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When I was a child, I was enamored of the babysitter. I wanted to be the babysitter. Specifically, I wanted to be a girl. I felt a strong affinity for the feminine. As I grew older, I learned to suppress this feeling. There was no way to change who I was, and I thought “nature doesn’t make mistakes like that”, and “you’re a boy, be happy being a boy.”

As I got older, the girls started changing and I was jealous of them. I hated my body. I rejected my body, first dressing in baggy sweatpants and sweatshirts to hide it. I was depressed. I had no idea why. I saw a child psychiatrist, who diagnosed me with seasonal depression. I’m sure there’s a seasonal component to it, but I was depressed all the time to some extent. Now I realize it is because I hated who I was – physically. I started to over-eat as a self-medication for the depression, but also because I hated my body. I was punishing the body I hated.

After college, I decided I needed to stop being depressed and overweight, and I started eating better and exercising. I lost 140 pounds. I started dating girls for the first time in my life. I started really loving my life. I felt good.

Fast forward 15 years… I’m married, I love my wife, I love my job, I love where we live and our life together.

But.. I had fallen back into a severe depression after a particularly traumatic job experience, and the horrifying and soul-crushing experience of losing my dad to cancer. I started dressing all in black, every day. A uniform of grief. I gained a bunch of weight again. I started vaping. And then the fucking Coronavirus hit. I needed to do something to kick myself out of my funk and get healthy again, so I started running again in March, 2020. Colorado is such a great place to run, there is sun nearly every day. Even in the winter, it doesn’t stay cloudy or cold for very long. I started running along the trails in our neighborhood, and started to feel happy again. I stopped vaping.

And then one day in April, I was running along the High Line Canal trail and started to remember my wish to be a gender other than the one I became. I thought, “maybe my name is Lisa.” I started wearing women’s running clothes, and I felt good in them. Outstanding, actually. Confident. Feminine. I started to think about other appearance changes. I cut my hair in a specific way, with the intent to grow it out. I started dying it – first, gray. Then gray and blue. Then all sorts of fun color combinations. I started wearing brighter colored clothing. Running further and faster every day.

I came out to my wife as genderfluid and non-binary. I was terrified of doing this, but I had to. I am extremely thankful that she took it quite well. I am definitely still attracted to women. I also am at least partly a woman!

I started painting my nails – this was a big deal for me, because you can kind of explain away hair color, but there are certain gender signifiers that are less easy to explain away, and makeup is one of those things. Painting my nails felt liberating. I felt closer to who I actually am. I am slowly coming out to people at work, and they have also all been supportive. I love where I work, and I love my colleagues. I started wearing eyeliner and mascara. I am not sure where it goes from here. I feel like a tomboy. I am athletic, I like camping, knives, motorcycles, shooting guns, but also makeup, and I’m starting to care a bit about fashion. This is quite a change for me, I always rejected fashion, much as I rejected my body. Now I’m rejecting less of myself, and I’m only sorry that it took me 40 years to get there.

Today, I went to Costco with painted nails and eye makeup. I got compliments. I have gotten probably 20 compliments from random people over the course of this journey so far. I think this is because I’m confident, and people see that. I never, not once, got a compliment about my appearance from anyone other than my wife or family in the preceding 40+ years of my life. This is interesting, and maybe it’s because I’m letting the real me be seen.

Eulogy for My Dad

Who here thinks about how their life will end? I know I do. I remember thinking “is this how I die?” during a flying lesson, where my instructor got me into a spin to teach me how to recover. I have never imagined my dad dying. He has always been a larger than life figure, someone who could never die. When I saw him die, somehow the rest of the world became more real.

The day Dad died, I couldn’t really do anything except be numb. As the days passed, I discovered a feeling I had never encountered before: A longing to keep him alive by remembering things about him. This sounds pretty simple and logical. In reality, there is nothing logical about it.

I wanted to make this talk really visual, with photos of him as the focus, and I’d just tell stories about him based on those photos. As I thought about what to say about Dad, I started looking through photos, and realizing that I didn’t have many photos of him from recent times. Most of the photos of him I could find were from before I was born. Then I realized that the frustration I had felt for the last two months, trying to remember Dad, was because I didn’t know him for most of his life. I was a part of his life from the time he was about 30 years old. I really started to know him when he was about 40. So much of his life was spent doing work that he was passionate about, a field of study which requires deep knowledge, that I didn’t really know that much about that part of his life.

