The Daily

First Person

No Bad Things

July 15, 2015 | by

Growing up with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

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Illustration: Thomas Tait

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 »

Dissolution

May 15, 2015 | by

Notes on becoming dust.

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Mihály Munkácsy, Dusty Country Road II, 1883.

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 »

Mazzy Star Batman

May 5, 2015 | by

Sun Ra, self discovery, and apocryphal Batmans.

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Sun Ra’s Batman and Robin album, released under the name the Sensational Guitars of Dan & Dale.

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 »

What Are Songs For

March 20, 2015 | by

Willard Cummings, Barracks Concert (detail), ca. 1942.

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 »

Letter from New York, 2005

January 26, 2015 | by

Adventures in tastelessness at The Onion.

Photo: Casey Bisson, via Flickr

I used to be an editor at The Onion. This was in 2004, when most of the original writers were still there—just a handful had gone off to Hollywood. I was hired by my friend Carol Kolb, who’d just been made editor in chief.

Carol is the funniest person I have ever known. One time we went to a German restaurant together, and our server was a cross-dresser. The cross-dresser was the newer kind. He was a man, dressed as a woman, but I think the polite thing is to use the female pronoun. She didn’t wear any makeup, and she didn’t have styled hair. She wore blue jeans and a shirt from the Gap. Her chin-length red hair was lackluster, and looked a little oily. She was about forty years old, and she behaved like a forty-year-old woman—tired, kind, a little weary.

I went to the restaurant a lot, and for whatever reason, she never confused me, but Carol, I have to say, was uncomfortable. It was as if she couldn’t decide whether this was just a guy who had accidentally put on his wife’s clothes that morning or she was a woman who had just given up all hope. Carol had trouble ordering—she stumbled over her words and couldn’t meet the server’s eye. I noticed she kept looking nervously at the server’s breasts and hips. It wasn’t too big a deal, and the server handled it like a forty-year-old woman would, not taking it personally and not acknowledging that it was happening. When the server walked away, Carol said, “I am so embarrassed. I was acting like somebody from Spencer, Wisconsin.” She made her eyes glaze over as a hayseed’s would if he met Divine. “I was like this!” she said, “I just couldn’t get it together.”

Another joke of Carol’s was to say, on a crowded subway, “Did you hear about Maria’s new boyfriend?” Read More »

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The Not-so-open Road

January 20, 2015 | by

Hoarding books across the country.

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Photo: Frank Kovalchek, via Flickr

Fourteen years ago, my mom bought herself a Volkswagen Jetta, and this Christmas she passed it on to me. My girlfriend Sheena and I did what anyone would: we packed our bags and set a course for Iowa.

What I mean is that we took an old-fashioned road trip, from Minneapolis to San Francisco, and Iowa City was our first port of call. If Sheena and I had set out in the summer we might have shot straight west into South Dakota and beyond, but in winter our rusting station wagon seemed about as likely to make it through the Rockies as to successfully invade Russia. Instead, we drove south through Iowa, Missouri, and Oklahoma, in search of warmer climes and easier roads. People sometimes complain that the Midwest is too flat, but that quality has its consolations. Mountains, like high heels, are attractive but impractical—especially in the snow. Read More »

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