ON WHAT IS THERE

 Some of the books I've picked up in English-language sections of the bookstores in Bonn.

Some of the books I've picked up in English-language sections of the bookstores in Bonn.

I think it is a true thing to say that book lovers, readers all, love to browse the shelves of bookstores. No doubt we all make online purchases now and then, and some of us, self included, may read on electronic devices, but there’s still something uniquely special about going to the store, standing among the aisles, browsing the spines. Of course, we may have goals for our shopping experience (if indeed we intend to make purchases). Maybe there’s a book we’re dying to read, or, maybe not. Maybe we just want to see what we can find.

Enter me. I live in Bonn, Germany, which, because it is in Germany, where the day-to-day language is, yes, you guessed it, German, there is simply a smaller selection of English-language books available for browsing. That being said, most major bookstores do have an English-language section, and indeed I’ve come to know the ins-and-outs of these sections at the two bookstores I most often frequent near my apartment in Bonn, Germany. Enter my browsing habits.

Don’t get me wrong. I still buy both paper and e-books online. Sometimes there is a specific book I want and the stores, which tend to have mostly newer stuff, or classics, just don’t have it. But I also browse.

And about that browsing habit…

What blows my mind (truly) is that having far less selection to choose from has actually greatly expanded my reading habits. Before Germany, I read poetry, novels, history (mostly medieval studies), and some other nonfiction. Now I’ve added essays, graphic novels, and short stories to the list. For some reason, I have found a lot of short story collections in the bookstores of Bonn. (The books are coming from the UK. Do British people especially like short stories? I find myself asking this question.)

Brief aside: The short stories entry is a big deal because now I also write them, and that’s hugely satisfying. When you only write novels, or novellas, a lot of your ideas are going to go unwritten. Short stories help heal the rift between that list of ideas we all have in our heads and the sheer possibility of getting some, or most, of those ideas down onto paper. In one way or another. (Also, it is and shall ever remain a fatal flaw to write in a genre that one isn’t widely reading. Thanks to the bookstores of Bonn, I am reading widely.)

The bookstores here also tend to be heavy on the big award winners and the authors that end up on the short lists for those awards. In the US, though, there was also a ton of other stuff to read, so I didn’t always manage to keep abreast. Not here. Nope. I’m all up in that. I am a truly informed reader. (Probably my favorite writers so far in this category have been Han Kang and Paul Beatty.)

I could go on, and on, and sometimes I do. Suffice it to say, that if I were living in the US, I would not be reading the books, or genres, I am reading now.

Here’s another example of how this works. One writer I am fairly certain I would have unceremoniously and completely ignored if his books weren’t so ubiquitous here is Neil Gaiman. I just would never have read him! (Even though I loved that movie, Stardust.) Yet in the last few days of neuro-my-brain-rubbed-all-the-wrong-ways-eyes-on-fire kind of feelings, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane has proven to be the best escape. Ever. So there’s also that.

More on this in the future, but that’s all for now. Till next week.

FORESTS, AND CASHEWS, AND MEDS, (AND LOBOTOMIES), OH MY

 There's a person in here, somewhere.

There's a person in here, somewhere.

Play along.

Imagine you’ve been diagnosed with a mental health condition. Then live, for a while, in the world. Hang out online. Be present for social media. Facebook, Twitter, what have you. It’s hard to avoid those platforms these days. Especially if you are involved in any sort of field where you have to put yourself out there.

What I think you will find, dear play-actor, is that there exists a wealth of people, some wholly unrelated to you, who would like to tell you what to do.

There are the people that insist that all mental illness is exactly like a physical illness, with roots in biology and genetics, and that, therefore, psychotropic medication is the only appropriate treatment.

On the other side of the spectrum—actually, not quite, because I’m skipping Scientologists—are the people who can’t open their mouths without screaming: BIG PHARMA!!

In between are the people who maybe are not totally opposed to meds, you know, in the case of people who really need them, but who nonetheless like to post memes about how the reason so many people are depressed is because, I don’t know, they aren’t spending enough time in forests. Or, maybe a daily portion of cashews would help.

Perhaps you’ve seen some of these. Perhaps you’ve shared them.

When you do, I kind of roll my eyes. On the other hand, I see your point.

Here’s me: at some point in my twenties, and into my thirties, my personal world experienced a series of rather terrifying collapses.

