Here it is, a new chapbook called BIG CRAPPY & REAL. The poems originally started bleeping out when an editor told me I lean on too many "simple words" like "big crappy & real," as I was wrapping up my MFA. They kept running on mojo created from the ticking clock of living in the big city of Austin, TX, revving down to get back to country life in Elwood, IN. In many ways, you see, these are transitional poems.
Here's a free PDF of it. I'm not doing any official run of print copies, but like I told my buddy Brendan, if you ask nice enough, I'll stable together some one-of-a-kind, handmade deal, just for you or you or you. Otherwise, feel free to share widely, print wildly, & read loudly.
These last years have been the first period of my life where I felt dedicated to watching basketball even though I do not currently play regularly, semi-retired due to this bum shoulder & a general distrust of my own ability to not get hurt in competitive action. In the past, when I did not play regularly--say, that fiften-to-sixteen year-old period when I wooed my first significant other or those early post-collegiate days when the shoulder first imitated a wet noodle--I found my desire to watch hoops, even my beloved Pacers, dwindled in tandem with my lack of playing time. Or maybe it had to do with confidence, anxious some meatball might call me a poser, or fearing my lack of up-to-date-in-the-game experience might zap the punch out of my ability to usefully watch a game, whatever the heck that means.
Last night was the first Pacers game of the 2019-2020 season, a nine-point lost to our rival Detroit Pistons, & I can honestly say my lack of playing time has not deleted my ability to understand the game’s complexities (duh). Without our superstar (Victor Oladipo), as the Pistons (Blake Griffin) were, too, the Pacers showed what I suspected they might:
Domantas Sabonis hustling all over for rebounds, loose balls, & shifty buckets (more on him soon)
The continued growth of Myles Turner’s offensive game (that between-the-legs-step-back-three was fire)
An early-season eleven-man rotation as coach Nate McMilllan figures out his lineup (I love how he won’t give up on TJ Leaf being a rotation player)
New point guard Malcolm Brogdon’s quiet 22 pt / 11 ast debut (stay healthy, please!)
A streaky offensive output (what’s new!)
Communication troubles between new teammates (I think Jeremy Lamb bumped into more teammates than he scored points)
Turner’s terrible footwork / chasing blocks thus allowing layups & dunks (I’m so tired of this!)
Sabonis’s three bloopers (two late-game airballs, one off the backboard pass, yikes)
Giving up two thirty-point games (one to freaking Luke Kennard!)
TJ Warren’s faceplant (glad to see he’s okay)
Still, I was distracted much of the game by a burning question. Not the “When will Oladipo return?” or the “How will the new guys fit?” or even “Can Turner & Sabonis play together?” (hopefully by the new year; mostly well, I think, in time; yes, absolutely,). My burning question is, “Who would be Wendell Willkie’s favorite Pacer on this lineup?” I think the answer is Domantas Sabonis; he’s a tough hustler, a good sharer (with the ball & the spotlight), & he doesn’t quit (on his team or the play).
When it comes to sports, those were the attributes I might contribute, too; I’ve always been “not bad enough”: second guy off the bench on the b-squad of the middle school basketball teams, a collection of mental attitude awards from various leagues (given to the player who sucks but plays hard & has a good enough mindset to not quit), the disc golf player that occasionally can shoot with the best of them but who anytime he actually plays a tournament ends up on the bottom of the scoreboard. When I played football in sixth grade, my coach told my parents, “If I had eleven Tylers, I’d have the hardest-working & kindest team ever; we’d lose every game, but it would be a pleasure to coach.”
I grew quickly, reaching my current height in middle school, living off the lore that my parents were told I’d be at least 6’6”. From an early age, I understood my physical limitations--strange body shape, three-inch vertical leap, lack of ligaments in my knees--& instead focused on utilizing my emotional & social components, such as an intense desire for everyone to get along & a frenetic energy for getting stuff done, to contribute.
Here are some of my highlights of my playing days, following quickly by the lowlights:
Like my basketball-playing self, the Pacers face their own natural limitations. In the NBA, outside of internal player development, there are three ways to improve--at the draft, via trade, & in free agency. Unfortunately, each option is limited in its own way for this team. The Pacers are never bad enough to get a good draft pick, not having drafted in the single digits since the late 80s, instead happening upon their best players in the late lottery or beyond, such as current starting center Myles Turner & recent hero Paul George. Without high drafts & the top prospects that come with them, they often have little trade leverage, only acquiring current starters like Victor Oladipo & Domantas Sabonis through trades gone better than expected. As for free agency, it’s even harder, as big stars choose large markets, leaving us with third-tier guys hoping to make the leap to stardom (like Malcom Brogdon) or cagey veterans making their way around the league (like TJ McConnell & Jeremy Lamb).
When I moved to Austin, I found a binder of letters I had written to NBA executives giving my pre-teen / barely-teen opinion on upcoming draft selections, trade ideas, & free agency hopes. This activity had entered the blur but then it bubbled forth, recollections of me sitting in the passenger seat on the drive down to North Carolina, flipping through issues of SLAM Magazine & ESPN the Magazine, jotting down my silly thoughts. I wasn’t going to impress anyone with my cross-over or my hops, so I felt it necessary to impress with my knowledge of the game, its inner-workings & trappings.
I also impressed (read: annoyed) my peers with my vast basketball trivia skills. On the bus to field trips or games, I’d nudge my classmates to quiz me & if there were no takers, I’d spend the travel reading the backs of whatever stack of basketball cards I had convinced mom to let me bring that day. My college sweetheart’s friends came to visit the first time & all I remember about meeting them is they laughed at the stack of books I had on my bedside, which included Can I Keep My Jersey? by Paul Shirley & Tip-Off : How The 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever by Filip Bondy. Even to this day, I listen to multiple basketball podcasts a week -- The Bill Simmons Podcast, The Lowe Post, The Mismatch; I made one friend at my last job in Austin & it was because I informed him of the historical significance of Kawhi Leonard’s Game 7 game winner last year, a fact I am sure I borrowed from The Sports Guy himself.
It is probably self-centered, me just moving back to Indiana & all, but I have high expectations for the 2019-2020 Pacers season. I am stoked to watch them grow as a team with Oladipo out, young fellas like Edmond Sumner & Aaron Holiday getting lots of fieldwork in & Brogdon getting reps as “the guy.” I am stoked to see Turner’s improved shooting (4-7 3pt FG in opening game) & rim-protection (league leader in blocks last year) side-by-side in the starting lineup with Domantas Sabonis’s reliability (11/15 from the field last night / 8th in the league last year in FG%) & hustle (team leader in rebounds the last two years) in an expanded role. I am stoked about these new players coming in: Brodgon showed a willingness & capability last night of running the offense, Jeremy Lamb is our most-tenured player, TJ Warren was aggressive, at least offensively, & TJ McConnell came in crafty in limited minutes. Additionally, I was happy to see Justin Holiday playing on the same team as his brother & Gogo Bidatze looked good in his tracksuit.
Problem is, the same things that get me stoked about this team are the ones that make those expectations so shaky. As we saw last night, Sumner can play some aggressive defense & get some sparky buckets, but he’s very limited both in size & skillset. Offensively, Turner & Sabonis shot well, but Sabonis seemed winded in starter minutes, leading to those two airballs & that bonehead turnover, while Turner was chasing blocks on the other end instead of moving his feet & being intelligently aggressive, both getting dominated by Andre Drummond. The new guys did not impress me with their defense, though McConnell was surprisingly pesky. D-Rose & freaking Luke Kennard were getting to their spots & being left wide-open, respectively. Despite the loss & the questions, I still feel like this is a solid mid-standings playoff team with the chance for a Conference Finals run; they should reach between 44 to 46 wins, for the fourth or fifth seed in the East.
I guess the question I’m left with now is who my favorite Pacer is now that Thaddeus Young is gone. We could always count on Thad to guard one of the top guys on the other team, get his average stats, & keep the bonehead moves to a minimum. Historically, I have gotten most stoked about players like that--hustlers, dependables, & just the right amount of butthead. See also: David West, Antonio Davis. If I was a betting man, I’d say my answer will be the same as the one I predicted for Willkie: Domantas Sabonis.
My dad stops by often these days--to drop off a deal he snagged on the last day of the Glass Festival, because our house is the turning back point of his Friday bike ride, just to say hi, hello, how’re y’all--but this last random visit was different. I was layered in dust, sanding the rust off the side garage door, a door my dad actually installed on this house, my grandpa’s house, a couple decades ago. “Probably right before that party,” my dad suggests as he gestures to the HAPPY HALLOWEEN sign, metallic backdrop to its pumpkins, which still hangs in the garage. The door has rusted thin after twenty-plus winters of piled snow, salt beatings, & in the most recent years, abandonment.
It has been a tad under four months plopped back into my beloved hometown of Elwood, IN, the Heart of Hoosierland, if you believe the sign a second country mile up the road from this house. At times it needs some resuscitation, left behind to flail in a changing industrial / agricultural landscape. This place (population about eight-and-a-half thousand) where I lived the first eighteen-years of my life, along with another two-year pit stop post-college-post-divorce-pre-Austin, is often described as the middle of nowhere, or Hellwood, if you are feeling extra cruel & minorly clever. For me & a lot of the folks I love most in this world, it is home, the place where our formative years molted, where we were made, both our parts & our whole.
It is also the land where my family blood on my mother’s side, runs deep, this area being home to my grandfather, besides his time away for Army training, for his eight-nine years, as well as for my mother all her sixty-some-odd years. My grandfather has traced our family roots here back to the early-19th century; besides just that, the farm & land we have lived on is at least four-generations running. Even my dad, who was born & raised on the end of a dirt road in North Carolina, has called this place home for the past thirty-three years.
Being back in this mud has reaffirmed a separated feeling I carried in Austin. “Just got back,” both a literal & summarizing message I’ve tossed out these last months to lifelong family friends, long-lost buds, & former school teachers as I encounter them in the grocery store, on the disc golf course, or at the school I cannot seem to escape, the first exposure into this current self I am wielding. Back in late August, we had our first dinner party, inviting a couple I went to high school with, who now live just a couple county roads down, over for dinner. I made a weird joke about “this is the bathroom my grandma died in,” a quip to which one of the guests replied, “Maybe you should leave that part out.”
But you see, that is the thing I cannot (& probably don’t want to) escape: it is the bathroom where my grandma died, & I would argue a significant piece of information. You see, as much as I love this place, I am also pulled back because quite frankly, my dysfunction started here & I need to face it head on right here. When I say I moved into my Grandpa’s house, I could more accurately say my Grandma’s house, as it has remained essentially the same since her passing in the mid-1990’s. The hallway carpet still imprinted with her wheelchair marks. The garage pantry still stacked with her bowls & pots & pans, unused since her death. The bathroom where she died, the bathroom where I predicted she’d die only a couple days before she did in fact die there, the walls & tile still pulsing Pepto Bismol pink.
