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Sunday, December 13, 2009

What This Hideous Rash on my Face Taught Me

This October I developed seborrheic dermatitis on my face. I’ve had it before, to varying degrees, and each time it returns I feel a renewed sense of dejection. It’s angry and red and it spreads, like spilled ink, from the corner of my nose. Sometimes it spills down my chin. Once, for a brief time, I had it on my entire face. Hemingway had something like it; this is how his buddy, the novelist and journalist José Luis Castillo-Puche, described it:

“The angry red streak running from his nose to his cheek, the rash of little whitish pustules that sloughed off like dandruff…the bright red patch, extending from the bridge of his nose almost down to his mouth and up to his eyes.”

Beautiful.

I developed seborrheic dermatitis for the first time as an adult when I returned home from my honeymoon in Barcelona, freshly diagnosed with type-1 diabetes. It was a rough time. The dermatitis seemed to know this; it stuck around for the better part of two years, a glaring symbol of my new life with illness. I tried everything: Elidel, steroid lotions, EFT. It just got worse.

When the dermatitis finally spread to my face, I went into Whole Foods and spent nearly $100 on a natural skin care regime from MyChelle Dermacueticals. It cleared, finally. When I met the founder and creator of MyChelle, Myra Michelle Eby, a year later at a Natural Products Expo in D.C., I burst into tears.

"Thank you,"  I said, embracing her.

(I still think MyChelle is the best skin care line in the world, although, as you will see, my seborrheic dermatitis cure promotes a hands-off approach).

Unfortunately, in my experience, seborrheic dermatitis shares a distinctive feature of many autoimmune illnesses: It comes and goes, sometimes independent of treatment; and often each relapse requires a new, novel form of treatment.

The rash returned last winter. I was in Asheville at the time, at my residency session for my MFA program. I was living in a dorm. I was especially sensitive to my appearance at the time because James Franco had just enrolled in the program. I remember walking into the a reception the very first night of the residency. I had taken a Percocet (the beginning of residency was always an especially anxious time). I saw James. Jesus, I thought, that guy is handsome. Later I walked into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. Jesus, I thought, investigating my dermatitis, I'm ugly.

One night we had a long face to face discussion. We talked about Emily Dickinson, kissing Sean Penn, and my skin problems. James, a perfect gentleman, stopped the conversation twice to say, “Dude, I don’t even notice it.”

Equating my dermatitis with Harry Osborn’s horribly burnt face in Spiderman III, I asked James what it was like for a handsome man to appear so disfigured on screen.

“Dude,” he said. “It was Spiderman.”

Last winter's outbreak was minor. I came home from Asheville and took hydrocortisone (a steroid cream). The dermatitis cleared up in a week.

***

This recent outbreak was different. When I first noticed it, in early October, I again tried the hydrocortisone. It worked, at first, but then it seemed to start spreading.

I looked in the mirror and felt ugly. I thought: It will never go away. I complained, unfairly, to my wife (who herself suffers psoriasis).

Days and weeks lapsed without my consent. I started to lose  my optimism; my integrity eroded. I ignored my reliable faith in natural healing. Instead, I sought pharmaceuticals: Desonide, a steroid cream. The cream worked, at first, but then my dermatitis got WAY worse. Hemingway bad.

Apparently, if steroids are used too long, you develop additional skin problems. I learned the hard way.

Throughout this time, in the immemorial fashion of frantic sick people, I searched the internet for a “cure.” The internet is a terrible place to look for a “cure.” Balanced perspectives on skin problems are shockingly rare. Message boards are crammed with pessimistic complaints. Thousands of sites suggest miracle cures that simply do not work. Worse, drug companies pay massively for advertising.

Still, inspired by my internet findings, I washed my face with Selsun Blue. That helped a bit. I actually tried tanning! (In an electronic ballast tanning booth; finding the booth was an incredible hassle.) That helped a bit, until I developed a secondary rash on my stomach.

I visited my family doctor. He said, "Quit the steroid lotion. Problem solved."

"Really?" I asked.

I urged him to prescribe another pharmaceutical treatment, one that I had assiduously researched: Nizoral foam.

Nizoral is a potent anti-fungal. When ingested, it has been associated with hepatic toxicity, including some deaths. The foam worked, a bit. Then, once again, my dermatitis got worse.

***

In his life-changing, soul-changing book, Re-Visioning Pscyhology, James Hillman writes, “We owe our symptoms an immense debt. The soul can exist without its therapists, but not without its afflictions.”

I’m reminded of this quote when I suffer illness. I’m reminded of my sulking; my complaints. And I’m shocked, almost appalled, by my behavior. Sometimes, in the midst of illnes, I actually do realize that my suffering can be a good thing, for my growth and maturity and anti-narcissism. But still, illness bums me out. I mean I wake up after a restless night of sleep (I never, ever sleep well and typically I wake six-ten times a night to pee), check my blood sugar (the first test of ten or twelve tests for the day), and look in the mirror, only to discover I’m much uglier than my dreams had led me to believe!

This is the moment I lose my integrity.

I think: You know what, I have a fucking lot of illness for a 33 year old guy; every person, every fucking single person in the world, sometimes hits the point where enough is enough, and, well, I’m entitled to say, “Enough is fucking enough,” because of my illnesses, because I’ve been through so much illness, so early, and no one, exactly no one, I know, understands what it’s like to be a 33 year old guy living with type-1 diabetes, ulcerative colitis, Raynaud’s disease, and some fucking skin rash, not to mention I’m allergic to shellfish and have never even known the pleasure of slurping a fresh oyster!

It's funny, though. Standing in front of the mirror, I drive myself to this point—this point of extreme dejection—and then something small happens.

In my complaining, I catch a glimpse of myself as a child, a child throwing a tantrum. My behavior is laughable, really. So I smile, in spite of myself. Then I smile, again, just to see what I look like. I start making faces: ugly faces, happy faces, stupid faces. The dermatitis is still there, of course. But, suddenly, instead of complaining, I'm making fun or myself. And I suppose this is when my heart starts floating, just a bit; it sort of just bounces up, and I’m aware, however briefly, of the possibility of change.

***

Change. In terms of my recent battle with seborrheic dermatitis, change means relaxing; it means re-finding my integrity. It means taking a deep breath and considering the blindingly obvious.

I’ve successfully treated seborrheic dermatitis on my scalp for ten years. I’ve performed the same routine, two times a week, every week, for ten years. What I do is simple: I wash my hair. I apply about 1 tablespoon of extra virgin coconut oil. I leave it on for a few hours. I wash it out. Why not try it on my face? Seborrheic dermatitis often effects both the face and scalp and both areas manifest the same disease process.

Friday night, I rubbed a little extra virgin coconut oil on my face. Saturday, I woke up and my skin had improved. Last night, Saturday night, I repeated the routine. This morning I woke up my skin had essentially cleared. After weeks of suffering, after weeks of complaints and internet research, weeks of steroids and antifungals weeks of just feeling ugly—my skin had improved with two applications of extra virgin coconut oil.

(Update: I now believe that a permanent natural seborrheic dermatitis cure exists: yogurt masks. I have used nothing but water and yogurt masks on my face for over four years and my skin has remained remarkably clear. Please see my recipe on my post "Seth's Beauty Secrets Revealed").

The simplicity of it is absurd. Albeit, not as absurd as my behavior.

