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better living through chemistry

This is gonna be a long one, so get a beverage and settle in.

I'm not sure how much of myself I actually reveal on this blog. Lots of my readers know me in "real" life, so they know stuff anyway. As for the rest of you, I keep certain specifics to myself ... if I'm going to expose myself, I'm more likely to do it by saying "I like that movie" than by saying "I am X." Nonetheless, I assume I'm transparent. If nothing else, close readers will be able to pick through 3+ years of posts here and figure out that sometimes I get depressed.

What isn't as clear just from reading here is that I also get pretty wired on occasion. Well, maybe it's clear just by virtue of the fact that I've kept this up for more than three years, but otherwise, I don't know that reading a stranger's blog can give you a feel for their manias.

In any event, I've got a long history of ... I don't want to exaggerate here, nor do I want to romanticize stuff, so let's say low-grade behavioral problems. Nothing life-threatening, to me or anyone else, but a bit more than the usual neuroses of contemporary life.

I did therapy a couple of times. The first was pretty useless ... when I realized I got more from slam-dancing at a $5 punk rock show than I did in my hour with the doctor, I quit going. The second time was more useful. I was at the nadir of my inability to cope with my factory job, and Robin took me to the county hospital when I went out in the middle of the street and started screaming. We went to therapy for as long as the insurance held out ... while the doctor felt I could benefit from something more long term, he focused on helping me cope with my job, and it worked, or at least I didn't quit for another year or two.

I can't say I've ever felt that therapy was a good idea, though, not for me, at least. So  in the last 20+ years, I've stayed away from it.

Which isn't to say I'm mentally healthy. But, especially since I quit the factory, I can cope with life well enough to get through most days, and while I am sometimes hard to be around, I'm not toxic or anything. I could go the rest of my life in that frame of mind.

But I'm tired. Tired of always being on edge, tired of never being happy (euphoria doesn't count), tired of constantly acting just inappropriately enough in public to make others uncomfortable. And so I decided to look into some help. Starting here, where I asked a month or so ago if anyone had experience with SSRIs ... I feared they made you a "zombie."

I got some very useful responses to that post. Two deserve mention. One was the World's Greatest Blog Comment of All Time, from Jonathan Sterne ... you might remember it, the Parable of the Pissing Cat I call it. I know some people don't read comments, though, so I'm gonna post it here in its entirety:

I can't answer that for me, having never taken SSRIs. But I had the same anxiety about one of my cats. He was peeing everywhere in the basement right before we were going to sell the house and we had to do something. He'd had all the tests and was healthy according to the vet. He'd acted out once before (beating up the other cat) and we were told to put him on Paxil and couldn't stomach it. We were too worried about losing the better parts of his personality. Well, nobody wants to sell a house when the basement smells like cat piss (much less LIVE in such a place!), so we took the plunge and started giving him Paxil (that was an interesting conversation with the pharmacist). He slept a lot for the first few days and then more or less was back to normal except he didn't piss outside the box anymore. His meow changed slightly, and otherwise it's like he's the same cat minus the pissing. We took him off it as an experiment once and the pissing started again at our new place, so now he's on it for life. Yes I know that's fucked up.

But the house sold in one day.

One other reply hit the nail on the head. It came in email, so I won't tell you who wrote it, but the key line was this: "Being miserable and crazy/funny/fill in the blank is overrated."

These two responses covered both aspects of my problem. Like Jonathan's cat, I have a tendency to piss in the wrong place, which is unpleasant at best for others, and like the person in the email, I have a tendency to valorize being "crazy" even though it makes me miserable, which is unpleasant at best for me.

