Sunday, October 23, 2016

Elaine Lucille Armer: Strength

Elaine Lucille Armer

The most important lesson my grandmother ever taught me was that there is never one single answer to any question. To her there was always but one truth – it was how you looked at that truth that made all the difference.

My grandma loved to tell me about her childhood. A simple, magical time in which she was often in the care of her older siblings Don, Bob, and most especially, my aunt Dorothy. The kids roamed the hillside picking wild flowers, having picnics and reading poetry.

The gentle guidance of her siblings gave my grandma an early, extensive appreciation of the arts. She kept the sketches of her brother Bob in a keepsake box near bed. If I was on my very best behavior she’d take it out the box and we’d hold those impossibly thin sheets paper up to the streaming sunlight of her bedroom as if they artifacts in the Smithsonian. Don, she’d tell me, was mechanical genius, the kind of guy who could and would take apart anything and put it back together better than before, just for the fun of it. Dorothy, strikingly tall, eternally gentle – unless you moved her stuff – my grandma’s true soul sister, never have a more quietly mischievous pair existed. Least we never forget the infamous wrapping paper fight of Christmas 2004 -- in which aunt Dorothy most subtly gathered up one perfect ball of wrapping paper, wound up her arm, and fired the first shot – to which my grandma finally threw up her arms and sighed, “Well, ok, then.” Armery chaos as usual.

Of course, like so many of their generation, caught in the harsh shadow of the Great Depression, my grandma and her siblings grew up poorer than poor. Non-Mormons on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, the mixed family was often isolated by the societal misunderstandings of a different era. Christmases of perfect Orange Oranges actually meant the only fruit the children would see all year. “Magic butter” was just lard that needed to be colored by hand via a yellow dye packet that came with the bucket.

She’d always hold a place in her heart for Salt Lake but when she’d moved to Tempe as a teenager, the spirited presence that we always knew and loved truly blossomed into something of its own. She met truest lifelong compatriot, Merle, and the inseparable duo shook up the sleepy desert town. They appeared on radio shows, in school assemblies and even at high society events delighting the crowds with their smart humor and sweet harmonies. They had big dreams, they were going to Hollywood, they would be darlings of the stage and screen. Reality had other plans though. Merle went off to college and my grandma enrolled in nursing school.

I often wonder if the sisters at Saint Joseph’s began to question their vows when they took on my grandma’s class of mischievous students. Along with her kindred spirit, Anna, my grandma tested the nuns' faith and their medical knowledge with a stunning ability to sneak out undetected, stay out all night, and “sleep with their eyes open” in class the next day. Still, my grandma’s time at Saint Joe’s instilled in her two unshakable devotions; she was from then-on forever committed to both the church and to medicine.

Nurse McMaster was sharp and dependable, and she quickly worked her way up the ranks of the hospital. It was during her patient rounds in her early career that she met a quiet cowboy with eyes as blue and endless as the Sonoran sky. My Grandpa Frank instantly fell in love with my grandma’s sharp wit and love of all God’s creatures. They connected over a shared belief that the best cure for anything was quiet contemplation, wide open spaces, and clean, fresh air.

It wasn’t long before my Uncle Tom was on the way, and then, one right after the other, five more boys joined the crew. The Armery was born.

What can I say about this ragtag group of kids for whom clothing was always optional and property lines non-existent?

Uncle Tom, the ringleader, who took it upon himself to deliver the most spectacular display of pyrotechnics any neighborhood had ever seen each 4th of July. There was no greater thrill to my grandma than to call up to his office and have the secretary transfer her to DOCTOR Armer.

My Uncle Steve, our family’s representative member of the counter culture with an uncanny intuitive understanding of classical music which he shared with his mother.

My Dad, Jim, the gentle giant, who would begrudgingly try to take charge of his brothers because it's not like anyone else was going to do it.

My Uncle Pat, definitive proof that mischief is a genetic trait. If he's got that Elaine twinkle in his eye, just, uh, stay alert.

My Uncle Dan, the only person with the distinction of nearly being killed TWICE for mouthing off to my grandma. Who would’ve have thought that when he’d left his Mardi Gras bead collecting days in N'Awlins to come home to Albuquerque he’d become such a consummate caregiver for his mother? I will never in my lifetime see such an act of total love, complete devotion, and absolute compassion as the care that my Uncle Dan gave to his mother in her later years.

