The essay originally written as part 1 of If Anybody Could Have Saved Me: Battling Depression at Mid-Life has been traditionally published on rolereboot.org. Please take some time and read it here.
Depression sometimes feels like drowning. You’re wading in a river, and the bank drops from under your feet, and you realize that someone filled your pockets with stones. Perhaps it was you. You fight with all your might, trying to surface, but your lungs burn and your muscles ache and the light gets dimmer until darkness seems like an old friend.
Another take: David Foster Wallace, the great writer and suicide, once said that depression is narcissistic. Though I doubt he meant it as a universal truism, and I certainly don’t take it that way, I understand his point. When you feel emotionally crippled and physically ill because of your life, your career, how people perceive you, and so forth, it’s easy to dismiss your reactions, your very emotional health, as navel-gazing. Admitting that there is a certain amount of narcissism inherent in depression, though, I think such a blanket dismissal of its legitimacy would be a mistake.
If you’re not going to dismiss it or just try to “suck it up” and ignore it, though, what do you do?
I’m a writer, so my first instinct is to write about it.
Going DFW one better, I think there must be an element of narcissism in any personal essay or memoir. It’s far from the only or most representative element in those genres, but it’s there. To believe that some story from my own life might be entertaining or enlightening to others is to assign myself value. The same is true when I “write for myself,” at least when I subsequently publish those works.
I suppose that this project therefore represents a double-dose of narcissism, but those who know me can tell you that, like much of my work, it also originates in a deep and well-earned sense of self-loathing. I am not doing this to make myself look good or sympathetic, nor am I doing it to punish myself. I am writing it to understand and deal with my depression. At the very least, I hope my doing so can help remind other depressed people that they are not alone.
I first proposed this project as a kind of dark joke on Facebook. “I am thinking of honest-blogging about my struggle with depression,” I wrote, “but my depression tells me nobody would read it or care.” I expected to get a few “ha-ha” reactions and, perhaps, a couple of well-wishes. The status update hardly went viral, but it produced more responses than I imagined. Between comments, which are still appearing as of now, and personal messages, at least two dozen people have encouraged me to share. “Perhaps,” I thought, “there’s a space for something like this, maybe even a need.” More specifically, since the depression blog/memoir could well constitute its own sub-genre, maybe there is a space for my contribution.
As for what that contribution will be, it’s anybody’s guess. I don’t have a specific structure or form in mind. I would imagine that some entries will be long and detailed, like book chapters or personal essays. Others will probably read like journaling. Sometimes I may tell you about what I’ve fought through on a given day; sometimes I may recount an experience or a hope/fear for the future. Some posts may be only one or two sentences long, or contain only a single image, or read more like a prose poem. If I solidify my own conception of what this project is over time, I’ll let you know.
What I can tell you at this point is that it’s not my only focus. I teach five English classes a semester. I am working on several writing projects besides this one: several stories and essays, a potential novel, and a script I’m tinkering with. I’ve got a wife, three kids, a son-in-law, a granddaughter, a cat, and a dog. And as a narrative junkie, I read and watch movies and television all the time. If some time passes between entries, keep checking back, or join my mailing list. I’m probably just buried in work. I’ll be back eventually, God willing.
I can also predict that, like most of what I call my “freebies”—works I post on my site, rather than trying to publish them traditionally—these entries will be rawer, not as exhaustively drafted and edited, less organized. I’m trying to do something that’s very difficult for me—share intimate details about my life and emotions—and if I think about it too much, I may well dilute or even ruin the work.
Now, a warning. Some of my content may be disturbing. You might find descriptions of live-wire nerves, rock-bottom anguish, poor behavior, harsh language, violent acts, sex, and more. I hope you’ll also find humor and love and light. Life is, after all, good, and I am quite lucky and blessed. That’s one reason my depression is so maddening. That’s one reason I need to understand it.
Join me, won’t you? The waters are choppy and filled with jagged rocks, but if we work together, you and I, we might just find our way back to shore.
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I’ll Tumblr 4 Ya
Here’s a new post on my Medium site. It’s political. Read or avoid at your discretion.
Recently on Facebook and Twitter, I stated that those who say they wouldn’t change a thing about their pasts are either lying or overly stubborn. I caught some flack for that claim. One of my friends misunderstood; he argued that he wouldn’t change a thing along the way because he’s happy with the destination. Another said that, because she constantly critiques herself, she wouldn’t change much. As for the latter, I can only envy my friend’s comfort with most of her decisions and actions. I constantly self-critique, too, but in retrospect, I still find that I’ve erred much of the time. In terms of the former, my statement wasn’t about changing who I am today. It’s about wishing that my present self could go back and say to the younger me, “Even though you think you know what you’re doing, you are about to make a mistake. Don’t be dumb/selfish/mean/insensitive.”
Many of those past actions involve wronging others. And while I could—and, eventually, will—write about my struggles with relationships and family, today I am thinking of my failures to take care of an old friend. His name was Tank. He was a dog. He loved me, as dogs love people, unconditionally and with his whole being. And, as is often the case with people and their “love” for animals, I cared about him when it was convenient and ignored him when it wasn’t. Now, when I try to sleep at night, I often see his face—dark fur with brown patches, a white chest as if he were wearing a cummerbund, eyes so radiant they could melt a glacier. He always looked so happy, until the day he got sick and I abandoned him.
I still remember the day I brought him home. It was during my first marriage, when things were always volatile. I was nineteen years old, with a wife and daughter. I was a student at Louisiana Tech University and was majoring in engineering, which I hated. But I had come out of high school with dollar signs in my eyes, and since I had taken all the college-prep math and science classes my high school offered, I felt well-prepared. I didn’t particularly enjoy the work in those courses, but I believed that I could work a job I didn’t like if it meant that I could make enough money to do whatever I wanted otherwise. And since even in 1989-90 we could tell that computers would soon rule the world, I declared a computer engineering major.
I hated my classes. Hated them. My favorite things to do were reading and writing, and there I was, taking Calculus II and Chemistry and Introduction to Computer Programming. As I sat there taking notes on arcane formulas and weights of gases and ways to make a “DO WHILE” loop or whatever it was called, I saw my future stretching out before me, endless days of sitting in front of a screen and writing code so that other people could use computers to do the kinds of things that I really wanted to do. But I have never been a quitter, and my parents were proud of me and my scholarships, and my wife and her family constantly expressed money concerns in ways that told me changing my major to, say, English would lead to full-scale civil war. And so I trudged on, miserable and bitter, angry at myself for declaring a major that I didn’t want and at them for pressuring me to stick with it.
My strategy—if you can call unconscious decisions a strategy—was to self-sabotage. I stopped going to classes I didn’t like and never got around to dropping them. I skipped tests to go home for a weekend. I went to see Aerosmith and Joan Jett the night before a Trigonometry final, which I showed up to twenty minutes late and left before anyone else. When the university put me on a one-semester academic suspension, I packed up my family and moved back to southeast Arkansas, where I enrolled in the University of Arkansas at Monticello without declaring a major. After drifting for a semester or two, I finally pulled the trigger and declared. I was an English major. I have never looked back.
But in between realizing that I hated engineering and finally making the right decision, I went through several varieties of hell. And since my family life caused a lot of the tension, I wanted something else to love, something that, like my beautiful daughter, would not judge me or pressure me to live a life I didn’t want. I thought a pet might strengthen the already-firm bonds between me and my daughter. So I decided to get a dog.
A lady I knew from work was giving some away. They weren’t any special breed, but I knew when I got mine that he would be fairly big—not Great Dane or Saint Bernard big, but not poodle or Pomeranian territory, either. I chose him because he was gorgeous and gregarious, and because he had a great name already—Tank. It conjured images of unstoppable canine energy, powerful runs through tall grass. I brought him home in the back seat of my car. He was good.
Of course, Tank would later royally piss off my wife, who wanted no dogs bigger than her mother’s Boston Terriers. As he grew, he barked gruffly at inopportune moments and refused to be housetrained even to the extent of scratching on the door. Thus we would awake to find the newspapers we had left out still as spotless and crisp as the day they were printed, while a steaming pile of poop sat on the floor right next to them. He pissed on the tile floor of our mobile home’s kitchen and soaked the carpet more than once. I was constantly cleaning up after him, and none of the old tricks I had learned worked at all. And so I became hyper-aware of any noise in the night—light scratching, the staccato clicks of toenails on tile, whining. And I would rise up out of my deep sleep, already shouting, “Tank, NO!” as I bolted down the short hallway.
More often than not, I was too late or found it was all a false alarm. Tank kept me on my toes that way.
I couldn’t leave him outside; we lived in a trailer park that did not allow loose pets, and we had no money or permission to build a fence. I had no desire to chain him to a tree or a doghouse just for my own convenience; I was at least that selfless. And so I would sleep a few hours at a time, these restful periods broken up by anxiety and stress and nasty work that I had little patience for.
Oh, I still loved the dog. During the day, we’d go outside and I would let him run around in the thirty yards or so between our trailer and the next one. He would chase insects and frolic and play fetch with whatever ball I could find. I’d run with him, trying not to trip over him or step into a hole. I’d tackle him and ruffle his fur and scratch his belly, and he would chase me and rear up on his hind legs, his forepaws on my stomach. Sometimes I’d take those paws and walk with him, fashioning an awkward dance.
