Notes From An Anxious Mind: p. 3 Congratulations, It’s A Journey!

Hiya.

When something’s wrong with me, I woolgather and intellectualize, so I’d like to share with other anxiety sufferers (1 in 6 of us, according to several statistics) the resources and wisdom I’ve accumulated in the weeks since I got knocked sideways.

But first … real quicksies, a heartfelt and snot-teary shoutout to the people who pinged, commented, texted, called, let me come over and be part of their household for a night or three, took me for a walk, shared their own struggles, their therapist’s contact info, and didn’t reject or alienate me. When you need anything, I’ll be your rock. I’m a really good rock for anyone who isn’t me.

Here’s what I’ve learned, in a nutshell:

  • My id (subconscious, inner child, whathaveyou) wants things that are messy and inconvenient like to make art, get mad, laugh a lot, and be adored. Yours does, too. It’s pretty universal, and is about 3-4 years old.
  • My superego is a nervous Nellie that thinks we need to be good, be quiet, accept what we are given, and not make a fool of ourselves. Yours does, too. This is also universal, and is about 14 years old.
  • Your ego acts as a parent to both children. If you’re an actual parent, you’re probably pretty good at this. I can think of several of you I’d love to be my ego. Text me if you think it’s you!
  • Anxiety, in the Freudian/Jungian sense, is a defense condition that arises when the id/subconscious is being repressed by that ol’ superego, and the ego has lost control of them both. There are numerous other explanations—from the philosophical to the chemical—for anxiety. But this one seems to apply to me, given how and when it presents itself in my life. If you suffer from anxiety, you probably don’t have exactly my anxiety, just as I don’t have yours. In Atlantic Editor Scott Stossel’s excellent book My Age of Anxiety, he says,The truth is that anxiety is at once a function of biology and philosophy, body and mind, instinct and reason, personality and culture. Alison Bechdel in her brilliant graphic memoir Are You My Mother? describes the superego/id/anxiety situation the way my own therapist did. (He called the fact that I read this just days after he evaluated me with the same “that sort of synchronous thing that means you’re on the right path.” Nice. It’s been a good long while since I’ve felt the warm embrace of the Universe.)
  • New York has a way of inflaming one’s nervous superego. Unless you’re young or came here young; Growth Hormone has a lot to do with that. Production of the stuff skyrockets around 15 and makes you want to do drugs, travel, leave home, go clubbing … y’know, leave the nest. It’s responsible for that plucky feeling of fearlessness and egotism. It begins to dissipate around 30, which is when one begins to get grumpy about leaving the house, looks to settle down, and starts using the word “shenanigans” a lot more.
  • I moved to New York City at 36, well after my GH levels had plummeted. I was feeling pretty solid when I made the choice, and then we had a really traumatic time getting into this apartment, I failed to immediately self-actualize upon arrival (yes, I expected it), and my dog-mother-child died. Thus, the super-protective superego kicked into high gear, and the id had nowhere to go. So she threw a massive fit. Also, years of other things.
  • I thrive on feeling good at what I do, necessary, irreplaceable. At the moment, I’m in a job where I’m (non)essentially a ghost. I don’t matter. I don’t talk to anyone and they don’t talk to me. But the id needs to be mirrored, my therapist says. Like a baby needs mirroring. “Okay,” I tell him, “I’m finding another job, posthaste. Somewhere with other artistic temperaments. Then I’m signing up for improv classes.” He thinks this is a brilliant plan.
  • Crap. I haven’t done improv in a century.
  • Writing used to be how I let the id do her thing, but I’m pretty far gone. I signed up for a couple of writing classes to give me feedback, validation, and motivation. Because being alone with my superego is scary right now. She’s scaring me.
  • This is the most important thing, according to my therapist: if you are pathologizing your superego as a “bully” or “critic,” see what happens when you consider that she/he means well. She/he really does. She/he is just trying to protect the group. And she/he is only 14.
  • When I was 14, I tossed my room so that my mom would notice and realize that I was angry and sad and hurting. But I didn’t have it in me to actually throw the chair and smash my beloved knickknacks, so I carefully turned things over and mussed them up. When she finally noticed, she sighed, “What’s going on with you?” But I didn’t have the words and she didn’t try to get them from me.
  • When I was 14, I painted a convincing black eye on and went to school, telling everyone that mom’s boyfriend, with whom we lived, hit me. He was a speed freak and we screamed at each other a bunch, but he never hit me. Child Protective Services showed up at my house and when they finally left, I was wishing he really had hit me. They doubled down on their efforts to ignore me after that, until they broke up and we moved, a year later. (I left an apology in his mailbox a few years ago, along with my contact info and news that mom had since died, but I never heard back.)
  • If my superego is 14, my ego has a lot of work to do making her feel safe and I have no model for where to start. Wish me luck. Send parenting articles.

Also, hug people. (Temple Grandin, blah blah blah.) Pay attention to your dreams. The ones at night. Interpret them from the perspective that everyone in your dream is you. And listen for the message. Things that make you cry are a big clue.

I have a card from my mom, from when I left for college. It’s Dorothy being blessed by the Good Witch, and inside it says, “You had the power all along.” Where our mothers are concerned, there’s no such thing as too little too late.

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Notes From an Anxious Mind, p.2: Illness/journey/illness/journey

Party idea: we all get together and figure out what this gnawing, awful dybbuk inside of me wants so that we can help it and it can go on its way.

Sophia has not, in fact, come home, which I am trying not to let alarm me (anxiety/panic is a feedback loop, asserts this Australian doctor whose audiobook I’m now listening to). However, I did pick up a copy of O Magazine at JFK and it gave me the strength to get on the jet. She appears on the cover with a lion. I wish I could just Photoshop my fears, too.

liz-lemon-oprah

I shook so badly on the way to the airport Wednesday morning that I would have canceled my flight (and gone with Nat the next day), but the thought of being in NYC feeling like that for one more hour got me out of the car.

Fun fact about my flight anxiety: For many of us, it’s not about the plane; it’s about going crazy on the plane. This time I was near-catatonic with exhaustion from the three days of anxiety, so I was kind of like, “Fuck it. Crash then.” Turbulence felt like a mother’s gentle rocking.


