AROUND LA WITH AVA® Suicide, Sharks, and Riptides
DREAMS CAN TURN INTO NIGHTMARES THAT DO NOT GO AWAY
Summer in our City of Angeles has been unnerving with unexpected danger, violent death, and tragic loss. Shark attacks, dangerous riptides, lighting strikes, and the shocking death of a comedic icon have left their mark. The familiar, comfortable, reassuring routine of back to school, back to work, and back to the fall season was knocked off stride.
We ache and are left reeling with what was not a normal, carefree summer. Paradise was lost. This will not be a fun season to look back on. Like American born kids, this little Finn always looked forward to the last day of school. Kids enjoy summer—they energize, they exercise, and they explore. As adults, vacations give us a chance to decompress, decompose, and disappear from the normal frenetic pace that tries our psyche, drains our stamina, and leaves us frazzled. If we are lucky to have enough time—and/or the right circumstances, we have the luxury of contemplation, reflection, and appreciation of the life lessons learned in the year just past.
Sometimes things do not work out the way we would like.
Suicide Is Painless—NOT!!!
“Suicide Is Painless” is one of those TV sitcom theme songs that becomes a “brain worm” not unlike a toothpaste commercial or a pop song ditty that ‘loops’ in your mind for no good reason and at ‘inconvenient’ times.
That song was the theme for the ever-long TV series MASH, starring Alan Alda, that went on forever in the US. Just as MASH was a popular part of life for decades of family evenings in the US, so too was Mork and Mindy featuring the fun, loveable, comedic genius Robin Williams.
Robin Williams committed suicide.
I do not remember the Mork and Mindy theme song.
Sometimes things do not work out the way we would like.
On Sunday I drove to the Laugh Factory on LA’s Sunset Strip where Robin Williams got his start in comedy. I wanted to get a photo of the memoriam sign they posted:
REST IN PEACE
MAKE GOD LAUGH
I was too late. The sign had been taken down. The message lingers on.
Driving along the Sunset Strip was suddenly different than those thousands of other times I cruised through. With my intent came a new focus that made it eerily obvious how close in proximity [just a few blocks] the Laugh Factory is to the Chateau Marmont Hotel where Robin’s good friend and fellow comedian John Belushi died of a drug overdose so many years ago. Robin had drug issues too.
What a dossier of accomplishments and what a range of talent they shared—TV, film, animation—drama, as well as, comedy. I particularly liked Robin’s Goodwill Hunting—a touching drama with Matt Damon, a star of Finnish ancestry. For anyone remotely familiar with divorce and custody situations, Mrs. Doubtfire brought humanity and poignancy to personal pain with a rare comedic flare. Robin’s character disguised himself as a woman and worked as his children’s nanny [unbeknownst to them or his estranged wife] just to be with them.
A career review will highlight the number of diverse roles Mr. Williams played that showed ‘caring’ through varied, often comedic persona. How sad that someone who cared so much and brought so much joy to others had such despair in his own life—whatever the source.
Suicide is painless? NOT…NOT…NOT!!!
Suicide is a pain that goes on and on and on though generations.
How can wonderful, talented individuals so full of promise suffer such despair that they choose their end, ultimately breaking everyone’s heart? They are not alone, of course. Suicide is reported as the cause of death almost 37,000 times a year in the US. The actual number of suicides is unknown, as are the number who tried and failed, or the number who deferred the decision. If media reports and the drug companies’ massive depression drug advertising expenditures are any gage, we are in for a rocky future.
This Land Was Made For You And Me
All of the world has a vision of California: “This land was made for you and me!” The Pacific Ocean, the redwood forests, the Hollywood Sign, the Golden Gate Bridge—all of those bastions we saw on postcards defined California.
Ah, yes, the Golden Gate Bridge. It was the iconic symbol of the end of the earth, the pot at the end of the rainbow of dreams. For those of us non-natives (as most of us are), our vision of the Golden Gate Bridge from the old postcards included a ‘memo’ side factoid that the bridge was built in 1937 to traverse the only navigable opening into the San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean. For merchant sailors plying their trade and wares—and to immigrants from across the ocean, this entry was like a pot of gold at the end of their rainbow of dreams. For immigrants, it meant a positive, welcoming “…you have arrived at the American dream”. For merchant sea Captains like Finland’s Gustav Niebaum who made his fortune as a ‘trader’, the ‘pot of gold’ was filled with real gold. He liked what he saw so much that he ultimately settled and became one of the reasons Napa Valley symbolizes California wines of quality [Inglenook/Niebaum-Coppola].
The Bridge itself is beautiful in its grand design. It also provides a dramatic ‘backdrop’ for San Francisco—one of the most beautiful cities anywhere in the world. For many, the Bridge was their first vision of the US—much like the Statute of Liberty for those immigrants entering the United States through New York. The regular Bay fogs present phenomenal photo opportunities —some of which make the Bridge look as if it were ‘sailing’ on the bank of fog!