Yes, our life together waxed and waned between frustration and boy-and-his-dog joy. Until, that is, we moved back to Arkansas.
Our new life brought all kinds of changes. We lived next to my in-laws, who had multiple dogs and two or three cats. Our trailer sat at an intersection between a road leading to a highway and a gravel road that wound through the more rural portions of town—the dangers of traffic and big trucks in one direction, the song of small patches of woods in the other.
I now had to commute around an hour and a half every day. I was taking a full undergraduate load and working a part-time job that actually drifted toward full-time hours, though the pay was rotten in those days of three-dollar-and-thirty-five-cent-an-hour minimum wage. I had homework and old friends to see and relatives to visit, as well as a wife and daughter that needed and deserved my time and love. And as all this coalesced, my nineteen-to-twenty-year-old self made some good decisions and some bad ones.
Good: I took care of my school, work, and family responsibilities. I made time to hang with my friends, to throw parties, to read for pleasure and play video games every chance I could.
Bad: I had less and less time for Tank. And because I was so busy, I was able to rationalize it. “He’s got a lot of other animals to play with,” I said, letting him out more often and hoping that he would not find his way to the highway, where he would almost certainly be flattened. “It’s not like I’m being lazy,” I said, and that much was true. “It’s not like I don’t care about him anymore. There’s just so much to do.”
Easy words. In many cases, justified. But empty and hollow and insufficient nonetheless.
Because eventually, Tank got sick. One day I came home and he did not greet me with bounds of joy. He looked my way and dragged himself over to the car as I got out, his head hanging as if he were ashamed of his poor efforts. He moved like a dog four times his age. It struck me as odd. I asked everyone about him, but no one had paid him much attention. So I sat with him awhile, scratching behind his ears and telling him what a good boy he was. I talked with him as if he could understand (which, for all I know, he could) and might reply at any time. I told him about my day. But as evening descended and the temperature dropped, I patted him on the head and said, “See you later, buddy.”
By this time, Tank was a full-time outdoors dog. His refusal to take to house training, along with my in-laws’ always-open and comparatively warm laundry room, led my wife to insist on it. I was too tired and distracted to fight about it, and besides, in southeast Arkansas dogs with worse places to sleep led full and happy lives.
Around this time, my school workload increased, and my employer wanted me on duty more often than not, as the cold months had descended, bringing with them the approaching holidays. And so for several days in a row I came home at odd hours—3 pm or six or eleven—exhausted and hungry and ready to fall into bed.
I didn’t see Tank. And, to my everlasting shame, I didn’t even think about him.
Finally one day my wife was waiting for me. She looked both upset and angry. “Tank’s sick,” she said. “He’s in the laundry room.”
“Shit,” I said, more annoyed than concerned. The weight of the day settled on me; I felt it in my lower back, my shoulders, my aching head. I dropped my things on the living room floor and crossed over to my in-laws’. I pushed open the door of the laundry room.
Tank lay there on his side, breathing shallowly. When he craned his neck to look at me, his movements were stiff and labored, as if the very motion pained him. It probably did. His eyes were dull and weeping; his fur looked matted. And yet, as I came in the room, his tail beat a weak tattoo on the concrete floor. I thought I heard him make a low sound in his throat. It might have been an abortive bark, or a whine, or nothing at all.
I sat down with him and took his head in my lap. I stroked his fur and spoke softly to him and promised him that he was still my dog, even though I had failed him lately. I told him that he would be all right, that whatever had taken hold of him would let go. That he would stand up again, and frolic and leap and bark and wake the neighbors and dig in the hard fall dirt. I apologized for being gone so much, for not realizing how he felt.
And yet I couldn’t think of what I could do for him. I was an undergraduate, meaning I had no income at the college. We had already spent the overage from my financial aid that semester. I doubted that any of my relatives would have lent me money to take Tank to the vet, and all of my friends were either off at college somewhere or broker than I was. And I could not stay out there with him much longer. I was starving and tired, and I had to go do it all again the next day.
So after a while, I lowered his head back down to the concrete and promised him that I would be back as soon as I could.
I never saw him again.
The next few days were even busier than before. When I came home, I was in no mood to take care of anybody besides my daughter. I would do what she required, and then I would sit on the couch and vegetate or go to bed or slog through some homework. I thought about Tank, and I asked about him; apparently his condition had not changed one way or the other. I took this as a positive sign—no news is good news, right?—and went on with my day.
Then one day I came home and was told that Tank was gone.
“What do you mean, gone?” I asked. “Did he die? I thought he was stable.”
At this point, my wife revealed that her brother had gotten tired of watching Tank suffer on the laundry room floor. He had loaded Tank into a truck and carried him out into the woods, where he laid him down on the ground and shot him. It was a mercy killing; my brother-in-law had no malice toward Tank. He was doing the only thing he knew to do, which was put Tank out of his misery, because I, Tank’s owner and friend, had done nothing.
When I heard this news, I felt as if someone had stabbed me with a coring knife and hollowed me out. Into that emptiness spilled conflicting feelings that threatened to crack the foundation of my self-image. I was furious with my brother-in-law for killing my dog. I was grateful to him for doing something to help Tank. I was sad that Tank was gone; I was happy that he wasn’t in pain anymore; I was relieved, damn me, that I would not have to take the time to go into that room and comfort him. Yes, I actually felt relief for myself.
What kind of person was I?
Tank had done what very few people have ever done for me. He accepted me and loved me and gave me his loyalty without question or condition. He loved me when I played with him, and he loved me when I ignored him. He greeted me every day as if he hadn’t seen me in years, during a time when my own wife seemed to wish I would disappear forever. He lay on that cold concrete and fought against whatever was ripping him apart and looked at me. He tried to wag his tail.
And what had I done? Had I gone to every friend and relative I had until I had found enough money to take him to the veterinarian? Had I begged a vet to work out a payment plan with me so that my friend, for whom I was responsible, could live a longer and happier life? Had I sold something precious of mine to finance his treatment? God help me, did I take him out and shoot him myself if I could not be bothered to do anything else?
No. I let him lie there in his sickness and rot from the inside. Because I was busy. Because I wanted some time for myself. In truth, because I was lazy and selfish.
As I have gotten older, I have come to believe that how a person treats animals says a lot about how much they value life itself—the Earth, the people in their lives, people in general. If Kalene’s diet allowed it, I really think I would try to become a vegetarian because I simply cannot abide how animals are treated in the food industry, how each animal’s life must be as important to it as mine is to me. I believe that animals have souls, emotions, desires, maybe even dreams and goals. And I want to do as little as possible to hurt them, my meals notwithstanding.
But in those days, no matter my intentions, I was not a good person. I mistreated that dog, even if I did so for what seemed like good reasons and mostly by omission, rather than commission. I was responsible for his life, his health, his happiness. I failed him in every way possible, even in my own heart.
But I didn’t emerge unscathed. I have never stopped thinking about Tank, or the other pets I had before him. And every single thing I’ve done for my pets since then has been influenced by his presence in my life. It’s why I gladly put off getting things I want or going on trips when my cat needs medical attention. It’s why I advocate for animal rights, why I speak out against things like puppy farms and kill shelters. It’s why, even when I take a bite of steak, I remember that it was once a part of a living, breathing creature that did not want to die and that had done nothing to me.
Tank taught me one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned, one I’ve tried to pass onto my children. Animals aren’t interchangeable tokens we move around at our leisure. They are important, soulful beings with whom we share this planet, this life. If I ever see him again—and I believe that I will—then I plan to tell him that. And I will run with him, talk with him, pet him, and throw that ball to him for as long as he wants.
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If You Ask Me
Nirvana’s Nevermind as Cultural Bomb
I suppose every generation has at least one do-you-remember-where-you-were-when-it-happened event. Some are Earth-, or at least nation-, shattering: the storming of the Bastille, the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, the first shots over the walls of Fort Sumter, the Nazi invasion of Poland, Pearl Harbor, the launching of Sputnik, the moon landing, Watergate, the World Trade Center attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the tsunamis in Indonesia and Japan.
Some are moments when world leaders die unexpectedly, changing our lives in less cataclysmic but still important ways—Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Princess Diana.
Still others mark a change or absence in the art and culture that we experience every day. Take the realm of music for an example and you could pick several names from the last forty years: Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Lennon, Presley, Wallace, Shakur, Jackson. And if you made such a list, you would be remiss if you failed to include Kurt Cobain.
Other people have written about Cobain. I don’t suppose my story is much different than theirs. It might go something like this.
“And lo, the 1980s came to pass, and in this time the land lay enshrouded in the shadow of a dark and evil force, an entity that ensured the unequal distribution of power and wealth and a return to the personal politics of a bygone era, and that force was named Reaganomics.
“And the popular music of this era would uncritically reflect the thirst for material goods and economic excess for its own sake. The artists of the day would often symbolize the conspicuous consumption that prevailed throughout the land. And in the fullness of time this music would be called Hair Metal.
“And many Hair metal bands would garnish their stages with enormous set pieces, models, blow-up figures, and laser lights, and they would dress in tight leather and spandex and multiple bandanas and thick make-up and whole cases of hairspray, and in their lyrics they would register their desire for never-ending parties and limitless sex and the unfettered flow of drugs and alcohol.
“When these bands first appeared, they heralded the expansion of music into new and interesting directions, and their charming fin-de-siecle attitudes super-charged the youth of the land. But as the wealthy hoarded more and more of the land’s resources and the poor became more desperate and those in the middle disappeared, the land’s taste for Hair Metal transmogrified into a yearning for something new—something angrier than New Wave and more accessible than Punk.
