Friday, June 15, 2012

A Good Year

Four pieces of art and the next Swill is done. Here's the current work in progress. I took this photograph on Tuesday, when my dad took me to Muir Woods. We get to do that. It actually is pretty nice to live in the SF Bay Area, and I always appreciate a reminder that it's a tourist destination. This is my place; I have a sense of land and territory. Madrone, bay, sequoia, dune grass and the salt of the Pacific and hills like the golden flanks of a woman with live oak and buckeye nestled in the clefts... This is where I'm from. Hundreds of years. I do have roots.

If there's a bit of concern in the air, I want to say flat-out that despite any difficulties I'm going through, my life is better than it ever has been. This last year has been the best so far, and part of the reason it's been so good is that it promises more. Yes, I've been pressed to extremes. It is good to be tested. But that isn't all that's happened this year.

Let me tell you all you need to know about love and romance. It's an endogenous drug that's more addictive than crack, it lasts six months, a year, a year and a half, and one person loses the high before the other person does. When someone falls out of love with you, they cut off your supply.

Here's the thing -- if you're in a long-term relationship, that get-high love can come back on you. And this year, the missus and I went through a phase that made our courtship look like nothin'.  Completely took me by surprise, and changed my attitude in a permanent way. Things have settled down a bit, but I  now have a secure sense that the charms of romance are far from absent in my life.

And this seems to be related to an overall sense of social abundance. One of the great delusions of my life has been that I am a solitary person, an outcast. The term 'loner' has been self-applied at times.

The technical term for this notion is 'crock of shit.'

I'll probably go into the interminable details at some point, but recently my counselor spoke of her sister's experience of the world. She's so well-loved that if she isn't greeted with spontaneous enthusiasm, she feels disconcerted. I heard that, and I realized that I'm in pretty much the same boat. The people who have a negative reaction to me are in a very small minority -- but they're the one's I've always cared about the most.

That ain't right; from now on, the people who love me get the majority of my attention and regard. And it is petty, it is base, but it pleases me to go into a bookstore and see faces and hear voices when I read names on shelves or on the covers of magazines. To know that I have occupied the thoughts of those who have occupied the thoughts of others. It makes me feel engaged in the world.

And this doesn't just go for the hominids. My social circle this year has gone well outside the species boundary. I've established contact with the crows in the neighborhood, as mentioned in a recent post, but more significantly, I've opened up to our dogs.

Laszlo was the one who did it. I'm an animal person, but I've had bad luck with the dogs in my life. If you don't know about it, the bond between a dog and a person is more like a marriage or a business partnership than anything else -- it's an emotional dependance as fundamental as furniture. I'm not going into it, but I have had some rough history.

According to the vet, Laszlo is half Springer spaniel, half Llasa Apso. He's my dog. It was his idea, but I was willing to work with him. He's swell, and we love each other. Yeah, I know he's gonna die before I do in all likelihood. I've had nightmares. I'm willing to eat that in order to have someone in my life who sees me as a simple, straightforward good. He sees me the way I try to see everybody else, and it's great. And my affection for him has spilled over to our other dog, Roxxie. She's a Jack Russell/rat terrier mix, and is sort of universally loathed. She's a barker, she's jealous, she doesn't take to people, she pees...

But she's really attached to me and the missus, and I've opened up to her. She's awful, but awful people need love too. It used to be that I wouldn't let her sit on my lap because she had a way of launching herself off me that left bruises. But I couldn't let Laszlo sit on me if I wouldn't let Roxxie sit on me, and you know what? She hasn't hurt me once since. I used to refuse to let her cuddle with me when the missus was out of town, and now that rejection seems a little abusive to me. And here's the thing -- the more I love her, the better she is. Even if her barking hurts the ears and soul.

