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Strange interlude: Panama City Beach

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[1992-1995]: I lived for three years in Panama City Beach, Florida. Only three years, but they were transformative years, years of strangeness, in which I became a different person. I ended up in this odd town after dropping out of graduate school at Florida State University, after reaching a point of severe grad-student burn-out that culminated in a couple of days of sitting in my on-campus apartment staring at the wall in a stupor and contemplating what a complete failure my life had been. I was forced to confront the reality that my grandiose (though admittedly very egotistical) dream of getting a Ph.D. and becoming a researcher was not achievable. My life had lost purpose. I had become untethered from the world around me. After leaving FSU I spent two months unemployed and living with my father in his Pensacola Beach apartment while I searched for computer jobs, mailed out dozens of resumes and drank a huge amount of beer. Then I landed a job in Panama City Beach working as a programmer/analyst for a small and (as it turned out) slightly shady company that did contract work for the U. S. Navy. This company was apparently desperate to fill a particular position and didn’t seem to care that I didn’t quite meet all of the requirements of the job. Of course I was desperate too, and willing to take on anything just to be employed again.

Panama City proper was on the east side of St. Andrews Bay. Panama City Beach, a separate municipality, was on the west side of the bay and was where the beaches were. It was a major tourist destination, as well as one of the most popular places for students on spring break. The whole town was a gigantic conglomeration of tourist traps of all kinds, almost totally oriented toward siphoning money, in every conceivable way, off of tourists from up north. Hotels, water parks, beachwear and souvenir shops, liquor stores, and stripper bars were the major industries there. It was a town that was unashamedly and straightforwardly vulgar. Most of the people in Panama City Beach seemed to be poor, working at minimum-wage jobs to support the tourist industry, while only a very few people at the top of the economic pyramid were making any real money. Paradoxically the churches seemed to have a high visibility and were an influential force in local culture and politics. Despite this I always sensed that there was a dark undercurrent of chaos that ran through the town. There were murders, suicides, armed robberies, people getting killed in bizarre accidents, people suddenly breaking out in psychotic episodes for no apparent reason. I always thought it would be an ideal setting for a David Lynch film. In the cold months the town was more bearable because most of the tourists were gone and it was much less crowded, with just a few from Canada who regularly came to PC Beach every winter. In January I could see them swimming in the ocean, apparently impervious to the cold. In summer the place was a different world. It was packed with people, and there were long lines of cars stuck in traffic-jams all along the beach roads. It was all heat, glare, and sweat. Hordes of tourists wandered around looking dazed and wilting in the thick summer air and the relentless, furnace-like sun.

So began a strange period in my life. I rented a weird little ramshackle apartment, one of a group of five such, of ludicrously amateurish construction, located behind a group of storage sheds on Dorothy Avenue in Panama City Beach. Close by and across the street was a big lurid-pink building, a stripper bar. I never went into that place, not because I thought I was too virtuous to do so but because, wanting to hang on to my money, I generally tried to avoid tourist traps of all kinds, strippers or no strippers. But occasionally I would see one of the dancers making a call from the public phone on the street, looking rather mean and wearing a leather bikini or some similarly outrageous outfit. Between the storage sheds and the little apartment building was a small yard, overgrown with weeds, with a couple of huge palm trees in it. My neighbors in the other four apartments next to mine were all single, alcoholic guys who worked odd jobs and were always broke. Gradually I fell into an strange sort of social life, if you could call it that, with these guys and a few other raffish characters I met. My landlord was an arrogant fellow named Gary who occasionally hosted poker parties in one of the storage sheds and was always inviting me to join in. I knew that they played for money, and from what I’d heard Gary was something of a predatory poker player. I had no interest in playing poker and no interest in socializing with Gary, whose explosive temper and frequently-expressed bigotry put me off.

My job at the Navy base turned out to be technically very challenging. I had arrived there to find myself assigned to a project that had been left in a great state of disarray by my predecessor who had been fired. I found myself working in a technology I knew nothing about, though I was careful not to admit the extent of my ignorance to my colleagues, who appeared to be confident that I would straighten out the mess and make everything work as it should. And so I was forced to try to learn all the technological knowledge I needed, from the basics on up. I was working very hard on some difficult problems in programming and systems engineering but, to my surprise, I found myself actually solving them. Since I had no other job and no other place to go I was forced, out of pure desperation, to devote myself to this job with all the concentration and energy I was capable of. In fact during this period I undoubtedly did the best work of my entire professional career, and I was working with scientists and engineers and learning a lot from them.

