Posted on December 18, 2016
Filed Under Journeyman Chronicles, Mundane | Comments Off on Legion

Out of nowhere, apropos of nothing in particular, talking to myself: “I’m going to blow your fucking brains out, motherfucker.”

Another voice, also internal, says “Yes, that’s right” – not as a jeer, but because it fits, it suits, it conforms; it feels like climbing under warm covers on a cold day. It feels like scratching an itch – ahhh, that’s it!

Still another voice, with some alarm: “No, that’s not right!”

And then I get up, and wash the dishes.


Before you say something: please – don’t. The last round to that dialogue is a murmur of different voices, some of them sarcastic, all of them ashamed: “Well, what was that all about?” “I guess you are the only one in the whole world with problems!” “Oh, for heaven’s sake, shake it off.” “Are you going to talk like that so you can be the center of attention, get everyone’s sympathy?”

This is a good day. This is not me asking for sympathy, this is me giving it. Somebody who will read this needs to read this – someone going through a similar experience, but who is not able to talk about it, as I can today – because they are not having a good day, as I am today.

I didn’t do too much yesterday. In the morning I went out for breakfast with my roommate and his fiancée. We went to the Blue Dot, two blocks from the apartment and always crowded on a Saturday morning.  Sometime in the afternoon I went back out and got a pot roast, a head of garlic, two parsnips and a rutabaga. Also some Brussels sprouts. I had promised, a week or two back, to bring pot roast to the church supper on Sunday. When I got home I salted and peppered the pot roast and seared it, with a little olive oil, in my InstantPot. When it was browned on all sides I set the roast aside and threw in the parsnips and rutabaga, along with carrots I already had in the house, tossing them until they had had mellowed a bit and picked up all the fond from the bottom of the pot. Then I poured them all into a bowl and threw in two onions and let them get golden and brown around the edges.

Time for broth. I dumped the onions out too, and deglazed the pot with a little balsamic vinegar. I used two teaspoons of “Better Than Bouillon” beef base in two cups of water, adding a bay leaf and rosemary. The head of garlic went in whole; some recipe on the internet made it sound like a cool way to add garlic to a roast. I also put in about maybe a cup of red wine; and then maybe a teaspoon of Kahlua left over from months ago when I made chocolate trifle, because I had it and it might do something interesting to the flavor. I prefer to cook with alcohol; drinking it tends to make me wake up in the middle of the night. I’ve never quite truly gotten used to the bitter flavor of alcohol, but I will drink socially, to keep whoever I’m with from feeling awkward having the only drink–I tell myself, although I have noticed that, as they say, a drink can take the edge off. Another reason I am shy of it. I have a deliberate propaganda campaign to tell myself I can drown my sorrows by drinking, but, specifically, caffeinated beverages.

The InstantPot directions suggested using the Meat setting for 30-35 minutes, so I set it for 25, deliberately wanting to finish off with slow cooking. Well, somewhere along the line I miscalculated; when I opened the lid it was clear the vegetables were far overcooked. I lifted the roast out and set it on the cutting board; perhaps it had been imbued with a rich blend of flavors? I tried to fork a bit off the corner, and it came away too easily; the meat had given up on all adhesion, and had become merely a collection of fibers, like some Andean mummy exposed to conditions so harsh that even Decay gave up and died. It was kind of a downer.

I tried some of the broth, a bit too hastily and, as a consequence, obliterating the surfaces of my mouth and tongue. But before going silent my taste buds confirmed that yes, there was flavor in the broth. That recipe on the internet had said to squeeze the garlic cloves out of their skins, but in my case the cloves no longer had the strength to pop through the skins and oozed into a mushy glob with the skins, so I just dropped the whole thing into the trash with the wordless regret befitting wasted garlic.

I sliced up the roast, in the process noticing signs that in the center of the cut there was a bit more firmness and cohesion, so perhaps the worst of the damage was only at the periphery. I ladled broth over the sliced meat to let it absorb back in. I stuck the inner pot of the InstantPot in a sink of cold water, to cool it down quickly so that I could put it in the fridge and go to sleep.

