December 26, 2017

my inscrutable daddy

There's a pronunciation of "daddy" that is particular to the area of North Carolina where I live.  We say "dead-ee," with the emphasis on "dead".  My wife had never heard this before moving here and I think it still amuses her, especially when I get exasperated with the man at least ten times during any family get-together and say it loudly and plaintively.  "Dead-yyyyyyyyyyyy, god damn it!"

The man is a walking paradox, as peculiar a mixture of curious, infuriating, brilliant, culturally stunted, intentionally provocative, stubborn, and scientifically inquisitive as you'll find on this side of the Mason-Dixon line.  Enigma.  That's the word.  He grew up poor in a blue-collar family in a small town.  His own daddy left when he was nine, and my kindly but formidable Grandma worked as a nurse at the hospital and reared four children by herself after his departure.  My daddy and his slightly younger brother were thieves, liars, outright hooligans.  They endured weekly church, but forged their morals and principles among the neighborhood kids, their places in the pecking order firmly fixed.  


Yet in this setting, my daddy grew up to become a good man.  He taught himself to play the guitar and practiced until his fingers bled.  He dropped out of high school at 16 to work because of the family's poverty.  He was a breakfast cook at a truck stop.  He walked to and from work each day.  On the weekends, he played the guitar in a band at sleazy dives around the county, for under-the-table pay.  


His prize possessions at age 20 were a 1976 Stratocaster and an old algebra textbook.  He never got that far in school.  In this day and age, his intelligence would have been identified early-on and he would have been fast-tracked through some advanced academically gifted program, provided with opportunities and steered toward becoming a research scientist or senior electrician or structural engineer.  He is a drop-out and has done blue-collar jobs all his life because of it.  He has no problem with this worldview and his place in it.  There is a perverse, twisted pride there.  


But while he toes the party line of believing universities are assembly lines for wrong-thinking people, the man values knowledge over most things in life, second only to hard work.  He watches documentaries for fun.  He worked with me in early childhood every moment he could, teaching me algebra, reading me fables from a tattered omnibus collection that was missing its cover, and securing a beat-up old upright piano with some of the band money so he could teach me to play.  In between those precious spare moments, he rose before the sun, commuted, and then worked 12-hour days, welding mobile home frames and coming home exhausted, eating dinner and falling asleep in a recliner.  His hands are permanently calloused and scarred.  On weekends, he took correspondence courses in electronics and learned new country music songs for the band by sitting in front of the stereo with a 45 and his guitar.  He listened twice and then knew how to play the song.  He used to read everything he could get his hands on, before his eyesight betrayed him.  My daddy is over 60 now.  It is said that he has been through at least nine pairs of cheaters over the past few years, but accidentally loses or breaks them within a week of purchase, so he's given up on reading, even large print.  He prefers the documentaries to books now.


We try once in a great while to have dinner together with him and my stepmother, but it usually takes the form of Christmas dinner each year.  He brings a grotty 24-ounce coffee mug from a gas station and drinks black coffee the entire time, requiring several refills.  He goes outside onto the porch when he needs to smoke.  


He came to hear Messiah this year.  It was his first symphony.  He sat in the audience in the ornate concert hall and left his ball cap on the entire time.  He didn't know better, and wouldn't have cared if he had.


I'm his only child.  I think he likes the curses-like-a-sailor version of me better than he did the Christian straight-laced version from years ago.  To him, I'm more relatable now.  I'm more like his co-workers.  I rolled up the ankle of my right pant leg and showed him the socks my wife had tucked into my stocking.  He smiled and said, "I'll be damned," which is his stock response to anything when he doesn't know what to say.  Our politics and social beliefs are still diametrically opposed, and he used to enjoy pushing my buttons until I got angry, but in recent years he's figured out that we have a much better time of things if he refrains.  I feel sorry for him.  I think it was his favorite pastime.  


We sat down to dinner yesterday at 2:00, which is when a 1:00 dinner in the South begins.  We have an annual impulse to feed him something he's never had before, to make up for his having to eat my Grandma's desiccated turkey growing up, an experience not unlike masticating slightly damp sand.  We've served duck once, Cornish hens, good ham, a fair amount of prime rib with Yorkshire pudding ... and this year, a tenderloin.  My wife fretted over possibly ruining the tenderloin.  My daddy insists each year on our serving asparagus.  We introduced him to asparagus and now he can't get enough of it.  It's an exotic vegetable to him.  So my wife made asparagus bundles wrapped in prosciutto this year.  He had never had prosciutto, either.  We want to give him everything he never had growing up, the things that have never existed for him in the grocery store over all these years because they are for Other People.  


