The House of Uncommons

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Margaret Thatcher is tall, lean, and trendy; she could be an art museum curator if it wasn’t for her need to understand her own mental illness through others. Though, if she’s fucked up in her life, it wasn’t too catastrophic—she doesn’t put on airs during our sessions and appears to care for my wellbeing. Her office is shared and typical for a publically funded community psychiatric clinic; a khaki box otherwise empty besides a framed print of Picasso’s Guernica hanging on the wall. I feel agitated. Ms. Thatcher’s subdued presence triggers a smudgy emotion inside of me, one which has lingered far from the emotion that bore it, the feeling’s a cross between being nude in public and dropping food on the ground in front of strangers. There are no windows.

“How’s the writing?” She begins.

“Shannon left.”

Margaret Thatcher sits back in her chair and exhales the “Oh shit” she formed inside her mouth.

“Wow, okay. I’m sorry, Josef. You must feel very upset.”

“I know that I am, I know that I should be, but I feel unable to processes it—I suppose I feel guilty. I thought I was doing my best to make her feel better after the assault, but I didn’t help her recover at all.”

“Helping others through a traumatic experience is a tough business. Maybe you did better than you thought?”

I take a second to think.

“I concocted ideas of what she needed and tried to force them onto her without considering I was wrong.”

“How?”

“I let her alone when she needed someone close. I was too close when she needed space. I was thoughtful and patient—I was forceful and impatient to motivate her, but always on my terms. I did everything right and saw nothing get better, so I did everything wrong in hopes to inspire the opposite effect. I could have just asked her what she needed.”

“The former sounds like the flawed logic of desperation.”

“I was anxious and unable to wait. The weight was bearing down on me. Things had to get better when I needed them to.”

“So, since things weren’t improving quickly enough you took control of the situation by blowing it up?”

“It felt like things were going too slowly and I was close to a breakdown. If she were to see me lose my shit, like I’ve done in the past, she wouldn’t want to be with me anymore. Self-destruction wasn’t a conscious choice, but looking back, the only choice to reduce my anxiety.”

“Self-destruction is a common option we choose when we’re overwhelmed and cannot acknowledge and communicate our feelings properly. What’s troubling about patterns of self-destructive behavior is outsiders can clearly see the individual in question’s ill-conceived plans, but the individual is too wrapped up in self-denial to calculate that their trajectory is on a collision course with reality.”

“I remember thinking things were coming to a head and I should prevent that from happening. But, a second after the thought I reckoned a collision was the natural progression of the situation.”

“I hear that a lot,” Margaret Thatcher says. “We also know your family history and how much self-destructive behavior, perpetual conflict and overly simplified resolutions are the norm. It’s easier to stick with what you know.”

“When emotional responses are sought after like drugs to the addict,” I say. “How the hell did we become this way?”

“It was something your mother learned, something she and your uncles were raised with and used to survive in their broken home. You hold onto the ideas surrounding how positive relationships should be and begin a complex process of mimicking several archetypes of normalcy in the hopes you can fake it until you make it, but it’s still acting. It takes self-discipline, counseling, and time to rewire your brain from that kind of behavior.”

“We’re all high strung, anxious, co-dependent, and insecure— I wish I could control how rushed I always feel, how unsteady and ashamed. I wish I didn’t have this maniacal inclination to always be in good standing with everyone. To always quash conflict.”

“Conflict in the world or conflict you perceive is directed against you?”

“I suppose both.”

“I don’t see you trying to change the world?”

I smile and lean forward in my chair.

“Well, I’m apprehensive to change the world after what you did to it, Margaret Thatcher.”

She rolls her eyes.

“You have two more Margaret Thatcher jokes left this session,” She says, dryly.

“I spend a lot of time thinking about people not liking me.”

“I know, I’m your psychiatrist.”

“I look back on my life and think about all the wrong moves I made. How much I went out of the way to seek validation from those I thought were cool, while ignoring the extended hands from friends I took for granted. For someone who cares so much what people think about him, it’s bizarre who often I put myself in embarrassing positions.”

“What do you believe are your thoughts and feelings that keep you from having peace of mind? In other words, what is inhibiting you from being a consistent and dependable human being?”

“My thoughts are always agitated; I’m always anxious. Often Angry.”

“Why do you think you’re always anxious?”

“Because I can’t help but see everything in a state of decay.”

“What do you mean by that? Decay?”