Tim. The baby of the family. He thinks he’s the favorite, but we all know he was just shielded from the repercussions of his outright Armerness by my grandma’s sheer exhaustion. His youthful exuberance provided the comic relief to an otherwise challenging existence.

If you’re keeping count that’s six. Boys. If you know the Legend of the Armer Boys, you already knew that.

Six boys.

Maybe another thing that got lost in the story is that my grandma raised those six fine boys all on her own. My grandfather’s rancher’s lifestyle meant that he was only in town for brief visits throughout the year, his untimely death made my grandma a widow with nothing but her wits and her kids, all at the age 39.

Should I also mention that this was all BEFORE women’s lib?

My grandma, of course saw that one truth. She had but one goal: to survive. She gritted her teeth, put on some pink lipstick, held her head high, and just laughed it off. She refused to look on anything but the bright side of things, because even God she said, had a sense of humor.

And, maybe just to see if she could make God laugh, my grandma would, every Sunday, attempt the impossible and try to reign in the chaos of those six boys. Making it to church just barely on time, the only pew left was that one in the very front row. So, she’d stick out her chin and sit with her in that front pew with those six boys like it had been reserved just for them.

My grandma always told me she liked the front row because it was the best way see everyone’s shoes when they went to communion.

It was my grandma’s way of tackling those larger things in life.

A few weeks after my cousin Sarah’s wedding, I asked my grandma if she’d heard from Sarah:
Well, she’s got my fertility,” she said.

When she dropped sandwich during a picnic at White Sands:
Welp, it’s not that different than salt,” she said.

When my dad was in the hospital recovering from surgery it was
Well, I guess those nurses are doing an alright job without real training.”

She taught me to focus on the good details, the finer things in life. Petit fours and tiny glasses of Kahlua at Christmas. The delight of warm cashews on an unexpected first class flight. The importance of good seats in a well-designed space – it helps to have buddy like Gil in the orchestra to get those seats comped. The way the sun ends each day by shattering itself on the Sandias. Lilacs in the spring. Humming birds buzzing for nectar. The laughter of children outside your bedroom window – after you’d finally just decided to lock them outside for the rest of the day.

Today, as I find myself in the throes of incomprehensible grief, trying to to figure out how to say goodbye to the incredible spirit who shaped me in ways I have still yet to understand, I will try my very best to focus on the bright side of things. I will embrace the gift of my grandmother because it’s the only way I know to survive her profound absence. 

Monday, August 29, 2016

FIFTEEN: Shane Evan Tomlinson



Shane Evan Tomlinson, age 33, was among the 49 victims who lost their lives in the bloodshed that took place at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida on June 13. A gifted vocalist, the smooth crooner had a devoted fanbase as the frontman of the band Frequency. With Shane at the helm, the group was popular in Orlando for their high-octane take on hits from the 70's and 80's which could get any crowd going - from wedding parties to nightclub partiers. Shane was celebrating what would become his final earthly performance when he took his place in the heavenly choir. 

When I think about some of the greatest nights of my life, someone like Shane has always undoubtedly been behind them. Wedding DJs, folk singers, orchestra conductors and rock stars have been responsible for giving me some of the most transformative moments of my existence through music. These individuals have something beyond technical ability, a rare talent for creating unity by tapping into that frequency that runs through us all.

Admittedly, I am not a musician, my stubby fingers are far more attuned to plunking QWERTY than CDEFGABC, but I've been tentatively calling myself an artist, a writer, these days.  I've always known that I have a talent for words but I'd felt that talent was better used on the words of others. For all these years I've only called myself an editor. The distinction is likely minor to most, but to me, a person overcoming chronically low self esteem, it is everything. To allow myself to deem my own voice worthy of my own gifts means I've reached an unprecedented point of growth.

Kicker is, my voice has always been valid, I was just letting a lot of stupid things keep me unheard. All you people like me, who maybe felt like they've had to keep quiet your whole lives, you are valid, you deserve to be heard and your contribution is needed. Others can disagree, but disagreement does not beget silence. 

