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I want to talk to you today about pain. About humanity. About striving, craving, wanting, revolting, shying, flinching, and retreat.

I want to talk to you about an epiphany.

I want to talk to you about self harm.

We are driven, we humans are, to test, to experiment, to explore both the world our bodies live in and the bodies that lives in the world.  Our minds, delicate and amorphous, are as hard to fasten down to a point as a jelly on a bulletin board.  Unmoored, our inscrutable ethereal selves demand confirmation, negation, and proof that we are real.

We respond, us corporeal beings, by telling our incorporeal elements to get bent.  We shut them up as best we can. We inflict indignities upon ourselves to keep us in our places. Work, booze, television, drugs, gossip: pain.  We confirm and negate as we beat ourselves up in one way or another.  We are real, so real, even as we wish we could not be.

What is your blade?  What is your red-hot match head?  What mortifies your flesh to alleviate your spirit?
What reinforces your humanity in all its profanity?

When I am all out of sorts with myself in the world, when I can barely stand to live in the hide that binds me, I take to the hills.  I must ride, as hard and as uphill as I can.  My lungs must burn, my thighs must ache, my forearms corded against the torque I am inflicting on the bars as I lever my way up, out of the saddle and throwing down my all, the biggest, nastiest, least-compromising hills I can find.

I thrash the evil out of me, for the moment, in sweat, in pain, in gasping breaths and knotted muscles.  I run from the devils that call me their own, my sweat-slick hide eluding their grasping claws as I rise above the turmoil, if only for a brief respite.  I spin and accelerate or grind and trundle up from the night that covers me, black as the pit from pole to pole.  I break for that sunlit upland, a gleaming plateau of catharsis and endorphins, where for (perhaps) a long moment, I can draw a deep breath, awash in the satisfaction and security of knowing that I can run, even if I cannot hide.

The anxiety, the sadness, the uncertainty, the static and sturm und drang may once again wax and eclipse me, but I can and I do know how to blast them away.  Pain.  Good, life-affirming, expurgating pain.  Excoriation. Catharsis. Absolution.  Paying the penalty for my humanity, one incline at a time.

I was thinking about the Ten Albums that Defined Your Teen Years thread that’s going around.

I am going to be a sad-ass and admit I don’t have a roster of ten albums. I listened to a lot of different music, depending on my mood. I was, to the largest extent, a pretty basic metalhead. I listened to a lot of Iron Maiden (I liked them because of all the literary references) and Metallica (I liked them because their lyrics were sharp and clever, and their frenzied “thrash” style sounded good turned up loud and was fairly likely to annoy any passing adults). I also listened to a lot of older hard rock: AC/DC, Nazareth, Slade, Black Sabbath, Motörhead. Also a lot of the classic rock that had sounded the clarion for the coming of Metal: Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Cream, all of that busy, swirly, noisy, feedbacky, assertive psychedelia.

So, the record that TURNED MY WORLD UPSIDE DOWN ON ITS GODDAMN HEAD was the compilation-and-live-recording album “Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death,” by American punk band “The Dead Kennedys.” I’m not sure exactly who it was, but it likely had been eitherLevi Bradis, Eric Savala, or Eli Criffield who turned me on to that album, but it struck me hard and struck me dead on. The songs resonated with the way I saw the world. The aggression in the vocals exhilarated me and energised my fighting spirit in a way that nothing else had before.

Dead Kennedys arrived in western Nebraska on a wave of interest in the music coming out of the Northwest at the time – we all got pretty heavy into The Meat Puppets around then, too, and Nirvana was a ubiquitous presence on the radio and on our subconscious.

And to be fair, I liked the Meat Puppets a lot. I loved the squawky, yowling vocals, the weird bluegrassy influences, and the absurdity of a lot of the lyrics. The Meat Puppets were a regular on the tape deck in my 1959 VW. Meat Puppets II was playing the day I literally got blown off the road. My sister and I found ourselves looking out over the trunk of my car, buried up to the emblem in a snow bank, while Curt Kirkwood howled, “….got bit by a dog with a rabid tooth/ went to her grave just a little too soon/flew away howling on the yellow moooooooon.”

