Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Self-Diagnosis Three Years Later

It was the end of my second year of seminary and three heavy thoughts were burdening my life: the end of my internship with SMU Wesley, my 30 page credo (a long paper giving what your interpretation of the christian message is) due in two weeks that I’d only written five pages of, and what I was going to do for my third year of seminary. I’d basically decided I was leaving Dallas and going to serve in a ministry in Louisiana, though that search had turned into three mild leads that didn’t seem too promising.

It was in this climate that I woke on a bright Thursday morning in late March to find the room spinning only slightly as if I’d been turning circles in my sleep and woke up with perpetual vertigo. I got up and seemed to make it to campus, but it only got worse throughout the day, and in fact got so bad that I could no longer stand up and had to go. And yes, I drove home. Everyone asks that with surprise when I tell this part of the story.

By the end of the day it’d become unbearable and I was forced to call Andy and another friend to take me to the emergency room. Now, to explain what was happening physiologically, get into a swivel chair and spin yourself twenty times and try to walk around. That’s exactly what it felt like. I couldn’t hold my eyes open, I couldn’t walk, I could only lay down and even that felt like I was inside a barrel rolling down a hill.

When I got to the hospital they did a blood test to check my blood sugar, no diabetes. Then they did a test for an inner ear infection, again nothing. Then an MRI or whatever thing it is that they check your brain for problems, and that too turned up nothing. Then it was basic tests of any abnormal brain functioning. All of these turned out nothing definite and they sent me home with a bottle of valium and one week to see what happens.

Well, I hated the valium and I couldn’t do anything else, so I laid in bed for days until I could gain some functioning again. It was gradual but after four days I could watch a movie and by the next day I could read, though not for very long. After a week it was gone. No one knew what was wrong with me and no clear answers were given. Most people just said it was stress and left it at that. When I told my family, my grandmother on my father’s side said she and her siblings have had the same occurrences in their life, which was oddly comforting.

The consequences of this episode were that I had to drop the class where I had to write the 30 page credo, and I had to cut back from my work at the Wesley Foundation. Lastly, a job offer that seemed perfect and eased my worries came in the middle of April, and with that all the stress was gone. The episode is over and shelved as a odd event while I was in seminary in Dallas.

And that was it until yesterday. I was on my bike, riding down the Katy trail headed to work and listening to a new podcast I’d downloaded where one of the commentators had something happen to him that was strikingly similar to my experience where he was at a new job he’d started years before, and just like me the doctors gave him no clear diagnosis of the problem. He came to work and started to experience the dizziness and fear I described, and even thought he was having a heart attack. I felt similarly. The difference between him and myself is that he continued researching and found his answer with a psychiatrist he knew. She told him flat out that it was a panic attack.

Yes, a panic attack.

Some people have a tendency to interpret life events as dangerous, as if our brain has a switch that begins to interpret everything as harmful, and if this accumulates over time the body reacts adversely. This of course varies with people, some interpreting things that aren’t dangerous when they should, and others instinctively making nearly everything stressful when it shouldn’t be. Regarding the attacks though, some are acute and others are more prolonged. Mine, of course was very prolonged. I didn’t necessarily freak out but I did think I was having a nervous breakdown. What’s even more interesting is that it’s genetic, which explains my grandmother and her sisters having it too.

So, three years later that’s it. I have panic attacks.

What does a person do to counter these attacks? Simple stress relievers: deep breathing, meditation, and good old fashioned self care and self examination.

I’ve always said it’d be nice to be crazy, that way I could explain all the mishaps and weird things in my life that I do. Panic attacks aren’t what I had in mind, but I suppose they’ll suffice until it’s official that I’m insane.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

"True Grit" review

Tonight I had the chance to see “True Grit” at an early showing at the Angelika, and was surprised. Most movies I loved this year have been ones I had little expectations with beforehand: Inception, Scott Pilgrim, and the social network are three examples.

