Category Archives: Life Events

The arrival of Arrival

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of watching a newly-released film with a dear friend – something I’d been immensely looking forward to, and not just because this week got very I’ve-fallen-into-a-parallel-universe-and-I-can’t-get-up with the election of a sexist, racist demagogue as President of the United States of America. Being able to distract ourselves with a big cinematic experience was thoroughly lovely, and while we were surprised at first by a rather large local street festival that neither of us realised was going to be on right outside the cinema doors, even that in itself was a lovely way to pass the time, wandering up and down past stalls, avoiding the heat and humidity while we could, staying out of rain, smelling and eating street food (we both got gözleme, a Turkish fried bready dish that I love but can’t often get here in Australia), and having a relatively quiet (and cold; it was stinking humid, and a storm broke later that afternoon) drink in a café we both like. So all in all, it was a wonderful afternoon’s diversion.

It was also a particularly nice experience in that I don’t go out to the cinema very often anyway, which is due to two major contributing factors. One of those is the fact that it requires some planning and psychological strength for me to do something off routine these days, and so I often find myself “postponing” going out to the cinema to take in a film until I end up missing the entirety of the film’s run. The other is the fact that Hollywood is simply not producing that many movies that appeal to me these days, and of late the cinematic industry seems to be relying for most of its punter bucks to be coming from superhero movies, reboots and sequels, and vehicles for whoever the latest Flavour of the Month is: Anna Kendrick, Bonemarrow Crunchybits, Chris Pratt, Melissa McCarthy. Not that I mind individual instances of these – I’m super keen to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them when it comes out next week, for example – but on the whole, it seems that variety is rather lacking. Do we really need three separate Wolverine movies, you cats, in addition to the six X-Men films we already have? Did Jurassic World really add anything substantive to the ideas that Jurassic Park already explored? (And quite beautifully, I might add: not only was the film itself just incredible – beautifully shot, well-acted, and majestically scored – but for a film released in 1993, the special effects in Jurassic Park are mindblowing and stand up extraordinarily well even by today’s standards. What’s more, it was a rare gold star for Hollywood in the gender stakes. There were only two major female characters, but both were awesome: Lex Murphy ran firmly counter to stereotype as a teen girl computer whiz who hacked the park’s security system, and Dr. Ellie Sattler is serious life goals for me, a strong and intelligent woman with a doctorate who can be feminine, kick arse without having to wear heels to do so, and explicitly lampshade a few sexist attitudes into the bargain. While I have to confess I haven’t seen Jurassic World, a deliberate choice given that it was both Chris Pratt and a sequel that didn’t need to be done, I’ve heard that if anything the attitude towards women has moved distinctly backwards. Yet another reason not to see it.)

Anyway. I’m digressing again. Yesterday’s film was none of these: neither a superhero movie, nor a reboot, nor a sequel (nor an exhibit of Chris Pratt or Anna Kendrick). It was the science-fiction film Arrival, an adaptation of the Nebula Award-winning novella Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. I hadn’t read any of his work previously – apart from the general difficulty I have with getting into new fiction these days, Chiang is remarkably selective about his sci-fi publication, having published only 15 stories in his career (even as they’ve achieved mindblowing success, garnering among others four Nebulas, four Hugos, and three Locus Awards to date). Indeed, he apparently once even turned down a Hugo nomination because he felt editorial urging had pressed him into producing a rushed and (to him) unsatisfactory story. It seems that Story of Your Life had long been considered unfilmable, but in all honesty, I’m glad that the screenwriters persisted, because in Arrival, they’ve produced something incredible.

Alert for major spoilers from here on out, by the way.

On its face, Arrival is an alien first contact movie, and probably the most accurate portrayal of a potential first-contact scenario in cinema history, with the potential exception of Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s novel. Arrival takes the problem of interspecies communication that most other cinematic science fiction simply handwaves away if it acknowledges it at all (with telepathy in Independence Day, with the Babel Fish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with universal translator devices of a thousand different incarnations in a thousand other sci-fi outings), and moves it squarely into the foreground, building the film’s major quest line out of the struggle to communicate with the squidlike heptapods and discover their purpose for visiting Earth in the first place. The military is involved, as they so often are, but the protagonist of the film – and indeed, the only one we really find ourselves empathising with throughout – is an academic linguist, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams, whose performance is complex, deep, and really touching), who’s called upon by the Army to attempt to speak with the alien visitors but frequently forgets military protocols and security (in that strangely childlike manner that we academics often seem to be able to muster) in pursuit of the loftier goal of communication, often with the assistance of theoretical physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).

From a purely linguistic point of view, I don’t think the process of monolingual fieldwork with a previously unknown language has ever been so accurately depicted upon film; the hesitating first steps, the breakthroughs that form a foundation upon which the rest of the language can be constructed in the mind of the learner, the rapid acceleration of mutual comprehension thereafter. The film also explores a particularly strong version of what linguists call linguistic relativity or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the idea that one’s language influences or may even define the ways in which we see the world, and the whole film’s premise turns out to be that the purpose for the alien visitors coming to Earth is to impart their language to humanity. The heptapods’ form of visual communication is a semasiographic system in which a single complex symbol forms an entire sentence or utterance, and the form of every subpart of that symbol is morphologically influenced by every other part. In other words, in order to start talking in this form of communication, you already have to know exactly how the utterance will end – to predict its future, in a sense. So the story assumes from this a particularly strong version of Sapir-Whorf, stating that in essence, being able to use the heptapods’ visual language can impart the ability to “remember” both the past and the future: to perceive time not as a linear progression from cause to effect, but as a single flow of temporality.

But despite realising Ted Chiang’s heptapod aliens in arresting visual form, and hinting at a much greater alien universe in which they (and we) are situated, Arrival – like the novella on which it was based – rises into a higher class of sci-fi in that it never gets lost in exposition of extraterrestrial creatures at the expense of exploring the human condition, telling us first and foremost something about ourselves, about humanity. Even though the film’s focus would superficially appear to be upon the arrival of the heptapods and the process of establishing meaningful contact, and indeed that’s the bulk of what you see on screen, it isn’t so much that as it is the story of Louise Banks herself, and by proxy, her future husband Ian Donnelly (the selfsame physicist with whom she deciphered the heptapods’ language, who she will eventually marry) and her daughter (and the fact that the primary character’s a woman is also eminently pleasing in a genre so often dominated by male characters). It’s the story of how Louise’s acquisition from the heptapods of this ability to perceive all of her life at once affects the way her life subsequently unfolds, and how it impacts upon the decisions she has to make in the rest of her life (including whether or not she should have her daughter at all, knowing as she does that her  child’s life will be cruelly cut short by a devastating genetic illness, and that she and Ian will divorce because he finds out she knew it would happen and couldn’t handle it). This underlying story, as much alluded to as depicted outright, is what raises Arrival from an already pretty gripping and beautifully realised alien arrival tale into the top echelons of philosophical science fiction, up with Interstellar and Blade Runner as some of the best deep-thinking sci-fi ever put to screen. Those looking for a standard humans-versus-aliens Explosionfest are going to walk away sorely disappointed from Arrival, but so they should. There’s plenty of room in the vast and unchartable multiverse of sci-fi for first contact films that are basically cheesy disaster-movie-style crash-and-bang cinema (which are nonetheless awesome; Independence Day is still an old favourite of mine) as well as for highly cerebral, richly emotional examinations of the human condition through the lens of a science-fiction scenario.

