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Turgid

I’ve heard certain bodies of water, in particular parts of the Mississippi River, described as having turgid waters, meaning distended and overflowing. The primary definition of turgid is in reference to something that is pompous and overcomplicated, but to me, the word has always had a different connotation, as something that is muddied or unclear, but perhaps I’m thinking of the wrong word.

Using the word turgid in the way to which I have become accustomed, I have to say that since my 10 day trip to Ireland in mid to late June, my world has been somewhat, although not altogether, muddied and unclear. At first after I got back, I simply slept, and jet lag, I’ve discovered, is a very real thing. And since I had six sessions of ECT–Electroconvulsive Therapy, in October of last year, I’ve put on 35 to 40 lbs, and with the body slowing down, so has the mind. I’ve heard that ECT is supposed to reboot the brain, and that it is quite effective, and may indeed prevent future hospitalizations, but I’ve had to get used to things being different in how I function.

With ECT is expected some short term memory loss, and indeed, much of October and November of last year are a haze, but I’ve had some difficulty retrieving older memories as well, and I even developed a bit of a stammer, a kind of stuttering that comes out when I’m overtired, overstressed, nervous, or just overwhelmed. They just don’t tell you these things when you sign on to have an electrical current passed through your brain, that after you’ve had six carefully controlled induced seizures there might be serious side effects in how you think and process information. I do, however, remember them bringing me upstairs just as soon as the anesthesia had worn off, and having them get me to practice writing my name. For someone who hopes to be a published author someday, this activity has stuck out in my brain as being especially relevant.

The good news is that I’m once again hopeful about my future, hopeful that with effort and determination, I can achieve my goals, graduate from Northwestern with an MFA in creative writing, and indeed finish and publish a novel. At that time I had lost that faith in my abilities and had become overwhelmed by trying to care for my older, handicapped cousin who is wheelchair bound and morbidly obese, unable to take care of those activities of daily living that you and I take for granted. The phrase, “Physician, heal thyself,” has seemed especially pertinent, and I’ve realized that if I don’t manage my own health and well being, I won’t be able to be there for someone else. Fueling the fog of my thought process was my feeling that I just couldn’t cope with the responsibilities of being able to care for my cousin who had become reliant on my for her well being.

I’ve slowly crawled out of the turgid waters of my brain, and resumed my place among students, hoping that I can regain my abilities to think my way through a plot, even if it’s only to plot my own trajectory through life.

The Asian Equation

I went to play tennis yesterday, and the guy I was playing with managed to make fun of both me and Asian-American culture at the same time. As I mentioned in my last blog, I’ve gotten a bit out of shape, more out of shape than I’m comfortable with, so in between games, I was running lines. For those not familiar with the exercise, what’s involved is that the player starts off on the far side of the court touching the outside line, runs, bends over and touches the next line, and runs the distance of the whole court that way. Since two courts were available, I ran two sets of lines at a tennis club called Tanglewood while an Asian family played tennis on some other other courts that were closer to the swimming pool. The kid playing was good. His serve was especially good. He served with deadly accuracy.

“Whatta happen? Why you try so hard?” My friend mock joked, teasing me being winded, out of shape, and for trying to be extra diligent about getting back in shape.

There are many cultural stereotypes out there, and one of the most persistent is that Asian-Americans simply work harder than the rest of us, that they’re more dedicated, better pianists, better students, harder workers. Why should this be a problem?

I think this becomes a problem because there’s a subtle pressure in our culture not to stick out, a pressure to blend in, and fit in, even if that means being average in each and every way. There are repercussions for more than just Asians. It means that others among us, including the dominant Caucasian culture, are taught that it’s not okay to be a high achiever, and to me, that’s not okay.

In the meantime, we need to be just a little more careful with what we carelessly say.

Weighing Me Down

Over the course of the last five months or so, I’ve somehow put on 25 to 30 lbs, and trust me, not all of it has been muscle, so it begs the question, what exactly is going on? I’m convinced that stress, both good stress and bad stress, can pack on the pounds.