Illness is worthless unless you learn from it. My lesson, of course, has nothing to do with extra virgin coconut oil. More likely, it has something to do with maturity, how I might grow into that complicated, half-ugly, half-beautiful human being I'm meant to be. Probably, the goal is just a sort of unity. Obviously, I own a lot of ugliness, inside and out. But in my ugliness, I learn things. I learn about fighting. I learn about hope. Life handed me illness; it also gave me the capacity to fight. Life taught me the comeback. Moving on, I'll try to remember this.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Be still, my shark-filled heart

Heading out of the beach town, Stone Harbor, the Stone Harbor Boulevard cuts a thin strip of road through a salt marsh. It's a beautiful, mystical strip, dotted with marinas, crab shacks, farmer’s stalls, and stilted houses with docks jutting out into the high cordgrass. Bull sharks have been known to swim here and the place rivals the tropical rain forest for biological diversity—facts that verify what I’ve been feeling for years: the salt marsh holds a beautiful mystery; pockets of Jersey rival the world’s most alluring spots.

This summer Karen snapped a picture of the back doorway of Tim Rush Farm’s Country Food Market. The salt marsh is framed in the doorway like a blue river with low green banks. I look at it when I feel wistful. Jersey, I sometimes think, rivals any place for pure, summery beauty.

Stone Harbor Boulevard

The summer's over, I know, but I'm still feeling the sharks in my heart. Today, a balmy October Sunday, I pulled a chair out in the sun and sat in my skimpy bathing suit reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's biography. My tan has not yet faded.

This was a momentous summer for me; a weird summer, in ways; but ultimately the best summer of life. I graduated from my writing program in Ashevill. I read a selection from my novel in front of about 100 people--the people I most admire in the world, my peers, my friends, my wife, my brother, and my mother. Later, to celebrate, my wife cut a rug with James Franco. Karen and I drove away from Asheville, circuitously, up the Blue Ridge Parkway, and then back, and then we hit the road home. It was mid-July. The sun on I-81 was dazzling and tremendous. I felt like I was not only driving home, but into the heart of my summer.

A few days later we ate a celebratory meal with Sue and Andrés, friends from Barcelona--great friends whom we see maybe once a year. We drank too much wine. On a dare, I sprinted around the length of Rittenhouse Square--in just over two minutes.

In late July, we went to Borgata. A group of us waited in line outside the Gypsy Bar. Karen, the center of the group, tethered us together with her irresistible buoyant mood. She assured us we had no place in the world to be because we were the world. We were the party. I looked around at the people looking at us and I believed her. Inside Gypsy Bar, we danced. The band sang “Don’t Stop Believing” and I crooned loudly from the center of the dance floor.

Later, we drifted into Carina, where, after watching Karen try on a slew of extravagant dresses in the dressing room, we tousled on the carpeted floor, bedazzled dresses strewn around us like luxurious bedsheets. Looking at myself  in the dressing room mirror, something broke within me: I felt unusual and damaged, but fine with it, and suddenly Atlantic City became a new scene.

Then there was a Saturday in August, Karen and I sunbathing on one of Stone Harbor's tight beach plots, the waves rolling in between the jetties. I went for a dip in the green water. I swam for about an hour, bodysurfing the little waves, wading over the red swaths of seaweed on the ocean floor. From time to time, I'd look up into the clear sky and catch one single-engine plane trailing a banner.

Then there was an epic walk on the beach with my Dad. A weekend at the Cogan's beach house. A brisk Saturday morning in Cape May. We walked out of breakfast and into a parade. Chris Cogan hadn't slept for days. He felt, he said, "Like hot garbage." I burst into laughter.

It was August. I remember missing the moment as it happened.

Goodbye, summer. Be still, my shark-filled heart.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Sweat, Muscles, and Starbucks: The Bizarre YMCA

About two years ago a tall, serious-looking Asian man walked into the gym at my local YMCA. He was wearing a full-length red sweatsuit, drinking a Starbucks coffee. He lingered for five minutes, staring, incredulously it seemed to me, at the people on the treadmills. I happened to be one of those people, so I stared back. He ignored me. Then, with sudden alarming purpose, he flung his leg, karate-style, into the open air. He repeated this high-flying gesture two or three times. Then he hopped, from foot to foot, like a boxer, for twenty minutes. Then he left.

The Asian man repeated this routine—same full-length sweatsuit, same Starbucks coffee, same karate chop— every day for nearly a week. Then, abruptly, he disappeared. A few members, I had heard, had complained. Some, I suppose, considered him a freaky nuisance. To me, he was a curiosity: I never once saw him sip his Starbucks coffee; nor did I ever see him put it down.

I’ve been a member of the Ambler YMCA for twelve years. I go three to nine times a week. I’m the tallish, skinny guy making an absolute scene on the treadmill: speed cranked to 10, sweat flying, lips pursed as if ready to shout, Fuck yeah! I get off the machine pouring sweat, lost in my own world, blaring Weezer on my iPod.

The Ambler Y, like most gyms, inspires bizarre behavior. I love it. My wife refuses to go to the Y with me. I embarrass her. I sing along to my iPod. I wear women’s t-shirts. I wear my sunglasses on the treadmill. The lenses make everything look bright and hopeful. Why is this so embarrassing?

What embarrasses me is the behavior of others. Just today, for example, a young, very thin girl grabbed the pull up bar. She dangled. Then she lifted her legs and started peddling, as if on a bicycle. Atrocious. I watched in wide-eyes anger and wondered: Who does she think she is? When she was done she hopped down, took a look at a notebook. The cover announced, ostentatiously, Penn Athletics.

Younger kids, college athletes, I guess, carry these official notebooks around they gym in open defiance of the Y’s unspoken commandment: You Shall Not Try to Look Cool. But the exercises these kids perform look so uncool, so senseless, really, that I wonder if there’s a conspiracy among coaches, a sadistic plan to keep athletes obedient to the rigors of team and sport. The plan is simple: Make athletes look repellent to potential boyfriends or girlfriends.

One kid, a Villanova stud (a stud, at least, according to his own swagger), grabs a 25 pound weight, plops down, and vigorously smashes the weight on the ground, to his right and left, for twenty, thirty repetitions. It’s obscene, a loud display of—what? Strength?

Last week, I sort of moped around, stretching, until Villanova Swagger showed up. He commenced his smashing routine. I stared at him until I caught his eye. We stared at each other for a few seconds before he turned away. Victory! Or maybe not: I think he turned to his friend and made fun of my shorts.

Anyway. I suppose athletic programs offer better guidance than Men's Health. Here's a real article title from the magazine: "Silly Exercises, Serious Results: These 12 exercises may look ridiculous but we guarantee they’ll build strength, muscle and stamina."

I can spot the Men’s Health guy immediately: He’s the guy performing the strange abdominal exercises on the giant red ball.

Does Men’s Health only advocate exercises that replicate the motions of sex? And why must Men’s Health Guy combine the red ball exercise with the gym’s most ostentatious object: the 45 pound weight? Is it really necessary to perform sit-ups while holding a 45 pound weight, not to mention: You’re on a fucking giant red ball?

If this is the way to get a six-pack it's not worth it.

I’ve accumulated many comfortable strangers at the Y. Last year, a blond girl I noticed from the Y approached me and my wife at a local bar. She was drunk, obviously, and she seemed to move in exactly the same way she did, sober, on the elliptical machine.

"You sweat a lot," she said to me.

"I know," I said. "I’m a sweaty man."

"It’s sexy."

"Really?"

"Your wife sweats too."

She was one of the two or three most famous Y members. Apparently, she had also approached our friends Charlie and Trish. "You sweat a lot," she had told them, and then proposed an ménage a trois. She was pretty in a did that girl just propose a threesome? kind of way, but the night we met her she was wearing a pair of last season’s UGGS. When I saw her the next day at the Y she ignored me. She fascinated us for a few weeks before she disappeared, a la Karate Chop Man.

