In case you are wondering what the opportunity cost of our consumer culture is, I suggest it is 234%: the net difference between a tube of Crest or Colgate toothpaste and their lowly competitor: AIM.
There are over 330 million people in the United States; almost all of us use toothpaste. The American toothpaste market is dominated by two major brands: Colgate (36% market share) and Crest (30% market share). That leaves a third of the playing field for all those down-market brands, such as Aquafresh, Ultrafresh, Arm & Hammer, and that 50’s favorite, Pepsodent; plus the niche pastes like Sensodyne, Parodontax, and Pronamel; as well as the preferred choice of the crunchy set: Tom’s of Maine.
I don’t use any of those toothpastes. I use AIM, a reddish gel, manufactured in New Jersey. AIM sells for $1.19 cents per 5.5-ounce tube at my local Target, as opposed to $2.79 for a similar size tube of Colgate or Crest. If you live near a Family Dollar, you can still get AIM for a mere 99 cents.
Surely, AIM must be inferior to Crest or Colgate, since it sells for less than half the price. I asked my hygienist, who informed me that AIM is easily as good as other mass market toothpastes. They all have fluoride, and AIM’s gel consistency is better for teeth and gums than abrasive toothpastes. I also checked online, where an NBC survey of dentists confirmed that AIM is considered equivalent by most dentists, and actually preferred by many.
So if AIM is equally good at less than half the price, it must dominate the market, right? The toothpaste aisle of my Target has rows and rows of Colgate and Crest, in a dizzying array of tube sizes, with a variety of embedded features. On the bottom shelf sits a single-wide stack of AIM.
Why is it that a perfectly good toothpaste that sells for dimes on the dollar of the popular brands has such a small market share, and so little shelf space? The answer is simple. When was the last time you saw an advertisement for AIM?
The next time you buy toothpaste, you can save 234% if you simply reach down to the bottom shelf. Or, choose Crest and Colgate and rack up another victory for Madison Avenue.
My summer reading developed a prescient theme: tyranny. Every day, we hear terms like fascist, oligarch, autocrat, even democracy, tossed around the media with little or no consensus meaning. I developed a thirst to better understand what tyranny really is, how it’s played out in the past, and how it might visit upon us sometime soon.
Actually—how tyranny might already be here.
Fortunately, I came upon a trio of excellent books I recommend to anyone who wants a greater perspective on our nation’s ongoing challenges in civil civics.
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy D. Snyder is longer than a listicle, yet short for a book. But it is dense, very dense. I recommend the graphic edition, with provocative drawings by Nora Krug. Each of the twenty chapters is only a few pages long, yet Professor Snyder (Yale) packs so much to ponder, I paused in front porch thought to consider each chapter’s implications. Then, after I finished the entire book, I read it all again.
Each of the twenty lessons is historically interesting. However, when I hit upon number 6 (Beware of paramilitaries), I realized that history is repeating itself, a bit too close. The rising number of paramilitary organizations proliferating in our country is dangerous, not only because there are so many guns in so many hands, but that those hands get trigger happy for reasons against our collective best interests. As Snyder continues on to #10 (Believe in Truth) and #14 (Establish a private life) I began to understand how tyranny, always sleuthing for opportunity to bloom, is gaining solid ground in these United States. I actually found a trace of solace in this book’s grim message with #18 (Be calm when the unthinkable arrives). Americans are notoriously difficult to herd. Let us hope that when the wannabe tyrant stages their coup, we will not be so docile as the Cambodians who marched into the killing fields, or the Germans who turned a blind eye as Jews, homosexuals, and gypsies marched to their death. The challenge, of course, is that the actual coup, whether occupying Phnom Penh or setting fire to the Reichstag, is a mere tipping act, enacted long after the populace has been worn down by so many seemingly small compromises to personal liberty and identity. History is full of well-meaning citizenry who blindly followed under the guise of freedom. American exceptionalism may not exempt us from tyranny’s call.
I came away from On Tyranny thinking it should be required reading for every high school student (as Civics used to be). I also think there should be a copy of it in every house so that when they come to burn the books, there will be too many copies of this thought-provoking treatise to flame them all.
Much as I valued On Tyranny, a non-fiction account of the fate that awaits the passive cannot invoke the same pathos as fiction. I discovered that, when it comes to fiction about tyranny, Hans Fallada is the master.
Hans, who, you say? I’d never heard of Fallada until a very well-read friend suggested him. Hans Fallada is a German author who survived World War I, led a checkered life as a journalist, novelist, and all-around depressant. His two best-known works chronicle the rise and fall of Nazism; the first by barley mentioning it; the latter by being consumed with it.
