The day I started high school, my mother began a long, slow descent towards death.
That’s not how it actually happened. But that is how it feels when I remember back to those formative four years.
I started high school in 2006. At the time I weighed 200 lbs, stood at five foot, wore glasses, played video games, piano, and a bit of tennis. That year, I tried to run for the first time since elementary school and didn’t understand why I was “sore” the next day having never exercised that hard before.
I lived in Bow, New Hampshire, a lovely wooded town. It’s downtown consisted of a garden, a gazebo, a residential ranch-styled gray house, and a fire station where an interior basketball court held local children theater performances, scrimmages, town hall meetings, and presidential talks (it’s New Hampshire so the likes of Bill Clinton and George Bush have spoken there). The fire station parking lot also serves as the local drug zone.
The nearest city is Boston, an hour and a half drive away. The closest grocery store is twenty minutes away. The most exciting thing to do in the town is ski when it’s snowy, which is the norm seven months of the year.
Bow was a safe place to grow up, a beautiful place to grow up, a supportive place to grow up. It was not a particularly interesting place to grow up. (great!)
When I entered Bow High School, I was plummeting toward friendlessness. My longtime next-door neighbor and best friend had moved and silently done whatever the version of a friendship breakup is. My other best friend was dabbling in drugs and we were drifting apart.
As my mother became ill, my family acted accordingly. We picked up the chores, the responsibilities, the activities (as best we could) that she normally did. As it was so early in the process, none of us really thought that this health trouble was anything serious.
Given the mixture of friendlessness, extra academic work and home responsibilities, and a lack of motivation to do anything outside the house, I began to do something I hadn’t done for a couple years—I began to write.
My mother used to tell people that I loved to tell stories. One time I grabbed a mic during a church service and walked up and down the pews talking about my own mountainous religious experience.
I started writing down my stories in pre-school. I wrote my first book in first grade, a story regarding my cat, Mesha and me. As middle school came and I began to experience verbal and physical abuse from bullies, I felt like my drive to write had been beaten out of me.
High school was a time for a fresh start. I was separated from my bullies, but now I faced the punishing effects of social neglect. I turned back to writing, not as a support system or substantial nourishment, but as a form of escape, a place to go where I had total anonymity. My books couldn’t give me that. My video games couldn’t give me that. Only I could give me that. I did so, in the form of novels, short stories, and poems.
As my mother’s condition worsened, I turned to writing even more. And though I had gained some truly great friends, I thrust myself totally into my writing. It was to the point where I would come home, do my homework, and then write for five hours.
For me, my writing had become an addiction, in a way that porn becomes an addiction. It’s not the same as a sugar high, or a nicotine craving. It was a deep mental pressure, constantly pushing to return to the keyboard.
Late in my sophomore year, my mother’s condition entered a scary status. My sister had already left for college and was dealing with all this in her own way. My dad had a job that took him out of the country often, and he needed to provide for us while she couldn’t. Not wanting to add pressure to others, my mom asked me to help her pay her bills, bill her patients, write emails, respond to letters, do the grocery shopping for her. She would drive me to the grocery store and cry as I went in and did the simple activities she longed to do.
I wrote stories about dying mothers so often. The hero always found a way to save her.
Looking back now, I realize the lack of emotion I felt was unhealthy. I felt empty, blank as I watched my mom struggle up the stairs or cry herself to sleep.
But my stories started to eek into my real life.
At first I would relay a story I wrote down as a story that happened to me. The first time it was an accident. I was just sharing a story and the person asked if that happened to me. I said yes, too embarrassed to say, “No I made that up.”
My time was consumed with my writing, trying to give myself a sense of control, a place to escape to, a place where I didn’t have to deal with my mom, with a fraying relationship with those who mattered most to me, with my social issues, my weight problems, and the fact that I was utterly un-cool.
It soon became clear to me that I could craft my own image with fibs. A story here, a tale there, and I was just that much cooler to those around me. It took time to learn what was actually believable, but I found that most people were trusting and I started to prey on that trust.
The turning point came when a friend of mine told me something big in his or her life and I thought, without a doubt, that they were lying. But this lie had created a certain image for this person and I thought I could do same.
I stopped writing. In order to escape realities, I started creating falsities. It was impossible to fact check my stories without a thorough questioning. But as I was geeky, nice, a bit charming, and a stickler for rules, I appeared trustworthy. Small lies turned into big lies until I was the heartbroken friend of a murder victim in Philadelphia or the confidant whose friend died of parental neglect, or the friend of a poor soul who died in an accident.
The stories mutated depending on the person I told them to. For some reason, I had the uncanny ability to keep my stories straight with each person.
At the height of my compulsive lying, my writing had all but dried up and my mother was at her worst.
I was checking in her bedroom daily to see if she was breathing.
It was no surprise that all of my bigger lies dealt with death. I faced it daily. I had source material to pull from, emotions to access that I wouldn’t access in any other way. I cried about my pretend dead comrades, but in actuality I cried about my mom.
I graduated high school with an image cultivated in the way I wanted. Though not popular, I had carved out my slot as a semi-talented singer and dancer. I had my second girlfriend totally sold on my lies, and friends who checked in with me and supported me based on the falsities I’d told them . I was absolutely terrified that I would lose them all if my image ever lessened, that I would go back to the slug of a person I was at the beginning of high school. I felt strained, trying to hold onto everything and everybody.
I left for college, narratives filling my head, a whole new persona ready for prime popularity and an impending sense that my mother’s deathday clock was speeding towards a finish line.
