Sunday, May 30, 2010

Meeting people

The day after my article published the phone at the Liberal Studies Department office was “ringing off the hook.” My program director took calls from deans—(one of them from an airport allegedly)—who were exasperated by the possibility of my story causing a media shitstorm that would potentially plop bad publicity atop Duke’s hallowed halls. My director—who was amused with the article (which I sent to her the day before it published)—responded dispassionately to all inquiries and the storm—as quick as it started—blew over.

As campus admin frenetically dealt with the situation, my article got tossed around on Facebook where I received 86 messages in my inbox the next day. Additionally, over this past semester, I’ve received countless emails, more Facebook messages, and inquiries from the media.

While I was amused with and enjoyed my fifteen minutes of fame, I was concerned about the possible consequences of revealing my secret. I worried that families out to the local ice cream shop would pose with the van for a family photo—as if it were some scenic roadside pull off—while I tried to nap inside. Bored frat boys would devise cruel ways to humor themselves like emptying their beer-filled bladders on my tires. Women—unperturbed with the sickly pallor of my pectorals and lacking the sense of smell—would chase me in ravenous packs through the streets.

Surprisingly, though, the reactions in the virtual and real worlds were vastly different. When I got back to Duke, I was glad to see that I’d maintained my precious anonymity. No one knew who I was. There were no families, no frat boys, and certainly no packs of ravenous women.

All this past semester, only two students approached me after recognizing me from my shirtless, mid-chew Salon picture. On another occasion, a middle-aged woman out of her car window smilingly said, “Hey van man.” I shot her a look of surprise, a smile, then continued on my merry way. That’s it.

The virtual world proved far more interested in my experiment. Over email, fellow vandwellers in college told me about the secrets they’d been keeping from their campuses. Several high school teachers and even a professor told me they had their students read my article to complement their lessons on Thoreau and transcendentalism. A couple freshman were curious how to get jobs with the Park Service. I received several free dinner offers and had three meals with middle-aged homosexual men alone.

One girl traveled all the way from San Francisco to see the van. Amanda was my first and only pilgrim. She was a student in NYC doing her final project on escapism. She bought a one-way ticket to San Fran and found her way out east via hitchhiking and rideshares. I took her to my class, bought her a coffee and spread a tarp out on the grass by my van where we gazed at the dozen stars that shone through Durham’s air and light pollution.


I had dinner with Viv and George in Chapel Hill who later asked me to watch their dogs for a weekend. I emptied out the frozen dinners in their freezer, happy to take a break from noodles and cereal for a few days.


I got invited to a dinner hosted by a couple Taiwanese students. When one of the guests asked where I lived, I told her and she exclaimed, “Oh my god! You’re the van man! You don’t even smell!” After expressing more surprise that I didn’t carry a cloud of fleas around with me, I asked her to translate an article written in Taiwan about me, which was without note except that Taiwan—through some miscommunication—thinks that I live on “1 yuan a day” which equals 16 cents.


And then I got an email from David—a minimalist, misanthrope, doomer, and hermit who’s known in circles as the “grandfather of the introvert liberation movement.” I knew we’d get along.

He lives in a newly built Gothic revival cottage surrounded by woods on a gravel road in the middle of Nowhere, North Carolina that he calls “Acorn Abbey.” He has a blog here. I spent a weekend with him in February. David’s retired and doesn’t particularly like manual labor so he offered me free room and board this summer if I’d help him build a fence for his organic garden and tend to the crops and his four chickens.


I was offered my job with the Park Service where I’d worked the past two summers. It would have been another 10K in my pocket for relatively enjoyable work. I was tempted, but I have other goals, namely to:

1. Have a 50-book summer. Reading a book, for me, is like jogging. Sometimes I love jogging and sometimes I hate it, but if I don’t do it routinely, my body, like my mind, weakens and withers. I’ll never get around to reading all 50, but I’ll surpass—in pursuit of achieving a lofty goal—what I’d accomplish with a more modest one.

2. Enroll in an independent study course. I will be advised by a history professor in a course we’ve designed called “Student Debt and the Self” I’m curious how debt turns us into a certain type of citizen and I hope to explain, philosophically, the personal and social ramifications caused by debt.