In my off time though, things were becoming quite odd. My traumatic break with academia had left me with a distaste for things academic and intellectual (at least outside of work). I didn’t want to spend any of my spare time with thinkers. I felt more comfortable talking to poor and uneducated people, of which there were plenty in Panama City Beach. So for a while I led this strange double-life in which during the day I was working and thinking very hard on complex programming and computer engineering problems, and in my off time I was enjoying being free, unthinking, uncaring, mostly aimless and devoid of purpose. Drinking and going to the beach, just feeling the wind, the water and the sun, and hanging out with colorful characters, a few of whom I suspected had some activities going on that were a little shady. Sometimes I felt envious of the people I knew there who lived an apparently bum-like existence, devoid of ambition. Often I wished I could give up all my ambitions. Where had they gotten me, after all? Perhaps it was foolish to harbor ambitions at all. I fantasized about giving up everything and living an unthinking life, just each day feeling the sun and the wind and not giving a damn about anything.

I lived in apartment number 1 which was at the end of a small five-unit building, although to call it a “building” might be a bit of an exaggeration. This structure looked like it had been erected hastily out of cast-off materials by someone who had never had any construction experience. The walls and ceilings were not square, the doors didn’t fit right, and the floors were slanted. My apartment was very small, although not quite as small as those of my neighbors, but I did have the great advantage of having windows on three sides and I loved having all that light in the place. My next-door neighbor was a young guy named Kevin who was a some-time construction worker. He drank a lot of beer and smoked a lot. Sometimes he would come to me and ask if I could give him money for cigarettes, which I always gave him. Eventually I think he became embarrassed to ask for cigarette money even when he really wanted to. Instead of asking outright he would would start hinting about it. So then I would ask him, “Kevin, do you need a couple of bucks for cigarettes?” and he would reply “Yeah.” I felt sorry for Kevin. I wondered how he came to be there. He seemed like a basically decent guy who unfortunately had no education, no skills, no money, no car, no girlfriend, and absolutely no prospects for improving his life in any way. Sometimes he told me about some of his misadventures at beach bars with some of his shady friends, including drunken brawls that he got into. He would calmly tell me about getting bashed in the head with a bottle or stabbed in some bar fight as if it were the most normal and ordinary thing, like going to the grocery store. I was appalled, and concerned for him, and tried to tactfully suggest that it would be in his best interests to try to change his life style a little bit, lest he get killed or seriously injured in one of these bar fights. But he said he had to go on these bar outings because his “friends” wanted him to. I told him that he didn’t have to go just because his friends said so, that he was free to decline, but he didn’t think he could refuse them. I was puzzled by this strange passivity of his.

Another of my neighbors was a fellow named Tommy, a kind and peaceful soul who had a terrible alcohol problem, maybe the worst alcoholic I’ve ever seen. As far as I could see he lived entirely on a diet of frozen pizzas and beer. Mostly beer. He had been an electronics technician in the Navy but now he was working a menial job at a McDonalds just down the road. He would come home from work every day and drink enormous quantities of beer and usually pass out, sometimes on the lawn in front of the apartments. I thought he was a likable guy but a really sad case.

I met a woman who rented one of the storage sheds in front of our little apartment building. Her name was Donna and she was my age. She worked as a landscaper and in her spare time she made ceramic lawn ornaments which she tried to sell, using the storage shed as a workshop for her ceramics. She was rugged and strong and sun- and wind-burned from working outside so much. She drove an appallingly decrepit Dodge van which was barely functional. Donna and I got to talking and I found her to be friendly and fun to talk to. After she and I had chatted on a few occasions out by the apartments, she surprised me by asking me out on an afternoon date. It was probably the only time a woman has ever asked me on a date. She suggested a beach bar called the Quarterdeck. We drove there in my car (I was afraid to get into hers). The bar was right on the beach and had sand floors. The doors and windows were open to let in the breezes from the ocean and the sunshine. We took off our shoes. We drank beer and played darts. Donna was in good spirits and laughed a lot. I felt at ease with her, maybe the first time I’d really felt at ease in many years.

