Sunday, August 31, 2008

Those jazz standards got under my skin

I am so wary of writing about depression, again and again and again. . .

Is it as wearisome to readers as it is for me (uh, don't answer that)? I go back and forth about this. On one hand, I want readers (and I'd love to see more comments!) I know most people like short, punchy, and humorous writing. Well, I haven't offered much of that! I try to at least find the humor in my depression, in part for myself and in part for others who may be depressed themselves. Yes, there is humor, in spite of the weight of sadness, and there's also beauty, a great deal of it. I so want to tell others that it's possible, yes, to live with depression, or in spite of it.

Looking at blog statistics is like going to a big party (which I did today) and seeing just how many people you don't know, or used to know and wondering why you're sitting all by yourself. People like happy people, and I don't blame them. I prefer people who are interesting to those who are bubbly, but then I'm not exactly the most bubbly person myself. I'd rather get into a good, juicy conversation with someone who's a bit off than a glad-hander any day. But that's me.

Today, I was at big open air post-wedding party. I just couldn't take it. I had to walk away, go sit in my car and let the tears fall. There was too much sadness in me. I felt like I was standing with an invisible bubble around me, making all the sounds of laughter and music seem far away. It felt better to have that be a reality, and sit in my car, where the laughter and music were truly far away and not just an illusion created by my state of mind.

This is the worst part of depression, I think - how it isolates a person from others, just when one needs them the most.

I didn't even know I was depressed today. That was the real kicker. I put my hair up a little nicer than usual, and put a bit of make-up on. Nothing prepared me as we drove to the party for having anything but a nice time. There would be people there I liked, many of whom I haven't seen for ages, good music and food.

I know there are so many people out there who are suffering. They're sitting in their own cars, crying or not. And then we are given pills that are supposed to make us feel better. From what I can gather, those pills are not working, not for most of us (but I take mine anyway - why?)

At this point, all I can say is that I know it comes and goes. I know I have to remember that and hold on to it for dear life. I know I have to also discern what genuinely is causing me grief and what is "just the depression talking". This is another problem that is not addressed often enough. When one is depressed, some things that are real problems go unaddressed. And I wonder - is it maybe those things that continue the depression? It's so easy to blame the depression for ones' sadness that a person can stop seeing that there are some very real problems that need to be fixed.

Anti-depressants don't work on real problems. They need to be solved.

Well, that's all for tonight. Tomorrow, perhaps, I will write about knitting, Palin, McCain, the coming of autumn. . .or that I'm in love with myself when I'm wearing Chergui. Thank you, Serge Lutens (and a certain someone) for such heavenly perfume! Maybe they ought to distribute it in psych wards.

Now I will, once again, type the word "depression" in the box marked labels.

Image Note: I googled "the most beautiful painting in the world", expecting the Mona Lisa to be on page one (but hoping for a surprise). I did get a surprise: pages of the worst crap imaginable. I won't insult the artists nor their admirers by naming them. Maybe that's the "anti-snob" in me. On the other hand (which there seem to many of tonight), it would be interesting to analyse just what is considered to be so beautiful by whatever and whomever caused this array of lousy art to wind up on Google's top pages. Another project for another day.

Oh, and as to the image above, it seemed somehow fitting to post Marcel Duchamp's messing about with the Mona Lisa (1919). Perhaps I should have presented you with Miss America sporting a goatee and mustache instead. It would be fitting considering who's now running for the Republican vice-presidential spot.

Friday, August 29, 2008

"Should I get a tattoo?"

I've got four unfinished blog posts in my drafts folder and a few more in my head. There's just too much to write and think about - Obama's speech last night and McCain's pick of Palin as his running mate both loom large in my mind.

Yet, this post will address something I don't think about much - why a person should or shouldn't get a tattoo. I've had three days of Feedburner analysis of traffic to this blog, and an awful lot of it comes from Google searches like "Should I get a tattoo?"

I don't want knowing that to change what I write about, but since the entry called "Why you should not get a tattoo" keeps getting hits (and it was not meant to be "advice"), I figured I needed to write more about this topic.

My gut reaction, as an ex-tattooist and a heavily tattooed person, is that if you need to ask strangers whether or not you should get a tattoo, you should not do it. On the other hand, if you do get a tattoo and live to regret it, it's not a big deal (unless you've put it on your face). Most people who are tattooed forget that they even have tattoos. My left arm is completely covered in tattoos and I do not notice it. To me, it's just my skin.

I once read a comment from Henk Schiffmacher (aka "Hanky Panky"), a long-time tattooist and tattoo historian, who said "tattoos are all about regrets." I thought this statement, and some of the reasons he mentioned for believing that, were dead on.

Tattoos are our lives permanently etched into our skin. It doesn't matter if you have a tiny little flower or a full sleeve in this respect. Whenever you look at your tattoo and really see it (for as I mentioned, you will indeed stop noticing it after a while), you will always think of the day you got it, or if not that specifically, at least the general time period. Looking back is always filled with regret of some kind. If you got that tattoo when you were 18, you'll think of your youth. You may still feel fine about the image or not (and if you don't, there's yet another regret), but either way, you are challenged to live with your past through the tattoo.

The power of the tattoo as an anchor that ties us to our past is powerful. There's not much in this society that can do that. We are a society in which almost anything we've done can be undone, mistakes atoned for and forgiven, and lives changed at whim. We can remake ourselves very easily - change our names, move thousands of miles away to places where noone knows our history, have multiple careers and marriages and incarnations, but our tattoos are still with us. Even if you get your tattoos lasered off (which few people actually do), you'll bear the scar.

I've often wondered why tattoos have become so popular. I think there are two significant reasons (though I'm sure there are more than these). The first one is that I think a lot of people have a deep seated need for ritual that mark passages in their lives, and that tattoos serve that need. The other reason is that tattoos do keep people aware of the choices they've made in their lives, and even if we don't consciously want to be reminded that, say, once we were such avid dope-smokers that we tattooed pot leaves all over our bodies, we unconsciously do want to be reminded of where we've been, so we can either stay that way, change or at least honor our lives.

So, even though I reflexively say "don't get a tattoo if you have any reservations", a part of me thinks "go right ahead. It's no big deal." I'd caution against tattooing parts of your body that can not be covered up, for there still are people who will judge you immediately and even if that's "not right", it's a fact of life. Why should one tattoo keep you from getting a job you want? Some people might say of me that I'm too conservative on this point, but seriously, I think it's somewhat childish to not see that a tattoo in a highly visible place is sending the message "I think I'm different from the norm." The person interviewing you for a job does (usually) not want to know this. That's reality. Would you show up for a job interview in pajamas? You may say this is a stretch of reasoning, and it is, but it does amount to pretty much the same thing.

We may value individualism in this society, but only up to a point.

Now that I'm coming to a close on this post, I realize that I do indeed have plenty to say about tattoos, even though I don't practice the art any more. I think it's important, perhaps, that people without the agenda of selling you a tattoo answer questions about them. And to the woman who googled "Can I get a tattoo when I'm sick?" I want to say "Yes, but it's not a good idea." If you want to know why, leave a comment. I'm done for now.

Photo note: Thanks, Eric, for letting me tattoo this image exactly the way I envisioned it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Invocations and Benedictions at the DNC

Last night I watched Hillary's speech at the convention (on which I will be mum at the moment). Afterwards, there was the end-of-the-day benediction, in which two ministers said prayers for all the politicians and delegates (along with a bunch of other stuff, which I was tuning out). I was stupefied, quite frankly.

I must admit to complete ignorance of there being invocations and benedictions at the conventions (and a presumed history of such). It should be abolished, period. There is no place for this kind of stuff in politics. What ever happened to the separation of church and state? I'm afraid I missed something here. I would like to know if this has always gone on at conventions, and I'm a bit lazy at the moment, as I should be doing schoolwork and not blogging, so if anyone can tell me the history of this "tradition", please do.

Last night's benediction bordered on freaky (to my ears). You can read the whole thing here.

As I listened to the Reverends Jin Ho Kang and Yoougsook deliver their prayers, at some point I started wondering if they were going to end it with some sort of animal sacrifice. I believe this is the line where I started to get even more comfortable than I usually do seeing such public displays of religiosity: "God of new creation, now may the new leadership of this country trumpet a new day for this nation and the world so that our young people shall see visions, and our old ones dream dreams."

Perhaps instead of an animal sacrifice, they should have passed out the peyote after that line. Can you imagine what the convention would turn into if that happened. Anyway, it would have gone well with the post-benediction music - "Let Me Take You Higher".

I must admit to being more than a bit offended by these lines: "May we build a bridge of harmony among all God's people. May the work of this convention provide hope for all people of God in the nation." As an atheist, I feel rather left out. Oh, I know someone will say I'm being a stickler, for "we're all god's people", but what if I say I'm not? If they had to pray, which evidentally they must, I'd prefer that they would pray for the planet's people or something a little more benign.

I just looked at the list of clergy who have been slotted to conduct these prayers. Not only is there not one Muslim in this supposedly diverse group, but no one from any secular humanist organization, or at least a church as liberal as the Unitarian Universalists.

