BOOKS AS SHELTER

I had just had the one and only proper fistfight of my life, such as it was, with the aptly-named “Mad Boy” the terror of Grade 6. He had landed a hard fist somewhere around my mouth, a result less due to pugilistic skill than blind, mad luck. He was Mad Boy. He was a twelve-year-old force of nature. He inflicted himself on anyone he could. Today was my lucky day.

It was about an hour later. The excitement was long over. The fevered chant of “Stink! Stink! Stink!” was gone, but it rang in my ears. The audience of excited boys had been all around us, two or three deep, all screaming for blood, my blood. Mad Boy was a legend, and I was the new kid, only recently arrived at this school because my family had just moved here. I was Mad Boy’s bait. They threw me to him the way you might deploy chum to catch a shark. I remember him as terrifying. Conversation was pointless. He was all brainstem and instinct. He’d seen your human world, your fancy civilisation, and he wanted no part of it. If he was here at all, he was here to burn it all down. Starting with useless pushovers like me. Kids who had no idea how to fight. Mad Boy didn’t know how to fight, either. He was just more practiced, and more willing to enter a state of frenzy.

Later, sitting alone on a bench outside a classroom, holding my swelling, aching, face, feeling shivery and weird, remembering flashes of the whole thing, wanting to cry bit too tired to cry, feeling awful, something wonderful happened to me. The first wonderful thing to ever happen to me at school. The first genuine moment of kindness, a transmission from a dimension where people cared about each other.

It was a woman, one of the teachers, I didn’t know her. I was new. I didn’t know anyone. That’s what was so awful about this. No allies. No-one to rally round and provide emotional support. No-one to provide shelter.

I don’t remember her name or what she looked like. I remember only that she was kind in a way I understood was rare. She was the School Librarian, it turned out. The School Library was in that demountable building just over there, she said, pointing. I’d been past there many times, and never known what it was. She asked who I was and what had happened. It was hard to tell her. You don’t want to have lost a fight and then have to tell a woman that you lost it. I was only eleven or twelve, but I understood this much about 1970s Australian manhood. She gently coaxed it out of me, the whole burning shameful fact of it. She inspected my wound. She tutted and talked about taking me to the School Nurse.

At some point she said to me that at any time, if I felt like I was in trouble, if the bullies were after me, if there was any kind of unpleasantness of that sort, I was most welcome to join her in the School Library. She would show me how to cover and repair books, and how to shelve them. She would show me how it all worked, and I could help her out when I felt like it. And she smiled at me.

When I told my psychologist this story, I got very choked up about it. She (the psychologist) asked me how I felt when the Librarian made me this offer? I still couldn’t speak. My face all screwed up, I put my hand over my heart. That’s how I felt. How I still feel, decades later. I had been reading and loving books since I was little, but this was the first time books had ever meant shelter to me. When books had given me a sense of home. It meant everything.

I took the Librarian up on her invitation. I don’t remember Mad Boy troubling me much after that incident. He was always around, an unexploded grenade spinning on the floor nearby, and I went out of my way to avoid him and his mates, but whenever possible I hid in the Library. I remember the smell of the books, and I remember working on the plastic covers, re-shelving returned books, and doing all the jobs involved in being a Librarian. It surprises me now, writing this, that I never thought even once about pursuing a career as a librarian, but I never did. I enjoyed the work I did in that School Library. It was like a world away from the school, sealed off from the schoolyard battlefield.

As I got older, and as my illness started to show itself in ever more obvious-when-you-think-back ways, I again found shelter in books. And once my illness erupted, like the “chest burster” scene in ALIENS, and I wound up in hospital, I read as much as I could. Which was not always easy. Medication can mess up your concentration. Your illness can fill you with unfathomable anger, or bottomless sadness, or mania so wild you’d swear you could fly and you would head to the roof of the building to demonstrate. The illness is not always compatible with reading, just as it’s also not always a good fit with writing.

I decided I wanted to be a published science fiction writer, a novelist, when I was fourteen, and I finally achieved this goal when I turned 40, when my first novel, ORBITAL BURN, was published in the US and Canada. That urge to write books was a way to build my own shelter, rather than seeking it in the books of other people. At one of the worst moments in my life, a kind person had shown me how the world of books could offer a way out of the wilderness. How could I not want to make my own place in that world?

During the couple of years prior to my hospitalisations last year, my reading dropped away. I didn’t have the concentration, the interest, the time–I’m not sure what it was. Or rather, I’m sure it was the depression talking. I missed it. My home away from the battlefield was no longer there. I felt strange, living in a house filled with books, bit not much desire to read one of them.

It was only when my new medication regime began to settle down last year that I became interested in books again. For a long time I’d had a stack of books on the bedside table in my hospital room, but I never touched them. It was a dreadful feeling. I would look at them and think about how I’d always loved books, and found shelter in them, but not now. It was one of many distressing things going on. But then one day I picked up one of them, and found I could follow along, it made sense, I could remember from day to day what was happening in the story. I could read for longer and longer times each day. Excited, I told the nurses, who told my doctors, who were also excited. This was progress. Things were happening. We were getting somewhere at long last.

In the months since I left hospital I found reading taking up more and more of my day. Until just before I started writing this book, I was reading for up to five hours a day, so many books, often several at once, a chapter here, a chapter of another there, and I was following all of them with no problem. It was when I first began to see that my writing ability might come back from its long silence. I could see that I had the necessary focus and clarity for writing. What was stopping me was the question, “do I want to bother with that again? Is it worth it?” I was feeling inclined to retire from writing, or at least to retire from the writing I was doing, which seemed to be going nowhere. I started thinking about what I would do with my life if I wasn’t a writer.

But here I am, 75,000 words into this project, and feeling stronger than ever, feeling more alive than ever. My mum tells me I look very tired, but I don’t feel all that tired. What I feel is that I got shipwrecked and washed up on this island, and this book is the hut I built for shelter there, and it’s getting bigger and more luxurious the more I write. I installed the Home Cinema Room over the weekend. A book has provided me with shelter when things were hard. I am forever grateful.

KIDS? (Updated with Big Postscript at the End)

“Do you want children?”

This was a specialist doctor asking us. Michelle was 41, and I was 46. We had not, up to that point in our marriage, produced kids, and we had long ago given up contraception as probably unnecessary.

It was a hard question for us. The doctor gave us six months to think it over, which is the sort of time limit that does nothing but magnify one’s uncertainties and doubts. That fills you with brilliantly detailed visions of all the alternate timelines springing forth from this instant. Countless timelines where you have kids, and the same where you do not. These possible futures fill your head, overwhelming you, tripping up your thinking with endless, “yes, but what if…?” questions. Every time you think you’ve reached a point of resolution with the question, you think of another possible scenario, one way or another, good or bad or mixed, the varied infinities of possible lives unfolding before you.

He should have given us a weekend to think it over. He should have given us twelve intense hours.

I had always assumed, all those years up to this point, that I was shooting blanks, so to speak. That I was a dud all the way down to the cellular level. I had read things of a medical informational nature explaining that if the would-be father is overweight or obese (such a horrible word is “obese”), then his sperm can be negatively affected. They can be sullen and moody and stare at their shoes all the time, and be really into noise music.

But I didn’t know this to be true. We had never tested my stuff for evidence of sullen moodiness. I just assumed it.

Michelle, meanwhile, had been examined. She had actual problems. Problems requiring surgery.

So there we were on this day, meeting this doctor, a surgeon. Michelle, as I said, was 41. She was right on the cusp of the last possible viable age to have a healthy baby. We would need the heroic assistance of possibly many rounds of IVF. It would be overwhelmingly hard for both of us, and especially for her. Was Michelle the sort of woman who had to have at least one child, no matter what? Who could not live without a child? Who would rather have a child than, possibly, a husband? Such women, I knew, were out there. Michelle and I had never talked about her having such a powerful urge, but we did wonder, during those six long agonising months, if the sudden pressure, the fundamental choice before us, might inspire such a powerful maternal drive in her.

Because choice B, if we decided we did not want children, was very serious surgery indeed. Michelle would be facing the prospect of a hysterectomy.

Even that first day, when the doctor posed this choice–kids or hysterectomy–Michelle was tempted, after a lifetime of trouble, to just go with the surgery and be damned. It would make so many aspects of her life much easier.

I asked the doctor what the side-effects of such surgery might be. He said, “Increased vim and zest for life.”