This morning I got the meat back out and flipped it over and ladled some more broth on the slices, and put the pan in the oven to warm it. I decided to give up on the vegetables; they looked gray and didn’t taste much better. Perfectly fine food if you are starving, but I am gradually learning that there is only a sad pride in pretending to be more impoverished than you are; nobody in Africa would prosper from my needless eating of horribly overcooked vegetables. But there was a skim of fat on the broth that I wanted to save with the broth, but wouldn’t go through the colander cold. So I drained some of the liquid and put the inner pot back into the InstantPot base and started it warming.

With about 2 1/2 tablespoons of butter and approximately as much flour I started a gravy base. I let the flour warm to just a slight brown shade and started adding the broth, slowly of course; or at least somewhat slowly. As usual, my impatience prompted me to add a little more than I thought I really should have, then panic and whisk frantically, and then relax as it blended together just fine after all.

It got about as thin as I care to serve gravy but I had not enough gravy and too much leftover broth.

It is almost a signature of my cooking style to change my mind about what pot I need to use halfway through, or somehow wind up using more pots and pans than I should have needed; so with a little shake of my head at the familiar and tiresome, I pulled out another pot and started a second base. When I had got it close to the same consistency I combined them.

I wasn’t quite sure how to keep the food warm, since I had to drive 40 minutes or so to the church and it would be an hour or so after that until we ate. I have not yet invested in one of the insulated wrappers for a pan, suspecting that it it is the sort of thing I would use once or maybe twice in a year while the rest of the time it would testify to unfulfilled ambitions; and anyway, people were bringing food to potlucks long before someone manufactured a new necessary thing. I had a plastic fitted lid for my bowl of gravy (part of a set that came home with me after the Christmas gift exchange), and I added a layer of foil over that to help conserve heat. The meat itself was in a 13 x 9 covered in foil. I swaddled it with a Raymond-branded blanket, the kind of cheap merchandise too tacky for any other use but actually perfect in just such a case. I was running low on time, so the dishes had to wait until I came back.

I set off – but first, a stop for coffee. I saw a parking spot that bordered a driveway and snagged it, sparing myself the humiliation of demonstrating, yet again, that I still can’t parallel park in less than three tries. Coffee – Starbucks or Peets? They face each other across the busiest intersection in town. As usual, Peet’s won, being in my mind the underdog, and also closer – literally on my side. I tried the Havana Dulce Cappuccino. I like it.

I arrived at church. Churches are, for me, an almost uncanny intersection between personal and social; whether I consider myself in a public space or in a private gathering depends upon my mood, and, being moody, I am often not sure which. It is hard to start a conversation, because I am not sure if I want to ask “So, what do you think of this weather?” or “How do you deal with the agony of existence?” Mostly, I shift around awkwardly until someone else says something and I can calibrate my dialogue to match.

One of the good things about this church is the practice of singing older, richer hymns, and always all the verses. There are I think four hymns every Sunday. The hymn of the month this month is “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” (see, another nice thing – they resisted the obvious temptation to choose a Christmas song).

After the service is a bustle of activity to set up for the meal. It’s a small church; I would say about 30 people in regular attendance, with seating for about 40. By moving the first pew back they can just squeeze in two folding tables to spread out the food. The space recalls a one-room schoolhouse. I am pretty sure my meat and gravy are too cold to be enjoyable, so a push my way to the tiny little “kitchen” (a corner with a few shelves) and slide the gravy into the microwave to heat it up some more. A vain effort – for me, at least, because by the time I get to it the gravy can be described most generously as lukewarm.

But the number of people who stop me to tell me what a good job I did! Five, six, maybe more, I don’t know. I wonder if I am moping obviously, and they are trying to cheer me up? But I think they mean it. There is just a bit of meat left, and as I am going to toss it in with the gravy and pack up someone claims it. By all means!

I have sometimes been to potlucks that feel like “white elephant” exchanges, perhaps for reasons only in my head, but this is a good potluck, what church should be like: it feels like a family reunion. People are happy to see me, but it’s not for something–it’s not for the men’s group or the single’s study or the church growth drive. We know each other, a little, and the familiarity is itself the entire purpose. Sharing food blends with sharing hugs.

