What to do when the news makes you feel like a human ashtray

photo-by-mario-calvo (1)I never realized how much we take the absence of pain for granted. Instead, we cite boredom, general malaise, and complaint rather than sheer gratitude for the stardust shooting through our bodies, for those perfect moments when speck and cell align, humming, harmonious.

We’ve got to be grateful at the cellular level. We’ve got to work on that.

Remember that when you feel like a human ashtray. Like a gaping hunger. Like a dry thirst. Like garbage.


The horrific news over the last 36 hours — the white man who massacred dozens and dozens concertgoers in Las Vegas with assault weapons and injured hundreds — is severe. It is outrageous. It is unprecedented. It was the largest mass shooting in U.S. history. I want to call him a “terrorist” but the truth is, the motive for the shooting is not yet known (and a terrorist is defined as “a person who uses unlawful violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims”).

There is a very real issue here that will not be solved with “thoughts and prayers” and if I see that line one more time I think I will throw up. It makes me angry. DO something. Call your senators. Vote. Resist. Getting into flame wars on the Internet with that dude Billy who you hung out with one time in high school is not the way to go. It does not matter. I am so tired of how we all keep wasting our precious energy on things that do not have staying power, that do not have worth.

Think about it: you know when a conversation is worth having. You know. Your fellow person is engaged. Instead of raising the defenses — sighs, obvious shifting of the feet, opposing body language, interruptions — s/he is listening to you.

It may sound crazy, but what I’m saying here is that YOU DON’T HAVE TO HAVE THE CONVERSATION. You don’t. There are too many precious things that need your energy — to uplift, to protect, to resist, to empower. To love.


I work in news. I’ve been in this business for just about 10 years. That means that I am exposed to a barrage of emails, tweets, calls, notifications, newsletters, and television screens for 40+ hours a week. I do a lot of things at my job, but one title that’s always on is the “information filter.” Usually this runs at a low grade, like a background app running on your phone. But when there is major breaking news — like the horrible massacre yesterday — this kicks into high gear. Everything is on alert. I may be safely sequestered away from the action physically, in an extremely secure building almost 2,000 miles away from Las Vegas. But this still does nothing for my head and my heart.

And before you laugh it off or tell me to “put the phone down” or something equally derisive and dismissive, I think it’s worth considering the effects of news — particularly horrible, traumatizing news, our access to it, and the speed at which it all travels.

“According to some psychologists, exposure to negative and violent media may have serious and long-lasting psychological effects beyond simple feelings of pessimism or disapproval …violent media exposure can exacerbate or contribute to the development of stress, anxiety, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”

(From “What Constant Exposure to Negative News is Doing to Our Mental Health,” Huffington Post.)

Combine these symptoms — stress, anxiety, depression, PTSD — with the fact that no one seems to be able to have a conversation anymore (online or in person) without interrupting or trying to take the other out at the knees, and it makes for a pretty toxic mix. 

Yesterday, when I woke up, I checked my email. I do this every day, usually before I even move from my bed, to get a sense of what to expect. Immediately, email after email with “LAS VEGAS” and “LAS VEGAS SHOOTING” and “VEGAS MASSACRE” began to pop up. Dozens and dozens of them, all from the overnight hours. I headed into work with a sense of icy-cold dread — you know the kind, right? The dripping, cold fear you can feel deep in your bones? The kind of chill a sweater really won’t warm?

((I also wrote something very similar about my experience in news when the Boston Marathon was bombed.))

After a few hours, I felt overwhelmed and nauseous. When I left work, I was still nauseous. I did things that usually help restore some sense of normalcy: I cuddled my dog. I drank lots of water. I kept the lights low and the noise off. I did the things I thought would help me decompress. It didn’t work. I got ready to go to a meetup with several friends about a creative project we were working on, but had to psych myself up to even get out the door. I couldn’t shake the sense that I was going to be not in the right mood, a wet blanket thrown over the whole thing.

So I figured I’d try something different: I’d talk to them about it. I’d put it out there that I was feeling really weird — mentally and physically off. That I didn’t want to hijack the meeting, but that this world felt extra-super-fucked at the moment and I just needed to release it. And a funny thing happened: it was like releasing a pressure valve. We all felt it. We all needed to acknowledge it.


Today, a colleague sent a note to the newsroom staff, which I’ll paraphrase here:

“Dealing with the news is tough no matter who you are. And it can be really tough for people who work in news, who get a constant barrage of sad and horrible information at any given time. It’s okay to feel this way, and it’s okay to seek help. And we support you.”

This applies to anyone. It’s okay if you’re pissed, sad, devastated. That’s an appropriate response to this atrocity. To any atrocity, really. Do what you need to do. Talk to a friend. Cry. Boil a pot of tea. Hug your dog. Make an appointment with your therapist. Take care of yourself and your mental health.

And if or when you feel up to it, fight. Resist. Speak up in ways that will multiply your energy rather than deplete it. Write your politicians. Research legislation. Inform yourself. Work hard to stay informed.

