Contemplating Suicide

March 31, 2007

When I was in college and things were not going well I would drink excessively and ended up with a number of lost weekends.  My troubles were rarely over classes and nearly always over girls, which carried over into my studies, which carried over into every waking minute, and, well, you get the picture.  I wax nostalgic when I think about how hard I had it (I did not have it hard at all).

The same sort of thing happened again around the time I was 26, and once more I found myself drinking way too much, and started contemplating suicide.  Surely almost everyone, at some time in their lives, contemplates suicide.  I knew exactly how it would be done:  alcohol poisoning.  It would have been only a small leap to go from drinking heavily to chugging one or two bottles of vodka; I’m sure I could have downed them before passing out for the last time.

I was never foolish or perhaps brave enough to go through with it but the thoughts of suicide and my general funk back then made me realize that once you overcome the fear of death, making the leap into it would not be hard.

An alumnus from my son’s (and my) university took that leap this past week.  He climbed to the top of the stairway in the tallest building on campus (nine floors), stepped over the abyss, hit his head on the railing at the 5th floor and landed on the fourth.  That’s about a 50 foot drop.  It would have taken him less than 1 ¾ seconds to do himself in.  His speed when he impacted the concrete would have been about 40 mph, more than enough to kill him instantly.  Dead in under 2 seconds.

I have this graph that I use to describe the point at which people decide to kill themselves.  It’s really simple.  It’s a formula that consists of two parameters only:  Mental maturity (in blue) and emotional stability (in red).  It looks like this:

Emotional Stability Curve

Emotional stability rides atop mental maturity.  Our emotional extremes generally peak in our late teens or early twenties, and by the time we have reached middle age most of us don’t cry as hard, or laugh as much as when we were younger.  Our mental maturity (call it the wisdom quotient) grows slowly with time and tends to increase more quickly once we are in our twenties.  A low wisdom quotient with large swings in emotional stability leads to problems.  I think that people get themselves into trouble when the superposition of emotional stability and wisdom quotient falls below the axis (the light pink curve).  That’s when they are most vulnerable to acting on those thoughts of suicide.

I have certainly gone through these extremes and lucky for me, the lowest of my lows was not low enough to put me over the edge.  Others are not so lucky and leave this earth in a most unfortunate way.  I can only hope that my God understands and forgives them.


Living in the Moment

March 31, 2007

I have five siblings. If innate intelligence, outgoing personality, initiative or reasonable financial stability are measures of success then all but one of us are successful. The sibling who stands apart from us was damaged at birth, and has a reduced mental capacity and social skills that pretty much put him at the level of a 14-year-old. This is not to say that he is unaccomplished or debilitated. On the contrary, he has a driver’s license (imagine a 14-year-old with a driver’s license!) is a pretty good artist and occasionally holds part-time jobs as a custodian or laborer. He gets by mainly on the good graces of his family.

My mom and dad have spent a ton of money – way too much money – supporting him as an adult. My sister, who owns the building in which he lives, provides him a place to stay, rent and utility free. More than once I’ve paid for his car repairs, taken him shopping for food and otherwise bailed him out of financial jams.

My brother’s real problem is that he has no concept of tomorrow, and lives entirely in the moment. Give him $100 and tell him it’s food money for the month and he will spend it in two days on whatever suits his fancy. Tell him that his car will not last another year and that he needs to seriously save for another one, and you can watch his eyes glaze over. Line him up for a job interview in two weeks and he will fail to show up. I can’t count the number of times he’s run out of gas because he had no money to pay for it, but continued to drive anyway.

So my parents save for his next car, and my sister continues to pay his rent. In the end, my brother survives – not as I would want to survive – but survives nonetheless on the charity of others. I do not think for a moment that he has any appreciation for what the others have been doing for him. He certainly does not – cannot – appreciate the true cost of living. He has no thought of the future or its potential problems, and I find it hard to pin any definition of success on him.

Yet, I wonder who’s more at peace in this world: Us, or him?

Heroes and Villains, Part 2

March 25, 2007

Jason Dunham, the local Western New York marine who died in the Iraq war to save his comrades from a grenade, had a Navy destroyer named after him this past week.  “As long as there is a United States Marine Corps, Jason Dunham will be remembered,” said Brigadier General Joseph Dumford, the Marines’ director of operations

In the coming years I hope that Jason becomes one of those larger than life heroes in this area.  Eventually, we need a big structure named after him.  “The Dunham Signature Bridge” has a nice ring to it.  Today’s society is focused on throwing accolades at sports and movie stars; but those people are celebrities, not heroes.  The “Be like Mike” Gatorade commercials back in the early ‘90s used to make me cringe, that as a society we literally coronated Michael Jordan, a skilled basketball player but not a very good role model.

Jason, on the other hand, is a great role model.  Not because he sacrificed his life but because he was willing to do so.  His selflessness was apparent throughout his life – at least from the statements made by family and friends.  Jason and people like him should be held in high esteem by those of us who remain behind.  They are the ones who should be advertised on Wheaties boxes.

It’s a shame that Jason had to die for an unjust war.  I believe that history will be kinder to him than to those who sent him to his death in the name of freedom.

Global Warming

March 24, 2007

I wonder how much more I could do to help reduce global warming.

As it is, during the colder months we burn wood for heat in a high-efficiency fireplace.  There seem to be some arguments as to this being a good thing.  We’ll go through 5 face cords of wood this year (about $400 total), and not pay more than roughly $100 for natural gas during any month.  During the day we keep the thermostat around 63° and wear sweaters.  We don’t heat the house at night.

