Do Unto Others…

WinstonThe Golden Rule.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

It’s one of the first pieces of ancient wisdom we’re taught as children. Every religion and nationality has some variation of it in their lexicons. Humans seldom agree on anything, but this always seemed to me to be the singular point we could universally acknowledge.

Now I’m not so sure.

It’s an idea that’s been sitting in the back of my mind for a long time now. A philosophical and ideological itch I haven’t been able to scratch for most of my life.

The question of whether or not I am actually a good man.

My ready answer is to say that’s not for me to decide.

If pressed, I would say I’d like to think I am, despite my many flaws and failings. I don’t always make the right choice. I have both my inherent and learned biases and prejudices just like any other person is likely to possess.

I have made my share of terrible mistakes. I have done things that hurt people I’ve loved dearly, and yes, I also have an unspeakable and potentially unpardonable act hanging over my head like the Sword of Damocles.

That’s a lot to tip the scales against anyone being considered good, which in our 21st Century vernacular falls into one of those words like nice, just and very as terms we absolutely must abandon at all costs due to their implied passivity.

What’s kept me from accepting outright that I’m not a good man over all these years, though, is that I’ve somehow remained a believer in the Golden Rule.

I don’t believe in God, the Bible, The Church, the Single-Bullet Theory or even Bigfoot anymore, but I always believed in the transcendental power of simply treating others as I wanted to be treated.

Granted, like most things, it’s great in theory and much more difficult in reality. I freely admit I’ve failed at it more times than I can count. Sometimes I started out with the best intentions and it still ended up going horribly wrong.

I suppose there’s merit in making the effort and perhaps in the end, that accounts for something.

Over the years, I’ve been called out for why I even bother. After all, what’s the point in showing respect to someone who doesn’t respect you? Why show mercy to someone who is only interested in hurting you?

Why show love to someone who doesn’t love you back?

All it does is set you up to be taken advantage of, they say, because at their core, people are just selfish, rude and mean.

That they are. I can’t and won’t dispute that. I’ve been taken advantage of, used and betrayed more than enough times by some of the people I’ve cared about most in this life to know that reality all too well.

I guess what it comes down to is the simple fact that I don’t want that to change me. I still believe in the idea, no matter how delusional it might seem considering what I’ve gone through or what the world is like nowadays, that there is value in the simple notion of being a decent human being.

That I can be kind to someone if I choose. I can be respectful or honorable if I choose, and yes, I can show honest and heartfelt love to someone, even if they don’t now and never will feel the same way, because it is how I want to be treated and damn the fucking consequences.

I can accept them in exchange for being the person I want to be. I suppose that doesn’t make me a sane man…

…but I’d like to think it’s enough to make me a good one.

Session Two: Pudding Brain

Vanilla Bean Tapioca Pudding (2)This illustrates about how well my mind is functioning at the moment.

Before you ask, and ask you might, this is the result of five straight hours of neuro-cognitive exams followed by an hour-long drive back to my side of nowhere and another two hours in the office.

Besides, you should see the other guy.

After yesterday’s stage-2 mental meltdown, and a much-appreciated late-night talk, I managed to roll out of bed and make it over to Wenatchee by 9 a.m. for what turned out to be a fairly thorough set of mental olympics.

Editorial Note: I’ve only been to Wenatchee twice now, but a more picturesque locale you’d be hard pressed to find as it basically sits in a bowl between a mountain range and high desert bluffs with a river through the middle of it. It’s definitely on my list of return trips for me and my camera before the season is over.

It started with some general Q&A and then I was put through the paces of about a dozen memory, logic, comprehension and knowledge tests. Everything from recognizing patterns to constructing complex shapes, remembering combinations of words and letters, processing letters and numbers in different sequences and so on.

By the time I was finished with that, my brain felt like it had run a marathon, which I was told was quite normal. In fact, the doctor admitted he would’ve been much more concerned had I not felt so wiped out.

The festivities were capped off with the old Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 (MMPI-2, for short.) 567 true/false questions and a #2 pencil.

I should get the results in the next few days and hopefully I’ll have a baseline of what is going on with me firmly established so I can proceed in the right direction.

