28 June 2016

I Wasn't Even Close to Losing My Mind, I Knew Where it was All Along

Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. -- Ecclesiastes 1:17

Make your mistakes, take your chances, look silly, but keep on going. Don’t freeze up.”
-- From You Can't Go Home Again byThomas Wolfe

So bad that death would feel better. That’s what it was like Saturday. Stripped of reality, unable to be. The verb to be. A consciousness and clarity and awareness of a profound anxiety that seemed determined to possess my being.  And I was depressed. It was the first attack I’ve experienced while in the throes of depression. It’s like mixing excruciating pain with terrible nausea. One alone, horrible. Two together, unthinkable. I thought it, lived it. I was it. Like the fires of hell lapping at my feet.

It would never end. My new permanent state. I thought that I would have to be sedated and hospitalized and might never experience normality or happiness again. My life seemed over. And this after taking two Ativan. I was standing by a tree near the sidewalk. My wife had come to pick me up when the attack first struck. But I had tried to open the car door while she was driving and I insisted that she take me to the hospital. I finally made her pull over. Doubtless she feared I otherwise would leap out of the car.

My brain's been a battleground for months now. Creeping evil guised as ugly, mean depression slithers about spitting vile and suppressing happy thoughts and feelings.

The wife's been through these with me before and knows what to do. Thank the heavens for that. I know what to do too but Saturday that knowledge was of little use against the power of the full voltage panic attack. I’ve been having the cursed things for 30 years. I’ve been in therapy and on medication and some of both has been useless and one has had side effects. I also have PTSD and its never been clear whether the panic or the depression or both or neither are related to it. Life is full of clues but answers are elusive. I am well acquainted with the what but the why and how are elusive, so is the when and where. Anytime, anyplace.

I am not special. I am not an unfortunate victim. I refuse to wear a cloak of suffering. I am undoubtedly one of the luckiest people on the planet. I married the woman of my dreams and to date the marriage has lasted 29 years. We have two grown children who are wonderful and doing wonderfully well. My physical health is and has long been excellent. I ran 102 miles last month. I get a lot of colds but have avoided any major illnesses or injuries since I was born. My mother was insane and emotionally abused and scarred me but my father was an angel and I was surrounded by a loving extended family. I still am. I have managed to be a teacher for coming up on 30 years. I am not someone who anyone should feel sorry for. But the panic and the depression combined to take a great big shit on my weekend. I can only tell it. I must tell it. I release some of the toxins when I put pen to paper or finger to keyboard.

We all have something....

I remember dusk on Sunday afternoons in mid Summer standing below the last fly ball of the day. It would settle softly into my glove. I’d look around at all the grass and note the colors in the sky and the white of the ball and the light brown baseball glove and I wouldn’t think a goddamned thing but I sure felt good. I could feel the presence of the baseball cards in the box in my room and The Beatle records and the posters on my wall and the grape soda in the fridge and the dog waiting at home and the love of my dad and the heartiness of my little body and I’d prance off the field and damn near skip home where there would be dinner and the TV and mom would keep to herself because dad was around. The next day I’d hang out with Mark Norman and maybe we’d gather some other friends and explore Indian Rock or play an elaborate game of hide and seek and we’d climb trees and toss the ball and tell stories and laugh like crazy. I wasn’t a little kid anymore, at least in my mind, I was getting toward my teen years and the world was an impossibly large place and there was so much to do and learn and look forward to. Girls were starting to look more interesting and it was hard to tell exactly what that was all about but they weren’t yucky anymore and might even be one of the possibilities in life that deserved further investigation. My imagination was a whirling dervish of activity forever creating new worlds and amazing otherwise impossible stories and glories and I was going to be a famous writer someday but I was too darn happy in the here and now to think too much about it. There was, after all, that grape soda and some chips and dinner and surely I could find something good on TV and if not I had my own record player in my own room now that my brother was out of the house.

