Little Big Things


Friday, March 13, 2020. Another Friday. At my age the days and weeks just seem to fly by. That our perception of time changes as we age, that it’s relative to age, is a strange phenomenon, of course. For children a day is a week, a week like a month and a month may as well be a year. Especially when, like me, your singular interest was summer vacation from school. Who cares?

The novel has been published for six weeks and it seems like a year. That phenomenon, I’m not sure of – is it my notorious impatience colliding in some ungainly cosmic manner with my sprint towards the casket? No sales. No sales. No sales. I’m going to have to quit writing about this. Or not. Angie read some news feed (I don’t pay attention to any) about Amazon declaring a glut of self-published stories about the so-called Corona Virus. Ugh. Write fast, publish often, is a certain type of business model. Not mine. Though I must admit that I’d toyed with the idea of having Mr. Z. and Vixy, perhaps Neutic, travel to medieval Europe and encounter the Plague, or encounter a terrorist attack in the form of a global pandemic . But since anything to do with physical, versus psychological (or personal mythological) illness, to say nothing of treatment – hospitals freak me out – resides at the opposite end of my interest spectrum (if there was one thing I did know about my future vocation, it was that I wanted nothing to do with medicine).

Anyway, I regard this COVID19 or what have you mess as a good practice run – it’s just the damn flu, after all – for a real epidemiological threat. Meanwhile, don’t get me started on why people find it so imperative to travel. Yes, I’ve done my share and yes we visited Scotland last summer and overall my ten months at Blasco Cab (name changed to protect the guilty) will likely stand as the worst personal carbon footprint year of my life. My boss was one who regarded work travel as some kind of reward or perk. She used to say she loved the airport because it was the only place she could get work done. She blabbed ceaselessly about her trips to China and Singapore and… whatever. Idiot. She’s probably the first one who contracted the virus here in Washtenaw County – it’s another “woman who traveled internationally.”

Travel, predominately unnecessary, is for the most part a curse and the scourge of the globe. We zoom around, here and there and everywhere, just to do it, just because we’re stir crazy, bored or regard travel as a birthright or privilege or fucking mandate. I don’t get it. But since we probably haven’t changed much as humans since the paleolithic, our tendency to roam explains the diffusion of our species. Yes, tyranny, oppression and threat of starvation motivate folks to travel, to flee in the hope of finding freedom or better lands – safety, security and sex – but I’m convinced it’s just something in our nature that drives us to explore for its own sake. Because even within a land of plenty, so many of us are compelled to endure an airport, a plane ride (we met an ex-pilot on our Scotland trip who referred to airplanes as “flying petri dishes”), baggage checks, customs inspections, cab rides and hotel rooms for… what? Travel expands the mind. If it expands anything, I’d say it most reliably expands the gut. And drains the wallet. This is a boring topic because I’ve never been so miserable at a job as when I was running around the country for Blasco Cab.

So, I successfully ignored the idea of blogging for ten years, succumbing finally, as the attentive reader (non-existent) will know, in the attempt, perhaps futile, at building my so-called author platform, at garnering followers that may be interested in my novel. Likewise, I’ve been successfully ignoring the appearance of audiobooks, by way of streaming service or download, I couldn’t care less. It must have been three or four years ago that I received a promotional offer for a free audiobook download from some company I can’t recall and I selected Joyce’s Ulysses. I remember hitting the play button and immediately feeling intensely claustrophobic, as if trapped in a closed world and I killed the thing after perhaps a minute. Ugh. Yuck. Some guy’s voice, droning laboriously through the text, and I’m thinking oh my fucking god I’ll never get through this. Terrible. Not the narrator per se, but to be within the grip of somebody else’s reading pace and having to sit and listen intently, trying to envision the story. I haven’t been read to since perhaps elementary school when I had a fourth grade teacher who read to us what would be categorized these days as a young adult novel. I recall sitting there at my desk, drowsily listening. The story, as I remember it, had to do with a young girl and her younger brother functioning as junior mystery solvers, kid detectives or something. And to this day I recall a scene, probably distorted by time, where the kids or their mentor, I don’t know, are finding a clue to the mystery by way of examining the impression upon a velvet coverlet or tablecloth, or something – I recall them being in a museum – left by an insignia or logo on the bottom of a vase. This Sherlockian observation of course led to something critical, some revelatory solution to the crime.