The tenderloin was perfect.  "I'll be damned," he said after the first bite.  "This is real tenderloin.  I mean, actual real tenderloin.  Damn.  Why'd y'all spend that much?  I know what they cost!  Mmh."  I said, "Shut up and eat.  Merry Christmas."  My wife said, "Here, Tommy, pass the sauce for the meat," handing him a bowl of fragrant port reduction with caramelized shallots and bacon.  "God damn, that's good," he said with his mouth full.  He tucked his left arm under his right, trying not to be obvious while he slipped a bite of tenderloin to one of the dogs.  My wife scolded him.  He tried to look innocent.  "What?  What did I do?"  My stepmother stayed quiet and just shook her head.  We pulled our Christmas crackers and wore the paper crowns while we ate, then adjourned to the living room for gift-opening.


All of the gifts were gift cards, except for a PBS documentary for my daddy.  


He writes the best Christmas cards.  He writes in blocky print and always puts something witty, ironic, touching, and sappy to the point of satire.  They are one of the places where his intellect shows.  My daddy, the scientist, the engineer, the professor hidden inside a shirt with his name on it and steel-toed work boots.

December 23, 2017

a dog's life

We're trying to adopt a rescue Scottie.

My wife has had Scotties in the past, one of which she had to pass along to new adopters because of climate-based allergies, the other of which stayed by her side, almost literally, for 13 wonderful, healthy years.  The wound of losing her when she grew old and died has still not fully closed and healed in all this time.  For my wife, Fergie was much like a daemon from The Golden Compass.  You're never the same after the excision.

It is a zillion kinds of fucking brave of her to want to adopt again.


The current foster family has had the Scottie for several months and has had applicants come and go, none of whom met their stringent criteria .... elderly, young children, too far away for a home visit to prove a fenced yard exists.  We meet the specs like champions.  They sent us essay questions about why we want a(nother) dog, what our circumstances and lifestyle are like, our philosophies on dogs, our experience with Scotties, our demographics, hair color, DNA construction, political affiliation, and coffee preferences.  We constructed convincing answers, all of them truthful. 

It's been five days, and we haven't heard back yet.  It's Christmas weekend, I know.  Maybe they've submitted our answers to corporate executives in a dog adoption bureaucracy for review.  Maybe they're just out of town.  Maybe we, too, don't make the cut.

We're trying not to turn in the wind, never having had much hope of this, and trying not to envision this Scottie playing with our dogs, expending some of his considerable energy and playfulness.

Well, we were mostly honest in our answers to the questions.  Mostly.  We didn't really describe our day-to-day life with our two current dogs.

Our dogs are the Helper Dog/Asshole and Simple Dog that Allie Brosh depicts.  It's like she knew us when she wrote all this years ago.  They even look the same.

Chester is Helper Dog/Asshole and was here first.  He's an old boy now, age 15, arthritic and still playful but no longer energetic.  He sleeps a bit more than he used to.  And he's a kleptomaniac.  He has to take things.  It doesn't matter if he intends to chew them up or eat them or study them or whatever it is he does.  He just has to steal.  He has this unique stealthy walk when he's trying to make off with something in his mouth, gliding toward the dog door so he can take the thing outside and privately have his way with it.  He thinks walking this way renders him undetectable, in an uncanny display of understanding the concept of human attention and focus.  But if we catch the walk out of the corner of our eye, we immediately know what he's up to.  And he's genuinely contrite every time.  He can't help it.  It's an illness.

One fall, we took a leaf blower and blew all of the oak leaves away from the side of the house.  Beneath them, we discovered several Legos, three socks, an unharmed, unopened bag of Cascade dishwasher tabs, a partially decayed folder of important documents, and a 10-foot stereo component cable that had inexplicably gone missing months earlier.  

Chester is Alpha.  He's a total asshole.  If we give two toys to the dogs, he takes Rose's toy from her, places it next to his own, then lies down near her with both of them and ... has them at her.  He doesn't chew them or anything.  He just possesses them at her, aggressively.  Rose, our Simple Dog, looks to us for help with a concerned expression.  We can't explain that that's just How It Is, and he'll get tired of one or both eventually.  Sometimes, a family has hand-me-downs going on.  