I may not like all the answers any more than you do, but at least I will finally have those answers. It sure is a hell of a lot better feeling than all the time I spent wanting to know and not getting anywhere.

Now if you’ll pardon me, I think I’m going to take the doc’s advice and grab a nap.

Two down. More to go.

Backlash

Backlash IToday just wasn’t a good day for me.

I went to bed last night feeling very uneasy about something, hoping it would be gone when I woke up.

It took me a little while to figure out that it both had and hadn’t.

Work was work, but by the middle of my shift all that unease had managed to call in the reinforcements and ever since, I have been a simmering pot of hostility, frustration, loneliness, homesickness and mild paranoia, just itching to amp up to a full boil.

By the time I was able to go home for the night, I locked down my Facebook account, turned off my phone, downshifted into full isolation mode and am fighting the urge to crawl into bed and wait for the world around me to stop saying that no one cares and to just go away.

Damn, I hate feeling like this. You’d think after all these years, I’d be used to it, and that’s what I tell people so they won’t have reason to worry or offer a measure of concern.

But I’m not and when I say that I am, it’s a bold-faced lie.

You never get used to your mind actively revolting against you.

I could really go for a hug right about now. I miss hugs.

 

Session One: Root Problems

I sat down for my first work session with my therapist this morning and I wasn’t entirely sure how it was going to go a few minutes in.

I’ve always had the perception that psychiatrists and therapists tend to already have an idea of what they need to ask before you walk into a session, a la the Freudian cliche’ of, “Now, have a seat and tell me zumtsing aboutz your mother.”

So when I’m suddenly asked what I want to talk about for the ensuing hour, it took all of two seconds to realize that the part of my brain which dictates and organizes potential topics of conversation rather inconveniently locked itself in the john.

What the hell do I talk about? Do I start small or just jump right into the deep end?
What does she want me to say that will make any logical sense or establis the baseline that I’ve at least got the faculties necessary to not be classified as a full-on looney-gooney?!

Not even a minute has gone by and I’m already self-assessing as a hopeless cause. Yeah…that’s how I wanted this process to start, for suuuure.

After what seemed like a brief eternity, I finally snapped back into reality and threw out the fact that I’d gotten out of town last week. I recounted my trip to Portland, seeing my son and some friends, indulging in some photography and just trying to relax for a bit.

That diverted the conversation onto photography and if I qualify it as one of my passions, which I do. After showing Charlene one or two images I’ve taken, she said she was genuinely impressed and that I should consider selling them.

I clammed up at the thought.

She changed subjects and asked had I done anything else this weekend. I really hadn’t. After all the hustle and bustle of the trip and then coming back to work, I was a bit low on energy and ended up sitting on my butt either watching TV or playing games.

…at least I had been playing a game right up to the moment where I got so frustrated I went full John Wick on my PS2 controller.

Editorial Note: In the interest of full-disclosure, if there were a punishable offense for Crimes Against Recreational Technology, I would’ve passed the three-strikes maximum before I was 14. I’m pretty sure the total cost accrued by my destroying game controllers would’ve put me through college without a loan.

Charlene was understandably concerned about that and our conversation segued into my evident lack of what I see as productivity. I had the whole weekend to finally get back to work on my book, I told her. Instead, I sat around and continued not to touch it.

“Why not?” she asked.

“Because I can’t get myself past the conclusion that it’s not good enough.” I replied.

We went around a bit on the rationale that anything creative is indeed a process and that I understand no writer has ever churned out a publishable manuscript in a first draft. But whereas most writers see opportunity, I instead see complete and total failure, because to me…it’s just not good enough.

At that point, a little over halfway through my first session, we came to what she sees as one of my root problems.

“It’s not the story or the pictures that aren’t necessarily good enough. You’ve become convinced that you as the person who creates them, and as a person overall based on your other experiences, isn’t good enough.”

I tried to divert and deflect the idea, but at the end of the day, it’s true.

I don’t think I’m good enough. I don’t just think it. I know it, because I’ve had decades of external and internal reinforcement telling me as much.

Nothing I do is good enough. Nothing about me is good enough. Not for people. Not for things I love to do. Nothing.

By the time I left, I’d been given some homework and Charlene said the plan for our next meeting is to give me tools to start dealing with this.