As a fourth-grader and as (or, in spite of being) a recent émigré, I was assigned a class project to build a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge out of toothpicks. The real Bridge is HUGE. A project of that magnitude can be overwhelming for any 9 year old—to say nothing of one who had seen the actual Bridge only one or two times on postcards or ‘for real’!
Many many boxes of toothpicks, lots of orange paint [the ‘Golden’ Gate is not golden!], jars of glue, many many hours of work, and lots of ‘breath holding’ and some ‘huffing/puffing’ later, the miniature ‘giant’ creation was done! My nine year old mind [probably thinking in Finnish] pondered the purpose of this painstaking task. Was there a teachable moment (other than patience testing) or purpose to this assignment? Or, was it a busy teacher’s ‘busy work’ assigned to keep idle hands and minds equally busy? While I was proud of my final product—and it was good, it was not of the professional quality that brings top $ from San Francisco tourists’ shops. Besides, I understood we got to keep our product once presented and graded. It was a mystery.
Balancing my Bridge on its pedestal on the walk to and from school was a real challenge each way—with added pressure ‘to’ because my performance had not yet been graded. While most school projects stayed on in our home for just a short period, this one was put on the bookshelf for ‘eternity’ because of all the labor that went into it.
As I got older, I got to see the object of my project more often. My very cool, single aunt Pirkko then lived on Nob Hill in San Francisco. It was fun to spend many weekends with her. I took the Greyhound bus from San Jose at the south end of the Bay to San Francisco at the north end of the Bay where I actually got to go to and on the real Bridge. In the continental western United States, the Golden Gate Bridge is the quintessential symbol of America and ‘arrival’. No one in our family had been here before. It was the end of our “Westward Ho!” and symbolized our arrival at the end of the rainbow in our American dream.
All grown up at 17, choosing the University of California at Berkeley was a great—and easy, decision for college. Since leaving Finland, my US life had developed around the San Francisco Bay—home in the south/fun in the north. I skied in the mountains just east and dipped my toes in the ocean just west. Life was good. I knew my territory—and I was comfortable with it.
Part of growing up (and an important function of education) is learning about, facing, and dealing with the ‘real world’ with all its dimensions.
The truth is, the Golden Gate Bridge is made of steel and cables, not toothpicks. It is huge, not cute. The Bridge is an engineering and construction marvel, not a monument to a 4th grader’s patience. The Bridge spans high above icy cold ocean water with surging currents and tides to permit cars, trucks, busses, and pedestrians to get from land on one side of the Bay to land on the other side of the Bay. It does not sit on a bookshelf in my living room.
People have jumped from the Bridge to commit suicide.
The shocking reality of the Bridge as a suicide destination hit like ‘a ton of bricks’ in my freshman year at Berkeley. A friend took her life by jumping. The real world is harsh. I was at Berkeley to learn—life lessons often happen outside the classroom. I was not ready. Is anyone?
My lost friend was the girlfriend of my boyfriend’s best friend. We often ‘hung out’ as a foursome. Berkeley and Oakland are east of San Francisco—connected by the Bay Bridge which is even longer than the Golden Gate, but the elevation is not as high, nor the water below as treacherous as the Golden Gate which is the portal to the Pacific. The bridges (both the Bay and the Golden Gate) were visible from our school locations. The brilliant young jumper from the Midwest had shown no indication of problems—at least to this wide-eyed 17 year old. I was devastated. We coped. I coped. We moved on, as you must. The scars stayed. Innocence denied.
How Do We Cope?
Education is supposed to prepare us for life. Actually, learning is the byproduct of informed experience. Concepts are of little value until they are put to the test of ‘doing’. If we pay attention, it is strange how often things come back around for our ‘re-consideration’ later in life. Did we learn, or are we destined to repeat the same results?
A few years after Berkeley, I was directing a stage play on the East Coast called Please No Flowers. The play setting was a funeral home, the characters all deceased—one by suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge. All went well with rehearsals until one day when the real caskets I had ordered as props arrived. Reality is so real when it is real, even in make-believe. One of the actors got cold feet when I asked him to stay in a closed casket until the lights came up from a darkened stage. Fear is fear, no matter what. Nothing was going to help—other than a stubborn and determined Finnish Director setting the example. The play was a dramatic success.
I still get claustrophobia thinking about my casket stay demonstration. The emotions of a good play and life are often linked. My Berkeley friend did not die again, but the poignancy and sadness of a life lost never leave.
At the time when my Berkeley friend ended her life by jumping from the Bridge she was one of a few hundred before her. While official leap ‘counting’ has stopped, the ‘unofficial’ count through 2012 exceeded 1,600. The trip from steel to sea takes 4 seconds at achieved speeds of 75 miles an hour (120 km/hr). Significant ‘cow catcher’ type barriers have been installed—with many other deterrents, to protect all but the most determined leapers.