Of course I’m responsible for what I eat, and probably having that pint of ice cream late at night isn’t helping, but one pint doesn’t translate into thirty lbs, and, as my friends know, I’m a pretty active guy. I workout at the gym a minimum of two times a week, and I walk my two dogs at least one to two miles each and every day. Basically, I try to lead a really active lifestyle, but I think, if I’m being honest, that having gone through a major depression this past year really set me back. It’s almost as though my body is reacting six months after the fact. I’m no longer depressed, and in fact feel pretty darn great, but having struggled mightily in October, November and December, my body simply said, enough is enough, you’re shutting down. You’ve been severely depressed, and now your body is going to reflect that fact back to the world.

I’m listening to Nina Simone singing the song, “Feeling Good,” right now, and she cries out, “Birds flying high, you know how I feel. Sun in the sky, you know how I feel. Breeze drifting on by, you know how I feel. It’s a new dawn. It’s a new day. It’s a new life for me, yeah, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, and I’m feeling good.”

Making matters worse in here in Chicago is that we’ve had one of our worse winters on record. So many grey, gloomy days, so many snowstorms, so many bitter cold afternoons and evenings that even turning on the TV felt like a chore. The good news is that we have a beautiful spring and summer on deck with lovely summer weather, and the opportunity for lots of outdoor activities.

The frustration is this weight problem didn’t happen overnight, and can’t be solved overnight. Like they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, it’s a Day at a Time program, and I get the opportunity to make better choices a day at a time. The key, however, is, to the best of my ability, to be happy where I’m at, because, after all, that’s is where I’m at.

Boozy But Beautiful

Veronica Lake made a splash in Hollywood in her breakthrough role in the 1941 war drama “I Wanted Wings.” During filming, her trademark blonde hair slipped over her eyes, creating her signature peekaboo look.

She struggled mightily with stardom, however, and fame was a fickle friend. Alcoholism and mental illness dogged her career and marred her legacy, and she faded into ignominy later in life.

I worked at E! Entertainment television between 1997 and 1999 on a little known show called Mysteries and Scandals, and we used to do profiles of all the old Hollywood legends, covering, of course, all the greats, such as James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Spencer Tracy and Lana Turner, but we also focused on lesser known figures like dancer Isadora Duncan, comedian Fatty Arbuckle, actor John Barrymore and, naturally, Veronica Lake.

Veronica Lake made several films with the five-foot five stature-challenged actor Alan Ladd, including the memorable “This Gun For Hire,” and the lessor known film noir classic, “The Blue Dahlia.” Ladd was known for his height, or lack thereof, and Lake was known for her hair and smoldering eyes. She later became a pin-up girl for soldiers during WWII and sold more than her fair share of war bonds.

Unfortunately, alcoholism, and later, mental illness, took its toll. The two in combination proved deadly, and she died of hepatitis and acute kidney injury at age 50. In reality, Lake ran through her money, and was forced to stay in a series of low rent motels, barely able to pay her bills or put food on the table. When fans tried to send her money, though, she turned down their offers of assistance, insisting that she was still able to make ends meet, and that she was doing just fine on her own, thank you very much.

In our Mysteries and Scandals TV feature at E! Entertainment television, we hinted through a bizarre interview clip that Veronica Lake may have had a lobotomy, but this idea was never substantiated, and in fact, her behavior, strange though it was, could probably have been chalked up to tipping back one too many drinks, one too many days in a row.

I’m reminded of the Marlon Brando quote from the film, “On the Waterfront,” where he shouts out, “I coulda been a contender.” Veronica Lake coulda been a big star, but her career careened off-course, and she never really dealt with the personal demons that haunted her.

Broken Dreams

I don’t read much poetry. I find it an art form somewhat inaccessible to our modern age, discordant to our modern ear, and yet of late I have been much drawn to the work of Irish poet and Nobel Laureate William Butler Yeats who lived between 1865 and 1939.

A pillar of the Irish literary establishment, Yeats wrote traditional verse poems about Irish fairy tales, Irish legends and folklore and was much interested in such taboo topics as the occult, but who nevertheless simultaneously concerned himself with politics, serving as a senator for the Irish Free State. He’s not only one of the greatest Irish writers ever to have lived, he may indeed be one of the very greatest poets ever to walk the earth as well.

I was fascinated, in particular, by one of his poems, “Broken Dreams.”

It starts:

“There is grey in your hair.
Young men no longer suddenly catch their breath
When you are passing;
But maybe some old gaffer mutters a blessing
Because it was your prayer
Recovered him upon the bed of death.”