I hugged my mom, she sobbed, and I drove away from my childhood home with my dad towards the mid-west. I wondered if that was the last time I would touch my mom.
Soon, my girlfriend broke up with me and hardly any of my friends would talk to me. Something snapped and I felt a divine providence support my path towards honesty. I confessed everything to everybody who I had majorly affected. It was the most painful thing I’ve done thusfar in my life?. I lost friends. My ex despised me for good reason. I spent months fighting to keep those who I loved.
I couldn’t bare to write, feeling like I was lying every time I hit a key.
My only outlet for my feelings of tumult was through physical reactions. I spent a week in a nursing facility, sick with something they couldn’t identify. I didn’t eat. I lost weight. I vomited daily for weeks and sobbed uncontrollably when no one was around.
Then, my mother died.
It was February of my freshman year of college. After months of sickness, I no longer felt ill. I didn’t feel healthy either. I just felt nothing. The preceding weeks I only really remember in vague visions of walking around my house, my college campus, and dreams involving all made up characters, each of them dying in the same room my mom did.
The only thing that injected actual emotion into my life was a young woman who eventually became my wife. The first thing I wrote of my own accord after my mother’s death was a letter to my then-girlfriend.
I didn’t start writing fiction until maybe six months after my mom died, and even then, it was sparring.
Something changed with that writing though, it was no longer a form of escape. It was my choice, my mental effort, not a feeling of withdrawal, that pushed me towards the keyboard.
The writing normalized, and I found I could write and tell the truth in real life, something I had been afraid would not be possible. I was so scared that if I started making up stories on the page, I’d make them up in life too.
Though I’ve written many pages about myself, my family, my life, and many more pages in novels, I’ve never been able to write about this story, my runaway story, what shaped me. It’s my biggest humiliation, my biggest mistake, and I’m constantly scared that I may revert. So I avoid writing as an escape at all costs.
But I feel, that with this story, I am moving towards a sense of a healthy writing life, whatever that may be.
by Douglas Menagh
In 1976, Joe Strummer of The Clash said to NME, “I think people ought to know that we're anti-fascist, we're anti-violence, we're anti-racist, and we're pro-creative.” The Clash, with Mick Jones on guitar, Paul Simonon on bass, and Topper Headon on drums, emerged in the late 70’s punk scene, and from the beginning, created music that questioned authority and attacked those who abused their power. Their politically charged and diverse sound protested fascist politics and far right movements by taking a stand on social and political issues. The Clash emboldened their listeners to take a stand for what’s right too, and in the process, made a difference to peoples’ lives.
The first record released by The Clash was their eponymous debut in 1977. The album opens with “Janie Jones,” a song Martin Scorsese says is the greatest British rock song. “Janie Jones” features raw riffs, sweet chanting, and a groovy beat that can turn any living room into a mosh pit. On “Janie Jones,” Joe Strummer sings, “He's in love with rock'n'roll, woah/ He's in love with gettin' stoned, woah / He's in love with Janie Jones, woah/ He don't like his boring job, no, no, no.” The song empowers listeners to connect with what is important to them and not society. It also shows that all change starts from within, and if listeners want to change the world, they’ve got to start with themselves first. “I’m So Bored With The USA” is a giant middle finger to the powerful Americans abusing their authority. Joe sings, “Yankee dollar talk / To the dictators of the world/ In fact It's giving orders.” The song shows that when Americans allow themselves to be led the greedy and corrupt, they encourage similar abuses worldwide. “Police and Thieves” covers a reggae song by Junior Mavrin and addresses police brutality and gun violence. The lyrics, “Police and thieves in the streets, oh yeah/ Scaring the nation with their guns and ammunition,” equate police with the “thieves” by making them interchangeable. This cover came out 40 years ago, and police brutality and gun violence are more pervasive in society than before. Both the cover and original by Junior Mavrin show listeners that they need to care about this issue, take a stand on it, and make others do so as well.
Though The Clash sounded progressively less and less like a punk band as they evolved, their attitude was always punk and it shows on London Calling. London Calling marries elements of punk, reggae, and ska to create a rebellious record that distorts genres with a political message. In the song “London Calling,” Joe Strummer sings, “Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust,” and it’s a “nuclear era but I have no fear.” If nothing else, The Clash were a serious band, and they were sincere in using their music to make listeners become more aware of their surroundings. “Lost in the Supermarket,” sung by Mick Jones, is a hilarious tune that pokes fun at the popularity of disco by sounding super poppy. Jones captures the monotony and personality-destroying motions of consumerism. Jones sing, “I’m all lost in the supermarket/ I can no longer shop happily/ I came in here for the special offer/ A guaranteed personality.” “Guns of Brixton” by Paul Simonon shows the abuse of power by authority in a way that is both meaningful, powerful, and damn catchy. Simonon sings, “You can crush us/ You can bruise us/ Yes, even shoot us/ But oh-the guns of Brixton.” It is also an example of another song that shows the pervasiveness of gun violence in our culture.
Much has already been said and written of how the anti-war message of The Clash was especially pertinent during the Bush administration and the Iraq War. The album Sandinista! references the democratic and socialist group of people in Nicaragua who took back control of their government. It is a long and strange album with psychedelic sounds and audio recordings mixed to create sound on this record that crosses mediums. “The Call Up” is a pledge to not be part of a system that destroys lives, and ends with a recording of people chanting “I love the Marine Corp.”