The result of all the above is that I made an appointment with a psychiatrist at Kaiser. Saw her three weeks ago, told her my story, or as much as you can tell in an hour. She told me that she didn't really believe in making a clear diagnosis with psychological problems, because there's a continuum of behavior, it's not like having a cold where you have it or you don't. Having said that, she said my symptoms were similar to what is called "bipolar 2." To simplify greatly, "2" is like "1" but not as severe ... in particular, where bipolar sufferers have periods of true mania where they do stuff like run up enormous credit card bills during shopping sprees, bipolar 2 sufferers are more prone to "hypomania," which one site I found said can be mistaken for happiness, so you'd be right to ask "what's the problem, here?" But my hypomania is what makes me the teensiest bit irritating to be around, like when they were playing Journey at the ballpark one night and I started complaining at the top of my lungs, which might even have been funny the first time, but I kept it going for about two minutes until my friend sitting in front of me turned around and told me to shut up.

Robin has pointed out on occasion that I suffer from poor impulse control, and this is the kind of thing she's talking about ... I blurt stuff out before I think of how it might affect others, and act out when a bit of prudence might be advisable.

Anyway, as my psychiatrist said, I'm not crazy, I'm not gonna die or anything, but there's meds for people like me if I wanted to try them. Me, I think they'll make me a zombie, but like I said, I'm tired. So, after checking drug interactions with all my other meds, she prescribed me generic Wellbutrin for depression and generic Depakene for "agitation."

I've been on it for three weeks, which should be too short a time for any real changes, but guess what? My life is different. I'm not as grouchy, I'm easier to be around, and my impulse control is much improved. More amazing, though, is the absence of anxiety.

You need to understand: I have suffered from anxiety for so long, I thought it was normal. If I considered it in any other manner, I assumed the social pressures of modern life was the cause. But basically, I couldn't identify the problem because it was ubiquitous, and when that happens, when you have nothing with which to compare, you can't define it, and so it doesn't exist.

Now I have something for comparison. I haven't felt anxious in a coupla weeks. Not once. And the absence of anxiety is what allows me now to understand that there hadn't been a day in my memory, not a day in 51 years as far as I know, when I didn't feel anxious for part of the day.

And it's a very nice thing to have that disappear.

Which is why I say my life under medication isn't marked by what's good, but rather by the absence of bad.

The fact that I took so long to get this story out is evidence of how I feel exposed, but it needed to be said. Now I can go back to what I was doing, playing hide and seek with my readers. I don't intend for this to become a regular thing ... I expect I'll have more to say about my kidney stones and blood pressure than about my bipolar 2-ness. But I imagine there's someone else out there suffering for 50 years like I did ... and meds ain't necessarily the answer, I'm sure there's different answers for different people, I'm not pushing a cure, here. But I'm telling you that it's worth it to take the leap, if you're low-grade miserable it's possible you can be better, don't be afraid to try to be better. It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive.


smart teevee

Steven Johnson, who has a book coming out called Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, offers an excerpted adaptation of one segment in yesterday's New York Times Magazine. And now I'm gonna excerpt it here, because it says a lot of interesting stuff. The core of his argument is that television (and video games, for that matter) demand a new kind of attention from viewers, one that is "good" for us in that we learn to process information in complex ways. I know a lot of people who reject great television series like The Wire or Deadwood not because they are too violent or profane, but because they take too much work. Johnson says to those people, "come on down!" Read the whole thing, of course, but in the meantime, some quotes:

For decades, we've worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a path declining steadily toward lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably because the ''masses'' want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies try to give the masses what they want. But ... the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more cognitively demanding, not less. To make sense of an episode of ''24,'' you have to integrate far more information than you would have a few decades ago watching a comparable show. Beneath the violence and the ethnic stereotypes, another trend appears: to keep up with entertainment like ''24,'' you have to pay attention, make inferences, track shifting social relationships....

[A]nother kind of televised intelligence is on the rise. Think of the cognitive benefits conventionally ascribed to reading: attention, patience, retention, the parsing of narrative threads. Over the last half-century, programming on TV has increased the demands it places on precisely these mental faculties....