“It’s not going to be easy,” she said. “One of the things we’ve learned about the brain which is truly amazing, is it’s plasticity. People can go through very traumatic things which have a very negative impact on the brain, but it can heal. It’s not going to be easy, but if you’re willing to put in the work, it will happen.”

One down. More to go.

Man on Fire

nAwgmIbThis post is likely not going to win me any new friends, and it might cost me some that I already have, but I have to get it off my chest all the same.

For the past few months, I’ve been getting friend requests on Facebook from people I haven’t seen in years and if I’m honest, I have no interest in seeing or talking to again in my life.

While I was back in Portland, I spent an afternoon with an old friend from high school who was in town to attend our reunion a couple of days prior. While we sat down at lunch, our conversation inevitably covered the festivities and specific events of note.

“There was a guy who came to the reunion for the sole purpose of looking the people who teased and bullied him in the eye and telling them what it did to him,” she said. “I thought that was so awesome because it had to be an incredibly cathartic process.”

I agreed that it probably was, but what I didn’t say was how jealous I was of that particular individual because he found the strength of character to do the very thing I’d have done had I convinced myself to go.

If there is one thing about me that has infuriated the people in my life, from my best and dearest friends to my most distant acquaintance for years, it is my merciless dependency on my anger and my obstinate refusal to let it go.

To be clear, I see both sides of the argument. I’ve seen them for a long time. After twenty years, there’s no practical or logical reason to cling to all the hostility I felt towards the people who went out of their way to bully, degrade, ignore, marginalize or otherwise reject me.

I can’t change their actions. There’s nothing I can do about it now, so what is the value in keeping a white-knuckle grip on all the visceral rage I still feel for my detractors?

Editorial Note: I’ve also had people in the intervening years try to compare their experiences to mine, saying theirs were worse than mine or that mine somehow weren’t as bad as I recall them to be. I acknowledge that they see it that way, but I also find such things rather condescending, and more often than not, it only stokes the fire I carry around all the time.

Conversely, the reason I’ve held onto it can be boiled down to a singular declarative statement.

That anger kept me alive through those years and continues to do so now.

As undeniably toxic and corrosive as it is, make no mistake, had I not both embraced and learned how to harness it as means of both motivation and self-preservation, I would not be sitting here today writing this.

If anything, I would’ve likely committed suicide before I even turned 13 had it not been for this suit of armor of pure anger I encased myself in. And even with it, there were many a time when I wanted to quit trying, quit getting up after I got slammed down by some asshole who got their jollies off by causing me some form of physical or emotional pain.

In those moments when I sat in the dark of my room, bawling my eyes out because I didn’t understand why I couldn’t go through a single day without just being left alone, a sharpened blade resting on my skin waiting for me to act, the only thing that stopped me was the anger.

If you do this, they win,” it would echo in my head. “They’ll have finally beaten you, and I refuse to let that happen. Those motherfuckers will not beat us!

And I would drop the blade and continue to cry because I needed to let the pain out somehow, but by the next morning, I’d walk back into school and show everyone that it would take more than that to break me.

In my naivete, I guess I’d hoped once I was out of school and into adulthood, the course my life hopefully went on would provide the means by which I could eventually replace the anger with an equal measure of happiness and contentment.

But that didn’t happen, either.

A human being cannot survive the environment of prison without the strength that anger provides. You cannot beat the blatantly rigged system waiting for you when you are let out without the anger pushing you, driving you to prove that you can beat it in spite of that.

You don’t get through a divorce without leaning on the anger to withstand getting your heart thoroughly crushed. Twice.

If I hadn’t, then it’s another case where I wouldn’t be here now.

The symbiotic dynamic I have with it has sustained me for close to 30 years now. From my perspective, I cannot be separated from my anger and everything connected to it, no matter how long ago it may have happened.

I can’t live without it.

Every time I think I’ve reached a point where maybe I can start the process, something happens to remind me of why that isn’t possible.

Which is why one of the first things I told my therapist at our first meeting was that I needed her help in figuring out how to do precisely that. As I am constituted right now, I lack the tools to make that separation happen.

The result of that is at present, I’m not able to disassociate the people who antagonized me as a child from who they are now. They may be fine, upstanding and productive members of society as adults, but all I have to do is see their names and then wait for the tsunami of very unpleasant memories to come rolling on in.

