FRANKENSTEIN: You Ready?

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Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is my favorite novel of all time. In fact, in light of the terrible Februaries I’ve had the past three years, I think I’ll declare the second month of every year Frankenstein February and make sure to read it when enduring the horrors of February 2017, and every February after that. When I read this novel in my senior year of high school, I knew it was the best work of fiction I’ve ever read. Reading it again 5 years later for a third time, even as my classmates criticize the doctor’s actions and Shelley’s descriptions, it still holds the same place in my heart.

I’m not sure where to go from there. I could talk about “objective” reasons it’s a great novel, such as its place in history and the fact that it created my favorite genre of all time, science fiction. I could talk about personal reasons why I love it, such as how I connect to Frankenstein and the monster, and how this novel achieves something that I’m still searching for in fiction today, and how I find new meaning each time I read it. But to what end? To convince you to declare it your favorite novel too? What good does that do me? The fact that none of my classmate liked the novel like I did doesn’t change much. Frankenstein didn’t just stand the test of time, it redefined the time I live in. No one’s going to drop his or her drink when I say that the good novel is good. And if you don’t like it, it’s not like you’re “wrong” or “objectively incorrect.” When you tell me that Frankenstein sucks, I will likely pursue you to the North Pole, arguing without you all the way. But your feelings are your feelings, and you’re a thoughtful human being that doesn’t need someone else to tell you what to think. With that said, I’ll still argue with you, since there’s still a lot that people… misunderstand about the novel, least of all this:

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Pictured: Not actually Frankenstein. Unless you read xkcd.

Contrary to what you might think, I don’t get upset when people call the monster “Frankenstein.”

 

Ok, I don’t get as upset as you might think. Us English majors have written enough literary essays on the duality of Frankenstein and the monster that it’s our own fault when these oft-compared characters get confused. What bothers me the most is that people consider the message of this book to be “Don’t meddle in God’s domain, humans weren’t meant to go too far with science, I don’t understand GMOs therefore they’re scary,” etc. There is textual evidence for this, I admit. One of Frankenstein’s last messages to his friend Robert Walton is to not be ambitious. That’s a surface level reading, in my opinion, and “don’t be ambitious” is a message from Frankenstein’s opinion. There are many reasons, including the nature of his character, why we shouldn’t trust Dr. Frankenstein. One, we bring people back from the dead all the time. I don’t see any moral panics or torch-wielding mobs around when that happens. Most of us are ready for science to bring forth a better future. But not everyone might be. I can think of a few people: religious zealots, moral guardians, the superstitious… and Dr. Frankenstein himself.

Frankenstein’s childhood, for those of you only familiar with the pop culture version of him, is overall pretty happy. He’s got a loving father and mother, his family adopts a girl and “gives” her to him as a gift of sorts, and the young scientist owns plenty of science books to whet his passion with. The two notable bad moments in his life are 1) when his father tells him that the ancient books of his favorite alchemists are trash, and 2) when his mother dies of scarlet fever. Once Frankenstein goes to University, he becomes a star student. But he starts missing class at the end of his term so he can realize his ultimate pet project: raising people from the dead.

This upcoming scene is the turning point of the novel (also a spoiler for an almost 200 year old book), and the place where a lot of people start to hate Frankenstein. Not unjustly, mind you. The monster comes alive in the middle of Frankenstein’s long and otherwise normal night of work. There’s a lot of buildup in the novel to this moment, but it’s still a shock (pun intended, NO REGRETS BABY!) when this conclusion arrives. Frankenstein, to put it succinctly, freaks the fuck out. He runs away, leaving his creation to wander off until it learns of the miseries both humanity and nature can provide. If Victor Frankenstein hadn’t fled, if he had stayed behind to be the monster’s parent, then none of the novel’s tragedies would’ve occurred and the creator and created may have had a happy ending. So why did Frankenstein flee? Is it an Eagles to Mordor situation, where you can’t have a story without it? (And yes, I know why the Eagles can’t fly to Mordor. My question is why they can’t fly to Gondor.) Is Frankenstein acting in a symbolic way, representing the many people that the creature will terrify by his mere undead appearance? Or is there a deeper reason?

