Divine Fire

The Ancient Greeks believed that artistic inspiration came from the gods, specifically the Muses: the nine goddesses of inspiration. Poets were stricken with poetic madness or insanity when they wrote. They were more conduit than author.

At that time, Greek thinkers also believed that the intellectual giants in philosophy, politics, and the arts were all afflicted by “melancholics” or melancholy. Science has since changed how people perceive writers and creativity, and doctors have provided insight about afflicted people who previous centuries would have labeled as “insane.”

The semantics have changed, but the question remains: Are writers more prone to addiction and mood disorders?

Mood disorders are a group of psychiatric diagnoses characterized by a disturbance of the person’s mood. They include clinical depression, bipolar disorders, seasonal depression, and substance induced mood disorders.

There are plenty of stories about writers that support this hypothesis. Many great writers have displayed similar struggles: addiction, depression, and other mood disorders. I call these tendencies the Hemingway-personality.

Ernest Hemingway was a brilliant novelist that changed the landscape of prose with his economic and deft writing. His famous works are “The Sun Also Rises” and “The Old Man and the Sea.” Hemingway was an alcoholic, and he shot himself in the head with his hunting shotgun during a period of depression. Experts believe he was bipolar. Hemingway is a representative example for addicted and depressed writers.

Someone with a Hemingway-personality is more likely to enter a creative occupation, such as writing. Some scientists and psychiatrist even argue that a writer with a Hemingway-personality has an advantage in creative efforts.

Not all writers have a Hemingway-personality, of course. Writing doesn’t increase your chances of depression. I’m not suggesting that you have to suffer to make great art. However, many writers have suffered mental illness and destructive addictions.

As I write this, I’m faced by a blunt truth. I am a writer. So … do I have a Hemingway-personality?

The bestseller author Stephen King was an alcoholic and drug addict before he quit mid-life. In his book “On Writing,” he said he doesn’t remember writing one of his books because of all the drugs and alcohol. (You must read “On Writing” if you’re a writer. It’s great fun.)

“Creative people probably do run a greater risk of alcoholism and addiction than those in some other jobs, but so what?” King said. “We all look pretty much the same when we’re puking in the gutter.”

I attended a Baptist college in a dry town so I didn’t drink alcohol during college. But we had caffeine in abundance. The gas station across the street sold rows and rows of caffeinated soda and energy drinks. Liquid energy. I called it “my rocket fuel.”

Hunter S. Thompson was a novelist and journalist that wrote “The Rum Diary” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” both of which became movies starring Johnny Depp. Thompson was well-known for his use of illegal drugs and alcohol. He was, in other words, a Hemingway-personality.

Thompson collected guns. After years of painful health conditions, he used one of his guns to shoot himself in the head, a Smith & Wesson Model 645 semi-automatic pistol.

Wikipedia has a page called “Writers who committed suicide.” It’s a grim list for an aspiring writer. Suicide and depression are intimately linked: most writers on that list killed themselves because of depression.

Virginia Woolf, 1941. Ernest Hemingway, 1961. Sylvia Plath, 1963. Hunter S. Thompson, 2005. David Foster Wallace, 2008. They all committed suicide.

Scientists have done limited research on the connection between creativity and mood disorders. But enough to know a relationship exists.

“It seems likely that creative individuals do have higher rates of mood disorder in general, and bipolar disorder in particular,” Dr. Nancy C. Andreasen said. She is a scientist and neuropsychiatrist that specializes in mental illness.

Some scientists and psychiatrists even argue that a writer with a Hemingway-personality has an advantage in creative efforts.

“Clinicians who treat creative individuals with mood disorders must also confront a variety of challenges, including the fear that treatment may diminish creativity …,” Dr. Andreasen said.

Some writers believe that treatment for their mood disorder would sever their link to the Muses. They’re afraid of losing their power. But research suggests that treatment can actually increase the productivity of writers who have mood disorders.

Creativity isn’t directly liked to mood disorders: it isn’t a symptom of mental illness.

This discussion raises an interesting question: In the future, should we remove genes that can cause mood disorders? Will that reduce the number of artists in the future? Would it be worth the sacrifice?

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An Evening of Baseball

We see them before we see the stadium: the fans. Nothing specific ties them together. But I can tell. The family with the stroller, the young couple walking, the man with the baseball cap … they’re all going to the game.