Rose is as dumb as a box of hair.  This is not her fault.  When we found and rescued her, there was strong evidence that she had been beaten by an adult male in puppyhood, and that some of those blows were aimed at her head.  Probably because she chewed up a slipper or something.  I am not at all sure what I would be capable of doing, were I to find that man.  It would at a minimum involve court and probably intensive psychiatric screening.  Angry tears form whenever my mind lights upon these thoughts, then skitters away from them, because Rose is very sweet and very happy.  She's just stupid as a hammer.  She also smells like a landfill in the summer, because she is part Lab and has the oily coat of a water dog.  She lies outside on the deck and bakes in the sun, then comes inside and wants to snuggle up to us and be petted.  We have dog spray and try to combat this with Raspberry Fields-scented dog perfume and Odor-Buster Maximum Strength This-Shit-Really-Works spray.  Results last five minutes.  We once sat down to Google "lab stench in summer" to see if anyone had a better solution.  We typed "lab stench in--" and Google auto-suggested "in the nostrils of God."  Yes. That.

We tell people our dog is dumb, and they nod vaguely and I'm sure they think, "What terrible owners."  They don't understand.  And we've so few anecdotes that we remember, that we can tell to help them understand.  It's a thousand little things, you see.  The moments when she chases her tail with fervor and ends up with her hind leg in her mouth instead, and bites it, and wonders why it hurts, and eventually lets go of it.  The fact that when you toss two pieces of steak to the dogs, Chester catches his in mid-air with mad skills, in spite of his cataracts, while Rose's bit of steak hits her square between the eyes and then falls to the floor, after which she stares at it for a while before investigating.  During this time, Asshole has come and eaten her steak, too.  Rose does not know what this means.  She is sure something bad just happened, but she doesn't know what.  So she just whimpers.  A soft, high-pitched whimper that goes on for hours sometimes and drives us mental.  The world confuses her.  

Sometimes, she forgets where the dog door is.  She stares at us through the sliding glass doors, watching us at the dining table, longing to come inside with all her heart, to be with her pack.  We open the dog door and call her, and she comes inside happy and prancing.  She chases her tail from joy.  She catches her leg and bites it.

She still manages to Dog well.  She despises squirrels with the fury of 10,000 suns and very nearly catches them.  But our squirrels have evolved.  One particularly snotty one - let's call him Bruce - enjoys standing on our front porch, right in front of the glass storm door, because he has figured out that we lock that door now and don't let the dogs into the front yard.  Bruce nibbles an acorn at Rose, while she yips and shakes with all-consuming hatred and rage at this audacious invasion of her territory.  Bruce is in no particular hurry to leave.  He savors the acorn.

She hates delivery people, too.  She once treed a mailman on top of his truck.  I've never seen anyone move that fast or jump that high.  It was pretty amazing.  9.8, my sign would say.  The dogs see the UPS truck come up the driveway.  They bolt for the dog door and hit the back yard, barking.  Rose barks like a relentless Hellhound.  After two seconds, Chester comes back inside and stares out of the front door.  He's letting Rose do all the work.  Chester is very, very smart.

Both of them lick their assholes and then want to give us kisses.  That's just a dog's life.

We wonder about the Scottie.  Not his intelligence level, but how he would fit in with our fucked-up dog paradigm.  Maybe it would go well.  We omitted all of these details in our "getting to know you" stuff.  Because you know what?  The Scottie undoubtedly has quirks, too, and we'd just incorporate those and have a different kind of fucked-up, and everything would, on the whole, be all right.

I'm checking my e-mail every 22 seconds right now, looking for a reply.

We're a good fit.  We are.  We have love and a dog door and enough money for good vet care and Nylabones and big, soft dog beds and common sense and room outside for them to run and play.  And our mutts don't know it, but we have a Scottie cookie jar and Scottie cookie tins and Scottie signs for the kitchen and 4,287 Scottie stuffies and figurines about the house.  Surely that counts for something.  Surely.

Update 1/5/18:  We still haven't heard from them.  Sending plaintive e-mails asking for an update ....


Update 1/9/18:  They sent us an application!  And indirectly apologized for what I will understatedly refer to as The Delay by saying the turn-around time would only be a couple of days this time.  We filled it all out and included photos of our back yard and inside our home, per their request.  There ended up being 25 photos.  I was annoyed.  I wanted there to be 27, like in Alice's Restaurant.  So now we wait ....

