Ode to my head

Last night I had a dream in which I could take my head off my body. I could open it up at its “seams” and fix various things.

At one point I wanted to turn it over to see what it looked like where it was normally fastened onto my neck. I felt my head’s weight in my hands. It felt about as heavy as I would expect: ten pounds or so. I felt its thickness and its warmth. It seemed solid and alive. It had dirty blonde hair, as I do.

I turned it over and saw that it was sewn up under my chin and back to where my spinal column would be, so that no blood would spill out.

Then I realized that I’d better put my head back on or I wouldn’t get blood to it and I’d lose consciousness. I suddenly wondered how I hadn’t blacked out already. I saw on my head that my eyes were closed as though I was sleeping—peacefully—and at the time I didn’t question what eyes I was using to see that the eyes on my head were closed.

I started to feel lightheaded in the dream. I didn’t know how I would get my head unsewed or affixed to my neck again so that blood flow would resume. I placed my head back on my neck, and at that point my entire body felt like the one I was dreaming with.

Soon after, it seemed, I awoke.

Now, as I write, I am tempted to exhort myself, “You really should get your head examined.”

But I already did that.

Last night.

In my dream.

photo: ElissaSCA; from the Metropolitan Museum of Art



‘Howard Freeman (2)’ appears on one of the Firefox browser window tabs and, along with the other seven or so tabs, constitutes a small but growing and ornery press corps at 6:30 this morning.

The ‘(2),’ I learn when I click on it, indicates that on Facebook I have a Friend Request waiting (that’s good, as long as it’s not one of the always-slender women from Eastern Europe whom I don’t know, who appear to be photographed with a 1970s Polaroid, and have only male friends and no mutual friends with me—I can only surmise they found me because I listed Darren Aronofsky as one of my favorite movie directors) and also a comment added to something I’ve written—a news item I posted to my Wall, or piggybacking my comment somewhere else…or whatever. Some notice of some thing (if ever there was a good use of that word that all English teachers mark off points for use of) that warrants a number on the display in front of me that requires attention now. The hand from the press corps crowd is sticking up, or rather down—from the menu bar.

But wait! There! On the icons in the dock (some of them doing the put-your-left-hip-in Hokie Pokie out from the screen’s edge to warn me that I have forgotten some thing), and on my iPhone, my life consists of responding to white numbers in red circles. They all tell me I am running late.

Other tabs include my Chase Bank account (which I’ve set to send alerts to my mobile phone if certain things happen, so now I can be warned from several directions and with several tech indicators at once—as though I am Helen Keller and need a strobe, tone, and shifting parquet floor to get my attention), my work email (on which I now respond to a concerned message instead of continuing coffee with the First Lady, who was sitting contentedly on the couch next to me but now turns to her iPad. She plays ‘Godfinger,’ a game where she controls little Wii-looking figures who all do what she says and ‘worship’ her, accumulating her ‘Awe’ in the lower right corner…I have no such currency), my Google calendar (whose full window, with unabashed seniority, itself occasionally pops open in front of any other open window to remind me of an event happening now, much like Helen Thomas, whose diminutive frame—short and wide like the tab—doesn’t limit her from making her agenda known to the 6’2” men around her and to her primary audience, the man facing her…the powerful man in front of her who must listen, patiently, and then, patiently, respond. With a finger he could silence her, but he doesn’t. She is, after all, Helen Thomas, and she is the media. With a finger, he could play ‘Godfinger,’ the way the First Lady still is; he could fling her like a Wii character upwards of 340 metres across the White House compound landing her somewhere on Pennsylvania Avenue and she would go back to farming, and worship him, and give him Awe…but instead all his fingers rest on his keyboard—like a podium—which has become the place of finding a false equilibrium and foundation rather than dominion or even dominance.).