I go to the Y before dinner. I determine my work-out based on the presence of this one guy—a guy I’ve met and talked too. I’ve forgotten his name. He greets me amiably ("Hi, Seth!"), yet the relationship has devolved, on my part, to a nod. I determine my work-out based on how best to avoid this guy. If he’s lifting weights, I’ll run on the treadmill, and vice versa.

I like to get in and out. Sometimes I’ll see Trish, end up gabbing for twenty minutes. I’ll see Charlie and we'll recreate our high-school athletics days, on the swim team: throw-downs, squat-thrusts.

Sometimes, the nice man with the mustache talks to me. Sometimes, he follows me around from exercise to exercise. He flirts and I tell him: I’m married He doesn’t believe me.

The only way to deal is to strap on my iPod, blare Weezer, and exercise, mutely fascinated, maybe a little scared of all the sweat and muscles.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Great Writing Speaks from the Heart

Last January, just after I came home from winter residency, I fell ill with bronchitis. My doctor prescribed antibiotics. I suffered a gripping moral dilemma. I called my doctor.

Antibiotics are harmful, I said. I'm not taking antibiotics.

She said—she actually said: Okay, but you risk death.

I took the antibiotics. I flopped on the couch for five days, recovered from the bronchitis, and suffered the side-effects of the treatment: low-grade fever, chills, stomach cramps, massively high blood-sugar, and a feeling of despondency. I Googled, too. My antibiotic, ZITHROMAX®, I learned, is the one antibiotic that might cause mental imbalance.

I also read books. I read Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. I read Keith Gessen’s novel All the Sad Young Literary Men.

A passage in Gessen’s novel (about a literary hero named Morris Binkel)--the passage, not the novel--struck me:

"Binkel called for a renewal of an adversary culture – the young writers of today, said Binkel, were social climbers, timid and weak; they stood around at parties in New York waiting to be noticed, waiting to be liked. He reserved his especial scorn for his own people, for young Jewish writers, who had once been the bravest and the most outrageous, and now were the most timid, the most polished, kow-towing to their elder’s ideas of orthodoxy and demeanor…No one spoke anymore from the heart, said Binkel, and it was a shame."

I wasn’t sure whether Gessen was actually making fun of the “adversary culture,” at least in the way Binkel talks about it (Binkel, in the end, turned out to be an embodiment of abject unhappiness). But the idea spoke to me as a worthy pronouncement: great writing speaks from the heart.

Roberto Bolaño [Source]
Reading Gessen’s book after Bolaño’s book I felt different forces at work--different voices speaking from different places. Gessen’s book, engaged eruditely with politics, sex, and the modern slacker milieu is product of a keen, wry mind. The sentences are compact; the chapters compact. The novel reads briskly. It seems carefully planned, executed, revised: a calculated affair. Bolaño's book, on the other hand, engaged with politics, sex, and its own (strange) milieu, is a torrent, sloppy in places, ugly in places, sometimes maddening.

I adored The Savage Detectives.

Gessen’s book wowed me. I was impressed with the pacing, the intellectual rigor. In the end, though, the writing was lifeless, as if Gessen were following some formula he had learned at the great institutions he had attended.

Natasha Wimmer writes in her introduction to The Savage Detectives:

“For Bolaño and the others, rejecting a career in poetry was a way of taking poetry as seriously as life itself—and vice versa. If the author lived what he wrote in spirit, Bolaño liked to say, the reader would naturally feel the urgency and live it too:” If the poet is caught up in things; the reader will have to be caught up.”

To me, Gessen’s book is just too smart, too polished. The moments of introspection and passion come off as hackneyed.

I like messiness. I think you find that in great books: in Bolaño’s book or Junot Diaz’s The Brief Life of Oscar Wao. To call Diaz “messy” might seem ridiculous, but I mean that as a compliment. the courage to be messy, to put the mess of life on the page, with its quirks and idiosyncrasies (the characters in Gessen’s book are NOT weird) and let it stand, despite what it might do to the pace, the plot.

Now I’m reading (fighting?) Bolaño’s 2666. For vast stretches of pages I’ve found myself utterly absorbed. Recently, I had to take a break from the book to read Peter Benchley’s JAWS. 2666 crushes me; JAWS entertains me (even as it freaks me out). As the reviews on the back cover suggest it’s “tightly written”, “tautly paced”, “a fine story told with style, class, and splendid feeling for suspense.”

2666 is often tight, taut, and suspenseful, but it’s also tedious (and it’s often the opposite of tight: unwound, massive). And yet, the sole review on its book jacket calls it “one of the cornerstones that define an entire literature.”

Why do the messy books always end up defining an entire literature?

I like what Bolaño himself has to say about it, in 2666, in the guise of one of his characters, Amalfitano, who has just asked a young pharmacist: What books do you like? What books do you read?

"Amalfitano asked him…just to make conversation. Without turning the pharmacist answered that he liked books like The Metamorphosis, Bartleby, A Christmas Carol…there was something revelatory about the taste of the bookish young pharmacist…who clearly and inarguably preferred minor works to major ones. He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby Dick, he chose A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no real interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench."

What is that something?

I call it heart: bloody, wounded, reeking of mess. Great books, to me, show something of the struggle of the writer and craftsman, but they also show the struggles of a human being, the messy, ugly (and beautiful) life. Of course, not every book has to be about real combat. But really, if you're not fighting why write?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Letters to my Wife

My fifth wedding anniversary is July 3rd. I’ll be in Asheville, North Carolina, attending my writing program for a third summer—three years, I've missed my wedding anniversary. My wife, Karen, who has learned not to expect gifts—at least gifts one can buy—anticipates a letter. I’ve lived with her six years. I talk to her daily. I’ve been dating her fifteen years. And yet, I write her letters. I can’t buy a diamond (my wife’s engagement ring was sapphire; she lost it), but I can write a letter.

I can write, for example: Desnuda eres azul como la noche en Ambler.

I would never write that line. That’s Pablo Neruda, from his first collection of poetry, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.  

Naked you are blue as the night in Cuba.

Karen lived in Chile, Neruda’s home, when she was nineteen. At that time, I was at Bloomsburg University. We talked on the phone, a difficult, static-filled affair, each Sunday evening. During the week, we wrote letters. I told her about my Saturday afternoons, drinking beer at the Cattawissa Inn, an ancient establishment located off a solitary road that sold draft beer for sixty cents a glass. She told me about her Santiago life, sharing a mango with a certain Brianna, drinking boxed wine in the squares, visiting the streets called Maruri and Argülles where Neruda, young, unbearably skinny and unbearably alive, wrote his early poems.

Young Neruda

Neruda was Karen’s age when he was living in Santiago, in the 1920’s, writing poems that would lend credence to the myth of the Latino lover:

Tonight I can write the saddest lines. 
Write, for example, 'The night is shattered 
and the blue stars shiver in the distance.'

Ridiculous. I’m surprised we accept this from Neruda. Maybe just him, and no one else. I must admit, though: I’ve written more than a few sentimental letters. I looked over some of my letters today (Karen’s kept them all, a hundred or more, bundled neatly in a shoe box). I’m embarrassed by everything--from May, 1996 to September, 2004, I channeled young Neruda, apparently.

I did discover a few good tidbits, such as early evidence of my health fanaticism. (I asked Karen's permission to quote the letters; after all, they are her letters. She said, "Fine.")

On February 27, 1997, for example, I wrote:

“I just read a few chapters of a great little book: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Energy But Were Too Weak to Ask. The book includes a recipe for a wonder shake that's supposed to make you feel stupendous. This spring I plan to purge my system of all its toxins with a five-day fruit and vegetable diet. Then, the milkshake.”

Most of the letters were monstrously sentimental. Spring, 1997, I lived in Italy. A letter from the time (March 25) begins:

“I cannot begin to tell you how lonely I feel. I have just bought a huge bottle of Chianti for 6,000 lira; now, writing you with frequent sips is my only pleasure of the day.”

