Something extraordinary happened after my GOH speech at ChamBanaCon last Thanksgiving weekend: a standing ovation. And for the rest of the evening, the rest of the con, people kept stopping me to thank me for what I said, and to limn the outlines of their own stories.
I lost count of the people who urged me to consider putting the speech online. Someone used the word “brave,” which threw me–I hadn’t planned on being brave. I had finished writing the speech just an hour or so before the banquet, and I hadn’t even had a chance to time it, let alone think about the consequences.
Once I got home, though, there was plenty of time, and that word “brave” stopped me from posting the speech right away. It’s one thing for someone with an anxiety disorder to take a risk in front of a friendly crowd of 100 or so–it’s another thing altogether to do it in front of the Net.
But in the end, the “thank yous” won out–so here is the speech, complete with the jokes that worked and the ones that didn’t. The serious stuff starts about halfway through. If you know anyone who might get something from hearing me, please do bring them in–we’ll find a seat for them in this friendly room, and we’ll ignore whatever goes on outside the door.
My name is Rip van Michael, and I’ve been away for a long time. A long time.
I stumbled, and fell into a time machine. Not a cool one like Dustin Hoffman’s farm punk STAR WAGON. Not like the Otis elevator in Asimov’s THE END OF ETERNITY. It did have a seat, like George Pal’s Technicolor Everglades boat. But my time machine more closely resembled a steel blue Laz-E-Boy recliner at the bottom of a mind shaft.
Worst design EVER for a time machine. For one thing, it turns out I continued to age at a normal rate—maybe even a bit faster. For another, the chair somehow continued to supply me with the caloric budget of an active human being. And after a few years my flip phone battery died. So I emerged into this time older and wider, but none the wiser.
I was so out of time that I had to hire a lifestyle consultant. Apparently I no longer need an alarm clock, a pocket calculator, a VCR, a CRT, a Walkman, a cassette player, an unabridged dictionary, a radar detector, D batteries, my National Geographic map collection, my Polaroid Spectra, the Britannica, my .6 megapixel Kodak camera, the QIC-80 tape drive, printer ribbons, an answering machine, a faxmodem, that 500 megabyte Creative Zen, a boom box, or the 23-year run of PC Magazine.
And now Montag tells me I need to get rid of my CDs, the metal is needed for the war effort. He says if I want to listen to music I have to either upload everything to a cloud or apply for a hipster exemption that will allow me to possess a record library. I’m suspicious. It sounds like some kind of scam to make me buy ABBEY ROAD and TOMMY again.
I would have held a yard sale, but Montag told me not to bother, there wasn’t any market. But everything still works, I said. Doesn’t matter, he said. Throw it away. Oh well–At least when I’m done purging the 20th Century from my life I might be able to get a car in the garage again.
I have begun studying your historical documents. Through them I’ve learned about the triumphant presidency of Josiah Bartlett. I was relieved to learn that my country elected a serious and principled man to succeed President Clinton. In the summer of 2000 that was by no means an assured thing.
But Mrs. Landingham–that’s just not right. Why aren’t cars safer yet? Why aren’t computers driving them? I saw automated roads in POPULAR MECHANICS when I was in the fourth grade. I saw working prototypes at the New York World’s Fair. That’s 50 years ago, for goodness’ sake. 227 in geek years. What have you all been doing with your time? Playing games and blowing things up?
I can read very fast, but I can only watch TV at the same speed as everyone else. So I still haven’t gotten around to some of the more exciting news, like mermaids and alien autopsies. I did start watching that documentary The Big Bang Theory, but I gave up after a few chapters—it seemed to be all jibber jabber, and they never did get to the PowerPoint presentation.
Now, I confess that I was already becoming disenchanted with the future when I fell into the time machine. But, still, 15 years! We made it to the moon in eight. So where is my personal helicopter? Promises were made, right there in BOYS LIFE and other journals of tomorrow. Repellatron Skyways! Triphibian Atomicars! You could look it up.
– No, Not now, please.
Of course the internet was well established when I went away, and the World Wild Web was taking off. I launched my own Web 1.0 site on July 4, 1995. Even that early, you could see the potential of the internet as an agent for social uplift. You could foresee the flowering of a global civilization based on free exchange of knowledge, an explosion of personal creative expression, and the erasure of artificial barriers based on gender, religion, and national identity.