Bring on the string of diagnoses: first bipolar disorder, which was in vogue at the time, then temporal lobe epilepsy, then, d’oh, not epilepsy, rather PTSD, but, nope, not that either, let’s go with schizoaffective disorder. (Schizoaffective disorder is kind of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, meeting somewhere in the middle). I spent about a decade in various forms of therapy (though never the kind of intense weekly therapy where I could actually talk about my deep-seeded issues), in different support groups, and on all kinds of meds. Mostly mood stabilizers and antipsychotics. I remained a mess. A messy mess.

I have a lot of feelings about all of this. Of course, there were all kinds of people telling me what to do. Sometimes, I even listened.

Later I ended up on different health insurance, and had regular therapy sessions, a whole year’s worth, with a Jungian-influenced depth psychologist. We talked, week after week, about the real stuff. The stuff that was breaking me. The stuff, that if I stared down, might stop breaking me. More than anything, I guess, this is how I became a bit more whole.

It’s not like my life is perfect now, because whose is, but I consider myself mostly recovered. (I’m not even in therapy.) I take a minimal amount of medication, which my body is dependent on (more on this in another post), and practice self-care. You know, the basics. Exercise, healthy diet, the occasional adult coloring book. I safeguard my personal time and always make sure I have an hour or two, once in a while, to do nothing.

By which I mean absolutely nothing. Maybe I’ll lie face down on the sofa and daydream. Okay. Technically, daydreaming is something. But, hopefully, you see my point. I put no stock in being busy. To my mind, busy is a luxury.

Onward.

As I’ve gotten better, I’ve become rather curious about the system that shaped so many years of my life. I have a lot of questions, and I’ve read a few books. My interests include the history of the system itself. Psychiatry. How, I want to know, have we gotten to the present point?

First I read Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, by Robert Whitaker. I would say it counts as a polemic. Definitely more anti-meds than I think a lot of people who take meds might find comfortable. What I remember most about the book is the rather convincing case he made that the rise of bipolar disorder diagnoses in youth was linked to the prevalence of Ritalin prescriptions (or other drugs like it) in cases of ADD/ADHD. Put a kid on speed, I guess, and see where that takes you. Or, at least, that seemed to be his point.

I next spent some time with Richard Bentall (who I’ve recently come back to). This guy is kind of a hero of mine, and I’ll spend at least an entire future post talking about him. For now I’ll say that his basic argument seems to be that mental health professionals should focus on treating symptoms, not diagnoses. He also argues for what he terms judicious use of medication. (He started making these arguments years ago, and I’m happy to report, that at least in some quarters, his ideas have been adapted.)

In February of this year, I read Andrew Scull’s Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity. What became clear to me after reading this book, in rather stark terms, was this: viewed through the perspective of history (whole centuries of it), those who have taken on the role of treating the mentally ill have rarely gotten it right. But, and this is important, what they’re doing often seems right at the time, or at least is the best they can do. Sometimes, what’s not right is even celebrated as innovative and groundbreaking. It’s probably worth mentioning that Egas Moniz received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1949 for developing prefrontal leucotomy. In other words, a form of lobotomy. So, maybe in the end, not so great. (In what may be one of the biggest cases of karma coming round, Egas Moniz was later shot in the leg by a patient.)

Suffice it to say, I view mental health professionals (and their advice) with a dose of what I think is very healthy skepticism. Kind of like, okay, maybe meds, for now. Until the next better thing. Whatever that might be. Hmmm. Can’t wait to find out. (A big part of me hopes this might involve high quality, affordable therapy available for whoever needs it, when they need it, but you won’t catch me holding my breath.)

Essentially, my take on mental health treatment revolves around the idea that no one can put themselves into anyone else’s shoes, so we should all do what feels right for us. (And I’ve met enough people who really seem to experience life a bit better on meds. Better enough that the cashew/forest walk people should maybe hush up. Why? Because some people are allergic to nuts, and none of us can really live in the forest.) This may mean accepting that mental health and/or illness need not be all one thing, or have one cause. Widespread, overarching theories, perhaps, need not apply. One-size-fits-all ideas could take a flying leap out of the nearest window. Those who struggle with mental illness might, for a change, be regarded as unique individuals, with their own vastly different, but highly relevant personal histories, and treatments tailored specifically for them.

I think that would be nice.

Till next week.

 

MY BEOWULF, PART TWO…OKAY TWO DUDES, WHERE HAVE YOU HIDDEN THE LADIES????? (YES, THERE ARE LADIES IN BEOWULF)

 Aaaaugh!! Why, two dudes, whyyyyyyyyy?

Aaaaugh!! Why, two dudes, whyyyyyyyyy?

I read, and write, a lot, to the point that my vision starts to blur, and I get migraines. The actual pain isn’t terrible, but the headaches are draining all the same.

So. I just have these days.

