Thursday, May 31, 2007

Moby-Dick and Length

Lest anyone be fooled by the farcical tone of the two previous posts, I’m delighting in Moby-Dick, the perfect book for me as I take a little time to recover from the rigors of the academic year, before launching into my next job, wedding planning, and so on.

I suppose as much ink has been spilled on MD as on any book written in the last 200 years, but I can’t help dropping a few thoughts, like paper boats, onto that storm-tossed sea, to see if they float or bog down. After all, the book seems designed to inspire profound ruminations. Any well-intentioned attempt to sail across its vast waters practically requires one to sit at regular intervals, finger poised on the page, gazing abstractedly into the distance for minutes on end. And I have, I have.

But as tempting as it is to delve into a tract on “The Whiteness of the Whale,” or the protean (1851!) whisperings of Post-Modern ambiguity, or (and especially) the conflation of heroism and melancholy – er, as tempting as it is, I say, I will try here to write only of one topic, which, in itself, has provoked many thoughts in me: The question of length.

(A confession: I am only 269 pages in. I have leagues to go before I sleep. But I don’t think I can read anymore without letting off a bit of the steam I’ve built up with all my reflections. I will try to be appropriately modest in my reflections. If you know me, you won’t bank on that promise.)

So: The book is a whopper.

I am told length is all the rage these days. My fianceƩ, who is a librarian and knows these things (and many more) tells me that kids of 10 and 12 are wating in book-store lines these days so they can get first crack at ripping through the latest 700-page fantasy novel in two and a half days, pausing only briefly to eat. This trend was started by the Harry Potter series, and though I am not a special fan of those books, I appreciate that they have kept alive the the hunger for words on paper in "the next generation," as the pundits love to call them.

But let us not cast Moby Dick in the same dinghy with Harry Potter. Different vessels, indeed.

Melville gives his voracious appetite for all classes of knowledge – and his endless desire to synthesize all of that knowledge – almost completely free reign. He was a writer who, as my father once said of Michael Chabon, “wanted to get absolutely everything in, and pretty much did.” He is a cataloguer, a closet scientist, and a thinker's thinker. As I note humorously in my fourth alternative plot for the story (see previous post), he lectures on cetology, oceanography, history, philosophy, sociology, cosmology, and yet more.

And he seems unable to stop himself from getting wound up into a hypomanic frenzy on a subject. One factual aside might lead to 10 digressive pages, consisting of three references, two side jokes, two lengthy quotations from Ur-texts, and (inspired by all that) a three-page upward-spiraling aria on the nature of the world, or human nature, or God –- or, more likely, all three. Sentences run on until subject and object become tiny flecks of gold flake lost in a maritime gale. Many exclamation points! Hyperbole and simile overflowing and mingling like the varied wines of Life decanted into Jove’s mythical golden all-encompassing goblet, or the good godly frozen oceanic depths pouring through a poor, pityingly scuttled but still noble bark!


Most of the time, the lessons that come tumbling out in this helter-skelter, awe-inspiring jumble take on the feel of a quite home-spun curriculum. Melville is well-known for having mostly educated himself, and I recognize the sometimes frantic, sometimes stunning pattern and sweep of his exposition. I am reminded of conversations with a friend of mine, also an autodidact of considerable intellect, who can flummox me with the number and range of his associations within one (somewhat) cohesive statement.

I wonder if this is a trait common to autodidacts. Not only do they love all of their subjects passionately; not only do those subjects range vastly; but, in their minds, there are also no firm lines between those subjects. They come rushing out in much the same manner in which they live in their mind-home: All grown in on each other like branches of trees that are squeezed together, confounded and conflated in ways that are sometimes frustrating, or just plain senseless to all but the orator – and yet, that sometimes offer flashes of gorgeous insight, which one might not find in a mind more conventionally trained. Frank Lloyd Wright (my favorite architect) was an autodidact, and you can't find a more original body of work standing in the world. Joseph Campbell. Frank Zappa. All created bodies of work unprecedented in style and feel.

But I digress. (Herman would approve.)

My point is, I come not to bury Melville for his verbiage, but to praise him.

Yes, I admit it -- I have skipped a few pages. Not many. The truth is, I took on this book partly as a way to slow myself down during a week or so of recovery from the mania of a very intense academic and professional year. It began doing the trick very early on. When I give in to the way that he luxuriates in the prose, (he slathers it on like cream cheese on a Sunday-morning bagel, no such thing as too much) I usually find myself transported by the rhythms of it (or sometimes, the utter lack thereof) to another era, when people had time to write 650 pages, by hand, by the light of a smelly lamp (powered by whale oil). And to read them, as well.

