How would you know?

I am at a crossroads, and the only thing I can do about is to acknowledge it in the open. It has taken me a long time to get to this point where all the twists and turns of my life are clear, and will take me even longer to reprogram the crap that piles up in my head.

Long story short: I was an abused child. Emotionally, not physically or sexually, but definitely abused. My mother is a horrid, horrid person and I no longer feel obligated to dance around her random screaming rages. I am a grown man, and I don’t have to put up with anyone’s shit if I don’t want to — so her shit goes by the wayside.

Here is just one story out of many: I was 15 years old, and doing what geeky 15 year olds did in the 80s — I was writing an article I had hoped to submit to Dragon magazine. For the record, that would have brought considerable significant substantial epic cred in my circle.

My mother caught me doing this (yes, the verb I used is caught, which is the same verb I use when I tell the story about getting walked in on with my dad’s Hustler), laughed at me, and said, “You’re not a writer.”

Well, mom, how would you know?

I might be a wizard, how would she know?

I might be a wizard, how would she know?

For nearly 30 years, I have heard that voice in the back of my head every time I tried to write something.

Which is unfortunate because I am a writer. I write because I need to write, for the sake of my own sanity, and when I don’t write I go a little insane. It’s a natural consequence of being geeky and creative, and trying to stuff that into the shoebox of others’ expectations.

So with that as the background, I had to do something about the volcanic eruption that is the long repressed anger and seething shame that burns through my skin, because it is eating me alive.

So I visited with a friend yesterday, someone who knows me to an atomic level. I told her where my head is, I told her about my mother’s perpetual nagging, still persistent in my head, I told her that I am over law, that it was a mistake to begin with. And I told that I didn’t know what to do when the despair spikes.

And this dear, dear friend who always knows how to get through to me said, “Ask her, ‘How do you know?’ ‘How do you know I’m not a writer?’ ‘How do you know I’m not an actor?’ ‘How do you know what I am, mother? You’ve never, ever shown any sense that you had the merest clue about me, so how would you know?’”

And it worked. It made sense. She doesn’t know me, she never has. She lives in a shell of fear and resentment, and always has. She has never shown the slightest indication of any awareness of herself. I know now, after years of on-again, off-again therapy, that she turned out the only way she could given her upbringing.

But it’s time for me to evict her harmful bullshit from my head. So whenever I feel like my only option is to fail because my mother always told me I would be, well, How would you know?

The Iron Chin of Randall Tex Cobb

I have been having a bad run lately, with my on again, off again clinical depression in full crisis mode. The only way I know how to deal with it is to talk about it. Set it on paper and say it out loud, without shame and without fear.

In other words, to get in the ring with it.

The boxing metaphor is quite intentional. Lately, I have been feeling like Randall Tex Cobb. Most people who know Cobb know him as an actor. He has a memorable face — if I am honest, ugly might be charitable. His most famous movie role was this guy from Raising Arizona.

Randall Tex Cobb in Raising Arizona, copyright somebody else. Please don't sue me.

Randall Tex Cobb in Raising Arizona, copyright somebody else. Please don’t sue me.

Easily one of the most memorable characters in a movie full of memorable characters. But I want to talk about his first career…

Randall Tex Cobb was a boxer, who fought in one of the most important title bouts in boxing history.

Cobb was a brawler with solid power, but an indestructible chin. Standing toe to toe, he would take all the punches you had and wait for a tiny, almost imperceptible opening and then put you on the canvas.

Cobb was an artless fighter, but could be devastating. Working his way up, he amassed 17 wins in a row.

In 1982, he got a title shot against the Easton Assassin, Larry Holmes. Holmes is one of the all time great heavyweights, with what some regard as the greatest left jab in history. The left jab is a boxer’s weapon — stick the jab and move, stick the jab and move. Boxing, as opposed to brawling, is nimble and mobile. Where the brawler stands toe to toe and dukes it out, the boxer moves and flows, relying as much on defense as on punches.

So it was on November 26, 1982, when Holmes, the boxer, stepped into the ring against bruiser and brawler, Randall Tex Cobb.

It was not a fair contest.