We were both a little shocked at that. It’s not the sort of thing you expect to hear from someone proposing major surgery in which a significant part of your body would be removed.

We went away. We talked and we thought, together and on our own. It was a very long six months. I don’t know everything that Michelle considered, other than her final conclusion.

My own thinking went like this:

I was afraid of being a father. Partly because I felt emotionally unready, and all kinds of nasty psychosis-based misbeliefs of the sort you should now understand. A whirlwind of deafening hostility whooshed and screamed through my head at all times. What business do you have bringing a child into the world? You don’t have a job, and you can’t even drive a car! What if the kid gets sick or needs a doctor one day when you’re there alone with it, and you can’t take him to get help? You’re bloody useless! You can’t even provide for your wife, let alone for a family!

Etc.

This still stings and burns me now, as I write.

But there was worse. And this was what led me to my conclusion. Mental illness runs in my father’s side of the family. I have it, and so does my dad. His mum had if so bad she was kept in her old age in a special hospital. I remember when w would go to visit her. I don’t remember much about her as a person, what she was like, but I remember she liked a certain brand of peppermint marshmallows that we could only get from one shop near where we lived, and every time we went to visit her we had to stop at this shop to get the marshmallows, and she ate them with glee. I don’t remember her speaking a lot. She was old, one of her eyes was turned, and that was freaky for a little kid to see. Which eye was dominant? Which determined what she could see? I remember the very powerful smell of disinfectant all through the place, and have always associated it with hospitals. And there was an upright piano, which I always played with, and probably annoyed many of the patients out of their minds with my tinkering.

One of her parents had the illness, too, I have only recently learned, and that is now going back a long way, further than I ever imagined when I was a kid, feeling dead inside, and wondering why my poor dad was always so moody and unpredictable. I never understood. There’s a lot I still don’t understand. But there is one thing I understood, during our six months of contemplation: any child we might have would almost certainly receive the family curse, the family stain.

When I was a kid, that stain was shameful. Polite people did not ever talk about it. It was simply never discussed. It was hidden, and its hiddenness added to the pain of those who suffered with it. Having to grind through their day-to-day lives, if they could, as if they were fine. Self-medicating with alcohol in many cases, or whatever they could get, and that often not enough. My dad was never a big abusive drinker, thank God. He liked a drink with his friends, and got properly drunk sometimes, but he was never a problem with it. His problems were mad impulsive spending sprees, and unwise snap decisions that his doctor would have to get him out of (a story for another time).

That was then. What things were like for sufferers of my grandmother’s era I cannot imagine. It must have been simply impossible. I know very little about her and my grandfather Pop’s lives together, and how they managed her illness.

A baby born now, carrying the mark, would face a very different world. When I was a kid you could watch men bouncing around on the Moon on live TV. But you could never even imagine producing a book like this one. It was unimaginable, unthinkable. It was not done. Why would you talk about something like that? Something so unsavoury, so disgusting? This is partly why I’m doing this project, because I remember when it could not be done, and that was not that long ago. Things have changed in the past twenty to thirty years. The unthinkable has become part of ordinary conversation. There is such a thing as RU Okay Day.

So if we were to have had a kid, the wee sprog would enter a world without having to feel ashamed of his or her illness. It would be no more shameful than any other chronic illness, like diabetes. And like diabetes, there might even be the possibility in the medium-to-long-term future of revolutionary treatments, and maybe even cures. Mental illness, in the future, might become a dusty, embarrassing thing of the past. I would dearly love to see an affected child of mine grow up into such a world.

However, I would not wish this condition on anyone. My mum once told me, when I was a teenager going through the worst of times after my diagnosis, that if she had known I would have to experience this, she would never have had me. She would not have wished the illness on anyone, not her worst enemy.

I feel the same way. The possibilities for radical and helpful treatments in the future are there, but the child would still have the illness, and would still experience the pain and wretchedness I and my dad have felt. Would have to endure it. Would have to deal every day with medication and doctors and “being a patient” that sense you have of feeling completely embedded in your illness, that it is profoundly part of you, not merely at a cellular level, but at the level of thought, and the thoughts you have about your thoughts. The way you see yourself, not in the mirror, but in daily life. What you think of yourself, the way you talk to yourself, who you understand yourself to be. It is the the water in which you swim, the air you breathe, and the lens through which you see everything. It’s inseparable from you, indivisible.

I would not wish that on a child.

We chose, ultimately, the surgery. For complicated reasons, and for simple ones.

Michelle has very much enjoyed the extra vim and zest for living. It’s been a great thing in her life. And we are happy together, these 24 years.

PS:

Years later, in 2013, we adopted a puppy from the local pound. We were there because were interested in a different dog, promoted on their website. That dog looked promising, though possibly too big for us. And so it proved. That dog was much too big and hard to handle.

“We do have some puppies,” the lady in charge said.

Michelle had discussed the possibility of a puppy. Toilet-training would be hard, and all the chewing would be hard, but overall it could be great. So I said, “What kind of puppies?”

The lady brought one in and handed it to me right where I was sitting. This tiny, warm liquid bundle that was all white fur, huge dark trusting sleepy eyes, and in the centre of its back a perfectly round brown patch.

I told Michelle, once the tears were underway, and I could no longer hide them, that I would not be handing the puppy back. The puppy was coming home with us.

We called her Freckle, a wonderfully apt suggestion from our friend

Eleanor Irving. She is now four years old, and weighs in at a beefy 30 kilograms. She sleeps with us in our bed. We need a bigger bed. She is the sweetest dog I have ever known, and I have known a lot of dogs all my life. We have always had dogs, going back to my earliest days. And Freckle is the best.

When we’d had her only about a month or so, when we were still figuring out what to do, Michelle went out to do some shopping one morning, and it was my job to hold Freckle to make sure she didn’t race out the kitchen door into the carport where who knew what might happen. Michelle got away safely, and I was left, sitting there, cuddling the wee mite, all tiny and perfect, snoozing gently against my chest, the colouring on her nose only starting to come in. She was warm, and she still smelled like a puppy, and I was taking deep breaths of the top of her head–

And next thing I was sobbing my guts out. This came as much of a surprise to me as it may have to you. (“What page are we on here? Is Bedford crying yet? Bloody hell!”) I looked around, not sure why, and I looked at tiny perfect Freckle, thinking, what’s going on? Because I was very upset. I was heaving. I feel terrible even now, years later, telling you about it, with full-grown Freckle curled up snoring right next to me. Earlier in this postscript she was in fact lolloped all over me, and I could only just manage to hit the iPad screen with one finger. Freckle is nothing if not a presence in one’s life.

I was thinking about all the other timelines. The ones where I was doing this, only with a baby rather than a puppy. The ones where I was a dad. A dad who hadn’t screwed up yet, who had yet to be a disappointment. Who loved his child, who loved being a dad even though he was no good at it. Because part of me did want to be a dad, but that part was overruled. It wasn’t wise. It would not have been fair on Michelle. It certainly would not have been fair on the child. So I cried, holding onto Freckle, sending good wishes to alternate timelines, to the other Adrians. Hang in there, guys. You can do it. There are probably, like, Youtube videos about being a dad, right?

SICK/WELL

Yesterday, a cold, wet Monday in July, I did about three days’ worth of Korean language lessons on Memrise, read two chapters of a Joan Didion book I’m working through, went to the local pool and slogged out heavy-duty walking laps for a full hour (so probably a bit more than a hundred laps), despite dreadfully agitating noise conditions. Later, when I came home, I wrote two long chapters for this book (about 3500 words total), took a long nap, and was in pretty good shape for Michelle when she came in late last night from work.

Yesterday was a regular sort of day for me lately. Some days in recent times I’ve done three chapters for the book. Some days I’ve done four days’ worth of Korean lessons. Yesterday was the first time I’ve tried to do a whole hour of walking laps, though. Up to that point I’d been doing 45 minutes, and thinking that was plenty. I’m going to try for an hour again next time because today I feel quite okay.

I saw my psychiatrist last week. I told him the book has been gushing out of me. That I’ve been exercising every day. That I have a clarity of thought that is pretty much new to me. That I feel consistently decent from day to day. That even the Trouser Department is reporting for duty. I’ve even been losing weight. That part has been very hard. I’m having to drastically reduce what I eat down to one meal a day in order to get past the effects of Nortriptyline, but it’s working. My doctor tells me that the combination of fasting and Topamax, another medication I’m on, in part for its weight-loss properties, is good for clarity of mind. He said he’s never seen me look so well. He said I’m “overflowing with energy”.

