Commutus Interreptus

KCM BusThere is a great deal of construction going on near one of the bus stops I use to get home after work. The construction requires that I go a few minutes out of my way, which sometimes puts me in the path of a bus I could have used to get home if I’d arrived at the stop only five minutes earlier. This bus sometimes gets delayed by a red light, or a raised drawbridge. When this happens, I try to catch the driver’s eye. I look at him with great hope, pointing to myself and then the bus. Sometimes I hear myself make a noise like, “Eh?” If the driver-side window is open as I cross in front, I will say something like, “Can I hop on?” If the driver appears not to have heard, I’ll tap on the passenger door from the sidewalk, ask again, and express copious gratitude if allowed on. I recognize that the drivers are not supposed to let passengers on or off the bus outside of designated stops, but a guy can dream. I am almost always let on, except by this one guy. I know this guy sees me, but in the instant after he does he locks his eyes forward in a lazy sort of way, as if he isn’t purposefully avoiding me until the light turns green. When I tap on his door and ask if I can be let on, he keeps his eyes forward. Sometimes he sighs, which I imagine is the only acknowledgement I’ll get. Now, I’m a rule follower. Have been most of my life. When others around me break or bend the rules, I’m usually the one to express concern. I am the Chuckie Finster of my friend group, the obedient canary in the coal mines of anarchy. That metaphor may have stretched the rules of good writing, and for that I apologize. See? See that concern? I warned you.

Anyway, what happens with this driver is that as it becomes clear he’s a black belt at the blank forward stare, I continue on to the bus stop to wait for the next one. I’m pretty sure it’s gotten to the point where this driver recognizes me, and that after he sees me he makes a point of looking forward so he won’t have to accidentally acknowledge me. I may be wrong, but I imagine if he were to reply to my knocks with something like, “I can’t let you on here,” I’d understand and walk on just the same. He’s certainly under no obligation to acknowledge me, but that he doesn’t has taken these encounters to new levels for me. For a while, I imagined myself yelling something spiteful through the door like, “Not letting me on isn’t making you’re life any easier,” or a simple, “Poor, poor, unhappy man.” I have been miserable in jobs before, and I know the feeling. I remember the compassion and the human drama that snapped me out of my unhappiness and gave me that extra bit of patience or understanding I needed to get through a tough shift. In my more elevated, thoughtful moods I fantasize about saying something like, “You don’t have to let me on, but please don’t ignore me. It hurts.” I would mean it.

My point in telling this story is that during these episodes I feel wrapped up in the day-to-day drama of my life, the narrative of my life, or the narrative of the bus driver. I feel it as a narrative, which is a purposeful thing, something to be mulled over and responded to. An ultimately meaningless and occasionally forgettable interaction becomes potent. I don’t like these encounters. They make me feel small, like I am being bullied, which has always been an emotional trigger of mine. This is a negative thing. It’s what I can do with it that becomes a positive thing.

There are layers to this story, a story which you probably feel I have already oversold. First, there’s my desire to tell it. The more encounters I accrue with this driver, the more I want to talk about it. “Let me talk about this jerk-face,” I say. “What a jerk-face, right?” As I retell it, I become the petty one, clinging to the story, using it to make myself the hero, the victim, and these feelings creep into how I feel about it, that I am small, that I am demonstrating myself to be exactly the sort of person worthy of such an offense, someone who can’t understand or see things from the driver’s point of view. Perhaps he’s tired. Perhaps he’s unhappy. Perhaps he really doesn’t see me because his vision isn’t so great, or he can’t hear me because he’s hard of hearing, in which case maybe the city should rethink the minimum physical requirements to being a bus driver. What I think the most likely scenario is for the driver is: It hurts to say no to someone. He’s probably a rule follower, too, and it’s less psychic weight on him to feign obliviousness than to say no to someone who could then easily turn out to be an asshole. With assholes, he either absorbs their insults or gives in, becoming the victim. It can be a gamble, one he makes multiple times a day. I put him in a tough spot.

I see these things, and even through empathy I cannot escape my own place in the tale. I feel ignored, insignificant, inconvenienced by a person who could easily help me out during this dark period, this period of obstructed ambulation. (It’s really a small inconvenience, but big words make it seem more of a plight.)

And here is where the story springs from, the inability of the event to resolve itself. I enjoy narratives. Narratives provide the illusion of meaning to an often meaningless world. I told the story to my boyfriend, to a coworker. I told it to myself several times. I anticipate seeing the driver again, rehearse scenes in my head, devise fantasies in which I unleash a confident and well-delivered rebuke to him, shaming him into opening the doors. Other times I imagine my anger dragging me to the point where I have a profound realization about forgiveness and letting go of the little things. Basically these episodes wind up taking me somewhere. Which is what a bus does. Or can do, depending on whether or not you are at a bus stop in time, or passing a friendly driver. You get it.

