In the aftermath of Newtown, this site has taken a decidedly serious tone.
Time to break things up a bit.
A decade ago, while writing for Sports Illustrated, I was assigned a piece on Derek Bell, at the time an outfielder with the New York Mets. Bell was a funny guy—he said “Yo ho ho!” after everything, spoke in a sorta endearing nonsensical manner, walked to a beat all his own. I liked him very much, and recall—vividly and warmly—visiting him on his houseboat, which he kept along the East River.
Anyhow, I submitted my piece to the magazine and, a day later, received a call from the fact checker. She asked all the requisite questions—spelling, dates, etc. Then, her tone changed. “Jeff,” she said, “I have to ask you something, and it’s kind of embarrassing.”
“OK,” I said.
“This is not my question,” she said. “Another editor insisted I ask.”
Now, I have to interrupt this by noting that, at the time, SI’s upper editors weren’t, well, the coolest guys in town. Pretty upper-crust, pretty upper-age. Nice, wonderful folks. Just not especially up to date.
“Jeff,” she said, “he wants to know the kind of music Derek likes. Is it hip-hop music, or hip-hip music?”
I try not to excessively editorialize in this particular forum, but—in this case—I’ll make an exception.
The gun nonsense in this nation has to stop. It absolutely, positively has to. There are too many guns, used by too many unqualified and unreasonable people, who obtain them too easily. There are too many angry citizens being paired with devices of anger. It’s a joke. Beyond a joke. People are dying, and our elected officials—thanks in large part to the power of the NRA—nod and do little.
I am honored—beyond honored—to have Paul Ercolino participate in the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Paul, before I go anywhere with this interview, I’d like to ask about your brother Steven, who was shot and killed four months ago outside the Empire State Building. Who was he? What was he like? What was your relationship like? What do you want people to know about him?
PAUL ERCOLINO: Steven had a big personality and carried himself with a certain swagger. As my sister Maria said in her eulogy “When Steven walked into a room, you knew it.” First, you were captured by his bright smile and blue eyes. He was full of life and had a work ethic and drive like no one else. He was artistic, creative and articulate. Throughout his career in the fashion industry Steven helped people, changed their lives for the better, advised and mentored them. Steven had an amazing ability to make others laugh and he had a knack for impersonating people and movie characters, which always left people hysterical.
Steven had finally settled down with his soul mate Ivette and he was as happy as I can remember the last time I saw him in August at a family get-together in Warwick, N.Y. He was a wonderful brother and son to my parents, but what I really admired most about him was what a great uncle he was to my children and his other nieces and nephews. He would take my son Vincent into Little Italy for dinner and always have the latest handbag for my daughter Sofia. The little ones called him Uncle Duckie because one time he came to a family get together with his hair dyed blonde. He loved life and he lived it.
Sports were a big part of our family growing up. We were Mets, Knicks and Rangers fans but we split on football. My dad and I are Giants fans, while Steven and my brother Peter are Jets fans. In fact, my last conversation with my brother came after a phone call to WFAN’s Mike Francesa. After I hung up the phone, I got a phone call from him and he said, in typical Steven fashion, “You’re still talking about the stinkin’ Mets.”
It hurts, I really miss him.
Steven Ercolino, a beloved uncle, with his nieces.
J.P.:I’m writing these questions just four days after the Sandy Hook nightmare, and everyone’s talking gun control-gun control-gun control. This has obviously become an issue near and dear to you. What, Paul, needs to be done? What can be done? I’m fearful time will pass, distractions will take place and, as always, we’ll do shit. Please tell me I’m wrong …
P.E.: I think you are wrong this time, Jeff. The tragedy in Newtown has had such a powerful impact on the country as we watched in horror the slaughter of children and their teachers. The American public can’t allow this to pass and do nothing about it. We must demand that our politicians on both sides of the aisle get together and tackle the issue of curbing gun violence. The first and most obvious thing to do is ban assault weapons and high capacity ammo clips. We can close gun show loopholes and mandate background checks on anyone who buys a firearm. Just as importantly, we need find ways to stop access of lethal weapons to the mentally ill.
J.P.:How did you find out about your brother’s death? How did you and your family handle it? And is there any advice you can offer to the Sandy Hook families? Is there a way to cope with this? Is it even possible?