Combat Rock, the last Clash album featuring Strummer, Jones, Simonon, and Headon, brings militarism to the forefront. Though the album includes more poppy songs like “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” it also features “Straight to Hell,” a sublime tune about The Vietnam War. In terms of songwriting, the lyrics are absurd, playful, and deeply moving. Strummer sings, “Clear as winter ice/ This is your paradise… Can you really cough it up loud and strong?/ The immigrants, they wanna sing all night long... There ain’t no asylum here/ King Soloman he never lived around here.” The fragility and preciousness of life comes through from deeply affecting guitar loops, soulful singing from Joe Strummer, and a beat that is catchy and hypnotizing.
On record, The Clash drew upon a wide range of influences from different musical backgrounds. When it came to performances, The Clash tours also featured artists from across the musical spectrum. Bo Diddley and Lee “Scratch” Perry were openers. When Grandmaster Flash opened to them, a performance which fans misunderstood and booed, Joe Strummer confronted the crowd. Joe Strummer saw The Clash as being on a journey with fans, not superior to them, but he also saw that hip-hop and punk had more in common than his audience realized. Challenging them to change their minds and fix their hearts was the punk thing to do. The Clash used their art to showcase wide range of diverse talent, and in doing that show an eclectic artistic community is the most powerful defense against authority.
Political art and music alone doesn’t have the power to stop those from abusing power, but it can make a difference to people. Joe Strummer said, “people can change anything they want to; and that means everything.” Joe died in 2002, and yet even now his music is still touching people and encouraging artists, activists, punks, and rebels to take a stand for their beliefs. In New York City, outside of a bar called Niagara, there is a mural of Joe Strummer wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket. It says, “The Future is Unwritten,” and underneath that, “Know Your Rights.” Expression and art still has the power to make a difference to people, and Joe Strummer’s music is there so you will never forget that you have rights. After listening to The Clash, it’s harder to take life for granted, and harder still to stay silent and do nothing. Audiences find new courage to confront authority because Joe, Mick, Paul, and Topper made us care more than we already did.
It’s interesting that through the #metoo and #timesup movement there hasn’t been more coverage of the fact that the biggest acting award out there is named for a man; the trophy itself shaped like a man! It’s like if the NBA’s logo was Jerry West instead of Michael Jordan, it just feels wrong. Can we change the trophy? Let’s just call it the Academy Awards and have the trophy be like two stars.
Anywho, we’re here to give out the best awards that an actor or actress has never won. We’ve named them “The Olivias,” complete with no trophy at all. Though we’d welcome any concept art as to how they’d look.
“Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and adventures are the shadow truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes and forgotten.” Neil Gaiman
Welcome to Shadow Work
When I hear the term “Shadows” I often think of The Nazgul, the Ringwraiths of Minus Morgul in Lord of the Rings who live in the shadowlands. Their black shadow cloaks and the fog they summon. Or of J.K. Rowling’s Dementors, based on her experience of depression. Or of Plato’s cave in which the shadows projected across the cave wall from the fire are an illusion of the real. I think of what Bane says to Batman in the The Dark Knight Rises: “I was born in the darkness, you merely adopted it.” Or of this marvelous essay by Gayle Brandeis on her shadow son: here.
I also think of the Enneagram, it’s notion of shadow work, and the exploration of my own shadow side. The Enneagram is a collection of nine, inter-related personality types that describe one’s psyche, modes of behavior, strengths and weaknesses in order to (hopefully) set you on the path to your true self. Each person has a specific type or number with a set of “wings.” When one is living within their numbers and wings, they are living in a healthy balance. However, each personality type also has a darker side, literally called a shadow side, which they must also learn to deal with. If one works through the Enneagram you soon learn that this shadow work becomes a necessary part of the process on the path to discovering your true self. Just because they’re called shadows doesn’t mean they’re bad or evil, like the aforementioned Ringwraiths; in fact, the Enneagram teaches that one must embrace their shadow side. We must embrace this shadow work. In our writing, in ourselves, in others even. This is Shadow Work. Let’s begin.
My Shadow Self
My shadow self is a gibbon with a sash strapped around her neck. When you ask about her ribbon she says she'll never tell about the gushing gash or the river that came before. Instagram means our wounds are medals, brown packages tied up with strings, bondage as beauty. My gibbon bares her teeth because, in the world of demented apes, molars are a mark of the bipolar, because, in the world of shadows, it's better to share your marrow than it is to trudge along with a club slung over your shoulder.
After dinner, my shadow gibbon drips onto the throw rug so we must put it out for the night, grip a rolled-up newsprint flat in the hand, though she whinnies and flees for the nearest tree. You can’t see her, but you know she’s there. You know she’s watching. That’s the thing about the shadow self: she’s precisely an Elf on the Shelf, except your mother cannot reach her, except your father will always blame you when she lands on parquet and it will be you who turns to smithereens.
Photography by Stephen Dyer
by Eric Zrinsky
January 22, 2018
Last night on Broad Street, it was damn near utopian.
Frat boys and sorority girls with solo cups and facepaint high-fiving. Septum-pierced hipsters in Kelly green throwback crewnecks. Homeless people shout-singing “Fly, Eagles fly” along with business types in suits. People in cars honking their horns—not to intimidate or encourage anyone to get the fuck out of the way—but to offer mechanical cheers of solidarity to all of the pedestrians clogging the street. Color ceased to divide us. At least for tonight, we’re all black and green.
I can hear the groans of those unexpectedly reading something about sports in a literary publication.
You’re not alone.
A lot of my artist friends tend to view sports as a thing to mock—something enjoyed by mindless meatheads and unthinking cavepeople. I won't even try to recount the number of “sportsball” comments I saw on social media leading up to the NFL Conference Championship games on Sunday.
That may very well be the sentiment elsewhere, but it’s different in Philadelphia.
