I have a completed first collection of essays. It's about what to do in order to repair a broken self. It looks at some of the things that have happened to me, with the singular circumstances of the demise of my marriage, the failing of my health, the breaking of my will to live, and also publishing and my career to a degree, but those last two items going to be the principle focus of a different book. Or books. In their time. That's not right now. This is right now. Today I've begun revising yet again. I've done that a lot with this book. The last time was back in June and July. I let it sit after that, knowing I'd take one more turn all the way through. Meticulously, slowly. I believe that there has never been more people hurting in this world than how many people are hurting now. We pretend otherwise, which adds up in a way that we hurt even more, with the disconnect between how we present our lives and what our lives really are. I am someone who has hurt as much as possible. During that time, I have grown as much as possible. I have endured. I have learned. I've become stronger. I've put myself back together again. I keep going. Against all odds. The book is about how I've done that, and how everyone can do their version of it. I think it's an absolutely necessary, inspiring book for where many people are now at. Below one will find the first section of the first essay in the book, which is called "ISO Cooling Blue."
I begin with an admission: purchasing a home blood pressure kit might not have been the best idea for me. Let us call this prefatory understatement. There was a chance, I knew from the start, that my BP investigations could devolve into some horrible Poe-like misadventure, only set in my cubby-hole of a bathroom, with me clad in my nighttime uniform of blue Red Sox shorts and black, ripped T-shirt from the Slaughtered Lamb pub in Greenwich Village, which helped me pretend, in lowest moments, that I was a modern knight, poised to overcome that which needed overcoming.
I’d been what I called a competitive blood enthusiast for some time. This was an appellation applied by a dumbass in these matters, but one I used to interject a touch of levity into my odd proceedings. I’m terrified of doctors, and my thinking was that taking my blood pressure at home in my rat’s nest of a studio apartment, which is straight out of La Boheme, would provide me some peace of mind that thrombosis was not imminent.
I used to take my blood pressure with my wife, back when I was married. We’d be out on Massachusetts’ North Shore, for a Saturday jaunt around Cape Ann, as bucolic a place as there is in New England. One sees a Cape Ann town like Rockport, where I lived for a time, and where we had a house I am always trying to get back, perched atop those lists of the most scenic American towns. The locals have pots of lobster traps stacked in their front yards. There are glens, meadows (once used for the drying out of fishing nets), and wild turkeys, plus that smell of salt and seaweed in the air that’s akin to a commingling of iodine sourced from Mother Nature’s own medicine cabinet—smelling salts for the soul—and the aura of robustness one imagines enlivening Neptune’s very own man cave. I pictured him reposing with harpoons on the wall, bottles on the shelves stuffed with unread messages and various editions of Moby-Dick, for I love the sea. It relaxes me, insofar as I can relax, which I came to discover—or have confirmed, anyway—that I really can’t, at least to date. But we’d do our drive, my wife and me, stopping off at a cove to clamber over rocks and hunt for urchin skeletons and razor clam shells, and mix in some errands, too. Like a trip to the CVS, where my problems began.
At Christmastime, I’d try and get into a peaceful frame of mind by wandering the aisles that had the Rankin-Bass decorations. There would be Rudolph commiserating, in toy-tchotchke form, with Hermey the elf, and I’d stand alongside admiring them, but I knew what I was really up to. I’m someone who is frequently up to something. Which isn’t to say I’m dishonest. I don’t know that someone can be more committed to something they believe in, and doing what they think is the right thing, even when it costs them money, say, or an opportunity, or adds greater work and stress to an artistic quest in life whose specifics don’t matter just now, in this examination of blood pressure-based travels and folly. But let’s just say I do what I do twenty hours a day, seven days a week. It’s a slog. It’s also not working. More on that anon.