I've also entered into a counseling relationship. It's an informal thing that is well off of the standard  therapeutic situation -- the woman in question is a registered, well-respected therapist, but.  The thing is, the deviations from a clinical relationship work very well for me. She's an old friend of the missus, for example. This is supposedly verboten, but you know what? She knows the misssus! I can get third-party confirmation on our relationship! I have been locked so tightly inside our relationship for so long that I had no idea what was going on between us. And if you'll cast your eyes back to the second paragraph of this post, you'll get an idea of how perspective has affected things. I was talking to a friend a while ago about the differences between religious and secular society, and he pointed out that when someone in religious society has mental or emotional difficulties, they speak to their clergyman and are regarded as devout, while in secular society, one sees a shrink and is regarded as crazy. Well, my counselor and I have a relationship that is more like the former example than the latter. Our relationship is not isolated from my general life, and our friendship is as much a factor in what goes on between us as anything else. I am catnip for shrinks, and the pleasure she takes in our sessions has been almost as important to me as her wise counsel.

As I've emerged into the public eye, I've had a lot of my old friends reach out to me, and this has been a great source of pleasure and comfort. To see people of significance to me thriving, to confirm that what we went through was not a crippling thing -- again, if you know, you know. And to measure myself against them and not feel wanting...

Here's one I haven't spoken of. My dad and I hike once a week. A few years back, he went on a solo backpacking trip and fucked up his back. (I'm the only person I know with a bad back from working; everyone else got theirs recreationally.) Our walks have grown more and more restricted over the time since then. But he had a spinal fusion done -- this is the operation I'm trying to avoid -- and while it was horrific to behold, he's now in better shape than he's been in for some time, and we are able to have some decent little adventures again. (I should start posting them -- the photo up top was from this week's trip. We got deep enough into Muir Woods so that we couldn't hear a single tourist accent. Not that we don't love and encourage them. It's just a benchmark.)

And here's the thing. You know what makes people happy? Other people. Honestly, there aren't a lot of pleasures that don't come down to other people in the end, and there are limits to such things. And over this last year, I've come to realize that I swim in a sea of friendship that is genuinely enviable. I've always had a feeling that I was a burden or difficulty to the people around me, and I'm starting to think that I was wrong about that.

(Rain on the roof in July -- it's been that way every year for a while now.)

I'm the kind of person who'd rather have one really close friend than be popular. The result of this is that I've cultivated a number of very close friendships, because that's how I relate to people. Even if I've only met you twice, if we meet a third time it's gonna be kind of an event, and folks tend to like this. It sounds like a slogan, I know, but this feels like real wealth to me.

And hey.  I'll tell you, after seeing myself interviewed and videotaped and so on? I'm kind of a magnificent son of a bitch. I had no idea.

I mean, this is really fresh -- just last week I realized that one of the reasons I feel like an outcast is that I constantly get these weird, intense stares from people that I've always interpreted as hostility. Now I'm considering the possibility that people just like looking at me sometimes, and I should take it as a compliment. It turns out that if I meet those intense stares with something other than baffled defensiveness, the smiles go off like flashbulbs. It's terrific, and I just found out about it. And since I'm happy in my love, feeling attractive doesn't make me vulnerable. Honestly, you cannot believe the improvement this is making in my internal furnishings.

And the confidence I feel in myself as a creator has never been stronger. I have been getting persistent strongly positive reactions from knowledgeable people for so long that I am no longer capable of justifying cringing humility. I don't want to get cocky, but. A certain amount of confidence is appropriate at this juncture -- if I do something, it gets out, and I work at a level fit for fucking Scientific American, the BBC, Warner Bros., MacMillan, If I stand at the right distance and squint, I can see a fuzzy Cultural Figure. I am tiny, but I cast a shadow. Even if I died now, there would still be some trace of me in the record. Again, petty and base, and again, genuinely satisfying and empowering. This is something I would choose for myself if I could; the amount of luck and privilege that went into it is staggering. But I took that luck and privilege and turned it into something. I did that and I am going to give myself credit for that.