This movie did not transcend the genre of a western movie but sank into it, grew into a massive tree, and people took it as a part of the historical landscape of fine place to visit. The movie felt human, American, and deeply honest in what it saw as the world these people found themselves in; their lack of self-awareness was incredibly refreshing and most likely accurate. Having grown up in the cities and terrain where the movie is set, I felt the call of my past (my family has lived in AK, LA, MS area since the Civil War) sit down on my back porch and tell the story. And telling stories is what the characters did. In the American South we do that sort of thing, sit around and talk in our own distinct way. There was violence in the movie, yet the talking is what stood out, the characters were so articulate it was stunning to watch. The idea that we are far more advanced than previous times is absurd, especially if we read the common letters written by people of earlier times. Obama might be an articulate president, but he is nothing compared to most presidents of the 19th century when it comes to delivering a speech or communicating. Back then it was a subject like anything else, and the tremors of this are felt in the characters of the movie, speaking in arguments and points and rebuttals. We live in a time when language is changing from globalisation in a way it hasn’t before, yet we still don’t have the grasp of language as they did 150 years ago. People communicated in the movie, and the main character, a fourteen year old girl from Arkansas could run circles around most her age today, though I’ll admit her character is an anomaly in the world in which the movie takes place.

The story is of a young girl whose father is killed by a somewhat well known thug of the day and she hires a marshall to find him and kill him. She fights people all along the way and in many forms to stand up for what she sees is good, and largely prevails with a bleedingly hard effort and resolve as the underpinnings of her work. The man she hires is a drunk and a man nearly as filthy as the men he hunts and arrests, but there is a distinction between him and the villains that comes out and is crucial. The exteriors may be similar, but when pushed to it, we show who we are and what we care about. The difference between the good characters and the bad are this resilience that is often hidden side of love we have trouble facing in our day.

Every character except a few, some on the good side of the law and others not, have dignity in this movie, a trait often missed in our reading of previous times. People have morals, even the worst of them, and they see each other as human, and because of it can see when someone is being less than that. It’s clear in the movie. The villains aren’t monsters, they’re confused, impulsive, erratic creatures who are bad- sometimes it’s best to let it stand at that. When you meet the bad men they’re chasing it’s obvious they are not a sophisticated assassins (the good make far better executors than the evil), but scared men who flee. Their running is what must be overcome because it is their strength and they know it, for when they are caught most of their power is extinguished.

The performances were excellent with Bridges’ portrayal being a bit too much at times (though it works) and Hailee Steinfeld playing the leading role of Mattie Ross takes the show. She is a joy to watch, and her work on being Mattie Ross sits in your mind long after the movie ends. Matt Damon does well in a supporting role as many of us don’t doubt he would. He’s a versatile actor and shows it here.

The striking part of this movie, though, and anyone who studies 19th century American culture will inevitably have to face is the vein of religion running through it. The word “Methodist” is mentioned at least three times- circuit riders, preachers, and other references to the denomination are accurate- it was the dominant Protestant denomination of the 19th century in the US. People unabashedly mention God with a backbone and real meat on it, mentioning the name like they’d spent their lives with it as they did. The Coen bros. do this well and I appreciate that about them- they let religion out of its cage without putting a leash on it or beating it unjustly. I can think of several movies they’ve directed that involves religion as a significant part of the plot. Religion is much better as a supporting actress than a lead. The glare is overwhelming when it becomes the main and only topic of a story. Religion loves its members more than itself.

I highly recommend this movie.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

listen to the lyrics

I exchanged "last CDs" with someone about two months ago and apart from it being a revealing thing to do with someone I've known for a good while, there was an interesting distinction that arose when I listened to music other people chose or when we talked about why we like certain songs. Like my dad, I hear only the music and hardly ever the words. I feel stupid saying so, like I'm missing a big part of it, though when I listen to classical music I really get what the composer is trying to convey, or at least I think I do. I think there's a lot of truth in saying a song is sound apart from the meaning of the lyrics, though I don't know if I'll agree in saying the lyrics are the higher part of a song. I will admit that I feel like I'm missing a big part of a lot of today's music, though I see it as like getting a hotel room that I can enjoy with ease just by being in it, and if I want to use go down to the bar, or drink whatever is in the fridge and I'll be charged for later, then fine. I feel like I'm being lazy, though I don't think it's that. It's like two people experiencing an event and walking away with two impressions of it, largely because they saw what they value and embraced it when it was there. I know I'm missing out on a big part of many songs, in fact there are songs with its only great strength as its lyrics (I'm thinking of a lot of country music when I say this), or hip hop, so maybe this will be my new resolution for the next week or so. Listen to the lyrics. Yes. Listen to the lyrics.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

