The Arctic Tern, American Goldfinch, and Me

There are, I kid you not, men and women with baccalaureate degrees that honestly (and dutifully, I suppose) believe that the annual breeding migration of approximately 1,900 bird species flying thousands of miles is, in a very broad sense, similar to the annual exodus tackled by proud alumni who drive 347 miles to celebrate homecoming.  Go Anteaters (University of Irvine)!

I too, have gone full circle:  Today I celebrated my birthday in the most appropriate location:  A hospital!  Not the exact hospital of my birth, but a medical institution nonetheless.  And much to my surprise upon returning to my room after another test, was this small, charming cake to congratulate me.  (They talked to God herself to get that cake on this floor).  Go Nurses (Northwestern Memorial Hospital)!


Hidden In My Blind Spot

I’m in the hospital: been since
Thursday, the day
my body packed on
seven pounds in two
days.  Med. Staff scurry like Lillyputians
upon sleeping Gulliver; all rubber-gloved
hands on deck!  Your charge: bee-line
to Admitting forthwith.  Cardiac
Floor has custody; such largess traded
for freedom; headboard resembles
cockpit; heart monitor spies
on any movement: feels like house

My body threatens
my brain: both had breakdowns
mirroring the other: breakdowns
are my blind spot; mental
and physical illness collapse
beneath rubble of well-being’s
bombardment by remediless

A short while ago
my brain and my heart
were bright with promise
and smart with life’s storyline.
Today however, I can be found
in the scratch and dent
discounted department.

Age Calls It “Creative” Writing For a Reason

Upon graduating from Carnegie Mellon University with a Master of Fine Arts degree in Playwriting, my mentor, Mr. Arthur Giron cozied up to me and asked the question heard around the world: “Well, what are you going to do for the next twenty years?”  Cocksure and filled to the brim with inflamed enthusiasm and a bulwark of self-confidence, I smugly replied, “Why, be famous of course!”  I had a produceable play under one arm, a New York literary agent under the other; copies of my scripts being eyed by regional theaters all over the country, and a handful of positive reviews of my recent MainStage production; not-to-mention the sheepskin from a meritorious and first-string school like Carnegie Mellon!  I mean really, really, what else did he think I would do?  Mr. Giron shook his head slowly while he stroked and fiddled with his moustache: “You’re like a new-make-scotch-whisky.  You’ve been recently poured into your used cask where you’ll age or mature (meaning you’ll absorb the character of the ageing oak casks heretofore used to ferment sherry); and just like new-whisky’s alcohol content diminishing year by year, so will the strangulating auspices of your of fame and fortune.  The end result is a smooth, complex, and enigmatic author with the depth of character fossilized by year after year of life’s experience bearing down on talent; similar to pressure applied to coal produces diamonds.  In other words, my dear boy, now you’ve got to live life to its fullest, absorb as much as you can.  It’s from there, your experience of life from which you’ll withdraw the dark, dense, and curiously smooth depth.”

They couldn’t have told me that before I signed the promissory note for fifty thousand dollars to pay for two years of post-graduate education?

Mr. Giron’s soothsaying was brutally honest and absolutely true!  For the next twenty years I was given the cold-shoulder by most of the legitimate theatres in America; my New York agent dropped me because I was a one-trick pony (I had only one produceable scripts so when directors asked: “What else have you got?” she had nothing to offer.)  And soon thereafter I rendered my writing as the needless folly of starry-eyed twenty-somethings  young men and turned my attention to the corporate world, leaving my writing to rot in a trunk in the attic.

A Recent Visit With An Old Journal (July-September, 2008)

astormI do know how it happened, this convergence of the perfect storm, but the why I set it in motion is still a mystery to me. My feelings of absolute worthlessness have been building for years; starting much like the birth of a tsunami deep in some crevice in the ocean, a shifting of my inner tectonic plates, natural I suppose in the grind of life, but this shift caused great, unpredictable movement of the seas of my life which, by all accounts rose higher, and deeper, and soon engulfed the tiny town of my life, built, I suppose foolishly too close to the shore.