Winter is not Austin’s best look. We land in the rural flatlands outside the city, damp and ochre. I feel the first signs of lift in my shoulders, radiating through my neck. Home, I think. Even when I’m well, I get the same feeling when we hover over the sprawling suburbia of Southern California, lined by its forever-sparkling blue ocean, coming back to the land in which I was born and raised. So I have made myself two homes. Like the wealthy overachiever who grew up in poverty.

Could New York ever feel like home? I’m not ready for that thought yet. With its blue buildings and blue nights and grey skies, with its monuments. The memory of going crazy in the NYPL—how that architectural triumph is sullied for me, at least until I get my sense of humor back. All those high rooftops and balconies. The wheels touch down and I think I will run for miles without seeing a single skyscraper. They open the cabin door and the humidity wraps around me, even in its winter grey, the airport is filled with the languid and the 10-gallon-hatted.

I eat my first meal in days, a P. Terry’s veggie burger. Is this me getting better? At dinner that night, where I barely choke down some salad and cheese, everyone talks to me about medication. Am I needlessly hurting myself? Or am I being patient and waiting to be shown something? Wine helps. I am careful not to get drunk: who knows where that will swing me.

I snuggle in bed with my close friend. We talk about each other’s lives. We play Farmville side by side and watch 30 Rock. If I weren’t busy fixating on the small relief I feel, and noticing every shiver that still passes through me, I’d be thinking, I will stay right here. This is what my soul is telling me to do. Okay, I do think it.

Nat arrives the next day, and after a traumatic 90-minute experience with Dollar (I’ll spare you the Yelp review. Just never do business with them. They hate you.) we go to see our friends’ new baby. Their new house is awesome; it’s everything my Brooklyn apartment is not—spacious, bright, airy. His parents, with whom I spent a delightful Thanksgiving in New Orleans, are there and they are the most parenty parents who ever parented. My friends cook and fuss and fret over their new family, their new purpose in life. When no one is looking, I go in the bathroom to cry.

The next day, Nat and I drive out west past the hills and juniper of Central Texas, cross into the Edwards Plateau where it’s horizon-to-horizon mesquite and short-cotton fields. I’ve been crying the whole drive. I want to come back, I tell him. Please don’t make me do that, he says. We are quiet for most of the three-hour drive so we can each see if we have the strength to do what the other one needs.

The cotton is bundled and capped with bright pink plastic. It looks like we’ve merged into some Pop artist’s painting of a yellow Texas farm in the winter, dotted with giant nigiri. I have a flash through my heart that I love this idea, may paint it when I get home. This, I think to myself, this is what Normal Erin feels like. This impulse to create, to express, is still in there somewhere. I have been so unkind to myself to ignore it. Will it come back if I promise to honor it? Please, will it?


We must allow ourselves to be devastated, driven to the edge, shown the long fall, the shredding rocks on the way down, if we are to get serious about change. I’ve been lazy, I’ve neglected myself, I’ve remembered only how to survive. I shut down all my creative impulses. Any swelling of desire to write, to draw, I immediately pricked with a pin. My parents enrolled me in ballet at six because my cousin and my best friend were going—it seemed the thing to do. But someone stopped taking me someday and I never threw a fit. Not that I remember. I never said, But I love it and everyone else gets to do it. Same with the violin. With afterschool drama.

Accepting what happens to us and just going with the flow is how the child survives. Accepting what happens to us is how, as an adult, you end up looking at the life you wanted as if it is on a parallel track, above or beside you, never crossing paths with the one you’re on.

Jumping the track will hurt. It will hurt us to our bones. People will see you hurt and will want you to medicate. You seem ill, and maybe you are. You think maybe you’ve been a fool to be afraid of drugs, all along. You think if you were on drugs maybe you would have been on the track that is the life you wanted. You think, no, it is a journey. And then someone suggests a thyroid, or an ill-placed tumor. The mind spins. Illness/journey/illness/journey.

You told a friend, a week before the breakdown happened, New York is an asana. How cocky you were then. You went to yoga to remind yourself how to breathe through a difficult pose, how to be still and breathe when your thighs want to give out, when the tendon at your groin burns and makes your heart race, how to imagine you are breathing ease into an Achilles’ Heel you’ve known to be only this flexible your whole life. Transformation is a practice, you thought, almost happily. And a few days later, the nuclear bomb goes off. Transform this, sucker.


I am on his family’s couch, my eyes shut, soul-tired from the crying drive. I hear my husband talk about me in the other room. He praises my abilities as a writer, praises my strength. I sit there thinking, I’d like to be whoever this is he’s talking about. And then, Is this how fathers raise sane daughters?

He leaves Austin a day early, letting me be alone with it. The sun comes out when his plane takes off. I spend the day haunting. First, I go to Spiderhouse, the eclectic ramshackle house-turned-yard art café that sold me on the town back in 2003, when I first visited. When I finally made the move in 2005 and was attending a low-res MFA program, I wrote all my stories on this patio, PJ Harvey, Radiohead, or Dylan always playing, and Chloe straining at the leash to greet the other tables. I drank chamomile teas then, because I was having panic attacks at night, all alone in my new little house in this new little city. I took Xanax in those days, to sleep at night. I don’t remember when I felt okay enough to stop, but I know I was vigilant enough to stop as soon as I could. In those days, you could point to why I had panic: I found my mother murdered only a year ago. I left my codependent relationship, dearest friends, and the place of my birth for a state where I knew no one. It was a simple matter of taking care of my dog and getting a job, and becoming who I always wanted to be. Nine years ago, that was. I thought I’d slipped the noose forever.

After the café, I went to meet my pen pal, a poet and essayist. We got juices and walked around Town Lake and talked about how much things have changed; he’s been there since 1993. I told him I complained about change after only being there for 8 years; later, I’d meet up with another friend who lamented changes after being there for 2. I thought, maybe I don’t want to come back here. It’s the fastest-growing city in the country, according to CNN. I am not really a joiner, y’all.

You move to Austin under the illusion that time will stand still there. You think the heat, perhaps, will slow you down, ease your woes, encourage you to take up pottery. And it does, for a while. You take a job as a server at a nice restaurant, use your days off to clean the house, lay around Barton Springs, go plant shopping, work on your garden. But the mind starts to itch, and you begin to wonder if this is really all. Shouldn’t you be getting to work on that book? Oh, but it’s so warm and the hammock holds your weight like a mother, and that book is jagged and seizing, like an iron maiden. Maybe just call a friend instead and go for a hike in the Greenbelt… maybe just sew more pillows.

