Categotry Archives: The Long Tunnel


Watching (Mariners) Baseball is Bad for My (Mental) Health

Categories: A Day in the Life, Let's Go M's, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , ,

This is getting old.

This is getting old.

I write here a lot about competitiveness. So much so, apparently, that I wrote two posts entitled “Winning and Losing” on this blog, both mostly about RUDU, both in 2010, two posts separated by That Summer. You can read them, one from March 2010 and one from November 2010.

I also write a lot about the Mariners, hapless though they are. When people from Seattle get into my Uber (this happens a lot, especially lately, including a night where two parties from Seattle were in the car in a span of four trips), I describe myself as a “long-suffering Mariners fan”. This immediately establishes my credibility with these individuals, because just describing oneself as a Mariners fan doesn’t indicate that one has really truly committed to the experience. It’s about the suffering. In an ideal world (i.e. 2001), maybe that wouldn’t be true. But just like a Yankees fan identifies conceptually with swagger and a Red Sox fan with redemption, so does a Mariners fan identify with the inevitability of disaster. Even 2001 ended that way, as I misdocumented in 2014. And as I wrote about just about a month ago when Griffey entered the Hall of Fame, maybe 1995 was the only exception to the disaster narrative, since losing the ALCS was so beyond our wildest dreams that it counted as a total success. That said, though, there is something deviously Sisyphean about even that year. Without it, the Mariners would have left for Tampa and we would have been released from our torment forever. Instead, that year preserved our ability to watch this team roll a boulder up a hill, just past the tipping point, and scream “wait till next year” as it went back down the other side.

Am I being too fatalistic? It’s being drummed into me, just like the hope is being drummed out. Last night, the Mariners lost a baseball game in Chicago by the score of 7-6, blowing a 6-3 lead and surrendering the winning run in the bottom of the 9th. It was deja vu all over again. On Sunday, they blew a 6-3 lead over the Milwaukee Brewers entirely in the 9th, losing by a score of 7-6. Last Tuesday, they coughed up two runs in the bottom of the 8th to lose a game to the Angels (who’d lost 11 straight prior to the game) by a score of 7-6. And on the last day of July, they mounted a 6-0 lead in the first three innings against the Cubs, only to lose a walk-off in the bottom of the 12th by a score of … wait for it … 7-6.

Reader, I watched every inning of all of these games.

I have been thinking it’s a privilege of my new flexible schedule and plan that I can be invested in a Mariners season where the games count and the M’s are contenders. Because, despite the 4 gut-punchers (all in the last four weeks, mind you! and two in the last six days!) listed above, the Mariners are playing meaningful baseball in late August. They remain just 7.5 behind Texas in the AL West and 3 games out in the Wild Card, mostly behind a bevy of AL East teams destined to take games from each other and leave a slot open for a non-East team, probably. Of course, had they won just two of those four 7-6 losses, they’d be 5.5 out and 1 back, respectively. And all four? Well, then they’d be in playoff position, with a bit of a lead, and just 3.5 behind the Rangers.

The Mariners have the longest streak in baseball without visiting the playoffs, a stat made possible by the recent success of the Pirates and Blue Jays. Since setting a record for wins in 2001, their embarrassing 5-game exit from the ALCS against the Yankees is our last taste of October baseball. Call it the curse of 9/11. So many things in my life could go by that name.

And it felt like this could be the year to turn it around. I even intimated as much in that post about Griffey, that in ’95 it was Griffey’s return from injury that was the spark and this year, the return of Felix could mean the same. A week later, I briefly gave up on this scenario after the first of those 7-6 disasters. That was objectively the worst of the four – the only one they led 6-0 and the one in which they lost in extra innings after giving up 3 in the 9th with a 6-3 lead and their closer on the hill. They changed closers after that game and August started out amazing despite the last game in July feeling like a negative turning point. They opened August 14-5, which was close to the best record in the game that month, keeping pace with the red-hot Rangers and scratching to within a game of playoff position.

Since then, including two 7-6 blown games, they’re 1-4, dropping a series to the Yankees and losing 3 in a row. The magic seems to be off.

If past years are an indication, I will stop watching them now, giving up on them after just one too many echoey losses, they will start winning in my absence, they will pull me back in, and I will tune in just in time to watch them just miss the playoffs in some sort of epic-tragic way.

This is a privileged and silly problem to have, being a Mariners fan. Compared to being a Syrian refugee or a homeless American or anyone who doesn’t have time for baseball, it’s embarrassing to even worry or complain about. Part of me wants to delete this post, because it’s not about something that has a chance at changing those larger problems. Of course, part of me also recognizes that I depress the heck out of people when I only post about those things and that itself has a slight counter-productivity in some ways.

I think I summed it up best at the start of the 2015 season:

Sports are objectively stupid. They take valuable energy and resources away from fixing our problems, offering little beyond the value of pure entertainment, already an overrated pursuit in our society. I have made my peace with the fact that baseball is wasteful and unhelpful and still I love it and can’t help myself. I will always pursue it, always invest time and emotion and energy better suited for nobler things into the crack of the bat and the dive of the catch and the eruption of tens of thousands as a ball clears a wall. It’s silly. It’s nostalgic and beautiful and heart-rending and strategic, but it’s also silly.

But last night, I was mulling over whether this is really such a good use of time and mental energy. Ceding so much of my emotional investment to a team like the Mariners feels like flipping a slightly tails-heavy coin each day and walking around being really upset if it comes up tails. Of course, I’m awfully elated when it comes up heads. But is it really necessary for a manic-depressive to sign up for an additional emotional binary in each of his days for the duration of the warmer months of the year?

Yes, I’m watching the game tonight. Why do you ask?



Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Marching to New Orleans, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

I am looking around the room and there is a little mug half-full of orange juice and don’t even get me started on where the mug came from because it’s another memento that should have died in the fire, the fire that never was. And I think a lot about this trend, this policy of not seeing drinks as a binding contract, something that must be finished; I’ve never felt that way about plates or meals but somehow always have felt that way about drinks but she doesn’t, which is completely fine of course, little collections of Coke and water and OJ to be dumped out in the sink when they’ve grown too stale, and bang, it takes me back to a little girl in a movie and the phrase “It’s contaminated.” The contaminated drawn out in the overly scripted way that smart children use to simulate being less smart children who don’t know a word or can’t get it out properly, the fake-child cheese that I definitely remember pulling out on occasion in early acting gigs because how could you not. And I remember where this comes from, the movie Signs, the movie I saw on my first or second night in New Orleans (I could look this up and will in a minute), the night I had concluded, we had concluded let’s be honest, that New Orleans was not for me (us), that this city that was so vaunted and talked up was really just a hall-of-fame for drinking for frat antics, for the kind of life that I (we) had rejected so early in college, which was why I (we) spent my (our) whole time debating instead. New Orleans was such a washout (oh God, that pun, really Storey, do you even listen to yourself sometimes?) that we had given up on it on night #1 (night #2? don’t look, it’s too painful) and said “Do you want to just see a movie?” and the other had been so relieved that we didn’t have to spend another night trying to make Bourbon Street work for us and we really thoroughly enjoyed the movie, even though it was maybe just slightly too scary for her and we walked out into a warm night under what I remember being a fullish moon and thinking that we would be able to get through anything together because we could jointly make decisions like this, of course. And now I know better, not about her frankly, because fuck that, but about New Orleans, that we were so unprepared to look for the real gems of the city, that the meme of Bourbon Street being The Place To Go is just silly and of course what any 23-year-old would know, but it’s not real, it’s not true, it’s not enough, and we could have seen so much more then just before the storm, before both storms, ha ha, not funny, how can you even compare, but there it is, and that theater became Canal Place, the same general location in the same mall, but nicer, more mealy and sit-downy and with overly fancy food and there will always be two reasons you don’t like going there, even though it’s where you took refuge in extreme moments of anger because you don’t cut yourself and you really try not to hit your head, just those two times really, so instead you do things like going to places where the memory is there. And you can ask, reasonably, well why the hell come to New Orleans and it’s like, don’t you understand this whole country is haunted? Because that’s what you try to do when you love someone, you take them everywhere, to places of memory, to new places, like some feral animal trying to mark your territory with the scent of love because you’re so damn happy to have it or so damn proud or you just want the whole country, planet, all your friends to smell like that person or because you don’t even think of it because that’s just who you are and what you do and what you love and you want to share share share everything and no one is there on your shoulder saying to reserve this place just in case, even though you remember wishing you’d done that in high school, though strangely that set of pilgrimages was to go back everywhere and make a new untainted memory except for perhaps that damn tree that you could never return to because really, there are limits to these things, aren’t there? Aren’t there? Where are the limits? Other than the limits that you can set yourself that you somehow miraculously manage to follow, while driving altogether too fast past Mardi Gras World, never ever Googling the day after blocking and never ever Googling the guy before because you know what kind of retinal damage would be done, that honestly the spots from the head-banging are nothing compared to that kind of injury, what you have to try to live up to and never can because you don’t have a chance in hell. And you tried so hard to block out all knowledge, but you couldn’t and there was a wedding on the day you were goddamned going to a wedding, you’ve got to be kidding me, and you couldn’t pull your eyes off of that one fast enough, no way, nohow, and are you really contemplating going to the Ballpark in Arlington (or whatever corporate bullshit name they’re calling it these days) ALONE, what kind of idiot are you really? That was that same trip, just a few days later (you could look up exactly how many, but don’t, not yet), and you want to spend three days there alone just because the Mariners are in a pennant race and they’re chasing Texas and you have a flexible schedule now in part to do things exactly like that, but are you thinking about this really, thoroughly? But then again, is it any different than anything else, really? Than the mugs and cups and glasses and papers and pictures and books and stuffed animals and posters and furniture and clothes and clothes and clothes that you literally surround yourself with? Really? Even your friends, your most supportive friends who have been so helpful and tried so hard trip over things all the damn time, because how can they not? When your whole life is a minefield and they want to be closer to you than seventy-five feet, they’re going to hit mines, them and especially her, her who is trying so hard it hurts, who you are desperately trying to repave places with her scent instead, but you have that sneaking suspicion in the back of your mind, put it away, no, it will be different this time, won’t it? Won’t it? You haven’t earned relating to this character enough, isn’t that why this book is in your life, this book you relate to more than you can almost ever remember relating to anything, isn’t it here to show you how much harder things would have to be to earn this kind of self-hate, this kind of self-doubt, this kind of aversion to everything. Or is that just more self-hate talking, that even your misery isn’t sufficiently earned because it’s so inferior to someone else’s misery, imagining the Damage Olympics and you’re up there with all your limbs intact and all your privileges strong and everyone’s laughing at you and your pain like you are the equivalent of the fat swimmer whose father was on your Olympic Committee so you got to go and party and finish last and expose corruption in your country for a day before American corruption stole the headlines back where they belonged. Why can’t you get out of your head? Why can’t you just You know, deep down, it’s something to do with your memory and its vividness, angels and demons, the curse of being able to imagine settings and recall them, plus of course the obsession with documentation (you could look up so much, just scratch that itch now, it’s nothing like Googling, the great unforgivable divide that you’ve honored all these years, it’s just your own archive, c’mon), after all even DFW took himself into electro-convulsive eventually, but of course that also killed him, just about literally, because it nuked his talent and he couldn’t work and this is just one of the many cautionary tales you dredge up when your friends pound you so hard to just go to therapy, just talk to someone, what’s the worst that can happen, we are insufficiently equipped to help you with this, your family is, your girlfriend sure as heck is (what are you trying to do to her, anyway, and are you really going to post this diatribe really in public where she and everyone can read it, really, what kind of catharsis will that give her, honestly, are you trying to kill everyone here?)? And it’s like well, the worst that can happen is you take your brain away through various chemical and electrical means and it’s a little silly to care so much about me getting through all this if the brain isn’t going to be intact, isn’t it, because that’s basically all that matters, it houses all these feelings and the belief that life is So Serious which after all is what may have separated you from all these people in the first place and made it unlivable, in the end that’s what it comes down to, isn’t it? That you care so much, too much, and that’s not meant to sound like the job-interview weakness, oh I Just Work Too Hard and Care Too Much, it’s the same kind of aggressive honesty that DFW talks about in Infinite Jest, no one actually wants that level of stifling, insecurity-bound self-reverberating honesty because it’s too much to be confronted by everything that’s going on behind someone’s eyes when they really spill it all out, there’s a reason that spill-your-guts is a cliche, because they are bloody ugly entrails and no one wants to see those and there’s a reason we have a visceral reaction to seeing and smelling that, our animal nature kicks in and says this is Wrong, I must Get Away, nature is upside-down when I can see innards and after all they are called innards for a reason, use the language you love so much you idiot. There is nowhere to run to, really, unless maybe you just move to Kazakhstan or somewhere else that isn’t contaminated (“It’s contaminated!”), burning all your stuff right before, I mean all your stuff, really, and shutting down pictures and memories and Facebook, you just go and it would look a little like the monastery plan in 2011 (God, how this book has made you re-look at that idea in a new and entrail-colored light) and you could go an volunteer somewhere and just try to cleanse all the memory away without actually excising it chemically, waiting to get old and senile and only have the memory of what’s in front of you. She would come with you, if that’s what you needed, you know she would, and isn’t that enough, maybe, to make it worth it, to know for sure? Or are you just another idiot human who believes there is a test for faith out there, you don’t need to read a book as brilliant as this one to know that faith is not there to be tested, that the whole notion of that is wrong, that this is the PTSD talking like it always does, the loudest and most explosive voice in the room, shouting down the reasonable elements because it is always behaving like the wounded animal it is. And like, yes, we get it, you need balm for your wounds and you just want to be heard, but maybe let someone else talk sometimes, maybe let someone else have the floor, we haven’t heard from Hope in a while, over there in the corner, smiling shyly at all these boorish injured guys in the room, don’t you have something to contribute to this discussion? And Hope looks down meekly, then looks up, and she admits that she just has the same platitudes and cliches that she’s always had, but maybe if you say them enough, they’ll work, and her voice tilts up at the end and almost squeaks, almost fades out, and you go over and try to hug her to the point where you’re almost crushing the wind out of her, and this is the problem with Hope, you can’t hold on to her like this or you’ll kill her, so you back off sheepishly and grab the back of your hot neck with a hand and then some other angry voice takes the floor and she just shrugs at you like she doesn’t even resent you almost strangling her with your embrace just now and you know Distraction will have the floor soon, the same Distraction that almost took over that dark desperate night in your dorm room in the Castle, the pulsing music of Cholmondoley’s blaring up and urging you to do drugs, to go to the equivalent of Bourbon Street that you have access to, to join the throng and the slippery phrase “self-medicate” because this is one of the real, tangible reasons that your memory is so much stronger and clearer and brighter and they have ways of fixing that. That every night you ferry people along their corridors of this decision, sometimes coaching them through the little memories that pop up and poke through, like the leg of an alien in the grass, just a glimpse that startles and the music is almost that dramatic in the background, whenever there’s a reference, an image, something you Did Not Google but have to see anyway, the world really does move beneath you, and for the wrong reasons and that shot of adrenaline shoots from your heart (sure, adrenaline is probably not literally stored in the heart, I guess it’s a jolt of blood or something) and jams in your brain and briefly fogs everything on landing and then it becomes clear, all too clear, so much clarity, and you just can’t wait anymore, you have to remember even clearly, distilled, like the vodka you won’t have, clear as a damn bell, what you were thinking at that moment, it will feel good to scratch the bite (mosquitoes, everything I own is a souvenir of Liberia), to watch it swell in size three times, because sometimes then it pops and the poisonous pus emerges and you can start to heal, yeah right, ha ha, have you even been paying attention?

31 July – 9 August 2002



From Here to There

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, Marching to New Orleans, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,

She gets in the car and laughs. I confirm that it’s for Jimmy and she says yes and shakes her head in ongoing amusement. I ask her what and she says “He got it exactly right. Jimmy described you exactly.” And I ask her what she means by this and she says “A white guy with long hair. That’s what you are.”

We head toward her destination, an apartment all but under the freeway, the area within two blocks of which I advise tourists not to drive alone. This is a decently long way from the riverside Tchoupatoulis apartment where I picked her up, worlds away in New Orleanian perception. We have time for a longer talk, Friday night traffic being what it is likely to be. I’m just getting underway with my night.

She talks about how she’s sick and it’s hard to be sick in the summer. But she doesn’t think she’s that sick and she won’t be for long. Her boyfriend’s been sick and got her sick, a little, but she’s fighting it off, but she apologizes for her voice, which is just a touch scratchy and punctuated by little sniffles. She says she just had a long nap and is feeling better.

She asks me some standard origin questions and I ask if she’s from here and she say she is, but spent a lot of time in Houston, after the storm. Her brother was still there, until he died. She does not say how. She talks about her brother’s kids and her brother’s young wife and how it was sudden and she’s thankful that her sister-in-law keeps in touch with this side of the family, because they don’t always and those children are her family, too. How her other brother signed up for the army shortly after and her own mother tried to forbid it. She couldn’t stand to lose another boy, her other boy, so soon, but it was not her choice to make.

“You know, from the beginning, he’s just always been about Call of Duty. That’s his whole life, he’s always playing and so into it. He’s always wanted to live like that. So we prayed for him and sent him on his way.” He is, apparently, in Afghanistan at the moment. They don’t hear from him too often and their mother can’t even stand to think about it.