I have much more to say about this, but I must stop writing (and thinking). I had a desire to put this out there, for it seems no one except the Christian websites are even mentioning it. I wonder how the Republicans are going to top the religiousity of the Democrats this season.

Writing this has made me decide (not a big decision) to put a link to a generally unknown organization that people ought to know about - Americans United for the Separtion of Church and State. Even if you disagree with me, and are a avid theist, understanding the importance of this separation is imperative. In fact, it has been argued that the church/state separation has kept religion healthy and growing in this country.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

To boot, both explained and not

Often, I use some cliche and wonder where it comes from. Earlier, I wrote this comment: ". . .misery doesn't love company. It needs company and plenty of conversation to boot."

I then thought (and wrote), what the heck does "to boot" mean?! Ah, what did I do without Google?! Well, I did have a fairly large library of reference books (and still do). But there was never enough. I often wished for a 24 hour/7 day a week library that I could walk to in under five minutes. Now, I have it, and I don't even have to budge from my sofa.

Here's the explanation of "to boot", courtesy of the Phrase Finder:

To boot

Moreover; in addition to.


This term has nothing to do with footwear. The 'boot' is thought to be a derivative of the earlier 'bat' meaning 'good or useful'. This is also the root of the word 'better'.

Forms of 'to boot' in Old English date from around 1000AD. Robert Manning of Brunne included a version of it in Langtoft's Chronicle, 1330:

"A hundreth knyghtes mo... and four hundreth to bote, squieres of gode aray."

I don't think, however, that I'll be reading Langtoft's Chronicle any time soon. Not that this has to do with anything. . .

I wondered if "booting up a computer" and other forms of "boot" have anything to do with this expression, but I would doubt it. But we shall see. I will commence my search for the answer now. In fact, I'll time it. It's 10:06pm right now.

Okay, it's 10:09pm. Here's what happened in the last three minutes:

I found an answer on this site: Take Our Word For It
Since it's an online magazine, I didn't want to copy it. I also found the explanation, while certainly plausible, not explained all that well, or in a scholarly enough fashion to suit my sensibilities (oh, my fine sensibilities!) and so, I checked another page. What did I encounter? A site that told me "You are not currently authorized to access this article." Okay. How do I get authorized? This website looks good! It's called Jstor: Trusted Articles for Scholarship. And yes, one has to pay for it. I did not look into how much this would cost. It looked expensive. Really. It has fancy schmancy fonts and everything.

So, if you're curious, don't take my word for, check out the link above. But don't try Jstor, or if you do, please tell me all about it.

Image note: This is a hint.
Cover of Oct. 1941 Astounding Science Fiction magazine (I need to include this to be in compliance with copyright law, though I'm not sure I'm doing it properly).

Addendum: This morning it occurred to me that there was yet another usage of the word "boot" that I didn't know the reasons for, namely, why the back enclosure space of a car is a trunk in the United States and the boot in Britain. Surprisingly, this one took me far longer than three minutes to find an answer to. For you who are curious (and those who are not, but somehow wound up here, asking yourself, "Why am I reading this?"), here it is:

At the back of horse-drawn stagecoaches were big boxes that held passengers' luggage. They were called boots. This is believed to come from boite, the French word for box. So, why wasn't it just called the box? After all, it was a box. One could postulate that some folks called it the boite and some called it the box and over time, it came out as boot. So, why do Americans called it the trunk? I didn't look this up, but trunk is indeed another word for a large box that holds things.

The amount of uses for the word "boot" is quite large. Check out and see for yourself.

More late reactions to old news

The other day I found the July 28th issue of Newsweek sitting under some books. The cover story was "Murder in the 8th Grade". The subtitle of the story, right there on the cover (with a picture of the murdered boy) was "At 10, Lawrence King declared he was gay. At 15, a classmate shot him dead. A tale of bullying, sexual identity and the limits of tolerance."

From reading this, even without opening the magazine to the article, I was already angry.

I did go on to read the article, and it just made me angrier. First off, none of us needed to read the story of Lawrence King's life, unless it was to memorialize it. But this article was no memorial. Even though the author claims otherwise, the "tale" of Lawrence King's life is not responsible for his death. Did his being born to a drug addicted mother have anything at all to do with his death? He didn't commit suicide. Another child murdered him.

Yet, we are told all the salacious details of this poor kid's life. And then, to add insult to injury, we are told that his self-identifying as gay at an early age may have made him act out, thus causing other boys to be angry or afraid of him. It is postulated that, in the past (which past?) children didn't hear words like "gay" bandied about so freely, so they would not have identified so early as being homosexual. This is simply not the case. Whether a child has the words or not, they do know, and at very early ages, that they are different or that they are attracted to others of the same sex. This was true one hundred years ago. It is true today. Whether we call homosexuality "gay" or "potatoism" or nothing doesn't change a thing. Are we to believe if we stuff words like gay back in the closet that children will be better off? What a bunch of nonsense!

When I was in the 7th grade, everyone knew that there were two boys who were homosexual in our classes. There probably was more than two boys (and girls) who were gay in our school, for it was large, but I was friends with these two who were "out". We banded together because we were all bullied and teased because we were "different" in some way. But that's not really my point. My point is that there have always been kids who are not "sexually normative". Blaming "permissiveness" for creating a situation where Lawrence King may have set himself up for being killed is just plain wrong.

The real questions are barely asked (because no one knows what they are), and so, they are hardly addressed. Once again, a child kills another child. This time there's "a reason", it seems. No, Lawrence King didn't deserve to die because he was a problem in the school.

Why are there so many school shootings? We've been asking this, half-heartedly, since Columbine. Everyone says "it's because of bullying". Well, there was a whole hell of a lot worse bullying in the past and kids weren't shooting each other. Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying that bullying is okay and things were better in the old days, but when I read that things may have been better in the old days because we didn't allow students as much freedom of expression, well, I just say "No!"

I have no idea why kids are more apt to pick up a gun and shoot someone in these times. I have some guesses, and none of them have anything to do with childhood sexuality (which exists, has always existed and will continue to exist, no matter how much it unnerves adults).

Today, I'm going to reserve any ruminations about the "whys" for another time. I'd like to encourage anyone who's reading this to sit for a minute or two in silence for Lawrence King.

Image note: I suppose it may be seen as macabre to put this image up on this post. I had tried to find some 1970's gay pride button images, but only found one on someone's blog and since it was his personal collection, felt funny about using it. The reason I wanted to use an image like this is because of a very good friend I had back when I was in high school. At the age of 16, he wore a button that read "How dare you presume I'm hetereosexual?" He also wore makeup on occasion, along with clothes that basically screaming "flaming!" The school we attended was small and it was particularly bully free, but that was probably because almost everyone there had been bullied at other schools (and I suppose that's what landed us in the school for misfits).

Most people who read his button had no idea what it meant. Some of them didn't even know what the word "hetereosexual" meant, never mind the sarcasm. It was 1974. I don't know if my friend ever was the victim of a hate crime, but I've been. Back in 1980, I was walking down the street one evening in New York City and some guys started yelling at me from their car, "Lesbian! Go to hell!" and other assorted phrases of nastiness. They were fixated on the fact that I had a tattoo on my biceps. It was an affront to their sensibilities. One of them got out of the car and punched me in the face, knocking me unconscious. Yes, boys and girls, it once was dangerous for a woman to have a visible tattoo. It appears that it is still dangerous to be homosexual. And Newsweek dares tell us that perhaps the closet is the safest option? I am outraged.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The consequences of food choices (with a bonus recipe)

I'm not above engaging in silly time-wasting activities. I saw a friend had taken an on-line quiz about what kind of American English they spoke, so I took it (45% Yankee, 45% Average American, 10% Dixie). Then I wanted to find out "what my pizza says about me."

I was pretty curious what absurdities could be deduced from my answers. I like pizza without red sauce, extra cheese, mushrooms and sausage (if it's good, but the test didn't ask for that much specificity). I also like thin crust pizza, but honestly, if it isn't cooked in a wood fired oven or on my own pizza stone, I'd prefer a different kind of crust. I would guess that what I just wrote would classify me as one of those dreaded "elites", along with the fact that I like arugula. I prefer micro-brewery beer to wine, but that's mostly because I can't afford really good wine (and yes, I can tell the difference). Another piece of evidence that I am indeed a bit of a snob. If offered a Pabst or wine from a box, I will decline. I can't say the same for pizza. I'll eat pretty much any kind of pizza, as long as it has no anchovies or pineapple on it.

Why am I writing about this when there are important things to write about? Well, a lot of fuss has been made about Obama's eating preferences, which are seen as vaguely un-American. He's picky. I've been accused of that myself, as if I'd prefer to starve than eat spam. No, if I was indeed starving, I'd eat spam (though it occurs me that I've never tried it, though I have tried scrapple). Unlike Obama, if you saw me, you'd see that I can't be that picky, for I could stand to lose weight.

I've left you hanging with the pressing question of the day: "What does my pizza say about me?" Here it is:

"People may tell you that you have a small appetite... but you aren't under eating. You just aren't a pig.

