Intake Interview

I’m reading a great book right now called Brain on Fire. It was written by Susannah Calahan, who interviewed with Teri Gross before Christmas and the book’s publication. I heard about the book as I was driving home, and in fact, I think I’ve mentioned it on Facebook before. I’m talking about it again because I’ve come across a lot in my reading that I want to share.

So relatively little is known about the brain that Calahan went through many, many neurological exams that just dismissed her as a crazy alcoholic (who didn’t actually drink, BTW) before they found the real problem, called anti-ND MA-receptor encephalitis. The book is heart-wrenching, especially in the beginning, because she has no idea what is going on with her body, and her behavior deteriorates swiftly, much to the discomfort and anxiety of everyone around her.

There’s also research in the book as to how anti-NDMA-receptor encephalitis fits into the grand picture of schizophrenic research, which only served to deepen my belief that the physical and the emotional are inextricably interrelated. This is an important point when talking about mental health issues, particularly because they are such a hot-button issue right now.

Calahan has a way of explaining mental illness so that it makes sense… in fact, explaining how physical disease affects behavior and vice versa. For instance, have you ever looked at someone and thought they were drunk or high, only to find out later that they had been given the wrong medication, or worse, in the middle of a seizure?

Medicine excites me, whether it involves physical or mental health. Books by doctors and patients alike hold my attention. To me, it is one of the last great mysteries of the modern world… medicine is not science or an art. It is a time-honored method that clings steadfastly to both.

In the middle of the book, there is a great poem, aptly named “Intake Interview.” It is a series of questions posed by Franz Wright, author of Wheeling Motel. Instead of just publishing the poem, I thought it would be fun to answer the questions themselves.

What is today’s date?

Sat Jan 12 19:05:09 PST 2013 (I love “insert date” in word processors.)

Who is the President?

Ba rack Bamako

How great a danger do you pose, on a scale of one to ten?

Internally, I’m not a danger at all. There are large groups of people all over this country that disagree with me… Something about a “gay agenda.” My “gay agenda” is so boring that these people would immediately realize the error of their ways if they ever looked at it. We got the oil changed on the Saturn. Does that count?

What does “people who live in glass houses” mean?

That if you judge someone else, you are clearly going to be sorry because they are going to throw rocks at your house.

Every symphony is a suicide postponed, true or false?

For the composer or for the listener?I

Should each individual snowflake be held accountable for the avalanche?

Sure- you take 100% and divide it among every snowflake. That way, each snowflake is taking some personal responsibility without being devastated by an overwhelming amount of guilt.

Name five rivers.


What do you see yourself doing in ten minutes?

Since this is generally an oral quiz, I’m going to skip ahead to the part after I’be finished this post. It’s almost dinner. I’ll probably cook. It will be delicious, and you will be jealous you did’t come over to eat.

How about some lovely soft Thorazine music?

Does it come with Swedish massage?

If you could have half an hour with your father, what would you say to him?

I can’t think of anything to say to my father. When I think of him, my ability to speak is diminished to nothing. Those feelings are so deep that speaking seems entirely inadequate. I would just want to sit on his back deck, smoke a cigar, and hope that somehow companionable silence would suffice. I would’t be the person I am today without him, and not fifteen minutes goes by before I do something that makes me crack up and say, “I’m just like my dad.” Words are so gorgeous, so precious, that anything I could say would have the emotional punch of a World’s Greatest Dad coffee mug. It is my intention to write him something beautiful, something he can keep, but I’be been working on it for oh, ten years now, and it’s never been just right. I want it to be just right, because the work of being my dad is sometimes difficult. It would probably be easier for him if I was a little less shy, if I’d just come out of my shell a little more.

What should you do if I fell asleep?

Call HR! You’re sleeping at work!

Are you still following in [her] sic mastodon footsteps?

No. I stood too close and she stepped on me.

What is the moral of Mary Had a Little Lamb?

If you’re waiting for someone, you’re going to have to wait a long time.
If you love that person, you know they’re worth the wait.
If Mary hand’t loved the lamb as much as she did, the lamb would not have waited for her.
Unforeseen obstacles may separate you from the one you love, but if you both are in agreement, togetherness will come *someday.*

What about [her] sic Everest shadow?

Big with the metaphors, are we?

I will surely never climb Mt. Everest, and most of the time, I’m fine with it. But then I catch a memory in my mind, and I wish I could just get on a plane and go.

