Monday, December 13, 2010

New Sonnet: My Heart

My Heart

O my heart if you were not my heart--
But--you are, you are, you are, you are!
Were I not stuck in orbit I’d depart
This bed of tears for some far frozen star
Where from a throne of ice I might survey
All human feeling as not worth my notice,
My heart like steel, my eyes Athena gray
With wisdom, not compassion, only justice.
There I might judge the love you used to slay
My dragon nature as a dangerous thing,
An interruption of the world of play,
A diminution of my alpha being.
Still I cannot renounce this blessed earth
While you remain to lend the planet worth.

Craig Erickson

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Too Much Stuff!

I've paid mucho bucks over the years for a storage unit for stuff I couldn't fit into my domicile for about seventeen years, from Long Beach to Mexico and all the way to Mendocino, CA, preserving stuff I couldn't fit into my house.  (I love the late George Carlin's monologue on stuff, don't you?  If you haven't heard it, here's a link:

Stuff by George Carlin

I am happy to announce that as of November 21, 2010, I emptied my storage unit of all stuff and ensconced my stuff inside my own roughly 800 square foot cottage on the Mendocino Coast.  I am busy sorting through, re-packaging, reducing, and deciding what can be thrown and what ought to be preserved, but the primary thing, the primary thing, is that


America, wake up!  You have too much stuff.  You have storage units and garages crammed full of stuff, and attics and sheds and whatever shelter you can find for your damned stuff.  I say if the stuff is of any value it should live with you; if it cannot live with you in real time and space then rid yourself of it--give it to the poor, donate it to thrift stores, do whatever you have to do to live more leanly on the earth, for we Americans, although we constitute only 4% of the world's population, nevertheless consume 25% of the world's goods.  Prosperity is good but gluttony is not.

We have lost control of our stuff.  Time to get our stuff under control. 

Follow my example, I urge you, and you will know my joy--that all my stuff is under one roof and I live with it.  All my stuff is of such value now that we coexist in time and space.  Anything less is an indulgence in material overpossession.  Do not be possessed by your possessions!


Craig Erickson

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Goodest Samaritan? Part III (end)

When I think about the week I spent with Humphrey, it amazes me that his leaden spirit did not weigh mine down to the point of depression, something I have much suffered in my life, as any reader of this blog knows.  But the Holy Spirit kept my spirits up in the spirit of service to this helpless yet grumpy man, and I learned a lot from him.  What did I learn?

First, let me say that as a doctor for 31 years I have never had a tougher case.  Here's a man who claims to have kidney cancer, melanomas (I didn't observe any on his skin, only what looked like possible early squamous cell cancers), and obviously has end-stage emphysema and a crippling neurological syndrome for which there is no treatment.  Combine these maladies with a leaden spirit, a stone heart, if you will, and you have an ungrateful yet demanding patient who depends on you for everything but resents his very dependence.

I thought long and hard about his two major illnesses and what possible psychic link they might have to his life and came up with a hypothesis.

Although a professing Christian who attends the Church of Christ, Humphrey, I believe, made a bad spiritual decision 26 years ago.  When he lost his wife and son (his son was about 5 at the time), he said he grieved for two months, and that he was really in love with his wife.  I was happy that he grieved, but I explained to him that in my experience as a doctor, that the normal grief process for a mate takes a least a year and is never entirely healed.  But he claimed he had gotten over it in two months.  Therein lies the puzzle.

How could this be done?  Only by shutting one's heart off completely to grief, and thus all feeling.  I believe Humphrey began to withdraw from any emotional engagement with other human beings after this tragedy for which he insufficiently grieved.  Witness that he had no friends left to rely on when I found him, that his one link to his home fell through, that another supposed "friend" in Medford (who was to help us financially, as I was tapped outr) he couldn't even locate, and that he has no living family.  My hypothesis is that after this tragedy he closed his heart down and swore, in some sense, that "nothing would ever hurt him again."  As he withdrew from the human race, as he practiced what my Shakespeare professor called "The Economy of the Closed Heart" (in reference to Polonius' speech in Hamlet), his heart slowly turned to stone.  And his two major illnesses are virtual incarnations of that withdrawal.

Think: With his emphysema he can only spit out a sentence gruffly before having to catch his breath, so he is prevented from normal conversation, and also any variation of emotion in his verbal delivery--his sentences come out flat and clipped with no emotional modulation.  Secondly, his neurodegenerative disease makes it impossible for him to shake hands with anyone.  He can't open his hands.  He can't give a hug. 

Isn't it frightening how in the sentence of his body he is also withdrawing from the world physically?  Doesn't this in some way represent his decision to withdraw from the world emotionally?

Never say to yourself, "I will never be hurt again."  Your heart may turn to stone like Humphrey's, and then your body may follow.  As long as our hearts are open to the world and our fellow humans, we are in constant danger of being hurt, and that is the price we must pay for intimacy in an imperfect world.  Those unwilling to pay this price may succeed in protecting themselves to some extent, but in the end they will get smaller and smaller, with fewer connections, with fewer life-sustaining bonds, until they are trapped within the fortress of their own self-protection.  What a terrible fate.

I prayed with and for Humphrey repeatedly, that God might start a spark in his heart and reverse his chronic withdrawal from the risk of contact, but he ended up asking me to "stop preaching at him" and I desisted and gave up.  I could not, for the life of me, affect his heart in any way, and my prayers were also of no use, I suppose.  My only hope is that somehow, when he saw me arrested in the course of trying to aid him, that it might have shocked him into a human feeling of sympathy for me, or even guilt for what my service had cost me.

As I surmised, the man is nowhere to be found on the web, so I must chalk up my expenses as a loss.  Yet the lesson is a valuable one.  May I never close my heart to hurt lest I close it to love.


Craig Erickson

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Goodest Samaritan? Part II

It's good to be back in my domicile with the turntable my friend Ralph gifted me, listening to vinyl and smoking maduro cigars.  The house is in order with a new coffee table and a new dining table, and I vacuumed and picked up.  Nice to feel centered.  I did the wash yesterday.  Oh, and I also hung new shower curtains today.

I've been tearing through my scratchy vinyl collection since I got the turntable and have been happily reminded of one of the most underrated singer-songwriters of all time, Gordon Lightfoot.  He rivals the Beatles for melody and his studio work in his golden years is spotless.  And he moves me.

Here are his four best albums, recorded late 60s through early 70s:  "If You Could Read My Mind," "Don Quixote," "Sundown," and "Cold on the Shoulder."  Hearing them again put me in mind of his genius.  Unfortunately, when I've seen him live, he never varied from the recordings much. I always like to see a little extra live, but I guess Gordon just never learned how to rock out.

My last post ended with a reference to jail so let me address that.

When Humphrey and I finally arrived in Hillsboro, Oregon, where he was supposed to connect with a waitress for his house key, as his key was taken when he was robbed (of course the bar was under new management and nobody knew anything about a waitress), I was first stopped by a policeman for having my license plate light bulb out. 

Logically, a policeman's headlights should sufficiently illuminate the rear end of a car, one should think, to read the plate, but for this bored officer with nothing to do it constituted an emergency.  He let me go with a verbal "fix-it" warning.  I thought it a bit strange, particularly as he stopped me at night.  He was wearing Devo-style glasses that looked a lot like swim goggles.  So maybe he was a Dragon and Dungeon nerd in uniform.  But what can I say?  There must be a law about the bulb so he was only doing his job--albeit a bit obsessively?

All the police cars in this oppressive suburb are painted pure black and sneak up on you at night from hidden alleys.  I was stopped a second time for running a yellow light.  I did speed up a bit to make the light, but I did not run a red light nor exceed the speed limit, and my whole van was in the intersection while the light was yellow, and I'd swear that on a stack of Bibles (if Jesus hadn't told me not to swear).

Nevertheless, that was the pretext for three cop cars to pull me over.  I parked next to a hospital, fortuitously.  For during or after my arrest, Humphrey had an emphysema attack and took his walker, his sleeping bag and his traveling bag and hoofed and huffed it over to the ER and that's the last I've seen or heard of him.  According to his promises, he owes me $2500, but I haven't looked him up online yet.  He strikes me as the sort of paranoid individual who wouldn't be listed in any case.

The arresting officer was good-looking, full head of dark hair with silver sideburns, normal weight and fit.  He was also courteous and polite, two rare things in a police officer, especially one with 15 years' experience.  I found out he was single and likes to work the graveyard shift.  In any case I would rate him as an all-around nice guy, as when he cuffed me I asked him to make it loose, and he did.  My experience with police in the past has been that when you make that request they screw them tighter in sadistic glee just to show you who's boss.  Officer Snyder didn't do that, God bless him.

He said he smelled wine on my breath and was correct.  After failing to get a key at the bar Humphrey had indicated, a bar that took us over half an hour to find (it wasn't until that point that I realized that Humphrey not only suffered peripheral neurological deficits but that his noodle and memory were affected as well, though he blamed everything on his poor vision, another consequence of his neurodegenerative illness), I took a break from Humphrey to clear my mind and had one glass of old vine Zinfandel at a wine bar on the main drag in Hillsboro.  It was a good glass of wine and comforted me as I began walking back to the van, trying to decide where we should park for the night to sleep without getting rousted. 