What I did know about him was that he was always interested in helping me and Megan learn about the things we were interested in. One of the things many of you have probably heard him say is that “Knowledge is like cow manure, it doesn’t do any good unless you spread it around.” He would go out of his way to find interesting things to bring home for us when we were in elementary school. He’d stop by Dick Blick and get foam core, rulers, exacto knives and cutting surfaces for Megan to use to make buildings. He’d go to university surplus and bring home an old DEC teletype terminal (the kind where there isn’t a video screen, there’s a printer that the computer types words on to, and you type words into it, all printed on the piece of chain-fed paper). He’d take me down to the basement of the university computer center, where his buddy Al was a technician in the computer support area. I remember being amazed at the huge computers whirring away behind glass walls, their tape drives spinning back and forth, lights blinking. Al had a brand new NeXT computer, a 1 foot black cube that I was fascinated by. I remember when Dad did the first iteration of what would end up becoming the art and life in africa web site. This was in about 1988, and the technology available involved taking photographs of different views of every piece of art in the Stanley collection, transporting them to 3M headquarters in Minneapolis, where they were scanned using a flying spot scanner on to individual frames of a Laserdisc which could be indexed by a computer. You’d type the piece of art you were looking for into a computer program, and it would control the Laserdisc player to bring up the art on a TV screen, and you could slide a slider around on the computer to rotate the art. Eventually, this became the art and life in africa CD-ROM program, and finally the web site. I learned about how computers work from these kinds of experiences that he made possible.

When I was in high school, Dad made a deal with me – he’d double any money that I saved up from a summer job, and we’d use it to buy me a computer. I spent all summer working at Hardee’s on the Coralville strip, and saved up about $800. $1600 was just enough to buy a brand new Macintosh and color monitor at the computer center.

I don’t have any photos of my Dad from this time – about the closest I have are a couple of pictures of him and my mom at Grand Teton National Park in 2003. I have fading memories of a very important part of my life, that really only he and I shared. Now he’s not here, and that part of me has lost the only other person who remembered some of those things.

I miss Dad’s laugh. I miss calling him on a Sunday and him saying “hi, buddy” to me, and us talking about his web site, model airplanes, the garden, or other things happening in his life. But there are things I will always remember – swimming in an ice cold lake, out to an island, with him in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. Packing what felt like tons of food and supplies over portages in the Boundary Waters. Sitting in our tent, reading in the evening. He was reading about Captain James Cook, I was reading about Captain James Kirk.

I’ve come to realize that it’s not important that I know or remember everything about Dad’s life, because one of the things that happens when you die, is that your life’s work – including the work of raising your kids and being a partner to your spouse – dissolves into the world. You lose any semblance of control over your own destiny and the destinies of the people you care about. In return, what you were is dissolved into the fabric of everything those people do, and the impacts they have on others. I know that Dad’s granddaughter, Sylvia, will get to do some really fun and interesting stuff, at least partly because Megan will remember how fun it was to go camping in the southwest with Mom and Dad, and how important it was that her intellectual interests were known and cared about by them from a very young age.

I’m grateful that Dad’s memory will continue on through everyone in this room, and through the thousands of students whose lives he changed imperceptibly, who will remember his stories about art and life.

If I can live to have a fraction of the kind of positive effect my dad had on the world, it will be a good life. If I can die surrounded by love, like he did, it will have been worth living.

My Father’s Journey Begins

My Brother-in-law wakes me at 3 a.m.
Lying on the floor at The Bird House
“You should come downstairs”
Megan and baby Sylvia are sleeping in the bed above me
“Your Dad stopped breathing”
I lift myself out of Ambien sleep, foggy and null
As I walk down the stairs my head becomes clear
Dad is there waiting for us
I take his hand and tell him how much we love him,
That we will always love him
That it is OK to walk the path of the ancestors
The Yaba Soore.
We take his hands and kiss him
As I kiss his chest I feel his heart beating strong and fast
He’s warm and I kiss his shoulder right above the temporary tattoos of his two Fentanyl patches.
I walk outside, look up at the stars in the ice night. Orion has set. The deer are sleeping in a hollow in the woods. The Interstate hums and throbs over the rise
I take a drag from my vape pen – I developed the habit in the spring, worrying about him.
Walking back into his room I am overcome with grief, sobbing and hugging my mom
“It will be alright. Love you.”
Dad, I hope you are hanging out with your friends
The old guys from Boni
The mask-makers
Drinking millet beer and telling stories about the people you love
We will always tell stories about you, until we meet you again on the path of the ancestors

848ET9112001

Today the world ended and was reborn in an instant, out of the sheetrock and neatly filed papers, let loose in the sky, all those things that no longer seem important.