Little Man, What Now? recounts the endless petty challenges of a working-class bloke lumbering under the stagflation of the Weimar Republic and the naissance of the Nazis. Today, the novel reads as premonition, though when it came out, in 1932, no one could have predicted how accurately Fallada anticipated the atrocities to follow.
Every Many Dies Alone, published in 1947, is a fictionalization of actual enemies of the state: Otto and Elise Hampel, whose treason was so innocuous (they dropped one or two anti-Nazi post cards in public buildings every week), and so ineffective (virtually every card was immediately handed to authorities) that it took the SS over two years to find the petty resistors.
The treachery that loiters in the shadows of Little Man, What Now? is relentless in Every Man Dies Alone. What sustains each novel is an unconventional, yet sustaining love between the protagonist couple of each book. The tenderness of Johannes and Emma Pinneberg, and the complete trust of Otto and Anna Quangel, are among the most beautifully rendered images of marriage I have ever read; the human salve for so much trauma.
Whether you resonate toward short, fact-binding commentary, or prefer to explore the psychological wrath that tyranny showers on everyone involved, I recommend any of these books. We must all be keen to the threat that tyranny poses, or we will find ourselves under its thumb.
The United States is the most individualist society on earth. Our relentless quest for autonomy causes us to suffer high rates of consumption, isolation, and loneliness. The internet and social media laid the foundation for online society and planted the confusion that virtual friends were equivalent to physical ones. When COVID-19 made virtual encounters the default choice, our atomization accelerated.
Weathering the shut-down was easier for me than many. I was already retired, so didn’t need to go anywhere; I enjoyed the company of a pleasant housemate; I live in a walkable city. Still, the pandemic left me, like so many, more isolated than ever. It also shut down my particular magic pill for mental health: without my gym, I atrophied. The careful balance I’d crafted through applying Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) slipped away.
An ugly exchange with a cherished friend spiraled me down. I spent a week in a swamp of despair, maybe longer. Time is an unreliable construct when I’m depressed. When the curtain of solace slowly ascended, and I was able to see how irrational I’d been, I realized it was necessary—once again—to reach out for help. I was more amenable to therapy this round, as my experience with CBT had been positive. I needed a CBT booster.
Instead, I enudred a series of interactions with health care providers so pathetic (yet common) I need not elaborate here. I finally found a large therapy group that advertised accepting new patients, persevered through applications and interviews, only to be told their practice was full. I suppose these frustrations provided therapy in themselves, as my exasperation with our miserable healthcare system eclipsed the emotional space occupied by depression.
At peak anger, three months after my initial quest for therapy, with nothing even potential, I posted a scathing Google review of the practice who advertised taking new patients, and then reneged. Guess what? Within an hour, I received a personal call from the head of the practice, with effusive apology. Would I rescind the review? Absolutely not! What can I do to make this right? Set up an appointment with a CBT therapist. Doctor Apology did not do that. However, a few days later, I received in the mail, The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression, by William J. Knaus, EdD.
It is a sad world, when a person only gets heard when he goes postal. I can understand people who say, “What’s he got to be depressed about?” I can understand that there are others with greater mental instability. I’m not trying to trump anyone else’s problems. My problems are not relevant to the cosmos, but they are real to me. They hold me back, and they make me miserable. Here I am, trying to steady myself before I slip into the trauma that once led me to suicide, yet no attention gets paid until I do something extreme.
The idea did not fill me with dread.
Actually, it was satisfying.
I appreciated the gesture of the workbook. And I used it. Twice a week, for over six months. I read, I notated, I wrote responses to the guided questions; an entire folder of essays that I’ll spare those of you who’ve read this far. I worked, I learned, I felt better, and I became more self-aware. I likely got more out of the workbook than I would have from another round of talk.
Then, something both strange and amazing happened to me.
One morning last year, at age 66, I woke up and my initial thought was, “Hmmm, I could live to be ninety.” And the idea did not fill me with dread. Actually, it was satisfying.
Waking to the pleasant prospect of life may not seem amazing to many. But this was the first time—the very first time in my entire life—that I woke in the morning and greeted the day, the week, the year, however long the gods choose to keep me around, with equanimity. For a guy who’s suffered morning dread for…ever, this was a superb beginning to the day.
This new mindset of awakening occurred, again. Then, with increased frequently. These days, waking to calm is my usual mode. And on mornings clouded with angst, I am quick to soothe myself. When stuck, I go back to the book, review how to direct my thoughts, and thereby modulate my feelings.
I know I’ll weather more episodes of mental anguish; my pot-stirring brain demands constant diligence. However, the stasis I’ve enjoyed over the past year is a revelation that will not easily dim. I have the tools and the confidence to vanquish the forces that made my days so grueling for so long. Confident enough to write publicly about my journey.