You are a very picky pizza eater. Not any pizza will do. You fit in best in the Northeast part of the US.

Your taste in food tends to favor what's rich and comforting. You prefer food that will definitely satisfy you.

You are generous, outgoing, and considerate with your choices.

You are cultured and intellectual. You should consider traveling to Vienna.

The stereotype that best fits you is guy or girl next door. Hey, there's nothing wrong with being average."

I doubt anyone has ever described me as "the girl next door". In fact, in an article published in a Lubbock, Texas newspaper, there was once a picture of me with the headline "Would you bring this girl home to meet your parents?" I kid you not.

I'm curious as to how my preferences in pizza added up to "cultured and intellectual". And do they serve my favorite pizza in Vienna? Oddly enough, my forebears were from Vienna, and one of my great-grandmothers was a pastry chef there. Though she used dough on a daily basis, I would bet my life savings (not much, I'm afraid) that she never used any for pizza.

It's true I like rich and homey food, in spite of liking arugula. The way I like arugula the best is with pasta. Here's a wonderful little recipe for you, if you like arugula (the amounts of all the ingrediants are up to you): Chop up a large bunch of arugula. Shred a good amount of Ricotta Fresca, or if you can't find that, combine one part large curd cottage cheese with one part feta cheese and mix them together. Cook up some pasta (your choice). After you drain the pasta, quickly throw it on plates, putting the cheese and arugula on top. Drizzle some good olive oil on it, if you want. To make it even tastier, use garlic infused olive oil. This stuff is over priced. Make it yourself. Buy some cheap olive oil and throw a bunch of garlic cloves (cut in half) into it. In a week, it'll be as good as the expensive stuff.

This is a first - a post about cooking! See, I'm not in the worst of moods! I do have a bit of a stomach ache from an overly rich meal I ate last night, however. I went, for the first time, to a popular local restaurant, "The Olde Mill Restaurant". The extra E on the word Old should have tipped me off to this place not being all that it was cracked up to be. It had the same fare as any typical Maine restaurant - lots of fried food (including huge piles of onion rings for two bucks) and a big pie menu. I ordered pot roast with mashed potatoes and carrots. THe entire plate was covered with a terribly dark brown gravy that smelled like "Gravymaster". I pushed that to the side and discovered that the pot roast was actually quite tasty. In spite of the pizza quiz, I am indeed a pig at times. I ate everything on my plate (plus quite a few onion rings). Of course, I paid dearly for my piggishness, and had a terrible night's sleep.

I rather wish I had gone somewhere where I could have had a good mesclun salad, but those places are overpriced around here. No wonder Americans are overweight. The cheaper the food, the higher the calories and the bigger the portions. Everyone knows this, so what have I got to add to it? I stopped eating at fast food restaurant years ago, but I do indulge in Coolatas, which must have at least a thousand calories in them.

Getting back to what my pizza says about me, I am assumed to be a Northeasterner (thin crust?) But how do they account for the "generous, outgoing and considerate with my choices"? How does food choice make one friendly, generous or outgoing?

I'll make some stabs at over-analyzing this bit of fluff. One can be generous in their choice of foods. If you're invited to someone's house and eat what they offer, regardless of whatever pickiness one might have (oh, say, vegetarianism or food allergies), one could be considered generous. Friendly? If, even as your eyes are swelling up due to eating an overabundance of whatever you're going into anaphalactic shock over, you say "Gee. That was great. Can I get the recipe?", you are indeed a friendly person, and quite considerate to boot. You're even more considerate if you don't put your hosts out by asking for a ride to the hospital for some epinephrine.

I don't have any serious food allergies and have ceased to be a vegetarian, so I have no reason to turn down any food I'm offered. Therefore, I have every opportunity to be friendly, considerate and generous when it comes to food choices.

Now I'll tell you a story that proves this isn't all in good fun. It hadn't occurred to me until now that I had an experience that gives all this nonsense some reality.

Years ago I was invited to a formal dinner party, something that is rare in these parts. The hostess asked me if I had any foods which I could not eat, which was truly considerate of her. I said I didn't much like fish and that I seemed to have a bad reaction to salmon, though while not an allergy, was more of a serious aversion. The smell of salmon makes me want to gag.

I showed up at the party, which had a few guests whom I knew the hostess was a bit nervous about. It was all very stiff and polite, everyone in their best clothes and making horrendously small talk.

The table was laid out beautifully and there were even name cards for the guests. First, a salad was served. Then came the main course: salmon.

I sat there politely with my plate of salmon, eating what was around it and trying not to breathe too deeply, but it started to become too much for me to bear. Without knowing it, I pushed the plate away from me. I didn't push it far. It was only about one or two inches further than where it should have been. But the hostess noticed. She asked me to come into the kitchen, where she asked me if there was something wrong. I told her that I had a problem with salmon, and very gingerly brought up that we may have had a misunderstanding, for I was sure I was clear about this when we had spoken about the dinner party. She declared she had no memory of it at all. I didn't see what the fuss was, really. There was plenty of other food, and it was lovely. I did ask if she minded if I removed the salmon from my plate and stuck to eating the side dishes. I returned to the table and told the other guests that I was allergic to salmon.

After dinner, the table was cleared and the hostess said that she was sorry to inform us that she was feeling poorly. She apologized for not serving any coffee, tea or dessert (which she indicated was something lovely), but she just had to go lay down. We all put on our coats and left.

About a week later I received a letter in the mail from this woman. It was four pages long. She told me she could no longer be my friend, for I had terrible manners. I had ruined her dinner party by rejecting her food and it had pained her so much, after all the trouble she had gone to, that she had taken ill and laid in a dark room for a few days. She said I had embarassed her in front of "important people" and would have to work hard to mend what I had done.

Who knew that my dislike of salmon could cause such distress? I must confess, there was a time I might have taken this letter to heart a bit for I used to be prone to terrible feelings of guilt, but this time I felt no such thing. I was rather outraged at being blamed for such neuroticism, even though I tend to be quite forgiving of other peoples' craziness (after all, I have much). But not this time. I wouldn't eat the salmon and I wasn't going to eat the blame. That was the end of the friendship.

On rare occasions I see this woman on the street. After more than fifteen years, she still will turn her back or cross the street to avoid me. Small town life is like that. There are people I would prefer not to see, too, but these awkward moments are over things that are bigger than a piece of salmon steak.

I daresay everyone is crazy in some way. It's just more obvious in some people than others. And I shouldn't be throwing stones, as they say. I mean this woman no harm by recounting this story, truly.

I just noticed that I thought I smelled salmon. Can one hallucinate smells? Perhaps I should think about the smell of a good pizza dough, cooking on a stone in a brick oven.

Painting note: Still Life with Stoneware Jug, Wine Glass, Herring, and Bread 1642
Pieter Claesz., Dutch, about 1597–1660

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has a wonderful interactive site that includes "MFA Images: Feasts".

Addendum: I can't believe I'm still thinking about that pizza quiz. Since when was the "average girl next door" intellectual and cultured? We should be so lucky. Maybe we'd elect some better politicians if all us average folks liked thin crust, sauceless pizza with sausage and extra cheese. And, y'know, I've always wanted to go to Vienna. . .

Addendum #2: I felt rather uncomfortable that I had written about a person who lives in my area (and is still alive). I want to assure readers (and my friends) that this is an exceptional circumstance. I know for a fact (for reasons that would help disclose the identity of the person I wrote about) that the woman mentioned in this post will never read it, nor will anyone who could identify the "incident".

Sunday, August 24, 2008

A quick question

I claimed earlier today that I've been depressed for about ten days. Dick thought this was amusing and told me to look at my blog.

Have all my entries been depressing? I think not. Sure, I often write about what might be considering depressing topics, but I believe I've been in a good mood since sometime in April. Entries like "Pretty in Pink" and 9 other EIIIProduct drawings (see labels to the right) were certainly not products of a depressed spirit!

I'm sorry that I haven't kept up with the amusing drawing (to those who miss them), but I've been busy knitting lace.

This may be the shortest post ever. I have plenty I could be writing about, but I'll ask you, whoever you are, has this entire blog been depressing? I'd put up a poll, but I haven't had much response to previous ones (oh, how depressing!)

I do want to know what you think, all half dozen of you, whoever you are.

Image note: A image note about a large question mark? Yes indeed. I didn't realize the image would be so big. At this size, in proportion to the post, the question mark almost loses its meaning.

I am aware of the idea that one is not supposed to ask questions of ones imagined readers. The question mark, in an essay, is sloppy writing (or something, I forget). I could go on for a while about why I do like question marks, but it seems absurd. Then again, there have been many blog posts recently about the semi-colon, which has been a disputed piece of punctuation for over a hundred years. I am at this moment too lazy to back this up with any evidence, but if you want some, just google it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

"Above my paygrade", amongst other things

I'm coming a bit late to the analysis of the debate (discussion?) that Obama and McCain had with Rick Warren at Saddleback. I must admit to having virtually stopped watching the news out of a sense of self-preservation (read: I find it too depressing).