Thus began my relationship with Donna. I was attracted to her easy going good nature, which to me was a welcome and refreshing change from my earlier experiences with angst-ridden, neurotic women. She was warm, friendly, spontaneous and seemingly without worries, though she really didn’t like it when her father, a pastor in Pensacola, dropped by for an unexpected visit once in a while and caught her drinking beer. Donna knew that he disapproved of her drinking and he made her feel guilty just by his presence, without his even saying anything. She had two teenage daughters who didn’t live with her and who mostly avoided her. Donna told me that she had been a big user of cocaine in the past and hinted that this had soured her relationships with her daughters and with her father, but she had gotten off of the coke and was living much better now.

To me she was simply a free spirit. In her presence I found myself gradually loosening up and letting go of my own long-held anxieties. We went swimming at the beach, we went on picnics, we had cookouts in the yard in front of my apartment, we went for walks at the St. Andrews Bay State Park, we spent languid evenings lounging around my apartment or hers just talking and drinking. Her rusted-out clunker Dodge van seemed like a deathtrap but I finally got over my fear of it and rode with her as she drove along beach roads, the windows open and the hot summer winds blowing through, both of us drinking beer as we went and throwing the empty cans into the back of the van.

I wanted to be a free spirit too, but in time some common sense started to intrude into my consciousness and I started to become concerned about a few things. Donna was barely making a living, just scraping by from paycheck to paycheck, and had no savings. She had never had a bank account. When her van broke down, which happened several times, I paid for the repairs myself. She drank a lot, too much in fact. One day she started drinking early in the day and by mid-afternoon she was so drunk she couldn’t open the door of the apartment she shared with her roommate Gerlinda, so she broke the door down. Of course Gerlinda then evicted her from the apartment, leaving her without a place to live. And she had been scheduled to go to work that day so she had to call in sick because she was too drunk to function. In general I’ve always been very reluctant to tell other people what to do, but at that point I felt I had to sit down with her and have a serious talk about the need for her to curtail her drinking. She agreed that it was a problem and seemed very contrite about it. She vowed to quit drinking completely, but I didn’t think that she would. I really didn’t want her to quit completely anyway, I just wanted her to keep it more under control and not get so wasted that she couldn’t function. She did quit drinking for about a week although, predictably, she then started drinking again. I became afraid that she might become super-drunk again and do something really bad, like try to drive and then get into a car crash. I started to feel guilty about my past complicity in her carefree drinking and I begged her to please not drink and drive. She agreed not to, but even so I still caught her on a couple of occasions when she had drunk too much and was planning to drive and I stopped her from doing so.

Once I was invited to a party at the home of my boss David, and was invited to bring along a guest. David was an engineer who was originally from he U.K., and his wife Janie was also an engineer. I decided, perhaps against my better judgment, to bring Donna with me to this party, fervently hoping that she would be on her best behavior. David and Janie lived in one of the more upscale neighborhoods in Panama City and their house was elegant, immaculate, and beautiful, quite a change from the primitive and rundown digs that Donna and I were used to. The party was attended by a lot of people from the Navy base, most of whom I already knew from work. As it turned out Donna actually was on her best behavior at this party, and it all went well. In fact Donna and Janie hit if off immediately. Janie had a great interest in gardening, so when she found out that Donna worked as a landscaper they had a great deal to talk about. So my anxieties about the party turned out to be for nothing.

Donna was friends with a fellow named Bill who worked in the Bay County Solid Waste Department recycling center, sorting recyclable refuse. Eventually she told me that she was interested in Bill and that she and I ought to break up. I was actually relieved. I was getting weary of Donna’s heavy drinking, and just looking after her and trying to keep her out of trouble was starting to seem a burdensome chore to me. Bill seemed like a decent guy. I was glad that she had found someone who could take care of her. I wished her well.

Eventually I got restless and felt the need for a big change in my life. As for my work, even though I was doing good work for the Navy I was bothered by the instability and lack of job security inherent in my contract position, and the Navy organization in which I worked had some very big managerial and organizational problems which I found very troubling. For another thing I was getting tired of the town. What many people saw as a tropical paradise I saw as a rather sordid, sleazy and rundown place, and I was getting bored and weary of all the drinking and the somewhat chaotic “social life” I had fallen into. There was really not much to do in that town except drink and fish, and I wasn’t all that interested in fishing. I didn’t want to succumb to the temptation of spending the rest of my life just sitting in the sun with a drink in my hand and without a thought in my head. So I started looking seriously for other jobs, in my desperation broadening the scope of my search to the entire USA. Thus I eventually arrived in upstate New York where I now live.