As I neurologically whither and physically deteriorate, new challenges will arise. I may yet choose to end my life someday: I am a strong believer in the right of a person to orchestrate their finale. But end it in depression? I don’t think so.
We have created a world fueled by competition and aggression, fixated on physical enticements, bereft of mental stability. Mental illness will surely escalate as the human psyche is further starved of calm, repose, reflection. I feel blessed to have found a path to peace of mind. I hope that others can find their own.
Mental health is a different animal than physical health, and though it’s important that we destigmatize mental illness and provide access to services and medications, our tendency to treat psychiatry as simply another medical specialty is misguided. Western medicine is rooted in considering the human body as a machine. When the machine is broken, we fix the components. Thus, we excel in treating physical trauma: repairing a broken bone is a matter of physics; installing a stent a function of fluid mechanics. Complicated chronic conditions are trickier: the same chemotherapy that remisses one person’s cancer may well kill someone else. The more complex our mind-body-societal interrelations, the more we flounder: no drug cocktail can calm a brain and alleviate all the stress our society inflects on a person’s sanity.
In the 1990’s, I was a forty-ish gay man in tumult, grappling with the realization that I’d spent most of my life running from a so-called mental illness that, turns out, had been redefined into the range of normal.
A psychiatric diagnosis is a reflection of the society that ascribes the label. Although mental illness may have roots in organic brain function, it often triggers in response to our over-specialized, hyperactive, competitive society; in revolt or capitulation to norms and expectations. By definition, a person who conforms to the basic standards of their culture possesses positive mental health, whereas a person at deviance to those norms is considered ill.
When I came of age, testosterone-fueled antics, heavy drinking, and sexual bravado were tolerated, even encouraged, as healthy signs of manliness; whereas male sensitivity was suspect, sodomy a crime, and homosexuality a certified mental disorder. Sixty years later, young men who drink, drug and whore to excess get shuttled off to twelve-step programs, while my particular predilections are legal and, in some sectors of society, my brand of masculinity actually embraced.
The proclivities of human males have not evolved all that much in two generations: we all still try to do whatever we happen to like as much as we can. What’s changed are society’s standards.
You’d think I’d be happy to learn, “You used to be sick but now you’re not.” Yet I suffered psychological whiplash. Years of having one’s nature bullied and denied hard-wires inadequacy. I was unable to simply rise one morning all Happy Gilmore, and during dark days I still knew depression as my oldest, truest friend. He might not be good for me, but he was a known quantity, and my life was so upended—marriage kaput, children by schedule, finances teetering, old friends grown distant—I welcomed depression’s familiar anchor.
I still dreaded mornings. I suffered doubt. I became jittery. I averted panic through constant activity. I read deep into sleepless nights, and immediately upon finishing one book, started another before turning off the light. I needed the illusion of required tasks to fill the abyss that loomed over my next day, week, month. The line between depression and anxiety blurred. And even though I no longer believed that therapy or psychopharmaceuticals offered anything to me, sometimes I felt so lost and unable to find a way through, I returned. To talk, and more talk.
A psychiatric diagnosis
is a reflection of the society
that ascribes the label.
One of my iterative searches—in my Fifty’s now, wondering when the hell life would ever start to smooth roll—led to with a therapist who practiced CBT: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. The gist is: thoughts influence feelings; we have (at least some) control over our thoughts; therefore by directing our thoughts, we gain mastery of our feelings. CBT struct me as cookie-cutter, more pop-psych than careful analysis. However, over our allotted eight sessions (plus assigned homework), several things became clear. First, all my previous talk therapy, premised on the notion that mine was a unique case of singular mental struggle, simply resulted in circular conversation. Second, CBT was practical: I could actually apply what we discussed in therapy to my life beyond. I reported concrete examples of catching runaway thoughts, slowing them down, and in the process, calming my feelings. Third, CBT played to my strengths. It’s a structure, a discipline, it lends itself to study. And if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s studious discipline. When I applied the same skills that enabled me to escape my family and rise in stature, I yielded something more important: a deeper understanding of me.
CBT aligned with other aspects of my life at that time: my emerging yoga practice; exploring meditation; the conscience decision to cap my career. I still felt anxious, but less often descended into depression. I still responded to mental agitation with hyper-action, but my busyness turned inward, channeling energy into personal enlightenment rather than professional perfection. I became more comfortable with my introverted nature, neither needing nor wanting as much social life.
I’d never contemplated retirement, but when intriguing options presented, I stopped working. At age 58. Unstructured time had always been a challenge, but self-motivation kicked in. I volunteered, many gigs. I read, all variety of topics. I travelled, very slowly. I wrote: one book, then another; a play, then another, and another; and so many blog posts. For nearly a decade, I faired pretty well. Conscious adherence to the discipline of CBT helped me manage my life.
