NAMI Vermont MindWalk 2018

On Sunday I will be taking part in the NAMI Vermont MindWalk — a fundraiser to raise funds (the best kind!) for advocacy and support of the mentally ill and their families and friends here in Vermont. (NAMI is the National Alliance on Mental Illness.)

As someone who is mentally ill, I greatly appreciate the work that NAMI Vermont does to work toward creating a stigma-free society where mental illness is treated the same as any other illness, not as something to be ashamed of.

I would be grateful for any support and donations!

You can donate here. Thank you in advance for your support!

Pickles and Wines, and That

For the first time in my entire life, I’m running for public office.

Namely, for the not-terribly-impressive position of “Justice of the Peace” in my little 4,000-person town of Richmond, Vermont.

“Justice of the Peace” (the Vermont version, anyway) isn’t exactly what you may recall from old Westerns. Richmond and other towns our size get to elect twelve. The JotPs are tasked with administering local elections, ruling on property tax appeals and abatements, officiating at weddings, serving as notaries public, and if so commissioned by the Supreme Court of Vermont, serving as magistrates. But, for all practical purposes they’re the town election commission. (If you want to know more, the Vermont Secretary of State has a guide to the office that you can view.)

We’ve been happily electing them every two years since 1850.. and other than greeting me as I sign in at the polls to vote each Election Day, they’ve had essentially zero impact on my life.

So why the hell do I want to serve as one?

I already am a town officer, of course — I was appointed “Weigher of Coal” for the town of Richmond a few years ago and have been reappointed each year since. That job has no actual duties whatsoever (and no pay either), so it’s hardly been a major demand on my time. (I wrote about this, incidentally, in the May 11, 2018 edition of the Washington Post.) But I guess my craving for power hasn’t yet been satisfied, right?

George MacDonald Fraser shared his own answer to a similar question in his comic story of life in the British army immediately after World War II, “Monsoon Selection Board”. When interviewed by an examining psychiatrist about why he wanted to become an officer in His Majesty’s Army, Fraser wrote:

“The honest answer of course is to say, like Israel Hands1in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island’, ‘Because I want their pickles and wines, and that’, and add that you are sick of being shoved around like low-life and want to lord it over your fellow-man for a change.”

But honest answer never won fair psychiatrist yet.”

The actual, absolutely truthful answer to why I’m running is, frankly, for the novelty of it2“for shits and giggles”, if you prefer.

You see, it hasn’t escaped me that there’s usually not a lot of competition for the job. Most years we have just about enough people running to fill all the slots, with a few surplus candidates left over. (In 2016, we had exactly twelve candidates for twelve JotP slots.) Thus, by running, one has a better than average chance of actually getting elected, assuming that the average voter has little if any idea who most of the people running actually are.

Okay, I may be wrong about that. Certainly people who’ve lived their entire life in Richmond are fairly well informed as to who’s who in the power elite, but otherwise, I sort of suspect that most voters tick off all the candidates for their preferred political party, if any, and then finish out their twelve by picking people with interesting names.

When I decided I wanted to throw my propeller beanie in the ring, I had a choice of running as an independent or as a Democrat. (Or as a Republican, but come on.) If I ran as an independent, I’d have to wander around gathering signatures for my petition (30 signatures or 1 percent of legal voters of town, whichever is less) and if I got the local Democrats to put my name on the ballot, I’d be spared that effort. The Democrats have dutifully been sharing power in this regard with the Republicans for a few years; a “gentleman’s agreement” between the two parties called for each to nominate six and thereby split the work. But, given that I was interested and that six others were already interested as well, the Dems made an attempt to reach out to the Republicans in a gesture of interparty amity — would it be okay if they ran seven? They weren’t able to track the town GOP committee down, so for better or for worse, I was added to the roster. In the end, the Republicans only put up four candidates — in addition to two independents — and so the question was more or less moot.

We wound up with thirteen candidates for twelve seats. Six Democratic incumbents are running again, as are four incumbent Republicans and one incumbent independent. On top of that, there’s one new Republican candidate, one new independent candidate, and one new Democratic candidate (me). Do the math. It’s a game of musical chairs and one person’s going to get left out.