I can’t help being inspired, too, by the self-indulgence. I was house-trained as a young pup writer by old-school journalists, on the job. "You do not waste a word -- period." I have rowed as a slave to that drumbeat ever since, through business presentations, academic papers, songwriting, and more. But today? Today I have come to write like Melville! Great, heaping helpings of extravagantly-worded thoughts and actions, twisting in on themselves, falling flat… or unexpectedly, lumberingly, creakingly getting one wheel off the ground, then the other and… Wait a minute! What do you know? I think I just read an extremely beautiful passage! Could anything be more American than excess leading to enlightenment? He stamped the mold for the Great American Novel, and many have dashed themselves against it ever since.

American, yes. But also, ipso facto, descended from Europe. I heard a report just a few weeks ago on NPR that we should not feel embarrassed about falling asleep during a Wagner opera. That, in fact, Herr Richard may have written with the intention of so lulling us. Psychologists interviewed for the piece attested that we become more vulnerable to emotional peaks when we are in a state closer to the middle of the sleeping-waking continuum. I need not parlay this for you into an insight about reading a 650 page book.

So, this is more than enough writing for a blog post. And isn't that the point?

Write on, O, my captain! I will follow thee for at least 380 more pages -- or die with your word-waters choking my still-striving reading-lungs!

Moby-Dick, Part II

As I almost reach the half-way mark, I find arising in me yet another alterna-version of the Great American Novel. I beg thee, Gentle Reader, avast! Do read the previous post (below) afore ye proceed with this!


or, The Baleful Whale

Mr. Starbuck tires of his mates' morose, paranoid speeches and endless lectures on oceanography, cetology, meteorology, religion, history, sociology, philosophy and cosmology. He begins to think that Ahab, Ishmael, and everyone else on board with a biblical name suffers from melancholia. He breaks the seal on the medication trunk, and, with help from the dough-faced steward, grinds 20 mg of Prozac into their daily portion of gruel.

A week later, Ahab is overheard remarking to the third mate, "D'ye mark it, my hearty? 'Tis a fine day!" The crew, alarmed as much at the brevity of his speech as the cheerfulness, mutiny. "We won't be toleratin' no cap'n who palavers so simple!," they exclaim, as they lock Ahab in the hold. "When ye remember how to speechify with noble insanity, as ye were wont to do, we'll grant ye freedom once more!"

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Moby-Dick, or, The Snail

I'm reading Moby-Dick (or, The Whale), for the first time. Though I originally trembled when considering the length, I have to say, I am really enjoying the "ripping yarn" aspects of it.

Sometimes, though, it does get a bit... ponderous. What can I say? The man really loved words. No... really.

At these junctures, my mind drifts into a kind of verbiage-induced delirium, and alternate versions float into my awareness. (Deep apologies to Melville and whatever estate he might have at this date):

1) Moby-Dickens

Ahab dies of consumption just as the Pequod reaches the tropics. He is replaced by Mr. Tulkinghorn, who spends all his time skulking in the captain's cabin, reviewing the shipping papers. The crew begins superstitious grumblings. After he discovers an ominous secret in the papers, Tulkinghorn launches into a mesmerizing speech (four and a half pages), containing a veiled threat to first mate John Jarndyce. Savage Queequeg, secret lover of Jarndyce, overhears the self-important speech, and tosses the attorney/captain overboard, exclaiming, "Me think-e captain use-e too many word!" Two chapters (36 pages) follow, detailing, in pseudo-scientific language, the reasons sharks don't eat lawyers. The author's pet theory is that the two are of the same species.

2) Mobius-Dick

Just before the Leviathan delivers his coup-de-grace, killing all the crew and officers, the entire 650 pages confoundingly turn in on themselves and we are back in New Bedford, where Ishmael is ranting about the virtues of a fleabag seaman's inn.