The last time I was anything like as productive as this was in 2015, when I was writing ETERNITY LEAVE. But the rest of the day I was a heap of dirty laundry with sick flies buzzing around it. I wasn’t able to get out of bed before 3 or 4 in the afternoon. I was a greasy smear on the couch. But I was writing up a storm, because my doctor cut back one of my drugs, and suddenly I could think. Within a few weeks of him cutting back that dose, I started writing that book, and was finished the whole thing in only 80 days.

What I’m experiencing this time is different. I have much the same productivity, but I can get out of bed like a regular person. I can function and do things. I can think and learn things, and go to the pool and work really hard. And write a big pile of words.

I was thinking about this yesterday, while I walked, trying to think of another time in my life when I functioned this well, and I couldn’t think of a single one. I was having to think back to when I was a writing-mad teenager, whose bedroom walls were covered completely, all over, with science fiction artwork from SF MONTHLY, the 1970s British magazine that used paperback book cover art as pull-out posters, often featuring, for example, the dazzling work of Chris Foss. In those days, when I was a green potato of a boy, writing like mad, for hours and hours and hours a day, to the point that my parents would bang on the walls to make me stop, when I could produce multiple terrible short stories. Because I was mad about science fiction, and because I was mad. I was manic, and had no idea. All I knew was that the throttle in my brain was open all the way, and I was roaring.

That was the last time I had productivity like this. When I was desperately sick.

Am I sick now? Am I well?

I’ve been thinking about this for months now, because for years I have felt sick, like something was wrong. I often didn’t know what it was that was wrong. At one point, when going about my life was like pushing through heavy, sticky syrup in order to do the slightest thing, when it was as if breathing was exhausting, it turned out I had an underactive thyroid. Excellent, I thought at the time. We can get this fixed and we’ll be in business. The feeling of wellbeing lasted at most a couple of weeks, then it was back into the treacle. No matter what we tried, there would be a brief lift, then back to the treacle. It was terrible. Something was wrong, something obvious, something trying to get our attention, but we were distracted.

So yes, I was definitely sick then. And I appear to be in rude health now. Right? Right? Because what would “well” look like if not like the picture I described at the beginning? I feel fine. I’m able to work hard at my chosen activities. I can do all my jobs around the house, and I can study. All the activities I’ve designated as meaningful to me, as being part of the pursuit of a peaceful and contented life, are there.

So why do I hesitate? Why do I stand before the door, and not go through the door. Because something is making me hesitate. In part I’m not convinced I’ll ever truly be well. That I’ll always, in some profoundly fundamental way, never quite be right. When I was in hospital last year, going through the worst of it, when I “couldn’t regulate my emotions”, when I’d find myself in tears at the slightest thing, and feeling utterly broken, unable to function, I sometimes thought of myself as Pinocchio, who wants only to be a Real Boy. I think I have always, and especially since my initial diagnosis, been Pinocchio, and I have always wanted to be a Real Boy.

It would be nice, I sometimes think, to forget that I was ever sick. That I ever had a diagnosis, that I ever had a file thick as an old phone book. Over the course of many years I saw that file grow, like a tumour. It was a visible sign of my illness. I hated it. I wanted to burn it. I wanted to remove all trace of myself from the system.

But I know none of these ideas would work out. I’d be burning the map, not the territory.

People sometimes speculate about what they would do if they had a time machine, and where they would go and what they would go and see. I’ve written about such people at scornful length in a couple of books. Because for me it’s not a fun or idle question. It’s life and death. Just as losing my memory of my illness would not make my illness disappear, and it would soon remind clueless me that it was around, even if my memory was not, if I were to time-travel back not that far I would find myself in serious mental health trouble: access to medication. Access to specialist care. Hospitals. Not that long ago people like me were simply locked away. Or in any case would not have lived long because the illness would long since have driven them to suicide.

I can’t imagine actual wellness. I can be fine, functioning better than at any time in my life, but in my blackened heart I know that no matter how many thousand words a day I do, or how many laps at the pool, or whatever other measure I choose, I’ll never quite be a Real Boy, because I’ll always be just a tiny bit sick.

KIDS?

“Do you want children?”

This was a specialist doctor asking us. Michelle was 41, and I was 46. We had not, up to that point in our marriage, produced kids, and we had long ago given up contraception as probably unnecessary.

It was a hard question for us. The doctor gave us six months to think it over, which is the sort of time limit that does nothing but magnify one’s uncertainties and doubts. That fills you with brilliantly detailed visions of all the alternate timelines springing forth from this instant. Countless timelines where you have kids, and the same where you do not. These possible futures fill your head, overwhelming you, tripping up your thinking with endless, “yes, but what if…?” questions. Every time you think you’ve reached a point of resolution with the question, you think of another possible scenario, one way or another, good or bad or mixed, the varied infinities of possible lives unfolding before you.

He should have given us a weekend to think it over. He should have given us twelve intense hours.

I had always assumed, all those years up to this point, that I was shooting blanks, so to speak. That I was a dud all the way down to the cellular level. I had read things of a medical informational nature explaining that if the would-be father is overweight or obese (such a horrible word is “obese”), then his sperm can be negatively affected. They can be sullen and moody and stare at their shoes all the time, and be really into noise music.

But I didn’t know this to be true. We had never tested my stuff for evidence of sullen moodiness. I just assumed it.

Michelle, meanwhile, had been examined. She had actual problems. Problems requiring surgery.

So there we were on this day, meeting this doctor, a surgeon. Michelle, as I said, was 41. She was right on the cusp of the last possible viable age to have a healthy baby. We would need the heroic assistance of possibly many rounds of IVF. It would be overwhelmingly hard for both of us, and especially for her. Was Michelle the sort of woman who had to have at least one child, no matter what? Who could not live without a child? Who would rather have a child than, possibly, a husband? Such women, I knew, were out there. Michelle and I had never talked about her having such a powerful urge, but we did wonder, during those six long agonising months, if the sudden pressure, the fundamental choice before us, might inspire such a powerful maternal drive in her.

Because choice B, if we decided we did not want children, was very serious surgery indeed. Michelle would be facing the prospect of a hysterectomy.

Even that first day, when the doctor posed this choice–kids or hysterectomy–Michelle was tempted, after a lifetime of trouble, to just go with the surgery and be damned. It would make so many aspects of her life much easier.

I asked the doctor what the side-effects of such surgery might be. He said, “Increased vim and zest for life.”

We were both a little shocked at that. It’s not the sort of thing you expect to hear from someone proposing major surgery in which a significant part of your body would be removed.

We went away. We talked and we thought, together and on our own. It was a very long six months. I don’t know everything that Michelle considered, other than her final conclusion.

My own thinking went like this:

I was afraid of being a father. Partly because I felt emotionally unready, and all kinds of nasty psychosis-based misbeliefs of the sort you should now understand. A whirlwind of deafening hostility whooshed and screamed through my head at all times. What business do you have bringing a child into the world? You don’t have a job, and you can’t even drive a car! What if the kid gets sick or needs a doctor one day when you’re there alone with it, and you can’t take him to get help? You’re bloody useless! You can’t even provide for your wife, let alone for a family!

Etc.

This still stings and burns me now, as I write.

But there was worse. And this was what led me to my conclusion. Mental illness runs in my father’s side of the family. I have it, and so does my dad. His mum had if so bad she was kept in her old age in a special hospital. I remember when w would go to visit her. I don’t remember much about her as a person, what she was like, but I remember she liked a certain brand of peppermint marshmallows that we could only get from one shop near where we lived, and every time we went to visit her we had to stop at this shop to get the marshmallows, and she ate them with glee. I don’t remember her speaking a lot. She was old, one of her eyes was turned, and that was freaky for a little kid to see. Which eye was dominant? Which determined what she could see? I remember the very powerful smell of disinfectant all through the place, and have always associated it with hospitals. And there was an upright piano, which I always played with, and probably annoyed many of the patients out of their minds with my tinkering.

One of her parents had the illness, too, I have only recently learned, and that is now going back a long way, further than I ever imagined when I was a kid, feeling dead inside, and wondering why my poor dad was always so moody and unpredictable. I never understood. There’s a lot I still don’t understand. But there is one thing I understood, during our six months of contemplation: any child we might have would almost certainly receive the family curse, the family stain.