If that winds up being me, no big loss. If I do get elected, I have every intention of actually doing the work — town elections don’t run themselves, and on the off chance that a taxpayer appeals their assessment or asks for an abatement, I’ll be happy to weigh in. I don’t know that there’s a lot of need for me to work as a notary or serve as a magistrate, but hey. I’m game if it comes up. And needless to say, I think I’d quite enjoy conducting weddings. The state of Vermont makes clear that there’s really no prescribed set of vows or other legal phrasing one has to use, so if a couple wants me to dress up as a priest of Cthulhu and conduct the entire wedding in Deep Old One, it’s legal so long as they have a valid wedding license and it’s all properly signed.

And at the end of the day, no matter the outcome, I can say I got to see my own name on an election ballot that actually mattered, win or lose. That’s something, I guess. But, obviously, I do hope I win. Bring on the pickles and wine. Arr!

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island’
2. “for shits and giggles”, if you prefer

Adventures on the Baltic Sea

Warning: the following blog entry will contain details and photos of someone else’s vacation, which in all honesty is like saying “we’re going to bore you stupid and make you envious at the same time.”

I don’t know for a fact that sharing photos of us spending a lot of money touring some far-off land will make you envious. It probably depends on whether you ever wanted to go to the place in question. I’m still envious as hell of my co-worker Danielle who has taken vacations to the north coast of Alaska and to Antarctica.

Anyway, I’ve always felt weird sharing vacation photos. Most people put them on the same level as “photos of grandchildren” and a little bit below “photos of a not especially cute family pet.” In other words, ehh.

It’s one thing if you did something especially wacky for a vacation, like going to an elephant reserve in Thailand (hi, Helen!) or you visited the largest ball of twine in the world. It’s another thing entirely if your vacation was just a series of photos of “And here we are at the Louvre with the Johnsons, we met them in Brussels and they tagged along with us the next two stops on the tour, Sally there is an accountant, Bob makes homemade soap.”

By the way, did you know that there are multiple competitors for the title of “largest ball of twine“? The one in Iowa is the all-time biggest, but there’s one in Minnesota that’s the largest one wound by a single person, there’s one in Wisconsin that’s the heaviest, and there’s even one in Texas laying claim to the title of Largest Ball of Nylon Twine. If you ever go on vacation and visit all four in one trip, definitely invite me over to look at photos. Bonus points if they’re on slides and we have to sit in a dark room to see ’em.

If you watched Mad Men, you know what slides are (See Episode 1:13, “The Wheel“). But you might not remember the days when it was considered an absolute necessity a few times a year to drag out the carousel slide projector, spend an hour putting slides in the carousels in a hypothetically pleasing order, and then make your kids, neighbors, and any damn other person you could shanghai in off the street sit in a darkened room with you while you clicked your way through ’em. These were slides:

Little transparent photos in little plastic frames. When you took your film in to the Fotomat to be developed you could ask for prints or slides. You fitted the slides into a round “carousel” tray that rotated through a projector and countless fun family evenings resulted.

Your kids could run a Bingo card full of squares like “slide in backwards”, “slide in upside down”, “slide of completely unrelated thing mixed in”, “out of focus slide”, “slide of a really cool thing that just happened to have a stranger picking his nose in the foreground” … it was non-stop excitement. You’d sit there in your family room in pitch darkness while Dad clicked his way through going “oh, um, hm, I think that’s the Grand Canyon” with your mom replying “No, no, that’s the Petrified Forest, remember, that’s where Billy threw up.”

I don’t know of anyone who actually liked sitting in the dark looking at slides, but dads everywhere had closets full of ’em. My father passed away in 2017 and I have absolutely no idea what became of all his slides. He had a closetful, some already in trays, some in boxes, some in big manila envelopes waiting forever to be sorted. Poor guy.

So anyway: I freely grant that the average person probably won’t care much about what Carole and I did the last two weeks of August when we flew to Denmark and took a Baltic Sea cruise. We had a good time, although it seemed that most days saw us absolutely frazzled and wiped out by nightfall. I was definitely in the “I need a vacation from the vacation” mode by the end. (Also, I’d come down with a bad cold two days before the end of the cruise and had very little interest in stirring out of bed, let alone doing anything exciting that I’d subsequently be able to tell you about.)