3) Moby-Dick,
or, The Sale

This weekend only!
20% off yard-arms!!
25% off mizzen masts!!!
DEEP discounts on gently used ivory legs!!!! No reasonable offer refused!!!!!
MasterCard, Visa or gold doubloons welcome!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

4) Moby Dick
or, the Blog

"march 3 (post number 1,000! i made it!):
another boring day. i wish ahab would shut up already about that whale. all his 'thou-ing' and 'avast-ing"! it's like, enough already! he thinks he's so noble!

i emailed my mom that i want to come home, but she totally denied me!!!

i can't stop thinking about how Queequeg kinda creeps me out but i sorta like him, too, y'know?? it's weird. i guess everything's weird. i mean, like, life is weird.

oh, well.

guess i better go now, stubbs wants to play solitaire on the laptop. i know i said i was gonna write about all the kinds of harpoon tips. i'll definitely post again this afternoon, or maybe before lunch."

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Lecture on Depression was Uplifting

Seven months after submitting my proposal, I gave my lecture yesterday at the Cambridge Center. I had a terrific time speaking on the cultural, historical and ethical aspects of depression.

It was pretty interesting to finally be up on the stage after months of thinking about it and weeks of preparing for it. If I'd known the end of the school semester and internship was going to be so hard, I'd have put it off by a week or two, but I managed to get prepared in time, and felt I moved through the topics well. There was, of course, a lot to say, but that's OK, because I love to talk, as everyone knows. I was a little nervous getting started, but after two minutes, there was so much to get done, there was no time for nerves. Plus, I think my experience as singer-songwriter kicked in. Emily was there, and it was wonderfully supportive to see her smile in the crowd. Friends from the Cambridge Center also showed up. We had about 50 people overall.

I posed a thought-provoking question-set: Since it meets all the requirements, shouldn't depression be treated as a disease, and eliminated from the planet? Why is it different from polio or MS? What is there in depression that we glorify or value? Are we afraid of losing artistic inspiration, or self-awareness, or valuable alienation, or a valid response to the nasty state of the world? But none of those is central to the disorder -- or is it? Is it possible we could have all of those things without the real suffering that the actual disorder brings? (I mostly think it is.)

I gave some medical background as to what depression is and how we are coming to understand it with new technology and research. The physical changes that happen to the brain after episodes of depression. Its prevalence in the world. Diseases it exacerbates or causes. Then I laid out a brief cultural history of the disorder from the Greeks' melancholia through the Renaissance, the Romantics, and then Bellow and Styron and Plath and the whole 20th century crew. I laid out a strong theory (borrowed from Peter Kramer's excellent Against Depression) that the myth of the value of melancholy and depression got woven into our culture starting 2200 years ago, but it is just that -- a myth. I injected humor consistently so things didn't get too intense -- you have to laugh about such a heavy topic, and we did.

I opened it up for 20 minutes of dicusssions at the end, and was pleasantly surprised to see that there were tons of comments and stimulating questions. The chance to engage people and guide them as they grappled with the questions I'd been working on for weeks and months was quite invigorating. We ran over by five or ten minutes, and there was quite a buzz in the air as folks milled about afterwards, asking each other questions that had occurred to them.

Various people gave me very positive feedback, which, of course, was very nice.

(There was, of course, one curmudgeon with a snippy comment, an ex-English professor, but my pal at the Center told me he's a well-known sourpuss. At least he spoke to me privately, and even he said he enjoyed the lecture. But really, can't you just picture him?)

Quite the rewarding experience. Perhaps at some point I can do it again on another topic, or even give this lecture somewhere else -- a chance to polish it a bit and capitalize on all the work that went into it.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Farewell, Thou Counseling Center!

This morning, as I lounged around in a pleasant, sunny-Sunday haze, it came to me that I really don't want my counseling internship to be over.

It's odd, since for the last few weeks, mostly what I wanted was to be done with all things school-related. This isn't unusual at the end of a long semester and a long year, and this might have been my most demanding year of school so far, what with two job changes, an internship representing my first (almost) professional experience in the field, and a year-long class. I was ready to be done, to focus on simplifying my life for the summer: finding a job and hunkering down to it. No classes, no clients, no counseling center office politics.

But I had my final client session on Friday morning and I miss it already. I miss sitting in that little 8' x 8' room, face to face with whoever was due in that hour, going through the dance of listening and reflecting and guiding and prodding and empathizing and analyzing. The long year of counseling was the culmination of two and a half years of studying how one does this mysterious work. Zillions of gallons of ink have been spilled on the inner workings of that puzzling dynamic, I won't try to crack the code here. The point is, I complained a lot this year about difficult clients, uncommunicative colleagues and, primarily, about ever-mounting stress. But dang it, I'm going to miss looking down the long hallway I could see from my office door, checking to see whether my next client just got off the elevator.