Then our nation grew ugly, isolated and divisive; and a pandemic hit. And the diligence required to sustain equilibrium became too great to sustain.
When you have a substitute school bus driver, it doesn’t much affect your life. When you have a substitute teacher, you know you’re in for an easy day. But when you walk into a room to encounter a substitute therapist, you think: this will be useless.
That actually happened to me in 1990. I was still pushing the Sisyphusian rock uphill against my nature, juggling my own firm with a toddler at home and second on the way. My usual therapist, a mousy woman who was neither effective nor harmful in the futile struggle to be happily straight, was absent. In her place sat a man in his early thirties with thick black hair and chiseled features. If he smiled he might have been handsome, though I intuited immediately I would get no smile out of him.
I figured the next forty-five minutes would be a waste, but I’d already forked over my co-pay, so I rattled off my mental health history. By this time, I could hit the high points in eleven minutes, twelve tops.
“You’ve been telling yourself this story for, how long?” His opening gambit was different. “You are gay. There is no doubt about it. Until you acknowledge that, and accept that, you can come to therapy forever, but your situation is not going to change. The only way to get your life on a path that makes sense, is to come out.”
“Who do you think you are? I’ve spent fifteen years, with too many therapists, trying to find balance. My whole life is structured around this.”
“And you’re still miserable.”
Thus we volleyed through the remainder of the session. I left, angry. Angry at having a substitute. Angry at his insistence. Angry at him even questioning the construct all the other therapists had drilled into me. I had a child, another arriving soon. I was dug very deep; I could see no option but to keep burying.
Truth is an invasive species:
once it finds fertile ground it spreads.
Yet even in my anger, I realized solace in finally hearing the truth. He challenged me, yes. But he did not condemn me. And though it took several more years, that single interchange with that abrasive therapist was the turning point in my understanding. I might well suffer mental anguish and depression my entire life, but if there were any chance of easing it, I would have to true to that aspect of my nature that lay contrary to the rest of me.
Truth is an invasive species: once it finds fertile ground it spreads. The storyline of my life became increasingly tenuous. I finally decided to tell my wife, which I did in a therapy session (we were also in couple’s therapy). I recommitted my love for our family, I reinforced there had been no affair, nor even dalliance. It had not occurred to me that this would be the end of our marriage (the forever part of Catholicism obscures the reality of actual living). Yet by the end of the session, I knew we were through. My wife was not entirely surprised. But in stating the verboten aloud, I had broken the spell. We were through. She would set the terms.
Within the year I was living alone in a half-furnished house, working out of the attic, spending too much time with myself and two toddlers, more depressed than ever. Suicide was no longer an option: I was responsible for two children. Beyond that, my will to live was zilch.
Talk therapy was unthinkable: all those years of misguided talk soured me on psychotherapy. I’ve always been sensitive to medication: two aspirin will squelch a splitting headache. However, I finally agreed to the lowest dose of Zoloft. My doctor cautioned me to side effects that could flower in three to four weeks. On cue, three weeks from kicking off my daily dose I found myself sitting on the carpet mid-afternoon, watching a TV game show. Laconic…subdued…alien. I skipped my pill the next day, and the next. Called my doc, told him thanks but no thanks.
Thus, I had no faith in religion, talk therapy, or meds. Yet depression continued to cyclone through me. The only thing that was ever going to help me feel better: was me.
Over time—a lot of time—the fact of I was the only one who could truly help myself became clear. And with that realization came a sharper perspective. I was not mentally ill. I had never been sick. There was never anything wrong with Paul Fallon aside from not fitting the expectations of family and church and community. Expectations that I absorbed as inviolable truths, even as they labelled me faulty.
Long ago a therapist asked, “When are you going to get angry at your parents?” I laughed and replied, “Never. I was the last of four kids in four years. They had no idea what they were doing. They were clueless and probably harmful, but they weren’t malicious.” Unsatisfied with my detached perspective, he counselled me to get angry, to embrace catharsis.
Perhaps he, and all my other therapists, would be relieved to know that I bear none of them any ill. Like my parents, they operated within the spectrum of their own constraints. Once I realized that I was not ill, had never been ill, I had no need for therapists or drugs to cure me.
But even as the major identity confusion of my life got resolved, depression continued to strike, erratic yet deep. And anxiety started coming at me with greater velocity.
I hadn’t failed at much in life, at least not on paper. I was a twenty-one-year-old junior at MIT, son of a lower-middle class family from Oklahoma, on a full-ride. Honor student in Civil Engineering. Devout Catholic. Fraternity brother, acapella singer, fair runner, excellent dancer. Not bad looking. Nice girlfriend from Wellesley. Terrific sense of humor. Distinguished laugh.