Holmes landed punch after punch into Cobb’s face. Cobb started bleeding in the third round. His eyes swelled shut by the sixth. By the tenth, Cobb was unrecognizable, his face purple and swollen and bleeding.

Through it all, Cobb’s chin affirmed its reputation. Holmes hit him, over and over, Cobb took hundreds of shots to the face, and barely landed any punches of his own.

But Randall Tex Cobb never went down. He just stood there, taking it. He barely fought back, but did not go down.

Cobb went the distance, which in 1982 meant 15 rounds. Holmes actually laid up a little in the later rounds, an act of mercy in a merciless sport. The raw brutality so horrified Howard Cosell that he vowed never to call another boxing match.

That is how I feel right now, like Randall Tex Cobb. Beaten, bloody, and lacking the good sense to take a dive. I am basically broke, suffering through the worst depression of my adult life (trust me, that is saying something), and struggling to keep on keeping on.

I don’t know what taking a dive would look like in real life. I don’t want to.

Some people who know of my recent troubles have said I am an inspiration because I keep getting back up. I thank them, but I mostly want the punching to stop.

And right there in that sentence is my depression talking. I am not some helpless victim taking a vicious beating at the hands of a opponent out of my league by orders of magnitude. I am just having a bad run.

I honestly don’t know if things are going wrong for me lately because the universe is treating me like its punching bag, or because I am merely and simply depressed. I am also not sure it matters — I certainly feel beaten up — because my big problem is one of perspective.

A letter from my father

I haven’t been posting lately. I have written before about my depression, and it is in full attack mode at present. It was suggested that I go for a walk to get the blood flowing and the endorphins pumping, so I did. All I got out of it was cold and a picture of some cool looking lichens.

 

Lichens

Lichens

I posted the pic to Facebook, noting that I took it on my depression walk. I opened up on the thread about where my head has been, and I posted this:

September 19, 2005. My Dad was a cancer patient, and the cancer was winning. My Mom (with whom I have a whole host of other issues, but that’s a different story) fearing that the doc was going to say it’s time to stop treatment, asked me to take him, to convince the docs to keep fighting.

The doc did say the cancer was winning, and he did say that my father wouldn’t get any better, and he did say that if he wanted to stop treatment, now might be the time to do it. My dad, not dumb, but uneducated and clouded by pain killers didn’t quite understand, so I translated doc speak for him. I told him that it was okay to be done.

“I could never do that, your mother would kill me.” (Seriously, we all have issues with her.)

I said, “It’s not her call.”

And he decided he was done, and 10 days later he was gone.

My asshole brain has since spent the better part of the last nine years convincing me that I’m a killer.

I know this is not true. I didn’t kill him, the cancer did. I know that what I did was right, I know that if I had to do it again I would tell him the same thing.

And I know that it was the singular moment that broke me. I was not the same after, it’s the thing I can’t get past.

That’s what has been going on inside me for the last few months. When I am down, the guilt and shame and rageful self-loathing come back as the cherry on the sundae. When it comes back, not only do I get stuck, I don’t want to get unstuck — convinced I am a killer, I don’t think I deserve to be happy.

My therapist finds me fascinating (I think), because I am remarkably self-aware of my psychology, and can’t seem to do anything about it. I’ll tell you, it’s tremendous weight on my shoulders and a terrible burden on my chest, thinking that you killed your father. All those times I “joked” about how when I come to sit on death’s door, shoot me full of chemicals and plug me in to every respirator, aspirator, pump, tube, DVR, and electric can opener you have I absolutely meant, because I decided long ago that no one would ever have to go through what I did.

So there it is. The crux of the thing that made me what I am today, and I feel utterly powerless over it. Sorry if that was an uncomfortable overshare, but that is where I am today, and for the past week, and the past six-months, and off and on for the past nine years. Simultaneously heartbreaking and ridiculous, cognitive distortion at its destructive finest. I’ve been trying so hard to to reprogram the way I think about that day, and so far nothing has worked.

One of my dearest friends immediately replied, “Charlie, flip the script. I want you to sit down and write this from your Dad’s perspective.”

So here goes:

Dear Charlie,

I want to thank you. You did me a favor. Something I couldn’t do for myself. You let me make my own decision.