3. Write a book proposal. After my article published, a literary agent inquired if I’d be interested in expanding the article into a book. It’s typically a 70-page document from what I’ve heard and I’m still working on assembling a table of contents. It’s both an exciting and daunting project. There’s little chance it’ll get picked up, but I knew I’d need to pursue this with every ounce of mettle I could muster. I need time, not a paycheck.

4. Live the good life. More and more, I fantasize about living in a Walden-esque cabin on the edge of the woods—a home base where I can yield crops, yet remain active as a citizen. There’s no sense in glorifying a certain sort of life. I need to test my theories. That’s why I’m spending my summer with David.

I believe there’s a happy medium somewhere between work of the mind and work of the body, which I haven’t been able to find at Duke or on my working tour across the continent. Here at Acorn Abbey, for the past three weeks, I’ve been building a fence, planting and tending crops while reading voraciously. I’m living something close to my idea of the good life.

While my living costs this summer will almost be non-existent, my bank account is slowly draining. I have four more courses to complete before getting my degree and just enough money—barring some medical catastrophe—to pay for them. My loan-free college-degree experiment is almost complete. While this experiment has helped me save money, earn a college degree, achieve national notoriety, and draw a line between my wants and my needs, one of the most fulfilling aspects of my goal has been the human connections I’ve made.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The seizure

Damn she’s pretty. We were in the basement of a coffee shop off campus. She sat with her back to me, typing in a laptop surrounded with a scattering of papers, occasionally pausing to take a sip from her paper cup while keeping her eyes trained on the computer. She got up and asked if I’d watch her stuff so she could leave to have a smoke.

She was young, tall, and skinny. Probably too skinny for her own good. And I thought she looked too innocent to be smoking and—because of hay-colored mane of hair, pallid complexion and noble carriage—too regal to be hanging out with a bunch of yuppies. She looked like she should have been leading a gaggle of sycophantic courtiers down the halls of some Scandinavian castle or admired as a marble-dipped statue surrounded by arching fountains and trim hedgerows.

Soon after she got back and sat down, I saw a sudden movement out of the corner of my eye. With her head tilted toward the ceiling, she rose from her seat ever so slightly and gracefully fell to the brick floor where she began writhing helplessly. Her eyes bulged and her teeth clenched.

People looked around their laptops to see the cause of the commotion. A man nearest her got down on his knees and held her head. It was the first time I saw someone having a seizure and, stunned by her contorted face and the horrific jerking of her body, I couldn’t move at first. I forced myself up, stepped over her, and called 911. While waiting for the paramedics, the man caring for her announced that she’d stopped breathing and that there was no pulse.

Before the paramedics came, she started breathing again and slowly—very slowly—regained consciousness. She didn’t know where or even who she was. But she did know that she’d never had a seizure before.

“What does this all mean?” she said, with tears rolling down her face.

She was asked about diet, stress, and medication changes that may have caused it. She only said that she’s been really busy with schoolwork. That’s when I got upset. There could have been a hundred reasons behind her seizure, but I decided it was because of school.

Despite being in one of the most youthful, energetic, and imaginative periods of their lives, many students suffer from poor health and depression. Between work and school, I remember being so busy my junior year that I stopped exercising altogether. Throughout my college career—even as recently as this past semester—I’ve pulled several all nighters and consumed unhealthy dosages of caffeine to get my work done.

There are many types of college students. There are slackers who smoke and drink their parents’ money away. There are dedicated students who care about their education. And there are the hyper-focused students who live in libraries, never sleep, and whose idea of success is largely determined by grades and accolades. Rarely, I’ve found, does this third group work so hard because they're passionate about the subject they’re studying. Rather, they’re more like robots programmed to pursue their flimsy notion of success, fueled by Adderall and energy drinks. It’s this group that’s most likely to crash and burn.

College—they don’t realize—is a fantasy land. The deadlines and grades and expectations are only real as long as we believe that they’re real. When I begin to stress-out over deadlines, I remind myself that I’m in school of my own volition. I can neglect to turn papers in, I can skip class, hell, I can even drop out. I never do these things but I think it’s important to understand that the world will not end because of a bad grade, a failed class, or a rejected internship application. A volcano spewing lava over someone’s home is real. The world ending because of a B- is not.