Long story short: we flew from Vermont to Chicago to Copenhagen via Scandinavian Airlines, arriving at 1 in the afternoon after an all-night flight. We checked into a hotel a block from the big downtown train station in Copenhagen. We poked around for a couple of days and saw things. Then we got on a Norwegian Cruise Lines ship, the Norwegian Breakaway, and spent nine days visiting Baltic Sea ports and their associated cities:

  • Berlin, Germany — which isn’t on the Baltic Sea at all, which meant that we had a close-to-three-hour train trip to get to Berlin in the morning and another one back to the port in the evening. In theory, anyway…
  • Tallinn, Estonia — nice little small city on the south shore of the Gulf of Finland. Former Soviet republic (but never happy about that fact), now asserting itself again as an independent country but always looking nervously east at Russia.
  • St. Petersburg, Russia — we spent two days docked there, but couldn’t roam around freely onshore. We had to be with a licensed tour guide at all times. That said, it was a lot less “Soviet Totalitarian” in style than the old days — there was a whole street of nothing but expensive auto dealerships. There were McDonaldses. There was lovely Russian Empire-era architecture too. But before you get the impression that it was all a mishmash of New York City with the odd Disney palace mixed in … there was also no shortage of God-awful Soviet-era architecture, mostly in the form of giant soulless apartment blocks, all built out of crumbly concrete and possessed of the charm of your average broom closet. That said, the people were friendly. Good dancers.
  • Helsinki, Finland — nice little small city on the north shore of the Gulf of Finland. Not much to see or do there besides buying textiles (according to our tour guide), so we went an hour outside the city to a little town called Porvoo where we got to pay money to use the bathroom and eat reindeer salami.
  • Stockholm, Sweden — big city on the west coast of the Baltic. The “Venice of the North” due to all the waterways in and among the islands making up the city. We got there during a major left-wing demonstration. Or maybe it was a right-wing demonstration. Streets were closed off and cops were everywhere. It was all very confusing. But we got to see some more nice architecture, to say nothing of a big-ass ship from the Swedish Empire days of the early 1700s which had sunk on its maiden voyage, never actually having gotten out of the harbor.
  • Aaaaand back to Copenhagen, where I had a bad cold, wanted to die at various times, and where it rained cats and dogs on us. But we got to see the Little Mermaid statue, which was every bit as small and unprepossessing as you’d have expected, and we also visited one of the Lego stores.

Then we flew home, Scandinavian Airlines through DC and back to Vermont.

Did we have fun? You bet. But as I said, we were tired all the time from having to get up early each day to meet a tour operator who would shuttle us all around whatever city we were in that day, fighting through crowds of other tourists from other countries having arrived on other cruise ships. It was, at times, kind of like going to the mall on Black Friday. Only with 1/3 of the shoppers speaking Japanese or Chinese and everyone desperately trying not to lose sight of their guide while taking photos of the backs of other tourists’ heads.

What was our favorite moment?

Probably the time we went to the Ice Bar on the Breakaway. It was a small bar made out of, you guessed it, ice. Built in a sizable (for a freezer, anyway) freezer. With ice furniture. And glasses made out of ice. We had to wear warm insulated capes and gloves because inside, it was 15 degrees. We took in our stuffed animal penguin, Adelie, who liked it a lot. She hadn’t known that cruise ships were adding penguin-friendly areas.

And then, there was the Commedia del’Arte show at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, featuring the ancient characters of Harlequino (the clown in motley, who in this version, was a very fine-lookin’ ballet dancer) and Pierrot, the clown in white (a.k.a. the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man). Tivoli itself is a fascinating place — the oldest amusement park in the world, with some rides (mostly on the state fair level, to be honest), lots of restaurants, and lots of nice green gardens to stroll through. But they also do a nightly Commedia show, with really high caliber performers, and we left going “wow, that was really something.”

 

In the end, though, we had lots of fun times and visited lots of places we’d like to go back to, if it weren’t for the whole “flying across the Atlantic in a crowded airliner and landing in a jet-lagged stupor” thing.

As we get around to it, we’ll be sharing photos and memories of our trip. Feel free to ignore us, or better yet, just go sit in a darkened room with a flashlight pointed at a bare spot of wall. It’ll work out the same either way.