On TV, the path of a jet from Boston is traced out, over the ponds and streams and mountains and lakes where I was born, over the Berkshire Connector, over the road to Montreal.
Banking swiftly into a straight line with that feeling you get when history is ripped free of itself and the universe that had been falls away.

What we feel in the pit of our stomach, when a tsunami breaks in the quantum foam, when the underlying connections are ripped clean for an instant. And the true humanity of it all is made plain by an exodus of human beings, people walking calmly and quietly, hand in hand, helping the injured, making their way together across the bridge of time.

In memory of those who fell
And the universe they carried with them

Driving as Zen Kōan

My car is, to most people, senselessly overpriced. It’s not fancy, it’s tactile. It’s a rear wheel drive BMW 335i. In my 20 years of driving, I’ve averaged a new car every 2 years. I’ve been conflicted about why this is so. Why do I serially abandon cars?

For years, I chalked it up to a deep seated and shameful materialism. The idea that on a reptile brain level, I was attracted to the flashiness, newness, and status that a newer, better car gave me. I rewarded myself for advances in my career with a new car — it was the odd goal I came to strive for. To my liberal way of thinking, this materialism was shameful.

I’ve reached a second adolescence — a yearning for irresponsibility in my trek to middle age. I like to think this means a bit of added maturity in the understanding of parts of myself I don’t think I’ve understood well before. I’m examining parts of my life that I felt were important in the past, questioning their importance, and asking “why?” — including why the car fetish? It’s embarrassing, and if my original narrative is to be believed, it’s a position I’ve put myself into as a way to achieve things in life.

I’m beginning to realize that narrative is false. Sure, I’m materialistic. I’ve been trained to be so by years of advertising, culture awash in symbols of success, and the odd American puritanical dream of increasing hard work and responsibility, with a reward in the form of a stable life. Instead, what is true is that I do not play sports, I do not take part in many types of normal team-based physical interaction that lots of people value. I never have. In elementary school, when playing soccer with my team, my dad recalls fondly how I would always play defense, and typically when the action was not near me, I could be found sitting down on the ground, playing with dandelions.

Instead, the physical activity I have always truly connected with has been the art of the skillful manipulation of tactile machines. Some of my fondest childhood memories are when my grandmother let me pilot her fiberglass water skiing boat across the lake and up the channel. That was my first experience with this connection to transport. When I was old enough to get my drivers’ license, I did so with more excitement and engagement than I can recall ever putting into any other course at school. I’ve driven increasingly fun and rewarding machines, including getting my private pilot’s license. I have driven, in chronological order:

  1. 1989 Dodge Shadow — terribly underpowered front wheel drive 2.5l I4 with no torque and a bulletproof but joyless three speed automatic
  2. 1986 Mazda 626 Turbo — very fun sporty front wheel drive car that was on its last legs. Five speed manual with a nearly burned out clutch. The beginning of my love of the turbocharger.
  3. 1982 Volvo 245 GLT wagon — a beautiful, luxurious, wonderful to drive beast of a car with a terribly underpowered 2.1l turbocharged tractor engine with mechanical fuel injection and a bulletproof Borg Warner three speed auto transmission with external overdrive.
  4. 2000 Honda Civic DX — a base, 1.6l, underpowered Civic with a four speed automatic. My first understanding of how well built foreign cars are.
  5. 2001 Honda Accord EX V6 coupe — a 3.0l V6 with leather seats and climate control. A wonderful car, too bad about the torque steer that plagues Hondas.
  6. 2005 Volkswagen Passat TDI — 2.0l Pumpe Duse (camshaft-driven direct injection) turbodiesel that got 40MPG and made 250lb*ft of torque. Torquey and awesome engine, nice five speed auto transmission, too bad about the mushy suspension with torsion bar rear and squishy tall 15″ tires. I learned how to make biodiesel during this time and this car ran on that biodiesel.
  7. 2006 Volkswagen Jetta TDI — 2.0l PD TDI with a five speed manual. Nice car, kind of annoying dual-mass flywheel. I put more than 50,000 miles on this car in a couple of years.
  8. 2007 Audi A3 — 2.0l FSI turbocharged gasoline engine and six speed dual-clutch gearbox. A joy to drive, I should have kept this car longer.
  9. 2009 Audi A4 — 3.2l V6 — a very comfortable, all wheel drive luxo cruiser. Terrible steering feel and somewhat numb suspension.
  10. 2012 BMW 335i — 3.0l turbocharged gasoline I-6, rear-wheel drive, eight speed Zahnradfabrik Friedrichshafen automatic. Silky, nearly instantaneously responsive automatic, rear-wheel-drive, torquey fighter jet of a four door sedan with a deep connection to the road via the steering and suspension. Every surface inside the car meant to instill a deep connectedness with the driver through touch.