bad habits

The Art of Manliness blog entry for this morning had to do with bad habits, well more exactly it had to do with breaking and making habits. Unfortunately we live an existence that easily forms bad habits (very little effort is required for their acquisition), but to make any good ones it requires weeks and weeks of work. Sixty six days according to the blog. That's a long time especially when I was told 21 days by a friend, but when it comes to settling into reflex behaviors, I'll side with the bigger numbers. Some good advice on the blog though said to avoid changing too many habits at once, seeing how it could overload the system. Good point. I've made that mistake many a time. I'll sit down like I did this morning and make a list of behaviors I want to lose and another list of behaviors I want to take on. Why not do it all at once? The simple reason is that you can't, or you most likely won't. So, I made my list but chose one good habit to replace a bad habit. What were they?

Spending too much time with people.

Reading at night.

Can you guess which is the bad habit? The "too much" gave it away. Yes, it's that I love hanging out with people and I tend to do it so much that it grows to be immoderate, inefficient, and irresponsible. Who wants those in their life? I don't. And I knew this was my big bad habit because there was immediate anxiety at changing it. The thought ran like this:

"Oh no! If I cut back on that part of my life, I'll never have friends and I'll be stuck in my apartment watching 'Friends' reruns all weekend." Most would agree that is a sad existence, but to say I'll jump from social life security to the abyss without a trace of detection on my part is a stretch and unreasonable. So, instead of hanging out with people I will read for a few hours in the evening. So far it's gone well. Next up on the list: video games.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Humbling to say the least

I read on a Catholic blog once that a good practice of mortification is to ask three close friends what they would change about you if they could. I asked three friends and they gave nearly the same answer: emotions. They wouldn't change my emotions per se, but how I express them, or I should say the lack of expression. Of course I get angry and I get sad and I get all the other things a person without asperger's would show, but there is something different about the way I do it, or don't do it.

When I heard the answers I was surprised in a way because I don't think of myself as someone who doesn't show emotions. I laugh all the time, and I do plenty of other emotional things, but there is a learning curve in seeing that what I think I look like is in fact much different than what other people see. Oh yes, this has become very very clear. And this may be why I'm drawn to Jesse Eisenberg's portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg. Sure, he is a monster in the movie, but all the good things he possesses are the same things I value on a personality level. The guy is an outright atheist and a run of the mill dude/heathen (at least in the movie he is), but the way he talks to people and the way he handles himself is frighteningly similar. The movie was a caricature, though I hear he isn't much different in person, which makes me think that he is an INTP or something very close to it.

Ok, I didn't make a 1600 on the SAT (I didn't even take the SAT) and I am no prodigy at anything as far as I can tell, but if there was a Mark Zuckerberg ballpark, I'd be in it. Oh yes I would. But how does this tie in to emotions?

He walks over people, sees them as objects, operates according to principles, is insensitive, blah blah blah. There's a scene in the movie where his emotion shows itself in an odd way. The opposing lawyer asks him if he has his full attention and Mark responds by saying, "It's raining." You can see how sad he is at what's happening and the Mr. Spock persona is cracking under the pressure of all the talk about the court cases and his past infractions. For a moment it peeked. That's a start.

But for anyone who is like Mark, it makes perfect sense. We hate rom coms and overly sentimental blathery because it's nothing but feeling and the last thing we want is to be thrown around the room by someone's poor portrayal of life as this awkward, smily, teary something that life is in those films. It's soggy cereal that's become one with the milk and formed a blob of dull gray goldenness in a bowl.

I won't begin to worship my emotions like many seem to do, I don't think that's possible for me. That's the fear, but it won't get that far. Where does one begin when this task is before them? I asked three friends what they would do that change me, but they can only point to it while I have the work ahead of me. I don't know if it'll be all that bad.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A job opportunity

I found a job. I wasn’t looking for one, seeing how my writing was going so well and I wanted to continue my work, but it was one of those opportunities that forced itself upon me, the lesser shy of the kind that I couldn’t resist. It happened that I went to Starbucks like I tend to do almost everyday, but this time not to the one in Mockingbird Station. This place is the one restaurant a person passes by in their life but never enters. They always mean to of course, but the time or the will to do it never arrives. So it goes.

