Friday, September 11, 2015

Miserable Bastard Syndrome

The sky is bothering me on this one. I can't tell whether to keep it, replace it with a flat gray, or use a smooth gradient. I hate it when a creative problem boils down to, "Try and be less tacky."

So it's time for the blog to come back. While I used it primarily as an outlet for casual writing, its real worth to me has been therapeutic -- for instance, when I'm going through a crisis period, it can be useful to see if I was going through a similar crisis around the same date in previous years.

And I'm going through a crisis right now, and it might be good for me to write about it.

A while back -- and if I'd kept up on my blog, I'd be able to put a date to it -- it became clear that drinking was becoming a problem in my life, so I made the transition from drunk to alcoholic. By which I mean I started going to meetings. Not AA, it's a secular group called Lifering. And since then, I've mostly stopped drinking.

But I've gotten drunk twice in the last three days. Once I could call a slip, but twice so close together is obviously an act of self destruction. I'd like to publicly apologize to the missus. She puts up with a lot from me, and I genuinely regret that she has to be around me when I'm wresttling with my demons.

And that is what I am facing right now. My deepest and most abiding problems have been forced out of hiding, and when exposed to the light, they seem obvious to the point of cliche. I drink when in crisis because that is how all the adults in my life coped when I was a child, and I am self-destructive because people told me I was bad. Given the history of mental illness in my heritage, I'd be a little screwy no matter what, but what I'm dealing with right now actually is that simple.

Right now, my life is really good. And that is why I am not in a position to ignore my issues anymore. I do not have the option of blaming the world at this point. There have been times when I have suffered real misfortunes, but that isn't going on right now.

So the fact that I have been dealing with one of the bleakest periods of extended depression in my life is something I have to really own. As I told my shrink, "It used to be that when I fell off the tightrope, I went down into the dirt and was mangled and I had to heal up before I could get back on the rope. Then in my mid-twenties I was able to get a safety net put in. And once I started getting some recognition as an artist, it was like getting a safety tether. Now when I fall, I only drop about six feet and I can climb right back up. The thing is, for the first time I can actually see the drop and it's intimidating the fuck out of me."

I am looking square at the fact that on a certain level I do not believe I have the right to be alive, that I see my existence as an objectively bad thing. (The ability to maintain that belief is definively subjective. I KNOW.) What makes this fun to contemplate is that one of the main roots of this attitude is a response to the reaction of the adults in my life to my childhood depression.

We had a friend named Aggie who was very fond of telling this joke when I was in earshot. "If you took Duncan (my brother, deceased) and put him into a barn filled with horseshit, you'd come back six hours later and he'd be digging away, saying, 'There's got to be a pony in here somewhere!' And if you put Sean in a room full of presents, you'd come back six hours later and he'd be sitting in the middle of the floor crying, and if you asked him why he'd say, 'if I open one of these presents I'll break it and then I'll be in trouble.'"

See the cat? See the cradle?

When I was a kid, I wished more than anything else that I lived in Berkeley, that I had a cute chubby girlfriend, that I was big and tough and smart and talented and nice, that I was good at stuff, that people liked me, and so on and so forth and I've got everything I wanted as a child at this point. I really do. While I am always on the lookout for more compliments and attention, I've actually gotten enough of both to last me the rest of my life if I use them conservatively. I have heard everything I want to hear said about myself by exactly the right person.

And part of me does not want to be happy because I do not deserve it.

Because my mom was a narcissist, so I was the best thing in the world when I was performing and the worst when I was not. Because the crucial time when there actually was contempt and hatred for white men in popular culture coincided with a key developmental phase, and I lived in a predominantly black community at that time. (Honestly, my mental image of 'regular regular' has black hair and brown skin.) Because neither my mother or my grandmother actually liked men, and my maturation was a source of real and visible pain to both of them. Because even if I hadn't been picked on for being white, being smart, weird, and awkward would have been enough to get the job done. It is not complicated. Well, it is, but it isn't hard to understand.

So right now, my next step is to let go of or ameliorate my need for self-destruction. It is an immediate and pressing problem for me and unfortunately the people in my life. I am not acting out as badly as I have in the past, but better is still not good enough.

Here is the knot.

I know from experience that effective therapy actually means feeling better.

And I don't deserve to feel better. I do not trust good feelings.

But this is not an insoluble problem. That's why I get free therapy -- I do get better, and for a shrink, it's fun to watch. Right now all I need to do is work, relax, and enjoy my life. That's it. I have a good relationship, a place to live, I get to cook with great food, my job at this point embarasses me because it feels so recreational, and I get to be this... well, whatever the hell it is I am, it's pretty damned dramatic. I have actually bitched about performing for polite audiences. Do you know how lucky you have to be when that is one of your complaints?

That all this is screwing up my self-image as a pathetic loner destined to die in the gutter.