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New Story

Followers (hello? ECHO-Echo-echo . . .) will note that I haven’t posted anything new in a while. My boyfriend, Michael returned from 11 months travel at the end of May. I hope to return to this blog with more regular posts soon. In the meantime, I’m very happy to have a story in Amazon’s Day One this week. Day One is a weekly, digital-only journal that offers one short story, one poem, and new cover art every Wednesday for a ridiculously low price ($1.60 buys you a month’s subscription). If you miss the issue, my story “Of Equal or Lesser Value” will be a standalone piece available for purchase on Amazon forever-ish. I had a great experience working with their editors and hope you enjoy the story.

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Kevin Into Darkness

The first episode was such a cliché that I am ashamed to describe it. I was taking a class on representations of pain in literature my junior year of college. We were given an “either/or” assignment – either write a one-page research paper on an arcane piece of literature or write a short poem/prose piece inspired by a reading. Like most of my scholastically-engaged classmates, I chose the fluff assignment.

The summer before I’d worked as an assistant arts & crafts counselor at a day camp for rich kids. I hated it. Unlike the group counselors, the activity counselors didn’t get any scheduled breaks. The head arts & crafts counselor barked orders at us most of the day. The drive to the camp from home was almost an hour, and the parking system was carefully choreographed to fit all the staff vehicles in one poorly-sized lot, which also meant leaving the place sometimes took an extra half hour, assuming everyone made it to their cars on time. One of the other assistant counselors was a woman about 5 years my junior. At first I thought we’d have a decent working friendship, but her behavior quickly turned erratic. In the first week or two she would go from happy with me to pissed without warning. Her smile would turn to a scowl if I came near her. She once yelled at me during a session asking why I’d bitten her. I hadn’t. Then she grabbed my arm and set her teeth against my bare skin. I said something to the head counselor, who told me that we were adults and should handle it on our own. I kept my distance the rest of the summer. I wrote a poem about this and turned it in.

During the next class, the professor handed me back my poem and asked me to read it aloud. I was flattered. Typically when I was called on to do something in class, or in the moment right before a presentation, I’d feel a little flutter in my stomach, the rush of endorphins. The flutter would subside and I’d feel fine during the performance, but this time, for the first time, it did not subside. I started to read and heard my voice begin to quiver. A powerful knot tensed in the back of my neck. My heart pounded. My chest tightened, and I found it hard to breath. My vision blurred, and I lost track of the words on the page. I was certain I was about to pass out. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I have to stop.” My friend Greg read the rest of it for me. I recovered and listened, a bit embarrassed by the prima donna I appeared to be.

That’s it – a privileged, private college student in a class on pain in literature suffers a panic attack while reading a poem about summer camp. How precious. Would I prefer it if my first panic attack occurred while reading a poem so striking and powerful that it caused me to relive a profound trauma? Or if it had been provoked by enduring an actual trauma? Perhaps. That first one was probably just the result of an unfortunate confluence of events. I was asked to read something personal and unpolished enough without warning, and I wasn’t prepared. I got into a negative biofeedback loop, overreacted to my own symptoms of anxiety, compounded them, and I was overwhelmed.

I was well acquainted with anxiety, but these feelings were so intense and unnerving that I was terrified. I thought over them too much and came to associate them with reading aloud, the attention it took to keep my eyes moving on the page and speaking the words. I was afraid of being asked to read out loud in class and managed to avoid it for the rest of my undergraduate career. During a philosophy class in which I was supposed to read a page-long question I’d written about Nietzsche, I told the TA I wasn’t feeling well and bolted – something Nietzsche would have found amusing, I think.

It’s possible the first panic attack could have been a one-off thing, but my fear over a recurrence ensured future episodes. Like many after a panic attack, I generalized the experience. Rather then being surprised or forgiving, I looked for patterns in the experiences, tried to predict future occurrences, and in so doing manufactured new reasons to freak out. The thing expanded to more regions of my life. I’d never been afraid of public speaking before. In fact, I thought I was a damn good public speaker, but I began to dread the spotlight. I also thought I excelled at job interviews, but about three years after the first episode I experienced a panic attack in an interview and began to fear them, too. Then I had one during an innocuous meeting at the job I held at the time. I started to wonder if I’d ever be able to progress professionally at all.

No doubt you know what anxiety feels like, and panic. It is one of the symptoms of anxiety disorders that the afflicted often feels that his or her experiences are different, wholly new and unrelatable, which adds to a feeling of hopelessness or depression. For a long time it was like every experience had a new bottom. For every situation in which I wondered, “Could it get worse?” the answer was always yes. The pressures and expectations of the moment would be heightened by a fear of torture. This torture would come from within, and the harder I pushed against it, the more I disliked it or tried to reason it away, the tighter its grip would become. It would choke my breath, my sight, my ability to think. A day or two after a particularly bad episode, I will have muscle soreness in my chest, shoulders, and legs, a feeling that is vaguely flu-ish.