“And in the latter part of the decade, those who yearned discovered bands such as the Melvins, and later, the Pixies, Sonic Youth, Mother Love Bone, and Dinosaur Jr. And new bands formed under the influences of these forbears, and their names included Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam. With regular rotation on MTV, these bands grew in popularity and mainstream acceptance. And perhaps their success is best epitomized in Nirvana’s second studio album, the 1991 release Nevermind.”
I’ve got much love for 80s Hair Metal and the other bands mentioned above. But when Nirvana released Nevermind, few people were probably aware that the band had actually detonated a cultural bomb, one that would change the musical landscape and the youth of America. Nevermind is nothing short of a watershed moment in musical history, and now that we are twenty years past its release (!!!), I feel that I must consider it and its place in my life.
Nirvana formed in 1987, and in 1989, when I graduated high school and saw the birth of my daughter Shauna, they released their first album Bleach on the famous grunge label Sub Pop. I was aware of this album and liked it quite a lot. As many critics pointed out, Nirvana’s sound emulated the Pixies’ in many ways, especially the LOUD-quiet-LOUD structure of their songs. For influences, you could certainly do much worse, right? And I remember really liking songs like “About a Girl,” the simplified growl of “School” (“Wouldn’t you believe it? / Just my luck. / No recess!”), the metal-like anger of “Blew,” the speed-metal-ish “Negative Creep.”
But with Nevermind, I went from being aware of Nirvana to being obsessed with them. The album sounded like a mélange of many things I’d heard before, but at the same time, it sounded completely new. It was angry in a way that you could only find in the punkiest punk or the speediest metal; it was sardonic; it was sincere and heart-wrenching; it was critical. I listened to each song and felt myself falling deeper and deeper in love with the album.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the song for which they are probably most famous, is the borderline-incoherent scream of a new generation. Songs like “In Bloom” and “Come as You Are” demonstrate Nirvana’s range—the one hard and heavy, the other like something The Police could have recorded. “Breed” could be a punk song. “Lithium” and “Drain You” rock like metal, though neither shares the typical subject matter of the most prominent hair bands. “Polly” is, quite frankly, one of the creepiest songs I’ve ever heard. And the dirge-like “Something in the Way” is simply, completely different than anything else on the album. The repeated lyrics are both haunting and mystifying: “Underneath the bridge / My tarp has sprung a leak / And the animals I’ve trapped / Have all become my pets / And I’m living off of grass / And the drippings from my ceiling / It’s okay to eat fish / ‘Cause they don’t have any feelings / Something in the way, mmm…”
As a band, Nirvana also looked different. We had already moved from bands like the Beatles, who first came to us in button-down shirts and ties, to long-haired, leather-clad, hirsute rockers to the 80s-era spandex and make-up. Nirvana, by contrast, looked as if they had just fallen out of bed at a college dorm. They wore faded jeans and t-shirts and cardigan sweaters. On stage, they leaped around as if they had just come from the mosh pit themselves, or else they stood still; they had no elaborate set pieces or enormous scaffolding that spanned the arenas or massive fireworks displays. If they tended to destroy their instruments a la the Who and countless other bands before them, they could not always be counted on to do so safely or in a way that seemed practiced; witness bassist Krist Novoselic throwing his bass into the air, only to have it land on his own head.
In their televised performances they seemed to exude a barely-controlled anger perhaps restrained only by a distaste for excess. They could rip your spine out with their crunching chords or soothe your aching eardrums with an almost-melodic detour into a song like “Something….” Their music seemed to have been made by people who knew what had happened to America in the 80s—the false siren call of “family values” that marginalized alternative family paradigms and modes of being; the “prosperity” that stopped at the very top and trickled down to the rest of us not at all, in spite of the political rhetoric at the time; the belief in American exceptionalism that still hamstrings us today. Nirvana’s music seemed to rise up from the middle-class-to-poor spirit that had been trampled on. Starting off as a marginal voice from a marginal movement, it took center stage with Nevermind and reminded us that music could be more than what it had become.
I will always love my Hair Metal bands, both the fun ones like Poison (yep, I’m not ashamed of that) and the more serious ones like Dio. But I can honestly say that Nirvana reminded me of what rock music could be, beginning with Nevermind. Kurt Cobain’s death was every bit as important and traumatic to me as John Lennon’s. Cobain might not have reached Lennon’s level as a songwriter, but as a voice crying out in the wilderness of our lives, Cobain has no superior.
In this, the twentieth year since that watershed moment, I salute Nevermind all over again, and its three creators, whose collaboration was, like Cobain himself, gone too soon.
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Has Anybody Seen My Teeth?
Bodily Changes and Other Minor Tragedies
If you’re a fan of pretty much any professional sport outside of golf or bowling, you’ve probably heard announcers lamenting the increasing age and declining skills of once-great athletes. Recently I read an article about a Dallas Cowboys’ cornerback, referred to in this instance as “the aging Terrance Newman.” According to Newman’s Wikipedia entry, he was born on September 4th, 1978. That means that in roughly three weeks from the time of this writing, he will turn 33 years old.
Randy Couture and Dan Henderson are considered exceptional specimens in the world of Mixed Martial Arts, not just because they have won multiple championships in multiple weight classes but also because they both competed at high levels into their 40s. Couture finally retired in 2011 after losing to former Light Heavyweight Champion Lyoto Machida via front kick to the face (think Daniel-san’s crane kick in the original Karate Kid, a move heretofore thought to be purely fictional). Couture is in his late 40s. Henderson, the current Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion who is likely headed back to the UFC, is around 41.
Sticking with the MMA world, for a moment, we should consider the case of Rashad Evans. Until his recent TKO of Tito Ortiz, Evans had been out of action for 14 months. Most people thought he would struggle with so-called “ring rust,” the condition stemming from long layoffs. Train all you want, the philosophy goes, but if you aren’t actually competing, you don’t know how your body or your mind will respond in the heat of battle. Dana White, the bombastic UFC president, said of Evans, “He’s 31. He’s not 26.” You’d think that Evans had turned gray and wrinkly overnight, that he used a walker or a wheelchair, that he might knock over the glass containing his dentures on the way to his fifth bathroom trip of the night.
The conventional wisdom in the NFL is that running backs decline sharply after their 30th birthdays. Gymnasts and swimmers enjoy an even shorter shelf life.
All of this has always seemed patently ageist to me. But at the same time, it seems to be true. For every Randy Couture or Brett Favre, there are thousands of athletes who never play past their mid-30s, when their “advanced” age and allegedly declining skills make them unappealing at best, completely disposable at worst.
Yet, for all of my grousing about the ageist trend in athletics, I also can’t exactly argue with its logic. I am currently 40 years old and no longer an athlete. And even I suffer from aches and pains that my 20-year-old self—hell, even the 35-year-old version of me—did not believe in and had never experienced.
I often tell my students that I have the perfect evidence of life’s unfairness, and it is this: at 40 years old, I get both gray hairs and pimples.
Oh, I’m no silver fox, at least not yet. But every day I find more gray hair—in my beard, at my temples, even on parts of my body that had always been covered with downy dark hair. Everything seems to be bleaching out, slowly but inexorably. Yet as I look at those stray gray hairs, I often find new zits in my hairline, on my head, even on my face, as if I were still a teenager readying for a date. It’s just not fair. If you have gray hair, you should be too old for pimples, and if you must regularly use Clearasil, you should be too young for gray hair.
My goatee is probably the most startling evidence of my hair’s transformation from young person’s to that of someone who might reasonably expect a recruiting letter from the AARP. Once it reflected all the aspects of my heritage. Mostly the hairs were dark, almost black, though in some cases they looked blonde or red. My beard epitomized America: democratic, diverse. Walt Whitman would have been proud of it. Now, though, it consists mostly of two colors: dark brown and gray, with the gray quickly gaining prominence. If I still have it at 50, it will probably look like I just stepped out of an arctic blizzard.
Athletes’ faces undergo similar transformations. It happened to Brett Favre. About the same time that gray began to appear on Favre’s hair and on his chin, his face got a little more wrinkled every year, and for every interception he threw, more and more people questioned how much longer he could compete. Never mind that he kept taking teams deep into the playoffs and breaking records; because he had passed some tipping-point age, he would forever after be suspect.
Of course, part of the reasoning was that he felt the hits more than he used to, that it took him longer to recuperate. And again, here is where I cannot argue with the logic of the age factor.
Before I reached my mid-30s, I had undergone surgery on a diseased appendix. I had had perhaps four cavities. I could engage in pretty much whatever physical activity I wanted and move reasonably well the next day. But around my 36th year, I suddenly started feeling pain in places where I didn’t know I had places.
I had to have my wisdom teeth removed. Though they had come in years before, they had never really bothered me. Suddenly they made my jaws ache. I had two very minor procedures to remove a surface-level basal-cell carcinoma from my chest. I discovered that I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome, though not the highly embarrassing kind that plagued poor J.K. Simmons in The Ladykillers; it bothers me just enough to make travel uncomfortable. My ear, nose, and throat doctor discovered that I needed a septoplasty and a turbinate reduction. After that procedure, I could breathe normally for the first time in my life, which is when I began to snore. A trip to the neurologist and a couple of sleep studies revealed that I had mild-to-moderate sleep apnea.