This is where I went wrong: I let the comfort of Austin overtake me—can you see now why? An anxious soul with PTSD, writing about the traumatic event, all the traumatic events that preceded it. Why would I do that when my friends are so wonderful to have dinner with and can do things on a moment’s notice?

It is from this place that I said, Let’s move to New York City. I need to write, and it’s too nice here for that.

I threw away the home and family I’d built, that I sorely needed. What made me think I would not be punished for that hubris?

It is possible for an act to be both supremely brave and supremely foolish.

A California girl who ran away to Texas then ran away to New York. A solar-powered being with a lifetime of barely dealt-with anxiety leaves everything she knows and trusts and loves—and everyone who loved her back—to go to a place so cold, so isolating, that it would re-traumatize her inward, where (she thought) the writing gets done. But she underestimates winter, four to five months of grey skies and heavy-coat chill. The claustrophobia of snow. Your insignificance is lit up by it.

Didn’t Joan Didion, the consummate California girl move here? She said she got homesick in 1988 and went back to L.A. She said, “It took a year to ‘get L.A.’ and once I got it, I didn’t want to be there anymore.” She said L.A. has no reason to be there, and neither do you.

And here I am in the inevitable city. The city built by chance, geography, and tragedy, like me. Why don’t we get along? This city does not care if I leave, but my husband does. And I can’t trust my impulses. Maybe it is a tumor. Or maybe I have simply had too much. But I am in this asana, and you know what they say: if I can get well here I’ll get well (clap clap) anywhere.

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Notes From An Anxious Mind

When I became a writer, I signed on for a life of sharing and being vulnerable; of pinging my data from the other side of the Black Hole. But I’m very controlling about what you get to read; I demand an impossible standard of myself. (Just then, I went back and put that semi-colon in. My small act of control.) I don’t think I’ve ever reported on my sense of anxiety from within the throes, and a huge part of me is telling me not to, that this is going to be artless, that no one cares, it’s navel-gazing, and will make me unlovable. But it will be totally honest. So I’m pinging. Do you read me? Come in…

1.

Midnight last night, I shot up from the couch where I was trembling and sweating, and started to get dressed. “Sorry, babe, I think we need to go for a walk.” The preceding three hours had been a raving, crying fear-vomit where I cursed our apartment and our decision to move to NYC, lamented that I don’t belong anywhere, don’t know what my path is, have no meaning in my life other than him. I frantically searched my mind for something I cared about, something that made me feel safe, something to ground me. My brain whizzed around the stratosphere. Dissociation. It’s one of the shittiest parts of a panic attack. The heartbeat, I can take; the breathing and dizziness, whatever. It’s the dissociation I can’t handle. The loss of self, of all the memories and dreams and loves and disdains that make you You.

I mentally Rolodexed through my friends, family, options. Where am I going to go if this breakdown gets worse? I rattled Nat’s shoulders. Do you know what to do if I melt down? Who will help us?

I didn’t reach for the Xanax I’ve been hoarding for three years; I have a drug phobia, for one, so I haven’t taken something for panic in about eight years. I got control of my panic attacks using a cognitive method I learned from the internet, during a bad spell in 2005 that compelled me to pay $45 for an e-book promising The Easy Secret to Stopping Panic Attacks! I only used the Xanax when the attack got threateningly bad, always alone, after I’d broken up with my long-time boyfriend and moved across several states to Austin. Why am I always doing this to myself—leaving a place once I get comfortable, safe? It’s hubris. It’s running on broken legs.

This is how you shut down a panic attack:

You acknowledge the symptoms, out loud, and in a neutral voice. I even give them a personality, like a boring old neighbor who shows up and prattles on. Hello, Mrs. Neebaum. Hello, rapid heartbeat. Hello, dizzy feeling. I see you. I see you, dissociative feeling.

Except this one just hung on—and it hangs on still. It’s the next afternoon and I don’t feel like myself yet. I sit in an office full of people who don’t know me or talk to me, trying to find something humorous and cute to write about a duffel bag covered in a meat pattern. Meat, I think. Meat, meat, steak, protein. Pro-tein. I can’t latch on. How can I do this job? Is it over for me? Is it a tumor?

2.

I dash off an email to a therapist I saw once about a month ago, asking if she can do an emergency session. I text a friend and ask her to hang out tonight. I need to pack, I am flying home for a work/visit to Austin on Wednesday, but I can’t imagine packing. Or being in the apartment. Or eating. It occurs to me I haven’t eaten yet, so I go downstairs to get a juice. I forget my card, and go back up. The nice boys behind the counter at the juice place thank me for being patient while they fix their machine. I say it’s nice to be around such good vibes. They ask if I’m from NY—it is all I can do to keep from telling them everything. That I’m so scared. So lost. So alone.

People are fond of reminding me I sometimes felt this way in Austin, too (though it was only this bad in the beginning). I don’t see why anyone thinks this will help. If my circumstances were to blame (and I’m sure the truth is they are, but only in part) then it would mean nothing is wrong with me. Nothing that will follow me wherever I go, poison whatever I do, burden my husband, lose me my job. If it were the city, and not me, I could ride it out until we fled. But how does one flee oneself? It feels like the wrong question, since what defines my severe anxiety is not feeling myself.

Someone well-meaning asked me what was giving me anxiety. Ha. Take your pick: a tumultuous childhood with no constant parental figure. Finding my mother murdered. Leaving everything I knew for a city where I barely knew anyone. Genetics. Leaving behind another city, and with it a hard-won community of caregivers, including a doctor, a dentist, a therapist, an acupuncturist, a handful of yoga instructors, and friends friends friends—so many friends! What the hell was the matter with me? Putting my dog-sister-mother-baby of 17 years down. Winter in the northeast. Getting older. No longer seeing the point in writing, thus losing my identity. A tendency to go into denial and binge-watch TV shows or play computer games, get lost in books and short stories.

Anxiety attacks can teach us things, if only that we are not living healthily. But I’ll be honest: I don’t really know what to do. I don’t know where to go, who to see. Where’s that part of the lesson, the luminous clarity?