This news will surprise some of the people who know me. I don’t fit the profile. Many people with an anxiety disorder also suffer from a lack of assertiveness, which is not one of my problems. If I am mad or have a strong opinion about something, I’m not shy about sharing it. I did improv comedy and musical theater in college without any problems. I completed an MFA program in creative writing and started a workshop series at a nonprofit, both of which required a fair amount of reading aloud and public speaking. In class, I got to the point where I could read for a few minutes before I ran into trouble, longer if it was something I decided to do spontaneously. Dread primes the pump. When I participated in readings, I had at least one or two drinks beforehand – certainly not a healthy option, but enough to dull the fear. No good for job interviews or work meetings. A doctor recommended anti-anxiety meds. I wanted to find a way out without them. I thought that was important. “I’m concerned about what they’ll do to my brain chemistry,” I said. “I respect that,” he said, and added, “Do you know what the anxiety is doing to your brain chemistry?” Chronic anxiety constricts blood vessels. It disrupts sleep and digestion. It rewires the brain, priming it for future episodes and making it harder to break out of a slowly accelerating cycle. Touché, doctor. He recommended beta blockers, which are a medical wonder if you can predict your triggers by looking at an Outlook calendar.

An anxiety disorder can morph into a panic disorder, in which feelings of panic arrive frequently and without identifiable triggers. This can lead to agoraphobia and intense social anxiety. The afflicted restrict their experiences to the safe and predictable. Their lives become about pain management. For some this descent cannot be stopped – it is wired into their genes. For others, the first steps on this path are taken by a form of giving in, by turning away from the triggers that also happen to be a thing we want for ourselves. We decide the discomfort isn’t worth it and make a permanent retreat. The last time I bolted was in that philosophy class. I walked back to my dorm room more disappointed in myself than I’d ever been. To motivate myself now I think of future regret, the prospective pain of bolting or saying no. By committing myself to the things that scare me, I hope to learn to see the toothlessness behind the worry. I medicate, or intoxicate (mildly), or suffer through if an episode comes without warning. My panic is sometimes unnoticed. My lips quiver. My muscles tense. I struggle with my breathing, but I can get by, and maybe you wouldn’t notice the symptoms unless you were looking for them. It does not feel like succeeding, though in some ways it is.

I went to therapy. I found mindfulness, and the self-help books that helped me most appear in a previous blog entry, Help Yourself. There was a moment a month or two ago when, in a meeting, I noticed the germs of the thought patterns that lead to a freak-out. Could I stop the freak-out? I could not, but seeing it in the initial stages – the precise moment between la-dee-dah and oh no – felt like an accomplishment. Moments like these, when the feelings first become known and before they’ve gone into overdrive, feel like the key to defusing them.

I wonder sometimes what would have happened if I’d missed class that day. If I’d bypassed that first episode, would I ever have experienced its offshoots? Would I have lived with the dread of recurrences, or would I have gone on as I had, with an excited flutter in the stomach that subsides into alertness and acuity? I like to think that this path was inevitable. If it didn’t start then, it would have found me some other way. It makes the whole thing seem less fickle, and the experiences feel anything but fickle. If you are similarly afflicted, to you I say: It is not a fickle thing. It is profound, and it is a part of you. The sooner you meet it, the sooner you and it become acquainted (and you should become acquainted), the sooner you may be able to let it become unremarkable instead of crippling. It may hold nothing but stupid, repetitious lessons that seem to do nothing but interfere with your plans, your hopes, and your dreams, but unless you agree to revisit it bit by bit, again and again, your efforts to make it as meaningless as you want it to be may prove fruitless. And it is not meaningless. It is your life.

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A Proper Journal

Journal 012

“Same place, years later.”
A line from my journal, 8/19/06

In March 1998, at age 16, I thought I had figured things out. Things weren’t exactly how I wanted them – I wasn’t dating, and I wasted hours on television and video games after school – but I felt as though I understood something about how people should conduct themselves with others, and that I was doing a decent job of it. I had few secrets. In the world of high school politics, I didn’t feel that I was compromising who I was or wanted to be in order to be accepted. These feelings gloss over a few unsavory episodes, but they were true enough, and they were part of the narrative I put myself in.

It was the 90s, and amnesia was rampant on television and in movies. We were all one blow to the head away from forgetting everything (and possibly one more away from getting it all back). I was afraid of losing the understanding I had, and I started journaling as a way of getting it down should anything happen.

I am 32 now, which means I’ve been keeping a journal for half my life. Sometime last year I decided that the book I’m filling now will be the last handwritten journal, and that I will switch to keeping it electronically. It seemed right to start transcribing the old ones in case I ever lost them, or just as a way of going through them and remembering. My early entries are peppered with bits of wisdom from Richard Bach books and favorite movies. The space between these platitudes are embarrassing to read for how much they miss of what was going on in my life. I wrote about where I was in writing projects in the vaguest terms. Things were always “coming along” or “doing okay,” but the depth of what these were meant to capture are lost now. Sometimes what I wrote is enough to trigger a more complete memory. A weekend when I begged to be left at home while my parents went to visit my brother in college was covered only be two sentence at the time, but I remember the loneliness, the silence of the house, an adolescent fear of the dark that I thought had gone away. I did a summer studies course at Brown when I was 17 that I described only as “kick ass.” Thank goodness I had a photo album of that summer to help fill in the blanks. I add details to the transcriptions in footnotes to the extent that I can remember them.