She talks about her own kids, about their father, about how his new girlfriend and her new boyfriend all pitch in to raise them, it’s a family affair. She is currently going from the house with the father and the kids to the house with the boyfriend, or possibly the other way, but I end up being pretty sure it’s the former by the end of the ride when she starts criticizing her boyfriend’s taste in housing locations. As we turn under the highway, there are two police cars boxing in a third non-police car, lights aglow, and she almost reflexively flinches, doing it in a verbal way I can catch without even checking my blindspot. She starts in again about the location, too close to the freeway, too close to where the cops are always looking to make trouble. I think about her brother, a cop of a kind in a foreign land, called into the recruiting office by the siren call of Call of Duty.

I think of Pokemon lures and who designed Call of Duty and what it was designed for. I think of the unsuspecting quest for entertainment and how it traps us into decisions that, by the end, feel like destiny. I don’t choose to share this line of self-interrogation with her, don’t need to sound like that about these military recruitment games being designed as well, military recruitment. It’s bad enough to think your brother is risking everything out of a sense of fulfilling what he always enjoyed most without thinking someone manipulated him into it. Best not worry about that until he comes home. Or doesn’t.

We have had time, if briefly, to cross over my own relationship history, my own uncertainty about having children, the fear of the future I rarely had until my divorce. She seems certain that these things work out, that they will always be better in surprising ways than you expect. A level of certainty I dare not try to convey about her own siblings, especially with one lost so recently. I wonder if I am the fretting mother, or would be, and I wonder what I would do with a child who wanted to play Call of Duty all the time, and it becomes overwhelming, the inability to be sure of anything. The phrase “that’s why they play the game” bubbles up into my mind, meaning at least two things in this context.

We are at not-Jimmy’s house, just out of sight of the spinning blue lights of the cop cars. The highway looms dark and ominous above, punctuated by engine revs and tire squeals. She mentions again how he wishes he would move, but there is inertia and the rent is cheap over here. I wish her and all her family the best, her brother in Afghanistan, sister and sister-in-law in Houston, her kids and her dead brother’s kids and Jimmy and not-Jimmy, whose name I never learned. She shakes my hand, finally giving me her name for the first time, asking me for mine. She hopes I have a safe night.

I pull away from the curb slowly, envisioning what it is like to realize life is not like a video game, as I give Jimmy 5 stars and wait for the next ping to take me in a new direction.



Prevention and Cure

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,


We live in a cure society. Not just because we have races for the cure and build awareness for cures and believe that eventually every malady we face will someday be cured. Also for those reasons, but not even primarily because of that. It is reasonable to hope that we can discover, create, and utilize cures for the things that go wrong in our lives. But as the old adage reminds us, it is even more reasonable (and efficient) to aim to prevent those things in the first place.

We don’t believe in prevention in this society, though. I guess we’re starting to believe a little in the prevention of pregnancy and the transmission of STDs, but otherwise we’re not really into taking steps to keep ourselves from harm. We drive cars, we put the cell phone right up to our brain, we eat poorly, we live with chronic stress and pain and fatigue and anger. And whenever the inevitable things go wrong, when we have accidents or cancer or heart disease or panic attacks, we wait impatiently for the cures to come in and make it all better. To get us back in the game so we can head back out and reinjure ourselves and we can begin the cycle anew.

When I got kidney stones in 2010, my assigned urologist was uninterested in even examining what in my life might be causing the phenomenon. He rattled off a list of prescription drugs that would help combat the stones’ effects, as well as some advanced treatment options for splitting the stones into more manageable kidney pebbles. He rolled his eyes when I asked about side effects of these drugs, let alone the little lasers that could play Bruce Willis to the calcified asteroids in my organs. But the contempt really came out when I asked what steps I could take to keep from getting kidney stones in the future. Apparently I was his first patient to deign to ask why I was getting kidney stones in the first place, so I could attempt to stop doing whatever that was. Granted by the assembled populous of kidney stone and prostate cancer sufferers in the waiting room that I was below his average patient’s age by about four decades and this made me decidedly more invested in future behaviors than most of my comrades, but still. He blinked at me and acted like he hadn’t heard the question. When I made another pass, he mumbled something about eating more stone fruits and maybe less dairy. They are made of calcium, after all, those kidney stones. Not all of them, but the ones I had, according to a week of urine I collected in an orange bucket.

Turned out that the real issue was dehydration, the result primarily of crying basically all the time over my divorce. Which, you know, is not a diagnosis that I could reasonably have expected him to come up with. I got the 100% real cranberry juice (something a friend had to tell me about, because my doctor certainly wasn’t going to) and cut back on cheese, but hydrating more and crying less did most of the trick. I haven’t passed a stone in three years.

So this reality certainly applies to the medical field and our entrenched beliefs about it. It’s part of why medical costs are so disproportionately high in this country, driven as they are by the cure-side of the equation. Prescription drugs are one of the single biggest industries, in terms of both absolute size and ongoing growth, that we have in this nation. Preventative medicine is kind of a fringe notion, vaguely associated with quacky herbs and the word socialism. No matter that health plans focused on prevention rather than repair are immensely more efficient and effective than their rivals. That doesn’t propel a growth industry so much as the maintenance society. And we all know a society addicted to cancerous growth cannot abide a viable maintenance plan.

But this goes well beyond just the medical field as a notion about how we are to live our lives. We live with a model of life that presumes it will create all manner of unhealthy side effects, then try to sell a variety of cures to solve those problems. Stress, unhappiness, inadequacy, depression, infidelity, insomnia, crime, poverty, disaster. We expect most of these things to befall us as we approach our daily life, making it vital that we raise enough money for the tools to fix them: yoga, gym memberships, better food, vacations, therapy, medical care, and entertainment of every possible variety. Examine our professions and pastimes in this society and how many of them are making up for some real or perceived deficiency created by the hardships of life. And I am hardly here to sit on some high horse and chastise you about these things: in the past year, I’ve signed up for yoga, a gym membership, tried to eat better food, considered counseling, taken vacations, and bought a lot of entertainment. It’s not like all or even any of these things are innately problematic. But when we feel a desperate need for them as the natural consequence of the way we live our life, it might be time to take a step back and re-examine.

There is a simpler and perhaps more documented model for this kind of prevention-cure dichotomy in our society: childcare. Childcare is almost uniquely expensive in America, perhaps the only thing people are willing to sacrifice for more than health care. And the justification for buying childcare is maintaining one’s place in the capitalist economy: bringing in enough money and perhaps prestige to keep the wheel turning. For so many couples in America, the equation doesn’t really work: it’s break-even at best. But the notion of living on just one income, of ditching the job for the child, is often unthinkable, even when it would make more total financial sense, to say nothing of the benefits of not having one’s kid raised primarily by a stranger.

Now this particular example is massively complicated by the gender issues involved, with the deadly combination of traditional sexist expectations of women to be the primary caretakers and the pay gap exacerbating pressure on women to be the ones who step away from the workplace. When one adds bias against both women and men with career disruptions on their resume, these factors negate the simplicity of the choice for a lot of couples. This makes it powerfully important for many to stay in the workplace, even if they’re running on a treadmill just to keep up. But if we could hit a giant reset button on gender perceptions in our society (yes, this would fix a lot of things), making it truly as likely that the man would stay home in any given instance, then we’d have another example of it being totally nonsensical to choose cure over prevention.

The trouble is, whether you think it applies well in the childcare example or not, we know that prevention is more effective than curing. Beyond the cliche, it’s fundamentally obvious to us that the cure is never 100%: there are always complications and side effects and increased risks going forward. And sure, prevention is never 100% either. You can avoid the stressful day job and still get depressed. Condoms break. The train can crash just like the car. But at least prevention gives you a good chance at 100% avoidance. And the worst-case scenario of failures in prevention are needing the cure. In other words, the worst-case scenario of a prevention mentality is relying on the best-case scenario of a cure mentality.

What tangible steps can you take in your own life to replace cures with prevention?


The Quest for Understanding

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

For most of my life, the prevailing presumption underlying my existence is that I was on a mission to be understood. More even than to be loved (though I of course see them as related), certainly more than to be happy. Simply to be really fathomed, to have someone be able to see into my thoughts and feelings and take up residence. If not comfortably, per se, at least with the notion that this is comprehensible.

I would argue that this is a more universal desire than might be readily agreed to. I have argued, at times, that this is all anyone wants out of life, or what most people most want. I’m not convinced this is the case anymore, in part from growth in (note the irony here) understanding others, and starting to grasp the depth of human diversity and perspective. There really are people, whether it’s deeply authentic or largely shaped by societal structures, who just want to be happy. Or, more often, comfortable. And being understood isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it’s a deeply unsettling experience.

Such an unsettling experience, that was simultaneously disturbing and movingly comforting, was had by me last night. It took place, like so many moving and disturbing experiences, in a movie theater. It was the experience of watching the new film Infinitely Polar Bear.

Folks, if you have even a passing interest in understanding me, if you want to know what it’s like to be the crazy person you know or read as Storey Clayton, this is your chance. Get yourself to a theater.

It’s not perfect. It’s not exactly spot-on in every place. I leaned over to Alex about four times during the screening and said “I’m not this bad, right?” It’s fueled by substances, both alcohol and tobacco and also lithium, none of which I’ve ever partaken in, nor ever plan to. And that makes a huge difference, in the severity and breadth of manifestations of manic depression. The see-sawing nature of addiction and chemical reliance certainly put a more dramatic and tenuous spin on the experience of emotional sine-curves. But good God, by and large, it was like watching a documentary of my emotional reality. Made doubly more mind-blowing by the fact that Mark Ruffalo, an actor whose range and depth I’ve always found disappointing, was bringing it to life so perfectly.

I was also probably more flabbergasted than normal by the fact that this viewing was one of the few in my life where I had the ideal movie-watching experience. I’d seen no previews, read no synopses or reviews, had no Earthly idea of anything about the movie other than its title when the movie began. All I knew is that someone I trusted to know me, at least a bit, had vouched that I would like the movie. So to have the movie really seem to get me, to understand my life and perspective, while I was viewing it this way, was incredibly special. One of the best experiences like this I ever had was seeing Memento in Boston at that vaguely independent theater that always seemed to spell doom for relationships. The immersion that can be achieved by having no idea what experience is coming brings movies the closest to simulating real life that they can. Something about that unpredictability that underlies our existence.

This issue of understanding, by the way, is what has made romantic betrayal such a particularly consternating aspect of my life. There is something about the people who came the closest to understanding, who professed understanding almost endlessly, being those who suddenly shun and disregard, that creates the ultimate devastation. There is this sinking feeling, actually attested to by my ex-wife, that the more one understands, the more inevitable betrayal becomes. That getting that close to the reality, to actually knowing what’s going on, creates repulsion, fear, the need to separate oneself. It is the increasing conviction that being truly understood will create this betrayal that has led me, for the first time in my life, to consider that being understood might not be the goal after all. That maybe we’re here to help each other get by without understanding.

True fact: I have received one (1) new e-mail during the time I’ve been writing this post. It is an invitation to the latest Bring Your Own Story event, wherein the theme of storytelling will be “To Good to Be True”.

I, literally, can’t make this stuff up.

Maybe I should just go hang out with the screenplay writer of Infinitely Polar Bear. Or even Mark Ruffalo, who seemed to capture something that so easily could have been a caricature as a real experienced life. Frankly, most people will probably see it as a caricature. And some of the extremes are things that I may not have actually done, though I’ve probably been close to everything depicted, outside of those scenes involving substances. Which I guess brings us to the only conclusion I can be sure of from all this today: Thank God I never started drinking. Thank you grandparents, thank you Gin Blossoms songs, thank you Sarah Brook and Fish for stopping me when I got off the plane from Liberia. I am convinced today that alcohol alone is the difference between me managing life as a high-functioning manic depressive who can “pass” as “normal” (though of course this blog lives in public largely because I don’t believe in passing) and being worse off than the polar bear stumbling through life on a screen near you.

The movie's publicity wing seems to be suppressing screenshots of Mark Ruffalo's character making a scene so they can market the film as a heartwarming triumph over adversity, I guess.  This slightly manic scene will have to suffice to capture just a glimpse of the real experience.

The movie’s publicity wing seems to be suppressing screenshots of Mark Ruffalo’s character making a scene so they can market the film as a heartwarming triumph over adversity, I guess. This slightly manic scene will have to suffice to capture just a glimpse of the real experience.


Independence Day

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, If You're Going to San Francisco, Pre-Trip Posts, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,

“There was an exodus of birds in the trees
because they didn’t know we were only pretending.
And the people all looked up and looked pleased
and the birds flew around like the whole world was ending.
And I, I don’t think war is noble
and I don’t like to think love is like war.”
-Ani DiFranco, “Independence Day”

I’m going back to Berkeley on the 4th of July. I’d already be on the plane right now, but it was delayed, which is a bit of a surprise given how few people choose to fly on this day. Berkeley, of course, is the origin of my “4th of July Hat”, so named for the day I bought it. The hat is featured in this picture:


When I tell people how cold the Bay Area is, especially in the summer, they don’t believe me. I talk about this hat. It’s not just that I’m a chronically cold person who chose to wear this hat on 4th of July (the day perhaps most associated with heat on the entire calendar) in Berkeley. It’s that street vendors were selling this hat on 4th of July in Berkeley. Meaning they had to believe that other people, other more normal and warmer people, would also be interested in making such an acquisition. And they were.

Of course, that picture was taken in on December 23rd in Albuquerque, a few years later, a place where it sometimes snows. Like the snowflakes on the hat. It never snows in Berkeley. That would make the cold worthwhile.

Despite my bellyaching (I blame the delayed flight), I love everything else about the Bay Area except the weather. I love the people, I love the places, I love the restaurants, I love the… oh. There are also the memories. I love a lot of the memories. And I hate a lot of them too. There’s really just nothing to be done about that.

I just watched “500 Days of Summer” twice in the last 72 hours. I think it might be the perfect movie. I saw it at least thrice in theaters when it came out and I’ve seen it a couple times since. The movie is many things, including a brilliant depiction of miscommunication and misunderstanding and how that can emerge and evolve, but it is mostly a distilled and exquisite rendering of how love impacts the human brain and how completely devastating that experience can be. And perhaps even more perfect is its depiction of memory, how it can lie and cheat and illustrate and illuminate. I almost watched it again this morning. I can’t get enough.

It is, I guess, a weird time to focus on such a heartbreaking film when I’m on my way to the wedding of a dear friend. But such dwelling also coincides, of course, with only my second return to the Bay Area since the demise of my marriage that spent 6 of its 7 (pre-separation) years there (curse you, New Jersey!). As much as anything, visiting the Bay Area is like going to the grave of my married life and waiting for the ghosts to come rising from the earth. Good times.

The other movie it makes me think of is “Inside Out”, which may be battling “500 Days of Summer” for the top spot in my heart this month. [Be you warned, for here be spoilers!] How a core full of happy yellow memories, powering a whole field of identity can be stripped of its meaning, soured blue and sucked away to lead to collapse and ruin. Yes, the ultimate lesson is that efforts to make yourself happy when you’re not amount to bullying and that sadness is the conduit to compassion and listening and ultimately, hope (or at least a richly complex emotional life). But the metaphor of how quickly those yellow memories go blue, never to be reclaimed, spoke to me perhaps louder than anything else in the film.

There was going to be a tie-in to the USA here, its annual Orgy of Jingoism, why I choose to fly rather than get pressured to watch fireworks meant to simulate the murderous destruction of other nation’s people. I remember some Bay Area 4th when I was too upset by the whole thing to see straight, it was a Big Blue House year, me moping around Oakland and not wanting to go anywhere while Fish and Emily tried to boost my spirits. Or maybe I’m getting it tangled with the summer of 2002 in my mind, a year before the wedding, back in Waltham, when I decided to skip out on Emily and … I want to say Nikki and maybe Ariel? … and just came back and played video games with Russ because I couldn’t handle the disconnect between everyone’s buoyant patriotism and my angry sadness. They probably both happened, though the little blue-red orb of the latter incident is becoming clearer in my mind as I write this. Blue and red, of course. The days flip around, the memories shoot through the chutes, and I am no closer to knowing how to sit with this than I ever have been.

It is a happy time, a happy trip. So many of the orbs that remain yellow from this time involve the people I’m going to see. Brandzy, of course, and friends from Glide, and a town that almost claimed my college years, that I fell in love with during my first real flirtation of my lifetime, then gave a good seven years almost a decade later. The gobstopper of emotions, as I’ve always said. The swirly swirl of rainbow colors, all together. Rainbows. I still remember that meal at the awful Turkish place in 2004 with Brandzy and I, and of course and Emily, the day they started marrying everyone, the brief time before injunctions and stoppages and then Prop 8 came to delay it all for a while. That brief, heady time before this ultimate fulfillment.

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
-Justice Anthony Kennedy, Obergefell v. Hodges

Maybe we’d all be better off if, at the outset of it all, some loud and authoritative voice said to us: “But you should know upfront, this is not a love story.”

Or maybe I’m just on the downslope of the roller coaster. I’m sure I’ll be up again soon, possibly in accordance and angle with the plane I’m about to board.


The Promise of Spring
(or: Today, It’s Next Year)

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Let's Go M's, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,


It’s fitting that baseball begins in spring.

I’m not much of a spring person myself, having a penchant for difficult times in April and May. I was always with TS Eliot on the whole April question and I probably offer the quote about cruelty each time we get this far around the sun in one form or another. But all that rebirth and Easter spirit, all those flowers and ripening trees, it all culminates in the burst of energetic joy that is the reopening of baseball season. And no matter how trying an April you’re having, you have to love that.

One of my favorite past posts is about the promise of a new debate tournament, a new weekend, the new possibilities unfolding from a weekly reset of contests in which any given one could be won outright. I wrote it in September 2010, at a time when I was hurting deeply and found little faith in any new beginning that did not emanate directly from the chance of my team winning a debate tournament. For the second time in my life, I dug myself out by digging deeply into debate and the hope of having one concrete thing that I unassailably still enjoyed. September is the spring of the debate season, but April is the spring of reality as well as baseball.

