Don’t take my word for it, but I’m an incredibly funny guy. I was once described by writer John Strausbaugh in the NYPress as a “stand-up poet” in a preview he wrote for a reading I did in New York—which was Strausbaugh’s way of saying that I’m the sort of poet who won’t bore you and will actually make you laugh. Of course, it also put the focus for some people solely on the comic side of my work—which, although it’s certainly there, is balanced by a dark side. This side I present in a much more subtle way than the comedy—though you don’t need to be goddamn Oprah Winfrey to fucking see it. Still, whenever someone comes up to me after a reading and says, “You’re funny,” I feel like smacking him.
Before I go any further, let me point out that I felt like this way before Joe Pesci ever said “What do you mean funny? Like a clown? Like I’m here to amuse you?” in Goodfellas. And it’s the less perceptive among us who seem think that comedy is always something that lacks depth, that great art has to involve tragedy, like when almost the entire cast dies in King Lear. Sometimes great art can go something like this Frank O’Hara poem:
Wouldn’t it be funny
if The Finger had designed us
to shit just once a week?
all week long we’d get fatter
and fatter and then on Sunday morning
while everyone’s in church
When I wrote my own poem about shit, I laughed aloud. Laughed even though I’d been in a really bad I-don’t-want-to-see-talk-to-or-hear-anyone kind of mood. But that’s what my work could do for me sometimes. Not the work I could get paid decently for, but the work I did that often didn’t pay anything at all—namely, my own writing. It had happened time and time again when I was depressed. I’d start writing and, whether it was a poem or a new passage in my still unfinished novel, I’d start to feel better. Sometimes I’d crack myself up with what I wrote. Other times, when it wasn’t something that was funny, I’d just feel this sense of intensity, a feeling that I’d stripped away all the bullshit to see what was really there. And the sense of clarity I’d get wasn’t always because I was beginning to sober up from a night of drinking.
For years I’d lived this mildly bi-polar existence, moving from a Hunter Thompson Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas state of mind—which to me meant a search for the truth through various states of inebriation—to these dead spots where all motion seemed to stop. But even though these dead spots could put me in a funk that would last for maybe two or three days, I was always able to lift myself out of them.
This time, though—after having been in Front Royal for a little over a year—it was different. I had spent almost an entire week during which the only thing I could do that felt right was to sleep. Lying on the sofa in our home office, every now and then I’d try to turn on the TV, but even just that seemed to make me feel worse. Reading the paper, a magazine, a novel—there wasn’t anything I could do. And eating—for Christ’s sake, eating was something I usually couldn’t stop myself from doing—felt like hard fucking labor.
Even Heather’s miscarriage six months earlier hadn’t done me in like this. Although I was down for a couple of weeks, I wasn’t feeling like a catatonic zombie from Night of the Living Dead the way I was now. And, although I was now also going through a period where all the freelance work I depended on had dried up, that wasn’t what had brought me down like this either.
No, what had happened to me—and the source of my problems—was clear: it was Front Royal. Front Royal had fucked me up. Big time. Front Royal fucked me up more than I’ve ever been fucked up before, more than any number of nights spent chain smoking and chain drinking Maker’s Mark. Even when I was in New York, drinking bourbon like a demon drunkard hell bent on destroying his and everyone else’s livers, being a total, sloppy, sometimes drooling but always charming mess, it was nothing like what Front Royal had done to me.
You always hear about country people having trouble adjusting to being in the city, but you hardly ever hear about city people who have trouble adjusting to life in the country, to that change in the speed of life, the lack of anonymity. To that place where there’s no one who can understand what the fuck your screaming means.
Plus, when I was living in a city, I always had things that could distract me from whatever was bringing me to my non-praying knees. In New York, for example, there was falafel. Yes, falafel. When I was down, there were always those hole-in-the-wall joints where I could get a falafel sandwich, for just a little over a buck, whenever a break from my existence as a carnivore was called for.
Another thing that could distract me was a bookstore with a decent selection of contemporary poetry. Here in Front Royal, whenever I had a craving for Frederick Seidel or even Lucille Clifton (whose work is usually pretty easy to find), the only book of contemporary poetry I could find would be Jewel’s A Night Without Armor. Yeah, considering what I was in the mood for, seeing nothing but Jewel on the shelf was like getting punched in the gut by Mike Tyson when he was in his I’m-going-to-make-you-my-girlfriend phase.
And, in the city, there was always that wonderful possibility that I could just get lost for a while. Lost in a ocean of beings on whose movements I could mentally surf or else just sit back and regard the spectacle. Because you can say what you will about the beauty and majesty of nature—for me, nothing beats the spectacle of masses of humans going about their daily lives in a real city.