P.E.: We were moving my son into his dorm as an incoming freshman at Syracuse University. We had just finished breakfast and were walking to the Carrier Dome for a ceremony when my father called me with the news that turned one of the happiest days of my life into the worst nightmare I could ever imagine. We have pulled together as a family after this tragedy and have become a stronger unit. No longer do we go a month at a time without picking up the phone and talking with each other. Our faith in God has been renewed as we feel the energy of Steven around us in everything we do. We will be starting a Steven Ercolino Foundation that will give back to the causes he believed in. The Sandy Hook families are in a much more difficult place than we were. I had 41 years to love my brother, while these poor families had the lights of their lives ripped from them at the ages of 6 and 7. My only advice is too celebrate their short lives and try not to agonize over their horrific deaths. That is what I am in the process of doing and it is very difficult.
The Ercolino Family, together for the final time two weeks before Steven’s death. Writes Paul: “It was the last time we were all together and it just breaks my heart looking at the smile on my mother and father’s face. They were so happy that we were all together. Little did we know this would be the last time.”
J.P.:After the incident, you were outspoken in your criticism of the media’s handling of the incident. Why? What, specifically, bothered you? And how do you feel about the Sandy Hook coverage?
P.E.: I was outraged by the New York Times Online Edition and the New York Post front page posting an overhead graphic photo of my brother that was recognizable to anyone who knew him, lying in a pool of blood. The photo was taken by someone in my brother’s office building and sold to the New York Times for $300. As a brother of the victim and former journalist, it sickened me that someone made the decision to run that photo. As for the Sand Hook coverage, I think the rush to be first with a story has led to so many inaccuracies. They identified Ryan Lanza, the 24-year-old brother of the murderer, as the initial suspect. It was reported that the mother was a teacher in the school, and was killed along with her class. When did get it first instead of get it right become the norm? In our case, reporters would not stop calling my parents’ house, which led me to hold a press conference outside their home. At least in Sandy Hook, I believe the press has respected the victims’ privacy and allowed them to grieve privately.
J.P.:Why do you think people are so passionate about guns? To me, they’re objects. Inanimate objects that kill. Why such strong feelings from gun owners?
P.E.: I am similar to you, I have never owned a gun and I look at them as objects that kill. Some people have a passion for cars, I look at them as an object that gets me from point A to B. I was brought up with sports in my house and I have a passion for sports. I guess in some cultures in America, guns are a way of life, people grow up with them and start using them at an early age. Now, when the government discusses putting limits on their passion, people get very protective of their guns.
Paul speaking with the media shortly after his brother’s passing.
J.P.:This might sound stupid, but I’m wondering—can you walk past the Empire State Building any longer? Do you avoid it? Do you even look at it?
P.E.: It is not a stupid question. The first time I had to drive into the city for business after the murder I was crossing the George Washington Bridge and looked at the skyline as I had done hundreds of times before and started to cry. I realized this symbol of American greatness was now an image of horror for me and my family. In November, the family got together for what would have been his 42nd birthday. We went on the roof of his Union City, N.J. condo and released balloons in his honor. Before we released the balloons my 5-year-old nephew, Matthew, said, “Hey, isn’t that the Empire State Building? That was Uncle Steven’s favorite building!” It was as only a 5-year old could. It brought more tears to my eyes but I realized that Steven bought this condo for the view of his favorite building in the city he loved and now I can look at the Empire State Building again.
J.P.:Has anyone from Jeffrey Johnson’s family ever reached out to you? Apologized? Anything? And did/do you want them to? Does it matter?
P.E.: No one from the Johnson family has ever reached out to us, nor would I expect them. It is not something anyone in our family is seeking and there is really nothing they can say at this point.
J.P.:Whenever tragedy happens, clergy speak of “learning” and “healing” from said incidents. Is that nonsense to make us feel better? Or is there learning and healing to be done?
P.E.: No, I don’t think it is nonsense—there is learning and healing that can come from tragedy. What I learned from my brother’s murder is that life is too short to be worrying about all the BS that goes on around you in your daily life. Life is precious and it can be taken away from you in an instant, without warning.
Steven was a Jets loyalist.
J.P.: Paul, I know much about your brother, little about you. Where are you from? What’s your life path? Job? Kids?
P.E.: I was born in Brooklyn and we moved to Nanuet in Rockland County when I was in first grade. I graduated from Clarkstown South High School and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. My wife Elisa and I have been married for 21 years and we have two children—Vincent, 18, and Sofia, 12. I worked for five years after college as news anchor and reporter at radio stations in Rockland and Westchester, N.Y., as well as in Tampa, Florida. After Vincent was born in 1994 in Florida we decided to move back to New York to be closer to family. After being the runner-up for a reporter position at WCBS News Radio, I began working at my in-laws’ direct marketing company. Eighteen years later I am now the President of U.S. Monitor, the nation’s leading mail monitor service. Since my brother’s murder, I have been working with Dan Gross at the Brady Campaign to Reduce Gun Violence and I have become active in ethics in journalism regarding victims’ rights.