I told the officer that I had indeed had one glass of wine but was sober and happy to grace a breathalyzer with my exhalations.  Sadly in Oregon they rely upon the clinical expertise of the officer, not a machine.  By his lights Officer Snyder thought me intoxicated, especially since his flashlight could evince nystagmus in my eyes.  But who wouldn't have nystagmus after driving hundreds of miles, especially at night?  I told him I couldn't pass the heel-to-toe or one-leg- raising tests because of the nerve damage to my lower extremities from failed surgery, as well as the generalized neuropathy my neurologist discovered.  He told me to do my best.  My best wasn't good enough.  On came the cuffs.  Have I told you how much I hate handcuffs?  They burn like the Elves' cord Frodo used as a leash on Gollum.  Must be something about my allergy to the Beast.

After nearly two hours in the waiting area of the jail, Snyder finally tested my breath and I blew a 0.00 % alcohol level, which blew his mind.  So he called the "DRE" (Drug-Related Expert) to give me a further evaluation, but he was in some other county, so he next asked me for urine.  I prayed about this, and it seemed only another way for the State to screw me, especially if they found trace metabolites of clonazepam, which I sometimes take for sleep.  If they found such metabolites they might try to build a case against me as intoxicated on prescription drugs.  So I declined.  Snyder told me that my license could be suspended indefinitely if I refused.  "My CA license?" I asked.  He called someone and said, "No, it only applies to Oregon."  To which I replied, "No urine, then."  (What I really wanted to say is unprintable.)

Then it was off to the tombs, a too-cold shower, my teeth chattering, then into the ill-fitting jumpsuit and a concrete bed with a thin mat on it at 6 AM, 8 hours after my arrest. 

I think the greatest torture of the arrest process is the inefficiency of the system, the interminable waiting for law enforcement monkeys to hunt-and-peck their endless reports out while the prisoner remains cold, uncomfortable and inconceivably bored.

The next day our "pod" was hauled off to a "vestibule" where we awaited transportation to our arraignment.  Before transport they called out my name and two others.  The other bros said, "Hey, that means you get to go!"  And  indeed, though it took four more hours, that's what happened. 

At 6:15 PM on Tuesday, November 16 (my daughter Keturah's birthday, and I did remember to call her) I was released onto the streets of Hillsboro--a dangerous man with a 0.00 alcohol level and a dastardly license plate light bulb extinguished.  Why they let me back out on the streets I'll never know.  I did have the uncomfortable sense that they were just cats toying with their prey, however, as if they released me just to mess with me again.  But with all the fervency of intention I could summon, by 7:30 PM I girded my loins and prepared to drive all night to get back to my beloved California, and did exactly that.

(To be continued.)


Craig Erick

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Goodest Samaritan? Part I

In driving back from Long Beach, California, on Tuesday, November 9th, in Fresno, I picked up a passenger.  And what a passenger!

I had stopped at Denny's for a burger and, short of dog food, a hamburger patty for Scout.  There were two ramps to enter the restaurant.  Near the base of the left ramp sat a scruffy-looking old man hunched over a red anodized aluminum walker, exuding a very negatory vibe, shock of hair in every direction, no upper teeth, beard of neglect, bloodshot eyes and a hunched habitus.  So I avoided him by going up the right-hand ramp.  This I did twice.  But when it came to dispose of the box in which Scout's patty came, I had to walk by the man to the trash.  And it was then I made my mistake.   I asked him how he was doing and he said, "Not very good."  And instead of "'Too bad!", I, whether by psychiatric habit or Christian politeness, chose to listen to his tale of woe and intervene.

Call him Humphrey, a 58-year-old electrical engineer whom the doctors have given "three months to live" (I love these stories, I have rarely had a patient who didn't have a story about how he or a family member had been pronounced terminal and miraculously survived to eventually bury his doctor!). 

He had been traveling by bus back to Oregon when he was robbed in Fresno and relieved of his wallet, keys, and other valuables.  All he had were a few dirty clothes in as beat-up athletic bag, a thin sleepng bag, and his walker.  His only ID consisted of hospital discharge papers, which did him no good when I took him to the DMV in Fort Bragg, which required a birth certificate.  And with no ID he couldn't access his funds, though he purported to be a relatively wealthy man, at least compared to me.  We rested at my place in Mendocino for three nights while I wrestled with what to do with him.  There are no social services adequate to provide a man with 24/7 personalized care while traveling, which is exactly what Humphrey needed, being near entirely helpless because of his crippling neurodegenerative disease.  I asked my stepson if he wanted to drive Humphrey home for the promised $1/mile up and back, but his car wasn't running and he was pissed at me for whatever reason, so when I presented the offer to him he immediately called the police, thinkng a restraining order was in force when it wasn't, as it was Veteran's Day and I had not yet been served.  Afterwards a nice policeman, a sargent, escorted me to the station where I received the necessary papers forbidding me to come near my wife and stepson until a hearing on December 8.  Why they feel they need protection from me I'll never know; I've spent the last eleven years protecting and providing for them, and I've saved Derek from suicide once and Kathleen, twice.  I've delivered Derek from prison, jail, and a dead-end life in a metal shack in Oaxaca, Mexico.  But people get strange ideas in their heads--I can be very intense, and it was sometimes hard to distinguish whether I was manic or filled with the Spirit over these last months, so I may have appeared threatening to the undiscerning eye, but know that I have never touched Kathleen physically.  As for my condition I am happy to report that I am indeed filled with the Spirit and not mentally ill.   I have never violated a restraining order, nor would I.  I respect my mate's need for privacy for as long as she needs it and I would never jeopardize our love by insinuating my presence into her life when it was unwelcome, though I weep frequently over her absence.

It finally came to me that I was the only logical person to get Humphrey home, though I hate to drive, especially since I suffer chronic back pain and driving aggravates it.  But Humphrey needed a doctor 24/7, especially one also trained in the humility of a hospice worker, as I have been.

As for Humphrey's condition, he suffers from severe emphysema, mononeuropathy multiplex, "spots" on his kidneys, "multiple melanomas," is addicted to cigarettes and alcohol-- and is the grumpiest man and most demanding person I ever met!

It's the multiplex that's really messed him up.  It is a poorly understood syndrome of multiple foci of damage to peripheral nerves, and I included a link above.   In Humphrey's case it is crippling.  His hands are so bad, for instance, so that he needed me to put a cigarette in his mouth, light it, and remove it from his fingers near the end of the smoke before he burned himself, as he could only clutch it between immovable fingers like some weird exotic bird and had no way to extricate it from his knuckles.  Yet he was constantly demanding cigarettes, which I bought him, and  afterwards I would sometimes have to hold his albuterol inhaler to his mouth and hit the button in time with his inhalation to counteract the effect of the cigarette smoke.  In addition I had to keep him constanty supplied with vodka and coke, or failing a liquor store, "Steel Reserve," 24 oz., which he could drink through a straw with the can positioned in my van's cup holder as he leaned forward. 

And if he ever uttered a "Thank you," it was in a gruff, semi-apologetic voice, as if it pained his pride to say it.  For here was a man who had bossed twelve electrician crews in construction, a man used to authority, a man of business.  His helplessness was killing him though he was loathe to admit it.  He wouldn't even admit to "bad luck."  But is this bad luck?

He has no family in this world, having buried his older brother.  His wife and son were killed in a car accident 26 years ago.  He was stricken with this neurodegenerative disease 4 1/2 years ago and has been steadily worsening.  Truly he needs 24/7 hospice care.  But I, being a doctor and a hospice volunteer, was prepared for his case.  I just didn't think it would cost me over 1300 miles of driving and a night in jail to boot.

(To be continued.)



Monday, November 08, 2010

New Poem: Marked for Life

Marked for Life

I am that fire-hollowed redwood
with the open black belly
who miraculously thrives
stories above the damage.

Sentenced to live,
to shake my green feathers
at the sky like other trees,
I nevertheless bear
the unmistakable scar
of a great love lost,
a charred cave at my base
where her shape
is burned forever.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Chinese Brush Experiment

In instructing poetry students over the years, I evolved a teaching device called a "Chinese Brush Experiment," or CBE.  In it the student can only write forwards, never backwards, just as the skilled Chinese brush artist gets no forgiveness for his brush.  Whatever goes forward, stays, so that in a poem, one can only go back to change punctuation, spelling, grammar, and to push the envelope, I suppose--line breaks.  But not the essential text.  I propose the same exercise for my blog this morning.

And it is morning here, 4:22 AM PST.  I dozed off earlier only to awaken again to a burst of energy, which enabled me to get the wash together, take a closet door off in the bedroom, clean out a cabinet in the kitchen, take out the compost and do various other domestic tasks that happily consume my time at odd hours. 

We live in an apx. 800 square foot cottage, and it is my ambition to close out or modest storage unit, to have all worldly possessions under this one roof.  I am close to achieving said ambition, as storage is mostly empty now, and I need only go through the guest bedroom reducing possessions in order to accomodate things from storage I wish yet to keep, like my Simpsons memorabilia.