The artists, the musicians, the jocks—we’re all the same here. We’re like some kind of modern American melting pot where it’s ok to be multifaceted and enjoy things that are seemingly at odds with one and other. Much to chagrin of many of we “high-thinkers,” it’s possible to appreciate the beauty and syntactic elegance of iambic pentameter while also reveling in the sheer ballet of an effectively orchestrated Run-Pass Option.
I’ve seen countless photographers host openings at my art gallery unironically wearing 76ers gear. I’ve played and attended shows at venues all across the city with innumerable fans in Phillies hats. It’s a grand social experiment where all of the lunch tables in highschool got thrown into the Large Hadron Collider and we all emerged with pieces of interests from everyone else.
Full disclosure: I’ve never considered myself a jock—probably the complete antithesis of whatever that distinction may mean to you. I grew up skateboarding and playing in punk bands and celebrated a “can’t fucking tell me anything” attitude well into my 20s. But still, sports found a way into most of my formative years. I played Rec soccer until I reached high school and even found myself going out for the freshman football team.
Hell, maybe I’m a poor example, but Brian Heston and Malik Abdul-Jabbaar (two of my favorite Philadelphia poets) certainly aren't. Brian’s work gracefully depicts the struggles of working class violence in the Kensington section of the city during the high-crime 1980s. His language is vivid; it’s heartbreaking. It’s good fucking poetry. And aside from winning several awards for his writing, he knows how to dissect an Eagles defensive performance over a couple of shitty beers better than most people I know.
These are thinking, complex people who make beautiful art.
Last night, I saw people laughing and crying in joy. I saw strangers hug one another and, just for a moment, forget how different they looked or where they would be tomorrow morning. I saw a city come together, if only temporarily.
I heard a collective voice.
Nota Bene: I would like to comment and recognize that the NFL is far from a perfect organization— very very far from it. Concussions and the effects of traumatic brain injuries are often largely unaddressed and underreported. Economic and political disparities between primarily white owners and primarily black players remains an ongoing and very real and significant problem. Domestic abuse committed by players against their loved ones frequently goes under-punished, or not even commented on. The unfair treatment of a brave man exercising his constitutionally protected right to protest is a prime example of racial inequality and the upholding of white privilege and supremacy.
Many players take a vested interest in the communities they represent. I’m instantly reminded of all of the great work that Connor Barwin’s “Make the World Better” Foundation did for underserved communities in Philadelphia while he was an Eagle or the incredible efforts of J.J. Watt in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. The National Anthem protests helmed by Colin Kaepernick and followed-up by NFL players of color have effectively brought racial inequality, police brutality, and other racially charged issues to the national stage - the management of these issues within the organization is an incredible letdown in the face of the bravery of Kaepernick -- as they continue to uphold white privilege at the expensive of a skilled athlete’s career and courage. Within the Eagles organization, Malcolm Jenkins - assisted by Chris Long - entered into long discussions regarding the racial inequality within the league and the treatment of black players - both as athletes within the NFL and citizens who routinely feel unsafe as a result of police brutality. [Jenkins has also been vocal about criminal and social justice reform, his guest to the Super Bowl is Kempis Songster]. Having these conversations: attempting to honor the excitement while acknowledging the bad is what we’re trying to do: as artists, as individuals, as sports fans and as activities. These voices and these conversations remain an important vehicle for the arts; and are essential in dissecting the intersection between the arts and athleticism; and we believe that attempting to understand both is important to the mission of Meow Meow Pow Pow Lit.
featuring cover from the illustrator FD Bedford
Marie: Peter Pan
I don’t think I’m allowed to let this theme pass us by without admitting that I’m obsessed with Peter Pan.
What started as a relatively normal childhood game of pretend, a play enacted and re-enacted with my mom’s best friend’s son and our collective team of younger brothers, has in my adult years turned into something much larger and deeper. No longer does my love of the story hinge on the possibility of flight, or my desire for eternal youth, or the availability of rad merchandise at Hot Topic; now, I’ve become steeped in its shadows as well.
For the story of Peter Pan is full of shadows, both literal (the boy’s shadow lost and regained at the beginning, the children’s silhouettes against the moon, the depths of the Neverland’s forests and jungles) and metaphorical. Wendy must stay home and darn socks by hearthlight while Peter and the boys whisk away on various adventures, and although she is arguably the story’s true protagonist, it is not for her that the book is named. As a woman, she exists only in the shadows of a world that favors men. In theatrical and movie versions of the tale, Mr. Darling and Captain Hook are traditionally played by the same actor, a casting choice that throws a pretty heavy Daddy-Issues shadow of its own.
But, what I find most interesting, is knowing that when J.M. Barrie was first creating this world and its characters, it wasn’t Peter with whom he most identified. Barrie wrote Captain Hook to be an embodiment of the darker parts of his own character: his insecurities, his temper, his fear of whom he might too easily become. The author and the villain even share the same first name: James.
featuring the covers of the Ballantine editions
Sam: Lord of the Rings
My favorite use of shadow in a narrative has to be in Lord of the Rings. Both in the books and in the movies, the "Shadow of Mordor" is a vital piece to the narrative puzzle. Think, in LotR there is never a concrete villain. Sauron is just a magical eye (or cat butt) depending on who you ask. There are what amounts to faceless Orcs and some video-game-like bosses in Saruman and the Witch-king. All of these villains together make up the one true villain, the force that Frodo and Co. are fighting against—the power and influence of Mordor.