My current period of depression actually is on the wane. This is a physical thing as much as mental (although the function of the mind seems pretty damned physical to me), but the initial triggers were the completion of my second novel followed within a week by the death of my mother-in-law, Ruth Leaf, for whom it was written and who never got to read it. And Robin Williams' death really got to me. I've never been that much of a fan, because frankly when he was being Robin Williams, he scared the crap out of me. There is a symptom of mental illness called 'compulsive witticism,' and I've got it. I'm not complaining, because I've gotten money for funny, but watching Williams perform gave me the same sick, guilty feeling I got from listening to too much Wesley Willis -- I felt complicit in the exploitation of mental illness.

But it turned out I know a lot of people who knew him personally, and their sorrow gave his death a weight for me that it wouldn't otherwise have had.

It was the actual death, the mechanics of it, that got to me.  I found myself mentally reconstructing his last moments compulsively. Was it auto-erotic asphyxiation? Was the knife on the floor a sign that he'd been trying to cut himself loose?

That was the one that got to me. The idea that he'd started to kill himself, then changed his mind and died anyway? It makes me sick to think of it even now.

And again, I can't look away from my own situation. When I talk about it to people, I say that I was suicidal in my teens and early twenties. But when I say I'm not suicidal now, I mean by my standards. I think about my death a lot, and take comfort in it. I think I should not exist. For me to say I'm not suicidal is a semantic game. I am out of the danger zone. I am not going to kill myself. I'm not even going to hurt myself. So calm down. But I can't afford to keep pretending that I don't have these feelings.

So what pushed me into my immediate, current crisis? Getting a dream job (adventure novelist, and yes, I bitch about that too), and having the missus take over some responsibilities that were screwing me up.

But these are the tip of a general feeling that my life is changing for the better, that I'm going to move on to the next big stage in my life. As I said, right now my big job is just enjoying my daily life and not screwing anything up. And I'm trying to screw things up.

So that's why I'm blogging again. I need an extra therapeutic edge.

Additionally, I've been having a lot of my Facebook posts vanish, and I never think to use Twitter these days, and you know what? My casual writing has gotten pretty decent, and I'm thinking about doing it all here on the blog, then distributing choice nuggets to other social networks. Something to consider...

Anyway, I'm back.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Cultivating Desire

This one is going to get a little rough. But this blog is part of my therapeutic process, and I need to put this up for my own sake. So quit reading if it’s going to make you unhappy.

I’m coming to realize that as complicated as my mental health issues are, there is one specific problem that if addressed could radically improve my quality of life. My needs and desires do not motivate me to action. This is the case to a genuinely pathological degree; it is a life-threatening condition. Anorexia, dehydration, apnea — “I guess I should breathe,” was a thought that ran through my mind early this morning — there are very real physical risks I face on a regular basis. It took me a long time to recognize this because I’ve become habituated to this kind of self-abuse…

… but then I noticed that the concern the missus expresses over my well-being when she’s out of town included a component of real fear. And my therapist had the same reaction. It was pointed out that when I haven’t had a woman monitoring my food intake, my hundred-and-forty-five pound steady weight was the result of chronic malnutrition. When people ask me, “What do you want?” I almost never respond in an appropriate fashion. I always find a way to defer to someone else. A few months into therapy, my shrink said, “You aren’t motivated by desire, you’re motivated by principle.” I asked the missus, my dad, my closest friends, and they all confirmed that opinion.

But it isn’t principle so much as compulsion. From time to time, I’ll run across someone who will raise a corrective forefinger when I say, “I have to —“ and then they’ll wag it at me and say, “No, you don’t have to. You choose to.”

People who can think that way are incapable of understanding me. Dealing with them is like dealing with someone from another planet. (Are they even people?) I only act when I feel as though my choices have been reduced to necessities. This is a big part of my cycle of extended periods of depressive passivity broken by productive phases of hypomania.

I am fortunate to be achieving an interesting position as a cultural figure. And every success has had its roots in someone else’s desires. People ask me to do stuff and I try to do what I’m told.

Because I try to be a good boy.

But that is not the same as having a drive to succeed. In many ways, I’m still trying to hide from the world.

The missus is out of town now, and is going out of town again. So this stuff has been a subject of discussion. And in the last couple of weeks, I’ve had a few realizations.

One is that I do not feel lonely when I work for other people, while pursuing my own ends makes me feel panicky and abandoned. Not to go into the details, but that comes from a shabby old set of Mommy issues.

The other came after a day of eating no, drinking yes. The next morning, the calm, reasonable voice in my head said, “You do understand that you’re a public concern now, and what you did yesterday was vandalism. That’s not what a good boy does.” I swear, that bastard is starting to play dirty. 

And something big and hopeful has entered the picture. Over the course of this last year, I’ve had three discrete periods of real happiness that lasted for weeks or months. It seems that when I get a certain amount of what I want in life, I’m basically happy. And some of what I want is to be of service to others, and some of it is to feel pride in what I do. Sex, cooking for others, beautiful scenery, exercise, intimate conversation, the praise of knowledgable people, the exercise of mastery in my skills, the rough edge of learning a new skill, proudly displaying myself in public, the option of getting something fresh to read or look at or listen to, going out every once in a while, nice clothes, access to media gadgetry and musical instruments, the company of animals. I know what I want, and I know what’s good for me.

