Sunday, July 31, 2011

For Whom the Spa Tolls

"All that really belongs to us is time; even he who has nothing else has that."—Baltasar Gracian (1601-1658)

Last December, my daughter, Jessica, found a solution to the age-old question of what to get me for the holidays. She knows I have little interest in "things." The greatest gift my loved ones can give me is their time. Whenever I say this, it is usually met with groans and rolling eyes. But this year, Jessica rose to the challenge and bought a Spa Day for me, her sister and herself so we could enjoy a mother/daughter day together. Brilliant!

Due to a bit of procrastination, no one called to make an appointment until March and the earliest time the Jeunesse Spa had open was in early May. So we bided our time and eventually the weekend of our appointment arrived. Unfortunately, the spa called us the day before our family event to tell us that they had plumbing issues so would have to reschedule. Our new appointment would not be until the end of July.

They have trademarked the phrase:

“Spa Moments...Cherish Them.”
The week leading up to our appointment, a spa staff member left a message on my answering machine every day, asking for a confirmation. Every day, I called back to confirm. This, however, had no effect and the spa staff continued to call me every day to request the already supplied confirmation once more. This led me to seriously question my credibility.

Finally, I left them a message informing them that having confirmed three times I was not prepared to confirm anymore, so please stop calling me. That seemed to work. My daughter also confirmed for good measure.

"This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it."—Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882)

Our big day finally arrived and my younger daughter, Chelsea, and I caught a bus in New Jersey. Jessica lives in Queens, so we planned to meet at the Port Authority in New York City.

The relaxation room. Ah...
Unfortunately, I had forgotten to take the gift certificates for our spa day, so we all had to go back to Queens so Jessica could print out new copies. This meant that we had to skip our leisurely lunch and rush directly to the Jeunesse Spa.

Apparently, Jeunesse is French for "the time of one's youth," which certainly applies to my two daughters, but not to me. I suppose it would not do to call the place "the time of one's youth and/or advancing age." Not quite as trendy.

When we arrived, they offered us free wine, a great tactic for putting clients in a good mood. Then we were escorted to a locker room where we were invited to exchange our street clothes for bathrobes and plastic sandals.

Jessica was taken away by a staff member while Chelsea and I were led to a waiting room with a large television screen. The screen had a scene of a red flowing river. It moved slowly and looked somewhat stagnant. I remarked to Chelsea that the river looked polluted. She replied that it was lava and meant to be relaxing. Really? Oh. To me, it looked like a vision of Hell. But okay. The picture shifted to a bubbling mud caldera, then steaming geysers. These scenes of oppressive heat, rather than offering serenity, left me feeling uncomfortable in a way that only another menopausal woman could understand.

Finally Rosa came to lead me to the massage room. The room was warm—almost as warm as I was. She told me to get comfortable and she would be back in a few minutes. I disrobed and lay down on the massage table. Soon Rosa returned and a truly relaxing massage ensued. The background music was New Age with some screaming gulls, the latter of which took some getting used to. An hour later, I was back in the locker room getting dressed for my manicure and pedicure.

Chelsea chose avant garde green; I went with traditional pink.
Chelsea and I were led to some chairs with foot pools, where we were offered more wine and encouraged to choose which color we wanted for our nails. Chelsea choose a provocative shade of green and I selected a more conventional hot pink.

The woman who painted my nails was from Nepal. Her family had won a lottery there and they used the money to move to the United States seven years ago. She and her family now live in Queens. Half of her family is Hindu and the other half is Buddhist. Of course, most everyone in New York City is from somewhere else, so her exotic background did not make her stand out. I guess you could say she is a typical New Yorker.

"Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so."—Douglas Adams (1952 - 2001)

Our nails were soon done, and Jessica emerged from her massage, so we went to the front desk to pay our tips and head off for a very late, 4 p.m. lunch. We sat outside at a local cafe, caught up on what was going on in our lives and enjoyed our time together. As holiday presents go, it was one of the best I had ever received.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Butterflies of Our Minds

Last night, I dreamt I was writing a blog. Aside from giving me an idea for writing this blog, does that mean anything? Dreams have long intrigued people. They have been used for psychic prognostication, psychological analysis or just good breakfast conversation.

Why do we dream?