Later, in the same letter, I wrote:

“I must strive to understand my misgivings about Rome. Now, I must understand myself; more than ever I’m alone: I am all I got…One thing’s for sure: I will never be happier to see you. I already can’t stand how much I miss you.”

The height of my schmaltz was January to May, 1999, when Karen was in Chile.

On February 18, 1999, I wrote:

“I’m listening to Billy Holiday: The way you hold your knife, the way we dance to three, the way you’ve changed my life, no, no they can’t take that away from me. Something rings so true in that simple, ridiculous line. When I listen to that line I think of the way you changed my life. And I wonder: Who is they? I hope they never try to take that away from me.”

What? Who? Where?

In May, 2000, we graduated college. Winter, 2001, we moved to Barcelona. I was living with Karen, so I wrote only cards. Karen hides these cards amidst her clothes, in secret places I’m unwilling to explore.

By 2002, we were home and I was experiencing my first bouts with illness. I entered a silent period that lasted two years.

*

In September, 2004, I  recommenced my letter writing. I’m not necessarily embarrassed by these letters. I’m not sure how I feel. At the time, we had just returned home from a three-week honeymoon in Spain. I had been hit by a car on the second day of the trip; a few days later, I entered the hospital close to death (at 118 pounds) and was diagnosed with a chronic, life-changing illness.

In letter after letter I tried to explain to Karen (and myself) what had happened:

“If I was fighting for my life, I was not fighting for myself but our marriage. I was fighting for the oath I had given a little more then a month before, to have you as my wife, to live together in marriage, to love you, to comfort you, to honor you and keep you, in sickness and health, in sorrow and joy, and to be faithful to you, as long as we both shall live. A few weeks was certainly not enough to live this oath. I mean, with the wedding vows surely comes another unspoken vow, one that two young people feel probably feel obliged to ignore: to stay alive.”

By then, of course, I saw Karen every day. I talked to her for hours. And yet, the letters I wrote during that time seemed crucial. Somehow, I was trying to figure it out. What had happened to me? Why? I was absolutely poor so the letter, once again, became my de-facto birthday and anniversary gift.

*

Last year, a day after her birthday, a day late, I wrote my wife a letter. It began:

“I had a string of bad dreams last night. There were snakes, faceless people, classes I had missed and dark showers. All the familiar tropes. In one dream, you left me. I couldn’t believe it. I went into some room, looking for you, and I was distracted by the snake. There it was, huge and ugly, a python in a glass tank, smashing its head against the glass, trying to get out. Somebody fed it a bat. I woke up, terrified. But you were there. You hadn’t left. I asked, where’s the blue sheet? You mumbled something funny.”

Later, in the same letter, I wrote:

“Summer’s here, more or less. A new summer. The days are colored with imprints of what’s happened. The imprints will fade, though, as we stamp over them. I have faith. I have faith in our ability to keep trying. I no longer see snakes. I knew writing a letter would help. I’m selfish. I write to redeem myself. I write to crawl out of the wallow.”

In this way, my letters seem selfish. I write them for myself. I try to explain myself to myself. And then I give this as a gift?

*

Still, my wife wants letters. This year, I’ve written her one letter. To her, this seems like incredible negligence. After all, I currently have three or four active pen pals. I'm writing a novel. I maintain three blogs. I litter my friend’s Facebook pages with comments. I tweet.

So what’s one more letter to my wife?

I don’t have an answer to this question. In some ways, I know, it is incredible negligence. Maybe after I graduate from my program, this July, I’ll re-commence. I better, because I don’t anticipate becoming the type of man who buys gifts anytime in the near future. I’d love too, of course. I’d love to treat my wife to extravagant dinners, shocking jewelry.

Right now, though, I’m poor. Words are all I can afford.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

In Defense of Self-Portraits

I’ve been taking self-portraits for a few years now. I’m addicted to my own face. I love taking pictures of my self and posting the pictures on social networking sites. To me, the profile picture is an essential part of the social networking experience, a means of introducing myself to the community. The profile pic says: "This is a bit of who I am right now, for better or worse."

My wife rarely enjoys my self-portraits. She thinks I present myself as too serious. She thinks it's embarrassing: I actually mug for the camera, snap my own photo. On a recent trip to Brigantine, she caught me, leaning against a stone wall, gazing longingly into the camera, snapping photos of myself. Later, on the beach, I implored her to take a few pictures of me:


"Having never met you before but already hating your guts. It must be your picture."
~A recent anonymous blog comment on this blog.

How are my self portraits different than, say, Rembrandt's self-portraits? Of course, there's the medium, and the level of talent, but is my impulse essentially different?

In an 2006 article for Smithsonian magazine, celebrating Rembrandt's 400th birthday, Stephanie Dickey wrote: "Rembrandt painted, etched, and drew some 70 self-portraits, more than any other well-known artist of his time. By making his face the centerpiece of his art, he engaged in a uniquely personal means of self-marketing."

Narcissist?

Rembrandt was certainly not unique in this way. Self portraiture has been a viable means of "self-marketing" at least since the Renaissance. Giotto included himself in a cycle of "eminent men" in the Castle of Naples. Botticelli made himself the hero of the Adoration of the Magi. Van Gogh painted more than twenty self-portraits. Frida Kahlo is famous for her self-portraits.

Was "self-marketing" the impulse behind these various painters use of self-portraiture? Perhaps so (Giotto, for example, or Botticelli) but for many painters, "self marketing" was only part of the impulse. Frida Kahlo, for example, painted herself as a genuine means of self-fulfillment. She started painting after a terrible accident, in 1927, left her bed-ridden and severely wounded.

"From that time," she later explained, "my obsession was to begin again, painting things just as I saw them with my own eyes and nothing more…Thus, as the accident changed my path, many things prevented me from fulfilling the desires which everyone considers normal, and to me nothing seemed more normal that to paint what had not been fulfilled."

For Kahlo self-portraiture was a means of self-birth. The fact that her self-portraits so easily helped to advance or "market" her art was, for her, incidental.

The Broken Column, painted in 1944 after Kahlo had undergone surgery and when she was confined as she had been after her accident.

I’ve taken many pictures of myself. I've photo shopped many more, always in search of an expressive image. My impulses are varied and contradictory. Certainly, I'd like to present myself in a certain way--as handsome, dashing, mysterious--but I'm also keenly aware that I often appear ridiculous, goofy, and, yes, completely narcissistic.

Lately, I’ve noticed I’m getting uglier. I snap pictures of myself and I’m surprised: I look weathered; my prominent nose looks uneven, somehow more flattened and large; and there’s this line, this new line that runs down my left cheek. What’s that line doing there? Perhaps too much wine, not enough sleep.

My feelings might best be expressed in a line by uncle Dean: "How goofy and horrible is life." This is often how I feel: goofy, a bit horrible.

I have not always felt this way. My earliest self portraits, taken when I was 25, just before I experienced illness, portrayed a different attitude, a brash confidence best expressed in a line from Vladimir Mayakovsky:

Without a grey hair in my soul
Or a snip of senility's gentleness
Raiding the world with
Sheer force of voice I'm strutting
handsome
22 years old.

My bouts with illness destroyed my sense of my good looks. In a short period of time I lost twenty, thirty pounds; my skin yellowed, my eyes sunk. Tellingly, I have no pictures from this time. Had Myspace or Facebook existed, I would have stayed away.

I still feel a bit wounded. And yet, I feel confident, which is something I try to express in my pictures. To me this sense of confidence is not about strutting, but acceptance--of who I am, what I've become. However, I don’t want this sense to drive my expressiveness into dour seriousness.

