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John King Gets Interviewed!

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John King, host of the Drunken Odyssey podcast.

John King, host of the Drunken Odyssey podcast.

I have been AWOL for too long now. My apologies, but the Oxford book is nearing the end of first draft. It will be done by Monday. In celebration, I bring you an interview with my friend and colleague John King, who wrote a guest post for this blog last year. John has stuck with his wonderful Drunken Odyssey podcast more faithfully than I have stuck with Joyous Crybaby these last months, having achieved interviews with Martin Amis, David Sedaris, and Cheryl Strayed, as well as with many local and newbie writers.

The Drunken Odyssey: A Podcast About the Writing Life

John King on Eunoia Solstice

The Lumineers for the New Year

As the new year approaches, it’s a time to pause and reflect on the past while simultaneously looking forward with some kind of hope and optimism. We all hope that in the next year we’ll get to all the things we’ve not managed to do in the past year, yet we also try to appreciate the good things that have befallen us and the difficulties we’ve gotten through. There’s a weird mix of looking back and looking ahead. Prime time for the complex mixture of joy and sorrow that this blog explores.

So, for my year-end, year-beginning musical offering, I give you The Lumineers’ “Stubborn Love.”

The Lumineers have been playing together eight or so years, but have just had their first (rather large) commercial successes in the past year with the release of their first album and two Grammys. They have a lot to look forward to, but, as they expressed in this Rolling Stone interview, they’re aware of the dangers in that. To me, they are young and “new,” but they also have a bit of maturity and nostalgia in their tone. And there’s nothing like a touch of the strings to bring a bit of melancholy to the fore.

I picked “Stubborn Love” for a couple of reasons. The song notes that “It’s better to feel pain than nothing at all,” certainly one of my themes, but also speaks to the need to “Keep your head up, keep your love.” This last is a mantra I can embrace.

And I don’t just mean romantically. We give way too little credence and attention to other kinds of love—family and friendship. I’ve been feeling very nostalgic lately about all the friends I seldom see, and in fact may never see again. Facebook is fun in that it keeps us all marginally connected, but sometimes I have to ponder that if there’s someone I haven’t seen in twenty or thirty years, will I ever again?

Here’s hoping we all get to see those people again sometime. And that 2013 is a very good year.

And here’s a terrific 30-minute live session with The Lumineers that also ends in “Stubborn Love” but contains a wider selection. If you have the time, of course, spend a little of it listening to this and remembering all the loves that stubbornly persist.

P.S. The Lumineers have their own website, but there seems to be some problem with it today. Check it out another time. Or connect via The Lumineers amazon page.

Thoughts About Roxanne

Last night on the way home through the dark after an evening errand, as Bruce and I sped along the 417, Cream’s “Crossroads” came on the radio. Instantly, I had a craving to listen to some John Mayall. This kinda surprised me, since I was vaguely aware that Mayall was not part of Cream, which consisted of Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker.

When I got home, though, and looked up all that past music history, I found that Eric Clapton and John Mayall had indeed spent plenty of time playing together in roughly that same time period. I should not have been the least bit surprised at the resonance between their styles.

It’s odd, though, how one musician becomes a classic icon, as Clapton has, and another plays on in relative obscurity. Of course, that obscurity is relative—as it turns out, Mayall is still touring in Europe and the U.S. and has put out 40 albums since The Turning Point (1969) that burst into my mind last night. In addition, he’s put out several limited-release recordings of live performances, the most recent in 2011. Certainly anyone following the blues will have heard of John Mayall.

Perhaps his most famous song, “Room to Move,” with his hallmark harmonica-playing, is also from The Turning Point, but the one that I always remember is the sexy, patient, subversive, pensive “Thoughts About Roxanne.” Also from The Turning Point is “The Laws Must Change,” which I include here, too, and which also features the harmonica. Mayall’s was a protest song about Civil Rights, but it’s interesting that this past week we had some shifts in laws, too—legalizing recreational marijuana use in two states (Colorado and Washington) and gay marriage in three more states (Maine, Maryland, and Washington).

You can listen to “Room to Move,” or a whole host of other samples on Mayall’s own listen page (scroll down; for some reason, the top of the page is just black).

Kinds of Help

Last month, two graduate students that I work with invited me to speak at a round-table event about blogging later in November. I agreed, enthusiastically, put it on the calendar, and then promptly stopped posting on my blog. The two things, I promise, don’t have anything to do with each other, but their juxtaposition nonetheless has made me more aware of both of them. If I’m going to go and talk about the benefits of blogging, what does it mean that I’ve gone inactive? And does there come a time when it’s better not to blog?