Other students—who’ve spent their entire lives in schools—cannot make a distinction between what’s real and what’s not. A “B-” is not just a “B-”; it very well could be the end of their world. That’s because they feel some deeply rooted need—implanted in them by parents, teachers, and even themselves—to keep pace with fellow students, to get grades, and to get a good job. When expectations are set so high, it’s only natural that they burn out trying to attain these things and feel worthless and incompetent when they can’t.

They go to college not to grow into fully-functioning, self-sufficient, critically-minded men and women, but to become nurses, investors, and marine biologists. Today, college is considered less a place to develop and more an arena to compete.

It should come as no surprise that suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds. There are 1000 suicides a year on campuses and a 2000 survey by the American College Health Association reports that 9.5% of its student subjects had contemplated suicide (American Association of Suicidology).

Six students from Cornell killed themselves this past year. It got so bad that the campus has posted guards and built a wire fence on the bridge where several students jumped to end it all. My friend, an RA at Harvard, told me how two underclassmen killed themselves last year, likely because of the pressures of school.

Plus, when you have excessive student loans, it’s almost inconceivable to drop out without a degree to show what you've paid for. When you go into school not to attain knowledge but to attain a degree, college becomes less a beacon of truth and more a prison that’s too risky to escape.

But I’m being awfully presumptuous. It could have been a chemical imbalance, or a hundred other reasons. School may have had nothing to do with her seizure.

After that afternoon, I began seeing her everywhere: outside the gym, on the bus, walking across campus. When we’d cross paths I could tell she didn’t recognize me from the café.

I started to feel like I was stalking her. When I’d see her, I’d change my direction and follow her with the intent of stopping her and telling her that I was there. What would I say? That I watched her die and come back to life? That I saw her vibrating on the brick floor with spit all over her face? Thinking about her skinny frame, the caffeine, the cigarettes, and all the homework, I really just wanted to tell her to take it easy; that she could be killing herself with schoolwork; that it’s going to be okay if she gets a C and that it’s okay if she takes a semester off from college. I’d tell her that if college doesn’t rouse her passions, leave and find something that does. I’d tell her to go look at the stars and mountains to remind her of how small and insignificant we are, and that the troubles we bear are even smaller. Then come back when you’re ready.

Alas, I said nothing. Instead, I just trailed her from behind. It was as if I held some secret about her that I shouldn’t have had, like I’d seen her naked without her knowing it.

Months went by until I saw her again, this time in a different coffee shop. She walked past me to get her coffee and on her way back I smiled and kicked out a chair. I was probably blushing and my heart was racing. I asked her if she recognized me. She said no.

“Well, this might be somewhat uncomfortable for you, but I know you from the coffee shop.”

It still didn’t click, but I gave her a look, and it hit her. Her face reddened and her fingers fidgeted, but she was palpably curious. She said she had no recollection of the day and because she didn’t know anyone at the coffee shop, no one had been able to help her recount the episode. I told the story as best I could. With eyes welling with tears, she smiled and thanked me.

We’d see each other occasionally on campus, but every time she’d look away as if she didn’t know me, probably because she was embarrassed or because she didn’t want to be reminded of the episode.

I looked for her this past semester, but it appeared she’d left. I figured she took some time off from school to relax and reassess. Good for her, I thought. Then, towards the middle of the semester, I saw her again at another coffeehouse. Like our first encounter, she had her back turned to me. A lap top, a scattering of papers, and a smoking cup of coffee in front of her.

I was focused on my work, until the room went silent and someone yelped, “Does anyone know what to do!?”

I looked over and saw her that her arms had flopped to her sides and her head hung over the back of her chair. Her body was jerking madly. I didn’t “know what to do” but I got up slowly, walked over, and put one arm around her back and another beneath her long, dangling legs. I lifted her from her chair and looked at her face. Her teeth were clenched again and her eyes were zombielike: full of fervor but absent of life. I gently set her on the floor where I cupped her head with my palm so it wouldn’t hammer against the ground.

I've had Wilderness First Responder training, but because our class had spent exactly 30 seconds on backcountry seizures, all I knew was to keep her head secure, not to put anything in her mouth, and check her breathing and pulse regularly.

After the convulsions ceased, she started gulping for air and then stopped abruptly. I thought I’d have to begin CPR, but my hands trembled so much I couldn’t take her pulse. I turned her on her side and a syrupy mixture of saliva and blood oozed from her mouth.