Nirvana…well, they were there, a hand on the wet clay of many a vessel of my vintage. I suppose Nevermind legitimized my depression, made it feel like less of a burden, less of a freak-attack, and even like a potential for creativity. All the artistic types were mad, weren’t they. And of course Nirvana and their “grunge” compatriots represented a stylistic turning point for rock music; you can tell in a chord or two if a popular album was pressed before or after 1992.

But “Give Me Convenience” was the album that changed my tastes, energized me, gave voice to the demons of dissent that fluttered and whizzed around my subconscious. They validated my viewpoint; I felt less alone knowing this band had written and recorded and performed those songs, that other people bought the album, went to the shows, and presumably held sympathetic thoughts. I’d been political and mouthy since middle school, but DK gave me a sticking pin and a tether.

You.  You feared that we’d come for your guns.  Did we?

I.  I fear that you will come for my books, my words, my thoughts.  Will you?

I fear that you will stop my children’s teachers teaching them about geology, geography, biology, history, literature, and the diversity of experience in this great wide world.

The world is so full of a number of things
I’m sure we should all live as happy as kings

I fear you will authorize and command the formation of an American Stazi – citizen vigilantes empowered by law, champing at the bit to stamp out whatever you deem to be dangerous or seditious thought.  When my children are taught Creationism and Abstinence at school, will your Secret Police sweep all students’ households to ensure no parents are hiding copies of Origin of Species and Our Bodies, Ourselves?  Will you seize my children and sweep them off to re-education camp if I help them memorize the poetry of A. E. Hausmann, or let them read Ninteen Eighty Four, or put a Dead Kennedy’s disc in the CD player and talk to them about what the lyrics mean?

What books will you burn? What recordings will you erase? What classics of art, cinema, literature, dance, and architecture will you deem decadent and ripe for destruction.  How beige will our world be, before you determine it is “safe” for your ideals and agendas?

I ask you: will I be required to keep my metaphors in a locked cabinet, with the safety on?  Will there be a magazine size limitation on my vocabulary?  Will it be per syllable or letter?  Can I keep my words if I promise to use them only for sport hunting and target practice, but not for assault nor insurrection?

I ask, is it too late to order my cyanide capsule, or will you be issuing them as a matter of course?

The treasure of routine

I rode my bike to work today.

Many of you are like, “yeah, so what…you always ride your bike to work,” but the fact of the matter is. I have a job to ride to.

It’s very, very, very part time, but. I have eight hours a week where I am being paid for my labors. Eight hours a week where I do not have sub-3′ humans hanging from my trousers and issuing incomprehensible requests. Eight hours a week where I can wear earrings and not have them snatched off the side of my head. Eight hours a week where I can speak in complete sentences and be responded to in kind.

It’s not much, but by golly, I’ll *take* it.

This beautiful afternoon, while it was about 65F and sunny, while one child was zooming around the yard on his Strider and the other was literally wallowing in the mud that constitutes our sandbox, I did a Minesweep of the back yard and cleared out all the dog-doody the last snow had concealed.

And it got me to thinking that a quite large proportion of my waking hours are dedicated to literally “dealing with shit.” Two cats, one dog, one toddler, and a pre-schooler whose toileting habits can be best described as erratic. I am almost never not touching poop.

Which is why the skin is actually peeling off my hands. I wash my hands about 74 times a day. I can’t keep ahead on the lotion game, and have given up. Total lizard hide. Cracking hangnails. Split knuckles.

Still – I am probably sanitary…as best as is possible, at any rate.

It occurred to me recently while on a bicycle ride (where easily 85% of my real thinking occurs) that maybe depression is something I just have to accept and live with.

I’m looking at it this way: I’ve been trying for the best part of fifteen years to get over, ahead of, or on top of my depression, and shit ain’t happening.  A little medication, a little therapy, I think, “okay, I got this managed,” and lo, a year or so on and it all falls apart.  Some personal catastrophe breaks me up, or maybe just nothing other than my shit-for-brain-chemistry rears up.  One way or another, the net result is the same.  Feelings of worthlessness or futility.  Or just numbness.  Everyday life being just. so. much. work.  Being so tired. And annoyed.  And sad. And just plain done.