And above all, don’t forget what to do in those perfect moments when speck and cell align, humming, harmonious. Don’t forget to be grateful at the cellular level, when you can.

on pushing and getting nowhere

When my brother died, it took the Erie County Coroner’s office more than two days to call any of my family members back. We called the police officer who initially reached out to me. We called the police department. We called the coroner several times. Nothing.

We had to physically show up at the office, a 40-minute drive from my parents’ home, to even ask for answers.

The coroner sat with us in the public waiting room — which also happened to be the public waiting room of a local doctor’s office — to discuss the circumstances of my brother’s death. My parents’ discomfort was palpable, and I was shocked that he was relaying such personal details to a newly-grieving family in such a public place.

The office’s willingness to speak with us in that moment was, I assume, due to the fact that my mentor and close friend is the managing editor of the local paper (which is where I got my start in media).

I told my friend about this delay in communication, and while he provided tips and feedback for moving forward, he also seemed surprised that so much time had passed with no contact.

I’m currently in the process of requesting more information from their office, such as a full coroner’s report. I will be keeping track of and publicly sharing my experiences, good and bad, as this moves forward. This includes today:

I called the Erie County Coroner’s office after their out-of-office lunch periods (yep, they’re one of those), and was told that the person I was asking for (a “Chris” listed on the Erie County Coroner’s website) was no longer there. I expressed the reason for my call, which was to request info on the best way to request a full coroner’s report, and asked who, then, would be best to speak with.

“Cathy,” the woman replied, “but she won’t be in until tomorrow. At 8 a.m.”

She was quiet after that, as if waiting for me to hang up. She didn’t offer to take a message for me, as most offices would.

“Thank you,” I said. “I’ll call back tomorrow.”

We’ll see how it goes.

How to be a better person in 2014

DISCLAIMER: This post is in no way, shape or form written by an expert, nor does it contain any secret keys to life. (Sorry.) Instead, it was written by a very faulty human who has some self-awareness and a sincere desire to humbly move forward and become a better person.

By now, you’ve probably already made your list of resolutions and broken half of them (or, if you were more realistic, made one and are still going strong). This is kind of my list, if you want to call it that, because while making resolutions and setting goals is sort of my bread and butter, public pronouncements of such things scream “I am AN ADULT!” and if I’m being completely honest with you, I am still wading into this weird country called “adulthood” with extreme trepidation.

But I admit: I DO love reading the goal-setting lists of anyone, whether they appear to be well-polished individuals who have their shit totally together or a teenager on Tumblr who posts, “note to self: stop doing dumb shit.” They’re always inspiring. I am always the last person to do this because I find it so hard. I don’t understand how anyone, fresh off the insanity of holidays and travel and trying to get back into/out of the work grind, can manage to fit in a self-help plan/life overhaul before January 1. (Major props to you.) But I can only do what I can do, which is take the better part (read: almost all) of January to reflect on the past year and think about the possibilities of the new one.

I’ve been reading The Happiness Project by Gretchin Rubin and Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, both inspirational self-help books (I use that term loosely) that don’t initially seem that similar, but the more I read, the more overlapping truths and themes emerge. I realize this could entirely be a result of reading the two together which has been an intellectually stimulating experience — my my brain working to find the context of one in the other and managing to synthesize both. (But really: both advocate knowledge and learning more, being  more culturally/socially and self-aware, and how to use that info to make better, more informed decisions that benefit YOU.)

In The Happiness Project, Rubin creates a list of “Rules for Adulthood” at the outset of her project. This is a list of basic principles that underpins the specific “areas of improvement” she’s targeted, and it also just seems to be a good way to start thinking about how to be a better person. I’ve reflected on my past year and identified some of the areas where I struggled and where I should aim to improve, as well as looked forward and imagined what my best life would be like. I think it’s wonderful to make resolutions and all, but if you don’t realistically take a look at what you’re like and where you’re at, the resolutions may not really be in alignment with your best interests. (Not that I’m an expert, but I AM a realist.)

I figured I’d share my own Rules for Adulthood for 2014. Some are lifted from Rubin’s list because it’s so damn good. Others are mine.


1.) Don’t get tunnel vision.

2.) Take a nap.

3.) Don’t take it personally.

4.) Learn something from everyone.

5.) Think balance.

6.) Always ask.

7.) Be nice.

8.) Small, regular things mean more than occasional showy things.

9.) Live in the now.

10.) Make things with your heart, your brain, and your hands.

11.) Speak up.

12.) Write.

13.) Do you.

(If you want to start your own Happiness Project, Rubin’s website has a good resource for it here.)

When you read something awful-terrible about yourself

“The act of hurling something to the Earth is an interesting one. It connotes a dismissal of physical/material form, both in terms of the thing being hurled and a violence toward the dirt-planet at one’s feet. Furthermore, the act of presenting an object to someone in this way exaggerates the act of looking down, and requires one stoop to retrieve it, bowing, in a way, to the one who made the initial gesture. It’s an act that anticipates complicity.

