Advice, Dating, Random Thoughts, Rants, Shameless Self Promotion, Writing

Music and Mental (in)Stability

Haven’t written on here in so long I barely even know how this whole blogging thing works anymore.

[taps mic] This thing on?

Anyways…

Hello Internet. How are you?

That’s cool.

Me?

I’m doing alright actually, which is interesting considering the circumstances.

However, though I’m doing alright at the moment, I’m doing that kind of alright that’s made me realize just how not alright I’ve been for most of my life.

To put that statement in metaphorical terms (I am a writer, and English teacher, so please…indulge my neurosis for a moment): imagine a giant storage unit, with a metal sliding door and multiple locks and security codes and the whole shebang. There’s rust around the edges too, because this thing is old. Three and a half decades old, to be exact. And full. It’s so full it’s damn near bursting at the seams.

You see it? Good.

Now imagine this storage unit has been sitting in the back of my head since I was a kid, just gaining more rust and dust and strain.

And the unit’s contents? Shit, it’s got everything.

This old-ass storage unit sitting in the back of my head is filled with all sorts of life-changing crap: the ability to understand and empathize with others; the ability to accept, acknowledge, and change personal shortcomings and bad behavior; the ability to communicate effectively; loads of epiphanies and…

A storage unit filled to the brim with perspective, to be succinct.

Broad perspectives, but more specifically the various perspectives of the many people who have come in and out of my life throughout the years.

If you can, really imagine this packed storage unit (I’m imagining that moment in Breaking Bad when Walt opens a similar storage unit to reveal mountains of drug cash). The unit’s door is warped from the pressure of everything inside. Yet it’s managed to stay stubbornly closed anyways, for over 34 years.

Can you see it?

I’ll take that as a yes.

Now, imagine that–recently–Life itself stormed in through the entrance of that mind. Like a SWAT team, just rammed through the gate and barreled straight to the back, found that storage unit, and promptly stomped a giant boot against that strained door, bursting through the locks and security features and hinges, cracking through the rusted metal. Tore the whole thing apart, sending all of those loads and loads of perspective flying in every direction (I’m imagining “Life” in this metaphor as a huge manic soldier, high on uppers and red-eyed from being in the trenches forever).

To say it was a mess up there would be overstating the obvious.

Anyways, metaphors aside.

It should come as no surprise that it was the slow death of a romantic relationship that started the ball rolling on all this (I tell my students to avoid cliches in their stories, even as our lives are filled with them). More specifically, the many moments and circumstances leading up to and following this break-up led to me having so many successive realizations that I’ve got the equivalent of mental whiplash–just epiphany after epiphany, like a never-ending line of dominoes falling one by one, moment by moment, day by day, for weeks now.

A bit overwhelming. But seems to be par the course when it comes to break-ups.

In an effort to avoid the melodramatic though, I’ll point out that the break-up was just one of many factors that contributed to this mentality shift. Seems this was just my year for personal change.

Blah blah blah, what’s your point, right?

The point of this (and stick with me, I promise there is one) is that I’ve been recently forced by Life to take a long, hard look at myself, who I am, who I’ve been, and–most importantly for the purposes of this post–who I want to be.

And one difficult admission that I’ve had to make is that I’ve spent the vast majority of my years being the worst type of emotionally unstable person: the type of emotionally unstable person whose been good at faking emotional stability.

A younger me would spend the next few paragraphs detailing all the stuff other people have done to make me this way (and by younger me I mean any version of me that existed before the past couple of months). And I’d be wrong in giving voice to any of that criticism.

Because the other thing I’ve recently realized about myself is that that’s who I’ve been for most of my life too: the person who always assigns blame, never accepts it.

The person who unapologetically drops his unhappiness on other people’s shoulders, then gets pissed when they throw it back at him.

The person who expects others to make him happy.

A boy in a man’s body, really, lacking the ability to take responsibility for his life and his actions.

I know, I know. Not a good look. Kind of makes me wonder how I’ve made it this far, to be honest.

Suffice to say that these personal admissions have spurred along a strong internal desire to work on those aspects of my personality that have led to so many destructive habits and conflicts with loved ones.

