Braised Comfort and Sips of Miso Soup – Kimura

“How do you survive?”

A common question, as I poke my fork at lightly salted Easy Mac most days at work. Currently, I’m re-living high school, a time of contentment with simple things like oranges and microwaved tuna casserole. I stretched out my checks earned as a tour guide, and I hope to do the same now.

But living a little hardly hurts.

I live a street-and-a-half away from work. A convenience for both the lackadaisical and eager as I leave thirty minutes before office hours start, slipping on pants with a speed not pressured. I count chain restaurants at each stoplight. Not many, but I find few little enclaves I plan to visit again.

IMG_2850Modest at its antiquated outset, Kimura’s offerings of Japan and satisfaction restored my spirits during one of my more stressful weeks these first months at the job. It’s tiny, yet accommodating to commiserating coworkers and childhood friends meeting up, if just for once within the past ten years. There’s a bar to the left as you open the door, though seating to the right against well-shaded windows grants a mellow reprieve.

IMG_2840I arrived around noon, seeking reunion with miso soup I forgot the taste of as barbecued pork, pasta, and Nutella sandwiches were swallowed in weeks prior. I looked to the waitress, pointing to a tall, frosted bottle. “It’s vodka!” she joked. I laughed in my usual awkwardness, asked for water, and she giggled, pouring me a glass. It wasn’t vodka, but it was invigorating.

Recently, my Asian dining has been limited to pho. Which is wholesome and widely accessible here, though I craved pork, which is hard to find at good quality. I’m always one to request tofu, or the vegetarian pad thai. It’s really more of a texture thing, my aversion to most meats. But oddly, I don’t mind pork. Cue the Chashu Don.

IMG_2845

Like the establishment, the dish wields a humility that goes a long way. Along with the soup and calming neutrality of cucumber sunomono, you get a bowl graced with braised beige and sprinkles of green onion. I’ve always preferred steamed over brown rice, so I spent my hour quite fulfilled, taking my time to slice through the meat with the same wide spoon I used to sift through my soup. I could never feign mastery of chopsticks, and I’m still too shy to request forks and knives when the setting brands them anomalous.

IMG_2834Here, you witness conversations familiarized by small-towny shows like Gilmore Girls. I haven’t dined here to the point of assessing the restaurant’s likenesses to Cheers, but Kimura’s no stranger to handfuls passing by. The girl who makes my coffee at the shop across Starbucks stopped to say “Hello.” A person in an office two floors below me smiled to ask, “Is it good?” as he opened a sturdy menu. I found myself looking around. At well-shaded windows, hues of glossy red, the uncrowded enthusiasm in those around, sipping their shoyu, chewing on bean sprouts.

IMG_2836It was a humid day. Gray, but unwilling to welcome rain. I walked to work with a cup of Easy Mac wedged between folders bent in my bag. But it’s not exactly the chicken soup that soothes. Chashu Don’s a close counterpart. Actually, it’s something more.

Acquaint yourself with Kimura, and if you ever find yourself in Downtown San Antonio, do give them a try!

Refusing to Die – Oneanna65’s About

For sale on Amazon in both Kindle and Paperback.

Cancer. The frenzied multiplication of cells, here, there, anywhere, really. Most of us have met at least one person with cancer, perhaps experienced the deaths of several afflicted. I often think of chemotherapy, isolation, strict diets, dramatic weight loss and other complications to sadden, aggravate, and sour. But I’ve never heard anyone, at least in person, discuss his or her experiences with cancer so candidly as to mention the “doughnut machine” when recalling the day’s radiation session.

Oneanna65, as she prefers to be called, combines memory, poetry, social media, recipes, and faith-guided introspection in her self-published book, About. She’s been a fighter since childhood, though positive in her outlook. From the autobiographical start, to poetic revelations, and excerpts of her most memorable blog posts, she has you not only rooting for her, but thinking, “Wow, this is perseverance.”

We see perseverance in just one of many bits of reflective commentary:

“For one clean wine bottle I would buy a sweet bun. If I could find 10 bottles and make two trips to the recycling shop, I could buy sweet bun, candy, lemonade, and I could go to the movies.”

The author lived a life I’d call chapped by poverty, absent fatherhood, and several childhood tragedies. In 1978, she made the transition to Chicago from communist Poland, evading the predatory motives of her already-married sponsor but knowing, as one seeking refugee status, that she could never simply return. This isn’t the only large transition. Throughout About, we learn that the author:

– Spent much of her life as a limo driver, encountering the strange, normal, sweet, and mean.
– Found herself in a homeless shelter.
– Caught herself in the disappointment of one stressful job after another.
– Continues to experience serious health problems, which About primarily discusses.

Despite all this, Anna keeps going. An impoverished child with a dogged will that persists across the decades. A scene I found most memorable was the one regarding church. Attending church was fine, until Anna was hungry. Her mother would hand her money to give to the local priest, but when Anna needed to eat, she never hesitated to walk to the bakery. She describes her lack of guilt in a way that’s admirable, and logical. She came to the conclusion that God loved her, and would continue to love her, even if she bought herself a piece of bread, rather than offer the prominent church leader the weekly tithe.

Anna’s forwardness in thought and action is a feature that manifests repeatedly. A woman experiencing a breakup gets into the limo, expressing her want to die. While similar scenarios I myself have witnessed were prolonged as bystanders thought of how to be polite, Anna never hesitates. She talks about her own relationship problems, acknowledges she too wanted to die, but says she’s overcome. And if Anna can do it, so can the girl. I thought the scene would explode with some diatribe, a rant about “You not knowing me.” But Anna made a friend, and treats us to another story of an ever-smiling girl in a wheelchair, thrilled that she can finally get inside the limousine, without help, in spite of multiple sclerosis.

