Living with it

Anger mostly, an inability to recognize emotions, dissociative episodes, seizures, obsessive behavior, and plenty of other problems, but mostly anger. Those are some of the reasons I prefer not to write about my experiences. However, that said, there have been a number of events in my life that have compelled me to both think a lot more about living with PTSD and PNES.

Start with the panel that got me writing about disability, I tried to keep that discussion focused on living with seizures. I wanted it to be about living with what is, for most of the time, a completely invisible set of problems. From the outside who would know that I’ve been prone to falling over in the middle of where ever and choking on my own tongue. That I’ve had profound lapses of memory, debilitating headaches. The list goes on, and its a long one. But here’s the problem, my seizure condition is likely tied to PTSD and head injury. Thus, it becomes difficult to discuss one without discussion of the other.

Directly after the panel I was met by a couple of different attendees. Some of them wanted to thank me for talking. Some of them thanked me for my service. And a couple of them wanted to compare notes. One fellow in particular wanted to know if PTSD would manifest as a sort of long-term amnesia. And here I had to pause and think about what I was going to say. First, because I’m not a doctor or any sort of health care professional versed in dealing with a career of PTSD/PNES cases. Second, because my experience is all I have to go on. “That is not my experiences,” I replied hoping it would sate the guy, knowing that he needed a plot device to move his story along and I’d just robbed him of it.

This evening I took a very long walk around the neighborhood. I did this because, despite my best effort, something got to me today. I was seeing red for a while there and any more when rage takes over the best thing for me to do is stretch my legs until my spirit calms. Senator John Walsh made the news recently when a crack investigative reporting team at the New York Times broke the news that the former General did not correctly cite works used in a thesis.

A friend and veteran posted this editorial piece by Alex Horton on the topic which appeared in the Washington Post. I got to the end of the editorial and that’s where the rage started to hit me. It took a long walk for me to sort through why I was feeling so much anger and hostility.

I know that the first reason I felt anything at all is that Alex Horton’s experience is clearly not my own.

I was sitting in a college classroom less than a year after coming home from Iraq. We were discussing Shakespeare. I was thinking about dead bodies in Baghdad. It was jarring and uncomfortable that first semester, but I knew I couldn’t let my struggles influence my academic career.

But there’s a catch to this that I don’t believe is immediately apparent. It wasn’t visible to me at first that’s for sure. Throughout Horton’s editorial he uses his experience as a baseline. Deliberately he juxtaposes his struggles with PTSD and the challenges of getting an education to erect a moral bar that he has clearly passed and that the Senator has not. “I have PTSD and I never cheated,” he is saying.

Here is the problem I have with this attitude. It lacks any trace of empathy. Horton is acting as little more than Walsh’s judge from the podium of his own experience. Yet anyone with an internet connection can find plenty of examples of people with a PTSD diagnosis acting in an anti social way. And on the grand continuum of sociopathic behavior plagiarism barely registers as less-than-benign. And if Horton knows anything, it should be that you don’t survive a battle as an “Army of One.” If he’s struggled with PTSD he did so with help. The same aid he’s just denied Walsh for some reason.

The second, much greater reason, I found so much to dislike about Horton’s opinion is that he insists that an act of will was literally all it took to keep him from behaving badly. Not only does this sort of writing underline the myth that all broken people need do to overcome the challenges they’ve been dealt is simply want to get better it cheapens the struggle. Horton is too busy being worried about the slippery slope of veteran employment to pause for a moment and consider how much he’s just taken away from all those battle buddies he’s just tossed under a mental health bus.

“I couldn’t let my struggles influence my” whatever is so much rubbish. Yeah, you’re a mental paragon and a moral exemplar. And from the perspective of someone who struggles with anti social tendencies, sometimes winning and sometimes losing, you’re a fraud. Or if not a fraud, than a coward. If life after what you experienced in the service of your country isn’t littered with momentary setbacks, mistakes, and all the bloody, stinking baggage that comes with this condition than it’s really not that bad for you. If Horton is simply omitting those moments for fear he might have to account for them in the same way he exhorts Walsh to “own up to his mistakes and take responsibility for them” than he’s a coward. Worse he’s mistaken when he imagines that the reading public won’t see through his illusion of moral superiority.

Yes, I say these things from my experience. I make mistakes, I let myself and those around me down from time to time. Sometimes mightily, but, I’m willing to forgive those around me and more importantly, I’m willing to forgive myself. PTSD for me has been a lot like what I imagine living with alcoholism might be like. Once you’ve recognized that you have this problem you should be aware that you’ll likely die with it, if not from it. From that moment forward it’s more a matter of learning to cope with it than anything else. You cannot wish PTSD away any more than you can wish cancer, a broken spine, or multiple sclerosis disease away.