With hindsight I see that those three years, as messy and disorienting as they were in some ways, were a valuable period of transformation for me. It was during this time that I finally assimilated, deep into my psyche, the important truth that I am not my career. I am not my job, I am not my degrees, I am not any titles that are affixed to my name. I am not the knowledge I have in my head or even the thoughts that I think. I am not the person who I had thought I was. I felt myself spreading out, the boundaries between myself and the world becoming less distinct. I began to see that my nature is to be more diffuse, that limits and boundaries are mostly arbitrary creations of the mind. By the time I left Panama City Beach and moved north I was ready to reconfigure my life. I was open and ready to grow into something entirely new, whatever that might be.

I found a job in Ithaca, New York, and moved up there into a new and very different kind of life. About six months after moving to Ithaca I got a surprising phone call from Donna, sounding quite cheerful. She said she and Bill had broken up, but that she was doing well and that she was only drinking one glass of wine per day.

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Women

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[1993]: I was living in Panama City Beach and my father in Seagrove Beach, a small town on the Gulf of Mexico about a 40 minute drive from where I lived. My father was retired from a career in engineering, a job he had been extremely good at and took pride in, and had settled down supposedly to finally enjoy his lifelong dream of living the life of a beachcomber in a tropical paradise. But in his retirement he seemed to be at loose ends, without purpose. He had spent his life searching for the perfect place to live, the perfect woman, the perfect life. He was very smart in many ways but in his retirement he suffered, as he had all his life, from a profound and all-pervasive dissatisfaction with life in general. Life was just not good enough for him.

I knew that he wanted very much to have a relationship with a woman but things were not working out for him very well in that department. When I was young and my parents were still married it seemed to me that my father didn’t respect my mother very much and was constantly critical of her, which is why she eventually divorced him. And although in his later life he seemed to be able to find many women who took an interest in him, these relationships became problematic for various unexplained reasons and didn’t last long. I suspected that the basic reason he had difficult relationships with women was simply because he had a difficult relationship with the entire world.

So there he was late in his life, retired and with too much time on his hands, sitting in his apartment and watching television and drinking by himself. He must have had plenty of time, probably way too much time, to reflect on his frustrating failed love life, clearly a big issue for him. On one of my weekend visits we were talking in his apartment and he surprised me with a little soliloquy on the subject of women.

“You know,” he said, “women have always had a pretty tough time of it. There have been very few opportunities open to them, they’ve been treated like second-class citizens throughout all of history. And furthermore they get raped. It seems to me that women would have every right to hate us.”

He stood in the center of his living room in front of the big glass door that faced the ocean, with a drink in his hand, still shirtless from the beach, as he delivered this odd little speech. I was surprised to hear him talk this way because it seemed like such a departure from his usual style of thinking and talking, and also because he spoke with such conviction. But I was basically in agreement, having come to similar conclusions myself quite a while ago. “They do hate us, Dad,” I replied. By then I was a battle-scarred veteran of the relationship wars myself, and had come to harbor a certain amount of melancholy pessimism about the prospects of men and women ever really getting along with each other.

On a few subsequent visits to my father I heard him make the same speech after he had had a couple of drinks. It was clear that this was something he had spent much reflection on. I think he was struggling to understand his own loneliness, and thus had started to question his previously long-held assumptions about men and women and had come to this, for him, breakthrough insight. I thought it was good that he was finally developing some empathy for women but I also thought it was sad because it seemed to be an acknowledgment that he was facing up to his fundamental aloneness.

The sad truth was that there could be only one true love for my father, and that was the ideal lover of his imagination. She would be the personification of the paradise he was always searching for, timeless, always young and beautiful. She would be waiting for him on the beach, in the white surf and the brilliant sunshine. Smiling, holding out her hand. Forever.

Exit

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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.

The psychic

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[1984]: I met JoEllen at Help Line. She was another of the volunteers there. I didn’t know her very well but she seemed likable enough. She was in her 50s, a genial and gentle person with a direct, penetrating gaze. She was unpretentious and had a whimsical sense of humor. She also had a reputation as a psychic. She herself didn’t make a big deal out of her supposed psychic ability, and in fact very rarely mentioned it, but other people at Help Line believed that she had such ability. Actually no one else made a very big deal out of it either, everyone acted like it was just one of the things that was characteristic of her, one of many characteristics a person might have, like being a good golfer or having great taste in clothes.