Transcribing the journals has taught me that if I am to keep a journal, I ought to do it better. A good journal entry should function similar to how a candid snapshot does, or good writing in general. The entry should describe a moment and transport the subject to the place and feelings that surround it.

A snapshot of the author moving into his dorm room freshmen year.

A snapshot of the author moving into his freshman year dorm room, 2000.

A journal entry that describes feelings and leaves out their triggers does little to connect the author to his or her own past and loses what it meant to preserve. Thankfully the years of journaling do show some improvement on their own.

The other lesson of rereading the old entries has been about how some concerns or problems persist across a lifetime. I have many of the same fears about myself now that I did over a decade ago. They may go away for a while, but they always come back in some way. The cockiness of having things “figured out” that caused me to start journaling in the first place is gone. I mean, I generally like myself, and my life is good, and I am proud of myself for not compromising too much of myself, but the other problems are still there, sometimes more profound and troubling than they were at 16.

Part of mindfulness is learning to see consciousness as a narrative that we create for ourselves, a journal in itself, with attitudes as fleeting and malleable as we train them to be. Some spend their whole lives trying to learn this training in order to gain freedom or insight, but I have no intentions of becoming a monk. I don’t think I have it in me, and so will remain a layman of being. To reread my journals is to see the narrative laid out, to see how easily things could have been different in tenor or execution. In the moment things often seem so prescribed and inevitable. Recollection opens them up to possibility.

I can journal better, create more complete snapshots for the future, and in so doing perhaps the past will do a better job of informing the present.

The author, his boyfriend, and one of his best friends in a hotel room after a wedding, 2013.

The author, his boyfriend, and one of his best friends in a hotel room after a wedding, 2013.

Some keep a journal expecting it to be read by loved ones, or the masses, or by no one at all. I imagine no audience outside myself, and I’d like to keep it that way. A journal can serve any number of purposes. For me, that purpose is to provide a little perspective, to give more consideration to the machinations of a life in progress. The only part of Virginia Woolf’s diaries I can remember is a few lines in which she wonders what her husband, Leonard, will do with them after she dies. I picture him reading those lines, wondering the same thing, seeing that she forecast it. What would I do with the worksheets of someone else’s life? What would I want them to do with mine? When I am gone I will not care. Until then, these things are a jumble. The thing they attempt to describe is a jumble. Pardon me while I try sorting them out.

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March 17, 2014 · 6:44 am

The Banana Bread Post

Banana Bread 1
My unofficial goal with this blog has been to post a new entry every two weeks on Mondays. Tomorrow is a due date, and I have nothing. I had time, but I couldn’t think of something to write about, and work at my new job was busy and writing-intensive enough this week to make me feel like I should forgive myself for not writing at home. I was going to give myself a pass for tomorrow, but given how much time I wasted yesterday – a beautiful, temperate Saturday that I spent watching Call the Midwife on Netflix and running a failed errand for a replacement mop sponge – I ought to punish myself by crashing a blog entry deadline. I’m baking banana bread right now. It just went into the oven and I’m using the hour of bake-time to write this. To my readers, I’m sorry. I brought this on myself, and now I inflict it on you.

I recently wrote about how being an overly pragmatic person has its drawbacks. At the moment, one of those drawbacks is finding things to do with a 5 pound bag of unbleached flour. I bought it to make peanut butter cookies a few months ago, but flour goes bad, and 5 pounds is way too much for the amount of cookies I had in mind. Even without using the entire 5 pounds, I ended up giving away half of the batch. I hate wasting food. We live in perhaps the most privileged, wasteful country on the globe. Every time I see a leaky faucet or a tin can in regular trash or a partially-used 5 pound bag of flour in my kitchen cabinet I imagine the Roland Emmerich-style hell-scape that’s in store for future generations. No – that’s an exaggeration – but it does make me a little sad. Perhaps as it might have been in missing this blog posting deadline, I would have given myself a pass months from now when the flour expired and tossed it. I would have forgiven myself for it eventually, probably without therapy, which would have made my old therapist very happy, and maybe I would have scheduled an appointment so he could share in the accomplishment, and since I was already there maybe I’d dive into this flour stuff a little deeper with him to make sure there isn’t really any residual sadness there, thus negating the whole point of the visit. Thank god that didn’t happen.

As long as I’m going for too much honesty in this post I might as well mention that I’ve just taken my shirt off, which is something I do if I’m at home by myself and feeling a little anxious. It mostly has to do with keeping sweat stains off clean shirts that I intend to wear out later.