An Opportunity

“The Gulf Stream” a 1899 oil painting by Winslow Homer

Since I woke this morning I have felt assaulted by the world. The radio news is about people doing inhuman things to each other. Taking Tess into the office this morning was just a long succession of getting passed, dangerously, on the right despite the fact that cruise control was set to 70 while driving in a 60. Even at the coffee shop humanity was doing its level best to provoke a negative response from me.

I didn’t recognize this until, while turning from Jackson onto 4th an angry bus driver directing six tons of carbonized steel and rubber laid waste to his horn because I was caught in an intersection, surrounded by pedestrians. In that moment of stress and transmitted anger I envisioned myself leaving the comfort and safety of my car, boarding the bus, and punching that asshat in the solar plexus. “Look around you fool,” I wanted to scream. Everyone is trying to get somewhere and we’re all having to wait on one another. In the intensity of the moment I was overcome by another’s rage.

I am no bodhisattva, but by the time I had reached the I-90 on-ramp, with the downtown bus riding my tail pipe the whole way, I had found my peace. That dude wasn’t going to intrude on my excellent morning. No sir, he did not have that right nor did I grant him permission. I let it go, and in that moment I experienced a rush of enlightenment. We are in complete control of our feelings. I direct my emotional state.

No more anger, I cannot welcome rage into my life. If that’s truly how you chose to live yours then you have my sympathy. Angry Metro bus driver, you have my sympathy. You’re surrounded by pushy cabs and stinking passengers daily. Perhaps someone looked down their nose at you today and that made you feel the inferiority of your place on our collective totem pole? Who knows what handed you to me in that intersection. But you, angry bus driver, with your horn of wrath, did not upset the delicate balance I discovered. You cannot. I place one hand on the wheel and one on the line and I will guide this vessel through your storm. You are only an opportunity.

I Want to be a Mountain

There is rain outside, falling steadily on the patio. Internally I am not calm. My mind is not at rest. I rose early and have been anxious to patter wet and cool and happy down a muddy path somewhere high up. Anticipation is forming my day and soon I will pack Aral into the bulki and set off into the weather.

I just came across this film project on Kickstarter and I really want to see this (thanks Rain Shadow Running). It wins the internet today and for a long time hereafter. Watch their funding pitch and see these people and the places they inhabit. If it helps, think about me running in the rain.

KICKSTARTER from Women of the Mountain on Vimeo.

The Thrill of Words

I am about one-thousand words deep into an idea right now. An idea that developed for me because of a culmination of little occurrences that just happened to intersect. How would Feng shui change in the vacuum of space? If the physiognomy of mind, man and earth are separated from one another is Qi still possible?

I wanted to write a dialectic which explored these questions, but in order to accomplish this I’ve needed to also concoct a future history of sorts to contextualize the investigation of my fictional scholar. I am experiencing great word joy at the moment. And in this realization I believe that I may have also discovered a miserable deficit of the language. I cannot find or think of a term or phrase that describes the joy of creating a story.

With that I’ll leave you with an excerpt from the manuscript WINTER CITY ABOVE THE CLOUDS. The full chapter is called “The Death of Chung Do” and it details both the revolutionary rise of the Di Laio dynasty and the fall of the living super arcology Chung Do.

Yelü Abaoji rose to power from the wastes of the apron lands surrounding Chung Do and many historians today argue that his kingdom should have been no more than a momentary aberration in the long history of the people’s socialist triumphs. Initially little more than Baojun, western powers and key party officers alike ignored the hatchet wielding slum lord and labeled his supporters terrorist, kongbu zuzhi, and him Little Khitan Warlord. In that age of high powered munitions and laser guided missile strikes it is true that the hatchets seemed no more than annoyance; isolated riots that were easily and ruthlessly quelled outside the boundaries of the super city.

One party official, who watched as disciplined and armored fangbao jingcha put down an early boundary incursion near a western edge of Chung Do, remarked that the riot police should “leave the Khitan terrorists their hatchets. They can then hack off the limbs of their fallen for something to eat.” Many have speculated that hubris was indeed the one flaw that ended the otherwise indomitable authority of the Communist who inhabited the living super-city of spring. This claim may be reasonable for their pride was indeed quite great. The fact that they had consolidated so much power at the heart of the greatest city ever created, so much good for so many residence of the closed system arcology, was a common thread in the propaganda of the time.

The wasted lands beyond the boundary, an environmental catastrophe in places still today, were known as both a failure of the many Westernization attempts of the Twenty-First Century and a well deserved legacy for the inhabitants who had denied the benefits of Gong Chan. Despite the generations of Khitan that had passed since the seed of Chung Do first sprouted along the eastern shore of Bohai Bay, Gong Chan leadership bared entry into Chung Do. At that time Beijing was then no more than a stinking, desolate corps. A rusted and corrupted example of the gluttony of an impossible economic paradigm. The waste and decay, the unavoidable culmination of three-hundred and fifty years of the Western petrochemical excess, scarred the soil of continents and poisoned the atmosphere of the globe.