Today, I’m thrilled to see the progress toward Version 1.0 of the Encyclopedia Galactica foretold by Elder Isaac—free access for all to a curated compendium of all the world’s knowledge. Everywhere I turn I see those helpful pointers to more information, www-this and http-that. It’s heartwarming to see rich and poor alike having equal access to the great minds of humanity present and past.
The Interwebs, 2015. What a magnificent leap forward. Uncorrupted by the pursuit of power and profit, democratic in every sense of the word, perhaps the most egalitarian invention in all history. An error-checking tool of such reach and power that no one need ever fear again passing on misinformation, or making a decision based on dated or inexact ideas. And no matter what your interest, you can find a digital salon or seminar where you can find helpful and supportive fellow enthusiasts eager to share their personal experience.
That isn’t the only overt sign of progress. I’ve never before attended a convention with a computer in my pocket. I’ve never before driven to a convention with a pleasant English woman’s voice helping to guide me through every turn and to every waypoint. I’ve never made a hotel reservation, fueled my vehicle, purchased my travel snacks, and paid for my double cheeseburger plain without speaking to a single other human being.
I take this as evidence that the progressive leaders of this era are well on the way to removing the yoke of repetitious drudgery from the workplace. Sometimes, late last century, I was afraid they’d missed the memo about the full unemployment economy–that we’d never even try to reach a point where the individual gifts of each person weren’t being subsumed in a cruel game of competitive survival.
Since I’m only beginning to become part of the world again, I do still have questions.
There seems to be a lot of fuss over setting the planetary thermostat. Surely it’s obvious that while you can always put on another layer if you’re chilled, there’s a limit to how much you can remove if you’re overheated. Why is this controversial?
I have taken note of how much energy and creativity my tribe has put into inventing sports for us. For instance Halo, and Wii Bowling, and Cards Against Humanity. I haven’t had a chance to try them all, and some of them I don’t understand the rules of, like doxxing, or Tinder. Sexting sounds promising, though. Should I wait to receive an install disk in the mail, or do I need to fill out an application?
What happened to magazines, and what do people read in the bathroom now? And if Playboy can no longer afford to publish photos of naked young women, howsoever are teenaged boys going to learn about sex?
I feel compelled to say a few more words about my time machine, and how I fell into it. Contrary to popular belief, it’s more complicated than fading my voice out, cuing the organist, and inserting three dimes. If only.
What I stumbled on back in 2000 was the death of my father, who broke his neck in a fall. What finally woke Rip Van Michael was the death of his mother last year, a few months after a cancer diagnosis. As I said earlier—worst design for a time machine EVER. It made the sphere in 7 DAYS look like the tea cups at Disneyland.
I’m not going to talk about my parents or those relationships today. But I would like to talk a little about my relationship with two invisible companions I met while sleeping. Their names are clinical depression, and anxiety disorder. I’m sure I’m not the only one here who’s acquainted with them.
I had a hard time getting here this weekend. I’m not talking about car trouble, or getting lost, or Thursday’s rain, or last weekend’s snow. I’m taking about spoons, and pants, and Xanax.
Who here speaks spoon? I knew there’d be some. Spoon theory was invented by blogger Christine Miserandino, who has Lupus. The original blog is readily found. I think of spoons as kind of the vector particle of initiative. Kind of a metaphor for the ignition system in your car. You never know how many spoons you’ll have on a given day—except for some of us, it’s almost certain to not be enough.
Sometimes getting out of bed to feed the animals burns your entire supply. On better days, you still have to allocate them carefully, because when you’re out, you’re done. Oh, you –can- go into negative spoon territory in a crisis, but you’ll pay for it the next day, and usually the next and the next.
In addition to spoons, my household talks about pants days. As in, this was a good week, I had three pants days—two of them consecutive!
There are strict eligibility rules, of course. You not only must wear a garment meant for the eyes of strangers, you must go beyond the property line in daylight to a place where other people might be encountered. Driving your daughter to a sleepover wearing your robe and slippers? Nope, not even if you hit a fast-food drive-thru on the way home. Walking out to the mailbox in your pajamas does not go in the book. Pulling on shorts to sign for a FedEx parcel at the front door, don’t waste my time.
