idiosyncracies


That’s a joke. But as K. is fond of saying, “all jokes are half true.”

I’d always been aware that my husband suffered serious depressive episodes: he wanted to be asleep all the time. Things were better early on, when he had a day job and ate at least two meals a day, and worst in the last year, when he started working long, erratic hours in bars, eating poorly, drinking more, smoking again, and never exercising. It had always been hard to get out of bed for him, by which I mean that he described it as physical pain and would often take hours to apparently gain consciousness, or would go back to sleep (occasionally even when in charge of the children) and be dead to the world until I dragged him up again.

That’s what it felt like: dragging a drowned man out of the water. Dead weight. When I finally got him upright, he’d go sit in a chair or on the couch with his eyes closed and the heater going full blast on him, even if it was warm. When he finally became semi-conscious, he’d be withdrawn, napping into his coffee, not wanting to say or do much. All last fall, he stayed with Thing Two, our one-year-old, in the mornings while I took Thing One to school and went to work. Typically, I would come home and he’d still be in his bathrobe, or would have just showered recently. I can count the times he took Thing Two out of our house on one hand (and this despite my urging park, story time at the library, etc.)

Not a morning person, I thought. Needs an antidepressant, maybe. Needs to eat better. I don’t have a lot of experience with mood disorders and I don’t tend to spend time diagnosing people. I’m an English prof. I diagnose sentences. They’re much easier to understand than people.

But there were always these other periods, too. Periods where for a few days K. would stay up late (in our house, until recently; this fall, when he started the job at Swank Wine Bar Filled with Twentysomethings Looking to Hang Out, out in bars until closing, then smoking on our front porch) and get up with comparatively little fuss. Periods where he’d be authoritative, irritable, fidgety, and social. Periods where he’d go off, saying he was going to have a cigar and would be back in an hour, and disappear until the wee hours of the morning when, when I finally got through to him by phone, he’d tell me where he was (“I’m on a park bench,” “I’m on 19th Avenue,” etc.) but not why he had apparently forgotten to come home or call.

Alcohol was always involved.  He’d get really social with strangers. He needs to quit drinking, I thought. He needs to cut down. Maybe he can’t control his actions after a critical blood alcohol level is reached. He’s lonely (he never had many friends) and this is how it comes out.

I never thought he was bipolar, simply because I’m not inclined to. And I don’t think he ever told me he’d been diagnosed, but if he did, it was early on in our relationship when I was inclined to think he was being dramatic about his Serious Emotional Problems (and you know, I was looking at him going: huh? you’re a middle-class white male living off your parents, with an intact family and a bottomless college fund, never been abused, never been assaulted, you got problems?) and I forgot about it. And he never talked about it again. He took my suggestion to go on Wellbutrin for the hypersomnia, and that was that. The Wellbutrin seemed to help for a while, but then it tapered off, this fall we had several episodes of him shoving me around when I’d wake him after he’d been drinking, and some people told me that Wellbutrin interacts badly with alcohol, and after one particularly bad one that involved him shoving and screaming obscenities at me in front of both children, I asked him to either cut down on drinking or change antidepressants, so he went off the drug. Cold turkey. With no medical supervision.

That was Nov. 12. It may or may not be a coincidence that he told me “Baby, I want to get a divorce” three weeks later. It seems worth mentioning.

In the aftermath of the divorce announcement, I was talking to my friend “Veronica,” who had a mentally ill father and lived with a bipolar woman and who is very attuned to these things, and she kept saying “I think he’s bipolar.” And I would laugh ruefully, thinking that she was just trying to give me an explanation that would make me feel less rejected and despondent.

When he moved out, I finally called my in-laws. My in-laws are good people. We haven’t had the best relationship in the past, largely (I now think) because K. never wanted them to visit, so I had to insist on it out of a sense of filial duty that was uncomfortable for me because I thought they hated me, and because K. rejected his mother when he married me). But I didn’t feel right having him move out, even temporarily, and them not know.

So I told them the whole story. And I told them that Veronica kept saying she thought he was bipolar.