By the time the paramedics arrived, she was breathing okay and a similar scene unfolded. More questions and more tears. Her friend came over and told them that she’s been working really hard.

“I really don’t like it here,” she said, her face pink and wincing. She also told them that this has happened only once before.

She saw me sitting in my chair, looking on sadly. She smiled again with a face full of tears.

I saw her a few more times on campus and felt just as reluctant to approach her as I did the first time. We bumped into each other outside the library, but kept walking as if we’d never met. Halfway to the van, I turned around and went to speak with her, hoping I’d tell her everything I wanted to say.

Except, I just asked how she was. She said the seizures had stopped once she started taking medication, and that she was doing a lot better. I wasn’t so sure.

I looked at the smoke billowing from her cigarette, and in the background was a statue of Benjamin Duke, presumably one of the founders of the college. I thought of the statues, the legacies, the great men and women, and how they will all be ashes and dust one day. Future generations will forget the names and the sacrifices of these men, just as we’ve forgotten the names of kings and emperors that once ruled great civilizations. The books in the library will crumble into worm food and the work of the many ambitious students around me will one day be swallowed by an apathetic earth and forgotten by an indifferent universe. So why spend our lives chasing elusory, foundationless goals, killing ourselves (sometimes literally) in the process?

I think it’s alright to pull the all-nighters, abuse the coffee, and neglect the gym if you’re passionate about your work; a daily dose of invigoration will compensate for other unmet needs. But to spend your time seeking something you don’t truly want or studying a subject that doesn’t interest you makes suicide—for those who can’t see the world beyond classroom walls—look like a reasonable alternative.

Ever since that conversation by the library, we’ve been saying hello to one another on campus. While I’d like to see her again to catch up, I’d be happier if I never saw her at Duke again.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The parents' visit

Last month my parents and aunt visited me in North Carolina. My mom and aunt hadn’t taken vacations in a while and because my father was on temporary work disability they figured it was the perfect time to catch up with their firstborn and tour a new city.

It was a bit of a shock for me to see them in Durham. My family and personal life had been segregated from one another for years, so seeing them in town was like bumping into characters from your favorite TV show who you're never supposed to see in real life. While you might think it would be cool to chance upon George, Elaine, and Kramer at your local coffee shop, it’d probably be a little creepy too.

Their vacation lasted five days, starting with dinner at a swanky restaurant in the trendy part of Durham called Blu, followed by their first tour of the van.

I wondered how that tour would go. My mom—as I’ve shared in past entries—has never been fond of my experiment. In fact, she probably took more pains to keep the van a secret than I did. From what I’ve learned, she’d never hesitate to brag to her friends about her son going to Duke while deliberately failing to mention the whole oh-and-he’s-sorta-living-in-his-van thing.

Whenever I called home, the topic of the van was rarely broached. We’d talk about the weather, my classes, my summer plans. Perhaps she thought if she didn’t acknowledge it, the van might go away. She responded the same way I thought she’d react if I told her I was gay, preferring to hope that I was just going through a “phase.”

Finally, toward the end of our phone conversations—when she couldn’t help herself any longer—she’d say, “You’re going to get in so much trouble when they find out, you know” followed by “It-just-isn’t-normal.”

My dad, on the other hand, never seemed to think that the van was that big of a deal. While he’d never go out of his way to overtly encourage my travels and experiments, he was always passively supportive; the good cop to my mom’s bad. But there were points in the past when even he had hoped that I’d live more conventionally. Whenever I phoned home from Coldfoot, Alaska—where I worked as a tour guide and cook—he’d routinely ask, “So when are you going to get a real job?”

Sometime in between “real” and “job” I’d picture myself as Charlie Chaplin helplessly transported from one end of a factory to the other over a series of conveyor belts and gears. He might as well have asked, “So when are you going to dread waking up five days a week, be forced to work next to people with whom you have nothing in common except that you all hate your jobs, gain twenty-five pounds, and spend eight hours of your day locked up in a cubicle/factory/retail store?” Or, to put it more succinctly: “So when are you going to start hating your life?”

My response was always a cheery and wholehearted, “Never,” prefaced with a hearty guffaw.