J.P.:Do you think we’re a violent people who need to learn to be peaceful? Or are you peaceful people who gravitate toward violence? And is there a solution?
P.E.: We are peaceful people who gravitate toward violence. I think the solution starts with parents, teachers and mental health professionals. If we recognize the warning signs early and make the choice to take the appropriate action, many of these tragedies can be avoided.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH PAUL ERCOLINO:
• Three most important steps we can take, RE: gun control: Ban assault weapons, close gun show loopholes, background checks on 100-percent of gun sales.
• If you could say one thing to Wayne LaPierre, the NRA CEO, it would be …: Do the right thing and rise to the moment.
• Do you believe video games predispose people to violence?: No, I think people are predisposed to violence and those people when exposed to violent video games may become more predisposed to violence.
• Your brother’s five favorite Jet players: His favorite all-time was Joe Klecko, he also liked Freeman McNeil, Wayne Chrebet, Curtis Martin and Darrelle Revis is no particular order.
• Does God exist?: Yes and in the past four months my faith in God has become an important part of my life.
• Do you believe in the death penalty? Why or why not?: My position has evolved on this issue. I used to be pro-death penalty but I have been convinced that it is not a deterrent and that life in prison without parole is a harsher punishment for murderers.
• Why do you think people who commit violent acts don’t just shoot themselves?: Why take out others, too? I think they want to go out in a blaze of glory and destroy the people who they feel are responsible for their lot in life.
• You studied broadcast journalism at Syracuse. Why aren’t you a broadcast journalist?: I worked as a journalist for five years after graduating from Syracuse and after my son was born in 1994 I decided to work in my in-laws’ business. Journalism is still in my blood, though.
• On your Facebook page you “liked” Walmart. I know no one who likes Walmart. What up?: Last I checked over 26 million people agree with me … who are you hanging out with. 🙂
• Why Syracuse’s football team ever win anything?: Coach Doug Marrone has us on the right track, the move to the ACC should help us. As for competing with the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world—that is wishful thinking. Let’s talk Orange basketball …
When the news media first began reporting on the Sandy Hook nightmare, it was frequently mentioned that the killer apparently had Asperger’s Syndrome. There was absolutely no context provided; no mention that Asperger’s is a mild form of autism; no mention that there are zero (literally, zero) ties between Asperger’s and violent behavior. No, the media repeatedly mentioned Asperger’s because the media is, quite often, lazy as all hell. When details are limited, too many reporters (and news outlets) will simply report what they know, sans follow-up or explanation or reason.
To be blunt, it pisses me off.
A couple of years ago, Reader’s Digest assigned me to write a piece about my brother David, who has Asperger’s. I asked David what he thought, and he, memorably replied, “If it can help people understand … I’ll do it.” This remains one of the two or three most meaningful stories I’ve ever reported, because it gave me a chance to speak with my big brother in a new, eye-opening light. Without exaggeration, I can tell you my brother is my hero. He’s a wonderful son to my parents; a wonderful uncle to my children; an absolutely great guy.
Because my assigning editor left Reader’s Digest midway through the project, it never ran. I called David this morning, asked if he’d be cool with my running it here. He gave his blessing. Hence, it’s my honor to tell you all about my brother …
David (right) and Jeff, circa 1975.
My hero is sitting in front of me, wearing a red Hawaiian shirt, munching on a vegetarian burrito, taking slugs from a Corona. We haven’t been like this in … well, ever. Just two brothers, grabbing a bite to eat, shooting the breeze. There has always been a barrier, constructed not of brick or cement, but of an emotional barbed wire that neither of us can really cross. He is 39, I am 37, and in our lives we have never had a true, legitimate, heart-to-heart sit-down chat. Not once. Ever.
But here we are, in a Ft. Lauderdale Mexican restaurant, chatting. There is an uneasiness to it all, naturally, in that this—serious talk—just isn’t something we do. In fact, when I first told David that I wanted to write an article about his lifelong battle with Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that often shows itself through social awkwardness and physical clumsiness, his reaction was predictable. “I don’t know,” he said. “No, probably not.”
Throughout much of his life, David has exerted mounds upon mounds of effort to the singular task of making sure people didn’t know about his—for lack of a better word—difficulty. He went to therapy, took anti-depressants, avoided group settings. Mostly, he practiced and mimicked the social cues and nuances that most of us take for granted. The carefree laugh. The furrowed, I-feel-your-pain eyebrows. The head nod and the shoulder shrug and the pronounced anguished sigh. All repeatedly rehearsed as if he were auditioning for a Broadway play, all nearly pulled off.