None of these conditions were serious or life-threatening. But they piled up in a relatively short time, and after a life of good health. They were particularly disturbing in light of my family medical history, which includes cancers of various kinds, heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. One of these days I expect a Riley newborn to skip all the preliminaries and just spontaneously combust.
I’ve taken precautions against these and pretty much every other major issue that my doctors and I can think of. But there’s only so much you can do to prevent health problems as you get older. It’s not really fair. Most of us go from never having to think about our health, or exercise, or what we eat and drink, to worrying about all of it all the time. It’s like being in a car that goes from zero to near-death in five years.
Then there are the aches and pains that accompany getting older. Right now, my right shoulder inexplicably hurts at the joint, especially when I raise the arm above chest level, and most especially when I have to raise it and lift something, or even remove a tight pull-over shirt. I’m not sure if the problem lies in the bone or the muscles or the ligaments and tendons, but something’s wrong, and time—plus lots of exercise or the lack thereof—hasn’t helped. My neck is stiff most of the time and pops painfully when I turn it too far to the right. And now even my jaw hurts a little on one side. Where do these problems come from? What did I do to cause them, if anything? It’s all a mystery, and the only way to solve it is to go to the doctor yet again, to undergo even more tests, and/or to take even more medication.
Speaking of which—I currently take a pill that lowers my cholesterol. I take another that helps my stomach and my poor sleep patterns. A third helps regulate my triglycerides. And I also take over-the-counter medication for joint pain. I fondly remember the days when all I needed was a Tylenol or a BC powder.
When I look at how my body has changed regardless of circumstances, I believe that it’s a miracle that athletes last as long as they do. If I had to spend every day getting punched in the face or body-checked into the boards or feeling my ribs crunch under a linebacker’s shoulder pads, I’m not sure that I could get out of bed at all. And I’ve been pretty active most of my life.
What must aging be like for those who were never in shape? Or those whose lifelong medical conditions have prohibited them from even trying to exercise? In this day of medical miracles, why can’t we all live long lives free of pain and discomfort and, yes, the gray hair-pimple combination?
Still, I’ll take aging over the alternative every day. I’d rather be gray-haired and above-ground than a young-looking corpse.
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Catch-Up: Random Thoughts about Events and People in the News
So thanks to the end of the semester, I haven’t written anything here in nearly two weeks. In that time, lots of things have happened—some incredibly important, some less so. I cannot possibly comment on everything, so to get back into the swing of things, I decided to write about whatever struck my fancy at the moment. Here, for better or worse, are the results. Hopefully I’ll be back to more coherent and cohesive posts soon. I should also note that for the most part, I don’t spend a lot of my blog time on political commentary, but sometimes I feel the need. Feel free to skip over whatever section below doesn’t catch your fancy.
Much has been made of the dreaded “27 Club,” populated by such notables as Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain. Amy Winehouse joined that august group recently, not long after a terribly disjointed and ultimately abortive return to the stage in Europe. The tributes piled up immediately, as well they should; whenever anyone dies, he or she leaves a hole in the world, and when a talented artist leaves us, the hole is all the bigger for their having touched so many lives.
I was never a huge Winehouse fan. Her look frightened me; her music was not the kind I tend to seek out. But having heard her tracks and seen some of her televised performances, I was well aware of her talent. The music she released demonstrated her songwriting ability, the bravery she drew upon in laying her life bare in lyrics, and the smoky voice that distinguished her from so many other pop starlets. One can only wonder what kind of art she might have produced in the future.
Her death was hardly surprising, and yet I was stunned when I heard about it. I offer my heartfelt condolences to her family, her friends, and her fans. And I beg the young and the talented to stay out of that goddam club.
The National Football League Lockout
Since my last post, the NFL lockout ended, with concessions given on both sides. If only our politicians could take note on how real compromise works, they might learn that neither side is ever likely to get everything they want. To achieve compromise, each side has to gain something, and each side has to give something up. While I have not studied the complexities of the new collective bargaining agreement, I have heard enough to know that some progress was made along these lines.
Generally, in any strife between labor and management, I side with labor. History is crammed full of examples of corporate excesses enjoyed at the expense of workers; unions help avoid that and, by doing so, help stave off the kind of proletariat revolution that Marx predicted. You would think, then, that political conservatives and bourgeois managers would thank God for unions. But that doesn’t happen in America, at least not often.
Sure, sometimes unions indulge in excesses of their own, and sometimes labor leaders seem more intent on keeping their constituents happy than in enacting lasting, positive change. The film Waiting for “Superman” details problems in teachers’ unions, for instance; watch that movie and you may find yourself ready to hire union-busting thugs to work over your local math instructor. But the film glosses over why those unions are needed in the first place, the unstable and inequitable and unfair and underpaid conditions under which people labor when management goes unchecked. It would be nice if we could do away with unions and government regulations, but until corporations and administrations act responsibly, putting people’s lives and happiness above their own greed, we simply cannot do without unions. Read your history, or listen to your common sense instead of your lobby-funded representative, and you’ll see that.
When I heard that owners wanted a bigger slice of the revenue streams, more games in the season without any subsequent and equitable rise in health care and job security, and no new resources for retired, injured, and debilitated players, I sided with the players’ union, knowing as I did so that professional athletes tend to be spoiled, overprivileged, selfish prima donnas. Even when all of that is true about an individual player, you can’t paint everyone with the same brush, and you can’t abandon the broken players who gave their best years (and body parts) for you.
So I hope that the players really got enough concessions from the lockout. I hope they (and their barely-able-to-walk forbears) can live with the new CBA. I hope that the practice squad player and the guys who sign for the league minimum can live happy, productive lives. And I hope that our nation’s leaders—especially you, Republicans—learn that none of us win when somebody refuses to engage in reasonable negotiation.
Frankly, I don’t want to think about such weighty matters when somebody brings up football. I just want to see Peyton Manning throw a beautiful, crisp pass, or DeMarcus Ware pulverize a quarterback (preferably Michael Vick, Eli Manning, or whoever starts for the Redskins this year), or Andre Johnson pull down another touchdown pass that appeared just out of reach.
The Debt Ceiling Debate
Sigh. Ever since September 11th, 2001—when so many people in our country seem to have dropped the very pretense of moderation from their political beliefs—I have found innumerable political events, figures, and concepts that have stomped all over my very last nerve. The latest seems to be the debt ceiling debate, a fake issue brought about and writ large by an increasingly radical, out of touch Republican Party.
Time was that most Republicans seemed like basically good, reasonable people with whom I simply disagreed ideologically. Though I was, for instance, pro-choice and they were (and here’s a term I loathe, as if pro-choicers embrace death) pro-life, all but the most radical factions on both sides could discuss the issue with reason and respect. The same could be said of gun control, capital punishment, foreign policy, and just about anything else you could name. Sure, the right had its racist, xenophobic, homophobic, classist, religiously intolerant warhawks, and the left had its cuckoo birds who employed right-wing militia tactics in order to tout their allegedly left-wing ideologies. But most of us seemed to live somewhere between those extremes. Now, especially on the right, moderation seems to be as endangered as the animal species Republicans’ corporate masters seem intent on obliterating in the service of the great god Profit.
You can’t just blame the so-called Tea Party, another term I hate because it co-opts historic American dissent in favor of those who would perpetuate a dangerous stratification along racial, sexual, class, and religious barriers. The Tea-Baggers (now there’s a term I love) mostly seem like a gaggle of loonies who live in their own world, a place I wouldn’t even like to visit, but you also have to fault mainstream Republicans for giving in to their insanity, as well as Democrats who won’t stand up to them for fear of offending a voter. This voter is likely imaginary anyway; anybody who would vote Democrat is highly unlikely to vote for the Tea-Baggers under any circumstances, and nobody in the Tea Party’s going to cast a vote for a Democrat no matter how milquetoast the candidate appears. Frankly, the two-party system is strangling this country, and until we throw them all out and move past the either-or dilemma we’ve gotten ourselves into, nothing is likely to change.
What we need is a peaceful revolution in which we vote in people who are interested in service and in making this country better for every single person in it—white or black, rich or poor, legal or otherwise, gay or straight, Christian or otherwise.
Why? Because our politics have degenerated into a schoolyard tussle between rival gangs of spoiled brats. As numerous columnists have pointed out, the debt ceiling “crisis” was manufactured by Republicans who want to look economically tough in the eyes of what they see as an increasingly radicalized base. They don’t tell you that George W. Bush (who I still have trouble labeling as a “President” of anything, much less the nation) raised the debt ceiling several times. They gloss over the fact that the conservative demi-god Reagan raised it something like 18 times over eight years. Republicans don’t have a problem raising the debt ceiling; they only have a problem doing it when it might make some Democrat look competent.
They also blame Barack Obama and Democrats for the system that calls for raising the debt ceiling in order to pay for critical social and infrastructural programs, as if Obama invented that system. But the system has been in place for decades, and used by Republicans as much as Democrats, possibly more so. If you don’t like the system, then by all means, advocate for change, as long as you’ve got a solution in mind beyond eliminating all taxes, an unreasonable demand that ignores the facts of America’s economic structure. But don’t use the system when it benefits you and then hypocritically hold the country hostage so that you can metaphorically fellate a radical minority on your side of the aisle.
