One Day, One Thing More

Everyday observations

Month: January, 2013

Feel-tank: the pleasures of anxiety

The term “feel-tank” comes from a group of theory wonks who wanted to come up with an alternative to “thinktank.” I like it.

On our way to visit my sponsor in the hospital yesterday, where she’s in a holding pattern waiting for diagnosis of a chemo-related ailment so she can move on to a bone marrow transplant, Ariel and I were in a minor car accident. It was no big deal, really–a nice older couple sideswiped us on Beacon Street in Brookline. I stayed in the car for a bit as Ariel traded information with them, and there was no dispute as to who was in the wrong, just a lot of embarrassed apologizing and shuffling for papers. After an emotionally grinding week, I was already upset, and gearing up for the hospital visit felt like no small feat. The moment of impact crystallized this element of my current experience of being in the world: Something Terrible is about to happen, and it’s Too Late to do anything about it now.

So today, after a restless night and into an uncertain day, I’m thinking of anxiety. Specifically, I’m curious about its benefits and purpose. How has this particular response to the world–elevated heart rate, the feeling that I’m not so much moving as being hurtled through space, hyper-sensitive startle response, prickly supercharged skin–gained such purchase in my mind/body, and why?

The obvious answer is trauma, right? I’ve been following the advice of my friends and sponsor and team of mental health helpers-out in my attempts to Stay In The Day, but sometimes staying in the day seems like the worst idea in the world. If I know there’s going to be a storm, I should have a store of canned food, right? That’s just good planning. But the logic of trauma leads me to believe that no amount of canned food will ever be enough–an entire basement full of beans and rice will eventually run out, and then we’re really screwed once the zombie army arrives at the door. I’m driven by experience (filtered through the hazy lens of adolescent memory) to anticipate the worst, but to simultaneously resign myself to the knowledge that no preparation will ever be enough.

When I got out of the car to meet the Brookline Bashers, I tried to keep it light, joking, “well, that was bracing!” And maybe that is the pleasure of anxiety: the specified attention it affords. It’s strange, since the word I use most frequently to describe the feeling is disassociation–as if I’m able, through the engine of my anxiety, to remove myself from disturbing stimuli. But the truth is (of course) a bit more complicated than that. It’s not that I’m not paying attention, but that my attention becomes incredibly focused. The air on my skin, the noises around me, my heart in my chest–they’re inescapable (and almost unbearable) in those moments. Like it or not, anxiety makes me know I’m alive.

Morally competent

I wrote this yesterday morning, before the adoption actually took place…

I have to go to court today to adopt my daughter. I’m doing my best to put a brave face on abou the whole thing, approaching the court date as if it were a celebration, etc. We’ll see how well things go along those lines when we actually get to the courthouse, but I haven’t felt anxious or nuts in the last few days the way I expected I would. Instead, I’ve been feeling surprisingly free—cracking jokes and wanting to jump all over the place.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, most of my fears about the experience have been focused on myself—feeling illegitimized as a parent, angry at an unjust system, etc. But last night I had a dream that made me think, instead, of Izzy, and how this kind of thing might affect her. We were in a prison together (a detail that, I’m proud to say, was clearly lifted from the episode of Deep Space Nine that I was watching last night), and I had to help her find clothes to protect her from some kind of periodic sweep. We would hide together on this big wall made of trash (like the barricade from Les Mis, speaking of how my entire unconscious is lifted from pop culture!), and I would help her find a T shirt or something in the rubble.

It’s not just me I need to protect in all this. This is the thing I forget so often about being part of a family—it’s never just me anymore. To make everything come full circle even more, Ariel had suggested the other day that I should be the one to select outfits for us all for the court date, since I often manage my anxiety through wardrobe choices. (When we were looking for our first apartment together, I was so nervous that I couldn’t handle it without being in some sort of drag, so I wore a 1950s dress and little white gloves to tour all the apartments). So I’m going to wear the dress I defended my dissertation in, and Izzy will be in her prettiest party dress, and Ariel will look like a power butch softball coach, and I’ll do my best to shield my little family with fashion from the bullshit of an unjust world.

A brief postscript, just to say that the strangest (and most unexpectedly moving) part of the experience was when the judge declared that, in the eyes of the Commonwealth, I am officially morally competent to raise Isadora Lillian Brownmoore. Which, duh. But I’ll tell you what–I never ever thought I would be declared morally competent in a court of law.

On singing in public

I have a troublingly expressive face.

For the most part, I’m able to keep it under control when I need to–talking to people I don’t particularly like, listening to boring stories, what have you. But when I’m on my own, all bets are off. The trouble is, the same goes for when I forget that people can see me–which is pretty much any time I’m “alone” in public. Whether I’m walking down the street, or on the bus, or whatever, I have that 21st-century “we live in public” thing where it slips my mind that other people can see me back, and I end up grimacing or smiling or even crying, seemingly at nothing.

I had this great moment when I was first in graduate school , when a professor I really liked but had never had for a course caught me laughing out loud at my own internal joke while walking down the hall. My embarrassment was apparently as legible as my mirth, because his immediate response was, “Don’t worry, Anne–this only makes me respect you more.”

