But I Don’t Want to be a Hypochondriac

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I have this persistent soreness in my upper back. By persistent, I mean it’s been going on for a couple of weeks, I can’t remember how long. Could it have something to do with my work out regimen? Perhaps it has something to do with the way I’m sleeping. The first time I started noticing it was a couple of months ago after sleeping on an inflatable mattress for 2 and one half months. Maybe it has something to do with that. It could also have something to do with the fact that at least once a week over the past 2 months I have crashed on my friends’ couch. Or maybe, maybe its cancer. You know, upper back soreness cancer. Have you ever heard of that? Me neither, but if you Google search “upper back soreness cancer” you will find something. So maybe I have that.

Plus there are the headaches. I used to get very brief and intensely sharp headaches in my right temple when I was younger. They would increase during times of great stress and according to the doctor I saw at the time, were likely caused by clenching my jaw. Recently they have returned. More frequent .. and of slightly different character – not as brief but usually as intense. I don’t get them every day, I was getting them a lot in the weeks before my 40th birthday, and especially when I hadn’t slept very well and was stressed about booking a job. So maybe it has to do with stress. Or it could be brain cancer. Or temple cancer. Or temple brain cancer. Or, OR it could be a brand new type of disease that is killing me.

Then there’s that lump I found. In my arm. The one that’s the size of a pea. (No, I don’t have an arm that is the size of a pea, there’s a subcutaneous ($5 word) lump on my right arm). You can’t see it, but if you feel my arm in just the right spot … there it is. When I went to the doctor 4 months ago and showed it to him he looked at my arm, touched the lump, shrugged his shoulders and said “it’s nothing.” It hasn’t changed since then. It’s still there. I’m going to name him Bumpy or Harry or Clive. I think Clive. But I found two more, in other parts of my body. I looked it up “small, hard, subcutaneous lumps” and guess what that can be? Yep. Cancer. It could also be nothing. But it COULD BE CANCER.

Then what? I’ll be a single, 40 year old, struggling (read “out of work”) actor, fighting cancer. Worse, I’ll be a “‘maybe if I stayed a lawyer I wouldn’t have cancer now’ guy” or “‘if I had gotten married at least I’d have someone to help me fight cancer now’ guy” or “‘if I wasn’t an out of work actor I’d have better health coverage to help me fight this cancer’ guy” or worse. Maybe I’ll be the kind a guy whose friends and family say “it’s a shame because he could have been successful and then be a successful man fighting cancer but now he’s just a loser that wasted his potential whose now fighting cancer and, really, nobody cares about that.”

I know. I know. Believe me, I KNOW. It is ridiculous and self-pitying and sad. I don’t want to be a hypochondriac. Worse, I don’t want to be a cyberchondriac – which is a hypochondriac that uses the web to self diagnose and spin out his fears. Actually, if I have to be a hypochondriac I’d rather be a cyberchondriac because it sounds cooler. CYBERCHONDRIAC – it sounds like a cyborg from the future who comes back in time not to destroy the human race, but to complain about the computer virus he’s absolutely sure is destroying him. But I don’t want to be that guy, I was never like that. Or was I?

I just remembered that I have had moments of hypochondria. The first was right before I went off to college. Summer was coming to a close and I was excited to head off to Penn State. There was anxiety, no doubt, but I was ready to go. Ready and willing and so very much looking forward to it. I do remember, however, wondering if I would ever make it there because I was fairly certain I had Lyme’s Disease. Perhaps that is an over statement, I wasn’t fairly certain I had LD, but I thought it was quite possible. That summer LD was pretty rampant. In fact, I had never heard about it before then, but the reports were increasing exponentially. I had spent the summer working for my brother’s landscaping business, so I was right in the middle of “the shit.” Every day I was entering enemy territory … did I always wear a hat? Did I wear long pants? Did I always check myself for ticks? What the hell is a deer tick? I was at risk. I remember more than a couple of nights, lying in bed and wondering – what if I have Lyme’s Disease, what if I can’t go to college, what if … sound familiar?

