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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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The most important thing in life

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When I was living in Pensacola my brother Dan got involved in a martial arts practice called aikido. He became very enthusiastic and devoted to this practice. From what he told me about it I thought it sounded interesting, and I decided to give it a try myself.

I had a hard time with aikido, not only because it’s an inherently very difficult skill to learn, but also because I was generally a very anxiety-ridden guy and very much hung-up on myself. I thought the aikido lessons were very interesting, but unfortunately I was physically timid and shy, afraid to commit myself wholeheartedly to the practice and the exercises, and I had so much chronic anxiety that it was difficult for me to concentrate.

The class was taught by an imposing fellow named Dennis Hooker. Dennis was an unusual guy. He had started out intending to be a minister, then went into the Army and was a hand-to-hand combat instructor for the 101st Airborne. While he was in the Army he was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a form of muscular dystrophy. Through exercises that he learned from his teacher, Mitsugi Saotome, and through dedicated physical discipline, he was, incredibly, able to resist the ravages of the disease and to live a pretty much normal life. I got the sense that he had an enormously powerful, instinctive, and visceral toughness within him. He was flexible and fluid in his dealings with people, but he had a deep core that seemed made out of steel.

Sometimes in the course of an aikido class Dennis said odd little things that I later remembered long after the lesson. Although I had a lot of trouble doing the exercises, I caught on to the crucially important principle that one should not allow oneself to be intimidated by an aggressor. The basic idea was that aggressor is one who has problems but who, instead of taking the responsibility for dealing with his problems himself, attempts to inflict his problems upon others, and force them to deal with them. The basic strategy of aikido as I understood it was: don’t let someone inflict his problems on you, but let him deal with his own problems! Thus the techniques of aikido are designed to redirect aggressive force in ways so that the aggressor has to deal with it, and not the intended victim.

Once in the course of teaching a lesson, as Dennis was trying to explain a technique he said, “The most important thing in life is to not let someone else control your mind. You must keep your own mind.” He said this rather off-handedly but it has stuck in my mind ever since. I was never very good in aikido, and in fact I gave it up before long and went on to other pursuits, but I have never forgotten that lesson. All of my experience since then has shown me that Dennis was right. That really is the most important thing.

The many vicissitudes of learning

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Curiosity has always been one of the main driving forces in my life. Why that should be, I have no idea. Even though curiosity has been my life’s great passion, there have been many times when, perhaps out of exhaustion, I’ve had to admit to myself that there is ultimately no point to it. When pursued far enough it eventually becomes clear that curiosity is like a flame that burns its way through everything it encounters, until you finally see the curiosity as a pure force that is ultimately not about anything in particular except its own energy, its constant seeking. And if you are blessed/cursed with such a curiosity then you, as the instrument of this force, must follow it where it leads you, even unto perdition.

When I was a young child people told me I was smart. I didn’t feel smart, instead I felt mostly frustrated at my own lack of ability, but for some unknown reason people, my parents and my teachers, kept telling me this. The only thing that I noticed about myself was that I seemed to pick up a lot of little trivial facts and remember them easily, but that didn’t seem very smart to me, it merely seemed like the remembering of a lot of facts. I breezed through school without really trying, until I got about halfway through high school, at which point things started to become problematic for me. I did very well in some classes and failed other classes. Why that was I didn’t know. It seemed, strangely enough, as if my approach to a class, i.e. whether I applied myself to it or not, was a factor that I had no control over. The classes that I failed were actually subjects that I was very interested in but for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to actually study for them.

When I became a college student my relationship with academia became even more difficult. I had always been very curious about scientific things as a kid, and I started out as a physics major at the University of West Florida. I soon became very frustrated at my inability to commit myself to my courses. I had trouble doing the labs, e.g. I couldn’t get things to work, I would break the equipment or whatever, so I switched my major to math so I wouldn’t have to work in a lab (although ironically many years later I would find myself working as a systems engineer in a Navy laboratory that did unmanned testing of underwater breathing apparatus, and being quite successful in that work). But a frustrating pattern developed. At the beginning of a semester I would sign up for the new courses with a feeling of great enthusiasm, and would start out being very excited about learning these new subjects, only to gradually lose motivation as the semester progressed, and either drop a course or see it through to the end with a low grade. This same pattern occurred several times in a row through my undergraduate years at UWF. I grew increasingly frustrated. An outsider viewing my situation would probably conclude that I was just a lazy slacker who didn’t care much about getting an education, but very much the opposite was the case. In fact I had an enormous desire to succeed in my studies, and yet for all this desire I seemed to be constitutionally unable to muster the concentration and the perseverance necessary to succeed. It was as if my own behavior was beyond my control, and someone else besides me was actually in control of my life. There was a strange kind of war going on inside me, a mostly silent and invisible war of which I was only partially aware. To say that I was in conflict with myself would be an understatement, although the nature of this conflict was a mystery to me. It started to make me think that there was something very weird and mysterious going on inside me that I didn’t understand, that was making it so very difficult to succeed at anything. What was it?

My mind was naturally diffuse, a raging fire. I couldn’t control it. I had an enormous curiosity about many things. My curiosity went out in all directions in a futile, and apparently instinctive, drive to consume everything, every kind of knowledge.