Tolkien's villain is nothing more than the idea of what is to come, the shadow of a future that will curse and kill everything Frodo loves. This is what makes the use of Shadow in LotR so effective. It's a looming presence that feels insurmountable. How do you kill an idea? You go to the source of the idea and refute it. The idea is of ultimate power, an evil-godlike dictator. The ring of power suggest to those who wear it that they can be that person, that they can use the power for good. But, as we learn, absolute power corrupts absolutely. And Frodo fails to refute this idea.
featuring covers from the Little, Brown and Company issue and the William Morrow & Company
Janie: Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Heart
When thinking of a work that utilizes shadows, this title is the first thing that came to mind, Black is the Color of My True Love’s Heart. It’s a mystery novel that I read when I was twelve while on vacation. Maybe it was the title, which would sorta indicate a utilization of color theory. And color theory makes me think of contrast and contrast makes me think about manipulating shadows and highlights in Photoshop.
I looked up the book and its plot, since the only things that have maintained since I first read it is the enthusiasm I had while devouring the whole book in one day and that it was a mystery. Everything else was relegated to the dense cloud of memory. As it turns out, I remember nothing of it. I was genuinely surprised when I read the plot—I had to re-read the plot twice to be, like, “there were folk musicians involved? I thought this was set in Victorian England? Is this actually the same book?” (It was).
And maybe that’s how shadow work unintentionally functions in this narrative. The plot of this mystery is now a mystery to me in my old(er) age. The only thing that has struggled through the shadows is the memory of enthusiasm and enjoyment while losing myself in the reading of this book. What creeps through the dust of one’s mind is reduced to a fragment, a feeling, a snapshot of a time that was lived and now not-lived.
This plot has been lost in the shadows of my mind for twenty-one years—maybe it’s time for me to bring it into the sunlight of remembrance again.
"The plot of this mystery is now a mystery to me in my old(er) age. The only thing that has struggled through the shadows is the memory of enthusiasm and enjoyment while losing myself in the reading of this book. What creeps through the dust of one’s mind is reduced to a fragment, a feeling, a snapshot of a time that was lived and now not-lived."
1/8/2018 0 Comments
photography courtesy of Cassandra Panek
Sam and I first met Lyndsay through our Antioch University MFA program in Los Angeles. We were both newbie Marin’s and she a veteran Zephyr (our cohorts arranged by exotic winds). I, Levi, found that both Lyndsay and I had experienced and written about mental health issues fairly extensively. I’m not sure either of us liked writing about it; rather, it was something both of us were more or less compelled to write about as writers who experienced depression and anxiety. I remember one time we went to the Tattle Tale—the closest bar to our Culver City campus and sometime venue of spontaneous late-night karaoke sessions—where we traded information on various medications we were on and how our particular maladies were manifesting themselves in our daily lives. At the time, Lyndsay was mostly writing fiction and I nonfiction, and now she is writing nonfiction and blogging and I have switched to fiction—such is the writing life.
(Sam) Lyndsay is an absolute delight, an incredible writer, a caring person, and wonderfully honest. She is a unique person, which of course makes her a fascinating interview. Plus, she's been battle-tested as I have interviewed her once before my social-justice oriented lit mag, immix (see here: http://www.theimmix.com/interviews/2017/5/23/lyndsay-hall-sevilla-writers-house). She is exactly the person that we want to kick off the guest section of the Pup Pup Blog, and she's now honorary Pup numero uno in our book. Writing about mental health is not joke. It's incredibly difficult personally, and it's notoriously frustrating craft-wise, and yet, Lyndsay's final products always impress. She's already a Pushcart-nominated writer, so don't be surprised if during her illustrious career-to-come you see the words Pulitzer associated with her name.
Currently, Lyndsay is the creator and writer of a video blog, or “vlog” as the kids are calling it, called “agorawho?” along with the written word blog Sunday Whiskey. She is re-launching with new content on “agorawho?” on January 10, 2018. The mission of which is to, "destigmatize mental illness, and prioritize and make space for mental health." (Newsletter subscribers will receive something in their inboxes on January 3rd.)
Here is our interview with Lyndsay along with links to her various creative endeavors. Enjoy!
Why did you decide to start a mental health blog?
I'm constantly, consciously and unconsciously, seeking creative projects. For the past year, I’ve sought a multimedia project that was immersive and personal, in the vein of a memoir except not. I first considered a focus on mental health while on a camping trip; a few weeks earlier, I’d (er, maybe drunkenly) purchased a two-person tent, sleeping bag, lantern, and first-aid kit, because I’d always wanted to wake up in a tent and it’d always made me anxious. I’m agoraphobic. Most places besides my bedroom make me anxious. Eventually, I explode sideways and make rash decisions. In this case, I bought a tent.
So, I go on this camping trip, and a few months later, I go to the Deep Creek Hot Springs with a couple friends. The day included a five-hour round-trip drive, beginning mid-morning (mornings are always toughest for me); a two-mile round-trip hike; and hours swimming naked in a river. I was away from cell phone reception, public restrooms (unless bushes count), and most importantly, my home. I told my friends about my anxiety. They understood. They understood a year earlier, too, when I’d canceled plans to join them at the hot springs. I realized identifying and talking about anxiety helps. I realized human compassion can and will surprise. And I realized I’m capable of doing things, albeit with some difficulty, more difficulty than many, despite my diagnosis---and most importantly, I learned that that difficulty doesn’t need to be a bad, shameful thing.
A week later I woke up with a jingle in my head that went “agorawhat? agorawho?” It sounded like a sassy shaming of my mental illness (but not of myself), and it returned to me some of my power. I called my mother and asked what she thought of creating a blog on mental health (she also has agoraphobia, but is currently symptom-free, so she knows better how to cope). She dug the idea. I bought the domain name.