That’s the thing about Asperger’s—the blessing and the curse. While it’s merely a mild form of autism (its bearers don’t lack intelligence, and usually blend into mainstream society), it can never be fully cloaked. At best, its sufferers are slightly quirky; awkward. They’re the people who make ill-advised comments that silence a dinner party. At worst, they are branded as outcasts. As freaks. “There’s a preference for objects over people,” says Candice Baugh, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based therapist who runs social skills groups for those with Asperger’s. “If you live in a world where quirkiness is common, like among artists or musicians, you can blend in. But that’s rare.”
So why is David here, amenable to speaking about what has long been the unspeakable? Why has he changed his mind? It’s certainly not for attention, which he has long shunned. Or for the money. He possesses no desire to be an Asperger’s spokesperson; the disorder’s mouthpiece.
So … why?
“I don’t know,” he says, staring off into the distance. The Asperger’s in him wants the thought to end there, but I continue to nudge. “The best thing I can be is myself,” he says. “A few years ago I stopped trying so hard to cover up. I am who I am.”
“This,” he says, “is me.”
My brother, front row, third from left, in his second grade class picture.
David Wayne Pearlman was born on May 6, 1970 at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., a seemingly normal 6-pound, 8-ounce baby with no identifiable problems. “He was a good infant,” says Joan Pearlman, our mother. “Very loveable, very agreeable. If anything was wrong, your father and I didn’t notice.”
I came along two years later, and we were—by visual account—the prototypical American family. Our hometown, Mahopac, N.Y. was the type of place where neighbors watched out for one another; where Max, the golden retriever that lived across the street, would stop by for saltine crackers and a rub. The house we grew up in was a white colonial, with two floors, a red deck out back and a hammock hanging lazily in the front. In the early fall, green sour apples dropped—Plop! Plop! Plop!—from the trees, and come snowy winter days all the neighborhood kids—David and me, Richie, Gary and Jon Miller, Dennis and John Gargano, Robbo, Matty and Jean-Marie Walker—would attack Emerald Lane with our plastic sleds. There was night tag and tackle football; strolls through the woods and backyard camp-outs and bike rides into town to buy Big League Chew and Hostess Fruit Pies at Rodak’s Deli.
One could not have asked for a more Rockwellian place to spend a boyhood, and yet—as he grew—my brother began to show signs of … something. The initial difficulty came in nursery school, when a teacher pointed out that David wasn’t interacting with the other children. When one of their friends made a similar observation, my folks were, understandably, offended. Kids, after all, develop at their own speeds. David was shy. Quiet. Guarded. Sure, he could be a tad ornery. But who among us isn’t?
As my brother progressed to Lakeview Elementary School, however, his differences became increasingly obvious—and painful. “He didn’t make friends,” says Stan Pearlman, my father. “He was often by himself.” Like many with Asperger’s, David was obsessed with trains, both model and real. David would watch his own miniature Lionel go round and round in the corner of his room, and my father would take him to the nearby Croton-Harmon station, where the two would sit and stare longingly at the sleek silver locomotives whisking off toward New York City.
Because our birthdays were separated by only 15 days, my mom held single parties for both of us. If 10 kids attended, nine were my buddies, and the other was usually someone from my brother’s grade; some poor schlub Mom had seen talking to David and whom she hoped he might be close with.
By the time my brother entered junior high school, he was unambiguously miserable. Because Asperger’s had yet to be a classified diagnosis, David—like most others of his ilk—was shuffled from one therapist to another in search of an answer. A psychiatrist said it was a maturation lag. A social worker said it was a learning disability. My parents tried their best, fighting against an invisible enemy. They signed David up for youth soccer, then watched in horror as his coach only played him for the minimal amount of time, when the game was out of hand. They sent him off to sleep-away camp, fearful that, come visiting day, he would tearfully beg for a return to the safety of home, where he never had to worry about striking a kickball.
David was an easy target, and kids zeroed in. He was nicknamed “E.T.” by some, “Mascot” by others. I still recall a gaggle of girls taunting him with shouts of “Rain Man!” outside the cafeteria. When David responded with his clumsy version of a karate kick, the mocking only intensified. (Recently, I reconnected with one of the girls via Facebook. When I reminded her of the way she treated my brother, she wrote, “I was hoping you didn’t remember that. I was a terrible person, and I’ve felt guilty for years. I am so sorry for being that sort of person.”) On multiple occasions, I recall him wailing, “I’m retarded. I know I’m retarded.” David was trapped—something was clearly off, only the answer, at that time, did not exist.
