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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.


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

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

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


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

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

Prose poems

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

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


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When I was young, say up into my early 30s, I used to have dreams that I could remember when I awoke, though later in life I never had dreams, or at least never had dreams that I was capable of remembering on waking. I noticed a strange and interesting pattern in most of those dreams of mine. Usually in the dream I would find myself in some vast structure made up of many separate rooms. The structure would be enormous, seeming to go on forever. It would usually be some kind of huge building of an exotic architecture, with many floors, or a network of caves of apparently unlimited extent, or something similar. In the dream not much would happen. There was not a story or plot to it, but I would spend my time in the dream just wandering from one room to another or from one cave to another. Sometimes I would be in rooms filled with books. Rarely would I see any other people. Such a dream on its face might seem like a kind of metaphor for existential dread, but the feeling that I had within the dream was a kind of peaceful awe. I was content to be an explorer, just going on and on from one room to another.

As I say, later in life I stopped having these dreams, though I’ve read that supposedly all people dream while sleeping anyway, even if they can’t remember their dreams on waking. So maybe I’m still having those same dreams even now but I just don’t know it. I’d like to think that maybe late at night I’m still exploring, still wandering through those dream worlds, on and on indefinitely. There’s no reason why it should ever have to come to an end.

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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