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[1988-1989]: After the traumatic marriage and breakup with my wife Diana I moved to an apartment in Pensacola. I was a neurotic, anxiety-filled mess. I was still working as a contract programmer/analyst at the Naval Training Systems Center and studying part-time for a master’s degree in the evenings at the University of West Florida. I met Cindy in Dr. Ken Ford’s UWF class on artificial intelligence. She seemed to take an interest in me for some reason. She was a nice quiet and very normal young woman who worked as a programmer at some kind of medical information-systems company. We started dating. We became a couple. She was likable and not nearly as neurotic and self-absorbed as I was, though I eventually came to find out that she had come from a family that was at least as dysfunctional as the one I’d come from. I had no idea what she saw in me.
For some reason she wouldn’t tell me her age. Once I managed to sneak a peek at her drivers license and found that she was eight years younger than me. Maybe she had been afraid that I might think she was too young for me? I don’t know.

Cindy was charming in a nerdy, unpretentious sort of way and I liked her very much, but eventually I felt restless and bored in the relationship. I think she was a bit too conventional to me. We didn’t seem to have all that much to talk about, but then at the time I was so hopelessly wrapped in myself and my neurotic quest to try to make myself into some kind of exalted person, that it’s hard to say what kinds of things we might have found in common if I had been able to get free of my self-obsession.

By chance I happened to meet a woman named Gayle, an older woman who was going back to school after working many years as a nurse, and who had an interest in anthropology. It turned out we quite a bit to talk about. We started going to lunch together. Our conversations were filled with energy. She had many interests and a wide-ranging imagination and an adventurous spirit. But she also seemed very tense, and could be brusque, and a little defensive. At times she came across as a bit arrogant. In contemporary parlance, she was “edgy.” I could see that she was at least as neurotic and crazy as I was, but she was also interesting. All the danger signs were there. I should have stayed clear of her but I didn’t want to.

I found myself in a painfully awkward situation. I felt a great rapport with Gayle, even if she might be a little wacko, and an alright but not-all-that-great, and rather bland, rapport with Cindy. I felt the need to break off the relationship with Cindy but I didn’t know how to do that. I couldn’t face up to the harsh necessity. Why was I not able to just be straightforward and honest with her? Instead I became increasingly distant toward her, not realizing at the time how cruel that was. Cindy became frustrated with me. She wept. I think she had wanted us to continue as a couple. We finally just stopped communicating with each other. I never heard from her again. I felt very bad about the way it ended with Cindy. I still feel bad about it even now. She was a good person and did not deserve to be treated like that.


The story of James

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I first met him long ago when I was taking a physics class at Pensacola Junior College. James was the only black student in the class and he looked to be a little bit older than the other students. It soon became clear that there was something peculiar about him. Every once in a while in class he would raise his hand as if to ask a question of the professor, and then launch into some completely bizarre and nonsensical comment or question. Sometimes he would mention guns, or blood. Once he asked the professor, who was from Ethiopia, if he was a terrorist. It got to the point that whenever James raised his hand all of the other students in the class would start laughing before he even said anything. The professor tried to politely deflect these awkward intrusions into his lectures, but eventually he started to lose patience and on more than one occasion had to eject this problem student from his class. I rather felt sorry for James because it was clear there was something wrong with him. Once just before class I saw him and tried engage him in some small talk but he cut me off, saying “Hey, ah, ah, I don’t want to talk to you.”

Several years later I had graduated from the University of West Florida and was working as a contract programmer/analyst at the Naval Training Systems Center in Pensacola, and taking some courses toward a master’s degree in the evening. To my surprise James appeared in some of my classes, and was up to his same old wacky behavior with his nonsensical outbursts in class. I thought he was a sad case because it was obvious that he couldn’t help it, he had some kind of disorder, yet at the same time his behavior was so obnoxious sometimes that it put a strain on my capacity to be sympathetic.

At my day job, during some random office chitchat with some of the engineers there one of them mentioned a fellow named James who used to work there, and what a disaster his employment had been. Then others chimed in with their reminisces of what a freak this James had been, and I suddenly realized they were all talking about the same guy I had seen in my classes.

