MFA Graduation 079I can’t remember what got me thinking about it, but about two years ago I started wanting to do audio interviews with my parents about their lives. They’d talked to my brother and I about their childhoods before, their parents, their jobs, hobbies, and about parenthood. There were other things they talked about obliquely, or not at all, like their divorce. There were the details of their lives that bored us, the stories they repeated ad nauseam, and then there were things they never bothered to articulate because they were so far in the past or trivial.

Parents. They can drive you nuts, amirite? They’re just so…inescapable. Was I looking forward to prompting some of the same old stories for the umpteenth time? I found that I was. My brother and I are fortunate to have extremely loving, supportive, and likable parents. Both in their mid-sixties, they’re still active and youthful. Mom is a fan of South Park and Amy Schumer and dad was the surprise guest at my brother’s bachelor party earlier this year. But even the best of parents must surely wear on the most doting of children, and wear on me they did, especially in high school, when I what I wanted most was to be left alone.

As children, our parents were the most important people in the lives of my brother and me. Our adolescent affection for them probably lasted longer than it does for most kids. I remember one time when I was about 13 walking down the street with my dad and holding his hand as we passed two popular girls from my class. They saw us, smiled, said hi, and surely chuckled or at least gave one another a little eyebrow raise after we’d passed. It didn’t occur to me until they saw us that I probably looked pretty uncool, and I think that was the last time I held my dad’s hand in public. It was around this time, probably even years before, that I started to make larger parts of myself unavailable to them. Of course they’d already made parts of themselves unavailable to us, but I didn’t know it, or didn’t care. For example my brother and I didn’t always know when they were unhappy; they didn’t want us to worry about them.

About 3 years ago I visited a friend living in Brussels and we took a weekend trip to Amsterdam. It was a fantastic trip, which included lots of writing time, site-seeing, poor French, code words, and, in one instance, an inebriated viewing of Downton Abbey. (Pro-tip: Downton Abbey becomes exceedingly hard to follow while under the influence.) The most somber portion of our trip was our tour of the Anne Frank house, and the most evocative and emotional moment of the tour for me came from watching a video of Anne’s father, Otto.

Otto was the sole family survivor following the holocaust, and the sentiment he expresses in the video, that most parents don’t really know their children, struck me as particularly painful. Through Anne’s diary, Otto was given extraordinary access to his daughter’s private life and thoughts, and one of the great tragedies (and gifts, I suppose) of the diary is how he came to know her more intimately after she was lost to him.

After the tour, I began to think about the ways in which my parents and I don’t know each other. Inspired by the tour, and with a healthy affection for NPR and audio podcasts, I floated the idea to my parents and bought an audio recorder. (I didn’t own a smartphone at the time, but I imagine the Voice Memo feature on my phone would’ve done the job just fine.) I took about half of the questions from StoryCorps’s great questions website. The rest I made up from details I already knew about my parents’ lives. I tried to divide the interview sections into 20-year increments, and then there was a wrap-up section that had general questions that didn’t fit into a specific time frame. The list of questions filled about 4 double-spaced pages. I figured each interview would last about 3 hours. They were closer to 5. Here are some of the things I asked:

  • Tell me what you know about your parents from before you were born.
  • What was your relationship like with them?
  • When you were a kid, what did you think your life would be like when you were older?
  • How has being a parent changed you?
  • What have you enjoyed most about your career?
  • Are there pieces of art, like movies, books, or music, that have always stayed with you? What are they and what about them is so meaningful to you?
  • What are some of your biggest regrets?
  • Are there things in our family you think we make an effort to not talk about?
  • What advice would you give your 30-year-old self if you could?

Dad’s interview came second, and at the end we just started listing some of the random memories that came to our mind. This wasn’t originally part of my agenda, but I liked it so much that I went back and did it with mom.

The act of conducting these interviews was more stressful than I anticipated. Parts of the conversations were intense or uncomfortable. The conversations also commanded focused attention. After an hour or two, I found that my shoulders and neck were extremely tense. I had a migraine the night following my mom’s interview, and she had a sympathy migraine.

I imagined after we went through this exercise that I would know them better. The thing is I feel like my brother and I already know our parents pretty well, and while the interviews did touch on things we’d never talked about before, and explored the familiar in greater depth, I feel I can only claim to know my parents 1-2% better, but that feels significant. Even momentous.