In my head, I was an utter failure. Fat. Pimply. Uncoordinated. (Ignore all photo and complementary evidence to the contrary.) Academic sham. (Everyone knows Civil Engineering is the easiest major.) Landed where I did by geographic affirmative action.
I suppose one way to slice mental health is to measure the discrepancy between our objective and subjective selves. Narcissists’ internal thrall with their own greatness outstrips actual evidence. Depressive’s certainty of their worthlessness ignores realistic assessment.
My action didn’t erupt out of nowhere. I’d always been temperamental and judgmental, especially against myself. I minimized the pressures of school, though I vomited several times a week. I’d seen an in-house therapist; a jovial, patrician man, all hale and hearty. The first person to whom I revealed discomfort around other guys. He offered the word ‘homosexual,’ which I denied. Then he replied, “Well that’s good. Tell me about your girlfriend.” Thus began the mantra that haunted my next twenty years: I suffered inappropriate feelings about men, which manifested as depression. The therapeutic solution was to learn how to ignore the feelings, thus alleviate the desperation.
Spring of sophomore year I came unglued in the middle of structures lab. I removed myself to a bathroom stall, where I cried. And cried. I tossed a few things in a backpack and caught a bus to New Jersey, where my parents had moved. “What are you doing here?” sums up the limit of their understanding. We circled each other in wary politeness for a few days, until I bused back to school. I cannot recall why I thought my parents would offer solace to my confusion; I never entertained that fantasy again.
So when I hit a dark place the following Spring, the options were few, the prospects illegible. I rummaged through the medicine cabinet of our communal bathroom and opened a bottle of pills labelled with the name of a brother I could not admit to fancy. His remedy would be my end. I downed the bottleful, felt woozy, and fell asleep. In keeping with this B-movie script: I tried to kill myself on Good Friday.
I suppose I got off easy:
ten years earlier my complaint would have sent me
straight to electroshock therapy.
I woke Saturday; disappointed. Hauled myself out of bed and went about my day. I don’t remember who I told, or when, but after our Easter Sunday meal, I endured what these days we call an intervention. I promised my sister and brother-in-law, girlfriend, and several brothers not to do it again. I knew the promise was hollow. Next time I’d plan better, and avoid this whole scene. They also coerced me into real therapy. An actual shrink.
By 1976 the American Psychiatric Association had struck homosexuality from their legion of disorders, but apparently that news had not yet reached the provinces of Brookline, where I paid $75 per session out-of-pocket—money I scarcely had—to hear again and again how I must divert my feelings about men by focusing on the little woman. I suppose I got off easy: ten years earlier my complaint would have sent me straight to electroshock therapy.
By fall, I was declared ‘cured,’ and equally relieved for two reasons: I could no longer afford the advice; and my girlfriend had broken up with me. Who could blame her? I actually preferred to be a jilted male with a bruised heart than an actual boyfriend.
My attempted suicide and subsequent therapy set in place a mindset that remained intact for fifteen years. I made the conscious decision to be straight, earnestly believing it was my decision to make. My girlfriend returned, I never understood why, though I suspect my non-traditional masculinity appeals to strong women, and I’m a few digits away from being a full-on Kinsey Six. We married.
The ground rules of our marriage were clear, though never discussed. I was a presentable spouse on the outside, though damaged goods within, which only she could repair. I leaned on her to understand me better than I understood myself. Followed her for her career. Went to therapy whenever she told me I needed it.
This balance held through graduate school and first jobs and two children and buying a house. Until I disintegrated in grand scale at rapid speed; the exploration of the next essay.
My attempted suicide colors my life in constant ways. One unconventional attitude I took from trying to kill myself holds fast. I have no regrets about what I did on that black night. Never have. I feel no blessing in having failed. I no longer wanted to live. I believe that every human should be allowed to take their own life, and their suicide should be honored by those who remain. This is, of course, at odds with a society that abhors the idea of suicide, reinforced by a mental health establishment that rejects the action. As a gay man who attempted suicide in large part because the mental health establishment labelled me ill, forgive me if I don’t buy that line.
I often wonder what my life would have been like if any therapist in 1974, 75, 76…even 1986, had said, “Paul, you might be gay and that would be fine.” No one ever did. Instead, dozens told me over those years, “Paul, you might be gay and we can fix it.” They never could.
The first in a series of five essays about Mental Health to celebrate the dog days of August.
I’d been writing words and sentences since the first grade. As a person of engineering temperament, I expressed myself with logic and clarity (my specifications for concrete were top-notch). But I can pinpoint the specific date when I first tried to express the vagaries of my heart and soul. Summer 1996. Sitting at a picnic table under a tree outside a weathered guest house in Provincetown. Scribbling phrases on notecards to make sense out of the lightening chaos with which this stable married family man became a single gay dad.