That is till we moved in & began transforming it into our home. My Grandma in the grave & my Grandpa firmly in an assisted living community, saying “it’s your house now,” we have freed the hardwood floor from the stained carpet, we have put the kitchen back to good use, & we have accented the pink tile & pink countertop of the bathroom with white walls, a vibrant shower curtain. Neighbors & passersby, family friends & family themselves, have been commenting how they are happy to see life back on this property, bursting forth from this house--the dogs chasing each other on the edge of the field, my shitty drumming rattling the barn walls, Diana painting the front door an out-of-place teal.
It does my mind well, too, climbing through memories, bringing the pieces here back into the whole world. I am wearing shirts & hats my grandpa’s left behind. I am collecting the games I once played with my grandma to play with the kiddos who came after--my cousins’ kids, my friends’ little ones, children yet to bloom. I have dedicated myself to weekly visits with my Grandpa. I did an okay job of calling him every once in awhile while I lived in Austin & I did a better job of seeing him when I was in town for holidays & special trips, but these visits are different, now that I am living in his house, now that his death is so close (his words, not mine). I am getting to know him again, the core of him, removed from farming, from independent living, & in many ways from being the patriarch of the family. Our relationship now seems to hinge on passing on the tips & the tricks, the wheres & the whats, of his eighty-nine years in this town, lessons I am grateful for, a gratitude I’m trying to show better than I might have in the past, more reasonably than I could in the future after he is gone, through what the present requires--patience, reliability, & mutual interest.
It is a selfish blessing though, all of this--the passed-down house, the “middle-of-nowhere” misperception, the supportive family. Let me be clear: I have a serious psychological disorder, which may or may not be dissociative identity disorder (my current diagnosis), which may or may not be schizophrenia (a diagnosis suggested by several professionals), which may or may not include manic depression (my original diagnosis in my early twenties). Any way you label it, this struggle has inhibited my ability to work in my chosen profession of writing / teaching, has certainly shattered some bridges & burned out some lights, among other things. Light, I knew I would come back around to this word.
In my blood, I had written it on the bedroom wall--LIGHT. In my blood, I had written on the front glass window--HANDS LET OUT THE LIGHT. It was the headline of my most recent psychotic, or dissociative, or manic, or whatever, episode, the most intense since the move & easily a top-10 biggest freak-out lowlight (see, there’s that word again) of my life. One minute I was letting the dogs out for one last piss before I went to work, a ten-minute gap to sweep the floors, one more thing checked from the to-do list. The next moment I am shocked by the power outlet of this old house, the kind of jolt that freaks one out more than it causes harm.
That is till the paranoia kicked in, the light coming through the window suddenly blinding to me, the lamps posing an imminent threat. I closed the curtains & stuffed the gaps with blankets. I locked the doors, placed the television face-down, hid my phone & computer. I gathered all the bulbs & placed them in the middle of the living room, covered in the one remaining blanket. I stared at the poetry bookshelf, as I often do in my times of panic, waiting on a book to jump forward to me. I chose one & found my place, as I often do in my times following panic, in the dim gap between bed & wall. The book was Roberty Bly’s poetry collection The Light Around The Body.
You might also say it was then a switch flipped, but I’d rather say a hand retossed the coin, landing on the other side. A few poems in, I became overwhelmed with the next stage in my spell cycle--the encroachment of the return to reality. Where are the dogs? Who is going to shame me for this one? How disappointed will Diana be when she returns to this lack of light? Still in a half-blur, I barreled outside, my head wrapped in a blanket, my hands wrapped around a pair of light bulbs, hollering for the dogs. I would later learn they had high-tailed it outta there, choosing safety down the road on a neighbor’s porch.
I do know what I did next. Still blinded by the light of day, still afraid of the electricity, still overpowered by a shaking urge to fix this, to hide what I had done, I became entangled in a delusion I could utilize the light of my body, a bastardization of Bly’s book title, to fill this house with light again. That phrase we later found scrawled on the front glass echoing loudly in my head--HANDS LET OUT THE LIGHT--I followed its push & began to squeeze. Of course, they shattered. Of course, they cut my hands. Of course, my dad, then next my mom, then, finally Diana found me there in my underwear, blood smeared on myself & the walls, my body dotted in the pieces of what I was first afraid of, those shimmers of light.
Then suddenly it was two days later & I was starting to feel stable again, the shame sucked back down, the lightbulbs replaced, the to-do list again as a mechanism for normalcy. I am coated in flakes of rust when my dad arrives, his excuse for stopping that he saw the door off & wanted to see how the project was going. Of course, he stopped to check on how I am doing, to double-check that I had not relapsed into another spell. He carries his own fragmentation, his own trauma & shame, so he is not one to press me on the details & honestly I prefer it that way. He stopped by & that is always the important part.
It is an uncountable blessing (to borrow one of my mother’s words) that I have this Future Barn where I can fracture & fail, experiment & execute, grow & share, that I have this support as I muddle through my madness, that I have been gifted a house, some land, & another’s entire life of memorabilia & materials to build my own, cleansed of the real world’s supposed markers of supposed success. You know the moment I felt permissioned to lean into the struggle? Pulling out of the driveway, my dad braked, rolled down the window, me assuming he is going to finally say something about the incident, but instead, he simply reaches out a yellow hand & says, “Want a banana?”
It would have once yapped about
The seven folks in China who signed into my Netflix
Account this weekend & how
I am okay with this breech.
“More rom-coms for everyone!” would have said this poem
Likely as it was ending.
Six years ago, roots freshly
Cut, my ideal poem might have harnessed a fair amount
Of inward spiral, much like
Kenneth Koch’s “The Circus,” mine
However circling back to my poem of a rooster
In the flower bed, image
Obsession flowered beyond
Its emotional baggage, stretching beyond lyrical
Tentacles. That poem might
Have some similarities
Shared with the poem I told Andy I was writing last
Month, following this nature
Hike with the birding dude
Victor Emanuel. I told myself I wouldn’t touch
My phone & forgot a pen
So I trusted my flat brain
Never the trusty cup to catch, to capture, to contain
The facts fluttering below
His mustache like those hooded
Warblers in that cypress. See, I cannot quite promise you
A bit of this here stanza’s
Accuracy. Does he have
A mustache? Did we spot that particular warbler?
I do remember a thought
“Can’t believe the relatives
Of a pineapple,” a quip quacked after Victor’s holding
The ball moss, cousin of
That thick-skinned fruit. I once hoped
To start a poem, “I am much like ball moss in your palm,”
But I’m not so sure that’s true
Or still relevant these days.
Since then, I have eaten quail eggs & fish eggs, have witnessed
A baby doll foot gnarled by
The charred mouth of a fellow
Grown man. For some people, these are ideal topics, starting points
At least for the ideal poem.
Not me, here in the middle
Of elsewhere. Since then, I wrote the phrase “middle of nowhere”
Out of existence (come on)
Though maybe since it was prose
It doesn’t count the same if positioned in the ideal
Poem, clustered with a line
Like “The middle of nowhere
Is left for the dead,” though clearly this is not that order
Of ideal poem. Likewise
An ideal poem refuses
To say “love is in my cells” or “my shadow already
Disfigured, debunked.” Today
My ideal poem admits
In my lifetime, I will behold a breakdancer head slide
Straight into a gold medal
In the Olympics & yes
Honestly, I'll cry. It’s what I do, I weep when I watch
You do what is truly love
At such impressing levels--
Yes, I’m talking to you, Katie Ledecky, flip-turning
In my un-ideal poem.
After a little hiatus & a move home to Indiana, DISPATCHES FROM ELSEWHERE returns with the first Biscuits Calhoun poem back in Hoosierland, a nod to our summer playlist, some reflections on the democratic debates, & a litany of good nutrition advice from our friend Marie, a fitness coach in LA.
I had this dream the other day where I was swimming down the creek that leads from Barton Springs, well, more like I was being pushed by the current, perhaps we’d recently had a big Texas spring rain, out to the lake, what folks around here call Lady Bird Lake, which is actually a river, Colorado River, though not the Colorado River, but a Colorado River. It’s a familiar float, of the poor, unemployed days, of the puppy-swimming-practice era, of the more recent, just-about-outta-here period. In this dream, it didn’t pop with the canine spirit & freeing feeling of usual. The water, like the sky, was dim & I was alone, treading along. I kept intersecting something like lily pads, plastic bags, pudding skins; when turned up, they turned out to be faces, the faces of folks I’ve lost in my time in Austin--buddies come disconnected, friends who moved away or moved on, loved ones that done died. I arrived at the last one, a face I couldn’t recognize, & right before being spit out into the lake with the nutria, some plastic bottles, & those bravest paddle boarders, I put it on; in the reflection of the water, it was my own.
“We are not who we were not very long ago.” - Rebecca Solnit
I’d lived in two towns, one state, before I came to Austin, Texas six years ago--my hometown of Elwood & my college city of Muncie, Indiana. Coated in a layer of naivete & lack of exposure back then, I still navigated the world with the Golden Rule, learned from the banner in Mrs. Jones’ fourth grade class -- “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” -- a worldview laughable, lacking nuance, & unstable, to say the least.
There’s a part of me still a child, & yeah, I know that’s how most adults feel, but often they crush it to keep it down deep. The ones that do let it out, often let it run wild, bloating on gummy bears or passing out in the ditch over too much fun. For me, it’s a touch more literal, this fragmented little feller that has needs & moments, fears & joys. Honestly, he still likes the smell of dirt & is more than a little bit scared, though he’ll go in, of natural bodies of water. It’s also the part of me that finds comfort in list-making.
Here, let me tell you about some of my favorite nature spots in the Austin-area. Like the Flying Armadillo Disc Golf Compound, which was once a big patch of briars & a whole lot of dust & is now a strange disc golf paradise, complete with camping, a disc golf putt-putt course, & a surely-built-without-a-permit three-story gazebo thing. Like Turkey Creek Trail, which we just did our last hike at the other morning, a pretty three-mile, off-leash loop where Bo occasionally goes missing for eight minutes & Ginny always gets very wet. Like Red Bud Isle, a closer, smaller looped off-leash park where the pups love to meet each & every dog & human, except for that one guy who stuck a stick in his back pocket & then acted weird when dogs chased his butt. Like McKinney Falls State Park, which has to be high on the list of most beautiful spots within shouting distance of a major airport. Like the property owned by our friends The Pryors in Dripping Spring, which is where you’ll mostly hear me say things like “goodness gracious, will you look at that.”
Hanging with my childhood friend KC the other day, her last of three-summers-in-a-row visits, we admitted how we both always carried this natural openness to others, to folks who are different than us, be it culture or ideology or neurological make-up, but it wasn’t until we found ourselves in more-diverse (though still admittedly segregated & not-all-that-diverse) college towns did we finally have the exposure to put that drive to the test, in terms of growth & connection. It was also in this stepping-out of our small town, that we first met people who were actually similar to us, be it the rough-around-the-edges multipolar empath or the neurotic well-meaning over-rationalizer, introductions that allowed us to see ourselves more clearly. We both love book-learning, but it’s the oral story, the shared experience, & the hands-on missteps & relations that drive us forward.