But it just doesn’t motivate me. I can regard any level of physical and emotional discomfort with a certain cool, unsympathetic distance. I am made out of poverty consciousness and self-denial. I am entirely capable of laying down and never moving again.

Which would make me a bad boy. Which is why I’m dependent on the people around me to keep me from simply winding down like a cheap toy. I’m lucky that most people in my life don’t regard this as a burden, and there are enough of ‘em so that nobody feels responsible for the burden.

But I want to change this. I know I’m never going to be conventionally healthy in this sense, but when you’re nuts, it’s important to watch your margins. So I’m going to try guilting myself with the whole, “You are public property,” thing and see how that works.

I strongly suspect that if I become more widely known, the presence of an audience for my work will also give me more impetus to take care of myself. And I am working on developing something resembling real affection for myself. Things are getting better. But they’re still a long way from good.

I’ll go eat something now. At least it will be a step in the right direction.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

How To Be A Literary Writer or Overweening For Beginners

With unconvincing apologies to my friends and teachers in the worlds of science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

Once in a while I ask myself the question, "How do you get away with calling yourself a literary writer? And why bother?" The second question is easily answered. Vanity. On some level, for some reason, I regard myself as a special bunny, and I don't have enough enough of an audience to legitimize those feelings. (I hope you're satisfied.) The first is a little more involved. If you look at my ouvre, miniscule as it is, you see wall-to-wall alien torture demons, carrion landscapes, and talking chickens. My next novel will have dinosaurs and spaceships both. And yet no one has ever called me on my shit. How do I manage this grotesque imposture?

Concern yourself primarily with style, theme, character, and the formal elements of prose, relegating plot and incident to support positions.

This is a big one. The real trick is to lack plotting skills early in your career, so you're forced to do other stuff well enough to compensate. But if you work hard enough, you can even fool the actual literati. And talk it up. Don't let people forget you regard 'story' as an awkward necessity.

The down side of this is that when you finally learn to plot, it will make you feel twice as fraudulent -- once for passing yourself off as a writer when you couldn't even tell a goddamned story, and again for transforming yourself from a genuinely interesting minor artist into a drag-ass no-talent commercial hack.

Work visibly outside of genre.

It isn't enough to leave the zap guns out of a piece every once in a while. Make sure you point at your obviously non-genre work, make a little noise, give the impression that it is more characteristic of your inner self than the stuff with the alien invasions and so on. That way when you start dishing out bug-eyed monsters you can do so with a slight elevation of the nose. I spread my hands apologetically -- "I can't stay away from the kitsch, what can you do?"

Here's a twist on the concept -- deliver genre material to a non-genre venue. As the man once asked me, would you rather be a booger in a Dixie cup or hot snot in a champagne glass?

And now the most important part. Nothing will help you if you can't do this.

Say, "I regard myself primarily as a literary writer," with both a straight face and the tiniest, most tasteful hint of physical intimidation.

I never claimed this game was for everyone.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Spoiler Alert: Plot of Wonder Woman Movie Revealed!

Oh, it's Wonder Woman all right. You just can't see the Golden Lasso.

You may or may not know this about me, but I first wrote professionally for an animated movie review show. There was another animated movie review show with a similar underworld-meets-Siskel-and-Ebert schtick going around, and we had contrasting approaches to the movie review process. One show would watch the movies, write the scripts, record the sound, animate the show, and then review the movie six months after it came out when nobody cared. The other show would make use of shadowy media contacts and gossip columns and so on, prejudicially guess at what the movie was going to be like, usually with some measure of juvenile spite, and then release the review slightly in advance of the movie so as to take advantage of the collateral publicity, which, along with the employment practices, made it an amazingly amoral job. I had the chance to write with a number of respectable comedians, but you notice how I don’t name them or the show?

Anyway, I stand by the reviews I wrote. Seriously, the way movies are made? If you can’t tell pretty much what you’re getting six months in advance, people haven’t been doing their jobs.

So I have maintained, as they say, shadowy media contacts. And in the public interest, I am going to let you in on a little secret. I have some pals who will be salivating over this information.

I know the storyline of the upcoming Wonder Woman movie.

And I am going to take a chance and share it with you.

The basic origin story, what with old Steve Trevor crashing on Amazon Island and all that, takes place over the opening credits. The actual story starts with Steve and Diana on their first date. Steve is telling Diana – who is Wonder Woman, I think it’s Diana Prince or Price or something, but when she’s dressed in real lady clothes she’s Diana – he’s telling her how much he loves planes, and how he loved planes so much when he was a kid it turned him into a pilot. He’s in love with planes so much it sounds like a medical condition, which turns out to be the case.

So Diana says, “I’ve got a plane!”

Steve Trevor says, “Can I see it?”

And Diana says, “No, it’s invisible,” and unconsciously folds her butter knife. There is sweat on her forehead so you can tell she’s nervous.

Steve says, “Well, can I touch it then?”

Diana gulps visibly, and says, “You can’t because I brought it from Amazon Island and it’s a girl plane so if a boy touches it, it goes away.”