 

Please Support Me in the 2018 Susan G Komen 3-Day

Newsflash: breast cancer kills around 40,000 people each year in the United States alone.

Newsflash: over 250,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year in the USA.

Newsflash: 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in her lifetime.

Newsflash: 2500+ men will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, and one in five will die from it.

I’ve been taking part in Susan G. Komen-sponsored charity walks known as the 3-Day for over ten years now — which is probably not a newsflash to anyone who knows me at all, because frankly I’ve been kind of noisy about it — and in that time, WONDERFUL PEOPLE LIKE YOU have donated over $50,000 by sponsoring me.

It’s coming up on 3-Day time again, and in fact, some of this year’s 3-Day walks have already been held in various cities around the country. I’m taking part in two this year: Atlanta, in October, as a member of the support crew, and San Diego, in November, as a walker. This will be my 18th walk as a walker and my 11th walk as a crewmember. (I calculated earlier this year that at some point in this year’s San Diego 3-Day I’ll have walked my 1,000th mile as a 3-Day walker.)

If you haven’t been following my walks for all these years and maybe don’t know me all that well, you might wonder why I’ve been at this so long and why I’m apparently so dedicated to the cause.

Well, It’s not because I’ve ever lost a member of my immediate family to breast cancer. In fact, hardly any of my relatives have had it.

But friends and co-workers… that’s another story. I’ve made lots of friends while taking part in the 3-Day and… well, I’ve lost a few of them along the way.

It’s a damn lonely thing fighting breast cancer. Even if you’re lucky to have friends and family who care and look out for you, and not everyone does. I can’t tell you how many women I’ve met whose significant other skedaddled because breast cancer was just so depressing.

Among those women who do have good support networks, you still hear comments like “I’m sick and tired of being told how brave I am. I don’t want to be brave. I want to live.” No matter how much they love you and they care for you, when the time comes, your friends and family can’t carry the weight for you. It’s a lonesome valley you have to walk by yourself, as your body wastes away and you spend long hours in the infusion chair hoping and praying for a miracle.

I’m fucking sick of breast cancer. I’m tired of losing friends. I want a breakthrough and I want it now.

Will you help out by sponsoring me? You can do so here: http://www.the3day.org/goto/jayfurr

Thanks. Everyone deserves a lifetime.

Birthday Blues

Thursday, September 20, 2018 is my 51st birthday.

I mention this not because I want you to post a semi-automatic “Happy Birthday’ message to me on Facebook or Twitter. In actual point of fact, I’ve marked my birthdate “hidden” on Facebook and on Twitter… because I’m a total grouch about my birthday.

I have a hereditary sense of self-pity where my birthday is involved. My father, who clearly suffered from undiagnosed depression much of his life, tended to spend most of his birthdays in bed in a darkened room. Some Father’s Days as well. Birthdays and Father’s Days didn’t always start that way, but in my recollection more often than not Dad would get his nose out of joint at not receiving sufficient respect on his day of days… and next thing you know he was sulking in the bedroom. Head under pillow, as it were, lights out, curtains drawn.

I don’t exactly do that. But I certainly don’t look forward to my birthday.

When I was a kid, the general rule was that you’d get up in the morning on your birthday and there’d be a heap of wrapped presents on the dining table waiting for you. Then, that night, everyone would go out to a restaurant of your choosing. In principle, that sounds good, right? What really sucked about birthdays in my family was that in all other respects, your birthday would be just as rotten as any other day.

My father was pretty abusive. Emotionally and physically. Mom enabled him in many respects. She didn’t do the bullying, but she didn’t stop him from doing it. Dad never made the connection between it being my birthday and maybe letting up on the abuse for a while. The irony just drove me up the wall. Irony in the sense of “Happy Birthday” being said, but “you pathetic loser” being the meaning. From what I understood, birthdays weren’t supposed to be like that.

It definitely led one to develop a nice strong sense of self-pity. That, and Dad’s absolute refusal to ever compliment or say anything nice to any of us kids ever. I wound up as the all-time Grand Champion of low self esteem.