Self portraiture gives me range to be slightly goofy. And to me, that’s the ticket—goofiness: the antidote to horribleness. I love the sense I get, while snapping my own photo, that I am participating in a goofy celebration. Surely, as Botticelli painted himself as the hero in the Adoration of the Magi, even as he actively engaged in "self-marketing," he was also laughing inside. After all, how goofy to paint oneself a hero?

On the other hand, even as Frida Kahlo suffered immensely and charted this suffering in her paintings, she kept a still place in her heart for vibrancy. Kahlo’s last painting, in fact, (not a self-portrait) is emblematic of this idea. Painted merely months before her death, after the amputation of her leg, in the midst of a tremendous period of struggle, it is a testament to living. It is a still life of watermelons, chopped into halves, quartered, or left whole. The watermelons rest upon a plain brown table and are flanked on all sides by a clouded blue sky.

Eight days before her death, Kahlo put the finishing touches upon the painting. She inscribed her name and date upon the red pulp of the foremost watermelon. Then, in capital letters, she printed a final statement on the red pulp: VIVA LA VIDA: LIVE THE LIFE.


And this is really what I want to express in my pictures: the sense I have that despite my woundedness, or perhaps because of my woundedness, that I'm alive. I suppose this is a serious sentiment, but it is also a celebration.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Dark Bouquet of Doubt

Early February, I signed my father up for a blog. I suggested he write occasionally, as an exercise. Since then, he’s written 90 blogs, more than me, Steve, and Suzanne have managed to write in three years at FoodVibe. The topics are wide-ranging, the achievement impressive: my father has never practiced writing before. Now, suddenly, he has a 700-800 word-a-day habit. I suspect his diligence is part compulsion. My father, like me, has an addictive personality. But I also suspect his diligence is just that, too: diligence.

The Addiction-Diligence Paradigm motivates most aspects of my father’s life. My wife, Karen, and I worked for my father's consulting company, Source One Management Services, in 2000. (An insight into my father’s ethics: I was his lowest-paid employee; Karen made a 35% higher salary.) Our most cherished image from that time: My father in his office, his feet up on his desk, playing on-line chess. He played for six or eight consecutive hours, as employees moved in and out of his office, fielding calls and questions.

My father has always been an advocate of results: It's not the time you spend working, he likes to say, but the effect your work produces. During his business career, my father created profitable results in minimal time. Often, he performed a week's worth of work in ten minutes--and spent the remaining thirty-nine hours and fifty minutes playing chess. Still, his early diligence had made Source One, a business he had started only seven years before, with two partners, in the front porch of our house in Gwynedd, PA, successful.

Karen and I left the business in early 2001 to live in Barcelona. My father sold his share a few months later. Now, eight years later, he lives in Brigantine, NJ, with his wife (my stepmother) Phylis. He spends sometimes ten or more hours a day watching tv, blogging, and playing internet poker.

I think about my father's current lifestyle whenever I find myself feeling lackluster. When I’m not working, I try to write all day. It’s hard, though. Some days I feel titanic. Some days I feel defeated. I look at my novel, think: It’s terrible; what’s the point?

When I was younger, in my late twenties, writing another novel, feeling like I might quit writing altogether, I wrote my uncle Dean a letter offering the same complaint.

My novel is terrible, I wrote. What’s the point?

"Your struggles with writing your novel," he replied, "are worthy of your suffering, but don’t get so that you love your suffering. I don’t really know what it takes to write a novel, though judging from N, it takes a lot of time, perseverance, obsession, and slavish dedication, only one of that last three am I attracted to."

In another letter, he wrote: "Allow yourself to be uncertain but don't let your uncertainty turn to despair because it can be wonderful to write when you're sad and full of the dark bouquet of doubt, but misery lends itself to silence and one must get out of bed every morning and prepare for the great celebration of one's own imagination, even if it doesn't happen that day."

His point, as always: Keep going.

I am diligent in other ways. I run 4-5 miles every day. I cook dinner every night. I have type-1 diabetes for Christ’s sake, which requires total diligence. But these things are easy for me. Writing is hard. Perhaps I’m merely addicted to running; addicted to cooking dinner and injecting insulin (self-care).

Then again, I might be addicted to writing, too. Just now, for example, when I found myself unable to work on my novel, I felt compelled to write about it. What will it take for me to complete this thing? What sort of reserves must I call forth? What drugs must I take? (Adderall?)

Success, like addiction, runs in my blood. I know this, but it doesn’t make writing any easier. In fact, as I enter my 33rd year, the looming success of my family members (not just my father and my uncle, but every family member who has gone before me) hovers over me, sometimes inspiring me, often overwhelming me. I want to triumph, but I feel constantly expectant, stymied with the promise I’m not sure I have the courage, or the talent, to keep.

I try to make myself feel good: What if I’m not supposed to feel burdened by promise, but lightened? What if I’m meant to fly up to my challenge? Not like a bird, or a plane, but clumsily, like a person?

The only thing I can control, really, is my effort: I can only sit down, write. Like my dad, the blogger. Like my uncle, the poet. With diligence and/or addiction. I'm not sure it matters how I qualify it: Whatever it is, I need to do it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

My Wife Does Certain Annoying Things

My wife does certain things, certain annoying things. I’m sure this is not uncommon. Many wives, I hear, do certain annoying things. I’m sure, too, that husbands do certain annoying things. What things? I’m not sure. The things I am sure about are wife-specific.

I’ve lived with my wife six years. We’ve been married five years. Marriage has not changed us entirely. Marriage accentuated what was already there. Our arguments now seem more berserk and unpredictable; our tender moments, more simple and soothing.

I have noticed: my wife is evolving in her quirkiness. What was once a set of charming little idiosyncrasies have become odd symptoms. She has a disease. Maybe the disease is marriage.

People ask my wife: How do you deal with this?

This, being me.

People, though, don’t see the entire picture. In public, I’m bombastic and rude; my wife is composed and elegant. At home, I see another side. I see my wife confront a centipede with a horror-movie shriek. I see my wife’s appalled and unforgiving expression after I’ve woken her from a three hour nap.

I adore my wife. I adore her in public and private. For better or worse, she has determined the man I am today: the foolish, but sincere husband; the aloof, but giving friend; the hard-working, fun-loving writer. My wife gives good things: affection, support. She also takes away bad things: fear, doubt. These things are large. I understand and cherish these things.

My wife also gives and takes small things—small, ant-like things. The sum of this give and take mystifies me. Like ants, the give and take also annoys me. It’s the essential cloying mystery of my day to day life: the small things my wife gives and the small things she takes away.

We live in a two bedroom apartment in Ambler. Day to day, new, useless things appear in this place. Day to day, new useful things disappear.

My wife, I suspect, has something to do with this.

The Small Things My Wife Gives

I wonder if my wife has a side-business in small, black, rubber-band-like things. These things, I’m told, are hair-ties. I rarely see these hair-ties in my wife’s hair. I do see them, though, lonely and unattached to my wife’s head, sporting strands of honey-brown hair. These things just appear, everywhere, often in odd places: my jean pockets; or, tortuously, in the garbage disposal; or in my desk drawer, wrapped around a stack of defunct credit cards, expired licenses, old high-school IDs. I also find them on the living room floor, under the sofa, or, sometimes, in the corner of the shower, wet and tangled.

Fabric softener sheets are meant to be used in the dryer, right? Why, then, do I continue to discover one random, used fabric softener sheet under the passenger seat in our dinky Saturn? I take one sheet away, sure enough one more shows up. Laundry never enters the car. Why, then, do I continue to discover one random fabric softener sheet under the seat?

Incidentally, how many different bottles of lotion does one bathroom really need? How does one acquire all these lotions? Are they gifts? A lotion fairy?

