Day 130: shake it up

Some mornings, you wake up early, you drink your coffee, you banter with your children, you take your flipping meds, you read the younger child The BF blooming G, which is surely the silliest book you can possibly read, you get out in the sodding sunshine, you listen to Pharrell bloody Williams, which is surely the fizziest pop music you can possibly listen to, and you STILL end up sobbing in the parking lot, to the clear discomfort of the woman unlucky enough to be parked in the car facing yours.

What a spectacle, a great Anatid-leporid like you, crying in such undignified fashion! [1]

Fighting pain with sweetness and light was clearly highly ineffective. By this afternoon, I had a plan B: fighting pain with more pain.

What happened in the interim to inspire this strategy? I went to listen to two undergraduates talk about their theses at our annual honors thesis showcase, in which seniors who have written a thesis present their research to their peers and faculty.

One of these students had visited my undergraduate seminar last week, after I sent out a last-minute plea for former thesis-writers to come share their wisdom and experiences with my students, who are all in the beginning stages of researching their theses.

She walked into the room during our mid-seminar break, quietly introduced herself to me, and slipped into the seat next to me. She was quite strikingly dressed: most noticeable, at first glance, was her pale pink hijab, which was made of a very fine linen, and was elegantly arrayed. She also wore a quite lovely blue wool blazer, which I immediately coveted, black skinny jeans, and leather ankle boots. When she spoke, she immediately commanded the room’s attention. Her thesis was about capitalism, violence, and temporality in a recent and critically acclaimed television series. It became clear to me, and I think, to the room, pretty quickly, that this was not your average thesis. Her argument was complex and profound, and her learning was deep. She talked about the challenges of writing the thesis—both intellectual: struggling to get to grips with Fredric Jameson—and practical: struggling to find the motivation to keep writing when she felt stuck.

“How did you make it through?” one of my students asked her. Love the pain, she answered, laughing but also serious. She got up at 5am to write, she explained. And she wrote while listening to music, the bleaker the better (she recommended Radiohead specifically for this purpose).

When she stopped talking the room was silent for a couple of seconds, still spellbound. Then one student broke the silence: “by any chance are you this year’s commencement speaker?” she asked, in a star struck tone. “Because you could be.”

Seeing this same extraordinarily self-possessed student speak again this morning reminded me of her mantra, love the pain. When I got home, still unable to stop crying, I went out to run. Not for fun. Please! No, I ran for the pain. I ran hard, at a pace I knew full well I could not sustain, until my heart thumped painfully in my chest, until I was going fast enough that I was flying across the cracks in the sidewalk like the BFG leaping across hedgerows, until my breathing was loud and ragged, until I felt nauseous. I stopped and caught my breath. And then I ran again. I was probably only outside for 15 minutes – the elder was coming home from school and I needed to get back. When I unlocked the door, panting, and stretched in my living room, sweat stung my eyes as it poured down my face.

So: did it work? Yes, it did. It feels like I took myself and quite sternly and severely gave myself a good shake. And afterwards, everything, all the cells and feelings and gunk, to use the technical term, had been sort of re-distributed. I didn’t shake anything off; rather, I shook everything up, in the manner of a snow globe, or, I suppose, a well-mixed vesper.

Like a vesper, it’s only a temporary fix; but it’ll do for now.



[1] N.B. Wikipedia tells me that anatids are generally “monogamous breeders” whereas leporids are “typically polygynandrous.” IS THIS THE KEY TO ALL THAT AILS ME???



Day 125: going for a run, the duck-rabbit method.

One day, the duck-rabbit will publish a whole series of handbooks, and The Duck-Rabbit’s Guide to Running will be one of them.

There will also be The Duck-Rabbit’s Guide to Writing a Book, The Duck-Rabbit’s Guide to Parenting, and so on and so forth. The premise of each of these invaluable handbooks will be that in order to get anything done other than lolling around all day, you have to overcome an epic struggle between the short-term-pleasure focused, lazy part of you (that would be the duck) and the long-term-achievement focused, ambitious part of you (that would be the rabbit).