The modern viewer who watches a show like ''Dallas'' today will be bored by the content -- not just because the show is less salacious than today's soap operas (which it is by a small margin) but also because the show contains far less information in each scene, despite the fact that its soap-opera structure made it one of the most complicated narratives on television in its prime. With ''Dallas,'' the modern viewer doesn't have to think to make sense of what's going on, and not having to think is boring. Many recent hit shows -- ''24,'' ''Survivor,'' ''The Sopranos,'' ''Alias,'' ''Lost,'' ''The Simpsons,'' ''E.R.'' -- take the opposite approach, layering each scene with a thick network of affiliations. You have to focus to follow the plot, and in focusing you're exercising the parts of your brain that map social networks, that fill in missing information, that connect multiple narrative threads.

I would add, since we just watched Deadwood last night, that there is more than one way to demand attention from viewers. The oft-noted tendency of the writers for Deadwood to give their characters speech that is downright Shakespearean is one example ... while many of the new breed of series invites (or even demands) multiple viewings in order to process information, Deadwood causes fans to re-watch episodes with closed captioning turned on, the better to ascertain just exactly what is being said.


season finale: joan of arcadia

It's the time of the year when shows start shutting down for the summer, and Joan of Arcadia leads the way. Declining ratings mean this might have been the series finale, rather than just the season finale ... time will tell.

The final episode, setting up a battle between good and evil, god and satan, whatever vs. whatever, was interesting. The possibility that the creators of the show have planned this battle for two years is intriguing. I have to admit, though, that I don't believe it ... it felt more like "we better do something or we'll get canceled" than "here's the scenario for the first two years of the show." I have no idea, of course, I'm just saying it didn't play right to me ... not the way something that happened in Season One of The Wire got resolved in Season Three.

So you've got a new direction for a show that desperately needed it, and it didn't exactly sprout out of nothing, but neither did it feel like an organic merge.

And since Season Two was mostly worse than Season One, I can't say that I really care if this show gets canceled. Amber Tamblyn has never been less than excellent, but many of the other characters have been stuffed into the show in an awkward fashion, and I don't think it's good enough for them to pretend now that it had been planned that way from the beginning.

And as much as I miss Buffy, I don't need another one, thank you.

Grade for Season Two: B-/C+


sublime to ridiculous

Meanwhile, in my car I've been bumping an MP3 disc Neal made me with a coupla hundred rap songs, old stuff, new stuff, good stuff, bad stuff. It's not on shuffle play, but the player sorts by artist name, so I got a bunch of 2 Pac, a bunch of 50 Cent, a bunch of Eminem, etc. Right now I'm listening to a bunch of Geto Boys, and as always there's a real Guilty Pleasure thing going on here. Because the Geto Boys are as goofily scary in a "protect me, Lord, from those awful gangsta rappers" way as any band that ever lived. Their music and production doesn't often match that of Dre with N.W.A, but Willie D and Bushwick and the rest are better rappers than anyone in the Compton group with the possible exception of Ice Cube. And while I know humor is subjective, and Geto Boys are as misogynistic and misanthropic and profane and violent as it gets, the truth is they are funnier than most bands, too, even though I'm regularly embarrassed for laughing (I told you they were a guilty pleasure). There's "Gangster of Love," which features a sample from "Sweet Home Alabama" and a couplet where they rhyme "hold 'em" and "scrotum" ... hey, I laughed, even though one site said it's "generally considered the most offensive rap song of all time" ... and "Fuck 'Em," with a chorus that, shall we say, mirrors the song's title. Who can keep a straight face through the classic "Read These Nikes" ("When I dispose of your ass like waste, and nothin but my shoe is in your muthafuckin face, you're readin these Nikes!").

Just when you think there is no substance to the band, they come up with stunning classics like "Mind Playin' Tricks on Me," a complex exploration of the fears underlying the gangsta persona. It starts with Scarface seemingly talking to himself ... "I sit alone in my four-cornered room staring at candles ... Oh that shit is on?" One by one, the Geto Boys tell their haunted tales. He continues:

I’m paranoid, sleeping with my finger on the trigger
My mother’s always stressing I ain’t living right ...
It’s fucked up when your mind is playing tricks on you

Willie D takes the next verse:

Ain’t no use to be lying, I was scareder than a motherfucker ...
I keep looking over my shoulder and peeping around corners
My mind is playing tricks on me