And in nearly all recovery scenarios, the first step is admission.

So here goes nothing:

For most of my life–all of it, really when I think about it, because I can’t really remember a time when this wasn’t the case–I’ve suffered from deep depression.

To elaborate, I spent the vast majority of my adolescent and teenage years and all of my twenties fighting against the constant feeling of sinking into my own mind.

Returning to the clarity of metaphors: imagine a cloud of darkness constantly following you around, so that every time you catch a glimpse of sunlight, the view is immediately drowned out by lightning and thunder.

No matter who I’ve been with, what I’ve been doing, where I’ve been going, who I’ve been going there with–the cloud has remained, oppressive.

It’s a pretty shitty way to live. And because of it, I spent nearly two decades afraid of…everything.

More specifically: everybody.

I see now that it’s the initial reason why I became a writer. For most of my adult years, writing has been the only thing I could do to successfully combat the emotional issues I had that I had no other way of dealing with. But it also was something I could do by myself, alone, away from the anxiety of social interaction, which had almost just as much appeal.

As I’ve said many times before, writing literally saved my life by helping me–on numerous occasions–push suicidal thoughts away. But that’s about all its done in that regard. Because–as has become apparent to me most recently–the solitude of a writer’s lifestyle has done more harm than good for my mental evolution.

And as if depression ain’t enough of a bitch to deal with, there’s also been the near-constant issue of self-doubt.

Imagine that beautiful combo: crippling social anxiety sprinkled with a complete lack of confidence sitting next to the aforementioned dark cloud of depression, both riding shotgun in my head like some demented hitchhikers.

Crazy, right?

I can see you rolling your eyes. And dammit, hey, I get it.

I used to think all of this was unique to me. I guess that’s common for depression: the feeling that nobody understands. Fact is though, I know a lot of people can relate to what I’m saying here, because mental health has proven time and again to be a major problem in this country. In this world, actually.

Which is part of why I’m writing this.

My issue is the same issue that countless psychological experts have been discussing forever, and have been discussing even more vehemently in the current social climate:

The tendency for men to suppress/hide their true emotions and desires.

The tendency for men to push aside any talk of their emotional well-being.

The idea that–to many people in this society–I’m less of a man for even writing all of this.

I grew up in a very strict Christian Jamaican household, and was therefore never really allowed to assert myself. Not placing blame, just stating a well-known fact: Caribbean households, on the whole, tend to be about as authoritarian as they come. And to be fair, I grew up around and befriended a number of other Caribbean boys who were raised under similar (or flat-out bad) circumstances who’ve never displayed the sort of unstable traits that I have.

Yet still. I’m an introvert, and overall conflict-avoidant. Which is really the starting point of all this. The world is a bit cruel to people who aren’t naturally assertive.

The world is a bit cruel, period. But that’s another topic.

As I grew older, this lack of social development turned into destructive behavior; towards myself, mostly, when I was young. Eventually though, I turned it on the people I’ve loved and been close to.

My cycle’s followed a blueprint throughout the years too: 1) emotional state goes out of whack, 2) can’t figure out how to express it constructively, 3) turn to that ever-reliable pool of instant confidence: Anger.

As you can imagine, this has ruined many friendships and romantic relationships. And up until recently, I was pretty clueless that I was doing any of this.

Looking back now, I can say that living like this–cycling between anger and depression–is one of the loneliest ways to exist that I can think of. I can also say that not knowing myself enough to be able to identify this, to be able to tell others what I’ve wanted and not wanted–liked and not liked, tolerated and not tolerated, felt and not felt–has sucked a lot of the potential out of my years, leaving many of my fondest memories as dry and unfulfilling as a desert mirage.

But you get it at this point now though, right?

I’m just beating a dead horse?

To summarize: I’ve been fucked in the head for a while, and the collateral damage has been extensive.

Alright, enough with the drama.

Here’s the real reason I’m writing today:

Over the past three years, I’ve become obsessed with making music. Playing guitar, singing, writing songs, and  performing on stage. Listening to music has always been one of my favorite pastimes, but to have found an outlet where I can actually express my emotions in an active and acceptable manner has been something of a wonder.

