Thursday, March 22, 2018

Reunion Tour

Part Two: In Which This Guy Remembers

I’ve never flown first class before. It was always something I would rather have saved for an overseas trip when I’m forced to be in a plane for many many hours. But making travel plans at the last minute eliminates the cheaper choices, and thus I found myself rationalizing that this was a sufficiently unique occasion to experience a new indulgence.

I spent most of Friday and Saturday doing Normal Things, because I had that privilege. I wasn’t being asked or required to Do Anything other than Be There, so I was permitted to pretend it Wasn’t Happening for a couple of days. Sunday morning I awoke with just enough time to pack and head to the airport. I put it off until I was running so late I had to sprint to the gate before they gave my seat away, which they were in the middle of doing as I hit the counter. I even got scolded by the guy who wanted my spot, “What, did you run through an airport, dude?” with the sort of entitled attitude that only a mediocre white man could match.

The timing of the flight itself was such that I missed the first few hours of the wake. I was in such a hurry and frame of mind that it took a couple of hours for me to realize I was at Nizar’s parents’ house, a place whose threshold I hadn’t crossed in a generation. In my defense, it wasn’t usually decorated with photo trees displaying Kevin Through the Ages.

The house was mournful, yet full of laughter as we shared stories. The first round was about all the times Kevin had been arrested after ignoring his latest collection of speeding tickets. His father learned that day that this had happened more often than he’d thought.

We also talked about his cars, another staple of Kevin’s life. He didn’t exactly drive a car. It was more like he would don car shaped armor which protected him at high velocities. To Kevin, the space between the gas pedal and the floorboard was wasted, and he lived to eliminate that gap entirely. Every time he got behind the wheel, it was like he was trying to steal precious seconds from the hands of Death to add back on to his life. Every tenth of a second mattered. Every hundredth.

The next day I drove up to Denton where our college years overlapped a little. I have many memories there which have nothing to do with him, and I tried to visit those, but kismet kept intruding. While walking through my favorite used bookstore cater-cornered from the Courthouse on the Square, I ran across a book. It’s name and title had been lodged in my memory for over twenty years.

I saw them during the opening credits of John Carpenter’s Vampires. The movie was a backlash to the recent popularity of the Interview with the Vampire series. We were fans, but Carpenter’s movie was made to reestablish the gory horror of the subgenre. “Have you ever seen a vampire? They’re not romantic. They’re not hopping around in rented formalwear seducing everybody in sight with cheesy Eurotrash accents.” It was gritty, it was brutal, it was funny, it was exciting, and we loved it. Quoted it for years. I had always resolved to read the book, but never once did I make an effort to find it.

Walking randomly through the bookstore, I saw it. Its cover was facing outward on a shelf at my eye level, a trade paperback. I blinked hard, and said out loud, “You’re fucking kidding me.” No one was kidding me. It was the book. Now I own it.

It wasn’t the last time I made the statement that day. An hour or so later I drove over to the UNT campus, and found a convenient spot in the parking garage. After I got out of the car I saw it was space number 42, and I tipped my hat to Life, the Universe, and Everything. That night I tried to distract myself with television, and was immediately greeted with the line, “My best friend, Sherlock Holmes, is dead.” I offered a few choice words to no one.

Remembering is easy, as it turns out. It happens all by itself.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018


Part One, In Which Our Man Gets His Club Card

It was late Thursday last when my phone rang. One a.m., big hand on the twelve. Name on the Call ID was Jason, one of the people in life I refer to as the Old Guard (aka The Usual Gang of Idiots, though I never told them that). I met them in high school and gamed with them through college; Rifts, Risk, D&D, Twisted Metal 2: World Tour, StarCraft, GoldenEye, Halo, DOA 3, F-Zero X. If it used a D20 or offered four person multiplayer, we were together for it. We waited in line for the midnight showings of The Matrix and X-Men and LOTR and the dreaded prequels. We passed around the fantasy novels and the non-mainstream comic books. We ate delivery Chinese food with chopsticks, and if IHOP was a school we’d all have a degree.

Kevin was always at the center of that circle. He was the one who introduced half of us to the other half. If we tried anything new, it was probably his idea. If there was a get together or an outing, he was the most decisive among us to organize it; the center around whom we all gelled. When Kevin moved to Cincinnati I started to drift away from the group, and after I moved to Chicago I never kept up with them anymore save for Kevin, who would make a few trips to see me over the years.

My first thought was that the late night phone call must have been a mistake. I didn’t even know Jason had my number after I got a Chicago area code, so . . . maybe a pocket dial? Maybe drunk? I was almost asleep for the night, and decided whatever it was could wait until morning. Some distant part of me dimly reminded me that good news never comes in the middle of the night. I told that part to be quiet.

One urgent voice mail, one returned call, and fifteen minutes later I was gently calling my wife’s name to wake her up and tell her the news. I was not yet ready to handle this alone.

