Anniversaries, depression, Italia.

The black moods I’ve been experiencing recently have made me fairly reflective recently, pondering choices I’ve made and paths that I have taken over the ensuing years, just trying to sort out how it is I got to the place I am.

This summer will mark the 20th anniversary of my first serious academic excursion to Italy as an undergraduate.  I spent a few months in Florence studying art history.  I’d been to Italy a couple of times before — I was lucky to have a mother who considered exposing her son to the outside world important, even if it was financially burdensome to our family — but this was the first opportunity I’d had to put down some roots, and explore a single locality from a rather (amazingly!) spacious furnished apartment just north of the city center.  Although there have been two intervening decades, I still remember that place like it was yesterday.  Among the furnishing was a single record player, which was amusing, because there were only three albums in the house: John Lennon, Barry White, and Frank Sinatra.  We had every possible social situation covered.

That was the summer I truly got to know Italy, and fell deeply in love with her.

I returned the following summer to visit a friend who was in the same program that I had been, and a couple of years later — after that, however, my personal life hit the rocks for several reasons.  Looking back, the paralysis of depression was one of them.  A promising continuance of my academic trajectory was cast aside, and I labored in limbo until I could get myself together a few years ago.  But a triumphant return to Italy — like a hillbilly Odysseus — was always my goal.  It was a marker of my progress.  It was what I sought.

A couple of days ago marked the first anniversary of my return trip, this time to spend a few months studying and doing research in Rome.  My triumphant return wasn’t quite what I had envisioned it to be — which was fairly modest, to be honest — because in the weeks before my flight, I’d experiences another depressive episode.  There was no way I was going to back out on the quarter doing research, so my doctor prescribed me some meds and orders to keep in contact while I was there.  I hopped on a plane to Paris on March 25th, hoping for the best.

Of course, any of you who know how anti-depressants work realize that it takes a few weeks for the medicine to take effect.  In the days leading up to leaving, I’d dreaded even the idea of going, which I knew was not natural for me.  When I sat on the train from Fiumincino to Termini, there was no overwhelming sense of happiness at achieving one of my longstanding goals, returning to Rome for academic reasons.  There were no tears of joy.  There was an emptiness, and an overwhelming sense of dread.  The feeling that I’d made a terrible mistake.  Which is an awful feeling to have all by itself, but it is worse when you realize that you’re a lucky bastard and are doing something that thousands of people would instantly switch places with you to do — and you’re sitting there, feeling awful because you’re doing it.  Even if you understand that those feelings aren’t chemically normal, having a decent level of human self-awareness forces you to feel like an asshole for even thinking it, which in turn compounds the original feelings of dread and emptiness.  It was like being stuck in a feedback loop.

Overcoming this feeling took some time, and it certainly took medical assistance.  But it is heavy on my mind now, not only because I feel so low at the moment, but because it serves as a handy reference point: feeling emptiness at something that had served as goal, and having the self-awareness to grasp that this was not normal — and the hope that is caused now by the knowledge I was able to subdue these feelings, eventually.  In fact, I ended up experiencing the best moments of my 2012 while over there.

However in the meantime, I’m reflecting on this piece of my past in order to make better sense of the moods of my present.  And because I miss Italy deeply.

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Mental constraints.

This space has been silent for some time, despite my best intentions.  It hasn’t been a case of having nothing to say; I normally do not lack for words.  There have been other forces at play.  It would break my heart to see my best intentions become yet another abandoned blog, so I will do my best to soldier through.  In order to do so, I must be honest about myself.

I had not originally intended to venture into my life issues here, but that avoidance is going to have to be forced to the wayside.

I am having an episode of depression.  There, I said it.

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I was diagnosed several years ago, and my bouts grappling with this condition have been a recurring theme in my life.  It comes and it goes, but when it there, I cannot begin to grasp the darkness that seems to envelope the world.

I don’t want this to become a blog about depression.  The world doesn’t need another one of those, and I fear that any insight that I might have would seem paltrywhen compared to that of other, more articulate folks.

That being said, feeling the way I do continually at the moment — the lethargy, the lack of interest in things that I normally love, the desire to never leave my apartment, even to get food — is a burden that is crippling.  What makes it even more so is the shame I feel at being perfectly able-bodied and yet not functional.  Able-bodied, yes.  Able-minded, no.  There is a stigma, and a shame, and it only makes things worse.

I’m off of my medicine, because I am currently unemployed and cannot afford them.  The job market has been bleak for me, even as college graduate.  Things seem dim.  On a rational level, I know that no matter how bleak things seem for now, they have been there before; I know things get brighter.  Every valley, no matter how deep, has to become a trough.  The problem is, of course, when your brain is shrouded in depression, the rational part of your mind, however articulate, just doesn’t get much purchase as you dwell upon the darker thoughts.

It isn’t loud, flailing, or demonstrative; it is quietly bleak and suffocating.  You feel like you’re burdened with the weight of a large reservoir that grows heavier and heavier and all the while you wait, quietly paralyzed and in deep fear of that moment when it is going to burst and you are going to drown.  You wonder if this is going to be that time, the episode, that inevitable bout demon-grappling that is going to be too much to overcome.

No matter how many people surround you, you never feel more alone.  It is even made more torturous by the fact that you know the way you feel isn’t healthy or remotely normal, but there is nothing you can do about it.  It just is.

I know I am not alone in suffering this.  That’s the curse, of course.  You know the things you know.  They make sense; they’re internalized.  They just do not matter.

So it is soldier through, like before, and hope that tide will eventually recede again.  That is the cycle of my life, and I know it is as well for so many others.  When you meet a stranger tomorrow, be kind, because you have no idea the silent burden they might be carrying.

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A question.