To recall this some forty-six years later says something about (1) the effectiveness of the image the writer managed to create, and (2) my own psychology, which is fairly pedestrian when it comes to storytelling in the sense that I enjoy the standard tropes. Perhaps this helps explain my attraction to mythology, the pervasive, arguably collective psychological ubiquity of the hero round, for example, though many mythological tales are anything but pedestrian in their rendering and more commonly, it seems, fantastical and weird and psychologically unnerving. I don’t know.

Nevertheless, I’m pondering this as I write, this scene in the story and the impression left by a vase upon a velvet tablecloth or display case pad or whatever in hell it was. I envision the velvet as the silvery blue type. I can see the circular impression of the bottom of the vase, the crushed velvet, and I can almost discern the little bas relief image, the logo or makers mark the kids are peering at. Look here! See? A vase was here, and the makers mark is of a horse, perhaps. And that means…. Fascinating, this type of keen observation, this little examination and what it reveals. And the world it created within the story. The discernment. The paying attention. The attention to detail. The idea that such little things, otherwise perceived as irrelevant, could not only mean so much and solve mysteries but that their discernment, the observation of them could be a talent and a kind of vocation. Or a kind of superpower. Detective stories. I suppose the perennial attraction to them – there used to a be a bookstore here in town devoted to detective stories and mysteries – has something to do with the sense of the uncanny, of once again, the power of the little big thing.

Susana Martinez-Conde, a neuroscientist and author, along with her husband, of books about the science of illusion and magic, wrote an article which appeared on Mental Floss, “Six Reasons Why We Love Small, Cute Things, According to Science” The last two of which I found the most compelling:

  • “We Want to Be In Control. [M]iniature dollhouses and buildings allow their owners to escape into scenarios that are vastly different from their everyday lives, and which they can command completely. ‘The famous psychologist Dr. Ruth,’ writes JR Thorpes, ‘had a therapy dollhouse with which she helped children to work through serious issues.’ The houses were also beneficial for the doctor herself because they ‘represented a control that she, as a child refugee fleeing the Nazis, had lacked.’”
  • “They’re Loaded with Complex Details Our Brains are Drawn To. Miniatures are compact: They condense lots of intricate visuals within a very limited space. That richness of features makes them highly appealing to our senses. Research has shown that our gaze – and likely our touch too – is drawn to the regions of a scene or object that hold the most information. Part of our attraction to miniatures may be that they provide our sensory-seeking brains with highly concentrated dosages of tantalizing stimulation.”

Richness of features combined with a sense of control. This does something to explain the collecting bug and why perhaps my brother maintains a small but compelling collection of vintage Hot Wheels – ninety-nine cars or so – along with a large number of other adults (these oldest and rarest of these little cars can fetch many tens of thousands of dollars these days).

Also to do with this is the idea of fetishization and the study of so-called attachment theory. Articles like, “Toys Are Me: Children’s Extension of Self to Objects,” 2015, by G. Diesendruck and R. Perez, or “Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things,” 2012, by I. Hodder, appear as references to an article within the March 2018 issue of Time and Mind, a journal that I subscribe to, “The Object of My Affection: Attachment Security and Material Culture” by Taryn Bell and Penny Spikins. So that my subject, Little Big Things, has much related scholarship surrounding it as a potential resource if I can ever get around to doing all the reading and get to finishing my incomplete draft of the monograph. What little big things have to do with keen discernment and Sherlockian observation techniques, I don’t know, but I sense a connection.

Hell, why not include the monograph here? Enjoy:

LITTLE BIG THINGS: The Peculiar Mythology of Redline Hot Wheels

The year is 2017. Within the more or less fraught moments following a flop-sweat inducing bidding war on eBay, when some war-weary collector, having worn out the carpeting pacing back and forth in front of his computer or smartphone display for an hour leading up to the auction deadline, has claimed a last-second victory over his savvy competitors and scored a mint, honey-gold charger for four-hundred dollars, a carded ice-blue Nitty Gritty Kitty for five-hundred or perhaps unloaded his $70,000 life savings in a white-knuckle, speculative buyer hot zone blood match whereby the most rarified, so-called Holy Grail Hot Pink Rear-Loader Beach Bomb, freshly unearthed like found gold from another dusty shoebox netherworld estate sale, glistening provocatively, tantalizingly, seductively – a mythological boon buy – a sought after prize has been quested for and won. Or more often, lost, forsaken.

