‘I’m crazy,’ she said in answer to my question. Let’s call her Gail. Gail is a pretty girl, curly brunette hair, bright green eyes, handsome features, and lanky frame. When she came to my ward I thought she was a youngish sixteen year old. She was twenty-four and that was a clue to why she made it over to P.I.C.U. (the Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit). Her answer was valid enough. It was not the question I asked.
This was year ten of the fourteen years I spent as a Psychiatric Technician. Most of those years were spent working with severely ill mental patients. A psychiatric technician is basically a nurse’s aide at a mental hospital. It is not a glorious job but I was good at it. Basically, one takes patients’ vital signs, attends to their ADL’s (activities of daily living) by making sure they are fed and clean, and making sure they get to where they are supposed to be. The major job of a psychiatric technician is, however, to protect the patients from themselves and to protect the staff from the patient if they go postal. The technician is then to perform ‘take down’. He or she physically contains the patient, lowers the patient to the ground, and holds the patient immobile until a nurse shows up with a hypodermic needle full of thorazine. Thorazine is an antipsychotic drug and it is a chemical straight jacket in that it takes the violence right out of a patient. I became a psychiatric technician usually assigned to psychiatric intensive care because I tolerated the patients well, I got along with the nurses and doctors well, and I stomached wading in the misery of others for hours upon hours year after year.
‘What are you doing here?’ That was the question I asked Gail. I meant why are you here in the common room instead of attending your group session like you are supposed to be doing. Still, her response was accurate enough.
‘Gail, I’ve been doing this for ten years,’ I said. ‘In all those years I have yet to come across ‘crazy’ as a diagnosis.’
That is a true statement. There are no ‘crazy’ people in psychiatric hospitals. A person can be depressed, psychotic, bulimic, bipolar, or any of a number of illnesses. Nowhere do they list ‘crazy’ as a mental illness.
‘Well, if I’m not crazy why am I here?’ Gail said.
‘You are here because you need to take lithium and you don’t do it when you’re at home.’ I said and that was mostly true. That poor and pretty girl who really didn’t deserve her situation was crazy as a bed bug. Lithium helped – it was her only help.
‘I don’t like to take my lithium,’ she said. She didn’t like to because lithium took away her psychosis and like many with psychotic tendencies, her imaginary world was preferable to the real one.
‘Why not? You take your vitamins. For you, lithium is another vitamin,’ I said. I’d had this conversation before. Our standing in the empty common room attracted Beth, the charge nurse, and she came up beside us.
‘Why does lithium have to be one of my vitamins?’ Gail said.
‘Well, I have a theory about that,’ I began. I saw alarm on Beth’s face when I said that. Gail was crazy and I was not a psychiatrist. It was not my place. I quickly reminded Beth and Gail that it was only a theory.
‘Tell me,’ Gail asked.
‘Yeah, Steve, tell us,’ echoed Beth. Oh, drat, I thought.
Ever the bold one, I commenced.
To me, at its root, our brain is a pattern searcher alive and awake 24/7. It takes in everything we see, feel, smell, taste, and hear then compares it to everything we know, we remember, we experienced, we learned. It constantly compares each new sense(ation) to all of these inner things searching what needs focusing on and disregarding what is unnecessary. Somewhere in our brain is a thing I compare to a TV camera doing the searching and another thing that must determine the necessary to plot how our organism is to survive. Crucial to this act is lithium a natural occurring element that most of us absorb from our food or water. It might be part of filtering out the unnecessary. Poor pretty Gail, like many other of our patients, cannot do that.
‘It’s not your fault, Gail,’ I said. ‘Just like some of us can’t metabolize iron or vitamin C, your body can’t metabolize lithium. You need to take a supplement.’
I caught relief in the face of Nurse Beth from the corner of my eye.
‘Okay, Steve. You had me worried but that’s good. I like that,’ Beth said. Gail looked like she bought it also.
However, Gail had refused her lithium that day. Her cute green eyes glinted with mischief – not malice, just mischief. Her mouth came open and she leaned over to bite down on a considerable slab of my shoulder.
Oh, Steve, Oh Steve, Oh Steve, went Beth. Arrrrrggggggh, went me. I’ll call a code, went the other nurse responding to the noise. The ‘Code Green’ sounded through the halls outside the locked door. Code Green means anyone on the Code Green team not otherwise occupied come a running! It draws staff like a magnet team members or not. As if ghosts coming out of the walls, nurses began to appear around me. Hands took hold of Gail’s arms, her head. Gail’s eyes just grinned at me as if we shared the joke.