This isn’t the only scene that displays Anna’s greatest strength as a storyteller: illustrating contrasts. Again, I’ll go back to her childhood memories. “Half-an-orphan.” This was a term Anna often heard growing up without a father. “But I’m whole!” she insists, and discusses the greater suitability of the word “father-free.” While the circumstances of their relationship dishearten, Anna assures us that there were positives out of this, recalling some often socially condoned practices she witnessed in the lives of her friends with “complete” families.

Aside from the autobiographical, Anna addresses the nutritional. A recipe for chicken soup, and a resigned acknowledgement that yes, while it’s healthy, one can tire of chicken soup. So Anna drops suggestions to diversify the meal. If you’re not familiar with her blog, you’ll find some insights on health, the brain, and food. Regarding the neurological, Anna comments:

“…our cells don’t have a brain, they listen to our thoughts and do exactly what we are thinking.”

In the beginning, she shares this quote:

“From every wound there is a scar, and every scar tells a story. A story that says I have survived.” – From Words of Wisdom – Mhar.

Anna asks not for sorrow towards her struggles, but invites us to live with optimism, faith, receptiveness to health, and renewal of the will.

As a reader, I learned that foods like tuna, pomegranate, red wine, and bok choy have cancer-fighting properties, and are worth researching. And as a blogger, I smiled reading Anna’s recollections of advice to use WordPress over other site-building services, the time she encountered a nasty commenter, and her declination to use the polished “About” statement recommended to her. Anna does mention several times that her English is not the best, but I find the imperfections invaluable to the work. It made the book absorbing to read and reminded me of books read to my third grade class from our audibly Ukrainian teacher. I admired that she was willing to share the intricacies of her ailments, explaining how writing can be a physically taxing feat. She even mentions it when explaining the lack of punctuation in her poetry. Like the foods Anna recommends we eat, About is fairly organic.

And that’s the lovable aspect of About. It’s natural, blunt, unhindered, though comforting. Ultimately, positivity lies within you. Praise, encouragement, and sunlit brunches are appreciated gestures, but in the face of adversity, no one can will yourself to wake up and live other than yourself. Anna lives, and keeps on living.

Small Town Friendships and Unconscionable Doings – Pete Deakon’s Buried Within

Pete Deakon’s second novel, Buried Within, is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

Not everything is alright in America’s humble Midwest.

I’ve only been to Missouri for three days, at most. One day in Springfield, two in St. Louis. While I remember the weather being muckier than desired, walking from the botanical garden in an inadequate poncho, the people continued to grin.

In Buried Within, Pete Deakon illustrates just how the fond, playful winsome conflicts with the dreary, the two eventually coalescing as the horrific transpires.

“I’m here for you if you need it,” a friend offers in tragedy’s chill. But of course, the person facing loss may brood, in his own special way. Some understand, others are spooked. Maybe he’s not sad enough. Maybe he’s too angry. Perhaps, a bit obsessed. Crazed. They’ll still continue to talk about him, meaning well, though not immune to plasticized gossip and sentimental recollections of some romantic movie.

Mark, he’s a romantic. An awkward one who Deakon endows with calculative flair. Like The Divorce and Doom of Simon Pastor, Buried Within holds tight to the logical, each character’s thoughts, mannerisms, and relationships presented with the accessibility of a well-written instruction manual. But the steps you follow to assemble the cabinet, they’re written with heart and integrity.

Here is just an example of dry humor by which I was charmed:

“Like most men, Adam and John were not attorneys and they certainly made decisions that proved them to be hypocrites to their own lofty notions of morality, but still they held these notions.”

Of course, attorneys aren’t perfect people, and everyone, in a series however prolonged or brief, repeats the same mistakes. This is a human flaw, and while imperfection can embarrass and disappoint, Deakon describes everyday follies with a bluntness and dialogue that not only has one chuckling, but reassures readers that maybe, even through the appallingly unpredictable, things will be okay.

The thrill of courtship, the drabs of marriage, the challenge of keeping the flame at a flicker. Couples and partnership are key players in Buried Within, helping to establish the backdrop of a quiet town and steady friendships. Mark and Rebecca are great for each other. The girl, young and lively, shivers in her modesty, though comfort is found in the sheer stability of quiet, awkward Mark. Again, no one is perfect, but upon finding out, most would “tsk” and pry. So Mark and Rebecca keep to themselves for much of their married lives.

Before, things were better. Wholesome memories of a budding love that makes me think of that movie with a young Reese Witherspoon. Man in the Moon.

In time, Mark unravels. We see the petals of a vibrant rose gradually fall. Insecurity, infertility, the bureaucracy of adoption. Work. Because love doesn’t pay the bills, though you’d think it makes hardships easier to bear.

Mark gets struck with a hardship. Brought on by a different kind of awkward.

Deakon writes about the interpersonal in very personal ways. Again, I’ll emphasize that he’s quite technical, something I can’t deduce too often in the span of a short novel. The chapters read like vignettes, Norman Rockwell paintings that hang on the same wall, but don’t necessarily depict the same thing, like dogs or the ocean, hotdogs and cottages. We begin at the present, roll in the past, proceed to the present again. The woods, a car, a bowling alley. A garage. The trunk of a car. Deakon doesn’t concentrate too much on building a bridge from scene to scene, but they all fit tightly. More so, we appreciate detail in thoughts and dialogue.

But one thing I wish the author could have done more is drill more detail in those more unpleasant scenes.

In general, we tend to be more comfortable reading about atrocity than seeing it. Given the freedom of imagination, it makes a lot of sense. While Deakon did well with his fine brushstrokes the first half of the novel, I felt things grew curt towards the end. Know that the writing is always straightforward. But with actions we associate with high coverage trials, I was hoping for more exploration. The content itself is unsettling, though I wanted something more graphic.

However, this may be the point of it all. Contrasts are everywhere. The conventional versus the old-fashioned, the young and the old, the masculine and the effeminate. Pay attention to what Rebecca says about Mark’s dad, the perks Rebecca hopes for at work when she hits her thirties, the way Mark’s friends laugh at him because he uses the word “tendrils.”

By the way, I’ve never actually heard a man use the word “tendrils” in person.