No one knows, for sure, why we dream, but there are many theories.
  • Sigmund Freud thought that dreams carried our hidden desires. (You remember him; the guy who thought that anything that was wider than it was long was a phallic symbol?)
  • Carl Jung believed that dreams had meaning, although not always of desire, and that these dreams could be interpreted through symbols. (He also lived in the same house with his wife and his mistress; fun times!)
  • Edgar Cayce said that dreams are our body’s means of building up mental, spiritual and physical well-being. He thought dreams sped up a person’s ability to realize their potential. (He went to sleep to give people psychic advice)
  • Dr. Christopher Evans theorized that dreaming is our body’s way of storing the vast array of information gained during the day. (Got nothing on this guy; can't even find his bio)
  • Francis Crick (the Nobel prize winner who discovered DNA) and Graeme Mitchinson (the only man on this list still alive) believed that this information is being dumped rather than stored
How has dreaming been viewed historically?
  • The earliest reference to the significance of dreams was found in the ancient epic story of Gilgamesh, King of Urk, recovered from the ancient library of Ninevah in Assyria. Assyria was a country that existed from around 2200 BC to 608 BC between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now present-day northern Iraq. Gilgamesh is thought to date from Sumerian poems from the Third Dynasty of Ur (2150 BC to 2000 BC). The Assyrians created special collections of dream interpretations. One of those collections was The Assyrian Dream Book, found by archaeologists on a set of clay cuneiform tablets
“Gilgamesh dreamt that an axe fell from the sky. The people gathered around it in admiration and worship. Gilgamesh threw the axe in front of his mother and then he embraced it like a wife. His mother, Ninsun, interpreted the dream. She said that someone powerful would soon appear. Gilgamesh would struggle with him and try to overpower him, but he would not succeed. Eventually they would become close friends and accomplish great things. She added, ‘That you embraced him like a wife means he will never forsake you. Thus your dream is solved.’"case closed: Epic of Gilgamesh
  • In ancient Egypt, priests acted as dream interpreters. Hieroglyphics depicting dreams and their interpretations have been found and translated. Egypt may have been where the process of "dream incubation" began. When people had troubles and wanted help from a god, they would sleep in a temple. The next morning, a priest, called a Master of Secret Things (awesome title!), would interpret their dreams in an attempt to offer some insights on their problems. (So when Meatloaf sang "Let me sleep on it," he was partaking in a time-honored tradition)
  • The ancient Greeks also used Asclepieions (healing temples) to heal the sick. They believed dream incubation could effect cures within the confines of the temple
  • The Oneirocritica, or The Interpretation of Dreams, was a five-volume book written by Artemidorus of Daldis who lived in Greece about 140 AD. The first three volumes were an encyclopedia for dream interpretation and the last two chapters were written exclusively for his son who followed him in the family dream-interpretation business. Although Artemidorus believed that dreams could predict the future, he also held some more contemporary approaches to dreams. He thought that the meaning of dream images could be decoded. For instance, Alexander, while warring against the Tyrians, dreamt that a satyr was dancing on his shield. (How often have we all had that one?) This dream was interpreted as: satyr = sa tyros ("Tyre will be thine"), predicting that Alexander would be triumphant. (Did any soothsayers ever dare to interpret failure?)
  • Tabir, the Muslim science of dream interpretation, coalesced from the ninth to the 13th centuries. This body of knowledge integrated Islamic faith with the classical heritage of the Greeks and Romans, according to Kelly Bulkeley, PhD, in her essay, “Reflections on the Dream Traditions of Islam.” Ibn Sirin (654 AD to 728 AD) wrote a well-known book on dreams. The work is divided into 25 sections on dream interpretation, from the etiquette of interpreting dreams to the interpretation of reciting certain Surahs (chapters) of the Qur'an in one's dream. Unlike Western dream interpretation, Ibn Sirin taught that a dream’s meaning could not be determined without reference to the personality characteristics of the dreamer. There was no "one size fits all" interpretation for any particular dream symbol; the meaning depended on the personality and life circumstances of the dreamer. According to Kelly, in the Muslim culture, dreams, and the ability to interpret them, are still an important sign of God’s favor. Through dreams, God sends commandments, inspires accomplishment and provides divine knowledge 
  • A standard traditional Chinese book on dream-interpretation is the Lofty Principles of Dream Interpretation compiled in the 16th century by Chen Shiyuan. The Chinese were concerned with the implications of dreams for their welfare in this life and the hereafter, according to Richard Strassberg, who translated and wrote the introduction of Wandering Spirits, a translation of Chen Shiyuan’s book. Dreams represented "spirit wandering," which included nighttime interactions with deities, demons and ghosts. Dream interpretation combined shamanic, Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist principles; literary allusions; and common sense. In addition to dream interpretation, Chinese thinkers also raised profound ideas such as the question of how we know we are dreaming and how we know we are awake
"Once Chuang Chou dreamed that he was a butterfly. He fluttered about happily, quite pleased with the state he was in, and knew nothing about Chuang Chou. Presently he awoke and found that he was very much Chuang Chou again. Now, did Chou dream that he was a butterfly or was the butterfly now dreaming that he was Chou?"—written in the Chuang-tzu
  • Saint Jerome, a medieval church scholar from Slovenia, became secretary to Pope Damasus around 380 AD. From there he went to Palestine and devoted himself to study and writing. He is credited with shaping the Latin version of the Bible (called the Vulgate) from Hebrew and Greek texts. Unfortunately, Saint Jerome mistranslated the Hebrew word for witchcraft, anan, as "observing dreams" when commissioned to translate the Bible by Pope Damasus. “Anan” appears ten times in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament), but Jerome translates it as "observing dreams" only three times, in such statements as, "you shall not practice augury nor observe dreams," which more accurately reads, "you shall not practice augury or witchcraft." As a result, dream interpretation was banned, limiting European scholarship on the topic for nearly a millennium. (One could argue that translation is mightier than the sword)
  • Alfred Maury, a French doctor, pioneered modern dream interpretation. He studied over 3,000 different dreams and believed all dreams were caused by external stimuli. This viewpoint was inspired by a dream experience he had. He dreamt that he had been condemned to the guillotine. As it fell, he woke up to find the top of his bed had fallen and hit him in the spine at the exact time the guillotine would have struck him. This theory of the unconscious developed into the modern attitude toward dream interpretation
  • Probably the most well-known of the modern dream philosophers was Sigmund Freud. His theory was that although dreams may be prompted by external stimuli, wish-fulfillment was the root behind most of our dreams, and that usually involved sex. (Only a man could develop this theory
  • Carl Jung, a student of Freud for some time, disagreed on the theory that erotic content was the basis behind most of our dreams. Jung believed that dreams reminded us of our wishes, which enabled us to realize the things we unconsciously yearn for, and helps us to fulfill our own wishes. (Like living with two women?) These dreams were messages, Jung believed, from ourselves to ourselves and that we should pay attention to them for our own benefit
Depending upon your cultural and religious background, you may consider dreams prophetic, psychological, philosophical or just nonsensical brain noise. However, regardless of what you believe, one thing cannot be refuted. My dream last night, of writing a blog, undeniably came true.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Pass It On—Or Else