My mother insists that I was good to my brother, but I have hard time remembering it that way. Mostly, I observed as others taunted. Once, toward the end of a particularly bad day at school, David and I were sitting in the den, watching the movie “Tough Guys” on cable. I was razzing him about something—maybe his grades, maybe his clothes. David got up, walked into the kitchen, grabbed a knife and yelled, “I can stab myself with this right now! I can kill myself right now!” I was 13-years old and sick of the drama. Why wasn’t my brother like everyone else? Why wasn’t he normal? Why did my parents and grandparents treat him differently than me? “Go ahead and do it!” I screamed. “I dare you!”
He put the knife down. Years later, when I recalled the exchange for a therapist, she said, “This has been eating you up, hasn’t it?” Tears streamed down my cheeks. Indeed, it had.
Now, as we sit here in the restaurant, talking, I ask David whether he considered me to be mean. “No,” he says. “You weren’t.” I suspect he’s merely trying to avoid a touchy subject. Even if I didn’t directly harm my brother, I took pleasure in outdoing him. I was faster, stronger, more popular, a better student. My brother’s teenage acne was worse than mine. He failed his driving test, I didn’t. One New Year’s Eve, we went to Times Square together to watch the ball drop. We were both interviewed by the local TV station, but my mom later told us neither had made the telecast. When David was out of earshot, she whispered, “You were on, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him he wasn’t.” My reaction? Elation.
For years, I have hated myself for this. Hated myself. My brother was alone and in need of a friend, and he should have had one in his little brother. When I confided in a therapist on the matter, she asked whether I felt haunted.
“Haunted?” I said.
“You were never able to be the little brother,” she noted. “Whether you were aware of it or not, you probably felt like you always had to be better than David. That, compared to him, you had to be perfect. That’s a heavy weight to carry around.” She was dead-on. To this date, it’s the least-favorite of my myriad character flaws. Around my wife and kids, I always have to know the answers—to everything. If I don’t, I’ve failed.
My folks—especially my mother—suffer from similar scars and feelings of remorse. Mom looks back and kicks herself for the missteps: Signing him up for soccer, sending him to camp, being unable to overlook his quirks and inappropriate utterings. It’s a horrible thing to watch, your mother condemning herself, especially when she tried her absolute best. “I’m not mad at Mom,” David says. “She didn’t know. She wanted me to be happy.”
This is my brother—never one to hold a grudge, no matter how severe. He does, however, recall one incident that, 20 years later, still seems to touch a nerve. During his senior year at Mahopac High School, David approached a classmate, gritted his teeth and asked her to the prom. Knowing my brother’s social shortcomings, this had to have been one of the most difficult things he ever did.
The girl’s response?
“Are you kidding me?”
My brother is a world traveler.
In 1944, an Austrian pediatrician named Hans Asperger first described children in his practice who lacked nonverbal communication skills, demonstrated limited empathy with their peers and were physically clumsy. A whopping 50 years later—by the time surely hundreds of thousands of people had struggled with a mysterious disorder—Asperger Syndrome was standardized as a diagnosis.
In between the pediatrician’s heyday and the official labeling of the disorder, my brother—God bless him—uncovered an antidote of his own: Caldor.
In 1986, at age 16, David took a 10-hour-per-week job working in the photo department at Caldor, the discount department store located five miles from our house. “We were worried,” says my dad, “because he was struggling in school, and we didn’t know how he’d manage.” Against all logic, my brother’s grades improved dramatically. He upped his hours to 20 per week, and the grades got even better. Than 30 per week—even better. David would go straight from school to Caldor, work until 10 pm, then wake up at 5 the next morning to do his homework. Order and structure, two keys to coping with Asperger’s, were suddenly part of his life. “It gave me responsibility,” David says. “I learned how to work with people.” Best of all, David was, for the first time in his life, successful. There was nothing athletic to selling cameras, and nothing especially social. He would proudly don his brown-and-yellow smock, leave the house with his head held high and drive off to a place where he was accepted. Even admired. David was a wizard at the cash register, kept his department clean and knew the merchandise inside and out. “That’s the best thing that ever happened to David,” says my mom. “I think it showed him that he was capable and smart.” In December 1987, my brother telephoned our home from the Caldor Christmas party. He had had too much to drink, and he needed someone to pick him up. Normally, parents hearing from their drunk 17-year-old is hardly a cause for celebration. This, however, was different. I still remember David stumbling into the house, goofily talking nonsense, my folks and I elated.
“He was accepted at Caldor,” says Dad. “He needed that.”