Would you compare your education to a disease so rare no one else has ever had it, or the deliberate extermination of indigenous populations?

“Have you took yo’ nerve medication this week? …Cause everybody be wondrin.’ -Shirley Q. Liquor

Which is more puzzling, the existence of suffering or its frequent absence?

Both are equally troubling. Life is conflict.

Should an odd number be sacrificed to the gods of the sky, and an even to those of the underworld, or vice versa?

An odd number of what? Potato chips? Chevrolets?

Would you visit a country where nobody talks?

I visit it all the time. It’s called “my apartment.” Of course, this is exclusively when Dana is at work.

What would you have done differently?

That’s a whole other book, dude.

Why are you here?

I am here to help people. I often marvel at the things that come out of my mouth and think, “that was really good advice. Why didn’t I take it?”

AAAAAAaaaaannnnnnnnddddd scene.

Missives from Israel, Part 4

Dear Leslie,

As you’ve probably heard or read, it’s calm again in Israel. Tuesday I was sure it was going to end, and then when it didn’t I was sure it was going to become awful. Wednesday, someone bombed a bus in Tel Aviv. I read about it while I was on the train to Tel Aviv myself, and I can’t tell you how much my heart sank. Once the news broke, too, the entire train car erupted in cellphone calls for a few minutes, although it took me a moment to notice, since I was lost in my own thoughts. At the same time, they were announcing a problem with the cease-fire talks, as well as that the Lebanese had found some rockets in the south aimed at northern Israel (i.e. me). Then, that evening, when I thought it was clear that it was going to get really, really, really, bad, a truce was announced. I haven’t read any of the reports of ‘behind the scenes’ in the conflict, but I imagine having Hillary Clinton and Ban Ki-Moon here helped, and may even have been decisive.

Things here have returned to normal, which, in Haifa, mainly means that people have stopped wondering what’s going to happen next in Gaza, and some of the reserve soldiers who were called up are slowly being sent home. Apparently, though, they plan to keep a significant presence gathered near Gaza for a while, which I imagine was the reason for an urgent call I saw for volunteers at an IDF food packaging plant for this upcoming week. At least, that’s all I hope it was for.

I’m incredibly glad it’s over. In Haifa, we only saw the rockets on TV, but living here was starting to feel like being trapped in a surreal sports bar where everyone keeps asking you which side you’re on and doesn’t understand you when you tell them that, actually, you don’t really like the game.

Missives from Israel, Part 3

Dear Leslie,

The waiting is terrible. I realize that I’m impatient. I just want to know what’s going to happen, whether they’re going to stop or make it worse, if the latter, how bad it’s going to get and if I should make plans to leave for a while, and when it will finish, so I know when to plan to come back. (And also at what point my job will accept that I should leave and keep paying me if I go. I can work from basically anywhere, but technically I have residence requirements in my contract.) It’s hard to focus, and I find myself checking Israeli and Gazan news updates compulsively. It’s all the same: Rocket shot from Gaza at X, Israeli attack at Y, Iron Dome intercepted Z rockets, A people killed, B wounded – the Palestinian news prints the names of the dead as well – possible ceasefire from talks in Cairo, but not very likely that it will be today or tomorrow or the next day, if it happens at all, ground troops ready, but still just waiting.

I do worry about it spreading if there’s a ground strike, but I can’t decide if I’m being paranoid or if there’s really something to worry about. I definitely worry more about this than most people around me, but there are already some disturbing signs. A short firefight across the Syrian border was confirmed yesterday, though it didn’t lead to anything. This morning, there was an arson attempt at a mosque in a village in the West Bank, but the villagers (so far) just put the fire out and went home. It’s presumed by police that this was a hate crime from Israeli settlers in a neighboring village. It would only take a few random attacks and counterattacks to start an unfortunate chain reaction there, too… Isrealis have an extraordinary capability to act blase about war (which I find disturbing), as if they accept it as an unpleasant but unavoidable part of life that you have to accept, like, I don’t know, dental work, except that you can die from it, or be maimed for life. I haven’t gotten there yet, and I hope I don’t. On the other hand, if a war happens and you have to live through it, I suppose that being too scared or nervous about it all the time probably doesn’t help, either.