My therapist at the time—I can’t remember which one, there’ve been so many—counseled me to journal. Really? No thanks. I saw little to be gained in documenting my screwed-up present. Instead, I selected points of experience as the premise for a barely-concealed autobiographical novel. It took me three years to complete Sing Out Loud. When I began, I had no idea how the book—or my life—would resolve. The manuscript sits in a box on a shelf, which is where my amateur effort belongs. But creating the book became a case of life imitating fiction: I literally wrote myself to a happy ending. The process brought me immeasurable value, and established writing as my preferred form of therapy.
Next up? My troubled childhood. Weekends in Holy Land. Three brothers confront the illusion of youthful potential against their adult reality. It’s a much better novel. Someday, I might actually dust it off and put it out there. Still, it’s most useful examination is how straightjacket Irish Catholicism sunk its claws into a pudgy little—maybe—faggot.
After two attempts I realized, I’m no novelist. I am, however, pretty fair at personal essays.
Over a decade ago, riding high during my Bikram yoga addiction, I’d never felt so energized, so limber, and so compelled to share my euphoria. My peak yoga enthusiasm corresponded with peak blog craze, thus I went public with www.theawkwardpose.com.
About a thousand folks subscribe to The Awkward Pose. I have no idea why. The blog has little theme beyond a particular author. The focus has evolved from yoga, to Haiti, to bicycling, to tomorrow, to… Over time, my blog has become more political, in keeping with my personal evolution. But most often, essay topics are simply what’s on my mind. A place of personal catharsis in an unnecessarily unjust world.
Yet…even with writing
as my principal mode of psychic balance,
I’ve never written about mental health.
I’ve ceased any illusion to become a well-known blogger. I write what I want and post it to the world. I do no promotion. If someone finds my essays and likes then, all good. If I influence someone’s ideas about our world, even better. If not…oh, well.
The blog’s byline is: seeking balance in a world of tension. There’s truth in that statement, but it’s also misleading. Because there are elements of my life—important elements—that I’ve never written about, honestly. The primary one being: my mental health.
Like all true progressives I parrot the notion that mental health is an equal aspect of our overall well-being. No need to hide or disguise it. Yet, for decades, even with writing as my principal mode of psychic balance, I’ve never written about mental health.
During the pandemic, I faced renewed mental struggles: I am not alone there. After years away from therapists, groups, and medications, I once again had to navigate our inept health care system in search of guidance. At a primary level I failed: I could not find a single therapist to take me on. And in that failure likely lies my growth, for I tackled my demons, through reading, and workbooks, and writing; with more disciplined focus than ever.
I’ve made enough progress that I’ve decided to share, through a series of essays, my personal struggles. Not because I want sympathy: I know how fortunate I am in life. Because, if I am struggling with all of this sh*t, pretty much everyone else is too.
The only way out is through. And it will be easier to get through, if we are all in it together. Read on.
On one hand liberals, or progressives, or left-wing, or Democrats, or whatever you want to call them; are hell-bent on subdividing our nation into ever tightly defined ‘identities.’ According to them, I am a cis-gender gay white male occupying land once inhabited by the Massachusett people who uses ‘he’ series pronouns, recycles, doesn’t buy meat, and rides a bicycle.
On the other hand, conservatives, or traditionalists, or right-wing, or Republicans, or whatever you want to call them; are hell-bent on measuring liberty and justice for all according to a yardstick ticked off in the 1950’s. According to them I am a successful property owner who racked up a big bank balance without government handouts, who invests on Wall Street, listens to country music, watches Chicago P.D., and drinks PBR.
Both of these synopses of my personal life are accurate; neither is complete. Similarly, the world views ascribed by the two poles of our political arena each hold some truth, but they are selective truths. The Left’s constant parsing into ever-tighter identities pulls us further from a collective identity; while the Right’s vision of a unified America demeans most anyone who is not a heterosexual white Christian.
I believe in Martin Luther King Jr.’s adage, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” These days, that arc seems mighty long and shallow.
Political theories, and their power, run in cycles, often 40 to 50 years in duration. The excesses of the 1890’s Gilded Age led to the 1930’s Depression, which realigned our politics along the New Deal. The idea of government providing a base of social cohesion for all appealed to the majority of Americans, so long as that cohesion was predominately Christian and white. During the 1960’s and 70’s, Blacks and Browns and gays clamored for a slice of the Great Society until Nixon’s “silent majority” commandeered the conversation by electing Ronald Reagan in 1980. Ever since, our federal government parrots getting smaller (despite growing bigger), while it delivers fewer services, reduces individual protections, and increases corporate influence under the guise of free enterprise. Gilded Age 2.0.