I made an appointment to see a clinical psychologist at the university counseling center to talk about it. His name was Dr. Holmes and he was the director of the counseling center. It was the first time I had ever talked to a counseling psychologist. I went in with high hopes that I would be able to make some progress in dealing with my problem but I was disappointed in this initial counseling session. Dr. Holmes sat slumped back in an armchair with his leg draped over one arm of the chair, manifesting an air of great boredom and impatience as I described my problems. He even yawned hugely a couple of times during the session while I was pouring out the story of my struggles. His general response to my difficulties was dismissive, expressed in the form of a neat and tidy summary at the end of the session, to the effect that I simply had unrealistic expectations of the educational system and I wouldn’t be able to make any progress until I gave them up. End of story. At the end of the session he invited me to make another appointment but I told him I didn’t think that would be necessary.

I felt discouraged, even humiliated, as a result of the session with Dr. Holmes. I couldn’t believe that this jackass was actually the director of the university counseling center. It was clear that he was not willing to take me seriously despite the fact that I was in significant distress. For some months afterward I continued to struggle at the university, mostly feeling confused, occasionally doing good work in classes but very often still feeling strangely blocked from applying myself to the academic work. I occasionally suffered bouts of depression and withdrew from contact with other people.

Eventually I decided I had to go back and give counseling a try again. The secretary at the counseling center tried to set me up with Dr. Holmes again but I asked to see anyone but him. I got an appointment with a young woman named Susan. When I first met her I had some misgivings because she was young. She looked to be about thirty. I thought, how much could she know if she was that young? She had worked previously as a psychiatric nurse and had recently started working in counseling. As soon as I started talking to her I felt reassured. She was serious, attentive, and perspicacious. She listened carefully to everything I said. At first I felt an enormous sense of relief just to be able to talk to someone who would take me seriously and actually listen to me. It was a new experience for me. It was the beginning of a feeling that I was a real person and no longer some kind of insubstantial ghost.

We got into a routine of weekly counseling sessions. Quickly these discussions expanded beyond the domain of my academic problems, as we got into my difficult, and for the most part pathological and traumatic, relationship with my father, and my deeper problems with depression, anger and self-hatred. I think Susan realized early on that my real problem was much deeper than merely being unable to function well in school, that my academic performance problem was but a symptom of a profound emotional malaise that I had grown up with from the very beginning and that pervaded every aspect of my life. I started to gain, very slowly, some increased confidence in myself as a result of our talks. I continued to struggle in school, occasionally doing well on some subjects and occasionally still feeling blocked and unable to perform in a class. Eventually I graduated.

I got a job working as a programmer at an accounting firm in Pensacola. I applied to a mathematics master’s degree program at UWF. My undergraduate GPA was low but I had scored high enough on the Graduate Record Exam that they admitted me anyway, and I think some of the professors there realized that I actually had more ability and knowledge than my poor grades indicated. And I actually did quite a bit better as a master’s student than I had as an undergraduate, though now I was just studying part-time while I worked full-time as a programmer. To some extent this better performance had to do with the fact that in the master’s courses there was much less emphasis on in-class testing and more emphasis on working on problems alone at home. I had always had a big phobia about taking tests. On a few occasions in my master’s coursework I was able to solve, through sheer solitary perseverance and hard work, problems that I thought were pretty difficult, which gave me some confidence that I could actually take on some academic challenges successfully after all.

When I was young I had always held a foolishly idealistic view of academia. I was so very neurotic and had such an intense desire to transcend my painfully awkward life that I saw schools as an idealistic refuge, as lofty enclaves of pure and selfless inquiry and creativity, far above the pettiness and selfishness of ordinary people. I had an intense desire to escape to there, to find the much larger and higher life to which I felt I belonged. But my actual experience of academia was in sharp contrast to my imagined ideal world of scholarship. To my growing disappointment, it turned out to be a self-serving system, just another machine-like institution devoted simply to perpetuating itself. And many of the professors turned out to be far from admirable, in fact they could be quite petty and arrogant. A few of them I met even seemed to have some serious mental problems. But still I didn’t want to admit to myself that I was not any better off in academia than I was outside of it. I stubbornly held to the idea that if I would just persist as an academic, eventually the lofty world of seekers after knowledge and wisdom that I imagined would become my world.

My personal life that was going on behind my clumsy academic efforts was difficult and complicated. I went through many changes, including a traumatic marriage and divorce, and I changed jobs a couple of times, but I finally managed to eke out my master’s degree somehow. I found myself working in the defense contracting industry, a business which I hated and was eager to get out of. Out of such desperation I finally decided to apply to the graduate program in math at Florida State University, without any real expectation that I would be accepted. To my surprise I was accepted after all even with my poor undergraduate record. My intent was to study for a Ph..D. I moved to Tallahassee in a spirit of enormous enthusiasm, thinking that this was my last big chance to really make something of myself. I was certain that I would be great.

