Happy Birthday, John Keats!

Hey, Fickle Readers! Here’s a nifty literary fact for anyone who’s ready to bow out of the Spooooooky Ooky Ghouly Halloween schtick for this year: John Keats was born on Halloween in 1795. He was not, in fact, a particularly scary person, as he only grew to be five feet tall and spent most of his non-writing life studying medicine and being frail from tuberculosis. But he was scary good at poetry, and his career was scary incredible (if that’s a term): he began writing poetry at about age 19 and stopped a year or so before his death at age 25. Yup, that’s right: at around the time that most of us are enjoying hazy, carefree college days and racking up five or six figures of student loan debt, Keats was writing some of the greatest works of English literature. And then he died. From an existential angst perspective, it’s hard to get creepier than that.

Also, here in the States, this weekend marks the end of Daylight Savings Time. So get ready for some bleak winter weather and time spent running around like rats in a dimly lit maze, everyone! To remind you that fall isn’t all that terrible, why not read Keats’s lesser-known yet brilliant seasonal ode To AutumnIt’s a lovely and poignant farewell to comfortable weather. Here’s a taste (one of my favorite of all his stanzas, by the way):

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they? 
  Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, 
  And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn 
  Among the river sallows, borne aloft
    Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies; 
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn; 
  Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
  The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft, 
    And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

My Life on Lupus: Dreaming of Mice

Boy, how do I describe a set of days with lupus? Despite the fact that there are a lot of bloggers out there talking about a lot of chronic conditions, I have a hard time focusing on a storyline or a metaphor. Not even the wolf or Christine Miserandino’s spoon analogy does it for me. Maybe it’s because I’m a hardened loner and would rather come up with my own metaphors, thank you very much. (Although the spoons are really as good as anything I’ve found to explain the ups and downs of trying to manage an illness like lupus.) Maybe on bad days I’d rather be escaping my fatigue and aches and gloomy moods than trying to craft them into an overriding conceit that can help me weather things out. When I feel crappy, knowing why I feel crappy doesn’t help much. I want away from all the dreariness. I want constant entertainment and mental stimulation to keep my mind off things. I don’t want to feel like I’m stuck indefinitely at home, even when I am.

So ultimately what happens is, I sense my lupus in little bits and fragments, lonely and discontinuous from my functioning life. For example, starting Friday of last week, for about 36 hours, I was sleeping off some sort of bug I caught at my therapist’s office. (No, really, I started feeling dizzy and strange as I sat in the chair with my therapist. I’m guessing the germs found their way there because she and her group charge an exorbitant late cancellation fee, so any sick people show up rather than pay. I myself was charged said fee because the week before, I was also sick. Ironically, as the receptionist is telling me I owe them a huge sum of money for not bringing my germs to their office, she’s also asking me if I’ve been to West Africa recently. I wonder if I’d said yes, they would have charged me a late cancellation fee.)

Sleeping for two days is actually kind of nice, because you can just drift away and not worry about the usual concerns, the laundry, the appointments, the house falling to pieces around you. On Sunday, though, you’re starting to move around again, going back to normal life. And like a diver returning to the surface, who has to move through layers of water pressure to get acclimated, I move through waves of anxiety and crabbiness as I realize everything I have to deal with is still there waiting, even though I never quite have enough physical or mental energy to engage with it. I guess that would be a difference between lupus and deep-sea diving: when you go back to Life on the Surface from the midnight zone, you’re never 100% ready for the light.

So Sunday was a halfway-crappy day. There was sunshine I missed. There was work I had to stay up late to do. Then Monday rolled around, with 70-degree temperatures–real collegiate weather, and likely the last of the warm stuff for quite a while. Even though Sunday night’s sleep wasn’t long, I’d banked a lot of shuteye already, and I felt amazing. I had errands to run, but I decided, screw it, I feel like exploring. Recently, I’ve been looking at a lot of old pictures online, so I thought, why not try to find some old postcards? I hit the local antique stores and thrift shops. Didn’t find any postcards, but I did collect a whole bunch of lovely little knickknacks: a set of Tupperware cups, in neon colors, that looked like the kind I used to drink from when I was a kid; a watch that runs on old-fashioned winding; two Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books from the 1980s; an old British version of Monopoly Jr. I went to four stores and spent about $10 total. Felt awesome. Picked up my six-year-old from school, where he’d just had his science-club class and was full of stories. Life seemed tremendous. I couldn’t see how I’d ever be blue again.