If I’m completely honest, I knew I was dying. It was my second go with cancer in a three years, and it always comes back harder the second time around. Your mother’s a basket case, always has been, you know that. The mere mention of my passing sent her over the edge.

It wasn’t fair to make you come with me, knowing what we all knew, and telling you to to “fight” for me. I’m sorry we didn’t get together and talk it all out before. I’m sorry that you had to do all that on the fly. I’m sorry that it fell to you to tell me it was okay to be done.

I’m sorry that I needed someone else’s permission to make the call I wanted to make.

Son, let me make one thing clear — I died from cancer. Nobody killed me. Cancer killed me. It’s a funny disease, cancer is. A guy has a heart attack, it’s because his arteries are so clogged with bacon grease that his heart stops working. It’s like an engine with a gunked up carb. There’s a broken part, so you fix the broken part.

Not cancer. The cancer cells aren’t broken, they’re doing exactly what cells are supposed to do. Divide, reproduce, spread. Only it’s out of control, it can’t stop, it won’t stop. All the best treatments, chemo and radiation, they kill the cancer because they kill all the cells.

That’s what makes cancer such a pain in the balls — the disease isn’t really the sickness. A tumor, in its own weird way, is perfectly healthy. And the when the tumor is healthy, the patient suffers.

So let’s just say my cancer was very healthy, and I suffered.

There was nothing, nothing at all, you could have done that would have changed that, and by that point, I wouldn’t have wanted you to. I’m sorry you got left holding the bag.

I was proud to be your father, and I miss you.

I miss you too, Dad.

A few thoughts on the soul

A friend of mine linked to an article on Facebook called Science Says Your Soul Is Like a Traffic Jam (a fascinating piece about a new book on the science of self called Me, Myself, and Why by Jennifer Ouellette, which has been Kindled and now goes on the to-read pile) and wrote:

For me, I don’t understand the conceit of the importance of humans, or “self.” There is no “soul” (and I will quickly point out that MoJo and the author do not posit that there is one), and no “creator,” the only thing separating us from deer or bears or roundworms is a few quirky evolutionary occurrences (I would normally use “accidents” here, but this word seems to make a lot of people angry) that have given rise to self-awareness. We are here, for no Reason, for no Purpose, with no Design. Since there is no overarching narration or struggle, why can’t we just accept that and get on with living? OK, we’re here, so what? Well, I don’t like to feel sick, hurt or offended, let’s see if we can’t work on trying to make sure no one feels that way?

So I thought I would respond. What follows below is a cut-and-paste of a Facebook comment, complete with all the usual typos and digressions one would expect.

Sun and Clouds, Stroud Preserve, West Chester, PA

Sun and Clouds, Stroud Preserve, West Chester, PA

As someone with a particularly ornery philosophical bent, I’ll give it a go:

Because we are simultaneous fundamentally lonely and individualistic.

The need for a “self,” that ineffable thing that distinguishes us from all the other selves out there may well be an illusion, but then everything in the entire world operates on the basis of illusions. I am philosophical skeptic (i.e. not in the sense that the word is used by people at MythBusters conventions) — nothing is truly knowable. I further fall into the subset of skeptics whose philosophy is best stated “there is no truth, only the agreed upon version of events.”

We can agree, (nearly) all of us, that the science of neurology explains why if you point a knife at someone, they will fight or flee (or the very rare, but no less real response of the dysfunctionally depressed, “lie down and await death’s cold release”). That is simple brain activity — a sudden surge of chemicals and electricity. What it doesn’t explain is why some people choose fight, and others flight. 

The self exists in the space between those two camps. And then multiply it for every single distinction in humanity. Reducing it to a single binary is necessary because this is a Facebook comment and not a dissertation, but still, every single way to divide people results in divisions.

That means that we fall into camps. We seek those like us, to find our families. Human are social creatures — there have always been hermits, and they have always been regarded as a bit odd.