On one such afternoon, I decided to spend some time in my recliner with Beowulf, the  graphic novel by Santiago García and David Rubín, published in late 2016 by Image Comics. The book is a big hardcover, with glossy color pages, and I had just received it, per post, earlier that day.

What better way, I thought, to unwind, than to look at some pictures? To sink into what may be my favorite story of all time, told, this time, in highly sensory, saturated drawings instead of in the usual blocks of black text crawling across a white page.

I will give this to the two dudes who created this particular version of the Anglo-Saxon epic. The artwork is pretty cool. But then I started to notice a peculiar absence of anything female.

Here’s the thing.

Hrothgar, King of the Danes and lord of Heorot, has a queen. Her name is Wealhtheow. (As a reminder, it is to Hrothgar’s aid that Beowulf comes when he kills Grendel.) Wealhtheow doesn’t have the biggest role to play, but she serves mead in the hall, in her capacity as a queen. According to my understanding (and I’m nothing close to an Anglo-Saxonist, so hopefully I’m getting this right), this is an important, vital role. A queen, after all, was a peace-weaver in Anglo-Saxon society. The order in which she served the mead, to the thanes in the hall, served a purpose. Just the fact of her marriage cemented a bond between tribes. (Peace, in other words, or, at least the hope of peace.)

But there’s no Wealhtheow in this version.

Uh-oh, wait, my bad. There’s a very young looking blonde lady in a few frames, standing next to Hrothgar. She says nothing. Does nothing. Go figure.

This erasure wasn’t exactly helping my headache. But I kept turning the pages.

(Later, in the poem, after Beowulf and his men return home triumphantly, it’s Hygd’s turn to shine. Hygd is Hygelac’s queen. Hygelac is Beowulf’s uncle. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hygd also fails to make an appearance in this graphic novel, created by two individuals who I, I think, I am going to keep referring to as the two dudes.)

Okay. Where was I? Right. I had a headache, and at this point, I was also feeling slightly annoyed. But, whatever, right?

Not whatever, as it turns out.

The erasure gets really real, really fast, when everybody is hanging out in Heorot, drinking and celebrating the demise of Grendel. Again, the artwork is pretty cool. The two dudes had me hooked, at least in this manner.

Here comes the scop! (A sort of poet/bard in Anglo-Saxon culture.) Great, I’m thinking. I figured the scop was going to tell the story of Hildeburh. That's what the scop does in the poem. This is one of my favorite, albeit saddest, parts of the original text. (Hildeburh is, I guess, a failed queen. Her marriage didn’t create any sort of lasting peace, and her brother, son, and husband all die.)

Meghan Purvis, whose creative and highly original translation of Beowulf won the Times Stephen Spender Prize in 2011, does the best job out there, I think, of portraying Hildeburh’s story. (I’ll spend an entire future post discussing the Purvis translation. In the meantime, you can look it up here.)

Soooo…no Hildeburh. But there is a scop in the 2016 graphic novel, and that scop does tell the story….of….wait for it….Siegfried and the Dragon.

By this time, my temples were kind of throbbing. Being erased is bad for the soul.

Okay, you might be wondering. What’s so terrible about bringing in Siegfried? After all, you might point out, isn’t there a dragon in Beowulf?

Yeah, there’s a dragon. Sure, there’s a dragon. (BUT THERE ARE ALSO LADIES!!)

All the same, Siegfried feels kind of random to me. And though I’m no linguist, the name ‘Siegfried’ itself feels too medieval German for this Anglo-Saxon poem.

Siegfried, you see, is one of the stars of the Nibelung poem, a poem, I might add, that was first written down in the thirteenth century. (So, a few centuries after Beowulf.) The Nibelung poem is also associated mostly with the Burgundian tribe, who, sure, were some sort of Germanic people, but…I don’t know. It all seems so far-fetched to me. I mean, are women so terrible, or so meaningless, that all traces of their lives, and their concerns, have to be taken out of an epic poem and replaced with allusions to a completely separate literary work?

(Speaking of those Burgundians. I’ll write more about them in a future post. I had a manic episode that revolved heavily around my reading of the Lex Gundobada, their law code. And, I don’t know. Stories about manic episodes that involve dark age legal tracts are probably worth telling.)

Okay. Back to the lady-effacing graphic novel in question. At this point, my eyebrows were raised, despite the physical pain this was causing me. I just could not with the two dudes. Could. Not.

Onward.

The final (missing) lady I will discuss (and I'm skipping over a number of ladies mentioned in the poem, for sake of space) is the anonymous Geat woman at the end of the poem.