Scarface then returns in despair:

I often drift while I drive
Havin fatal thoughts of suicide
Bang and get it over with
And then I’m worry-free, but that’s bullshit
I got a little boy to look after
And if I died then my child would be a bastard
I had a woman down with me
But to me it seemed like she was down to get me
She helped me out in this shit
But to me she was just another bitch
Now she’s back with her mother
Now I’m realizing that I love her
Now I’m feeling lonely
My mind is playing tricks on me

Finally, Bushwick finishes it off with a heartbreaking vocal ... lyrics don't do justice to the way he says "God damn, homie" before closing with the inevitable "My mind is playing tricks on me." Bushwick Bill is a dwarf who forced his girlfriend to shoot him ... he lost his eye as a result, and the cover of the album which contains "Mind Playing Tricks on Me," We Can't Be Stopped, shows Bill on a hospital gurney, eye all messed up, Scarface and Willie D pushing him down the hall ... his solo album, Little Big Man, included the amazing "Ever So Clear," which tells the awful story of the eye-shooting incident and concludes "it's fucked up I had to lose an eye to see shit clearly."

Meanwhile, there's the political commentary, like "Fuck a War" ("I ain't fightin' behind no goddamn oil against motherfuckas I don't know, Yo Bush! I ain't your damn ho!") and "Ain't With Being Broke" ("being broke/ain't no mutha fuckin joke").

And when you decide OK, maybe there's some redeeming value to these guys, you get a song that mixes all my reactions into one, like Willie D's solo effort, "Fuck Rodney King" ("Fuck that mothafucking sell-out hoe, they need to beat his ass some mo'").

Like I said, guilty pleasure. I can't think of very many people reading this blog who would actually want to listen to Geto Boys, but at least give "Mind Playin' Tricks on Me" a try.


devils and dust

This isn't exactly a full-blown review of Bruce's new album Devils and Dust, which comes out next week. I've only listened to the whole thing once, under less-than-optimal circumstances (riding BART and then walking along the Embarcadero on my way to last night's Giants game) and format (MP3s).

I confess I have less advance excitement over this release than I have for Bruce in a long time. The early word hasn't been negative ... Rolling Stone predictably gave it a good review ... but the descriptions  just weren't inspiring (Tom Joad II, where Tom Joad was Nebraska II) and feel like the rule of lowered expectations, since Nebraska was one of the three best albums Bruce ever made, Tom Joad was decent, and the new one? If it's quality is relative to Joad the way that album was to Nebraska, it's not going to be much.

And then there's the little matter of me being shut out (thus far!) of tickets for the upcoming concert at the Paramount, which isn't making me very happy.

And finally, when I started to play the album on my Karma, I forgot to turn off shuffle play, so I heard the songs in the wrong order.

So this isn't a full-blown review of Devils and Dust.

Having stated all the caveats ... while the sound is reminiscent of Joad, on some songs it also recalls Tunnel of Love. Since the latter is another of Bruce's Three Greatest Albums, that would seem to be a good thing, but the truth is, when an entire album reminds you of the albums of the past, that's not a good thing at all, is it? It's treading water at best, recycling at worst.

Then there's the problem with the melodies. There aren't any. I'm exaggerating a bit, and again with the caveats about the ambiance within which I listened, but hardly any of the melodies stand out on first listen, and once I realized this, I started paying closer attention to that aspect of the songs, and it just seemed like every melody was created to fit the vocal range of Johnny Cash. The songs sounded like fiction put to music, and I suspect the lyrics are fine and lovely, as Bruce's lyrics often are, and that means the Rolling Stoners who practice the English Major School of Rock Criticism will fall all over themselves praising the lyric sheet without noticing that the music is stagnant.

I hope I'm wrong, of course, and I look forward to hearing the album again in a more conducive listening environment, and then hearing the various cool mixes on the official release (which will include a 5.1 surround mix, I believe), and having certain songs rise to the top of my short attention span and joining all my other faves in my Bruce Hall of Fame. But that first listen wasn't exactly earth-shaking.