When I was a kid, that stain was shameful. Polite people did not ever talk about it. It was simply never discussed. It was hidden, and its hiddenness added to the pain of those who suffered with it. Having to grind through their day-to-day lives, if they could, as if they were fine. Self-medicating with alcohol in many cases, or whatever they could get, and that often not enough. My dad was never a big abusive drinker, thank God. He liked a drink with his friends, and got properly drunk sometimes, but he was never a problem with it. His problems were mad impulsive spending sprees, and unwise snap decisions that his doctor would have to get him out of (a story for another time).

That was then. What things were like for sufferers of my grandmother’s era I cannot imagine. It must have been simply impossible. I know very little about her and my grandfather Pop’s lives together, and how they managed her illness.

A baby born now, carrying the mark, would face a very different world. When I was a kid you could watch men bouncing around on the Moon on live TV. But you could never even imagine producing a book like this one. It was unimaginable, unthinkable. It was not done. Why would you talk about something like that? Something so unsavoury, so disgusting? This is partly why I’m doing this project, because I remember when it could not be done, and that was not that long ago. Things have changed in the past twenty to thirty years. The unthinkable has become part of ordinary conversation. There is such a thing as RU Okay Day.

So if we were to have had a kid, the wee sprog would enter a world without having to feel ashamed of his or her illness. It would be no more shameful than any other chronic illness, like diabetes. And like diabetes, there might even be the possibility in the medium-to-long-term future of revolutionary treatments, and maybe even cures. Mental illness, in the future, might become a dusty, embarrassing thing of the past. I would dearly love to see an affected child of mine grow up into such a world.

However, I would not wish this condition on anyone. My mum once told me, when I was a teenager going through the worst of times after my diagnosis, that if she had known I would have to experience this, she would never have had me. She would not have wished the illness on anyone, not her worst enemy.

I feel the same way. The possibilities for radical and helpful treatments in the future are there, but the child would still have the illness, and would still experience the pain and wretchedness I and my dad have felt. Would have to endure it. Would have to deal every day with medication and doctors and “being a patient” that sense you have of feeling completely embedded in your illness, that it is profoundly part of you, not merely at a cellular level, but at the level of thought, and the thoughts you have about your thoughts. The way you see yourself, not in the mirror, but in daily life. What you think of yourself, the way you talk to yourself, who you understand yourself to be. It is the the water in which you swim, the air you breathe, and the lens through which you see everything. It’s inseparable from you, indivisible.

I would not wish that on a child.

We chose, ultimately, the surgery. For complicated reasons, and for simple ones.

Michelle has very much enjoyed the extra vim and zest for living. It’s been a great thing in her life. And we are happy together, these 24 years.

KOREA (Big Rewrite)

I was doing my laps at the local pool today, up and down, up and down, and thinking a lot. One of the things I thought about a lot was my Korean language studies. I’m using the iOS app Memrise. It’s brilliant! Memrise offers three tiers of study in Korean language. I recently completed the first tier, Korean 1, which included 222 words, including the letters of the alphabet. I did well, but there are a few words from the first tier that are still puzzling me: the Korean words for “to drink” and “drinks”. The two words are very similar. And when asked to spell them out, distinguishing one from the other, can I? I was thinking today the only thing for it is to sit down and write out both words and really study the differences. I need to get this problem sorted out. It’s been bugging me for a while now.

One might enquire: Bedford, you mad fool, why are you studying, of all random things, the Korean language?

Well. That’s a good question. Let me back up a little.

It’s about 2013. It’s a Sunday afternoon. Nothing much going on with us. I was noodling on the web on our desktop computer, located in such a way that you can’t see the TV. Michelle was on the couch, idly watching the telly, channel-flipping. A perfectly ordinary nothing happening Sunday afternoon. Except–

Michelle’s channel-flipping landed her on what was then called SBS2, and it was showing that channel’s program SBS PopAsia, kind of like the old Australian Countdown show, only all the acts are from various points in Asia or South East Asia. We knew of this show, had seen ads for it, but we’d never watched it. It never interested us before. But Michelle was bored, so she thought, what the heck, she was going to watch it!

This is another of those bank vault door moments, when your whole life swings around a single moment in time. Michelle’s decision changed both our lives for the better, and directly led, years later, to my Korean language problem.

I was, like I said, using the desktop. I had no idea what Michelle was doing or looking at. But after a while there was this music. A very particular sort of music. It sounded strangely familiar.

It reminded me a lot of the kind of songs you get on the Eurovision Song Contest. It was eerie. And I was at the time a big fan of Eurovision, and watched it every year. But it was the wrong time of year for it. It was odd. I very likely asked Michelle what she was watching? I might have asked if it was anything to do with Eurovision. It crossed my mind that there might be a documentary about the contest’s history, which would explain the songs I didn’t recognise.

Michelle told me she watching SBS Popasia, and it was really weird.

I must have commented that it sounded just like Eurovision.

We watched together, on the couch, caught between the knowledge that this program and these videos were not made for, as it were, “our demographic”, and that, in fact, we were so old that we could be parents to all these energetic and supernaturally beautiful people. We kind of felt like we were intruding, watching something perhaps a bit forbidden. But then again, like other famously forbidden things, it was also somehow very appealing.

For one thing, all of this music was new to us. It wasn’t the same old bollocks from the 1980s and 90s we hear on commercial radio, and which makes us feel so old, and which we hated when we first heard it, when it was new. This stuff is still circulating about, undead, zombie music. It drives me nuts. More nuts. Whereas K-Pop, even if it is full of fresh-faced young people, is bright, clean, entertaining, and when at its best, terrific entertainment.

(Yes, we understand that the K-Pop industry is far from perfect. We know very well how at least some of the music is put together in what amounts to an industrial process. But we also know loads of acts who write and compose their own work, and often produce it as well.)

All that week following our first Popasia show, we could not stop talking about it. Awkward as we had felt, we had liked it. At least a bit. Not all of it by any means. There were some songs that left us scratching our heads, but then there were others which we couldn’t get out of our heads. Flash-forward to the present, and we talk each day about our current K-Pop earworms; today, mine was a new song by girl group Blackpink.

All the same, when it was time the following Sunday, we hesitated. Watching it once was just for curiosity, which was satisfied. What would it mean, what would be entailed, watching it again? Would that make us fans? Or were we still scientists drilling for ever-deeper core samples?

That second week, we did sit down and we watched that second time, and again we thought it weird, but it was a strangely good and wholesome kind of weird. It was all very sincere and earnest. There was no deadening irony about it.

And most of the best stuff was Korean. It was K-Pop, we gathered. Previously we knew very little about the country. Shipbuilding, student protests in the 1980s, computer and phone stuff, cars, and not much else. But it turned out this music they made was a very big deal. It was part of the so-called “Korean Wave”, a government-funded soft power program exporting Korean culture around the world. An extremely successful program, we learned.

Week after week, we tuned in. And we still tune in. These days, the show airs at 9 am as opposed to 4 pm, and neither of us can be arsed to get out of bed for 9 am on a Sunday. We record it. The show is quite different from how it used to be. The main presenter, Jamaica Delacruz, left after fronting the radio and TV show for three years. And recently someone new has taken over the video programming job, so the mix of videos each week is quite different to how it was.

One day on Popasia there was quite the buzz of excitement because two very popular Youtube video bloggers, Simon and Martina of eatyourkimchi.com, were visiting Australia, and they popped into the Popasia studio. At the time we, like you, had no idea who they were. We thought they were annoying. Play some more videos, already! we jeered from the couch. Simon and Martina are married Canadians who used to be teachers who long ago moved to Korea to teach kids English. Their families back home were worried about them, so they started making little videos about their life in Korea.

This turned into a huge, consuming, successful, prolific operation. They have long-since given up teaching. For many years they did videos about life in Korea, about Korean music, food, and culture. We watched. It was enthralling. One of their food videos covered Korean barbecue, and I was all shocked. It looked like something even I, with my legendarily baroque and irrational “food issues” could try. And I did! We went to a Korean restaurant in the city, and Korean food was yummy–it was the first Asian food I’d ever encountered that didn’t make me gag or retch. It smelled like food. It smelled tasty. I was so happy that day!