Then today arrives. The temperature drops. I don’t get any sleep last night, either, so I have to nap so I can function. Wake up in a sludgy fog. Can’t get going. Don’t like being cold and stiff. Have to go to the drug store and explain for the umpteenth time how to fill one of my prescriptions, which comes in a nonstandard dose but which I’ve taken since 1998 (and have been filling at this same pharmacy since 2003). I get things done, but not as much as I want. (It’s never as much as I want, except for yesterday, when the sun was shining and I felt like I had infinite time on my hands.) Feel depressed. I know it’s because of the winter coming on, and I can’t really fight that.

Either during the night or during the morning nap, I have a terrible mouse dream. I have these off and on, even when the little bastards aren’t sneaking into the house to get warm and shooting across our floors. In the dream, a mouse pops into our well-lit living room–the first mouse I’ve seen in several days. I tell my husband, I try to show him. Then I realize there’s a hole in the wall that the mouse is not only escaping through, but building as I watch. It exits out another hole, one that I haven’t seen. Then, a huge swarm of mice starts pouring out of the second hole, more than I’ve ever seen in our house, more than I’ve seen anywhere. I’m sick to my stomach. I can’t even look at them. I’m yelling for my husband to do something, but I’ve willed myself not to see anything. I can’t help. I can’t do anything besides squirm.

Honestly, I don’t know what the mouse dreams mean. This latest dream was unusual, in that my husband was there with me. Most of the time, I have to go up into a room on a higher floor, in our decrepit house (sometimes it’s a rental), and I know the mice will be in there, everywhere, and I’ll barely be able to walk. I don’t know if this is some sort of subconscious commentary on my physical state, my chronic illness, my overall lunacy, or none of the above. I doubt if I can use mice in a metaphor for lupus. Seems important, but the whole mouse thing disgusts me so much I refuse to consider considering it.

Today, in the mail, I got a light therapy box, something that my psychiatrist (who works in the same office as my therapist) has been pushing me to get for a while. We’ll see if I can stave off the gloominess this winter. Otherwise, it’s going to be another long one.

Update on Jan Hooks: There Is No Update

It’s been two and a half weeks since Jan Hooks, SNL superstar and amazing actress and comedian, died of an “undisclosed illness.” Every day since her death, I’ve put off writing this follow-up post. I wanted to wait until someone gave the world some kind of statement on what sort of illness she struggled with, why she seemed heavier in recent years, why her face looked puffy and a little misshapen. (All my links to sources with pictures are here, in my original post.) I guessed her changing looks might have been due to corticosteroid use, possibly related to a chronic illness, but that was pure speculation on my part. I’ve been anxiously awaiting a statement from a reliable source that provides a little more information. At the very least, I want to make sure I correct myself if, in my rush to fill a gap in the public knowledge of the situation, I’ve pulled something completely out of my ass.

Two-and-half-weeks later, however, we the total strangers interested in Hooks’s life and death still have no answers. I’m guessing, too, that we’re not going to get any answers anytime soon. The only news outlet I can find that’s commented on Hooks’s cause of death has been the Daily Mail in the UK, which published this article on October 10th claiming that Hooks had cancer. However, no other media outlet seems to be running with this story. Recently, for example, several reports covering Tina Fey’s tribute to Hooks at the Elle Women in Hollywood Awards either don’t mention a cause of death or cite the ambiguous “undisclosed illness.” (In their coverage of Fey’s remarks, Yahoo TV does manage to straddle the line between knowing and not knowing: “While the cause of [Hooks’s] death has yet to be disclosed, it’s believed she died from cancer.”) This hesitation might be because of the fact that the Daily Mail is not known for its trustworthy reporting. (I happen to know that popular humor website Cracked.com will not accept the Daily Mail as source material in its article pitches. That’s right: professional purveyors of dick and boob jokes think the Daily Mail is beneath their editorial standards.)

So what’s with all the silence? I couldn’t say, but I’m not going to press the issue. Illness and death are hard topics in and of themselves. I don’t want to put pressure on a grieving family, who owes me nothing, just because I happen to be curious about a famous family member’s medical history. Jan Hooks died young. For now, that will have to be that.