“Entropy. I had to go to the hospital last night to see my mother in the ER and when I got there she was laying on the bed asleep looking like a dying child.”

“Is your mother’s mortality perhaps changing your thinking to see everything through this lens of entropy?”

“No, I’ve thought this way for a long time—I can’t stop thinking in the past. Often good times that are gone, or times I embarrassed myself. When something good happens I remind myself it will soon pass.”

Margaret Thatcher creases the right side of her tan bob behind her ear leaving a single tendril hanging in the gap between the arm of her glasses and her cheekbone.

“Why are these memories milestones of decay?”

“Because they ended poorly.”

“Or, is it that they just ended?”

God damn Margaret Thatcher going after my negative thoughts again.

“I don’t know, perhaps. But, when I think about the embarrassing moments, I cringe and think how can I have such a lack of self-control to indulge such poor behavior?”

“The process of nostalgia is often evoked to stir in us a sense of serenity and closure. However, if that picture is then compared to our image of the present, the here and now looks less than desirable. Perhaps you already know your nostalgic memories are as false as your embarrassing ones. In my opinion, nostalgic memories are more dangerous than self-loathing thoughts.

“I thought you were into nostalgia?”

“Is that another Margaret Thatcher joke?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, that was number 2, now say something smart.”

“I’ve never wanted a relationship of any kind to cease to be; I’ve wanted the connection to always remain even if our roles change.”

“Is this strictly romantically?”

“No, I mean all relationships. Friendships are the easiest to maintain, but somehow I’ve exhausted those connections too often as well.”

“I highly doubt that.”

“I lost many friends after my divorce. I lost more in New Zealand.”

“You’re not alone and friendships forged abroad will always be loose and eventually fade.”

“But, I want a perfect record.”

Margaret Thatcher stares at me as if she sees something inside me that I cannot and begins to smile.

“Your hopes are valid but unattainable. You will lose relationships, you will watch friendships come and go, you will be faced with the inevitable consequences of living in the world, where both good and bad things happen.”

“I wish I had a better grip on my emotions.”

“But to GRIP them, as you say, means you must be outside of them in order to secure them.”

“Okay,” I say, “To control them.”

“What is control?”

“To not give in to temptation.”

“Very Catholic.”

“I forgot, Margaret Thatcher, has a thing against Catholics.”

“Margaret Thatcher joke number 3 for the win,” she says, invoking a weak fist pump with her eyes scanning the chart balanced on her lap.

“How could I not?” I say.

“Control.” She says to keep us on topic.

“It’s to always respond in the right way. To instantaneously weight a situation and perform appropriately based on its demands,” I say.

“So, it’s some Victorian idea of behavior and restraint developed through good breeding and a high moral and ethical compass?”

“Uh, is that what my answer sounded like?”

“To me, it sounded like a bunch of, excuse the expression, poppycock.”

“Is that a Margaret Thatcher joke?” I say.

“No, it’s a you joke.”

“Ouch, nice one,” I say. “Look, I go up and down, left and right. I’ll have a good couple of days and then the anxiety comes back. I’d like to write more, but I can’t draft anything with a semblance of consistency. I’m unstable. I can’t work more than twenty-five hours a week without exhausting myself and getting worse. I’ve never held a real job because I can’t concentrate or be stable enough to do my tasks at a consistent level over time. I run my own contracting business because I can’t have a boss. I can barely work with others anymore because before, I’d get such profound performance anxiety I’d lash out. I’m something to laugh at. I have no control.”

“No, you suffer from rapid cycling bipolar disorder,” she says.

A pause. A dog barks, but from Where? Margaret Thatcher’s lips are pursed with the pride inherent in a well-executed bombing pattern. I riposte.

“No, I think it’s just a learned behavior from my mother; I’m not like her, I don’t eat my fucking meals over the sink.”

“…”

Margarette Thatcher’s green eyes glint just below her bangs and then pop with emerald smoke curling up towards the ceiling.

“So, I’ve been nuts this entire time,” I say, “and people have been placating me?”

“That’s a meaningless sentence. Tear it apart and ask yourself if it holds water.”

“It’s a reactionary thought which bears little on reality and more so upon my insecurities,” I parrot back to her like I’ve heard it a thousand times.

“Correct.”

“But, are you sure? Bi-polar? I’m actually fucking crazy?”