And Steve goes, “Aw, man. Well, can I see you fly it?”

Diana gulps and sweats and just balls her butter knife up like it was aluminum foil. “Sure!” she says. “I’ll show you my invisible plane next Friday!” And if the actress does her job, you can tell she gets calm all of a sudden. “Probably next Friday, if my plane’s still okay. If it isn’t, I might have to do it later.”

And now Steve is the one that’s worried. He says, “I really hope your plane’s okay. If a plane gets hurt, it makes me feel the way a normal person feels if a pony gets hurt, and the pills the doctor gave me for it totally, utterly, and completely kill my sex drive so I don’t take them all the time and I like you so much I haven’t been taking them. Honest, I like you a whole lot, but I just don’t know what my doctor will prescribe if anything happens to that plane.”

What a pickle!

Wonder Woman calls up her friend Etta Candy and asks for advice. Etta says, “I’m a sidekick so I don’t know much about boys. If Steve has the initials L.L. you should ask Batman for advice, but otherwise Superman is the romance expert.”

Cut to Antarctica, which is the continent of romance because the cold encourages snuggling. We are at the Fortress of Solitude, so-named to get a reaction out of Lois Lane. (This isn’t in the movie, I just know a lot of Superman stuff.) Superman and Wonder Woman are standing outside in the wind and snow screaming at each other in their supervoices while wearing their skimpy, revealing uniforms. 

“… and now he thinks I’ve got an invisible plane,” Wonder Woman says. Screams, actually. According to my friend they show ice cracking and stuff like that whenever they say anything, and their mouths are open really wide the whole time. “Oh, Superman, what am I going to do?”

“That’s quite a pickle,” Superman hollers. “But if you’re willing to base a lifelong commitment to another person on a falsehood, I think I can see a basis to proceed.”

Wonder Woman bellows, “Okay, I can do that! Anything but the truth!”

Superman embraces her. Even though they are possessed of hypersexualized bodies and the only thing between them are two layers of Spandex and a nasty wind-chill factor, it is totally platonic. Superman puts his lips to Wonder Woman’s ear, and whispers – screams, actually – “Welcome to the life of the lie!” You can tell it’s a real moment for both of them.

Then Superman teaches Wonder Woman to fly in a montage. It’s a serious Antarctic helicopter shot festival that seems to go on forever. At one point it looks like she’s going to give up, but not on Superman’s watch! Wonder Woman says, “Why are you making me do this?” but he just keeps driving her on with his relentless Kryptonian will.

Finally, just as she starts tentatively lifting off and hovering over the snowdrifts, Superman says, “Not like that.” And he squats as though he’s sitting in an invisible chair, and reaches out his hands as though adjusting invisible controls, and then he lifts off!

He’s flying an invisible plane!

You can see the dawning comprehension and relief in Wonder Woman’s face. She’s not in a pickle. Etta was right, as usual. No wonder they call him Superman!

So cut to Toronto or wherever it is that Steve Trevor lives. I think it’s supposed to be New York and my friend said they were filming in Toronto. That stuff always mixes me up. Anyway, it’s outside in a park with tall buildings, and there’s a big field, and Steve Trevor is looking up at the sky.

There’s a speck in the distance, and it gets closer and closer, and you can see it’s the butt and legs of a woman in a Wonder Woman swimsuit and go-go boots, and when she gets close enough it turns out that it is Wonder Woman and it’s not a swimsuit, it’s her uniform. She cruises in and hovers about fifteen feet off the ground, and then pretends to walk down a flight of invisible stairs. You can tell she’s been practicing, but there’s an endearingly awkward quality to her motions that will charm you, the viewer, or so I am told. When she gets to the bottom, she waves at the sky, and pretends to watch as something lifts and flies away.

Then Wonder Woman walks over to Steve Trevor, ready to lie like her pants – which she is not wearing – are on fire. She says to him, “My plane lives in the sky.”

And he melts. He just melts. “Wow,” he says. “I loved you from the moment I laid eyes on you, but until just now I never knew how it felt to love a woman with the coolest plane in the world when you’ve got a condition like mine. I am so glad I’m not on my pills.”

And they kiss. The End!

In the credits you see Etta Candy in a warehouse working a forklift. And on the forklift is a huge yellow egg with a prehensile Fu Manchu mustache. He’s a Wonder Woman villain from the comics, and his name is so racist I won’t type it and so obvious I don’t have to. She moves him, as he protests in a cringe-inducing accent, through the warehouse, eventually setting him down in an open space. After the credits, she gets a hatchet and cracks him open as if he were an ostrich egg, working her way around the top as the pitch of terror in his screams builds unbearably.

I promised I wouldn’t tell you what’s in the racist caricature, but believe me. It’ll be worth the ticket all by itself. Superhero movies are the best.

(Update -- since they aren't going to use this script, I can reveal that it was intended to be the introduction to a Marvel/DC crossover, and the creepy egg dude turned out to be harboring a tiny little MODOK. Damned shame -- I'll miss this movie the way I miss the John Sayles Jurassic Park sequel.)