Today, in honor of Shane, I commit to use my voice to spread joy, peace, and comfort. It's time to speak up. It's time we all commit to use our voices for good. We have to let the world know it can't keep going on this way.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

FOURTEEN: Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo

Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo


Omar, just 20 years old, saw his hopes of becoming an actor and dancer come to a halt in the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub on June 12.  It was barely a year ago that Omar walked across the stage during his graduation from La Vergne High School in his native Tennessee before heading to Orlando to pursue his life-long dream.  Remembered for charisma and complete dedication to his craft, Omar was also proud to be openly gay. His dynamic personality made those around him feel inspired and empowered. To anyone who knew him, there was no doubt he was profoundly talented and going to be famous someday. Unfortunately, that fame came in the form of being slaughtered by an insane radical with an assault rifle. 

One of the particularly admirable traits of people like Omar is their ability to bring people together by treating them with respect and kindness. A look at Omar's fundraising page shows that the customers he served as a barista in a Starbucks in a Target in Orlando mourn the loss of his life alongside his high school classmates. Imagine that, one guy, in a chain coffee shop, in a chain megastore, in a giant city, made a distinct impact, he was able to create a community within a notably sterile corporate macro bubble.

As a final testament to Omar's life,  something incredible happened to his grandmother as she was flying alone to Orlando for his funeral. A flight attendant learned of her recent devastation and passed around a sheet of paper so that other passengers could offer their condolences. One sheet of paper turned into several, and by the time the plane touched down the flight attendant had collected a book of handwritten support for his grieving grandmother. On the way out, each passenger stopped and hugged Omar's grandmother, a uniquely personal gesture in our usually impatient existence.  In other words, a bunch of passengers on a cramped, budget airline, abandoned their usual crabbiness and cattle chute deplaning to console a stranger's heartache. Even in death, Omar brought an unlikely group of people together in one last community.

I tend to be a casual bystander in a lot of the communities I belong to. I'm there, but not present, and sometimes it feels like more of a geography thing than anything else. Today, in honor of Omar, I'm committing to become a more active participant in my communities.  If I join with others working for a common good then we are one pair of hands stronger. Many hands working together has the power to provide the support and strength to build a better world. We're all in this together.

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Friday, July 15, 2016

THIRTEEN: Deonka Deidra Drayton

Deonka Deidra Drayton


Dee Dee, as she was lovingly called by her friends and family, died at the age of 32 in the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub where she worked as a bartender. Dee Dee was raised in Midlands South Carolina and her early life was not without its struggles. As a young child, she suffered a brain injury as the result of a car accident in which she was thrown from the car.  Throughout her teens and early adulthood she struggled with addiction and subsequently had several run-ins with the law. That had all recently changed though, and Dee Dee was in the midst of a personal renaissance. She had turned her life around, she was headed in the right direction before she was so abruptly and permanently removed from her path.

Dee Dee fits the profile of the kind of person our society so readily gives up on: an addict with a rap sheet. There are those who would believe that such attributes automatically make her ineligible for to the sanctity of life, that Dee Dee was a valueless thug. However, despite everything she was up against, Dee Dee just kept going. One day at a time, one foot in front of the other, she was living proof that through love and support no one is beyond rehabilitation. Her absence from our world further illuminates the value of her singular existence. 

Today, in honor of Dee Dee I'm motivating myself to keep moving, whatever my setbacks may be. So often I'm tempted to give up on  - or not even try - things that may seem too hard, telling myself that nobody really cares anyway, that I don't make a difference. Looking at a story like Dee Dee's it's so apparent I am privileged to have only myself as an obstacle. 

I hope others will join me in never, ever, stopping trying to be a better person. With persistence, we will find peace.

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Thursday, July 14, 2016

TWELVE: Mercedez Marisol Flores

Mercedez Marisol Flores


Marisol, as she was known to her family, held a special place in their hearts as not only the baby of her family, but the only girl as well. She was gunned down in the Pulse nightclub shooting alongside her best friend, Amanda Alvear, on June 12, 2016. Known to be profoundly kind, studious and a bit soft-spoken, Marisol lived up to her namesake, Maria de la Soledad, a testimonial the Virgin Mary quietly contemplating the loss of  her son. Marisol grew up in Queens, NY, but moved to Orlando to study Literature at Valencia College where she had a reputation for being profoundly insightful and endlessly friendly.