There will be a shift in our political direction. Whether it occurs in response to outlawed abortions, or negligent climate response, increased economic inequality, or erosion of personal freedoms, I do not know. Whether we can vote ourselves back into a semblance of democracy or the US will actually suffer a full-blown authoritarian regime, I do not know. Whether our discord results in armed conflict or we can find stasis through peaceful resolution, I do not know. What I do know is, given the duration of the current rightward flow, a correction is due; and given the speed at which our government is moving contrary to the will of a majority of citizens, that reckoning may be soon.
Along with new politics will come a new narrative. The collective story of who we are and what we believe. I don’t subscribe to either of the current narratives because “diversity” is not a sufficient rallying call to bring people together; and “MAGA” is an illusion built upon fear.
I propose a new narrative, one that’s both aspirational and encompassing. Although its roots come from two experiences in an unlikely place: Haiti.
I travelled to Haiti often after the 2010 earthquake, designed and supervised construction of two buildings there, and lived in a mission run by evangelical Christians. Toward the end of my time, they asked me to preach at their Sunday service. I asked, “Why do you invite me, when you don’t agree with much about my life?” The response: “Because when we needed help, you came.”
A less-rosy corollary: I never met a Haitian who described himself as gay. People knew what the term meant. Men had sex with men. Men were nelly and everyone knew it. But no one applied the label ‘gay’ to themselves, nor tacked it on anyone else. People accepted, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” But I witnessed how it hindered folks. The men on the DL. The women they married for cover.
The first vignette betrays the arrogance of affluence. People in Haiti know they cannot make it alone, while the United States is so wealthy we imagine that we don’t need others; so confident we actually believe our autonomy myth. The second story illustrates the corrosive power of secrets. When we do not allow people to be themselves, fully and open, everyone is harmed.
Today the United States is so puffed up in our affluence (more illusion than reality, but that’s another essay), we feel free to divide and divide and divide without realizing that every time we cordon off ourselves, we forfeit allies, we forfeit support, we forfeit each other.
The wealthier a nation is—in every measure—the better it can embrace a full array of opinion and choice; the less it need to dwell in want or fear. It is time for us to reframe our divisions as a sign of our strength. Embrace that our affluence liberates us to be open and inclusive. Flip the dueling narratives of fear and division on their head. Acknowledge that social change is not moral decline. Accept each person’s way of being as valid, deserving respect.
My new narrative: The United States is so bountiful, and so secure, that we welcome every person to be their true selves.
Quixotic? Perhaps. Idealistic? Sure. Achievable? I believe so.
The key to the new narrative’s success: mutual respect. So let’s step down from the lofty to the mundane and explore how mutual respect might actually work. Consider the pronoun conundrum that we encounter daily in left-leaning cities, a ‘problem’ that barely deserves to register on any list of the major challenges we face, yet is an everyday irritation—sometimes confrontation—that wears us down. Some people want to be referred to as ‘they’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she.’ It’s a construction that’s never escaped my mouth with any grace. But I figure, if it’s important to this person to claim a unique identity, I can try. That is me showing respect. But when I fail to properly execute a change in language that’s existed for thousands of years, don’t get all militant: cut me some slack. Understand that you are asking others to make special accommodation for your preferences; asking us to make a conscious change to something which has been reflexive for centuries. Realize that my mistake is not personal, or even a microaggression. It’s simply human. Respect me in return.
My God, Paul, how many times have you seen this show? The thought synapsed through my brain as the lights dimmed on a covey of actors in revolutionary era brocade and buckles belting, “For God Sake, John, Sit Down!”
My quick recall: five times.
The original Broadway production, in 1969, when this teenage theater maven-in-the-making snagged a pair of half price matinee TKTS. The MIT Theater Guild’s college production circa 1975. A summer stock version with my own youngsters about twenty years ago: an easy spoonful of American History. The New Rep’s non-traditional-cast version four years ago, in which Ben Franklin was a woman, Martha Jefferson a male, and…whatever. Now, Diane Paulus and ART’s no-male casting of this rather hoary chestnut.
John Dickinson to John Adams:
You, sir, are merely an a-gi-ta-tor, disturbing the peace, creating disorder,
endangering the public welfare—and for what?
Your petty little personal complaints.
I don’t especially like 1776. It’s a problem musical, with a long, long dialogue interlude taking up most of the first act, songs that feel glommed onto the action, and an ending that—well—we all know how it ends. Yet, 1776 has its moments. For me, “Till Then,” the love ballad between John and Abigail Adams, and “Momma Look Sharp,” a haunting psalm on war’s futility, are remarkable, if unconventional show tunes.
