Sunday, June 30, 2013

Data Makes the Crazy Better

I have bipolar disorder. With bipolar, a single isolated event can seem like the manifest destiny of a lifetime. One event can send you on a downward spiral into paranoia, despair, and the deepest depression. You may know you're just cycling when you're on one of these mental road trips into hell, but it sure doesn't feel like it.

So believe me when I say I understand what it feels like to watch the evening news and feel like the world is going to hell. Shootings. Terror attacks. Geo-political tension. Kim Kardashian. No wonder people think the end is nigh.

Even without bipolar disorder it's understandable that this information is disconcerting to the loyal late night news viewer. But, this information is just a single data point, and it is highly sensationalized.

One of the best books I have read recently is Steven Pinker's The Better Angels Of Our Nature. In it, he charts the improvement of society over time when it comes to violence:



When you watch the news it feels like the world is unraveling, but it's not. We still have a long way to go--don't get me wrong--but we are becoming increasingly egalitarian, increasingly adept at avoiding war, illness, poverty, and ignorance. It may not seem like it in our day to day lives--or when we watch the news--but that lump in your throat that forms at the hearing of bad news is actually more evidence that things aren't as bad as you might think. You are upset by all the sexed up nightly news because you are more civilized than your forebears. Hand wringing is a sign of developing conscience.

I know how it feels, but how it feels is not always the case. This is something of a motto for the person with bipolar disorder. Religion did not groove with bipolar for me; trying to discern messages from God is not a good preoccupation for a person in a manic state. Data on the other hand, is all comfort. There it is. There are the facts. They don't have feelings, they track over long periods. Errors can be weeded out, outliers can be explained. Data is a great comfort. It makes the crazy better.
 

Friday, June 28, 2013

We're All Stowaways Here

"Idolized by all, rejected by each, I was left out of things, and my sole recourse, at the age of seven, was within myself, who did not yet exist, a glass palace in which the budding century beheld its boredom. I had been born in order to fill the great need I had of myself. Until then, I had known only the conceit of the lap-dog. Driven into pride, I became the Proud One. Since nobody laid claim to me seriously, I laid claim to being indispensable to the Universe. What could be haughtier? What could be sillier? The fact is that I had no choice. I had sneaked on to the train and had fallen asleep, and when the ticket-collector shook me and asked for my ticket, I had to admit that I had none. Nor did I have the money with which to pay my fare on the spot. I began by pleading guilty." - from The Words, by Jean-Paul Sartre
 It's nice when you're reading a used book and realize that you would have highlighted the same section someone else has already highlighted. It creates a kind of bond between you and the previous reader.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Doing the Dishes

The first time I gave any serious thought to Hinduism was in Dr. Loving's philosophy class at U.C.. He was reading the Kama Sutra to us, and talking about the Hindu idea that all activities should be done prayerfully. Even doing the dishes. This fucked me up, because there were few things I associated less with the spiritual realm than doing the dishes. I was a full blown alcoholic at the time, and I would get sloppy drunk when I did the dishes. It was the only thing that made the activity bearable...come to think of it, at that point in my life, alcohol was the only thing that made any activity bearable. But that's another story.

I have managed to reclaim both my sobriety and the dishes, and now, indeed, I was them with as much of a prayerful attitude as I can muster. The dishes will get dirty again, but that's not why I clean them. Cleaning the dishes--when I am in my best frame of mind--can be its own reward. So little of life makes sense. Dirty dishes make sense. The problems of the world are vast and complex. Dried spaghetti in a bowl is fairly straightforward.

I am far from a Yogi--my 'ohm' is still more of an 'uhm'--but I can wash the dishes. I can even wash them by hand. In fact, I prefer it.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Good Ideas from the Hindus

Because I love Arthur Schopenhauer so much, I decided to look into some of the texts that inspired him. I'm currently reading The Bhagavad Gita.

It's a good little book, with a few ideas that I find absolutely worthy of carrying around with me; the idea of a changeless self beneath all of our feelings, experiences and desires is one. The idea of Brahman--a changeless self within and across all of us that we all share and that ties us together--is another one. Most important to me is the idea that we should work prayerfully 'for the hell of it', without attachment to outcomes. That is a big one for me.