Last year ended catastrophically for my beloved Mariners, with the whole year coming down to game 162, the first time in over a decade that the last contest of the season mattered. The M’s won, but so did the A’s, and that wound up being all that mattered. To make matters more heartbreaking, the Wild Card game winners, the Kansas City Royals, charged on to the World Series, a feat still not reached by nearly 40 years of prior M’s squads. Say what you will about the travails of yearning since 1908, Cubs fans, but at least you have a championship to remember. (Okay, “remember” is probably not the right word unless you’re the world’s oldest person, but maybe “read about”.) Four decades is less time to suffer, but in some ways more poignant. There was no apex for Seattle, no fulfillment for the Mariners.


But every year dawns anew. For Cubs fans, for Mariners fans, for followers of every team, no matter how hapless. There’s a sense of expectation, to be sure – the M’s are expected to do well this year with new signings and a pitching core poised at a communal peak. There are teams that virtually know they’ll be slated for 100 losses, for whom it is hard to get the gumption of hope and excitement. But even then, is there not a surprise team every year? Is there not some collection of young men for whom doom was predicted who are still contending in July, August, September? The whispers of April always abound, this could be our year. It could be. The record is clean, 0-0. We are tied for first place. There’s no saying we can’t do it.

The M’s were just such a team last year. Predicted to return to the bottom of the heap in the AL West by most (okay, maybe just above Houston), they played 162 games that mattered for their season. Or 161 2/3rds, riding out the last three innings having finally been eliminated. By proving the point, they renewed the promise that even those of you out there with a hopeless band of misfits, with bad contracts and steroids suspensions and management lowering expectations, even you can revel in early April and its universal hope. Even if you like ill-fated three-letter teams like Cubs and Mets, you can lift your spirits this month and dare to dream.

Sports are objectively stupid. They take valuable energy and resources away from fixing our problems, offering little beyond the value of pure entertainment, already an overrated pursuit in our society. I have made my peace with the fact that baseball is wasteful and unhelpful and still I love it and can’t help myself. I will always pursue it, always invest time and emotion and energy better suited for nobler things into the crack of the bat and the dive of the catch and the eruption of tens of thousands as a ball clears a wall. It’s silly. It’s nostalgic and beautiful and heart-rending and strategic, but it’s also silly.

But it does offer us a model for renewal. A model for a place to find joy and rebound even in the darkest times. Sports offer us a metaphor not only for what could literally replace warfare if we came to our senses, but also for the resets that our own lives need from time to time. People can ruin you, they can squash your dignity and stomp on the things you value the most. They can trample your sense of self and punish you for your vulnerability. But they can never impede your love of a team, nor deny the gorgeous reality of that 0-0 record, all the games yet to be played, the possibility unrolling before you like a bright blue tarp on freshly mown grass.

My team is 1-0 now, the hopes redoubled by the unblemished start. Like a new car driving off the lot, that first loss goes so far in dashing these fresh spring hopes. Hold on, now. Hold a bit longer, like the balance of a yoga posture, like the tentative bloom of a flower against the frosty near-freezing chill. A loss is just a loss. 161-1 is a marvelous record, though we’re all going to lose at least 40. We always do. Grip tighter into the ball, into the hope, hold your breath if you have to. Every year is a new chance at everything you’ve ever wanted, no matter how much you’ve lost before.


My Life with Yoga

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

“When I talk to people about sadness and depression, as I often do, one of my suggested strategies is really internalizing and absorbing good days and ‘banking’ them as antidotes against future storms of sadness. Not because they will make you less sad when the storms come, but because those good days came after other days that felt like rock-bottom before, and the resilient memory of the good days will give you hope that such good feelings can come again.

Today was one of those days. A banking day. I was incredibly productive at work and had good energy there all day, a day after having a migraine and almost going home early. I went to yoga (3rd time in 4 days), took a class that was about 80% of what I was doing at my peak and it just about destroyed me. I almost gave up halfway through, but I pushed through it and completed it and talked to the great instructor afterwards about how to do better. I felt amazing afterwards, though, healthier than I have in over 5 years. And then I went to Bring Your Own Story and “earned” (via rock-paper-scissors) the Wildcard slot to tell an old classic while hearing a lot of other great tales.

Banking this one. Remind me the next time the chips are down.”

-Facebook post, 10:47 pm, April 2, 2014

Like so many good things in my life (Brandeis, Counting Crows, David Foster Wallace), yoga was introduced to me by a girl. She was barely “a girl” in the sense that I mean it – we went on a few dates of little consequence before she made it clear she wasn’t interested romantically, but still thought I was an interesting person. It’s hard to say how much of it was that I was a few months into my marital separation and how much was that she just wasn’t into me that way, but I’m sure both played a role. We kept hanging out for most of that year, though – periodically hiking and meeting up at weekly yoga and getting the occasional meal. She was a deeply dissatisfied grad student at Rutgers who echoed my frustrations with the state of New Jersey, insisting that Buffalo, New York was more like the West and the South than it was like the East Coast. After a year, she took a leave of absence, went on a Birthright trip, made aliyah, and joined the IDF. Seeing Facebook pictures of her in the IDF uniform, toting weaponry, just months after making fun of Israeli policy, was so unsettling to me that I stopped responding to her e-mails, mostly because it reminded me too much of someone else with what I would call a “cult-follower’s personality”. I still feel bad that I didn’t respond to the e-mail she sent in the midst of this transition, questioning the speed of her changes, asking me for spiritual guidance. I just couldn’t. The ruts were too deep and painful, I didn’t have the strength. I went to yoga class, thought about it, and let it go.

I had long been into meditation, my interest first sparked by an Eastern Thought class in high school, taught by one Ken Hause, who taught me (among other crazy things) that it was safe to eat chalk, something I would later employ in a critical debate round my senior year at MIT. He was a truly crazy man, someone deeply unexpected to be found at Albuquerque Academy, and he took part of his class to teach people basic meditation practices, including pranayama breathing. I had a vivid dream of him dying in 1997, but he was alive and well as of this 2012 Journal article, which makes me happy. He seemed like one of those people that one could discover was actually partially responsible for the Earth’s rotation.

After that, I meditated for a long time, just on my own, and always felt that yoga was a little unnecessary as a guided meditation. It felt like creative writing classes always seemed – like the very nature of involving a teacher and a guidance interrupted the nature of a solitary creative exercise in the first place. How can you concentrate when someone is in there talking, telling you to concentrate? It didn’t make much sense.

But I had no real understanding of yoga until I started it, getting brought along by that girl to a grad student yoga class at Rutgers that her friend was starting up. I had no idea it was so athletic in nature, that the stretching was a kind of physical activity and advancement in itself. That the guidance was vital to learning the practice. That my body was capable of postures and balances that I never would have found on my own. It was amazing.

The class was once a week, on Tuesday nights, two blocks from debate practice and ending half an hour before it, and I quickly found that I came with a different, better energy to Tuesday night practice once I’d gotten into the yoga habit. I was calmer, less focused on my pain, more able to have that “away energy” that is so lacking in the clash and conflict of debate rounds. And I began to notice changes in myself. I developed stomach muscles for the first time in my life. I felt stronger, more flexible, more energized. It probably didn’t hurt that I was trying to bounce up from the terrifying weight of 115 pounds, the direct result of the traumas of the summer before and an early fall when I was deciding whether to stay on the planet or not. I already had a pretty typical yogi body; I just needed to add the strength.

I became reliant on this weekly endeavor, this moment to recenter my place in the universe, to feel good about existing and to stop fighting everything. I bought my own mat. I got good at crow pose, a crazy gateway to inversions where one has one’s entire body piled on one’s hands, arms fully extended, knees into elbows. I sang the praises of this concentration and focus and physicality to anyone who seemed open to it.

And then, slowly, I stopped going. I forget whether the class actually stopped or I felt sheepish about going without my ambassador friend. I had technically attended, entering the grad student lounge to which I was otherwise uninvited as her “guest” even on weeks where she didn’t make it. No one really cared and the yoga teacher welcomed me every time, but that was just the sort of thing for me to overly worry about. We don’t ever lose our grade school instincts sometimes. So I decided I could do my own home practice, that I knew enough of the moves and the order and the flow. And that was great for a while. I kept it up, sometimes 45 minutes a day, practicing even more often. And then it became 30, then 15, then 5. And then it became easy to skip.

The weird thing about yoga is that I don’t think I ever looked forward to it, but I always felt great about it afterwards. It was hard and demanding and sometimes bordering on painful. It interrupted the rest of life, wherein thoughts and arguments and internal dialogues are constantly bubbling around. I like my critical brain, I like evaluating and judging everything, trying to distill potential narratives and improvements. Yoga got in the way of all that, a big giant timeout, but one that always made me so grateful for the opportunity afterwards. I would never exactly look forward to it, but I would never skip when I was attending the group practice either. And I would often feel exuberant the rest of the night, even extending into the next day.

So I lapsed and stopped and life happened again. And that was that, until recently.

Turning 35 triggered something in me. It’s funny how people talk about age like it’s nothing, like your birthday doesn’t change anything. I think that’s true, innately, but there’s something about marking the passage of time that impacts our self-image. And 35 hit me like a ton of bricks, it felt like a real turning point. I guess it’s the birthdays ending in 0 that are supposed to make us freak out like this, but I was in a perfect place in my life when I turned 30, wouldn’t have changed anything, and couldn’t have been happier. Thirty didn’t freak me out because I felt like I’d come to the balance I’d always been hoping to find. And then, of course, everything changed overnight, and I stumbled along in ruins just trying to get through another day. In some ways, with all the twists and turns of those years in Jersey, it felt like I didn’t even come up for air until this February.

The first manifestation of this freak-out about being 35 came 7 days after the birthday, when I posted that I wanted to revisit my Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim Grand Canyon trip at 40 to mark 20 years since I first did it. I remembered a promise I’d made to myself at my last GC visit that I wanted to be a person who could always hike there, who was in sufficient shape that the beauty of the Canyon wasn’t lost to me. The day I turned 35, I was as far from that as I’ve ever been, over 160 pounds with a big gut and having spent most of the last two years sitting, either at poker tables of judging debate, not even walking to work anymore. I know that I wasn’t actually really overweight the way that I felt, but these things happen when we’re not paying attention to them and suddenly one wakes up in middle age. I’d gone through enough of a metabolism shift and readjustment at 27 to know that I don’t want that to be me. I like my naturally thin build. I like being physically active all the time. It’s easier to be happy, or okay with life, when one is playing basketball or doing yoga or even just walking regularly. And having a goal of getting back to the R2R2R trip by 2020 is focusing for that.

So it took a week where Alex was out of town (home for Spring Break) to separate me sufficiently from inertia to get down to Wild Lotus Yoga six blocks from my house and start practicing again. This was literally four and a half days ago and I’ve been three times already and I already feel like I’ve been back on the horse for months. The centeredness, the awareness, the peace, the burgeoning strength. I can’t recommend it enough. And I look like such a walking stereotype with my bright teal mat and my ponytail and my skinny arms, but sometimes tropes exist for good reason. Of course a regular yoga practice is my natural home. Its spiritual roots, its basis in India, its focus on peace and awareness and living in the moment. Yeah. It’s kind of where I always should have been.

Maybe it’s not yoga for you, though you really should try it if any of this sounds intriguing. But so much of our lives gets hijacked by obligations and time-wasters. Pretty much all of the big inventions of the last half-century – TV shows, the Internet, cell phones – bring this enormous dump of time that is the nourishing equivalent of greasy potato chips. (Yes, I’m conveying this critique to you through the Internet.) But getting onto the yoga mat or out on the trail reminds us of our purposeful animal roots. We are creatures in this lifetime, we are meant to go and do and be. Huddling in front of screens serves its purpose and has a value, if only to connect with other people. But sometimes we also must connect with the Earth itself. If only to remind ourselves that it, like us, is precious, and not merely an obstacle to getting to where we want to be.



Senior Retreat and the Infinite Sadness

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Long Tunnel, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: , , , ,

The memorable lake in the middle of the Conference Center in Glorieta, NM.  I am haunted by this lake.

The memorable lake in the middle of the Conference Center in Glorieta, NM. I am haunted by this lake.

My image of God isn’t really an image at all. I think we’re all to an extent overly influenced by religious, Biblical, and societal depictions of the divine as a white-haired bearded father sitting on a cloud and looking vaguely ornery. No doubt Michelangelo bears some of the blame for this, but the Sistine Chapel probably was just utilizing what was popular at the time. As metaphors go, an impossibly old father who is really grumpy about you staying out too late again is probably a good depiction of the Judeo-Christian assumptions, replete with the requisite wrath to take vengeance on anyone who would mess with “His” people. It’s no wonder so many people have a falling out with their birth religion and throw the whole notion of higher powers and divinity out altogether. Who wants another voice in your head telling you to get home by curfew?

It’s hard for me to really envision God as anything physical. Being bound by the corporeal just doesn’t seem very godlike, frankly, though I guess the early scholars got really caught up in that “in His own image” business. It’s hard for us to relate to something aphysical, certainly, so I guess believing that a divine being gets emotional and stomps (H)is feet just like we do would make us feel more comfortable beseeching this entity. But there’s nothing I can picture about a viable or worthwhile God that would exist physically… it’s far too limiting and strange. This probably has something to do with the fact that I don’t, deep down, believe anything exists physically. I believe we are living in a grand metaphor. That these physical lives are for those of us (hey, that’s everybody here!) too unsophisticated to understand aphysical realities, so we need it all spelled out for us in bodies and colors and sounds.

This is not to say that I see God as unemotional. Indeed, there is one emotion that I think God resonates with, resounds within, and for many practical purposes is. The problem of evil has never bothered me because the only order to the universe that makes sense to me is one wherein sentient beings are given absolute free will (within, I suppose, certain rule-based limitations). We are suffering because we make each other suffer and the goal is to figure out how we can all get along and sort things such that suffering is minimized (though I don’t think that’s actually the ultimate goal – happiness/suffering is not the dichotomy that I think matters most, which sets me apart from I guess 95% of current philosophical people and 99% of current unphilosophical ones). The challenge of life is to make moral progress without a cheat-sheet or knowing the rules. There are a lot of clues and I would argue God is omnipresent in dropping hints of varying levels of subtlety, but at the end of the day, we have to figure it out. And this collective nature of figuring it out is, as I often say, why we’re not all born on our own planet. We need each other and a lot of what we’re supposed to learn about on Earth involves cooperation and compassion. A child born into poverty may not have the free will to get herself out of it, but we collectively have the free will to ensure no children are born into poverty, or that those who are still have choices in their life.

And this is what we squander constantly. Which is why I sense the emotion that God is perpetually consumed by is sadness. Benevolent Sorrow has long been my catchphrase for the divine, and it’s really hard for me to imagine anything else. Because God clearly cares, but is limited from intervening by the choice to offer free will. (Thumbnail argument: lack of free will spoils moral choice, making life meaningless – I can walk through this in another post, but it’s pretty straightforward.) And it’s clear that we all have the capability to spend our time the right way and make the right choices to make a much better and more moral existence for all of us. But we don’t do that, over and over and over again. Our world is still largely governed by fear, hatred, misunderstanding, and greed, all of which result in violence, ignorance (in many senses), and neglect. It always surprises me when people talk about depression as disordered thinking – I find it very odd to look at human history or the state of the planet, take it seriously, and not be depressed. And there are those of you out there who believe this is the problem with depression and think I have a disease that needs treatment, but let’s be serious. Can you really get out of your own first world bubble, consider what’s going on planetarily, and not get sad? If you can, I think you have the disorder.

So this omnibenevolent sadness is out there, coursing through the universe, constantly urging us to bend back toward a level of compassion and seeing beyond ourselves that humans are so reluctant to embrace in the known course of history so far. How could you care that much and be so limited in your ability to help and not be sad? Especially when the lessons to learn and the choices to make are so simple. Don’t beat each other about the head and torso with sticks. Care about each other, even if the other people are far away or different from you. Keep trying and changing to get better.

I am not trying to stand on some great moral high ground here. While I have made a lot of progress with the violence question since discerning its paramount importance in what we’re trying to learn here, I am constantly berating myself for shortcomings in how I use my time, money, and influence for the betterment of the species. I go to sports games and play poker and play video games and eat out when I should probably be spending all of that time and energy and money on refugees and war-torn regions. This gets used as a throwaway APDA argument all the time to justify that it’s okay to make these selfish-seeming choices, but I always relate more to the core of the actual argument – it’s probably not okay to care more about your own society and mindless happiness than these other people. But I do it anyway. And as close as I ever get to changing is to periodically feel infinitely guilty and ashamed and occasionally make half-hearted resolutions to sell all my possessions and move to an aid camp in Syria (the country has been different in the past and will be different in the future as geopolitical winds ruin one land after another).

It is this kind of sadness, this deep, soul-well kind of pit, that I fell into in the crisp fall of 1997 in Glorieta, New Mexico. Albuquerque Academy, the elite private school aspiring to New Hampshire that I attended for 8th-12th grade, holds several ritual events as rites of passage for its students, but the two most memorable are probably Philmont (a 100-hour camping trip for 9th graders at the Boy Scout ranch there) and Senior Retreat (a three?-day series of workshops, skits, and free time traditionally held at the Baptist Conference Center in Glorieta). This is right near the opening of school, I think in September, and both events are held as bonding exercises for the cohorts of 150 students in their passage of time together in the pressure-cooker that is this prep school education.