Every once in a while, sometimes at a Help Line party, JoEllen would agree to do psychic readings for whoever wanted one. At such times she would dress up in a gypsy sort of costume, but the costume was intended in a whimsical spirit and she didn’t really take herself all that seriously as a real fortune-teller. At one of these events, a Help Line party at the home of one of the volunteers, I had JoEllen do a psychic reading for me. I think it must have been at the suggestion of one of my Help Line friends, as I’m sure I was too shy to initiate it myself.

While everyone else was partying elsewhere in the house JoEllen was in a back room sitting on a cushion. She was dressed in some kind of robe and had her hair tied up in a red scarf, and had many copper and silver bracelets all over both forearms that made tinkling sounds when she moved. She invited me to sit on a cushion in front of her. She was relaxed and confident, as if sitting on that cushion in that room was the most natural place in all the world for her to be and she had all the time in the world to just sit there. She sat quietly in front of me with her hands in her lap and her eyes closed for what seemed a long time, though it was probably only a couple of minutes. Her face assumed an expression of thoughtful concentration. Then she spoke.

“You are very unusual,” she said. She paused, seeming to search for the best way to formulate her thoughts. “What I am sensing is an unusual spirit, the spirit of a person whose heart is committed to a higher world, a person who has the soul of a monk or a priest.” She paused again, apparently in great concentration and searching for the right words. “But a monk or a priest who is not afraid of getting messy and who has decided, for whatever reason, to live an un-monklike and un-priestlike life among ordinary people.”

I didn’t quite know what to make of this. JoEllen didn’t really know me very well, and yet there was something about what she said that struck a very deep chord in me and gave me an uncanny feeling of recognition. Was it because I wanted to be the kind of person she described? Or was it because I was afraid of being such a person? I wasn’t sure.

Help Line

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[1982-1984]: Looking back on this experience so many years later it seems an odd and uncharacteristically bold thing that I did, to join this telephone crisis counseling service, Help Line, as a volunteer. At the time I just felt the need to take on a challenge of some sort, because I was tired of my usual routine and felt “stuck,” needing to change my life somehow, and I also hoped that by taking on something challenging I might learn more about myself.

So I plunged rather recklessly, as it seems to me now, into this new adventure. It did in fact turn out to be a significant learning experience. I learned something about principles of good communication, and I learned how terribly vulnerable people can be, and that people’s true inner lives are generally very different from their public personalities. Help Line changed my way of looking at people. Up until then I’d never really thought about what people are like underneath their outward appearances, but after getting so many calls from people pouring out all of their secret sorrows and fears, people suffering and often deeply in conflict with themselves, I came to have a greater intuitive feeling for what human nature was, for the great complexity and difficulty of the inner conflicts that almost all of us carry around with us.

When I was on my shift in the phone room I felt I was part of a huge web, composed of the invisible inner lives of all the people in the city, people confused and not knowing what to do about themselves. What must drive a person to call up a total stranger on the phone and talk about his or her personal problems? Even though just a very small percentage of the population of the city actually called us I had the feeling that they must be representative of the general population. I wondered if maybe there was really no one who was well and happy after all, but that all were secretly suffering in some way or other. We were all in it together, whether friend or stranger, talking, listening, needing help, trying to help.

Many of the calls were low-urgency, being mainly requests for information,and many more calls were from people who were troubled by relationship and communication issues such as problems with a spouse, partner, child, parent, or sibling, and who were looking for someone to talk it out with. On such calls I tried to take a (hopefully) common-sense approach and try to help the caller see his or her situation more clearly, to bring them back down to reality and try to get them to focus on what was really going on. As a volunteer one had to resist the temptation to be overly directive and try to “fix” the caller’s problem. Only a very few of the calls were of a crisis nature and those could be challenging, such as the fellow who called, drunk and upset, and said he had just found out that his wife had been having an affair with a friend of his. He said he had a gun and was planning to kill them both. Fortunately I was able to talk him down from this and let him see for himself that this was not a good idea.

I only did Help Line for three years, as it eventually did start to become too routine and a little wearisome to me. But they were good years, years of personal expansion and learning for me. I helped some people and I made many friends among the other volunteers. I learned that I was not as neurotic and screwed-up as I thought I had been, that I was, though somewhat troubled and awkward, basically okay, as was everyone. And that everyone was essentially incomplete and searching, sometimes desperately, for the missing parts of themselves. I felt more connected to other people. I came to have a lot of respect, even a reverence, for people’s vulnerable souls.