So while I initially felt I was walking through some lush forest beneath some starry, lovelorn sky (and I do like to feel this way every once in a while), it seemed like I suddenly found myself in a pale tundra, with poison ivy here and there. Jarring and out of place.

But then again, maybe this was the goal Deakon aimed for.

The quirky and the creepy. The grieving and the vengeful. These, among a handful of other attributes, harbor similarities but diverge at a certain point. A fork in the road, or a fine line. The demarcation isn’t as harsh as the water of romance and the oil of postmarital boredom, but it’s there to be noticed. A point for reflection.

Despite its occasional brusqueness, Buried Within left me with thoughts whole and absorbed in our own flaws. The things we hold most dear, and things that really, anyone is capable of accomplishing when we lose our grasp on what we loved.

I do presume.

Originally posted on Mighty Optical Illusions

“And where did you meet Gerald Reeves?”

We sat in a booth, on strawberry clouds with form after form and my driver’s license littering the table, speckled with dry tea. Placemats for coloring. Coloring for postgrads.

I adjusted the lining of my ruched black skirt. “You look quite nice.” “Thanks, James.” Previously I made another “last” visit to my place of study, to sign yet another form. Hopped on the bus with Jim’s last dime, waited in their marble suite with a raspberry soda in hand, and said goodbye to another prospect as a legal assistant in the antiquated convenience they call Downtown. My favorite work shirt hasn’t been ironed since.

“We met on the bus.”

Keeth chuckles in Irish mirth, motions to the Oreo Crumble and asks me how I like it. Applying for serving and barista positions certainly carries its perks. Peppermint mochas, green tea lattes, milkshakes and slices of mousse cake. On the house, as I scrambled for cash to stay in the laundry room of a friend’s.

Gerald convinced me serving was an art, that rewards follow refinement. Humanities degrees aren’t useless. They supply fodder for conversation. And this clientele, they’ll pay for fodder. Most are cops who come for the free coffee anyway.

He was only thirty-eight and claimed to work six days a week, seven if lucky. $500 a night since age seventeen at the same place. A different picture on the wall for twenty-four months straight. Two dozens’ worth of the “greatest employee we ever had.”

***

“He’s full of shit.”

I folded my hands over my apron, still boxy with tucked away tips. This was reprieve from the usual talk with disgruntled aunts at call centers. But a date would soon follow. “To be fair, you meet ’em on the bus.” “Thanks, James.” My disappointments with men aren’t worth speaking of as of today. Probably a good thing.

“You can really make good money, if you work the long hours and are fine with kissing ass. I mean, Gerald is going to retire. He put a good deal into an IRA Roth and some other stuff. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

“Must be nice to live at home. What kind of parents charge rent nowadays?”

“Mine.”

“Well, that’s you.”

Presumptions flutter and stand by our doors. The easy-to-access two-by-four they say to beat intruders with if you don’t have a gun. People you don’t know.

***

It’s very much like saying only dirty kids get lice, and I’m only reminded of a bubbly cop I really enjoyed pouring sweet tea for, until he offhandedly said that people get arrested for a reason, that trials were a waste of time. Yes, if they’re prolonged. “Innocent until proven guilty?” I quipped. “The arrest indicates guilt. Nine times out of ten.” “So what about that ten percent?” “Well, they sure did something.”

Sometime in 2010, or 2011, Justin Bieber told Rolling Stone that rape was a sad thing. Something along the lines of not liking abortion, that yeah, it’s really sad when a woman has a baby by rape, but “everything happens for a reason.” Well, yes. But what are you implying about the rationale? Is every reason justified?

Three weeks ago it was asked if I had an eating disorder. Anyone who lives with me would laugh at the question. I think Ren would be pissed. And today it was asked just how much I allocate for groceries. “How do you afford to get everything from Whole Foods?”

For the past five days, I’ve brought quinoa in a Tupperware, a bag of avocados, and mangos to spare. Put these together, glaze it with salsa, and you’ve created a filling salad.

All from an inner-city grocery store for less than fifteen bucks. And there’s enough to last for the week ahead.

Not that Whole Foods is bad. I love salmon jerky and matcha green tea powder. And if I can’t get matcha online, I’ll go to Whole Foods.

***

Perhaps I am oversensitive. But after a while, comments like this are no more grating than belittling someone for moving to Austin, “where affluent students panhandle.” Bring up the beauty of Portland, OR to hear similar scoldings from neighbors and friends. “A better Austin. Richer people.”

Today we sat through a sales pitch. Another local wholesale store hosting a membership drive, wedding cake, cookies, and photo packages lined on a table, set to tempt. They praised this part of town for its spending potential, family needs, consumers aplenty. And I turned to a coworker and whispered,

“Most people can’t afford to live here!”

“And really, he hasn’t done his research. Look at the study that made the paper. Where I grew up, you’ll find the greatest disposable income. It also costs the least to live there.”

I smile.

“Sorry. Just proud of my South Side is all.”

***

Turns out I’m already a member. Welcome to Costco. Not certain if I love you.

My plastic spoon sifts through quinoa in ways Rocky Road could never allow. But mousse-filled cake is always nice, chocolate chip and oatmeal comforts waiting in a brown paper bag should I seek them during break.

Another coworker apologizes for not inviting me to lunch.

“It’s okay.” I point to my empty tupperware. “Maybe next Friday.”

“I admire your discipline.”

Less than two years from my interview with Keeth, I’m finally working Downtown. Restaurants scream with specials and an authenticity I don’t entirely doubt. But even the doors of McDonald’s and Whataburger stand ajar and aloof, as lines stretch on and I only wonder how everyone dines inside and returns in due time.

Maybe I’m not so disciplined.

Perception reflects off each of our eyes. Myopia, astigmatism, and more. Not everyone needs glasses, but no one peers through a magnifying glass impervious to the drawbacks of subjectivity.