. . .

“Your beauty can but leave among us
Vague memories, nothing but memories.
A young man when the old men are done talking
Will say to an old man, ‘Tell me of that lady
The poet stubborn with his passion sang us
When age might well have chilled his blood.’

“Vague memories, nothing but memories,
But in the grave all, all, shall be renewed.

“The certainty that I shall see that lady
Leaning or standing or walking
In the first loveliness of womanhood,
And with the fervour of my youthful eyes,
Has set me muttering like a fool.

“You are more beautiful than any one,
And yet your body had a flaw:
Your small hands were not beautiful,
And I am afraid that you will run
And paddle to the wrist
In that mysterious, always brimming lake
Where those that have obeyed the holy law
Paddle and are perfect. Leave unchanged
The hands that I have kissed,
For old sake’s sake.

“The last stroke of midnight dies.
All day in the one chair
From dream to dream and rhyme to rhyme I have ranged
In rambling talk with an image of air:
Vague memories, nothing but memories.”

The line that repeats, the line that recurs is that memories are vague, that all we have to hold on to is nothing but mere memories. It is the work of the poet to conjure these insubstantial images and spirits and memories to live on in the minds of others as the read the poem in later years.

W. B. Yeats had a lifelong love affair with Maud Gonne who started out more political than Yeats, and in fact, later in life, married Irish republican John MacBride who was executed for his participation in the 1916 Easter Uprising. Yeats steadfastly maintained his love for Gonne, proposing to her four times before their marriages to other people, and he made her the focus of several poems, including, in fact, the beautifully constructed “Broken Dreams.”

I really liked the image that men might no longer catch their breath at the sight of you, yet something lives on, even if it is so insubstantial and vague as a memory.

An Abundance of Riches

I’m sure you’ve heard the term, “When it rains it pours,” but you may not be familiar with the lesser known declaration, “I have an abundance of riches.”

I suppose calling out, “When it rains it pours,” could be used to positive or negative effect. You could complain about how life heaps challenge upon challenge upon you, overloading you, weighing you down, or you could, I suppose, look on the bright side of things, and say that good things come in twos and threes and then, “when it rains, it pours.”

On the other hand, declaring that you have an abundance of riches can hardly be misinterpreted. In my case, after a long dry spell, a veritable 12 year desert drought, I’ve had an abundance of people expressing an interest in dating me lately. I’m inordinately busy, however, and not especially free to commit myself to one special person so I’m learning, in early middle age, to take it slow. What can I say? I’m a slow learner. . .

I’ve recently developed a crush on a guy I’ll call Kevin. We’ve met “accidentally on purpose” several times at a local coffeehouse and are slowly getting to know each other, and I’m enjoying the romancing going on, but I have to admit, there’s an something I can’t quite put my finger on. I think he might be somewhat emotionally unavailable. I don’t have too much experience dating bisexual men, but I do believe he has a child from a previous relationship (This is as yet unconfirmed. He kinda muttered something about having a child). It’s not a complete deal-breaker, but at the same time, it doesn’t bode well for developing a serious, committed relationship. One thing I’ve learned is that I’m marriage material, and I’m not going to have a fling just for the sake of having a fling with a handsome man. And he is a handsome man.

Now the difficulty is that there are two or three other people on the horizon expressing an interest, tentative though that interest may be. Juggling has never really been my forte, and I have school and a trip abroad to Ireland planned over the next month so my motto, at least for the time being, is: “Slow and steady wins the race.”

Meanwhile, consider me a rich man.

Once A Jew

One of the ways my Bipolar illness manifests itself is in religious ideation. Before I started at Northwestern, in what you might term a previous incarnation, I got a master’s degree in Social Service Administration from the University of Chicago, and I distinctly remember one time walking in, on an emergency basis, to the student health center at U of C, and asking the Jewish psychiatrist whether she was my mother. Her response? “I think we might need to go to the hospital.”

I couldn’t articulate or explain at the time that I believed I had been Jewish in a former lifetime, that I may have been exterminated in the Holocaust, and that some of my mental problems might stem from previous life traumas.