I remember dusk on an early Winter evenings shooting that last basket before it got too dark to see what I was doing. I’d been playing steadily for a couple of hours, imagining games in my head and great players doing great things and the crowd roaring. I even made the crowd noise. I had escaped from the grim reality of mother and the tedium of school. I had no cares and my body was supple and strong and my long blonde hair was drawing attention from girls and it was both kind of weird and kind of exciting and highly intoxicating. But it was time to go in. Dad would be out of the shower. He’d pulled into the driveway half an hour before and shot a few baskets with me. Even though he was a carpenter who labored a full day he always had the time and energy to play a little ball with his kid. He made me feel special. My father was such a cool guy that to have his love must have meant I was okay. Of course I was beginning to notice that he was impossibly square and was urging me to get a haircut and complaining about the music I listened to and still holding center politically while I was starting to share the leftist beliefs of the growing counter culture led by those musicians whose sound my dad didn’t care for. We were in for a bit of a rough patch as father and son, I could feel it but I could also feel that we’d come of out it okay because we so close in so many ways. We needed each other.

I remember dusk on a Fall evening and the flood lights coming on to illuminate soccer practice. I was juggling the ball with my feet amazing myself and teammates at how long I could keep it in the air. Later we’d scrimmage and I’d get muddy and acquire a scrape and that always felt like the the natural order of thing. I was good. I was on a good team. I was looking forward to our next match. I was competitive and loved playing in games and pitting myself against other players. I wanted to play against the best and beat them. I wanted to show those bastards. I especially liked beating teams from the suburbs because it felt like a win over conservatism and for peace and love and social justice. I was a crusader. I was saving the world and I was a soccer star and I was wracked with insecurities but felt myself the coolest person on the planet. I knew girls were attracted to me and I knew I was smart and I knew I had lots of talent but I also secretly feared pretty much everything and anything and doubted myself. I got along with teammates but was reserved with them. They were regular guys and I was special, too smart to socialize with their type. I had smart friends at school plus I had books, magazines and rock lyrics and movies that intellectually stimulated me, these dumb clucks on my soccer team were just jocks whose intellect was only used in the service of passing classes. I was also a better player than them. Still I was a good teammate because I played hard and with spirit and never gave up and would run through a wall for my team. Life was mine for the taking. I was surrounded by possibilities and was achieving intellectual enlightenment and would be out of the house and off to college in a couple of years and the sky up there was the goddamned limit.

I remember dusk on an early Summer day. This year.  Shaken. Beaten. Scared. Depressed. I’d gone through the worst panic attack of my life I was struggling with depression and yet I was happy because my wife was in the room and we were about to eat ice cream and watch a movie and I could still write and run and teach and there exists still — even in this latter stage of my life — endless possibilities and so much to be hopeful about. No. I’m not defeated. I have suffered and am bloodied. But this is part of the process. This is what comes with life. There are so many events and feelings and experiences and desires and thoughts and opinions and inspirations and sensations and it is all so tactile and auditory and sensory and meaningful and we are all just a speck in the universe but I like this speck and if it kicks me in the nuts sometimes I’m just gonna get up and kick back. Coming through horror, its what I do.

21 June 2016

Part Two of Our Trip to New York, New York the City So Nice they Named it Twice

View from Ellis Island.
Someday in the future I’ll be traversing the Sahara Desert and will encounter a former student who has just finished at MIT. Last Thursday I was walking through Manhattan and I came across Sofia who was a middle school student of mine eight years ago. She just graduated from Harvard. In 2009 while strolling through a park in Paris I was hailed by Maura, a student from a few years prior who had matriculated at some place called Yale. It actually is a small world. Ask any astronomer.

Prior to the surprise encounter, the missus, oldest daughter and I had journeyed to Ellis Island where millions of immigrants were processed for admission to the US or were detained for further examination or sent back home between 1892 and 1954. There are scenes in Godfather Part 2 of Vito Corleone as a boy going through Ellis Island in the early 20th century. I always thought they were some of the best moments in cinema, in part because they are so realistic. Now having been to the island I’m even more impressed with their believability.