Update 1/15/18:  Two is not six.  Six days is more than two.  Still waiting to hear.

Update 1/23/18:  ... and waiting ....


Update 2/5/18:  We're letting go.  Bryn's foster family is completely uncommunicative and we can't do anything about that.  We've asked after things.  We've inquired.  Silence.  We've decided that they've decided to adopt him themselves.  It's a belief we can live with, because it means Bryn's still in good hands, and it might even be true.  High paw, Bryn.  See you, man.

December 22, 2017

messiah

It is entirely possible that I'm the only atheist who sings in a performance of Handel's Messiah every Christmas.

I don't know many other atheists, but I've seen enough from sites and comments online to know that we're not immune to polarization, and there is vitriol and hatred for the religious out there, a counter-balance of intolerance, and a perception that religious belief is the poison responsible for every single thing wrong with the world today - a perception that, in part, I agree with.  I certainly would not win an argument with a reanimated Christopher Hitchens.


I can't justify my tolerance of the religious to other atheists.  We're just as bad about saying, "But they're wrong, the other side is wrong" as our nation's Christians are.  (I'm addressing Christianity because it's still by far the prevalent faith in America.  I'm addressing all flavors and varieties.)  I do think they've got it all wrong, but I kind of understand why.


I think the masses need the opiate.  The human race invented deities to meet our needs.  Religion addresses everything from attachment disorders to the conscious fear of death to a need to feel secure by having everything orderly in the world around each of us, by having everything make sense.  That which is still animal and fundamental about us clashes with even the rudiments of self-awareness and conscious thought.  Religion lets them talk to each other.  It isn't necessary, but for the vast majority of us moist robots, it fits like well-worn jeans.  


The problem arises when someone wearing those jeans twists everything and participates in the Christian culture in our country, which has about as much resemblance to the concept of abiding by the recorded, ostensible words of Jesus Christ as a wet buffalo has to a pack of organic strawberry fruit snacks.   A Venn diagram of these would look like two circles sitting on opposite sides of a large room, glowering at each other.  These culture-worshipers foster hatred, divisiveness, and a sheep-headed attachment to receiving input only from sources that they find agreeable and validating, and all of the insecurity that underlies evangelism.  "If you're not with me, then you're my enemy."  Oh, wait, that was Anakin Skywalker.


Before I stopped attending church altogether, I spent several years as part of the congregation of a liberal church.  They do exist.  These folks don't just buck the trends of the foremost social issues (e.g. letting in Teh Gays).  They believe in social justice and walk the talk, refusing to expand the building, opening the doors to programs that help the poor and socially disadvantaged, and are rooted firmly in an unshakable belief that all belief is shakable.  There is no literal interpretation of any particular holy book or text, only a willingness to embrace the possibility that the Bible is full of metaphors and is the jerkily recorded story of one particular people's experience of their hand-created deity.  And that truth can still be gleaned from it.  They gave me my own firmly held belief that liberal Christianity is the only hope for America's future.  We atheists aren't going to convince anyone to give up God.  We just need to work to crack open some minds and throw our resources at the strawberry fruit snacks, no matter how ironic.


See?  I capitalized Bible and God in that last paragraph.  Any self-respecting atheist would snort.  But I can't help it.  I want to be tolerant, not of the twisters, but of the brimming possibilities that Christianity holds:  That for all of the evils done in its name, there is much good fruit that can be borne.  If people are going to partake of the opiate, they just might be kinder, more just, more thoughtful, more environmentally friendly, unafraid of science, and able to incorporate the world with their faith.  It's the only antidote to the polarization.

So there I sit in my chair in the alto section of the Messiah choir rehearsal room at a large downtown church near where I live, with my paper-clipped, slightly worn Watson Shaw score in my lap, ready to warm up and start singing.  The work tells a story, mostly through Old Testament prophecy scripture, and concludes that Jesus was in fact the Messiah and lays out the resulting Christian theology.  It is devoid of cultural reference.  It does not hate.  It just presents a story.  


Each year, I look out over the orchestra from my seat on the stage during the performance, sweating under my white blouse and black skirt, and I see hundreds and hundreds of heads, old and young, dressed up and casual, sleepy and attentive.  Heads in the house, heads in the balcony.  These people come to hear the raw story of the concept they claim to believe in.  I always wonder if it bolsters their faith, if it straightens out a thing or two in their minds, improves them just a little.  I tell the story to them without fail, every year.  I do not believe a word of it.