I sat down with my laptop and books, entering my usual coffee shop routine of distracted internet browsing and occasional hidden glances at people entering the shop when this woman sitting behind me wearing what looks like the uniform of a person who’d lived in a bed their whole life would wear (tacky yellow pajamas and a t-shirt from a 5k she or someone she knew ran in 1997) turns to me,

“Are you a student at SMU?” she is behind me when she asks this, moving from her table to mine, asking the second question, “Do you mind if I sit with you?”

I comply.

Most people in this situation would wonder what this woman is up to, I did the same, but there was this feel to everything she did that jarred with her outward appearance like she’d just escaped from a prison where everyone is forced to wear tacky pajamas, and the first thing she decides to do while out is pick up some guy at a coffee shop. Though I was certain she wasn’t hitting on me.

She asks about my blog and what I plan on doing with me life, and I tell her. We go on until I realize I know nothing about this middle-aged woman with no bra on, and I ask her about her life and why she’s so interested in mine.

“Because you look like the kind of person we want to hire,” she says.

Oh wonderful, I thought with mild disbelief. I’m always open to employment, though I can honestly say this had never happened and I’m right to never expect it to. Regardless of the unique situation, I was going to listen even if I wasn’t sure what kind of job it would be.

“You have to decide now if you want the job, though.”

I ask her why.

“It’s how it works,” she says, smiling at having to give that kind of answer. I could tell this woman enjoyed whatever it was she did.

“Is there anything you can tell me about it?”

Her answer to this question is straightforward and brutal: she gets up and says to me while standing next to my table,

“You’re offered the job only once,” she says and she exits the shop, leaving an empty seat across from me. I ponder what she has to say, thinking over my options and the reality that I have very little going on besides my writing. This isn’t bad, of course, but why pass this up? I gather my things and follow her out the door, seeing her a few feet from a black BMW parked at the side of the building. She unlocks the door and gets inside, never acknowledging me for a second. I get into the passenger side seat.

“I decided to take your offer,” I say as I sit down beside her, realizing I just entered a strange woman’s very nice car that I’d met at a coffee shop. She doesn’t respond to me, acting as if we’re a couple in the middle of an intense but silent tiff. Her face is expressionless and cold.

“Is something wrong?” I ask her. Nothing about her acts as if I’m there.

We drive north out of dallas, no music is playing on the radio, and I listen to hum and thump of the car on the highway, turning to look out the window at the orange and blue streetlights passing above our car. We drive nearly twenty minutes past McKinney, when I turn to her and ask,

“Where are we going?”

Her eyes begin to close yet she continues driving, somehow keeping us on the road. I take the wheel with one hand, but see I don’t have to when I can feel her steering the car. I reach for my cellphone to call for help, but when I try to do anything with it I only see a blank screen.

Finally we exit the highway onto an empty street with dark pastures on both sides of us. We turn onto a road lined with trees. I don’t want to look at her, thinking she doesn’t want to talk, and any communication I attempt will be met with a harsh rebuke.

The car turns off the road into a driveway with no mailbox and gravel as its pavement. She still guides our car with her eyes closed, as if she were a machine without eyes. I look down at the pedals, and see her feet operating the car with amazing dexterity.

We reach a gate that opens automatically when our car approaches, the letters on the gate are “U” and “H”. The road opens into a stunning scene of a large house with a circular driveway and a fountain in the center of the front yard. Cars are parked in odd places with no clear pattern or direction. Every light in the house looked to be on, with no one standing in any of its windows. Our car stops in front of the steps that lead to the entrance of the house. Once the car comes to a stop, the woman slouches over onto the wheel as she passes out, the only thing missing from her were Xs over her eyes or a blinking battery telling me she is dead.

