July 24, 2015 | by William Finnegan
Learning to surf in the sixties.
For my eleventh birthday, my father took me to the Dave Sweet Surfboards shop on Olympic Boulevard, in Santa Monica. From the rack of used boards, I chose a solid, sunbrowned 9'0" with blue-green paneled rails and a fin built with at least eight different types of wood. It cost seventy dollars. I was five feet tall, weighed eighty pounds, and could not reach my arm around it. I carried it to the street on my head, feeling self-conscious and scared of dropping the board, but as happy as I had ever been.
It wasn’t an easy winter, trying to learn to surf. Even though the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” (“Let’s go surfin’ now / everybody’s learning how”) was on the radio, I was the only kid at my backwater school who had a board. We spent most weekends in Ventura, so I got in the water regularly, but California Street was rocky and the water was painfully cold. I got a wet suit, but it had short legs and no sleeves, and neoprene technology was still in its infancy. At best, the little wet suit took some of the sharpest chill off the afternoon wind. My father liked to tell a story about a day when I got discouraged. From the warmth of the car, he had been watching me flounder—I imagine him smoking his pipe, wearing a big fluffy fisherman’s sweater. I came in, my feet and knees bleeding, stumbling across the rocks, dropping my board, humiliated and exhausted. He told me to go back out and catch three more waves. I refused. He insisted. I could ride them on my knees if necessary, he said. I was furious. But I went back out and caught the waves, and in his version of the story, that was when I became a surfer. If he hadn’t made me go back out that day, I would have quit. He was sure of that. Read More »
July 15, 2015 | by Zach Sokol
Growing up with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
From the ages of twelve to fifteen, I went through an obsessive-compulsive rigmarole before bed every night. The process demanded a minimum of two hours filled with concentrated touching, blinking, gulping, repetitive thinking, and chanting. If I botched any part of this strict routine, or if I was interrupted, I’d have to start the whole ordeal again, often tacking on an extra hour.
When I finished, I’d tuck myself into a sleeping bag under my covers, even during the most humid summer nights. I did all this out of fear: if I didn’t adhere to my compulsions, I thought, I would be brutally murdered in the middle of the night by a nonspecific being, or snakes would slither up my bedpost from beneath the frame and bite the soft spots between my toes. I used the heatstroke-friendly sleeping bag to “protect” my vulnerable digits.
Even then, I understood that my compulsions didn’t make sense. Many people with OCD are aware of the irrationality of their compulsions. But our behavior and our habits are governed by an internal system, a logic engineered to quell fear and anxiety so we can operate within our skulls and in the outside world. These rules, mind games, and habits are reinforced through practice. They become a way of life. Read More »
May 15, 2015 | by P. J. Podesta
Notes on becoming dust.
Since he applied paint thickly, and then repeatedly scratched it off the canvas as his work proceeded, the floor was covered with a largely hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings, mixed with coal dust, several centimeters thick at the center and thinning out towards the outer edges, in places resembling the flow of lava. This, said Ferber, was the true product of his continuing endeavors and the most palpable proof of his failure. It had always been of the greatest importance to him, Ferber once remarked casually, that nothing should change at his place of work, that everything should remain as it was, as he had arranged it, and that nothing further should be added but the debris generated by painting and the dust that continuously fell and which, as he was coming to realize, he loved more than anything else in the world. He felt closer to dust, he said, than to light, air or water. There was nothing he found so unbearable as a well-dusted house, and he never felt more at home than in places where things remained undisturbed, muted under the grey, velvety sinter left when matter dissolved, little by little, into nothingness. —W. G. Sebald (trans. Michael Hulse), The Emigrants
Before my godfather and great-uncle Julio became dust, he was a troublemaking, cheating, charming man. When he was a teenager, he stole a closetful of my grandmother’s summer clothes, sold them, and spent the money on prostitutes. When I was three, he got into a gorilla suit and popped out at me, making me cry. Not long before he died, during our final game of Scrabble, he played the word enzapment and maintained that it was real. It’s like entrapment, he said, but with a zap. I acquiesced and tallied his fifty-plus points. When he died, his wife, Maria Cristina, had his body cremated and put into a basketball-size, biodegradable clamshell urn.
I’d be lying if I said casting his ashes was traumatic. The truth is, it was one of the most cathartic and satisfying experiences of my life. Read More »
May 5, 2015 | by Nick Courage
Sun Ra, self discovery, and apocryphal Batmans.
My friend Amy and I moved to New York at about the same time, for the same reason: to pursue careers and then to decide we didn’t like ourselves in those careers. It was fine, when we arrived, to tread water for a bit—fun, even, in the way that living off peanut butter can be when creative success feels inevitable. After a couple of years, though, my excitement at living in the city started to curdle. I’d lost my master’s diploma somewhere between Boston and Brooklyn, but had somehow failed to shake my credit cards and student loans. So—terrified, with no real prospect of making a living as an artist—I watched my day job in publishing turn into my life.
It was a few months after the drudgery of fiscal responsibility kicked in that Amy introduced me to the joys of weekly comics. She’d set up a pull list at Midtown Comics, a twenty-dollar-a-week subscription that gave her something to be excited about on Wednesdays. Before she lent me her copies of the Batgirl reboot, I didn’t totally get it. Having read only occasional comics from the supermarkets of my childhood, I had never experienced a full narrative arc. I assumed that, like McDonald’s Monopoly™, there would always be a piece missing—what I might have jokingly called an objet petit a before my resentment of graduate school took over.
That changed after I set up my own pull list, taking the R train up to Times Square on my lunch hours and sneaking back into the Flatiron building with issues of Swamp Thing and Hellblazer tucked under my arms in opaque black plastic bags, like top-shelf Hustlers. It started off as simple transgression: the thrill of spending time with back issues of Savage Wolverine instead of the novels I should have been reading, both for work and as a “good literary citizen.” Before long, though, I developed favorite artists and writers—even letterers. After having lost my love of literature to the daily grind, it felt like a homecoming, to be excited to read again. All it took was two-page spreads of Morlocks tunneling through the bowels of Manhattan. “Good” was boring, I decided, arranging the books on my desk so I wouldn’t have to face their author photos. Better to be a delinquent with adamantium claws. Read More »
March 20, 2015 | by Brian Cullman
This was not quite what I’d expected.
I’d come to the psych wing of Butler Hospital, in Providence, Rhode Island, to present a music seminar or, more properly, a sing-along, as part of a community service requirement for my college. This was in the late seventies. I was in a brightly lit dining hall that smelled of tobacco and medicine. There were twenty-five or thirty folding chairs but only thirteen or fourteen patients, all of them sad and doughy, middle aged or older. I sat facing them on a gray wooden stool and looked out at the assembled not-quite crowd. They looked like retired firemen, metalworkers, or lunch ladies; men with mustaches, pensions, and bad habits; women with secrets; people who rode the bus, who stood in line and then stood in the same line again. I’d read The Bell Jar, some Randall Jarrell, and I had a vaguely romantic, if ill-defined, sense of life on the other side of what passes for sanity. But this was not a good advertisement for crazy. Read More »