Sunday, March 3, 2013

"The kid next door is dying"

I've been popping in and out of Second Life to say hi to friends, but I'm pretty consumed these days with the real world and this new PR job, which is paying me nothing while it's kicking my ass. (Alone, I manage 10 clients, y'all. TEN.)

Meanwhile, also in the real world, the 16-year-old kid who lives next door to me is dying. (Yeah, I didn't really have a smooth segue for that part. Sorry.)

I write it here because I want to talk about it, but nobody in our neighborhood is talking about it anymore. It's the big awkward elephant on the street and we are all gingerly stepping around it. His house has become That House With the Kid Who is Dying. It might as well have a giant flag that says "CANCER LIVES HERE" flying in the front yard.

About eight months ago he was diagnosed with tumors in his liver and lungs. And so it began. As if in a Hallmark Channel movie, the neighborhood rallied. One day everyone showed up with rakes and collectively cleaned up the leaves in the front yard. Another day, people gathered in matching T-shirts, cheering, "We're gonna beat this!" before leaving for a fundraiser walk-a-thon. People bustled in and out of the house with food and good wishes. Everyone put up a brave front.

Then gradually the activity tapered off. Reports came back from the hospital of more and more tumors spreading. The chemotherapy wasn't working. The prognosis got bleaker and bleaker. A big truck came and dropped off a hospital bed. He would spend days on end at a prominent pediatric cancer hospital here and then come home, withered and hairless and nothing at all like the kid who only a year ago was out there shooting hoops in the driveway and talking to girls on his cell phone. He helped me chase my dog once when she managed to get off her leash. When we caught her, we were both laughing so hard we were almost doubled over. Now he has to be carried up the stairs into his house.

We've started to get the vibe from his family that they just want to be left alone. The valiant determination has turned to quiet resolution. They come and go in hushed solemnity. Some weeks, the newspapers pile up at the foot of their driveway. They don't want visitors. Our helpless "Is there anything we can do?" is always met with a polite "No thank you." We leave them alone with their grief and hope we're not being assholes by doing it.

My (temporary, while I pay off some of this $35K in debt, don't get me started) room on the second floor of my family's home would be right next to his if we didn't have the outside world separating us. Sometimes I lie in bed and wonder if he's scared over there, lying in his own bed. Or in pain. Or asleep. Or on a laptop playing video games. Sometimes I lie here and think, "Only a couple of walls stand between me and Death," and I'll try to project thoughts over there, to Death, as if it really were a dark, cloaked reaper standing in a corner of the kid's room with a scythe in hand, silently watching a giant ticking clock. I'll think, "TAKE ME INSTEAD. I'VE HAD A GREAT LIFE. HIS IS JUST BEGINNING" as loud and as and hard as I can. Or I'll put my palm against the wall and imagine sending a blast of white, purifying light over there, like a laser. I'll imagine it engulfing his hospital bed and seeping into his body and burning away all the cancer that's eating him alive. I'll start thinking about how all this stuff about God and the miracle of prayer and the power of positive thinking and manifesting your destiny suddenly seems like bullsh*t, and I'll wonder if he's over there thinking the same thing.

His looming death has become interwoven with our lives. We will inevitably mention him during dinner, we will text updates on his health when we get them, we will become suddenly quiet when we pass his house. Often I'll be cleaning or walking the dog or sitting here messing around on my laptop or getting ready for some big stupid thing at work and suddenly I'll stop and think, "The kid next door is dying" and feel, well, guilty I guess. And sad. And helpless. I would like to say something uplifting, like "his oncoming death is making me appreciate my own life more," but I'm embarrassed to say that's not true. I'm old. I'm jaded. I'm tired. I've been through this so many times with so many people. As cold as it sounds, the unspoken thought that often hangs here is more like, "So this is how his story ends." And if I'm lucky, someday someone will be watching my own story end and, in doing so, at least honor the fact that I had one in the first place. I feel like we are all on this journey with him and I hope he at least feels our silent presence, but besides that, if there is some great lesson to be learned here, it's being wasted on me at this point.

I've noticed that even though his name is Maximillian – and he hates it when people call him Max – we always refer to him as "the kid next door," as if by refusing to use his name we are selfishly putting distance between us and the massive waves of grief coming from that house. Or maybe it's because if we refuse to use his name, it keeps its power – it gets to hold on to an identity that doesn't include dying. I'd like to think it's the latter, but I don't know.

So anyway, I logged in today to screw around with my virtual SL house and, as always, out of the blue, I thought, "The kid next door is over there dying." Then I hoped that God or whoever is running the universe would at least accept that acknowledgment as some kind of a prayer. Because you can only get down on your knees and say, "Please God, don't let that kid die" or "Please God, help him not to feel lonely and scared" or "Please God, give his family strength" so many times before you start feeling like a broken record that nobody's listened to for a while.

The kid next door is dying, and I don't really have a way to end this blog post. Sometimes I still cling to a tiny sliver of hope that his story will have a surprise ending. Until then, I take some small comfort in the fact that the cursor has stopped here, still blinking – that I don't have a sentence to write here yet.