Speaking of Google, Reader is on another tab. I avoid looking at that grey rectangle, knowing that the lecture hall found on its window will only lure me in to discussions that will never end. I do care that Bill Gates wants to overhaul America’s schools, but it’s not something I have time for. I need to get dressed in twenty minutes. I spot a snippet from Arts & Letters Daily, my favorite news aggregator, that ‘Economic and scientific innovation helped propel the West past the East around 1770. So did Islam. Timur Kuran explains….MORE,’ where the last word is hyperlinked. It would be so…easy…to just click that four-letter word and learn from Timur about the innovation that Islam helped propel 240 years ago. I didn’t know about this! And If I don’t read all this stuff, I won’t be like the editors who put together these aggregators, like Denis Dutton of Arts & Letters, or even Matt Drudge, or Mr. Reader himself. But I have to get dressed in 19 minutes. BBC News has ‘1000+’ unread items. Same with Christian Science Monitor. Prior to a 2008 trip to Asia, I had signed up for the South China Morning Post to get familiarized with the issues. Now, this paper’s three feeds I subscribe to (I had a choice of so many more!)—Business, Property, and Hong Kong—remind me that we are no longer on such great speaking terms, and the relationship is strained. Among the three, there are 1378 unread items. The last time I actually went through and looked at news items, I read one or two and marked the rest ‘as read,’ summarily dismissing the collective work of approximately fifteen thousand man-hours of journalism. (Could have been more; not sure.) If I read each item from SCMP in summary fashion—using the Reader feature of scrolling down the headlines, which move from bold to roman after a couple seconds hovering over each, I can cover perhaps a few hundred of them in an hour. It would be the ‘receiving line’ of getting re-acquainted: working the rope and shaking hands long enough to smile and wink and let them know I have not deleted them without acknowledging their fleeting existence.

Along the row of tabs also are articles I have not read but want to, intend to, all with lengths approaching that of a New Yorker essay, which means that these tabs are carried over from day to day until my computer restarts at 3 a.m. one night (because it needs new system software to keep up with the bandwidth I require to keep in play the items I do not address immediately). The articles that disappear when this happens are forgotten, and I am not the worse for it. They had been temporary lusts that slithered toward me, waiting to strike, and whose venom is given an antidote by Mac OS X. The next system upgrade from Cupertino should be called Mongoose.

There is a ‘+’ sign to the right of the tabs, reminding me I can start a new conversation anytime. Invite more people to the press conference. Perhaps I do this, and the others—while they don’t fall completely silent, especially not Helen Thomas in the front row, who raises her voice about every 30 minutes—are shushed by the increasing din of the current conversation. My ‘Favorites’ also perch in a row above the current tabs, like gargoyles, waiting to be affirmed as named. They know they will be called on at some point; that’s why they’re Favorites. At one time, I had the power to name them and place them there; now they with the name and position hold the power. If I delete them, I would have to find them again, or at least I’d have to email the IT guy to get the URL to access the work server remotely. This is unconscionable.

I get up from my computer to get more coffee for me and the First Lady—who is happily subduing and having dominion—but it is not quiet that I experience.

It is deafness.

photo: kees straver

He was forgotten, but remembered us

I don’t know all the reasons or causes for this recent protracted and, in some ways, most intense major depressive episode, but it is appropriate that it lift just before Good Friday.


It arrived—unwanted and largely unannounced, as always, like your slovenly relative who eats all the food in the refrigerator and then invoices you for the co-pay—in late January or early February.  Granted, there were respites:  blue-signed Rest Areas along the Interstate that came somewhat randomly, had limited parking and modest 041009aguandalinifacilities, yet from which you know you had to drive away if you were to get to your destination, even if—as is the case with depression—you are not sure what exactly the destination is or when you’ll get there.   This is exactly why children are so miserable on long car rides and why Honda and others put DVD players into their minivans.  Being strapped into a booster seat for the length of Star Wars II gives definition to the void.


And yet, while I don’t know the reasons for the bout, I do know one benefit.  It has given me a tiny shard of recognition, identification, of what Jesus went through on the cross.  So, today, as Christians celebrate Good Friday, in anticipation of the very good news of Easter Sunday, and as I am coming out of this within the last 36 hours, I can say that I am joyful to be able to identify with our God, who suffered more severely and totally than I ever will or could imagine.