My own Senior Retreat took place as I was first confronting the demise of the first serious relationship of my life, the one with the person usually called “PLB” on this website, the one where I fell in love and was engaged to someone who was exhibiting the traits of a pathological liar for the whole year, the one where the relationship ended via a melodramatic e-mail from her father telling me to stay away when the last words I’d heard from the girl herself were “I will love you forever and we’re still getting married.” The web of lies and deceit and nonsense are not necessary to revisit in painstaking detail at this juncture, but this was the first real time I’d had to spend in close confines where she might be since she’d transferred out of all the classes we’d signed up for together on day two of school. A high school is large enough to avoid someone mostly, but a quiet mountain retreat for just your class is decidedly less so. And seeing her there, the same person I’d shared so much with, cold, unfeeling, anonymous, ignoring, and illegal to approach – it was too much.

My friends were also in this incredibly awkward position at the time. I’d been pretty bad to them much of our junior year, as people in the throes of their first serious relationship often are to friends who have been close for years. Early relationships bring this all-consuming sense of importance that shifts uses of time, usually dramatically, and I’d blown off countless invitations to hang out in favor of spending basically all of my time with my girlfriend. When she unceremoniously (and deceptively, and embarrassingly) cut me loose, I went crawling back to my friends for support, apologetically and apoplectically. They took me back with a forgiveness that was wholly undeserved, but for which I am forever grateful. But they just didn’t know how to wrestle with the depth of my despair.

This all came to a head at the Senior Retreat, where aside from one joint victory wherein we designed the winning (and ultimately unprinted, for it was deemed inappropriate) design for our senior T-shirt, I was despondent pretty much the whole time. I think I was holding up okay the first day, but by nightfall, was starting to spiral hard and fast. I remember there being skits performed by the popular crowd, skits that lampooned relationships at one juncture, and I just couldn’t take it. I couldn’t handle how carefree and young and boisterous everyone was when my world had ended. I tore out of the performance and went to stand by the lake, contemplating the depth of my misery.

Like most of my sadnesses, it didn’t just stay about me for long. If we are to picture outbursts and breakdowns of total sadness as a mineshaft opening up into brief free-fall, mine are often little chutes that then connect with the very deep wells of the larger sadness of the universe quite quickly. Feeling sorry for oneself only get so far when one quickly realizes how much other people are suffering in less recoverable ways, and especially how little one’s own self is doing to prevent and fix that reality. And then it’s just free-fall, every little injustice and wrong and rejection and failure in one’s own life and all Existence competing for top billing. When I get this sad, I cry inconsolably, and when I do that, I often end up hyperventilating, and it usually takes losing most of the feeling in my face to get me to a state where I can stop descending, can stabilize, can be numb enough to consider sleep.

For some reason, that first night in Glorieta, I couldn’t hit that stage. I kept cycling back from hyperventilation to sobbing, on loop. And when I was too drained and exhausted to manifest more tears, it was just despondent walking through the dark dark trees and rims of the lake, periodically bumping revelers who just sort of glared, sometimes trailed by my friends who were so so worried.

I have vague clear glimpses of moments of that night, including a tragicomic scene wherein three of my friends practically physically pushed my friend (and first girlfriend, who I’d callously dumped to date PLB) Alisha to talk to me and she tersely told me she had no idea why they thought she could help. I’m sure my group of friends, all male, thought a female influence would be able to get through in some way, or maybe it was her long-standing interest in psychology, but her mood at the moment was not amused and she confronted me with a bootstrappy kind of tough love that I would have to dig myself out of this if I wanted to. I was fine with that. I had no interest in digging, much less ascending. I was going all the way down that night.

I learned later that shortly before this happened, my friends had actually rallied a small search party for me since I had been missing since the skits and been seen crying by somebody and couldn’t be found and curfew was coming. I don’t remember being missing, but their worry was certainly justified, because a lot of my interest in the lake that night was one of longing, of manifesting my emotional reality physically, of sinking and going numb and never having to feel again.

I tapped into this feeling a little bit last night, some small combination of sad songs and late nights and feelings of moral inadequacy. There was no clear and present catalyst, really, unless one counts the sense of waste and loss and silliness that accompanies losing a poker tournament. I am not alone right now, though the feelings of rejection and the insanity of lost love are never far from my heart. But the world is still hurting and God is still sad and I can relate. And sometimes that’s all it takes.

I have never really talked much to anyone about Senior Retreat. I had a morning after the night that felt much the same – I think I woke up at four or five in the morning in the pre-dawn to go stand at that lake again and listen to sad music and try to will myself to break my promise to myself from seven years earlier and not survive. But I never got more than a toe in the water and here I am today. Maybe because I think that it would just be one more waste, one more thing for God and others to be sad about.

Harnessing the power of that sadness, of that feeling of infinite failure and disappointment, without it crushing you completely, it’s a dangerous game. It’s one I’m not even close to mastering, any more than I can capture the first rush of blood to the brain that precedes a migraine and live in the improved thinking before the pain sets in and nullifies all that progress. It’s feelings like that which compelled the holy folks of past generations to renounce the world and devote themselves to service or contemplation. I keep telling myself I can do more good as a member of the conventional world and use my gifts to influence others here instead. But I never know for sure. It’s so easy for it to sound and feel like an excuse, especially when there are sports games and poker tournaments and other hedonistic pursuits.

I’m sorry. I’m so so sorry.


15 Years and a Day

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Keepin' it Cryptic, Marching to New Orleans, Metablogging, The Long Tunnel, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , , , , , ,

Me in New York City, early 2000 (left).  Me in New Orleans, early 2015 (right).  Forgive the tiny image size - I don't have a better or bigger version of the one on the left just yet.  I do, however, still have and wear that jacket.

Me in New York City, early 2000 (left). Me in New Orleans, early 2015 (right). Forgive the tiny image size – I don’t have a better or bigger version of the one on the left just yet. I do, however, still have and wear that jacket.

It is perhaps fitting that I went with Introspection-style dash-bullet-points to summarize my experience in yesterday’s post. After all, yesterday was the 15th anniversary of my opening salvo into blogging, the first post of Introspection. Like so many things done the first time, it wasn’t very good.

It did, however, have a pretty prophetic reference in it, that a dream had entailed details of the film “Magnolia”. Not because I would necessarily post so much about dreams in the coming decade and a half (though there’d be some of that), but because that line from that movie has become such a watchword for this blog. It’s even one of the categories for this post since I am, after all, talking about the year 2000. (Cue Conan O’Brien.) Of course, I butchered the line to make it more grammatically correct and perhaps less zingy. I am told, though I haven’t watched the film in a long time, that it’s “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” Somehow when I first posted in this category in October 2007 (it was my first StoreyTelling post!), I remembered it as “We may be done with the past, but the past isn’t done with us.” Same sentiment, really.

Given my penchant for references, anniversaries, looking at life through a novelistic lens, and seeing time as geography, it is perhaps almost unbelievable, then, that I would launch a brand-new blog on 13 March 2015, exactly 15 years to the day after my personal world turned a bit forever with the opening of public displays of introspection. And that I didn’t even quite realize that was happening for the first few days it was scheduled.

I recently started working at Communities In Schools of Greater New Orleans. It is not my intent to blog a lot about this position or what happens therein – I’m the Director of Development, which is a reasonably sensitive job, and there’s just not a lot of call to talk about my work life in this context given the nature of that work. However, I am super-excited about bringing you details of what that organization is doing to improve other people’s lives, which is the function of our new blog. Launched yesterday. 13 March. The anniversary. I’m sure.

It says something for the separation of work life and personal life that it didn’t immediately occur to me when my boss suggested we launch this Friday that it would be such a significant personal date. Because it’s one of those days, like July 24th (once good, now good and ruined) or July 13th (ibid.) or April 8th (still not sure the roots of this one, but it’s always significant) or June 6th (bad things, man, although also Felix now) that carries weight despite not being a birthday or something. I guess we could throw October 17th in there, but screw that.

Come on, I can’t reference the old blog this much and not have moments of being cryptic, can I?

Anyway, I want you to go read the blog, and like us on social media for regular updates and all that wonderful stuff. It has been a really wonderful project to work on and I’m so excited about telling the story of the organization and especially the kids we serve. Dropout prevention was never a specific passion of mine (though I long aspired to be a high school teacher), but I’ve com to realize that, in this country, it is the primary preventative measure we have to combat all the other direct ills that I care about. Dropping out of high school is the biggest predictor of whether someone ends up homeless, in jail, in poverty, overcome by addictions, you name it. Graduating from high school isn’t a guarantee to avoid those things, but the statistical significance of the benefit is overwhelming. I still care deeply about food justice and poverty alleviation and I believe that this organization is actually doing incredible work on those issues via the best preventative measure we have.

Plus, there will be pictures of kids. Who doesn’t love pictures of kids?

These meta posts observing how long I’ve been blogging publicly and writing posts, usually (in this format) in fits and starts with long droughts and long sustained periods, usually bring up some reflection on the purpose of the approach. I’m not really in a place where I’m questioning the existence of this medium or my use of it (I rarely am, since college, I guess). But it’s good to take stock of the ability to communicate here, to convey a series of thoughts and feelings to try to inspire change. While all writing I have ever done has the goal of changing how people see things toward the ultimate goal of improving our lot in life (as a species, morally), it becomes more clear and overt by starting a blog for an organization with the purpose of communicating the mission and garnering support for it. I don’t see it as that fundamentally different from what I’m trying to do here, honestly, though this also includes a lot of emotional hand-wringing and the intent of simply chronicling a life with all its ups, downs, mistakes, and triumphs.

I’m even more reflective than normal after engaging in earnest as a regular contributor to Clarion Content, Aaron Mandel’s online curation of Durham, North Carolina and leftist politics. He’s long been a gracious supporter of my work and syndicated Duck and Cover for a long stretch when I still was keeping that project up (it may come back someday, don’t give up hope). He’s invited me to be a regular contributor and there’s been a commensurate spike in dedication to blogging here ever since, especially since he’s mostly running cross-posts of the more politically minded content that runs here on StoreyTelling. The index of my new regular feature will be here and I’ll make sure to share my unique posts that end up there on the BP’s social media.

It’s tempting to close these kinds of pieces with a look into the murky fog of the future, something even more inviting in the late winter of New Orleans, when mist is ubiquitous and the spirits seem to gather wispily corporeal presence. But I’m on a crusade against future-mindedness, at least in a long-term personal context. We can set goals for ourselves, like graduating high school or returning to the Grand Canyon to go rim-to-rim-to-rim. But obsessing about where we’ll be in one, two, five, ten years is usually fruitless fretting. It leads to ignoring the moment in front of you, the day you could be enjoying more thoroughly if you weren’t wishing it away. Each day can be long and full and fulfilling, or at least intriguing, if one foreshortens future thinking. I’ve really tried to apply this logic to 2015, not trying to build a grand vision for the year (other, perhaps, than returning to work and the new exciting opportunity at CIS) but to take each day, each moment, as the quiet little opportunity it can be.

I may not be able to forgive people, I may not be able to let go of the past. But daily mindfulness is a healthy target I can try to achieve, for now. And that’s all right for me today. Because today is the only day I need to be all right, right now.


Revisionist History

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Call and Response, Know When to Fold 'Em, Metablogging, Primary Sources, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Think of the past as a mirror...

Think of the past as a mirror…

From time to time during the seven years of this blog’s existence, I’ve added new categories for indexing the various kinds of posts one sees on this page. I’ve long eschewed the notion of a specialized blogging pursuit, such as focusing only on the Mariners or on my statistical analyses of the flaws of the stock market or on periodic stints of writing a weekdaily webcomic. It’s likely that choosing any one of these as a singular path would yield greater readership, or at least more strangers reading since they could come to that page specifically for one pursuit or interest. Instead, StoreyTelling ends up being about all of these things and a lot more and really only offers the category/tag clicks as a way of sorting out the kind of content a given reader might be most interested in.

The problem with that, of course, is that the nature of my interests and their specificity can change over time and these categories can then fail to be fully representative of their content. I think the best example of this phenomenon is in the Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading category, which has come to include everything from actual voting in American political campaigns to any major story covered by the news to individual myopia to the plight of others to any matter of international concern. This broad brush isn’t all that surprising given that I probably think every one of my posts is political in some way (small-p political) and I have been known to say that all art is political. What exactly politics means is contextual and thus that category is my third most-used, behind Duck and Cover (740 posts, almost all of which are just blog-displays of the comic) and A Day in the Life (621 posts, as my default for just about any written post). But it also means that the category starts to lose its meaning when it discusses such a wide range of topics.

The solution to this would seem to be to subdivide the categories, to try to divide international relations from American politics from commentaries on more tangentially political issues. I guess this is why categories and tags exist as separate entities, though I’ve only used them interchangeably herein. The problem is that any effort to recategorize past posts interferes with one of the cardinal rules of this whole project for me: namely, to not revise or edit past posts. Now, it’s certainly debatable to what extent adding or dropping or specifying categories/tags is really changing the context of a post, and it’s a question I struggle with. Categories like Strangers on a Train or It’s the Stupid Economy were created after a few posts in those directions made it clear that such a unique category was necessary, or at least a good idea. But then the question immediately arises of whether to back-categorize other posts that fall into the genre but predate the actual creation of that category. Does this somehow interfere with the nature of this blog as a time capsule of the person I was in the past, of my perspective, or the authenticity of those observations? Or does it just make it easier for people to find posts they might like?

I think, as is so often the case, the purposes of this blog for myself and for others wind up at a bit of cross-purposes. If this blog were primarily/only for readers, it would likely be trivial to just go back and try to recategorize. Granted that scouring 1,384 posts (though half are just D&Cs, so maybe we can exclude those) for possible re-examination of content through the lens of later-created categories is a big project. But it might be fun to go through everything and re-examine, as I periodically attempt to do anyway. This, after all, gives me the opportunity to use this blog as one of the tools that I prefer it to be, as an educator about where I’ve been, where I’m going, and hopefully how I can screw things up less in the future. But once I’ve altered those categories, I’m saying something just a little bit different from what I said at the time. And then it seems an easy addition to fix typos. And then it’s all too easy to start trying to justify taking out that particularly immature statement, or that awkward phrase, and soon we’ve lost the document’s integrity altogether.

Now, look, I know the slippery slope is a logical fallacy. That said, I also know that almost every road to evil or mistakes is paved in sequential tiny jumps that each make sense in the micro-view and end up becoming a horrible leap downward in the macro-view. I’ve periodically discussed this under the ungainly appellation of the A to B, B to C, C to D Problem. No one would ever go from A to D directly and to consider D from the vantage of A would be absurd. But A to B is just enough of a little compromise/sacrifice/change/jump. And then from the new vantage of B, once adjusted, C doesn’t look nearly so far away as it did before – it’s just as far as A! And so on.

I honestly think it’s hard to explain anything we find regrettable in human history that was caused by sentient thought that doesn’t conform to some version of this progression. This is part of why I don’t really believe that there are evil people. There are a whole bunch of fallible, possibly selfish, but largely well-intentioned people who get caught on these roads and make little hops all the way to really disastrous decisions.

In any case, I care a lot about the integrity of this body of work, combined with the previous blog and even the Waltham Weeklies and other saved documents before that. Because as long as I leave them untouched, they aren’t subject to the kind of revisionist history that our memory naturally is. I have a pretty darn good memory as these things go, with multiple distinct and powerful memories from before my fourth birthday, which I’m told is relatively rare.* But as debates like those sparked in my family about whether I saw E.T. or Tron first prove, my memory is imperfect, or my parent’s memories are. I firmly remember a certain order of events and my parents recall another. And these memories are important for us in shaping our view of the past on which we base our notion of both the present and the future. But there is a truth of the matter. The memory is serving a different purpose than the absolute truth about what happened. And I have a bit of a bias toward the truth as I think it’s a little more stable and informative.

That said, there’s really no way to make memories conform wholly to the truth, or at least not to be damaged by the end results. Obvious example: my marriage. How I felt about my marriage before Emily cheated on me and left me is wholly different than how I felt about it afterwards. But the fact of the experience at the time remains unchanged. In memory, there is no possible way to recall a particular anniversary dinner or a shared moment or some sacrifice she made for me outside of the context of her ultimate betrayal. There is no possible way for me to just envision that pure memory without the tarnish that time and subsequent events put on it. And yet, the actual event was the pure version, without the eventual damage of future events. As a temporal extant being who must constantly remember the past through the new lens of the ever-changing present, that event is fundamentally lost to me, its context forever altered. But with this blog, I can at least read my actual reporting on the event from the precise time it happened and get the most accurate possible rendition of how I truly felt about it at the time, unspoiled by the knowledge of the future.

I think, for what it’s worth, this is what makes betrayal, especially romantic betrayal, so fundamentally devastating. Because it takes all your good memories, all the little buoys of confidence and hope that get us through the tough days, and spoils them. No matter what the actual content of their validity was at the time, they are not only lost, but actively ruined, turned against you to now be little taunts of what you didn’t have. Even if you, in a sense did have them, at the time. This is why I was able to seriously say things like maybe it would have been better had I died in the October 2009 car accident (scroll down to the italicized postscript in that post) after Emily left me – because then I would have died with all those good times intact and unspoiled in perpetuity. As the Smiths put it, “To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.” This is not just about the joy of a particular moment; it is about the knowledge that this moment will never be so great in the long-term future as it feels right now. The course of events will destroy it.

Now, there is no illusion that this blog, merely by existing here as unaltered testament to the daily updates of a temporally changing being, can actually capture and preserve that magic wholly in a way that is meaningfully useful to combat the damage of, say, betrayal or loss. Because even in reading about the past, no matter how pure or unadulterated the past’s testimony is, the overly introspective ruminative person (that’s me!) will find clues that were never there.