I seem to recall another experience. While this doesn’t necessarily fall under hypochondria, it is a close second. 4 years after my Lyme’s Disease disquiet, I was preparing to graduate Penn State University. I had been accepted to and was planning on attending Boston University School of Law. My future looked bright: I’d graduate law school, work as an assistant District Attorney, rise through the ranks and perhaps move on to the US Attorney’s Office – fighting crime, saving the world, making my parents proud. Or, maybe I’d work at a big commercial firm, rise through the ranks, make a name for myself, become a big partner – making tons of money, impressing the world with my brilliance, making my parents proud. And then the dream came crashing down because my girlfriend was pregnant. Probably. I was convinced she was pregnant. Why? Did she tell me she was? No. But I’m no idiot, we had been together for over a year and I was aware of her cycle – I’m a modern, sensitive guy, I know these things. And I knew that she had not had her monthly visitor – how did I know? Let’s just say that the scheduling and engagement in certain personal, intimate activities, happened in such a way as to make me aware that her visitor had yet to appear. He was late. Pretty damned late. I could sense that she was concerned, but we didn’t talk about it – did I mention that I was raised Irish Catholic? The lateness of her period (find, I said it) created a great swirling vortex of anxiety: she was pregnant; we would get married; I’d have to give up law school; get a job; ruin my life; and disappoint my parents. Waste my life. Of course she wasn’t pregnant and she thought it was sweet and cute and somewhat neurotic when I confessed my knowledge and concern over her “Lady Delay.” I know this isn’t hypochondria, but doesn’t it sound familiar? Fear – it’s a real bitch, no?

I am my own worst enemy. Cancer or some other horrid disease may some day put an end to me, though I hope that isn’t the case, but nothing can be as cruel or as insidious to my health and well being as my mind. My obsession with “fulfilling my potential” or disappointing my parents or wasting my life is something I wish I would have out grown a long time ago but I haven’t. There are times when I thought I got rid of all that shit, only to find that I’ve lugged this fear around for 40 years. But now I see it and I realize that it will continue to grow, to get heavier, to become such a burden as to make me immobile: unless I get rid of it.

How do I get rid of it? Ay, there’s the rub. The meditation helps, when I commit to it. The writing helps. I started this post with the hope that in writing about my current situation – OK, in mocking my current situation – I may find some clarity. And I have. I forgot about the Lyme’s Disease and “babies kill law school dreams” stories until I started writing. Perhaps therapy wouldn’t be a bad idea. Maybe just recognizing that the fear is there, that I carry it around, and that the only person keeping me from putting it down is me will help. Either way, life will continue to be an adventure. If your lucky, I’ll blog about it.

I thought I’d end this post by telling you about the new screenplay I’m going to write: CYBERCHONDRIAC. As discussed above, the main character is a Cyborg named Clive (I like that name, ok). Clive comes back from the future not to destroy the human race – as he is programmed to do – but because he’s sick. At least he thinks he is sick, he is convinced that he has every computer virus known to cyborgs, but no one believes him. So Clive comes to our time to get the kind of help and compassion that only human beings can give. He meets Billy – a sweet yet street smart 14 year old who recently lost his single mom in a robotics plant explosion. Clive teaches Billy how to fend for himself and live a life his mom would be proud of. Billy teaches Clive that he isn’t sick, he’s just insecure and that the only love Clive ever needs is the love of himself – he teaches Clive that Clive is enough. Clive lets that lesson sink in and is instantly healed. Finally feeling like the cyborg he was born to be, Clive destroys the entire human race and returns to his future a hero. The end. The message: Be Like Clive.

Erin go Who?

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Last night I celebrated St. Patrick’s day the way St. Patrick intended: at a Karaoke bar. So perhaps that’s not the intention behind the holiday, but it was a joint St. Patrick’s Day/My Birthday party and it seemed the right thing to do. Besides, I’ve never been entirely sure what my responsibilities are as a man of Irish Heritage and a reformed Catholic when it comes to this “holiday.”

Growing up with a name like O’Keefe, people assumed that my family was Irish. And we are, in a manner of speaking. My Grandfather (Thomas O’Keefe) had two Irish parents: one literally off the boat from Ireland (a member of the Irish Navy) and the other a first generation Irish woman. Our “Irish-ness” however was limited to the obligatory corn beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s day and wearing green on the day. [The wearing green was rarely pulled off successfully once I was old enough to dress myself, I’m color blind and didn’t know it. I walked the halls of Eugene C. Auer Memorial Elementary School proudly wearing my green sweater on St. Patty’s Day, only to be later informed that it was blue.] We didn’t even drink like the infamous Irish. My father swore off booze when I was a wee one and mom only drank every once in a while – she was Italian and Canadian and did nothing in her drinking to bring shame to any of her forefathers or foremothers. I knew nothing about being Irish. I hated corn beef. I was never going to like cabbage. And the only consistent information about the Irish had to do with something dubbed “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland and that, according to my dad, was nothing more than a bunch of lunatics blowing stuff up.