I’d already had my fair share of “real jobs.” Since my late teens I’d been a skate sharpener, public skate rink guard, supermarket cashier, cart pusher, landscaper, lodge-cleaner, guide, cook, and UPS package handler. I’d been pelted in the back of my head with ice balls thrown from anarchic third-grade juveniles, in toilet bowls I’d acquainted myself with all forms, matters, and phases of shit, and I’d removed dead pigeons from stacks of lumber at The Home Depot. I’d suffered premature back pains, I’d wasted 20-70 hours a week on unfulfilling, mind-numbing, dishonorable labor, and I’d learned what if felt like to dread waking up five days a week. All for $8/hour or less.

These were all low-end, subordinate positions, and some of the worst that the first-world has to offer, but by the time I’d finished paying off my debt, I had seen enough “real jobs,” “real people” and the “real world”—(all of which seemed hardly “real” to me)—to know that I wanted no part in the world my parents lived in.

Seeing the consequences of their relentless toil certainly didn’t improve my impression of this world, either. My dad had little-to-no feeling in his left hand, possibly the result of Carpal tunnel syndrome from handling factory machinery all his life, or from a spinal injury he sustained when he got hit by a drunk driver on his commute to work. As we walked to the restaurant, my mom limped from an ankle injury caused by 35 years of standing as a nurse. My aunt—though in no physical pain—had plenty of reasons to complain about coworkers, schedules, and the hospital she worked at.

But this was their time off from work; a five day slice of leisure sandwiched in between decades of labor.

As we walked to the restaurant, my mom—as she’s wont to do—assailed me with an unbroken string of questions: “Do you like it down here? Where are some other good places to eat? What is Josh up to these days?” After each question I’d think—not about the question—but about how I’d never get a chance to answer any of them. Baffled bystanders might have wondered who this relentless inquisitor was and why she never paused to assuage her curiosity.

When we got to the restaurant, our waiter introduced himself as “Quentin” who my aunt called “Clinton” for the rest of the meal. We discussed my summer plans. I told them I wanted to read a whole bunch of books, enroll in an independent study course, and hike the John Muir Trail in California. There were the usual grumblings whenever I tell them anything that seems even vaguely outside the norm.

“Kenny, those trails are dangerous,” my aunt said. “You shouldn’t go alone. Some wolves just killed a woman in Alaska.”

When dinner arrived, I shared some of my thoughts on food, namely how I wanted to one day pledge to only buy local, organic and ethically-grown food. My mom and aunt traded eye rolls and quaint expressions. After mentioning some of the ghastly images I’d seen of chickens in the film, Food Inc., my mom blurted, “What do I care? I’m no chicken.”

“Well, aren’t you worried about what you put into your body? Or the consequences of factory farms?”

“I’m sixty. I don’t care. I’m going to die soon, anyway,” she said.

“She’s been saying that since she was thirty,” my aunt added.

When the food came, my father and I wolfishly gobbled down our entrées without commentary while my mother and aunt critiqued their meal’s finer points. My aunt would periodically tilt her head back, and declare, “Delicious,” adding, “Best [insert entrée] I ever had.”

After the three of them squabbled to pay the bill, we walked over to the van for their long-awaited tour.

Once we got within eyeshot of the Econoline, my mom approached warily, slowing her gait as she got closer, as if she was nearing a wild animal.

“Ken, you need new tires!” my dad exclaimed, swiping his index finger over the balding treads.

As they circled the exterior, my mother maintained a dignified silence, trying, but failing, to hide her scowl. My aunt muttered under her breath, “Kenny, I can’t wait till you move out of this thing.”

I realized, of course, that living in a van isn’t normal, but I still thought it was a little strange for them to think that it was strange. Especially when you consider my family’s history.

My father emigrated from Scotland to Canada in the 1970’s as a young man, seeking work in Canada’s factories. His ancestors came from Lithuania. My mom’s grandparents were immigrant Poles who settled in Western New York. My mom and dad met in Canada, had me and my brother, and when I was six we moved to a rural-turning-suburban neighborhood in the town of Wheatfield, New York.

We were one of the first families to have a home built in our development so my brother and I would catch frogs and skate on a pond on an undeveloped lot next to our home. Within a few years, though, families came, houses were built, our pond disappeared, and the woods we built forts in were denuded.

As I watched the land change around me, my family changed too. We moved away from relatives in Canada and my grandparents died when I was a boy. Aside from my aunt and the ancestors in Scotland who I’d never meet, I had no extended family. I didn’t have a sense of identity with my ever-transforming neighborhood nor did I have any historical ties to country, community, and home.