I’ve met many folks who abandoned the small town lifestyle of their raising, never to look back. On the flipside, I still have many friends & family members who never left. I’m realizing how necessary it was for me to leave as a mechanism for seeing clearly the parts of that culture & those experiences that I don’t value or agree with, but also to reconnect with the traits & activities that feel necessary & truly a part of my identity. When I entered the Michener Center for Writers on a poetry writing fellowship back in 2014, someone joked that I was a “feller,” over a fellow. It became this running gag, my hickishness as my sign of other, be it in the hollering of my poems, my distrust of city living, or the cliches of drinking, anger, etc. Separated from the rural culture that honed me, I could see more of that hooting & hollering within myself, whereas back there, I was the artsy one, the weird one, the less-masculine one, the more liberal one, you get my point.
“I give away a little bit about myself each time I speak.” - Camille T. Dungy
I’ll never forget being one of four white people at the Huston-Tillotson basketball game on the night of the 2016 election. I’ll never forget Quentin & Sam, the fellers who lived in the alley behind my first apartment here, who truly were my first friends in town. I’ll never forget when I thought Shake Shack was a dance club & the city folks howled with laughter. I’ll never forget meeting a person who claimed to have never seen a cow & being like, “I’m pretty sure you passed like seven on the way here.” I’ll never forget Octavious, who was on a meth-bender & thought I was following him, the day after I had just spent three days on the couch, convinced I was in a Truman Show-type situation, & we found footing together in our paranoia.
Starting with my premonitions of the deaths of my grandma & my uncle, I’ve been haunted by weird feelings, spawned of odd coincidences. After their deaths, every headache meant someone was brain dead, every cough meant someone was choking to death, & every moment away from a parent meant they’d never return.
I’ve been forced to accept that paranoia is another tripwire I often fall over. A few months ago, I was watching a basketball game at a bar near the house & they started a trivia round. It was half-time & I was reading a Suzanne Buffam poem that included the alternate name of the Mona Lisa, La Gioconda; at the exact same moment, the question blared through the loud speaker, asking “What famous painting is also called La Gioconda?” This inexplicable connection ignited a “somebody’s watching me” feeling that caused me to spiral into delusion, a regular feeling I hid for many years.
“I am forced to sleepwalk much of the time.” - John Ashbery
Since I was about twelve, I had this hunch that my psychological make-up was a little screwy, had been bumped outta whack. Growing up in Indiana, I had well-intentioned, caring therapists who unfortunately lacked the worldview to understand what I was going through & the progressive / intellectual values I felt building up inside. When I moved to Muncie & even more so when I moved to Austin, I met well-educated & specialized mental health professionals, but they lacked the understanding of my Midwestern culture & morals, often viewing me instead as a caricature. I became a bit of a hypochondriac, though not of the I’VE GOT LUPUS & I KNOW IT sort, but of the SOMETHING’S WRONG WITH MY BRAIN kind. Sitting around a dinner table with friends recently, telling the story of how my therapist finally landed on the DID diagnosis, I realized I was a psychological / neurodiversity hypochondriac, though the medical idea of a tumor did pop up from time to time. I’d come to an appointment with SW convinced I was a psychopath, sure I had autism, believing I was touched with some new unknown malfunctioning of the mind. I’d have my list of symptoms & my research ready, but she’d turn me away with even better counter-arguments & her solid professional opinion. Until one day, she came ready with her own idea & lists of reasons why, a connection literally life-changing, which set me on the path to better understanding my inner workings & the necessary practices to better myself, the least of which was my diagnosis with DID.
In my early twenties, I had a hometown therapist explain thinking errors to me--fortune-telling, all-or-nothing thinking, & catastrophizing were my main charges--& more importantly, how to adjust that mindset to stay grounded & move beyond. In this new era of Tyler Gobble, post-essay & post-diagnosis, I had to recreate my motivation, my self-esteem, & my trajectory. My first tattoo was my favorite Dean Young line at the time: “We are clouds & terrible things happen in clouds.” I was 23 years old, fresh out of undergrad, out on the road for my first out-of-state poetry reading. I was also divorced, jobless, & living again with my parents. My mother asked, “Why did you have to pick a quote so sad?” I didn’t find the quote sad; it’s relieving & motivating. I’m not special & the universe doesn’t give a shit about me; now we’ve gotten that out of the way, we can move on, can move beyond.
A big step I’ve been taking is actually find some grounding & entertainment in discomfort & unknowing, a trait I celebrate in poetry but until recently, haven’t been able to appreciate in life. The other day I had an intersection that typically would have flipped me distraught. I was having lunch, reading a Chuck Klosterman essay about Truth in interviews, when two young boys sat down at the table beside me. One said something & the other said, “You’re lying.” Then the kid who pointed out the lie began to fake interview the lying one, holding a pretend microphone up to the liar’s mouth--”How often do you lie?” “How many times a day do you lie?” “Have you ever lied to me before?” Before I would have collapsed under the interconnectedness of this experience, but this time I took my breaths, thought about the wild probability of this parallel, & chose instead to rejoice in the weirdness of this moment, the boy’s cleverness. Instead of distress, I found comfort in knowing that we, no matter the age or the situation, are often concerned with the same battles throughout our moments--truth, human connection, death, etc. It’s been a necessary revamping to live more concerned with meaning-making, the process over the product.
In this last two years of life in Austin, I’ve been obsessed with podcasts. They fill spots of my day with the sensation of doing something productive in those moments that otherwise feel voided (driving, dishes, showering, etc.)--it’s social without having to talk, educational while allowing multi-tasking, entertaining without the sour taste of pop culture’s fakeness. When I’m feeling lonely or anxious, my favorite podcaster is there to say, “Hey. Here’s something else, something bigger than you, to ponder.” It’s probably similar to how my Mom loved watching Oprah after a long day of teaching kiddos or how my Dad loved listening to Bob & Tom goof & giggle while he drove his semi-truck down the white ribbon of death.
Podcasts such as Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Armchair Expert w/ Dax Shepherd, & the Bill Simmons Podcast, provided me something I never knew I needed; they were the first place I ever remember hearing two men have a genuine open conversations about art, feelings, & one’s personal history, a necessary example for me.
As I’ve said before, my fragmentation creates a multiple-choice question type scenario for each intersecting moment, a jumbledness that often overwhelmed the self & overrode the intent of the moment. That is, till I learned an easy solution--waiting!--though sometimes it takes several of the same lessons to get it through this thick skull. On Armchair Expert, John Kim advises men to focus on responding over reacting. My friend AP articulated it as “waiting three seconds before speaking,” allowing that time to process & choose. I want my reaction to be listening-then-waiting, because as my wife said in a paper, “How someone instinctively reacts will reflect what one sees as givens in the world.”
“I’ll say / That ye may love in spite of beaver hats.” - John Keats
I did my fair share of reading about DID & doing the work in therapy, but I’ve still felt an urge to see more of others’ everyday living with DID. Thus, I turned to social media. To be honest, the expression I found there seems immature, leaning instead on the performative & kitschy possibilities of the disorder rather than the reintegration & state-oriented approach. The disorder took a name change from Multiple Personality Disorder to Dissociative Identity Disorder to shift the emphasis from the media-driven, fully-fledged personality to the imbalanced, unfixed states of identity formation. Things like alters having individual Instagram accounts or recording moments of “switching” seems to both further perpetuate that stereotype & keep the primary person from integrating those parts. Maybe I’m being judgemental. Maybe I’m jealous. Maybe I’m just too old, though I do appreciate many of the DID memes floating around.
Three Favorite DID Memes:
Baby On The Highway
Honest-Ass Pie Chart
The Look Back Blur
What is the difference between a dream & a memory? For most of my twenties, I had a recurring dream that I died on my thirtieth birthday. Jumping out of an airplane with my buddies, I say “What a way to celebrate three decades,” & out comes one of those gym-class parachutes. I blow out the 3-0 candles on my cake & it explodes in my face. Someone shoots me thirty times. This past September, I turned thirty.
“What’s happening now can’t predict what I’ll dream tonight.” - Lyn Hejinian
I often have dreams, both in the night & in the day, recounting dissociative spells I’ve had. I’m never quite sure if I’m retrieving those memories, rebuilding them from others’ accounts, or making them up. It’s probably some combo of the three. Anywhichaway, it’s a strange reality to have a memory of something I did, but didn’t remember, & then all of a sudden there’s a recording playing in loop in my head. My dad is a truck driver & one of my favorite parts of riding was the CB radio. On a frequency, anyone within a certain radius can speak up, listen in, & move on. There’s no solidity, no trace, no definitude. That’s kinda how my head feels.
Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker reminds us that one is better than zero, two is better than one, when it comes to evolution, as opposed to this big leap as is often misconstrued. I’ve been learning that self-improvement, be it healing or reintegrating or learning new skills or whatever, is the same. Getting diagnosed at first felt like a slow working-backwards thing--you figure out what you have, you begin to understand what triggers it, you figure out the parameters of it, you figure out the cause of it. But I later realized those slow, steady discoveries bring unseen strides that tighten the self in important, forward-focused ways.
It was hard, but I had to step away from teaching, in order to protect others, reevaluate my own needs, & tighten up my expectations of the lifestyle I hope to lead. It was hard, but I had to let certain folks go whose own journeys were incompatible with my own. It was hard, but I had to admit that certain desires I hold, such as having children, are not wise ideas with my mental make-up. It was hard, but I had to accept that my reality is not the reality of many situations, instead built up of my projections, delusions, & misperceptions.
I’ve written about this before, but one of the first observations my therapist SW noted was how I frequently live on the edge of extreme feelings, not able to stably be simply happy or sad, & certainly unfamiliar with neutral or content. What LR called “black outs,” what psychiatrists called “states,” & what my loved ones call “my spells” represent the intersection of these extremes, these animal states that overcome me. I call them thus: (D)anger, Dizzy, Lizard, Party Ghost, Sponge, Sensitive. These are the dissociative states I can fall into, in & of themselves contributors to my most prevalent dissociative symptoms like memory loss, erratic behavior, & depersonalization. It’s when the (D)anger, Dizzy, & Lizard combine that we get Vinny, my overly enthusiastic Protector. It’s when the Sponge, Sensitive, & Party Ghost overlap that we get The Kid, my grieving people-pleasing Little.