“Well, he is bipolar,” said K.’s mother. “Bipolar II. He was diagnosed when he was twenty.”

Huh, I said.

And in fact, when we began with the new couples counselor a week or two later (to help us get divorced, he said), he filled out “depression” and “bipolar II” on the intake form. The counselor asked him about it, and he said that he had been very troubled in his early twenties, but “that’s gone now.”

Huh, the counselor said.

I’m still not comfortable armchair diagnosing. But I considered the history as I knew it, and the present as I know it, which includes a lot of impulse control and anger with the kids and a lot of withdrawal from the kids, and I decided I needed a plan. So I asked K. to meet with me and the counselor and I told him that, for this to move forward, for the sake of his parenting (which he does insist is a priority, even now, and even though he never asks to see the kids but just asks when I want him to come), he needed to do two things: take parenting classes, and see a shrink.

I described the patterns and the behaviors and the order as I’d reconstructed it from old blog entries and calendars.

And he sat there looking stricken. Finally, he said, “I guess I’m not over it.”

I was surprised that he acknowledged and made that connection so easily. He seemed to decide, based on my information, that yes, he was still suffering from bipolar II. And that yes, it was impacting his relationship with the children. And that he needed to manage it. But here is what he said:

“I’ll go running. I’m not going to see a psychiatrist. There’s no context for me to do that. They want to talk and they want you to take drugs, and I’m not going to talk and I won’t take drugs.”

So that’s where we are now. I was glad that he acknowledged the impact of the condition. And that he made the leap to considering it was still affecting it himself. But the elephant in the room for me was this: my understanding is that bipolar II can impair judgment, even more than depression. And I didn’t talk about this, because I didn’t want to make our “parenting meeting” about us, but I’m not sure how you can acknowledge that you have bipolar II and that it’s affecting your ability to parent without considering that perhaps it’s also contributed to your ability to make decisions about whether you should stay married.

But that’s just me.

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I was going to say that I should retitle the blog “variations on a theme of peeing while driving,” but maybe “emasculated” would also do, in a pinch. As for that lone search for a “jon erik hexum blog”…I am filled with empathy. Let me know if you find one.

Mmmmmkay. Well, Geraldine Ferraro is off her rocker, and Eliot Spitzer should absent himself from the public view, lest the waves of bile engulf his entire family. But enough of the political gossip. To celebrate what the Germans call “Mittwoch,” meaning “The Weekend Is Only Two Days Away,” a little levity, in the form of an hommage to the co-author of my days:

1. She encouraged me to skip high school in favor of doing my G.E.D. and going straight to community college, reasoning that high school was “socially repressive and a waste of time.” (Few 13-year-olds get the straight story on this from their parents, no?)

2. She confided in me about the cliquish, snobbish, aggressively white-normative, hetero-normative, and every other kind of majority-normative children at my upper-middle-class, racially homogeneous grade school, “those kids were such assholes!”

3. She refers to me as “the avenger,” with pride.

4. She just called me to hyperventilate in paroxysms of aesthetic disgust at being stuck in Lake Oswego (a tony, soulless, nouveau-riche suburb also known as “Lake No Negro”), declaring, “I will never go to Oswego Pointe Shopping Center again! Further, she pronounced it “Oswego Pointy Shopping Center” to underscore the ridiculousness of Olde Timey Affectationes.

5. She called back five minutes later to proclaim damningly, “Let it be known that this hell-pit is not ‘Oswego Pointy Center’! It’s ‘Oswego Towne Square’!” (Yes, that’s “Towney” Square.)

Hello, Wisconsin! Nice to know you’re not above falling in line with “the wave” of coolness. Nice to know that, chubby and Germanic and working-class though you are, you, like your coastal brethren, can still fall prey to the latest trends.