There is nothing worse than those blogs that never quite get off the ground, where the blogger posts promises about blogging and not much else. “I’ll be back soon.” Or, even worse, “I’m back! I’m committed,” and then nothing more. As one stumbles through the blogosphere, one sees many such entries. That’s one reason why I have not even signed on to explain my hiatus.

Yet, I do find that being on break from the blog has been yet another learning experience about blogging.

First, that I do sincerely miss it. I miss the sense of discipline, the accomplishment of writing something every week that’s self-contained and “done,” and the connectedness that comes with all the public and private responses I get. This has given me insight into the junkie nature of attention to one’s writing—I’ve never had much, but I can see easily how that gets to driving some writers, for better and for worse.

I have also learned that as much as I love the blog and feel devoted to it, there are other things that take priority. The main reason I haven’t been blogging is because I have been spending every spare minute I have working on the book with Oxford for which I have a contract. There are other secondary reasons—I’ve had to have a minor surgery, I’ve been out of town, I’ve been formulating a project and soliciting an illustrator for it, I’ve been back in the classroom again and attending to all the prosaic demands of the university bureaucracy—course descriptions, book orders for next term, making benefits decisions during open enrollment, etc. etc.

Frankly, I’ve also been trying not-so-successfully to deal with the stress and anxiety of it all. A couple of weeks ago, my neurologist’s nurse told me that my latest MRI looks “completely normal.” She asked if I’d been having any symptoms, and I reported to her that I seem basically fine but don’t feel like myself. I wondered if my forgetfulness, irritability, inability to get a training response to exercise, and lack of concentration are sequelae to my brain events or just middle age. After asking me a few questions, she came to a different conclusion.

You know how it is when someone tells you something that you already really know, but it just clicks? There’s an aha moment even though the idea is nothing new.

“I think,” the neurology nurse said, “that there’s nothing wrong with your brain. You have the classic symptoms of insomnia and anxiety. You need to get eight hours of sleep at least two or three nights a week.” (I was getting between three and six. Once a month, maybe seven.)

So, last week I discussed this with my endocrinologist. He’s one of the good ones—a doctor who cares, who knows his stuff, and who makes time to really listen. When I was in the hospital after my brain hemorrhage, either he or his nurse came by to see me every day, even though I was not under their care at the time.

Anyway, I came home with a new prescription to help me deal with the insomnia and anxiety, a very minor dosage of a mostly harmless medication. I feel better already. That’s not really the interesting part, though. The interesting part is that Dr. M. spoke to me very personally. I have never, ever had a physician do so before, and it was a red-letter day for me.

When I was telling him about how sometimes I would be in the car driving somewhere and forget how to get there, have to call my friend and ask which exit is the best for her house, he laughed and said, “That sounds just like me. I usually get off at the right exit, but sometimes I don’t remember how I got there.”

When I told him how I feel that the powers that be just make it harder and harder for me to do my job well, and how it seems that my colleagues who take short-cuts or behave selfishly are the ones that are rewarded, he nodded. I told him that I used to love my job and that I thought I always would, but that now I always have to force myself to find the good things in it and that if I won the lottery I would quit tomorrow. He said, “I feel the same way. The adminstrators are always telling us we are only allowed to spend five minutes with a patient, and I am always telling them that’s not enough for a Type 1 with a pump, but they don’t care.”

I told him that the medical appointments—all designed to maximize the amount the doctor can charge the insurance company—have run me ragged. I told him that I had to have a total of eight appointments to have the D&C I had a couple of weeks ago—the initial appointment where all we did was set up other appointments and then appointments for the first lab work, the ultrasound, the tests the doctor performed, the pre-op, the pre-op labwork at the hospital, the procedure itself, and then the post-op. “That’s eight appointments,” I said. “Not including all the procedures themselves and the waiting in offices, that’s eight hours of me just driving around town, a whole day of work just driving around so that the docs can charge more. The number of appointments could certainly have been cut in half. Easily.

He looked chagrined, and we agreed that the tail is wagging the dog. We agreed that these circumstances are designed to promote those who don’t care about the quality of their work, and that it’s a mystery why we all seem to agree to live this way.

“I’m not mentally ill,” I said to him, and he agreed. “I need medication because we have come to find ourselves living in a world that’s intolerable.”

In fact, the percentage of my friends and relatives and their kids and their spouses and their parents that take some kind of psychotropic medication is enormous. At least one in five Americans is now taking at least one such medication, according to the American Psychological Association. And the percentage of people who aren’t taking prescription help often participate widely in the phenomenon known as self-medicating via alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and illegal recreational drugs. (Studies noted by Mental Health America and Health Services Research indicate the severity of this issue.)