On any given midnight across the nation such a mini war-of-the-worlds unfolds, breaks out, litters the darkened landscape with bodies and recedes, the lone warriors washing their weapons in the sea, regathering themselves for the inevitable return to the fray. Meanwhile, a victor claims his prize and the vanquished lick their wounds, grumbling, chewing glass, desperate for redemption. It is a realm of mythological potency so acute, so attuned to the pursuit of authenticity, legitimacy and the cherishing of truth that one’s personal reputation can be forever undone should the rules of war be transgressed; should one, for instance, in ignorance or  by way of hubris, it matters not, offer a misleadingly positioned, perhaps fuzzy or poorly lighted image of a purple Heavy Chevy Spoiler Series, say, supposedly with roundels at top-tier pricing and, having collected one’s money hoard in a less-than-reliable “buy it now” scheme, schlepped the toy hastily into a flimsy media mailer pouch more suited for a beat up, uncollectible paperback as an afterthought on one’s way to the office, foisted upon the unsuspecting buyer a flea-bit casting (technical term)[1], a car with “toning” (technical term)[2] on the hood or the roof or, may the devil  curse you, a “crumbler” (technical term)[3] missing a roundel and possessing inappropriate deep-dish replacement wheels on one side of the casting. Oh, and the rear windshield is cracked and the steering wheel rattles around loose in the cockpit. Heaven help you, then. First, the wronged buyer, having promptly reported the ignominious offense to the overseers occupying the enforcement division at the eBay Auction Compound within the Pentagon, will have his payment yanked from your last-minute Pay-Pal account and you, the guilty one, the pariah, will be unceremoniously and publicly expunged, exorcised and banned for all time from participation in, let alone membership within, the heavenly reed plain of the Redline Hot Wheel realm, that blissful yonder shore now forever denied you, the only way open being that of the River Styx and a journey to the underworld, and only then if a pitying acquaintance perhaps placed a coin in the mouth of your rotting corpse as remittance to accursed Charon, ferryman of Hades.

Hyperbole aside, at least for the moment (Hot Wheels tend to evoke it as a matter of course, after all) so-called redlines, long and away the most desirable cars on behalf of any serious collector, are the models manufactured by Mattel within the first ten years of production, 1968 to 1977; the term “redline” referring to the red stripe appearing on their tires, itself a nod to various real-life so-called muscle cars of the same period.[4]

Redline Wheel

Mattel, by the way, established in California in 1945 and named after its founders Harold “Matt” Matson and Elliot Handler (Matt-El), initially sold picture frames, then dollhouse furniture.[5] They produced their first hit toy, a ukulele, in 1947 and thereafter created many successful toys including their best-selling and perhaps most famous, the Barbie Doll in 1959.[6] Hot Wheels, with die-cast car bodies and springy, responsive wheels with bearings designed by an ex-missile designer at Raytheon, Jack Ryan,[7] were a smash hit – “the fastest toy car in production!” read their advertising – and today, with more four billion or so Hot Wheels having been manufactured, (more than the number of real cars in the world) and with new models costing, remarkably enough, virtually the same as they did in 1968 – namely, a dollar or so – there are collectors of all ages, including adults with massive collections of 30,000 cars, or exhibiting almost every known redline, say.[8] The average adult collector is said to own 1,550 cars and children between the ages of five and fifteen an average of forty-one.[9] There’s even a so-called cottage industry of Hot Wheels customizers, folks who utilize Dremel tools, welders, air brushes and custom wheels and tires to transform the original toys into ever more outrageous expressions of the casting’s initial outrageousness.

The point is, Hot Wheels may still be sold as toys and collected as such mostly by kids, but there exists a significant culture – and it is a culture – of serious, even speculative adult collectors who are even now driving the collecting hobby, especially that of redlines, into fairly rarified airs where a mint-condition car in a rare casting and color can routinely fetch $500 to $1,000 at online auction. The Hot Wheelers even have an annual collector’s convention, collector’s newsletters and published pricing guides. And, over the years, Mattel has variously manufactured and promoted cars aimed in advance at the adult collector market – numbered series, for example, and limited-edition models known as “treasure hunts” that disappear from retail racks and bins or straight from the shipping boxes by way of clandestine production run and store distribution research endeavored by the most intrepidly devoted aficionados of the rare and difficult to attain.