And then it came, this huge wave and friends and lovers fled. I on the other hand, all too well aware stood steadfast in its path. It washed over awaveme, this wave, crushing me against the only world I knew now, that which was beneath my feet. Gripping the sand I held firm, never certain that as it receded, that it would not pull me far, far out to sea.

Gradually it did retreat and once again the sun broke the surface and I lay gasping, choking on air which days before had given life and now condemns me to deal with this devastation.

I had a deep sense that not all was okay with me. I often complained of a dark gnawing I had felt, or heard in my mind. I always thought that it was my creative self scratching to get out in the form of writing. But now I wonder if indeed it was my inner self pleading for help. I could never articulate it sufficiently to those around me, nor did I ever think it was truly a cry for help. Until this week when, what I thought was my tidy little world fell absolutely apart. It was this week when I was diagnosed with major depression.

aquietzone2And from what I now understand it is taking a very predictable course complete with dark patches, rough zones, drifting away from reality, but the one part which I cannot fathom is my inability to be stimulated by more than one thing at a time. For instance, I cannot tolerate music playing and talking; I cannot tolerate stress; I cannot tolerate anger or anything except calm. If I sense more than one thing at a time I shut down and go to a quiet place.

I suspect it all fell apart when it all came together; a perfect storm as I have said; a convergence of three wholly separate, yet tumultuous events which I set in motion.

I had been in a loving 23 year relationship. We had all the trappings of a solid relationship: jobs, cars, cat, home, garden, money, retirement. But something was sorely lacking. Me. I wasn’t in it any longer. I couldn’t be in it. Being in it was too painful for me. The hurt which started as aloverskissingsuspicion around my drinking and drug abuse quickly cascaded into a kind of secret identity which I couldn’t share with him for fear of reprisal. I needed the drugs and alcohol to buffer the deepening sadness of my life. I didn’t want to face, didn’t know how to face this gnawing, this scratching which would never quiet on its own. The only way to silence it was through sleep, inebriation or a Vicodin high.

I also had a very romantic side which died when my partner no longer accepted my tokens of affection. It’s not that he didn’t want them, but they grew silly or unneeded or immaterial or expensive or, even I suppose worthless. Aren’t these tokens of affection best saved for times of seduction or apology or bereavement? And so into the roll-top desk of my life I placed this need to “show” my affection in the drawer called “get to later” right next to my sexual desires, overwhelming need for affection and self-worth. I simply closed the drawer and drew down the lid patting those things adieu. I knew they’d be withdrawn at some later date, when the amour would willingly accept my advances.

Should I have simply ignored his requests to cease and continued my gifts? Perhaps. But our finances had become so entwined that he would have known how much I had spent of these trinkets and he would’ve been cross. Could I have paid cash? Of course, I suppose, but when tokens of affection aren’t valued, the value plummets, the surprise ebbs, the feeling I get wanes. I learned to simply file it away.

I knew that our relationship had weathered many storms; it was built strong; based on honesty and open communication. But shouldn’t every abiggameman have a secret or two? A trinket of conquest placed deeply into a suit pocket? An amulet to ward off demons? A trophy? Hung handsomely on the wall? Hadn’t all my friends had trophies? Yes! Oh, yes, they had! Not one friend that I know has ever been in a relationship as long as ours without the occasional dalliance; but mine was different. Mine was a manic affair, built on a foundation of bogs and swampland and prone to sink.  A manic affair is a very dangerous liaison often resulting in collateral damage and repairable of which I did not fully anticipate it’s consequence.