3.

The Color Purple is one of my favorite movies. I wouldn’t watch it now, for heaven’s sake. I need light humor—Anchorman, Big Lebowski, that sort of thing. But I’ve watched TCP, no exaggeration, about 30 times. Oprah’s fantastic in it. There’s a scene toward the end, after the shitty white folks beat her, threw her in prison for 12 years, made her be the housekeeper to the mayor’s wife—in short, after she’s been to hell and back—where she is allowed to see her family for the first time, allowed to spend one Christmas meal with them. She starts to cry, “I don’t know none of you.” She is as far from her sense of self and place as a person can get, in the arms of their grown children, not being able to feel connected to them. Later, she’s a swaying, emotionless husk at the dinner table, and she watches as Celie stands up to Mister, “Your daddy ain’t nothing but some dead horse shit.” And then, a low, deep laugh shakes Sofia’s shoulders. She begins to laugh louder and louder. “The dead have risen,” observes the mean old in-law. She cries and thanks Celie for giving her hope. And then she starts dishing up the mashed potatoes, happily: “Oh, Sofia home now. Sofia home.”

This is a thing with us, around the house. Saying “Sofia home now.” I get the blues sometimes. I get anxious. I get away from myself and can’t smile, can’t laugh, can’t desire anything, find no comfort. I wrestle with it, like a dinghy in a storm. But I know the moment will come—it feels like you’ve been disconnected, and then plugged back into yourself. All your memories, the excitement of who you are and where you are going, stories you want to tell, stories you know, who you love and who loves you, things you want to eat, movies you want to watch…you can suddenly feel them coursing through you again. When that moment comes, I always say to Nat, “Sofia home now.”

What if this is the time Sofia doesn’t come home? This time, it’s taking a really long time. I thought sleeping and waking up would reset it, but it hasn’t. Maybe it’s like being sick—a really bad spell will be hard to shake. I’m always so impatient, so desperate to get back to myself. I look for the moments: a phrase comes more easily (I feel my mind for a second), a stranger makes me smile (I feel my heart for a second). I can let myself spiral into the fear that this is it; that I’ve finally gone loopty-loo. I will be unemployable, doped up in a hospital, will drive my husband away, I will never be able to write a word, my life will be sad and ruined and over from an illness we didn’t know how to cure.

I have no choice but to believe it will come, the moment when I feel plugged back in again, the moment I finally turn to him and say, “Sofia home now.” And you as my witnesses, I want it. Do you hear me? I don’t care if I’m a fool; I’m on a limb, telling you I want it.

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And we’re back on the floor. But it’s good this time.

It is not yet 7:30 on a Thursday night, and I am in my pajamas, brewing a cup of chamomile. Chamomile is the flower of defiance. It says, I live in New York City, am not 90, and don’t have children, and I’m still staying in. I’m even using the big mug. I’m gonna sit right here and sip on this motherfucker all night long.

Photo 41

this mug

I was going to attend a reading (Doing Things); at a popular local bar (Where the People Are) by two women who are memoirists and work at literary magazines (Experiencing What I Want to Do/What I Care About). So it meets all three of my life objectives, which I use to help me make decisions about leaving the house. But I have a good reason for canceling my own tenuous (I was never really going to go, was I?) plans: I have freelance work to do! Fulfilling, challenging freelance work that will pay me actual money to practice my craft, which, let’s face it, is in serious danger of reinventing itself as binge-watching “Bojack Horseman” on Netflix (the best thing on television right now go watch it oh my god what is wrong with you put this down and watch it) and repeating back to the hipsters outside my window their own stupid, uptalky sentences. I am sorry that I literally just do not care?

But the thing about writing is, like Dorothy Parker said (and every subsequent writer who quoted her when writing their own writing books), I hate writing; I love having written.

It’s a painful, demoralizing, upsetting, tooth-grindy, ulcer-making, lonely, rotten activity that thrusts my shoulders to my ears, makes the inner critic go into full-on gleeful spite karaoke, and probably doesn’t matter to anyone anywhere. The thing is, if I don’t do it, the voice in my head drives me batshit crazy. Believe me, I’ve tried not to do it. Which is also what every writing teacher and writing book says to do. Don’t write unless you absolutely can’t do anything else.

I don’t take that to mean “Don’t write unless you can’t be a seamstress, maitre’d, shrimper, or veterinarian”—because I could be all those things, for as long as I’ve held down any copywriting or editing job, surely. But even then, the call to write is one I can’t ignore for long without becoming an irascible and unhappy husk. Which is what I’m afraid I’m turning into. I am constantly editing and revisiting my old work, but the last time I wrote anything new, from scratch…? Can I even do it anymore? Stupid husk!

Part of my calcifying process has involved avoiding this blog. Even verbally abusing it. Blog. You sound like something that comes out of a face by accident. Blog. Horrible people have blogs. Like that insufferable narcissist Julie Whatever from Julie and Julia, who even the delightful Amy Adams couldn’t make tolerable. And I’m an asshole for having a blog. Somehow, all my friends with blogs are amazing and I love them and am thrilled whenever they update it, because it’s like getting truth-drunk with them somewhere. But mine will be miserable, tedious, and loooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooong-winded.

The last time I posted something here, aside from the couple of extemporaneous poems inspired by my Stygian daily commute (except the Styx delivered you unto Hades, where an eternity of interesting problems were thrown at you; all that waited for me across the Hudson was Newark—no more, oh rapture!), I was facing something I felt I could not endure unless I wrote it out first. It was the primal wail that came from years of grief, trauma, love, and fear, hurling itself into the wind as part of my tiny human struggle against death. The last thing I wanted to say before sun exploded. Writing teachers (and, again, those damned books) are fond of asserting that work written from anything less than that is not worth the paper its printed on. Which, when a certain type of person (me, in my late 20s) hears it, inspires a punk rock art monster fever high that makes you beat your chest and look for babies to devour whole, etc. But with age, you begin to realize that no one else is holding themselves (or writers, generally) to that standard. If they were, there’d be a fraction of the books published. And you just can’t survive that level of trauma on a constant basis. I mean, can you? Can I? Am I surviving it now?

Someone (possibly me) once described being human as the messy result of wanting things that directly conflict with each other. (Okay, it was me. I found the old note. I hope you’ll still respect it.)