One Korea-related thing led to another. We watched all of Simon and Martina’s hundreds and hundreds of videos. This led us to other video makers. This in turn led us to Korean TV drama serials, which are a whole separate compulsive experience. We’ve seen some bad ones, and some that did nothing much for us at all, but we’ve also seen a small handful that were wonderful, brilliant television that I would put up with anything I’ve ever seen from anywhere. At its best, Korean TV is breathtaking.

In amongst all the video bloggers covering Korea was one, run by a young Korean-American woman calling herself Professor Oh (real name Oh Mina), who started a channel teaching simple Korean language. I watched all of those. I’d always been interested in this curious language of lines, right-angles, circles and squares. It was very distinct. Chinese and Japanese, by contrast, always looked fiddly and too busy by half, at least to me. I liked that Korean only has, altogether, including the compound vowels, no more than about 40 characters. That’s it. It’s achievable.

We found a game on iOS called Hangul Match which makes a pattern-matching out of learning the Korean alphabet, a system called Hangul (or, sometimes, Hangeul). We both got very good at this. We started to understand things, and could read simple signs.

But recently I found an app called Memrise, which is a bit like the language learning app Duolingo, which was offering Korean language lessons. I grabbed it and never looked back.

I enjoy the language lessons so much that I make a point of doing at least one Korean lesson every day, and I often end up doing three or four days’ lessons in a day because I enjoy it. I have little prospect, in realistic terms, of visiting Korea (we’d certainly like to), so I’m treating the whole thing as a very intricate, very complicated game. Michelle has taken it up as well. We talk about Korean stuff all the time, especially music, dramas and their politics. On weekends we watch Korean TV news, which has an English-language crawl along the bottom of the screen.

One music show we never miss is called Immortal Songs. It’s a competitive singing program where each week a legendary performer or songwriter from decades past (sometimes still alive to be there as honoured guest but not always) is featured, and a collection of the best singers, across all genres and degrees of experience, are pit together to compete in song for the trophy. You’ll see everything from K-Pop idol singers to Korean traditional opera performers, musical theatre actors, wise old veterans and youthful stars with extraordinary talents, all trying to outdo one another. It’s one of the most consistently entertaining shows I’ve ever seen.

And the more of the language I learn, the more of it when I’m watching TV or listening to songs online I can understand. Bits and pieces pop out, intelligible, that I could never have understood before. It’s reached the point that my brain is starting to make connections between bits of knowledge, the sort of connections you get after a while with prolonged, intense study. Parts of the brain link up, and you get a moment of insight.

All of which is interesting, but it’s not the very best thing about why we’re into all this Korean stuff. The most important reason is also the best reason: it’s something we both love, and we love doing it together. It makes us happy, together (Happy Together is a very popular long-running variety/talk show on KBS). I enjoy learning the language so much that I’ve made it one of my daily Recovery KPI’s, along with the others, and often I end up doing more than one day’s lessons.

What does Korea meant to us? It’s a remarkable place, full of a great deal of natural, mountainous beauty, and thousands of years of music, literature and culture. There was Good King Sejeong, who led the creation of the Hangeul writing system and made sure even lowly peasants could learn it, not just the elite palace scholars. They are country of deeply soulful people who love to sing, who love to drink (no public drunknness laws: you can walk around carrying a beer and it’s fine–and when you run out you can go to a convenience store and get a bottle of soju, rice spirits, for a couple of dollars), and deeply love their history of culture. They are sincere and earnest. I love that about them possibly most of all.

And men are encouraged to cry, in public, if necessary. You see it all the time in dramas. Men crying their guts out, without attendant shame. It always hits me with the force of revelation.

I admire the country more than I can say. I hope we can visit one day. If we do I will need to have sorted out that “drinks” versus “to drink” problem.

KOREA

I was doing my laps at the local pool today, up and down, up and down, and thinking a lot. One of the things I thought about a lot was my Korean language studies. I’m using the iOS app Memrise. It’s brilliant! Memrise offers three tiers of study in Korean language. I recently completed the first tier, Korean 1, which included 222 words, including the letters of the alphabet. I did well, but there are a few words from the first tier that are still puzzling me: the Korean words for “to drink” and “drinks”. The two words are very similar. And when asked to spell them out, distinguishing one from the other, can I? I was thinking today the only thing for it is to sit down and write out both words and really study the differences. I need to get this problem sorted out. It’s been bugging me for a while now.

One might enquire: Bedford, you mad fool, why are you studying, of all random things, the Korean language?

Well. That’s a good question. Let me back up a little.

It’s about 2013. It’s a Sunday afternoon. Nothing much going on with us. I was noodling on the web on our desktop computer, located in such a way that you can’t see the TV. Michelle was on the couch, idly watchings, channel-flipping. A perfectly ordinary nothing happening Sunday afternoon. Except–

Michelle’s channel-flipping landed her on what was then called SBS2, and it was showing that channel’s program SBS PopAsia, kind of like the old Australian Countdown show, only all the acts are from various points in Asia or South East Asia. We knew of this show, had seen ads for it, but we’d never watched it. It never interested us before. But Michelle was bored, so she thought, what the heck, she was going to watch it!

This is another of those bank vault door moments, when your whole life swings around a single moment in time. Michelle’s decision changed both our lives for the better, and directly led, years later, to my Korean language problem.

I was, like I said, using the desktop. I had no idea what Michelle was doing or looking at. But after a while there was this music. A very particular sort of music. It sounded strangely familiar.

It reminded me a lot of the kind of songs you get on the Eurovision Song Contest. It was eerie. And I was at the time a big fan of Eurovision, and watched it every year. But it was the wrong time of year for it. It was odd. I very likely asked Michelle what she was watching? I might have asked if it was anything to do with Eurovision. It crossed my mind that there might be a documentary about the contest’s history, which would explain the songs I didn’t recognise.

Michelle told me she watching SBS Popasia, and it was really weird.

I must have commented that it sounded just like Eurovision.

In any case, I was soon there, next to Michelle on the couch, watching. Together. It was strange. We sat there, a bit stunned, as the show unspooled before us. The pretty good singing, the precision dancing, the snappy editing in the videos. It was quite something to behold. Yes, it sounded kind of like Eurovision, but Eurovision was nothing like this.

The following week, when Popasia time was approaching again, we found ourselves facing an awkward moment. Last week’s watching of the show felt kind of weird and “what are watching here?” and we felt constantly reminded of how very much older we are than the target demographic. We felt bemused, confused, but also a little bit like we’d enjoyed it, kind of. That it hadn’t sucked.

So there we were, a week later. Did we want to Popasia again? It felt ridiculous to even be considering such foolishness. We were too old for that kind of thing. The people in those videos could be our children, for goodness sake! And yet, as is often the case with things that you secretly want to do, but feel like, for whatever reason, maybe you shouldn’t, or oughtn’t, because we are sensible middle-aged grown-ups here. We should be listening to commercial FM stations, so we can be reminded at all times of the music we hated so much in the 1980s, and still hate, even more so because there’s no escaping it.

Except, it turns out, there is. That second week, we did sit down and we watched that second time, and again we thought it weird, but it was a strangely good and wholesome kind of weird. It was all very sincere and earnest. There was no deadening irony about it.

And most of the best stuff was Korean. It was K-Pop, we gathered. Previously we knew very little about the country. Shipbuilding, student protests in the 1980s, computer and phone stuff, cars, and not much else. But it turned out this music they made was a very big deal.

Week after week, we tuned in. And we still tune in. These days, the show airs at 9 am as opposed to 4 pm, and neither of us can be arsed to get out of bed for 9 am on a Sunday. We record it. The show is quite different from how it used to be. The main presenter, Jamaica Delacruz, left after fronting the radio and TV show for three years. And recently someone new has taken over the video programming job, so the mix of videos each week is quite different to how it was.

One day on Popasia there was quite the buzz of excitement because two very popular Youtube video bloggers, Simon and Martina of eatyourkimchi.com, were visiting Australia, and they popped into the Popasia studio. At the time we, like you, had no idea who they were. We thought they were annoying. Play some more videos, already! we jeered from the couch. Simon and Martina are married Canadians who used to be teachers who long ago moved to Korea to teach kids English. Their families back home were worried about them, so they started making little videos about their life in Korea.