My Lady Love has dealt with death on both personal and professional levels. I’ve heard and seen her coach others through grief many times; she tells them it’s like suddenly one day someone hands you a membership card to a club you never wanted to join. Sooner or later we all lose someone. They may be important, they may be close, or they may simply have been around for a while. However and whenever it happens, it links us together in a way that poets and parents and clergy and counselors have been trying to explain ever since our species first learned to grunt.

But you never really know what it’s like until you get there. You can hear the description of a room to every detail, be prepared for every nuance and every surprise, but the room always looks different to each person who walks in, filtered through our own senses and experiences and emotional states and our connections to those who walk in with us, and links us who walked in before us, and impresses itself upon us as much as we are malleable enough to allow. The only assurance I can give you is that the room is big enough for everyone to have a space within it, and when you walk in, everyone turns to look.

“Kevin died,” Jason said.

Hi. My name is Mark. I’m new here.

The next few hours were . . . well. It was difficult to concentrate. In calmer moments I tried to lock down logistics. I emailed everyone to whom I had responsibilities over the next week and told them I was probably going out of town for a few days. I decided I should pack a bag and wondered if I had any clothing that was black and wouldn’t be mistaken for a fashion statement. I made a list of all the people who wouldn’t know unless I was the one who told them, and tried to figure out the best time and method to tell them. I decided I didn’t want to make people wait, but I didn’t feel the need to tell them in the middle of the night. The news would be just as bad in the morning.

I called an old friend first, and I tried to reach my little sister. I told my parents. One person was harder to tell than others, but that was because we hadn’t spoken in the fifteen years since I broke up with her - but that story belongs to itself.

Monday, January 29, 2018

What's Not There

The other night a friend asked how I am. We were at a party, and hadn’t shared a conversation for a few weeks. He asked casually, not putting any special emphasis in his tone, his eye betraying no deeper meaning. Nonetheless I knew I could skip the small talk and go right into talking about how much my meds and therapy have been helping my mood the last few weeks.

Slipping into depression is like being in a room where the breathable air is slowly leaking out. The effect is inconsistent. Sleep becomes mismanaged. Logical errors in thought are explained away and compensated for. It’s difficult to notice before it turns severe, and by that point Pride has already snuck in and moved the EXIT sign to the wrong door (which is locked, bricked up from the other side, and once you finagle and hammer your way through those obstacles it turns out to be a closet filled with snacks and Netflix to trick you into staying. It works).

This same friend had contacted me privately a few weeks ago. When I posted about my most recent Bout, he offered guidance as one who was some steps ahead on the same path. At this party the other night I had been trying to sneak out and go home, but sneaking is a challenge when you’re built like an ogre and dress like The Matrix takes place in Texas. I even had one foot literally out the door when I heard him call my name, but – introverted as I am – his request for my company made me happy to spend a few more minutes in a loud room of mostly strangers.

Depression has been a companion of mine for many years, but this is the first time I’ve fought it with professional help; the results are difficult to quantify. As my friend and I talked he helped me to realize that when depression starts to abate, it’s not about what you feel, but which thoughts and feelings aren’t there anymore. One day you simply catch yourself in the middle of an average day and are surprised to realize that you didn’t struggle to get out of bed that morning. Or call yourself worthless. Or hope to get hit by a bus. When you stop to think about it, you didn’t do those things yesterday, either . . . . huh.

I’m not walking around feeling good per se. But there is a lack of feeling bad, and I’m looking forward to moving into the void with a few projects I’ve been putting off.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Spoiled for Choice

It’s worse when there’s nothing to do.

I’ve recently begun to take ownership of my depression and anxiety. I guess what I mean by that is that I’ve started to realize that I can’t expect to find my way out of this sinkhole by myself.

If I have somewhere to go, I’m good. If I have somewhere to be, a job to do, if someone is relying on me to show up and Do Something, those are the days I can handle. Maybe it’s because I like to feel needed.

Days off are the worst. The great irony is that there are so many things I want to accomplish in my personal life, but when I’m afforded the freedom to do them, I just won’t. What I want is to learn to play the guitar I bought in 1997. I want to learn to draw, possibly even paint. I want to record voice-over reading interesting things. I want to write something worth reading. What I actually do is none of these things.

I get stuck somewhere between the bed and the couch. I move from one room to another without purpose, hoping that a little physical activity will grant enough momentum to push through this invisible, impermeable barrier between desire and action. Instead I find myself standing still in some random place in my apartment. Not stopped, only . . . paused.

I convince myself that I’m fatigued. Maybe another nap will help. Perhaps I’m undernourished, and what I need is another snack. I think a good cry could wash away the emotional topsoil weighing me down, but I’m not sad about anything. I could force a cry, but that feels like forcing myself to puke when I’m just nervous instead of physically ill.