This is what I want:  to make great art.

This is what I want: to be happy.

I can’t sustain the level of desperate urgency required to make great art. But you know what? Despite all evidence to the contrary, I know people can do both—I know several of them personally, and that small glimpse into their unicorny lives means everything to me. Without it, I wouldn’t know it’s even possible, or what it looks like.

I think I know how to do it, too. Make great art and not be suffering in order to do it. I know from Cheryl Strayed’s chapter “Write Like a Motherfucker” in her Tiny, Beautiful Things (which I listen to each day when I walk to the L, as a meditation). I know from Dani Shapiro’s wonderful, reassuring and empowering Still Writing. I know from older manifestos, from Stephen King’s On Writing to Joan Didion’s “Why I Write.”

It’s this: you get down on the ground, you get real humble, you let go of your expectations of yourself, you shut out what you think people will say about it (good or bad), and give yourself room. It was never helpful for me to read things like “trust yourself!” I can’t get that far. After all, lots of terrible and boring people trust themselves. I have to not think about that at all, prepare to suck, and, as Bob would do, Baby step to the blank page. Baby step through the first sentence. Baby step through the second one….

what-about-bob-bus

It’s like that thing EL Doctorow said that, again, EVERY WRITING BOOK EVER has quoted:

Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

I’m putting this here as a baby step: I think I know the framework that my memoir has been looking for. The one I can’t write another word without. I’m afraid of saying this out loud because it might be a stupid idea that fails miserably after several months of working with it. But it’s the first time I’ve thought about the memoir—half of which is languishing as a bunch of 1’s and 0’s in the same cloud where JLaw’s nudie pics live–with anything other than dread and sadness since 2009.

So I’m getting on the floor again. It does not escape me that several of my blog posts have, over the years, been about this balance between happiness and devastation, about paralysis by self-aggrandizement. This time, I’m not crying. I’m not hopeless. I‘m not roasting a chicken to avoid the work. I’m getting on the floor to go about my business, which is the business of making the best art I can. The rest is not my business.

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3-Train Poem #2

10 minutes later

and Penn Station is, altogether, a different place.

Swishing efficient commuters who swam in silvery schools

Now plod

And list

And stare

in white windbreakers and baseball caps.

Slender briefcases become engorged, drag and flop behind

The bewildered owners of this new world.

 

You must be on the ball to pass through

This wreck of a dance hall, unharmed.

 

Later, safe in your seat,

the Meadowlands sway and reek,

look up to that cross-hatched sky.

Below, tiny shipwrecks and cormorants,

a lone, litter-white egret in her power line lagoon

stretches her neck to consider a tire.

Is this where we have been trying—killing ourselves—to go?

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3-Train Poem #1

Every weekday, I take 3 trains to work and 3 trains back.

 

They like

support like

elephants.

(This, on the L.)

Crumpled stairwell panties

sing pink and orange between drumbeat boots.

“Tigers and stuff, too.”

Before I came here, I didn’t know about the heroin walk.

Now all of Penn Station seems lurching

Holding in guts. A woman screams

Henry do you want

Riesling

The word flutters gold and green out of the deli,

through the corridors between briefcases,

from a fairy-sized Sutter Home held in a trembling hand.

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How To Take a Flattering Photo

from http://hooplaha.com/2014/01/how-to-take-a-more-flattering-portrait/

How-To-Take-A-Flattering-Portrait

In the right photo, the model is moving his jaw slightly forward, eliminating the multiple-chins effect.

He’s also slightly bringing his lower eyelids up (a trick called “squinching”), making his gaze a little more soft, yet piercing at the same time.

 

nailed itNailed it.

 

.

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About Chloe

erin and chloe

2004

Dear Mom,

I just called my husband at work to ask if he can take Saturday off so we can put Chloe to sleep. The vet gave me a few times she is available to come to our apartment and do it. I chose Saturday at 12:30.

At first she said she could come tomorrow afternoon, and I said, “But that’s tomorrow.”

And Friday is Friday. And Saturday is Saturday. Which day is the right one?

Which day is the right day to lay her body on my lap and kiss her goodbye and try to be calm for her as they give her one last sleep and then stop her heart? Which day will be best to hand her limp body to a stranger, follow her psychically to the crematorium, and try not to imagine her carcass—of which I know the weight on my chest, how the heart murmur flutters under my hand, in which places it is damp and cold and where it is dry and warm, where it has crusted with the bumps and ulcers of old age, where the fur has worn away and where it is still soft and lush, exactly like it was when she was 6 months old and we rode home together from the shelter in my boyfriend’s van, me an impulsive and stoned 19-year-old giddy with conviction that this was the perfect gift for you, my newly single mother, all alone in that house in south L.A., in chat rooms, spilling wine on yourself and on the verge of once again loving and nurturing another loser, and who would wind up giving this dog magical abilities and who would take her to work and on road trips and to the beach and let her run free without a leash, which drove me nuts but you both were free creatures and I couldn’t control anything until you were suddenly gone and the dog was missing and I prayed to Whatever was listening that if Chloe showed up I would forgive Whatever, and then the call came from the police and she and I threw our bodies against the cage bars until they were opened and we kissed each other and cried and I swore to never let anything happen to her and to love her with all my heart until the world spun in reverse and I could make everything that ever went wrong for you right—try not to imagine that body burning to ash?

On what day do you end a ten-year blood oath?

After you had Chloe for a few months, you called me in a panic. Chloe was missing, had jumped from the open window of your car while you were in the bank. In spite of my rage and worry, I drove you around town for two days until we found the dog in a Taoist church parking lot, unharmed and happy as you please. When I was 20, another phone call: Chloe is listing and stumbling. And an immediate call back: it’s okay, don’t come down. We think she ate a pot brownie. I’m 21: Chloe stepped on broken glass and I can’t afford a vet. Can I bum $100 for stitches? I’m 23: Chloe was bitten by a rattlesnake, but she’s fine. They gave her anti-venom and we’re picking her up tomorrow.