 So often we work our asses off for some future reward, and then find our ambitions frustrated. Putting my happiness in such schemes is absurd, because, as John Lennon observed, 'Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans'. Too often I am guilty of seeing life as a grand chess game, planning six and seven moves in advance. If an early move is blocked, suddenly my whole game is thrown off. How frustrating is it to live this way?

'Frustrating' is a word that I keep using in this post. Schopenhauer is always warning us that our will is the most powerful aspect of our being, and it is only by denying it that we can find happiness. When we feed our will, it only becomes hungrier, and is in a constant state of frustration.

By not allowing myself to be too attached to outcomes--positive or negative--I can do things for their own sake, and become more closely associated with that changeless Brahman that we all share.


 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Starve the Beast

When I was a Christian, I spent a lot of time and effort trying to chip away things that might stand between me and God. Drugs. Excessive belongings. Harmful or clunky ideas.

One day--after receiving inspiration while reading a passage from 'Of Human Bondage'-- I prayed something to this effect:

"Lord, I don't want anything to stand between us. Not even my belief. If my belief limits my ability to be in communication with you in anyway, please remove it from me."

It was a tough prayer, and I talked it over with a Christian friend at work later that evening. I told him that the prayer brought a certain calmness with it, and a mild feeling of elation. I wanted to be as close to the big thing as I possibly could be, and if my conception of what the big thing was stood in the way, I was willing to chuck it.

I'm a non-believer now, but many of the old ideas that animated my Christian life are finding a resurgence in my new life. Again and again I learn (and re-learn) that the more I make life about Me, the more I suffer. The more I make Me about life, the more I succeed. The idea of  stripping away unneeded attachments and vices is more pertinent than ever, really, especially when you factor in the understanding that this life is the only life you get. You have to do it right this time, and it's no good traveling with too much baggage.

The ego is a cumbersome thing. It is always hungry, and always expanding wherever you let your guard down. It makes you think that feeding it is the only way to be happy, when in reality, happiness is only found in denying it. The pleasure you get from feeding the ego--or will--is a sugar buzz.

So the only thing standing between me and peace is me.

And what a beastly thing that is.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Quitting Everything

I am quitting my bad habits one by one. Currently, my friend Brandon and I are quitting caffeine together. My wife and I are two very judgmental people, and we're trying to learn how to be more peaceful and accepting together. Previously I have kicked the seemingly genetic demons of alcohol, religion, racism, and nationalism. The goal is to just be a decent person.

When my kids chastise me for drinking energy drinks, or talking shit about another driver on the road, or someone from work, I realize I'm not setting a good example. I want my kids to have as few barriers to their happiness as possible, and I figure by confronting my own flaws head on, I give them a better shot.

This is also a major motivation for finally facing up to my mental illness: the more dirty work I do now, the easier they will have it later.

I will never be perfect, but I can definitely do better. What is that Maya Angelou quote? "Do the best you can until you know better, then when you know better, do better."

I like that.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Tankas

Here are some more Tankas. They're pretty fun to write. I recommend it.

I. Creation

God blew his brains out;
stars splattered on the ceiling
cut his arteries--
Oceans pooled across the world.
Then he drank deep the poison.

II. Revelation

God does not exist.
Like God, I do not exist;
but like God I feel
entitled to existence,
and pain is the consequence.

III. DNA

Monsters live inside;
tiny vestiges of past.
Worlds loop endlessly
'round my heart and head beneath
skin that might crack any time.

IV. Tanka

Old machine, dusty--
I will use you to make new
things that come from pain;
Things that leak new blood and bile
and dilute my misery.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

My Friend, the Suicide





  The winter is barely hanging on. It stirs lazily on occasion, in the form of a brisk wind or a frosty sunrise, but overall it’s noncommittal. It is at one with the inevitability of pending change. The slight breeze that blows in through my wide open window lightly jostles the curtains and causes me to close my eyes with blue -skied pleasure. 
 
    I am typing, my spirit warming gradually--the weather affects me tremendously--my children are playing with the train set my father built for them this Christmas. 

    As I type, my mind takes a turn suddenly to the image of Spring, and tiny green buds poking through the soil and appearing suddenly at the tips of bare trees. Then things darken a bit, when I stop to consider what type of flora the abandoned vehicle of my long dead friend’s body might be sprouting.

