Archive for September, 2014

Zero distance

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

Years ago when I met my wife, when we negotiated becoming married, we argued. We argued about what marriage is – what we wanted marriage to be. I thought of it as the disappearance of the individual, a sort of magical dissolution of two beings into one. She did not. She thought of it as an alliance between two mutually interested people as a supportive, exclusive team.

It bothered me, this disagreement, and in antagonistic moments I always remember it. Today, as I audit a mooc on the psychology of happiness, I’m learning more about why. I have an ‘anxious attachment style.’ My wife’s is very ‘secure.’

My psychology professors exude contentment as they lecture. They cheerfully describe the empirically real behaviors and reactions we display, as organisms, from touching to talking, and how ‘healthy’ activity makes ‘happy’ people. Since I’m familiar with who I am, and my abnormalities can indeed be uncomfortable, listening to these lectures is often like pressing myself through a cheese grater.

I want to say something about my sense of total contact – that ‘union’ my wife, and apparently all ‘secure’ people, shrink from. I experience it in moments. It’s a clear, safe spot where understanding another is knowing myself. It’s an astonishment and an abandonment, while the most profoundly connected and complete sensation I ever expect to enjoy. I express wanting it to those who attract me, and frighten the ‘healthy’ ones away.

I regret frightening them. I see life within them. I want to join that life. So with my marriage: we are indeed allied. We are deeply trusting and pervasively intimate. On occasion, despite all reality, I see her as myself. In those moments I am absent all questions; soundlessly and eternally content – perfectly unalone.


That pain in my head

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Here’s one of the latest scientific ideas: consciousness is the attention you pay to your own internal monologue. It ‘happens’ because you’re aware of the meaning of words, and you have sensations attached to them. You pay attention to plenty of things, of course – what you see, what you hear, or that rumbling in your stomach. But these can’t become ideas until you put words on them. Once you put words on them, they undergo the fantastic mathematics of multiple permutations and associations – and you’re a ‘thinking’ being.

The idea is, when somehow some mutant ancestor first articulated a couple of audible noises that her boyfriend understood (“not now!”) – she produced in his mind a set of provocations which he controlled himself. His brain was fully equipped to synthesize and coordinate, but external objects were stubbornly intractable. Suddenly, here was a set of objects (words) he could not only perceive but rearrange – and the rearrangements became new objects as well. All by himself, he could think, create, and express new meaning (“now! now!”).

His expressions seemed to exist by themselves; to cause events. He taught them to his kids. And we were off.

The science is about decoding what’s called the ‘interface,’ the place where all our external stimulations are transmuted into that exquisitely personal sense of ‘I am feeling this.’ Most of us begin and end with ‘I am feeling this,’ without paying attention to the fact we’re largely replaying recorded word arrangements inherited from someplace else. Apparently it’s quite revolutionary to modify these arrangements (that first dialogue remains an important one).

So am I really feeling – this?

I recall Sam Clemens’ observations on what people call ‘work.’ He noted some folks claim writing books is work. He differed, and I agree. Digging ditches is work. Writing books is something else.

So perhaps with pain. Physical pain hurts. I get that. But emotional pain? Sure, it shares a lot of conscious distress with the physical stuff, but it’s never clear it means anything. I might as well have made it up. Maybe I did. Or maybe it was just handed to me.

I don’t say this lightly. Unless you are truly on the fringe, I’ve known as much inward suffering as you have.

But still, until a hundred or so years ago, the basic fact of everybody’s physical life was physical suffering. Maybe not for a few almost artificial years in youth, but usually even then. It was just fucking hard to live. The fact of life really was physical suffering. So you find out a lot of the ‘truth’ the culture hands to us is just that: the ‘truth’ of suffering. But is it the truth? Really?


The center of the universe

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Once, when I was a boy, there was a rainstorm. It rained for days and days. The roadside gutters filled up to my neck and I swam in them. Behind the house, through a ravine choking its course through brush and tree trunks, a thin waterway appeared. I discovered a floating log big enough to carry me a few yards downstream.

Later, I was on a fishing boat in an agitated sea. Swells crashed over the bow and buried the gunwales as we lurched up and down in the wind. Recklessly, I climbed outside the cabin into the weather, clinging with my hands to a cleat. I just lay there grinning as the boat bounced around and the foam poured over me.

I tried to write a book, and took long winding walks on dirt roads through deep country. A few steps into some berry vines, as if I needed privacy, I peed into the weeds. As my stream weakened I focused across the brambles to meet the eyes of a standing black bear, some dozen yards in front of me. ‘OK,’ I said, took a couple steps back and effected an indifferent saunter into the distance.

My friend got me very drunk and brought over a pair of pretty prostitutes. That was scary, so I went out on the street and fell into a taxi. I managed my way out of the cab and up the long flight of stairs to my apartment. Where I fell down. I enjoyed exquisite clarity. The keys were in my pocket, my hand upon the floor, and the door knob in the haze above my head. I coordinated these elements, with some commentary and over a few moments, with as little body motion as possible, until the knob yielded, the door swung open, and I rolled inside.

Core drama

Saturday, September 6th, 2014

‘For you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not.’ (Yusuf Islam)

How can I try to explain? (ibid.)

I’m not like you. I’ve looked into it. There’s research available on this stuff. The few of you who are, you’ve got therapists helping you get better.

I’m raising a kid now and it’s like being shouted at by myself. I’ve figured it out, though. He just wants me to be fearless, kind, and curious. He wants me to experiment with myself. He wants me to explore. Is he nuts?

Beautiful nuts. I look at him and just pant for life.

How can that kid who was me have turned into this guy’s dad?

If he only knew. I am so with him. I am so with him. I am so with him he’s under house arrest and I’ve got him a therapist to help him get better.

I’ve figured it out, though. Our kids are flush and healthy and bored with their infernal contentment. They’re drawn to sorrow, and alienation, and pain – because it feels like something’s happening. They get into it, too. The real thing: ‘I just want you to hurt like I do.’ (R. Newman)

Not me. Please God, do not let any other person hurt like I do.

So I bow my head and I endure and I look for happiness in the little places I can find it. I tell my boy to keep his pants on and his nose clean, so he can enjoy what I’ve got someday.

So he yells at me.

If that kid only knew. I want to rip off my shirt and scream at the moon. I want to live on the street. I want to die drunk.

Isn’t anybody out here crazy besides me?

When there used to be heaven

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

I grew up with heaven as the good place where good people go when they die. As I grew older and its believability faded, I held onto the idea because it gave me a comfortable way to think about relationships. I got hurt sometimes. Real people hurt me. And boy oh boy, have I slugged a few stomachs in my day.

Heaven is where we all met again. Just as we were (perhaps a little younger). In lawn chairs under afternoon sunlight maybe, recollecting scars and grudges like pranks we played on each other; recalling anger and regret like odd outfits of clothing we put on to entertain ourselves. Stories of being human. All forgiven.

I have a big, open heart. It goes cold and heavy, but it’s never stayed that way. I got wounded sometimes. I struck some mean blows. I would look at the others and imagine them laughing with me. ‘In heaven,’ I would think, ‘we’ll all understand.’