Fox News declined to renew Dick Morris’ contract.  While of course the obvious jokes are there — “Dick Morris predicts landslide raise and corner office at Fox” — it does represent an example of accountability finally being applied to the pundit class, given that Morris has proven himself to have the worst oracular skills since Custer turned to his second-in-command and said “Don’t worry, I got this”.

I cannot help but wonder what would happen at Fox if this standard — losing your job because wildly misinforming viewers of the odds of Romney’s success — is applied across-the-board.  If so, the only people that are going to be left in the room might be the cameramen.

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“Tips are not optional, they are how waiters get paid in America.”

I’m sure if you’re reading this — and therefore have net access — then you’ve heard about the tip stiff heard ’round the world, when the St. Louis Applebee’s waitress posted on Reddit a receipt in which a local pastor crossed out the gratuity with the words “I give God 10% why do you get 18”.  That cost the waitress her job when the pastor called to complain.  Above is a link to the op-ed she wrote for the Guardian UK regarding the lamentable position of waitstaff in America, who depend on tips as a pillar of their income.

Of course, the whole thing has created a firestorm online: some people focusing on the religious aspect, others the rudeness of refusing to tip for service, some the refusal of Applebee’s to stand up for their employee, or the privacy issues — and of course, the low wages to begin with that create these situations.

What I haven’t seen, however, is anyone really address a deeper problem in American society: how we treat waitstaff to begin with.  For me, this is a basic issue of human dignity and decency.  In America, waiting tables isn’t considered a career — and it seldom is, because of the low wages — but a job.  That has a demonstrable effect on the way many of us treat the people serving us food and drinks every day.  We see them as people who are simply making ends meet while trying to look for something better.  In a society where who you are is what you do,  they suffer not only from low wages, but quiet cultural contempt from many of us.

Contrast this with Europe, where waiting tables is a respected profession.  While it does not have the social status of a doctor or a professional, the career choice is afforded not only more respect, but a real, living wage that isn’t based on gratuities.  Waiters are respected for their professional knowledge and prowess.  And if you’ve watched one of them juggle, as I did during my months in Rome, orders from large tables of foreigner tourists flawlessly (and often in second languages), you understand why.  In Europe, waiting tables isn’t job, it is a career.

I like to think of myself, above all, as a pragmatist.  There is no doubt in my mind that tipping culture is an ingrained part of American society and will not go away any time soon: there are simply too many social factors, and corporate pressures, to make any changes in the way these souls are paid for the work they do.  However, why we can do individually as people, is try to treat the person bringing us our food and drinks with a modicum of dignity.  We should respect their labor at the same level we respect the person who builds our homes, grows our food, teaches our children, or keeps our streets safe.

An honest days work is an honest days work.  Basic, simple dignity.  That would be a start.

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Welcome to 2013

A new year demands a new blog, I think.  Or, on the other hand, perhaps yet another blog slouches towards Bethlehem.  I suppose this is entirely dependent on how you view the brave, not-really-at-all new world of blogging.  It is no longer 1998.  That was the Wild West of the internet, free range, lacking only cyber-buffalo.  Today is different.  You can’t click twice without coming across someones fenced-off acre of bandwidth full of self-styled Deep Thoughts, or, more often, Loud Political Ranting Masquerading As Deep Thoughts.  So, here I am, late for the party again.  But I did bring a nice bottle of wine.

I suppose for the sake of propriety, a short bit of background is in order: I’m an off-again, on-again graduate student living in the Pacific Northwest, having relocated here from my home in the Missouri Ozarks four or so years ago;  I am still in the process of adjusting.  But I suppose that we’re all still in the process of adjusting to whatever turbulence and change unbalances our existences.  So this, too, is not that big of a deal.

I am a veteran of the Livejournal wars (for over a decade), but as I am not either a Russian, nor to I write horrible slash fiction — or excellent slash fiction, if we want to be honest about it — that venue has rapidly lost its appeal.  My writing there dropped away and became rather sparse.  Which is all good, as there are only 12 non-Russian speakers left there anyway, out of which perhaps only 4 are adults.  I needed a new venue for my output, and as tumblr seems to be the province of fandoms and those who communicate only via images — a picture my be a thousand words, but there’s a reason a thousand pictures at once is referred to as a “dump” — here I am.

While this space may touch upon personal issues some time, I don’t intend for it to be the repository of my daily activities, which while would be in keeping with the more self-involved aspects of our age, would also bore any reader to tears.  I know.  I’m there every day.  I am approaching this as a place for me to muck about with ideas.  That’s the hope, anyway.  We will see how that goes.

If it crashes and burns, at least there will be a record of the glorious flameout.  And perhaps a witness or two.

A word about the title: it comes from George Orwell, in his Homage to Catalonia.  I’ve always been a great admirer of Orwell, and I’ve always found his searing Homage to be one of my favorite works.  (Orwell and the Spanish Civil War will be the subject of a future post, I am sure.)  The title itself comes from his time on the front lines in Aragon, facing the Nationalist-held city of Huesca.  The Republican commanders had launched the campaign by inspiring their troops with the promise “we’ll have coffee tomorrow in Huesca”, which grew to be the somewhat of a common joke to the men along the line as the front stagnated into trench warfare.  It amused him enough that he mentioned that one day if he ever returned to Spain, he would travel to Huesca to claim his cup.

Huesca never did fall to the Republicans; Orwell never was to return to Spain.

For me, Huesca represents all those lofty goals unachieved; all those places never visited; all those promises unkept.  It is a name I associate with striving and failing, that place whose lights you can see blinking in the twilight but you just can’t quite get to, always tantalizing, always just out of your grasp.

Huesca is about being human.  All of us carry our Huescas.

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