When the Simpsons debuted I knew television was marked forever.  The show was too smart, usually a death knell, but it appealed on so many levels that it's now gone on for over twenty years, the longest adult cartoon ever to grace our screens.  Not anticipating this, thinking that for the intelligence of the show its lifespan would be short, I began collecting Simpsons memorabilia early on.  I thought, like the famous Mickey Mouse phone, that any trinket I collected was sure to become a collector's item.  But Paah!  After twenty years all the stuff has no value, at least on E-Bay.  Because the show's still going on.  Yet I insist on keeping what I collected.  I used to think it would be my grandchild's college fund.  Now I think it's just God laughing at me.  But I won't give up the collection.

So I must make room in the guest bedroom for storage, and it will not prove too hard.  I'm just not ready to undertake it yet today.  Today I have other concerns, one of which is novel for a bachelor (my wife is away at present).  I plan to actually wash the sheets and afterwards put fresh sheets on our bed, something I don't think I've ever done, since as a bachelor I used to simply sleep on a futon with no sheets or in a sleeping bag on the floor.  Today will mark a first, I think.  In fact, since my spiritual transformation on August 23rd, I can actually see dust.  A man who can see dust.  A man who can see dust and changes the sheets on the bed.  This is not a miracle?  Women of America, rise up and affirm that for a man, a straight man at that, that this is indeed a miracle!

I've been working my way through Mozart's late string quartets and found a space in the KV 400s (ref. for Mozart fans only) where he tends to merge long sustained interludes in and out of another in a continuous unwinding, and it is quite hypnotic.  See KV 428 for an example.

I watched the World Series game last night with friends and one thing I like about watching baseball is that it allows for much conversation and analysis.  For the opposite reason I love basketball, because it allows for so little, given the constant action (save the interminable time-outs and free throws).  Thank God the NBA season has begun.  Go Lakers!

And, with nothing more profound to say, putting his brush away, he signed off.



Sunday, October 24, 2010

Rain and Rachel

It’s rained for three days. We’ve gotten over four inches on the Mendocino Coast (I capitalize “Coast” because we really do live in another country). The land was thirsty.

After mass at St. Anthony’s, where a special anointing for healing was performed today—nearly all parishioners were anointed, including me—I stopped by Gordon’s house and we sat on his porch and told each other the usual lies, afterwards inspecting his fine garden. He has a lovely house.

Coming home to my garden, I first admired the sculpture I bought yesterday, “Propeller Bird”—a steel composition with a pterodactyl-like head, small, shovel-shaped wings, long thin body, and a brass propeller for a tail that really spins—about four feet high. You see, while I went outside for a smoke yesterday at the Buddhist “Sit” (a free morning program aimed at letting others experience the practice of Buddhism) I saw garden sculptures at the Mendocino Arts center and fell in love with this one but thought it would prove  beyond my means, only to discover that it could be mine for just $110! Imagine my joy!

The sculpture has transformed my garden, given it distinction. All my statuary, the troll, the Santa-turtle, the pumpkin people, the four angels, the six frogs and two toads, make for a happy little kingdom—but now everything is put in a lower place next to this proportionately towering structure that differs in kind, not only degree.  And man, it’s heavy. The main body is done in a bar of 1” steel, which is wound in a circle three times halfway up to give the suggestion of a body. I wish I had a camera so I could save on this necessary descriptive logorrhea.

So after rejoicing in my sculpture (I named him "Jerry the Propeller Bird" and  he's right next to the ceramic angel, Gabriela, and not far from George the Gay Frog) and doing a little weeding, and making sure Scout went out to piss (he don’t like de rain), I came in and put Mozart on and began calling friends, but no one wanted to come over to play board games with me, so I had a good cry over my late daughter, Rachel, which the rain no doubt provoked; Rachel Elizabeth, the sacrificial lamb, mother of my only grandchild, taken from us too soon. 

She died on July 29, 2007, at the age of 29, from an accidental overdose, over three years ago.  God, it's hard to believe.  You think your children are going to live forever, or at least outlive you.  Not in this case. 

Rachel was my most gifted, most athletic, most beautiful, most intelligent daughter, and though my baby, Sarah, is an excellent singer and certainly a more polished performer than Rachel would ever be, I still think Rachel’s natural pipes were superior to Sarah’s, and that's saying a lot, because, believe me, Sarah can really sing--and even if she couldn't she has so much charisma no one would notice if she couldn't. 

Rachel never had what Sarah has so much, or is at least able to project: confidence. Somehow she couldn’t harden herself into an adult. She ran from feelings she didn’t understand, and the cruelty of this world puzzled her to no end, though she herself could be cruel, as she was to Sarah before she died. She put Sarah in one almighty bind and left her with a big bag of guilt, but I won’t go into the details—all of us have suffered because of Rachel, and later, because of Jacob and the evil machinations of his sick father, Vincent Wall, who deserves to be a lawyer (he has taken Jacob away to Delaware now, where he attends law school). This is a man who has done everything he can to permanently separate our side of the family from any contact with Jacob whatsoever, though he cares little for Jacob, as is obvious from how perfunctorily he greets him when I drop Jacob off after one of our monthly visits (last was in July). It must gall Mr. Wall that Jacob is the spitting image of his mother and will also likely attain to the size of his grandfather (6’6” and currently 230 lbs).

I wept for Rachel, for her inability to confront evil, for her wish that we lived in Oz, a place where even if you get axe-hacked into little teeny-weeny pieces, the pieces will grow back together and go on living.   I often called Rachel "Scraps," after "Scraps, the Patchwork Girl," from one of our favorite Oz books.  Scraps, like Rachel, was extremely intelligent with her cotton stuffing for brains, but she was also flighty and mercurial (like Rachel, Scraps sufferred from ADD--even in Oz).  Rachel was also a "Borderline Personality Disorder," a syndrome whose hallmark is lack of a solid sense of identity, something Rachel never quite achieved.  Yes, Oz is where that poor girl belongs, and she knew it, and she’s there now in the bosom of God the Father.

I shall not see Rachel until the resurrection, but the Day of the Dead, also All Souls Day, approaches, the most important holiday of the year in Mexico and also in our family as Halloween.   Even at 18 and 16, Rachel and Keturah liked to get gussied up in elaborate costumes and go trick-or-treating. Keturah has been particularly outstanding in this department. When it comes to projects, the Turtle rules!

Anyway, some say the veil is thin at this time of the year.  In the Mexican tradition, to attract her spirit, I will erect an altar to Rachel  with her favorite stuff on it--like Marlboro Lights and Oz trinkets and a couple of Twix bars.  Now what was her favorite drink?  Of course, Bob Marley will have to make a contribution.

All for today.  Let it rain, let it rain.



Friday, October 22, 2010

New Poem: Deal?

Chris Lott, in a Facebook post, said he missed the "poetry" of my blog.  I don't know if he meant mine, but here's a new poem I'm posting for his sake and I hope he comments as a result.  Oh the pressure!



I wanted a mind
not like a steel trap
but a platinum guillotine
the way my father taught me,
how to stick it to the sucker like a needle in the eye,
how to puncture the white underbelly of his pride
with a samurai ritual knife, how to disembowel
and afterwards stuff his own entrails with his flesh
and feed him to himself as sausage, sausage,
feed him to himself as sausage.

Early I learned
how to cut human pride
with a buzz saw in my hands
sawing away pretensions
to nobility without connection,
intent to expose the rotten infrastructure
of the Beast and its functionaries:
tie-wearers, thralls, desk jockeys
who feel they rule the world
happy in their ancillary bureaucratic power
like little Napoleons
watching one administration come
and another go
content in their G status
and the pension and wife and fireplace
and dog and braided rug
like a picture in Home and Garden
don’t ya know, don’t ya know?

I learned long ago
how to divide the corpse into equal portions
after slaughtering an ego,
how to arrange the corpse beetles
for a celebratory parade
in their velveteen tights--
three pair each, the nimble six-footed dancers.
And come the shiny cockroaches!
I dance on the graves of the proud
in patent leather shoes!--
but I digress.
                        I was fessing to my tendency,
learned from my father,
to skewer others emotionally
for entertainment’s sake
though I have tried to turn this gift
to therapeutic use with some success
but many complaints, to be honest.
Humankind cannot bear very much reality.
Why wouldn’t I be honest?
Who reads poetry anyway?

If I go slicing around
not caring whom I wound,
remember that I do it for the general weal
intent on one thing: to excise
the dead imitation from the living,
to rescue the eternal
from the temporal curse,
the thorn in the proverbial paw
of the proverbial God sacrificed to man.

Come, Lord Jesus.
It is the only hope for our blindness.
I see miracles every hour
and the world says I’m crazy,
that I suffer from delusions.
What if they aren't delusions?
I don’t think they are!
Hoo hoo! Ha ha!

I promise, Lord, if you come
I will no longer wound my fellows
with this vicious tongue of mine.
I will not do soul-surgery in public
and watch them bleed
even though it's for their own good.

I promise to be nicer,
more like Jesus,
more like you.




Tuesday, October 19, 2010


The way things are, if I don't post more pictures here I won't have as many options when I notify friends on FB that I've blogged anew.  So now for a brief exodus into visual notation.  Above, our friend Gordon Black cheering for the Lakers in the finals last year.  Then, my beautiful Kathleen.  Next, my grandson, Jacob, now 8.   Then a picture of me with my wonderful Martin Dreadnought Rosewood, "Rosie," lost in a song at my brother's house.  Then me looking mysterious on the Mendocino headlands.

All for tonight.



Wednesday, August 11, 2010

At 2 Kilobunnies!