This, or something like it, is a thing you should do. Photographs and home movies provide only snapshots. They are immediate and present, but also isolated and fleeting. They miss the larger stories of history and identity. Interviews are something different. They are a zoom-out of the camera lens, the DVD commentary. They capture mom and dad’s attempts to string all of those individual moments together, to make sense of them. Rather than show a moment from their lives, they share the story of how mom and dad feel about those lives. Imagine a great conversation with someone you love, something wide-ranging and personal, and imagine how nice it would be to be able to relive that, word-for-word, whenever you’d like. Though my parents will never be fully knowable to me, just as I will never be fully knowable to them, the moments in which we reveal ourselves to each other are potent and lasting.


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The New Malaise

Trigger warning: This blog entry may cause a profound, existential bummer.

If you’ve ever recovered from a tragedy, and maybe even if you haven’t–if you’ve experienced and are still trapped by tragedy–you might recognize the human capacity for a complex pattern of self-delusion. The things that cause our sadness do not vanish from our memories. We heal with time, sometimes completely. Through distance and analysis the pain becomes tolerable, but once these things have started they can trigger a stark and terrible realization. The main features of this realization are:

  • The universe is largely chaotic, unpredictable, and very big. Yeah, okay, there are the sciences, which do allow some degree of predictability, but at the moment you’re still subject to innumerable, cascading variables. Examples: accidents, sudden illness, economic or social conditions, weather. These are the things that science has not yet found a way to predict to our satisfaction. Add to these the fact that in the scheme of things, we are very, very small. We live for an infinitesimal fraction of time. The advent of record-keeping techniques makes us as a species feel bigger than we are. (Thomas Jefferson! Genghis Khan! Muhammad! SAPPHO!) Though these people have had profound and lasting impacts on human culture, their presence, their being, is over now, and for every name and impact you can credit in recorded history, there are perhaps trillions of others that you cannot. And this is all on a human scale, which is to say that our history is the tortoise shell we carry on our backs–built to scale, portable, and temporary. Time and space are very, very big, and from the top of them you cannot see a damn thing.

  • Meaning and purpose, in the broader sense, are human-made. Do you like painting? A piece of music? Do you enjoy time spent with loved ones? Me too! (Except for painting, which requires cleaning up after, and though I love cleaning, I dislike the things that precede it.) These things are all internal to you and the non-sociopathic people around you. (I can’t presume to speak for sociopaths.) The thing is that when you go, the meaning you’ve internalized from these things go with you. But these things exist as part of a network, so the things that are valued and cherished for you are also valued and cherished by your survivors. Unless you believe in a supreme being, when you and your network go, the importance of these things go, too. Even if you do believe in a supreme being, there’s a question of what kind of intervention or influence can be expected from such a creature, and what will it accomplish.

Maybe I’ve lost you already. After all, you’re a happy person, or a driven person, or a person with optimism and hope. You feel connected to people, activities, objects, spiritualism, and other things in the world. You’re invested. You’re aware of your limited time here, but you don’t dwell on it, and dwelling seems to be the operative word here. After all, what’s the value in thinking about these things?

The value in thinking about these things is that they can provoke a sense of loneliness and longing, and one of the things people do when they feel these emotions is seek out others. These emotions motivate us to create the very meaning and connections they undercut. When a light is shined on these ideas, something in our nature causes us to further the delusion, to sweep the nihilism under the rug, which is not easy work, by the way. Frederick Nietzsche (in what could easily be a misreading on my part) wrote that this work of using reason to combat nihilism is “one of the greatest crises, a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity.” There’s a balance to these notions, yin and yang. There’s THE TRUTH and then there’s the truth of how we live knowing it, because a life of despair and hopelessness is hardly worth living.

The mechanism we use to combat the darkness is akin to putting on a sort of blinders. We enlarge ourselves, see ourselves as perhaps more important and special than we truly are, which results in pride and self-esteem, but maybe also in a lack of global compassion, because it can be hard, exhausting, to care for and love those we do not know, or those we know and do not like. I care for my friends and family. I may even care for the people known to my friends and family. Similarly I may care for my parents, my grandparents, my prospective children and their children, but go one or two generations out from there and the level to which I experience visceral concern drops precipitously.