When “Whom” Lost Majority To “What”

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) called it Estrangement;
Luigi Pirandello, Nobel Laureate ( 1867-1936)
is often quoted as saying,
“. . . it is only a mask that man unconsciously assumes
in order to adapt himself to the social context in which he finds himself . . .”

abrecht2What was it that playwright and director Bertolt Brecht and Nobel Laureate and playwright Luigi Pirandello explored and recreated in the 1930’s?  Brecht called it Estrangement; Pirandello’s later works were framed self liberation by Disconnection. Both Brecht and Pirandello explored similar ideas through their plays and novels; and both arrived at the same intersection with theories and one fundamental question for audiences:  What condition or cause affords us to be estranged or disconnected, i.e. emancipated from a predictable life?  Both writers agreed:  We (representing humanity) wear various masks, depending on who we’re with, where we are going, for influence, or lust, or determination.  They challenged critics and writers alike by writing/directing that actor’s portray a character by imitation, impersonation, and isolation.  While they both wrote some of the greatest plays of the modern age, it was Brecht who pursued his theory of Verfremdung(They both wrote plays which explored their hypothesis:  but it was Brecht that had the advantage by writing and directing his plays).  Being both playwright and director he had the good fortune to write; test it on stage; rewrite . . . and so on, amalgamating ideas and discarding all but what worked within the Estrangement Movement: the actor isn’t the actual character, but a surreal representation of a character inside the play.  

Does that sound, in any way, familiar to you?  You’re not really crazy, you’re simply acting out; You’re not really crazy, you’re just vying for attention; you’re not the type, you’re just saying suicide to make me feel guilty.  So maybe you’re the shy but lethal type?  You stay in your room or apartment or Malibu Beach bungalow.  Maybe you have these conversations with . . . the character you play in your melodrama. It doesn’t matter which target you’re aiming your epithets.  Most of them don’t make sense any way.  In your gut you know you would never say or do any of the hollow threats or cynical promises.  Those things belong to the character you’re playing.  But the redemption you sought and were politely given isn’t yours to keep.  It belongs to that character you play (“a very convincing performance,” someone had said to you).

Your illness, it’s debilitating effects, duration, severity, and recovery provides a pension of patience and politeness.  But you’ve become conscious of a hushed and tiny change like a slow drip that floods a basement if ignored long enough.  This change, odd enough, isn’t about gettingappirandello smaller.  Indeed!  This change or sense of change remains like an irritating allergy.  And then, one day, one fine day, one more fine day, not another one fine day . . . you awaken to a certain degree of disorientation; you check your watch for the day of the week; the house has an eerily empty air; as though time simply passed by leaving you undisturbed.  You walk to the kitchen and see that the mundane morning rituals were indeed completed and one set of car keys was missing from the hook.

A magnificent change occurred during the night.  Quite similar to the fate of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa without all the bugginess.  The world stopped interacting with me as a lover,  friend, colleague, church member, brother and began to interact with me as an illness.  It’s as though a giant magnet simply plucked me out of my life, then delicately placed Mr. Mental Illness, a clone of me with one obvious exception:  it lacked me .  But this likeness, it was showered with change; attention when I spoke, belief when I discussed my illness, even slowing our pace to a speed I could manage.  A World of Magnificent Changes!

But it wasn’t quite the nirvana I’d thought.  In this World of Magnificent Changes it was expected that I would welcome the absence of all those akafkadecisions I had to make, like going to parties, movies, late dinners (“oh no, he won’t come, he has trouble with evening events,”); brunches, art museums, and botanical gardens (“Yep, both of us.  He likes daytime things,”) meeting friends for dinner, spontaneous day trips, “grab your-jacket-we’re-going-to-see-a-show-with-Richard (“He can’t do it, was all he said, he simply couldn’t do it.”)  All that life lost because of my illness has been changed to “What life lost; it’s who he is now.”

Like characters that Brecht, Pirandello, and Kafka created in an attempt to understand their cultures, I too, had been hard at work creating mine, and then training those around me, and then Opening Night/Opening Day when I was no  longer a guy with mental illness. Instead the world sees and interacts with my mental illness.  The old me’s been retired.