I'm listening to Mozart's Divertimento in E flat major, KV 166, as I write this.  More about that later.

For now, make a joyful noise!

I am four weeks out of my depression now and it is heavenly.  How can I express the joy of not being depressed?  Of being able to attend to life's little details without fear?  Of having the courage to confront people, places and things when they upset me and swiftly resolve the emotional matter at hand?

Through long practice I am quick to forgive.  That is, my practice is not to let things fester in relationships, to expose any block to honest relations as early as possible in the course of conflict.  This does not mean I meekly submit to the other person's position; quite the contrary, I am willing to fight for my own.  But when the process is completed, I want the way between us to be cleansed, for pure water to flow from one heart to another, unimpeded by the secret dissatisfactions with others that plague us. 

After suffering depression for two-and-a-half years of the last four, I am ready to take my place in society again.  I have plans for the future, plans I do not feel at liberty to share, but they are achievable so long as I maintain vigilance over my mood.

Manic-depression is much like diabetes in this regard; adjustments in dosage and sometimes medications must be made frequently in order to anticipate the direction in which the mood disorder is progressing when the internal milieu changes.  In other words, when Kathleen told me tonight (as I recall her saying, though she denies it), "You've crossed the line into mania."   (She denies saying this but admits that she said I "was out there" and chose to eat her dinner separately. 

What did I do?  Object to her assessmen?  Defend myself?  No, I went straight to the medicine cabinet and swallowed 10 mg. of Abilify (a third-generation antipsychotic) to temper the rise in my mood.  I was not delusional, I was not physical or combative; let's just say that my engine was running too hot.

It is not uncommon after a serious depression to slip into mania in rebound, because you feel so good and it's such a relief that you want to feel better and better until you feel too good.  What is that like?  Here are a few examples:

1) Listening too fast  (I leap ahead in conversations, confident that I have deduced the point being made before the other speaker is finished.) 

2) Increased physical energy.  My pace in my daily one-hour hike with J. Alfred has increased.  Sometimes I walk him at night as well.  (Picture below.)

3) Reduced need for sleep.  For three nights in a row I needed no more than 4 hours.

4) Creative thoughts that encompass a variety of disciplines, from theology to medicine.  My mind generates hypotheses and systems of categorization and comparison, including the design of clinical trials in psychiatry.  Strangely, I feel drawn to the field again; indeed, it seems as if I never left it. 

5) A tendency to impute to others my irascibility.  When to myself it appears I am only protecting my boundaries, others may perceive an overreaction.

6) Decrease in appetite (with accompanying, thank my stars, weight loss).  I feel ike an air fern, like I could live on air.

7) A heightened sense of wonder towards everything, but especially toward the glories of Nature--the cliffs of Mendocino, the tunnels and arches of rock that pierce them, can overwhelm me almost to the point of joyful tears.
My training in psychiatry was rudely interrupted at the age of 29 by a bipolar depression necessitating ECT.  In discussing my illness with the department chairman, a warm human being named Floyd Westendorp, it was decided that psychiatry was too close to home for a good prognosis.  I might have been set off by other mood-disordered patients, something I call "cross-kindling." 

Kindling is a change in the mood regulators of the brain, a cascade of increasing activity in mania and decreasing activity in depression.  In depression there is a paucity of thought, an obsession with the same problems over and over in mind-numbing repetition without solution.  In hypomania, which is as far as my present mood has ascended, thoughts flow like water, ideas flock like birds, vistas open up that stretch an entire lifetime.  It's spring in Craig's brain, though small compensation for depression-- depressions outnumber mania and hypomanias 3:1 in bipolar disorder.

The point is, I'm managing my illness and listening to that best observer of me and my mood, my wife.  I know she has my best interests at heart, and if she opines my engine is running too hot I've got to cool it down, both for my benefit and the relief of mankind, as left unchecked I can become rude, insistent and physically coiled like a snake ready to strike.  I'm hyperalert, able to monitor more stimuli, able to solve near any problem with amazing alacrity.

When coming out of a depression the brain, often with the assistance of medications, can overshoot the target and bring on mania, in whose wake destruction usually follows--disrupting the lives of everyone close to the patient.  This is why psychiatrists more fear mania than depression; there are liability issues.  This is also why psychiatrists will make a depressive wait for a month to get an appointment, but upon hearing that a patient is manic, will make room for them in their schedule that day.  This is is a sad state of affairs, as to the patient the depression seems more of an emergency than the mania.  But how are doctors to know this unless we, the sufferers, tell them?

Many doctors are dense, more attuned to the imposition of science on the human body than to the body's natural signals.  In each of us lies the secret to healing, but it takes a very good clinician to tease that process out, one who respects the experience of the patient, even if it includes psychoses--which can be powerful, life-changing visions.  Psychiatric patients need to be treated as whole creatures, not collections of symptoms.  The rude classifications of DSM IV, the standard manual for psychiatric diagnosis, are primitive and operational by necessity, but qualifying for five of nine traits in a personality disorder doesn't tell the patient or the clinican what the actual damage is; that must be worked out over time, with much patience, effort, and appropriate time for the patient to muse upon past hurts and fears, understanding their origin and learning to forgive in order to attain true freedom, which is peace of mind.

Since taking the Abilify I have calmed significantly.  My typing is not rushed.  It is easy for me to focus.

One thing I did while still depressed was to order the entire works of Mozart--170 CDs--for mental health.  I thought by listening to the master of reconciliation in music that I might reconcile with myself, and it's working.  It's been especially wonderful recovering from depression to the soundtrack of Mozart.  Like the Grateful Dead, his music is essentially happy, buoyant, often light and uplifting.  A recent study, in fact, maintained that classical music was of help in depression, and Mozart was mentioned as an example.

I've been devouring medical journals of late.  I feel a call back to science and away from poetry.  How this plays out remains to be seen.  But I'm glad, I'm so glad to have a life, and a solid ambition for the future. 

2 Kilobunnies,


p.s. Above a picture of J. Alfred Prufrock and below a link to the ten professions most afflicted with depression.

Workers and depression risk

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Three Weeks Out of the Pit

I haven't blogged in a while, as I previously said I had little more to say about manic-depressive disease.  Below an offering for today that may relate to others afflicted with either pole of affective disease. 


For the second morning I woke with akathisia (related to "restless leg syndrome), which I described to K as feeling like "an overfull bladder spasming."   Indeed, this is how it feels, as if there is an uncomfortable energy in every limb that constantly begs for movement, as if you were a marionette being vibrated on a string, helpless to stop your craving for motion.  I took some medication and it calmed down.  But it did wake me early and I have stayed awake, finishing a wonderful novel by Elizabeth George entitled "What Came Before He Shot Her."  Great descent into the modern slums of London.

This is my 56th year, the eighth cycle of seven. I knew it would be a revolutionary year, but had no idea it would begin with a return of depression. As my sister Elise says, “Chaffins need to work.” I think everybody does. It’s a shame so many people have jobs that bore them, that don’t challenge them, though if they do their jobs to their utmost there will still be some satisfaction in it, however small. It’s estimated that 85% of American workers don’t like what they’re doing. How much this has to do with life choices and how much with one’s attitude toward the universe is not clear. Some people are eternally dissatisfied instead of being thankful for the process and hopeful towards some result.

The linearity of life is inescapable; so time wears us out, so death summons us all, and our last years are in many ways the least fulfilling, with little work and less ambition. I would prefer to work until my dying day, especially since I have had such a long break from it. And who better to promote sanity than one who has been to the other side and come back? Who knows the fragility of the human psyche better than I? Not many practicing psychiatrists, I’ll warrant. And this gives me the great advantage: personal knowledge of extreme psychiatric symptoms—both manic and depressive psychoses, two sides of the same coin of narcissism—in one you are superhuman, in the other sub-human.   Whether I gather the courage to return to training and later, practice, is a huge question I can't deal with here in view of my deserved disability status.  But I harbor a small hope it could come true someday.

I must remind myself that even while depressed I have not proven incompetent. I just think I'm incompetent.  I think my writings and communications make no sense; I fear any advice I give is mistaken; I feel I don't have the right to say anything about anything to anyone.  I need confidence during my depressions if I should return to work someday and the illness arise.   Enduring depression has to be the centerpiece of my planning.  This would be the hardest thing for me, guaranteed.

And how much would the kindling of patients with affective disorders vibrate sympathetically with mine? Here is a danger as well. I must construct a routine and a reliable personality to sustain me through dark times. As Kathleen said, “Whether depressed or not, you’re still Craig.” There is an essential Craigness to me which others can see while I’m depressed but I cannot. Of what does this continuity consist? To the depressed it appears as only a semi-functioning persona, a convenient fiction meant to represent a person who is either not real, not deserving of existence, or not able to cope with any emotional contact. The bell jar may be thought of as more opaque than Plath described it; instead of being exposed to all, perhaps we hide from all under the shield of their habituation to elements of our personality. Others may perceive a solid where we see absolute permeability, as if any influence could pass through us at any time and feed the winds of our perpetually descending cyclone, that all stimuli are caught in the vortex of self-negation so that each stimulus is acutely painful, more than anything expressions of love from others, as the feeling of love, or its benefit, is entirely incomprehensible to the depressive, which explains my religious feelings of shame and guilt—I am like the sinner who not only would not lift his eyes to heaven but would grovel before the altar like an animal begging euthanasia. How can a psyche like that receive the love of God? It would be a bloody miracle if it did; it would go against the grain of everything depression stands for, everything of which it is the incarnation, the prison of self, the door locked from the inside forever.