A mental miracle, to toss in some alliteration.

In my pursuit of music, I’ve found a route through life that actually provides both shelter and a foundation for my own confidence, conditions that I didn’t even know were possible.

Go out in public, alone, without sweaty palms and an inability to look people in the eyes?

Yeah, right.

Talk to strangers without stuttering or nervously laughing or–sometimes literally–running from the conversation?

You’re talking about somebody else, not me.

Climb on a stage?

With people watching me?

And play?

And sing?!

You must have lost your goddamn mind.

Yet, three years since picking up the old, dusty Epiphone guitar I bought in college but rarely used, I find all of the above to now be true.

The Musical Mental Miracle.

Bringing all of this full circle: with the confidence in myself and my abilities that music has instilled, I have been able to look back and properly assess my own behavior over the years–without anger or defensiveness–for the first time in my life. And through that newfound opening, I’ve been able to realize that my number one responsibility moving forward is to take responsibility for my own emotional well-being.

Concurrently, I also have to acknowledge how irresponsible I’ve been with many other people’s emotions and livelihoods in my past.

And for that, I am eternally sorry.

To the people I’ve sold out in their moments of need, I’m sorry.

To the people I’ve lashed out at unfairly (or lashed out at for any reason), I’m sorry.

To the people I’ve abandoned, I’m sorry.

To the people I’ve saddled with my burdens, I’m sorry.

I promise you all: I aim to do better.

So right here, on this lonely blog entry–my first in like two years, my apologies for the heaviness/wordiness, I’m shaking some of the cobwebs off still–I’m sending a proclamation out into the nether-regions of this technological landscape:

I will actively seek to improve my overall mental and emotional health.

Additionally, I will actively seek to help the people around me–and anybody who needs it, even if you’re not around me–with their own mental and emotional health as well.

If you (yes, you, reading this right now) are currently going through something–if you recognize that cloud I described earlier because you’ve got your own demented hitchhikers riding bitch, if you’ve recently had your storage unit full of perspective explode all over your psyche, or if you just need to talk to somebody about the things going on in your head that are keeping you from reaching your full potential–you’ve got a sympathetic ear in me.

As for me?

For better or worse, I’m going to dive headfirst into this music endeavor (warning: it’ll probably lean towards “worse” for a while).

If you want to follow me on that journey, click the social media pages below:

Patrick’s Facebook Music Page

Patrick’s Instagram Music Page

Patrick’s Twitter Music Profile

And if you just want to talk, shoot me an email.

I might not have the best advice, but I promise I won’t judge.

Sometimes that’s all we really need.

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Random Thoughts, Rants, Uncategorized, Writing

Why All Good Teachers are Psychopaths

english_teachers_comic

I hated English (the class, not the language) for most of my academic life, up until I was about 16/17 years old. And when I say hate, I don’t mean in the way kids “hate” having to go to bed, or “hate” the overall idea of studying. I mean, I fucking hated English.

Despite the fact that I’d been consuming novels like they were slices of pizza since the day I learned how to read, I was still a math/computer guy all through Elementary, Middle, and most of high school. Which is to say that I was much happier sitting in a classroom zoned out doing algebra equations than sitting in another classroom discussing the merits of Shakespeare’s use of onomatopoeia (seriously, I don’t give a shit about Shakespeare’s use of onomatopoeia)

Prior to my junior year, I associated English class with boring texts, the over-analysis of those boring texts, tedious grammar lessons and an English teaching population that generally and openly hated us illiterate ingrates.

That is until fall semester of 11th grade, when I stepped into Mrs. Davis’s classroom.

Mrs. Davis was a small energetic Jewish woman, around her late 40’s/early 50’s (I’m thinking female Larry David with a full head of hair). By time I arrived in her class Mrs. Davis already had a multitude of local nicknames, all playing off some variation of the words crazyspaz, or psychopath. Add a few expletives before and after and you get the point.

And while I admit that I did my fair share of laughing at these juvenile comments, I also admit that I was always fascinated by Mrs. Davis and her brazen ability to express her love for English to us day in and day out.