My boss Bob was able to fill me in on the background of this strange and troubled fellow. It seems that a few years earlier NTSC had been under some pressure from federal personnel officials to add some ethnic minority workers to their staff, as well as disabled workers. This was part of a general federal initiative to increase the diversity of the federal work force. When the NTSC management happened to see that there was a fellow listed on the federal register as an engineer seeking employment, and that in the listing he was classified as 100% disabled by the Veterans Administration and that he was also classified as a minority, they jumped at the opportunity and hired him immediately from his listing on the federal register without even calling him in for an interview. They had expected a black man in a wheelchair, but when he, James that is, showed up at the NTSC for work it immediately became apparent to all what the nature of his disability was. It was clear that he had a serious mental illness.
From then on, as Bob recounted, things went rapidly downhill. James was unable to fulfill any actual functions as an engineer. Though he appeared to have at least some theoretical knowledge, he was unable to apply himself to anything in the real world. The people at NTSC just decided to put him off by himself, give him a desk and just let him do whatever he wanted, hoping he wouldn’t get into some kind of trouble. But James did get into trouble, in that he kept threatening to kill his coworkers. The people there became quite afraid of him because he was so clearly out of touch with reality that they couldn’t tell what he might do or how likely it was that he might actually carry through on one of his threats. The NTSC management started working on the bureaucratic process of trying to fire him, which would turn out to be a lengthy and agonizing process filled with much legal wrangling.
According to Bob the NTSC had found out, after he was hired, that James had been classified as 100% disabled due to a psychiatric condition that was the result of his service during the Vietnam War as a U. S. Navy combat medic deployed with the Marines. His diagnosis was paranoid schizophrenia. When I heard this, suddenly much of his bizarre behavior made more sense, such as his frequent mention of guns, and of blood, and his constant state of anxiety and defensiveness. Indeed his behavior seemed consistent with that of someone who is constantly in fear of being attacked. The only thing that James had going for him was that he had a sister who was a lawyer and who aggressively fought for her brother’s interests. Despite the efforts of his sister on his behalf, James eventually was fired from his job.

After Bob had filled me in on this background I saw James in a far different light, a terrible and sad light. From being formerly an object of derision I now saw him as profoundly tragic. I didn’t even want to try to imagine the kind of experiences that he must have had in Vietnam that had made him the way he was. Like so many in that war, and in so many other wars, his life was used up like so much raw material, and afterward whatever was left of him was permanently out of place, no longer belonging to this world.

Favorite books I read in 2017

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I read a lot of books. Pretty much all the time. This past year I read plenty of them, and the ones that I found to be especially interesting and memorable are these:

Reader’s Block, by David Markson
The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America, by David Hajdu
Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults, by Laurie Penney
Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City, by Russell Shorto
Divinity School, by Alicia Jo Rabins
The Whiskey of Our Discontent: Gwendolyn Brooks as Conscience and Change Agent, edited by Quraysh Ali Lansana and Georgia A. Popoff
Land of Love and Ruins, by Oddný Eir
Transformations, by Anne Sexton
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, by Angela Carter
The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner
My Avante-Garde Education, by Bernard Cooper
The Counterfeiters, by Andre Gide
Blue Front, by Martha Collins
Lit, by Mary Karr
Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers, by David Edmonds and John Eidinow
Art Sex Music, by Cosey Fanni Tutti
Life Supports, by William Bronk
Worlds From the Word’s End, by Joanna Walsh
Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, by David Yaffe
The Broken Country: On Trauma, a Crime, and the Continuing Legacy of Vietnam, by Paisley Rekdal
The Misfit’s Manifesto, by Lidia Yuknavitch
Water Puppets, by Quan Barry
The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester
After Kathy Acker: A Biography, by Chris Kraus
Devotion, by Patti Smith
City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, by Mike Davis
The Light the Dead See, by Frank Stanford
Abandon Me, by Melissa Febos
Positively 4th Street, by David Hajdu
Sad Math, by Sarah Freligh
The One Inside, by Sam Shepard
Hunt, by Jessica Cuello
Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was, by Sjón
The Ambassadors, by Henry James
Slow Days Fast Company, by Eve Babitz
Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music, by Blair Tindall
I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus
Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness, by Chris Kraus
Am I Alone Here?, by Peter Orner


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[1986]: After I moved out of the house I had shared with Diana and her kids it took me a while to calm down enough and collect enough presence of mind to start thinking about practical legal matters, i.e. divorce. A couple of times Diana called me and begged me to come back to her, but I knew for certain I could not. She was mentally ill and she was destroying my life. I still cared a lot about her and hoped she would somehow find a way to overcome her mental problems but it was impossible for me to go on with her.

My friend Leah, my fellow volunteer from the crisis line, recommended a lawyer and I went to see him. He was very smart and very kind. In our first discussion in his office all of his questions seemed routine and easily dealt with. Except for one, which is when he said, “When we go to see the judge he’s going to ask you why you are suing for divorce. What are you going to tell him?” Of course I should have anticipated this question but I was caught off guard and didn’t quite know how to respond at first. I stammered out something about Diana and I having fundamental personality differences that made us incompatible. He didn’t look like he was convinced by my answer but he just nodded and went on. I felt too inhibited to tell him the truth, which was that my wife had very serious mental problems and living with her was so stressful for me that I was afraid I might actually kill myself. It was the truth, but it was a truth I couldn’t bring myself to articulate. There was something much too awful and shameful about it. There was an unspeakable darkness at the center of my relationship with Diana. I couldn’t face it, at least not completely.