My perspective on my “Irish-ness” has changed quite a bit from my adolescence. I don’t proclaim to understand what it is to be “Irish” anymore than I understand what it is to be “part-Italian” or “somewhat Canadian” or rumor has it “a little Polish.” Hell I can’t even understand what it even means just “to be.” I do know that certain works of art: certain books and movies and plays and poems have helped me connect with the Irish heritage that I do have and I am fascinated by it. Moved by it. Puzzled by it – puzzled with the idea of learning who I am by examining where my ancestors came from. There is a romanticism about it – I know I have succumbed to that. I’ve read up on the troubles, about the IRA, about Michael Collins and Patrick Pearse. I am fascinated and moved by their stories and their troubles. I’ve gone so far to say “my dad said they were all lunatics, but if I were a young man in that time and place, I would have picked up a gun.” But that’s bullshit. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t, I’m saying that I can’t know that I would. I wasn’t in that time and place, I can neither accurately assess what I would do nor fairly judge what people are doing and I should thank God for that lack of actual perspective. Or perhaps I shouldn’t thank God since some people claim that he’s the one that caused all the trouble up in Northern Ireland to begin with. (But we know that’s true right? It’s not God so much as people using the idea of “God” to commit social, political and economical injustices upon each other).

None of this has anything to do with my singing Karaoke in the West Village last night. None of this really has anything to do with the thousands of drunk people stumbling around Manhattan, wearing and puking up green. And that’s what I wonder about St. Patrick’s day. What are we supposed to be celebrating? Are we celebrating the history of Ireland? It’s Celtic roots? Are we celebrating how Christianity came in and changed (destroyed?) the religious and social landscape of the Emerald Island? Are we celebrating the strength of a people rising up against an Imperialist Great Britain? Are we celebrating a rich history of literature and song and poetry? Or are we celebrating drinking green beer and Lucky Charms?

Last night I drank a wonderfully dry and crisp Japanese beer that was decidedly amber colored, it wasn’t even close to being green. And while I was out and about amidst thousands of St. Patty’s Day revelers, I didn’t give much thought to St. Patrick or the Celtic Cross or the “Troubles” in fact. What I did do is sing a whole lot of Karaoke with my friends. Mayhap that’s not a bad way to honor Ireland – reveling in the love and joy of friends, singing songs loud and proud without concern for pitch or tone, and having a couple of drinks – just a couple. At least I think its a good way to celebrate what I think about Ireland. But what do I know?

Beware the Ides of March

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I didn’t need a soothsayer to warn me about today. I have my own personal, slightly homeless looking, ranting, raving, wild eyed lunatic warning me about today – me. And why should I fear the Ides of March? I don’t know anyone named Brutus and I tend to avoid hanging out with men wearing bed sheets and carrying daggers. So why fear the Ides of Mach? Because it’s my birthday. And today is a big birthday – 40.

Et tu Birthday? Et tu?

The weeks leading up to this day have been ridiculously difficult. I say ridiculous because I have been ridiculous – pondering, brooding, moping, despondent, down in the dumps, etc … (thank you thesaurus). Here I have a birthday that reminds me of Julius Caesar, and I’ve been trudging around like Hamlet. I’m not even sure which one of those is a more age-appropriate character for me to play, but I do know that both end up dead.

I am sure I am not unique in this manner … dreading landmark birthdays. Hell, I’m not even unique in my own life – I remember dreading my 30th birthday. This one, however, was tougher. Of course now that it’s here, I feel kind of great about it. And not just because I keep thinking what my Dad says “you don’t like getting older? It’s better than the alternative.” And it is better than the alternative … I’m assuming the alternative is dying. If the alternative is finding some magic potion that allows you to get younger or stay the same age then … let’s be honest, it would be difficult not to take that potion. Even though, unless movies have led me astray, that same potion would no doubt end up ruining my life. Or, in the very least, make me appreciate aging gracefully – OK, perhaps not gracefully, I’m not capable of grace, how about aging trippingly?

So why was I so sad? I think I was viewing 40 as a benchmark year. Like the 7 year review at a law firm – they discuss how it’s been, where you’re at and where you are going. You find out if you make partner, if you’re on the track to partnership or if it’s time to find a new job because you just don’t cut the mustard (I’ve never understood that phrase. Who cuts mustard?). Why the hell would I look at my birthday as a 7 year law firm review, when I left that game 12 years ago? I’m being literal AND figurative here – I literally left a law firm 12 years ago. Upon leaving I chose to follow my passion and become an actor – a slightly less secure occupation. And in so doing, my entire life has changed. That moment, when I left, I left the game of life. More specifically, I left what I had been brought up to believe was the game of life: do well in school, get a good job, get married, have many children, make money, retire, die.