Why do otherwise healthy and rational human beings send me chain emails threatening my luck, my livelihood and my love life if I do not forward them on to eight to ten other soon-to-be-annoyed friends?

Who started all this nonsense, anyway? Well according to one website, Chain Letter Evolution by Daniel W. Van Arsdale, chain letters have been around for a long time. He amassed a collection of more than 600 letters from early times to today.

Early Chain Letters

The first chain letters were religiously oriented, claiming the end of the world: pass it on. These letters, which claimed divine origin, circulated in Europe.

Early European chain letter supposedly authored by Jesus.
Around 1900, shorter, secular letters appeared that demanded the reader distribute copies. Apparently, the Victorians had little to do. 

In 1935, the first money chain letter appeared, the infamous "Send-a-Dime," which was copied over a billion times worldwide within a few months. Newly discovered sources have been used to argue that the unknown author of Send-a-Dime was a Denver woman motivated by charity.

Chain Letter Approaches

Letters from heaven chain letters claimed to have been written by God or some divine representative. (The one pictured above claims to have been written by Jesus.) They often commanded Sabbath observance and promised the bearer magical protection from misfortune. They circulated in Europe and elsewhere for centuries and were reprinted during World War II. 

Luck chain letters preyed on superstition, promising good luck if the letter was copied and re-sent or bad luck if it was not. Early types started with a prayer or Bible verse. They may have developed from a requirement to distribute a prayer in a Roman Catholic Novena devotion. The oldest copy of this type of letter is from 1898.