‘Gail, let me go,’ I growled as gently and quietly as I could.
As you are supposed to do when a human bulldog had a hold of you, I leaned into her face. It was like leaning into the fog. The whole bunch of us swayed to my right. I straightened up. They straightened up. I leaned. They faded like the fog. We straightened.
‘All right,’ I hissed from clenched teeth. Gail’s eyes grinned. ‘All right, let’s all just stop. What I need you to do when I lean into her is to press back into my shoulder.’
I could not believe I had to stand there in that bear trap and do a training session about bite release. Weren’t we all trained to do that?
‘I’m trying to press down on her jaw to force her mouth open so I can roll out of it. You need to help me. Please help me?’
It was as easy as pie. I think even Gail helped. I just rolled my shoulder loose. I spent the next three hours down at the hospital as an E.R. nurse scrubbed my shoulder with every antibiotic cleanser they had and shoving every known germ fighting concoction through a needle into my other shoulder. The nurses spent the next three weeks apologizing for not knowing what to do. I have a perfect impression of each and every one of Gail’s teeth in my shoulder, first as purple bruises then as white scar tissue, to this day.
Every Man A King 4/14/13
We are kings now, kings (or queens) in our own home. We are that, in my opinion, because at the center of our throne room is a TV.
That wonderful and evil old Governor of Louisiana, Huey P. Long, promised he would make all the citizens of his state a king in their own homes. Having lived there most of my youth, I found that dream unrealized. That he might even try probably factored in his assassination. For the powerful, there can be few kings. For the powerful, required are many subjects.
However, for a king to stand he must be a gift giver. He must be the provider of spectacle. He must put a chicken in every pot. He must provide bread and circuses. He must do these things because he is the only one who can.
In that most modern form of feudalism, capitalism, we have bonded ourselves to our corporate emperor so that we the sub kings (queens) bring home the bread (read bacon). And, if it didn’t come in with the boxes of bed linen, toasters, and toiletries, the day after bringing home the first check we made our way to Best Buy to bring home the spectacle – the TV.
From the earliest of days, most people, warrior, craftsman, and peasant, lived in a compound with a king, chief, or patriarch. In the night, when the work was done all the subjects came into the great hall to share the kings bread and watch the spectacle he provided. The subjects watched warriors brag. They watched bards sing and tell stories. They watched judgments of law and order. They watched jugglers, wrestlers, or mummers vie for gifts from the king. They watched the widowed hag or the shaman make magic or tell the future. They laughed and cried. They oohed and ‘awed’. In short, they did all the things we do when we sit before the TV. We are our own king and subject. We now provide all these things to ourselves.
We were among the first in our small south Texas town to own a television. Philco or G.E, I forgot which. That wonder of wonders with the ten-inch screen, that marvelous towering outside antennae, and contorted, snowy, black and white picture. I think we got two stations both from San Antonio. On cloudy nights, we could get a third from Corpus Christie but it showed the same thing we got from San Antonio. The Life of Riley, The Show of Shows, You Bet Your Life. I loved them all. I liked Milton Berle but I had to sneak to watch it because my parents wouldn’t let me. He sometimes wore a dress – horrors.
My dad got a promotion and moved us to Louisiana. As he became a kingly gift giver, I ended up with a TV in my own room. It was wonderful. The Honeymooners taught me about ‘real life’ in the big city. The Phil Silvers Show taught me about honesty. Leave It to Beaver taught me what real parents should be like. With Annette Funicello I got my first crush. My over the back fence neighbor bore the tiniest resemblance to her, shared my devotion because of that, and was my first girlfriend.
Dobie Gillis, Combat, Johnny Carson, Star Trek, as I grew so did my habits. I have a permanent if slight curvature of the spine for laying on my left side before that alter to spectacle.
When I was alone on my own literally derailed by shyness the TV was my friend and confidant. When I married, my wife brought me Doctor Who and I brought her PBS. I began to hate (not really) my in laws when they came to visit. For I had to watch their favorite shows. Shows I would not otherwise watch. Like I needed another way to lose time I could never reclaim – NCIS, Law and Order, Boston Legal. The TV was what we did when we did not have the money to go out. It was and is the white noise in the background of my life.
