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Vampires, Vinegar, and Vaccines | 2011 | September and Beyond

04.13.11 5:27 p.m.

So what, so I've got a smile on
But it's hiding the quiet superstitions in my head  

-John Mayer


White Elephant

"I'm sorry, was something going on that did not involve me being obsessed with imaginary shadows?"

My mind is beautiful and complex. I adore it and cherish it. I have devoted my life to guarding and improving it, because it has been my core asset. However, for the same reasons that I love it, it is driving me a little crazy.

I tell my students that they should not let their limits be dictated. I see how they edit their essences and curtail their desires to fit better into molds, because they are teenagers and blazing individuality is frightening. Yet, of late, I wonder if I am much better. I realize the masks I wear to avoid the ungainliness of life, to function within a world in which I don't quite fit, a world in which self-censorship is encouraged not to avoid profanity but profundity. Though I feel arrogant writing that, watering myself down to the perceived status quo has never gotten me anywhere worthwhile. I am likely to always stick out, I might as well embrace it.

This lack of confidence causes me to downplay my accomplishments, such that aunts sweetly interrogating me about my novel makes me yearn to change the subject to something less awkward, like my sex life or digestive regularity. Having my novel published (and having the publisher write to me of his eagerness for sequels before this one even hits the presses) is the culmination of years of patient work, is praise I have earned a dozen times over, but I receive compliments and interest as if blows from a bat. Can't I leave manuscripts in the digital equivalent of brown paper wrappers and not have to bother with people having the audacity of liking them to my face? I struggle to believe my editor likes what I wrote and is not only complimenting me because his revisions are overdue. (I do, however, exalt when Melanie assures me that she believes in my work because she is not one to mince words.) I could hardly stand a long distance couple telling me that they read a draft of one of my sequels aloud to one another over Skype. My brain gives a flash of them reading it in mockery before I realize how ridiculous that vision is. Likewise, I am a fine teacher when given the slightest opportunity, but that is because I cannot resist explaining and captivating when put in front of an audience. (It's a defense strategy, so the students do not eat me from boredom.) I know that other people see the good in what I accomplish, I know that I do accomplish things worthy of notice, but I shy away from hearing commendation from most people. Even my parents are not immune to my neurosis, as I shift my weight from foot to foot and purse my lips until they stop talking about my novel (which they are both reading in preparation for publication). In their shoes, I would be as thrilled, but I cannot process it appropriately. I feel like I am in high school again, getting back essays covered in red marks that I cannot force myself to read but instead stuff into the bottom of my backpack.

I deserve to have self-assurance, and I know that on an intellectual but not emotional level. I feel insecurity not like that which possesses my students - so fearful of the specter of perceived homosexuality that they cannot engage in honest friendships with members of their gender - but nearly as destructive. I have cooled my vocabulary to bring it closer to the temperature of the room, which is condescending and presumptuous, if unnoticeable. I have spoken in a voice that was not my own, one that did not match how I sound in my head. I see this familiar verbal exuberance in others and now find in grating in a way that only the recovering addict can. I struggled in friendships with people - Jacki most tellingly but also Daniel - because I found them intimidating. I wanted to impress them and have them like me, but felt insufficient the more effort I expended. It was easier to crack a joke and have the character I played be found lame than to be wholly known and judged (since, as I have written, I can stand a favorable judgment no better than a guilty verdict).

I feel as though I exist in a world of muted shades while behind my head flare hyper-colored thoughts that I forebear voicing. My sleep deprivation makes things darker but, when it lets up, everything becomes vivid - maybe by comparison. In these moments that stretch to hours, I am in action how I seem in my head, for the first time I can recall outside Melanie's arms. These flashes of brilliance are amazing, but the cerebral bog is not worth the pleasure of contrast. (I do not, for the sake of unnecessary clarification, believe I have recently become manic-depressive, if just because these windows of lucidity do not make me in any way hyper. If anything, I am smilingly taciturn, like a Zen master according to Melanie, as I do not feel the need to speak to cover for the murkiness fomenting inside my skull.)

I wonder if the two things are correlated, if I am going through a crisis and the sense of profound authenticity is the reward for survival. My soul gives me an evening of insight and connection to keep me brave in the fight. When I get through this, will I be even less fictional? Will there no longer be a neurotic barrier between what I think and how I act? For that, I can continue to struggle with this monster that does not exist beyond my eyes.