   I don’t know much about the process of decomposing. Whatever happens down there beneath the topsoil is all quite mystical to me--never a really scientific person--so it’s hard for me to fathom what sort of alchemical shift may or may not be occurring, and what kind of surface level manifestation I could expect from such a process.
 
  It was late December years ago that they found his body beneath the overpass, his neck broken, his feet bare, two cell phones apparently in his jacket. He was a writer like me, much better in fact--I can say that now that he’s dead--and I think he’d like that the repercussions of his final act have created ripples far and wide in my life, and have caused me to write and think about him extensively, in ways I probably would‘ve been incapable of doing were he still alive.

  There’s a chance it wasn’t suicide, but the facts unfortunately point to it. A failed relationship of extreme importance, depression, unusual behavior, a fixation on the subject of self annihilation (in a letter he hand wrote me he spoke of ‘a certain feeling of accomplishment in not shooting myself in the head’) and a profound disappointment in the results of that year’s presidential election (Bush v. Kerry). There was the chance it was an accident; I wouldn’t be surprised to find out he had been walking along the overpass on the wrong side of the rail to clear his head, or maybe just sitting when a heavy wind brought him down; remember that he was a writer. We are odd, rash people. There was even a suggestion that he was murdered by a hitchhiker, which would’ve been much preferred by me, for a variety of reasons. But perhaps because I’m a cynic--and perhaps because I had a bad feeling weeks earlier when I got his handwritten note--I can’t believe any of those other possibilities, no matter how much I’d prefer them.

  So I’ve decided to write him a new ending; maybe a new story altogether. Start it off with the young man as I saw him before he headed off to another state to live with the girl who would change his life. Maybe earlier. Maybe he stays around the city and meets another girl. I’d like to insert him into a different type of story altogether, something that accentuates his awkward charm and friendliness over his often brooding elitism.
 
  So I begin my romantic comedy with Sam flipping through yellowed old books at the Thrift store. She walks up to him with a pair of jeans folded over her arms and peers over his shoulder. He’s reading an inscription someone wrote in light pencil on the inside flap of a copy of 'The Tin Drum’. 
“The person who writes their own history wins the whole of it.” She says.

He turns around, startled. Awkward smile, tongue brushes his gums. “Wow. Huh. Did you say that? That’s amazing.” But it’s not amazing. He doesn’t even know that it makes sense, and it sounded a little funny coming out of her mouth. What he really meant to say was you are amazing. He looks at her. She’s brilliant, her cheeks are flushed and her eyes are exploding with energy. Plus, she smells really good. Like cotton candy. Her hair is brunette and in pig tails. “I’m Jean.” She says and sticks out her bracelet-ed hand for shaking. “Sam.” He says, taking it firmly and giving it a good pump.

“Don’t you just love these places?”
 
 They end up going for a walk on the hillside outside of the thrift shop. They jump the fence, because Sam thought it would be a novel, romantic thing to do, and he picks some ragweed and hands it to her in a bouquet. She curtsies. They walk over rocks and the grass smells good and it makes their noses run. They find out they both like Kerouac and Salinger, and they both think the president it an idiot, and are both active in his opponent's campaign. Maybe they hold hands and kiss sweetly before parting ways, first thinking of some novel, romantic way they can run into each other again.

Whatever they come up with isn’t Sam’s idea, and that’s fantastic to him. He usually has to think up these kinds of things. The fact that it was Jean’s suggestion would make it easier to write sincerely about the encounter later. 

    But all of this is so sweet, and so false. My version of the story would involve a misunderstanding that resulted in some kind of a ‘Say Anything’ moment, with Sam declaring himself in a silly, sweet way as the neighbors looked on, or maybe in a quieter way with him standing at her front door with some kind of droopy flower behind his back, and a new appreciation for her in his heart. A far cry from the real story, which ended with him at the bottom of an overpass with a broken neck.

  I think Sam would like this story. Not the one I was making up for him, but the one I’m writing now.
 
