19 February 2012

the tao of marty mcfly

February 17, 2012

Having arrived early for my therapy session yesterday, I had time to thumb through a number of ancient texts, perhaps Mesopotamian, though Gutenbergian at the latest. I happened on a Reader’s Digest with a cover photo of Michael J. Fox. ‘What My Illness Taught Me.’ Page 78. Beneath the picture of Fox, set in a gibbous field of red, eye-popping yellow block letters read: ‘Normal or Nuts?’ Page 126. I checked the clock. 8 minutes. Just pick one. I turned to page 126. Turns out . . . I’m OK, you’re OK. Phew.

So with four minutes until my session, I turned back to page 78 and started to skim the interview with Fox. Some salient points snagged me once or twice but nothing major until the following quotation from Mr. Fox pulled me in [he is responding to a question about the controversy stirred when he testified before congress while intentionally off-medication for his Parkinson’s symptoms. He begins by explaining his reasons for appearing fully symptomatic for the hearing which I deem to be just and utterly beyond the following amazing point]:

In the years since, I’ve come to realize that when I’m symptom-free on the medication, that’s not my natural state. My natural state is trembling and halting and having difficulty talking. So I enjoy the reprieve, but I’m not fooled by it. And if I’m in public and I am symptomatic, it has no bearing on who I am or what I’m trying to get done. Not to get too Zen about it, but if I stand apart from the moment and say, ‘In the moment, I’m struggling and I can’t do what I want to do,’ not only have I not had a good moment, I’ve missed the moment completely, just by standing outside it and judging it.

I wasn’t able to finish the interview but I had Adrienne, my wife, copy the comments into her computer which, being a Mac, I wasn’t sure she’d be able to do—the feat requiring a written document, and all—but I was pleased to learn that by playing a faerie’s piccolo her computer transcribed the quotation verbatim.

(Once I was at Best Buy, minding my beeswax in the computer section, when a sour-breathed voice from behind me intoned, “You strike me as a Mac guy.” I turned to face an employee’s fat grin and stupidly raised eyebrows. Not sure at the time why I had stricken him that way (unless by chance he was checking out my paunch and referring to cheeseburgers, in which case . . . yes, yes, I am a Mac guy) I answered with a polite “not really” and moved along. In the relative serenity of Best Buy’s discordant blare of variously modulated stereo systems, the reason for the young man’s mistake occurred to me. My untamed beard and my thick black glasses. I had been cosmetically profiled. And that, friends, is (one version of) the story about how I became so irrationally disparaging of Mac computers. Now excuse me, will you, while I download this McDonald’s app for my iPhone. . .)

February 18, 2012

Well, this is awkward. My Apple diatribe carried me past bedtime and I grew too tired to return to the point—Michael J. Fox’s comments. By now, you may have to go back and read them again. Sorry . . . I’ll wait . . .

I am at once enthralled by and envious of this stunning articulation of a notion that’s been on the tip of my tongue for years.

It is the tendency of the chronically sick to pine for the days of their health, or worse, to reject their identity as that of a sick person. And this is a false move (though practically unavoidable, I confess) existentially—this yearning for the illusion of a prior or other self.

There are ingenious coveys of chemists all over the world working with brilliant doctors and fair-intentioned pharmacists (and some dudes who can grow pot out of old Reeboks) whose job it is to restore the illusion of healthful days gone by. Now hated, now loved—the market for manufactured “well-being” is astronomical and growing like there's a zillion tomorrows.

Let’s be clear, I do like my seizures sporadic and over-easy, and I do like my anxiety to be muted and not crippling, and I do like my depression to be shushed and shrouded. Like Fox, “I enjoy the reprieve, but I’m not fooled by it.” What a masterful perception, this is.

The wisdom of suffering is come by cruelly but sometimes outgains in profundity the cost of its tuition.

I could spend hours contemplating Fox’s words. And then, having contemplated past my bedtime, I could revisit them the following day. However, what resonates most for me is this perception of identity—the actuality of being vs. the mythology of selfhood. [Here, I readily admit I am out of my depth, philosophically, but bear with me.]

Most of us scarcely resemble those creatures in the past who went by our names and more of us can’t guess with any certitude what same-named creatures we will appear as in the coming years. In a sense, we are neither of those yonder selves. We are not those cells, we are not those sentiments, I even dare say that the state of our souls—however constructed a “soul” might be—are vestiges of what they once were and gossipy whispers of what one day they will be. That leaves us with “now.” That great platitude. All we have is the present moment. But I’d tinker with that notion a bit: we have many things outside of “now.” We’ve brought them along and we’ll take them with us. Our favorite coffee mug, our favorite grudge. And we’ll try like hell to carry a sack of memories, but that sack is a net full of holes—only the chunkiest stuff will remain and even that stuff will be out of context, abducted from the sky, a frantic butterfly, a beautiful prisoner. What we “have” is only a true possession in as much as we posses it in this instant. And we are the possessors in this instant, yes, but of hackneyed memories and chipped-rim coffee mugs. That chimerical selfhood of ours is mostly lore and false prophecy.