Monday, December 30, 2013

How I Happened: Ancestry and Infancy

Photo once again courtesy of dedicated oaf wrangler Deborah Kuchar.

(So in conversation with my shrink, I realized that she didn't have a clear map of my life, especially in relation to my state of mental health. I think I'm going to try and construct some kind of therapeutic autobiography here...)

When the missus met my paternal grandmother for the first time, she turned to me on the drive home, and said, "So you don't have any sane grandparents."

"Pretty much," I said. Things tend to get diagnosed more often on my dad's side of the family, but both of my grandfathers were alcoholics, as were both of my parents. My paternal grandfather died of heart failure in a psychiatric institution. He had grown obese while institutionalized, probably a result of his medication. Of course, he had been locked up for getting naked and saying he was Jesus, so there's that side of it. My other grandfather had been reported dead by my grandmother, who told me dozens of different stories about the alcohol-related incident that had taken him when they lived in the Philippines. My cousin has since found evidence that he actually moved to Japan and had another family, who does not wish contact with us. A friend of my mother's spotted a photo of her father with his best friend. My mother's friend had been an MP in the Pacific theater during World War II; he pointed at my grandfather's best friend, and said, "That son-of-a-bitch was the biggest diamond smuggler in Southeast Asia."

I have always felt as if I were a cross between my two grandfathers. They are nameless and faceless to me, and they will never go away.

My grandmother would certainly have been diagnosed with OCD and depression if she'd been diagnosed. I have been told that from time to time she would tell third parties, in an ominous tone, that she was the only one who really understood me. This suggests to me that people knew there was something up before I did, and that she may have had more dramatic symptoms than she let people know about. She maintained a reputation as eccentric rather than crazy. Her most visible oddity was her devotion to Christian Science, which, sorry, Monitor, is a cult, and is just as whacky as all get-out. Lots of religious fanaticism on both sides of the family, and I think religion disguises a lot of nuts, don't you?

My mother also suffered from depression, which she treated with alcohol and denial. She began drinking heavily in her early teens, and stopped just before her death when it became impossible for her to hold a beer can. From time to time during my childhood, she would erupt into a self-righteous speech about how she would never drink or smoke during pregnancy.

I have been diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome.

My mother feared her mother. When I was engendered, she kept the news to herself for a while. She was nineteen then, and had no real direction, and wasn't married. So for the first part of the pregnancy -- I know the next statement is true, though I have no evidence for it aside from myself -- she sat in her room, smoking and drinking. At first she didn't know, and then she was in denial.

Finally, she told my dad. They fled the state, they married, they travelled cross-country in the company of a working con artist, and my mom had me in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, because that's where you go when it's fucking February. She claimed to have been too broke to eat during the weeks prior to my birth.

People who are red-headed tend to be sensitive to stress. All my gray hairs were once red. People who are left-handed tend to be sensitive to stress. I've got some weird issues from having been switched from left- to right-handed.

There's a theory that left-handedness results from stress experienced by the mother during pregnancy. It sounds silly to me, but I have an affection for that theory.

My family moved back to the Bay Area. I lived in San Francisco for a couple of years, and then we settled in Richmond. I was a precocious child, talking at an adult conversational level by the time I was nine months old. So if you were in San Francisco during the Summer of Love and you had an encounter with a talking baby?

That wasn't acid. That was me. I toilet-trained myself -- my parents would find me naked under my crib every morning. Finally my dad found me crouching on the toilet bowl in the middle of the night when he got up to pee. He tells that anecdote as a horror story. It's pretty good.

My current therapist has suggested that my early development may have been a reaction to my environment.

My parents were too young to have kids, and too drunk to have kids, but thankfully they had three of us, so I had a reason to keep my shit together. It has only been in recent years that I've come to realize that I was damned close to being a feral child. I was not raised at all. I just happened. My parents provided for my needs, but as for education and guidance? Nada.

Or, rather, jokes and non-sequiturs. My mother could get herself interested in teaching us imaginary words, or learning to pick up oranges with our feet (I'm actually grateful for that one, monkey feet are useful), but as for training in everything from grooming and manners to maintenance of health?

Especially the latter. Because of her Christian Science background, my mom thought the thing to do with a sick kid is make them feel guilty.

I had to go to a writer's workshop to learn that you're supposed to keep something in your stomach if you know you're going to throw up. I tore a hole in my stomach because I didn't know that. I could have stayed out of the hospital if I'd known that. That is the level of ignorance I face in myself. I do not know how to operate my damned body, let alone negotiate the world. I may as well be from Mars.

But since I was so clever and articulate? Nobody noticed. When a small child is fucking with your head because they've become prematurely existential, you don't notice that they think butter is a food or bullies can be reasoned with or that they read while walking.

So at this point, I've got some heredity going on, I've got a terrible prenatal situation, and I'm being raised by negligent, drunken parents. And yeah, I got beat some.

But all that was okay. I was happy, functional, regarded as a tiny wonder by the adults in my life.

It was public education that screwed me up.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What's Going On

Too tacky to use as art, but how often am I holding a camera when a pelican launches itself?