In the Hollywood adaptation of the David Pearlman Story, everything from this point works out. Asperger’s, however, rarely lends itself to clichés. Upon graduating from high school, my brother attended Western New England College in Springfield, Mass. From afar, my parents were encouraged—he was president of the honor society, seemed to have friends, etc … etc. Yet life was never easy. “I was made fun of a lot,” he says. “It wasn’t quite like high school, but there were mean people.”
Over the last 16 years, my brother’s journey has been a rocky—but ultimately triumphant—one. He spent his early years after college bouncing from job to job, never quite discovering a good fit. He lasted two weeks peddling frozen foods (“It was a scam,” he says), then sold copy machines out of his trunk for three months. “Face-to-face sales are tough for me,” he says. “I couldn’t take no for an answer, and people got annoyed by me.” David eventually became a stockbroker in New York City, a 7 ½-year venture that interspersed occasional highs with monumental lows. He was always worried about losing job, and admits to having contemplated suicide on multiple occasions (This is not unusual among the Asperger’s population). He blind dated sporadically, but found the required aimless banter to be difficult and annoying. Every so often we’d hear about a second or third date, then—nothing.
A decade ago, David relocated to Ft. Lauderdale and, in 2004 he took a position selling cruise packages for Carnival. It’s a job he’s now held for five years, and one he is apparently good at. “It’s over the phone, which works for me,” he says. “I’ve got it down pretty good.”
More important, six years ago, while meeting with his, oh, 15th therapist, David was asked whether he’d ever heard of something called Asperger Syndrome.
“I had no idea what that was,” he says. “But it made sense.” The social clumsiness? Check. The athletic difficulties? Check. The absentminded faux pas—dried toothpaste on his bottom lip; a upturned collar on his otherwise neatly pressed suit; nervously tapping his nose with the knuckle of his thumb? Check. My parents had recently been told of Asperger’s, but didn’t feel comfortable broaching the subject. “I wasn’t sure how he would react,” my mom says. “It’s touchy.” To David, though, it was an enormous relief. For the first time, David knew he wasn’t retarded or dumb or even weird. He simply had a disorder; one that, while burdensome, wasn’t the world’s demise. After accepting Asperger’s, David made a conscious decision to end the acting and pretending; to stop trying to be like everyone else. Now, he tells people the truth without a hint of embarrassment. Knowledge has brought power. And understanding. David is no longer the inexplicably quirky guy. He’s the guy with Asperger’s—big whoops.
Not all that long ago our family gatherings were dreaded step-by-step odes to dysfunction. Step 1: My brother would inevitably make inappropriate comments and gestures. Step 2: My father would pretend not to hear him. Step 3: My mom would berate my brother and insist that he “act like an adult.” Step 4: My dad would tell my mom to control herself. Step 4: My uncle and cousin would look to hide under the table. Step 5: I’d join them. But over the past few years, much has changed. Though David only comes to New York two or three times per year (usually for Thanksgiving, Passover and Chanukah), he seems to enjoy the family banter that once caused him great dread. He’s amazing with my kids (“Uncle David, what did you bring us this time?” is a familiar refrain from my daughter, Casey), and no longer looks to irk Mom.
Back in Florida, he has a handful of close friends (made at work), goes out to bars and clubs a couple of times per month, relishes his alone time, which we used to erroneously view as a negative. “I’m comfortable being by myself,” he says. “I often prefer it.”
I think about what my brother has given me. There’s a sensitivity to others that comes with watching a sibling go through hell; an understanding and embracing of those born with difficulties. Because of David, I’ve long made a concerted effort to stop and talk to the so-called “outcasts” of my environs; to hear their stories and grasp their lives. Although my daughter is only 6, I have told her repeatedly about the way David was treated. “Be the kind of person who tries to understand,” I tell her. “It’s easy to pick on the weak link. It’s hard—but right—to befriend people who need friends.”
Toward the end of our dinner, as the conversation begins to wane, I ask my brother whether he knows how proud I am. The sentiment confuses him—“Why?” he asks, genuinely perplexed.
“Because you always had it harder than I did, and you fought like hell,” I say. “You’re a terrific person, and you’ve made it on your own.”
There’s more I need to say. I want to tell him that I’m sorry about not standing up for him. That he deserved better. That he’s my hero. That I wish I were half the man he is. That I love him.
But, alas, we are two brothers, sitting in a Mexican restaurant, having a discussion that, once upon a time, I never thought possible.
I know you’re probably not reading this. Maybe I’m wrong.