I’m sure that will earn me a moniker of a bad person in some circles and I may totally deserve it, but like it or not, it is what it is.

If this process proceeds as I genuinely hope it does, then there will be a point where that separation will take place. I don’t expect it will be easy or painless, but to her credit, Charlene recognized it almost immediately and understands that I want to be rid of it.

Maybe then I can sit down with those people and reach some sort of equilibrium. I guess we’ll see how it goes.

Songs in the Key of Me

Pink Floyd“Breathe. Breathe in the air.
Don’t be afraid to care.
Leave, but don’t leave me.
Look around. Choose your own ground.
Long you’ll live and high you’ll fly,
and smiles you’ll give and tears you’ll cry,
and all you touch and all you see,
is all your life will ever be.”
-Pink Floyd, Breathe

I, like a great many people on this spinning ball of rock, have been fascinated by music since the first time I heard it as a child. As we evolve, we naturally gravitate to the music which provides us with both a sense of self-identity and understanding which cannot be found in really any other artistic medium that I know of.

For all the books I’ve read and the movies I’ve watched, there aren’t any that immediately spring to mind as a direct illustration of how I perceive things or my particular emotional construction.

I do, however, have over 600 songs on my iPod playlist and each one of them illicits a tangible, and sometimes visceral, reaction whenever I put them on, and they run the full emotional spectrum. It all depends on the mood I am in on a given day and I find that if humanity has a truly great evolutionary accomplishment, it’s the innate ability to blend notes and chords with lyric and harmonies to create incredibly moving soundscapes.

Case in point: the lyric I opened this with.

I was barely twelve years-old the first time I put a tape copy of The Dark Side of the Moon into my stereo and hit play. Until that moment, I had no idea who Pink Floyd was other than an old neighbor of mine had a vinyl copy of The Wall on his bedroom shelf back in my hometown, which seemed a lifetime ago at that point.

When I was in college, a friend of mine at the time said she didn’t understand how anyone could like their music as to her, “It didn’t make sense.”

It’s a fair observation to make, as it is definitely not music for everybody. My response is that in order to really get it, you had to know what it was like to feel more than a little crazy. To the best of my knowledge, she didn’t have that sort of context, but even as a tweener, I did.

As soon as I heard that lyric for the first time, it instantly clicked. I got it, or I suppose in another way of looking at it, it got me.

And it’s not like Roger Waters was trying to be obtuse or sophisticated with what he was saying, either. In an interview he gave a few years ago, he admitted he was rather surprised that he’d somehow gotten away with it, because it feels what he called so lower-sixth in its implied simplicity.

Simplistic or not, what resonated with me was the level of unabashed truth I found in those eight lines, and especially the last two. Waters summed up the whole of our existence, like it or not, in just fifteen words. For a kid who was in the middle of the great existential dilemma of trying to discover on his own terms what life was indeed about, it didn’t get more plain and uncomplicated than that.

Mind. Go Ka-boom.

Twenty-five years later, I can still put Dark Side on and get that familiar feeling of someone else speaking my language in a way that I probably never could’ve articulated. That is such a rare thing to find in life. It truly is. If you can find it once, you’re very fortunate. You find it twice and that’s a gift.

Which brings me to these guys. Rush

I actually stumbled upon Rush before finding Pink Floyd. My brother somehow managed to get a copy of one of their best albums, Moving Pictures, and like most kids in the early 80’s, my introduction was the song, Tom Sawyer.

I admit that as a 10 year-old, I didn’t get the song that much. I didn’t understand how Geddy Lee could sing the way he did and I had no idea that I was listening to one of the greatest drummers of all time in Neil Peart.

It just sounded cool. It sounded unlike anything I’d heard to that point in my life and that’s what made the band intriguing.

But it wasn’t until I had graduated high school that I rediscovered them after picking up their greatest hits compilation. At the time, I was functionally homeless, emotionally withdrawn, very disenchanted with the world around me and looking for anything which could give my life a sense of both direction and purpose.