At this point I might as well admit that I’m talking about climate change, or at least one of its casualties, which is a sense of human permanence. I will die, but I think I was unaware until recently of how important it was to me that people as a species go on. Humans have existed in our present form for millennia, and our awareness of our environmental impact on a global scale is probably not older than 100-150 years. In all that time, the overwhelming majority of us have grown accustomed to an unsustainable way of life, and not just the luxuries they afford, but the economies and interests built around them. Coal mines have produced economic fat cats and stifled labor rights, but they’ve also fed families, sent kids to school, and supported a middle-class lifestyle. It would take a major course correction to make up for all the bad things we’ve come to depend on. I don’t think we have it in us unless we’re forced, and I don’t know if we’d let anyone force us.

My generation and the ones that follow will adapt in one of two ways. Our lifestyles will be dramatically curtailed in order to reduce our carbon footprint or we’ll continue with some form of the superficial and inadequate concessions we’re asked to make now, and someday our progeny (maybe even us) will find themselves living in a post apocalyptic nightmare of floods, drought, famine, and war over a dwindling number of resources. In Africa, Asia, and South America, versions of these things have already begun.

It’s not my intention to argue the virtues of drastic action here. That’s being done elsewhere by smarter, more informed individuals, and despite efforts to change things, that change seems to be coming far too little, far too late.

This scale and quantity of bad news can only provoke a kind of learned hopelessness, so sad and insurmountable that it’s understandable why people pump even more energy and faith into the illusion of human meaning and purpose. In the wake of a significant loss like a death or a breakup, we are more primed for emotional triggers. Every setback or bored, lonely moment seems to tie back to the bigger tragedy. A malaise is not quite a depression, not quite sadness. It’s more of a nagging uneasiness, a tinge in the back of the spirit. The tragedy, for the time being, is only half-glimpsed, and its weight on the spirit can be hard to quantify, but the feeling is something like this: I want the universe to go on being appreciated on a human scale, in human language. The likelihood that it might not is hard to imagine, but it’s not required that we imagine it. We need the world to go on. It does not need us, nor does it need go on at all.

Sunset from Cal Anderson Park

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A Bit of Gratitude

59 SecondsA few years ago I read 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute by Richard Wiseman. A lofty title, for sure, but what a confident, sturdy surname that Wiseman has! The notion of the book is that there are little psychological quirks or activities we can exploit to improve our lives, and that these activities each take less than a minute. I enjoyed the book, but wouldn’t recommend it – so many of Wiseman’s arguments rely on what seemed to me problematic interpretations of psychological studies – but there were a few activities in the book that I’ve found to be effective, if not original in Wiseman’s telling. The most prominent of these is the happiness journal, more commonly known as a gratitude journal.

As I have sometimes practiced it (a slight variation from Wiseman’s), the journal goes like this: Once a day on a five-day rotation, you set aside a little time to answer the following prompts:

Day 1: List three things you generally have going for you that you noticed or remember drawing on in the last week. You can also state what happened that made you appreciate it. Sometimes this can be as simple and obvious as “taste buds, because dinner was awesome” or “all my limbs because I did all of those limb-related activities,” but there’s no harm in going big if something more extraordinary comes to mind.

Day 2: Write about a terrific memory. What happened? How did it feel? What made it so special?

Day 3: What are three things you’re looking forward to in the week ahead and why? They don’t need to be big. I have written more than once about cereal.

Day 4: Write a letter to someone special in your life telling them how much they mean to you. No need to send it, but I haven’t regretted the few times I did.

Day 5: Write about three things that happened in the last week that went your way. Again, these can be small, like finding a good parking space or leaving work after a heavy rain had stopped.

Some of the reasoning behind this list is that the intentional act of reflecting on what we’re grateful for can prime us to be more appreciative of other things, big and small, in our daily lives. Gratitude is a muscle that becomes increasingly receptive with repeated use. Wiseman also argues that writing these things down as opposed to just thinking them is an important exercise, as it helps cement the activity and makes us more present with the thoughts as we articulate them.

So, at the end of the year and after a 4 month hiatus from blogging, I’d like write about some of the things I’ve recently been grateful for.