Let me be painfully blunt about this. The five and a half hour drive here Thursday was by itself the longest I’d been out of my house in two months. We’ve been on bonus time ever since.
So here I am, having recklessly committed to five pants days in a row. But Brenda*, if you’d only known what a near thing it was, you’d have been dancing when you got my text that we were on the road. Just three and a half hours behind schedule, too.
I forgot my glucose meter, my bathing suit, and my Ambien, but, still, not bad. It was the triumph of Xanax and something we call “Act as if.” Act as if it’ll be all right. Act as if you’re the person you used to be. Act as if good things might happen. Risk success.
I’m not an eloquent commentator on depression and anxiety. My grip on both is still too tenuous. We are intimately connected, but still only raw acquaintances. But I read, because I learn from people who can articulate their own experience.
If the headline says “13 Things to Remember if You Love A Person With Anxiety,“ I’m clicking. I’ll even go as far as Upworthy, for something like Nick Seluk’s comic inspired by reader Sarah Flanigan:
“Depression and anxiety are teammates, and I’m the opposing team,” Sarah wrote. “Their one and only goal is to drag me down. They make me feel paranoid, they make me feel useless, and they steal all my energy and motivation. However, sometimes they go on vacation. I never know how long the vacation will last, but I Get Stuff Done while they’re away, because I never know when they’ll come back. It may be a few hours or a few days. I never know. “
Yeah, Sarah. I get that.
There are an estimated 75 million Americans with general or social anxiety disorders. Perhaps 40 million of them are clinically depressed as well. The odds are very good that you know some of them, perhaps intimately. Here are a few things i’d like you to know about us.
Number 2 – We get tired easily. Dead tired. Can’t find the floor from the bed tired. Anxiety causes people to live in hypertense states. We’re always on alert, and our mind is rarely settled. It’s hard to just BE for any length of time.
Number 5 – We’re well aware that depression lies and that our anxieties are irrational. Pointing that out isn’t helpful. What is helpful: Compassion. Support. Listening without judgment. Things we can all use, really, if you think about it.
Number 8 – It can be hard to let go of something, even if you know you’d be better for it. Especially if it’s pain. Traumatic memories are stored differently, as a kind of table of risks that the brain is constantly consulting.
Finally, #17 – Even when we seem to be on our game, it’s fragile. One thought that catches you unawares, one comment you never anticipated, the lightest headwind, can drop you right back in the soup.
A couple of months ago I was totally jazzed about a new idea for a new novel. For the first time in a long time I felt a big story taking shape in my mind. For the first time in a long time, I was jotting down plot details and world building notes and fragments of dialog. Just like old times. I thought I was about to take a classic theme and turn it inside out.
But after about two weeks of happy hopeful, I happened to read—probably on File 770—I happened to read a rave about a high-profile novel by a high-profile writer scheduled for publication soon. Yes, just as you’ve guessed, it was my novel idea—or close enough to it for government work. And everything good that had been starting to happen stopped with a screech.
When I fell, I lost my publishers. I lost my connection to all of this, this community. I lost confidence in my voice. And then I lost my voice. I had hoped to come here this weekend having found all of them again. I’m grateful to Bill & Brenda for inviting me and for welcoming me even though I’m not there yet. Life happens, and all those goals are still works in progress. But we’ve been doing some good work right here, this weekend.
If there’s someone in your world who has an invisible illness, whether it’s fibro, Lupus, depression, anxiety, whatever flavor of physical or psychological challenge, be kind to them. Listen to them. Understand that they’re doing the best they can—no one willingly chooses less.
And when I get my backlist in print again, and when my first new novel shows up on Amazon, I hope you’ll be kind to me, too. I’m not finished telling the stories I’ve been called to tell. With a little help from my friends, I’m going to get them told.
Act as if. Bloody well act as if.
Copyright © 2015 by Michael P. Kube-McDowell
Presented 11/29/15 at ChamBanaCon.
*Brenda Sinclair Sutton, co-chair with her husband Bill Sutton of ChamBanaCon.