Frankenstein is basically the only scientific member of his family and social circle. Even his father, who knew enough to tell him that the alchemist Cornelius Agrippa was not worth reading, is “not scientific,” which leaves Frankenstein “left to struggle with a child’s blindness, added to a student’s thirst for knowledge.” We have a protagonist with the perspective of a child here. When his professors at University give him a proper scientific education, it doesn’t damper Frankenstein’s imagination, it only gives him the tools needed to enact his plans. Plans like grave robbing. Frankenstein is not superstitious: to him, “a churchyard was… merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life.” Leaving his creation behind was not the first irresponsible thing Frankenstein did. He pursued his goal of life-creation with single-minded determination, abandoning nearly everything in his pursuit to bestow life on another. We’ve all seen kids get so wrapped up in something that they refuse to put down their new interest. Frankenstein’s wants appear to be taken care of in this part of the novel. He doesn’t need money to eat, or have to attend his classes to win the praise of his professors later in the novel. He’s able to lose himself entirely in his work because there are no consequences.

In fact, little in his early life had consequence. The only real tragedy pre-monster is the death of his mother, which he reacts to in the novel by saying, “it’s really sad, but hey, life goes on” (paraphrased, obviously). Let’s just say that he does not take a “I have to move on” attitude to anyone else’s death in the story. What changed? The creation of the monster is Frankenstein’s first encounter with consequences. But he’s such a self-centered person that he’s not ready to take on another life. His parents were indulgent, “the agents and creators of all the many delights which we enjoyed.” The only life that gets “given” to him is Elizabeth’s, his adopted cousin, also known as a woman he doesn’t need to work on raising or educating. Even when Victor says that as a child, “my temper was sometimes violent,” there’s no hint of his parents punishing him or making him be a better person as a result. He’s a spoiled rich kid who doesn’t think about what he’s doing because he never had a need to, until the creature is born. It’s not like the world is not ready for reanimation: it’s that Frankenstein is not emotionally equipped to take care of something other than himself. A child can dream, but it takes an adult to utilize. Frankenstein tried to solve the problem of his mother’s death without emotionally preparing to actually do so. His project, in his mind, was an extension of himself. The awakening of the creature put an end to that illusion.

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Pictured: Most Positively NOT Frankenstein, no matter what you read.

Sounds like a fascinating main character, doesn’t it? Isn’t there something compelling in that miserable human being? That’s just one of the reasons I recommend Frankenstein, either as a read or a reread. Don’t mind its age: it reads incredibly smoothly, especially compared to other novels from that literary era. I always discover something new when I read this book. And I’ll tell you what that new thing is next February.

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On Writing With Depression: Suicide Attempt

Last week, I mentioned a diagnosis of Radiculopathy that accompanied my tendonitis. This assessment came at the end of a long day, as well as right when a blog post was due. The hour after I posted DOUBLE FISTED COBRA STRIKE was… emotionally eventful, to say the least. I’ll tell the story here, but first, a little background. Don’t freak out: this story is actually kind of funny.

I hate the medical process. Hate the length, the lack of efficiency, the inaccuracy of most diagnoses, and any alternative medicines people peddle as “natural” or “from a wiser past.” If we don’t have our shit together now in terms of curing the injured and sick, we sure as hell didn’t have it together thousands of years ago. But I digress. Two years in my life, my two worst, were characterized by rushing about from doctor to doctor trying to get a handle on what was wrong. In 2009-2010, my family and I believed I had chronic fatigue, and none of the spinal taps, electroshocks, or even psychologists at the time could determine the true cause, depression. This was an uncontested worst period of my life… until 2014, when I developed stenosis. Eventually, I found a solution at the end of a parade of health experts. I did a lot to problem-solve when the neck issues cropped up: lightened my class load, scheduled more appointments with my therapist, and continued to see doctors. But I did little to emotionally support myself. As a result, I was a panicky, suicidal wreck that had to be hospitalized for depression a month after starting school. So yeah, the medical process and I do not go well together. But in the past two years, I’ve learned how to meditate. I used to resist meditation, now I adopt some of its techniques during any snippets of downtime (provided, of course, that I can’t read instead). I’ve also grown since 2014 in terms of being more honest and expressive with my emotions. Did it ultimately change the One Bad Day of 2/9? Maybe, maybe not. But I can guarantee that what I learned made my non-disastrous days better and happier.