Metaphors fail in this illness as everyone who has suffered it knows. Being only three weeks out of severe clinical depression (8 kilorats for those who have followed my blog), it is not surprising that at times I have frissons of terror, of falling back into the snake pit, of instant regression to a depressed state. But I think euthymic kindling is taking place, like a new green shoot in the gray soil of my brain, perhaps reorganizing the actual architecture of my cortex; perhaps my brain is plastic enough that this good kindling can last a good while, as it has in the past, though the relapse rates even for even adequately treated bipolars is usually one year or less.  

1 Kilorat,


Saturday, July 10, 2010

Excerpt on Depression; Dark Sonnet XXIX

I have little to say, I know few read my blog anymore, it's not important.  I'm journaling separately as I felt I had little to say about my disease anymore.  I'm struggling at eight "Kilorats" now and can only say it is beyond any suffering I know.  Here's an excerpt, unedited, from today's journaling:

My soul has been eclipsed by a monster too big to describe, a hairy ape of melancholy that squats on my head like a bag of turds and turns all my thoughts to sewage. What do I say to this monster? Why do you make me weep so? Why do you turn all my thoughts to shit? I don’t know. I’ve never known. No matter how many times I go through depression, it never seems to get any better. I have a dim faith that it will, based on the past, because it is cyclical, but my dim faith is much overridden by my current symptoms. I feel I am a symptom, or a collection of symptoms, more than I am a person. Let me list them: negative obsessive thinking that has me living in poverty or on the street; self-castigation for being a nothing and having achieved nothing; weeping spells, especially in the morning when I wake and later in the afternoon around 5 PM, not to mention a late morning attack if I get up early; an inability to know what to do next with myself. Indecision about everything; paralysis of motion; a sadness so deep no surgeon could extirpate it; a fear of everything, of opening my e-mail, of any human contact; a strong desire to leave this pain and leave this world, though my inner moral compass and my loved ones prevent me; a questioning of God, frequent prayers for healing, for help, to no avail; giant horse pills of fish oil I gag on in the morning, I couldn’t swallow them today; the foreboding of the end at all times; a lack of faith in anything, in the sun rising, in my next breath; a feeling of falsity, that I am a fraud, that I never accomplished anything, that without external structure I do not have enough ego strength to function; fear of human contact, fear of being loved. And so forth and so on ad nauseaum. The weeping spells overcome me like seizures; while in Safeway yesterday I nearly had one but forestalled it through concentrating on my breathing. I fantasize about joining a monastery or somewhere where an external discipline might give me structure and hope. When I put this down on paper it seems so extremely trivial, like someone need merely say, “Wake up and smell the roses, stupid.”

Dark Sonnet XXIX

I fear disintegration into glass,
Into a million cubes orbiting free,
Reflecting only scenery as they pass,
Without a central hub, without a me.
The ego is a very slippery boss.
Few know the limits of his grand purview.
I know the limits; he is what I’ve lost;
All whirls in a pestilential stew.
A piece of me there, another here.
Who will collect the fragments in the pot?
Another year, another half a year
Where what I thought I was is what I’m not.
Dear brother, if your self escapes your skull,
Pray you do not disintegrate to null.

8 Kilorats,

Craig Erick Chaffin

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Dark Sonnet XXVII


My secrets cannot wail in the dark
Forever--something ghostly must arise
And share the insight of the human spark
Meant to invalidate our weak disguise.
Being human isn't for a coward.
It takes guts to brave another day.
Forward, time is always moving forward
Like some train impervious to delay.
The tracks that narrow behind we would forget
And yet they ran directly through our heart
When we were passing there; now each regret
Can slow our passage through the present part.
The future waits, a track that can't be known
Although we steer the engine as our own.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Dark Sonnet XXVI

These sonnets are no great shakes but they are honest.  I write them for my sanity.  With revision some turn out to be keepers.  But if confession is good for the soul, these are good for me.  One note on the poem: the "lizard brain" is my term for the primitive brain, the prosencephalon and mesencephalon, the amygdala and the pyramidal system, those parts of the brain that are responsible for the fight or flight syndrome as well as persistent unbearable moods over which the higher brain, the cerebral cortex, appears to exhibit little control.


The demon dog that nips my innocent heels
Has jaws more terrible than any lion.
He savages the lizard brain that feels
Helpless to ascend a distant Zion.
O holy city!  Descended from the stars
With giant gems as doors for habitation.
Imperishable city!  Boulevards
Whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.
But here I sit, encased in flesh and bone,
A man bereft of faith, in love with death,
So desperately, yes desperately alone
I'd trade my soul to breathe a dying breath.
Depression is a killer; spare my heart
For New Jerusalem, for a new start.

6 Kilorats,


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Black Dog worsens

I"ve been in a fragiile state what with resuming some medications.  They don't seem to be helping.  For the last four days I've been stuck in a horrible mood.  I wake up crying; I can't stop all day.  Only at night do I get a little relief.  And I stay up, afraid of the feelings the next moring will bring.  I see my psychiatrist tomorrow but after six months have little faith we shall be able to put this beast back in its cage.  I swear when I'm normal I'm normal.   But these long bouts of depression are killing me one neuron at a time, one ambition at a clip, yes, I am disabled.  I couldn't work like this.  I couldn't practice medicine like this.  I'm sick, really sick.  Kathleen says I'm as bad as she's seen.  And just two weeks ago it seemed I was getting better, with the addition of one new medication and some traveling that kept me from thinking about myself.  That's the main thing--trying to distract yourself from dwelling on the black hole within, that abyss that sucks all you were into an infinite descent.  Here's another dark sonnet I just penned, no great shakes poetically but honest.

Dark Sonnet XV

You wake up weeping but you don’t know why,
Stream after stream without why or what for.
You never have attempted suicide.
You think of it as the coward’s last chore.
Trashy novels hold you for a while,
Detective gore and science fiction fare
But all less real than the painful smile
You engineer to dodge the stranger’s stare.
You want to spare the ones you love, your friends,
Your children, brothers, sister, beloved wife.
A gift of guilt’s no way to make amends.
The best course is to hold on to this life
And trust and suffer and lean on your God
Though you’d no doubt prefer six feet of sod.

7 Kilorats,


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Achievement and Being

I suppose if I just start writing it will turn into some kind of a post I  can eventually title, but such faith in one's blathering may be misplaced, if one only prattles to blather and blathers to bloviate.  Then these are wind-up sentences, just as the opening of a poem is rarely worth preserving, it is a warm-up for what follows, and the poet must have the wherewithal to recognize where the poem actually starts and practice has ceased.  Perhaps the same applies to prose.

In my human self-centeredness I ask, "Where am I today?"  I really have no idea.  I feel somewhat calmer since the doctor added an antidepressant over the weekend, but today, when I reached for the bottle, I broke into tears.  The tears said something like: "Why should I have to take this medicine?  Why should there be something wrong with me?"  As if I were the only human with this feeling!  It extends to the cancer victim, to the amputee, to the least and greatest of us.  But is such a feeling merely self-pity or a form of compassion?  I don't know.  The best reply I ever heard to a confession of being bipolar was a man who said, "Oh.  Bad luck!"  That's really what it boils down to.  Statistics are inutile unless you become one.  About 1% of the population is bipolar I.  Who am I to gainsay the odds?  Bad luck indeed.

Yet I am lucky in much more, in being loved by a good woman I don't deserve, and by my children and siblings and friends.  I sometimes wonder if these people love me unconditionally--for who I am, whatever that means--or if my achievements matter to them at all.  I like to think they don't.  Nevertheless I have never been able to separate my self-worth from achievement; I was programmed to achieve at a young age else I fear I would feel no worth at all. 

It is not wrong to sorrow for ourselves or our deficits.  It is hard to imagine us being who we are without our deficits, in fact.  As my wife says, "My deafness made me."  In a similar way I can opine, "My manic-depression made me."  And how?

Without it I could not have driven myself, I think, to have been a doctor by age 25, already married with two children.  This is inconceivable to my present mind, but this ambition and adjustment occurred before I was ever diagnosed.  Since being diagnosed I have had good years, ambitious ones where much was accomplished, and bad ones, where my chief value was survival.  That is what severe depression reduces one to: survival.  Asking more is asking too much.  Not to commit suicide seems the height of heroism in such a state.  I may flatter myself and the disease, but I think not. 

Right now I am somewhat suspended between pole and tropic, action and inaction.  I have an ambition to have my medical license restored, but do not know how much work I could tolerate, and if so, whether part-time work would provide enough for us to live, as any return to medicine would end the support of disability.  The first thing is to get the license restored, for which I need 50 current continuing medical education units, something I could attain online or through conferences (though I prefer the learning method of conferences--with real speakers and real interaction--though I know some of this is possible on the web).  And what subjects should I undertake?  Obviously a full review of primary care practices, perhaps with some geriatrics and hospice care courses thrown in, as through my volunteering as a hospice worker I have developed quite an interest in it.