In trying not to worry, I guess, I got sick – my first flu in many years. I’m off to find myself some soup…

Best wishes,


Missives from Israel, Continued

There was a line in a NYT op-ed from today that I’ve actually been thinking all week, which is that everyone’s been arguing over whether the latest round of attacks are justified, but no one seems to be asking if it’s wise. I think the main thing it’s going to accomplish is to strengthen the hard-liners on both sides, which I don’t think is going to be helpful. The situation in the south before the assassination was bad, but not so different from the way things have been for the last 10 or 12 years, and you can argue that they had even improved some because of the new missile defense system. The sirens were still disruptive, but fewer missiles hit the ground in the past year or so than before. Also, they’ve tried this already, and it didn’t work. There were rockets before the last Gaza war, and the war didn’t fix it. There have been frequent bombings of launch sites after previous rocket attacks, and the rockets still came.

What did work was an power-sharing agreement with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which is largely peaceful now, and even safe, except for the Arab areas where Israel is responsible for police work, because they don’t do a very good job. Unfortunately, the PA is extremely corrupt, not well liked by a lot of Palestinians, and now that it isn’t causing any trouble, the Israelis aren’t doing much to improve the situation there or move them toward more autonomy. Hamas is not inclined to make such an agreement with Israel, but there were indications that they were open to a long-term truce, but that’s now dead in the water. I guess what I’m saying is that the rockets shot at Israel were a serious problem, but not an existential one, and that this is a terrible way to handle it. It’s already causing a big mess, and I would be shocked if it fixed anything in the long run.

The region has also become even more unpredictable since the Arab Spring started, and, while it’s very likely that a ground invasion will stay contained to Gaza, it’s not completely certain, and not be joined by over-enthusiastic Syrians who are shooting people anyway, or Hezbollah will decide to bomb the north, too, which is more vulnerable, or if it will prompt Egypt to re-evaluate it’s peace agreement. In fact, an IDF jeep apparently just received some shots from Syria in the Golan, according to a local news web site.

In the end, if Egypt and/or Turkey manage to broker a cease-fire, whether it happens now or in a few months, they’re the ones that ‘win’ the conflict, since they can then claim to be the real brokers of power to deal with in this new Middle East. It will be interesting to see if Israel agrees to that (or even if they realize that that’s how they set up the pieces), or if they will keep fighting until Hamas can’t fight anymore and Israel feels like it’s done for now. At the moment, it looks like the latter, but right now, at least, it could improve with the same speed that it could worsen.

I’ll write more soon, if you like. I really need to sleep now.

Best wishes,


Missives from Israel

I have a Facebook friend in Israel who does not want to be identified; I still want to share his story. If you know X, please do not say so.


I’m not seeing much of anything, thankfully. I don’t imagine I will, but as someone said to me today, you don’t plan to enter a war, it’s a force that sucks in everything around it. Haifa itself is calm, but people are worried about what might happen next in the south. Army reserves have been called up. Lots of them, more than in the past two wars combined. Most people in my circles are quite cynical about the fact that the timing of the escalation comes just before an election. Political tensions are running higher than usual. There was a moment of silence in protest of the escalation organized by Arab students on the University of Haifa campus, and it was quickly denounced as being in support of Hamas, even though that’s quite a different thing, and most Israeli Arabs aren’t Hamas supporters at all. If I understood a post from today on my Facebook page correctly, the University now requires permits for gatherings on campus grounds, although (if that’s actually true) I’m not sure how it’ll be enforced.

It’s been reported that the police will ‘make a sweep’ looking for illegal Arab residents of Israel tomorrow. I hope none of that will happen in my neighborhood, which is about 1/2 Arab. (It’s one of just a few neighborhoods in the entire country that has a genuine ethnic mixture…) Given that, though, I would expect guess if they do decide to invade Gaza on the ground, it would be sometime shortly after they finish their sweep, maybe tomorrow night or Monday morning…

What other kinds of things do you want to know?

Feel free to share this, but for now, anyway, I’d prefer if you didn’t attach my name to any of it.

Best wishes,


truth and Truth

It’s hard out here for a blogger. I have so much to say, and yet, when I sit down at the blank page, I get to about “there once was a lady from Dallas” and I’m ready for the cooldown… maybe a beer or a cup of tea. Endurance is only partially my strong point. When I’m “in the zone,” I can concentrate for hours. It’s literally like Zeus giving birth to Athena- the words come out of my forehead and onto the page as if just pushing myself harder will move the writer’s block out of the way. Let me tell you, on the days when I’m not feeling inspired, that is a BIG DAMN BLOCK.