Michael and MeMy partner, Michael. Eleven months of seeing the world and he still decided I was worth coming home to. Michael is one of the few people I never get tired of being around. If I’m unhappy or grumpy or frustrated, he’ll support me through it or give me the space I need to recuperate on my own. He’s one of the first people I go to if I need to talk through something I’m struggling with. He makes me laugh, and his velociraptor impression is unparalleled. We moved in together this fall and he’s made our home a beautiful, warm place. (If it had been me, we would have had newsprint taped to the wall as “art” and Formica everything.) I have tremendous respect for Michael’s thoughtfulness, his strength, and energy. He never forgets to let me know how much he loves me through his words and his actions, and he makes me very happy.

The internet. In May, this video made the rounds on social media lamenting our obsession with technology (ironically). The poem in the video basically argues that we need to make the choice between an active, engaged life or flushing all of that down the drain in favor of an ill-defined mental masturbatorium. Sure, some people spend too much time on their phones, and some people air their grievances thoughtlessly and prolifically online, but the video sets up a false comparison. The internet is nearly the sum of all human knowledge and opinions, and most of it is available for public consumption to anyone living in a free society with the means to access it. The video suggests that technology keeps people from forming meaningful connections, ignoring that dating and meet-up apps are bringing together people who might never have met without these resources. Michael and I, living in different cities and with no friends in common, met through OkCupid about four years ago and fell in love about two years later. And let’s not forget about, say, a transgendered kid growing up in an isolated, judgmental place who might know nothing about the community they belong to if not for the internet, or a person living under an oppressive government using Twitter and Facebook to coordinate activities with other activists. Consumer sites tailor product recommendations based on our taste, introducing us to new books and music. LinkedIn facilitates professional connections. Just now, YouTube taught me an easier way to peal ginger (with a spoon!). Earlier this year. Skype and Google Chat helped Michael and me keep in touch far more fully and cheaply than any other medium allowed. Sure, you’ve probably been annoyed by someone who spent too long on their phone at a dinner or social gathering. That person was probably enchanted by how amazing, strange, and hilarious a place the internet can be. Sometimes it’s all three. Let’s not pretend these people are Ignorant Sheeple Who Are Repeatedly Failing To Live In The Now. Most of us fit that description anyway, with or without technology, and technology could help with that problem, too.

The web series High Maintenance. The subjects I visit in my fiction writing as well as in the television and books I consume tend towards loneliness and frustration. This is morose territory. Last year, Call the Midwife was the perfect sorrow palate cleanser. The show visits tragedy, but when it does it always seems to do so with an awareness of how tragedy can bring people together. The characters are mostly wholesome – the unsavory ones are foils for the goodness in others. The show can be a little saccharine, and feeling more pressed for time these days I wasn’t sure about catching up on another season of the hour-long drama. High Maintenance revolves around a pot delivery guy in New York City. Each episode runs between five and fifteen minutes and depicts a particular delivery, with the delivery guy being more of a touchstone rather than a central character. I love the slice-of-life storytelling, the humor and heart of the series, as well as the writing and acting. One thing the show does exceptionally well is capturing the tone of a character or relationship in a short span of time, a strength on full display in the opening montage of the episode Heidi.

Jamelle Bouie. I was disappointed when political columnist and blogger David Weigel left Slate. Weigel had a knack for using the right quotes and distilling political drama in a savvy, incisive way. Jamelle Bouie covers a lot of the same turf, though with an attention that seems more immediate. His writings about the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown have been smart, reasoned, and illuminating. When I was frustrated with politicians who treated protestors as if they had misplaced priorities, Bouie wrote Actually, Blacks Do Care About Black Crime. When the Senate Intelligence Committee released its report on CIA torture, Bouie looked at some polling data and took the opportunity to write about how we’ve grown complacent with whatever happens to those we label “bad people.” I woke up last weekend to the simultaneous news items that 1) two New York City police officers had been assassinated by a lone gunman and 2) the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and a former governor of New York, two ostensibly reasonable people, believed that the president of the United States, the US attorney general, and the current mayor of New York were responsible for the murders. Their culpability stemmed from their willingness to speak out about how the law is applied unevenly to non-white criminals, suspects, and the innocent (a fact that is well-documented). Rather than be able to mourn a tragedy, I felt as if the tragedy had been scooped up and abominated into an argument against a political enemy. Bouie wrote an excellent piece arguing that the protests are not so much anti-police as they are pro-justice and pro-fair policing. Bouie is a great writer covering emotionally-charged issues in a thoughtful way. By the way, if these topics are too divisive for you, the man also knows what he’s talking about when it comes to banana bread.

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Commutus Interruptus

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