I had no ambition today to do anything concrete; usually I have, at least, some small goal, as yesterday I accomplished something (though I've already forgotten it--perhaps it was finishing my page-turner novel, "Likeness"?). 

For a non-sequitir, here's a new poem whose origins escape me, something about grief:

Inhabit the Wind

The dying face the furnace in hospital hallways,
in the faces of family through flames of annihilating truth.
Oneself, once faced, ceases to be the monster feared

but the living cannot see this; new loss is too present
to be overcome by psychology; no amount of angels
can comfort the freshly bereaved as they mourn

the being lost to themselves, how they were cheapened,
as if a nanogram of spirit had been siphoned
from their own, and that particular emptiness

in the shape of a lover or daughter or beloved uncle
can never be replaced. “O dark dark dark.
They all go into to the dark” while we remain,

fisting strings to the ether where the kites fled,
amazed at how grief alone holds up the lines
to lost faces never again to inhabit the wind.

Don't know where that poem came from, but the loss of my daughter Rachel in 2007 is never far from me.  In fact, death seems always near, perhaps heightened by hospice work.  And "memento mori" is a sobering background mantra in the face of daily tasks, though if one concentrates too much upon it it can rob the present of importance.  It can take the color right out of your Polaroid.  Better to think of it as the frame around the picture, not the content or meaning of the scene.  That we all must die is no reason to despair.  What we do between our beginning and end is what matters--whom we loved, how we contributed, our attachments, our art.   Will my art outlast me?  On paper and on the web, surely, but as a living testimony--likely not.  I do not live with the illusion that my death will bring my poetry or music to any greater notice.  But I'm proud of what I've done, I've worked hard and said much.  Best are the poems that resulted in personal letters, as one from a grandfather who appreciated my take on fame in the case of young girls idolizing Barbies and pop icons.  Despite all the warnings, however, all studies agree on this: the greatest influences in one's life are parents, or those who function as parents.  That should give all parents and grandparents hope.  The television and Net are not all; they will be seen through the lattice of values we inculcate in our offspring independent of media.

I have practiced medicine before while in the grips of depression, and it was barely endurable, but I never endangered any patients, indeed in my short career of fifteen years was never directly sued while seeing 30 patients/day.  Luck or?  I like to think some skill is involved.

Likewise I know if I were to attempt to return to medicine, I could not predict when or for how long I might suffer depression, the soul-killer, which is not a good state in which to practice, as one loses hope of cure for others since one feels incurable.  To say the condition is temporary is true, but temporary in my case has lasted up to two years.  I can't imagine practicing medicine under such conditions, though I have in the past because I knew no way out.  No combination of medications has rendered me ultimately stable.  I have no guarantees.  It would be one big crap shoot where, if I lost my disability and felt I again required it, I might not be able to get it back. 

There is also my back to consider.  The pain is distracting, even as I write this.  How much could I endure as a family doctor, which requires a lot of sitting and standing and walking in hospitals?  At home, unless writing, I usually am recumbent to rest my disks unless I go walking.  I don't know how a full day of doctoring would affect me; obviously my pain would increase, and would that necessitate an increase in medications, and would that increase still permit me to function?  All of these questions gnaw at me.  And I know some are premature.  The main thing is to restore my license and then look at some volunteer possibilities, perhaps, that do not require too much work or time.  After that, if my disability insurance cooperated, I might be able to segue to paid part-time and receive disability for half-time. 

When I last tried that, before opting for full disability, it proved quite difficult.  Am I just fooling myself with these medical ambitions?  Am I scratching for self-esteem among the relics of my past?  I don't know.  I want to be a useful engine, as Thomas the Tank likes to say.   Milton said, "They also serve who only stand and wait."  But it takes a great deal of inner convincing to believe that.  Standing and waiting do not feel like achievements.

I will say that hospice training has encouraged my sense of being and being with others, as opposed to doing and doing for others.  I realize now how important it is just to be with people, no agenda, simply present and open.  This is the kind of support relatives often can't provide, being too caught up with the person in question.  Too often I assume the responsibility for my existence when it might be wiser just to wait and see what life brings.  On the other hand, if you only wait you tempt a sort of pointlessness that satisfies no one and requires great faith on the part of the inactive.

What I need is balance, balance between science and art, work and play.  At this age all work is play and all play, work.  But this human machine is so designed that it needs to see progress, i.e. some effect upon its physical circumstances to feel good about itself.  This can happen with gardening, with writing a new song or poem, with discharging some responsibility regarding car or bicycle repair, etc., etc.--anything that changes the face of reality vis a vis the individual in need of accomplishment. 
When I think of my greatest accomplishments, not committing suicide has to be near the top.  I've never attempted it.  This may not sound like heroism to most, but to those who have suffered clinical depression for over a year at a time, I think it qualifies.  Providing for my family and caring for my daughters over the years would have to rank second.  Third would be the pursuit and capture of my one true love, Kathleen; I was willing to risk everything to attain her, and I've never regretted my actions.   As any who have glanced at the love poems in my book know, she is of inestimable importance to my heart and mind and soul.

Funny, none of the above have anything to do with medicine, music or poetry, the endeavors in which I've excelled.  People come first; they must else all religion is deceit. 

Enough rambling for a day.  My back hurts too much to continue.

Au revoir.3 Kilorats,


Sunday, June 20, 2010

Medications and Mozart

I have essentially ceased updating my blog for two reasons: 1) I fear I have nothing more to say on manic-depression; and 2) I'm not so sure I want to go on exposing my guts to virtual strangers.

My reluctance may also have something to do with my current emotional lability.  After nearly five months of depression from January through May, I've made a start in recovery but still feel fragile.  My shrink and I agreed on a washout of all medications as none were working; now we have slowly resumed two, and I'm better, but the ground still feels treacherous beneath my feet.  Consequently on Friday I finallly persuaded him to add an antidepressant to my regimen.  Thus I am now on a mood stabilizer, a mild stimulant, and an antidepressant.  Given the time it takes an antidepressant to work, I should know within two or three weeks if its addition is going to help.

Meanwhile what do I do?  Write about it?  What more is there to tell?  Here are the best books I know on the subject: "Darkness Visible" by William Styron; "An Unquiet Mind" by Kay Jamison; and "Noonday Demon" whose author escapes me.  The last one is the most meandering of the three and goes to great lengths to try various treatments, including witchdoctor rituals in Africa.  In the end the author ends up taking medications.  I could have told him that, but then his journey would not have been nearly as interesting.

As for art, I posted a couple of new songs at my Soundclick site, "Angel" and "To the West."  The link is on this page.  I wrote the latter for a solstice ceremony we held last night at my friend's lodge called Spirit House.  I used the song to call in the direction of the west on the medicine wheel.  The lyrics are available on the Soundclick page if you click on "song info" before (or after) listening.  (All the songs on my page are available for free downloading.) 

My friend told me that the west, in Indian lore, was associated with introspection, looking inside.  Another friend told me that the gatekeeper of the west is the bear, another symbol for going inside, given the pattern of hibernation.  Yet introspection I find dangerous for a depressive; one is too easily stuck on one's shortcomings if chemically impaired; best not to go there, better to keep it light.  A sense of humor is indispensible in surviving the black dog.

I'm especially proud of "Angel," a simple Elizabethan love song,  somewhat out of character for me as my songs usually have a more complex structure than three chords.  But three chords often sufficed for Mozart, so who am I to gainsay simplicity?  In a recent post I included one of the better poems I've written in recent memory, "Foxgloves," in which I make some observations on Mozart.  I find his music supportive of mental health; the recurrent structure and resolutions tie up reality into a neat digestible package, or appear to do so in my mind.  It avoids the early Romantic power of Beethoven and the late Romantic questioning of Brahms, in its Classical power of conundrums resolved from  The Age of Enlightenment, the age of proportion and balance.  Listening can prove therapeutic.  I don't have houseplants but in experiments it is said that Mozart aids their growth whereas heavy metal does not.  Heavy metal poisoning--you gotta love that.  Of course everyone ought to know where the term "heavy metal" comes from; it's from Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" and references the "heavy metal thunder" of a motorcycle.  I am, however, over motorcycles, especially since my accident of July 2008.  I'm extremely grateful that I can still play the guitar in light of the permanent nerve injuries to my left hand, which include numbness and weakness I have been able to compensate for the impediment for the most part so that it cannot be easily observed by others, save in my inability (though improving) to really sustain a clean bar chord.

And how about those Lakers!  What a gritty win in game 7.  We outhustled and outlasted Boston.  They led in every shooting category: from the field, from three-point land and from the free throw line, but by sheer determination we outrebounded them by 15 and had a number of second chance points.  Kobe got 15 rebounds himself on a night when in Chick Hearn's words, "He couldn't throw a pea in the ocean."  Nor could anyone else on the team; team shooting from the field was a pitiful 32%.  Boston's percentage was nearly ten points higher.  But we wanted it more, else fatigue had done them in.   Even Kobe said, after the game, that he "had been drained" from the outset, that his fuel gage was on empty before the game started.  I was proud of the whole team, and especially Ron Artest, who not only won his first ring but was instrumental in the two clinching victories.  In game 7 he had 20 pts., five rebounds and five steals.  The steals meant much.  He had more steals than the rest of the team.  His post-game interview was predictably bizarre, but he did directly credit his psychiatrist with helping him calm down for the game.  I hope this starts a trend and that more crazy athletes will give credit where credit is due.