Prime, recent example: in looking for a particular nugget of past testimony in my blog sometime last week, I started reading various posts from the past, as I often do. It’s like getting to hang out with my past self, a close but sometimes annoying friend. And then I discovered, to my absolute horror, that my post about my plans for the summer of 2010 was entitled, by my own choosing, April Come She Will. In the context of my choice at the time, it was innocuous. The post was dated 6 April and I talked about the inevitability of April and how the month often troubles me. But in the context of how that summer unfolded, well, here are the lyrics to the Simon & Garfunkel song which shares a title with that post:

April, come she will
when streams are ripe and swelled with rain
May, she will stay
resting in my arms again
June, she’ll change her tune
in restless walks, she’ll prowl the night
July, she will fly
and give no warning to her flight
August, die she must
the autumn winds blow chilly and cold
September, I remember
a love once new has now grown old

Now, I don’t need to go through a full blow-by-blow of the events of those months in 2010 to demonstrate just how chilling this discovery was to me. After all, you can go read the archives of those months on this page! Isn’t that the whole point? Suffice it to say that this could be a chronicle of the critical months that ended my marriage, down to July being the time of betrayal after an unhappy and searching June for Emily in Liberia, yielding to her cruel indifference in August and everything being over in September. I mean, this could’ve been a poem I wrote about the experience. And I know that this is about a trivial love affair that starts in that same April and is over by summer’s end and I know that I’ve been listening to this song since I was thirteen, but this is exactly the kind of experience that prompted me to spend a fevered day in senior year running around telling all of my friends that we have the key but we just don’t know how to use it. And when they asked me what the hell I was talking about, I just said, in hushed reverent and slightly goggle-eyed tones, that it was “the key“.

What I was talking about, then, was that PLB had told me a story in the midst of our relationship about her father’s first marriage and how his first wife had gone crazy on their wedding night and had a nervous breakdown and couldn’t handle the commitment or the situation and basically disappeared and that it broke her father’s heart and made him kind of a sad, distant person. We were doing a close reading of either Conrad or Kafka in AP English and something in the work triggered the memory of this story and I came to see it as a parable, a warning she was giving me, that had about as much truth-content as her average statement. (Full disclosure: I have no idea whatsoever if this story was entirely true, entirely made up, or some mixture.) At that moment, I felt that this was the one glaring clue she had given me that she was in over her head, was crazy, and that our relationship was doomed.

Now, talk about your revisionist history! It’s probably just as nuts to believe that this was her deliberate warning as it is to believe that I knew the next six months of my life would mirror a Simon & Garfunkel song on 6 April 2010. But doggone it, this stuff gives me the shivers. You can call it irrational pattern-seeking if you want, you can call it confirmation bias, you can call it the deliberate and willful search for something that isn’t there. But I will never be able to see these things without the feeling that there is a deeper code to be cracked in all of this, that things are more embedded that we can imagine. Or, to quote the Doctor Who episode I saw last night:

“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff.”
-The Doctor, Doctor Who, Season 3 of the new reboot, “Blink” episode

How else to explain that I actively try to send my past self psychic messages about the outcome of certain hands at the poker table to be received by my previous self? Or that I sometimes feel I receive those messages? I rarely trust these messages, especially when they are about subpar hands, but the messages of certain strong feelings have a scarily remarkable track-record of being right. And this practice definitely predates poker and probably goes back to a deeply embedded series of beliefs that most people would consider “magical thinking” to be polite and “crazy” to be realistic. And, mind you, no one has been less successfully psychic than me. I still dated PLB, still married Emily, still hired Baia. No wonder I’m obsessed with trying to beat the future.

No, this isn’t all just about having some perfect script of the past to serve as a blueprint for some mosaic of the future, though that’s not none of it either. But the preservation of the perfections, oddities, insights, and tribulations of the unadorned past still feels like the single most meaningful aspect of the project of blogging. And why it will probably be just a little bit harder for you to navigate to the type of content you personally most want to see. As though I didn’t make it hard enough by calling a category that most would label simply Music as “All the Poets Became Rock Stars”. Or by choosing, it would appear, nine categories for this post. Maybe, future self, I just want you to read it. (But not “Read it and Weep”. That’s the Books category.)

*Which reminds me, as a total sidenote, that it just occurred to me how crazy it is that I remember seeing both E.T. and Tron in theaters at a little younger than 2.5 years old. These may even predate my near-drowning experience in swim class that I have always classified as my earliest memory. I’m sure my Dad can weigh in, especially after he rebutted my Ms. Pac Man-post‘s discussion of those two movies with the following:

“The first point about Tron was that it was a DISNEY movie. I grew up loving the Walt Disney movies, the color (not black & white), the animation (though not all were animated). My first drive-in movie (in Carson City) was to see a re-release of Dumbo. I saw Bambi (alone in a matinee) on a big screen one block away from the White House in 1957 in Washington. I loved 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (in Carson), Another film at the drive-in was Old Yeller, about when I got my dog “Jamie”. Pinnochio and Cinderella were seen several times, my mother loved Fantasia, so I endured that movie (once), but I found the Bald Mountain sequence very scary (like the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz).

The 70’s and early 80’s were a bad time for movies. Bigger theaters were broken up to create small rooms with small screens (for small audiences). Then they started building “multi-screen” places (not really real theaters), like where ET was shown, out on south Mooney (in Visalia). I generally hated the “small room” mall type movie experience. I loved (best) the movie “Palaces”, like the Grand Lake in Oakland, or the older (depression, WPA mural, type theaters, like the Kimo in Albuquerque and the old original movie house in downtown Visalia. [Note: In many cities in the US West the only place the WPA Arts Project was visible was in the murals painted on the walls (for free) by WPA artists. Often, this WPA art was both the biggest art (and the best) anywhere in town. In time, most WPA movie murals were painted over. Now, most WPA era movie theaters are torn down, converted, or closed. There seem to be NO articles about the movie murals on the web, just modern day full wall posters that date (in concept) from the WPA Art period that still was very alive in the 1950’s.]

Anyway, Mom and I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, in San Jose (actually in a theater in Sunnyvale or Mountain View) the first time you were “babysat” while living in San Jose. Raiders (July 1981) was not as scary as Star Wars (Darth Vader), but still had a few scary (for children) scenes. I can’t recall any other movie that your mother and I saw until I took you to Tron (Mom, then as now, was not interested and didn’t go). I worked for cable (afternoons, evenings and nights). We bought the RCA discs, mostly Disney movies (Mary Poppins, Dumbo) and Seseme Street and Muppets. Had the (new) Disney Channel on TV.

So, Tron was a DISNEY MOVIE, playing at an old WPA real theater downtown, that had a balcony (just to be safe).

I re-saw Fantasia in an old WPA theater in Berkeley (California Theater, about 1971, before it was broken up), because “everyone else” in the group wanted to see it. It was crowded, so we ended up in the balcony seating. The Night on Bald Mountain scene wasn’t nearly as scary sitting ABOVE Bald Mountain.

We sat in the balcony, in Visalia (at the Visalia Fox Theater), when we went and saw Tron. It was the furthest left re-screen configuration, based on the left side entrance to the balcony seating. The theater was old and fairly shabby then, not impressive. I don’t think I ever went back. Also, for a “cherished” Disney film experience I found Tron very boring and I was very worried you didn’t (wouldn’t) like it, and might not ever want to go to another “real movie” again. I guess I was wrong.

Anyway, Mom had heard good things about ET from other parents. She thought it might be a better movie “for kids”, maybe you, more exciting, better plot. I was more concerned about the “alien” (sci-fi), Star Wars angle. I almost said, after the failure of Tron, “let’s not go.” But “Disney had failed me,” so why not try something new, out in a new theater on Mooney. On Mooney, we sat on the floor (floor level seating), the theater was crowded, unlike an almost empty Tron theater experience. The whole thing WAS scary, even for me.”

-E-Mail from Donald Clayton, 8 December 2014

I love my Dad. You can see I come by this obsession with the past, memory, and context pretty honestly.


Decayed Decade

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Metablogging, Telling Stories, The Long Tunnel, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , , , , , ,

I almost called this post “The Full View of History”. But of course ten years is hardly a full view.

A little over a decade ago, I wrote this on my blog at the time:

“Yesterday, Em & I were talking about when I got new tires for the Kia & figured it had been roughly 6-8 months ago. I guess I could’ve looked at the receipt, but instead I Googled my own site for my discussion of it at the time… & discovered it was over 17 months ago, in January 2003. Though Sears, who wants to sell me tires, says my old ones are still good for another couple months (that sentence was for you, Dad). Point is that this page, among its many other virtues, helps keep me in check & orders my perception of the strange beast that is time. So much of me wishes that I had kept something like this my whole life, even though I was once so embarrassed by entries in a diary I kept (in 2nd grade, in DC) that I covertly snuck it into a trash can & it’s now rotting in an Oregon landfill. The regret I feel for that action fuels every word I write on this site. Everyone’s life is hopelessly embarrassing, if one chooses to think of oneself as a perfect front. If one realizes that humans are a study in The Attempt, & that every fulfillment is an astounding victory, it gets a lot easier to handle the apparent loss of privacy that throwing one’s doors open to the world entails. I think my job has helped me better understand how flawed we all are & how every struggle is a worthy one as well. Patience is everything. Thanks for the patience to meander through this ramble with me. It’s all strung together in my mind, & the wave of its relief is sufficient to mitigate anything I wish I hadn’t written.”
-21 June 2004

I don’t bring this up to wallow, as I often have on this blog, about the marriage that was taken from me. Though if I were going to, it would be interesting to note that the justification for same is cooked right into that same post. Rather, I bring it up to explore the issue of blogging itself as I often do, and how having a life introspectively examined over so many years comes back to reflect upon and haunt that life itself.

I ran across this post today while looking for evidence that I was at the Counting Crows show in Saratoga, California on 29 June 2004. That seemed like about the right time and area for Fish’s and my summer concert in wine country that we attended. I was curious about this show in particular because Counting Crows has the full show in their archive and it would be kind of cool to have a recording of a show that one went to. Of course, we didn’t go to the show then. We went to the one 5 days later at Konocti Harbor. Which is a venue whose name I’ve remembered for the same reason most people who meet me once remember my name (it’s distinctive), but I was simultaneously impressed that I got within a week of the actual show and annoyed that I still hadn’t remembered it perfectly. (For what it’s worth, Saratoga isn’t in wine country despite the venue being the Mountain Winery. It’s apparently a suburb of San Jose.)

I have a tendency to pride myself on my memory, but I also have the humility to recognize that a lot of it is aided and abetted by deliberately keeping careful notes and records on living since the 21st century began. Notes made no less useful by their publicity, nor by the ability to quickly search through them for names, dates, and times. Of course, after finding the desired information that I was not, in fact, in Saratoga on the 29th of June (I had to work that day), I got lost for a few months in the summer of 2004, more than ten years ago, the world of the Big Blue House during a summer I worked at Seneca and apparently about two-thirds of my friends came to visit and stay at one point or another. It was a summer of kickball, of movies at the Grand Lake (from which we were easy walking distance), of holding the quiet room door and writing incident reports at work, of Emily slaving away torturedly at PIRG, of concerts and video games and Pandora the cat.

There are a lot of things in life that make one feel like a different person than the person they were in the past. I think the prevalence of movies, TV shows, audio programs, and just stories all contribute to a dissociative feeling that we carry about life. It’s so much easier to process life as something that happened to someone else, someone perhaps that one can empathize with very deeply, but someone who one read about or watched on the screen rather than occupied the bones and brain of every day. It’s not just how much dumber about the intervening years Past Self was than Present Self, though that doesn’t help any. It’s the fade of time, the draining of the emotional significance of the daily hopes and fears. This is a natural process and one to be grateful for as it’s pretty much the only reason we can even think about starting to heal from trauma. But it’s also something like what I’d imagine an objective view of life will someday look like, maybe just after death, when we perhaps get to view the video tape of our life without feeling so robustly biased toward the person in the first-person perspective.

But I was perhaps most surprised to realize in this little journey through that summer how much of my narrative about that period of time, the narrative I carry with me today, was almost verbatim in the text of that series of blog pages. I was fully aware, for example, how much kickball was a seemingly necessary outlet for a competitive spirit left suddenly useless after the sudden end of 9 years of debate and even longer playing pickup basketball and other sports. I remembered the real joy of a “mandatory fun” day for Seneca staff that I was dreading and turned out to be incredible fun, just what I needed at a time when my energy for that job was seriously flagging. I could recognize all the dramatic peaks and valleys of that job, a job that I was truly never great at for having picked something diametric to my comfort zone. As dissociated and distinct as I felt from some of the precise experiences for the passage of time, I could more deeply see myself and my reflections on the time right there in plain white-on-green text. Which I recognized not just as the narrative of my life, but as my life itself.

Now there’s clearly a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem here. Does the text look like the memory because it accurately captured it? Or did it in fact help form the memory by pasting the narrative onto the events? In other words, am I who I remember myself being because it’s accurate or because I codified those memories in their immediate formation?

I’ve listened to most of the This American Life shows over the course of this last decade, working my way slowly back and skipping only a handful of subjects that I find uninteresting (though years of listening to Terry Gross interviews should tell me not to skip any shows, since those I think I won’t like may end up being my favorites). So I’m in 2003 right now and just listened yesterday to this act, in episode 243, wherein a woman resolves to scrapbook every day of her young daughter’s life. There was so much of myself I could recognize in her passionate commitment to the cause, but the breaking-point crisis is reached when she realizes that she is ignoring her daughter’s desire to play with her or be read to by her in order to complete the scrapbook entry for that day. She doesn’t miss the irony and soon we hear her husband saying how he wishes she would just live in the moment. And herein I could certainly recognize the hindrance I felt in the daily obligation that ultimately convinced me to scrap (pun intended) Introspection back in 2007, in favor of this longer and, generally, less obsessive format.

It’s a dilemma I’ve seen echoed in a lot of articles people are writing these days about parenting. How so many parents are obsessive photographers and videographers of their children’s lives. How they themselves are almost never “in the picture”, figuratively and literally, preferring to chronicle a life in intense detail that they, increasingly, are not living. The unexamined life is not worth living, but the overly examined life is perhaps not lived at all.

This tension is doubly difficult for one who fancies themselves a story-teller, one for whom the entire point of existence itself is largely in crafting narrative, forming a script that can be of use to oneself and, more vitally, others. The cause then is right there in the effect and round and round they go. If life is fundamentally about the ability to tell its own story and build on that to stories about other lives, stories that are useful or amusing or expressive of the value and experience of life itself, then who can tell the border between life and narrative thereon at all? It is not only painted with the same brush, but the brush and the painting themselves are one.

Of course, we don’t need a blog to do this. Research done into the nature of memory increasingly finds it most reliable when there is a cogent story to go with it and terribly spotty when the events are either unremarkable or don’t conform to the wider arc. As a species, we love the narrative form and are constantly trying to wedge the facts of our lives into a story that we want to hear about ourselves. The longer the time that passes, the more we believe the story even if it contravenes what really took place. This theme appears in all kinds of media, but increasingly is playing out with unpredictable and fascinating results in the new podcast Serial which, speaking of This American Life, seems to be taking a certain swath of the country by storm.

So if we are destined to tell a story about our lives anyway as the immediacy of time fades, doesn’t it help to have documentation from time when these memories were the freshest? When they were new? If only to build slightly more accurate and probably much better stories about the past? After all, Fish’s toast at Jake’s wedding was surely all the better for actually having the text of the famous 80,000! e-mail to read. As mine was improved for the realization that Fish never wrote a top ten attributes list of what he was seeking in a partner and thus I could not compare his bride against it and had to take the speech in a different direction entirely.

I recently told Alex about how much I miss acting from my old days, something that seems truly several lifetimes ago now, singing the life of orphaned loneliness into Oliver Twist on stage at the Coaster Theatre in Cannon Beach. And we agreed that I should find some outlet for something along those lines, now that I’m done with debate coaching (for at least a while, in any case), now that competitive speaking is behind me. That maybe everything’s been geared as much for live oral storytelling as much as words on the page. And thus I’ll be telling a story on stage a week from tomorrow, at an event called (I can’t really make this up) Bring Your Own Story, sponsored by the local NPR station. I’ve long admired shows like The Moth (just how many NPR shows can I name-drop in this post anyway?), long aspired to the kind of showmanship that David Sedaris (though I hate his writing, mostly) puts into delivering stories on a stage.

Maybe it will go well. Maybe it will flop. In either case, like most of life, it will be a memory. Which itself will make a good story, someday. Ten years from now, perhaps.

Storey Clayton, at the Big Blue House, summer 2004.

Storey Clayton, at the Big Blue House, summer 2004.


Getting Mugged

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Marching to New Orleans, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

Moving is difficult. It’s not refugee-camp difficult or even traumatic-crisis difficult, which actually distinguishes it from a lot of this year, which has been harder. But it’s one of those things where the work is long and sloggy and contrasts highly with the ability to see the mission which is to go to a new place and have fun and exciting new adventures. There is nothing new-adventuresy about the process of taking all your accumulated junk and carefully nestling it in cardboard cubes so someone else can drive it across the country. It’s tiresome, exhausting, makes you question why you’re not a would-be monk with a penchant for arson, and, lately, kicks up enough dust to give me marginal respiratory problems (I’m going to the hardware store for a mask and goggles later this morning).

But, you might think, it’s worth it for the sentimental stuff. After all, who keeps all this garbage if it’s literally just a burden in every sense of the word? Surely the reason for keeping things is their reminder of past days of halcyon, times that shimmer in memory with an emotional gleam. Oh, this is when I got that. Oh, here’s the book I read when. And no doubt, there is some of that in my process. Ticket stubs from when Alex and I went to Tennessee on our first real trip together. Books from all ages. My turtle collection, though it’s been bound in the same plastic wrap in plastic tub from the last move (I know, I know). Debate cases from two different eras.