Stop it! Stop it! This is Congress. Stop it, I say! The enemy is out there!
No, Mr. Rodney, the enemy is here!
Perhaps the fifth time is the charm as I found Ms. Paulus’ vision of 1776 my favorite, by far. She made one big move—no one in the cast presents as male—and then held the good restraint to let that speak for itself. I could not identify one place where she changed the script or a lyric, and yet knowing that the actors wouldn’t have been “Founding Father” material in the day, gave many of the lines enhanced relevance.
Why, Mr. Dickinson, I’m surprised at you!
You should know that rebellion is always legal in the first person—such as “our” rebellion.
It is only in the third person—“their” rebellion—that it is illegal.
1776 was a hit in its day, winning Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Book. Yet, I never really appreciated the book until this recent production. Could history so clever be accurate? I checked the script out of the library and read it aloud. Wonderful! Including an Afterward that clarifies exactly what is specifically true and what historical facts have been shaped for dramatic purposes. By popular theater standards, the history is very good.
John Adams to Abigail:
I have always been dissatisfied, I know that
But lately I find I reek of discontentment!
It fills my throat and floods my brain, and sometimes—
sometimes I fear that there is no longer a dream,
but only the discontentment.
Which got me thinking about 1776 and 1969 and 2022. Three periods of tremendous social unrest. How accurately, the words, the emotions, and the injustices of one time find relevance in another, and another.
Mark me, Franklin, if we give in on this issue (abolishing slavery),
posterity will never forgive us.
That’s probably true. But we won’t hear a thing. John, we’ll be long gone.
And besides, what will posterity think we were—demigods?
We’re men—no more, no less—trying to get a nation started against greater odds
than a more generous God would have allowed.
John, first things first! Independence! America!
For if we don’t secure that, what difference will the rest make?
1776 at the ART in Cambridge only plays through July 24. See it if you can; it’s terrific. But don’t fret if you cannot. The show is on to Broadway, and likely a national tour. Coming soon to a city near you.
Sunday morning, July 3. Walking to the gym through a deserted city. Seventy degrees. Overcast. Listless. I love summer in the city. The Whole Foods crowd has Tesla’d off to their beaches and mountains. Leaving behind quiet stillness, a smattering of foreign graduate students, and street people. Plus me, decked out in shorts and a straw hat and whatever adjectives apply to a guy who could be gone, but rejects the hassle required.
I cross empty Mass Ave at Porter Square. Before I reach the far curb I hear music. Loud music. Stirring music. “I Dreamed a Dream.” The original, Les Miserables soundtrack. When I reach the sidewalk I pause and seek out the source. Tucked in the weird little court near the subway station, shaded by a few trees, behind the Blue Bikes kiosk, sits a man. A burly guy with a tight white beard and ample, shapeless body. Barriered by a rolling suitcase and an assortment of shopping bags. I cannot see the boombox source of song. But it sure is loud. I cannot hear the man’s singular voice. But he sure is singing along. With enthusiasm.
I stand, transfixed by the anthem. Not of nationhood, on this Independence Day weekend. Rather of personhood. I dreamed a dream in times gone by… What do these lyrics mean to this middle-aged, likely homeless, man? When hope was high and life worth living… His outward appearance is not high, his life questionably worthy by most measure. I dreamed that love would never die… Could I imagine the warmth of love in his life? I dreamed that God would be forgiving… What had he ever done to deserve winding up here, by himself, on a gorgeous summer day, surrounded by a moat of motley possessions?
The guy was into it. Head bobbin’, mouth jammin.’ I could not help but smile. The tigers came at night, they teared his hope apart, they turned his dreams to shame. But here he was, still alive, still making music. Dashed hopes be damned.
I am civil to street people. I greet them, acknowledge them. I meet their gaze. But this guy does not see me. He is lost in a world far, far from Porter Square, someplace where he is vibrant and whole and full of promise once again. I want to believe that, in this moment, he is happy. For on such a fine summer day, don’t we all deserve to be happy? For the fact that his soulful singing reveals a humanity deeper, richer, than I’d ever granted a street person. A humanity that commands me to stop. To listen. To appreciate. To pray that whatever hope this man has lost, he will find once again.
The gym crowd on a sultry summer morning is scant as the citizens outdoors, weighted towards those who cannot afford to be elsewhere. Still, I have a great workout, and gift myself two sessions on the massage bed. I leave, showered, and fresh. Jay-walk across Mass Ave. But before I turn the corner at Upland Road I hear it again: more music. I stop. Cross back. There he is, still. Singing loud and proud. A song I do not know, Unreachable something. Not The Man of La Mancha unreachable. Something else. Fresher. Hipper. I smile and turn away. Hopeful that my fellow summer dweller finds his happy place in his song.