I’m going to the game with my dad and my two youngest brothers. We pass the baseball stadium in our car in time to hear the national anthem. The home team is the Columbus Clippers, and this evening they’re playing the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. Both are triple-A minor league teams.

Our seats were just beyond third base. The grass of the outfield is cut into straight, beautiful lines.

I’m rooting for the Clippers because they’re the team I watched as a child. I haven’t attended a baseball game since before college.

The air is salty with peanuts and human sweat. I recently watched the movie “Moneyball” so during the game I keep watching the players’ batting averages. (But batting average is an incomplete record of a player’s offensive contribution because it doesn’t count walks. Brad Pitt/Billy Beane would be proud.)

You have to pay attention in baseball. There is split second after the ball rockets off the bat when you think, “Is it going?” Sometimes it’s a fly ball or a pop fly. But sometimes the ball keeps going and going until it’s gone.

It’s the eighth inning. The Clipper’s third baseman, Tim Fedroff, steps up to the plate. The left-hander swings, and I hear the sharp crack of ball against bat. The ball cuts up, up and then … it’s gone.

Absence

I walk out of the train and follow the crowd of people streaming across the cement platform. It is 9:46 p.m., and the sky is dark. One by one, they leave my path until I am alone on the sidewalk. I walk back to my friends’ apartment. This is the first time I’ve went this way without her.

I’m returning from J.F.K. Airport where my girlfriend got on a plane to Malaysia. I won’t see her for 3 months.

I feel hollowness in my chest as if my lungs are airless and empty. I’m breathing fast, but it has nothing to do with my physical exertion. I know it’s not a heart attack or something like that. I keep walking.

My hands hang open and later clench into fists because I’m not sure what to do with them. We agree that her hands are warmer than mine.

I walk faster without her, legs cutting across the cement sidewalk. I miss her shorter strides beside me, I miss the way I need to match the rhythm of her steps.

Lacuna

It means a gap in an artistic work, such as a manuscript or painting. Usually it’s a result of time or the elements, tiny fingers stripping the meaning away. But sometimes it’s a conscious, deliberate destruction.

Let’s pretend it’s 1982, and my girlfriend just dumped me. I might burn trinkets and letters, gifts and clothes. I can feel the heat baking my face and smell the heaviness of gasoline. I watch the flames eat away the evidence. Except it can’t erase the pathways in my mind.

With the beginning of social media, my generation must decide what to do with ex’s. They cling to your life like bits of glue on your sleeves. Relationships now leave a digital trail too. We list our relationships on Facebook and become “Facebook official,” we post pictures and statuses. My girlfriend and I have dated for six months now, and we’ve uploaded dozens of pictures. We are Facebook friends with each other’s friends.

I’m in the process of switching my Facebook over to Timeline. I’ve been amazed at how much you can edit and delete in Timeline. Click, snip, gone. This would be a natural opportunity to eliminate an ex from my profile — a Facebook purge.

When a relationship doesn’t work out, many people start a digital purge. A friend of mine recently broke up with her boyfriend, and she deleted all her profiles pictures with him. Ragged holes. It’s a lacuna. Except in this case, we know what belongs in the gap.

A digital purge creates a lacuna in your story. It’s cutting a character out of the story. Les Miserables without Éponine. The Phantom of the Opera without Erik. A Tale of Two Cities without Sidney Carton.

This removal is not complete, of course. A digital purge cannot erase a relationship. Love produces scars in your brain. My generation purges their profiles so they can get some closure and start to heal. But is a purge like that healthy? I don’t know.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a quirky film about two lovers that try to literally erase their memories of each other after a break-up. In the movie, the main character Joel asked if the process was safe. The doctor said: “Technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage. But it’s on a par with a night of heavy drinking. Nothing you’ll miss.”

The title of Eternal Sunshine comes from a poem by Alexander Pope called Eloisa to Abelard and tells the tragic, true story of two lovers in the 12th century. Famed thinker Peter Abélard became Eloisa’s teacher with the aim of winning her affection, and the two had an illicit love affair. The lovers later married. When Eloisa’s guardian discovered the affair, he had Abélard forcibly castrated. Both Abélard and Eloisa joined monasteries after his castration. In the poem, Eloisa pleads for forgetfulness, essentially amnesia:

No, fly me, fly me, far as pole from pole;
Rise Alps between us! and whole oceans roll!
Ah, come not, write not, think not once of me,
Nor share one pang of all I felt for thee.

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!