The most blatantly hypocritical part of this debate is that Republican policies and administrations (including the trickle-down lovers in the Bush and Reagan years) caused the crisis more than anyone else. Then they refused to work with Obama and the Democrats to fix the economy—unless, of course, the Democrats agreed to bypass the very nature of democracy and give the right every single thing it wanted. Then they blamed Obama for the problems and the lack of a solution. I’d admire the sheer chutzpah of the right if they weren’t taking us all into such dangerous waters.
We need the right to abandon its lunatic fringe and reach back across that aisle. In the absence of such a step, we need Democrats (notice I don’t call them “the left”) to find the guts to stand up for themselves and the rest of America, even if that means telling unpleasant truths about the opposition. We need the American people to stop taking what their politicians say at face value, to investigate things on their own using a variety of reputable and objective sources, to vote for everyone’s good instead of selfish reasons.
If we don’t, then one of these days we really will see the fall of the American empire, and it won’t be Barack Obama’s fault, or John McCain’s (how radically right do you have to be when McCain is too liberal for you??), or even Osama bin Laden’s. We’ll each have to look in the mirror and blame the person we see there.
I saw the movie. It wasn’t the greatest film I’ve ever seen, but it was far from the worst, especially for a super-hero flick. I’d give it a solid B on the sliding summer blockbuster scale.
In my summer II course, one of my students asked me what I thought about the film. I responded as I did above, while admitting that I haven’t read a comic since the mid-1990s, when the stories’ quality took a nosedive, and death became a cynical commercial vehicle, and no tale had stakes anymore because everybody came back from the dead. When the major companies copped out by replacing many of their heroes with new, poorer versions and little things like plot and characterization took a back seat to how cool the penciling looked.
My student then said, “Well, it’s not like they based the story on what’s happened in the last fifteen years.”
No, but in large part, they based it on the needs and desires of the last fifteen years’ audience. And I am not part of that audience. I don’t pretend to know the tone and flavor of today’s Captain America, but I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a film that catered to them and their sensibilities, not to mine.
For me, Captain America was always something of a conundrum. You couldn’t find a squarer character; the guy made Superman look grim and edgy. Steve Rogers was sincere, patriotic, faithful, honorable, ethical—all the things you wish your politicians were. He never seemed to represent a particular political viewpoint (well, except in those execrable 50s “Captain America—Commie Smasher” comics, and we’ve long known that the guy in those comics wasn’t Steve Rogers). He never threw his weight behind any particular administration. Instead, he truly seemed to represent the America where most of us lived—sometimes a bit conservative, sometimes a bit liberal, but mostly just human. He encouraged dissent, yet he believed in institutions.
I thought the film did a pretty good job of representing that Cap. As written in the film and played by Chris Evans, Steve Rogers is the guy who joins the army because it’s the right thing to do—because in those days, everyone believed that they knew who the enemy was and why we were fighting and what was at stake. We didn’t fight in the best possible ways; the poor were still overly represented, and women and non-whites weren’t treated well, but it was about as united as the nation has ever been, including, I think, during the Revolution. Rogers doesn’t go in as a mouthpiece for Roosevelt or the minority leader. He doesn’t champion a corporation or an ideology beyond a firm belief in America itself.
Truly, if Captain America were real, I’d probably write him in on the Presidential ballot. I came away from the film feeling like I had seen at least a version of the guy I knew from the comics. Perhaps that’s about as much as we can ask of our film adaptations. I won’t advise you to run to your nearest theater and catch it if you haven’t already, but give it a shot on DVD at least. You may find yourself wishing that Cap could swoop in and save us from the machine we’ve built to govern our lives, the same one that seems to be chewing us all up in the gears.
Fedor Emelianenko, Dana White, Chael Sonnen, and Rashad Evans
In the world of Mixed Martial Arts, everything seems to be in flux. Aging warhorses like Wanderlei Silva, Mirko Cro Cop, Matt Hughes, the Nogueira brothers, and Tito Ortiz, though only in their mid-30s, seem to be showing the effects of all their battles. Unable to take punches or dominate as they once did, they now face the roles of gate-keepers to the championships, rather than serious contenders. All these men are young enough to reach the top again, but like an NFL player of the same age, they can no longer be penciled in to dominate. It’s always a shame when age and the limitations of one’s body catch up with a great athlete, but it happens to everyone eventually. It happened suddenly to Chuck Liddell. It finally caught up to Randy Couture. Even the current exception to the rule, Dan Henderson, can’t go on forever.
UFC president Dana White has stuck behind most of the men on that list. He dropped Ortiz from the roster once, but that was due more to their personal conflicts and Ortiz’s desire for more money than eroding skills. As every MMA fan knows, he was about to cut Ortiz before a recent out-of-nowhere submission victory over young gun Ryan Bader. At that point, you could hardly blame White; he had given Ortiz every chance, and while Ortiz had not been dominated since his last loss to Liddell years ago, he had not won a fight since 2006. The victory over Bader saved Ortiz’s job, and his stepping up to face 205-pound title contender Rashad Evans on short notice only endeared him to White. But since Tito lost that fight, one wonders how many more chances he’ll get.
Matt Hughes has admitted that he only has so many fights left in him, but White keeps matching him with top competition. Cro Cop might not get another shot in the UFC if he loses his next fight, but he won’t be battling a no-name; he has to fight former IFL champ Roy Nelson, himself a veteran with a two-fight losing streak. White has stated his desire to “Liddell” Wanderlei Silva into retirement, referencing how White had to browbeat Liddell into stepping away from the sport for his own health’s sake; he has shown no desire to cut Silva or demote him to prelims. No one has stated that the Nogueiras’ jobs are in jeopardy—especially Big Nog, whose losses might have been attributable to the nagging injuries that have kept him out of action for over a year.
The point here is that Dana White has, to the best of his ability, stood beside each of these men whenever they’ve lost and/or contemplated retirement and/or asked for more shots to get back on the winning track. Of course, they all fight in the UFC, meaning that White has a vested interest in their careers and a sense of loyalty to them. He doesn’t stick by them strictly because he’s such a nice guy.
All of which brings me to the case of Fedor Emelianenko. Long considered the greatest heavyweight fighter ever to step into an MMA ring or cage, Fedor has struggled of late. He lost by submission to one of the world’s best jiu-jitsu artists, Fabricio Werdum. He lost by TKO (doctor’s stoppage) to a much larger opponent, Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, when one of his eyes swelled shut between rounds. And then he lost by knockout to Henderson, one of the greatest fighters in history. No shame in any of those losses, but in the “what have you done for me lately?” world of MMA, three losses in a row bring out the haters. “Fedor should retire,” they said, even after his second loss. “He was never that good in the first place,” they said, ignoring how he went undefeated for ten years and won titles in several organizations, including PRIDE.
No one has been more vocally critical of Fedor’s losses than White, who seems to take personal satisfaction in another human being’s misfortune. Oh, he makes sure to say that he doesn’t hate Fedor, but it’s hard not to read malice into White’s venomous tirades. In one internet video, White runs through a list of Fedor’s past opponents, trying to punch holes in the myth of the man’s greatness. And the opponents he names in that list are certainly unimpressive. But he leaves out a lot of names, too: Semmy Schilt, Heath Herring, Big Nog (three times), Mark Coleman (twice), Cro Cop, Kevin Randleman, and even less decorated but respected veterans like Gary Goodridge and Kazuyuki Fujita.
You can’t say that Fedor fought only tomato cans when the list of people he beat includes three former UFC champions, one of the most feared strikers of all time, some strong wrestlers, and a bunch of plain old tough guys. And that’s ignoring his wins over both Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovsky, who have certainly fallen on hard times themselves but who are also former UFC champs.
White’s vendetta against Fedor seems to stem from the latter’s refusal to sign with the UFC, to put more money in White’s bank accounts. White is correct in saying that the UFC is the only place where the best fighters always fight the best competition and that Fedor (or his management team) has tarnished his legacy by avoiding the UFC. But White is dead wrong and just plain vindictive to ignore Fedor’s accomplishments, especially since most of them happened in what was, at the time, the best heavyweight division on the planet.
Whatever Fedor’s reasons for not signing with the UFC, the fact is that he didn’t. He seems at peace with himself and his career, even his recent setbacks. White should make peace with it too, because all his gloating only makes him seem like an ungracious bully.
I don’t have much to say about Chael Sonnen, who seems unable to grasp the fact that Anderson Silva beat him. Certainly Sonnen dominated the fight for well over twenty minutes, but Silva caught him in a triangle choke, and he tapped out. I saw the fight. I saw him give up. He can call himself the uncrowned Middleweight champion all he wants, but no one in their right mind believes that. He fought a good fight, but he lost. End of story.
Except that it’s not. Sonnen has always had such a big mouth that it’s impossible to take him seriously. You get the feeling that even he doesn’t believe most of what he says, but that doesn’t stop him from saying it. He blathers and brags, but he has yet to achieve the kinds of results that would to some extent justify his brashness. Where is Sonnen’s years-long win streak? Where is his UFC championship?
Lots of fans try to excuse his poor sportsmanship and the sad example he sets of how to be a decent human being, but you can promote a fight without being a completely unlikable jerk. Since returning from suspension for performance-enhancing drugs (a suspension compounded by his role in money-laundering), he’s been more vocal than ever, but his hijinks seem even more desperate than usual. He’s now insulted the entire country of Brazil and just about every other fighter in the UFC. Nice guy.