Did you always intend for it to be video?
A few weeks before I decided to create the blog, two men at a French restaurant told me I’d be good for YouTube, and I laughed. It felt too LA to me, which is a stupid as shit (not to mention judgmental) reason not to explore a creative endeavor. Once I knew I was starting “agorawho?” as a blog, I thought back to that comment and considered my love for the internet and video editing. For lack of a better explanation, it made sense.
I started writing for the internet back in 2011 with my blog Sunday Whiskey, but my history with the internet dates back to 2000 when I’d built websites and hung around message boards with other nerdy, internet type. I found genuine connections with people I’d otherwise never have met: I had a community outside of and an escape from my middle school and hometown. The two never overlapped. When I launched a blog all those years later, I fell in love with the dialogue it sparked: I emailed with a doctor in London for a few months. A woman recognized me in a nightclub and thanked me for motivating her to move to New York. I discovered early that vulnerability and transparency inspire connection and acceptance. YouTube is a massive, accessible platform. I’m taking advantage.
What have you learned about yourself in this process?
I’m learning how to manage my expectations, which in many ways means I’m learning to become an artist. I want to create content that’s helpful and worthy of an audience’s time. Like all artists, I want to create work that is important and compelling, and I believe my work is that. But what artists don’t say, or rather, what they do say but we don’t hear, is that an artist’s work does not end once a single piece is complete. You have to keep on, and sometimes that means keeping on to an empty room, simply for the love of it. You show up, and you show up, and you show up countless times before anyone knows your art exists.
I’ve also learned I am capable of forgetting to eat and postponing sleep: I often do when I’m editing videos. Also also, I talk with my whole body.
What advice would you give people who are wondering if they are dealing with mental health issues?
Talk to a professional. Hell, even if you don’t think you’re dealing with a mental illness, talk to a professional. We all have our shit.
I worry people don’t seek help because of stigma and shame. Or maybe they’re like me: They don’t think they’re sick enough. I knew I experienced panic attacks almost daily, and eventually, multiple times a day. I knew I self-medicated. I knew for months straight I’d experience drops in my energy and motivation. I researched agoraphobia and depression, and thought, Yes, that’s me, but also, Other people have it worse. Other people need it more. It’s weird, the way we do that: Invalidate our experiences. The world kicks us down enough; we might as well have our own back. So, yeah. Seek professional help. Take care of and prioritize yourself.
Let me explain.
The Spoon Theory demonstrates how someone with an often-invisible illness, like depression, like Lupus, expends mental and physical energy throughout the day. The theory goes, a person begins the day with a set number of “spoons” and loses one for each activity performed. One spoon for getting out of bed, one spoon for teeth brushing, and so on.
As of this writing, I’m not in a depressive episode. My spoons feel endless: I wash my face before bed, walk my dog without complaint, eat all my meals. I neglect responsibilities out of laziness, hangovers, and lack of sleep. It’s different. When I’m in a depressive episode, each of those responsibilities claims a spoon, and sometimes that which occur later in the day fall by the wayside because, frankly, I just can’t. I’ve no more spoons. I’ve no more energy. Depression often gives the sensation of being physically drained, daily, for weeks and months at a time. Depression often feels as though withering. Washing one’s face loses importance.
Talk of mental health has been in the news recently, especially in the case of gun control and sexual predators.
What role should mental health play in our nation-wide discussion of gun control? Should Congress allow the CDC to study what affects mental health has on gun violence?
I want to say “sure,” because I believe mental health and gun violence and the link between the two is valid and, well, the more you know, right? Ultimately, if the conclusion drawn helps those struggling with their mental health, I’m on board.
But! But! I believe it should be studied with the understanding that the two are not mutually exclusive. A “desire to commit murder” or a “disregard for human life” is not a diagnosis in the DSM; violence itself is not a mental illness. Hell, a “desire to commit murder” doesn’t even qualify as an insanity defense in a court of law, and studies of jailed murderers don’t yield a strong link between violence and mental illness, either. Which is to say, targeting the 3-5% of violent, mentally ill persons who shoot others feels futile at best (and like we’re treating the mentally ill as criminals at worst).
The stronger link between gun deaths and mental health is suicide: Two-thirds of all gun deaths, in fact. While not all suicides can be prevented, restricting the accessibility of guns has proven to lower the suicide rate. And while we’re at it, if we want to study the most significant and least discussed link between mass murder and mental health, let’s look into the PTSD and additional devastating effects of survivor’s guilt and other aftermath-related trauma.
Frankly, I’m the first person to “diagnose” an ex-lover as a sociopath or narcissist because he didn’t reciprocate my feelings or he treated me poorly. Truth is, more likely than not he won’t meet the qualifications. This is to say, I understand the desire to use mental illness as an excuse: it's a neat package, it's diagnosable, and there's hope the behavior can be fixed. Less desirable is this: People have the capacity for evil. The idealist in me wishes this wasn’t so, but alas. Most mental illnesses are nonviolent, and pointing to mental health as an explanation for mass murders feels erasing and demonizing and icky.
Do you think mental health has a lot to do with sexual predators, or is it more a socialized thought and lack of education? Or a combination of both?
Mental illness does not explain or justify the actions of these men currently being accused of sexual harassment. Sexual predators are born of society. Some studies suggest sexual offenders have a higher rate of mental illness compared with the general society, and those to whom that applies should seek help for their disorders. They should also, independent of that, speak to therapists and female confidants about their gross mistreatment of women, read literature on consent, and take a long, hard look at where their dicks, mouths, and hands have been.