For a Father's Day gift my middle daughter, Keturah, offered to fly me down for the Lakers' parade tomorrow, but by the time we found out it was tomorrow, I had less than twenty-four hours to get down to LA and of course the price of the flight increased because of short notice, so I declined, also because in my present state travel can accentuate my vulnerability to a depressive relapse, the very thing I'm trying to prevent.  Before everything else I must get well and stay well.  Besides, I wanted Kathleen to come.  I can only hope we have another one next year.  You never know.  Most of the team will come back intact, and if Andrew Bynum can have an injury-free season we could be hard to beat.

 An acquaintance recently purchased a copy of "Unexpected Light" then came back two days later to purchase another for his aunt's birthday.  And this is a guy who doesn't read poetry.  If I can just get my book, "Unexpected Light," into a person's hands they will usually buy it. At readings, too, when people hear the work, there's a much better chance that they will purchase it.  It's hard to market a book of poetry without a personal connection, unless you are a "major" poet with a dedicated following. 

I haven't been posting much at poetry boards of late, not only because of the paucity of my output but because of its deficient quality.  And that's not just because I've been seeing my work through the lens of depression; it is a dispassionate analysis of my current state of inspiration.  The recent poem, "Foxgloves," was a welcome exception.

Today I visited the local Catholic church and was pleasantly surprised to find it low key and accessible, not quite high church though the liturgy was naturally used in the mass.  I don't know exactly when they reformed the practice, but now in communion parishioners are also allowed to drink the wine.  Long ago (or not so long ago?) only the priest was allowed.  That simple ritual of wine and bread grounds me like no other.  It proclaims that Christ is real, that the incarnation really happened, as real as the bread in your mouth.  Interesting that a religion's chief ceremony should involve food and drink.  I think that's pretty smart marketing.  We need something to hold onto what with an abstract, invisible God and all the things competing for our attention in the material world.  Good to have a solid ritual of material ingestion.

I'm enjoying this prattling.  It's been a while since I wrote an extended letter to anyone.  Perhaps I will return to blogging for its therapeutic benefit; it has helped me to hang on before.  Whether anyone reads it or not is secondary; the act itself helps the brain into a semblance of order, along with medications and Mozart.

2 Kilorats and fragile,

Dr. Chaffin

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Temporary Setback...

I do not mean to make it a practice again to blog about my long manic-depressive cycles, I only alluded to some recent hope in my last post from resuming medication in the face of another depression. 

Alas, after two weeks of improvement I felt the swill and suck of demon melancholy pulling at me Monday; by today I was weeping in my psychiatrist's office--where he made me laugh, referring to me as a third-generation "blueblood bipolar."  I laughed in the midst of my tears.  Great guy.

Anyway, he added meds today and I hope they work, but I am prepared to endure what I must to endure.  My best times are with my hospice client, who has metastatic cancer, for when I am with her I am simply being with her, only sometimes doing for her.  The being with is what counts.  And in that I can forget myself, a major blessing.

But God how I hate "being" depressed, and no amount of doing can bring me out of it--just time and medications.  What I most wish for is a stretch of stable years like I had from 1997 to 2006 on Lamictal.  Why in the last four years I lost that stability I can't say.  "Bad luck" is the extent of my understanding. 

I'm hoping for good luck.  I hope to take Craig with me this weekend to visit my grandson and daughters and friends, and not be stuck 24/7 with his weeping doppelganger.  That melancholy man can be such a bore, and living in his body gives me the willies!  As if everything were a test he was about to fail, from tying his shoes to wiping his mouth after a sandwich, with his constant self-judgment and accompanying terror without object or relief, the vacuum inside, the loss of self, self being replaced by a golem of anti-matter, not even a dark self, more a non-self, as if a ghost were speaking words through my mouth.

Should this depression continue I may have to return to my blog for therapy, though slightly embarrassed by the need.  But why should I be embarrassed?  I've laid it all out before.

Let this depression pass through me
like a radioactive cloud borne on the wind.
Let it touch me but not become me.
Though it hurt me more deeply than my daughter's death,
though its burning fangs sink into the gray cushion of my mind,
let the poison pass.  However long it may linger,
I cling to the grace that it is temporary.
Let the blessed winds blow!



Saturday, June 05, 2010

A Note on Bipolar Disease; New Poem, "Foxgloves"

There is much to tell, yet little again.  I have ascended out of my 4 1/2-month depression after a washout of all psychiatric medications and the re-introduction of Lamictal which previously kept me stable for nine years.  I did not blog about this except through my "Dark Sonnets," essentially, because I had little more to say about the black dog, and after having been underwater more than above the last four years, I am hopeful for another long stretch of relative sanity.  No need to repeat the experience in detail as I did from 2006-2008 (when, not unexpectedly, my readership was highest).

What people most need to understand about my disease:

1) External circumstances, though sometimes involved in a "trigger," in general bear little relationship to one's prevailing mood.  The two proceed in separate arcs, and any intersection is largely coincidental.  The mood disorder goes on; it is "endogenous," or self-generated.  One question I used to ask patients to distinguish depression from the blues was their reaction to winning the lottery.  If no reaction they more likely depressed.  No external happenstance can cheer one when in a state of severe clinical depression.

2)  The horror and self-despite of clinical depression cannot be adequately communicated to one who has not suffered it.  Think of the worst day of your life and the associated feelings; multiply that exponentially and extend it for months, even years.  Suicide begins to appear as heaven, and resisting it takes much fortitude. 

3)  If truly afflicted by manic-depression, only one thing helps in treatment: medications.  ECT ought to be included except that it failed me in my last attempt and I will not try it again--combined with the heavy psychiatric drugs they gave me at the hospital (Invega), I actually became worse.


Now for a new poem:


Mozart does it so neatly,
answering every question posed.
I swear his concerto billowing out the porch
attracts birdsong.

                                              Their song
is not so neatly balanced as the master’s.
Their melodies can end in queries
or falter in mid-arc without resolution
while no matter how far Mozart’s questing strays
it always folds back on itself to the origin
not just by counterpoint but reaffirmation
as if the world made sense.

Beyond the porch the shaggy foxgloves
droop their furiously maculate lilac bells,
broad leaves uneven, some prematurely yellowed
and these are nothing like Mozart,
more like life, shedding and beautiful,
its messy menstrual necessities
even in crescendo trumpeting decay.
In fact when earlier I tried to straighten
the foxgloves’ winding stalks
they would have none of it.
See how they curl like snakes?

Thine in Truth and Art,

C. E. Chaffin

Saturday, May 22, 2010

More Dark Sonnets

I hesitate to say it, but my dark sonnets may have taken a turn for the better; here are two more that hold more hope than many:

XXII Victory

I am returning to the human race.
I’ve rolled my bedroll up. I’ve raised my head,
No longer lying immobile on my face
To peer at bugs beneath the surface dread.
There’s not much I can tell you to explain
Depths of disintegration that I know--
The way dirt swirls in a drop of rain
How cobwebs mask the spider’s ordered row.
Chaos is always there and always was.
That I became it isn’t all my fault.
Many have succumbed to no because--
Because there was no victory to exalt.
The victory is this: to live in spite
Of all the reasons laving us n night.

XXIII Doppelganger

I would kill you if I had the chance,
Bipolar brother, my accursed golem.
You are a black spider in my pants,
Your belly poisonous, fine-haired and swollen.
Your bite is easily fatal; many have died
Believing your sick gospel in their death.
In telling them the truth you only lied
About the cyclic nature of our breath.
Genetic, so they say, internal fate--
Van Gogh, Hart Crane and Plath, so many others.
But you won’t find my head upon your plate
Because I know the truth. To all my brothers
I caution patience. If we can outlast
The darkness, light will come, the die’s not cast.

4 Kilorats,

Friday, May 14, 2010

Pressing the Re-Set Button

I am a born-again psychiatric virgin now.  My shrink and I agreed to a washout period of all psychiatric medications since none were working.  When he saw me today unmedicated, he was delighted I wasn't any worse.  But it doesn't get much worse than waking up in the morning tearful and terrified, wondering how to work a toothbrush.

Although not a strict tabula rasa, I feel that in my condition I must try to reconstruct myself, having "to construct something to hope upon" (Eliot).  I plan to make a "Mother of All Lists" with projects to keep me occupied for the foreseeable future.  Among other things:

1) I plan to re-write my book on T. S. Eliot's major poems and seek to have it published.

2) I mean to pay for studio time and record a new album and do it right.

3) I shall take up free diving on the the Mendocino Coast.

4)  An essay on the similarities and differences between Rilke's "Duino Elegies" and Eliot's "Four Quartets."

5)  Protein shake diet for quick weight loss.  Must get off this inflated dime somehow.

6)  Resurrect Melic, my former literary magazine.  I simply do not find a journal online or in print that reflects what I consider the best principles in poetry: Meaning, Economy, Lyricism, Innovation and Clarity.  What passes for innovation nowadays is mainly masturbation for the overeducated, poets reading poets who say "Wow!  How did she do that?"  (Notice what is not said: "Wow, I am moved."  Or, "What a terrific insight!"  Or, "What gorgeoius lyricism!")

7)  I'd love to be in a working band again.  If not, I ought to perform solo more often.