We do not use air conditioning.  We have compact fluorescent bulbs throughout our home.  My wife composts everything she can compost, and hangs laundry outdoors to dry on a line.  We reuse shopping bags (paper and plastic), and drive fuel-efficient vehicles.  We recycle everything that we can.  Rather than driving, on nice days I’ll bicycle to the local stores for odds and ends.  I even sided my entire house with an extra layer of R-4 re-siding and Tyvek to get the insulation value of the walls up to R-13 or so.  To no avail I have even tried to convince my wife that sharing body heat more often would reduce our overall dependency on external heating sources.

Here’s the thing.  Just because I heat my house with wood rather than natural gas doesn’t mean I’m reducing my carbon footprint.  On the contrary, I would hazard a guess that per BTU, wood burning probably releases more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than natural gas or oil (along with soot, sulfur dioxide and other haze-producing chemicals).  And the human body is also not that efficient.  To make up for the energy lost while bicycling to the store, I have to consume more calories than my car would probably have burned in gasoline had I chosen to drive instead.  In the end, many of these feel-good habits are probably not doing a damn bit of good to reduce global warming.

Then how can I do more than I’m already doing?  Certainly the best way for me to reduce my carbon consumption is to die.  The second-best way is probably not to have children (too late for that – I’ve already propagated carbon burning into the next generation).  Another possibility is to move to a warmer climate while sticking to the “no air conditioning” rule.  This may happen someday, but not soon.

I’m at a loss here.  Short of fertilizer-less subsistence farming I am not sure I can do much more to help keep the oceans from rising two meters by the end of the century. 

How can I help make the personal reduction of one’s carbon footprint more glamorous to the people around me, and convince them to join in the fun?

The Embezzlement

March 22, 2007

A few years ago I discovered, much to my chagrin, that my company’s financial administrator was embezzling from the company. It was bad enough that she had systematically stolen over a half-million dollars over seven years; it was worse when, after she was caught and fired, that she immediately accused me of racial discrimination and sexual harassment.

The DA send this would happen. He said she would claim complete innocence, that the company owners were robbing the company blind, that she was just about to turn us into the police and that – upon my finding out she was about to do this – I fired her in retaliation. They said she would fight these charges tooth and nail regardless of the insurmountable evidence we had against her. The harassment accusations were both an embarrassment and a huge expense. (They were also unfounded and eventually dropped.)

On Veterans’ Day 2004, the day before her grand jury hearing, the embezzler pleaded guilty to felony grand larceny. On Valentine’s Day, 2005 she was sentenced to 3-9 years in prison for her crimes.

3 years after the embezzlement was first discovered we are still struggling to swim in the ocean of debt that she created. Even though we were able to prove that over a half-million dollars was stolen, the actual figure is certainly closer to a quarter-million more than that. As of this month, half of that amount has been paid off. I must thank our creditors for being so patient.

For non-violent crimes, embezzlement is second only to fraud. Ever since the casinos were built in Ontario and Niagara Falls, both the number of embezzlements and the size of the embezzlement in Western New York have skyrocketed. Gambling is a common reason why embezzlers embezzle. My embezzler just wanted to live like a queen:

$40,000 in coats, shoes and other clothing

$40,000 in cars and gasoline

$20,000 in airfare and vacation spots

$12,000 in cell phone bills

The list goes on and on (and on and on).

Anyway, my embezzler is up for parole in a few months. Like many victims, my hell will continue long after hers ends.

A Lid for my Garbage

March 18, 2007

A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it (George Carlin, 2000).

Like most suburbanites I have too much stuff in my house.  For all of our married life until very recently, my wife and I decided that saving for our kids’ education and our retirement were more important than new furniture or expensive toys.  As a result a large fraction of our stuff is very old.  We both find that older stuff is actually harder to part with than newer stuff – there’s that much more sentimental value attached to it.  We are also both deftly skilled at repair, so if we can squeeze any life out of something, we do so.  We just hate throwing away anything that might have some life left in it.

As a result you cannot walk into our house and find an uncluttered horizontal surface, or a blank wall, or an empty corner.  Because the closets are all full we have to be creative when putting things “away”.

We have four food pantries.  We have three “junk” drawers.  On our first floor alone I built six new closets, and they are all crammed.  There are 24 dinner plates and 14 soup bowls in our cupboard.  It’s a good thing that one can never have enough frying pans, because we have 9.

We’re a family of four. 


March 17, 2007

I’m writing this on a cold March evening, wrapped in fleece with a wine glass in hand, unwilling to turn up the heat because I hate paying high gas bills.



4 months of beautiful warm weather, 4 months of cold, 4 months of so-so

7 months of beautiful warm weather; 4 months of stifling heat; 1 month of so-so

Friendly people

Friendly waiters

Plenty of water

Plenty of blue sky

Rush 20 minutes

Rush 3 hours

Growing old


Rabid football and hockey fans

Coyotes and Cardinals not long for the Southwest

Cornell, RPI, U of R, SUNY Buffalo


Economically depressed

Economically impressive

Pot holes

Flash floods

Rust belt

Sun belt

Home heating bills

Air conditioning bills

Mountains of government red tape




Flower gardens

Rock gardens

Trees and grass

Cactus and rock

Signature Bridge

Hoover Dam

Pink flamingos

Building cranes

55 mph

75 mph

Buffalo Philharmonic


Affordable home prices

Soaring home prices




Pickup trucks



GM, Ford and the NY State Government

Intel, Southwest Airlines, Avnet, Honeywell, Coldstone Creamery and many, many others

Letchworth State Park – The Grand Canyon of the East

The Grand Canyon

2-hour drive to Toronto

2-hour drive just to get home from work

Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright!

Come July, I wonder if I’ll be thinking so much of the Southwest…