I didn’t realize it for awhile, but Biscuits Calhoun is a kind of alter, a character based on the kind of hick men I admire, a combo of Lizard, Party Ghost, Sponge, & Sensitive, the one to unleashes the poetry & the party..I didn’t realize it at the time, but being free to explore these selves & allow the various voices to meet in my work is why I was drawn to poetry back during my freshman year of college. When LR shared her essay, it was the final permission to process out in the open. The polyvocality in my brain, the manic trips towards self-harm, an empathic struggle with over-absorption of sensory & emotional elements, local & global, it all can be reconstituted as curiosity & inspiration. A part of me finds comfort in the study of evolution, neuroscience, & birds. A part of me feels emboldened by increased political awareness. Though I’m still learning how to live with these parts integrated, writing with my disjunctive demons, angels, & gods out in the open allows me to process fully as me, whatever that might look like on a particular day.
“How exhausting it is to be constructed / of a thousand parts--or is it several thousand?” - Timothy Donnelly
I’m not just my disorder, I know that, but there is always the fear of losing sight of the primary self. Who is Tyler Gobble? He is a husband & a family member & a puppy dad & a friend & a teaching artist & a community member. But he’s also the organizer of this system, & through that, my main focus right now is being the one that can contain the wildness, the one able to process. I’ve realized it is not Biscuits Calhoun that writes this blog, or organizes the podcast, or reads the books, or edits Biscuits Calhoun poems. That necessary role belongs to Tyler Gobble.
“to some / I am six foot & lizard // to others / I am considered a mange lamb / returned from the tropics” - Will Alexander
At the end of this month, we move into my grandfather’s house, him just down the road in an assisted living facility. As my wife approached graduation from seminary, we decided to lean into a quieter, more spacious life, my wife wanting to try out the small-town country life & me stoked to return to my roots. For me, this decision has been reaffirmed by the perspective many folks have shown when hearing about this transition. My Grandpa thinks our college-educated, artsy selves are “too good for Elwood,” my mom's therapist friend worries the space & change won’t be good for my mental health, & many folks still seem misinformed, assuming meaningful art, community, & progress can only be made in big cities. Contrary to these misguided beliefs, we are a perfect match for my hometown, a place where we can work & feel seen, as well as helping others do & feel the same.
One of the main reasons I’m moving home is to be closer to my Grandpa. I want to show gratitude to he who is left before he heads back into the ether. It feels right to show him thanks now--for the family land, for the lessons, for the great memories & love--rather than share that appreciation as they plant him in the ground.
It’s not fair to say, “I wish I hadn’t moved here,” though some of that wish’s retractions would poof away some major trauma & mighty heartaches for folks I love dearly, not to mention myself. But that wish also erases the monumental impact of my time here: the meeting of my wife & several other crucially influential friends, mentors, & artists, without whom I wouldn’t have gotten diagnosed, would’ve likely quit writing / art-making, & definitely would not have made the strides I’ve made in dealing with my disorder & my rougher redneck tendencies. As my time here wraps up, I’ve been reflecting on what parts of myself have solidified in Austin--my steadfast belief in cooperation (between citizens, between all creatures, with our landscape), my focus on shared well-being, & my commitment to being project / hobby-oriented.
For the first time in my life, I care the most about being in relation to people, other creatures, & even objects in my life, rather than maintaining a predetermined form like friendship or a job. The extension into ongoing relationship, be it through hobby or art-making or simply proximity in a park, opens up a field of awareness, empathy, & curiosity that feels natural, but is often overwhelmed by societal expectation or personal hang-ups. The same vantage point can be harnessed to relieve anxiety or embarrassment from my journey with my states, alters & symptoms flowering out my particular strand of DID. It’s about showing up, it’s about keeping on, it’s about setting each up to be their best selves, it’s about collaboration, it’s about the on-going expansive list of living.
I’m so thankful that I had the experience of organizing a monthly performance series (Everything Is Bigger), learning how to balance the needs of a community with my own selfish & stoked desires. I’m so thankful that I had the experience of working at Down Home Ranch & with VSA Texas, learning how to approach disability & neurodiversity from an angle of camaraderie. I’m so thankful that I had to experience the insanity of big city traffic navigation on a daily basis, learning to better appreciate the gridded system of open backroads & quiet streets of my hometown. I’m so thankful that I had the experience of doing Shitty Band with MT, learning how to better collaborate with a close friend & how to be vulnerable as an adult learning a new skill. I’m so thankful that I had the experience of volunteering with Meals On Wheels, learning about the power of simply showing up for the elderly. I’m so thankful that I had the experience of attending this city’s meetings & marches for organizations like Black Lives Matter, learning more effective ways to be an ally. I’m so thankful that I had the experience of being in a more vibrant LGBTQ+ community, learning more about my own sexuality & gender identity, as well as how to better support other LGBTQ+ folks. I’m so thankful for the experience of Sunday date nights with Diana, learning to discuss how we fit into our community, what we want out of a home, & how we might head towards that imagined future.
“eternity looms / in the corner like a home invader saying don’t mind me I’m just here to watch you nap.” - Kaveh Akbar
I see nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many of the world’s religions. Compassion, awe, devotion, and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have. What is irrational, and irresponsible in a scientist and educator, is to make unjustified and unjustifiable claims about the structure of the universe, about the divine origin of certain books, and about the future of humanity on the basis of such experiences.
- Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape
If I listen to many of the folks I respect the most for their intellectual & spiritual work, from my Episcopalian wife to my favorite atheist thinker / neuroscientist quoted above, belief--of any sort-- is a thing of the present, a part of oneself that should always be in process, constantly held up to the light to consider, reconsider, & reconstitute. I’ve spent the last three years doing that, through gobs of self-reflection, rejuvenating engagement with Christians, & plenty of reading, as an atheist living at & surrounded by a seminary, as my wife pursued her Master of Divinity here in Austin, TX. When folks find out this division of belief, they expectedly ask, “How does that work?” My answer varies depending on which fragmented part of me is bubbling closest to the surface, but each variation holds a cone of cooperation & mutual respect for our individual, continuous intellectual pursuits, not to mention a comparable worldview & value system.
Recently, my wife declared that her religion, like her belief in theater, is currently an active symbolic system of meaning-making, rather than an empirical stone; similarly, my disavowal of gods doesn’t discount the need & preciousness of spirituality, mysticism, & contemplation. As Sam Harris’s opening quote highlights, my concern with religion only becomes frustrated when it is wielded as a weapon, when it interferes with what I believe to be the objective truth of human living--the necessity of cooperation between all creatures; otherwise, I engage with religion to understand why it exists & how I might better pursue important questions of living through scientific, artistic, philosophical, & psychological avenues.
My history with religion, namely the Midwest’s brand of fundamentalist Christianity, is as flawed & flimsy as many other parts of my identity have been over the years. Yes, we went to church on holidays & even regularly here or there--at the damp church across the railroad tracks, at the sleepy church in the stoplight-less town called Leisure just north, at the mega-church in Anderson, the home congregation of one Sandy Patty. But the actual engagement with the ideologies & cause/effects of the doctrine were as vapid as the t-shirt I rocked in sixth grade that declared: “Basketball is a game, but Jesus is life.”
My true belief never went further than hoping to be reunited with Grandma Tyner & Uncle Ricky in Heaven. Like Bill Burr, I could never get over the fact that the pastor in the pulpit was “just some guy,” as was the guy before him standing there before him, as was the guy before him who taught him what he knows of preaching, as was the guy before him who wrote the book. My total lack of faith in the people & their obviously flawed logic burst forth at a youth group in high school. We raised a hunk of cash through slipping whatever part of our teenage allowance wasn’t spent on KFC & condoms into the offering plate; now, the leaders offered two choices to us teens: donate it to an organization that frees child sex slaves or buy new skateboard ramps & rails for the parking lot. Our recreational pleasure was chosen over the well-being of others.
It’s funny that morality, then little more than gut feelings & random observations, was the push that toppled my chance at religious belief. When I first told my mom that I didn’t believe in God, she said, “So what keeps you from being bad?” Even as a teenager, I knew it wasn’t a god or an ancient text or a threat of Hell that made me be good, to not kill, to help the poor, etc. As Albert Einstein said in 1930 in a New York Times article, “A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary.”
But beyond my frustration with god’s people, how did my belief that God is a fiction come to be? It started with my friend in high school, HC, the first person I knew self-labeled an atheist. Just the possibility of a none-of-the-above option was freeing. Mostly through reading in college, I came to understand that god doesn’t exist & is a system man made up to control & console, mainly based on the wide understanding that religious documents have historically inaccurate & man-based origins, the West’s gods have gone demonstrably silent in the last couple thousand years, & science continues to upend many “facts” of religion through reasoned experiment (the age of the universe & the origins of man, in particular).
Never married to god or propped up by a religion’s tenets, thus I was never an angry atheist, the division not divorce, the way others I’ve known have experienced the feeling of being hoodwinked & betrayed. It is obvious that not all religions or its aspects are bad; if I’m going to acknowledge the significance of facts, I must not ignore both the local & global positive contributions various religions & their practices have had--from my mother’s church offering free, non-proselytizing dinners to the positive effects AA & similar church-based programs have had those with addiction issues. Particularly, I most admire the community religious institutions can create, groups that can find necessary, ethical contributions to help provide basic needs, like food, clothing, & emotional support for the needy of all varieties.
Instead, my natural combo of curiosity, empathy, & social draw have led me to rephrase the focus as such: the important question isn’t “does god exist”(since the answer is no), but “why--& in many cases, how--does god exist” (for certain people)? We know that why is a major, natural question in life as conscious creatures. As Bill Nye said on a recent episode of Armchair Expert, all kids are scientists, are driven by that natural curiosity; I am reminded of how Dean Young in The Art of Recklessness said something similar regarding children’s relationship to poetry prior to socialization, the natural inclination towards language & its experimentation. Religion has been harnessed for like impulses too, though unfortunately, nowadays it most often is utilized as a control system, ancient arbitrary standards for morality & worldly understanding.
The other day heading to Mississippi for our friends’ wedding, my wife & I loved listening to Marc Maron prod & poke fun at both our crews of belief--the silliness of Christian evangelicals & the annoyingness of atheist know-it-alls. In the midst of those bits, I heard him say, as have many other thinkers, that religion springs from our need to understand this body, this world, this spin we’ve found ourselves in, an itch to feel connected to something bigger than the self. In his book An Atheist's History of Belief, Matthew Kneale offers much better word count to the topic, but basically, it goes like this: once we had no idea what made the sun rise (literally & figuratively), what made the sun set (literally & figuratively), & nearly everything else in between, so over time we made up myths & models for how it might have happened, & as human pressures for power, survival, & meaning-making took hold, various webs tangled & toppled. Other scientific areas of study such as evolutionary theory have shown us how religion has guided our understanding of the world, the evolution of our cultures & communities, & the effects on social functioning.