For those who have been following my blog for a while, I’m clearly identified as an Irish Catholic, an identity that’s as much an ethnicity as a religious affiliation, but I must confess, there’s something about Judaism that draws me in, beckons me, compels me to pay attention to that which is at the root of all our modern society. Plus, as a gay man, I understand what it’s like to be marginalized, and Jews have certainly been marginalized over the course of their long and storied history.

During my very first Fiction Workshop class taught at Northwestern, an instructor named Goldie let me know that even some Orthodox Jews subscribe to the belief system of reincarnation, that reincarnation is not completely at odds with the idea of waiting for the Messiah. Just writing the word reincarnation makes me wonder what is meant by the term? How can a person reincarnate himself over the course of his own lifetime, or does he have to wait for successive lifetimes to correct the mistakes he has made this time around?

I know I suffer greatly from Jewish guilt, guilt that I haven’t been kind enough, generous enough, smart enough, hard working enough, a good enough son, a good enough dad to my two dogs, an Akita and Beagle. There’s a saying that the Catholics have confession, and the Jews have psychoanalysis–I guess I’m the lucky one, I have both.

Gentle James

You simply haven’t lived, dearest, until a straight man has cried for you. I went out with my friend James the other night, and told him about the six times I had ECT–Electroconvulsive Therapy–in late October and early November, and his eyes welled up, but he managed to contain himself, if only for my sake. How often do we do that? Keep ourselves together for the sake of another?

James reminded me of days gone by, and had to tell me his story again, because I’d forgotten the details of his life. Some would call it the detritus of one’s world. I choose to look at it otherwise. Indeed, we do imbue our actions with meaning, but in my mind, there is meaning that goes beyond the mere action. I hold with Soren Kierkegaard, the existentialist philosopher who also happened to believe in God, quite the mind fuck, maybe mind cluster is the more correct term.

But I digress. . .

James reminded me that he himself had had seizures as a child and takes anti-seizure medication. Personal disclosure between writerly friends is always valuable because it is what makes us unique that makes us valuable, yes, but it is also what makes us fully human.

He was a vain petty man but he liked to think himself magnanimous.

The Sting of Stigma

Coming out of the closet as a gay man is one thing. Coming out as someone living with Bipolar Disorder is a whole other ballgame. I like to view myself as an invisible minority because most of the time my mental illness is not obvious, at least as far as I can tell. I go to grad school, getting an MFA in creative writing. I help take care of my cousin who is handicapped, and I have a pretty good life with two companion animals, an Akita and Beagle.

Recently, I started dating, and in an effort to be honest, I shared with him my struggles with Manic-Depression. I’ve had long periods of remission where I functioned without any hospitalizations, but in mid-October, and through November, I had a breakdown and my psychiatrist and I together made a decision to try ECT–ElectroConvulsive Therapy, in an effort to stave off future hospitalizations. For those not familiar with the lingo, ECT basically induces a seizure in your brain, and I had this done a total of six times. According to online websites talking about the procedure, it in effect “reboots” your brain, and is quite effective in arresting symptoms.

The guy I had started dating in late January/early February met me two or so months after I had gotten back to a normal routine, but the possibility of my having another breakdown at some point in the future scared him. Just admitting I live with Bipolar Disorder proved too much for him to handle, and though I appreciated his honesty in letting me know that this issue was bothersome, it took me by surprise that this would be a deal breaker. I don’t see myself as a “crazy” person. I live a more or less normal life, punctuated, however, by a need to take Lythium, Risperdal, Cymbalta, and Clozaril.

I need to make sure I get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and challenge myself intellectually so as not to wallow in depression. Going to Northwestern is a lifesaver because it provides focus and drive to my ambitions to be a published author someday, and it gives me much needed structure.

Having said all that, I must confess that being rejected for having Bipolar Disorder stung, almost more than if I had been rejected for having HIV (which I don’t). My mental illness is just one small part of who I am, but it wouldn’t have hurt any more if I he had told me that he doesn’t date black men, or Asians or Jewish guys. I feel, perhaps incorrectly, discriminated against for something beyond my control, and I feel the sting of prejudice.

I like to consider, like Kay Redfield Jamison in “Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament,” that my mental illness fuels my creativity. It is something I can marshall and summon to work for me, not against me. There remains, however, the possibility that it might sometime betray me, but on the whole, most often, I am glad to be who I am, glad for the gifts God has given me, and glad for the chance to leave the world a better place for my having been in it.

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