Last week when I was particularly distressed over my current semi-paralysis, I went back and looked at the blog for this time last year to see where I was at. "I was in exactly the same state I'm in now," I said to my counselor. "And it was that way for every year except for my stint at Taos. So last year I was stuck halfway through the tenth draft of the novel and I couldn't go forward and I couldn't go back. This year I have a working draft -- I'm line-editing it, but I could sent it out now. And I've got solid outlines for the final two volumes. And I've started a whole new book, and I've got a chunk of it done, and that's taken me into performance, so I've actually got a new form under my belt as well. And I've had my second pro fiction publication. And the Scientific American thing and the Amazon page."

"So this is your idea of a slump," my counselor said.

There is a term the missus uses from time to time -- 'healing crisis.' The idea is that if you're really getting better, there are points in the recovery process that don't feel good. When I write frankly of my difficulties, I do so as a means of gaining ownership of them; that doesn't mean that they occupy the most significant portion of my life. I have been through extended periods of time when existence was a fundamentally bad thing. I don't like that. My life right now offers plentiful compensation for any discomfort I experience, and I honestly believe my best days are ahead of me.

So if I write something in my blog that makes you feel distressed or concerned for me, please. Take a moment and think of how lucky I actually am. Sure, I suffer a lot, but in a secure, happy life? That's just decoration. It's like a tattoo, only more effective. We all have to do something to fill the time. Some people play a lot of video poker, some creep through a welter of existential terror. It's all pretty much the same thing. There is always enough suffering to legitimize self-pity. What counts is the good part of life.

And my good part is plenty good enough for me. I love and am loved, I am held in regard, and most of my life is easy and pleasant, and I have every reason for optimism. The horrors have grown dull and familiar; I've rubbed all the flock off of mortality and so on, but many of the most rudimentary pleasures of life are still fresh to me. This could be interpreted badly, but as an experience? I feel as if my life has good story structure --- it's okay that things were awful then if they're wonderful now.

And they are. They really are. I feel as though I've just sailed into port. And the chances are good that if you're reading this, I think of you frequently, specifically, and fondly, and regard you as one of the wonderful things in my wonderful life.

I don't bullshit about these things. So there it is.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


Yesterday I told my counselor I've decided to actively pursue a disability check of some kind. She seemed... relieved? Satisfied? "So you really understand that you're not going to fit into a regular job again?" she asked. "You know you're going to have to make it on your own terms?"

"Yeah," I said. As if disability was one of my terms. Oh, well.

In a roundabout way, it was Samuel Crown's doing. You heard of Sam? He's an up-and-comer, working on a self-published series of action/horror novels, a pulp-meets-Vertigo-comics thing called I, Demon. Check it out. I met Crown at the Viable Paradise writer's group, and when I made noises about attending Taos Toolbox, he came along for that as well. More recently, he invited me to a writer's retreat in Dallas that he was hosting. Ain't gonna tell you who was there, because we spent most of our time bitching about the people we wished we'd invited. That's the drag about invitation only -- you wind up leaving out folks you miss. Take my word for it, though, this crew is already making noises and you will hear some of these names in the years to come.

When  I was in Dallas, my stomach went to hell on me and I spent much of the time puking. Lost a lot of blood; to tell the truth, I think it was somewhere around a half-gallon, and if I'd known that I might have gone into the hospital for a few liters of saline. I am not a big needle fan, but I have come to adore the IV drip of saline, nice and cool...

Anyway, I wasn't able to give Crown any help on his project. He went last, and I was in my hotel room letting the shower run over me as I sweated and shivered. So when he asked me to give his current novel a once-over, I felt a sense of obligation.

I've mostly given up on doing internet critiques -- I've found that they play into my neuroses in a very unfortunate way. I never quite get around to them, I think about them constantly, and I don't do anything else because I need to do them first. They jam my hopper and make me miserable. I need a solid, printed manuscript and a solid, living person to give it to at a specific time and date in order to function. I feel bad about this because I have access to a bunch of swell young writers I'd love to bully and hector, and whose input on my work would be specifically valuable, but there you go. Sometimes you're served a dish you can't eat, no matter how much you want to.

But I owed Crown. So I printed up his novel, and started reading.

Those are my reading glasses up there. I tried to bring out how horrible they are, but you really have to see them in person to get the full effect -- the coatings are scabby and iridescent to a degree that basically makes these spectacles framed cataracts, and note the missing arm.