To enter the dark marriage

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[1982-1983]: I was living in Pensacola, working as a programmer and still feeling aimless and disconnected from other people, as I had in fact all my life. I had been seeing a counselor at the University of West Florida, a gracious and kind young woman named Susan who had a wisdom far beyond her years. One of the things she told me in the course of my many sessions with her was about the importance of being open to trying different things in my life, so that I could find out for myself which things worked out well for me and which things didn’t. She said it was important to keep the spirit of experimentation alive in one’s life so as to avoid getting stuck in a stagnant life. This meant being unafraid to meet new people and to have new experiences, even if you have to push yourself a little bit outside of your comfort zone (actually I never really had a comfort zone, so for me to push myself to do something that made me feel a little uncomfortable was not much of a stretch). In other words it’s unwise to try to stick to playing a safe game all the time. This advice rang true for me, and I took it to heart. One of the things I decided to try, which seemed quite bold to me at the time, was to volunteer at a local community mental health center as a volunteer telephone crisis counselor. I thought it might be an interesting learning experience. I took the training class and then I started doing it, taking the calls, and it turned out to be a fascinating, though sometimes challenging, experience. I learned a great deal about human communication in the course of doing this volunteer work and I developed some great friendships with my fellow phone counselors. The volunteer group even became like a family to me.

Eventually I had enough experience in phone counseling that I was asked if I’d like to lead a training group of new volunteers. I did, and one of the people in my first training group was Diana, a divorced mother of three kids who worked as a data-entry clerk at the Navy base. She was clearly very smart and talented, with an engaging wit and a charming smile, and I thought she liked me. After the end of the group training I called her and we went out on a date.

Over the course of a few dates I became increasingly impressed with Diana’s brilliance and creativity. We always had interesting things to talk about. It seemed sad to me that she had been relegated to such a stupid job as a data-entry clerk, just entering numbers into a computer screen all day every day, when she obviously had a great deal of intellectual and creative potential.

Whenever we were together our conversation seemed to take on a life of its own, drawing both of us into it, with an energy and momentum that carried us along. It was a close and engaging rapport such as I’d never experienced with anyone before. Diana did mention at one point that she used to be under the care of a psychiatrist, when she was going through a period of great stress after her previous husband had left her for another woman. I wasn’t at all put off by this revelation, in fact I felt an increased admiration for her because she had been through some difficult life challenges and had overcome them. After all, I too had suffered a great deal of emotional difficulty in my younger life so I felt that I could relate to her troubles. We were two kindred spirits, two people who had been through a lot of emotional crap and had (mostly, I thought) overcome it.

So we became a couple. In the course of our dating though I started to notice a few things about Diana. She was mostly very positive in her outlook and in her emotional demeanor, but every once in a while she had attacks of acute anxiety and depression. Sometimes she became very upset about her job, sometimes she was upset about her kids, but sometimes she was upset for no reason that I could see. It was also clear that she still had a lot of emotional distress about trauma from her past, especially her two ex-husbands who had both dumped her, and about the death of her father.

I loved Diana but I felt frustrated and helpless at these times when she was in such emotional difficulty, and of course I wanted to help. Unfortunately I was at a loss as to what I could do to help her. In my naïve and idealistic romantic way I hoped that my presence in her life would be an emotionally stabilizing and positive influence, and that in time she would learn to relax and enjoy her life. After all she was obviously very intelligent and so it must become clear to her eventually that there was really nothing to be upset about, right? So I thought. I thought the natural way of things was for us to inevitably become closer and to be joined by a bond of understanding, and that certainly took a certain amount of time to develop so I had to be patient. Sometimes Diana’s responses really puzzled me though, such as the times when she became fearful because I had expressed a liking for a book or a movie or a work of art that she didn’t like or didn’t understand. Her anxiety response seemed out of proportion to the thing she was anxious about.

As things went on, there were a few times when I would find Diana sunk into such profound despair that it actually scared me. At these times she would sometimes blame her depression and anxiety on her job, which was tedious and stupid for sure but then most people probably work at tedious and stupid jobs, don’t they? So it seemed to me. Sometimes, and with increasing frequency, she blamed, with a great deal of accompanying rage, these deep dark moods on her kids. I found this to be especially disturbing because I thought this blaming of the kids was completely undeserved, and furthermore no mother should have such hostility toward her own kids.