So much for the basics of the Hot Wheels story. What interests me here is how the history has become lore, young collectors have become mature scholars in a legitimate field of inquiry, enthusiasts have become devotees and how the castings themselves (their burgeoning dollar value adding a certain undeniable if ambiguous magic to the environment) have not only maintained their preternaturally resilient mythic impact, their zeal-inducing attraction, their predictably unpredictable affecting and effecting qualities that go beyond, far beyond, a collector’s fancy, but have in fact enhanced themselves to true mythological status. Place a mint redline, or even perhaps a slightly flea-bitten one, upon a table top in the presence of a boy or girl, a man or a woman, and pay attention to what happens. Soon enough and more often than not immediately, in fact, magic happens. The kind of magic that transcends the typical biases of time and space and creates its own world, its own realm – appropriates it – so that people can’t look away. They stare and stare; from across the table and inevitably from right up close, from mere inches away.

Some remain entranced in this way, experiencing a kind of aesthetic arrest, just as one might experience it in sthe presence of an artwork or a jewel. One can’t look away. Others become bold enough to touch the little entity, grasping its sides that somehow, when touched, seem narrower than they appear, an experience that alludes to the curiously infective power of the small that I shall endeavor to discuss further on. Moments pass, and they are perhaps compelled to place their index finger upon the rooftop and give it a push, a gentle shove, just to see… well, just to see how it goes, after all – just to watch it roll. Eventually, the little casting invites one to pick it up, to examine its underbelly, to peer inside its diminutive cockpit – yes, there’s the steering wheel and the little plastic seats; and the door line, the tips of the exhaust pipes, the tail lights or, perhaps, an endearingly clumsy grill and headlights. There might be an outrageous engine thrust up beyond all dictates of reality or some otherwise outlandish accoutrement – a surf board, a silly spoiler, some absurd bubble window, air grabber, or hoodless ridiculousness. The color will be inviting, charming, gemlike and flattering to the casting or off-putting, drab and a travesty of taste. Always for the better are the incredible wheels or tires or, whatever they are – an otherwise shamelessly expedited nub of plastic that welds the separate ideas into an arresting one – and the high-strung tension of their shiny wire axles. We are transported. We are somewhere else for a moment, somewhere downsized beside that car or behind its tiny wheel or, conversely, the smallness has expanded commensurate to our visions of reality so that there she is, a full-size… whatever it is, hot rod. Excitement, allure, and a better psychological place all round, whatever the dimensions. This little casting, this little rather clumsily rendered, mostly irreverent imitation of something either larger and real or something impossible and imaginary grips us and then massages our imagination into protean, veritably kaleidoscopic ambitions and aspirations. We laugh. What has happened?

I argue that mythology has happened; namely, an incomparably robust, fully-functioning cultural and personal mythology; one that orients us, grounds us, centers us and transports us all at once. One that energizes us and responds to our deepest zeal. It’s all fun and somehow more than fun. The experience of a Hot Wheel is a crazy one, when you think about it, when you take time at all to ponder it. It’s crazy and insane and somehow the sanest thing, the sanest sense of joy and fun and welcome and belonging to something all at once. The Hot Wheel always says, “I’m okay, you’re okay.” It always invites. It’s always celebrating something. Speed. Playfulness. Interest. Curiosity. Imagination. Dreams. Visions. One’s past, present and future. How does this happen? What in hell is going on here? All we know so far is that when the casting, the little car, is there, the world is a better place.

All Hot Wheels inspire mythological zeal and evoke a mythology’s four functions as espoused by the famous comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell: namely, that of (1) a comprehensive sense of wonder or awe, (2) a cosmology that supports that awe, (3) a sociology that establishes norms of behavior and ethics, and (4) a pedagogical, supporting psychology, one that teaches how to be who you are and, moreover, sustains the effort.