Therapy is like booting a cut tire.  It’ll get me home; it seems like I’ll hold air for a while, but inevitably, I’m going to deflate (probably when I need most desperately to be rolling).  And medication is an awfully mixed blessing.  It may get me over the “hump,” but it doesn’t always.  And the side effects that come with it, especially the “flattening” and loss of appetites that attend are a steep price to pay.  Especially when I am already in a very demotivated place, adding a chemical that makes me even more tired, that makes me not hungry, that takes my will to be joyful along with softening my will to be sad…I have a hard time reconciling that balance.

Sometimes  I wonder: is a certain degree of existential dread just plain normal?  Everyone struggles.  Everyone hits tough spells.  Everyone will live through a few traumatic events during this journey from womb to tomb.  Why fight it, especially when the fight is so pointless?  If it is a fight I am destined to lose, maybe it’s a better idea to stop wasting so much energy on fighting it, and learn to live with it, live around it, and accept that these bottom-scraping low periods pass, just as the good times do.  I wonder, do the hard times just seem to last longer because of how “time flies when you’re having fun”?  Like when I am going through a good patch, I might not realise and appreciate it as I should because we’re conditioned to notice discomfort, but take feeling all right for granted?

Maybe what I am saying is that I should start taking the struggles for granted and when the smooth patches heave into view, I should land ’em like a victorious pirate captain, plant my flag, and celebrate like I have commandeered the finest shipment of Good Times on the high seas.

 

No-one gets out alive

The pop culture vision of senile dementia is the doddering eccentric, who calls her grandkids by the wrong name, makes non-sequitur commentary whenever it’s devastatingly funny to do so, and genially bungles her way through the “golden years.”
The reality is that dementia sneaks up on a person and can turn a person who was wonderfully daffy, witty, adventuresome, and interested in the world into someone who is frustrated, peevish, suspicious, who lashes out against the constraints her failing cognition is overlaying on her lifestyle.
The past four years or so have been very rough on my Mother In Law, and subsequently upon her son, Joel and on me. Most especially so after Joel died, as he was her main anchor to reality, and the one for whom she would pull it together as much as she could. After Joel died, the slow, decline that had been creeping up on her over the course of probably five or six years began to spiral downward precipitously. In the past sixteen months or so, she has gone from a woman with cognitive impairments, language impairments, some physical limitations, but still a strong sense of who she was and what she has done in this life, to a woman who is nearly bed-bound, who is refusing food, whose ability to communicate verbally is all but fled entirely.
Today, I visited her, and found a very ill, weak, disoriented woman. On Monday, I am to meet with her care team to discuss Hospice options.
Dementia is one of the worst ways to go out. It is a long, slow, terrifying, inexorable slide to the end. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

Interpretative T-Ball

When we were out walking today, we stopped at our shitty neighborhood park, and for once there were some other kids there playing. They were a bit older than Joseph – two little boys and a girl, aged somewhere in the four to six range. They were trying to play Tee Ball, but were mostly either missing the ball or battering the tee. Joseph now fondly believes that baseball consists of whacking the hell out of a pole and spent a fair amount of the space between naptime and supper using a mailing tube to biff an old wrapping paper tube into oblivion.

Joel 086

When I look at pictures of Joel and see his trademark big grin shining back at me, the merriment in his eye – all evidence of his legendary bonhomie, I can’t help but be minded of John Crowe Ransom’s “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter.” That poem is especially poignant as it is a memorial for a small girl, a young child who in her life had been a frolicksome, rowdy, romping, jolly little girl, a child so known for her vitality that it is hard to accept that she has died. And it is that – Joel’s larger than life energy and goodwill – that even a year on, sometimes makes it hard to align his personality with the fact of his death. I look at those twinkling blue eyes, that mischievous grin framed by those outlandish Martin Van Buren muttonchops, and I think, “how the hell can that guy be dead now?” A ridiculous thought – I know far more thoroughly than I want to that he is gone, that no man, no matter how healthy and active and full of piss-and-vinegar cheats death. But yet, it just doesn’t seem natural and right.

Joel at Friz

I don’t know if it is an act of self preservation or cruelty on the part of my brain, but in the year since Joel died, I have only had two dreams of him.  I have a hard time featuring why it’s that way when we’d been such a major part of one another’s lives for the eight years we had together, but  just as sleep eludes me, Joel eludes my dreams.