What’s confusing is how recently I had my shit together. My days off were capable of being productive and stable. I could clean my home and exercise without being scared to begin. I would cook varied and interesting meals.

What the fuck happened?

There was no Event. No date I can point to and say this is when everything started to dissolve. There may have been a moment when everything changed, but if so, I didn’t notice at the time. Just a slow dissolve into this soft lump of a human who can barely muster up the motivation to pet my cat.

Yesterday I admitted to my Lady Love that I need professional help… just three short weeks after I finally realized it myself. Nothing worth having comes easily, it seems. I’ve taken steps to set up a doctor’s appointment, and a therapist should shortly follow.

I’m tired of my life slipping past me.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Support Class

My first two years living in Chicago nearly ended with my suicide. This is not an exaggeration, and this is not a joke. I had a step-by-step plan of how to execute myself with a few items found in my own home so I wouldn’t have to go buy anything and risk changing my mind at the store. The plan was carefully thought out so that it would work the first time. I practiced the steps mentally over and over again so that if I ever made the decision I would be rehearsed enough to carry them out without screwing it up or losing my nerve.

Never mind the reasons why. Never mind the reasons why not.

It took months before I didn’t want to any more, and those were some of the longest and loneliest months I have ever faced. Certainly I could have benefited from either medication or therapy, but what I ached to feel in those days was human contact. My friends were all Back Home, and my problems couldn’t be solved over the phone.

What I really needed was to be . . . held.

It was in my first year of grad school when I started to realize how much I’d missed another person’s touch. In a class focused upon movement exploration we were assigned to follow one another around the room. I was instructed to walk normally, and one of my classmates was instructed to place her hand upon the side of my shoulder and feel the way my joint swayed when I walked.

It was the first time in a year someone had touched me on purpose. I struggled not to cry. No one seemed to notice.

Eventually I got over it, but only just. Found a woman who wanted me, and being touched came not so few and far between. I felt better for a while, because of her and because of time.

A couple of years later, I found myself again Wounded. Wanting. Alone. This time I made a plea to my Facebook friends, and I was flooded with support. I didn’t want to put all the weight of what I was feeling onto any one person, but dividing it among so many alleviated enough of the guilt, and I was able to recover in weeks instead of months. I’ve been okay since then.

Why tell this story now?

A new friend is going through some trouble, and confided in me so that I might help. While sitting together I reached out and took her hand in an expression of comfort. She held on tight and mentioned how good it felt to have human contact after so long without it.

Suddenly I remembered again what that was like, to nearly weep at the slightest gesture of kindness. I thought of that time in my life when such a simple, fleeting moment of contact could have such a profound effect. I began to fear for my friend, and that fear has driven me to press forth every ounce of support I can reasonably muster to the point where I’ve begun to question whether I’m being overbearing with it.

Today I realized that I’m the one I’m trying to save. I’m reaching back into my own past to make sure I don’t kill myself eight years ago. I guess it’s working?

Maybe I didn’t leave those days behind; maybe I’m just outrunning them. I’ve a strong lead these days, but on worse nights I’ll nightmare them within the reach of recent memory, and I’ll fear for those around me. I’ll fear that the Loneliness will take them, too.

Is there anything I can do for you?

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Good Old Age

Contrary to the popularity of the meme, it is not the age of pop culture which makes me feel old. It’s not about what year SpongeBob premiered or how many seasons of Full House had aired by the time I finished high school. It’s not about old Bart Simpson would be if he aged normally. It’s not about how long ago New Kids on the Block stopped being relevant, and it’s not about how long ago Kurt Cobain died. Time passes for us all, and to us all is an equal potential for it to be unkind.

It’s not technology that makes me feel old, either. I don’t care that “kids today” don’t use floppy disks and don’t know why the Save icon is shaped that way. It doesn’t bother me that they never used a VCR, a phone with a cord, or shoved a pencil through an audiocassette. It’s not like I ever used a lawnmower that wasn’t gas powered or stood up to change the TV channel. Technological advances are always coming, and future generations will have unique quirks which are shaped nothing like my own.

I do feel old, though. Ancient. Decrepit. Irrelevant. Useless. Used up. Washed out. Cashed in.


It’s all because of injuries.

Anyone who has known me long enough has seen me in some kind of exercise-induced physical pain, and “long enough” is about three weeks. I’ve bought braces and wraps more often than I’ve bought socks. I’ve eaten more ibuprofen than M&Ms. I’ve absorbed more camphor than sunlight.

It’s too easy to say that I’m not young anymore, and besides, none of this is a recent phenomenon. I started having knee problems before I’d tasted my first whiskey. Once when I was twelve some asshole on the opposite football team dove at my leg. His helmet speared my thigh pad hard enough to bruise me hip to knee. It was a while before I could walk normally.