It’s a nice gesture, albeit one I didn’t really believe at the time–perhaps because I always fear that these kinds of moments are when the curtain is lifted and the truth of my dorkiness/insecurity/mental illness/what have you is exposed for everyone. My Matrix projection of myself veers back and forth between an impossibly glamorous film star and a shuffling madman. And when I’m busted laughing at my own jokes (or crying or talking to myself), I’m definitely more on the madman end of the spectrum.

I love it, though, when I catch other people in these kinds of moments, and maybe this is what my professor was getting at. This morning, after I ordered my coffee, the cashier was singing to herself for a moment to the Depeche Mode that was being piped through the restaurant. I know, I know, she was probably just performing some kind of Coffeeshop Girl Zooey Deschanel character, but it was so lovely, and made me feel less alone in my own dorkiness.

But the best part was a few minutes later, when I was scanning the restaurant from the balcony for the friend I was meeting, and I saw this couple swaying in perfect time to “Killer Queen,” each seemingly unaware of the other. It reminded me of a fantasy I had all the time when I was in college that the world would suddenly transform into a huge Broadway musical number (and this was before Moulin Rouge, for the record).

Rock on, fellow dorks.

One Day, One Thing

It’s the new year, and I’m filled with the typical impetus toward self-improvement and Protestant Productivity. What better way for that to manifest than in a new ongoing writing project, right?

So here’s the idea: one day, one thing. Each day, I’ll record here some observation of the world around me–about television, literature, art, parenting, performance, recovery, academia, affect, excess–all my standard bugbears. Rather than aiming for long, thoughtful pieces that are subject to my standard nigh-endless revision process, this will be a place for ideas that are just starting out. Bigger, more thoughtful work can still be found in my standard haunt–and hopefully this project will mean that I’ll be posting there more frequently. More is more, right?

And what better way to begin than by thinking about finishing? Because that’s the idea I woke up obsessed with today. Last night, I had this strangely split experience of finishing texts. I’m engaged with three main narrative universes right now: Deep Space Nine, Friday Night Lights, and Portrait of a Lady. It’s kind of fantastic having my attention divided among such disparate worlds, and the pleasure and process of reading each of them is radically different. I’ve been taking forever to get through all of them, but for different reasons. With DS9, (and, to an extent, FNL), the text is so expansive, I feel like I have no choice but to take my time. There are seven seasons of Deep Space Nine, at 22 episodes per season! Even at three episodes a day (a level of gorging that is impossible with a baby and a full-time job), I wouldn’t finish for months. Besides which, Ariel flatly refuses to watch with me. So I’m taking my time, watching eps on my own over lunch when there’s no one to go out with at work, or nights when I’m home on my own. I’m in no hurry, and maybe because of this, there’s a part of me that’s constantly hanging out with Odo, Kira, Sisko, and the rest of them.

But, as you may know, one of the frustrating things about being a Star Trek fan is the variability of the show’s quality. And last night I found myself watching this courtroom episode where Worf was on trial for being Klingon. A typical exchange:

Advocate: What I wish to demonstrate is how Worf’s bloodlust led him to X
Sisko (acting as Worf’s lawyer, naturally): You cannot put a man’s heart on trial!
Judge: I’ll allow it.

And so on.

I knew it was terrible, and I knew every step of how it would turn out, but I couldn’t stop watching. I had to get to the end, in the way that I can’t stop a game of solitaire in the middle, even when I know I’m going to lose. I’d hit “play” on the episode, and I just had to get to the end. Even though it’s taking me ages and ages to make my way through this series, I have this impulse to make it to the end of specific episodes that feels at times despotic.

When I went to bed, I finally (finally!) finished Portrait of a Ladywhich I’ve been reading at least since August. The thing about this novel in particular is how the final chapter so completely alters your understanding of it. It’s so like a contemporary long-form serial in that it’s meant to be read piecemeal, but you really know when you’re in the beginning, the middle, or the end. (Think of the obvious difference between someone who has only seen the first two seasons of Lost  or Battlestar Galactica versus someone who has seen the entire series). Because I’d been thinking of Isabel Archer as some ideal example of an American expatriate–the one whom you’d want to give things to. My job is hooking undergraduates up with competitive scholarships, and I once described the ultimate Fulbright English Teaching Assistant as Isabel Archer. This was (clearly, to anyone who has finished the book) probably not the best way to describe someone, even though it makes sense. The money is so obviously the worst possible thing that could have happened for Isabel, and reaching the end of the book makes it impossible to read her receipt of the money as anything but a curse.

So what this leaves me thinking about is the difference between being in the middle of a novel versus being in the middle of a television show. They’re both expansive universes, and they’re both constructed to be read in pieces (at least serialized novels, anyway–but any novel worth being called one is probably too long to be read in a single sitting). Maybe the difference is between an experience that is meant to be cumulative and one that is meant to be a relatively free-standing collection of fragments. The thing that makes DS9 so interesting is its in-between status as a serial/stand-alone hybrid–but it’s very very different from something like Portrait, which is obviously meant to be understood as a coherent thing.

So that’s day one! No thesis–just a bunch of thoughts.