But then there are items like this:

That is a mug, gifted to me circa 2002, bearing a statement that was true at the time.

Why have I kept it? What on Earth would possess me to go through my divorce and hold on to a cheesy undergraduate keepsake that was a half-joke at the time (we had friends who would seriously gift such items in part as the Ivy status symbols they were intended to be and that sentiment was not one we shared)? Why would I go to the trouble of keeping it, separating it from the mugs for daily use, and bunging it away to serve as a little land-mine for myself a year and a half later when it would spring on me, unsuspecting, while packing for the next move?

Pondering this question quickly gets me down a certain rabbit hole. Emily’s mother and I were standing in a dusty makeshift market in Monrovia in July 2010 at the conclusion of an absurd tour scheduled for us by a wife who couldn’t be bothered to take a minute off from work for her husband flying out to try to save their marriage. And the reality of suggesting some little trinket or souvenir immediately soured on Em’s mom’s tongue when she mentioned it, but the words were already out in the air, nearly as insensitive as the daily drivel of her offspring. She attempted a retraction, some quick sort of recognition that maybe I didn’t want to remember being here. As though that were an option.

She said “Maybe you don’t want a souvenir of Liberia.”

And I said, immediately, having thought about it for three seconds, “Everything I own is a souvenir of Liberia.”

To her credit, she started crying.

But it’s true, or it was true at the time. I revisited this seminal phrase, if not the precipitating incident, in a blog post fifteen months later, one that makes my webpage the only Google hit for the full-quotes search of said sentence. And while I do not expect that uniqueness to change, the reality of the statement has certainly diminished over time. I’ve lived and accumulated and not everything is a painful reminder of being married for seven years and suddenly having that revoked as though it had never happened. I’ve developed a relationship that I’m really excited about, excited enough to be the partial basis of a move several states away that necessitates all this packing in the first place. One that will surely make some people find this post itself to be unseemly and regressive, as though people become one dimensional when past hurts they feel are only a secondary aspect of their personality and not primary. I’ve even cut off communication, for three years, one month, and seventeen days, and counting, pretending that the object of my affection and ire is dead to try to find some semblance of peace. The illusion doesn’t hold, obviously, merely from blocking Facebook and asking friends not to inform me of her whereabouts (the emotional lift of knowing when she had left Princeton was tangible when I passed those haunted exits on Route 1). But the inability to interact with her cruel indifference has been a profound relief, one that tempers me every time I consider lifting the blockade.

And it’s the contrast between that cruel indifference of a woman trying to justify an affair as the first non-mistake of her life, a liquid personality who’d found a new solid container in which to imbue all her hopes and fears and immediately adapt to (thank you Ben Brandzel) and the mug that made me keep the damn thing in the first place. The mug is solid, physical, and literally bears writing which conveys the message she so viciously denied. You are loved. This feeling is real and shared and is worth proclaiming.

The idea that this mug is necessary to understand this message is patently absurd. I have, for example, our wedding rings. A DVD of the wedding ceremony in which she professes her love and undying commitment. And these items, no doubt, are landmines too, laying in wait as I sift through the sedimentary levels of papers of the last few years. But there’s something about this mug that is so unabashed and simple that it seems to give me the solace I crave and, simultaneously, fuel the rage I still have unresolved. And its roots are no doubt in a deeper past. After all, we are always fighting the last war.

When the person I used to call PLB betrayed me (it’s honestly just easier to continue using this moniker because it’s been a reference point here and among friends for decades, though most of my issues with this person have been resolved, though I still strongly question her ongoing judgment for, in part, other reasons), the most painful part (or maybe the most painful tied with the assumption that I couldn’t forgive her for lying) was that she denied that the feelings had ever been meaningful. Despite her last spoken words to me for years being “I still love you and we’re still getting married,” she told everyone at our high school who would listen that we’d broken up long before those words were said and that our relationship had been typical casual teenage fare in which she’d never emotionally invested. In short, I was a fool and an idiot and carrying on about nothing. And over time, it was this denial of feelings that outraged me so greatly, compelled me to routinely spit on the object I saw in front of me that reminded me of what cruel denial she was engaging in (her car), made me so untrusting of people in my future when they said that they felt something real.

And in October 2010, as I was scraping along rock-bottom and had nothing to lose, I saw PLB for the first time in fourteen years and she acknowledged the wrong she’d done, fully and completely, and gave me a solace I wasn’t even fully aware I needed. The irony of this timing will never be lost on me. But she said that her feelings had been genuine, that despite all the lies and uncertainty of everything else in her life, she had meant the promises she’d made to me. We were not just young kids fooling around. We were really feeling something real.

Somehow, this stupid inane trivial mug conveys that message to me, stands in counter to a person for whom making such an admission would crush her identity and make her narrative of tilting ever-upward in progress a sham. I have never understood the people who break up or get divorced (there is a difference, and people referring to divorces as “break-ups” is now a lifetime pet-peeve) saying “we really love each other, but timing/circumstances/life just didn’t work out,” but of late I envied them because they depart with a huge satisfaction of knowing that they didn’t feel and strive and love in vain. It is the feeling of standing out alone on the rock, of being the idiot who thought a marriage meant something when the other person is so callous and thinks and professes that the marriage is just obviously tissue-paper, that makes me want to hold up this mug and say “You lie! You loved me. Even if you won’t admit it, I know.”

I know, intellectually, that the evidence that she loved me is overwhelming. And I know that all her cruelty is just a series of defense mechanisms, the armor she embraced so she wouldn’t have to face the pain she was causing. Any third-grader with a two-bit interest in psychology could tell me that and they’d be right. I know. I know. But emotionally, it doesn’t make it any less damaging. Not one bit. Which is deeply unfortunate and prompts all this exposition.

And I hasten to add that all this obsession herein about the mug and the marriage does not undercut what I’m feeling about my current relationship and the future whose theme decorates this blog and most of my thoughts that are not angst about the mundane struggles of the moving process. I know that most people prefer to have an uncomplicated emotional perspective, whatever their feelings might be about the past, that it’s easier to disregard and diminish past loves in favor of the future so that one’s feelings about that future can appear uncomplicated. But this is dishonest and untrue, and I suspect not just for me. And I had a realization fairly early in my relationship with Alex and told her the next day, namely that if Emily came back and knocked on the door and begged for another chance, I would have to turn her away and say that I had new commitments and would have to see those through first and that if they never waned, she would never get that chance. It was a big moment, huge, and Alex sincerely told me she never expected it, let alone that quickly. So let’s not take anything away from the present with all this about the past.

But the past is real. That’s the whole point. It really happened and no amount of defensive denial is going to change that.

I’m going to discard the mug. Donate it, I guess, to Goodwill or someone, let someone use it in the absence of any emotional resonance or past feeling. It can be one of those discordant images of objects in the possession of the poor, like the T-shirts worn by homeless in the Tenderloin celebrating some tech conference that utterly failed to draw its expected audience. Or that proclaim the championship of a team that never won it, though those more often head to Africa where they are less likely to spur a confused reaction. The image of an Ivy trophy sitting in a thrift shop is almost as satisfying as one of Emily sincerely apologizing and admitting that the time we spent together actually meant something to her.

Besides, I have this post now. I have the image and all the thoughts that flow from it. Maybe I should do this with every sentimental object in my life. Make it a study, an object lesson, then let it go, send it on its way of being a metaphor for something meaningful rather than a collection of solid atoms I have to hold and transport. Everything in my life could be a mandala. And while my Dad’s voice in my head notes the possibility of an EMP or a paradigm shift that destroys our electronic virtual world, the Internet is generally perceived to be pretty permanent. Or sufficiently so for this life. Maybe this is a model for how to get rid of everything, to pack light, to meet the goal of getting everything down to a backpack.

But no matter what we own, we all have a lot to carry.


Requiem for an Apartment

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

I lived there for 30 months. It was my 17th residence, if you don’t count hotels. It saw me turn my debate gig into a full-time job, the shavings of the worst year of my life into something livable, the wreckage of a marriage into another relationship with promise. That relationship started in that apartment, and always will have.

At least eight boxes entered and exited the building sealed, remaining so for the duration of the two and a half years spent there. I signed my divorce papers there, ended my last conversation with my wife there, eventually stopped hiding the knives there. It played host to a meaningful start to at least one other relationship between people not me, one whose ebbs and flows were tumultuously linked to my own perceptions on the league in which I coach. A few friends visited, some overnight, but not many and not often, usually opening the windows when they did. It was where I learned that Pandora had died, but my cat never set paw therein, despite all her stuff being there when she was put to sleep.

It was where I almost got a rabbit, thrice. As it was, I never actually had an animal in the place once, unless you count the couple of mice that were there the first few weeks I was.

The cold water faucet in the sink worked for less than 10% of my residence time. The heat was roasting in the early morning hours, but nearly off in mid to late evening. October and April tended to be freezing. The first day in fall that the heat would finally come on would be cause for dancing. The kitchen was the size of a small coffin, footprint wise. It felt like same to inhabit.

Things discarded upon departure: A bookcase with separated shelves, the plywood board for keeping art straight across the country in summer 2011, the toaster oven I’d had since 2002, Fish’s old blender whose top never worked, several coat hangers, the sparkling grape juice, Trader Joe’s cornbread mix, and microwave meals which had all been purchased at prior residences.

It had a mantle with no fireplace and I actually rotated seasonal cards there atop my turtle collection and a handful of candles. I burned cases of candles in the place, many in the bathroom in place of the appalling overhead light. There were Christmas lights of one kind or another in every room save that one, most of them with fun light covers, some of which date from 1987.

I filmed most of the abortive attempts at the Blue Pyramid Stories video series there, shortly before the giant laminated world map started falling off the wall and depriving me of my backdrop. I never was able to make the thing stick properly again and I’ve had trouble not reading that, like so much else, as a metaphor.

I rode out two hurricanes there. I watched a great deal of snowfall, departed for my first trip to the Jersey shore therefrom, and bought and installed my first air-conditioner there, which is still in my possession.

I came home late a lot. After infinitely late late-rounds of debate at practice, after all-night sessions of poker at Parx and elsewhere, after late late movies with a couple different people or just by myself. After diners and debates and bowling.

Some things will not be changing.

A lot of things will, though. There will be TV again, and better Internet hopefully, and nothing stolen from the front porch. There will be more cooking, more space, a yard in back for the nice days and the snow days. There will be laundry that doesn’t require a trip outside and wrestling with the rusty heavy storm doors and their concussive clearance. There will be less parking, admittedly. There will be less walking, though there’d been basically no walking for all of the past year, after that torrid crazy year of walking everywhere at 3 AM in drenching storms because of how little I cared.

There will be caring, hopefully.

Farewell, 119 South 1st Avenue, Apartment B. May your endlessly amended address serve someone else just as well.


It’s Hard to Move

Categories: A Day in the Life, The Long Tunnel, Tags: ,

I’ve been feeling uninspired lately. All the usual suspects are in play – I’ve been a bit sick at a low (and sometimes higher) level for the last week or two, things have been busy, I’ve hit that weird stride in time where things just seem to be dragging on. It’s about time to take stock of life as one tends to around the turnover in the proverbial odometer and I find myself troubled by the idea of taking stock, of looking at anything too big-picture or long-term. I’ve been tired and run-down, hungover from a January that was hard on everybody. I’ve been unable to find much to write about, just after being reinspired to revamp this blog and take it into the next stage.

A lot of what I’m realizing is that I’m trying to tear down the scaffolding of the transition that got me from the divorce era of my life to whatever’s next and suddenly understanding that the scaffolding is far more intractable than I’d prefer. This rears its head in the ugliest and untimeliest of places, usually around insecurities and defense mechanisms that I probably used to find childish in high schoolers and now am so helpless that I can’t help but employ them. But it’s also in realizing that I have a 55-to-70 hour work-week because I started working it at a time when I didn’t want to have a life outside of that work, when work becoming my entire life was the only way to survive. Or appreciating that the reason I can’t seem to find a big-picture view to pull back from was my self-enforced myopia of insisting that I only look at one day or week at a time to keep myself motivated to not look at a longer-term picture that had been stolen away, never to return. And it turns out that if you start walking around with blinders on for a couple years, you still can’t get much peripheral vision even when you take them off. If you get used to limping, you’ll still limp when your leg heals. If you only watch monochrome television, the whole world loses its color.

And tearing out the scaffolding is scary. The scaffolding gets comfortable. Anything meant to be temporary has a way of seeping into the landscape and becoming part of the full-time scene. Just ask any campus with “modular” housing or buildings that are among the oldest and longest-lasting structures on the premises, decades after their first condemnation. Talk to the Parisians about the Eiffel Tower. Anything that stands of its own accord and makes things more functional gets so comfortable that breaking out of it feels like destruction, no matter how healthy that breakout may be.

I’m moving out of my place at the end of March. My girlfriend and I are moving a few blocks across town to a place with more space, moving in properly after the slapdash job we did of it at summer’s end when we ran out of time to figure out alternatives. This time, there will be a kitchen and a bathroom not designed for the most single of people, there will be a place for her to work, there will be a small yard and storage for free downstairs and a more responsive person to call when things go wrong. It’s an upgrade of everything for only the most nominal increase in price and it’s clearly the right decision. And yet, the prospect of tearing up all the stuff, the boxes and books and clothes and furniture, putting it in a truck, and hauling it a half mile down the road, seems endlessly daunting. The same kind of daunting that makes me envy my minimalist friends and consider buying a yurt and moving to the Mongolian steppes with only a space heater and sleeping bag in tow.

It’s especially hard to consider moving this weekend, after I took two days off, elected not to return to Princeton for so many reasons, and instead tried skiing for the first time ever. This may not sound like a ton for an average almost-33-year-old to embark on, until you recall that I never learned to swim or ride a bike. The first after traumatic first encounters with attempted swimming and the second after careful reasoned weighing of the fall-to-benefit ratio (the prospects were poor at best). So getting on the mountainside in a pair of double-sized clown shoes and hoping to slide effectively was a pretty big challenge and significant props must be assigned to my girlfriend for convincing me to do this with relatively minimum fuss.

It was fun.

There was falling, have no fear. About four falls in the lesson, in which attempting to stop after 10 feet usually yielded success at 25 feet and a ridiculously exertive walk back up the hill, followed by roughly twenty-five more falls in several hours of bunny-sloping. But it was fun. The falls didn’t hurt, except for a couple where I banged a knee into a ski, and by the middle of the evening I’d sufficiently mastered the bunny slope to the point where I could almost always get down cleanly, often turning a lot and avoiding the foundered snowboarding kids dotting the hillside. I felt exhilarated, almost Olympic by the end of the exercise, which made the following 48 hours of excruciating soreness almost more satisfying in the remembrance of whooshing down the hill. I was grumpy that there was no middle-ground hill between the bunny slope and something my girlfriend (a three-time skiier) found to be death-defyingly stressful, so I was unable to take the next step in my training, but I also concluded that periodic trips to the bunny slope alone may be plenty exciting and wintry for future forays.

It’s been a while since I’ve wanted to move since, though. In almost any sense of the word. The muscles rebel, the mind flails, and the idea of picking oneself up and putting oneself on a course toward the future seems like commensurate effort to creating the sun from scratch.

Hung out with Ariel and Michael today, knocking on the door of fifteen years of friendship with the former, which is getting well on toward half my existence on the planet. Such milestones were easier to contemplate a few years ago, they didn’t imply other milestones erased or halted, others for which the idea of counting up too high now seems debilitating or just impossible by sheer force of will. Piling up numbers is the game of the successful, the upward-trajectory people, the Algers still proffering the cancerous myth of eternal growth and prosperity. And my life is much, much better than it was when I wanted to stop counting, when the odometer had to be blacked out, when all the scaffolding and silly spiked walls went up. But tearing the tape of the odometer is as hard as the rest of it, and I’m in no mood to relearn some of this math. Not yet.

Last week, I spent some of my limited free time taking in my Prius to the dealer to try to fix a problem with the gas gauge. About three weeks before, it had started displaying that the tank was empty when it still had a quarter-tank left. It would only take enough gas to fill three-quarters of the tank, return to full, and then almost immediately start reading a quarter-tank less than it actually had.

The problem persisted for tank after tank, even when I let it go for a hundred miles flashing empty without consequence as it burned the remains of the invisible gas.

The dealer charged me $70 to do nothing and tell me that it was only supposed to be an estimate and that everything looked fine to them, even though the reading was clearly inaccurate and was reflecting gas mileage 25% worse than normal, strangely equivalent to the amount of gas missing from each apparent tank. They told me they’d recalibrated the gauge, but it still displayed just as it had for the weeks prior, a quarter-tank low.

I couldn’t possibly invent a better metaphor if I wanted to. And this is just real life, happening all around us.


Crossing the Bridge

Categories: A Day in the Life, Blue Pyramid News, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Metablogging, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,

The above image has graced the top of this page for well over a year. It’s naively titled the StoreyTelling Fall 2011 Background, but I just replaced it on one of the last days of January 2013. That’s one long fall, especially when you consider that it went up in August after the conclusion of my cross-country trip over the summer.

I’d taken the picture on the George Washington Bridge, bleary-eyed, tearful, to remind myself that I wasn’t stopping on that bridge right then. That I was driving past the bridge even though I really, really didn’t want to. Even though doing so felt like the culmination of generations of effort at that very moment. It wasn’t safe to take that picture while driving, but it was a whole lot safer than what I wasn’t doing.