I found, when flying light aircraft, the connection to nature via a light touch of the yoke was the most in touch with the “driving” experience I have experienced. You’re taught to hold the controls gently, with two fingers of one hand, like holding an egg. This makes flying much smoother, you feel directly connected to the flight surfaces.

The author holding his newly minted pilot’s license, with his favorite vehicle

I learned to fly in a 1975 Cessna 150 — the least shiny, least flashy vehicle you can imagine. A good one with a fresh engine goes for less than a new midsize sedan. You do not need an expensive new vehicle to experience a deep connection with an airplane. It’s also true that you don’t need a new car to experience connected driving. You just need the right car.

When I focus on driving, in the truest, most connected moment, I think of nothing else but driving. It is a zen koan, an unsolvable problem, the art of which is simply the pursuit. I still struggle with guilty materialism, but maybe now I understand a bit more of what is truly important.

Alan Watts, Terence McKenna, Katniss, Peeta, Kirk and Spock

The philosophical entertainer, Alan Watts, said that every person should consider two fundamental things:

  1. Your own death – really study it in detail – the certainty that you will pass into nothingness and that everything you are doing will be washed away with the sands of time.
  2. The possibility that you are nothing but a scoundrel – that everything you do is only for your own self interest and nothing more.

These two thoughts lead to other possibilities.  If you study them, think about them, you begin to see that the only reality, if there is such a thing, is that the only reason that you are here is to be here.  To be the universe observing itself, and that the future and the past don’t matter, because the only reality is here and now, what’s in front of you, around you, the relationships you have built and the care you pay to every moment.  Worrying about the future doesn’t matter.  No matter what you do, how much you fight the natural tendency of the universe to be a certain way, things will go back to their natural ground state.  And that’s neither good nor bad, it just is.  People will continue to suffer, people will continue to experience joy, and that you can’t have one without the other.  They are two sides of the same coin, so stop trying to get one without the possibility of the other.  Just be.

Meanwhile, culture tells you that you must go to school, and then go to college, graduate school, and ratchet your way up the corporate ladder, and that in the future, there will be a reward.  And so you spend your entire life striving for that reward, which is always in the future.  And you ignore what really matters – the present moment, the relationships, the living of life.  They’ve tricked you into running a race, and the reward is either some promotion, or some nice retirement that you’re too tired and worn out to enjoy, or some afterlife which it turns out doesn’t exist – because you get there and you’re nothing.  And you’re disappointed by your rat race of a life.

The ethnobotanist, metaphysicist and entheogeneticist Terence McKenna talks about the toxicity of culture in a similar way.  That culture tricks you into doing these same things – reaching, striving, instead of actively living your life open to the possibilities of the world around you.  He believes that we have become so enmeshed in this “dominator culture” that we have lost sight of the true possibilities of the universe, that are every bit as real as our material world.  That our ancestors were in touch with these things as recently as 2,000 years ago, but that we have lost sight of getting in contact with the “wiring underneath the switchboard of reality” because culture tells us that the spiritual (in the oldest sense of the word) is not real, and that getting back in touch with entheogenic substances (literally, “generating the divine within”) is morally wrong and is in fact illegal.  Meanwhile, McKenna argues that these door-opening drugs in the form of naturally occurring substances – hallucinogenic triptamines (psilocybin, DMT) are fundamental to accessing this other reality, one that the dominator culture intentionally detaches us from to trap us in our prescribed modes of behavior.  In one lecture, McKenna talks about a dream he had which was so initially disconcerting that he believed it was not the truth, but rather a good idea for a sci-fi novel.  In this dream, a “fractal soliton of improbability” – in other words, an unlikely and singular event in the universe that in fact happened, intersects with and bisects history in the form of the “Demiurge” (a platonic/gnostic idea of the trickster artisan through whom the universe came into existence) willing itself into existence, 2,000 years ago in the Levant.  This soliton had a quantum half-charge, and it split the world into two separate realities – in one, the charge was present, and it affected the course of history in the manifestation of Christ, whose legacy is a series of ideas.  In the other reality, where the charge was absent, that idea lineage did not exist.