“Josef, you’re not crazy. I’ve been observing your behavior for a couple months now and have been almost certain for a few weeks. However, I wanted to wait and be sure, and to also notify you when you were ready.”

“How the hell is now the time when I’m ready?”

“Because your family needs you to fight for yourself to help them, and Shannon needs you to accept yourself so you can begin loving her.”

I resonate with what Margaret Thatcher is saying, but afraid of what it means. I feel emotional.

“Have you heard of lithium before?”

“Yes,” I say, less than excitedly.

“And?” She asks.

“I’m afraid it will turn me into an uncreative zombie.”

“Well, you’ve been complaining about being an uncreative spas the past two months, what do you have to lose?”

“Good point.”

“Look, it’s all about the blood work. We’ll get you on the right dose, which will stabilize your mood without making you feel like a manikin.”

“I suppose I’ll have to trust you,” I sigh.

I look again from Margaret Thatcher to the Guernica print and realize that I’ve been screaming in the inside like the cow in the painting for years.

“You put that print there on purpose, don’t you?” I say.

“No, but someone did,” she says.

I look away and my eyes begin to swell.

“This isn’t a loss, Josef. This is a chance to gain control back.”

“What if I’m scared to have control? I’d rather keep wanting it than to actually have it.”

Sunsets Over Troubles Immemorable

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My dad’s a vet. Vietnam. He graduated high school, took off to Iowa for the corn harvest, and ran with the carnivals selling postcards and knickknacks until one day outside of Baton Rouge he got a phone call from grandma telling her only son his draft notice came in the mail. His boss, Pennant Red, said to him, “Son, get your ass back to Seattle and sign up for the Army so you can go through Basic and pick what you want to do. Otherwise, you’re good as dead.” Lucky for dad, between Pennant Red, Little Joe, and Big Cowboy and Little Cowboy, there were enough war veterans working the carnival circuit to give my father the best advice to save his neck.

 

For him, not going wasn’t an option. Not because he agreed with the war, but because it didn’t seem like the right thing to do. So he went to Vietnam and felt wrong about it the whole time— and when he got back was told he was wrong for being a soldier and for going. He told me he was convinced his plane home was going to crash and sweated the whole ride home. He got off the plane at Sea-Tac Airport and went to the bathroom to take a leak. The bathroom was strewn with abandoned army suits. Dad refused to take his off, not because he agreed with the war, or even because he respected the army, but because he couldn’t disrespect those other soldiers who didn’t make it home.

 

He waited all night for a cab, but no one would pick him up in his green suit; so he called his dad, and Grandpa picked him up.

 

Settling back into American life was difficult. He told me he was really interested in a girl, but she told him one evening over a beer, “I just wouldn’t have gone.” That’s what she said, “I just wouldn’t have gone.” He disappeared for a few years after that but came out the other end. We are all thankful that he did. Some in our family didn’t.

 

Grandma told me, my Great Uncle, Ken died during WWII in Alaska. Ken was her favorite brother. I asked my dad, when I got old enough, how Ken died. Dad said, “He was stationed on a tiny island in the Aleutian Island chain and thought the war had ended and was forgotten. He ended his life with his service weapon and was found days later.” With Grandma, painful things were always masked in understatements.

 

She said her younger brother was a very sensitive boy, but brave. He began to leave the farm at six-years-old to work the railroads and would come back with money for the family. I think Dad reminded her of Ken. When I asked her what she thought of dad going to war, she said, “We took a road trip back to Iowa one summer when the kids were young and your dad insisted that he always got to a campsite before sunset so that he could lay on top of the car and watch the sunset slip behind a mountain, cast its rays over a cliff, or set a cornfield on fire.” She paused and stared into her past and then qualified her story, “A boy like that isn’t meant for war,” she said. “And, that’s the thing.”

 

Fighting hurts us all.

Snippets—On Character

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There’s this recurring character who appears in my stories. He’s not of one fixed identity; she can be another. Together, they build and destroy, damage and revive memories under a chain-linked arbor of narrative. I’ve called him Simon, her name has been Mary. They’ve both meant the same to me: an undisturbed arc of life after death.

The Elusive Salmon

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Across my little apartment is the city locks. The locks see every boat coming in, or going out to sea. Though there are a lot of boats coming and going there’s also a good portion of the day when the locks are empty, and when they’re empty in the late summer and early autumn, schools of spawning salmon enjoy the peace by leaping out of the water, and going plop back in.

