Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Normal Like Me

[Note: I wrote this NY Times Lives parody about a year ago. I showed it to two people. I figured one day I'd truly clean it up and maybe submit it. I never did. I am very lazy. But after trudging to work this morning and finding Gawker pointing me to this lovely Media Bistro article by James Rarus who also shares my obsession with the Lives column, I decided to take my dusty, messy "Lives" column piece out of my computer and post it here, on my blog that nobody reads. All of the Lives articles cited in the following piece are 100% real.]

Normal Like Me

You would think having a life without tragedy,
discrimination or addiction would be a good thing, but
it almost destroyed my brother.

By Susie Felber

My brother and I grew up in Indiana playing stick ball
in sun-dappled wheat fields. Our family wasn't rich,
but we never wanted for anything. Our father kept
food on the table; our mother lovingly prepared it. I
picture her rosy-cheeked and smiling as she canned
peaches. At night our father would read to us in
front of a roaring fire.

At school my brother and I were popular enough. We
were both solid B students. Thanks to our country
upbringing, our health has always been pretty good.
In 1985 I had a plantar wart; in 1993 my brother had a
cavity filled. We finished college, moved to
Philadelphia and secured good jobs. Our lives passed
without incident. But for my brother, his happy
existence became a rather big problem.

In 1997, my brother first read the Lives column in
The Sunday New York Times magazine.

Lives is famous for its first-person stories -
heart-rending and inspiring tales of addiction, of
racism, of orphans, of war-torn peoples and a thousand
other handicaps and diseases. And it was this one page
that sowed in my brother the seed of what was to
become a dangerous obsession: he longed to be the
subject of the Lives column.

He tried desperately to find the angle that would help
him realize his dream. Each Sunday he would call me
breathless with the details of the latest column.
"Susie! Did you read "Silent Bond" in today's
magazine? It's about the deep though unspoken bond
the author will always have with his younger sister
whose transplanted stem cells cured him of PNH, a rare
disease! It's so inspiring!! Hey, if I can somehow
develop PNH, will you promise to donate some stem
cells and have a bond with me? Call me! Please!"

Sometimes he'd email me. "Sue, did you see the column
"Black Like Her?" It's about how the author learns to
be black and successful and yet worries if she'll ever
figure out how to be successful and black. It's even
better than the one they did called "Black Unlike Me",
about a white woman who adopts a black kid. It's not
as good as "Getting Under My Skin", about the kid who
had a black father and white mother. Nor is it as
touching as "Primary Colors", about the black woman
with a white husband who has mixed feelings about
their child. Point is, are you absolutely sure no one
in our family is black? Dad certainly seems to tan easily
without burning. Call me!"

In January 1999 my brother went from just thinking and
dreaming to acting his fantasy out. He had read a
column titled "Electroboy" about someone having
electroconvulsive therapy to treat his manic
depression. The call came just as it did every

"Hey Sue! Great news! I'm having electroshock therapy
tomorrow! I can't find a doctor who will diagnose me
with depression. But I'm going to plug in my toaster
and stick a fork in it. One favor, Sue? since I might
have severe burns on my hands, can you write the
column for me in the 'as told to' style?"

Saturday, September 15th, 2001 was possibly the worst
day of my brother's life. Only four days after the
horror of 9/11 - a city in mourning.

"Sue! Help me, I feel so helpless and sad!" he sobbed
into my answering machine.

It seemed 9/11 had gotten to him. I felt a brief
moment of joy. For if my brother had been snapped out
of his obsessive pursuit, maybe something good could
be found in that tragedy.

I picked up the phone. "Bro, I'm here for you. Talk
to me."

"Oh Sue! I don't see the point of going on!"

"It's OK," I said. "Everyone will heal eventually."

"No you don't understand," he said. "This week's
column had a story of a single migrant fruit picker
dad who adopts a Navajo boy with AIDS. "Awee" dies
sleeping on his chest. How can I top that? Even if I
could get, say, someone to give me an HIV positive
Eskimo kid, how can I top being a migrant fruit

I was sure he was putting me on. An article by a
migrant fruit picker who adopts an HIV positive Native
American? I told him he had to be kidding. In any
case, as it was a Saturday, how could he have gotten
the magazine?

He told me had quit his job and moved to Manhattan.
This way he could get the Times a day earlier. And
yes, the article was real.

I told him to give up his absurd desire to be the
subject of a hard-luck story. Why didn't he write a
mildly amusing Lives column instead? "Sue, they only
publish about one of those mildly amusing Lives
columns a year," he said. "And they're always by a
known mildly amusing author, such as Nora Ephron or
Calvin Trillin. If you are an unknown writer, the
only way to break in is through something tragic yet

Sadly, I saw his point.

After that my brother spiraled out of control. When
the column was full of people who had witnessed bloodshed and war,
he joined the Marines. But during the medical exam,
they discovered his ability to play the saxophone.
They put him in the USO, far from any blood.

When he read "Reckless Entanglement", about a writer's
relationship to his drug and alcohol-addicted brother,
he begged me to write an essay about his chocoholism.
Last year, when he read "Egyptian Like Me", he told
our parents they had ruined his life by not being
Egyptian. Then he read about a woman with a bulimic
father and cursed our dad for not, "effectively
controlling his weight in a way that might benefit his

He tried being gay, contracting AIDS and adopting a
kid, all to no avail. He read one column by a man shot
by fellow hunter and implored anyone he met to shoot

And then, tragically, after reading two columns about
the challenges of being blind, he gouged his own eyes

My brother finally had a real disability. And now he
seemed finally to be at peace. Not that he has achieved his dream.
But now, at least, he'll never be able to read the
New York Times Lives column ever again.