Starter Kit: Being Sad

Life is Terrible, Y'all

Seneschal-level contributor Sam Strohmeyer // Issue 8

I try to be thoughtful of others and go out of my way to accommodate strangers. That's why it has always made me bonkers in yonkers when people in public spaces are inconsiderate or just plain oblivious. You will find no better place to witness instances of this than in the magical realm that we mortals call Public Transportation. It is here where I regularly encounter my worst enemy, The Person Whose Backpack Needs a Whole Damn Seat To Itself. I've found this behavior unacceptable. I would never say anything because I am no bark AND no bite to my very core, but I have thought daggers at the people who do this.

I got on the bus one day this fall after having just left work. I organize and carry out events for a living and on event days I am my Best Self. I am confident and professional and have no less than three Mac adaptors and one roll of scotch tape on me at all times. (I only needed the tape once but the pride of being able to pull that sucker out of my bag in front of a frantic tape-desperate professor will comfort me for years to come.)

This day I was in my post-successful-event high and wearing my brand new Anthropologie dress that I got for 70% off. 70 PERCENT OFF, FRIEND. I was "feeling myself" as the kids say. I made my way onto the extremely crowded bus and spotted the only open seat. I started to sit when I realized the man in the adjoining seat was slumped over and muttering to himself.

Standing it is, then.

As the bus continued, a few people got off and I was able to grab an aisle seat next to a woman a few feet away, diligently ignoring the now loudly muttering man. I was in the middle of a heated group text about which member of the friend group correlated to which Sex and the City character. This was difficult because only one of us had ever seen the show. I was crafting my argument against being cast as Samantha (I mean, it's just too easy) when I feel someone grab my shoulder. I looked up to see the muttering man now standing over me.

He said, "I love you."

I said, "uh, um?"

He braced his other arm against the back of the seat in front of me and leaned in. He tried to kiss me. I turned away but he kept trying. I couldn't get out of my seat. I felt his breath in my hair. I couldn't remember how to make noise. He kept trying. I slumped down in my seat and practically rolled onto the woman next to me.

The other passengers realized what was happening and started shouting. They pulled him off of me and pushed him out the doors.

"Are you okay?" "Yes." Please stop looking at me. Everyone is looking at me. Wait, I should thank everyone for helping me. Yeah, I need to say thank you. I don't know how to say it. My face is on fire.

I wanted to sink into the floor. I wanted to burn my 70% off Anthropologie dress. I wanted to crawl out of my skin.

I got on the bus the next day after leaving work. It was not an event day. I was not my Best Self. I scanned the seats and found what I was looking for: a pair all to myself. I sat down and tried to look normal. I didn't remember how to do that. Other passengers started to pile in and I was suddenly terrified that someone would sit next to me. What if I'm trapped here? What if he shows up? I put my backpack on the seat.

What I'm trying to tell you is that sometimes a backpack does need to have a whole damn seat to itself.

"Some things are harder for some people than they are for others."

Hank Green said that in a Vlogbrothers video a few years ago and it has stuck with me ever since. Sometimes things that might seem simple and good to you might be complicated and harmful to others. This sounds so obvious as I'm typing it now but I don't think it's something that most people have internalized and let permeate their worldview. This is an essential lesson to learn because life. Is. Terrible. Life is fucking TERRIBLE, y'all. Like, it's also beautiful and wonderful and full of incredible joy and hope. But it is also rife with suffering and despair and emptiness. No one is exempt. We have to be able to look at each other struggle and understand that we are witnessing another human who is navigating this great and awful existence and doing the best they can.

I've thought about this every day since I put my backpack on that bus seat. I think about it when someone is unkind to me. I even think about the muttering man and how he ended up on a city bus, alone, so clearly ill. I'm not trying to excuse harmful behavior. I'm just trying to remember the context. And it is sad.

I hope I can remember this lesson on the hard days and the impatient days and the wonderful days too. I hope I can have a little more empathy for those who drive me crazy. But I know I won't always because this life is terrible and it will be too hard. And in the aftermath of those days, the days I am not my best, I hope I can have compassion for myself.