One of the first ways we tend to deal with tragedy is to relate some part of it to ourselves, if only to grasp the scope of such a thing. In the tsunami of news reports that came in the after-shock of the Orlando Massacre, I immediately saw not only myself, but perhaps my own children in Marisol. It shook me to the core to see my own virtues snuffed out in another person like they meant nothing. I've been meditating on the value of individual life ever since.    

Today, in honor of Marisol, I'm focusing inward, contemplating my own values, morals and privilege and I encourage my friends to do the same. Take a moment, shut up, and just THINK. That's all. Contemplate, give in to what your mind think needs the most attention, map it out, go on a journey, prepare to end up at an unanticipated destination. The only way to figure our way out of this bigotry-filled-ALL-CAPS-chaos-bubble that has encompassed our society is to give it the thought it deserves. 

We are smart enough to get ourselves out of this mess.

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Wednesday, July 6, 2016

ELEVEN: Amanda Alvear

Amanda Alvear


Amanda Alvear, barely 25 years-old, saw her life cut drastically short in the Pulse nightclub shooting on June 12, 2016. Amanda had recently gained a new lease on life, shedding an incredible 180 pounds through surgery and an intense commitment to fitness. The transformation not only reshaped Amanda's body but her outlook on life. She was in the midst of celebrating the freedom of her twenties, the uninhibited joy of dancing all night in the club with her best friend, feeling safe and accepted for the first time in her life. Amanda had an infectious personality and a keen sense of fashion. She was incredibly close to her family and cared greatly for her young nieces, of whom she loved to spoil with shopping trips for the latest fashions.

Amanda, in so many ways, embodied the modern idea of the "Millennial," a young person, just a kid. Plugged in, just like all her friends, Amanda happened to catch the moment gunfire erupted in the club via SnapChat. What was supposed to be an instantly deleted blip of chatter became Amanda's final recorded moment. Our mortality becomes so much more apparent when we realize we can die at literally any time. The constant possibility that we might be dismissing some moment as trivial before we can realize it is profound is the stuff of existential crisis. Does anyone really have any control?

The only solution, pardon the cliche, is to live each moment as your last. Give the best of yourself to each moment so that when it passes you will know that you couldn't have done it any better.

The only consolation in Amanda's death comes from knowing that she died at peak happiness, her last moment one of unfiltered exuberance, at the successful conclusion of an unexpectedly last battle.

Today, in honor of Amanda, I'm committing to trying to make each moment matter. It's so easy to lose motivation and slip into cycle of learned uselessness, the best way for me to stay out of it is to know for a fact that I don't want to die there. We are all meaningful, our moments are meaningful, we just need to make sure we're living to full potential.

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49 Days Project

Monday, July 4, 2016

TEN: Antonio Davon Brown

Antonio Davon Brown


Capt. Antonio Davon Brown, a soldier in the U.S. Army, survived two tours in Kuwait before he was gunned down in the surprise attack on American soil on June 12, 2016. Described as a "gentle soul," the decorated veteran was known for his loyalty to his friends, family, and country.  Barely 29 years-old, he held a bright future working in the HR departments of the U.S. Army reserves and Lowes. For him it wasn't just a job - he took the "human" part of "human resources" to heart and was dedicated to truly enhancing the well-being of those he worked with. He will be remembered for his kind spirit and wonderful sense of humor.

It's interesting my last post focused on "celebrity," because when a celebrity dies, the event garners an astonishingly high amount of media attention, everyone is suddenly caught up in the intrinsic value of that particular human life, they certainly don't need me memorializing them on my dinky little blog. It's immensely sad then, every single day soldiers die brutal, horrible deaths defending our liberties and nobody blinks an eye. It's insane that people are willing to line up around the block to honor some star they never met but soldiers who protected their freedom of assembly are laid to rest without a single mourner present. I didn't plan this juxtaposition, but it sure seems to hone in on my point: we cannot forget the specific value each of these lives held before they dissipated forever. 

My bleeding heart constantly struggles with such notions. The price so many soldiers have payed for our liberties is incomprehensible, their lives are just important as mine, and yet I would not have mine if they hadn't gave theirs. 

I can't make sense of any of it, but I do know that we should not take it for granted. We are all so, so fortunate. 

Today, in honor of Capt. Brown, and the birth of our fine nation, I encourage everyone to embrace the liberties so given to us by immense sacrifice. Let's put aside our political differences, take a look around and say "hey, this is all actually pretty good," and know that it came at an ultimate price.