I just believe that in some way that even I do not understand, it is still worth telling.


December 18, 2017

love feast

Last night, my wife and I went to our first Moravian love feast.  

We still aren't sure why we wanted to go to one.  We're trying to get into Christmas.  It's come on us all sluggish and reluctant this year.  But we live in an area with a heavy Moravian population, and if you throw a rock, you hit a Moravian church with a sign advertising its Christmas love feast, with date and time.  The churches do not appreciate thrown rocks, just so you know.


We don't go to church.  Ever.  But I used to.  I grew up Southern Baptist and was a model youth, singing in the choir and working in the nursery and walking through the door any time it was opened.  I wanted to be a missionary.  I wanted others to see the light of Jesus and be saved from their sins.  I wanted them to be like me.


God and I had it out in my twenties, when I peeked behind the curtain and didn't even find an inept guy posing as a sky wizard.  I found nothing, or at least something so big you can't see it, an entity experiencing the entire universe and emphatically uninterested in what I had for breakfast each day and how much I prayed to it.  If anything, I'd hold to the fringes of Whitehead's process philosophy, but I've moved past that enough to call myself an atheist.  Otherwise, it's too complicated to explain to someone.


See, that part is the philosophical bit.  There's more to it.  There's the cultural stuff.  I haven't attended church regularly in over 12 years, and in those 12 years, I've changed a lot.  Boy howdy, have I learned to curse.  I curse with enviable creativity.  When others hear me curse, their vocabulary is expanded.  When he was nine, my son had to ask me what a "rancid whore" was.  I no longer belong in church, showing up each week and cultivating the intent and will to change and become a better person.  I like who I am now.  And if you stay away from church, you start thinking back on it and seeing the members of the congregation as these conformist, hypnotized zombies, standing and sitting and singing and praying as directed, all at the same time, unthinking.  You forget what it's like to be part of ritual, part of a whole.  Plugged in.  The cultural stuff.


So there we sat last night, after obsessing over what to wear and whether it was appropriate, then speeding toward the church hoping there would be more than six cars in the parking lot.  We took one of the back pews in an effort to render ourselves completely invisible, though this might have come from my Baptist upbringing.  The sanctuary of the church was brightly lit, the windows trimmed with traditional greenery, an impressively large Moravian star hanging over the choir loft up front.  Jesus Christ, it was big.  Moravian stars are constructed from three-dimensional triangular spires that radiate in all directions, mimicking the beams of light one sees when observing a bright star on a cold, clear night.  They're kind of neat.  We had a Moravian star on our front porch a few years ago, but we couldn't get one of the plastic spires attached correctly and a bird built a nest in it and we had to dispose of it and clean up the guano on the porch after the baby birds had flown.  This sanctuary star could have held an eagle's nest.  I stared at the suspending cables and questioned their integrity.  If it fell, it would impale the organist and blood would spatter all over the organ and the eagle would fly into a stained glass window trying to escape and fall unconscious to the carpeted floor.


You can tell I have issues with reverence, can't you?


While waiting for the service to start, we read through our printed programs and listened to the traditional pre-service brass band playing carols, occasionally wincing when a trombone hit a wrong note, which was every three seconds.  My wife pointed out a typo in the program, in the lyrics of "Silent Night" - "radiant beans from thy Holy Face."  We were shaking silently with tears of laughter streaming down our faces, unable to look at each other, diaphragms in agony.  When we'd recovered, I speculated about whether eating the beans would make you glow in the dark.  


A few minutes later, I pulled a random Christmas ornament out of my purse, intended for work the next day, and hung it on an offering envelope next to the hymnals.  My wife asked why the fuck we were decorating our pew.  I pointed to the line of pews ahead of us and said, "Pew, pew, pew!"  More silent shaking.


They didn't kick us out, to their credit.


The service commenced.  And I was able to straighten up and behave and take it just a little bit seriously, because we got to sing loads of mainstream hymns and carols, the stuff I grew up singing from pages 79 through 108 of the Baptist Hymnal.  The choir was rather good and a chamber orchestra accompanied them, a euphonic relief after the brass band.  