The duck-rabbit experiences this struggle more or less any time it strives to do anything that involves arising from the sofa upon which it currently reclines. According to anecdotal evidence, not everyone experiences this daily struggle: some blessed individuals decide they want to do something and then they simply do it. Quite extraordinary!

Obviously, these handbooks will be of little use to such individuals. But for persons who do experience this constant push-pull between short-term pleasure and long-term goals, the duck-rabbit’s series of (handy, pocket-sized) guides will prove indispensable. The key is using the rabbit to trick the duck. This isn’t all that hard, because the duck isn’t much of a thinker, let’s be honest. Still, it does involve a certain degree of subterfuge on the rabbit’s part. Consider the following dialogue as a case study. [1]

Rabbit: We’re going for a walk, just to clear the head, get some fresh air.

Duck: Sure, whatevs.

Rabbit: All right, so let’s get our gear on.

Duck: “Our gear”?

[Pause during which the rabbit patiently retrieves all of the various pieces of exercise clothing—the shorts, the sports bra, the running top, the visor, the running socks, the running shoes—plus all the other necessary accouterments—the sunblock, the headphones, etc.—and garbs (and in the case of sunblock, slathers) the duck-rabbit with said items.]

Duck: Bloody hell.

Rabbit: [testily] What?

Duck: I just don’t get why, if we’re just going for a walk to clear our head, we need all this brightly colored spandex.

Rabbit: Well, it’s a warm day.

Duck: And?

Rabbit: This is special moisture-wicking fabric. We’ll be much more comfortable.

Duck: I dunno. It just looks like we’re trying really hard to be athletic or something. And we’re just going for a walk!

Rabbit: Look, let’s just go, we’re all spandexed and sunblocked now, we might as well go outside.

Duck: Oh, fine.

[They walk out into the bright sunshiny afternoon. It’s a lovely day with a cool breeze. They happily stroll along together singing along to Amy Winehouse on their iPhone.]

Rabbit: Ooh, this is a quite a bouncy song, don’t you think.

Duck: Not really. Actually, it’s a bit depressing, when you think about it.

[They walk for a few more minutes. Another song comes on.]

Rabbit: D’you fancy to running to this one?

Duck: Not really.

Rabbit: Let’s try, just for this one song.

Duck: Oh, fine.

[The duck-rabbit breaks into a modest trot for most but not the entirety of the song, which turns out to be quite a bit longer than it expected.]

Duck: [doubled-over with a stitch] Fuck, are you trying to kill me!

Rabbit: There, don’t you feel invigorated!

Duck: If by “invigorated,” you mean winded and clammy, then, yes.

[They walk for five more minutes.]

Rabbit: You know, it’s been over half an hour since we left the house.

Duck: Uh-huh.

Rabbit: Wouldn’t you like to get home soon and lie on the sofa?

Duck: [Perking up]: yeah, why, shall we Uber?

Rabbit: No, I was thinking we could run home.

Duck: Ha! No thanks.

Rabbit: Why not? Think about it. We already have our running clothing on. We have to get home anyway. It will be quicker if we run. And there’s some Britney Spears coming up on the playlist, it’s going to be awesome.

Duck: You are such a fucker.

Rabbit: [innocently] I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Duck: You tricked me!

Rabbit: You are so paranoid!

Duck: Your proposal that we “go for a walk” was a ruse to make me go running, which you knew I would never agree to otherwise.

Rabbit: Hey, I’m not making you do anything. I’m just proposing running as the quickest and most efficient way to get back to the sofa. [Coaxingly] You do want to get back to the sofa, don’t you?

Duck: Stop saying the word sofa. [Blocking its ears with its wings] rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb, I can’t hear anything you’re saying.

Rabbit: [Chanting] So-fa! So-fa! So-fa! So-fa!

Duck: [Unblocking its ears] Look, what I object to, less than the running—

Rabbit: So you don’t object to the running?

Duck: [Ignoring Rabbit]: What I object to, is the deception. You propose a lovely walk and then you ambush me halfway through with this [disgusted tone] running.

Rabbit: Not to be a pedant, but I’m not sure that, technically, one can ambush oneself.

Duck: Oh, but one can! Because one just did!

Rabbit: But how can you possibly say you didn’t see this coming? We ran 26. 2 miles because I told you we were just going with Marissa to lend moral support while she signed up to run a marathon.