If you take him seriously, you’d have to point out that he’s never accomplished anything near what the objects of his bile have achieved. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira has won championships in both PRIDE and the UFC, and is always a top contender. Wanderlei Silva destroyed all his competition for years and held the PRIDE middleweight title all that time. (And for all his talk about Wanderlei, one has to remember that Sonnen is talking from a distance. If you’re an MMA fan, you’ve probably seen the video of Wanderlei and Sonnen on a promotional trip together, sitting in the same vehicle as Wanderlei takes him to task for disrespecting the Nogueiras. “When you show respect, you keep your teeth,” Silva says, and literally all Sonnen does is nod and say thank you. Yet when Silva is nowhere nearby, Sonnen becomes a tough guy?). Jose Aldo is a UFC champ. Anderson Silva is a UFC champ. Lyoto Machida is a former UFC champ. Even non-Brazilians have felt the sting of Sonnen’s sharp tongue, but Quinton Jackson is also a former UFC champ, and Jon Fitch is every bit as accomplished as Sonnen. Perhaps moreso, since his unsuccessful title shot did not end in his submission.
But Sonnen keeps talking, even though his speeches are now largely considered a joke. Perhaps Brian Stann will knock some sense into him. If not, he’s probably going to meet Anderson Silva again, and then we’ll see if he can keep all his teeth. Perhaps Sonnen should join the WWE, where his utter lack of sportsmanship and decency would be welcome.
As for Rashad Evans, he wonders why people keep booing him when he’s really a nice guy. Allow me to take a page out of Dana White’s recent interviews, in which I look into the camera and speak directly to Rashad, WWE-style.
Rashad, I’ll tell you why people boo you. It’s not because some of your fights are dull. Most fighters have dull fights every now and then. It’s not because you brag on yourself. All fighters are confident. It’s because you showboat. You did it back on The Ultimate Fighter, and though your style has matured since then, your in-ring personality hasn’t. When Forrest Griffin was beating you for two and a half rounds, you weathered one flurry and then grabbed your cup and blew him a kiss. Really, Rashad? Are you that insecure? Are you that immature? You’re 31 years old now, man. Grow up.
Once you get over yourself, perhaps more people will back you. Maybe then they’ll recognize you for the nice guy you really are. Until then, keep on expecting those boos.
QUICK UPDATE: Matt “the Hammer” Hamill has retired from MMA. The sport has just lost one of its finest ambassadors and best human beings. Hamill, for those who don’t know, is deaf. Yet he was a D-III national wrestling champion and went 9-4 in the UFC, including victories over Tito Ortiz and Mark Munoz. He also beat Michael Bisping in the eyes of everyone but the ringside judges. Always humble and sweet of disposition, a classy person and a tough fighter, Matt Hamill will be missed.
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Has Anybody Seen My Teeth?
“Whose Hands Are These?”
A few months back, Kalene and I were watching an episode of Strange Addictions. The subject of that week’s program was a young woman addicted to tanning. She went to several different tanning beds every day, divvying up her visits to avoid the safety limitations that each individual salon imposed. Then she would go home and lay out by the pool, her only sunblock a bottle of baby oil. This woman didn’t have a tan; she fairly glowed orange, rating about an eight on the John Boehner-Hulk Hogan scale. You could have used her for a nightlight.
At one point in the show, she visited a dermatologist, who, of course, told her that she had been playing Russian Roulette with her life, given the increasing prevalence of skin cancer. He also took one of her hands and pointed out all the wrinkles, the spots, the dryness. The woman called them “old people hands,” though of course the presence of that condition did not deter her. When she found that she had no major skin issues at that point in her life, she took it for a sign that she was making sound decisions and that she could rub the results in her concerned friends’ and family’s noses.
The fact that she would probably look like a piece of beef jerky by the time she was thirty-five apparently did nothing to persuade her, and neither did the fact that, you know, she might develop major health problems in the future. I suppose that most smokers in their late teens to early twenties probably don’t have emphysema yet, but that doesn’t mean they’re making healthy decisions.
You just can’t tell some people anything.
For me, though, that image of her hands stuck out the most. They were as deep brown/orange as the rest of her; fittingly enough, her nails looked like five alabaster tombstones sticking out of rich newly-dug earth. Deep wrinkles covered her finger joints. You could see the beginnings the splotches people call liver spots or age spots. And she herself used that phrase “old people hands.” Of course, I looked down at my own hands at that moment, and I found that, while my skin tone remains at the polar opposite of orange, the rest of the symptoms presented just fine. The wrinkles at the joints. The increasingly-large freckles. The out-and-out splotches that I had heretofore only noticed on retirees.
I had old people hands.
None of this has to do with my own current tanning habits, which rate somewhere just above Dracula’s. I don’t burst into flame on contact with sunlight, but it’s pretty close. My pale skin reddens after less than half an hour of sunlight, even after I use SPF 85. It turns boiled-lobster red if I stay out longer than that. I have been known to stay out for a few hours with insufficient sunblock and spend the next days in agony, my blistered skin feeling as if a million needles were being jabbed into it ceaselessly, my shoulders and upper back covered in water blisters. Most of that happened when I was a kid, before anyone knew the potential effects of sunburns, and only three or four times at that.
But even now, against Kalene’s advice and the recommendation of dermatologists everywhere, I don’t moisturize every day, and I don’t wear sunblock on my way to work or the grocery store. I haven’t refused to do so out of some entitled sense of my own immortality or sheer stubbornness. I just don’t remember. And as a result, my currently forty-year-old hands look forty years old.
But it’s not just my hands. My face has changed, too. I now know the definition of “crow’s feet,” a fact that dismays me more than I can explain. I have a deep wrinkle across the bridge of my nose right between my eyes and another one a half-inch or so down, evidence of how much time I apparently spend scowling and angry. Even when I open my eyes as wide as I can and shove the skin back with my fingers, I can still see the depths of those wrinkles. I’m afraid that by the time I’m eighty I’ll look like a bulldog—a very pale, almost translucent bulldog.
See, here’s the thing: I couldn’t tan even if I wanted to. I learned that the hard way when I was younger. I never really cared what anybody else thought of me, but for some reason, I wanted a tan, probably so that I could wear shorts in the summer without having to fight every self-styled wit with a pocketful of “fish-belly” jokes. So I would lay out in the back yard, at the public pool, down at the river when my friends and I drove out for a day of swimming. I fondly remember the look on my father’s face when he came home for lunch one summer day, looked out his back patio door, and saw nothing but a ladder and a few pairs of dangling legs. My friends and I had decided to sunbathe on the roof. And once, I ruined a perfectly good fishing trip with my father as I struggled to maneuver around in the boat so that I could “tan” equally on both sides.
Oh, I used sunblock—SPF 2.75 or something like that. But as early as my mid-teens, I learned that the pain of even a mild sunburn did not seem worth the pathetic results I achieved. I never tanned; I just got a bit less white. If the Twilight films had existed back then, they could have plucked me off the street and sent me out as Vampire Henchman #4 without any makeup.
These days, I don’t even care. When I go to the beach or the pool, I spray or slather on the sunblock until I am encased in a solid layer on which bugs lose their lives. Throw a Frisbee at me and it just might stick fast. I have read too much and experienced too much of the scary effects of tanning, only one of which is the premature aging of your skin.
Nevertheless, whenever I look in the mirror, I can still see aging’s effects in every wrinkle, every freckle that has morphed into something the size of a penny, every liver spot that has had the temerity to show up so far before its time. And though I am perfectly comfortable with aging gracefully—no plans for any plastic surgery for me—I just don’t understand why someone so young would take so many chances with their appearance, their health, their very life now that we know everything we know.
I mean, if I could say one thing to that woman on Strange Addictions, I guess it would be this: if my hands look their age, you’ve got to remember that I grew up in the seventies and eighties, when nobody really knew about the dangers of second-hand smoke, or ultraviolet radiation, or letting your kids climb all over the inside of a moving vehicle, or eating deep-fried everything.
What’s your excuse?
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Has Anybody Seen My Teeth?
On Feline Philosophy
Sometimes I wonder what it’s really like to be a cat. Then I remember that, as I get older, I probably already know. They spend most of their day sleeping and far too much of the night roaming about, breaking into cabinets with the efficiency of a safe-cracker and pouncing on unsuspecting dreamers and eating too much. I can relate.
Not long ago, I woke up late. I mean really late, nearly one o’clock in the afternoon. True, I had had a rough night; I was up till nearly five. I had worked and played until two am, and then I tossed and turned for another two and a half hours or so, trying desperately to get comfortable on my aching muscles and sometimes-creaky bones, to breathe through my nose that constantly clogs every time I lie down, to stop thinking about the things I didn’t get done and all the things I’d need to do the next day.
I knew that I would wake up late, and that no matter what I did or how hard I tried, I would remain groggy all day, out of sorts, my already screwed-up biological clock thrown even farther out of true. And sure enough, it all happened just like I imagined. Up at 1 pm, eating lunch at 5, eating supper at 11, back to bed at a time when most people have already sunk deeply into their REM sleep, dreaming weird dreams and drooling onto their pillows.