Sheezus this blog is becoming a real downer. Sorry 'bout that.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Did Elisa Lam have a Second Life AV?

(I swear this post will eventually get around to the topic of Second Life. Just bear with it.)

I've been haunted all weekend by the story of Elisa Lam.

You've probably heard this story – or at least part of it – by now.

In a nutshell: Elisa Lam, 21, of Vancouver, B.C., takes a solo trip to California. Her friends and family members say they're not quite sure why. A few friends say she told them she was going to take a job on a farm in Santa Cruz. Some of them find this reason strange and hard to believe – Who hears about a random job on a farm in California and travels from Canada to take it? Other friends say Elisa struggled with sometimes crippling depression – for a time she had dropped out of school because of it – and had wandered off the grid before. They assumed this trip was another depression-fueled wander.

Regardless of the reason behind it, Elisa mentions the trip on her tumblr. She lists the cities she plans to visit – San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and possibly San Luis Obispo – and invites her tumblr followers to offer travel suggestions or plan a meet-up with her. Finally, she heads off to Cali on Jan. 26.

She starts in San Diego, kicks around for a couple of days and then takes a bus to Los Angeles. She checks in to the unbelievably seedy Cecil Hotel. It's a couple of streets away from Skid Row, where homeless people live in tents on the streets. It's filthy and dismal, with shared bathrooms and public showers. It has several floors of single occupancy residents. In fact, serial killer Richard Ramirez lived there for 14 months. Actually, I could devote a whole post to the hotel's dark past – so many murders there, so many suicides – but this post is about Elisa.

Many of us who are now borderline-obsessed with this case wonder why in the world she would choose such a nasty hotel, particularly since she was traveling alone. Some us think she was misled by the hotel's website, which shows marble floors and ornate decor. Some of us think someone may have suggested it to her. Some of us think she picked it because she was on a budget and it's only $65 a night to stay there and close to a hip, artsy section of downtown L.A.

Meanwhile, she checks in with her family every day of her trip. And then one day she stops checking in. Her family gets concerned. Days go by. Elisa misses her Feb. 1 check-out date. Her parents and sister fly from Vancouver to Los Angeles to hold a Feb. 6 press conference with the Los Angeles Police Department about Elisa's disappearance. More days go by.

And here's where it gets creepy and disturbing as hell.

On Feb. 14, in the hopes that someone will recognize her, police release this Jan. 31 surveillance video footage of Elisa in one of the hotel's elevators. It is, hands down, one of the most chilling things I've watched in a long time:

Is she hiding from someone? High? Hallucinating? In the midst of a mental break? Goofing around with someone? Possessed? Seeing the paranormal? I AM HAUNTED BY THIS VIDEO. I had horrible dreams about this video. I woke up thinking about this video. I will probably think about it every time I get in an elevator now.

On Feb. 19, in response to complaints of low water pressure from guests at the Cecil Hotel, a worker checks the hotel's water tanks on the roof and discovers the decomposing nude body of a woman floating in one of them. It is later identified "by body markings" as the missing Elisa Lam. Authorities later determined the body had been there for at least 19 days.

The subsequent news stories were unfortunately not so much about Elisa as they were about the fact that the Cecil Hotel's residents had been drinking, showering in and brushing their teeth with water in which a decomposing corpse had been floating for weeks. It explained why some guests had complained that their shower water was black and their drinking water had a "sweetly, disgusting" taste to it. . . .

OK, I have to break the serious tone of this post for a minute to say SHEEEEEEEEZUS that could be the grossest thing I've ever heard. I'm sorry, but WOW. I would probably puke for WEEKS if I was one of those people. "We're not well mentally," said British tourist and hotel guest Michael Baugh, 27. YOU THINK?

On Feb. 20, officials issue a "do not drink" order to guests and residents of the hotel. (Um, too late?)

An autopsy on Feb. 21 was frustratingly "inconclusive." Now those of us who are emotionally invested in this story are waiting six to eight weeks for toxicology reports. And wondering. Was she murdered? Was it a drug-induced accident? Was it suicide? Was she in L.A. to meet someone whom she met online – someone who turned out to be a sicko?

Anyway, so here's why I wanted to talk about Elisa and Second Life.

So many people out there on various forums are speculating about this young woman's life, trying to find out who she was and if she'd be prone to suicide, drugs or weird, crazy gestures in elevators.

As for me, one way I really got to know Elisa was by reading her blog Ether Fields. In it, she talks very openly about her struggles with depression and her frequent inability to leave the house or get out of bed. When she did, it was an accomplishment. I know how she feels. She also talks about connecting with people online. A pretentious guy on one conspiracy theory forum described her blog as "boring, not particularly interesting." I wanted to tell that guy that a-holes like him probably contributed a helluva lot to her often-bleak outlook on life.