I hope you can, too.

On Grief (and Hope)

Chief Apocalypse Correspondent Sam Strohmeyer // Issue 31

Life seems sometimes like nothing more than a series of losses, from beginning to end. That's the given. How you respond to those losses, what you make of what's left, that's the part you have to make up as you go. - Katharine Weber

Hope is my duty; it is what my inherent dignity demands of me. - Austin Channing Brown

One evening a few weeks ago I went with Matt and my co-worker/podmate Lisa to liberate my desk chair and other supplies from our abandoned office at UT Austin. It's looking like we won't be working on campus again for, well, a while, so it was time to give my butt some relief from sitting in a wooden kitchen chair for approximately eight hours a day. That night I walked into an office that I have worked in for nearly four years but hadn't been to in six months.

I woke up around 7:00 am on March 13, 2020 to two texts from my employer. The first, sent around 5:00 am, said that we should all definitely come into work today. The second, sent around 6:00 am, said that the university was closed due to the, you know, suddenly very real pandemic.

God, do y'all remember when all of this was fresh? When uncertainty was a new part of our day-to-day? I went to campus that morning, full of adrenaline, and grabbed my laptop, a few supplies, and my lunch leftovers from the day before. It was eerie then, hurrying around the dark and deserted office, but that was nothing compared to walking into Calhoun Hall in September.

We've all been through a lot this year. At different points I've been depressed and lethargic, furious and irritable, and anxious. BOY have I been anxious. All the time, actually. But walking into CAL 528 and seeing the cardigan that I forgot I owned but once wore every day resting on the back of my chair, the dishes still drying in the rack next to the sink, the posters I designed for events that never ended up happening, and the invoices in my mailbox from businesses that have since closed due to the economic downturn plunged me right into grief.

I am beyond lucky to still have my job and to live with a partner I love and to be paying my rent and to not have lost anyone, directly or indirectly, to COVID-19. I try to focus on that as much as I can and remember that most are feeling this year harder than I am. But then I'm suddenly reminded of the life I used to lead. The one where I put on a dress every day and got on the bus and said hello to my smiling co-workers. I walked through hallways crowded with students and shook hands with esteemed scholars and went to the farmer's market on the weekend. I shared bags of chips with friends at the lake and pet dogs at the park and babysat for friends. Now when I watch TV I can't help but startle when the characters lean close to one another.

I was tired of walking into my closet and being surrounded by business casual clothes I won't be wearing anytime soon so I gave them away. They didn't fit, anyway. I don't even have the body I had in the before times and I don't know if I ever will again.

I piled my office chair high with cans of sparkling water that were going to expire (yes, expire) before people would once again be attending meetings or events in person and rolled it to the elevator, talking with my co-worker the whole time and knowing we were both overwhelmed with the feeling that this - taking these things home - was a big deal. Hauling our plants and candy dishes and pen holders out to Matt's waiting jeep was sad. It felt like giving in. I guess that's kind of what grief is, right? Acknowledging there has been a loss. Stumbling across campus with our arms full of our stuff felt like losing.

Blocking my family on social media because of their vile, racist views, after months of trying to talk them out of their ignorance and hate, felt like losing.

Realizing I was never going to get through to them because that would require them to love and respect me in the first place, which they ultimately didn't, and realizing those relationships were truly over, was a loss.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death was another loss, one that went straight to my chest and was accompanied by more fear than I have felt in a very long time.

And then the police officers who murdered Breonna Taylor in her bed escaped justice, and that is a loss in more ways than I can describe here, for all of us, especially her community, after everything they have endured on top of her death.

There is so much to grieve. There is so much to be grateful for. I feel overcome with both as I'm writing this.

I'm trying to hold on to that quote by Katharine Weber at the top. Life is full of loss. It was for our great grandparents and their great grandparents before them. All I can gather, after listening to people much wiser and more vulnerable than myself, is that we have to have hope. As Austin Channing Brown reminds us, it is our responsibility, to ourselves and to one another, to have hope. We have to grieve our losses and then we have to have hope so that we can fight for one another and we really have to do both at the same time.