So I’m very grateful for being able to get out and experience one such film, and particularly with such lovely company.

tlhIngan Hol Quj

Those who know me mostly know my academic “dirty little secret”: that in addition to my chosen profession of archæology, I dabble in linguistics as a hobby and have done since high school. As a consequence of my lifelong interest for the richness of languages, triggered by my early beginnings learning conversational French and fanned by an encounter with written Inuktitut during primary school, among the widely-ranging but largely incoherent body of skills I’ve acquired is the ability to speak or read six languages. Four of these are of relatively substantial utility in the modern world – French, Spanish, Turkish, and my native English. The other two, however, are spoken fluently by a combined total of less than thirty people in the world, and their utility has been primarily in the sheer fascination I have for them. One of these is Ubykh, a North-West Caucasian language whose last fully competent native speaker, the good Tevfik Esenç (whose voice I’m so very familiar with from sound recordings, even though I never had the pleasure of meeting him) died in 1992; I’ll tell you more, one of these days, about my decade-and-a-half of work with that language. The sixth language I speak, and probably the one in which I (disturbingly?) have the greatest competence besides English, is Klingon. Yes, Klingon; the language devised by Dr Marc Okrand for a race of bumpy-headed aliens depicted in the Star Trek series of films. I was in high school – perhaps sixteen years old? – when I first encountered the concept that the construction of one’s own language out of whole cloth was not only possible, but had in fact been successfully achieved: not just once, but many times. The history of constructed languages is a long and rich and enthralling one that I won’t rehash here, but well worth reading about – if you’re interested in more I’ll just point you to Dr Arika Okrent’s wonderful book In the Land of Invented Languages (which, for good measure, includes some segments on the Klingon community, researched first-hand and using interviews with some of my Klingon-speaking friends) – but suffice it to say that I became interested very quickly, and Klingon in particular gave me special intrigue, not least because of the science-fiction milieu in which it’s set. But it’s not only that: as I’ve said before on this very blog, as I came to know the Klingon community I also grew to realise that they’re some of the most wonderful and worthwhile people I know. And like a pack of childhood friends playing in the same sandpit, our shared experience with Klingon gives us a complex, extraordinary, and yet neatly-bounded playground in which to revel. We talk, we sing, we recite poetry (remind me to tell you more about my Klingon version of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner sometime), we tell jokes, we spin stories, we order meals, we party; we do all sorts of things in Klingon. (I’ve been told by other Klingonists I’ve roomed with that, at times, I even speak Klingon in my sleep.)

One of the other things we do in Klingon, particularly at the qep’a’ (the KLI’s annual conference), is play games, which helps us to expose ourselves to Klingon in a fun way that helps to reinforce and strengthen our language skills. Charades and Pictionary are particular favourites; an official Klingon-language version of Monopoly also exists, as does a uniquely Klingon game called Klin Zha, a strategy game not unlike chess but played on a triangular board. (Beating my friend Captain Krankor at Klin Zha in Chicago is still one of my fondest memories of that game. I got lucky, to be fair; I’m not very good at Klin Zha.) Word games like Boggle and Scrabble are popular as well, particularly because they’re games that force one to enhance one’s lexicon and to be able to know which words are legal and which aren’t; since Klingon also relies rather heavily on prefixing and suffixing, one has to know which prefixes can go on which verbs, what order the suffixes have to come in to form a grammatical word, und so wie. For example, the Klingon word juquvHa’moHta’ you have set out to dishonour us comprises one root (quv, be dishonoured), a prefix (ju-, you [do something to] us), and three suffixes (-Ha’ dis-, –moH cause, –ta’ perfective of intent) and all of the suffixes must appear in a specific order: *juquvta’Ha’moH is a grammatically illegal word (and in Scrabble therefore an illegal play). An unofficial Klingon version of Scrabble was developed back in the late 1990s, but although people would often play it at qep’a’, as I had the pleasure of doing at my first qep’a’ in Reno in 2011, the general consensus was that the distribution of the letters was somewhat off (particularly of the qaghwI’, the glottal stop), that the balance of consonants and vowels wasn’t quite right. This letter distribution was based only on a single text – the authoritative edition of Hamlet – and while it was certainly the most substantive source material we had at the time, the fact that it was written almost entirely by a single author and in a single style meant that it was potentially going to skew what kinds of words were used, what types of grammatical constructions were deployed, and consequently, what the distribution of the individual characters was going to be.

“You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”
– Chancellor Gorkon, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

And this brings me to possibly one of the nerdiest things I’ve ever done – beyond having linguistics as a hobby, beyond learning Klingon to the point of conversational fluency (I’m one of only two Australians ever to be certified to Gold-level by the Klingon Language Institute’s certification program), beyond flying around the world to attend qep’a’mey (three times so far). My most significant contribution to Klingondom is the development of the current Scrabble letter distribution. After some discussion amongst the top-flight Klingon Scrabble players, who were largely (though, to be fair, not exclusively) in agreement that the letter distribution we had needed work, I took this task upon myself. I sat down with four major Klingon texts by four separate Gold-certified authors, totalling over half a million raw characters, and from them constructed a statistical algorithm to determine which consonants and which vowels were most common in connected text; I subsequently used the model of the original English Scrabble set, which has 100 tiles scoring a total of 200 points, to distribute the point values for each tile appropriately with further subjective input from Klingon Scrabble aficionados. (For what it’s worth, the highest-scoring possible opening move in this scoring system is tlhorghqang it is willing to be pungent: 134 points.) Once I’d developed the scoring system appropriately so that it balanced out to 200 points exactly, one of the authors who’d contributed a text (the Klingon novelist Qov – Robyn Stewart – whose novel nuq bop bom is the longest extant single text in the language) did some research to locate a business that could use a laser mill to make custom-made timber Klingon Scrabble tiles, and this she had done, ordering several sets so that Klingonists who wished to could own their own set of Klingon tiles for Scrabble. And I have to admit, seeing the completed tiles, with the letters and scores on every tile in both the romanised Klingon transcription and the native pIqaD writing system, gave me a feeling of some pride that I’d been able to contribute in my own small way to this awesome community I have the joy and deep honour to belong to. Here’s a photo of a completed Scrabble game between me and Qov, showing the tiles with my score distribution on them in all their glory.

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Lasciate ogne speranza

In this post, as the Klingons’ Second Rite of Ascension calls for one to say, tIqwIj Sa’angnIS I must show you my heart. I both warn you all and apologise in advance; I’m unloading a lot of stuff here in order to help me push it out of the unhealthy residence it’s been taking up in my head. One of my best friends has suggested I write more #weirdthingsivedone posts, especially since she claims I somehow manage to scale new heights of Peak Nerd in her eyes every time we talk. (I’m not sure I’ve ever been complimented so wonderfully in my entire life.) And I will do that in future posts, I promise. But for now, here, I need to wax maudlin for a short while, so I ask for your indulgence while I do.