Some excerpts:

"I spent about two days in bed hating myself.
Why don't I simply do the things that I know will make me feel better?
It isn't rocket science. It isn't that difficult. Get out of bed. Eat. See people. Talk to people. Exercise. Write. Read. "
"Things are going fairly well in that I am leaving the house and got myself a part time job. My room is still a mess. I haven't actually done any school work and I berate myself for being such a lazy person."
"I feel I am wasting my time compared to my fellow peers. I had a relapse at the start of the term and had to drop 2 of the 3 courses I was taking. Now I am down to one course and I have missed 3 weeks of classes since my sleeping pattern is completely reversed." 
"I haven't felt 'fine' in over 3 years. This relapse makes me feel as though I haven't made any progress at all." 
"I'm very disappointed in myself for breaking down during the term forcing me to withdraw from courses. I've been at university for 3 years and I've only managed to complete three courses. That means I've been a first year for three years and this September it will be for the fourth year because I require 30 credits in order for second year status."
"I just wish...someone around me could understand what it really means to be depressed." 
"Bless the internet. All those who wish to find a way to express their sadness can go there and feel less alone. So many of the tumblrs I follow seem to carry the same grief as me in some way or another.  . . . I simply have no motivation to do anything, let alone leave my bed. My computer and the internet is my one lifeline, one link to the world and reminder to look beyond my immediate situation because there is always more. Always. "
"On one hand this helps me deal with the sadness but on the other hand I basically become a potato. On the outside I look like a catatonic hobo on my bed in front of a glowing screen (no sleep schedule whatsoever but this appears to be a norm for the jobless and the people on the internet) and not eating/sleeping/functioning like any "normal" person. And I shout at anyone saying "Maybe.... you should try getting off the computer?" Leave me alone, I'm happy, this makes me feel better, I need this, this is the one thing that makes me sane, I can't deal with people, just leave me alone, this is something I can actually do, nobody is judging me, I feel less lonely because all these people think like me. "
". . . despite the overwhelming majority of tumblr-ers who seem to be your soulmate, the actuality is they are the minority of the world. And perhaps, they only exist on their computers and they are a muted version of their online selves in real life. And maybe I'm looking at them through the rose-coloured glasses (pixelated screens I think there's a funny analogy in there somewhere) and seeing the person they aspire to be."
Does any of this sound familiar? Doesn't it sound like so many of our blogs and conversations? I know it sounds like a lot of mine. Hell, I could have written these things – just substitute "jobs" for "courses" and change "not getting out of bed for days" to "years."

People might disagree with this opinion, but I think she fits the profile of so many people in Second Life: dealing with depression or isolation, connects better with people online than in RL, sees the Internet as somewhere to escape, recognizes the power of expression and reinvention that an online identity can give.

At one point in her blog, she talks about not wanting to blog under her real name:

Why am I writing about issues that I know people f*cking freak out about? What kind of a narcissistic twit am I anyway to think my little voice will add anything useful to the blogosphere? Why do I feel the need to do this at all? What have I already published that people could use against me? What if there are already crazies out there Googling me? 

Oof, if only she knew just how much some of us would be Googling her. :(

And her mysterious trip to California – well, it reminded me of so many of my SL friends who finally took that leap and traveled somewhere in RL to meet an SL friend or partner. You just can't tell most people in RL about a trip like that because many people wouldn't understand and many would think you had lost it.

I think Elisa Lam would have liked Second Life. She was passionate about fashion and loved to express herself visually as well as verbally. It just makes me wonder if she had an AV here. I remember the weird panicky feeling I got when one of my SL friends up and vanished a few years ago. I remember just feeling helpless because I really didn't know who she was in RL. I sat around wondering if she had been in an accident or if she had just decided to make a run for the border.

Do any of you have an SL friend who mentioned a trip to California and vanished? Do any of you know someone who recently went from being regularly active to suddenly gone (besides me, LOL)? If we give her name to Linden Lab, would they check? Probably not.

The problem with forming an online community is when you lose a member, sometimes you never find out why. And vice versa – when something horrible happens out there in the real world, sometimes you never know which, if any, of your virtual friends are affected by it. Sometimes people just disappear, and all the searching in the world never brings any clear answers.

Anyway, I can't get away from the word "haunt" here. Her story haunts me. I am haunted by the sickeningly ironic fact (sing: "Isn't It Ironic?") that when she finally managed to get out of bed and make an effort to get a fresh perspective on life, she came to a horrifying, gruesome end. I am heartbroken for her family – how horrible, not only to lose a daughter and a sister, but to lose her in such a macabre, public way. She's not Elisa anymore – she's a rotting corpse that contaminated a hotel water supply for days. She's a weird girl doing creepy things in an elevator. Depending who you ask, she's on drugs, insane, plain stupid or suicidal. Nobody's talking about the tragedy of a bright life that was suddenly taken. Nobody's talking the fact that she loved "The Great Gatsby" and Harry Potter, that she had a wonderful eye for fashion, that she was often bravely trying to find her way back from the brink and allowing so many people to share that journey, that she rejoiced in the feeling of being madly in love and loved back, that her Instagram album was pretty cool.

She has been reduced to a morbid mystery. :(

Elisa, I wish I would have found your blog while you were alive. I would have told you that so many people can relate to what you were going through. SO MANY. And if you didn't know about SL, maybe I would have told you about it. We take care of our own here. Or at least we try.

Rest in peace.