Transition!! I have a few dietary issues. I can’t eat dairy, nuts, seeds, or high-fructose corn syrup without suffering for it 40 minutes to 24 hours later. This started about five years ago and took some trial-and-error to figure out. I’ve always been a trim guy, but since this began it’s been impossible for me to put on weight. I’m at a comfortable, healthy size, but often when I travel I end up losing a few pounds by being overly cautious or misled by waitstaff about what’s in the food. My relationship to food became more complicated because food sometimes ruined sleep, dates, pleasant afternoons in the park, and, almost one time, a favorite pair of pants. For a while I scaled way back, cutting out things it turned out later I can handle, like fried food and red meat. Desserts were basically off the table. I could have sorbets and fruit pops. I dabbled in these with feigned enthusiasm.

A few years ago on my birthday some friends and I were at Jamjuree, my favorite Thai restaurant in Seattle. They told the waitstaff it was my birthday, and after the meal a scoop of ice cream was delivered to the table. I said something about how nice a gesture this was, but I wouldn’t be able to eat it. My friends pointed out that this was coconut milk ice cream – dairy-free. I was skeptical that I’d be able to tolerate it, but I tried anyway. It was delicious, and it turns out I can tolerate it just fine. This was a very happy discovery. It had been so long since I’d had ice cream, and I forgot how nice it is. For my fellow-afflicted, I recommend Bluebird‘s horchata ice cream and anything from Coconut Bliss.

TRANSITION!!! My mom made the switch from butter to Earth Balance a few years ago. For some reason, it took me a while to catch on and consider using it as a butter substitute in baking. Fortunately I started dating an amazing man last year who does all he can to make me happy. When I tell him I can’t eat something, the gears start going in his head imagining a way to make it work. He’s also a little brighter than I am when it comes to figuring out that a butter substitute can be used to substitute for butter. He’s gluten-intolerant, which makes us quite a pair. We got some gluten-free flour and Earth Balance and made the first of many batches of peanut butter cookies.

(I feel like I could put my t-shirt back on if I wanted to. I wonder what made me nervous. Is this really such a revealing blog post? I’m such a lightweight for personal revelation today.)

I didn’t think I had much of a sweet tooth. Even before things went downhill I usually found cake and soda to be sickeningly sweet. Michael, my boyfriend, encouraged me to look for tasty treats I could enjoy or that we could make ourselves with some tweaking. He’d ask questions at restaurants or read labels even when I told him I wasn’t that interested, and often it turned out that I was interested, but desserts sometimes taste better if there’s a bit of a martyr’s complex to work through on the way. I’m starting to get better at looking out for my own treats, and a happy discovery this year has been dairy-free chocolate. Trader Joe’s has a few good choices, as does Seattle’s Theo Chocolate.

Sidebar: I just had this flash of how this blog post would end. Sometimes when I’m working on a story and the ending becomes clear it is both a relief and disappointment. It means the story will fall into it’s neat little narrative box. Choices have been made. Whatever it might have been has given way to what it is. The mystery is over. Soon I’ll have to go back and consider whether or not it actually hangs together. Maybe it won’t. Maybe it was a big waste of time. In the case of this blog post, which I’ve committed myself to posting anyway, this has a high probability. I got up to check how much bake time remains as a stalling tactic. About 17 minutes, if you’re curious. I should also confess that some of this writing time has been interrupted by texting with my friend Anita about our dinner plans tonight.

I had substitutes for ice cream. I had peanut butter cookies and chocolate. What I really wanted, though, was a chocolate chip cookie. I used to love them. I made Nestle Toll House cookies with my mom as a kid, and at a restaurant in Santa Monica called Babalu, my brother and I once split a huge and amazing $3 chocolate cookie, which has become the stuff of legend in family lore. I looked at the label of a few chocolate chip bags in Safeway a few months ago. Sadly, all the ones I saw had dairy in them. I considered chopping up dark chocolate bars to make chips, but while looking for the right bars in Trader Joe’s, I found some dairy-free chocolate chips. Trader Joe’s wins again!

Soon I will make chocolate chip cookies, but before that I thought I should make something else to put a bigger dent in all this flour. I do like banana bread, and I’m looking forward to having a loaf with chocolate chips that won’t make me heartsick with longing – or any other kind of sick. Banana bread can also pass as not-dessert more easily than cookies, which might help with the guilt of eating it. Should I have just made cookies first? When I think I should have, there’s this ghost of a banana bread loaf that appears in my mind crying over its own aborted conception. The cookies do not cry out like this. They know they’re arrival is inevitable. The banana bread, though – it was touch and go for a while. Charity for imagined baked goods. Maybe I should call that therapist anyway.

Banana Bread:
8 tbsp Earth Balance
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3 large ripe bananas, mashed
1 tsp vanilla
3/4 cups chocolate chips (optional)

Mix it all together thoroughly. Bake for an hour in a bread loaf pan at 350. Bake for additional 5-minute intervals if necessary until a knife pulls out of the loaf without any uncooked batter on it.