First, I have deep reservations about the whole affair in the first place. Why aren't Obama and McCain having a "regular" debate? Why did both of them pander to fundamentalists by signing up for this event? My other question, to Obama, is why did you set yourself up for certain failure? There were many ways to take a moral high ground by not agreeing to this event and he did not take them. John McCain desperately needs to shore up the backing of evangelicals and fundamentalists, so I can understand his desire for participation. I'm starting to think Obama actually sees himself as part of this Christian heritage continuum (which gives lie to all the claims he's a crypto-Muslim). But what he continually misses is the sorry fact that these people want easy answers, stated with absolute conviction. I found McCain's statement that he'd "follow Bin Laden to the gates of hell" absolutely horrifying. His short answer to "When does life begin?": "At conception" was equally appalling, for I'm not certain, as with much of what McCain's saying these days, that he actually believes that at all, but he's having to throw his lot in with the extremists. And I'll add, just out of crankiness, that his saying that being rich is having 5 million dollars, and then laughing at his answer, was outrageous, especially given the fact that it's Obama who's been called the elitist.

I'm sorry that Obama's answer to "When does life begin?" was that answering the question was "above his pay grade". I immediately understood the joke, but it was not a time for joking. In fact, I was reminded of a South Park episode, in which the boys were faced with the dilemma of whether to help Grandpa commit suicide, which he couldn't manage on his own. They boys phoned in to Jesus's talk show (this is South Park, remember) and asked Jesus what he thought about euthanasia. Jesus said, "I'm not going to touch that with a ten foot pole." In effect, that's what Obama was saying. The truth is, while fundamentalists (and now McCain) may seen dead certain about when life begins, even the Catholic Church is not certain. The pope issued this on the subject: "The Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature [as to the time of ensoulment], but it constantly affirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion."

But Americans like certainty. The Catholic Church may condemn abortion (and birth control) but I will say I appreciate that they say they don'tknow for certain the answer to the question of when life begins (or ensoulment, as they put it).

More than one commentator on the Web said that he was dissapointed that Obama joked when faced with the "most pressing moral question of our time." That a good amount of Americans think this is the most pressing moral question of our time is, frankly, terrifying.

I am sorry Obama joked. He had an opportunity for a teaching moment, but I dare say he's become scared off of these on account that he comes off too preachy. I would have loved to hear him say that he was not equipped to answer this question, or even object to it being asked of him (or any other politician). To answer is to give it weight (and may be another reason Obama chose to sidestep it with a joke). The question of when life begins (and ends)is essentially a religious question.

I'm sure many would love science to answer the question. The question itself is one for theologians and philosophers, and not hard science. And even if hard science weighed in with a definate answer, people would dismiss whatever answer they have as "just a theory". That aside, if Obama felt this question was not one he could, should or ought to answer, he should have explained why in no uncertain terms.

For me, the bottom line is my fear about the line between church and state becoming increasingly blurred, and this is another reason I'm sorry either candidate showed up for this event, even if Mr. Warren is a "nice" evangelical who wrote the kind of book that Oprah endorses (The Purpose Driven Life).

Y'know, I bet that book is actually pretty good. Just last night, I was telling a friend, that I truly believe that depression, at heart, is a spiritual problem.

But, I am frightened by the increasing religiousity of our politics and government. The separation of church and state is vital to our nation, and people need to be educated about what it means. How many people do understand the concept? The president of this country should be attending to other matters than philosophical/spiritual/religious ones. Interestingly, even though so many think that a president should address these concerns, he should do so from his "heart" and not from being widely read and educated. It is as if "we" have come to believe that everything is learned in the same way as a religious conversion experience. We "know", but we can't explain, and that's perfectly okay. I say it's not okay, not in the least.

I've really had it. Know-nothings run the country and elect our officials. We're suspicious of "intellectuals" and want our president to either be a regular Joe or a G.I. Joe.

I sorely wish Obama would stop trying to shield the public from his intellectualism and just own it, challenging us to see how important it is to have a more nuanced and changeable mind. That his reception in Germany terrified the masses of America is something he could have spoke about, too. But I suspect he's running a bit scared, which dissapoints me.

Obama does seem to wander into tangents when he's speaking extemporaneously. His pauses seem like moments of confusion, whereas I would guess they are just moments of thought (but unlike the late William Buckley, Obama doesn't make some weird humming sound nor stick his pen into his mouth to signify he's thinking).

Thinking, anyway, is rather suspect these days. What is John McCain actually thinking when he says in uncertain terms that he'll follow someone to the gates of hell for revenge? Is this what we want? Knee-jerk histrionic threats straight out of the type of thinking about the world that plays like it's straight out of a bad Shakespeare re-make? We've had enough of that with Bush Junior.

I was going to end this post here, but I want to address how we got ourselves here. A friend asked me what I thought about that last night. How did we get to the point where Americans know nothing about geography, care nothing for understanding other cultures (or the destruction of our own), know near to nothing about our own history and government, and even celebrate their right to ignorance?

I said "I don't know. There's much that brought us here." I'm not a historian, a sociologist or even much of an intellectual. I do have one observation and it's one that's usually heard from conversatives; our expectations of education are abysmal.

Even when I was in High School, classes in history were optional and only recommended for advanced placement students. From elementary school through High School, instead of history, we learned "social studies". Instead of learning about how our goverment worked or actually reading the Constitution or Bill of Rights, we had "current events" (at least we had them; most schools have dispensed with this topic). Learning a second language was an elective presented when we were already in Junior High School, and not at an age where learning a second language is known to be most effective, in the lowest grades. We take it for granted that the rest of the world is bilingual and can speak English along with whatever their native language is. What if the consensus shifted and everyone started to learn Chinese? It's not impossible. Where would we be, in a country where we are conditioned to think that we are so powerful that we don't need to learn much?

I firmly believe that understanding the basics of how our government works, having a basic grasp of our country's history, and knowing something of the rest of the world, too, is imperative for an informed electorate. The dumber we are, the more easily we can be lead (and mislead). I'm appalled at the way politicians are sold like products because the general populace can't digest information any other way. The power of persuasion should be through reason and ideas, not clever advertising.

In 1968, at a rally in Memphis, the late Robert F. Kennedy, against advice, decided to deliver the horrible news of Martin Luther King's assassination to a mostly black crowd. He opened by extemporaneously quoting Aeschylus:

"Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God."

For the moment, I'll put aside my reservations about church/state issues. What I want to point out is this: Can you imagine any politician quoting a Greek playwright in this day and age? I can imagine our President, if he was standing on the same stage as someone who deigned to, shifting uncomfortably in his chair like a small boy who's itching to get out of his seat in school. Remember how Bush made fun of a reporter for having the audacity to speak French when addressing the French president at a news conference? Here we are, in 2008, with folks nervous about Obama because they don't like that Europeans like him. I think this fact is wonderful. I look forward to the day that we are again a member of the world community. The fact that non-Americans look forward to that day, too, is a very good thing. It's hopeful.

Today, I'm not feeling hopeful. My father, who's 93, says he's never been so optimistic in his life about the future of the world. He's seen a lifetime of immense progress, and for his generation, it's never abated. He started life in a world that still reeked of the 19th century (quite literally, with more horses in the streets of New York City than cars). Now he e-mails and plays chess with people all over the world. He lived through the depression and World War II. This doesn't make his optimism the "correct" way of seeing things. In fact, some have called his generation the luckiest generation in history.

As for now, and the immediate future, I am wary. I'm afraid fear will drive voters to McCain. I'm nervous about the escalation of wars around the world. But at heart, I am still an optimistist in one way - I think even if the doomsday scenarios do play out, in the end, the best of the human spirit will survive. I really do.

Image note: Fresco from a cubiculum nocturnum (bedroom)
Roman, Late Republican, ca. 50–40 B.C.
From the villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, near Pompeii

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has a wonderful room of Pompeiian frescoes and artifacts. I consider myself lucky that during my childhood I spent many a Sunday roaming the halls of this extraordinary museum, learning about history by being intimate with the objects of history. This is no small thing.

Addendum: I recommend this opinion piece on the Saddleback talks.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Suicidal ideation

Suicidal ideation is just a fancy way of saying "I'm thinking about suicide." Why did I use it as the title to this post? I suppose it was my way of taking the sting out of the idea of thinking about suicide (and I stress, not out of actually committing the act).

There's some anecdote out there that if you take a psychological test that includes as a question, "Have you ever thought of suicide?" and answer "No", you are lying. I have no idea where this idea comes from nor whether it is backed up by any study, but I'd venture to guess that it's not true. I do not believe that every single person has thought about suicide. Or maybe, if we're being literal, every single person has thought about suicide, but not about doing it, but I don't think that's what the anecdote is implying.

I dare say that some depressed person made that story up to make themselves feel better.

At the risk of frightening people, I am going to write about suicidal ideation. I have in the past, and got worried e-mails and phone calls. I appreciate the concern, but I will put your minds at rest: I am not going to commit suicide. For one thing, I think it is an immoral act, and even if I'm not around to reap the consequences of doing something I unequivocably denounce, this alone will stop me. I will not hurt others in this way. I may be capable of hurting myself, both with ill-will and destructive behavior, but I extend others much more courtesy (I hope). What a stiff way of putting the fact that I would not allow myself to be the cause of others suffering. Suicide is a terrible thing to do to others.