On the other hand, we are not simply a colony of bees, some of blessed either to be queen or drone, while the rest consigned to worker status. Even among our peers, our camp, each of is different from the rest. That too is the self. Think of the Smurfs — each the identical descendant of Papa Smurf (except Smurfette, who it is foretold will come on a blue moon that…. I embarrassingly digress). Yet even among what are functionally genetic clones, there is individuality — Grumpy Smurf, Handy Smurf… other, kinds of Smurf. Each distinct from the other not on genetics or evolution, but on character.

Self-awareness may be an evolutionary accident, but it also likely means there was an evolutionary advantage to the willing illusion of the soul. Unlike most other animals, our self-awareness enables humans to look ahead and think “what if.”

Two very powerful words, and an even more powerful concept. What if there are gods and demons playing their hand behind the veil? What if the entire universe consists of vibrating superstrings that exist across 35 dimensions? 

What if there is something on the other side of this land bridge out of Siberia? 

“What if” is the shibboleth that gains entry to genus Homo, and from it spring art, poetry, mathematics, science, politics, economics, war, peace, good, and evil.

Other animals may travel hundreds of miles searching for food, but only one travels millions of miles searching for an idea. And that is why we cling so desperately to the idea of the soul. We see the difference between us and the deer or the bears or the roundworms, and it is not a small distinction.

Life may be an accident, but living it is not accidental.

Tulips – short short fiction

Tulips begin as these horrid little things, more like onions than flowers. Earth and water and sun and warmth foment a transformation, and horrid little onions become colorful petals, splashing across fields and meadows. Beauty enough to lure many a bee into its boudoir, or to seduce, then crash the economy of an entire nation. The bulbs, the bulbs — if only they stayed as bulbs, then neither joy nor despair awaits. Instead, the promise of petulant red or blue or violet flowers leads us to an expectation, when the static acceptance of a burly onion bulb would be safer.

And expectations are just premeditated resentments.

Henry stared at the tulips on his window sill. Hospitals teem with flowers, beautiful but joyless. “Get well soon” say the cards and balloons, but the flowers sitting in a mass produced vase say “Look at us! We are colorful and beautiful and cut off at our stems and dying!”

Like Henry.

The doctor had just left his side. “Sick people get sick,” the doctor had said in a frustrating syllogism. “The disease is winning, and we can’t stop it.”

Henry considered his options — slow the disease and deteriorate into a shell of his former self for a year, or accept the inevitable and fade away early with some of his dignity intact.

He looked at the tulips in the vase, bright and cheery and sentenced to die.

Henry could relate.

It started as these things so often do — as a very small cough. Nyquil and hot tea and steam baths did not seem to help, and it did not go away. Then he started wheezing and could not breathe, and like most men, ignored it for a little longer than that thinking that it would go away, like everything that had come before.

Henry reflected on that and realized that there must always be one condition that does not go away, on its own or ever.

“Acute respiratory distress syndrome” they called it. It had no celebrity telethons or poster children or bumper sticker ribbons; it barely even had an entry on Wikipedia. His own research did not help him find any useful information, but he managed to learn the definition of a syndrome — a set of correlated symptoms without an known cause.

In other words, he couldn’t breathe and no one knew why.

Nothing seemed to help, no medication, no intervention made a difference. The first thing to go was golf, then walking, then simply being outdoors, then being able to work indoors.

Now this. Lying in a hospital bed with a cannula clogging his nostrils, contemplating the inevitability of his options. Sooner or later, he thought, death would come for me.

His brain, still conditioned to respond to assaults even from his own lungs, began its fight or flight response.

A second opinion? A third? A seventeenth?

Clinical trials? Experimental surgeries? Herbal remedies?

A trip to Lourdes?

It all seemed so unfair because it is unfair. With each new possibility becoming more ridiculous until he arrived at a literal Hail Mary pass, Henry grew desperate. He pressed his morphine drip a few times and faded off into a numb sleep.

The scent of lavender and thyme wafted along the warm Provençal breeze. Henry, expatriated from America in search of the artist’s life, carried his wife’s ashes in a porcelain urn decorated with scenes from the English countryside. “Out of place,” he thought as he looked out over the French fields that lined the unpaved country road. The spot lay just ahead where he would say goodbye to his wife for the last time.

The tulips, acres and acres of tulips, swayed in the wind. The sky radiated an unnatural blue, like a photographic filter had been laid over it.