I have, over the past couple of years, trained myself to take one or two short naps during the day, partly because I need to make up for the sleep I didn’t get at night and partly because I just can’t go without sleep like I used to. I started experiencing sleep problems when I was a teenager. I would go to bed around 10 pm, but for whatever reason—a surplus of young-person energy? Budding anxiety disorder? Lewd sexual fantasies?—my mind would race as soon as I turned off the lights. Soon enough, I learned that I could solve this problem to a certain extent if I left my radio on all night; then I would concentrate on the music, the lyrics, the mix of genres and styles, and eventually I would drift off, still not right away but earlier than I would have otherwise.
Of course, then my dreams would often take on an even more surreal quality. Once I dreamed that I was walking through my neighborhood, which had somehow been turned into an Asian market. People thronged everywhere, their eyes on the road or the market wares, their shoulders bumping against me as I made my way through them, looking for someone whose name I could not remember. And through it all, David Bowie’s “China Girl” blasted from unseen speakers. The sacred cow he mentions kept wandering through people’s yards and taking enormous shits on driveways. I woke up in the middle of the dream and heard the same song on the radio.
So my sleep schedule has always been weird. And that weirdness has become more and more of a problem as I’ve gotten older. Once, I could stay up for days and still perform at high levels. Now I can go for about four hours before I at least wish I could take a short nap.
I first discovered that age plays havoc with your ability to cope with sleep deprivation not long after my daughter Maya was born. I was still married to her mother then. My then-wife was breastfeeding Maya, which had never presented a problem; but we never considered what might happen if that food supply was suddenly eliminated.
My ex had decided to have her tubes tied after her second pregnancy, which was fine with me. We weren’t getting along at all by then, and I already had three children, so I was pretty tired. The procedure was supposed to take place in the morning, and, we were told, she would get to come home that afternoon. So before we took her to the hospital, she didn’t stockpile any milk for Maya. I saw the unused breast pump lying on a shelf in our closet and shivered, as if I had glimpsed through a crack in the universe a very specific kind of hell. Then I forgot about it and took her to the O.R.
During the allegedly routine procedure, the surgeon found a cyst on one of her ovaries, and it alarmed him enough that he went ahead and removed it. When a physician risks a lawsuit by performing a procedure without familial authorization, you know he must have been concerned. This extra procedure obviously increased the surgery time, but it also necessitated a longer hospital stay, as did the doctors’ feelings that further tests would be necessary. To avoid infection, they gave her more, and different, antibiotics, plus more pain meds than they had originally planned, all of which would have been secreted through her breast milk.
And so a few hours’ stay turned into a multiple-day ordeal. The hospital kept her for further tests and observations. Meanwhile, I was stuck at home with a hungry baby and no breast milk. I had no choice but to give Maya formula, but she hated it. When some of that stuff dribbled into her mouth, you’d have thought that I had given her a lemon rind and alum sandwich. She screwed up her face and screamed at me, as if to say, “You asshole! Are you trying to kill me?” She also responded badly to the artificial nipples and the different feeding position she had to assume. She would barely eat, and because she was so hungry, she cried. Loudly. Interminably. I cannot imagine that victims of the Spanish Inquisition cried louder than she did. I think they heard her on the space shuttle.
I tried everything. I even tried leaning down next to her ear and making a heartbeat sound, which fooled her for about two minutes. But she simply would not take the formula from a bottle. I tried giving it to her with an eye-dropper; she spit it back out. I tried powdered formula and canned formula and every other kind I could find; she would have none of it. And because she was crying constantly, she barely slept, which meant that I didn’t sleep either.
Eventually I reached my wits’ end. I asked Kalene—my third and final wife who was, at the time, a very good friend of ours—to come over and watch Maya so I could get a couple of hours’ sleep; she obliged, but that two hours did me little good. The world began to take on that too-bright quality, where the light looks weird and voices sound muffled and life takes on the characteristics of a Dali painting. You start saying things in a deep, slow voice just to see how weird you sound: “HEEEEEEEEElllllllOOOOOOOoooo, nurse!” Yet when I went back to the hospital, they wanted to keep my ex even longer.
“Doc,” I said, “please understand that I want you to do everything you need to do. Make sure she’s safe and healthy. But if what you’re planning is in any way extraneous, let me tell you this. I’ve been up for days. I’m on the verge of having a psychotic episode. My daughter needs breast milk, and she can’t get any if you keep pumping drugs into my wife. What I’m saying is that if these tests aren’t really necessary, then I urge you, for the sake of three people, don’t run them.”
They ran the tests but did not give her any extra drugs, noting that they were being as cautious as possible but that she would almost certainly be fine without the extra antibiotics. We went home, and she was fine, and my daughter ate, and I slept for about six months.
I can no longer stay up for days at a time, for necessity or fun. I can still go a day or two on little sleep if I have to, but it isn’t easy or pleasant anymore. Yet my sleep schedule remains as screwed up as it has ever been, and short of getting one of those machines that re-align your Circadian rhythms, which my doctor has actually recommended, I don’t know how to fix it. I can’t just go to bed earlier; I toss and turn, unable to get comfortable or stop thinking about things. I can go to bed at 9 pm and still won’t fall asleep until at least 2 am, regardless of circumstances. So I might as well just stay up.
Having lived with cats for the past ten years, I’ve noticed how much I have in common with them. The way they live their lives mirrors, in many ways, how I live mine.
What are cats interested in? What do they do? Well, they eat, and sleep, and excrete bodily wastes. They occasionally snuggle up to you in search of affection, and when they’ve had enough, they leave, regardless of your feelings. If you leave human food where they can reach it, they will often sneak snacks that they shouldn’t have, so you have to remain vigilant around them. And when they feel like it, they want to play, no matter what you’d rather be doing. Some, like our cat Cookie, will even punish you if you don’t comply.
I think about more than these things, of course. I don’t reduce my existence to basic functions like eating, drinking, and pooping, and if you don’t agree to have fun with me exactly when I want, I probably won’t attack the printer or paw at the flat-screen TV or knock something off a shelf. But in many ways, I have, as I’ve aged, come to resemble our cats, in philosophy if not appearance.
For instance, I tend to nap at odd hours. I can usually sleep anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours pretty much whenever the sun is out. I can lie down on the couch, my head resting on Kalene’s lap, and fall asleep fairly quickly. I can stretch out on our bed and crash as long as sunlight peeks in through the blinds. I can’t curl up in an office chair like a cat, nor can I use my own arms and legs for pillows. But naps have become an important part of my daily existence. They leave me feeling refreshed most of the time and give me the energy I need to make it through the rest of the day.
I know what you’re thinking. “If you’d just stop taking naps, you could get to sleep at night earlier.” But that doesn’t work. Naps are a comparatively recent part of my routine, but I’ve always had trouble sleeping at night, even when I’m exhausted.
Another way my older self mirrors our cats is that I eat too much and don’t work it off as easily as I used to. When I was younger, I had the willpower to avoid unnecessary snacking. I would eat something until I no longer felt hungry, and then I would stop. Yet, ironically, my metabolism fired so quickly that I didn’t really need any willpower. I could shovel in heaps of whatever I wanted to eat and remain thin and wiry.
Now, my willpower has faded. If somebody hands me a cheesecake, I want to eat as much as I possibly can. If I force myself to stop at one piece, I soon find myself standing at the open refrigerator, looking longingly at the fruit and yogurt and ice cream and snack veggies piled in there. Sure, most of that stuff is healthy, but all of it contains calories. Moreover, I have become increasingly attracted to the kinds of snacks I have always been able to take or leave—Little Debbie snack cakes with enough fat and caloric content to serve as half my day’s allowance, sodium-heavy trifles like potato chips, peanut butter sandwiches as snacks instead of lunches. And as my willpower has faded, my weight has steadily climbed north. When I was in high school, I weighed perhaps 130 pounds. When I was thirty, it was more like 160. Now, at forty, I am nearly 200 pounds. Sure, I eat a little more than I used to and have a harder time turning down sweets, but the main reason for the weight gain is that my metabolism has simply slowed down. I noticed in my early 30s that my stomach was starting to protrude more than it used to; now I sometimes think I look like I’m six months pregnant. True, I don’t have a lot of body fat; I can pinch perhaps an inch on my waist. But my body has changed in ways that I don’t like and that I can seemingly do nothing about.
Our cats have gone through a similar change. When Judas—our beloved companion of nearly two decades, who died a year and a half ago—was still alive, she pigged out quite often. As a result, her belly hung down until it dangled perhaps an inch and a half off the floor, and when she ran, it flopped from side to side, striking her in the middle of her ribs like a scourge. Similarly, Cookie has gained weight since she realized that she’s a cat, not a dog or a human. In her former household, she lived with a lively little dog and an energetic little girl. She was always on the go. Here, our youngest visitor is Maya, who’s going on twelve years old now, and we have no other pets. We play with Cookie as much as possible and run her half to death with her favorite feather toy, Da Bird ™, but she now chills out more than she used to. She takes more naps, stops at her food bowl more often, and generally acts like a cat with nothing particularly important on her mind. And as a result, she’s a fraction heavier than she used to be. I get the feeling that when her own metabolism slows down in her old age, she’ll be quite the little butterball. Sometimes I feel the same way—not that being a bit overweight is so bad, but that a change that I didn’t authorize has occurred and that I’m helpless to change it.