Also on the island with us were assorted school groups, most of them of the middle school variety. I taught the little buggers for 20 years so I know what they’re like and know that they were bored to tears when their well-intentioned teachers sat them down and lectured about the island’s history. The road to boredom is paved with good intentions. I watched for awhile as a couple dozen students were being talked at, maybe seven or eight of the adolescents were paying any attention. (An adult chaperone couldn't stop yawning.) What I learned about field trips from years in the biz is that you do all your yakking in advance and once at the place to be visited you turn your charges loose with assignments to do. Shepherding young people around and trying to cram facts into their brains is a losing proposition.

The most striking part of the trip -- besides the spectacular views toward the city -- was the great hall which saw so many hopeful immigrants, doubtless feeling mixtures of excitement, fear and homesickness.

Wisely we had arrived at the island early so the hordes were just pouring in as we left. I can’t  — or don’t want to — imagine the place on a weekend afternoon in July. Talk about teeming huddled masses. The US is the most schizophrenic country in the world when it comes to immigration. Please come, please go back. Welcome. Get out. Thanks for helping. You bums!

Our boat swung by the Statue of Liberty, so of course I snapped a stream of photos. It’s a little odd to see something so iconic up close for the first time. There’s that combination of "wow there it actually is" and "so is that all there is to it?" Lady Liberty was not the kind of thing that fills me with awe. Things of great beauty do that like Lake Tahoe and my wife and certain works of art.

Brooklyn Bridge
After strolling around Manhattan and looking for more people from my previous life, the missus and I parted company with oldest daughter and went to Little Italy. (I will refrain from any Mafia jokes or references.) While this section of New York has an abundance of tourist trappings, it also has its charms and, as we discovered first hand, good restaurants. I had a filet of sole with pasta that was so succulent my mouth waters just writing about it.

I continued to marvel at New York’s subways. Everyone who ever lived can be seen on a subway car. If you ride long enough you’ll see a neanderthal a cro-magnon and their lower form, the republican congressman. We saw the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful, the weird, the really weird and the oh-my-god-you've-got-to-be-kidding. There are also one helluva lot of nondescript people minding their own beeswax. Some poor souls go from car to car asking for money and a few even seem to have pretty compelling stories. It’s a sad state of affairs that this country has so many homeless and so many guns and so many idiots. Don’t get me started.

Friday we went to the Brooklyn side of the eponymous bridge. What a sight! Here was something that was actually more beautiful than I imagined. Both the bridge and the view. There was also a photo shoot going on with a model whose beauty further enhanced the scene. Prior to the bridge we ate at one of New York’s many renowned pizzerias. This one is celebrated for its unique oven, a kind no longer allowed. Yes, it was delicious. If you don't eat well in New York it can only be because you don't want to.

Later we went to Grand Central Station so that oldest daughter could record me saying: “it’s like Grand Central Station in here” and “what is this Grand Central Station?” Two things I’ve been saying all my life. Hundreds of commuters stopped and roared with laughter at my cleverness. I was suitably impressed by the station which I noted is grand and centrally located. Hence the name. From there we took a gander at the Empire State Building which I like because, like me, it's old and beautiful. Well old.

Our last full day was spent largely in and around Central Park, a place I would frequent if a resident of New York. We thus also saw a lot of the swanky apartments that house the fabulously wealthy or those lucky enough to have bought places when they were reasonably priced in the 70s. The 1870s. The Guggenheim was nearby so we took in another great museum, this one featuring mostly modern art and I always surprise everyone, myself included, by liking modern art. Hey, I’m a classy guy. One more delicious dinner awaited, this one at a French restaurant spitting distance from our apartment. More fish for me the faithful pescatarian.

It was hot in New York but not sizzling, also New York knows how to air condition, something that the Bay Area fails at miserably, principally because -- until global warming screwed with the weather -- we rarely saw high temperatures.

It was a lovely trip highlighted by seeing youngest daughter so happy and successful in her new home. I could live in New York and am not sure why I never did. There’s still time. In many ways it's like San Francisco only more so. There’s anything, everything and then some. I don’t think I’d care for the hotter more humid months even with the blessed  air conditioning, so who knows. If anyone has an apartment to give away near Central Park, contact me through this blog. Appreciate it.

15 June 2016

I Keep Waking Up in a City That Doesn't Sleep -- My New York Vacation

During intermission at the theater the other night I bought a bottle of water and "sharing size" of M&Ms. The price was $10. You can't make this stuff up.