I read this small chunk of prose by a poetically-inclined denizen of Facebook a couple of nights ago – the ancient historians call these prose fragments gobbets when set as stimulus fragments for essay exams, and that term I’ve been utterly unable to get out of my head for every single one of the fourteen years since I last did an ancient history essay exam – on the news feed of a friend, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind for a couple of days (a wonderfully pleasant Friday evening notwithstanding, spent picking out new glasses and having dinner with the same dear friend who accused me of perpetual apex geekery – that was a perfect distraction that I desperately needed and am grateful for). I don’t know if it qualifies as prose-poetry as such, but certainly the style isn’t typical of standard prose; far more highly emotive, a cry of empathy with the deeply wounded. Because of the psychological place I was in, reading this piece was like a shout into a vast canyon with perfect acoustic balance, echoing countless times within the vaults of my mind and the power to silence it or call it back utterly out of my control.

I know what it feels like to live on the edge of loneliness
to have every hope crushed and everything you touch die
and to try so damn hard only to realize
nothing is going to change anytime soon
so you deal with the pain the best you can.
Reggie Nulan

I’ve been entrapped by this proselet largely because it feels almost like this Reggie Nulan has looked straight through – perhaps past – my eyes to see directly into the darkest, grimmest walls of my mind, and has unhesitatingly read the spidery scrawled inscriptions of my worst fears, shallow glyphs scratched weakly into prison walls of piled grey stone by the most anguished part of my psyche. My October was exactly like this verse says. It was a period during the start of which which I did feel occasional snatches of something like motivation, a feeling I hadn’t had in some time: motivation to work, to write, to move forward with my life in aspects that had previously been stagnant and beginning to grow heavy on my shoulders. It was a time during which I didn’t just make plans, but also took steps to – as the revolting business jargon would phrase it – action those plans. (As the great philosopher Calvin – no, not that one – puts it, verbing weirds language.)

Eek. I just wandered off searching for that link, got distracted, and fell into the Internet for about half an hour. I can’t even think about this for long enough to get through the writing of a full post on it. I’m sorry. Where was I? October. That’s right. Much as I’d have liked to forget. September came to an end on quite a high, with notifications via email that one of my academic articles had just been published and two further articles had been accepted for publication in the professional journals. This is probably, I’m pretty sure, what gave me the motivation to start building on the momentum I was experiencing: to keep it rolling forward while it was there, and try to avoid falling back into the lethargic inertia I’m prone to. (I’ve long since come to the conclusion that Newton’s first law of motion has relevance to more abstract forms of progress, too – that an object in motion tends to stay in motion, and conversely, an object at rest will tend to stay at rest.) I was getting my medication régime back under control with the assistance of a good psychiatrist, some academic success had come my way in the form of these three papers, there was promise of upcoming paid contract work at my alma mater, I’d had an offer from a friend to move out of the living situation I’m in that’s contributing to my worsening health, and I was feeling ready to step back out into the world of romance by asking out someone who in recent months I’d been both getting to know better, and growing to fancy, roughly in lockstep with each other.

None of these things have really worked out, though. It brings clouds to my eyes just to type that, but it remains true nonetheless. The romantic thing didn’t work out, which isn’t a problem in and of itself (particularly since the person I fancied had the immense integrity and wondrous grace to sit down with me and talk honestly and openly about why it would be best if we not date, at least for now) – it just feeds into a long, long history of romantic missed opportunities, missteps, and failures to act (more than forty in all; I counted once, in a particularly deep fit of despondency) that always, always make me criticise and harshly judge every aspect of myself to see in which ways I don’t measure up. In addition, my friend’s offer of moving out of my problematic living situation had to be cancelled entirely at the last minute because of the breakup of her relationship (that week was not a good one for relationships – another couple I know also had their civil partnership come to a screeching halt at that time). And I feel doubly awful for that because I know my friend and her partner were both themselves struggling with serious mental health issues, issues that ultimately contributed to their breakup but that must have caused them extraordinary hurt during that process and that make me feel really guilty for feeling upset about the situation for my own (and utterly selfish) reasons. The offer of work I’d had has also had to be postponed several times for a variety of reasons mostly revolving around people being in the field or caught up with other commitments that couldn’t be broken, taking me past the end of my third full year without full-time employment and making me feel even worse about my prospects for beginning to build a life that I can in any way take joy in. As a consequence of these three situations – romance, habitation, employment – I’ve taken a solid backslide even under the increased dosage of the medication my psychiatrist has been working with me on (no doubt situational rather than fundamentally biochemical, which at least does give me a tiny but mathematically non-zero degree of consolation), which has subsequently impacted upon my ability to focus on the writing of further academic papers, on the writing of job applications, and on the continuing effective conductance of my life on a day-to-day basis.

Ultimately, all this is why I feel so keenly the sting of the wound that propelled Reggie Nulan to write his lovely but heart-wrenching prose-poem. Living on the edge of loneliness feels like my reality at the moment; I feel lonely at virtually every moment, even as I try to push myself to address it, to connect with friends, to remain in contact with people I care about. And all that I hoped would come to fruition during October shrivelled on the vine. Life is as stagnant now – moreso, perhaps – as it was at the end of September. At moments like this, I almost fear that my depression and my anxiety are the correct and true way of experience, slyly and underhandedly suggesting that optimism is abhorrent and hope to be shunned. On one level, I’m used to feeling that in my own head. I suppose it just causes a rather deeper ache to feel that the universe around me should be nodding its head so vigorously in agreement.

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.
(Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.)
– Dante Alighieri, Inferno III.9

A short poem, a long ramble

雲おりおり
人をやすめる
月見かな
“Occasional clouds
bring a person respite from
gazing at the moon.”
– Matsuo Bashō, 1644-1694 (my translation)

Poetry is a secret vice of mine, though one about which I’m involuntarily selective. Much as I’d like very much to expose myself to more poetry in the hope of discovering new and emotive mental fodder, my experience with doing so in the past has been that the moments of true enjoyment of poetry are few and very far between. When I read prose, very often I can find a wide range of material I like within a certain genre, or a specific author’s style and expression will enrapture my imagination. This latter is particularly true of some authors. When I first read Stephen King – my first exposure was The Shining, I think – his glorious, intrusive-thoughts writing style and my imaginative faculty slotted together like the two halves of a giant clam’s shell, summoning imagery in my mind’s eye that was rich, vivid, entirely memorable; he takes his craft extremely seriously and has produced fine, engaging prose as a result. Similarly, the power and fluidity of expression emanating from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novel series captured me more or less immediately as I began to read A Game of Thrones, such that after finishing it I immediately went out to purchase every subsequent available book in the series. (And this was no small feat, as I was struggling with a deep period of depression at that point and had read no new fiction in more than two years: virtually unthinkable, since as an undergrad there were long stretches – and I’m talking months and years on end – where I’d buy and read two or three novels a week, every week, almost without fail. The woman who ran the book stall at the flea market used to know me by name, and moreover, I knew hers too. Gwen. I probably bought upwards of four hundred books from her over the course of a few years.) Others whose books I’d read more or less on the strength of their author’s name are Robert Silverberg, Tim Willocks, and Isaac Asimov, all of whose writing styles and subject matters I find a pleasure to engage with.