To the untrained ear this might sounds like bad parenting. No offense. But listen to me, I’m another creature raised by you: it was one animal respecting another animal’s joie de vivre. Emotional license, you used to say to me, when we fought. “I gave you emotional license! I never told you what you could and couldn’t think or feel.” Chloe traveled, met children and jazz musicians, played in the surf, rolled in mud, got taken to bars (and thrown out of them, with you), slept on a human bed, ate boiled chicken and rice. Mom, the measure of your love wasn’t worry and restriction. It was pleasure.

You’d hate the way she looks now, this long, thin caramel-colored body with its jutting shoulders and spine—but she looks peaceful swallowed up by the down comforter we’ve indulged her in. Every now and then she shudders, as she has for about a year, at first seldomly and now frequently. She flinches, too, violent facial seizures that chatter her teeth. She paces at night, gives this heartbreaking whinny. She groans, reluctant to lie down, stiff and stumbling with the pain of arthritis, confusion. We tried anti-senility drugs, but she still docks herself into tight corners and can’t back out of them. She is mostly blind and deaf. Pain meds? Valium? And what then? This isn’t the dog you knew. She’s 100.

It just occurred to me that you left her when she was around 50, your age. A couple of wild, middle-aged ladies. Thelma and Louise. Can you imagine being 100? Do you blame me for making this choice?

There are four Greenie bones left. She loves her Greenies. On Saturday I’ll give her two.

What about this case of dog food—it’s good stuff, expensive. Grain-free, hand-cooked by virgins in a cathedral in Paris, I don’t know. I just can’t cook chicken and rice each week, like you did. I’m selfish and I’m lazy and I never had children and I don’t have your hands.

There are six cans left, and Saturday is two dinners away. Should I instead give her a hot dog? A warm one, bun and all? Or I’ll make her a meatloaf. I’ll give her a can of tuna—the kind with sodium. Anything you want, my love. She flinches so hard her teeth chatter, then she whimpers.

There has to be another way out of here besides loss. Loss, again. Also, it’s not my right. It’s not my call. It’s your call, and you’re gone and I have to pull the trigger on my own. And suddenly I look over this long expanse of time and I’m embarrassed. Did I really think I could make this dog live forever? Did I really think that I could reverse the turning of the Earth? Did I think that by loving Chloe enough I could undo all of your tragedies, one by one, until you were undead and we had all the time in the world again?

How long after she started feeling pain and misery did I keep this dog alive, waiting for the miracle to come?

After you died, almost ten years ago (really?), I held Chloe and thought about the eventual end of her life. We were fresh from scattering your ashes in the Pacific. In those days I was finding meaning all over the place, tying up cosmic loose ends—making oaths. I’ll write a book was one promise. Another was this: when it was time for Chloe to pass, whenever that would be, I would whisper in her ear, Go find Mom. I would bring her ashes to you, off the coast of Dana Point, and make right what once went wrong. Put back together what violence had torn apart.

But that was when we were young and glorious and nothing could touch us—when there were no Saturdays at 12:30, only tomorrows stretched out as far as you could see.

Mom, if you’re anywhere you can feel this, go to the Eastern Gate on Saturday and meet your dog.

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Why Your Story Was Rejected

I love great art and I want you to make more great art for me to love. In that selfish-but-awkwardly-well-meaning spirit, I offer you a sliver of wisdom garnered from reading tons of submissions over the centuries. These are mostly concerned with otherwise well-written or voicey manuscripts—writers that obviously have a lot of natural talent and/or potential.

If I seem unsympathetic or harsh, it’s because by jove! we haven’t got much time to do our best work. So let’s get down to brass tacks.

*I won’t bother with some of the more obvious “don’ts” in writing because I’ve read that post 682 times and don’t want to beat a dead horse until it’s deader than it was before you started beating it, which was already pretty dead.

Here’s Why I Rejected Your Manuscript:

1. Your narrator is a transparent eyeball.
Emerson praised the necessity of going into the wilderness to lose oneself entirely, to be nothing and see all, to make oneself a transparent eyeball in order to achieve oneness with the god of creation.

The god of creation may love a transparent eyeball. Your reader does not.

If you find that you’ve written a narrator who exists solely to report what is going on, who seems to want/love/hate/fear nothing, who has no worldview, then what you’ve done is found your way into your story with a (perhaps) clever voice. Good for you! But you have to kill that narrator and their fashionable over it ennui that might have gotten them/you tail in high school, but will bore the reader to splinters.

But what if the action/plot is so wonderful the narrator just has to stay out of the way?

If, while writing, your story does that wonderful thing where it takes the leash in its own mouth and starts to pull in a direction that focuses entirely on the characters and situations being reported, honestly ask yourself what the narrator has to bring to it, as a thinking, feeling, disgusting, wonderful human being.

If the answer is nothing, then cut them out of the story and turn it into a 3rd omniscient (removed). You might instead go 3rd close and switch POVs. Do anything else: Just lose the all-seeing, non-human motherfucker.

Now maybe you can’t ditch them—you love the bastard. Something about them has you intrigued. Okay, let them talk to you. Grab another page and let your narrator just ramble, babble, scream, cry, bitch….get all their boring narcissistic crap out until they say something revealing. They want something, even if it’s a sandwich. Keep that want in mind while you go back into the story—let it color how everyone and everything is described. Render unto your narrator that which is your narrator’s!

Or, if you think your narrator is lying to you, is afraid to come out, you can play in a fecund garden of unreliability—you’ll be telling two stories at once: the what’s-happening, face-value story, and the truly profound one being revealed in the narrator’s mirror reflection.

See:

  • Catcher in the Rye (I get the sense that a lot of young writers are mistaking Holden’s hold me/hate me misanthropy for a cool aloofness and trying to emulate it)
  • Gatsby (hint: it’s not all about Gatsby)
  • Faulkner’s poop-yourself-scary-ghost-story “A Rose for Miss Emily” (narrator as town)
  • Heart of Darkness (not one, but two narrators adding their own filters and reactions to Kurtz)

2. Your story takes place in a bar and consists nearly entirely of sexy, witty-ish banter. (Doubles in travesty when coupled, as it often is, with #1)

A writing teacher (or eight) was fond of saying, “Imagine you are in a plane that’s going down and you have time to tell one story. What is it?” This scenario drives home just what it is that unites the works who’ve ascended to Olympus: we give a shit. Something important and true has been revealed about our humanity, our world, ourselves.