What other ways has my daily life come to resemble my cats’? Well, I’m grumpier than I used to be. I’ve never been one of those people who constantly need to be surrounded by others. But I find that, more and more, I’d just as soon stay home as go to that party, that football game, that concert. Someone asked me not too long ago why I don’t take advantage of my university connections (whatever they might be) and attend more college football games. I said, “Why would I want to go out in the weather and battle close to a hundred thousand drunks for the pleasure of seeing the part of game that happens close to my seats, when I could just stay home and eat my own food, use my own bathroom, and see the whole thing on TV?” And often, when I go out to eat or to a movie, I have to sit on my hands to keep from punching somebody in the face. When did people get so damn annoying?
Cats tend to hang out with people only when they want to, regardless of what the people themselves want. Cats rub on your legs or jump in your lap and demand affection, and when they’ve gotten what they wanted, they tend to wander off by themselves. We used to find Judas sleeping behind curtains, in the closets, in our office chairs. Cookie likes the office chairs too, but also digs the tops of the refrigerator and kitchen cabinets or sunny windowsills.
Cookie will stop doing pretty much anything if she suddenly realizes that she needs a bath. I’ve seen her dash madly after a toy, freeze in her tracks, and stick one hind leg straight up in the air so that she can clean her asshole. Apparently some itches just have to be scratched. As for me, I’ve gotten less tolerant of being sweaty. I’ve got to shower every day, even if I don’t go anywhere or do anything in particular. On the other hand, Judas’s hair got duller as she got older and lost interest in grooming herself. Mine now feels oily and greasy if I don’t wash it every twelve hours or so.
When you have more in common with your cats than you do with most people, you might be in trouble. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more insular, impatient, and easily annoyed. I’ve seen my hair start to turn gray and my belly swell out like I was malnourished. I get sore every time I work out or play some sport for more than five minutes. I rail at life’s little injustices—what kind of world is it when you can have both gray hair and pimples? Shouldn’t having the one preclude the other??—with less motivation and more passion. I spend a lot of time by myself or with only Kalene and my kids; I’d just as soon wait for a movie to come out on DVD/Blu-Ray instead of listen to somebody’s brat caterwaul over the opening credits or watch that idiot two rows down answer the cell phone he was supposed to have turned off twenty minutes ago. Where once I lost myself in the Dionysian pleasures of rock concerts, I now spend half the time wishing that guy would stop stepping on my foot or that that stupid woman would get off her boyfriend’s shoulders so the rest of us could frickin’ see.
In short, I would, nine times out of ten, find more pleasure in curling up in the warm sunlight for an afternoon nap than in losing myself in a human biomass accompanied by loud music or pretty pictures on a screen.
At least I don’t take my dumps in a box or lick myself, right? But then, I’m only forty. I wonder what eighty will bring.
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Has Anybody Seen My Teeth?
“I Don’t Like Old Movies”
When you’re a teacher, sometimes nothing makes you feel older than your students.
Take the average college freshman. He or she is likely eighteen years old, the official age of adulthood as recognized by the United States military, legal system, voting booths, and so forth. When you reach that age, you assume all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of adulthood—except, as my students would likely point out, in the eyes of parents who continue to treat them like kids and the local bars who won’t sell them a beer, even though they can fight in a war and be tried as an adult in a court of law.
Of course, many of these “adults” want all the privileges without any of the responsibilities, but putting that point aside, I face classrooms full of grown-ups every day, even at the lower levels of university education.
The problem? Given that it’s 2011 as of this writing, these students might have been born as late as 1993. How, in the name of all that’s holy, could that be possible?
In 1993, I was twenty-three years old. Even with a false start that put me behind by a year, I was only a couple of semesters away from earning my Bachelor’s degree. My daughter Shauna would turn four that year; my son Brendan would not be born for another two years, and Maya, bless her heart, would take another six. Kurt Cobain was still alive, and Seattle grunge ruled the music business. Some hair metal stalwarts kept on plugging, but those with rock-star fantasies had traded in their eyeliner and spandex for flannel shirts, dirty jeans, and cardigan sweaters.
These days, you can turn on certain classic rock radio stations and hear bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam. And when that happens, I always feel like someone has just stomped on the world’s brakes, the globe’s squealing tires nearly drowning out my cries of indignation. I mean, come on—the early 90s now qualify as “classic rock”? What acne-sprouting, voice-changing, wet-dream-having pubescent punk made that rule?
Me, I beg to differ. Kids—and if you’re under twenty-five, somebody still thinks you’re a kid, no matter how unfair it is or how loudly you protest—just because something’s older than you doesn’t mean it’s actually old. And even if it is old, it might not be bad.
Perhaps the disparity between what eighteen-year-olds think “old” means and what’s actually old becomes clearest in terms of their attitudes toward cinema. Plenty of exceptions exist, of course, but in general, people my students’ age seem to demonstrate a lot more patience with CGI-heavy trifles like Van Helsing and the Transformers franchise. And they seem much more willing to eschew minor considerations like a coherent plot, characterization and character development, editing, and understandable cinematography. If it blows up or flies into outer space and looks really pretty, younger folks seem to like it. Me, I want to know how the explosion fits into the story and how it deepens the plot or the character development. If it doesn’t do either, I don’t care what it looks like.
Beyond the special effects, though, many of my students seem to judge a film’s merit based solely on when it was released.
Not long ago, I was discussing the film Titanic in class when I realized that most of the students present that day were two or three years old during its theatrical run. Just a few years ago, Titanic was a cultural touchstone, a special effects triumph, a heart-breaking romance loved by people of all ages. Now, many of my students view it as quaint, a dismissible chick flick, a model of how things were done back in the old days. But at least they haven’t started calling it old…yet.
The Breakfast Club has not enjoyed such a kind fate. A couple of years back, I referenced it, likely to make some point about how it both perpetuates and critiques high school’s clique culture. Much like Glee, it utilizes stereotypes and archetypes of high school existence, sometimes for important cultural commentary, sometimes in ways that seem dangerous. But no one got my point; when I finished making it, I looked out into a sea of blank, bored faces, and realization dawned.
“None of you know what movie I’m talking about, do you?” I asked.
“Isn’t that the old movie about those kids in Saturday detention?” one student responded. He was the only one who even tried to join the conversation that had, unbeknownst to me, become a monologue.
“Old movie?” I said. “It came out in 1985!”
“Yeah,” somebody said. “Way before we were born.”
Wow, I thought. 1985 has somehow become ancient history, right up there with the Spanish Inquisition and the birth of Christ and the discovery of fire. If you watch 2001: A Space Odyssey closely, you might see John Hughes cavorting about the monolith with the rest of the knuckle-draggers. I suppose I’m probably there, too, but I’ve shaved since then.
I had long since gotten used to students’ rejection of movies made before they were born, but I admit that their attitudes about The Breakfast Club surprised me. It is, after all, a film about high school—the triumphs, the pain, the stupidity of some teachers and administrators, the way that parents just don’t understand. Having just come from high school, freshmen should have been able to relate. But because the movie came out way before they were born, they didn’t care. They weren’t even curious. So on that day, I learned that anytime I make a cultural reference, from any period, I have to explain it. I can’t assume they know anything about it, or that they want to.
I can also tell you that, if you grew up in the 1970s and found yourself afraid even to take a bath because of Jaws, don’t share that with kids today. They’ll laugh at you, as if the idea of a film’s having enough power to affect your real life is just plain silly. That’s a dumb movie, they say, because it’s old. That shark looks fake. It doesn’t compare to what a CGI tech could do. Never mind the courage and artistry it took to build a fake shark and dump it off the shore of Martha’s Vineyard. Never mind the deep emotional impact that the film had on a whole generation, the way that it basically invented the summer event movie, the cultural nerve it touched in terms of how we see sharks (hey, kids, what do you think we should thank for Shark Week?). That shark just doesn’t look right. It’s old, man. Watch Deep Blue Sea instead. Now that’s a classic.
I don’t know about you, but I remember when imagination trumped special effects every time—when the effects served to jumpstart your imagination, not replace it. By and large, though, my students don’t seem to get it. And so they dismiss Bruce the shark, and Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion genius, and the way that Charlie Chaplin somehow staged a cabin falling over a cliff. Sure, the cabin looks like a model, but we get the idea, right? And how did he manage to make that little figure jump out of the cabin right before it falls?
And, of course, Chaplin invokes the black and white era of filmmaking, from silent pictures up to the ubiquity of early color prints. Ask most of my students and any black and white film can be ignored; it’s simply too old to care about.
Such an attitude leads to a minor American tragedy, as a generation misses out on the great art and cool entertainment that came before. Instead, they have to discover it all later in life, even as hundreds of other films come out every year, leaving them only so much time to catch up. What will they miss because they think “older than me” equals “too old to matter”?
Of course, sometimes students just get it, like the recent freshman who admitted that Jaws ruined her beach vacation, or the one who ruefully confessed that Psycho scared her silly, so much so that she couldn’t finish watching it alone. On days like that, I smile a little wider and contemplate introducing them to Apocalypse Now, or Nashville, or Manhattan, or Scenes from a Marriage, or The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, or Night of the Hunter, or Bride of Frankenstein, or Citizen Kane, or Casablanca, or City Lights, or even Sixteen Candles. You know, one of those ancient, dusty movies that suck, that have nothing to do with today’s youth, that speak to no one but ancient, dusty people like teachers and parents who were never, ever kids themselves and can’t possibly understand why Transformers 3 represents American cinematic art at its finest.
On days like that, I dare to hope, and I feel a little younger, in spite of having been born before 1993.
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