The APA notes that the recent rapid increase in the use of these medications indicates “inappropriate prescribing,” and I agree. I have known people whose diagnoses I thought were overblown and who seem to me worse off than before they were medicated. The insurance companies and the medical world have tended to turn away from the hard work of intensive psychotherapy for those with real issues and have turned toward the easy pop-a-pill (or four) mentality.

But there is also a societal change going on that contributes to this in a different way, I believe. I believe that recent years’ move away from concepts of the public good toward more personal greed and supposed “self-reliance” have turned us more and more toward dog-eat-dog. Community is not emphasized, helping out is not emphasized—it’s every man, woman, child, and dog for itself. This leads inevitably to stress.

My father retired when he was 56 years old. He has lived the past twenty years in a secure retirement. He did some consulting work, he helps his wife with her small collectibles business, he got into crime writing workshops and wrote a novel, he plays tennis, he’s taken care of aging and infirm colleagues and relatives. And now he and his wife babysit her grandchildren. He has remained an active and contributing member of society, and he is a classic case of why the middle-class is a great thing.

We are unfortunately losing the middle class. My brother and I—highly educated, hard-working people who had our first jobs by age 16 or 17—have no secure retirement to look forward to. We only hope it will be there, and there’s no way that either of us will be able to retire before we’re nearly 70 years old. The future is even less sanguine for my brother’s daughter and for my students.

These are choices our society has been making and continues to make. There is plenty of money in our society, though it is consolidated in fewer and fewer hands. And there are plenty of us who want to help each other and be parts of a community, not just self-protective egotists. Even those that I encounter in my work life who seem the most selfish, self-promoting, and communally harmful seem to me to really wish for something else. They only feel that they are doing what they have to do to survive. Who can condemn them for that? I myself have turned away from demands I can’t handle, that I have felt might sink me.

Sometimes I marvel over the fact that there’s so much stress involved in being an English professor. I always think, “Hell, it’s not like I’m an ER doctor or an airplane pilot who could take out hundreds of lives with one error.” Not to mention that I don’t live in a war-torn place or one where I’m likely to starve. As the Rolling Stones song points out, though, even cooking dinner can be a trial, and there’s something stressful about the compromises that we make to have our comfortable lives. Vivian Gornick captured the same idle desperation of English departments in her wonderful essay “At the University: Little Murders of the Soul.” There is nothing more deadening than corporate expectations (or perhaps housewifely ones). And corporate expectations have taken over everywhere. My students can’t even have a minimum-wage job nowadays without being constantly harangued about their enthusiasm.

I have a hard time reconciling this high level of psychological distress across society with the idea that we are all living the way we choose to live. If we have all this choice in our lives that the gurus speak of, if we create the world we dream of, if we only have to envision success faithfully in order to get it, could we please envision something more benign, something more cooperative and less manipulative?

I know this is probably not stuff I should discuss in public on a blog with my name on it. That’s probably one more reason why I’ve been hanging back from blogging lately–just too many unspeakables on my mind. But I just have to say that if this is scandalous, then I have to laugh. More likely, of course, it could give an enemy a vulnerability to attack. But one thing I have always liked about myself—among the admittedly many things I’ve longed to change—is that I go ahead and do what I think is right. I go ahead and say what I’m thinking. I try to do this in ways that aren’t designed to hurt others, but I am not afraid to be hurt myself. I’d rather be real than afraid. I’m not invulnerable, but I am brave. I don’t mean to make more of that than it is. There are many things I am not that I would prefer to be. This is no Facebook brag or depiction of my life as peachy and perfect, of me as a hero of all that I survey, a wild success, a best human in the world. Nope, nope, nope. But I do marshal on. Today, a little more calmly.

Regina Spektor’s “Old Jacket”

“Stariy Pedjak” translated from the Russian as “Old Jacket”:

I’ve worn my jacket far too long,
It’s getting shabbier and frailer.
And so I take it to a tailor
To see if something can be done.

I tell him, “Now it’s up to you
To remedy the situation.
The magic art of alteration
Should make my life as good as new.”

It was a joke – but he takes on
The task with single-minded passion,
Bringing my jacket up to fashion
As best he can. The funny man.

He trims and sews without a word,
With such meticulous precision,
As if upon a sacred mission
To have my happiness restored.

He thinks I’ll try the jacket on,
And then – the clouds will part above me,
And I’ll believe that you still love me…
Well, think again. The funny man.

Disappearing and Reappearing

Shells, fossils, and china chits with their own submerged existence.