In other words, the embodiment of Christ in history is a bifurcating event.  On one side of that divide, we have our reality, in which Greek science was set back 1,000 years by Christianity.  In the other reality, that setback never happened, and the ideas of Christ never interfered with the evolution of mysticism either.  So in that reality, both technological and spiritual advancement were allowed to flourish in a way that put them 1,000 years ahead of us.  McKenna posits that the beings that are encountered in the psychedelic experience are actually the highly evolved humans in the other reality, trying to contact us and save us from the inertia of our own history.

Where am I going with these two lines of thought – both more or less “dangerous”, controversial or even “crazy,” depending on your point of view?  In many ways, the practice of mindfulness and meditation is a way to access the wiring underneath the switchboard of reality, without the need for exogenous enthoegens.  This is some of what Alan Watts conveys in his talks – the duality of the human mind – the split between the rational and the metaphysical, the yin and the yang, darkness and light, good and bad, the rascal and the saint.  The universe of this reality and the universe of possibility.  Watts talks about accessing this universe of possibility by giving up the ego, the idea that you are something other than nothing, that the universe is something other than nothing – a wonderful nothing from which everything springs.  To float on the water, you must relax and let yourself sink back.  If you struggle to stay afloat, you will sink.

Movies are a way for us to tell stories.  Depending on what side of the Platonic argument about memetic entertainment one comes down on, you could say that movies are “bad”, a distraction from a life of the mind, and that they create a desire for unnecessary drama in us.  I tend to believe that while movies are certainly a form of mass entertainment, distraction, profit and culture-making, I also think they serve an important purpose.  They are the modern day equivalent of the campfire, around which stories are told and knowledge conveyed – sometimes in stealth.

I believe that the core message of a couple of recent sci-fi movies (one based on literary fiction) are actually in line with Watts’ and McKenna’s world views.  In “The Hunger Games,” the protagonist hero Katniss Everdeen realizes that the only way to beat the evil and deadly game, the centerpiece of a thinly veiled projection of our society into the future, where only one contestant can live at the conclusion, is to give up.  To save her friend Peeta, she will sacrifice herself.  After all, we are nothing but our connectedness to those we love.  Through death, she will win, by saving Peeta.  But Peeta feels the same way, he cannot live without Katniss, so he will sacrifice himself as well.  When both decide to die, the game is broken, and the society itself, the sick culture, is destroyed is well.  By sinking, Katniss and Peeta both float.

In “Star Trek,” in the original storyline for “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” Spock sacrifices himself to save the crew of the Enterprise, and to save his friend, Jim Kirk.  With his dying words, he tells Kirk that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.”  Spock knows that, logically, rationally, to allow the others to survive, he must go back into nothingness.  This storyline is subverted by “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock,” in which we discover that Spock left his being, his spirit, his ego or anti-nothingness, in McCoy.  He mind melded with McCoy before he died, and transferred his essence to him for safe keeping.  When Spock’s body, devoid of his spirit, rises from death, is reborn, his being can be transferred back into his body.  This is highly antithetical to Watts’ world view – “Star Trek III” promulgates the idea that your ego is the “bus driver” of your body – that the two are not inherently connected and that only the body disappears back into nothingness when you die.  As if to put a fork in the message from the end of “Star Trek II,” at the end of “Star Trek III,” when asked by Spock why he, Kirk, came back to save Spock’s body and being and put the two back together, Kirk responds, “Because the needs of one outweighed the needs of the many.”  To this, Spock says, “it is not logical.”  Whether or not logic plays a part in it, Spock is right – it is antithetical to wholeness or holiness.   As Watts says, the holy are troublemakers – tricksters.  Sometimes, truly illustrating the reality of the world requires subverting that reality and showing the contrasting picture.  It requires drama, it requires being a trickster.  Perhaps this is the real storyline of these two core “Star Trek” films – Kirk and Spock as yin and yang, human and vulcan, emotional and logical, spiritual and physical.