Serendipity, Altruism, and Sociopathy – The Beauty in “This is a Book”


Serendipity is often defined as a happening of chance, purveyor of help, good fortune, smiles. Serendipitous phenomena may beckon joy in times of despair, alleviate need in the midst of hardship, and quite possibly, restore faith in humanity. Quinn Farstride, town eccentric, arrives when most needed. No one knows how he pays his bills, keeps up with school, nor buys a home. Not a geographic coordinate can ever be determined for where he presently roams. Apparently, Quinn is a miracle worker. But is he altruistic?

In A Narcissist Writes Letters, to Himself, E.I. Wong has posted a draft of a mesmerizing novella. Transferred onto MS Word, single-spaced, the text comes out to 70 pages, feasibly read in two to three hours. But it is to be read again, firstly for its depth in themes to involve human relationships and the psychological, and secondly for the intricacy Wong’s writing imbues in character development and ambiguity. Is Q.F. a narcissist? Schizoid, a sociopath? A disorganized schizophrenic, as he initially proclaims? Soundness of mind aside, I wondered, “Did he really donate his kidney, blood, and marrow out of sheer kindness, or were they tickets to immortality? If they are simply tickets, should I be disappointed? Should I be mad?”

Dr. James Thatcher, professor of anthropology, writes a letter to his daughter, Melanie. Dr. Thatcher is a man who hates to lie, and on his deathbed, writes a letter to Melanie relaying a secret kept for eight years. As his son Todd faces renal failure, a gaunt ghost from Melanie’s childhood makes a university visit. Awkward, yet forceful, Quinn Farstride insists that he donates his kidney, already wielding test results that determine a plausible compatibility. Otherwise, little brother Arthur would donate, but doing so would jeopardize his journey in competitive football.

Quinn tells Dr. Thatcher he is losing his mind, and by donating, aims to preserve a functional aspect of his personhood before descending into madness. The mannerisms, speech, and uncanny knowledge of family affairs are all too unnerving. Predictably, Quinn fades, undetectable and absent to thank. After the donation, Dr. Thatcher ventures to find Quinn, speaking with his wife, consulting with mental health specialists, and finally, speaking with a Dr. Paysinger, the administrator at the hospital where Todd received treatment. Her disclosures captivate and intrigue, providing a detailed sketch of the vanishing oddball.

Emily, Dr. Paysinger’s daughter, has always been strange. In retrospect, Quinn’s mentorship only cultivated her peculiarities. Emily is sickly, needing blood transfusions to the extent that reserves have been drained at the hospital. Of course, Quinn has just the right type O negative blood to be a donor. Like the case of the Thatchers, Quinn coerces Dr. Paysinger into allowing him to repeatedly give blood to her daughter. Despite his frailty, donations continue, until the time of her transplant. The prospect of Quinn not needing to visit proves so distressing that ultimately, he vanishes from Emily’s life. At this point, erasure is a trend, a trademark end of Quinn’s interpersonal relationships.

But why does Quinn act, think, and commit to the feats that he does? Because he’s weird. This is a gross oversimplification. The goal of the narrator, and perhaps of readers, is to determine motives. What drove Quinn to give his blood, his time, his knowledge to an ever precocious young girl, and donate his kidney to the brother of a childhood friend with whom interactions were scarce? Quinn professes his love for Melanie. We know he hasn’t gotten over her, as his wife is a redheaded replica. Why does Dr. Thatcher take all this time to rediscover a strange bird who has already shown he can’t be found? Hell, Quinn doesn’t even want a “Thank you.” His ultimate request reads:

“I would like my last sane act to be a noble one. I would like myself, as I can perceive now, to be immortalized in this deed, so that in the future, when I am lost, I have a definite idea of the man I truly am; the man who I will try to uphold against my own illness.”

While Quinn’s desire is understandable, is it altruistic? He wants to preserve a sense of self. Of course that’s self-serving. But it doesn’t detract from the magic of his deeds, his resilience to the wear and tear of medical giving, the ability to self-sustain in the face of meager supply. Quinn is pretty weird. And impressive. He teaches martial arts to a young girl as a hands-on lesson in physics. A creative guy, though exasperating.

An exchange with Emily Paysinger gives Thatcher greater closure. The severance her mother describes was not permanent, for Emily visits Quinn after the kidney donation. Again, he disappears, despite the operation leaving him debilitated. Several lines shook me. Emily remarks,

“It wasn’t until I went to visit him in recovery that I realized that he had been…grooming me for some sort of purpose.”

Eventually, Emily receives a seven-paged letter from Quinn. More text that eerily resonates:

“He called me his ‘little catalyst for change.’ He wrote that I was to finish the ‘projects’ that he no longer could, and wrote me a list of instructions on how to complete each ‘equation.’ Quinn called the list a sort of training manual for what I was supposed to do and become.”

Bluntly, I admit that I thought to myself, “What a frickin’ narcissist!” Did Quinn write these equations, the framework for all these projects? What if he didn’t? And what kind of change was Quinn hoping to actualize?

Another of Quinn’s rarely explicit desires, and thoughts:

“‘It is my wish that you become a paragon of goodness. I see within you that potential to become something greater than the caliber of individuals that fill our world. You, my little angel, can be a creator and perpetuator of goodness and light…This is not a charge, or a demand I set upon you, but an acknowledgement from one friend to another, of the perfection I know you are capable of, and a design, a path, a way to that unified state.'”

Quinn seems to express a disappointment in the people around him. So does Melanie. In the beginning of Dr. Thatcher’s letter, he recalls her commenting, “‘Love isn’t real.'” But the letter aims to dispel this notion.

A dysfunction in personality seems to be a recurring topic of interest concerning Quinn’s character. I found him too deliberate and composed to legitimately suffer from the complexities of disorganized schizophrenia. He is written as a man who thinks, deliberates, inculcates. He reveals himself to be former thief, a rebel scornful of contemporary conventions, traveling yuppies, the ignorant layperson, organized religion. He is the quiet child in the corner of one of your college classes, never speaking his mind, though his facial expressions and mannerisms reveal all you need to know that something’s amiss. Something is brewing that chills, potentially harms without conscience. You’ve met “The Sociopath Next Door.”