Banana Bread 2


Filed under life

Picture Books

I’ve been an active reader since high school. At some point I realized there was a certain amount of burnout for me with particular genres, and I’d need a break before returning to them. I imagine most other “bookies” (can we co-opt this term for book lovers or will someone break my knees?) have similar habits. If I’ve been reading classics, I usually want to follow up with something young adult. I only venture into poetry for brief bursts. Gay memoir is a preferred palate cleanser, but the best stand-by, the most pleasurable, the kind I’m most likely to devour over the course of only a few sittings and recommend, are graphic novels. Comic books.

Most of us are taught to read from picture books. The images help hold attention and ease the transition to literacy. I remember at a young age seeing the pure text of the books my parents read and being bewildered by it. How tedious. What do words create in the mind? They were beyond me for another few years. Oscar’s Book was the first book I was ever able to read on my own through a combination of memorization and word recognition – a method I’ve heard is common for first-time readers.

Oscar's Book

Through middle school I read Garfield, The Far Side, and Calvin and Hobbes on my own most nights before bed, and I resented assigned reading in school as much as the average student. At some point I came to appreciate the pleasure of written words without pictures. I recognized the moments when graphics and images seemed to detract from the text instead of add to it. There is a pleasure in being allowed to imagine certain scenes and characters on one’s own. I was gifted a few random comics – Batman, Silver Surfer – but even at a young age I found them a bit predictable and uninteresting. I don’t mean that to sound snobbish – the truth is that there are lot of great comics out there, but if you pick a few at random from a store shelf you’re likely to be disappointed. Like most literature, you need to know what you’re looking for. You need to know the writers, illustrators, and publishers who produce quality work. Those who bought me those first comics had no idea, and neither did I.

About five years ago I read a glowing review of Blankets by Craig Thompson. My office was below one of the libraries at the University of Washington, the one that happened to store the graphic novel collection. I picked up the heavy book and was charmed by Thompson’s drawing style. I checked out the book and was swept up by the story, an autobiographical portrait of the conservative home Thompson grew up in and his first troubled romance.

Thompson - Blankets

Thompson - Blankets 3

Thompson - Blankets 2
Before this I had been unaware of graphic novels as an established, mature way of storytelling. I was unaware of the Eisner and Harvey Awards. One of the great conveniences of modern life is being able to find more of the things we like based on other things we like. Tracking and data collection, those double-edged swords, have led to wonderful recommendation tools used on sites like Netflix and Goodreads (now owned by Amazon). Through them I found my next graphic novel, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Also highly-praised and autobiographical, the narrative jumps back and forth in time as Bechdel struggles with family secrets (including her own) in the wake of her father’s death.

Bechdel - Fun Home 1

Bechdel - Fun Home 2

Bechdel - Fun Home 3
Blankets and Fun Home have a lot in common. They are both coming-of-age stories in which children react against the constraints of their home life. Physical affection plays a big part in both, too, but while the main plot of Blankets concerns a young love affair, Fun Home offers a more troubled and nuanced exploration of a very complicated family. Bechdel is exceptionally versed in the intricacies of narrative. I could go on about both books, but before this turns into an all-out gush-fest on my favorite graphic novels I should get to the thing I’ve been wondering about: How is a story told in pictures different than one told without?

There’s an argument to be made that the tradition of comics is more primal than other written forms. Cave drawings predate written language, and who’s to say that those first drawings weren’t an attempt to capture narratives? Text-based narratives are likely born out of oral storytelling traditions. (It’s easy to guess how first- and third-person forms came about in the early days. Boff: “You’ll never believe what happened to me today in the jungle.” Tok: “Did you hear what happened to Boff in the jungle?”) From histories and reportage came myths and fantasies, and we codified what seemed to be the most relevant and powerful of these as part of our cultural heritage. At some point we went from simple narratives to attempts at capturing the quality of human thought in words – of getting the reader not just into a scene, but into the mind of the person experiencing it. And there’s post-modernism, which takes the conventions of narrative and explodes them, challenging our expectations and, often, our attention spans.

We tell stories as a way of connecting with other people. We teach lessons through them, entertain, elicit sympathy, or provoke thought. A fully conscious writer attempts to pick the best possible setting, characters, plot, and structure for a particular project. What is the best way to get this across? she wonders. To choose images, panels, and dialogue boxes – what do choices like these mean?

To me, the most apparent effect is nostalgia. We are taught to read alongside pictures, and so reading mature stories alongside pictures harkens back to those early days, warm and cared for in my parents’ bed as I was taken for an enjoyable, benign, imaginative stroll before sleep.

But it goes deeper than that. There’s a reason pictures are used in children’s books. It is because pictures are compelling in a way that written and spoken words are not. Consider the emoticon.