This turned into a huge, consuming, successful, prolific operation. They have long-since given up teaching. For many years they did videos about life in Korea, about Korean music, food, and culture. We watched. It was enthralling. One of their food videos covered Korean barbecue, and I was all shocked. It looked like something even I, with my legendarily baroque and irrational “food issues” could try. And I did! We went to a Korean restaurant in the city, and Korean food was yummy–it was the first Asian food I’d ever encountered that didn’t make me gag or retch. It smelled like food. It smelled tasty. I was so happy that day!

One Korea-related thing led to another. We watched all of Simon and Martina’s hundreds and hundreds of videos. This led us to other video makers. This in turn led us to Korean TV drama serials, which are a whole separate compulsive experience. We’ve seen some bad ones, and some that did nothing much for us at all, but we’ve also seen a small handful that were wonderful, brilliant television that I would put up with anything I’ve ever seen from anywhere. At it’s best, Korean TV is breathtaking.

In amongst all the video bloggers covering Korea was one, run by a young Korean-American woman calling herself Professor Oh (real name Oh Mina), who started a channel teaching simple Korean language. I watched all of those. I’d always been interested in this curious language of lines, right-angles, circles and squares. It was very distinct. Chinese and Japanese, by contrast, always looked fiddly and too busy by half, at least to me. I liked that Korean only has, altogether, including the compound vowels, no more than about 40 characters. That’s it. It’s achievable.

We found a game on iOS called Hangul Match which makes a pattern-matching out of learning the Korean alphabet, a system called Hangul (or, sometimes, Hangeul). We both got very good at this. We started to understand things, and could read simple signs.

But recently I found an app called Memrise, which is a bit like the language learning app Duolingo, which was offering Korean language lessons. I grabbed it and never looked back.

I enjoy the language lessons so much that I make a point of doing at least one Korean lesson every day, and I often end up doing three or four days’ lessons in a day because I enjoy it. I have little prospect, in realistic terms, of visiting Korea (we’d certainly like to), so I’m treating the whole thing as a very intricate, very complicated game. Michelle has taken it up as well. We talk about Korean stuff all the time. On weekends we watch Korean TV news, which has an English-language crawl along the bottom of the screen. We watch a lot of dramas, and we enjoy lots of the music (not all of it by any means).

One music show we never miss is called Immortal Songs. It’s a competitive singing program where each week a legendary performer or songwriter from decades past (sometimes still alive to be there as honoured guest but not always) is featured, and a collection of the best singers, across all genres and degrees of experience, are pit together to compete in song for the trophy. You’ll see everything from K-Pop idol singers to Korean traditional opera performers, musical theatre actors, wise old veterans and youthful stars with extraordinary talents, all trying to outdo one another. It’s one of the most consistently entertaining shows I’ve ever seen.

And the more of the language I learn, the more of it when I’m watching TV or listening to songs online I can understand. Bits and pieces pop out, intelligible, that I could never have understood before. It’s reached the point that my brain is starting to make connections between bits of knowledge, the sort of connections you get after a while with prolonged, intense study. Parts of the brain link up, and you get a moment of insight.

All of which is interesting, but it’s not the very best thing about why we’re into all this Korean stuff. The most important reason is also the best reason: it’s something we both love, and we love doing it together. It makes us happy, together. It gives us a shared interest, and that is a lot of the secret, if is a secret, to contentment.

KOREA

I was doing my laps at the local pool today, up and down, up and down, and thinking a lot. One of the things I thought about a lot was my Korean language studies. I’m using the iOS app Memrise. It’s brilliant! Memrise offers three tiers of study in Korean language. I recently completed the first tier, Korean 1, which included 222 words, including the letters of the alphabet. I did well, but there are a few words from the first tier that are still puzzling me: the Korean words for “to drink” and “drinks”. The two words are very similar. And when asked to spell them out, distinguishing one from the other, can I? I was thinking today the only thing for it is to sit down and write out both words and really study the differences. I need to get this problem sorted out. It’s been bugging me for a while now.

One might enquire: Bedford, you mad fool, why are you studying, of all random things, the Korean language?

Well. That’s a good question. Let me back up a little.

It’s about 2013. It’s a Sunday afternoon. Nothing much going on with us. I was noodling on the web on our desktop computer, located in such a way that you can’t see the TV. Michelle was on the couch, idly watchings, channel-flipping. A perfectly ordinary nothing happening Sunday afternoon. Except–

Michelle’s channel-flipping landed her on what was then called SBS2, and it was showing that channel’s program SBS PopAsia, kind of like the old Australian Countdown show, only all the acts are from various points in Asia or South East Asia. We knew of this show, had seen ads for it, but we’d never watched it. It never interested us before. But Michelle was bored, so she thought, what the heck, she was going to watch it!

This is another of those bank vault door moments, when your whole life swings around a single moment in time. Michelle’s decision changed both our lives for the better, and directly led, years later, to my Korean language problem.

I was, like I said, using the desktop. I had no idea what Michelle was doing or looking at. But after a while there was this music. A very particular sort of music. It sounded strangely familiar.

It reminded me a lot of the kind of songs you get on the Eurovision Song Contest. It was eerie. And I was at the time a big fan of Eurovision, and watched it every year. But it was the wrong time of year for it. It was odd. I very likely asked Michelle what she was watching? I might have asked if it was anything to do with Eurovision. It crossed my mind that there might be a documentary about the contest’s history, which would explain the songs I didn’t recognise.

Michelle told me she watching SBS Popasia, and it was really weird.

I must have commented that it sounded just like Eurovision.

In any case, I was soon there, next to Michelle on the couch, watching. Together. It was strange. We sat there, a bit stunned, as the show unspooled before us. The pretty good singing, the precision dancing, the snappy editing in the videos. It was quite something to behold. Yes, it sounded kind of like Eurovision, but Eurovision was nothing like this.

The following week, when Popasia time was approaching again, we found ourselves facing an awkward moment. Last week’s watching of the show felt kind of weird and “what are watching here?” and we felt constantly reminded of how very much older we are than the target demographic. We felt bemused, confused, but also a little bit like we’d enjoyed it, kind of. That it hadn’t sucked.

So there we were, a week later. Did we want to Popasia again? It felt ridiculous to even be considering such foolishness. We were too old for that kind of thing. The people in those videos could be our children, for goodness sake! And yet, as is often the case with things that you secretly want to do, but feel like, for whatever reason, maybe you shouldn’t, or oughtn’t, because we are sensible middle-aged grown-ups here. We should be listening to commercial FM stations, so we can be reminded at all times of the music we hated so much in the 1980s, and still hate, even more so because there’s no escaping it.

Except, it turns out, there is. That second week, we did sit down and we watched that second time, and again we thought it weird, but it was a strangely good and wholesome kind of weird. It was all very sincere and earnest. There was no deadening irony about it.

And most of the best stuff was Korean. It was K-Pop, we gathered. Previously we knew very little about the country. Shipbuilding, student protests in the 1980s, computer and phone stuff, cars, and not much else. But it turned out this music they made was a very big deal.

Week after week, we tuned in. And we still tune in. These days, the show airs at 9 am as opposed to 4 pm, and neither of us can be arsed to get out of bed for 9 am on a Sunday. We record it. The show is quite different from how it used to be. The main presenter, Jamaica Delacruz, left after fronting the radio and TV show for three years. And recently someone new has taken over the video programming job, so the mix of videos each week is quite different to how it was.

One day on Popasia there was quite the buzz of excitement because two very popular Youtube video bloggers, Simon and Martina of eatyourkimchi.com, were visiting Australia, and they popped into the Popasia studio. At the time we, like you, had no idea who they were. We thought they were annoying. Play some more videos, already! we jeered from the couch. Simon and Martina are married Canadians who used to be teachers who long ago moved to Korea to teach kids English. Their families back home were worried about them, so they started making little videos about their life in Korea.

This turned into a huge, consuming, successful, prolific operation. They have long-since given up teaching. For many years they did videos about life in Korea, about Korean music, food, and culture. We watched. It was enthralling. One of their food videos covered Korean barbecue, and I was all shocked. It looked like something even I, with my legendarily baroque and irrational “food issues” could try. And I did! We went to a Korean restaurant in the city, and Korean food was yummy–it was the first Asian food I’d ever encountered that didn’t make me gag or retch. It smelled like food. It smelled tasty. I was so happy that day!