And while it is dictated that sociopaths cannot feel, and indeed lack a moral framework, I refuse to think his interactions with Emily were purely self-serving. He taught her things of utility, and the end results of his doings, and her completion of the “projects” were good. Beneficial. Improved the lives of many. This seems too descriptive of utilitarianism. While the popular philosophy embraces maximization of good for all involved, altruism stipulates that good is spread to all except the actor, or “creator and perpetuator of goodness.”

Does Quinn benefit from any of his doings? It’s a topic for solid debate. Melanie, the love of his life, gives him the confidence to adopt a new perspective and disown his former ways. Emily, his adoring student, absorbs all the wisdom he wishes to teach, continuing his grand projects. But even if the projects perpetuate good, it seems that Quinn prefers not to be thanked, or even acknowledged. While the benefits he gleans are up for questioning, we know that he is gone. Regardless, miracles are made, within the story and craftsmanship alike.

The Divorce and Doom of Simon Pastor – A Book Review

“You know me, man. I love my wife…”

I’ve heard this enough from many a man. Not to say I doubt each expression of this sentiment. Some men do undoubtedly love their wives. No marriage is protected by a void of conflict, not every pregnancy is received with glee, and not every marriage that necessarily ends dissolves in the friendly quiet. For Simon and Kerri Pastor, this especially holds true.

Simon is that goodnatured fellow we remember at college parties who never touched a drop and blushed at proposals to be his wingman. At the outset, we groaned. Ridiculed him. Speculated on his sanity. But on a serious note, we respected his virtues, admitting we could never be as principled. But is he really?

The Divorce and Doom of Simon Pastor is a story we’ve all encountered, with varying attitudes, perspectives, and capacities to relate. I am twenty-four years old, have only had two serious boyfriends, and I’m not quite eager to get married. I don’t know what that’s like, and frankly, I’ve enclosed myself while friends plan families, budget with duty, and purchase modest lots in a growing Suburbia. Truthfully, I was somewhat turned off to the plot of Simon Pastor, but thought of books I enjoyed that heavily featured couples in conflict. Anna Karenina, The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Great Gatsby, and others. Reading another work with drama in relationships couldn’t be as nauseating as it is everyday. In this case, it scraped at my heart.

Pete Deakon, blogger of The Captain’s Log, has a writing style I’ve yet to get accustomed to. He writes well, though at times robotically. The first several chapters were a bit difficult to get through. I found the sentences too attentive to grammar and structure, and hoped to gather a stronger sense of the story’s tone. Accounts of Simon’s college days, the early enchantment of Kerri, and the birth of baby Emily struck me as stoic. But when I got to page 53, interest was sparked, and emotions swelled. I was caught in the eye of a livid typhoon, but didn’t mind so much. It was thrilling.

Now, page 53 contains a quote that I’m sure reminds a handful of people about a certain someone. Your friend, ex-boyfriend, boss, father. A figure of trust and piety who engages in the deplorable. Deakon writes,

“Simon liked putting on airs that he was a good husband. As any secure person knows, however, a braggart is that way because of insecurity and doubt. The truth was that Simon wanted to stay [at work] more than anyone. But he knew that in staying the beans would be spilled. He couldn’t hardly have a conversation with a friend without complaining about his marriage. Kerri this, Kerri that. Among close friends, a little venting now and again was acceptable, he thought. But the happy hour scene would prove fatal to his carefully crafted image of being happily married, so he raced home.”

The land mines planted by Simon and Kerri are only iconic of the toxins experts say kill fifty percent of American marriages. Infidelity, financial issues, sexual dysfunction, and discord in parenting are nothing new, or shocking. But Deakon demonstrates that it’s not about what you say, but how you say it. Skilled in written dialogue, the author lays out the rest of the story in a way that not only lets us know Simon and adopt him as our own, but look closer at the processes behind a relationship’s end.

It is indisputably evident that Simon is unfulfilled in his marriage. But in compliance with social norms, the perceptions of those he performs for, and the teachings of Jesus from a childhood that wasn’t so clean of hypocritical modeling (Simon’s father ran off to have babies with another woman. Simon cheated on a pregnant Kerri with a stripper), Simon is determined to stay. But as we may have seen before, in someone we know or know of, the persistent often unravel, descending into monstrosities they never wanted to be. And the reality is that most of us won’t intervene. We’ll watch, gape, give the guy advice that’s either ambivalently meaningless or something simplistic. “That’s not right,” is all Simon’s friend can say as he vents about Kerri’s tactics in passive aggression.

Counseling, compromises, and a collaborative end. The couple takes these measures to miserably fail. Indeed, it was as if Simon was planning to fail. I can see someone commenting on the relative one-sidedness of the story, that it’s told from a man’s perspective, brash, unfeeling, a beer mug brimming with misogyny. I admit, I was angered, unsympathetic to Simon’s difficulties as he talked about the things women do to disrespect men, although they may not be aware of this. Well, thanks, Simon. It’s helpful to know that in my failed relationships, I could not have known any better. But this is where I felt challenged as a reader. This is a story about an imperfect man, with a pristine facade that has trailed him since youth. Aren’t we all imperfect? I was harsh on Simon at times, and though we never see him lay a hand on Kerri, I definitely wanted to slap him something fierce.

But I remember the concept of trauma. How it strikes without warning, how the aftereffects vary, but damn nonetheless. It isn’t something you plan for, and personally, I cannot say you recover with grace. There’s a concoction of shock, disappointment, rage, vengeance. And of course, a bitterness that scalds most with the patience to put up with you for more than an hour. In The Divorce and Doom of Simon Pastor, we’re reminded of this, the ugliness of trauma, its ability to trap and ensnare resolutely. In trauma, Simon trips, falters, and stagnates to a degree that makes for intriguing study, but sad witnessing. Ultimately, you feel bad, whether mournful, insulted, dejected, and more. Deakon makes you feel. Prompts a response that lingers. In doing this with Simon Pastor, he has penned a success.