Anyway, even at my lowest points of depression, I've always been too curious about life to end it, even as part of my mind is screaming at me to consider it seriously. The best remedy (for me) against the worst case scenario of a depressed mind is intellectual and creative interest, and luckily, I seem to be able to be distracted by things easily. The absurdity of it is quite funny, really. As long as there is something new to learn (or even a good new movie I haven't seen), I'll stick around. In fact, I would like to live to 300. All of this goes to show how irrational thinking about suicide actually is (at least for me).

Those of us who are plagued with suicidal thoughts try to keep it a secret, and I think this is a mistake. Unfortunately, you can be put in psychiatric ward for just saying the word "suicide", as it's a liability issue. It's too bad (what an understatement) that this is true. Once a professional hears the word, something must be done.

If we were allowed to talk about suicide without so much reactivity it would be far better. At some point in my life, I realized that thinking of suicide was something like the "default mode" in my brain. Again, I think, on a good day, that's it's rather funny. I may burn the oil in a frying pan due to inattention and think, "I ought to kill myself." Realizing I can't fit into last year's pants might produce the same exact thought. Killing oneself over gaining weight or burning the dinner is clearly insane. But I bet it does happen.

I doubt the majority of folks who have these thoughts find them very funny. If they felt safe talking about them, they might start to. Diffusing the stigma of having such thoughts seems like a good idea to me. Maybe I'm asking for it to be "normalized". What if the anecdote I started this post with, that everyone has given suicide some thought, was true? Wouldn't it then seem safe to say that there's an awfully large amount of silence about this subject?

Even if it isn't, there is too much silence. When Heath Ledger killed himself, the general response was "Why?" How could no one know? How?

I know one reason: It's called shame. Especially for someone like a "star", feeling worthless enough to want to die is something you just aren't going to tell anyone. First of all, it pisses people off. We harbor a delusion in this country that success equals happiness even though we are also taught that "money doesn't buy happiness" (but any idiot could tell you that the media tells us otherwise).

You can't afford an iPhone? Perhaps you should consider yourself a failure (and kill yourself). You got sucked into a sub-prime mortgage? You're a sucker (and you should consider suicide). You were fired from work? What did you do wrong? Idiot (kill yourself!)

If you think what I've written above is an exaggeration, I would ask you to read the news more carefully. We are bombarded with messages that being victims of a bad economy (causing lay-offs, foreclosures, bankruptcies) should render us completely miserable. That's the kind of thing that would cause a person to consider suicide.

We're told this, over and over. We're also bombarded with mixed messages about the value of "stuff" - the credit card ads that show us all the things we can purchase with all that credit but end with sweet little sayings like "Free time - Priceless!" That's right, money doesn't buy you love, either, but that's another line of bull that we all know isn't true. Money buys a man a super model for a girlfriend, doesn't it?

Okay, I know I'm all over the map and should reign myself in. The point, the point, the point is. . .we are subjected to endless messages of just how we should succeed and just how we've failed and how to react to both.

But, we are given nothing for what really ails us, which is the emptiness at the heart of our society. The truth is that money does not buy us love or happiness or any other non-thing, but not having money does cause suffering. Not having adequate shelter, food or heating oil is stressful. But beyond that, there is an essential meaninglessness in most peoples' lives. Unfortunately, much of that is increasing being filled with fundamentalist religions and too much medication.

I don't know the answer to any of this. I do know that I feel better for having sat down and written about it. Is it just 'cause I "got it off my chest"? I don't think so. I think it's because harmful ideas take root in dark places. The more we try to keep a thing that's hurting us a secret, the more power we give it.

So, as to suicide, I'd rather talk about and joke about and say "Yeah, I sat down at my kitchen table and wrote a bad will just this past Spring" 'cause I was in a bad mood.

I'm not meaning to minimize anyone's pain. I only want to add my voice to a others who say let's start talking about these things, and do it without all the hand wringing and emergency reactions. Perhaps then, we'll know something about why others are contemplating suicide. Even if someone does actually kill themselves, we'll not be able to say "Gee. I had no idea that were depressed.

Painting note: The painting "Ophelia" (1851) by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir John Everett Millais. Gee, doesn't that look peaceful?

I was going to post a picture of Dr. Kevorkian and ask to be reminded to post my controversial-amongst-my-peers opinion of doctor assisted suicide, but I thought it was time for another painting (though I was searching for the famous suicide in a bathtub scene - Seneca? I can not remember!)

Guinea Pig Me

Note: Only diehard Buckminster Fuller fans would get the joke of this title. Buckminster Fuller (the guy who invented the geodesic dome), gave himself the name "Guinea Pig B", to signify that his life was an experiment.

Before I opened the laptop to write this entry, I thought something along those lines. Realizing that my mind was filled with depressed and irrational thoughts, I immediately thought that I ought to put down the book I've been reading voraciously (as if the mere idea of stopping reading would free my mind to grasp onto the continuous tidal rush of negativity) and instead, write.

Why? Oh, not to get the thoughts "out", for long ago I came to believe that this notion was junk psychology, based on equating bad thoughts with demons, and the act of writing as a sort of exorcism. No, writing it out, I came to discover, was only giving more credence to the mistake of believing in the reality of the thoughts the depressed mind creates.

Writing for the sake of exposing the irrationality is a different concept, one that I do think is useful. And so, as the "guinea pig" of this blog, I offer up myself as an example of depression in action. Believing the stories that the depressed mind weaves (and does such an impressive job of), is as ridiculous as believing the thoughts one has when very stoned are the "the truth". Anyone who's ever smoked some pot can attest to the change of perspective that that drug gives one. For some, it's heaven, and for others (like myself) it's more akin to hell.

When I was a teenager, and smoking pot was as common as having a beer for teenagers (at least where I lived), I would smoke when offered. I would always have the sense of altered reality, and one that was not too friendly. I suspected (and am probably correct) that this is because I was basically a depressed and anxiety ridden person and when my guard was down, as pot disinhibited me (as did alcohol), I would fall into the clutches, so to speak, of my worst thoughts and fears. And so, after a stint of believing R.D.Laing's theories that using psychedelic drugs to induce negative and psychotic states would hasten the recovery of a mentally disturbed person, I stopped. Mind you, for a while, I did believe (and probably misinterpret) Laing's theories. It was immensely destructive for my young mind. I was engaged in a daily battle of trying to discern what the "true reality" was, and not in some grand way, but in a debilitating way, one that stymied my intellectual and psycho-social growth by keeping me in a perpetual state of existential fear and questioning.

That the time period (the mid-70's) seemed to promote this state of being, considering it something of a rite of passage for a young quasi-intellectual, did me no favors. At the age of fifteen, I needed to be learning how to be in the real world much more than I needed to be wrestling with phoney demons created by psychotropic drugs.

I certainly didn't expect to be writing about my early use of mind altering substances when I sat down to write. But it seems fitting. Though his conclusions were wrong, R.D.Laing was correct in seeing the similarity between psychotropic drug induced states and mental illness. Thinking that by inducing that thought-state and then acting out in a safe environment was the poor conclusion, and I'd say it's close, once again, to a notion of casting out demons. Even in our present day, the ancient belief that illness is a kind of evil within us that can be purged through ritual is still pervasive.

I stopped for a moment to plug in my laptop, and in that moment thought, "oh, you're evading what you came to write about by intellectualizing." I am going to disagree with this notion, too, as one that is junk psychology. There is absolutely nothing wrong with stepping back from irrational thoughts and spending a bit of time "intellectualizing". The amount of power we give to our emotionality is too large, I'd say.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not "for" stuffing feelings. I'm only saying that, perhaps, we give them way too much weight, when they are terribly transient and subject to mood and circumstance, especially for those of us who are prone to depression and anxiety. Learning to give these passing moods of thought (or thoughts of mood) less power over us is a good thing. Dismissing them out of hand is probably not the best idea, for there may indeed be kernals of truth amongst the onslaught of negative thoughts, but to buy all ones' emotional responses, hook , line and sinker, well, I don't think it's the best idea. I have been in therapy for a long time, and truthfully, I don't really think that spending an hour letting it all hang out has ever done me a bit of good.

You may be asking, "Hey, what's your point?! And what about the guinea pig thing?!"

(Well, maybe I was asking myself that.)

Here's the deal. I woke up at 9:00am this morning with a nasty headache and decided to go back to sleep. I re-awoke at 1 in the afternoon. It's a beautiful day, the kind of day, if I was a vacationer here in Maine, that would probably cause me to say something like "aren't we lucky to be up here on such a fine day?" But no, I'm sitting inside, in a semi-dark room, alternating between sleeping and reading a book (for dear life, as I've said).