There are also plenty of other things about Hooks’s life and career to talk about. One major issue that Fey brought up: why didn’t Hooks have a bigger career? (Fey’s exact words were: “Jan deserved a big movie career. Certainly as big as Rob Schneider’s f—ing career. She was a bigger star on ‘SNL.'”) Did Hooks run into problems as a female performer? Did her anxiety and stage fright become too overwhelming? (Okay, I know, I’m back on the medical speculation. But anxiety’s another big deal in my life, and once again I’m curious about how Hooks coped.) Did Hooks’s changing appearance contribute to her fading into the background in the entertainment industry? Why did looks even matter, when she kicked so much ass as Jenna Maroney’s mother, Verna, on “30 Rock”? Doesn’t it suck that we now live in a world without Jan Hooks, Gilda Radner, and Joan Rivers? And Robin Williams and Phil Hartman? Come on, Grim Reaper, give us a break. We need all the laughs we can get these days.

Anyway, here’s a funny, funny clip from Hooks’s days at SNL. I had no idea she had a Kathie Lee Gifford in her repertoire. Also interesting to see how much things have changed since the 1980s–and how much they haven’t. Enjoy!


My Life on Lupus: Perpetual Insomniac

If you knew what time it was, you’d know that I shouldn’t be awake writing this. My sleep schedule is a mess. Somehow, unless I’m about to pass out from fatigue, I always get a surge of anxiety right when my head hits the pillow. I’ve heard tell that anxiety and lupus fatigue go together sometimes. I believe it.

Or maybe I’m just a workaholic. For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to organize my life better. I’ve always kept track of my appointment schedules in my head, but now that I’m an Old Coot (and don’t sleep particularly well, either), I’ve been messing things up, forgetting what I’m supposed to do, angsting about all the things I must do, and then playing stupid computer games long into the night, until all my tasks sink into oblivion. If I go to sleep without my daily hit of oblivion, the anxiety rears its ugly head. All I have to do. All I haven’t done with my life. All I should be doing to, say, get a work-at-home job. All I must be doing to take care of myself. Must, must, must. It’s a painful thing.

Then, there are the times when my body aches all over. My calves, my ankles, my elbows, my wrists. The tendons in my knees feel like little gnomes are pinching the hell out of them. My feet are especially susceptible. I have bumps and lumps that gnaw. My arches are almost always little beds of fiery pain. There’s bursitis in my hips, too. Consarnit. I hate sounding like an 80-year-old woman.

Then there’s the ruminating, and the weighing. The wondering if I should take an extra anti-anxiety pill, but will that make me foggy tomorrow? Or a drug-dependent freak?

In my ruminating moods, I get hung up on morbid topics. Recently, I watched the documentary “There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane,” about Diane Schuler, the Perfect Mom and well-respected executive at a cable company who in 2009 drove 70 miles per hour the wrong way up the Taconic State Parkway, crashed head-on into an SUV, and killed herself, her 2-year-old daughter, her three nieces, all of whom were under age 9, and the three men in the SUV she collided with. No one knew what happened until the toxicology report came back: she had the equivalent of ten drinks in her system as well as THC, the active ingredient in pot. Her husband flat-out said this was untrue and that the lab made a mistake, but an independent lab test that he himself authorized showed the same thing. The story is chilling. No one knows what the hell happened, why this Perfect Mom drank and smoked pot with her kids in the car. By the time she was driving herself and a van full of children to their deaths, she was probably operating under some drug-induced blackout. But we’ll probably never know the answer. I want to know the answer. I’ve been thinking about this for days.

Why does this matter now, six years after the event? Because my brain latched onto it and won’t let go. Because I’d rather think about someone else’s horrible trauma than ponder my own existence, sitting at home most days, sick half the time, trying to find a way to get myself a telecommuting job I won’t hate. Must get myself out there. Must start writing more. Must be a good mother and wife. Must clean my house, which now has one or more mice skittering around in it. Must, must, must.