Chung Do was the only refuge and from within its ever expanding walls kuozhang was the prevailing doctrine governing the city’s growth. It drank water from the sea, excreting salt and poisons near its northern and southern extremities far below the surface. Chung Do pulled the majority of the nutrition it required simply from the air it breathed. The living city of spring fed, sheltered and cared for generations of inhabitants, a self-sustaining organism supporting a vast, but discrete population.

Now I must sleep, but I am so looking forward to working on this tomorrow.

Something to Consider (Part Two)

This is part two of the DetCon1 redux. You might be wondering, “What the what? He just said he was getting on the plane.” You’d be completely justified to ponder the worst. I’m here to assure you that nothing bad has happened. I took a bump on my flight for a ticket voucher.

If I wasn’t currently sitting back down in the comfy chair they’ve given me next to a plug writing this blog post I’d be up, jumping around, doing a happy dance. My plane ticket to Detroit in September for Geek Fan Expo is now a buried concern. Nearly $600 for three hours of waiting. I was in the Army, I’m good at waiting. Mad skillz, expert mode.

And now, by virtue of having little else to do, I have hours to complete some thoughts about my recent convention experience.

I got to meet Annalee, of Geek Feminism and twitter fame, while at the convention. She has some good things to say on the topic of diversity and harassment, and she is a thoughtful person you should be reading. But it was a real treat for me to meet her, her husband and friends this weekend.

Friday evening we were sitting around in the hotel bar, shooting the breeze, when the topic came around to disability. In particular, invisible disability. It turns out that we have this in common, and that we both have opinions regarding how chronic health issues are portrayed in media. She invited me to join her on the Disabilities in Genre Fiction panel the following afternoon.

I accepted her generous offer, figuring that if I didn’t feel like sharing anything about my seizures or compounding problems that I could just pass the microphone. It also seemed a good opportunity to sit in front of a crowd and gain maybe that little bit more recognition for my writing. And maybe, just maybe, my opinions on the subject might be useful in this discussion.

The panel was a super success. I think the exchange between the audience and the panel was more active and delved deeper into issues ranging from separating the disabled from the general diversity discussion going on in fandom right now to normative memes in media about health issues that just happen to be grossly wrong. Near the end of the panel a question was asked which was spurred by something I had said earlier. It was something like, “Why do you think so many authors get disability wrong.”

Annalee replied, “Because homework is hard,” and she is right. Then she handed the microphone to me. Now on the spot I grabbed an idea I’ve been simmering on a back burner for a while. It’s important to note that I agree with Annalee to a point, some authors are just that lazy. But honestly, I believe that this is ultimately a lack of empathy.

As an example I put forward several seasons of THE WALKING DEAD. My premise is that we’ve witnessed a change in writing for this show.

In early episodes, attempts were made to portray the emotion that the cast of characters must be feeling as their world crumbles around them. In the very first episode “Days Gone Bye“, amongst several emotionally intense moments, one stands out. Rick returns to the legless woman in the park intending to end her suffering. Before he puts down the zombie he whispers “I’m sorry this happened to you.”

At this point, we know two things. First, Rick still sees the dead risen around him as people. Dead or alive, they still deserve his respect and because he is a caring human being, he knows that these afflicted are in fact other people. He treats them with respect, or at least as much as he can afford. The second thing we can know is that the writers want you to feel the conflict, pain and struggle that the survivors must certainly endure. And we know they can write for that effect. With this screen play they’re pushing the viewer into the emotional position of the character. If you’re crying, feeling miserable, even wishing that there was a cure for the zombie flu then they did their job admirably.

Think about that for a moment, the legless woman in the park, is a person. Rick certainly lacks a cure for her condition, but he recognizes the tragedy of the woman’s fate. He does what he can to end her suffering, and he does this with caring and respect.

The invention of the Governor did plenty to muddy the plot arc of the show, but I would argue that it also objectified everyone on the show denying caring. By the end of season four the surviving characters have become little more than meat hacking sociopaths. Increasingly they are portrayed as narcissist who view the “walkers” as little more than obstacles. By transforming the cast this way, the writers are foregoing every opportunity for pathos. The characters in the show don’t feel, why should you?

Most of the episodes in season four seemed to be little more than an excuse for expressions of violence. Daryl loses Beth and do we see him grieve? Not much. Lizzie and Mike are twisted into monsters despite the fact that they are little girls. Rick’s children fare no better, even though they both make to the end of the season breathing, they become an excuse for senseless violence. When the Governor killed Hershel he terminated the shows last link to pathos. I’ve consistently lowered my expectations with each successive season and I expect season five will prove to be little more than a weekly blood bath.