Love feasts are the continuation of a tradition started in the late 1700s, and involve the passing around of Moravian buns (they taste like Hawaiian sweet rolls but with a hint of orange) and mugs of coffee.  We accepted our buns and mugs graciously and held on to them until everyone had been served.  When others started sipping, we did, too.  After my first sip, I quietly slid my hand into my purse and pulled out some liquid Splenda sweetener for the coffee, which had just enough cream and sugar to piss a person off.  Purses are indispensable things, I'm learning.  I figured the bun would make me dump later (a gastric bypass thing), but it didn't.  I got crumbs all over my dress.  They came and collected the empty mugs before distributing the candles for the candlelight portion of the service, during which "Morning Star, O Cheering Light" is always sung.


Have you ever smelled a pure beeswax candle?  I have the same issue with them that I do with handmade soap in stores, which is a desire to rub them all over my hands and forearms so that I smell like that for the rest of the day.  They're intoxicatingly wonderful.  A lady lit my wife's candle and she in turn shared the flame with me.  Beautiful, yes, but I begrudged having to burn part of my candle.  I mean, someone had just given me a beeswax candle.  That was huge.  They're not meant to be burned.  They're meant to be aromatherapeutic.  


Yet the most hardened and faithless of us cannot, I believe, help but be moved by a sudden darkened room full of people clutching small, lit candles, holding them up and singing.  Ebenezer Scrooge would have been bemused.  And my wife and I were admittedly a little choked up.  I considered approaching the minister afterward and telling him that we didn't hate it.


Most of my candle survived.  As we were leaving the church, a man collected the used candles in a box.  I smiled at him, my candle tucked snugly away into my purse.   


Forget it, Suit-Man.  It's mine.

coming up for air

The thing about gastric bypass surgery (mine was in June 2016) is that they know very, very little at this time about how drastically it changes your body chemistry, brain chemistry, and psychology.  They know your gut flora repopulate with entirely new and different critters, but not why.  They know it often reverses diabetes, but not why.  They know the suicide rate among women nearly quadruples afterward, but not why.  Studies are under way and in a few years, perhaps we'll start to gather some answers.  But for now, it's the Wild West, the frontier, and in short, I had no warning.

My surgery pushed me from dysthymia/cyclothymia into bi-polar II.  That doesn't mean it would not have happened at some point anyway; I fall uncannily into the demographic profile.  I've wrestled with the specter of depression since age 11, but can only recall a couple of instances in my mid-30's when I felt that I was in an inexplicable good mood for a few days.  Nothing prepared me for a three-month hypomanic episode.  And the worst thing about your first one is, you don't know you're in it.  You don't have an explanation for why you're suddenly talkative and the class clown at work, obsessed with Facebook's new video chat feature, sex-crazed, and all but devoid of empathy for the thoughts and feelings of your loved ones.  For me, I just figured I'd changed because of the surgery, that this was the "new me" and everyone, including me, would need to adjust to it.


The funny thing [read: not funny at all] is, I was taking Trintellix, an atypical SSRI, at the time, and that made me nauseous post-surgery, but I didn't know it was the med causing the nausea, so I took loads of Zofran, too, which has its own seratonergic effects.  My meds were poisoning me.  I was in the middle of a hypomanic episode and taking substances that were almost guaranteed to steer me toward a suicide attempt.  And they did.  But that is a story for later.


Now I know about the bi-polar disorder.  I'm on different meds, but right now, my psy-doc is weaning me off of Wellbutrin, the last antidepressant med left standing in my cocktail of pills.  Today is the first day I've been able to come up for air in over a week.  Depression has had me by the hair.  Not the kind of depression where you'd really just rather stay in bed and don't feel like engaging in your hobbies.  I mean the kind that makes you look at your family and despise yourself because they deserve so much better than having to endure your presence in their lives, your illness and the days when you can't even lift your eyes to meet their gazes.  The kind that makes them ask you if you're safe.  And you can know it's artificial, you can know that it's temporary, but that doesn't stop it from pinning you to the floor from its onset, a bullet train to the bottom instead of a gentle traipse downward.  


That's the thing about the depression side of bi-polar.  You wake up one morning after a few weeks of being level and thinking that maybe this is going to last for a long time, and find that hopelessness and brooding followed you into the shower, and brushing your teeth is physically taxing, and that you're late to work because you've been standing in your closet incapacitated and in tears from the stress of having to make a simple decision about what to wear.  Yesterday was fine.  Next week will be fine.  Today, you've got to tell your co-workers that you're Mr. Hyde.


I do mood-charting for my psy-doc.  I fill it in daily, religiously.  I thought the past few months accurately depicted a kiddie roller coaster or maybe a sine wave.  I write things on it in the margins and draw arrows to the day, like "ovulation," "respiratory virus," and "bus crashed in front lawn."  You know, things that might impact what's happening.  