Another busy week, coupled with some nastiness at work reminiscent of, say, having a root canal done by a dentist who failed to clean raw sewage off his hands after a water main break. But anyway. The coverage of this year’s primary rolls on, and NYCweboy has wondered out loud if the press has won, writing their story of Obama’s meteoric rise as they have, casting Hillary as an evil stalwart of the corrupt old guard. It’s depressing, and maybe it’s true: the vast majority of people I know (who, demographically, are mostly in Obama’s camp: the educated, the relatively well-off, the snooty, the idealistic, and the young; those who can afford to sing along with Scarlett Johanssen and erupt into fits of hormonal giddiness about Sir Talks-a-Lot’s oral prowess) don’t seem to really care what Obama is about, because his movement is real. Yee-haw.

So here we go, and I promised I’d give money and time to Obama if he gets the nomination because, obviously, nothing could be worse than another four or eight years of retrenched social and political conservatism in the form of aggressive foreign policy, failure to reform health care (although Obama has amply demonstrated he doesn’t really know how to do that either), and pandering to upper tax brackets. And I will. But I’m starting to feel less and less enthused about the Anointed One, mostly because I think that, however corrupt/calculating/disingenuous you find the Clinton camp, their criticisms are right on:

1)Obama is all about soaring rhetoric and not so much about ideas.

2)Obama plagiarizes his rhetoric. The evidence is pretty egregious. And yeah, maybe I’m a pedant, and certainly I’m a nitpicker, but it sticks in my craw that his obvious plagiarism of Deval Patrick’s speech is getting a free pass from the media, and from Patrick himself, even though the governor was obviously taken aback at his endorsee’s duplicity.

So maybe NYCweboy is right. Maybe the press decided this for us, and we went along, because that’s what we do, except for those of us who don’t. I’m a contrarian and an outsider from way back, and I see in Barack Obama an ability I never had: one to take all the characteristics that might have alienated people from him and play to their sentiments, to make himself the cool kid, the B.M.O.C., the one who makes you forget what he looks like or where he comes from. I don’t envy him it or begrudge him it, but I just don’t find it that appealing. Because to me, it ought to be more than a popularity contest.

I know I’m in the minority — where else would I be? And I know I’ve got about a snowball’s chance of seeing Hillary, whom I originally viewed as similar but now, due to what Christopher Hitchens accurately termed a “tsunami of drool” bestowed on Obama, see as the red-headed stepchild in this equation, get the nomination. But hey — “right” ain’t about “fair.” I’m not going to completely give up hope; to do so would be to say that the rest of this little democratic process doesn’t matter. So I’m going to keep gunning for the stepchild.
I have never been a political donor, but I’ve now given money to the Clinton campaign. Twice. And though I’ll vote for the Democrat this fall, I have just one wish if that Democrat is Obama:

Take a cue from Hillary. Turn up the substance, turn down the charm, figure out when to shut up.

Oh, and one more thing while I’m passing messages to the candidates:

Confidential to John Edwards: join forces with HRC. This is your chance to be a kingmaker, shake things up on Pennsylvania Ave., and actually fix a few of the things that are broken around here. As far as I can tell, being veep under B.O. will be all about making the cool kidz happy, and that’s no longer your thing, ennit?

I am often amazed that I am still married, because a stable relationship, to me (as a child of ugly, ugly divorce), seems improbable at best and, in my particular case, you have not just the normal impediments to the marriage of true minds, but extraordinary ones. My impediments are rare, strong, and really, really costly; I am the Johnny Walker Blue Label of issues, from my vacuuming OCD to my caustic criticisms to my bouts of depression to my secret desire to stop participating in the messy and inefficient business of everyday life in favor of subsisting on Buck Rogers-style “meal packets” and living in a completely controlled environment. Yesterday, for example, I treated my spouse to a half-hour diatribe because he mixed up the boxes of New York and Shakespeare magnetic poetry that I was sorting, because God forbid that Times Square should rub up against forsooth, and his actions, I explained, were somehow emblematic of a blatant disregard for my personhood and autonomy that could only result from mammoth solipsism. I then proceeded to rail against the word “concupiscence,” which I find both phonetically and semantically irritating; the high levels of benzene pollution in our town, which are causing our children’s lungs to shrink and atrophy; the ethical and intellectual bankruptcy of consumer-focused preschool education; and conventional meat farming practices and how they are going to kill us all with genital cancers from the artificial hormones.