In the poem, Beowulf dies after defeating a dragon, leaving the Geats defenseless to outsiders. It is the anonymous woman in the poem who voices their fears. The fears of an entire people. The fear, among others, of being enslaved.

The two dudes could not possibly have changed the ending, right? Oh, well, they kind of did. Sure, the sentiments are expressed, but Wiglaf (a male kinsman of Beowulf) gets to say them. You know, instead of having a human woman in the adaptation.

Wow, you might be thinking. Impressive. Considering that women make up half the world’s population, getting through a whole story without any must be quite a feat.

It must have been. It must have been.

OH BUT WAIT I AM TOTALLY JOKING BECAUSE THERE IS A LADY IN THE TWO DUDES’ BEOWULF. HOW COULD I HAVE FAILED TO MENTION HER?? IT IS THE LADY, WHO IS NOT IN THE POEM, THAT BEOWULF HAS SEX WITH. SHE DOESN’T SAY ANY WORDS THOUGH.

Don’t get me wrong, I am sure that Beowulf, had he lived, would have been sexually active. And in the poem, he spends a night away from Heorot. In fact, the two dudes’ Beowulf would not be the first Beowulf adaptation that has turned that little fact into sex for my favorite epic hero.

But here’s the thing.

It’s not the sex that bothers me. Sex is great!

It’s this. No way ever ever should two dudes cut out pretty much all traces of the many female presences from an original work of literature, while at the same time inserting into their adaptation a little bedroom fun in the form of a dark age one-night stand for the (male) main character.

With a faceless, nameless woman, no less.

(Whoops. Perhaps I misspoke earlier. Looks like we have an anonymous woman here after all!)

By crafting their (admittedly very well-drawn) story this way, the two dudes are promoting the narrative that providing bedroom fun for brawny heroes is the tippy-top purpose that a lady can serve.

Guess what? It’s not!!!!

Seriously, male earthlings. Please don’t do stuff like this. Please help my headaches go away. Or, at least don’t make them worse.

Thank you. That is all. See you next week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MY BEOWULF, PART ONE OF PROBABLY A GAZILLION

The Seamus Heaney version of Beowulf has a cool cover. A chainmail hood. This Beowulf has no face. Maybe that’s why I snapped up the book shortly after it came out in hard cover in 2000. I was working at a Barnes and Noble, having returned from a two year post-collegiate adventure in Germany, and was feeling massively depressed about living with my mother.

Faceless, I probably thought. I got that. I put the book on my bookshelf and promptly neglected to read it.

I read, and write, about the same things, over and over, and though Beowulf has become one of those things, I came slowly to the poem itself. At some point, I read a pretty listless prose translation—maybe I thought the Heaney translation, which I owned by this time, would be difficult to comprehend? I was preparing for some sort of literature subject test, and feeling panicked about closing the massive gaps in my knowledge. I was reading a lot of canonical stuff, and quickly, and the Beowulf prose translation, for its part, was boring me to tears. Around the same time, I read the Cliff Notes for the poem, and was bored by them as well. From the Cliff Notes, I learned the usual basic stuff. The poem can be divided neatly into three parts, blah blah blah. The poem was written by an anonymous Christian poet about a pagan society, blah blah blah. Stuff like that.

Meanwhile, I had no real life. No real face. I did not understand how to come back from the unusual, how to reinsert myself into the humdrum of everyday life.

Years passed, as they do. I ended up living halfway across the country in Oakland, California, in a cheap rented room, after two failed relationships and lots of insanity. I was on a number of meds, and I honestly cannot say they were helping all that much.

Again, I was working at a bookstore. On one particular year, the high strung, whirlwind retail Christmas season came upon me, and I thus found myself alone on the day itself. With only the one day off, it was impossible to travel back to Illinois to see family. Quite honestly, I was okay with that.

I like being alone. I made coffee. I curled up in bed, under my knitted afghans, with my cat at my side. He’s a very trusty sidekick.

That morning, I started reading Beowulf, the Heaney version, with the chainmail hood cover shining dull, cool silver against a plain, black, depthless background.

So. That’s how the Heaney’s version starts. I was sold. Somehow, along the way, I must have picked up that hwæt, the first word of the poem, is often translated as lo, and that harkening never worked for me. Lo is intricate, and ornate. Very lofty, at least to my ear. So, on the other hand, spills over with flesh, and blood, and bone. So is living and breathing.

So is how people actually talk.

So. A talking, faceless man, written down into posterity by an unknown poet. (I decided this conundrum was part of the epic.)

For a long time, I had no face, or, I did, but I didn’t like that face, at all, so facelessness appealed to me. Like I said, the meds weren’t really helping. I was battling a lot of my own monsters, and I was losing those battles, in spectacular, often highly-destructive ways.