Actually, the moment that sprang to mind while I was relaxing this morning was that odd half-hour or so when I didn't have clients scheduled. I'd sit in my office taking care of lingering paperwork or phone calls. But all the while, even during the early-evening hours around 7 or 8 p.m., I had this feeling of being "on duty." Because, as my supervisor so prophetically told me when I started there in August, "You just never know what's going to walk through that door." I've had crises spring up out of a clear blue sky, and they were real crises -- not the ones I used to have when I was a project manager in the technology world, where some infernal piece of software would not do what it was supposed to do, and I had to call a client and tell them we would be late for a deadline which was randomly assigned in the first place. No, this was different. One quiet, snowy morning last winter, an academic tutor from two floors up come racing bug-eyed into my office telling me she was worried she had a suicidal student on her hands. Within the space of a very packed five minutes, that student became my client (for 20 minutes, until her regular counselor showed up) and I came face to face with mortality and deep psychological pathology. I had to make this young woman feel at ease, help her to trust me, get her to participate in a suicide assessment, and try continually to contact both my supervisor and the woman's regular counselor by phone -- all at the same time.

Now that's vital work.

I did just never know what was going to walk through the door. A client who had literally done nothing but gripe in a high-pitched, angry voice for five weeks in a row -- that's almost four hours of shrill finger-pointing, for those who like to count -- suddenly, in week six, responded dramatically to a small challenge I offered, and proceeded to turn her course of therapy around 180 degrees. Each of the remaining five sessions were sharply different from the others, as she took responsibility for the bad mess she was in and began to figure out what she wanted to do about it. Inspiring! Creative! Thrilling!

As tiring as it could be, I liked that. I like being "at the hub of the wheel," as I like to say. I like that the skills that, through the twisted calculus of life, I exited childhood with, which always made me so weird in the eyes of my fellow children as a youngster -- the deep relatedness and sensitivity, the tendency toward profundity, the lack of fear of the darker side of human experience -- they all became clear assets once I started in this business. Who wouldn't want to stick around a place where their weirdness becomes strength -- and where their co-workers share that very weirdness? It's addictive.

I'll miss it!

Monday, May 7, 2007

Another Shooting. This Time it's My University.

So, OK, here we go again.

This morning, Monday, I called in to my internship site to double-check a couple of details about the day, since we interns are in the two-week wind-down period and things are in flux. A friend and colleague told me on the phone that a Lesley student, an undergrad, had been shot and killed this weekend in nearby Somerville.

It was exactly four weeks ago today that a lonely and under-served young man took two guns into the halls of Virginia Tech and stopped 33 lives (if you include his own. And don't get me started on that one. The media didn't count the shooter as one of the dead, and the bells around the country rang only 32 times the next day in tribute. They couldn't wait 15 seconds, and then toll once more? This would be caving in to weak-minded liberals, to say that he suffered too, or that his family is maybe having a little bit of a hard time? But I digress.). If you're a glutton for punishment, I just reposted the rant that event inspired (originally email only) just below this post.

Interestingly, and in a related story, one of my clients who I hadn't seen for many months came to my attention again last week. He showed up early in the Fall semester because his best friend for years had been killed in a car when the driver crashed it, after engaging the police in a high speed chase (all started simply because the car was missing a license plate). The friend went through the back window. My client's other friends in the car went into the ICU; one stayed for days in a coma. My client was having nightmares of waking up in a coffin, of friends and family members dying. I won't go through all the other PTSD symptoms he experienced; too many and too depressing. At the time, I remember wanting to reach through the hardened plaster of pained silence in the room and into his chest and simply cradle his poor, deeply bruised heart for him. Vey, what a time for him.

He was again experiencing symptoms, pretty bad ones. And this was last week, before this other young man from campus was shot and killed, sitting in the front of a Cadillac late on a Saturday night. Tomorrow, my client will come in and sit before me, looking at me with those great pools of sorrow and honesty he has for eyes, and try to keep a manly firmness about him as he tells me about his nightmares, his inability to get his body out of bed on class days. The way the kids in his lower-income neighborhood make fun of the death of his friend.

Now, here is what I want to know.

What is wrong with us?

I don't just mean you and me, I mean the Big Us -- the Big U.S. of A. Have we so lost our way, our moral attunement, as a society that we think it's OK to let virtual children buy guns on a moment's notice?