This goofy and impulsive weaving together of the mysticism of Watts and McKenna with the fantasy of modern science fiction is nothing other than a whimsical thought process written down for my own delight.  I could say that I am trying to say something fundamental about entertainment and culture trying to subvert itself and poke holes in the fabric of our every day, unquestioning mental subscription to this idea we have of “reality.”  But what I think I’m really trying to do is to connect my own mundane, everyday existence up with some thoughts about how there is a middle ground between the extreme view, in one axis, of McKenna – of everything as a façade on top of a hyperspatial mushroom-reality which we have been brainwashed to forget, and between a super-concrete worldview that culture and science have evolved to demand.  Our concrete, everyday existence and the culture we are immersed in can be its own trickster.  You can access the wiring under the switchboard through cultural manifestations – poetry, the Internet (in certain places), but also through the spiritual and mindful practice of meditation.  You are both nothing and everything, a scoundrel and a saint.  You are the entireness of the nothingness of everything that ever has or ever will exist (you are made of stars, after all, hydrogen, baryonic matter which has existed since the beginning of time), and you’re also a dude or dudette, sitting on a couch, playing Bejeweled.  You are the universe wasting its own time, and that’s OK.

“2001: A Space Odyssey” in the context of “Mad Men”

I remember the first time I realized that the future was not going to be even remotely like it appeared in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”  I was 18, living on my own, and taking classes at The University of Iowa.  I watched my VHS tape (letterbox) on the couch one evening, and realized that the fictional year of the future Kubrick portrayed was only a few years away, but even then, there would be no Pan-Am Orion space transport (Pan-Am was defunct).  There would be no brightly uplit, Howard Johnson’s festooned Space Station One (NASA and the Russians could barely assemble a few tiny modules in orbit).  There would be no Clavius bases or moonbuses or banal administrative talk while eating perfectly square seaweed-based “ham” sandwiches en route to a lunar archaeological site.  And, the reason that none of this would happen was not because it couldn’t – not that we weren’t technologically capable as a global civilization of doing these things.  It’s that we wouldn’t.  The future had forked at some point in the early 70s, and everything had changed out from underneath the possibility of that future.

I had discovered Kubrick’s masterpiece on a laserdisc at the Iowa City Public Library when I was 12.  I watched the entire thing on a Sunday, with cruddy industrial plastic and metal headphones attached to a 19″ Sony CRT television, flipping sides on the stack of discs one after the other.  The thought that this was the future (then, it still was) held me in thrall.  That future seemed so clearly realized, so detailed, I felt that I was looking through a window at a reality that could exist, that would exist.  My observational skills failed to note the presence of details in my own reality that were much to the contrary of the details in Kubrick’s diorama future.

The Internet should have been my first clue that things were not the same.  Although DARPA and the beginnings of the global network were being created at the time Arthur C. Clarke wrote his book and he and Kubrick were working on the screenplay, neither of them, for all of their prescient inventiveness (there are iPads in the movie!), foresaw that hyper-connectedness would be the dominant paradigm of the future, not sterile disconnectedness, space-based bureaucracies and the cold war.

The leisure suits should have been my second clue.  In hindsight, watching a show like “Mad Men,” the style, the attitudes, the smoking and drinking, the dominance of old boys’ clubs, the pink cashmere stewardess hats and all the other cultural accoutrements of the 60s completely saturate the visual style of “2001.”  It is the past, set in the future.  Looking at the awkward conversation between Dr. Andrei Smyslov, Dr. Floyd, and “Elena” (the future is so sexist, even though she probably has a Ph.D., she’s still only credited as “Elena”) in the lobby of the Space Hilton, you are struck by the character of the setting, the clothes, the drinks, and the non-character of the characters.  These people are sitting casually on incredibly stylish and expensive red “Djinn” chairs, set against the striking white uplit floors, huge curved windows looking out at the blackness of space and the blue gem of the Earth, and ignoring it all.  They are having a stilted and perfunctory conversation that would be just as appropriate were it to take place between Roger Sterling, Don Draper and Peggy Olson.  Just replace “calibrating the new telescope at Tchalinko” with “convincing Conrad Hilton to buy a new spread in Life” and you’ve got it.

What’s fascinating about seeing a fictionalized account of a past I never experienced in “Mad Men,” but is so accurate that my dad can’t watch it because it’s so eerily familiar to his Manhattan upbringing, is that the characters can be, and strive to be, just as cardboard cut-out-y as the human characters in “2001.”  But Matthew Weiner and the other writers won’t let that veneer hold.  They puncture it, rip it apart, and show the seething humanity that struggles with its emotions and fights off the trauma of rapid cultural change, wars, technology and the artifice of civilization.  They won’t let the self-defense mechanism of formality survive more than 5 minutes into any script.  Kubrick, on the other hand, took the opportunity to criticize the fakery and superficiality of 60s culture by developing in the computer, HAL, the only fully realized human character, and contrasting that with the astronauts, who have the kind of personality that Don Draper wishes he could have.