I was like a sapling in a pot, nurtured on-the-go. I learned more about change than normalcy, an ambulatory existence than a stationary one. Really, between the many early boyhood changes to which I was exposed and my family’s nomadic history, it should have been no surprise that my home would come to have wheels.

But my parents had discontinued their wandering ways. They sunk their roots into Wheatfield. This was their American dream. They’d both grown up in working class families. My mom shared a small flat with her parents and two siblings in North Tonawanda, NY. My dad grew up in a house crowded with seven brothers and a sister in a blue-collar Scottish town. My mom, as a girl, was embarrassed that her mom had a chicken coop in the backyard. My dad, as a boy, got fruit for Christmas. They were born into industrious middleclass families who knew that you could make it by moving around and working hard.

My parents had spent their careers moving up. From flat to home, city to suburb, middle class to a few echelons higher in the middle class. All that hard work. All that climbing. All that moving around. And all that investment—time, money, and love—they put into me. And this is what their son lives in: a van—an ironic symbol, no doubt reminding them of the poverty they worked so hard to escape.

They all stuffed into the van, sat on the bed and I gave them a tour. I showed them my stove, my food, the TV and laundry basket.

It’s hard to think of moving back as moving forward; of climbing down the economic ladder as “climbing up.” It’s hard for parents to think of their son as “successful” when “success” is measured largely by the amount of security, comfort and wealth one has. While my parents appreciated and strove to attain these things, they, thank goodness, knew that these were not the only things to live for. They valued temperance, honesty, honor, loyalty, a puritanical work ethic while allowing themselves the pleasure to savor moments of idleness. So, from their tutelage I gathered what lessons struck me as right and true, while casting a skeptical eye at those not in accord with my sense and judgment.

Poet Kahlil Gibran says parents—who he addresses as “you”—may house their children's bodies but not their souls because “their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit... You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.”

Seeing my parents crunched in the van, laughing, and telling self-deprecating jokes, I knew that—in some ways—the apple had not fallen far from the tree. My mom—who’d caught me surreptitiously scribbling the day’s events into a notepad for this very entry—would occasionally dictate for me: “Mom is unhappy” or “Mom’s worried about son.” I overheard one of the many faux arguments my parents perform that ended with my dad beaming, “I just changed them today! Geez. How many times do you want me to change my underwear in a week?”

Yet I was different, too. I wanted my “arrow” to soar above and beyond the “real world” of which they were a part, through poisoned clouds, over inky oceans, and past suburban sprawl to a house of tomorrow where I mustn’t pay for the things I want with a life of monotonous labor. I love my van for the freedom it allows me. They love their two-story house for the security it provides them. Why can’t both these worlds be real? Why must one be considered crazy by virtue of it being abnormal?

We spent another four days and many meals together. By the end, they were itching to get back home and back to work. While we didn’t leave with differences explained, insights gleaned, or new appreciations for one another’s ideologies, there was a mutual and silent acceptance for each other’s values, beliefs, and livelihoods. While differences tried to yank us apart, a few family-saving commonalities bound us together.

Before they took off, they handed me a bag of food and tried to stuff hundred dollar bills in my pockets. I gave them hugs and said goodbye.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Topiramate

I titled my head back and dumped four tiny pills into my mouth from a small paper cup. It was the first time in years I’d taken a drug.

I was taking Topiramate—a drug commonly used to treat epilepsy in children—because I was participating in a genetics and memory study here at Duke. And they were going to pay me $100 for 45 minutes of “work.”

I should first note that I’m staunchly opposed to taking pharmaceuticals of any sort. I’ve never taken an antidepressant, I can’t remember the last time I took an antibiotic, and it’s been years since I’ve even had something as mild as aspirin. I like to think of each illness as an opportunity for my immune system to get stronger. Plus, it just seems like a bad precedent to set to swallow little powdery discs cooked up in a lab to cure our every ailment, big and small.

So of course I was reluctant to take Topiramate, even for $100. But I decided to sign up for the study because I knew I was going to be cash-strapped next year since I recently elected to be unemployed this summer (a subject I’ll discuss in a forthcoming post).