When I started this blog, it was intended more for self-amusement than anything else. After a while, I noticed that it was a very handy means of tracking my moods and mental states. But as I've gotten more in the public eye, I've been reluctant to simply hop on the blog and put up a post that says, "I'm feeling crappy because I'm an inferior specimen."

And that's why I haven't been posting much in the past months.

In 2010, I reached a crisis point. I was hospitalized after vomiting blood for three days. This was a stress reaction rather than a gastrointestinal issue, and I was inserted into the public health apparatus. It was disastrous; I was given powerful, addictive, inappropriate medications for just long enough to develop dependency, and then denied them without warning or preparation. They crapped me out of the system without ever telling me what they were doing.

At that point, dealing with my psychiatric issues became my number-one priority in life. Not to go into the (infinitely fascinating) clinical details at this point, but while I am a gentle, peaceful man, I am drawn from the pool that produces killers and suicides, and when I turn that will on myself, blood flows. On one hand I am a bit of a hypochondriac, always wondering if any particular symptom has come to stay or is indicative of further unpleasantness to come. However, there is such a thing as pscychogenic disease, and I get psychogenic diseases like crazy. If I am sufficiently unhappy, my body falls apart, and that is less of an exaggeration than anyone likes.

But, as I said, dealing with this became my primary occupation at the end of 2010. The missus very generously arranged for me to consult with a good therapist who has taken me on for free. Because she's a generous and committed person, of course, but also because I'm a fun client. We have a very relaxed, unconventional therapeutic relationship, and it's worked out very well for me. She isn't responsible for my therapy, but she keeps me focused and in touch with reality, and there have been times when her guidance has proven invaluable..

Up until last spring, the course of my work went very well indeed. My shrink says she's never seen improvement like that before, and I reply that I'm turning my artistic skills on the medium of myself. But  there's a concept called 'the healing crisis.' This can take a lot of forms, but what I'm dealing with is perspective. I've made a lot of serious progress, tackled issues I'd thought unconquerable. I'm not scared of gatherings of people anymore, I'm not overwhelmed by crowds. I'm developing some real affection for myself, and have reached a point with my self-care where the missus is no longer worried about leaving me at home alone for extended periods of time.

And that's been the problem right there. I've gotten well enough to get a clearer view of how I look from the outside, and Jesus. It isn't as simple as just being messed up. Every psychiatric issue I have is connected to some unusual mental or spiritual gift. This isn't typical, it's something out of a story rather than a textbook, but there it is.

Last spring I was finally facing the idea that I might have to apply for SSI and Social Security and so on. And it started getting to me. It wasn't the only thing, but it was the extra thing that was getting to me. I have had people telling me to do this for years, I had even been contacted by a homeless outreach program and began the process at that point, but I'd let it go.

Among other things, my shrink spent a long time working for Social Security, evaluating cases. She was one of the people who decide who deserves a check and who doesn't. So when she told me, very seriously, that I needed and deserved disability income, I had to take her seriously.

That was when I started losing weight. By early summer, I was down to about 180, which is light for someone my size. Anything less than that is clinically underweight. That was when I got into a dipsy-doo when an old friend of mine decided to perform class realignment surgery on me, and move me from the bottom one percent to the top.

And I found out that I do not belong there. I had the privilege of doing some interesting, challenging work there, but work turns out to be the least important thing when it comes to fitting into the world.

I had never understood that before. I always assumed that the work -- whatever it was -- was the most important thing, when actually getting along is the most important part of getting along.

I don't get along, and I don't go along, and that is how it is. I cannot act effectively except under the dictates of my will and principles. Not a goddamned thing to be done about it. It is a matter of both nature and nurture, and it has determined the course of my life through infancy, and now I'm nearly fifty years old and it's just dawning on me why I never was able to fit in, and it is a problem that will not be resolved.

Assuming it's a problem. When I explained to my dad the nature of my dilemma, he said, "Well, I'll take the blame for everything else, but I take the credit for that."

And I have been told by a number of people that a big part of my problem is that I live in the US, or even just in the wrong part of the US. In a country with either a more progressive educational system, or a comprehensive health care system that might have picked up on my psychiatric conditions in high school or even elementary school, things might have been different. As it is, I got PTSD instead of an education, and I didn't get that diagnosed until it almost killed me. On the other hand, I might have been born under conditions where I couldn't get glasses, and that might have croaked me in childhood. Woulda coulda shoulda, but shit.

So the stress is currently settled in my neck and shoulders. If the pain is bad, I can't sleep, and I sit up, and my neck gets better. When my neck gets better, I can sleep, which makes it get worse. The pain was located in my right side for a few months there. It got better. I got the pukes, and was up all night. The next night I slept like a baby, and woke up with the pain back again, only this time on the left side.

And that's where I'm at right now. Chronic pain that hasn't been looked at by a doctor, irritability, loss of appetite, loss of interest in activities, etc, etc. I have begun the process of applying for disability, and that's one of the sources of my current malaise. It's forced me to actually recognize that my condition isn't something I'm going to just shrug off one day, and that my life of semi-poverty is growing more and more difficult for me.