If a bunch of twenty-or-thirtysomethings dialoguing and flirting in a bar is the most important and true thing you can conjure up, you need to sell all your belongings and hitch a ride on the next freighter going anywhere. Take a vow of silence for a year. Become the transparent eyeball I just warned you not to let your narrator become.

You have watched too many mumblecore movies. You have had too many significant personal moments in bars. Don’t feel bad, we’ve all been there. But your fun time/philosophical discussion/lusty friction hasn’t earned the right to be the one tale you must tell about being human. Bars (and drugs and other things tyro writers use for sex appeal) destroy people, they house the lonely, they embrace the unloved, they are the last train to oblivion, but they are not not not not not a place for you to spend 15 pages acting out your real-life sexual frustrations.

How to use a bar/drunkenness/drugs:

  • Denis Johnson
  • Raymond Carver
  • Mary Karr
  • Murrr, fine, Bukowski. If you have an example of Bukowski that was devastating for you, please tell.
  • Hunter S Thompson — I realize for every grump like me who doesn’t love Bukowski, there’s a grump who argues with me about my love for HST.

3. You spend 5, 10, 15 pages on dialogue like this:

“Cristie’s just jealous because you can hold your liquor better than she can.”
“Shut up!” Christie punched Jim in the shoulder. “Besides, I thought you liked a girl who can’t hold her liquor. They’re so much easier.”
“Easier than what?” Jim asked innocently, sipping his beer.
“Easier than you like to think you like,” she smirked.

*This is a composite of dialogue from three entirely separate submissions I read (almost in a row), and which set off the conniption fit that is this blog post.

Awful attributes aside, this is not a story. It’s a [terrible] script. Reformat it, move to Los Angeles, and shove it in every new acquaintance’s face. They’ll LOVE it—and you for bringing it to them.

4. (Okay, I’ll include one basic everyone-should-know-this rule because I’ve seen an alarming number of these transgressions) SPELL IT RIGHT

If you can’t tell the difference between “they’re” and “their,” how can I trust that you understand language enough to wield it? If you can’t take the trouble to Google “iPad” then how can I trust you are including the word three times in the first page for a good reason?

There is never a good reason.

There is never a good reason to do that.

And then punctuation. Punctuation is the rhythm section of your band. It tells you when to slow down, speed up, stop, hang on a minute…  If you don’t have an expert grasp on punctuation, I don’t trust you will take me where you wanted me to go.

Doing some lazy math I calculate that 10% of the submissions I read have a typo or grammatical error or language misuse in the first three sentences.

The first three.

All is intentional, must feel intentional for the reader to relax into your hands.

And that strikes at the heart of a fundamental problem I see repeated most often in student submissions: lazy, self-centered storytellers. (Take heart, kiddos: if lazy aloofness is attributed to the young amateur, the older amateur will copy mediocre genre formulas, right down to the hackneyed phrasing and embarrassing sex scenes.)

It’s often lamented about this generation that they keep expecting to be rewarded just for showing up—on the page and everywhere. But you know, they said my generation was apathetic and full of ourselves. And my hippie parents and their friends were just lazy narcissists. It’s just youth. It’s just starting out in anything. Give a shit about being the best. Show up and practice and listen to your idols and listen to your deep, personal, one-of-a-motherfucking-kind voice, and honor that it is hard, honor that you have to make mistakes, honor that you will try not to screw up in the same way this time, read advice like this, hate it, chew it over, see what sticks in your craw, take what resonates as “this is currently my problem, yes” and ignore the rest—the right lesson for you will find you at the right time.

But for godssake, don’t just show up. Don’t be safe. Don’t be sexy and cool. Be excellent. Tell the story you’ll wish you told while you were falling to the earth.

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Weather is here, wish you were beautiful

I follow her trajectory in blood. A smear on the wall, on the closet door, another around the corner. Using a paper towel and the Windex left in the apartment when we moved in, I wipe shades of red off the radiator, an outlet, the back of the new nightstand. Behind me, I hear her clicking around on the hardwood floors, and I know she is pacing in a manic circle, tongue lolling out of her mouth, rear leg giving out and sliding every other step. Next, I wet a washcloth and try to soak the corner of the comforter where it’s bright red like it was paintbrushed on. I give up and use the same washcloth to wipe black tears from my cheeks.

I am killing my dog. Or she is killing herself. Either way, neither of us is happy.

I realize it’s oddly quiet and stand up to see across the room, where she has wandered off the carpet and slid into her Bambi pose, all four limbs splayed helplessly out. It’s what happens when she breaks out of the barricade we have built out of our unpacked boxes and the few sticks of furniture left by the previous tenant. A black vinyl easy chair, a matching ottoman. Nat’s rolling wine bags he used for work until he got this job working nights at a wine shop — nights that mean I have to race home from Newark, transferring from train to subway to another subway and then walking fast the seven blocks home to make sure the dog hasn’t escaped her ramshackle citadel and rammed her head bloody, possessed by some unrelenting, insane motor no one — not her vet, not other dog owners, not the internet — can explain.

Tonight I hobbled those seven blocks painfully, having broken my little toe while tripping over Chloe’s makeshift walls; running late because I’d had a panic attack on the train out of Newark and was still woozy by the time I got to Penn Station, and took the uptown A instead of the downtown one. A black and turquoise bruise rages between my toes, which now throbs from racing home, hobbling upstairs, finding the dog warbling her “gotta pee” woes (and blissfully unaware that she is bleeding from the head), snatching her up and harnessing her, hobbling back downstairs and trying to balance her 29 pounds in one arm while opening first one heavy door and then the second, dropping her on the concrete in time for her to relieve herself magnificently, and then picking her up to carry her back inside. Then chasing after her with a wet wad of tissues, trying to tie a bandana around her forehead, thinking how very funny this would all be in a film or told as a story, many years from now, and not by me.

When she stepped on my broken toe — twice — I cried out and the second time I swatted her in anger, on her bottom. And that was when I sat on the floor and let her pace around in circles, panting while I choked and gasped, holding her bloody tissues to my face.

So now she’s sprawled on the floor like a sad Bambi, her eyes half shut and her mouth pulled into a grimace. Miserable. Tortured. And absolutely imprisoned.

***

When we told people we were moving to New York, they all wondered the same thing: What about Chloe?