As might have been predicted however, and as I should have been able to forsee myself if I had been a more realistic and sensible person, things went poorly at FSU. For some reason the department at FSU placed a great deal of emphasis on in-class testing at the graduate level, always something of a problem for me because of my longstanding phobia about taking tests. I was appalled at the arrogance and callousness of some of the professors. And despite working constantly I had a hard time keeping up with the fast pace of the program. I became increasingly exhausted and discouraged but I stubbornly stuck with it. Part of the problem was that, although I was good in some areas, my general background in mathematics was too spotty. Despite my high level of motivation it was too hard for me to overcome my undergraduate educational difficulties that had left me with a rather flimsy background in some of the essentials of the subject. I found myself struggling, and becoming exhausted and burned out with frustration.

Finally in late fall of 1991 I could no longer go on. I was mentally and physically exhausted. I called my mother and stepfather and told them I was dropping out. My pie-in-the-sky idealism had finally run its course, and there was nothing else to take its place. The world suddenly appeared alien to me. I looked around and didn’t see any place for me in it.

What was to be my relationship to the process of learning then? I had no idea. On some level I was still aware that curiosity and imagination were the major forces in my life, but they were forces which seemed to have become disconnected from anything real in the world. Everything meaningful was somewhere deep within me, an interior world entirely separate from the surrounding reality. I longed to be successful in something but felt that I was dragging an enormous burden around with me, which was my upbringing as a youth, an upbringing that had left me with a profound and apparently insurmountable phobia of committing myself to any undertaking at which I might be judged or evaluated, and a persistent urge to try to escape from real life, resulting in a lack of ability to apply myself successfully to anything.

Recovery was very slow, in fact a lifelong process. It wasn’t until I moved to upstate New York in 1995 that I felt my imagination and my curiosity starting to come alive again, but in entirely new ways. I moved to Ithaca, an unusual little town with a lot of intellectuals and artistic people and a vital and lively culture. Being immersed in this rich local culture I started to feel at last that it was possible for me to be a serious scholar or a creator without having to have some sort of credentials bestowed on me, or having some objective measures of achievement affixed to my name. And that the entity I had previously thought of as my “self” was not so clearly defined and limited as I had thought when I was younger. I was developing a greater, more expansive concept of my own identity, as a kind of wide open country of the mind, something that eluded definition, a kind of expanse in which many things were tangled up in messy and complicated ways, mysterious and perhaps difficult at times, but full of opportunities for exploration, and most importantly with no apparent limitations.

In Ithaca I took a poetry-writing workshop (taught by the poet and critic Fred Muratori, later to become a good friend of mine) that gave me the confidence to commit myself to poetry writing in earnest, something which has turned out to be one of the great passions of my life. But it wasn’t until I started in 2002 learning to play a musical instrument that I finally began to assimilate how the process of learning really works. Learning to play music was a big turning point, a kind of revelation in which I finally saw clearly that not only was I capable of learning any musical instrument, but I was actually capable of learning anything I wanted to learn. The blocks were falling away. The world was opening up to me. I had become freed from the need to become “successful” in any conventional sense, and my mind and spirit could venture anywhere. Science, music, art, literature, philosophy, history, psychology, all of these were parts of my world, which had no boundaries.

I think the most important principles that enable learning are: giving up false ideas of oneself, mindfulness and focus, maintaining an attitude of flexible inquiry, and a strong perseverance in the face of difficulty. These might seem to be common-sense things to many people, but it took me decades to fully assimilate deep into myself these crucial lessons about learning, to the point at which I felt that I finally, after so many years of struggling with myself, had control over my own learning processes.

In some odd way I feel I’ve benefited from this strange circuitous process of learning that I’ve undergone through the years, and the lessons I’ve acquired about learning how to learn. It’s been a mess mostly, with me going out in many different directions, casting about blindly looking for something I could grab onto, with many false starts, many failed experiments, plans broken off, backtracking and starting over, and so on. I’ve always stubbornly insisted, perhaps foolishly, on understanding the world in my own way. And I think I have come to have some genuine, though small, understanding of a few things, though I’ve also suffered from not submitting to a more conventional career path. I know that my father was often frustrated with me because he couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t just pick a career and commit myself to it. As if I could! I was never capable of doing that. There was always that strange demon in me that resisted the confines of whatever it was I was being taught or trained in, and which always sought to escape those confines and reach outward indefinitely, as if to seek to encompass the entire world. This was my perennial doomed ambition. Even now I still feel it, though I’ve found later in my life that I can compromise with it. I know now it is possible to live with this demonic passion and yet still do constructive work and be effective in the real world, though I have never been, and never will be, “successful” in any conventional sense.

My struggles with education and the learning process have given me a personal perspective on “problem” students in general, since I was, for the most part, a problem student myself. When I’ve encountered young students who are having difficulty, or who are frustrated, or unmotivated or undisciplined, or who for whatever mysterious reasons are unable to apply themselves to their studies, I see something of myself there. I feel great compassion for these people and I’m very disappointed when I hear their teachers speak of them dismissively, as “undisciplined.” Yes, of course they are undisciplined, but the much more important issue is why, and what can be done about it? And where does self-discipline come from? Where does the ability to learn come from? Why are we not trying to understand our students as human beings?

Cindy

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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.

Formalities

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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.

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.

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