A man who sexually assaulted me on a date had been diagnosed with depression. He did not sexually assault me because of his depression. (Depression is nonviolent.) He sexually assaulted me because he had a lousy understanding of consent. This is an important distinction. We have undereducated our boys at the expense of our girls.
Again, if we want to study links between sexual predation and mental health, it is best we look at the victims: Victims of rape and sexual assault are at an increased risk for developing depression, PTSD, eating disorders, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders. But to understand the epidemic, we should study the link between sexual predation and masculinity.
What advice would you give people who are just now being diagnosed with a mental health issue?
Many times, at a low point in my mental health, I’ve crumbled to the floor and screamed, “I’m not okay, I’m not okay.” A few years ago, I learned during these times to whisper to myself, “I’m okay. I’m okay.” So, this isn’t exactly advice but: You’re okay. You're okay. I promise.
A few years ago, I learned during these times to whisper to myself, “I’m okay. I’m okay.” So, this isn’t exactly advice but: You’re okay. You're okay. I promise.
Lyndsay Hall earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, and she teaches creative writing to children and teens. Her writing has appeared in online and print journals and magazines, including her mental health blog (obviously) and her personal one, Sunday Whiskey. In 2015 she founded the Los Angeles literary community Sevilla Writers House. In her free time, one might find her dancing in her underwear, serenading her dog, eating with her hands, or all three at once. You can stalk her on Instagram and Twitter @lyndshaaay.
Only two this time:
OH MY GOSH.
The end of 2017 is shaping up. It feels like Mueller is closing in on Trump. Christmas is coming. Soon, the days will grow longer instead of shorter and Lucasfilm produced an EXCELLENT MOVIE: THE LAST FREAKIN’ JEDI.
Okay, okay—my excitement is abated; I’m slowly transitioning into critical thinking 25-year-old Sam, not 4-year-old Sam.
(MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD)
12/13/2017 0 Comments
Only two this time:
Star Wars Best Narrative Arc: My Theory of Balance Between The Jedi and Sith, Dark and Light, Darth Vader, Luke, Rey, and The Last Jedi
My favorite narrative within the Star Wars universe may seem a bit obvious, which is of course, the battle between dark and light, the Jedi and the Sith—but I believe it is the crucial element to the franchise’s success and failure. It is essentially both a success and failure in storytelling as the story and narrative backbone is there in the original series (4,5,6) then muddled and glossed over in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, and I think (I hope) to reappear in the The Last Jedi released on the 15th. George Lucas wrote nearly the perfect story, only it was essentially obscured by bad acting and Jar Jar Binks and Anakin acting all emo in the prequels.
I first came across this theory, i.e., “George Lucas Nearly Wrote the Perfect Prequel Trilogy. He Just Didn’t Realize it,” by Games Radar writer James Houghton. The gist is this: The entire Star Wars universe exists in a clear black/white binary which is very obvious in the originals and then more complicated and less obvious in the prequels. The Jedi and the Sith are both good and bad; the Jedi in the prequels exist in a slightly fanatical/dogmatic/militaristic type rule, and the Sith want self-expression and freedom not granted by the Jedi. Hence, the omnipresent idea of “balance” throughout the series. Only in the prequels, Anakin’s behavior and decision to choose the dark side and hence make one of the most enigmatic and compelling villains ever—Darth Vader!—is obscured by loads of bright CGI colors, a soap opera-like love story, Hayden Christiansen’s moody face, lots of talk about trade negotiations, unexciting battles where there is no narrative tension about who is going to win, and just poor direction. You see, Lucas had the story the whole time, it just got lost in the haze. I don’t know if it was Lucas’ fault or not, or the behemoth of opinions and financing from production companies and producers, or one other of the million things can go wrong once a movie goes from the script to filming and editing, and starts to play in theaters. Maybe it was clearer in the original draft of Lucas’ prequels? I don’t know. Somewhere though, this idea of balance and who was really good and bad started off strong and got lost in the prequels.
Richard Brody, film critic for The New Yorker, says of Lucas and the prequels, “I suspect that the world-making, the narrative architecture of the self-extending mythological power of the “Star Wars” series, got in the way of its own realization. Could the word be too sacred to Lucas for him to subordinate it to the profane cinematic image? Could the import of the invented mythology be too great, in Lucas’s mind, for him to subject it to the ambiguities of visual transformations? Did he know, or surmise, that the enduring authority of the series would be based not in his direction—however original and distinguished—but in his stories? And, if so, did he conclude that he wasn’t prepared to submit them to the all-too-readily misunderstood realm of the image?”
But, as we see from–gasp! It’s coming so soon!–this new The Last Jedi trailer, Luke states, “It’s time for the Jedi to end.” Why? I personally don’t think Luke or Rey will turn to the dark side (or have turned). Perhaps Rey will turn dark, for a second, then return. Or perhaps Kylo Ren will turn light. Any of these things could happen. However, I think it’s time for both the Jedi AND the Sith to end. Perhaps neither the Jedi nor the Sith held all the answers–the Jedi too dogmatic and evil and controlling in their own way to keep “peace,” the Sith too evil and passionate and averse to democracy. Maybe it really is about balance or about having no light and dark sides at all. Perhaps it’s about a way of making them co-exist. Is that not why Darth Vader was/is the most powerful Jedi/Sith? Maybe then, following this theory, Kylo Ren and Rey will become “grey Jedi,” like Qui Gon Jin, both light and dark. I mean if that’s the case, isn’t this the most compelling narrative to exist within the Star Wars universe? Or why we love Darth Vader? Because they become characters who are both light and dark, Jedi and Sith?