And that was before lunch.

But my husband, whose ability to remain almost totally unaffected by just about everything around him gives him an edge when dealing with a member of the high-strung and hyper-vigilant ‘worrier class’ such as myself, takes it all in stride. And somehow he manages to spend at least half the time feeling concupiscence for me, even though I won’t let him say that word, plus I’m too busy lead proofing our home to put out. And this morning, when we stopped at the grocery store, he surprised me with a copy of the new GQ, because the cover features Bill Clinton, and he knows that I can’t resist any coverage of my favorite ex-president (“He’s a lover, not a killer,” says my stepdad, and truer words were never spoken), and he even let me refuse to share it with him in the car.

Sigh. What a sweetheart.

I was listening to His Royal Princeliness the other day and reflecting upon the fact (anecdotal, it’s true, but borne out by years of experience and, as any of my girlfriends can tell you, I have made an exhaustive multi-decade study of white male culture and habits) that straight white boys almost universally don’t like Prince, or rather they display a kind of embarrassed squeamishness about his music, as if listening to it will magically paint them with the broad brush of Biracial Metrosexuality and Possible Gayness (despite His Purpleness’s having addressed the issue of sexuality in “Uptown,” and despite his legendary success with the ladies).

As I’ve already addressed in these pages, white males like, or pretend to like, Joni Mitchell, and if you can explain why, I’d be delighted to send you a lifetime supply of ear plugs. And white males like Elvis Costello, which is something I’ve also never understood, because to me Elvis Costello is the F. Scott Fitzgerald of music: the best thing about him is his titles. Seriously. This Side of Paradise, for example. The Beautiful and Damned. These titles have an evocative elegance that’s impossible to top, and Elvis Costello’s jauntily ironic Brutal Youth and My Aim is True do the same thing for pop music. Unfortunately, none of the works in question really lives up to the title (call me a Philistine, but I agree with Fitzgerald: “I’m sick of all this shoddy realism.” After all, who reads novels or listens to pop music for realism? Especially the realism of the overprivileged, disaffected, callow white male? Don’t we have enough of that in life?). But still, in my day there always seemed to be legions of straight white males who loved Elvis Costello in the same way that eighteen-year-old lesbians loved Ani Difranco. I think of Elvis Costello as the everyman for the American college male. Of course I’m dating myself, and maybe now James Blunt is the everyman.

But anyway, somehow it’s cool for your average twenty- to thirty-something straight white male (you know, those people who still get paid more than the rest of us) to like Elvis Costello, but it’s not cool for him to like The Artist. The Artist is somehow too swishy, too funky, too flirty, too damned good-looking, and what’s up with that falsetto, anyway? In fact, the only way to make Prince palatable to Joe Quarterback Punk is to cover his songs; when I met my husband, he owned only one album of Prince’s music, a covers album by Yo La Tengo’s bassist called That Skinny Motherfucker with the High Voice?, which makes it OK to appreciate Prince’s songwriting, just not his eyeliner (it’s worthy of note that Dump, a.k.a. James McNew, is “pasty, overweight, and …not really unhandsome,” according to Flak Magazine, and it’s my theory that McNew’s dumpiness cancels out the frightening prettiness of Prince).

Of course, since he married me, K. has become the proud joint owner of many of Prince’s fine works, including the original motion picture soundtrack cassette (yeah, mofos!) of Purple Rain (recently named “Best Soundtrack Ever” by the editors of Vanity Fair) and the three cd-set Prince: The Hits/The B-Sides, which has kept me company on many a long drive. But he still displays a marked squeamishness when it comes to actually listening to them. He agrees with me when I claim that Prince is a musical genius, one of the few true polymaths to hit pop music in the last fifty years, a person of astonishing talent, skill, and inspiration. And yet when it comes time to press ‘play’ he hems and haws and usually mutters something like “can’t we listen to someone kind of scrubby and lopsided, like Thom Yorke, or paunchy and dumpy, like Mark Kozelek?”