One Korea-related thing led to another. We watched all of Simon and Martina’s hundreds and hundreds of videos. This led us to other video makers. This in turn led us to Korean TV drama serials, which are a whole separate compulsive experience. We’ve seen some bad ones, and some that did nothing much for us at all, but we’ve also seen a small handful that were wonderful, brilliant television that I would put up with anything I’ve ever seen from anywhere. At it’s best, Korean TV is breathtaking.

In amongst all the video bloggers covering Korea was one, run by a young Korean-American woman calling herself Professor Oh (real name Oh Mina), who started a channel teaching simple Korean language. I watched all of those. I’d always been interested in this curious language of lines, right-angles, circles and squares. It was very distinct. Chinese and Japanese, by contrast, always looked fiddly and too busy by half, at least to me. I liked that Korean only has, altogether, including the compound vowels, no more than about 40 characters. That’s it. It’s achievable.

We found a game on iOS called Hangul Match which makes a pattern-matching out of learning the Korean alphabet, a system called Hangul (or, sometimes, Hangeul). We both got very good at this. We started to understand things, and could read simple signs.

But recently I found an app called Memrise, which is a bit like the language learning app Duolingo, which was offering Korean language lessons. I grabbed it and never looked back.

I enjoy the language lessons so much that I make a point of doing at least one Korean lesson every day, and I often end up doing three or four days’ lessons in a day because I enjoy it. I have little prospect, in realistic terms, of visiting Korea (we’d certainly like to), so I’m treating the whole thing as a very intricate, very complicated game. Michelle has taken it up as well. We talk about Korean stuff all the time. On weekends we watch Korean TV news, which has an English-language crawl along the bottom of the screen. We watch a lot of dramas, and we enjoy lots of the music (not all of it by any means).

One music show we never miss is called Immortal Songs. It’s a competitive singing program where each week a legendary performer or songwriter from decades past (sometimes still alive to be there as honoured guest but not always) is featured, and a collection of the best singers, across all genres and degrees of experience, are pit together to compete in song for the trophy. You’ll see everything from K-Pop idol singers to Korean traditional opera performers, musical theatre actors, wise old veterans and youthful stars with extraordinary talents, all trying to outdo one another. It’s one of the most consistently entertaining shows I’ve ever seen.

And the more of the language I learn, the more of it when I’m watching TV or listening to songs online I can understand. Bits and pieces pop out, intelligible, that I could never have understood before. It’s reached the point that my brain is starting to make connections between bits of knowledge, the sort of connections you get after a while with prolonged, intense study. Parts of the brain link up, and you get a moment of insight.

All of which is interesting, but it’s not the very best thing about why we’re into all this Korean stuff. The most important reason is also the best reason: it’s something we both love, and we love doing it together. It makes us happy, together. It gives us a shared interest, and that is a lot of the secret, if is a secret, to contentment.

WRITING/HEALING

I’m nearly finished this book. I’ve reached the point where I find myself racking my brains for important things to include. And of course there’s loads of material to include, but most of it only adds to or amplifies or fills in details of material I have already covered. How many stories about me getting bullied in school do you really need to read?

Things have reached such a point that I’ve gone all day without a single decent idea for something to write about. The writing has been pouring out of me like few other writing experiences I’ve known in my adult life. When I wrote my last novel, in 2015, the third in my “Spider Webb” series of books about the time machine repairman, titled ETERNITY LEAVE, I wrote that in a fever of creativity brought about by a startling reduction in one of my medications. I was still depressed, but suddenly I could think clearly. I felt as if I could see properly. The fog I didn’t know was there had burned away, leaving sharpness and focus, and I wrote like the wind. I wasn’t much good for anything else, but I could write like nobody’s business.

But even then, at the height of that fever, I was producing 2-3000 words a day, sometimes 4000. Writing this book, so far without a break since I started, I have sometimes beaten that, and managed three chapters a day at times. It’s coming out of me like those erupting oil wells you used to see in those old movies, and everybody standing around covered in oil, grinning like loons.

I have never been so happy writing anything before in my life. No writing project has ever given me such joy. Even though I have often gone deep into the most excruciating, the most private of memories, it has felt good to bring it out and put it on display, to show it off (Mum’s voice here, “nobody likes a show-off!’), to say, well, this is me. This is what goes on behind my face. This is what I’m thinking in all it’s unloveliness.

I’m taking the chance that other people have the very same or similar thoughts and feelings. That we’re all very similar, deep inside, that we all feel like weird freaks.

I’ve also been writing this in part because my psychologist suggested it might be worthwhile. I told her I’d been thinking of writing about my life with the illness, but that I’d been waiting until I reached some point of “wellness”, some coping benchmark, with my mood sufficiently stabilised, that I could take on a major project. But she asked me when that point might be, what might it look like? How would I know I was sufficiently well? What, in fact, was I waiting for?

Maybe, she said, rather than waiting for wellness before starting to write, I could use writing–and I had told her that I did for the first time in a very long time feel like I had enough focus for writing–to find my way towards writing. Maybe I should just start with simple journalling, keeping a writer’s notebook, and see where it led.

So I started the very next day, sitting in a café in Subiaco, writing about a famous painting that had just sold at auction for a record-breaking sum of money, a picture that seemed to reflect the madness of our present world, and the madness we feel inside.

Meanwhile, my psychologist has been away on leave for a month. Gosh, have I got news for her when I see her next Friday!

FORGETTING AND REMEMBERING

All the books I read on writing memoir say that memory is a difficult substance, that it turns to dust just as you go to grasp it, that it runs through your most careful, most delicate grip–and so I have found as I have been writing this book. Events I have always thought locked, fully preserved in the amber of memory have turned out to be barely there at all in any but the most cursory detail. Which would not be too troubling, were it not for the thought that memory is one of the foundations of identity.

Nonetheless, I do my best with what I have, and deliberately refrain from filling in absent details with the fiction-writing part of my brain.

But bugger me if there aren’t things I’d like to forget. Even when all I have from some incidents is a worn and crumpled postcard with a missing stamp, I would still send them back and be rid of them. Memories I don’t want to savour and reflect upon.

Some lowlights. The dentist Michelle’s parents recommended when I needed some work done, whom I might refer to here as Dr Wankbubble. Who was old, and none too careful with the technique, and who, before launching in on on major root-canal excavations without bothering to provide sufficient anaesthetic first, told me in his creaky, breathy old voice, “This is going to hurt.”

I don’t see what necessary, character-forming work a memory like this is doing for me. It seems like an entirely gratuitous experience of profound, tears-inducing pain. The sort of pain you stagger away from, feeling lucky to be alive. So if I had a magic button for erasing non-load-bearing memories, Dr Wankbubble might be at the top of my list.

High up on the same list would be my high school headmaster, whose name I don’t remember, but who might have been Mr Drunkonpower, but don’t quote me on that. One day we had an assembly, and I was caught at one point whispering an asinine comment to my best friend while the headmaster was speaking. Nothing earth-shaking. Nothing profoundly funny or witty. But it did occur at the same time Mr Drunkonpower was delivering his speech, and I was busted. A teacher spotted me, called me out of the crowd, made me wait there for the end of the assembly, and then sent me to the headmaster’s office. It was home-time. Everyone else was headed either to the school buses or the bike racks. I was headed for doom.

I don’t remember anything other than standing there in the headmaster’s office, crying my eyes out for what felt like hours, burning with shame, unable to do anything that might help my situation. He was furious with me, yelling and yelling. Somehow my innocuous whispered comment was an intolerable threat to the fundamental order of how things in the school community were supposed to work. Someone must serve as an example.

I could not have been more sorry, and genuinely wished I could take back the stupid offense. But mostly I hated myself for the weakness, the intolerable weakness, of crying in front of the headmaster. I was a poor excuse for a man. At this point I was a boy of about thirteen, big, lumpy, awkward, self-conscious in my deeply unfashionable long shorts that everybody mocked. I had not been in high school long, but long enough to understand the contours of power and privilege, and that I had none of either. I was useless, and going nowhere. And there was no greater offense than crying like this. It was worse than the original whispered remark. It was intolerable. The horror I feel about crying to this day stems in large part from this incident. It is a load-bearing memory, in that sense. It holds up part of the superstructure of misery I carry around on my back. So yes, I would zap that memory, too.

Quite a few of the bad memories I’ve written about in this book I would remove, too, given the chance, but I suspect they, too, are load-bearing, character-forming experiences I have to keep. But why them and not others? Why can I remember Dr Wankbubble so well, but the birthday party my mum organised for my eighth birthday, which people actually came to and seemed to have a nice time at, exists in my head only as fragments?