I put the CD in my temperamental walkman, as this was pre-iPod days, mind you, and just listened as I sat on the bus going to my crappy retail job at the local mall, when the song Subdivisions kicked in and I heard the following lyric:

“Growing up, it all seems so one-sided.
Opinions are divided, the future pre-decided,
detached and subdivided in the mass production zone.
Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone.”

For the second time, my mind went absolute ka-boom.

To this day, I don’t know why Neil’s lyrics strike such a profoundly emotional chord with me, but they do even more so than Roger’s much of the time. There is a level of empathy and emotional exploration in his writing which I simply haven’t found anywhere else.

After my great implosion in 2011, I got a chance to see Rush in concert for the first time two years later. They were performing their new album at the time, one I hadn’t heard as of yet and about halfway through the show, they cranked up one of the songs off it called, The Anarchist.

Given how I was feeling at the time, the chorus hit me like a train.

“The lenses inside of me that paint the world black.
The pools of poison, the scarlet mist, that spill over into rage.
The things I’ve always been denied.
An early promise that somehow died.
A missing part of me that grows around me like a cage.
A missing part of me that grows around me like a cage.”

If someone were to ask me what it’s like to live with depression, emotional trauma, anger, guilt and regret, I would simply hand them these six lines and tell them to read it until it made sense.

Once again, I got the music and the music got me.

I totally get that not everyone likes Rush or Pink Floyd. Truth be told, I know being a hater of both bands is kind of the thing to do nowadays. My brother Patrick wasn’t fond of Rush for a long time, thanks in no small part to my insistent playing of it at almost all hours of the day when we were younger.

I understand. It’s not music for everyone, nor do I expect it to be. Like anything else, musical tastes evolve as you do. The fact that there is so much to choose from is what makes music as a construct such an amazing thing to me because there is something for everyone.

…even Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber, if that’s your fancy. I honestly cannot imagine why, but who am I to judge?

When I was in Portland earlier this week, Patrick, my other brother Matt and I got to see Rush again and as usual, they put on a hell of a show, playing tracks from their entire catalog spanning the past 40 years.

Some of the songs even I hadn’t heard in about a decade or so, but true to form, one of them clicked for me in a way it hadn’t before. The song was Distant Early Warning and the chorus is as follows:

“The world weighs on my shoulders,
but what am I to do?
You sometimes drive me crazy,
but I worry about you.
I know it makes no difference,
to what you’re going through.
But I see the tip of the iceberg,
and I worry about you.”

It doesn’t take a psychic to understand what Neil’s trying to convey here. With where I’m at in my life now, I can relate to it on a level previously unavailable, which again demonstrates for me the incredible power that music has.

Whatever the reason, I just get it and it gets me, and I am profoundly grateful for that.

 

Empathy by Association

Robin II had a lengthy conversation this morning with someone I don’t know and never met, because she needed to talk so somebody, but couldn’t reach out to the usual channels in her life.

When I was back in Portland, I had a couple of people ask me to be a sounding board for them while they tried to process their particular tribulations. We ended up talking for upwards of a few hours each as I offered whatever feedback I could.

I don’t mind doing it, nor do I take the responsibility which comes with it for granted. If anything, being a person that others turn to for some form of counsel has always seemed to be the role I was best suited for.

Empathy is not an inherent trait. My mother and brother possess the empathic equivalent of a pair of bricks who’ve never been able to see eye-to-eye with me on just about anything.

If there is a trick to developing it to the point where you can relate to other people, I suppose it comes through the unfortunate privilege of going through a whole lot of emotionally taxing crap.

When you’ve been through the wringer on multiple occasions, it becomes practically reflexive to hone in on the right thing to say or do to make someone feel better. If nothing else, I can take a measure of accomplishment in knowing I helped either a perfect stranger or someone I deeply care about find peace of mind.

It’s not all fun though. Many times have I wished I was a lot more naive to how terrible people can be to each other or how it feels to totally come apart inside your own head.

But I’m not. I’ve got a lifetime of memories and experiences that make it all too clear for me, and the last thing I want is to see someone else being brought down to that level.

In those moments, the only thing that helps is someone who can extend a hand to help pick them back up and another to pat them on the back and tell them they’re okay.

If that someone needs to be me, then that’s a role I am both willing and able to play.

Stumptown

So between two marathon 300-mile trips there and back again, I got to spend some time in Portland again.