There’s a sole apple sitting in my fruit bowl. It’s been there for about a week. Looking at the apple, I think about my wife, her adorable sense of ambition. When we first dated, nearly thirteen years ago, she told me she’d be a lawyer. I told her I’d be a writer. She’s managed to accomplish her ambition, even as she advocates mine. This is a large thing. The apple is small. Still, it’s there, sitting in the fruit bowl, this organic Fuji apple. Will someone eat this apple? I doubt it.

How does this happen?

I see my wife, at Whole Foods, excited by her sudden resolve: I will eat more fruit!

She buys an apple. She comes home, places the apple in the fruit bowl. Then it sits there, like a sock in a corner, subtly annoying me each time I pass. Soon, it’s too soft to eat. And yet, no one seems willing to throw it out. It’d be like tossing $2.00 into the trash.

It is a useless thing, this apple; it just suddenly appeared one day. It reminds me of a newspaper and its half-finished crossword, jammed into the sofa. It reminds me of a cool cup of Starbucks coffee, merely sipped, abandoned in the car’s cup-holder.

The Small Things My Wife Takes Away

My wife and I share a chaotic social life. Friends and family come over three, four, five nights a week. There’s wine, laughter, arguments. People come and go. In the chaos, things go missing: wine bottles, wine glasses, random dishes. I look at this as a sort of friendship tax: enough people come over, glasses, even plates and bowls, are bound to be broken or lost.

The other night I walked into my wife’s garden. The garden is my wife’s secret spot. She’s growing gorgeous cucumbers, Swiss chard, tomatoes, watermelons, eggplants, peppers, a bounty of herbs. The garden, though, seems incidental. It’s the secret she loves. In the garden, she calls Barb and Lis and Traci and Vitola. In the garden, I suspect, she smokes cigarettes and drinks wine.

When I walked into her secret spot the other night, I was shocked, even scared, when I discovered a scattered assortment of mugs and dishes. It felt similar to the moment when, as a child, I came upon my father’s secret stash: I was excited and frightened and confused.

I had been looking for those mugs! I had been asking about those dishes! I picked up one of the mugs; it was, weirdly, covered in plastic wrap. I opened the plastic and sniffed: rancid wine.

Oh, my wife’s ambition! I imagine my wife, at home, excited by her sudden resolve: I will sip this last bit of wine, in private, in the garden, with a smoke! What mystifies me is the plastic wrap. It’s almost as if my wife knows she’s not going to drink the wine.

I’ve bought four pairs of nail-clippers since January. I use one. I put it back in a specific, little basket. And yet, I look in the basket, no nail clippers. Where have all the nail-clippers gone?
Where is my tank-top? Where is my special Burt’s Bee’s comb, the only comb that seems to work with my hair? I heard my wife took it to the beach. I haven’t seen it since.

"Where are the Pyrex?" I recently asked.

"I don’t know," she said.

"You don’t know?"

"I haven’t seen any Pyrex."

"Are you sure? Because I need the Pyrex for work. I bring the Pyrex home. I clean it. I use it again the next day. Are you sure you haven’t seen any?"

"Maybe you left the Pyrex at work," she said.

"Maybe you did," I said.

"No," she said. "Impossible."

I suppose I felt vindicated, then, when I received this text-message from my wife the next day: “Guilty as charged.” There was also a picture:



My wife and I share a small, strange life. There’s mystery. There’s secrets. There are accusations. And there’s absolution. We both have quirks. Coupled with the annoyance, I should say, there’s also a lot of fun and side-splitting laughter. There’s impromptu caresses and bottles of wine and festive chicken dinners. I walk around inspired and fulfilled, not just by the laughter, but the annoyance too.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Unreasonable Behavior: On Impossibility, Illness, and Writing

I first discovered the term "unreasonable behavior" during a long weekend in Philadelphia at the Landmark Forum. Before the Landmark Forum, I had held a certain fondness and fascination for unreasonable behavior. I had even considered modeling my life on unreasonable behavior. Once, in college, I ate thirty-two scoops of mint-chocolate chip ice cream in one sitting. I did this, I think, in the pursuit of unreasonable behavior.

The Landmark Forum defines "unreasonable behavior" like this: "At the Landmark Forum anything is possible, whilst being impossible, but nothing is really impossible. Everything is unreasonable, even a reason is unreasonable. The hours are unreasonably long and the breaks unreasonably short!"

So a working definition, for Landmark at least, might run like this: Behavior which seeks to transcend the limitations of the impossible.

This definition does not satisfy me. I am unequivocally not an advocate of the Landmark Forum. But I do credit my experience at the Forum with inspiring my affair with unreasonable behavior. Of course, I had encountered unreasonable behavior before, in certain books and philosophies—and I had certainly acted unreasonable before—but I had never captured the positive possibilities of the idea until that weekend in Philadelphia.

After all, we are often told to act reasonably as if reasonableness were a virtue. But what do we make of the benefits of unreasonable behavior? And what do we make of the confrontation with limitations that unreasonable behavior assumes?

I left college, in May 2000, exactly one credit shy of graduation. I knew only that I wanted to write and I was certain I did not need a degree to do this. But writing to the exclusion of other activities—especially those that make money—seemed to me to be unreasonable. At the time I was an ordinary man who merely held a fascination for unreasonable behavior. So I made a concession: I moved in with my father and worked at his consulting business. I did not write at all during this time, but the money I earned financed my first trip to Barcelona.

It was in Barcelona that I cultivated the unreasonable habit of writing. Karen and I lived their for six months, burning through our savings. We shared a five-room flat with three Catalans. We had two rooms, a large sunny room in the front, overlooking the San Antoni Market, and a dark room in the back, with a mattress on the floor. I awoke early every morning (excluding Sundays) and wrote steadily, for three, four or more hours.

This was my first season of unreasonable behavior. At the time, I was brash, sensitive, and proud. I was hypnotized with my own romantic vision of myself as a writer. I had no idea what I was doing, so I simply wrote, without undue expectation and with wild ambition.

My attitude at the time might be summed up by Tony Hoagland:

Friends, we should have postmarks on our foreheads
to show where we've been;
we should have pointed ears, or polka-dotted skin
to show what we were thinking
when we hot-rodded over God's front lawn
and Death kept blinking.

In July, 2001, Karen and I traveled home, to Philadelphia, for a short stay. We had intended to return to Barcelona in late September, but we delayed our trip, indefinitely, after 9-11.

My memory from that time is convoluted. Ground Zero blurs with the endingness of everything. Now it seems 9-11 was the exact same day George W. Bush became my president, the Yankees stopped winning, and the euro replaced the peseta, forever compromising the exchange rate, forever shattering my Frommer’s sense of possibility that Barcelona was mine for $10 a day. I was so stunned I simply continued living my Barcelona lifestyle in my dad’s house in Gwynedd, PA.

I had no car, so I never went anywhere, and I had little money, so I cut certain extravagances out of my life: wine, for example, and haircuts. With little else to do, I worked feverishly, completing two novels, beginning work on a third, subsisting primarily on hard-boiled eggs, raw almonds and local apples. I have seldom felt so dynamic as I did then, long-haired and sober, working for hours in the day and night.

In early spring, 2002, after a furious two-week burst that took me one-hundred pages deep into my third novel, I began to feel very odd. My symptoms were vague, mysterious. I imagined all sorts of problems, some real, some not.

Still, I continued writing. My recent work, I was certain, was my best yet.

Even then, I could not ignore the obvious: I needed to see the doctor. So I went. I was diagnosed. My first season of unreasonable behavior came to an abrupt halt. As if to endorse this point, the very day I was diagnosed with my first illness—I hate to write the name; even now, years later, the name frightens me like a vodoo curse—I stopped writing my third novel. I put it aside and I refused to look at it for years.