Writing is even harder when you’ve just read someone else’s work, and it’s as finely crafted a sentence as anything you’ve read in the last ten years. I subscribe to Esquire, because they tend to have a stable of writers (including David Sedaris) that knock my socks off. [Incidentally, you might want to pick up the July and August issues- they contain part 1 and part 2 of a novella written by Stephen King.] The July issue has a lot of fiction in it, and there’s one story called Ice by Colum McCann that literally made me lose my breath for a few seconds. Here are the haunting lines: The bed of their wagons was black with blood. It had fallen on the wheels too, so that their lives seemed to circle and turn beneath them.

Dear Jesus, how can I follow that? So succinct that the impact hits you like a 12 gauge kickback [RACK!]. Perfect synecdoche (naming the part for the whole, e.g. blood for life). It’s a grasp of the English language to which I aspire, so deeply and sincerely that it is my life’s work, no matter my daily occupation.

Speaking of which, my dad was the one who told me that… but he is not alone. So many poets and prose writers have worked in restaurants, sold insurance, anything to make ends meet… and they prefer it that way. Sitting in a locked tower with a typewriter is not being a writer. What do you possibly have to offer the world if there’s nothing to write about? To me, that’s the best take-home message that one writer can offer another.

Some of the best stories come from work, play, relationships… living life to the fullest. Of course, there are limits- don’t get fired for telling company secrets (like your hatred for the Asian Database Administrator). One of the best blogs I’ve ever read was called True Porn Clerk Stories- now available in paperback and Kindle editions. It’s the type of writing that will make you love your job more than anything in the world, because even if it’s bad, it’s not as bad (or at the very least, as weird) as this. What made Ali (TPCS author) so successful is that every word she wrote was absolutely true. She couldn’t have made it up if she tried.

So that’s where I am. Living life, collecting stories, and when I write, putting down Truth. What’s the difference between truth and Truth? Truth with a little t is something that’s true for you and you alone. Truth with a capital T is something that, when people read it, their hearts say to them, “I remember feeling like that!” Sometimes the reaction is more like, “I am sure that the writer is telling the truth, because there is nothing about him/her that screams “that never happened.”

Truth with a capital T also comes from the Deep South, because many of the stories we tell there have been so embellished that what really happened is long gone. But if the moral of the story is sound, it’s still true. In that way, truth and Truth are reactions, and neither of them are up to the writer. The writer is responsible for taking on the project and writing in such a way that whatever feeling they’re trying to elicit comes to the surface.

A Quote for the Ages

Writing is living in the balance between “about to give birth” and “about to shit.”

-Leslie Lanagan

How can you say that? That’s disgusting. Writing t’aint that hard. Really? REALLY? If your blank piece of paper isn’t gnawing at your soul, you’re not doing it right… unless you’re only writing for yourself. Why is it different? BECAUSE NO ONE WANTS TO READ ABOUT WHAT YOU HAD FOR LUNCH.

No, writing is responsive. Life throws you all you can handle and then keeps piling. Life is glorious and fleeting and full of pain. It deserves further examination in able to take life on life’s terms, rather than bending it to your will.

I am certain that there are people who would disagree with me- CEOs, Directors, etc. Of course there is a certain amount of making your life fit you, but the happiest execs I know are the ones who say, “wow- this is more than I ever expected. I’m not sure how I got here, but I’m glad I did.”

That’s not bending life so much as saying yes to what’s presented… made easier by a firm grasp on how you really feel- you know, in that place in the middle of your chest that gets tight when things are getting harder and you don’t know what to do.

Try and get that out without a sweat.

But here’s the payoff- all that sweat and tears will bring you a reader. And maybe that reader is a friend of yours, or maybe they live in Belgium. Whatever. But they’re going through the same thing. They’ll tell you that they never thought about it that way… the way you’ve presented it… and a point of connection exists that wasn’t there before. Over time, people will gather. And then it will be three months and then three years of great writing that reaches people across continents who will pick you up when you are down and turn into stark-raving psychopaths if someone tries to put you down via the Internet.

And if you’re lucky, that shared connection will create a cultural thing, like Dooce’s firing, Wil Wheaton’s interaction with WILLIAM FUCKING SHATNER, and Jenny Lawson’s giant metal chicken named “Beyonce.”

So give birth. Learn why writing is hard. It’s worth it.