8)  Visit every church in my locale and see if there isn't one I can tolerate.  With luck it should be the same one that tolerates me.

9)  Study the Bible for mind-strengthening techniques.  "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

10)  Continue volunteering as a Botanical Gardens docent and hospice worker.

That's a beginning, at least.  But I need a list of much smaller things, too, things that can be achieved with just a little work, like cleaning out my desk.  If I can truly commit myself to action, my mood may improve as a result (or not).  But anything that takes me out of myself, whether surviving diving or wrestling with Rilke, is a definite improvement over the toxicity of digesting my self over and over.  With each serving there's less of me to consume.  I'm down to nearly nothing.


I'm presently at my middle daughter's for two nights as part of my monthly visit to my grandson, Jacob.  Tomorrow we plan to take him to the beach.  He's a redhead so it will be a sunblock-slathering day, chasing him down with a tube and a hat.

It's not true that Jesus is jealous of dogs because he wanted to be man's best friend.  Just another canine rumor.  But you gotta love the story from the Bay Area, where a man and his girlfriend sprang their beloved pit bull from the pound before he could be euthanized for biting two people.  Now the man's  in jail and his girlfriend is on the loose with the dog, "a sweet dog who is so very protective"--so very protective that he bit the veterinary tech who was checking his teeth.

Other tidbits: The eco-warriors are perched on the Gulf Coast to save oil-damaged animals, except as yet only seven have showed up.  What if they gave a spill and the animals avoided it?  The Exxon spill, smaller in volume, killed 3000 otters among much other carnage.  I only mention otters because they're so damned cute.  So far this is a disaster still waiting to happen when it hits land.  And that could be anywhere from Florida to Mexico.

Anything else?  Notice none of my ambitions for action have anything to do with writing poetry; I'm tapped, my muse is in a coma, my interest in the art at ebb tide.  I read so much crap.  Because I think it's crap I feel like a dinosaur even though I subscribe to the "best" journals.

I haven't been submitting and I haven't been writing.  Poetry seems like such a small thing to me now.  I'm not saying I've forsasken it, or that it is without value, only that I must re-define my relationship with it.  Who wants to read John Ashbery's convivial drivel or Jorie Grahams elliptical escapades?  But good poetry still occurs.  Witness "Blackwater Woods" by Mary Oliver.

Now wasn't that a great poem?  I was turned onto it by a hospice worker, Redwing.  God bless her.

Oh, and my one hospice client is a delight.  She worked with Gloria Steinem on Ms. Magazine.  She's sharp and funny and so very, very tired...

And to all a good night.

5 Kilorats and unmedicated,


Friday, May 07, 2010

Following the Light

It's been over two weeks since I checked in.  I have, unfortunately, been underwater in the icy caves of depression.  Depression is cold; waves of emotion are eventually wrung out into catatonic numbness, congealing into ice.  The bell jar.  Trying to touch the world through asbestos gloves.

It's an old groove, this soul-killing suspension of belief.  Most of us have endured a time of extreme negative emotion, it is appointed to the race.  But think of the worst you've ever felt, then extend it for two years.  Constantly, or nearly so.   This drove me to unsuccessful ECT in 2008. 

In clinical depression the feedback loop of extreme negative feeling goes on automatic, a skipping record.  The question of counteracting this is how to interrupt the repetition, how to reconnect the needle to the groove of life ongoing with interest attached.

I am undergoing a washout.  I am going off my psychiatric medications under supervision in the hope that either my brain will right itself or, by having a respite, recalibrate itself and become responsive to medications that formerly worked.  The body always has the capacity to develop tolerance to medications.  This is not confined to narcotics or sedatives, you can see it with blood pressure medications, too.  And of all organs, which is most adaptive?  The answer is obvious, why psychopharmacology remains a primitive art.

I'd like to re-post the one sonnet in my "Dark Sonnets" series that has an element of hope in it:


My mind is dark. The darkness will not cease,
As if an endless night ate every sun.
The echoes in my skull form a reprise
Of guilt and shame for everything I’ve done
Or left undone, that catechism phrase.
There is no publicist prepared to spin
Kinder assessments of benighted days.
Sin means falling short and I am sin.
Yet somewhere in the vacuum of my thought
I sense some inextinguishable light
So very small and certain, like a dot
That moves around and can’t be fixed outright.
I like to think this angel is my being
And not the Sturm und Drang that you are seeing.

In reviewing my previous recovery from this condition (recorded on these pages in April and May of 2008), I noticed one behavioral advantage that obtained: pretending to be Craig.  I deem this important.  Not just passing for me but pretending to be me.  Act like yourself and you may become yourself, as in the fable of the toy soldier who became human by wishing.   

I want to follow the light.  I believe in the goodness of God expressed through man.  Many have communicated their love and concern to me, and I am thankful for all I can receive, even if receiving is presently difficult. 

I believe there is a light so great that the shadow of our suffering cannot ultimately stand.

5 Kilorats,
Craig Erick

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Dark Sonnets XVI and XVII; 6 Kilorats

I saw my psychiatrist today, who increased my antipsychotic medications.  He wants to be aggressive with my illness.  I read today that bipolar depressions usually last at least six months.  I'm almost up to four months with this one, but I don't want to repeat my two-year horror again.  My only hope is in medications; now that ECT failed me, I know of nothing else to treat this damnable condition.

It's nothing I did or didn't do.  I was born with the DNA coding for bipolar illness.  It first expressed itself when I was 13.   I did not know what it was then, I simply withdrew from everything around me, including friends, going from class president to recluse.

Two more dark sonnets below.  Not my best but I do follow the form.


There’s not much left to what I haven’t said.
Depression is a monster, simply put,
A harpy sent to thieve your daily bread
And leave you groveling in an endless rut.
A rut is but a grave with ends kicked out.
Oh you can belly on and squirm and twitch
Yet come no nearer to another route
Because you cannot see above the ditch.
Prayer and meditation prove no better
Than drinking beer and lying on the couch
When you are being judged by every letter
Of the law, transforming you to grouch
Who sees all contact as a threat to being
So any outstretched palm results in fleeing.


I’d rather have my skin scraped bloody and raw
By a barbecue-grill cleaning brush
Than to suffer depression. I stand in awe
At how the weight of it endeavors to crush
Whatever good lives in me, which is all
A grand mirage of who I used to be
Before the odious, odiferous pall
Of self-despite became reality.
Have you a spark of goodness left to share?
Don’t waste it on this carcass, I am past
Receiving anything, I do not care
For anything my illness will outlast.
It’s cyclical, you know, it will come back
And paint all my cathedral windows black.

Six Kilorats,


Monday, April 19, 2010

Dark Sonnet XV; at Six Kilorats

After an early response to a new antipsychotic for ten days, I tanked back into my melancholy fit on April 15 and have been there since.  It's so disheartening.  But in today's dark sonnet I did put in a little hope.  Hope is so necessary.   I was going to go into depth today about my latest mood terrors but find as I type that I have little or nothing to say that I haven't said before. 

1) Bipolar disease, in its worst form, as I have it, is akin to epilepsy.  It is a chemical dysfunction of the brain that effectively mimics negative affects: fear, sadness and anger, when all the routine responses to loss go on override and life becomes a terror--I dread phone calls and e-mails, I have to suck up courage to face them.  Once I get engaged in something, as in writing this blog, I feel a little better, able to forget myself for a time.  But the all-pervasive feelings persist.  Crying temporarily reduces the anxiety, but it also tires the body out.  I know I'm not special, there are millions of sufferers on the planet, but I know of no one personally who has experienced so many severe depressions in a lifetime.  I'm sure such a person exists, if they haven't committed suicide. 

2)  For this disease I have found only two things that help: medications and ECT, and the latter failed me in '08, so I guess it's just down to medications.  But it's a crap shoot, these medications, and finding the right combination can take forever.  It's important not to lose hope, though.  And when I do, I need my doctor to hold hope for me.

3)  I am not my disease.  I have a disease.  There's a big difference in that that helps me not to panic at times. 

4)  It is not my fault. 

5)  All the therapy and self-help books have proven no help to me.  All I know is to endure, take the medicines, and not lose hope.

6)  I would not wish this illness on anyone.

7) Hope and endurance are the most necessary virtues I can practice.

8)  I am on disability because I am disabled.   There, I said it.  Between the condition of my back and the unpredictable condition of my mind, I don't know what useful work I could do.   I wish to hell I could work at something, but who would hire me if I made full disclosure?   I work at writing, I send out submissions, I continue to compose poems and songs--this is my work, even if it only rarely pays. 

I feel lower than a worm's belly in a ditch right now.  Here's the poem:


My mind is dark. The darkness will not cease,
As if an endless night ate every sun.
The echoes in my skull form a reprise
Of guilt and shame for everything I’ve done
Or left undone, that catechism phrase.
There is no publicist prepared to spin
Kinder assessments of benighted days.
Sin means falling short and I am sin.
Yet somewhere in the vacuum of my thought
I sense some inextinguishable light
So very small and certain, like a dot
That moves around and can’t be fixed outright.
I like to think this angel is my being
And not the Sturm und Drang that you are seeing.

Thanks for reading.

At 6 Kilorats,


Unexpected Light

Unexpected Light
Selected Poems and Love Poems 1998-2008 ON SALE NOW!