Mythology as referenced here, then, has little to do with falsehood, fiction or imaginative embellishment, all more or less colloquial interpretations of the term. It is a story, a narrative, but one for which the compelling mechanism is that of metaphor. Fables, legends, fairy tales, parables and folk tales often express mythological themes and energies but lack one or more of the functional aspects of an authentic mythology, one that can support the so-called microcosmic psyche and life of an individual, the mesocosmic parameters of one’s limited social circle or in fact the macrocosmic dimensions of an entire culture. A metaphor, alternatively, is an identity (the sun is a tyrant, for example). That is to say, where the phrase he runs like a deer is a simile, the metaphorical version describes identity: he is the deer. By way of comparing two disparate things, then, a third, powerfully affecting thing is evoked or invoked. Between the thing and its reflection, it has been said, is the metaphorical image, possessing, at its most evocative, something not only unforeseen but of greater significance than either of the original terms. Metaphor, again, is the language of myth, of mythology and it differs from analogy (a straightforward, ostensibly logical comparison),  simile (the implication of an evocative similarity used to enhance the vividness of a description – brave as a lion, crazy like a fox) synecdoche (where a part is intended to represent the whole – a head of cattle, for example, indicating the entire herd), metonymy (the substitution of the name of an attribute for that of the thing meant – suit for business executive, scepter for authority, the crown for the sovereign) or catachresis (misuse or strained use of a word, sometimes in a false form arisen from a folk meaning – crawfish for crayfish).  which a mythology pivots upon person or the analogies, similes a Neither is a mythology to be considered as a fable, Instead, mythology may be regarded as a metaphorical expression possible to regard mythology can be , even fictionthe colloquial sense of the word, I’ll discuss each function within the context of the Hot Wheel realm in turn.

Myself? I don’t collect Hot Wheels. My brother, KCE, does. By association, by proximity to the vibe given off by the things, however, I was compelled last year to buy one at the grocery store, a 2016 Flames series casting: a ’65 GTO.

Hot Wheel 2016 Flames Series ’65 GTO, photograph by Carnegie O.

This is no redline but it somehow effectively, I think (and KCE agrees) pulls from the proper heritage. KCE does me the favor of garaging it in his Hot Wheels shrine, as we call it, for safe keeping. He’s authorized it as worthy to be displayed amongst the Mustangs, Heavy Chevys, Nitty Gritty Kitties and the like within his ninety-nine-slot transparent acrylic, mirror-backed, chrome accented, UV-protected, wall-mounted display case.

hot wheels display case, photograph by Carnegie O.

[1] “Flea-bit”: a collector’s term for beat-up cars with paint nicks.

[2] “Toning”: a factory flaw; discoloration, akin to a shadowy staining visible under the paint on so-called Spectraflame (translucent) colors.

[3] “Crumbler”: a metallurgical flaw expressed within a notorious run of Hong Kong origin “Zamac” (the zinc alloy used to make the castings); a chemical reaction within the metal itself causes it to literally “crumble”, that is, fall apart, not from any physical stress but simply on its own. A crumbler can crumble just sitting in a blister pack untouched. The Bye Focal and the Six Shooter are two models notorious as crumblers.

[4], retrieved 9.12.2017.

[5], “mattel,” retrieved 9.12.2017.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Aaron Miller, “16 Things You Didn’t Know about Hot Wheels,”, 1.8.2015.

[8] Ibid.

[9], “Hot Wheels.”

Today’s post continued…

Returning to the topic of audio books, however, I read some things online speaking to the idea that the audio book business is perhaps at the same stage now, with demand outstripping supply, as the eBook was at least a decade ago. Who knows? Except that with TC1 not selling in print or eBook, I forced myself to reconsider the obstacles, such as they are besides money, between me and an audio version. It turns out there aren’t any besides money. And the money, by way of using a service like Findaway Voices, for example, is for the most part reasonable: my 100,00-word manuscript would fall within the $2,500 to $3,000 range. That covers everything from narration to distribution. So that now, having sent off my little project for preliminary evaluation – Findaway has a user-friendly interface – which within a week, I’m told, will result in a 15-minute sample reading of my book, I’m having difficulty not being anxious to pull the trigger and make it an option for my would be “readers.” I tell myself that TC1 will take off as an audio book and then bolster a book buying readership, that somehow I can start making this project pay for itself. Instead of making myself look like a foolish ass who throws good money after bad. I don’t know. I’m trying my best not to panic. But I hate that I’m so good at spending money on my dreams and so goddamn shitty at realizing them, at making them work and pay their way.