I handed it to him at our last session.  He looked at it and said, "This doesn't look bad at all."  I stared at him blankly.  What constitutes "bad" to him?  Another suicide attempt?  Do I need to etch frowny faces with angry eyebrows on the bad days, so hard that I break my pencil lead?  He conceded that I might be under-reporting.  The hypomanic days aren't bad, because my current meds keep these swings brief and low-key.  I know them when they come because music sounds too slow on those days.  My co-workers point out (because I ask them to) that I'm talking even faster than normal.  And I get artistic.  I drew a picture with colored pencils for my wife and framed it.  Guess what?  I don't draw.  


He wants to put me on lithium.  I keep telling him that I'm not a lithium candidate because of my gastric bypass and trouble staying hydrated.  He forgets and at our next session, starts the lithium conversation again.  I have to explain again.  I think I'm going to be shopping for another doc soon.


Today feels a bit better.  I've come up for air.  And I'm learning that you don't take even a single hour of level mood for granted.  


December 11, 2017

fever and snow

Today I am sick, home from work with a flu-like virus, with a hot mug of broth in hand, leaning against the door frame and staring out at the heavy snowfall and the world turned white. When I have a fever, my thinking slows and I become incapable of participating in the mental bustle, the keeping up with details and schedules and minutiae of everyday life. I'm left with slow, odd observations and my own mere existence, the rest stripped away.

And so I watch the snow fall, and because I am incapable of worrying about driving conditions and school and ice and brown-outs, I step out onto the porch and fully take it in, the whispering flakes and creaking tree branches and the absence of ambient car-sounds in the distance, the uniformity of white that covers our differences. Uniform is like unify. The world is washed, cleansed, purified by clouds that do as they will, unreachable by humanity. The snow is bigger than we are. The snow says, Hush. Listen.

December 10, 2017

writing down the bones

When I was 14, the student teacher in my English class handed me her battered paperback copy of Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones.  I read it under obligation and returned it quickly so that I wouldn't damage it.  It was already shabbily well-loved.  Afterwards, there were lengthy notes from her on my returned classwork, challenging me to write more, and more deeply.  I began sitting alone in a hallway at lunch, filling single-subject notebooks with bones, writing in the margins of the paper, the edges, the white space at the top, because Natalie said so.

Later, I took all of those notebooks, stored in a duffel bag in my closet, and threw them away, so that my mother would never have a chance to read them.  If I had them with me today, I expect I would find them full of expressed angst, my scrabbling ascent from depression to whatever sufficed as wholeness at the time, the contrast between my identity as a Christian and my scientific mind.  There would be hundreds of scrawled pages of my processing various infatuations with adult female role models, and of the inner conflict with my mother that served as the reason the notebooks now lie in a landfill.


I only had six weeks with Ms. Perry.  I've looked for her now and then over the years, but she was a grad student at the time, a hipster for the alternative lifestyle, an itinerant.  She often wore three clashing shades of green and she was tall and willowy and her hair was cut short.  She had our class write response pieces to Nanci Griffith songs that were nothing like what we were fed by pop radio.  She wrote "Ummago?" on the board and challenged our pronunciation of phrases later made famous by Jeff Foxworthy's humor.  She was a self-possessed foreigner in our Southern town and the inevitable target of my classmates' ridicule.  But for me, she was a pair of doors flung wide to reveal another world, one that contained travel and writing and music that resonated, northern culture and hand-knit sweaters and an absence of evangelical outlook, a zero give-a-shit factor about being herself at a time when I sat in the crucible of adolescent conformity.  


By now, her name has most likely changed, and she lives somewhere on Earth, which narrows it down.  The wing and the wheel have carried her away.  I have little chance of finding her and thanking her for what she gave me:  The folk music cassette tapes I promptly acquired and played at night in my dim-lit bedroom until they were worn out; the thirst that made me leave home in my beat-up Pontiac T-1000 and see Texas, Minnesota, New York; the exposure to forms of otherness that left me with a thousand dichotomies, choices about who I could become; and the first seeds of writing for its own sake.  I wish I could tell her all of these things, even now, at 40.  I doubt she is aware of the gifts she left in her wake.


Even now, at 40.  I'm no gardener.  I've killed a philodendron.  I just know th
at I'm taking those seeds out of their paper bag in its dark, cool corner and planting them this year.