When I’m doing one thing, I’m doing God knows how many others at once. Sometimes, there are good things. I can be talking to someone, be totally present—hell, I can be on NPR doing a segment that a million people will hear—and in my head I’m writing a story, planning a pitch, thinking about what I need to listen to, read, watch; how many miles I still have to walk that particular week to get up to my minimum goal of fifty. I can also be having at myself in some ways. Feeling beyond frustrated that some editor I’ve written for ten years, who has not written back once, will assign an idea I have given to someone else as a test, saying, “here, try this pitch,” and I’ll mull what the I can do about this. I’ll crack the whip internally, thinking you need to work harder, you need to work longer, all of that. All of this might have been going on as I’m having a friendly chat over a beer watching the Patriots game, or sitting at the symphony counting the measures of a Mozart piano sonata, admiring both how streamlined and dense his genius could be.
CVS-wise, the thing I got up to was trying to trick myself into a mental zone of ease, because I was eventually going to wend my way to the back, where the blood pressure machine was, sit in the chair, and try and get an impressive—that is, low and healthy—score. I was in my mid-thirties when I started doing this. I hadn’t been to a doctor since I was eighteen. Terrified. Like how people get terrified of Casper in those old cartoons, which is out of proportion to how a reasonable person would if they recognized the ghost’s cherubic quality. Which is somewhat ironic because when I was a small boy I was always watching old reruns of that doctor show, Emergency! If you came over our house, you were going to have to humor the weird little kid who had a Fisher-Price doctor’s kit and was going to take your vitals. So what if I rated them on a scale of one to ten? “Your blood pressure is at seven this week, Mrs. Thompson.” Sometimes I would add—and this was the disturbing bit—“I am disappointed in you.” Then I’d go looking for my Huffy. A doctor needs wheels, out in the country.
At the CVS, I sat in the chair of the blood pressure machine, which I started to term riding it, like I was Marshal Dillon on Gunsmoke and here was my trusted steed. I put my hand in the cuff, pressed the button, and good bloody fuck: some horrible, horrible number would come up. 210/140, say. By then I’d be thinking everyone at the CVS was looking at me, and the Reaper was fast advancing. This thought always seemed to produce a quick look towards the greetings card aisle, as if the Reaper would have need of a condolence card in the very act of taking me out, being possessed of a grim conscience, and feeling some contrition about wielding the scythe. It was paramount that I try again and do better. So I would, and my numbers would go up.
I could do this for a solid twenty minutes. My wife would come over, saying that, nah, it’s fine, don’t worry about it, and I’d be thinking, what the hell is up with her? This should trouble a theoretically-loving spouse somewhat. We not talking no 120/80. Which is where you want to be. There was never a word of “hmmm, we should get you looked at, honey.” Just denial, I guess, which I helped along, by dint of being so scared I couldn’t do what a normal person would do and handle the problem. Instead, I didn’t do anything. I let my blood pressure issues ride, or what may have just been my fears about them. Tried to tell myself it was white coat syndrome, my terror of doctors, medical situations, all of that. Flashing back to my Emergency! roots, a voice in my head would say, “That’s a one, son, not what we’re looking for.” As if I didn’t know.
Life did some things, though. It fell apart. The specifics…may I keep them with me for now? I wish I had a tale of how I caroused, dabbled in drugs, took up with the secretary I didn’t have, banged my hot creative nonfiction writing student when the secretary left for another job because she finally accepted I’d never leave my wife, because there is a point in the times of our greatest pain when, of all things, you yearn most for complicity. To be able to say, “I did this, I was told not to, I kept at it, and now what I had is gone, I am the bringer of so many woes.” It’s control. You acted, rather than were acted upon. The result can be the same, but the pain is not. The pain is not even close. Nor the doubt you feel throughout the entirety of your being, as if the creepy-crawlies beneath the largest boulder—a netherworld of worms, grubs, creatures that feed upon rot—deserve sunlight, but not you. Not a single diffracted ray.
And eventually there was no wife, no house, no one, really, but me. The circumstances of all of that were beyond the pale, her departure, out of the proverbial blue that to me was the blackened soul-night of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s death-in-life hour of three in the morning. I scoured films, books, anecdotes you hear about people (you know the kind: “I knew this one guy who…”) to find some commonality somewhere in the world with the way everything went down in my life, on the marriage front, which, really, wasn’t even my biggest problem, a remarkable admission I full well knew; in fact, a potentially tragic, life-ending state of affairs that the marriage fallout was not my biggest problem, but rather the industry in which I was in and how it regarded me. Stood against me. Still, I couldn’t find anything like what had happened on a rocky coast thirty miles north of Boston.