Right now you’re watching CNN, or Fox, or MSNBC, or CNBC, or the Today Show, or Good Morning America, and you’re thinking, “Yes! This is the way to go!” And, really, why wouldn’t you? You’re probably a guy in his teens or 20s; probably someone who feels like an outcast, or feels overly angry, or feels like the world pays you no mind. You see the attention being afforded Adam Lanza and think, “He’s showing them! He’s fucking showing them!” That’s an appealing thing to you. Shoot a ton of people, shoot yourself, go out in a blaze of glory.
There’s just one problem: Adam Lanza is dead.
By dead, I don’t mean floating on a cloud. By dead, I don’t mean burning in hell. Nope, he’s dead. Doesn’t exist. Never will again exist. He is fucking nothingness. He’s as alive as your table. Go ahead—knock on your table. That’s Adam Lanza. Fucking dead and lacking any and all awareness.
That’s the thing here; the myth of it all. The stupid news stations talk about Adam Lanza over and over and over again, giving you the idea that he’s won; that he showed them; that violence is the ultimate ingredient in fame and notoriety and making yourself appear. Well, he’s showing them nothing—he’s dead. He’s not enjoying this; not lathering in the joy of proving a point or mattering. He. Is. Dead. Gone. Forever. Nothingness.
We make lots of mistakes in this country. We allow everyone who so desires to own a gun. We plop our small kids down in front of games that glorify killing. We make plastic toys out of devices used to murder. In this case, however, our biggest mistake—hands down—is somehow giving off the idea that shooting lots of people in a public forum is a recipe to fame. We utter the names over and over and over and over again (Dylan Klebold, Dylan Klebold, Dylan Klebold …) without reminding people that Dylan Klebold isn’t here to read his Wikipedia page; isn’t here to watch the documentaries about Columbine. Again, he’s dead. Motherfucking dead.
Wanna make a name for yourself? Want fame? Develop the next generation of iPods. Cure cancer. Piece together the world’s biggest baseball card collection. Do something big and bold and powerful; something that doesn’t result in the deaths of innocents and, ultimately, the death of yourself.
Because right now the 9.11 hijackers aren’t having sex with 10,000 virgins in a sea of honey. Right now Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold aren’t snickering over an old Columbine High yearbook. Right now Adam Lazna isn’t reveling in the trauma he caused.
Nope. They’re all dead.
Think about that, kid. Think about that …
PS: I’m about to order an ice cream cone. You can’t have one. Because you’re dead. You’re not even reading this.
My daughter’s name is Casey. I call her my Swan Angel of Love.
My son’s name is Emmett. I call him Gaj.
Swan Angel comes from, well, I’m not sure where. It began when she was teeny tiny, and continues today, even though she’s 9. Gaj comes from—somehow—”Little Guardian,” which is what Casey used to call Emmett when he was 2ish. Now he’s 6.
A few days ago I wrote about how I hate when people gain personal perspective from tragedy; how they learn to appreciate what they have when others lose something.
And yet …
This past weekend, I kept looking at my children. Looking and looking and looking. Emmett loves running. On Saturday morning he competed in his first three-mile race. We did it together, and the experience was magical. Emmett started slowly, walked a little, seemed confident, then tired. He asked me to play some music on my iPhone, and the songs—Run DMC and Gym Class Heroes—perked him up. People along the road saw him and smiled. A truck honked when Emmett pumped his fist. As we approached the finish line, Emmett began hopping. Just because Emmett loves to hop.
Casey is a flutterer. She flutters. I love watching her, when she doesn’t know my eyes are upon her, fluttering this way, fluttering that way. She’s like a little butterfly. On Thursday, she had a little piano concert. Casey takes lessons, and adores the songs from the Sound of Music (really, who doesn’t?). As I sat there, listening to her play, watching her hold her breath as long as possible (it’s really funny. Casey refuses to breathe while she plays), I melted. This is my little girl. My little swan. Today she wore a new dress for our annual family Chanukah party. I couldn’t believe how beautiful she looked.
I sometimes long for the old days. Living in Manhattan, eating whenever I wanted to eat, writing until 3 am and waking up at noon. There was freedom and ease and comfort. Yet I wouldn’t go back; wouldn’t trade the experience of being a father for anything in the world. I would do anything for my kids. I would—without thought—die for my kids.
That’s what I keep thinking about, post-Sandy Hook. These poor parents, and how they feel, and what they lost. I don’t know where you turn. I don’t know how you recover.
Earlier this week, while attending a party, I walked into the bedroom of a teenager.
He and his friends were playing Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, a game that—literally—involved murdering people in as realistic a manner as I’ve ever seen on a video game. There’s a lifelike gun, lifelike people and lots and lots of death. It is, according to www.g4tv.com, the second most-popular XBox 360 game on the market.