Sometimes I can point to a reason, like that one(several) time(s) I fell and sprained a wrist trying to catch myself on a reflex. Sometimes I can point to NO fucking reason, like last night; my ankle hurt so badly it woke me up. I had to disturb my Lady Love to bring me an ice pack and some painkillers because I couldn’t walk without gasping loudly enough to wake her. Why is my ankle in pain? Not a clue.

The frustrating bit is always when an injury first presents itself. First I have to figure out the rules. How am I allowed to move without the shock of agony? Am I supposed to stretch it, or is stretching what caused it? Do I ice it or heat it? Does it go away on its own, or do I medicate?

If I’m very lucky I can identify what instigated of the pain and avoid the behavior which lead to it. If I’m very unlucky it can take YEARS to identify and undo the damage. In the meanwhile I move slowly, aggrieved, longing for last week when I was able to do simple things like walk to the toilet without strategizing every pitfall.

If only so much of my career weren’t based upon my physicality I’d hardly mind at all.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Recognize Vulnerability, Stress Empathy

In the seventh grade we were given an aptitude test. The questions measured our desire undertake certain tasks as well as our ability to carry them out. When the results were processed and returned there were two things I was best suited for:

Artistic Expression

I’ve never been able to remember in which order these were listed, but I do recall their scores were rather close together. I remember thinking how divided these paths were. Apparently I was equally suited to run a soup kitchen or write a novel, though it didn’t seem to me I’d be able to pursue both. We were only allowed one elective a year.

In the end it was the artistic expression that won out. After a couple of false starts, I’ve spent the last twelve, maybe thirteen years trying to make a sustainable acting career. Some years are more successful than others.

I’ve always had an itch to do something more important.

A few years ago my Lady Love suggested I try a gig that several fellow Chicago actors have been doing for extra cash: working as a standardized patient. Most medical universities have such a program whereby their students can practice their communication, physical exam, and diagnostic skills on a real live human being. It helps them to work on a stranger, who is an average layperson, instead of a colleague or instructor.

There’s an area of the school designed to look like a clinic. Examination rooms line a carpeted hallway. In each room there’s a standard set of basic equipment: blood pressure cuff;  wall-mounted thermometer; That Thing they use to shine a light into your nose, your ears, your eyes. A glass jar full of tongue depressors. A reflex hammer.

I’ll sit on a narrow exam table, in a thin gown, waiting for a student to knock and enter the room. My street clothes hang on a set of hooks by the door. Based on the questions they ask I give them a series of answers (carefully scripted by their educators) based around a chief complaint. Shortness of breath, ankle pain, persistent cough, “it hurts when I do this.” If they ask the right questions, they get the answers which lead them to conduct the tests which lead them to the correct diagnosis.

A typical exam gives the students five patients to examine. After their first, third, and fifth encounters, we drop the patient persona and give them feedback on their communication skills. Essentially we’re coaching them on their bedside manner through a combination of objective criteria (as defined by the school) and subjective (as defined by We the Standardized Patients).  

I’m very fortunate to have rarely had a need to see a doctor. Most of my experience has been vicarious as I’ve shown up to provide emotional support for someone I care about. For each and every person I know who voiced a complaint about going to the doctor, it’s always been on the same topic: the way they were personally treated by the staff. They felt belittled, judged. They felt like no one cared. They didn’t want to go back no matter how sick they felt or how much pain they were in.

These are the memories I carry with me during the communication feedback sessions. Nearly every student I speak with expresses a desire to make a personal, human connection with their patient. Many of them get stuck on how to do that while simultaneously trying to determine cause of their complaint and how to treat it.

Unless there’s a more pressing issue to discuss I always stress the same two elements to every student. I’ve said it so many times now that it’s become a script:

The very nature of the fact that a patient is sitting in your office means that something has gone wrong in their day. They’re uncomfortable, they’re in pain, they’re probably scared to some degree. This room is not where I want to spend my day. This gown is not how I like to dress when I meet somebody for the first time. It’s an incredibly vulnerable position for your patient to be in. Especially compared to you – you’re at your job, you’re in your element, you’re dressed professionally. The key in making a human connection is to recognize that vulnerability, then bridge the gap with an empathetic connection. Tell them, “I’m sorry you’re feeling this way. We’re going to do our best to find out what’s wrong, and get it taken care of, and get you back to your day.” If you make that the foundation of all your communication, it creates a partnership, fosters a trusting environment for your patient to tell you the things you need to know to make your diagnosis and find the best treatment plan.

I never did become a professional caretaker, and I probably never will . . . but I can help other people do it. Like Sam said to Frodo, “I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you.”

And I can use my acting skills to do it, and that’s gratifying.

And I can earn a paycheck doing it, and that’s satisfying.

And lots of people get to see my back tattoos. They get extra credit for telling me how cool they are.