My viewpoint, which isn’t novel but is important to note, is that we now have others more-reasoned, less-baggaged methods for those answers to the universe’s biggest questions, from science to philosophy, psychology to history. My worry is that in the wake of that lack of utility, left with religion as merely tradition, a protected cultural artifact can be a dangerous weapon against reason, against one another, in the name of power. In Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett lays it out like this: “A hypothesis to consider seriously, then, is that all our “intrinsic” values started out as instrumental values, and now that their original purpose has lapsed, at least in our eyes, they remain as things we like just because we like them. (That would not mean that we are wrong to like them! It would mean--by definition--that we like them without needing any ulterior reason to like them.) (69).”
I hear this fondness often in my wife’s rationale for her continued attachment to Christianity, its mythologies, & its virtues; it circles back to how she feels, the symbolism & the stories as her chosen system to filter the trials, triumphs, & everyday of life. In exploring why humans are religious, one uncovers nearly-universal needs to have matters of mystery, storytelling, community, parameters, & some feeling of something bigger than you. It is no wonder then that religion has inspired some beautiful art, that human-specific mode of wrestling big questions, experimenting with reality, & growing the self. Art, like secularism, reframes the world around not as thing a god created for us, but this thing that literally created, sustains, & often, overwhelms us & everything we love. I actually prefer the term “secular humanist” over “atheist” these days, shifting the focus from higher power to this miraculous evolved conscious creature I find myself to be one of, to be among.
The bigger-than-me something is science, is the natural world, is the extraordinary abundance of people & creatures & objects & mess that sprung through time. Like for the poet Mei-Mei Brussenbrugge, “physical perception is the data of my embodiment.” I’ve talked about it before, but it’s why poetry is so important to me, as the playground to control the chaos. Sports once & often still does act that way for me, a rectangular container for the body’s firing synapses & muscle spasms, for the mind’s logical constraints & split-second decision-making, for humanity’s cooperation & need to be in relationship with ourselves, others, & the world around us.
That said, I’m not anti-religion like I once was, which is probably the main result of the openness of the seminary. I was able to see the wider scope of contemporary, progressive Christianity, one that leans more to the symbolic over the literal, thus creating space for necessary & ethical means of human-centrist acts like interfaith dialogue, including with secularists, & social justice reform. From the seminary’s trip to the border to greet & support migrants to my inclusion in sermons & community events, I’ve witnessed a needed progressiveness, in all people, in fighting that natural impulse that I learned from Harris who learned it from Slovic: to care more about a person than people, to not “grow more callous as the body count rises” (69).
Thus I’ve become more accepting of reframing religion as a symbolic system, as an acknowledged collection of metaphors and stories to guide us, like other systems. As David Shields tells us in Reality Hunger, “Reality is what is imposed on you; realness is what you impose back (287).” In America’s current faux-conservative climate & evangelical tyranny, it is clear the danger if the two are confused. Like my wife & her classmates have shown at the seminary, in the areas it is dangerous, we need to treat aggressive, harmful strains of religion the way we do other extreme hateful views or broken power structures. It must be interrogated, from the basis to the effects; Daniel Dennett put it best in Breaking the Spell: “You don’t get to advertise all the good that your religion does without first scrupulously subtracting all the harm it does and considering seriously the question of whether other religion, or not religion at all, does better (56).”
Like nearly everyone I know, I have “an anxious fear of future events,” to quote Hume, mine own panic revolving around the volatility of my still-slippery, fragmented person. When will my wife have enough of the episodes, the night terrors, the memory loss, etc.? When will I do something again that I can’t remember that debilitates someone I love? Why do I collapse every three months, seemingly destroying any progress I’ve made? In this anxiety, though, I find myself thankful for the progress away from religious worldviews to a more scientific, humanist perspective; personally, my Dissociative Identity Disorder would have been labeled demonic, a thing to exorcise with ritual & prayer, rather than a complex reality needed to be studied & addressed.
For me, a quiet god or ancient book provides no relief & no truth; instead, I am comforted by what we do know empirically & what we can explore through both science & art as a means of understanding & healing. I’m not a fuck-up (“God never makes mistakes, he just makes fuck-ups,” sings Sarah Shook in my skull) & I’m not special; I’m a product of my own brain in the natural world, the particular chemical firings of just another guy.
'Peering is kind of a rural thing, “just looking at stuff,” as my dad says, as he often fills his time. As I’ve discussed on here before, many of his hickish activities promote the importance of seeing (& thus, pondering)--fishing & hunting, porch-sitting, building, etc. My dad & his kin passed along to me the slow “just-looking-at-stuff” mindset; there’s family lore about how my uncle once ran his truck off the road because he’d been hypnotized by staring at a set of old wagon wheels stuck in the mud down the hill, imagining where he might plop them in his own yard. As a whippersnapper, I would ride atop a pillow in the passenger seat of my dad’s semi to see what we were passing, what we passed over. He taught me at an unusually young age the difference between the solid yellow lines & its dotted brethren in the center of the highway, a lesson, he jokes, that backfired, what with me calling out “don’t pass, don’t pass, don’t pass” into “okay, you can pass now” for hours on end.
I’ve always floated on a curiosity in how others see the world & how I might borrow their techniques & perspectives to get more goodness out of my own living. My dad sees the world through the movement around him--from the perch of his semi or his deer stand alike--but he compartmentalizes & retains it through humor & storytelling. My mother similarly passed along her ways of seeing, both literally & figuratively. My mother’s vision was always poor, “the worst non-legally blind person in town,” I (mis?)remember the local optometrist once declared; this condition eventually led to a double-corneal transplant. Though not nearly as bad, I couldn’t tell my own wife from Barry Manilow without my corrections, an advanced prescription that costs me an extra forty bucks on those cheap glasses sites.
Where her eyes lack, my mother’s soul extends very strongly, passionately, be it with love or frustration, protestation or faith. I am reminded of Donald Revell’s assertion that “[t]he poem’s trajectory is an eyebeam, not an outline,” in The Art of Attention (7). It is not necessarily what we see or the linear logic of that vision, but rather how our natural selves go forth & bring back what is found. Over the last year, I’ve gotten to know a good buddy, TA, who is blind, a friendship that has taught me much about inclusion & perspective, but also about seeing.
He utilizes sight words like “I saw this play” or “He looks really cute” with much flippancy. This usage jarred me at first, but what I’ve realized is the expanse of seeing that life renders us, regardless of our literal ability to see, through our other senses, through our emotions, & more importantly through our collecting mind. In my own life, I have been forced to see angles & visions, perspectives & delusions throughout my three decades that are otherwise foreign or seemingly irrational to others. What the subconscious throws. What the unconscious uncovers. What dreams deliver. What my spells dictate, what my delusions skew. Without meaning to, I think of Breton, rightfully: “This world is only very relatively in tune with thought...Existence is elsewhere” (Manifestoes of Surrealism 47).
After diagnosis, the past really opens up under a new lamp, the word dissociation written in mud on the clean white wall. In the introduction to his great book, The Wandering Mind, Dr. John A. Biever says that dissociation is “as mysterious and unsettling as it is commonplace,” ranging from daydreaming to disorder. I admit that such a large percentage of my life has been spent inside that spectrum, often only grounded when tied to another, more stable human. As child & teenager, once I lost the connection with the person, I lost the connection to the grounding activity. When I got grown enough to hunt in my own hunk of the woods or work on 4H projects independently without my dad, I could no longer stay entrenched in those activities. Same went with sports; as I cut ties with the teammates, I lost the signal for the game.
These days I stay tethered by the joy of doing--learning new skills, indulging in hobbies, completing projects--as a means to solidify something as an identity, as a mechanism for putting the wolves in a fence. But truly, for something close to a decade, say 12 to 20, I don’t think I did much of anything that grew my understanding of self, built any true connection with the parts of me, or stabilized my place in society. I admire my wife as the antithesis of my experience; her confidence, her skillset, & her social skills blossomed from an early age, despite familial hard times or other struggles, because of her commitment & self-actualization as a theater artist.
While many years passed before my diagnosis, my dissociative misdirections found some solid footing, an avenue for placing that fragmented framework, when I found poetry. I’ve laid it out elsewhere--stumbling into my university’s Writers Community organization, being tagged by a Dean Young poem, finding my first real cohort in the writers there--but that’s the what, & this essay is more concerned with the why. My friends & mentors there often threw out words like discursive, elliptical, polyvocal, & dissociative to describe the work I somehow found the most relatable, clarifying, & honest. In reading poetry, as Matthew Zapruder said in the introduction to Why Poetry, I felt, in a jiffy, kin to “its dream logic, its interest in the slipperiness and material qualities of language, its associative day-dreaming movement,” & as I’ve spent the last twelve years with my nose returning to books I just can’t get enough of, I see a pattern of these particularities surfacing in the ones I most enjoy to revisit, where those Zapruder-identified characteristics still feel surprising & disjunctive in a way that rhymes with distinct & natural.
I haven’t always “gotten” John Ashbery; take his long poem, “Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror” written after a Parmigianino painting, for instance. It is a poem I hated, then loved, then liked, then finally let myself fall even further into confusion, into something like admiration. Title on, there’s something there about looking, comparing, understanding the self in relation to others, even if that others is one of your many selves, or the extension one finds in others--selves, artwork, relations, a hodge-podge, etc.. My love of poetry the same, there are other things I could be doing instead of following the breadcrumbs. But I appreciate the echoes. It wasn’t till Dean Young, my second year of grad school, wrote this Ashbery quote in all-caps on the board--“Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibilities that they are founded on nothing.”-`that I finally got a sense of why I felt so engaged, enthralled, with this man & his poems.
Others might hold sharper critical interpretations of Ashbery’s work, but for me, I carry comfort & camaraderie in his endless spiraling through the self of / in many realities; I’m shit-housing it a bit, & perhaps it’s not even Ashbery, since the internet & this stack of books is failing me, but it’s something like, “All my poems are autobiographical; I just don’t know who they’re about.” Again & again, he reached for the voice, the frame, or the collective that hasn’t been conjured or combined, what can & can’t go in a poem exploded & explored.
That isn’t to say Ashbery doesn’t carry his core with him into those choices. As Ashbery biographer Karin Roffman said on The History of Literature podcast, the trauma of his brother dying & the reverberations of that was persistent in his work till his death. We see a childhood of interior life, his love of comics, & growing up on a farm in “Farm Implements & Rutabagas in a Landscape,” a poem that takes Pop-Eye & his cast of characters as ensemble, held together miraculously in sestina form. Through its repetition, the sestina was a form, both as reader & writer, that from early on felt both a harrowing constraint but also immensely freeing, unwieldy. I remember a sestina being the first poem I ever shared, text lingo like omg & brb as the end words, that folks in the BSU Writers Community responded positively to.
The first of the undecoded messages read: “Popeye sits in thunder,
Unthought of. From that shoebox of an apartment,
From livid curtain’s hue, a tangram emerges: a country.”
Meanwhile the Sea Hag was relaxing on a green couch: “How pleasant
To spend one’s vacation en la casa de Popeye," she scratched
Her cleft chin’s solitary hair. She remembered spinach
And was going to ask Wimpy if he had bought any spinach.