I’m not sure what they intended to learn from the study. I had taken memory tests last year and they wanted me to take the same tests again this year, except on Topiramate, perhaps in order to gauge the cognitive ramifications of the drug.

They said that they give placebos to some subjects, but if I got the real thing I could expect to feel temporary side effects like numbness in my hands and feet, confusion, and memory loss. They told me to come back an hour and a half later when the drug will have kicked in.

I took a nap on a couch outside the office in between sessions. I woke up and my feet were asleep. I was confused: were my feet asleep because of the Topiramate or were they asleep because of the funny way I had to fold myself onto the tiny couch? And, was I legitimately confused or was I just confused because of the Topiramate?

They took a sampling of my blood and a grad student asked me a series of questions that tested my memory. Beforehand, she asked me how much I thought the drug was affecting me. I said I still wasn’t sure if I felt any of the side effects. The truth was that I was slightly nauseous and dizzy, yet I was wary that they gave me a placebo and my mind was merely playing tricks on me. I certainly didn't want to be one of those people who pathetically imagine that they've been infected with the latest disease-of-the-week because they heard about it on the news the night before.

A grad student--who administered the test--read me several short stories that went something like: “The children went to the zoo. They saw a gorilla. The gorilla reached through the bars and grabbed the teacher.” I was to immediately repeat the story to her but when I got to “the children” my mind became enveloped in a fog and I could hardly recall anything more.

She timed me as I traced a line with a pencil from the numbers 1-10 spread out on a sheet of paper—a task I performed with my tongue protruding from the side of my mouth and my hand making slow, halting movements like a kindergartner tracing a letter for the first time. In the next exercise she asked me to tell her all the words I could think of that start with the letter “R” in a period of 30 seconds. After a ten second pause, I swiveled my pinky in the hollow of my ear and said “rancor”—a word I’ve never once used in actual conversation.

“Maybe you did give me something,” I admitted.

After another 20 minutes of testing she handed over the $100 and I asked her how long the side effects would last.

“Twelve to twenty-four hours.”

I was in such a reduced state of mind that I failed to appreciate what this meant. In three hours I had a dinner engagement with one of my professors.

We were going to meet up at a Latin American restaurant. I got there early and splashed some cold water on my face in the bathroom. I felt drunk except that I wasn’t jolly, witty, or relaxed—the good attributes inebriation sometimes affords me. Instead, I was slightly off-kilter, dizzy, and some of my inhibitions had lifted.

I began the conversation by saying, “Professor, I’m only 70 percent here just so you know.”

I then told the tale of my afternoon. I was two sentences in when I realized that I could barely piece together a string of words, let alone a story. But that didn’t stop me from trying. I tried to compensate for quality with quantity. I told him how I wanted to hop freighters and live in the woods naked for a couple months. While there is some truth to these stories, without the ability to explain their philosophical underpinnings they just came across as the ramblings of a mad man. My professor nodded, maintaining a curious half smile throughout the meal.

As dinner wore on, while he spoke my head would occasionally loll off to the side or my eyes would train in on some bright object behind him for an inordinate amount of time. On our way out of the restaurant we shook hands and he said with a guffaw, “You really got to get off the drugs. Maybe take a nap or something.”

He said it good humouredly, but earnestly. Maybe I was “more gone” than I thought I was. I suddenly felt far more self-conscious of my state. He had a look of hopeless concern in his eyes—the sort of look a professor might give to a once-promising-student-now-turned-junkie who he happens upon sprawled out in an opium den, eyes half-lidded, face-jaundiced, with a trio of large flies living off the crumbs that the student is too lazy to sweep off his chin.

I wanted to take his advice and sober up. A nap would do me some good I thought. The van was way too hot so I went to the library where I knew there’d be some couches. It was packed with people studying for finals but there was one seat left.

I plopped down and instantaneously dozed off into a deep, troubled sleep. I don’t remember what I dreamed, but I woke up on three occasions and muttered to myself, that was so fucked up. All I could remember was running, screaming, lightning and quicksand. When I woke the third time, not only were my camo-colored boxers liberally exposed but people were eyeing me from all corners of the room. They seemed content to get a look at my face before continuing on with their work. I’ve been known to scream in my sleep every now and then, and something tells me I gave them a show.

The nap did little to alleviate the symptoms. My head reeling, I thought of the $100 in my pocket and how I'm ready to never take another drug again.