But Diana could also be charming, warm, witty, and full of enthusiasm. Everyone who met her liked her. I was probably the only one other than the children who knew of the other aspect of her personality, the strange dark depths of her. All along I kept expecting that she must eventually come to a point where should would be able to relax and just enjoy her life. But her “episodes” continued. We had agreed to marry but I was developing some misgivings about it. I felt a great sense of responsibility and commitment to my fiance. I couldn’t abandon her. Yet I had the growing feeling that I might very well be heading into a very difficult, and maybe even disastrous, situation. I was committed and felt that it wasn’t possible for me to change the path I was on. I was like a train on a track heading toward something that might or might not turn out to be a wreck, but there was no turning back.

A few days before we were to be married, feeling great anxiety about the coming marriage and in need of some kind of reassurance, I called a woman a knew named Leah, a friend (in whom I had no romantic interest) and fellow volunteer from the crisis counseling service. I asked her if she would take a walk with me. It was early spring and the weather was clear, cool and very windy. We met in downtown Pensacola and walked down South Palafox Street down to the pier that goes out over Pensacola Bay. I can’t remember now what Leah and I talked about but I think it was probably nothing of any great importance. I was very anxious about my relationship with my fiance and the upcoming marriage but I don’t think I talked about that. I think I just made small talk. What I remember most was a beautiful day of brilliant sunshine, and the winds whipping up whitecaps in the bay as we walked, and pelicans hovering in the wind over the pier, and that for a little while I was in the presence of someone who simply cared about me and respected me. That was all. Nothing big and deep, it was just a matter of being with a good person who allowed me to be myself. But just to be in the presence of such a friend was an enormous comfort to me. I never forgot it, after the marriage to Diana and the terrible divorce that followed, and even after all the subsequent bad relationships and painful breakups, so very many sad experiences, all down through the years. It’s strange how some very small and apparently insignificant act of caring can stand out large in one’s memory after so long a time. After all the years of sorrow I would still remember that brief walk in the sun and the wind.

Sailing alone

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[1972]: Right after I graduated from high school my father moved our family from the east coast of Florida to the Florida panhandle. We lived in the little town of Gulf Breeze, a suburb of Pensacola. I enrolled at Pensacola Junior College. I did well enough in my classes when I was able to concentrate on them, but unfortunately my attentions and my focus fluctuated quite a bit. I variously considered majoring in art, philosophy, music, and math. I felt scattered out in all directions and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself. Some days I just wanted to sit and read books–nothing that was relevant to the classes I should have been studying for unfortunately–and do nothing else. I spent a lot of time in the college library browsing their collections at random and reading bits and pieces of anything that looked strange and interesting, especially in philosophy, religion, literature, psychology, and art.

My father bought a small sailboat and gave my brother and me some rudimentary instructions on how to sail it. Our house was close to the Santa Rosa Sound, a huge long body of water that is part of a long inland waterway that parallels the Gulf of Mexico. Sometimes my brother and I sailed together on the Sound but I preferred sailing by myself. For years I had had an instinctive compulsion for wandering alone, but now it had expanded out onto the water. When I was on the sailboat I was wandering free, still following my old instinct to go farther, to always be trying to escape from wherever I was.

Sometimes when sailing the boat, if conditions were just right, I slipped unexpectedly into a state of mind that I could only describe as a state of extraordinary naturalness. At such a time I felt clearly focused (something indeed unusual for me, a perennial scatterbrain) but relaxed, and at the same time keenly aware of every nuance of the wind and the water’s movement through my contact with the mainsail sheet and the tiller. I felt poised and balanced in the middle of my life, as if I had always been there like that, sitting on the edge of the cockpit with the sheet wrapped around my wrist and my other hand holding the tiller. I felt synchronized with the world around me, instead of my mind either lagging a little behind it or impatiently pushing ahead of it, as was my wont. For this brief time I suffered no anxieties and no self-hatred, and harbored no false ideas about myself. In fact I had no ideas about myself at all.

I would come to remember those moments sometimes much later in my life when I was going through periods of great difficulty and emotional anguish (usually self-inflicted, I admit). I would remember that it was possible to find in myself authentic peace and strength. I knew it, because I had experienced it for myself on that boat. It was a tiny sliver of hope that helped to keep me going during some of the dark times of my life.

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