I was told my disease was incurable. The only way I could treat it was by sticking to a regime of immuno-suppresant drugs for the rest of my life. With treatment, my symptoms might disappear within a few weeks; thereafter, I might suffer bouts, here and there, that may or may not require surgery.

I did not accept this prognostication. I refused to take the drugs. For some reason, I was certain I could cure this disease. And so I tried various diet regimes, acupuncture, supplements, even mind-body therapy. This was my second season of unreasonable behavior.

Everything seemed to help, a bit, but nothing really alleviated my symptoms. I lost weight; my complexion yellowed; and there was blood, massive quantities of blood. I felt profoundly defeated, doubtful. And yet, for some reason, I was certain I could cure myself. I was unreasonable, perhaps insane. Death was no longer blinking. It seemed he was staring wide-eyed, as I lay on the bathroom floor, in pain. And yet, I was still brashly, perhaps stupidly, hot-rodding all over God's lawn.

I will tell you: I did cure my first illness. And I will tell you something else: my "cure", the time I allowed myself to explore alternatives, even as my body weakened (and my immune system went kaflooey) might have led to my second, more devastating diagnosis: type-1 diabetes.

As we age, as we experience illness, it is often impossible at times not too feel mournful and in mourning of that happy, silly, dancing in the daisies, immortal self back there. I for one spent a good bulk of the past years in mourning of that unreasonable guy who decided to write to the exclusion of all other activities.

And yet, what do I make of this same unreasonable guy, whose sense of unreason, taken to extremes, told him to ignore his doctor's advice?

I often think my unreasonable behavior has made me what I am today: a writer and a type-1 diabetic.

However, I do not identify with my unreasonable behavior. If some omniscient force, for example, offered to cure my unreasonable behavior and, in doing so, cure my type-1 diabetes, I would certainly take the offer.

But what if the cure also obliterated my sense of writing? What if, in curing my illness, I was also cured of writing? In that case, NO WAY. I've come to the point where I am ambivalent about my unreasonable impulses. I follow them; often they frighten me.

What will I do next? Publish? Accidentally kill myself? In my battle with my illness, I only had my intuition to guide me. Perhaps this was the lesson I learned from my behavior: Trust thyself. Perhaps not.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Coconut-Milk Braised Greens

I condition my hair with extra virgin coconut oil. At the end of summer, I buy coconut Surf Wax and smell it all winter. I eat coconut milk in one form or another with almost every lunch and dinner. It's in my lunchtime carrot soup. It's in my dinnertime mashed potatoes and mashed sweet potatoes. Lately, me and my wife eat the exact same vegetable side-dish every single night: Coconut Braised Greens. We go through five cans of coconut milk every week.

That's a lot of fat.

For years coconut has been derided as unhealthy because of its high saturated fat content: 10 grams per serving; 0% of the daily fat intake. (I eat 20 grams of fat from coconut milk every day.) Yet Current research shows the fatty acids in coconut, the medium chain triglycerides, can positively contribute to our health. Also, coconut is easily digested; it's not deposited as fat in arteries because it is easily metabolized.

If you're skeptical or thinking of becoming a fanatic yourself, I suggest reading this thoroughly documented, well-presented article from Dr. Mercola's site.

Lately, as the winter enters its most hateful phase (football is over; baseball is yet to begin), I'm relying on visions of summer. The smell of coconut conjures lotion, skimpy bathing suits, an outdoor shower at a crowded beach house: the perfect little spot to steal away for a quickie.



Lately, on Saturday evenings, me and my wife make coconut-infused dishes. After eating, we flop on the couch. We do not watch television. We do not fall asleep. Our place becomes crowded with all the things we do not do. The dishes in the sink. The laundry on the floor. The cellphones, unanswered. We just stay on the couch and pretend it's summer: We're staying in a crowded beach house; the couch is our outdoor shower.

Coconut Braised Greens

I originally developed this recipe for Whole Foods Market


1 large bunch kale, trimmed and cut into large pieces
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, very thinly sliced
¾ cup fresh coconut milk
1 tablespoon fresh squeezed lemon juice
Sea salt
Fresh ground pepper

In a large saute pan over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the onions and saute, stirring frequently, until soft and translucent, 6-8 minutes.

Add the greens, coconut milk, and lemon juice to the pan. Simmer over medium heat, until greens are just tender, 5-7 minutes.

Season to taste with salt and fresh ground pepper.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Facebook Lists

If you're on Facebook you've probably come across a "25 Random Things About Me" list. I'm on Facebook. I've read twenty or more lists. I've written my own list. Recently, The Philly Inquirer published an article about the lists. The article offers two perspectives: "Facebook list: Narcissism or a social shift?"

The "social shift" perspective argues that the lists:

"...reveal a decisive shift in our society...Many of us - younger, mostly - take a distinctive view of private and public, in which a permanent, always-connected audience trades personal, even intimate, information as part of having friends and being social. That hyperconnected life is here to stay. Call this narcissism, but it might be that the train left and you weren't on it."

The "narcissism" perspective argues, in the words of Christine Rosen of the New Atlantis, that the lists:

"For all of their apparently casual tone...are not filled with random things. They are carefully and deliberately crafted efforts to market their makers as quirky and appealing people. The revelation of one person's quirks can be endearing, but the broadcasting of hundreds of thousands of people's quirks quickly devolves into tedious mass solipsism."

At the risk of advocating narcissism, I advocate the lists. To me, the lists are not merely an indication of a "generational shift" (one of my favorite lists was written by a fifty-something friend.) Nor are the lists merely narcissistic.

Facebook
offers a surfeit of daily information. Some of it is narcissistic, and much of it, I think, is purposefully crafted. Craft implies attentiveness to an audience (attentiveness to others); it implies deliberation. Craft can be a potentially positive force that reaches out and touches others. Craft implies self expression.

I think Christine Rosen is confusing self-expression with narcissism.

I like Charles Baxter's definition of narcissism from his essay "Unheard Melodies" (published in The Art of Subtext). He cites the narcissist as part of the triumvirate (with egomania and psychic vulnerability) of the "Tower of Voluntary Deafness"--people who "can't stand to absorb what is being said" by others. For the narcissist "nothing gets through that does not directly address oneself."

"The true narcissist," Baxter writes, "feels the pain of a perpetual wound" and "this pain makes him or her distractable." The narcissist's conversations, therefore, "have a lengthy, free-floating, and often witty complaint built into them. One of the only forms of conversation that flames the true narcissist into attentiveness has to do with reparations. The narcissist is always waiting, in one stance or another, for the world to offer its apologies."

The narcissist, in other words, doesn't just say, "Look at me." The narcissist cries, "Cry for me."

This narcissistic sentiment is alive, I think, in my own Facebook list. I write of my early drug-use, for example, and I imply that this drug-use might have led to my later illnesses. I also write extensively of my illnesses. What am I looking for if not sympathy?

Then again, number 25 on my list is: "At least once or twice a day I stop dead in my tracks and think: I am lucky. I am so fucking lucky. And then I just go on, and try to do what I have to do."

When I write this I am trying (and maybe, admittedly, failing) to express something essential about myself, something that I need others to know: I try, really hard. In this, I am not asking for sympathy. But I am crafting a persona, quite deliberately.

Does my crafting imply an inattentiveness to others? When I write about myself with an audience in mind am I mired in narcissism?

Often, I do feel like my own on-line crafting of a persona crosses the line from mere expression to narcissism. But self-expression, to me, is worth this risk.

The Facebook lists, true, range from artful to narcissistic, and many offer both at once. What I find in many lists, though, is a unique celebration of self, a celebration closer in spirit to Whitman than Narcissus. One of my favorite lists (read it here; #13 is my current favorite snippet of writing), written by my friend Tommy Kim, offers a mix of celebration, laughter, and self-effacement--a self-effacement that inspires celebration and laughter. To me, his list is not narcissistic at all; it's simply expressive and damn well-written.