For I am King and she is Queen as the TV brings spectacle into our fiefdom.
Infinity – Part One 4/7/13
They told me, when I was young, that you just can’t picture or even think about ‘infinity’. You can’t picture forever. I first heard this is church when the preachers told me that if I wanted to live forever I had to be ‘saved’. They next told me that on the schoolyard. I couldn’t because my brain just wasn’t big enough the stuck up kids said. Well, I was an arrogant son-of-a-bitch back then and to hell with that. I went straight home and contemplated the infinite forever. As I was warned, it was a queasy scary thing to do.
As we do if we are that arrogant, my first image was of me standing on some invisible solid thing staring forward into as black a blackness as I could picture. I did this knowing that if I looked back I would see another blackness equally dark. Further contemplation realized the same darkness to the right, to the left, below me, and above me. There would be no end to it but I tried to see to the end. Maybe I did. Either way I felt, in my arrogance, that I did a fairly good job of picturing infinity – picturing forever.
Later, as my philosophies grew, I knew that all the stuff of the universe had to be there too. That would include all of the stars of all of the galaxies of all of the universes that physics could imagine. So, I stuck that into the blackness. Then I learned about all of the mathematics of infinity and the infinity of the large and the infinity of the small. I tried to stick all of those in there also.
Did you know that infinities are equal and are equal in every way? That is what I learned about the ‘infinite number of points’. A point in our three, or eleven, dimensional universe is so infinitely small that it takes up no ‘space’ at all. And, more strangely, there are an infinite number of points between zero inch and one inch that are exactly equal to the total number of points in the entire universe. And, if I add up all the infinite points of one inch with the infinite points in another inch the number you get is exactly the same, exactly equal to the infinite points in the first inch. That number is exactly equal to the infinite number of points on a line extending infinitely in both directions forever. Don’t worry, it is just as mind numbing to me too. Infinities are equal to each other and equal to all of them together.
I’ve heard it said that the number of infinity is the biggest number there is plus one. I’ve also heard that infinity plus one is exactly equal to the infinity without the plus one. Mathematicians say that to protect their jobs, I think.
Working the math of infinity is much like working the math with zero. Zero plus zero equals zero. Zero times zero equals zero. Infinity plus infinity equals infinity. Infinity times infinity equals infinity. The two are opposites with similar properties mathematically. Anyway, opposites are equal I have learned.
I have come to believe that opposites are equal in my old age. The extreme political left is just as evil and dangerous as the extreme political right. Just ask an old person who lived in Germany in the 1930s as the right wing socialists of Hitler fought it out with the left wing socialists called Communists. The scorching of the sun is just as deadly to me as the chill of absolute zero. People die from good health just as much as people die from disease – none of us get out alive. So, the infinity of the infinite small is just as ‘big’ as the infinite large.
As there is no edge to the infinite there is not supposed to be an end to forever. This of course brings me to the contemplation of ‘nothingness’ a supposedly equally hard thing to contemplate much like that infinite darkness I tried at the first. Total absolute emptiness – can there be such a thing to be contemplated?
Well, there had to be something, me, in my contemplation of infinite forever. There also had to be that solid something I stood upon. The fundamental mistake I made was confusing nothing with emptiness. They are not the same it turns out. When there is ‘nothing’, there is not even ‘nothingness’.
The best I can figure from my studies that, in my arrogance, I pursued in my efforts to prove the preachers, the schoolyard kids, and so many teachers wrong, is that fact that nothing and emptiness are not the same thing. Apparently, if one is a big bang believer or even a creationist, when the beginning point of stuff exploded in an orgy of physics or a creative godly idea not only did all the matter of the universe burst forth the very emptiness to contain it in came into being at the same instant. They teach that as the universe expands the space to contain it expands also. There was not even nothing, not even emptiness, before that act of creation.
A Zen master would shrug at my puny efforts as he contemplates a similar thing he calls ‘the void’. Actually, in some counterintuitive work of nonworking, he abandons an act of perception for a non-act of some kind of passive perception of stillness and void. He would invite me to come to this place and reassure me. Fear not the still void, he might say, for it is not actually empty and all the Buddha’s play there.
I am not amused. I am not satisfied. However, neither am I arrogant any longer. I grovel at the feet of understanding humble and contrite. My finite mind cannot truly grasp at the infinite.