Are you considering it? Why not?

emoticon 2Now look what you did!

The emoticon – the oft-used tonal symbol of emails and text exchanges – has taken up permanent residence in our communications. It’s a quick way of attempting to help our readers know how to take what we’ve said. They let the reader know that a problem is no biggie, or that we’re in on a joke together, or that something was a bummer, but maybe not so much of a bummer to cause us to avoid resorting to the unseriousness of an emoticon in describing it. We use emoticons for precisely the same reason picture books are used to teach language and narrative to children: A visual understanding of the world came before a language-based one, and in many ways it is still more engaging and compelling than words alone.

A panel from The Maxx by Sam Kieth with Bill Messner-Loebs

A panel from The Maxx by Sam Kieth

Writers are taught to “show, not tell.” They try to signal that a character feels an emotion rather than explicitly saying “She felt X,” the idea being that the reaction in the reader will be more interesting if they are able to arrive at it on their own. One could argue that comics excel at “showing” if the art captures an expression, posture, or tone well enough. One could also argue that comics show too much. In reading a novel, the reader takes the author’s words and creates the visual world of the story on their own. Words provide the clues, but the finer points, to the extent they come into play at all, are left to the reader. The things that matter in a text-based story are the things that can be conveyed in language, but it’s often more natural or common for us to absorb information visually. (I’m excluding the experiences of the visually-challenged as I go about this; that’s a perspective I’d be curious to hear.) The history of “reading” visual cues is much deeper and broader in us than that of textual ones.

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware

Symbols in graphic novels sometimes seem to have more potency than written symbols. In Cyril Pedrosa’s Three Shadows, the three shadows represent an impending tragedy. The story follows a father’s efforts to forestall the inevitable death of his son. The figures are more mysterious for their ambiguity – an ambiguity that is more upsetting because it arrives wordlessly.

Three Shadows
Shaun Tan’s The Arrival tells the story of a man who emigrates from his crumbling home country hoping to establish himself before bringing his family. The short book is told completely without words. The written language that does appear in the book only highlights the universality of images over language.

Tan - The Arrival
Tan - The Arrival 2
Remarkably, The Arrival is a story that would make little sense to a child. It requires knowledge of refugees and the bureaucracy of trying to establish residency that are simply beyond a child’s frame of reference. Adults easily navigate through the book without further explanation. We share in the main character’s bewilderment at his new environment, and his frustrations to understand and to be understood. Plus, the art is lovely.

There are plenty of reasons to prefer pure-text books over graphic novels. For one thing, you could argue that our experiences of pure-text are more subjective because how we visualize the story is more personal and unique; at the end of a graphic novel, everyone has pretty much seen the same thing. Another reason is the length of the journey. A pure-text novel takes longer to move through than a graphic novel. Text also takes more mental work to engage with. These things combine to create a more entrenched and ruminative experience. Comics move quickly, leaving little time for reflection. There are also fewer books to choose from. To make a good pure-text book requires being a good writer. To make a good graphic novel requires that and being/partnering with a good illustrator. They are more labor-intensive to make and more expensive to publish.

I wouldn’t argue against any of that, and I’m sure those are just some of the reasons to prefer text over comics. I often prefer pure-text, myself. Thank goodness we can have both.

Calvin and Hobbes
Here are some other recommendations. I’d love to hear yours in the comments.

Alan Moore: The Killing Joke, Watchmen
Frank Miller: Batman: Year One, The Dark Knight Returns
Ellen Forney: Marbles
David Small: Stitches
Daniel Clowes: David Boring
Fabio Moon: Daytripper
Jason: Low Moon

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Filed under art, books

The Benefits of Occasionally Being Someone Else

When I was a cub scout, we were assigned the relatively benign activity of making finger-paint art. Kids dipped their thumbs in red paint, smooshed it onto blank canvases, and made the blotches into faces with legs and arms. They added scenery and action. The smiling ridges of their digits skied, swam, and operated small farming communities – basically living out a thumb-sized American Dream. I stared at my paper tray of red paint a bit unsettled, a bit unhappy. The scout leader approached. “You haven’t started.”

“I don’t want to get my fingers dirty.”

He looked at me, himself a bit unsettled now, trying to understand how finger paint equated with dirt in the mind of a 7-year-old boy. My life as a scout was short-lived.

Flash forward a few years to summer camp. I went to Island Lake, a sleep away camp in rural Pennsylvania, for a few weeks five years in a row. The camp allowed us to make our own activity schedules. If we didn’t like sports then no sports for us. I took classes in candle-making, stained glass, drawing, and magic tricks. I hardly saw my bunk-mates during the day, who were off doing things like softball, soccer, and entry-level mountaineering.