Third Fall

Personal transformation carries within it the challenge of beating back your old self, the habitual desires and fears that may have served you in the past, for better or for worse, but function as limits now, sabotaging if you will your efforts to manifest your vision. It’s been my experience that my old self can take quite a beating so to speak, often rallying from apparent defeat with a heroic vigor of its own, coming back with a vengeance as they say. The reversal can happen in any context – in public or private – and in many forms – as a violent surge, an ambush, an immediately paralyzing anxiety, or as a torturous, growing threat of engulfment, of being pursued and overtaken. Wherever, whenever and in whatever form it happens, within moments or over the course of hours or even days, the threat builds to the same fearful crescendo of psychic disorientation, of fearful internal struggle, of dysfunctional distance from your sense-of-self and the world-of-action, of crippling doubt, panic and overwhelming compulsion; it’s a flight-or-flight response gone haywire and over-the-top and as such becomes physical: manifesting as tunnel-vision, loss of balance, distortion or loss of hearing, sweating, cold hands, nausea, shallow breath, a shaky or high-pitched voice, clumsiness and the horrible sense of being on a runaway train, unable to get off, unable to escape, unable to run, unable to stop it, unable to fight it, unable to control anything about it. You split nightmarishly in two: into a horrified observer and the horrified observed, powerless and scared to death yet unable to die. Death, after all, would make more sense than what is happening to you now. No, you live through it, coming back to yourself again, within a few minutes or a few hours, but inevitably too late, suffering humiliating outcomes or, if you’re lucky enough to have it happen in private, the unsettling shame of having lost control of yourself. It’s an anxiety attack, and when you have one for the first time, the word attack loses its mystery.

It seems that there’s a section of your personal hard drive that you can’t delete entirely; you can’t completely erase it. It makes sense that in changing yourself, for better or worse, you’re going to retain aspects of your past “you-ness” that are a result of your previous experience – the life that you’ve lived. We may in fact be the sum total of our past experiences and to argue otherwise, as if we can ever truly erase any of them, is a psychological study beyond the intent of this book. Brain plasticity may have its limits; for better or for worse (who can know all the advantages or disadvantages?), it may only go so far in modifying the structure of “you” or “me,” of our sense of identity. My wife has very successfully managing her anxiety issues, which go well beyond the day-to-day irritations, concerns, worries, troubles, etc. that make up our day-to-day existence, the little victories and defeats we’re more or less able to discard at the end of the day. There is suffering and then there is dysfunctional suffering; there is anxiety that becomes disease, its malignancy metastasizes – it spreads – threatening to appropriate your life, to become the thing that defines you. It resembles any other disease, either killing you or going into remission with this one exception: your will to conquer it – the power of your mind, body and spirit – is ultimately greater. Unlike cancer, or leukemia or any purely physical disease (if anything can be said to be purely physical) whereby, in the worst case, no amount of psychic reorientation, no amount of focused mental energy, no amount or type of medicine, no amount of treatment can hold back the inevitable decline, anxiety disorders can be made to not only submit, but to retreat, if not vanishing then at least becoming ineffectual. For my wife, anxiety over something as seemingly innocuous as driving, standing in line at a store, being in a crowd, or even walking from her car to the front door of the building where she works can intitiate an anxiety attack, generating any number of the unnerving and frustrating physical and mental symptoms I discussed. For example, if one of these “attacks” strikes her while driving, she has an overwhelming generalized fear, an unspecific, directionless acute anxiety over the potential for something “bad” to happen – of becoming involved in an accident despite knowing that she’s driven the same vehicle in the same situation many, many times before without incident. She understands the probability of becoming injured or dying in a car crash – whe understands risk. But at the same time, she gets caught up, involuntarily, in the mental experience of the worst case scenario – she creates a mental movie so to speak of the terrible event – she projects the negative outcome. The stress of these thoughts actually isn’t as disturbing to her, as she says, as the anxiety and stress over being so overwhelmed by anxiety and stress; anxiety has the malicious ability to feed on itself. In other cases, just walking up to the front door of her workplace has initiated, or “triggered” the problem. The symptoms are notoriously reliable: her breathing changes, her palms become sweaty, the ground seems to shift beneath her – she loses her sense of balance – she becomes compulsively preoccupied with thoughts of dread, doom, trouble and fear, all the while maintaining the equally unsettling position of the observer.