When I started work, the smudge at the center of the right lens was so bad I had to cant my head to one side to read; the reading glasses were actually worse than nothing. So I switched to my bifocals and tipped my head back.

Then I went to see The Avengers with my dad, who likes a good smiting every once in a while. And the next morning when I woke up, my neck was destroyed. Muscles locked, spine begging to be popped, it took me days to get back to a functional state.

The increase in pain spiked my stress levels, and my stomach went acid, and I had a few touch-and-go hours on Friday night. And it made me realize that my stomach had gotten to be as bad as it was because I was used to ignoring pain. Since my stomach never hurts as much as my back, I dismiss it.

And now it bleeds.

And that made me realize that when I've dealt with the doctors and the insurance company and so on and so forth, I have persistently lowballed my pain estimates. You know, they say how bad on a scale of one-to-ten? When I've had a nurse walking me through those, they always add one or two to my estimates. I have known all along that the way I get treated is going to depend on how seriously my condition is taken, but in order to live with myself, I have to behave in a very scrupulous fashion. That frequently works to my detriment -- but being who I am is all I've got. It really is.

I am too vulnerable right now, and I have to ask for help. So I've started contacting lawyers to help me apply for some sort of disability income. I certainly have not given up hope of someday making money creatively -- it's happened before, and I'm a much better writer now than I was then.

But if I don't get some kind of slack, I'll wind up bouncing in and out of the fucking hospital. It's right there in front of me and I can't deny it. So I find myself in the position of spending the state's money on my relatively cheap and comfortable maintenance or on expensive and uncomfortable emergency measures.

I've asked around, and everyone I know approves of this decision. It's taken me ten fucking years to make it, and I have given it a hell of a lot of thought, and I wouldn't do it if it weren't for the fucking blood. Vomiting blood and hallucinating and sweating and shaking for hours and hours and hours is the kind of thing that motivates me a little, sort of, eventually.

Interestingly, a number of people have commented that this represents sort of a best-case scenario; a well-adjusted oaf would have gone either into the military or industry, and would have been a tremendous force for evil in the world.

Flavor chemistry would have been a very likely career for me -- I love cooking, and won a Bank of America award for laboratory sciences in high school. I could have destroyed civilization with new kinds of Skittles and Doritos...

But it didn't work out that way. It turns out that when I say I have to devote most of my energy to maintaining my mental health, I am not kidding. I am in a position where if I am unhappy for too long, my health fails spectacularly. Right now, before I am anything else, I am vulnerable and I need to care for myself if I'm not going to burden others. And I need help to do that.

Here's the thing. I know people who are more in need than I am. What if I get the help they failed to get? How can I put myself in the position of asking for the same kind of aid as homeless folks when I have a home, and a wonderful one?

Because that is the paradox. I'm so broke I wear my glasses literally to the point of opacity, it's been more than a decade since I've had a checkup, and I have no recreational spending habits. I do get treats from time to time, but they are given to me by others, not selected by myself. But because I'm with the missus, I have full media access through cable, I have a workspace that comes damned close to being a media lab -- everything I own is old, shabby, strictly from yard sales, but it is still nice and good. I can't help but feel that someone on disability should be living a life of unremitting poverty, and my life is poor but prosperous.

It's not my decision to make, though. It's up to the lawyers and the state.

And for the record? The missus decided to pony up the bucks for new lenses. I had my examination yesterday, and found out that my reading prescription was terrible -- my reading glasses weren't just worn out, they were shitty in the first place. For the past three years, I've been doing all my reading and editing with bad glasses, and I've wondered why I don't seem to enjoy it the way I used to. I have a feeling that this has a lot to do with my procrastination issues.

So in a couple of weeks, I have new reading glasses and will be able to return to the world of letters. This whole situation is not a disaster, and it's not the end point of my story. And who knows, given the speed with which these wheels turn, I may wind up being a pro writer again before the issue is settled.

All I can do is cast my fate to the winds...