Henry continued along the path, the sound of earth and rocks crunching under foot.

This isn’t right, he thought to himself. The urn grew warm in his hands and when he arrived at the tree atop the hill where he was to release his wife’s ashes to the winds, the urn started to shake.

He tried to hold on, but could not. He dropped it, breaking the urn and spilling his wife out on the ground. The wind swirled in a small cyclone, and gathered up her ashes. They came together, and dust became bone and muscle and viscera and skin.

She stood before him, looking like she did on the day they met.

Henry gazed at her, and simply said “Hello, Flora.”

“Hello, Henry.”

Henry took her hand, warm to the touch and real.

“This didn’t happen,” he said. “I did this before and this didn’t happen. This is where I scattered your ashes, but you weren’t there like this. This is where I said goodbye.”

Flora smiled and said, “No, this is where you say hello.”

They sat on the grass, hand in hand, and looked down the hill to the sea of tulips. One by one, petals began to fall off as the flowers started dying.

“It isn’t fair,” Henry said.

“It never is,” said Flora.

Henry woke in his hospital room, groggy from the morphine. On the windowsill sat the tulips in their cheap vase. The water was getting cloudy and the flowers started to wilt to one side, and Henry watched a petal drop. They come from such horrid little things, he thought.

And he was ready to say hello.

This story was inspired by two writing prompts from First 50 Words — The Bulbs, The Bulbs, and Warm Breeze.

My Secret Encourager

In early December at a particularly low period, I got a card in the mail — a real card, on real paper, in my real mail.

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Then I got another card, this one with a small gift to spend on something to make my “soul shine.”

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Then in January, I got another card, celebrating my Facebook project to express my gratitude every day, #YearOfGratitude.

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Just today, I got another card — a Valentine’s card, celebrating my post from last week, Do A Thing.

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My mailbox fills up with bills and coupons and the weekly grocery store flyer, bad news or capitalism. Rarely do we receive cards and letters from people, simply for the sake of showing appreciation. These cards mean more to me than the sender can ever suspect. I fundamentally want to believe the worst about myself — these cards remind me that I am none of the horrible things I think I am.

Thank you, whoever you are, for showing me a radical kindness I have a hard time showing myself.

Dancing Tabasco and the Giant Flying Cool Stuff

Yesterday, my girlfriend and I took her son to see The Lego Movie, which was delightfully not CGI — it was stop-motion animation, done brick by brick, which led to an opportunity to explain how stop-motion works by making a Tabasco bottle dance around a straw using an app on my phone.

I never did Lego as a kid. I’m not a visual person by nature, and it always frustrated me that I couldn’t build what I saw in my head. I wanted to build Giant Flying Cool Stuff when all I seemed capable of making was a plain tower. While I was excited to take the boy to the movie, I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did.

I certainly didn’t expect to be crying.

Without giving anything away, the movie stands for the idea that creativity is never wasted or wrong — no matter how ridiculous. Belief in oneself makes all the difference. I flashed back to that time when I was 15 and writing something I had hoped to submit for publication, when my mother walked in and said “You’re not a writer.” It’s the voice I hear in my head when I write something. Every. Time.

When I tell that story, the word I use is that she “caught” me. It’s the same word I use when I tell the story about getting walked in on with my dad’s Hustler.

So I cried, because it dawned on me that all my feelings of inadequacy were put there by someone else. I need to put some new feelings in there, and the first one I need to put in place is that I am as much a writer as anyone else who claims to be. I am 18,000 words into a novel. I get paid to blog for people. I have been told by people that my writing has made them laugh and cry and think. More than anything else, I think I can write and that is all that matters — no matter what my mom seems to think.

No creativity is ever wasted or wrong. The same way my mother’s voice tells me I am not a writer, it is my own voice that tells me I am not visual. Yet, I was able to animate a Tabasco bottle in a minute or so, without any sort of visual guide to help me reframe each shot. Both of those voices need to shove it.

We are all the writers and artists of Lego builders we deem ourselves to be. I am going to keep writing, and I may also go get some Lego — the Giant Flying Cool Stuff just won’t make itself.