I am forty minutes from home and roughly half way to Mountain View, where Dan lives, so I text him and ask if we can meet up. It’s always at Starbucks (Peppermint Mocha; it’s the third cup of the day, since I got one in at church as well). Dan offers to pay. Dan is a one-armed man, one of the last surviving cases of polio in the country; his wife works in the school system. I know how much some people hate to feel patronized, but it is hard, too, to let him buy me coffee. Today he hasn’t got his Starbucks card pulled out until I’ve already stepped away to the counter to order, and I pretend not to hear his offer.

I speak frankly with Dan. It is hard talking to him because he keeps trying to cure things that can’t be cured; but I think it is like rehab or therapy, it helps even if it does hurt and even if it doesn’t cure. He says he felt the same way I do, when he was eight years younger than me. But it is hard, too, to tell him I have it worse than he ever did. He spends most of his days bedridden in pain, often cancelling planned meet-ups. And I see the pain come back – at the corners of his mouth, his eyes; almost like a halo, if you will. We have talked for an hour and a half. I let him go home.

I am accelerating aggressively and changing lanes like one of the bros in a BMW. I should get one. Or a motorcycle. But I won’t. Because.

I turn on music, then turn it up loud enough that it will force its way into my mind, like a massage into knotted muscles.

I remember not to get off at the first exit, to keep going to the further end of island because I want to stop in at Target and pick up something I forgot to get last time I was there, a little notebook. There is a homeless guy at the bottom of the exit ramp. I have very strong and very divided feelings about beggars. I feel like charity would be to give them tens of thousands of dollars so they could actually get established, and anything else, what’s the point? Also I wonder about them. A friend of mine showed me a list of like fifty places in the area all serving the homeless. He had them all on a piece of paper. He keeps a stack in his car and hands them out. But occasionally, if I have enough time to argue with myself, I give them money anyway, to be ironic at the least. Here, man, here’s five bucks. Have a Starbucks. Or Peet’s; try their Havana Dulce. Peace, bro.

The notebook is to do this idea where I will write in it, perhaps before bed, something to be grateful for. I will practice focusing on the good things. Like all practices it will take time to make a difference; like exercise, like playing piano, or drawing. Like all practice, you can’t ever really finish, but you can start. And so I do, when I get home; I start.

Now then; should I e-mail Warren the talk I gave in 2013? I think he would like it. Or should I wash all those dishes?


Driving on Icy Roads

Posted on December 8, 2014
Filed Under Mundane | Comments Off on Driving on Icy Roads

On Saturday I had an obligation that could not be rescheduled in a city two hours away under normal travel conditions. Although the roads seemed wet, temperatures hovered around 33 F, threatening to conceal icy patches. I tried to keep my speed moderated as a concession to the unknown, and I was duly rewarded by cars passing me at seemingly every opportunity.

The worst scare I had was coming up on a turn as I imagined how my car would slide off if it were icy. The dread I conjured up made me lightheaded for a moment. It was only a moment, but then I pondered how physically I had reacted to something that hadn’t happened and wasn’t in the process of happening. The ability of the human mind to take its own imaginings seriously is astounding when you think about it.

I had a little inspiration, since last year on “wet” roads I found a patch of ice and lost control of my car, demolishing a mailbox, tearing off my bumper, and coming to rest up to my axles in a snow bank. But notwithstanding the plausibility of losing control of a car on wintry roads, all of the factual feedback in the present moment was normal and secure; the fear of losing control came from no immediate sensory input. Under different inspiration I might have had a deliriously happy thought and lost control of my car in a rhapsody of joy.

In this scenario I would say my conscious thought constructed an idea an passed it back to my unconscious for commentary. The unconscious, being less verbal, responded with a sensation of horror. The conscious, apparently not good at remembering needing a reminder, duly took note: “Ah yes; we don’t like to slide off the road.”