I'm still working on it.

Fuck It

Ascendant-level contributor Matt Spradling // Issue 6

I've been listening a lot to a band called Car Seat Headrest because Alex made me until Stockholm syndrome set in. One of their songs is called "Fill in the Blank." You can watch it here. It's great, there's a synth solo and a maraca and everything.

It's more or less about depression, but unless you paid attention to the lyrics or were familiar with the band, that might not be particularly apparent. It's pretty upbeat - it's actually its album's opener - and sounds more motivational and energizing than anything else.

For the first ⅔ of the song, the chorus is this: You have no right to be depressed, you haven't tried hard enough to like it / Haven't seen enough of this world yet, but it hurts / Well, stop your whining, try again, no one wants to cause you pain / They're just trying to let some air in, but you hold your breath

But then for the last go-around, it changes to this: I've got a right to be depressed, I've given every inch I have to fight it / I have seen too much of this world, yes, and it hurts / I will never see the light that I've seen shining in your eyes / You just want to see me naked, so I hold my breath

In this song, and probably in most songs similar to this, the first parts of the song feel like they're about what's being struggled with and what feels insurmountable, and then the climax of the song is the realization or the overcoming of said hurdle or celebratory or whatever. But here, the journey of the lyrics start at "Just keep going even when you're down and you'll find happiness" and end up at "Fuck it, that doesn't work, I'm depressed." Most of us probably interpret that as a descending path rather than the ascending path that it sounds like.

Thing is - have you ever been depressed? Of course you have, even dogs get depressed and they're the best of us. Maybe some people embrace it pretty quickly, and maybe some people just try to muscle through it forever. And maybe a lot of people get through it that way. But something really insidious that seems unique to things like depression and anxiety is that they're vague, gradual, and different for everyone. When you have a fever, you get concrete evidence confirming what you're feeling. Depression? Not so much. It's not on/off, it's more, everyone has bad feelings so these are normal; I have these specific problems that I'm having trouble with, so they're the source; I must not be living healthily enough and that's why I'm out of it; I'm not trying enough things and that's why I'm not looking forward to anything, etc. And those are all true. Etc. And etc. the next day. And etc. the next day. And they're still all true. And etc. the next day.

You know how headphones get tangled in pockets? It's not one single thing - they start in a nice loop, and then get bent this way, but the loop is still clear, and then gets bent under that way, and the loop is inverted, and then gets pulled out this way, and you can still trace the steps back to an untangled state but it's no longer visible, and then it keeps going. Each of the steps are very simple, but the result is a tangle you don't know where to start with. There's a breaking point at which you give up trying to unspool it like normal and start the autopsy to work the knot out.

Is there some sort of honor in not quitting your untangling process, trying to muscle through it, especially in that stoic masculine kind of way? Sure. I think the intentions are good. It's a fighting spirit. Maybe it's natural. Maybe it's faith. Or maybe it's just a fear of vulnerability. But, if at the end of the day it's about problem solving, trying to walk through a wall rather than changing course and finding a door is not admirable, it's rolling a natural 1 on an intelligence check. It's ok, it happens.

I don't mean to get all chicken soup for the teen soul. Point is, it's about understanding the reality of the situation, which I guess is to say honesty. And yeah, if we jump to "depression¯\_(ツ)_/¯" at the drop of a hat without trying to fix it, then maybe that's premature and an excuse and avoidance. I don't think most people do that, but I think a lot of people are scared of being perceived (or perceiving themselves) as doing that. And that keeps us from the crucial pivot yet another day.

But when we finally sit and take an honest inventory, maybe fueled by a rare dash of self-assurance, and realize we have done our damnedest and that dog just don't hunt, that's not giving up; it's going to sleep after a 16-hour shift, it's pulling over to stretch because your legs are numb, it's calling a painting finished because it has to be finished at some point and frankly it looks pretty good. It's an enormous and rejuvenating relief, and one you've come by honestly. It feels a lot like that Car Seat Headrest song.