Through this energetic approach, Mrs. Davis singlehandedly changed my opinion of English academics, specifically the craft of writing. Something I never could’ve admitted back then (every teenager has a reputation to uphold, even if it’s just their reputation with themselves) but which I’ve happily admitted since.

I’ve said all of this before, even nominated Mrs. Davis as my mentor twice–once when I won a dean’s award my second year in college, and again after winning a creative writing award during my fourth year–citing her as my biggest influence within the English major. But I never really knew what exactly it was that kept her in the forefront of my thoughts throughout the years, that consistently brings me back to mentioning her name every time somebody asks me that inevitable question: “when did you realize you wanted to be a writer?”

The basic answer to that question doesn’t involve Mrs. Davis, of course. My writing career’s a result of a series of events that opened my eyes to the reality of living a life without a single passion, events that forced me to decide between a future with or without a purpose.

But at the core of every motivation is always a single person who sparked the personal revelation. And Mrs. Davis is that person for me, not so much because of what she taught, but primarily because of her (admittedly eccentric) teaching methods.

I remember sitting in Mrs. Davis’s classroom that year, day after day, watching my classmates fall asleep or snicker at her animated behavior. Hands flailing, eyes bugged, mouth open wide as she exclaimed everything, spit flying across the room with every hand clap and table smack and emphatic finger stab at the board, chalk dust floating like a shroud of smoke around her head.

Rye_catcherTalking about Catcher in the Rye, you’d think Mrs. Davis knew Holden Caulfield personally. Reading lines of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn out loud, you could almost believe she was a direct descendant of Mark Twain, that she was promoting her family legacy right there in her classroom at Miami Killian Senior High.

Talking about grammar, she broke it down from the complicated explanations in the book to its most simplistic core, and looked happy as shit doing it.

In all actuality, I’m pretty sure Mrs. Davis was a little crazy. I remember one day in particular when the side-talking and delinquent antics of my classmates reached a fever pitch and Mrs. Davis broke down, straight up went off on us; a tirade that left the entire room dead silent, everybody sitting straight up in their seats like we’d been transplanted to a 1950’s classroom and promptly been smacked in the face with a meter stick.You could tell then that she took all of this–all of us–personally (you could also tell the dozen or so times she went off on us after that…kinda was her thing). That our lack of attentiveness wasn’t just an affront to the literary legends we were dismissing nonchalantly, but a direct sign of disrespect towards her, the woman tasked with making us understand.

Which is why she’s being mentioned right here, right now.

Catcher in the Rye is, to this day, one of my favorite novels ever. I’ve read it several times throughout my life, and it’s had a different effect on me every single time (high school: “Holden totally gets it!”; College: “This dude whines a lot.”; Post-college: “Holy crap this kid is irresponsible as shit.”) and is still one of the novels I cite most often as the most influential for me as a writer.

But I also truly believe that Holden Caulfield and his adventures through New York City wouldn’t have had nearly the effect they had on me if it hadn’t been for the overzealous nature of the woman teaching me how to read between the lines.

Which brings me to my point: I am a man driven by enthusiasm. Mrs. Davis’s enthusiasm, her genuine love for literature and the English language, came through in everything she did and said. And she saw something in me that year, pushed me to do more than I ever had in an English course up until that point.

If I didn’t turn in an assignment, she made sure to ask me why, and gave me a chance to make it up (for half credit) if I just showed some effort, showed her that I cared.

If I said something in class that was particularly on point–underlined a specific literary device, or made a remark on the effectiveness of some author’s writing structure–she praised me, encouraged me, motivated me.

If I approached her to ask about an interesting section in a book, she would be almost disappointed when she had to cut the conversation short because her next class was coming in.

It’s this mentality I remember most when I walk into my own classrooms these days, that enthusiasm for the material. I understand because I feel it too, that unrestricted passion for writing and literature that I hope seeps through into my lectures, no matter how much I try to hide it behind the layer of leftover high school cynicism I’ve been steadily chipping away at for the past fourteen years.