What really iced the cake, so to speak, was my 17th birthday. I got up in the morning, went out to the dining room to see what gifts were waiting for me, and there was nothing there. Not a card, not a package, not anything. I wondered if perhaps my parents were planning a surprise, like having a car waiting for me when I came home from school. I doubted that — my older sisters had never gotten anything like that for their 17th birthdays. But I didn’t want to say anything and have them go “impatient, aren’t you?” So I went to school having said nothing. Some kids at school remembered my birthday, which was nice, but still, I spent the day going “WTF?” about my family. That night, once again, nothing. No one said “so, where do you want to go eat?” No one said “you’re probably wondering where your presents are?” Nothing.

Not much I could do. If my family cared so little that they forgot my birthday, going hat in hand and saying “pretty please can I have a birthday celebration please” would just have been pathetic.

So I said nothing. For a while I wondered if at some point they were going to look at the calendar and think “Hey, wait a second…” Given that my mom’s birthday was on September 4 and mine was on September 20, they were usually thought of as “the September birthdays” (we had the three March birthdays and then my brother’s was in July). Mom’s certainly hadn’t been forgotten… so why had mine? Anyway, day after day went by and they never did remember.

So finally, about a month after my 17th birthday, I went to my mom and asked a contrived question: “Do I need to register for Selective Service within 30 days of my 17th birthday or 18th?” She said “18th, I think” and I said “OK” and wandered off. A few minutes later, the shoe dropped. Mom came and found me and asked what they’d given me for my birthday. Finally, I had the opportunity to really revel in the absolute nadir of self-pity. Of course, I acted like it was no big thing. Shrugging, I said “Nothing, Mom. I guess you forgot.”

She went off and called Dad at work to let him know. They decided between them that since they’d forgotten it at the time and for a solid month thereafter, there wasn’t really any point pretending to care and having a belated celebration. They apologized and that was it.

Isn’t it absurd that I still recall it so vividly?

When I went off to college, and then grad school, and then went off into my adult life, birthday celebrations more or less went by the wayside. It wasn’t the kind of thing you could ask your friends to do for you and what friends I had never took the initiative. And thank God, I was never so wretched as to buy myself a birthday cake and sing Happy Birthday to myself. At least I had that much self respect.

Then I got a steady girlfriend and got married. A chance for a new start, birthday-wise, right?

Welllllll…

Carole, bless her heart, had a mother who managed to even exceed my parents’ birthday management skills. She tended to shop at Big Lots a lot and would come home with random crap that was on sale. Then, when it was Carole’s birthday, her mom would remember at the last minute and go up to the room where the “crap bought at Big Lots” box was kept and would arbitrarily grab a few items. Really haphazardly-chosen stuff. Embroidered pot-holders and so on. So, that was where Carole learned about gift-giving.

For the first few Christmases and birthdays we were together, Carole would go to the local bookstore and buy a few remaindered books and then would wander into a clothing store and buy something off the clearance table. Usually whatever she bought didn’t fit and the books had been remaindered for a reason, but at least she tried. Kinda.

On the other hand, I was expected to make up for decades of awful birthday gifts from her mom… and I wound up buying a metric ton of gifts for her each time, in hopes that one of them would really knock the ball out of the ballpark. Each year I had to do more and more because she’d look so disappointed if she didn’t get something really awesome.

And that wound up being how things stayed. I’d get stuff off the $5 table in the front of the Wal-Mart and Carole would get an embarrassment of riches. Eventually I told her to just stop. I’d rather get nothing than get something that so patently shouted “I DON’T CARE”.

The only time it really hurt was when I turned 50. I’d turned 40 while on a business trip to Albuquerque and when I got home a few days later we went out to eat, but that was it.

On my 50th, though, I was really hoping for things to be different. I knew there was no way Carole would remember to do anything unless I reminded her, because in addition to having learned awful gift-giving at her mother’s knee, she’s also the queen of procrastination. So I politely reminded her every couple of weeks for months leading up to my birthday. She understood that I really wanted, for once in our time together, the kind of birthday other people get. She’d say “I know, I know, you can stop reminding me.”

You already know what happened.

I turned 50.

I got: a cake.

So basically, I hate birthdays. Mine, anyway. I’m more than happy to celebrate others’. I still get Carole lots of nice stuff and try to make her day of days really special. But I’ve given up on my own ever amounting to anything.