Charity chain letters requested money or some item be sent to a fixed address, ostensibly for charitable, political or memorial purposes. An 1888 letter solicited dimes for the education of "the poor whites in the region of the Cumberlands." (Hope it worked.) This letter stated it was an adaptation of a previous solicitation, and asks that four copies be sent to friends. For compliance ". . . you will receive the blessing of Him who was ready to die for us." Recent charity chains do not ask for money. The Craig Shergold appeal requested get well cards for a dying child (since recovered), intending to break a Guinness world record that existed at the time. It was launched in September 1989 by fax, email and chain letters. By December 1990, a record 33,000,000 cards had been received. Despite efforts to stop the appeal, hundreds of millions continued to be sent. While common on the Internet, these types of letters are generally hoaxes.

In their modern form, chain petitions request their own reproduction, circulation and delivery of signatures. Earlier examples did less. A 1903 letter asked that recipients send their name and address to the "U.S. Moral Society" to be added to a petition to Congress to prohibit the sale of cigarettes to minors. The use of chain letters in political campaigns goes back at least to 1912 with a letter urging support for U.S. Senator James A. Reed (Missouri) for the Democratic nomination for President. Wonder how that went? Other chain petition causes included Czech independence (1949), nuclear disarmament (1985), protests of apartheid (1988), and a misinformed boycott of Proctor & Gamble (1986). (If you are old enough, you may recall that some people thought that the trident of Poseidon in the P&G logo was actually Satan’s pitchfork and the company was accused of supporting the Church of Satan.) 

Copy from 1935 Send-a-Dime chain letter. Courtesy: Chain Letter Evolution.
Money chain letters urge the recipient to send money to one or more prior senders, with the slim promise that the sender will likewise benefit in the future. Money chain letters originated in the United States in the spring of 1935 (coincidentally the height of the Great Depression) with the "Send-a-Dime" letter, also called "Prosperity Club." They continue as a pervasive nuisance to this day, both in paper and in email. Money chains and pyramid schemes violate Federal USPS and some state laws.

Exchange chain letters, which first appeared in 1935, asked that an item of small value, such as a recipe or postcard, be sent to one or more prior senders, promising that if the chain was not broken the sender would, in turn, receive many such items.

Human nature being what it is, parodies began springing up very early in the history of 20th century chain letters. Very soon after the first publicity (April 19, 1935) of the Send-a-Dime craze, parodies such as "Send-a-Pint" and the "Drop Dead Club" (shoot the first person on the list) appeared. The next known examples are the familiar "wife exchange" (1953) and "Fertilizer Club: "go to the top address on the list and crap on the front lawn" (1971).

Today, chain email runs the gamut on topics including reminding us how to behave (duty to friends, sobriety, safe sex), consumer warnings, friendship, hoaxes (virus warnings, charity, giveaways, false quotations), human rights alerts, humor (single jokes and lists, office humor items, stories), inspiration, good luck (often in sex or romance), missing children, money chains, number guessing tricks, parodies, patriotism, personality tests, petitions, poems, political commentary, prayer requests, protests, rumors, surveys, urban legends (warnings, humor) and much more.

Let's face it, most of us find chain letters incredibly aggravating and a waste of time. No one of sound mind should ever send one. Friends don't let friends forward chain letters. If you feel the same way, show your support by cutting and pasting this into your email and passing it on to eight friends. ;)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Casey Anthony Shell Game

I have a confession to make: I didn’t follow the Casey Anthony murder trial.

Why? Two reasons. One: I didn’t need to know the gory details of a small child’s death to appreciate the horror of the situation. Two: I believe that news stations should be concentrating on seminal events that are currently omitted or under-covered. In short, the news media should not make a circus out of a tragedy because they are too stupid, lazy or corrupt to cover news that may impact life as we know it.

Emote; don't think. Courtesy:
One of my friends told me that because I did not follow—and emote over—every grizzly aspect of this event that I have no heart. To the contrary. I think people who feast on the details of other people’s misfortunes for their own sadistic entertainment or to bond with others are the ones lacking humanity.