2/9/2016 didn’t start out well, but I had a grip on what was stressing me out. There was some downtime at work in the morning where I could meditate through my school deadline and aching shoulder. My boss, considerate of my tendonitis, made sure I didn’t lift anything heavy that day. Yet around work’s end, I grappled with a sharp, nerve-pinching pain from my right shoulder down to my right elbow. The last time my shoulder was in too much pain to work, I went to the ER and found out about the tendonitis. Smarter and more budget-conscious this time, I decided to skip class after work and go to QuickCare, the University of Iowa walk-in medical service.

My family sometimes teases my mom’s mom about being 29. No, my mom’s mom is not “grandma,” and that’s because she hates any reminders of being old, be it name or age. We make fun of her phobia, but I think I have a similar fear. Not of age as a number, but of entropy. When things break down— especially my body— I get inconsolably upset. And walking a mile and a half with acute arm pain was just the crack in the wall that suicidal thoughts could slip through.

For a while with me (and I assume this is the case with others), suicidal thoughts were panicky, desperate, urgent. As of these past few months, those thoughts have dressed up in their finest business suits and took some speaking lessons. That voice is the voice of a consultant or accountant, someone with wisdom beyond you. “You can take time off of work, you can put some ice on your shoulder, you can kill yourself. All perfectly valid ideas.” But when walking to the doctors, I considered suicide the nuclear option: maybe useful someday, but not when more reasonable measures exist. Notice that I don’t, in this moment, dispute that suicide is “reasonable,” it’s just “less reasonable.” I pressed on to QuickCare.

After waiting an hour and a half at the QuickCare office, the doctor saw me, and then suggested I go to the ER. A mile later, I was there, waiting for another half-hour. I put on a brave face (note: don’t do this. If you want attention at the ER, be a bit of a drama king, otherwise they’ll wonder why even bother with you), cracking jokes and being sociable. Hours of waiting in another white room (night had fallen), followed by the diagnosis for radiculopathy for my shoulder, crushed any façade of mine like a slowly descending ceiling. Radiculopathy, that nerve pinching that I had suffered through all day, prevented me from taking care of my tendonitis, which prevented me from taking care of my stenosis, which prevented me from taking care of depression, which had the potential to take care of me once and for all. And what did I get for my troubles at the ER? More goddamned pills. Honestly, even in the good place I’m in now, I’m not sure why I haven’t swallowed them all at once to be forever done with this.

It was after I realized, lying in the hospital bed, that no one could help me— that I would be alone trying to pick up broken pieces of myself— that my façade finally cracked and I broke down crying. The doctor walked in to see me like this, and made sure to give me time to compose myself before he kicked me out. Doc calls a taxi for me. After a few gulps of water, I reasoned that one of my stressors was the looming blog deadline. Surely, I could finish that and feel better. I turned on my laptop, dug up DOUBLE FISTED COBRA STRIKE (I actually wanted to post it for a year now, but the attacks in Paris [first ones] put that plan on hold), and made a quick post to Word Salad Spinner. And you know what? For the time, I actually did feel better.

Before entering the ER, I had kept my mom up to date on my journey. The ER had no reception. After walking out of the building, I called her and told her of the diagnosis. She said that times may be tough, but I could get through this as long as I took care of myself and did the right exercises. Mother: if you’re reading this, know that I love you and think the world of you, and know that that was the worst, most wrong thing to say at that moment. Why? Because this is me:

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All my life, I thought, I’ve been a slave to problems. Have to do this, have to do that, must work to feel better, need to pick yourself up. Would you like to waste your life as the boy with the finger plugging the dam? Endless boredom, numb fingers, just so a little water doesn’t get through? The legend says that someone comes by in time and plugs up the dam, but good luck telling that still, timeless picture about that hope. And just as you’re getting used to your pointless existence in a painting others find mildly amusing at best, another hole’s going to come along and you have to break your hand just to position another finger over this new hole, and the village you’re protecting from a flood doesn’t deserve to live if this is how they value your life.

My mother suggested plugging up a hole with a new finger. I responded “No,” followed my a more enlightened and offended “No I don’t.” I hung up.

Two things happened. One: I really wanted to listen to and sing “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” by Tom Waits. Even after all the shit I went through on 2/9, I still consider that ditty a great song, perhaps even an anthem for where I am right now. This jaunty little tune accompanied Thing #2: The solution. The nuclear option.