To me, the bottom-line is that friends find meaning in these lists--in writing them, in reading them. Friends become closer. Importantly, people write. People express themselves in new ways--ways that they may have never even attempted before. And they do so in a new, confusing forum.

The implicit agreement, of course, is that you don't have to read the lists. You don't have to participate at all. Simply wave goodbye as the train leaves without you.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Hypnotically Ugly

"Hypnotically Ugly" is a phrase the film critic Bosley Crowther used to describe the actor Jean Paul Belmondo in his New York Times review of the film Breathless. This is a picture of Jean Paul Belmondo from another film, Ho!


Look at that nose. The hair. Look at those lips, those fat and impeccable lips, as raw and alluring as a wedge of orange. Belmondo's lips defy proportion. His entire face, really, is a study in incongruity. Is this ugliness or beauty?


The phrase "hypnotically ugly" speaks to me of the allure of blogs: the hypnotic appeal of another person's less than pretty life. Ugly, to me, is not necessarily a pejorative term; it hints at a certain messiness, a certain incongruity, inherent in self expression. I think of a quote from Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch:

"Irony, ceaseless self-criticism, incongruity, imagination in the service of no one."

Some decry blogging as narcissistic. I'm writing this blog, in part, to explore the difference between self expression and narcissism. I'll probably expose too much. I have a burning desire to tell secrets. Like all blogs, this blog offers another venue for the voyeur.

Who are my voyeurs? I'm looking for a few good voyeurs. I think voyeurism is companionable to self-expression in the human need it fulfills in our modern, web-addicted life: To squeeze and to be squeezed. To reach out from the soul, on the one hand, and say, I'm here! And to reach out from the soul, on the other hand, and say, Is that you, there?

Still, the equation is not simple. Why, exactly, do I need voyeurs?

Why do I have this desire to be appear at once humble (ugly) and yet alluring (hypnotic)?

At what point do I stop merely expressing myself?

When do I become pitifully self-absorbed, narcissistic, just plain ugly?

Is there a threshold, a certain picture pose, a certain blog title, a certain comment, that obliterates the line--my line between self expression and narcissism?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Tommy Kim's "25 Things About Me" List

Tommy Kim is a writer living in Southern California. With his permission, I'm re-posting his "25 Random Things About Me" list from Facebook.

The writer, Tommy Kim
1) The greatest gift my mom gave me was a phone call on my birthday. She was grilling lamb chops with my step dad on a beach in Tel Aviv, just hours after they finished moving. I was sitting at my cubicle in Los Angeles. My mom asked me to wait and I could hear her giggling with my step dad. She held the phone out into the open air, and all I heard was static. She then said, "You hear that? That's the ocean.”

2) I sauté vegetables in the stance of a fencer, one leg in a deep knee bend, the other leg stretched out behind me, then I toss the vegetables by wrenching the pan with one hand, the other hand, with my index finger extended, pointed at the ceiling.

3) I love writing when it is still dark outside and the sun is rising. The corner where I work begins to fill with light, and my coffee tastes absolutely delicious.

4) My first date with Jill was a date, not a meeting. Is this random? No, but a fact.

5) The proudest moment of my life was when I watched Christine, my little cousin, eat the Spaghetti Carbonara she made. It was the first meal she made using a stove.

6) When I worked at Blockbuster, I used to crawl into the video drop off bin to scare the living shite out of the customers. Once, a boy ran up to the bin and slid in a video, which I summarily ejected at his chest, and he screamed, and through the slit of the bin, I could see his mother in the van laughing hysterically.

7) The shortest email I have ever written went like this: "no."

8) From an early age, I learned the role of violence in deepening one's love for their sibling. At age 11, when I lived with my cousin, who was more like a brother than a cousin, we had a push up contest. I decided he cheated. He called me a so and so. I threw dirt at his face. He punched me in the eye. I love him tremendously.

9) According to my mom, ever since I was old enough to coordinate my fingers and grab objects, which was probably around age one, I folded the thick part of the pillowcase into a sharp corner, and I would rub my finger on it. I still do this before I go to sleep.

10) I steal my dad's clothing. I’m 31 and I still go into his drawers and steal his shirts and wear them out constantly, proudly, telling everyone around me that this is my dad’s shirt.

11) When I was coaching youth hockey, I once tried to discipline the kids for goofing off during practice and lined them up to do ladders. They began cheering.

12) Whenever my mom or I dream of my grandmother, we call each other, trading details as if they were baseball cards, what she was wearing, what she was saying, who she was with, jealous if either of us actually got to speak with her.

13) In a night of drunken abandon, I ran across a piazza in Riomaggiore, toward the edge of a cliff, then hopped over the railing and grabbed on as tightly as I could, hanging over the rocks and waves a hundred feet below. A crowd of old Italian men ran to me and pulled me over, angrier than hell. My friends were pissed and did not speak to me that night.

14) I have a fascination with fire escapes. I take photographs of fire escapes. New York was fantastic.

15) You see me full speed throwing myself on the ice, tumbling and spinning on my back like a demented beetle, Theo Fleury style? I want to build my life around those moments. Not Wayne Gretzky, not Sid the kid, not even Pavel Bure. Short, crazy, mouthy, unbelievable Theo Fleury. I have been told I over romanticize. I think, instead, I just try to feel as much as Theo Fleury.

16) I’m impressionable and crave attention. During our middle school D.A.R.E. session, when two high school students came to our class to talk about drugs, I raised my hand to ask a question. The class giggled in anticipation, and after Scott Folsom asked me to, I did it. I asked, “Did you guys have sex?” Officer Tom escorted me out of class and had me sit by the door.

17) I am shy and a social gimp. At gatherings, I need something in my hand. My hands are my most obvious tell that I’m nervous.

18) I have been ridiculed for buying Go-Bots instead of Transformers. This ridicule continues to this day.

19) In high school I used to slick my hair back into a glossy, shellac, spending twenty minutes gelling, they spraying, then blow drying until my head became top-heavy and I was faint from the fumes. When the products cooled and dried, I could feel my scalp tightening, and my eyebrows arching.

20) When I miss my family I go to Koreatown Galleria and eat lunch downstairs in the food court, placing myself in between the most teeming and chaotic families, their shouts and laughing making it real nice.

21) I once wore the same black polo shirt to work for two straight weeks. Nobody noticed.

22) My uncle organized two family gangs amongst the cousins, the oldest two pitted
against the youngest two. I was in the younger crew. On my 10th birthday, the older
cousins secretly sprayed rat poison over the barbeque drumsticks my dad had grilled.
Then we found our own poison and sprayed their drumsticks. A brawl ensued. My dad
kicked us out of the house.

23) I bought non-prescription glasses in the sixth grade so I would look handsome.

24) One afternoon I shot a hockey puck five hundred times and suffered from tennis elbow afterward. Dogged, stupid, painful. That’s the formula.

25) My sense of smell has the strongest attachment to my emotional memory, which is probably why I always sniff things, like bottle caps and warm couches. I sniff things, terrified of endings.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The New Savagery

"The New Savagery" is a poem by my uncle, Dean Young, from his book embryoyo.

The first stanza:

What does the new savagery
require of me? If I pound a nail
into the wall, the wall is my heart.

I texted Deano this morning, at 8:14 AM: "Can I name my blog after one of your poems: The New Savagery?"

I live outside Philadelphia, in a small, drunk town called Ambler. Deano lives in Austin.

He texted back at 9:15 AM: "Of course u can!"

So now "The New Savagery" is also the name of this blog.