Chianti, beaches, beautiful women, and paradise in Rumors of Cortez

“Henri asked the angel what happened if you  had nothing to possess, his face pressed to the glass, trying to see the empty fields below.

The angel said, then the light will descend upon you and you will be clothed in it.”

Jeffrey Levine, man of assorted talents, not only writes poetry but maintains a blog at http://jeffreyelevine.com/, walking aspiring authors through the writing and traditional publishing processes. Here I came across Rumors of Cortez, a 2005 collection of poetry assembled in five parts. Often massaging a worry stone as I think of which of my many thoughts to say or write down, I thought I’d buy a copy, and take some time to listen. I tell you, these 83 pages of linguistic melody will be read, re-read, and kept as inspiration, both stylistically and conceptually.

Levine incorporates the extended line, while few poems in Rumors are presented with considerable white space. The writing I would call demonstrative of stream-of-consciousness or continual flow has the potential to overwhelm, bog the reader down and perhaps frustrate her to the point that she does away with the work. Rumors doesn’t do this. Each piece guides you on a journey, walking on a Downtown sidewalk where a beautiful woman waits, to admiring the majesty of the sun-kissed Galapagos. Of course, Part IV’s sojourn into Rome with Orpheus and Eurydice may emerge most memorable to readers. It can definitely hold its own among accompanying pieces, though verses of the Adam and Eve we can all relate to serve well as a sensual prelude. Where love drops by, longing lingers. “There’s a Hole in the Screen” reminds us,

“Bach was right. Joy is all in the desiring.”

Wanting, possessing, remembering. Levine’s implementation of these potentially heart-wrenching topics works to carve an image you can take anywhere, a fantastic conversation starter. Something relatable to much of what you see everyday. Those who appear in Rumors – Nana, Henri, Caruso, and others – possess a longing for love, adventure, passion. Chopin, Eurydice, Orpheus, and other prominent figures aren’t so intimidating when we see that they too, are blushingly imperfect. Remember a time you were so preoccupied with a gadget, a hobby, a video game? Orpheus develops a fixation with his camera, while Eurydice ventures through the catacombs, alone. I found this scene most striking in that it reminded me of relationships where one felt guilt, persisting in a disconnect while the beloved other was so close by. Think the man on his computer, surfing the Web, while his wife is asleep in the other room, wishing they could spend just a little more time together.

Levine couples the classic and contemporary to where the two become one. In essence, Rumors is “stopless.” I read these poems at a moderate pace, absorbing the richness of each long line, breathing in the fragrance of beaches, oceans, seagrass, the grand Pacific. The vitality of red, photographs of paradise, and descriptions of birds with personality recur throughout Rumors. While readers may leave this work thinking about that Ferrari, its preceding trinkets lend the collection a touch so richly organic.

Often, in the world of the average, everyday reader, life gets overwhelming. Simply, it’s “stopless.” Rumors serves as a constrained, yet intricate alternate universe, albeit so realistic. For the traveler, these poems may bring back fond, spectacular memories, despite the problem of characters forgetting from time to time. And even for one who hasn’t wandered out of her nest for quite a while, Rumors can comfort. Inspire. Inform. Pick up a book on French. Get introduced to Descartes. Learn basic Italian, and grow familiar with regional recipes. Plan that trip to Rome. Easter Island, Puerto Ayora. As the poem “Comprimario” states:

“When one is ready to leave, even a single wooden spoon is enough to stir the world.”

Rumor of Cortez is a worthy guide to worlds within a globe that keeps on spinning. Levine writes, “In our country the only currency, my best girl, is longing.” In multiple aspects, these poems suggest that maybe, we are all from that country.

“Fragola Granola”

I take many sayings a bit more seriously than I should, but I admit I can be a bit dismissive when people say that breakfast is truly the most important meal of the day. It’s time I take this to heart, and go back to some wonderfully simple treats I made a long time ago, now that I’ve purchased a blender. What you see is “Fragola Granola”. It’s a smoothie of sorts, topped with your favorite brand of granola, cereal, chopped fruit, or any other of your preferred toppings. I can see this being liked by children and teens during the bustle of busy mornings. I can also think of several adults, including myself, who could use a quick, nutritious breakfast made in ten minutes’ time.

The recipe: 

1 1/2 cups of skim milk (or whole milk. You can always customize).

1 cup of Strawberry Gelato (use your favorite brand. I typically buy my local grocery store’s generic kind. There are low-fat varieties too).

1 Tablespoon of Laura Saddler’s Natural Peanut Butter (the texture is lovely, almost like a peanut butter milkshake. Try it! But Jiff and Skippy do the job too).

1 medium-sized banana (not the one you use as a comedy phone).

NOW: 

Mix these ingredients in a blender. For something smooth and milky-like, blend on high. For a treat that resembles a smoothie or healthy shake, blend on low to medium. Blending usually takes me 2 to 3 minutes no matter the consistency I want.

Lastly, top this creation with your favorite granola. Or, let me restate: Your favorite cereal, chopped fruit, a dash of cinnamon, and even chocolate syrup for a decorative touch and a dash of decadence.

Breakfast can be a chore, and is often overlooked. But don’t underestimate its importance, especially as you grow older!

Do you eat breakfast regularly? If so, what do you usually eat? 

Mental Illness, Treatment, and Stigma in Girl, Interrupted

The Memoir, not the Movie with Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie

Girl, Interrupted, an account of a young woman’s long-term stay at the famous McLean Hospital, provides a look into the institutionalized lives of women suffering with severe mental illness. Several treatments of the time were administered to ameliorate their symptoms, though the efficacy of such treatments was often debatable. Though brief, the memoir opens dialogue regarding misdiagnoses, the perception of nonconforming individuals as “crazy,” and the stigmatization of those receiving a mental health diagnosis.