But with poetry – and I’m mystified as to just why this is – it’s more that a specific poem has to speak to me somehow on more than one level at a time. It’s not enough to just be by a poet whose style I happen to like; I may love one of a poet’s works, and loathe the next even if it’s similar in subject matter, style, tone. A poem has to move past intellectually objective criteria to touch me emotionally through its form, through its topic, through its power to evoke imagery, through the context in which I first heard it. That doesn’t mean, of course, that only poems of one specific form and subject are eligible for this. I love complex full rhymes just as much as half-rhyme and blank verse, I’ve been touched by epic just as much as by haiku. Indeed, what I think is one of the finest pieces of English-language poetry of the last hundred years isn’t what many would think of as a “poem” at all: it’s Eminem’s Lose Yourself, which is not only a deeply emotional story delivered with richly evocative language, but is also a mindblowing tour de force of rhyme and vocalic assonance so complex that it defies straightforward analysis and makes Alexander Pope’s poetry look like it was written by a primary schooler. But I’m also enamoured of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (my love of the poem was what drove me to translate it into rhyming Klingon verse, my longest complete composition in the language), which has a much simpler rhyme scheme and a much more rigid metre, but expresses itself with such vibrant and almost psychedelic imagery that it conjures its supernatural and deathly visions effortlessly – due, no doubt, to Coleridge also being a well-known and incorrigible dope fiend. The fact that the Rime‘s so widely quoted and alluded to means it’s got some historical importance, as well: an albatross around one’s neck; water, water, everywhere; and so forth. There are several other poems I enjoy just as much – such as John Donne’s A Fever, William Blake’s The Tyger, A. B. Paterson’s Been There Before. And the haiku I quote above is one of these.

It’s a classical Japanese haiku, and such is how I’ve rendered it in the translation above as well – a rigid sequence of three lines in five, seven, and five morae (though the original has six in the first line). The clean minimalism of the haiku format has always appealed to me, though as I don’t read Japanese except with the aid of a dictionary and kana charts, it’s an arduous task for me to access most classics of the genre. And I know virtually nothing of Bashō beyond the fact that he’s widely acknowledged as one of the greatest poets of premodern Japan, and even less about his poetry specifically. This haiku holds meaning to me for other reasons. To begin with, it’s a philosophically interesting idea to hold onto: the idea that not all of life is brightness and beauty and illumination, and that the coming of occasional periods of darkness is natural, to be expected, and perhaps can help one to better appreciate those times when the beauty and brightness shine forth most radiantly, filling one’s life with light. In Japanese culture the moon is also a symbol of autumn (for some reason best known to someone else), and in this poem I think the moon’s own inherent quality of flux in its constant waxing and waning, combined with its cultural embodiment of the season of turning leaves, probably reflect the Zen Buddhist concept of anityatā “impermanence”. This is the idea that nothing stays the same forever, and here Bashō seems to imply that anityatā isn’t to be avoided, but to be embraced – that even the clouds cloaking the moon’s luminescence aren’t inherently bad and may themselves be fruitfully considered from a positive perspective instead (if you’ll permit me a moment of mixed metaphysics):

五色令人目盲。
五音令人耳聾。
五味令人口爽。
“Too much color dazzles the eye.
Too much noise deafens the ear.
Too much flavor deadens the taste.”
– Agnieszka Solska (transl.), Daodejing 12.1-3

But the reason I know of this haiku isn’t because of its usefulness as an illustration of how one might see the silver lining in the clouds (…as it were). Rather, it had been printed on the program of the memorial service for an old friend and mentor, Tom Loy, back in 2005. Tom was a renowned lecturer in archæology at my alma mater (the only scientist mentioned by name in both the book and the film of Jurassic Park, no less); a great polymath, but more importantly a man I was proud to call friend, his theoretical perspectives on the discipline and friendly openness to fellow seekers of knowledge – whether full professors or lowly undergrads – have basically informed the entire direction of my professional development. I was enormously honoured to have been asked to deliver a eulogy at his memorial service, since no other archæologist has influenced me more radically. More importantly, Tom was also a Buddhist, and even in his archæological lectures he taught the utility of anityatā (though never referring to it as such in his lectures) for conceptualising cultural change, emphasising that even in periods of what may appear in the archæological record to be cultural stasis, people constantly die and are replaced, tools constantly broken and are repaired, buildings constantly decay and are rebuilt; what appears to be stasis is only what the Yijing categorises as a distinct type of change, the 不易 bùyì ‘non-change’ that comprises the continuous activities necessary to maintain a diachronically ‘steady state’ or ‘permanence’.

But I digress. (My apologies. Tom never published these perspectives before his unexpected death, so I rarely get the opportunity to discuss them or how they’ve impacted upon my own conceptualisation of how to do archæology.) In any case, Tom’s memorial service was a Buddhist one, and the program bore another translation of this haiku on the back, just above the standard funerary verse from the Mahā-Sudassana Sutra; it’s only just recently that I came across my copy of the program again, unearthing it from a drawer while searching for something else entirely. The first time I saw this haiku back in 2005, it was singularly appropriate to Tom’s death already as a reminder of the evanescence of things, but having seen it anew it’s stirred up a diachronic maelstrom of emotions. I relate to it in an entirely new way now, after my struggles with anxiety and depression ramped up in earnest, but at the same time the poem still serves as a conceptual memento of my friendship with Tom and of the emotions surrounding his death. And the novel set of feelings that’s been awakened clicks snugly, almost seamlessly, into the older emotions; just as it did back then, the poem still reminds me that the idea of the impermanence of experiences and of things isn’t only to be looked at through pessimistic eyes. It’s for just that reason that I was moved to compose a new translation of the original Japanese haiku – the English translation that’s at the beginning of this post – to share with a dear friend earlier in the week, a friend who’s also suffering through some psychologically rough times. For us sufferers of anxiety and depression, much of the time it’s hard to maintain optimism and hold onto the idea that though it might seem like good times and pleasant feelings are gone for good, bad times and unpleasant feelings are just as impermanent, are just as much anityā. So I wanted to share this haiku with her, and now with anyone else who might read it here on my blog; not just because it’s one of my favourite pieces of poetry, appealing to me in its form, its subject matter, and in the hidden depth of its meaning, but because it’s been helpful to me as a mental tool. I’ll be well pleased if it can serve as such for anyone else.

The faults in our stars

So about a year ago, I sent a letter to a complete stranger. I was fifty-fifty even then on whether I’d receive a reply at all and I still feel like a bit of a weirdo for having sent it in the first place; by now it was to the point where I’d forgotten I’d even sent the original letter. But in the mail this week I received a reply letter, postmarked Louisville, Kentucky. This is what was in the envelope.