Not that there’s anything wrong with the music of Red House Painters or Radiohead. It’s pleasant and pretty and really, really white: comfortingly undanceable and whinily eloquent on the subject of self-image and personal experience, those luxuries of the middle class. But even die-hard Radiohead fans (e.g. my husband) concede that Prince has the superior musicianship. And yet he remains conspicuously absent from their record collections. Why?

I think the answer is simple: Prince fucks with Joe Quarterback’s idea of masculinity. For one thing, he knows who he is, and he doesn’t have to write songs about his self-image, which is unfathomable to your average white college boy in baggy jeans. Prince needs no baggy jeans. And it’s not just that he’s too pretty; he can also dance! His music is way too funky and way too flagrantly wanton. And not only that, he wears makeup and girly clothes, custom-tailored to his tiny frame, and the overall effect is a kind of feline sexiness reminiscent of a pin-up calendar. But Prince’s discomfiting habit of transcending stereotype doesn’t end there; he also happens to swear like a mofo (or he did, before Jehovah came on the scene), attract all the ladies like sugar water in an ant colony, and be the biracial product of a black father and a white mother (one of the deepest insecurities of white America), and if you think the average white American male is comfortable with the idea of a delicately fairylike mulatto in tights stealing all the women, well, you’re more of an optimist than I.

In fact, I’ve only had one white American male friend who was an avid Prince fan, and he finally came out of the closet.

So, for example, when Radiohead offers In Rainbows for download, these average white American males and the women they influence think this is a radical new idea, even though Prince did it years ago. And when Pete Doherty wears eyeliner and acts debauched, they think he’s rakish, charming, and inventive, even though Prince did it years ago. And when Britney address issues of her media image in overproduced, ghostwritten neo-hip-hop songs, everyone, even Ken Tucker, thinks she’s being trenchant and ironic, even though Prince did that years ago too (only without the “ghostwritten” and “overproduced” parts).

It’s like when my colleague asked me if I thought Barack Obama had a chance, and I said “that would be awfully nice; maybe in fifty years.” There’s a huge part of America that just isn’t ready for a biracial black man. But for the rest of us — everyone who’s not Joe Quarterback — Prince continues to reign.

I probably would have posted this earlier in the week, but I’ve been trying to sublimate the dread I have for Thanksgiving. You could say I’m a party pooper, and you’d be right, but I have no use whatsoever for Thanksgiving, except perhaps as an exercise in self-flagellation.

Anyone with an interest in American history can tell you that the Native Americans have gotten a pretty shitty deal. I was reminded of this recently, when my husband forced me to watch the heinous Colin Farrell-mobile The New World, in which scores of sweaty, grimy colonialist goons exemplify the ethos of the title, i.e. that This World is New Because We Didn’t Know About it Before, in a plodding celebration of the white man’s mental limitations. Not even the presence of the talented Christian Bale, here totally emasculated by a role that shows him slavishly lapping up Farrell’s leavings (in the person of Jewel’s Peruvian cousin), can redeem more than two hours of this kind of self-congratulatory drivel. But I digress. This movie is only relevant to Thanksgiving in the sense that it gives a pretty accurate idea of what Thanksgiving celebrates, which is that Europeans came to America and fucked it up and the inhabitants saved their asses anyway with a gift of corn and beans before being rounded up and herded off to Oklahoma.

Are you hungry yet?

So anyway, somehow Thanksgiving just doesn’t give me the urge to stuff myself full of massive quantities of stuffed bird swimming in greasy gravy filled with giblets, and since I spent eighteen years as a vegetarian before succumbing to the lure of foie gras on the Ile St.-Louis one spring afternoon, I don’t fully understand what giblets are, anyway. I think they come in a clammy, string-wrapped bag. I suspect them of being gristly. Or maybe just gummy. I must admit I’m not quite comfortable with them. I have no quarrel with giblets, but they should keep to their own.