Even Melanie is still astounded by what I know and can do, such as when I begin discussing film theory in the seventies as it applies to blaxploitation (my assumption had been that both film theory and blaxploitation would be of no real interest to her, so I did not mention them except when explaining who Shaft was, e.g., one bad mother). On one hand, this does mean that she is in for a lifetime of surprises, as I absorb random information that I am inclined to jam together (you would not believe how weird the notes for my books are, particularly when I mortar historical events with fantastical adhesive) and divulge apropos of little. On the other, it is likely that the woman to whom I confide almost the entirety of my soul should know my breadth and depth. There is no fear of her judgment because I have full confidence that she loves me.

I feel like a miser hoarding. I accrue these shiny gems of knowledge but have no practical purpose for most of them beyond embellishing novels. Showing off my store of jewels does not make me feel good so, at times, it seems better to act as though I don't have one. When it the truth slips through, when I realize I am holding forth, as it were, I feel embarrassed. But one cannot backpedal one's way out once one has been fingered as Knowing Something. It is not as though these nuggets have intrinsic value to most people I encounter, engendering little more than contempt when flashed in their direction. As you can imagine, trying to give away the factoids in a show of enthusiastic and compassionate generosity tends to come off slightly more as being a pretentious ass.

My insecurity is viral, keeping me in my head, keeping me for experiencing the world. The less I examine, the more myself I become and the more spare processing power I have to do serious thinking (mostly about what kind of business a goblin would run in the twenty-first century, but the point stands). My cognitive ability revs in neutral, reviewing my every action and thought rather than living the life before me. When I get out of my head, when I am not analyzing the past, weighing regrets, or trying to catastrophize out twenty different versions of a future I cannot control, I am blessed. In fact, I am blessed no matter, I happen to not let myself enjoy the blessings because I am inwardly obsessed. I would not let a friend be tortured by insubstantial demons they conjured, but I let it happen to me because I am apparently such a self-flagellant.

Friday, I went to a series of short plays. I did not want to spend the night at home, as the day had been anxiety-free for the most part thanks to Melissaís advice on melatonin (specifically, to take it around 3PM rather than at bedtime so my circadian rhythms were reset) and deep breathing exercises I had devised to distract myself from thinking of my anxiety (which quickly becomes a vicious cycle because I have anxiety about my anxiety), so I called Daniel to meet me for dinner in New Paltz. I felt more myself, effortlessly myself, as I did not give a thought to my behavior. It was as though my mind skipped the neurotic, insecure, self-obsessed subroutine. I could enjoy what was going on without a pretense; there was nothing between me and the moment. I spoke openly and without worry, without resorting to defenses or fears, and did not think about what I was doing. I watched the plays and did not think when was the time to laugh (yes, Iíve done this). I did not crack jokes when I did not need to. I critiqued afterward without worrying I would be shot down or show myself to be a philistine. When one of the authors told me she wrote a joke for me - it was a "Bartleby the Scrivener" reference at which I was one of the few to openly chuckle - I smiled and told her that I was glad she did, that her play was charming, meaning just that. The anxieties, the fear, the depression seemed to forget about me for the night.

The next day, I was filled with a nameless sadness (which felt considerably better than the anxiety), such that I bawled over a conciliatory song. (I last felt this a week before, when I drove to pick Melanie up at her dorm. When she asked then why I was lachrymose, I could only explain that I felt overwhelmed with the experience of being human. Then my tears dripped in to goldfish tank and I worried I was making their home too brackish.) Realizing I could not spend the day alone like this, I went to a museum with my mother and younger brother, acting but not wholly feeling normal.

That is a crucial point. For the most part, I act normally even when my mind is racing over nothing. One of the tricks Iíve found is not attaching to these irrational feelings and thoughts, as they are not a part of me. I attach to the best moments, the most pellucid, because I know they are true. My anxiety cannot find me when I am otherwise busy and keeps a respectful distance while I am writing out orders for its execution.

Melanie came over that night, after having heard my voice on the phone and detecting exactly my mental state. By the time I saw her, I felt better, but all lingering negative emotion vanished when she arrived. She made me dinner (peppers and mushrooms with rice, with sliced tomatoes and mozzarella drizzled with balsamic vinegar as an appetizer) and we spent until midnight conjoined at the lips, watching old shows on Netflix. Though I try not to pathologize what I am experiencing, she is the best treatment for what ails me. With her, I am confident and calm. She lets me see my life for what it is and can be. With all I have - Melanie especially - how dare I be less than exuberant?

My only plan, since nightly sleep is slowly helping me to regain my sense, is to fake confidence until I forget I am pretending. I do not see this as the same as fictionality, since I am doing this consciously and for a therapeutic purpose. I should be confident, so the lie is being anything less.

Soon in Xenology: Maybe a job, parties, zombies or aliens.

last watched: Firefly
reading: Water for Elephants
listening: Damien Rice

Vampires, Vinegar, and Vaccines | 2011 | September and Beyond

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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