I have seen a shorter version of this same process. Watching my grandfather in his affliction with Alzheimer’s, it was at times evident that he was afflicted with a strong and inarticulate sense that something was wrong. To the best of his diminished analytical capacity he would go about searching for a reason, and usually the answers he found were to some measure absurd. One night it was the little green indicator lights on the electronic equipment that needing to be redressed; somehow. A mind incapable of synthesizing everything it once could knew for certain that something was wrong, and noticed the lights.

I don’t know whether such processes of the mind should be considered altogether dysfunctional. I expect someone could make the case that intuition and learning require this willingness to connect the tangible and the intangible. But I am increasingly convince this is how my mind deals with emotions, often if not always.

First: Something is wrong.

Second: Find out what.

If there is something to this, then I question how helpful it is to advise people not to think negative thoughts, or to inform them that people who generally think positive thoughts live longer. If your subconscious brain is more or less spontaneously producing a sensation of discontent and your rational mind is constantly scurrying around trying to determine what is wrong (if anything actually is), then it stands to reason that over the course of a few decades it would wear the poor scientist out.

A broken mind

Posted on May 13, 2014
Filed Under Elsewhere, Journeyman Chronicles, Mundane | Comments Off on A broken mind

I started living with my grandparents in autumn of 2002 when I began attending the nearby university. When I got there Grandpa was an independent man who could drive us down back country roads that would turn out in some small town where the Methodists were having a $6 supper. During the course of my college education Grandpa developed symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease: unable to use the TV remote. Unable to drive. My brother came to provide around the clock care until, in 2009, Grandpa became unable (or unwilling, really) to live.

Alzheimer’s disease can progress fitfully, seeming to recede as the brain tries to adapt to its own impairment. You can hear from a person suffering from Alzheimer’s what it is like to lose your mind. With time and empathy and attention you might learn as much as my brother did. I provided some weekend relief for my brother in care-taking, and between his observations and my own I am convinced that you can be alive even if your brain doesn’t work. It is, after all, only an organ. You can be alive without an arm or a kidney. You can even be in some sense conscious and aware that your brain is not working.

So how do you give up on your own mind? If you were aware that you were losing your cognitive abilities, how do you reconcile to that truth? How much courage does it take to admit that some of what you “see” and “know” is false? When, in those earlier days when you sometimes are still right–when you are right more often than you are wrong–should you admit that your mind is flawed and you need someone else to think about every important action you could take? Now my mother’s father is also in mental decline, and we talk about what he ought to do. O physician, take your own dose! Would you today give up all your right to make decisions?

I am decades away from my struggle with Alzheimer’s, should it come to me in the way it is most known. But Alzheimer’s is not the only disease that wrecks your brain. Almost anything you do is directed by your brain, so almost anything can be affected by a malady of the brain. But the brain is an ocean, with layers and currents and moods and no real boundaries. Like the geyser of a broken derrick, the presence of pollution in the mind is easier to identify than it is to define. Here there is a problem; there, not; but so much of elsewhere there is a trace of corruption that is only apparent over time.

Grandpa dies of Alzheimer’s, but his father killed himself. The “Purdy temper” is moody with a cynical bent, given to depression and quick to conclude that all is vanity. Maybe that’s treatable, like heartburn, or high blood cholesterol. Maybe one little pill can fix up our warped minds. Maybe it is just Tylenol. Maybe that’s not a bad thing.

You would think that’s a hopeful thought. It’s not. It’s terrifying.

Think of a happy day. Maybe it was a birthday party. Maybe a loved one came home after a long time away. Maybe you graduated, or were accepted into school, or maybe that was the day your wife said yes.

Think of an ordinary day. Last Tuesday, say, unless that was a special day. Think of some just plain ordinary day. I don’t know how you can think of an ordinary day because ordinary days are pretty much forgettable, but if today was an ordinary day just review it in your mind and hold it there.

Now bottle it up. In fact, squeeze it down to a pill.

Take your ordinary day experience – the feelings, the memories, the conversations – and put it into a pill. Would you take that pill?

Put that pill side by side with the happy day that you thought of earlier, in another pill. Put the happy pill right there by the ordinary pill. And now put an unhappy pill next to the other two.