I had a crush on a girl once. She had a quick smile, and I thought she liked me. One day I logged onto Facebook and saw she had entered a relationship. My stomach clenched like a muscle cramp. I hid her from my news feed for several months because it was too painful. Time has her way of dulling pain, her homemade morphine.

But the human brain is designed to preserve memories connected to powerful emotions. Even if an amnesiac can’t remember an event, they hold the subconscious memory and emotion with them. Love will leave scar tissue in the brain.

The erasing procedure in Eternal Sunshine is an extreme form of a digital purge. When you purge your profile, you’re helping yourself to forget by speeding up the forgetfulness caused by time.

Do I want to forget the first time I told a woman I was attracted to her? I hadn’t planned on telling her that evening. We were standing outside her dorm, and the words spilled out. We sat on the spring grass, and I remember a small tree nearby was blossoming with white flowers. The day was so bright that it didn’t seem like it was evening, and we were so young. Even though I have regrets, I wouldn’t want to erase that.

I don’t have any clear answers. I’ve never purged my social media, not because I believe it’s wrong, but because I’ve never experienced a painful break-up. A gap can protect someone from a traumatic memory — so sometimes a lacuna is better.

This leaves me with a question … would Eloisa erase Abélard from her memory? I can’t imagine the anguish she endured. Eloisa tasted the ecstasy of sexual pleasure and intimacy before her husband was brutally emasculated by her family. And after his castration, she was separated from him. I wouldn’t condemn Eloisa if she erased him from her mind, removing her longing and wrapping her in the sweet peace of forgetfulness.

Dinner with Grandpa

I remember sitting at the kitchen table in my grandparent’s house. My grandpa sat at the head of the short table, and I sat at his right hand. I have strong memories about eating a particular food — meatloaf.

My grandma’s meatloaf smelled earthy and moist. I didn’t like meatloaf much when I was young. I still don’t. Part of the problem, I think, is meatloaf doesn’t look like meat.

When Grandma served meatloaf, I cringed because she expected me to eat whatever she put on my plate. She had raised my mom to eat everything on the plate. If I didn’t eat everything, I wouldn’t get to eat dessert.

I recall a specific occasion when I was served meatloaf. I added ketchup and ate slowly, but I couldn’t eat the last mouthfuls. For whatever reason, the last bit was always the hardest. I gagging, my eyes watering and jaw clenched.

Finally Grandpa scooped it onto his plate when Grandma wasn’t looking. It was our secret.

My Grandpa’s Knife

I was downstairs in my grandpa’s office. I was eight or ten, old enough to love blades and young enough to mishandle them.

A typewriter sat to the left of the desk. The machine was probably the one my grandpa used to type up his memoir. On the wall hung a Nazi officer saber that had a lion head with ruby eyes at the end of the grip. When I was older, I used to take the saber down and swing it around.

The drawers of the desk were filled with fascinating objects. A magnifying glass. Metal paperweights. There was a small knife in one of the drawers too. It might have been a letter opener. The blade was thin and flat, and the casing was a bright color — white with orange or red.

I don’t remember what I was doing, but suddenly I was bleeding. I panicked.

I ran upstairs and hid like a wounded animal — I don’t remember my reasoning. I crouched behind a large stuffed chair in the living room and clutched my sliced finger. I was ashamed and afraid.

My grandpa must have wondered where I was or had found the knife. He walked through the house and called my name. Concern laced his voice.

“Jonathan? Jonathan?”

He found me. I don’t remember exactly what happened after that. I didn’t need to go to the hospital. But I know I felt safe. The scar is still on my finger. It looks like a crease, but the scar runs against the grain. I’m glad I cut my finger with the grandpa’s knife.

First Memory

My first memory is in the Old House, and I have a persisting feeling that perhaps it’s not real.

That’s how I think of it — the Old House. My family has only lived in two houses in my remembrance. The Old House was a one-floor building with a kitchen, living room, and bedrooms.

I must have been younger than five because my brother was still in a crib. I remember walking into my brother’s room and looking at a toy sheep hanging over the crib’s guardrail. The memory is soundless like some dreams I have.

I have a habit of filling in the history of a photograph. I imagine what happened before and after the photo was taken. Did I see a photo and built a memory around it? I can’t remember. I will never know unless I see an old photo of a toy sheep hanging over the banister of my brother’s crib.

What is your first memory?

memory stacked in layers

I walk into the chapel. It is one big room with a ceiling that soars above me. My family spreads out into the room.