A few days later I walked with my lawyer over to the courthouse and met with the judge in his office. For a judge he struck me as being a little brash and rude and not terribly dignified. He wore a ridiculously artificial-looking toupee and had on a garish plaid sport jacket. He didn’t look at me as he asked his questions. It was as if I weren’t even in the room and he were addressing the wall. When he got to the question about why I was seeking to divorce my wife, something changed in me this time, a sudden lack of inhibition, and I started to talk about how Diana had unpredictable and extremely intense outbursts of rage and paranoia that would last for days, and that she wouldn’t admit that she had a problem or get help for herself, and so on. My lawyer looked like he might have been a little alarmed but he didn’t say anything. The judge actually looked at me this time, and cut me off, apparently having heard enough to satisfy him. He went on to the next question and it was all very routine from then on.
Diana was served with the divorce paperwork and she didn’t contest it. I heard that she graduated with high honors from the University of West Florida with a degree in psychology, then went on to enter their master’s degree program. A few years later I heard that she had entered a Ph.D. program in psychology at Auburn University but I don’t know what happened to her after that. My stepson Arnie went on to have a successful career as an actor and comic. My stepdaughter Deedee, who had an amazing singing voice, went to Florida State University to study music but I don’t know what she did after that. I don’t know what my stepson Toby is doing. It’s a much different world now and we are all different people than we were. I send them all my love, Diana too.


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[1985]: It was difficult. Diana and I, at her suggestion, started going to see a marriage counselor, Dr. Saywell. These marriage counseling sessions were strange and frustrating. Diana and I talked about our problems and Dr. Saywell rarely offered any significant commentary on our problems, but listened carefully to everything we said, absorbing it all. He seemed to have an unlimited capacity for absorbing other people’s anguish. Diana mainly expressed her paranoia about me and her kids, how we were all bent on destroying her life, etc., and I talked about my frustration in not being able to get through the barrier of her paranoia and communicate with her. Nothing ever came of these counseling sessions. It was all just empty talk.

I stayed with Diana as long as I could, which was probably about a year and a half. I clung to the remnants of our marriage with an instinctive desperation, like a shipwrecked man clinging to a piece of wreckage to try to keep himself from drowning. I stayed through her fits of crying and screaming that typically went on for hours (sometimes days) and that often included throwing herself against the walls and against the floor, and her paranoid rages against me and her own children, and her threats of suicide. When I finally called it quits it was because I felt I was close to my breaking point. I was so severely stressed that I was afraid that in some blind paroxysm of intense despair, brought on by another of Diana’s psychotic rages, I might actually kill myself or even kill someone else. I moved out of the house I had been renting with her and into my mother’s house. It was a strange feeling, like suddenly moving to a foreign country. Being freed up from the immediate emotional stress of having to deal with Diana, I felt as if I didn’t recognize myself. I was disconnected from the world and emotionally numb. Everything around me looked different than it had before, strangely devoid of substance. I walked around staring at ordinary things, trees, buildings, cars, people walking, as if I were seeing them for the first time. I had a feeling that a big heavy line had been drawn through my life dividing the before from the after, and that I was a different person after than I had been before, and that from then on I would always be conscious of my life consisting of these two separate parts, and of myself as consisting of these two different identities. I didn’t know yet that eventually there would be many more such cruel, heavy lines drawn through my life at various points in time, and many more different selves that I would become along the way as a result.

More on the Lake Mývatn writing retreat

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I mentioned in an earlier post that I spent the first week of October at a writing retreat hosted by Maine Media Workshops at the southern end of Lake Mývatn in Iceland, which turned out to be a wonderful and inspiring experience. During this week I got to make some significant progress on revising and (hopefully) improving my book manuscript but we also (I and the other retreat participants) got a chance to go out on several fun and interesting outings: hikes in the wilderness areas, visiting a nearby geothermal area, relaxing at the Mývatn Nature Baths (my first experience of the public thermal baths that Iceland is famous for), and I finally got to see the amazingly beautiful aurora borealis for the first time. Our group leader Meg did an impeccable job of organizing the whole thing and she really went all out to make it a great experience for all of the participants. Thanks, Meg.

Prose poems

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A prose-poem of mine was recently published on the online journal Trampset, and can be found here, for anyone who might be curious about it: https://trampset.org/when-i-lived-in-florida-sometimes-536aee6cdd2c Trampset is a new online journal that has a unique and lively personality. I hope it will continue to be successful.

This prose-poem is one of many I’ve been working on for the past few months, part of a book manuscript tentatively titled Conversations With the Horizon. They are prose-poems that draw on my own experiences but which deal mainly with themes of consciousness and the elusive nature of identity.

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