The observer can seem a perplexing part of the problem, as if we separate or otherwise disassociate from ourselves only to increase the torture of the experience – we’re not only wrecking the car, but we’re forced to watch the accident happen from a distance – to be cut by both edges of the blade at once. It can seem a bitterly cruel form of self-betrayal how we attack ourselves, how we do all this to ourselves. But as so often the case, the answer lies within the problem, as Tara Brach advises: it is in the pain.[1] Likewise, the answer (or at least part of it) lies within our dissociated self: the anguished and seemingly helpless observer is not in fact powerless for power resides in observation. Indeed, a common interpretation of quantum mechanics (as it stands today) is that a system stops being a superposition of states and becomes either one or the other when an observation takes place.[2] It’s therefore compelling to extend the logic to our psychology, itself a manifestation (arguably) of biology and physics. Is a state of anxiety a state of superposition? It’s clear that in the midst of an anxiety attack our sense-of-self – our identity – our concept of what it is to be us, to be ourselves, to be “I,” to in fact be at all, never leaves us, yet exists simultaneously in the two conditions. We are both observer and observed. Is it the observer or the observed aspect of us that succeeds in destroying the anxiety attack condition? Do we “recover” as a result of action or inaction; is intention or will a factor, or do we return to ourselves “through the process of time evolution?” I think we can assume there’s always an observer in our psychological case, which is us observing ourselves (Cartesian); therefore the power of the observer to affect is always present, just more or less effective. If effective, the anxiety state is held in abeyance or reduced in intensity and duration. If ineffective or less effective, the anxiety state plays itself out physically (biochemically): our body rebalances the unsustainable biochemical condition of fight-or-flight after several minutes; a human or animal will physically collapse in the worst case, even into unconsciousness, whereby the bodily functions adjust unintentionally. This is of course in relation only to the “attack” – the acute condition – the short and long-term effects of chronic, lower-level anxiety are related. Intentional adjustment is of course the preferred reaction, we desire interrupt the very interruption that psychological superposition imposes. And we can be successful.

What my wife has learned, through therapy by experts in the field, is that there is indeed always some “trigger” – some set of circumstances or an event that initiates the build-up of anxiety. If she’s driving, she’s found herself literally getting off the highway at the next exit, and parking somewhere to regain her composure. If it occurs while waiting in line, or being in a crowd, or walking into her workplace, she works to allow or lean into the psychological state; fighting it, trying to “remain calm” for example, is futile; it’s a foregone conclusion that anxiety has set in and the way out is the way in and all the way through to the other side. Anxiety feeds on the negative energy – the fear – contained within the fight-or-flight response; fear is anxiety after all. Using deep breathing is essential to modify the ensuing crippling nature of anxiety – increasing the volume of respiration simply works to enhance mindfulness of our body. attempting to distract herself, to “think about something else,” or otherwise ignore the surging anxiety is futile, it’s just another form of fighting the event. One proceeds, knowing the attack will pass and ameliorating its effects through this combination of awareness and physical activity. (Deep breathing, coupled with recognition, acceptance, investigation and non-attachment is a Tibetan mindfulness tool discussed by Brach and referred to with the acronym RAIN and I also reference this in Unfamiliar Fiction).

Therapy has been effective – it’s taught her that there are indeed triggers, and that by thinking all the way through the process of the building anxiety – the anxiety attack – acknowledging what’s happening, then projecting her mind into the “worst case scenario” – what if you actually passed out in the parking lot at work, what would actually happen after that? What if you were in a car accident, what events would occur after that? “Walking through” the stressful events all the way to the end, and then realizing and acknowledging that things will not be as horrible as you might imagine, allows you to live through the experience – projecting a version of your survival. You can also imagine being the other person who witnesses somebody else having an anxiety attack, that if they explained it to you, you’d naturally be understanding and would want to help versus make fun of, ridicule, or harm someone.