I was very much schooled in a Milton Bradlian theory of LIFE. Remember that game – LIFE? According to that game, I’ve failed. Miserably. My little plastic car is flipped over on the highway, my stick figure wife has run off with a real professional and my own pinhead avatar was last scene trekking across the small strip of black tape that frames the board, leaving the game behind for good. The game is so very far behind me, but it haunts me. Sometimes. The game, the life I left behind still reverberates with me. I suppose it is to be expected – I spent the first 28 years of my life following the rules of the game – the rules and the judgment are bound to strike out at me. Especially since I’m not sure what the rules are for my present game. Maybe there are no rules. Maybe it’s not a game.

My struggle as of late has been entirely focused on what I’m not. What I haven’t done. What I don’t have. I suppose there is a time and place for that kind of thinking, especially if it helps get one where one needs to be or should be. But for me it has been fatalistic, unrealistic, and disrespectful. Yes, disrespectful – disrespectful to what I am, to what I have done and to what I do have. While in this whirling gloom of self deprecation, in this angst filled tempest I’ve created for myself, I have walled myself off from what may the most important thing in this world – the people in my life. My family and friends. I am so very blessed to have people in my life who care for me often times more than I care for myself. I will try not to question it, and just let it be. But if a man can be judged by the quality of people in his life, I’m a winner. Nothing makes me realize this more than my birthday. Despite my attempts to close myself off and avoid the day, I have friends and family determined to drag me out into the light and celebrate. To celebrate my life. What I have done is important, yes, what I may do is important, but what and who I am, it seems, is what we are celebrating. Who am I to ignore that?

So I’ll embrace 40, I’ll embrace the hell out of it. 40 is the new 20, that’s what people have been telling me. I’d like to say 40 is the new 21, this way I can drink, but don’t bother me with trifles. I know its ridiculous, it’s just a matter of thinking right, “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Hamlet said that. Well, William Shakespeare wrote that for the character of Hamlet to say and it is magic. Of course, I understand that I am quoting a character that, despite saying those words, spent most of his time in his own head, contemplating his own grief, his own inaction, his own shortcomings and the injustice of the world. It’s also not lost on me that this character, in an effort to do the right thing (find the truth, avenge his father) pushed away the woman that loved him for all his imperfections and drove her mad. This is a topic for another time. For now, on my birthday I say … 40 is great. I will think it good. I will love 40. I guess I’m like an age whore, I’ll fall in love with whatever stage of life I happen to be in at the time, simply because its there. Sure part of me would rather be 30, but 30 isn’t giving me the time of day and 40 … well, 40 is right there, not looking so bad, and she is so into me. Sure, I may look back on this later and say “what an ass I was when I was 40,” but now I vow to be gloriously in love with the age I am. It’s the whole “be here now” mentality or the “live in the moment” idealism or the “if you can’t beat em, join em” somewhat defeatist attitude cleverly disguised as a t-shirt.

Beware the Ides of March? No, I won’t beware, I’ll bewonderful the Ides of March. HAHAHA, that is the most horrible sentence I ever wrote. And that is saying a whole lot.

Gulp!

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I went to class last night and learned that I am drowning. A tragic predicament for anyone, especially a Pisces. Even more troubling is that I don’t have to be drowning, yet it appears that I am choosing to.

Last night’s class wasn’t about swimming – I know, you’re shocked. It was a Buddhism/Meditation class focusing on Samsara – which in Buddhist teachings can be translated as the cycle of suffering or the cycle of life. [While I am aware that there are multiple translations of the word (from its Sanskrit origins) and different cultures and practices attribute a variety of meanings to it, for the sake of this meager post I will say that my understanding is that Samsara means the cycle of suffering.] At the end of our guided meditation we were encouraged to think about a cycle that we are caught in – some type of personal suffering that we seem not to be able to escape from. Smoking was offered as an example: the smoker who wants to quit, believes they should quit, tries to quit and sometimes succeeds only to smoke again. We were encouraged to focus on something that we could take lightly, with some humor.

I ignored the “humor” direction and focused on my negative state of mind. And by negative state of mind I mean the self persecuting state of mind which has gained considerable volume in my head as of late. My “you’re worthless and weak” mind, my “you have never and will never amount to anything” mind, my “you’re going to die having accomplished nothing” mind. It’s as if the Great Santini hijacked my conscious and, not having his teenage son around to bully, is focused on me (If you have never seen the movie “The Great Santini,” rent it. But for now just think – emotionally abusive military father figure). So I focused on my Great Santini (which sounds dirty, but its not). As expected, I started to feel anger, sadness, hopelessness, and anxiety. We were then encouraged to think about this cycle of suffering as if it were an ocean. And, to be honest, I can’t recall why we were encouraged to think of it that way – all I remember is feeling like I was drowning, and then I started to laugh. Which I’m pretty sure is not helpful when you are drowning.