The Ultimate Method 4/1/13
‘My friend at school told me that it’s only for old people,’ she said looking at me with sorrowful innocent eyes.
I had no answer I could give her though I knew the answer. I was teaching her Tai Chi, or trying to. She was the sweetest of teenagers; over-developed physically, under-developed socially and carrying a soul load of baggage. The poor thing needed what I taught to learn focus and calmness, self-confidence and self-esteem, strength and coordination. Tai Chi gave me all of that and more. Unfortunately, the real answer to her statement is that my masters don’t generally teach Tai Chi to young people because they lack both the discipline and capacity to learn it – the discipline and capacity that comes from maturity and brain development. Well, I wanted to give her what she could absorb – I wanted to plant a seed.
This year marks my twentieth year as a student of Tai Chi Chuan or Taijiquan. I’ve heard it called; the ultimate method, the grand ultimate method, the grand ultimate fist, Chinese yoga, Chinese ballet and a hundred other things. I came upon Tai Chi by accident or Tai Chi found me on purpose.
Eastern philosophy began to permeate the ‘hippy’ cultures most probably from the Beatles incursions into Indian meditation practices. Buddhism began to show up on bookstore shelves about then and I drifted into that seeking the calmness I did not find in ‘peace, free love, and psychedelic drugs’ as I ‘tuned in, turned on, and dropped out’. Zazen, or zen sitting was what I practiced. When I mastered my breath work and finally shed breath counting for just sitting, finding the void came quickly enough. ‘Love the void, loved the Middle Path, and I did not feel there was any further place that needed going to.
Then, one day, I stepped out of the middle way down in Mississippi and started showing off to myself. I tried to pick up a box of bricks. Sproing went the back. Three weeks of agony, muscle relaxers, and pain pills followed. For all my sixties experimentation, I really hate relaxers and pain pills. They make me feel awful. I dedicated myself to a life of walking bent over.
By the Tai Chi miracle, an add got placed in the newspaper. Out in the true Southern wilds of Mississippi an ‘Acupressure’ therapist set up shop. I knew just enough about Chinese medicine to give it a shot. The beautiful man went through some exercises I later learned was Qigong. Then he laid a thumb ever so lightly on a place in my backbone. I felt a wave of release shoot through my whole being. My life with back pain is to this day over. He said Tai Chi had benefits. I was sold.
The next Tai Chi miracle happened. There was a Tai Chi class at a local YMCA. The teacher was a retired Russian military woman from Belarus. She was built like an upside down pyramid and taught ballet at a local college. I’ve never seen her form since but it was a beginning.
When I moved to Texas, the beginning seemed to have ended. I drove down a street and saw a sign saying: Tai Chi Classes begin Oct. 1st. Hence the third Tai Chi miracle and my third teacher came. My teacher turned out to be a teacher of Brazilian Jujitsu that made extra money with his Tai Chi classes. From there I learned of Chinese Martial Arts ‘coms’ around the state. These reintroduced me to the Qigong aspects of the Art.
My teachers today are from Taiwan and have a ‘Yang Style’ lineage back many generations. Lineage is very important in Chinese martial arts but that is for another time.
Tai Chi properly conducted is a lifestyle or should be. It has many aspects. There is Yin/Yang theory of complimentary opposites as put forth in the ‘I Ch’ing’. Add to that the Qigong (pronounced ‘Chee gong’) energy work found in Chinese medicine and Daoist meditation. Finally, include the slow motion kung fu we all know from the TV commercials and call Tai Chi.
I’m really a poor student and my practice is too often haphazard to make my masters happy. However, I do study and I do learn if slowly. As mastering Tai Chi is a journey not a destination that journey is a last and lasting miracle.
The highlight of all these years comes from the masters. They have a thing. After a warm up and some Qi breath exercises they make you stand in a ‘horse stance’ then raise your arms and hands in a curving position each arm at roughly a 45 0 angle from your sternum with hands just above shoulder level. They come and take hold of your hands. For a time, I thought they were adjusting the hands though they never seemed to change them much if at all. However, several times they let go and said; ‘You have good Qi’. I’ve been told that by a Chinese martial arts Grand Master and a warrior trained in the Shaolin Temple on mainland China. I glowed and now believe I’m at least on the path.
I lost that innocent student to boys and college. Maybe I planted a seed. Maybe Tai Chi will find her in the future. Her life will be better. Mine is.