Duck: I’m tired of arguing. I just want this outdoors portion of the day to be over as soon as possible, and the quickest way to make that happen is to run home as fast as we can.

Rabbit: You said it not me.

Duck: [Starts running, cursing under breath the whole time] You are such a cunt. And I am such a tool. [Picks up pace so as to bounce along in time to Britney.]

Rabbit: [Whispering to itself] Well played, Rabbit. Well played.



[1] I was originally going to write this in the first person; however, I watched Zootopia last night and was so charmed by the banter between the two main characters—bunny and fox—that I decided to revive the duck-rabbit dialogue.


Day 115: at bay

Therapy has helped me become more attentive to the physical symptoms of emotions. So I know, for example, that there’s a certain kind of mental pain – one I associate with sadness, or hurt, or grief – that is accompanied by a sharp needle like pain that every now and then shoots through the tips of my fingers and a more steady ache in the roof of my mouth.

When I am tired of these sensations there are various remedies that alleviate them: lorazepam, alcohol, dancing, and writing this blog are my most favored methods. Writing is the one I employ the most and lorazepam is the one I employ the least. Dancing is definitely the most effective (it doesn’t work, unfortunately, if I just get up and dance around in my sitting room; I have to actually go to a class), and I think the high lasts the longest. Alcohol is probably the least effective. Lorazepam is effective but in a deadening kind of way.

Writing this blog is the pain relief method I find most mysterious.

If dancing is enlivening, drinking is relaxing, and Lorazepam is numbing, writing this blog bestows, albeit briefly, a feeling of connectedness. It’s effective, often, when I’m feeling lonely; as with exercise or drinking, the good feeling only lasts so long. Usually when I write a post, I get a heady rush when I post it and when I look at the statistics page and see that people are reading it; the high fades, gradually, as the satisfaction of writing the post recedes from my memory and as I see fewer and fewer people going to the site to read it. So then I have to write another. And another.

You get the idea.

Another more obvious strategy for alleviating melancholy and bestowing a sense of connectedness, one I think of as the Humean method, is spending time with other people. I’m not dating anyone but I’m making a deliberate effort to be merry with friends. I go out; I entertain at home; and I make liberal use of the wide range of communication methods that the digital age affords.

The times when I write here are when I long for a sense of connection, and feel that I’ve exhausted all my other options: I’ve emailed, I’ve texted, I’ve cuddled my children.

Although I, to state the bleeding obvious, have a strong impulse towards disclosure, I understand and respect that this impulse is not universal. And, indeed, maybe it is sometimes an impulse that would be better resisted than indulged. Or maybe it’s a matter of temperament or etiquette. I suspect many people think it’s an imposition to tell someone else when they feel sad, and maybe some people do feel burdened when a sad friend confides in them.

Speaking for myself, I feel deeply flattered when someone chooses to share something painful and intimate with me. Also—and maybe this doesn’t reflect too well on me—it’s not that I’m happy to discover that my friends are sad, but I do find it enormously reassuring to discover that others are struggling too. I think that’s why I love Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas more and more the older I get: because it attests to the universality of melancholy.

But maybe this feeling of relief in bearing witness to others’ troubles is less a general truth of human nature than a particular trait of mine. In grad school I worked for a counseling hotline; it was run by the university and aimed at grad students, and, honestly, we didn’t get that many calls. I must have only talked to a handful of people the whole time I volunteered there. But there was one regular caller, not a grad student, a middle aged woman not connected to the university, who called every night without fail. It clearly meant a lot to her that she could call us every night and that someone would be there, night after night, simply to listen without judgment.

I don’t think there is really a talking “cure”; I believe, with Johnson, that melancholy is here to stay; but I also believe, with Johnson, that (both literally and figuratively) you can’t take it lying down. That would be like sleeping with the enemy. No, as Johnson says, melancholy “shrinks from communication”; this blog avows my faith that disclosure may keep it at bay.

But just as, earlier today, my son was all out of tears, I find myself, now, all out of words. Neither woman nor duck-rabbit cannot live by words alone. And in support of that maxim, I’m now, finally, going to pick my arse off the sofa and go running.