There’s a lot of what I went through last year, especially during the first, worst, hospitalisation, when I was taken off the Clomipramine, and the replacement drug Zyban didn’t work, leaving me exposed, my reactor core uncovered, meltdown in progress. As it is I only remember bits. I posted a lot about it on Facebook at the time (my Facebook friends are wonderful, every one), because I had this idea at the time that at some point in the future I might like to write about the experience. So I needed to document everything.

The thing about putting everything on Facebook, though, is that Facebook makes it very difficult to get your information back out again. It is possible, in the way it is now possible to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem, to extract your old posts from Facebook, but it’s laborious to a degree that’s impossible to convey without using scientific notation. I struggled greatly with the interface (I’d love to be able to zap my memory of all that time) and managed to retrieve about six weeks, but the information was largely useless in the form it was in. As it’s turned out, I’ve not referred to any of that even once since beginning this project, which surprises me. I thought for sure I would need it, the way you hoard up old magazines and lengths of wood or old computer cables because “you never know” when they might be important or necessary in the future. I’ve also ended up writing a lot more about my childhood than I thought I would.

All the same, do I need to keep these memories of what happened in that first hospitalisation, fragmentary as they are? Most of what I remember is withdrawal symptoms, like the time I suddenly started talking really fast, which was at least interesting, or the times I couldn’t sleep during “cross-titration” periods, where you’re transitioning from one drug to another.

I have this memory from somewhere inside that experience, of standing barefoot in my pyjamas at the nurses’ station at 5am, trying to convey to two night nurses, themselves exhausted and drawn, how I felt, how unglued, how desperate, how I just wanted to sleep, and crying my guts out in abject wretchedness. I remember that feeling only too well, and wish I did not. I could do quite well without it. It’s not adding anything to my character. It’s not load-bearing. It’s doing nothing but reminding me of that sense of weakness I experienced that day in front of the headmaster, that sense of shame, crying in front of people, and especially women. I would delete that memory, given the chance.

I would much rather have back things I’ve forgotten. The first things Michelle and I ever talked about. Our wedding vows. Exactly how we decided to get married. I know we both kind of hit on the realisation around the same time, that we simply would marry, because obviously we would, but I’d love to remember what we said, exactly. I’d love to time travel back and watch and eavesdrop on all of that. I’d love to time travel back to my birth, and see my mum and dad, my dad eating breakfast with the doctor, all of it. My dad being in the delivery room. I’d love to remember what my dad said to me the day at Coode Street, in South Perth, in his racing speedboat, when he took me out on the course, and we just puttered around. I know he talked to me but I don’t remember what he said. Why must I remember bloody Dr Wankbubble, but forget what my dad said on what must have been one of the proudest days of his life?

CLIVE (Total Rewrite)

Michelle and I sometimes go to IKEA. We love it there. We would very much like to IKEA-fy our home, and we’re well along in the process. I’m writing this while sitting on a three-seater beige EKTORP couch. In front of me is an IKEA coffee table dating back about twenty-five years, so we don’t remember the product name (but, and believe me on this, I wish I could remember its name). The TV over there is sitting on an IKEA TV unit.

We always stop in the kitchen display area. We go “ooooh!” and “aaaaah” We closely inspect and touch all the different countertop surface options. We watch the passing husbands and wives–the wives excited and chatty, the husbands quietly giving us side-eye and “kill me now!” looks. But the main thing in the kitchen display area that gets our attention are the vast, empty countertops.

“Clive loves these!” I say, leaning down, squinting along the surface like a pool hustler, marvelling at how much empty space there is, how far you can see before anything blocks your view. It’s marvellous. There are whole square metres of empty space. The potential of it, of what you could do with all that space, excites me–even as the prospect of actually using it, messing it up, getting it dirty and having to clean it up, gives me the horrors.

On a good day, Michelle tolerates Clive. She understands what he’s about, where Clive comes from, and why, in a perverse sort of way he’s necessary, but she also thinks he’s a huge pain in the arse. On bad days she hates his guts and would gut him like a fish if she had a sharpened toothbrush. Because Michelle works very hard. She has a demanding job at the pathology lab, and she has her own elderly parents, and she gets tired. She sometimes doesn’t have the time or energy for Clive’s bollocks. It’s late, she’s tired, she just wants to sit and rest, have a bite to eat for supper, she doesn’t care about clutter on the kitchen counter.

But Clive really cares about clutter on the kitchen counter. It’s his thing. He’s particular. Fussy.

I have anxiety. I have lots of it, and it manifests in odd ways. This one is about cleanliness and tidiness in the kitchen. It used to be that our kitchen countertop was very cluttered. You had to move things around to make enough room so you could make a sandwich. And it always bothered me. All this stuff. But there was nowhere to put it. Obviously we needed more pantry space, but our existing pantry was full. What to do?

Then one day last year I realised that I could use one of our spare 4 x 2 EXPEDIT units, standing on end, next to a 4 x 4 unit we already had in place, as pantry space. For complicated reasons that tend to make me look foolish if explained in detail, we had about three unbuilt 4 x 2 EXPEDITs in storage, so last year one evening when I was at home and feeling depressed and in need of a project, I decided it was time to make a start on the new auxiliary pantry.

It turned out well. I moved almost everything off the kitchen counter. The difference was stunning. You could see for miles. You could land a 747 on it! I was so happy!

But with great countertop space comes great responsibility: it won’t stay spacious and empty and vast if you don’t keep an eye on it. Stuff has a way of accumulating. Even dust, and drifting bits of dog hair, and toast crumbs, and weird, mysterious bits of nameless kipple that are simply always there no matter what you do. It doesn’t matter. It all goes away. Every day I clean up, and every day the universe is restored to balance.

For a while, though, it was as close as Michelle and I ever come to hostility. She doesn’ mind a bit of healthy, clean clutter. Dirt is no good, bit happy, busy clutter is fine. I say clutter is the thin edge of the wedge, the slippery slope. If you accept happy clutter, next thing you’re accepting landfill on your kitchen counter.

Please keep in mind that I am not well. These are not a well person’s thoughts.

One day I read an article online by a woman who had been plagued her entire life with debilitating anxiety. Anxiety so severe it controlled her whole life. It was her prison. What she wrote sounded familiar. Then one day she had a transformative idea that changed everything: she gave her anxiety a name. She called it Clive.

Immediately she saw her situation differently. She saw herself living with a housemate named Clive, the sort of housemate you hate, who drives you mad. Everything that was wrong in her life was now all the fault of this other person. It was radical. Don’t feel like leaving the house? It’s because of Clive. Feeling iffy about food? Clive again. Feeling crowded and uncomfortable on a bus? That’ll be Clive, too.

It was an idea whose time had come. I embraced it completely. Clive moved into one of our spare rooms. And he took charge of the kitchen. When Michelle is peeved because she just wants to dump her stuff but knows Clive will be annoyed, she mutters about Clive, not me. Obviously, I know she’s annoyed at me, but she takes it out on Clive. He can take it. He’s a big boy.

So now we talk about Clive, as if he were there, but has just stepped out for a moment, perhaps for a fag, or is in the loo. Clive loves wide open countertops, and sparkling dishes. He loves to clean kettles and microwaves and toasters. He’s a bit strange, though, and I think this is what puzzles Michelle more than angers her: Clive is deeply interested in certain aspects of kitchen cleanliness, but not in everything. He’s interested in the sink, all the counter areas, all the appliances, the degree of clutter, in general tidiness. He likes to organise things. He believes the three different spray bottle cleaning agents should be together in the auxiliary pantry.

But he doesn’t much care about the bathrooms. He makes the bed cleans the toilets, no problem, but he’s not a zealot about them, not a fanatic, about them the way he is about, for example, the proper place for dog treats on the kitchen counter.

Recently, my mum was here minding our dog Freckle while I was out at the local pool. Because she’s wonderful, Mum did the dishes for us while I was out. There weren’t many there to do, because Clive does them every day. But Mum knows little about Clive and his ways, so doesn’t know Where Things Go. It was terrible. I was delighted that Mum was kind enough to do the dishes for me, but Clive was Upset, because Everything was Wrong. After Mum went home, I had to really hustle about to make everything right again, because it was all wrong. I was breathing hard, my pulse was booming in my ears, and I felt under attack–and I was.

It was Clive.