If there are birds to appreciate, I'd not seen any. I look out at my garden, which is in disarray, but also past any peak flowering, and only see the disarray. I can hear the cicadas and crickets, but the sound of cars and those wretched motorcycles without mufflers is what my mind is focusing on. My foot hurts. I feel bloated, fat and ugly. I could go on, but the point is this: I am unable to experience anything as fine, from bodily sensations to observations of what's outside me. If this isn't a portrait of depression, I don't know what is.

I left out the absolute inability to conjure the energy to do even the simplest tasks. I washed the dishes earlier and it took nearly everything out of me (but I am forgetting how painful it is to stand up on my foot that has its mystery problem).

Another thing that I'm wondering is if my brain (or anyone else's who has depression) can not tell the difference between illness and depression. They can feel and look almost the same. And I know from my personal history, that the majority (if not all?) of my depressions were preceded by illness. Some would say that the depression caused the physical problem, but I would argue with them, and argue hard. But I will say this, once the two become intertwined, it is a vicious cycle.

I was surprised to be so depressed today. Last night I had a fine time with a friend, enjoying a nice barbecue and interesting conversation. I can be distracted, and here's where living in an isolated area plays a terrible role in perpetuating any bad mood that I may be in. I haven't left the house for anything but trips to the doctor or hospital for a week. And in that time, I have gone from being in pain but in a good mood to being in pain and utterly miserable, bordering on non-functional.

I know if I had just pushed myself to do a bit more, get out of the house at least once for an activity that would have distracted me, I would be feeling better. But when it's at least a half an hour to the nearest activity, it's hard. I missed a visit with friends that would have been fun - it was a given that I wouldn't go because I could not take a walk on the rocky shore line and my energy was down. But really, why did I have to stay home? Just because I couldn't participate 100%? That in itself is a good question to ask myself and others, for perhaps there is just not any leeway given to those of us who can't participate fully. It reminds me of being a shy kid, in a way - it's just not okay to sit by the sidelines and watch, or sit by the sidelines and read a book, participating when one feels like it. It almost seems "unamerican".

Ah, though we are a car culture, we are a culture of being Full of Energy! If you're not, what the hell is wrong with you? Take a pill! There's a pill for all your problems. Why don't they work for you? What's the problem? Find another pill, for chrissakes! Get yourself fixed up! Otherwise, stay home 'cause we don't want you at our party. And quit whining: other people are living in shacks and they aren't whining (oh, are you sure about that?)

Did I get to the guinea pig thing? Perhaps not. This has been a long rant (and I'm leaving it be, in spite of a desire to delete the whole thing). What am I trying to show others (and myself)?

The answer: that the same person who can write about the beauty of a songbird on Monday, the same person who feels transcendent and nearly one with the universe on a Tuesday, can be nearly suicidally depressed by a Sunday, and who knows what tomorrow may bring.

All I can do is learn to watch the clouds of emotionality float by without attaching too much meaning to them. Sure, there's much about my life that isn't ideal by any stretch of the imagination, but it's true that it could be far worse (far worse!) and that there's plenty to enjoy and be grateful for. Right now I'm not feeling the good things, only the bad, but I am grateful for the opportunity to write about all this. I don't know what my point really is. It's many things - the transience of mood, the fact that things don't stay the same (unless you let them) and the idea that "feelings aren't facts" (which I think is true a good deal of the time, though I tend to loathe AA expressions).

And with that, I'll end this, and return to my book (Susan Jacoby's "The Age of American Unreason").

Photo note: Under this photograph, are these words: "Welcome to University of Michigan Research Study Database, codename "Guinea Pigs," a great place to find test subjects or to become a professional guinea pig."

When I was in college, I knew a number of people who made money being guinea pigs. Across the street from the main building of my school was an office where one could get hooked up with all sorts of studies, from ones where they infected you with upper respiratory infections (which I remember because I almost participated in this one) to pain research. A friend of mine did the latter, where he received somewhere around a thousand dollars to allow researchers to attach electrodes on him that caused pain. He said that it was a flawed experiment, for one could say "stop" at any point that one felt it was too much pain. His implication is that any sane person would cheat, in a way, saying stop before they felt anything, but as he was who he was, he did wait until he found it unbearable. And me being who I was, I was sorry I hadn't heard about this in time to participate.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Even if I'm doing it wrong, I'll keep doing it

Today I spent some time looking at sites that enable people to make money from blogging. Rule number one: Don't write a general blog!

It's hard for you to find me. How did you find me? If you don't know me personally, I'd really appreciate it if you left a comment to let me know how you've wound up here.

So, I shouldn't be doing this the way I am. Am I going to change? No. I've had non-general blogs, and I eventually abandon them. Evidentally, that's perfectly okay, as long as they have generated income. But as much as I'd like to make some money from blogging, that was never my intent. I wanted a place to express my ideas, and I didn't want to conform to someone else's wishes. Blogging, as thousands of people already know, fulfills this need.

I don't quite understand how to steer people my way. I would like more readers. Do I want more readers because I think it would generate income? Nah. I want more dialog. I want to know just what it is that people like and what moves them. What moves you?

My largest desire is that by being honest about my life, it might encourage others to do the same or at least feel less alone. I'm not trying to sell my way of doing things, or promoting some "cure" for depression or chronic pain. Obviously, I haven't figured that out for myself, and (except for the chronic pain part) I'm seriously ambivalent about the need to conform to society's standards for so-called normalcy at all.

Getting back to finances, I don't want to turn this blog into a bunch of reviews with a little personal stuff on the side. That's what many blogs I've looked at today seem to be. Y'know, I just don't care what Jane-from-Paducah thinks about coffeemakers. I care much more about what Jane-from-Paducah thinks about her life, but Jane needs some money so she can put gas in her car. I do, too.

I tease a friend of mine for still caring about concepts like "selling out" in the music business. I had come to the conclusion that selling out didn't exist any more. If one can get a song on a commercial, fine and dandy; at least someone is hearing your song. But now, I'm starting to wonder, because I don't want to change anything I'm doing on this blog just to make some money.

Isn't that "not selling out"?

The thing I love most about the web is not it's ability to sell products so easily. It certainly does do a good job of that. What I love most about the web is the fact that I not only have the world's largest library sitting right here on my laptop in rural Maine, but the fact that I can communicate with people all over the world.

I love Google's new couch surfing tool, for example. Does this generate income for Google (probably, but how, I don't know)? People register to let other people stay for free in their homes. You can click on a map of the world and find someone almost anywhere who'll let you stay with them for a night or two. I find that extraordinary.

My first reaction to hearing about this is "Isn't it risky?" I suppose it is. Your host or the guest could be a serial killer. The fact that there is this new tool on Google is a testament to a lessening of fear. I ought to jump on that bandwagon. I watch way too many TV shows and movies about serial killers and there isn't one hiding behind every other Dick and Jane's lovely exterior. Most people aren't killers (right?)

My, I've really gotten off topic, haven't I? From not making any money blogging to reassessing the likelihood of the average person being a serial killer is a long journey in thought (well, maybe not in my mind).

How could I possibly not have a generalist's blog? I'd have to change the way I think! Now, a little pruning of my wandering thoughts may be in order (or not), but I am not going to change. I like my tangents. I love being a generalist.

I've always had a problem making money. That's an area I'd love to change, but unfortuntely for me, it doesn't seem like something that's going to change anyime soon.

Image note: This blog is free, but donations are accepted (see Amazon Honor System box at right).

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Chronic pain, whining and all

I'm not much up to writing, but I feel something akin to an obligation to write. In my last post, I wrote something to the effect of "try to stay out of the hospital if you can", but this morning, that's where I was.

I dreamt last night, all night it seemed, of pain (though, thankfully, I do not now remember these dreams). I awoke in agony. Every joint on the right side of my body was screaming in pain. Another day, more pain. It was too much. I started to cry. I couldn't think straight. Could anyone? I always wonder about this. Like a kid who thinks they may be sick and has to fight with a parent over going to school, I have arguments with myself about just how bad I feel. Is it really this bad? This may sound absurd on the face of it, since I just stated "I was in agony", but when one has had chronic pain and psychiatric problems for a lifetime, it can get pretty tricky.

If I were just anyone, so to speak, there'd be no inner arguments (nor would there be arguments with others). It would be plainly obvious that something was terribly wrong. But this is not the case for anyone who has chronic pain. I know this, both from reading, and from knowing others who have similar situations. Other people stop believing anything is really wrong, and so do I. Yet, when the pain gets so bad that the tears begin to flow, or one imagines banging one's head against the floor to distract oneself from the amorphous, always changing nature of chronic pain, well. . .all the deep breathing and positive thoughts in the world are not going to help. Another day is ruined. It's another day where all there is to do is just try to manage, to cope, or to try to get some restorative sleep.

But, no, it isn't even this simple. Part of me says it can't be that bad and that if I just get out of bed I'll feel better. Another part of me says I can't take one more minute of it. Another part of me is terrified, thinking that, finally, this time, they will find something fatal. Then yet another part of me kicks in, reminding myself how irrational this is. And this sets off a dialogue about whether any of it is indeed real. I try to get out of bed and the minute I start to move my muscles, the pain is worse. Of course it's real. Then, I fear that they will, once again, find out that they've found nothing, and wish for something worse, just so they can finally fix something tangible. And this sick wish fulfills another need, the one for others to understand that indeed I am physically sick and not just crazy. But, the whole thing which I'm describing, which I'm trying to describe accurately, is crazy making. How could it not be?