The missus, older daughter and I arrived in New York Saturday. We came by airplane as the overland coach takes months and traverses hostile Indian territory. We're here to visit younger daughter who moved to these parts last Fall and is gainfully employed as a social worker. Whilst here we are also taking in the sights.

Among the sights here are people. In great numbers. All variety of human life wading through Times Square, packing on to Subway trains, gawking at statues, queuing for food, lounging in parks. The ceaseless parade of people is a spectacle in and of itself of the highest order. And the variety of bipeds is truly striking. You have, of course the ordinary, but you have a lot of the beautiful a lot of the grotesque and a lot of the weird and a lot of all ages, nationalities, sizes and shapes. People, people everywhere, many of them going hither, others going yon. Some standing quite still. Yet I have not for a second felt crowded. Being here with no business other than enjoyment is freeing and I feel as footloose and fancy free as I have strolling alone in the woods.

Also, I love the place. 

Paris remains my favorite city but New York is too much to be classified as merely a city. It is a nation, an empire and a planet all its own. Here you see everyone and anyone and can get everything and anything and do anything and everything. At anytime. It is past modern, it is up to the second. Yet it is rich with tradition and history. At one time or another it has all happened here, most of it many times. 

New York is sexy and vibrant and teeming with life and you feel enveloped in humanity and the spirit of living. You don't walk in New York, you glide. It is a liberating place this New York because you are one of so damn many. No one knows or cares if your zipper is down or your hair mussed or if you're toupee is slipping or your belly sticks out or your leg is deformed, it's nobody's business. Come as you are. No judgments, just don't mess with anyone. Watch the eye contact too.

I'm sure there are dangers here but it feels so safe to be among so many and so much. It is safe indeed to be among so many people. You a tourist? Well, who isn't? You need help finding something? Not a problem, someone can help.

We're staying in an Airnbnb in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is hip AND smart. It is self assured and comfortable in its own concrete. The people are nice without being cloying; they must be proud to live here and happy you like it. The first night we had pizza at a small restaurant that we picked without picking and it was the closest to the pizza you get in Italy I've had outside of Italy. Sumptuous. The next night it was a carefully picked restaurant for seafood and it was even better. New York is a gourmand's paradise. By making the slightest effort you can get a good meal and you can get all manner of food.

I have been to Strand's, one of the three or four best bookstores I've ever set foot in. I wandered and wandered in this store that boasts of how many books it has and well it should. It is a book lover's paradise and should be proud. It was no small feat to find a couple of purchases.

Kerouac and Dylan Thomas Drank here.
I have seen where Jack Kerouac lived, where Thomas Wolfe lived, where Allen Ginsberg lived and a bar that Kerouac frequented and where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death. I have seen the neighborhoods these literary giants roamed. Consecrated ground. What a great place for a writer to practice his or her craft. The isolation is easy to find in your rooms and the inspiration so easy to access outside of them.

I saw The Crucible starring Saorise Ronan, Sophie Okonedo, Ciaran Hinds and Ben Whishaw all of whom I've previously seen on the big screen. The play was magnificent. Our seats were near perfect without even being among the costlier ones. I was feeling a bit down before the play the darkness had crept in and cast its evil spell, but once I walked into the theater -- a theater on broadway, mind you -- my spirits magically lifted and soared the rest of the evening. So a cure for depression, bottle the theater.

I have seen the Ed Sullivan Theater where The Beatles performed, where David Letterman hosted the Late Show for two decades and where Stephen Colbert currently hosts. A mecca for me. Much smaller than I'd imagined it. Just another building among many. It is the people who have appeared inside it that make it titanic. 

I have gone through Times Square and been disgusted it being the least interesting and most inauthentic part of New York. It played like a bad version of Blade Runner and uninteresting one with no plot or meaning. 

I've been in Washington Square and watched drug dealing in Union Square Park.

I've been to the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Natural History and been dazzled by both in wholly different ways. Modern art and ancient realities, what a perfect metaphor for New York. What perfect places to visit.