I once had an hallucination.  It was February 1995 and three o’clock in the morning, and I was working with one other co-worker in a printing plant on the south side of Atlanta.  I later learned that this hallucination was the first of two psychotic breaks (the other was the next month), which hours later landed me in Riverwoods Psychiatric Hospital for ten days.  The average stay at Riverwoods was a week.  I was alone in a near-darkened reception area, except for the glow of a red “EXIT” sign.  The floor-to-ceiling glass windows reflected the crimson tint, yet through them I could see the black of the sky and charcoal grey of the streets.  For the past several hours, I had been having apocalyptic thoughts, and for the past several weeks since I started working third shift I had not been sleeping well.  Six months earlier, I had stopped drinking and was at two or more AA meetings per day.  I was on what is called “a pink cloud.”  This February night, I had a nagging sense that I was to get up from my workstation, go to the reception area, and call my pastor Mark to say, “Meet me and Joe [a mutual friend] tonight in paradise.”  It was a nonsensical statement with respect to these two guys and, looking back, I’m sure Mark would have thought I was joking, if even he had answered the call.  I left my co-worker to go to the only available phone, in the reception area, and started to dial.  I paused as I dialed, like I was reconsidering what I was about to do, and then I found I could not get through to Mark.


That number is no longer in service, the recording informed me.


I tried again, with the same result.  The break occurred at that instant.


I was convinced that I had been transported to hell and would never escape.  The hallucination was auditory only and my mind was clear and unclouded, like feeling the Autumn coolness for the first time in the season.  I said out loud, “Oh, no.”  And I heard a voice in my ear say, “Oh, yes.”  I assumed that was the devil.


For twenty seconds, maybe only fifteen, all I knew was this:  I had been stripped of all of my dreams, all of my friends and loved ones, and I was forever destined to walk this now-horrifying and eternally dark earth.  I imagined my co-worker in the next room had become a hideous monster who was soon to torture me.  I looked outside again.  The trees, still leafless in late winter, looked like sentries more than signposts of a coming spring.


There was a chasm—to use a word from the Bible but which never had full meaning to me before then—between where I stood and where all whom I loved, and God, were.  No matter what I tried or pleaded, I could not bridge that gulf.  The knowledge of this endlessness and hopelessness was utter, and complete.  It was final.  It was indisputable.  I had no recourse.  I felt like I was fully aware of a new existence more than I had been of my old existence before I picked up the phone.  It was as if this new state was what my life had been on a trajectory toward; I had merely crossed the threshold.


A short while later, once removed from that hallucination, and still to this day, I do not wish that 20-second period on my worst enemy.  I recall when it was more raw in my memory not wishing it even on history’s most abominable figures.  I can only imagine what it must be like to experience it for five minutes, or three hours.  (Who can speak of this consciousness being eternal?)


It was not the prospect or fear of dying that caused the terror of those moments; it was the sensation of being consciously dead and never living again.  Fear had no purpose or usefulness.  It had run its course.




On the first Good Friday, Jesus experienced some form of anguish which exceeds any pain I or anyone has encountered.  When he was dying on the cross, his Father in Heaven turned his back on him, and Jesus’ cry was “My God, my God, why have you forgotten me?!”


All we can gather is that Jesus experienced eternal separation from God the Father, conscious spiritual death, to be followed by physical death.  This was Jesus, God’s own Son, who had done nothing to ever displease the Father.  At least I had some rationale for going through a quasi-hell.  I had contributed to why this world is broken, why there is indeed such a thing as sin.


Today I celebrate a perfect King who died for his defiant subjects.  A Shepherd who died for his wayward sheep.  An Author who entered his own novel in person and sacrificed his life, so that his flawed characters could live.


It doesn’t make sense.


But then, true love rarely does.



photo:  A. Guandalini

Being a man of few words

Though I worked until nearly midnight last night and was dog tired, having got three hours of sleep the night before, I tossed for most of my six hours in the sack, trying not to wake my wife and thinking about that blasted NPR story on the “six-word memoir” that one of my Facebook friends posted.