What would I have preferred to see in the news? Well, according to Project Censored, these 10 news stories were either ignored or hardly mentioned in the past few years. (If you want to read about any of these topics, click here.)
  1. Global Plans to Replace the Dollar (importance: the dollar will dramatically plummet in value; the cost of imports, including oil, will skyrocket; and interest rates will climb)
  2. US Department of Defense is the Worst Polluter on the Planet (offenses include: extensive release of radioactive and chemical contaminants into the air, water, and soil)
  3. Internet Privacy and Personal Access at Risk (not just our government anymore: private companies and even some schools are engaging in reading your personal emails and text messages)
  4. ICE Operates Secret Detention and Courts (“If you don’t have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he’s illegal, we can make him disappear.” James Pendergraph, executive director, Immigration and Customs Enforcement)
  5. Blackwater (Xe): The Secret US War in Pakistan (you may have mixed feelings on this one, but it is worth reporting)
  6. Health Care Restrictions Cost Thousands of Lives in US (A recent Harvard research team estimates that 2,266 US military veterans died in 2008 due to lack of health insurance)
  7. External Capitalist Forces Wreak Havoc in Africa (Land-grabbing for oil: thousands of Kenyan and Nigerian civilians have been killed in oil-rich regions as the military burns whole communities to the ground and police commit extrajudicial killings, rapes, beatings, thefts, arson, and intimidation)
  8. Massacre in Peruvian Amazon over US Free Trade Agreement (On World Environment Day, June 5, 2009, Peruvian Amazon Indians were massacred by the government of Alán García in the latest chapter of a long war to take over common lands—a war unleashed by the signing of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Peru and the United States)
  9. Human Rights Abuses Continue in Palestine (The face of 21st Century apartheid)
  10. US Funds and Supports the Taliban (Go figure: American tax dollars are paying Taliban insurgents protection money so they will not hurt our soldiers who are fighting them)
 If you’ve read my blogs, you know that I have my own pet peeves of ignored stories as well.  
  1. Dangers of genetically altered foods and the FDA's refusal to label them
  2. Need to warn parents and pregnant women about the health risks of cell phone radiation to growing children and fetuses
  3. Radiation contamination raining down on our country from Japan, how it has contaminated our water and food supplies, and steps to protect our health from it
  4. How the rich and powerful are slowly siphoning off our country's wealth at the cost of the average working person
Yes, these are scary and complex subjects, but a responsible news media would be all over them with the same doggedness they show for sensational trials and missing blonds in the Caribbean. And by the way: When was the last time you saw months and months of coverage for a poor, black child gunned down in a ghetto neighborhood? It happens every day.

Brittany Johnson: killed in a drive-by shooting. Ever hear of her?
I have lived long enough to see personal tragedies played out hundreds of times: parents turning against nature and harming their children, senseless drive-by shootings, sickening drunken-driving carnage. These should all be reported and acknowledged—briefly, with dignity and respect. But in-depth news coverage should focus on the events that threaten our food supply, health and financial stability.

That is the problem I have with the national obsession over Casey Anthony. It comes at the expense of ignoring the important issues that will affect the lives of ourselves, our children and our grandchildren. Make no mistake. The news media know how easy it is to manipulate your attention away from these issues by waving the shiny object of a lurid murder trial. Will you allow yourself to be manipulated? Or will you demand that the real news, quietly being ignored for the benefit of corporate and private financial interests, be reported? That, my friends, is entirely up to you.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Sweet Smell of Suburbia

Over the years, Steve and I have been charmed and fascinated by the variety of creatures that have wandered through our yard. Deer gracefully prancing with their playful fawns, baby woodchucks waddling around the garden and even a lumbering brown bear and her cub. We are nature lovers and enjoy watching the animals and birds that migrate our way. However, this week we saw a sight out our kitchen window that, while cute, caused us to draw a collective breath.

In our back yard toward sunset, we saw a fluffy black and white creature crawl out from under our shed. Then we saw four small ones follow her. As we watched them having a mini-convention, we weren’t sure whether to feel our usual gush of wonder or a creeping sense of dread over what these creatures, en masse, might be capable of doing to the contents of our shed and the air quality around our house.

"What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself."—Abraham Lincoln

I reminded Steve that skunks eat insects. He nodded. I pointed out how cute the miniature versions were that followed after their mother. He agreed. Then silence. That's all I had.