Schizophrenic symptoms were common among McLean’s patients. Polly, left disfigured with burns after a suicide attempt, is void of emotion. Not happy, unhappy, or agitated, Polly’s emotional responses indicate a flat affect. She rarely speaks, even in stressful situations. For Polly, negative symptoms take hold. The indifferent viewers of the television set sit catatonic without response. Even when Lisa covers the couch with toilet paper, the catatonics remain still in their seats. The girl who claimed to be an alien’s girlfriend, as well as a proud penis owner, beams delusions of grandeur, calling ice cream vulgar names that all rhyme together. Wade, Georgina’s boyfriend, is a bit paranoid, and claims he was persecuted by two friends of his father, who he falsely reported to do dangerous work for the CIA. He is indifferent to Georgina’s burns.

Susanna Kaysen, admitted to the hospital for mental exhaustion and a suicide attempt, is diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. She is impulsive, her interactions jarred by routine splitting behaviors. It’s mainly black and white in Susanna’s world. She cries in front of a painting she finds relatable, much to the annoyance of a boyfriend. Frustrated, he remarks on her self-centered way of perceiving things. Susanna faces conflict within, perceiving herself as a terrible person to later identify as the venerated Angel of Death. She scratches her hands, desperately wanting to know if there’s still bone beneath. Banging her wrists on a butterfly chair, regardless of vein damage all can see, is how she bears the numbness. Scratches mark her face. As Susanna showed at least 5 of the criteria for borderline personality disorder, as listed in the DSM-IV-TR—(1) Tumultuous relationships where splitting is common, (2) An ever-changing self-image, (3) Impulsive behavior, (4) Frequent episodes of self-harm, and (5) Dissociative episodes spurred on by distress—it is reasonable to conclude that her diagnosis was valid.

Lisa, on the other hand, is diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder. Cold and insensitive, Lisa cares not for the feelings of others. She jeers at the catatonics sitting around the television set, even turns it off despite the possibility that someone may really like the show that’s played. Lisa does away with rules, scheming to escape Mclean. Even in exclusion, Lisa expresses no remorse for her bad behavior, continuing to plot other escapes and even the escapes of others. Of course, these plans lack authentic concern. Self-interest dictates her behavior. She wants to be liked among the girls, and indeed, she has an appealing sense of humor that brings color to a dull environment. However, while Lisa doesn’t struggle in making friendships, she doesn’t give them value. Stable relationships are impossibilities. Towards the end of the Kaysen’s memoir, Lisa raises her son, whose father she disowns.

Aggressive and provoked by perceived threats to popularity, Lisa takes measures to derail rivals. Her continuous bullying of Lisa Cody, a diagnosed sociopath who seems to only emulate Lisa’s behavior, only fuels the latter’s self-indulgence. Blame is the name of Lisa’s game. Various times, she bemoans her lack of rights, using her attorney to bully the hospital staff when her requests were ignored or unfulfilled. I’m sure we’ve encountered these sorts, in college, doctors’ offices, and popular tourist attractions. While at least 3 criteria in section A of the DSM IV-TR must be met to receive a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder, Lisa meets 6, such as (1) Failure to adhere to social norms relating to lawful behaviors, (2) Deception in the name of self-interest, (3) Aggressiveness and frequent irritability, (4) Pervasive disregard for the wellbeing of others, (5) Repeated irresponsibility, as evidenced by a failure to fulfill her daily obligations, and (6) Lack of remorse for her cruelty towards others.

Reflections on Treatment

The drug treatments mentioned throughout the memoir had an inhibiting effect on the patients. Thorazine was a common resort for those with highly unstable behavior, such as the trembling Torey or Susanna, who experienced an episode of extreme agitation upon scratching her hand. Feeling heavier than usual, the patients would calm down and their agitation would cease. Other antipsychotic drugs, such as Stelazine and Mellaril, seemed to calm those with schizophrenia, although their movements grew more sluggish, as evidenced by Polly’s way of walking and the odd suspension of her hands. Periods of sleepiness may have been influenced by benzodiazepines such as Librium and Valium. The depressed woman, Cynthia, received electro-convulsive shock therapy once a week, with therapy twice a week. Her memory was noticeably impaired, with her speech disorganized after initial treatment. Daily, most patients were required to see three specialists. Sessions with doctors were uninformative and short, as were sessions with residents concerned with medication and the granting of privileges. Therapy was also described as unhelpful, with therapists expressing a lack of sympathy, refusing to discuss life in the hospital yet determining whether patients were to have increases in medication. This three-part regimen seemed more systematic and impersonal than helpful to the individual needs of each patient. Susanna, deemed capable of undergoing “analysis,” recalled the treatment as ineffective. It seemed that the treatment did little to benefit her, the specialists’ repetitive questions irritating her so much that she would simply fabricate answers to placate them.

Is She Crazy? 

Susanna explicitly questioned her diagnosis during her hospitalization. She felt that what others perceived as inappropriate, tiring behavior were hallmark characteristics of young adulthood. She criticized the DSM as a vague collection of generalizations, often subjectively applied to those who do not conform to social norms. The only person in her affluent high school to not attend college, Susanna was the black sheep of the family, defying expectations to attend a prestigious college and unable to handle the duties of simple jobs. Perhaps the shame her family experienced impacted their willingness to pay for her costly hospitalization for almost two years. They may have wished to maintain normalcy without directly dealing with her chaotic behavior. I feel that her inability to maintain her typing job may have related to sexist attitudes of the time. All the supervisors were men, while the typists were women. Strict regulations were placed on their behavior and dress. This could have been agitating for Susanna, who defied such rules. Although her behavior was erratic, “crazy” is not an accurate word to describe her.