Medication can be prescribed that “smooths” out or limits these peaks of intense anxiety, and allows her to work on her own mind or brain so that future events are more within her control – she can “feel them coming” recognize situations in advance that may be “triggers” and either prepare herself in advance or, if the anxiety attack is beginning, she can use mental “tricks,” deep breathing, etc. to calm herself and minimize the magnitude of the attack and its effects. It works. As is so often the case with medical or mental “problems,” when someone gains an understanding of what’s going on, that you’re not uniquely flawed, that it happens to others, hat there’s a name for it, a diagnosis, is comforting. You can change your brain. But it takes knowledge, maybe some outside advice, coaching or help from an expert, in some cases medication to help you get started, and (this is the hardest part really) the understanding that you will never be completely rid of the tendency for anxiety attacks. Consideing this tendency, this weakness, as a potential strength is a curious idea and maybe work has been done on this.

One of the worst aspects of anxiety is that is indeed self-induced – you’re stressed by things that others may not be, and in fact about things that you yourself didn’t used to be stressed about. Public speaking, a notoriously high-anxiety situation for many, if not most people, isn’t always so, and I’ve experienced lucid, enjoyable public speaking performances by others and even myself. Alternatively, I’ve witnessed and experienced my own “disasters” – the minor or major stress-outs that result in an almost debilitating nervousness – your voice changes, you sweat, your hands are cold, you can’t seem to breath properly, you’re scared shitless of talking in front of people, even friends. You feel as if you’ve gone crazy. But, as I’ve said, with knowledge and practice, you can overcome and at least drastically minimize the magnitude and duration of these events. You can breath deeply, meditate, etc. before you step in front of people to begin your talk, accept the stress, imagine the worst case scenario, then actually try to enjoy the challenge of overcoming your nervousness.

What does any of this have to do with the title of this chapter, “Third Fall?” This is my third fall season living in Texas, a place that I’ve not bonded with and do not see myself living in. I arrived in October of 2008 and now its October of 2020. I would have left long ago. My wife and I have had our house for sale for over six months, ever since I lost my job – we’ve wanted to head back to Ann Arbor or to Portland, Oregon – places that seem much more in line with who we are. But we can’t seem to leave Texas. The housing market is terrible, folks aren’t buying houses with any regularity, the market has crashed. We feel stuck here. We never expected to be here for a “third fall,” the beginning of our third year. The stress of this sometimes acts as a trigger I think, the same kind of trigger that I’ve been discussing, and that indeed feels like a “mutiny” of my old mind, my old mental states and habits – anger, frustration, even rage at not being more in control of my destiny. The anxiety, in the classic progression, comes as close to an anxiety attack as I can get to outside of a public speaking event. I’m irritable, I snap at my wife, I “pace-the-cage” of my house, I can’t write, I’m distracted, my goals seem silly, my visions pointless and doomed. In short, I’m miserable with myself and my situation as if I’ve made no progress towards my better life – it’s like going back in time to all the unstable, unfulfilled and “dark” days that existed before I indeed found my calling.

An example of a trigger was “showing” our house yesterday evening. While I was writing, my wife came in urgently to tell me that we got a call from our real estate agent to show our house within the next two hours. That involves, at least for us, a somewhat mad scramble to clean up, get things looking their best and the rush of joy that we might sell our house, the expectation that we may be moving forward, that our plans our going to materialize, that we’re not trapped here. The intense expectation – the energy of bringing my dreams closer and that this is a major step – is acute and I found myself getting “carried away,” imagining would could happen and then hoping too hard that it would. The showing was a failure, we didn’t even receive any feedback. Frustration. Anxiety. Not an uncontrollable attack, but certainly mutiny in my mind, and now I’m writing this to in fact try to beat back the anxiety; by writing I work through it, I “talk” about it, I understand it and then I can smooth it out, get it under control, imagine the worst case, and accept it. I write it out so to speak.

[1] I discuss Tara Brach’s ideas from her two books, Radical Acceptance and True Refuge, in detail in several of the following chapters, beginning with Unfamiliar Fiction.

[2] Wikipedia, “Schrödinger’s Cat,” July 26, 2013. I refer to the “Copenhagen Interpretation” and “objective collapse theories” whereby “superpositions” exist until destroyed by observation, either conscious (living) or, more abstractly perhaps, by environment – by “the process of time evolution” inherent in certain “objective collapse” theories.