Sometimes, the suicidal accountant gets into casual clothes and becomes a good friend you see at the bar. This has happened before. Standing outside the ER, I was happy. What flavor of happy? Years ago, I spent three hours with a friend solving an extra-credit geometry problem for school, and went home exhausted but satisfied. Imagine that, but like I figured out entropy and the march of time. I’ve finally done it! The problem was solved, now I was going to go home and never have problems again. So I’m happy, I’m smiling, I’m singing

When I’m lyin’ in my bed at night, I don’t wanna grow up!

            Nothin’ ever seems to turn out right, I don’t wanna grow up!

            How do you move in a world of fog that’s always changing things…

The taxi arrives, and I have an energetic, cheerful conversation with a cabbie who lamented the woeful habits of Iowa City pedestrians and had strong opinions on the Clintons. The cheer starts to wear off. In the cab, I liken my situation to posting DOUBLE FISTED COBRA STRIKE for my blog. Sure it’ll be painful to get through, but think of how satisfied I’ll be when it’s over! I pay the cabbie, get in my apartment, and find myself indifferent to the fact that my roommate’s not at home. I’m singing

Get the toaster and extension cord, I don’t wanna grow up!

            Fill the tub ‘till you got a wet floor, I don’t wanna grow up!

They may be happy, they may be business-like, but at the end of this long day, suicidal thoughts are only seductive for a few moments. Waiting for the cab, driving home, paying the cabbie, unlocking my door, getting inside, taking my toaster to the bathtub, finding an extension cord, filling up the bathtub, all of these delaying factors gave the parts of me that wanted to live the opportunity to scream. Here was my situation: me vs. the rest of my life. Logically, while I’m sitting in the tub and the toaster’s cooking on top of my toilet, I should drop it in and win the battle. But these pesky emotions are in the way. How do I subdue them in time? How do I calm myself down? I came up with an answer. Here’s what I did.

I meditated.

I tried to meditate myself to death.

I told you this was a funny story.

Obviously, this method didn’t work. It was actually a beautiful moment in a Gollum-dances-into-the-fires-of-Doom way. I drain the bathtub (still angry at myself for giving in to the more vulnerable parts inside me). My therapist texts me; it seems like my mom contacted him after I hung up on her. We have an hour-long session, I order a bunch of gluten-free pizza, and I call it a night. Looking back, my body reacts to this moment like if a car almost hit me— a brush with death, but nothing you need to radically alter your life over (except be a better Iowa City pedestrian).

I’m sure you all have some ideas on how to problem-solve this. Don’t bother. One, I already talked with my roommate. They’ll (non binary) try to be home when I text them so I’m not alone coming back from the ER or doctor’s. Secondly, trying to problem-solve instead of emotionally support myself is what got me into that dilemma. Updating the blog felt good for a moment, but wouldn’t I have been better off breaking my promise so I could spend some time recovering? And yes, one solution is to have pieces ready in advance to post. I will do so, and I’ll likely have 5 week’s worth of material to post once I finish editing my fiction project. That’s beside the point.

I’ve mentioned before that writing won’t always solve your emotional issues, just alleviate them a bit. I’m grateful for every like and comment on this dingy I’m sailing across the Internet with. Cataloguing this event may let others gain some insight into depression, but it’s the bare minimum I can do to help myself. Instead of seeing depression as a problem to be solved, I need to see it as a child in need of nurturing and comfort.

So yes, there may come a day when the punctuality of this man fails. I may miss an update for this blog. But know when that day comes that it’ll be for the good of my health, not for the worst of it. When I free my creative self from anxiety and depression, this blog will be an extension of my creative vision, not just an imaginary “do this to be in good health OR ELSE” checklist. And overall? I’m damn proud of this blog, especially since I’ve reached the point where I can write a post about myself at my most vulnerable. This day I write. But maybe take the next day to help your inner demons instead of fighting them.

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Stay around in my old hometown, I don’t wanna put no money down,

            I don’t wanna get me a big old loan, work them fingers to the bone,

            I don’t wanna float a broom, fall in love and get married then boom,

            How the hell did it get here so soon,

            I don’t wannnna grow upppppp!