This is fibromyalgia. It's horrible. What makes it horrible is not just the unpredictable nature of its episodes and its intensity but the fact that there isn't a blood test, an x-ray, an MRI, or anything that conclusively says that it is what it is (whatever it is). Even it's name is amorphous. It only means pain of soft tissue. "Just" pain.

I try to find other diagnoses. I've had so many odd things go wrong that I feel I must find a "real" answer, since no doctor has done so. I've had optic nerve hemorrhages and iritis in one eye and this is associated with lupus and psoriatic arthritis. I was once diagnosed with lupus (which does have an associated blood test) but I didn't have the one hallmark symptom of lupus and so they hedged about it. Then my blood tests became normal, so that was nixed. It was just as well, I suppose, for I wouldn't have wanted to live life on prednisone.

I have early onset osteoarthritis, but just about everyone gets osteoarthritis at some point, so why whine? Oh, I really do want to whine. I don't want to whine just for me but for all of us who suffer from chronic pain. I spent my childhood and teenage years hearing about the boy who cried wolf, but there always was a wolf.

I spent an entire school year complaining that my feet hurt while I endured that stupid story. It's a small thing (as in "I didn't have cancer"), but my feet were so flat that the bones in my toes and heels were wearing away. I just found out I have bone spurs, which is the result of injury to my feet. I am sure it is from then. The only reason my parents finally took me to the doctor, as far as I could tell, was so I would finally shut up. Then they bitched about the price of the metal plates I had to wear in my shoes.

As I mentioned in another post, I went to an eye institute to fix my lazy eye, which didn't bother me, but bothered my mother, because she had to look at it. Because of the training, I had a constant case of eyestrain and headache, but at least I didn't "look funny". My eye never did become normal, and I wound up with double vision. Thanks alot.

Oh, this is a bitchy post, isn't it? I am venting. Yes, I am venting all over the place. I want to vent, for me. And for everyone else, too, like I said. For all people who've been brainwashed into thinking that they are creating their own pain, or exaggerating or should be used to being ignored by others, for, after all, it's such a pain in the ass for other people to deal with someone else's pain.

People like us watch any movie or TV show and if there's someone hurting, we see pictures of hands held, faces touched with loving hands, flowers on the bedstand and chairs with loved ones at the bedside. But if one doesn't have cancer or a huge cast on a broken bone, the stuff of caring just doesn't happen. Oh sure, people do care and it's important to understand the ways in which they show it, but these little indicators, the ones that seem so universal and common, they have long been forgotten. And being upset about it isn't healthy, nor does it help. It just sucks.

No, this isn't good writing. I'm just throwing up all over the proverbial page.

It's damned hard. Pain management? It works. Meditation helps. Yoga helps. But what happens when one can't do one or the other for some reason? You get worse. And then there's the need for painkillers, which can become a problem. I hadn't taken any since early Spring, but this morning I might have killed for some. With that thought, comes the other bit of neuroticism (and genuine fear) that it's just my mind, playing some sort of trick on me in order to get drugs. There's no real pain crisis; it's just drug addiction.

At the hospital, they give me some morphine and I realize just how much I needed it. I felt no rush of pleasure at all. I hardly felt it, but I did feel some of the pain leave me after a bit of time went by. I was not enjoying myself. I hesitated when the doctor wanted to give me a prescription. I have had problems with painkillers. I do not want those problems ever again. But I need a decent night's sleep. I want some relief. The amount of work that's required to stay calm in the face of unrelenting pain is a lot. I needed something outside of myself to take over, just for today.

Is this all bull? My society tells me it is in various ways. The drug companies are just trying to create legal drug addicts. I'm experiencing pain as a trick my drug addict's brain is playing on me in order to seek out drugs. I'm a hypochrondriac. And I'm sure there's more.

Okay. That's enough.

I wrote this the day before yesterday. As I was finishing it, I became so tired that I fell asleep on the sofa. When I woke up, I read it over and thought "Too much whining. Don't post it." But I didn't delete it, and now, I've decided that it's okay, whining and all. The truth is, I could have whined a great deal more. The repurcussions of having a few days of such unrelenting pain, of again not showing up for things one wants to go to, or missing small deadlines, seemed far greater than should have been. That was more evidence of how others lose patience with those who have chronic problems. Again, I think others start to see people "like me" as malingerers or lazy or even dishonest, as though I'm just making stuff up 'cause I don't want to do something, especially when the exact opposite is true.

I'd like to write more about the above, for I think it's a serious problem with most people who have chronic pain, illness and psychiatric problems. But not tonight. I'm too tired.

Image note: From a 2005 Time magazine article about pain.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

More from the dystopian front

Thank goodness for either my little bit of Zen equaminity, the ability to be in denial (or both). I should add, that like most people raised watching movies and television, I pretty much experience non-fiction as fictional, and the fictional as truth. One case in point, which I probably shouldn't announce to the world is that a little part of me believes that there is a Federation of Planets, Captains Janeway and Picard are real people, and that there are indeed Klingons, Vulcans and all the rest of the cast of characters of the Star Trek universe.

It is too bad that this is a fiction, for we certainly can use a being like "Q", who makes all notions of any God's omnipotence seem miniscule. A being from the Q continuum could solve our present problems with a flick of the wrist. Superbugs, for instance, would be gone in a blink.

The latest issue of The New Yorker arrived in the mail today, and in it was an article about the new antibiotic resistant "superbugs". I had known about these already for a variety of reasons, but here's where the article hit me the hardest: the drug companies have no interest in researching new antibiotics that target these new bacteria.

Why is that? You'd think they'd be right on it. But no, it's not a priority because it's not as cost effective as finding new drugs that people have to take forever. In plain language, this means that if you've caught a superbug, you're plain out of luck, but your depression about it can be managed.

No, the drug companies are not interested in drugs that are taken for 10 days to two weeks. They are interested in furthering the notion that emotional distress can be cured with only a pill, and that you don't need to change your diet to lower your cholesterol. They are interested in developing new antibiotics for livestock, however, because these are used continually (and the fact that this usage contributes to the growth of new antibiotic resistant bacteria be damned!)

There really isn't much to say about the state of affairs; it's frightening and I don't want to think about it too much. However, I'd advise anyone to be wary of taking more antibiotics than is absolutely necessary. I'd advise anyone to do whatever one can to avoid a hospital stay. And I'd also advise anyone who does go to the hospital to watch everything very carefully. I've noticed, unfortunately (to say the least), that many hospital workers are not washing their hands, donning gloves or taking precautions not to cross contaminate between patients. Keep an eye on older adjunct workers. I'm serious. I can't tell you how many times I've had my blood taken and had to point out that my skin hadn't been cleaned and prepped before they were about to stick a needle in me. Sometimes the response has been, "Oh, what's the big deal? The needle is sterile." No, it's not. The minute it's taken out of its packaging, it is no longer sterile. It's pretty darned clean, I'll admit to that, but with the number of new superbugs mutating these days, I'm not taking any chances. And neither should you.

I have to say that between reading this New Yorker article and "The Long Emergency", I'm beginning to wonder about our collective ignorance of what's going on in the world. Our willfull ignorance. I'm old enough to remember when AIDS was first discovered. I had friends die. There was an outcry to develop treatment and do research. But now, even as AIDS is ravishing Africa (and other countries, like China, who are rather secretive about it even being there), we all think what we once called "the plague" is behind us.

The new superbugs are not hitting a distinct population, and so there aren't people marching in the streets advocating for government intervention. These diseases tend to hit the elderly the hardest and they are not likely to be forming protest groups like "Act Up" any time soon. Who is going to? Are we going to wait until we have a major pandemic? Unfortunatley, I think the answer may be a depressing "yes, we will".

The ice storm, revisited

Last winter was the tenth year anniversary of the "ice storm" here in Maine (and Quebec). You may not have heard of it. It was hardly on the national news, which I've never quite understood, though the amazing fact that less than a dozen people died during this event may have rendered it un-newsworthy.

It's a lovely summer day here in Maine, yet I am thinking about the winter. I, like many, have been thinking about the winter ever since the price of gas skyrocketed. People may feel some relief now that prices have dropped somewhat. I know I do. I also know that it's absurd to feel relief that prices have dropped below four dollars a gallon. When I think of the dual financial realities of paying my hyper-escalated property tax and whatever it will take to heat my home this winter, I feel vaguely ill. I have decided to take the path of ignoring this pending emergency and presuming everything will be fine, somehow.

What does this have to do with the ice storm of '98? Quite a bit. One fantasy that I play with when I'm feeling hard pressed to envision just how I will pay my taxes, put gas in my car, or heat my house, is that the financial and governmental infrastructure will fall apart. That's right: I fantasize that I will no longer pay my taxes or my mortgage, and lucky me, I'll have a bit of land to grow food, perhaps keep chickens or small livestock and cut firewood on. I have a well, and if electricity stops working, I will have no problem building and using an outhouse.