And as I type this, I realize — as far as birthdays are concerned, I’ve turned into my father.

Sigh.

21st Wedding Anniversary

Carole and I tied the knot on Saturday, September 13, 1997. Thursday of this week is the 21st anniversary of that date. We are still married despite being two of the most contrary, argumentative jackasses who ever fell off the turnip truck.

Marriage has not worked out the way I thought it would. I imagine marriage usually doesn’t. For anyone. Expectations are high, and reality’s a bitch.

For example, I had hoped we’d have kids. We never did, and it’s definitely too late now. I’m about to be 51 (we got married one week before my 30th birthday), and Carole’s coming up on 48. Even if we somehow could get Carole pregnant, I sure as heck don’t want to be that 70-year-old guy at my son or daughter’s high school graduation. That’s just weird.

Why didn’t we have kids?

We never got around to having kids because:

  1. I travel for work. A lot. It wouldn’t be fair to stick Carole with 95% of the work of raising a child. Yes, I could theoretically have changed jobs, but for a lot of reasons, that probably wouldn’t have been as easy or wise as it might sound.
  2. When Carole’s employed, it’s often in an accounting-type position, and even if you’re not working for a CPA firm doing taxes, accountants tend to work long hours. Could Carole have stopped working and become a stay-at-home mom? Hypothetically, yes — but trust me when I say that wouldn’t have been a good fit for her, personality-wise.
  3. We’re both assholes. And we both suffer from depression. And Carole has some form of anxiety disorder. And we’ve both got anger management problems. Do you really want to see what a combination of our genes would be like?

We have had a lot of good times and a lot of bad times.

I can say with some truth that when neither of us is sulking or angry or put out about something, we’re pretty good friends to one another. And that’s something that a lot of married couples can’t say, frankly. (Although a lot can. I’m not saying we’re unique.) And I’m glad about that.

I wish we hadn’t had as many fights as we had. I was told that the key to a successful marriage is “don’t go to bed angry”. Well, one or both of us has gone to bed angry quite a few nights over the years. We sort of specialize in it.

It may be partly due to running a marriage via phone call and text message. It’s hard to know when would be a good time to call or text — I seem to have an uncanny knack for calling just when Carole is really stressed out about something or just going to the bathroom or when she’s in the middle of a TV show or … a lot of things.

And it may also be learned behavior — my parents had loud shouted arguments all the damn time when I was a kid. Carole’s parents didn’t shout as much as mine did, but according to her, sniping and scoring points through bitchy, catty comments directed at one’s family members was considered absolutely normal.

We do care about each other. We just suck at showing it. Most of the time, anyway.

Financially, we’re in pretty good shape. We’re both working, our only debt right now is our mortgage and the loan for the solar panels on the roof, and we’re easily able to make our monthly loan payments. We’re putting a decent amount of money aside for retirement, and we’re both in moderately good health, other than my off-the-charts high blood pressure. We don’t lack for anything and we’re able to afford some of the nice things in life, like our Baltic Sea cruise back in August or the hot tub we just had installed out front of the house.

Really, we don’t have a lot of what you could call problems. Other than the ones we manufacture for ourselves, and I doubt we’ll ever break the habit of doing that.

I love Carole, and I think she loves me. And somehow or another, we’ve outlasted a lot of marriages that outwardly seemed to have more going for them than ours does. If you want your marriage to last, you’ve got to be willing to work hard on occasion, and I guess we’ve cared enough to put in the effort.

The odds may have been against our marriage lasting 21 years, but sometimes, odd couples do work out.

You Can Love Whoever The Hell You Want

Carole and I marched in the 2018 Burlington, Vermont Pride parade today. We’re allies of those in the LGBTQ movement and supporters of the fundamental right of all persons to love whomever the hell they want. We’re happy and proud that droves of Vermonters came out to cheer and support and to march in the parade itself.

We marched with a group of parishioners and ministers from local United Church of Christ (Congregationalist) churches, including the minister from our local church here in Richmond, Vermont, Katelyn Macrae.

Love is love. If you have time to spend telling other people who they can love, you need to take a hard look at where your life is going.