My personal history with Thanksgiving doesn’t help this aversion. Since my parents’ divorce when I was in middle school, all holidays involved splitting the day in half; a noonday meal at Dad’s followed by a chilly trek down to the 54 bus, which was running on “holiday” schedule and inevitably made me wait an hour, followed by a grimy ride with an assortment of bums, crazy ladies, and other odorous folk reduced to bus-riding as a survival tactic, followed by having to shove down a second holiday dinner at Mom’s. Of course, not eating was not an option either place; Dad is, of course, Chinese and would have found it massively insulting had I not eaten Herculean quantities of his over-salted meal, whereas Mom, occupying second tier as usual, might have felt slighted had I not done her undercooked Brussels sprouts justice (and for added guilt, it was usually her birthday).

So having to convincingly dig in to two Thanksgiving dinners is probably enough to give any adolescent a dislike of the process, but there’s another piece to the puzzle: the hereditary eating disorder. Those who have experienced this know what a scourge it is and how difficult it is to escape: you spend your early childhood watching your mom act out her bizarre relationship to the refrigerator, sometimes even implicating you in it (in my case, her refrain was, “Oh, Honey, why did you make me eat so much?” — as if a six-year-old could make a thirty-five-year-old consume an entire half cheesecake). You watch your mother glance in mirrors and moan about how fat she is, and when you hit puberty you decide that that’s what womanhood is, it’s a cycle of self-loathing and guilt-mongering, and you also become convinced that you are fat, so fat that it’s repulsive to even look at you. Even if you are 5’4″ and weigh 86 lb., because (thank God) you take after your dad’s side of the family. Even if the other half of your heritage involves competitive speed-eating. With chopsticks.

So that was my Thanksgiving: two dinners, lots of guilt, the trauma of the parental schism reenacted viciously (he wouldn’t so much as give us a ride in her direction, she couldn’t mention him without tearing up). And then there was my sister.

I’ve written about my sister in these pages before, and I think it’s only fair to get a third party description of her, um, unique character. So I’ll give you my dear friend Grant’s assessment, in the context of a conversation we had some years ago. I had apparently told him about something my sister planned to do that, to me with my skewed vision of reality, didn’t seem that outlandish, and he responded,

“Yeah, but your sister is ka-RAZY.

Out of the spirit of generosity, I should say that in this case, we can lay the blame for my sister’s insanity directly at my parents’ door. Not only did they pass on the twin streams of Chinese eating duty and hereditary Body Dysmorphic Disorder, but sis was a little younger than I when the Iron Curtain of Hatred fell down between our parents, so maybe it wormed its way deeper into her subconscious. By the time she was fourteen, she was subsisting on a diet of water and lettuce. Every three weeks she’d indulge on a Roman scale and eat a whole loaf of bread in one sitting, and then presumably hate herself, but her net daily calorie intake was still probably only in the double digits. She was all too eager to walk a mile through frigid rain to the bus stop (having been kicked off the track team), and she didn’t even mind the hour-long wait, which gave her the opportunity to jog in place in the little ditch on the side of the highway while we both got hit with sheets of rain churned up by passing cars, but once we sat down at the table, she was no picnic.

My parents were united in their bafflement at her refusal to ingest food, so they tactfully ignored it and urged me to eat twice as much to make up for it. And, well, my sense of self-preservation wasn’t so strong in those days. So by five o’clock on Thanksgiving Day, I was usually either lying on the floor as my bowels rioted in protest, or trying not to throw up in the ditch by the bus stop.

Once I moved away for college, I never came back for Thanksgiving. I spent a lot of happy holiday afternoons strolling around upper Broadway, eating Tasti D-Lite and loitering in the Barnes and Noble when the weather got bad. But now I have the great misfortune of living in my hometown, and we’re invited to my mom’s house for Thanksgiving (I am thankful that my dad has since moved away; does that count?), and, the pièce de résistance, my sister is now living with my mother (having fled her latest fucked-up relationship once again), and so we will all be together.

I can barely contain myself. In fact, I can’t think of a better way to commemorate the day, except maybe being forced to march a thousand miles in bare feet and smallpox blankets.

What are you thankful for?

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