When I was 18, I was so detached from the world around me – my social life consisted of sending text messages to my roommate via the ytalk daemon on our duct-tape and coathanger computer network in our condo, going to James Bond movies with my grand total of two friends after smoking up in the parking lot, and never, ever getting anywhere near a party or alcohol.  The prospect of a clean, stylish, sterile and inhuman future (complete with a computer that I could relate to) appealed to a kid who had been on prozac for 10 years.  Now, years, many friendships, and many social awkwardnesses overcome in my past, and not only do I realize that Kubrick and Clarke’s future will never happen, I’m glad for it.

Pain, Depression and The Winter

I recently took a work trip to the San Francisco Bay Area, to attend a conference.  The trip, the conference, the people, were all great.  I enjoyed it, it was uneventful.  A number of people at the conference started to fall ill toward the end of the week.  The day after I returned home, a Saturday, I got a high fever and started to have flu-like symptoms.  I stayed in bed that weekend and the first two days of the next week.  The aches, pain and fever of the flu turned into a sort of general late-fall malaise that stuck with me the rest of the week.  By Friday afternoon, it was warmer weather (the 50s), but rainy.  I was so worn out I had to go and work from home – I could not be in the high energy environment of the office.

Earlier in the week, my wonderful and caring wife had left town for a conference of her own.  I was home alone, and started to feel really low.  On Saturday, it was cloudy, colder and gray.  I woke up with a terrible cough and took some cough syrup.  I started to get odd, sharp pains in my neck, back and left arm, very sharp and atypical for my normal migraine symptoms.  I thought I was having a bad reaction to the cough syrup.  The pain was so unusual, I did not identify it as migraine related pain.  The pains would last for 5-10 minutes, and recur every 30-45 minutes.  This was like the worst ice cream headache you can imagine, but behind my left ear and eye, and in a way that’s almost indescribable, simultaneously very distant and immediate, like it was happening to someone else and being transmitted from them to me.  The pain was metallic and so intense I could taste and smell it.  In the afternoon, the weather changed rapidly, the wind started blowing, and it snowed.  Finally, at about 10 p.m., the pain was so unbearable I decided it must be migraine related.  I took my migraine meds and fell quickly asleep.  My migraines have always been tied to weather, so far as I can tell.

Today, Sunday, I awoke feeling better – it was a clear day.  By 10 a.m., the wind had really picked up.  I started to feel dread and panic.  Not depressed- downright panic and fear.  I took some deep breaths and decided to take a drive across the valley to calm my mind down.  That actually worked until the sharp, odd, intermittent pain that I had the day before returned.  I went home and took more migraine medication.  I fell into a deep, dark depressive funk.  All my lifelong friends, and my parents, were in Iowa.  My wife was away and I needed a hug terribly.  I felt I had made a very bad mistake leaving home to come work in Pennsylvania.  I wanted to run but couldn’t because the pain was so intense.

I came to a sudden realization: This panic, depression, fear and anxiety were all related to my migraine.  It was a mental manifestation of some neurochemical cascade that was in progress in my brain.  While I could not control it, I could try to understand it.  I had experienced a panic attack before, and my friend Ryan had picked me up from work and drove me around and talked to me to calm me down.  While few things in life are as terrifying as a panic attack when you have no one around to help you through the fear in a rational way, I had succeeded at understanding this reality.

I still find it incredibly strange and unfair that specific combinations of sunlight or lack thereof, heat or cold, and changes in atmospheric pressure and wind can trigger such intense chemical reactions in my brain and the rest of my body.  At times, I am nearly powerless before the cruel tricks of serotonin and norepinephrine.  This realization gives me more tools to fight back, so long as I can remember: it’s the genetics talking, and it will go away if I give it time.

I’m looking forward, intensely, to Thanksgiving with my wife and her family in our house.  I’m looking forward to driving home in December and spending a couple weeks with my parents and wife, and seeing old friends.

Where Do We Lead?

As the United States falls deeper into the willful anarchy of intentional leaderlessness demonstrated by our elected officials, I’ve noticed a trend of uncertainty about how we should lead among people of my generation.  We late-Gen-Xers/early Millennials (those of us born some time in the late 1970s-early 1980s) straddle the border between a couple different dynamics.  If you subscribe to Strauss-Howe generational theory (some have called it pseudoscience – I value it as an observation of a pattern more than a predictor of things to come) then you’ll note that these generations are “Nomad” and “Hero” archetypes, respectively.  What does this mean?