I say plop because that’s usually all you hear. It’s not as easy as you might think to spot a jumping salmon. Try as you may, staring in one spot and waiting for a salmon to jump is a fool’s errand.

Today’s Friday, and I have no work to keep me from the locks. I was also here this past Monday, and the Friday before last, not working, instead listening to the salmon go plop.

The rest of my time spent has been in my apartment. I’ve been on the computer, looking through job postings. With the click of a button, another resume goes into the blackness. For each prospective employer, I tell them that I’m qualified, a quick learner, and nearly perfect. I wait and watch for a reply. I wait, and watch.

While I wait, I try not to think about how hard I’ve worked to be broke, how maybe my quest to define myself as independent, unique, and a stand-alone has greatly compromised my ability to write a good resume and cover letter—I can’t seem to connect.

I finally pull my eyes away from my computer screen and make something to eat, and when I return, another rejection letter has been sent from a web address that begins with, “donotreply.” Cowards.

All these rejections come when I’m not looking. It’s the second I break my will to force good news that the tech world tells me to keep fishing (and to follow them on Twitter, etc.). I get angry, and then sad, and then I tell myself that I’m an anomaly, a force of nature that their vetting algorithms cannot grasp or define. When these half-truths escape my lips, I become thirsty for alcohol; for a cigarette before I return to my seat at the gambling table.

Yesterday, I spent the day doing something different. My mother had called to tell me that my brother lost custody of his daughter and threatened to kill himself. He texted me later and asked me to take care of his life insurance policy. He then turned off his phone and disappeared. I spent yesterday hunting.

When a salmon goes plop and you turn to the noise there’s a gentle wake. It spreads and rolls from its starting point in perfect symmetry. The succession of arches spread until they are swallowed by the bigger currents surrounding them. They die into the fold.

My brother’s wake continued for some time before he jumped. Not off a bridge, or a building, but by text message. He contacted his daughter to tell her that everything’s fine. He was alive.

I spent yesterday guessing where my brother could be, but I didn’t know until I did. I haven’t seen or talked to him. I’m not at all ready for that.

Some boats have arrived now. In particular, a fishing vessel with three deckhands chattering in Italian. The salmon are still jumping, and I can hear that language too. I’m too tired today to apply for jobs. It’s a fool’s errand anyway.

Today, I came to the locks and saw a large salmon, looking green and pink, she jumped right in front of me while I was looking at the boats waiting to go out to sea. She went plop and I saw the whole thing.

 

I VISTED GRANDMA IN THE HOSPITAL TODAY

I saw grandma today. She’s very sick. Well, dying actually. When I went to her room in the assisted living house, it was in her old room because her new room is in the hospital ward now. I moved her bed, the family dish cabinet, the old dinner table we used to use for Thanksgiving and Christmas. We were taking them to a place to be sold. No one wanted them.

On the last load I stayed behind with my aunt. She said, Josef, there’s no reason for you to take the last; you should visit grandma, but bear in mind that it’s pretty grim. I said that I’m used to that, and that it didn’t matter; that I was ready for just watching her for a while.

Hospitals, even “rehabilitation wards” within rest homes always smell like stale chips and used synthetic clothing. Nothing beautiful can be summoned within that scent. However, the thoughts that echo within those that travel down those halls makes up for it.

She looked so small on her single bed. The bed was made, but she lay fragile under a blanket, looking like an ant underneath a wet leaf. I sat next to her, saw her face stretched so tight and tired. Where was the caretaker and the boy now? Where was the man and the too old to keep being old anymore, but there at that moment.

I kissed her forehead and she woke up. She wasn’t supposed to; she was supposed to be too confused, too detached — they told me to be prepared with the fact that she may not recognize me. She opened her eyes and asked, you’re back from New Zealand. Yes grandma, I’m back.

And we talked like we used to, but I could tell it took everything for her to remain engaged. So I made it easy. I talked about travel. I reminded her of all the places I’ve been. Told her that it’s hard to have two homes when neither feels like home. There was silence. Then she said, I’ve traveled a lot too.

She has been all over the world. When I was a child she would be gone for months at a time, but would return with stories about Greece, Kashmir, India — amazing adventures that I couldn’t have ever imagined if it wasn’t for her gift of story. She taught me that who we are as a people of the earth has everything to do with the differences, not the likenesses.

And then, when she had nothing left, she said to me, you can go everywhere in the world and be nowhere. And then she went to sleep.