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.