Would you chose your truth? Is the truth even true if it is just something you choose? Which truth would you choose, if you could choose your own truth?

Let’s leave the question of dependency on mind-altering drugs out of it. If you can take a pill and change your perception of reality, is it even real? If you could take a pill when it was literally raining, and the sun would literally come out, is that real?

What if I offered you eye surgery: remove one of your eyes and I’ll replace it with one that can see colors you have never seen before – color no person has ever seen before. Maybe it’s real but maybe it’s a hoax. Would you agree? You’ll tell me that taking a pill isn’t the same as removing an eye, a pill is not a lobotomy. But then again an eye isn’t your brain. An eye is only your lens to the visible world. Your brain is the lens to the entire world. Once you start playing with the dial you can no longer talk about the “natural color,” as it were. Maybe you oversaturated red tones. Maybe you amped up the contrast. Maybe you did dial the colors in “right,” too, but who’s to say? Do even the “normal” people all see colors the same way?

To take a pill for your brain is to call yourself a liar. Not just an occasional liar but a habitual, pathological liar who simply can’t be trusted, but the person you are lying to is yourself.

It’s easy to say what to do if your brain disease is bad enough. If your Alzheimer’s disease is so bad that you actually can’t figure out how to start a car, it’s easy enough to say that someone else should drive you. It might not be a fun thing to say but the necessity is pretty clear. But what if you just missed a turn? Everybody does that. What if you just couldn’t find your way home for a bit? You made it eventually. I have never curled up in the tub screaming silently at the horror of existence. Indeed that is so far beyond my fits of melancholy that I have trouble conceiving of it as more than a fantasy. Surely under that great a strain the non-physical part of your mind just… explodes. Surely reality can’t include visions of nothing more than horror.

How do you know if your mind is broken when you live in a broken world?

Lowering the bar

Posted on November 20, 2013
Filed Under Mundane | Comments Off on Lowering the bar

I was raised in a dry family. My dad was raised Baptist, the kind of Baptist where you don’t drink – or if you do maybe have some liqour tucked away, you don’t talk about it. Neither of my parents themselves were strict teetotalers, but neither care much for the taste of alcohol, and besides it just wouldn’t fit the budget. Once in a great while, due to some unusual circumstance, some beer would turn up at the house, usually sitting neglected for months before Dad would crack open a can and offer the kids a taste. It tasted bad. I’m not sure what ever happened to the rest of the cans.

In college I remained abstemious. I only remember being invited out drinking once, to an establishment I wouldn’t care to visit with or without the alcohol. My first drink was a coke and rum, after work sometime in my second or third year working. I got invited out several times by coworkers, but I suspected them of mainly trying to see how drunk they could get me (a professed goal of at least one of them) and generally declined. In my first five years in the workforce I think I had about 3 drinks.

My teetotaling was mostly a habit. I was against drunkenness on principle, and still am; but I could always recognize at least a theoretical difference between having a drink and getting drunk. But it always seemed like people who wanted to drink also wanted to lose at least a portion of their senses, so the theoretical difference didn’t seem to mean much.

It wasn’t until working for this company on the marketing side of the business that I got into situations where drinking “after” work was really still part of the job–business dinners instead of after work hangouts. Since I wasn’t a teetotaler in princple, I pretty much started out on the theory that one drink of anything was fine. It’s not a bad rule of thumb, although I’ve learned that with my slender build a single beer will get me buzzed even consumed at a moderate pace. But that at least is where I stop; if I can tell I am affected, I don’t have any more.

For a  while I could say I’d never had more than two in a night, but that went out the window on this last buisness trip. I don’t really know what I had–not because I lost my senses, but because it was one of those classy restaurants that won’t let you get to the bottom of a wine glass. The host kept the wine flowing. And ordered shots around, twice. That was probably my maximum lifetime consumption of alcohol, but as we were standing on the curb waiting for the taxi I was not feeling any of the lag that a single beer will do for me on an empty stomach.