I had clicked unwittingly on the link yesterday morning and, like a Koobface virus, the item quickly took hold of my greying brain coils and replicated itself within my consciousness, so that between about 3:00 and 5:50 this morning I could think only of that and whether my 45-year-old prostate was squeezing my bladder enough to warrant a trip out from the warm covers and over to the bathroom.  The allure to a writer – of the memoir thingy, not the bladder deal – is how to capture a life in so few words.  Legend has it Hemingway was asked to write a complete story in six words.  He penned, “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.”  The challenge in this case, the article said, is to write a memoir, not a fortune cookie.


The first words that came to me, and actually it was earlier in the day, sometime 01072009ames2880yesterday afternoon after the NPR piece had ruminated around a bit, were:


Twice born, twice adopted, praise Jesus.


Oh, please say not so.  Do I get a white sweatshirt with pastel kittens along with my book purchase, ma’am?


Sometime in the single digit hours last night, though, a more objective string of past participles reared its Medusa-like head:


Conceived.  Unwanted.  Adopted.  Rebelled.  Found.  Restored.


Around the time of this revelation, which had temporarily made me forget my prostate, I also found myself trying to work out for the umpteenth time how I was abandoned by my birth mother – well, it really wasn’t abandonment, it was really more an act of love and selflessness –  then adopted into a loving home and how I have considered since I was 23 whether to search for The Woman Who Bore Me,…yada yada yada…and, oh, is it really 3:45 a.m.?!  Besides, this title was too disjointed, too many periods, not enough commas or semi-colons and altogether too much like a John Philip Sousa song, a schizophrenically oppressive-cheerful triumphal march with monotonous meter that made me feel like I was parading straight down the length of my bed toward the foot-board to get on my knees and ask God for forgiveness for writing such a horrid account of my life.


Something that flows.  Something that flows.  That’s what I need, I thought.


How about:  In the blink of an eye.  OK.  Good cadence and nice variation of the parts of a sentence:  some nouns, articles, and prepositions, and it’s not all muscular verbs carrying tubas down Main Street.  But it sounds too much like a James Bond film, and Daniel Craig’s body is way too ripped for him to play me in the story of my life.


As a writer, when you have an idea, you tend to mull it over like it’s a cantaloupe melon you’re deciding on at the store.  You inspect and sniff and prod and push and then look at the other melons.  You imagine the other shoppers see you evaluating and try to look knowledgeable.  Then you think that maybe you want a carton of strawberries.  But no:  strawberries, you decide, are way too conventional.  Maybe prickly pears.  This is New York, after all, and you can try exotic things.  No: too pretentious, and you’ve never even tried prickly pears, nor would you know how to eat one.  Maybe it’s not even fruit you want, but rather salami.  You decide that it’s not a heart-healthy posture you are desiring while most others are participating in that over-rated activity called REM sleep while you figure out your destiny and epitaph but rather one that embraces the earthiness and sweat and life-is-too-short and beauty-behind-the-dumpster-poetry of William Carlos Williams and then maybe you might buy a pack of cigarettes even though you don’t smoke but it’s what writers do…  This kind of insane process goes on for you if you are a writer like me who, at somewhere around 4:30 in the morning, is still trying to decide how to chronicle his life story without being preachy or trying to impress.  Meanwhile, the other shoppers around you are filling their baskets without a thought of being watched.  Rather, they are hungry, or their families are, and this is a chore to check off the list.  They do it and are finished.  And then they go REM.


So you say it straight out, just like this:


I lived the adventure He wrote.




That’s more like it.  So…epic.  But, alas, too earnest.  I know I’ll read this post tomorrow and kick myself for being like a schoolboy trying to get an “A” in English.


Frankly, after perhaps another half century of trying to figure this one out in the wee hours, my six-word memoir will probably consist of an offhand statement to a home health aide at my bedside as I die.  This aide will be a busty Jamaican woman with a contagious laugh, and she reads her Bible next to my bed, as one did next to my mother as her brained swelled from the cancer, which took her only ten weeks after she started having problems saying nouns.  Karen will be gone by then, because frankly she doesn’t sweat so much about life and death and can be plucked from the tree a whole lot easier than a guy like me who needs so much more Divine maintenance.  My sons will visit often with their wives and children and will be wonderful and supportive, but at this one moment, when I am alone with the Jamaican woman, she will be reading from 2 Samuel, and as I am prone to do, I ask her to read aloud.  She tells me about the wise woman who confronted King David about his tense relationship with his son Absalom, one of my favorite sections, and then she quotes, “But God does not take away life; instead, he devises ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from him.”