Writing a story can be either a narcissistic expression of an author’s world view which simply sends content out into the wild or the reasoned assumption of responsibility by the creator of the story for both the content and the emotion and even behavior it will consequentially engender. I believe that creators of THE WALKING DEAD have traded the comparably difficult proposition of writing with the intent to provoke thought, emotional response and more specifically pathos for the much easier goal of simply shocking the viewer. And to achieve this, they will invariably dehumanize anyone at far end of a barrel starting with the zombies, followed by anyone who opposes the main cast. The supporting cast is next in line, and so forth. Do you see the danger yet?

One of my favorite aspects of science and consequentially science fiction is that it has the capacity imagine the resolution to many problems. In my opinion really good science fiction may even provide a rough road map which leads the reader through the milestones necessary to achieve, if not a happy, than an improved ending. Zombie stories are becoming, more and more, little more than a value judgement about The Other. Many of these stories provide an instruction set; how we treat those affected by persistent health issues. Zombies were people first; outside the context of the story would we condone the violent and unfeeling abuse of a corps?

DetCon1 Redux (Part One)

I’m sitting just outside the DTW jetty that will eventually have a plane parked at its other end. This plane will take me to PHX and thence further on, and hopefully home, to SEA. While I sit, sipping an iced chai from the coffee stand down the concourse, I’ve been reviewing the last four days. Trying to form the lessons I’ve learned into something I can use moving forward. Articulate the wisdom of those who have gone before me.

I should note that in addition to all the learning and networking I had an awesome time. The North American Science Fiction Convention happened to to intersect with the NetRoots Nation convention. This proved a particularly good sort of kismet for all involved. Every time I had a little down time I was approached by someone from the adjacent affair who would invariably say something like “What’s this all about?” or “I don’t read science fiction, but I want to more ….” In some small way all that curiosity and social boundary crossing I think enriched the experience for all involved. Plus, I believe the verdict was that DetCon1 had the better room parties.

Matt Thyer and Jim Hines

From the get-go my convention schedule seemed subject to change. The Vice President’s visit to the same building meant that I got stuck in some amazing traffic. As a connoisseur of the finest road bound cluster events in Norther America and beyond I can say that this was a classic Interstate stoppage. Ultimately, this meant that I missed my scheduled reading. But don’t feel bummed for me because the agile and capable staff running the convention from the table in the green room busted a move and helped me find a spot on Saturday. Opposite Jim Hines. Which was awesome. Did I happen to mention I read opposite Jim Hines? I should probably say that again, opposite Jim Hines.

Had I nothing to read other than a crap pile of words I would still fail to see how this could have gone badly for me. Jim Hines…. Rather my first reading at a convention turned out to be a fairy tale princess event with butter and bacon. We (and mostly he) packed the room. It was standing room only and as we got ready I couldn’t help grinning madly because I knew that I had selected a black arrow from my quiver.

Chapter four of the second book in the “sports in space” series is about the naval space program’s super secret Atlatl gunboat system told from the point of view of Gunnery Sergeant Capston. I had rehearsed the reading a bunch the night before, I wanted it to go really well. I knew there were three good laughs in the manuscript and the potential for a cringe. They happened, all where I had anticipated they might. Even better I know how I can do a better job next time.

The reading was an amazing learning experience and it also served as a great opportunity to get to know Jim Hines a little better. What a great guy to be friends with. I am really looking forward to Geek Fan Expo in September where we’ll both be special guests.

Speaking of readings, I caught John Scalzi and Jacqueline Carey combined reading. A memorable hour of my life, and one which I can now refer to in an effort to make future readings of my work all the better. Both of these excellent authors are also the very best public readers.

So, yes, watching these two masters read was very helpful and informative. I also got to spend some time face-to-face with them both as well as others. A memorable tid-bit that Scalzi left me with was something like, “The operating mode of writing is failure, so get used to it. Submit, and while you’re waiting write some more. Eventually, you’ll get sales.”

Finally, John’s wife Kristine was at the convention. Much like my wonderful Tess, Kristine is a capable, smart, and loving woman who teams up with her main man in the creative process. Perhaps the most important take away from our conversations was that I was reminded I really need to listen and pay attention to what Tess has to say about my work. Perhaps more importantly what she tells me about the way I conduct my business. She is my first, best fan in addition to my partner. Also, “never compromise when it comes to your work.” Kristine gave me this fundamental as a guideline and then we enjoyed a beer in between panels. If you’re reading this, I’ve heard you both. Loud and clear.

And with that, I must leave you. The plane is at the far end of the jetty and the scent of anticipation is running through the crowd. Yes, there will be more. Stay tuned, big announcements are blog bound.