On my way home yesterday, I heard an interesting little spot on PRI’s The World about some 17th-century treasures being found in the drought-lowered Vistula River in Poland. Large pieces of marble sculptures, even fountains, had been looted and loaded onto barges by Swedish invaders, but not all these transports made it back to Sweden. Historical reports show that at least one, perhaps overloaded and too heavy, sank in the Vistula. It waited close to 400 hundred years at the bottom of the river. (Another article from the Irish Times and video from MSNBC here.)

I’m hard pressed to explain why it is that I find such relics of the past so fascinating, but I do. Even when I’ve spent days meandering along lakeshores in Pennsylvania or scrounging around the edges of strip mines in Tennessee, I have always been moved by the bits of water-worn china and glass and by the fossils of creatures long gone. Whether it was a family trip to Chucalissa, a hike through the abandoned homesteads of Cataloochee, or a school trip to Ft. Loudon, I always marveled at the lives people had once led, at how things had changed and how they had stayed the same.

Today, I think one of the things that I appreciate about the recovery of these lost objects in Poland is the way they tell the story of things that existed without public fanfare for so long. They existed just as much at the bottom of the river for the past 350-plus years as they do now that they are at the surface.

One of my colleagues, Pat Rushin, this week also greeted the news that one of his screenplays, The Zero Theorem, is in pre-production with Terry Gilliam (who also directed the recently discussed Brazil). In a sense, this is another hidden treasure finally rising to the surface. This screenplay was written years ago, and was once previously slated for production, and I like thinking about how it had value all the years that it waited for its current attention, and how it will go on having that value long after it is made as a film and does or doesn’t fade from view.

As artists, we have to believe in our work no matter how much attention it gets in any given moment.

And we shouldn’t let attention that we (or others) may get as determinative of our value, even though that is the only measure that is clear and too often, unfortunately, the only measure by which we are judged. The knowledge does not diminish my happiness for Pat’s success, but I try to remember that time hides beauties, time reveals treasures. They exist either way.

Lia Lee: The Spirit Catches You

Lia Lee at age 4, from the cover of Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.

The news reached me over the weekend that Lia Lee has passed away. I responded, as I’m sure many others did, with mixed feelings. Lia Lee had been in a vegetative state since 1986, and the bulk of the tragedy associated with her was in some ways already long over. Yet, as this Sacramento Bee obituary notes, her mother nonetheless wept and expressed sorrow over her absence since her death on August 31.

Lia Lee and her family are best known for forcing a radical re-thinking of the value of severely disabled people’s lives and the need for Western medical personnel to deal better with other cultural beliefs during treatment. Hmong immigrants from Laos, the Lees brought with them to the U.S. different ways of thinking both about the epilepsy that led to Lia’s brain-death and about family responsibilities and love. They considered Lia a full-fledged human being even after Western medicine had pronounced her gone.

If you don’t know about Lia Lee, then right now you should take the steps to get ahold of Anne Fadiman’s wonderful book about her, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. I remember reading it shortly after it was published in 1997, and the amazement with which I turned the pages. Fadiman tells the tale of the Lee family’s desperate flight from Laos, their sense of abandonment by the U.S. government after the Hmong had helped out against the Viet-Cong in the “Secret War” during the 1970s, and their bewilderment at the treatment Lia received for her epilepsy at hospitals in their adopted California.

In fact, one small facet of this book has long affected how I teach creative writing. Early on in the book, Fadiman describes how one of Lia’s older sisters had written in elementary school a chronicle of her family’s escape from Laos—swimming across the Mekong River under attack by the Viet-Cong, even losing the life of one family member, enduring squalid refugee camps before finally managing to reach the U.S.—and the teacher’s comments along the lines of “What an interesting life you have led! Watch for proper comma use.” I decided right then and there that I would never trivialize what my students wrote about—that I would always emphasize that the details of writing are not about correctness in itself but about being able to better express the truth of the story you want to tell. I would always treat them as human beings first and writers second. Even this small lesson has served me well.

But The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down taught so many other important lessons. The impact of Fadiman’s book really cannot be well summarized, even though this New York Times article tries to do so. It’s a book characterized by an unusual depth of research, but also of feeling. There are too few books written with this kind of attention to detail and this kind of sensitivity. Fadiman cared enough to get it right, though even she stands corrected on a few matters. I read a lot of books these days that are superficial or sloppy—and, in spite of some imperfections, Fadiman’s book , even after all these years, puts them all to shame. It is a story that endures even though what it teaches to medical personnel about cultural sensitivity has become close to standard (albeit still too seldom acted on) by now.

May the spirit of Lia Lee live on, and may we remember her as well as her family took care of her.