A Prize for New Poets (Really!): The Russell Prize at Two Sylvias Press

Hey, Fickle Readers! I’m breaking my incommunicado streak (first I was working on my very first book review, then I was sick; more exciting details to come!) to tell you all about a neat prize for poets who haven’t yet published their first book OR chapbook of poems. It’s called the Russell Prize, and it’s named after the parents of Kelli Russell Agodon, who’s an extraordinary poet herself and co-founder of the prize-awarding organization, Two Sylvias Press.

What’s cool about this award? Well, first of all, there’s no entry fee. As long as you haven’t yet published a chapbook or full-length book of poetry, you can submit your work and be considered for the award. Submission materials include three poems, a short bio, and a few paragraphs explaining how the award would help your career. (There is a more careful guideline breakdown on the web site, so please be sure to check here for complete instructions on applying.)

Second cool thing about this prize is the award itself: $500 and a small medallion. I would totally love to have won a medallion at some point early in my career, but tragically I’m ineligible for the Russell Prize. So enter this contest and let me live through you! Seriously! If you win, I’ll totally post a picture of you with your medal on my blog! Booyah!

Submissions for the Russell Prize open tomorrow, October 20th, and must be received by midnight PST on November 2nd, 2014. So get your best stuff together, Fickle Readers who are also up-and-coming poets! And good luck!!

And Now: Homemade Animated YouTube Videos about Writing and Academia!

[WARNING: Some of the language in the following clips is NSFW. Also, much of this material is extremely funny and painfully true. Or possibly painfully funny and extremely true.]

Oh, Dinty W. Moore, how do you always know how to cheer me up? Here’s what he posted the other day on Facebook. Apparently, it’s an old favorite:

And here’s another video about the job-hunting process for English PhDs. The fact that one of the characters is in a cage is actually a plot point. Get ready:

On Jan Hooks, Looks, and Illness: RIP to Yet Another Talented Comedienne

Just heard that Jan Hooks passed away today at age 57. She was probably best known for her work as an SNL cast member during its mid-1980s heyday, although she had other memorable performances on Designing Women30 Rock, and The Simpsons (as Apu’s wife, Manjula). I’m old enough to remember her on SNL. She was an absolute scream, and one of the few cast members you could count on to always be funny. That’s a talent in and of itself. We’ll miss you, Jan.

The Internet is reporting that Hooks died after “battling a ‘serious illness.'” No word yet on what that illness was, but pictures of Hooks from the past ten years or so show her looking heavy and puffy faced–two symptoms, as those of us with immune system disorders know, that are synonymous with corticosteroid use. I’m not trying to speculate on her medical condition, but it’s clear that whatever she had probably affected her life for quite a while. And since she was an actress, she probably got slammed with the double-whammy of having to deal with the impact of illness on her ability to perform and on her physical appearance.

Think of Kathleen Turner, who came down with rheumatoid arthritis in the 1990s and felt she had to excuse her bloating and wobbliness on an alcohol problem, because it was a more acceptable excuse than being sick. Jesse Green of the New York Times reports that later Turner did confess to drinking heavily to combat the pain caused by RA. Even though I’m sure that the booze didn’t help the course of her disease, Green’s subtle oh-that-explains-it attitude toward Turner’s stint at rehab seems to reflect the usual ambivalence healthy people have over illness: so much easier to think it’s all the sick person’s fault, and therefore under her control.

Cut to 2010, when, in response to a blog griping about how crappy Jan Hooks looks in ads for her first guest appearance on 30 Rock, an anonymous commenter had this to say:

Jan, you fat hag, at fifty-two you better have a fatal illness to look that bad. Jesus Christ on a cross, your only job as an actor is to keep your self looking good.

Fat titties do not compensate for hagdom.

Well, guess what, Anonymous Commentator? Turns out Jan probably did have a fatal illness when she taped that show. Not that there’s anything wrong with being fat on T.V. for non-illness-related reasons, or being fat anywhere else, for that matter. Contrary to your apparent belief that women should not accost your eye with anything other than a slim-to-anorexic physique, it’s better to be plump and healthy than skinny and unwell. And I’m sure it was better for Hooks’s overall well-being–puffy or not, heavy or not, looking good to you or not–to be able to act while her body could handle it. She happened to be a phenomenal actress and comedienne. She probably loved getting a chance to do what she did best. And with some fatal illnesses, you never know when those chances will come.