I've seen where John Lennon was shot and it made me sad and I've seen the beauty of Central Park and it has made me happy. Nothing quite captures the beauty of Central Park except for being in it. It is, of course, all the lovelier for the skyscrapers looming in the distance. 

I've been to the Columbia University which boasts a gorgeous campus. My mother earned her MA there and the earlier mentioned Kerouac and Ginsberg met there.

I've seen why youngest daughter loves this city and why my father did too. My dad's first stop and first homes in the US were in New York and it was here that he met my mother. Good thing for my future that they found one another.

I've more days here to come and will have more to see and more to feel and smell and taste and hear and think, I just hope never to spend ten bucks on M&Ms and a bottle of water again. 

08 June 2016

"We're Dixie and Dean!" Vague Memory of one Night's Debauchery

This is all pretty vague I mean its a story about a time in which I was pretty drunk but I’ve got the main outlines right for sure.

I’m not even sure exactly when it was but I had to have been between 20 and 22. It was one of my visits — maybe more like pilgrimages — to see my cousin Steven. I say cousin but that’s kind of a stretch. We were like fifth cousins a couple of times removed. He was four years older than me and a hero and role model. He was also the first openly gay person I ever knew. Steven was brilliant, funny, imaginative and a raging alcoholic. He had more personality than ten normal people combined and rock star good looks. When Steven entered a room it lit up. This isn’t just my opinion either. Everyone who knew him felt the same. From when I first met him at age 15 and he got me drunk for the first time in my life, I was over the moon that such a cool guy liked me.

Whenever I was in the Bay Area and had a chance I would head over to Marin County to visit Steven. (He was never once, to my knowledge, ever called Steve.)  Of course this meant a night or two of pure debauchery and unbridled fun and continuous laughter. Sometimes I brought whatever woman I was dating at the time and they were always impressed with Steven but their presence inhibited the extended bacchanalia. On this occasion I came alone so the sky was not the limit but the starting point.

Steven had two friends named Dick and Dan who I’d once met at a party. They were a couple and one or both was quite wealthy. The first time I saw Steven after briefly meeting them I asked about the two but as I was already under the influence and botched the job. “How are Dixie and Dean?” I asked (there was a legendary British footballer named Dixie Dean). My malapropism elicited gales of laughter from Steven it also led to a running gag in which one of us would say: “I’m Dixie!” and the other “I’m Dean!” and then we’d both exclaim “We’re Dixie and Dean!” followed, of course, by more yuks.

On this occasion Steven and I started by “fueling up” at his abode and then went to a favorite watering hole that was a large bar nestled in a very heavily wooded area. We mixed silly antics with serious discussions of philosophy, politics and culture all of which was augmented by large quantities of booze. Eventually this rustic setting wouldn’t suffice for us and we decided to take our revelry on the road. This we did. Our last stop was at the majestic home of the aforementioned Dick and Dan, aka Dixie and Dean. Here my memories are especially hazy so much so that I can only unequivocally say that Steven ended up going upstairs and slumbering (and whatever else) with our two hosts while I snoozed on a sofa in a den.

It should be of no surprise at all that I awoke with an epic hangover. Mini jack hammers were being operated inside my brain and sand had somehow been poured into my bloodstream. The only thing mitigating my suffering was that I remained a little bit high. As I became more and more conscious I realized what a dandy spread the two Ds had. It was damn near a mansion. I took in the high ceilings and classy artwork and  modern furniture with great wonder. But I also increasingly felt the effects of the eve’s drunken spree. Lo and behold a quick glance outside the glass sliding doors revealed that there was a swimming pool in their massive backyard (along with a spectacular rose garden). I had never tried leaping into a pool to ease the pain of a hangover before but this was just the occasion for it. Absent a bathing suit I stripped bare and ran towards the pool. Without the slightest hesitation I dove into the water. The effect was bracing. I had the twin sensations of feeling wonderful and horrible at the same time. The decision to go into the pool was a wise one for my hangover’s sake but this was too painful a morning after for a simple swim to cure.