Have we so lost our connection with our boys -- our precious, boisterous boys full of so much energy and potential -- that we allow them an understanding of manhood so twisted, and this is across all socioeconomic groups, that men kill themselves at four times the rate that women do?

Oh, I could go on and on. I shouldn't waste your time with my emotional rants.

What the ranting serves to cover up, I suppose, is that raw and highly vulnerable feeling of fragility that happens when, on a gorgeous, 65-degree spring day, the sunshine resplendent, the trees all glorious with pink and white blossoms, the air fresh and warm at the same time -- when, on such a day, Death barges in the door and barks a harsh "Aha! How do you like THIS?!"

We get thrust full-force into that scary existential space so rudely, without so much as a by-your-leave. We suddenly, chillingly feel, as my favorite author Michael Chabon says in his new book, "the way you [do when you] creep into a sick room, a cardiac ward, expecting a shock, reminders of mortality, grim truths about the body."

Boys flying through car windows. Boys pausing in relentless slaughter to drop off their home-made press kits at the post office, to ensure NBC receives them in time for the evening news. Boys climbing in the back of Cadillacs on fine spring nights to point guns at the back of heads, and pull triggers. Need I go on, invoke the ghosts of Columbine, the Amish slaughter, the workplace incidents, all within the last decade or so?

I know that these are separate incidents, sure. Of course they are -- separated by years, sometimes, and socioeconomic and geographic distance. By profile of victim, of perpetrator, of community.

Are they really that separate? I'm just asking. Tonight, as I sit here with this infernal knot in my solar plexus again, for the third time in the last nine months alone, I'm asking. Because I just don't want to feel all of this raw sadness all over again. Kids on a campus crying again. Counseling center put on alert again. Campus candlelight vigil again. Client in my office with nightmares again.

Somebody change the channel, huh? I've really had enough of this movie.

A Rant After the Virginia Tech Shootings

Following is the text of an email sent to friends and family on April 17, 2007, the day after the multiple shootings at Virginia Tech:


Can't help a few musings about yesterday's events on campus at Virginia Tech. As an intern at a college counseling center, I did feel more affected by the events than I would have otherwise, especially since, just last Fri., I attended a day-long conference on depression and suicide prevention on college campuses. How ironic.

One of the first things I heard this morning was a pundit calling the shooter "evil." My reflex response was, "How absurd; he was mentally ill." I don't have much doubt on that one.

Lesley University is a tiny, touchy-feely, liberal arts campus in located in liberal Cambridge -- about as far in every way as you can get from Va. Tech and still be a university. Nevertheless, when I got off the bus this a.m., I shuddered for a moment before stepping on campus.

There were a couple of general announcements put out around campus today, and in one, the president (without consulting us) declared the counseling center open to all who needed to talk. Great idea. Let us know next time!

My clients didn't mention it today during sessions. Afterward, I went to the gym on campus; the TVs there are unfailingly tuned to utter teenage nonsense. They were both tuned to all-news channels with live reports from the campus in VA.

Life is strong... and also fragile. Love somebody today.


P.S. And now, for the Op-Ed. Skip this if you don't like pompous ranting. My two cents:

They can arm campus security, they can put video cameras in the dorms, they can screen every incoming student. Nothing's going to help much until we start seeing this mass violence as a community crisis -- in high schools, colleges, workplaces -- and start working from a community *health* model, including addressing the violence permeating the culture like the very air we breathe; isolation derived from faux-relationships on-line and on cell phones (I see it in my clients); and much, much more.

Yes, I'm talking about the impossible -- but ppl in power will need to have the courage to stand up and call it like it is. Our society is ill and getting iller. The one-note-johnny pundits drive me crazy (It's a security issue! No, you're wrong, it's a mental health issue! No, it's a faculty issue!). I think the answer is, it's a political issue (gun control; school reform; the war drawing down resources; etc.), a gender issue (why are all the killers males? Hmmmm, ever hear of "gender roles"?), a public health issue (why aren't these ppl getting picked up on the the mental/physical health radar? There are lots of knotty reasons, but no excuse for the lack of proper health in this country), a media issue (movies, videos games)... and on and on...

The culture of alienation and readily available violence is so overwhelming that no one bothers to notice it anymore. Today's news has me wondering what we can do to at least start to turn it around. Anyone have any ideas?