What’s the most popular game? Easy. That would be Far Cry 3, which—in its own description—says that players will, “slash, sneak, detonate and shoot their way across the island in a world that has lost all sense of right and wrong.”
I want to repeat that—in a world that has lost all sense of right and wrong.
Nearly three full days have passed since the Sandy Hook massacre, and I, too, feel as if I reside in a world that has lost all sense of right and wrong. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit—really, really, really thinking about this. And, to be blunt, I’ve concluded that we’re all really fucked up.
What other explanation is there? Right now we live in a country where a large number of citizens believe the best way to stop violence is to own a gun. They believe that we’re better off, and safer, if we’re packing; that the way to solve violence is to own our own piece of violence.
We also live in a country were many, many, many, many parents seen unconcerned by the role we play in introducing violence into the lives of our children. Again, I know … I know—I sound like a grandmother. But who in their right mind would let their young kids play Call of Duty, or Far Cry 3, or Halo, Assassin’s Creed, or Hitman: Absolution? Why would you want to place your youngster in a situation where—even fictitiously—he’s engaged in a situation that involves ending another’s life? Fuck, this isn’t Pac*Man, where a yellow blob eats a ghost. This isn’t Donkey Kong, tossing barrels. This isn’t even Mortal Kombat, which always felt more cheesy than threatening. This is a merging of lifelike graphics, demented plots and really, really, really large, sharp television screens.
I don’t know what caused the recent killing. I don’t blame video games, and I don’t blame the legalization of guns. I do, however, think times like these allow us to reflect, and think about what we’re doing, as a people.
I can’t stop thinking about Sandy Hook. Specifically, I can’t stop thinking about the parents of the slain children.
Where do they go from here? What do they do?
This isn’t something you recover from; something you move past. Your life is, in many regards, ruined forever. There’s no getting past this; no great days at the beach, wonderful vacations, moments in the sun. Never. Ever. Ever. You are permanently haunted; permanently scarred. You blame yourself. You blame timing. You blame the shooter, and want to kill him. Only, he’s already dead. So you can’t.
Right now—at this very moment—there are rooms loaded with clothing. Towels, still filled with odors and stains, hanging from the back of bathroom doors. The bed is still messy from the last time your child got up. There are dishes in the sink covered with his/her last crumbs. There are photographs everywhere. There are videos; YouTube clips. Your calendar is marked down with play dates; with Christmas week plans. You can hear your child’s laugh; your child’s cry. You’re imagining, in your head, what those last moments were like for him/her. You try and push it out of your head … but you can’t. It’s stuck there, like mold.
How does a person move past this? How does a person go on living? For some, it comes in having other children to care for. They need you. Your guidance. Your strength. For others … I don’t know.
A couple of hours ago I was talking to my mom about the tragedy at Sandy Hook and she said to me, with sincerity and compassion, “Just count your blessings.”
As she spoke, my two elementary school-age kids (and my elementary school-age nephew) were running around, playing. They had just opened Chanukah gifts; had just munched on brownies. My mom was 100-percent right. I am blessed. I have many blessings.
And yet, I don’t really believe in counting my blessings right now.
We are, in a sense, programmed to respond to tragedy in certain ways. We pray for the survivors, as well as the victims, and send our good thoughts their way. We bemoan how things could have been different (better school security, tougher gun laws) and damn the gunman who committed such an awful act. Then, and only then, do we count our blessings; thank God, sort of, that it wasn’t us; that it was someone else; that we’re fine.
I hate this.
Today in tiny Newtown, Connecticut, 26 people were murdered. Twenty of those were children between ages 5 and 10. It’s a sentiment that’ll be repeated 100,000 times, but it’s important enough to be repeated here: Those kids will never graduate high school; never attend college; never go out for their 21st birthdays; never graduate; never hook up in a bar; never fall in love; never travel the world; never marry; never have kids; never honeymoon. Their lives have been expunged before they even began. Somewhere out there are people who would have been their friends and spouses and co-workers. There are now children who will never be born; children of those children who will never be born. Perhaps one of these 20 kids was going to cure cancer, or open an amazing bakery, or break all of Tom Seaver’s pitching records with the Mets.
We’ll never know—all because someone woke up this morning with an intent to kill the most innocent among us.
So, no, I don’t want to count my friggin’ blessings. This isn’t about me, and about how lucky I am. It’s about them—the deceased; the parents of the deceased; the kids who lived, but will never be the same. We don’t need to reevaluate our own existences every time something awful happens elsewhere.