You want that commonality when you go through something horrific. The horror remains, but the burden lessens. I have learned in life, and my blood pressure odyssey has helped underscore this, that there is something worse than pain, worse than loss, worse than either horror in their most extreme forms. That is the feeling that you are alone, and know one has a clue what your horrors are really like. Van Gogh felt that way. It’s why he wrote so much. If you read his letters, you see a man trying desperately to tell you what he has been through, what he feels. That’s why they’re often so long, because that desperation, when it is not met with the solidarity of joint, shared experience, begets more desperation. You create a second life—a life on paper, because you want some form of a life you’ve lived or had to have a chance, and two ups your odds better than just the one.
Van Gogh conceivably wrote better than he painted, so rather than being someone who just stammered words, and then gave up, opting, instead, to do what most people do, which is create a false narrative to live to, he wrote more, took different approaches, wrote better, more emphatically, searching for clarity and peace. And nothing changed. Save his capacity for hope, which was also, at the same time, ever dwindling. That will take you out by the time you get to forty. Living that way, I mean.
Van Gogh was a big walker. Crazy distances. And after my life came to pieces, I found myself sometimes walking twenty miles a day, and up to 100 a week. I hadn’t taken my blood pressure in the year since everything had fallen apart, but one day, on an epic amble, I walked into a Rite Aid, thinking, screw this, I don’t want to live anymore anyway, what do you got for me, blood pressure machine? I am certain that victory yelps, peppered with expletives—I probably said something along the lines of “suck it bad blood pressure! Look at that score, motherfucker!”—are not commonplaces in the Rite Aid, but what can I say, I was excited when I saw that 134/84.
Not, mind, what you want, strictly speaking, but human, again, and ballpark to where you’d like your blood pressure to be. The daily temptation to do myself in remained, but there was that pang, that life jolt, that brings with it feelings we all feel, but maybe don’t articulate very often. Not even in those conversations we have in our heads, as if we are not a single person, but two, living together in a mind, with much back and forth, inquiry, counsel. That notion of, “this could be okay, this could be a start, you could look back on this later and be so grateful you got a little verve in your day to keep yourself going, because look where we are now. With someone who loves us, in a beautiful place, doing meaningful work. That can be out there for you. Someday. The game isn’t over yet. Hear hear, Rite Aid.” Or whatever it is that doubles as your version of a good blood pressure score, when you need it, in a pharmacy, at a time in your life when you are totally alone in this world.
After that, every Sunday, before I went to Durgin Park, the Revolutionary War bar in Boston where I’d sit for a few hours as part of my weekly routine with the acquaintances I had made there in following from the sundering of my life, I’d go to the Rite Aid and ride the blood pressure machine. I could be in the store for an hour, until I got 120/80 or lower. Then I wanted something lower, still. Competitive blood pressure enthusiast. I was stressed, to a degree. I could feel it. I felt self-conscious—even if I would take off my jacket, my sweatshirt, and settle in like I was in some rec room—so that boosted the numbers. Also, old people. There were mirrors in the ceiling, and when I looked up to see an old person advancing, my score would spike.
There is probably a whole crate of issues to unpack there, but at least I was aware of what might have been causing the false negatives. Comely women were another issue. I’d watch quite a few pick out a package of Popsicles from the freezer section just to my left, or grab a roll of paper towels off to my right. Normally, seeing one might make me sadder, for all I had lost and how alone I was, as I had come to look at my wife as an ethereal creature in my heartbreak haze where reality was still shadowy and be-misted. The Rite Aid was like what a hockey rink used to be for me: a place to compete, where there was always a hint of fog, even when fog itself wasn’t present. One of those places where the final score mattered much, especially if you could be on the end that was better for you, and flirting and lusting and longing occurred back somewhere else, in a part of life you didn’t live, on some other activity’s dime.