Not long after the picture was taken and went up on this page, life started to get better. It had been getting better the whole time, slowly, but with the advent of my relationship, the rate of progress started to speed up. I also lost a lot of momentum and interest in blogging and this page. The reasons were myriad and complicated. It was hard to talk about my relationship here. It was hard to feel like cutting off communication with Emily was meaningful when she could and probably would read this page. Even though most of what I was trying to prevent was the influence of her attitude and even existence on me, the awareness that there was still a one-way street was weird and disheartening. Not enough to abandon the project or the original principles that led to its creation, but to dial it way back.

I also just kind of ran out of gas for Duck & Cover, the product of a busy schedule, sleeping more, and the increasing irrelevance of politics. And D&C has often been a lot of the juice that keeps this page flowing and going and worth checking daily. And this was all part of a larger context of the falling off of a lot of new content at the Blue Pyramid writ large, in the mix of the total creative collapse that came from the wake of my divorce. Put simply, once I could no longer make even the most basic aspects of my life function, the entire direction of my identity work in the most rudimentary way, the idea of me telling anyone anything, of sending any messages or creating any perspectives, seemed flatly ludicrous. This was something that was immediate for my fiction, but took time to unwind here.

I often think that resolutions are arbitrarily timed and silly and kind of like the idea of making birthday resolutions more than New Year’s, though those aren’t that different for my February-borne existence. But 2013 has been different. This year has dawned sadder, more challenging, and more urgent than many before it. (I should note that it is not holistically sadder, but day-to-day reality seems to be sadder and harder for myself and most people I know. It’s strange.) There is a natural taking stock that comes with a new year, but this one seems to find more general dissatisfaction and angst than I remember people having. There are organic explanations like the bitter cold driving people indoors to stew, more universal ones about the energy of the planet, and the truth is probably an amalgam of everything you can think of, like it usually is.

So this week, it felt like it was time to cross the bridge. I won’t try to explain the symbolism of the current graphic just in case you wind up having 17 months to digest it and consider it whenever you come check what I’ve written lately. And I’m not going to make creative promises about how much there will or won’t be here. Obviously I’ve been more interested in writing lately than I have during most of the duration of the bridge graphic. Increasingly, though, I find that I am struggling a lot with the basics. I think it’s fair to say that I’ve always been good with the big picture, but terrible with the small picture. The small picture has always felt… well, small. It’s debilitating to focus on the small picture all the time. And yet, the small picture may be a really key element of what’s going on. Given my uncertainty about things these days, the upheaval of the time, my entirely melted and slowly reforming identity, it’s reasonable to say that I don’t know where to put the small picture in the overall context.

The bridge still haunts me, as such places and means have since 1990. Crossing the bridge does not mean putting it behind me or out of sight, out of mind. It means that there can, perhaps, be a new shape to the approach of life and the context of the future. Crossing a bridge doesn’t mean eliminating it. It means that one doesn’t have to spend the whole time thinking about the river that is unceasingly flowing from the past.

Or at least that’s what I’m trying.

Yoda was wrong. At this point, all I can seem to do is try.


The Shape of Sadness

Categories: A Day in the Life, The Long Tunnel, Tags: ,

It’s hard to talk about sadness. It’s an unattractive phenomenon, one that most people shunt off to the corners of their lives with secret thoughts and their stuffed animal collection. People are increasingly inclined to talk a little about “depression,” which in the modern nomenclature has become an unheralded bogeyman waiting in the shadows to surprise any given unsuspecting person for no reason whatsoever. Increasingly, all sadness is depression and all depression is a function of such random caprice that it would make the Old Testament God blush. The idea of even talking about why sadness might be happening or what might be causing sadness (or what, other than the latest under-tested concoction of Big Pharma, might help fix it) has been labeled as uninformed and undesirable. I know that the model a lot of people are using is that depression is a disease (and, by extension, all sadness is diseased), but at least people try to trace the spread of germs and how one got the flu and what steps people can take to avoid or cope with the flu in future. Whereas depression and sadness have been bundled into a package that looks for all the world like an airborne anvil.

Depression is not a disease. The mind is not just another organ. If you personally disagree with this perspective (hello, most of you), I think it’s useful to consider that you don’t live this way even if you think you believe this way. You may philosophically believe that your brain is a series of malleable chemical reactions that have no external significance (or indeed that the idea of significance at all is constructed), but you still find it rational to sit down and make a decision. In fact, those more inclined to believe in things like absolute determinism or the complete physicality of everything are even more likely to put rational calculated thought into all manner of decisions, ranging from where to eat breakfast to where to attend college to what to do with one’s life. This is not the behavior of someone who truly believes that their decisions already have a pre-determined outcome or they are a robot pretending to be self-aware. Such a person, taking their beliefs to heart, would most likely just start making every choice by gut or intuition, realizing that the charade of careful calculation was merely window-dressing for something that was already resolved without their consent. You can choose to believe that this is a delusion, that we are habituated to not resign ourselves to randomness even though we should. But in the end, it has nothing to do with the way we actually approach our lives. Even the most hardened materialist or determinist ponders how they are feeling and what they want before deciding something. They don’t live as though their beliefs had validity. And at that point, are they actual beliefs?

If someone claims to believe in God but in no way acts morally or as though their decisions meant something, most people would probably describe them as somewhere between hypocritical or not religious. If someone says they believe in the rule of law, but they constantly break it, no one is going to label that person as a law-abider. If someone says they believe in technology’s power to fix problems but they shun computers and cars while living in the woods, chances are we’d call them a Luddite sooner than an engineer. Which is all an exemplary way of saying a widely affirmed cliche, that actions speak louder than words. There may be no atheists in foxholes, but there are no determinist materialists anywhere in life.

And thus I am uncompelled by the notion of depression as a conspiracy of chemicals in the brain that culminates in sadness. Or at least sadness unbidden, irrational, and irrelevant to the life of the one who is sad. You can tell yourself a story where we just like to tell ourselves stories and we find a reason for the sadness, but that’s pretty akin to telling yourself a story where all the stories are just convenient fictions we invent and thus we don’t actually learn anything or grow or change or follow a course or accept the influences of any of the world around us. Materialists seem increasingly fascinated by the idea that experiences or thoughts or feelings can actually change the chemical composition of the brain and they act like it’s some revelation that there may be some reality to, well, reality. Studies utter self-proclaimed profundities like “thinking you’re happy can actually make you happy” as though happiness were some objective measurable quantity because some chemical compound roughly aligned to the observed phenomenon in a few prior studies. Of course thinking you’re happy can make you happy – that’s what happiness is. Being sad is sadness. And it happens for reasons. Logical reasons. And sometimes illogical ones. But ones that are traceable and explainable without a technical degree.

I know it often feels like it happens “for no reason.” There are lots of reasons for this! We like to deny things to ourselves. It is one of the primary defense mechanisms that humans, the consummate survivalists, have – to find ways of believing that everything is fine even when it’s not. It is decidedly unsurvivalist and unadaptable to believe a saber-toothed tiger is a legitimate threat to one’s corporeal existence. Far better to believe, naively, that the tiger poses no threat, that one eats saber-toothed tigers for proverbial breakfast, that it won’t take much thought or care to live past the encounter with those sharp teeth and razor claws. The inconvenient truth is that the encounter will be challenging and likely deadly, but facing those realities in the moment with anything other than a glib disregard will lead to the fetal position and so much carrying on, which does not feel intuitively like it maximizes the chance of survival. Voila, denial.

And because of this natural intuition, this inclination toward staring reality in the face and saying it ain’t so, we have developed the expectation of hubris, the expectation of feeling like things are more okay than they are. This expectation and adhering to it has probably been rewarded in all societies across the human spectrum, but perhaps never more than in modern America. The US anoints the careless attitude of disregard, of denial, of carrying on without feeling as strength, putting sobbing and the admission of challenge as weakness. There’s a reason that James Dean and so many drug-addled rock-stars are our heroes while those who question themselves or openly cry in public are lampooned. We aspire to the reckless disregard for reality and disdain the careful sobriety of calculation. We want to taunt the tiger rather than run, even when running is safer. It’s exciting, it’s sexy, it’s dangerous.

But it is dangerous. Constantly denying and tamping down one’s emotions, especially sadness, is dangerous. And I know a lot of the form you think this is taking, the volcanic phenomenon of denying one’s own feelings for years until they explode in deranged behavior or tormented tirades. And that’s true. But it has larger, institutional implications as well. A lot of what saddens people, especially “for no reason” are larger inequities and injustices in societies and across the world. How can people be starving in a world where the US is dotted with luxury hotels and cruise liners? How can people shoot other people, in uniforms or plain clothes? How can a world that has congratulated itself for ending slavery be perfectly happy to incarcerate millions and make others financially indebted and beholden to those who happened to be born rich?

When I ask these questions in my daily life, out loud, it almost always makes people uncomfortable. People accuse me of being depressed and depressing. People ask me to stop, that they want to get through their day and be functional. This is a larger institutional process of denial. Realizing the shortcomings of the world, especially those that are hard to fix or appear intractable, is a challenge to making fluid progress through that world. And yet, it is also that instinctive denial that makes the problem intractable in the first place. If everyone were thinking about these things all the time, they would be so upset that fixing them would be a matter of survival. (Which, incidentally, it is to those being maltreated by these problems.) But because we have the power of denial and can lampoon depression or call it a disease or just say some people are naturally more inclined to it, then it’s all too easy to return to the desk job making the wheels of injustice and inequality turn, turning up the music, and shutting out the nature of reality.

True, sadness can be crippling. Debilitating, paralyzing. It is not always a call to action. It is rarely a siren call for change – just as often, it is a swan song of despair. This is what makes it scary, what puts it diametric to survival in the perception of so many. Why we are so afraid of even acknowledging it, let alone breaking down and letting it wash over us. This mere reality – the terror of sadness, especially the deep sadnesses brought on by the larger problems of the world or the deepest problems that we make for ourselves personally – is almost entirely responsible for the drug problem in the world, itself perhaps among the top five issues that we deny daily. People can’t face life unhappy, they medicate themselves to mask the thinking and the pain that comes with it, and they change their diet instead of changing themselves or the world. What sustains drug use is often addiction, habit, or environment, but the prime mover of almost all of it is sadness. And thus the use of mind-altering substances enables us to pretend that we aren’t as sad as we are.

But we are sad. And it’s okay. It’s okay to be sad. And saying that it has rational explanations and reasons, things that can be faced and fixed, is not the same as saying that it’s the fault of the person who is sad. Depression as a capricious thief in the night is not the only model that avoids victim-blaming. Depression can also be heightened awareness of the world as it is, which should drive someone to do what they can about it, to try to alter themselves and the world to make things a little better. But it’s not that person’s fault if they aren’t strong enough to make those changes and instead end up in a periodic puddle on the floor. Sometimes the right reaction is to be a puddle on the floor. Sometimes the tiger in front of you is real and has you cornered and facing your mortality is more useful and meaningful than pretending you are a tiger-slayer. And if you could pop a pill or quaff a drink that convinces you that you’re a tiger-slayer (or far more likely that tigers simply aren’t dangerous), it won’t make you any less dead in five minutes. Realizing the gravity of a situation is actually often the only true antidote.

And sometimes there aren’t antidotes at all. Sometimes the world is just saddening. And acknowledging that is true and powerful and better than glib denial.

Being sad is strong. Admitting weakness is strong. One first has to recognize that these can be valid perceptions at all, that these are part of reality, in order to engage with them. The shape of sadness ought not be a phantom, a wispy thing blamed on things beyond our control. It ought be embraced and clutched close as one of many tools to be used to interact with the world as it truly is. Not as a mere series of chemicals to be tinctured and controlled, but as a vibrant and meaningful place that we can organically change for the better.


The Problem of Chronology

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , ,

Perhaps the biggest problem with life is that it is lived in order.

There are a lot of trite aphorisms with strong grains of truth along these lines. Youth is wasted on the young. If I knew then what I know now. But these are actually not the kind of chronological disorder that I’m focusing on herein. Rather, they actually rely on the same faulty logic about chronology that plagues all of our behavior – namely, that things get better. That we get better, smarter, wiser with time. That somehow experience is a teacher that never dozes off or skips a class or berates us too harshly for us to learn properly, but that we always, in some rigid linear fashion, learn a progressive amount from what we have been through.

In the words of friend and former debater Farhan Ali, “I call bullshit on this.” (It sounds somehow softer and more lovable in Farhan’s vaguely Kuwaiti Indian accent.)

The other flawed implication of the linear age model for improving our viewpoint is that it ignores the impacts of the lenses of various phases in the cycle of our lives. We assume that adults are wiser than predominantly more impulsive teenagers, that even teens have a leg up on wide-eyed naive children, that those retired or retiring from life have more insight into it than those in the throes of work, that those closest to death have the most understanding of living. There are certainly individuals who follow these guidelines, but it seems to me there are just as many exceptions. Moreover, it seems highly problematic to just assume that the later stages of life provide more understanding of it when it is imperiled by the unique challenges of that phase of existence. Older age, for example, is a time plagued by a diminishing amount of control of one’s body, when people tend to become markedly less sure of things and start to feel the age-old optimism of ever-upward improvement shift in themselves. These processes are inevitable and cannot be blamed on those experiencing them, but at the same time they directly contradict the notion of linear upward growth in quality of life and perspective. It is ludicrous to expect people in this phase of their life to be eternally growing in optimism as their body and future expectations start to turn against them, yet the functions of chronological trajectories do just that. And thus we somehow expect the older generations to reach the pinnacle of hope and elation just as they realistically have to come to grips with being on the downslope of their own time on Earth.

Worse still, the acknowledgement of any downslope too often becomes tantamount to an unmitigated disaster because we are unable to accept retraction, retreat, or repeals without getting histrionic. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, to be sure, but it’s inherited from a culture that makes us choose between growth and bankruptcy, that encourages us to live at the absolute furthest extent of our means whenever our own income or worth expands, that will offer us credit and loans beyond our means at the first sign of prosperity. It’s not merely that we inculcate a belief in growth and linear progression that causes problems, but we instill an even worse inverse perception that going backwards might as well be utter collapse. No wonder so much of our society turns to drugs (prescribed, illegal, or the worst of all of them, alcohol) at the first sign of failure or hardship. We can’t cope, by and large, with the idea that the future may be worse than the past, that any year ahead of us could be something other than our best year ever. People are quick to respond to deaths and divorces, things that should be devastating setbacks with placatory words of optimism and things to look forward to. I know I dealt with this and it made me sick. A healthier, more reasonable acknowledgement would be to recognize that the next year or two will probably be the worst of your life to date, which still may not be the worst of all-time. But that this does not mean having to give up, because life is an unpredictable wave, not some unflinching pyramid to be climbed at the steepest possible angle. I tried to share this kind of viewpoint with other recent divorcees I reconnected with recently and they seemed staunchly resistant to it, unable to acknowledge that life can get worse sometimes, trying to echo their friends who put it in a context of being for the best somehow. It was frustrating.

And I get it, in part. I think people want to keep hope alive. And hope is a very good thing, “maybe the best of things.” Truly. But hope is as far from the expectation of linear improvement as practice is from the assumption that one will be the next Michael Jordan or Barack Obama. And only an idiot would tell the middle school kid shooting freethrows in the gym or the debater staying late after practice to go over her case one more time that they are destined to attain the highest heights imaginable. Yet that’s the mythology that creeps into us when we expect linear progression, when we expect that everything always gets better. And the radical disappointment from falling short is tantamount to living one’s whole life in regret that one isn’t always at the very top. In other words, it’s a way to manufacture unhappiness and feelings of failure from all kinds of things that should reasonably amount to a life well lived.

Which illuminates perhaps the most insidious problem of chronology in our life, which is that it clouds and overrides the past. The past can so rarely be appreciated for what it truly was, instead being overshadowed by the context of the precise moment of the fleeting present. The entire past winds up as a giant stepping stone for wherever one is at the second one chooses to look at it, and the understanding of what those days and months and years meant entirely changes based on whether times are good or bad now. If one is currently satisfied and feels they are on the expected conveyor belt toward a better future, all manner of disaster, transgression, and pain can be overlooked as mere necessities on the road to bliss. Whereas if one is currently holistically dissatisfied and disappointed, even the highlights of the past are a jumble of wrong turns and missed opportunities. Even those who put it in the proper proportion and perspective, more even-keel souls, have a tendency to mute the effects of the past, to under-appreciate it or put it in a box of less experienced decisions when one had so much to learn and grow from.

It is precisely this perspective about the past that I seek to question. Just because we march through the days one at a time in irreversible lock step does not mean that we are moving forward. And to truly understand and appreciate our lives for what they are, I believe it’s crucial to mine the past not just for opportunities to learn more and gain a greater perspective, but for actual insights into when we might have been better people, when, in the past, we might have understood more about the world. Experience is capable of teaching us, but it’s also capable of corrupting us (see yesterday), of ruining our spirit, of inflicting us with trauma and paranoia and the wrong motivations and perspectives that can take years to undo just to get back to zero. We pick up addictions, we fall into groups of people that mislead or distract us, we start spending our time poorly and lose our way. If we recognize these as mistakes instead of insisting that we are all in some sort of linear fairy tale, then we can harness the power of the past to right our path and (yes) try improve over time. The barriers to understanding this somewhat obvious reality of life are part of why it’s so hard for people to break down and go to rehab when they need it, why it’s so hard for so many people to admit fault for things and just apologize properly. The idea that we have gone backwards at any point in our life is anathmetic (a word I think I’ve made up, derived from anathema) to our perspective on our own human spirit. We think that to admit a setback is to crush hope, as though improvement in a linear permanent fashion were the only possible option and anything standing against that meant we were either broken or on an infinite downward spiral, as though motion were always perpetual and it either moved one way or the other.