Let's be honest. Bruce's last great album was released 18 years ago (which means he did pretty good by the standards of Steven's Theory of Rock Star Aging Patterns ... he was 38 at the time). You could make a fine single-disc compilation of his 90s work that would stand up against his best, the same as you could with 60s or 70s Elvis, but in his prime, every album Bruce made compared well with his best. The Rising was his best album since Tunnel of Love, but that only made it his, what, 8th-best album? There is no real reason to expect that a new Bruce Springsteen release will be an all-time classic ... Bob Dylan can do it, Bruce is capable, but I don't expect it. He remains the greatest of live performers, he has never put out a completely crummy album (even Human Touch had "I Wish I Were Blind"), I look forward to growing old with his music. But on first listen, Devils and Dust looks to be one of the most inconsequential releases of his career. I'll check back again after I've spent some time with the official release.


cruel and unusual

Todd Gitlin has a story:

"One of the deepest beliefs in America is having to do with the right to be entertained," [Gitlin] said.

Gitlin illustrated this point by referencing a story that appeared on the front page of The New York Times. It was about a convicted burglar who was sentenced to house arrest instead of prison because he had various heart ailments. To make the sentence harsher on the man, the judge sentenced him to 10 months without any television. The man, who loved television and owned several sets, insisted that this was cruel and unusual punishment and pleaded his case in federal court.

He won the case. The court found that the man had a right to be entertained.

"I think this reveals something deep about our civilization," Gitlin said.


will wonders never cease?

My job history has been a bit, shall we say, checkered. I've had plenty of jobs, but I am probably the worst Job Candidate of all time. Back when I was a teenager I had a few odd jobs ... french fry cook, paper boy, bus boy ... but since I got married in 1973, the only jobs I've gotten are ones which have basically been dropped in my lap. The story:

1973: I worked a summer job as a steelworker for the Continental Can Company. A friend's mom worked there as the plant nurse, and I think she felt bad for Robin and I because we had no money, no jobs, not even a place to live. So she told me she could set me up, moved my papers to the top of the heap, and I worked there all summer. The next summer I returned, only this time I didn't quit to return to school ... instead, I stuck around until 1984. All those years in a job I didn't ask for.

Since 1984, all of my jobs have been in academia. When I was a graduate student, I taught composition classes ... it's what grad students were expected to do in the English Department, unless you had fellowships. Eventually, a friend in American Studies offered me a summer lecture class ... she subsequently helped me get several more jobs in American Studies. I didn't really try to get any of these jobs ... they just kinda happened. When I finally officially applied for the American Studies job I'd been doing, I didn't get it. That's how bad I am as a Job Candidate: I can't even win a job I've already been doing.

This was made clear when I moved to Mass Communications. I had assumed my days of teaching at Berkeley were over, until I got a call from a woman who asked me to teach a Mass Comm summer course. Next thing I know, I was applying for a full-time job. I didn't get it. But neither did anyone else, so they signed me up for one year while they intensified the search. I did a good job ... everyone said so ... but when I applied for the job, I didn't get it. Once again, I lost a job I'd already proven I could handle.

In the middle of all that, I taught one semester at SF State, not particularly well I might add, as both my classes were outside my expertise. How did I get that job? I was vacationing in Europe and got an email from someone at State who'd gotten my name from someone else. The pattern was clear: don't look for a job, get one ... apply for a job, don't get it.

The last several years I've taught online classes at American River College. How do I get those jobs? My sister teaches there, and one day she said "why don't you teach online for us?" And I did, and I do, and every semester I get another form telling me I have classes, even though I never ask for them. Don't look for a job, get one!

Until today, this pattern held true. But, miracle of miracles, the curse may have been broken at last. I noticed that ARC was offering a course in mystery and detective fiction. Since my dissertation was on that topic, I knew I could teach it, and while I live pretty far from Sacramento, I could handle a commute if it was only one or two days a week, if it meant I could teach in a classroom. So I applied for the job.

And a few minutes ago, my sister called to tell me I'd gotten the job.

What next, the Giants win the World Series?