I thought of running away, though I knew it wouldn’t be worth it, seeing how I didn’t know where I was, and I would have to take my laptop with me. I didn’t want my data to be harmed in any way, especially since I’d been working on getting twenty thousands songs on Itunes and I hadn’t backed up my library in three weeks. All that work would be lost for a weak attempt at escape, I couldn’t undergo such a thing. So, I gathered my courage and decided to face the daunting task of climbing the stairs and finding who the host of this party might be. Without flinching, I ascend the stone steps and knock on the large wooden door. It’s carved with an ornate design of a garden with a man and a woman walking through it. I study the scene until the door opens a minute later.

The house is decorated for a party like the ballroom of the titanic. The scene is magnificent. I enter the house, not realizing there was no one standing behind the door to open it, leaving the question of who allows entry into the house unanswered. Stairs leading to a second and third floor present themselves at the entrance, while lights dot the walls where paintings fittingly take up space. I am stunned by the room and remain there for a time I couldn’t measure, having lost all sense of location. A statue of a woman wearing a toga stands in front of the stairs holding a cup lifted to the ceiling as if heaven would fill it. Her mouth is slightly open in anticipation, and she stands on her toes to get as close to the sky as she can like any second she will break into flight and leave the house. A chandelier hangs above her like all the stars in the sky gathered into a ball and left lazily clinging to one another, unable to get away.

“What do you think of it?,” a man’s voice says from beside me. He is dressed like an art dealer at a fancy hotel bar after work. “I bought it from a friend in Prague who owed me a favor.”

“It’s impressive for sure,” I say back to him.

“Yes, it is,” he stands and admires it like old friend’s photograph. His eyes are bright and intelligent with a young man’s face only a few years older than myself.

I introduce myself, and he responds,

“I know who you are. I’ve been keeping up,” his fingers move on the glass of wine he’s carrying. I assumed its wine.

“You know about me, do you?” with a suspicious tone, though I wasn’t surprised with what had happened up until then.

“I know you just graduated from SMU, and I know the names of your roommates. I can tell you what’s in your pantry at your apartment and I can tell you what the combination to your bike lock is,” he said it in such a calm, almost tired way, I had trouble telling myself he might be lying to me.

“And how did you get all of this information, and why would you even care?” I ask, taking a step back and trying to look as casual as possible while inside completely worried about what this man wants from me.

“I care because you’re someone we need for a project of mine,” he leans in and speaks in a softer voice, “You see, we are attempting something only I’ve tried and with moderate success. Let me ask you this, have you ever wondered if there are any other civilizations around us we can’t see?”

“Sure, like the Sasquatch except a village of them.”

“Like that, but less ape-like. I mean something the way people used to think of gnomes living in the ground and stealing things from us every once in while.”

“People believed that?”

“Who knows what people believed? We can only guess, but I know they talked about it quite a bit, and there are plenty of stories to give us information on what they thought of them.”

“So, you found a bunch of gnomes, have you?” laughing with a nudge to his elbow. He acts annoyed at this.

“No, we haven’t, or I haven’t. It’s only been me working here, trying to find out if it’s true.”

“If what’s true? The gnomes?” growing more curious, but really joking the whole time.

“No gnomes. Forget I said that,” he says flatly as he steps away from me, never making eye contact.

“Will you come with me, please?” he walks through the door where he came from, I follow behind. He takes me through a series of hallways and into a room where a woman and two men are sitting at a table, each hard at writing something by hand.

“Just take a seat and follow the instructions,” he says, making me feel like I was taking the SAT all over again. He walks out of the room and leaves me with the other applicants. I look at them as they write with a serious and concentrated face like their future depended on the results of this test, creating an even greater resemblance to every standardized exam I’ve taken.

“What do you know about the job?” I ask. None of them respond. Getting this sort of reply was expected at this point. I began the exam, which I might add was the most exhausting and silly test I’ve ever taken. My life is examined and I begin to write, picking up an odd blue pen shaped like a harpoon. I write with an inexhaustible vigor and honesty that was surprising. Things I didn’t remember until then emerged onto the paper, and for each answer there came a precise response. Before I know it, I’m on the last question and finishing its last sentence when I look up and the room is empty and the door that I entered into has now shifted to the other side of the room. On the wall is a clock with the second hand unmoving and a pillar beneath it with a green ceramic bowl. My fellow applicants are missing and I am the last one left in the room. I drop my pen and go over to the bowl, and see that inside is a single piece of gum wrapped in red wax paper like the peanut butter candies in orange and black wrappers given out at Halloween.

