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.

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.