It is the summer of 2011, and we are on family vacation. We haven’t been together at Camp Lambec since 2008.

My parents got married in this chapel. I look over at them, wondering what they are thinking.

I’ve seen pictures: Mom talking to guests in her wedding dress, a photo of my mother’s family beside the pond.

Outside the chapel is a tree planted in memory of my grandfather. On the far side of the camp is another tree dedicated to my other grandfather.

I grew up coming to camp, and my memory of the place is stacked in layers — child, teen, college student. My parents met at Camp Lambec. All four of my grandparents worked as counselors at camp.

Grandma Bundy told me how she caught the girls in her cabin sneaking out at night to talk to the barn boys (summer staff). She told the girls they could talk to them front of the cabin or not at all.

My parents and grandparents played softball in the valley at camp. And when it rained, they ran and slid in the trapped water.

All of my grandparents except for Grandma Bundy have died. But my grandparent’s presence is heavy at camp. They are here.

As we walk around camp, we see the recreation hall is gone. The camp tore down the rec hall because it was going to fall off the cliff and onto the beach. I’ve seen pictures of people at camp standing on ground that was long ago swept out into the hungry lake.

Lake Erie continues to eat away at the beach and shoreline. My parents remember when the beach was bigger. I don’t. My memory doesn’t reach that far.

Mortal

My family stopped playing two-on-two basketball after my oldest brother joined the Marines and I went to college. Soon after, my dad started working out in 2009. My mom sent me an e-mail that mentioned this change: “Dad has been exercising.”

My dad started jogging, racing around the block with his iPod blaring. He compiled a workout playlist that contains songs such as Sweet Emotion by Aerosmith, Spirit of the Radio by Rush, and Renegade by Styx. Afterward he chugged a bottle of knock-off Gatorade.

At the time, my two younger brothers were about 9 and 7. They were around the same age as I was when I started playing basketball.

“I just want to be alive to put your younger brothers through college,” Dad said and laughed.

When I came home during my junior year, my dad had a bandage on his face, a rectangle cloth from his hairline to near his left eye. The doctors had found skin cancer and cut it out. Dad joked about it.

“Now I look like Frankenstein,” he said.

I was scared by the cancer. I realized my dad was not invulnerable or immortal. We may say our parents are mortal … but do we truly believe it until we see the bandages?

During last Thanksgiving break, I watched my dad threw the football to my youngest brothers in the backyard. I’ve always warmly called my two youngest brothers “the little guys,” but they aren’t small anymore. They’re getting long and lanky and fast.

My dad is 5’10 and 170 pounds. He’s thicker than I am, a strong old oak compared to a tall lithe sapling. He still runs, still listens to Rush on his iPod. He’s fifty-three now. If my youngest brother attends college, my dad will be sixty-three when my brother graduates.

My dad isn’t afraid of death, but he doesn’t want to leave his family. He doesn’t want to die before his kids graduate from college. He was confronted by his mortality.

“My goal is to live one day longer than your mother,” my dad said. “That way I won’t have to worry how she will be taken care of once I’m gone.”

Like Black Chalk on my Hands

My dad never exercised when I was in middle school or high school. He has always been naturally athletic. He was good at baseball, basketball, and football — better than the other dads.

My dad has five sons, including me. I’m the second oldest. We played a lot of pick-up games with him — football in the cul-de-sac and basketball in our driveway.

I remember playing basketball with him during the summer. My family has a portable hoop in our driveway, and we played two-on-two — my dad, my two older brothers, and me. (My two youngest brothers weren’t big enough to play.)

The driveway was cracked, black asphalt that left a residue on your hands like black chalk. Our driveway sloped down so the ground was several inches lower farther down the court.

My dad taught us how to play basketball.

“See the square on the backboard?” he said. “Bounce the ball off the corner for a bank shot.”

He taught us defense. “Stay between your man and the hoop,” he would say.

My dad was hard to guard inside because he had excellent body control and technique. He could shoot outside and cut inside to the hoop.

We played two-on-two tournaments. The games had a strange tempo. They contained periods of serenity as the ball was bounced in a hypnotic pattern, up-and-down-and-up-and-down, and suddenly it transformed into frantic movement, a mad dance. Bodies flexed for position. Feet pounded the asphalt.

The ball flicked between hands and was suddenly launched up, arcing over outstretched arms toward the hoop.

We stopped playing two-on-two after my oldest brother joined the military and I went to college.