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Yes, I wrote a letter to Jennifer Lawrence. Although I have a pretty fair collection of autographed memorabilia (most are books, and most of those are signed by their authors, and most of those are people I either knew already as friends, or was introduced to by friends or family), writing fanmail is not a pastime I make a regular practice of – not only can it be pretty expensive to write letters from Australia to Europe or the US, especially if one would want to receive something back, but in general I don’t have any more admiration for actors, musicians, sportspeople, and other celebrities than I do for any other group of people. Though top-flight actors and sportspeople might get paid ridiculously moreso than virtually anyone else on Earth short of corporate rorting ratfink bigwigs CEOs, they’re just people like any other, doing a job that they’ve trained to do and that they’re paid to do, and my attitude is generally to treat them as such. (Last year, I took a friend visiting from Germany out into the City to have dinner and a beer at an Irish pub I like; while we were in the pub sipping on pints of Guinness – an obligatory first beer for me whenever I visit an Irish pub – my friend all of a sudden recognised a man with a companion at a table behind us, and it turned out the man was Nick Frost, frequent collaborator of Simon Pegg and actor in Shaun of the Dead, Kinky Boots, and Hot Fuzz. And while we were both surprised to see him eating in O’Malley’s on Queen Street, of all places, we made the conscious – and quite easy – decision to just leave him and his companion to enjoy their evening out together. We smiled and nodded at him as we left; that was the sum total of our interaction.) Consequently, I’m not one to go nuts with fanmail.

There have, however, been precisely two occasions in my life where I’ve been moved to write to a celebrity – and more to the point, to someone I didn’t know in person at all – in order to tell them something I felt they deserved to hear, not to approach them as a capital-C-Cᴇʟᴇʙʀɪᴛʏ, but to approach them as a fellow human being who succeeded in touching my life in a small way, just in the same way as I’d leave a friend a note to cheer them up, just as I’d thank someone who picked up something I dropped. The first time was to Delta Goodrem back in 2003, when the news broke that she had been diagnosed with lymphoma. She was 18, and I little more than a year older, at 19; more to the point, though, my grandfather was at that time in the middle of his own long battle with lymphoma as well. The combination of the two was an unsettling first confrontation with the real potential of mortality for the first time in my adult life, and so in an effort to face those grim thoughts head-on, I decided to write a short letter to wish Delta well in her fight. I never sought a reply nor expected one, but several months later an envelope addressed to me, with no stamp and no return address, was dropped in my mailbox. Inside the envelope was a Delta Goodrem postcard, bearing a simple but lovely handwritten message on the back:

Thank you for your letter, and kind thoughts / x D

So that was the only other time. And like the first, the reason I wrote to Jennifer Lawrence wasn’t actually to ask for her autograph. That was a complete afterthought, more or less along the lines of “hell, if I’m going to send a letter to her anyway, I may as well ask if she could sign my copy of Silver Linings Playbook“. I was moved to write to her for another reason entirely, and that was the fact that in the last couple of years, she’s made use of the enormously visible platform she occupies to speak out – more than once – about her experiences with social anxiety. (A couple of articles detailing her opening up about these issues can be found here, and if you read French, here.) As a sufferer of (among other things) a social anxiety disorder myself, and a friend to several others who also struggle with this sometimes debilitating illness, I was almost startled to hear someone speak frankly about their own experiences with anxiety in an open and public forum, and intensely grateful that someone with such influence upon the world’s media was willing to sacrifice her personal privacy in exchange for the betterment of awareness about an issue around which a great deal of stigma still revolves. The same feeling of surprise would have come if it were anyone in the public eye to any degree: a tennis player like Roger Federer, or a royal figure like the Duchess of Cambridge, or even Melissa Downes who reads the Channel Nine news. And so it was that I wrote to Jennifer Lawrence, of all people, to thank her for her forthrightness:

Partly it’s unclear to me why I felt so drawn to write to you, someone I’ve neither met nor seen except on a screen (whether it’s been in your film work, or interviews you’ve given to the broader press). What I do know is that part of my impetus was learning recently from one of your interviews about your confrontation with social anxiety, which hit me in a rather personal way that I wasn’t expecting. Because some unkind people still do stigmatise or minimise anxiety’s impact, as a sufferer myself I’m grateful for your willingness to be honest and open about those issues… though I know that isn’t why you do what you do, I still felt it was important to let you know, and I thought you might like to know, that you’re genuinely inspiring to me as I battle through my own challenges, and I’m sure to many, many others as they battle through theirs.

So I suppose my motive for requesting that she sign the cover of my copy of Silver Linings Playbook was twofold. In one way, the simple fact was that I was writing to her anyway, and I thought that, since I was already paying for postage to the US, it would be nice to have her sign a DVD of the movie for which she won an Academy Award. But the second and more important reason was, I suppose, that to be able to see her signature there – on the front of a movie whose entire plot revolves around the challenges of mental illness, no less – is a reminder of the fact that I was moved to write to her in the first place by her willingness to talk about her own battle; a reminder of someone who’s successfully working through her own anxiety to reach the pinnacle of success in her chosen field; and a reminder that anxiety need be neither invincible nor eternal.

Why superheroes anyway?

So this afternoon my dear friend and I were jawing at length about a wide range of topics, as we’re both wont to do – I have a dreadful habit of digressing from an original subject onto a sequence of tangential topics, each one related to the last but altogether forming a flimsy daisy-chain that can take a conversation parsecs away from the original subject. And she has a habit of letting me do so. (One of the many things I’m grateful for in my very best friends is this tolerance of my ridiculous digressions.) I’m not entirely sure how it is our conversation came to alight on the topic of superhero movies in particular, but such was the subject we found ourselves nattering about. Part of the conversation came from my personal state of had-it-up-to-here-ness with the fulminant rash of superhero movies that have erupted all over the Western cinema over the last ten years. If it’s not a Batman film, it’s a Captain America film, and if it’s not Captain America it’s Spiderman, and if not Spiderman it’s Thor, or the Hulk, or Wonder Woman, or Superman, or the Green Lantern, or Deadpool, or Aquaman, or Iron Man, or some ensemble cast outing in the form of the Avengers, or the X-Men, or the Justice League, or the Suicide Squad, or the Guardians of the Galaxy. I’m not against any individual one of these superheroes as a storytelling vehicle – indeed, I’m quite the fan of the X-Men film franchise in particular – but I suppose I’m feeling rather inundated by the mêlée being waged between Marvel and DC in the last few years, a clash of titans in a duel with the chosen weapons of superhero films at ten paces. Recent cinematic releases that have piqued my interest or caught my fascination have been relatively few; the last few films I saw at the cinema were Star Trek: Beyond, The Hateful Eight, and (though not by specifically my selection) Kung Fu Panda 3. Trailers for the upcoming science-fiction offering Arrival (such as this one) are also spectacular and particularly tantalising – admittedly, I do love me a good alien invasion film, and the promise of a linguist as main character, combined with an examination of the challenges of establishing meaningful contact with an alien species and a hefty dose of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, seems a wonderful opportunity to mix good sci-fi with good hard science and philosophy in a way that one doesn’t see very often in cinema these days.