When we moved out here, I never thought about the possibility of seeing people that I knew everyday and everywhere. Although there are people here whom I like seeing, they’re not the ones I end up seeing everyday and everywhere. Being able to disappear into a crowd—that was something I always liked about the city. Even though there wasn’t a lot of physical space between you and everyone else, there was that wide open ethereal space that being in a city creates.
Here, there’s nowhere to hide—which may be one of the things people who like living in small towns actually like about small towns. Me, it’s one of the things I hate the most. I don’t find comfort in most people and to frequently run into people I’m merely acquainted with is something I find disturbing.
What I appreciate more than anything is the kind of psychological space that living in a city creates, and I completely agree with what Henry Miller wrote at the end of Tropic of Cancer. Although it’s been years since I’ve read that book, these words have stayed with me and comforted me the way dwelling on God’s power to destroy comforts others: “Human beings make strange fauna and flora. From a distance they appear negligible; up close they are apt to appear ugly and malicious. More than anything they need to be surrounded by sufficient space—space even more than time.”
Oddly enough, it was in the less densely populated Shenandoah Valley where I felt I was missing that space. Rather than feeling a sense of freedom or release from being out here surrounded by country, I felt more like I was now in some kind of enclosed space. Instead of me being the one going out and exploring the landscape, the landscape was exploring me and, after taking my strange case under consideration, deciding that I did not belong. It was, for me, very much like the quintessential bad acid trip—when you think that things are bad and that they are going to be that way forever.
Since there was no space—the kind of space I needed—I relied on time to help me get through this period. That and weekly visits with a therapist Heather had found for me.
The first thing I let the therapist know was that I had no intention of transforming myself into some happy, easy-going person. That, undoubtedly, would kill me quicker than a drone attack because I—and I say this at the risk of sounding insufferably new agey—would no longer be me.
Yeah, I said it. And Fuck You if you rolled your eyes, but that’s my crisis here. I refuse to let this wilderness transform me into something I see as horrible, something less connected with the real world, something provincial. One of the biggest fears I have about being here is the possibility that being here may cause me to one day lose my edge. That one day, when we finally get around to visiting New York and showing Maggie my old stomping grounds, I’ll actually be afraid—afraid of all that motion, afraid of that incredible human spectacle.
I know, there are lot of things wrong with New York. But to hate it precisely for what makes it great—its endless, swirling mix of people and ideas and cultures—that’s fucked up. For me, living in Front Royal is way too far on the opposite side of living in New York. And maybe living there isn’t everyone’s idea of the good life, but if you can’t appreciate it at least in part, as far as I’m concerned you’re pretty much an asshole.
To my surprise, my therapist was completely cool with my attitude. She even seemed to appreciate it. She also understood that my condition had nothing to do with any kind of self-loathing. That it was, more than anything else, a condition sparked by my loathing of so many of the things that surrounded me here—the backwardness, the intolerance, the people I came across everyday who would immediately make it clear that I did not belong here. As if I didn’t already know that.
I’m not sure exactly what my therapist did, but somehow she taught me to relax now and then. To breathe deeply. To focus, sometimes, on just one thing instead of everything—and not just on the bad things. Then, when I’d regained my strength, she maintained, I could return to the spectacle. What she had me do was, in a way, incredibly simple—but it worked. After a couple of months I returned to what, for me, is normal, and I no longer needed my weekly visit.
Of course, I haven’t strictly followed all her recommendations. Although I don’t drink the way I used to, I still load up on caffeine. I don’t get as much exercise as she said I need, and, perhaps more importantly, I don’t get the amount of sleep she says I need. Maybe that’s why I still have these periods when, once again, it almost gets too hard for me to deal with.
Just this past month, I hit another rough spot. This time we were on vacation, in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware—one of our favorite places on the East Coast—but much of the time I was feeling irritable and markedly sad. Then, after a couple of days, I became afraid. And what I was afraid of was that when we got back to Front Royal I’d immediately feel better again. That Front Royal was now where I needed to be. That Front Royal was, for better or worse, my real home.
But as we got close, late in the evening, driving up and down the hills of John Marshall Highway on the way into town, I still had it—that sense of dread. We parked in our driveway and unloaded the van. Heather and Maggie were worn out and went to bed right away. I went into our office and sat down, still feeling miserable.
This, I thought, was a good sign. This, I thought, was a sign that, pretty soon, I’d again feel more loathing than fear.