The only time I actually wanted to drink myself silly also occurred on this last business trip. I’d got through a long week with lots of driving to a short weekend, starting off Sunday at 7:30 with five hours more driving, partly in metropolitan Phildelphia. Driving takes a kind of mental general alert (or its supposed too, anyway), and after all that driving my brain wanted to crawl into a corner and shut down. I was mighty tempted to order a second sake. But, still having driving obligations ahead of me, I got no further than wishing for it.

The first two years on this job I was only drinking as expected during work-related events. After two years I didn’t know anyone from work in anything other than a work capacity. For some people – for some of my own siblings – this is ideal: the fewer people you know, the less you have to worry about. But I like to know what matters to people, to be a part of what matters to people, and the charade called work usually just scratches the surface.

So this year, not only did I hang out after work, I instigated the hang-out. I sent out time and place notices to people I’d never even met. People showed up, too. People said thanks for putting this together. They said great idea, we should do this more often. Sometimes it didn’t work out, but in the main if you say “let’s get together after work” and it’s understood that alcohol will be available, people show up.

And that struck me as so sad. Why does it have to be about alcohol? Why is the one thing that will bring people together a toxin that makes them forget themselves by degrees, and eventually each other? There has to be a better way, I thought.

Then as I thought through it I realized what an impasse we’ve constructed as a culture. Inviting people into your house is considered intimate, especially if you cook food for them, and / or if you have a family. You can invite people to your house, but it signals that you’ve already decided to be friends with them, and how would you do that if you only know them by name at work? Of course the exception is if you are having a Party, in which case actual Friends can invite their friends, and then you can get to know them and decide if they get their own direct invitation next time. But the single most important element of having a Party is drinking alcohol, because then in any of the awkward uncertain moments everybody knows what to do: drink. Or find a drink. Or talk about the last time you were drinking. If there are a lot of awkward moments just keep drinking until someone loosens up enough that a lively chatter starts up.

In my earlier years I assumed a “lively chatter” was just a euphemism for drunken boisterousness, but that’s not entirely accurate. It is just as fair to say that people would loosen up just as much if they spent an equal amount of time drinking water at the same table. That’s not entirely accurate either, but in reality the necessity of alcohol is greatly exaggerated by both is proponents and its critics. If you can get at least five people together at one table chances are quite high that one of them will initiate a topic of conversation and at least one will respond, and one or two of the others will be quite happy to just listen in. And it doesn’t particularly matter what they are drinking–but everybody thinks that it does.

I’ve been to those parties, too. I’ve been to the teetotaler parties where there wasn’t any booze to be had. People survived. People behaved pretty much like drinking people behave on their first few drinks. Eventually the drinking people will drink enough that their behavior becomes noticeably different, but by that point the sociable people have usually headed for home and the ones that are left are the ones who truly are in it for the drinking, not the hanging out. The first hour of an alcohol-enabled gathering is pretty much like the first hour of a dry gathering, and the first hour is most awkward. After that if you need to keep drinking to avoid feeling awkward you shouldn’t be with those people anyway.

Now I’d rather join a bunch of people for a corn-husking bee, or a barn-raising, or a sheep-shearing, or putting in the hay, or whatever kind of other productive thing you can do to help people. But what is that, today? Among the set of office professionals you can’t just ask the office to help you remodel your kitchen. You can’t invite everyone over to mow your lawn. There is very little you can do that doesn’t seem excessively intimate besides meet somewhere to drink.

It is sad that our sense of community has shriveled to the point where we all leave our houses to meet in some other place and pretend to be busy with our drinks just to be able to sit together for a few hours. But there aren’t very many ways around it, either, at least not without abdicating the culture in general and reinforcing my point. You can always join the Amish and prove me wrong, but you’ll prove me right at the same time also.

There are some exceptions. I should know. After beginning my campaign of after-work sociability I did wind up meeting some people who can invite you over without promising a drink, who I can invite over to my house without promising booze. It’s less expensive and it is more enjoyable.

But even so, it was at some bar that I learned about several colleagues who recently moved, and got help or needed help moving; and I knew them well enough to help with moving, and would be quite happy to help with just such a project, but I never heard about it because those are the kinds of things that get talked about after work, over a drink. Not because it has to be that way, but because that’s the way that everybody thinks it is.

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