The night things went shitty between us, Isabel — the night when it became clear to maybe everyone but me you were a liar — was Halloween. While you were on your phone desperately trying to get a cab to leave the party under the false pretense that your sister was having an overdose, this guy way trying to hit on you. I took his hat off his head and threw it at his feet and demanded he pick it up.

You often talked — almost fondly, Isabel — of how your ex-boyfriend threw you down a staircase once. Infidelity, you said. You learnt your lesson, you said. I didn’t yet suspect your pathologies. This was a scene you returned to more than once. Nearly bragging, sometimes smiling. You lived mostly in your past, or else were scheming futures. Either way, your lack of presence — it sucked. And tho I loved to see how your hands would move around when you excitedly told your stories, how you would interrupt yourself with laughter — I resented that the person I was falling in love with was mostly a former version, or your own invention, and that these things you told me had nothing to do with how we were together.

Later, I wished it were me that had thrown you down the stairs. Maybe then I’d have meant something more to you.”

That was Garett Strickland, in an essay on HTMLGIANT. The whole essay is great, really, and I highly recommend reading, but that particular section was increasingly painful.

All I could keep thinking was, Oh, that’s me. Definitely me. The worst parts of me, maybe, but definitely me. It’s hard, sometimes, to think of one’s self as more than just the things that have happened to it (does that make sense?).

Have you ever painfully recognized yourself in literature?

The Boston Marathon was bombed today.

I ran on the elliptical after work, my standard 30 minutes. I turned on ABC World News, a full half hour of pure horror, scene after scene of the aftermath, the debris, bloody marathoners and spectators, expressions of terror. I would like to quietly say now, then, that my heart goes out to everyone affected, directly and indirectly, though it feels like it might be insulting or at the least incorrect to say “indirectly.” I am tripping over this again and again because I feel such pain and sadness but I also have this feeling like I’m not entitled to my pain and sadness — I was not, after all, in Boston; I did not experience this horrific event, nor one even remotely like it, I do not know anyone directly affected. It is not “my” tragedy, and how do I write about something that is not mine?

I watched the same clip of the explosion, with its fire and huge cloud of smoke start small and then expand in the right corner of the screen, played over and over again at various speeds. I had my earphones in but didn’t feel like listening to music, so I turned up the TV and listened to the muffled newscast through rubber distortion, and for the first moment all day what I was doing seemed to be the right thing for me to be doing. I realized the awful irony of the moment; the letting the horror of this event motivate me, the horror of a runner’s legs being blown off so there’s nothing left but sharp jagged stumps, his face an ashen grey (from shock? blood loss? the blast itself? all of it?) and I wanted to cry, started to cry on the elliptical, felt like this was the least I could do to make myself feel better (self-serving creature I am): I am here, my feet are carrying me, my awful wonderful imperfect yet perfectly preserved body is still here and whole and breathing, and when I went faster and faster I could feel my lungs working overtime, and I wanted to stop but more than anything, I just wanted to keep fucking going, because this small bit of strife I felt, this tiny amount of bodily stress is nothing compared to running 26.2 miles and then being blown down by a bomb.

And I know, I know that this is not the worst it gets when it comes to human travesties. But it was the amount of sheer horror, of “inside access” afforded us by way of Twitter and social media and every news station with their umpteen news crews, dangling cameras from all angles, news as reality show, that grabbed you by the throat and shook, that said LOOK AT ME, I’M EVIL AND I EXIST.

It makes me think about all of the other travesties, ongoing and past, that are silent and sealed and on the whole unknown to the majority of us, conveniently ignored, babied and sheltered as we are. Iraq. Syria. Vietnam. I could go on. These are very familiar terms, too familiar really, vague words that we hear in the news often. They are so familiar that we casually speak of them like we know something. But we do not, as the majority, understand the horror of these things, of dreams of being forever trapped in the jungle, memories of men you called brother dying off like flies in an airtight room. Sure, we have our statistics, our death tolls, our daily reports of dirty bombs and IEDs and mistakes made, but we have very little visual reference point for the horror. This, to me, seems abnormal. I realize some might say the opposite, claim it’s humane to hide the blood and bones and mutilated carcasses, but I think it’s a cop-out. Who are we really protecting here? Who is protecting whom?

I see serious incongruity within a society that widely accepts tourture porn — Saw, Hostel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, etc., etc. — as “escapism” and a relief from reality, yet cannot accept or even confront its own history, whether past or in the making. I am inclined to wonder: if we started showing graphic photos and footage, especially the things considered “too explicit” for the evening news, would we have a shared sense of responsibility? A shared sense of conscience? If we could see the real-life, everyday horrors splayed across our screens morning, noon and night, would we maybe be better for it? Would we be more compassionate, more human, more aware? Or would we find new ways to tune reality out? We cannot sustain this schizophrenic bubble-world existence forever. My only worry is that our humanity might be gone long before that happens.