Well, what about her? we replied. She’s coming with. She’s 17 — all she does is sleep and wander up and down the block twice a day.

Moving is stressful for dogs, they said.

Yes, but those are dogs that are aware of their surroundings. Chloe is senile, mostly deaf, and half blind. She doesn’t play, doesn’t run, and can barely even walk. She can do that in Brooklyn as well as she can in Austin.

Still, we worried. We stayed up nights reassuring each other that if this move turned out badly for us — if I got depressed or if my long-latent panic attacks came back, if we were fighting and unhappy, if the dog wasn’t doing well — we’d abort and come back. Work vacation, we called it. And we said it every time we started to get really down about things.

Work vacation. And, holy shit. The things we had to get down about.

The person who sublet us this apartment turned out to be a certifiable psychopath whose six-month decline into madness had been witnessed by his neighbors and the bartenders and shopkeepers in the area. We showed up at 9:00 at night, exhausted from a three-day drive (during which we had to drug Chloe because she was pitching herself around the backseat like a hysteric), and desperate to get ourselves and the dog comfortable as soon as possible. He hadn’t removed so much as a toothbrush, and while we were expecting the place to be furnished, we didn’t expect the used Q-Tips and condom wrappers on the bedroom floor, nor the enormous rubber butt plug in the closet. Nor the putrified scallions reeking in the fridge under a puddle of hardening fish sauce. Nor the roaches. Nor the mouse turds and what I later guessed was dried mouse pee around the edges of the stove and sink.

We were too tired to demand our security deposit back and go to a hotel. And I am too handy with a mop. Over the next month, as money flew out of our hands and we ravenously chewed through a new credit card, I woke up each morning and sent out my resume and wrote cover letters, and then cleaned. I scrubbed the kitchen floors and the grease-coated backsplash and I bleached the tub and toilet.

Clean that house yourself, a friend told me, and you’ll know exactly how clean it is.

There was peace in that, and control, and since no one was contacting me about a job — 10 places applied to, 15, 20 — I cleaned.

And we tried to be optimistic, and we had wine with the neighbors, who told us all the stories, and we said, “At least we got great neighbors!”

But because the crazy person hadn’t asked his landlord if he could sublet, and because he hadn’t paid the rent in two months, nor reimbursed them for the door he gloriously karate-chopped to splinters (one of the neighbors’ more dramatically rendered incidents), he was evicted and we had our own conversation with the owners. They agreed to rent to us once he’d moved out, which was supposed to be September 30. But wacky New York renter’s laws being what they are (for better or worse, they do protect a tenant well, I’ll give them that), he could choose to fight the eviction and squat, neither paying rent nor budging, for another several months.
This risk would have been too much for us, but 1) we have crazy faith that things will work out for us (or we’re too lazy to be alarmed), 2) we loved the neighbors and neighborhood too much, 3) the rent if we stayed was going to be way less than anything else we’d get of this size and location, and 4) we were utterly out of money. No money to start over someplace else. Just enough to pay next month’s rent to the landlords. If the guy left.

***

About now, most of you reading this are saying, What are you nuts? Get the hell out of Dodge! This is way too much insanity for self-respecting adults to contend with. But one of the things that bonded my husband and I from the start was our familiarity with insanity and tribulation, and our lack of fear of either. The worst things had already happened to us, hadn’t they? Things that would take other people down? All other trials we deem acceptable, and even appreciate them for their character-giving aspects. Or we did. Right about now, fuck trial and fuck tribulation. After a time, they’re just bad for the heart.

***

Eventually, there was a long and terrible episode that crescendoed with the guy screaming, naked but for an apron, in the kitchen, breaking glasses and punching the wall, accusing us of being “not good people” and “going back on every gentleman’s agreement we’d made”, of having poor character and rich families (that one threw us until we remembered he’s a narcissist, one of those people who reflects himself on the surfaces of other people, and that it was his own parents who flew up here from Florida to pay his rent). And the cops came and went, and for a taut two hours, I breathlessly text messaged with my husband from the upstairs neighbor’s apartment, while he hid in the bedroom of the sublet with Chloe, not allowed to “engage” at all with the crazy guy but also afraid to leave and get locked out.

When all was done and we knew he’d left the building, the tenants of the three units all came out and rejoiced. We drank and told stories and laughed and shook. I went to bed still shaking and had dreams he was standing over us with a knife, telling us we were not good people.

***

Shortly after he was gone and we signed a lease and put the last of our cash into these good people’s hands, I was hired at a good rate and at a reputable company of some size. Things were looking up, and we let ourselves celebrate on the credit card, buying ourselves a bed and a few necessities, going to a fancy dinner for my birthday and then his, seeing a friend on Broadway. We began to enjoy this city. But as soon as we started to relax, Chloe’s anxious pacing and self-harming escalated radically, and we would come home from dinner to find her escaped and stuck under the bed, having shit herself and, one time, even having ripped out her hind dew claws. We became reluctant to make plans in the evening, which meant getting cut off from much-needed socializing, and which made me very depressed. Plus, the new job was a long commute away and it further depressed me that it was not in New York, the city I’d moved to out of an urgent need to be a part of it. And then my husband got a job working nights and weekends in a wine shop, which he much preferred, and we agreed that anything that made either of us happier was an automatic “Yes,” but it meant that I had to race home after work in order to catch Chloe before she created disaster. So no happy hours with coworkers, no meeting friends in the city for a drink. Instead, I’d come home and rescue and chase and clean up blood and cry.

***

Chloe’s doctors have been telling me for 9 years that she has a heart murmur of some severity. They tell me eventually it will fill her lungs with fluid and she will need surgery or medication. So far, it hasn’t, but I can feel the murmur when I lay her long, light body on mine and hug her firmly under her front legs, like Temple Grandin taught. I’m all cried out and the wad of bloody tissues is beside us on the floor. I hold her against me and breathe slowly, feeling her head gradually relax and flop into my neck, my shoulder cold then warm where her nose breathes against it. Thump thump thipthipthip thump-thip thipthipthip. The valve seems confused, panicked. It opens and shuts without rhythm, as haphazard as the boxes we stack each night, exhausted and desperate to engineer new ways to keep us all safe and happy. Thump thipthipthip thump thipthip thump.

How long can a heartbeat like this sustain?

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