So, my vote for best character/narrative arc would be (obvious I know), the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader and the reasons/philosophy behind it. After all Anakin is the embodiment of someone who has had to grapple with both the light and dark sides of the force and himself. Luke did for a second, at the end of Return of the Jedi, and rumor has it that Count Dooku had a similar thing happen a long time ago. But really the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into the villain Darth Vader and his battle between the two is the most compelling narrative arc of Star Wars, only obscured, as mentioned above, by the less than stellar direction of the prequels. However, if The Last Jedi returns to this idea of balance in the force this Thursday—between the Jedi and the Sith, the Dark and the Light—we could see a lot more plot twists, a lot more ambiguity, and a lot more compelling narrative arcs with Rey and Ren and Luke. Who knows. I guess we’ll find out on the 15th, this Thursday.
Next up: Sam
Second Up: Levi Rogers
David Simon, The Wire, and Middle Management
Prostitutes. College students. Drug dealers. Businessmen. Pimps. Tax collectors. Politicians. School teachers. Soldiers. Trombone players. Dockworkers. These are the characters of David Simon’s many works of television. Simon, of course, has written and directed a plethora of HBO shows, nearly all critically acclaimed, from The Wire to Generation Kill and Treme, and most recently, The Deuce.
I know it’s a bit obvious to write about The Wire as the best writing/best T.V. show out there, especially if you haven’t seen it. You’re probably sick of people like me going on and on about how great it is, how brilliant, how you need to watch it. So instead, I’m just going to tell you one aspect of the show that appeals most to me, and why, based on that, it is the greatest show ever made.
I mean I love Sam and Sherlock is a good show, but it’s not a great one. The last season felt a bit wandering, repetitive, and a bit loose. I like New Girl okay too, mainly for Schmidt and Winston, but as a contender for best T.V. show ever? No way. Friends, fine. Cheers, fine. Gilmore Girls and Dr. Who, actually haven’t seen them. Parks and Rec might be the best sitcom comedy out there, but yes, disqualified. Archer is amazing and I will argue nothing against it. I would also put up Silicon Valley as a contender.
So, why is The Wire or any of Simon’s other shows the “greatest?” Or perhaps, why do I like it so much? Because it is one of the few shows out there to write and document everyday people and everyday characters in everyday situations just trying to make a living and somehow transforms the whole thing to the level of art and a meditation on the human condition. It’s not a cute and tidy sitcom. Neither is it heroic like Game of Thrones. And it’s not based on dramatic premises like some terrorist puzzle to solve in 24 hours or a chemistry teacher turning into a drug dealer. The only other shows that come close for me are Fargo, The Sopranos, and Mad Men (although I just started watching Ozark and it’s pretty damn good, but only in the first season, though).
In a recent interview with Simon for The New Yorker Radio Hour podcast, David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, says there is, “a powerful sense of labor” in his work, even when it’s undignified labor. Simon agrees and responds by saying that their (he and writer/creator George Pelecanos of The Deuce) lens might be best described as that of middle management. Simon says that whether it’s with trombone players, recon marines, cops, or drug dealers, “Our hearts are either with, or on the assembly line or with middle management, that’s where our point of view is always strongest” (New Yorker Radio Hour. September 29, 2017). And then they ask, “Where does the power and money route itself?”
For some reason, that idea struck me. It’s completely obvious of course, but I loved the prosaicness of Simon’s description: “Middle management”. What else sounds both utterly mundane and yet a necessary role filled by many of us in modern life. Middle-level management is why I loved The Wire and the T.V. shows of David Simon. Middle Management. Folks who work on the assembly line or are just trying to make a living. Parks and Rec and The Office come close to such thing but they’re sitcom comedies and do not contain the same depths of the human experience.
Our lives are currently dominated by the rich and famous. The sexy and wealthy. The politically savvy and the powerful. From Reality Housewives to Keeping up with the Kardashians and our current president. No matter how utterly moronic they might be. I imagine this has always been the case throughout history, though, I would argue that in this day and age, it feels particularly force fed to us by social media, smartphones, and twenty-four hour news cycles.
So, enter Stringer Bell, a second-in-command drug boss who is also taking community college classes and hoping to one day graduate from the streets to the business world. Enter McNulty, a cop with a good heart who also drives around drunk. Enter Candy, a prostitute who is her own boss and makes an entry into the camera-side of the pornography business. Enter bartenders and drug dealers and good cops and bad cops and corrupt politicians and decent ones. Enter a whole host of characters just like us. Because I have spent many years in church, I also can’t help feeling like these are the same type of people Jesus hung out with two thousand years ago—fishermen, prostitutes, zealots. Jesus having very little time for the rich and famous, the powerful and connected, and instead spending his time with middle management. The type of people we pass in the street on a daily basis. Or I should say, like most of us pass and encounter—middle-class, proletariat us—those of us who are neither extremely wealthy nor extremely poor. Right in the middle. People below and above. Enter humanity.
All of the above is exemplified by the writing in Simon’s shows. It’s so human, believable, and relatable that I feel more like I’m reading a novel on the human condition than watching a T.V. show. And that’s just one reason out of several for why The Wire is the best show ever made for television. This is to say nothing of the realistic dialogue across political and socio-economic and racial spectrums. The plot set-ups, payoffs, and twists. The character development over multiple seasons. The narrative tension. The moral ambiguity. The social commentary. The interpersonal relationships. All of which leads to something utterly transcendent and yet completely down to earth.