Junot_wao_coverI’m a book worm, and so was Mrs. Davis. Book worms love to talk about all things literary. At times, I almost feel a bit funny that I call what I do my job, since acting on and discussing all things literary is something I like to do in my personal time anyways, for free (though I do like to assess the situation first; not gonna walk into a night club with my boys and start talking  about the literary and cultural merits of Junot Diaz‘s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, while everybody else is yelling “Shots!” every two minutes and downing pickle backs until they pass out).

That need for enthusiasm pervades every aspect of my life, not just my career. Every day I wake up looking for the people, places and events that will touch that special chord in my brain, the part of my psyche that runs off raw emotion and which society forces us (especially men) to keep tempered 99% of the time.

I wake up wanting that and seeking that, and it’s honestly what keeps me waking up each morning: that hope that today I will find something that makes me feel.

Writing and literature do that for me, among other things. It obviously did for Mrs. Davis too. I’m pretty sure she’s retired right now, though I don’t know for sure. I was too strong-headed during my teenage years to admit that an adult other than my parents had impacted me significantly, so I never kept in touch. But I like to believe regardless that Mrs. Davis knew exactly what she was doing for me and so many other students in her classes. Either way, I’d like to thank her again, right here, for opening my eyes.

Everybody should find the thing that makes them spaz, that makes them act psychotic, that brings out the crazy in them.

Find that thing, then embrace it. It may be the only thing that reveals who you truly are.

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Advice, Short Story, Writing

What A Farmer Taught Me About Writing

patrick anderson jr

I come from a family of immigrants. The American way, I guess.

My grandparents moved to Miami from Jamaica in 1979, settling in a small two-bedroom house in Richmond Heights.

My recently-married mother moved in a year later, in 1980, my dad following in May 1982 (spent their first year and a half of marriage away from each other; one of the many things that’s a glaring example of how different things are now than back then. I doubt I’d make it that long).

I came around in 1983, part of the first generation of our family born in the states, me and my parents bundled up in one of the bedrooms at my grandparents’ with a mattress and a crib for two years, until my parents saved enough for us to move into a small apartment in a tolerable part of Cutler Ridge.

Even after that move though, my grandparent’s house was the default when it came to babysitting. Both my parents worked full time—Dad in retail, Mom in insurance—so we made a lot of visits to Grandma and Grandpa’s.

My grandfather was a farmer in Jamaica, with acres of land and a knack for producing a variety of crops.

Born in 1906, he was one of a large group of individuals that came to the states during World War Two to help the shorthanded farming industry.

Forty-or-so years later, he was still at it, and by time he moved to Miami at 73-years-old, the routine and lifestyle of a farmer was so ingrained in his persona it had become a part of who he was, at his core.

As a result, I never knew what a backyard was until 1992, when my parents moved my sister and me from that crappy Cutler Ridge apartment into the three-bedroom suburban house I’ve called home to this day (despite it being 1,500 miles south of my current location; home is home is home).

Prior to that move to suburbia, the space out back of my grandparent’s house in Richmond Heights was the only patch of privately-owned land I frequented, and in no way could it be considered a “backyard.” It was, for all intensive purposes, a farm.

Day in and day out, my grandfather would be out there, sunrise to sunset, planting, cultivating, harvesting. And I joined him a lot of the times, sitting next to him on the dual stools he brought out whenever I was over, cutting (and chewing) sugar cane and schucking gungo peas out of pods (I found out much later gungo peas are called pigeon peas in America) for my grandmother to cook that weekend in a huge pot of rice and coconut milk for our weekly Sunday dinners.

As a result, I always associated my grandfather with nature—with the natural—and nature with him. The smell of grass, dirt, that long-standing sweat that seeps into worn-out clothes and gives it this musky scent that never really leaves, no matter how many times you wash them, no matter how faded they get. His callused hands, wide and firm. The feel of his beard, always prickly by the end of the day so when he rubbed his chin on my cheek during a hug it felt like light sandpaper on my skin, tickling and scratching at the same time.

To me that was all Grandpa, all the time.