The truth of life is always muddier and more complicated and more unpredictable than we want to make it. It’s absurd to think that we grow endlessly. That’s cancer, that’s steroids, that’s capitalism. We change endlessly, to be sure, but it’s just as likely to be for the worse. And only through understanding that can we not only keep ourselves from being bad people, but we can keep ourselves in perspective. Yes, of course the goal should always be to find hope and improvement. But sometimes that might require recognizing that, say, 1998 was our best year, that maybe this year is our worst, and that this knowledge and understanding can be harnessed to parse what is most meaningful and valuable about life to try to improve next year. Maybe not to make it our best, or even better than this year, but to make it better than it would have been if we just kept assuming that years would somehow unflinchingly get better over time without our help.


Nindil Jalbuck

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , ,

The year has been slow to arrive. My family celebrated Christmas on New Year’s Day, despite the luminaria display on the normal date of the 24th, one marred (despite the optimism of my previous post) by a massive windstorm that blew almost the whole roof layout down after it had stayed stolidly upright for the 28 hours from placement to lighting. We had a small display of lumis on New Year’s Eve, both somewhat traditional and to show the candled bags to my girlfriend, who arrived in New Mexico late on the 27th.

For Christmas/New Year’s, she gave me the board game Lords of Waterdeep, a D&D-based game that is, if I may, nothing like D&D. It was introduced to me by my friend and former debate coach, Greg, and I immediately adored the game, given its almost perfect pacing, competitive play, versatility, and overall fun. I would highly recommend it and my enthusiasm for the game made it almost certain that I would get it eventually. There are eleven “Lords” in the game that one can play, each with two types of quests that they prefer to complete (and an eleventh who just wants to build buildings in the city). In the first game I played with Greg, Clea, Russ, and my girlfriend, I was Nindil Jalbuck.

Nindil Jalbuck’s goals are the unlikely combination of Piety and Skullduggery, a pairing that can only be explained by the fact that he was once an upstanding citizen in a mask who all respected, but he got killed in some sort of robbery and before word got out, a rogue named Hlaavin stepped in and took his place, masquerading as Nindil but using his power and influence for devious deeds. In various places, Hlaavin is described as a doppelgänger for Nindil, making Nindil a functional Two-Face or Dr. Jekyll type character. As far as the world’s concerned, these are not distinct people, but one unified changed man.

Now this may seem like an awful lot of back-story for one cartoonish D&D character that I happened to play the first time I encountered Waterdeep. But it’s a captivating story, and one that reminded me a lot of what I feared as my own outcome in the wake of my divorce. All the time, people use trauma as a justification for their skullduggery; most of the people I’ve had the most trouble with on the debate circuit and elsewhere have justified being jerks to people by noting that bad things happened to them in the past that “made” them this way. While I always retorted that I’d had trauma too, and plenty of it, the loss of identity and self-worth brought on by the way my marriage ended certainly brought me to the brink of wondering if this kind of corruption by events were inevitable. I have tons of anger which I wrestle on a daily basis, sometimes just below the surface and sometimes just above it. And I’m more aware than most of what kind of control and discipline it takes to be a good person. There’s a reason that all our rhetoric about being good describes the “straight and narrow” and incredible pains and awareness. It’s because our default settings are to be petty and selfish. The easier way is the one which requires less diligence. It’s hard work to try.

And thus, when my defenses were down and my identity and life were shattered, the thin line of defense between me being a roughly upstanding person who is trying hard to be better and being something like Hitler seemed blurry and perhaps indefensible. I had lots of long conversations (and maybe even posts here?) about how the path to being Hitler was actually fewer steps and an easier fall than one might think. Many friends wrote this off as hysteria and letting the trauma do the talking, but there’s an additional angle of which being an extremist and an absolutist can make this switch faster than one might think. Much of what inspires me to try to do and be good is a certain absolutism, perfectionism, and idealism. Once ideals shatter, once moral standards are breached, then it’s very easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The purpose of a dam is to hold back water. Once the dam is breached, it finds it sufficiently demoralizing to not try any more and let all the water through. On a moral level, it seems there’s very little difference between one transgression and several similar transgressions. And at the point where transgressions are fair game, then the entire motivation starts to change. This is frankly why I felt like suicide was a somewhat reasonable option for a period of several months – because I was literally afraid of who I would become. I knew I could survive, but I was very concerned that whoever did survive would be so dissimilar from me that they would be someone I didn’t want to make it.

Now I know most of you reading this are screaming that this is the problem with absolutism on the moral level and that most of you don’t find the above paragraph relatable because most people in America this century grow up being gradualists and moderates and seeing themselves as making compromises when they see fit. I, for example, find it incomprehensible that people can aspire to be mostly vegetarian but still eat meat occasionally and feel like they’re being better than if they ate as much meat as a regular person. They, in turn, people like Fish and my father, find it incomprehensible that I can only find it good to refrain entirely from meat as a moral aspiration and that eating chicken once a month may as well be running a chicken slaughterhouse. And I’m not sure I have the inclination to make a full defense of my stance for ideal absolutism here and now – I understand that it’s dramatically less practical, but morality has never appeared in any way practical to me. Indeed, because of the ease of life away from the narrow path, it’s always seemed somewhat obvious to me that morality is diametric to practicality. It is decidedly impractical to be good, but this makes it no less of a moral imperative.

As a sideways method of defense, I will say that I think gradualism can easily lead to corruption, perhaps as quickly as my fears of the Hitler within rising up once my principles had been breached. Another of my Christmas/New Year’s gifts, from my mother, was Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, a book I imagine you’ve all heard of. I’ve been on a bit of a Gladwell kick lately, reading the books backwards. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions – some of his cultural stuff in Outliers seems obviously cherry-picked and his defense of broken-windows theory in the most recently read tome seems a bit shallow. If he has a flaw, it’s that he over-simplifies things that are decidedly more complex and I think he relies too heavily on one or two studies to prove a general theory or practice about humanity globally. (Incidentally, I’m not sure when the scientific method decided that repeating something once or twice in a measured way was sufficient to declare it as a universally repeatable law.) Nevertheless, I take the 10,000-hour rule as Gospel and found a great deal of Blink compelling.

Another thing I found compelling, though, was his study of how little factors can turn ostensibly good people into bad. There’s a study in The Tipping Point about how telling seminarians that they’re late makes them override their Good Samaritan intuitions, even if you have them meditating on the story of the Good Samaritan at the same time. There’s an examination of self-described pacifists in the Stanford Prison Experiment. There’s the tragedy of Kitty Genovese, the woman who was stabbed to death in New York City while over thirty horrified onlookers stood unmoving by their telephones. Instructing people with certain motivations or telling them to focus on certain things will, in most cases, “tip” them into being just as selfish and animalistic as the worst of their peers. Not just because it’s easy, but I think because of the nature of corruption itself. It’s what I’ve long discussed as my general theory of how people “go bad”. Rarely, despite the implications of the concept of a tipping point, is it an overnight plunge into debauchery. Rather, it’s a trail of breadcrumbs with a slight shift in perspective each time. I call this the A to B, B to C, C to D phenomenon. If we imagine this to be a descent into bad behavior, almost no one would ever jump from A to D. People standing on A would find that laughably poor behavior. But B seems forgivable or reachable or reasonable – they can find a way to justify going to B. And so they do. Suddenly, from the perspective of B, C seems reachable. From A that seemed crazy, but they’ve already gone to B and now the world looks a little different – they’ve gotten their hands a little dirty and now it seems like less of a step. This is how most cheating happens, in my opinion, be it on marriages or taxes or in business. Almost no one just jumps into bed with someone or becomes Bernie Madoff overnight. It starts with little things – hand-holding or skimming off the top. But those practices are reaffirming that being bad isn’t as bad as it once seemed and then it becomes a hop, skip, and a jump to disaster. That’s why we have that phrase, hop, skip, and a jump. Because it takes each of those sequential steps: A to B, B to C, C to D. It can’t be one giant leap. It has to be small steps. The road to hell is paved with individual stones, not one giant brick. It is, after all, a road.

Which is why I didn’t think much of Nindil Jalbuck at first. Or even second, for I got his card the second time I played, the first time with my girlfriend after opening the game on Christmas/New Year’s Day. The third time, she got Nindil. Keep in mind there are eleven possible characters and when we played each other, we were only dealing two of these cards. The fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh times we played, I was Nindil Jalbuck. I have currently played twelve games of Waterdeep. Two of them left Nindil out altogether. Two of them, she has been Nindil. And the remaining eight have given me his card.

I was having arguments about odds with Freez when I saw him over the break in Albuquerque and I’m sure he’d find a way to tell me that this experience is somehow unremarkable or predictable. Call me crazy, but this feels like more than a minor trend. A sufficiently freaky trend to make me research Mr. Jalbuck’s backstory and think on it heavily.

Two days ago, I got back from the Dartmouth tournament, slept a lot, woke up and watched a heartbreaking Seahawks game, and logged into my Wells Fargo account to make sure (as I do weekly) that everything was in order. It wasn’t. Someone had rung up over $2,000 in charges in Atlanta and Miami while I was in New Hampshire. There was an early charge for dinner for about fifty bucks and then the next day they went to town, spending 2k on hotels in the South’s major cities. I immediately called the bank’s 24-hour number and reported the fraudulent activity, dealing with an incredibly nice and helpful individual who promised to reverse the charges, issue a new card, and investigate the fraud.

The same thing, roughly, happened to my parents’ credit card a few days before I arrived in Albuquerque last month. My mother asked the people who helped her through it if this was common and they said it happens all the time. And when I spoke to a local banker yesterday in getting a temporary card, he said that there’s been an “epidemic” of this lately. Now admittedly he was using this in part as a platform to try to sell me a bunch of fee-based “protections” for my account, but the part in which he described helping a ton of different customers with similar problems recently seemed genuine. And epidemic is precisely the word that Malcolm Gladwell uses across The Tipping Point to describe the virality of ideas that catch fire in this or any culture. Indeed, that book more than any other created the meme of the “good” virus, of things “going viral”. It’s not that bank fraud is a new concept – I would venture that everyone reading this knows someone who’s experienced it. But it may be reaching some sort of tipping point.

My banker suggested that part of it is a new technology they’ve been finding in some ATMs that somehow reads the magnet strip of the card without interfering with the transaction in any way. It’s some sort of tiny scanner that they put in the card-reading slot that must be sufficiently transparent to let you proceed with your transaction while still capturing the information in the magnet, which is all the information needed to either recreate the card or use its numbers online. A little device that turns the cash machine into Nindil Jalbuck, doing good and ill at the same time, marching your account down the successive path to a dwindled state.

It doesn’t take much to change things from good to bad, to lead us on to the gradual trail to our own demise. The only thing we have in defense is a righteous vigilance against the weakness and temptations in our own soul, the little things we let ourselves get away with. There’s a little Nindil in all of us and the hard work of trying to try is the only way we can keep the dark side at bay.

The other moral of this story is that you should probably check your bank account status regularly. There have yet to be more bogus charges accrued, but I’m probably going to be obsessively refreshing my bank account page for a while. My banker tried to tell me to avoid dubious ATMs on the road (“always find a Wells Fargo if you can”), but also admitted that they’ve found these devices in WF ATMs, so that hardly seems like a fix.

If you’re looking for another moral, it might be to play Lords of Waterdeep. It’s really fun.


Mitt Romney and the Post-Political Nation

Categories: A Day in the Life, Duck and Cover, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

People have been asking me what happened to Duck and Cover. The last D&C I wrote was in early March of this year, and that was really only because I always bring the comic back for the Oscar season and the popular segment of Duck and Cover misunderstanding each other over the titles of films and their true content. Before that, it was probably November or December when I really had any tangible momentum for the cartoon.

There are myriad factors in the decline and fall of my interest in maintaining the strip, which I cannot by any means say is dead or even dying so much as indefinitely dormant. Some of them are admittedly personal, with the advent of a serious relationship in my life that’s dragged me out of the post-marital death-spiral and into something looking a little more like normal life. But that cannot wholly explain the timing or the evolution of my feelings about the political spectrum in America at this time. It would seem for all the world that now would be the best time to be writing a political cartoon and yet I have the least interest I’ve ever felt.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt any affiliation or any interest in the two major parties, to be sure. I long lampooned both Gore and Bush, Bush and Kerry, Obama and McCain. I voted for their unseen opponents. And yet I maintained an abiding interest in the outcomes and the fates, part lifelong geekery in the face of red/blue maps and cross-hatched lines, part genuine curiosity about the shape of things to come. Always the outcome seemed of note or interest. If it didn’t quite matter the way I imagined it mattering before my political disillusionment (circa the mid-1990’s), it at the very least seemed worth following.

And, to be fair, I am not entirely ignorant of the progress of this campaign. Largely as a vehicle for promoting the Debate Union, I set down my thoughts on logical fallacies on the campaign trail for NPR. I watched the first debate, mostly as a way to prepare for a late-October Debate Union event. (Are we noticing a theme?) I’ll occasionally check 538 and see what the projections look like. And yet, the overwhelming sense that none of this matters, that none of it could matter, resonates deeply in my tired October bones.

It was not until the debate, which I viewed with the prior conviction that Romney was actually trying to throw the election, that I realized who exactly Willard Mitt Romney is and what he represents. He is, in the post-modern American world, the ultimate politician. And like the ultimate capitalist tries to win the game of Monopoly and thus end capitalism by owning everything, the ultimate politician tries to win the game of President and end the game of politics by being everything to everyone.

It’s a cliche that politicians tell people what they want to hear, but Mitt takes it to an industrious new level. It’s not a coincidence that his much-discussed “47%” comment came at a private fundraiser for people who were part of both the 53% and the 1%. When he speaks to the people of Massachusetts, he is their son, the same as Michigan, Utah, or most any other state he can draw some inscrutable line to. When he debates Obama before the entire nation, he is a reasonable moderate. When he debates Republicans before their base, he is a hard-right ideologue. When he talks to business, he is a businessman, employees, he will get jobs, foreign countries, he thinks their enemies are overtly stupid.

And while it’s clear that he is acting like none of his events are public to more than the people directly visible in front of him, he still manages to evade the real backlash you might expect for someone who speaks so plainly out of twenty-seven sides of his mouth. His moderate stances and direct speaking scored him election-saving points at the first debate and he is within one decent debate performance of coming back from the near-dead to take the lead in an election that stands less than a month away. The man who feels his audience is always alone to the point of solipsism is a few well-spoken on-camera answers from taking the reins of what most still maintain is the most powerful nation on the planet.

And despite the hysteria this idea elicits from half the country, rivaled only by the extreme hysteria espoused by the other half were Obama to win a second term, he is simply not tangibly different from the current incumbent in any but the most fringe issues. Like every President and Supreme Court Justice since Roe v. Wade, he wants to maintain the legal status quo on abortion. He wants to cut taxes, like Obama before him. He wants to raise spending on the military, like Obama before him. He wants to ensure that corporate klepto-capitalism can survive and thrive in the face of its obvious self-destruction, propping it up with bailouts, low interest rates, promises of endless support, damn the consequences. He wants to expand US power through torture, bribery, and deception, like every President in our nation’s history (even Carter, as the new film “Argo” makes clear). He wants an individual mandate for health insurance to ensure this sector of the economy continues to grow faster than the cancer it fails to cure (prediction: if Romney is President, he will not repeal the Affordable Care Act). He wants to be open about destroying the environment instead of closeted, a nice fake distinction from the current President. And he wants to be liked, loved, revered, and adored by the masses of people and pundits who will tell him, over and over, that he is the ruler of the free world.

Am I rooting for him? At this point, almost. For while I can be almost certain that his policies will be indistinguishable from Obama’s, at least the so-called left that serves as his base will be critical of Willard Mitt in a way they refuse to be of Barack Hussein. Once the hand-wringing and wailing and pricing of flights to Toronto subside, they will dig in to critique the failure to close Guantanamo, the continued use of drones in Pakistan and Yemen, the ongoing renewal of tax cuts, the failure of the economy to improve for any but the richest in society. No longer will these sane criticisms of the government be relegated to people associated with tin-foil hats and apocalyptic sandwich-boards, but they can once again be taken up by those seen as mainstream, normal, law-abiding, and tax-paying.

It is a weird world when the person who came to power on the promise to end wars and renew America makes his staunchest rallying cries to renew that mandate for assassinating alleged enemies and ensuring that 300,000,000 people must buy something from big business or pay a fee. Romney would have killed bin Laden, along with thousands of people who the government assures us are guilty on their little pixelated remote-control screens from half the world away. Romney would have instituted something a lot like Obamacare, which was modeled on his plan in Massachusetts. Romney would have threatened Iran and gone into Libya and made all the same decisions at all the same times. It’s too politically infeasible not to do these things. The people with the money and the interest in a certain status quo are calling the shots and the men in suits want the adulation and the ability to pretend that they are making some sort of change. It’s a fun game, like a sports game. Well-attended, closely followed, thrilling the emotions of onlookers from sea to shining sea. But no one pretends that the Yankees or the Giants winning the playoffs will make some sort of difference in their lives beyond what pennant they hang in the corner of their room.

The real people running the nation do not subject themselves to anything so whimsical and fragile as an election. And the people who run for office make sure that what they say has as little as possible to do with dynamic thinking or even what actually takes place. They give the people what they want to hear. One year it’s change, the next year it’s a different message for every class and region and group. And the robots continue to track and kill anyone who might dissent or disagree, anyone who might be enraged, anyone who manifests their sense of injustice in a foreign land. From high above the clouds, where no one can see them, no one can touch them. Not even God.

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