But I digress again. You’ve really got to get better at stopping me from this. Where was I? Superhero films. Yes. Well, my friend and I were discussing this societal outbreak of superheroism in the cinema, and considering what the appeal of this broad genre is to the masses, if it’s not simply about cashing in quickly and effectively on firmly-established franchises – with the release of Doctor Strange later this year, even Marvel alone will have been behind no less than 21 films in the last five years – or about allowing filmmakers to engage in scenery porn on the grand scale, à la Michael Bay, while not concerning themselves too deeply with the telling of a complicated or rich story, also à la Michael Bay. (And to be honest, I do suspect both of these factors are in play nevertheless. The irrepressible grinding of Fróði’s mill, churning out gold aplenty for its owner.) At first, I joked with my friend that people watch superhero movies to get a kick out of watching awesome people be awesome in someone else’s face, or watching the overcompensation of broken people (as most superheroes are in some way or another – Deadpool’s scarring, Batman’s daddy-and-mummy issues, Superman’s isolation as a Kryptonian among humans, the Green Lantern trying to recover from a disappointingly shithouse first movie). But then the thought hit us that perhaps the brokenness is a truly important aspect of what many people relate to in the superhero genre, broadly construed. Maybe there are some people who go to watch purely for the wacky shenanigans or for particular characterisations; for Bruce Wayne and Alfred’s repartee in various Batman incarnations, for Sir Patrick Stewart’s honey-gold baritone or Hugh Jackman’s irreverence in X-Men, to fawn over Bandicoot Crumplysnitch Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange.

(To disappear onto another tangent for a moment, what is it about Bumblewump Cambrian that people are so desperately enamoured with? He’s certainly a good actor, it’s true; his portrayal of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game was wonderful, I thought, and while his Smaug in The Hobbit trilogy was a little too campy to hold a candle to the Sméagol of Andy Serkis – whose failure to garner even one Oscar nomination for the role is, I believe, the greatest shame in the history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – Busticle Candygram’s dragon was nevertheless well portrayed. But still, I’ve seen roles in which his acting left me cold, such as his Khan in Star Trek: Into Darkness – or should I say, Star Trek II 2: Electric Boogaloo. In fairness, although I was grateful as always to see more tlhIngan Hol depicted on screen, fuckin’ J. J. Abrams and his fuckin’ lens flare are partly to blame for that for doing a blatant Wrath of Khan retread that neither needed to be nor should have been done, and even with great direction, Ricardo Montalbán is a hard Khan to follow. But the Khan of Into Darkness was a cold, implausible, cardboard cutout of a villain. Ultimately, I just don’t see the extraordinary actor in Bulbasaur Charizard that puts him so far above the rest. I’m sorry to all his fans for that. Anyway.)

But instead, what we came up with was a more serious idea: perhaps there are many people that go to superhero movies not to be entertained by watching awesome superheroes do awesome-superhero shit, but to watch broken people rise above their brokenness and use those very qualities that set them apart from society to do what they can towards making life better for the very society that they are separated from. This is one of the reasons I love the X-Men franchise so much: it’s focused very firmly on serving as allegory for people who are different, people who are ostracised for being strange and bizarre and threatening and dangerous, but who still work hard at using their peculiar set of talents to make the world a better place not only for those like them, but for all people. Do some people go to superhero movies for precisely this reason? To take their brokenness and their damage into the theatre and use them, subconsciously or no, to relate to the hero? To help them relate to the possibility that their own brokenness and their own damage may become a source of their own strength as well, if they can learn how to harness it? I can’t say that I know the answer to this question, but it strikes me as a thoroughly intriguing possibility, and gives a new perspective – that I hadn’t previously given thought to – on the value of the superhero movie as entertainment.

Travel, expectations and reality

Today’s been a dreary day, and I eventually summoned myself out of my bed at about a quarter past two in the afternoon after some eleven hours of sleep and a period of just lying in bed, phases of sheer motionlessness. I did manage to rouse myself, though, and brought myself to send out some emails and messages and so forth, but on the whole this weekend has been a quiet one indeed. For this I’m mildly grateful in one way, as today marks the end of a complicated fortnight: seven doctor’s appointments, two rounds of blood tests, a hospitalisation, an alternatingly ecstatic then painful rollercoaster of romantic emotions, helping two friends through breakdowns, another two through breakups, and the disintegration of plans to do a test-run of moving out of home… not a torturous fourteen days, to be sure, but certainly one that’s taken a physical and emotional toll. This weekend has become a time of rest, then, and yesterday I was moved to spend some of that time in writing. What excited me to this feeling has been a reflection my dear friend recently wrote about her perspectives on visiting and travelling in England, a reflection that transported me back to some of my own travels – never as far west in Europe as England (more’s the pity, though I hope to reach western Europe one day soon), but the feelings she describes as having been stirred in her reminded me of my own emotional responses to some of the cities I’ve visited. What surprised me, I suppose, is that my friend found herself sensing genuine distaste for London, a distaste she described in no uncertain terms and in a manner that’s utterly foreign to my experience of international travel. Of the eighty-odd cities I’ve visited in eight countries, never has my feeling been one of dislike or discomfort; although there are places I’ve liked moreso than others, of course, none has been an experience that I could ever use the words regret or hate to describe. Even when there have been particular events that haven’t been so pleasant (losing my camera on the last day of my visit to Tbilisi, for instance – I had to purchase a new one in Athens – or being screwed out of thirty lira by a street shoe-shine hustler in İstanbul), I’ve come away from every place that I’ve visited with a sense of enjoyment, and satisfaction that I did.

