Saturday, January 27, 2007


Mercifully, it has been many years since I have been seriously tempted by suicide. There was a time when it was a daily struggle. I developed a number of strategies for declining the temptation. One of the better ones was a checklist.

When the temptation first began, I used to tell myself sternly that I simply couldn't commit suicide, that I had responsibilities in the world. Someone would have to find me. It would inflict trauma on my family. That sort of thing. But the trouble with that approach was that for me, suicide was all about getting out of bondage. That train of thought only made my confinement that much more vivid. Made me feel that much more strongly that there was no way out. It tended to make things worse, not better.

So I gave myself permission. I made a formal agreement with myself. I could kill myself, but only after I did ten things.

I no longer remember what all ten things were, and I don't know how useful my list would be to anyone else -- everyone would have a different list. But most of them were very simple things. Sit up straight and take three deep breaths. Go outside and look at the sky. (So what if it's raining? I'm going to kill myself, and I'm worried about getting wet?) Think up and do something, however trivial, that would be a pleasant surprise to somebody, and which couldn't be traced to me. Stroke my cat. Get my heart rate up into the aerobic range for ten minutes. There may have been a couple designed to verify that I was really done worrying about what people thought of me -- ask an acquaintance for a hug, for instance. Maybe one or two minor housekeeping tasks -- wash the dishes in the sink, or clear off a corner of my desk; sometimes in depression a minor knot of clutter could take on a monstrously oppressive aspect for me. But it couldn't be something huge, like clean the whole house or even the whole kitchen. It had to be something that could be done in a few minutes.

Since these were the last things I was going to do on this earth, I had to do them attentively. No rushing through them. But if I got through the full list and still wanted to kill myself, I could do it. That was the bargain. I took it seriously.

Depression is very plausible, very glib. It has an answer for everything. There's no way to win an argument with it. If I tried to tell it that I might feel better if I sat up straight and took three deep breaths, it could crush me with a dozen withering replies that demonstrated, beyond any doubt, that the idea was pathetic and absurd. But it's not nearly so good at coping with the things themselves. So my strategy became to let it win all the arguments -- it was going to anyway -- but make it prove them. Okay, so asking an acquaintance for a hug won't make me feel any different. Let's just go verify it, then. Looking at the sky won't make the world any more spacious. Okay. Demonstrate it. Prove all your assertions, one by one, and I'm your man.

I never made it all the way through the list, and of course I don't know what I would have done if I had. But it was a comfort to have the procedure, and have the permission. There was a way out, and I was free to take it.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Bodied Forth

The bits of anatomy and physiology I'm learning -- "sound-byte science" is the accurate phrase one of my teachers, in an unguarded moment, let fall -- have impressed me above all with how much the body alters, how fluid and changeable it is, how much tissue is being torn down and rebuilt every day. That understanding dovetails nicely with Buddhist contemplations about the impermanence of the body.

Every moment we are creating our bodies. Every moment we sit, as we are right now, dear reader, with our shoulders hunched and immobile, our necks thrust forward, and our heads craned up, our arms poised like a mantis's over mouse and keyboard, we're issuing building instructions. Make a body, we're saying, whose breast can't open, and whose shoulders can't drop. Make a body that holds still by dint of continual muscular effort and tension, rather than by relaxation and balance. Make a body that responds to stimulation by isometric contraction, rather than by motion.

We yearn for our bodies to change, as if the problem were that they were rigid and unalterable. The problem, on the contrary, is that they are all too plastic. They give us, heroically, as long as they are able, exactly what we ask for.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


I am so tired of being a ghost. It turns out to be harder than I thought, to be anything else. I've forsworn the sacraments of the old rituals that conjured a breathing, blood-pumping body out of the vasty halls of stupor, and I have nothing to replace them with. I drift, and chitter silently, like an ancient flickering film about Indian monkeys. No home. No body.

Suppose the burden of the past -- which I feel sit so heavily on my shoulders -- suppose that it's not the burden of a real past, but of an imagined one? It's a real burden, that's clear. It would be pretty comic for someone as stooped and crooked under his load as I am to deny it. But is it actually made of the past? Can it actually be investigated by way of recollection? If I could go back and see it, would I be flooded with understanding, or with confusion? I'm guessing confusion.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


What can I say that I haven't said before? Othello's occupation's gone.

My eyes are outlined with a tint of rawness; my monstrous heart wallows slowly in its breast. Its outriding thoughts skitter slyly in the margins.

"I am old, I am old," mutters Falstaff.

Love, I suppose, after my fashion.

The light comes earlier now. I ride the bus down to the Foundation, which is on the same block as, but on the corner diagonally opposite to, the great purple octopus that adorns the facade of the Greek restaurant.

I walk in the open air of the city.

Raise my head and look at the moon, as the Chinese poet said. Lower my head and think of home.

Saturday, January 06, 2007


I have travelled backwards in time: I am working as a clerk in a Dickens novel. Inkpots and quills would hardly be more foreign to me than all this apparatus for generating, copying, and shuffling paper. Copiers, faxes, staplers, paper-folders, post-its, envelope-moisteners, file folders, white-out, paper-clips, file cabinets -- it all seems very quaint to me. For years I have worked without paper.

Now, in my new office, I am immersed in it. I printed off 154 thank-you letters, today, each of which will be signed by hand, and 154 envelopes, which I will duly stuff, seal, and stamp tomorrow. I have a ten foot long table in my office, and every inch of it holds piles of paper-clipped, stapled, and post-it-ed papers. Checks. Deposit slips. Stock transfers. Copies, and copies of copies, of letters and notes. I'm learning to change ten-key tapes and refill toner. Learning that pink edges on the credit card machine mean its spool is about empty. I guess if you cut your teeth in a paper office, the huge array of devices and instruments for manipulating paper -- many of them enchantingly clever -- all seem normal. Meeting them all at once, though, is a bit overwhelming.

It's not that they don't have the technology for liberating themselves from paper. Their computers are networked and backed up; they have share drives and email, and they use them, after their fashion. But anything of importance gets printed out. Conveying information to someone else generally means copying a piece of paper, adding a note to it, and carrying it to their office. Or faxing it to some other office, where no doubt it is copied and annotated and carried about again. In a back room down the hall are stacks and stacks of boxes filled with old paper; it all washes up there eventually. And this organization is only ten years old. How much paper do older organizations have, I wonder? And where do they keep it all?

Paper -- well, I love it; a well-bound and printed book is a joy and a wonder, and a notebook of brand new paper has always made my heart beat faster. But. You can't search it. You can't sort it. You can't "sed" it or "awk" it or spell-check it. It just -- sits there. In one place. If it gets filed in the wrong place, your chances of ever finding it again are miniscule. It can fall behind desks, blow out windows, catch on fire. It's horribly vulnerable and unwieldy.

But for now, its quaintness delights me. I'm glad I got a chance to work this way, before it all disappears.