Grandpa taught me a lot about nature in those years before I became a teenager and fell into the inevitable trend of not-hanging-out-with-your-grandparents-anymore. But one of the things I remember most was something he told me later on, during my high school years, in my own backyard in that suburban house I still call home.

When we moved in, my dad had given my grandfather—his father-in-law—a piece of our backyard to use for farming. Years passed and I rarely paid attention to the area, taken up with my own experiences, far removed from the rural life my grandfather was so used to. His presence was always welcome though, and it became a common occurrence for me to be home after school for hours, going about my business and thinking I was alone, only to hear the sliding glass door in the back open right before sunset, my grandfather tottering inside, hunched over from the extended period on his knees or sitting on his stool.

One day after school—high school, so it was late 90’s/2000-2002, around there somewhere—I was bored and I heard him clinking around back there. It was close to summer then—which in Miami basically means it is summer, the haze of heat shimmering up from the grass outside, visible even from the air-conditioned safety indoors.

Most other people’s grandparents who were hitting their mid-90’s were either dead or on their way out, but here was my grandfather outside doing things that would have had me complaining.

For some reason I don’t remember (it couldn’t have just been boredom, I had video games for a reason), I decided to join my grandfather back there that day, watching him as he dug up the grass and soil to plant seeds, gripping his shears with gloved hands (unnecessary, honestly; his hands were like gloves on their own). Watching him work his way around the plot sparked my interest, his ability to create life from nothingness. And he must have seen something in my eyes that day, because he ended up giving me a small patch of his allotted area to plant some fruits.

Changing into yard clothes, I grabbed the pair of gloves and small hand shovel my dad kept in the garage and got in the dirt next to Grandpa, doing everything he told me, digging into the hardened earth and turning it so the soil was nice and thick and black, shoving the seeds deep in and patting the area down, not too tight, room for air and water. And for about a week I was obsessed with the notion that I was growing something on my own, out there every day waiting for a sprout, for the tiny buds to poke up from the soil and expand into edible goods, the way I’d seen my grandfather do for so many years.

At the end of that week though, all I saw was the same patch of damp soil. Flustered, I came at my grandfather like it was his fault, asked him what was going on. What’s wrong with the seeds? Why’s nothing happening? Where’s my damn avocados? (I was in high school, so I knew it wasn’t going to grow overnight, I’m not stupid. But I did expect to see something)

And my grandfather laughed, sitting on his stool and schucking his peas, gnawing on his piece of sugar cane. Told me, in his heavy patois accent:

“You cyan rush dem tings. Is still just dirt and seeds. You must give it time. Let it grow.”

Years later, while teaching my first semester of Introductory Creative Writing courses in graduate school, this little piece of advice came back to me.

Teaching has a way of making you look at your own personal philosophy, no matter what your craft. It’s hard to teach others how to be better at something when you barely know what/why you’re doing it yourself. So, in thinking about my own motivations and techniques I realized that—when it comes to writing—the closest metaphor I can find is borne from my grandfather’s statement.

I rarely get writer’s block, simply because I always think of that first draft—whether it be a novel, a short work of fiction or non-fiction, or even a poem—as mostly dirt, fertilizer. Literally, crap. 99% of it at least. Which makes it a lot easier to just sit down and let the crap out (gross, I know, but really, really accurate)

But I also know that, buried in that crap, are a few seeds.

Some seeds grow, others don’t. Regardless of the end result though, all seeds need attention, a bit of cultivation.

The second draft is where the writer’s true farming begins. The time, the hard work, the mental version of water, revision and cutting and rewording and rewriting the equivalent of harvesting and processing.

My grandfather lived to be 103 years old, died three years ago, surrounded by his family. His legacy: thirteen children, thirty-something grandchildren, another fifty or so great-grands and a couple of great-great-grands (these are in no way exact numbers, obviously; just know that my family is freaking huge).

I know each of us have hundreds of memories of him, and dozens of specific ones that define who he was to us, what made him this almost mythical figure in our minds.

This is one of mine. “You must give it time. Let it grow.”

Thanks Gramps.

patrick anderson jr

R.I.P. Roland Johnson, May 15th 1906-May 21st 2009

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