It is hard not to think about Robin Williams who regularly crossed that Bridge from San Francisco to Marin County where he lived. Could he see the Golden Gate from his Tiburon home? What thoughts ran through his head? A recent Time Magazine memorial had a photo of Mr. Williams framed under that Bridge in the background. He had a pensive look. And, he had a Golden Heart as his belt buckle!
The Pain of Suicide
The pain of suicide lingers for the survivors, each in their own way and from their own experiences: the “whys?”, the “what ifs?”, and the “if I could have only…” thoughts that haunt the hollow space in the heart. No one else can give those answers—or fill that gap. It is too personal. It is OK. It is … experience. Time helps. The questions remain. It is OK.
My experience is greater than I wish—at least a dozen people that I know for certain have met this fate. They include family, a childhood friend from Finland who moved to San Francisco, a best “big sister” type friend and legal mentor, the mother of a legal colleague, the husband of a friend, children of best friends, members of volunteer organizations, and so it goes. If you have had such experiences, you know it is personal. It is OK. It is … experience. Time helps. The questions remain. It is OK.
I knew my big sister/legal mentor had been having problems after being raped in downtown LA one night after work. Her marriage fell apart. When I visited her just a week before, it seemed she had a new life and things were looking up. I was in the midst of a move, between telephone numbers [before cell phones were ubiquitous] and, therefore, ‘unreachable’ when she may have needed me most. Her family had been unable to reach me. The news came by way of a postcard of the Grand Canyon—the size of the hole in my heart. I still carry that postcard in my legal briefcase in her memory. And, I still ask “what if?…” At least the postcard picture was not of the Golden Gate Bridge!
Finns and Suicide
Finland has the highest suicide rate of the Nordic countries. A few years back, there was a Finnish researcher on the topic working at UCLA. I don’t remember his name. I do have a comprehensive dissertation study on suicide RAPPEUTUMINEN, TIEDOSTAMATON VAI YHTEISKUNTA [medical suicide research in Finland until 1985—presented in 2014] by Mikko Myllykangas from Oulu University.
Through the decades, Finns have arrived here excited to realize their dreams. They find that it never rains in Southern California, the winter temperature rarely goes below 15º C, people smile and talk with you, bars are open until at least 22:00 and when you figure out how to get into the clubs—well, they never close.
Soon, ‘newbies’ find out that Los Angeles>California>the United States are bigger, faster, ‘trickier’, smaller, slower, and ‘easier’ than anticipated. It is bewildering, confusing, and frustrating. Often following is disappointment, disillusionment, homesickness, legal problems, relationship troubles, and drug/alcohol issues. Without a good support system, friends ‘bail’, and family is too far away to help.
Just like with earthquakes, preparedness is the key. Recognize potential problems, prepare properly, and get help when (preferably before) you need it.
Finns are good at so many things, but asking for help is not one of them!
A Summer of Scary Seas
There was a shark attack near the Manhattan Beach pier. Fortunately, the victim survived.
Not so lucky were others enjoying a summer day on Venice Beach when a sudden and unusual lighting strike killed one and injured others at ocean’s edge.
The Pacific Ocean has been treacherous this summer with twice as many rescues by lifeguards as last year. We had a week of 15-25 foot waves. Dangerous riptides kept many out of the water at Zuma Beach and many other ‘unknowledgeables’ still got into trouble all along our Pacific coast. There have been over 8,000 rescues by lifeguards just since Memorial Day (end of May). And, there are several months still left in this beach season. The Baywatch babes and hunks have had to work their butts off this year!
There is an active hurricane season this year. The hurricanes are born down near Baja, Mexico where the water is warm, but LA’s ocean water is cold enough that the hurricanes stall and the wind hardly ever bends our palm trees. The waves do get ‘gnarly’—as the surfers say, and big waves can break surfboards, bones, and spirits. Riptides can cause even strong swimmers to panic when caught in an ‘out-draft’.
Our beautiful and beloved lifeguards in the City of Angels have some advice when you find yourself caught in the troubling riptide waters:
Take a Deep Breath
Know help is coming [if you are in a Guard protected area]
Swim parallel to the Tide—don’t swim in the wrong direction [against the Tide]
Hang in going parallel to the shore until you round “that corner” [end of the Rip]
This editorialized version is good for difficult life times, as well.
Even the world’s largest [61’ tall] floating ‘rubber duckie’ launched as an attraction in the San Pedro waters lost air due to the large waves. It will get refilled and will be back at work soon pleasing kids and adults—and scaring sea gulls!
Life Goes On
Sometimes the lives we build are as delicate a ‘balancing act’ and as fragile as that bridge made of toothpicks. Life on a shelf is still a life. Someone loves you. Take a Deep Breath and ride the Tide until you round “that corner”. Know that someone is coming to get you.
DREAMS CAN TURN INTO NIGHTMARES THAT DO NOT GO AWAY