I put the candy in my pocket and walk through the door. The next room is a conference room much like the one I left, except instead of a table there is furniture lining the walls with the middle of the room open. Occupying some of the recliners were my silent friends from the exam earlier. I find a seat and wait for something to happen, growing sure that no one will talk to me. One of them does, however, the oldest of the men, a gray headed man with a big smile and a moderately overweight and relaxed look. Out of all the people, I’m least happy it’s him that speaks to me.

“So, you were pulled into this too were you? You look like the kind of guy who belongs here, you know? Did you get a look at that chandelier? I’ve never seen anything like it. You’d think this guy has a billion dollars or something. My ex-wife had family like that, though they weren’t the kind you wanted to know. Whew, they just didn’t know when to stop and their money seemed to never end, though it did when the debt crisis happened and they had some investments in a few homes. Bad timing, I suppose,” and he goes on and on with me only slightly listening to him, and him acting as if we were the best of friends after a long time away from each other. He smiles big like a door to door magazine salesman.

About this time our host enters the room and everyone falls silent. Without a word he strolls to the center of the room,

“You all did very well,” he says, rummaging through a stack of papers I assume are our exams. “I knew I chose the right people.” He makes a point of looking at each of us, giving his approval with a glance. The man seemed very knowledgable and professional in what he did.

“Can anyone of you guess why you’re here?” he asks.

“Work,” the older man who was talking to me laughs with an obnoxious guffaw, sitting in the chair next to mine. I cringe and hope no one thinks we came there together.

The man gives a mild grin.

“Yes, but what exactly?” he asks. No one speaks, which comforts me because I also have no idea.

“Pay attention,” he says. And taking one of the candies similar to what I found in the green bowl, he places it on his tongue, bites down, and disappears right in front of us. All breath leaves me as I’m stunned.

That was an hour ago, and I’ve had the chance to use this laptop I found in the room. He has wireless here, so I thought I’d check facebook and blog about this.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


If you saw the trailer, it’s all there. A action/suspense movie that shows itself to be that and nothing more. This isn’t a fault of the movie because it never said it would be anything else. When I saw the trailer, I thought there’d be more to why the train is out of control, like terrorism or aliens or ghosts, but no, it’s none of that. A worker botched up a simple job and the results are a disaster.

Writing about the movie the next day makes me wonder why it was so good. It had all the elements of a suspense movie, more of the disaster kind though on a smaller scale than a volcano or a tidal wave, or even the end of the world. But isn’t it nice to see a movie that buys into the thought that to make bigger and louder and more dramatic moves means a better movie. Anyone who has written or read a story that tries to be larger than it actually is knows that the story is the disaster, not whatever wreck they dramatize within it.

It’s an out of control train that the company is trying to stop. Two men with lives and all the good and bad that comes with that step in to halt the train. Sentiment is there, they have families, they have their own back stories, it works. We smile, we sit on the edge of our seats, we sigh in relief, it’s a disaster movie. It works. Tony Scott did a good job with it.

Denzel Washington. He does what Denzel has done in the dozen other movies he’s been in. I know he’s a great actor and he plays that character well, but I’m beginning to wonder if he’s niched himself into the same person in every movie he plays, only with slight differences due to setting and situation.

Also, I found it encouraging to see a character who wears mostly denim, those yellow sunglasses people wear at shooting ranges, drives a large red truck, and jabbers with a mild southern accent about military strategy to a waitress in a diner who doesn’t care at all about what he’s saying. What’s remarkable about this character is that he isn’t portrayed as a bumbling idiot who never got through middle school. If you couldn’t tell from my description of him, he’s what we in Louisiana would call a redneck. Usually if there’s one of these in a movie, he wants to rape another man or shoot him, or both. But hey, he doesn’t do either. He helps stop the train. And he isn’t bad at it either. His truck comes into play too. Look at that. The rednecks of the world can make a positive contribution.