“M’love," he intercepted, “the plains are decked out in thunder
Today, and it shall be as you wish.” He scratched
The part of his head under his hat. The apartment
Seemed to grow smaller. “But what if no pleasant
Inspiration plunge us now to the stars? For this is my country.”
Like the sestina form, I know I love a poet by how often I return to their work, not because I know what I’ll find, but because I know I’ll find something as surprising, as imbalancing, as layered as much of my “reality” often feels. This is true of Lo Kwa Mei-en’s mind-boggling second collection, The Bees Make Money in the Lion, a book that takes as its focus aliens, immigrants, ancients, & sci-fi, & frames them within complex versions of forms & modes like the sonnet or the elegy. I’m reminded of a point in Lyn Hejinian’s Positions of the Sun that stuck to my skin, how form is an attempt to control the chaos of experience, of synthesizing through language.
My world, my world, its legendary grief, alive as a paper dragon
nesting or burning. I documented my life so am two worlds seam
-less and reeking of aping, of animal ashes, a No the state let go
off record. Fat reels of systemic fruit tumble in the feed to fill
kingdom and custom. My world full of agents, wired air. If I keep
passing to pass their test—planet without its star, an email stuck
In these poems though, that structure carries its own disjunction. I’m fascinated by Lo Kwa Mei-en’s use of what I call abecedarian fuckery, poems where the left side will start with a-through-z & the right side will end lines z-through-a, or other variations of that craftiness. Re-reading the poems this time around, her take on the sonnet crown, “The Alien Crown,” struck me as if for the first time. The poems feed into each other, as one’s ending line will come modified as the next sonnet’s first line, but the poems elevated use of abecedarian techniques, like one where the first line starts with a ‘m’ & ends with a ‘n’ with the next line starting ‘n’ & ending ‘n’ (see above), is also a way a poem feeds into itself, thus an entanglement. I call these poems humanizing -- the message they swerve for but also the rapidity they induce. I want to believe her hopeful as she proclaims “[W]e conquer the footwork of being.” The revolution of doing, writing, processing feels more apt presently --“Voltas fail, but here we are, unhurt nowhere, / editing violence until we dawn.”
& when I think of “doing,” I think immediately of C.D. Wright, a poet of project & of place, who has mesmerized me into a never-ending quest to read the entirety of her body of work, a journey I’ve taken only with a few poets of considerable volumes. In her work, various iterations of the project get sprung outta a moment, a relation, a thought, a situation--a question about language, the problems with the prison system, etc.--& this is Wright’s charm. The first book I ever read of hers, Deepstep Come Shining, its vices is its viscerality of experience, memories, & signs, as she says, “the aim...to feel wholeness itself,” that drives me deeper & again into her work. Whether as observer, experiencer, or medium, or possibly all three, the poems remind us, “I was there. I know.”
“Everything Good between Men and Women” appeared as C.D. Wright’s first stand alone poem that popped for this bungle-brained hick, capturing the complexity of the domestic, the ever-after, & the relationship I was just beginning to learn the long-lasting significance of--“Eyes / have we and we are forever prey / to each other’s teeth.” I felt the pressure of poetry, how it intertwined inevitably, both as reader & writer, a twisting that thumped the motor of many of Wright’s projects. My most significant Wright read, though, was just barely posthumous, me still freshly flagged with her death, when I read The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures…, described on the back cover as “[p]art study, part elliptical love song to poetics.” In short, joyful chunks, like the recurring “In A Word, A World,” I finally found someone who felt the pressure of language, down to its micro-levels like I did, who hangs on & needs its every syllable.
And I know fifteenth letter O is the best of all: O my black frying pan. O my flying arches. O my degenerating fibroids. O what’s the point. O little man at the foot of my bed, please don’t steal my pillow. (20)
& that, my friends, is why I can’t shake poetry, why I have adopted & adapted poetry as my main therapeutic mechanisms, my trusted lonesome-killer, my never-ending pang. Yes, it is the feeling of where’d that come from & where’s this gonna go, but also just as importantly where’s this been & where the heck am I now. Poetry, not because of its contrast, but because of its similarities, is a rare comfort in making non-sense of my dissociative, fragmented world, a container for the mess.
As I chase this “naked sound on the run” (Abraham Smith in Hick Poetics intro), I am lucky & million-chickens thankful to have found a form to take my focus, how some people sigh deep with needlepoint or others nod out with a needle. Once I had a spell, once I came to in the middle of a cornfield, once I was not diagnosed, once I was overwhelmed by anxiety & confusion & embarrassed, once I watched Abraham Smith reading HANK at the Racine library. The former bits an early indicator something was “off;” the latter clunks the first true signs that reading poetry could be grounding, could be a safe space to be a mess, could be my mechanism to meet others where their anxious vision meets the hateful world, the encroaching void.
*NOTE: The lyrics contained in this post are as I hear them / remember / believe them. Apologies to the artists for any fudging (hopefully minor).
Always this noisiness has been rambling in my head--various voices, a cacophony of images, a push-pull between extreme feelings. My therapy before my DID diagnosis centered around “thinking errors,” instead choosing rationality & thoughtfulness over reactionary paranoia or cyclical mania; as I’ve learned more about my delusions, the main focus has been on integration, sorting through these parts, attempting to understand them, & satisfying the full self through decision-making, both preventative & reactive. Often, all four parts speak in a given heightened situation, a chorus of competing (re)actions to take in & choose from, even in the simpler situations, say, someone cutting me off in traffic. Day upon day ticking off & accumulating, that racket can be quite overwhelming & exhausting, to say the least.
In times of quiet aloneness, like lonelier days when D is away or when I am working on the farm for instance, it has been helpful to rejuvenate myself with necessary distractions & substitutions, input that can influence positive output in the future, especially in terms of perspective & language; this is also true in times where a dissociative cycle, manic moment, or paranoid thought might otherwise consume me. The accumulation these days includes conversation-based podcasts, logic-oriented nonfiction, most poetry, & deep talks with the trusted folks, be it therapists, my parents, or my wife. From the earliest age though, listening to music has been the most reliable, influential medium for grounding me, providing the emotional (re)charge to cut through / beyond the noise.
I love how-to videos on YouTube. Some ding-bat in Ohio videotapes himself changing his fuel pump on his ‘99 S10 & can’t help but do the play-by-play. That language among the doing, even if unrelated, is what the inside of this head hums, the logical steps & the personal bumps rubbing against one another to accomplish a / any thing. It is probably why I’ve always collected quotes, obsessing over lyric sheets in the CDs of yesteryear, able to learn lyrics of the screams I loved as a teenager, or using song quotes how others use cliches or metaphors in normal conversation.
For this month’s blog post, I hoped to explore how three significant periods of young adulthood music-loving shaped my identity, my worldview, & my morals, examining the songs that hold together the fractured oddity of me. Sure, my alters have their own music; The Kid insists on listening to “MMMBop” over & over when he’s restless, & Crazy Vinny keeps a playlist of the loudest, most boneheaded stuff when he’s lifting weights or blowing off steam. Here though, I want to focus on Container Store Tyler™, the affectionate nickname for primary me, & how my journey understanding my identity--as someone with DID, as a hick, as a poet, as a two-sided angry/friendly dude--has been positively propped by my favorite Hoosier bands, the contemporary country musicians that don’t suck, & the band I’d now declare my favorite..
Hauling ass into my teen years, I met up with buds on weekend nights at the bowling alley in town; around 8th grade, I noticed the place getting emptier, friends opting instead to hop an old ledge (just remembered: a pet store there burnt down when I was a whippersnapper) & head into The Cove, an all-ages pool hall complete with punk shows in the back room, first shitty bands from our little town & eventually some cool groups from the surrounding areas. A classmate named Kevin told my mom he saw me smoking cigarettes (not true) & fighting (possibly true) one Saturday night (question: wouldn’t it be mighty hard to do both at the same time?) while him & his mom got Blizzards at the adjacent Dairy Queen, but despite what Kevin & his mom think of me, I dare claim that those shows at the Cove & the community I fell in love with there was the most positive influence I had in my first two decades on this earth.
It was there I learned what Straight Edge was, seeing these folks come in & out with Sprite cans & X’ed up hands. Sure, the Straight Edge lifestyle can be corny, can be toxic & masculine, but that choice, to abstain from all drugs, including caffeine, from age 13 to 22 might have literally saved my life. As I bumbled through balancing my sexuality, coming to terms with my anger, & other bullshit bullet points of Midwestern teen dude life, I now am so thankful I had a clear(ish) head to think through my mistakes & my meanings.
The influence of those folks in that scene went far beyond keeping this numbskull off the sauce, though. I made friends with an older group of female punks, often the only boy in the van going to out-of-town shows; they taught me how to be platonic friends with gals, as well as being the first folks I knew who chatted through big subjects like the existence of god & gender equality. Also, as I tagged along with bands in the scene, it was the first time I befriended folks who identified as artists, an impulse I had but knew not what to do with. They were the first people I knew who went to college, who read books for fun, who shared albums & poems & thoughts they were stoked about. While plenty of music could be the soundtrack for my expanding life, the tunes the central Indiana bands I loved made were the only art I knew made from the actual life I was living.
In The Face Of War
Lead singer Ben Sutton shouted it best: “Let’s get one thing straight / It’s not about the songs, the music, or the words / All that matters is what we do for each other.” That’s the hum at the core of every ITFOW record, the ethos of community, friendship, & making powerful, good choices. In their ten-year run, they went from Christian metalcore to positive punk-hardcore; during that same run I went from pasty barely-teen / barely-person to recently-divorced / recently college graduate bumble brain. Going to ITFOW’s shows, I was in a place that both encouraged reflection & camaraderie, but also provided an environment to jump around & sing along, a reminder you can have fun, you can be rowdy, & still be thoughtful & caring.
“August Is Good For Goodbyes” from Self-Reliance Is Self-Destruction
“You’ve been with me / for my whole life / We’ll be much stronger / when we say goodbye.”
“If You Knew My Friends” from Live Forever or Die Trying
“The best way to take care of yourself / is to take care of someone else.”
“Who Will Be There” from We Make Our Own Luck
“But I’m hardly growing older / definitely not growing up / so what am I / who am I / and who will I become?”
Away With Vega
After pushing down the Away With Vega impulses for a couple years, I dusted off their tunes during my last breakdown & discovered something truly rejuvenating: wherever that confused, sensitive, & intense teen Tyler lives inside me, he’s still wearing his AWV t-shirt, the one with the sock on it. For a glob of years, I called Away With Vega my favorite band, & while their dissolution & my aging might have slipped them from the rankings (more on that in a second), these tunes still connect me to that side of myself that still firmly believes, “What a miracle it is to be loved at all!”