There were a few regular disasters that befell me each summer. The first was the outbreak of color war, when the usual schedule was interrupted for a 3 or 4 day competition that pit camper against camper, typically involving feats of strength and athletic prowess. (If the challenge involved making a mobile or watercolor I would have been formidable, but no war has ever been fought this way. Not even a color war.) The start of color war was signaled by a camp-wide prank. Mattresses were dragged out of bunks and laid out on the playing fields one year. Campers were ambushed leaving the dining hall by a barrage of water pistols. There were a few fake pranks in the lead-up to color war meant to elicit excitement, but only provoked dread in me. It made sense that the routine and security of our regular schedules would start with something inconvenient and unexpected. For the other kids it was the start of an adventure. For me, the interruptions of routine were cruel. I thought part of the reason we paid adults for their watchful care was to avoid these things.

The other regular disaster was the annual trip to Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom. Unlike color war, we saw this one coming. It was on the schedule. There were permission slips. Other kids looked forward to the day-long excursion, and I’ll admit that I had fun once I got there, but I never looked forward to it. The itinerary for the day – the bus ride, checking in, dividing into groups, finding lockers, and the many unknowns that followed – loomed in my mind like a midterm exam. I ran imaginary practice drills never quite getting over whatever it was that was bothering me.

And camp as a whole – I never wanted to go. I fought tooth-and-nail one year, bringing myself and my parents to tears as they pried me from the upstairs bedroom and dragged me to the car. I was about 15. At the time I made the argument about my ability to make my own life choices, but the more honest and troubling answer is that I have a great aversion to “adventures,” even the tame ones.

This aversion often seems like a defect. Life, as it’s taught to children (especially male children), is depicted in books, on television, and in movies as a series of adventures. I was a fine spectator of adventures, but I was definitely the Chuckie Finster (“I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Tommy”) or Doug Funnie of life – more content to observe and chronicle then to participate.

About year ago, Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick posited a Unified Theory of Muppets:

Chaos Muppets are out-of-control, emotional, volatile . . . They make their way through life in a swirling maelstrom of food crumbs, small flaming objects, and the letter C. . . Order Muppets . . . tend to be neurotic, highly regimented, averse to surprises and may sport monstrously large eyebrows. They sometimes resent the responsibility of the world weighing on their felt shoulders, but they secretly revel in the knowledge that they keep the show running.

All people, Lithwick suggests, fall somewhere along this spectrum. My place on it is pretty clear. I have a great respect for caution tape and rope lines and little patience for mischief and inebriation.

I don’t like this about myself. At a reading, David Sedaris told a story about a wacky French teacher he once had and how he chose to sit as close to the front of her class as he could. Someone asked him later why. “Why wouldn’t I?” he said in mock flabbergast, going on to explain that for a writer the material this woman spun off was gold. Forget being a writer; for living a life, adventure is important. The idea of breaking out of one’s comfort zone isn’t new, and the benefits are widely known. So it is sometimes necessary for me to pretend to be someone else. Specifically, I try to be this guy:

Chesthair McTireless
That guy is Chesthair McTireless. Chesthair came into existence in 2010 when my mom and step-dad scheduled a visit to Seattle. For years mom had wanted to see more of the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest during her visits, places like Victoria, Mount Rainier, and the San Juan Islands. Those things all required renting a vehicle and at least a 2-hour drive from the city. Every year I talked her down and planned easy things for us that I was already familiar with like neighborhood walks and city site-seeing. Over time I saw how familiar and unremarkable I was keeping these visits, and I got tired of talking her out of what she really wanted to do. So I let Chesthair take over planning. One result was a very pretty, very memorable excursion to Paradise at Rainier.

Paradise at Rainier
My brother asked in that same year if I wanted to visit two of his friends in Dubai for Christmas. I said, “Oh man,” and those were the last words I uttered before Chesthair put in an emphatic yes.

When one of my best friends suggested I visit her in Brussels during her half-year of traveling, I tossed off a non-committal, “I’ll look into it.” Then Chesthair jumped on Expedia and booked a flight.

Chesthair knows that he can only take control long enough to say yes to an invitation or buy a ticket to a place I wouldn’t otherwise go. I can sometimes wriggle out of the obligations he’s made, but he also knows that saying no to an adventure after first saying yes requires more of a reckoning. My thing is: I know that when whatever I do is over I will come home again. The adventure will be a memory, and memories often fade. Maybe I will also have a bad time, or be disappointed, or be tired and uncomfortable and want the experience to be over. So why not skip ahead to being home and comfortable? Chesthair’s thing is: You’re not dead yet. Take a nap and then let’s go.

Bad things have sometimes happened as a result. At times I’ve been lost, hungry, exhausted, scared, confused, overwhelmed, soaked, and sick when I might otherwise have been whittling away at my Netflix queue. Those discomforts weigh more heavily in my mind than in Chesthair’s, for whom even the discomforts are part of the adventure. His wisdom is in finding delight in the temporarily unfortunate, how it adds to the spice of life and can make for amusing anecdotes. Part of joy’s value comes from our experience of its absence. This is a hard lessons for a person like me to learn. Fortunately, I’m not always in charge.


Filed under life