Why was I laughing? Because I knew that I was choosing to drown. Yes, the facts behind the Great Santini’s persecutions are tough to argue with – I am turning 40, I do not have stable employment, my financial situation is less than rosy. But, my thinking about this, my wallowing in it, my stress about it, is all of my own doing. So I started to laugh – because what an ass am I? Of course, I didn’t need meditation to figure this out, I guess I always knew it, but sometimes I need even the most obvious things pointed out to me, especially when I’m stuck in an emotional cycle. It’s not so bad when the emotions are positive – then the cycle is fun, but when they turn, and they always turn, well …

After the laughter there was some comfort. We were then encouraged to consider whether other people were going through the same cycle of suffering. As ridiculous as it sounds, it was the first time during this – what I will call – “Dark Period” of my life that I realized there are others out there struggling with this same bullshit. What was important for me in that moment, was understanding that my “poor me” mentality was neither original nor particularly interesting. We were further encouraged to consider whether we could help others out of their cycle – and that gave me some peace. It was as if that idea began to calm the tide, to settle the waters, hell I’ll go so far as to say that the idea gave me a life raft, a way to avoid the drowning.

As class ended I prepared to leave, focusing on getting past my Great Santini mind and perhaps helping others do the same – having no idea, of course, how to do that. And just as I was experiencing a small dose of self-satisfaction, I pulled out my iPhone, checked my email and learned that I was rejected from the Public Theater’s Shakespeare Lab for the second year in a row. You would think the Great Santini would start with the “you suck” chanting right off the bat, but he didn’t. I took a couple deep breaths and assured myself that I was not surprised at the rejection. I convinced myself that it was not a determination or judgment of my talent and that it was, in the end, “no big deal.” Do you want to guess how long that lasted? Not very long.

About an hour later the Great Santini started up. Small at first, even gentle, just a little “that’s a bummer buddy, you’ll get em next time.” But after getting a couple hours of sleep, he was up and raring to go this morning: blaring loud and clear with a new found vigor that this latest rejection was merely another example of my chronic case of “notgoinganywhereitis;” another sign post drawing attention to my wasted potential; yet another chapter in the sad and cautionary tale of my life.

So I sat down to write this. In doing so, I started thinking about that drowning. I started thinking about why I would continue to drown, knowing that it is in my power not to. All this thinking (I know, I know, the thinking is a problem) dredged up memories of another class a couple years ago. It was Beth Lapides’ Un-Cab Lab class – a fantastic class for writer/performers in Los Angeles; I had just performed a story about my latest break-up (there had been a lot of them (try and hide your surprise)) and I couldn’t figure out why I would get myself into a fast and furious romance when I wasn’t ready and when I knew it would end badly. Beth’s insight, as always, was right on. She said “Tom, maybe you like the drama.” WHAT!? HOW DARE SHE?! I do not like the … oh shit, maybe I do. A little. Maybe I’m “That guy.” You know, that guy I hate, the drama maker. After Beth cut me to my very core, I went home and rewrote the story, reworked the bit. It wasn’t hard. The story was rewritten with me as a guy afraid and unprepared to enter the serious relationship pool (not a highly original thought, granted) and yet jumping, heart first, into the deep end without my water wings while there was no lifeguard on duty. And why would I do that? Because I liked the rush, because I liked the drama. I liked the drowning. It was like I was the protagonist in a David Lynch movie about seemingly normal people who get off on being submerged without air entitled “GULP” – though I’m guessing they would hire James Spader to play me.

So, here I am again, drowning in my own drama. It’s difficult for me to admit that I’m causing it, and its hard to believe that part of me enjoys how miserable I have been lately, but it’s even harder to argue with the evidence. I see it now. How could I not? Three years later, the drowning motif cycles back into my consciousness – my own little cycle of suffering. My own Samsara.

It can’t be that simple, can it? Can it be THAT obvious? Isn’t it a bit odd that I’m repeating this drowning motif AND I’m a Pisces? How about the fact that the symbol for Pisces is usually two fish forming a circle, isn’t that a bit convenient? You know what else is convenient? Fish don’t drown in water, they can breathe in it. So convenient or contrived or simplified or not, that’s what I’m going to try and do. I’m going to learn to breathe, a little bit every day, till the Great Santini’s only significance is as pretty great movie starring the incredibly talented Robert Duvall. I’ll probably cough up a bit while I get used to the whole breathing under water thing, but no one ever said it was going to be easy.