The two dreams I have had were brief but so detailed and so realistic that i awoke disoriented and bereft all over again either time.

Back in April I was hitting a bricklaying project pretty hard, re-laying the west side of the back patio that Joel and our friend Brian had torn up in the autumn before while digging a trench to lay down conduit for electricity and gas running out to the shop building.  So, every day for the best part of two weeks, I’d lay down a few rows of bricks between the back porch and the fence until it finally looked like this:

IMG_9949IMG_9950

 

 

 

 

 

One night, after I’d finished this project, I had a dream that I was kneeling on the patio laying out bricks, when I looked up and saw Joel standing beside the cherry tree.  He was wearing his old Carhartts that he usually wore for mowing, a pair of wellies, and had a shovel balanced over his shoulder.  He nodded back toward the raised bed behind him and said, “Hey, honey, what were you planning on planting here this year?”  And I just started chatting at him about all my garden plans, how I was probably going to plant mustard greens over there, and beets in the furthest South bed and so on and so forth.  I looked down for a moment to pick up another brick to set in, and when I looked up again, he was gone.

The other dream I had was later in the summer, just before Lydia was born.  I dreamed I was coming the back gate to the back yard.  I turned around after securing the latch and saw Joel coming in from the front gate.  He was dressed in some of his shittiest summer lounging clothes’ a pair of red, hibiscus-print swimming trunks, a ribbed tank top, and his beat up old blue Crocs.  He came bounding over to me in his way, all arms and legs and enthusiasm.  I said, “Oh my God, JOEL, how are you here?”  It was the best surprise; he was the best sight I’d laid eyes on.  He held his arms out for a hug and said, just the way he would if he were feeling schmoopy, “Hey, gorgeous, give me some love,” and when he held me, it was everything that his embraces always were.  Comfort, intimacy, calm, love.  It was the best feeling in the world.  You know how you sometimes say something simultaneously with someone…”in stereo” or “jinx” is what we said when we were kids?  Simultaneously, in this dream, we both said “I’ve missed you so much.”  I started to ask him if he was back, how long could he stay, and then…I woke up.  I am not going to lie, I genuinely felt bereft all over again.  Just fucking crushed.

When Joel died, I remember having an irrational thought.  In my head, I protested, “but we weren’t finished!” We had children to raise, adventures to experience, home improvements to complete.  We had so many things planned that it felt like some sort of cosmic administrative error; like no way could we be interrupted at this point, what gives, man?  From time to time, my imagination provides a flash of what it would be like in a parallel universe where Joel hadn’t died.  Today when the kids were eating lunch, I had a vision of how it would be if he were here, how Joel would have bantered with Joseph while Joseph nibbled and clowned, how Joel would have mixed  up some weird conglomeration of leftovers for himself, how he would have commented on Lydia’s characteristic nursing fidget of petting my sweater while she suckles.  He would be having so much fun with Joseph at this age – he was eagerly anticipating speech, a burgeoning sense of humor, the development of a more complex personality.  He also would have been delighted at what a cheerful little kid Lydia is, how energetic and physical she is, and generally what a cute little varmint she is.  He loved Joseph dearly, and he was so excited about the advent of a second child.  It hardly seems fair to the kids to be deprived of a loving dad; to Joel, to be deprived of the experience of raising them; or me, to be deprived of the joy of watching them grow up with a fun, adoring father helping keep them grounded and guide them along with the good sense. good humor, and good sense of humor he was so well loved for.

I sit here wearing two sweaters, a beanie, corduroy trousers, woolen socks, desperate to stave off the cold.  Never mind the thermostat is set on a very reasonable 63° Fahrenheit.  It’s not a literal chill, as such, it’s something that sets upon me when I’m sad, lonesome, tired, facing another bedtime alone.  It’s the chill that set in on December 28, 2014, at about a quarter to 6:00 a.m., when I awoke to find Joel’s side of the bed unoccupied, aside from the coat, backpack, and winter cycling gear he’d laid out there on his return from a Happy Woodchuk jaunt on the afternoon before.

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