So here are some fun facts about skunks, courtesy of National Geographic:
Our new neighbor, courtesy:
  • A skunk sprays its prey with an oily liquid produced by glands under its bushy tail. If you see a skunk turning around to face its back to you, run fast. It is capable of spraying its foul-smelling scent up to ten feet
  • While skunk spray can’t really hurt you, its horrible odor can last for many days
  • Skunks usually nest in burrows constructed by other animals. That would explain why they are living under our shed. For many years, a family of groundhogs have lived there. Skunks can also live in hollow logs or even abandoned buildings. Skunks may den with other skunks or another animal of a different species. It is not uncommon for different skunk families to den together
  • February marks the start of the adult skunk-breeding season. March/April is breeding season for yearling females. With a gestation period of seven to ten weeks, adults have their young during the first part of May, and yearlings during the first part of June. The skunk babies are called kittens. They stay with their mothers until fall. Typically, skunks only have one litter a year, with between one to 15 young. The most common litter size is four to six kittens
  • The typical home range of a skunk is ½ mile to 2 miles, but a male may travel up to five miles every night during breeding season (like anything in life, it's all about motivation)
  • Skunks eat a varied diet. They come out at night to forage for fruit, plants, insects, larvae, worms, eggs, reptiles, small mammals, and even fish
  • Europeans will be happy to note that nearly all skunks live in the Americas, except for the Asian stink badgers that have recently been added to the skunk family
  • The average life-span of a skunk is three years
  • Skunks do not officially hibernate. They do become "slow" or dormant for approximately a month during the coldest part of the winter
“I chased a polecat up a tree, way out upon a limb, and when he got the best of me, I got the worst of him.”—Bashful, Snow White

The delightful Malaysian stink badger, courtesy: Dennis Ikon
I began reading articles sponsored by pest companies that made skunks sound like Satan's minions from Hell. They warned that skunks attract more skunks and if not removed can destroy your property. So I called up a benign-sounding company called Critter Catcher. Steve and I did not want the skunks killed, just relocated to a nice condo in Florida.

George, the man who answered the phone, told me that everything I had read was wrong. Apparently, pest companies like to build a fear factor so they can make money off of it. He said skunks only come out at night to feed, rarely spray unless attacked and would do no harm to our property. He advised the following:
  1. Wait them out. The kittens will grow up and go away.
  2. If they persist, wait until dark and they are away feeding, put up a chicken wire fence and they will have to find another place to live. They do not burrow under fences.
  3. If all else fails and we really need to relocate the skunks, call Critter Catcher back and he will see what he can do.
George told us that he had had skunks on his property one year, then they went away and didn't come back. So, for now, we are taking pictures, being philosophical and admiring our fluffy new neighbors from afar. Such is life in the wild kingdom of suburban New Jersey.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

More Taboo Than Sex

Several years ago, I ran into one of my Hungarian uncles at the supermarket. During the course of our brief conversation, he mentioned his father’s suicide—the first time I had ever heard about it. My uncle was in his late sixties at the time. No one in the family, including my parents, had ever mentioned that his father had killed himself. They just said he died, leaving a widow and four children behind during the height of the Great Depression.

Suicide, apparently, was not something people discussed. It was a source of family shame. That still may be the case, according to the Freakonomics Radio hour I listened to this week on National Public Radio (NPR). The program cited some interesting statistics.

The rate of murder in the US is about five times that of other developed countries. However, there are twice as many suicides as murders in the US. So why don’t we hear about them? Well, suicides don’t make the news like murders. The NPR announcer suggested that’s because suicide carries a strong taboo and so is rarely discussed.

“As soon as the terrors of life reach the point at which they outweigh the terrors of death, a man will put an end to his life.”—Arthur Schopenhauer, German philosopher (1788-1860)

Eastern Hemisphere has highest suicide rates.
Suicide can inflict deep wounds in loved ones. I have a friend who is in his early fifties. He's a model husband and father. A core reason he has such sensitivity in those roles is because his father committed suicide when he was a child and he experienced the ultimate abandonment by a parent. I’m not sure if there is ever any closure for such an event.

Despite the fact that there are many experts who have made it their life's work to study suicide, no one can really answer why people do it, says NPR. All they can do is cite statistics about it:
  • Suicides peak on Mondays—the Blue Monday effect
  • Contrary to popular belief, suicides are more likely in the spring in most countries than during the winter holidays. The theory for this is that people associate spring with hope and if things don’t get better during the spring, they give up and commit suicide
  • Global suicide rates have increased by 60 percent in the past 45 years (that statistic comes from
  • In the US, the Suicide Belt describes 10 western states from Idaho and Montana running down to Arizona and New Mexico, where most suicides in this country occur. The typical demographic of a suicide victim is a middle-aged white man, single, unemployed, who owns guns and lives in a rural area. That section of the country seems to have a large number of people who fit that description
  • People are least likely to kill themselves in Washington DC. People are more likely to be murdered there. Only three places in the US have a higher murder rate than suicide rate: Louisiana, Maryland and Washington DC. These areas also have a high concentration of African Americans, says NPR. African Americans are half as likely to kill themselves as whites, but are six times more likely to be murdered. The reasons for the low rate of suicide have, in theory, been attributed to everything from the community solidarity that comes from battling racism to religious faith
  • Then there’s the suicide paradox: suicide rates rise as does a country’s standard of living. The reasoning is this: If the quality of life gets better, but you’re still miserable, then you don’t know why you are still miserable. You’re not dealing with war, unemployment, poverty, etc. So when you still feel unhappy, you may view that feeling as a defect or bad trait within yourself
“Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.”—Arnold J. Toynbee