Considering the aforementioned behaviors, it’s reasonable to say that Susanna showed striking characteristics of borderline personality disorder. The episodes of self-harm, the persisting interpersonal conflicts, and emotional instability indicate that psychologically, she just wasn’t healthy. However, these behaviors may have been byproducts of growing up in an environment with rigid, highly demanding expectations. Ultimately, “troubled” may be a more fitting description, as it does not dehumanize nor stigmatize, but emphasizes that Susanna is a person who at the time needed guidance and empathy.

Ultimately, Girl, Interrupted (the memoir, not the movie) gave me a glimpse of the impersonal and rushed nature of psychiatric care in these facilities, given the amount of patients who have to be treated. I observed how sexist attitudes of the time period may have influenced perceptions of women already struggling with a mental illness. Susanna was expected to be sexually modest, emotionally stable, and uncomplaining. The scorn she received, made salient in a doctor’s writing that she “might sell self or get pregnant” (11) shed light on the stigma imposed on women who rebelled against norms of conservatism. The title, inspired by the poignant painting Susanna saw at the Vermeer, is more than an allusion. It is a description of Susanna’s destabilizing experience—a long term hospitalization, a stigmatized diagnosis, and a lost sense of self—that prevented her from enjoying life in the way that most young women do. It was only after this hiatus that she could continue living, hopefully with a greater sense of stability.

Looking Closer – 1962’s David and Lisa

 

Another praised work, the 1962 independent film David and Lisa, tells of two teenagers’ experiences in a mental health facility. David, ostensibly intelligent and precise in his mannerisms, is brought to by his overprotective mother. Lisa, a girl lacking comparable support, seems to show symptoms of disorganized schizophrenia. However, a closer look at patterns in her behavior suggests a different diagnosis. Though lacking insight into psychiatric treatments of the time, as well as providing an unrealistic, romanticized solution to the disorders concerned (i.e. “Love cures all”), the film, at best, adequately portrays symptoms most resembling obsessive compulsive personality disorder and dissociative identity disorder. For the purposes of this entry, DSM-IV criteria will strictly concern these conditions.

David, the son of unhappy, demanding parents, comes to the facility fraught with paranoia and anxiety. When approached and touched by another young man, David’s hands begin to shake. He screams repeatedly, “You touched me, you want to kill me!” This extreme reaction reveals the lack of social openness and rigid rules of social interaction typical of obsessive compulsive personality disorder. When others approach his room, David grows very worried that they will barge into his personal space. David’s painstakingly inflexible grip on personalized, irrational codes of conduct also manifests upon his refusal to engage in physical activity, claiming, “Exercise is for idiots.” These behaviors fall in line with criterion 4 of the DSM-IV-TR, summarized as holding rigid views of what actions are considered moral and ethical.

We see more of David’s dysfunctional personality in his interactions with Dr. John, the facility psychiatrist. Seeing an upset Lisa, David tells the doctor that he is authoritarian in his practice, and that dealing with Lisa in a permissive fashion would be more suitable for her recovery. He dedicates his time to studying, primarily focusing on clocks. This behavior meets DSM criterion 3 as David’s preoccupation keeps him from engaging in other activities. He is obsessed with the image of a ticking clock, a focal point in dreams. In slumber, David repeatedly pulls the hour hand of the clock to behead certain individuals 12 times.

Through dreaming and visualizing this punitive clock, David takes control as he pretends to rid himself of those who touch or distress him emotionally. We see this when Lisa, who touches David, becomes a victim of the clock. David’s preoccupation with details and order, as seen in his obsession with a clock that systematically kills those who upset him, meets DSM criterion 1 for obsessive compulsive personality disorder. Criterion 8, which concerns stubbornness, manifests itself in David’s objections to Dr. John’s questioning methods, refusing to comply and telling the doctor to “Don’t play Dr. Freud.” As David meets 4 of the 8 DSM criteria for obsessive compulsive personality disorder, this may be a suitable diagnosis. It is also important to note that David does not exhibit the ritualistic behaviors endemic to obsessive compulsive disorder.

Lisa, whose behavior primarily consists of clanging, is labeled by facility staff as an “adolescent schizophrenic.” Hints to her actual condition emerge when David confronts Lisa about her peculiar speech, claiming she speaks in rhymes to be “Lisa.” There are instances when Lisa does not speak at all, instead communicating with others through writing. We see this when she writes “PLAY WIT ME” on a piece of paper in order to catch David’s attention. Towards the end of the film, Lisa draws a circle with the words “MURIEL X LISA.” Outside of the circle are the words “ME.” When she adopts the persona of “Lisa,” she speaks in rhyme. However, as “Muriel,” she is unable to speak and can only convey her thoughts and requests through writing. Lisa is unable to be “ME,” her true self whose behavior is free of peculiarities. She expresses confusion regarding her true identity, repeatedly questioning David as to what kind of girl she is.

Earlier in the film, she shows difficulty in even identifying as female and exhibits two personalities, her identity as “LISA” the predominant persona. She experiences enough altered or dissociated states to receive a diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder (formerly identified as multiple personality disorder). The two personalities repeatedly dictate her actions, remembering her identity and current locale are difficult to impossible feats, and neither external medical illnesses nor mind-altering substances adequately explain her mannerisms. That being said, Lisa fits the necessary criteria for a diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder, rather than any type of schizophrenia the staff believes her to have.

David and Lisa, though overly sentimental and idealistic regarding the prognosis of serious psychological disorders, provides solid examples behaviors definitive of obsessive compulsive personality disorder and dissociative identity disorder. While David’s diagnosis is more easily determined, his behavior and mannerisms distinct and indicative of fixations on order and control, Lisa’s symptoms are frustratingly misleading. It is only when acknowledging her lack of hallucinations, her repeated questions of what kind of girl she is, and the diagram she draws that a more accurate assessment may be made. Viewers’ merely assuming that Lisa has schizophrenia would indicate a failure to look beneath the surface of her behavior, taking comments and stereotypes engrained in the film for granted. Mental illness in cinema, old or new, deserves close observation, and even a brief referral to outside sources for sound evaluation and hopefully, understanding that overrides stigma.