In Strauss-Howe, there are four Archetypes (Prophet, Nomad, Hero, Artist) born during four different Turnings (High, Awakening, Unraveling, Crisis).  These time periods are roughly 20 years each, and each Archetype experiences the Turnings at different times in their life.

The current Gen-X Nomads were born during an Awakening (the 60s/early 70s counterculture) and grew up during an Unraveling (80s/90s consumerism, the “me” decades).  If the pattern holds, they/we should mature into leaders during a Crisis.  Meanwhile, Millennials were born during an Unraveling (80s) and should be growing up during a Crisis.

For those of us in the borderland between these two twenty-year generations, it is confusing to try to define ourselves.  Are we Gen X?  Millennials?  What is the Crisis?  Did it start with the events of 9/11/2001?  That seems like a good choice for a beginning.  If we pick that crisis, it’s been going on for over a decade, with perhaps a decade left to work through.  If the pattern holds, we should see Gen X stepping up to take leadership and action.  I’m beginning to see signs of the Millennials stepping up to take team-oriented action in the form of social consciousness, entrepreneurialism and the new “Maker” ethic.  Meanwhile, Gen X seems to have passed cleanly through its angsty, angry searching years and emerged into successful mid-level managers placed throughout the crumbling infrastructure of the free market economy – the monolithic driver of the last three generations of Western experience.

The economy, now an artifice of high-frequency trading, ponzi schemes and prop-ups from taxpayers, is failing.  The next step in that decline seems to be the self-imposed freakshow Russian Roulette game being played out in Congress by the Randian private wealth warriors elected through a combination of corporatist influence (thanks, Citizens United) and xenophopia.  If the debt ceiling is not lifted and the shutdown continues, the global economy is in for another big downturn.

Where is the leadership that Gen X should be demonstrating?  There are no protests on the National Mall.  No one is running for office on a ticket of constitutional amendments to ban gerrymandering and undo citizens united.  We are getting fidgety.  We see things like former investment bankers quitting their jobs in their 30s to race $500 Craigslist cars in the World Rally Championship, or buying abandoned trailer parks in New Mexico and becoming Makers.  We are impatient to lead, but our furtive steps toward leadership seem disconnected with the political and economic reality of the times.  Perhaps we believe that the next steps have nothing to do with government or the global economy.  If that turns out to be true, I think the next 10 years will be an interesting and very challenging time.

The Part of Me That Could Cry

All text and images copyright (c) 2013 by Nicholas Roy. All rights reserved. No duplication or reuse without written consent of the author.

Gilbert Street, Iowa City, Summer
Gilbert Street, Iowa City, Summer

I remember crying easily as a child. When a grandparent or family friend died, I remember crying for a long time. In high school, I remember sobbing in the stairwell because I got a C. I had a long bout with depression between the ages of 8 and 22.

By the time I was 25, I was dangerously overweight, from eating, from the depression. I remember thinking: I’m going to kill the part of me that is sad. I don’t know how I did it, other than to say that through some force of will, I stopped being depressed, and I lost about 140 lbs. I have kept the weight off and have not been depressed for over 10 years now.

Evening summer sky above an Iowa prairie
Evening summer sky above an Iowa prairie

This afternoon, I came the closest I have since been to falling back into that despair. My wonderful wife is across the ocean doing her research. I have not been able to hug her in over two months, and there is more than a month left before she is back. I’m in a new place, with a new job. The new job is the hardest I have ever had. I’ve easily been able to think my way out of tough spots in jobs before, but this new one challenges me in ways I have never been challenged before. I miss my wife, my parents and my friends.

The sun sets over an Iowa tallgrass prairie
The sun sets over an Iowa tallgrass prairie

This afternoon, I missed Skyping my wife because of a dumb problem at work that really isn’t a problem. I haven’t Skyped with her in nearly a week. I missed her going to bed by 13 minutes. I know, because I have the Facebook chat record to show it. I was driving home when she messaged saying she was going to bed. I was so angry at myself for missing this chance to see her face. I was so angry and so sad. I felt the welcome point of a dark gray cone of despair1 puncture my sternum from the outside, the point pressing against my heart. I felt the tears well up inside. I let out a muted shriek of disgust and pity.

And then it was gone. I did not cry. I could not cry. I had killed that part of myself in order to save the rest of me.

My Parents' Garden
My Parents’ Garden

1 Dark gray cones of despair are about 8 inches long, with a vertex angle of roughly 10 degrees.  They are nicely Gouraud shaded.  Yes, I saw the cone.  It was a “Donnie Darko” moment.