I splashed around for a bit until I noticed someone at the side of the pool watching me frolic. It was either Dan or Dick or Dixie or Dean I couldn’t possibly say at the time, let alone know lo these many decades later. He may well have been enjoying the sight of a cute naked young man in his pool and I was somewhat aware of that but really didn’t care. Mainly because he was holding something that I had not thought of needing. A towel. “You’ll probably need this,” he trilled in a saccharine voice. I thanked him and got out and followed him into the kitchen which also looked out onto the yard. The blessed man then proceeded to make both an omelet and bloody marys. I was delighted by both.

That’s where my memory about that particular visit ends. I could fictionalize a longer version, but I rather like this one. 

07 June 2016

Incident in Downtown Berkeley

I had just emerged from the subway station and was downtown heading home. A teenage couple parted company the young man asking the girl if she could make it home. She walked behind me for a few steps then I happened to look back and saw that she was staggering. Then she fell to the ground. I turned toward her but she got up and staggered some more. I could see that she was in a highly agitated state. She grasped onto the door of an ice cream shop then took a few more steps before grabbing the door of a Starbucks. She went in and started appealing for help. I followed her. Now I felt a sort of responsibility to the young woman. She looked no more than 17, more likely 16. She extended her arms toward people and repeatedly said, “help me.” The Starbucks employees gaped. I told them to call 9-1-1. One of them went in the back room and got the manger. He gaped. I told him to call 9-1-1. By the time he did a customer said he’d already done so. The troubled teen said she wanted to go home and that she wanted her mother. She careened from one person to the next. No one did anything. Finally a middle aged woman helped the girl to a stool and tried to comfort her. She assured the girl that she would be all right and was safe and everything was okay. The woman also asked exactly what the problem was. It was pretty clear to me that the girl was very high and in the parlance of my youth, freaking out. The young man who’d she’d been with came in. He asked her a few times if she was all right. Well no, clearly not. He also repeatedly said, “ I asked her if she could get home and she said yes.” He was not a lot of help. Finally he split.

I stood a few feet away from the girl at all times. I wasn’t much help myself but I was determined to see that someone was and was not going to leave until she was properly being taken care of. Finally a lone police officer strolled in. He had the calm swagger cops use in non emergencies. The officer asked the girl questions such as her name and what the matter was. He used a very distant tone as if this was, after all, just business. The girl struggled to say anything meaningful and started to dry heave. Eventually some thick white substance came out of her mouth. Some got on her sleeve and I was overwhelmed with the desire to wipe it off. Soon several other cops came in. One was a sergeant both according to his badge and demeanor. He looked exactly like one would imagine a police sergeant should look. Tall, lean, short salt and pepper hair. Muscular and conservative looking with an air of authority but like someone who still remembered his days riding patrol. There wasn’t much to take command of but he did just the same.

The cops were getting nowhere with the girl. She cried for home and wretched and complained of pain and seemed to not be sure where she was or what was going on. She was too young to be going through such trouble, especially in so public a setting. I noted that most people only watched from the corner of their eyes. Only the one woman had helped and only I had stayed on the scene and really I was superfluous, just in attendance to satisfy my own desire to see her safe. I guess I was following my instincts borne of having been a middle school teacher and still being a father. I wonder if I would have shown the same concern for an older person.

I don’t blame the passivity of the customers or even the employees. There’s only so much to do anyway and once help comes it’s probably better to stay out of the way. It’s hard to get involved when someone’s troubles seem more mental than physical. It’s frightening to see someone whose mind is out of order, maybe especially if its a temporary condition.

The paramedics arrived and were attentive but cool. There was no attempt at familiarity, just a desire to determine what the problem was and what was needed. They got the girl on a stretcher and quickly outside to a waiting ambulance. I followed a respectable distance behind and once she was in the ambulance continued on my way home. I called the missus to recount the incident and was surprised to find myself a little shaken.

It would be terribly trite but also true to say that I hope she’s all right. I imagine she is. Such an incident can be a wake up call to a young person. She could very well walk the straight and narrow from this day forward or at least for several years. Then again she could be an addict and will find herself only more careful in the future. I’ll never know.

Anyway, I stayed to the end.

03 June 2016

RIP The Greatest

He was my greatest hero. Honored to have once shaken his hand.