“Oh Heaven, Ain’t Ya Heard?” from A Baby Boy Sleeps
“Our hair is bound together / mystery in the back of our minds / oh heaven ain’t ya heard / that I’m alive”
“Catastrophe Bag” from Recovery
“Why are you still sleeping / Wake up / you’re missing everything”
“Race Street” from A Year At Home
“We pray with our crooked hearts / that someday we’ll find a way / to make straighter paths ahead / and still acknowledge our mistakes”
Upon seeing Mike Adams At His Honest Weight perform here in Austin, my wife declared Mike Adams to be Indiana’s best export; looking back on the last fifteen-plus years of his music-making in my home state, yup, she’s right. From clangy, Jesus-wrestling pop-punk to iconic Hoosier superband to whatever this is, Mike Adams captured the moments, his moments, growing up in Indiana. His two hallmark bands, husband&wife & the aforementioned MAAHHW, bring together what I think make all the musicians on this list so influential to me: they’re not just one thing--loud or sensitive or funny or whatever--they’re all of it at once, sincerely.
“Cross-Fingered Handshake” by Husband&Wife from the self-titled debut
“If you ever need rest / please don’t forget me / I’m always here when you’re running / and I’m waiting here / when you’re tired for love”
“Market Fresh” by Husband&Wife from Proud Flesh
“I’m completely unaware / of the market for grumpy old men / trapped inside the bodies / of twenty-five year-old kids.”
“Good Thing Going” by Mike Adams At His Honest Weight from Best of Boiler Room Classics
“We’ve got a good thing going / so we better get going / before the good thing goes.”
There is this misperception about rural &/or country folks: our parents only listen to country music & good country music at that. Yes, I was around good country music a lot as a kid, be it listening to Hank with my dad, the Dixie Chicks with my mom, or hearing “Take this Job & Shove It” blare out of Uncle Jimmy’s shed during a trip to North Carolina. But it’s important to note that my dad also loves Al Green (awesome), my mom loves Barry Manilow’s Christmas album (not awesome), & my favorite country band for the first half of my life was Sawyer Brown (still kinda awesome).
Just for fun, here are two playlists I’ve been working on: 90’s Country & Classic Country.
Yes, I did what a lot of kids do: I latched onto new challenges & viewpoints (for me, via college, books, & young adulthood world-widening) as modes & means to stretch away from my small town, my roots, & my parents’ influence. Then, my early 20’s figured out what parts of that culture was me, needed keeping. When I moved to Austin, I discovered there was a great gob of good contemporary country music, actually sharing many of my experiences & values. It reminded me of when I discovered the pulsing contemporary poetry scene--”THEY’RE NOT ALL DEAD? THANK GOODNESS!”
11 Contemporary Country Singers I Love
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers -- Frontperson Sarah Shook leads with the multiplicity of the modern artist -- atheist, queer, & vegan country artist, kind & intellectual punk, rowdy & progressive at the same damn time.
“God never makes mistakes, he just makes fuck-ups.” - “Fuck Up” on Sidelong
Tyler Childers - I am glad I gave this feller another chance. Like Sturgill (produced this record; more on him below), Childers never falls into the honky tonk rut, ranging from the spacy & bold (“Universal Sound”) to the quiet & personal (“Lady May”).
“I recall when I was a baby / I didn’t need nothing around / But a little bitty rattler and the universal sound” - “Universal Sound” on Purgatory
John Prine - As an aspiring old man, I appreciate the example John Prine is lending--witty, funny, & caring. I’ve said it before & I’ll say it again: Prine’s latest record Tree of Forgiveness is the best album by someone over the age of 70 ever.
“I can see your back porch / If I close my eyes now / I can hear the train tracks / Through the laundry on the line” - “Knockin’ On Your Screen Door” on Tree of Forgiveness
Margo Price - In her interview on Marc Maron’s WTF, she praises what pulled her out of her small Midwestern town, like a cheerleading scholarship & years in a van touring dive bars, yet in her music, we see her not moving away from those roots, but moving beyond them by tackling the misogyny, addiction problems, & family relations that haunts those places.
“Sometimes my weakness is stronger than me.” - “Weakness” on All-American Made
Kacey Musgraves - Let me get this out of the way: I think Golden Hour is a boring not-really-country album. Her first two albums, though, are pop-country gold, bringing her liberal, uniting worldview to the forefront; also there is no denying she is the Queen of Couplets.
“So hoe your own row and raise your own babies / Smoke your own smoke and grow your own daisies” - “Biscuits” on Pageant Material
The Deslondes - This five-piece band is probably my second favorite band right now. All five members write songs, all five members sing, & all five members completely rule. I had never heard of them when I saw them open for Spirit Family Reunion right after I moved to Austintown, but I’ve never missed them since.
“Don’t you wanna be a beautiful friend / Don’t you wanna be a beautiful to me / I wanna be a beautiful friend / I just wanna be a beautiful friend to you” - “Beautiful Friend” on Hurry Home
Possessed by Paul James - Some folks might argue with PBPJ’s inclusion on a list of country musicians, but I’d argue right back that his multi-instrumental string-instrument + stomp box one-man band vibe, his teacher-honed passion & advocacy, & his barn-burning energy make him just the kinda country artist we need right now.
“Yes oh yes / There will be nights when I’m lonely / As we cry ourselves to sleep” - “There Will Be Nights When I’m Lonely” on There Will Be Nights When I’m Lonely
Luke Bell - I clearly take my trucker hat off for folks pushing contemporary country music forward, but some folks like this Luke Bell are made for that old-school working-boy honky-tonk sound. Listen to the bouncing sadness of this track I’m quoting down yonder or the stretched-out syllables in “Loretta” & tell me I’m wrong.
“Sometimes I’m alright / Sometimes I get you on my mind / And other times / All I do is cry” - “Sometimes” on the self-titled album
Sturgill Simpson - This post avoids much DID talk, but Sturgill’s track “Voices,” while not intentionally about such issues, has been a big comfort to me in my journey. Sturgill’s sound has evolved (straight honky-tonk into the psychedelic country & further to a conceptual, orchestral sound). It proves that country artists--not only musicians, but also poets & storytellers & comedians, etc.--can stay rooted while also nodding to & incorporating their other influences in a sincere way.
“How I wish somebody make them voices go away” - “Voices” on Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Colter Wall - His big voice & thoughtful lyrics loom much larger than his 23 years. I respect Colter’s adherence to being a singer-songwriter, many of his tracks, both live & recorded, existing with only him on the mic & strings. Yes, it fits the desolate (Canadian) prairie sound he’s chasing, but it also headbutts this sucky stadium-country megaphone thing that’s happening.
“The grave & the garden won’t be satisfied till your name is next to mine.” - “Caroline” on Imaginary Appalachia
In college, I bounced through six majors, roughly a billion clubs / intramural teams, & several social circles, but through it all, I did know two things: I loved my girlfriend / soon-to-be wife / sooner-to-be ex-wife SH & I loved going to shows at Village Green Records, Muncie’s finest DIY record store. Usually the shows were on the lawn, but this one particular day it was raining so they pushed aside the shelves of records in the record-shop & that was when I saw State Champion play for the first time (I believe, 2010), crammed in with friends & strangers, including some friends who would later be strangers & a few strangers who might later become friends.
I’ve been a fan every day since, feeling a certain pull through time with their music, as if their particular brand of rock n’ roll (I like to call it emo-country) let loose a thread that I’m always pinching right behind in my own journey. When that first divorce happened, I bought my first record player because I had just bought my first record, SC’s Stale Champagne, & it was the only one I needed for a long while, a consoling listening experience that blew on the embers that became the fire of my first chapbook. Silver Jews leader & best-poet-to-only-put-out-one-book David Berman summed it up best, speaking to SC’s own leader Ryan Davis’s songwriting: "If Bob Dylan was funny, if Tom Waits was relevant, Ryan might not be peerless at what he does best, which is writing large gregarious circles around his pitiful colleagues in the field. He's the best lyricist who's not a rapper going."
From that first show to their fourth & most recent album, Send Flowers, I have found miles & miles of comfort & laughter & surprising insight in Davis’ sweeping (often well over five minutes long) songs full of the big questions (religion, mortality, sexuality) rubbing against the stupid objects / moments of Midwestern life (Big Gulps, Jeff Foxworthy, a transformed bucket of water, mopeds & vans driven by friends to the edge of town). This past November, home for Thanksgiving, I saw State Champion play again for the first time, nearly nine years in the waiting, the latest notch in a relationship, an attachment, & a loyalty to State Champion’s music over these four albums, one built on a mutual respect for language, in how it opens up boundaries & solidifies worries.
I’ve tried for years to make an “Intro To State Champion” playlist, but lordy, I can’t do it. I can’t name a favorite track, I can’t pick a favorite album, & I’m damn sure I wouldn’t wanna. In this world of singles & playlists, I’m so fucking thankful for these albums, all four of them as lids for the time capsules of some pretty grueling growing pains this last decade--Stale Champagne (divorce), Deep Shit (moving back home), Fantasy Error (moving to Austin), & Send Flowers (DID diagnosis).
9 State Champion Lyrics I Often Mutter To Myself For Comfort
“Some lay flowers on the side of the highway / to note the death of the ones they loved / while other flowers spend their whole lives out on the highway / standing for nothing / it’s just where they’re from” - “Help Me Sing” from Stale Champagne
“It’s always shining on Kentucky when you’re sad / but I ain’t mad about the weather / I just ain’t trying to feel much better about my past” - “Bite the Dust” from Stale Champagne
“I guess it gets harder and harder / changing colors everyday / oh and I think I’ve been feeling blue / I’ve been feeling pink and yellow / green and golden too” - “Old Green Room” from Deep Shit
“I still smell her hair on the horizon sometimes / you know I can’t get past it” - “The Basement” from Deep Shit
“When the hourglass shatters on your shithead friend / the montage upon us is easy / even a broken clock is right two times a day / and even a thug gets sleepy / even the darkest and deepest of this apartment’s secrets can be seen by the light of the TV” - “Wake Me Up” from Fantasy Error
“You left a note that said our love it would prevail / I left a prank call on the county coroner’s answering machine” - “There is a Highlight Reel” from Fantasy Error
“Some people love playing the bad guy / some people love playing his friend / some people love playing the pass line / odds are it’s all the same in the end / if you know what I mean” - “My Over, My Under” from Send Flowers
“How’s a wound gonna heal / without a room and a meal / How am I to live up to my end of the deal / if you don’t show me / if you don’t show me / if you don’t show me how alone to feel” - “If You Don’t Show Me” from Send Flowers
“There’s a styrofoam Big Gulp waiting on our grave / you can see it when the light shines through” - “Lifetime Sentence” from Send Flowers
There are some glaring marks in this sort of reflection. In time with the time is the obviousness of the whiteness & dudeness of this list. It is not only in what I find / search out, but it is also an example of what is being held up. I certainly can’t or wouldn’t deny it, but as a white dude, it is an important observation as I work to integrate my dissociative parts, along with my roots, my upbringing, & my past, in my next incarnation, hopefully in producing the better version of myself. Despite these perhaps narrow frames, as a white kid who grew up without siblings & in a town with no music culture & a thick racist past, I’m thankful for the positive artistic & life models provided here; I very easily could’ve ended up loving Nickelback or Kid Rock or ICP.