So that's the bad news. But there is good news.

First off, even though I'm at a low point in my personal cycle, I'm still a lot better off than I would have been even a year or two ago. I've accumulated enough of a sense of self not to be completely overwhelmed by this.

But that is weak good news, "Well, you still have your thumb," good news. I have real good news.

My years of stewing at a slow simmer seem to be paying off. The fact of the matter is that I haven't heard of anyone with my fucking career arc. Every time I have received any notice regarding my work, my response has been to freak out and go back to practicing even harder. And my work is getting out into the world anyway.

Who gets approached by a gallery owner for their first show? Who else has a publisher come up to them and say, "Hey! You! Start writing!" I mean, I went from "I should try to push this novel on agents," to, "I'm not going to read your outline because you had me with the proposal," with absolutely no effort on my own behalf. My first professional sale? The editor found me at a workshop. (Viable Paradise, and it was WONDERFUL.) The only thing I've done on-purpose was start reading (my own work out-loud to audiences), and that has taken on a life of its own. Basically, my 'career' has been a string of benevolent muggings induced by friendship as much as anything else.

Right now, if I do something, and I like it, it gets produced on a professional level. Sometimes I do it myself, sometimes I work at the Big Fancy Corporate level. Right now, I am operating within sniffing distance of public broadcasting, which is as close to a respectable cultural institution as our sorry nation currently features. I've gotten the kind of approval from the kind of people that I really wanted, and I don't need to prove to myself that I'm a real artist anymore. I ain't the best in the world, but I"m good enough and I'm getting better.

And right now I am working on three projects that have me engaged, excited, and hopeful.

My second novel, Helping Henry, is a development of my stories published in November of 2012 as part of the collection We Are Now, currently available from your ebook retailer. It's a consciously commercial volume, intended to please and enrich an audience rather than perform surgery on myself. I'm just about done with it, and the response from my writer's groups has been more positive than for anything I've ever written. And it was written at the request of a publisher, so it is coming out. I even get to do the cover, which I did before I started writing the book. That, folks, is the kind of creative freedom you don't get every day.

In the visual arts, my new series started as a response to a crashed computer and desperate deadlines. It's heavily processed photographs of East Bay urban landscapes -- the picture up-top was taken on a shooting expedition -- rendered in gray tones, intended to be reproduced at a small size. The goal is to have somewhere over a hundred of them before I start thinking about doing a show. It's funny -- they have the same feel I was trying for with my last series, but using straight photography seems elegant rather than lazy, as if the effort I was putting into constructing the images was just me getting in my own way.

And they're going to be part of a book. The way my last series of prints grew out of my first novel, these have their roots in project number three.

This one is a doozy.

When I had my gallery show in Montana, a jazz band played at the opening. They were incredible, but so avant-garde I was just barely able to appreciate them. They were great, but they were extremely challenging, operating at a genuinely high level. At the end of the evening I performed with two members of the band, and it was an amazing experience. I came back to the Bay Area knowing that I had to do more work like that, and wishing that I could do it with those particular musicians.

Well, I wasn't the only one who thought something special happened that night. They got in touch with me. We're going to do a studio project, and we are going to do a full-length live show based on my three readings on the subject of violence that I did for Lip Service West. And that will be assembled as a chapbook with a selection of photos from my East Bay Gray series. I'll be writing about all this in more detail and with links.

But there you have it. Essentially, I am very good at a few things that may or may not ever make me a living, and I am terrible at conducting my life, so terrible I actually require supervision, and thrive or fail  greatly in response to the care I'm given by my friends and loved ones, or 'oaf wranglers,' as I call them. I don't fit in to conventional society at all, yet silly as it sounds I am slowly becoming a rather interesting cultural figure.

I am simultaneously at what I regard as the bottom and the top of society. My best chance at not being a bum is being a celebrity. I am in debt and applying for benefits, but if I walk out of the house in a good mood perfect strangers treat me as if I'm hot shit. After a lifetime of being the token creepy dude, I am now a magnetic personality. And this is all warping my brain. And that, folks, is why I haven't been posting much. I'll try and be better in the future.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Why I Sinned, And How

My run at this year's Flash Fiction Fest is now up. Eight short-short stories (which was what we called flash fiction back in the pre-Cambrian), all for free. And in addition, there are works from P.T. Dilloway and Neil Vogler, who brought me in to participate in last year's We Are Now. New December House writers Daryn Guarino, Jess Leather, J Freese, Philip Leslie, and Simon Kewin. (Sorry, Simon, the link clicked to Philip.)

Last year, I did a serial that turned out to be the seed of a novel. The reviews were... kind, but unimpressed. I had a hard time arguing. I wanted better than that this time around, so I made each story stand alone, and I tried to do a little fancy footwork here and there, a little showy technique for the sake of skylarking. I had a good time with these. I wouldn't mind the opportunity to give them an extra layer of varnish, but what the hell.