Still, you may be wondering what this has to do with the ice storm, or why I'm wishing for this post-apocalyptic dystopia.

When the ice storm hit in '98, it was the dead of winter, but unlike the typical Maine winter weather, it had been raining. It rained for an entire week without let-up. This wasn't the first winter Maine had seen rain instead of snow. Even the most diehard Rush Limbaugh fans up here believed global warming was indeed happening, as they reported on the snowy winters of their childhood that were no longer a given. The Maine winters are long and dark and without snow they are harder to endure. Six months of dim light and cold are bad enough, but the snow helps. One can get outside to snowshoe, sleighride or ski. The whiteness of the snow makes it feel brighter. The snow also help insulate ones' house, and it covers gardens and crop fields, protecting them from the constant heaving of temperature changes. An "open winter" (one without a constant snow cover) is not a good winter. And we've had more open winters than not in the last 15 years or so.

It was nothing new when, back in '98, we had days and days of hard rain. But this time, things were different. Each day it got colder, but it kept on raining. The last two days before the rain stopped, the temperatures were in the 20's but still it rained. Everything was covered with ice. Sure, we'd seen this before, but this time is was thick. By the time it stopped raining, the ice was about six inches thick. I didn't know this, but I was living in one of the hardest hit areas.

The day it stopped raining, the electricity went off. This, too, was not unexpected, for the power stops around these parts fairly regularly. An ordinary heavy rain storm can cause an outage (and usually does). This time the power did not come on. The phone was dead, too, and it wasn't because we had a cordless phone which needed electricity. There was no phone service, period. In '98 there was no cell phone service in the area I lived in (and I'm not entirely sure if there is now, either).

The first night was terrifying. The temperatures plummeted to near zero and the trees started to fall. Huddling inside the little cabin, it sounded like there was gunfire outside. The trees seemed like they were exploding. They cracked with a huge bang and then came straight down. We were all lucky that it was a wind-less night, for if it hadn't been, a lot more houses and people would have been hurt. We started to understand just how the trees were falling and saw we were relatively safe. I didn't understand the mechanics of it, but the trees were not falling hard. One did land on the roof on the house, but it did no damage (and later, we would see that this was indeed the case most everywhere).

That morning, we awoke to a world that looked devastated, as it indeed was. It appeared that a good percentage of trees had fallen through the night. It was truly beautiful, I must admit, but even though we had no contact with the outer world, we knew that something momentous had happened.

By day three, we still had neither power nor phone service. The postal service, which I'd never truly appreciated for its actually living up to the promise of delivering no matter the weather, well, it wasn't delivering (or picking up). We realized that everything had stopped. The road I lived on was barricaded with fallen trees, power lines and telephone poles. I couldn't get to work. I couldn't call anyone. We had no battery powered radio, so we didn't know what was going on exactly. What we did know is that we had to survive.

The lifestyle that I lived at that point turned out to serve well in this emergency. We heated the cabin with wood and so we had no worries about keeping warm. The electricity was out, but that hardly mattered. The stove was electric, but since we had no water pump, we were melting ice on the woodstove to wash with. We also cooked on it. We had no canned goods stockpile, for the house was small (and not being a survivalist, I wouldn't have stockpiled anyway). We did have root vegetables in the small cellar and an entire deer, cut up and ready to cook, in the freezer. Of course, the freezer wasn't working, but it was so full that its contents were staying frozen. And lastly, the outhouse that I cursed on a daily basis, well, I was quite thankful that it was there. In this emergency, a normal bathroom was rendered useless.

We were all set. The days were simple and devoted to one thing: just living. There was a schedule, unspoken and unset, but remarkably easy to understand. Wake up with the sun. Stoke the woodfire. Get ice and melt it on the woodstove. Make oatmeal on the stove. Start preparing food for the one major meal of the day by cutting up vegetables and dethawing the venison. Continue chipping ice off the cars. Bring wood in.

I realized that I liked this life. No bills came in and no bills went out. No bills were paid, obviously. No one could call to hassle us for not paying bills. In essence, with one crazy storm, we were knocked back into early 19th century living. However, we had no horse and so, the big order of business was getting the roads cleared (and the cars de-iced).

It appeared that noone was coming to help clear the roads. Somewhere around day three all the men with chainsaws on the road started clearing the mess. It was interesting how well these men worked together, for these were people who had major grudges against each other. The squabbles over teenage kids driving too fast at night or just why so-and-so had been in jail were put aside.

The only thing I needed when the road was cleared were candles and information. How were my friends who lived in other towns? Had many people died? The first day that I drove to the main road, I was shocked. It looked like an atomic bomb had been detonated. In every direction, all I could see were downed phone and power lines. Even by day five, in that part of Waldo county, power lines were laying in the middle of the main roads, unattended to. There were no moving vehicles in sight.

We lived like this for fifteen days. We had started driving a half an hour to Belfast, where power had been restored, to eat different food and shower at a friend's house. But part of me didn't want to return to the "real world". I loved that the TV and stereo were never on. I loved reading until dark and then going to sleep. I loved reading out loud as an activity. I loved the fact that just living was my job. Now, if I had thought this would go on for years, I may have thought differently, but I did ruminate about that possibility. I did possess skills that would be useful if things never returned to normal. I know how to grow flax and the old ways of processing it into something that can be spun into thread. I know how to spin and I know how to weave on old looms. I know how to raise sheep and process their wool for yarn. I can sew and knit. I know how to make butter.

I can't chop wood (to say my life, literally) but others can, and if it came to it, I could barter hand made clothes for wood.

I have been thinking about this stuff again because of the price of gas and because I am just finishing Kunstler's "The Long Emergency", in which he posits what will happen in the post-oil age. He imagines that places where people still know how to do things the old way will be able to manage to some degree. I don't know what to make of his apocalyptic vision. It rings true (though I'm not describing it well enough for you to judge). It's frightening, for sure. Our world will change, and change drastically.

When I think of a world pushed back into 19th century ways, the only thing I am scared of is that I will stay have to pay my mortgage and taxes. If I take that out of the equation, I think I will be perfectly fine, for some of my skills will suddenly have value where now they have none.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not sitting here wishing for the end of the world as we know it. For one thing, I want my internet connection!

But I must admit, I've had a fascination with post-apocalyptic ideas since I was a kid and a yearning for a lifestyle more akin to the Amish's than anything else for just as long. If it comes to that, well, I only pray that the mail service ends and no one will be demanding any money from me, for there will be none to be had.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Pain clouds the mind

I've been writing posts and abandoning them in the last few days. I'm overtired from being in constant pain. Even though chronic pain is nothing new to me, I'm always surprised by it. I am always surprised at its power to cloud my thinking, both cognitively and emotionally.

I keep up the hope that someday I will "conquer" this. My old Zen teacher used to say to me "when you become the pain, there is no pain." I wanted to hit him with his stick. I didn't want to become pain! I, like most people, wanted to run from it. If a doctor gave me a prescription for painkillers, I took it most happily.

Now, I do not, and I am seeing just how hard it is to function normally (or just function). I don't sleep well. The smallest errands tire me out so much I need to nap. I don't feel like socializing with anyone I don't know very well, for it's too much work. In pain, ones' world becomes much smaller.

I had written a post in which I called myself a hypocrite. It's sitting there in the drafts folder, saying "publish me!" But I'm not going to, for I think my tendency to be hard on myself when the going gets rough is not particularly compassionate. I had thought "I'm such a hypocrite", for one day I'm writing about being okay in spite of whatever may come, appreciating the hummingbirds, the flowers, or whatever I appreciate, and now I'm cranky and feel the stirrings of hopelessness.

But I do still appreciate what there is. It's just harder to see. Chronic pain turns its sufferers into people with a horse's blinders on. We can still see, but the scope is smaller. One must try harder. And sometimes one must just give in and shed some tears or succumb to an afternoon nap (both things that our society only aproves in young children and the elderly).

Some Buddhist writer wrote about "falling apart without falling to pieces." I have tended to completely self destruct when hurting. This time, I'm trying to do it differently. The first step is allowing myself to feel what I'm feeling and not run from it. Maybe that's what "being the pain" means, after all. I will not try to stuff my feelings or minimize how I feel. I will try not to judge my complaints, naps or need for help.

I am starting to see just how much this society wants us to carry on as normal, even when things aren't. We are given a paltry amount of sick and "personal" days at our jobs. People go to work when they're feeling terrible and even when they have communicable diseasess (which they should not be allowed to do). I can't begin to count the amount of folks I've known who pride themselves on never having taken a sick day in their lives. Some brag about working while having a broken arm or the like. Not giving in, not accomodating; that's the American way.

I would like to be as active and "productive" as possible, but I refuse to drive myself by the sick work ethic that we labor under. Now, the hard part is not judging myself as lazy, whiney, dependent or all the other negatives that come along with not functioning at a non-optimal level (and doesn't that sound like a description of a machine and not a human being?). I'm guessing that this will take me quite some time.

Painting note: "The Broken Column" Frida Kahlo 1944 Kahlo suffered from debilitating chronic pain.