   Lying to you makes it easier to lie to myself, so I try not to lie to you. I’d rather lie to you now, but instead of that, let me tell you this: Sam missed this day for whatever reason, because of whatever was going on inside of him that night. And it’s a shame too, because I think he would’ve really appreciated the way the naked trees are rocking like enrapt gospel singers in a wind that is becoming increasingly playful. I think he’d like the vaguely blue sky, I think he’d like the way I have my beard trimmed these days. I know he’d like the way the cat just jumped up on my lap, sneezed on my hand and then jumped back down.

  I’m sorry I couldn’t write him a happy ending , but I’m more sorry he didn’t give himself the chance to make one of his own.
 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Fat Sex


Small light emanates
from a cave inside your rolls;
the chair can't hold you,
but I am willing to try.

Allow me to escavate.


This is an example of a Tanka poem. 

From poets.org:
"The Japanese tanka is a thirty-one-syllable poem, traditionally written in a single unbroken line. A form of waka, Japanese song or verse, tanka translates as "short song," and is better known in its five-line, 5/7/5/7/7 syllable count form."

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Relax, White Dudes

White, Christian, heterosexual, middle and upper class men often get upset when you mention their privilege to them. They want to believe that they have worked for everything they own, and that anyone possessed of enough gumption could have the same things they have.

When the tide turns in the other direction and favors another group over their group, the white indignation is pathetic. They are being oppressed! The country is going in the wrong direction!

The white man is feeling it these days; what could he have done wrong? Hasn't he been a just patriarch? Why is everyone always picking on him?

Relax, white dudes. It's not your fault. In actuality, the privilege you still have presents you with an amazing opportunity. You see, there's nothing inherently wrong about your whiteness, or your sexuality, or your economic and sociopolitical inheritance. I would argue that there is something wrong with your religion, but let's save that for another conversation. The problem lies in our capitalist system. By its very nature, capitalism must always have an exploited class and an exploiting class. Currently, you are part of the exploiting class. Eventually there will be another exploiting class, and you will be its victim if you don't institute serious changes, and quick. It's by no fault of your own that you're in the position you are in; you were born into it. It is your fault, however, if you don't do anything to remedy it.

Not only is abandoning capitalism the right thing to do morally, it is also the smart thing to do if you want to continue to receive any of the benefits associated with being part of the exploiting class: since--by its very nature--capitalism will always favor one tribe over the other tribes, and since the status of various tribes must always vary (you are on top for now, but you won't always be), instituting socialist reforms is the best way for you to avoid or lessen the wrath of ascendent minority groups.

I know it will be hard, but it's the best thing in the long run for you and for everyone else. As lovers of competition and merit, wouldn't it be great if everyone competed and earned on an even playing field? Wouldn't it be wonderful if everyone had access to healthcare, higher education, leisure time, food, and housing? Pipe dreams, you say. How could we afford such things? For starters, why don't we nationalize the oil companies, just like they did in Venezuala. By nationalizing oil, Venezuala eliminated extreme poverty. Why don't we radically cut our bloated military budget and work on fixing things at home rather than killing people and breaking things in other countries? Why don't we stop screwing around and just nationalize healthcare? And how about we make it easier--rather than harder--for people in impoverished communities to vote and organize?

These are some simple suggestions. Whether you heed this warning or not is up to you, but the times are always a-changing.

UPDATE

 Over at Daily Kos, a commenter called Dr. Erich Bloodaxe RN voiced the following objection to my piece:
"You were generally doing fine until you started in about who is in and out of the 'exploiting class'.  And the reality is that 95% of white dudes are in the exploited class too.  The exploiter class is largely, albeit not exclusively, inherited wealth, and by definition
White privilege exists, male privilege exists, along with other sorts of privilege, but is not really tied to exploited/exploiter classes writ large.  It's farther down the food chain, going on largely within the exploited class, between members thereof.  They're the the 'petty exploitation' of institutionalized social and economic differentials within the ranks of the exploited, that help keep the exploited fighting each other."
to which I responded:
"That's a good point that I didn't address in the piece. One of the things that keeps white men from participating in any kind of populist overhaul is that they associate themselves with the white men in power--thinking that 'at least a member of my team is running things'--while in reality they have much more in common with working class people of other ethnicities and genders."
  It's very easy to get hung up on specific kinds of privilege and lose track of the fact that inherited wealth is the absolute biggest, most divisive, and most destructive kind of privilege there is.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

'Coming Out' With My Mental Illness

Check out my new article at The Enquirer.