At The Eden came first, before I'd considered the notion of the seven deadly sins. I've always had a fondness for goofy bar stories -- the Drone's club, the White Hart, Jorkens, Gavagan's Bar, and so on. I work a lot with Rob Pierce, and bars crop up in his work regularly. I'm not a bar drinker. I don't like the noise, the difficulty in holding a conversation, the expense.... but I love bar stories.

This one started with the voice, and the setting. I lived through the seventies, and there were certain public spaces that were like being drowned in rainbow sherbet while choking on cigarette smoke. And I didn't much like church back then, either.


The Language Of Women grows out of my interest in gender, and specifically the times when culture diverges so far as to result in gender-specific languages. I'm by no means a scholar on the subject, but from time to time I run across something interesting, and the factoids have been accreting over the years, and here we are.

This story is derived from a specific quirk of history. In Japan, during the time immediately before the Warring States period (sic, probably, I have no idea what the real nomenclature is), there was a period where the Chinese script was the written language of scholars, and there was a separate script for women. If you don't believe my story is true, go to a bookstore, and look for, say, The Tale Of Genji or The Pillow Book Of Sei Shonagon. Then try and find works by male writers who were their contemporaries.

On the first round through, it was all written in the style of the passages dealing with women's language, and all the readers reacted with wary suspicion. So I pulled out my utility-grade poetry and got to work. (You wouldn't want to read a whole fucking book of my poetry, but I can slide a little in here and there without feeling like too much of a jackass.)


I had an ongoing mental argument with an imaginary Jennie McCarthy for a long time. The missus plays video poker, I fight in my head, we all need hobbies. Anyway, it blows me away that someone can torment, mutilate, and kill children with nothing more than trick boobs and hubris, and never, ever be held responsible for the toll of human suffering on her slate.

I'd been turning this one over in my mind when I was presented with the Seven Deadly sins. I thought to myself, "The Eden story will do for Lust, Language works for Pride, and this will be Malice."

But Malice is not a deadly sin. December House took it anyway, but this is one of the reasons I was bushwhacked at the last moment. I"d forgotten all about Pride.

But go read A Leaven Of Malice, by Robertson Davies. It's real good if you're in a mood for Canadian bacon.


Right now, I am in a very odd socioeconomic position. I've been financially dependent for about a year now, and am applying for SSI and Social Security. But my daily life is one of relative comfort and prosperity. I am closely connected to people who have it a lot better than I do, and people who have it a lot worse. So I get to see the intimate differences between the way life is conducted among the rich and among the poor, and to be regarded variously as one or the other when I feel as if I'm floating in the middle. Closer to the bottom, but not that close.

I have come to view human industrial and economic behavior as a parasitic para-lifeform composed of an interlocking web of technology and a nervous system whose synapses are quanta of human desire. If you called it a god, I wouldn't argue. I do not like the organism, I do not trust the organism, I would kill the organism if I could.

But I'm not likely to get a real opportunity, and in the meantime I"m trying to broker some kind of temporary truce.

And that was when the ideas ran out, and I had no more fiction to offer, and I had to settle for the more energetic if less convincing real life for inspiration. Thankfully, I sin regularly and with great regret.

(Gluttony, but this one isn't a one-sin story)

Oh, I was worried about the reaction to this one. But when I read it live at the Ain't No Fun When The Rabbit's Got The Gun reading (I did violence in the form of the fight scene from my novel in progress, then sex with this), people got pulled right into it.

I've gotten in the habit of dealing with my darkest secrets by anatomizing them in front of a crowd composed mostly of strangers, but with enough friends and relatives mixed in to guarantee regular judgment for the remainder of my life.

It works okay.


"How do you write a story about sloth?" I thought. "I never..." and then I remembered. Now, do I want to reveal in public that I am a sheltered house-pet incapable of refilling his own water dish?

Beats blowing the assignment. Yes, this really happened. No, it is not likely to happen again. I am in therapy specifically to address issues like this. The missus is no longer frightened by the idea of leaving me at home alone.

Now, that, I probably shouldn't have said.


The Oaf: So you know that thing I do where I get upset, and I"m compelled to patrol my neighborhood, and the more upset I am, the more territory I cover? Well, I found out who else does that.

The Shrink: Yes, it's typical of disorganized pattern killers.

The Oaf: I keep forgetting you study this stuff.

The Shrink: Nah, I just read too many thrillers.

(The therapeutic relationship in brief. And for the record, I take Wrath and Sloth quite seriously. How are your sins coming along?)


My first shot at Envy was one of those things I do where people go, "Yeah, it's nice, but what is it?" It was an attempt at an elegant fantasy -- I was aiming for Lord Dunsany and Clarke Ashton Smith, but I think I hit Moorcock-flavored Lin Carter by mistake -- and despite being chock-full of envy, it wasn't publishable. Only running up against one of those was a relief. It has been returned to the compost heap, and may return at some point. I now know what happens next, but I don't know if it has an ending.

So this little slice-of-life was called forth to fill in the gap. The fun for me was writing a technical document. It's nothing, but those with a fondness for animals might find it amusing. For the record, I am now up to nine pillows.