New York is such a place (and I mention this primarily because I can’t speak to the experience of London, but I have visited New York, twice). Like my friend’s dissatisfaction with her London experience, my two brothers have been to New York and both found it overwhelming, noisy, crowded, oppressive; as one of them puts it, it was too much of the big smoke and too little of the open sky. I can counter none of these assessments, primarily subjective as they are, but when they told me about their trip and noted that they wouldn’t go back if given the option, I was – there’s no other word that’s as apt – gobsmacked. For me, New York was a unique and brilliant experience. It was a world apart, every bit as different and exotic and alien as if I’d been whisked off the surface of the Earth and teleported Star Trek-fashion into the centre of some Asimovian metropolis on the other side of the galaxy. The explorer in me was enthralled by the microcosm that the city represented, the stupendous diversity of humanity crammed into this one urban concentration. Some linguists believe that native speakers of as many as 800 languages may reside in the city, perhaps the most concentrated hotbed of linguistic diversity anywhere on the planet, and each gives their own unique spin to what it means to be American; that diversity is bleeding out of the Five Boroughs’ every pore. Every day I went walking I felt like I was entering a new town of sorts, a new locale, able to experience something starkly different from whatever it was I’d done the previous day. Strangely, I never felt crowded by people; even in Times Square it was easy to navigate around clots of tourists, and the area of Upper Manhattan I stayed in the first time it was positively peaceful much of the time. Meandering along the streets I’d read signs advertising all sorts of goods and services – Jewish delicatessens, Russian bakeries, Korean laundries. I heard more different languages spoken in one day in New York than on any other day before or since. Look here; see vaulting skyscrapers sparkling with thousands of mirror facets, white-gloved security staff calmly alert under canvas awnings that arch over brass-fitted foyers. Now look over there; see low two-storey red brick buildings, a graffiti-covered roll-a-door protecting a family-run convenience store with “Se Habla Español” on a handwritten sign in the window. On one day, I might see the frescoes of a reconstructed Pompeiian villa, the world’s largest collection of shrunken heads, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s planetarium, and come out of one of the city’s best pizzerias to see a two-time Academy Award nominee leaving the theatre opposite. (Jude Law, for the record.) On the next day, I might eat a pretzel and tandoori chicken with rice and salad from street vendors, then spend three hours discovering bronze statues, bench dedications, and wildlife in the surprisingly peaceful vastness of Central Park. Even the hostel I stayed at the first time – in the bottom levels of a brownstone in the middle of Harlem, a dodgy little place with rips in the vinyl of the couches, vegetation overgrown in what passed for its backyard, and a spanner kept in the shower so that you could actually turn the water on (the faucet head had long since been stolen) – was an experience that, while I maybe mightn’t stay there again, I enjoyed greatly nevertheless. My stay there gave me both richly memorable experiences and deeply treasured friends; two aspiring career musicians I met there, Grace and Kenny, I still keep in touch with. They brought me to a fun Mexican eatery not far from the Museum of Modern Art that I made it a point to go back to on my second visit; another night, we bought fountain sodas in a fast food place and spiked them with vodka while we wandered the streets of Harlem. The mixture of brazen wide-eyed camera-wielding tourism during the day and relaxed enjoyment with knowledgeable locals during the evening was the perfect way to experience the city, and I suppose that these reasons are what influence me to find it striking that one might visit New York and come out of it disappointed.

I rather like to think that my brothers’ dissatisfaction was at least in part caused by a combination of the time of year (they visited during the unseasonably cold snap of early 2014, and so the city was largely snowbound – by contrast, my visits were made during the late summer and early autumn, a time that’s warm but not intolerably so, when Central Park’s rich verdure is in full flush and the city’s denizens are more outgoing) and the fact that neither of them are particular fans of museums. Much of my New York state of mind came from the rich range of world-class museums they have: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Johannes Vermeer first captivated me with Det Melkmeisje that was on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam; the American Museum of Natural History, because I’m a nerdy freak for all things natural history and particularly palæontology, and the AMNH has a wondrous collection of mounted dinosaur fossils; the Museum of Modern Art, where Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night was on display, far more spectacular in person than in a print of any fidelity; and even the Ripley’s Odditorium on Times Square, basically a fuck-off enormous Victorian curio cupboard with probably about as much authenticity about it but still some fascinating exhibits. One of my brothers tells me, too, that he rather fancies a little of the type of culture shock the Japanese call パリ症候群 Pari shōkōgun (in English, Paris syndrome) might also be to blame. This manifests when visitors to Paris (for some reason particularly Japanese tourists) suffer a psychological shock from realising that the reality of the city differs sharply from the received and preconceived ideal version of Paris: the Eiffel-Tower-in-spring, croissantsaveccafé, skinny-Chanel-model-in-marinière-and-beret Paris they’ve been delivered in Western movies and glossy magazine liftouts (and honestly, sometimes the stereotypes  write themselves). Certainly New York is a city that’s similarly widely represented in mass media, and so people’s perceptions of it would, one presumes, be subject to this same kind of unpleasant dissonance – a Stadtschmerz, if you like. This makes a lot of sense to me, particularly as my mental illness brings me to feel a good deal of Schmerz about the Welt in general, and I can objectively wrap my head around the idea that a specific place might trigger such a feeling too. I’d also never even flown in a commercial plane until I was 23, and never overseas until 26, so I suspect that for me the novelty of overseas travel of any sort is still in play. Even now there’s little that makes me feel more like a young kid opening her presents on Christmas morning than the intensifying roar of jet engines outside the heavily-insulated window that seems to dampen the sound not at all, and the heady feeling of being shoved backwards into my chair by g-forces as the pilot puts the hammer down to take off.

And of course, none of this is to say that anyone is at all wrong in assessing their visit to any city as being disappointing, unpleasant or distasteful. Travel isn’t about the objective beauty or charm of a place, and nor should it be; it’s about the way in which a person and a place interact, a tourist’s experiencing of a place within the context of their own past experiences and education and perceptions, both of that place and of all the others they’ve visited previously. From my friend’s description of her stay in London (and Hackney, she goes on to note), I can absolutely understand how the places she stayed would have struck her as being a letdown, an unsettlingly and maybe stereotypically twee self-caricature of a sort she wasn’t expecting. I guess I just fervently hope to continue avoiding such disappointments on my own travels, and I’ve been immensely fortunate that I haven’t been disappointed yet.

22 Days of Musing: 17

17. Division of psyche.

Today I’m continuing on from what I was writing yesterday about the rather complicated question I’ve been asked a few times: has my transition had any positive effect on rectifying, or at least helping me to manage, my mental illness? I think the simple and brief answer would be yes. As I noted yesterday before deciding that I had too much more to write on this topic and calling for an intermission of sorts (so go now and refill your popcorn), I do feel more able to push through my anxiety now to express my feelings, whether that be in expressing love and caring or in engaging in verbal self-defence, and that’s an undeniable advantage: it’s an identifiable improvement in a specific aspect of my mental illness that allows me to live my life more effectively. But although my transition has certainly done some small things to ameliorate my state of mind more generally, particularly in the area of my anxiety, both the depression and anxiety do still remain to wreak their particular brand of psychic mayhem every so often. For many trans folk, the presence of a mental illness is largely caused by their dysphoria, their feeling of alienation from the body they inhabit, or the fear of how those around them will react to their coming out, or the clash between their perception of their true gender and the perception of stigma from broader society that causes them to engage in self-doubt and autoflagellation; for such people, the process of transition is one that brings substantial and effective relief from their mental illness. If you’ll recall the statistics I cited last night, a transgender person is six times more likely to be currently suffering a depressive illness than a cisgender person. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean that depression in trans people is always and necessarily caused by being trans and the consequences thereof. I’m reminded of the medical maxim known as Hickam’s dictum, which states: a patient can have as many diseases as they damn well please. This idea is often proposed as an intellectual counter to Occam’s razor, the better-known axiom to many students of science (even though it comes originally, much as many scientists would be loath to admit, from theology).

Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate.
Plurality must never be posited without necessity.
– William of Ockham,
Quaestiones et decisiones in quattuor libros Sententiarum Petri Lombardi

In the medical context, the usual logical maxim of Occam’s Razor – which would counsel a doctor to seek a single underlying cause to explain the entire range of concurrent symptoms in a single patient – may end up failing (as it usually does when the hypochondriac seeks WebMD for an explanation of a range of apparent mild symptoms that would be exhibited only in, say, the early stages of kuru or pneumonic anthrax or something), because it’s statistically far more likely that a patient has two or more common diseases, rather than a single rare one. This isn’t to say, of course, that being transgender is a disease (it isn’t) or that there’s no relationship between being transgender and having depression (there is). But I suppose the point is that in my case, although my anxiety certainly stood as a grand obstacle in the way of my coming out as transgender, my mental illness is not really a secondary effect of my being trans and the social consequences of being trans, as it so clearly can be for many other trans folk; it’s more that my illness and my transness exist as two separate parts of my psyche (albeit parts that are in communication with one another, that influence and inform one another at times). Whatever it is that causes me to feel the blackness of depression, the challenges of being and coming out as transgender have only been a small contributing factor – if indeed they have contributed at all – which just means that I’ll simply have to continue to work on discovering what else the ætiology of my illness might be, what else contributes to it, what else triggers its symptoms, and what else might help to defeat it.

22 Days of Musing: 14

14. Zero drive.

Tonight I’m not feeling any particular drive to write a reflection. I suppose that, in itself, bears talking about. Much as the antidepressants do help me avoid the deep troughs of psychological anguish that used to haunt me, they’re not a panacea by any stretch of the imagination; their function seems to be more to stabilise my mood at a tolerable level, rather than to restore a “normal” pattern of mood – whatever the fuck that might be, as every person has their own unique patterns of mood and all are stimulated by a unique set of experiences – and although the stabilisation certainly does ferry me across the rough seas when they occur, it’s difficult still to find ways in which to bring myself genuinely positive states of mind. To an extent, the recognition during my bleak fortnight in 2011 that the things I used to do when I had the blues no longer worked was one of the factors that pushed me to seek help in the first place – the realisation that my spells of coming forth into daylight had lost their power, and that I needed to find new and more powerful ones. Music was for many years a means through which I could express my emotions in a raw, untrammelled manner; I played saxophone, guitar, clarinet, and harmonica at various stages in my childhood through to early adulthood, and even when I wasn’t actively playing music, I might’ve been singing along to a richly emotional ballad, or even just losing myself in the depths of a song whose harmonic lines seemed sometimes to bypass my ears completely and speak straight to my soul.

Regrets collect like old friends
Here to relive your darkest moments
I can see no way, I can see no way
And all of the ghouls come out to play
And every demon wants his pound of flesh
But I like to keep some things to myself
– Florence + The Machine, Shake It Out

Reading was long a means of escape I cherished, too. My tastes have always run in the direction of fantasy and science fiction themes – both the kind of pulpy smeg that, as fantasy author Jessica Amanda Salmonson puts it, is to literature as potato chips are to gourmet cooking (she herself offers the unarguable caveat that “potato chips are spiffy too”), as well as more grandiose or peculiar explorations of the human condition – but sometimes I fell for much different fare, as with Tim Willocks’s grimmer modern-day fiction, simultaneously more philosophical and yet more violent than much of what I read out of the SFF realm. But depression has largely robbed me of this as well, although there are exceptions: when I first read George R. R. Martin, I hadn’t read a new fiction book in over two years. I own over two thousand books, you see, and there was a time when I would visit the university market day and buy two or three second-hand books every week, read them, and then come back for more the next week. So to go for so long without feeling any interest in fiction (and I did try, numerous times) was itself a dark sign. Reading A Game of Thrones was a kind of revelation to me for that reason; I bought the first book new (normally an unthinkable luxury on my paltry student’s wage at the time), and I was so enthralled by his writing style, as well as by the fact that I had all of a sudden discovered fiction that moved me again, that I went out thereafter and purchased – also new – every single one of the subsequent books in the series. It was as though I’d learned to read all over again, and although it wasn’t able to bring me back to the reading obsession I used to foster, it did offer me back a little of the pure joy that I had long forgotten I could obtain from a book. Depression still largely keeps me from feeling excitement about doing things, and even when I do feel a thrill of excitement, a frisson of actually feeling something (a good example would be last week, a week during which I got notifications that one of my academic articles had been published and another two had been accepted for publication), it tends not to last; in the days where I’m not as positive as others – for even on the antidepressant medication, the stability of my mood is not complete – I tend to fall into a torpor of sorts, an inertia from which it becomes difficult to extract myself. The things that can draw me out of this inertia are rather less predictable now than they used to be, but they do still occur, every once in a while.

22 Days of Musing: 12

12. The candies of fun.

The treatment options available for mental illness are rich and varied, and include not only counselling – the first place I looked to for assistance, primarily because I was not in stable employment and the counselling service they offered through the university support services was free – but also psychological and psychiatric intervention that may or may not include medication. After some time spent working with the university counsellor, I experienced a general reduction in the severity of my symptoms, but not a complete dispersal by any means, and I had a relapse after a couple of months. But as I mentioned in yesterday’s reflection, in this little while I’d come to realise that there were additional options I could seek out through the public health system, and once I did my general practitioner was my next port of call; through him I was referred to a psychologist, and subsequently started on a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy and medication, with which we were able to get my depression more or less adequately managed.

When we anticipate, we’re the happiest. Unless you’re on antidepressants. The reason you take antidepressants is because you can’t anticipate. You think everything’s going to be horrible, so it usually is.
– Lewis Black

Previously I’d never thought about the idea that in my depression and anxiety a chronic illness might be affecting me, but after sitting down with the doctor and psychologist and developing a list of the episodes I’d experienced – not only since January, but since the first phase of depression I’d recognised in myself back in 2008 – it gradually dawned upon me that I was staring down the barrel of exactly that: chronic mixed depression and a social anxiety disorder (this is the precise nature of my illness as it was eventually diagnosed). Over the five years and a bit since my first diagnosis, I’ve been moved onto and off a range of medications: sertraline, desvenlafaxine, escitalopram, diazepam in a couple of instances where my anxiety has come to the fore unusually strongly, and most recently, paroxetine. Psychotropic medications of this sort can be of great assistance once the right one is found, but here also there are many challenges to confront. Starting on an antidepressant medication can disorient you, or even appear to worsen your symptoms for a short while. Missing a day of medication can unsettle you, either psychologically or physically (or both). Being on a medication too long can cause it to lose effectiveness – one of the reasons I’ve been on several different antidepressants; I was on sertraline for about three years before it lost its potency, desvenlafaxine for another year or so after that, escitalopram for just a few months (long enough to realise that it didn’t really work well for me), and paroxetine for the last few months. And changing from one medication to another, which necessitates spending a few days withdrawing slowly from the previous one to the upcoming one, can be even more disorienting than starting on antidepressants for the first time. That only happened to me once, fortunately, while coming down off desvenlafaxine; I’ve heard from other depression sufferers that this is one of the tougher therapeutic drugs to withdraw from, and the otherwise basically indescribable phenomenon some refer to as “brain zaps” were entirely alien to my experience. But they didn’t last long, thank goodness, and upon moving to the escitalopram they subsided within less than a day. I know people who are fundamentally opposed to much of psychiatric practice because of the use of psychoactive medications, but in my experience they’re a tool just like any other, to be respected but not feared; though times do occur when I feel as though the medications veil the positive and pleasant and desirable emotions nearly as much as it does the negative and painful and torturous ones, certainly I don’t think I would have made it through the last five years without their assistance.