One fact that hit home with me was when I learned which country had the highest suicide rate in the world. It isn’t the US by a long shot. We fall somewhere in the middle when measured against all other countries. Which country has had the highest suicide rate for the last century? Hungary.

In 2008, 2,400 people committed suicide in Hungary versus 394 in Greece, which has a population about the same size. There are many factors that may go into why Hungarians are so prolific in doing away with themselves:
  • Ill-fated genetics: The prevalence of bipolar disorder is 5 percent in Hungary, but only half that in the rest of the world
  • Alcohol consumption: Magyars can pack away their alcohol. Hungary has the third largest alcohol consumption in the world
  • Societal approval: In Hungary, suicide is thought of in a positive light. It is considered a brave act because the victims had the courage to end their suffering or to free their families from the burden of their exit. This may offer some clue as to why my Hungarian great Uncle did away with himself. It was the Depression, his business had failed, and some people in the family said he might have been seriously ill (although that may have been a rationalization). In any case, shooting himself in the root cellar did not remove any burdens for his widow and four children
People who study suicide have found that books, songs and newspaper stories that glorify suicide or showcase mourning families can encourage copy cat suicides. When glamour icon Marilyn Monroe died in August 1962, suicides that month went up by 10 percent. But when Kurt Cobain killed himself, Courtney Love was outspoken about how wrong he had been to do so, and as a result the usual spurt in copy cat suicides did not occur.

Harkening back to Hungary, in the 1930s there was a Hungarian song played across the airwaves called Gloomy Sunday that was thought to have precipitated suicides across Europe. The basic gist of the song was that the person singing was thinking of suicide because he wanted to be reunited with a lover who had died. Experts refer to something like this as a suicide “trigger.” Authorities decided it had to be stopped. So both Hungary and the BBC banned the song until 2002. Ironically, the song's composer, Rezso Seress, killed himself on January 13, 1969, by leaping from the window of his small apartment in Budapest. That must have been one hell of a song.

“If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.”—Mohandas Gandhi

Original sheet music: Gloomy Sunday.
How suicide is viewed depends upon your culture. Plato believed that suicide was wrong in some cases and not in others. Aristotle believed it was always a cowardly act. The Stoics (a school of philosophers in Athens during the 3rd Century BC) believed that if well thought out, it was the act of a wise man. It was not done in agitation or depression, but as a reflective, responsible act of a genuinely wise man. He would plead his case before magistrates for permission, and if approved, was rewarded with a cup of hemlock. Christianity considers suicide a sin. Some Muslim subcultures consider it a heroic act in a holy war.

In Japan, seppuku—ritual suicide by self-disembowelment on a sword—was an accepted form of ending one's life in Japanese society. The thinking behind this act was that an honorable death was more desirable than a life of shame. The last recorded seppuku occurred in 1970. Today, the most popular place in Japan to commit suicide is Aokigahara Forest, also called the Sea of Trees. Up until this past year, the Golden Gate Bridge had more suicides than any other place in the world. Now Aokigahara Forest just outside of Tokyo holds that dubious distinction. It seems oddly appropriate that a culture that is known for its sense of aesthetics would be drawn to a forest with breathtaking views of Mt. Fuji as a site for suicide.

Whether you view suicide as a brave or cowardly act, one thing seems apparent—at least in the US culture. When someone commits suicide and leaves loved ones behind, it inflicts a deep emotional wound that can last a lifetime. I don’t know if scientists will ever be able to uncover why people commit suicide. I suspect there are as many factors involved as there are people.

The natural impulse of any living creature is to want to survive. Whether illness or mishap occurs, people often fight desperately to continue living. Why someone would actively pursue self-annihilation is a mystery—and perhaps one we will never solve. What it comes down to is this: Who can possibly know what's going on in the mind of another human being?