In five days, I got to hang out with both my son and a cat who reveled in waking me up in new and outlandish ways and spent time with my brothers enjoying one of the bands who has always resonated with me on both a musical and profoundly emotional level.

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I got to enjoy not going to my high school reunion, then spending the next day on the campus of my alma mater with 300 gorgeous automobiles.

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I also had an unbelievably embarrassing situation develop while at the show, but that’s another story for another day.

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I remembered why Portland drivers have gotten the reputation for ineptitude which they’ve so overwhelmingly earned, but also how much I miss the sight of both a city skyline and trees.

Portland 2015

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I met up with old friends and new friends, replenished my supply of zen and tried my damnedest to just relax for a change.

All in all, the trip was needed and well worth it.

Until our next meeting, Portland.

 

A Non-Conundrum Conundrum

So this might be the easiest pop quiz I could ever take.

I was faced with two option tonight:

Either I could go to my high school reunion and spend all night in the enchanted bliss that is a Stage 5 Anxiety/Panic Attack with people I haven’t associated with in this century…

…or I could come back to my temporary lodgings, kick back on the porch with a bottle of water (and perhaps a beer later), and take in the summer evening in the middle of Stumptown without another real care in the world while updating this blog and having a book to read.

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Gee, tough decision.

 

 

 

Toxic Shock

toxicpeopleThere’s a saying in poker that if you can’t spot the sucker in the first half-hour after sitting down at a table, then like it or not, but you are the sucker.

The same can be applied to potentially being the toxic person in a relationship or a social group.

And I say that as someone who spent years refusing to accept how much of a sucker I’d become, while also ignoring how many toxic people I’d clung to in my life.

One thing that is often very hard for people who don’t fall under the plume of toxicity to understand is that the reason why we fail to recognize it is because we often spend so much time around those who end up using their own toxicity to enhance ours.

I’d like to think that no one sets out with the goal of ending up so radioactive that the only suitable course of action for everyone around you is to treat you like you’re in a quarantine zone.

I certainly didn’t. The last thing I’ve ever wanted is for the first word associated with me to be toxic.

When part of your composition includes very volatile emotions and a very narrow and polarized perspective on things which often dictates your behavior, however, it’s hard not to be seen as such by those around you.

It’s even harder when you cannot recognize your own toxicity because from your own perspective, you’re simply reacting to whatever is stimulus is presented to you every day.

We tend to subscribe to the belief that breaking off relationships with toxic people is somehow easier than it is with non-toxic people. After all, a toxic person’s behavior and inability to evolve often justifies the decision, so there is considerably less self-conflict generated.

That’s also somewhat inaccurate because it depends on who the individual is and what they mean to you emotionally.

As much as we tell ourselves we care about people on an equal plane, we also put a higher emotional investment into our parents, siblings, significant others and children, than we do even our closest friends. And when those relationships turn toxic, the fallout can infect every other potential relationship you ever have, both subtly and not-so-subtly.

I’ve heard it said that all a person is is the sum of their experiences. If so, then there is truth in the realization that someone who’s had a much harder and potentially traumatic summation is going to carry with them that toxic waste which has one hell of a half-life.

In which case, having access to relationships and developing tools which can help purge that out of your system is even more paramount. At the same time, though, it’s also equally important not to confuse rational feelings and attitudes with toxicity.

Just because someone disagrees with you on something, or because they don’t have the same core values as you do, doesn’t automatically make them a toxic person.

I’ve spent a long time feeling like a walking Chernobyl reactor, considering how many valued relationships I’ve lost because of it. One of the primary reasons why I haven’t pursued any new ones since coming out to the desert is simply because I don’t know just how radioactive I actually am.

All I have to go by is the feedback I get from those who are still in contact with me and at times, even though it’s no one’s fault really, I can’t shake the vibe that that contact is made through the precautionary safety of an invisible hazmat suit.

That’s a frightening position to be in, to be honest, because it’s so hard to not think that everything you do, no matter how innocuous or well-intended, is actually a repeat of the same toxic patterns.

Hopefully, when I go in for my exam and I start working with my therapist in two weeks, I’ll have a better gauge on where on the Geiger counter I fall, and then I can start doing something about it.