On the other hand, we are what we are right now. To consider the coulds and woulds is a bogus move. A move that misses the moment, as Fox puts it. I’m not being sneaky here. I’m not intentionally pulling any sleight of semantics. As I said, I’m out of my depth. If you think what you just read is a tiresome load of hooey, go read someone who actually knows what they’re talking about.

We are ares. That’s all. If you’ll pardon, for the moment, my nounified verb. Now back to the applicable . . .

I am not that chap who could chase down tennis balls and return them with added speed. I am not that chap who could swim laps under water. I am not even a chap who could run for his life if needs must be.

I’m the fellow who takes medication to go about my day however so fuzzily, to interact with humanity however so timidly, to face the world and its madness however so enticed by a coil of rope and a sturdy oak.

While medicated, I am symptomatic of side-effects. I am not those side-effects, they are beside me like an irritating housefly or a reeking dumpster on line at the McDonald’s drive-thru, but they are not me. While in my “natural state,” I am symptomatic of my condition. A condition that is an actual part of who I am. I, like we, am an are.

February 19, 2012

I would like to apologize on the behalf of yesterday’s Jonathan for his logorrhea. Edie Brickell was supposed to choke him in the shallow water before he got too deep.*


  1. But Jonathan, once we’ve admitted the malleability of self over time and accepted the now-self as the one we’re stuck with, why privilege the medicine-free one over the medicated one. I am who I am whether I’m drunk like Bluto or pumped like Popeye.

    Now “I” (whatever that refers to ) might prefer some mental clarity with shakes to fuzziness without, but, if MJF’s testimony is to be trusted, later “I” will prefer fuzziness without shakes, else he’d never take his medicine.

    It seems like we’re just privileging the “base” state that I would achieve if I ran out of meds because it seems more permanent, less optional. But it would change if I continually drank water, or stopped eating or whatever.

    I guess I am showing my Humean hand—there is no personal identity across time, I think just a succession of more or less charming chaps who will all claim to be me until their dying days.

    Good post, as usual.

  2. Michael F Patton, everybody. *jonathan taps out*

  3. Crap--I had a long, insightful comment that went away, and I am too lazy rethink it. I know I said I was not trying to get you to tap out--quite the opposite. I am genuinely puzzled by all this, and wish I knew what to say. I wish I could, for example, disavow drunken behavior. But it isn't clear that I can.

  4. I had the sense the questions were genuine. I had a stronger sense that my stream of consciousness (read: lazy reviser) blogging style is not conducive to staying in the ring with such thoughtful commentary and inquisitiveness.

    Even now, a few days removed from the original post, I'm not sure how to un-puzzle you. In general, my deeper thoughts are like a bout of hiccups. Occasionally I get them, they come involuntarily from a place that, at some point, I had control over. Eventually they stop and I go back to breathing normally, that is, thinking more simply. Let me give a little effort, though, and see can I belch with forethought.

    I'll start with a stretch--perhaps I was tipping a Sartrean hand, but to what conscious degree, I can't say, except to say certainly a small one. Secondly, I see your point quite well, my inability to articulate a pure understating of it notwithstanding.
    Let me see if I can make some differentiations between my view and yours as stated above.

    An start may be the in the term "malleability."--the term itself connotes a tactile pliability and when added to the concept of “malleability of self over time” I feel compelled to think in terms of a material continuum—I picture Hume’s (and here I tread lightly out of respect and ignorance) bundle of sensations pinging from one pong to the next, detectable and definite though often requiring the acute lens of an empiricist.

    In my view, or at least if it was a strict one (my views are severely palsied and hard to tie down), the “now” self is neither the net lump of Jonathan’s consumption and expulsion of matter and imagination to date nor what will be gained and lost in the future. The “now” self comprises an illusory past and a phantom futurity and would be tragically mistaken to clothe either in what we call “identity.” Then again, I don’t suspect Hume would appreciate such a cloth either, but I think our distaste for the notion of identity incarnate stems from different sources. Again, mine is a feebler mind (no false modesty there, either) and I claim no solid comprehension of Hume’s or Patton’s identity theories.

    Of course, I have not answered the question. (I might make a philosopher of myself yet!) Why privilege the fuzz over the shakes? I realize that “privilege” here is quite different from “prefer.” And preference is an easy choice to make, if not an easier “but why?” to account for. I have zero rebuttal to the real question, the question of privilege. (Sorry for the neither-here-nor-there-ish preface.)

    The “now” self, whether it looks like mine or it looks like yours (as so tipped by our hands), is necessarily privileged as a light-speed entity. Which is to say, in theory. I think I did a disservice to Fox’s comments here and trauma in general by isolating this existential aspect. Stream of consciousness can be damning. (Thanks folks, I’ll be here all week.) I latched on to twig and rode it to the sea. What I admired most was that he seemed to acknowledge that his “preference” in any given instant had very little bearing on that instant’s simultaneous “privilege.”

    *Jonathan mucks his Sartrean hand*

  5. "a sour-breathed voice from behind me intoned" - Well done. When I read that, I immediately formed a picture in my head of the mouth-breathing "Sandy", characterized by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in "Along Came Polly". If I wasn't close at all, don't tell me. I like my version best.

  6. Actually, Amy, pretty darn close. And now my favorite version.