This is also a good place to nod at the phases that didn’t stick, that didn’t make a lifelong impact. There was the pop punk phase that bled into the local Indiana punk / hardcore / rock scene, complete with DORK beanie & black rubber bracelets from Hot Topic (see, I didn’t even include a band name in the first draft of this). There was the two years I was obsessed with Ludacris & T.I. in high school. There were the other local bands that, for whatever reason, probably social as much as music-oriented, haven’t had the longevity in my life, including a purposefully offensive punk band whose drummer married my ex-wife, Indiana's best band name, & a post-AWV project. There are also the barrels of other music-makers that might still need time to dig down into my cells (possible nominees: Courtney Barnett, my favorite Austin bands, & Gillian Welch / Dave Rawlings / Willie Watson).
The posts on this blog illuminate how my artistic self has become so entangled with my personal self, specifically the questions & the journeys continuing to spring from me. The three categories of music scratched at above represent both the most influential artistic examples coming out of my culture(s) & my biggest comforts in the ups-&-downs of this crooked living. As I look ahead to the hopes I have for my own artistic work, I see the vulnerability, the allegiance to place, & the necessity of difficult-but-necessary loving relationships reflected, be it in my hopes to record an audiobook of long poems about hick identity in my grandpa’s barn, the AN NEWSLETTER podcast keeping a running document of the important things I intersect / learn, or the burn to write my own songs. These heroes have taught me that it is about taking the artifacts of the life you’re living & turning them into the artifacts of the life you’ve lived, thank you.
I try to be the best man that I can.
I don’t have much practice.
I was hoping you might help me out with that.
I can’t do this on my own.
All I’ve known is what I’ve been shown
& I can’t live up to my dad. - Canterbury Effect.
Most people would have left me by now. Let me rephrase: most people have left me by now. Before diagnosis, I stammered & stumbled & tumbled through relationships--platonic, professional, & romantic (on one significant occasion, all three). Through the trust & the “lean on me” moments, the adventures & the advice, you can only hide crazy so long, as I’ve learned time & again. I finally got to the point where I just started talking about it--the confusion, the weaknesses, the fears, the faults, the failures--with potential partners--platonic, professional, & romantic (on one significant occasion, all three). Yes, it started on my first date with Diana, telling her about the abuse of my ex-girlfriend, the voices, the pending diagnosis, & more. The fact that she finished that pizza with me, that she never even looked at the door through the now-years of ups-and-downs, that she’s always insisted on “together,” even though who could have blamed her if she had, it has literally been life-changing, life-altering, life-saving.
If pressed up against a brick wall with a finger under my rib, I’d declare that my favorite poem is “Provenance” by Mary Ruefle, primarily because of that ending that I so often quote / unleash: “I hated childhood / I hate adulthood / And I love being alive[.]” So corny & so simple, but coming at the end of this poem, where among other things, she admits the frustration & difficulty of giving a paper-mache pony to a sick classmate as a child, it is earned & powerful & all encompassing. I find comfort in its direct confession. I, too, love being alive despite the confusion & heartache, despite the hopelessness & ugliness of life.
But, like for most people at certain points, it gets hard to keep going. In my earlier undiagnosed days, in the wake of the situation with my ex-girlfriend, in the cycle of some of my worst spells these past few years, I’ve flashed my fair share of panic & mania, not knowing how to respond, not knowing how to control or prevent these dreadful moments.. I’ve chosen flight & I’ve chosen fight; at times, I’ve sunk into both. I’ve spiraled into deep depressions. I’ve fallen into deep sleeps. I’ve brushed against suicide a time or three. I’ve been engulfed by my disorder, my alters, the resulting anxiety, what I call the cycle of spell-anxiety-spell-guilt-repeat. I’m reminded of John Ashbery: “He is a monster like everyone else but what do you do if you’re a monster[.]”
This past week, I’ve been in the pits of that cycle for longer than ever before since my diagnosis a couple years ago, going on six days now. With D gone on a trip to England, as well as my primary self starting a new job & my alters continuing to learn to coexist, I tried to be strong & focused. Four days in, I failed, I collapsed, & I fell, once again into the cycle. All of the normal components--tons of switching followed by heavy exhaustion, lots of yelling followed by crying, lots of forgotten moments & delusional filler. But, in addition to the length, one element set this cycle apart from the others: I gave into the (for lack of a better term) “monster” feeling. I cleared my calendar & bowed out of most relationships / responsibilities in order to truly, finally, allow myself to grieve the things I’ve lost & might never have, to spend days conversing with my selves, & to think about the life I can lead, not the one I want or don’t lead. While this time was tinted a little differently, the staffing was the same, with D, even while thousands of miles away, listening & helping & continuing alongside me.
With the help of thoughtful friends, loving family members, & beloved members of the therapeutic community, I’ve found many great answers to that question of what to do if you’re the monster. After a panic attack the other day in conjunction with a new year’s reminder that I can’t function professionally, socially, or even domestically as I once had hoped, I sat with my tear-soaked skull in D’s lap & she listened to my cycle with my hand hovering over the eject button & my mouth spinning. That moment was a reminder of how D has completely transformed my journey with DID, holding me accountable for the past, holding my head in the present, & holding my hand tightly as we step into the future.
Other partners & best friends have done their best, especially in the dark of an undiagnosed psychological disorder, my young-man foolishness & frustration, & each one’s own growing pains & gains. By sheer good fortune on my end & noble hardwork on hers, D has approached every moment of our relationship with bravery, commitment, & joy, often in the face of mighty confusion & many cracks. February is her birthday month, so for this post I wanna look at my particular example of having DID & our attempt at maintaining a loving, balanced partnership. I owe a lot of this thinking to my time spent with my therapist SW, where, beyond my diagnosis, we’ve spent many hours uncovering what kind of partner I can be & also need, thinking through our successes & failures together, & building a vision for the future, first in individual sessions & now with D in couples therapy.
As I’ve adjusted my life to my newest understanding of self, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that many of the qualities I find most appealing, necessary, & admirable in being a partner are not supported by my actual capabilities, namely my disorder & the value system I’ve been creating. Regardless of progress, there are gonna be issues. Being honest with partners & collaborators, not to mention myself, about my emotional & mental inconsistency has been a key. I don’t have the day-in-day-out stamina that I once did, or had convinced myself I did; likewise, I’ve learned, possibly too late, that it is irresponsible & possibly harmful to be in positions of power around groups of people, especially vulnerable & less-understanding populations like in education & traditional publishing. My particular combination of dissociative symptoms, multiple-personality-ness, & opinionated hickness also requires certain, perhaps radical or progressive, approaches to committed relationships, living environments, & routines. But through this collaboration with D & SW, I’ve begun to see how those things can be worked in unique ways, especially with the right partner & having all the information.
Last summer when I had the terrifying realization that the professional avenues I had spent a decade cultivating--teaching & publishing--were no longer available to me, I had to reassess what I am capable of, as a partner, as a citizen, as someone in multiple significant relationships. In the TV show Parenthood, when Max’s parents finally talk to him about his Asperger’s they do so by laying out both the difficulties & the strengths. While acknowledging my shortcomings was freeing & necessary, D & SW, along with many other loved ones, were quick to remind me of the positives, like my creative energy, my penchant for planning / organizing, & my love of working hard, that both my disorder, my personalities, & my core offer me.
Lucky for me, the answer to “what kind of partner / collaborator do I need?” was sitting right next to me on the couch. Any relationship, partnership, what-have-you that I get into needs to lead with the understanding of the “reality” of the situation; as Rupert Spira says, “All illusions have a reality to them, and if we are experiencing an illusion, we are, by definition, experiencing its reality.” Because of the way my mind works--the polyvocality, the misremembering, the gaps, & the fears--my reality needs some radical nudges to maintain a sustainable life for all. In recent years, I am crawling with fears, often bubbling just under the surface: Is this childish? Am I / did I hurt someone & forget it? Will I ever get better? Am I a sociopath / psychopath / schizophrenic? When will D leave?
When people find out that D is a Christian in seminary & I’m an atheist, they often ask, “How does that work?” The real “how does it work?” question, to me, seems more appropriate for our varied psychological states, her of the very “normal” & consistent & predictable variety & mine, well, I think you get the idea. But that distinction of states is also the answer to the question. Her stability & her particular Christian values have equipped her with the steadfastness, grace, & hope to do the hard work of living with & holding me accountable.
The other day my panic attack started the moment I woke, having had a dream that I murdered D, sending me into the normal spiral of “what’s wrong with me,” “you’re not safe,” “I should go.” But admitting that dream to her & seeing her clear, rational eyes & hearing her comforting words reminded me of what has made this partnership thrive these past four years; it’s the openness that keeps us both safe, happy, & collaborating. From me explaining the LR incident on our first date to conversations about spells, from that dream to things I can admit (about my dissociative symptoms, about my needs, about my sexuality, etc.), I am so thankful to be able to be so open & supported, without fear of betrayal, manipulation, or shame.
As we’ve built & adjusted our vision for our future, it’s shown me how important it is to have a partner that listens, compromises, & works hard, alongside the various I. As we’ve come to understand my disorder & my realistic capabilities, we’ve had to take specific measures. We’ve adjusted budgets to match my work capabilities. We’ve set up clear plans & signals for triggers & spells. We’ve been more deliberate about our social situations.
I’m feeling pretty good about where we are right now in our relationship. We’ve got some big steps together coming up. We’re planning for a move, hopefully back to the Midwest. I’m also contemplating going back to graduate school to get my MA in Mental Health Counseling, focusing on anger & personality disorders in rural males. These new adventures will only be successful if we continue to trust & collaborate with one another. I must, for my self & for Diana, separate my disorder from my choices. I must make sure Diana has the support & outlets she needs as she goes through her own transitions & continues to support me well. Most importantly, we must both lead with transparency--honest about our own realities, feelings, & needs.
The lessons I’ve learned from my four years with D have been useful, too, when applied to any of my major relationships--romantic, friendship, artistic, or familial. I must be pickier than I once was about who I trust & lean on; yet, somehow also I must be transparent, when I do decide to connect, about my limitations, my capabilities, my history. On a recent episode of the Armchair Expert podcast, the guest Sarah Silverman says you can’t change if you’re in defense mode; D has taught me that if I hope to continue to be the best man I can be, solid relationships are my best offensive tools. In that same conversation, host Dax Shepherd says it’s not right to define yourself by who you hate. I can no longer hate any parts of my self, people who have abandoned / hurt me, or the partnerships I create; instead, I must more deliberately & more effectively stroll into the future holding hands with hope & joy, which I’m lucky enough to know appeared to me in human form.