidsville offered, the hooks and lures that held us there, had their allure. We could have stayed.

    Something told us — both of us — that we needed to move on. And I’m glad we did, for our sakes, and for the sake of our children.

    But there is something about living in a small town, or growing up in a small town, that never leaves you. It’s an extended family you can’t leave behind.

    ••••••

    I just don’t get it.

    I don’t think anyone else does either.

    Separating the intellectual from the emotional is difficult most, if not all the time.

    Retrospect helps you point to signs, like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. But, ultimately, it doesn’t answer the central question: Why?

    Jill and I had not seen Lindsay in years. We heard about the different things in her life from friends and acquaintances with whom we still maintain contact, but like all too many people we encounter, she was another person from a place we lived in a decade ago that we assumed was going to be OK.

    Her parents are extraordinarily kind people, who’ve done nothing but help us — and others — over the years. Our lives intersected with theirs at various moments; the memories we share of each other are good ones, lasting ones, or at least I’d like to think so.

    But as happens all too often in this life, people you care about drift away. You don’t mean for that to happen, but life intervenes and it does.

    And then something like this happens, and abruptly, without warning, you are slung back into memories of a time you had left behind.

    •••••••

    First and foremost, I’m a chronicler. I would like to be someone who can develop scenarios and turn them into classic fiction, but my writing at heart comes from everyday life. Why create something out of nothing when there is so much around you to chronicle?

    That said, although I love biographies, I’m not a person who typically follows others’ blogs, just as I don’t expect you and others to follow mine. I hope what I have to say is something that is of interest to others — at the very least my children — but if not I can say without question that writing has provided me with an outlet that otherwise I would not have.

    Earlier this week, I happened to find Lindsay’s blog (http://applebloggingjeans.tumblr.com) and could not stop reading it. It’s a fascinating chronicle of a young, caring, witty, and extremely intelligent woman facing life in her 20s. Naturally, I found myself looking for clues, hoping something would answer my central question, knowing that nothing would.

    Somewhere in my reading, I happened on this paragraph that I can’t seem to shake:

    “I am, at my core, a person who fights everyday with who I am at my core— both an open book, ready and willing to share all that I am with the world, and a person who deals with many of my own demons, triumphs, blessings INTERNALLY and without desire to share those things even with those closest to me.  I have been, for as long as I can remember, a walking contradiction.”

    ••••••

    We encourage our children to be open about their struggles. We try to be open about ours. 

    Of course, bookstores are chock full of memoirs from people whose families did an incessant data dump on the author, who suffered so much in the process that they managed to get an autobiography and an Oprah/VH1 episode out of it.

    That’s not what we’re trying to do, in our dealings with our kids or even in this chronicle I’m putting out there for them — and you. What we want them to know is that they can come to us — no matter what.

    I think they do know that. And I pray, every moment of every day, that they feel like they have someone to share their thoughts with.

    No matter what.