I smile, an act which I learned fifty years earlier takes fewer facial muscles than frowning, and I will say in a scratchy voice to her:


What was it keeping me awake?




photo:  Ames2880

“One small step for man…”

She always said, “Don’t walk out five minutes before the miracle happens.”  Harriett (not her real name) was morbidly obese, probably around 300, 350, and she drove a yellow Pinto station wagon she’d bought for $200 from a friend in her AA meeting group.  Her husband, after they had divorced, had been executed for a capital crime.  But Harriett loved Jesus and had built her life around him, convinced that even though she lived in public housing and her washer kept overflowing and her car listed along State Route 1632 in Morrow, Georgia, she was bound for glory and nothing could get her down.


Don’t walk out…


She had told me this sitting in Riverwoods, a private hospital behind what is now Southern Regional Medical Center and which caters to those about to walk out early.  I had lapsed quickly into a manic state, March 1995, not ten days after being released from that same hospital, after the minivan that she and I were passengers in, and driven by an AA friend, backed into a metal stanchion in a McDonald’s parking lot.  For some reason, that jarring, though it did little damage to the car’s fender, pushed me over the edge.  So much so that five minutes later I thought I saw my parents’ deceased cat, Pippin, sitting on a car hood in front of a house.  It was an altogether different breed as it turned out, which I learned only after stepping out of the minivan door to inspect it more closely while saying, with a straight face, “One small step for man…”, and believing I was entering a new universe that had different air quality and chemical composition.


Harriett and I sat in an examination room at Riverwoods and she spoke to me about God.  She told me what it was like to have God’s arms wrapped around you.  To hear his voice.  To know his love.  I looked at her, wrapped in excess flesh, and saw a splendid soul peering back.  While I’m sure she had a cross word for her enemies – for none of us are without sin, I’m to understand – I for one never heard her say anything harsh about anyone.


I often hear this remark of hers – “Don’t walk out…” – reverberating in my mind during hard times like late last week, when I had the first bout of depression since this new doc increased one of my medications, allowing me six weeks of depression-free living, a first since moving back to the city in December of last year.  Before mid-July, every two weeks or so I’d feel like my mind was walking out, even if my body and soul were staying put.


Harriett laughed well, and when she did, she revealed corroding teeth, all of them present, but yellowed, usually caked in food particles.  Her gums extended down, it seemed, so you saw more pink than enamel.  Or maybe it was that her lips curled back more than most people’s.




photo:  fdecomite


There was a very large black man in the hospital room I was to share when I was admitted the second time for having a psychotic break, in 1995.  I had been told by a friend from church that I had nothing to worry about going to Georgia Regional that – really… – everything would be all right.  Perhaps to test me, the black man shouted when I walked into the room,I was in the woods with nothing but a Bible and a knife and came face to face with a grizzly bear…what do you think I did?!!


“Hit him over the head with your Bible.”  The words from a psychotically broken mind, but they made sense at the time.


A pause of two beats.


Quietly then from him:  “You’re right.”


We went to sleep maybe two hours after lights out because I was manic after all and asked him a thousand and one questions – I thought he was God the Father and I was Jesus Christ (that was the principal reason I was in the psychiatric hospital…) and I was asking him about everything from the creation of the world to President Clinton to speaking in tongues.


The next morning over breakfast he motioned to the others sitting across the table that I was his roommate.  Then he pursed his lips and did the talking gesture with his hand.  You know, where your opposable thumb snaps rapidly against the other fingers, mimicking a mouth.  The girls across from me laughed.  They were cute but, of course, were also psychotic and/or suicidal and therefore their laughter may have been directed at the eggs on their plates as much as at me or what my roommate had just said.


The average stay at Georgia Regional was seven days.  I was to be in for 13; my roommate had already been there two weeks but was sure he was getting out soon.



graphic:  howstuffworks.com