So.

With that one word, I embarked on a journey to find a new face, although I didn’t know, at the time, that this was what I was doing. I didn’t know that my engagement with what is essentially the ur-epic of English literature was going to become, among other things, kind of therapeutic. (More on this at some future date.)

More years pass, many of them. I’ve slain some monsters along the way. By this point, I’ve reached a certain level of geekiness when it comes to this poem. I now collect translations, versions, graphic novels, and movie adaptations. I’ll unpack my various reactions to some of these in future blog posts.

What I also know is that I am not the only person who feels drawn to Beowulf. The April 2017 online issue of The Atlantic features an article entitled “Beowulf Is Back!” The subtitle, however, does a better job of describing the actual content of the article. “What’s behind the running pop-culture engagement with the epic poem?” the subtitle asks, which, I think, belies the title. The truth is, Beowulf has not come back from anywhere. No. The truth is, Beowulf never left.

 

 

ABOUT A BLOG...

I used to keep a blog. I wrote on it almost every day. It was called I Was A Feral Child: That’s Why I Act This Way. I started it to impress a guy. He was impressed. So I guess there was that. But I mean, c’mon. This was years (and years) ago. My life was miserable but the blog was mostly intended to elicit laughs. I told my readers that my cat’s name was Gerard Butler, and this resulted in some die-hard Gerard Butler fans really liking my blog. Gerard Butler had just appeared in 300, along with a number of other bare-chested, attractive male actors, but I was really crushing on his portrayal of Beowulf in the oft-panned, but in my opinion somewhat underrated film, Beowulf and Grendel. I really loved the poem on which the film was based. There were a lot of references to Beowulf on my blog. At one point, if memory serves, I kind of worked in some sort of Beowulf-Encino Man angle and imagined Beowulf arriving in my back yard through a time portal to rescue me from my awful life.

Here we come, swinging back to misery.

Mental illness is hard. There’s a steep learning curve to figuring out how to deal with this particular bit of awful. I remember drinking a lot during this time, way more than was good for me. That was my number one, super-duper, top-notch coping strategy. No doubt, you will not be surprised to learn that the drinking only made things worse.

But, I kept blogging. Long after that guy I was trying to impress moved on to someone else (and on to someone else after that). I figured, make people laugh. This is how you will prove that you are human. I did not feel particularly human. I felt raw all the time. Like my eyes were on fire. The blogging thing, for me, became almost pathological. Kind of like: ha ha look at me I’m laughing and making you laugh so everything is fine. Meanwhile, the opposite was true.

But. Time passes. Life gets easier in some ways, harder in others. (I’m leaving out a lot here.) The point is, though, that I started to change. And as I changed, I realized I didn’t want to spend hours at my computer every day, coming up with something that might be funny. So, I started working on other stuff, but I didn’t forget Beowulf.

Towards the end of this epic, Anglo-Saxon poem, the reader learns that Beowulf’s kinsmen thought, when he was younger, that nothing much would become of him. I’m going to spend more time in a future post unpacking this, but here I’ll say: I connected to this, to a story about a hero, who maybe, at one time, felt he might have something to prove. That’s me, I thought, when I first read the poem. My friends had cool jobs, post docs, relationships, brunch schedules. In my mind, compared to them, I was a disastrous loser. Living with the results of serious mental illness can make a person feel that way. My whole life, all the chips on my shoulders (lots of chips, weighty chips), felt like markers on a journey where I was going to fight, and probably lose to, my own set of monsters.

What I know now is that my friends were probably struggling too. That everyone struggles. That every day is a goddamn epic.

Lately, the epic in my every day has been beautiful. Not in an I’m-so-happy-I-could-die kind of way, but rather in more of a life-is-peaceful kind of way. In an I-feel-like-writing-about-the-stuff-that-interests-me-and-putting-it-on-the-internet-even-if-only-three-people-read-it kind of way. I plan to write about the ways the Beowulf epic still holds our cultural attention, about mental illness and culture, about living between two cultures. (I’m currently living in Germany.) And, I feel I should add, what with my somewhat cringe worthy past reasons for starting a blog, this time around, I am writing because I want to.

I decided to keep the reference to feral children, even though I would no longer say I feel raw. It’s been years since I’ve seen the inside of a psych ward. But as I research and explore, and find myself moving away from identifying with any one specific diagnosis and instead toward an understanding of myself as more generally neurodivergent, I carry with me a slight sense of oddness. I’ve always felt odd, but for once, it feels powerful.

Thanks for reading.